“ ‘Earn my keep’? What the hay is that supposed to mean?”
Applejack winced at Rainbow Dash’s raised voice. She’d certainly expected it, but she could swear her ears were now ringing. “Ah’m just saying, Sugarcube… you can’t exactly do your weatherpony duties right now, and the farm could always use another helping hoof. Think of it as a trade for food and shelter!” Her hopeful grin felt strained, and she hoped it wouldn’t show.
Big Macintosh chose that moment to walk past, offering a piece of his wisdom. “She does eat an awful lot for such a small pony…"
The pegasus glared at the stallion, remaining unconvinced. “It’s not my fault I can’t do my job! I don’t see why that should change anything!” She crossed her forelegs as she sat on her haunches, muttering under her breath.
Applejack frowned, unwilling to let the matter drop. Rainbow was one of her best friends, and she truly didn’t mind letting her stay at the farm, but the pegasus’s behavior had started to fray at her nerves. Not so much because of anything she had said or done over the past few days, but… the lack thereof. True to form, she was often found napping in some part of the farm. More often than not, the guestroom bed remained unused; Applejack had found her friend napping in the barn, lying in a pile of hay, and even once sleeping on a tree branch, a feat she hadn’t thought possible without wings.
Maybe she could appeal to Rainbow’s athleticism. “Ah figure those legs of yours would do a fine job at applebuckin’. And it’s good exercise for them! Think of how fast you could take off if they were stronger.” Applejack paused, observing her friend’s expression. She pressed her luck, having noticed Rainbow’s expression waver at the mention of improving herself. “Well, Ah guess the Iron Pony can’t do real hard work.” She shrugged, turning to leave.
“Wh—Now wait just a second!” Rainbow sputtered. “I can do just as much work as you!”
It took all of Applejack’s self control to keep the grin off her face. This was too easy. “Then Ah hope you don’t mind proving it!” She nodded towards the door, beckoning the pegasus to follow. “C’mon. I’ll even show you how it’s done.”
Rainbow snorted, but nonetheless matched the farmer’s stride. “Oh puh-lease. I’ve seen you kick enough of those trees. I don’t need help!”
The grin was becoming increasingly tougher to fight off. “That so? Well then, be my guest.” Applejack waved to the tree they’d just stopped at, and took a step back. This was bound to be good.
Applejack watched as Rainbow tilted her head upwards, frowning at the apples above her. She brought herself a few steps closer to the tree, turned around, then lifted her rear hooves off the ground. They quickly shot backwards, slamming into the trunk, causing the entire tree to shake. But to the pegasus’s consternation, not a single apple fell. Applejack chortled as Rainbow gave the tree another buck, again to no avail. “Having problems, Sugarcube?”
“Yeah, your stupid tree is broken!” Rainbow glared at the offending fruits, still hanging from the branches above. “Stupid apples. Fall! Already!” She punctuated each word with a buck, but only shook leaves off the tree.
Applejack placed a hoof on Rainbow’s shoulder, giving the angry mare pause. “Hold on there Rainbow. You’ll damage the bark like that.” She nudged the pegasus aside, taking her place in front of the tree. “Tree ain’t broken. You got power, Sugarcube. You’re just lacking the technique.” She ignored Rainbow’s mumbled retort, and spun around to give the tree a kick. “Now, for a tree like this, y’gotta aim high. Then y’all just turn and give a kick like this!”
With a smoothness that stemmed from years of practice, Applejack’s legs flew backwards, heading straight towards their target. However, her hooves struck only air as they overshot their mark, leaving the farmer precariously balanced on her front hooves. She cried out as her body tilted forwards, then came crashing to the ground. Once the world stopped spinning, she blinked as she found herself on her back, staring up at the sky.
“Just like that, huh?” Rainbow’s wasn’t laughing, but Applejack could hear the mirth in the other’s voice. “That’s an awesome technique.”
“Shut it,” Applejack growled, getting back to her hooves. “Your wings messed up my balance something fierce.”
Rainbow rolled her eyes, unable to fight the grin anymore. “Oh sure, blame the wings…"
“Ah’m serious!” Applejack snapped. “Ah’ve only had this problem since Ah got them!” She winced as she moved, as one of the wings gave off a slight twinge.
Rainbow caught the wince, and stepped closer to the farmer. “Stand still a sec.”
“Huh?” Applejack stood still, more out of confusion than following the pegasus’s order. She watched as Rainbow inspected the wing closest to her, her eyes roving over every feather, every contour of the muscles beneath. Satisfied, Rainbow reared up, and draped her body across Applejack’s back, to the farmer’s grunted surprise. From that angle, Rainbow inspected the other wing with just as much attention to detail as the first. “You could’a gone ‘round me, you know.” Applejack raised an eyebrow at her friend.
Rainbow grinned as she finished the inspection, still leaning on Applejack “Why? This way’s faster.” The pegasus’s smile faltered as she moved, feeling the feathers brush against her stomach. The sensation of feeling her own limbs against her skin, warmed by another pony’s body, was… weird. Very, very weird. She quickly dropped off the mare’s back, and looked away.
“So? What’s the verdict?”
“Wha?” Rainbow’s head snapped back to face Applejack, as the latter looked her in the eye.
“You were checkin’ your wings. Any reason for that?”
“Oh. Thought you might’ve hurt them when you fell.” Rainbow grinned, thankful that Applejack didn’t seem to notice her unease. “All good though! So how about you show me how to buck for real this time?”
Applejack snorted and rolled her eyes. “Fine. Round two!” Maybe this time, she’d be able to keep her balance, and not fall flat. Again. It wasn’t just mortifying, it was downright bothersome. She constantly felt tense, annoyed at having to relearn something she’d been doing for most of her life. She hoped she’d get used to the wings quickly.
She really, really hoped.
Rainbow eyes wandered as Applejack set herself up for another attempt. She looked over the rows of trees, stretching into the distance, almost as far as she could see. For once, she was looking forward to a full day of hard work. She’d been unable to sleep right during the night, kept awake by phantom itches from her missing wings, driven crazy by the nagging feeling that they were still there and the equally distressing reality that they weren’t. Sleep had only happened in two or three hour spurts, leading to all those naps to try and catch up.
Her eyes settled back on the farm pony as Applejack gave the tree a good, solid buck, causing all the apples to tumble down. Rainbow smiled to herself. Hopefully, tonight, she’d be so exhausted, she’d sleep like a rock. And that was just the way she liked it.
Applejack sighed, staring at the wood that made up her room’s ceiling. Her eyes traced the patterns in the grain, jumping back and forth between the various pieces until they landed on the window. She sighed again as she took in the sunlight, her head resting on her pillows. She ran the previous afternoon’s conversation through her head for what felt like the hundredth time.
“Applejack, you’re barely even standing straight!” Rainbow had put both hooves on Applejack’s shoulders, holding the farmer still. It had been several days after the pegasus had started helping in earnest. Now that she kept herself busy, Rainbow’s rampant napping had ceased.
Applejack, on the other hoof, had not dealt with her own lack of sleep quite as well. While her body was used to the rigors of bucking, the addition of the constantly twitching wings kept throwing of her rhythm. They had even recently begun to spasm briefly, which worked to wake her in the middle of the night.
“Consarn it, Rainbow! Ah’m fine! And work needs to be done!” Applejack had tried to shrug Rainbow’s hooves away. She’d shaken her head, in an attempt to clear the near constant cobwebs that clouded her mind.
However, Rainbow had immediately latched on to that. “And remember how that went last time? Or do I need to drag you to Twilight’s to remind you?”
Her nerves had been so frayed she had indeed forgotten that particular series of events, much to her chagrin. But the reminder had allowed Rainbow to convince her to take a day off. The pegasus had argued for more, but Applejack would not budge, and they’d compromised on a single day. The realization that Rainbow would still be working on the farm and that Big Macintosh wasn’t shouldering the entire workload only slightly relieved the guilt Applejack felt.
But after so many years of waking up early, Applejack couldn’t fall asleep once sunlight hit her eyes. Eventually she abandoned the pointless attempts to go back to sleep and forced herself out of bed. She was fully awake, and the recurring aches in her wings made it impossible to even consider a nap. It had, however, reminded her of the liniment Granny Smith used for her rheumatism. Maybe that would help alleviate the pain she’d normally just try to ignore. No pain meant more sleep, and more sleep meant she’d be able to get back to work.
This was priority number one.
Unfortunately, it seemed Granny Smith had forgot to restock on liniment, as the only jar Applejack found was completely empty. Applejack ran through a mental list of possible other sources. Her first though, Zecora, was quickly dismissed; while the zebra was likely the best brewer around, she simply lived too far. The prospect of a walk through the Everfree didn’t appeal to Applejack right then.
The Ponyville Spa, on the other hoof, was much closer. She’d only been there a few times herself, like when they’d all been hit by poison joke. The sisters who ran the establishment had helped the zebra mix the cure, and Rarity had mentioned on one of their more recent visits that they sold their own mixtures as well.
It seemed, then, that Applejack was about to pay the Spa another visit.
Applejack pulled down the rim of her hat, hoping to shield her eyes. For once, she grumbled at the sunlight, wishing for—of all things—rain.
That way, at least, she wouldn’t have to see any other ponies.
She wasn’t what Twilight would call an ‘antisocial’ pony. She was, in fact, downright friendly, second only to Pinkie Pie in terms of how many ponies she knew in town. She was always happy to chat with anypony, or offer help as needed.
On the other hoof, she didn’t like being the center of attention. That was more Dash’s thing. It wasn’t even overt, as nopony was doing anything more than a friendly hello.
It was the stares. And the whispers.
She could feel the eyes of everypony on her. Specifically, on her back. When she turned to face the stares, none of the eyes seemed to meet hers, always conveniently choosing that moment to look elsewhere, until she shifted her attention away. She could feel the glances settle right back onto her—Dash’s—wings. The whispers were no better, as even her flattened ears couldn’t drown them out. Especially not the sound of a young filly loudly asking her mother why the wings didn’t match Applejack’s coat.
The farmer knew that she hadn’t been in town for a few days, but this was ridiculous… oh. Oh, wow, she snorted in realization. This must be how Fluttershy feels—all the time.
“Applejack! Wait up!”
She jumped at the voice, then relaxed as she saw who it was. “Howdy Spike! How ya doing?”
“Eh, as usual,” the dragon shrugged as he caught up to Applejack. “I’m just taking care of some errands for Twilight while she’s in bed.”
“How is she?”
“We went for the weekly checkup yesterday; she was better but still needs rest. And,” he added, “still no magic. Sorry.”
Applejack shook her head. “Don’tcha worry about it. Getting Twilight back on her hooves is more important.”
“Doesn’t stop her from reading though. Should have seen her a few days ago… practically yelled at me!” He cleared his throat. “ ‘I can at least read, right?!’ ” His attempt to mimic the librarian’s voice was dubious at best, and it sent him into a fit of laughter.
Applejack grinned, chuckling with Spike. “Ah don’t think anything could prevent her from reading.” Her laughter died off as she remembered where she was and once again became aware of the looks she was attracting. “Say, Spike, I gotta get going. Tell Twilight I’ll stop by in a while?”
The baby dragon nodded. “Sure thing! See you then!” He scurried away, heading back to the library. As he turned around a corner, he glanced in Applejack’s direction, pausing as he noticed her entering the Spa. He briefly pondered the rare occurrence, then shrugged and resumed his duties.
Applejack glanced around as she entered the building, momentarily confused. It seemed distinctly smaller than she remembered… She shook away the confusion and moved up to the counter, where one of the proprietor sisters was standing.
“Hello! How may I help you?”
“Ah’m looking for some liniment; do you have any?”
The blue maned pony nodded. “Of course!” She vanished into a side room to fetch the item. As she sat waiting, Applejack heard a familiar voice from one of the Spa’s rooms, from which promptly emerged a familiar white unicorn.
“Thank you again, Lotus, for a wonderful ti—Applejack!” Rarity lifted a hoof to her chest in surprise. “Whatever are you doing here?”
The farm pony frowned, having picked up on Rarity’s tone. “What, can’t Ah come to the Spa once in a while?” she snapped, somewhat more forcefully than she had intended. Rarity often unintentionally said things that got under her skin, even after they had made up during the sleepover at Twilight’s.
Rarity seemed taken aback at the response. “Well no, I mean…" she hesitated, looking for the right words. “This is simply not a place I would expect to find you…"
Applejack’s temper simmered down at her friend’s expression. “Well, that’s true. Ah’m just picking up some liniment,” she said as Aloe returned with a jar. “For the wings,” she added, seeing Rarity’s raised eyebrow.
The unicorn smiled, a gleam in her eye. “Since you’re here, Applejack… you really should let me do something with those wings. And that tail!”
“Ah’ve told you Rarity, I don’t like that frou-frou stuff!”
“I’m not trying to put you in a dress, dear! I’ll even… pay for the liniment for you!”
Applejack paused, tempted. Savings were always good for the farm. “Hmmm. Nah.”
Rarity tisked. “Well then, at least let me do something about the color, so everypony will quit staring!”
Applejack winced inwardly. The fashionista had cut to the heart of the matter. Was her discomfort really that visible? “… fine. But nothing fancy, you hear!” she grumbled, but her voice fell on deaf ears. Rarity was already behind her, forcing her forwards into the depths of the Spa, prattling along about how much fun they would have, all the things they could try out… Applejack gulped, suddenly worried about what she had gotten herself into, eventually finding herself surrounded by Rarity and the twins.
“My dear, I haven’t seen you in a few days.” Rarity hummed as she sorted through a selection of makeup colors. “How has living with Rainbow Dash been?”
“Well–” The farm pony winced ever so slightly as Lotus extended one of the wings, letting Rarity begin her work. She started gently applying foundation to the feathers, paying close attention so as to not miss a spot. Aloe took hold of the Applejack’s tail, braiding the multicolored strands. “Since she’s stopped napping all over, she’s been a great help to the farm! Ah don’t think we’ve ever had such a good applebucking season.”
Rarity paused as she moved on to the next set of feathers. “She has? That’s… unexpected. Hasn’t she gotten bored of it?”
“Nope.” Applejack shook her head. “Ah’m as surprised as you. Took a bit to convince her, but she’s come around. She even took over for me today,” she added, once more causing Rarity to stop. Applejack frowned as the unicorn put a hoof on her head.
Rarity’s eyes couldn’t have gotten any larger. “Are you alright? I can’t believe I’m hearing this from you! Miss I-can-do-it-all-myself?”
Applejack glared at the teasing, her ears drooping. “Ah know, Ah know. Rainbow brought that up too, or I’d be on the farm right now.”
Rarity smiled as she returned her attention to the wings. “Well, it’s good to get away. After all,” she teased, holding back a smile, “you two have been so close for a while now!”
“Beg your pardon?” the orange pony asked, tilting her head in confusion.
“You’re practically attached at the hip!” Rarity’s grin kept getting bigger.
“What, like you and Fluttershy?” Applejack retorted, leaving Rarity flustered. “You two are here every week!”
This momentarily left Rarity at a loss for words, but she quickly recovered, firing another salvo. “Well yes, but… It’s not everyday you see a pony pinning their tail on a special somepony. Literally, in this case!” The unicorn gently stroke the multicolored strands with a hoof. “It’s all so intimate!”
This left Applejack more confused than ever, a blush spreading on her cheeks. Was she implying…? "Wh—n-no!" she sputtered. "It ain't at all like that!"
Rarity simply laughed as she continued her work on the other wing. “Like what, my dear? I mean Rainbow Dash’s wings!” She paused, an impish grin on her face. “Why, what did you think I was talking about?”
Applejack’s hoof met her forehead, the blush matching her cutie mark’s coloring in intensity. She’d walked right into that. Open mouth, insert hoof… “Rarity… you know full well that stuff was just magic. Nothing more!”
Rarity sensed she had gone too far, but decided on one last jab before lapsing into silence. “Oh yes.” She smiled. “Definitely magical…"
She lapsed into silence as she continued working, but eventually broke the quiet. “Applejack… can I ask you a question?”
“What, you haven’t been already?” Applejack answered, eyebrows raised.
Rarity chuckled guiltily. “I deserved that. No, I mean something a bit different.”
“Sure, what’s on your mind?”
“How…" Rarity hesitated. “How does it feel to have wings?”
“What do you mean? Didn’t you get some from Twilight?”
The white pony shook her head. “I mean real wings. What I had was made out of… morning dew, was it?”
“Oh.” How does it feel, really? “It’s… itchy.”
“Itchy?” Rarity repeated. That had not been what she had expected.
“Eeyup. Keeps me up at night, too.”
“I… see. So no flying, then?”
“What? No! There’s just the itchin', Ah suppose… Ah haven’t really done anything with them… too busy taking care of the farm. Plus Ah don’t really know how to move them. See?” Applejack strained a bit. The wings barely moved in response. “So Ah just let em rest.”
“Ah.” Rarity nodded, unable to think of anything else to add. She eventually finished applying the foundation, adding a bit of powder to the wings, just a hint to match the coloring of Applejack’s coat. While she wished she could have done a more comprehensive job for her friend, she was nonetheless satisfied with her work. Eager to be on her way, Applejack bid Rarity farewell, and left the building.
The latter smiled as she watched her friend leave. She’d noticed a hint of the blush still remaining on her friend’s face.
On the way to the library, Applejack reflected on her conversation with Rarity. She truly hadn’t even thought of the wings as being… real, to use Rarity’s exact wording. To her, all the wings represented were a source of discomfort and, lately, some pain. Flying was the last thing that was on her mind. As her thoughts wandered through the conversation, the blush returned with full force when she recalled what her friend had been implying. Intimate…? Dangit Rarity, why’d you have to talk about… that… kind of stuff? Shaking her head to dispel images she’d rather ignore, Applejack almost missed the turn leading to the library.
Once at the foot of the tree, she knocked on the front door, waiting for Spike to usher her inside. The baby dragon didn’t disappoint, and she soon found herself trotting up to Twilight’s room. As she crested the top of the stairs, she stopped and stared. Even bedridden, Twilight seemed to have the power to create a veritable carpet of books. Some formed stacks, but many were strewn haphazardly, a few even appearing to have been discarded with some force. Currently the bedridden unicorn seemed surrounded by small towers of books, creating a fort around herself. She naturally had her nose in a large tome, and had not noticed Applejack’s arrival until the latter cleared her throat.
“Wha–” Twilight cried out, startled. She beamed at the sight her friend before devolving into a series of coughs. “Applejack! What brings you here?” she asked once she caught her breath, placing a bookmark in the tome seated before her before noticing the change in Applejack’s appearance. “Er. What happened to your… I mean, Rainbow’s wings?”
Applejack rolled her eyes. “Rarity.” The name alone was enough explanation. “Wouldn’t really let me hear the end of it until she got her hooves on me. And Ah’m jus’ checkin’ in on ya. I hear you had a checkup yesterday? You still don’t look so hot.”
Twilight nodded. “Yes. They still say I need to rest. And I still can’t do magic. It’s… frustrating.”
“Ah can imagine. Being your special talent and all, it’s like… Pinkie without parties,” Applejack said, suppressing a slight shudder at the thought. She eyed the tomes surrounding her friend. “Are you sure you’re okay? This seems like a mighty big load of work for a sick pony like you.”
At these words, Twilight’s left eye gave a slight twitch. “Applejack,” her voice sounded strained, “I’m cooped up in bed all day and night, I can’t do anything without Spike’s help, and I can’t even use my magic… For Celestia’s sake let me at least study?!”
Applejack took a step backwards as her friend’s voice rose. She was reminded of Spike describing a nearly identical situation… “Sure, Ah didn’t say you couldn’t! Just… take it easy, ya hear?”
“Oh. Right,” the unicorn mumbled, her eyes drooping to her reading material, then snapping back up. “But if I had, I wouldn’t have found out so much about teleportation! I don't know how to fix this mess yet, but here's what I've found out! You see,” she started, her voice shifting to a preaching tone, “teleportation moves the object within folds of time and space. The magic simply drills a hole into these folds and allows you to pass through instantly.”
Applejack’s ears flattened, recognizing the start of Twilight’s lengthy discourses on magic. This usually sailed right over Applejack’s hat; being an Earth Pony rather than a Unicorn, magic wasn’t her forte. “That’s mighty interesting Twi, but–”
“It’s easy to transport inanimate material through this stuff, but somewhat trickier with living material. It seems the holes are tiny, far too small to allow anything bigger than, say, a parasprite through. Obviously, this means ponies won’t fit–”
“–so the spell has to change the size and shape larger objects to pass through these holes. If I’m right, my sneeze happened at the critical reconstruction junction after passing through the folds–”
“–and did not restore the objects, or rather, us, in the correct way. This is is complicated by the fact that it’s not just one object, but a three body problem. So the issue now is to figure out how to recreate this error, and control it–”
“Don’t make me get an apple!”
“–which is infinitely harder to do… wait, what? An apple?” Twilight tilted her head, her train of thought finally interrupted. Applejack smiled guiltily. She had indeed been tempted to shove an apple in Twilight’s mouth.
“Ah-heh. Sorry, Sugarcube. I’ve just gotta head back to the farm.”
“Oh. Right. Say hello to Rainbow Dash for me, will you?” she asked as the farm pony turned to the stairs.
“Sure thing! As long as you take it easy!” Applejack chortled as she ducked a book sailing past her head. The sound of sneezing following her all the way down the stairs.
As she made her way to the farm, Applejack examined the near innumerable rows of trees dotting the Sweet Apple Acres. A much larger share than was custom for the time of year were denuded of their fruit, a testament to how much work Big Macintosh, Rainbow, and herself had put in lately.
She’d have to do something special for her pegasus friend, as, on her own, Rainbow had helped more than most farmhooves Applejack had hired in the past few years. She thought that they might even be able to take a few days off of bucking, the current ripe crop being nearly completely gathered. The next batch of trees still had some weeks to go until they were ready, and it wouldn’t do to have an over-eager Rainbow Dash gather them all.
Hearing the distinct sound of hooves striking a trunk, Applejack angled towards it. She recognized it as Dash’s, having grown up with the sound of her brother’s applebucking. This sound had a lighter touch, a quick and sharp hit rather than the resounding thump of Big Macintosh’s much stronger legs. Applejack herself had a method similar to her brother’s, but she couldn’t argue with Dash’s results either.
Tracking down the sound, she eventually spied her friend at the foot of a tree, getting ready to give it a good whack. Grinning mischievously, Applejack hid behind a trunk and waited until the right moment.
“Hey Rainbow!” she hollered, and laughed as the pegasus jumped in fright, her rear legs completely missing the tree. However, she managed to stay steady on her forelegs, moving a few paces before her body leaned forward. She flexed, jumping up and performed a forwards flip, landing safely on all four hooves. Rainbow Dash grinned at Applejack, sticking out her tongue in defiance.
The farmer pony shook her head in amazement. She’d always known Rainbow was a fantastic athlete, but that had still been pretty impressive. “Is that a new practice move?”
“Nah. Should be though!” Rainbow trotted up to Applejack, eager to chat. “What’s up? You been resting all riAAAAGH!”
Applejack jumped at her friend’s shriek, looking around for the source of Rainbow’s panic. “What?! What is it?!”
“What did you do to my wings?!” Rainbow pointed at the now orange appendages, until she caught sight of the multi-colored tail. “Braids? Seriously? Wait…" The gears in her mind spun, and clicked. “Let me guess,” she said, her voice significantly lower, “Rarity?”
“Eeeexactly.” Applejack grinned, trying to keep a jovial tone to mask her feeling of guilt. She had not expected Rainbow Dash to react like this. The pegasus growled in frustration, and smacked a hoof to her forehead.
“That… argh, I’ll deal with her later.” Rainbow sighed, then started pushing Applejack towards the barnhouse.
“Wha—Hey! Where are you taking me?”
“Back home. We’re getting that stuff off of my wings!”
“You’re taking a bath!”