"I don't know how you talked me into helping with this crazy plan," growled Rainbow Dash, irritably trying to force a large, red candle into a holder that was far too small for it. Behind her, Pinkie Pie hummed a cheery tune while she dragged a tablecloth over one of Sugarcube Corner's many tables.
Pinkie had suggested setting up a romantic dinner for Applejack and Fluttershy, but soon revealed that she had a skewed idea of what constituted "romantic". She had initially decorated the dining room in bright streamers and balloons and was in the process of hanging a banner that read "HAPPY FIRST DATE" when Dash intervened. After much animated discussion on the difference between a romantic dinner and a party, the decorations were removed and they attempted a more subtle atmosphere.
Subtlety, however, was proving to be difficult for Sugarcube Corner. Even with the curtains closed and candles lit, Ponyville's premiere party palace still seemed too festive. The walls were painted garish colours; the only available tablecloth was bright red and festooned with cartoon ducks; even the candle holder that Dash was struggling with was in the shape of a smiling whale. Dash idly wondered what it had found to be happy about with a gaudy glitter-dusted candle stuck in its blow-hole.
"Really, Pinkie? You don't have any other candle holders?"
Dash sighed and placed the whale with the rictus grin on the table. "I guess it can be a conversation piece. Wait, what are you doing now?"
"Putting a flower on the table. You said -"
"In a vase, Pinkie. That's a sippy cup that says 'I'm 1 today'."
"I don't have a vase," she pouted. "I normally put flowers in paper baskets and give them away as prizes at the end of the night."
"I'll lend you one from my - " started Dash, but trailed off. She didn't actually have any vases herself. She was surprised to discover that, like her, Pinkie had little interest in frou-frou ornaments for her home. All her decorations were outlandish and very disposable.
"... never mind," she finished. "Just use a glass tumbler from the kitchen. Other than that, I think this is as good an atmosphere as we can manage. How's the dinner coming along?"
"It's simmering. It'll be ready in about twenty minutes."
Oh, the dinner. That had been another argument. Dash had to explain to the pink pony several times that, while romantic, a tiered wedding cake was not appropriate for a first date, though she had been impressed by the tiny diorama that Pinkie had sculpted from sugar and corn syrup and put on top. It was of Applejack and Fluttershy sitting, gazing into one another's sugary eyes across a tiny table that was laden with another, smaller cake. On top of that cake was another pair of candy figurines and a still smaller cake. And on top of that...
Dash shook herself from her reverie. It wasn't important now. Pinkie's terrifyingly recursive confectionary had been abandoned in favour of a simple pasta dish served with wine or, if the diner preferred, some sparkling water. All that remained now was collecting the couple-to-be themselves.
Dash rubbed her front hooves together triumphantly. "All right then. You go get Fluttershy while I find Applejack. Let's have them back here in twenty minutes for their first date."
Dash knew that the best place to find Applejack mid-afternoon was in the orchard. Frankly, it was probably the best place to find her morning, noon and night. AJ was a bit of a workaholic.
Swooping low over the treetops, she spied an orange figure by the barn and landed nearby, cantering the rest of the distance. She smiled widely at her friend and waved a hoof.
"Hey Applejack! How's it going?"
Applejack looked up from the cart and waved back, a little shakily. Beads of sweat ran down her forehead and she blinked them away with tired eyes. She was harnessed to a small cart piled high with apples and was in the process of backing it down a steep ramp into the cellar.
"Hiya Dash. Busy at the moment. A lot of the apples came down in the storm last night and me n' Big Macintosh have been working since dawn gathering 'em all up."
"Maybe you should take a break. How about you come on down to Sugarcube Corner for lunch? My treat."
"That's mighty generous of you, Dash, but if we leave 'em out, the birds will ruin the best ones. Better to get it all done now."
"Sorry, sugarcube. Maybe tomorrow."
Applejack resumed her work, slowly backing down the ramp so as not to topple the precarious stack of fruit in her cart. Not one to be dissuaded, Dash moved closer, grabbed one of the leather harnesses in her teeth and tugged at it.
"Rainbow Dash! What in the hay are you doin'?"
"C'mon, AJ. I can do the apple-picking for a couple of hours, but you need to head over to... oops."
With her last pull, the strap had come undone and released Applejack from the harness. The cart, given extra slack, suddenly rolled down the ramp and yanked the strap from Rainbow Dash's teeth. As the two ponies watched in horror, the cart struck the stone floor at the bottom and flipped over, scattering the apples everywhere and bruising many of them in the process. Dash turned sheepishly back to Applejack, who was making a low guttural noise through gritted teeth that slowly rose in pitch before the farmer exploded with fury.
"You daft filly, Rainbow Dash! It took me an hour to gather all those. Now I got ta to it all again!"
Bristling at the tone, Dash felt herself get defensive.
"I was just trying to help," she yelled back. "It wasn't my fault you overloaded the cart!"
Applejack's eyes widened. If such a thing were possible, she would have exploded again.
"You sayin' it's my fault now? Of all the nerve!"
Dash opened her mouth to reply, but chastised herself for losing her temper. She was here because she needed Applejack to come with her. She kicked a hoof guiltily and dropped her gaze.
"Sorry, AJ. I'll help pick them up."
Applejack's snarl faded to a thin frown, but she turned her back on the pegasus.
"You've done enough. Just... leave me alone for now."
She trotted a few paces down the ramp and kicked away the pole that held the trapdoor up. The heavy door slammed shut, leaving Rainbow Dash alone and feeling very foolish.
Dash landed softly on the cobblestones outside the front door of Sugarcube Corner and shuffled dejectedly up the steps. What was she going to tell Fluttershy? Heck, what was she going to tell Pinkie? She wasn't sure why, but she hated letting Pinkie down even more. Perhaps it was because she had invested so much effort into this scheme. She'd been so excited at the prospect of playing matchmaker for her friends. An image of Pinkie's cheery face rose in Dash's mind and she found herself flushing at the realisation that she was only participating in this scheme to see that pretty smile again.
The door opened with a creak and Dash stared into the darkness beyond. The candles had been snuffed out and the building was left in total darkness.
Strange, thought Dash. I'm sure we left them lit.
"Pinkie? You in here?"
No answer. Fumbling awkwardly, she felt her way through the gloom to the counter where her outstretched hoof grasped hold of a paraffin lamp and then a box of matches. She touched a match to the wick and the sudden light turned the room into a parade of dancing shadows. Dash swallowed nervously, glancing about as the shades flickered back and forth, skipping around her while she placed the lamp on her back between her wings. It was strange how the same atmosphere had seemed so merry when Pinkie had been with her, like a pair of schoolfillies up after their bedtime, playing and laughing at the dark.
A soft weeping broke the silence. Dash swallowed a scream and whirled towards its source at the table they had set up in the middle of the room. Flicking a wing aside, the lamp illuminated a figure in one of the chairs, hunched over the table with its head in its front hooves. Its lengthy, pink hair spilled about the tablecloth and over the sides. Its back heaved with another sob.
"Fluttershy?" ventured Dash.
The figure lifted its head and regarded her with two dull blue eyes, stained with tears.
"No," replied Pinkie Pie.
Dash felt her stomach sink to her hooves.
"Oh, no. What's wrong? What happened?" she asked, moving closer to Pinkie and placing a kindly hoof on her back. She knew first-hand what it took to upset her friend like this.
Pinkie lowered her head. Her long, straight mane shrouded her face like a funeral veil.
"I did something bad," she said between sobs. "I was so excited about the date that by the time I found Fluttershy near the rabbit burrows I was just babbling and making no sense and... and... she couldn't understand me so I grabbed her hoof and tried to lead her here. But I was impatient and I pulled at her too hard and..."
Pinkie convulsed with a loud sob. Dash watched as tears dropped from beneath the mask of her hair and pooled on the wooden floor.
"... and she screamed. I dropped her sprained hoof and stepped back and she looked at me like... like I was a monster. She was afraid of me. Then she turned and flew away, crying because... because I was careless and stupid and I'd hurt her. I got too excited and I didn't think. I never think and this time it hurt somebody and she's going to hate me now and I'm a terrible friend and..."
Pinkie's ranting became incoherent through wails of misery. Dash carefully placed the lamp on the table and leaned forward, putting both her front legs around Pinkie Pie and hugged her close. She pressed the side of her head against Pinkie's and whispered small comforts as her friend wept. Their silhouettes danced merrily on the wall, oblivious to the distress.
Minutes ticked by as Pinkie's crying died down. Dash didn't let go and continued to whisper soothingly in Pinkie's ear.
"You're not a bad friend. It was an accident, that's all. And, believe me, you can't possibly have hurt her so much that Fluttershy won't forgive you. I've known her longer than anypony and I've said some stupid, hurtful things to her over the years, but she's always forgiven me."
Pinkie sniffed. "You didn't see the look in her eyes. It wasn't just nasty words. It was... sticks and stones."
Dash released Pinkie from her grasp and placed a hoof under the pink pony's chin, lifting it until she could look her in the eyes.
"It was an accident," she said firmly. "That's all. Fluttershy will understand that. We all understand that. You get overexcited sometimes but we wouldn't change a thing about you because you're a big party waiting to happen and we love you for it, not despite it. We'll give Fluttershy a few hours to get what happened straight in her head, then we'll both go over to her house so you can apologise and everything will be fine. I promise. I Pinkie-promise."
Pinkie was smiling now, and her eyes brightened a bit. She pressed her cheek gently against Dash's hoof.
"Thanks, Dash," she said. "I'm glad you're here."
"Hey, that's what friends are for, right? C'mon, dry your eyes and blow your nose. You look a mess."
She ran a hoof through Pinkie's long, straight mane. "And how do we fix your hair?"
"It'll go back to normal soon. Just give it some time."
"Nah. I've got a faster way."
Dash inhaled deeply and, before the earth pony could object, buried her face in Pinkie's mane and blew a long, loud raspberry. Pinkie shrieked, then broke into a fit of giggles.
"That tickles! Get off!"
"Ah-ha!" cried Dash. "I think it's working!"
She pressed her lips to the back of Pinkie's neck and blew again, her cheeks puffing out and producing a thunderous flatulent noise. The pink pony struggled beneath her grip, howling with laughter as they repeated the process again and again until finally Pinkie's hair had returned to its normal, curly state. Pinkie kicked Dash off her back and wiped away tears of laughter that dropped to the floor and washed away their sorrowful predecessors.
Dash clambered to her feet and grinned at Pinkie.
"I guess Applejack and Fluttershy's first date's a bit of a washout, huh?"
"Yeah. The food's still good, though. Join me for dinner, Rainbow Dash?"
"I'd love to," she replied with a smile.