Rarity was halfway across the rickety bridge that traversed the river when Applejack caught up to her at a gallop.
"Jus' wait a second, lil missy!" the earth pony shouted as she clambered onto the bridge, "Ya ain't goin' nowhere in yer condition!"
Rarity looked back at Applejack. She had tears in her eyes. "Please, Applejack. Just leave me alone! If you hurry, you can still make the rodeo!" She continued walking. She stepped gingerly, yet with every hoof fall the bridge swung alarmingly.
"Ah don' care about tha' darn rodeo no more!" Applejack shouted back. She took a few steps towards Rarity.
Rarity turned angrily. "You liar!" she cried, "I know how disappointed you are," She lowered her eyes. "I know how much work you put into it, all those hours of practising..."
Applejack frowned. "How d'ya know about that? You never saw me practisin'..."
Rarity shook her head. "I... I've been watching you practise," she explained. She kept her eyes lowered, embarrassed to meet Applejack's gaze. "I was delivering a new shawl to Granny Smith a...about a month ago, and I got lost walking around the farm. I... I saw you behind the hay-barn, practising..." Rarity lifted her eyes. They were glistening. "There was so much... passion in your eyes, Applejack. I simply couldn't turn away. Something in me made me keep watching... and the longer I watched the more embarrassed I became – I didn't interrupt you because I didn't want you to find out what I'd been doing."
"Yer been watchin' me?" Applejack repeated, puzzled. "What's wrong wi' that?"
Rarity's eyes flared. "You silly, silly pony!" she shouted, "You just don't understand anything, do you?!" And without another word she turned and started towards the far end of the bridge.
But Applejack wasn't about to let Rarity go. She pulled out her lasso from her saddlebag with her tail and started to swing it around her head. Rarity was almost at the other end of the bridge when Applejack cast it. The noose slipped around the unicorn pony's back legs and with a quick jerk of Applejack's tail, it tightened, tying her legs together. Rarity yelped, and fell forwards onto her stomach. She was dazed for a moment, but then she turned back and glared at Applejack.
"Just WHAT do you think you are DOING?" she demanded.
"Ah told ya yer weren't goin' nowhere!" chuckled Applejack, steadily winding up the length of rope with her tail as she walked towards her quarry.
"Applejack, untie me THIS INSTANT!"
"It's all fer the best, Rarity," Applejack kept the rope taught and, once she'd passed Rarity, she turned and, sliipping her head under the unicorn pony's chest, she lifted her onto her back with a grunt.
"Wha..what is this?!" Rarity squealed. "Put me down!" She beat her fore-hooves against Applejack's flank, but the earth pony just ignored her.
"Quit yer squirmin'!" chastised Applejack. She was glad that Rarity couldn't see the wide smile on her face. "Ya worse than a sheep on dippin' day!"
In her weakened state, Rarity stopped struggling almost immediately and collapsed on top of Applejack as she carried her back to the tent. With her face flush against the earth pony's back, Rarity felt the heat rising from Applejack's body. She closed her eyes and rubbed her cheek against Applejack's orange coat, and she breathed in the scent of perspiration, oilskin and freshly cut hay. She could feel the solid yet supple muscle beneath Applejack's hide move against her face and under her forefeet as she walked.
"Applejack?" started Rarity, in a voice almost too soft to hear.
"Uh-huh?" the earth pony replied.
"I never knew you were SO well-built!"
Applejack shook her head. Jus' what WAS that cotton-headed filly goin' on about now? "Uh-huh. It's what happens if ya spend yer days workin' in the fields. Ah don' suppose ya work up too much of a sweat in tha' boo-tique o' yours," she chuckled.
Rarity sniffed. "Just BECAUSE I don't happen to be lifting heavy loads and pulling machinery doesn't mean I don't ALSO work hard!" she retorted.
"Ah didn't mean it like that, sugarcube," replied Applejack. Rarity was so light on her back – it was almost as if she was just skin and bones. But how in tarnation did such a lil slip o' a filly get to be so strong-willed and proud? "Ah jus' meant ta say that a sturdy phee-sique is all part an' parcel of bein' a farmer," She laughed, "To tell tha' truth, ol' Big Macintosh is always ribbin' me for bein' so strong. He's always sayin' that ahm more like his little brother than his sister!"
Rarity laughed. "That Big Macintosh! What a thing to say! Stallions really have no idea how to be sensitive to a lady's feelings..."
Applejack laughed as well. "Ya got tha' right! Next time I see Macintosh, ahm gonna tell 'im ya said that."
Rarity slapped Applejack on the flank with a hoof. "Darling, don't you dare say such a thing! You know Big Macintosh means well! And I'd just DIE if he knew we'd been talking about him!" Applejack shook her head and laughed.
It wasn't far to the tent now and Rarity had been silent for a while. "Y'all comfortable up there, Rarity?" asked Applejack.
The unicorn pony said nothing in reply but muttered. She'd fallen asleep again. Despite all the stubbornness and energy she'd displayed earlier on, Rarity was still far from well.
Applejack slipped into the tent, and gently eased Rarity off her back. As the unicorn pony slid onto the floor of the tent, she woke up, and she hugged her forefeet around Applejack's shoulders, bringing them face to face.
"Applejack, my darling, I'm sorry about everything that's happened."
Applejack frowned. "Ah told ya before tha' there's no ill will between us," she said. "Jus' forget about it. Ahm jus' glad that yer ok."
Rarity broke the embrace, and looked down at the noose around her legs. "I promise I'm not going to run away again, darling. Do you think you could...?"
Applejack smiled. "Sure I can. I think ya learned yer lesson." She loosened the knot with her teeth and slid if off Rarity's back feet.
But after she'd put the lasso away, she turned to Rarity, a quizzical look on her face. "Y'know, Rarity. Can I... ah, ask ya a question?"
Rarity nodded. "Of course, darling. You can ask me anything."
"Back on the bridge, when we were arguin'," Applejack explained, "You said I didn' understand nothing." She frowned, "Now, ah've thought and thought about what ya said, but I jus' can't work out what ya meant by it."
Rarity's smile fell away. "That? Oh, that was... nothing, darling. I was just angry and I... wasn't thinking when I said it. Please just forget about it." She turned away and curled up in a corner of the tent. "I'm quite simply exhausted and I just want to..."
Applejack shook her head. "I can't jus' forget about it, Rarity. I saw that look ya gave me," She moved closer and, lifting Rarity's chin with a hoof, she looked the unicorn pony right in the eyes. "That wasn't just anger ah saw in those eyes. You looked like ah'd jus' betrayed ya."
"B...betrayed me?" Rarity stuttered. "Why, the thought never...."
Applejack's green eyes were deep and serious as she looked into Rarity's. There was heat in them, and a hidden, silent emotion that scared her. She knew that she couldn't lie to Applejack. She wasn't a silly pony at all. She knew and felt a lot more than she'd ever said. Rarity knew that she was backed into corner, in more way than one.
"It's ... true, darling. I... did feel like I was betrayed. But it was unfair of me to say that." Tears moistened the corners of her azure eyes. "I know you'll never... feel about me the way I feel about you. Because I... I think I'm in love with you, Applejack." She'd said it, and the words hung in the dead silence between them for what felt like an eternity.
A series of emotions flickered across Applejack's face. Confusion, shock – she turned away from Rarity and slowly nodded.
"Ah guess I kinda knew tha' all along, sugarcube," she said at last.
Rarity's heart was breaking. The tears were flowing down her cheeks now, wetting her chin and neck. "I never wanted you to know," she whispered. "I knew this would happen. Now we can't be friends anymore." She lowered her face and the tears dripped steadily down onto the floor of the tent.
But she soon felt Applejack's face close to hers, and she lifted her eyes. The earth pony was smiling at her, a sad and elusive smile. "Now whyever d'ya think that, sugar?" she asked.
Rarity sniffled. "It will just be too uncomfortable for you," she explained. "And if anypony caught me mooning over you, there'd be a TERRIBLE scandal. And I could never live with myself if I dragged you down to my level..."
"Now ah ain't gone and said nothin' 'bout my own feelings yet," replied Applejack. "Maybe ah was surprised ya felt that way. But ah ain't angry," She shook her head. "Ah ain't angry at all. Truth is," she smiled shyly, "Ah'm mighty flattered that you feel tha' way about me."
"You... are?" asked Rarity.
Applejack nodded. Her green eyes sparkled from deep within as she spoke. "Who wouldn't be flattered to have such a so-phisticated and glamorous filly's affection?" she said. "S' dry those tears o' yers, little missy. You've no reason ta cry."
Rarity wiped at her eyes with her hooves. Applejack took the unicorn pony in her arms and laid her head on her chest, and she nuzzled Rarity's neck.
"Ya know – ya ain't such a strong little filly after all," she said softly in her ear. "A lil' bit o' emotion and ya fall all ta' pieces..."
Rarity felt Applejack's touch as an electricity that ran tingling down her spine. She ached for it, she needed that touch, but it was so painful. She knew deep down that she would never feel it given to her with passion – only as consolation. The touch of Applejack's lips prickled and maddened her, and tears sprung up anew in her eyes. But she hid them, smothering her face into Applejack's warm chest, and closed her eyes in bliss as Applejack's gentle breath touched her ear and neck. Oh, please – just this moment! Oh Celestia, let me just have this moment! Let me imagine and believe just for this moment that everything I desire is mine, truly mine, so that in my dreams I can always come back here and be happy for a short while at least!
Applejack held Rarity for a long while. She didn't show any sign of wanting to break their embrace. The truth was that the frail, slim unicorn pony in front of her had awoken strange feelings inside her. Conflicting feelings that drove Applejack in one minute from confusion, to fear, to nervous excitement. Finally, she whispered: "Y'know, sugarcube – here, in this tent, we're about half-way between Ponyville and Colt Springs."
Rarity murmured. Applejack couldn't make out what she had said, but she continued. Something inside her was forcing her onwards. She found the words escaping her lips, and she couldn't have stopped them if she'd wanted to. "An' ya know, if ANYTHIN' happened in this tent, anythin'at all, we're so far away from anywhere that no pony would ever know about it." Applejack's breath was hot. "Especially if it only ever happened once, fer instance, an' if we never spoke about it again..."
Rarity turned her face towards her. New tears had reddened her eyes, and she stared at Applejack. The earth pony stopped talking, and softly licked away the wetness on Rarity's cheeks.
"Applejack...?" she began.
"Hush, now." The licking had turned to little kisses, and Applejack peppered Rarity's cheek and throat with them. "Those tears of yours near broke my heart in two – an' ah can't stand ta see ya cry anymore."
"Oh Applejack!" Rarity sobbed and threw her forefeet around Applejack's neck. The earth pony hugged her back, closing her eyes. She had thought that maybe it would feel strange, that holding Rarity in this way would feel wrong and creepy. But it didn't.
They lay there, not moving, for what seemed like an age. It was Rarity that moved first. She raised her face and kissed Applejack, once, on her mouth, softly, as if testing. And then again, and this second time Applejack found herself kissing back. The earth pony's kiss was hesitant at first, unsure, but Rarity's kiss was hard and insistent, and Applejack found herself wanting more.
The touch of Rarity's lips had done something to her. These feelings weren't knew, she realised. They'd just been asleep for a long time. These were the same feelings that had every time melted the anger she'd often felt towards Rarity, the frustration of dealing with her stubbornness, her irritating obsession with details, the resentment Applejack had felt at all the attention the gorgeous unicorn pony got from the stallions of Ponyville because of her gracefulness and confidence. The soft spot that had always been there, that spot she had always argued away as just being a big-sisterly concern for the younger pony. Could it be that...?
Rarity felt the change in the intensity of Applejack's kissing. She rolled her eyes in pleasure as the earth pony's kisses grew bolder, trailing down her throat and turning into sharp nips of her teeth.
"Oh Applejack," she sighed, "Harder. Harder, darling, so that I can FEEL it!"
Applejack looked up at Rarity. Her features were so delicate and angelic, and she seemed so vulnerable, her azure eyes with their thick lashes fluttering each time Applejack bit her coat, her head thrown back in abandon. The earth pony's heart burned in her chest, and she felt a rush of heat along her body. She felt her insides melting, the subtle fire running along her limbs and dissolving her bones away.
Rarity nibbled lightly on Applejack's ear. The earth pony was flushed and panted with pleasure. "You look like you're ready to learn a few things," Rarity whispered as she turned the earth pony over onto her stomach, and began to lick her way down her back and along her spine. Applejack's coat was salty with perspiration, and the musky scent of her excitement engulfed Rarity's senses as she kissed ever lower.
When Applejack woke up, Rarity was still fast asleep beside her, her mane covering her face. Applejack swept it aside, and the idyllic, blissful look on the unicorn pony's face made her melt again. The intensity of Rarity's passion had taken her by surprise. There was still so much Applejack didn't know about her – there was so much more to her than the fashion-obsessed filly she first appeared. Why had it taken so long for her to realise it?
Colour had returned to Rarity's face, and it was obvious her fever had broken. Applejack chuckled to herself. "So it ain't jus' an old mare's tale that messing around can cure ANYthin'." She kissed Rarity on her cheek, and she murmured and smiled, but she didn't wake up.
"I think it's safe for me to leave ya for a short while, sugarcube," she said, slipping out the tent flap, "Ya need yer rest."
A while later Rarity woke up. It felt like she'd been asleep for hours. As the memory of what had happened flooded back, she turned over, a beaming smile on her face.
"Applejack!" she began. But the earth pony wasn't there beside her. Rarity's smile fell away and she sighed, wrapping herself in Applejack's blanket and breathing in her scent.
"Just one time," she sighed. "But it's so much more than I ever DREAMED of." Her eyes grew moist. "Oh Applejack. I hope you make it to the rodeo in time."
There was a sudden stirring of movement outside the tent. Rarity squeaked, and brought the blanket close to her chest.
"Who.. who is it?" she asked, her voice trembling.
"It's jus' me, Rarity." It was Applejack! She poked her head in through the tent and threw a small bag across to Rarity.
"But... what is this?"
"Jus' a lil' present, sug'." Applejack smiled.
"But... the rodeo."
Applejack was mock-cross. "Would ya stop mentionin' the gosh-darn rodeo!" she yelled. "Jus' open the bag, will ya?"
Rarity opened it. Inside there was a pile of berries, each a brilliant azure colour.
Rarity turned to her friend. She was almost speechless. "But Applejack... how did you know where to find them?"
Applejack snorted. "It weren't no trouble at all. I jus' wandered aroun' till I found a bush with berries on it the same colour as those gorgeous eyes o' yours." Applejack frowned. "Yer eyes ARE azure, ain't they?
Rarity leapt up and hugged her. "Of course they are! Just as yours are the most DELECTABLE shade of green I have ever seen!"
Applejack smiled nervously, and tried to slip out of Rarity's embrace. "Now sugarcube. Remember what we discussed."
Rarity, crestfallen, let her forefeet drop away. "I... of course, I understand. I won't forget what..."
She started to back away, but Applejack suddenly grabbed her around the waist and kissed her – hard. Rarity struggled initially in surprise, but then she went limp. When Applejack broke the kiss, the unicorn pony looked at her incredulously.
Applejack smiled shyly. "Well, I kinda thought that maybe we could... alter tha' arrangement jus' a tad. Ah mean – ah am plannin' on goin' to the rodeo next year, since this year was a big blow-out..." She shook her head at the sudden sad look on Rarity's face. "Nah, sug'. No more o' those recriminations."
Rarity started to smile. "So, what you're saying is that... what happens in the Swayback Mountains...?"
Applejack nodded. "...sure as heck stays in the Swayback Mountains. But tha' don' mean we can't come back here whenever we want ta."
Rarity looked thoughtful. "You know, Applejack. I have a feeling that these berries will be enough to provide me with AZURE for a month or so. But I'll soon need to collect some more," She winked at the earth pony. "And I'd just LOVE your help!"
Applejack tapped Rarity on the chin with her hoof playfully. "Ah think that can be arranged," she laughed.
"ANYONE IN HERE?" A face suddenly poked through the flap into the tent– a face with bright and serious eyes and a shock of rainbow coloured hair. "Wait – Applejack?! Rarity?!"
The two ponies leapt away from each other. "Rainbow Dash?!" they cried in unison.
Applejack was the first to collect herself. "What're ya doin' here, Rainbow Dash?" she asked.
Rainbow Dash pushed her way into the tent. She had a suspicious look on her face. "I could ask you the same question, Applejack." She darted a sharp look at Rarity. "Or maybe I should be asking YOU, Rarity!"
Rarity started to squeak a response, stepping away from the menacing Pegasus pony – but then Rainbow Dash laughed uproariously. "Jeeze. I'm just messing with you guys!" She turned back to Applejack with a suddenly worried expression. "But Applejack, seriously – aren't you supposed to be at the rodeo in Colt Springs? The first event's due to start any minute now!"
Applejack had managed to calm down after the sudden untimely appearance of their friend, and she quickly explained the misadventures of the previous day and evening. She found herself blushing uncontrollably, even though she was of course skipping what had happened between her and Rarity, but Rainbow Dash didn't seem to notice. Instead, she was horrified that the storm had caused so much trouble.
"That's the last time, Ditzy Doo!" she cried, shaking a clenched hoof at the tent's ceiling. "But I'M the one to blame, really. The buck's gotta stop with the boss, after all!" She put her hoof to her chin and looked thoughtful for a moment. Then a bright smile zapped across her face. "But I think I can fix this situation. You two come with me! And Applejack?"
"Bring your lasso."
Once outside the tent Rainbow Dash whistled sharply. Moments later a squad of Pegasus ponies landed on the river bank nearby and trotted up to where they were standing.
"Red team reporting for duty, Sir!" The leader of the group, a mare with quizzical amber eyes, a yellow mane and a blue-grey coat, saluted Rainbow Dash, and the other seven Pegasus ponies followed suit.
Rainbow Dash wasted no time in telling them what she wanted them to do. She turned to Applejack and Rarity, who were waiting near the tent, and explained "You're lucky we were checking the river for damage caused by that storm we ROYALLY screwed up last night." She gestured to the Pegasus ponies that had split into two groups of four. "But at least I can make up for it. LET'S GO SQUAD!"
And without hesitation, one groups of Pegasus ponies surrounded Applejack, each of them taking hold of a leg and lifting her straight away into the air.
"Hey, wait.. now jus' wait a minute!" the earth pony cried out in alarm.
Rainbow Dash laughed. "We can't wait – not even a minute! There's no time to waste if we're going to get you two to Colt Springs within ten minutes!"
Rarity was being lifted up as well, but she was squealing in excitement. "You're taking me too? So I can watch Applejack? Oh thank you, darling, thank you!"
Rainbow Dash nodded, and waved to them as the two groups of Pegasus ponies and their burdens swept low over the valley, Applejack still shouting in alarm. Then they crested the ridge and were off on their way across the plains towards Colt Springs.
Rainbow Dash watched them go. Another job well done! "It's true what they say," she said, looking into the sky. "Always bet on the Dash!"