by Present Perfect
Applejack couldn't believe what she was hearing.
"All right, sugarcube, lemme get this straight: ya tried bakin' muffins, but they jumped outta the oven, ran across the kitchen, and then exploded all over you. Twice."
Rainbow Dash nodded vigorously, sending congealed blobs of muffin batter splattering onto her hooves. "Yeah! It totally wasn't my fault, AJ, I swear!"
"Uh-huh. Ya sure you followed the recipe? To the letter?"
Rainbow rubbed the back of her head. "Uhh... Well, maybe I cut a few corners..."
Applejack stomped a hoof. "Cut corners?"
"Yeah, but nothing major! Recipes are just guidelines, you can leave stuff out sometimes, you know?"
"And just what, pray tell, did ya cut?"
Rainbow ducked her head. "Maybe the baking powder. I mean, I couldn't figure out if I needed baking powder or baking soda, so I just kinda threw in some of both..."
"Consarnit, Rainbow Dash!" Applejack put her hoof over her face. "Just stop, I don't wanna hear no more. I ain't never seen you set foot in a kitchen before save for dinnertime. Tell me again why you're so dead set on bakin' things yourself instead of, I dunno, havin' Pinkie Pie help?"
"No, see, that's just it! She's done so many nice things for me lately that I wanted to do something for her for a change. Something, I dunno, that would mean something to her. When you're always baking for everypony, it's probably nice when somepony bakes for you, right?" As she talked, Rainbow's face gradually grew redder and redder.
Applejack nodded slowly. "So them rumors is true. You're sweet on her, ain'tcha?"
Rainbow Dash's entire body shook. "Wait, uh, no, I, what? What rumors?"
Applejack chuckled. "Ponies talk, Rainbow Dash, it's just how things are. Besides, I can't think of no other reason why the Rainbow Dash I know would be so dead-set on doin' something she ain't no good at."
Rainbow bit her lip. "Well... That's why I came to see you, AJ. You're just as good at baking as Pinkie Pie. You gotta help me put something together for her, please! I'll do anything!"
"Well, it ain't gonna mean much if'n you don't do the work yourself. So I'll supervise and direct, how's about that? And in return, you can maybe send a little extra rain over to Sweet Apple Acres next week?"
"Perfect! Name your day; I'll push the clouds there myself!"
Applejack spit on her hoof. Rainbow Dash did likewise, and they shook. "All right, then, sugarcube! Let's get bakin'!"
Rainbow Dash had always found that following rules made it hard to concentrate. Phrases like "do this" or "make sure you" were like hooves on a chalkboard, and she immediately tuned out whenever anypony started using them. Sure, it sometimes strained her work life; but it wasn't like they could keep the skies clear without Rainbow Dash there to help them, so she was able to get by.
But this wasn't a situation where getting by would cut it. Applejack was a harsh mistress in the kitchen, and it took all of Rainbow's mental fortitude to keep from balking at her friend's every command.
"Focus, Rainbow Dash. Remember Pinkie Pie. She's your goal. Pinkie Pie."
She and Pinkie had never really hung out before Twilight Sparkle had come to Ponyville. Sure, Pinkie knew when Rainbow's birthday was and had thrown her parties before, and Rainbow liked attending the parties thrown for other ponies, but otherwise, she had never been more than a mild acquaintance. Even after Twilight had brought the Elements of Harmony together, Rainbow had treated the pink mare with a certain amount of aloofness. Her giddy randomness was entertaining, but a little too goofy for a pony as cool as herself to be associating with.
It wasn't until the unfortunate events with Gilda that Rainbow had seen a different side of her friend: both a cool prankster and a sensitive, caring pony. That she could pull stunts the way she did and get away with them, without hurting anypony's feelings, made Rainbow just a little jealous. Her own pranking at Junior Flight Camp had nearly gotten her expelled once, and she always got in trouble regardless. Pinkie Pie worked her pranking magic with just the right combination of mischievousness and thoughtfulness.
It had been the pranks that brought them closer together as friends, and it was that caring mischief that had made Rainbow realize that her feelings for Pinkie Pie didn't end at friendship. She wanted something more; she wanted Pinkie's caring directed at her in particular. There was nothing saying whether Pinkie would accept, of course, but that kind of fear had never stopped Rainbow Dash before.
Even if she really wanted to let it stop her now.
This baking was her chance at popping the question, as it were. There would be no better time to ask Pinkie about her feelings than over a hot pan of muffins. Or cupcakes. Or maybe strudel; she thought Pinkie might like strudel.
"Naw, I don't think you're ready for somethin' that complicated yet. Let's stick to cupcakes."
Measure, stir, measure something else, stir again: all the work was really getting to her. Especially since Applejack, having picked up on the gravity of the situation, was being a severe fussbudget about everything and a complete pain in the rear.
"Now make sure you watch the meniscus, Rainbow Dash... See how that water curves up? Y'all gotta account for that so the measure's accurate."
"Three-quarters cup doubles to a cup 'n a half, not a cup 'n a quarter!"
"Don't crack them eggs on the bowl, you'll get shells in the batter!"
It wasn't like Applejack at all, but as annoying as she was being, Rainbow Dash was glad her friend was forcing her to be extra careful and make sure that the cupcakes would come out perfect.
Or as perfect as possible, anyway. The first batch hadn't burned, but they had stuck to the pan.
"Oh my stars! How in the hay did we both forget to put in the cupcake cups? I reckon I'm a-worryin' about all the wrong things, I'm so sorry!"
"Ohmygoshohmygosh, I blew it! Everything's gonna be ruined!"
"None of that now, this is no time fer panickin'! Quick, get them other two pans and put the cups in; I'll try pourin' the batter back outta this one and we'll do it again."
It was a good thing they'd made enough batter for more than one batch. Missing six cupcakes overall would be less of a blow than having to do an entire dozen over again. That said, they both had to agree, tasting the few salvageable bits, that the cupcakes themselves were excellent.
Rainbow Dash had picked out a recipe in Applejack's collection that the cowpony hadn't used before. She'd warned her that by doing so, they risked making something that might not come out the way they expected, but Rainbow was insistent on making something that Pinkie wouldn't have already tried. She wanted it to be something memorable. The recipe of course called for apples, but also carrots, strawberries, and bananas, which just happened to be in season. The resulting cake was light and chewy, pleasantly fruity, sweet without being sugary, and with just a tiny bit of crunch from the shredded carrots.
"All right, sugar, these look perfect! Yer really doin' great!"
"Thanks, AJ." Rainbow wiped the sweat from her brow, only some of which was due to the heat of the kitchen. "Do you think she'll like them?"
"Of course she will, don't you worry none! I'll make up the frostin', and why don't you start pipin' in the cream filling?"
"Cream... filling?" Rainbow Dash began sweating anew.
"Yeah, these're filled cupcakes. I was kinda surprised you wanted to do somethin' so complicated, but I reckoned you were up to the challenge. Cupcakes're still easier 'n strudel!"
Ohmygoshohmygosh, so much can go wrong right now! Her first instinct was to make for a window, but she stilled herself. Don't chicken out now, Rainbow Dash. You're halfway there already! Just think about your goal, think about the filly. Think about Applejack too, she's put a lot of hard work into making sure you aren't a total screwup! You can't let her down!
She watched Applejack for a moment, busily mixing a few tablespoons of milk into a heap of powdered sugar. They'd been rivals for so long, but in the end Applejack had always proven to be a great friend. Sure, Rainbow could be kind of overbearing occasionally; okay, she could be really overbearing all the time. But that was just how she was, covering up insecurity with blustering, and Applejack had never let her down when she'd needed help despite all that. This baking help was just one of the most recent examples of her dedication.
Rainbow found herself a little jealous of Applejack, too. She, after all, was supposed to hold the Element of Loyalty. She'd come through for her friends if they were in a bind, sure, but she had a tendency to stick to the blustering and overbearing thing when the chips weren't all down. Applejack's innate understanding of her friends' needs -- like Rainbow Dash wanting to get everything perfect for Pinkie -- was what Rainbow liked about her. She would've made a great Loyalty.
"Rainbow, them cupcakes ain't fillin' themselves! D'you need a hoof?"
"Wha? Oh, sorry, Applejack, I was just..."
Rainbow felt herself blush. "Sorry, I thought you had some flour in your mane."
"Oh, do I? Pshaw, I'll wash up after we're done." She laughed. "I reckon we'll both need a bath!"
She turned back to the frosting and Rainbow back to the filling. Suddenly, her heart was pounding in her chest, like she'd just been flying at top speed until she was completely winded. Thinking about Applejack was bringing up the same feelings that thinking about Pinkie had! What was wrong with her?
You silly filly-fooler, you can't go falling for all your friends!
"Ugh! No, Rainbow Dash, you really gotta press it in there or the fillin's gonna squish out all over the place! Here, let me give you some help."
Without waiting for her to respond, Applejack pressed up against her back, forelegs curled around her, directing the filling bag in her hooves into the cupcake. Rainbow Dash suddenly knew how those cupcakes felt, fresh out of the oven. Her hooves went numb, just following along with whatever Applejack was doing. Her friend's instructions were like the buzzing of summer insects in her ears. The blood coursing through her veins made her feel like her head was ready to explode.
She dropped the filling bag, whirled around and embraced Applejack, kissing her passionately. Applejack stood stock-still. Rainbow's breath caught in her throat. In an instant, she was out of the kitchen and flying anywhere.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid, Rainbow Dash! What is wrong with you?" Tears ran into the corners of her mouth, the salty taste adding sting to her recriminations. She didn't get much further than the edge of Sweet Apple Acres before she couldn't see anymore and skidded to a stop under a tree, flat on her belly, head buried in her hooves.
She lay that way for quite some time before she heard Applejack calling her name. Unable to stem the waterworks, she did her best just to quiet her sobbing, and hoped her friend wouldn't find her.
"Rainbow Dash, there you are."
"Go away!" She sniffled and smeared her face into the grass. It burned.
"Sugar, I dunno what's goin' on in that head o' yourn, but I ain't leavin' until you tell me what's up. I don't care if you gotta let it all out first or what, but I'm waitin' right here with you until you do."
She sat down next to Rainbow, who gradually calmed down, though every time she glanced at her friend, who was stoically avoiding meeting her eyes, she felt a knot pulling tighter at her heart, threatening to start her up all over again.
At length, Applejack said, "You feelin' any better now?"
"Yeah... I'm sorry you had to see me like this... And what I did, AJ, I'm..."
"Don't say it! Don't you say it."
Applejack pointedly looked away from her. "I got a hunch there's somethin' goin' on right now, and it ain't between you'n me. So don't apologize none."
"I don't understand... I don't understand you, or me, or..."
Applejack scooted closer. "Understandin' yer feelin's is hard, sugarcube. Sometimes it hurts a lot. Shucks, I ain't even the best pony you should be talkin' about this to. But, well..."
She sighed. Rainbow waited for her friend to continue, but she didn't. Out of tears, she heaved herself up onto her flanks and wiped at her face.
"Applejack, I feel so stupid."
"I can understand why ya might feel that way."
"I don't even know why! I just... It felt good, you being so close, being such a good friend and all..."
"And you just got caught up in the moment, is that all?"
Rainbow was ready to agree, but she stopped. "No, there's more to it than that. I really like you, Applejack, a whole lot. Maybe as more than just a friend, I don't know. I respect you an awful lot, I... I look up to you, even if I have a hard time admitting it."
Applejack smiled. "You do, really?"
"Y-yeah... But I wouldn't think that you'd..."
Applejack leaned over and pecked her on the cheek. She got red-hot once again. Her legs felt shaky.
"That's mighty sweet o' you to say so, Rainbow. But I wouldn't want to get in the way o' you and Pinkie Pie."
"I been thinkin' about it lately; I guess my barn door swings both ways, you could say. And yeah, so maybe I've thought about you like that." It was Applejack's turn to blush, a look that was entirely bizarre on her. "I dunno if anythin' would ever work out between you 'n me, though, us bein' rivals for so long and all. I really think you got a better chance with Pinkie. I... I hope this works out for you, Rainbow Dash, I really, really do."
"But I haven't even asked her yet, and I..." She swallowed, and her voice came out in a squeak. "I betrayed her. Some Element of Loyalty I am."
"Betrayed nothin'! Sometimes, a pony like you just has more love than she knows what to do with. And I'm... I'm mighty flattered you shared a little with me. I hope we can be better friends for it." She stood. "As for your element, ain't no one I know that's more loyal than you, and that's a fact. So don't you go second-guessin' or worryin' yourself about that none."
Rainbow smiled at long last. "Thanks, AJ. Although I kind of feel like the Element of Honesty right now, since I've been spilling my guts all over you."
Applejack laughed. "I reckon we'd be able to swap Elements pretty easy, if it came to it. But what's that matter now, anyway? C'mon, Rainbow Dash, race you back to the kitchen!"
She joined in the laughter. "Last one there has to fill the cupcakes!"
Applejack didn't mind doing the filling. Rainbow Dash had really taken to the frosting, after all, and it was the one part of the whole process she seemed to have any knack for. Applejack even let her do the final decorating without any interference. And in the end, they had a dozen and a half beautiful cupcakes, with cream filling and strawberry icing, cherries on top, and maybe just a few too many sprinkles. But that was okay; where Pinkie Pie was involved, you could never have too many sprinkles.
She sighed as she watched her friend leave, saddlebags brimming with cupcake boxes. Rainbow had wanted to deliver them in person, and AJ felt, after all that had happened, that that would be best. She still needed some time to think.
Everything she'd said to Rainbow had been true, of course. She was still wrestling with her feelings, with who she was. The thought of coming to one of her friends and being rejected was terrifying; that's why she'd kept it all to herself. But after opening up to Rainbow Dash, it felt like a whole peck of apples had been taken out of her saddlebags. She realized she'd needed that for a long time. The affection her friend had shown had been extremely tempting to give in to, to accept wholeheartedly; but thinking back over it, Rainbow's dedication, and her desire to impress Pinkie was way more important. She couldn't risk Rainbow's feelings while indulging her own. Then she'd be the betrayer.
It don't matter too much, she told herself. She wasn't ready to settle down with anypony yet, anyway. There was too much work and not enough time for it; she was married to the farm, at least in this stage of her life, and she was fine with that. Letting Rainbow go didn't hurt as much as she thought it would have, and that alone let her know that it was the right thing to have done.
Besides, she kind of preferred the rivalry. It kept life fun.
"Love ain't gonna get in the way o' Loyalty, Rainbow Dash," she said to herself, "and that's the Honest truth." Then she smiled, shook her head, and went back into the kitchen to clean up.