"Oh come on, Applejack! Just one trip around the clouds! One!"
"Darn it, Rainbow! I said no!" Applejack grunted. She couldn't possibly have been more annoyed than she was that very second. She lurched forward in the breezy September afternoon, carrying two baskets full of apples atop her spine while simultaneously having to weather the constant barrage of insipid pleas from a winged figure high above. "Now will ya stop botherin' me, already?"
"How am I bothering you?" Rainbow Dash grinned wide, trailing steadily above Applejack like a blue kite attached to her blonde tail via invisible string. "I'm making you the offer of your life right now!"
"And just how many times ya reckon I gotsta reject yer offer?" Applejack huffed and puffed as she practically crawled her way towards a wagon where Big Mac was hitching himself up. She slapped the fruit-filled baskets onto the cart with a heavy slump. "I'm runnin' out of patience! Celestia knows I plum ran out of breath hours ago!" She sat heavily on her haunches and removed her hat, bringing a forelimb up to brush the sweat from her orange brow. "Filthy Rich is fixin' to open a new shop on the edge of town, and I have less than a week to harvest three rows of orchards for the first day's sale."
"Filthy, Smilthy." Rainbow Dash rolled her ruby eyes. "How come you and your family's always having to work your flanks off when that guy so much as sneezes?" She hovered low overhead with a frown. "Can't you at least relax for just one second in your life?"
"Ain't no time, Rainbow. Some of us gotta work for a livin'." She slapped her hat back on, stood up, and gave the wagon three knocks with her hoof. "Giddyup, Big Mac. I'll take care of things from here until you get back from unloadin' them baskets."
Big Mac merely nodded, gave Rainbow Dash a lethargic glare, and then pulled the large cart downhill towards the red barn in the center of Sweet Apple Acres.
"Besides..." Applejack paced forward along the hill, still trying to regain her breath from a day full of labor. "Ain'tcha got a schedule of yer own to keep? Shouldn't there be a nappin' cloud somewhere with yer name on it or some new daredevil moves to practice for them Wonderbucks?"
"Wonderbolts," Rainbow Dash corrected with a slight hiss. She then smirked. "And I did it already!"
"The nappin' or the showin' off?"
"Both!" Rainbow's voice cracked as she twirled in tiny circles, nimbly keeping up with Applejack. "And so I got bored and came here to see what you were up to and realized that you could totally use a chance to cool down! So how about it, AJ? It'll be a total breeze!"
"I've given rides to tons of ponies from all over Ponyville!" Rainbow Dash said, flexing her forelimbs while gliding past the farmfilly. "I'll just grab you by the shoulders, get a good tail-wind, and—Swoosh! I bet you've always wanted to see Sweet Apple Acres from the air! Hey!" Rainbow Dash chuckled and rasped forth, "Think of it as a new type of chore! I could help you spot some land to plant new apple seeds in!"
"And would it kill you to experience a few corkscrews or awesome barrel rolls while you map things out—?!"
"Rainbow!" Applejack growled up at her through clenched teeth. "I ain't gonna be lettin' you take me on no tours of the clouds! I mean it! I just ain't got the time!"
"Awwwww... Why not?" Rainbow Dash folded her forelimbs with a pout. "Both Twilight and Pinkie have let me give them rides! They thought it was awesome! It's a beautiful day, for Pete's sake! Are you all about digging your nose in apple branches? Don't you ever wanna have fun?"
"There's a time for fun and a time for gettin' stuff done, and obviously you ain't got a lick of sense about neither!" Applejack exhaled long and hard. She stood on the very crest of a hill, overlooking the rows upon rows of green trees bespeckled with red dots of fruit. Her green eyes took in the immensity of her job, and a wave of exhaustion wafted down from her gaze and slurred through her lips. "This farm don't take care of itself, y'know. It needs close attention and a helpin' hoof on a regular basis. All my life, I knew that if I lost control of harvestin' these here crops—if even for just one day—then everything I care about, everything I hold dear would just turn up rotten. I don't suspect you can relate, Rainbow. I mean, yer a weather pony and all. But the weather ain't like the land."
Applejack sighed, closed her eyes, and shook her head.
"The point is, sugarcube, I'm glad that you wanna hang out and have fun and all, but yer timin' just ain't proper. Not only that, but flyin' ain't my thang. Now if you wanted to put yer wings to some real good use, you could help me and Big Mac carry some of these here apples to the barn once they've been bucked off the trees. But I know how much ya hate heavy labor. And for that matter..."
A gust of wind kicked at Applejack's blonde bangs. Her green eyes fluttered open.
"Huh... That's funny," she muttered. "It got real breezy all of the sudden."
"Heeheehee..." Rainbow Dash's voice was giggling beside Applejack's ear. "There's a reason for that."
"Huh?" Applejack looked straight down; she was twenty feet above the ground and floating forward. "Whoah nelly!" She gripped onto her hat as her rear legs flailed. A ghastly pale expression blanketed her face, then swiftly melted as the mother of all snarls fountained out her nostrils. "Consarn it, Rainbow Dash!"
"What? Heheh..." Rainbow Dash snickered victoriously from where she gripped Applejack's waist from behind, carrying her over the first row of orchards. "You didn't seem to mind while you were delivering your boring little monologue there."
"Put me down! I mean it!"
"Can't you just let me show you what a swan dive feels like?"
"Now!" Applejack's breath came out like a gunshot.
"Pfft..." Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes back as her wings went limp. "Fiiiine." She angled her feathers against the wind and the two gently coasted to the ground.
As soon as Applejack's hooves touched the grass, she stomped away from Rainbow Dash and swirled about in an angry flash, her eyes as hard as heated emeralds. "What's the matter with y'all?! Are ya outta yer featherbrained mind?"
"Uhhh..." Rainbow Dash sweat nervously and tilted back from Applejack's leering frown. "What’s wrong? You allergic to feathers? Eh heh heh...”
"What kind of a pegasus lifts another pony off the ground without askin'?!"
"But I did ask! Tons of times—"
"Without bein' told it was okay?!" Applejack barked. "T'ain't just rude, Rainbow, it's gul-dang foalish!" The brim of her hat fell over her face and she hoisted it up in a blood-red blink. Her freckles were melting islands in a flushed ocean. "How'd you like it if I trotted up to ya while you were nappin' and tipped you over into the mud just 'cuz I felt like it?!"
Rainbow Dash shrugged. "I'd just fly through a rain cloud, get myself washed up, and soar right back to plot an even better prank on you!"
"Grrrrr..." Applejack spun about and marched furiously downhill. "I swear to Celestia! Pegasi have no sense of personal space!"
"Yeesh, AJ. Why you getting so worked up over this? It's all in good fun!"
"No! It's not good fun!" Applejack shouted back.
"Just go, Rainbow Dash. I don't know where, I don't know how far; but just go. I don't care if you have nothin' productive to do all day, but you sure as hay ain't doin' nothin' productive here!" By the time she reached the trees, she pivoted to yell with finality. "And the next time I see you, you'd better not be beggin' to give me another air ride, 'cuz t'ain't happenin'! Not now, not ever, not no-how!"
Applejack's outburst fell on deaf ears... or no ears at all, for Rainbow Dash had long flown away, forming a distant blue speck on the horizon beyond Sweet Apple Acres.
"Hrmmm..." Applejack exhaled slowly, gradually losing the color to her enraged face. She approached the first of many apple trees and positioned herself to begin bucking. "If that don't get the message across, then I reckon I'll eat oranges for a week. Nnnngh... Lift me up like I'm some little filly askin' for a balloon ride... How about liftin' yer hoof to do some real work for a change?!" That said, her rear legs punished the nearest stretch of bark with a pronounced thud.
Eventually, Applejack's heated fury subsided, as did the sunny afternoon, and the whole week for that matter. The days of early autumn arrived, during which the Apple family busied themselves with gathering all the necessary apples to supply Filthy Rich’s new business. Two and a half weeks later, Applejack had tied up all the season’s labor just in time for that year’s Running of the Leaves.
The first hints of cold weather descended upon the farm one clear October day. The afternoon was beyond delightful. An autumn crispness filled the air, making everything feel light and tranquil. Under a slowly spreading sunset, Applejack sat on the crest of the same hill where less than three weeks before she had chewed off the head of a rambunctious blue pegasus. Most of the immediate orchards below were stripped of their fruit, and the corn fields at the far end of the Acres danced in the chilling winds, ready for their own harvest.
But Applejack wasn't working that day. She wasn't moving an inch; she wasn't even smiling.
She squatted on the hilltop, her green eyes lonesome and thin as they absorbed themselves in the warm, melting colors of the disant cloudtops high above. There was no sign of Big Mac... or Granny Smith or Apple Bloom for that matter. Applejack sat on the landscape like she was its sole owner, the lone sentinel of Sweet Apple Acres. As her breaths came in lethargic wheezes, it was apparent a part of her imagined she was the only pony in Equestria.
Fatefully, a cracking voice chirped overhead as if to disprove that. "Alright, AJ! Sorry I'm so late." Rainbow Dash flew in with a large cluster of black mists in her pegasus grip. She "parked" the miniature rain cloud above and uttered loudly, "The Ponyville Weather Commission took forever to give this cloud up. I had to sign a whole bunch of boring forms and stuff. Yeesh. I guess everypony's a suspect for grand theft cumulus these days. What's up with that, huh?"
Applejack said nothing. She stared quietly and solemnly into the burning horizon.
Rainbow Dash frowned. "Hey! Earth to the earth pony!" She flew a few feet above Applejack's hat and waved all four of her limbs. "Did you requisition this rain shower or not?! Where do you want it? Huh?"
"What?" Applejack looked up, blinking dazedly. "Oh. Sorry, Rainbow," she murmured, eventually gesturing towards the south. "Over them fields. They've been mighty parched for several weeks now."
"Heh. If you say so." Rainbow Dash flew behind the cloud and shoved it like a giant, floating weight towards the indicated skies above Sweet Apple Acres. "You're the crops expert!" she wheezed as she finally relocated the mists, shouting over her shoulder. "The closest thing I ever had to a green hoof was this one time I flew in the way of one of Spike's sneezes! Heh! I hope Princess Celestia didn't mind Twilight sending her an unsigned horseshoe."
Applejack gave no reply. She closed her eyes and sighed.
Rainbow Dash squinted curiously at her. With a lazy shrug, she bucked the cloud once and left it to rinse the southern fields. "That was a joke, in case you couldn't hear through that hat of yours." She flew over, did a few loopty-loops, and made a perfect landing beside Applejack's flank. "So what's eating you? Has gulping down nothing but apples finally burned a hole in your chest?"
Applejack had to stifle a grumble of annoyance. "I'm just fine, Rainbow. Thanks again for the cloud."
"Hey..." Rainbow leaned forward and squinted curiously into Applejack's face. "It doesn't take a genius to know that you've gotten up on the wrong side of the stable this morning." She sat down beside her. "What gives, Applejack? You weren't like this two days ago at Sugarcube Corner."
"I toldja, I'm fine," Applejack said, the ire in her voice slowly rising. "Can't a mare just sit down in peace?"
"Just what are you sitting around for?" Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow and glanced towards the farmhouse in the distance. "Isn't today Apple Bloom's birthday? I figured you'd be setting up a party or something."
"Apple Bloom's birthday is in two days. We're celebratin' at the skating rink." Applejack grumbled. "Lil' AB fancies herself havin' a special talent in interpretive dance or somethin'."
"Hah! No kidding!" Rainbow Dash smirked as her wings flexed. "Those figure skating routines crack me up big time. Aren't they always playing old music on a record when they go on the ice too? Like an old ballad by Whinnie Houston or Eltrot John?"
"How the hay should I know?"
"Well, you're setting up Apple Bloom's party, aren't you?"
Rainbow Dash looked around once more. "So where's Big Mac and your grandma? Shouldn't they be helping you plan and stuff?"
"Hey, I could always give you a hoof if you—"
"I'm fine! Rainbow, please..." Applejack closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and gave her a calm look. "Thank you. Really, I mean it. But right now, just for today, I would very much fancy bein' by myself, if ya don't mind."
Rainbow Dash blinked, blinked again, and rolled her eyes. "Pfft. Yeah, okay, Miss Antisocialjack." She stood up, scuffed her hooves, and trotted off. "Have it your way. I should know by now when it's best not to upset your apple cart."
Applejack merely gazed off into the sunset as Rainbow Dash walked away.
On the other edge of the hill, Rainbow paused, smiled over her shoulder, and said, "You know, I might just have the thing to help you relax and unwind from whatever's eating you. But... heh heh..." She stopped herself to roll her eyes. Rainbow's voice cracked, "Silly me; I almost suggested the unmentionable to Miss Grumpyseed. Well!" She flapped her wings and took off. "Adios, marechacho!"
For some reason, Applejack was fidgeting. She bit her lip, fiddled with the grass in front of her, and pivoted from where she sat. "Rainbow, wait..."
The pegasus braked expertly in mid-air. She glanced down. "Huh? What's up? Besides me, that is. Heheheh..."
Applejack gnawed on the edge of her hoof, avoiding her friend's gaze. When the next words came out, it was like delivering a foal. "I... I reckon I'd like to go for a spin."
"Eh?" Rainbow Dash's brow furrowed.
"Look, do I have to write it down for y'all?" Applejack briefly frowned. "I'm tellin' ya, I'm game."
Rainbow Dash flew back down, her head cocked with an inquisitive stare. "You would be okay with going for a ride?"
"Pfft—Hahahaha!" Rainbow Dash slapped her hoof against the hillside and cackled. "This is some sort of joke, isn't it, AJ? Hah! As if you'd ever wanna do something so fun and impulsive—"
"No, sugarcube. I mean it..." Applejack gulped and bore the tiniest, subtlest, but most honest of smiles. "I would love for you to show me what it's like to take flight."
Rainbow Dash's ruby eyes blinked wide. "This is for real?"
"Not a prank?"
Rainbow Dash looked at Applejack, at the empty farmland, at the sunset, and back at her friend. Her face cracked into a goofy smile. "Well, just when you thought the sky's the limit, huh?" She cracked her limbs, darted over, and stood by Applejack's side. "I swear, this is gonna knock your horseshoes off. Erm... you still do wear horseshoes, don’t ya?"
"Uh huh..." Applejack got up, her limbs trembling slightly. Nevertheless, she stood tall and squinted at Rainbow Dash. "Just promise me ya won't make us do anything really dangerous or stupid."
"Awww... But I rock at both of those!" Rainbow said with a wink. She cleared her throat. "Uhm... Ya might wanna ditch the hat for this."
Applejack removed her article, gulped, and hung it on the edge of a nearby fencepost. "Okay then. Uhm..." She turned to look at her pegasus friend. "So when do we start?"
Rainbow appeared from the other side of Applejack and gripped her from behind. "Two seconds ago," she said through a devilish smirk and gave the air one mighty flap with her wings.
Applejack barely had the oxygen to shriek. She reached up for an invisible hat as her blonde mane twirled in the whipping winds. The hilltop shrank beneath her, as did the rest of the farmland. Soon the Equestrian countryside was becoming a porous splotch of earth beneath her dangling hooves.
"R-Rainbow!" Applejack nearly choked, her twitching green eyes watching as layers of mist blurred past them. "Must you be so darn quick-like?!"
"Heeheehee... Force of habit." Rainbow Dash held Applejack's waist tightly from behind as she lifted the two of them higher and higher. "Don't worry. You'll get used to it once we're gliding."
"Glidin'?—Whoah!" Applejack winced, for the two of them were rocketing forward into blistering autumn winds.
"Hahaha!" Rainbow Dash uttered victoriously, guiding herself and Applejack like conjoined missiles over the heights of Ponvyille and its surrounding treetops. "How's this for a breather?! I bet bucking apples never measures in G-Force!"
"I-I wouldn't know..." Applejack stammered, instinctively flinging her forelimbs up and covering her eyes with her hooves. "Rainbow, I think... I think this was—"
"Pblblblblb!" Rainbow Dash raspberried. She gave Applejack a little shake so that her hooves fell from her twitching eyes. "Will you stop thinking for once?! You're a farm pony for crying out loud! Do something simple: like feeling the moment!"
"Feelin'..." Applejack gulped. "I think I can do that..."
"Good. Because things are about to get awesome." Rainbow Dash licked her lips and gained altitude. "Aaaaaaaand..." She let her feathers go limp, tilted her wings, and angled the two sharply down. "...hello, gravity!" The two dove earthward. It wasn't the steepest dive, given that this was Applejack's first legitimate flight. Still...
Applejack winced, her eyes squinting into the blurring atmosphere as they zoomed towards a patch of forest below. Just as the twigs of several trees came into focus, Rainbow Dash expertly pulled them both up. Their tails brushed over a branch or two, and soon the two were climbing harmlessly into the sunset, lulled by the hush of the autumn world all around.
"Whew-wee," Applejack exhaled hoarsely.
"Since when were you such a poet?" Rainbow Dash said with a goofy grin. "Okay. How about we try ourselves something cooler? Like a backflip? Every pegasus learns that from flight school—"
"Uhm..." Applejack was hyperventilating between the words, surprised to hear herself saying them. "Actually, ya reckon ya might take us a little bit higher...?"
Rainbow Dash stopped in mid-speech, blinking awkwardly. She gave Applejack a curious glance, shrugged, and flapped her wings harder. "Hey, you're only foaled once." She took a deep breath and shot them both up in a bolt. "Here goes!"
Applejack held her breath. Once again, the world shot out from beneath them, only twice as quickly this time. Soon, everything was burning red as the western half of the sky consumed Applejack's vision. The ends of the farm filly's hooves tingled, for she found the horizons vanishing gradually from her peripheral vision. It was a very alienating sensation, like being lost in the middle of a dim blue ocean.
And yet, the higher Rainbow Dash lifted the two of them, the calmer Applejack's breaths became. Soon, she stopped hyperventilating entirely, and her emerald eyes blinked with a newfound tranquility that digested the soft texture of the cloud layers looming overhead.
"Got a nosebleed? No?" Rainbow Dash took a peek, smiled, and glided the two of them forward. "This is what pegasi like to call 'village friendly' height, 'cuz it's above the normal flight limit of Fillydelphia and Canterlot and the like. Derpy delivers most of the mail from town to town at this altitude, and Flutterhy's been known to guide several ducks along these wind currents on occasion."
"Yes?" Rainbow Dash remarked. "Does the blonde in the first class compartment have a question?"
Applejack's head tilted so that her calm face met Rainbow's gaze. The earth pony surprised her with the ease with which she made her next request. "Higher?"
Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. For several seconds, Applejack didn't show a single sign of hesitance. So, with a smirk, Rainbow Dash exclaimed, "Pfft! Why the heck not? This day just keeps getting awesomer!" Holding her breath, she beat her wings heavily this time, not holding back as she bulleted the two of them skyward, finally piercing the sun-lit layer of clouds resting between them and the Equestrian zenith.
Applejack breathed slowly. The air was thin, the winds bone-chilling. Her eyes were blinded by a thick haze of cloud. Emerging on the other side in Rainbow's grasp, Applejack peered across an otherworldly sea of surging mists. The sun was merging with the hazy western horizon, and everything between them and the celestial object was ablaze with crimson hues. If Applejack took every red apple she had ever bucked in her life, peeled their skins off, and laid them all out one after another, it would not match the gorgeous red texture of the sky that was being unrolled before her.
"Lemme guess..." Rainbow Dash murmured as she glided the two of them gently this time, not bothering to do any outrageous stunts or else it might disturb Applejack's chance to take in such a dazzling sight. "You're speechless, huh? So's everypony, at some point or another. And you know what's the best part?" She smiled proudly at the melting evening before them both. "It only gets better and better. You find that hard to believe?"
"We're... we're above the clouds," Applejack murmured.
"Way to go, Sherclop. What, you thought Pinkie Pie was behind that mountain several miles away with a huge fog machine?"
"You sure got a good grip there, sugarcube," Applejack exhaled. Her lips quivered. "We’re up awfully high. You promise ya won’t drop me or nothin’?"
"Hah! You don’t give this ‘weather flier’ enough credit!" Rainbow Dash grinned wide. "Chillax, AJ! I got you! There's no way in Tartarus I'd ever let you slip. Cloudsdale pegasi ten years younger than me know how to carry stuff around with an iron grip. Heck!" She smiled and glanced down. "Even Fluttershy, for all of her lameness, would hug a fellow pony as if her life depended on it—" Her words trailed off.
Applejack was dangling in her grip, her eyes clenched shut. Her lips hung open slightly as the farm filly let her forelimbs stretch out, as if they were wings of her own. The whole expression was lifeless, limp, so that Rainbow Dash briefly wondered if Applejack had passed out. But from the stirring of her facial muscles, Rainbow Dash realized that Applejack wasn't unconscious. She was merely...
"Meditating?" Rainbow Dash spoke above the whipping winds. "At a time like this?"
Applejack said nothing. She took a deep breath and hung even more loosely in Rainbow's grip, allowing the cold currents to kick at her mane and rear legs. All the while, she rested her head tightly against Rainbow's chest, a seemingly trusting gesture.
As calm and tranquil as Applejack was, Rainbow Dash couldn't help but feel the opposite. An awkwardness bled through her limbs, so that the flapping of her wings became momentarily erratic. Gulping, she took a glance towards the southwest and saw a sharp mountain ridge piercing just through the clouds.
"Hey, uhm. I think I could use a breather. Perhaps, uh, you too." Rainbow Dash banked the two of them to the left and glided straight towards the mountain. "How about I show you a really cool look-out spot I discovered a while back? I promise you, it'll be totally cool!"
Applejack swallowed and gently nodded. Rainbow Dash didn't hurry. She simply coasted the two of them over the autumnal currents and landed the pair with a soft descent onto a niche of even rock hugged by a tiny sprout of trees and exposed stone. The cliff was a virtual balcony, formed naturally in the side of the mountain and overlooking the north edge of the sky. The clouds had taken a purple tone as Rainbow Dash finally let go of Applejack, making sure that the farm filly was situated over ten feet from the edge of the mountain.
"Whew! Lay off the apple pies, will ya, girl?" Rainbow Dash said, then snickered, though she was the only one tittering. "Eh, I'm only teasing." She turned and inhaled the fresh mountain air mingling with the river of violet cloudtops a few dozen feet below. "Awwwww yeah. Now that's one way to give the day a proper send off! Nothing like a brisk dance in the wind to empty the stomach before supper, or the brain before sleep. Heh. And they say that pegasus metabolism is just 'freakish circumstance.'" She shook her head and spun back to face Applejack. "So, what did you think? Was it as horrible as you always made it out to be—?" She froze, blinking.
Applejack sat, hunched over, her head shaking as tears trickled down her orange cheeks. She sniffled once, twice, and raised a hoof to dry her face. She gave Rainbow one glance, and instantly flinched away, clearing her throat.
Rainbow's jaw fell agape. She moved a hoof to trot forward, but lingered there on the edge of the hazily-lit cliff. "Uhhhh... What in the hay? Applejack, are you...?"
"I'm fine, Rainbow. That... This was nice of you, really..." Applejack had to clear her throat to hide the wavering tone in her voice. She was only marginally successful. "I reckon my eyes just ain't used to this altitude or what-have-you..."
"Since when was a pony ever allergic to clouds and altitude?" Rainbow Dash made a face. "Applejack, I'm no more the Element of Stupidity than you are the Element of Dishonesty. Seriously, what's the deal?"
"Nothin’!" Applejack turned to frown at her, but her face scrunched up instead. She fought the sob, but it came out in a gasp. Two more tears squeezed out of her eyes, and she ran a hoof across her face once more. "I toldja I'm f-fine. Now..." She gulped hard, shuddered, and turned to face the dying afternoon beyond the mountain's edge. "I would very much fancy you givin' me a lift back to Sweet Apple Acres."
"This was nice and all, but I got things to do. Reckon Granny needs a helpin' hoof in makin' dinner for the family..."
"Applejack..." Rainbow Dash nervously walked around and stood on the very tip of the mountain where only a pegasus would dare to perch. As a result, there was no way Applejack could hide her reddening, distraught face from her. "What's going on here? This totally isn't like you..."
Applejack took a deep breath, avoiding Rainbow's gaze. For a brief moment, she was able to stop the tears, but her face was still moist from the previous break-down as she struggled to say in a strong tone, "Just take me back home, sugarcube. It's nothin’, really. Besides..." She lifted her eyes with superheroic effort to meet Rainbow's. "You don't take kindly to sappy stuff, and t'ain't fair of me to be like this after the nice thang y'all just did..."
"You're right, I hate sap," Rainbow Dash said, her jaw tight. "Which is why I'd really like it if you just got it over with and told me what's eating you." She stopped, blinking off into the horizon, her ruby eyes envisioning a farm filly sitting atop a lonely hill. She gazed at Applejack again. "AJ? What's so important about today?"
"Big Mac and Granny Smith weren't around when I showed up earlier, and that's not normal. Now something's up, and I feel like I'm missing it..."
"It's been seven years, Rainbow," Applejack finally murmured, her ears drooping. "Seven years exactly."
"Seven years..." Rainbow Dash thought aloud. She blinked, then winced. "Oh! ...R-really?" Her wings dangled loosely around her. "Today? But I thought your family paid respects every March?"
"That's 'cuz we chose to remember them on the date of their wedding anniversary," Applejack said. "It's on account that they passed away so close to Apple Bloom's birthday." She gulped and ran a hoof shakily through her blonde bangs. "We never wanted to cloud the poor little darlin' with such sadness on the same week she celebrates bein' alive. Granny, Big Mac, and I figure that we'll tell her the actual date when she gets older."
"Well..." Rainbow Dash squatted down beside Applejack, her tail flicking limply. "I guess that makes sense." She swallowed. "So, uh, that's why you were looking so down in the muzzle earlier? I'm really sorry, AJ. I can't remember if you told me before or not—"
"Nothin' to be sorry about, Rainbow," Applejack replied in a low voice, gazing at the sparse grass and shrubbery forming on the mountain cliff beneath them. "Besides, it's not right to shove it in y'all's faces..."
"Why not?" Rainbow Dash asked. "It's not exactly the cheeriest of days, I'd imagine, but it's important to you! What I don't get is why you and Big Mac and Granny Smith aren't spending the anniversary together."
"That's what we do in March. But today? On the real anniversary of Ma and Pa's?" Applejack's face grimaced. Her eyes moistened once more, and she sniffled, rubbing her cheek again with a forelimb. "I reckon even country folk need time alone, time to clear our heads, time to remember what we're all doin' on this here land..."
"So... uhm..." Rainbow Dash stirred uncomfortably, trying not to stare at Applejack's teary eyes. "If being alone was so important..." She bit her lip briefly, but eventually produced, "Why did you... y'know...?"
Applejack gulped and glanced weakly Rainbow's way. "What?"
"If I had known, AJ, I wouldn't have bugged you in the first place! I mean, I feel so weird now!" She waved a hoof limply. "Why let me finally give you a ride today of all days?"
"Wouldn't it have been better on a day when you were happy or—?"
"I dunno! I plum don't know, okay?!" Applejack snapped, though another tear trickled down her cheek. She felt it collect on the edge of her lips, and she shuddered. Guiltily, she closed her eyes and exhaled. "No," she mumbled defeatedly. "No, t'ain't true. I know why..."
Rainbow Dash chuckled nervously. "Well, that's okay, AJ. So long as you know, I guess—"
"No, Rainbow." Applejack steeled herself and sat up straight with a blank face. "It's only right that you know."
Rainbow Dash's ears twitched as she waited anxiously.
"The way you fly through the sky like that, so smooth-like, as if you were born part falcon or somethin’..."
"Yeah?" Rainbow Dash smirked slightly. "What about it?"
"It must take a lot of control."
"Sure, I guess. I like to call it ‘finesse and daring,’ but, to each their own."
"Yet you make it look so natural," Applejack remarked. "You fly through them clouds as if you were trottin along the apple orchards back home." She chuckled, a very painful thing as it summoned another tear from one of her green eyes. "It really is amazin’, Rainbow."
She shrugged. "I guess I don't think about it much."
"But I do," Applejack said.
Rainbow Dash made a face. "You think about me flying all the time?"
"No..." Applejack shook her head and gazed out upon the purple cloudtops as the first stars of night were being born overhead. "I think about bein' in control, about havin' to manage everythang in life, about workin' nonstop to keep things so perfect-like." She gulped and shuddered. "'Cuz it's all my life's been for seven years."
"Since..." Rainbow Dash leaned in. "Since your parents passed away..."
Applejack nodded slowly. "I was too darn young to rightly be managin' a farm when they passed. But it was what I had to do. And I had to learn it quick, 'cuz Granny Smith was too old to manage it on her lonesome. And Big Mac..." Applejack chuckled lightly, gazing down at the clifface. "Celestia love him; he's such a darlin'. But he took Ma and Pa's passin' way too close to heart. He's the best work-stallion in all of Ponyville, but he couldn't run this farm to save his life... or the rest of ours. The job fell on my shoulders, and for seven years, season after season, harvest after harvest, I've been havin' to carry something that I never expected to become my life's task. Not that I'm braggin' or nothin'—"
"Oh! Uh... Of course not!" Rainbow smiled sheepishly.
"And I love it. Honest, I do. But..." Applejack's eyes dissolved themselves in the darkening horizon as she sighed. "It's never been easy, havin' to be responsible for everythang all of the time. Celestia knows, I've managed, and Sweet Apple Acres is stayin' afloat 'cuz of it. But there are times when I wish that I could just stop what I was doin' and feel... feel..."
"Feel what, AJ?"
Applejack ran a hoof through her mane and gave Rainbow the shiest of glances. "What you let me feel just now, sugarcube." Her lips quivered. "Bein' up so high above the clouds, just a hoof-grip away from fallin' forever..." A sharp breath rose through her, and she cast her sad eyes aside. "It's been an awful long time since I felt so little control. Shucks, to be so helpless and yet so free; it’s like bein’ a leaf, floain’ around all gentle-like and not havin’ to care about a single thang..."
Rainbow Dash's brow furrowed as she solemnly thought aloud, "And when your parents were around...?"
Applejack's lips curved painfully. "Didja know that when I was a little filly, I could never take naps in my room? I could only sleep if I was curled up on my Pa's back?" She chuckled breathily, sniffling. "Could you imagine a sweaty stallion bucking apples with a tiny orange foal catchin' z's atop his shoulders?" She smiled into the distance. "And the way Ma would sing in the summer afternoon. No amount of sunlight could keep me from seein' the sparkle in her eyes..." Her smile faded. "They were green as harvest apples. She'd peel the skin off the fruit for me so that I wouldn't hurt my lil' baby teeth and everythang was so warm. So warm and safe." She gulped. "It's been seven years, and II think I'm gonna forget what it feels like, Rainbow. And when I do, what's the use in pretendin' to honor their memories anymore?"
Rainbow Dash's eyes softened warmly. "Applejack..."
"And it doesn't help that every time I try to remember them..." She clenched her eyes shut and winced as if a knife was being drawn across her belly. "I can't think straight, 'cuz all I wanna do is curl up in the corner and sob like a schoolfilly!" She gnashed her teeth. "What kind of a farm mare is that?! T’ain't the kind of pony Granny Smith and Big Macintosh needs! That's not the kind of older sister for Apple Bloom to depend on!"
"Applejack..." Rainbow Dash trotted over until she rested a hoof on her friend's orange shoulder. "Maybe... Maybe it's okay if—y'know—you just gave in..."
"G-Gave in?" Applejack sniffed and gave Rainbow Dash the barest of glares. "You'd just laugh at me!"
"What?! No way—"
"And then you'd get Pinkie Pie and Rarity to take turns snickerin’!" Applejack sniffled and frowned. Her voice was becoming increasingly distorted. "'Oh look at Applejack! Guess she's not so dependable after all! Just a big crybaby—!'"
"Do you see any of them around here?" Rainbow Dash retorted. She placed her other hoof on Applejack's shoulder. "Applejack..."
"It's so gul-darn stupid!" Applejack stammered. "Why can't I just—?"
"Shhh... Nopony needs to know," Rainbow Dash said, then gave a brave smile. "Really..."
Rainbow gripped her tighter. "Nopony needs to know."
Applejack's eyes were clenched shut, her body frozen in a painful lurch. Slowly, her forelimbs curled up against her chest and she shuddered. She caved. She whimpered, "Why did they have to d-die, RD? Why did they have to leave us alone with the farm? I need th-them so much. I need them more and more with each passing day, but they're gone. Ma and Pa are g-gone forever, and I miss them, Rainbow. Land's sake, I miss them somethin' awful..."
Rainbow Dash could only nod. "I know you do, Applejack. And seriously, it's... it's okay to cry about it. I won't tell a soul—" Her eyes widened as she was tackled in a desperate hug.
Applejack clung to her, hanging off of the pegasus as her wincing cheeks became awash in a fountain of tears. She blocked her own face with a hoof before Rainbow eventually allowed her to bury her sobs in a blue shoulder. There, Applejack released countless lonely mornings and nights worth of dammed whimpers. Her sobs came in uncontrollable waves, sounding off with meaningless phrases strung together to form a grand wail as she ushered in the melancholic ceiling of night over the two of them. Soon, the spasming outbursts took its toll, and Applejack felt her vision going black. Like a little foal, she became overwhelmed with exhaustion, and fell blissfully unconscious in the valley of her much needed release.
When her eyes opened—puffy and strained from having lost so much moisture—she saw swirling bands of constellations twinkling above. She shot up with a gasp, the frail foal once more replaced by a self-conscious mare. It was nighttime, and there was no telling how many hours had passed. Applejack blinked a few times, then sighed with a mixture of relief and embarrassment. After a few seconds, she remembered that she wasn't alone on this tall mountain in the middle of Equestria. So, gazing over, she spotted a familiar blue shape forming a shadow against the starry expanse hanging beyond the cliff-face.
Rainbow Dash was staring quietly into the cosmic canvas lingering overhead. There was something hauntingly surreal about her stillness and meditative stance.
Anxiously, Applejack trotted over until she was situated on the cliff's edge next to her winged friend. With a breath, she sat on her haunches and murmured, "Uhm, howdy..."
"Hmmm?" Rainbow Dash blinked, glanced over, and smirked. "Well, look who's back from counting apples hopping the fence." She winked. "Those emerald peepers of yours dry as a desert? Or are you ready for round two?"
Applejack winced and scratched the back of her neck with an orange hoof. "Look, uhm, Rainbow. About earlier—"
"Don't sweat it, girl. I'm only teasing," Rainbow Dash muttered, gazing back into the stars. "And I totally meant what I said earlier. So don't think I'm gonna spread the word about... erm... Appletearjerker or nothing..."
The farm filly exhaled with a grateful shudder. "Well, it's mighty appreciated..."
"You're only the strongest, most dependable pony in town," Rainbow Dash added. "No need to ruin that, even if it does mean giving the position to me. Heheh..." The lingering chuckle was a hollow thing, as if manufactured on the spot.
Applejack decided to look beyond it. "Yup, well, reckon the stronger they get—the harder they crumble." She gulped. "I'm so sorry, Rainbow. I just know I plum ruined whatever evening you were gonna have for yourself..."
"Hey..." Rainbow shrugged. "I wasn't doing anything—Nothing exciting, at least. So let's not dwell on it."
"Right. Let's not."
The air was quiet. High up in the mountains, where no crickets or owls reached, the roof of the world felt abysmally still. The two friends sat in the eye of such an uncomfortable hurricane, exchanging awkward breaths as the seconds lingered into minutes, until finally...
"Maybe..." Applejack spoke, "...now would be a good time to head on back and—"
"Do you ever get mad at them, AJ?"
Applejack blinked. "I beg yer pardon?"
"Your parents..." Rainbow Dash said, giving Applejack a stare that was both sincere and icy at once. "You find yourself, y'know, feeling angry at them from time to time?"
Applejack fidgeted, gazing down at her legs.
Rainbow Dash winced, then smacked herself three times in the forehead with a blue hoof. "Yeah. That's about the stupidest thing I could have asked right about now. I'm really sorry. Uhm. About that trip back—"
"No, wait." Applejack raised a hoof to Rainbow's shoulder before she could flex her wings. "It's fine. You've been patient with me. Reckon it's only right you ask whatever you want..."
"But it's a dumb question."
"Nothin's ever dumb s'long as it has a good reason for askin', sugarcube."
"Well..." Rainbow Dash scratched the back of her neck, avoiding Applejack's eyes. "The way you—y'know—bawled your eyes out and stuff... is it all 'cuz of how sad you are? 'Cuz, I could have sworn that you sounded confused and maybe a little bit angry..."
"'Cuz no matter how you shake it, AJ, they ditched you," Rainbow Dash said bluntly. "I mean, it's horrible how you lost them. And of course they never meant for it to happen the way it did. But if they never died—especially when they did—then you never would have gotten hung up with doing so much to carry the farm on your shoulders and stuff." Rainbow Dash took a deep breath and finally said, "It just really stinks for you, is what I'm trying to get at, I guess."
"I'd be lyin' if I said that I've never dealt with my own fair share of stress or frustration," Applejack replied. "I had to learn to grow up quick, in ways that neither Big Mac or Granny Smith could rightly help me with. But... I'm a good pony for it." Applejack chuckled slightly. "Well, reckon that's a lousy way to put it. I mean to say that the only reason I'm anything like the 'strong' and 'dependable' pony that the rest of y'all say I am is 'cuz I had to become those thangs. What's more, I became them by doin' all that my folks taught me while they were still on this earth. Have I been angry at them?" Applejack shrugged. "A lil' bit, mayhaps. But I owe them so much more, Rainbow. I really do."
Applejack found Rainbow Dash staring fixedly at her. There was no smile, no devil-may-care grin, just a solemn expression as pale as the stars glittering past her as she slowly shook her head in amazement and said, "You really, really love them. Even after so many years, after having to do all that boring farm work and stuff, you adore your mom and dad up and down, don't you?"
Applejack gently nodded. "Til my dyin' day."
Rainbow's nostrils flared. Her eyes fell to the cliffside. "I guess I'll never understand that..."
Applejack squinted quizzically. "Rainbow?"
"Did I..." Rainbow Dash fidgeted. "Did I ever tell you about my folks, AJ?"
"Uhm, no, reckon you haven't." It was Applejack's turn to shift awkwardly. "But, well, you've never been too particular on relatin' family details, sugarcube."
"'Cuz there isn't much to relate," Rainbow Dash said curtly. "My mom died while foaling me. Y'know, the usual soap opera nonsense: complications during childbirth. I would have spent half of my foalhood crying my eyes out over her if I wasn't busy with being so darn angry all the time."
"Angry?" Applejack remarked. "What, at her?"
"Pfft! Heck no! She did nothing but fall in love!" Rainbow Dash said, and very briefly her eyes formed hard, ruby daggers in the dead thick of the night. "But my dad? Heh, now there's Equestria's Stallion of the Year. Darn idiot knew my mother's family had a history of labor issues, but did that stop him from screwing around? Nah. And on top of that, he talked her into moving to Ponyville where there were even less doctors around at the time who knew how to treat pregnant pegasi."
Applejack's brow furrowed. "But I thought you were born in Cloudsdale just like Fluttershy and Derpy."
"Nah.” Rainbow Dash casually shook her head. "I was raised there, only 'cuz after Mom died my Dad was too much of a coward to set eyes on Ponyville again. So, he ran from his troubles, and he took me with him. Heh... I swear, the only strength that featherbrain got was from liquid courage." She smirked bitterly Applejack's way. "If ya know what I mean."
"Uhm..." Applejack gulped and nodded. "I reckon I do, unfortunately..."
Rainbow Dash inhaled and glared off into the stars. "I knew growing up that my dad had messed things up pretty bad. All his life, he could have had a better job, and yet he never achieved anything. And then he'd blame it all on Mom's death and some made-up regret that he didn't have the guts to grow beyond. He'd take it out on me too. I mean, he never smacked me around or nothing, but I could tell every time that he looked at me that he was blaming me for mom's death and not himself."
"Golly, Rainbow..." Applejack murmured sympathetically. "I had no idea..."
"How could you? I've never told you." Rainbow Dash shrugged indifferently. "I've never told anypony."
"Then, uhm, if I may ask..." Applejack leaned her head aside. "Why are you tellin' me now?"
Rainbow Dash scratched her neck and groaned. "I dunno. Just because, I guess."
"He passed away, y'know," Rainbow Dash said. "Not that long ago. About a year before Twilight showed up in Ponyville."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Pfft! Why should you be?" Rainbow Dash chuckled lightly. "I'm not." Her wings twitched, and she was gulping hard as she turned to look at Applejack. "I had just become Ponyville's chief weather flier. Suddenly, Derpy's presenting me this letter from Cloudsdale. It said that dad had a heart attack and was in the intensive care unit of Cloudsdale Central. It said that he had only a few days at best to live. I've never been much for writing Applejack, and I was even worse at hoofwriting before we met Twilight. Still, it didn't stop me from writing back a response that very same day. You wanna know what I said?"
Applejack merely stared at her.
Rainbow Dash smiled bitterly, "I said 'Good Riddance.' Heh. Can you imagine that? Poor sap's alone on the death bed and the only close relative—his very own daughter—doesn't give a crap about him. Well, he died two days later, or so I'm told. I dunno. Pegasi don't really have a tradition of burying the dead like unicorns or earth ponies..." She glanced off towards the stars once again. "Not like that's some wickedly awesome excuse..."
"Well, from what yer tellin' me, it doesn't sound like he was much of a prize, Rainbow," Applejack said.
"Look—that's not the point!" Rainbow Dash flashed her a frown. "Did you hear me at all? I just told you my dad died and I didn't give a crap!" Her voice cracked, and she paused briefly. "But... but your parents? They left you when you were half as young as I was. They forced you to single-hoofedly manage a farm for the rest of your family. They made you grow up overnight for your brother's and sister's sake. They left when you needed them the most, when you were most vulnerable, and still... you love them. You love them as if they just kissed your forehead awake this morning, as if they never left you..."
Applejack nodded, smiling sweetly.
Rainbow Dash exhaled, and the tone in her voice was wilted, defeated. "And you'll cry over them. You, the strongest pony I know, st-stronger than even me." She gulped and her gaze fell. "I-I wish I was like you, Applejack..." she eventually squeaked.
"Oh darlin'," Applejack cooed and shuffled over.
Rainbow Dash shuddered. "I wish that I was a good pony..."
"Rainbow Dash..." Applejack sat right next to her. "Yer not a good pony." She planted a hoof on the pegasus' shoulder. "Yer the best pony." She smiled sweetly. "Yer so loyal and dependable and brave. There's hardly a villager in Ponyville whom you haven't risked yer neck for or saved in a moment of fright. Yer always wowin' us with yer fancy flight moves, encouragin' us to be better than what we are, to do amazin' thangs. It's just so plum wonderful to look up in the sky and know that you can be there any second, willin' to do what it takes to make our lives better."
"Pfft..." Rainbow Dash looked away. "If I wanted you to act like a fanfilly, I could have just bought you a new apple-cart."
"No, I mean it!" Applejack briefly frowned. "I..." She bit her lip and said, "I reckon I've envied you, Rainbow Dash."
"Huh?" Rainbow gawked at her. "Did I just hear the 'e' word?"
"Don't ya'll be rubbin' it in!" Applejack folded her forelimbs. "You say you wish you were like me? Every mare in town wishes she was like you, Rainbow."
"Uhhh... You do realize you'd have to put Rarity in that list."
"Heheheh—Okay, maybe not her. But it's just..." Applejack spun a hoof in the air to collect the words she was seeking. "The way you do stuff with utmost confidence. You're not afraid of anythang, and even when you are, you hide it."
"What are you talking about—?"
"You hide it," Applejack repeated. "And y'all do it with such amazin' finesse. Don't you get it? Yer a pony who loves life, loves livin' it, and loves showin' off how much you do it. And that's plum inspirin', sugarcube."
"Even..." Rainbow Dash gulped. "Even when I'm bugging the heck out of you?"
"Heheh... Well..." Applejack shrugged. "Sure, you distract me a lot when I'd rather be workin' the farm. But t’ain't bad distractions, 'cuz they remind me just what the whole family is workin' for... or better yet what we're livin' for." She smiled. "And what's more, with all the showin' off you do, not once do you ignore the needs of ponies around you. It... it must be really swell to be so carefree and yet have so much control at once. I can never rightly understand it, but I sure do envy it. I envy it somethin' awful, if I must say so."
"Jee..." Rainbow Dash smirked bashfully. "I guess I never saw it that way." She gazed off into the distance, and she rediscovered a wincing expression. "Still, I kind of hate moments like this."
"When I'm made to see things, I guess," she murmured. "'Cuz there's so much of it that I don't like seeing, so much of it that I'm n-not really proud of..."
"That's 'cuz you could stand to see them more, and you can learn to realize that they ain’t so bad after all," Applejack said. "But y'all don't have to do it alone, sugarcube. Hang out with me and the rest of the girls more often. We love havin' you around."
"Heheh—Shucks, Rainbow! Don't act so surprised!" Applejack smiled. "Yer an absolute hoot to have around! Why do you have to be on your own, nappin' or practicin' for the Wonderbucks all the time?"
"For the last time, they're the Wonderbolts."
"And maybe you can get me to finally memorize their blasted names already!" Applejack said with a chuckle. "Nopony's perfect, Rainbow Dash. We all do things that we feel guilty for. But feelings like that only get worse if we keep them all to ourselves, ya reckon?"
Rainbow Dash looked at Applejack's face, at the starry sky, and at the cliff that they had fatefully stumbled upon for such a fortuitous conversation. She smiled bashfully as her wings fluttered. "Yeah, uhm, I guess I do reckon."
Applejack exhaled softly, her hoof gently squeezing Rainbow's shoulder. "I am very, very lucky to have such a swell friend as you, Rainbow. I hope you realize that."
"Right. Uhm, I guess..."
Applejack simply chuckled at that, then sighed. "And, really, I didn't mean to toss a whole heap of mush on you all at once. After all, you only wanted to give me an air-ride."
"Yeah, well..." Rainbow Dash, gazing up at the starry ceiling above them both. "There'll be plenty of sunny days for that later."
Applejack thought for a brief moment in silence, then said, "Why wait for the sun?"
Rainbow Dash gave her a crooked glance. "Huh?"
Applejack smiled pleasantly. "Reckon yer a smart enough pegasus to navigate by the stars, don'tcha think?"
Rainbow Dash flashed the constellations a glance, then smirked awkwardly at Applejack. "Seriously. You've gotta be crazy exhausted."
"Then maybe you should stop borin' me and give me a thrill ride already," Applejack said with a wink.
"Wow, uh, you really mean it?"
"Better give me a lift before I change my mind, sugarcube."
"Hey. Sure thing!" Rainbow Dash jumped eagerly to her hooves and fluttered her wings. "I have this one move I've been meaning to show off and—well—let's say it's a good thing we both have empty stomachs."
Applejack's eyes were thin. "Maybe it's best you spare me the preview, darlin'."
"Er. Right." Rainbow Dash reached for Applejack's shoulders—but stopped suddenly. "Erm... and... uh... AJ?"
"I'm all for hanging out more with you and the other gals, but..." Rainbow Dash winced visibly. "All that stuff I just unloaded on you, y'know, about my dad and wanting to be a better pony and... egads..." She shuddered and ran a hoof over her paling forehead. "I normally don't just gush like that. It's really, really embarrassing, and... well... if it was cool with you—"
"Rainbow Dash..." Applejack smiled warmly and held Rainbow Dash's hooves in hers. "Don't y'all worry one bit. After all, you and I are strong mares. We're not about to go spoutin' off to anyone..."
"For real?" Rainbow Dash asked with a vulnerable glint in her ruby eyes.
Applejack shook her head. "Nopony needs to know."
Rainbow Dash breathed easier, her smile positively electric in the starlight. "Yeah. Yeah, okay." She inhaled and motioned towards the night sky. "So... Wanna check out the Clockwise Cloudsdale Corkscrew?"
"It dang sure better live up to its name."
"Heh..." Rainbow Dash swiftly blurred behind Applejack, gripped her by the waist, and aimed for the cosmos. "You haven't even seen living!"
The two burst towards the heavens, punctuated by a brief shriek from Applejack that swiftly morphed into an echoing guffaw. Rainbow Dash's giggles joined the cadence, and soon both ponies were twirling into the glittering canvas of the night, disappearing among the stars, but somehow remaining far brighter, even as dawn came to lull them back to the earth.
Extra Special Thanks to: Vimbert