"Aaaand, rise and shine, sleeping beauty!”
The sound of a thick, heavy metal door slamming vibrated the room. I buried my face further in my pillow and grasped the blanket harder in my still-numb hooves, drawing it up over my nose and muzzle.
Soarin’s voice hammered through the air, a drill poking and prodding at the edges of my skull from the inside-out. I flicked my ear dismissively. My body felt much heavier, as though gravity was affecting me more than it should have been. I became aware that my right side was uncomfortable and rolled over with a soft rustle. Much better.
“Come on, man. I got cherrychangas for breakfast.”
I creaked an eye open. My vision was foggy and bleary from sleep, but I could clearly make out Soarin’s cyan body rustling around the room. He had a white paper bag lodged in his maw, teeth firmly clamped down on the folded edges. “Huh?”
“Get up. Food.”
I felt a dull growl from my stomach and resolved to force myself up, groaning and rubbing my eyes. I pushed my back against the headboard. “What time is it?”
“Food,” Soarin repeated, digging a hoof into the bag and pulling out a somewhat cylindrical object and wound up his foreleg, chucking it across the room, where it landed with a wet flop on my face and slid down my chest before flipping onto the comforter. It was wrapped in white wax paper, oil seeping through in several areas, making it translucent and peppering it with dark spots, seeping with fat.
I picked up the soggy, limp greasy thing in my hoof and sniffed it. “Breakfast?”
“Why not?” Soarin shrugged, taking one of them in his mouth and hopping onto the bed. The blankets on both of our beds were disheveled and messy, but his were thrown about the room as though he’d done it on purpose.
With my vision still bleary, I shrugged and unraveled the so-called ‘breakfast’ from the waxy packaging. The cherrychanga itself was coated with black carbon, crusted on the edges. Oil gleamed from it, and some reddish-pink substance leaked from the corner of it.
I winced. But, I’d always been taught to have morals and values and be appreciative. I snuck a glance at Soarin, who looked just as bothered as I did, staring down at the blackened chunk of ‘food’ with his tongue part way out, gagging.
Apprehensive, I returned to my own and leaned forward, sniffing it. Soarin gagged loudly beside me, looking up as he did. He groaned and spat out the half-chewed mess of cherrychanga, his face growing greenish in color. “Do-don’t... don’t eat that.” He began to madly wipe at his tongue with his hooves and trotted over, snatching the spread in front of me and throwing it in the white paper bag, along with his own. “So, uh. You wanna go get some real food? We can talk some more.”
I shifted uncomfortably. Not that I didn't want to talk, but the awkwardness after last night's events still hung in the air. I paused to consider, but realized I couldn’t tell him no. Not after all he had done for me.
“Sure,” I said smiling, though I still felt a little nervous. “That sounds nice.”
Applejack’s face rose drearily from the compressed pillow as she forced herself up, planting her hooves against the gradually yellowing sheets, marked and folded with white spots in the creases. She shifted her weight and swung a hind leg over the edge of the bed, hearing the bedsprings creak in relief as the weight of her body was lifted. The sun had only peeked its rays halfway over the glowing horizon.
She blearily dragged a tingling hoof down her face. She realized that agonizingly enough, her entire right foreleg had fallen asleep. She shook it out, wincing softly at the heavy tingling running through it, tiny needles trying to force their way through her skin.
She shivered and tried to balance herself on her other three legs, the knee in her right foreleg being too weak to support her. Mentally, Applejack scolded herself for not sleeping in a better position, though she knew it’d fade in time anyway.
Hobbling over to the white and red checkered curtains, where light filtered and danced through to create intricate patterns on the floorboards, she drew them open and hung them behind a worn brass hook, allowing light to bathe the room and illuminate picture frames with old, sepia-toned photos lined up on a bookcase. A few worn novels, with thick, musty pages and crinkled corners sat, stacked vertically, on the shelf. They were falling from their bindings. Inscribed in varying degrees of intricacy on the spine was aways something to do with apples or farming. The warped pages held a spongy appearance, the pages seeming thicker than they were in actuality.
Applejack turned to stare into the mirror. Her blonde mane was slicked back with oil and grease, stuck closely to her head and hanging limply around her shoulders. Dark crescents had formed under her bloodshot green eyes, red spiderwebs crawling across the whites.
Braeburn had never come back. Though Rainbow Dash had given her a book to read - something about a mare who went on crazy adventures - she’d barely paid any attention to it. She’d simply lit the fireplace and turned on a lamp and waited. The clock had ticked on and on. To eight ‘o clock, nine, ten. Eventually, at three in the morning, she’d resolved to go lie down. In spite of this, she had simply lay awake, staring at the ceiling, worrying about him.
Braeburn was so… naïve. Applejack was all for being trusting and kind to everypony, but some ponies were just bad news. Soarin wasn’t the worst of the lot, but Applejack certainly wouldn’t trust the Pegasus with her life by any means. He was nicer than he let himself off to be. He didn’t want to ruin his image, or whatever the hay he babbled on about. She worried about Braeburn, though. Soarin was by no means responsible, as she’d found out in the short time she’d known him, and if Braeburn was coltnapped, or worse—she gulped and felt a familiar sense of rage rise to her face.
Her eyes automatically seemed to shut themselves. Her eyelids weighed hundreds of pounds. She violently blinked them back open and forced light to bleed into her eyes, burning her retinas. She lifted a hoof and rubbed the sleep from the corners of her eyes, snatching for the brush with her other hoof. She gripped it and brushed her shaggy bangs forward. She snickered to herself in remembrance of how she’d gotten her forelock cut.
As a filly, Applejack decided she needed her mane cut, and picked up the nearest pair of shearing scissors. She had taken massive chunks of hair out, mostly from the front of her head. So now, still remaining uncut since then, sat a tangled blonde forelock hanging down between her green eyes.
She grabbed the two red hair ties from the polished vanity and brushed her mane to the side, out of her face and keeping it from obscuring her vision. She tied it back. Almost simultaneously, she reached back, brushed quickly through her tail, and tied it up as well. This way, it’d keep from getting tangled in briars and branches and twigs that would lay around on the farm and normally snag in her tail.
She trotted over to the hat rack and grabbed her old Stetson from its classic position. Smiling softly, the orange mare spoke in a quiet voice as she was brought into her own reverie. “Miss ya every day, Pa.”
She briefly examined the hat. It was still caked with a thin layer of dust from yesterday’s work, but she shrugged it off. She’d still have a bit of work to do, yet.
Apples were seasonal fruits. Applebucking season lasted from August to December, and peaking just around the time of Nightmare Night. By Hearth’s Warming Eve, the season was normally over. Though, many varieties of apples grew in the off-season, and it would often be just enough to perpetuate the Apple Family through until applebucking season came around again. This was that part of the season. When the days were cold and the nights colder, darkness settling earlier, Luna’s night shimmering for several more hours than it generally did, that was the off-season.
Applejack turned to her door, silently praying to Celestia that Braeburn would be downstairs, lazily sprawled on the couch with a leg hanging limply over the edge. Augh, that colt could snore… She shouldered her way out of her door and breathed a heavy sigh. The floorboards creaked under the weight of her sleepy footsteps. She glided down the stairs, where the creaking sound only grew worse as the wood screamed in protest under her hoofsteps.
The muted orange mare rounded the corner of the staircase, her hooves planting on the solid floor level of the farmhouse. She ambled over toward a door, halfway cracked open. Granny Smith’s nasally snoring was audible. Applejack flicked her ear dismissively. The old mare had developed a bit of a cold since last night, and Applejack had insisted that she get some rest.
Now, the cowpony just hoped that Brae would be out in the living room. Her hooves met the worn carpet and she leaned in, hopeful that the yellow pony would be snoring away, his vest strewn somewhere on the floor. She was met with nothing.
Applejack sighed. What if he’d gotten hurt? Or kidnapped? What if he was being held for ransom? She shook her head to clear it of the various horrifying images that wormed their way into her mind.
She decided to go ask Rainbow if she could check up on them. Of course, he was probably fine. Still, if something had happened to him… Applejack shivered briefly. He’d probably be back tonight, but there was no harm in having Rainbow Dash look for them, right? After all, she was just worried for Braeburn. It was an innocent concern.
Today was her day off, so it didn't really matter. Mac would be doing all of the chores with Applebloom, and she hadn’t seen Rainbow in a while anyway. It'd give her a chance to ask how the date went, if anything.
With a nod of determination, the young mare lowered the cowpony hat on her head and swung open the thick dutch door. A swirl of cool air drifted into her coat and danced around her hooves, just brushing past her tail. The air was cool with the aftermath of the night, but the sun was bright and sent its rays spiraling in each direction. The wind carried a biting chill, though it was lost in the thawing rays of the sun.
A panorama of color stretched and burned into the horizon, lucid reds, yellows, and oranges bleeding together into an ever-swimming expanse of blue that was caught in an endless tango of light and darkness just above her head. She loved days like this. Nopony seemed to truly appreciate the beauty that nature and the simple life could give you. Earning your keep, and family. It was all so simplistic, but it was so rewarding. Each applebuck season she would see her labors come to fruition. Tangible, too. She'd know that she'd done a good job and fed her family and kept them together for one more day.
The mare broke into a trot and followed a path down from the farmhouse. In the autumn, leaves would spill out onto the ground and break into a ballet around her feet, twirling and leaping with each movement as they drifted across the lonely path. Now, the dirt road was barren and devoid of life. Trees lining the path bore no leaves, dead-looking branches swung quietly amongst themselves, occasionally emitting a quiet rustle.
Applejack, breaking into a canter, now, dipped her head forward so that her nose faced toward the dirt, racing below her as she continued traveling along her choice stretch of land. It felt so good to run again. Her hair, even in a ponytail, because looser and began to whip around wildly, smacking her in the back multiple times, individual hairs biting and slicing through her skin.
Her lungs filled with air and she felt her heart pump faster. She allowed her hooves to move quicker, beating against the dusty ground and kicking up dirt, some of which so fine that it filled her nostrils and dried her nose, causing her to sneeze as she ran.
Caught up in the moment, Applejack almost didn’t notice the singular cloud drifting over her head until it was almost too late. She stopped, skidding on her hooves and building up dirt underneath them. Sure enough, a blue Pegasus with a vivid rainbow mane was lounging lazily above her.
“Hm?” she asked, twisting her head around as she hung off the side of the cloud. “Oh, hey AJ!”
“Ah could use a favor. Are ya busy?” asked the straw-maned cowpony.
Rainbow Dash nodded, straightening out her body so she sat on the edge of the cloud. “You got it,” she began. “I had nothing to do today anyways.”
“Could ya go up to Cloudsdale an’ check on mah cousin? Soarin took him up there an’ Ah thought he could use some socializin’, but now he’s all gone an’ missin’. Ah’m worried.”
Applejack watched the color drain from Rainbow Dash’s face as she began to breath at a more quickened pace. “Uh, no." She said. "Sorry AJ, I can’t do that.”
With that, the orange mare watched her friend lift off and disappear at a noticeably faster speed than she usually flew.
Well, so much for the Element of Loyalty.
Applejack sighed. She would ask more questions later, it was certainly unlike Rainbow to run off like that. However, Braeburn was her focus right now.
Taking her mind of off Rainbow Dash, the frustrated farmer took off in the direction of Fluttershy’s cottage.
After a short gallop, Applejack turned at a crossroad and came upon the tiny cottage that was nestled on the edge of the forest. As usual, a variety of animal species inhabited the property, hopping around carelessly or flying above the tree tops.
Applejack trotted up the small path to her abode and leaned in, knocking quietly twice, as to not startle the small Pegasus who may have been sleeping inside. It was still pretty early, even for Fluttershy.
Surprisingly, Fluttershy opened the door almost immediately after Applejack’s hoof had landed on the door. She looked awake. “Oh, good morning, Applejack,” she greeted softly.
“Mornin’, Sugarcube. Came ta ask ya a favor.”
Fluttershy paused and blinked. “Oh, okay. What do you need? I-I’ll do my best."
Applejack smiled. She knew she could always count on Fluttershy. “Mah cousin headed up ta Cloudsdale with Soarin, the Wonderbolt, an’ Ah was wonderin’ if ya could go check up on ‘em. They’ve been gone fer some time now.”
“Oh, uhm. Okay, Applejack. I can do that, I guess.”
“Look man. I know you’re uncomfortable right now. But you’ve got some skeletons in the closet, and I wanna help you clear them. I’m probably not coming off as trustworthy, ‘cause I was kinda crazy. I get that.”
I frowned. Soarin had been oddly nice today. Not only bringing me food, but apologizing for how terrible it had been and he’d even taken me out to get something better. The restaurant wasn’t fancy, and I was glad for that, but I still felt guilty. I had no bits on me. I recalled the hotel last night. “Hey,” I murmured. Now was as good a time as any to ask him. “Why’d ya need to get the room fer free?”
Soarin paused and frowned. “Well,” He mumbled, grabbing a thin, red cocktail straw and stirring through his orange juice with it. Chunks of ice remained to swirl around in it even after he’d lifted it out and set it nearly beside the glass. “The thing is, that shows up on the team account. Usually, I’d put it on my account. The thing is, my account’s connected to the Wonderbolts. If Spitty sees I was spending nights in random hotels with other stallions, well. You could guess where that would go.” He winked and leaned forward, taking a gulp of orange juice. A drop of it dribbled out of the corner of his mouth, but he nonchalantly wiped it away with a hoof.
“Oh,” I said, looking down at the table as my cheeks grew hotter. “But why would they assume...“
“’Case ya haven’t noticed, bro, I like to have a wide variety available to me. I could care less. Mare, stallion, zebra, buffalo.” He shrugged. “Life’s too short for worrying about that kinda stuff. All that ‘settling down’ crap…” He rolled his eyes. “Not only that, but the last thing I need is Spitfire riding my flanks about wasting bits, even if we’ve got enough.” He stared at the corner of the table intently, his eyes darting around in the cut out circles dotting it. A light breeze rolled through under the canopy that kept us shaded from the unforgiving sun at this altitude.
“So she just doesn’t like that you’re… that you’re a coltcuddler?” I asked, tilting my head to the side. I became aware how irrevocably hungry I was. A grumble of hunger gnawed at my stomach as a waiter passed, carrying warm plates full of food. I couldn’t even remember what I’d ordered. I groaned and rested my head on the table, grabbing a glass and loudly sipping the ice water through a straw, trying to settle the incessant hunger.
“Well, she’s alright with that. Conspiracies and rumors are what perpetuate celebrities. Thunder Rush, uh, you don’t know him, but, for a while he had this coltcuddler rumor going on and he jumped to the most popular out of all eleven of us. Crowds would chant his name.” Soarin glanced up into the sky and leaned back in his chair, his forelegs swinging listlessly down at his sides. “It’s just… y’know, with me. Heh. I mean, she knows. Don’t get me wrong. But it really messes her up. See, we dated for a while. Nice mare, but she’s got total control problems. I think it has something to do with her responsibilities. Her grandfather was the leader of the original team. She gets stressy.” He chuckled softly and grinned.
“But, back to you.” Soarin nodded. “So, let’s start with this: Why do you not want to be a coltcuddler?”
“Well,” I began slowly. I felt a quiet ringing in my ears and flicked them, trying to silence it. “I don’t think that, well, it’s… morally correct. It’s wrong.”
I desperately tried to ignore my stomach’s constant grumbling and protesting to the lack of food. “Tain’t right.” I murmured, scuffing a hoof at the cloudy ground. “Just… It don’t seem right. We were all meant ta fill up Equestria an’ two stallions or two mares just don’t get the job done.”
“Equestria’s full up enough. My question is, do you find mares attractive?”
I froze, biting my lip and staring at the ground. My ears stopped ringing, but I didn’t hear anything. I looked up slowly, stealing a glance at a young yellow Pegasus filly, about my age, with her face tucked behind a menu. A neat spill of pink mane covered her eyes and what little of her face wasn’t covered by the menu.
I didn’t find her in the least bit attractive. She was pretty. She was very, very, very pretty. Gorgeous, even. But I wasn’t attracted to her. I sighed. “N-no, but lots of folks don’t! And Ah’m just waitin’ for the right mare ta come along!”
Soarin groaned, sliding back in his chair. “Dude. Look at you, you were, like, born to reproduce or something.”
“I ain’t got no ack-cent!”
He melted into his chair, sighing. “That. That. THAT. I don’t admit this often, but you are limitlessly attractive. I totally mean that, too. I mean, come on. Your voice, your personality.” His eyes trailed over my neck and chest, and I shifted uncomfortably. I felt violated, but I couldn’t lie if I also didn’t feel a bit flattered.
“That body…” He licked his lips and my face grew hot again. I stole a glance down at my hooves. “Uh, anyway. Sorry. I’ll lighten up. But, y’know. Okay, so if you don’t like mares, has there ever been any point in your life in which you liked stallions?”
I shifted anxiously and swallowed. “Okay. Uh... Yes.”
“Okay. So what do you think that the logical conclusion might be?”
I saw the waiter approaching with two plates of food, and I remembered what I ordered. Apple pancakes. “Okay, okay. Maybe... Maybe Ah am a coltcuddler. But only maybe. Ah’m not sure yet. It’s a possibility. Okay? Ah...” I paused, wincing. “Ah could… Ah could be a coltcuddler.” I swallowed.
I watched Soarin smile. “Okay.”
Fluttershy gasped as she looked down upon the two stallions eating breakfast, having accidentally overheard their most recent conversation.