Waking up before the sun finished its climb over the horizon was among the strangest experiences Rainbow Dash could think of. It smacked of being a productive member of society, and on any other day Rainbow would have just rolled over in her bed and drifted back off to dream land.
Not today, though. Today, she had work to do.
Rolling out of her bed, Rainbow stretched her wings and let out a long, wide yawn. It took incredible effort to get her hooves moving, but at last she began to walk toward the front door of her cloud home. She felt like the motion took forever, as each step dragged on with the sort of lethargic endlessness only drowsiness can bring. Her hooves sank into the floor deeper with each second that continued to trudge, and by the time she came to the door, she felt like she would plummet straight through the clouds she called home.
Creaking the door open with the same weary effort she had used to walk up to it, Rainbow unfurled her wings and gave them an experimental flap. Then another. And another.
Feeling a small gust of wind brush past her wings, she snapped her eyes open, and she was off.
Rainbow's home was at the north end of Ponyville, practically as far away from Sweet Apple Acres as possible, but that didn't worry the pegasus. One of the perks of being the fastest flier in all of Equestria was that only the greatest distances actually took any time to cover. Moving about town—even from one end to the other—was as easy as flight itself.
Before she knew it, Rainbow had reached the farm and a sea of apple trees stretched out under her in all directions. Near the center of the ocean of fruit and timber, she saw the Apple's vibrant red home, and she dashed down toward the distinctive building. Touching down just short of the porch, she trotted up to knock on the door before she suddenly realized something.
No one seemed to be awake.
It wasn't just that nopony was outside. It was that she couldn't hear any noise coming from inside the house. There was silence, and Rainbow had been Applejack's friend long enough to know that a silent Apple Family just didn't make sense.
Halted in her tracks, Rainbow glanced at the sun, then back to the house, then at the sun again. It was definitely over the horizon—the day had definitely begun—and yet the Apples hadn't awoken. Rainbow's foreleg wilted as she glanced at Ponyville, wondering if it was too late to scrap her plan and fly away. There were always plenty of clouds around town that she could nap on, after all, and it's not like she was expected…
She shook her head—not today—and lifted her hoof to knock on the door. Knowing that she'd reached the point of no return, she swung her hoof forward—
And just then the door opened, exposing Big Macintosh's worried face to Rainbow's enthusiastic hoof.
"Who—wha!" Big Mac half-asked, half yelped as Rainbow smacked him right in the snout. She cringed as she tried to pull her hoof back, but to no avail, and her unexpected attack sent him fleeing into the house's living room.
"Now, uh—Rainbow!" At first Big Mac seemed torn between indignation and fear as he tried to figure out what had just happened, but the scowl that overcame his expression the moment he recognized who stood at the door made it amply clear that the pegasus had not made the best of entrances. "Get out of here," he snapped. "We don't need any more trouble."
"Hey! Sorry!" Rainbow shot back, replacing her guilt with indignation in kind. "I was knocking on the door. Anyway, I need to see Applejack, so—"
"Nope!" The fear he had so recently abandoned found its way back to Big Mac's face as his eyes widened and his scowl disappeared. "Applejack's, uh, not here," he drawled, talking even more slowly than normal to overcompensate for his nerves. "Nope. No sirree. So, uh, I'll take a message, Miss Rainbow, and—"
"Nice try, Big Mac, but I know she's here and I've got to talk to her." Rainbow rolled her eyes at the stallion's pathetic attempt to get rid of her. Before he could react—before he could explain any further—she breathed in and shouted, "Applejack! Rise and shine and come downstairs!"
A moment passed during which nothing happened, and the pegasus wondered if Big Mac had been telling the truth—if Applejack really could be away for the day. Just as she began to doubt herself, though, a loud thump sounded upstairs as somepony rolled out of bed and landed hard on the floor. It wasn't a fall, though, as the thumps continued, sounding every couple of seconds with the regularity of deliberate hoofsteps.
Looking at Big Mac, Rainbow could see the burly stallion flinch with each new step, and she felt her ears go flat as she wondered whether should have been a tad more subtle when it came to waking Applejack. As the thumping hoofsteps moved closer to the stairs, Rainbow's apprehension only grew, and she found herself unwilling to blink lest she miss Applejack as she began to descend.
She needn't have worried. Applejack made no effort to speed up her steps as she began to move downstairs, and her steady, trudging march gave Rainbow plenty of time to absorb every sign of displeasure in the earth pony's expression.
She narrowed her eyes suspiciously, letting little more than a glint of vengeful green show.
What might have once been a mere scowl had long since moved past that point, developing into a full-blown snarl as her lips curled up to show her teeth.
She hadn't even taken the time to tie her hair, and the result was a wild, tangled mess that made her look more like a savage than a civilized pony.
Her hooves struck with imposing, almost mechanical force that threatened to splinter the wooden stairs every time they impacted.
She was almost face-to-face with Rainbow Dash, and the pegasus found herself rooted to the spot.
Silence fell over the house as Applejack stopped in front of Rainbow, close enough to touch—close enough to strike.
For the moment, though, she chose words as her only weapon. "We don't need your kind 'round here," she growled, her voice shattering the quiet and making Big Mac's knees wobble for a moment.
"Yeah, right!" Rainbow retorted. "After what happened last night—yeah, I saw it—you and me definitely need to talk."
"I ain't much in the mood for talkin' right now." Applejack's accent thickened as the anger in her voice rose. "I don't know what you saw, and I don't care, but I ain't gonna listen to some two-timin', shape-shiftin' liar!"
Rainbow wanted to roll her eyes, but instead she found herself slouching, lowering her head in defeat. "Sure, fine," she admitted. "I made some mistakes in the past, Applejack, but this isn't the time to—"
"Mistakes?" Applejack hissed, hackles raised. "You made some mistakes?! Rainbow, I suggest you get on out o' here 'fore I lose my temper!" She began to stomp forward again, and Rainbow had no choice but to retreat in kind. "I ain't in—" Thump! "—the talking—" Thump! "—mood!"
Applejack lunged forward, bringing her face within inches of Rainbow's. The pegasus's heart skipped a beat as she searched for something to say—anything to turn this situation around. Finding nothing, she tried to speak anyway and came out with nothing but panicked sputtering.
"Oh what's that?" Applejack put a hoof to her ear as she mocked Rainbow's speechlessness. "Don't have anything to say? Not like that hasn't happened before." She rolled her eyes and raised a hoof before slamming it hard into the floor.
"I said I'm sorry!" Rainbow protested, trying to pull back in the face of Applejack's unrelenting glare. The other pony gave her no respite, though, and only moved in closer with every step back she took. "I can't change what I did, but I can help with Twilight."
"And how's that?" Applejack snarled. "You gonna break Fluttershy's heart too now? I might have been dumb before, Rainbow, but I ain't gonna let you do that to anypony else."
"Look—I—" Rainbow gritted her teeth and flapped her wings in agitation. "It's complicated, okay? There's just too much going on, and nopony else is around to help. Just, please, let's try to make this right."
Applejack eyed Rainbow suspiciously for a moment before pulling back, giving the pegasus some breathing room at last. Shifting her glare to Big Mac, she pointed at Rainbow and asked, "Did you send for her?"
Big Mac's head shook with impossible speed. "No, sis. I swear, she just came here." The stallion, for all his strength, seemed ready to bolt, and as soon as she turned her gaze away from him, he did just that, galloping out the door for the safety of the apple orchard.
With nopony else in the room, Applejack faced Rainbow once more, her glare still possessed of its full intensity. Her voice, at least, had mellowed somewhat. "You better be quick. I'm not going to be strung along here."
Rainbow cringed at the accusation hidden in Applejack's words. "I'm sorry, Applejack. I really am."
"I don't care." Applejack found one of her hair ties on the living room table and set herself to work fixing her hair. "You know what you did, now tell me what you're thinking of doing now."
Opening her mouth for a moment, Rainbow clamped it shut, realizing at last what a bad idea improvising was. "Well," she finally began, drawing out the word as long as possible before a harsh look from Applejack stopped her. "Okay, so this is going to be tough, right? We've got to deal with you and Fluttershy here."
"Yeah," Applejack grunted, her scowl deepening. "I ain't stupid, Rainbow."
"I didn't say you—Oh, Celestia, just give me a sec!" Rainbow lifted a hoof to rub her chin, but before she could even do that, the first idea popped into her head. "I've got it!" she cried, pumping her hoof as she did so.
"And?" Applejack arched an eyebrow and tilted her head slightly.
"See, the big problem is you and Fluttershy both got it bad for Twilight," Rainbow began, blinking rapidly and shaking her head as a thought flitted through her head. "Wow. Twilight. Who would've thought, right?" Applejack apparently didn't share Rainbow's sentiments, so the pegasus quickly moved on. "Yeah, ahem, anyway, you two both want the same mare, so neither of you know what to do so the other doesn't get hurt."
"Fluttershy doesn't have to worry about anything," Applejack protested. "I told her as much last night." She hung her head and sat down on the floor. "Twilight's all hers," she whispered.
"C'mon, AJ." Rainbow rolled her eyes. "Fluttershy's the definition of not wanting to step on ponies' hooves. I bet she's even more worried than you are right about now."
"Great," Applejack drawled sarcastically. "So I can't even give up a girl right, is that what you're saying?"
"Um, no?" Rainbow seemed more confused that Applejack would even ask such a ridiculous question than about its answer. "I'm saying that you two should probably have a good talk. You know, sort of figure out what's what and lay down the ground rules for…" She waved her hoof carelessly. "For all this."
Applejack rubbed her chin, considering the option. "I guess if it'd clear things up with Fluttershy, that'd be okay."
"Exactly!" Rainbow moved behind Applejack and tried to push her out the door. "So how about you go over to Fluttershy's place and—"
"Hey, there!" Applejack turned on Rainbow as the pegasus tried to shove her flanks forward. "First, get your hooves off my flank. Second—" She trotted to the kitchen table and grabbed her stetson. "—I never leave home without my hat."
Rainbow sighed and pointed out the door. "Fine. But you've got to get going. You need to get these things figured out pronto!"
Applejack nodded and began to trot out the door before a realization struck her. Bringing a hoof to her face, she groaned and said, "Oh, Celestia! I forgot; Twilight's supposed to be coming her to help with the farming." She turned to Rainbow, her eyes pleading. "I can't deal with that right now. What do I do?"
A smile spread across Rainbow's face. "I've got this covered," she assured Applejack. "You just worry about Fluttershy. I'll deal with Twilight."
"Alright." Applejack allowed herself to smile at Rainbow Dash. "Thanks, Rainbow."
"No problem, Jackie," Rainbow replied without thinking, and she cringed immediately when she realized what she just said. "I mean, uh—"
Rainbow could see rage flash across Applejack's face for a moment, but it passed soon enough, leaving a sad smile in its wake. "Yeah, yeah, you're sorry, I'm sure," she said as she put a hoof on Rainbow's shoulder. "I'll give you a pass this time, Rainbow." Her expression hardened for a moment as she added, "Just this time, though. Don't go making a habit of it."
Chuckling sheepishly, Rainbow nodded. "Sorry, Applejack," she mumbled as she moved for the door. "I'll go find Twilight, so… Yeah." She scuffed the floor and looked away. "Also, where's Apple Bloom and Granny Smith?"
"Granny Smith's always sleeping," Applejack explained, laughing a bit as she spoke. "As for Apple Bloom, well, I think my brother isn't the only pony in this family who I scared just a touch."
Rainbow nodded and chuckled again. "Yeah," she agreed. "Matter of fact, you might have scared some ponies outside your family."
"Oh, and I wonder who that could be," Applejack drawled, rolling her eyes.
Rainbow threw her hooves up. "What can I say? You're the last pony I'd want to pick a fight with… Not that I'd lose," she hastened to add. "It's just it might be tougher, is all. Anyway, good luck!" Not even waiting for a reply, the pegasus set off for Ponyville, leaving a puff of dust and a faint rainbow trail behind.
"Thanks," Applejack called, but she knew Rainbow probably wouldn't hear. Not that it really mattered, but since Rainbow had gone to all the trouble, the least Applejack could do was show a little gratitude.
With Rainbow Dash off to distract Twilight, Applejack turned her attention in the direction of Fluttershy's cottage. She couldn't actually see the humble home, but she knew that behind all her family's apple trees, there was a meek yellow pegasus with a heart of gold. She needed to talk with that pegasus.
Taking one last glance at home, Applejack set off on the road out of Sweet Apple Acres, steeling herself for the unpleasant conversation to come.
Morning brought with it no grand revelations. There were no sudden insights, and Twilight Sparkle sighed in the knowledge that the events of last night remained no clearer than the moment she had seen them unfold.
In fact, all that confronted the frustrated unicorn was a confused psyche and a remarkably peeved baby dragon.
"I just can't believe you bailed on me last night," Spike complained as he threw up his hands. "I had to take care of myself all day. Heck, I had to put myself to bed!"
Twilight nodded limply, slouching her shoulders. "I know Spike," she sighed more than said. "Let's just say that yesterday was a bit hectic. I'll try to be better next time."
Something in the way Twilight voiced her apology struck Spike as odd, and the dragon blinked before turning to face her directly. "Something wrong, Twilight?"
Twilight started to shake her head before hesitating. She began to nod, but even that seemed misleading somehow, and she gave up with a weak shrug. "Everything's all just so confusing," she said, fighting with little success to keep her tears from spilling.
"Whoa!" Spike almost shouted, waving his hands as if he could distract Twilight enough to stop the crying. "What is it, Twilight? Did something go wrong on Applejack's farm?"
Twilight laughed, but the tears did not stop. Rather, they seemed to stream even more freely down her cheeks with each word she spoke. "Everything was going so well on the farm. We were working together and having fun, and I just…" She lifted a hoof and grasped the empty air in search of the right words. "I was having such a good time, and I thought Applejack was too. And then she started acting weird, and we walked back here, and Fluttershy was there, and—" Her voice caught in her throat, and she swallowed deeply before continuing. "Applejack started running away, and she was crying! I don't even know what happened, but she off she went."
Twilight paused for another moment before giving the last crucial detail about her day. Sitting down, she buried her face in her hooves for a moment before looking back up at Spike. "And then Fluttershy told me she—she loves me."
"Hey!" Spike yelped, his eyes wide. "What the hay were you doing wasting my time with all that other stuff? Fluttershy said what?!"
"She said she loves me!" Twilight shot back, sending a glare along with her words. "Or I think she said she's 'in love' with me, but that's not the point." Her head swirled as all manner of worries emerged from every corner of her mind. "The point is that I don't know what I feel, and now I don't even know what's going on."
"Um," Spike managed after quite a bit of thought. "Uh… Alright?" He shrugged with a guilty smile, drawing another glare from Twilight.
After a moment, Twilight's anger subsided. Sighing, she said, "Don't worry, Spike. I know this isn't the sort of thing you're experienced with. It's just, I don't really have anypony to turn to, seeing as Applejack ran away from me last night and Fluttershy's… Well I guess she's part of the problem, if that's what we're calling it." She slapped a hoof against her forehead and groaned. "I just need somepony to vent to."
"I don't know what you're talking about, Twilight," Spike protested, puffing out his chest. "I'm totally experienced with romance and all that stuff—not that I'm all mushy and girly or anything! But I mean, have you seen me putting the moves on Rarity?" He grinned and nodded slowly. "Who says dragons can't be charming?"
Spike's self-confidence elicited a weak chuckle from Twilight. Rolling her eyes, she replied, "Of course you do, Spike." As she spoke, though, a realization crossed her mind, and she thrust her hoof into the air triumphantly. "That's it!"
"What's it?" Spike asked, arching an eyebrow.
"I should talk to Rarity about all this. She'll know what to do."
Shrugging, Spike turned away and began to walk toward the kitchen. "Alright, I guess," he said. "Have fun." He turned around suddenly, adding, "Oh, and let me know how she's doing. Or, uh, yeah… or something." Deflating just a bit as he lost his train of thought, he continued his short journey out of the room.
As the baby dragon went to make himself something to eat, Twilight straightened herself and put on a somewhat strained smile as she trotted toward the front door of the library. She figured it would be best if she went to Rarity as soon as possible. That way, even if the fashionista was too busy to talk just then, they'd be able to schedule a time at the very least.
Just before she opened the door, though, she hesitated. She felt like there was something she had to do, something important, but she wasn't sure—
She groaned and smacked a hoof against her forehead again. Applejack. As strange as the farm pony's behavior had been the previous night, Twilight had promised to come to Sweet Apple Acres today. Maybe Applejack would be fine with her missing the day, but it was better to be safe than sorry. It was time to pay another visit to Applejack.
Moving with the urgency that only a previously scheduled event could impress upon her, Twilight left her home behind, heading off for Sweet Apple Acres. Pausing after a few minutes of trotting down the streets of Ponyville, she glanced back in the direction of the tree library. Somewhere in that direction stood the Carousel Boutique as well, but she would have to wait to go there. Maybe later that evening, she would be able to sort things out with Rarity's help.
Before that, though, it was time to see what was up with Applejack.