Applejack stirred in her sleep, her nostrils pricked by the scent of breakfast wafting towards her. Judging by the smell, it was Cinnabon’s turn today. That was good. She had a busy morning ahead, and a hearty breakfast was just what she needed. Autumn Leaves had been trying to get them all to eat a more ‘healthy’ diet lately, and Arrow Smith had a habit of trying to make meals that were stylish rather than satisfying.
She slipped out of Storm Swirl’s strong hooves, leaving the deep red stallion asleep in the hay. His wings fluttered nervously as he dreamt. Applejack lingered a moment, tenderly stroking his cheek till he settled. She still had a nagging worry that, just maybe, she’d married him because of his resemblance to Big Mac. But they were married now, and she wasn’t going to let something like that get in the way of what they had.
Stepping carefully between the other sleeping ponies and trotting quietly into the kitchen, she saw Cinnabon at the stove cooking up a big batch of porridge along with three dozen fresh buns. He took a small taste of the porridge, taking a moment before he poured a little more maple syrup, a pinch of cinnamon and a hoofful of dried apple slivers into it and stirred the big spoon with his magic.
“Lemme get a taste of that, sugar cube,” she said, giving him a slow kiss. His tongue tasted of spices, apple, sweet maple and oats. He leant into the kiss, appreciating it.
“You’re having lunch with Fluttershy today, right?” he asked, turning back to the stove.
“That’s the plan, so long as she ain’t held up looking after all those cats of hers. Again,” she sighed.
“And you’ll ask her again?”
“Ah can try, but ya know she probably won’t bite. Fer somepony so timid she sure can be stubborn.”
“’sides, you bored of us already?” teased Applejack, nudging him with a hoof.
“I just worry about her. Living alone out there on the edge of the forest.”
“We all do,” agreed Applejack. “Ah’ll see if Ah can explain that to her.”
They were interrupted by a gaggle of colts and fillies running through the kitchen and around their legs, screaming, laughing and neighing.
“Oi! Settle down, ruffians, it’s time for breakfast,” shouted Daisy Petals from the foals’ room. She staggered into the kitchen with three little foals asleep on her back.
“Hey there, Daisy. How are my little sweetums?”
“They’re a hooffull, I don’t mind telling you,” replied the green coated mare. “But right now they’re still asleep.”
Applejack laid a quick little kiss on the foreheads of each of her new foals, then a longer, lingering kiss on the lips of the mare carrying them. “How’s Autumn Leaves?”
“Still snoring away,” said Daisy, looking back at the door with an affectionate smile.
The little colts and fillies did another exited circle through the kitchen, rounding the big dining table twice and dodging between the adults’ legs. Applejack scooped up a cream coloured filly with an orange mane as she passed.
“And how’s my little Golden Delicious today?”
“My name’s not Golden Delicious, it’s Golden Harvest,” the filly giggled.
“Really? But you look so delicious, that has to be your name. Ah’ll tell you what, why don’t we get Miss Twilight over here and have you officially renamed?”
“You’re silly, mommy Applejack.”
“And what are you all so excited about today?”
“We’re going to see the Prince!”
“Are you really?” asked Applejack.
“It’s true,” replied Daisy Petals, picking up scattered toys from the kitchen floor. “Prince Spruce Mane is coming by the school today to talk to the class, as part of his big tour.”
“Alone, or with Princess Luna?”
Golden Harvest wriggled out of Applejack’s grasp and ran off to rejoin the kids that were noisily waking up the rest of the family.
“Alone, I think. Just him and his butler and a whole bunch of the Lunar Guard.” Daisy held up a stray chess piece: the black lunar guard, with bat wings and armour. “Sure you don't want to go swing by the schoolhouse and claim one of them?”
“Hey, I ain't greedy,” said Applejack. “One bat pony is all I need.”
“I never did understand that name,” said Cinnabon. “Spruce Mane. I mean, his mane is kind of dark blue, right? Does it smell of spruce? Does he spruce it up somehow?”
“It’s just a name, sweetie,” said Daisy, sidling over to take a sniff of the breakfast pot. “It’s not like ponies’ names are prescient of who they’re going to be or anything.”
Cinnabon nuzzled her as he asked, “There isn’t going to be any trouble, is there?”
“Trouble?” asked Daisy, nuzzling back.
“You mean with all those nobles who weren’t so happy about their Princess marrying an earth pony?” asked Applejack as she laid out bowls and plates. Cinnabon nodded. “If’n so, Ah don’t see why they’d bring it to Ponyville, of all places. ’Sides, I think most of em got over it when they realised she were marrying a very rich earth pony.”
“It is amazing how many doors that can open,” said Cinnabon with a chuckle.
Moon Jive pushed the door open and walked in, brushing the dirt from his hooves. The morning dew dusted his dark coat like a field of stars. He trotted quickly over to Applejack, swept her up in a dramatic embrace with his bat wings as the made a show of nibbling down her neck.
“Stop that,” giggled Applejack. “You got them strawberries all bagged up right? Don’t want ’em freezing.”
“Every last one.” Moon Jive lifted his muzzle, suddenly distracted. He sniffed the air and followed it to the stove with an exaggerated sideways wriggle. He draped himself over Cinnabon’s shoulders and stuck his muzzle into the pot, drawing a deep breath. “Mmm, that smells good.” Cinnabon lifted the spoon so Moon Jive could take a bite.
“Ugh. Are you lot at it again?” They turned to see Apple Bloom wander in from the old farm house next door, her serious black saddlebags filled with school books and slung over her back. Her bright red mane and tail were completely straight, each dyed with two neat black streaks.
“Ain’t nopony up to nothin’, sugar cube,” said Applejack to her sister.
“Yeah, right. That hay’s bin so damned rolled in y’all could make bread with it.”
Cinnabon winced at the analogy. “Would you like some porridge? If so, bring a bowl over,” he said.
“Nah, just gimme one a’them buns. I gotta scoot today.” She grabbed a fresh steaming bun from the tray in her teeth and trotted out the door. She could be just seen jumping on the back of Scootaloo’s latest contraption just before it zoomed off.
“Would it kill that filly to slow down a little?” asked Daisy.
“Ah reckon she don’t entirely approve of our lifestyle,” said Applejack. She dropped a bowl next to Cinnabon. “Gimme a big hot one, bad boy.”
“I’m sorry I’m late, Applejack,” said Fluttershy, sliding quietly into a seat at the café table. “Opalescence needed looking after again. I’m afraid she had another fight with Gummy last night.”
“Another one? That little kitty has more fight in her than an alligator.”
“I think she deliberately provokes him. She forgets that even without teeth he can still hurt her. And Gummy forgets how big he’s grown now.”
“Is Gummy okay?”
“He’s got a few scratches on his nose. Hopefully enough to remind him to be more careful. The only one that can put him in his place now is Angel Bunny.”
The waiter approached their table. Fluttershy smiled and buried her muzzle in her menu. “Um, o- orange tea please,” she squeaked to the waiter. “If that’s all right.”
“Ah’ll have the chilli pepper nachos extra hot, the deep fried cheese sticks and a block of salt lick.”
“Certainly, madames,” he responded, trotting off with their order.
“You’re getting cravings?”
“Yeah, Ah’ve got them pretty early this time,” said Applejack, sliding a hoof over her belly.
“I’m amazed you’re willing to do it all again. Wasn’t triplets enough for you?”
“Tell the truth, Ah weren’t planning on playing the same game again so soon. But it looks like mother nature had different ideas.”
“Do you know what it is yet? And, um, whose it is?”
“Yeah, Twi did her scan thingy and said this one looks to be a pegasus colt. So he’s probably Storm Swirl’s or Moon Jive’s. Not that it matters.”
Fluttershy blushed and looked away.
“So how long are ya goin’ ta be looking after Opalescence, anyhow?” asked Applejack.
“Oh, a little longer. Derpy dropped by to play with the cats this morning,” Fluttershy said with an adorably frustrated frown, “and to give me a letter from Rarity. But mostly to play with the cats.”
“What’s Rarity say?”
“That she’s held up in Vanhoover for a few more days sorting out the paperwork.”
“No doubt because that Prince Walnut is deliberately makin’ it all difficult for her.”
“That’s not a nice thing to call him, Applejack,” scolded Fluttershy.
“Good, cause Ah weren’t anglin’ to be nice. He ain’t a nice pony. Never were.”
“It does seem like Rarity’s had terribly bad luck with stallions.”
“What does that make it now? Four?”
“Five princes. Five divorces. And every one o’ them worse’n the last. That girl needs to learn how to pick ‘em better.”
“You can’t make a pony’s decisions for them, Applejack. Especially when it comes to love.”
“Ah know,” Applejack admitted.
The waiter returned with a tray on his back bearing a teapot and cup. He expertly flipped it onto the table then poured the tea.
Fluttershy waited till he was gone before continuing. “Besides, at least she’s able to find somepony who likes her,” she muttered.
“Aw, honey, you’ll find somepony. Ah know you will.”
“Are you sure? Because nopony seems to be in a rush to ask out the crazy cat mare,” Fluttershy said with surprising vitriol as she nursed her teacup.
“Ah know where ya could find a dozen or so,” commented Applejack.
Fluttershy turned away. “I’m sorry, Applejack. I really don’t think I have what it takes to be part of your...”
“Herd. The word is ‘herd’. And are you sure? Cause from where Ah’m sittin’, it seems like you’ve got the right qualities in spades. All six of them.”
Fluttershy frowned. “Six? I... don’t really see what you mean.”
“Well, folks always think what we do must be mighty complicated. Turns out it’s actually real simple so long as you keep a few things in mind.
“Kindness is a good start. Everypony in the herd looks after every other, even in ways that ain’t obvious. You give to everypony and they all give back to you. Sometimes you notice the sweet little things a pony does for you, and sometimes you don’t, but they make life better anyway. You don’t keep score, you just make sure to do plenty, and it all adds up.
“Loyalty’s important. Bein’ part of a herd ain’t like an open relationship, or just screwin’ around. It’s a marriage, just with a few more ponies than usual. You have to respect that, and really mean it too.
“Generosity matters too. Sometimes you have to do things that ain’t just best for yerself, but what’s best for all o’ ya. But you end up better off as a result. Give up a bit of selfishness, and you get so much more back.
“Laughter’s a big part of it. I dare say we have a lot more fun than a lot of ponies out there, ’cuz there’s always more of us to cheer each other up. And when times are sad, there are more ponies to share the sorrow with.
“And Ah’ve found the thing that makes all of that work out right is a big healthy dose on honesty. See, even when they’re all in a herd together, ponies can still get jealous, or put upon or hard done by fer some reason or other. And the best solution to that is just for everypony to talk about their feelings honestly.”
Fluttershy seemed torn. “You make it sound so nice, Applejack. But I still don’t think I could do...” – she stammered – “th- that with so many different stallions.”
“Ain’t nopony forcing you to. Heck, Ah don’t think Daisy or Autumn have ever been with anypony ‘cept each other, even though we married them both a couple of years ago. Those two would probably fit together well enough if it were just the two of them.”
“So why are they even...” She trailed off.
“Because two don’t always work out right. When times are tough, everypony needs to rely on somepony for help. Only that pony needs somepony to rely on as well. When there’s just the two of you, sometimes there’s nowhere to turn. But with a herd all together, nopony’s ever alone. And that’s the sixth quality that makes it all work out: the magic of friendship.
“See, we all know what we’re doin’ ain’t exactly normal. That it ain’t supposed to last more’n five minutes before it all comes crashing down leaving a big empty barn an’ a lot of hurt feelings. The reason it don’t is that we’re all friends, before and after everything else. And you, Fluttershy, you’re the best friend a mare could have.”