• Published 29th Nov 2011
  • 5,975 Views, 147 Comments

An Apple Alone - Blue Thrush

With her siblings out of town, Apple Bloom has to run Sweet Apple Acres all by herself. Is she up to the task of managing the farm?

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Back to Basics

A tiny clock, ticking away in a cozy bedroom, greeted a slumbering stallion as he started to stir. Sir Colton Vines III slowly lifted his head up and looked out his bedroom window with bleary eyes. Sunlight barely peeked over the horizon, illuminating the grape fields spread out from his home. Colton blinked a few times to clear his vision. He smiled as he caught sight of his well-kempt gardens. The many grape vines that stretched over the fertile soil glistened in the morning dew. Reluctantly turning his head away from the morning scenery, he glanced up at the diligent clock. Up on time, as usual, he grinned. Plenty of time for a strong, responsible, and, might I add, humble pony such as myself to grab some breakfast and do a little more reading before heading off to Sweet Apple Acres. The mindful stallion stretched, threw off his blankets, and stepped onto the hardwood floor. One of his recently-polished horseshoes slipped on a discarded bag of potato chips, sending the unbalanced pony careening downward. He was greeted was a face full of unwashed attire as he unceremoniously flopped onto the bedroom floor.

Muttering about needing to get this pigsty of his cleaned up one day, Colton got up and daintily trotted around the scattered mess of covers, comforters, and discarded food wrappings. He stepped into the dark living room and lit a few nearly-expended candles to give himself some light. The illumination revealed a moderate bookshelf leaning against the kitchen wall, whose shelves were almost fully-stocked with volumes about the many agricultures of Equestria. An empty shelf led the stallion’s eyes downward to follow a trail of hardcovers leading over to the cozy den. A solitary couch edged up against a small fireplace whose mantle was adorned with pictures and a large mirror. The earth pony rolled his eyes at the haphazard pile of books strewn about the couch cushions, decorating his furniture instead of his bookshelf. The farmer had really gotten into his research last night, and was a little surprised that he had managed to find his way back to bed and get a decent night’s sleep. Making another mental note to get things cleaned up, Colton made his way to the bathroom.

After a quick shower, the earth pony enjoyed a light breakfast. He chomped down on his toast, the luscious flavor of grape jam tickling his tongue as he chewed. Colton munched on his meal as he read through The Zen of Apple Bucking. He was a master of tending to grape fields, but was not well versed in other fruit farming techniques, so the studious stallion decided to sharpen up on the subject before heading over to Sweet Apple Acres. To accomplish this task, the pale yellow stallion had perused a small variety of books. His collection of agricultural literature was rivaled only by that of Ponyville’s library: He had just about everything one could find on farming and crops, from the Agricultural Almanac of Apples to the “Z”croll of Zesty Zucchinis (the latter of which Colton thought stretched the artistic license of spelling a little too far).

Colton was alert and attentive, rapidly skimming the passages as he ate. He was well learned in many fields of agriculture, but it had been some time since he studied the methodologies of applebucking. He wanted to make sure he would be at the top of his game. Goodness! Who knew there was so much to kicking apple trees? he mused. And here I thought all it took was a swift buck to the bark.

The sunlight outside intensified as Colton continued to read. The stallion had positioned himself in such a way to take advantage of it, grateful for not having to use what few candles he had remaining. The stallion’s one-story abode sat on the outskirts of the village, remaining just within earshot of the town clock. The location was a great one: It allowed Colton’s home to be a part of the town while leaving enough space for his sizable grape fields to prosper.

A faint ringing floated in from the Ponyville town clock into Colton’s home. Sounds like it’s time to head out, Colton surmised. He placed a bookmark between the pages and set the book down, washing down the rest of his toast with a swig of his drink. The earth pony polished off the carton of grape juice, tossed it into a bin, and trotted up to the den, lamenting the mess he was going to come home to.

“This place never stays clean,” he complained, looking up and coming face-to-face with the guilty party in the mirror. “I’ll have to speak to you about this,” he chided, chuckling at his own reflection. Colton wasn’t the largest stallion in town, but he was stronger than most. His short mane required little maintenance except for the occasional brushstroke. The farmer gave himself a quick once-over in the mirror while stealing a glimpse at his favorite picture: A photo of himself bowing before Princess Celestia as she tapped her horn on his shoulder. He smiled as he reminisced about that wonderful day. “Well, Sir Colton,” he said to himself, “time to make good on that wager.”

“Dumb flour.” Apple Bloom cursed at the bathroom mirror, glaring at her reflection. A white-coated pony stared back at her, with only the occasional splotch of red or yellow showing. All Apple Bloom needed was a horn and she could give Sweetie Belle a run for her money. The flour-covered mare gave her body another resounding shake, her mane and tail flailing about. Despite her efforts, the white stuff refused to budge, clinging to her fur from head to hoof. “How come Winona can jus’ shake it off an’ I can’t?” she muttered, giving up on that particular strategy. The collie had also been a victim of the flour incident, but had had the forethought to immediately shake herself clean at the expense of coating her master in more white powder.

Apple Bloom gave herself another look in the mirror, and couldn’t help but laugh. “Ah dunno if Ah look sillier with a flour coat or a poofy mane,” she commented. “Now Ah look like a ghost.” She waved her forehooves in front of the mirror in her best imitation of a specter and giggled. Her laughter was interrupted by a strong tickling in her snout. “Ah... Ah... Ahhhchoo!” she sneezed, sending a cloud of dust into the air.

“Apple Bloom, are ya’ cleaned up yet?” A voice called out from downstairs. “Chores ain’t gonna do themselves ya’ know!”

“Jus’ another minute, Granny!” the young mare replied with a sniffle. Sighing, she walked into the shower for the second time that morning, dousing herself with water to quickly clean the flour off. She finished up and dried off, making a pit stop in her bedroom to give her mane and tail a brush and to put on a clean bow, tossing the stained one into a nearby hamper. From her reflection, Apple Bloom noticed a few remaining splotches of white powder around her face. She hastily tried to wipe the flour off with a foreleg, irritated that even the second shower didn’t fully clean her off.

Apple Bloom,” Granny warned.

“Comin’, Ah’m comin!” the yellow pony shouted, giving up on the flour and rushing downstairs. She passed through the kitchen and walked in the door just in time for Winona to pounce. The collie bounded into Apple Bloom, knocking her on her back and happily licking away at her face. “Hehe, nice ta see you again too, Winona. It’s been what, ten minutes?” She giggled, gently pushing the dog off her and getting back to her hooves. The young mare padded outside to find Granny in her rocking chair out on the porch, munching away at a Gala apple. “Alright, Ah’m ready!” Apple Bloom said, wiping some drool off her face.

“‘Bout time, too,” Granny replied. “Go on, get to yer chores, youngin’. No time fer dilly-dallyin’.”

Apple Bloom grinned. She was glad to see Granny back to her old self again, smiling as she hurried over to the barn. “Ah’ll get yer cart all setup fer market today first, Granny. Are ya’ sure yer up fer it today?”

“Ah’m fit as a fiddle, sweetie,” the old mare proclaimed. “An’ don’t you worry about that cart. Just get yer chores done before yer volunteer shows up.”

“Got it, Granny!” she called back, changing course for the chicken coop instead. “Winona, stay,” she said firmly to the collie trailing behind her. Winona pouted and flattened her ears at the command, but Apple Bloom didn’t waver. “We don’t need ya startlin’ the poor birds while they’re on their nests again.” Winona reluctantly obeyed, perching herself next to Granny.

Apple Bloom wasted no time in sprinkling out chicken feed across the ground and, once the chickens were pecking away at their food, gathering up their eggs. Once finished, she moved on to the pigs, filling their trough with slop and letting them have at it. Finally, she got to the sheep, letting them out of their pen and herding them towards an open pasture to graze. The pony counted the sheep as they jogged alongside her, but instead of falling asleep she grew a little concerned. Apple Bloom jogged up beside one of the older ewes. “Howdy, Woolma! Where’s yer friend Bethany?”

“Mornin’, young one,” the sheep greeted. “Oh, she didn’t really feel up to the whole runnin’ thing this morning. You know, ‘cuz of...” she trailed off.

“Oh, right,” Apple Bloom recalled, “but Ah thought that wasn’t gonna be fer a few more weeks at least.” She thought about it a moment, then shrugged. “Well, don’t worry about it. Mind scroungin’ up some grub fer her while yer out? Ah’ve got a ton a’ work ta do, otherwise Ah’d do it mahself.”

“Sure thing, A-a-a-apple Bloom,” Woolma answered, slowing down to an ambling pace. “Phew, I always enjoy a good run. Care to join us for breakfast?”

The young mare shook her head. “Already ate. Plus Ah still got lots ta do. Enjoy, though!” she shouted as she hurried back to the barn. She dashed up to Granny, who was just making her way out of the tall, red structure with the leaner market cart in tow. “Animals are all fed, Granny!” the younger mare reported.

“Good goin’. And not a moment too soon, Ah see,” the green pony glanced past Apple Bloom. The younger farmpony followed her grandmother’s gaze out to the edge of Sweet Apple Acres and found a blue-maned earth pony happily trotting along. “My, he’s a cute feller,” Granny remarked.

“Granny!” Apple Bloom said abashedly, turning red. “Please don’t say that in front a’ him!” she pleaded.

“Credit where credit’s due, Apple Bloom,” the old mare smiled. She pulled the cart up to the trellis arch and waited to greet Colton before she took off for the day. Apple Bloom followed and Winona brought up the rear. “Good mornin’, Sir Colton!” Granny called out.

“Good morning, Mrs. Smith,” the stallion reciprocated with a friendly wave, “and good morning to you too, Miss Apple Bloom!”

“Howdy!” the young mare said. “Ready for a day a’ real farmwork?” she goaded.

“Apple Bloom, be nice,” Granny chided lightly. “No need ta scare the poor feller away!” she gave Colton a wink. “Well, Ah’m off. Have a nice day you two!”

Apple Bloom ran up and gave Granny a hug. “You too, Granny. Knock ‘em dead!”

“She’ll have no trouble doing that,” Colton commented, “not with her biggest competition taking the day off and all.” He winked back. “Have a good day, Mrs. Smith.”

Granny nodded and set off for Ponyville with the small market cart in tow. The grape farmer turned to Apple Bloom. “So, where do we— gah!” Colton exclaimed as Winona leaped onto him, sending him to the ground and sloppily covering his face with kisses.

“Looks like she’s taken a likin’ to ya’!” Apple Bloom giggled. “Alright, Winona, that’s enough. Leave the poor pony be.” She walked over and gently tugged Winona off Colton, sitting next to the collie and petting her. “Guess I shoulda’ warned ya’.”

Colton lay on the ground laughing. “Oh, it’s no bother, really,” he chuckled, springing back up to his hooves. “She’s adorable!”

Apple Bloom gave the collie a one-legged hug. “Sure is! Her name’s Winona,” the young mare introduced. The collie barked in response, staring up at her new friend and happily wagging her tail.

“Sure is a friendly one,” Colton remarked, giving Winona’s head a friendly patting. He looked up to the younger mare, then squinted at her. “Uh, Apple Bloom? I think you got something on your face.” He rubbed his own to indicate where he was talking about.

“What? Oh! Just a little flour is all,” she said, absentmindedly wiping her cheek with a foreleg. “Had a little spill this mornin’ when rustlin’ up breakfast is all. But enough talk, we have plenty a’ work ta do!”

The stallion nodded, turning his attention to the orchard and all of its unharvested produce ahead. “Lead the way! I’m more than ready for my first day of applebucking.”

“It’s pronounced applebuckin’,” Apple Bloom corrected mildly. Giving Winona a last affectionate squeeze, she stood up and headed for the orchard with Colton following behind.

First day out in the orchard an’ learnin’ ta applebuck.... Heck not too long ago Ah was in Colton’s horseshoes, she mused. Ah sure have changed a lot since last summer.... With the older, yet less experienced stallion following close behind, the two farmponies made their way to the orchard. Winona brought up the rear once more as she hopped happily along.

“So what’s first on the list, Apple Bloom?” Colton inquired. “Usually I take to watering around this time—”

“Tain’t time fer waterin’: It’s time fer harvestin’,” the apple farmer interrupted. “And there’s still a mountain a’ trees ta buck. Literally.” She waved a hoof off in the direction of the sprawling hills covered in apple trees. “Not quite as many trees ta tend to as during Applebuck Season, but nothin’ ta sneeze at neither.” Apple Bloom picked up her pace. “C’mon now. Lotsa trees ta get to.”

Colton just stared blankly at the younger pony’s lecture. “...Yes, Ma’am,” he replied simply. Though he had a greater breadth of agricultural knowledge, Colton knew that a cram session on apple farming wouldn’t put him in Apple Bloom’s league. Winona trotted alongside the newcomer to the farm, grinning up at him. “I bet even you know more than me, eh?” he joked. Winona barked twice. “Thought so.”

The trio marched deeper into the orchard, up to where Apple Bloom had left off several days before. Apple Bloom stepped up next to a fruit-laden tree and turned to face Colton and Winona. “This,” she gestured, grinning, “is an apple tree. We gotta get all them apples from the branches,” she pointed up, “to them baskets,” she pointed at a stack of baskets off to the side.

“I think I figured that part out on my own,” the stallion laughed. “So now we just buck the bark, right?”

“After we get the baskets into place, you get ta start applebuckin’ away,” Apple Bloom corrected. “Afraid Ah still got a hurtin’ hoof, so yer on yer own. Hopefully you’ll pick up on the applebuckin’ technique better than Gale Force did.”

Colton barked out a laugh. “Gale? What was he doing here on the ground harvesting apples? Fresh Air has to wrangle him out of the sky just to get him home half the time.”

“Jus’ blame the weatherponies fer causin’ a ruckus ‘round here fer that,” Apple Bloom explained. “He was volunteerin’ so Ah put him ta work. Least he could fly up ta pick the apples, otherwise he would’ve been at it ‘till the cows came home.” She giggled at the memory of Gale fruitlessly bucking away at a tree. “Ah’m sure you’ll have no such troubles, though, right?”

“Of course not!” Colton answered immediately. “I did some reading before heading over, in fact. The idea is simple enough: Kick the tree, make the apples to fall into the baskets, carry the baskets indoors.” He pondered a moment. “Come to think of it, that’s something I don’t understand: How do you get all of the trees’ apples to fall into a couple of baskets on the ground? I guess it was pretty late, but when reading last night I didn’t understand a lick of it.”

“That’s precisely why there’s more ta applebuckin’ than just kickin trees,” the younger mare explained. “We’d spend half our time pickin’ apples up off the ground if they fell all willy nilly like that.” She knocked on the tree with a forehoof. “It’s all in the applebuckin’, plantin’ yer hooves just right and puttin’ in the exact amount a’ oomph into each leg ta jostle the apples just so. They sway and wobble enough ta change which direction they fall, and bingo! Into the basket!”

Apple Bloom put her foreleg back down and looked back at her injured hoof. “Big Macintosh usually only uses one leg. With his strength he’d probably buck the tree outta the ground with two! Applejack’s capable a’ one-legging it.” She sighed. “Wish Ah had ‘em teach me that one. It’d sure be useful ta know right about now.”

“Don’t worry, I’m a quick study!” Colton piped up to assuage the younger farmer’s woes. “Besides, I don’t think it can be that hard. I mean, all that mumbo jumbo about apples wobbling conveniently into baskets sounds a little far-fetched to me.”

“Oh ya’ think not, do ya’?” Apple Bloom spoke incredulously. “Well then, step right up! This tree’s ripe fer applebuckin’, and Ah’m sure you’ll have no trouble at all.” She issued a challenging glare his way.

The grape farmer smirked down patronizingly at the apple farmer. “Well, who knows? I just might surprise you!” Sticking his tongue out at Apple Bloom to show how serious he was, he trotted over to the tree and did an about-face. Tongue still hanging out in concentration, Colton lifted his rear hooves off the ground and delivered a kick to the tree’s midsection. In return, the stallion got nothing more than a sore head as a solitary apple fell from the tree and smacked against his skull. Apple Bloom made no effort to hide her smugness as Colton rubbed his head gingerly.

“Ya’ see?” she gloated, sticking her tongue out, “yer form was all wrong and ya’ tensed up way too much. The tree roots sure felt that Ah reckon, ‘cause that’s where ya’ sent all the energy from yer kick.”

“Huh,” he relented, retrieving the one fallen apple and depositing it in a basket, “I guess there is more to this than meets the eye.”

Apple Bloom nodded matter-of-factly, grinning up at the older pony. “Told ya’ so,” she gloated. “Now Ah can’t show ya’ how ta do it proper on account of my injury and all, but Ah can go through the motions and explain some things at least.” She walked up to the tree and took position in front of it. “Hopefully you can figure it out from there.”

Colton nodded, watching attentively. “I’m ready when you are.”

“Right,” the young mare started. “First, ya’ gotta look ‘fore ya’ leap, so ta speak. Ya’ gotta figure out just where yer hooves are gonna end up. Otherwise it just becomes a wasted kick.” She lifted a hoof off the ground and set it gently against the tree, tilting her backside upward in order to account for Colton’s height. “This is where ya’ oughta’ aim,” she explained. “Makin’ sense so far?”

“Mmmhmm,” the stallion answered, nodding thoughtfully. “So I was just a little off target?”

“Well, that’s part of it, but yer follow-through wasn’t too great neither,” Apple Bloom criticized, pushing off the tree and standing properly again. “You were so eager ta see yer results that ya’ sorta gave up on yer buck halfway through.” She giggled. “Least ya’ got ta see the apple that conked ya’ though.”

Colton rubbed his forehead again, “And I’d just forgotten about it too,” he complained. “Okay, follow through on the kick. What else?”

“Jus’ one last thing ‘fore Ah let ya’ go at it, ‘cause Ah got more chores ta do outside a’ babysititn’ the newbie,” she smirked. “There’s one thing that’s most important. Aim’s good. Followin’ through’s also mighty helpful. But above all else...”

“...ya’ gotta keep yer focus!” Applejack finished, taking her rear hooves off of a tree. “Don’t let yer wanderin’ eyes er anything else distract you. Got all that, Sugarcube?”

Apple Bloom wiped the sweat off her forehead. The blazing summer heat was bearing down on the pair despite the shade the orchard provided. “Ah think so,” the younger sister replied hesitantly.

“Alright, then, let’s see what yer made of,” Applejack said, stepping aside and observing carefully. Apple Bloom trotted up to the tree and got into position, squinting her eyes shut to concentrate. Focus, she reminded herself as she lifted her rear hooves and smacked the tree as hard as she could. Half the impact traveled up the bark while the rest reverberated up the younger mare’s legs. The startled farmpony gasped from the shock and lost her balance, falling to the ground. None of the apples from the tree followed suit. “Mighty fine kick ya’ got sis, but ya’ ain’t tryin’ ta knock the tree over!” Applejack commented, stifling a giggle and sticking a hoof out to help her sister up. “Ya’ only need enough ta send the apples tumblin’ down.”

Apple Bloom took the offered hoof and pulled herself up. “Right, a little less effort this time. Can’t say Ah object ta that,” she shook to get some loose grass off and padded back up to the tree.

“Once more, then,” Applejack prompted, watching a bird settle down on the soon-to-be-bucked tree. “Remember not ta overdo it this time.”

The younger pony nodded, once again closing her eyes and rearing up. Licking her lips in concentration, Apple Bloom struck. Not feeling any aftershock this time she spun her head around and upward, looking up eagerly to see the fruits of her labor pay off.

Not one apple shook. Neither did the bird.

“Uh, Sugarcube?” Applejack chuckled. “When Ah said ta not overdo it, Ah didn’t mean it quite so literal-like. Ah’ve seen Fluttershy kick harder than that.” She took her hat off and began fanning herself. “Sure is a steamy day, ain’t it? Maybe we oughta take a break....”

“Nu-uh, Ah’m ready fer more!” Apple Bloom protested. “Just lemme try again. Oooone more time. Ah’m sure Ah can get it!”

Applejack grinned. “Go fer it, sis. You can do it!”

Apple Bloom backed up to the tree and furrowed her brow in concentration. “Ah got this,” she spurred herself on, keeping her eyes open this time. “Not too hard, not too soft, stay on target, an’ focus....” Blinking some sweat out of her eyes, the determined pony lifted her legs and delivered a kick, sending a few apples into awaiting baskets on the ground.

“Yeehaw! That’s more like it!” Applejack exclaimed. “See sis? Told ya’ you were a natural. Takes most ponies weeks ta learn proper applebuckin’.” She patted her sister on the back. “Bein’ a member a’ this family sure helps Ah reckon. Oh, an havin’ a great set a’ teachers a’ course,” she winked. “Now just buck it a few more times like that an’ Ah’m sure you’ll get the rest!”

Apple Bloom cheered and went straight back to it, eagerly kicking the tree again and again, to the perched bird’s continued consternation. After a couple of minutes, the young mare had managed to convince every last apple to fall off the tree. “How’s that, Applejack?” she asked, breathing heavily and leaning against the tree. She looked up towards the blazing sun and awaited her sister’s reply....

“Well, ya got ‘em all down, that’s fer sure. Now ya’ got some apple pickin’ ta do,” Apple Bloom pointed at Colton’s hooves: The stallion had surrounded himself with the fallen fruit, only landing a few apples in the baskets.

“Well I got them all off the tree at least, right?” The grape farmer defended, leaning down to pluck an apple off the ground. “It’s not too hard to just gather them up once they’re within reach.”

Apple Bloom aided Colton in gathering apples. “True, but when ya’ got hundreds ‘pon hundreds a’ trees ta harvest there ain’t no time fer that sorta thing,” she reminded. “Applebuckin’ takes long enough without spendin’ time pitchin’ ‘em inta baskets. Plus, there’s less chance of ‘em gettin’ bruised.”

It took the duo only a moment to get all of the apples off the ground and into a pair of fully-laden baskets. The ponies shared a grin. “Well, guess I’d better work on that accuracy thing then, eh?” Colton asked. “Don’t want to be seen as an inefficient apple farmer.”

Apple Bloom nodded. “Do yer best. S’all Ah can ask. I ain’t expectin’ miracles er nuthin’.” She hefted one of the baskets onto her back. “Ah’ve got baskets set out fer the next few trees. By the time Ah get back Ah expect ‘em ta be ready ta haul,” she ordered, dragging the second basket along the ground with her mouth.

“You’re the boss,” the older pony acknowledged. Apple Bloom then turned her attention to the laborious activity of balancing a heavy basket on her back while dragging another along with her. Before she made it far, though, she halted, realizing she needed some assistance with another chore. “Come on Winona....” She lifted her head when she didn’t find the collie. “Hey... where’d she get off to?” the young mare wondered. “Here, girl!”

A moment later, the collie returned to the scene as she appeared from deeper within the orchard. “Chasin’ squirrels again, girl?” Winona responded with a couple short barks. Colton was confused as Apple Bloom seemed to understand the collie, nodding along to Winona’s response.

“What’s that mean?” He asked as he moved on to the next tree. “I’m afraid I don’t speak canine.”

“Oh, she said, ‘Yes, I chased some squirrels up a tree and around the orchard, then proceeded to return at your command,’” Apple Bloom translated.

Colton looked baffled. “Really?”

“Hehe, naw,” Apple Bloom giggled, “she was jus’ chasin’ some manner a’ critters fer fun. Ah’m not Fluttershy ya’ know!”

“Fluttershy? ...wait, she can talk to animals?

“Yeah! I mean, sort of.... Aw nevermind, jus’ git back to it,” the youngest Apple remarked. Colton let out an amused sigh and did as he was told, delivering a powerful buck to the next tree in line. Still chuckling to herself, Apple Bloom resumed dragging the basket towards the barn while keeping the other precariously balanced. Winona followed closely behind, smiling happily at Apple Bloom as the apple farmer hauled her cargo out of the orchard.

It took Apple Bloom several minutes to reach the barn and stow the apple baskets away. She gratefully relieved herself of the burden and wiped her forehead. “Phew! Glad ta finally have apples ta lug ‘round again. Ah was gettin’ so far behind!” The farmpony worked her mouth a bit. “Ah oughta be takin’ just one basket at a time. Last thing Ah need is another splinter stuck in mah gums.” She ran her tongue over her teeth and shuddered.

Winona interrupted the young mare’s train of thought with a jovial bark. “You said it, girl,” Apple Bloom said, squinting up at the cloudless sky. “We’re bakin’ out here. Sure hope them weatherponies get in gear with their cloud makin’ thingamajig soon.” The roasting farmpony sat for a moment inside the barn for a reprieve from the hot day. Winona, in her boundless energy, continued to bounce around, albeit in the shade. Apple Bloom decided it was hot enough to break out some fresh, cool bottles of apple juice for herself and her volunteer. “Couple a’ those should be nice and refreshin’!” she figured.

Without a second thought the young mare dashed out the barn, yanked the door to the Apple cellar open, and made her way down the stairs. The subterranean structure stretched out underneath the entirety of the barn. Winona started making her way down when Apple Bloom shooed her back up. “Ain’t stayin’ down here long, Winona,” she remarked, “jus’ grabbin a coupla’ drinks.... Though it is mighty cool down here.” She relented and seated herself for a spell, enjoying the refreshing air of the cellar.

Apple Bloom idly gazed about the many barrels of apples awaiting delivery. Some would depart once they were fully paid for while others simply waited for the customers to pick them up. Along the edges of the cellar sat a series of shoulder-high tables, with drawers full of simple tools, nuts, bolts, nails, and other building accessories. Lining the walls were more tools, from hammers to screwdrivers to pliers to hoofsaws. Apple Bloom smiled and reminisced about all of the little projects she had conducted from her cellar workbenches. New additions to the Cutie Mark Crusader clubhouse were a common staple of her endeavors, but she had also branched out into fixing the farming equipment and even tried to invent some new tools. Her Auto-Applebucker didn’t turn out great, but it did manage to free up a lot more room for her to work in the cellar once the rubble had been cleared out. The yellow mare sighed wistfully: She didn’t have quite as much time to tinker as she used to.

“Right, enough lollygaggin’,” Apple Bloom stirred from her daydream. Trotting over to a simple stack of apple juice bottles in a corner, she took a pair in mouth and rallied herself up the stairs to brave the searing sunlight once more. Winona, having obediently waited outside the cellar, barked once and proceeded to bound around the yellow pony. Feeling sweat beading up on her forehead and eager to return to a shaded environment, the young mare made her way back into the orchard.

She and Winona were about halfway into the orchard when the collie suddenly stopped and pointed her head to the air, sniffing curiously. “Winona? What is it?” Apple Bloom asked curiously through the bottles in her mouth. The dog’s ears twitched once before she crouched and growled in Colton’s direction. Before Apple Bloom could blink, Winona sprinted deeper into the orchard, barking madly. “Whoa, girl! Wait up!” She quickly tossed the apple juice aside with a twist of her head and chased after the sprinting collie. Winona never became aggressive without a reason. Maybe it’s nothin’, Apple Bloom hoped, trying to calm her nerves as she galloped through the apple trees. Maybe it’s just them squirrels again. But... Winona was playin’ with them critters. She wasn’t as upset as she is now. Ignoring a familiar pain striking up from a rear hoof, she pressed onward, keeping the dog in eyesight. Looking forward, she could barely make out a stallion running back and forth around the trees he was supposed to be applebucking. When she got closer his frustrated voice became audible.

“Get back here you thieving little pests!”

Now it all made sense. Laughing in relief, Apple Bloom slowed down to a casual trot. “Go get ‘em, Winona!” she encouraged as a couple of the culprits bounced by her. The young farmer slammed her forehooves into the ground, spun, and chased after the rabbit. “Git back here ya’ varmints!” she shouted as they bounced away with their bounty in tow. The bunnies proved too quick for the young mare, however, and they quickly outpaced her, weaving through the trees of the orchard faster than she could run. Letting out an annoyed snort, Apple Bloom turned tail and headed back to Colton. The other rabbits had managed to elude the grape farmer. Winona was still hot on their trail, however: Apple Bloom could still hear her barking from further ahead in the orchard. She padded up to the angry stallion, smirking at him. “What’s the matter? Rabbit got yer tongue?”

Colton scuffed a hoof against the ground. “There I was, working away, when out of the blue came a stampede of those furry things!” he explained. “The next thing I know they were doing me the ‘favor’ of picking all the apples off the ground and running away with them.” He sighed and shot Apple Bloom a guilty look. “Sorry about that.”

“Comes with the territory,” the younger farmer shrugged. “It’s when ponies start thievin’ that we raise a fuss. ‘Sides, that gives ya’ more motivation ta get all the apples in the basket in one go. Easier ta watch an’ all that.” She picked a lone apple off the ground and casually tossed it into a nearby basket. “Ah’m surprised that them critters caught ya’ by surprise, though. Don’t ya’ have ta fret over varmints in yer vineyards?”

Colton shook his head, venting some frustration by resuming applebucking and kicking the next tree in line. “Nah, rabbits don’t seem to care for my crop too much,” he answered, sighing softly as apples seemed to fall everywhere but inside baskets. “Birds, on the other hoof, love grapes. I can’t imagine one flying off with an apple, but tiny grapes? If I didn’t have that scarecrow out in the field I could kiss my crops goodbye.”

Apple Bloom smiled at the thought of a bird trying to make off with an apple. “Well, the important thing is that you survived the ambush,” she giggled. “An’ it looks like ya’ just about finished up where Ah expected you to. Good job!” As she reached for a basket to heft up onto her back, Winona sprung out from the trees with a pair of apples wedged in her maw. She promptly dropped them at Apple Bloom’s hooves, smiling pridefully at her master. “Good work, girl!” she praised, rewarding her with a loving pat on the head. “See, yer chasin’ did some good.” Apple Bloom dropped the pair of apples into the basket and lifted it onto her back. “Why don’tcha keep Colton company this time? Prevent them rabbits from gettin’ a second course an’ all.” Winona barked once in response and trotted back over to the stallion. Apple Bloom shouted over her shoulder as she headed back to the barn with her cargo. “Keep it up, Sir! We got a lotta trees ta work through!”

The grape farmer smacked another tree with his rear hooves. “You got it, Apple Bloom. Think I’m getting the hang of this, anyway!” He jumped as a falling apple bounced off his back.

Apple Bloom giggled at Colton’s expense before heading off with another basket. Winona watched Colton curiously, interrupting her study of the stallion with the occasional scan around the premises, keeping an eye out for any more ne’er-do-wells looking for a free lunch. The grape farmer continued applebucking away, continuing the procedure he had quickly adopted: He would study the tree for a moment, carefully position himself, then fire away. It was slow going, but he found himself having to pick fewer apples off the ground this way.

By the time Apple Bloom returned to collect another basket, Colton had nearly finished up his fourth tree. The young mare came prepared with another dozen empty baskets resting on her back. She made short work of distributing them between the next trees down the line. With a smile and encouraging nod towards Colton, she quickly headed back off with another full basket. The process continued on for a couple of hours, with Colton collecting and Apple Bloom hauling, until the younger Apple found the older grape farmer lying on the ground, preoccupied with catching his breath and tending to his sore legs.

“Phew! Feels like my rear legs are gonna fall off!” he commented, massaging them gently. “I can’t imagine how you’re expected to do this all day.”

“Aw, ya’ just get used to it,” Apple Bloom replied. “Ya’ lasted longer than I thought anyhow. Ah was just comin’ ta grab ya’ fer lunch. Think yer capable a’ walkin’ back on yer own, or am Ah gonna have ta carry ya’?”

The tired stallion got up slowly, his back legs quivering under the stress. “I think I can manage,” he said finally.

“Well alrighty then!” The young mare grabbed a basket filled with apples and slung it onto her back. “Let’s git back and chow down!” Winona, who’d taken Colton’s brief respite as an opportunity to rest, picked herself up off the ground and stretched. She dashed to catch up and trot by the two ponies’ sides as they made their way back to the farmhouse.

Though Apple Bloom was encumbered, the weary legs of Colton could barely keep pace with the younger farmer. “So what all else do you do around here?” he asked in a vain attempt to take his mind off his tired muscles.

“Oh, tons!” the younger farmpony enthused. “Got plenty a’ livestock ta take care of. You know, feedin’ an’ tendin’ to the youngin’s an’ all. We have crops other than apples ta tend to a’ course. Carrots an’ corn fer instance,” she smirked. “Usual farm stuff. On tha whole, though, we’re apple farmers through and through!”

“Yeah, I can see that,” Colton remarked, gazing about the seemingly-endless rows of apple trees. He was scrutinizing the many varieties of apples growing around him when something reflecting off the ground caught his eye. “Hey, are those... bottles?”

“Land sakes, Ah forgot!” Apple Bloom exclaimed. “Ah was bringin’ somethin’ out for us ta drink when them rabbits showed up. Sure they’re still chilled maybe?” she hoped.

Colton put a foreleg up to the bottles. “Well... they’re wet,” he observed, wiping some condensation off the bottles. He grabbed them in his mouth and rejoined Apple Bloom and Winona.

“Well shoot. Guess Ah’ll fetch a couple fresh ones fer lunch,” Apple Bloom said.

“And what’re we having?” Colton inquired, working the bottles idly around.

“You’ll see!” Apple Bloom smiled.

Their idle chatter carried on until they finally reached the house. Apple Bloom instructed Colton to wait outside at the picnic table while she rushed in and prepared lunch. Winona sat with him, staring at the farmer with a goofy expression. He bent down to pet the pooch, running a hoof all the way down her back. “You sure like attention, don’t you?” Winona responded by sloppily slurping the stallion’s snout and chasing her tail. “I’ll... take that as a yes,” he chortled, wiping off the offending drool. He didn’t realize just how hungry he was until Apple Bloom came back with a tray of food and a couple of fresh bottles of apple juice balanced on her back. The older pony’s stomach heralded the arrival of lunch.

Apple Bloom set the tray down on the table. Her ear twitched when Colton’s stomach spoke up. “Somepony’s hungry,” she drawled.

The ravenous grape farmer shrugged. “Guess I am,” he said, his belly contrasting the meek response. He smirked and sipped on some apple juice as Apple Bloom divvied up the sandwiches and took her seat opposite her volunteer for the day. Winona’s gaze traveled between the two ponies, eyes begging. “What about her lunch?” Colton asked, taking a large bite out of his sandwich.

“She knows where her food is,” Apple Bloom explained, giving the collie a knowing glare. Winona gave up on her quest for pony food and reluctantly trotted over to her doghouse, where her lunch awaited. “She only tries that tactic a’ hers when we have guests,” she sighed, taking a hefty bite out of her own meal. “Not that we don’t oblige her every now an’ then, a’ course,” she admitted.

“Heh, well, she’ll have to work a lot harder to con me out of a few table scraps.” Colton polished off the rest of his sandwich in a not very gentlecolt-like fashion, shoving the last half of it into his mouth. Swallowing the large bite, he blinked in surprise. “Wow, I was hungry.”

“That and a slow eater,” Apple Bloom commented, already working on her second sandwich. He blinked again.

“How did you... when did...” he flustered, “...Where do you put it all?” The voracious mare just smiled and shrugged, cheeks puffed out. Colton stared and drank some more apple juice as Apple Bloom finished her meal. She punctuated the performance with a loud belch.

“‘Scuse me,” she giggled, politely putting a hoof up to her mouth.

“Apple Bloom! That wasn’t very ladylike!” Colton exclaimed in mock detestment. The younger pony had her head tilted up with her bottle in mouth, chugging down apple juice as Colton spoke. She raised a curious eyebrow as she finished her drink. The older farmer snorted. “There’s only one way to set you straight.”

“Oh yeah?” Her retort was just as genuine. “What’s that? A hoof wrestle?” She rolled her eyes.

Colton blinked, then grinned, setting a foreleg on the table and holding the corresponding hoof in front of his face. “You got it.”

Apple Bloom blinked twice, then burst out laughing. “Oh that’s rich, Sir!” she giggled. “Like you an’ those grape-pullin’ muscles a’ yours would win in somethin’ like that when sparrin’ against an Apple!”

The grape farmer grinned. “Well come on, then,” he challenged. “This earth pony’s done more than grape harvesting, you know. He just might surprise you.”

The apple farmer stifled another laugh and gladly set her own foreleg up on the table, hooking into Colton’s awaiting hoof. “One.”

“Two,” Colton followed, licking his lips.

“Three!” both shouted before trying their best to force the other’s hoof onto the picnic table’s surface. They grunted and snorted, teeth grinding and eyes squinting as each one attempted to force the other’s hoof down. The competing limbs wobbled on the table, but neither one made any significant progress. The sun beamed overhead, expediting the perspiration process that the two ponies were going through. After a solid minute of hoof wrestling, the two stared into each other’s eyes.

“You’re a mite stronger than Ah thought,” Apple Bloom admitted, whipping her head to the side to displace some sweat.

“And here I was thinking all your strength would be in your hindlegs,” Colton shot back, smiling and sweating all the same.

“Likewise, Ah thought the grape... harvestin’ was all in the mouth,” she struggled out between breaths. Her hoof started to lean closer to the table, the stallion taking the lead.

“Giving up?” he grunted.

“Not a chance.”

Apple Bloom made up the slack and forced the hooves back up to the starting position, but couldn’t gain a lead of her own. “Ya’ use hooves fer gardenin’ too?”

“Nah, you were right about the mouth thing,” he affirmed, sweating profusely. “Sure I dig with... with them sometimes, but we have tools for that sort of thing.” He snorted loudly, gaining a little ground again. “As I said, I’ve... done more than grape farming, you know.”

“Oh yeah? Like what?”

“Let’s just say that there’s a reason I... was... knighted!” he exclaimed, suddenly pushing against Apple Bloom’s hoof with a great surge of strength. The younger pony winced as her own hoof smashed into the wooden table. She nearly lost her seat in the process, but managed to keep her balance.

Apple Bloom wiped some more sweat off her brow with the noncompeting foreleg. “Phew.... Wasn’t expectin’ that,” she admitted honestly, shaking her other foreleg around to loosen it up. “Ah was givin’ it mah all too!”

“Well, I am a fully grown stallion who’s farmed all his life,” he pointed out. “You gave it a good effort though. You even made me break a sweat,” he admitted with a sly grin. “I thought it’d be no contest. You’re much stronger than you look!” he praised, holding out his hoof to the defeated mare. “Next time, cover your mouth before unleashing such a ferocious belch.”

Apple Bloom smiled and completed the ritual, bumping her hoof against his. “Shoot, an’ Ah wrestle with mah sibs all the time,” she lamented. She winced a little as she set her foreleg back down on the table and inspected it. “So... Sir Colton,” she emphasized, looking up to the stallion. “Knighted, huh? By the Princesses an’ everything? What for?”

Colton finished off his bottle of apple juice with the younger mare following suit. “Not for grapes if that’s what you’re thinking,” he chuckled, toying with his empty bottle. “It’s a really funny story, actually. You see, when a few friends and I were outside Equestria, exploring lands across the sea, we came across an ancient—”

Before Colton could elaborate on what he and his friends had found, Winona decided to interrupt with a series of loud barks. She bounded up to the two ponies, vocalizing her arrival and putting two legs up on the table, nearly bumping noses with Apple Bloom and panting in her face.

“Looks like something spooked her good,” Colton commented.

“Ain’t no way nothin’ scared Winona,” the younger mare assured before turning her attention to the panicking collie. “What’s the matter girl? Chickens escapin’? Stampede comin’ our way?” The dog barked a few more times, wearing a frown and dashing a few steps away, then running back. “Lookin’ like she wants us ta follow her,” Apple Bloom guessed, getting up. When she stood up Winona took off not for the chicken coop, but for the sheep pen. “...Oh boy,” Apple Bloom gasped. “Colton, follow me. Think Ah’m gonna need your help.” She sped up to a full gallop.

Colton shot Apple Bloom a puzzled look, but got up and began chasing after the younger pony. “What’s up?”

Apple Bloom turned, giving Colton a look filled with nervousness and determination. “Ah think we got ourselves a newborn on the way.”

Colton nearly stumbled in surprise. Barely keeping balance, he caught up to Apple Bloom. “Uh, when you say that, do you mean—”

“Yes!” Apple Bloom interjected, the two equines stopping in front of the sheep pen. “Bethany’s a little early but Ah guess the youngin’s comin’ out now!”

The stallion’s jaw dropped to the ground. “You mean she’s... having a baby?

“Didn’t Ah just say that?” Apple Bloom asked incredulously as she undid the lock on the pen and swung the gate open. She stepped in front of the opening and turned to address the fidgeting sheep within. “Alright, listen up!” the young mare commanded. “Every one a’ ya’ll that ain’t deliverin’, out. We need as much space as we can muster. Winona!” she craned her neck down and to the side to face the collie. “Lead ‘em to the feedin’ grounds. Now y’all get a move on. Hup to! Let’s go!” she finished with an air of authority in her voice.

The flock obediently left the pen, following the familiar path with the guidance of Winona, who was barking and running circles around the flock. During this process, Colton had remained completely still, mouth continuing to hang open as the sheep marched out of the pen. Apple Bloom caught sight of the dumbstruck pony and smiled faintly. “You’ve never done this before have ya’?” she asked.

The grape farmer’s head moved an inch in either direction. “Nuh-uh. Grapes only. Never had to work with animals at all,” he explained, working his jaw haphazardly.

“But didn’t ya’ just say that you’ve done more than gra—”

I’ve never done this!” Colton clarified. He peered nervously into the open pen. The enclosed area was now barren, save for a pair of ewes and a ram. The stallion easily spotted the mother-to-be lying on the ground between the other two, who seemed busy trying to comfort the ewe in labor. A frightened look remained affixed on his face.

Apple Bloom wore a serious expression. “Enough gawkin’,” she snapped Colton out of his daze. “We need ta make Bethany here more comfortable. Just stick next to me first, so we can see what all she needs,” she ordered, looking back at the flummoxed stallion as she entered the sheep pen.

Colton blinked at Apple Bloom and worked his mouth a bit more. “Sure,” he said with a tiny nod.

Nodding, Apple Bloom turned back to find the three sheep staring. One of them, the mother-to-be, bore a pained expression. In the space of an instant, the mare’s face grew compassionate. “How ya’ feeling, Bethany?” she asked softly as she trotted to the ewe’s side.

The laboring sheep, grimacing, opened an eye and looked at the concerned mare. She gave a brief smile before wincing again. “Oh, just da-a-a-andy,” Bethany squeaked. Sweat dripped down her face as sparks of pain shot through her.

The ram, looking nearly as pained as his wife, leaned down to give the ewe a comforting nuzzle. “Hang in there, baby,” he said, turning to Apple Bloom. “Our child’s welfare is in your hooves, little one. Are you sure you’re up to this? Usually it’s one of your older kin that takes care of matters like these.”

The mare gave a resolute nod, blushing at the ram’s comments. “Sure as sugar, Abraram. An’ don’t worry, Ah’ve watched mah sibs do this a dozen times at least!” She gave him an encouraging smile.

“A-a-a-a-apple Bloom?” Woolma asked, her stutter driven more by hesitation than instinct. “Are you sure about this?”

Apple Bloom gulped. “Don’t ya’ start frettin’ on me now!” the farmpony exclaimed, a little harsher than intended. “Now hush up and comfort yer friend here,” she ordered, gesturing to Bethany.

“Ma-a-abye so, but what if...” Woolma trailed off, tilting her head as she squinted at Apple Bloom’s head. “Uh, Apple Bloom? What’s that you got on your face?”

“What? What’s on...” she started, before realizing what Woolma was talking about. “Ugh, just some flour from a spill this mornin’,” she answered, hastily rubbing her cheek to clean it off. The young mare gave a small sigh to try and calm her own nerves down and smiled. “Don’t worry about it. We’ve got more important things ta do now! Let me an’ Colton take care a’ y’all.”

Woolma peered behind Apple Bloom. “Maybe I’m getting on in my years, but what’s that stallion gonna do from all the way over there?”

“Wha...?” Apple Bloom turned around to find Colton back outside the pin, facing away from the group and whistling nervously. “Oh, fer...” she galloped over to the edge of the pen. “What’s gotten into you, Colton? Ah need help here!”

Colton stopped whistling and started rocking back and forth on all four hooves. “Oh? Help you say? With what?” he asked carefully.

Apple Bloom trotted around to face the stallion head on and bumped her snout up against his, glaring. “Whadda ya’ think?” she deadpanned.

Colton gulped. “Shouldn’t...!” his voice cracked. After clearing his throat and putting on a nervous smile, he tried again. “Shouldn’t we be taking her to a vet, or... fetch a doctor, or... something?” he finished lamely.

“No way, no how,” she answered with a shake of her head and a defiant frown. “We Apples take care a’ every plant, tree, an’ critter on the farm. Like Ah said, Ah got all the know-how we’re gonna need fer this.” She gave the taller stallion a piercing stare. “Why are ya’ actin’ so yeller anyway? Thought you were all brave and stuff.”

The nervous pony coughed out a laugh, averting his gaze skyward. “Well... I may have done some brave things once, but childbirth was never one of them!” he exclaimed. “What if I do something wrong? What if I mess up? What if I end up hurting—”

A screech from within the sheep pen cut Colton’s lamentations short. The ponies spun to face the direction of the yell, seeing Bethany wail in pain as the other two panicking sheep attempted to comfort her. Apple Bloom snorted and glared at Colton. “Enough horsin’ around,” she growled, stomping a hoof to get his attention. The startled pony immediately turned his attention to the younger farmer. “Listen up. You are gonna go into the barn and fetch as many blankets as you can find. Should be in a box up in the loft somewhere. After ya do that you’re gonna go fetch a nice big basin a’ water. Well’s right over there,” she pointed. “And you are not gonna cower and run, and you’re gonna be back here in five minutes. Got it?

The grape farmer was flabbergasted from the sudden barrage of orders sent his way from the much younger mare. “Okay,” he said nervously. “I’ll... I’ll just go ahead and—”

“Go!” Apple Bloom shouted, startling the stallion. Colton’s face contorted in annoyance as he snapped out of his nervous funk and rounded on the younger mare.

“I'm trying, alright?!” he snapped. “I'm doing my best, but I’m really not comfortable dealing with this, and having you riding on me is not making it any easier!” He glared down at the apple farmer.

Apple Bloom winced at the shouting. She peeked back at the sheep to see if they overheard them. It appeared that Bethany’s own cries drowned out Colton’s shouts, as they were not looking their way. “Sorry,” she said meekly, averting his gaze. “Ah guess this whole thing is stressin’ me out a little....” She took a breath. “Would you go fetch me the blankets and water, please, Sir?”

The stallion breathed too, letting the pent-up frustration flow out along with it. “I think I can manage that. As long as you deal with the more, uh, intimate parts of the procedure. I’ll be back in a jiffy.” He nodded and took off for the barn.

“Thanks!” Apple Bloom shouted after Colton. After seeing him off, she turned and trotted back into the pen to do some preparations of her own. Her determined expression briefly fell into a worried frown as she approached the three sheep. First time fer everything.... First time.... Oh AJ, Big Mac, Granny.... Why’d y’all have ta be gone? she fretted, slowing her trot down and looking towards the ground. She took a couple of deep breaths, gulped, and put the confident mask back on, raising her head back up. Ah can do this, she assured herself just as she reached the trio.

Over in the barn, Colton raced about the floor, searching for a blanket-filled box. After knocking a couple bushels of apples over and upturning a few bales of hay, he let out a frustrated grunt. “Where are they?” he shouted in exasperation, rolling his eyes. The hoof-woven texture of a blanket hung out of a moderately sized box up on the loft, catching the frustrated stallion’s gaze. His eyes lit up at the sight. Colton quickly climbed the nearby ladder, having little trouble hooking his hooves over the rungs as he scrambled to the top.

Almost like I’m a little colt again, he reminisced briefly as he breached the top of the loft, not hesitating to toss the box of blankets to the ground floor below. He caught sight of a rope hanging from the ceiling, resting on the loft’s floor. Grinning, he dashed for the rope, leaped, caught it in his teeth and swung off the loft like a pendulum to the other side of the barn, gracelessly letting go and flying into an awaiting pile of straw. Just like the old farm, he giggled as he scrambled to his hooves. Colton wasn’t sure why he was suddenly thinking of his youthful years. Maybe my life’s flashing before my eyes, he thought, getting a little paranoid as he hoisted the box of blankets onto his back. He shook his head to clear it and galloped back to the pen.

“About time!” Apple Bloom announced Colton’s presence, tugging the box off of his back and brandishing a blanket from it. “Now get the water! Ain’t—” an angry stare from Colton interrupted her. Her expression softened as she giggled nervously. “Ah mean... please fetch me the water, if you would, Sir,” she amended as she took the box over to the sheep.

Colton exhaled and gave an irritated look to the back of Apple Bloom’s head. “No problem,” he said as the other two sheep began taking out blankets themselves. While Abraram was too preoccupied with the matter at hoof, Woolma gave the stallion a look of thanks. Excusing herself from the group, she trotted over to Colton with a meek smile on her face.

“Apple Bloom’s taken on quite a lot, here,” she remarked, watching the mare work. “She’s under a lot of stress, and has a ton of work to do. Yet here she is still taking care of us.”

Colton glanced down at the sheep, then turned back to Apple Bloom. Seeing past the initial guise of determination and focus, he noticed her worried demeanor. He sighed at the sight. “Right...” he spoke softly back to Woolma, “It’s easy to forget just how much pressure she’s under.” He caught sight of a laboring Bethany and gulped himself. This isn’t exactly a walk in the park for me either, he reminded himself, but I can go fetch things and take orders well enough to help out Apple Bloom, at least.

Giving a small smile and a friendly nod to Woolma, he took off, this time for the Apple well. As he arrived Colton saw a few moderately-sized basins surrounding the purple well. Wasting no time, he quickly undid the knot holding the bucket suspended over the mouth of the well and let it fall down, hearing a small splash a few moments later. He grasped the rope in his mouth and pulled hard, using his forelegs to hold it in place when he had to get a new grip. Grunting along with each pull, Colton quickly got the bucket back out of the well, tying off the end of the rope and tipping the bucket’s contents into the awaiting basin. The stallion wiped some sweat off and let the bucket fall once more, estimating it would take about five more trips to fill the basin adequately.

Back at the pen, Bethany let out another moan of pain as she panted on the ground. Abraram lay by her side, petting her and whispering words of encouragement. Woolma and Apple Bloom, having finished laying out the blankets, paced back and forth impatiently. “Is it just me,” the young farmpony asked, “or is this takin’ longer than usual?”

Woolma offered Apple Bloom a smile. “You know that the baby’ll come when it’s ready,” she reminded. “Remember how long it took for those little piglets to arrive? Why it took the better part of a day!”

Apple Bloom frowned at that possibility. She didn’t have a day to spare. “Yeah, Ah know. Ah’m just a little pressed fer time an’ all. It’s makin’ me all fidgety,” she confessed, trotting in place. “Shoot, Ah’m gonna drive mahself crazy if Ah’m not careful....”

“I’ve got news for you, darling,” a voice huffed from behind, “you Apples are already crazy.” Apple Bloom turned to see a smirking, sweating stallion ambling to the center of the pen. Colton panted a little as he encroached on the group with a large basin on his back. “I mean, just look at the sheer volume of produce you have here on this farm. It’s insane!” He chuckled, grunting as he lowered himself to the ground, letting the basin slide off to the side. A small amount of water managed to slip out as it hit the ground with a dull thud. Colton pushed his sweaty blue mane out of his eyes and laughed a little more.

Apple Bloom giggled back. “Guess bein’ a little crazy is okay, seein’ as it makes one of the largest buncha’ crops in Equestria!” she bragged, trotting to the basin. “Thanks a heap, Sir. Now we’ve got everything we need.” The mare gave an encouraging smile over to the three sheep. “Now comes the hard part.”

Colton, opening his mouth to say “you’re welcome,” instead hesitantly asked, “...And what might that be?”

Apple Bloom dampened a cloth with the water in the basin and wiped Bethany’s forehead clean of perspiration. After wringing the cloth out and setting it on the sheep’s forehead, she fell to her haunches and turned to answer Colton’s query. “Waitin’,” she informed with a sagely nod.

The nervous stallion blinked, then mimicked Apple Bloom by falling onto his own haunches, giving himself a moment to steady his breathing, which had gotten away from him when he had returned and caught sight of the sheep again. “Waiting, huh?” he confirmed. “I think I can do that....” He glanced idly around the farm, his eyes finally settling on one of the vast orchards. “Maybe we could get a little more work done in the interim?”

“‘Fraid not,” Apple Bloom shook her head. “Bethany could be needin’ us at any time, and we can’t be off doin’ other things when that time comes.”

“We’re sorry to pull you away from your work,” Abraram piped up. “We know you’ve got a lot on your plate right now, and we’re grateful that you’re here to help us out.” He smiled and took a seat opposite Apple Bloom to help comfort his wife, whose laborious breathing had grown more ragged.

“Ain’t nothin’, Mister Abraram,” Apple Bloom smiled up to the father-to-be. “But yer welcome all the same.”

The heat from the sun continued to bear down on the farm as the burning orb rolled across the sky. It intensified as the day wore on into late afternoon. Hours passed with Bethany the sheep stuck in labor with four other anxious friends and family surrounding her. Abraram and Woolma took shifts in talking to Bethany, speaking words of encouragement and praise to the laboring ewe. Colton sat patiently by the basin of water, keeping a watchful eye over the sheep. His nerves were still on end, which preoccupied the stallion some, but it didn’t show in his stature as he sat motionless with a flat, almost bored expression on his face.

Apple Bloom, however, was another story. “Come on,” she moaned with a scowl as she paced in front of the stoic stallion. She had had the insight to keep her voice lowered, but the combination of work not getting done and sweltering heat were getting to her. “This shoulda’ been done an’ over with already. What’s takin’ so long? ...An’ what are you smilin’ about?” She scowled up at Colton, whose mouth had twitched into a smirk.

“Uh, nerves?” he ventured, chuckling as his tail swished idly back and forth. “You were so calm and collected earlier. What gives now? Didn’t you say this could take a while?”

“It could take a while, but I hoped it wouldn’t,” she hissed quietly. “I just hate idlin’ around an’ waitin’ fer somethin’ ta happen.” She picked up her nervous pacing, driving small divots into the ground as she about faced every few seconds. Colton continued to look on in amusement.

“I can see that,” he sat up and took a step forward to block Apple Bloom’s path. The younger mare glared at him. “But you should probably force yourself to sit down and not look like the world’s going to end. I don’t think Bethany needs to see a panicky pony right now.”

Apple Bloom’s defiant expression changed into one of worry. Peeking around the stallion’s form, she thankfully observed Bethany not looking her way. She sighed in relief, but then recalled the reason for her fretting. “The day’s escapin’ us and nothin’ else ‘round the farm’s gettin’ done!” she lamented, letting her head droop to point at the ground. “Granny’s gonna come home an’ find out that Ah’ve done nothin’ but—”

“—but assist in the birth of a new life?” Colton interrupted. “Be there for creatures on your farm that need your aid? Comfort that sheep there,” he tossed his head in the direction of the laboring ewe, “when she needs all the support she can get? I dunno, Apple Bloom. Something tells me that she’ll forgive you,” he smiled as he patted the young mare reassuringly on the head. She craned her head upward and smiled weakly.

“Well... when you put it that way...” she spoke shyly. “I guess it’s all worth it. I gotta stay focused, and not worry so much.” The younger farmpony had just calmed down when a voice from behind startled her.

“Apple Bloom!” Woolma cried. “It’s time!”

The ponies’ heads immediately swiveled around to address the shrieking ewe, who was sitting just behind Bethany. Abraram, who was resting his head just beside his wife’s, bolted straight up onto all fours with wide eyes. “It’s... It’s... time?” he squeaked. Before anypony could blink, he immediately flipped onto his back, legs sticking straight up stiffly as he bleated faintly.

“Yee haw!” Apple Bloom exclaimed purely out of nerves and the sudden rush of adrenaline. She dashed over to take position beside Woolma. Colton meekly followed, hesitantly following the younger mare. The stoic stallion was gone, replaced once more by the fretting grape farmer.

“What... what now?” he asked, adrenaline also rushing through his system, making him trot in place. “What do we do?”

“Jus’ stand by!” Apple Bloom instructed calmly, licking her lips nervously as she began to perspire. “Ah’ll holler if Ah need somethin’.” A moment passed before the three conscious individuals’ eyes collectively widened.

“It’s.... The baby, it’s.... Apple Bloom!” Woolma exclaimed to the younger mare.

“Okay, alright, okay okay,” Apple Bloom’s stammered as her nerves kicked into overdrive. “Colton, I need you to... to... oh fer pony’s sake, Colton!”

Upon seeing these events unfold, Colton squeaked, mouth hanging open. His eyes rolled up into his head before he tumbled to the ground, promptly fainting.

Apple Bloom rolled her own eyes in exasperation before turning back to the task at hoof. Moment a’ truth, she thought. She and Woolma nodded silently to each other and got to work, the only sounds on the farm being Bethany’s own cries of pain as a new life prepared to enter the world.

“Huhwuh... wuz... wha?” Colton mumbled, eyelids slowly rising up as he regained consciousness, one cheek mashed against the ground and the other matted with something wet and dripping. With one eye he could see that evening was settling in, with the sun eagerly reaching for the western horizon and an orange sky hanging overhead. Colton barely had a moment to register just what had made him come to when another wet slurp was slapped across his cheek. He flinched at the licking, rotating his head around to see Winona standing by his side and panting happily. Colton tried in vain to evade the third kiss, but could do nothing to stem the tide of saliva now drenching his cheek. “I’m up, I’m up,” he said, giggling as he half pushed, half petted Winona away. Once he was up on all fours, he found himself in a sea of white cotton. What was the delivery area had now returned to its primary function as a sheep pen. The grape farmer stood up, ignoring the dirt from one side of his face and the saliva from the other as he searched for another pony. “Where’s Apple Bloom?” he muttered to himself, scanning his surroundings. All he could see were sheep, and not the ones he was with before he passed out. “Did I... dream up that whole—”

Colton’s suppositions were interrupted by a sharp bark from Winona, who was now trotting ahead of him. After getting his attention, the collie took off for the exit, leaping over the locked gate with ease. Colton followed, apologizing to every sheep he bounced into. He took the less-strenuous option of exiting the pen by reaching over and unlatching the gate, letting himself through, and locking it up behind him. Winona, having gained a fair bit of distance on the stallion, turned and barked his way again before bounding into the barn. The tingling sensation of a sleeping foreleg bothered him, but he ignored it as he galloped after the collie.

When he stepped into the barn his weariness and aches evaporated as a smile blossomed across his face.

In the center of the barn were a trio of sheep. Abraram, smiling like a fool, had one foreleg draped over an exhausted Bethany. The new parents were focused solely on the newest resident of Sweet Apple Acres. The newborn lamb uttered the tiniest of bleats as it nestled itself within the confines of his mother’s forelegs. Winona had taken refuge beside a grinning Apple Bloom off to the side, who was busying herself with folding up some of the blankets from earlier. Colton approached the other pony, and was glad to see her looking incredibly relieved.

“So,” Colton announced his presence to the group, “what’d I miss?”

The ram, ewe, and mare all laughed as the stallion approached the newborn. Bethany nuzzled the lamb as Colton lie down in front of them to get a closer look. “Say hello to the nice stallion, Joseph,” she cooed as the lamb reached a tiny leg up and touched Colton’s nose. He made no effort to remove the lamb’s limb from his snout, beaming down at the newborn.

“Hello, Joseph,” he greeted with a quiet voice. “Welcome to the world.” The lamb bleated softly again before stretching his mouth out in a tiny yawn, curling up in his mother’s embrace. Colton quietly rose to his hooves and trotted over to Apple Bloom, who’d just finished folding the last of the blankets and piling them up in a corner.

“We should give ‘em some privacy,” Apple Bloom whispered to Colton before turning to the sheep. “Y’all can stay in here fer as long as need be ta keep Joseph there out of the weather.” The two adult sheep nodded their heads in thanks before turning their attention back to the lamb. “Alright Winona, let’s get goin’.” The collie leapt up to Apple Bloom’s side on command. They trotted outside, Apple Bloom closing the barn door behind them. “Wooowe! I dunno about you, Colton, but Ah’m famished. Are ya’ hungry?”

Colton blinked. “You just helped deliver a baby and the first thing that you can think of after all of that is food?” Apple Bloom started for the house, chuckling at Colton’s astonishment.

“Well, mah’ stomach’s tellin’ me it’s time, and it don’t lie,” she said as she reached to open the door before craning her neck to look skyward. “‘Sides, Granny oughta be gettin’ back home shortly. Ah wanna have supper ready for her by the time she gets here.”

The grape farmer smiled. “Well, that makes sense to me!” he agreed. He blushed when his own belly growled. “...And my stomach concurs with yours, it seems!”

Winona chimed in with a bark of her own. “Oh, right,” Apple Bloom realized. “Gotta feed you too, girl. Head on inside, Colton, Ah’ll be right back!” she said as she dashed off for Winona’s doghouse with the collie in tow. Colton stepped inside, feeling the cooler indoor air wash over him. He sighed happily as he made his way for the kitchen, where Apple Bloom joined him a moment later. “Sure is nice gettin’ outta the sun, ain’t it?”

“My thoughts exactly,” Colton grinned, scanning the kitchen. “So what’s on the menu tonight? May I lend a helping hoof?” Apple Bloom nodded as she trotted inside. Without another word, the duo got to work in the kitchen. An aroma of freshly cooked vegetable stew emanated throughout the home just as the sounds of a cart floated in through an open window. Three steaming bowls of the stew were set on the table when Granny Smith entered.

“Granny!’ Apple Bloom exclaimed, dashing over to give the tired pony an affectionate hug. “How were things in town today?”

“Dandy, Apple Bloom. Just dandy,” she answered, squeezing back. “Ah see y’all had an excitin’ day, what with Joseph arrivin’ all unexpected.” Granny leaned over to plant a kiss on the younger mare’s head. “Good job handlin’ it, Sugarcube.”

Apple Bloom beamed with pride as she and Granny took their seats that the table. Colton sipped some milk, not wanting to start on his meal until everypony was present. Apple Bloom pointed a hoof in his direction. “Colton helped out too!” she informed.

“Oh?” he responded, setting his glass down and ignoring his milk moustache. “I didn’t realize my fainting helped matters.”

“Ya brought us the stuff we needed,” Apple Bloom pointed out. “Plus, when the time came, you... you were outta the way!”

“Well whatever happened, y’all did fine,” Granny said with a nod. “Bethany’s doin’ well, an’ so’s the little one.” She turned Colton’s way. “An’ don’t ya’ worry about yer faintin’ spell, darlin’. Apple Bloom here did the same her first time seein’ it. An’ the second. An’ the third—”

“Granny!” the youngest farmpony interrupted, cheeks going rosy. “He don’t need ta know mah life story...” She took a big bite out of her stew and chewed it methodically, trying to take her mind off of the conversation.

The trio ate in silence for a few moments, all of them focused on filling up their rather empty stomachs. “So, Mrs. Smith,” Colton spoke up, nursing his glass, “how was your day in the marketplace?” he smirked. “Was my absence a boost to your sales?”

“Why yes!” her voice dripped with sarcasm, “without the knightly gentlecolt distractin’ all the mares in town, business was boomin’”.

Colton blushed a twinge at the implication. “Oh really?” he chuckled, gulping down some more milk. “Well, I’ll be glad to be back behind my grape cart tomorrow. Or should I turn it into a kissing booth?” he spoke airily, grinning. Granny rolled her eyes but laughed despite herself.

The stallion gave the younger mare a proud nod of the head. “I must say, though, that young Apple Bloom here does a fine job at cracking the whip.” He stretched his back, wincing a little while doing so. “I’ll be reminded of all that applebucking we did every day for the next week.”

Apple Bloom giggled. “An’ the best part is we were only at it fer half a day,” she said in a loud whisper. “He’d probably been pushin’ up daisies if we’d spent the whole day on it.” The three ponies shared a laugh as they finished up their respective meals.

The farmponies stood up from the table and walked out into the humid night air. “Seriously, though, Sir,” Apple Bloom said, sitting in the glow of light coming from the house. “Ah’m glad ya’ helped out today. Ya’ helped me through a time of need, an’ I really appreciate that.” Without warning, she thrust herself forward onto Colton, squeezing him in a tight hug. Colton was nearly sent sprawling, but managed to steady his fall by landing squarely on his haunches instead. “Thank ya’, Sir.”

Colton smiled down at the young mare and hugged her back. “You’re very welcome, Miss Apple Bloom. It was a pleasure to work alongside an Apple family farmer. And...” he stopped for a moment and canted his head. “...have you always had freckles?”

“Beg pardon?” Apple Bloom asked, before rolling her eyes. “Ugh. Dumb flour...”

Colton leaned down, squinting at Apple Bloom’s cheek. “Yeah! Three little freckles, just beside your eye there!” he exclaimed. “Granny Smith, I’m not seeing things, right?”

Granny craned her head downward and squinted at the opposite cheek. “...No Sir!” she agreed happily. “Apple Bloom’s finally earned her spots!”

The young mare’s eyes went wide. “Ah have?” she said disbelievingly. “No way!” She jetted into the house and up to the bathroom, rearing up to look herself in the mirror. Staring back at her was a mare with mane parted both ways and dangling down the sides of her head. Along with her usual features, six small white dots reflected back at her, blending into her yellow fur. She hesitantly reached a hoof up to try and wipe them off, afraid that some stubborn flour that had indeed clung to her coat. When she pulled the hoof back, the freckles remained.

Apple Bloom cheered, then raced back downstairs and out the door. Granny was beaming with pride, winking to Apple Bloom. Colton was busy saying goodbye to Winona, who had joined the farmponies on the porch. “Ah got ‘em!” she proclaimed proudly, bellowing out a rebel yell.

Colton, still petting Winona, glanced from the cheering mare to Granny Smith in confusion. “Uh... they’re just freckles, aren’t they?” he inquired with a tilt of his head.

“Not jus’ freckles,” Granny answered with a small gasp of indignation. “These here freckles represent a comin’ of age in the Apple family. Why, it’s jus’ another sign that little Apple Bloom is growin’ up so fast.” She ambled over to her granddaughter and gave her a hug.

Huh, well how do you like that, Colton thought as he saw Granny’s lip quiver slightly. It’s almost like the Apples treat freckles like a special breed of cutie mark. Shrugging inwardly, the stallion smiled at the two mares and nodded. “Well, I best be off. Got to get back to my own farm and make sure I don’t fall behind. I also have to make up for the day’s lost sales.” He winked at the Apples, who giggled in return. “Granny, I’ll see you in the marketplace tomorrow. Apple Bloom, good luck.”

“Thank ya’ so much, Sir!” Apple Bloom waved after the departing stallion.

With a chuckle, Colton turned back around. “Oh, one more thing,” he said. “You don’t have to call me ‘Sir’.”

Apple Bloom blinked. “Oh... then why’d ya’ lead me on, lettin’ me call ya’ Sir all day long?”

The knighted grape farmer shrugged, grinning. “Just wanted to see how long you kept up with it before you went crazy,” he laughed. “But then, you folk are already crazy, so I guess that was never gonna happen.”

The two Apples looked at each other, then back to Colton, then burst out in a fit of laughter. “Well, Sir,” Apple Bloom emphasized. “Have a nice night!” Still chuckling to himself, Sir Colton Vines III turned and left Sweet Apple Acres, leaving two amused ponies in his wake.

“Well now, my little pony,” Granny turned to Apple Bloom once the grape farmer had disappeared over the hill, “Ah think it’s time we got some shuteye. Best ta be up bright an’ early tomorrow ta make up fer lost time today.”

Apple Bloom nodded without reservation. “Agree 100%, Granny!” she enthused, standing up and turning to trot inside. Granny followed her in shortly thereafter.

“Oh, an’ Apple Bloom? Ah’m so proud a’ you, earnin’ yer spots,” she praised as the younger mare trekked up the stairs. “Ah reckon yer siblin’s are in fer a mighty surprise when they see ‘em!”

The yellow farmpony’s blush only served to highlight her newly-acquired freckles. “Aw, Granny... Ah’m sure yer right! AJ an’ Big Mac’ll be so proud!” She hopped back down to give her grandmother a kiss. “Goodnight!” With a skip in her step, Apple Bloom trotted back up the stairs and got ready for bed.

Outside of Sweet Apple Acres and near the opposite end of Ponyville, Colton trotted up to his own residence. He tossed what remained of his dessert, a chocolate cupcake from Sugarcube Corner, up towards the night sky and let it fall square in his mouth, gulping the treat down with a satisfied smile. The moon was just peeking over eastern sky as the grape farmer licked his lips clean and reached the front door of his home. Ambient lighting from the village provided the weary stallion with ample vision as he stepped inside, grateful that he could see well enough to step over the mess that had promised to await his return. “Tomorrow,” he promised, “I’ll get this place cleaned up for sure.” Stifling a yawn, he bumbled over books still strewn about and meandered his way to the bathroom. He chuckled at his disheveled appearance as he brushed his teeth, ridding them of the recently acquired chocolate stains.

Lookin’ good there, Colton, he noted as he rinsed. That just about matches how my legs feel. As if waiting for an honorable mention, the stallion’s rear legs wobbled. Colton wiped his face dry with a towel and sighed, stretching his worn out muscles one leg at a time. “I must be getting on in years,” he soliloquized, unable to stop the large yawn that had been threatening to come out. “...I’m tired, dirty, and sore. I’ll probably be at least two of those things for a week.” The exhausted pony ambled off to his bedroom and, remembering to step over the discarded bag of potato chips this time, flopped into bed and threw his blankets hastily over his weary form.

“Feels good to get a solid day’s work in, though,” he mumbled into his pillow, smiling faintly as the day’s events rapidly flashed through his head. Too tuckered out to talk, the pony turned inward to his thoughts. That Apple Bloom sure has the Apple family diligence flowing through her, he laughed quietly. She sure is a lot more grown up now too. That hard worker ought to have no trouble keeping up with all she has to do. No trouble at all....

The weariness finally caught up to Colton’s mental faculties, slowing his train of thought down to a stop for the night as he drifted off into a deep, comfortable sleep.

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