• Published 21st Aug 2021
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Letting Go Of The Reins - applebatofalltrades



Applejack's rodeo career takes a turn. She must learn to adapt to her new life and the challenges that come with it.

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Game Day Day Two: The Final Day of Game Day

Game day day two.

It definitely felt very different than it did twenty four hours ago. Since then, Applejack had decided to drop out of tie-down to give Barley and, less importantly, herself a break. After what had happened the day before, she decided to let the horse rest, although she could definitely use the extra time to just sit for a bit.

She rubbed her forehead, still feeling the hangover despite it being well into the day. Maybe not her proudest moment, she would admit, but at least she had drank so much she could hardly remember any of it, right?

No, don’t try an’ justify your stupidity.

It had been a pain to get dressed in the morning; the next day soreness from her fall and the intense drowsiness and pain from the hangover definitely were not a good mixture. Her limbs still felt a million times heavier, and it was even difficult to walk properly still. She hadn’t asked for the details about it, deciding she’d rather not know. All she knew was that Strawberry Sunrise was involved because of course she was involved.

Through it all, she bit her tongue and didn’t complain, though, not even when Granny and just about every other older adult chewed her out for being so irresponsible. Not to mention her own brother admonishing her after they were done with her. At least he had been concise, but it still put her off.

She’d definitely say it was well deserved, though. Applejack sniffed and blew into her cold hands, wincing a bit as the bruise on her back pained her. She wasn’t sure if it was from the fall or from whatever had happened the night before, but the fact was that it hurt like hell. Adjusting how she sat in the stadium seat helped a bit, at least. She sat next to empty seats once occupied by her immediate family as they watched directly from the fence down below.

If she hadn’t been in so much pain, Applejack would have joined them there, but Apple Bloom was due to complete her run soon and she wanted to watch comfortably. Besides, they didn’t know about her persistent pain, and being next to them would only tip them off more. She just needed to “rest up”, which was entirely true.

Still, though, she had an event to do, and she was going to do it right this time, even if she almost wanted to drop out of that one as well. At least it wasn’t for another while, though. In the meantime, she could watch Apple Bloom who was just about to get her go at barrel racing. At least one of them would actually do it right. Or, at least, that’s what she hoped. Still, her sister was doing better than Applejack herself was so far. Sure, Applejack had come first in breakaway, but she had messed up during barrel racing, which left bronc riding as her last chance.

And, well, if Apple Bloom managed to win three out of three of her events, then Applejack could only be proud of her. But if she underperformed and lost, then she still did better than Applejack. Either way, Applejack felt pride surge up for her little sister as she watched the current competitor gallop back into the holding stalls. She wasn’t that fast but managed to squeak into the top eight anyway. Apple Bloom could definitely do better than that.

As the previous girl left the ring, the next galloped in. The announcers introduced her as Toola Roola on her horse Baker. She seemed to be maybe even a bit younger than Apple Bloom, but definitely not older. Her first turn was tight, Applejack noted, though Baker seemed to falter after the turn. Regardless, once they hit the last turn and bounded through the home stretch, Applejack had to admit that Baker was as fast as a racehorse.

Applejack whistled quietly, tipping her hat as she looked up. 17.52, she read off the scoreboard. She’s definitely medallin’ at the very least. Her suspicion was quickly confirmed as the scoreboard updated, declaring her as the new first-place competitor, sneaking by with an advantage of two-tenths of a second.

Her attention snapped back down as Apple Bloom and Megan were announced. Her little sister got off to a great start, and even from her spot in the stands, Applejack could just about see her concentration. She stood up, pumping a fist in the air as she cheered her sister on. She ignored the pain that came from her bruised lower back, deeming the action worthy of the pain.

As far as Applejack could tell, it was Apple Bloom’s best run of the season. The first turn was tight, and though she nudged the barrel, it stayed upright. The approach to the second barrel was perfect. The turn was just as good, and although the final turn was a bit sloppy, Megan’s acceleration more than made up for it as Apple Bloom kicked her legs.

Applejack practically jumped for joy as Megan galloped past the timer with Apple Bloom on her back. That had to have at least been a record for her sister, if not podium-worthy. She held her breath as she glanced up to look at the time. 19.43. Applejack smiled widely as she cheered from her seat. Ignoring the discomfort coming from her lower body, she leaped out of her seat and made her way past the row of spectators, uttering pardons as she did. That was definitely Apple Bloom’s best run by a long shot, and it brought her to first place! With only three more girls doing their run after her, Applejack knew that there was a good chance of Apple Bloom getting a prize.

She ran down the stairs, sliding her hand down the rail for stability. The steps were a bit uneven, which made it hard to not trip and fall, but she managed. Practically slamming into the metal barrier at the edge of the seating area, Applejack watched intently as Apple Bloom fully disappeared into the back. She glanced around, easily finding her family. Only Big Mac, Granny, and Apple Fritter managed to catch Apple Bloom’s run, but that was definitely more than enough to encourage her, it seemed.

“Oh hey, cuz, you’re back!” Fritter exclaimed as Applejack arrived to stand with her family. “You feelin’ better?”

Applejack shrugged. “Yeah, kinda. Still got a bit of a headache, an’ my body feels like it’s been through hell, but I guess I deserve it.”

“Eeyup,” Big Mac agreed with a disappointed nod.

Granny simply shook her head, clicking her tongue. “Now, Applejack, I thought I raised ya better’n that,” she scolded again, though not with as much intensity as she did in the morning. “You best have learned yer lesson.”

“Don’t worry, Granny,” Applejack quickly put in, “I did.”

“Good,” Granny replied before softening up and smiling. “Now, my baby girl’s gonna win gold! I can just feel it.”

Big Mac nodded, this time with a smile. “Eeyup.”

“Yeah, that time was great,” Apple Fritter agreed, glancing at the updated scoreboard. Apple Bloom still sat in first, and there was only one girl left to go. “Reminds me of Applejack earlier this season.”

Applejack chuckled. “Yeah, she’s doin’ great. I hope she gets to beat my best soon enough. I know she can, even if that Megan is a rambunctious mare.”

“Aw, but she listens to Bloom, don’t she, cuz?”

That much was true. Applejack confirmed it with a nod. “Yeah, Megan won’t listen to nobody but Apple Bloom.”

“Kinda like you an’ Barley,” Big Mac put in.

“I guess,” Applejack agreed. “But Barley’s just a bit of a free spirit, I dunno why he likes me so much.”

“Well, whatever it is, child, ya gotta cherish that,” Granny pointed out as the last racer made her way out of the tunnel. “A connection like that with a horse is somethin’ special. Oh! Let’s see if our little seedlin’ can win.”

Instantly, every Apple family member turned to watch. Admittedly, the last racer got a really quick start. Toola Roola’s horse Baker looked fast, but compared to this horse, he was a snail. Applejack swallowed nervously as the girl and her horse turned around the barrel cleanly. “C’mon,” she muttered under her breath.

That horse was definitely speed incarnate. But even so, it seemed that the first turn was a fluke. The second barrel was much less clean and a considerably wider turn than what was really necessary. Applejack drummed her fingers against the white metal barrier, watching intently as the seconds ticked by like hours. Her eyes flicked up to the clock, then back down. Somehow, after a burst of initial speed, the rider had come very close to Apple Bloom’s time at the last turn.

All it would take was one tiny mess up. Something, anything. Applejack wasn’t the type to wish misfortune on others, but God as her witness, she wanted her little sister to win. Her heart just about beat its way up to her throat as the pair raced down the final stretch and past the timer. Instantly, Applejack glanced at the time.

“Did she…” Apple Fritter started, her voice disappearing as they all came to process the time.

19.61.

As if on command, all the present Apples leaped for joy, cheering to themselves as the announcer stated the final times. It was especially sweet when the top three racers were announced; Apple Bloom managed to barely hang on to first place.

The three finalists came out for their victory lap. Apple Bloom led them, and even from the other side of the ring, Applejack could see the wide grin on her face. She cheered as loud as she could, waving her arms in the hopes of grabbing her little sister’s attention. When Apple Bloom glanced over and waved back, Applejack smiled eagerly and flashed her a thumbs up, then made a heart with her hands. Apple Bloom shook her head and looked away, still with that big smile.

“That was great,” Apple Fritter exclaimed as the cheering died down. “She really is somethin’ else, ain’t she, cuz?”

Applejack nodded. “Sure is. She’ll beat my record in no time, I just know it.”

“Fifteen thirty-eight is mighty quick,” Fritter admitted, “but she’ll get it done lickety-split.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

Big Mac gestured, catching their attention. “C’mon, let’s go meet Apple Bloom. Granny wants to treat ‘er to some ice cream.”

Apple Fritter pumped her fist in the air. “Aw yeah, ice cream!”

“Hope you brought cash,” Big Mac cut in.

The enthusiasm died out on Apple Fritter’s face as the group turned to the stairs. She glanced back at Applejack, who came up the rear of the group, with a sheepish smile. “Spot me?”

Applejack groaned.

~~~~🍎~~~~

All of the available Apples licked happily at their ice creams as they sat at a picnic bench in the food court area outside. It was slightly chilly but after being inside surrounded by so many people, it might as well have been summer.

Applejack hummed happily as she worked her way through her vanilla ice cream, not wanting to risk getting anything that might upset her stomach, especially before her final event of the weekend. It was more about spending time with her family than it was about the ice cream, after all.

Next to her, Apple Bloom vibrated in her seat. The energy radiating off of her was louder than anything she could have said. But that didn’t stop her from talking.

“I’m just so darn happy I won!” she exclaimed again, barely pausing her assault on the colourful ice cream she had been rewarded. “An’ with a new record to boot.”

“I’m proud of ya, sugarcube,” Applejack told her, rubbing her sister’s hat into her head. “That was just about the cleanest, an’ definitely the best, run I’ve ever seen ya do.”

“You can say that again,” Apple Split agreed at the end of the table. He bit down on his popsicle, a happy grin plastering his face. “Looks like we’re havin’ a good day. Bloom won her race, Mac won tie-down, I got second, and AJ, Cinnamon an’ I are hopefully gonna go top three at bronc ridin’ later!”

Next to him, Apple Cinnamon nodded enthusiastically. “I’m just glad they made it into a co-ed event,” he pointed out. “Now we can all go head to head together.”

Apple Crumble leaned forward next to Apple Bloom, grinning mischievously. “Yeah, an’ now you won’t have trouble signin’ up for the right event.”

“Oh, don’t tease ‘im,” Braeburn cut in, shooting a look at Crumble. “There weren’t enough girls signin’ up to do bronc ridin’ anyway, so it makes sense they’d split it.”

Applejack shrugged. “Beats me why. It’s a bit painful, but it’s a lot of fun. Definitely gets the adrenaline goin’, y’know? Kinda sad to see so many of ‘em quit after they stop mutton bustin’ an’ steer ridin’,” she said, remembering every girl that slowly dropped from the roughstock events.

She sighed and took a pensive lick of her ice cream. As one of the only women in the entire league to do any sort of roughstock events, it was quite demoralizing seeing the numbers dwindle further. Her gaze set back on Apple Bloom. “How about you, Bloom? You thinkin’ of droppin’ out of steer ridin’ or are ya gonna move up to bronc ridin’ next year?”

Truth be told, Applejack didn’t mind either way. She just wanted what was best for her sister, and what was best was what she wanted. But then again, she did find herself hoping for an answer.

“I dunno yet,” Apple Bloom replied uneasily. “It’s fun, I guess, but I don’t like how much it hurts to get thrown off if I’m bein’ honest.” She gulped and wiped her face with a sleeved arm. “Plus, I’m scared of somethin’ bad happenin’. I don’t wanna get hurt too bad.”

Applejack nodded, setting her bowl of ice cream on the picnic table. Everyone else kept respectfully silent, idly listening in with intrigue. “I get that. I guess it is kinda scary, but you’re pretty darned good at steer ridin’ when you do it,” Applejack pointed out. “Whatever you wanna do, we got yer back. If you wanna stay, I’ll give ya some tips on movin’ up to broncs, but if ya don’t then… well, that’s alright too.”

She avoided breaching the subject of injuries. It was a real risk, and she definitely didn’t want to lie just to make her sister feel better. Instead, Applejack cleared her throat. “You’re right to be wary of gettin’ hurt, but as soon as ya let that worry become a fear, that’s how ya know you’re screwed,” Applejack added, picking her words as best she could. “Turn that worry into yer failsafe. Make that worry keep ya on yer feet an’ attentive. An’ just like you were taught for ridin’, if you fall then you get right back up an’ never give in.”

Everyone murmured agreement, glancing at each other with slight nods and smiles. Apple Bloom lit up, determination striking across her face. “You’re right, sis. I still dunno what I’m gonna do about that, but I’ll keep that in mind for every event,” she said earnestly. “I wanna be like you, sis. You get up no matter what.”

Applejack flushed a bit. She averted her gaze and rubbed her neck, quickly thinking of a way to divert the attention. “Well, y’know who taught me?” she asked, glancing at her brother. “Big Mac. He always helped me get up when I’d fall, so really ya should be thanking him.”

What came out of Big Mac’s mouth as everyone turned to him could barely be described as being words. A series of flustered noises quietly escaped him before he hid under the brim of his hat and took a long sip of his milkshake.

That set everyone back to giggles and idle chatter as they finished up their cold snacks. Applejack was the first to be done, finally just sitting back and listening to her family. Everyone’s excitement about the previous day and what was to come of the current one served to both pump up Applejack and shoot her down. Of course, she loved hearing about her family’s victories, but it only served to make her shortcomings all the more obvious to herself.

Especially everything that happened the day before, even if she could only remember bits and pieces of the evening. Applejack definitely had not forgotten about her biggest mess-up. The dull ache that decided to make itself known again drove that thought home. Annoyed that the painkillers were already wearing off, Applejack reached into her pocket and took out a little bottle full of red over-the-counter pills. She dropped two into the palm of her hand and swallowed them dry, grimacing at the less than desirable sensation.

She caught Apple Fritter glance at her with wide eyes. Applejack shrugged and gestured to her head, then her torso, then her back, indicating that she needed another dose. In return, Apple Fritter nodded and the two returned to the conversation, just in time for Applejack to be asked something.

“So, what horse did you draw?” Apple Cinnamon asked across the table to her.

Applejack thought back to the start of the weekend with a squint. Her memory was a bit foggy, probably thanks to the splitting headache from the hangover, but the thought came to her eventually. She grinned and crossed her arms. “I drew Harbinger’s Ghost,” she responded confidently. “She’s one-a the best buckin’ horses in the league right now. I think maybe the best one here. Bucks an’ jumps around like there’s no tomorrow, an’ always gets the highest scores.”

Cinnamon huffed, but the smile on his face didn’t waver, even as he mockingly pouted. “You’re so lucky. I got stuck with Mad Fury. He’s alright, but nothin’ like Harbinger’s Ghost.”

With a snort, Split set down his hands on the table. “Well at least ya won’t fall off of him,” he teased, much to Cinnamon’s chagrin. “I drew pretty decent. Night Terror.”

Fritter exclaimed in excitement. “You got Night Terror? Oh, I love watchin’ Night Terror! He’s got this really weird style that’s kinda all over the place,” she explained to Apple Bloom and Crumble as they cocked their heads in unison. “Jumps around left ‘n right. I think y’all are a good match.”

“I hope so,” Apple Split responded with a grin. “He’s definitely a bit of a terror, though I think I can conquer him. Now, I really gotta ask…” His gaze flickered to Applejack, which made her throat tighten up.

“Oh, please don’t,” Applejack pleaded, knowing what Split was probably going to say.

He waved his hand dismissively but pressed on. “You sure you can handle Harbinger’s Ghost? What with”—he trailed off and glanced at Apple Bloom and Crumble, then cleared his throat—“everythin’ that happened yesterday, and all.”

Typical. Applejack recognized her cousin’s question as well-meaning, but she couldn’t suppress the huff that came out of her. Flashes of what she could remember from the day before filled her mind. A cold shiver ran down Applejack’s spine. “I can’t deny that I’ve definitely felt better,” she admitted, “but I shouldn’t have a problem with her.”

Split shrugged. “If you say so. I think you’ll be fine, but I got the feelin’ that there are some other people ‘round this table that are a mite worried.”

With a subtle glance to the occupants of the table, Applejack confirmed his claims. They all glanced at her with innocent worry painted on their faces, which was admittedly understandable. The blonde couldn’t even pretend to be upset. Instead, she sighed and rubbed her forehead, pushing the hat up her head in the process. “I understand y’all’s worry. Really, I do. I’ll admit that yesterday wasn’t exactly my… proudest moment,” she mentioned with a blush.

A clear of her throat helped clear the air. “I reckon any of y’all who want to know already know what happened, maybe even more than I do, but I wanna reassure y’all that despite that, I’m willin’ to do my best today an’ win if luck is on my side.”

If anything, being the centre of attention was quite possibly one of Applejack’s least favourite things. Ironic considering her love for rodeo and the thousands of eyes on her when she performed at her events, but she figured it was different down in the arena with adrenaline pumping through her body. Surrounded by worried family members, though? It almost made her want to throw up as she quickly shrank back and pushed her hat down once more, enough to hide her face.

Ever the caring sister, Apple Bloom was quick to jump in to save Applejack from an uncomfortable situation. She slammed her hands on the wooden tabletop, if a bit too earnestly, and subsequently attracted the attention of the entire group. “I got offered a spot on the Eastern Equestrian Junior Prospect Rodeo Team!” she squawked out, her face instantly reddening as all eyes snapped to her, including Applejack’s.

Everyone exclaimed in surprise. Instantly, Apple Bloom ducked her head and smiled goofily. “They want me to join ‘em for the rest’a the season an’ at least next year, too,” she revealed.

Applejack practically jumped out of her seat to her feet, pushing aside her previous discomfort. “Apple Bloom! That’s, like, the best organization in the country!”

The table nodded in shocked agreement, though they all beamed at Apple Bloom. The girl rubbed the back of her neck, smiling so widely that the chip on her front tooth was more evident than ever. Applejack had almost forgotten it was there. “I know, trust me. They said I’d be joinin’ a bit younger than they usually allow, but that I wouldn’t be the first.” She shrugged nonchalantly, though Applejack could read the distress clear as day on her face. “I think if I do well there and maintain my grades, maybe they’ll keep me on an’ I could get a scholarship to NMAC in a few years.”

Next to her Apple Crumble poked her arm. “That’s… the one all the way in Manehattan, right?”

“Yeah,” Apple Bloom admitted with a nervous nod. “I know I’m only fourteen, but I think it’s a good opportunity an’ I’d just like y’all to consider it,” she said firmly but shakily, glancing over at her immediate family, specifically to Granny Smith.

The elderly woman looked at Apple Bloom, holding a hand to her chin. There was evidence of a smile on her face, but she mostly looked deep in thought. “Well, I’m mighty proud of ya, hun,” she started, “an’ I reckon it’d be a big change but… if it’s what ya want, then I’d be happy to support ya. Yer more than capable of takin’ care-a yerself.”

Relieved, Applejack let out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding. Her gaze set back on Apple Bloom, who beamed with such an intensity Applejack could have almost sworn she was glowing. The smile on her face spoke about as loud as any words could have.

Of course, that was helpful when Apple Bloom couldn’t even push words out of her mouth. Her lips worked as if she were trying to say something, but only soundless air came out. She shook her head with a smile and wiped a sleeve over her wet eyes.

Anyone within arm’s reach gave Apple Bloom reassuring pats and rubs. Applejack herself walked over to her and wrapped her in a hug from behind. To both of their surprise, Big Mac wrapped his long arms around them both and hugged tightly. Applejack winced but smiled regardless. “I’m so proud of you, sugarcube,” she whispered into her sister’s ear.

Apple Bloom let herself go limp in her siblings’ embrace. “Thanks, sis.”

After one final squeeze, both siblings let go of Apple Bloom, each showing their affection in different ways. Big Mac put his hand on her shoulder and gave her one gentle shake, while Applejack pressed Apple Bloom’s hat down on her head and rubbed it in.

Though, logistics still had to be worked out. After making her way back to the seat, Applejack glanced at Granny Smith who seemed to be deep in thought, likely wondering the same thing.

Though, it was Big Mac who asked, “So how an’ when you plannin’ on goin’, then?”

“Well, I wanted ta use the money I got to board Megan over there. Not sure ‘bout where I’d live, though,” Apple Bloom admitted, sulking a bit.

“Ooh,” Fritter hopped in, “you can pro’ly stay with my family up there! My sisters are livin’ in Manehattan,” she offered. “I’m sure they’d be happy to take ya.”

“Now that ya mention it,” Granny put in, seemingly done thinking. She waved a finger in the air as she gathered her thoughts. “Don’t yer cousin Babs live in Manehattan, too?”

Apple Bloom perked up like Winona when a certain W-word is uttered. “Oh yeah, you’re right! I haven’t seen her in a while,” she exclaimed. “Alright, I reckon I gotta figure out which of ‘em live closer to the school. Oh, I suppose I’ll have to transfer, too.”

“Actually,” Fritter interrupted, “my sisters live in the same buildin’ as Babs! They got a pretty good deal that way.”

Applejack didn’t know that, but it was definitely convenient. “Well, how soon do they want ya?” she asked, trying to figure out a way to make it happen for her sister.

Apple Bloom shrugged. “They said to take my time an’ really think it over, but I can call ‘em when I figure it out. I want it to be soon though, gotta make the most of the off-season, ya know?” Her smile widened from ear to ear. “I hear they’ve got a real big indoor ridin’ space an’ personal coaches!”

Applejack tapped her chin with a finger, gazing up at the sky as she searched for an answer. “Well, I reckon it’ll take a few weeks to get yer school stuff all moved over, plus we gotta figure out a way to repay yer cousins if’n they take you in.”

“Don’t worry ‘bout that, cuz,” Fritter cut in, waving a hand dismissively. “Y’all helped us when we needed it, now I reckon it’s ‘bout time I pay it back. I’ve got a favour they owe me. Seems just a good a time as any to call it in.”

“That’s mighty kind of ya,” Applejack responded, glancing at her cousin with wide eyes.

“Naw, remember what ya said that time durin’ dinner?” Apple Fritter asked. “You said that in return for helpin’ us with the stables, we’d just help you out when ya need it.”

The fact that Fritter remembered that when Applejack couldn’t really spoke to Fritter’s person. Applejack smiled and patted her on the back. “Well, that sounds right. Thank ya kin’ly anyway, cousin.”

Fritter just nodded in return, returning the smile almost tenfold. Apple Bloom cleared her throat and rubbed her forearm. “Well, anyway, maybe we can all talk ‘bout this later or somethin’. In the meantime, I reckon we oughta just focus on the rest of the day…”

“Well if ya insist,” Cinnamon jumped in. He twiddled his fingers around but smiled confidently. “I, for one, sure am excited to finish off the day. Saddle bronc’s my last event, then I get to go watch Big Macintosh serve everyone else’s butts on a silver platter!”

Braeburn snorted. “We’ll see ‘bout that!”

Split jumped in on the Big Mac assault group and soon enough, everyone from Apple Bloom’s end all the way to Split’s end were teasing the man. Applejack almost wanted to feel bad, but the hearty laughter that ensued was enough to lift her spirits once more. She thought about what had happened the day before and rubbed her cheek with a finger.

Maybe it was all going to be okay. She couldn’t quite remember everything, but something told her that she had to move on. It wasn’t the end of the world. That’s what… someone had told her.

Letting out a slow exhale, Applejack kept quiet for the rest of the outing. She had to make sure she was at the top of her game for her last event.

~~~~🍎~~~~

“Do ya remember that cute guy from the bar?”

Applejack turned to Fritter, still stretching her arms over her head. “Kinda. What was his name? Runt? Husky?”

“Rusty,” Apple Fritter corrected with a sigh. “I think he ‘n I could have a lotta fun together.”

Rolling out her shoulders, Applejack nestled her left arm in the crook of her opposite elbow and pulled on her outstretched arm. Even though most of the muscles she was bound to use were her legs, her entire body felt sore, so she decided it was best to stretch it all out. “Well, so long as y’all don’t have too much fun,” the blonde teased with a wink at the suddenly red Fritter.

The other girl ran a nervous hand through her freshly dyed green hair. “Oh, shut up, cuz,” she muttered. “It ain’t like that.”

Switching sides, Applejack snorted. “Well I hope it ain’t,” she agreed. “Y’all met an’ spent, what, an hour together?”

“Well, we were there for, like, four hours, but I get what yer tryna say,” Fritter agreed. “I ain’t sayin’ it’s somethin’ serious, but I wanna see where it’s gonna go, y’know?”

Applejack definitely did not know. She gave a noncommittal shrug and moved on to stretching out her hips. She placed her hands on her waist and arched her waist forward, wincing slightly at the sharp pain from her back. “Musta hurt somethin’ yesterday,” she muttered through the pain. Once her intended time was up, she straightened her back with a grunt of effort and rubbed the small of her back.

Fritter did not miss the action. Her eyebrows arched in worry. “You still hurtin’?”

“Li’l bit,” Applejack admitted. “Nothin’ a good stretch won’t help though.” With that in mind, she continued her stretching, reaching down to the floor and grabbing her toes. Her face screwed into a grimace as her muscles ached and begged for relief. She did not oblige. “Though I hope it kicks in soon.”

Her cousin’s response was a short laugh at Applejack’s expense. “All this is preparin’ for what might just be eight seconds or less is pretty intense, cuz. Though I know why ya do it.”

Applejack lifted a leg to her torso, struggling a bit to keep her balance. “Well, so long as it goes well then I reckon it’ll have been worth it,” she pointed out. The leg she stood on shook as she tried to stay upright, but decided it was about time to switch legs anyway. She ignored how difficult it was to keep her balance and realized she was probably still just trying to get past the hangover.

“Yeah, well I guess you’re on soon, right, cuz? They’re already gettin’ Night Terror ready. I bet Split’s excited,” Fritter told her. “Fury’s on after that, then you ‘n Harbinger’s Ghost, right?”

The blonde nodded, finally setting both feet on stable ground. Somehow the stretching almost made her feel worse, but she knew it was necessary. “Split’ll be fine. And then soon enough, it’ll be my turn.” She shook out her legs one by one, nervous tingling running through them as the fringes hanging off her chaps waved. The added weight made her legs feel like lead. Stop being so nervous!

“Ya wanna watch Split?” Fritter offered, eyeing the entrance to the stands. “It won’t take long for’im to set up. Plus, Cinnamon did pretty good with Mad Fury, so that oughta motivate Split a bit. Should be fun to see.”

Applejack patted her vest, feeling the hard leather meant to protect her in case the horse decided to bump or step on her. She didn’t even want to imagine what it’d be like to get stepped on without it. Too many bruised ribs would turn into broken ribs, or worse. A shudder ran down her spine at the thought.

“Applejack?”

She snapped back into attention. “Huh? Oh, Split. Uh, naw, you can go ahead an’ watch him without me,” she mumbled. “I need to get my head in the game, I’m feelin’ awful distracted.”

“Sure, I’ll leave ya to it, then,” Fritter agreed. “Ya got all yer stuff?”

“Yup, I just gotta finish gettin’ the halter ready,” Applejack responded, glancing back at her equipment. “Still haven’t set up the rein.”

“Ya reckon you’ll need a longer one or a shorter one?”

Applejack scratched her cheek as she thought. “Well, Harbinger’s Ghost bucks with ‘er head down so I think I’ll need a longer one, but I’ll see once I set her up.”

Fritter nodded. “Right, well, then good luck! I’ll see ya out there if I don’t get the chance to catch ya before your turn.”

In return, Applejack simply gave her a thumbs up, indicating that Fritter was free to go. Once out of sight, she sighed heavily and leaned on the wall, glancing down at her feet. She kicked out one of her bronc boots, glancing at the little dull spurs on the back of it.

“Just eight seconds,” she told herself. “Eight seconds an’ all ya gotta do is stay on the horse. Then you can go complain ‘bout yer aches tonight.”

That was what she needed to remember. Might be the toughest eight seconds of her weekend, and she’d be damned if it was anything less, but at least she could deal with whatever came next afterwards. Steeling herself, she straightened her back and approached her equipment, perched on a post and ready to be prepared. Almost effortlessly, she readied the halter to the rein and set it next to her saddle; the seat perfectly worn down but intact enough to be just the way she liked it. Applejack gave it a firm slap for good measure, almost smiling at the resounding leathery thwap that followed.

Really, there were other people who were able to help with the little tasks, but most other cowboys and girls liked doing it themselves, at least that was what Applejack assumed since she saw most of the other competitors ready their own halters and even saddled up the horses in the chute with minimal assistance. That was her favourite part of the whole ordeal; getting the saddle just the way she liked it, right up behind the neck of the horse so marking out would come easily, but also to keep balance.

Though, once that was said and done, Applejack noticed that the clock slowly dripped by. She figured Split should be ready to go soon, and she considered going to watch him, but something told her that it’d be better to rest her legs instead. Without anything to do but listen to the announcer’s muffled voice, Applejack toyed with the ring on her finger and let her gaze double on the wall of the arena.

Apple Bloom leaving would make work on the ranch harder, but Applejack was glad that her sister was offered such a great opportunity. Plus, being near Babs might be good for her, and maybe she could make some more friends at her new school. She and Babs hadn’t seen each other since Apple Bloom’s thirteenth birthday, but the two had always been inseparable when brought together.

The thought put a smile on Applejack’s face. They were as close as she herself and Fritter were, so it was a shame that they didn’t get to see each other as often. At least Bloom had Crumble and Candy, even if Candy was three years her senior.

Well, two, Applejack reminded herself. Bloom’s turnin’ fifteen soon. The revelation almost made her snort. Where had the time gone? It felt like just last week, Applejack was holding an eleven-year-old Apple Bloom at the funeral in her arms, but it had already been four years since then, which meant that Apple Bloom was turning fifteen. It almost felt wrong. She had to be strong for her little sister during that time, but had she ever stopped trying to act strong? Had she even noticed the time slip by?

A hand latching around her forearm snapped Applejack out of her thoughts. Almost instinctively, she jumped back and yelped, holding her arms to her body, though the reaction was so sudden that it confused even her as Apple Cinnamon took a step back. He furrowed his eyebrows a bit, pulling his hand back as if he had just touched a hot stove. Applejack looked away, a blush rising to her cheeks.

Cinnamon not so smoothly transitioned his hand into rubbing his own neck. Being slightly shorter than Applejack, he had to look up a slight bit to see past his brim and at her. “Uh, I just came to tell ya that yer in the hole… Are you… alright?” he asked sheepishly. “Quite the reaction there. I musta spooked ya.”

She hadn’t even realized she still held her arms to her torso until they dropped suddenly to her side like limp bags of feed. Her mouth opened, but no words came out. A brief shake of her head was always the solution. “Uh, yeah I’m fine. I guess I just zoned out,” Applejack reasoned. “I’ll get over there now, thanks, Cinnamon.”

He nodded once. “Sure thing. Good luck, AJ.”

Applejack tipped her hat at him and grabbed her gear, the pre-performance nerves slowly working their way through her body. The more it coursed through her, though, the more it felt like simple adrenaline. And that she could handle.

Down the tunnel, she approached the chute where Harbinger’s Ghost herself waited patiently for her challenger. The roar of the crowd drowned out the rushing of blood in her ears. Unlike barrel racing, the noise of the crowd helped amp Applejack up.

In the chute, the mare was of decent size, smaller than Barley himself now that Applejack got to see her up close, and pure ash-gray with a black mane. She was beautiful, all things considered, but the way she stood so perfectly in the chute was almost unnerving.

A small group of other cowboys stood next to the chute, two outside of it and two in the arena itself. Applejack hoisted the halter and saddle up, nestling them on the fence and climbed up to sit on the top of it, dangling one foot inside the chute next to Harbinger’s Ghost. She patted the horse to let her know that she was there. She certainly didn’t want to spook the mare in the chute.

Once she was sure that Harbinger’s Ghost was aware of her presence and ran no risk of being frightened, Applejack took the halter and quickly slipped it on the mare’s muzzle. She moved on to the saddle, letting one of the other people tighten it up for her. With the saddle in hand, she stood up on the metal railing and threw one cinch over the mare’s back, nestling the saddle on her back. With the help of her fellow cowboys, they adjusted the saddle to her liking.

Funnily enough, Harbinger’s Ghost was a saint in the chute. She rarely gave riders a hard time, though Applejack knew better than to let her guard down. When the chute door opened, that was when the mare turned difficult. The very idea of it excited Applejack. Eager to get a move on, she set one foot on the saddle and climbed into the seat, making sure everything felt right beneath her. Carefully, she set her feet in the stirrups, making sure her boot fit in it just the way she liked.

Applejack kept her feet to the mare’s barrel while in the chute. She took the rein in her hand and measured out how long she wanted it, then shuffled in the saddle once more. The anticipation was nearly killing her. A quick glance around the arena served to make her feel better, even if the audience was mostly a blur. She could make out a little section where her family cheered her on, no doubt joined by her fellow cousins who just competed themselves. Never had Applejack longed to win more.

Sure that everything felt right, Applejack gripped the rein tightly and leaned back, ready for the jolt of movement. As her final move, she put a hand on her hat, then lifted her free hand in the air next to her. A firm nod signalled that she was ready, and the chute door slid open.

Instantly, Harbinger’s Ghost jumped out. As the horse exited, the flank strap tightened and soon she was set to bucking. Pure muscle memory made Applejack’s legs shoot out to the mare’s shoulders to mark her out. The first jump was always the best. It was then that Applejack gauged how she would play it, and while eight seconds was not a long time, it always felt like the longest eight potential seconds of her life. As Harbinger’s Ghost jumped and bucked, Applejack was weightless. She kept the mare marked out until she jumped again, then she moved onto the pattern of spurring her.

Harbinger’s Ghost was reckless. She jumped straight up, but erratic, trying to knock Applejack off. The blonde leaned back, kicking out her legs in time with the horse, flying off her saddle and back into it with a thump every time. She gritted her teeth with every bump as lightning jolted up her back. The mare jumped closer to the railing, which unnerved Applejack. She focused on nothing more than staying balanced, even while the weightlessness of her legs made it difficult to stay seated.

It had only been a couple of seconds, but already Applejack felt like it had been too long. Fighting to stay on, even if it would lose her points, she moved in time with Harbinger’s Ghost, despite everything that was throwing her off. Just as the timer rang signalling her glorious victory, her entire body shifted forward.

Applejack flailed out her free arm, using it to maintain herself upright and keep her shoulders square, but there was only so much she could do. The pickup men were helpless as the mare evaded them with another buck. Turning on a dime, Harbinger’s Ghost reared up and back, then erratically ducked forward.

Something went wrong.

Thrown off rhythm, Applejack tried to adjust, but in a moment that passed too quickly, found herself reliving her last barrel race as her feet slipped out of the stirrups no matter how hard she tried to keep them in. All she could do was brace as she was thrown head over heels off of the mare and into the white metal fence. Thankfully, she didn’t go face first, but slamming her entire backside into it hurt a lot more than she thought it should have. It knocked the breath out of her instantly.

With a hard slam that was all too familiar, Applejack fell on the ground in a heap as one of the pickup men yanked the flank strap off of Harbinger’s Ghost. Almost instantly, the mare calmed down and allowed herself to be led back to the chute. The other pickup man galloped up to Applejack and jumped off his horse, kneeling at her side as she groaned and wheezed, trying to catch her breath. She opened her mouth to say something, but only guttural moaning came out as her body tried to gather oxygen.

“Don’t talk,” he instructed her. “And don’t move, ya hear?”

Applejack blinked and raised her spinning head, glancing at the big screen. She had done it! And fell spectacularly, but she had done it. She hadn’t even noticed that she was on her back sprawled out on the floor. As the ability to breathe slowly came back to her, Applejack almost chuckled.

But that amusement disappeared instantly once she tried to get up.

Her shaky arms pushed her halfway up, but that was as far as she’d go. The breath that had so recently returned to her came in violent, panicked breaths as Applejack realized she couldn’t move. It was like having sleep paralysis, except she was able to frantically look around and hear the pickup man call for backup. She had won. So why couldn’t she get up to celebrate? Applejack heaved and tried to will herself to stand, but her legs just wouldn’t respond. They weren’t tingly, or full of pins and needles.

If she hadn’t just seen them, she could have argued that they weren’t even there at all.

Quickly, the adrenaline drained out of her through the sweat that dripped down her face. She felt pain shoot up her back and head and let out one short scream, instantly cut off by her throat clenching in pain. The medics stood over her, their mouths moving as if they were telling her something, but all she could hear was the ringing in her ears and the alarm bells that her brain shot out.

Exhaustion set in soon after her adrenaline-induced high. Her entire body became lead as she could barely lift her head to glance at her feet. Someone was poking her in the leg, she could see, but she felt nothing. Trusting her weight to one forearm, Applejack shakily reached out despite the scolding that one of the medics seemed to be giving her as another pair of them set up a stretcher. One of them held out a neck brace, but she paid it no mind as she dropped her hand on her leg.

Her hand hit her leg, but it felt like it was slapping the ground instead. No thoughts ran through Applejack’s brain; she didn’t even know what to think. The world doubled around her as her eyes crossed and her arm turned crutch gave out, sending her back to the ground to stare up at the ceiling. The big screen on the scoreboard showed her position as she was barely visible through the group of people surrounding her. At least she did it, those eight seconds.

Applejack’s eyes slid shut as the jolting feeling subsided into a dull buzz, sending the world to black with it.

~~~~🍀~~~~

Author's Note:

And that’s the end of act one. Or arc one, whatever you wanna call it. Only took this long (and 100 pages in google docs!) to actually get to the point where the story’s supposed to be, huh? And at two in the morning, no less during finals week haha.

This one was particularly hard to write because of how fast-paced bronc riding is, but also how much happens in those (potentially) 8 seconds. That and the fact that Applejack gets hurt in a way that I’ve never had to write anything like it.

Anyway, I’m sorry! For hurting her! I hope you can forgive me. Take this drawing as an offering of peace, please. It’s a rather peaceful image of AJ and Barley I did about two weeks ago while trying to battle art burnout.

Anyway, as for future chapters, it’ll have to wait a lil bit! I got some stuff I need to write for Jinglemas and other related fic exchange events on my main. Sorry to kind of put this on a cliffhanger for who knows how long!

Hope you enjoyed this chapter and again I am so sorry gah. But we’re finally into it :>