• Published 15th Jan 2012
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Upon Wings of Sacrifice - Rated Ponystar



Rainbow Dash journeys to find a way to bring back Applejack from the dead...but at what price?

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A Rainbow's Desire

Upon Wings of Sacrifice (Rewrite)

Chapter 1: A Rainbow's Desire

An MLP: FIM fic by The Rated PonyStar

Edited by Fernin and Halcyon!

Artwork done by: alfa995

***

Miles away from Ponyville, two best friends raced through the moonlit path of Whitetail Wood. Dust kicked up from behind them as fallen leaves on the road crumbled into pieces. Their galloping got the attention of various night creatures, but as soon as they looked to the source of the sound they saw only blurs. Despite their burning muscles the racers pushed forward, their focus on the finish line. Rainbow Dash shouted, “You’re not gonna win this time, Applejack! By the end of the night, it’s going to be thirty-eight against thirty-seven!”

“Yeah? Well, Ah’ll make sure that thirty-seven of yers stays that way!” Applejack licked her lips and, to Dash’s disbelief, took the lead.

Eyes narrowed, Rainbow Dash summoned whatever energy she could muster to catch up with Applejack. Just a mile away was the finish line: two old oak trees separated by only a few feet. Despite every inch of her body bursting with pain, Dash gritted her teeth and stretched her neck out as far as it could go. Just a bit more...

With one last burst of energy, Rainbow Dash found herself in first place. Her hooves dug into the dirt, kicking up dust and rocks as she slid to a stop. Lifting her forearms into the air, Dash let out a triumphant cry. It came out as a parched croak. She was about to try again, but instead Dash's legs wobbled like jelly. She tried to keep still, but lost her balance and fell on her rear. “Ugh, am I beat.”

Applejack collapsed as well, her body dripping with sweat. “Same here. Land sakes! Ah feel like Ah just went through three applebuckin’ seasons in one go!”

“Still, it was so worth it to just see you eat my dust,” said Dash, dragging a hoof through her sweat-soaked mane.

Applejack chuckled and smacked Dash’s shoulder. “Ah’ll admit it. Ah lost this one, but next time Ah’m gonna make ya eat mah dust, sugarcube.”

“Please! You can’t keep up with the Iron Pony,” jeered Dash, showing off her muscles. “Besides, we’ve been doing this for how long? And who’s got the most wins? This pony! Oh, yeah!”

Applejack smiled and shook her head. “Ah’m too tired to argue with ya. Ah just want to get home, have a nice warm bath, a soft pillow to lie on, and a good night’s rest.”

“Yeah, but you should take two baths. You really stink,” joked Dash, waving her hoof in front of her snout.

Applejack snorted and waved her hoof over her nostrils. “Oh yeah? Well, the smell yer givin’ off is worse than a rotten dragon’s egg all covered in swamp mucus.”

“I don’t smell that bad!” Dash sniffed her armpit, much to Applejack’s disgust. Rainbow gagged, feeling her eyes burning. “Alright... maybe I do...”

The two shared a chuckle and stared into the stars above, letting the cool spring breeze flow through their manes. Eventually, they got up and stretched. They could still feel pain in their muscles, but at least it didn’t hurt to walk.

They were halfway back to Ponyville when Applejack came to a halt, staring off to the right. Curious, Dash followed her friend's gaze and saw a nearby lake, which was reflecting the full moon off its surface. She turned back towards Applejack, who nodded towards the water. “Why don’t we bathe a bit before we head into town? ‘Less we want to make everypony run away from the smell of us.”

“I’m down for that!” Wasting no time, Dash quickly flapped her wings and sailed into the air. She gave Applejack an impish grin, folded her wings, and dropped like a rock. “Geronimo!”

The lake erupted, a wave of foaming spray spreading in all directions and drenching everything in its path—including Applejack. When the wave had passed, the soaked pony sneezed the water out of her nostrils. She quickly felt for her hat, making sure it was still firmly on her head.

Dash’s rose to the surface, her mane glistening as she waved towards her friend. “Come on, AJ! The water’s fine!”

Applejack nodded, taking off her hat and laying it carefully aside. With a cocky grin, she stretched her neck and shouted, “Alrighty then! Yee-haw!”

Applejack rushed forward, jumped, and performed a cannonball dive, crashing into the surface of the lake right next to Rainbow Dash. Her dive managed to create an eruption nearly as large as Rainbow’s, spreading waves all over. A wet Dash mumbled in frustration while blinking water out of her eyes. Her drooping mane looked like it had been on the receiving end of a tsunami.

When she resurfaced, Applejack caught sight of her friend’s new mane-do and laughed. “Sorry about that, partner. But now we’re even.”

A splash to the face put an end to Applejack’s laughter. Rainbow Dash snorted in amusement, but a wave of retaliatory spray silenced her. The two rivals glared at each other, mischievous grins spreading across their muzzles. A second later they were splashing each other, their laughter echoing around them.

Eventually, the pace of the hard-fought battle slowed. When exhaustion finally overwhelmed them, the two friends flopped gratefully on their backs, floating in the water. They turned to each other and burst out laughing.

“Heh, that was fun,” said Dash, glancing over at Applejack. She froze. Instead of its usual ponytail, Applejack’s hair cascaded down her neck like golden silk, shining in the moonlight. Rainbow Dash gasped silently.

“What’s wrong? Somethin’ on mah face?” asked Applejack, tilting her head.

A blushing Dash quickly snapped out of her thoughts. “I just realized… this is the first time I’ve ever seen your mane completely down.”

“Really? Never noticed. What do ya think?” Applejack gave her mane an experimental toss as she shot her friend a self-conscious smile.

“You’re beautiful...” blurted Dash. She nearly launched out of the water when she realized what she had said. “I mean cool! Yeah! You look...cool... Well, not as cool as me, of course, but still…”

“Why thanks, Rainbow. Mighty kind of ya.” Applejack made her way back to shore. “Well, best we both be goin’ now. It’s gonna get dark soon.”

Rainbow Dash nodded, following her back to the shoreline. Once Applejack was out of the lake, she reached out her hoof to assist her friend. Dash grabbed it and started to help herself up. Suddenly, she took a misstep and fell forward, crashing into Applejack. The two mares tumbled to the ground with Rainbow Dash on top. Dash tried to get up, but she stopped as her wide magenta eyes met Applejack’s emerald gaze.

Dash’s heart thumped like a drum, her face turning crimson upon realizing just how suggestive their position was. Their wet, smooth bodies pressed against each other. Dash’s reasoning told her to move away, but instead she moved closer.

“Rainbow...” whispered Applejack, her face turning just as red.

Their snouts were now inches apart, so close they could feel each other’s hot breath. With a daring push, Rainbow pressed her lips to Applejack’s. Applejack welcomed the kiss and wrapped her forelegs around Dash’s waist. The two moaned as their tongues fought for dominance, the sensations sending shivers down their spines. Dash dragged her hooves towards her best friend’s flank, slowly rubbing her cutie mark.

Applejack broke the kiss and flipped Dash onto her back before nipping at her neck. Rainbow cooed with each bite. Oh, Celestia and Luna... I need her now...

“Rainbow,” whispered Applejack as she turned to face the enraptured pegasus, eyes filled with lust. “Ah need you to...”

“Yes?” Dash smiled, closing her eyes.

“Ah need you to—wake up already, partner!

Dash’s eyes snapped open. “Huh?”

***

Rainbow Dash’s awakened to the familiar sound of hooves bucking against her tree. The sharp burst of the impact rocked the tree crazily, shaking the trunk and Rainbow with it. Apples fell onto Dash’s head as she clung to the branch, her eyes swirling in their sockets. Another kick against the wood forced her to hold on even tighter. When the third kick came, Rainbow Dash finally lost her grip and fell off her perch. She dropped onto the ground with a thud, small rocks jabbing into her back.

When Rainbow opened her eyes, the disapproving face of Applejack glared down at her. “Rainbow, how many times have Ah told ya to stop sleepin’ in mah trees?”

“About the same amount of times you’ve tried to give me a concussion,” answered Dash, rolling to her hooves.

“Can’t ya find someplace else to sleep? Ain’t them clouds softer?” asked Applejack.

“Sometimes, but your trees are a lot more comfortable.” Rainbow grinned as she rapped the trunk affectionately with a hoof. “Not too hard and not too soft. Not to mention…” A light kick from Rainbow Dash dropped a loose apple into her hooves. She took a big bite, savoring the famous sweetness of Sweet Apple Acres’ prized produce. “…You get a nice snack whenever you want.”

“Ah guess Ah should be flattered, but we run a farm around here, not an inn,” said Applejack, poking at Dash’s chest. “Now do ya mind answering why yer here?”

Dash calmly finished off the apple and wiped its remains off her snout. “I was wondering if you wanted to hang out. I’ve got no weather duties, and I came up with some cool new tricks for my arsenal. Wanna take a look?”

“No can do, Sugarcube,” said Applejack, turning away from the disappointed Rainbow Dash. “Ah’ve got too much work to do.”

Not one to take no for an answer, Rainbow Dash flapped her wings and hovered over Applejack, following her towards the orchards. “Oh, come on! I’m bored and you’re the only pony cool enough to hang out with!”

Applejack shook her head in silence. Rainbow Dash groaned and darted ahead, dropping into Applejack’s path, much to the latter’s annoyance. “Come on, Rainbow. Quit being a foal. Can’t ya hang out with one of our other friends?”

“I’ve tried! Pinkie Pie is still at work, Twilight’s doing some egghead experiment, and Rarity and Fluttershy are at the spa. And I’m not going there no matter how bored I am!” Rainbow Dash shivered at the thought. As much as she hated to, Rainbow Dash got on her knees. “Please, AJ! You’re my only hope! If I don’t do something soon, I’ll die of boredom!”

“Then Ah’ll be sure to send flowers,” joked Applejack, struggling to resist giving a smirk. “Look, Rainbow, Ah wouldn’t mind hangin’ out with ya. But Ah got all these apple trees to harvest for a big order tomorrow. Ah ain’t got the time.”

Rainbow Dash tried to protest again, but Applejack just trotted around her. She glared at one of the rocks on the dusty ground and gave it a frustrated kick. It sailed through the air, bounced off a tree, and managed to hit Dash’s forehead. After muttering a few curses, she asked, “Can I at least go back to sleep?”

“Only if ya don’t do it in one of mah trees,” answered Applejack as she sized up the nearest tree.

Head hung low, Rainbow Dash slunk toward a shady spot to lie down. Out of the corner of her eye, Rainbow saw Applejack lean back and let loose with her powerful hind legs. With one perfect kick, every apple from the branches fell into straw baskets at the base of the trunk.

Rainbow Dash tried to turn away, but she couldn’t pull her gaze away from the sweaty applebucker. Every kick Applejack performed was flawless. Graceful. Effortless. It reminded Dash of herself when she flew. Never stopping for a minute, Applejack proceeded to kick every tree in her path. Rainbow licked her lips at the sight of the salty sweat dripping down Applejack’s muscled physique. It even got to the point where Rainbow Dash had to struggle to keep her wings demurely at her sides.

Applejack stopped and glanced in askance back at the lounging pegasus. “Is there a reason yer staring?”

Rainbow Dash tried to hide her blush by turning away. “N-nothing! I wasn’t looking at you, just the trees! I mean it’s not like I was staring at you…”

Or your nice flank… thought Rainbow, feeling the heat rising to her head.

Applejack raised an eyebrow, but shrugged and turned back to work. Just as she was about to kick the next tree, she paused. Rainbow tilted her head as Applejack looked at the remaining trees and then glanced back at her. Applejack’s mouth curved into a smile that Dash knew very well, and it got her excited. “Ya still bored, Rainbow? Then how about we go and turn mah little chore into a game between the two of us?” suggested Applejack.

“Now you’re talking!” shouted Dash. She jumped to her hooves, stretching her wings and legs. “So what are we doing? What are the rules?”

“Simple. See those two lines of trees?” Applejack pointed to two rows nearby, baskets right underneath each tree. “We’ll each take a line and buck all the apples off the trees. First one to finish wins. Only rule is—”

“No wings, right?” interrupted Dash with a knowing smirk. “Not that it matters. Wings or no wings, I’ll cream you.”

“We’ll see about that. We Apples are the best buckers in Equestria, sugarcube,” warned Applejack.

After drawing a starting line, the two of them started to stretch in preparation for the race. Rainbow Dash focused on the array of trees lined up ahead. While she was naturally faster in the air and not as experienced in applebucking as her opponent, Rainbow Dash was just as fast and strong as any earth pony. A grin spread across her muzzle as an idea came to her. She turned to Applejack and said, “Hey! How about we make things more interesting?”

“How so?” asked Applejack, still keeping her eyes forward.

“If I win, then tomorrow you’ll watch me perform my tricks and hang out with me all day until the sun goes down,” said Rainbow Dash.

Applejack rubbed her chin. A few moments later she nodded. “Alright, Ah agree. But if ya lose, then yer gonna have to help me with mah shipment tomorrow.”

Although the idea of doing work made Dash reluctant to accept, she would still be hanging out with Applejack win or lose. Doesn’t mean I’m gonna let her win though!

“Deal,” said Rainbow Dash. Both ponies spit onto their hooves and slapped them together, their eyes beaming with determination.

The two leaned back, hindquarters raised in the air and tails swaying in eager anticipation. Rainbow Dash’s nostrils flared as she drew in a deep breath. Applejack lowered the brim of her hat and gritted her teeth. The entire farm was silent; not even a bird chirped. The sun warmed the backs of the two eager ponies as they held their breaths, waiting for the race to begin. A single leaf gently dropped down a nearby branch. They both quickly glanced at each other and then stared back at the leaf. The moment it touched the grass, the racers ruptured into motion, kicking up clouds of dust in their wake.

Rainbow Dash made it to her first tree and raised her hind legs, unleashing a powerful kick. Every apple dropped, landing perfectly in the baskets. With one tree down, Rainbow Dash zipped to the next one, keeping up a blistering pace.

Kick after kick, Dash filled her baskets to the brim. Although the sounds of Applejack’s own bucking rang in her ears, Dash continued to be confident. Halfway through her tree line, Rainbow shot a quick glance at her opponent. What she saw brought her to a screeching halt, narrowly avoiding collision with the next apple tree. She gaped disbelievingly at Applejack, who was three trees ahead.

Applejack laughed as she bucked the next set of apples down. “Come on, slowpoke! Ya throwin’ the towel in already?”

Rainbow Dash gritted her teeth. Oh, she did not just say that!

Back on her hooves, Dash doubled her efforts to catch up. She put more power into her kicks and pushed herself to run even faster, slowly gaining ground. Sweat dripped continuously down Rainbow’s brow and her muscles started to ache, but she ignored them.

Despite her renewed vigor, Rainbow Dash found herself occasionally missing the trunk or not giving enough strength to her kicks. Even worse, just as it would seem Rainbow had caught up, Applejack would suddenly be one tree ahead of her. She tried to ignore this, but every time she glanced at her opponent, Dash lost her concentration and messed up.

Soon, Rainbow Dash reached her final tree. She was about to finish it when a cry of victory was let out from the other side. Dash turned around and saw Applejack jumping with joy, the last of the filled baskets by her side. “Yee-haw! That’s how we do it here on the farm!”

Rainbow Dash slumped to the ground, ears folded back. Applejack walked over with a big smile and asked, “So who’s the Iron Pony now?”

“You are…” whispered Rainbow Dash, shoulders sinking.

Applejack frowned. “Hey, come on. Ah know ya don’t like losin’, but ya came close. And it was fun, wasn’t it?”

Dash didn’t say anything. Then a small smile spread on her face. The two of them started laughing and shook hooves. Getting back on all fours, Rainbow Dash said, “Yeah, I lost. But don’t think I’ll let you win next time.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, sugarcube,” said Applejack. She took her hat off and winced at the dark sweat stain that had discolored most of the felt. “Ugh, gonna have to wash that later. Anyway, ya want a drink? Ah’m parched.”

Rainbow Dash was about to accept when the breath caught in her throat. Applejack had proceeded to take off her braid, releasing her blond mane. Dash found herself mesmerized as Applejack tossed her mane in the gentle breeze. It was even more beautiful in real life than any dream she could have imagined.

Her staring caught Applejack's attention as she raised an eyebrow and stunned pegasus. “Everything alright, sugarcube?”

Dash snapped out of it. “Uh… your mane is… it’s really… uh…”

Come on, Dash! Say it! Just say it!

“…It’s… really… yellow!”

Although she smiled, Rainbow Dash wanted to hide her head under the ground. Yellow?! You moron! What kind of lame compliment is that?!

“Uh, thanks?” Applejack shifted her eyes around before asking, “Ya sure yer okay?”

“Positive! Never better! In fact, I think I’m going to get going now and show everypony how positive I am! Greatokayseeyoulaterbye!” shouted Dash, flying into the air. Desperate to get away from Applejack, Rainbow Dash flew so fast that she nearly gained enough speed to do a sonic rainboom.

Applejack called her name a few times, but Dash ignored her. She had to get away and find someplace to think.

***

Rainbow Dash kept flying until she was miles away from Sweet Apple Acres. She located one of her usual hangout clouds and settled down for a landing. With nopony else around, Dash took a deep breath before letting out an unintelligible scream of rage. She pounded her hooves into the surface of the cloud, nearly driving them through the fluffy little cumulus. The helpless cloud lurched and shrank with every blow.

“Stupid! You had this one chance to compliment her and you say her hair is yellow?!” shouted Dash. She gave the much-abused cumulus one last kick, nearly splitting it in half. Exhausted, she flopped onto her back and sighed. “When did falling in love mean becoming an idiot at the same time?”

Dash closed her eyes, blushing as images of a wild and playful Applejack danced in her mind like a never-ending recording. A dreamy smile slowly appeared on her face, but after a peaceful moment Rainbow Dash shifted to her side and cursed again. She was supposed to be Rainbow Dash, the brave and bold pegasus who never backed down from a challenge. So why was it that she could face an evil princess, a spirit of chaos, and hundreds of twisted shape-shifting monsters, but couldn’t tell a single friend how much she loved her?

Before meeting Applejack, she had never wanted anything other than being a Wonderbolt. Suddenly, she found herself desiring two things in the world and the more she hung out with Applejack, the more she began to desire her more. She denied it at first, but eventually thing started to get weird. Every time they touched, Rainbow Dash could feel every hair on pelt stand up straight like an electric shock pulsed through her. That beautiful golden mare haunted her day and night; even in her dreams Dash couldn’t escape it. And those emerald eyes that hypnotized her every time she looked at them. After many restless nights of trying to deny it, she came to the conclusion that she had fallen in love with one of her best friends.

Naturally, Rainbow Dash had tried to confess, many times, but she always chickened out at the last second. What if she doesn’t feel the same way? What if she won’t accept me for liking mares? Would this ruin our friendship? Maybe I should talk to somepony about this, thought Dash. She sat up straight and began to rub her chin. Question is, who?

“Hi, Dashie!” A perky shout from out of nowhere jolted Dash out of her musings, nearly sending her off the cloud. Turning around, Dash saw a giggling Pinkie Pie held by a series of colorful balloons around her waist.

“Pinkie! How many times have I told you to stop scaring me like that?!” gasped Rainbow Dash, placing a hoof of her chest.

Pinkie Pie shrugged, swaying gently in the sky. “I don’t know. I lost count at three thousand nine hundred and thirty-seven. Or was it three thousand nine hundred and thirty-eight?”

Dash could feel a headache coming on, a common occurrence whenever the spontaneous pony was annoying her. “How did you even find me, Pinkie?”

“Well... I was just about to take my break when my tail started shaking, my right hoof started to itch, and my eyes went all loopy! That means that Rainbow Dash is feeling down and I should go talk to her to try to cheer her up! So I looked on my ‘What Cloud is Dashie on’ schedule, and then I came over to do just as my sense told me!” explained Pinkie in one breath.

“Wait a minute! You have a schedule for which cloud I hang out on every day?” asked Rainbow Dash, her eyes filled with dread.

“Oh, of course!” said Pinkie, waving a forehoof dismissively.

“...Why!?”

Pinkie shrugged again. “I don’t know. I just figured it might come in handy whenever I needed to find you.”

“And you don’t find this creepy in any way?” prompted Dash, raising her voice. She was beginning to question her friend’s sanity. Make that continuing to question it...

“Nope,” responded Pinkie with a huge grin.

Rainbow Dash rubbed her temples. She was about to tell Pinkie to leave her alone when she remembered to whom she was speaking. If anypony could keep a secret, it was Pinkie Pie. “Pinkie, listen to me. I need to tell you something important.”

“Is it a secret?! I love learning new secrets and you can always trust me with them!” shouted Pinkie Pie, clapping her hooves.

“Yeah, it’s a secret. A big one…” muttered Rainbow Dash. “I need you to promise me that you will tell nopony—not even the princesses if they ask—what I am going to tell you." She gulped. "And you gotta promise to not hate me either.”

“Why would I ever hate you?” asked Pinkie Pie, tilting her head.

“Just promise me!” begged Dash.

“Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye!” promised Pinkie with the most serious look on her face Dash had ever seen.

With the promise sealed, Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. “I… I have feelings for somepony…”

In an instant, a squealing Pinkie was practically hugging the life out of Dash. Her face started to turn purple as an excited and oblivious Pinkie shouted, “Oh my gosh! This is so exciting! Our little Dashie has found a special somepony! This is the best news I’ve heard all day! We so have to throw you and your stallion a party tonight! Are you serious?! How long have you been going out?! When’s the wedding?!”

Eventually, a blushing Dash managed to escape Pinkie’s grasp and silenced her with a hoof to her mouth. Even then, the muffled mare still managed to mumble.

“Hold on, Pinkie Pie,” said Rainbow Dash, taking in a few deep breaths. “The pony I love… isn’t a stallion.”

Pinkie instantly stopped her rambling. Finally having silence, Rainbow Dash reluctantly removed her saliva-covered hoof, grimacing at the sight. Pinkie Pie, emotionless, kept still as Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. “It’s… It’s Applejack… I… like mares.”

Rainbow Dash closed her eyes and waited for the shouts of disgust and horror. Any moment now, Pinkie Pie was going to end their friendship and tell everypony how the cool and awesome Rainbow Dash was a lame and disgusting fillyfooler.

“Applejack!? That so cute!” squealed Pinkie Pie. “That match is so perfect for you two!”

Wide-eyed, Rainbow Dash stared back at the smiling balloon pony and stammered incredulously. “Y-you mean you… don’t care?”

“About what?” asked Pinkie Pie.

“That I’m a fillyfooler?” Rainbow Dash nearly gagged on the insult.

“Rainbow Dash, you don’t need to call yourself such a horrible name,” scolded Pinkie Pie. “There’s nothing wrong with liking mares. I know a lot of ponies who do that. Granted I know a lot of ponies in general, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hang out with those who are different. I like everypony!”

As if a million weights had been lifted from her shoulders, Rainbow Dash sighed in relief. With the biggest smile she could muster, Dash leaped into Pinkie’s hooves and nuzzled her. “Thanks, Pinkie… you don’t know how much that means to me… I should have known better than to doubt you.”

“Silly Dashie. What made you think such a thing?” said Pinkie, rubbing Dash’s mane.

Ears drooping, her thoughts turned to days of old and whispers of bullies in school halls. Rainbow Dash muttered, “Because… I’ve known ponies who aren’t as understanding as you, Pinkie.”

“Dashie, nopony in Ponyville would ever hate you for being who you are. And anypony who does do that is just being a meany pants!” said Pinkie Pie, her pouty expression making Rainbow Dash chuckle. “You must have had some ponies accept you before you came to Ponyville, right?”

“Well, my parents kind of freaked out at first, but they still loved me,” said Rainbow Dash. Not that it mattered much, since they were mostly busy with their jobs to care. She lowered her head as a third name came to mind. “The other one… was the first girl I ever fell in love with…”

“Gilda?” guessed Pinkie Pie.

Rainbow Dash sighed. “That obvious?”

“Kind of. I take it didn’t go well?” asked Pinkie.

A sad smile tugged up the corners of Rainbow’s mouth. “When she and I got… together… it was the happiest moment of my life. For a long time we were close… then something happened. We still remained friends," her smile soon disappeared, "at least until she came to Ponyville, but... I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

“I understand. Anyway, back to Applejack. When are you going to tell her?” asked Pinkie, shaking eagerly.

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe never?”

Pinkie sighed as she floated over to Dash and put her foreleg around her friend’s neck. “Come on, Dashie! What’s there to be afraid of?”

“Gee, Pinkie, let’s think? Maybe the fact that she may not feel the same way? Or she thinks that I’m disgusting for liking her in the first place? She’s one of my best friends. I’d rather never be with her than lose her,” muttered Dash.

“Even if she doesn’t love you, Applejack will still be your friend, no matter what,” said Pinkie Pie reassuringly. “Come on, Dashie, you never know if you don’t try. You just gotta find a good moment!”

“Well… Applejack and I are going to Trottingham tomorrow…” mentioned Rainbow.

“Perfect! You and Applejack can be resting under a tree, looking deep into each other’s eyes as the sun fades in the background. You can whisper your feelings to her as she kisses you lower and lower and—”

“Okay, Pinkie! I get it!” interrupted Rainbow Dash, blushing redder then the fading sun. “I’ll tell her tomorrow. I promise.”

“Okie dokie lokie! This just gives me time to prepare a huge party to celebrate you two becoming a couple!” shouted Pinkie.

“And if we just decide to be friends?” asked Rainbow.

“Then we have a party to celebrate you two still being friends!” declared Pinkie. Spinning on her belt of balloon strings, Pinkie looked up at the colorful, helium-filled swarm in annoyance. Without a moment’s hesitation, she began kicking her legs in an effort to get back to the ground. Dash tried to suppress a snicker at her friend’s predicament, but that amusement turned to shock as Pinkie started to descend as if she were swimming in water. “See you later, Rainbow Dash! Good luck!”

Watching her hyperactive friend “swim” away, Dash shook her head and smiled. “That Pinkie Pie. She’s so random, but always there for you.”

Excitement stirred inside Rainbow Dash, sending a pleasant shiver up her spine. It was finally going to happen. She was going to confess her love to Applejack and maybe, just maybe, it would all work out in the end.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t wait to get up early in the morning!” shouted Rainbow Dash.

***

“Darn it, darn it, darn it!” shouted Dash as she high-tailed it through the skies. Of all the days she could have accidentally slept in, it had to be the day she’d wanted to get up early. Wasting no time, Dash had bolted out of her bed and took off for the farm, ignoring breakfast and a shower.

Rainbow Dash arrived at the farm minutes later and spotted Applejack. Her brother, Big Macintosh, was helping her get hooked up to a harness that connected to a large wooden cart filled with apples. Rainbow Dash landed, ready to apologize, but Applejack spotted her and laughed. “Shucks, Big Mac. Told ya she’d be twenty minutes late instead of twenty-five. Looks like ya own me ten bits when Ah get back.”

“Eeyup,” said Big Macintosh.

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “Ha ha, very funny. Are we going to get this over with or not?”

“Settle down there, partner. We got all the time in the world.” Applejack hugged her brother and made her way towards the farm’s entrance, pulling the cart behind her. She turned to Rainbow Dash and nodded. “Well, come on. We gotta get around Mount Wildbuck before noon if we’re gonna get to Trottingham in time.”

Rainbow Dash flew back into the air and followed her down the road, Big Mac waving them goodbye. As she kept up with Applejack’s pace, Dash asked, “So what do you need me to do?”

“Just keep an eye out for any sign of danger. Like bears, mountain lions, thieves, and whatnot,” said Applejack.

“No problem! Bring them all on at once. I can take care of them easily.” Dash followed her boast with a few jabs and kicks.

Applejack smiled and shook her head. “Even if we don’t run into trouble, it’ll still be nice to have a friend on this journey for company.”

“Well, duh. After all, the best company is the coolest company,” said Dash as she did a few loop-de-loops. “And I happen to be the coolest.”

The two shared a laugh as they continued down the path towards the mountains ahead.

***

Rainbow Dash was starting to regret not eating anything before the trip. Gurgling painfully, her stomach felt like it was about to implode. Even worse, everything was starting to look like food to her eyes. The trees looked like steamed broccoli and the falling leaves resembled lettuce. Dash held her stomach as another hunger pang erupted. She had to get something to eat and fast.

Glimpsing down, Dash saw the cart of apples, and her mouth started to water. Applejack’s focus was on the road, leaving the sweet, delicious fruit open for the taking. As quietly as she could, Rainbow glided down near the cart until she was inches away from the apples. The pegasus looked up and saw Applejack’s flank close enough to touch, golden tail swaying back and forth alluringly.

Snap out of it, Dash! Eyes on the prize, thought Dash. Well, the other prize, at least.

Closing her eyes, Rainbow Dash took a deep whiff of the fragrant apples and reached for a bite. A hairy whip smacked across her face and she yelped in surprise. Rubbing her cheek, Dash opened her eyes to find Applejack glaring at her. “And what do ya think yer doing?”

Rainbow Dash gulped and rubbed the back of her head. “Um, well… I was just… inspecting the apples?”

Sweat beaded on Dash’s brow as Applejack stared at her with disbelief. “Oh really?”

“Um… yeah?”

Applejack kept her glare until she started to chuckle. “Don’t ya worry about none of it, Rainbow. Ya can have one.”

“Really?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Sure, best to keep that stomach of yers from growling like a timberwolf.”

Blushing, Dash took an apple and munched on it. A few bites later, she threw the core away. Her satisfied burp earned another round of mirth from the two ponies. Flying closer to Applejack’s side, Rainbow Dash pointed to the cart. “So what are all these apples for, anyway? Some sort of celebration in Trottingham?”

“Nope, it’s a surprise,” said Applejack.

“Aw, come on. Please?” begged Rainbow Dash.

“Sorry, Sugarcube. Yer gonna have to wait until we get there.”

Rainbow Dash huffed and crossed her arms. “Well, fine. Maybe then I won’t tell you my surprise.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Ya got a surprise too? What kind?”

“Why should I tell you?” asked Rainbow. “After all, you won’t tell me yours.”

With a shrug, Applejack continued down the road. “Fine, don’t tell me.”

Rainbow’s eyes widened. “W-well, if you’re so interested—”

“Ah’m not.”

“—then I guess I can tell you when we stop for a break.”

“Fine by me. The bridge is up ahead. Once we cross we can—Oh dagnabbit!” Applejack rushed forward, worry on her face. Rainbow Dash was surprised by the sudden sprint, but she soon followed Applejack towards the river.

When they arrived, Dash could see that the bridge was in ruins. Something had broken it apart, leaving a huge gap between both ends. Even the support columns were gone. The river rushed silently along under the ruins of the bridge, its mud-brown depths revealing no trace of the missing span. Dash peered down into the water and asked, “Think you can cross the river?”

“It’s too deep, and Ah don’t want to risk losing any of these apples,” said Applejack, shaking her head. “Ah don’t get it; that bridge was one of the sturdiest bridges Ah’ve ever crossed. Think the river washed it away?”

“I doubt it. It hasn’t rained in days,” answered Dash. She peered closer to one of the ruined edges and noticed something. It was black, and she could feel heat emanating from wherever she touched it. It also held a distinctive smell that made her nose twitch. “Hey I think the bridge was burned down. Look at these black marks and smell them.”

Applejack leaned down and took a whiff. “Yep, it’s been burned alright. Must have been a fire.”

“If that’s true then how did it happen? There hasn’t been a storm, so it can’t be from lightning. Not hot enough for the heat to start it either. Meaning… somepony had to have done this on purpose.” Rainbow Dash looked around, an uneasy feeling starting to stir inside her. “Well, what should we do?”

“Fly around the river and see if there’s some other way we can cross. Ah’ll stay here with the cart,” said Applejack.

Although Rainbow Dash’s gut was telling her otherwise, she nodded and took off. “I’ll be back soon. Be careful.”

With one last wave, Rainbow Dash flew down the river in search of another crossing. She just hoped her worries were nothing more than just her imagination and the idea that somepony did this wasn’t true. Nevertheless, she flew faster.

***

Once Rainbow was gone, Applejack parked the cart near a tree, tugged off her harness, and lay down gratefully on the grass. Closing her eyes, she relaxed as the smell of the spring-scented air caressed her nostrils. The quiet, fragrant embrace of the wild made it feel like she was back at home. All that was missing was the hoof-grown apple trees she and her family took care of back on their farm.

Applejack glanced at the sun and frowned slightly. Could she still make it in time? The farmer didn’t want to think about what would happen if the shipment was late… Shaking her head, she banished her worries. Of course she would make it, bad luck or no. After all, she had the fastest pegasus in Equestria searching for a useable ford.

Thinking of Rainbow Dash made Applejack frown again. Her friend had been acting strangely ever since they’d left Sweet Apple Acres. She hasn’t complained once since we started travelin’. Ah’d half expect some sort of arugment about her being bored or us goin’ to slow, but she’s barely said a peep. Not to mention, Rainbow kept staring at her. Applejack had pretended not to notice, but it made her uneasy.

Ah wonder what’s gotten her actin’ like this? thought Applejack. Could it be she…

The sound of a stick being crunched against the ground caught Applejack’s attention. Something lumbered through the underbrush, sounding as large as a bear. Applejack listened carefully to the odd noises as it got closer.

Applejack tensed, keeping her eyes open for any sign of the oncoming creature. Chances were it wasn’t dangerous, but it was better to be prepared for the unexpected. A nearby bush rustled, and she turned around, ready for anything… except for what came out.

A female griffin wearing a green bandana and a wide belt that carried two sharp daggers stumbled out of the bushes and onto the road, coughing and desperately gripping her waist. Twigs and smeared dirt fouled her tawny fur and white feathers as she stumbled closer to Applejack. With a cry, the wounded griffin fell to ground, tears in her eyes.

Applejack quickly rushed to the griffin’s side. “Whoa there, partner! What’s wrong?”

Hissing in pain, the griffin groaned, “Snake… bit me… poison… help…”

As the griffin moaned, an alarm went off in Applejack’s head. She turned towards the broken bridge and remembered what Dash had said about somepony possibly burning the bridge down. Her gaze then turned to moaning armed griffin in front of her.

“There’s plenty of snakes in these here parts… was it one of them snakes with red stripes touchin’ black stripes?” asked Applejack, her voice wary and uncertain.

The griffin quickly nodded as she squirmed around in pain. “Yeah!”

“Are ya sure?” asked Applejack, her expression hardening. “It’s important.”

“Red stripes touching black! Yes! Please… you gotta help me,” moaned the griffin. “I don’t want to die!”

Applejack took a step back, shaking her head. “Ah have a friend who knows all about snakes. Red stripes and black stripes, well, that’s a Milk Snake. And ain’t nopony Ah ever heard of gotten poisoned by a non-poisonous snake. So why don’t ya quit actin’ and tell me what ya really want ya faker?”

There was a moment of silence as the two stared at each other. Suddenly, the faking griffin smirked and started chuckling. “Well, what do you know? Who would have thought a low-brained farmer like you had some intelligence.”

The female griffin screeched. A second later, a sudden blow from above knocked Applejack back towards the edge of the river. Grunting, she lifted herself back to her hooves and saw two male griffins land next to the standing female griffin.

The first new arrival was a bit bigger than Apple Bloom’s size, with the green feathers on his head styled like a mohawk. His fur was a darker shade of brown, and he wore a red vest with black stylized lightning bolts decorating the sides. Gauntlets covered his forelegs, leaving each talon glittering threateningly with razor sharp edges. When the griffin flexed his claws intimidatingly, they seemed to slice the very air.

The second arrival towered above his companions, thin and built for speed. His huge blue wings looked long enough to cover a full-grown pony. He had a red bandana concealing most of his beak and a sheathed scimitar held by an iron belt around his waist. As Applejack stared into his eyes, the hints of madness and bloodlust in the beady orbs made the breath catch in her throat.

“I said you should have taken those acting lessons, Kuffie,” mocked the taller one.

Kuffie glared at him. “Oh shut it, Falk. At least we got a good haul this time.” She pointed to the apple cart. The smallest one licked his chops greedily at the sight.

Applejack growled and stomped her hoof. “What’s the big idea, attackin’ me like that?!”

Falk smirked. “What does it look like? We’re hungry. You got food, so we’re stealing from you. I suggest you just let us take this sweet load of apples, and you make your way back to your farm, or else.”

“Yeah, ‘cause we’re not afraid to play rough with a little pony like you,” said the smaller one. He slowly slid his long, narrow tongue across the mirrored surface of his metal-tipped claws, but Applejack didn’t even flinch.

“Ah ain’t lettin’ no stealin’ varmints such as ya’ll take mah cart! Ah’m gonna buck the feathers clean off yer sorry hides!” Applejack charged at the bandits head on, but they leaped into the air, avoiding her attack easily. The griffins lazily circled above her. Applejack calmed herself and watched the circling griffins. They had the advantage due to their wings, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have a few tricks of her own.

Falk dived downward with his sword in hand, raising his blade over his head as he got closer to his target. Applejack turned around and sent her back hooves straight into his face, snapping his head back. He crashed into a nearby tree with the impact echoing loud enough for the other griffins to hear. The unfortunate tree creaked, its bark torn from one side by the force of the collision. The remaining griffins stared first at their fallen comrade in shock, then at Applejack who spat at the ground and grinned.

The other two griffins glared and soared higher. Applejack did her best to keep an eye on both, wishing for once she had eyes like that mailpony back home. The griffins converged on Applejack from separate directions in a synchronized attack. She waited until they were nearly upon her and leaped out of the way. The two thieves flared their wings in a vain attempt to stop, but it was too late. Simultaneous cries of pain filled the air as they collided and fell to the ground.

Kuffie struggled to her paws and dealt the shorter griffin an irritated slap. “Watch where you’re flying, Kludd!”

“Why don’t you watch it next time?!” retorted Kludd, rubbing his bruised beak. Kuffie was about to yell again when something hit her on the side of the head and splattered across her feathers. Kludd snickered at her shocked expression—and gasped as something slammed into his head as well. The two of them turned towards the apple cart, only to get hit with more apples courtesy, of Applejack.

“You little twerp! I’ll kill you!” screamed Kuffie. She drew one of her daggers and threw it. Applejack barely managed to duck in time, but the dagger sliced into her hat. It lodged into the wood of the cart behind her, pinning the hat to the weathered plank.

For a moment Applejack stared at her transfixed hat in horror. She turned to the griffins, rage in her eyes as she lowered her body and flared her nostrils. “Now it’s on!”

Galloping forward, Applejack tackled Kuffie and pinned her to the ground. Applejack’s hooves smashed into Kuffie’s face over and over again, coloring the beak with smears of blood.

Applejack was winding up for a beak-crushing haymaker when she was pulled up short by the searing pain as something sharp lodged in her back. Turning her head, Applejack saw Kludd latched onto her, his metal talons digging deep into her already bleeding back. Applejack quickly got off her stunned victim. She jumped and kicked furiously in an effort to buck off Kludd, but he maintained his needle-tipped grip. Applejack had to dislodge her attacker soon. Seeing her apple cart, she grinned maliciously and took off at a gallop.

The sudden change of tactics took Kludd by surprise, but he kept his hold strong. As they got closer to the cart, Applejack lowered her body until Kludd could see the cart right in front of him. He tried to leap free—but it was too late. With a resounding thud, he slammed into the cart and collapsed to the ground. Kludd screamed in agony, cursing and pressing a clawed hand desperately against his new wound as blood streamed from the cut in his forehead.

Leaning against her much-abused cart, Applejack examined her back. It was still bleeding, but not profusely. Now all she had to do was—

Applejack’s moment of relief was cut short as s a claw grabbed her by the throat and slammed her into the apple cart, knocking it on its side and throwing her to the ground. Applejack groaned and looked up to see an pissed off Falk standing over her. His claws wrapped around her throat again, pinning her against the ground. She tried to push him off, but she was still winded from the surprise attack.

“You idiot! Watch the merchandise!” shouted Kuffie, holding her bloody beak.

“Forget the merchandise! I’m going to kill this pony!” shouted Falk.

Falk drew his sword in one clawed hand and held it right over Applejack’s head, grinning psychotically. “I’m going to enjoy cutting your head off and letting your blood paint this place red.”

Applejack’s skin prickled as she looked up at the griffin. The insane rage in her captor’s gaze made her freeze up in terror. The sword slid almost gently over her left cheek, making a small cut in her sweat-soaked flesh. When blood began to drip from the newly made wound, Falk leaned down. As delicately as a lover, he took off his bandana, opened his beak, and lapped delicately along the rivulet of blood. Applejack shivered, her face contorting in disgust as her assailant chuckled darkly.

“Falk! The boss said no killing! We’re already wanted back home; I don’t think angering the authorities here will help! Let’s just get the apples and go!” argued Kludd.

“Shut up!” hissed Falk. “What Cyrus doesn’t know won’t hurt him! So let me just take care of this annoyance!”

Applejack closed her eyes as Falk raised his blade. Just as his sword started its lethal arc downward, a hoof slammed into his face at lightning speed. Falk went tumbling as Applejack’s rescuer landed, snarling in rage. “Get your filthy claws off her!”

Opening her eyes, Applejack saw somepony she’d never been happier to see in her entire life. She joyously shouted the name of her savior. “Rainbow Dash!”