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Farm Hands (Anon x Applejack, EQG, updated 6-20-22)

By MagnaAnon
Created: 1st November 2021 12:26:47 AM
21st June 2022 02:09:30 AM

  1. >Sweet Apple Acres.
  2. >A place you're more than familiar with.
  3. >You've been coming here ever since you were very little.
  4. >Your mother is friends with the matriarch of the Apple family, Granny Smith.
  5. >They'd spend many a weekend making all sorts of baked commodities.
  6. >Granny had taught your mother everything she knew, while in turn learning a thing or two, herself.
  7. >You were towed along initially, as your father usually had his golf game to focus on, leaving little time to keep an eye on you.
  8. >You didn't mind it, as it allowed you the chance to play with the three Apple siblings.
  9. >Big Mac was the eldest, although only a year or so older than you.
  10. >He's the big brother you wish you had, even though he doesn't speak much.
  11. >Applebloom was the youngest, but she's able to keep up with the antics of her siblings.
  12. >She seemed to look up to you as if you were a sibling, as well, which you didn't get at first.
  13. >Finally, there was Applejack.
  14. >She was right around your age, and you felt you knew her the best out of the three.
  15. >If there was anything you ever wanted to know about apples, she was the one to ask.
  16. >She had smarts in other areas, too, but she focused more on her work than anything else.
  17. >Even as a kid she was as stubborn as a mule; if there was something she did or didn't want to do, no one could convince her to change her mind.
  18. >She was also one of the most honest individuals you've ever met, although sometimes brutally so.
  19. >But that's one of the things about her that captured most of your attention.
  20. >You found yourself spending most of your time at the Acres doing fun things with her.
  21. >She showed you just about every inch of the property, including a few of her secret spots.
  22. >She seemed to enjoy your company as much as you enjoyed hers, and you became good friends.
  23. >This continued through most of elementary and middle school, and even into high school.
  24. >Over time she found other friends, and started to spend more and more time with them.
  25. >You were far from forgotten, thankfully.
  26. >When there was a spare moment here and there, Applejack would invite you over to hang out.
  27. >You took her up on her offers every chance you had, when there wasn't other work to do, of course.
  28. >She was one of the few friends you had, so it was always nice to be in good company.
  29. >As you got older, a part of you wondered if there was something more to it than that.
  30. >At this point in time, you honestly weren't sure.
  31.  
  32. >You are Anon, and for now things seem to be looking up.
  33. >Junior year of high school was finally over.
  34. >It was grueling for you, but you managed to get through it with slightly above-average grades.
  35. >You found out that, while Applejack's weren't the highest, she at least passed all of her classes.
  36. >Can't ask for more than that, and she's happy about it.
  37. >You don't have any big plans for the summer as of yet, at least in terms of going places.
  38. >One place you're going right now, though, is Sweet Apple Acres.
  39. >They're holding a party of some kind to kick off the start of vacation, and to further celebrate Big Mac's graduation the month prior.
  40. >A friend of Applejack's, Pinkie Pie, planned the whole thing and invited a bunch of people over.
  41. >While you're not familiar with her, you were on her guest list because of your 'Apple' connection.
  42. >You didn't know there even was a list, but you're at least glad you can go regardless.
  43. >When you arrive, the property's already pumping with excitement.
  44. >From the sounds of it, the main barn is the center of the action, so you head on over there.
  45. >There are plenty of 'hellos' from other students also in attendance, which you return in passing.
  46. >Food is laid out on a row of tables, including desserts of all sorts.
  47. >You guess that both Pinkie and Granny Smith contributed to these sugary creations.
  48. >You partake in a little of this and a little of that, sampling some of what is spread out.
  49. >You want to try and enjoy yourself, not gorge until you feel like crud.
  50. >All the while, you scan around to see if there is anyone here you recognize.
  51. >Well, maybe not recognize, but know well enough.
  52. >Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be the case.
  53. >One person you definitely don't see is Applejack.
  54. >Which you find strange, given this is her property.
  55. >It's possible she's in the main house taking care of a few things.
  56. >Although you do remember her not being the biggest fan of big crowds like this.
  57. >Then again, she's not the biggest fan of big parties, either.
  58. >Now that you think about it, you're in a similar boat in both regards.
  59. >You begin to feel a little nervous, but you're not sure why.
  60. >You turn your attention back to the food table, trying to figure out what you want to try next.
  61. >That's when you hear a voice that's rare for you to hear.
  62.  
  63. >“Hey, Anon.”
  64. >You look up to see Big Mac, who's giving you an odd expression.
  65. >He has a bottle of what looks like cider in his hand.
  66. >You can't put your finger on it, but something seems off with him.
  67. “Hey, what's up?” You ask.
  68. >“Applejack's time, fer one,” Mac replies.
  69. “Uh...her time? How so?”
  70. >“Listen, she ain't got plans fer college yet, and'll probably wanna look inta...family material, if ya know what ah mean...”
  71. >He wraps an arm around you.
  72. >“Ah know ye've been close ta all of us, Applejack 'specially. Where do ya see yerself an' her once yer both out of school?”
  73. >As he takes a swig of his bottle, you feel this is getting uncomfortable.
  74. “What are you asking?”
  75. >“Don't ya like her?”
  76. “Well...as a friend, definitely.”
  77. >“Ah mean 'like,' like. Ya know what ah'm talkin' 'bout.”
  78. “I...uh...”
  79. >“C'mon, Anon, spit it out. How do ya really feel 'bout her? Be honest...”
  80. “I...don't...know...”
  81. >Mac's eyes narrow. “So yer sayin' ya wouldn't take her up on a proposal?”
  82. “Whoa whoa whoa,” you say, wriggling free. “What's with all of these personal questions?”
  83. >“What's tha matter? She ain't good enough fer ya?”
  84. >Mac is both tilting and lowering his head in a way that looks confrontational.
  85. “What's wrong with you?”
  86. >“Nothin's wrong. Just a big brother lookin' out for his lil' sister, thas'all. I wanna make sure she's taken care of when ah'm away...an' provided fer...”
  87. “Does she know you're asking me all of this?”
  88. >“Nah. This is a talk 'tween guys.”
  89. “You know what, maybe we can talk about this later...”
  90. >You try to walk past Mac, but he steps in front of you.
  91. >“Nnnope. Yer not gettin' outta this that easy, not if ah have anythin' ta say 'bout it.”
  92. >This is getting out of hand really quick...
  93.  
  94. “What do you want, then?”
  95. >“Ah wanna see if yer good...material. Ah wanna see how strong ya can be.”
  96. “And how would I go about doing that?”
  97. >Mac looks around until his eyes fall on a corner of the barn, where bales of hay are stacked up.
  98. >“We lift those,” he replies. “As many as we can.”
  99. “I thought this was about me, not you.”
  100. >“If ya wanna be there fer mah sis, ya gotta be just as strong as me, if not stronger. Ya game?”
  101. >You want to shake your head in disbelief, but you're afraid that will set him off even further.
  102. >It's also clear that some of the other nearby party goers have been listening in.
  103. >Some are even gathering to where you both are.
  104. >Damned if you do, damned if you don't...
  105. “Fine, I'll do it. If it'll get you off my back.”
  106. >Big Mac smirks as he sets his bottle down. “Then let's git it goin'.”
  107. >He waves over a couple of his friends, who are just as big as he is.
  108. >You know he played football at school, so these must be a couple of his teammates.
  109. >He goes through a quick rundown of the rules.
  110. >While you both hold one bale of hay, his friends will stack one extra bale at a time on top of the other.
  111. >Whoever can hold up the bigger stack the longest wins.
  112. >Simple enough...at least if you're a big guy like him.
  113. >You, on the other hand...
  114. >A pair of stepladders are brought over to aid in the stacking process.
  115. >As things are set up, it garners the attention of more and more people.
  116. >By now a large group has come together to see this little test of strength.
  117. >You can already see one sleazebag in the crowd taking bets on who's going to win.
  118. >You still don't see Applejack in this crowd, which is probably for the best.
  119. >This is not how you want to be spending your afternoon...
  120. >The first bales of hay are dropped in front of you, and both you and Mac pick them up.
  121. >You feel like they're about ten pounds worth.
  122. >Guess now the ultimate question is about to be answered...
  123. >...can you even lift?
  124.  
  125. >The teammates add the second bales on top of what you and Mac already have.
  126. >So far so good, although Mac is showing off by lifting his stack higher up.
  127. >You concentrate on the third bale getting dropped.
  128. >Still no problem, although by now most of the barn occupants have come to watch this spectacle.
  129. >Slowly but surely more bales are added.
  130. >By the sixth, your legs get wobbly.
  131. >Looking to Mac, he shows no sign of wavering.
  132. >“Whatsamatter, Anon? Do ya wanna quit?”
  133. “Not on your life,” you growl.
  134. >Mac smirks as his teammates climb higher up their respective ladders to keep the game moving.
  135. >Once you're holding eight bales, your arms are figuratively screaming in pain.
  136. >After the ninth is added, your begin to teeter, as does the stack.
  137. >It takes all of your willpower just to stay balanced and on your feet.
  138. >“Not a good look for ya there,” Mac taunts. “What would Applejack say if ya up and quit?”
  139. >This is completely out of character for him, so there's gotta be something going on with him.
  140. >You can't focus on that, however, not with the task in front of you.
  141. >Just as the tenth bale is put on top of your towers, you hear it...
  142. >“WHAT'S GOIN' ON HERE?!”
  143. >It's her...
  144. >Applejack...
  145. >You jerk instinctively at the yell, and that's when it all goes awry.
  146. >Your stack leans to the right ever so slightly, threatening a topple.
  147. >You try to adjust, but it just causes everything to go in the opposite direction....towards Big Mac.
  148. >Despite your best efforts to get back in balance, it's all for naught.
  149. >Before you can even call out a warning, your leaning tower collides with Mac's.
  150. >His teammates dive out of the way as several bales hit Mac on the head, making him fall backwards.
  151. >There is a tremendous crash as nearly 200 pounds of baled hay collapses on top of him.
  152. >Screams fill the barn as the crowd scatters to escape the giant cloud of dust and debris that forms.
  153. >When it settles, all anyone can see is a messy yellow heap.
  154. “Oh no, MAC!”
  155. >You're scared out of your mind right now.
  156. >You scramble to the pile and start pulling off as many still intact stacks as you can.
  157. >Everyone else looks on dumbfounded...except for Applejack.
  158. >“What're ya standin' around fer?” She yells. “Git in there and help!”
  159.  
  160. >She and Mac's teammates join your efforts, followed by other party goers.
  161. >This goes on for several minutes, with everyone working together to clear everything away.
  162. >At last, Mac is uncovered.
  163. >One of his teammates kneels down and checks his pulse, and it appears he's just knocked out.
  164. >“What's with all this here commotion?” Another voice asks.
  165. >You all turn to see Granny Smith coming over, and she gasps at the sight in front of her.
  166. >Before you can say anything, Applejack grabs you by your shirt, an angry look in her eyes.
  167. “Applejack, I can explain-”
  168. >She interrupts you by slapping your face hard.
  169. >“Y'all BETTER explain!” She barks at you. “What tha HELL were you two DOIN'?!”
  170. “I...uh...well...” You stammer, recoiling from the hit. “Mac...wanted to test me...”
  171. >“By liftin' a buncha hay bales like a buncha yahoos? Ya both coulda gotten really hurt with that stunt! Dammit, ya both coulda been KILLED!”
  172. >“Applejack, calm down,” Granny Smith urges. “Yellin' at Anon ain't gonna help no one right now.”
  173. >“Sure it will!” Applejack says. “This coulda been his fault to start!”
  174. “It wasn't me, I swear!”
  175. >“Shaddup!” Applejack yells, looking ready to slap you again.
  176. >“That's enough, now,” Granny Smith snaps, “Let 'im go.”
  177. >Applejack huffs before finally releasing her grip on you.
  178. >The matriarch shakes her head before turning to you. “What happened, sonny? And be honest.”
  179. >Your eyes dart back and forth between the two as you try to formulate an answer.
  180. “Mac came over to me with his drink, acting all weird and asking lots of personal questions. Then he challenged me to this little contest of his.”
  181. >“Whatcha talkin' 'bout?” Applejack asks. “What drink?”
  182. >You look around until you spot the bottle Mac had with him, and both women follow your gaze.
  183. >Granny Smith grabs it and checks the label. “Aw, this is just our cider,” she says before sniffing it.
  184. >Hey demeanor quickly changes at the smell; when she takes a sip, her eyes narrow.
  185. >“Alright now, party's over! All y'all clear out!”
  186. >“But things were just getting fun!” You hear someone exclaim.
  187. >“Ah said OUT!” Granny Smith yells in the loudest voice she can muster, and the crowd begrudgingly starts to leave.
  188. >Smith stops Mac's teammates before they go anywhere. “You fellers, git Big Mac to tha house on tha double, and call fer a doctor just in case.”
  189. >They nod, carefully picking Big Mac up off the floor.
  190. >As he is carried out of the barn, Granny Smith comes back over to you.
  191. >“You stay here with us,” she orders. “When Mac wakes up, we need ta get to tha bottom of this...”
  192. >The way she says this makes your stomach tie itself into a knot...
  193.  
  194. ----------
  195.  
  196. >It takes longer than expected for a medical team to arrive.
  197. >Big Mac was still out cold at that point, but at least he was getting a proper once over.
  198. >Granny Smith and Applejack stay to observe, making sure things go well.
  199. >You were asked to stay outside, for obvious reasons.
  200. >As you're waiting, you see Applebloom arriving home.
  201. >She had been at one of her friend's homes when things went down, but their parents were nice enough to bring her back once she got word of the incident.
  202. >“Hey there, Anon,” she says as she approaches you.
  203. “Hey. I take it you heard about what happened?”
  204. >Applebloom nods. “Applejack was seethin' when she talked ta me over tha phone, so Granny had ta take over for'er on tha call.”
  205. “Are you just as mad at me as she is?”
  206. >“Ah wasn't here, so ah don't know who's ta blame. Maybe ah can give a better answer once Mac's up an' about.”
  207. “Who knows how long that's going to be...”
  208. >“Hard ta say. Ah remember one time years back when Mac got kicked in tha head by one of tha cows. He was out 'til past supper time.”
  209. “He must have a thicker skull than most if that's the worst that happened.”
  210. >Applebloom giggles. “In more ways than one, ah guess. He said afterward he was bein' clumsy around ol' Betsy, and it nearly cost'im everythin'.”
  211. “At least he bounced back from it. Hopefully this case will be the same.”
  212. >“Me, too. Ah don't know what ah'd do if we lost'im. Heck, ah bet Applejack would feel worse.”
  213. >You shudder, a chill going down your spine.
  214. “And it would be all my fault...”
  215. >“How come?”
  216. “Because I went along with that little game of his. Had I said no, there'd still be a party going on.”
  217. >“Why'd ya go along with it, anyhow?”
  218. “Cause I thought that, if I didn't, he'd have beaten me a bloody pulp.”
  219. >“That don't sound like Big Mac. He'd never do that to someone unless he was really mad at'em.”
  220. “Trust me, he was mad at me. Something was up with him, which may explain why he was acting like he did.”
  221. >“Any idea on what?”
  222. “I'd rather not throw thoughts out there unless I'm sure about them. We'll know soon enough...”
  223. >There's a shout of pain from inside.
  224. >“Anon, git in here!” You hear Applejack call out.
  225. >“Ah guess soon is now,” Applebloom comments, following you into the house.
  226. >You enter the living room, and you're surprised at what you see.
  227.  
  228. >Big Mac's upper torso is wrapped in bandages, while his right ankle is being put in a splint.
  229. >It looks like he only just woke up, and was shaken up by what was happening to him.
  230. >“That should do for now,” one of the doctors says as he completes his work. “He shouldn't put any weight on that foot for at least six weeks. Gotta give time for the bones to heal.”
  231. >“We'll make sure of it,” Granny Smith replies. “Thank ya for comin' out here.”
  232. >“Of course,” the doctor says. “If you need us for anything else down the line, just give us a holler.”
  233. >As the medical team takes its leave, Big Mac starts to hold his head.
  234. >“What happened?” He mumbles. “Ah'm hurtin' all over ...mah head 'specially...”
  235. >“That's called a hangover,” Granny Smith replies. “Ah'm disappointed in ya. Ah thought ya'd know better than to hit tha sauce like that.”
  236. >Big Mac looks dumbfounded. “Whaddya mean?”
  237. >“I took a swig of your 'cider,'” Granny Smith says. “It's tha hard stuff. Were ya tryin' ta hide it?”
  238. >“Nnnnope!” Big Mac says, holding up his hands in defense. “It said regular on tha label. Still had tha cap on it an' everythin'!”
  239. >Granny Smith puts her hands on her hips. “Ya couldn't taste tha difference when ya started drinkin'?”
  240. >“Ah thought it was just a different flavor!” Mac says, almost exasperatedly.
  241. >Applejack sighs. “So yer suggestin' he was drinkin' hard cider and didn't know it?”
  242. >Granny Smith nods. “Which would explain why he was actin' all cuckoo, as Anon said.”
  243. >Big Mac looks confused. “Ah was?”
  244. “Don't you remember?” You ask. “You challenged me to a hay bale lifting contest.”
  245. >Big Mac hold his head again. “No, ah don't...”
  246. >“This is gittin' us nowhere,” Applejack says. “If Mac's tellin' the truth, how'd he wind up with tha hard stuff?”
  247. “A packaging mistake?” You suggest.
  248. >Applebloom ponders. “Ah mean, it's a thought, but aren't tha brewery fellers usually good at catchin' that?”
  249. >“Just a darn minute,” Granny Smith interrupts. “Ah got told tha other day that some regular labels got mixed in with tha hard cider ones, an' no one noticed 'til a case worth'a bottles was already done.”
  250. “What did they do with it?”
  251. >“Ah told them ta leave it outside mah office, since ah hate wastin' good product, but ah don't remember ever seein' it put there.”
  252. >“Oh...” Big Mac mutters.
  253. >Granny Smith puts two and two together. “Don't tell me ya took it...”
  254. >“Y'know how ah like it fresh,” Big Mac replies. “Ah thought ya put it aside for me, just like ya always do.”
  255. “Is that bottle from earlier the only one you had, or did you have more before that?”
  256. >Mac looks sheepish. “Ah...may've had one or two before tha party started...”
  257. >Applejack shuts her eyes and shakes her head. “Ah don't believe this...”
  258. >Granny Smith chuckles. “Ah can. Yer father was tha same way once he was old enough ta drink...”
  259.  
  260. >Big Mac hangs his head low. “Ah'm sorry, y'all. Ah didn't mean ta wreck everythin'...”
  261. >“At least no one got seriously hurt, right?” Applebloom asks.
  262. >“Yer calling a broken ankle and bruised ribs not seriously hurt?” Applejack replies angrily.
  263. “Well, it could've been much worse than that,” you say.
  264. >Applejack looks ready to pounce on you again.
  265. >“Yer one to talk! Yer tha one that got'im hurt!”
  266. “That was an accident! Besides, you startled me enough to set off that little chain reaction!”
  267. >“So yer sayin' it's all MAH fault?” Applejack yells.
  268. “I mean, not entirely. There's plenty of blame to go around.”
  269. >“Ain't it kinda mah fault, too?” Big Mac interjects.
  270. >“Yer comin' ta his defense?” Applejack asks, her temper rising. “What happened ta family first?”
  271. “Hey, calm down. You could say it's the fault of the brewery workers that started this. Hell, maybe even whoever packaged those labels to begin with.”
  272. >“Shut yet trap! Ah don't wanna hear excuses from ya!”
  273. >“Stop it, all of ya!” Applebloom interrupts. “Shoutin' at each other ain't gonna solve anythin'!”
  274. >Applejack crosses her arms and turns her head away with a huff.
  275. >“She's right,” Granny Smith adds. “Right now we need ta figure out what we're gonna do.”
  276. “Do with what?” You ask.
  277. >“With tha daily upkeep. Big Mac's gonna be outta commission fer a while.”
  278. >“So he ain't gonna be workin'?” Applebloom asks.
  279. >“Not 'til his ankle's better, at least,” Granny Smith replies. “Til then, we'll need someone else ta help out 'round here.”
  280. “With the farm work, you mean?”
  281. >Granny Smith nods. “Mac does quite a bit, so replacin' him ain't gonna be easy.”
  282. >“Aw, don't say that,” Big Mac says. “Ah can still do stuff...”
  283. >As he tries to get up, Granny Smith forces him to sit back down on the sofa.
  284. >“Oh no ya don't. Tha last thing ah want is for ya ta hurt yerself more than ya already are.”
  285. >Big Mac grumbles, but a stern look from Granny Smith makes him hold his tongue.
  286. >“Come on, who we gonna git on such short notice?” Applejack asks. “It ain't like we can put out flyers askin' fer help first thing tomorrah.”
  287. >“Ah don't know,” Granny Smith says. “We're short-handed as it is...”
  288. >There is silence for a bit as you all think.
  289.  
  290. “I'll do it,” you say, breaking the silence.
  291. >Everyone else turns to look at you.
  292. >“Wait...what?” Applejack says.
  293. “I said...I'll do it...I'll help out here.”
  294. >“Aw, y'all don't have ta jump in like that, sonny,” Granny Smith says.
  295. “With all due respect...I feel like I have to.”
  296. >“But none of this was all yer fault,” Applebloom replies.
  297. “Maybe not all, but I'm still partly to blame for this mess, so I gotta help clean it up.”
  298. >“No no no,” Applejack states, waving her arms in front of her. “Tha last thing we need 'round here right now is you.”
  299. “Excuse me?” You ask, insulted.
  300. >“Sis, he's tryin' to help,” Applebloom says.
  301. >“Ah don't WANT his help!” Applejack yells.
  302. >“What ya want ain't what's important,” Granny Smith replies. “It's what the farm needs.”
  303. >The matriarch turns to you. “Ya sure ya wanna do this?”
  304. “I am. It's the least I can do after what happened.”
  305. >Applejack huffs. “Y'all don't know tha first thing about farmin', do ya?”
  306. “Does that matter? Just show me what I need to do, and I'll do it.”
  307. “And I'd have some good teachers to show me the ropes, wouldn't I?”
  308. >Applebloom and Big Mac smile, while Applejack's stare on you remains stone cold.
  309. >“Well,” Granny Smith says, “if that's how ya want it ta be, we'd appreciate any help ya can give.”
  310. >“What?” Applejack exclaims. “No!”
  311. >“Mah word is final,” Granny Smith says. “Ya don't like it? Tough beans.”
  312. >The middle sibling gives a grunt of frustration, storming out of the room as you look on.
  313. “Jeez, she's never gonna let me live this down, is she?”
  314. >“Giv'er time ta cool off,” Applebloom replies. “Like it or not, she's gonna need ya, just like tha rest of us will.”
  315. >Granny Smith nods in agreement. “Ah'll make sure yer compensated for yer work. Though we need ta make sure yer parents are fine with all this.”
  316. “I don't think they'll mind. Besides, it'd keep me out of trouble for part of the summer, right?”
  317. >“Don't worry,” Big Mac says. “We'll make sure of that.”
  318. >“Who knows,” Applebloom states, “this could be fun! Just like when we were younger!”
  319. “Yeah,” you chuckle nervously, “right...”
  320.  
  321. >You get in touch with your folks over the phone, making sure it's on speaker so Granny Smith and the others can hear what they're saying.
  322. >Between all of you, you explain the situation and the proposed arrangement.
  323. >Your parents appreciate the fact you're owning up to what happened, and allow you to follow through.
  324. >With their blessing, Granny Smith goes over things.
  325. >The family is generally up before dawn, no later than 5am, so you'll need to be on site before then.
  326. >It means no more late nights for you for the foreseeable future.
  327. >It sounds like you'll be helping with the daily chores and tending the orchard.
  328. >If there's any time or interest after that, you're also allowed to help out in the brewery.
  329. >The pay is above the area's minimum wage, so at least you'll be bringing something home each day.
  330. >With all that being said, you may as well try to make a full work day out of it, doing whatever you can to make a difference around here.
  331. >Granny Smith offers one of the guest rooms for you to stay in, should you decide you want to.
  332. >You tell her you'll keep it in mind, although you'll most likely be going home each night anyway.
  333. >Besides, you live less than a half hour away, so it'll be like you're commuting to work as normal.
  334. >You thank Granny Smith for the chance, and apologize for wrecking the party.
  335. >Applebloom recommends you give the same apology to Pinkie Pie, as she's the one who set the party up to begin with.
  336. >Something to remember the next time you see her.
  337. >She gives you as big a hug as she can muster, given she's much shorter than you.
  338. >Big Mac gives a first bump and an apology of his own, promising to show you how he does things around the farm.
  339. >Part of you wants to seek Applejack out and try to talk to her one-on-one.
  340. >However, right now may not be the best time.
  341. >As Applebloom said, once there's time to cool down and process things, maybe it'll be easier.
  342. >You take your leave afterward and head for home.
  343. >When you head up to your bedroom, the first thing you do is reset your alarm.
  344. >If you're going to be a farm hand for a while, you're going to have to be used to going to bed and waking up much earlier than normal.
  345. >It'll take getting used to, but it's for the best.
  346. >As you turn in that night, a multitude of thoughts runs through your head.
  347. >How effective are you going to be filling in for Big Mac?
  348. >Will you be able to keep things up until he's fully recovered?
  349. >And will you ever be able to get back on speaking terms with Applejack?
  350. >Only time will tell at this point...
  351.  
  352. ----------
  353.  
  354. >4:15am.
  355. >You're jolted awake up by the radio on your alarm clock.
  356. >The morning show on this station doesn't start until after 5, so right now it's playing regular music.
  357. >A shame it's a song you absolutely hate...
  358. >You had trouble sleeping despite turning in early, drifting in and out at various points of the night.
  359. >Your guilty conscience was a primary factor, you'd say.
  360. >You're groggy, but you know you can't hit the snooze button this time...
  361. >...or any time for the next several weeks...
  362. >You go through your usual morning routine, doing your best to keep things quiet so as not to wake your parents.
  363. >You skip breakfast, as Granny Smith mentioned you're welcome to eat with the family before starting the day.
  364. >You're out the door just before 4:30, and you make the drive to Sweet Apple Acres.
  365. >There is little to no traffic this early in the morning, so you're there in less than 20 minutes.
  366. >Maybe you can get away with an extra 5 minutes of sleep at this rate...
  367. >Something to remember for later on.
  368. >The first rays of sunlight haven't even started to show on the horizon at this point.
  369. >You park and head to the main house.
  370. >You knock on the door, and Applebloom opens it up to greet you.
  371. >She's already dressed in her usual outfit, although she still looks a bit tired.
  372. >“Mornin', Anon,” she says with a yawn.
  373. “Morning. Guess you didn't sleep well, either.”
  374. >“Nah. When ya've got Big Mac groanin' in pain in tha room next to ya, it ain't easy.”
  375. “Didn't the doctors give him pain meds for that?”
  376. >“They did, but those only do so much, and they don't last tha whole night.”
  377. “I guess,” you sigh. “Sorry, again...”
  378. >“Hey, don't keep apologizin'. Yer gonna have other things ta worry about besides that.”
  379. “Right...”
  380. >“Well, don't just stand out there. Come on in. Granny's gittin' a spread ready.”
  381.  
  382. >Applebloom leads you to the kitchen and dining area
  383. >Your nose is greeted by the scents of many items cooking simultaneously.
  384. >Big Mac's already at the table, the leg with a cast propped up by a spare chair.
  385. >He looks worse than Applebloom, to no one's shock.
  386. > “Mornin', sonny,” you hear Granny Smith say from the stove. “Glad ta see ya made it.”
  387. “I promised I would,” you reply. “You need help with anything over there?”
  388. >“Ah've got things under control. How's about ya help Applebloom with the table?”
  389. >You assist the youngest sibling with getting plates, utensils, glasses and napkins set for everyone.
  390. >She grabs a jug of cider from the fridge and pours some out into each of the glasses.
  391. >Granny Smith is over shortly after with enough scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast to satisfy even the biggest of hungers.
  392. >She lets you serve yourself first, as you're the guest, and you help yourself to a little of everything.
  393. >Before you start eating, you realize a certain someone hasn't made her presence known.
  394. “Where's Applejack? I figured she'd be up with the rest of you.”
  395. >“She was out the door long before you got here,” Applebloom replies.
  396. >“She's usually tha first one up, anyhow,” Granny Smith adds. “She likes ta do her patrol of tha orchard before any of her other chores.”
  397. “Patrol?”
  398. >“Sure. Always wants ta check an' see things are as they were tha day before, after all. Make sure ya save some'a this fer her when she gits back.”
  399. >You sigh and nod before looking back down at your plate.
  400. “Kinda figured she's still avoiding me. She's probably still pissed at me...”
  401. >“She cant stay mad forever,” Applebloom replies. “Wouldn't be good fer anyone.”
  402. >“Nnnope,” Big Mac says before taking a bite of his food.
  403. >“Ah wouldn't worry too much about it,” Granny Smith states. “Once ya've worked with her fer a while, things should loosen up.”
  404. “Is it really gonna be that easy? I know how stubborn she can get over stuff like this.”
  405. >Granny Smith nods. “Ya just gotta show her what kinda potential ya've got ta make a difference round here. Prove yer worth.”
  406. “You mean like what I tried to do with Mac yesterday?” You ask with a chuckle.
  407. >“Ah still have no idea what yet talkin' bout,” Big Mac says.
  408. >“It don't matter,” Granny Smith states. “Once yer done, Anon, ah'm gonna have Mac go through tha basics on his daily work.”
  409. “So he'll be my supervisor for now...”
  410. >Big Mac nods. “Yer gonna be fine. Ah'll make sure of it...”
  411. >You smile nervously as you focus on the rest of your meal.
  412. >You're gonna need all the energy it can muster...
  413.  
  414. >After helping with the cleanup, you head out the door, Big Mac following behind with his crutches.
  415. >The sun is finally coming up, and you can hear several roosters crowing.
  416. >Across the way you can see several people entering the brewery to begin their own work days.
  417. >You're guided to one of the other barns on the property, where the cows and horses are kept.
  418. >There are three of each, and Big Mac names each one and describes their various temperaments.
  419. >As per his instructions, you open the doors one at a time to let the animals out to pasture.
  420. >One of the cows appears to have a bit of a mean streak, giving you a strange stare as it makes its exit.
  421. >This must be 'ol Betsy...'
  422. >Meanwhile, one of the horses looks a little tired, perhaps from having been ridden by Applejack earlier on her 'patrol.'
  423. >Mac has you clean out each stall, raking and shoveling what was 'left behind' into a wheelbarrow.
  424. >You then drop fresh hay onto the floor, and deposit food in the raised containers for later.
  425. >As you move the wheelbarrow out to the mulch pile, you see Applebloom in the chicken coop.
  426. >She must have just finished collecting eggs, as there's a large basket set aside that's filled with them.
  427. >She's currently feeding said chickens, minding all of the chicks that have gathered around her.
  428. >She's giggling all the while, reminding you of the stereotypical princesses of fairy tales and their connection to tiny creatures.
  429. >You give a chuckle of your own as you go to deposit the wheelbarrow's contents.
  430. >Mac then has you grab a stool and some buckets, as it's time to 'do some milkin'.'
  431. >You head out to the pasture, and Mac calls one of the cows over.
  432. >It's been a long time since you've done this, so he goes through the motions with you.
  433. >With him keeping the cow occupied, you set to work, being as gentle as you can.
  434. >It all seems to come back to you, and it gets easier as you progress; even more-so on the second cow.
  435. >Then it's ol' Betsy's turn.
  436. >Wary of the story Applebloom told you yesterday, you proceed with caution.
  437. >However, with Big Mac keeping Betsy in line, you're able to complete the task without incident.
  438. >You carefully bring the full pails back to the house for Granny Smith to use later.
  439. >By now the sky has completely brightened up, and it's getting warmer by the minute.
  440. >All the while, you had yet to see Applejack anywhere.
  441. >Just where the heck was she?
  442.  
  443. >Mac tells you there is a little free time before his next normal set of tasks.
  444. >He suggests cleaning up the 'mess' you guys made the day before, which you agree to.
  445. >He heads off to the house to 'take care of something,' while you go to the main barn.
  446. >Inside, you finally find a certain someone.
  447. >Applejack is currently working on the task you were about to do, raking up the hay that had fallen apart from their bales.
  448. >There's a strange machine in here also, most likely to reassemble said bales.
  449. >She has her back to you, muttering something under her breath.
  450. >You clear your throat, and she turns her head your way.
  451. “I was wondering where you were.”
  452. >“Just here an' there, takin' care of things,” she replies in a nonchalant way.
  453. “As far away from everyone else as possible?”
  454. >“It's how ah've always done things round here, ever since ah was little.”
  455. >You grab another rake that's leaning against the wall.
  456. “Let's see how quick we can tackle this together, hm?”
  457. >“Ah don't need your help, remember?”
  458. “I know. I'm just speeding up the process. Gotta do my part to fix this mistake of mine.”
  459. >Applejack rolls her eyes and focuses on her own work.
  460. >You do the same, and for a while the only noises made are that of the rakes scraping across the floor.
  461. >Following Applejack's lead, the hay you gather is slowly but surely made into several piles.
  462. “How did your patrol go this morning?” You ask, cutting through the quiet.
  463. >Applejack doesn't answer.
  464. “Come on, AJ, talk to me. We've always been able to do that.”
  465. >“Ah'm still mad at ya,” she replies, still having her back to you.
  466. “Mad enough to not want to have a simple chat?”
  467. >Applejack frowns. “After what ya did ta Big Mac? Hell yeah.”
  468. >You shake your head.
  469. “Do you at least want to hear the whole story of what happened? Maybe then things can be made clearer for you.”
  470. >Applejack grumbles again. “If ya think it'll change mah mind...and ah'm sure it won't...”
  471. “You'd be surprised.”
  472. >“Try me...”
  473.  
  474. “Alright...you wanna know why Mac and I were acting like idiots with the hay bales?”
  475. >“Oh, do tell,” she replies sarcastically.
  476. “It was over you.”
  477. >Applejack stops what she's doing. “What?”
  478. “You heard me. It was all about you.”
  479. >She turns her head back your way, her interest seemingly growing. “Okay, now ah'm listenin'...”
  480. “Mac wanted to see how I measured up to him, and it was all to see if I was capable of stepping into his shoes if you ever needed me.”
  481. >“Ah don't get it...”
  482. “He wanted to see I could be there for you, to 'take care of and provide for you.' He said you'd soon be looking for...and I quote, 'family material.'”
  483. >Applejack still looks confused. “Wait, ya mean-”
  484. “Yeah, that.”
  485. >She chuckles. “Yer pullin' mah leg...”
  486. “Why would I lie to you about something like this?”
  487. >“What, he was tryin' ta set me up with ya or somethin'?”
  488. “Not the strangest thing he's done, right?”
  489. >“Nah, I guess not...”
  490. “Hey, given how drunk he was at the time, he could've done worse.”
  491. >“He's such an idiot, always castin' a shadow over me.”
  492. “He's looking out for you, as any older sibling would do.”
  493. >“Ah know, but it's still annoyin' as hell.”
  494. “He mentioned you don't have any real plans for after high school. Is that the case?”
  495. >“Ah honestly don't know right now. We still got 'bout a year 'fore we have ta decide, don't we?”
  496. “True.”
  497. >“So yer sayin' Mac made ya do this ta see if ya'd be a good fit fer me?”
  498. “That's one way to put it, I suppose..”
  499. >Applejack sighs, shaking her head in apparent disbelief.
  500. >“Ah mean...we've known each other fer a long time. Guess he figured ya know me better than most.”
  501. “Yeah. He kept asking what I thought about you, in 'that' sort of way, and he got upset when I couldn't give a straight answer.”
  502. >“Yer not sure what ya think 'bout me?”
  503. >You think for a moment before answering.
  504.  
  505. “That's...just it. I've always seen you as a friend, but his words have gotten me to think a little more...”
  506. “Part of me doesn't want to risk ruining what we have by making things awkward...but...”
  507. >“But?”
  508. “..another part wants to try and take that risk.”
  509. >Applejack stares you down for a moment. “So yer still on tha fence.”
  510. “I...guess I am.”
  511. >“An' that's what got Mac ta challenge ya ta that stupid contest?”
  512. “Pretty much, and it didn't go well for either of us.”
  513. >“Darn tootin'. Y'know, yer as big a bloomin' idiot as he is. Maybe even bigger...”
  514. “Sometimes, yeah.”
  515. >“At least yer bein' honest with me an' takin' yer fair share of tha heat.”
  516. “What about you? Where are you on all of this?”
  517. >Applejack looks to the floor.
  518. >“Ah...don't know right now. It's...complicated.”
  519. “With everything that's happened in the last few days?”
  520. >“Right...”
  521. “Well, I suppose Big Mac got one good thing outta this.”
  522. >“What's that?”
  523. “He wanted to know what it'd be like with me in his shoes, and look where I am right now.”
  524. >Applejack laughs, the first big one you've heard from her in a long while.
  525. >“And they're purdy damn big shoes ta fill.”
  526. “Maybe, but I'm still gonna try my best and pull as much of his weight as I can.”
  527. >“Ya better, or ya'll never hear the end of it.”
  528. >You grin as you nod.
  529. “So how about it? Are you still mad at me?”
  530. >Applejack stares you down again, taking her time before answering.
  531. >“Ask me again in a few weeks,” she finally replies.
  532. “Fair enough...”
  533. >“Alright, how's about we git these here bales put back together?”
  534. “Sure...”
  535.  
  536. >Through your combined efforts, plus the machine doing the bulk of the work, all of the hay bales are as they were before yesterday's events.
  537. >Applejack thanks you before moving on to complete the rest of her chores.
  538. >It's around this time that Big Mac finally comes back.
  539. >“Uh...did ah miss somethin'?” He asks.
  540. “Let's just say some bridges are starting to be mended,” you reply.
  541. >“Not there yet, huh?”
  542. “Like Applebloom said, give her time...”
  543. >“Eeyup...”
  544. >Big Mac guides you through the rest of his duties, and you're able to complete them before noontime.
  545. >You hear a bell being rung from the main house, and Granny Smith hollering for you all to head in.
  546. >Lunch is spent mostly in silence, with some small talk going on between the family members.
  547. >You sit across from Applejack, but neither of you really say anything to each other.
  548. >Guess she feels what needed to be said already had been.
  549. >Afterward, Granny Smith brings you over to the brewery and introduces you around to some of the staff members.
  550. >They all give you a guided tour of sorts of the place, and you take in as much as you can.
  551. >Soon they have you in the packing area, and the workers there show you how things are done.
  552. >You're a quick study, and soon you're assembling cardboard cases and loading them with full cider bottles of all sorts.
  553. >These cases are carefully packed and sealed into boxes, which are then loaded onto pallets for the delivery truck when it gets here later on.
  554. >Granny Smith assures you this won't be the only thing you do, wanting you to experience as many parts of the job as possible.
  555. >You welcome the challenge.
  556. >When 5 o'clock rolls around, people are calling it a day, so you decide to do the same.
  557. >You say your goodbyes to the Apple family before leaving, and Granny Smith thanks you again for putting in a full day's work.
  558. >You head home with a sense of accomplishment, on multiple levels.
  559. >You feel like you've got a grasp on what your days are going to look like.
  560. >As long as you've got Big Mac guiding you, it may not be as bad as you feared it would be.
  561. >Depending on how you do in the brewery, perhaps you'll be asked to work there a little longer.
  562. >But you're getting ahead of yourself.
  563. >The biggest thing, however, is that you at least got some promising words out of Applejack.
  564. >It's still going to be an uphill battle to fully return to her good side...
  565. >...but you at least have a firm grip right now...
  566.  
  567. ------
  568.  
  569. >The rest of the week marches on.
  570. >So far, so good, in several respects.
  571. >By now you've been able to get into a groove as far as your various tasks go.
  572. >You're also able to get that extra few minutes of shuteye without affecting your morning commute.
  573. >You're still arriving at the normal assigned time and enjoy a little breakfast with the Apple family.
  574. >Granny Smith seems to like mixing things up, not having the same thing twice in a row.
  575. >You appreciate the variety, as well as her extensive cooking repertoire.
  576. >Big Mac is still accompanying you as you go through his daily work schedule.
  577. >You're unsure if it's because he has nothing better to do, or if he wants to keep an eye on you.
  578. >For all you know, it's a mix of both.
  579. >He's not really allowed to do anything substantial on his own, at least until his ankle is fully healed.
  580. >His company and advice are welcome, nonetheless, especially when once-a-week tasks come up.
  581. >One of the days is designated to grooming the horses, which is something you never took part in before when you were younger.
  582. >Mac is there to keep them in place and in line as he tells you what to do.
  583. >Cleaning out the hooves and re-shoeing them are a bit tricky, but you're sure you'll have the hang of it by the next time around.
  584. >A pattern seems to have formed by the end of the week.
  585. >You do farm work in the morning, enjoy a nice lunch, and then head to the brewery for the afternoon.
  586. >As promised, you're brought to different sections of the place to perform different tasks.
  587. >One day it's loading empty bottles into machines to be filled with their various concoctions.
  588. >Another day it's helping to inspect the apples and other ingredients that come in on a daily basis.
  589. >On Friday, you're brought to the office area to help with paperwork, which is a weird change of pace.
  590. >At least you're not stuck doing the same thing every day.
  591. >By the end of that day, you feel you've been able to get a grasp of how things work around here.
  592. >If there's one thing you have NOT been able to do, it's making any further headway with Applejack.
  593. >After your little chat in the barn on the first day, there hasn't been many chances to talk, if at all.
  594. >She's still out the door on her 'patrol' before you even get to the farm.
  595. >She did say to 'ask her in a few weeks' if she was still mad at you, but did that mean not to speak to her again until then?
  596. >Maybe, in her mind.
  597. >In yours, on the other hand, you do want to try and change it, but in a way that won't upset her more.
  598. >It's going to be a challenge regardless...
  599.  
  600. >Saturday comes around, and you're on the farm once again.
  601. >You pretty much expected this, as this sort of work doesn't take weekends off.
  602. >You and Mac go around with the regular routine, and soon you're enjoying lunch with the others.
  603. >“Ah'm surprised ta see how well ya've been adjustin',” Granny Smith says. “This ain't easy for most, let me tell ya.”
  604. “Just trying the best I can,” you reply. “I've been lucky so far.”
  605. >You look from the corner of your eye to Applejack sitting across the table.
  606. >She seems more focused on her chicken stew to notice, although you tilt your head away when you feel she does.
  607. >“Well, we couldn't have asked fer more from ya,” Smith states.
  608. >Applebloom nods. “She's right 'bout that. Ah can't think where we'd be right now without ya.”
  609. “Thanks,” you say with a smile.
  610. >“Ah'm sure we'd manage,” Applejack comments, still looking at her meal. “Ain't the first time Mac's gotten himself hurt bad.”
  611. >Granny Smith looks to her with a disappointed look. “That ain't no way ta talk in front of guests.”
  612. >“Anon ain't a guest,” Applejack replies.
  613. >Before Smith can say anything, you interject.
  614. “She kinda has a point. I've been here so often over the years, I'm practically a member of the family.”
  615. >Applebloom and Big Mac laugh, but Applejack gives a frown.
  616. > “Anyway,” she says, changing the subject, “that tree ah told ya 'bout on the west side hasn't been doing too good. May be time ta call it.”
  617. >“A pity,” Granny Smith laments. “Can any of tha fruit be saved?”
  618. >“Won't know 'til we pick'em,” Applejack replies. “Ah'll be able ta tell once ah get up there.”
  619. “Anything I can help with?” You ask.
  620. >Before Applejack can say anything, Smith responds.
  621. >“Not a bad idea. Tha brewery's closed on tha weekend, an' this may turn out ta be an afternoon affair. That fine with ya?”
  622. “Yeah, sure. I don't have much else going on today, anyway.”
  623. >“Great. Ah'd take Applebloom an' Big Mac along, also, just in case.”
  624. >You nod, as do the other siblings.
  625. “Whattya say we take care of it once we're done here?”
  626. >“Sounds good,” Applebloom replies.
  627. >“Eeyup,” Mac adds.
  628. >Applejack, on the other hand, frowns at you again.
  629. >“Whatever,” she finally mutters.
  630.  
  631. >After lunch, you head to the main barn with the Apple siblings.
  632. >You load a cart with ladders, barrels and other tools, hitch one of the horses to it, and make your way to the west side of the orchard.
  633. >Once there, it's not long before you find the tree Applejack spoke of.
  634. >It's bigger than average, standing well over thirty feet tall.
  635. >It's in rough shape, to be sure, with plenty of wilted leaves and decaying bark.
  636. “Yikes,” you comment as you step down from the cart. “You weren't kidding about this thing.”
  637. >“Ah rarely kid,” Applejack replies. “Been keepin' an eye on this one since Spring, and it's just 'bout had it.”
  638. “Is it sick, or just old?”
  639. >“A bit of both, ah guess. Tha trees over here were planted 'bout 40 years ago.”
  640. “So...it's near the end of its life, then.”
  641. >“We've had plenty'a trees go fer one reason or 'nother,” Applebloom says. “It's always tough, since we do our best ta take care'a them.”
  642. >Big Mac nods. “Can't control everythin', no matter how much ya wanna.”
  643. >On that somber note, you help get everything off the cart, while the horse is let loose to graze.
  644. >The ladders are positioned on opposite sides of the tree, with the barrels placed underneath them.
  645. “So, how do you normally go about this?”
  646. >“Simple,” Applejack replies. “We pick'em an' check'em. Good ones go in the barrels, bad ones can be chucked.”
  647. >You're about to start climbing one of the ladders when a thought comes to mind.
  648. >You'd been thinking all week of another way to connect with Applejack, and this could be the opportunity you've been waiting for.
  649. “You wanna make things more interesting?”
  650. >Applejack tilts her head in confusion. “How can this be more...interesting?”
  651. “Betcha I can find and pick more good apples than you can.”
  652. >Applejack continues looking at you with the same expression. “Ya can't be serious...”
  653. “Come on, it'll be fun.”
  654. >“Didn't ya learn yer lesson the LAST time ya made somethin' a contest? 'Sides, I'd smoke ya.”
  655. >To illustrate her point, Applejack climbs up her ladder so fast, Applebloom doesn't have time to brace it before she reaches the top.
  656. >“Anon, ya might be bitin' off more than ya can chew,” Applebloom warns. “Ya know how competitive sis can get.”
  657. >You turn to see Big Mac nodding in agreement, but you shrug it off.
  658. “I don't care. It'll help me learn how to do this timely if we need to do this down the line.”
  659. >With Mac holding your ladder, you climb up it to match Applejack's height.
  660. “Whattya say? Game on?”
  661. >Applejack's eyes narrow. “Yer funeral...”
  662.  
  663. >At Applebloom's signal, the two of you start your work.
  664. >You pick your first apple and twist it in your hands, checking for any imperfections.
  665. >You don't notice any part of it being rotten or eaten, so you toss it down into the barrel below you.
  666. >As you're grabbing your second, you see that Applejack is going very quickly.
  667. >She plucks an apple, gives it a spin by the stem, and drops it after a full rotation while simultaneously plucking another.
  668. >You try to replicate the move, although it's tough to do while also keeping the purpose in mind.
  669. >“Come on, Anon! Pick up yer pace!” She calls. “ Ah've gone through ten already!”
  670. “Just getting warmed up,” you reply.
  671. >That's what you want to think, but honestly you feel she's right about this.
  672. >You do what you can to match her movements, but you pale in comparison.
  673. >You've only gotten through about twenty apples before seeing her climb down to adjust her ladder.
  674. >“What's tha matter? Ah thought ya wanted this ta be a challenge fer me.”
  675. >Your temper is trying to get the better of you, but you keep it under control.
  676. “You worry about your work, I'll worry about mine.”
  677. >“Ah warned ya, but do ya ever listen? Nope!”
  678. >You growl to yourself, shaking your head.
  679. >You're not about to be shown up like this.
  680. >You're come too far to give it up, now, so you keep going.
  681. >After a while you feel you're getting a little better at this.
  682. >Surprisingly there have only been a few 'bad apples' in what you've examined so far.
  683. >The tree may be lost, but it at least had one last decent yield before going completely kaput.
  684. >You wonder what these apples will go towards.
  685. >Perhaps a special applesauce?
  686. >Maybe a cider with a sour or bitter flavor to it?
  687. >Or even feed for the animals here, if it turns out they can't be used for anything else.
  688. >Never mind peanuts, apples have their own plethora of uses.
  689. >You're shaken out of your thought process by a shrill whistle from Applejack.
  690. > “HEY, ah've finished my first barrel! Forget being smoked, Anon - yer being barbequed!”
  691. >You look down at the barrel you have, and it's not even a quarter of the way full.
  692. >Maybe this was a bad idea, after all...
  693.  
  694. >This goes on for another hour or so.
  695. >It's not looking good on your end.
  696. >By the time you've finished your first barrel, Applejack was wrapping up her fourth.
  697. >She even came over to your side to grab the higher-hanging fruit.
  698. >To make matters worse, she's dropping her findings into the other barrels meant for yours.
  699. >So this is what utter humiliation feels like.
  700. >You're not throwing in the towel, however.
  701. >You're just going to stick with it until the end, regardless of how badly you're beaten.
  702. >Soon, all of the barrels you brought are filled to the top.
  703. >Based on your performances, Applejack did eighty-percent of the work.
  704. >You're surprised you made as much a dent as you did.
  705. >By the end, she's standing on one of the top branches, pretending to yawn.
  706. >“Didn't even break a sweat,” she brags. “While yer 'well done,'”
  707. “Better well done than burnt out,” you quip as you climb down your ladder.
  708. >“Ya did fine, Anon,” Applebloom says. “Most other hired hands don't get as much done as ya did, and ya've never done this before.”
  709. “Thanks, I guess,” you say with a shrug.
  710. >“What're ya talkin' 'bout?” Applejack asks. “Ah did most'a tha work!”
  711. >“An' ya probably coulda done all of it if Anon weren't here!” Applebloom retorts.
  712. >“Ah may as well have! Anon's so slow, he makes flowin' molasses seem faster by comparison!”
  713. >“Wow, that's low...” Big Mac comments.
  714. “What happened to the talk we had the other day?” You ask. “You're acting like it never happened.”
  715. >“Ah kinda wish it didn't,” Applejack replies. “Yer gittin' yerself in our business, an' ah don't like it.”
  716. “Hey, I'm doing what I can to make things right here. You're saying you'd rather not have me around?”
  717. >“Right now? Yeah, ah'd say that.”
  718. >“Sis, come on!” Applebloom pleads. “He's just tryin' ta help!”
  719. >“AH TOLD YA, AH DON'T WANT HIS GODDAMN HELP!” Applejack yells, stomping a foot on the branch.
  720. >There's a creak...
  721. >...then a snap...
  722. > “Ah sh-”
  723. >...then a break.
  724.  
  725. >The branch gives way as Applejack plummets with a shout.
  726. >You, Bloom and Mac gasp as you rush over.
  727. >Applejack barely manages to grab another branch, watching the one she was on hit the ground.
  728. >“SIS!” Applebloom screams.
  729. >“Hang on!” Mac calls.
  730. >He tries to run over, but his injured ankle prevents him from doing so.
  731. >You try to assess the situation as you heft the fallen branch clear.
  732. >Applejack is dangling twenty feet or so off the ground right now.
  733. >She's too far out to safely reach the ladder, and the branch she grabbed looks in about as rough of shape as the previous.
  734. >A familiar creak gets everyone's attention, and there's little time left to think.
  735. >You get directly underneath her and stretch your arms out in front of you.
  736. “Let go!” You order.
  737. >“Are ya outta yer cotton-pickin' mind?” Applejack calls, her voice a mixture of anger and fright.
  738. “I'm right here to catch ya! Don't worry!”
  739. >“Yer crazy! Let Mac do it!”
  740. “Mac can't without hurting himself more, and Bloom's not strong enough for this. It's either me, or a body cast! Your choice!”
  741. >Applejack hesitates in her response.
  742. >“How do ah know ya won't drop me?”
  743. “I won't let that happen, I swear it!”
  744. >Another snap, and her mind's made up for her.
  745. >“Fine, but ya better be ready!” She yells.
  746. “It'll be alright! Trust me! Now let go!”
  747. >Before Applejack can do so, the branch decides to cut out the middleman and break.
  748. >She screams loudly as she and it come down hard.
  749. >With little time to react, you adjust and brace yourself.
  750. >You manage to catch her, but the added weight of the branch causes you to drop backwards.
  751. >You land on your rear as the branch falls on top of you both.
  752. >“SIS, ANON!” Applebloom cries out.
  753.  
  754. >Mac reaches where you fell and gets to his knees.
  755. >Being careful not to hurt anyone, including himself, he lifts the branch up and out of the way.
  756. >What's revealed to him and Applebloom is an interesting sight.
  757. >You're on your back, with Applejack lying across the top of you.
  758. >You're still conscious, while she's breathing heavily with her eyes shut.
  759. >“You two alright?” Applebloom asks.
  760. >Applejack opens her eyes and surveys her surroundings before eventually looking your way.
  761. >“Ah...think so,” she finally murmurs, checking herself over.
  762. “I've had worse,” you add. “At least neither of us will need body casts, after all.”
  763. >“Ya've got a sick sense of humor, ya know that?”
  764. >You give a sigh before chuckling.
  765. >“What's so darn funny? We both coulda been really hurt from this!”
  766. “Just thinking how ironic this is, given what you said a little while ago.”
  767. >“Pardon?”
  768. “...that you didn't need my goddamn help?”
  769. >Applejack's face turns bright red as she scrambles off of you and to her feet.
  770. >Before you can do the same, she uses a foot to pin you down by your chest.
  771. >“Let's git one thing straight,” she says bluntly. “Ah still don't. Ya just happened ta be in tha right place at tha right time. This don't change anythin', got it?”
  772. >You stare back at her with a near defeated look.
  773. “...got it...”
  774. >Applejack releases her pin so you can get back up. “Good. Now git all these here apples loaded so we can git back.”
  775. >She walks off to retrieve the horse, while you look on with disappointment.
  776. “Talk about ungrateful,” you mutter.
  777. >“Actually, that's as grateful as she gets when she's still mad at someone,” Applebloom replies.
  778. >“Mmhmm,” Big Mac murmurs.
  779. “Lovely. Here I thought saving her life would've made a difference.”
  780. >“Don't feel like she's gonna forget this,” Applebloom says. “She owes ya one, now.”
  781. “I'd rather she just forgive me so we can all move on. I'm getting sick of her casting this dark cloud.”
  782. >Applebloom sighs. “It'll brighten up soon. She just needs more time.”
  783. “How much more, though...”
  784.  
  785. >That exchange out of the way, you move to load the apple barrels.
  786. >Thankfully, they aren't nearly as heavy as you thought they'd be, even filled to the brim.
  787. >You lift them up, while Applejack and Applebloom guide them onto the cart.
  788. >Once everything is loaded up, you make your way back to the farmhouse.
  789. >Part of you wants to say something to Applejack during the trip, but you decide against it.
  790. >As a result, the ride is conducted in silence.
  791. >Granny Smith is glad to see all of the fruit you recovered.
  792. >Applejack takes her leave from the rest of you, restarting her trend of avoiding you.
  793. >When Granny Smith asks if something happened between, you tell her 'no.'
  794. >You'd rather not bring up the fall, as this would probably get Applejack in hot water; something you want to avoid at the moment.
  795. >The last thing you want is for her to bring her wrath upon you, especially at this stage.
  796. >Instead, you focus on bringing the barrels to the main barn.
  797. >It still isn't made clear what the apples will be used for, but you're sure they'll be good for something.
  798. >You head home shortly after, as there isn't anything else needing taking care of.
  799. >That night, you keep replaying the near accident in your mind, as well as the aftermath.
  800. >What could you have done or said differently?
  801. >Obviously, NOT stepping up to catch her is out of the question.
  802. >You weren't about to let a friend get severely hurt, no matter how much she hates you right now.
  803. >Then again, you've already done that with Big Mac...
  804. >You do what you can to shake it off.
  805. >Applebloom is right – there's no way in hell Applejack can stay mad at you forever.
  806. >If what else she said is true, there will be a debt to paid somewhere down the line.
  807. >You can only imagine what that might entail in AJ's mind.
  808. >Maybe you should try getting in touch with some of her other friends to get their perspective.
  809. >Already one pops out at you.
  810. >It'll be a challenge, given what happened a week ago.
  811. >However, she's probably a good starting point.
  812. >Note to self: find a way to locate her, then meet up the first chance you get.
  813. >With that being said, you drift off into an uncomfortable slumber.
  814. >Tomorrow seems like it'll be another long one...
  815.  
  816. --------
  817.  
  818. >A beautiful Sunday morning begins...
  819. >...for those who don't have to work and can enjoy it...
  820. >For you, it's another day on the farm.
  821. >Even though it's hard work, you feel it's becoming just a little easier with each passing day.
  822. >A good sign - one of few you've seen thus far.
  823. >You don't see Applejack at all that morning, as she's off doing other chores elsewhere.
  824. >It isn't until close to lunchtime that she appears, and you try calling out to her.
  825. >She doesn't even acknowledge you, instead going to her car and driving off in the direction of town.
  826. “This is getting real old real fast,” you mutter.
  827. >“Let it go,” Applebloom replies as she approaches you. “Ah'd hate ta see ya as bitter as she is.”
  828. >Big Mac give an 'eeyup'. “Ya gonna go out with yer friends today, Bloom?”
  829. >Bloom sighs. “Well, ah would...if mah ride didn't decide ta leave me behind...”
  830. “What do you usually do with your friends?”
  831. >“Depends on what else is goin' on, ah guess. Sweetie said she wanted ta meet ta the Corner, though.”
  832. >This gets your attention.
  833. “Wait...you mean Sugarcube Corner?”
  834. >“Yeah, why?”
  835. “I remember Applejack saying that Pinkie works there. Any idea if she'd be there today?”
  836. >Bloom nods. “She's usually there every day. She always has somethin' special set aside when she know we're comin'.”
  837. >That settles it.
  838. “Tell you what, I can bring you today if you want.”
  839. >“Really? Ya sure?”
  840. “Sure I'm sure. I've been meaning to talk to Pinkie anyway, so this'll be a nice excuse.”
  841. >Bloom's eyes are beaming at this point as she hugs you. “Thank ya thank ya thank ya!”
  842. >You can't help but laugh as you get her to calm down.
  843. >“Hey, that's tha first laugh ah've heard from ya since this all started,” Mac states.
  844. “There hasn't been much reason to, lately,” you reply.
  845. >Mac sighs. “Keep yer chin up. It'll git better.”
  846. “I hope so,” you say, turning your attention back to Applebloom. “So, you ready to go?”
  847. >Applebloom nods. “Can't wait!”
  848. >Mac waves the two of you off as you head out.
  849.  
  850. >You don't recall having a reason to go Sugarcube Corner before, so you have Applebloom point you in the right direction once you're back in the heart of town.
  851. >As you walk inside, you take a look around.
  852. >The place is certainly going for a 50's vibe, with how the furniture and décor is designed.
  853. >Waitresses are skating around in blue dresses with aprons, taking and delivering orders.
  854. >You half expect Pinkie to be among them, but so far there's no sign of her.
  855. >Until...
  856. >“HEY!”
  857. >You yelp, jumping in your surprise.
  858. >You turn around, and there's the pink-haired wonder herself.
  859. >Also to your surprise, she isn't dressed like the other workers.
  860. >Instead, she's in a white uniform of sorts with a long apron on the front, covered in flour and batter.
  861. >Pinkie chuckles. “Sorry 'bout that. Didn't think you'd react that way.”
  862. >You sigh as you let your heart rate return to normal.
  863. “Now you know better,” you mutter.
  864. >“So what brings you in? Can't say I've ever seen you come here before.”
  865. “Well, Applebloom needed a ride,” you reply, motioning to the youngest Apple sibling.
  866. >“Hey Pinkie,” Bloom says with a wave.
  867. >“Ooh, I was wondering when you'd get here,” Pinkie states. “Your friends are already in the corner over there. I've got special brownies baking with your names on them!”
  868. >“Sweet! Thanks, Pinkie!”
  869. >As Applebloom heads to join her friends, Pinkie looks on with a smile.
  870. >“So...you supervising her for the day?” She asks you. “I thought Applejack would've brought her.”
  871. “It's...complicated,” you reply. “But that's not the only reason why I'm here.”
  872. >Pinkie tilts her head in confusion. “Oh?”
  873. “Do you have time to talk? I wanted to get some of your thoughts on a few things.”
  874. >“Yeah, sure. I'm on break, so it works out.”
  875. “Thanks,” you say with a sigh.
  876. >“Lemme grab those brownies for Bloom and company, and I'll be right with you.”
  877. >You nod as Pinkie heads back to the kitchen area, and you find yourself an empty booth.
  878.  
  879. >A few minutes later, Pinkie comes back out with a loaded tray.
  880. >She serves the Applebloom and her friends first, then makes her way over to your booth.
  881. >“Sorry for the delay,” she says as she nears. “Was waiting for a fresh batch of these bad babies.”
  882. >She sets her tray down, which has a pair of brownies and two water glasses on it.
  883. “No problem,” you reply, taking one of the glasses and having a drink.
  884. >“So what's up? You said you wanted to talk.”
  885. “...First off, I wanted to apologize for messing up your party from the week before...”
  886. >Pinkie smirks. “Well...I wasn't in the barn when you and Mac acted like knuckleheads, but I'll say I wasn't exactly happy about things getting cut short.”
  887. “Right...sorry...”
  888. >“Hey, water under the bridge. You don't have to go into detail.”
  889. “If you're sure. I know it's hard, though. I hear you put a lot of effort into planning and everything...”
  890. >“Don't sweat over it too much. It's not the first party of mine that's ended in disaster. I've had my fair share of them.”
  891. “Oh?”
  892. >Pinkie giggles. “Oh yeah. I remember last year's New Year's Eve party. Things got so crazy, the neighbors almost called the cops on us.”
  893. “Yeesh,” you say with a cringe.
  894. >“Spit happens,” Pinkie replies. “Yeah, I was a little mad both times, but there's always the next one.”
  895. >You nod as she pushes the plate of brownies toward you.
  896. >“Here, have one on the house. One bite, and you'll feel right as rain, I bet.”
  897. >You pick one up and try it.
  898. >You notice there's a nice blend of flavors. Plenty of chocolate, and what seems like marshmallow.
  899. “Hey, this ain't bad,” you comment.
  900. >Pinkie claps her hands. “Nice! I've been working hard on mastering the recipe. Sounds like I nailed it this time!”
  901. “So you're one of the bakers here? Weren't you a server before?”
  902. >“I was for a long time. I got promoted months back, and I've been baking up a storm since then.”
  903. “Glad to hear things are going well for some of us...”
  904. >“Things not going well for you?”
  905. “Not really. That's one of the other things I wanted to talk to you about.”
  906. >Pinkie grabs the other brownie and chomps down on it.
  907. >“Let's get to it, then,” she says.
  908.  
  909. “It's about Applejack, mostly,” you begin.
  910. >“Oh? What's been going on with you and my cuz lately?”
  911. “Wait...you and her are cousins?”
  912. >Pinkie tilts her head back and forth indecisively. “Well...I'd say it's a VERY distant relationship. Someone in my family from generations ago married someone in her family. But I can still count it.”
  913. “Heh, how about that...”
  914. >“But we're getting off-topic. So what's up with her?”
  915. “Well, she's been pissed at me after what happened at the party.”
  916. >“Oh, I know all about that. She's come here a lot in the last week to vent off steam. I've heard my fair share of it from her already. Same with the rest of our group.”
  917. “Has everyone picked a side yet?”
  918. >“No one's taking a side, Nonnie. We know how angry Applejack gets when stuff like this happens.”
  919. “Do ya now...”
  920. >“Oh yeah. One time she and Rainbow, another friend of mine, got into a HUGE argument over something really stupid, and they didn't speak to each other for weeks after that.”
  921. “Dare I ask what it was about?”
  922. >“That's just it – no one can remember. Tempers were flaring that day, and they both needed time to cool off. The two of them made up eventually, and everybody just forgot about it.”
  923. “Sounds like Rainbow lucked out, then...”
  924. >“I wouldn't say that. We've been tight-knit for a long time, and sometimes there's a rip or two that just needs patching up.”
  925. “Wish I could do the same in my case. I've tried talking to Applejack a few times, but she's either avoided me or acted the talks never happened.”
  926. >“You've been friends with her since you were little kids, right?”
  927. “Right...”
  928. >“So you know as well as I do that she's like a big stone on the shore. Can't be moved easily.”
  929. “Oh, don't I know it...”
  930. >“Listen, she'll come around. She got mad like this at Rainbow, too, and she got over it. Just don't press her on it too much.”
  931. “If you say so,” you sigh. “Was hoping I'd get some other advice than that, though...”
  932. >Pinkie shrugs. “Wish I could do more, but it's something you two need to work out yourselves.”
  933. “Well, maybe there IS something you can do. I was thinking of putting something together once Mac's back on his own two feet again.”
  934. >“Ooh, like what?”
  935. >You take time to explain your idea, and Pinkie's smile grows larger and larger.
  936. >“Yeah, we can do that no problem. Just keep me in the loop on how he's doing, and we can work out the details later.”
  937. “Thanks, Pinkie. It'd mean a lot - to me, and hopefully to Applejack.”
  938. >“Only one way to find out...”
  939.  
  940. >There's a loud dinging bell as the main door underneath it opens;
  941. >You and Pinkie turn and see Applejack enter, a determined look in her eyes.
  942. >She probably doesn't notice the two of you, as she heads straight to where Applebloom and her friends are sitting.
  943. >You're still within earshot, so you can hear what's being said.
  944. >“There ya are,” Applejack says. “Been lookin' all over fer ya.”
  945. >“Funny,” Applebloom replies. “Ya knew ah was gonna be comin' here.”
  946. >“Doesn't matter. Come on, it's time ta go.”
  947. >“Wait, what?” Applebloom exclaims. “Why? We only just got here a while ago.”
  948. >“We?”
  949. >“Anon offered ta bring me, while you just took off without me when ah needed the ride.”
  950. >“Look, ah'm sorry ah forgot 'bout ya,” Applejack sighs. “Ah was in a rush ta take care'a somethin', and ah wasn't thinkin' straight.”
  951. >“Ya haven't been thinkin' straight fer over a week now.”
  952. >Applejack shrugs this comment off. “So where is that varmint, anyway? He didn't leave ya here by yerself, did he?”
  953. >You sink lower into your seat, your level of confidence dropping ever so slightly.
  954. >“Takin' care of somethin' also,” Bloom says. “And don't call him a varmint. He's been nothin' but help since he started doin' this fer us.”
  955. >Applejack shakes her head.
  956. >“Ah thought ya'd be on mah side after what he did ta Mac. Why're ya still stickin' up fer him?”
  957. >The heads of Bloom's friends are going back and forth between the two siblings, as if they were watching a verbal tennis match.
  958. >“Because he's like family ta me, just like he is ta you...or has that changed? Am ah wrong?”
  959. >Applejack's taken aback by this.
  960. >Bloom continues. “Sis, we're all gittin' worried 'bout how ya've been actin'. It ain't right.”
  961. >Applejack shifts her head to the side, crossing her arms.
  962. >“He's doin' everythin' he can ta make things right,” Bloom says. “Can't ya just give'im a chance?”
  963. >There's a period of silence before Applejack replies.
  964. >“Ah will when ah'm good and ready. But right now...ah'm not...”
  965. >Bloom sighs as she stands up, giving Applejack a hug, which is slowly returned.
  966. >“Please think about it, at least,” Bloom says. “It's hurtin' us all ta see ya like this...”
  967. >“Ah know. Tell ya what, ah'm gonna hang out here a bit. If ya still want me ta take ya home, just holler when yer ready.”
  968. >Bloom nods, and Applejack lets her go, heading off to a booth over on the other side.
  969. >Thankfully, it's in the opposite direction of you, so she has no idea you've been nearby listening in.
  970.  
  971. >You're about to get up to go and see her, but Pinkie holds up a hand and shakes her head.
  972. >“Let her be,” she says. “Might be a bad idea to confront her right away after a talk like that.”
  973. “Maybe you're right,” you sigh. “Guess that's my cue to make an exit before she notices me.”
  974. >“And my cue to return to work,” Pinkie adds. “Sounds like AJ could use a visit from me...and a brownie or two.”
  975. >You part ways on that note, and you decide to check on Applebloom.
  976. “You alright?” You ask. “That sounded like it was gonna get heated.”
  977. >“Ah'm okay,” Bloom replies. “Just a little squabble 'tween siblin's, thas'all.”
  978. “You need me to stick around and take you back home after?”
  979. >“Nah, ah'm gonna take sis's offer. It'll give us another chance ta talk things over.”
  980. “Alright. I'm gonna head out, then. If you do need me for anything, you know how to reach me.”
  981. >“Ah'll see ya in tha mornin',” Bloom replies.
  982. >With that, you make your way home.
  983. >You had thought about mentioning your little plan to her, but you decide against it for now.
  984. >You figure you can make it a surprise for all three of the Apple siblings.
  985. >You're sure she'd be on board with it, regardless.
  986. >It's just a matter of when it can be put in motion...
  987. >...and whether or not it will go over well with a certain someone else...
  988. >Speaking of a certain someone else, she doesn't spot you as you depart.
  989. >Probably for the best.
  990. >That night, as you're getting ready to turn in, you hear a text message notification on your phone.
  991. >You take a look at it, half-expecting it to be Applebloom or one of your other friends.
  992. >To your surprise, it's from Applejack.
  993. >'Anon, meet me at the horse barn a half hour earlier tomorrow, ya hear?'
  994. >You're intrigued.
  995. 'See you then,' you text back.
  996. >You don't get a response after this, but you're sure she got yours.
  997. >You reset your alarm to go off a half-hour earlier, as per Applejack's instructions, and you hit the hay right after.
  998. >You're not quite sure what she has in mind...
  999. >...but you better be ready for whatever it is, and not to be late for it...
  1000.  
  1001. ----------
  1002.  
  1003. >3:45 a.m.
  1004. >You thought you'd be used to this by now, but you're jolted awake even worse than when you started.
  1005. >Oh god...why oh why did you set your alarm for this ungodly hour?
  1006. >You grumble as you groggily shut the MF-er off
  1007. >If you had a hammer readily available, you'd probably have used that instead.
  1008. >You go through your usual morning routine, keeping the clock in mind.
  1009. >It's going to be a while before breakfast, and your stomach is growling its frustration.
  1010. >You grab a few wrapped pieces of beef jerky from a kitchen cupboard before you leave.
  1011. >Just in case...
  1012. >You shiver a little as you walk out the door.
  1013. >Even though it's summertime, it's colder than usual this morning.
  1014. >You do a 180 and grab a sweatshirt, and THEN start making your trip.
  1015. >There is no one on the road as you drive, and for good reason.
  1016. >No one in their right mind would be out right now, anyway.
  1017. >Wait a minute...
  1018. >That's not what should be focusing on.
  1019. >After all, you have more important things to think about.
  1020. >What the heck does Applejack need you for this early?
  1021. >Has she finally decided that enough is enough?
  1022. >Is she done dealing with you?
  1023. >Is she going to off you and take the extra time to bury your body out in the orchard?
  1024. >She can't be THAT mad at you, right?
  1025. >......right?
  1026. >You try to shrug it off.
  1027. >You're just gonna have to roll with the punches...
  1028. >...especially if those punches are coming from a certain someone.
  1029. >You pull into Sweet Apple Acres, as you've become accustomed to.
  1030. >You bypass the main house and head straight for the horse barn.
  1031. >As expected, Applejack is standing at the entrance with her arms crossed.
  1032. >She's staring you down hard.
  1033.  
  1034. >“Yer late...”
  1035. >Nice way to start the morning...
  1036. “That's bull, and you know it. By my clock, I'm actually a couple minutes early.”
  1037. >Applejack chuckles. “Whatever. Ah'm just surprised ya decided ta show up...”
  1038. “You thought I wouldn't? Even when I said I'd be here?”
  1039. >Applejack continues her stare down.
  1040. >“Bloom claims ya've been 'nothin' but help' so far...”
  1041. >This remark is said with air quotes.
  1042. >“But ah'm still not convinced.”
  1043. >You sigh as you shake your head..
  1044. “Christ, what else do I have to do? Spell it out for you?”
  1045. >Applejack frowns, not giving a response.
  1046. “Let's change the subject, okay? What did you need me for this early?”
  1047. >“Yer gonna go on patrol with me,” Applejack replies.
  1048. “Wait, you mean going around the orchard?”
  1049. >“What else would ah be talkin' 'bout?”
  1050. “I don't know. Don't you usually do that by yourself?”
  1051. >“Ah do, but ah've been doin' some thinkin'.”
  1052. “About what?”
  1053. >“'bout what would happen if ah wasn't able ta do it, 'specially at a time like this.”
  1054. “Applebloom didn't figure into this?”
  1055. >“She's got plenty'a other things ta worry 'bout 'round here. And Mac can't do much of anythin' right now...fer obvious reasons...”
  1056. >You narrow your eyes ever so slightly.
  1057. “So it falls on me...”
  1058. >“Damn straight. Ya've always said ya pick up on stuff really fast.”
  1059. “I have my moments...”
  1060. >“Then think'a this as a test.”
  1061. “A test for me, or a test for you?”
  1062. >“Let's git goin' befer ah change mah mind!”
  1063. >She heads into the barn, you following in tow.
  1064.  
  1065. >Inside, you see two of the horses, Ollie and Anna, have been saddled up already.
  1066. >It must have taken a while for Applejack to prep them like this.
  1067. >You start to wonder how much sleep she really gets, and what time she wakes up every morning.
  1068. >You're quickly greeted by a familiar sight.
  1069. >Winona, the family dog, is resting by one of the stalls.
  1070. >You really haven't seen her around since you started working here.
  1071. >She's getting up there in years, but you wouldn't know it with how well she's taken care of.
  1072. >As you approach, she gives a yip, gets up, and rushes over to you.
  1073. >You can't help but chuckle as she jumps up and down all around you.
  1074. “Okay, okay, it's good to see you again, too,” you say, doing your best to calm her down.
  1075. >You give her a scratching behind the ears, as well as down her back, which she appreciates.
  1076. >Winona, meanwhile, sniffs all around you, though you're not sure why.
  1077. >Maybe it's because she hasn't seen you much, either.
  1078. >Whatever the reason, the reunion goes on for a little bit, and Applejack doesn't seem to like it much.
  1079. >“Are ya done?” She asks.
  1080. >Winona gives a little whine, stopping in her tracks.
  1081. “Hey, what's wrong with giving a dog some well deserved attention?”
  1082. >“We got more important things ta do, and yer wastin' daylight.”
  1083. “But the sun hasn't even come up yet for us to waste it,” you joke.
  1084. >“Damn it, ya know what ah mean! Let's go!”
  1085. >You sigh with a shrug as you mount the horses; Applejack with Anna, you with Ollie.
  1086. >You remember how to ride, but it's been ages since you've done so; you'll have to be cautious.
  1087. “So how do you go about this?” You ask.
  1088. >“Just follow mah lead,” Applejack replies. “Ah take tha same route every mornin', so do me a favor an' try ta remember it.”
  1089. “I'll do my best...”
  1090. >“Ya better,” she mutters, giving a little nudge with her heels to Anna's sides to get her going.
  1091. >You follow suit, making a clicking noise with your mouth as the cue, which Ollie picks up on.
  1092. >As you leave, Winona trails behind, as if she wants to join you on this little 'patrol.'
  1093. >Applejack sees this, and keeps the movement of the horses slow so she can easily keep pace.
  1094. >Together, you head off in the direction of the orchard.
  1095.  
  1096. >When you reach the edge, Applejack stops to survey your surroundings.
  1097. >“We take it nice and easy from this point,” she says. “Ah wanna make sure nothin's outta place.”
  1098. “You remember every tree and how it looks from day to day?”
  1099. >“Like tha back of mah hand. Ah gotta if ah'm ta keep maintainin' tha place.”
  1100. >You wonder how she's able to do this when there's no sun to aid her.
  1101. >This is quickly answered when she pulls out a heavy-duty light.
  1102. > “Now pay attention, will ya?”
  1103. >She shines the light up and down the tree closest to you.
  1104. >She nudges Anna into a walk, and you follow her example with Ollie.
  1105. >You go up and down each row of trees this way.
  1106. >So far Applejack has said nothing, perhaps focusing her attention on her work.
  1107. >It could be that nothing it 'outta place' yet, of course.
  1108. >Nevertheless, you break the ice.
  1109. “Wouldn't it be easier to do this when it's brighter out?”
  1110. >You don't get an answer at first, but eventually she gives one.
  1111. >“Maybe, but there ain't much time durin' tha day, what with our chores an' other things ta do.”
  1112. >“Besides, ah like it this way much better. Gives me some alone time.”
  1113. “Then why ask me to join you out here all the sudden? Doesn't that cut into your alone time?”
  1114. >“Like ah said, ah wanna make sure somebody else can do this in times when ah can't.”
  1115. >You sense there's more to it than that, but you choose not to press her on it.
  1116. >“Hold up,” Applejack states, stopping Anna in her tracks.
  1117. “What's up?” You ask, pulling Ollie up beside her.
  1118. >“That's what up,” she replies, dismounting and aiming her light at one of the trees. “Or should ah say...down...”
  1119. >She shines the light near the ground, where a large branch has fallen. She goes to examine the break.
  1120. >“This is what ah'm talkin' 'bout. That there branch was still up in tha tree yesterday.”
  1121. >She examines it carefully, then pulls out a notebook to write something down.
  1122. “Is this tree sick, too?” You ask.
  1123. >“Could be,” Applejack replies. “This ain't a clean break, that's fer sure. Ah'll have ta take a closer look up top later today.”
  1124. “Geez, second tree in as many weeks.”
  1125. >“Like Mac said before, can't control everythin'. Come on, there's still more trees ta check.”
  1126.  
  1127. >It's not long before you reach the far end of the orchard.
  1128. >You can't remember how long it's been since you've come back here.
  1129. >Had to be back during elementary school, at least.
  1130. >A particular tree catches your eye, and you have Ollie stop so you can admire it.
  1131. >Applejack notices you've stopped, and holds up, also. “What's up? Ya see somethin'?”
  1132. “No. Just thinking back to when we were little kids.”
  1133. >“Huh?”
  1134. “This was our favorite tree.”
  1135. >Applejack shines her light on it. “Whattya mean our favorite?”
  1136. “Don't you remember? This is the one we'd always come to when we played together.”
  1137. >You dismount so you can take a closer look.
  1138. “There was an old tire swing on one of the lower branches. I remember Mac pushing us so hard, we'd sometimes go flying into the pile of hay we'd bring.”
  1139. “And there were times we'd twist the rope around so much we'd spin around like crazy. One time I got so dizzy, I came close to throwing up,.”
  1140. >You chuckle as Applejack moves her horse your way. “That was pretty stupid of us,” she comments.
  1141. “Maybe, but they were simpler times when we didn't have as many cares in the world.”
  1142. >You put your hand on the bark, and you notice something on it that makes you laugh.
  1143. >“What's so funny now?” Applejack asks.
  1144. “There's still some of the old carvings we did on here,” you reply.
  1145. >Applejack aims her light at where you're pointing.
  1146. >Sure enough, remnants is various letters and pictures are present.
  1147. >Among them is a circle with 'A & A' in the middle of it.
  1148. >“Like ah said,” she says with a sigh, “that was pretty stupid of us.”
  1149. “Come on, we were kids, best friends for the longest time.”
  1150. >“And we grew out of it. Time moves on, and...things change...”
  1151. “For some of us...” You say as you make your way back to her.
  1152. >Applejack glares at you. “Ya goin' back ta that talk we had befer?”
  1153. “Maybe. I've thought a lot about it since we had that chat. But there hasn't been much chance to really speak more.”
  1154. >“And ah'd like ta keep it that way. We're not over this yet.”
  1155. “More like YOU aren't,” you say bluntly.
  1156. >“What, ya think ah'm just gonna forgive ya and fall into your lap?” Applejack says, kicking Anna in the sides to move on.
  1157.  
  1158. >Anna does NOT appreciate this move - or Applejack's attitude, for that matter.
  1159. >She whinnies loudly, lurching up onto her hind legs.
  1160. >Applejack is not prepared for this and loses her balance, falling off in your direction with a shout.
  1161. >Luckily, you're once again in the right place at the right time, and you manage to catch her.
  1162. >Her light falls to the grass, its ray shining upwards and illuminating the two of you.
  1163. >Your heart feels like it's pounding out of your chest after such a scary adrenaline rush.
  1164. >Applejack's breathing is quick, her eyes wide with fright as she looks straight ahead.
  1165. >There's a quiet yet awkward pause as you both try to process what just happened.
  1166. >Before long, Winona gives a bark, which shakes the two of you back to reality.
  1167. “You okay?” You manage to ask.
  1168. > Applejack looks your way, and her eyes widen even more.
  1169. >She panics and squirms in your grasp, and you set her down before she decides to hit you.
  1170. >She turns her back and takes a few steps away, hugging herself as a coping mechanism.
  1171. >You wish you had words of comfort to give, but nothing comes out.
  1172. >You instead turn away from her, and you both stand there without a word for a while.
  1173. >“Th...thanks...” You finally hear her stutter.
  1174. >You turn around, and you see that Applejack's eyes are beginning to water.
  1175. “N...no problem,” you reply with a stutter of your own.
  1176. >You expect her to have a follow up to say that this also 'doesn't change things.'
  1177. >But it doesn't happen.
  1178. >You break the ice once again.
  1179. “Let's...finish up your patrol, hm? Can't let a little fall like this keep us from doing our job, right?”
  1180. >“Oh, uh...yeah...right...”
  1181. >She picks up the light, and you both climb back onto your horses, continuing on your way, Winona back in tow.
  1182. >The rest of this little trek is conducted in relative silence.
  1183. >Applejack is a lot more focused on her observations of the trees, perhaps as a way of taking her mind off of what transpired a short time ago.
  1184. >You leave her to it, not wanting to press any of her buttons right now.
  1185. >It doesn't appear that anything else is out of place.
  1186. >Probably a good thing.
  1187. >There's plenty out of place already...
  1188.  
  1189. >You eventually make it back to the barn.
  1190. >You help Applejack remove the saddles from the horses and lead them back into their stalls, filling their troughs with hay and oats.
  1191. >After you feed the other horse and the cows, you return to the main house, where the rest of the family is having pancakes.
  1192. >“We were wonderin' where ya two were,” Granny Smith says. “We thought ya'd miss breakfast.”
  1193. >You and Applejack sit down at the two empty chairs that are next to each other, with Winona sitting in-between.
  1194. >“Ah...asked Anon ta join me...on tha mornin' patrol,” Applejack says.
  1195. >“Oh?” Applebloom asks. “How'd that go, Anon?”
  1196. >You swallow a mouthful of pancake before you answer.
  1197. “It went...okay. One tree that needs another look-over, but nothing else to report.”
  1198. >Bloom raises an eyebrow. “Nothin' else, huh?”
  1199. >Applejack gives a glare. “Yeah, nothin' else.”
  1200. >Big Mac looks equally skeptical, but doesn't say anything.
  1201. >Winona gives a woof, and you look back to her. Her tail is wagging like crazy.
  1202. >“What's up with ya?” Applejack asks. “Ya've been fawnin' over Anon since he got here.”
  1203. “She's a sucker for attention, I guess,” you say, patting Winona on the head. “Or maybe she's looking for early-morning hand-outs.”
  1204. >“But she gets both'a that from all of us,” Applejack states. “She's focused on ya for some reason.”
  1205. “Jealous, are ya?” You joke.
  1206. >“Me? Jealous? Hell no. She's not like this unless there's somethin' she's after.”
  1207. >Winona seems to prove this by standing up and bumping her nose against your back jeans pockets.
  1208. “What the-”
  1209. >“Ya see?” Applejack says. “Ya've got somethin' she wants!”
  1210. >You're not sure what she's talking about...and then it hits you.
  1211. “Oh...” you say, pulling out one of your pieces of beef jerky. “I forgot I had these on me...”
  1212. >You hold it up in front of Winona, and she's salivating at this point.
  1213. “You want this? Huh? You want this?”
  1214. >She yips, sitting down and holding up her front legs in a begging pose.
  1215. >You toss the jerky, and she catches it before trotting away happily.
  1216. >“Honest to god...” Applejack mutters, while the rest of the family laughs.
  1217. >“Safe ta say she likes food more than affection,” Applebloom quips.
  1218. >“Eeyup,” Big Mac says with a grin.
  1219.  
  1220. >The remainder of breakfast is relatively uneventful.
  1221. >You all help with the cleanup afterward and start getting ready for the morning chores.
  1222. >Bloom and Mac make their way out the door ahead of you.
  1223. >Before you follow, Applejack grabs your shoulder and pulls you aside.
  1224. “Something wrong?” You ask.
  1225. >“A lotta things,” she replies.
  1226. “Anything you wanna talk about this time?”
  1227. >Applejack scratches the back of her head as she looks away.
  1228. >“Well...first of all...thanks again...fer being where ya needed ta be earlier...”
  1229. >You nod.
  1230. >“An'...thanks fer not mentionin' what happened ta Granny. She'd kill me if she found out ah fell off tha horse.”
  1231. “Hey, it's between you and me...unless you feel you need to tell anyone else.”
  1232. >“Right...and ah've been thinkin' a little after that.”
  1233. “About what?”
  1234. >“Do ya...wanna make this a regular thing fer right now?”
  1235. “You mean going on your patrols with you?”
  1236. >“Just in case somethin' like that happens again. If ah was alone an' really got hurt, ah'd never hear the end of it from everyone else...”
  1237. >This is quite the change from before.
  1238. >Frankly, you're welcoming it.
  1239. “If that's what you need me to do to help out around here...sure, I can do that.”
  1240. >Applejack gives a meek smile.
  1241. >“It's a deal,” she says, holding out a hand.
  1242. >You look down to it before reaching yours out and grasping it in a shake, which she returns.
  1243. >“Let's git ta work, then,” she says, heading out to join her siblings.
  1244. >You watch her go as Granny Smith joins you.
  1245. >“A step back in the right direction?” She asks.
  1246. >You shut your eyes as you tilt your head down.
  1247. “Still got a ways to go...but I think we're starting to turn the corner.”
  1248. >“Keep at it, sonny. This is a long-distance race, not a sprint.”
  1249. “Yeah...will do...”
  1250.  
  1251. ----------
  1252.  
  1253. >The week rolls on.
  1254. >True to your word, you arrive earlier in the morning and accompany Applejack on her patrols.
  1255. >Your body doesn't like this one bit, as you're not getting as much sleep as you should be.
  1256. >However, your mind is quick to shoot these protests down.
  1257. >You're willing to do whatever it takes to mend those broken bridges.
  1258. >You quickly learn that Applejack likes to alternate between the three horses.
  1259. >This helps to ensure that none of them go out more than two days in a row.
  1260. >You don't even ride the same horse every day, as another means of keeping things on a rotation.
  1261. >To make things more balanced, you start bringing your own flashlight.
  1262. >This way you can follow Applejack's example in how she does her work.
  1263. >She's showing you everything she can, putting even more effort into this than you are, as per usual.
  1264. >It's the ultimate crash course, but just like everything else on the farm, it gets a little easier with each passing day.
  1265. >This is bringing back a lot of memories for you; some better than others.
  1266. >It really is feeling like when you and the Apple siblings were little kids.
  1267. >Part of you wants to find an old tire and some rope, and recreate the swing in the back of the orchard.
  1268. >Cliche, in a word, but it's the thought that counts.
  1269. >But it's a thought you're certain Applejack wouldn't appreciate, given her opinions from before.
  1270. >You decide not to press any further than you already have, lest you stunt your progress with her.
  1271. >Thankfully, Applejack seems to be in a slightly better mood than when you first started.
  1272. >Baby steps, but every step counts.
  1273. >By Saturday, your body has become a bit more adjusted to this new regimen you set yourself up for.
  1274. >You're riding the third horse of the bunch, Emma, while Applejack takes a turn with Ollie.
  1275. >Thankfully there haven't been any other 'incidents' like the one on Monday with Anna.
  1276. >There doesn't seem to be anything unusual this time as far as the apple trees go.
  1277. >For once, there isn't a branch out of place, as Applejack may say.
  1278. >Certainly a good thing, given the pair of unfortunate discoveries you've seen so far.
  1279. >Afterward, you join the rest of the Apple family at breakfast.
  1280. >Winona has been begging from you all week, hoping you still have beef jerky on you.
  1281. >You can't help but slide her a little piece under the table each day, and she loves it every time.
  1282. >You're afraid Applejack would disapprove, but she's accepted this behavior and just shrugs it off.
  1283.  
  1284. >The rest of the morning chores go on as you've come to expect.
  1285. >You're with Mac, as usual, while Applejack and Applebloom go off to do their own tasks.
  1286. >Nothing out of the ordinary happens, and none of the animals give you any trouble.
  1287. >Even ol' Betsy seems mellow today, which is odd.
  1288. >You honestly thought she'd have given you some kind of kick; not that you're complaining...
  1289. >As you're wrapping up, you notice another girl carrying a shopping bag walking up to the farm.
  1290. >Her hair is long and pink - though nowhere near as poofy as Pinkie's - and she's wearing a butterfly clip of some kind in it.
  1291. >“Hello!” She calls out as she approaches you and Mac.
  1292. >Mac gives a wave, and you follow with one of your own, even though you're not sure who she is.
  1293. “Hey, I'm Anon, one of Applejack's...friends. And you are...”
  1294. >“Oh my...sorry, where are my manners? I'm...Fluttershy.”
  1295. >The name rings a bell, at least.
  1296. “Okay, so you're one of Applejack's friends, too.”
  1297. >Fluttershy nods. “Yeah. I've been meaning to pay a visit, but it's been very busy at the shelter lately.”
  1298. >“She volunteers there ta care of tha animals,” Mac explains, and you nod in understanding.
  1299. >Applejack comes onto the scene with a 'Hey!' before giving Fluttershy a hug. “What brings ya here?”
  1300. >The pink-haired girl remembers why she showed up. “Oh, yes, I brought a few things.”
  1301. >She pulls out a jar of...something from her bag, and gives it to Mac.
  1302. >“I, uh...heard about your little...accident, and found some ointment that can help ease the pain.”
  1303. >Big Mac grins. “Aww, thanks.”
  1304. >“And for you,” Fluttershy continues, taking out a pack of colored pencils for Applejack. “I heard you were running low, and I happened to be by the arts and crafts store.”
  1305. >Applejack beams at the gift. “Yer tha best, Shy.”
  1306. “I didn't know you liked doing that sort of thing,” you quip.
  1307. >“There's a bunch ya don't know about me,” she replies, and you shake your head before turning your attention to Fluttershy.
  1308. “I don't suppose there's anything in there for me,” you say jokingly.
  1309. >Fluttershy giggles. “Sorry. If I knew you a little better, and if I knew you were gonna be here...maybe.”
  1310. “Fair enough. Another time, then.”
  1311. >“I do have something for Applebloom, though. Is she here?”
  1312. >“She's around,” Applejack replies. “She was heading ta take care'a tha chicken as ah was coming down ta see ya.”
  1313. >That's when you hear a loud commotion, followed by a high-pitched scream.
  1314.  
  1315. >You all head in the direction of the noise as quickly as you can, Mac lagging behind with his crutches.
  1316. >You arrive at the chicken enclosure, and you see that all of the adult birds have flown up to the overhead perches, clucking wildly.
  1317. >Meanwhile, the chicks – and Applebloom, for that matter - are in a state of panic.
  1318. >Feathers of all colors and sizes are scattered across the ground.
  1319. >“What's goin' on? Applejack asks in a concerned tone. “What happened?”
  1320. >“S...snake...” Applebloom stammers. “It...killed a chick...an' took off with it...”
  1321. >Fluttershy gasps as she puts her hands over her mouth. “Oh no...”
  1322. “Any idea what kind of snake it was?” You ask.
  1323. >“No...ah didn't get a good look,” Applebloom continues, “but it went in tha direction of tha stables.”
  1324. >“Not good,” Applejack replies. “If it's poisonous an' bites one of tha other animals, we don't have anythin' ta treat it.”
  1325. “Then we better track it down and catch it,” you say.
  1326. >Applejack takes charge. “Right. Mac, call animal control, an' let Granny know what's happenin'.”
  1327. >Mac complies, going to the main house as fast as his crutches can carry him.
  1328. >“Bloom, git a count'a tha other chickens an' make sure no others were lost.”
  1329. >Applebloom nods, and sets to work with said count.
  1330. >“Anon, Shy, yer with me. We gotta git this varmint befer anythin' else bad happens.”
  1331. >You follow the girls to the stables, and you all breathe a sigh of relief, as none of the horses or cows are inside.
  1332. >Applejack grabs a pitchfork leaning by the entrance.
  1333. >“You're not gonna...kill it, are you?” Fluttershy asks, eyeing the farming instrument.
  1334. >“Yer worried about tha snake after what it did?” Applejack snaps.
  1335. >Fluttershy fidgets. “S...sorry...I just hate seeing anything get hurt...or worse...”
  1336. >Applejack sighs. “Naw, naw, ah need ta be sorry. Look...ah'll only do it if ah have ta. This here will keep it at a distance, just in case.”
  1337. >The pink-haired girl sighs. “Alright...as long as you stick to that...”
  1338. >You spend the next few minutes cautiously checking every nook and cranny, but with no luck.
  1339. >Suddenly, your attention is shifted when you hear rustling in one of the stalls.
  1340. >“That's gotta be it,” Applejack says, rushing to open the gate.
  1341. >Sure enough, there's a three-foot-long snake inside, with a noticeable bump halfway down its body.
  1342. >Clearly this thing finished its meal while you were looking for it.
  1343. >It coils up defensively when it sees the three of you...
  1344. >...and makes a distinctive noise with its tail...
  1345.  
  1346. >“Diamondback...” Applejack murmurs.
  1347. “Rattler...” you finish.
  1348. >“Oh dear...” Fluttershy gasps.
  1349. >The snake looks ready to strike anyone that tries to come near.
  1350. >It seems focused mostly on Applejack due to what she's holding.
  1351. >“Careful,” she says, trying to move in as close as she can.
  1352. >The snake shakes its rattle even louder, rearing back as she approaches.
  1353. >“C'mere ya critter,” she orders, maneuvering her pitchfork to try and pin her target.
  1354. >Said target is apparently smarter than it appears, as it darts forward and towards its pursuer.
  1355. >Applejack shouts, dropping the pitchfork and getting out of the way before she can be bit.
  1356. >You and Fluttershy do the same, and the snake slithers out of the stall and into another.
  1357. “So much for the direct approach,” you mutter.
  1358. >“Ya got any better ideas?” Applejack quips.
  1359. >You look all around, and you notice a medium-sized metal tub used for hay and oats.
  1360. “Maybe this will help,” you say, picking it up.
  1361. >“Ah dunno,” Applejack says. “It'd be better if we had the element of surprise, an' that thing's quick.”
  1362. “I can sneak around outside to the other side of the stall, and then drop this on it.”
  1363. >“That'd mean opening tha outside gate. It could escape out ta pasture if ya do that!”
  1364. “Not if the two of you keep it busy.”
  1365. >“But it'd hear you comin' a mile away!”
  1366. >“Actually,” Fluttershy interrupts, “snakes can't hear. They can feel vibrations, but not hear sound...”
  1367. >“How in tha heck would ya know that?” Applejack asks.
  1368. >“Basic nature,” Fluttershy replies. “And...in case you forgot, I know a lot about animals.”
  1369. >“Alright then, how pray tell do we keep this thing 'busy'?”
  1370. >“You've heard of snake charmers, right?” Fluttershy asks. “Well, let's...charm it...”
  1371. >Applejack is in disbelief. “Ya can't be serious...”
  1372. >“Like you said,” the pink-haired girl snaps, “do you have any better ideas?”
  1373. >You're surprised at this turnaround in behavior, going from timid to assertive in the blink of an eye.
  1374. >Applejack gives a huff in defeat. “Fine, but this better work...”
  1375. >You quickly go over the plan before setting it into motion.
  1376.  
  1377. >You head back outside and under the fence, looping around to where the stalls are.
  1378. >Meanwhile, Applejack and Fluttershy carefully check to make sure the snake is where they think it is.
  1379. >They receive confirmation of their target, as it's backed into one of the far corners.
  1380. >They stay in place as you sneak over, and you hold your position once you see them.
  1381. >You watch as Fluttershy slowly slides the inner gate open, and she and Applejack walk inside.
  1382. >They stay backed up to the gate as the snake coils up again, rattling its tail.
  1383. >Applejack brandishes her pitchfork, but Fluttershy holds her hand up her way.
  1384. >“Let's see what we can do,” she says, taking a step forward.
  1385. >The snake flicks its tongue up and down as it focuses its attention on the pink-haired girl.
  1386. >She takes a breath before swaying her body back and forth in a rhythmic dance.
  1387. >You and Applejack watch as the snake seems be become enamored by this.
  1388. >It lifts its body up slowly, and begins to mirror Fluttershy's movements.
  1389. >“Jumpin' geraniums...” Applejack says in wonder.
  1390. >“You know how snake charmers are always seen playing their flute to the cobra in the basket?” Fluttershy asks.
  1391. >“Yeah,” the farm girl replies. “What about it?”
  1392. >“The snake is actually responding to how the charmers move their body, not to the music. It's the same basic thing here...”
  1393. “Seems to be working so far,” you say as you gingerly open the outside gate. “Keep at it.”
  1394. >Fluttershy nods, continuing her dance.
  1395. >The snake doesn't seem to notice you entering, but you make sure to close the gate behind you as an added precaution.
  1396. >You're almost on top of it, but then the shadow you're casting goes over it and gets its attention.
  1397. >“Anon!” Applejack and Fluttershy cry out, as the snake gives a hiss and goes to strike you.
  1398. >You react smartly, holding the tub out in front of you for defense.
  1399. >You hear the snake crashing into it, and you slam it rim-first to the ground.
  1400. “Gotcha!” You shout, sitting on the tub for good measure.
  1401. >The snake's rattling reverberates inside as it tries to escape, but to no avail.
  1402. >“Ah can't believe that worked...” Applejack exclaims.
  1403. >“I can,” Fluttershy states. “That was quick thinking, Anon.”
  1404. “That was more impulse than thinking,” you reply. “Now we just wait until the professionals arrive.”
  1405. >“That means yer gonna be sittin' there fer a while,” Applejack quips.
  1406. “Better to be sitting alive than laying dead...”
  1407.  
  1408. >Big Mac and Applebloom come over soon after to check on you.
  1409. >Mac sounds impressed with how you handled the situation, which you appreciate.
  1410. >Bloom reports that no other chickens are missing, and those accounted for aren't hurt.
  1411. >Applejack laments losing one to the snake, but not much else could've been done to prevent it.
  1412. >Bloom feels terrible, as taking care of them is one of her bigger responsibilities on the farm.
  1413. >Her sister and Fluttershy comfort her, the latter providing the gift she brought along for her.
  1414. >Bloom smiles at the phone case, as it's completely covered with images of flowers and fruits, and thanks Fluttershy for thinking of her.
  1415. >You all spend time sitting around and talking, and you learn a little more about the pink-haired girl.
  1416. >She's definitely a sweet girl, and cares a lot about her friends and any animal brought to the shelter.
  1417. >It feels like, even though you barely knew her before, you know almost everything about her she's willing to reveal.
  1418. >Applejack chimes in when she feels like it, but she's not as involved in the conversation as you hoped.
  1419. >It's about an hour later that animal control finally gets to where you are.
  1420. >One of them is dressed like he belongs in the Horsetralian Outback, khaki shorts and all.
  1421. >He certainly talks like he does, also, while his assistant is more 'normal' and reserved.
  1422. >You get out of the way as they carefully pull off the tub and trap the snake in a special net.
  1423. >A quick loop around the top, and the animal is safe and secure, ready to be relocated.
  1424. >They thank you for keeping it in place, although suggest you leave dangerous stuff like this to the professionals next time.
  1425. >Once they're gone, it's about time you head out.
  1426. >The same goes for Fluttershy, and she promises to find something nice for you the next chance she has to shop around.
  1427. >You thank her as she heads out, but once she's gone you hear a loud 'ahem' behind you.
  1428. >It's Applejack staring you down, and you expect her to act jealous after all of your interactions with one of her friends.
  1429. >“Good... job today,” she finally says. “Ah hate ta admit it, but ya've been pullin' that weight ya were talkin 'bout.”
  1430. “I told you before, I'll say it again – I wanna make whatever difference I can around here.”
  1431. >Applejack nods. “Just be sure ta keep it up. Ah'll be expectin' ya bright an' early tomorrow.”
  1432. “I'll be here,” you reply, taking your leave.
  1433. >Not exactly how you expected this day to go.
  1434. >At least no one else was seriously hurt...or worse.
  1435. >You made a new friend, and you were able to show Applejack that having you around isn't necessarily a bad thing.
  1436. >Just gotta keep it going, no matter how long it takes.
  1437. >It'll get better...you just know it...
  1438.  
  1439. ----------
  1440.  
  1441. >Man, it's a hot one...like seven inches from the midday sun.
  1442. >Quoting lyrics from popular songs aside, this is indeed to hot and humid day.
  1443. >Summer is in full swing, temperature included, and you were all aware of the weekend forecast.
  1444. >Applebloom suggested you bring your bathing suit today.
  1445. >This way, after the chores are done, you can all go to the swimming hole on the property and relax.
  1446. >After working up a nasty sweat, you're glad you took her advice.
  1447. >Once you've had lunch, you and the Apple siblings go off separately to change into your swimwear.
  1448. >As you're exiting the house, you notice two people coming up the familiar pathway.
  1449. >You recognize the younger girl as one of Applebloom's friends from Sugarcube Corner.
  1450. >The older one, with a cooler in hand has hair that's all sorts of colors. What was her name again?
  1451. >“Rainbow! Scootaloo!” Bloom calls.
  1452. >“Yo,” the older girl says, while Applebloom rushes over to hug her friend.
  1453. >Meanwhile, the older girl gives a raised arm to Applejack.
  1454. >“Thanks for the invite!” Scootaloo says. “Rainbow was nice enough to bring me.”
  1455. “Rainbow, huh?” You ask. “So you're the one Pinkie told me about.”
  1456. >“You can just call me Dash,” The older girl replies. “And just what did Pinkie say about me?”
  1457. “That...you're one of Applejack's closer friends?”
  1458. >Dash chuckles. “Ah, I'm just messin' with ya. She does that all the time with all of us.”
  1459. >You join in the laugh, rubbing the back of your head.
  1460. >“And you're Anon, right?” She continues. “A few little birdies say you're a big hit around here.”
  1461. “A bit hit?”
  1462. >“Well, that's what AJ and Fluttershy have told me. You caught that snake like a boss!”
  1463. >“Hey, it wasn't just him,” Applejack interrupts, carrying a cooler of her own. “Shy an' ah had a hand in it too, ya know.”
  1464. > “I know,” Dash replies. “Again, messin' with ya.”
  1465. >As Applejack gives a huff, you decide to change the subject.
  1466. “So who else is coming? Any of the other girls?”
  1467. >“Ah sent messages ta the rest'a mah and Bloom's friends sayin' they can come,” Applejack replies, “but everyone else had plans fer today.”
  1468. >“Dependin' on tha water level of the hole,” Mac says, holding onto some inflatable tubes, “that may be fer the best.”
  1469. “No one checked it ahead of time?” You ask. “It hasn't really rained all week...”
  1470. >“It'll be fine,” Applebloom says. “What could go wrong?”
  1471.  
  1472. >You walk along the edge of the orchard for a bit, then cut down one of the paths.
  1473. >Not long after, you reach your destination.
  1474. >It's roughly forty yards across and oddly shaped, which isn't surprising given it's just a hole dug out of the ground.
  1475. >The landscape around it varies in height, with one ledge sticking up ten feet or so above the water.
  1476. >There are plenty of trees dotting the area to provide shade, including one right next to the water with a rope tied to a low-hanging branch.
  1477. >“Too bad Sweetie couldn't make it,” Bloom says. “She told me she an' her sis got some new bathing suits to show off.”
  1478. >“There'll be other times,” Applejack replies, stripping down to a blue and green two-piece.
  1479. >You can't say you've ever seen her wearing something like this.
  1480. “Hey, that looks nice on you,” you say.
  1481. >Applejack gives you a raised eyebrow. “Ya tryin' ta butter me up?” She asks.
  1482. “What? Is there something wrong with giving a compliment?”
  1483. >“There is if ya've got other ideas in yer head,” Applejack replies.
  1484. >“Lighten up,” Dash says, showing off a black and white one-piece. “We're here to have some fun, aren't we?”
  1485. >“How's about ya go and check tha water levels so we can have that fun?” Applejack snaps.
  1486. >“Sheesh,” Dash says with a shrug. “Shy wasn't kidding about you being grouchy...”
  1487. >As Applejack gives a glare, Dash steps into the water without stopping, so it must be warm enough.
  1488. >She checks the different depths, especially around the rope-bearing tree and the ledge, even diving under the water several times.
  1489. >After a few minutes, she gives a thumbs-up. “We're good. Should be able to do some horsing around without problem.”
  1490. >“Yay!” Bloom shouts, running into the water with a laugh.
  1491. >Scootaloo looks a little hesitant, however.
  1492. “Something wrong?” You ask.
  1493. >“It's...nothing,” she replies. “I just have to be careful with how I do things. I'm a little injury prone, and my doctor says I have weak bones.”
  1494. >“Ya don't have ta fool around like everyone else,” Applejack says, stepping in herself. “Just relax, cool off, an' enjoy yerself.”
  1495. “We're all here to help you if you need it,” you add, “so don't worry too much.”
  1496. >“Eeyup,” Mac agrees, setting his crutches down, then gingerly sitting on the bank so he can stick his non-cast leg in.
  1497. >Scootaloo gives a smile. “Thanks, guys...”
  1498. > “Come on in, Scoots!” Bloom calls. “The water's great!”
  1499. >Scootaloo takes her time with it, but she manages to get in and start floating on her back.
  1500. “Special girl, isn't she?” You say to Mac as you join everyone else.
  1501. >“Mmhmm,” he replies with a nod.
  1502.  
  1503. >There is indeed fun to be had.
  1504. >When you're not splashing, laying or floating around, you're taking turns swinging from the rope like a certain Lord of the Jungle.
  1505. >Dash insists she's emanating Daring-Do, the main character of a book series she loves a lot.
  1506. >She turns the activity into a little contest to see who can swing out the furthest.
  1507. >Mac and Scootaloo opt out for their own obvious reasons, but they still show their support.
  1508. >You're definitely having fun with it all, the first you've really had so far this summer.
  1509. >Dash herself seems fun to be around, also, much to Applejack's chagrin.
  1510. >Soon, you break open the coolers for some refreshment.
  1511. >Dash brought along several juice cans and bottled waters, while Applejack's has chilled grapes, watermelon and...apples, of course.
  1512. >Afterward, it's back to the water.
  1513. >Applebloom helps Scootaloo a little near the deep end, providing support as her friend works her leg muscles through various motions.
  1514. >Applejack chooses to float in one of the tubes for a while, heading away from the rest of the group.
  1515. >You take a break, yourself, going around the water hole and climbing atop the ledge.
  1516. >You sit down near the edge and survey the surroundings, happy to see that everyone is enjoying themselves for the most part; well...almost everyone...
  1517. >Applejack seems in a foul mood again, while Dash seems to have disappeared.
  1518. >“Whatcha doing up here by yourself?”
  1519. >You turn to see Dash coming up to join you.
  1520. “Just getting some time away from the action, that's all,” you reply.
  1521. >“Oh...hope I'm not intruding...”
  1522. “Nah, it's fine. Could use other company, I guess.”
  1523. >Dash takes a seat next to you, joining you in your surveying.
  1524. >“I was there that day, you know,” she says out of the blue.
  1525. “What, at the party?”
  1526. >“Yeah, I was looking on from the back at what you and Mac were up to. That was crazy.”
  1527. “Have you gotten the whole story from anyone yet?”
  1528. >“Applejack gave me the cliff note version, and didn't speak too highly of you when she did.”
  1529. “Figures as much...”
  1530. >“Hey, she's one of my best friends. I gotta support her where I can, but I can see where you were coming from, too. Nothing to be ashamed of.”
  1531. “If I didn't feel ashamed, I wouldn't be doing this...”
  1532. >“Something tells me there's more to it than that.”
  1533.  
  1534. >You tilt your head, waiting for Dash to continue.
  1535. >“I think you're doing this not just to give Mac a break, but to bring Applejack around.”
  1536. “Around to what?”
  1537. >“Around to you.”
  1538. >You not sure how to respond.
  1539. >“C'mon, Anon. There's gotta be something going on between the two of you.”
  1540. “You mean the wall of hate she built up after what happened?”
  1541. >“You know what I'm talking about, even if you don't wanna say so.”
  1542. “What would you know?”
  1543. >“You'd be surprised. She's always talked about you, even before that whole mess. Some bad things after that, but it's been good for the most part.”
  1544. “Oh?”
  1545. >“Listen, she has a few other guy friends here and there, but she doesn't speak of them as highly as she does of you. That's gotta mean something.”
  1546. >You shake your head slightly, looking away.
  1547. “I don't know. There's been a lot of tension and bad blood recently. Even if what you say is true, I don't think she'll ever get over this...or really forgive me.”
  1548. >“Did Pinkie tell you about that big fight I had with Applejack years back?”
  1549. “She did.”
  1550. >“Then you know we both got over it after neither of us could find more reason to stay mad, and even then she was too stubborn to admit she started it all.”
  1551. “She's always been like that,” you say with a chuckle. “Ever since-”
  1552. >“You were little kids, right?”
  1553. >You nod, and Dash puts a hand on your shoulder.
  1554. >“What happens after your work is done and Mac is healed up? Where do you wanna go from there?”
  1555. >You stand up to look over the ledge, and you see Applejack still in her tube, floating your way.
  1556. “I...want things to get better. I wanna make things right with her...I...”
  1557. >Dash stands up, as well. “Yeah?”
  1558. “I...want her to like me again...”
  1559. >“Like, or 'like-like'?” Dash asks.
  1560. >You look down again.
  1561. “I...still don't know yet...”
  1562. >Dash groans. “What are ya waiting for? Buck up!”
  1563. >She slaps your back hard in an apparent show of support, and that's when things go awry...again...
  1564.  
  1565. >The move sends you forward, and you lose your balance.
  1566. >You try waving your hands to right yourself, but it's no use.
  1567. >You cry out as you fall off the ledge face-first.
  1568. “HEADS UP!” You yell in a vain attempt to warn Applejack.
  1569. >She wakes with a start and looks up...
  1570. >...just in time for you to land on top of her with a tremendous crash...and splash...
  1571. >“AH CRAP!” Dash shouts.
  1572. >Everyone else reacts to the noise, heading as close as they can in your direction.
  1573. >Meanwhile, you and Applejack return to the surface with gasps for air.
  1574. >Thankfully the water here was deep enough to prevent either of you from hitting the bottom and hurting yourselves further..
  1575. >Your body is aching, and your eyes are stinging from hitting the water so suddenly.
  1576. >“Damn it, Anon!” Applejack says, shaking her hair dry.
  1577. “Not my fault!” You reply, doing your best to get the water out of your eyes.
  1578. >“Ah don't care if it was!”
  1579. >“Uh...Anon?” Bloom starts.
  1580. “What?” You ask, your vision still blurred.
  1581. >That's when you realize you're now holding on to something.
  1582. >As things come into focus, you realize what it is...
  1583. >Applejack's top.
  1584. >You look back over to her, and she's still neck-deep.
  1585. >It's here where she too notices what you have in hand.
  1586. >The water here is dark, but you can still tell that she covers herself up.
  1587. >Your brain is running at a million miles a second in its panic.
  1588. >The rest of the group looks on in their own muted horror.
  1589. >“Can tha rest'a y'all clear out now?” Applejack asks through grit teeth.
  1590. >No one gives a verbal reply, instead getting out of the water...or in Dash's case, down from the ledge.
  1591. >They grab their towels and the coolers, and start to head back to the orchard.
  1592. >You swear you hear Dash mutter something under her breath as she goes.
  1593.  
  1594. >You're frozen in fear as Applejack stares at you in an apparent silent rage.
  1595. >“Git over here,” she orders.
  1596. >You comply, cautiously wading over to where she is.
  1597. >“Gimme,” she says, reaching up a hand.
  1598. >You're shaking as you hold out her top, which she swipes away from you.
  1599. >You try to go back to the water's edge so she can put it back on with relative privacy.
  1600. >“Hold up. Yer not goin' anywhere yet.”
  1601. >You stop in place, a pawn in her hand.
  1602. >“Befer ya do anythin' else, ah'm givin' ya a chance.”
  1603. “What kind of chance?” You ask nervously. “A head start before you catch and pummel me?”
  1604. >“No. A chance ta cash in yer favors yer owed so far.”
  1605. >Most likely she means the two times she's 'owed you' for saving her.
  1606. >“If ya don't cash'em, ya git outta here an' forget this ever happened. If ya do...”
  1607. >Applejack hesitates completing her thought.
  1608. >“...ya...get a peek. ”
  1609. >You're taken aback.
  1610. >Where is this coming from?
  1611. >“How about it. Sound fair?”
  1612. >You stare back at her in amazement, unsure of what to say.
  1613. >“What's tha matter, cat got yer tongue?”
  1614. “G...give me a sec to think,” you stammer in reply.
  1615. >Applejack rolls her eyes. “Tell ya what...ah promise ah won't lay a finger on ya if ya look.”
  1616. “You...swear by that?”
  1617. >“Ya know how honest ah am. Last chance ta make up yer mind.”
  1618. >You never thought you'd be in a situation like this, let alone with someone like her.
  1619. >As the clock is quickly ticking, you finally decide
  1620. “If you really want to do this...the ball's in your court...”
  1621. >Applejack takes that as a yes, swimming closer to shore so she can stand up, with her free arm covering herself up.
  1622. >“Ya ready?” She asks.
  1623. >You gulp, but you also nod, and she lets the arm fall to her side.
  1624.  
  1625. >You're not quite sure how to react as Applejack's breasts are unveiled.
  1626. >They aren't big, but they certainly aren't small either, perhaps somewhere between a B and C-cup.
  1627. >They compliment the rest of her toned physique well, rising and falling only slightly with each breath.
  1628. >You notice they have freckles on them, just like her blushing face.
  1629. >While you take this in, Applejack has her head tilted down and away, her eyes shut in embarrassment.
  1630. >You stay like this for a minute or so; neither of you moves a muscle, and no words are exchanged.
  1631. >You can't help but feel bad, as this doesn't feel necessary by any stretch.
  1632. >Hell, you could have said 'no' and gone about the rest of the day as normal.
  1633. >The guilt is more than you can bare.
  1634. >You turn your back, lowering your head.
  1635. “I've...seen enough...” you say.
  1636. >You sense Applejack opening her eyes. “Ya sure?”
  1637. “...I'm sure. That was a bit long for a peek, anyway...”
  1638. >“A'right...”
  1639. >A moment later, you hear some rustling as she puts her top back on.
  1640. “Sorry...for what happened...and for this...”
  1641. >“Ain't tha first time somethin' like this happened,” Applejack replies, approaching you from behind.
  1642. >You turn around again to see her looking at you, her enraged expression having changed to sternness.
  1643. >Your faces are mere inches apart, and the air so thick with tenseness, it can be cut with a knife.
  1644. >“Let's keep this 'tween us, ya hear?”
  1645. >Before you can reply, she tilts her head back, then slams it into yours.
  1646. >You yelp in pain as you fall backwards into the water.
  1647. “What the hell?! You said you wouldn't lay-”
  1648. >“A FINGER on ya, ah know. But ah said nothin' about other parts'a mah body.”
  1649. >You can barely believe what you're hearing as you rub your head.
  1650. >“That makes us even, now,” Applejack states, making her way back to land.
  1651. “I'd hardly call things even after a hit like that...”
  1652. >“Don't push yer luck, Anon. Be thankful ah didn't choose ta kick ya down below.”
  1653. >You almost instinctively reach for said area.
  1654. “Yes, ma'am...” You mutter.
  1655.  
  1656. >The two of you grab your things and head back in silence.
  1657. >Dash, Scootaloo, and the other Apple siblings are at the edge of the path waiting for you.
  1658. >“What happened?” Dash asks.
  1659. >“Nothin' ya need ta worry about,” Applejack replies, walking past everyone and back to the farm.
  1660. >“Are ya okay, Anon?” Applebloom asks. “Ah thought she was gonna make an example of ya.”
  1661. >Big Mac winces as he looks at you. “Oof, ah think she did...”
  1662. >You can start to feel what he's talking about. There must be a nice bruise forming on your forehead.
  1663. >“God, I'm so sorry,” Dash says in an ashamed tone. “This is all my fault.”
  1664. “Like AJ said, nothing to worry about,” you reply. “Given what happened, I think I got off easy.”
  1665. >“You call getting thumped in the head getting off easy?” Scootaloo asks.
  1666. “Better that than getting beat to a pulp...or worse...”
  1667. >“He's gotta point,” Bloom says. “Remember what she did to Fluttershy's brother last year?”
  1668. >Dash grimaces. “Oh yeah. She hit him with an uppercut that could've sent him into orbit.”
  1669. “What the hell did he do to deserve that?”
  1670. >“Simple,” Dash replies. “He tried making a pass on her by 'playfully' pinching her in the ass.”
  1671. >Bloom nods. “That was very stupid'a him, and in front'a his sister, too. He must've fallen outta tha family tree an' hit his head on every branch on tha way down.”
  1672. >“You're nothing like him, though, Anon,” Dash says. “You're smarter and better than that.”
  1673. “You think so?”
  1674. >“Not just me. So does Applejack, even if she won't say it out loud.. You're lucky to have her as a friend, just like I am.”
  1675. “Thanks...I guess...”
  1676. >“Ah think that's enough shenanigans fer one day,” Bloom states. “Y'all agree?”
  1677. >“Eeyup,” Mac replies, and the rest of you are also in agreement.
  1678. >Before you head out, Dash pulls you aside.
  1679. >“Listen, if you need someone to act as a middle...woman, I can help with that. Just let me know if you ever need to talk.”
  1680. >She holds up an arm, which you meet with your own.
  1681. “I'll keep that in mind. Thanks.”
  1682. >One number exchange later, you're on your way home.
  1683. >Today did not go the way you expected in the least.
  1684. >It wasn't a total disaster, but you certainly didn't get off Scot-free.
  1685. >Also, Applejack's behavior near the end really felt out of place.
  1686. >Was she softening up to you...even flirting?
  1687. >It's still too early to say if she's still mad at you, as you're a long way off from the time she asked for.
  1688. >Just gotta go with the flow for now...
  1689.  
  1690. ----------
  1691.  
  1692. >Another week, to say the least.
  1693. >For the most part, things have been quiet since the incident at the water hole.
  1694. >You're still going on the morning patrols with Applejack, but there's no real small talk
  1695. >It seems that she's in a 'tolerate' mode for now, and you're not about to change it to something worse.
  1696. >She does point out another tree that needs attention, which has her concerned.
  1697. >She later mentions having a friend of hers stop by when possible to get an 'expert' opinion on what the problem might be.
  1698. >With any luck, this isn't a widespread thing that could affect the entire orchard.
  1699. >In the meantime, you do what you can to lighten things up.
  1700. >Midweek, during a period of downtime, Big Mac shows you a few tricks with a lasso.
  1701. >All of the siblings learned how to make one at a young age, so it's like second nature to them.
  1702. >Seeing as how none of the cows would appreciate being practiced on, a sack of potatoes on a stool is used as a target instead.
  1703. >Even with his crutches, Mac is a master, roping the sack every time.
  1704. >You watch how he does it, and you give it a shot, yourself.
  1705. >It's much harder than it looks, and you can't seem to get it quite right.
  1706. >Mac and Bloom both provide pointers and encouragement, and you continue to practice.
  1707. >Soon Applejack comes over to see what's going on, and you have your chance.
  1708. >With a twirl and a toss, you finally manage to rope your target.
  1709. >Mac and Bloom shout and clap, but Applejack doesn't look impressed.
  1710. >She takes the rope from you and puts on a show of her own.
  1711. >She dances around, jumping through the lasso like it's nothing.
  1712. >You're frankly mesmerized by the display, clapping at the performance.
  1713. >Applejack eyes you and sends the rope your way, snaring your wrists mid-clap.
  1714. >It takes you by surprise, and you're dragged out by said wrists.
  1715. >You try to break out, but Applejack isn't having it.
  1716. >What she is having, however, is you hogtied and on your back in a matter of moments.
  1717. >She finishes with a nice bow and walks away with a smug look on her face.
  1718. >Mac and Bloom come to untie you and make sure you're alright.
  1719. >If anything's hurt, it's your pride.
  1720. >Most likely this is more payback for the other day, but it's not the worst thing she could've done.
  1721. >Just gotta keep working at it...
  1722.  
  1723. >Saturday comes soon enough.
  1724. >As you're wrapping up your end of the morning chores, you see another new face coming up the familiar path.
  1725. >She has purple hair with pink streaks, as well as a pair of glasses with thick frames.
  1726. >She's pulling what appears to be a piece of wheeled luggage over half her height.
  1727. >“Hello!” She calls. “Is Applejack around?”
  1728. “Somewhere,” you reply. “You a friend of hers?”
  1729. >The girl nods. “Yes,I'm Twilight. And I take it you're Anon?”
  1730. “Right. Have you heard anything about me so far?”
  1731. >“Well...Applejack did say you're helping in place of Big Mac...and how you're a...how did she put it?”
  1732. >She pauses, and you wait for her thought to be completed.
  1733. >“A real piece of work.”
  1734. “Are those her actual words, or did you replace any at the end?”
  1735. >Twilight eyes you, as if knowing what you meant.
  1736. >“Those were her words verbatim. She wouldn't use nasty words about someone unless she really hated them, and that doesn't sound like the case here.”
  1737. “Maybe not in front of her friends,” you mutter to yourself.
  1738. > Twilight looks confused. “I'm sorry, what did you say?”
  1739. >Before you can give an answer, Applejack, seemingly from nowhere, walks past you from behind, carrying a small ladder.
  1740. >“There ya are,” she says. “Ah've been waitin' all mornin' fer ya.”
  1741. >“Sorry,” Twilight replies. “It took me longer than I thought to get everything together.”
  1742. “I can imagine,” you state, eyeing the 'luggage' she brought.
  1743. >“Well, come on,” Applejack orders. “That tree ain't gonna tell us what's wrong with it all bah itself.”
  1744. “Wait, that's what she's here for?” You ask.
  1745. >“Course she is,”Applejack replies. “She's tha smartest in our class, and she's always doin' all sort'sa experiments on stuff like this.”
  1746. >Twilight adjusts her glasses. “There's a reason my friends here call me 'Sci-Twi...'”
  1747. “Hopefully this will turn out okay. You need help with that?”
  1748. >“Yes, thank you,” Twilight says. “This is heavier than I thought it would be.”
  1749. >You take the luggage's handle and start pulling it up the rest of the way.
  1750. “Geez, did you bring your entire laboratory with you?”
  1751. >“Not all of it. Just the essentials to get to the root of the problem.”
  1752. >You and her laugh at the unintended play on words, while Applejack scoffs and follows you up.
  1753.  
  1754. >Soon you're walking through the orchard, and there's time for small talk along the way.
  1755. >Twilight is in the running for valedictorian, and has a good shot at it given her grades so far.
  1756. >She actually transferred in from another city, and she became fast friends with the rest of Applejack's little group.
  1757. >When anyone has questions with certain homework or the like, she can always be counted on to help find the answers.
  1758. >She's also been testing the waters with Flash Sentry, one of the more popular guys at school.
  1759. >You joke that there must be good 'chemistry,' which Twilight also laughs at.
  1760. >When she replies if the same is true with you and Applejack, there's another scoff from the latter.
  1761. >“Let's stay focused on what matters, alright?” She says.
  1762. >As she marches ahead of you, you slump your head with a sigh.
  1763. “Never ends, does it?”
  1764. >“Has she been like this since that party fiasco?” Twilight asks you in a whisper.
  1765. “Pretty much. I'm trying to get back on her good side, but it feels like it keeps getting worse.”
  1766. >“It's never easy with her, but keep your chin up. You just gotta put in the time and effort, and let things move gradually.”
  1767. “Is that how you approach things?”
  1768. >“For the most part, especially with all the experiments and projects I work on. If something doesn't work, you figure out what the problem is and try again with corrections.”
  1769. “What's the correction I need to make with her, then? So far nothing's really worked.”
  1770. >“I wish I could help with that, but sometimes even I can't provide a good answer. A girl's heart and mind are complicated things, you know.”
  1771. “Don't I ever...”
  1772. >“Don't give up, Anon. Do you have any idea how often my experiments work on the first try?”
  1773. “No idea.”
  1774. >“Almost never, but that's where they get their name from. If everything in life went exactly according to plan, there would be no innovation or striving to do better. That's what science is all about.”
  1775. “Science is a bit different from mending a friendship, though.”
  1776. >“Not really - at least I don't think so. It's like just an experiment – do something different each time. Eventually you'll find a way to get through to her.”
  1777. “Hopefully. Thanks for the little pep talk.”
  1778. >“My pleasure...”
  1779. >Applejack finally catches wind of your whispers and looks behind her.
  1780. >“What're you two yapping 'bout back there?” She asks.
  1781. >Twilight adjusts her glasses again. “Just...other matters, that's all.”
  1782. “Nothing to really worry about,” you add. “More small talk.”
  1783. >“Mmhmm,” Applejack says. “Well now's not tha time fer that. We're here.”
  1784.  
  1785. >You have reached the latest tree to be seen as 'not right.'
  1786. >“Alight, Twi,” Applejack says, setting up her ladder against it, “time ta get ta work.”
  1787. >Twilight nods, having you pull up her luggage so she can open it.
  1788. >Within minutes, to your amazement, a mini laboratory is assembled.
  1789. >This includes a fold-up table, several beakers and chemicals, a Bunsen burner, mortar and pestle, and a microscope.
  1790. >Talk about a Young Frankenstein...
  1791. >“And here ah thought Pinkie was tha only one with'a magic bag'a tricks,” Applejack comments.
  1792. “Is all of this really necessary?” You ask.
  1793. >“I was asked to come prepared,” Twilight replies as she gets everything organized, “so I did.”
  1794. >She approaches the tree, walking around it and giving it a once-over.
  1795. >“Are the others trees you mentioned like this, too?” She asks.
  1796. >“Yeah, they are,” Applejack replies.
  1797. >“Good to know,” Twilight says. “Let's grab some samples...”
  1798. >After grabbing a small knife, she climbs up the ladder.
  1799. >Given she's wearing a skirt, you back away to avoid any potential 'pervert' comments and/or black eyes from Applejack.
  1800. >Twilight finds an section of bark that looks different from the rest, and notes that there are spots like it all over.
  1801. >Using her knife, she cuts off a little chunk with the possible cause of sickness.
  1802. >Climbing higher, she picks an apple as well.
  1803. >She returns to her table and examines each item.
  1804. >The bark has a reddish brown tone, while the apple has yellow specks on it.
  1805. >She cuts off a small piece of the apple with said spots and sets it on a slide.
  1806. >She adds a few drops of some kind of chemical to the piece, perhaps to see if there's a reaction.
  1807. >When there isn't one, she puts the slide under the microscope to take a closer look.
  1808. >“Hm...interesting...” she murmurs.
  1809. >She does the same with the piece of bark, muttering what you assume is scientific jargon to herself.
  1810. “She really gets into this, doesn't she?” You ask Applejack in a whisper.
  1811. >“Sure does,” she softly replies. “She loves stuff like this, so ah thought she'd be tha best person to ask without shellin' out fer professional help.”
  1812. “Provided she can figure out what the problem is on her own.”
  1813. >“Ah have faith in'er. You should, too.”
  1814. >You nod, returning your attention to what Twilight is doing.
  1815.  
  1816. >Twilight reaches into her luggage again, pulling out a book and leafing through it.
  1817. >“Let's see...no...no...maybe...uh-uh....hm...no...uh...oh, maybe...maybe...”
  1818. >Applejack groans as she rubs her forehead. “Git on with it, will ya?”
  1819. “Where's that faith you were talking about?” You ask “Give her time to do her thing.”
  1820. >“You be quiet,” Applejack orders.
  1821. >“Please,” Twilight interrupts, “Anon's right. I'm doing my best here. Rushing me won't lead me to the answer any quicker.”
  1822. >Applejack huffs, crossing her arms.
  1823. >Twilight shakes her head as she puts her nose back into her book.
  1824. >After another minute or so later, she sets the book down and goes back to look into the microscope.
  1825. >She's possibly comparing what she sees in there with what's on the page she's at.
  1826. >She gives a nod and has you and Applejack come over.
  1827. >“I think I have it,” she states. “Based on what I can tell from the bark and the apple, this looks like anthracnose to me.”
  1828. >“Anthra-what now?” Applejack asks.
  1829. >“It's a fungal disease,” Twilight replies. “It can affect a lot of different kinds of trees found in areas with heavy rains in the springtime.”
  1830. >She holds up the apple. “See the yellow dots? This is the early phase of what's called bull's eye rot.”
  1831. >She then holds up the bark. “And these are little cankers where the fungus has developed.”
  1832. >“So how bad is it?” Applejack asks.
  1833. > “This tree here is in the early stages,” Twilight explains, “but if left untreated, it can spread further up and cause severe damage to the limbs and fruit.”
  1834. “That might explain the fallen branches we've seen,” you quip. “Those other trees must be sicker than the rest.”
  1835. >“An' tha one we picked tha fruit from must'a had it really bad,” Applejack says.
  1836. “Any way to treat it?” You ask Twilight.
  1837. >She looks to the book again. “The only real way is to remove the fungus and any parts of the trees they've infected.
  1838. >“That means pruning any branches, cutting off bark with those cankers, and removing any trees that are too far gone.”
  1839. >“Wait...you mean cutting them down?” Applejack asks worriedly.
  1840. >“Or burning them,” Twilight replies. “I'm sorry. I wish there was better news, but that's the only way to make sure this doesn't spread to the rest of the orchard.”
  1841. “Sounds like we'd have to examine each and every tree for any signs of this fungus...”
  1842. >Twilight nods. “One thing of note - when you pick the apples, make sure to store them in a dry place. That should ensure you don't have further problems with future harvests.”
  1843. >Applejack mumbles to herself, clearly not happy with any of this news.
  1844. >“Dagnabbit...well, ah appreciate ya takin' tha time fer this.”
  1845. >“Anything for a friend,” Twilight replies.
  1846.  
  1847. >You help carefully put everything away, as well as bringing the luggage back to Twilight's car.
  1848. >She thanks you for the help and heads out, leaving you and Applejack on your own.
  1849. “So what's the plan?” You ask her.
  1850. >“Ah think it's gonna be too much fer us ta handle alone,” she replies. “Granny's not gonna like this.”
  1851. “It'll be better in the long run.”
  1852. >“How do ya figure?”
  1853. “It's either losing a little money bringing in the professional help, or losing A LOT of money when more trees and their apples get ruined.”
  1854. >“Ya...ah guess...”
  1855. “But that means our patrols are even more important, now. We need to make sure this doesn't get worse than it already is.”
  1856. >Applejack sighs. “Also means we may have ta change when we actually go on them. It'll be easier ta see tha signs with sunlight than flashlights...”
  1857. “Hey, that means we can both sleep in a little more, right?”
  1858. >She chuckles. “That's what yer worried 'bout?”
  1859. “Nah. When it comes to this, sleep is overrated.”
  1860. >“Ya sure yer up fer this? This is askin' a lot.”
  1861. “Whatever it takes to help, as I've said. I'm gonna do my part to make as much a difference as I can.”
  1862. >“Ah'm gonna hold ya ta that. We're gonna be busier than ever, now.”
  1863. “I'm ready if you are.”
  1864. >Applejack nods, looking up to the sky afterward.
  1865. >Thinking to Twilight's advice, you ask your next question.
  1866. “Say...would you wanna head to town and do something later? Might take your mind off the bad news for a little bit.”
  1867. >Applejack eyes you for a moment. “Maybe another time. Ah gotta break that bad news to Granny, anyway, and let'er know what we need ta do.”
  1868. “Fair enough. Guess I'll head off, also...”
  1869. >You go to walk away.
  1870. >“Hey, Anon?” Applejack says.
  1871. >You turn around to look at her.
  1872. >“...thanks...fer all tha help so far...ah mean that...”
  1873. “You're welcome,” you reply with a smile.
  1874. >Applejack gives a small tip of a hat as she takes her leave.
  1875. >This is the best compliment you've gotten from her since all of this started.
  1876. >Feels like another step in the right direction...
  1877.  
  1878. ------
  1879.  
  1880. More to come...

Farm Hands (Anon x Applejack, EQG, updated 6-20-22)

by MagnaAnon

Study Buddies (Anon x Twilight, EQG, complete)

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Uncommon Ground (Anon x Rainbow Dash, EQG, complete)

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Pinkie Promises (Anon x Pinkie Pie, EQG, Complete)

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Measuring Up (Anon x Rarity - Complete)

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