Streaks of bright, white light breaking over the far-off horizon signaled the rising of a new sun and the beginning of a new day. The beams of sunlight cut through the dense fog of the chilly early morning like a knife through butter. The thin, wispy accumulation of water droplets began to melt away under the onslaught of energy from the newly-risen light source. The vapor gradually returned to its usual invisible form in the early morning light, revealing another clear sky, set to greet the earliest of risers with its wide open vistas of chilled air.
Light, no longer impeded by the wispy fog, now freely found its way to spread across the landscape, falling across building, tree, and mountain alike and bathing them all in the first wondrous illumination of a new day. Striking the frosty panes of a glass window, a beacon shone into the bedroom of a cozy farmhouse – a bedroom where two ponies slept peacefully in each other's warm embrace. Gradually shifting across the oak-paneled room as the sun began its steady trek across the Equestrian sky, the beam eventually fell onto the closed eyelids of an uneasy orange farmpony. Blinking incredulously at the fluorescent intruder of her dreams, Applejack was thrust into the world once again. Shaking her head to clear the last of the fog of sleep from her mind, Applejack rolled over in bed, moving her hoof off of the cyan pegasus next to her and leaving her lover to remain blissfully asleep. Applejack looked over at Rainbow Dash and sighed. She was so cute when she was asleep – the way her eyes closed, the way her mouth curled into a small smile, everything about her made Applejack's heart melt. She didn't have the heart to wake her.
Repositioning herself to set her hind hooves on the hardwood floor beneath the bed, Applejack slid out from underneath the blanket, careful not to disturb her sleeping partner, and set herself gently onto the floor. Carefully, she made her way over to the window, setting her forehooves on the sill and standing to get a better view down and out of the clear pane. Hopes, which had been rising in favor of a warmer day, were dashed immediately as her hoof touched the cold glass. She exhaled a deep sigh, a ring of condensed fog forming on the chilled surface as she did, and turned away from the window.
It was daybreak, a time when most ponies, should they be inadvertently awoken from their slumber, would crawl back into bed to attempt to snatch several hours more rest. Even as she stood in the middle of the room, contemplating her next decision, the warm blankets and sheets and the even warmer pegasus on her bed beckoned Applejack. But, steeling her nerve with a firm shake of her head, she forced herself to ignore the siren call of sleep, and instead strode out the bedroom door and into the hallway, turning to make her way towards the stairwell. Daybreak or not, there were plenty of apples to be bucked, yet little time to do so. In her mind, there was only one pony for the job, and so Applejack rose with the first light of dawn.
She made her way into the kitchen, where the glowing coals of the once-blazing fireplace had reduced to naught but cool ashes, once again allowing the chill of the outside to permeate throughout the house. She passed the hearth by without so much as a second glance, making a beeline straight for the kitchen. 'No,' she decided upon arriving, heating up some apple cider to fully wake herself would take too much time. It would be best to skip it and get straight to work. Moving into the front hall, Applejack reached up with her teeth to pull her scarf off the hook above her, wrapping the rainbow fabric around her neck and snuggling against its cozy softness. Once again, her mind was filled with images of the pony who had given the scarf to her – the pony whose mane and tail matched its pattern – and she smiled warmly, bracing herself for the cold that lay just beyond the front door.
Pushing against the wood of the door, Applejack made her first steps out into the chilled world and strode purposefully onto the lawn and towards the barn. Along the way she checked the ground to make sure it remained unfrozen, as had become customary practice for the last few days. It was a sigh of relief that reached her lips next at the realization that the dirt beneath her hooves remained loose and unfrozen. As long as the ground beneath her was not hard, AJ knew that it had not gotten cold enough to ruin the crop – not yet, at least. It was a difficult job, setting up the wagon of supplies and hauling them into the orchard herself, but Applejack strode forward with the strength of a pony invigorated by purpose and perseverance – a strength that was doomed to run out even as she reached an unharvested section of the orchard, loosened the cart from herself, and planted her hooves for her first kick at a ripened tree.
Unlike her wife, Rainbow Dash was not thrust into wakefulness by an errant beam of the morning's first light. With her back turned to the window, she slept through the sunrise and for several hours thereafter – only to be awoken unexpectedly and suddenly by a vigorous shaking. Rolling over onto her stomach form her back at the sensation, Rainbow took a sharp intake of breath which ended in a subconscious snort. "No, Applejack. We can't tonight. Little AJ is asleep and we might wake her… what was that?... In the barn? Oh you naughty fill-"
"WAHHH!" Rainbow Dash jolted up suddenly in her bed, having been unceremoniously thrust into the world of consciousness at the sound of her name being yelled. She turned to her right and caught sight of a timid yellow pegasus shrinking back and hiding her face behind the flowing locks of her pink mane. "Ughh… Fluttershy, what in the hay are you doing?"
"Oh… I'm so sorry for waking you up from your… erm… dreams, Rainbow Dash. It's just that… oh… it's probably nothing. I'll just go now, I'm so sorry…"
"No, Fluttershy, it's Ok. I'm not mad. Just tell me what's wrong."
"Oh… Rainbow, it's just that… it's Applejoy. She woke up crying this morning and she won't stop. I've tried everything I normally do when they get upset, but it isn't working. I even had to move her to the living room just so my foals could get some quiet… Oh, Rainbow, I just don't know what to do."
Fully awake now, Rainbow Dash quickly scrambled from her bed and stood at her oldest firend's side to give her a reassuring hug. "Thanks for telling me Fluttershy. Let's go." The two left the bedroom and trotted down the hall towards the staircase, bent on quickly getting downstairs to the foal, whose crying was now faintly audible. They had both mounted the stairs and were trotting down when something occurred to Rainbow. "Hey, where's Applejack?"
"I don't know. She wasn't in bed with you when I came up… I haven't seen her at all today."
"Well…" Rainbow Dash's reply was cut off at the foot of the stairs by the sight of Applejoy, lying on her back on the couch with her head thrown back and her mouth opened in what amounted to something somewhere between a wail and a series of sobs. Parental instincts kicking in, Rainbow Dash took to the air and zipped across the room to scoop her daughter into her embrace, the wave of disturbed air left in her wake fluttering her sister-in-law's mane and rattling several lighter pieces of furniture. She held her daughter to her chest and her soothing heartbeat, hoping that her mere presence would be enough to calm her down. She nuzzled her soflty, rubbing the pale orange fur of her head with her own cyan-coated neck. Although the volume of her wailing went down, the shuddering and sobbing remained evident. "You said you've tried everything?"
"Everything I can think to do… besides feeding her, of course, because… well… she isn't my foal…"
"Wait, feeding? She hasn't been fed today? Has she?"
"I… I don't know. I told you I haven't even seen Applejack today…"
"Applejack… Oh sweet Celestia, she's out in the fields, isn't she?" Rainbow Dash stood up, laying her daughter on a soft cushion with a kiss. "Fluttershy, could you watch her for just a little longer? I need to go out and find AJ."
"Oh, please, Rainbow Dash… hurry back."
"I promise, Fluttershy." Rainbow Dash winced as she heard the sniffling of her daughter behind her, and tried as best she could to drive it from her mind as she retrieved her scarf. As much as it pained her to leave Applejoy like this, she knew that it was paramount to find Applejack. With that in mind, she steeled her nerves, opened the door to the biting cold, and stepped out.
Despite the chill in the air, sweat dripped down the orange back and neck of the hard-working farmpony. Individual glistening beads sparkled in her fur and flew through the air in high arcs as the robust vibrating action of each kick shook droplets from off of the well-toned muscle from whence they came. Each flailing buck of hind legs sent more droplets flying, yet each strike of hoof to tree seemed to bring down less of the targeted fruit than the last. "Come on, apples. FALL OFF!" Applejack, her body deprived of energy, laid into the tree behind her with a succession of four quick, underpowered kicks, the last of which missed the bark of the trunk completely, causing Applejack to lose her balance and come crashing to earth in an orange heap.
Groaning, she picked herself back up onto her hooves and rubbed her throbbing head with a fore-hoof. Opening her eyes, the thicket of green and brown before her seemed to swim before her very eyes, the shapes of trees, apples, and baskets both empty and full of fruit blending into one nonsensical amalgamation of shape and color which grew to dominate Applejack's entire field of vision until, blinking, she managed to drive her vision back into normal focus. Blinking a few more times, Applejack started to sway gradually back and forth before shaking her head quickly back and forth to regain her sense of balance. Frustrated, Applejack turned her green eyes towards the sky and opened her mouth to cry out her irritation upon the world. "What the hay is wrong with me!"
Standing stock still and breathing through her teeth – seething at her own failure, Applejack did not expect to hear a reply. For several seconds, she heard nothing but the silence exhibited by the orchard on such cold autumn days. Suddenly, though, a cry broke through the still silence, a cry faint from the distance it travelled; a cry that carried a single name on the wind – her name. "Applejack?" Listening intently, she heard it again a few seconds later, then again a few moments after that. Each time she heard her name called, it became louder and louder, as if the epicenter of the cry was moving – moving towards her. From behind a tree down the row from her, Applejack caught sight of a flash of color which then revealed itself to be the rainbow mane of the cyan pegasus who stepped out into the open. Rainbow Dash turned and locked eyes with Applejack before trotting up to her. "AJ, what are you doing out here?"
Applejack broke her prolonged silence, turning her head and shaking herself as her wife approached. "What does it look like Ah'm doin'? Ah'm applebuckin', it has ta get done."
"You're a mess, AJ. What time did you get up?"
"Sunrise." For several moments, Rainbow stood, absently blinking at her wife in incredulity. Finally, she spoke again, disbelief clearly evident in every word.
"AJ… do you realize how late we got to bed last night? You must have gotten about zero sleep!"
"So? This needs to be done, and if Ah have ta miss sleep ta do it, then so be it."
"Did you even eat breakfast?"
"Nope. Ah didn't have time." Applejack stifled a yawn.
"AJ. Stop this nonsense. Come back inside the house with me. You can't do this to yourself again. Remember Applebuck season four years ago? When you tried to do everything by yourself and wouldn't let us help you? Don't do that again, AJ."
"Ah know, Sugarcube, but this is different. Back then, Ah ran mahself into the ground because Ah was bein' stubborn. This year, Ah have ta work hard because winter's comin' early. This year, Ah don't have a choice."
"Come on. Let's go. You need rest and something to eat."
"Nothin' doin', Rainbow. Ah'm gonna get this done no matter what, and Ah don't care what ya-" Applejack's words were cut off as she found her mouth blocked and her lips interlocked with those of her partner. She stood blinking in confusion for but a moment before melting into her lover's embrace, kissing her back as well. The familiar sensation of time standing still came back to her, lingering until Rainbow Dash pulled away to speak.
"AJ, you can't do this to yourself any more, not now, because you aren't just hurting yourself anymore."
"How do ya mean?"
"Fluttershy shook me awake this morning." She paused, but before Applejack could reply, she started speaking again. "She had to wake me up because Applejoy woke up crying. She woke up crying, AJ. Do you know why? Because she hasn't been fed today." Rainbow paused again to let her words sink in, nodding as Applejack's eyes widened with a sudden realization. "AJ, I love you, and I hate to see you do this to yourself. When you do this, you aren't just hurting yourself, you're hurting her. You need to sleep and to eat because you're still feeding two ponies. Now come on, we need to go inside now."
Applejack, as she remained standing and not speaking, began to shake. Her knees wobbled underneath her as she stared dead ahead, and then suddenly gave out, leaving Applejack to crash to the ground again in a heap and bury her head into her forelegs, sobbing. Alarmed, Rainbow Dash galloped across the clearing and threw a protective wing over her partner's back, laying down next to her and snuggling into her as she did so. For a while, she felt her wife shudder with each heavy sob before she finally picked her head up and spoke. "Ah'm so sorry, Rainbow. Ah'm a terrible mother."
"No. No you're not." Rainbow Dash pulled Applejack even closer to her own body and nuzzled her warmly, "You're an awesome mother, AJ. You just made a mistake. Come on, let's go home."
Slowly, and with Rainbow Dash's mane still draped over her, Applejack stood up and cuddled the pegasus beside her. Then, side-by-side, the two lovers began trotting out of the orchard.
As if of its own accord, Applejack's tail intertwined itself around Rainbow's as they left.
Rainbow Dash smiled in a display of pure inner mirth. After seeing to it that Applejack had been properly fed, she gazed fondly at her wife as she reclined comfortably on the living room couch, their daughter resting against her stomach and nursing gently. "I love you guys." She whispered. She knew that neither of them could have heard her, but she didn't care.
Turning from the living room, Rainbow trotted into the kitchen, where she scooped her purple-and-white scarf off the table – where she had left it while eating. Before she could wrap herself in it, however, a timid voice caught her attention. "Oh, hello, Rainbow Dash. How is she doing?"
"She's doing just great, Fluttershy. Thanks for helping us out." Rainbow Dash smiled for her as she slung the long scarf around her neck several times.
"Wait, where are you going?"
"Well, seeing as how AJ is done Applebucking for the day and Big Mac is out there all by himself, I think I should fly into town and see if I can get our friends to help again."
"Oh, I'm sure they will. Be careful, Rainbow. Stay warm."
"Don't worry, I will." Rainbow Dash shot one last look at her wife and daughter through the doorway, beaming as she caught Applejack's eye, and blew a kiss before she stepped into the foyer. Opening the front door again, she stepped outside into the brisk air and spread her wings, giving them both a few test flaps before her flight. Closing the door behind her, she leapt off the porch and into the sky, flying several wide circles around her home before soaring out over the seemingly endless orchard.
The chilled wind whipped at her mane and filled her with a deep sense of life as she flew. Row upon row of trees, some empty, some fruit-laden, passed beneath her. The faster she went, the colder it seemed to get. Rainbow Dash became glad she had brought her scarf as she powered along through the air, passing the occasional cloud along her route. Finally, the edge of the orchard passed beneath her and she began following the road into Ponyville. The spires, windmills, and thatched roofs of the little town grew closer as she went. In the distance, she spotted the pink and brown roof of her destination and made a beeline towards it. Extending her hooves beneath her as she flew lower and lower, she made a smooth touchdown outside the front door of Sugarcube Corner.
The bell rang as she entered the shop, causing a particular hyper party pony to look up from her work and smile widely as her friend entered. "Hey Dashie! I'm so happy to see you! Are you here to buy something? We have cakes and cookies and muffins and cupcakes and candy and…"
"Sorry Pinkie, but I'm not here to buy anything. I actually need a favor."
"What is it Dashie?"
"Well, it's getting cold really soon this year and AJ and I are worried we might not have time to finish Applebuck season by ourselves. I was wondering if you could come out and help us again like you and the girls did a few years ago."
"Oh, Dashie…" Pinkie's energy noticeable drained as she leaned against the counter. "I'd love to help, but Mr. and Mrs. Cake are on vacation in Manehatten, so I have to run Sugarcube Corner by myself again. I can't leave. I'm so super sorry Dashie."
"Hey, no worries, Pinkie Pie. I understand. I'll see ya around, I have to go check on the other girls."
"Bye Dashie!" Rainbow Dash made her way out of the shop again, taking off into the wind once she got back outside. Soaring above city streets and the thatched roofs of houses, she caught site of the high spire of Carousel Boutique – her next destination. Landing, she again stepped through the door to be greeted by a voice.
"I'm in the back! Just a moment, I'll be right out."
"No need, Rarity, it's me."
"Oh, Rainbow Dash. Come on back then, I'm very busy." Rainbow Dash stepped into the back room of the shop to find Rarity bent over her sewing machine and hard at work. "I just received an absolutely massive order from a customer in Fillydelphia and I simply can't stop work if I'm going to reach my deadline."
"So I take it you don't have the time to come out to Sweet Apple Acres and help us with applebuck season this year?"
"Oh heavens, no. I'd love to help, but I'm far too busy. May I ask what is wrong?"
"Oh, we're worried about the weather, we might run out of time if we don't get some extra help."
"Yes, I see. It has been getting rather cold lately. Well, I wish you the best of luck in finding help and getting done, and I offer my sincerest apologies that I can be of such little assistance."
"It's OK, Rarity. Good luck with your order."
"Goodbye, Darling. Nice seeing you!" Rarity turned back to her work, using her magic to stich a seam in two pieces of fabric. Rainbow Dash quickly left the boutique, lifting into the sky once more for the short flight to the Library.
'I hope Twilight is free, her magic would really be useful…' Rainbow Dash remembered the last time she and her friends had helped the Apple Family with applebuck season, when Twilight Sparkle had been able to clear multiple trees at once of their loads. She continued hoping as she zeroed in on the tree home of her friend and spiraled down to the ground to knock on the front door.
Rainbow Dash heard the pattering of small feet as she stood back. "Just a minute!" Came a voice from inside, before the door swung open and Rainbow Dash was confronted with a small purple dragon. "Hello, Rainbow Dash. What can I do for you?"
"Hi Spike, is Twilight home?"
"Sorry, but no. She left for Canterlot this morning."
Rainbow Dash was growing flustered and was now quite worried by the news that their most able friend wasn't even in town. "Canterlot? Why is she there?"
"She started volunteering at this clinic for sick kids. The 'Royal Sisters' Children's Hospice' I believe she called it."
"Really? What does she do there?"
"Well, all the kids there have terminal diseases, so she helps out by organizing shows to entertain them every week or so. Usually she helps set up for some sort of musical act. She told me about these regular performers – a DJ pony and mare who plays cello – they perform together as some sort of couple. I thought it was strange, mixing a DJ with classical music, but she says the kids love it."
"Do you have any idea when she'll be back?"
"She usually returns around evening when she heads to the city. Why?"
"It doesn't matter now. Thanks anyway." Rainbow Dash turned away from the library and launched herself into the air. Frowning at her lack of success, she flew, alone, back to Sweet Apple Acres.