It's Always Sunny in Fillydelphia
Notes: This is a fic made for one reason and one reason only: I wanted to read this pairing, but there's only been one fic featuring it so far (that I'm aware of). Come on, guys, The Best Night Ever was a month ago! Unlike a lot of ships on this site, these two exchanged dialogue!
This is a big departure from what I've written before, and against some of my public statements on the subject of shipping. Mea culpa. When I've said I don't like ship fics, I didn't mean "I don't like romance fics period." What did change is that, thanks to exposure to fun individuals and stories, I'm willing to read a Friendship is Magic fic with romantic elements.
I still don't think of this as shipping; my definition is rather different. I just think this is a romance. But to most eyes, yup, I wrote a shipfic. Enjoy!
An extra special thanks to my prereaders, since I was paranoid about this one and basically subjected people to new editions every couple of pages.
Although her work was done for the day, Applejack trotted through the apple orchard with a sense of purpose. She scanned the boughs of her family's apple trees until she finally saw a hint of rainbow-colored mane. Her first instinct was to buck the tree to shake Rainbow Dash from her spot, but she stopped. "Oh right, ah ain't lookin' for her 'cause ah'm mad. That don't happen often." She called out the pegasus' name. There was no response. So she did it again.
Applejack was about ready to angrily buck her down when Rainbow Dash finally poked her head over the edge. The blue pegasus yawned. "Oh. It's you. What do you want now?"
Applejack snorted. "Y'all make it sound like ah'm here to make you work."
"You usually are!"
Applejack stroked her chin thoughtfully. "Alright, fair enough. But ah ain't this time. In fact, ah've got a gift for yah, if yah want it."
That got Dash's attention. Abandoning her pillow and blanket to their fate, she was face to face with Applejack in an instant. "What is it? Where is it?" She was bouncing like Pinkie Pie on Winter Solstice morning.
Applejack chuckled at that image. "You can calm down, Sugarcube. It ain't anything tangible. How'd you like to go with me to Fillydelphia for a few days? The train tickets and hotel're already paid for. Ah just need a body to fill 'em."
Dash pumped her right foreleg excitedly. "Alright! I love free stuff! This is awesome!" She paused. "Too awesome. What's the catch?"
Applejack sighed. Here was the hard part of the sell. "Well, you see, every year me an' Big Macintosh go up to Applecon, but he's got the flu and..."
Applejack shot Dash a glare at the interruption. She took a deep, calming breath before continuing. "Ah'm surprised ah haven't mentioned it before. It's a big ol' convention, the best three days of the whole dang year. Apple farmers from all over Equestria come and we talk shop. Ponies show off new apple breeds, new apple accessories and they have the best keynote speakers!" She was starting to break into a Pinkie Pie sized grin. Just thinking rows of booths, the friendly faces, the smells of exotic apple dishes and the hours spent debating the proper techniques gave her a warm feeling in her gut.
Rainbow Dash blinked. "Um..."
Applejack sighed. Nopony got it. "It's to me what goin' to see the Wonderbolts is to you."
Rainbow Dash's eyes sparkled with comprehension. "Oh, why didn't you say so? Still, um, as interesting as talking about apples all day is, I'm gonna be busy. See, I gotta help... Carrot Top with her... carrot... bucking. Yup! Carrot Top needs me to buck her carrots!" Dash flashed Applejack a completely unconvincing smile.
Applejack said, "Look, if y'all don't wanna go, you can just tell me."
Rainbow Dash looked relieved. "I don't wanna go."
Applejack stomped her hoof in frustration. "You don't have ta be so dang blunt!"
"Do you want me to tell you or not? Make up your mind!"
Applejack remembered why she usually just spelled things out for Dash. Fine. No more subtle approach. "Ah want somepony to come along so ah don't have to go by my lonesome. Fillydelphia's a big place and ah don't wanna be around a million strangers with nopony at mah back if somethin' bad happens!" She hadn't really meant to be quite that forceful.
But, apparently it hit home, as Dash backed up a little. "W-well, I can see that side of it. But, um, apples are kinda boring. Not just apples, I mean, if Wooljack wanted me to go to Sheepcon, I'd turn her down too. Can't you find somepony else to go along?"
She lowered her head sheepishly. "Actually, ah sorta saw this coming, so ah asked you last."
Dash winced. "Oh."
Applejack sighed. "Yeah. Everypony's too busy. Well, 'cept for Twilight Sparkle, but she finds everythin' interesting, long as there's a book for it. But ah didn't ask her."
Dash perked up. "Well that's perfect! You can go with Twilight!"
Applejack gave Dash what she hoped was her most sarcastic, half lidded stares. It didn't seem to register. "Dash, Twilight's a good friend and all, but she don't exactly handle herself well under pressure. Plus, she's a bit naive."
"She isn't that bad," said Rainbow Dash.
Applejack scoffed at that. "Remember last week?"
Twilight Sparkle held the letter to her chest as if she were guarding an infant. The purple pony's expression was grim. This was serious business. "Girls, this letter is from the President of Zebrana! Their nation has been overtaken by rebels. They contacted me with a plan to save their foreign bank accounts by mailing them some money, but surely we can do better! Spike's making the preparations to travel as we speak, and I sent Fluttershy to ask Zecora for any insights into her homeland!" The sarcastic, half lidded stare Applejack gave her was ignored. She really needed to work on her sarcastic, half lidded stares.
"I guess you're right." Dash seemed lost in thought for a moment. "I'm surprised Pinkie didn't want to go with you. I mean, a convention's just a big party, right?"
"Well, she said Gummy's feelin' under the weather." Applejack cleared her throat and did a passable impression of their friend. "Golly, Applejack, I don't know what's wrong with Gummy. He's just so lifeless!"
Dash chuckled at the gag before the meaning sunk in. "How would she tell the difference?"
Applejack shrugged. "She can tell, ah guess, and ah don't think Pinkie has it in her to lie about that sort of thing."
Dash stroked her chin thoughtfully for a moment, then her eyes brightened up again. "I've got it! It's Fillydelphia. There's loads to do in Fillydelphia! I'll go with you, do my own thing during the con, then we can meet up after it closes for the day and talk about all the cool stuff we saw! Then we rinse and repeat."
"Well, ah gotta say, that's a pretty good idea. Sure, ah can agree to that." It didn't exactly spare her feelings about how her friends viewed the technical details of her profession, but she'd take what she could get.
Rainbow Dash smiled. "Great! I'll go pack my, um..." She seemed to go deep into thought again, before announcing, "I'm ready to go when you are!"
As train rides went, the journey to Fillydelphia was a short one, being just over three hours. Applejack and Rainbow Dash had amused themselves with a deck of cards bought at the train station, but the two were now glued to the window. The countryside was pitch black under the wan moon, which only enhanced the sight before their eyes.
Applejack had seen it before, but the dark night made it more striking than ever. First, the city itself appeared on the horizon as a faint, second sunrise. As they got closer, they got the first hint of skyscrapers. They thrust themselves into the heavens and their lit windows looked from a distance like another set of constellations. In fact, there was light everywhere. Starlight and gaslight reflected off the calm harbor, creating the illusion of a place where water, sky and earth flowed together seamlessly.
The vision was broken as they drew closer and the city came into focus. Applejack sighed as the light from a thousand streetlights drowned out the stars and the train track blocked the harbor from view. She wished she were a poet or a painter. A pony could build a whole career out of what she'd just witnessed.
Rainbow Dash said, "That was awesome."
Applejack chuckled. "Couldn't've put it better mahself."
Their journey to the hotel (the Waldorf Horsetoria) was less magical. Even at ten at night, the traffic was hard to negotiate, especially with Applejack pulling the unfolding fruit stand she'd be taking to Applecon. The narrow sidewalks weren't really made for her small wagon and the streets were a chaotic mess of taxis and carts running late night deliveries. So, it was slow going, as she found herself earning glares from passers-by who had to shove against the sides of builidngs or get perilously close to the street to get around her. Rainbow Dash was gliding above, struggling to take it all in.
"I didn't know places this big existed! I mean, I did, I just didn't think they were serious about it!" The pegasus had gotten a notepad from somewhere and was writing down the names of shops and landmarks they were passing. The pegasus was in for a busy day of sightseeing at the rate she kept adding places to check out.
Applejack chuckled. "Y'all should see Manehattan. Makes Fillydelphia look like Ponyville."
Rainbow Dash paused. "How have you been more places than me? I can fly and it seems like I only wind up going anywhere with you."
Applejack shrugged as well as she could in her harness. "Ah hadn't really thought about it much, but ah guess ah am pretty well traveled."
From there, everything went according to plan. They checked in, parked Applejack's wagon in an indoor parking lot and found their rooms without a hitch. Applejack loved seeing just how floored Dash was by the almost palatial surroundings. The carpet was soft to the hoof, the halls were decorated with paintings and neoclassical busts of famous Fillydelphians, and the walls were so white and clean that it almost gave Applejack eye strain. Dash stuttered, "H-how can you afford this? I don't even want to know how much this cost..."
"Trust me Dash, ah make it back off the apple cart." She let more than a little pride slip into her voice. "'Sides, it's the Waldorf or nothin.' There's no place else with a secure garage in ten miles of the convention center."
When they got to their room, some of the illusion of pomp was shattered. Applejack had to get a room in one of the nicer hotels in the city, but she had the cheapest room therein. It had one easy chair, one mini bar, one bathroom with a shower, but no tub, and one deficiency that she had neglected to mention to Dash.
Rainbow Dash turned and gave Applejack a confused look. "Um, AJ, I'm only seeing one bed."
Applejack nodded. "Beds're the expensive part. Big Macintosh usually gets the bed, since he can barely fit in the chair. Ah was thinkin' that we could trade..."
Applejack rubbed her eyes to wipe away the rainbow flash left in the pegasus' wake. Finally, her vision cleared enough to shoot Dash a glare. "Warn me the next time you're gonna pull that! And y'all can't call dibs, ah wasn't ready!"
Dash reared up on her hind legs and put her hooves akimbo. "Oh yeah? Wanna hoof wrestle for it?"
Applejack smirked. "How about we go with the old rule, 'the pony payin' for the room gets the bed?'"
"Some Element of Generosity you are!" Dash stuck her tongue out at Applejack playfully.
"Ah ain't the Element of Generosity, ah'm honesty!" Applejack hoped Dash was being playful.
She was. There was no way her exaggerated groveling could be taken seriously. "Then be honest. Could you sleep knowing that your best friend was going to wake up with a back ache?"
"Considerin' ah gotta haul that wagon a mile through the city tomorrow? Like a baby. And yer always sleepin' on random junk like mah trees. Ah think yer back can handle it."
"I'll have you know that apple trees are very ergonomic." Applejack gave Dash a sarcastic, half lidded stare. Finally, it seemed to work, as Dash got a guilty look on her face. Dash seemed to have an internal war between her desire for comfort and the fact that Applejack had a point. Finally she hopped off and started testing the chair's cushion. Finding it to her liking, she flopped down gracelessly on it. "Oh fine. Making me feel guilty is playing dirty, you know."
Applejack shook her head and smirked knowingly. "Ah know, right? What's the world comin' to?" Applejack didn't get a response because Dash, despite her protestations, was already snoring like a congested chainsaw. Applejack rolled her eyes. "Night, buddy."
Applejack arrived at the convention center at around 6 the next morning. Fortunately for her, there were fewer ponies on the streets at 5 AM than there had been at 10 PM, so her trip was easy. Dash was really missing out. Applejack had tried to rouse her friend, but the pegasus slept the sleep of the dead.
She was finally letting herself get excited. Let the snooty ponies have their Grand Galloping Gala, this was the best place for her! She'd be with her own type of folk, in more ways than one; she was looking forward to seeing some of her distant cousins. She hadn't received an itinerary in the mail like she had most years, so her imagination was on overdrive. Had Jazz Apple finally managed to breed a blue apple? What did the future hold for fertilizers and pesticides? She'd been thinking about making Sweet Apple Acres organic, and if some of the products she'd seen last year had been refined as much as she hoped, she could make the switch and increase her yield. Premium products at higher prices plus more yield equaled all the replacement hips Granny Smith could ever want.
Even better, it looked like attendance was up this year; the paved lot around the convention center was full of carriages and bicycles. She saw a group of colts milling around near the entrance. She parked her cart, chained it to a bike rack (which was probably an abuse of her bike rack privileges) and went to join them. She didn't see any of her friends or relatives yet, so she figured she might as well meet the new blood. "Howdy, y'all. Name's Applejack. Are y'all new here?"
The ponies were slow to respond to the stranger in their midst, which gave Applejack the chance to notice their odd dress. One was an earth pony wearing a green cloak, ear extensions and a paper mache horn. To his left was a stout pegasus wearing a similar green cloak and... were those mini shag carpets tied to his hooves? The last of the three was a unicorn dressed in what looked like a knight's armor, only made of tin foil and cardboard. He was also wearing an elaborately braided beard and he had a large, paper mache warhammer clenched in his teeth.
Applejack also quickly saw that all three were blushing furiously and casting nervous glances at one another. She could swear she heard one whisper, "A girl, man! What do we do?"
Finally, the bearded unicorn said, in a cracking voice, "Good morrow, fair maiden! What bringest thou to this shire?"
Applejack blinked. And ponies said she talked funny. "Just here for another great con. Ah've been lookin' forward to this all year."
This just made all three of them a brighter crimson. The pegasus gestured and they got into a huddle. Awfully un-neighborly of them to act like she wasn't there. The earth pony finally broke formation and went down on one knee, averting his gaze. "We apologize, fair maiden. Lo, we have been to many a convention and have never seen a mare of thy radiant beauty."
It was Applejack's turn to blush. She got a hold of herself quickly. "Th-that ain't true. Apple Bumpkin's got the looks of the family, and she comes here every year."
The earth pony finally made eye contact to shoot Applejack a confused look. "Every year? Prithee, this is the convention's first year, is it not?"
Before Applejack could object, the pegasus blurted, "S-so Applejack, huh? What are you from?"
What was she from? They talked weird and had bad grammar. Good thing Rarity wasn't there. "Well, Ah'm here representin' Sweet Apple Acres, and..."
The unicorn interrupted this time. "Sweet Apple Acres? Never heard of it."
The pegasus said, "Must be one of those weird backwards Neighpon comics."
The earth pony glared daggers at them until they relented. "I beseech thee, fair Maiden Jack, please do not allow the boorish manners of mine companions..."
It was finally Applejack's turn to interrupt. "Hold on a sec. What do y'all mean this is the first year? This is Applecon twenty-three!"
The three strangely clad ponies gave each other confused looks. Finally, the earth pony spoke up. "What's an Applecon?"
Her stomach sank at that. "A-ah gotta go." Applejack glanced around, looking for the ticket booth.
She heard a frustrated groan from behind her. "Those Neighponophiles are so snooty."
She ignored it.
"Cute flank, though."
That she didn't ignore. She hoped she'd recognized the earth pony's voice, because she ruined his costume horn with a swift buck to the head. The bad news must have shaken her more than she thought, because she'd been aiming at his face. Before he or his fellows could respond, she finally saw the ticket office. She took off as fast as her legs would carry her. Somepony owed her an explanation!
Most ponies have seven stages of grief. Applejack had three. She was efficient like that.
First came shock. "Cancelled due to lack of interest?"
Next, rage. "Cancelled due to lack of interest!"
Finally, acceptance. "Cancelled due to lack of interest."
The bored-looking ticket taker nodded. "Yes, that's what I said. Applecon was cancelled months ago. I'm surprised that you weren't informed of it, since you bought your tickets," she paused as she looked down at the file in front of her, "back in March."
"How could y'all cancel Applecon? It's an institution! It's older'n ah am! Mah pappy was one of the founders!" If there hadn't been a glass partition between them, Applejack would have violated her personal space something fierce. But there was, so she made her voice pick up the slack.
The ticket taker raised her hooves in a placating gesture. "Ma'am, we here at the Stardancer Memorial Convention Center are not responsible for the content or organization of the conventions held here. If you have an issue, you'd have to talk to the Equestrian Apple Growers Association."
The speech sounded canned, but Applejack couldn't deny it. "Well, first chance ah get, the EAGA is gettin' one humdinger of a complaint letter. It ain't your fault, but ah'd still like a refund."
The ticket taker said, "Well, have you considered attending Fanicon? The tickets are more than they were charging for Applecon, but in recognition of your years of patronage, we would waive the difference."
Applejack scoffed. "Hah! Thank ya kindly for the offer, but ah don't care to spend all weekend bein' ogled by hormonal teenagers."
The ticket taker rolled her eyes. "Amen to that." She tapped some buttons on the cash register and gave Applejack a small pile of bills. "Frankly, I'd get out too if I could. There's a reason I didn't wear any makeup today."
Applejack nodded. "Thanks fer bein' so reasonable about all this." Her polite smile faded away as she walked back towards the apple cart. The hundred feet between them felt like miles.
No blue apples. No shop talk. No new products. No Applecon. That excitement she'd been building all morning was snuffed out. "Bad enough it's cancelled," she muttered, "she didn't have to go and say it was on account of no interest." She felt empty. As she started unchaining the cart from the bike rack, her stomach growled. At least she knew how to fix that. She gave the cart a kick, causing it to unfold.
"Oh fer the love of Pete, really?" Her menu boards had been painted on, with a note in the bottom right that read, "A Cutie Mark Crusaders Joint." The paintings of each menu item were actually passable, but that wasn't what got her goat. Apparently somepony had gotten the idea that the symbol for "two bits" was "+2." Every price, from the apples to the apple pies, was written that way. "Ah'm glad nopony saw this, this is just embarrassing."
"Oh man, that is just hilarious!"
She turned around and she saw four fillies dressed in the same sort of bizarre style as the three colts from earlier. The one who had spoken, a blue unicorn, continued. "That's the best joke ever! Can I get an Apple of +2 Delicious?" This caused the fillies to burst out into giggles.
Applejack stammered, "W-well, ah wasn't plannin' to..."
Another one piped up, "I'll take a Apple Cider of +3 Smiting!"
"Two +2 Apple Crullers of... Apple?"
The blue unicorn rolled her eyes. "Way to think on your feet, Dewdrop. This is why we don't let you play a bard."
The fillies completely lost Applejack. What these weird ponies found so funny about the poorly made signs was beyond her. However, the bits they were producing looked real. Like Granny Smith always said, a sale was a sale. She put on her most winsome smile. "Why sure! So that was one apple, a cider and two crullers?" It was going to be hard paying off that hotel room as it was. She wasn't optimistic about how many she'd sell. After all, she had stocked up for three days with apple aficionados. How many bits could these ponies blow on a strange inside joke?
"Hah, +2 Apple! That's perfect. But let's make it a +5!" The earth pony dropped five coins onto the counter, took his treat, and walked off. Once he was in range of another strangely dressed earth pony (Applejack couldn't even tell them apart anymore), he shouted out, "Apple Missile with a +5 enhancement," and let fly. When he missed, Applejack heard the target mention something called a "crit fail."
Applejack couldn't believe it. She was almost sold out and it had been what, one hour? Two at the most? And she wasn't just sold out. The ponies had started trying to outdo each other. Apparently they saw a +3 Apple as better than a +2. They paid a premium accordingly and weren't giving her the chance to make change. From her rough count of the number of bit coins in her overflowing register, she'd made more this morning than in the last two Applecons combined. Really, she should have been happy.
But if anything, she was getting angrier. Who were these weirdoes who could afford to pay twenty bits for a pie, boast that it was a "+20 Pie of Doom," then throw it at a friend without taking a bite? Sure, most of the food was being eaten, but a lot of it was used for make-believe games more appropriate for Apple Bloom than for grown ponies.
Applejack was forced to conclude that Granny Smith was wrong; all sales weren't created equal. It was a wonderful thing to see her hard work translated into full bellies and satisfied customers; it was completely different to watch her apples wasted in front of her eyes. Her salespony's smile was slipping. At this rate, though, she had about five minutes before she was completely out of stock, so she wouldn't have to do it for much longer. She laid her head on her hooves and sighed.
A male voice spoke up a moment later. "Hi, I'd like that Dutch apple pie. How much?"
"It's a +5, can I interest you in the +6 upgrade package?" Applejack kept her head down. It seemed the best way to protect her eyes.
There was a brief silence. "Excuse me?"
Applejack looked up to see a blue pegasus with a navy blue mane. The first thing that stood out about him was that he didn't stand out. He wasn't wearing anything except for a pair of aviator's goggles resting on his forehead. His cutie mark was some sort of winged insignia.
Applejack sat up instantly and went back into salespony mode, putting on a phony, but winning, smile. "Uh, never mind. Yer in luck, that's the last of 'em. Five bits, please."
"Sweet!" The pegasus didn't go far before he started in. Holding the tin in his hooves, he went to town on the pie, gobbling it down with obvious relish.
Applejack shook her head and managed a real smile. "Ah take it you're enjoyin' yourself."
He nodded, dribbling some pie innards from his mouth. He tried to speak, but found his mouth too full to manage more than a few grunts. After a few chews and a hard swallow, he said, "You bet! I can't remember the last time I had a pie this good. No, wait." He scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Hm, I've had a pie like this before, but where..." He narrowed his eye and gave Applejack a closer inspection than she was entirely comfortable with. "Were you at the Grand Galloping Gala?"
Applejack winced at the memory. "Sure was." Her eyes widened as realization struck home. "Hey, you're that Wonderbolt!" She walked around the stand and grabbed his free hoof with both hooves. She gave him a vigorous shake (not too vigorous, though, since he had the pie in his other hoof). "The name's Applejack. Ah've wanted to thank you fer a while now, seein' as you were mah only sale that night. What's your name?"
The pegasus shot Applejack the sort of smile that recruitment posters are made from. "Wing Sergeant Soarin, glad to be of assistance." He paused. "Wait what? Nopony else bought anything at the gala? But... but your pies are amazing! The perfect spices, the crust just the right mix of crispy and flaky, the..." His stomach growled loudly. He got a sheepish look on his face. "W-would it be alright if I finished this real quick? I'm kinda starving, and talking about food isn't helping."
Applejack chuckled at the praise. "Sure, go ahead on." After a moment, she decided it was time to end her workday on this high note. She went over and started collapsing the stand, though she set a plate with the last caramel apple off to the side. She grunted, "It's a good thing you came when ya did, all things considered. Ah'm out of stock and ah doubt there's gonna be any more apple carts here."
Soarin managed to get out something that sounded like, "What? Why not?" He swallowed. "This is Applecon, right?"
Applejack was so surprised that she paused as she was in the middle of pressing down the left wing of the cart. This turned out to be a mistake, as the spring released its pent up energy and flung her a good ten feet into the air. She bounced twice before skidding to a stop. Applejack had never had a reason to hate concrete before, but boy howdy, she did now! That really stung.
Soarin, showing some of the speed and precision you'd expect from one of Equestria's elite fliers, was at her side in an instant. "Nice hang time!" He sounded truly impressed. At least somepony was. "Oh, and, you okay?" He offered her a hoof.
She took it and wondered why exactly she wasn't allowed to have dignity. That's what she really wanted. "Ah am, thanks. Ain't the first time ah've landed on my face."
Soarin nodded. "Glad to hear. Um, about you being okay, not landing on your face a bunch of times, I'm mean. Now, what's this about it not being Applecon?"
Applejack lowered her eyes and sighed. "It ain't Applecon no more. Ah don't even know what all these weirdoes are here for. They're dressed like somethin' out of a bad play and they're obsessed with adding."
Soarin looked around bewilderedly, as if realizing how everypony was dressed for the first time. "Huh. Everypony looks like they're characters out of those Tiara of Darkness books." He must have seen the confusion on Applejack's face. "They're these sword and sorcery novels. You know, magic, monsters, ancient evil; normal historical fiction stuff." He paused. "But that doesn't explain why they cancelled Applecon."
Applejack let out a forlorn sigh. "Lack of interest, they say."
Soarin stomped his hoof. "Nuts! That brochure made it look like a lot of fun. Thanks a lot, hotel information desk." He frowned. "Looks like you're taking it a lot harder than me, though."
Applejack blinked. "Am ah bein' that obvious?" She knew she had worse than no poker face. Was that part of being the Element of Honesty, or was her face carrying out a revolt against her desire to be taken seriously? The two walked back to the cart, and Applejack started to collapse the left wing again. This time, though, she was surprised to find that she had help.
Soarin shot her that recruitment poster smile again. It was a little distracting. She focused on the cart, because the last time he was distracting, she went flying. Finally, they locked it back into place. She wiped her brow. "Wooee, ah don't remember that thing havin' so much fight in it. Thank ya kindly." She went down and retrieved the caramel apple. "Ah was just gonna give y'all this as repeat customer bonus, but ah guess it's a little reward for helpin' me out now."
Soarin's eyes got as big as Trixie's ego. He looked ready to pounce on the unsuspecting dessert, but apparently his hunger had been satiated enough that he remembered that manners existed. So instead, he just took it, holding it in his hoof. Applejack hadn't made this batch of caramel apples with sticks. In fact, when she got down to it, she wasn't sure why she usually did. Earth ponies and pegasi couldn't hold onto them, and it's not like unicorns needed the spot to grab by.
Soarin took a bite. And then another. And another. He looked like he desperately wanted to say something, but basic manners still existed, so he chewed a few times, swallowed, and said, "Oh Celestia. This is... I... okay, that settles it!" He got a determined look in his eyes, finished off the apple and took her by the hooves. "Nopony who bakes apples that awesome gets to be sad on Soarin von Richthofen's. watch! It is now my mission to cheer you up, and I won't stop until I succeed!"
"Wait, what? Th-thank ya kindly, but ah don't want to be a burden." Where was this coming from?
Soarin shook his head. "It's not a problem at all! My plans are shot, your plans are shot, so why not be shot together?" He paused. "That came out wrong. But my point stands."
Applejack wasn't sure what to say. He was a stranger, and bad things happened to ponies who went off with strange colts miles from home. Then again, he was a Wonderbolt, and he looked sincere. Plus, if push came to shove, she could take him. Pegasi all had glass jaws, according to Big Macintosh. "Sure, that sounds fun. Ah gotta take mah cart back to the hotel first, seein' as how it's..." The instinct that told her that strange colts did bad thing to ponies miles from home made her refrain from mentioning the money in the locked register. "It's a family heirloom."
Soarin nodded again. "Sure, no problem. Where are you staying?"
Okay, now that instinct was just getting pushy. Rooms had keys for a reason. "The Waldorf."
Soarin's eyes lit up. "Whoa, small world! That's where me and the other Wonderbolts are at. That settles it, this is like fate or something!"
Applejack started hitching herself to the cart. "Ah don't much cotton to fate talk an' that mumbo jumbo, but it is kinda funny."
"Anything I can do to help?"
Applejack smiled. That wasn't something she got asked much... unless she was leaving a trail of sleep deprived destruction in her wake. Not that she liked to remember that incident. "Nothin' ah can think of, but thanks." With a pull, she and the cart started off. She noticed that her travelling companion was nowhere to be seen.
She was in the middle of her confused scan of the crowd when his voice piped up behind her, "So, what..."
Applejack let out a surprised yelp. "Where the hay did you go?"
Soarin laughed apologetically; he'd landed immediately to her right when she'd been looking left. "Sorry, Applejack. I'm so used to just flying everywhere with the 'Bolts that I was a block away before I noticed."
She really hoped there wouldn't be any more surprises today.
Fortunately, it was a pretty routine trip back to the Waldorf. The conversation had been pleasant, if a little dominated by small talk, the weather and such. After dropping off the wagon, Applejack's stomach had done its best Soarin impression, so they now found themselves in the hotel restaurant.
"Ten bits fer soup?" Applejack said that a bit more loudly than she'd intended. Ponies at the surrounding tables shot her angry glares. She slid down and hid behind her menu.
Soarin seemed oblivious to the extra attention. "I know, right? You get to these high class places and it's like nopony knows what anything costs."
"Ah guess when ya can let the maid do the shoppin,' y'all don't know that you could make half this stuff yourself for five bits." She made her selection and folded the menu as soon as possible. All those numbers were giving her a stomach ache. "Though ah bet you're used to it, bein' a Wonderbolt and all."
He sighed wistfully. "I'll tell you, it isn't like the old days. It's all high class parties and air shows. I love the shows, but the parties I could do without."
"Yeah, ah had enough trouble at the Gala. Ah can't imagine makin' that a regular thing."
Soarin rolled his eyes. "You're preaching to the choir. Everypony else on the squad loves it, but as far as I'm concerned, parties mean small snacks and talking to dull nobles. Everypony wants to get a picture with the Wonderbolts or try to get a favor from the Princess. And I'm like, 'pal, if I could get a favor from Celestia, I wouldn't be here.'" For a gripe, he sounded awfully good natured.
Applejack nodded. "You an' me think alike, partner. So which are you in town for? A show or a party?"
Soarin leaned back in his seat and gave an exaggerated stretch. "Neither, technically. There's a show today, but my squad isn't part of it. We're just here because us Wonderbolts go everywhere together."
Applejack gave him a quizzical look. "Then if you don't mind me askin', where are your friends?"
Soarin shrugged. "They didn't say. I wanted to do Applecon, but they thought it sounded dull." He paused. "No offense."
She waved it off. "It ain't your fault. 'Sides, ah've come to terms with it. Ah'm just glad ah found one pony in this city who's in the same boat ah am. Rainbow Dash decided to come along as mah travel buddy, but she's probably nowhere in ten miles of the convention center." She put down her menu, having decided on a Filly cheese and pepper sandwich. Pinkie Pie was always going on and on how nopony outside Fillydelphia could make them right, so she might as well see what the big fuss was. She steepled her hooves. "Seems to me the only proper revenge is to go have a day that'll blow theirs out of the water."
Soarin slammed down his menu. "You're right, AJ!" He drew more angry gazes. He was just as oblivious as before. He paused. "You don't mind being called AJ, do you?" She shook her head. "You're right, AJ!" He gestured for a waiter. "I'll be having two specials and make the soup whatever you like! This is an adventure!"
After they finished ordering, Applejack smiled playfully. "Two lunches, a pie and a candy apple? Where do you put it all?"
"It's a pegasus thing, actually. Flying takes a lot of energy, so you either nap a lot or you eat a lot. And I like coffee too much to nap a lot." He proved this by downing his cup in one gulp.
Applejack nodded slowly. "Huh. Rainbow Dash finally makes sense. Ah guess next time ah wake her up, ah should bring her a cookie or something." She stopped her musings and gave Soarin an incredulous look. "Are you makin' a sandwich out of crackers and grape jelly?"
"Currant, actually." He raised his chin in an exaggeratedly snooty manner and managed to make his voice even snootier. "Something as simple as grape jelly at the Waldorf Horseteria? How plebian! Food that tastes good is for commoners and ponies without taste."
Applejack had to stop the laughter with her hoof. After she'd let most of it out, she asked, between snickers, "Was that a Hoity Toity impersonation? 'Cause you totally have him nailed, ah tell you what!"
Soarin joined in the laughter. "Yup!" Confusion crossed his face. "Wait, how do you know Hoity Toity? He never does anything but sell dresses and go to parties. I should know, we're always at the same ones."
Applejack stopped laughing. She scratched the back of head and she could feel her face flush at the memory. "It's kind of a long story."
Soarin gestured, indicating the whole restaurant. "This is fine dining. We have nothing but time."
"Well, if y'all insist. See, mah friend Rarity is a dressmaker, and we'd been invited to the Grand Galloping Gala..."
Applejack wouldn't have chosen this story to tell, since it cast her in a less than flattering light, but Soarin was snickering helplessly. It was hard not to join in. "S-so then Hoity Toity says to her, 'I'm going to need a dozen of every dress by next Tuesday.' Oh you shoulda seen Rarity, she was twitchin' like Pinkie Pie before a rainstorm!"
Soarin burst out laughing at that point. It was a good thing a perceptive waiter had moved them to a private booth; it spared them both a lot of angry looks. That young colt had definitely earned his tip.
Soarin paused to take a bite of his dessert (he'd shown surprising restraint and only had one crème brulèe), then went back to his laughter like nothing happened. He finally stopped. "Wow, you girls are nuts! In the good way."
Applejack grinned sheepishly. "Didn't use to be that way. Ah swear, 'fore Twilight Sparkle came to town, life was pretty ordinary."
Soarin got a thoughtful look on his face. "There's just one thing that bugs me. How did your little dragon buddy... Spike, right?"
"Spike, yup." She nodded.
"How'd he know Hoity?"
Applejack was silent for a good long while. "Ah have no earthly idea. Ah know Spike 'n Twilight're from Canterlot, and so's Hoity, so they musta met at some point. But how Spike set up a fashion show's beyond me."
Soarin finally managed to get his snickers under control long enough to ask, "So, where do we go after this? I'll admit, I've never had a day off in Fillydelphia before."
Applejack leaned back in her chair. "Well, ah only know one pony who ever talked about goin' to Fillydelphia, and she was right about the Filly sandwich." Applejack almost wished she'd gotten two of them, like Soarin had, but she didn't have his limitless capacity. "She said there's two places everypony's gotta go when they visit. One's the parliament building, and the other is..."
The Horseshey chocolate factory was every bit as grand and magical as Pinkie Pie had made it sound. Applejack and Soarin were following a diverse tour group led by a colt dressed as the Horseshey's mascot, Harry Horseshey. Applejack definitely had to give him credit; she'd expect him to be a bored high school dropout, but he was animated and affable. He somehow managed to make the combination of purple tuxedo, top hat and curly orange wig work. He gestured them through the entrance, which was as tall as five ponies standing on each others' shoulders. "Come, come! This is where the magic happens!"
Applejack had seen factories before, particularly the weather factory in Cloudsdale. This wasn't a factory. It was an indoor meadow, with the large expanse of grass broken up patches of flowers segregated by color. It just went on and on; Applejack had to squint to see the opposite wall, probably a mile distant. An artificial sun hung in the sky and it sat in some sort of slowly rotating half circle.
Soarin whistled appreciatively. "This is quite the setup. That thing around the sun means there's night, right?"
"You have a fine eye, good sir! It's important to give our crops as natural a cycle as possible." The tour guide gestured grandly with his cane. "Now, enjoy yourselves, everypony. You have fifteen minutes to fill up and everything here is edible, even the grass!"
Applejack spoke up. "Uh, grass is already edible."
The guide paused. "You've got me there, young lady. But have you ever had mint grass?"
Applejack gave him an incredulous look, but bent down and sampled it. "Well ah'll be." She looked over at Soarin, who looked like... well, a colt in a candy store. "This is really good, Soarin. You oughta try it."
Soarin's expression fell and he muttered something. Applejack asked, "What was that?"
"I said I'm full."
Applejack had a good, long, belly laugh over that. She seemed to be doing that a lot today. Soarin looked miffed. "S-sorry," she said guiltily. "Ah just assumed that wasn't possible." She scanned the area quickly and saw that the rest of the tourists, as well as the guide, had moved on a red flower patch ahead of them, on the other side of the river.
Soarin went back to his normal good natured smile. "Frankly, I'm surprised too." He pointed at the river. "Let's try that! I'm betting it's cocoa, and there's always room for cocoa!" His excitement got the better of him again and he took off. He turned around, as if waiting for her to follow.
Applejack decided not to make an issue out of it. Pegasi flew, and it wasn't fair to make her companion stay ground bound on her account. She trotted over to the river; as she went, she finally got a close look at a patch of blue flowers, which had what looked like gumballs forming at their tip. An orange dragon, maybe a head taller than Spike, was busily harvesting them with a back mounted vacuum cleaner.
She arrived behind Soarin, who was already drinking the brown water. His ears perked up as she drew near and he looked over his shoulder. "Yup, cocoa. Kinda bitter, but this is primo stuff."
Applejack bent down for a sample. Now, Applejack was not, and never had been, ruled by her tastes. She grew food for a living, but she'd never had the appetite of a pony like Pinkie Pie or Soarin. She didn't even really like cocoa much, and she'd mostly tried the river for curiosity's sake. But it was so good. She must have drunk greedily for a solid minute before she was forced to come up for air. When she came up, Soarin had already moved on to the other side of the river to poke at a marshmallow bush. She called out, "Bitter nothin'! This is the best I've ever..."
Applejack couldn't quite put her hoof on it, but something was missing. If nothing was wrong, she'd eat her...
"Mah hat!" The familiar weight was gone. Her stomach seized up and she started glancing around wildly. Finally, her worst fears were confirmed, as she saw the hat floating down the river, right towards a gap in the wall where the cocoa river disappeared. She took off as fast as her hooves would carry her, but she knew she'd never catch up in time.
There was a crack of thunder, a blue blur and a trail of black cloud that crackled with lightning. Before Applejack could process what had happened, Soarin had landed in front of her with the hat clasped in his teeth. "Boy, that was close!" Applejack wasn't sure how he spoke so clearly while holding the hat.
Applejack was a bit too forceful as she grabbed it back. After inspecting it for a moment, she gave it a quick hug before putting it back on. She noticed the strange look Soarin was giving her. She stammered, "Th-thanks so much. This hat is really special to me."
It looked like Soarin was about to ask for an explanation, when a group of the little orange dragons appeared. They started walking rhythmically, and Applejack swore she heard music. Apparently Pinkie Pie wasn't the only one who knew the trick.
The little dragons began singing,
Gorga Lorga Dobbledy Doop
When you're on tour, you stay with your group
If you don't you'll end up in the soup
Gorga Lorga Dobbledy Doop
When you are here you are on borrowed time
15 minutes that you've bought with your dime
And that time is very nearly passed
Please go ahead, hope you had a blast!
Gorga Lorga Dobbledy Doop
This song's copyright Horseshey Chocolate Group
Use it for gain and you will be sued
Gorga Lorga Borga Dobbledy Doop!
" And don't forget to visit the gift shop!" And with that, the little dragons dispersed and went back to their work.
Soarin and Applejack silently agreed to follow the instructions, and just as silently they galloped to catch up with their tour group. Applejack was glad for the silence. Was he going to press about the hat? She really hoped not.
The guide was all smiles with the other guests, but as soon as they couldn't see him, he shot the two an angry glare. "Good sir, did you make that?" He pointed with his cane to the long, sparking contrail that still hovered above the river.
Soarin slowly nodded. He looked shamefaced and confused, as if he wasn't sure why he should be shamefaced.
The guide slammed his cane on the ground and leaned forward onto it, until his forehead almost touched Soarin's. "Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to leave now."
Applejack spoke up before Soarin could. "What? What the hay for?"
"I don't see where this concerns you, ma'am, but when he signed this very waiver," he said, producing it from thin air, "he agreed to follow all of the rules on this sheet. And rule number 53 specifically reads, 'guests shall not create any weather phenomena in the confines of the Meadow of Magic.' Well, that's one doozey of a weather phenomenon." Already uniformed pegasi were flying in to remove Soarin's handiwork.
"What's the big deal? It's just one cloud!"
"Ma'am," the guide said, obviously trying, and failing, to be civil, "the Meadow of Magic is a very carefully controlled microclimate. It's large enough to generate its own weather patterns, and the slightest atmospheric disturbance could destroy our whole crop." He turned back to Soarin. "So you lose, sir! You get nothing!"
Soarin blinked. "What was I going to get?"
"Guests who obey the rules get a gift basket."
Applejack poked the tour guide in the chest before Soarin could make his own protest. "Now lookie here, mister. Soarin only did that savin' mah pappy's hat..." Why? Why did she say that? Oh well. She continued, "So if y'all're gonna toss him out, then you're gonna have to toss me..."
Yup, that settled it; Applejack really hated concrete. She landed face first as the surprisingly strong little dragons tossed her and Soarin out the back door. That same music filled the air.
Gorga Lorga Dobbledy Doop
"Oh shove an apple in it, ya varmints!" One of the dragons shrugged and slammed the door behind them. Applejack sighed and stood up. "Y'all ok?" She offered Soarin her hoof.
Soarin nodded and accepted the help up. "Yeah." He sounded depressed. "Sorry about..." He seemed reluctant to finish that sentence; instead, he just gestured at the door.
Applejack snorted derisively. " Y'all saved mah hat and as far as ah'm concerned, that's worth a whole mountain of them gift baskets, and ah won't hear any guilt talk from y'all!" She paused. "Sorry to yell. And get in yer personal space. And ah'm probably pokin' you in the chest a little harder'n ah meant to."
Soarin backed up ever so slightly and nodded. Seeming unsure of what to do, he flashed that recruiting poster smile again. "You definitely made your point. So, what now?"
She rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Y'know, ah wouldn't mind just goin' for a walk. Can't nopony cancel a walk or ask you to leave."
Soarin kept up the smile. "Sounds like a plan. Plus, I saw loads of street vendors on the way over selling..." His smile fell. "Nuts, still full."
Applejack smiled playfully. "Sounds like you need to build up an appetite. Ah saw a park about a mile over yonder. Last one there's an apple core!" She tensed up, waiting for him to accept.
He smiled again, though it wasn't the poster-smile this time. This was cockier; in fact, it practically screamed Rainbow Dash. "Oh, it is on."
And they were off. They had to slow down once they cleared the alleyway. In fact, a busy city sidewalk was not well suited to a hoof race, no matter how you sliced it. After a few near misses with angry pedestrians, Soarin called out, "Whoa, AJ, this isn't working!"
Applejack skidded to a halt, much to the relief of the flower vendor she almost ran over. She shot the pink filly an apologetic smile before finding Soarin again. "Yeah, ah guess we should've thought this through." She found herself forced to walk ahead by the sea of pedestrians, as was Soarin. She had to struggle just to keep him in sight. After going with the flow for a block, she realized she was completely lost. "Y'all got any idea where we are?"
Soarin flashed her his pearly whites. "I've got a plan; be back in just a sec." A flap of his mighty wings took him above the crowd and out of sight.
It seemed like he was taking an eternity. Fortunately, there were fewer pedestrians where she was now, being away from the main drag, so she was able to stop. Granny Smith always said to count her blessings, and right now, she was thankful she hadn't stayed in Manehattan. She was getting antsy being around this many strangers. That little voice told her that even if Soarin was a nice guy, there was going to be at least one colt out to do bad things to fillies miles from home, so she went on high alert.
After a short eternity of paranoia, Soarin finally arrived. He didn't touch down, and just hovered above the passing ponies. "Well, the good news is, the park's about half a mile thataway. The bad news is, thataway takes us through the busiest parts of the city. It'll double your travel time to go around."
"Shucks. Well, ah suppose we'd best get goin'."
Soarin shot her another Rainbow Dash-grade cocky grin. "If there's one thing I remember from geometry, it's that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line." Before Applejack could respond, he took off his goggles and tossed them to her. "If you get my meaning."
Applejack shot back her own smirk as she smoothly caught them. "Ah like the way you think, partner."
Oh sweet Celestia. No wonder Rainbow Dash wanted to fly for a living. Applejack sat astride Soarin's back, high above the bustling city; the wind whipped through her hair and there was this feeling of utter weightlessness that was both wonderful and terrifying. The ponies below had no idea what they were missing. "Yee ha!"
Soarin looked over his shoulder and shot Applejack a grin. "I thought you'd like it!" He had to shout to be heard over the roaring wind.
Applejack could feel his powerful wing muscles straining to carry the combined weight. "Ah guess only ah feel like ah'm weightless," she muttered, drowned out by the wind. She remembered that it took Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy working together just to slow Twilight Sparkle's fall. Maybe pegasi weren't as soft as she thought. At least, this one wasn't.
"You're keeping a hold on that hat of yours, right?"
That settled it. Whatever he wanted at the park, she was buying it. He'd more than earned it. "Of course!" She felt his shoulders tense up.
Before she could ask what it was about, she saw what did it. There was now a uniformed Wonderbolt flanking them on either side, one filly and one colt. The colt shouted something that wasn't audible over the wind whipping by their heads. Soarin made a gesture that Applejack couldn't see; the colt nodded and pointed at the roof of a nearby building.
Soarin called out for Applejack to hold on and banked left in perfect unison with his squadmates. It didn't take long for them to land. Applejack hopped off and resisted the urge to thank him for the ride; as far as she was concerned, this wasn't about her and it was time to stay quiet.
Soarin immediately made it about her. "Hey guys! Meet Applejack. Applejack, these are my wingmates, Highfly and Hermes." The two nodded politely. Applejack returned the nod. "So, what were you trying to say before?"
Hermes, a red colt a foot taller than Soarin, said, "Yo, where you been, man? You said you were gonna be at that apple thing all day, but here you are on main street. It took us an hour to figure out you weren't there!"
Highfly shuddered. "The stench... two hundred ponies shouldn't be in a space that small, dressed in that much wool, on a hot day like this."
Soarin shrugged. "Applecon didn't happen today." He nudged Hermes' ribs playfully. "Though I seem to recall someponies saying that wild horses couldn't tear them away from the pool. What brings you out here?" The smile looked a little forced; he seemed to be anticipating something he didn't want to hear.
Hermes said, "Captain Spitfire wants to see you. I don't know what it's about, but I do know that Wingdancer took a spill during practice."
Soarin's face fell. "Alright, then. You guys go ahead without me. I'll head straight over."
With a nod, the two Wonderbolts took off, leaving their signature black cloud trails in their haste.
Applejack had never been on the end of a real frown from Soarin before; she hated the sight. He practically looked like a different colt. "I'm about 90% sure that I'm getting called in to take Wingdancer's spot in the show. I'm sorry, I really wanted to keep my promise."
Applejack blinked. "What promise?"
He arched his brow incredulously, as if she'd forgotten the most obvious thing in the world. "You know, I promised I'd cheer you up? 'Cause you're awesome at baking?"
Applejack facehoofed. "Oh. Right. Ah'd plum forgot what brought this on." His face fell again and she raised her hooves in a consoling gesture. "And don't you go takin' that personal. Ah forgot 'cause frankly, just makin' the promise, you made good on it. Ah was just havin' fun and ah sure as shootin' wasn't keepin' track of some debt."
Soarin blinked. "How can you say that? All I did for you was go Dutch on lunch and get you kicked out of the Meadow of Magic."
"Like ah said: just by makin' the promise, you made good on it. You got me at mah low point; ah felt like nopony was interested in what ah did, and you came along and proved me wrong."
He still looked doubtful. "Really? I just don't feel like I accomplished much."
Applejack put a hoof on his shoulder. "Look, Soarin, this ain't a matter of what you did. Bein' there for me just 'cause I needed it means the world to me. Mah best friend wasn't willin' to do that, and you did it for a stranger." She tapped her hat. "'Sides, if you weren't there, ah would've wound up going to that Horseshey place on mah own, drunk too dang much of that river and then been short one hat that ah couldn't replace if ah sold a +1,000,000 apple."
Soarin nodded slowly. "You said it was your father's, right?"
Applejack winced. She'd been hoping he'd forgotten that. She didn't want to talk about it, but she couldn't come up with a lie she was willing to tell. Some days, being the Element of Honesty was a rough job. Finally, in a low, sad tone, she said, "Yeah. It's silly, but he didn't leave us much, 'sides the farm, and ah don't have to share this. It's a little piece of him that's just for me and there won't ever be another." She gave him a little smile. "So don't you go thinkin' you didn't do anything today." She paused. "And don't you go spreadin' that around. As far as anypony else is concerned, it's just mah hat."
Soarin's expression brightened up. "I didn't realize. Though, if it's a big secret, why are you telling me?"
Applejack had to chuckle. "'Cause those sad puppy-dog eyes of yours could charm the shell off an armadillo. Ah hope ya don't go usin' them fer evil, 'cause seriously, nopony could resist."
Soarin started walking towards the edge of the roof. "Well then, if just being there cheered you up, then somepony probably doesn't want free tickets to the air show," he said in a playful, sing song voice.
Applejack blinked. "Huh?"
He shot her a winning smile. "A von Richthofen doesn't get out of his debts that easy. Meet me at the Waldorf's lobby. I'd give you a ride, but if I have to fly tonight, that'd tire me out too much."
Applejack nodded. "A little walkin' never killed anypony."
Soarin continued, "If I can get out of the show, then I'll take you. If not, then I can at least get you a seat in the VIP area." He took off, but just hovered for a moment. "If you want it, at least."
"You kiddin'? 'Course ah'll go, either way. Anypony who'd turn you down's been hittin' the salt too hard! If'n y'all can't go with me, ah'll cheer 'til my voice breaks." She made a mental note that if Soarin couldn't make it, she'd have to get a ticket for Rainbow Dash. As much fun as it'd be to watch Dash have a heart attack about missing the Wonderbolts, it just didn't seem sporting. She paused. "What room are you in? Just in case we can't meet in the lobby."
Soarin said, "218. You?"
"Great! Meet you there!" Soarin started picking up speed.
Soarin turned around. "What?"
Applejack gave him a sarcastic look. "Were y'all planning on getting me to ground level first?"
Soarin smacked his forehead. "Sorry. I keep forgetting you aren't a pegasus."
As she climbed on, Applejack said, "Ah'll take that as a compliment."
"You should. You'd make a good one."
Why did that make her blush? It wasn't even really a compliment; he just said it so sincerely. Thank goodness he didn't get a good look at her before flying off, or else the fur on her face would have gone up in flames.
Applejack had to admit that there was one nice thing about the big city: when your hooves were sore, you could take the trolley instead. And her hooves most definitely were sore. Usually she went unshod, but apparently horseshoes weren't optional when you were walking on concrete all day.
Still, the day she'd had so far was definitely worth a little pain in the hoof. Which was funny, because when she really thought about it, Soarin was right. They'd just walked, talked, had lunch and been kicked out of a chocolate factory. And the tickets to the factory hadn't exactly been cheap; Pinkie had left out that part of it. Good friends definitely had a way of making a botched day seem wonderful.
That was another thing. When did she start thinking of Soarin as a good friend? She'd known him all of 8 hours, if that clock tower she was passing was right. She wished she was better at this whole introspection thing. She'd expect Fluttershy to be able to sort it out; her yellow friend never said much and Momma had always said still waters ran deep. However, she wasn't Fluttershy, so all she could figure was that he was a decent sort who'd gone out of his way to cheer her up.
Then that little voice piped up again. This was the long con, it said. You don't just take a filly who's far from home into a back alley in the first five minutes. She'll see that coming. No, you act unnaturally sweet and say nice things about her, then you grab her and...
"Shut up!" This earned her strange looks from everypony on the trolley. Applejack gave an embarrassed chuckle, lowered the brim of her hat and pretended the outside world didn't exist for a minute. She decided to leave introspection to the professionals. Her gut said Soarin was trustworthy, and if that part of her brain that had read too many of Big Macintosh's True Crime books said otherwise, it could go buck itself.
About half an hour later, Applejack finally returned to the Waldorf. "Might've just been faster to walk," she muttered as she walked past the marble columns at the entrance. Much to her surprise, Soarin was waiting there, but out of uniform. She walked up and said, "Howdy, Soarin! Ah was expectin' you to be all trussed up for the show. Did you get off the hook?"
He nodded. "Yup. It took some doing, but I finally got somepony to cover for me." His eyes flashed with realization. "Oh, and I went looking for you at your room, and Rainbow Dash was there. She said she wanted to see you before we left."
Applejack frowned. "What time is the show?" She searched for a clock, but realized she didn't know what time it started anyway.
Soarin waved her concern away. "Don't worry about that, we've got plenty of time. After all, I can just fly us again."
At the mention of flying, Applejack struggled to keep the goofy grin off her face. She failed completely. Why? Why did her face want her to look stupid? She coughed into her hoof. "Ah'll try to make it quick with Rainbow Dash."
"I'll be outside."
With a nod, Applejack set out.
When Applejack opened the door to her room, the lights were off, except for one lamp above Rainbow Dash's head. Dash sat in the easy chair. She'd obviously moved it, since Applejack didn't remember it facing the door like that. The blue pegasus was dressed in a hotel bath robe and had her mane under a tied towel. Her hooves were steepled and her face was inscrutable. "Hello, Applejack." Rainbow Dash's voice was as neutral as her face.
"H-howdy, Dash." Applejack hit the lights, changing the mood from stark and foreboding to comfortable.
Dash facehoofed. "Oh thanks a lot, AJ. I try to create a little atmosphere for this and what do you do? Just turn the lights on."
"Uh, a little atmosphere for what?" Applejack wasn't sure what she'd expected to find when she returned, but Dash complaining about the lights wasn't it.
Dash fixed Applejack with a glare. "Soarin came by earlier. Funny thing: he thought my name was Rainbow Flash, but he sure as heck knew your name. He wanted to know where you were. When were you gonna tell me you were hanging out with a Wonderbolt all day?"
Applejack sighed. She'd really hoped she wouldn't have to deal with jealous Dash. Jealous Dash was a pill. "Look Dash, ah wasn't tryin' to keep nothin' from you. Ah just honestly didn't know where you were."
Dash shrugged. "Oh, okay."
Applejack blinked. "Okay?"
Rainbow Dash got up from her chair, produced a nail file, and went to work on her hooves. "Yeah. I mean, you're the Element of Charity, and it wouldn't be very charitable of you to keep things from me. It's why you're so honest."
Applejack facehoofed. "Please, by all that's good and holy, tell me yer kiddin.' Ah can't even tell anymore."
Rainbow Dash snickered. "Gotcha. Now we're square. So! Be honest and tell me about it! What's he like? Did he do any tricks?" Her eyes got big, and she had obviously stopped focusing on Applejack in favor of something only she could see. "I bet he started out with the Whistling Immelman, that's his signature move, then..."
Applejack could feel a flying ramble coming on. Time to nip that in the bud. "Actually, we mostly just talked. We went to a couple of tourist traps, and he flew me around a little bit, then he had to come back."
Dash's jaw dropped. "You... you got a ride from a Wonderbolt."
Applejack nodded. "Yeah?"
Dash's fangirl squeal made Applejack's ears ring. "Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh! My friend went on a date with a Wonderbolt! I am so in!" In a flash, her face darkened. "Unless you break his heart. Then I'm out forever. Treat him right, AJ!"
Applejack made a time out motion. "Whoa there, Dash. Ah ain't on no date with Soarin. We're just hanging out."
Dash rolled her eyes. "Since Rarity isn't here, I have to say: Daaaaaahling, one doesn't just hang out with a single colt."
Applejack gave Rainbow Dash a half lidded glare. "Yer Rarity impression sucks. And yes you does... er, do!"
Dash shrugged. "Okay fine. You weren't on a date. But," she said, raising her hoof for emphasis, "now you're going off alone with a colt, to an event he's paying for, so you can to get to know each other better. If that isn't a date, what is?"
Applejack's eyes narrowed. "How'd y'all know he was payin' for it?"
Dash's eyes widened for a moment. "Well, um, he mentioned it when he came looking for you."
Applejack was sure Dash wasn't saying everything, but she also knew that her time was limited. "Look, ah need to get goin.' Ah guess ah might as well get my coat while ah'm..." A thought struck her and she was in Dash's face almost instantly. "Did Soarin use the d-word?"
Dash's mouth formed this smug, cherubic little grin that made Applejack just want to smack her. "Well, Soarin is a colt of manners. I cite his interview with Young Flyer's magazine last April: 'I think that cursing is really uncool.'"
"You know what d-word ah mean, smartflank."
Dash's little grin didn't go away. "Eeyup."
Applejack's face blanched. "Oh sweet Celestia, ah... ah was happy not knowin,' Dash! Now ah gotta make mahself look nice and ah got about five minutes to do it!" She went digging through her suitcase. Where was that saddle? Thank goodness Applecon always had a formal attire banquet on the last night, or she'd have been sunk.
Rainbow Dash snickered. "I lied earlier. Getting you all nervous before your big date? Now we're even."
Applejack stuck her tongue out at Dash. "Oh yeah? Well so much for me tryin' to get you in with us. If it's a date now, three's a crowd."
Dash shrugged. "I already had plans."
Applejack felt her jaw go slack. The saddle, which had been half on, fell to the ground. "Alright, ah done read about this in Big Macintosh's science fiction books. Are you a shape-shifter or a pod pony? There's no way in Equestria the real Rainbow Miriam Dash would miss out on a chance to see the Wonderbolts, much less hang out with one."
Dash sniffed haughtily. "I spent the whole gala catching stuff to get his attention and he didn't know my name. You're welcome to him. Plus, I'm going to go see that standup comic, Open Mic. I've hung out with the Wonderbolts all day, but I've never gotten to see him before."
Applejack finally got her saddle into place. She checked herself in the mirror and, satisfied that everything was in order, she went for the door. "If'n ah didn't have places to go, ah wouldn't accept that answer. But hey, it's your night. See ya later."
Rainbow Dash called after Applejack in her bad Rarity impression. "Remember, ladies don't kiss on the first date!"
Some days she really hated Rainbow Dash.
Really, really hated Rainbow Dash. As she walked back towards the entrance, Applejack remembered the last time she'd had a date. His name was Blues and boy howdy, he'd lived up to his name. Everything out of his mouth had been a complaint or dull talk about the backstage politics of his little jazz group. To make it worse, as soon as they were alone, he'd turned into Mr. Grabby Hooves. Fortunately, a good buck had sent him packing. Had that really been three years ago? Yup, it was right after Apple Bloom's sixth birthday. That made her sad.
Was that what Soarin was after? Was all that separated him from Blues or those Fanicon weirdoes a few nice words and some patience? Dangit, she'd been having a good time. She liked Soarin and thought he made things fun that by all rights wouldn't have been fun, but now, her mind was trapped in a cycle of deepening suspicion. Of course colts didn't just spend the day with a strange filly to be nice. She looked over at a mirror set into the wall and reminded herself that she was attractive. She forgot sometimes because as far as she was concerned, that wasn't who she was. She was no Rarity; she was a hard worker and a family pony. But strange colts didn't see that about her. All they wanted was...
Finally, after clearing the entrance of the Waldorf, she walked over to one of the marble pillars, slipped off her hat, and banged her head on it. "Ah thought ah said shut up!" Each word was punctuated by a bang. "Ow." That hadn't been very bright. She rubbed her forehead to ease the pain. "Remember, AJ. Nothin's changed. Nothin's changed. He's that nice colt who gave you his whole day. Don't ruin that. If he does have romance on the mind, that ain't the end of the world. You ain't exactly swimmin' in better offers."
Satisfied, she slipped her hat back on and started scanning the area for her d-... companion. He was standing next to a fountain with an ornate statue of Princess Celestia at its center. "Howdy, Soarin."
Soarin whipped out a friendly smile and Applejack's heart beat harder. She hadn't really paid attention before, but he was handsome. And now that's all she could focus on. Dagnabbit. "Hey AJ. I like the saddle."
He liked her saddle! Her blood roared in her ears and she had to clear her throat before she could reply, "Th-thanks."
Soarin knelt down. "We should get going. Hop on."
She could feel her cheeks flush as she climbed onto his back. Yup. Rainbow Dash would pay for this. This was exactly why she hated introspection.
To say that Standard Steel Stadium (they'd barely snatched the naming rights from Horseshey) was massive was to do violence to the word massive. It was an enormous open air stadium built in a neoclassical style, looking for all the world like an ancient coliseum. The modern football field that Applejack could see from above reminded her it was new, as did the large signs for Fluttercola and Tim's Alfalfa Chips.
Applejack felt a pang of disappointment as Soarin began his descent. She'd made up her mind that it didn't matter how frou frou they looked, she was going to have Twilight Sparkle use that wing spell on her. She had to try this for herself.
As she hopped off, she realized that Soarin was obviously having less fun. He tried to cover it under that smile of his, but he was breathing like an asthmatic after a marathon. She gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder. "Thanks for the ride." She considered asking him if he was okay, but if he was putting that much into hiding it, she saw no reason to embarrass him.
He panted, "D-don't mention it." He pointed to the entrance. "Shall we?"
Applejack nodded. Soarin just had to flash his Wonderbolts ID and they were in. Of course, that didn't mean that they were anywhere close to their seats. Applejack felt the cacophonous din of a thousand voices (not heard, felt!) and the tread of a thousand hooves long before she saw them. She'd never seen so many ponies in such a small space before. The stadium was built as a series of bands stacked on one another, which fed into the much larger seating area. The narrow space was made all the narrower by the lines of food and souvenir stands.
Applejack's heart started hammering. She hated big crowds and tight spaces. It was her lucky day; she was getting a twofer. At least this time she was able to stay next to her companion. The tight space was worse than the crowd as far as she was concerned. She didn't notice she'd leaned up against Soarin until she felt his wing wrap over her shoulders. She assiduously avoided eye contact... but she didn't slip out of his wingy half hug either.
Was this a normal pegasus thing? The only pegasi she knew well were either too skittish to touch anypony, or Rainbow Dash. Oh well. It did make her feel better. She was just glad it was too loud to hear anything. She wasn't sure she'd be able to speak intelligently.
After three flights of stairs and a lot of walking, the crowd was finally starting to thin out. By now, Applejack felt ready to talk again. "S-so there's a whole lot of ponies here tonight." So much for speaking intelligently. Oh well. Time to press on. "Ah guess ah hadn't realized y'all were so popular." Retreat, retreat! "Not that ah thought y'all weren't popular, just that ah've never seen that many ponies show up for anything before."
"Oh yeah. The Fillydelphia show's like our world series." Suddenly, Soarin's face flushed and he withdrew his wing like Applejack was on fire. Applejack chuckled nervously at that. Without missing a beat, he continued, "I'm pretty sure the princesses are here; Celestia always comes and I bet she'd drag Luna along. At least, I'd hope so. We technically work for them."
Soarin raised an eyebrow. "How much do you know about the Wonderbolts?"
Applejack laughed nervously as she wracked her brain. "Um. Ah know y'all do air shows, Rainbow Dash worships you and one of you has a weakness for apples and apple accessories."
Soarin's face was split by an excited grin. "Oh boy! I never run into anypony who doesn't already know everything about us!" He coughed into his hoof and managed to force some dignity into his expression. "Okay, you have one chance. I am fully prepared to talk about what I do for a living until your ear falls off. You think I'm kidding, but One Eared Willie would tell you different."
Applejack giggled at that. What the hay was her throat doing? That was a Rarity noise! She chuckled! Chuckled, darn it! She tried to show her throat what she wanted and got another giggle for her troubles. Best not to test her luck. "Shoot, ah'll talk about the apple farm 'til the cows come home. It wouldn't be fair not to give you the same chance."
Soarin smirked. "You asked for it. So you see, in the aftermath of the Great Llama War..."
Soarin talked. He talked as they found their seats. He talked while they got snacks. He talked while they went back to their seats (which were just cushions set into the ground where they could kneel on all fours). He talked while they ate. He talked while they waited for the show to start. He only stopped to breathe and wolf down hot dogs. It was a good thing nopony else in the VIP area seemed interested in chatting with them, because they wouldn't have gotten a word in edgewise. Applejack was inundated with enough names, dates, countries, battles and strategies for a college level military history class.
"So what yer sayin' is, after the Treaty of Trottingham, there weren't any more wars?" And somehow, she was keeping track of it. Her teacher, Ms. Starlight, would have been amazed; history wasn't her strong suit.
He nodded. "Yup. Pretty much the entire air force got shrunk down until you could fit it in a shoe box. Year by year, it got harder to justify keeping too many of us around. Finally, it was just the Wonderbolts. About 500 years ago, we got revamped as stunt flyers so that we could pay our own keep. In theory, if there's ever another war, we'd be the core of the new air force. I don't think I'll live to see it, though."
Applejack raised an eyebrow. "You sound disappointed."
Soarin seemed to weigh his words carefully. "I am and I'm not, y'know? On the one hoof, I have been training in military maneuvers and combat flying my whole life. It seems sort of silly sometimes, since there hasn't been a war in ages. On the other hoof, I obviously don't want a lot of innocent ponies suffering just so I can go get some excitement."
Applejack wasn't sure what prompted her next question. "What'd you do if you couldn't be a Wonderbolt? Ah mean, if your whole life is knowing how to fight just in case of an emergency that probably won't happen, do you ever think about doing something else?"
Soarin pondered that long and hard. "I don't know. We von Richthofen's have been in the Wonderbolts as long as Princess Celestia's been on the throne and I wouldn't want to be the one to break that line. Plus, it's not like I don't like flying for its own sake. It's great to be paid for what you love."
Applejack smiled as the memory of weightlessness and the wind crossed her mind. "Just those little rides you gave me make me wish ah could do it." A thought struck her. "Y'all ain't flyin' in the show on mah account."
Soarin nodded slowly. "Yup. I had a promise to keep."
Applejack looked him in the eyes. "'Til just now, ah hadn't realized how much that meant to you. Ah mean, ah thought you just liked flyin,' but now ah see there's that whole tradition behind it. Ah honestly had no idea." It seemed silly to say it out loud, but she'd couldn't help but add, "To you, show flyin's like apple bucking is to me."
The blue pegasus chuckled. "I hadn't thought of it that way, but yeah, it kind of is."
Applejack gave him a quick nuzzle. "That just blows me away, givin' up your big event for little ol' me. You're sweeter'n Pinkie's sugar cookies, and those are more sugar than cookie."
And then she realized she'd given him a quick nuzzle. She hadn't meant to, it had just happened. Her face went crimson to match his. Applejack could practically feel the raw, elemental awkward that hung in the air.
And then the loudspeakers boomed, "Fillies and Gentlecolts! The Standard Steel Stadium is proud to present the Wonderbolts! I'm John Maneden and on behalf of all of our sponsors, I'd like to extend a warm welcome to everypony who made it today, but especially to our guests of honor, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna!" The audience roared. On the other side of the stadium, two regal figures were illuminated by a spotlight. Applejack had to squint to make them out; Celestia was waving at the crowd, and Luna was quivering like she wanted to bolt under cover.
Applejack breathed a sigh of relief. Saved by the bell. Hopefully, by the time the show was done, Soarin would forget her little indiscretion. "So what kind of show're they doing tonight, Soarin?"
The extra color left Soarin's face as soon as he had something else to think about. "Well, we do the same basic show every year. We just call it the Parade Standard because, well, it's not flashy enough to get a better name. We do some fancy stuff during the... well, if this were a song, you'd call them the guitar solos. Everypony does a little something unique, sort of a free form thing."
Her eyes boggled as the dozen Wonderbolts started their intricate maneuvers. The stadium had a number of props set up, including low floating clouds and ground level obstacle courses. Far above these, though, the 'Bolts flew in squads of three, trailing uniform clouds of black smoke. Their crisscrossing created different shapes in the air, including a representation of the princess' cutie marks and a crude version of the stadium. "You call that not flashy?"
Soarin flashed her a cocky grin. "You should see what we can do when we push ourselves. We're more experimental in our other shows, but Celestia loves the Parade Standard. I never understood why, personally. If I saw the same thing every year for 500 years, I'd be ready for some change."
"Well, somepony like Celestia's gotta be a creature of habit. It's not like she ever gets sick of raising the sun at the same time every day and says, 'today, let's have sunrise at noon!'" Before Soarin could answer, something caught Applejack's eye. Her gaze followed one of the Wonderbolts for a moment and confirmed it. "How're you down here and up there at the same time?"
Soarin gulped nervously. "Well, that's my replacement, and that's all I'm cleared to say."
Applejack raised an eyebrow at that, but decided to let it drop. It wasn't any of her business what the Wonderbolts did behind the scenes, just as long as it meant she got to be here with Soarin. She had no qualms at all about thinking that was the important part of the evening. The colt could make history interesting; that proved he was something special.
After another ten minutes or so of shapes and simultaneous maneuvers, the announcer's voice blared, "And now, the event you've all been waiting for, the Freestyle! First up is Wing Sergeant Soarin von Richthofen of Squad B." There was a bit of a delayed reaction before Soarin's double went into action.
Applejack had to shout to be heard over the crowd's cheers. "They didn't change your name?"
"I'm not cleared to say why!"
Applejack shrugged, though that little voice she'd been telling to shut up was starting to raise suspicions. "Let's see how your double does!"
The double did very well, in fact. First, he made a wide loop around the stadium, almost coming close enough to touch some of the attendees. This started a group of fans doing the wave. Satisfied that the audience was participating, he gained a bit of altitude. Next, he zipped down to ground level, where there were a line of tall poles set apart at regular intervals. Soarin's double, without slowing in the slightest, wove back and forth between them. Then, maintaining his momentum from the dive, he began to spin in circles around the clouds. One, two, three clouds were soon spinning in place.
Applejack blinked. Where had she seen this routine before? It seemed really familiar, but she couldn't put her hoof on it.
Finally, he went high into the sky, climbing ever higher. After reaching a point at least a thousand feet above the ground, he dove straight down.
John Maneden's booming voice added, "You see, the secret to good flying is the wind speed and the flapping, and that's the secret of good flying."
Faster, faster, faster he went. Just before he would have hit the ground, he leveled out and did an impossibly tight loop and was now flying upside down in the opposite direction. An air pocket left in his wake popped, creating a high-pitched squeal.
Soarin said, "She can do the Whistling Immelman? No fair, that's my move!" Then his eyes widened and he shrank in his seat.
And Applejack could see why. The pegasus' mane had been dark blue at the start of the Whistling Immelman, but now it was obviously...
"Rainbow Dash? You got Rainbow Dash to fly in your place?" Applejack's jaw went so slack she was worried it would stay that way.
Soarin, knowing the jig was up, sighed. "Stupid hair dye. I would have gotten away with it too..."
Applejack fixed him with her best motherly glare. "Okay, what did you and Dash do?"
Soarin said, "Well, it started off..." He was drowned out by the crowd as Spitfire started her routine. Once it quieted down, he continued, "It started off with me trying to get somepony to take my slot, but nopony was willing. So I went to your room to let you know, and you weren't there yet, but Rainbow Dash was. So I told her what was going on, and I was about to leave when I noticed her fur is about the same color as mine."
Applejack raised her eyebrow. "And ah bet she was pleased as a pig in a bakery to take your spot."
"Well, actually, she had a panic attack and locked herself in the bathroom. It took me nearly ten minutes to coax her out. Then I ran to the store, got her some hair dye and told her to stay quiet and follow along."
Applejack said, "Well that explains why she had her mane under the towel when ah saw her. And how did you know she could do your show?"
Soarin seemed proud of this. "Parade Standard, remember? Anypony who can pull a Sonic Rainboom sure as heck can do the Parade Standard. I also taught her our black cloud contrail. She picked it up in about ten seconds flat." Soarin deflated again as he watched Spitfire finish her solo. "And now I'm pretty much doomed. I busted a dozen regulations getting Dash out there."
Applejack sat in silence for a long time. Soarin didn't interrupt her, though he was looking at her intently the whole time.
The little voice piped up again. See? It was too good to be true. Oh sure, he wasn't going to attack her in a back alley, but he was a liar after all. He hadn't lied to Applejack, but he had lied to the Wonderbolts. So much for family tradition! As soon as it suited him he was going to lie to her too.
The little voice made sense. And Applejack hated it for that. Everything it had said since this morning was right in principle. However, she was looking straight in Soarin's eyes, and what she saw there was repentance and fear. When she caught Apple Bloom at mischief, her eyes always begged to be let off. Soarin's didn't. He looked like a colt who knew he was guilty and deserved no mercy, and just hoped that he could be forgiven in the end.
And so Applejack banished the little voice to the dark corner of her mind from whence it came. "Soarin, that was one of the dumbest things ah've ever heard."
He sighed dejectedly. "Yeah, I figured. I'll understand if..."
Applejack shoved her hoof in his mouth. "Ah ain't done yet, Sugarcube. Ah just want to know why."
Soarin locked eyes with her, and she could see the fire of determination behind them. "Because I made a promise and a von Richthofen keeps his promises."
She looked at him incredulously. "And what about when ah said it was fine and you'd already done enough?"
Soarin shook his head. "I wasn't satisfied with it. You've done so much for me and..."
Applejack couldn't let that last part stand. "Hold it, hold it. What the hay did ah do for you? You spent all day bendin' over backwards to make me happy! Shoot, you just about busted a gut flyin' me places!"
Soarin blinked. "Wait, what? You baked me the best pies ever, put up with my silly stories, treated me like a pony instead of a coupon for political favors and you stood up for me when I got us kicked out of the tour! How could you possibly say you didn't do anything for me?"
Applejack opened and closed her mouth a few times like a goldfish before managing, "A-ah think what we have here is a failure to communicate, so let's just lay everything out there." She lowered herself to his level, going to her knees. "Ah'll go first. Ah've just been blown away today. Ah don't have a lot of luck with colts, and you came right out of nowhere and took me on like four dates all in a row. This sort of thing just doesn't happen to me and ah've been lookin' for it to stop bein' true all day. Ah mean, handsome colts like you don't just drop out of the sky and whisk me away, y'know?"
Soarin nodded and shifted closer so that they were almost touching. Applejack didn't mind. "Well, you saved me from a day of watching Hermes sunbathe. I get a lot of attention from groupies, but you barely seemed to care what I was. That was actually really liberating, and even though I kept making a fool of myself, you stuck with me and let me redeem myself with this show, even though that stupid cheap hair dye mucked it up." He shifted again, and now he pressed up against her side and wrapped his wing around her again. She still didn't mind. "And this morning, when I saw just how sad you looked, I wanted to see what you'd look like with a smile, and once I saw it, I knew I just wanted to keep on seeing it."
Applejack leaned into him. "You better not be hiding anything. Ah swear, if any of that was made up, ah'll buck you into next week."
Soarin rubbed his muzzle against hers. "Not a syllable, Applejack." By now, the fourth of the twelve flyers was doing their solo. "So what now?"
Applejack was worried that smiling this hard was hazardous to her health. She managed to turn the rational part of her brain on, though the fog of sentiment made it hard to focus. "There's nothin' we can do to save you from whatever your Captain's gonna do, right?"
He shook his head. "Short of time travel, nope."
Applejack chuckled. "Ah know a guy who says he can do that, but he also thinks celery is a fashion statement, so ah don't think there's much hope on that front. So for now, we just watch the show. And then, whenever you're done bein' punished, you march yourself on over to Sweet Apple Acres so ah can see you again." She gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "And that's an order, Wing Sergeant."
Soarin did as good a salute as he could laying on his stomach. "Yes ma'am."