The walk back to Sweet Apple Acres was usually a long one, but Applejack barely noticed the time pass by as she walked. The path seemed to meld together into a single, drawn out moment and she didn't remember each step as she took it. Her mind was somewhere else entirely, wondering where Rainbow Dash had flown off to after the party. Not only had she disregarded everypony's concern by not staying in bed and resting, but she hadn't stuck around at the party to at least say hello to her friends.
Applejack adjusted her hat a little and looked up at the sky. The clouds were sculpted into roses and the afternoon glow made them look golden, but there wasn't a trace of a rainbow trail or blue blur to indicate where the pegasus might be. She kicked a stone and watched it skitter along the path before bouncing into a ditch and sighed.
It was bad enough that Rainbow Dash never seemed to care when she got hurt. Every bump, scrape and bruise got shaken off like it was nothing, even when everypony tried to get her to take a break. It was always "one more trick", "one more lap". When she had gotten herself stuck in a tree and a branch pierced her leg she was walking around the minute Fluttershy finished bandaging it, saying that since she flew all the time a little leg injury was nothing to worry about. Applejack wanted to strangle that little blue devil sometimes for causing so much stress for everypony and making her worry all the time.
But it was the fact that Rainbow Dash had avoided her that hurt the most. She had lied about getting plenty of rest, and then tried to hide it by running away. Applejack felt a sort of stabbing sensation in her chest at the very idea of somepony she trusted lying to her face about something so important, but the fact that it was Rainbow Dash made it even worse. Every sneaky trick always seemed worse when Rainbow Dash did it. It felt like a personal attack, or a betrayal. Applejack knew Rainbow Dash had no idea how she really felt, but even as friends there were limits to what the flier could get away with.
By the time she had made her way to the edge of the orchard she had worked herself up again and frustration and worry filled her mind. The sun was just beginning to near the horizon and there wasn't any time left in the day to track her down. Applejack scaled the nearest hill and looked out at the fields, wondering just where her friend had gone off to. She sighed and walked over to a tree, spinning around and bucking it hard. She raised her head to catch an apple and was instead greeted by the sight of a rapidly approaching, rainbow-colored mass.
Rainbow Dash landed with a thud on top of Applejack and the two lay there for a moment, shocked, confused and in no small amount of pain after the collision. Applejack carefully pried herself out from under Rainbow Dash and stood up, dusting herself off.
"What in the hay were you doing in my tree, Rainbow Dash?"
Rainbow Dash got to her hooves, rubbing her eyes. She blinked a couple of times, squinting at Applejack as her eyes adjusted to the glare of the setting sun and adjusting the bandages wrapped around her wings and back.
"I was taking a nap. You know, resting? Like you said I should?"
The earth pony glanced at her, eyes narrowed. She picked her hat up off the ground and shook a stray leaf off of it before putting it back on.
"Don't you lie to me, Dash. I know you were at that party for Princess Luna."
Rainbow Dash's eyes widened slightly and her jaw fell open, hooves dropping to the ground. She jumped forwards and grabbed hold of Applejack's shoulders, shaking them frantically.
"Wait, there was a party for the princess? And nopony told me? AJ, I just missed my big chance! If I had gone and impressed the princess with my flying skills then she'd totally invite me to Canterlot to perform for everypony, including the Wonderbolts!"
Applejack rubbed her temple and sighed, shaking Rainbow Dash off. She took a few steps away from the blue mare and circled around her.
"I know you were there, so quit tryin' to hide it."
The pegasus threw her hooves up and grumbled.
"I'm telling you, Applejack, I've been here all day. You've been nagging me to rest so I figured I'd get you to stop by taking you seriously. Sorta. I may have used my wings a little to get up here, but after that I didn't use them at all, I swear."
Applejack looked her in the eye, scrutinizing every facet of her face. After a moment she turned to face the setting sun and sat down, getting comfortable. There hadn't been a hint of a lie in her words or her expression. Had she really been in the tree during the party? Applejack gazed out at the orchard. The orange light made it look like the trees were on fire, and the apples gleamed like hot embers, shining amid the leaves. Even as a filly she had come to this spot whenever she didn't know what to do. It was like the trees could speak to her here, could answer her questions. And now they were telling her to trust her friend.
"I believe you."
She glanced over at Rainbow Dash and smirked a bit, watching her friend sit down beside her. For a moment she caught herself staring, self-conscious. Her own body was, at least to her, stocky and too muscular for anypony to find her attractive. Not like Rainbow Dash at all, the mare with a gymnast's figure, all lithe figure and supple curves. Applejack wondered to herself if all pegasus ponies were like that. If they were she certainly didn't notice it half the time. It was only around Rainbow Dash that the innate splendor of the fliers presented itself to the apple farmer. She tried to clear her thoughts and speak.
"So, you'd 'ave tried to perform for the princess if anypony had told you there was a party?"
Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah, of course I would have. I mean, it's not an opportunity that comes up often."
Applejack gave her a look of disapproval and Rainbow Dash gulped.
"Of course, I wouldn't have used my wings at all. I'd have just done... uh... other things. I know plenty of other tricks that I don't need my wings for at all."
Applejack chuckled, shaking her head.
"O' course you do. You know, I've never really understood your obsession with the Wonderbolts. I mean, I get that they're your idols and all, but there are other flyin' groups out there too."
"Yeah, but they're nowhere near as good as the Wonderbolts! They're the best fliers in all Equestria, the fastest and most amazing pegasus team that ever lived."
A stray thought wandered into Applejack's mind and a coy grin plastered itself across her face.
"Are you sure it's not just the costumes?"
Rainbow Dash tilted her head, confusion filling her features.
"Just a thought. You're always trying to convince Rarity to make you a replica, so I was just thinkin' that maybe you're just tryin' to get a real Wonderbolt outfit or something. Although I never pegged you as the kind of mare to enjoy spandex to that degree. Whatever floats your boat."
The pegasus stared at her wide-eyed, cheeks bright red, and Applejack couldn't suppress her laughter. She stamped her hoof against the ground, giggling and trying to catch her breath.
"Sorry, Dashie, I just couldn't resist makin' the joke."
Rainbow Dash folded her forelegs and looked away.
"Yeah, well it's not very funny. I genuinely look up to them, AJ. It doesn't have anything to do with... that sort of thing."
Applejack leaned in and grinned once more.
"So you're not gonna deny it then?"
The blue mare spun around to face her, standing up and furrowing her brow.
"Yes, I'm going to deny it! It's not about the costume, or the spandex or whatever!"
Rainbow Dash's words were a mix of anger and uncertain embarrassment. Applejack chuckled a little.
"Well alright then, if you say so. I guess I'll trust you on that one too."
Rainbow Dash growled in frustration and sighed, sitting down. She stared out at the trees and Applejack gave her a moment to cool down from the provocation.
"So you've just been here on the farm the whole time?"
Rainbow Dash responded with a roll of her eyes and another sigh.
"Pretty much. It's not like I was gonna fly all the way back to Cloudsdale when everypony would just yell at me for it. You guys always give me such an earful when I get hurt."
Applejack hesitated for a moment and put her hoof on her friend's shoulder.
"It's just cause we get worried about you. You're always so stubborn about your injuries."
Rainbow Dash looked up at the clouds for a moment and brushed her bangs out of her face.
"So you're not stubborn at all?"
Applejack gave Rainbow Dash a light shove on the shoulder.
"At least I learned my lesson about takin' it too far. You always make it seem like you just don't care what the hay happens to you, or what anypony else thinks or feels about it. It's like the rest of us don't even matter to ya. It's just plain selfish, Rainbow Dash."
Rainbow Dash turned to face Applejack, anger washing over her face.
"How am I being selfish by doing whatever I want with my body? It's my decision, AJ. If I wanted to I could fly all over Ponyville with my sprain and nopony should be able to say anything about it. If I wanna be a little self-destructive that's my own problem."
Applejack backed away a bit, trying to keep her expression steady and her voice even, failing at both.
"Are you really that dense? I mean, I knew you had a hard head or you would've died after so many crashes, but I didn't realize it was cause you had such a thick skull."
Rainbow Dash's wings flared aggressively and she winced slightly as they strained at the bandages.
"Hey! Are you trying to say I'm stupid or something?"
Pain slowly filled Applejack's voice, little by little, her frustration and worry tinging every word with anger.
"I reckon I just did. Only a stupid filly without a single ounce of loyalty in her body would ignore her friends when they're worried. You're the only mare I know who's ticked me off so much, and all because, despite me being worried about you, you go around actin' like you're invincible or somethin'. I really wish I could just stop carin' about you and let you get yourself killed, because at this rate that's exactly what's gonna happen, and when it does I'm gonna wonder why I ever put up with you in the first place."
The fury vanished from the blue mare's face, her eyes widening in shock.
"I... AJ, I didn't mean to-"
Applejack closed her eyes and steadied herself. When she opened them again her voice was measured and soft.
"I respect that it's your body, but I'm also your friend, and if you want it to stay that way then you need to understand that when you get hurt, it hurts me too. It hurts everypony who looks up to you, respects you, and... and loves you."
Rainbow Dash blinked, tilting her head, brow furrowed in confusion.
"Love me? What, you mean like... Scootaloo or something? I mean, I know she looks up to me like a sister."
There were few instances that Applejack could recall where her attempts at subtlety were too subtle for the other pony to catch her drift, and she had to wonder if the pegasus was plain dumb or playing dumb. She hoped it was the latter.
"...Let's go with that. But do you get my meanin'?"
Rainbow Dash nodded slowly.
"I... I get it. I'll try to be more careful from now on. If there's an emergency then I'll take care of it as fast as I can so I can rest more."
Applejack frowned and Rainbow Dash groaned, tilting her head back and casting her eyes upwards.
"Alright, fine. Even if it's an emergency I'll be sure to take care of myself. Happy?"
The farmer smirked.
"Almost. I think I'm gonna do somethin' to keep you out of trouble."
The pegasus eyed her with suspicion for a moment
"You're not gonna shackle me to a bed or something just to make me rest, are you?"
With a grin Applejack took off her hat and looked at it for a second before reaching over and setting it down on Rainbow Dash's head.
"Nah, I think this'll work better."
Rainbow Dash tilted the hat a bit, shifting her mane so it sat more comfortably under the brim.
"Your hat? How the hay is this supposed to keep me out of trouble?"
The earth pony smiled and sat up.
"I want you to take care of it for me."
Rainbow Dash stopped fussing with her hair and paused.
"Why in Equestria is it my job to take care of your hat? And how does taking care of your hat do anything?"
Applejack's smile faltered and she pressed her face against her hoof.
"I really hope you're just playin' around, Rainbow Dash. It's supposed to be symbolic like. This hat is important to me and I want you to keep it safe for me so you'll stay out of trouble yourself."
The pegasus tipped the hat back a bit and adjusted the drawstring.
"If you'd have just said that to begin with I would have known what you meant."
Applejack sighed softly.
"Nevermind. Just... just hold on to it for me?"
Rainbow Dash saluted.
"I'll guard it with my life. You can count on me, AJ."
She started pantomiming, crossing her hoof over her heart.
"Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye."
They basked in the silence that draped itself over them and Applejack finally felt the unease that had settled in her chest begin to melt away, replaced with a slowly quickening heartbeat and heat slowly rising to her cheeks as she savored Rainbow Dash's presence.
"Say, uh, Applejack?"
Applejack blinked, her reverie broken.
Rainbow Dash prodded the ground with her hoof, drawing lines in the dirt. She stared at the shapes she was making, not meeting the earth pony's eye.
"It's, uh... it's kinda weird seeing you without your hat. No offense or anything."
Applejack gently jabbed Rainbow Dash's side to try to get her to stop staring at the ground, eyebrow raised.
"What do you mean, 'weird'? You mean, like, goofy or somethin'?"
The pegasus turned raised her hooves defensively, inching back a little.
"No! No, no, I mean... It's different. You always have your hat on so it's kinda part of your... you. It's kinda nice to see you like this though."
Applejack straightened up a little bit.
"You... You think so? I don't look dumb without my hat?"
"Of course not. You look... great."
Applejack looked at her mane, toying with the tie at the end.
"I doubt that. I don't have nearly as nice a mane as you do, Dash, especially on account of how I forgot to brush it this mornin'. I probably look a right mess."
Rainbow Dash snorted a little, laughing.
"You you kidding? Do you have any idea how long it takes me to tame my hair after a nap? That's why I keep it so short. I really wish I had a mane like yours, one I could wear long so it flows in the breeze. I'm more than a little bit jealous of you, AJ, if you let your hair down in a storm you'd look awesome."
"Oh please, if anythin' I should be jealous of you. You're the beautiful one."
They both blinked, staring at each other.
"Beautiful? You think I'm... "
Applejack gulped, cursing her innate honesty and the subtle way that the truth had of slipping out precisely when she didn't mean it to.
"Uh... I mean, you're much better lookin' than I am. I'm a plain Jane, nothin' special. You? You're all bright color and pretty figure. You're so flashy I bet the colts are all over you at your flyin' events, with your good looks and your charm."
Rainbow Dash ran her hoof along the lines she'd drawn the ground, eyes half-lidded and expression wistful.
"I dunno, I always thought you were the better mare. We can argue looks all you like, but personality? You've totally got me beat. I know I'm not always the easiest pony to get along with, and I tend to be a bit... Quick to react, slow to think. Not looking before I leap. That sorta thing. You're patient and understanding, AJ, and I think that makes you the better catch. Those colts could care less once they see I'm all flash and no substance."
Applejack reached out and touched her hoof to Rainbow Dash's cheek, turning the blue mare's face towards her own.
"Dash, any pony would be lucky to have you in their life. I count my blessings every day and I count you twice because I value your companionship that much. You're... you're my super-star, Wonderbolt or not, and you always will be."
Rainbow Dash smiled softly, all her flair and brashness replaced by what Applejack could only assume was a feeling of genuine acceptance.
"Thanks AJ. You'll... heh, you'll always be the 'apple of my eye'."
Applejack smiled softly and looked out at the orchard with a sigh. That joke was an old one, but she didn't really mind it coming from Rainbow Dash. Her eyes wandered along the horizon, tracing the edges of the trees as they caught the last of the daylight. Subtle wasn't working. It figured that Rainbow Dash would only catch her drift if she did something as brash as the acrobatic flier's usual attitude. Bracing herself for the worst, she turned to face the blue mare.
"Hey, Rainbow Dash?"
"I... There's something I need to tell you."
"Well... That is to say... Oh, ponyfeathers."
Applejack grabbed the drawstring of the hat and pulled Rainbow Dash close, kissing her abruptly. After a few moments she leaned back and let go of the hat, letting a stunned Rainbow Dash return to her sitting position.
"I... I like you a lot, Dashie. Quite a lot, and as more than just being friends. I just couldn't not tell you anymore, it's been eatin' me up inside since I worked it out for myself. I know you probably don't feel the same way, and that's fine. I... I'm sorry for the kiss if that's the case, you probably hate me an awful lot for just rushin' in there like that."
Applejack chuckled nervously, watching Rainbow Dash's expression shift, eyebrows slowly lowering into a slight scowl.
"I just... If I didn't do somethin' about it I wouldn't be able to look at myself in the mirror anymore. I had to let you know, and bein' subtle wasn't cutting it so I had to be blunt and-"
Rainbow Dash smacked Applejack across the face and the earth pony felt the world spinning around her for several seconds. When gravity resumed pointing in the same direction she blinked the world back into focus. Rainbow Dash's scowl had now become a look of anger and disappointment.
"That one was for kissing me without considering my feelings first."
Rainbow Dash raised her hoof and aimed for the other cheek as Applejack brought her hoof to where the first blow had landed, closing her eyes and bracing herself. The second strike was little more than a friendly swat and as Applejack opened her eyes the pegasus was smiling at her.
"And that one is for being a complete motormouth and not letting me get a word in edgewise. You know, to tell you I like you too."
Rainbow Dash gently stroked Applejack's uninjured cheek.
"I've been waiting a while trying to figure out what to do about it. I figured I'd try to be patient for once and not just rush in blindly. And what happens? You rush in blindly instead, and completely out of nowhere."
Applejack narrowed her eyes slightly, raising an eyebrow.
"Dash, I've been hinting at it all afternoon."
Rainbow Dash pulled her hoof back and folded her forelegs in front of herself.
"It went right over my head, you could have made it just a little bit clearer. You kinda suck at being clear and subtle at the same time. At least, to me."
The farmer smiled softly.
"If I didn't want to kiss you right now I'd push you down this hill and laugh. Well, that and your injuries, but mostly the kiss."
Rainbow Dash chuckled a bit.
"And if I didn't want to kiss you back I'd drag you down this hill with me."
"So what's it gonna be?"
The pegasus shifted and moved beside Applejack, toying with the hat.
"I dunno, rolling down this hill might be fun. But maybe it can wait until I'm all healed up and ready for action."
Applejack scooted a bit closer and kissed Rainbow Dash gently. The other mare reciprocated and Applejack could feel a hoof running through her mane before pulling at her neck a little, deepening the kiss. After a moment they pulled back, panting a little and smiling. Rainbow Dash looked out at the trees for a moment and grinned.
"You know... it might not be so bad taking it easy. Maybe I can help out around the farm a little bit. I'm the Iron Pony around here after all, a little leg exercise while my wings heal up shouldn't be a problem. I mean, if you can do it-"
Applejack rested her hoof on the hat and tipped it forwards before pressing down, flattening it against Rainbow Dash's face and smirking.
"Alright then, "Iron Pony," we'll see what you've got tomorrow mornin'. You can help me with the chores I had to put off to go to Princess Luna's welcome party. And... you've always got a bed here if you need one. We'd be glad of the company. That never stopped bein' a thing or anythin'."
Rainbow Dash pried the hat from her face and put it back on properly, scowling for a second before smiling playfully.
"But where are you gonna sleep, you don't have a couch."
They both smirked and Applejack gently nuzzled Rainbow Dash's mane.