Burning Fur Mood

Story: The Apple of Her Dreams (Chapter 5)

Chapter 5: A Debt Owed

Applejack lay still for a few moments to catch her breath, and to allow her heart to stop thundering while she assessed this new situation. She noted that it was still dark in her room - which was a welcome change. The pony also discovered that she was thoroughly entwined in sweat-soaked bedsheets. Applejack experienced a brief moment of panic when she found that she still could not feel her left leg, but she quickly learned it had just become so tangled in the bed covering that it had gone to sleep.

The mare looked around the shadowy room while she smacked her left foreleg with her right hoof to slowly bring it tingling back life. She could barely make out a few details from the dim light of the gibbous moon shining in the window, but she saw what she was after when she noticed that one corner appeared to be a bit darker than the others.

"So, am Ah really awake this time?" Applejack addressed the comment to the corner of the room, and she was not surprised to see a stygian form stir to life. The shade slowly detached itself from the other blackness and stepped into the wan light with its silvered hooves glinting.

As Luna emerged from the corner, the stars and nebulae in her mane and tail slowly flickered into life, adding their own faint glow to that of the moon. The alicorn's eyes gleamed impishly in the meager glimmer of her mane. "You are truly awake now, Applejack."

The farm pony flopped her head back on the pillow and tried to shake the pins and needles out of her left leg. From the corner of her eye, she watched the dark princess walk languidly up to the side of her bed and stop there to fix the orange mare with an open expression of amusement. Applejack patted the leg a couple more times.

"Poor Applejack," said Luna in an innocent, dulcet tone. "Are you making sure that it is still attached?"

"Maybe," replied the other mare. She quickly pulled her other hoof back and glared up at the alicorn. "What in the hay was all ... that?"

"That?" said the tall princess with a look of mock surprise. She tapped her chin with a gleaming hoof as if pondering on the earth pony's question. "Dear Applejack, I believe that was me winning our little bet." Luna remained standing on her rear hooves, but she leaned her front elbows on the bed, curling the hooves down so that she could rest her regal chin on her royal wrists. "I am still learning the modern nomenclature for such things," said the princess more seriously, "but I believe the accepted thing to say at a time like this is booyah!"

"Whoa now, hang on," said Applejack, squinting up at the gloating princess. "Ah seem to recall having an unseemly amount of cider last night," she said. "How do Ah know that wasn't responsible for the dreams rather than you?"

Luna gave a quick, half-frown and shrugged. "A fair point," she conceded. "Though I do not recall it being cider to which you said - to quote you directly - 'Ah bet ya couldn't give me more dream than Ah could handle, Princess.'"

"Ah don't talk like that," protested Applejack. She lay back and rested a hoof across her forehead while she tried to reassemble the events of the evening before, and her bet with the princess. "Do Ah?"

"Well hey there, Luna. Ah certainly didn't expect to find ya here at our little shindig - especially not all the way down here in Ponyville."

The princess started and almost spilled the tall glass of sparkling cider over which she had been brooding. "Hello, Applejack," said Luna, quickly regaining her regal composure. "I am here because my sister insisted that I need to 'get out more'." Her tone made it clear that she disagreed to a point. "Alas, it always ends up being uncomfortable for me. I am so disconnected from modern ponies that small talk becomes difficult. Everypony wants to talk about their sports ball team, or some latest entertainer of whom I've never heard."

Applejack's encounter with the princess had not been entirely by chance. While the farm pony was not averse to parties, she also tended to grow tired of crowds very quickly, and she spied the alicorn when she'd been looking for a place to be alone for a bit. The tall princess had been staring distractedly into a flute of sparkling cider and - for lack of a better word - skulking in the shadows beside a pillar in exactly the way one did not do when they wished to attract attention.

"Well, under the circumstances Ah guess Ah don't blame ya for wantin' to be alone," said Applejack, "an' Ah thought I'd come over and be alone with ya, if that's okay."

"Yes, of course, this is fine," said Luna with an awkward grin, but it quickly faded into a long, glum sigh. "Well, it's not really fine at all," she admitted. "I came here to mingle, but instead I am standing off in the shadows and avoiding everypony."

Applejack took another swig of her cider, wiped her muzzle with the back of a hoof and winked at the princess. "Well technically ya kinda are minglin' now, Princess."

Luna's expression brightened. "Why, yes I am," she said. "Very well, let us mingle, Applejack. Would you like to talk about something that does not involve sports or entertainment?"

"Well, Ah could talk endlessly about apples," replied the other mare, "but Ah'm more interested in hearing more about you, Princess. Are ya still doing all that..." Applejack spun a circle with her hoof in an effort to elicit the right words, "dream ... stuff?" Luna quickly became more animated.

"Yes!" she said. "Most of my nights are spent monitoring dreams, and intervening when the dreams turn bad."

"That has to be hard," said Applejack pensively. "Ah mean, goin' from nightmare to nightmare has to be a bit of a strain on a mare."

The alicorn scrunched up the side of her face and shrugged. She took a delicate sip of her sparkling cider and said, "Not really. Most nightmares are much scarier when you are in them than when you are viewing them from the outside. Often when I rescue a pony from a bad dream and they get to see it from another viewpoint, they feel a little silly for having been afraid." The princess's eyes appeared to lose their focus for a moment as she took another sip. "You can learn a lot about ponies from their nightmares."

"Ah can imagine," agreed Applejack. The two of them stood without speaking for a time, sipping their ciders and enjoying the presence of somepony else who could appreciate silent time together. The orange mare almost took her leave when she saw that the party organizers were setting up a square dance, but she cast a sidelong glance at the princess. "Hey Luna, how come Ah never see you in any of mah bad dreams?"

The alicorn tittered and cocked her head at the orange pony with a bemused smile. "You don't have nightmares, Applejack."

"Ah do," protested the other pony. "Sometimes when Ah dream about buckin' trees, one 'em won't drop any apples." She saw the princess's disbelieving grin and doubled down. "Ah'm serious. When yer livelihood depends on apples, havin' trees that don't drop 'em is a scary thing." The orange mare could not maintain her serious expression long enough to finish the sentence though. "Who am Ah kiddin'? My dreams are all borin' ones about buckin' apples and pressin' cider."

Applejack tipped up her flagon and made a face when a single drop rolled out onto her tongue. "Aw shucks, empty again," she said. "Guess Ah'm gonna have to sneak back out there for a refill. Can Ah get ya one while I'm..."

Before the pony could finish, the princess held up a hoof in a universal "give me one second" gesture as she downed her own cider and then winked out with a muted "pop". A second later Luna reappeared, bearing refills for both ponies.

Applejack heard a confused waitpony in the distance say, "Hey, was that Luna?"

"Ah ain't never gonna get used to that teleport thing," said the orange pony as she accepted the fresh mug, "but Ah approve of the results." She raised her mug to the princess and took another sip. "Ah was serious when Ah asked why I never see ya in my dreams, though," Applejack continued. "Ah mean, Ah know ya mostly deal with nightmares an' stuff like that, but maybe ya could - I dunno - pop in and spice things up a bit in mah dreams. Buckin' apples every night gets a bit old."

Luna turned down her mouth and shook her head stiffly. "I cannot," she said. "I only liberate others from nightmares. When I try to meddle in the dreams themselves, the results can be ... unsettling."

Applejack swirled her cider while she considered the alicorn's words. "Not sure Ah follow," she said finally. "Are ya sayin' that everything ya touch turns to nightmares?"

"Not as such," said Luna. "But I suppose that word is probably as good a fit as any."

"Ah ain't afraid of no nightmares." Applejack shrugged. "Ah mean they can't be any worse than night after night of buckin' apples in mah sleep." She tossed back another deep swallow of cider. "Ya may not have noticed, yer highness, but Ah don't scare very easy. Ah bet ya couldn't give me more dream than Ah could handle, Princess."

Luna frowned slightly and cast quick, furtive glances in both directions. With a nod, she took a dainty sip of her cider, and then leaned closer to Applejack to whisper out of the side of her mouth. "How much?"

Applejack blinked. "Ah beg yer pardon?"

"How much are you willing to bet that I could not give you a dream that you can't handle?" asked the tall, dark pony, tilting her head in the other mare's direction. "I am willing to make a wager on that."

"Aw, c'mon yer highness, that's just a figure of speech. Makin' bets is the kind of things that common ponies do, not princesses."

"Oh?" said Luna. The alicorn smirked and took a long, unprincessy slurp of her sparkling cider without breaking eye contact with the earth pony. "If only there were a princess here with whom we could consult on the subject."

"Well, Ah guess in fairness Ah can only go on the princesses I know best," conceded Applejack. "Ah can promise you that Twilight would find the whole idea appallin'."

"Well, yes," agreed Luna. "But Twilight Sparkle can be..."

"A stick in the mud sometimes," promoted Applejack helpfully.

"I was going to say 'a bit too self-conscious', but she will grow out of it." The princess eyed Applejack with a slight frown of disapproval. "I can't believe you called her that." She bobbled her head, "But now that it's out there... Anyway, do we have a bet or not?"

"All Ah was sayin' is that Ah used the term 'Ah bet' as a figure of speech that ... uh, Princess, whatcha doin'?"

Luna had a hoof raised behind her ear and was looking left and right with a puzzled expression. "Pardon me, Applejack, but I thought I heard something," said the alicorn. "It sounded an awful lot like somepony being a chicken."

Applejack lowered her head and pawed the ground. "Them's fightin' words, Princess," she snorted. "Fine, ya want a bet, ya got a bet. Ah'll bet ya five of my best, home-baked apple pies that ya can't give me a dream that Ah can't handle. Ah'm talkin' about one of them 'wake up in a pool of sweat' nightmares. Ah'll even buck fresh apples for it in the mornin'."

"Very well," said Luna with a nod of approval. "I accept a payment in pies as a fair tender when I win." The alicorn cast an imperious look down toward Applejack. "On the minuscule chance that I do not win, what do you demand in payment?"

"The same," said Applejack, buffing her hoof on her chest. "Ya show up at the farm bright an' early to buck apples an' make pies." The mare examined her hoof and blew off an imaginary mote of dust. "An' don't ya worry yerself none about the buckin', Luna. It's all in the technique, so even a delicate thing like yerself with them scrawny princess legs can do it with a bit of trainin'."

"Scrawny, indeed," said Luna as her eyes gave a little flash. "Oh, it is on." The alicorn kicked off one of her silver shoes, spat on her hoof and raised it.

Applejack spat on her on hoof. "May the best mare win," she said as she raised it.

"Okay, ya beat me fair an' square," said Applejack. She lifted her foreleg slightly from her eyes so that she could see the alicorn leaning on her bed. "Them sweat-soaked sheets don't lie. I'll set to bakin' them pies for you in the mornin' because an Apple always pays their debts."

"Thank you, Applejack," said Luna with a gracious bow of her head. She started to rise from the bed but Applejack forestalled the move.

"Hold up," the orange pony said quickly. "Ah got questions if Ah can keep ya for a couple more minutes."

"Of course," said the princess as she settled on the edge of the bed again. "What did you wish to know, Applejack?"

"Them dreams..." said the other pony, trailing off in thought. "Was any of that stuff real?"

"They were all dreams," said Luna. She brushed back her twinkling mane and grinned almost shyly. "I am rather proud of the third one."

Applejack nodded and bunched up some of the damp bedsheets between her hooves while she thought. "What was with all the weird dreams before the one at the end?" she asked.

Luna tapped her chin with a hoof pensively. "Well, to be honest, those were partly me having some fun. Their main purpose was to serve as a slight-of-hoof to get you off balance, but I was also testing a few things on you to see what really made you nervous." The princess grinned and shrugged. "In fairness, it was Celestia's suggestion to toss out a couple of weird ones to - in her words - 'soften her up'."

"Wait, ya got yer sister involve in this?"

"Well, yes - of course," said Luna, looking shocked that the pony was surprised. "My sister has a long history of making wagers." She grinned. "Though not so much recently because she has gained a reputation for sometimes," she paused and gently tapped her muzzle in thought, "exploiting loopholes."

"What kind of loopholes?"

Luna rolled her eyes. "The next time you are having tea with my sister, ask her about the wager with the Countess of Prancelvania - I am sure she would take great delight in repeating that tale to somepony else."

Applejack yawned into her hoof, but waved her other one at the princess to stay for just a bit longer.

"Ah guess my last question is how ya managed to figure out the one thing that might scare me," she said. "Of all the monsters and disasters and nightmarish things ya could have thrown at me, how could ya know the one thing that would make me wake in a sweat?"

"Oh that," Luna tapped her hooves together and looked down with a tinge of guilt. "I have to give the credit where it's due. Twilight Sparkle is the one who told me about your aversion to needles."

"Twilight?!"

"She arrived at the party with Celestia after you had already left for the night," explained the alicorn.

Applejack shook her head and frowned in disappointment. "An' she just came right out and told ya that, huh? Some mares just can't keep a secret."

"She didn't, at first," said Luna. "Twilight Sparkle was actually quite appalled when I mentioned our wager, until..." Luna coughed daintily into her hoof. "I might have accidentally mentioned your 'stick in the mud' comment to her."

Applejack laughed and shook her head again. "Accidentally," she said with a scoff. "Ah guess mah big mouth done me in again," The orange pony pointed an accusing hoof at the other mare. "Ya princesses play dirty though, Luna."

"We do," the alicorn agreed. She pushed herself up from the bed and turned to leave. "You learn a few tricks over the centuries, Applejack." The tall princess stood and stretched sensually before turning to leave. "I must go now - I am sensing nightmares that need my attention." She glanced back over her shoulder and cast an enigmatic grin and wink toward the earth pony before she melted into the shadow again. "Sweet dreams, my little pony," she said, and her light chuckle faded with the flicker of her mane.

Applejack lay awake for almost an hour after the princess left, staring at the dim ceiling beams that were just visible in the weak moonlight. It took a bit for her to admit to herself that she was a little afraid to go back to sleep. "Ah feel like a silly filly after a bad dream," she scowled. The mare tossed and turned a few times before she finally resorted to counting apples.

The pony had just lost track of her count when the bedroom door slammed open and Rarity burst into the room. The white unicorn was preceded by a hovering bottle that seemed to be the focus of her concern. She was wearing the flattering, flank-hugging bathrobe she had received for as a gift, and her face was set in the adorable pout that usually meant she was going to whine disproportionally over something trivial.

"Applejack dear, have you been using my mane conditioner? I just bought it last week and now it's over half gone!"

Applejack sat bolt upright in bed, blinking in the murk of her room.

"Goldarn it, Luna," she cussed, smacking her thigh angrily with a hoof.

She sighed, punched her pillow back into shape and then lay down again. "Aw, whatever," she muttered. "Still a couple hours to dawn, and Ah'm kinda curious where this one's goin'."

Burning Fur Mood

Story: The Apple of Her Dreams (Chapter 4)

Chapter 4: Without A Leg To Stand On

In spite of the visibly late hour, Applejack was not one to disrupt her habitual morning rituals. The mare yawned, stretched, rolled out of bed and donned her hat. She took a quick look in the mirror, noted the bags under her eyes and - most importantly - checked that the hat was straight before she trotted out of her bedroom toward the kitchen. The pony would be the first to admit that she kept a much simpler morning routine than most other mares.

She was not surprised to find Granny Smith in the kitchen when she arrived. The elderly matron was asleep in her rocker, snoring loudly, with a copy of the Canterlot Gazette lying forgotten in her lap. Applejack cleared her throat politely as she entered the room to roust the old pony. The latter awoke with a snort and an incoherent mumble.

"There ya are," said Granny Smith once she was done smacking her lips and scratching herself fully conscious. "We was wonderin' if ya were plannin' to wake up."

"Ah'm awake," said Applejack. She covered her mouth with a hoof and yawned deeply before she cantered over to the oven. She pulled it open and found it empty and cold.

"Ya sure yer awake?" asked the green mare. "Them's some pretty big bags yer packin' under them peepers."

"Ah'm fine, Granny," said Applejack, stifling another yawn. "Ah didn't sleep none too well last night on account of some pretty crazy dreams." She closed the oven and then opened it again for a second opinion.

"There's fritters in the icebox if that's what yer after," said Granny Smith with a vague wave in its direction. The old mare had picked up her newspaper again and was reading it while she talked.

Applejack plodded over to the icebox and pulled out a plate of fritters. She put the plate on the table with one hoof while she casually kicked shut the cooler with her opposite, rear leg. The act of disrespect for her grandmare's favourite icebox earned her a whinny of disapproval, but Applejack was used to being the target of the other pony's wrath. She continued as if nothing had happened. "Where's everypony else?" she asked as she jammed a fritter into her mouth.

"Apple Bloom is in school, an' Big Mac is out buckin' apples in the rear orchard," replied Granny Smith. She glanced over the top of her newspaper and made another sound of horsy disapproval. "Ain't ya gonna heat them things?"

"Mph," said Applejack around the cold fritter in her mouth. She swallowed and shrugged. "Ah wanna eat quick so I can get out back and help Big Mac"

Granny Smith was shaking her head before the other mare had even finished the statement. "He wants ya pressin' cider today," she said.

Applejack had been reaching for another fritter, but she gave an angry stomp of her hoof instead. "Now that ain't fair," she protested. "Ah was pressin' cider all day yesterday. It was mah turn to buck apples today."

"Ya snooze, ya lose," cackled Grannie Smith. She flipped the Gazette page and peered over the top of it again. "Ya gotta wake up if ya want to earn the bucks."

Applejack groaned at the old mare's pun and grabbed another fritter. She munched on it absently while she stared out the front window. The orange pony frowned slightly at the strange, greenish tinge in the sky. "Uh, Granny," she said, "can ye turn to the weather page an' see if it's callin' for some weather today? Ah don't wanna be out there pressin' cider in a storm or it'll get all diluted."

Granny Smith glanced out the window as well. "Shore is an odd colour out there alright," she said. "Ya know the old sayin' about lime sky in morning ... something ... something - tarnation! I can never keep all them old sayings straight." She flipped through the pages. "Says here ya might wake up to green this mornin'."

"But nothin' about rain," prompted Applejack. She shoved another cold fritter into her mouth and chewed it distractedly.

"Nothin' bout rain," said Granny Smith. "So if yer tryin' to get out of pressin' cider then ya ain't got a leg to stand on. Yer own dang fault for not wakin' up." The old mare held the newspaper up closer to her muzzle and then jabbed the page with a hoof. "Well now, this ain't good," she said grimly.

"Hm? What ain't good, Granny?" Applejack tore her gaze away from the oddly tinted sky.

"Sez here that there was another case of hoof & mouth," said the old pony. She glanced over the journal toward her granddaughter again. "Have ya got yer booster yet? Ya don't wanna be catchin' no hoof & mouth - it'll lay ya up for weeks."

"Of course ah did," said Applejack quickly. "They gave me them sugar cubes with the pink stuff in 'em."

Granny Smith scoffed so hard that she almost spat out her teeth. "Sugar cubes? They only give them ta fillies!" She blinked. "Wait, ya ain't had yer immunization since ya was in school? Them things don't last forever, Applejack. Ya need a booster!" The old pony shook her head. "Big Mac an' Apple Bloom have both already got theirs." She held out her left foreleg to show off a small bandage near her shoulder. "Ah even got mine." Granny Smith shook her head. "Sugar cubes... really! Ya need to go for yer shot, girl."

Applejack shuddered. "Why can't it just be another sugar cube?" she asked.

"Yer a grown mare, Applejack. Are ya telling me yer scared of a little needle?"

"Ah ain't scared of nothin'," said the the other pony defensively. She grabbed the last fritter and took a big bite to hide her sulk. "Ah just don't like 'em. They're so ... stabby an' stuff. Ah'll go fer the booster next week for sure," said Applejack as she tossed the final bite of fritter into her mouth. "Probably," she muttered through a mouthful of food.

While she chewed, the orange mare cantered over to the window to get a better look at the strangely coloured sky. The hue had been turning a more intense, powder green as they'd been chatting - to the point where it had begun to permeate the kitchen as well. "That shore is some stranger weather out there, Granny Smith," said Applejack. The other pony did not respond. "Granny..." began the mare again, but when she turned, she found that she was alone in the kitchen - though the elderly pony's chair was still rocking slightly as if it had just been vacated.

The old mare had left the Gazette lying face-up on the table, and the cover caught Applejack's attention. She cantered over and reached out a hoof to turn the paper toward her. Her own picture was on the front of the journal, with a bold headline over it reading, "Ponyville Mare In Coma After Tragic Accident" Below her picture was a smaller shot of Apple Bloom with the caption, "We all want our sis back. We just want her to wake up." There was a small byline about froufrou dresses coming back into style as well, but Applejack was more interested in the headline about her.

She flipped back the cover to the first page of the article, but the text just read the same thing over and over in different fonts and type faces.

Wake up! WAKE UP! wAkE UP! Wake UP! WAKE UP!"

"... what the hay," began the confused pony, but she was startled by another sound.

"Sis, wake up!" cried a faint, familiar voice from outside the house.

"Apple Bloom?" The mare bolted to the front window to look out. She could see nothing through the glass now except the yellow sun glaring at her through the strange, miscoloured firmament. Applejack blinked away tears and held up a hoof protectively against the blinding orb. She tried to make out details through the window, but all she could see was bright light and pale green sky.

"Applejack?"

This time there was no mistaking who had spoken. The mare tried to say her younger sister's name again, but her mouth was dry, and her tongue felt like it had swollen to the size of a pillow.

"She's wakin' up!" yelled the filly. Applejack heard the sound of tiny hooves running away from her. "Big Mac, she's wakin' up. Ya need ta go get Granny Smith an' the others."

"Eyup," came the voice of her brother.

Applejack heard a rustle and the sound of larger, heavier hooves joining those of Apple Bloom on the hard floor. The orange mare squeezed her eyes shut until they teared, opened them and then closed them again, trying to force them to focus. After a few more blinks, she began to make out cracks in the mignonette sky and realized that she was not looking at the sun, but at a light fixture set in an institutionally-green ceiling.

As she caught the sounds of her brother leaving the room, Applejack heard the simultaneous, light clop of her younger sister returning to her side. "A - Apple Bloom," she said, hoarsely.

"Don't try ta talk yet, sis," sniffled the filly, patting her bigger sibling gently through what felt like several layers of sheets. The mare tried to turn her head for a look at her younger sister, but the muscles in her neck gave an angry twinge and refused to respond. "We thought we was gonna lose you," wailed the filly at her shoulder.

Applejack tried to process what her sister had meant by that last statement. Before the mare could work up enough saliva to try and talk again, though, she heard the sound of a door bursting open, and another pony swept into the room on a breeze smelling of fresh apple blossoms and patchouli.

"She's awake?" demanded a new voice that she identified as Fluttershy. "Oh my, she is awake! This is wonderful!" Fluttershy swooped in close to what Applejack had now come to identify as her hospital bed. "Don't try to move. Don't try to speak. Well, maybe you can move your eyelids. Blink twice if you are okay."

"She kin talk," said Apple Bloom dryly, "she said mah name earlier."

 "Apple Bloom," whispered the yellow pegasus, "your sister needs to rest."

"She's been doin' nothing' but rest," protested the filly.

"But the doctor said she mustn't stress herself," said Fluttershy insistently. "Oh! The doctor wanted to know if she woke up."

"On it," said Apple Bloom. Applejack heard the sound of small hooves scrambling away on the hard floor. The mare tried turning her head again, and succeeded on her second attempt. When she did so, she saw that Fluttershy was hovering by her bed. The yellow pegasus had her hooves on her hips and was watching Applejack's baby sister dash out the door.

Fluttershy heard the movement and quickly turned around again. Applejack was astonished at the other mare's condition when she got a look at her face. The yellow pony's eyes were dark-rimmed, bloodshot and sunken as if she had not slept for a week.

"Ya ... look ... like ... heck," said Applejack. Each word took a force of will to produce, and when she was done she felt much worse for having said them. It was not that the effort of speaking had taken a lot out of her; rather it was the affect the words had on her friend.

"Oh dear, do I?" Fluttershy looked horrified and held up her hooves in front of her face. "I'm sorry," she said timidly. "I haven't slept very well since your horrible, awful accident and I must look a sight!" The pegasus swooped down, landed beside Applejack's bed and lowered herself so that Applejack could only see the pink of her mane. "I'll just lower myself down here so that I don't put any stress on you with my sickly looks."

"It's fine," said Applejack. She was finding it easier to speak with each word she forced out. She tried to reach out a hoof to pat the other pony gently on the head, but she quickly discovered that her limbs appeared to be bound up in bandages, casts, and pulleys. She tugged a bit harder and frowned when she was stymied. "What's this about an accident?"

"Eep," said Fluttershy in distress. "I wasn't supposed to say anything about that yet. Twilight said to be positive!"

"Twilight's here?" said Applejack in surprise. "Is everypony here?"

"Twilight is at home now," said Fluttershy. She popped her head back up again so that she could talk with the invalid more directly. "The poor thing was falling asleep on her feet, but she refused to leave your side." She made a lateral hoof-punching motion with her right hoof. "I had to put my hoof down. I told her to go home and get some sleep." The pegasus sat entirely upright again and massaged her face with her hooves, saying, "Positive, Fluttershy, be positive!" She drew a deep breath and broke out into a broad, forced, unconvincing smile. "Applejack, it's wonderful to see you looking so well! You'll be up and on your remaining feet in no time!"

"Mah remaining what now?!"

"Oops! I mean, all of your feet that you have! We'll have you up on them in no time," said Fluttershy quickly, but her eyes were darting left and right as if she was looking for a some shadows to meld into.

Applejack tugged and pulled on her restraints, trying to lift her head enough to get a look at her legs. "What the hay is this about a missin' leg," she demanded.

"Goldang it, Fluttershy, can't we leave ya alone in here for thirty seconds without ya blabbin' about her missing legs?" Granny Smith was speed-walking into the room as quickly as her walker would allow, but she paused to shake a hoof at the poor pegasus.

"LEGS?! With an S?"

"Well, one's only a foot," offered Fluttershy helpfully. "So that's something good, right?"

"Somethin' good, you say," squawked Applejack in alarm. "Y'er not the one missin' half of y'er limbs!"

"Almost half," interjected Fluttershy helpfully. "Twilight said to stay positive!"

Applejack started straining on the restraints again. "What in the hay happened? Why am ah here, and why can't ah remember none of it?"

"The doctor said your memories might be a bit hazy because of all the medicines," said Fluttershy. "Wait, do you remember all of our names? Can you tell me what year it is? Who's the Assistant Minister of Ponyville Agri-Resources?" Applejack tried to interject, but the pegasus didn't seem inclined to pause for breath. "Oh dear, I think maybe she's forgotten everything!"

"The Assistant Minister is Dew Brighthoof," said Applejack, shouting over the flustered Fluttershy. The room went dead. "Don't ask me how ah know that." The bedridden pony would have shrugged if the straps had allowed it. "Anyway, will one of ya tell me why ah'm all tied up in a hospital bed?"

"It was that confangled cider squeazin' machine," said Granny Smith, turning to spit on the floor.

"Granny," admonished Big Mac.

"I warned y'er pa about them machines years ago, and now lookit yer sis!"

"Ah don't remember buyin' no machine," said Applejack as she struggled to sit up. "It ain't that Ah don't believe y'all, but could y'all at least tell me which legs are missing?"

"One's only a foot," pointed out Fluttershy.

"Stop struggling," ordered a new voice. Applejack relaxed and peered past Fluttershy where she saw a doctor standing in the doorway. "I told them they needed to try and keep you calm." He held a hoof over his eyes and shook his head. "Are you trying to pop all of your stiches and let your organs fall out?"

"Doc, Ah will stop as soon as Ah get a chance to count all of mah limbs," said Applejack angrily. She paused. "Wait, what's this about organs fallin' out?"

The doctor turned his head and called over his shoulder. "Nurse Redheart, we need a sedative in here. Now."

"Ah don't need no sedative!" Applejack tugged on her restraints again as the room erupted into chaos. "Ah just wanna see what legs are missin'!"

"One's only a foot!"

"It was that confounded machine!"

"Nurse! Sedative! Now!"

"Why can't Ah feel mah left leg? Is that one of 'em?"

"And your right back foot, but it's only the foot."

"Can I have her boots?"

The room went dead again.

"Really, Apple Bloom..." snapped Applejack as her little sister blushed and shrunk back a bit.

"Ah mean, Ah hope ya get better, but ya ain't gonna be needin' 'em all now, are ya?" said Apple Bloom. The orange pony opened her mouth for a retort, and then shut it again. Her little sister had a point.

Applejack next turned her attention to Fluttershy. "And Ah know ya mean well Fluttershy, but if ya say, 'one is only a foot' one more time..."

"I'm sorry," squeaked Fluttershy. She shrunk meekly back and hunkered next to Apple Bloom.

"I'm here with the sedative, Doctor," said Nurse Redheart as she entered from the hall. The white pony cantered into the room with (what looked to Applejack) the largest syringe ever created.

"Excellent," said the doctor. He turned to the pony in the bed. "We'll just give you a little shot of this mild tranquilizer to help you settle down a bit."

Applejack found herself unable to tear her eyes from the needle. "It's all right," she said in the calmest tone she could muster. "See? Calm as a newborn lamb, now. Yup, the epitome of Zen. Don't need no needles here."

"Oh, nonsense," said the doctor. "The dose has all been measured out, and it will make you feel a thousand percent better." He stepped up and rested his hooves gently on the orange mare's side. "Big Mac, help me roll her over so that we can give her a shot in the flank."

"Eyup," said Big Mac as he moved in to lend a hoof.

Applejack cranked her head around to see the nurse approaching with the horrendously large needle. "No, seriously, that there is the biggest pig-sticker ah ever seen in mah life! If y'er lookin' for something' to calm me, that ain't it!"

"Juuuuust a little prick," said Nurse Redheart. "You'll hardly feel it."

"Ah already feel it, and you ain't even stuck me with it yet!" Applejack fought and thrashed against the restraints as the nurse loomed closer with the syringe. "No! No no no nonono!" wailed the orange mare as she twisted and fought. "LUNA! If this is another of y'er dreams then I want out!"

The nurse reared up over her. "It will all be over soon," she said kindly, holding up the needle. Applejack saw a drip forming on the end of the syringe as if it were salivating in anticipation.

"LUNA!"

Applejack shut her eyes tight and waited for the inevitable.

And she waited.

When she finally dared to open an eye again, she found herself in her own bed.

Again.

To Chapter 5: A Debt Owed

Burning Fur Mood

Story: The Apple of Her Dreams (Chapter 3)

Chapter 3: The Nexus of Dreams

It took Applejack's eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness on the other side of the portal, but once they did, she let out an involuntary gasp. The two ponies stood on what looked like a large, stone plateau nestled under more stars than the earth pony had ever seen in her life. As the mare's vision became more attuned, she started to make out dim, milky swirls in amongst the stars, and faintly glowing clouds that varied in hue from pink to blue. Strange, colourful auroras danced around the edges of her vision, quickly fading out whenever she tried to view them directly.

The pony could see the silhouette of buttes and spires against the sky, and far off in the distance she saw a dark stone ramp spiraling lazily up to a large, floating island of rock. The stars visible under the stone path made it uncomfortably apparent that nothing supported it. Applejack felt her stomach lurch when she realized that they were likely standing on a similar island to the one floating in the void overhead, and she was suddenly glad that they were not visibly near an edge.

What had made the breath catch in the mare's throat, though, were thousands of glowing squares slowly drifting hither and fro, just over the surface of the ground. To Applejack, they looked like windows with nebulous, glowing auras for frames. She could see the flicker of movement in most of them. A distant, hushed cacophony of sounds from the glowing portals was all that broke what would otherwise have been an oppressive silence in that strange landscape.

"What is this place?" said Applejack in a reverent whisper. She turned to the princess when she spoke, and her jaw dropped. The tall alicorn's body was wrapped in a soft, pale blue aura that made her stand out from the starry background. On the other hoof, though her mane and tail blew in an imaginary wind, Applejack could not tell where they ended and the starry sky began. The earth pony pointed at the glowing princess, but whatever question she'd been contemplating vanished from her tongue when she saw that she was wrapped in her own faint orange glow.

"This," said Luna, sweeping her right hoof in a large arc, "is The Nexus of Dreams." She leaned closer to the gaping orange mare and used her left hoof to gently push the other pony's mouth closed. "Or, as I call it back in Canterlot," she added with a mischievous gleam in her eye, "my office. Don't mind the auras - you will get used to them."

Applejack took a few, tentative steps forward, turning her head left and right as she tried to take in her ethereal surroundings. "Is this where dreams come from?"

Luna shook her head. "It is not the source of dreams. The Nexus of Dreams is The Dream. Everything here is part of The Dream - including us." At the other pony's blank stare, the princess scrunched up the side of her face in thought and then spoke slowly as if she were simplifying the explanation as much as possible. "It is the embodiment of every dream that is, was, or ... shall be."

Applejack's eyes went even wider. "Yer blowin' mah mind, princess," she said. "Are ya sayin' that you can find dreams here that ain't happened yet?"

"I might - in theory," said Luna, laughing lightly, "if I had another couple of thousand more years to study The Nexus. I fear the future is revealed to me at the same speed as it is to other ponies for now, Applejack."

The orange pony looked around herself again before a seed of realization sprouted deep in her gut. "Wait, all them floatin' squares are other ponies' dreams," she said. Before Luna could answer her, Applejack trotted over to a green-bordered one that was floating by at her height. As she neared it, she could begin to resolve sounds emanating from the portal. She heard the distinct shriek and laugher of a filly and colt, and as she peered into the portal she saw the latter chasing the former around the yard with a water-spewing garden hose.

"Wait..." called Luna, raising a hoof pointlessly as the other mare dashed past her toward a blue-glowing portal.

"Hey, it's Rainbow Dash," said Applejack excitedly as she peered into the portal. "And there's ... what in the hay is Twilight wearin'...?"

Luna brushed the portal away with a quick blush and an imperious wave of her hoof. "It is impolite to pry into the dreams of others without cause," she said primly. She gave a flick of her head to direct Applejack away, but the other pony hesitated.

"Ah was just wondering if all them colours mean something," said Applejack.

Luna gave a curt nod. "They do," she said. "The red dreams are nightmares. I think you know what the blue ones are. Green frames are happy dreams." She swept another hoof in an arc encompassing most of the nearby frames. "I am pleased to see that most of them are in shades of green. A princess can learn a lot about the state of the kingdom from the colour of its dreams."

"Ah bet," said Applejack. She leaned slightly to her left and squinted past the tall princess. "What's that white square back there? How come it ain't one of the colours like the other ones?"

Luna winked and cracked an inscrutable, lopsided grin. "There is one way to find out," she said cryptically as she stepped to the side and indicated toward the portal with another quick motion of her head.

Applejack cast an askance look at the princess as she took the royal's hint and cantered past her toward the white square. The mare wondered if she would live long enough to understand the workings of this enigmatic princess. Had the princess not just scolded her for looking into dreams before tacitly inviting her to do exactly that? The moment that the orange pony peered into the white portal, she understood.

Inside the white portal stood a glowing, orange pony with a yellow mane and hat, standing on a stone plane and peering into a white portal in which stood a glowing, orange pony with a yellow mane and hat, standing on a stone plane... She turned excitedly back toward the princess.

"Hey, that's me!"

"Hey, that's me!"

"Hey, that's me!"

"Hey, that's me!"

The echoes faded quickly, but it still startled Applejack. She pushed back her hat and whirled back toward the portal.

"What the hay?"

"What the hay?"

"What the hay?"

"What the hay?"

Luna tapped Applejack on the shoulder, and when the mare turned, the princess held up a hoof to her lips. "We should move away from here," she whispered.

"...from here."

"...from here."

Once they had walked a few dozen paces from the white portal, Applejack dared to speak again in a hushed voice. "Was there somethin' wrong with that one?"

"No," said Luna with a shrug. "But the echoes were very distracting." Applejack snorted at that, but she walked in silence beside the princess for many minutes, taking in the sights as they went. After some time, it became apparent that the seemingly random gaps between the boulders and small buttes on the jagged island were actually part of a road ... of sorts. They stopped as they rounded the edge of a particularly large boulder, and Applejack spied something tiny and blue glowing in the distance.

Princess Luna frowned slightly as she looked between her companion and the small blob of light in the distance. The tall princess finally sighed. "Applejack," she said, "might I ask a small favour of you?"

"Ah suppose," said the orange pony aloofly. "Mah slate's pretty full right now, Princess, but ah might be able to fit ya in for somethin' quick."

Luna's mouth turned up into a wan grin that did not quite make it to her eyes. "You are not the only pony with me in The Nexus this night," she said. She pointed toward the soft glow in the distance. "Little Thunder Wing is alone here, and I think he would appreciate a friendly pony to talk with for a short time. I must take my leave to attend to some important tasks."

"Aw, the poor little guy's all alone?" said Applejack, holding a hoof over her heart. "Of course Ah'll go an' keep him company," she said. The princess surprised the orange mare with a respectful, spread-wing bow of thanks before launching herself into the dark sky.

It only took the earth pony a minute to canter over to the distant glow, which slowly resolved itself into a little blue pegasus colt as she neared.

The colt obviously saw her approaching because he was sitting motionless, eyes locked on her while he held a forgotten, oversized toy block between his hooves. As Applejack drew nearer, she saw he was building a ring around himself, taking blocks from a loose pile of them scattered around outside his little wall.

"Hi," she said, stopping just outside of the colt's construction.

"You're not Princess Luna," said Thunder Wing. Now that she could see him up close, Applejack noted that the colt was a slightly lighter shade of blue than Rainbow Dash, with a tawny mane.

The mare doffed her hat and knelt politely on one leg. "Applejack, at yer service," she said. "The princess had some things to do and asked me to come and keep ya company for a bit."

"Hello Applejack," said Thunder Wing in a very somber tone. He put his brick on one of the lower parts of his wall, frowned at it critically and then bumped it a couple of inches to the left. "Are you dreaming too?"

"Ah suppose I am," said Applejack after a moment of thought. She had not really considered that earlier, but based on what Luna had said, it made sense.

"Will you help me build my wall?"

"Of course ah will," said Applejack. "Just tell me what ya need and ah'll get it for ya."

They worked together for a few minutes, with their only exchanges being about bricks.

"This one?"

"No, that one."

"Ya mean this one?"

"No, that that one."

Applejack helped the colt to complete two full rings on his wall before she paused and leaned an elbow on a medium-sized block. As she interacted with the colt, she was struck by his very serious demeanour. The mare was also a little puzzled by his single-mindedness about building a wall. "This is a mighty fine fort yer buildin'," she said, "but it looks like ya ain't leavin' yourself a door to get out," she said amicably.

The colt looked left and right around himself and then shrugged. "Naw," he said in the same, dull monotone he'd been using since she arrived. "I don't want anything getting in or out. It's my fortress of sol... uh, not letting anything in or out."

"Fortress of solitude," offered the mare.

"Yeah, that," said the colt, nodding solemnly. "Could you please pass me the block you're leaning on, miss?"

Applejack picked up the block and lifted it over the wall to the colt. "So, little pardner, are ya buildin' a wall to protect all them fillies from you, or to keep somepony out?"

Thunder Wing did not answer at first. He gave the block that the other pony had given him a long, critical look before he set it down beside himself and began rearranging some of the pieces already in the wall. "I'm keeping bad stuff out," he said finally.

"What kinda bad stuff?" asked the mare as she sensed a new opening in their conversation. As his fortress grew taller, the colt's armour seemed to be lowering. "It must be pretty big an' bad if ya need to build such a tall wall."

"The bad stuff that makes me sick," said Thunder Wing in the same matter-of-fact tone. "The thing that makes it hurt to breathe, and makes my tummy sore and pukey all the time, and makes it so that I'm too weak to go out and play and just want to sleep all the time."

"Oh!" said Applejack, clasping her hooves to her muzzle in horror, "ya poor little feller!"

"It's okay," said the colt. "It doesn't hurt when I'm asleep, and I sleep all the time now. I was having really scary dreams, but Princess Luna brought me here and I don't have them now." The young pony cocked his head and held a hoof up to his ear. "I think the wall needs to be higher," he said calmly. "I can still hear my folks crying."

If one had been listening very closely, they might have heard the audible sound of the mare's heart breaking. Though she was not one to shed tears, Applejack's voice sounded unusually thick when she spoke again.

"Thunder Wing," she croaked, "can Ah give ya a hug?"

The colt appeared to weigh the request. "Okay," he finally replied the same, flat sober tone. He put down the block he'd been cradling and reared up on his hind legs, holding his front legs up over his head.

Applejack reached over the block barricade for the colt, but in spite of her best efforts, she managed to dislodge a couple of the blocks with his rear hooves as she lifted him over the wall. If Thunder Wing was bothered by the unintentional act of vandalism, he showed no reaction to it.

"Ya poor thing," said Applejack softly as she hugged the little colt tight to her chest and gently rocked him back and forth.

"I hope this helps you to feel better," said the tiny pony. "You're really nice, and I hate to see you sad."

"This helps ... a bit," said Applejack as she clung to him tightly. The mare heard a soft scuff of hoof on stone from behind and turned quickly, still clutching the colt. Luna stood a few paces away, quietly watching the interaction of the other two ponies.

"I have returned," announced the princess needlessly. "I did not want to interrupt this moment, but time is growing short, and I need for Thunder Wing to accompany me now."

"Luna." Rather than releasing the colt, Applejack clutched him a little tighter and half-turned protectively from the tall princess. "He needs our help. There must be something we can do for him."

The shook her head and maintained a neutral expression. "I'm sorry Applejack, but everypony who can help him has done everything within their abilities. He is beyond the power of any pony to help him now."

"It's okay, Miss Applejack," said the colt. His voice was slightly muffled as the talked through the larger pony's chest fur. "I'm not afraid to go with Princess Luna."

"It's not okay," said Applejack, giving him a squeeze. "There must be something we can still do."

"Applejack," said Luna sternly. "His time in this dream is over. It is time for him to move on to the next dream."

"I don't like the sound of that," said the orange pony darkly. "What exactly are ya sayin', Princess?"

Luna tilted her head slightly, and her expression turned a little cooler. Her eyes bored into the other mare, and when she spoke it was in a slightly clipped, disapproving tone. "Applejack, you are one of the smartest ponies I have met. You know exactly what I am saying."

"He's so young," protested Applejack. "It ain't fair."

"It's okay," said Thunder Wing again. "You can put me down now. I'm ready to go. I'm not afraid."

The orange mare gave a long sigh and squeezed the colt a final time before she reluctantly lowered him to the ground. He shook out his mane, flexed his wings and then turned to address the dark mare.

"I am ready to go now, Princess," he said calmly.

"You can call me Luna," said the alicorn.

"I am ready to go now, Princess Luna."

Luna sighed. "Just Luna," she amended.

The colt looked perplexed for a moment and then shrugged. "I am ready to go now Princess Just Luna."

The princess blinked, and then in spite of herself, the corner of her mouth turned up into a grin. Even Applejack felt the workings of a tiny smile forming on her own muzzle.

The colt took a couple of steps toward the princess and then stopped, looking quickly back at Applejack. "Can my new friend come too?"

Luna looked at orange mare, and then shook her head at the colt. "No, Thunder Wing, I am afraid she cannot go where you were going."

"Can't she come with us part way?" insisted the young pony. "She can come with us until the part where I have to go on alone."

One side of the princess's face turned down into a frown, and she bit her lip with indecision as she considered the request. She glanced up at Applejack and then shrugged in defeat. "Very well, she can come with us until you have to go ahead on your own."

As Luna turned to leave, Applejack moved up to walk in stride with her while Thunder Wing pranced along between the two adults. They walked without speaking for a bit until the colt broke the silence.

"Princess Just Luna..." he began, but Applejack stopped him with a quick poke in his ribs.

"She meant that ya can just call her Luna," she said in a loud whisper.

"Oh!" said Thunder Wing. "Luna, what's this next dream going to be like?"

"I do not know," said the princess, "but it is said to be a place free of hurt and sorrow."

"Will I still be sick there?"

"No," said Luna. She glanced down at the little colt. "There is no sickness in the next dream."

The colt seemed to consider this, and he went silent again for a bit. "Will there be ice cream?"

"Yes," said Luna. Applejack glanced over at the princess because she was certain she'd heard the other pony's voice break slightly, but the other mare's expression remained neutral. "I am sure there will be ice cream," said the alicorn. She turned left abruptly and led them down a tight path that Applejack would not have noticed if Luna had not taken it.

The path was not long, but it wound tightly through the rocks and under a few oddly-carved stone arches. They were the first unnatural stonework that Applejack had seen since she had arrived in The Nexus, and she wished that she could have spent some time examining them. Shortly they arrived in a small clearing, a few steps from a low stairwell that led to an odd doorway.

Luna stretched out a wing and gently pressed it to Applejack's chest, stopping the other mare in her tracks. "We go no farther," she said. The three of them stood in silence for a few moments. Luna simply stared blankly ahead, but Applejack and Thunder Wing both took in the odd sight. A finely-hewn staircase rose up seven steps to a small platform, in the middle of which was a free-standing arch. The arch was lined with fine tracery and pictographic runes that meant nothing to Applejack. Light radiated from its centre, and the interior churned with a swirl of iridescent clouds.

Thunder Wing squared his shoulders. "I guess this is it," he said. He turned and bowed to the princess. "Thank you, Luna."

"You are welcome, Thunder Wing," said the princess with a polite dip of her head.

The colt turned to Applejack. "It was really nice to meet you," he said. He reached up and let Applejack give him a final embrace. As soon as she pulled him close, he tilted his head up and whispered, "I think Princess Luna needs a hug too. She seems really sad."

"Ah bet," said Applejack with a soft, dry chuckle.

As soon as the mare released him, the colt bounded off to the stairs and stopped at the bottom of them. He turned back again. "Princess," he said, "before I leave, can I wake up once more to say goodbye to my folks?"

"You already said goodbye," said Luna, "it is your parents who still have to say goodbye to you, Thunder Wing." Applejack almost missed it when the princess cast a quick glance at her before she addressed the colt again. "They will learn how to say goodbye ... in time."

"Will I see them again?"

"Yes," said Luna.

Satisfied, the young pony turned and slowly picked his way up the stairs, one step at a time, stopping to marvel at them with each pace. When he finally reached the platform at the top, he turned to face the two mares again. Applejack was sure that he was going to ask another question, but the colt simply raised his right hoof in a big, exaggerated wave and then loped through the portal.

And just like that, he was gone.

"Princess Luna," said Applejack slowly. She looked over at the princess who was staring impassively at the empty portal. "Will Ah be goin' through that portal too?"

"Yes," said Luna softly. She turned and met the orange mare's gaze. "Eventually all of us will, Applejack, but now is not your time. Not today."

Without warning, the princess's eyes flared as bright as the sun. Applejack let out a yelp of surprise and threw up her leg to protect her eyes from the glare. She blinked and peeked around the edge of her leg to find herself looking into the mid-morning sun that found a crack in her drapes.

Three things occurred to Applejack at that moment: the dream was over, she was in her own bed, and she had slept in very, very late.

To Chapter 4: Without A Leg To Stand On

Burning Fur Mood

Story: The Apple of Her Dreams (Chapter 2)

Chapter 2: Of Things Lost

The room was awash with the soothing, orange cast of a pre-sunrise dawn, but the warm light did nothing to tame the autumn chill that had seeped into it during the night. Applejack rolled over onto her back, pulling the covers up under her chin while she looked around at her surroundings. Something wasn’t right, but she could not put a hoof on it. The pony could hear the murmur of talk and clank of dishes filtering up from the kitchen, and realized that everypony else was already up in spite of the early hour. A whiff of baked pastry and apples from the kitchen triggered a sympathetic rumble in Applejack's stomach.

The smell of food overcame the pony's reluctance to brave the cold in her room, and she quickly pushed back the covers and rolled out of bed. The moment her hooves touched the floor, the same feeling of wrongness swept over her. The rough-hewn beams felt much too close, and the bed was taller than seemed right. Hunger was stronger than her misgivings though, and Applejack quickly cantered out the door into the hall. As she approached the stairs to the kitchen, the voices from downstairs became clearer, and the orange pony noticed there appeared to be more folks down there than normal.

"Do we have guests?" she thought as she clopped down the stairs toward the rich warmth and smell wafting up from below. It was curiosity that pulled Applejack down the hall to the kitchen door, but it was the shock of what she saw when she pushed it open that froze her as surely as a the gaze of a basilisk.

Granny Smith sat to one side of the kitchen, resting on her haunches atop a chair and rocking a crib with her left hoof. A tiny Apple Bloom lay in the bassinet, swaddled to the neck and lightly dozing with a forgotten pacifier hanging loosely from the corner of her drooling mouth. Gangly teenaged Big Mac sat at the table, giving his best effort to make short work of a hot apple fritter that had obviously just come from the stove.

It was the mare who was working the stove that stopped Applejack in her tracks. The pony was the colour of an orange creamsicle, with a curly carrot mane tied back by a green band. She turned at the sound of the door opening and beamed when her eyes fell on Applejack. "Well now, there's our little sleepyhead," she said. "You'd better get to the table quick before your brother eats all the fritters."

"Eyup," agreed Big Mac as he reached for another. The two syllable answer was about a hundred fewer than usual from the chatterbox of a pony sitting at the table, but the relish with which he shoved another fritter into his mouth explained his reticence.

Applejack felt her knees grow weak, and the two faltering steps she took into the kitchen required all of her effort. The filly struggled to speak over the lump that had moved up into her throat. "M ... Ma?"

The mare by the stove started, "Somepony's not awake yet, ah see." She grinned and patted her mane. "Is it the new hair band? Yer pa picked it up for me in town yesterday. He thinks green is ma colour."

"It is yer colour," said Bright Mac with a grin and wink at his wife. "As soon as ah saw it yesterday, my first thought was, 'this thing will really bring out her beautiful eyes.'"

"Stop makin' me blush," said Pear Butter as rosy tinge swept across her cheeks. She shyly pushed back a strand of mane out of her eyes and smiled at her husband.

"Yuck," said Big Mac. The lanky teenager hunkered down in his chair and tried to tune out his amorous parents by doubling down on his fritter.

"Pa?" Applejack's voice squeaked when she spoke. She'd forgotten how she'd done that when she got emotional as a filly, and she remembered now how much she'd hated it at the time. Any irritation she felt over it, though, was overwhelmed by the other flood of emotions. "Pa!" wailed the little orange pony as she launched herself across the kitchen, scrabbling on the tiles as fast as her short legs allowed. Her tears flowed freely and unashamedly as she threw herself at the yellow stallion and wrapped herself around his right foreleg. "Oh Pa, I've missed you so much," she sobbed.

"There now, AJ," said the bigger pony. He patted the filly gently on the back with his other hoof. "Ah missed you too." He wore a slightly perplexed expression and exchanged a glance with Pear Butter, who returned his look with a bemused grin. "Did somepony have a long night?" He lifted up the clingy filly and plopped her on the kitchen chair at the end of the table.

"N - no," said Applejack, wiping a tear from her eye with a little hoof. "You and Ma - y'all have been gone for years!"

"You're a mite confused little J," said Bright Mac with a chuckle, using a nickname that Applejack hadn't heard in many years. He gave the little orange pony's mane a gentle tussle with his hoof. "We ain't left here yet. We ain't goin' for a bit." The larger pony reached over the filly's head and snagged a fresh fritter from the pile on the table. "Ah think what somepony needs is some of her ma's delicious vittles."

Applejack opened her mouth to protest, but the only sound she managed was "umph" as the big pony jammed a fritter into her maw. She sniffled back more tears, but the fritter was every bit as delicious as she remembered, and it did make her feel a little better. The filly held the fritter up with two hooves and slowly nibbled on it while she drank in the kitchen with her eyes.

Granny Smith's mouth was twisted into a frown of disapproval while she rocked the crib and looked back and forth between her daughter-in-law and her son. "Still ain't sure why y'all are wastin' yer time going' all the way up to Appleloosa."

"We're headin' up to the apple auction, Ma," replied Bright Mac. "We've been through this already; we're takin' some cider with us. There ain't no harm in explorin' a new market, is there?"

Granny Smith's frown deepened and she shook her head. "We're already at full capacity for cider," she said sourly. "There ain't any point in goin' after new markets when we can barely keep up with the one we've already got. We can only press so many apples - at least until Applejack is old enough to start pressin' them too."

Applejack sat motionless in her chair, still holding the fritter in her mouth and occasionally chewing when she remembered to do so. Her gaze wandered back and forth between Granny Smith and her dad as the conversation played out. She could not put her hoof on it, but the whole scene had an eerie feeling of familiarity to it. She noticed that Pear Butter had stopped fussing over the stove and was also watching the exchange.

The two parent ponies exchanged a knowing glance, and Pear Butter took a step away from the stove. "One of the sellers up there is gonna be showing off an automatic apple press, Granny Smith..." she said tentatively.

"Ah knew it!" thundered the elder pony triumphantly, but before she could continue, Apple Bloom woke from the shout and began to fuss. "There, there. Shush, now, it's all right sweetie," said Granny Smith as she urgently rocked the basinet until the foal settled down again and gave a soft snore.

"Ah knew it," said Granny Smith in a hoarse, stage whisper. "Y'all know my feelings on them infernal contraptions. That ain't the way we Apples make our cider." She started to make a spitting motion, but cast an aside glance at the sleeping foal and aborted the move.

"We wouldn't be changin' our family recipe," said Bright Mac quickly. "But we could make more cider if we could squeeze the apples a bit faster is all."

Granny Smith was not the least bit placated by his words. "Them things is dangerous," she said darkly. "I saw one take a pony's leg clean off when I was a filly."

"The machines have changed..." began Pear Butter, but her husband covertly waggled a hoof at her and jumped in quickly.

"We're just lookin', Ma," he said in a soothing tone. "There ain't no harm in that. You know we wouldn't buy something like this without yer say-so."

"Well, you kids look all ye want," she replied, "but y'all know mah feelins' on them things."

Applejack finally swallowed the mouthful of fritter she'd been working on and spoke up. "Pa," she said, "If y'all ain't buyin' nothin', then why do y'all have to go up there?"

Bright Mac laughed, and jostled the filly's cheeks gently with his hooves. "Ah swear, AJ, you sure do sound like yer Granny some days."  He gave the little orange pony a reassuring smile. "Ponies from all over Equestria come to the big apple auction up in Appleloosa, and there are some of them that have probably never tried our cider." He ruffled her mane again. "Someday you'll be old enough to start pressin' apples, and we'll need a hoof in a bigger market."

Applejack took another reluctant bite of the fritter and let her expression broadcast the disapproval she felt.

"Aw, little darlin'," he said with a placating half-grin. "We'll only be gone a couple of days." Bright Mac removed his hat and gently placed it on the filly's head. It hung up briefly on her mane before it slid right down over her much smaller skull, encasing her entire noggin along with both her hooves and the fritter she was holding. "You get to be the hat of the house while we're gone."

"Hey, what about me," said Big Mac petulantly.

"You'll be too busy bein' the man of the house," said Pear Butter soothingly. "Somepony's got to make sure AJ gets to school and back home again." She walked up behind Big Mac and deposited a final platter of fresh fritters on the table. As the teenager reached for them, his mother kissed him on the cheek.

Bright Mac laughed as the colt frowned and frantically rubbed the offended cheek. "You just wait, boy," he chuckled. "It won't be too long and you'll be reactin' pretty different to the kiss of a pretty gal." He walked around the table to his son's side and held up a high-hoof which his son returned with a solid "clop". The bigger pony grinned, and then his expression turned more serious and he gave his son a light hoof-punch on the shoulder. "Yer ma is right, though. A hat's just a hat; we'll be countin' on you when we're gone. Take care of both yer sisters, and help Granny Smith keep the farm runnin'."

Applejack was holding up the aforementioned hat with both front hooves under its brim while she watched the exchange across the table. Big Mac glanced her way and stuck out his tongue at his little sister when he caught her gaze.

"All right, Pa," said Big Mac, who appeared to be feeling somewhat mollified by his father's pep talk. "When are y'all comin' back?"

"Well," said Pear Butter, who was shrugging into her travel tack, "the wagon's all loaded, so if we get on the road right away, the plan is to be back in four days."

"I'll be hoppin' mad if you come home with one of them infernal contraptions in your cart," said Granny Smith in a tone that left no doubt about the potentially dire consequences.

Bright Mac laughed. "Ma, I promise you won't see us comin' back up the drive with any surprises in the cart." He looped around the table to Applejack while Pear Butter came around to her other side. Both parents lifted the hat and kissed her simultaneously on each cheek before dropping the lid back in place. "Same thing applies to you as yer brother, sweetie," said the stallion. "You do whatever Granny Smith tells ya."

"Darned tootin'," agreed the old mare.

"Pa," said Applejack, "I love you, Pa. You too, Ma."

"Aw shucks, AJ, we both know that," said Bright Mac, but both of her parents beamed anyway. The stallion turned and bowed to his wife. "And now, my dear, the road calls to us." He clopped over to the front door and tossed it wide, stopping just inside the sill to fling his travel pack over his shoulder. As he stepped out into the early dawn, Applejack felt a knot form in her stomach.

"Pa, wait," she called. "Ya forgot to say, 'Chill me a cider 'cuz I'll be back in five bushels of bucks.'"

Pear Butter paused at the threshold of the doorway and looked back at the filly. Her expression wavered and then turned sad. "Oh Applejack," she said softly with a sad smile. "Ya know we won't be back." Before the filly could respond, her mother stepped out the door and kicked it shut behind herself.

"Wait!" Applejack jumped down from her seat and galloped blindly toward the door as quickly as her short legs could bear her without tripping over the enormous hat. She stood on her hind legs and fumbled with the handle, tugging it once and flinging the door wide. The orange mare stepped out into the front walk to find it empty. Behind her, she felt the kitchen grow empty and cold. Applejack tugged the brim on both sides of her hat down hard and hiccoughed once. "...not again," she whimpered. No tears escaped the mare - she had cried herself out of them years before - but she slowly removed the hat and clutched it to her chest with one hoof. "Not again."

The orange pony slapped the hat back on her head before slowly drawing and releasing a long, shuddering breath. When she had her composure back, she shook a hoof at the sky.

"This ain't fair, and it ain't right!" she yelled. "Princess, this wasn't the least bit funny!"

No answer came, save the rustle of a breeze through the groves surrounding the house. Applejack stamped a hoof angrily and yelled. "LUNA!"

This time there was a response. The sunrise rippled, and a jagged dark line split the world from horizon to zenith. The scene before Applejack distorted and tore as if reality itself was coming apart like a curtain, and when the mare squinted she could see twinkling of small lights in the darkness. The flickers were momentarily occluded by a deeper darkness before the princess of the night stepped daintily through the rift and into the wan glow of dawn. Although the breeze had stopped at the same moment as the dark tear appeared, her black mane and tail tossed and weaved under their own power, merging into the blackness behind her.

"I came when I heard your call, Applejack. What troubles you?"

"This dream troubles me a lot," replied the other mare angrily. "That was downright dirty, princess."

A frown teased Luna's face, and her eyes glowed briefly. "Oh dear," she said as the glow faded again. "I am sorry, Applejack, but that dream was not of my making."

"What?" demanded the flabbergasted pony, "are ya sayin' that was a product of my own mind?"

Luna nodded. "I fear so. I was called away for something important, so I returned control of your dreams to you. If I had been paying attention, I could have intervened earlier." The princess regarded the orange mare for a moment and then continued. "Your dream did not present itself to me as a nightmare."

Applejack thought about that in silence for several long moments. "Well, it wasn't really a nightmare, ah guess..." she said slowly, "but it ain't a dream ah'd care to repeat either."

The princess's gaze turned distant as if she was considering a plan. "Come with me," she said. "The urgent matter is still ongoing, and I cannot promise that I will be able to intervene if this dream continues, or another like it begins." The dark mare turned and took a step back toward the darkness.

"Follow you in ... there?" said Applejack hesitantly as she eyed the black portal dubiously.

"If you follow me," said Luna, looking back at the other pony with a mischievous grin, "then in there is where we will be going."

Applejack swallowed down another lump that had formed in her throat. The mare took a last look around her at the familiar setting of her dreamscape, and then after a first hesitant step, she followed the tall princess into the darkness.

To Chapter 3: The Nexus Of Dreams

Burning Fur Mood

Story: The Apple of Her Dreams (Chapter 1)

Chapter 1: Buck Luck

Even though the wooden buckets hanging from it were empty, the yoke weighed heavily on Applejack's shoulders. She was tired and a little sore from a full day of harvesting apples, but it was the kind of aches and weariness that felt right for a working pony like herself. The burn of her fatigued muscles reminded the mare that she had put in an honest day's labour.

The last tree of the evening loomed before her with its lush leaves rustling in the wind, and its branches drooped slightly under the weight of ripe, red apples. The pony halted a few steps from the trunk and knelt before it, not in reverence, but to shimmy out of her yoke. She wiggled free of its grip and then stood again, twisting her neck to elicit an appreciable pop from its joints as she rose.

"All right, tree," said the orange pony. "Here's the way I see it. I'm about out of bucks to give today, so there are two options; you drop your apples now and save yourself some bruised bark, or we can do it the hard way." She pawed the ground with a hoof and finished with, "Ah aim to end this one way or the other ... if you catch my drift."

The tree responded by standing firm and mute, as trees are prone to do. The nearest thing that Applejack could interpret as a reply from it was a rustle of wind through its leaves, and a dapple of late-afternoon sunshine shimmering through its canopy. The pony snorted and cocked her hat forward on her head. "Ah figured that would be your answer," she said grimly. "Okay then, it looks like we'll have to do this the hard buckin' way."

The farm pony reached out one of her mud-encrusted hooves and scratched an almost imperceptible X in the bark near the base of the tree.  After a quick inspection and nod at her choice, she turned and expertly unloaded a thunderous two-hoofed kick to the centre of the X. The tree shuddered under the blow, and though it rained down a few leaves, all of the apples remained firmly attached to their branches and merely bobbed tantalisingly over her head.

Applejack frowned with disapproval as the shaking tree gradually stilled, and a single apple partially detached. The lone fruit looked for a moment like it was going to drop, going as far as to slowly twist around one-hundred and eighty degrees on its thread of remaining stem before it stopped.

"Really?!" Applejack cocked her head and grimaced up at the lone, taunting fruit. She wanted the other apples as well, but this one had made it personal. The pony sighed and wound up for another kick. "Ah just want this done with so I can go have myself a nice, hot shower," she said wistfully.  As the mare readied for her next kick, Applejack closed her eyes and imagined the steamy heaven under a jet of nearly-scalding water. She could almost feel it already blasting away the aches and muck of a long day.

It was Rarity who had introduced the orange mare to one of the few decadent indulgences that the farm pony allowed herself.  The unicorn had all-but kidnapped the earth pony one day and dragged her - protesting the whole way - to the spa in town where they had (in the unicorn's words), "The most glorious showers. Trust me, dahling, this shower will leave you feeling - and smelling - much better than washing in the creek like an uncivilized churl."

Rarity had spoken truly, and the next day Applejack had marched into town and returned with a contractor pony that specialized in shower installation. Granny Smith had objected at first ("What next - flush toilets? Don't go soft on us, Applejack!"), but the elderly mare came around quickly, and showed that she could drain the hot water tank like nopony else on the farm.

Applejack could picture the shower in her mind's eye. Rarity was there. The white unicorn was standing under the hot blast of water with her head thrown back, and her pert mouth opened daintily in absolute bliss. Strands of purple mane draped alluringly over her silken white shoulders, while rivulets of water coursed down through the thick, foamy shampoo on her chest. A cloud of steam rose up around the white mare and time slowed down as she shook her head, fanning out her lustrous mane and sending up a spray of water. The ivory pony glanced over at Applejack out of the corner of a shockingly blue eye and beckoned the other mare over with a shy smile.

In her time-dilated vision, Applejack saw herself slowly sliding into the frame from the left, with hooves gliding effortlessly along the tile, plowing a row through the standing water. She watched herself gracefully hip-check the white pony and send her sailing out of the frame with an adorable expression of shock and despair as her perfectly-manicured hooves scrabbled for traction.

"Applejack!"

"Sorry, Rarity, but this is a one-pony shower," cooed Applejack as the gloriously sweltering blast of water knocked the hat from her head and hammered on her tired shoulders like a hot masseuse.

"Applejack!" repeated the voice that, on further reflection, sounded nothing like Rarity.

"Not now, Apple Bloom. Yer big sis is havin' a moment," said Applejack without opening her eyes.

"Can you have yer moment later? We need ya at the house," insisted the filly. "Miss Rarity is there."

Applejack turned to address her sister. She blinked when she noticed that Apple Bloom seemed to be occupying the same space as the tree had been earlier. "She ain't usin' our shower, is she?"

"What? No," said Apple Bloom, casting her sister an odd look. "Leastwise, ah don't think so - why would she be doin' that?"

"No reason," said Applejack quickly. She rubbed one of her aching shoulders. "So why is Rarity at the house?"

"She came out to do some final fittin' on yer dress for tomorrow," said Apple Bloom in a tone that made it clear she didn't think she should have to be explaining this to her sister.

"She's fittin' my... what now?" The shower in Applejack's imagination abruptly turned cold. "Why would Rarity be fittin' me for a dress?"

Apple Bloom let out a short groan of frustration. "Ugh. It's for the family hoedown at the school tomorrow. You remember; the one you promised you'd go to with me because Big Mac ain't much for wearin' dresses these days?"

Applejack frowned. "Ah remember the hoedown," she said, "but not the part about it bein' tomorrow." The mare pushed her hat back with a hoof as she thought. "Ah don't remember nothing' about a dress. You know I ain't much one for gettin' up all fancy and stuff, and ah don't think I'd have agreed to that."

"It was all right in the waiver you signed," said Apple Bloom. Her voice cracked in frustration. "The one I brought home from school for you to sign so that me an' you could go to the hoedown."

"What waiver? Ah didn't sign no waiver ... did I?"

"Wrong, sis, wrong," said Apple Bloom tersely. The filly whipped out a coiled scroll and gave it a shake to unfurl the lengthy waiver. The impressively long parchment unrolled between Applejack's legs and continued unrolling behind her. The filly popped on a pair of wire-rimmed reading glasses and two-hoofed through the scroll before stopping to point at a section near its middle. "Under Section Thirty-Seven B of the waiver, signed by one Applejack, it states quite clearly that all mares shall dress appropriately for the hoedown." The filly jabbed a hoof further down on the scroll. "You can read it for yerself sis, in this facsimile copy:  'I, the undersigned, shall agree to wear a froufrou dress to the hoedown in accordance with and as governed by the school fashion committee, et cetera, et cetera ... fax mentis incendium gloria culpum, et cetera, et cetera ... memo bis punitor delicatum!' It's all here!"

"Whoa now, hold up there little sis," said Applejack, glaring at her younger sibling. "You know darned well I wouldn't sign no waiver sayin' I had to wear a dress, and especially not a froufrou dress." The mare tilted her hat forward combatively and harrumphed. "There ain't no dress, is there? There's no hoedown, no waiver, and you ain't even my sister. Ain't that right ... princess?"

Apple Bloom tossed the scroll into the air where it vanished into a cloud of dust with a muted "pop." The filly's expression turned cool and she eyed her big sister critically for a moment before a flash of light gleamed in her left eye...

...and Applejack found herself lying in bed.

To Chapter 2: Of Things Lost

Burning Fur Mood

The Jack of Apples

There are a couple of characters whom I have somehow managed to avoid mentioning in any of my fan stories to date, so I'm aiming to correct that.

Since poor AJ was quite pointedly omitted from my last one, I decided to make it up to the girl with a whole story of her own.

I've put the wraps on the second chapter of what I expect to be 4 by the time it is done.

8<--------------- teaser below ----------------------

Even though the wooden buckets hanging from it were empty, the yoke weighed heavily on Applejack's shoulders. She was tired and a little sore from a full day of harvesting apples, but it was the kind of aches and weariness that felt right for a working pony like herself. The burn of her fatigued muscles reminded the mare that she had put in an honest day's labour.

The last tree of the evening loomed before her with its lush leaves rustling in the wind, and its branches drooped slightly under the weight of ripe, red apples. The pony halted a few steps from the trunk and knelt before it, not in reverence, but to shimmy out of her yoke. She wiggled free of its grip and then stood again, twisting her neck to elicit an appreciable pop from its joints as she rose.

"All right, tree," said the orange pony. "Here's the way I see it. I'm about out of bucks to give today, so there are two options; you drop your apples now and save yourself some bruised bark, or we can do it the hard way." She pawed the ground with a hoof and finished with, "Ah aim to end this one way or the other ... if you catch my drift."

The tree responded by standing firm and mute, as trees are prone to do. The nearest thing that Applejack could interpret as a reply from it was a rustle of wind through its leaves, and a dapple of late-afternoon sunshine shimmering through its canopy. The pony snorted and cocked her hat forward on her head. "Ah figured that would be your answer," she said grimly. "Okay then, it looks like we'll have to do this the hard buckin' way."

The farm pony reached out one of her mud-encrusted hooves and scratched an almost imperceptible X in the bark near the base of the tree. After a quick inspection and nod at her choice, she turned and expertly unloaded a thunderous two-hoofed kick to the centre of the X. The tree shuddered under the blow, and though it rained down a few leaves, all of the apples remained firmly attached to their branches and merely bobbed tantalisingly over her head.

Applejack frowned with disapproval as the shaking tree gradually stilled, and a single apple partially detached. The lone fruit looked for a moment like it was going to drop, going as far as to slowly twist around one-hundred and eighty degrees on its thread of remaining stem before it stopped.

"Really?!" Applejack cocked her head and grimaced up at the lone, taunting fruit. She wanted the other apples as well, but this one had made it personal.
Burning Fur Mood

Trashy Dining

As dinner approaches, we are torn between being too lazy to cook something at home, and too lazy to go out for dinner.

If we do go out for dinner, one of us (not me) insists that it can't be anywhere nice because they have not showered.

I put in a Google search for "trashy local dining" and it came back with interesting, seemly random results. A couple of the places are new to me, and look pretty decent.

In typical Google fashion, though, not one of the places looks trashy.
  • Current Music
    Homeshake - Every Single Thing
  • Tags
Burning Fur Mood

I think this cider may have gone off -- better try some more.

I've noticed that a disturbing number of my Google searches over the years have amounted to, "Is this thing I just ate going to kill me?"

I mixed some apple cider with tequila last night. I should have taken a hint from the fact that it vented gas when I opened the container, and that the colour had gone a little off, but I admit to being a bit oblivious about these things at times.

As soon as I took a drink, I knew something wasn't right. The cider had taken on a flavour that completely overpowered the tequila, and it I'd swear that it had gone fizzy. Naturally I took another drink and concluded that it had gone fizzy and off.

I dumped the rest of it, but in retrospect it was probably safe to drink - it had simply fermented because we'd left it in the fridge a bit long.

Or that's what Google assured me of when I checked to see if I was going to die from it.
  • Current Music
    Jerkcurb - Night on Earth
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Burning Fur Mood

Bucking up

Since I seem to be getting back into a semi-regular routine of posting here, I decided to buck up and buy a paid account. I've been happy with the service Dreamwidth is providing, so I don't mind tossing a few $ to support them. You can probably expect to see a few new user icons from me going forward.

I did a lunch experiment today to see how quickly I could turn out a fast, cheap, reasonably healthy meal with a minimum of ingredients. The idea came to me when I walked down to buy coffee this morning, and I noted that I would be walking right past the butcher shop on my way home. I stopped in there and grabbed a pound of their ground pork because it's remarkably inexpensive.

It was past 12:30 by the time I got home, so I wanted to make something as fast possible so as not to eat late enough to spoil dinner.

I grabbed the wok and peanut oil and set to work. I started by cutting a medium yellow onion into eight pieces, then I minced a couple cloves of garlic, and halved a half-dozen stalks of frozen asparagus. Prep work done, I tossed about half of the pork into the wok and broke it up, tossing it until most of the pink was gone. I threw in the onion and when it looked to be about half-done, I threw in the minced garlic. When the garlic was suitable fragrant, I added equal parts of tamari and mirin (I could have used soy sauce, but we are almost out of it, and I wanted something with a bit less salt). Finally, once the onions looked like they were about done, I threw in the asparagus and tossed it in the wok until the asparagus was heated through.

The result was very good, and very fast. From the time I got in the door until I was finished eating was about 20 minutes. This probably could have served two if I'd served it with rice or rice noodles, but I didn't want to spend the extra time, nor add the extra carbohydrates.

If I was going to change this, the only things I might do is add a bit more mirin, or maybe add a dash of five-spice.

Quick, reasonably healthy lunch
Burning Fur Mood

The Obvious

After rising before the sun and spending the next hour outside in sub-zero temperatures shovelling snow, I am left wondering again why I was so eager to own my own place.

If I lived in a condo or an apartment, the hired help could take care of that stuff and I could sleep in.

Anyway...

Somebody left a comment on my latest pony story, pointing out that Rainbow Dash's motivates were pretty obvious early on, so the twist at the end didn't come as much of a surprise.

This is true, because it was intentional. I purposely made her feelings obvious to everyone but Twilight Sparkle. The conflict in the story was Twilight Sparkle versus her own obliviousness. She was so focused on trying to find the right answer to her friend's problem that she was missing the obvious answer.

Though I got very little from the Business Analysis courses my employer put me through a few years ago, one thing that stuck with me was an assignment that our instructor handed the class one day.

He described a problem at an airport, where passengers were disgruntled at how long it was taking for their bags to arrive at the baggage carousel after their flight arrived. We were tasked with breaking off into groups to come up with solutions.

Later, we discussed all of the proposed solutions with the class and graded them on how much they would cost, how much feasible they were, and if they even fell within the power of the airport to implement; i.e., changing the way that bags are tagged isn't something that can just be done unilaterally. At the end of it, the instructor told us what the airport actually did.

They added roadblocks between the arrival gates and the baggage carousels so that it took longer for passengers to get there. Customer satisfaction ratings immediately went up because people don't mind getting from point A to point B, but they hate standing around and waiting. They reduced the wait times by increasing the travel times.

It was such an elegant and simple solution that it hadn't occurred to any of us.