Part 7 - Grounded
The impromptu birthday party started to break up as the sun began to creep toward the horizon. Fluttershy gathered her brood, wished her heartfelt blessings on the new arrival and proud parents, and set off toward Sweet Apple Acres.
Caramel kissed his wife good night and left soon afterward with Tootsie in tow, smiling fondly as his eldest rattled off an ever growing list of things she wanted to do with her brand new baby sister, whilst internally bracing himself for the herculean task of getting the hyperactive filly to settle down to sleep for the night single hoofed.
Rainbow Dash took off with Soarin to pick up their saddlebags at Sugarcube Corner and then go find her old house among the drifting cloud banks over Ponyville. The rainbow maned pegasus bid a cheerful farewell to all of her old friends, save for Applejack with whom she only exchanged a terse, awkward nod before leaving. Soarin cast a lingering glance over his shoulder at the blonde earth pony as they vanished down the hall in a fluttering of wings.
Applejack left soon after, muttering about being behind on her chores around the farm. Her distracted expression only warmed up briefly as she paused to wish Pinkie her congratulations and plant a kiss on the sleeping foal's forehead. With a few clipped goodbyes to the others, she was gone.
This left only Twilight, Rarity, Apple Bloom, and Spike, who all bid Pinkie and her newborn a fond farewell and departed just as the diminutive night nurse was coming by to shoo them out.
As they walked down the hall Apple Bloom's weary voice broke their pensive silence. "Whoosh. I'm beat, and we didn't even get t' half o' what we wanted t' get done today."
Rarity replied with a shrug. "Well, as setbacks go I daresay this was one of the better sort. I suppose we'll just have to be there bright and early when the Mayor's office opens tomorrow."
Twilight flicked her tail impatiently as she swerved to avoid a patch of wet floor being swabbed by an orderly. "I just wish we could continue work on the flight harness. I'm all for getting the proper paperwork filled out, but there's not much more progress we can make until we find a test pony."
The three mares and their young dragon companion paused as an earnest voice called out behind them. "Excuse me, ma'am. Did I hear you properly when you said "flight harness" and needing a "test pony"?"
They turned to see a young earth pony stallion with a brown and white spotted hide leaning on his mop with a raffish smile on his handsome, coltish face. A shock of darker brown mane was contained under a white handkerchief knotted at its four corners, and his drab orderly's smock was rolled up at the elbows, revealing a light cast on the cannon of his left foreleg. His cutie mark depicted a mountain peak with a flag planted atop it.
Twilight's face lit up in recognition. "Pip Squeak? Is that you?"
He hastily reached up and doffed his headgear with a slight bow. "Why, if it isn't Ms. Twilight Sparkle, Ms. Rarity and Miss Apple Bloom. Indeed it is I, Peregrin Algernon Horatio Squeak, at your service."
Spike flared his wings and lashed his tail in annoyance as he sized the young stallion up. "That's Doctor Twilight Sparkle."
Pip bowed his head apologetically. "Ah, forgive me. Doctor Sparkle. I should have known a mare of letters such as yourself would have attained a P, an H, and a D by now."
He gave the young dragon a nod and a wink in greeting. "And jolly good to see you too, Spike. Smashing pair of wings you've got there."
He turned his attention back to the three mares as the young dragon preened at the compliment. "Begging your pardon for interrupting your conversation, but I couldn't help but overhear as you passed by, and in addition to what you were talking about sounding rather interesting, I also got the impression that you dear ladies were in need of some assistance, which as a gentlecolt I am honor bound to offer to the best of my humble abilities." He finished with a smile that seemed to throw off a glittering spark as it caught the light.
Rarity stepped forward with a twinkle of her own in her sapphire blue eyes. "My my, such a gallant offer!" She gave a bob of her horn to the mop the young stallion held in his hooves. "But I can't help but notice that you're already employed, darling."
Pip blushed a bit and nodded toward the cast on his foreleg. "Well, this is more about working off some medical bills than pursuing a career in the janitorial field, Ms. Rarity. Although far be it from me to impugn the brotherhood of the mop and bucket for the vital work that they do."
Apple Bloom cocked an eyebrow as she looked him over, the faintest hint of a blush appearing on her cheeks as well. "How'd y'all hurt yourself?"
The white and brown earth pony chuckled, stretching his cast bound foreleg. "Took a bit of a tumble off of a ladder, I'm afraid. Landed on a table and broke all four legs."
Rarity raised a hoof to her mouth. "You broke all four of your legs?"
Pip shook his head. "Not at all, ma'am. T'wasn't my table."
He cleared his throat with a rueful smile. "Which is why I found myself a bit short of funding after having to pay for it and the skylight, and for cleaning all the glass and soot off of a fine damask table cloth."
Twilight's eyes widened. "You fell through a skylight onto a table and they made you pay for the damages?"
At this the young stallion drew himself up. "I insisted. Only proper, don't you know. I was just glad that I managed to bring their kitten down from the roof none the worse for wear, although I daresay the poor thing probably didn't fancy the bath she needed afterward."
He shrugged. "Not much could be done about that. A fair bit of soot is par for the course when you find yourself in the hooves of a chimney sweep."
Apple Bloom's face lit up in realization. "Wait a minute, I've been seein' this cute.. ahem... I mean this new black stallion up on the roofs from time to time, always wavin' to me like he knew me. But I never did see him 'round town. Are you tellin' me that was you?" Her blush intensified as she cleared her throat and looked away.
Pip gave a chuckle as the young mare fidgeted. "Indeed it was, my dear. Me and a day's worth of soot from sweeping chimneys. I don't blame you at all for not knowing it was me. Me own Mum and Pop barely recognized me when I'd come home at night. Took a good soak in the tub before I was back to the old patchwork, so to speak."
The red headed mare shuffled her hooves self consciously as she took the chance to redirect the conversation. "Well truth be told I wouldn't have expected it t' be you in the first place. I thought ya left Ponyville t' see th' world, like ya decided t' do when y'all got yer cutie mark."
She nodded toward the image of the mountaintop pennant on his flank, her gaze lingering a bit before she pulled it away to meet Rarity's wryly sparkling eyes and knowing smirk. The young mare's blush became even hotter as she hastily redirected her attention toward the ceiling.
Pip let out a sigh as he replaced his kerchief and sloshed his mop in the bucket. "Yes, well, that all hit a bit of a snag, I'm afraid. To be honest, it's the other reason I wasn't too eager to show my face around Ponyville without a layer of soot covering the blush on my cheeks. I did rather make a show of setting out to make my mark on the world, only to come back with the world's mark on me, in the form of hoof prints on my backside, if you'll pardon the metaphor. Rather dents the old pride."
He gave a small shake of his head as he slapped the mop back onto the linoleum. "I signed on as a deck hoof with the Royal Blue airship line, and saw a fair bit of Equestria as I worked my way up to assistant steward on the T.M.S.S. Cumulous, but then the company started cutting their hospitality staff, and I was back on the ground with barely enough in my last paycheck to buy a train ticket to Ponyville."
The piebald stallion began to sweep the mop head back and forth as he gave them a wry grin. "It's ironic, really. If I'd just stayed a swabbie I'd probably still be sailing the airways. You see more from the steerage of an airship than you do from the tallest spire of Canterlot Castle. Of course, you don't get as good a view of the lovely ladies on the upper decks."
He cleared his throat and tugged at the collar of his smock as a blush flitted across his cheeks. "But here I am rambling. If you lovely ladies would excuse me, I've taken up enough of your time, and I've got several more hallways to mop."
Pip made an eager flick of his close cropped tail as he gave them an earnest grin. "I would rather like to hear more about this position you're seeking to fill. I'm quite keen on anything having to do with flying, so if you're going to be interviewing I'd be most grateful if you dropped me a line. I'm living at my parents' place on Pony Lane between the barber shop and the fire station."
Rarity glanced at Twilight and Apple Bloom before favoring the young stallion with a magnanimous smile. "That won't be necessary, darling. You're hired."
The moon was just beginning to crest over the horizon, a semicircle of silver against the cooling purples and deep velvety blues of the twilight sky, as two pegasi touched down on the terrace of a rather decrepit looking cloud manor with sun faded rainbow fountains and several years of haze clinging to the columns.
Soarin cast a dubious look over at Rainbow Dash as the chromatic maned mare took in the damage that time and neglect had done to her old dwelling. She gave a nervous laugh and tried to smile encouragingly to her companion. "Heh... Here we are, home sleet home."
She caught herself, blushing with embarrassment before hastily amending. "I mean home sweet home. Sweet! Heh heh."
The blue stallion raised an eyebrow, as Dash kept talking. "I mean, yeah, sure it looks kinda rough around the edges right now, but with a little work it should be nice and cozy. Come on inside and I'll give you the grand tour."
Soarin shrugged and gave a sigh. "Sure... Beats sleepin' in a cardboard box anyway."
He took two steps forward and let out a yelp as a patch of cloud gave way beneath his rear hooves. Rainbow Dash spun around with a cry of alarm to see the hapless stallion halfway wedged in the fluffy surface, his wings flared and his eyes wide in surprise, his girth bulging out over the edge of the hole.
His expression of shock and dismay faded to one of sullen indignation as Dash raised a hoof to her mouth to try to stifle a laugh. "You... you need some help there, S-soarin?"
He huffed and crossed his hooves over his belly, icily avoiding her gaze. "A little, yes..."
She set her saddle bags down and stepped up, a wry expression on her face. She locked her fetlocks with his, then flapped her wings and dug in her rear hooves as she pulled him loose.
Dash gave the sulking stallion a grin as she used her tail to brush away some stray wisps clinging to his haunches. "You gotta learn to look at the top side of the cloud, Soarin. Now that we know about that sky-rot, we can get some cloudcrete and fix it before the hole gets any bigger."
The blue pegasus gave another sigh as his gaze shifted from the damage he'd done to the terrace to his paunchy middle. "Yeah... Fix it before it gets any bigger..."
Dash blocked him as he reached for his saddlebags, hastily shouldering them onto her back with her own. "Uh... better let me carry those for now..." She gave another uncomfortable chuckle as he assumed a deadpan expression. "You're... um... you're my guest until I sign over the deed, and guests don't have to carry their own bags. Yeah..."
She fidgeted under his gaze as he pursed his lips. His voice came out flat and dry as he cocked an eyebrow. "You want to maybe hop check the floors inside before I go in? Just to be safe?"
The rainbow maned mare nodded sagely. "Oh yeah..." She blinked as she realized what she was saying and suddenly shifted gears, vehemently shaking her head. "I mean NO. The thought never even crossed my mind."
She gave him a shaky smile. "But I do want to straighten up the place a little so you get a better first impression than you've gotten so far. So just wait right here, okay?"
With that, she zipped inside, leaving him alone on the porch with a rapidly fading rainbow contrail. Soarin shook his head as he carefully took a seat on the spongy white surface, shifting a bit uncomfortably at the faint groan coming from the cloud deck. He rolled his eyes as the springy sound of a pegasus mare frantically testing the integrity of her floors came from the doorway.
Later that night, as the moon continued its journey through the twinkling night sky at the behest of its darksome princess, a lone earth pony mare counted softly to herself as she galloped a serpentine course around a row of barrels in a paddock at the edge of the main compound of Sweet Apple Acres.
Aside from the dim light of the half moon, the barrels each supported a firefly lantern, which illuminated them with a soft glow. One of the lanterns bobbled a bit as the blonde pony brushed against its barrel, cursing under her breath. She ran the rest of the course and skidded to a stop, lashing her tail in irritation as she looked back over her shoulder at the course.
She cocked an ear as a well known, sandy voice sounded out overhead. "Not bad, AJ. Not bad at all. That nudge cost you a couple seconds, though."
Rainbow Dash touched lightly down on the top of one of the barrels, the lantern at her hooves casing a glow on her cyan colored belly, neck, and chin that offset the soft gleam of her maroon eyes. "You'd probably get a better time if you had a full night's sleep. Just sayin'..."
Applejack shrugged diffidently. "Truth be told I was havin' a little trouble sleepin' tonight. Figured I'd take a couple turns at the ol' barrel run t' see if'n that'd help." She looked away from her old friend toward the dark, rustling shapes of the apple trees covering the hills of her farm. "I don't reckon you'd normally be up this late neither, what with your Wonderbolts trainin' schedule and whatnot."
Dash shrugged. "I'm on vacation right now, so I can break training a little. I just felt like going for a little night flight over Ponyville after I got Soarin settled in."
She fluttered her wings as she leapt lightly down from the barrel to the dusty ground, advancing on the blonde farm mare. "And speaking of settling things, maybe you'd like to tell me what exactly set you off today in the hospital waiting room. That wasn't exactly the sort of Ponyville welcome I've been talking up to Soarin, ya know."
Applejack snorted. "And the whinin' I was hearin' outta him ain't exackly the sorta thing I expected t'be comin' from a Wonderbolt. Y'all're s'posed t'be better'n that. Y'all're s'posta be th' best there is."
Dash was silent for a moment before she responded, a slight edge on her voice. "And you're supposed to be honest, so I guess you're callin' it like you see it, but you don't usually buck the tree so hard that the bark comes off."
The blonde mare drew in a breath, and let it out slowly with a chuckle at her pegasus friend's use of an earth pony idiom. "Yeah, I reckon you're talkin' straight t' me as well."
The tension in the air began to abate as she sat heavily down in the dust, looking ruefully at the row of illuminated barrels, and the dim watch lights of her farm beyond. "I guess all his talk about bein' washed up and a has been and whatnot kinda struck a nerve."
The chromatic maned pegasus sat down beside her and cocked her head incredulously. "What the hay is that supposed to mean?"
Applejack sighed, turning her gaze to the sky. "It means a lotta stuff, RD. Time's rollin' forward and things are a'changin'. I ain't gettin' any younger, neither."
Dash gave a snort. "You only just turned thirty, AJ. I'd hardly call you an old grey mare."
The blonde farm pony shook her head. "Yeah, but I still ain't what I used t' be. Do ya know how long its been since I pulled down a blue ribbon on the rodeo circuit? A couple years, and the competition gets younger and fresher every year. I'm runnin' against fillies half my age sometimes."
The pegasus mare shrugged. "So you do your best with what you got and have fun at playing the game. Last time I checked, you were a professional farmer, not a pro rodeo pony."
She wrapped a wing around her friend's muscular shoulders and gestured toward the trees rustling in the darkness. "And look at what you've done with your farm. Every time I come back to Ponyville it seems like there's a few more acres covered in apple trees with more and more farmhoofs workin' em. That's gotta count for something."
The earth pony mare nodded gravely. "Oh yeah, it counts fer somethin', it counts plenty, but sometimes I gotta wonder who I'm gonna pass it all on to. Like I said, I ain't gettin' any younger..."
This caused Rainbow Dash to pause, and she flicked an ear as she gingerly shifted her wing across Applejack's shoulders. Her discomfort was palpable. "Um... I don't think I'm qualified to chart that flight path, AJ. I mean, don't get me wrong. I love all the colts and fillies who come out to see the 'Bolts perform, but I'm nowhere near ready to have one of my own, let alone advise anypony else about that kinda thing..."
Applejack let out a laugh as she reached over and pulled her old friend tighter to her side. "Oh Rainbow, I ain't expectin' ya t' have an answer t' that particular question."
Her voice became wistful in the soft darkness. "Yer out livin' yer dream, leavin' hoofprints across th' sky as y' blaze that trail y'all were destined t' follow since y'all were born. Twi n' Rarity are th' same, shootin' fer stars we ain't even seen th' brightness of yet. As for me, I just seem t' walk in th' same ruts year after year, tending my crops like I always have. But what am I doin' it for?"
She turned her head to gaze at the sleeping farm house in the distance. "Three generations of Apples have worked this land. My brother's raisin' a fine family with Fluttershy, so there'll be more generations t'come, I reckon, but every new foal that comes into th' world makes me feel kinda like a tree that ain't borne any fruit."
Dash gave her a squeeze with her wing. "So I guess Pinkie's new baby was as much a part of your storm front as Soarin's moping, huh?"
Applejack nodded ruefully. "If'n y'all woulda told me ten years ago that Pinkie Pie would be raisin' a family that wasn't made up entirely of balloon animals, I'da told ya t' lay off o' the loco weed."
The cyan pegasus let out a chuckle, then became serious, reaching up with a hoof to gently pull the blonde earth pony's face around so that their gazes met. "Listen, Applejack. I don't know much about starting a family, but I do know about competition and I'm fairly certain you know a thing or two about it as well. And what little I know about raising a family is that it isn't a competition. You can't fly a race in somepony else's lane, and you only get yourself across the line flapping your own wings. Y'know?"
The orange farm mare slouched against her friend with a sigh. "Yeah, I know. I know. It ain't just me drivin' that wagon, though. Granny Smith..."
Dash rolled her eyes. "You aren't the only gal with a family, AJ. My mom and grandma are the same way. Some of the hints they drop when I go visit 'em are so big you'd need a full flight of weather ponies to land 'em properly. If they couldn't get me to do something trivial like take out the trash or clean my room, why should they have any pull about something as life changing as having a foal?"
Applejack gave a shake of her head. "Y'all don't understand. Granny's been really slowin' down lately. She tries t' make out that she's feisty as ever, but I can see signs she's wearin' out, fadin' like a photograph that got hung up in the sun for too long. Some days it's almost like I can look right through her. But she told me after Bud n' Blossom were born that she's made a vow not t' go to her final rest without gettin' t' meet every single one of her great grand babies before she does."
The rainbow maned pegasus sat and thought for a moment, then gave her friend a nudge, a wry grin on her face. "That really sounds more like your little sister's problem than yours, AJ. Apple Bloom doesn't really seem to be in a hurry to hitch up and build a nest."
The blonde mare set her jaw. "That's 'cos I ain't told her 'bout Granny's vow. T'ain't fair t' burden a young gal just startin' out that way."
Rainbow gave her another squeeze with her wing. "And it's fair to burden you? Listen, I'm gonna be as direct as a lightning strike here, I think you have a thing about taking on burdens whether you need to or not, like the world isn't gonna move unless you load it into a bushel basket and carry it on your back."
She laid a foreleg across Applejack's back alongside her wing. "I think Granny Smith was tryin' to reassure you, not lay some kinda weird guilt trip thing on you. Sounds to me like she wants to stick around as long as she can so she can enjoy whatever comes, not because you're somehow forcing her to. She wants to be there for you no matter what. That's what I call loyalty."
The earth pony mare sniffled and wiped the back of her hoof across her eyes, then pulled her rainbow maned companion into a heartfelt hug. "I really miss havin' ya around, Rainbow. Y'always know just the right way t' lift my spirits."
Dash let out a chuckle as she returned her old friend's fond affection. "Hey, I'm a pegasus. We know a thing or two about how to lighten up."
After a few minutes they disengaged and got to their feet, dusting off their flanks with their tails. Applejack met the pegasus' gaze with an earnest look. "I reckon I owe yer buddy an apology, huh?"
The rainbow maned mare's expression became thoughtful. "Probably, but I think more for how you said it than for what you were saying. Maybe it's the sort of thing he needs to hear right now. Just try not to hurt him is all I ask."
Applejack nodded. "Well, I reckon we can start fresh on a new day. I'll try t' be a little more patient with the poor fella."
She looked up to the moon, now farther along in its travels. "But unless either of us wants t'be standin' here jawin' when th' sun comes up, I reckon the both of us oughta skedaddle on t'bed."
Dash nodded. "Yeah. I'd better be gettin' back. If Soarin' falls through the floor again I ought to be there to help him get unstuck."
She paused, and gave Applejack one more brief hug. "I'm glad we talked this over. There's nothin' worse than bein' mad at one of your best friends."
The farm mare nuzzled her neck. "Yeah. Sure ain't. I'll see y'all tomorrow, RD"
The rainbow maned pegasus gave her a grin as they disengaged. "See ya, AJ."
With that, she lifted off and flew into the soft night sky, as a smiling Applejack made her way along the line of barrels, releasing the fireflies from the lanterns to drift away on the gentle breeze that rustled the apple trees.
The characters depicted in this fiction are copyright and trademarks of Hasbro, Inc. This is a work of fan fiction, and the author makes no claim on Hasbro's copyright or trademarks.