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All the Time in the World · FiM Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Down to the Roots
The giggle tickled AJ's ear a split second too late. She was already pushing the barn door open by then, was already sliding the empty wheelbarrow into the cool darkness ahead, the afternoon sunlight already spilling past her to splash all over Sunset and Braeburn wrapped around each other on the hay bales stacked against the back wall.

AJ didn't even bother sighing at the sight anymore.

"Applejack!" Sunset leaped blushing to her feet, both hands brushing at her skirt and her usual apologies starting to stammer out. "I didn't mean to— We weren't— It wasn't—"

"Nunna my business." AJ aimed an eyebrow at Braeburn. "Long as this feller's got his chores done, don't matter to me what else he gets up to." She couldn't help pointing that same eyebrow at Sunset, but she added a grin, too. "Or who he gets up to, either."

Sunset blushed even more, something AJ wouldn't've thought possible, her face near the same color now as the darker swirls of her hair.

Even Braeburn seemed a mite sheepish, another something AJ didn't reckon she'd ever seen before. "Don't fret, cuz." He stood, tucking in his shirt. "You know I ain't one to skip out on my responsibilities."

Him saying that, AJ decided, deserved another arched eyebrow.

"Hey, now!" Braeburn held up his hands. "The whole time since y'all been nice enough to let me move in here, I ain't once done anything to make you regret it, has I?"

As much as she wanted to argue the point, in all honesty, she couldn't. He'd been a perfect ding-dang house guest and farmhand all summer long, or really since last spring break when Aunt Gravenstein had called and asked if Brae could spend the week at the Acres. That was when him and Sunset had suddenly become a thing, but even now, five months later, AJ still hadn't a single clue how or why or what.

"Fine," she said, rolling the wheelbarrow over to its corner and tapping the power of her geode to heft the thing one-handed up into the rack along the wall. "It ain't that I don't trust you, cuz." She turned and folded her arms. "It's just that I've seen you in action for nigh onto a decade."

"I tell you true, AJ." He pressed his fingers to his chest. "I'm whatcha call a changed man."

Sunset's face had faded back to her more regular custard yellow. "You better be, mister." With half-closed eyes and a little smile, she jabbed an elbow into his ribs. "Between the stories you've told me and the things I've heard, well, if you were still behaving like that, you and I would've had a short, painful, one-sided conversation by now."

"Y'see?" Braeburn leaned over and touched a quick kiss to Sunset's cheek. "I just ain't had a firm-enough hand on the reins till now."

"Really?" Sunset's eyes closed a mite further, her smile getting a mite bigger. "Is that some sort of pony reference?"

Braeburn's lips this time focused on the top of Sunset's ear, and from where AJ stood, he might've been giving her more a nibble than a kiss. "I understand you enjoy that sorta talk," he murmured.

Which was way more than AJ reckoned she needed to see or hear. "Supper's in an hour," she said, marching for the front of the barn as fast as her boots could carry her. "But everybody'll understand if y'all're too busy to join us same as usual."

Another giggle jostled her ears, and AJ stepped outside, pulling the doors closed behind her.

'Unnerving' was the best word she'd come up with. Ever since junior high, she'd always had to spend a week or three after wunna Braeburn's visits cleaning up whatever romantical mess he left behind. The way he coasted through life, his easy smile and down-home manners as charming and comfortable as a field of clover on a warm summer evening, well, he'd never broken any of her friends' hearts. But he'd certain sure bruised a few of 'em. Rarity and Pinkie still got a little wistful 'round the edges any time he was in town, and Dash's laughter got a whole lot sharper and edgier.

Not that AJ would ever call Braeburn a cad or a polecat or any sorta thing like that. It was just that he plum-well knew how good-looking he was, and near as she could tell, that was all it took to turn a feller into a plain ol' infernal nuisance. After all, even though AJ hadn't heard any details, she had heard through the family grapevine that it was some situation with a girl last spring that had led to Aunt Gravenstein decreeing that Braeburn needed to get himself gone from Appleoosa for a week.

Shaking her head at the memories, AJ started across the yard toward the back of the house. He'd showed up the Monday of spring break on the morning train, a duffel bag slung over his shoulder, that grin on his face, and his hat pushed back over that mane of blonde hair. And since her friends had already had their flings with him, AJ hadn't given it a second thought when the girls showed up Wednesday the way they'd all planned to splash around the crick running through the back part of the orchard where it met the edge of the state park.

Braeburn had wheedled his way into joining them, his apple-red trunks looking like they'd been specially cut to show off his supposed charms, and it wasn't till right then that AJ had realized Sunset and Twi hadn't had the chance to gain any sort of immunity to him yet.

Twi at least had barely given him a nod before spending the day happily wading around the edges of the crick and gathering up little jars of moss. But sometime and somehow that afternoon among the shade of the apple trees and the gurgle of the brook, Braeburn and Sunset had clicked in a major way.

A sharp crack made AJ blink and look down. She'd stomped her boot heel so hard into the bottom step leading up to the porch that she'd left a divot in the concrete.

She stopped, took a couple breaths, and added 'fix back stoop' to her mental list. As careful as she could, she took the other two steps and moved into the shade of the porch roof.

Romance wasn't a subject she found herself thinking about as a rule—watching her friends and schoolmates moping about Braeburn over the years had shown her how much trouble the whole thing was—but in the weeks following last spring break, even she hadn't been able to miss Sunset's unfocused eyes and private little smiles. More'n once, in fact, she'd hear Sunset chuckle or snort at some text she'd just gotten, and a glance over would show her phone glowing with that big red apple Braeburn used as his avatar.

It was about then, too, that Sunset had taken AJ aside after band practice and asked, "Would it be too weird for you if I maybe, oh, I don't know, started dating your cousin?"

"Weird?" AJ had blinked at her. "Sugar cube, that wouldn't be half the right word."

She'd seen Sunset was serious pretty quick, though, and then, well, all she'd been able to say was, "Go on ahead. But there's stories you'll wanna hear afore you make any long term plans."

AJ hadn't held back a single detail, and she'd taken Sunset to talk with Rarity and Pinkie and Dash and Tree Hugger and Strawberry Sunrise and Amethyst Star and the other gals Braeburn had carried on with since junior high. Well, the ones who were students there at Canterlot High, at least...

Truth be told, AJ'd been hoping for some shouting or waterworks from one or two of Braeburn's former gal pals. But even Dash had seemed ready to cut him a break. "Yeah," she'd said, "he was a jerk." And the smile that'd curled her lips had made AJ's face heat up. "But a darn skillful jerk, if you know what I mean."

Sunset had looked mighty thoughtful after hearing it all, but at the end of the month, Braeburn had called and asked if he could take the evening train in on Friday, stay the weekend at the Acres, then take the midnight train back to Appleoosa on Sunday. Granny'd said fine by her, and who'd showed up Friday night with her motorcycle all shiny and her leather jacket all carefully scuffed and her grin just about as toothy as Braeburn's?

Letting loose a sigh, AJ stopped again to wipe the concrete dust and dried mud from her boots before reaching for the back door. Braeburn had made the same quick visit the last weekend of the next month, too, Sunset showing up and either loafing around the orchard with him or taking him off into town with her. And the month after that, Granny'd started talking about Braeburn coming to stay the whole summer to help out 'round the orchard with maybe an eye toward transferring to Canterlot High for his senior year.

Nothing about any of it made a lick of sense to AJ. She'd even asked him straight up a week after Braeburn had settled into the spare bedroom, "Why're you taking up space here when Sunset's got a place all her own in town?"

Sunset's mouth had gone sideways and she'd done her regular elbow-to-his-ribs thing. "Go on," she'd said. "Tell your cousin what you tell me whenever I ask that question."

Braeburn had put on a face as innocent as a country choirboy, something AJ knew he'd never been. "A young gentleman staying unescorted at a young lady's apartment?" He touched the fingers of one hand to his chest. "That'd hardly be proper, now, would it?"

AJ couldn't help gritting her teeth as she pulled open the back door and stepped into the kitchen. All Sunset had to do was poke him in the nose with that magic rock she had hanging around her neck, and she'd know every stupid thing he'd done with and to every female he'd met since he was knee-high to a grasshopper! So why in the name of biscuits and gravy was she still—?

"Applejack?" someone said soft as a wren's hiccup, and AJ blinked to see Fluttershy standing in the doorway leading out to the dining room, her hands clutched in front of her. "You're mumbling and frowning. Is everything all right? Did I come on the wrong day? Is this a bad time? Should I go home?" Her head drooped, her hair falling around her face like a curtain. "I should go home, shouldn't I? I'm sorry. I—"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" AJ found her best grin and put it on. "Yeah, I'm grousing some, but it's not at you, sugar cube." She stepped to the sink, grabbed a glass, stuck it under the tap, and ran herself a nice cool drink of water. "Reckon I just forgot it was Thursday again already."

Draining the glass, AJ watched the worry drain from Fluttershy's face. "Oh, good," Fluttershy said with a sigh, then her eyes went wide again. "Not good that you forgot! I mean, good that I didn't forget! Not that I think I'm better at remembering than you! I just—!"

By this time, AJ had grabbed another glass, filled it, taken Fluttershy gently by the elbow, and guided her through the doorway to one of the tall oak chairs around the dining room table. "Set on down, darling, before you fall down, and wet your whistle, all right?"

The blush shining from Fluttershy's whole head rivaled Sunset's from earlier, but she was smiling when she took the glass and sipped it. "Thank you," she more whispered than said. "I...I don't want to be a bother..."

AJ wanted to laugh out loud at the thought, but with Fluttershy always more skittish than a bucket of squirrels, she decided to settle herself kitty-corner at the table and do some smiling of her own instead. "You? A bother? Now that's just plain impossible, specially with everything you do 'round here on Thursdays."

Fluttershy's blush was fading, but she still had that glow about her she sometimes got. AJ'd never seen it on anyone else, so she figured it must be something her friend had all to herself. "I'm just glad I can help." Fluttershy set her glass gently onto the tabletop and straightened with a giggle. "It's so much fun to do, too!"

"Can't argue with that." AJ nodded to the big purse she now saw on the floor beside Fluttershy. "If'n you're ready, let's get to it."

"Well, now!" a way-too-familiar male voice said behind her. "Sounds like you two got plans!"

All the color whisked from Fluttershy's face, and she cringed back in her chair. With an effort, AJ kept from scowling till she'd cranked her head around, but Sunset was already jabbing Braeburn in the ribs and growling, "Brae, be nice..."

"Sorry, Fluttershy." Braeburn's volume dropped a couple notches, and he moved in to take a seat across the table from her. "I's just always happy to see you here. Pretty much makes AJ's week, you coming out for these Thursday sessions."

"Really?" Fluttershy and Sunset said at the exact same time. Sunset settled down beside a considerably perked up Fluttershy then and went on, asking, "What do you guys get up to, anyway?"

"Or who d'you get up to?" Braeburn muttered, his grin just about a quarter step away from being something AJ might feel obliged to leap over and bust her fist across.

Fortunately, Fluttershy hadn't heard their previous conversation, and AJ was pretty sure she wouldn't know a double entendre if it came up and introduced itself to her. "Oh, it's fascinating!" Fluttershy touched the geode around her neck. "Applejack and I spend an hour or so every Thursday going through a different part of the orchard, and I use my magic to make sure the animals are only doing things that won't hurt the apple trees!"

"Huh." Sunset was nodding, but something about the wrinkle at the corner of her eyes made AJ think of the old scheming Sunset Shimmer. "Your idea, I suppose, Applejack?"

"Nope." AJ reached past Sunset to pat Fluttershy's arm. "Not long after we all got these here powers, Fluttershy asked me if I thought her 'talking to critters' thing might be useful 'round the Acres, and I sure as shooting did. We ain't had mice in the barn once all year 'cause she asks 'em nicely not to move in, and with the possums focusing on eating the cockroaches, I ain't seen a single big black bug in the kitchen the whole summer."

Fluttershy was blushing again, and the way Braeburn and Sunset were grinning across the table at each other like cats in a creamery, AJ couldn't stop her gut from tightening. "Of course"—she couldn't stop a lecturing tone from entering her voice, either—"if'n you two was ever here Thursday evenings, you'd know all this since I always insist Fluttershy stay for supper after helping out." She gave Fluttershy a wink. "Reckon Granny's cherry pie's the real reason we gets to see her ev'ry week."

Somehow, Fluttershy's blush got even deeper, Sunset and Braeburn's grins getting even creamier. "No doubt," Sunset said, more smugness behind those two words than AJ'd heard from anyone all month. "Still, I've got to say, Fluttershy: I'm surprised to see you taking the initiative like this."

That got AJ a tad bristly. "Fluttershy's fulla good ideas! If'n you'd all just take the time to listen to her ev'ry once in a while insteada treating her like a child, you'd learn that she—"

"Whoa, now, cuz!" Braeburn held up his hands, Sunset staring at AJ like she'd sprouted wings and a horn. "You're right, of course: absolutely right! Nobody expects li'l ol' Fluttershy to be so goal-oriented." He reached across the table and tapped a finger against Sunset's arm. "Specially when the goal don't know it's being aimed for."

AJ blinked at him. "And what in tarnation does that mean?"

"Oh!" Sunset blurted. "It, uhh, it means Braeburn's right about you being right, Applejack! " Her expression softened, and she turned to put a hand on top of Fluttershy's. "So how about Braeburn and I get out of your way and let you get to work?"

Starting to give as big a nod as she could manage, AJ stopped when Fluttershy put her other hand on top of Sunset's and said, "Please stay," her voice quiet and wavering all of a sudden. "You can come along. It's always so lovely out in the orchard, and it would give us a chance to talk about...things." Her gaze flickered over to meet AJ's, then hopped away again. "And...other things," Fluttershy finished even more quietly than before.

"Uhhh..." AJ had the feeling she was missing several things. "Fluttershy? You okay?"

The smile Fluttershy turned toward her had its usual glow, but AJ could almost smell a dusty sorta sadness there, too. "I am. But you wouldn't mind, would you, Applejack? If Sunset and Braeburn came with us?"

About to say that it didn't matter to her one way or the other, AJ had to stop again. 'Cause it did kinda prod at her middle, thinking of other folks being out with her and Fluttershy.

Which was another part of ev'rything this afternoon that didn't make a lick of sense. It was just their regular thing, her and Fluttershy walking through the orchard for an hour as afternoon turned to evening while they chatted about nothing in particular and made sure the various varmints who lived out there were behaving themselves. Sure, AJ enjoyed it—who wouldn't enjoy spending time and doing good, honest work with wunna her oldest and dearest friends? So why did the idea of sharing the time with anyone else get her feeling so...so—

She shook it all away, forced cheerfulness all up and across her face, and said, "The more, the merrier!" Then she thought of something else and gave an actual laugh. "Long as you two remember we're out there working and don't get to smooching ev'rywhere."

Fluttershy's blush came up pretty much the way AJ expected, but Sunset slapping her forehead with the palm of her hand and Braeburn folding over till his face lay flat on the table took her by surprise. "AJ?" Braeburn said, his voice partially muffled. "I ain't even gonna say what I wanna say right now."

AJ blinked at the side of his head, but Sunset leaping to her feet pulled her attention away. "Because we've got to get to work!" Sunset announced, clapping her hands. "Braeburn, you and Applejack go on ahead a little bit and see if the, uhh, if the apple trees are being disturbed or anything, and I'll come along behind with Fluttershy so we'll be ready if you need us!"

Which was how AJ found herself trooping out onto the back porch with Braeburn while Sunset helped Fluttershy gather up the purse fulla goodies she always brought in case any of the critters needed some bribing to do the right thing. "Well, now!" Braeburn was saying, kinda bouncing down the steps into the grass. "Them there magic rocks y'all picked up sure do come in handy, don't they?"

"Reckon." Talking with him when she'd usually be talking to Fluttershy made a sour taste trickle at her tongue, but AJ swallowed it. "They's tools same as any others." She nodded to the orchard and started across the yard. "It's up to us to use 'em right."

"Huh." He fell in beside her. "You don't think of Fluttershy like that, do you?"

Unable to believe her ears, she rounded on him. "You looking for me to pop you in the mouth? That what you're looking for?"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" They'd reached the tree canopy by then, the leaf shadows dancing over his surprised face and raised hands. "I'm just wondering how you feel 'bout Fluttershy! That's all!"

"And why's that?" AJ put her hands on her hips to keep herself from bunching 'em into fists. "You tired of Sunset? Ready to move on to the only wunna my friends you ain't tried running your grubby hands all over?"

"What?" Braeburn was gaping at her like a trout pulled from a river. "Fluttershy ain't interested in me! She ain't interested in anything like me! I seen that first time we met!"

For the fourth or fifth time that afternoon, AJ came all over with the slippery-mud-under-the-boots feeling of not being quite sure what was going on. Staring at him for a bushel fulla seconds, she finally asked, "What're you talking about?"

He glanced back at the house, still visible through the first row of trees. "Let's keep on a-moving, huh? What parta the orchard're we heading for, anyway?"

"'Round by the crick." AJ gave the house a look, too, and started away from it since she sure didn't want Fluttershy overhearing whatever Braeburn might say. "But I still wanna know what you—"

"I'm telling you!" He lowered his voice, the only other sounds around them the chirping of a bird or two and the afternoon breeze in the apple trees. "I know you ain't stupid, cuz, so don't get all riled at me if'n I ask. But...d'you know what a lesbian is?"

"Course I do!" The tickle of sweat on the back of her neck, AJ was pretty sure, didn't have a single thing to do with the air temperature. "But how? I mean, Fluttershy wouldn't've told you she was— Heck, she wouldn't've told anybody she was—"

Braeburn loudly cleared his throat. "Maybe you remember, cuz, how I used to be, oh, let's say, a mite indiscriminate when it came to my appreciation of the female form?"

AJ had to grin at that. "A horn dog, I b'lieve, is the term, ain't it?"

His gaze stayed focused firmly on the path ahead. "Talking to a gal, I can figure pretty quick if'n there's any chance there for me." He snapped his head over, panic widening his eyes. "I mean, I used to do that! No more, though! It's me and Sunset from now till my ticker gives out and they plant me six feet under, or she comes to her senses and decides she's done with me, y'know?"

The shiver in his voice there at the end pricked AJ's ears, and she reached out to poke him in the shoulder. "Well, that second one ain't gonna happen, not judging from the way I keep stumbling over you two all squished together 'round this place."

That got a smile from him. "But my point is," he went on, "a quiet slice of gorgeous like Fluttershy, well, I went all out to catch her eye the summer after seventh grade when the family and me came to visit. And ev'rything she gave me wasn't just a 'no, thanks' for me, but a 'no, thanks' for my whole gender. Getting to know her while I was dating all your other friends over the years—" He raised a finger and turned an open mouth toward her.

She cut him off. "Which ain't nowhere near what you're about no more: yeah, I got it."

He blinked, then nodded. "But there ain't a scrap of doubt in my mind at this point. If'n Fluttershy goes looking for romance, it's gonna be another gal she's after." His gaze sharpened. "That don't bother you, does it, cuz?"

"Me?" AJ's throat tightened; she had to give a little cough afore she could keep going. "What's romance got to do with me?"

"Y'know?" He'd gone real quiet again. "That ain't a question I can answer for you, AJ. Nobody can 'cept—"

Something rumbled ahead, and the ground shook underneath her like a wet dog. AJ lashed out a hand, grabbing the nearest tree trunk to keep from falling, but Braeburn weren't as lucky, his arms wheeling as he pitched over backwards with a shout. Purple light of a sort AJ'd seen way too many times lately glittered through the leaves, and without another thought, she sprinted forward. "Get Fluttershy and Sunset!" she yelled back at Braeburn. "Tell 'em we got Equestrian magic loose up here!"

Through the trees she darted, telling herself she was ready for anything. But coming out from the last patch of trees before the crick, she skidded to a halt on the edge of a big muddy pit that hadn't ever been there before and stared at the thing flailing around at the bottom.

A mole, it looked like, if'n a mole was as big as a mid-sized sedan and wore a pair of goggles. Sizzling bolts of Equestrian magic sliced the air around the giant mole, jagged purple and black holes zipping open and closed to show scenes of green, rolling hills or pools of water or cities where the buildings were all round and squat like pumpkins. The whole place smelled sharp and crispy like Granny's old rotating fan when it burned out, and gusts of wind pushed and pulled at AJ's hair from ev'ry directions at once.

All that in an instant, then voices were calling her name—Sunset, Fluttershy, and Braeburn, she recognized—the thud-thud-thud of boots and shoes coming up behind her. She spun to warn 'em from getting too close, but the rumble rattled ev'rything around her at just that moment. The three others, coming out from the trees, slipped in the quaking mud. Sunset went down with Fluttershy sprawling on top of her, but Braeburn tripped over 'em both, hit the ground sideways, and rolled right over the lip of the pit.

"Braeburn!" AJ shouted, but he was already falling toward the monster mole. A flash of magic, though, cracked a gash in the air below him; without even a gasp, he tumbled in, and it snapped shut, the purple light sputtering out like a dud firecracker and vanishing completely.

AJ wanted to shout Braeburn's name again, but she knew it wouldn't do any good. Deal with the craziest thing first, she reckoned, then she could work her way down from there. So— "Fluttershy!" she shouted instead. "We got wild magic tearing portals open all over the place and a giant mole flapping around down there! Can you talk to it, calm it down, let it know we ain't monsters, stuff like that?"

Fluttershy stood, her eyes wide and mud coating what AJ suddenly realized had been a real pretty white and yellow skirt and top. "I...I'm not hearing anything I can understand! I mean, its grunts and howls are just grunts and howls!"

Sunset was glancing around frantically. "Where's Braeburn?"

And not knowing how else to put it, AJ just told her. "He went over into wunna the magic rips! But we gotta get that mole to stop afore we can—"

"Braeburn!" Sunset rushed the couple steps to the edge of the pit, and AJ followed with Fluttershy right behind, the air filled with the guttural cries of the mole and the frenzied splashing of its big clawed paws.

"I—" Fluttershy came up beside AJ, her eyes wide on the mole and one hand clutching her geode. "I can't make out what it's saying! Why can't I—?"

"Those goggles," Sunset said, her voice tight. "It must be intelligent instead of an animal, so you can't talk to it." She shook mud from her hands. "I need to touch it, see if I can get any impressions from its mind of where it came from and where these portals might—"

The mole's stubby ears twitched, and it swung its big snout toward them, AJ suddenly realizing that its front teeth were each maybe the size of her head. Then its mouth opened, it roared, and it was leaping across the pit straight at them. AJ barely had time to grab Fluttershy and leap sideways before the mole was slamming fast as a speeding pick-up truck right past her.

Twisting in midair, AJ hit the mud and skidded with Fluttershy squealing on top of her. "Sunset!" AJ shouted, but the crash of the mole barreling into the nearest trees drowned her out. When she sat up, though, Fluttershy still clenched to her, she saw Sunset struggling to her feet a couple yards away along the top of the pit. "Stay there!" she yelled, and using the power of her geode to heft Fluttershy like she was a rag doll, AJ half ran, half slid across to where Sunset was standing and rubbing her shoulder.

The clattering crunch of trees getting smashed suddenly stopped, and AJ looked over to see the mole pulling itself out from under a pile of shattered trunks and branches. Shaking its head. it brought its front paws together, and purple light began wavering between its claws.

AJ couldn't keep her jaw from dropping. "You kidding me? It's got magic, too?"

"We need Rarity and her shields!" Sunset panted. "Or Twi with her telekinesis to crack a log over it! Or Dash to run around it till it gets dizzy! Or—"

Something sizzled overhead, a gash opening in the summer sky, and Braeburn dropped out like a sack of potatoes. He grunted when he splooshed into the mud and groaned when he pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, but AJ was just happy to hear him making any sounds at all.

Sunset jumped forward to grab him, AJ jumped forward to grab her with the arm not holding Fluttershy, the mole shrieked something that sounded like shifting gears without using the clutch, and purple lightning shot from the tips of its claws, AJ pretty sure them dancing, crackling bolts was gonna be the last thing she ever saw. Except she saw Braeburn's head come up at the same time, his wide green eyes flashing with blue fire, and—

And ev'rything just plain stopped: the breezes, the water cascading into the mud pit, the sizzling noises, the purple lightning, the mole, ev'rything.

Well, not ev'rything. Braeburn down on all fours and Sunset with her elbow crooked 'round his waist were both panting in the sudden silence like they'd run from here to school and back. The mud coating the back of Sunset's jacket felt cold and wet under AJ's hand, Fluttershy kept right on quivering and squeaking against AJ's chest, and the words came out clear and ringing as a ding-dang bell when AJ asked nobody in particular, "What the hay?"

"AJ!" Braeburn snapped his head around, the blue fire was still wavering up from his eyes like flames from a gas stove. "I can't see you, cuz, but I can hear you! Where—?"

By then, Sunset had scooted forward till she was smiling right in front of him, and his eyebrows shot up his forehead. "Sunset!" He threw his arms around her, and she did the same to him. "I don't know what happened or where I was or what all the lights were or anything about anything! 'Cept I knew I had to find my way back to you!" He pulled away from her and blinked. "But why's ev'rything all blue and cloudy?"

Sunset touched a quick kiss to his lips. "Hold that thought." She leaned back a mite, and her gaze came up to meet AJ's. "You two aren't touching him right now, but you're still able to move?"

Nodding, AJ looked at Fluttershy and realized she was still holding her light as thistledown in the crook of her left arm, Fluttershy's arms encircling AJ's neck and her expression a whole lot happier'n AJ could recall from any of the previous times they'd tussled with something weird and magical. "You okay, sugar cube?" AJ asked.

"Very, very okay, thank you," Fluttershy murmured, her eyes half-closed.

Swallowing against the sudden dryness in her throat, AJ forced herself to stay focused. "So, what're you thinking, Sunset? Braeburn fell into that portal and got magic whacked like Spike? 'Cept instead of being able to talk, he got so he could freeze everything?"

"What?" Braeburn squinted up at AJ, then turned his head like he was seeing the stuff around them for the first time. "I...I froze everything? And...is that a giant mole wearing glasses?"

"Okay." Sunset stood. "We can't be sure what's happening, but it looks like Brae popped us all out of the flow of time or something. So let's head over to the mole, and—" She cocked her head. "Applejack, you feel like doing some wrestling?"

AJ took a breath. "Reckon I'd better be letting you down, Fluttershy."

"Oh. Umm, yes, I...I suppose..."

Setting Fluttershy gently into the mud, AJ tried her ding-dangedest not to notice the way Fluttershy's hands seemed to linger, running cool and soft down her shoulders and over her biceps. Braeburn was rising slowly to his feet, too, his head still craning up, down, and sideways, when a clearing of throat drew AJ's attention across the torn-up landscape to Sunset reaching up to touch the side of the frozen mole's face.

A second or two of the unnatural quiet, then Sunset shook her head. "I was afraid of that. I'm not getting anything, and it doesn't feel the way it usually does, either." She blew out a breath. "I think we'll need to unfreeze everything before my power'll work."

"But—" Fluttershy clasped her hands in front of her chest. "My power didn't work on it, so what if yours doesn't, either?"

Sunset's jaw tightened. "Then we freeze time again, head into town in your car, Fluttershy, and round up the others. We'll have to unfreeze time to explain everything to them, though, and that'll give Moley here more chances to tear up Applejack's orchard. So that's one bad thing right there. And we don't know how strenuous flicking things on and off might be for Braeburn."

Braeburn snorted a laugh. "Heck, we don't know I can turn ev'rything back on again at all, do we?"

A chill rattled AJ's spine, but she refused to let it show in her face. "Hey, now." She put a hand on Braeburn's shoulder. "This magic's stuff's a piece of cake. Nothing to it at all."

"Uh-huh." He didn't look away from Sunset. "So if'n that's Plan B, Setty, what exactly're we doing for Plan A?"

"You, me, and Fluttershy," Sunset said. "We'll be back here behind the mole, all three of us touching and me touching it. AJ, you get a good strong grip around the thing, then when Braeburn starts the world up, you hold it in place while I try to get any information I can about what it is or what it's doing here. If I can't get anything, I let go of the mole, Braeburn stops everything again, and we—"

"But Applejack!" Fluttershy glanced back and forth between AJ and Sunset, her eyes seeming wider every time they came around so AJ could see them. "She'll be touching the monster instead of us! That means that if Braeburn freezes everything, she'll get frozen, too, won't she?"

"Umm..." Sunset said.

"'S all right." AJ straightened her hat and started toward Sunset and the mole. "Once y'all get into town and start turning time on and off to gather up the girls, I'll need to be here to keep this varmint from getting too rambunctious." She ducked under the frozen tangle of purple lightning the mole had just launched from its paws, reached up, and grabbed its forearms. "So let's do this, huh? I'd say time's a-wasting, but, well..."

That got more of a regular laugh from Braeburn. "Just think, cuz. I's never gonna be late again. But right now, Fluttershy, I reckon you and me need to follow Sunset."

AJ had her gaze focused on the mole's frozen grimace and was sorting through various moves she could use to keep something twice as tall and three times as wide as her from getting loose when a touch soft as a butterfly brushed her shoulder. Swallowing, she looked over, saw Fluttershy looking back, heard her barely whisper, "Please be careful, Applejack. I...I...I—"

"I know, darling." Not that AJ really knew; she just had some powerful suspicions. "We'll get this all straightened out, then have us a good, long talk, all right?"

Fluttershy's face stayed just as troubled, but she nodded and disappeared around the furry bulk of the mole.

"All right," AJ heard Sunset say. "Brae, how about if you try clearing the cloudiness from your vision? Holding your eyes shut or blinking them kind of fast, maybe wiping them on your sleeve or—"

And everything sprang to life, roaring and muscle and hair and a stink like seventeen or eighteen wet dogs all slapping AJ in the face. Gritting her teeth, she anchored herself, wrenched the mole's paws down, and heard Sunset shouting, "It's working! I can see that he's a scholar and a wizard and— Fluttershy! Talk to him! Quick!"

"Please, sir!" Fluttershy's voice rose above the ruction. "We just want to help you if you'll let us!"

The giant mole froze again so suddenly, AJ almost thought Braeburn must've pulled another whammy. But the chest just inches from her eyes was heaving with the critter's weird, earthy breath, and then it made some noises that were more squeaky than growly.

"Why, yes!" Fluttershy sounded so happy, AJ let a fair amount of herself relax. "I guess I do speak ancient moleish!" AJ let the mole go, took a step back, and watched with a grin as Fluttershy waved to the blinking monster. "Hello!"




Turned out the big mole fella had been traveling through another dimension of time or space or something like that—Fluttershy apologized for not being able to make it clearer, but ancient moleish, being pretty much an animal language, didn't have a lotta the words the mole needed to explain things.

What she could get from him, though, was that he'd gotten pulled off course by some sorta magic he didn't recognize. The force of it had popped him out into regular space and plopped him down into a mud puddle. Then these weird creatures had showed up and started screeching at him, and he just assumed he'd been waylaid by alien demons.

"Oh, no," Fluttershy told him, patting one of his claws, about as big as her forearm. "We're just regular wizards like you."

He apologized for attacking them and even dug the glowing purple rock outta the mud pit that Sunset figured was the source of the wild magic. "I'd guess it's something that fell through one of the fissures Twi accidentally opened up during the Friendship Games. I'll let Princess Twilight know about it and send it through the portal; they can deal with this stuff better over there."

"Uh-huh," AJ said, but with all the action finished, she was finding it hard to keep her thoughts from turning to subjects she wasn't sure she wanted to think about: Braeburn for one, and Fluttershy for another. So when the big mole said good-bye, ripped the empty air open with purple-flashing claws, and vanished to continue on wherever he was going, AJ found herself more'n a little sorry to see him go.

The others stood equally quiet for half a minute, nothing anywhere but the trickle of the crick water filling up the mud hole.

Then Braeburn spoke up. "So. Nothing to this magic stuff, you said, AJ?"

Sunset hooked her arm around his. "I think some experiments might be in order."

He gave a sigh broad enough to be wunna Rarity's. "If'n I's gotta donate my body to science, just promise me you'll hold me afterwards..."

Grinning, Sunset leaned her chest against his, wrapped her arms around his head, and pulled him into a kiss that made AJ's cheeks heat up. She looked away...and found herself staring right at Fluttershy, Fluttershy staring right back at her.

AJ opened her mouth to say something even though she didn't have one single idea what that something might be—

But Fluttershy was already dropping her gaze. "It's all right, Applejack," she murmured. "I...I talked with Sunset before everything started happening, and I know you...you probably don't feel the same way about me as I feel about you." Her eyes came up, peering out from behind her bangs. "Being friends with you is more important than anything else, so please don't let me mess up—"

"I dunno." AJ could barely get the words out. "I mean, I don't...don't have any idea how I feel about you or about, well, about anything romantical!" Her guts twisted like she'd eaten something she shouldn't've, but the more she looked at Fluttershy, the more she wanted to go on looking at her. "But you're smart and gentle and wunna my best friends in the whole wide world, so could you...could you take things real, real slow for me?"

Fluttershy's eyes had gone wide, her fingertips pressed tight to her lips like she wanted to keep something inside. She dragged 'em down to her chin, though, and squeaked, "You...you mean it?"

"I guess." AJ winced, pretty sure from TV shows and movies and books and the like that she was s'posed to be running over, scooping Fluttershy up, and kissing her. But even if she hadn't been covered in mud and giant mole stink, she didn't think she'd've been doing anything like that. "I mean, I like you, Fluttershy, and maybe it's more'n that, but I...I...I—"

"It's all right," Fluttershy said again. "We'll take things a half step at a time if we have to." She turned an absolutely radiant smile to where Sunset and Braeburn were hugging and watching. "This has been such a wonderful day!"

AJ couldn't stop a laugh at that. "So!" she said with a clap of her hands. "Same time next Thursday, ev'ryone?"
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#1 · 2
· · >>Baal Bunny
Genre: Applejack gets SunBurned

This one is tough for me, because romance, and especially slice of life, aren't usually my thing. But I'd like to think having an opinion from someone outside your audience can still be useful, so I'll leave a quick few comments. Plus, I get the feeling this is a rough draft of an entry into Oroboro's contest, so I would like to help if I can.

Story and genre aside, having AJ's accent in the narration—especially in third person—is a dangerous game. When you have her dropping words like "wunna" inside her own internal thought process, it makes me think that she legitimately believes that that's a word. I like the colloquialisms that you threw in there, which do make sense for an internal process, but vocabulary and spelling is usually something you want to get right unless you're going full Flowers For Algernon and want your character to be mentally challenged.

That being said, even AJ's southern phrases felt a little over-the-top at times. For example, I challenge you to find a clip of the show where AJ used the term "ding-dangedest" in any way shape or form. If you can, I'll eat my shoes.

I'd like to move on to your opening sentence: This may be a personal complaint, but I think it's another dangerous game to have an opener that isn't plainly written and to the point. I'm not saying it can be boring, just not confusing in any way. I'm jumping into your story with my eyes closed, after all, and from the eternal void I'm greeted by a rather abstract way of saying that Applejack heard a giggle that wasn't hers. It took me a few sentences to really put myself into the scene, and the first sentence should do as much of that as it can, if possible.

For the story itself... I hate using the word "shallow" because it sounds mean, but it works too well for me to mince words here. Because, literally, the story felt like it didn't go deep enough in several areas. And because it didn't, it was hard to get into, and the end result didn't feel totally earned.

There's three things going on here. There's two relationships, and there's a final struggle. The deepest one you go into here is the AppleShy plotline, having a full character arc for our poor romantically challenged farmer, but that's kind of all we get from it. There wasn't much chemistry, for me, to really get into this relationship, and I think that's because there's no real conflict between them. It's a little cutesy, how their pairing plays out; there's no banter, there's no real secrets, and nothing romantic backing up Fluttershy's reason for helping out on the farm. I mean, it simply makes sense, and sounds like something a friend would do for a friend.

SunBurn, meanwhile, is established from the start, and acts as a sort of supporting act to the AppleShy. These two have more chemistry, but even less conflict, so there again isn't a reason to get too invested in them. You certainly gave yourself room for more of a conflict between them, what with Braeburn's unflattering history, but this is only brought up as a retelling of something that's happened in the past (which is also not very engaging as it takes us out of the scene). But regardless, Sunset seems to have already conquered this issue anyway. That isn't a problem with the story, but it's just another thing that hasn't gone deep.

The final struggle with the mole, is a bit out of left-field, but I was okay with it. I liked seeing a problem for which all four characters were needed to find a solution. That's great writing. Fluttershy reveals that he's intelligent and talks him down, Sunset comes up with the plan and reads the mole's mind, Braeburn calms everyone down (both verbally and temporally), and AJ is moral support, because she's nothing if not a girl who knows her place.

But again, I have to say that while this is all fun, it hasn't really done much for the characters. It hasn't brought them anywhere or caused them to discover something about each other or themselves (time-stopping aside). So again, it's fun, but it hasn't gone deep.

So my suggestion is that you ask yourself what your favourite thing is about your story and digging much, much deeper into whatever you decide. Conflicts, chemistry, and lots of other things can be used to really grab the reader and pull them in. Well, this reader, anyways. But be warned, dig too deep into just one of these things, and some may claim that the other two things are a distraction. Make sure they're supporting the main story you're looking to tell, and not pausing it.

Now, if this is for Oro's contest, I think you might struggle to place, having Sunset's relationship take a passenger's seat to AJ's. Technically it's not explicitly stated in the rules that it needs to be priority number one, but, well... the judges will be looking for it. And if this isn't for the contest then pretend I just blew a raspberry at you for this entire paragraph, and then gave you a thumbs up.

But that's all from me. Best of luck in the contest(s)!

And before I go:

she'd always had to spend a week or three after wunna Braeburn's visits cleaning up whatever romantical mess he left behind


Phrasing!
#2 · 1
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There’s an awful lot of shucky-darn crammed into this story, Writer. Applejack’s particular brand of loquaciousness is usually at around a 7 or 8, and you’ve dialed it all the way to 11. It’s off-putting, and makes the story harder to get through than it needs to be.

Still, scattered throughout this sea of southernisms, there are a few choice bits that I liked quite a lot.

"Applejack?" someone said soft as a wren's hiccup


That’s gold, Writer, though I can’t fathom why AJ wouldn’t immediately recognize Fluttershy’s voice.

a dusty sorta sadness


Ah, poor Fluttershy. I know those feels well, and this is an excellent descriptor for them.

For every good turn of phrase, though, there’s a handful of examples that rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t want to harp on the overuse of dialect too much, as I feel you’re probably going to be getting a lot of that in the coming comments. Suffice it to say I had an irrationally poor reaction to the word “wunna”. It feels like a bridge too far - Applejack is nobody’s fool, and words like this seem to drag her down to an incongruent level of ignorance when used as narrative from her perspective.

Speaking of ignorance, I also have a problem with her being utterly clueless w/ regards to matters of romance. There’s an important difference between disinterest and just plain being dense, and Applejack definitely falls into the latter camp here. This is only reinforced by every other character in the story being fully aware of Fluttershy’s feelings and intentions, as though she’s not even trying to hide them. And I’d be fine if AJ was just not paying attention, but when Sunset and Braeburn are dropping double entendres and basically going nudge nudge wink wink say no more to her face, that strains credibility a bit.

I was a bit put off by the story suddenly taking a hard left turn into zany Equestrian Magic Oh Noes shenanigans, since the story seemed to be setting itself up for Contemplative/Angsty Feels Discussions. On reflection, though, having an external conflict also help resolve Applejack’s internal conflict was a good way to go. It just would have been nice for the external to not literally appear out of nowhere
.

All that said, this isn’t a bad story, Writer. I thought it was an interesting touch that Applejack didn’t see Fluttershy "that way" until after her feelings were made known to her, and then having AJ progressively warm to the idea (no pun intended). I think it’s been years since I’ve last read a story with Braeburn in it, and pairing him with Sunset is certainly novel. Tone down the twang a bit and maybe polish off the story beats a little more, and this could be something pretty neat.
#3 · 2
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Genre: The Incredibles 2

Thoughts: This all feels so random to me! We've got straight-playa-Braeburn, and SunBurn, and maybe-ace-but-suddenly-not Applejack, and then a guest appearance by The Underminer! Plus Braeburn gets powers! And Fluttershy can't talk to Moleman until suddenly she can!

Look, I love taking seemingly random concepts and playing them super-straight and building a satisfying story out of that. You could argue that I do a bit too much of that, in fact. :-p But I feel like this swerves a bit too wildly from new thing to new thing right now, which makes it hard for me to distil this down into what I'm supposed to take from it. What is the heart of this story? Help me see that through the story itself. I think maybe there's an underlying angle of Applejack needing to... open up to the concept of teenage sexytime? Is that what I'm getting here? That's kinda what I'm getting here. (Which you could argue is kinda insensitive to her if she's really not interested in that.)

Nevertheless, this is currently sitting at #2 on my slate. For all the stuff it just throws out there and moves on from, It's actually a pretty interesting read. I wouldn't recommend that authors should bank on achieving the X-factor of readability when there are things to shore up from a world- and character-building perspective, but nevertheless, I think this is immensely readable.

Author, please forgive me; I don't want to dump on your work. It's possible that I'm just not in your target audience. But I do feel strongly that a lot more time is spent reminiscing about Braeburn's sexy hijinks than on helping to develop his relationship with Sunset. It's clear enough that they're together, but why? Contrast this with Fluttershy's attraction, which I think you do a much more thorough job of presenting, explaining, and weaving into the fabric of the story.

Tier: Almost There
#4 · 2
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For the story, the conflict is very strange. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but Brae getting magic comes out of left field and feels contrived. I'm not sure the conflict actually adds to the story you're trying to tell. If you want the conflict to fit, you need to add something that it creates that wouldn't have happened had AJ and Fluttershy simply walked through the orchard talking.

Other commenters have mentioned this, but it's worth repeating. You have a problem with accent affectations in your writing. It's a difficult thing to get right (it took me a long time to learn it myself), and you have a lot of work to do to get there.

Here's a tip: if a character wouldn't write something on paper, don't write it for their words. Applejack wouldn't pen "nunna", and when anypony says "none of" it sounds like "nunna" anyway so there's no difference. So she should say "none of" like a normal person. She might write "fixin' to get", but she wouldn't write "afore".

Another thing is you seem to mistaking bad grammar for Southern speech. Nopony from the South says "I's" or "has I".

The real trick to doing affected speech is to rely on word choices, not word substitutions. Southern speech is hospitable: Applejack apologizes and uses more politeness than the other characters in the show. You should let her speech come through in ways that reflect her personality. This requires more effort and results in a more subtle tone, but it's what you should be aiming for.

bookplayer writes some very good Applejack dialogue. I strongly recommend checking her stories out.
#5 · 4
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Thanks for the comments, folks!

As >>Miller Minus surmised, this is the rough draft of the story I plan on entering in Oroboro's contest. I started three completely different stories after the contest was announced, but I didn't get more than a couple paragraphs done on any of them. Then when the prompt dropped here, I got another idea, threw this story together over the weekend, and submitted what might be the roughest thing I've ever entered in a Writeoff.

I've already rewritten the whole 2nd scene, am well into reworking the mole fight, and have all new plans for the ending. As for AJ's accent, I always overwrite it in my roughs then tone it back in the rewrites, but I've never thought of it as Southern, actually. To my ears, she's always spoken something more Appalachian...

Anyway, thanks again!

Mike