Big Macintosh leaned against the gate to Sweet Apple Acres, scratching his flank with the posts as he waited.
Caramel was late.
This wasn’t much of a surprise. The earth pony had shown up every day to help with the harvest of the latest apple crop, and every day he’d dragged himself to the house with a different tale of woe. It had gotten to the point where Big Mac had stumbled across some of the hired help taking bets on what had gone wrong for him that day.
A slow stare from the biggest pony in Ponyville had set them back to work, but Big Macintosh reckoned they had a point. Poor Caramel was the unluckiest pony in the town, and probably all of Equestria.
Even so, for Caramel to be late today was, if not precisely a surprise, at least disappointing. Despite how exuberant he’d been at the prospect of going out on the town with Big Macintosh, Caramel was still at heart a klutz.
The interesting thing about him, though, was that no matter how frequent the disaster, or how outrageous the claim, what he said happened was exactly what had happened.
Parasprites ate all the food he was delivering? They were still perched on the tables, munching away.
A piano fell on him? Derpy Hooves was out making deliveries and forgot to latch the back of the cart.
On reflection, wondered Big Mac, perhaps he should have thought twice about agreeing to this little get-together.
Just then, the tan earth pony crested over the hill and wearily trotted up to meet his friend.
“Hey, Big Macintosh. Sorry to be late, but the brakes on my cart gave out and I had to chase it all over Ponyville before I caught it.”
The red stallion nodded and took a few steps forward, the smaller pony dropping into place next to him as they went.
“So, where do you want to go?”
Big Macintosh glanced down at his companion and shrugged. “Ah hadn’t any place in mind, Caramel. D’you?”
Caramel scratched his chin with a hoof. “Well, we could try that little café in Ponyville, then if you wanted dessert, there’s always Sugar Cube Corner... if that’s okay with you, I mean.”
With that, the two trotted off in companionable silence.
Several hours and no disasters later, Big Macintosh left Caramel at the door to his home, along with a good-natured “this way Ah know you make it there safe”. The brown colt blushed, but took the jibe with a smile and rueful chuckle. Big Mac sauntered home at his own pace, looking up at the stars as he went.
They sparkled crisply in the sky, the moon lighting up the clouds with a silent elegance that he always tried to appreciate, though the lack of the Mare in the Moon was still a little off-putting - she had been there every night of his life, but now that Princess Luna was free, the moon was an almost unmarked sphere. It was still beautiful, but after so many years the change was unsettling, though he found himself slowly getting used to it.
The only times he couldn’t appreciate the night sky were during the harvest, much like the one just past.
A harvest that Caramel had been surprisingly helpful for, despite his usual awkward clumsiness. Applejack had been right; Caramel was no applebucker, but he was an excellent runner... once he knew where everypony and everything on the farm was located. Granny Smith’s gentle suggestion of a map had made things a lot easier for the newcomer.
Big Macintosh narrowed his eyes as a thought struck him. Caramel had volunteered to help - and now the biggest pony of the Apple family knew why - but he’d insisted on paying him a few bits for the help.
Bits that Caramel had probably just used to buy their meal, over the red pony’s complaints.
“I wanted to ask you out, right? Then I’m paying.” Caramel, despite the stallion’s best effort, couldn’t be swayed. That same stubbornness put Big Mac in mind of his sister, now that he thought about it. When push came to shove, there was nothing short of a direct order from Princess Celestia or Luna that would sway either of them.
Maybe not even then.
Big Macintosh turned down the lane that lead to Sweet Apple Acres, plucking a strand of hay as he went. Out of deference to the occasion, he’d gone without, though he wasn’t sure if Caramel had noticed the gesture.
“And jus’ where have you been, Macintosh?”
The red pony folded his ears back. Whenever Applejack used just his given name, he knew he was in for it. “Ah told you, Ah was goin’ out tonight,” he replied mildly.
His attempt to placate his younger sister failed badly. “Goin’ out?! Goin’ out?! Macintosh, it’s nigh t’ midnight! Just what were y’ doin’ out thar?”
Big Macintosh flicked his grass stem to the other side of his mouth. “Ah was out on a date, sis. An’ Ah don’t see how it’s any of your business.” He moved to step toward the house, but his sister planted herself firmly in his way, blocking him.
“A date? Macintosh, th’ farm’s too busy fer ya to go off an’ find some filly to frolic with!”
Her larger brother grunted. “Jacks,” he began - if his sister was going to use his “trouble” name, he’d use hers - “Ah’ve worked this farm for longer’n you. T’ ain’t gonna hurt if’n Ah take one night off once in a while. You’ve gone a’ harin’ off with Twilight an’ the others more’n once, so Ah don’t think you’ve got four legs t’ stand on.”
Applejack narrowed her eyes at him, but grudgingly let him slip past her into the house. As he stepped up onto the porch, he couldn’t help but add one last touch. “Oh, and t’ weren’t no filly Ah was seein’ either.”
Applejack’s jaw dropped. “What th’ hay?! Big Macintosh, are you sayin’ you were out whoopin’ it up with a colt?!”
“Eeeeyup.” Smirking to himself, Big Macintosh sauntered up to his loft.
Far too early, even for a farmpony, his door was slammed open. “Awright, Macintosh,” demanded his sister, her eyes full of ire, “start talkin’.”
Grumbling, the red stallion covered his eyes with a hoof. “Jacks, it’s too durn early for this...”
“Too early, m’ fetlocks! Jus’ what were y’ up to last night?”
Big Mac eyed his sister wearily. Even for him, this was a bit more than he could take. “Ah went out with Caramel, we had supper at a nice lil’ place, an’ then we talked. You happy now?” he finished testily.
His sister stood there, mouth agape even wider than before. “Y’ weren’t kiddin’ about seein’ a colt? And why, of all th’ ponies in Equestria, Caramel?”
The stallion pulled himself to his hooves, bits of hay from his pillows floating in the air. With practiced ease, he caught one stem between his teeth as it fell. “Ah weren’t kiddin’, Applejack. As for why Caramel, he expressed his interest clear ‘nough, and Ah figured where was t’ harm?”
The orange pony’s expression darkened. “‘Expressed his interest’, did he? What’d he do, Macintosh? Grab yer withers? Kiss yer nose? Lick y’ on the-”
“JACKS!” bellowed her brother, “T’ ain’t anythin’ like that. An’ even if it was - which t’ ain’t - Ah wouldn’t think it t’ be anything you needed t’ know about. Caramel said he had some interest, and Ah thought t’ might be nice t’ have a bit o’ ‘me’ time.”
The two siblings glowered at each other, the strained silence broken by Granny Smith’s quavering voice asking if everything was all right, and my goodness it was early, what was causing all the ruckus?
“All right, Big Macintosh. Ain’t nothin’ I can do t’ stop ya, so I’ll let it lie f’r now.”
“Durn right y’ can’t stop me, sis,” answered her brother, his mind shifting back to its more familiar placidity. “But if’n you keep this sort of thing up, Ah might move in with Caramel.”
For the second time in a very short morning, the orange pony was shocked. “Y’ wouldn’t!”
“But - Sweet Apple Acres! Y’ worked th’ farm all yer life! What d’-”
Big Mac cut her off, rolling his shoulders to work the kinks out of the muscles. “Ah might start m’ own orchard. ‘Caramel Apple Acres’ has a ring t’ it, don’t you think?”
Leaving his sister to splutter incoherently, Big Macintosh set about his chores for the day. For once, his sister didn’t say a word to him, just glowered every time she set eyes on him.
The red earth pony sighed mentally after the fifth such non-exchange. He was, however, grateful that harvest was over. Caramel’s presence was thankfully no longer needed at the orchard, or else Applejack might have gone out of her way to make him uncomfortable.
He also contented himself with the possibility of seeing Caramel later; if not that night, than in the next few days.
Work went as usual, if a bit slower without his sister’s aid, but Big Macintosh was used to making do without her. At the least, her sudden absences to go on adventures had prepared him for the extra work.
“Big Macintosh?” quavered a small voice. Big Mac sighed internally again - he knew that voice. Even worse, he knew the pony only used that tone when she was mortally worried.
“Yes, Apple Bloom?” he asked without turning around.
“I heard you and Applejack arguing... you’re not leaving th’ farm, are you?”
Bracing himself, the red stallion turned, facing his biggest challenge yet: Apple Bloom’s weapons-grade cuteness.
Large, pleading eyes, a pouting, outthrust lip, and the faintest hint of tears beginning to form...
This time, Big Mac sighed out loud. “Ah ain’t plannin’ t’ leave, Ah swear. Your sister and Ah were jus’ havin’ a bit of a disagreement, is all.”
“You’re really not goin’ to leave...?”
Big Macintosh covered his face with a hoof. He loved his sisters, he really did. At times like this, though, running off with somepony did seem like the best of all ideas. “Apple Bloom, as much as Ah like Caramel, Ah ain’t plannin’ t’ go anywhere else for a long, long time.”
All expression dropped off his sister’s face. “Y’ like Caramel?”
Her much taller sibling gazed down at her calmly. “There a problem with that, Bloom?”
She pulled a face at both the question and the diminutive nickname. “But Big Macintosh, colts have cooties!”
“Well, Bloom,” he answered, unable to help himself from smiling, “T’ ain’t somethin’ you mind when y’ get older. And if’n you’ve forgotten, Ah’m a colt too.”
Apple Bloom sniffed disdainfully. “That’s different. You’re my brother,” she continued as though the answer were readily apparent. “Everypony knows that makes a difference.”
“Ah’ll take your word for it,” Big Mac replied. “And Ah need t’ get back to m’chores, Apple Bloom. Weren’t you supposed t’ be meeting your friends today?”
The filly rolled her eyes. “We were, but then Sweetie Belle decided to help Rarity with her dresses, an’ Scootaloo wanted t’ chase down Rainbow Dash for flyin’ lessons, so now there’s nothin’ fer me t’ do!”
Big Macintosh nodded to himself as he hauled a cart back to the barn for storage. “Well, Ah’m sure y’ could talk some sense into your sister, tell her Ah’m not goin’ t’ leave. She ain’t said a word t’ me all day.”
Big Mac chewed his hay. “Ah know y’ heard us fightin’ earlier. Your big sister took my words more t’ heart than Ah meant. Now, Ah know she knows Ah’m not goin’ anywhere, but she’s too stubborn t’ admit it, even t’ herself.”
Apple Bloom’s eyes narrowed, and the red stallion wondered if he’d made a mistake. His littlest sister had a lot in common with her big sister - namely, an elemental unwillingness to deviate from whatever path her hooves were currently planted on, metaphorically or literally. Normally, it wasn’t a problem, aside from the havoc she and the other Cutie Mark Crusaders caused, but this time Mac wondered if he might have just set up his own downfall.
“Right, big brother. I’ll see you around,” she spoke, eyes focused. Big Mac gulped.
His fears were proven right when he caught a glimpse of Applejack in the back of the barn as he brought the third wagon in for storage. Unfortunately, with it hitched to him, he had no choice but to brave her presence, as he couldn’t simply untie himself and make a run for it without a loss of face that Applejack would never let him forget.
The withering glare she was giving him certainly didn’t give him any reassurance, but neither pony was prepared for the door slamming behind him, or the sound of the bar dropping down and locking them in.
Applejack caught on first. “Apple Bloom! Y’ open th’ door right now!”
Her only answer was a disdainful sniff.
“Come on, Apple Bloom, Ah’ve chores t’ do,” Big Macintosh tried next, after undoing the ties that bound the cart to him. His youngest sister unbent enough to answer, though it was only a short sentence.
“Y’ both work it out.”
Applejack turned her formidable gaze on her brother, and he backed into the wall nervously. As large and tough as he was, his only weaknesses were his sisters - and Caramel, his mind slipped in before he could squash the thought - as he was never able to find a way to properly argue with them. Fighting, that was different, just a lot of yelling and screaming, with the occasional hoof-stamping for emphasis, but an argument, with an exchange of viewpoints? That was something he never managed to pull off.
It certainly didn’t help that Applejack downright terrified him when she got a burr under her mane about something.
“I ain’t apologizin’!” bellowed Applejack, and Big Mac let out a groan. It was going to be one of those days.
The pair spent at least a half-hour trapped together in silence, the sun’s gradual descent cutting longer and longer shadows through the windows.
Big Macintosh had had enough. “If’n you say you’re not goin’ to apologize, Ah’d say from the sound of it, you know you ought t’ do so.”
Applejack glowered at him.
“Ah’ll just be over here, then,” he backed off.
The stallion “entertained” himself by running inventory on the tools and what would need repairs and replacing. It wasn’t quite what he had planned, but it did need to be done.
His sister was still sulking in the corner; there was no other word for it. “Ah don’t see why you’re so upset,” he tried again timidly. “Ah’m not takin’ any time away from Sweet Apple Acres that Ah can’t spare.”
Still nothing. He decided to change tactics a little. “Or are y’ upset that Ah might not be there t’ pick up your slack next time you’re out with Rainbow Dash?”
Applejack stomped a hoof. “Y’ leave her out o’ this, Big Macintosh!”
Well, at least she was talking again.
“Ah don’t know, sis, it looks a lot like that t’ me. A pony can’t help but wonder.”
The orange filly lowered her head, brows furrowed angrily. “T’ ain’t the same thing at all, Macintosh!”
Applejack paused, mid glare. “Eeeeyup t’ is, or eeeeyup t’ ain’t?”
“Eeeeyup t’ is, and you know it.”
“Big Macintosh, t’ ain’t any o’ your business t’ poke your nose into my -” she broke off, leaving her brother to smile gently to himself as he picked through the tools.
The next pause was, if still awkward, at least not as cold.
“All right, Big Macintosh. You were right, an’ I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be pryin’ into what y’ do when you’re not workin’, an’ I should trust you not t’ do anythin’ that’d hurt th’ farm.”
The stallion nodded, a touch smugly. “Eeeeyup. Now that that’s sorted,” he continued, raising his voice, “Ah think we can be let out, Apple Bloom.”
Applejack peered out a window. “She’s asleep, Big Macintosh.”
He rolled his eyes, and with a sigh, boosted his sister out the window. Thankfully, she was feeling contrite enough to unlock the door. Even more surprisingly, she was waiting for him on the other side.
“So,” she began, her voice carefully neutral, “when are y’ goin’ t’ see Caramel again?”
“Ah don’t rightly know, t’ tell the truth.”
His sister looked out over the rolling hills, and in that same careful tone, surprised him again. “Think y’ should see ‘im again tonight. I’ll look after th’ farm for you.”
“Ah just saw him last night, Applejack,” he replied mildly as he trotted over to the base of a tree to gather a few empty bushels. The orange filly nodded but continued on anyway.
“T’ ain’t like he wouldn’t like t’ see you., I’m sure. Y’ like ‘im, right?” She pulled a face, despite her attempts to remain unaffected. Talking about colts with her brother just felt weird.
Big Mac nodded. “Ah like him well enough...” he trailed off. His sister could feel the “but” at the end of his sentence.
“Well, Ah wonder if’n he likes me, or the big, strong, silent Big Macintosh every filly seems t’ dream about in her head and everypony knows Ah’m like.”
Applejack clapped a hoof to her forehead - carefully, after the incident Twilight had experienced and shared with her friends - and dragged it down her muzzle. “Then sounds t’ me like y’ should see an’ talk to him, all right. Go on, git, Big Macintosh! An’ don’t come back until after sundown!”
Big Macintosh nodded in such an over-exaggerated display of mock obedience that his sister couldn’t help herself - she slapped his tail against his flank. The red pony jumped in shock, then gave her a look that mixed annoyance, amusement, and exasperation as he sauntered off.
Caramel, Big Mac knew, would still be out making deliveries for the next hour, leaving the stallion with perhaps too much time for contemplation. Most of it, of course, revolved around his unexpected budding relationship with the town’s most unlucky resident.
As Ponyville appeared over the hill, the red stallion came to a conclusion. It was either luck or fate that the tan earth pony’s cart was parked outside one of the nearer houses; the colt was indeed busy doing his rounds.
Nodding, the stallion slowed to a walk, then stopped a few feet from the wagon.
Now that he had the time, Big Mac looked it over, noticing small details that he had missed when passing Caramel by in the streets, or when talking to him.
The cart was well-kept, but worn, and in several places even careful sanding and polishing couldn’t disguise the wood’s age or shabbiness. Big Macintosh swallowed; it was amazing the cart had lasted as long as it had.
“Big Macintosh! What are you doing out here?” Caramel’s voice rang with surprised pleasure as he the colt trotted up to him.
“Applejack gave me t’ night off,” the red earth pony answered uncomfortably as he shifted on his hooves.
Caramel tilted his head. “Is... something wrong?”
“Caramel... Ah don’t think we should be seein’ each other. Ah think’ you just want t’ date me ‘cause Ah’m a ‘safe pony’ and y’ think Ah won’t hurt you.” With that, Big Macintosh dropped his head and walked off, refusing to look the devastated pony in the eyes. Caramel watched him go, stunned and barely able to react.
“But... what’s wrong with ‘safe’...?”