Big Macintosh looked up at his sister from his breakfast. “Ah’m not sure Ah’m hearin’ you right,” he began around his mouthful. Swallowing, he picked up the thread of conversation. “Y’ want me t’ go t’ Appleloosa?”
Applejack’s smile was a bit forced around the edges. “I do!”
The stallion rumbled in a light chuckle as Apple Bloom glanced back and forth between them. “This wouldn’t have anythin’ to do with avoidin’ cousin Braeburn, would it?”
His sister’s grin crumbled further. “Consarn it, I was hopin’ you’d not figure ‘t out!”
This time Big Mac didn’t bother to suppress his laughter. “Ah thought so. Ah hadn’t forgotten th’ time you went t’ Appleloosa and came back with those stories ‘bout him.”
Applejack’s fake smile disappeared completely. “I shoulda known better’n t’ try t’ trick ya,” she muttered. “Guess I’ll be off t’ pack.”
“Now Ah never said Ah wouldn’t go,” Big Mac broke in. “Ah just wanted you t’ be honest with me, is all. Why’d cousin Braeburn want one o’ us t’ visit?”
“He said he wanted one o’ us t’ check up on th’ apple trees, is all.”
Big Macintosh flicked his ears forward, intrigued. “He thinks there’s somethin’ wrong with the orchard?”
His sister shrugged. “He didn’t really say, t’ tell th’ truth.”
“Ah’m surprised you aren’t chompin’ at th’ bit t’ go see Bloomberg again.”
Applejack sniffed disdainfully, and Apple Bloom covered her mouth to hide the giggles. “I’m over Bloomberg, Big Macintosh.”
“That so? Then which lucky tree replaced ‘im?” he asked as he sauntered out of the house.
At the sound of his sister’s annoyed grunt, the stallion grinned widely, then very carefully wiped the expression off his face, returning it to its more familiar placid neutrality.
Ah wonder if Caramel’d like t’ come, he thought to himself as he set about raking the fallen leaves out from under the branches. He resolved to ask the next time he saw his coltfriend.
“You’re going to Appleloosa? Can I come too? My sister moved out there and I haven’t seen her in ages,” Caramel asked.
Big Macintosh walked alongside the tan pony as he made his rounds of deliveries.
“Ah was just about t’ ask if you wanted t’ go,” he rumbled. “So Ah suppose that’s answered.”
Caramel turned his head and smiled at his companion. “I still haven’t thanked you properly for the new cart,” he added.
The larger pony shuffled on his hooves. “T’ wasn’t much...” he mumbled.
Caramel snorted. “It was, Mac. I’ve been looking at getting a new one for weeks now, but they were too expensive. And that was without a fresh coat of paint, too!” Despite his words, he ran an appreciative eye over the brilliant scarlet wood.
Macintosh rolled his shoulders. “If’n you’re wantin’ t’ come along, Ah wouldn’t think it’d be a long trip. A week, at most.”
Caramel nodded as he drew to a halt at his next stop. “That’d be fine. I’ve enough vacation time saved up for a lot longer than just a week. When are we leaving?”
“Ah don’t rightly know yet,” Big Macintosh answered evasively. At Caramel’s raised eyebrow, he continued, “Ah’m not quite sure if’n it’s an emergency or not, so Ah sent a letter askin’ Braeburn if’n Ah needed t’ head out soon as Ah could.”
“I suppose that’s all you can do,” murmured Caramel as he worked on unloading the next package.
The tan earth pony wrestled the box to the ground, then stood in place, panting. “See you later, then, Mac?”
“Eeeeyup. Ah’ll let y’ know when we’re goin’.”
“Thanks,” Caramel waved a hoof at the other pony, then put his shoulder to the box and started pushing it to the door... slowly.
Big Macintosh hid a grin and put his own strength to work as well, shoving the package to the doorway with ease.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Caramel called at the retreating flanks.
A few days later, Caramel eyed the assortment of items laid out on his bed. Toothbrush, toothpaste, bits, soap for his hide... he frowned. Was he forgetting anything?
He shrugged mentally as he stuffed everything into his panniers. If he were, he’d get a replacement in Appleloosa.
He’d just hauled his packs onto his back when somepony knocked on the door.
“Y’ ready t’ go?” Big Macintosh asked as soon as the tan pony had the door open. “T’ train leaves in ‘bout an hour an’ a half. Plenty of time t’ make it t’ th’ city if’n we go now.”
“I’m ready,” Caramel answered, nodding back over his shoulder at the bags. “So,” he began as the pair trotted out of Ponyville, “why are you going to Appleloosa again?”
The omnipresent hay stem bobbed in Macintosh’s mouth as he thought. “Got a letter from a cousin o’ mine named Braeburn. There’s an orchard out in Appleloosa he’s lookin’ after, an’ Ah suppose he wants another o’ th’ Apple clan t’ take a look at it.”
Caramel nodded, lapsing into silence. The red stallion didn’t mind in the least, his attention mostly on planning out the rest of the trip in more detail.
He already knew the basics, but with three days in Appleloosa, well. Surely it all couldn’t be taken up by Braeburn. Macintosh snuck a glance at Caramel’s flank.
Macintosh had been right about the time it took to get to the train station, Caramel admitted to himself.
“Where d’you wanna go?” the ticket pony asked, a note of disinterest in her voice.
“Two tickets to Appleloosa, please.”
The grey pony inside the booth snorted and unwound two stubs. “Thirty bits each.”
Caramel deposited the coins onto the countertop, followed moments later by Macintosh’s money.
“Track three,” the salespony said as the pair took their tickets, and promptly went back to ignoring them.
Big Mac and Caramel exchanged a look, and shrugging, went to find their train. Fortunately, it was a short walk. Unfortunately, Caramel’s luck struck again, and in full force. He tripped over his own hooves no less than three times, and on the second, Macintosh offered to hold the smaller pony’s bags and ticket, “just in case”.
Flushing, Caramel stood still while the red stallion took his panniers, and after a few seconds of loosening the straps, draped them over his wider haunches.
It didn’t take the pair much longer to find the track, and they settled on a bench to wait. Aside from the red and tan ponies, the part of the station they were in was empty.
It remained fairly empty until the train itself arrived - one or two other ponies trotted up to the platform, but for the most part there was hardly anypony waiting to go to Appleloosa.
“Is this the same train your sister took?” Caramel asked quietly. Big Macintosh shook his head.
“Ah think they took a cargo train, not a passenger one. Ah didn’t ask.”
Caramel nodded as he stood and stretched his legs, eyeing their ride cautiously. It didn’t look like much, but if it got them where they needed to go...
The colt glanced back at his coltfriend, curious.
The stallion was holding his ticket in his mouth, along with a sardonically lifted eyebrow.
The tan colt took it, offering a mumbled thanks, and once more turned to board, hoping to hide his embarrassment.
After a few mis-starts, the two found their compartment and settled in for the overnight trip.
A day later, the sun beat down on Appleloosa with punishing heat. Caramel winced as he stepped out onto the platform.
“Ah see your hindquarters are still sore,” Big Macintosh rumbled. The tan pony nodded with a pained grunt.
“Wish I’d seen that tack before I sat down,” he griped plaintively.
“Welcome to Aaaaaaaaaaappleloosa!” shouted a cheery voice, right in the beleagured colt’s ear. Caramel yelped again as he toppled over.
Macintosh looked down, raised an eyebrow, and helped the pony back up. “An’ a good day t’ you, cousin Braeburn,” he nodded at the “welcoming” pony. Braeburn just grinned wider.
“Howdy, Big Macintosh! What took you away from Sweet Apple Acres? Usually wild buffalo couldn’t pull you away - no offense!” he called at a passing pair of bison. They just shook their heads at the overeager colt before moving on, and Braeburn returned his attention to the visitors.
“If’n Ah recall, you sent a vague letter t’ the farm, cousin. Ah thought Ah should come ‘n see for m’self what the matter was.”
Braeburn laughed and leaned in closer to Caramel, much to the other pony’s discomfort. “Well, I know my cousin, but who’re you?”
“Braeburn, leave Caramel alone,” Big Mac glowered at his relative. Once more, the yellow colt just chuckled.
“I’m just bein’ hospitable, cousin!”
Caramel shot the newcomer an annoyed glare as he put a bit more space between them.
This didn’t seem to put a damper on Braeburn in the slightest. “Well, come on! I’ll show the two of you about!”
Caramel shot Big Macintosh a helpless look, and the red stallion shrugged. The tan colt let out a sigh that mingled resignation with annoyance. “Lead the way...”
Braeburn tipped his hat with a hoof, and with a jaunty swish of his tail, began the tour. “Over that way’s the apple orchard, the saloon’s over there, houses are over there, an’ here’s the hotel. Tour’s done!”
Big Macintosh and Caramel stared at the Appleloosian.
“That’s it?” ventured Caramel after a few seconds.
“Yup! That’s all y’ need to know. Appleloosa’s pretty small. So, where’re you stayin’?”
Caramel and Big Mac exchanged another look. “Ah think we were goin’ t’ stay in the’ hotel...” the stallion began. Braeburn frowned.
“That won’t do t’all! Y’ ought to come out and stay with me. I’ve got plenty of space to spare, ‘specially with a handsome colt like you,” he finished grinning at Caramel a little too widely for the tan pony’s comfort. He swallowed.
“I think I’d really prefer the hotel...”
“Well... okay, then,” Braeburn said, looking a little put-out. Caramel just breathed a sigh of relief as the three of them pushed the door open.
A rather distinguished gentlecolt glowered at the trio from across the countertop. “Mister Braeburn, how often must I tell you, we do not sell rooms by the hour? Or, in your case, by the minute?”
Braeburn laughed, and the hotel manager frowned even more severely and adjusted his monocle.
Nervous, Caramel stepped forward. “E-excuse me... but Big Macintosh and I would like a room for a few nights...”
The middle-aged pony turned his formidable gaze onto the tan colt. “I see. And this,” he gestured to the red stallion who was hanging back a few feet, “is Big Macintosh?”
The manager’s eyes dropped to the ledger in front of him. “I am afraid,” he began, “that we are out of rooms with only one bed...”
“Uhm...” Caramel broke in. “Two beds are fine.”
The pony behind the desk glanced up at Big Mac, who nodded silently. “Very well,” he continued, his voice softening imperceptibly. “That will be fifty bits a night.”
“Separate beds, huh?” Braeburn whispered to Macintosh. Soundlessly, the stallion shifted position, landing a hoof on one of the yellow pony’s and putting all his weight on it.
Braeburn winced and shut up.
Big Macintosh eyed Braeburn’s back half irritably as he followed the other two ponies up to the room.
“Ah think that’s far ‘nough, cousin.” Big Mac grunted. “Ah’ll see you at the orchard tomorrow.”
The yellow colt opened his mouth to say something, saw his cousin’s expression, and thought better of it. “Right. See you tomorrow!”
Big Macintosh watched him leave, and shut the door as soon as his relative vanished down the stairs.
He wasn’t expecting Caramel to slump against him. “Oh, thank you,” the tan pony groaned. “I wasn’t sure how to get rid of him.”
“Let’s get some shut-eye,” Macintosh replied, draping his head affectionately over his colt’s neck.
Caramel woke the next day to somepony nibbling on his ears. “I wish you’d stop that,” he grumbled half-heartedly as he ran a hoof over his mane. Big Macintosh just grinned.
The smaller colt shot his friend a look. “Eeeeyup you’ll stop, or eeeeyup you know?”
Caramel groaned and went to soak his head in a basin of cold water to help wake himself up.
Macintosh leaned back on his bed and chewed the nub of his hay stem, letting thoughts drift aimlessly through his mind. Suddenly he froze, horrified eyes turning to stare at the grass between his teeth. What was he going to do when this one was gone? He was in the middle of the desert!
This terrifying train of thought was temporarily broken by Caramel returning from the washroom.
“Ah assume you’re goin’ t’ see your sister while Ah’m over at th’ orchard?”
“If that’s all right with you...”
Big Mac nodded. “Works jus’ fine for me. Meet y’ back here t’ night afore dinner?”
Caramel smiled at his stallion. “Sure. I’ll tell you how it went tonight.”
“Same,” rumbled Mac as he rolled onto his feet and followed Caramel out the door.
The red pony braced himself as the orchard came into view over the hill.
He let out a sigh. Just once, he sighed at the heavens, it’d be nice to be wrong about Braeburn. The yellow colt charged up the hill to meet his relative.
“Glad y’ made it! What d’ you think?” he smiled proudly as he waved a hoof at the softly swaying trees.
Big Macintosh tilted his head, inspecting them through narrowed eyes. “Looks good t’ me.” With that out of the way, he picked his way down the path to the apple trees, intent on a more full inspection.
Braeburn followed suit, yammering away, but Macintosh tuned him out - the apples were why he was here, everything else could wait.
The examination took perhaps half the morning, and by the end of it, the stallion from Ponyville was thoroughly exasperated. “Braeburn,” he spoke, breaking into the exuberant pony’s chatter, “‘T ain’t a single thing wrong with a single branch. Why’m Ah here?”
Braeburn had the grace to look ashamed. “Well, I wanted t’ make sure the trees were okay for the winter...”
“And y’ couldn’t say that in your letter?”
The yellow pony coughed and quickly began trying to find another subject to talk about.
He picked the wrong one.
“So, who’s that other colt with you?”
“Let me tell you, I’d want to take him for a gallop!”
“Awfully cute fella, too. Why’d he come along with you? He hire you t’look imposing on the trip, like y’ do now?”
“BRAEBURN!” Big Macintosh bellowed. Once sure he had his cousin’s full attention for once, he snorted hard. “Y’ leave my little colt alone. Caramel’s shy ‘nough as-is, an’ he don’t need your help t’ make it worse.”
Braeburn stared at the red pony slack-jawed. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. “‘Your little colt’? So, is he as sweet as his name? How’s he in bed, Big Macintosh?”
Big Macintosh took a menacing step forward. “Ah wouldn’t know, cousin. Ah’m sure Ah’ll find out when he finally asks t’ share a bed with me, but that ain’t any of your business. Leave. Caramel. Alone. Or Ah’ll tell Granny Smith what you got up to last time y’ visited Ponyville for the reunion.”
Braeburn blanched, swallowed a few times in an effort to get his voice working, then nodded meekly.
Ah hope Caramel’s havin’ a better mornin’ than this, he thought.
Caramel knocked on the door expectantly.
A few moments passed, and he tried again.
“Sis? You home?”
Finally the door opened, and an almost identical filly stood in front of him. “I’m sorry, I don’t take customers this- Caramel?”
Her brother was too dumbfounded by her hat to answer. Sighing, she pulled him into her house and shut the door.
“Courtesan, Caramel, please. And call me Almond, everyone here knows me by that name.”
Grumbling, he took a sip of the tea she’d just placed in front of him. “Why?”
“Almond” smiled and spread her front hooves, encompassing all of the room, and by extension, her house in the gesture. “Why not, when it pays this well? And, dear brother, where is the harm? A night of pleasure for a weary colt, a bag of bits in exchange, and everypony goes home content. Speaking of bits, are you still working at the post office with that clumsy mare? Oh, what was her name... Ditzy? Tripsy?”
“Derpy. No, sis, I’ve got my own job now, making deliveries.”
Almond sniffed. “Well, at least it’s a step up. Any handsome colts in your life?”
Once more, Caramel’s brain locked up. “But... I... I never... I never told you or Mom or Dad...”
His sister gave him a small smile. To his relief, it wasn’t the practiced one she’d worn when she’d opened the door. “Caramel, I’m your sister. I know these things.”
He shuffled his hooves. “Well... there is one...”
Her smile turned into an outright grin. “Go on...”
Caramel ducked his head and mumbled. Almond, used to this sort of thing, leaned in closer.
“Big Macintosh? Are you serious? You are! Caramel, how did you manage to land the most eligible bachelor in Ponyville?”
He could feel his cheeks burn, but he lifted his head and began to retell the story. By the end, Almond was frowning.
“He dumped you like that and you still took him back? Brother, sometimes I think you lack sense along with luck.”
“He said he was sorry...” Caramel mumbled.
“Sorry! I would think you’d want more from him than a mere ‘sorry’!”
Her brother took a breath and continued on. “And he delivered all my packages two days running, didn’t go home to Sweet Apple Acres to stay with me and make sure I was okay, and bought me a new cart.”
Almond froze with her mouth open, then chuckled weakly. “Perhaps he did mean it, then. Still, I would like to speak with him some time before you leave.”
Caramel nodded meekly and took a sip of tea again.
“Now, how does a lady of my refinement put this... how skilled is your coltfriend in the saddle?”
For the second time in twenty minutes, Caramel almost died of mortification. “I... he... we haven’t done that yet!”
His sister rested a cheek on her hoof, smiling softly at her brother. With a sinking heart, he realized it was her “concerned” face. “Why not? You’re clearly attracted to him... unless he’s not willing to, hm, perform the deed with another colt?”
“He’s not like that, Caramel whispered.
“Well, it’s something to think about,” she replied, matter-of-factly, and began to clear the table. “I’m afraid some of my clientele is due to visit soon. Do let me know when you’ll be free again, hm? Take care.”
With that, Caramel found himself deposited unceremoniously back in the street.
Deep in thought, the tan earth pony made his way back to the hotel.
Dinner between the pair was a quiet affair, which was normal, but this time the silence was strained, Caramel staring at his plate for almost the entire meal. Eventually, and with some relief, Big Mac suggested they go to sleep.
Big Macintosh had just put out the lights and crawled into bed when he heard Caramel’s bed creak and shift. Thinking nothing of it other than perhaps the other pony was restless, he closed his eyes to prepare for slumber.
He wasn’t expecting his bedsprings to shriek at the weight of another pony, or for the covers to be thrown back, nor a colt’s hoof to start exploring his chest... and then slide lower.
“Caramel,” he grunted, placing his own hoof on the smaller colt’s chest, his other stopping the moving hoof, “what’re you doin’?”
The tan pony froze, his chest heaving in something that wasn’t quite a sob. Unsure, Macintosh pulled his colt in close and began trying to soothe his companion as best he could. Eventually, he could pick out words choked from between swallowed gasps for air.
“Ah want t’ be sure Ah got this right... your sister made y’ think Ah wasn’t datin’ you out o’ anythin’ more’n pity, that’s why Ah haven’t been more... physical in my actions.”
Caramel nodded, nose buried in Macintosh’s neck, not trusting himself to speak.
“Caramel”, Big Mac murmured in his ear, choosing his words carefully and twisting his body about so both ponies rested side-by-side on the bed, “Ah was waitin’ for you t’ feel more comfortable ‘bout it, is all. Ah’m in no hurry, an’ you shouldn’t be either. As for datin’ you... th’ only thing Ah’d take back is how Ah treated you th’ one night. You’re a sweet colt, and Ah wouldn’t change a thing ‘bout you.”
The only answer he received was a tight squeeze around the middle that almost knocked the breath out of him.
“You want t’ stay here longer, or go home tomorrow?”
It took a few minutes, but Caramel finally spoke, his voice cracking. “What about the orchard?”
“‘S fine. Braeburn was jus’ overreactin’. Want t’ go?”
Big Macintosh nodded in the darkness. “Me too. Ah’ll handle th’ tickets, since you got th’ room.”
“... Thanks, Mac.”
Big Mac nuzzled his coltfriend, and was relieved to get one in return. “Nothin’ to it, Caramel. Sleep well.”
“You too, Mac.”
The next morning found the pair of them waiting at the tracks for the next train out of town.
“I hope your cousin doesn’t show up,” muttered Caramel. Big Macintosh just snorted.
“Ah take it y’ weren’t too flattered by ‘im.”
The smaller of the two shot his friend a mock glare. “Not particularly.”
Macintosh nodded in response as the train pulled up and they boarded companionably.
“I never thought I’d be glad to go back to work,” Caramel sighed. A gentle silence wrapped around them, until he spoke again. “Mac... thanks. For... not taking me up on it last night.”
“‘T weren’t nothing,” he rumbled.
“Are you sure?”
Braeburn skidded to a halt in front of the station just in time to see the train leave. “Heading off without saying goodbye? Shame on you!” Grinning, he contemplated a trip to Ponyville. After all, it had been a while since he’d seen the rest of the family...
Almond nodded at the yellow colt as he sauntered back towards the rest of the town. “That’s him. I’m sure he’s the one who chased my brother away with his boorish behavior. Please... make sure he knows how much my Caramel’s absence hurts me.”
The two stallions nodded and slipped out of the alleyway, cold frowns on their faces as they moved in toward the smaller, cheerily oblivious colt.