The oldest two Apple siblings waited beside the Ponyville train station for their cousin Braeburn’s train to arrive. The entire building and route was new; with Celestia’s sudden glut of visits thanks to her protégé’s new home had come a swelling of tourists eager to discover what in Ponyville interested the Princess so much.
At the moment, though, neither Applejack nor Big Macintosh were sparing much thought to the economic changes of their little town. Instead, they were imagining the all-too-likely events that the hyperactive Appleloosan would set in motion when he arrived.
“Y’think he’ll hit on every single pony not related t’ him, like he did at th’ last family get-together?”
Applejack sighed and lifted a hoof to hold her hat in place when the wind kicked up. “Wishin’ Caramel’d come along. Coulda used his cart to haul Braeburn’s things back.”
Macintosh flicked his hay stem to the opposite side. “He had work, sis.”
She slumped a bit, but gave her brother a look out of the corner of her eye. “I know that. Just... woulda been easier, is all.”
“... You’re not lookin’ forward to this either, are ya.”
They lapsed into silence as they waited for their cousin’s arrival. The train seemed to be a little delayed, but they’d arrived early just in case, and now the only thing to do was be patient.
“Your coltfriend seems nice,” the filly offered suddenly.
Her brother lifted an eyebrow. “Y’ don’t say.”
Applejack seemed a little flustered at Big Mac’s refusal to comment further. “Well, he is! It was right gentlecoltly of him t’ come out an’ help with dinner that one night.”
Macintosh’s eyebrow ratcheted higher.
The orange filly glowered at him and stamped a hoof. “Y’ know what I’m gettin’ at, Big Macintosh!”
“Ah know,” he finally replied, turning his solemn gaze towards the tracks and the rapidly approaching spot on the horizon, “Ah’m just wonderin’ why you’re sayin’ this now, an’ not back when Ah started datin’ Caramel.”
His sister muttered something under her breath about “rock-headed big brothers who don’t know how to take an apology when it’s offered”, and he wisely decided to pretend he’d heard nothing.
Ten minutes later, the train pulled in, and the engineers unhitched themselves for a short break while a white colt dropped down from the station to bring the lead some water. Most of the activity went unnoticed by the passengers, and Applejack bit her lip as she tried to find her relative in the sudden influx.
“Ah see ‘im,” her brother’s voice rumbled in her ear, and she sighed in relief. “He’s comin’ this way, but...” Big Macintosh broke off with a frown.
Before she could ask for additional clarification, or for that matter any clarification at all, Braeburn managed to shuffle through the collection of ponies and stop right in front of them.
“Welcome t’ Pony... ville...” the filly’s voice, initially full of slightly-forced cheer, trailed off as she caught sight of her cousin.
He was missing his hat. That was the first noticeable difference between how he was now, and how she remembered him. His mane and tail looked slightly unkempt, as though he’d stopped bothering about how they looked - even Big Macintosh was known to drag a comb through his mane once a day!
His eyes, normally a bright green and full of annoyingly high spirits, looked darker, and there were faint rings around them, as though he wasn’t able to get a proper night’s sleep.
Then she saw his hind leg, and gulped.
From hoof to knee, it was surrounded by a cast.
Applejack tore her eyes from the injury back to Braeburn’s face, just in time to see his mouth twist into a sour smile. “Hurts worse’n a rattlesnake bite, cousin.”
“Ah’m sure it does,” Macintosh came to the rescue. “Where’s your things? Ah’ll help bring ‘em along.”
The bitter rictus stayed on the yellow colt’s face. “Back in Appleloosa, Big Macintosh. Left as soon as the doc let me outta the hospital. Don’t worry about the orchard, Applewood’s running it now. Probably better than I could, right?”
Applejack blinked, and glanced at her brother out of the corner of her eye and wished she had the same air of calm, not quite indifference he managed to muster. “So, Braeburn... I guess we can get y’ some toothpaste and suchlike from the store...” she began awkwardly as the trio slowly made their way to Sweet Apple Acres. “If’n y’ don’t mind me askin, what happened t’ ya?”
“It’s none of your business.”
Both Apple siblings took a wary glance at their relative, and upon seeing his flat stare, decided not to press the issue.
By the time the trio arrived at the farmhouse, the sun had almost set. “Big Macintosh, I’m gonna go make sure everything’s ready for Braeburn. Would y’ mind goin’ to the store an’ seein’ if they’re still open, an’ if they are, get - ” she stopped with a faint chuckle; her brother had already figured out where she was going and turned to leave.
With Big Mac gone, she turned to her cousin. “Right, now I’m sure y’ remember where th’ guest room is? It’s back - ”
“And to the right, yeah. I can make it there myself,” he finished the sentence for her, and obstinately began to hobble down the hall.
“Careful there, y’ could hurt-” she began, and almost flinched back at the snarl her yellow cousin threw back over his shoulder.
“I’ll just go make dinner,” she finished quietly.
“Hey, there, big cousin!”
Braeburn gritted his teeth, then turned to face the speaker. “Hey there, Apple Bloom,” he said, forcing the words out calmly.
“What happened to yer leg?”
The colt swore mentally. She would ask about it. “Go t’ your room, Apple Bloom.”
The filly blinked. “B-but...”
“I said to get out!” he brayed, rearing back and startling his relative. To his twisted relief, she yelped and backed out of the doorway, spinning around and dashing away. The moment of enjoyment was spoiled almost as soon as it began, however, when his leg exploded into agonizing pain.
He barely had time to land back on his front hooves before his hind leg folded. “Buck it...” he grunted, tears in his eyes.
The yellow pony limped over to the door, shut it, locked it, and staggered back over to the bed before he collapsed onto it.
It’s all too much...
“Now hold your hay, little filly,” Applejack called just as her sister tore past her. Predictably, it had no effect - the orange filly figured there was at least a fifty percent chance that Apple Bloom was so upset that she just hadn’t heard. Sighing, the middle Apple checked to make sure that nothing could go wrong with the meal, and followed her sister up to their room.
Apple Bloom was sitting on her bed, face scrunched up tightly as she did her best not to cry.
“Now, I heard y’ get yelled at, Apple Bloom,” her big sister began, and Apple Bloom’s lip began to quiver.
“He... he was mean,” she finally choked out, sniffling in an attempt to hold back the tears.
Applejack nodded, putting a hoof on her sister’s back. “It’s okay t’ cry, sugarcube. ‘T ain’t nothin’ wrong with it.”
“I’m... I’m a big pony...” the pale yellow filly murmured. “Big ponies don’t... don’t cry.”
Her sister let out a snort of amusement, and Apple Bloom gave her a look that mingled hurt and anger. “Y’ sound just like Big Macintosh when he was a colt,” Applejack soothed her. “Why, one day he split a hoof tryin’ to applebuck a tree too big for ‘im, and we had to take him to th’ nurses. And all the while Granny Smith is tellin’ him it’s okay to scream if’n it hurts, and all he was doin’ was clenchin’ his teeth and shakin’ his head.”
“Really?” Apple Bloom perked up, staring up at her sister as she got caught up in the little story.
Both sisters blinked, and Big Macintosh gave them a small smile from the doorway and a gesture for Applejack to continue. Flushing a bit now that her brother was listening in, she continued. “Well, your big brother was so intent on puttin’ on a brave face that he didn’t even flinch when th’ nurses put a brace over his hoof an’ told him it’d have t’ stay on for a few weeks!”
Apple Bloom looked over at her brother, her eyes wide in admiration. He was glad to see that her tears, while still pooling, were in no danger of getting worse. “Well, Ah seem t’ recall it slightly differently, sis,” he answered, still smiling at the young filly. “Ah seem t’ recall passin’ out just as the nurses went t’ work on my hoof.”
“Anyway!” Applejack hastily dragged the topic back towards her original point, “What I’m tryin’ to tell ya is that even a big pony like your brother or I can cry. It’s not somethin’ that you stop doin’ just ‘cause you grow up.”
Apple Bloom nodded thoughtfully, leaning against her sister’s side. “Cousin Braeburn was still mean...” she began, hesitantly.
“Ah’ll have a word or two with ‘im,” her big brother reassured her, as he exchanged a glance with Applejack. Their mingled gaze expressed relief that the youngest of them still had the rock-firm belief that her older siblings could fix anything.
“Braeburn, it’s time for dinner. C’mon out.”
Big Macintosh frowned at the door, then glanced over his shoulder. The food would be getting warm if he took much longer...
Fortunately, he had his ways. And being the oldest pony at Sweet Apple Acres - still able to work the farm, he added in mental apology to Granny - he knew a few tricks. For example, the guest bedroom door, locked or not, was still easy to get into if you knew to put your weight here, lean just so, and turn the knob in that way...
The door swung open with only a faint creak, and the red stallion smiled to himself. Still got it.
“Ah said, Braeburn, that dinner’s - ” he stopped.
The yellow pony was glaring hatefully up at him. “Do y’ always walk in where you’re uninvited, Big Macintosh?”
Big Mac narrowed his eyes. “Ah’ll go anyplace Ah like on my farm,” he said, making sure that his cousin caught the extra weight to the last two words. “And it’s right rude of y’ to miss dinner on th’ first night you’re here.”
They smaller colt stared up at his relative. He dearly wanted to tell Macintosh to buck off and not come back, just get the hay out of his life, but he was at the farm on sufferance from the rest of his family... “All right. I’m comin’. Just tell your sisters it might be a bit,” he grunted as he got to his feet.
As always, he put his weight on his back leg as though it were still uninjured, and as always he suppressed a hiss when it complained. Big Macintosh remained impassive, watching him without blinking an eye.
“What do you want?” Braeburn finally snapped at him.
“Ah want y’ t’ treat my sisters and your cousins like family, Brae,” came the reply. “Ah think y’ owe Apple Bloom an apology, ‘cause she didn’t deserve you snappin’ at her. And Ah’m makin’ sure you are comin’ to eat.”
The Appleloosan glowered at him, but obediently left the room, shuffling towards the dining room. “So I don’t have to treat you any better, then?” he muttered under his breath.
Big Macintosh frowned at him and rapped him sharply on his unbroken hind leg. “Watch your manners, Braeburn. Just ‘cause y’ got hurt and decided to move doesn’t mean y’ get free rein t’ walk over everyone here.”
The yellow colt gritted his teeth. “... Fine.”
Dinner was quiet. Apple Bloom was typically cheerful and ready to regale her family at a moment’s notice with the antics she’d gotten into with Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, along with what she’d learned in school. Tonight, though, she stayed quiet and shot the newcomer nervous glances.
At least he’d apologized before dinner started... Applejack thought to herself as she dug in. Given the looks her brother was giving her, he shared her thoughts.
Braeburn said as little as possible, something that all three siblings were thankful for.
Predictably, Granny Smith was the first to leave, citing her old bones and the need to get some sleep. The Apple siblings bid her a good night, while Braeburn just gave a sullen nod.
“So, Braeburn, just what are y’ plannin’ to do on the farm t’ earn your keep?” Applejack asked calmly once her grandmother was out of earshot.
The yellow colt’s ears flicked backwards, and he obstinately kept chewing.
“Ah think y’ ought to answer, cousin,” Big Mac added quietly. The newpony flicked him an angry look, but acquiesced.
“Well,” he grunted, tossing his head a bit, “I can cook. Don’t expect me t’ be able to lift anything heavy or be able to move around much. The doc back in Appleloosa said I was to take it easy.”
Apple Bloom’s eyes flicked from one relative to the other, and she shifted from hoof to hoof, clearly uncomfortable as the tension in the room rose.
It was broken when Applejack whickered loudly. “Suppose that’s good enough... so long as y’ don’t kill us all with your cookin’.”
Braeburn suddenly looked insulted, and Big Macintosh had to hide a smile at his cousin’s displeasure. “Ah think that’s enough talkin’ for me tonight. G’night, everypony, Ah’m goin’ to bed.”
The next morning found the entire family save Braeburn awake and in the kitchen sneaking something for breakfast rather than put up with him over the morning meal. Granny Smith, unaware of how unwelcome her grand-nephew was making himself, announced that she’d be visiting the spa to try to get some warmth back into her on these cold winter days.
Upon hearing her words, Apple Bloom immediately fetched one of her shawls to try to keep her warm for the walk.
“Thank you, dear,” the matriarch smiled down at her youngest grandchild. Apple Bloom puffed up her chest with pride, and held the door open for her grandmother.
“I reckon Apple Bloom’s goin’ to spend the rest of th’ day with her friends... I’ll keep an eye on ‘em. Anything you wanna do, Big Macintosh?”
The stallion nickered and flicked his hay stem. “Ah think Ah’ll do a quick once-over of th’ barn and then see if Caramel’s up t’ anything.”
Applejack nodded nonchalantly, though her brother spotted some tension between her shoulderblades.
Whether or not it was what she feared her brother would do with another colt, or in terror at just what the Cutie Mark Crusaders would get up to today, he wasn’t sure, and didn’t particularly care to find out.
“Ah suppose one of us ought t’ stay with cousin Braeburn,” Big Mac added regretfully. “Just in case somethin’ happens to ‘im.”
Both Applejack and Apple Bloom made a face of disgust. “How ‘bout we take turns? I’ll take the evenin’, if you’ll stick around for the rest of th’ mornin’. If’n that’s all right with you.”
Big Macintosh had no sooner retreated to his room to make the bed and other small chores when he heard the clump and clatter of Braeburn’s cast and hooves on the stairs and hallway floor.
Sighing internally, he turned and raised an eyebrow at the yellow colt. “Somethin’ Ah can do for ya, cousin?”
His cousin didn’t answer him immediately, instead choosing to look over the room. “Just what d’ you have that ragged old thing for?” he finally spoke, pointing to a bedraggled and clearly well loved doll that sat by itself on a shelf.
“Ah beg your pardon?”
“That... stuffed pony. It’s not an ‘action figure’,” and Macintosh could almost see the sarcasm dripping from his guest, “and it’s horribly beat-up. Why keep it around?”
Big Macintosh glanced at the yellow pony, then to the slightly mangled doll, before finally looking out the window to the view of Ponyville and one house in particular. “Y’ think that just because somethin’s beat-up, it doesn’t deserve love?”
Braeburn opened his mouth, then after a few seconds of being unable to come up with a retort, shut it and turned to leave.
“Watch th’ stairs, cousin,” the red stallion called after him, secretly relieved that for once the colt’s motor mouth had failed him.
“Buck you, I can handle it!”
Big Macintosh turned back to the bed and finished pulling the covers up. “Well, if you’re sure...” He glanced up to see he’d been speaking to empty air.
Braeburn hobbled his way back to “his” room - not that it could really be called that, he thought sourly, remembering the ease with which the red pony had gotten in the previous night - and dropped back to the bed. He lay still for a few moments, then did his best to pull the blankets over and around himself.
I hate this place. I hate having to come out here. I hate being too scared to stay in my own town. I hate why my leg is broken...
“I hate those two ponies who broke my leg...”
And the worst part is, I don’t know why.
The Appleloosan shuddered. Even the covers didn’t seem to be enough to keep him warm any more. His hat certainly wasn’t. He’d left it back at... back at the orchard, a train ride away, along with a promise from Applewood to look after it, and to get it repaired in his absence.
The two thugs who’d broken his leg, cracked his ribs, and bruised his eye had added insult to injury by grinding his beloved hat into the dirt. He’d been unable to look at it when he’d first seen it in its sorry state. Much like its owner, he had admitted then, before trying to cover his tears with a hoof.
It’s all too much for me...