Knock knock knock.
“I’m on m’ way,” Applejack called as she looked at the mess of the kitchen. Pie plates, corn husks, and small stacks of hay only made up the least of it. Sighing, she turned her back on the shambled state of the room and made her way to the door.
All this, an’ Big Macintosh’s sick. Today, of all days!
The filly opened the door, one of her false grins ready. “Evening, there...” her voice suddenly lost its warmth. “Caramel.”
The colt in front of her blushed and ducked his head. “Good evening, Applejack,” he swallowed. “I’d heard Big Macintosh wasn’t feeling well. Can I come in?”
“Well, I suppose,” she began guardedly, before her eyes caught his packs. “Caramel, what’s in th’ bags? It’s drippin’ all over the porch.”
If it were possible for him to have gotten any smaller, he would have. “I... I tried to cook something for Mac...”
“And?” she coaxed when his voice trailed off. Not that she needed to be told. She could guess what had happened.
“And I tripped and spilled the soup I bought when the first try didn’t go well,” he finished. She raised an eyebrow. The farm pony wasn’t aware that anyone, especially a stallion, could mimic Fluttershy so well.
She tapped a hoof, her gaze shifting from the wet, miserable pony in front of her to the snow-piled hills of Sweet Apple Acres. “And y’ came all this way anyway?”
When Caramel nodded again, Applejack took a deep breath. “Come on in, Caramel. Jus’... leave yer bags outside.”
Much to her irritation, he followed her to the kitchen instead of immediately going up to see her brother. Just as she was about to round on him and demand he explain himself, he spoke.
“Applejack? Would... would it be okay if I made something for Big Macintosh here?” He quailed as she spun and fixed him with a glare.
“I don’t have th’ time. I need t’ make dinner for me, Apple Bloom, Big Macintosh, Granny Smith, Rainbow Dash, and three other ponies who she invited over t’ meet my family. Normally, my brother’d be helpin’ me out, but he got sick a few days ago an’ still hasn’t gotten better. So, no, y’ can’t make somethin’ because I need the whole kitchen!” she ended up yelling at nopony in particular.
He had practically curled in on himself by the time she’d finished, and she blinked in surprise when he swallowed and straightened up a bit. “Can I do anything to help?” he asked, staring her right in the eyes.
Applejack sat back in thought for a moment. “Well,” she began grudgingly, “you can start by shuckin’ the corn over there.” She waved a hoof at a small mound of the ears. “When y’ finish, put them in a pot and...” she suddenly altered the sentence when she realized what the consequences of Caramel and anything flammable might be, “I’ll put it on the stove.”
Caramel nodded and walked over to the countertop, eyeing the plants warily, comparing the one small pile of naked ears with the ones yet to be cleaned. It can’t be that hard, right?
A few minutes later, he turned around, smiling in accomplishment, only to frown when he saw Applejack fuming. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t have enough hay t’ feed everypony,” she grumbled, giving him the evil eye from across the room. “Especially with somepony stoppin’ by unannounced.”
He could feel his ears droop again. “Oh. I’m sorry. I’ll just... finish helping you here, say hello to Mac, and then go home.”
The tan pony jerked back when that only seemed to make her angrier. “Oh, no! You’re a guest at Sweet Apple Acres, so we’re goin’ t’ feed you!”
There was a short silence following her retort, and he finally broke it by waving at the kettle of corn. “I, uh... I finished these.”
“Thank you, Caramel,” the orange filly answered, her tone cold as she stepped past him to carry the pot to the sink on its way to the stove. He half expected her to knock him out of the way as she moved, but to his slight surprise she did nothing of the sort.
Swallowing, he scuffed at the floor with a hoof. “So, what else can I help with?”
Applejack frowned as she finished getting the stove started, thinking hard. “Well... if’n I skimp on th’ servings, I think I can make it all work out... jus’ need to wait for th’ corn to cook and make the dessert.”
Curious, the colt took a few steps closer to his hostess. “What’s dessert?”
Despite herself, Applejack chuckled and thrust her chest out. “Nothin’ but Sweet Apple Acres’ famous Apple Acre Pie! I was goin’ t’ make one, but if you’re stayin’ I might as well make two. Everypony can fill up on dessert then.” She poked him in the flank with a hoof. “And you can cook one yourself, if’n you’re so eager to make something for Big Macintosh!”
Caramel swallowed. He wasn’t sure this was a good idea... especially given how his attempt to make soup went. Soup! And here his coltfriend’s sister was telling him he’d be making a pie?
The tan colt contemplated just making a run for it now, and almost missed Applejack’s next words. “So, while I’m out gettin’ a few more things for the second pie, you might as well go up and say hello t’ my brother. But only hello,” she narrowed her eyes at him, “‘cause he’s still sick and doesn’t need t’ have anypony makin’ things worse. Y’ definitely better not be sneakin’ into his bed to ‘test the springs’!”
The tan colt swallowed. “I... We... haven’t done that. Ever.”
The filly eyed the quavering guestpony from hooves to head. “Well, see y’don’t this time,” she told him as she left the room. Huh. Guess he’s interested in my brother, not Big Macintosh, th’ most attractive formerly-single stallion in Ponyville...
He nodded meekly and quietly left the room, trotting up the stairs as silently as he could.
“Mac?” he called softly as he pushed the door open, into a darkened room. There was a single candle on the nightstand, and in its faint light he could make out the shape of his sleeping friend.
The small colt made his way over to the bed and pulled the covers back up to Macintosh’s chin. “Sleep well, Mac,” he whispered as he kissed the stallion on the cheek. “I’m gonna try to make something for you tonight. Hope my bad luck doesn’t strike.”
Carefully, he shut the door behind him and trotted back down to the kitchen.
His throat went dry when he saw Applejack. She had evidently prepared for him botching things by bringing in a veritable mountain of pie materials. The narrow-eyed glare she was giving him didn’t help reassure him in the slightest either.
One of her hooves pointed at the recipe, laid out on its own on the counter. “That ain’t got everything y’ need in it, but it’s a good spot t’ start. I’ll be watchin’ to make sure y’ don’t mess up too much, got it?”
Caramel gulped, and obediently made his way to the notes. It seems simple enough... After a few careful rereadings, he went to work.
Not two minutes later, a hoof smacked the back of his head.
“Ow! What was that for?” he complained, rubbing at the sore spot.
Applejack sighed. “Did y’even read the recipe? Granny Smith said that for the crust you need what, again?”
“Uh... flour, eggs, and... uhm... the spices... butter... and sugar!”
That hoof rapped him on the head again. “That’s for the top of th’ crust! Step aside, Caramel, an’ watch closely.” With that, she did shoulder him out of the way, her attention focused on making the pie crust.
Sensing an opportunity, the tan earth pony snuck back to the recipe and started to read how to make the filling. It seemed easy enough, and he started cutting the apples while his hostess was distracted.
In far less time than he would have liked, she was peering over his shoulder and making worrying noises. He was sure he heard a “hmmm” and a “tut-tut” in there, but Applejack didn’t raise a hoof to stop him.
It took close to an hour, with many a sticky hoof and annoyed argument, but the pair finally finished a pie that they were comfortable with.
Or, at least, fighting over it was too much effort.
Much to Caramel’s surprise, there was a second pie sitting next to the one he’d done... some of the work on. He was under no illusions that he was a fantastic baker. At his puzzled frown, Applejack just smirked.
“While y’ had trouble gettin’ things together, I had plenty o’ time t’ make my own,” she told him, opening the oven and sliding the two pastries into the heat.
A sudden thought struck him, and he glanced between the bowl of pie filling and the filly’s unprotected flanks. He’d have to move quickly.
One of his hooves scooped up some of the goo, and with a lightning-quick motion, he... dabbed a small, barely-noticeable bit of it against her flank.
Applejack’s head whipped around like a striking snake. “An’ just what d’ you think you’re doin’?” The tan colt opened his mouth to reply, but she continued on, “this is how y’ make a mess of somepony!”
Before he could think, she’d scooped up a large hoof-full of filling and thrown it with unerring accuracy right into his face.
There was another pause, broken by the sound of the thick substance sliding off the colt’s face and dripping to the ground.
“Caramel...?” Applejack asked, worriedly.
A slow grin broke over his face as he dashed to the side and ducked under the table, throwing a mass of uncooked crust deemed “unsuitable” in her general direction.
Laughing, the filly swayed to the side, the dough making a sad “thwack” as it hit the oven’s face, and she scraped some off to fling it right back at her attacker.
Caramel yelped as he got hit on the leg, and crouched down, ready to make a counterstrike that would leave her reeling-
“Applejack? Caramel? What are the two of you doing?” Rainbow Dash stared at the pair, dumbfounded, while two more pegasi peered around her.
At that moment, Caramel again wished he could melt into the floor.
“Oh, uh, hey there, Rainbow Dash! I see y’brought the Wonderbolts with ya?” Applejack asked, trying to look as though nothing had happened.
The other pegasi, one a bright orange filly and the other a blue colt, followed her into the room.
“Yeah, yeah, I did, though only Spitfire and Soarin’ could come,” she grumbled, dabbing at the one spot on Applejack’s flank with a cloth. “Applejack, Caramel, this is Spitfire, leader of the Wonderbolts, and this is -”
“Pie!” shouted Soarin’, lunging at Caramel and dragging his tongue across the befuddled colt’s face, somehow managing to lick off every last bit of the filling.
“Soarin’...” Rainbow Dash finished weakly. Spitfire, more used to her companion’s eccentricities, simply rolled her eyes and smiled lopsidedly.
Caramel stood rooted in place, eyes wide with fear and confusion as this strange pony kept licking him, until somepony took pity on him.
Spitfire, in the middle of a perfectly innocent conversation on the weather and how it was cold this month wasn’t it, lashed out with a hind hoof and rapped her compatriot sharply on the leg.
Soarin’ blinked, and then finally seemed to realize he was enthusiastically slobbering on another colt’s face. “Ah! S-sorry dude! I just was really hungry, and when I realized you had some pie on you... uhm... well, the last time I had a pie this good was at the Grand Galloping Gala, and when I heard Rainbow Dash was dating the same filly who’d sold me that pie, I had to come by!”
“More like you kept nagging at me to introduce you,” Rainbow Dash shot back. Spitfire laughed.
“Oh, he was, let me tell you... Applejack, right? He just would not shut up about the pie for days after the Gala! And then when Dash mentioned she knew you... we had to promise to introduce you to get his head back in the game!”
“And you still kept putting it off,” Soarin’ mock-pouted. This scored him absolutely no sympathy points from anypony present.
Spitfire sighed and shook her head. “Just remember to eat all your dinner before you get dessert, Soarin’.”
His eyes grew large, and his lower lip quivered. “... Before pie?”
Applejack gave Rainbow Dash a long look. The spectrum-maned filly just returned it with a longsuffering one. Yes, they’re like this all the time when not in a show, the orange filly could see in her fillyfriend’s eyes.
The slightly awkward pause was broken by the timer on the counter dinging. Caramel flinched.
“Rainbow Dash, would y’ mind callin’ Apple Bloom down from her room? I’ll get th’ table set for everypony, and, uh... Caramel, you go an’ take a quick shower. Y’ know where Big Macintosh’s room is, jus’ take the next door away from the stairs on his side. An’ wake him up when you’re done,” ordered Applejack.
Caramel decided to go with a quick rinse over anything more in-depth. He’d really prefer a good scrubbing, but that required more time than he had, or somepony to scrub him. Somepony like the brawny stallion in the next room over, he thought dreamily...
He shook his head, water going flying though the air. Big Macintosh was sick. He wouldn’t be in any mood or shape to do anything requiring too much exertion. Plus it’d be far, far too awkward to explain why the pair of them were in the same shower. Especially to Apple Bloom.
He did linger a bit longer than was strictly proper while toweling off, though. Mmmmm. Smells like Mac, he smiled contentedly when the fabric rubbed across his face and nose.
Once he was done replacing the towel neatly on the rack and scuffing his mane back into something resembling the normal style, he was ready for the next part of his mission.
“Mac? Applejack says you need to get up, it’s time for dinner,” he called as he made his way into the red pony’s room.
Caramel flipped on the lights, and was partially gratified to see Big Mac react to the sudden brightness by squinting and turning to look at the door. The rest of him was uncomfortable at causing his pony such distress.
“Caramel? Ah’m seein’ things, right?”
Chuckling, the smaller colt trotted over to the bed and gave his friend a nuzzle. “No, I’m here. I, uh, was bringing you soup, but I spilled it on the way, and then your sister told me I was going to stay for dinner whether I liked it or not. Speaking of dinner, it’s ready and she sent me to get you.”
“Ah see,” he rumbled as he slid from under the covers and got to his feet. Caramel’s heart trembled a bit as he saw the other swaying slightly. Anypony unfamiliar with Big Macintosh wouldn’t have noticed it, but to Caramel and Macintosh’s family, it was clear he wasn’t in top shape.
To the tan colt’s surprise, Big Macintosh ignored the hay stem on the nightstand and headed towards the dining room. At his coltfriend’s puzzled look, the stallion dropped his ears and looked away. “Th’ nurses said Ah shouldn’t touch ‘em until Ah’m healthy again. Jus’ so they don’t make m’ lungs worse.”
Caramel just nodded and followed the red pony to the kitchen.
The dinner went better than Applejack had feared, especially with the way she’d met the two Wonderbolts. Spitfire, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Granny Smith all managed to have a surprisingly engrossing conversation about the weather, how it affected the growth of various plants, and how pegasus magic might be used to better the harvests of all the farms of Ponyville.
Soarin’ spent most of the time telling an enthralled Apple Bloom about the various stunts and shows that he’d been involved in- “lots, from Canterlot to Appleloosa, and once we even went overseas to Hosstralia!” -, what made him want to join the Wonderbolts - “it was Spitfire, actually, she inspired me to see how well I could fly when I saw her perform” -, and how he got his cutie mark - “I, uh, was practicing in a storm and almost got hit by lightning. But I dodged it. It was sweet!”.
Macintosh and Caramel mostly stayed silent, though they would have a short conversation with anypony who spoke to them. Overall, they merely enjoyed the company of so many friends.
“All right, looks like everypony’s done,” Applejack noted as she looked about the table. “So I suppose it’s time for-”
“Pie?” Soarin’ broke in with an eager voice.
Everypony cracked a smile. Given how he’d been mentioning how often he wanted a slice, the last course was something of a relief. “Come on, Caramel, y’ should help me hand out slices,” Applejack told him.
Swallowing, he got to his hooves and followed her into the kitchen. “What do you want me to do?”
He blinked when she gave him another smile, one without any malice behind it. “I want y’ t’ give my brother a piece of the pie y’ cooked, o’ course.”
“Oh,” he flushed and shuffled on his hooves. “Of course.”
Caramel was completely taken aback by the friendly smack to his shoulder. “Come on, I’m sure he’ll love it! Y’ didn’t do too badly, after all,” she told him as she sliced the two pies into roughly equal parts.
The colt blushed, but eagerly helped his hostess bring out the dessert.
“Dig in, everypony!”
Everypony fell to with gusto, matching even Soarin’s eagerness.
“So...” Caramel asked Big Macintosh, in a soft voice, “what do you think of the pie?”
“Not bad. Ah wonder...” he continued, glancing at the shy colt sitting next to him, “if a certain colt Ah know had somethin’ t’ do with it.”
Caramel turned redder, and he mumbled his answer incomprehensibly. He was rewarded with a quick, gentle lick to his cheek that had him melting on the inside.
Applejack, Apple Bloom, Granny Smith, and Spitfire were sedately enjoying their pie, while Soarin’... Soarin’ managed to make a terrible mess of his muzzle, the plate, and a good portion of the table around his plate.
He was just about to start licking the table clean when Spitfire cleared her throat meaningfully. The blue pegasus looked up at her with innocent eyes, and was met with her narrowed gaze.
Remorsefully, he sat back down and looked put-upon. Everypony else ignored him, with the exception of Apple Bloom, who slid him the remainder of her half-eaten pie.
He perked right back up and went back to messily devouring the pastry.
“Well, it’s time Apple Bloom and I went to bed,” Granny Smith said with a cheery smile at the assembled ponies. “Have a good time, and it was a pleasure meeting you all,” she finished as she led the young filly out of the room.
“Oh, it is late,” Spitfire hunkered down, mortified. “I’m sorry, we didn’t mean to take up the whole evening.”
Macintosh and Applejack shared a smile and a chuckle. “Aw, don’t worry ‘bout it, sugar cube! T’ ain’t th’ first time we’ve had guests over for longer’n they thought!” the orange filly reassured her.
“Still,” the yellow pegasus insisted as the group made their way to the front door, “it’s late, and we’d better be getting home...”
The cold, shrieking wind that scythed through the hallway as the door was opened took everypony aback.
“Or, maybe not,” finished Rainbow Dash.
Once more, the two Apple siblings shared a long glance.
“Do y’ think...?”
“Right!” she announced, rapping a hoof against the floorboards to get everypony’s attention. “There’s no way we can let any o’ ya go home in this weather, so Soarin’, you’re sleepin’ on the couch, and Spitfire, you’ve got the guest bedroom!”
Soarin’ looked up. “What about Rainbow Dash and Caramel?”
“Ah think they know where they’ll be sleepin’,” Big Mac told him, with an aside glance and small smile for Caramel.
“Dude, there’s not enough beds for them to be - oh. Oh. Right on,” he finished, looking chagrined.
“Er... hold on, there, Big Macintosh. What if Caramel catches your cold?”
Caramel shuffled on his hooves. “Uh... I... I was the first pony in Ponyville to come down with it, actually... So I’ll be fine.”
“Well then, if’n you all’d come this way,” Applejack turned and led the various ponies to their temporary resting places, and made sure they were comfortable.
Rainbow Dash already knew where Applejack’s bedroom was, and took off without much fuss. Caramel found himself standing, somewhat reluctantly this time, in the doorway to Big Mac’s room.
“Somethin’ the matter, Caramel?”
The colt swallowed as the mellow voice spoke up behind him. “Well...” he began before taking a deep breath. “A few things. We’ve... slept in the same room before, but not the same bed, and...”
“I’m scared.” The words came out as a whisper.
“An’ just what might have y’ scared, Caramel?”
“... What might happen. And... that you might not want it to happen...”
The red stallion sighed and draped his head over the tan pony’s neck. “Caramel, whatever might happen, ‘t ain’t gonna happen tonight, so that’s somethin’ Ah can reassure you ‘bout. Some other night when we’re alone, but not tonight. Second,” and this time Macintosh’s voice was also strained, “Ah’ve... spent some time with some fillies, if’n y’ catch m’ drift, and... Ah’m perfectly willin’ to do the same with you. Ah hope that helps a bit.”
There was a bit more silence as Caramel digested the words, then nervously, slowly, he lifted a hoof and brought it down inside Big Macintosh’s room. Then a second hoof. It got easier the more steps he took, until he was standing beside the bed.
Big Macintosh turned the covers down and slid under the sheets, then looked up at Caramel with hopeful eyes.
The colt bit his lip, and with a mental shrug, followed suit. The hug that nearly crushed the air from his lungs took him by surprise, along with the lick behind his ear. “Maaaac... You know I hate it when you do that...”
The red pony chuckled. “Ah know.”
“Mac... do you... do you love me?”
There was another short pause, mainly taken up with Caramel getting the back of his neck nuzzled. “Ah didn’t think it needed sayin’.”
The smaller colt took a breath. “Yeah... Yeah, you’re right.”
“Rise and shine, everypony!”
Caramel groaned, tried to plug his ears with his hooves, and rolled over to try to get a few more moments of peace.
He ended up unintentionally locking lips with his bedmate, who, judging by the kiss he got in return, didn’t mind in the least. “Ah see y’ got some sleep.”
“Yeah,” he grumbled, “some.”
“Breakfast’s on, come an’ get it!”
“How does she do that?” the tan colt griped plaintively. Big Mac just shrugged and nosed his companion out of the bed. Moments later, the stallion joined him and gave him another ear-lick. This time, Caramel just rolled his eyes and accepted that, no matter how much he complained, it was going to happen.
“Mornin’ big brother!” Apple Bloom called as the pair descended to the ground floor. “The mailmare already came by, and you’ve got a letter from cousin Braeburn!”
“Apple Bloom, what have we told you ‘bout opening the mail?” chided her big sister.
“... Not to...” the filly’s voice was small.
“Well, let’s see what Braeburn wants now,” Big Mac sighed as he unfolded the letter and read it silently.
“Well?” his older sister urged.
Macintosh shook his head. “He says he just got outta the hospital, an’ he’s movin’ to Ponyville. Wants t’ stay with us. Appleloosa’s got some bad memories for ‘im, now.”
The siblings exchanged a long look, while their guests looked on, perplexed.
“Suppose we better get the guest bedroom ready for ‘im, then...” Applejack trailed off.