Big Macintosh stared out over the snow-covered fields, his teeth working over the hay stem held between his lips. It wasn’t the best of habits, and it had led to several shouting matches between himself and Granny Smith when he’d first picked it up...
All right. Maybe it had mostly been Granny shouting at him while he looked for someplace to hide.
The strand bobbed a little as he chewed, and his eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he gazed off into the distance. It was commonly held that the Apple stallion was a slow thinker. This may be true; it was less widely-known that his hoofprints were all over Sweet Apple Acres’ paperwork - while Applejack was the face of the farm, he was the brains behind how it all ran; he chose which of the fields were to be planted and harvested, when the bills were paid, and where the fruits of the family’s labor were shipped.
Right now, that formidable, if cunningly disguised and packaged, mind was working on something far less important to Sweet Apple Acres’ future. This did not mean that it was treated with any less care, or examined any less minutely. Macintosh had not turned a struggling apple farm into the Equestria-famous plantation it was today by neglecting the details, no matter how small, and he was not about to change a working pattern now.
Braeburn’s gonna be trouble, ‘specially if he keeps that attitude of his for a while. Seein’ as how he’s not acting any better...
Suppose Ah can’t blame Jacks for tryin’ to keep out of the house. Or Apple Bloom either. Hay, if Jacks could fly Ah don’t think Ah’d be seein’ her except for meals since she’d be up at Dash’s all the time.
The stallion rubbed at his chin with a hoof. Ah’m in the same boat; more’n tempted to move over to Caramel’s, but Ah can’t just leave Granny by herself. Brae definitely doesn’t count. He sighed and bit down more firmly on the sprig of grass. ‘Course... Ah’d have to see if Caramel’d want me to, anyway.
That set off another train of thought that had him shift awkwardly on his hooves. Been a while since Ah saw ‘im... He frowned as he counted back through the days and weeks.
Horseapples. Last time... last time he came over was when Ah was sick.
The eldest of the Apple siblings sighed again as he pulled himself to his hooves. Caramel wouldn’t mind that it’d been so long, he knew. But Big Macintosh had been raised properly, which meant that there were formalities to follow.
Ah hope Applejack doesn’t find out, or Ah’ll never hear the end of this...
Grumbling, he set out towards Ponyville. First, he’d need to stop in at a shop, then hope that his coltfriend was home...
The hay in his muzzle bobbed in the air as he sauntered determinedly towards town. It still felt a little strange for him to have an anything-friend, it’d been so long. As he walked, the niggling feeling in the back of his mind got stronger. He hadn’t meant to neglect the yellow colt, it had just seemed to... happen.
He’d had to keep an eye on Braeburn, double-check the ledgers on Sweet Apple Acres, and Caramel himself had been busy with deliveries for Hearth Warming Eve. It’d all piled up, and now... well, now Macintosh just felt guilty.
The worst part was that he didn’t know exactly why. He and Caramel... they were a couple, right? They’d been... sort of together for a few months now.
He absently chomped on his hay, then stifled a whicker as he accidentally bit down on his tongue and cheek at the same time. They... he and Caramel were dating, right? Caramel’d asked him out, they’d gone to Appleloosa, they’d visited each others’ homes every once in a while...
The red stallion huffed noisily, his breath steaming out of his nostrils. The more he thought about it, the more the situation seemed to be “friends with benefits”. Without any benefits.
Big Macintosh came to a halt, frowning as he sifted through his memory. The last time he’d done anything intimate with anypony had been... years. Just after...
He winced and forced his mind away from the recollection. Since then.
Well, with his middle sister keeping an eye on the farm, his cousin, and his youngest sister and her friends for the day, he had the time to get this mess straightened out, one way or the other. The red pony stamped a hoof, if only to emphasize it to himself. By sunset, both he and Caramel would know how they stood with one another.
Coltfriends, or... just friends.
First, there was that stop before he “dropped by” Caramel’s. The bell on the door jingled as he shouldered his way into the florist’s, and the terminally bored-looking filly behind the counter perked up instantly at the sound.
“Big Macintosh! What brings you into my shop?” she called with a wide smile. The stallion returned it with a small grin of his own, grateful for the magically-created heat that kept the store warm throughout the year.
“Courtin’, Miss Junebug,” was his only reply, as he cast his eye across the varied blooms. To his mild surprise, the words came easily to his lips. He didn’t have trouble telling Caramel he... he... he was quite fond of the colt, but he’d never mentioned his attachment to anypony who wasn’t related to him...
He supposed that was a good sign.
Junebug, on the other hoof, perked right up. “Really now? Oh, my, well...” She gave him a sly grin, and he pretended not to see it as he nosed through the selection. “Who’s the lucky filly?”
That brought him up short. “Well, Ah... Ah would rather not say,” he finally nodded back at her.
Unfortunately, this only seemed to pique her interest further. “Well... what sort of flowers are you interested in? Rrrroses?”
Macintosh blew his breath out through his nose. For some reason, the way she’d trilled the “r” grated on his nerves; there was something about the lascivious tone, like she thought all he wanted was to get into Caramel’s saddle...
Junebug coughed, loudly, and he started. “Sorry, Ah was just thinkin’. No, miss, not roses today.”
“Well, if you’re sure...”
“Ah am,” he said with finality, finally finding a few sprigs that he found pleasant on his eyes when combined - and in the case of one of them, a very familiar sight indeed.
“Huh. Some white carnations, some strawberry tree branches, and some apple blooms?” She looked at his selection, then up at the towering stallion, and finally shrugged before wrapping them in paper. “Interesting little message you’re sending there.”
Big Macintosh gave her a blank look as she finished tying a small ribbon around the middle of the bouquet. The florist sighed as she pushed the bundle back across the counter, and leaned back to recite from memory, “white carnations mean faithfulness, the blossoms of the strawberry tree are given to the one you love, and the flowers from an apple tree mean you prefer that pony. She must be quite the catch.”
The red pony nodded silently as she finished speaking and rang up the total, then blinked when she winked and knocked a few bits off the final price.
“Before you say anything, the apple stems are from Sweet Apple Acres, so you get a bit of a discount as my supplier... which you were going to ask for anyway, weren’t you?” When he refused to rise to her bait, she just laughed and kept talking. “Besides, it’s about time you got a fillyfriend, Big Macintosh! Every poor mare’s been keeping her heart aflutter with thoughts of you - I hope you don’t mind breaking too many dreams of theirs!”
“... Eeeeyup.” Big Macintosh dropped the bits onto the counter, picked up the flowers, and left without another word.
Once safely outside, he let his eyebrows knit together in worry. Ah’m sure Ah’m doin’ the right thing... right?
Doubt chewing at the back of his mind, he set out into the snowy streets of Ponyville.
The chill of the air mirrored the chill in Big Macintosh’s chest. He liked Caramel, he really did. If he didn’t, well, he wouldn’t be going to to visit the colt with flowers, now would he?
He glanced down at his mouthful and frowned - the cold wasn’t being kind to them. With luck, he’d be at Caramel’s in a few moments, in the warm, and his pony would like the gift. He flicked his eyes up to check the road and make sure he wasn’t about to run in to somepony...
Big Macintosh did not need this.
And she was coming towards him and oh buck she just saw me too what now oh Celestia what if she thinks the flowers are for her...
The magenta filly stopped several paces away from him, and slowly looked him over, from hooves to mane. “Big Macintosh.”
He swallowed, muzzle dry, seconds ticking past before he spoke around his gift to Caramel. “Cheerilee.”
The only sound came from the breeze rushing past and the sound of other ponies’ hooves on the cobbles. Somehow, none of the noises seemed entirely there; they were all muffled, indistinct, distant.
There was only Macintosh, and his ex-fillyfriend from years ago.
“You’re looking well, Macintosh.”
The red stallion gulped again. “You... you too, Cheerilee.”
Her eyes didn’t leave his. She’s seen the flowers, he knows she has, and in the depths of her eyes he could see a flicker, a memory. Old, old hurts, knowledge of what could have been, almost was, never will be. He knew she’s seeing the same thing in his.
“Going to see someone?” Her words, her tone, light. As though it was the most natural thing in the world to see him carrying a small bouquet to somepony not her never her never her again and to meet with him in the street avoided her for so long and chat always coming to town when she was teaching about how things were.
His teeth, of their own volition, began their habitual chewing on his mouthful, and it was only the knowledge that it was a present for Caramel that made him halt mid-motion. “E-” his voice cracked, and he tried again. “Eeeeyup.”
Cheerilee took one step forward, and the largest stallion in Ponyville shrank backward, his ears plastered to his skull.
“Is... she prettier than me?” There was only the faintest quaver to her words, iron control keeping her tone light and almost level, her gaze boring into him can’t run can’t hide no place to go and keeping him trapped in the middle of an open street.
Big Macintosh flinched, tried to gasp for air, his sides heaving as he forced his lungs to work, the flowers in his mouth bobbing as he clenched his eyes and dropped his head to look away. He couldn’t lie to her, he never had. Not even when things... when things had been at their worst and he didn’t know everything he felt, only that he had been full of pain and he’d needed to lash out, and she’d been there, taken the brunt of his angry tirades until his words had become too much and her patience too thin.
She’d been the first to say what they both knew, the day that she left. She’d kept it short, simple, to the point. Just like him. “It’s not working out, Mac. I’m sorry.”
His ears flicked once, quickly, as he heard her take another step. “Is she younger than me, Macintosh?”
“‘T... ‘t ain’t a filly Ah’m goin’ t’ see, ‘Lee,” he forced out, past a mouth that didn’t seem to work right and in a voice that felt like a stranger’s.
He heard the sharp intake of her shocked breath, the sudden stillness, and finally his paralysis broke and he forced himself to pass her by, far closer than he thought he could dare, and yet not far enough away, the warmth from her body striking him like a blow, brushing over him like a lover’s caress, bringing back more memories, how close she’d laid next to him, how she’d felt when they touched, when they’d moved together in passion and need, and he shuddered again when he passed her and the cold winter air folded around him.
“Ah... Ah got t’ be goin, ‘Lee,” he gasped out as he turned a corner, the nearest one, taking any way out he could get, the fastest route to escape her presence and the feelings the mare brought back.
Caramel found the red pony an hour later waiting on the steps of the tan colt’s home, ice riming the petals of the frost-frozen bouquet and the stallion shivering despite himself.
“Mac? Come on, let’s get inside,” he spoke as he pushed the door open and shifted out of the way to let the larger pony through. He wasn’t prepared for the red pony to drop his mouthful on the floor and nearly squash them underhoof as he collapsed onto his partner, sobbing uncontrollably.
“Mac? What... what’s wrong?”
Big Macintosh simply flinched and clung tighter to Caramel, burying his broad nose in the brown mane and clutching the other pony to him like a lifeline. Giving up, the colt settled for making soothing noises and stroking at Macintosh’s mane and neck, nuzzling and kissing along the taut muscles in an attempt to soothe his friend.
It took longer than he thought, and by the end of it Big Macintosh was sitting disconsolately on his couch, but Caramel finally managed to pry the stallion away from him and get the abused floral arrangement in water. “Now... what happened,” he asked again as he slid next to the larger pony and rested his head on the stallion’s neck.
Big Mac took a deep breath, held it, and let it out in an explosive sigh. “Ah... when Ah was buyin’ the flowers, miss Junebug asked what filly I was courtin’.” At Caramel’s nod, he steeled himself and continued. “Ah didn’t have the... the guts to say Ah wasn’t meetin’ a filly,” and his words were tinged with venom; either directed at himself, or the situation he’d been in, Caramel couldn’t tell. “And then, on my way here, Ah ran into... into m’ first fillyfriend.”
Caramel remained silent, merely nodding again and rubbing at his coltfriend’s tensed shoulders.
“It... Ah was reminded of things Ah’d tried t’ forget...” he took a rasping breath. “Ah’m not sure if’n Ah’m doin’ the right thing...”
The tan colt jerked back, feeling like Macintosh had struck him across the face with a hoof. “The right thing...?” he began, knowing what his friend was getting into.
Big Macintosh nearly crushed Caramel with the strength of his embrace. “My sister wasn’t too thrilled with me bein’ with ya. Ah can’t mention Ah’m interested in a colt to a filly who’s almost a stranger, and Ah nearly broke down in front of my first lover...” The red stallion squeezed his eyes shut and burrowed more tightly against his companion. “At least... at least Ah could tell her Ah was seein’ a colt, even if Ah couldn’t say who...”
“I... see...” Caramel whispered, his stomach doing flips as he was held... and his uncertainty turning into shock, then panic as Big Macintosh began to rub against him in a distinctly different way, hooves starting to roam places that he’d never had another pony touch before. “Mac... what are you doing...?” he continued, voice only slightly louder, but tinged with worry.
The red stallion didn’t answer, except for pressing himself closer and nibbling at the smaller pony’s ear. Caramel gasped, then grit his teeth and pushed himself away, standing up and taking several steps away from the couch. “Enough, Mac.”
Big Macintosh blinked, staring up at the tan colt in hurt confusion. “But... Ah...”
Caramel stomped a hoof. “No. You’re not... you’re not doing that for the right reasons. You’re just like I was in Appleloosa, not thinking past what you want now!”
The eldest Apple recoiled at the glare the smaller pony was giving him, and curled into a tight ball. “Ah... Ah was just...”
“I don’t care what you ‘were just’. It’s been a long day. I’m going to bed. You...” Caramel’s voice softened, “are going to stay right where you are, Mac. Just... get some rest. You need it.”
Macintosh nodded meekly and closed his eyes as he rested his head on a pillow. Ah was just doin’ what... what... I did with other fillies after Cheerilee left... He nearly sobbed into the fabric as he realized what had almost happened.
Ah almost used Caramel to try t’ forget how much it all hurt...
He lifted his head to gaze sorrowfully at the door the other pony had vanished through. “Ah’m sorry... Y’ deserve better’n that... better’n me,” he murmured before he closed his eyes in an effort to nap.
His sleep was a long time coming.
Big Macintosh’s nostrils twitched at the scent of coffee, and he raised his head to look blearily around the brightly-lit room.
Caramel sat across from him, a weary smile on his face. “Better?”
“Ah... Ah’m not sure...”
The tan colt nodded. “Take a drink, then a shower. You’ll feel better.”
Macintosh nodded, gulping down the hot liquid and wincing as it scorched his tongue. “Caramel, ‘bout last night...”
“It's all right. You talk in your sleep, and... I understand. Go shower, Mac.”
The stallion bobbed his head and slid gracelessly off the couch, wincing as he got to his hooves and muscles protested at being forced from an unusual sleeping arrangement. “Ah’ll see you in a bit, Caramel,” he called over his shoulder as he stepped into the bathroom.
He was entirely unprepared for another set of hooves to wrap around his middle and begin to rub. “C-Caramel!”
“You said you’d see me in a bit,” came the reply, a bubble of laughter lurking in the colt’s voice. “You just didn’t say when...”
“But... last night...”
Teeth nibbled delicately on the stallion’s ear, and he shivered despite the temperature of the water. “Last night was last night. I’m doing this for different reasons...” Caramel did laugh this time. “And you are too.”
Big Macintosh sauntered back through the front gate of Sweet Apple Acres, and his sister took one look at the enormous, stupid grin on his face and shook her head. “Well, it’s ‘bout time!” she called at his retreating hindquarters, to which he just snorted and held his head higher.
Was m’ brother walkin’ funny? … Must be my imagination. She shook her head and went back to the snowball fight she somehow had gotten dragged into by her sister.