Big Macintosh scrubbed at his face. “All right, first things first. Ah’ll check on Brae, then see if Soarin’ shows up. It’s dark out, so Luna only knows if Dash can find ‘im.”
“I’ll get everything here cleaned up,” Applejack replied, looking at the mess the kitchen was in.
Mac grinned as he stood. “Ah don’t know, it’s still better’n the time you and Caramel decided t’ have a food fight when company was due.”
“Big Macintosh, I know for a fact you didn’t see that, so how-”
“Rainbow Dash told me,” he shot back with a smile as he left. It quickly faded as he made his way to Brae’s room. Ah’m not lookin’ forward to this... Celestia, what a day... “Brae? Y’ fit for company?”
“... No.” Braeburn’s voice was barely audible.
Big Macintosh sighed. “Brae, Ah’ll give you a minute t’ get ready, an’ then Ah’m comin’ in.” He strained his ears when he heard a quiet thump, and nodded to himself as he heard the soft shuffle of hooves.
The door opened a crack, and a reddened, tear-filled eye stared back at him. “At least ya waited fer me t’ open it this time,” Braeburn managed.
“Now, Ah don’t have a reason t’ barge on in this time,” Mac rumbled, waiting for the family houseguest to make enough space before entering the room. He nosed the door shut before turning to the distraught Appleloosan. “Y’ want t’ talk about it?”
Braeburn sniffled. “Not really.”
“Brae...” Macintosh sighed. “Ah don’t know about y’ sometimes. You’re one o’ the brightest family members Ah have, but when it comes t’ your personal life y’ make some of the worst decisions Ah’ve ever saw.”
“I thought he might like me...” Brae mumbled.
“Well... maybe he did. But y’ couldn’t think of a better way t’ find out?” Macintosh sat on the side of the bed and patted his cousin’s shoulder.
“Y’ just don’t get it.”
“An’ just what is it Ah don’t get?”
Braeburn scrubbed at his eyes with a hoof and flung himself atop the bed. “Y’ got Caramel, AJ’s got Rainbow Dash... and y’ just seem so happy and I’m stuck on this farm. Then the pegasus shows up, he’s kinda cute, an’ I think I might have a chance, but...” at that point, anything else that could be heard dissolved into blubbering.
Big Mac screwed his eyes shut; he could feel a headache coming on. “Is that why y’ were such an ass t’ Caramel?”
His cousin inhaled sharply, mucus reverberating in his sinuses, and Big Macintosh winced at the noise. “M... maybe.”
“And y’ never considered, Ah dunno, talkin’ to anypony ‘bout this?”
“Y’ said it yerself, cousin. I don’t make th’ best pers’nal decisions.”
“Ah’ll say,” the red Apple muttered, then lightly tapped Braeburn’s cast. “This’s supposed t’ come off sometime next week, am Ah right?”
Brae nodded. “Next Tuesday.”
Big Macintosh stared at the ceiling.” Well, maybe when y’ can move around more, y’ can go visit Ponyville proper, maybe talk t’ Soarin’ more. Though Ah’d have to suggest that y’ not see Doctor Stable when y’ get it removed.”
Curious, Braeburn lifted his head and blinked a few times. “Why not?”
“Well, Ah was in t’ see him earlier today, an’ Ah have t’ say, his bedside manner’s sorely lackin’.”
The Appleloosan frowned as he stared at his cousin. “Why’re you at the doc’s? Ya seem t’ be fit as a fiddle t’ me.”
“Long story, cousin.”
“I got time.”
“... Ah ran into Cheerilee.”
Brae lifted his eyebrows. “An’ that has what t’ do with the doc?”
Mac grit his teeth. “She brought up some history an’... oh, buck it. The doctor says Ah can’t have foals.”
Braeburn’s eyebrows furrowed as he processed this. “You, infertile? You? Th’ most sought-after stallion in the Apple family?” He stuffed a hoof in his mouth to stifle his laughter. “I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t, but...” Despite his attempts, Brae broke out into quiet giggles while his cousin glowered at him.
“Ah’m so glad Ah can bring such joy t’ your poor, broken heart,” Big Mac griped. “Remind me, who was tryin’ to reassure who?”
It took a few more minutes, but the Appleloosan managed to regain his composure. “So, uh, aside from the blow to your machismo, what’s the problem?”
Mac glowered at the still-sniggering pony. “Ah can’t have foals! That’s kinda a problem all on its own, wouldn’t y’ think?!”
Braeburn, still smiling, scratched at his nose. “Oh, I dunno, I think it’d be important... if’n you were sleepin’ with a mare. Unless there’s somethin’ about Caramel you neglected t’ mention, I can’t see it comin’ up... metaphorically speakin’.”
Big Macintosh spluttered a few times, and Brae took the opportunity to keep going.
“In fact, y’ ought to be thankful for it! If’n what I heard about yer past, you’d have a whole barnful o’ foals running around Sweet Apple Acres... not t’ mention all the mares ya’d have had t’ placate, the family name gettin’ run through the mud hereabouts...” he grinned over at his cousin, who was outright sulking.
“Ah don’t have t’ like it.”
“I’m not askin’ ya to like it. Just stop whinin’ and do somethin’ other than sit around in yer room avoidin’ everypony!” Braeburn paused and added, “an’ if what I’ve overheard from you an’ cousin AJ talkin’, it’s not like Caramel’s too upset, right?”
Macintosh squelched the urge to shoot back that Braeburn should take his own advice, instead going with the less antagonizing route. “Ah haven’t told ‘im about it yet.”
Braeburn scoffed. “That’s not my point. Look, you’ve been sterile fer years, right? An’ you’ve been spendin’ some... quality time with ‘im for what, a few months? An’ he’s not complained ‘bout anything, right? Then what makes y’ think he’s gonna start now?” The yellow pony rubbed at his face and sniffled a few times, trying to erase the evidence of his crying fit.
“So, what, y’ want me to just go tell all of Ponyville ‘bout it, then?”
Braeburn held a hoof to his head. “Celestia, no. Just... don’t let it get to ya like this, is all I’m askin’.”
“Fine, Ah’ll do it... if you’ll start actin’ like the old cousin Brae we all know an’... tolerate.”
“Big Macintosh, I will kick you.”
He grinned. “That’s more like it.” The oldest of the Apple siblings stood and streched. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Ah need t’ see if Dash found your latest crush.”
He made it to the door before the pillow hit the back of his head.
“‘Oh, I’ll go find him’,” Rainbow Dash griped to herself. “What a brilliant idea, looking for a blue pegasus, with a blue mane, as dusk falls!” She swore quietly and kicked the nearest cloud. “I’d have better luck trying to convince Fluttershy to go to a mane metal concert!”
She gave the slightly overcast sky a few more passes before giving up and flopping backwards onto the nearest cloud.
“Just my luck, too. Man, if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s Applejack’s cousin, I’d never have volunteered for this. Horseapples, I’ve told him to go jump in a lake!”
She stared up at the darkening sky and the first few twinkling stars, and narrowed her eyes.
That cloud’s a bit too high up... and all by itself? She smirked. Soarin’, I’ve found you.
A quick flick of her wings was all it took to get up to the suspicious weather phenomenon. “Hey, head honcho of the Wonderbolts! Whatcha doin’ up here?”
Soarin’ was lying spread-eagle on his back, staring up at nothing. “Stuff.”
Dash’s eyebrows met. His voice was deeper than usual, and despite his appearance, he seemed less... out of it. “Okay, what’s going on here?”
The Wonderbolt’s expression remained the same, though he did bite at his lip. “Long or short version?”
Okay, she thought, this isn’t the same Soarin’ I’ve met before. Something’s up.
“Short version? I’m supposed to get you back to the Apples soon.”
“Spitfire put me on leave because she thinks I’m overworking, I came here because of the pie I got at the Grand Galloping Gala, and then I get kissed by somepony I barely know. And now I’m wondering exactly where my life went wrong.”
“All right, I don’t know where to begin with most of that, but you have been overdoing it. I’ve watched your practices, and you’re the first one on and the last one off the field, every time.”
“I’m one of the wing leaders, it’s expected of me!”
“And Spitfire’s the lead Wonderbolt, and even she knows when to tone it down.”
“I don’t have to listen to this,” Soarin’ groused, flipping over onto his stomach and closing his eyes.
Dash planted her hooves on her hips. “Maybe not, but I said I’d get your backside to Sweet Apple Acres, and I’m gonna do it, one way or another!”
Soarin’s response was to snort loudly and screw his eyes tighter... only to snap them open and dart them about a second later, when his perch started moving. “That’s not fair!”
“Tell it to the judge, pie-hips!”
Panicked, the Wonderbolt started flapping his wings in an attempt to counter the mare’s pushing. “I could have you written up for this!” he bellowed.
“Hah! Nice try, I’m not a Wonderbolt yet! And what’d it say, ‘Rainbow Dash was forcing me to face my problems’? Like that’d fly!”
Soarin’ groaned and redoubled his efforts, and was mildly heartened to see his movement slow further.
“Oooh, somepony wants to play hardball! Well, let’s see how you handle this!”
He let out a loud yelp as his hard work went to naught, and he and his cloud shot towards the house he’d so recently vacated. “I’m not going back there!”
Rainbow Dash gave her victim a sly smirk, then suddenly began spinning the cloud, disorienting him further. The Wonderbolt squeaked and clung as tightly to his roost as he could.
Oh, that’d be a waste of pie, he groaned as his stomach protested. He was used to stunts, but this was new, unpleasant, and out of his control. To his great relief, the horrible movement stopped.
As soon as he felt safe enough to open his eyes, Dash used the last trick she had: inverting his cloud, and him on it.
He hit the ground with a quiet thud, and the mare gave him a taunting salute as she absconded with his former resting place. “See ya around, blue boy! Big Mac’s got my back.”
Soarin’ blinked a bit and craned his head back further... and let out a defeated sigh when he saw Big Macintosh looking down at him expressionlessly.
“Ah’m pleased t’ see you, too.”
Soarin’ covered his face with his hooves. “All right, just... get it over.”
Nothing happened for long enough that the pegasus finally peeked out from behind his hooves. To his bemusement, Big Mac was holding out one of his hooves to help him up.
Soarin’ took it and hauled himself upright, and spent a few moments dusting himself off and putting his feathers back in place. Throughout it all, the Apple remained silent.
Finally, the Wonderbolt cracked. “Just what it is it you want from me?” he challenged.
Big Macintosh plucked a hay stem from his collar, inspected it closely, and and chewed on it placidly, seemingly thinking the question over, much to his guest’s growing annoyance. “Ah suppose,” he finally said, “that Ah want t’ hear your side o’ things.”
“My side of things? Well, let’s see... your relative almost poisoned me, then made me what looked like something halfway edible, and then kissed me when I was about to actually eat something.”
The stem of grass flicked to the other side of Big Mac’s mouth. “Ah concede it might ba mite unexpected, but where’s the problem?”
“Where is the problem?”
Soarin’ stared at Macintosh, jaw working silently.
“Th’ way Ah see it, there can be more’n one problem here. So, was it th’ fact that y’ got a kiss, th’ fact that it was from a stallion, or th’ fact that it was cousin Brae who did the kissin’. Ah’d not take offense if’n it were th’ last, Ah know how Braeburn can get under a pony’s skin.”
Soarin’ shut his muzzle, and Big Macintosh noted with some pleasure that the other stallion seemed to be thinking about the answer, rather than just making a snappy reply.
“It’s all three,” he finally admitted in a voice so hushed Mac barely heard him.
“All three? Ah must say, Ah wasn’t expectin’ that for a reply. So, since Ah’ve got nowhere t’ be, an’ Ah don’t think you do either, how ‘bout y’ tell me about it?”
Instead of answering, Soarin’ sat down and crossed his legs. Then uncrossed them. Big Mac took the opportunity to gaze at the stars and moon, until finally Soarin’ sighed hard.
“If I tell you, do you promise not to tell anypony else?”
Macintosh chewed his hay for what felt like hours to the pegasus. “Y’ know,” Mac rumbled, engrossed in examining the stem between his teeth, “Ah can’t promise that, seein’ as Ah don’t know what y’ have t’ say. And, since it affects my family and all, Ah don’t know if Ah’d be keepin’ it if Ah did promise you.”
“At least you’re honest about it,” Soarin’ complained.
“And y’ haven’t left yet, so Ah’m guessin’ deep down, y’ want t’ tell somepony ‘bout it. Why not me?”
Soarin’ opened his mouth to make a retort, then hesitated. The only reasons that came to mind seemed silly while sitting on a farm porch at night. He wasn’t in Cloudsdale, there wasn’t the rabid fanbase for the Wonderbolts out here; in fact, half the time he went out in public in Ponyville he was totally ignored, and the other half he was only given the attention of an unfamiliar face.
Barring Rainbow Dash, of course, but Dash already knew about him. Or at least his public persona. “Okay, you win.”
Big Macintosh smiled slightly. “So, startin’ at the beginnin’. Why’s it so bad that y’ got a kiss?”
“Well, uh...” Soarin’ started speaking, hesitated, coughed a few times, made a thorough exploration of the planks under him with his eyes, tried to identify any number of new constellations, and finally snuck a glance at Big Macintosh.
Who looked like he wasn’t paying any attention.
“Do you care or not?” Soarin’ snapped.
Macintosh shrugged. “Ah care, Ah’m just waitin’ for y’ to get around to it.”
Soarin’ dropped his head, sighed, and in a wretched tone, finished his earlier sentence. “I haven’t... look, for the last seven years, I’ve not had a date. On purpose.”
Big Mac scratched at his chin. “Ah can see why a kiss could come as a bit o’ a shock. Somethin’ wrong with stallions, then?”
The Wonderbolt clamped his eyes shut. “Only that it’s easier to laugh it off from a mare.”
The Apple chewed on the grass in his mouth for a moment or two. “Ah take it that the two answers are related.”
“Yes, yes they are.” Soarin’ covered his eyes with his hooves. “I tried dating one of the other Wonderbolts, it ended badly - really badly. Lawyers were involved, there were rumors and photographs and accusation of scandal flying around... Just not trying again was safer.”
Mac winced. “Ah’m sorry t’ hear that. Ah’ve not always had th’ best of luck either, but not as bad as you.”
“Yeah, well, there you have it.”
“And m’ cousin? Ah assume you don’t think much of him from how he’s actin’.”
Soarin’ rubbed at his face. “That’s not helping, but... look, how old is he?”
“Just a few years younger’n Ah am, not that Ah’d say that matters much.”
“I’m old enough to be your father.”
“Well, that-” Big Mac blinked as his train of thought slammed into a brick wall. “Care t’ repeat that?”
“I’m not a young pony, Big Macintosh. I’m the reason the current Wonderbolts are around - Celestia disbanded the original company about two centuries ago.”
“And y’ decided t’ bring ‘em back?”
Soarin’ uncovered his eyes and looked at the sky. “Sure. The old Wonderbolts were a military group, but after eight hundred years, they weren’t doing much, so Celestia got rid of them. I proposed, well, recreating them the way they are now, as the best fliers in Equestria. Give pegasi something to strive for, you know?”
“Ah suppose Ah can understand that,” replied Big Macintosh, crushing a portion of hay stem between his teeth. “So y’ aren’t that much of a fightin’ group any more? You Wonderbolts are always the first to deal with trouble, it seems.”
“Well, yes. We’re the first responders, but it’s more of a stopgap for the Royal Guardsponies. If we can deal with it, great, if not, better help’s on the way.”
Mac grunted. “Makes sense, but we kinda got distracted from the real question here. What’s wrong with Brae?”
Soarin’ drooped. “I thought I told you. For one, I’m too old, for another, he’s...”
“A jackass, Ah know. But y’ don’t look your age, so it’s not like Braeburn’d know, and Ah can tell y’ he’s not usually like how y’ saw him. Well,” he added conscientiously, “not manners an’ such. He kinda always makes passes at ponies he finds attractive.”
“Hah,” the Wonderbolt snorted, “that’s supposed to make me feel better?”
Mac grinned around his hay stem. “Made y’smile at least.”
The statement made Soarin’ lift a hoof and waggle it threateningly at the other stallion, but with no actual malice behind it.
“Look, Ah’m not gonna force it on y’ or anythin’, but it’s gettin’ late an’ we should probably be gettin’ to bed soon. You’ll be comin’ back to talk t’ my cousin, right?” At Soarin’s disbelieving eyebrow, Big Macintosh sighed. “Just t’ talk. He’s sorely lackin’ in friends.”
“I... suppose I can do that at least.”
“G’night then, Soarin’.” With that, the Apple took his leave, and the Wonderbolt followed suit, flying slowly to the hotel he slept in, deep in thought.
Upon re-entering his home, Mac was entirely unsurprised to find Applejack waiting for him.
“So, how’d it go?” she asked without preamble.
Big Mac shrugged. “Ah suppose as well as possible. He said he’d come back to talk to Brae, so that’s that.”
AJ snorted. “Better than I ‘spected, ‘specially with Braeburn being, well, Braeburn. G’night, Macintosh. We’ll deal with the rest of this mess in the mornin’!”
Mac nodded and followed her up the stairs, then parted ways with her in the hallway. He collapsed onto his bed and stared at the Smarty Pants doll. Soarin’, old enough t’ be my father. Brae, y’ sure can pick ‘em...
The next morning found Applejack and Big Macintosh just putting the final touches on a now-spotless kitchen when Apple Bloom stumbled through the door with tears in her eyes.
AJ and Big Mac shared a look, but before either could ask what the matter was, the filly started sobbing uncontrollably.
“Granny ain’t wakin’ up!”