He’s runnin’ late, Big Macintosh thought to himself as he idly drummed a hoof on the restaurant’s table.
Not that he was surprised. Despite how much the poor pony tried, something was bound to go wrong for Caramel. It was just how things seemed to work around the tan stallion, and by now both he and Macintosh had simply come to accept it.
Big Macintosh had a sneaking suspicion that his placid allowance for the myriad disasters that followed in his coltfriend’s wake was yet another reason why Caramel was so enamored of him.
Not that he was complaining.
Once more he snuck a glance at the nearest clock. Unsurprisingly, it showed that the eldest Apple’s date was fifteen minutes behind for their late lunch.
At least it’s not an hour, like last time, he consoled himself.
Just then, Caramel turned the street corner at a dead run, charging towards the diner and Big Macintosh’s table in particular. The red stallion started to rise, concerned. If he doesn’t slow down...
As soon as he completed the thought, Caramel started to throttle his pace back; unfortunately, it was too little, too late, and his hooves slid out from under him when he was within two feet of his partner.
Predictably, the poor pony crashed into the table leg with a loud crash, and Big Macintosh silently thanked Celestia that the table wasn’t made of glass.
The pair had learned that lesson a while ago, and apparently so had the restaurants of Ponyville. Any time that Macintosh and Caramel ate away from their homes, they were always seated at the most... robust location.
“Are y’ all right?” Big Mac asked as he leaned over to check on his date.
“I’m fine, I’m fi-” Caramel began. He didn’t finish, however, as he whacked his head on the wooden underside. “Ow...”
“Are y’ sure?” Macintosh asked as he shifted closer to check on the other pony. As it turned out, he ended up a little too close, as this time Caramel struck Mac’s forehead with his own.
Partially stunned, the Apple sat back and shook his head a few times in an attempt to clear it.
“Just what’s your skull made of, Caramel?”
Caramel flushed pink as he pulled himself out from under the table. “Sorry, Mac. I was in a bit of a hurry because two packages somehow got their labels swapped, and I had to redeliver them and make it out to you...” He ducked his head. “Sorry.”
“T’ ain’t a problem. Y’ said Derpy was goin’ t’ meet us here?”
Almost immediately Caramel perked back up. “Yeah! She kept teasing me about how I was always talking about you, but how she’d never really had a chance to meet you aside from some deliveries...” he trailed off. “Well, eventually, I gave in and agreed we should all have lunch together after her shift, so she could meet ‘the famous Mr. Macintosh’.”
“Ah see,” Big Mac grinned. “Just what have y’ been tellin’ her, Caramel?”
This time Caramel turned a bright red. “Nothing like that! Just... stuff. Everyday stuff.”
“Maaaac...” Caramel sighed. Before he could come up with a proper reply, their waiter wordlessly arrived with two plates of dandelion and burdock salad, two glasses of water, and a cold, wet washcloth for Caramel’s head.
“Mac... did you order before I got here?”
“I think we’ve been here a bit too often, then.” The waiter simply grinned and moved to visit another family. Caramel took a bite before continuing, “have you seen Derpy yet? She’s sometimes late, but nothing like this.”
Wordlessly, Mac shook his head, and the other pony sighed.
“I hope she’s okay.”
Big Macintosh swallowed. “Ah doubt she’s come t’ harm. Somethin’ probably sprang up at the last minute. Y’ know how that can happen.”
“I know, but she’s still a friend. I’m allowed to worry.”
Mac opened his mouth to soothe his date, but was interrupted by a voice from above them.
“Hey, Caramel, there you are.”
The tan pony looked up. “Burl? What’s the problem?”
“Eh, there’s not really a problem... Dinky’s laid up with a cold and I was just over there, and Derpy asked me to come tell ya that she couldn’t make it...” The pegasus coughed.
A sly grin spread over Caramel’s face. “Soo, are you dating her yet?”
Burl gave his employee an offended look. “And just what business is it of yours?”
“None at all. I just happened to see some daisies sticking out of your packs, and those happen to be Derpy and Dinky’s favorite flowers to snack on when they’re feeling a little down...”
“All right, all right,” Burl groaned. “Maybe there might be something. But you better not mention this to her or your haunches’ll be out on the curb.”
Caramel waved a hoof as his boss flapped off with an air of offended dignity.
“Caramel, are y’ sure y’ should’ve made him upset with you? You heard what he said about your job...”
The tan stallion grinned. “Don’t worry, that’s just how he is, all wind and bluster. If there’s one thing he likes, it’s being able to complain. In fact, sometimes I think that’s why he hired me - so he’ll always have something to gripe about!”
Big Macintosh snorted, but resumed his meal with a smile. It was something of a relief to hear his partner joke about his penchant for ill luck.
“So, how’re things at your place, Mac?” Caramel’s tone was carefully neutral.
“More o’ the same, really,” came the reply. “Applejacks’ always gettin’ wound up over somethin’, Apple Bloom’s still gettin’ her tail in a twist ‘bout her cutie mark, Granny’s slowin’ down in her old age, an’ Brae is... Brae.”
“So, still a jerk,” Caramel muttered, not quite under his breath. All Big Macintosh could do was nod his agreement.
The pair continued to eat in companionable silence, until Big Mac suddenly froze, and then with equal speed ducked under the table.
“Mac? What’s gotten into... oh.” Caramel followed the poorly-hidden stallion’s gaze and coughed awkwardly when he saw Cheerilee coming their way. “I don’t think she saw you...”
“Ah don’t care. Ah don’t want t’ have t’ explain what Ah’m doin’.”
Caramel rubbed his face with a hoof. “Mac, with all the rumors about us, I doubt that she hasn’t heard one by now. Plus, she’s Apple Bloom’s teacher, and you know how much your little sister likes to talk sometimes.”
“Ah don’t care. Ah’m not movin’.”
Caramel groaned. “There’s really no call for this,” he complained, mostly to himself.
“Afternoon, Caramel,” Cheerilee called as soon as she caught sight of him. She barely spared a glance at Big Mac’s hindquarters clearly sticking out of “concealment”. “How’re you today?”
“Not too badly, all things considered,” the deliverypony replied. “Just having a meal with Mac here.”
“Traitor,” hissed the Apple, from under the table.
Cheerilee seated herself across from the two stallions. “So, you are seeing each other then?”
“Don’t tell her anything!” whispered the table. It was ignored.
“Eeeeyup. For a few months now.” Caramel shot a look at the red legs jutting out along the ground.
“I see...” Cheerilee murmured, then leaned over with a sly grin. “Does he still snore?”
“Oh, no. Tell me y’ aren’t doin’ this t’ me.”
“Like a sawmill!”
“Caramel, Ah’m beggin’ ya, don’t...”
“Let me guess,” Cheerilee continued, “he still hogs all the covers in his sleep, then gets grumpy and half-awake when you try to get them back?”
“Ugh, all the time! And if you let him, Mac’ll sleep in for hours, and it’s like trying to wake up a rock.”
“Like you’re one t’ talk!” Mac snapped, surfacing from the subtablean depths. “Ah’ve tried t’ get you outta bed for three hours runnin’ once!” He paused as soon as he finished speaking, realizing how he had just broken cover. “Oh, buck.”
“Oh, Big Macintosh!” Cheerilee said cheerfully, as though he had just walked over, “how nice to see you again!”
“Evenin’, miss Cheerilee,” he gulped. Ah’m dead, Ah’m dead, Ah’m dead, Ah’m dead...
“So, you and Caramel are getting along well, then?”
“No major fights lately or anything?”
“Are you going to give me any other answer other than yes or no?”
The mare sighed. “Macintosh Apple, I’m not going to bite your head off. We didn’t exactly part on... amicable terms, but that was years ago. I’ve gotten over it.” She smiled at him, the expression both distant and a trifle wistful. “At least one of us has.”
“‘Lee...” Mac swallowed. “Ah’m sorry.”
She laid a hoof over his. “I know. As though the way you’ve avoided me all this time wasn’t enough of a hint. So,” she continued brightly, turning to face the other member of the group, “you’ve been keeping an eye on him, have you?”
“I’ve tried,” Caramel admitted, “but sometimes our schedules don’t work out, or something comes up... we were actually supposed to meet somepony here today, but her foal got sick and she had to cancel at the last minute.”
“Oh dear... that wouldn’t be little Dinky Doo would it? She wasn’t feeling very well earlier today, so I sent her home. And don’t frown at me like that, Caramel, I called her mother to let her know.”
“That explains why Burl was out and about. He must have picked up the rest of the deliveries she had to do.” Caramel grinned. “That must have been something to see. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him move from behind his desk.” He paused. “Well, aside from that time he was training Derpy after she got hired. Honestly, I think he lives back there.”
“Well, maybe if he’s successful courtin’ Derpy, he’ll have someplace more comfortable t’ live,” Macintosh rumbled. Now that the topic was on slightly safer ground, he felt more at ease speaking.
Cheerilee blinked, then broke out into a wide smile. “Oh, that’d be wonderful news! Dinky’s told me that it sometimes gets lonely having to wait for her mother to get home, and she seems to like Burl; she’ll chatter all about how he comes to visit.”
“From what little he’s said, he seems to adore her,” Caramel admitted. “Not that he says a lot. It’s pretty clear he wants it to stay private.”
“Ah can’t say Ah blame him for wantin’ private affairs t’ stay private.”
“You’re one to talk, Macintosh, what with kissing Caramel in the middle of the market,” Cheerilee teased.
“Horseapples, that was all Caramel’s doin’.”
Caramel groaned and sank down to the tabletop. “Thanks for bringing that up again.”
“If you’d ignored Brae, it wouldn’t be causin’ you so much grief. ‘Sides, it’s not like Ah’m bothered by it.”
“Mac,” sighed Caramel, “I’ve only seen you get upset once, and that was at your cousin. Even then, you’ve got the patience of Celestia herself.”
Cheerilee had been watching the repartee with thinly-disguised curiosity. “Family trouble?”
“Y’ could say that. My cousin’s been stayin’ with us for a while an’ he’s...” Big Mac hesitated as he searched for the best way to phrase it.
“A self-centered git with the morals of a cat in heat,” muttered Caramel. Macintosh sighed.
“He’s not always like that. Somethin’ happened to make him act like it, though. Whatever it is, he ain’t tellin’.”
“I still don’t like him.”
“Ah’m not askin’ ya to. Just sayin’ there’s more to ‘im than y’ saw.”
“Are... you sure everything is all right?” Cheerilee asked tentatively.
“Pretty sure. Though Ah’m still a little sore from th’ last time Caramel-”
“Oh Celestia we are not talking about this,” Caramel interrupted, his face a bright red. Both Cheerilee and Big Macintosh shared a grin at the flushed pony’s face, though the mare’s quickly sobered.
“That reminds me... Big Macintosh, after we went our separate ways...” she hesitated before continuing, “just how many mares did you... ‘spend time’ with?”
Mac choked, and this time it was his turn to feel blood rushing to his face and ears. “‘Lee! Why’re y’ askin’ that?!”
She traced a nervous pattern on the tabletop as she replied. “It’s a rather personal question, I know, but I was thinking about our history, and, well... don’t you find it a little odd that none of them ever claimed to have your foal?”
“‘Lee, y’ aren’t sayin’...”
“I just think, well, maybe you should see somepony about it? Caramel, isn’t your father a doctor?”
The tan pony spluttered a bit. “He is... but I’m not going to go with you if you visit his practice. Nothing personal but...” he trailed off at the other ponies’ faces. “We don’t see eye-to-eye, and we don’t talk much. I really prefer to avoid him, okay?”
An awkward quiet descended, pierced by the occasional cough, and the waiter arriving to clear the table.
Eventually, Big Macintosh spoke up. “If y’ think it’s a good idea, ‘Lee, Ah’ll go. The clinic ought t’ be open for a while longer. Caramel, if it’s that important to you, Ah won’t make y’ come along.”
Caramel slumped with relief. “Thanks, Mac.”
“I’ll go with you,” At the stallions’ stare, Cheerilee forced a smile. “It was my suggestion, after all.”
All three nodded and got up. “I’ll get the bill, Mac,” Caramel grinned lopsidedly.
“Thanks. Ah’ll get the next one.” He turned to Cheerilee and gestured with a hoof. “After you, ‘Lee.”
Big Macintosh stared at the ceiling, counting the tiles for the fifth time. Cheerilee sat next to him, flipping through Haylights for Foals and tut-tutting at every error she found.
As the only two occupants of the waiting room, the pair occasionally exchanged glances, the question of why they’d been waiting for so long silently shared between them.
At last the door to the examination rooms opened, and a familiar-looking yellow unicorn peered through. He looked down at his clipboard, used his magic to adjust his glasses, cast his eyes over to the two potential patients, and in a disinterested tone called out, “Macintosh Apple?”
“Ah’m right here,” he answered, biting back the addition of “as y’ can clearly see”.
“If you’ll just wait in room number three, I’ll be with you shortly. You can read which is which, correct?”
“Ah can assure you that Ah don’t have the slightest bit o’ trouble with that,” he answered bitterly as he entered the room with Cheerilee. The unicorn shut the door behind them, and both ponies gave each other a long look.
“If he’s always like that, I can see why Caramel doesn’t want to deal with his father very much,” Cheerilee said quietly. Big Macintosh nodded.
“If’n his father’s always like this, it’s a wonder Caramel’s as nice a pony as he is.”
Any further conversation was prevented as the unicorn returned, levitating his clipboard and pen. “I am Doctor Stable. You are here for a basic fertility check, correct?” At Macintosh’s nod, he continued in the same clinically detached tone. “You are also the stallion that the rumor mill claims is in a relationship with my colt Caramel, yes?”
Before either Big Mac or Cheerilee formed a response, the doctor added in the same emotionless voice, “I’m glad to see that is not the case, as you’re here with a mare instead of him. Now then, as for that exam...” Ignoring his patient’s face, along with Cheerilee’s, he suspended a half-hoop and attached curtain over the Apple’s hindquarters. “Don’t move, please. This will only take a moment.”
Cheerilee watched Macintosh’s reaction to the spell with amusement - one of his eyes widened dramatically and the iris shrank, while the other eye’s lower lid twitched wildly.
“C-c-c-c-cold!” he managed.
“Yes, that’s intentional,” Doctor Stable absently commented as he scribbled notes onto his papers. “The original version had the patients feeling warmth instead, and the developer of the spell decided to change it to something less potentially embarrassing.”
“Are y’ d-d-d-done, doc?” Mac gritted out, resisting the urge to shift around to escape the chilling magic. It wouldn’t do any good, he knew, but it’d at least make him feel like he was getting something done.
“Hm? Oh, yes, I finished a minute ago. I’m just checking the results against the charts.”
“Y’ think y’ could cancel the buckin’ spell, then, doc?” Big Macintosh’s chest heaved from the effort it took to avoid dancing about the room.
Doctor Stable looked up from his forms, frowning. “Cancel the...? Ah.” Big Mac let out a sigh of relief as the cold vanished.
Secretly, he felt he probably would’ve preferred the original version, embarrassing or not. And, he admitted to himself, it wasn’t anything Cheerilee hadn’t seen before.
Speakin’ of Cheeriliee... he glanced over her and frowned in annoyance when he saw her covering her mouth with her hooves in an effort not to laugh. As soon as she caught sight of his expression, it only seemed to set her off again as she rocked back and forth on the bench.
“All right, doc, what d’ your tests have t’ say?”
The unicorn tucked his pen into his coat pocket, floated the clipboard up against his side, and turned to leave. “I’m afraid, Mr. Apple,” he began, his tone indicating that he had no emotional investment with his patient at all, “that you’re completely sterile. Good day, do see the receptionist about your bill.” With that, he departed, leaving the door open behind him. Both earth ponies stared at the doorway, mouths hanging open in shock.
“Mac?” Cheerilee ventured. “Are you okay?”
Big Macintosh closed his mouth, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “Ah... don’t rightly know. Ah’m a bit shook up at the moment, an’ it’s takin’ a bit to sink in.” He shook his head. “But Ah know for a fact one o’ the first things Ah’m gonna do is give Caramel a good, long hug. Ah don’t know how he managed t’ avoid goin’ crazy with that for a dad.”
Cheerilee nodded, then managed a slight smile. “Just a hug?”
“Well, normally Ah’d say it’d be more’n that. Ah just don’t know after that bit o’ news.”
Quietly, she watched him leave. “I can’t say I can blame you for that.”
Deep in thought, Big Macintosh headed for his home.
Big Macintosh leaned against one of the porch’s posts and sighed again. He could make out his sister and Rainbow Dash’s voices, though what they were saying was too muffled to understand.
Ah’m just delayin’ the inevitable, Ah know, he thought, staring at the door. He really didn’t want to have to explain his mood to Applejack, because he knew she’d get bent out of shape over it, and then he’d have to explain why he was so... out of sorts, and that’d only make things worse.
He was saved by the door banging open and a multi-colored blur of pegasus pony smacking into him. Fortunately for him, she hadn’t had a chance to build up speed. “Huf! Dash, what’s goin’ on?”
“Heeeeey, Big Mac! Soooo, BraeburnjusttriedtomakeoutwithSoarin’andifIfindhimcanyoutalktohimaboutyourcousin? Great, thanks!”
With that she was gone.
“Now jus’ what’s she gone and gotten me into?” he muttered as he peered into the house. “AJ? What’s all this about Brae and Soarin’?”
“It’s a long story, Macintosh. Sit down an’ I’ll fill ya in.”