Disclaimer: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and its characters are the property of Hasbro, Lauren Faust, and all her minions. I claim no ownership and seek no profit.
Applejack shook her head, looking at the mountainous form of Big Macintosh, sitting out on the front porch of their home gazing up at the summer night's sky. Many found the huge farm-pony to be an enigma; as far back as she could remember he'd always been a quiet one. But for Applejack, her brother was an open book. And right now, he was a sad story.
"Got room for me?" she asked, trotting up to the porch. Macintosh turned his eyes from the stars and glanced at her briefly.
"Eeyup. What's with the saddle bags?" he asked.
"Took a trip down to the root cellar," she said. She opened the flap on one of her bags, and withdrew two brown glass bottles of the family's homemade hard cider, but not from the same run that the Apple Family sold to the general public. This was from what they'd personally reserved from the best of the lot, strictly for friends and family, and not for those weak at heart - or liver.
She sat the bottles down between them and gave him an intent look. "I think I might be needin' 'em for the conversation I'm 'bout to have."
He raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
"Don'cha give me that," the orange mare said, before picking up one of the bottles in her mouth and deftly popping the cork with her hoof and pouring the amber contents in a mug she'd produced. "I can tell somethin's eatin' at ya. The whole 'Element of Honesty' business works both ways. And I'm not leavin' until ya come clean with me. I can't help ya till ya do."
He sighed. "It's nothin' AJ. I do appreciate ya thinking about me, but nothin' worth worrying 'bout."
"Clearly it's not nothin'," she said as she poured the second bottle for herself. "Ya may be able to pull the wool over the eyes of other ponies, but you and I, we're kin." She took a healthy sip from her mug. "I mean... ever since we've been runnin' this farm I've watched ya. Up before dawn, work twelve hours, back in at dusk. Every day. But lately... twelve hours became fourteen, then sixteen. Heck this is the first time I've actually seen ya today, y'know. Somethin' ain't right, Macintosh, and I'm worried for ya."
Macintosh looked as if he was about to say something for a moment, but then reached for his mug and took a huge drink.
"Drink up. I brought up eight bottles for the two of us to split. An' we're gonna keep drinkin' till ya decide to talk to me," Applejack said firmly.
Macintosh glared at his sister, though there was little heat in it. "Ya sure are a subtle one."
"Hardly, but I get results."
He sighed and turned back to his drink wordlessly.
Applejack finished her first mug and reached in her bag for a second bottle, silently thanking Celestia that she wouldn't be working the fields the next day. This would not be the first time she'd gone cup-for-cup against her elder brother. Despite her smaller size, she could hold her own. Usually. Truth to be told, it was a calculated risk, but one she was fairly confident in; a few drinks had managed to loosen the stoic farm-pony's tongue on occasion in the past.
Macintosh finished his first cup and pushed it away, making as if to leave. "Look, I really do appreciate the concern, AJ, I love ya for it, but I can't sit here 'n do this. I have to work-"
"No ya don't," Applejack cut him off curtly, as she poured a second drink for him. "Ya don't have to work tomorrow. In fact. I highly recommend ya don't," she said ominously.
"But the tomatoes in the south field-"
"There ain't no rain scheduled tomorrow," he said flatly. "I keep up with that kinda stuff."
"It's a very localized storm, I reckon," Applejack said mildly, sipping her cider. "An' by 'localized' I mean that I gave Rainbow Dash six bottles of cider in exchange for keeping an eye on th' Acres and dumping a full thunderhead's worth on top of the area surrounding a certain large, red mule if she spots him."
Macintosh could only gape at her.
"So, ya got tomorrow off. In fact, we all do. So why don't ya sit here, have a drink or two and talk to yer sister?"
He frowned and thudded back down on the porch beside her again, taking the cider she offered and draining about half the cup. He looked as if he wanted to talk, but the minutes continued to pass silently.
"Ooookay, how 'bout we try this, Mac," Applejack said. "I'm going to try this all logical-like. Ya've been down in the dumps since, what? Late spring?" she asked. Truth to be told, Applejack thought she already knew the answer to what the cause of his problem was, but she also knew her brother well enough to know that if she couldn't get him to talk about it before she did, he'd simply deny it. She'd have done much the same thing herself.
He made a non-committal noise and continued to sip his cider.
"Yeah, I thought so too," she mused. "So, what could'a happened that's got ya so bent out of shape? Plantin' went in fine... ain' no evidence of pests on the orchard... Applebloom's grades were very good this time around," Applejack said, a brief look of pride on her own face. "What else could've- oh wait, I remember, that's when Twilight Sparkle moved back to Canterlot," she said offhandedly as she poured yet another cup for herself.
Hearing the large stallion's sudden intake of breath was all the confirmation she needed. She looked back over at Macintosh and caught him looking down at his hooves, a strange expression on his face. Soon enough, he caught her looking, and assumed his usual impassive mask. "Eeyup, that was a sad time for all of us, that's fer sure," he said.
"Sure was," Applejack said. "I mean, she was almost like a sister to me. I'm sure that fancy teachin' job at the Royal Academy is just the sort of thing she's always wanted. But even so, I could tell that a part of her didn' want to go. A big part, in fact." She took another drink and pursed her lips, feeling the tip of her muzzle getting a bit numb. She knew she'd have to finish this soon. "Why, I don' think it's terrible far-fetched to wonder that if maybe if she'd been asked the right way, by the right pony-"
"Applejack," Macintosh said quietly, bringing her up short for a moment. He rarely used her full name. "I think maybe ya let yer imagination run a bit wild, here."
"Have I?" she asked archly. "Well then obviously there's some other thing I'm missin' here. Do enlighten me," she said, giving him a long look over her mug as she sipped.
After a moment's resistance, he ducked his head. "Am I really that easy to read? I mean... how many of th' others-"
"None," Applejack said gently, "None of them seem to have noticed, near as I can tell. So I'm thinkin' the secret's safe. But now I gotta ask why this is even a secret 'n the first place. Bein' sweet on Twilight Sparkle, that's hardly somethin' ya should be ashamed of. I mean, she's a great mare. She's pretty, she's real smart, got a good heart. Maybe a mite bit high-strung at times, but that's not somethin' the right stallion could help out with," she said, giving her brother's shoulder a slight nudge. It was nigh impossible to tell if the red farm-pony was blushing, but she was fairly certain of it. "Maybe yer that stallion. I know yer a shy one, Mac, ya always have been, but you should give it a go. Bet she'd like ya plenty."
"That's real nice to hear, AJ," he said softly. "An' I know yer tellin' the truth. I could never talk to a mare like her, though. Like ya said, she's a smart one. Really, really smart. The Princess' star pupil." He had finally stopped actively avoiding Applejack's eyes, and she could she how genuinely sad he was. "If I ever tried to talk to her, I'd mess up and she'd just think I was some sort of dumb yokel."
Applejack ground her teeth in irritation. 'Don'cha put yerself down like that," she said hotly. "Cuz we both know that's horseapples. A dumb pony couldn't do all this," she said, gesturing out to the orchard. "Even if a lot of ponies don't know it, we both know that there's a heck of a lot more to runnin' this show than buckin' trees and draggin' plows. It takes a strong brain and a strong back to do this, especially as young as ya had to start, after Ma and Pa died." There was brief surge of emotion at the thought of her dearly departed parents, but it wasn't overwhelming after so many years. "Remember, ya ran the farm practically by yerself for a good long while till I came of age."
"Granny Smith showed me most of the business end of it, though," he said.
"That's true, she showed ya, then you went and did it all yerself. Takes smarts to pick that up so easy, and don't ya forget who showed me how things were done. " She gave him a warm smile and patted his shoulder with a free hoof as she sipped her drink, feeling the pleasant warmth of the alcohol. "Always wondered if ya might eventually strike out on yer own, start yer own farm, sorta like Braeburn did. After ya met a nice mare, that is," she said knowingly.
"If ya mean Twilight Sparkle, I guess that ship's sailed, ain't it?" Macintosh said bitterly. "Fact is, I was too shy to talk to her. I just get quiet around pretty mares." At his sister's rather incredulous look, he shrugged. "Alright, quiet-er."
"Maybe so, but it's hardly too late," Applejack said. "I mean, she's only been gone a couple months, I doubt she's met a stallion that quick, even in Canterlot." Truth to be told, Applejack was almost totally confident Twilight hadn't; her friend was almost as awkward with stallions as her brother was with mares, but she wasn't going to talk bad about her friend behind her back, even for her brother's benefit.
"It's... it's a real nice thought, AJ," Macintosh said, "But I guess it is what it is at this point. I can't tell her somethin' like this in a letter, that's just not proper. And I can't just up and go to Canterlot. Yer gonna need my help around here, especially once the vegetables come in. That's what keeps us goin' until the apples are ready for buckin'."
Applejack groaned inwardly. "Confound ya and yer logic," she muttered. "All right, but this ain't over, brother-mine," she warned, before leaning over and giving him a quick nuzzle. "I just don' like to see ya sad, y'know?"
"I'll be all right," he said, returning her affectionate gesture. "Thank ya for caring so. Yer a great sister, AJ."
She nodded. "I know," she said without a trace of modesty, which earned a laugh from him. "But...we're still off tomorrow, and it'd be a shame to let the rest of this cider go to waste, right?"
As the sun began to crest the horizon the next morning, Big Macintosh could definitely feel the effects of not letting the previous night's cider go to waste. The headache and dry mouth were less than pleasant, but not anything beyond endurance. He slid out of his bed, washed up in the hall bath and shrugged his way into his harness much as he would on any morning. As quietly as he could manage, he crept downstairs and grabbed a small basket of apples for an impromptu breakfast as he got prepared for his day. Holding the basket in his mouth, he worked the outside door open with a hoof-
And then found himself looking into the bloodshot eyes of his little sister.
"Oh, uh- mornin' AJ," he said, after hastily setting down his basket.
"Mornin'." She was clearly not pleased. She was also clearly quite hung over.
"Uh, ee- I was just- I mean- whatcha doin' up so early?"
"Oh, just meetin' someone," she said. She turned and waved a hoof up at the sky, and Mac could see a small blue figure perched on a tiny, solitary dark raincloud return the gesture.
Applejack turned back to him with a penetrating look. "So whatcha got planned for yer day off?" she asked, almost sweetly.
Macintosh had totally forgotten about the previous night's ultimatum. He knew Rainbow Dash would follow through on his sister's threat with glee. "I was..." He racked his brain for an excuse, then remembered the basket of apples. "Apple Waffles for breakfast?" he said with a slightly forced grin.
She gave him a long look, then walked in, giving his shoulder a firm bump as she passed him. "I like mine a touch burnt, just around th' edges."
"Plenty of syrup too."
Mac let out the breath he didn't know he'd been holding; not the most graceful dodge ever, but he'd take it. Before he closed the front door he noted yesterday's mail still laying on the doorstep, and slipped it into the basket to carry back inside.
His sister was finishing a large glass of water, and was about to pour herself a second as Macintosh entered the kitchen. "Why'd I let you talk me into doin' all that drinkin' last night? Darn foolish idea," she chided her brother.
He chuckled softly. "Lots o' water, AJ, and you'll be right as rain in no time," he said as he sat the basket on the table. "Take a look at th' mail while I get breakfast started. I can have it ready before Applebloom and Granny Smith wake up." The two siblings habitually rose earlier than the other two family members.
Macintosh could hear the envelopes being opened as he turned to the counter and began mixing ingredients for the waffle batter. A moment later, his sister gave a rather amused little laugh. "Letter from Cousin Braeburn," she said. "He says hello, asks about Granny and Applebloom and-"
"Needs a loan," Macintosh finished for her as he finished the batter and began mincing the apples that would be added in. "How much?"
"Not much this time," Applejack replied. "Says he's runnin' for Mayor of Appleoosa, and is askin' for a 'contribution.'"
"But we don' live in Appleoosa," Macintosh said. "Is that even allowed?"
"I dunno. But I will say maybe it's a good move for Braeburn. That pony's got the gift o' gab, sure enough, and he does love that little town. Handled himself real fine in that ruckus w' the buffalo while me and the gang was there."
He nodded, recalling the story. "I guess we can help out, if it's allowed. We had a good year last year."
"The best year in the history of Sweet Apple Acres!" Applejack said, setting the letter aside and sipping her water. "That new Ambrosia hybrid really paid off. I admit, a few years ago, I was skeptical, even if they were Ma and Pa's last project. Those trees just looked like runts, to me, but when they finally came through..." she grinned. "An apple that'll keep for six months or more? Who'd have thunk? You can ship th' things all over Equestria, and they'll still taste like they just came off of th' tree!"
He smiled and nodded. "Our folks were smart ponies, comin' up with that."
"My brother's a smart pony for talkin' me out of clearin' that field for somethin' else," she added.
"Applebloom helped," Macintosh said. "Ya can't say no to those eyes."
She chuckled. "Yeah and she's the one that told Twi, who told people she knew back in Canterlot, and got our stuff sellin' there."
"Too bad she didn' get a cutie mark for it," he said with a smile. "She probably deserved it."
Applejack laughed. "I'm glad she didn't. All that energy of hers needs to go somewhere, at least till she's old enough to really help out on the farm."
Breakfast was done shortly thereafter, and Macintosh and his sister ate in quiet, companionable silence, enjoying the food and the calm before Applebloom and Granny Smith woke for the day. As they ate Applejack nosed through the rest of the pile of mail, picking out an envelope that stood out from the rest. "Mac, did ya look at this?"
Macintosh set aside his empty breakfast plate to investigate what she'd found. The envelope was large, thick and made from a heavier than usual-seeming paper, possibly quite expensive. He saw that it was addressed to "The Apple Family," and that there was no listed return address. On the back of the envelope, however, where it closed-
"Applejack," he said quietly, "That's the Royal Seal. This is from-"
"The Princesses," she said in awed tones as she touched the red wax sealing the envelope shut.
"Well, go on, then," he urged.
"Well, ya've had more dealin's with the Princesses than I have, that's for certain."
Applejack took a deep breath and broke the seal, extracting the documents contained within. "After a few moments her eyes grew wide. "Macintosh... It's... We're being honored by the Princesses," she said in an awed voice. She cleared her throat slightly and read aloud from the letter.
"'In recognition and appreciation of Tenacity, Ingenuity, and Dedication, we, Their Royal Highnesses Celestia and Luna, do hereby decree that The Apple Family of Ponyville, Proprietors of Sweet Apple Acres, are forthwith from this day to be the sole provider of apples, of all varieties, to the Crown direct and all official facilities in the Royal City of Canterlot.'"
Big Macintosh stared at her, mouth slightly agape. "I... huh, I guess them Ambrosia's were a real big hit, eeyup." he said at last. He moved next to her to drape an affectionate foreleg around her neck.
Applejack was still reading, eyes wide as saucers. "Mac, there's going to be a ceremony in Canterlot in ten days honoring us, giving us some sort of award for 'contributions to agriculture' and some stuff like that. We're requested to have a representative there to accept in person if possible." She looked back at him with a beaming smile. "It's wonderful, Mac! It's the sort of thing Ma and Pa always wanted!"
He smiled. "Hope that dress Miss Rarity made for ya still fits," he noted.
She nodded, but then stopped suddenly, a strange look of concentration coming over her face, as if making a decision. "How 'bout you? You got anything other than that smelly ol' yoke to wear?"
"Beggin' pardon, AJ?"
"Ya heard me, because you're goin' to Canterlot, brother mine," she said firmly.
"Huh? Sis, there's no way, we can't both be away from th' Acres," he said. "Granny Smith can't run the show by herself. You and I are the majority owners, and that's a responsibility."
"Yer absolutely right," she said. "You go, I'm stayin'."
He stared at her in astonishment. "Now that's jus' crazy, AJ. Me in Canterlot? With all those fancy ponies?"
"Sure," she said. "Those fancy ponies need t' be reminded who puts food on on all that expensive china they eat off of." She laughed a little and and gave him an affectionate hug. "Mac, I've been there, I've been honored by the princesses. All that Element of Harmony stuff is grand but sometimes I feel like you ain't appreciated enough. And it doesn't help that ya don't let yourself be appreciated sometimes," she said, giving him a playful little punch in the shoulder. "I'm tired of takin' credit that should'a gone to you all this time and I ain't doin' it now."
Mac looked down at his hooves, so she wouldn't see the worried frown he wore. "I don't do much, Sis. What I do is easy. Anypony can pull a plow. Or arrange the planting, or do th' books. You're the one who sells the apples, and makes the money, and brings in the reward for all the hard work. I mean... shucks, I don' want to embarrass us or anything in front of th' princesses."
"Not just anypony and you know it. Maybe some of them city ponies won't realize proper talkin' when they hear it but I know you don't need to care about them. Twilight's always known just what I've been sayin' and she's the most educated pony I'll ever care to know."
He sighed. "All right, AJ. I'll go."
She grinned and nuzzled his cheek. "Thank ya kindly, big brother."
He returned the gesture, then something she'd said occurred to him. "Applejack, ya sure yer not just insisting I go because of that talk we had last night?"
Applejack's face took on a look of poorly feigned innocence. "Whatever do ya mean, Macintosh Apple?" She patted his cheek. "Now, since ya don't have any work in the fields today... why don't ya dash on over to Rarity's place and get her to make ya up a nice suit?"
"I don't have enough bits for any o' Rarity's sort of clothes," he said.
"Sure ya do," she said. She she shuffled through the stack of papers that had come with the Royal letter, and pulled a particular one out. "The Princesses gave us this letter of credit with the commendation... six months advance on the first load of apples, with a bit additional tacked on to account for securin' transportation of th' apples, hiring on new help to expand our business..." She smiled. "Why don't ya take a look at the number?"
Macintosh did. And he nearly fainted. "That's... a lot o' zeroes..." he said breathlessly.
She nodded. "Yessir, and you don't need to worry none 'bout me runnin' the show back here by myself. I can hire on any help I need with that." She pushed the credit letter over to him. "And have more than enough left over. Now... why don't ya just go ahead and take that to th' bank on your way over to Rarity's?"
He nodded. "Eeyup. I'll get m'bags, " he said before rising to trot back up to his room.
After a moment's wait to make sure he was in his room, Applejack chuckled a little mischievously and quietly slipped from the table to her her own room; she had a letter to write to Princess Celestia. If it all worked out like she was hoping, somepony was going to learn all about friendship, and maybe more.
The trip to Ponyville was not a long one, and was only marred by the over-zealous Rainbow Dash giving him an impromptu shower with her little thundercloud. It took a good minute of explanation to get her to understand that he wasn't actually out to do work, but he finally managed to get through to her. She apologized profusely after turning the rain off, but the stifled giggles had Big Macintosh doubting her sincerity.
Fortunately, the rest of the walk gave him the chance to dry off before stopping off at the bank to deposit the credit from the Royal Treasury. Once that business was attended to (with Macintosh admittedly enjoying the astonished looks the teller gave him when she saw the amount,) Big Mac cut around the edge of town towards Carousel Boutique.
Macintosh had never had occasion to visit the Rarity's place of business before; he was rarely given to wearing any sort of finery. He was somewhat less than surprised to see the building, true to it's name, looked liked a fancy carousel, like one might have seen on an old fairground except merged with some sort of pastel- colored fairy-tale castle. Various little whimsical details in the architecture gave the building an almost surreal quality compared to much of the rest of rustic Ponyville.
Gingerly he approached the door and knocked when he heard a voice call "It's open!" from inside. With a deep breath he entered the building, the bell over the door ringing as he did.
The interior, or at least the first floor of it, was dominated by one large room, decorated in purple and pink drapery, with many fancy gold-framed mirrors all around on the walls. Here and there towards the edges of the room were many ponyquins showing off a wide variety of fanciful feminine garb, many detailed with Rarity's signature gemstones.
Macintosh saw Rarity herself attending to one of these, adjusting an ornate tiara and train on what appeared to be some sort of wedding dress, before turning back to face him. "A good day and welcome to Carousel- Oh, Macintosh! This is a pleasant surprise! ... Wait, it is pleasant, correct? Sweetie Belle didn't do any damage at the sleepover last week? She can be a bit... rambunctious," she noted with a worried look.
"Nope," Big Mac assured her. "All th' girls was very well behaved. Actually, I...um... I'll be needin' your help, Miss Rarity."
"Hm?" the white unicorn asked with a raised brow.
"Eeyup. I um... I'll be needin' some clothes."
"Oh! That's... rather surprising," she mused half to herself. "I mean, I'm sorry, do go on."
Macintosh looked at her helplessly. "Uh, fancy clothes?"
Rarity blinked. "You cannot be just a trifle more specific?"
"I'm real sorry, Miss Rarity, I'm not terribly knowledgeable about these things. Ya see, I've been sorta... invited to this shindig at the castle in Canterlot, an-"
"Oh, why didn't you just say so, dear!" she exclaimed, rushing to his side. "We simply must have you prepared- and did you say 'the castle?' The Princesses will be there?"
"Oh my," Her big blue eyes focused into an intense gaze and she walked slowly all around Macintosh, giving him a look that was frankly a bit too... appraising for his comfort. "Yes, yes," she muttered to herself. "Yes, I think- oh indeed! Very nice."
Big Mac was about to turn to face her. "Uh, Miss Rarity?" He could feel his face heating up.
"No, please hold still, darling, I'm working," she murmured. She was spending an uncomfortable amount of time gazing at his rump, pursing her lips thoughtfully. Then she nodded firmly and walked around to face him. "Indeed! You shall be stunning, Macintosh, simply stunning."
"So, uh... you'll make me a suit?"
"Much more than some mere 'suit,'" she assured him. "I'll make you look positively kingly."
"Nothin' too.. flamboyant," he pleaded.
"Naturally," she said with a glittering smile. "I make clothes to suit the pony, dear, and simplicity can be very dashing. Now, If you'll follow me, I'll get a few measurements." As she walked towards an elevated platform at the back of the room, she levitated a tape measure and a pair of glasses that perched daintily on her muzzle. "Just leave your saddlebags and collar by the door, please."
'A few measurements,' as it turned out, took the better part of the next two hours, during most of which Macintosh had to remain statue-still while the unicorn buzzed around him like a honeybee, always humming or muttering to herself as she measured every single inch of him. Macintosh had seen plenty of unicorns moving objects around with their magic, but Rarity was amazing; scissors, thread, pins, bits of fabric, and a pencil and pen seemed to orbit her all at once, like little moons.
"I do appreciate you being so patient, Macintosh," Rarity said to him as she worked. "I have to be extra-attentive to these templates. After all, I'm not going to find a ponyquin in anything approaching your strapping physique," she said in an appreciative voice. "We are almost finished here, I assure you."
"I thank ya kindly, Miss Rarity," Macintosh said.
"Sooo, this is your first time going to Canterlot?" Rarity asked as she took a measurement from his withers to the point of his shoulders and wrote it down on the note pad that was floating next to her head.
"Eeyup," Macintosh said.
"Exciting," she said. "Oh and while you are there, you simply must call upon Twilight Sparkle. She'll be overjoyed to see you, I'm sure. She grew up there, you know, she could show you where all the fun places are."
"I-I'd really - I mean, eeyup, that would be right nice," he stammered out. The previous night's conversation with his sister was still very in his mind.
Rarity's smile was radiant. "Indeed it will be." She noted a few more numbers on her pad. "There, I think I have what I need. You said this event in Canterlot was ten days hence?" She tapped one hoof on the floor as she thought. "Then you should look to take the train to Canterlot seven days from now. That will give you a day to rest from travel, and a day for you to get your bearings around the city before the ceremony. So... return here in five days, and we'll do a fitting, and if all meets with your approval, that will give me a day to make alterations and perfect the work before delivery."
"I can't thank ya enough for this, Miss Rarity," Macintosh said gratefully. "I'm sure whatever ya make will be great. Should I be giving ya an advance for all the work?"
"I won't hear of it, Macintosh. My personal policy is that payment is collected only once the customer is satisfied. And in this case, no payment shall be necessary."
"Miss Rarity, ya don't have to cut me any special breaks," Big Mac assured her.
"Oh, but Applejack is my friend, and that makes you my friend as well, darling," she said. Then she grinned a bit. "And... I admit, you will actually be doing me a favor."
Mac cocked an eyebrow up curiously.
"I was planning on branching out into gentlecolt's fashions already, but I have not been able to find the proper occasion for my debut, to make the proper... splash," she explained. "Nor a worthy model," she added with a wink.
"Ee- wait, ya mean me?" he asked incredulously. "Miss Rarity, I don't know nothin' about modelin' or doin' anything like that."
"But you don't actually have to do much of anything, dear Macintosh," she said. "Just wear what I design for you, looking just the way you do, and if anypony asks you where you acquired your ensemble, steer them my way, that's all."
"Sounds... easy enough, I s'pose," Mac said.
"Wonderful!" she exclaimed. "Now for colors, I was thinking something in a russet brown, or-" The ringing of the bell over her shop door interrupted them, and Rarity turned to greet her customer. "Welcome to- ah, hello Fluttershy. Wait, is it Wednesday already?"
"Mhm," the soft-spoken pegasus said. "I know how much you love spa-day." The one eye that Macintosh could see peeking out from behind her long shell-pink mane widened when it noticed him. "Hello, Macintosh. I never expected to find you here," she said, shuffling one front hoof nervously. "I'm not interrupting, I hope."
"Hello there, Miss Fluttershy." he greeted her with a polite nod. "Did those animals of yours appreciate the food last week?"
She nodded, her manner a bit less reticent. Big Mac and Applejack often shared surplus fruits and vegetables that weren't market-worthy with Fluttershy to help her keep her menagerie well-fed. "I can't thank you enough, Macintosh. The apples especially - even Angel Bunny liked them!"
"I'm glad t'hear it."
She gave him shy little smile and turned back to Rarity. "Are you too busy for the spa today?"
"Not at all, darling, Macintosh and I are just finishing up, and...hmmm..." She looked at Big Mac with a sort of speculation in her eyes. "Macintosh, my dear, your mane... it really is quite handsome, and the scruffy look is tres chic this season for stallions, certainly. But perhaps just a little judicious trimming, just to accentuate your wonderfully masculine features, and hm..." she tapped one hoof in thought.
"A hoof-polish?" Fluttershy offered.
"Indeed! That is a tremendous idea! You should definitely accompany Fluttershy and myself to the spa."
"Ah, Miss Rarity, I don' think-"
"Please?" she said, with a calculated little toss of her elaborately-curled mane. "It'll help you look your best for Canterlot. That will be doing us both a favor. I'll even treat."
He looked over at Fluttershy. "I don' want to be a bother-"
"Please?" Fluttershy said with a smile that shone with pure innocence, despite apparently being more than willing to help with her friend's plan.
He sighed. "Lemme get my collar."
The following week seemed to fly by. Rarity was as good as her word; the fitting went without a hitch and she promised him that once a few final alterations were done he'd be owner of a suit that would be the envy of every stallion in Canterlot. The double-breasted jacket was a warm golden brown, just a shade or two darker than Macintosh's mane. The outfit also sported an impossibly light white cotton shirt and a green silk tie that Rarity assured him made his eyes 'glow like emeralds.' Big Mac was fairly certain that the fasionista unicorn was being a bit metaphorical but he did have to admit - he didn't look bad at all. As he looked at himself in the mirror at Carousel Boutique Mac felt that perhaps this whole thing wouldn't be so bad after all.
At last the day of departure arrived and after the previous night's inevitable and uproarious Pinkie Pie Party (how she managed to fit near the entire population of Ponyville into their barn, Macintosh still couldn't figure,) Macintosh stood on the train platform with his sister, awaiting the call to board for departure.
"Well, first time leavin' Ponyville, big brother," Applejack said. "Nervous?"
He took a deep breath. "Eeyup, a little."
She gave him a friendly punch on the shoulder. "Yer gonna do just fine, Macintosh. Yer an Apple, after all, and we always float to the top."
"Sis, that's... pretty lame."
"I know, I'll work on it," she said with a grin. She laughed and threw her forelegs around his neck. "I'm mighty proud of ya, Mac. and Ma and Pa would be too."
Macintosh returned the affection in kind. "Eeyup, they'd be real proud of ya too, sis. Ya will tell Applebloom I love her, right? I know she wanted t' be here." he chuckled. "And I think she wanted a day off from school too, th' little scamp."
"I will," Applejack promised. "Granny too."
Just then Big Mac felt a sold impact on his back and there was suddenly a new participant in the hug, pink and with the scent of vanilla and cotton candy. "Awwww, Mackie! I'm going to miss you so much! But I'm so proud that one of my friends is being honored by the Princesses, That's always so great! You need to come back soon so we can have a party in your honor...I mean I know we had a party last night and I'm sorry that the last party was so small but the coming-home party? It's going to be even bigger! Especially if you can get Twilight to come visit us again when her classes are over not that she'd take much convincing, she always loves my parties and I'm sure if you ask her she'd-"
"Uh, I thank ya, Pinkie Pie," Macintosh said as the eccentric pink Mare nuzzled his neck affectionately. "Last night's party was just dandy, ya know, I was real touched." Not to mention fairly tipsy by the end... he was still trying to figure out how he ended up with a lampshade on his head, as there were actually no lamps in the barn where the festivities had taken place. "But... bigger?"
"Mmhm! It's not that you aren't a popular pony, Mackie, it's just that Applejack insisted we only invite ponies of a certain age due to all the special cider, but the coming-home party will be foal-friendly all the way! Miss Cheerilee's students still think the world of you, and-"
"Uh... lookin' forward to it, eeyup," he said nervously.
Pinkie Pie seemed to have gotten completely lost in her ramblings "-And we'll have a party for the orchard, too, because of the big award! It's really exciting that all your work is turning into something that's even more deserving of a party and maybe we could even get Princess Celestia to come! Oh, and Luna too and we could have some fun scares like on Nightmare Night and-"
"Ah, Pinkie Pie," Applejack said, cutting her off gently, "The train'll be boarding soon, and I don't think Mac's got enough room in his saddlebags for ya."
Pinkie Pie nimbly hopped off his back "Okay, but I hope he's got enough room for these!" She reached into her own saddlebags and withdrew a cardboard cake box. A large one, in fact. Probably to large to have actually fit into her saddlebags, but Macintosh chose not to ponder that. Instead he peered into the box as she opened it.
Pinkie Pie nodded vigorously. "Uh-huh! For the train ride! The train food is seriously BLEAAAAAH so I wanted to make sure you had enough to eat for the trip and I think I got one of every flavor I know how to make in there, but then I was like 'OH! But what about all the flavors I don't know how to make!' and so I went and I got Mrs. Cake's special secret recipe book and-"
Big Mac accepted the box. "I thank ya, Miss Pie, I'm sure they're delicious, every one."
Pinkie Pie was about to open her mouth to continue, but fortunately fate intervened. "Macintosh!" came a call from behind him.
He turned towards the voice. "Miss Rarity?"
The unicorn was galloping up from the station to meet them. "Yes, I did want to see you off, and I was worried I'd missed you but I lost track of time working on these." She reached into the saddlebags she was wearing and withdrew several boxes that she passed to Applejack. "There are several more outfits in those, all sized to fit."
"But Miss Rarity, ya already made me clothes for th' ceremony."
"Indeed, but this is Canterlot!" she almost sang. "You never know what sort of company or situations you might find yourself in there, so it's best to be prepared." She smiled warmly, clearly relishing his surprise. "And I'll hear nothing of payment, these are a gift, darling."
"Well, I gotta say, I am overwhelmed," Macintosh said "Ya sure are a true friend."
Applejack spoke up, once she was finished adding the new outfits to Mac's already bulging saddlebags. "Hey, Rarity, what about the..." She made a vague gesture with one fore-hoof.
"Oh yes! Macintosh, at your sister's suggestion, I made contact with some ponies I know in Canterlot on your behalf, just to make sure you're properly taken care of. I even managed to secure the same rooms in the castle for you that I stayed in once, they're simply divine! Oh, and somepony will be meeting you when you arrive, so there's no fear of getting lost."
"Who should I be looking for?" he asked.
"They'll be looking for you, don't worry, dear." She poked his yoke with one hoof. "I don't see you finding much use for that in Canterlot, you know."
"It's sort of a good-luck charm, y'know," he replied.
Suddenly the waiting train sounded its whistle, piercing the air, and the call for boarding came.
"Well, I s'pose this is it, then." Macintosh gave each of the mares a warm hug before boarding the train. Macintosh managed to get a window seat so that he could wave at them all as the train chugged away from the station.
The three friends returned his wave until the train had faded to a speck in the distance. "Hey Rarity," Applejack said as they turned to leave, "Who did ya get to meet Macintosh in Canterlot?"
The white unicorn smiled. "Why, the mare of his dreams, of course," she said. "Mutual acquaintance."
Applejack's jaw dropped. "Ya mean you know about his crush on-"
"Suspected," Rarity said, "Only confirmed from watching his body language when I dropped a few hints."
Pinkie Pie gasped and drew in closer to the pair. "You mean you guys knew he had a crush on Twilight too? I thought I was the only one that noticed! Lucky for him Twilight kinda doesn't pick up on these things!" she said in a whisper that probably could've been heard in Stalliongrad.
"Well, I suppose all of us knowin' does make this all sorta easier," Applejack said.
Just then a bright blue blur descended from the sky, and came to less-than-graceful landing next to them. "Hey there," Rainbow Dash gasped out, "I'm here to- aw crud, I missed the train! I wanted to say goodbye to Mac!"
The other three looked back at her, noting the stack of Wonderbolts memorabilia sticking out from her saddlebags.
"What? I wanted to see if he could score me some autographs in Canterlot too," she said, nonplussed. "Doesn't mean I don't care about the big lug, you know. Say, what's got y'all looking so sneaky?" she asked.
"Should we tell?" Pinkie asked, "I mean, he didn't say it was a secret but-"
"I'm pretty sure she knows too," Applejack said. "We're talkin' 'bout Macintosh's crush, Rainbow."
Rainbow Dash sighed. "Yeah, poor guy. Don't worry though, soon as he gets back, I'll let him down easy, I promise," she assured them.
The three facehooves that followed couldn't have been more in sync if they had practiced beforehand.
"What? I'm just not ready for commitment!" Rainbow Dash called as she followed her fleeing friends.
To be continued...
A very special thanks must go out to They-Call-Me-Orange, for inspiration, insanity and awesomeness, and Calliopemused who's gone above and beyond helping me write and edit this beast. (Welcome to the herd, darlin!)