Chapter 12 – Best Laid Plans
"Well we got a few new animals at the farm, an' Ah thought maybe ya could look after 'em. Some of 'em are actin' a little… tricky. Me an' Applejack 'd be mighty grateful."
Fluttershy's heat skipped a beat as she locked eyes with the pony stood before her. Tentatively, she spoke. "Well I don't know, Applebloom."
"Huh? Why not?"
Fluttershy knew exactly why not. She'd heard all about the Hearts and Hooves Day incident, whereby Applebloom and her friends had tricked Big Mac and Cheerilee into drinking a love potion. That attempt to pair them off had failed, but the Cutie Mark Crusaders were never ones to give up on crazy schemes. Rarity would have undoubtedly blabbed to Sweetie Belle about the red dress she'd made, and even if she hadn't explicitly said that it was to catch Big Mac's eye, it wouldn't be difficult for Sweetie Belle to pass on the information and for Applebloom to put two and two together. Animals at the farm? It had all the trappings of a plan to get her and Big Mac together. If the animals were a real issue, why wasn't Applejack the one asking for help? It had to be a setup.
"Does Applejack know about this?" Fluttershy asked, ensuring the most sincere tone of voice she could manage.
Applebloom nodded cheerfully. "She sure does. Matter o' fact, she was the one that suggested you in the first place."
"So why didn't she ask me in person?"
Applebloom shrugged. "Ah dunno. Busy with stuff Ah guess."
"I see…" Fluttershy thought for a moment. Would Applebloom really lie about something like that? It seemed like quite a tall tale for the little filly to include her sister in all of this. However, the worry was still there. Applejack sending Applebloom on an errand was unlikely, but understandable. But Applejack having trouble with animals? She was hardly a zoologist, but she was more than capable of looking after a few critters. She'd even steered a stampeding gang of cattle away from Ponyville at one point.
"So will ya do it?" Applebloom asked, cutting through the silence.
"That depends," Fluttershy replied. "I still don't know what you're asking me to do, exactly. Why do you need me to look after the animals? Also, what kind of animals do you mean?"
"Oh. Sorry, Ah kinda forgot t' tell all that stuff. We just need ya keepin' an eye on some piglets and lambs in our pettin' zoo this Saturday. It's for the family reunion."
"Family reunion?" Fluttershy parroted. If that was the case, Big Mac would definitely be there. It didn't matter if Applebloom was planning to pair them up or not; she couldn't bring herself to face him either way. Even so much as thinking about him was painful. "I… I don't know about that, Applebloom."
The young filly scrunched up her face in confusion. "Why not?"
"I just don't think it's a good idea. Plus, I have plans for the weekend already."
"Ooh! Ah almost forgot!" Applebloom exclaimed, raising a hoof in Fluttershy's direction. "Ah heard from Applejack ya might not wanna see mah brother."
Fluttershy gulped. Now this really didn't sound like something Applebloom would lie about. "Oh?" was all she could mumble.
"Yeah, Ah heard somethin' like that. Is it true?"
Fluttershy took a deep breath and cleared her throat. "Yes, something like that. It's complicated."
"That's what Applejack said!" Applebloom cried, staring irritably into the dirt. However, her frown quickly faded as she looked up at Fluttershy, sadness plastered all over her face. "Ah sure hope nothin' bad happened 'tween y'all. You don't hate him, do ya?"
In an instant, every ounce of suspicion in Fluttershy's mind vanished. She pulled her most convincing smile and stroked Applebloom's mane. "There's no need to worry yourself about that. It's true that something happened between me and Mac, and we both got upset. But I don't hate him, and I'm sure he doesn't hate me. I'm also sure that one day we'll be able to talk to each other like nothing ever happened. We might even become good friends." Fluttershy closed her eyes for a moment, not even sure if what she'd said could ever come to pass. What would it take? Months? Years? A lifetime? She pushed those thoughts away and looked to Applebloom once more. "Doesn't that sound okay?"
Applebloom sniffed and nodded. "Ah guess."
"Everything will be alright," Fluttershy cooed. "Now, you said you needed my help at a family reunion?"
"That's right. Applejack said ya were the best pony around when it came to animals. An' if ya don't want Mac there with ya, Applejack said ya won't have to see 'im." Applebloom sighed sadly, pawing at the ground. It was almost enough to melt Fluttershy's heart. "But if you're busy with somethin' else, that's alright. We'll manage."
Fluttershy mulled over her options for a moment. She surely did not want to disappoint an already sullen little filly. If what Applebloom said was true, (and she had no remaining reasons to believe otherwise) it meant Big Mac wanted to be as considerate as possible given the situation. Perhaps the Apple family had hoped for her involvement for a while but had put off asking for help after everything that had happened. Or maybe Applejack wanted to spend some quality fun time with her to break the ice, and the family reunion provided the perfect occasion. Nopony else outside the Apple family had even been invited to her knowledge, so in a way it was kind of an honour. In that sense, maybe taking part wasthe right thing to do.
"You know what? I think I will help out," Fluttershy said with a warm smile.
Applebloom immediately perked up. "Really?"
"Well that's great! Ten in the mornin' on Saturday, alright?"
"I'll be there," Fluttershy answered, all anxiety and apprehension fading away. Truthfully, she was actually looking forward to spending some quality time with Applejack. There was no way she would let past events mar their friendship, and if this was an invitation to show that everything was fine between them, then all the more reason to go. Sure, she'd already made plans, but Pinkie would understand. She was her best friend, after all. She would definitely understand.
Earlier that day
"This is the worst plan ever!"
Big Mac slumped into his seat and was quickly met by a hoof bashing him painfully across the back of the head.
"What have Ah been sayin' this whole dang time!?" Applejack scolded, pounding her other hoof into the arm of Mac's chair. "Only now ya realise?"
Mac rubbed his head, wincing. "Ah thought it'd all work out."
"Really!?" Applejack blasted, burying her head into her hooves. "The reunion is almost here an' ya ain't even found a way for Fluttershy to show up. What kinda plan is that? Ah say you drop all o' this an' focus on organisin' the reunion like you was s'posed to be doin' this whole time."
"It could still work," Mac said in a hushed tone, secretly bracing himself for another battering at his sister's hooves. "You sure ya can't just tell Fluttershy somethin' an' get—"
"Do what? Lie to one of mah best friends!?" Applejack seethed.
"No need to lie, just… don't tell her everythin'." Mac gulped nervously. "You did say you'd help."
"For the record, Ah said Ah'd help but Ah never said nothin' 'bout lyin'. If Fluttershy starts askin' me questions then Ah'm gonna have to answer 'em. Ah happen to be called the Element o' Honesty, an' Ah respect the truth. Ah also respect mah friends. Even helpin' ya as much as Ah've said is cuttin' it mighty fine."
Mac twiddled his hooves like an antsy foal, watching as Applejack paced back and forth in the family living room. "An' what if mah plan works? They'd be happy, right?"
Applejack shot back a disgruntled glare. "Quit turnin' it around like that. Sure, they'd be happy if everythin' in that warped little mind o' yours goes to plan."
"So then it's worth tryin'?"
Applejack sighed heavily and took to a seat of her own. "Whatever. Ah don't even know anymore." She shook her head, silently begging for a way to get back the brother she used to know. He was more intolerable now than on any of his days spent skulking around. "But mah gut says you've got it all wrong. Life don't fall into place just 'cause ya want it to. If you're dead set with goin' ahead, Ah'll still help. But when it all fails, don't come cryin' to me."
Mac stayed silent for a moment, readying his response. "Then let's do it," he said matter-of-factly. "It's prob'ly gonna fail, but it might not. Ah gotta try."
"Knew you'd say that," Applejack said grumpily.
"An' even if it don't go to plan with Pinkie, surely ya gotta believe it will for Fluttershy. Ah mean, you were the one who told me—"
Mac was abruptly cut off as the front door was slammed wide open. "Howdy!" Applebloom called.
Applejack made a zipping motion against her lips and left the living room to meet her sister in the hallway. "Well howdy to you too. Have a good day at school?"
"Sure did! Miss Cheerilee gave me an 'A' for mah paintin' of a sunflower!"
Mac recoiled at the sound of Cheerilee's name. If there was one thing he couldn't plan, it was how to rekindle their friendship. After her confession of love, he wasn't even sure what to think of her anymore. Did that make him a bad friend? He didn't know. But he did know that things might never be the same ever again. And he couldn't blame her for expressing her feelings, just like he had to Pinkie. It just didn't help to know that Applebloom spent nearly every day with her.
Mac's eyes grew wide as a revelation occurred to him. Applebloom… Applebloom!
"... an' that's when Scootaloo sneezed glitter all across the classroom! So then we—"
"Howdy, Applebloom!" Mac interrupted with, unsubtly grabbing Applejack to one side.
"Mac, what in the hay?" Applejack gasped, her mouth quickly being covered by Mac's hoof.
"Ah just need to speak to Applejack for one second," he said, dragging her into the living room. "Treat yourself to some apple pie!" With that, he slammed the door behind him, leaving a very perplexed Applebloom standing in the hallway.
"What apple pie?" she wondered aloud, looking around the kitchen.
"Mac, what're you playin' at!?" Applejack scowled.
"Don't ya see?" he replied with a grin. "You don't have to get Fluttershy to come along after all."
Applejack shot him a confused look, but quickly came to realise what he meant. "Applebloom? Oh no, no, no, no ya ain't. Don't tell me ya wanna get her involved in this stupid plan o' yours."
"Why not? Ah can't ask Fluttershy along, an' you can't lie to her. This way, that don't have to happen! An' how could Fluttershy not trust Applebloom? An' she don't even have to know mah plan! We just tell her the truth, that we want Fluttershy at the reunion, plus a couple other things." Mac smiled proudly as he mulled over his own statement. "Perfect idea in mah book."
Applejack let out a throaty grumble and rolled her eyes. "Ah'm gonna regret this, aren't Ah?"
The next day
"I'll be with you in just a few thousand nanoseconds!" Pinkie called out as she heard the entrance bell to Sugarcube Corner ring out. She quickly closed the oven door and turned to her next customer. "Fluttershy! It's good you dropped by. Did you know there's something called a nanosecond? It's like, a whole millionth of a second! I've been trying to count in nanoseconds, but it's not going so well. It just makes my head all spinny. Anyway, how are you on this fine day?"
"I'm doing well, thanks," Fluttershy replied, stepping up next to the counter. "It's just, I have someth—"
"Oh! Oh! I have a surprise for you!" Pinkie exclaimed, diving into the kitchen and prancing back with a metal tray between her teeth. She grabbed it in her hooves and tilted it towards Fluttershy, a large, flat biscuit in the shape of a dragon resting on the greaseproof paper, decorated with colourful swirls of icing and gem-shaped candy pieces "So, what do you think?"
"Why, it looks amazing," Fluttershy commented. "Is that gingerbread?"
"Sure is!" Pinkie said with a nod. "I had some spare time this morning so I thought I'd get creative. And who knows? Maybe I'll make more and get some more consumer interest! Gingerbread ponies have been done about a bajillion times before, so why not a gingerbread dragon?" She slid the tray onto a nearby table. "I'll make some more ready for Saturday. Oh! I should make one with your colour scheme! I could even give it a butterfly cutie-mark! And then I'll make a dragon version of me! Then we could eat each other… Oh wait, that's kind of weird, isn't it? Or is it weirder to eat ourselves? What do you think?"
Fluttershy cleared her throat, feeling unnecessarily flustered. "Actually, that'll have to wait for another time. I… I'm going to be a little busy on Saturday."
"Really? Is it something I can help with? You know what they say! Two heads are better than one!"
"It's not really something you can help with," Fluttershy replied nervously. She took a moment to steel herself. "I'm going to the Apple family reunion. But it's not what you think!"
Pinkie's face grew serious. A near-tangible silence hung in the air, both friends locking eyes with one another. Finally, Pinkie shrugged, her smile returning. "It wouldn't matter if it was."
That's not true, Fluttershy wanted to say. You're just saying that to be nice. However, she wanted to get away from the subject of Mac in its entirety. "Well… it's not. Applejack has this petting zoo for the colts and fillies, and said she needed my help. Except, it was Applebloom who said Applejack wanted some help, and she already knows about… you know… And I didn't want to disappoint them, and I thought it'd be nice to see Applejack again, and…"
Fluttershy trailed off into hyperventilation, trying desperately to read Pinkie's blank expression. She could almost hear the stream of questions about to spurt from Pinkie's mouth. What do you mean Applejack wasn't the one to ask you for help? Why send Applebloom? If she knows about Mac, why bring it up? Is it because you're going there to meet him? Is there anyone else going to the family reunion that isn't part of the family? Why were you invited, but not me? Does Applejack have something against me for what happened to Mac? Why would she need you there? With a family as big as the Apples, couldn't somepony else work with the animals instead? Is it because you'll soon be a part of their family? Explain, Fluttershy! Explain!
However, Pinkie said none of those things. Instead, she cocked her head confusedly. "Um, Fluttershy? No need to go overboard on the explanation. I got your message loud and clear. We can always hang out some other time."
Fluttershy bit her bottom lip, her cheeks burning. "Oh, of course! I just wanted to make sure you knew everything, and that I wasn't planning to—"
"Like I said, we can do something another time," Pinkie reaffirmed, still grinning. "There's plenty of time in the world! Like… maybe a bajillion nanoseconds! But you have to Pinkie promise me one little thing…"
Fluttershy gulped loudly. "W-what?"
"Promise me you'll have fun!"
There was a brief moment of silence before Fluttershy let out a giggle, mentally wiping her brow with relief. "Cross my heart and hope to fly," she began, putting her hooves through the motions, "Stick a cupcake in my eye."
"There we go!" Pinkie cheered, clapping her hooves together. "Now, can I get you anything to eat?"
With the subject dropped, the two friends continued conversing much like they always had, chatting about their day as Fluttershy nibbled on a fresh scone caked in raspberry jam. A few friendly faces stopped by — namely Twilight and Octavia, who were now even more open and proud of their relationship — giving them much to talk about.
Slowly but surely, Fluttershy began to understand the biggest change in her friendship with Pinkie, something beyond just spending more time with one another. There was a new degree of trust, unhindered by insecurities. She knew that deep down, she could trust Pinkie not to go behind her back and do anything… unsavoury. At the same time, Pinkie would do the same for her. Was that the true meaning of friendship? Despite being involved in Twilight's studies, it felt like they all had so much to learn, even when it came to ponies they'd known for years. It was both a daunting and endearing prospect in equal measure.
It wasn't long before both mares said their goodbyes and Fluttershy sauntered home, her mind flitting to her plans for the day, and whether she wanted to bring something to the Apple family reunion as thanks for her invitation. She was sure she could find some apple-related recipes in Pinkie's cookbook. An apple tart, maybe? Compared to other desserts, it shouldn't be too difficult. As for acquiring the ingredients, she would still have to visit Applejack, which always ran the risk of her bumping into Big Mac. Never mind, she thought. I'm sure a strawberry cheesecake will do just fine.
She hoped that by visiting the reunion, there was a chance she could organise another meet-up with Applejack, just to dissolve any anxieties that might still exist between them. It would be a cruel twist of fate if the events of the infamous 'Operation FlutterMac' party led to them drifting apart as friends. Aside from one or two fleeting moments, (and an awkward exchange the day she'd gone to see Mac after Pinkie's confession) the last time they'd properly spoken together was at the party before that, which brought back even more painful memories. She'd felt so out of place while Applejack and Rainbow Dash talked about stallions, and left to get away from all that only to bump into Mac and start the emotional snowball rolling. She did wonder why Applejack hadn't properly visited her since that day, but it must've been difficult to deal with considering Pinkie was also involved.
Fluttershy came to a halt. A question that had lingered at the back of her mind jumped to the forefront. Why wasn't Pinkie being invited? Surely if Mac was going to be absent, or at least not show his face as Applebloom had said, wouldn't it make sense to invite them both? Either she was being invited for the sole reason of watching over the petting zoo, or the Apples simply didn't want Pinkie there. In either case, it was somewhat of an insult. Then again, maybe they just hadn't invited Pinkie yet? That seemed more likely. After all, why would they not—
—invite me? Pinkie thought as she waved goodbye to the last customer of the day. The same question sprung up again and again. She didn't want to be jealous or mopey, especially not when it came to Fluttershy, and she certainly didn't want another re-tread of her birthday freak-out just over a year ago, but she couldn't help but be suspicious.
Fluttershy wouldn't be up to something. Even if she wanted to meet with Big Mac again, why would she do it this way? If she was hoping to see Mac again she'd have come out and said so outright. Pinkie was sure of it.
So then, was it Applejack? Had she sided with Fluttershy over the whole ordeal? It wouldn't be too big a stretch; she could understand anypony who got angry over their brother being kicked in the face. She felt guiltier about that than anything. Pinkie had wanted to apologise to Applejack about it, but was too wrapped up in her own emotional turmoil to find the right moment. She'd at least seen Applejack in Ponyville once or twice, but the farm pony had acted a little reserved. Cagey, almost. Pinkie had also acted the same way, too afraid to say or do something out of place. But she'd at least assumed the two of them were still good friends. Wouldn't Applejack have said something if they weren't? Or maybe she'd rather say nothing, Pinkie thought sadly as she ran a damp cloth across one of the tables.
Pinkie shook her head. Applejack was stubborn, but she wasn't spiteful. She wouldn't do something like this to deliberately hurt somepony's feelings. Maybe she really did just need Fluttershy to assist with the petting zoo. In any case, Pinkie would have to find out from Applejack herself if anything was amiss. But then again, maybe it wasn't anything to do with Applejack? Maybe it was…
Big Mac, Pinkie mouthed silently, staring into the empty air for answers. If it wasn't Applejack herself who passed on the message to Fluttershy, maybe Mac was behind it. Whatever it was, she could only guess. Considering how she'd effectively rejected Mac atop Wicker Hill, there was nothing stopping him from making a move on Fluttershy. He was a stallion, and stallions liked attention from mares. He knew Fluttershy liked him, so what was there to stop him from trying to…
Pinkie gagged involuntarily, a sickly feeling in the pit of her stomach. Just when she thought she had her emotions in check, the fear of Big Mac coaxing Fluttershy with a few ciders and having his way — because that's all stallions ever want just like mother said just like mother said — made her lips dry and her spine twitch. But would Mac really do that, after everything that had happened? She couldn't be sure.
Calm yourself, Pinkie said inwardly, rubbing a hoof across her forehead. You're just being paranoid. Stop it. Even if Big Mac was planning something along those lines, there was no way Fluttershy would reciprocate his advances.
Is that really the truth? Another voice at the back of her mind asked. Imagine if you'd had a few drinks and Big Mac walked up to you right now, stroking your mane and kissing your neck. You'd want him so badly, wouldn't you? What's to say Fluttershy wouldn't do the same?
"Shut up," Pinkie mumbled under her breath, her face dripping with sweat. "Just shut—"
Pinkie felt a hoof grab her shoulder and recoiled at the touch, her heart skipping a beat as she imagined Big Mac stood there, drawn by the power of her own thoughts. Instead, she saw Mr Cake.
"Pinkie, are you alright?" he asked with concern, putting a hoof up to her temple. "You're a little warm. Do you feel sick?"
"Kinda," Pinkie replied bashfully. She realised just how dazed she must have been to not notice Mr Cake's approaching hoof-steps. "But I think I'll be alright. A good night's sleep should do the trick!" she exclaimed with mock happiness.
"Well okay," Mr Cake said worriedly. "You hit the hay early and I'll finish cleaning up. Don't work yourself too hard now."
Pinkie power-walked up to her bedroom and slammed the door behind her, emitting an exasperated sigh as she flopped into bed. "Okay, so I'm overreacting," she whispered to herself, trying to drown out the horrible images that her mind spewed forth. Nothing seemed to make any sense. All this time she'd done everything to get Fluttershy and Big Mac together, and had even given up a sure-fire chance to be with him because she valued their friendship. But things were different. The situation for all three of them was different. And it was all because of those eight little words…
"This could work. You an' me, Ah mean."
If Mac could just prey on Fluttershy after everything he said, after every word caked in pent up emotion that came from his lips, had he merely played a part? Had she really not meant anything to him, even after he'd confessed his so-called feelings? Was her heart-wrenching decision of rejection just a minor grievance for him until he could prowl on some other mare? If he made advances and Fluttershy accepted them, couldn't she just say the old 'love and war' line and be done with it? And since I once strived to bring them together, I could never object. They'd wonder why I was acting out when I was the one who said 'no.' And if I wanted to be Fluttershy's best friend, would that mean supporting her in everything she did?
No. Pinkie steeled her resolve. No. You're not doing this to yourself. Fluttershy is helping out at the petting zoo and you think this is all part of some ridiculous plan. Not only would Big Mac never do something like that, Applejack would stop anything at the first sign of trouble and Fluttershy would honour our friendship to the hilt. With that conclusion reached, Pinkie finally found a way to drift off to sleep. She dreamed of Big Mac holding her as she wept.
The day of the reunion
The sunlight crept precariously along Fluttershy's bed until it reached the bridge of her nose, her eyes creaking open as morning made itself known. She let out a yawn and stretched. Letting her eyes adjust to the light, she set about getting breakfast for all the critters and creatures that she tended to day by day. Thinking ahead, she put aside some hay and assorted animal feed into a satchel for the petting zoo.
Keeping an eye on the clock as she worked, Fluttershy found herself becoming surprisingly excited. Sure, the idea of being introduced to a collection of Applejack's distant relatives was rather daunting, and there was no getting away from her shyness in that regard, but from what she could imagine it seemed all the more appealing than a cramped disco party full of drunken ponies shouting to be heard over the loud music and vomiting in fifty different colours. That, and it would be nice to spend some one-on-one time with Applejack, at the expense of looking after animals and foals, both of which she excelled at. Or at least, she'd handled the cutie-mark crusaders, and other foals couldn't be any more difficult to handle, could they? Whatever the case, she wasn't worried about any of that. The one thing that worried her…
Pinkie. Even if it was far from the truth, Fluttershy still felt a pang of guilt from 'ditching' her best friend. It was also a wonder as to why Applejack hadn't invited the pair of them, but her reasons were likely innocent. Regardless, Fluttershy made a mental reminder to mention it as soon as she got the chance. Pinkie may have made her share of mistakes, but none of them were worth losing a friendship over.
Fluttershy looked at the strawberry cheesecake she'd made, or at least, the remains of what she'd attempted to make. It was perfectly edible and probably tasted great, but the crumpled base and uneven toppings left much to be desired. Angel looked up expectantly, and Fluttershy gave in, cutting him a small slice. At least it was good practice, she thought.
She checked the clock. Ten minutes past nine. That left plenty of time before she needed to be at Sweet Apple Acres, but something else needed to be done. "Goodbye Angel," she said to her pet bunny as he wolfed down another bite of cake, patting his belly gleefully. "I should be back before evening. Make sure you behave." Angel waved nonchalantly in response. Fluttershy slung the satchel over her back and went on her way, heading directly for Sugarcube Corner. She had to pass on one little message, to assure both Pinkie and herself.
After just a ten minute walk Fluttershy reached Sugarcube Corner and tapped lightly on the front door. Surprisingly, it was neither Mr or Mrs Cake, but Pinkie herself who answered. Fluttershy couldn't be certain, but she swore she could see a hint of distress on her friend's face before her lips spread into a wide smile.
"Fluttershy!" the pink mare cheered, pulling her into a tight hug. "You've come to visit me! Wait, aren't you supposed to be seeing Applejack?"
"Actually, yes," Fluttershy answered, gesturing towards her satchel. "I'm on my way there now, but I just had to check up on you first."
"Check up on me?" Pinkie said worriedly. "Why?"
Fluttershy took a deep breath. "Because Applejack didn't invite you."
Something inside of Pinkie snapped, and her attempts at hiding her emotions faltered. Her smile dropped and her ears folded. "Okay, so maybe I wondered about that just a little bit."
"Listen, please don't get upset," Fluttershy cooed, placing a hoof on her friend's shoulder. "I'm going to ask Applejack about that myself."
Fluttershy nodded confidently. "It's probably nothing, of course, but I wanted to let you know before I left. To tell you the truth, I wish you could come along too, but I don't know if that'd be a good idea. Applejack might—"
Fluttershy was cut off swiftly by her friend's hoof. Pinkie let out a brief sigh, and then smiled. "You don't need to explain, silly. But thanks." She paused, nibbling anxiously at her bottom lip. "I'm glad I have you as a best friend. This calls for another hug!"
Before Fluttershy could speak, Pinkie's fore-hooves were wrapped around her ribcage in a vice-grip. "Thanks… Pinkie…" she gasped, feeling herself blush as a few ponies walked by giving them odd looks. Thankfully, she was released within just a few seconds.
"Don't mention it! And tell Applejack she's gonna miss out on the biggest hug ever if she doesn't stop by soon!"
"I'll keep that in mind," Fluttershy said between shallow breaths. "Like I said, it's probably nothing."
"Banjo quartet? Check. Fancy buffet? Check. Flat pack barn to raise in case o' emergency?" Applejack flipped over a page attached to a clipboard. "Check. We good for supplies, Mac?"
"Eeyup," Big Mac answered from the living room.
Applejack peered out of the window, watching as Granny Smith and Applebloom directed carts driven by various family members into a specially marked bay. "Y'know, you should really be doin' all that."
"But Ah can't—"
"Ah know, Ah know," Applejack said, rolling her eyes. "The plan. But it was your turn to organise everythin' this time around. Anyway, you sure we got enough drink?"
"Ah checked earlier, we're fine."
Applejack raised an eyebrow, somewhat unconvinced. "Alright, Ah'll take your word for it." Quietly, she pulled on the handle that led down to the cellar, trying as hard as she could to minimise every creak and click as she opened the door and tiptoed down the stairs. Pulling on the studded metal cord against the right-hand wall, a small light bulb illuminated the cellar. A set of shelves were bolted to the wall opposite, rows of paint pots, woodwork tools, tinned food and wine bottles stacked up in an orderly fashion. To the side were two cider kegs, resting in a wooden brace. Everything was covered in a thin layer of dust. Everything except for one thing. Something had been removed, and very recently…
"Mac!" Applejack shouted, charging back up the stairs and into the living room where her brother sat, a look of fear across his face. "Where's the rest o' the cider? An' don't say it's in the barn 'cause Ah came from there not long ago."
Mac shrugged unconvincingly, wearing a nervous expression. "How should Ah know?"
"Mac," Applejack said forcefully, wearing that all too powerful frown that all mares from the Apple family were blessed with. "Answer the question."
Sweat dripped from Mac's forehead as he realised his number was up. "Ah didn't tell ya but…"
"But Ah needed that keg o' cider." He gulped audibly, rendered powerless under his sister's piercing glare. "It-It's part of the plan."
Applejack face-hoofed hard enough to leave a mark. "Well where is it!?" she bellowed. "What d'you mean, part of the plan!? What ain't ya told me? Ah have a right mind to… Darn it."
Applejack pointed out of the window as a certain yellow pegasus appeared over the horizon. "Fluttershy's almost here. Ah'll go talk to her. You get outta sight, d'you hear? It's a darn shame ya can't just enjoy a family reunion for what it is, ya gotta play puppet master."
"Just do what Ah told ya," Mac instructed as he scampered upstairs. "Ah have high hopes!"
"Wish Ah could feel the same," Applejack muttered as Mac slammed a door behind him. She took a deep breath and ventured out into the orchard. "May Celestia forgive me for this…"
Fluttershy continued on the path towards the Apple's farmhouse with caution, watching as carriages and carts approached from a dirt track that led to other nearby settlements. She scoured ahead. She could see Applebloom and Granny Smith, as well as small groups of other Apple family members. She recognised ponies like Babs Seed, Braeburn, Apple Fritter, Peachy Sweet and Golden Delicious, but the names of the others eluded her. Considering how massive the extended Apple family was, (and the fact that it grew with each passing year) there was no way she'd come to learn them all. She took one last good look all around. Big Mac was indeed nowhere to be seen. Uttering a sigh of relief, Fluttershy picked up the pace.
With that cause for anxiety put to rest, Fluttershy managed to get a good look at the decorations. The farmhouse had a multi-coloured banner that stretched across each wall, the word 'WELCOME' flapping in the wind just above the front door. Several marquee style tents had been set up in the yard, with a couple still being erected by a stallion and two colts. The oft destroyed barn had its doors splayed wide open, with a few ponies chatting at the entrance, one of which carried a violin and bore an uncanny resemblance to a certain cellist living in Ponyville. The promise of a friendly, outdoor atmosphere grew more enticing by the second, and with the sun shining and literally only one cloud in the entire sky above Sweet Apple Acres, it felt like a beautiful start to a great day. If only Pinkie could be here.
"Fluttershy!" Applebloom cried, the excitable filly racing towards her with a big smile. "Ya came!"
"Well of course, I'm glad to be here. By the way, is Applejack around?"
"Right here!" the orange farm pony called, stepping towards them and adjusting her Stetson. "Nice to see ya, Fluttershy. Sorry for the short notice an' all. That kinda happens with so much to organise."
"Oh it's no worry at all," Fluttershy replied, her spirits lifted by Applejack's smile. "It's so nice to see an Apple family reunion up close like this."
"Well Ah hope ya enjoy it while you're here," Applejack remarked, swinging a hoof enthusiastically. "Brought some tasty treats for the critters Ah see. You prob'ly won't need to stay stuck with 'em for too long today an' Ah'm sure—"
Applejack fell silent as one of the marquee tents collapsed, an embarrassed stallion and two hysterical foals crawling out from underneath.
"Need a hand, partner?" Applejack asked, to which the stallion nodded bashfully. "Always somethin' to do around here," she said with a smirk. "Say Fluttershy, why don't Applebloom take ya up to the pettin' zoo right now? Ah'll be over real soon."
"Aye-aye, Captain Applejack!" Applebloom said with a salute. "First mate Applebloom reportin' for duty!" Applejack mouthed the words 'crusader pirates' to Fluttershy before turning around and pulling the distressed stallion to his hooves. "Come on, Fluttershy! It's this way!"
Fluttershy followed Applebloom through the sparse crowd, nodding to a few ponies who paid her heed, tipping their hats or spouting "mornin'." The Apples might have fit squarely into the 'country bumpkin' stereotype, but Fluttershy couldn't deny their unabashed friendliness. She did however feel a little out of place being the only pegasus at the gathering, even though was perfectly aware how silly it was to even care about such a thing. Still, considering her attachment to nature she often wondered if she should've been born an earth pony.
"Well here we are!" Applebloom announced grandly, gesturing with one hoof towards a small, fenced off animal pen. "The pettin' zoo! Or as Ah like to call it, the poop deck. C'mon, Ah'll introduce you!"
Two piglets chased each other excitedly, emitting a series of happy oinks. "That there's Piggy an' Porky," Applebloom said. "Then there's Sheepy an' Lamby!" She pointed to two lambs munching away on a patch of grass, seemingly disinterested by either pony's presence. "Ain't they cute? Ah named 'em mahself!"
"Oh they are so cute," Fluttershy commented, her attention being drawn to a single goat sat in the far corner of the pen, its head held high. "And who's this?"
"That's Matilda!" Applebloom answered, hopping over to the goat. "We found her wanderin' out beyond the Farfields one day, just lookin' for some much needed love an' attention. Why, she's almost like family!"
Fluttershy glanced between Applebloom and Matilda a few times, growing rather confused. "Um… Applebloom? I don't know if you realise this, but Matilda is male."
The goat's eyes shot open and it glared furiously at Fluttershy, letting out an angry snort. "Fluttershy! How could you!?" Applebloom objected, running an affectionate hoof over the goat's back. "Don't say that about Matilda! It don't matter about nopony's genitals, it's what they feel on the inside that counts. You're gonna hurt her feelin's sayin' otherwise."
Fluttershy stood stock still, at a complete loss for words. She wasn't sure what shocked her the most; the fact that Applebloom had so quickly and confidently spouted such an explanation, the fact that she'd referred to an animal's genitals so casually, or that they were in the grand presence of the only known transgender goat in all of Equestria. Either way, it took her completely by surprise. She shot Matilda a nervous grin. "Sorry."
Matilda grunted. "Apology accepted!" Applebloom cheered. "Ah can tell you're all gonna be good friends!"
Fluttershy spent the next few minutes introducing herself to the lambs and piglets while Applebloom regaled her with tales of their escapades, most of which consisted of Piggy chasing Porky into the far reaches of Ponyville. The animals were pleasant and well-behaved, except for Matilda, who remained planted in the same spot, frowning brutishly at Fluttershy while he/she chewed on some hay. The grossly intimidated pegasus could only hope that Matilda was better-mannered in front of the colts and fillies that would soon be lining up to pet him/her.
Just as Fluttershy was doling out some animal feed to the two piglets, Applejack strode up, wiping a line of sweat from her brow. "Ah see you're gettin' along with 'em real swell. An' Applebloom? Babs is over yonder waitin' for ya. Somethin' about a super-secret mission."
"Of course!" Applebloom exclaimed, quickly clambering over the fence. "We're sure to get our cutie-marks in treasure huntin'! Yah-har!"
"You young'uns be careful now," Applejack said as her sister sped off. She turned her attention to Fluttershy. "Sorry Ah couldn't give ya the proper welcome an' all. Ah'm so glad ya could make it anyway."
"I'm glad I could be here. It's not often somepony outside the Apple family gets to be here, right?"
"True. Only a half dozen times or so from what Ah can remember. But don't worry 'bout thankin' me for that. Ah wanna remind ya that things are still the same between us, an' Ah hope nothin' ever changes that."
"I'm glad," Fluttershy said with a nod. "But I… I was just wondering about something, Applejack…"
"Oh, there ain't no need to worry about mah brother showin' up. He knows full well not to make things awkward for ya. Iff'n you're worried in future, Ah can always arrange—"
"Actually, no," Fluttershy interrupted, her cheeks glowing. She looked away for a second, not wanting to ruin the pleasant reunion with Applejack, but not having much choice but to keep the promise she'd made to Pinkie. "I'm happy that you invited me here, and I'm touched that you and Mac would do everything to make me feel comfortable. And I'm looking forward to having fun, really I am, but…" She took a deep breath. "I'm not the only victim here. After everything that's happened, is there a reason you didn't invite Pinkie?"
Applejack's expression faded, quickly replaced by a sombre, pensive demeanour. She sighed. "Yeah… about that…"
Pinkie was bored. More to the point, nothing she could think of doing removed her overbearing anxieties about the Apple family reunion. She'd willingly helped the Cakes with a few choice errands and tidied up the store cupboard just for something to do. With that done, she decided to visit some of her friends, which hadn't gone as well as she'd hoped. Twilight was being taught by Octavia how to play the cello, which, judging by the plumes of smoke coming from the unicorn's ears, hadn't been going so well. She was, however, adamant about continuing, and didn't want any distractions. Rarity was busy making a new line of designer tuxedos (while also fawning over a nervous-looking stallion) and Rainbow Dash was seemingly nowhere to be found. Probably nursing a hangover, Pinkie assumed. That left Applejack and Fluttershy. As utterly tempting as it was to join them, there was a chance that doing so would result in disaster. She could try spying on them, but she quickly pushed that thought from her mind. What would that make me? An untrustworthy, peeping Tom? Seemingly with nothing better to do, she decided to take Gummy for a walk around Ponyville, hopeful that saying hello to the local denizens would help take her mind off other matters.
The town square was practically buzzing, as was typical for the weekend. Foals ran through the streets, playing games and laughing with each other. A few market stalls were open, selling anything from jewellery to fresh vegetables. With a few exceptions, just about everypony was happy. Just about everypony was smiling. That, in turn, helped Pinkie to feel a little better, to feel like she hadn't a care in the world, to feel at peace. That is, until she strolled past Ponyville park and felt two hooves clamp over her eyes. Her heart skipped a beat and her tail twitched as a low voice spoke into her ear.