Carefully he leaned forward and took a mouthful of his own food. As civilised as the Apple Family was, he found it difficult to pick up things with his hooves, preferring to do it with his mouth instead. Apple and seed exploded into his mouth as his teeth grinded against the food, and he leaned back his head to swallow it. After working so hard that morning, he was grateful for the meal that was now filling his stomach, and since he'd skipped breakfast, it tasted even sweeter than ever. Maybe he should have started off with a smaller bite, because Apple Bloom stared at him wide-eyed and Granny Smith looked thoughtful for a moment. Obviously, the awkward silence made him uneasy, so he turned his attention towards his younger sister.
"Apple Bloom," Big Macintosh piped up after a moment, "Ah reckon yer growin' up smart, so ahm givin' ya my old books from when ah was a foal. You can keep 'em 'til ya learned enough, ah reckon."
"Thanks, big brother!" Apple Bloom beamed with a broad smile on her face. While she dashed away from the table to collect them, Granny Smith turned her attention onto the growing Earth Pony.
"Now I know you mean well," she began, and Big Macintosh glanced down at the pie, knowing that she was going to scold him for something. But what had he done wrong? He'd been out working all morning, making sure that everything was in check. He was going to plough the fields after he'd eaten. Surely she wasn't dissatisfied? "Well... You've been neglecting the younger trees." A relieved sigh escaped his mouth, but then he froze. He hadn't been skipping on the young trees! He'd been bucking those earlier! A pang of insult crossed his face and he flattened his ears. "No, no, ya don't understand," Granny Smith caught his disappointment and reached a wrinkled hoof out slightly across the table. There was dust and grit on the underside, which Big Macintosh knew was because she wasn't really strong enough to use the hoof pick anymore. He'd have to sit her down and do it for her tomorrow. "The ones in the barn haven't been watered for days, seeing as how yer always out in the orchids. I was thinkin' maybe you should plant them later today so that they get enough rain and light."
Suddenly, Big Macintosh understood. Of course, he'd not been keeping his eye on the trees that were being kept in the shed. They were too small to plant before, and the wind had persisted on knocking them over every night, which loosened the soil and made it harder to work on. Biting his lip, he looked down blankly at the table and thought about a time slot which he could use to plant them. The forecast for today was adequate; a sunny day with the odd cloud, but not much wind. While the plants enjoyed the warmth, it wasn't as well for him. Nodding in agreement, he looked over towards Granny Smith and agreed. He'd have to plant the trees, maybe after he did some ploughing. But that would mean assuming that he had counted the trees correctly when he first put them in the shed he would be working late into the night. Great, just what he needed. But he wouldn't complain. He had a duty to fulfil!
"Ah'll get workin' on those afterwards," he fiddled with the white plate in front of him. It was very simple decor, with only a circle of apples on the rim where the actual plate was held. Some would say that the Apple Family was literally obsessed with them, but in truth they just made it that way because it was simple. Kept up a reputation, and which was important by all means. Staring down at the juicy food before him, he realised that with the tight schedule, he'd have to eat it now to save as much time as he could. Devouring the food in a few hungry gulps, he excused himself from the table as Apple Bloom re-entered with the books between her teeth, and rushed out the front door to go around the side. It was at that time that a pony approached him, a piece of paper in his mouth, and halted him where he stood. Great...
"Excuse me," the pony said. Big Macintosh turned, angling his ears forward and tilting his head back to look as energetic as he could. He couldn't let the townsfolk go around thinking that the Sweet Apple Acres was run by an overworked teenager now, could he?
"May ah help ya?" Big Macintosh smiled, though his face looked bored and itching to do something. In a sense, that was true, but he had a lot to do already. "Welcome t' Sweet Apple Acres. Ah'm Big Macintosh, and ah run this here farm." The green-eyed stallion looked at the visiting pony. He must be there to buy something.
"Hello, Big Macintosh. My name is, well, you can call me Black Coffee. I run the bakery in town and I desperately need some apples and Celery to use in a Birthday cake. It has to be delivered immediately, and I'm afraid I can't wait. I've got the money and the order right here." Big Macintosh smiled weakly and took the paper from Black Coffee. He was an earthy brown pony with a lighter shade in his eyes and a black mane and tail. His cutie mark was a pile of coffee grains surrounded by a white light, but all the same it matched his name.
"Ah see, well," his teeth nibbled on the sprig of wheat that resided in his mouth, and it flicked up in a short movement. "Ah can get the apples to ya within' the hour, but ya need t' pay fer 'em here."
"That would be most appreciated, Big Macintosh," Black Coffee grinned, stamping his hooves against the ground with excitement. "I've heard about the Apple Family's reputation, so I knew I could count on you! Here's your money the address is on the paper, as well as directions, so you should be able to find your way."
"Ain't no trouble a-tall. Ah figure ah better get on it. Thanks for yer patronage, sir." With that, Big Macintosh collected the payment, turned and trotted off to fetch the cart. He'd need to load up the apples onto the cart and hoist it all the way to town. He seldom went there unless it was to help out, so he wasn't sure if he'd get there on written instructions alone. Black Coffee left the farm, galloping back to town as quickly as he could to get back to the bakery.
The shed was lanky, with walls that even sharp-eyed Pegasus could crash into if they were flying blind. Apples were stacked almost up to the top, be it in crates or buckets. Stretched out beneath his cream coloured hooves, the wooden floor creaked and moaned as he crossed the distance towards the stash. The cart was already there, with a few stray apples which had fallen tucked neatly inside. Musk filled his nostrils a common thing to find inside the barns and other buildings that stood in Sweet Apple Acres. In complete silence he filled the cart, exact to the customer's specifications, and bolted the doors open to pull the cart through. It took about half an hour to load the apples, and fifteen minutes to find his way to the bakery, where Black Coffee and two other ponies waited for their precious cargo. Big Macintosh was sweating at this time, his ankle stinging with a slight trickle of blood running onto his hard hoof. The colour of his fur hid the blood well, and he smiled in greeting as the ponies helped to unload the cart, leaving him with an empty shell to pull back up the winding paths and hills to home.
Ponies flanked him wherever he went, whether be just talking or going about their daily business. He remembered the times when him and Applejack would come down this route She'd walk with him while he made some deliveries, and she liked to make friends with passersby. Being her older brother, he often felt uneasy with the easygoing nature she had, and was especially vigilant when she approached strangers who neither had met before. In fact, he preferred it when she was by his side, where he could keep an eye on her. Slowing in pace, he sighed, and his head fell slightly as he walked, feeling as miserable as he looked, through the town. Haunches rocking, he gnawed at the sprig of wheat in his maw as he usually did and flicked his ears before lifting into a swift but careful trot. He was surrounded by small buildings not as big as the barn, but not as small as the chicken coops. He made sure to keep to himself while he went back to the farm he hadn't any time to spare...
It had been a month since Applejack left, and Big Macintosh was back at the farm tending to the trees he'd planted the day after she'd gone. Exhaustion was etched into his face; his eyes drooped, his head held low and his mane was scruffy and unkempt. Dragging the plough along behind him, he panted, his forehead sweating. Granny Smith was strong today, so he'd left her in charge of watching Apple Bloom. The filly was a natural learner, but she had an obvious stubborn streak just like her older sister. Big Macintosh had hardly slept in a month; he'd still heard nothing about his younger sister. It was starting to distract him, irritate him, and control him. Even his dreams were plagued with thoughts of Applejack in some sort of danger. Had the Orange Family their distant relatives no decency to even mail them to say if she'd arrived safely? He knew that they were city folk, and that meant that they liked to keep their contacts to the upper class ponies, not the working class like himself.
Sweat trickled down his forehead and over his broadening cheeks, pooling at the base of his harness before squeezing through the gaps towards his legs. He'd woken up to feel unusually warm and tired, and he'd almost fallen over as he had made breakfast for his waking family. Apple Bloom had come in and she'd noted how weakened her big brother seemed to be, but he'd insisted that he was just waking up, and he'd be fine when he got working. But five minutes later, his legs were trembling. He couldn't hold it, and suddenly he lurched, crashing against a tree. The bark ripped into his skin and he hissed inwardly, and tried furiously to push himself back up and onto his feet. However, his attempts were in vain, and he quickly slumped onto his side, the bark crunching hungrily against his crimson fur and legs folding beneath his body to soften his fall. When he finally settled against the ground, he found that he was in difficulty breathing, and his body was heating up much too fast for him to cope with. Though he wanted to, he couldn't move to go back to the house, and he didn't see any sign of movement until Granny Smith poked her lime-coloured head out of the window in confusion five minutes later. She couldn't see him from where he lay.
A rush of pale yellow and his head fell. It felt like it had been forever since he'd last drank water; he was severely dehydrated. Sounds around him begun to fade, and his tongue rasped against the top of his mouth dryly, cracking against the roof. A set of green eyes sunk down, and he finally gave up, as Apple Bloom charged to his side. Ever since he woke up earlier than usual that morning, he'd felt unsettled and he'd not had his usual appetite. In fact, he'd had more water than usual, and he still hadn't quenched his undying thirst. Having shrugged the thought of his health as being just tiredness from several late nights in a row, he'd not done much about it. Clearly now, summing up all of the symptoms that he was feeling now overheating, exhaustion, nausea, dizziness, disorientation he had contracted a fever. His head pounded and he grunted as Apple Bloom shouted out again, but he didn't feel like shouting at her to be quiet. Somehow he couldn't find his voice. Suddenly, Apple Bloom tugged at his mane, urging him to get back on his feet. He knew that it was dangerous for a horse to lie down for too long, but as much as he wanted to, he couldn't get back up again. After a moment, he lost all perception, and finally allowed himself to succumb to the exhaustion...
What seemed like days later, he stirred. His ear flicked, and he sighed, feeling comfortable in his position. Slowly his senses returned to him; memories of what had transpired the previous day if it had been a day started to surface in his mind. He'd been working... And then he'd collapsed, stricken with fever. With a jolt, he realised that he was still on his side, and while he wasn't sure where he was, he righted himself. His hooves were still aching, but he was up. Shaking his body so that his mane rested in its normal position, he looked around he was in his own room. His bed was covered with soft hay, and his spare blanket was tossed carelessly on the floor. Rolling his eyes, he realised that he must have been the one to toss it off when he'd got up. Angling himself, he hopped off of his bed, picking up the crimson blanket's tip before a familiar scent caught his nose. Apple Bloom!? His emerald eyes glanced down, and he carefully shifted the fold of the fabric with his snout. Buried beneath the deep red fabric was his youngest sister, curled up with her neck turned back to nestle quietly in her tail. Her breathing must have kept her warm, because she was sound asleep something that she seldom did if she was cold. A swift glance outside told him that it was night time either midnight or very early morning. With a smile to himself, the Earth Pony picked up the filly, carrying her in the blanket and walking off, over towards her room.
While she had the smaller room, she didn't mind. Her walls were coloured cream and adorned with pictures of flowers and things that she found she enjoyed. For example, food, as well as her favourite celebrity, and a picture that sat just above her bed frame. It was Granny Smith leaning back; relaxed in her old rocking chair with Apple Bloom perched like a crazy, grinning vulture on her wobbling knees. By her side, he stood with Applejack on his neck, her legs splayed all over the place. That picture brought a smile on his face, and he shook his head as he placed Apple Bloom down and looked back at the crazy orange filly on his back. They had similarly coloured eyes, hers filled with an energy that he remembered fondly. The fringe of his orange mane was pinned beneath her forelegs, her hooves curled up around his ears awkwardly, and her hind legs straddled over his harness. She seemed to have strong back legs, which he'd noticed straight away the first time she'd tackled him, in fact. The boisterous filly was never able to resist a challenge, so when he'd dared her that she wouldn't be able to take him down, she'd of course tried to. The bet had been that if she managed to make him stumble even a little bit, he'd give her extra apples for snacks for a week. If not, she had to let him work in peace for a week.
Naturally, he had been right in his claim, and she'd been disappointed. She'd not even managed to make her older brother budge, which had been a laugh on his part, though somewhat of an insult on hers. Despite the won bet against her, she was pestering him again that very same day. He'd never actually got to do anything on his own, not that he minded. It was all a bit of fun. Chuckling quietly at the memory, he rolled his eyes and headed out of Apple Bloom's room. The filly hadn't woken up at all, which made his job easier she wouldn't get up and ask for something to eat, as she usually did. Being sure to remain as silent and vigilant as possible, he headed into the main room, where Granny Smith was dozing in her rocking chair. Before she'd fallen asleep, it seemed as though she had been knitting. It was a medium sized scarf pale orange in colour, with an apple on the end of one side.
Applejack, he thought with a slight tilt of his head. She started that the very day of Applejack's birth. She's been knitting it ever since. And what a fine scarf it's turned out to be! Big Macintosh stepped around the boxes of string and sewing needles to stand before his grandma's sleeping figure. She wore her glasses, which only meant that she'd either put a lot of attention into getting the detail just right, or she was intending to stay up late to get more done. He wasn't really sure how long he'd been unconscious for, but he must have been out for at least the rest of the day since he'd first fallen. If that was true, then Apple Bloom had sat by him as well, making sure that he was kept at a constant temperature and that he was comfortable. Blinking slowly, he smiled to himself again and turned, feeling warmth in the fact that his youngest sister who was barely old enough to talk was caring for him so dearly. Thoughts strayed across his mind, and he headed into the kitchen to get something to drink.
Ah still ain't heard a peep from AJ or them Orange folk. Ah reckon they would've called if anythin' went wrong, so ah bet they're showin' mah sister the ropes in the city. He'd managed to convince himself that the Orange Family as distant as they were in culture were decent folk who wouldn't just abandon their ties with the Apple family. As disturbing as they found the working ponies, they weren't self-centred enough to keep them in the dark should something have happened. It had taken a while, but he'd convinced himself, and somehow he relied more on that fact than anything else. But if anything came to hurt his younger sister, he'd be at their door before they could say "Hayseed".
A shuffle behind him made him jump, and his ears perked. The Earth Pony turned his head just in time to catch Apple Bloom lazily drag her hooves into the kitchen. She was probably thirsty, he figured, since she must have been asleep for some time. Her attention swiftly moved from whatever she'd woken up for, and landed on Big Macintosh, who was lying by the door, basking in the moonlight. She almost shrieked, but a stern glare from the elder pony quickly silenced her. Instead, she charged over and nuzzled against his neck, hooking her nose just under his jaw in a show of affection. Inside, he could see she was bursting to speak, and he smiled as he brushed his cheek along her tiny flank.
"Ya thirsty, partner...?" He inquired coolly, flicking his short tail as an invitation to join him. It was almost like a curved claw, actually, or the shoulder of a fox as it lurked through the night in search of prey. Apple Bloom yawned, releasing a gust of warm air from her mouth to bat at the base of his neck, but nodded as it came to a close. With a chuckle, he nosed her gently to the side and turned. Picking out a special formula of milk from the cupboard, he mixed it as he did in the morning and then put the suckle cup in the microwave. Once more, his clumsy feet almost knocked the milk on for an hour, but he managed to get it down.
The aging device blinked and came to life with a moan, and Big Macintosh returned to Apple Bloom's side. The filly was curled up, shivering slightly. Breezes from outside drifted into the kitchen, which Big Macintosh hadn't minded that much. Perhaps that was because he was older, though, and it took longer for his body temperature to fall. Carefully he removed the milk from the microwave and passed it to her, and then curled around her to warm her up. While her fur wasn't that cold, he could tell that it wasn't very thick, which let the frost bite into her body. When she received the warm drink, she began to suckle on the top enthusiastically, and nuzzled against Big Macintosh's warm flank. She was still so young, and her presence there relieved some of the loneliness he felt without Applejack. Granny Smith wasn't awake, which was a relief on his part, so while Apple Bloom drank the milk, he gazed out across the land, his ears alert for any problems that might lurk in the shadows.
Minutes passed, and to Macintosh it seemed like a long time. Apple Bloom finished up the last of her milk, and had fallen asleep, curled up into a ball at his side. She was quickly asleep, soothed within the warmth that his body provided. Had his tail been long enough, he'd curl it around to use as a blanket, but it wasn't. Sometimes he gazed at Applejack and admired her tail, because it was long and silky, while his was quite rough and spiked. With a sigh, he curled his neck around to nestle into his shoulder he wasn't wearing his harness and closed his eyes. It was nice to sleep beside his siblings, even if one of them wasn't around much anymore. It'd be weird if, one day, Applejack returned with an orange as her Cutie Mark. An Orange in the Apple Family...? It'd be hard to accept for a lot of the other ponies, for sure, but he'd still love his sisters the same anyway...