Ponyville's antique shop, run by one Memory Lane, didn't see a lot of winter business once Hearth's Warming Eve had passed, so it was a curious thing that as Celestia's sun lingered just above the horizon on this particular Tuesday, the bell above the door gave a pleasant jingle as Big Macintosh sauntered inside. Memory, however, reacted not with surprise but expectant happiness when she looked up from dusting off a small wooden end table to see her large red client entering the store, a soft smile adorning his face. She levitated her duster away with her unicorn magic and hung it neatly on the wall behind the counter, then turned toward the stallion. “Here to pick it up already?”
“Eeyup,” responded Macintosh before he nudged his nose into his saddlebag to retrieve a small, brown money pouch. He placed the bag on the counter as Memory retreated to the back room and reemerged a minute later with a rectangular brown package wrapped in tape. She set her own burden down on the counter as Macintosh nodded toward the pouch and said, “All th' bits should be in there.”
Memory quickly opened the bag and sorted through the golden coins, nodding as her count matched the agreed-upon total. As Macintosh hoisted the package onto his back, the unicorn shopkeeper said, “Now do be careful, that piece is quite fragile.”
Big Mac nodded politely. “Ah know, thank y' kindly Miss Memory. Good day t' you.”
His acquisition balanced securely on his back, the red pony began for the door. “Oh, and Big Mac?” Memory Lane's voice from behind the counter caused him to turn slowly. “Please tell Fluttershy I said hello.”
The mention of his wife's name brought a sparkle to the stallion's eye. “Ah will. G'night, now.” He stepped through the door and into the chilly evening air, his eyes set on the road back to his cottage.
Nearly a half hour of walking found him at the front entrance of his destination. From inside, he heard nothing and thought that this could be either a very good sign or an ill omen. He pushed the door open and stepped inside, the pleasant warmth provided by the fireplace a welcome contrast from the increasingly cold outdoors. He glanced towards the flickering fire and saw two small ponies lying prone on the floor in front of the hearth, their noses buried in books. With a slightly raised voice, Macintosh said, “Furlong, Summer Breeze, Ah'm home.” The tiny orange filly and the slightly larger green colt sprang to their feet and ran to embrace their father, their voices running wild with descriptions of things done earlier in the day. One raised hoof from Macintosh silenced them quickly. “Ah'm happy t' see you too, but right now, Ah'm lookin' fer yer ma. Y'all seen 'er?”
Furlong, the older of the two, spoke up, “Yeah, she's been out at the barn for a couple hours now. She told us to read until you got home, and that's just what we've been doing, no fighting or nothing!” A vigorous nod from his little sister confirmed the validity of his claim.
Macintosh smiled and ruffled the young colt's hair. “Mighty glad t' hear that, Furlong. Now, you two run along upstairs, an' make sure to clean up real good 'fore ya hit th' hay.”
“Aw, but Dad,” said the colt, “we're not even tired yet!” This time, his younger sibling betrayed him with a long, catlike yawn. As Macintosh grinned, Furlong sheepishly continued, “Okay, maybe just a little bit.”
Their father said in a gentle but firm voice, “Y'all go on now. Ah'll be up t' tuck ya in real soon, a'right?”
After a begrudging “Okay,” Furlong turned and trotted up the staircase. Summer Breeze, however, lingered at her father's side. He leaned down to her and asked, “What's th' matter, Breeze?”
In a squeaky voice, she said, “Daddy, is Mommy gonna be okay?”
He frowned and raised an eyebrow. “What makes ya say that, darlin'?”
She turned her gaze away from his and said softly, “When she went to the barn, she looked real sad, and that made me sad, so I asked her why, and she said she was fine, but she didn't smile. I don't like it when Mommy doesn't smile.”
Macintosh's heart skipped a beat. He nuzzled his daughter gently and said, “Don't ya worry now, Breeze. Yer ma's jus' fine, y'hear? Ah'm gonna see 'er right now an' cheer 'er up. Now, go on 'n get ready fer bed.” Her walk upstairs was not as quick as her brother's, but Macintosh watched her until she reached the top of the stairs and turned toward the bathroom. As he turned around to head back out the door, he spied the books that his children had been reading still lying on the living room floor. He grinned slightly, then closed each one and replaced them on the bookshelf. With a satisfied nod, he exited out the door and into the darkening evening once again.
Their two-story barn was a short trot from the cottage, and Macintosh was soon standing before it. Soft light emanated from the first-floor windows. He slowly pushed the door open and poked his head inside. “Shy? You in here?”
A barely audible squeak of confirmation came from a stall to his left. He stepped in and shut the large door behind him before making his way to the low, wooden door of the stall and looking in. A thin layer of hay covered the floor, and several larger bales were stacked in a pyramid at the rear of the enclosure. It was at the base of this bale structure that Fluttershy lay, her front hooves tucked under her body and her wings folded neatly to her sides. A lit lantern lay next to her on the floor. As Macintosh approached, she looked up at him and smiled weakly. The sight of her big, teal eyes took his breath away for a moment; even after fourteen years, she still had that effect on him. He could see, however, that those same eyes weren't as bright and vibrant as they usually were, and he could almost make out tear tracks running down her cheeks. Her voice was barely more than a whisper as she greeted him, “Hello, Mac.”
“Howdy, Shy,” he said. “Mind a lil' comp'ny?”
Her smile widened slightly, and she said, “I'd love some, thank you.”
Macintosh swung the creaking door and took his place in the stall, lying down parallel to Fluttershy and facing the dancing light of the lantern. As he settled into place, he felt her delicate frame press into his and her head come to rest on his shoulder. For a while, neither of them spoke, entranced by the flickering flame and enjoying the warmth of each others' bodies. Finally, the big red stallion broke the silence. “Got ya somethin'.”
“A present?” she replied quietly.
“Eeyup.” He gestured toward the package that still sat on his back. “Go 'head 'n open 'er up.”
She retrieved the rectangular box from his back and began trying to open it. After two failed attempts, she turned to her husband and said, “Um...could you help me open it, please? I...I'm having some trouble...”
He nodded and grasped the package in his two front hooves, then used his teeth to tear a strip of cardboard from the top of the box. He slid it back to her, and she blushed up at him before opening the top flaps and looking inside. His gaze was fixed on her face as its expression morphed from curiosity, to realization, to shock, to a knowing smile. She looked up at his already-grinning face and whispered, “How did you...”
“Miss Memory Lane down at Ponyville Antiques,” he replied. “Told 'er what Ah needed, an' she did th' rest o' th' work. Dunno how she tracked it down, but Ah sure am glad she did.”
She leaned in and gave him a soft kiss on the cheek. “Oh my...” she said. “It's a perfect likeness.”
His smile grew. “So Ah take it ya like it?”
A cheeky grin and another kiss, this one on the lips and lasting a little longer, provided the answer. As Fluttershy settled back down, she reached into the box and extracted the precious object: a long-necked vase of blown glass, with an intricate floral pattern looping around its middle. It wasn't an especially valuable piece, certainly not one that would be put on display in any sort of museum, but to the couple who lay side by side on the floor of their barn, it was a lifetime.
Silence prevailed for several minutes as both ponies stared at the decorative glass piece, the light from the lantern reflecting in its simple yet striking design. Macintosh stole a glance at Fluttershy's face and saw a single, silent teardrop sliding from the corner of her eye. Slowly, her smile waned, until finally, her quiet voice floated to his ears. “It's been ten years. A long time.”
He didn't respond; rather, he shuffled his body even closer to his wife and leaned his head over her neck, burying his face in her soft pink mane.
She nuzzled against his neck, then continued, “I'm glad I remember how it looked. I don't know why that's important, but it feels right that I can at least remember that.”
Macintosh remained silent.
After a pause and what sounded like a sniffle, Fluttershy said, “It was so cold that winter. The weather teams brought the snow, but the Everfree Forest had so much rogue weather, and the temperature kept dropping. The la...water was frozen solid for more than a month. It was so cold...they said later that was why it closed up so quickly.”
Macintosh withdrew his head from its resting place and sat upright once again. He stiffened slightly, but still said nothing, instead casting a watchful gaze on his wife.
“The surface...” Her voice drifted far away. “It looked like a pane of glass. Like a window to the water below.” Her eyes were fixated on the vase. “That's why I broke it. I had to know.” She sniffed, but no tears came. “I had to prove to myself...to you...that I could break it, that I was strong enough. Strong enough to break through...”
A strong, red-furred leg looped around her shoulder and pulled her close to the large, warm body beside her. “Ya've always been strong.” Big Mac choked slightly on the words. “Stronger 'n me sometimes.”
She reached up a hoof to his head and turned him to face her. Their vision locked, and he could see the deep well of sadness that stung his lover's eyes and was threatening to drive out more tears to wet the hay below. After a moment, she turned her own head away and said in her softest voice yet, “That's not true. I never told you this, but I...I almost gave up.”
His eyes widened. “How d'ya mean?”
She exhaled a long breath, then turned to face him again. “After it happened, I was so angry. I couldn't control it. I needed...somepony to blame, some way to make it make sense. I was angry at you for not being there...I was angry at Celestia for making the sun rise just so I could go through another day of pain...but most of all, I was angry at myself. I felt so miserable, so guilty. What kind of pony was I, to give the pony I loved the greatest gift of all, just to let it...die?” Her final word was a harsh whisper, and a rogue tear finally snaked down her cheek. “I broke the vase, but even as I was doing it, I knew...I knew it wouldn't really mean anything. So what if I shattered some glass? I still didn't have the strength when it counted. I couldn't break through, not even to save...my own...” The tears started to flow more steadily, and she buried her head in Macintosh's chest, his fur dampening as her sorrows spilled out.
He sniffed back his own tears and rubbed her back with his hoof. “Ah know, sugar, Ah know,” he said softly. “Ah miss 'im ev'ry day.”
Her body heaved once or twice more before her quiet cry came to an end. She withdrew from the comfort of his barrel chest and looked at him again. “I didn't think I deserved to live, not after I failed like that. I was ready to go through with it...I was so scared, but I thought it was better that I leave you before I caused you even more pain. I could see how hurt you were. You wouldn't talk to me at all, and I used it as an excuse to justify my choice. Why would you ever want to be around me when all I could do was remind you of how much you'd lost?”
“Fluttershy...Ah...Ah never knew ya went through all o' that.”
“I know now...I know now that I did it to myself. I convinced myself that what I was thinking was the truth.” Teal eyes blinked twice as the faintest hint of a smile crept across the yellow pegasus' lips. “And then, something happened that changed all that. It was at the funeral; I remember that I was numb, not from disbelief, but from acceptance. I was going to put a stop to all of it...all the pain and suffering I'd caused because I was weak. Nopony would have to live with my failure any more.” She swallowed hard. “But then...right in the middle of the service...I heard you crying. You were sobbing so loud, in the middle of everypony. I'd never seen you get that emotional in a crowd before, and I didn't know how to react. But...everypony else did. Your family, my friends, even ponies I barely knew...they gathered around you, embracing you, comforting you, telling you it would be okay. Seeing the crowd of them helping you, with you still weeping in the middle of it...it hit me all of a sudden. I wasn't going to do anypony any favors by leaving them, especially you. I had been so selfish the whole time...it made me sick that I would even think about abandoning you at a time when you needed somepony to lean on.” She looked up at him with wide, moist eyes. “I was so...obsessed with trying to make myself feel better that I ignored you completely, and right then and there, I knew that I had been wrong, oh so wrong. And I didn't need to carry my pain alone. I'd be there for you, and you...you'd be there for me too.”
His response was slow. “Ah recall breakin' down. Ev'rythin' jus'...came to a head. Ah remember why Ah was cryin', too. Wasn't jus' fer him, Shy...Ah was afraid fer you, more 'n anythin' else. Ya'd been so distant since it happened, and Ah didn't know what t' do t' get through. Ah recalled seein' the vase in pieces all over th' floor, an' it struck me right then that you were hurtin' real bad. Ah felt so...weak an' helpless.” Macintosh swallowed hard. “Ah jus'...didn't want ya t' end up like that vase. Shy...Ah...Ah can't rightly say what Ah'd've done if ya'd...gone through with it. Ah sure as sugar wouldn't be sittin' here. Ah'm...well, sure, Ah'm still sad sometimes, but Ah 'magine mah life would've taken a turn for the worst if Ah didn't have you with me.” He smiled, his eyes glistening, and said, “You said ya weren't strong enough. Ah gotta disagree with ya. Yer the strongest lil' pony Ah ever met, and Ah'll buck th' teeth outta any mare or stallion what says anythin' diff'rent.” He nuzzled her gently.
She returned his affectionate gesture in kind, then said, “You know why I'm strong, Big Mac?” Their eyes locked, and warm smiles crept onto both ponies' faces. “Because I have a strong stallion, in more ways than one.” She giggled quietly and looked once again at the reflected lantern flame dancing in the simple glass vase, a thousand colors swirling within. “And I'll always be strong for him.”
As the night wore on, a timid yellow pegasus mare and a large red stallion lay together on the hay-covered floor of their barn, a memory from their past clutched between her forehooves. She leaned on him for warmth and comfort, and he was more than happy to oblige.