Learn Me to Read

by Laterna Waverka

First published

Sweet Apple Acres is in trouble and the teenage Big McIntosh is just too darn stubborn to admit that he needs help. It's not long before the community of Ponyville step in, but the help Big Mac receives may not be entirely what he was expecting

After tragedy strikes the Apple family, a teenage Big McIntosh is left alone to struggle with taking care of the farm. It soon becomes apparent that he simply can't handle the load on his own, but is just too darn stubborn to admit that he needs help. It's not long before the community of Ponyville step in to offer their assistance, but not all for the same reasons and certainly not in the ways that Big Mac had expected.

I would like to thank SirMagicHooves for:
- proof-reading Chapter One - Help prior to its submission.
- helping me decide to slice the original Chapter Two in half and add an additional chapter.

I would like to thank BigMacintosh1 for:
- inspiring me to broaden my imagination and knowledge with this fic.
- invaluable farming information that will come into play from Chapter 03 onwards.

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Everypony knew the tragic story of the Apple family, it had been the talk of all of Ponyville for the past two months. Several workers were gathering the last of the apples when a nearby dam broke and a flood tore through the lush green fields, washing away the lives of those workers. Sadly, two of those workers left behind three children, who were now to be raised by their distraught grandmother, Granny Smith.
The youngest of the three ponies was a little foal named Apple Bloom. Not even started in school, Apple Bloom really did not understand what had happened. Naturally, she was aware that her parents were missing, but came to accept Granny Smith as her primary care-giver relatively quickly.
The middle pony, a young orange filly with blonde hair, named Applejack, was still in school when her parents were taken by the flood. Still without her cutie mark, Applejack only understood one thing about her parents untimely death and that was the simple fact that they were gone. Yes, she had trouble accepting their death and, naturally, it was extremely upsetting, but the truth of the matter was very clear to Applejack and, somehow, understanding that truth comforted her. It was easier for her to return to daily life because of this.
Her older brother, on the other hoof, was not so understanding. His name was Big McIntosh, or 'Big Mac' for short and he did not have the same simplicity in life that his younger sisters had. For him, this turned his whole world upside-down. Big Mac already had his cutie mark and was already helping out around the farm outside of his school time. Even though he was ready to begin work full-time, Big Mac's parents had wanted him to stay in school and become 'proper learned' because it was never something that they had had the chance to do. However, when his parents and the other workers were taken by the flood, it only left Big Mac and his Granny to keep the farm going. As the ever-ageing Granny Smith had to devote most of her time to baby Apple Bloom, this really only left Big Mac on his own to work the fields. Big Mac had no choice but to abandon his education and the dreams his parents had for him.
Big Mac took all of this extremely hard and buried himself in his work, growing increasingly introverted each day. As the days grew longer with the coming of spring and the farm began to show signs of struggle, the fresh-faced mayor of Ponyville – Mayor Mare – decided that is was time for the ponies of Ponyville to give something back to the farm. Mayor Mare was kick-starting a recruitment drive for volunteers to work at Sweet Apple Acres!

So it began, at Ponyville town square, right in front of a the lavish town hall, a large off-white tent was placed. Ponies were required sign-up a week in advance and were given an interview time. Standing there, right at the back of the crowd, was a quivering, timid caramel-brown teenage colt. Looking out across the mass of ponies, he shifted his messy dark brown hair around his face as if he were trying to hide. This pony was not known for excelling in any kind of physical activity. In fact, quite often, he would muck up even the simplest of task that required him to do anything other than sit quietly. However, no-pony could disagree that, for all he messed up, this pony had luck on his side – literally! His cutie mark had taken on the shape of three sparkling blue horseshoes.
The natural luck also extended to his studies and, combined with his constant 'sitting-still-and-keeping-out-of-trouble-ness', this particular pony had found himself two years ahead of his other classmates. The young pony could never quite decide, though, if that was the work of good luck or bad luck, but it was luck all the same!
So, why on earth was he here, volunteering for something that required him to work physical labour on a farm?

“Next up is...” the mayor's assistant scanned the list of names. “Caramel?” he called out to the crowd. “Is there a 'Caramel' here today?”

There were numerous murmurs from the, now, relatively small crowd.

“Caramel?” one shrill voice piped up. “What on earth is that clumsy little foal here for?”

Glancing up, the caramel pony with the messy brown hair hadn't even noticed that the crowd of multi-coloured ponies had parted, giving him a clear view of the tent. All eyes were on him now.

“Uh... y-yes?” Caramel trotted forward nervously.

“Oh! It really is him?” an older pony exclaimed gruffly. “I thought that was some kind of joke!”

Caramel's head lowered, his brown hair falling across face. He could hear all the ponies laughing at him inside his head. Caramel knew that they would hang around to watch the spectacle of him getting rejected for farm-work by the mayor herself – just another muck-up, as usual. He was going to be the laughing stock of the whole town... again!
Caramel could feel the tears welling up and squeezed his eyes shut as tight as he could to stop them from falling. The last thing he needed was everypony knowing that he was a pathetic little crybaby too.

“What must his parents be thinking?” a socialite mare cried out. “Honestly!”

Thinking of his parents, Caramel knew that they would be supportive of him at least giving it the old college try. Even though he messed up (a lot) and had resorted to the quiet and safe life of a bookworm, Caramel's parents always told him to never stop trying. However, after so many years, it became harder for them to hide their disappointed in their only son.

“I'll bet his parents actually put him up to this.” another pony responded to the socialite. “They were farm ponies too, you know.”

Caramel thought that too himself, but only for a moment – was he being influenced by the life and mentalities of his parents? His father had been a strong and muscular stallion who grew up not that differently from the life Big Mac was now beginning to lead. Caramel had never known his grandparents and all his father knew was a life of work, actively shunning the books that Caramel loved so much. In fact, his father had probably been the first of the volunteers to sign-up for this.
There was no doubt about it, the life his father had led paralleling the beginning of Big Mac's new life was definitely influencing his decision, but not for the reasons that everypony was thinking...

“You're up, kiddo!”

Glancing up, Caramel had not even noticed that he had reached the front already. That mayor's assistant flash the caramel-coloured pony a smile and pulled back the doorway of the tent, allowing the little pony access.
With his knees clattering together, Caramel slowly walked into the off-white tent that had been set up to interview the potential volunteers. All around, Caramel could feel the other ponies watching him, questioning why a clumsy little pony like him would be volunteering for work on the farm. Shaking off the negative thoughts welling up inside, Caramel stepped into the tent and the door dropped back down behind him.

Inside was much smaller than he expected, with only two small stools on either side of a long table. A few piles of books were stacked around the tent, with titles such as 'What Makes a Good Worker Pony?' and the likes. Taking a seat on the nearest of the stools, Caramel could not help but notice a mini-mountain of crumpled paper on the floor around the other stool. Scanning across the table, Caramel also caught a glimpse of a long list of names labelled 'Volunteers' – were those all the ones who had already been accepted? Caramel wondered if he had to, or even would be able to, compete with all of these other ponies. Or would he just be another rejected crumpled bit of paper on the floor?

“Ahem!”

Snapping out of his thoughts, Caramel had not even noticed the other pony sitting across from him on the other stool. She looked cold, her fur a lesser saturated colour than his own. Caramel gulped as he examined her pristine silver hair and the tough glare in her sharp blue eyes. The young colt squeezed his blue eyes shut in disbelief – he could not believe that he had not noticed the mayor sitting across from him!

“So,” Mayor Mare said as she looked Caramel up and down, sizing his potential. “Impress me.”

Caramel's eyes shot open... and his jaw dropped. “I, uh, w-well, um, you see...” he lost it. “I-I, uh, well, I thought, well, what I mean is... I...”

Caramel just could not seem to get the words out, and he had so much he wanted to say too. He needed to pull it together and say what need said. For Big Mac...

“Come on, out with it.” the mayor tried to sound encouraging, but it came out snappy. “I haven't got all day and there are plenty of more ponies to see!”

The moment the words left her mouth, Mayor Mare caught herself and lowered her head. However, it was too late. Caramel just could not help but feel completed intimidated. It paralysed him. He lowered his head, becoming fixating on a blade of grass situated perfectly between the front legs of his stool.
Taking in a few deep breaths, the mayor leaned across the table. Caramel could feel her sharp eyes drawing nearer, targeted dead-set on his pathetic face. The young pony did not know what to do, but was prepared for immediate rejection.

“Stop.” the mayor said surprisingly softly.

Caramel lifted his head slowly, looking at her in disbelief – he certainly was not expecting a gentle let-down.

“I have seen dozens of ponies today proclaiming to be the best apple buckers in town and all of them, I must say, are certainly up to the task.” She paused. “By the looks of you,” she sized him up again, “you just don't seem to fit the bill.”

Caramel lowered his head once again, tears filling his soft blue eyes. He kept wondering what had possessed him to come to this stupid volunteer thing, but he could not help but think about...

“So, tell me,” the mayor continued, leaning back from the table, “why did you come here today?”

Taking in a deep breath and forcing back the build-up of tears, Caramel looked up at the mayor with a sense of purpose. He had come here for a reason and he simply had to try.

“School.” Caramel blurted out.

Silence.

The mayor gazed at him, squinting her eyes as she tried to figure out what the young pony meant.

Caramel could not help it. One word and he froze. It was all he could think about - school. Last year at school, Caramel had skipped ahead one year and wound up in the same class as Big Mac. This year, Caramel found that he was to advance another year. Then, after what happened at the Apple farm... all Caramel could think about was how Big Mac was not going to finish school. More importantly, in Caramel's mind, was how Caramel was not going to get the chance to see Big Mac everyday. He needed a legitimate reason to visit the farm and this volunteering opportunity gave him just that. As he was not the physical labor type, Caramel devised a plan where he could spend time with Big Mac by helping him to study and finish school in his free time.
Now all Caramel had to do was put that across to the Mayor in such a way that avoided the whole "schoolboy crush" thing.

“You are going to need to give me a bit more than that,” Mayor Mare sighed.

“Oh!” Caramel's eyes opened wide. “Right, um, o-okay...” He started to compose himself and explained, “well, um, you see, l-last year I was, erm, I was... I was in the same class as Big Mac.” Suddenly he stopped. “Oh! Sorry! I-I mean... Big McIntosh!” Caramel looked at the mayor sheepishly, who motioned him to continue. “Well, I thought that it was really unfair tha-that Mac had to leave sc-school and I thought that I could help him catch up on, um, you know, education in m-my own time so that he could be g-good and smart like everypony else.” Finally Caramel stopped. He took in several deep breaths and focused on his fast-paced heart beats.

“I see,” the mayor looked down the list of volunteers.

Mayor Mare moved the list to the side and picked out a new sheet of blank paper. Caramel thought for sure that she was going to write his name on it, crumple it up, throw it on the floor and yell at him for being so foolish - “we're looking for apple buckers, not bookworms!” he could hear her shouting in his head.

“Okay.” Mayor Mare smiled at him. “In your own time, you can help, so long as it doesn't affect your own studies.”

Caramel could not believe it – she agreed!

“And his chores.” the mayor quickly added.

Chores? Still, it was a lot better than being a crumpled piece of paper.

“Thank you!” Caramel grinned as he was dismissed.

Heading out of the tent, Caramel found himself filled with new-found confidence. Sure, it was going to be a lot of hard work, for both him and Big Mac, but it was definitely going to be worth it.
Caramel had luck on his side once again. He was actually going to get to spend as much time as he wanted to with Big McIntosh! Caramel stopped in the middle of the crowded market street he had aimlessly wandered into. Everypony around was casting him strange looks because of the giant grin on his blushing face. Caramel, however, could not care less as he had just gotten permission, from the mayor of all people, as well as a legitimate reason, to spend as much time as he wanted with the one pony in all of Ponyville who he had the absolute biggest crush ever on – Big McIntosh!

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Sweet Apple Acres was a surprisingly large farm, home to many apple orchards that were not readily visible to the town, but everypony knew they were there. Unfortunately, the majority of the farm was not visible from Caramel's bedroom window... all he could do was stare at the big barn roof that he could see over the houses and imagine what Big Mac was up to...
With his elbows on the windowsill, Caramel rested his head in his hooves and thought over his master plan once again. Most of the main volunteer ponies worked on the farm during the week, when there were more jobs needing done. As Caramel was still in school, he only really had a few half days and his weekends free. Tomorrow was Sunday and, from what he'd heard, Caramel knew that Sunday was the best chance to get Big Mac alone.

Me. Big Mac. Alone. Caramel thought to himself.

With a huge grin on his face, Caramel shoved himself off the windowsill and fell backwards onto his bed. The thick red covers bounced, coming up around him at either side and wrapping around Caramel's body. As the fabric brushed against his fur, Caramel nuzzled into his orange pillow, closing his eyes and dreaming of his perfect stallion.
An image of Big Mac began to form in Caramel's mind... a large stallion, his muscles visible through his soft red coat. He would look at Caramel and smile, his beautiful orange mane would fall over his dazzling blue eyes.

“Good morning Mac!” Caramel would greet him with a spring in his steps.

“Good morning,” Big Mac would return the gesture, still smiling.

Naturally, Big Mac would recognise the importance of his studies and they would do all that first. Big Mac would also be mindful of all the extra work that Caramel was doing just for him... and, of course, Big Mac would be very grateful.

Caramel, however, would be modest, “oh, r-really, it's no trouble at all...” and he would flutter his blue eyes, “for you that is...” and gaze dreamily at his soon-to-be-coltfriend.

Then, once all of the school-work was done, the two ponies would take a lunch break. Caramel always imagined Big Mac to be really protective, caring and romantic; so naturally lunch consisted of an intimate picnic set out in a secluded spot of the farm, preferably amongst some fresh-smelling apple trees.
There would be tremendous chemistry between the two colts, a heat that neither of them could resist. Just as they are about to share their first kiss, Caramel would draw away. No. Lunch was not the perfect moment for their first kiss – there was a more finer moment still to come.
Then it would be time for chores because, naturally, Big Mac would want something in return and what would be more perfect for two teenage colts than some manual labour that allowed Caramel to stare at Big Mac some more? Caramel would work exceptionally hard, but his clumsiness would ultimately prevail. Big Mac, however, being the gentle soul that he is, would be very sweet about it and would reassure the cute pony who really is just trying to help out.
Then, at the last task of the day, just before he is due to return home, Caramel would finally get something right. In the heat of a spontaneous celebratory play that would break out between the cheering ponies, there would be a sudden spark.
Everything would stop.
Caramel and Big Mac would gaze into each other's eyes.
Then... they would kiss...

Suddenly – shock! Doubt would come as Big Mac draws away, too late to hesitate. The kiss and the moment are over. Big Mac is left stunned and, gasp, there is no more time and Caramel must return home, their precious moment unresolved.
However, the two ponies would be bound together by that kiss forever and they would simply have to meet again! The doubts in both of their minds must be quelled. Through that time apart (hopefully, not too long a time), Big Mac would come to realise his true feelings for Caramel and they would live happily ever after.

Perfect.
Caramel certainly had it all planned out and he was certain that his day with his perfect stallion would go just as he imagined. With his face now beaming, Caramel snuggled deeper into his covers and dreamt of his happy ever after...

Morning came in fairly quickly and it was not long before Caramel found himself bounding up the dirt path to the gate of Sweet Apple Acres, his brown satchel bouncing along on his back. Even though it had been raining through the night and he slipped a few times, Caramel was not about to let anything deter him from his perfect first date. The large white wooden arch that served as a gate was soon towering over him and Caramel practically bounced through it – straight into a giant puddle of mud! Looking down, Caramel's spirits also faltered as his hooves and legs were now partially covered in icky mud. Not that he had put too much time into his appearance, but Caramel wanted to look as good as possible. With a hefty sigh, Caramel looked up from his hooves and out towards the rest of the farm, searching for the one thing that could cheer him up.
Immediately, Caramel's attention fell on the large red barn building, which had extensions that served as a living area for the Apple family. Caramel decided quickly not to look there as he trotted onto the farm, thinking that Big Mac was probably already out doing work. Looking further afield, Caramel could see some large hills a short distance away. They were very steep, but were plastered with apple trees.

He wouldn't be all the way out there, would he? Caramel asked himself. How did they even get those trees planted like that?

Shaking the thoughts out of his head, Caramel continued to walk through Sweet Apple Acres, moving around the barn to get a better view of the rest of the farm. From the back of the building, Caramel could see off to his left some cornfields and a well just beyond them. Dead ahead was a chicken coop centred in some other fenced off areas, each housing a different animal – cows, sheep, pigs and even a brown and white puppy. Over to the right side, leading towards the super steep hills, was even more apple trees. This patch was a lot denser than the ones of the hills.
Suddenly, the top of one of the trees shook violently. A few moments later, another one shook and Caramel noticed what few apples he could make out fall off. Caramel smiled as he knew in his heart that that is where he would find his stallion.
Taking in a sharp, deep breath, Caramel charged at full speed to where Big Mac was, following the sound of his great big hooves bucking the apple trees. Within moments, Caramel laid eyes on his dream come true . Standing still, simply standing gazing up at a big apple tree, there he was – Big McIntosh!
Caramel could not contain his excitement and, with a huge grin on his face, he bounced his way to stand beside Big Mac.

“Good Morning Mac!” Caramel greeted him with a spring in his steps.

Big Mac's toned, muscular frame swirled around gracefully to face the caramel-brown pony. Caramel now stood just a few inches away (a perfect kissing distance, although it was too early for that yet) and waited for Big Mac to 'return the gesture in kind' as he did in Caramel's fantasies.

Nothing.
Big Mac just stared at Caramel absently. The trees around them blew in a cool Autumn breeze. Caramel's blue eyes darted around uncontrollably and he could feel a nervous sweat building up, matting his coat. All the while, he felt compelled to keep smiling.

I must look like an absolute creep freak right now, Caramel couldn't hold in a tiny groan as he thought about how bad he must look.

“Can ah help ye?” Big Mac finally spoke, his deep voice calling Caramel back into the moment.

“Oh. Right. Yes you can.” Caramel started. “N-no. Wait. Actually.” He paused when he saw how perplexed Big Mac was looking. “Well, what I mean is, a-actually, um, I-I'm here to help y-you, actually.” Caramel finally explained.

Big Mac's stoic silence quickly returned and Caramel's smile faded. Caramel couldn't help but wonder if someone had forgotten to tell Big Mac about this.

Caramel's eyes widened at the thought and he quickly added, “I'm here to help you with your studies and school and stuff because, you know, you dropped out of school and I thought that that was a real shame so I offered to come and help you get your education at least.” Caramel was sure he'd messed that up too he was so nervous.

Fortunately, a look of realisation flickered across Big Mac's red face, but just for a moment.

Big Mac looked down and kicked one of his hooves into the ground. “Ah see,” he said, seeming less than enthused.

Turning back towards the barn, Caramel's smile returned and his hope in his fantasy was regained. “So, what subject would you like to start with?” He asked, digging into his satchel. “I've brought books and work on a variety of...”

“Uh-uh.” Big Mac interjected, cutting Caramel off.

Caramel sharply spun around, a big book drooping from his mouth. Those pesky doubts returned and Caramel could feel his perfect day fantasy spiralling out of control.

“Chores first.” Big Mac said simply. “Then school.”

With that, Big Mac turned his attention back to the tree he had been eyeing up earlier. He strained his front chest and leg muscles and swiftly lifted the back half of his body into the air. Without warning Big Mac slammed his thick back hooves into the bark of the tree. Then, it was raining apples. Big Mac's body returned to a standing position as all the apples fell into well-placed barrels around the base of the tree.

Is that... drool? Caramel thought as he quickly became aware that he was maybe been staring at the whole show a little too intently. Shaking his head (and the drool off) Caramel gazed up and around at all the tall apples trees surrounding them. They suddenly felt a little too close for comfort. Caramel wondered if he was even strong enough to lift his back legs to even try to buck them.

“Ye gonna help?” Caramel hadn't even realised that Big Mac had been actually frowning at him. In fact, Caramel felt that he looked a little angry.

Caramel was now even more painfully aware that he was way out of his element. Even if the two ponies had done the whole 'study-buddy romance' thing first, the physical labour would have come eventually. All Caramel had hoped was that, by seeing him in his element first, Big Mac wouldn't think the worst of him when he failed miserably at bucking apple trees. Caramel's eyes and heart sank to the ground as his perfect first date fantasy came crashing down in full... and Caramel couldn't hide his tiny tears.

How am I meant to show off my strengths and make him like me now? The disheartened pony asked himself. This isn't how today was supposed to go at all...

“Well?” Big Mac pressed, the anger now showing in his deep voice.

Taking in a deep breath, Caramel knew that he really had no choice now – there was only one thing he could do. Caramel would just have to find the strength within him and prove to Big Mac just how capable he is and make this moment the first step to making the fantasy a reality. It was all or nothing.
Caramel looked up, the fire in his eyes burning through to his heart and soul. Steadily, he back his slight frame towards one of the menacingly tall trees. With a new-found determination, Caramel focused all of his energy into his front legs, willing them to hold his weight. Caramel pushed forward with his front legs as much as he could and poured all of his weight onto his delicate hooves. With greater ease than he anticipated, Caramel felt the back half of his body spring upwards.

I'm actually doing it! Caramel thought, unable to believe that he actually had the strength to lift his own body weight like that.

Unable to contain his excitement, Caramel's blue eyes sparkled through his flopping brown mane and his wide smile returned. Now all he had to do was kick his back legs out and buck that apple tree!