Nopony likes moving, but it's something almost everypony goes through at least once. You could be living in your perfect dream home, one which you've worked your whole life to earn, but soon something comes along that just ruins the ideal homeowner experience. It could be anything really, noisy neighbors, train tracks, a fire station--these are but a few examples.
What's a pony to do when they're crawling up the wall and just about had it? Move elsewhere? For many, that's simply out of the question. They just want a change of scenery, not leave their little slice of heaven behind.
Of course, when you're Big Macintosh, one of, if not, the strongest stallion around, physically moving the house somewhere else is always an overlooked yet completely viable option.
It was a particularly warm, sunny afternoon on the Apple farm, enough to draw sweat from Big Macintosh’s brow. The temperature was a smidge higher from what Mac was normally used to, but he didn't let it bother him none. Truthfully, he barely even noticed the heat, as he was busy bucking one apple tree after the other.
Mac would continue to be at it for the next hour or two, seeing as he had a quota to meet. Additionally, being the hard working stallion that he was, breaks were the very last thing on his mind. Not that he needed a break, so to say. Gathering apples wasn't physically demanding on Big Mac, just... methodical.
With years of working the same field with the same trees, Mac had developed an internalized set routine. He'd basically walk up to a tree, turn his back to it, cock his hind leg, give said tree a swift kick with a resounding 'thwack!', then merely stand back and watch as the shaken apples fell neatly into the waiting cart below. He'd have to use a very small portion of his strength when kicking, of course, lest he risk snapping the tree in two.
Being as abnormally strong as he was, everything around Big Mac seemed too fragile and brittle to him; more often than not, he felt as if he lived in a world made entirely out of cardboard.
Once all the apples had been gathered, Mac pulled the cart over to the next tree, then repeated the process for the umpteenth time that day. Monotonous it may be, but somepony had to do it. Applejack already collected all the apples in the west field, and it was Mac's turn to work his way through the eastern ones.
Things weren't so bad, though. With how easily one motion naturally led to the next, Big Mac would occasionally let his body run on auto-pilot, allowing his mind to wander. He'd think of less disconcerting things, things that didn't relate to the farm and, by extension, work. Admittedly, there wasn't much for him to think of. The last guys' night he had with Spike typically came to the forefront of his thoughts, as well as the latest movie he'd seen, but other than that, the metaphorical well came up dry.
Right as Big Mac was about to give his next tree its due kick, he paused. After lowering his leg, he then sighed dejectedly.
Mac didn't want to admit it, and he hoped it wasn't so, but his life seemed to be rather lacking as of late. He sensed a void. somewhere in his being, one which a day of good ol' honest work couldn't seem to fill this time around. Normally he'd hit the fields whenever that empty feeling so much as reared its ugly head (even if it happened to be well into the night while the family was asleep), but lately it's been gotten more and more difficult for him to suppress.
Perhaps what he needed was a new hobby--or in his case, pick up a hobby, find some new interest to fill his time that wasn't work. An apple was his cutie mark, but his life shouldn't revolve solely around them.
Fortunately for the stallion, a familiar, youthful voice managed to break him from his funk.
"Well heyya, Mac! East fields today, I see."
"Apple Bloom," greeted Big Mac in his usual stoicism, his earlier thoughts being tucked away at the back of his mind for the time being. He bucked the tree, and a bombardment of apples fell into the cart. "Back from school?" he asked.
Apple Bloom nodded. "Yup! Surprisingly, a lot of fun today. We learned about ferns, read a book that turned out to actually be pretty good, Sweetie gave me half of her sandwich during lunch, and Scootaloo got her hoof stuck under a big rock during recess." Likely recalling the memory, Apple Bloom huffed mirthfully as she gave a toothy smirk. "All in all: good day. Definitely a good, funny day."
"Mm, well I'm glad to hear it," said Big Mac, hauling the apple-loaded cart to the next tree. After a few hoofsteps, he halted in place, then gave Apple Bloom a curious look. "Wait... why did Scootaloo have her hoof under a rock in the first place?"
"Way I remember it," said Apple Bloom, rubbing her chin, "her and Sweetie were arguing about where gems come from."
"Where gems come from?"
"Yeah. Sweetie tried to explain that her sister said they come from inside the rocks, while Scootaloo kept insisting that they come from under them, like how chickens lay eggs. Scootaloo walked up to the one rock on the schoolyard, dug some dirt out with a shovel, then tried to feel around under it for one. She didn't find no gem, but her hoof got, um... heh, yeah."
Moments later, her face lit up. "Oh! Speaking of which, I forgot to mention it, but I also made a new friend! I hope it's okay, Big Mac, but I invited her over."
"Really now?" said Big Mac, followed by a thwack behind him. "And when is your friend arriving?"
Apple Bloom tilted her head and furrowed a brow. "When's she arri--what? Big Mac, are you blind or something? She's right..." She gestured to her side, only to soon realize that nopony was there. "Oh for... Lily, you hiding again!?"
This time, it was Big Mac's turn to cock an eye. "Lily?" he repeated.
Just then, the light raspberry head of a filly with an orchid and magenta mane, styled in pigtails, popped out from behind one of the trees.
"There you are, Lily!" shouted Apple Bloom. "Whatcha doing over there? Come on over here and meet my brother!" She turned to Big Mac, smiling sheepishly. "Sorry about that, Big Mac, she's new and a little shy."
The filly, who Mac then knew as Lily, stepped out from behind the safety of her tree before timidly approaching the two. As she neared, Mac noted that her cutie mark was a hedgehog of all things, and that her soft blue eyes were directed downward while her ears splayed back; like most foals who'd happen to meet Big Mac for the first time, he figured that she was most likely intimidated by his somewhat imposing stature.
Once she reached a distance she was seemingly comfortable with, Lily sat on her haunches, then gently smiled as she raised a hoof and greeted him with a bashful, "H-hello."
Big Mac was always eager to meet his sister's new friends, but as far as Lily's first impressions went, he was positive that it could have gone a bit better. Mac had a good eye for reading ponies--an aptitude developed from living under the same roof as his sister Applejack, the Element of Honesty, as well as closing frequent business transactions with many characters, legitimate or otherwise. As such, he could note how much of a strenuous effort it was taking Lily to maintain eye contact with him.
It was obvious to Mac that she was waiting for him to say something back, anything so she could return to looking to the ground without being rude. Finding it adorable how Lily showed politeness while still being shy, Big Mac couldn't help but return her smile.
"Well hello, yourself," he finally said. "My sister here says you're new to these parts. About how new are we talking?"
The little filly averted her gaze from his, rubbing her shoulder as she answered him.
"A-about a month. Moved here from the big city with my mom."
"Eeyup," added Apple Bloom, checking the front and back of her hoof as she slyly leaned against Big Mac's foreleg. "She's been awful quiet ever since first showing up in Miss Cheerilee's class, and it wasn't until she helped Scootaloo out of her rock bind that we finally got her talking. Turns out that, in all the time she's been here, she hasn't got a look-see 'round Ponyville just yet, so I took it upon myself to be the one to give her the grand tour. What better way to start said tour than a stop at Sweet Apple Acres where my family and I live."
Big Mac peered down at his sister, then the rightmost corner of his mouth curled upward. He wasn't fooled; he was definitely on to her little scheme. "And I suppose your taking her to Granny's for some pie and lemonade to further cement your newfangled friendship will be no more than a happy coincidence, no?"
Plainly found out, Apple Bloom kept her eyes locked on her hoof as she grinned. "Well now that you mention it... that doesn't hurt, either."
Big Mac rolled his eyes mirthfully before gently brushing his sister aside. "Alright, alright. You two run off now. But be sure to save me some pie for later, got it?"
"Mhm, we will!" chimed Apple Bloom. "C'mon Lily, time's a wasting and pie's a cooling!"
"O-okay. Right behind y... Oh?"
With that nice little distraction over with, Big Mac immediately returned to work. The sun was just starting to dip into the horizon, so he'd have to make haste if he wanted to reward himself with some of that pie before it was all gone. Right as he rested his head against the back of the apple cart and pushed, however, he found that it strangely refused to budge.
"What the...?" he uttered before trying once more. Again, like a stubborn mule, the cart didn't move so much as an inch. Quickly growing frustrated, he placed his wither to it before carefully applying a precise amount of force. He had to be careful with how hard he pushed; he wanted to move the cart, not destroy it. His attempts were completely futile, though, and it wasn't until moments later, when he ungritted his teeth and removed his hooves from the trenches they had dug into the grass, that he gave up.
"Strange," he said to himself, wondering if a wheel had rusted shut around an axle. He knew that that shouldn't be the case, seeing as he was the one who personally maintained the farm's equipment.
Right as Big Mac stepped to the cart's side to inspect, however, he was met with the most mind-boggling of surprises standing right in front of it. It was Lily. She had one hoof calmly placed on the cart, while the other was holding something to her chest.
Big Mac was astonished, his eyes widening. Surely that filly couldn't be the reason why the cart wouldn't move, especially after how hard he pushed it. Surely there had to be some other logical reason.
"You were about to flatten the poor little thing," said Lily, shaking him from his stupor.
Big Mac gave his head a quick shake, getting his thoughts back into working order before answering with, "W-wha?"
"The birdie." Lily outstretched her foreleg, revealing to Big Mac a sparrow with a hurt wing lying on the flat of her hoof.
"Oh," uttered Big Mac, pulling his head back as he realized what had almost happened. "Was that almost under one of the..."
Lily nodded. She removed her hoof from the cart, then gently nudged the bird. To both Lily's and his apparent displeasure, it responded with a pained chirp.
"Well there you are, Lily," said Apple Bloom as she returned. "You know, I'm gonna have to put a bell on you if you keep..." Her smile fell short when she noticed the brown feathered creature on the filly's hoof. "What's that?"
"Ooh," cried Lily worryingly. "Apple Bloom... it's a bird... and it's hurt."
"Oh smokes!" Apple Bloom exclaimed, her head darting frantically in every direction. "Uh... uh. Oh! I think we have some popsicle sticks and some cloth we can use as a splint for it." Her sight remaining on the bird, Lily sucked in her lips as she nodded.
"O-okay, that'll help for now. Sorry Apple Bloom, but once we bandage it, I'll have to quickly take it home. Mom's a vet."
Apple Bloom hastily nodded. "Y-yeah, yeah, course. Hurry, let's go."
Right as the two fillies turned for the direction of the house, Big Mac stopped them.
"Well hold on," he said. It'd probably be long into the night when he returns to finish his rounds, but... "It's starting to get dark, and it'd be pretty irresponsible of me to let you two go unescorted. Especially if one of you still don’t know the way around town just yet. Apple Bloom"--his little sister straightened to attention to the call of her name--"help Lily bandage the bird, then pack some of Granny's pie to go. I'll be with you there shortly; we'll be introducing ourselves to her mother proper while we're there."
Apple Bloom saluted him.
And with that, Big Mac stayed put, watching as the two ran towards the farmhouse. Once they were out of eyesight, however, Big Mac decided to test a little theory that was bugging him. Acting pretty nonchalantly about it, he kicked the cart with the lightest tap his strength would allow, causing it to roll several tree-lengths away unhindered.
"Hmm," he hummed curiously.
"Is that it up ahead?" asked Big Mac. Leading the trio towards the humble-looking little cottage down the road was Lily, the bird held gingerly to her chest via a cloth sling; Apple Bloom walked beside Big Mac, a pan of tin-foiled apple pie balanced on her back.
"Uh huh," answered Lily. Her apparent worry for the bird must have been her number one concern, as she was more talkative and notably less shy than earlier. "Sorry it's a bit of a walk from the farm, Mr. Big Mac. We just moved here from the city and Mom really wanted us to have some privacy for once."
Snorting, Big Mac smirked. Lily's mother wanted privacy for them alright; their home was located near the outskirts of town, where the houses gradually spaced from each other until they were few and far between. With them living so far from the town's hub, no pony would be sure to bother them.
"Understandable," said Big Mac. "Though, if it's the hustle and bustle you were hoping to escape from, I doubt you'll find the near-daily kerfuffles of this town any better."
Mere moments later, once they opened the gate to the home's off-white picket fence, Lily scampered forward onto the welcome mat.
"Mom! Mom!" she hollered, knocking repeatedly on the door. She didn't stop until a response emanated from the other side of the thick wood.
"Whoa Lily, where's the fire?"
Big Mac stood up straighter, his ears perking in response to the voice. It was female, with a low, soothing resonance to it, and... and he could almost place it somewhere.
"Just show up later than usual and no 'Hey Mom, how's it going? How was your day today?'"
The doorknob began to turn, and Big Mac couldn't believe it--he refused to believe it. He made the argument that it was just similar, plain and simple. There was also the fact that it'd been years, so he acknowledged the likely possibility that he was just misremembering the voice.
"I hope you didn't break anyth--"
Try as he might, however, when the door finally opened, the mare's stunned expression at the sight of him provided him with his answer.
Silence, complete and utter silence. Nopony said a word as the two adults simply stared at one another. Their faces were blank, as if their minds were running a million miles a minute. For Big Mac, his was, as countless buried memories re-surged one after the other at the sight of her.
With confusion evident on their faces, the two fillies, looked back and forth between themselves. It wasn't until finally, after her mouth tried, and failed, to formulate words, that the mare spoke.
"B... Big Mac?"
Big Mac couldn't help but smile widely. She remembered him, just like he did her; that knowledge alone shortened his breath as trepidation made way for budding excitement.
"Mendy!" He stepped forward, embracing the mare in a swift hug as he swayed side to side. "By golly, it's really you! Mendy! Oh it's been years!"
"U-uh... M-Mac," Mendy strained. It wasn't until Mac felt her giving his back a quick series of taps that he realized he was crushing her.
"Oh!" He placed his hooves to her shoulders, separating himself from her. "S-sorry," Mac said, smiling with embarrassment.
Catching her breath, Mendy raised a hoof and lightly shook her head. "It's... it's alright. I'm pretty much used to hugs like that."
Big Mac sized her up; as he did so, he found it difficult to contain his smile that wanted to expand further than it'd physically allow.
Mendy... the unicorn really did change a lot from the last time he saw her, yet at the same time, she was much the same. Her fur was still gray, similar to that of steel, and although she long lost her twin braids in favor of a stylish pixie cut, her mane, as well as her eyes, were still the same plum color he remembered. And of course, her cutie mark of a pink paw pad with a red cross in the center still rested on her flanks.
"Uh... sorry if I'm interrupting something here," said Apple Bloom. "But uh... Mendy?"
Mendy looked to Big Mac, a coy smile on her face. "What? You don't talk about me often?"
Big Mac rolled his eyes playfully in response. "Well in my defense, it has been a long... long time." He wrapped a foreleg over Mendy's neck, then cleared his throat as he turned to his sister. "Apple Bloom, this is Paw Mend. She's an old friend of mine from way, way back."
"Pleasure to make your acquaintance," greeted Paw Mend, flashing Apple Bloom a bright, friendly smile as she extended her hoof.
Not wanting to be rude, Apple Bloom took the hoof with her own and gave it a firm shake. "Eh, likewise. Uh, Big Mac, how way back we talking here? 'Cause I sure as horseshoes don't recognize her."
Big Mac scratched his chin in thought. "Well..."
"Um, Mom?" said Lily, pawing a hoof at her mother's foreleg. "Bird. Needs help. Need you to look at. Now."
"Hmm, what was that, sweetie?" Paw Mend looked down to her, then blinked. Once she spied the bird in the sling, her eyes widened with realization. "Oh... Oh! Here, let me get that for a better look."
Using her magic, she carefully raised the bird to her sights, cloth and all.
"Oh dear," she said. Without even unfurling its wing, she could tell what was wrong with it with just a glance alone. "Mm, looks like a little muscle tear right above where the humerus and ulna bones meet. I should probably treat this guy immediately if he hopes to fly again. Uh, Big Mac, Apple Bloom." The two looked from the bird to Paw Mend, who stepped back and gestured to the inside of her home. "In the meantime, why don't you two come inside and make yourselves comfortable?"
"Huh, well alrighty," answered Apple Bloom, stepping forward without so much as a second thought. Stopping right over the door's threshold, she turned to the side, showing Paw Mend the tin on her back. "Oh, we brought pie. Welcome to the neighborho--er... town."
"Well thank you," said Paw Mend with a smile. Once Apple Bloom fully stepped inside, Paw Mend turned to Big Mac. "Well don't be a stranger, Big Mac. Come in, come in."
Big Mac rubbed at the back of his neck, his smile turning from pensive to sheepish. "Um... okay. Guess we do have a lot to catch up on. Hope that I don't impose none, though..."
Setting any reservations aside, he stepped forward, past the unicorn and through the doorway. Right when he got a look at her living room however, he was a bit taken back by what he found. Boxes: the space was littered with them. They were stacked and laid out next to the furniture, most of them labeled in marker as 'living room', 'kitchen', and the like.
"Hm, having a little trouble unpacking?" Big Mac jested.
"It's... been a busy few weeks," said Paw Mend, the bird floating before her as she headed for a door.
Once she reached it, she looked over her withers to Big Mac, Apple Bloom and Lily.
"You three can get started on the pie without me. Help yourself to some iced tea in the fridge if you get thirsty. I'll be in here and shouldn't be more than ten or so minutes." Opening a nearby box with her magic, Paw Mend withdrew a surgical mask from it, then fixed it over her muzzle. "Lily, sweetie, could you go to the closet in my room? There should be a kit in there labeled 'Avian', I need you to bring that to me."
Half an hour later, after the bird had been successfully treated and was resting comfortably under sedation in the other room, Big Mac and Paw Mend had seated themselves across from each other in the living room. They were sipping from their respective teacups, reminiscing on old times and bringing each other up to speed on their lives while the two fillies played outside in the yard.
"Veterinarian, huh?" said Big Mac. He took another sip from his cool drink, then smiled warmly to his old friend. "Glad to hear that you actually went out there and did it. No surprise, though--it was your cutie mark, after all."
Paw Mend returned his smile, albeit with a bit of snarkiness. "Caring for animals may have been my special talent, good sir, but that wasn't to say that getting my certificate was an easy walk in the park. Whole lot of sleepless nights spent, let me tell you." Her horn flared, surrounding a spoon with her magical aura. She levitated it off the table, opened a jar of sugar, scooped a tiny amount from it, then poured it into her tea and stirred. "Of course, once I did get it, there'd be those repeat visitors who'd bring their pet in just because they got the tiniest of scratches. I'm sure they don't mean it, but city ponies sure can pester..."
Raising her sight from her tea, she looked to Big Mac, then gave her head a subtle shake.
"Oh! But enough about me--what about you? How have the years been treating you, Big Mac? See you're still wearing that old horse collar." She placed her hoof to her mouth, suppressing a chortle. "I remember you used to hate that thing."
Mac pawed curiously at the collar around his neck, then shrugged. "Mm, it's grown on me."
Paw Mend grew a lopsided smile. "Hmm, some things never change, I guess. Still working on Sweet Apple Acres? How's your sister and the folks?"
Clasping the spoon with both hooves, Mac tried his very hardest to carefully pour sugar into his tea.
"Yeah, actually running it now with my sister. As for my folks, though... that's a bit of a touchy subject. They're... they're not around anymore."
Paw Mend's eyes widened at that, and she nearly spat out her tea. She placed her drink aside, pulled back and opened her mouth in a silent gasp, then covered her mouth with her hooves as if to prevent a pained cry from escaping.
"Oh my gosh, Mac... I'm... I'm so sorry for your loss."
"Pardon?" Losing his concentration, Big Mac couldn't prevent the spoon from slipping from his hooves. It landed in his tea with a loud 'plop', peppering his chest fur with its beads sent airborne. Right as he began to wipe them off, it dawned on him what Paw Mend assumed from his meaning. He supposed that he could have been a little more specific.
"Okay, I just realized there's a bit of confusion here. When I said that my folks aren't around anymore, I literally mean that." Big Mac's eyes lowered, skimming the floor. His parents weren't something he liked to bring up, but Mendy knew them just as well as she did him. "They uh... they separated shortly after Apple Bloom was born. Pa works on an orchard in Appleloosa with a cousin and Ma works in some company making things like apple-scented shampoo or something or other."
"Oh?" said Paw Mend, concerned.
After a deep breath, Big Mac huffed lightheartedly. "Heh, yeah... Makes Hearth's Warming, birthdays, and the Apple reunion a mite awkward when they pretend like nothing ever happened for our sakes. Once those two are alone behind closed doors though, they full on can't stand each other. Luckily, we spent last Hearth's Warming at a possible relative's place, so that can of worms was nicely avoided."
"Well, despite all that, I think you turned out just fine," added Paw Mend with a nod. "I mean, look at you; running the farm, getting used to that stupid collar, having a--" she clear her throat, "h-having a lovely looking daughter..."
Big Mac balked, then blinked at her. He wasn't sure if he heard her correctly. "I'm sorry, having a lovely looking what?"
"Daughter," Paw Mend repeated. She licked her lips nervously, then tilted her head. "I'm sorry, is she not? She looks so much like you."
Oh, so that's what it was. Shaking his head, Big Mac scoffed in amusement. "Well of course she'd look a lot like me--she's my sister."
Paw Mend's eyes widened in understanding, her mouth forming an O as she nodded. "Oooh, okay. I thought that she was... that you... N-never mind." She rubbed her leg, a bright blush creeping on her cheeks. "So uh... I'm guessing your folks separated sometime after Apple Bloom was born, right?" Suddenly, she facehoofed, saying, "Drat! Probably shouldn't have said that! F-forget I said anything!"
Big Mac huffed in good faith as he shook his head. "No, no. It's fine. To be fair, however, things were already shaky between them long before Apple Bloom." He then rubbed at the back of his head, scratching an itch that wasn't there. "Applejack and I, uh... chose to remain blissfully unaware when it came to that fact. Heh, eh, really it's nothing short of a miracle they even chose to stick it out until months after Apple Bloom was born. Though, when they did decide to call it quits with each other, they sort of made things difficult for the family..."
"How so?" Mendy asked curiously.
Again, Mac scratched at that nonexistent itch. "Well, other than the obvious mixed feelings, Ma wanted Applejack, Apple Bloom and myself to go with her, while Pa wanted us to go with him. While Apple Bloom may have been too young to speak up about that, Applejack and I wouldn't stand for that. To us, our family would remain whole or not at all, but to them that was completely out of the question. 'Some ponies just no longer feel the same way they used to with one another' is what they said. Ultimately, Granny stepped up to watch over us while those two went their separate ways. I like to think that things turned out fine for us, but I often feel for Apple Bloom; Applejack and I grew up around our folks while she didn't."
"Ah... I'm, sorry to hear that, Big Mac," said Mendy apologetically. She really didn't need to apologize for that; really it was sort of therapeutic in some strange way for Big Mac. "Um... heh, s-see, this is why we should have wrote each other more!"
"Oh I wrote, you just never got to writing back," said Big Mac casually before taking another sip from his tea.
Her blush intensifying, she sucked in her lips and looked away. "Yeah, I guess so. Sorry. I was just going through so much at the time. Going to veterinarian school while also raising a kid can be pretty time consuming."
Mac could relate. He remembered a time where he'd warm Apple Bloom's milk bottle and change her diapers before returning to the fields.
Right as Mac decided to take another sip from his tea, something out the window caught his eye. It was Lily. She was lifting a rock four times her size effortlessly, Apple Bloom standing in awe at both the show of strength and the bugs that scurried every which way.
Well, at least he had a better understanding on how exactly Lily helped Scootaloo out of her rock bind back at the school.
Miss Cheerilee's class...
It was then that, slowly, Big Mac grasped onto something.
It was a faint something, more of a strong hunch really, but it was something he simply couldn't ignore.
"Mendy," he then said in a calm yet serious tone, setting his teacup back onto the table. He straightened his posture, then looked his old friend dead in the eyes. She must have sensed the change in atmosphere, as she smiled, yet her ears folded back.
"Yes... Big Mac?"
He took in a deep breath, then uttered what was on his mind. "Since we're on the topic of Lily, there's something I'd like to know."
The side of her mouth quivered, and her right ear twitched. "Oh?"
"How old is she?"
She furrowed her brows, yet with Mac's business reading eye, it was obvious to him that she was making an effort to seem confused. "How old is Lily? Big Mac, I don't understand why you--"
"How old is she?" he asked again. His voice didn't rise a single decibel, yet there was a stern tone behind it.
She redoubled her smile before answering with, "S-seven..."
Big Mac wanted to scowl at the answer, but his face remained even.
"I know that's not true, Mendy," he said, redirecting his sights to his tea.
"R-really, Big Mac." She sniffled. "She's seven."
Big Mac closed his eyes and sighed. "She's in Miss Cheerilee's class, Mendy--Apple Bloom told me so."
Mac took a breath before answering. "You know, some few years after you left, they sort of redid the education system for foals around here. Certain teachers teach students of certain ages." His eyes fixed on the table as he reopened them, he then finished with, "Miss Cheerilee teaches the eight year olds."
Paw Mend maintained her silence, and with that alone, Big Mac received his answer. Mac raised his gaze back to Mendy, and the state he found her in pained him to look at. Her eyes were red and puffy, her cheeks occasionally twitched, and her lips were quivering. But, despite all that, no matter how futile it was at that point, she still tried to uphold her faux smile.
He had to continue. She had to know there was no sense in denying it any longer.
"Say she were eight; the time of her possible conception would line up perfectly with that last night we spent together before you left for the city. Do you even remember the date that was? 'Cause I do. 'Less, of course... there was another guy in the picture that I didn't know about."
Paw straightened, almost as if a subtle jolt of electricity just coursed through her from her seat. She looked as she was about to say something, but didn’t. Instead, she relaxed, her ears drooping.
"N-no." That was it. That last comment was the one that compelled her to face reality. Finally casting off her fictitious demeanor, Paw Mend averted her eyes, too ashamed to look into Big Mac's. "There wasn't anypony else..."
Big Mac took a hitched, uneven breath, then another after that. So, his hunch was correct after all. He... he didn't know how to feel, how to react to this new information. Should he be angry? The emotion was definitely there somewhere, but, honestly, he felt more hurt than upset.
"Mendy," he said lowly. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"H-HOW COULD I!?" she shouted as she turned back to him, her tears flowing freely down her cheeks.
Big Mac was caught off guard by the sudden outburst, but were it not for his stoic demeanor, he would have recoiled. He couldn't afford to waver, not even in the slightest; he needed answers, and he needed them right that second. Rather than giving in to his urge to immediately press her for them, though, he instead swallowed dryly and waited on Mendy, who bit her bottom lip, sniffling uncontrollably as she tried to regain control of her breathing.
"We... we were so young, Mac," she said wearily. "Our whole lives were ahead of us... I didn't learn I was with Lily until long after I had enrolled in my veterinarian courses."
Wordlessly cutting him off, she shut her eyes and sunk back in her seat.
"I know, Mac... I know. I wanted to tell you, heavens above did I want to. But I know you. Family comes first for you, before all else. You would have thought that working the farm wouldn't be enough for a foal, a foal you'd give the world to if you could. You were a workaholic--so was I! You'd have taken a second job--heck, maybe even a third.
"The money would have been there, yes, but we'd both have given up on our dreams at that point to raise our child, so... rather than letting that happen to you, I made a decision. It was selfish of me to decide that on my own, I know, but I chose to raise Lily myself. It wasn't easy, balancing my studies while taking care of a foal, but luckily, I made some friends who were there for me.
"To say that things were difficult would have been an understatement. But in the end, though, what drove me to keep going, to finally get my certificate... was her." She looked out the window, a grateful smile gracing her features as she watched her daughter play on the tree swing with Apple Bloom. "If it wasn't for Lily, I surely would have given up..."
Big Mac just sat there, a stark expression on his face as he stared forward and worked to internalize everything that had been said. That proved to be quite difficult, however, as all he could think about was how life had a weird sense of humor. Around sun rise that day, he woke up bright and early a stallion with no real attachments other than to his farm and his family. Now, nearing sunset, he discovered himself to be the father to a daughter he never knew he had.
If there was some foresight, even the slightest hint on how his life would play out with that knowledge from that point onward, Big Mac wasn't seeing it.
Almost instinctively, he then turned to the window, watching the pig-tailed foal... his daughter, play as well. Lily moved behind Apple Bloom on the swing and pushed, though, she must have used more strength than she intended, as the seat to swung all the way around, which resulted in Apple Bloom being tied to the tree branch seconds later. As Big Mac then witnessed Lily attempt to jump up to her in vain, one question came to mind.
Paw Mend couldn't help but chuckle. "When she was in the maternity ward, the staff there put these adorable flower-print socks on her to keep her little hoofsies warm." She rubbed her hooves over her belly, Big Mac assuming she was recalling a time when it was large and swollen. "She was quite the kicker, too. Inherited her daddy's strength..."
"And then some," he added, watching in stunned awe as Lily effortlessly uprooted the tree, placed it on its side so she could untie Apple Bloom, then replanted it as if nothing had happened.
"What are you going to do, Mac?" asked Paw Mend worryingly, bringing Big Mac's attention back to her. "Tell her? I could never do that, not in all these years. Only once, once did Lily ask me if she had a daddy, and I--" her lips quivered, "I nearly teared up in front of her. She... she's a smart filly; must have read my face and seen how upset that simple question nearly made me... Probably assumed the worse and chose never to bring it up again for my sake." She then sighed out dishearteningly, "Didn't have the heart, or the courage to correct her..."
Mendy took a deep, shaky breath before continuing.
"I guess... when Lily said that she didn't like the city, in my own way, that's why I had us move here. I could have chosen any town, but I chose Ponyville, a small part of me hoping that you were still here. I don't know, some sort of push, maybe? Ha. But look at me. I'm a coward." She gestured to the boxes littering the room. "A month in and nothing's been unpacked; more convenient for us to move again..."
Once Mendy had finished her piece, a long spell of contemplative silence took hold. Sitting idly, Mac wondered if the silence was his cue to lash out verbally against Mendy, to scorn the mare who withheld a major secret from him. She had years to come clean to him, yet instead she chose to keep him in the dark, so the idea of letting loose his great displeasure seemed rather tantalizing.
Mac opened his mouth, and Mendy tensed readily. He wanted to shout something, anything really; she was clearly waiting for him to do so, so was that not the natural reaction for a stallion in his predicament? Moments passed however, and nothing was uttered by him. Instead, he sighed deeply before finally shutting his mouth.
Mac was a lot of things, but a wrathful stallion he was not. Mendy made a mistake by not telling him sooner, a mistake which obviously tore her up inside all this time. Sure, Mac would probably feel a little better after raising his voice at her, but nothing would really be accomplished other than more tears being shed. Thankfully, while words weren't his forte, action was.
He rose from his seat and moved for the front door. Right when he reached his hoof for the knob, however, Paw Mend spoke.
"Mac." He turned back, seeing her dry her tears with a hoof. "She... she really likes animals. Hedgehogs are her favorite."
The smallest semblance of a smile formed on Big Mac's lips at that tidbit of information. He turned back to the door, shut his eyes, took slow, calming breaths, then finally took the plunge by opening the door and stepping out.
"Heeey, Mac," drawled Apple Bloom, wobbling on her unsteady legs. She had trouble focusing in Mac's direction, and her face was slowly turning a shade of green.
"Apple Bloom," replied Big Mac. "Little dizzy there, are you?"
She made an attempt to shake her head. "What? N-no. I'm just... just..." Quickly, she moved her hoof over her mouth, her cheeks bulging with what Mac hoped was air.
Huffing in amusement, Big Mac gestured his head to the side. "Why don't you go 'round back and... take care of that."
Her face turning a darker shade of green, Apple Bloom nodded vehemently. She ran, nearly tripping on her hooves as she disappeared around the house. Retching and dry heaving noises could be heard, but Mac was sure she was fine. Finally, he was alone... alone with Lily, who had taken herself to the swing, her rear legs swaying back and forth off the side.
Mac closed his eyes, calmed his breathing once more, then, tentatively, he approached her.
"Well hey there, Lilly," he greeted, an easygoing, faint smile on his face. "I, uh..."
And just like that, any further words he thought he had abandoned him the second he tried to form them.
Realizing it was no use, Mac closed his mouth, then clamped his teeth onto the inside of his lips in frustration. He didn't think it would be so hard, talking with a filly, much less his own daughter. With his newly learned information, he assumed that the right words would just come naturally to him after greeting her. Some sort of fatherly instinct, perhaps? It was only then, as he stared blankly at her and her at him, that he learned how utterly wrong he was.
Regardless, he had to say something; the longer he stayed silent, the more awkward--and therefore, difficult--things would be from that point onward.
"Uh..." Nervously, he pointed at the empty space next to her on the swing, blurting the first thing that skimmed the surface of his mind. "M-mind if I have myself a little sit? I, eh, there's plenty of room left on that board, and I'd be interested in keeping you company with a little small talk 'til Apple Bloom comes back."
Lily tilted her head a bit, most likely finding that to be an odd request, but shrugged all the same. "Alright."
"Phew," uttered Big Mac silently, exhaling the pressure that was building in his chest. He was worried that he was too forward, perhaps even suspiciously so, resulting in her answer being no. Nevertheless, he was glad all the same that she accepted, but never knew that striking up a conversation would be so difficult.
Forcing his growing anxiety aside, Mac took his spot on the swing, the wooden board creaking due to the added weight. "There we go, nice and easy," he then said as he made himself comfortable, wrapping his hoof around the rope to his side for stability.
It was only then, once Big Mac had fully seated himself, the he realized the error he made in his hastiness. He was an adult on a foal swing, and, naturally, that resulted in him being just about squared side to side with Lily. He took around four-sixths of the board, and if things weren't awkward before, they definitely were then.
Mac tried to make room for her by tucking in his limbs closer to himself. However, in the process of doing that, he accidentally brushed his foreleg against Lily's fur and a bit of her mane.
Feeling his own flesh and blood for the first time, a tinge of sadness crept through Big Mac's core. That moment, right there, Mac felt guilty that that had to have been the first time. If he had only known, he would have been there from the very beginning, making funny faces at a sock-wearing foal as it laughed at his antics from within its crib.
Still, the past was the past, and no amount of wallowing would make up for it. What he had on his hooves was an opportunity, one which he had to seize. Easier said than done however, as awkward silence had long since taken hold. Nopony was saying anything, and instead they merely faced forward, watching the setting sun paint the sky in vibrant hues of orange and red.
Thankfully, though, as if to make light of their uncomfortable situation, Lily then spoke.
"So... you know my mom?"
Big Mac nodded simply. "Y-yeah. We were... we were real close."
Once again, there was an absence of words. It may not have visibly expressed itself in any way, but Big Mac was conflicted on how to proceed. Should he be blunt about it? Just blurt out that he was her father? Did she even want a father? Just because she asked Mendy that one time if she had a father didn't mean that she wanted one in her life. She could have just been curious, for all he knew.
Actually, that brought up another question, one which Big Mac pondered deeply: despite his guilt and desire to make up for lost time, did he even want a daughter? He knew he had to carry on the Apple lineage someday, but this wasn't how he expected it to happen. Children change things, and not always for the better. His parents' failed marriage could attest to that.
Still, the knowledge of Lily's existence had shortly become a major element in his life, and he knew what it was like growing up without a father. It may have happened a bit later in his life, as opposed to Apple Bloom's years in the crib, but that didn't curb the pain any less. He had to make an effort; Lily, his daughter, deserved that at least.
With his commitment solidified, words suddenly returned to Big Mac. It wasn't as much as he had initially hoped, but it was a start.
"So," he began, his rear legs kicking absentmindedly on the grass. "How do you feel about apples?"
Lily shrugged. "Eh, they're okay, I guess. Not crazy about them or anything."
Well, so much for that.
"Hmm," Big Mac hummed with a nod. "Um, you’re a strong filly, I've noticed.”
“I suppose,” Lily said with another shrug.
“Mm, I can relate. You ever feel like... like the world is--”
“Made of cardboard?” she finished for him.
He smiled. “Hm, yeah. Uh... Oh. I heard that you like animals, with hedgehogs being your favorite. Any reason as to why that is?"
Suddenly, much to Big Mac's surprise, Lily turned to him, her eyes wide with excitement.
"They're great! I love them! I mean, they have cute little faces, and their quills are so fun to pet if you stroke with the spines and not against them! Oh, and when you put them in the bathtub, they float on their backs and show you their cute little pink bellies!"
"That so?" Big Mac smiled at her enthusiasm. He had to, really; her smile was just so infectious, and it was nice seeing her be so passionate for something. He hoped to see even more of that side of her, so Mac decided to take a gamble.
"Hmm, well listen," he said. "There's a friend of mine 'round here, Fluttershy, who has a whole heap of animals living with her. Honestly, it's the closest thing this town has to a petting zoo." Averting his eyes, he scratched the back of his head nervously. "Anyway, I've been thinking of taking Apple Bloom there one of these days, and... well, since you're a new friend of hers who just so happens to be the daughter of one of my old friends... maybe you'd like to come along. Course, if you want to, that is."
In response, Lily stood up on the board. She placed her fore hooves on him for balance, her tail wagging happily.
"Oh my gosh Mr. Big Mac, I'd love to! Really nice of you! Oh, but what about Mom? Can she come, too? Back in the city, we'd always go on little outings together."
Big Mac struggled to keep his smile from seeming too eager. He placed his hoof atop her head, then ruffled her mane before answering.
"Well sure she can come! She and I have a lot of catching up, and a whole lot of smoothing over, to do, seeing as it's been forever since last we saw each other. And please, just call me Mac. After all, we're practically family already."
Big Mac learned a lot more about hedgehogs than he cared to admit that day, but he also learned a valuable lesson.
He learned that a stallion's strength is not measured by their physical feats, but by their willingness to step forward and own up to their responsibilities. Any stallion can make a foal, but only those of true strength and fortitude will be there for their child, to be involved and make a presence in their life, blood-related or no. Mac had long since filled the father figure role for Apple Bloom, and he hoped to one day do the same for Lily, whether he ever decided to tell her the truth or not. Sitting on the swing with her, he had taken small steps in the direction of that goal, which was better than none at all.
In the end, that was all that really mattered.