It's stormin' outside.
This is usually when it happens. I keep my door cracked on nights like this. Apple Bloom's nightlight is a bit distracting, but nothin' that keeps me up for too long. On nights like these, I never tread too far into dreamland. I keep my ears up, ready ta react at a moment’s notice.
What am I waitin' for? It ain't no scared fillies after a nightmare. Ain't no Granny Smith fallen on her way to the bathroom. It's Mac. I'm listening for Mac.
His room is across from mine. Next to his is Apple Bloom’s. I asked her to keep her door locked when she sleeps, but she wouldn't have it. She likes her hallway nightlight too much. Granny's door is shut tight, and Mac's is as well. He knows what he does when the conditions present themselves. He can't help it. It ain't something he can control. It's just somethin' I have ta talk him out of. Once he reaches that ledge, I have to keep him from taken a step I know he wouldn't take if he were in his right mind.
That's all it is... just waitin' for him to be back in his right mind. I haven't heard anything from his room yet. The rain pattering on the rooftop is usually just what I need to get a good night's sleep. It used to be, anyway. Since all of this has started happening, it's taken on a new meaning. Now it means I need to keep an ear out. So far, nothing. I almost hate quiet nights like this. They lull me into a false sense of security, and, before I know it, I'm bein' jarred awake by a terrified Apple Bloom runnin' to my bed and sounds like a darn wrestlin' match comin' outta Mac's room.
I turned to look at the clock on my wall. Not even midnight yet. I sighed. It wasn't always like this. There was a time when we all slept with our doors wide open, only runnin’ into each other durin' the night ta go to the bathroom.
Everything changes for a reason, I suppose.
When we first welcomed him off that train station, we cried together. I thought I'd never feel happier than I did on that day. All those months of reassuring Apple Bloom that Mac was gonna be back in no time were just as much for her benefit as my own. Truth be told, I had no idea what I would have done without him. I've already lost more than I can stand.
All this started after a stallion from Canterlot came into town. He was one of those official government types. He said one stallion from each family was to enlist in the Army of the Sun, by order of Celestia herself. This was just after the wedding of Shining Armor and Princess Cadence. Almost all of us had been there. We'd fought the changelings ourselves. We even managed to send them all the way back to the cursed lands without any help from any 'army'.
After we'd managed that, I was sure that was the last we would hear of those creepy things. As it turns out, a lot of the ponies in Equestria didn't like the idea of a foreign army attacking the seat of government and no retaliation coming from the crown. Public opinion is a funny thing, even for immortal Princesses. Accordin' to the papers, the royal guard was just about all the military Equestria had. Then again, it was all we ever needed. Until Celestia decided to punish the changelings for their boldness.
In a way, I suppose I can't blame her. You can't just attack a county's capital and expect to get off with a slap on the hoof. I know this is gonna sound mighty selfish, but I just wish she didn't have to pick my brother to do the punishing. I'm sure plenty of other sisters thought that, too.
I lifted my head from the pillow. I coulda swore I heard somethin'... but it may have just been thunder. I set my head back down. It was tough to have to keep up this kind of vigil on stormy nights like this. It was always the storms that got him. On clear nights, he'd be the Macintosh I remember. The one I know is still in there.
But fightin' must do funny things to a stallion. Mac was never a fighter. Not that he couldn't, just that... he wouldn't. He always used his words, never his hooves. Hell, he hardly ever raised his voice! But he'd fight if he was called to. That was what made him the stallion I admired so much. He was always ready to do what needed to be done. He never told me much about what had gone on over there, but he had one time. He said the changelings always attacked in waves, hundreds at a time. The drones could watch their comrades on their left and right get cut down by unicorn magic and just continue blindly to their deaths. He said it was unnerving to know how expendable they thought themselves. It must have had more of an impact on him than I thought.
A few days after he'd gotten back from the cursed lands, he went to the doctor. It was routine for returnin' soldiers to go see a head doctor. The doctor pulled me aside and told me that Mac might have 'episodes' in the future. I wasn't sure what that was supposed to mean, but I'd sure as shoot find out. He told me how to talk him down if he was thinkin' wrong or if he was havin' what he called 'delusions'. Twilight might've been more help in explaining that, but I didn't think it necessary. The doctor said it wasn't likely he'd have them anyway.
I remember the first night he had one of those ‘delusions’. Apple Bloom shook me awake. At first, I thought she'd just had a nightmare. It was stormin' then, too, so maybe the thunder or wind was gettin' to her. I didn't mind lettin' her sleep in my bed. It was big enough for a mare and a filly. I was gettin' ready to scoot over when she told me what was the matter. She said she'd heard somepony cryin'. She thought it was a ghost, honest to Celestia. I told her there weren't any ghosts in our house and that she could sleep with me tonight if she was scared, but she was strangely insistent I check her room.
I reluctantly threw myself out of bed, and she followed me to her room. Sure enough, I could hear it too. But I knew it wasn't no ghost. I sent Apple Bloom back to my room and told her to get to bed. I said I was gonna get Mac to check out the noise. His door was shut, but I could hear him inside.
Honestly, it was pretty unnerving to hear him cry. It was something I'd never heard, nor expected to hear, from him. I know it's ridiculous to think Mac was some emotionless farm robot, but... I'd rarely seen anything else. I knocked on the door, but he didn't even notice. I called his name, but he still just kept up the tears. I almost didn't want to go in. I can tell you I didn't want to see Mac that way. I didn't want to confront my brother in his moment of weakness. He wasn't supposed to have any weak moments. He was supposed to be our rock, the head of our family now that Ma and Pa were gone.
But the doctor said this might happen, and it was important I be there when he needed me. I tried to remember what he'd told me to do and opened his door. He was sittin' beside his bed on the floor, holdin' his uniform in his hooves and just sobbin'. I could barely stand it. He looked up from the uniform at me. I asked him if he was okay. He sniffed and looked back at his uniform. He muttered one word to me.
I wasn't sure what that was supposed to mean.
"Huh?" I said dumbly.
"He left on night watch... didn't come back..."
The pieces clicked into place. I'd thought he was just dealin' with his loss, but soon I realized he was actin' the way the doctor had warned me about.
"I'm sorry, Mac."
"Did you see him? Where was he last?" he asked. He must have thought I was one of his pals. "Did ya see him by the perimeter fence?"
I had to be strong for him. I had to do what the doctor told me was best for him.
"No, Mac, I didn't. You're not over there anymore, you're back home," I whispered, fighting back my own tears. How could this have happened to him? He was so strong. I thought he could handle anything the world could throw at him. I guess nopony is invincible.
It took him a few hours of me just lettin' him be that way until he slowly came back to me. I didn't mind sittin' up with him. It felt good to help. Once I got him to put his uniform away and go to bed, I went back to my bedroom. Apple Bloom was already asleep. I was relieved to not have to explain what had happened, and, by sunrise, she'd forgotten all about it. So did Mac. At breakfast that mornin' he couldn't remember a thing from the night before.
To my surprise, I handled that first incident pretty well. I'd forgotten about it just as quickly as everypony else, and we went on about our lives. I was sure it would be a one-time thing.
It happened three more times before tonight. Different situations, though.
That was it, I knew I'd heard something. I got out of bed and walked to Mac's room across the hall. Apple Bloom’s nightlight was the only dim light in the darkened hallway. I could hear him doing something in there. I called his name, and he answered, this time.
But he didn't know me.
I cracked open his door. He was standing on his bed, peering out the window over the empty fields to the south. The look on his face suggested his vigilance was the only thing keeping the farm from being destroyed.
"Private Shield!" he whispered as I stepped into his room. "Good to see ya! How was night watch?"
How much longer would I have to do this? Was he going to be like this forever? I hate myself for having to ask these questions, but maybe I'm just not as strong as Mac needs me to be...
No. I am. I could do this for him. He took care of me when I was just an inconsolable wreck of a filly. He practically raised me! I took a deep breath and stared him right in the eyes. His smile was infectious. I could tell he really thought I was 'Private Shield'.
That only made this whole situation hurt even more.
"Mac, I'm not Private Shield." This time was different. I could feel a weight in my chest. The kind you get right before you let out a good, long cry. "I'm Applejack. You aren't over there anymore, Mac. Please... remember."
He raised an eyebrow at me. It never worked on the first try, no matter how much I wish it did. "What are you talking about, Shield?"
"You're not at the base anymore, Macintosh. You're back on the farm, with me, Granny and Apple Bloom!" I was getting agitated at this point. I couldn't tell if I was more sad or upset that this was my brother now. I gave my only brother to Celestia, and this is what she returned to me.
He narrowed his eyes, just as mine began to tear up. "You... you're one of them, aren't you?"
"O-one of them?" I gasped and took a step back. "No, Mac, I'm not!"
"Exactly what a spy would say!" He stepped off his bed and began towards me. There was not even a spark of recognition in his eyes. I tripped over my own hooves as I stumbled backwards, flat on my flank. I could hardly see, my eyes were so blurry with tears. I couldn't believe this was my reality. Mac was practically on top of me. I quickly wiped my tears away and saw him raise a hoof. I had no idea what he'd have done if Apple Bloom hadn't screamed from the hallway.
"Macintosh, what are you doing?!" It was more a mix of a terrified shout and a squeal than an exclamation. He stopped and looked up at her. He held his gaze at the frightened filly, and then the coldness on his face faded. He looked down at me. His expression shattered as he fell back on his haunches. He was speechless.
Mac was horrified once he'd realized what he was about to do, how out of control he'd just been.
And so was I.
"Applejack... Apple Bloom, I'm... I—"
I cut him off. If I couldn't preserve my notion of Mac's invincibility, I could at least save Apple Bloom's. "Apple Bloom, go back to bed please," I whispered hoarsely.
She was understandably upset. "But... what in the hay was just goin' on here?" she demanded.
"I'll come and tell you in a minute, just let me talk to Mac alone for a second, okay?" That sounded more like a snap than I intended, I'll admit. But Apple Bloom is nothin' if not obedient.
I looked back at Mac, still on my back. He couldn't even look me in the eyes. "Mac, it's not your fault."
This time, it was my turn to cry. I didn't even realize tears were fallin' until I felt them on my cheeks.
"Yes it is, Applejack."
I got up and made my way beside him. I sat next to him and hugged as much of him as I could. Even though he could have really hurt me, I didn't dare let him think he was alone in this.
"No, it's not, Mac," I whispered. He didn't shed a single tear. When he was the old Macintosh, he was just as stoic as I remembered. "You did what you were asked to do and nothin' less."
"But, I could have hurt you, or Apple Bloom, or—"
I shushed him. Now was not the time for that kind of talk.
"I'm so sorry, Applejack," Mac said weakly.
I buried my face in his shoulder. I knew he could feel my tears on his coat. But, regardless of what happened from now on, I'd never let him go this alone. "Don't be sorry, Macintosh." I felt him nuzzle me in return. It was then I knew that no matter how hard things got, he'd try his hardest not just for me, but for all of us. "You never left me alone when I needed you. I'm gonna do the same for you."
The rain continued to pound the windows as we sat there ‘til it was nearly sunup. The next morning, I explained to Apple Bloom that Mac was just sleepwalkin' and that he didn't know what he was doin'. She seemed to buy it. I hate lying to her, but how do you explain what was really going on to somepony so young?
You don't, I guess. Not until she can understand it.
As I sit here on the porch, I can see him out on the hilltop, buckin' the last few apple trees of the season. He wraps himself in his work, and he's just like the old Macintosh. Just the way I remembered.
I love my brother. He'd never dream of leavin' me to deal with a problem by myself. He'd never leave me alone.
And I'd never leave him.