"Fluttershy? Darling, are you all right? You've been in there for nearly an hour!"
The butter colored pegasus sank lower in the water she was soaking in, not wanting to even acknowledge hearing the concerned questioning from her best friend. The idea of a nice hot bath had been a wonderful suggestion at first. With added bath salts and oils, Fluttershy felt the tension leaving her body as soon as she was immersed, the knots in her stomach unwinding themselves. She relaxed with her eyes closed and inhaled the fresh scents of vanilla and cotton, and for a little while she was at peace.
When the water began to cool the knots started reforming. The lost tension came creeping back in with every second that ticked by. Eventually she was right back where she started and when Rarity came in to see as much, the white unicorn looked at her with humor laced sympathy.
"You do realize you can't simply stay in there forever, right? How you haven't withered away into nothing more than a prune by now is beyond me." With only her eyes above the water, Fluttershy said nothing and Rarity shook her head. "Come now, let's get you dried off." Her horn glowed and a towel was summoned. But Fluttershy didn't move. Rarity's blue eyes narrowed, her lips puckering. "We can do this the hard way, or the easy way. You decide."
It was enough to make the pegasus move and slowly the rest of her head surfaced. She gasped a little, needing air after having been under for so long. After a sigh she stood and climbed out of the tub. The towel wound itself around her mane and a robe wrapped itself around her body. How Rarity worked so fast with that magic of hers was beyond Fluttershy, but she was thankful to have the company. She followed Rarity over to a stool before an elaborately decorated vanity and sat.
"Are you sure you're not too busy today?"
Rarity scoffed as she unwound the towel and summoned a brush to tackle the pink mess that was Fluttershy's soaking mane. "No one has been in all morning except for Derpy with the mail. Trust me, darling. I have time. Besides, you're my best friend! What would it say about me if I left you in your hour of need?! By the way, you smell simply divine. You must give me some of those salts."
"I'll make you up your own special batch." Fluttershy watched Rarity work in the mirror. She could tell she was enjoying playing dress up and getting to give Fluttershy a make over. Too bad Fluttershy wasn't enjoying it as much. She looked down and it wasn't long before a pair of forelegs wrapped themselves around her from behind. "I'm sorry," said Fluttershy softly.
"Don't be sorry." Rarity's tone was gentler than it had been all day. "You're nervous. It's to be expected. But don't be so nervous that you don't have a good time. You'll survive, I promise. I've been on any number of dates and I lived to tell the tale."
Fluttershy looked up to meet Rarity's eyes in the mirror. "What were they like?"
"My dates?" Rarity went back to work, brushing and primping. "Well I suppose that would depend on which date and with which stallion. Some were positively horrid and shall never even be given the privilege of being spoken about aloud. Others were really quite lovely."
"Tell me about one of those. The lovely ones."
Rarity paused in her work, a dreamy look of nostalgia clouding her eyes. "There was one that was almost perfection. His name was Cloud Jumper. A very handsome pale blue pegasus with gorgeous green eyes. He opened doors for me, pulled out my chair at restaurants, ordered for me, raised a toast to me. We talked for hours and hours. It felt like we had everything in common."
"It sounds wonderful," Fluttershy admitted. "Why aren't you two still together?"
Rarity blinked. Her eyes filled with tears and she clutched the brush to her chest. "Tragically, he died."
Fluttershy turned to face Rarity, her turquoise eyes wide. "He...died? Rarity, I'm so sorry."
Wiping her eyes with the back of her hoof, Rarity shook her head. "He didn't really die. He was offered a teaching position in Fillydelphia and he chose to take it. I tell myself he died to make it easier."
Fluttershy looked blankly at her friend. "You...tell yourself he died...to make it easier?"
"Of course, darling! If I accepted the fact that he chose work over moi my little heart would be so broken that I could never love again. And that would be the real tragedy. Me, Rarity, dying as an old mare?" She laughed quietly. "I don't think so. Now turn around. We're almost done."
Within minutes Fluttershy's pink mane was twisted into a few braids with ribbons and flowers worked into the plaits, the rest of her mane loose and flowing freely. Rarity wanted to give her false eyelashes and makeup as well, but Fluttershy quietly refused and Rarity didn't push the issue.
"He's coming!" came a squeak from the other room. Sweetie Belle ran into Rarity's bedroom practically bouncing with excitement. "Big Macintosh is coming! And he's got something in his mouth."
"Probably that disgusting chaff of wheat he's always chewing on," Rarity muttered. "Some ponies have blankets they can't part with, I have a lovely pink sapphire I'd be lost without. And some ponies have...dead grass."
Sweetie Belle's head cocked to the side. "Fluttershy, are you all right?"
Her coat had gone from butter yellow to pale sickly green. "Oh my," Rarity exhaled. "Sweetie Belle, open the window please. Fluttershy, darling, just take some deep breaths. You'll be just fine. Just keep breathing." The doorbell rang and Rarity frowned. "I'll get it. Stop fretting. You'll be perfectly fine once you realize this is supposed to be fun and not fatal."
As she trotted from the room, Sweetie Belle approached and looked up at Futtershy. "If you're so scared, why are you going?"
"B...because I want to."
"You want to be scared? Adults don't make any sense sometimes." Fluttershy just gave her a weak smile and Sweetie Belle gave her a light nuzzle. "It'll be fun! You get to eat food and...do...things. What do you do on a date?"
"Sweetie Belle!" Rarity stuck her head through the door and whispered harshly. "Let her be. Are you ready, Fluttershy? Your dashing beau is here."
Fluttershy met her own eyes in the mirrored reflection. She took in a deep breath and tried to push down the butterflies trying to break free from her stomach and consume her. They would have a nice meal together and...do...things. What things? What were they supposed to talk about? Panic! No, no panicking. It would be fine. Another deep breath in, slow exhale. She rose from the stool and set her hooves on the floor. Rarity gave her a winning smile of encouragement, and she walked forward to move out into the main part of the boutique.
Big Macintosh was looking around with an expression on his face that said he couldn't make heads or tails out of anything in there and didn't want to. Between his teeth was not the usual chaff of wheat, but a singular peach rose. He turned his head and met Fluttershy's timid gaze, his expression going completely blank.
"Hello, Big Macintosh."
"Er..." He cleared his throat. "Hello, Fluttershy. You look real nice."
"This is for yo..." Before he could finish his thought the rose was magically yanked from his teeth and placed in Fluttershy's mane, right behind her ear. They both looked at Rarity who simply smiled innocently. "Uh..." Big Macintosh returned his attention to Fluttershy. "Somepony said peach roses were your favorite."
"They are," she conceded shyly. "It smells lovely."
"Well go on," Rarity suddenly urged. "Have a good time. You'll take good care of my best friend now, won't you Macintosh, dear? Of course you will. Have a fun you two!" She shooed them out the door and watched the pair walk away. Sweetie Belle came up beside her and Rarity dropped a foreleg around her baby sister's withers. "My little Fluttershy is growing up."
Sweetie Belle's brow furrowed. "Rarity? What do you do on a date?"
They walked side by side in the fading light of day. Small talk was easy. She asked him about his day on the farm, he asked Fluttershy of hers with the animals. It was like she had to get reacquainted with him again before she could let herself relax. This was, after all, Big Macintosh. She'd known him as long as she'd known Applejack. Granted, she'd known other ponies longer, but this was no stranger at her side. With each step they took, Fluttershy felt her withers unhitch themselves from her ears. Her laughter came easier and his beautiful slow smiles made her heart skip beats.
Occasionally a pony would pass them and do a double take, raise an eyebrow, or even give a little giggle. It was impossible for her not to care at first. Fluttershy did not have very fond memories of attention like that and it usually ended up with her in tears somewhere. But Big Macintosh must have somehow recognized her discomfort and walked a bit closer to her, a wink of encouragement making her smile up at him. "Don't think about it," he told her gently. "Ain't none of their business. Ain't nopony's business but yours an' mine. Agreed?"
"Agreed," she answered quietly.
The Four Leaf Clover Café was one of Fluttershy's favorite places to eat and when it became obvious that was where she was being led, Fluttershy smiled shyly. Big Macintosh caught her expression and grinned. "Farm boys know how to do their homework on a gal too, you know."
She giggled. "I don't know whether to be impressed or very, very embarrassed."
The door opened as they approached and the owner, a grayish blue stallion with spiky black hair and three four-leaf clovers for a cutie mark, stepped out to hold the door for them. Had Fluttershy not been paying attention she would have missed the nod that passed between the two stallions, nearly imperceptible as it was. "Follow me, please."
"Thank you kindly, Clover."
They followed after Clover into the dining room. But they didn't stop there as Fluttershy was expecting. No, they followed him out the back door and out past the surrounding buildings. She looked up at Big Macintosh but he seemed to be purposefully avoiding her questioning gaze. None of it made much sense to her until they came to an open space just outside of Ponyville proper. There a blanket had been set up with an exquisite picnic just for them.
"I hope you can forgive me," Big Macintosh said slowly. "Fancy restaurants aren't really my thing, but I know you like Clover's food. It's kind of a compromise."
"It's more than a compromise," Fluttershy breathed. If they'd stayed inside the other patrons would have been watching them all night. At least she would have imagined them watching. "Oh, Big Mac...this is perfect."
"Glad you like it."
"May I pour your cider?" Clover asked, putting on airs. It made Fluttershy giggle as she nodded. He carefully lifted the towel wrapped bottle in his teeth and filled their glasses. "Should you need anything else..."
"I think we'll be just fine. Thanks all the same, Clover."
"Enjoy your evening."
"Will you move your head, Pinkie Pie? I can't see anything over your hair!"
"Hush up, ya'll! We don't want 'em to know we're here."
"Rainbow Dash, if you step on my tail one more time I'll write to the princess and tell her to send you to the moon."
"Girls, please. All of this jostling about has simply ruined my mane."
"OOOH! I made that cupcake. I made that cupcake!"
Clover hastened his pace a bit and joined the group hidden in the bushes. "Okay, seriously you guys? You'd be less noticeable if you were playing the bagpipes and had a neon sign pointing you out."
"Really?" asked Pinkie Pie. "I've got a neon sign but I don't know where we can get bagpipes at this time of the night."
The stallion facehoofed, Twilight patting his shoulder. "You'll get used to it, trust me."
"When do I go out?" Rainbow Dash asked impatiently.
"Well ya gotta let 'em eat first, sugarcube."
"This is boring," came a new voice. "I only came to watch Rainbow Dash do her awesome trick!"
"If they end up kissing I am so out of here."
"Aww, they're kissin'?!"
"Apple Bloom, what in tarnation..."
"So that's what you do on a date!"
"Will everypony just zip it!" Twilight whispered feverishly. "Come on, you guys. We promised Big Mac we'd help him out and we won't be very helpful if we're all just sitting here arguing and not paying attention to our cues!" She took a deep breath. "Now, according to my notes, Rainbow Dash, you're not up until after they're done eating. That's when I'll cast the spell I was working on earlier."
"Who would'a thought my big brother was such a romantic?"
"Ugh, I think I'm gonna puke."
"Aw, Scootaloo's feelin' left out. Let's get her, Sweetie Belle!"
"Ew, get away from me!"
Their conversation flowed easily and for some reason that came as a surprise to Fluttershy. She knew Big Macintosh wasn't big on talking; Fluttershy wasn't a huge conversationalist herself. Yet it was natural and comfortable there with him, enjoying delicious food, alone under a cover of stars.
He expressed genuine interest in the work she did with the animals, admitting he'd never thought her job went much past general care of them all. When Fluttershy told him of the more medical aspect of her care programs he seemed impressed, and it made her blush.
She learned that there was a great deal more to running a farm than apple bucking and taking care of the various crops they grew. There was a lot of hard work that went into it and Fluttershy gained a new respect for the Apple family.
"Did you always know you'd stay on the farm?"
They were onto dessert now, chocolate mousse cupcakes, and both were lounging comfortably side by side.
"Not always," he confided. "When I was a colt I didn't like all the work. Figured I'd grow up an' head on out. Then Mama and Daddy passed...knew it was the right thing to stay. 'Specially when Applejack went off to Manehattan for awhile. Somepony had to be there for Granny Smith. An' Apple Bloom who could hardly even walk yet."
"I'm so sorry, Big Mac. That must have been so hard on all of you, but you especially. Suddenly having to take care of all of them."
"Grew me up real fast, I'll tell you what. But it made me who I am today an' I like to think I'm okay."
"You're more than okay." The words fell from her mouth before she could think of what she was saying. As Big Macintosh turned to look at her she could feel the rush of color to her cheeks. "I...I'm so sorry. I didn't mean...what I meant was...oh dear."
"Why, Miss Fluttershy," he drawled, teasing with his tone. "Are you comin' on to me?"
"No! I mean...I don't think..."
"I think you think too much." She looked up at him and he smiled. It was slow and sweet, and reminded her of honey. The thought made her blush even more and Big Macintosh just laughed. "You're more than okay, too, Fluttershy. You jus' need to stop worryin' so much about what everypony else thinks about you."
She looked down, poking at an empty cupcake wrapper. "That's all I know to do, really. Ever since I was a little filly."
Fluttershy gave him a sad smile. Her story was not a happy one, not a tale one would usually share on a first date. But everything felt so right with Big Macintosh, like it wouldn't be a bad thing to tell him anything at all. Still, she hesitated. "It's...it's not a very uplifting story, and it's probably too long..."
"I hadn't planned on goin' anywhere for awhile. Did you?"
"No..." She took a deep breath in. Her foalhood was not a thing she liked to return to in memories often. It was fraught with too many things that had served no purpose but in leaving scars on her heart. "I wasn't born in Cloudsdale. I don't really know where I was born...and I don't know who my parents are." She kept her eyes downward so she didn't have to see the look on Big Macintosh's face. "They said it was two pegasus ponies that brought me to Cloudsdale, who left me there without so much as a word to anyone to let them know a filly had been left there in the middle of the night.
"I was always taken care of; there was never a time when I didn't have somepony looking after me. And as much as I appreciated it, I think that was the problem. I was moved around so much that I had no real home. And by the time I got to flight school all the other fillies and colts knew who I was, that I was the one who didn't belong anywhere. Flight school is when the teasing and the name calling really started in earnest."
"Fluttershy...I had no idea..."
"I've never told anypony that before," she whispered. "Rainbow Dash knows because she was there. She was my first real friend. She stood up for me when everyone else was being horrible to me."
Big Macintosh got up and closed the distance between them, pulling her into an embrace by wrapping a hoof around her withers. "I'm so sorry you had to go through that, darlin'. That just ain't right."
They stayed that way, close and together for a long time. She found such a strange comfort there beside him, in his strong embrace. His body heat warmed a chill she didn't even know she had until he pulled away.
His green eyes lifted to the sky and Fluttershy couldn't help but follow suit. She saw Rainbow Dash fly out from the shadows and take to the air above them. Big Macintosh rose to his hooves and Fluttershy did the same. "What is Rainbow Dash doing?"
The lightning fast pegasus was flying in a circle that was getting faster and faster, tighter and tighter until a funnel cloud formed. The wind was so intense that Fluttershy was almost knocked into Big Macintosh. The pair watched as Rainbow Dash shot upward from the center of the small tornado, did a flip, then sped down into the middle of it at top speed. She disappeared into the funnel cloud a split second before the sky exploded. Tiny droplets of rain...no, rainbows showered down on them and Fluttershy felt her heart in her throat.
"It's beautiful," she whispered, so entranced that she didn't even see Rainbow Dash fly away, or the glow of Twilight's horn somewhere off to the side. The droplets they watched changed and took on shape. They were butterflies, hundreds of them filling the night sky, bodies and wings made of light and dazzling colors. She gasped, tears blurring her vision.
"Do you like it?"
Big Macintosh's voice in her ear was quiet, as though he didn't want to break the spell.
"This is...for me?" She looked up, blinking to clear her eyes, to see him nod. "Oh, Big Mac!" They held each other's gaze for a moment, slowly leaning in closer together, when one of the rainbow butterflies landed right on the tip of Fluttershy's nose. Her eyes crossed, trying to get a better look at it. When it flew up she watched it, entranced by the magical little creature and chasing it gaily as it flitted away.
In all the ways she could have ever imagined her first date going, this would not have been one of them. She'd expected to feel awkward, anxious and nervous all night, to not know what to say in conversation. Never would she have dreamed of how easy it was to be around Big Macintosh, or how safe it felt to be with him and to share her story. She looked up, her face aglow in a prism of colors as the butterflies danced overhead. Turning to look over her shoulder, she found Big Macintosh standing where she'd left him, watching her with the softest expression on his face.
Was it possible to know after one night that she'd found the one pony she was meant to spend the rest of her life with? Motivated by strong emotion, she ran back across the grass to be near him. Big Macintosh lowered his head to nuzzle against her cheek and she felt her heart could burst. When he kissed her, Fluttershy somehow knew this would be the moment they'd be telling their foals about in the future.
Scootaloo sat on Clover's back and the two shared a grimace. The ponies surrounding them watched the couple under the rainbow butterflies with stars in their eyes, even Rainbow Dash. "Can I throw up now?" Scootaloo asked.
"I don't know about you," said Clover, "but I could really go for some ice cream."
"Yeah, let's go get ice cream!"
As they departed they argued over the best toppings, leaving everyone else to watch Fluttershy and Big Macintosh enjoy the rest of their first night together.