Big Macintosh was known around Ponyville as one tough pony. He didn't say much, didn't participate in many town-wide events, but he was the strongest stallion this side of Canterlot and there were few that would dispute that. Working hard in the fields of Sweet Apple Acres all day gave the red pony a muscular build that stood out among the ponies who led a more sedentary life. Because of this, and through no fault of his own, he was intimidating to almost anypony who wasn't familiar with him. For some, it would have been unthinkable that he had a soft spot. To know it was for little helpless creatures would have been laughable.
It was one day several weeks ago that Big Macintosh came across such a thing. He and his sister Applejack were taking a slow tour of their farmland and coming up for a plan of attack for Winter Wrap Up day. This year they were short on help with Blues in Fillydelphia visiting family and Broken Iris with a broken leg. That meant their usual carefully choreographed dance of snow removal would have to be reevaluated.
"I don't know, big brother," said Applejack. "It's only two less stallions but it changes everything." They stood on a tall hill overlooking their land, snowshoes strapped to their hooves and heavy scarves around their necks. "There's gonna be more work for you an' the rest of the stallions to do."
"Eeeyup." Big Macintosh's breath frosted out before him with his answer. He chewed on his ever-present stem of wheat, nonplussed.
Applejack looked at him with a raised brow. "Don't that bother you none?"
"Nope." He turned to look at her, blinking lazily. "Got t' do what we got t' do, AJ. Simple as that."
"Well I'll try an' help out extra where I can."
"You got enough t' worry about. It'll get done. Always does."
Applejack shook her head. "I don't know how you can always be so relaxed about everything."
"An' I don't know how you can always be so uptight." He gave her a slow grin. A chilly wind swept over the hill and Big Macintosh lost his grin, his ears twitching. "You hear that?"
Big Macintosh didn't answer. He turned away from his sister to trudge across the snowy slope and head for the treeline. Applejack trotted after him, looking at him quizzically before glancing around. "What did you hear?"
With brow furrowed, Big Macintosh stood still, eyes narrowed and ears trained forward. A soft cry had the siblings moving toward the trees once more. Applejack got there first and gasped at what she found.
"What is it?" asked Big Macintosh, nosing his way through through the branches.
"It's a kitten," Applejack answered with astonishment. He a ball of mottled fur curled into a depression made in the snow, tucked into the hollowed out base of a tree. "Poor thing looks half frozen. An' there ain't no prints in the snow anywhere. He must'a been in there for days."
"Pull him out," instructed Big Macintosh. He was already tugging at his scarf and had it laid out on the snow before Applejack had the little kitten by the nape of his neck. She placed it in the center of the scarf without instruction and watched as her brother wrapped up the tiny bundle. "Let's head back." He took the scarf in his teeth gripping it by the knot at the top. The kitten gave another soft cry from his swinging cocoon but made no movement.
Once they reached the farm Applejack headed for the front door. She stopped upon realizing that her brother was going to the barn. With a questioning gaze, she followed him.
The barn was much warmer than the outside winter air, and the pigs and chickens looked out from their pens with curiosity. Big Macintosh set his bundle on a hay stack. "Go warm up some milk," he told his sister, "an' bring it out here." He began to work at the knot in the scarf, oblivious to the confusion on Applejack's face.
"How come you're not brinin' him inside? It's warmer in there an' we can keep an eye on him easier."
"Half frozen or not he's a feral cat, Applejack. I won't have him in the house with Apple Bloom an' Granny Smith in there."
Applejack gave him a wry smile. "An' me, right? Your other sister."
Big Macintosh pulled the folds of the scarf back to let the kitten breathe. "You can take care of yourself. Plus there Winona to consider." He looked patiently at Applejack when she still stood there. "Milk."
"Right! After that I'll go an' get Fluttershy. She'll know what to do for the poor little guy."
But Big Macintosh hesitated. "Hold off on that. She worries easy as it is. I'll stay with him for awhile. We'll see how it goes."
Applejack shrugged. "If you say so." She turned back and headed inside.
The little multi-colored bundle of fur uncurled itself slightly before Big Macintosh. Blue eyes opened and stared up at the red stallion. In truth the kitten didn't look all that wild. It actually looked kind of cute. But Apple Bloom looked cute and innocent when she was asleep. Things were not always as they appeared. Being the stallion of the house, he wouldn't take any risks.
By the time Applejack came back with a small saucer of warm milk the kitten had begun to shake off some of its lethargy. When the saucer was set on the haystack his little pink nose began to twitch, and he made his slow way over to inspect.
"Sure is a cute little thing," Applejack said fondly, watching the kitten lap hungrily at the milk.
"Don't go gettin' attached," her brother warned.
"I ain't," she defended. "But I am gettin' hungry."
Big Macintosh nodded. "All right then. Let's go on in an' I'll fix up some supper." The two headed out of the barn but before he closed the door Big Macintosh looked back in at the kitten. "Stay put now, you hear? An' don't go botherin' the other animals."
As if in answer the kitten licked his lips clean and curled up in the scarf to go back to sleep. Big Macintosh slid the heavy barn door shut and turned to see a goofy grin on Applejack's face. "What?"
She shook her head. "Oh, nothin'."
That night Big Macintosh lay in bed finding himself unable to sleep. He'd checked on the kitten a few more times and found the little ball of fur snoozing before he'd decided to turn in himself. He looked all right enough and it made the stallion feel more assured in his choice to not get Fluttershy involved,
It wasn't that he didn't like the shy little mare. Big Macintosh figured he liked her a might too much. She'd been around to the farm on several occasions with the other girls or simply on her own to visit. It was a night when all of Applejack's friends were over that Big Macintosh took more of a notice of Fluttershy than he had before.
Everypony else always had something to say, they were always moving around and never still. All of them but Fluttershy. While the other engaged in animated conversation he saw her just sit, watch, and listen, perfectly content to just be there. When her opinion was asked she would quietly and timidly give it and that was all. She didn't have an answer for everything like Twilight Sparkle. She didn't say random and nonsensical things like Pinkie Pie, wasn't loud and sometimes obnoxious like Rainbow Dash. She wasn't an opinionated tomboy like his sister but neither was she overly concerned with the way she looked like Rarity. She was different.
She'd looked at him then, maybe feeling his gaze on her. He had time to feel the butterflies in his stomach before he found an excuse to be anywhere but there. And every time she'd come around after that there was always something that needed to be done that would take him elsewhere. She was one of Applejack's best friends and Big Macintosh knew that made Fluttershy off limits. Besides, he had all he could handle between his sisters, Granny Smith, and the farm. What did he need the added complications of a relationship for?
Eventually he had to force himself to stop thinking about Fluttershy so he could fall asleep, and even then he dreamed about half frozen kittens and the silky soft feeling of a pretty pink mane.
The next morning showed great improvement in the kitten. He was alert and active when Big Macintosh let Applejack and Apple Bloom in to see him.
"Aw!" exclaimed Apple Bloom immediately nuzzling the kitten. "He's so cute! Can we keep him?"
"We'll see," her brother replied. He looked at Applejack. "Seems fine t' me. Don't think we need t' bother Fluttershy after all."
Applejack smirked. "So what didja name him?"
"Little Hayseed." Big Macintosh shrugged his wide shoulders. "Can't keep callin' it Hey You."
With some begging and pleading from Apple Bloom, Little Hayseed was allowed to move into the main house. He and Winona got along perfectly and the kitten soon became part of the family. On Winter Wrap Up day Little Hayseed rode with Big Macintosh on his back and stayed with him the entire day.
The warm Spring sun kept the Apple family busy for the days following Winter Wrap Up. There were seedlings to be tended to, trees to be pruned and cut back to make way for new growth, and many different crops to keep watered and happy. Little Hayseed followed Big Macintosh nearly everywhere, even places the stallion tried to keep him away from. Some of the farm equipment was dangerous for such a small creature to be around.
"One of these days you're gonna go and get yourself hurt," Big Macintosh admonished one day. He gently tapped the kitten's rump with a hoof to get him to move away from the toolshed. "Ain't no place for you. Go on, get." Little Hayseed started to walk away and Big Macintosh went into the shed to grab a shovel. He didn't see the kitten slither in behind him and didn't know that when he left and shut the door behind him that he'd shut Little Hayseed in as well. Only a few feet from the shed Big Macintosh stopped and raised an eyebrow.
"Apple Bloom, what're you doin'?"
Apple Bloom had a leather band around her midsection and stood in the yard staring up at the sky. "Lookin' for my bird."
"Since when do you have a bird?"
The filly afforded her brother a quick glance. "I found one and trained it. You know, like a falconer. Only with a pigeon. Trainin' birds might be my special talent!"
"Good gravy Big Mac! How long does it take to get a..." Applejack stopped as she rounded the side of the house and spotted her little sister. "I don't even wanna know anymore."
There was a loud crash in the toolshed and all three ponies turned in the direction of the sound. Big Macintosh went to investigate as Applejack went to stand beside Apple Bloom. "What happened?" asked the youngest sibling.
"Applejack, go get a towel!"
Applejack didn't ask questions and simply ran inside. "What's wrong, Big Mac?" Apple Bloom asked, edging forward.
"Stay back, Apple Bloom." His stern command made the little filly shrink back. He never used his big voice on anypony.
Applejack rushed back outside and into the shed. "Oh, sweet Celestia..." She backed out of the toolshed, Big Macintosh following her with Little Hayseed tucked into the fetched towel.
"Little Hayseed!" Apple Bloom exclaimed, tears welling in her eyes. "What happened?!"
"Go find Fluttershy," Applejack told her brother. "She'll know what to do."
With the towel gripped firmly gripped between his teeth Big Macintosh nodded and took off in a gallop for Ponyville proper.
He heard the screams before he was even close.
"The horror. The horror!"
"Somepony do something!"
"We'll never make it out alive!"
Crossing into the more populated part of town Big Macintosh spotted the ponies of panic as they stared into a small fenced in garden. Lily, Rose, and Daisy all looked in utter horror at the weeds that were slowly taking over the baby plants. None of them bothered to look up when the red stallion stopped and gently set down his parcel. "Where can I find Fluttershy? It's an emergency."
"We'll never get them all out," Daisy wept dramatically.
"My garden is ruined!" lamented Rose.
"It never stood a chance," sobbed Lily.
They all looked at him now, eyes wide and incredulous. "Where can I find Fluttershy?" Three hooves pointed east and Big Macintosh dipped his head in thanks. "Much obliged." He picked up the towel once more and took off. When he had gone, Lily fell over in a faint.
One of the benefits of Big Macintosh's size was when he started running the thunder and trembling of the ground he passed over served as an early warning of his approach. The crowds of ponies parted to make a way for him and he had a clear path all the way to Fluttershy's cottage.
Fluttershy was fairly close to her home and in the middle of a large gathering of bunnies both big and small. They all felt the quaking of the ground and Fluttershy was helpless to watch her furry little friends scatter. Alone, she looked up in fear, too frightened to move. She relaxed when she saw that it was Big Macintosh approaching; his was a familiar face. Realizing he wouldn't be charging her way unless something was terribly wrong had her anxious all over again.
Big Macintosh saw her sitting there and slowed to a halt before her. He touched the towel to the ground and looked at it with worry. "Need your help," he explained, and that was all he needed to say.
Immediately on her hooves, Fluttershy untied the knot and gasped softly at the unmoving kitten within the towel. She expertly began looking him over, checking for open wounds or other obvious injuries. "He got himself shut in the toolshed," Big Macintosh offered. He watched how delicately she handled the kitten. "Didn't look like he was bleedin' or nothin' but he wasn't movin'. All I could think was t' bring him to you."
She didn't acknowledge him but somehow he knew that she'd heard him speak. This was her area of expertise, the one thing she could do with confidence. Watching her brought back those butterflies and when Fluttershy did finally look at him he didn't look away. She hovered in the air with Little Hayseed cradled within her grasp. "He doesn't appear to have anything worse than a big bump on his head. I think something might have fallen on him and hit him hard enough to make him lose consciousness. I have something inside that will help. Come with me." She flew toward her cottage but stopped quickly, glancing at Big Macintosh in shyness. "That is...I mean...if you want to. I can bring the treatment out here if you'd feel more comfortable."
In answer Big Macintosh trotted past and opened the door for her. She smiled timidly and flew inside. Angel bunny awoke from his little bed on the floor and gave a great yawn. Seeing the unfamiliar stallion standing in the doorway made Angel glare threateningly and scamper over to Fluttershy.
Little Hayseed was laid on the couch before Fluttershy looked at her rabbit friend. "Angel, please go upstairs and get me the red pouch from the kitty cat medicine drawer." Angel saluted and disappeared upstairs, though not before giving Big Macintosh one more caustic once-over.
"Sure is a nice place you got here." It was the first time he'd ever been inside Fluttershy's cottage. Though her decor came as no great surprise, Big Macintosh couldn't help but be a little bit in awe of all the nature she had worked into everything. She managed to make the inside of her home as comfortable for the animals as their own natural homes would be, yet it was not so overdone that it would be at the expense of comfort for any pony folk who might come to visit. Fluttershy's word of thanks was very soft. As Angel came back down with the requested pouch Big Macintosh couldn't help but smirk to himself. "Fine security, too."
She looked at him and followed his gaze to the watchful bunny. Her cheeks flushed. "Please excuse Angel. We don't get a lot of company."
"'S all right," Big Macintosh answered. "Good to know you got someone watchin' out for ya so far out from town. Less t' worry about." He felt his own cheeks grow hot when she looked at him, thankful she would never know with his red coat to camouflage it. "I mean less for you t' worry about. Not...I'm sure Applejack...so what's in the pouch?"
Fluttershy turned back to her patient with a tiny smile. Instead of answering she took the pouch from Angel and dangled it in front of Little Hayseed. Nothing happened at first and Big Macintosh took a few steps closer. After a moment he could see the kitten's toes begin to curl and uncurl like he was kneading. Soon he opened one eye, then the other, then rolled onto his back to expose his fuzzy underbelly. With a mew he batted at the pouch.
"How did you...?" Big Macintosh looked down at Fluttershy. She watched the kitten with a smile that muddled his thoughts. All he could settle on saying was, "That was somethin' special."
"Not that special," she admitted. Her eyes lifted to meet his, smile fading and changing, turning shy once more. But she didn't look away. "It's just a pouch full of catnip."
He had an urge to dip his head, touch his forehead to hers, nuzzle against her. Instead he asked, "So what now?"
Fluttershy looked at Little Hayseed. "He'll need to be watched carefully over the next few days just to make sure the poor little guy doesn't have a concussion. Or you can leave him here...if you want...and I could keep an eye on him."
"You've already got so much to do."
"Oh, but so do you. At least here I could still get work done. Angel can watch him while I'm away and let me know as soon as he might think anything is wrong."
She did have a point. If he brought Little Hayseed home Big Macintosh would be constantly checking on him and fall behind in his work. "Well then, if you don't mind I'll let you keep him for awhile. But I'll come by and see him when I can."
"That's just fine."
"I'll come back tomorrow then. Maybe..." He hesitated and took a breath. "Maybe I'll make you supper as a way of thanks."
Fluttershy looked down, hiding behind her hair. "Oh, that's all right. You don't have to go to the trouble."
"Ain't no trouble at all. I like cookin'. 'Sides..." He tilted his head so he could see her face and make eye contact. "I want to."
It took a moment but eventually she gave him a slow smile. "I would like that very much."
He smiled in return, deciding then and there that Applejack was just going to have to be okay with this. There had never bee a filly before who made him feel this way. If there was even a chance Fluttershy felt the same way he couldn't ignore it. "So I'll see you tomorrow then." Before he could stop himself, Big Macintosh leaned forward and gave her a gentle nuzzle. Fluttershy's eyes went wide but she surprised him when she returned the gesture. As he pulled away they shared a soft smile.
"See you tomorrow," she whispered.
Big Macintosh turned to Little Hayseed and looked down at him. "Glad you're okay little guy. You behave for Fluttershy now, y'hear?" Lifting his head, Big Macintosh gave Fluttershy one last smile before heading out the open door. He walked through Ponyville with a lopsided grin on his face. Tomorrow would be worth looking forward to.