It was one of those days where it felt like the sun was shining just for him. There was no real reason why Big Macintosh was in such a good mood except for maybe the idea that all these silly dates were almost over and he could get back to life as normal. Not that he hadn't enjoyed himself; Big Mac learned more about the ponies Applejack called her best friends in the few hours he'd spent with each of them than he had in all the time he'd known them. Granny Smith always said to never judge a book by its cover but the meaning behind the cliché little saying had finally come into perspective for him.
As he walked the familiar path from Sweet Apple Acres to Ponyville, a picnic basket hung from between his teeth and a red checkered blanket lay draped across his back. He was meeting Fluttershy for lunch and couldn't help but wonder what he would find out about her. With only the timid pegasus left the Crusaders had already deemed themselves failures at matchmaking and were off helping Zecora in hopes of discovering one or all of them had a green hoof and would get their cutie marks that way. Applejack's parting words to him were, "Might wanna bring a deck of cards," while Granny Smith kissed his cheek and told him to have a nice time. He had high hopes that it wouldn't be too awkward and that they'd get thought it without too many uncomfortable silences.
They were meeting out closer to Fluttershy's house to eat together down by the river. There they could be outside in the nice weather but not have to worry as much about ponies passing by who might whisper and chortle, and make Fluttershy uncomfortable. Big Mac couldn't really care less about what anypony else thought about him but he was aware of Fluttershy's sensitivity and wanted to make their time together as painless as possible. In all honesty it had come as surprise when she'd agreed to the picnic but he was looking forward to getting to know her better and was glad she was okay with the idea.
She was already down by the river by the time he got there, and Big Macintosh slowed to watch her before making himself known. She was on her stomach, a sweet smile on her face as she talked to a mother duck and the six ducklings that swam around her, chirping and cheeping. One little ducking climbed out of the water and up onto Fluttershy's nose making the pegasus giggle and go cross-eyed as she watched it. It made Big Macintosh smile just seeing the exchange. She truly had a gift and he'd never known another pony who cared for the animals the way Fluttershy so obviously did. Gently taking the ducking in her hooves, she placed him back in the water. It was then that she saw Big Mac watching her.
As her cheeks flooded with color he headed over and set the basket down a little ways from the bank of the river. "Didn't mean to startle you," he apologized once his mouth was free. "I didn't want to intrude."
"Oh no," she said quietly. "It wouldn't be intruding at all. We were just talking about how lovely the weather is today."
Big Mac looked up at the clear sky, the warmth of the sun heating his coat just enough to be comfortable without being too hot. "Haven't seen a day this fine in quite awhile."
"Perfect picnic weather. If you like the sunshine of course."
He smiled at her, her awkwardness endearing. "Wanna help me spread the blanket out?" He turned his head to grab it with his teeth, then gave it a shake to unfold it. With Fluttershy's help it was laid neatly on the ground with the picnic basket in the very middle. As he started to unpack their lunch and she tried to peek inside at the contents, he raised an amused brow. "Hungry or suspicious?"
Once again she blushed, shaking her head. "I'm not suspicious or hungry! I mean, I am hungry but not so hungry that I can't wait. I was just curious." She muttered an apology, her gaze falling to the blanket.
"I'm just teasin', Fluttershy. It's all right." There were grapes, strawberries, a big container of dandelion salad, cheese, crackers, apple turnovers that were still warm, and a bottle of sweet raspberry mead. Seeing it all, Fluttershy's eyed widened and Big Mac tilted his head. "Think this is all right?"
"It looks wonderful," she said, a small smile on her lips. For the first time since he'd arrived she met his gaze and her smile widened ever so slightly. "It's very nice of you to do this for your sister and her friends."
He popped the cork on the mead and carefully poured them two glasses, then took a thoughtful sip. "It started out as doin' it for them but somewhere in the middle of my time with Pinkie Pie I think it became somethin' to do for myself." Fluttershy tasted her mead as well and he was satisfied to see she liked it, making a mental note to make sure they had plenty to eat in between glasses. "I don't really have a lot of friends myself," he continued. "It's been real nice getting' to know all of you better."
"I don't have many friends, either," Fluttershy admitted quietly. She watched as Big Mac began to dish out their meals and shrugged slightly. "Rainbow Dash has always been my friend. My first friend. And Rarity is my best friend, but I think if Twilight hadn't come to Ponyville it would really only be those two."
"Nothin' wrong with not havin' a lot of friends if you ask me. Just means you're closer with the ones you got." He glanced down to the riverside where the mother duck was still floating around with her babies. "'Sides, looks to me like you've got plenty of friends 'sides the other five ponies."
Fluttershy looked at the ducks with fondness. "I know some ponies think I'm silly spending all my time with the animals. But life is so much simpler with them."
"I reckon it's a lot less drama than it is with pony folk most days."
"It is," she agreed easily. "They don't judge you or make you feel bad about yourself. They don't expect more from you than you can give them and you never have to prove you're worthy of their love or attention. They just love you and it's not something that can easily be broken."
Big Macintosh chewed his salad quietly, watching Fluttershy as she spoke and the delicate way in which she moved. He never would have even taken time to think about it before but hearing what she had to say and that unmistakable thread of pain underlying the truth of her words told him she'd been hurt by ponies before and too many times over. Letting that thought sink in made him a little angry and that surprised him. Maybe it was because she was so timid and seemed so delicate, but the idea of anyone giving Fluttershy a hard time over anything made him feel protective of her.
"They're lucky they have you," he said at length, trying to figure out why he suddenly felt the way he did. Maybe it was the big brother syndrome. She was one of Applejack's friends after all. It wouldn't be so out there to be at least somewhat protective of all of her close friends. They'd become her family.
"I think it's the other way around," she argued softly. "But thank you for the compliment just the same."
"More than welcome. Here, have some of these strawberries. Just picked 'em fresh this mornin'." He tried to think about what he knew of Fluttershy and wasn't entirely surprised to realize there wasn't a lot that came to mind. She was the type to answer questions when asked and to stay silent otherwise, whereas the others had no problem making their opinions known. She'd help when help was needed but was hesitant in asking for help herself. And she was inexplicably kind. Save those few times he'd heard about her temper. Though if she'd had as hard a foalhood as he suspected a temper like that wasn't all that much of a shock. "Fluttershy, can I ask you a personal question?"
Her turquoise eyes lifted from the strawberries, reservation in her gaze. "I...I guess so. If you want to."
"Now I want you to think real hard about this. It's important." She swallowed, her reservation quickly turning into uncertainty. Big Mac looked at her evenly. "Who do you think is a better apple bucker: me or AJ?"
As the question filtered in through her defensive walls a smile lit up her face and she covered her mouth with a hoof to hide her giggle. Trying to be serious she said, "Well I don't know that I can say for sure. I've never actually seen you buck an apple tree. And Applejack was so exhausted the last time I saw her doing it, the poor thing."
"So you're sayin' you can't choose?"
With an impish smile, she shook her head. "I'm sorry."
"Dang," he breathed, feigning disappointment. "Well I guess you'll just have to come out to the farm come fall an' see how we measure up. Make your decision then."
"It's a date." Realizing what she said, Fluttershy sucked in a breath, her eyes widening. "I mean, not a date. Well it would be a date on a calendar. In late September or early October? Can you pinpoint a certain date for that sort of thing? Can I have some more mead please?"
Chuckling, Big Mac obliged and filled her glass again. She gulped it in one and when she held out her glass for more he set the bottle down and pushed some of the cheese and crackers her way. "Try some of that, first. Promise you'll like it."
Now an awkward silence settled between them. Fluttershy seemed to be looking everywhere but at Big Macintosh and he was caught between amusement and frustration. When she'd finished half the platter he sighed quietly and looked at her. "Time for another question. A serious one this time." She glanced at him for the quickest second and nodded. "What're you so nervous about?"
For the despair that entered her expression he could have asked her how her favorite animal died. Her entire frame sagged and her brows came together in a hopeless pout. "Everything." Her voice was a squeaky half-whisper and she shook her head. "I'm so sorry, Big Macintosh. Maybe this was a terrible idea."
"I don't think it was," he said gently. "Fluttershy, you ain't got a thing to worry about. Not with me, okay? We're just two friends havin' lunch together, nothin' more. You don't have to worry about tryin' to be perfect or impressin' me or anythin'. Just be yourself."
"But I can't," she said desperately. "I don't know how."
He thought a moment. "What about when you're with AJ an' the rest of your friends?"
"I don't know. I suppose...I'm less nervous but I'm still nervous with them. There's always something to be scared of."
"Not with me. You got nothin' to be scared of here. I'll protect you." The words slipped out before he had time to think about them, but unlike Fluttershy and her earlier outburst his surprise was not shown on his face. Because as soon as he said it he knew it was true. He would protect her. For some reason, he wanted to protect her.
Her eyes lifted very slowly from the blanket to meet his unwavering gaze. "What if...what if you're what scares me?"
Well that came out of nowhere. He had not been expecting that question and it made him give her a goofy grin. "Me? Ain't nothin' scary about me. 'Cept maybe..." He looked left, then right, then lowered his voice to whisper conspiratorially, "'Cept maybe me before my first cup'a coffee in the mornin.'" His answer had the desired effect, drawing another sweet giggle from the pegasus. Big Mac grinned and stood up. "C'mon, let's go for a walk."
Together they walked side by side down to the bank of the river, then turned east to walk beside it. They didn't say much to one another but it wasn't uncomfortable. Big Mac found he could enjoy the silence with Fluttershy just as much as he enjoyed conversation with her when the silence wasn't because she was nervous. Almost every time he looked down at her she would look right back up at him with a warm smile. They'd say a few sentences to each other then, or maybe they'd just keep walking with nothing to say. But it was comfortable.
Before long the pair had wandered farther away from solitude and closer to town. As they began to see more and more ponies the less and less comfortable Fluttershy became. Her withers slowly inched up until they seemed hitched to her ears and more of her mane kept falling in her face to block out anyone but Big Mac. He looked about casually, seeing some ponies take notice but no one really dwelling on them for long. With quiet and gentle authority he turned them toward the direction of the park so they could pass through and out onto the stargazing hill.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, seemingly trying to shrink for existence as they moved through the crowded park.
"You worried about what ponies might think seein' you walkin' with me?"
She nodded and squeaked some sort of an answer he took to be in the affirmative.
"If anythin' I reckon they're all feelin' sorry for you."
Fluttershy blinked and looked up at him with confusion. "M...me? Why?"
"I'm the stallion who's been on dates with five ponies in five days. Can you imagine what they must be thinkin' about me? They're probably thinkin' you're my latest victim or some such nonsense."
"Oh, Big Macintosh that's terrible!"
He shrugged. "Don't bother me none. I've had ponies talkin' 'bout me all my life. My whole family has. We're the dumb farm ponies who can't read, can't count, can't do nothin' but work a farm. We got thick skin."
"But those are horrible and mean things to say!"
"Yes they are," he agreed. "But I learned long ago that ponies are gonna talk when they wanna talk. Ain't nothin' I could do to stop 'em an' if I tried I'd just get mad. I don't like getting' mad."
"It doesn't bother you at all?"
"Does when it's about AJ or Apple Bloom. They ain't stupid. Far from it. But if I flew into a fit every time somepony said somethin' they wouldn't know how to stand up for themselves an' they wouldn't be as tough as they are now."
Fluttershy looked down sadly and didn't say another word until they were through the park and out on the wide open space of the star gazing hill. There were some ponies out there enjoying picnics themselves, little ones playing tag, or keeping to themselves with a good book. When the pair stopped, Fluttershy blew her mane from her face and looked up at Big Macintosh.
"You must think I'm so weak."
"Nope." He shook his head but kept his gaze skyward for the time being. "You left a life up there to come down here, a place you knew nothin' about really, and start a whole new life. You helped fight Nightmare Moon, Discord, and Chrysalis an' still have time for your friends an' your animals. That don't sound like a weak pony to me." Now he looked down at her, gaze soft. "I just think you been hurt a lot." She looked down herself and nodded. "I ain't sayin' you gotta talk about it, Fluttershy. But if you ever want to... I'd like to listen."
"I can't talk about it," she whispered. "Not right now. But someday. Someday I want to tell you." Very slowly she looked up and offered him a timid smile.
"Then I'll wait for someday."
A small pegasus zoomed by them, chased by two more in a loud and laughter filled game of keep away. The couple watched the foals for awhile, smiling at their innocence and laughing when they tumbled or did something silly. When they flew up high overhead Big Mac looked at the sky with wonder. "Must be a whole different world up there."
"It is. Everything is soft and wide open. I think that's why I like the ground better. I like having a house with solid walls." Big Mac laughed and Fluttershy giggled quietly. "That sounds so silly."
"I understand. I'd like to see what it looks like up there someday."
She brightened. "Twilight knows a spell to give ponies wings. We could fly together."
He cleared his throat. "Is that the same spell she used on Rarity? 'Cause much as I'd love to go flyin' with you I'm not so sure butterfly wings would look all that great on me."
This made the pegasus laugh. "No, I suppose not. Maybe she can try something else out."
"Maybe," he chuckled.
"There he is! Hey Big Macintosh!"
Both ponies turned around to see the Crusaders bounding their way, Applejack fairly close behind. "We were lookin' all over for you guys!" panted Apple Bloom.
"Somethin' wrong?" her big brother asked.
"Big storm's coming' tonight," said Applejack as she joined them. "Dash just came to let us know. We need your help getting' everythin' ready."
"How was your date?" asked Scootaloo, practically choking on laughter as she looked between Big Mac and Fluttershy.
She blushed furiously but he looked down at her with a fond smile. "Not too bad."
"You should go help your family," Fluttershy said softly. "I'll clean up the picnic and bring everything by tomorrow."
"That'd be real nice."
The four date crashers just stood there, watching. Big Mac eventually cleared his throat again and got to his hooves. "Well all right then. Let's get a move on."
"I get to herd the chickens!" shouted Scootaloo.
"No fair," yelled Sweetie Belle. "You got to herd them last time!"
"It's my house," exclaimed Apple Bloom. "I get to herd 'em!"
As the three fillies bolted on ahead, Applejack walked beside her brother. "Well it looks like your datin' obligation has been filled."
"Glad it's over?"
"No love connections?"
"Nope." But he glanced back over his shoulder to the pretty pegasus sitting on the hill. She waved shyly at him before flapping her wings and taking to the sky. As Big Mac returned his attention forward he had a small smile on his face. "But you never know what could happen in the future."
Dear Princess Celestia,
My granny always told me you could never really know a pony just by looking at them. Take my family for example; so many ponies write us off because they think we're not up to their standards. What they don't realize is that we just don't say nothing because we've got nothing to say, and if we do it won't be nice so we hold our tongues. All right, maybe that's just me. But you catch my drift.
I've learned being smarter than everypony doesn't mean you always know what you're doing. That just because you're wearing a smile doesn't mean you're not hurting on the inside. That just because you like designer clothes and fancy jewels doesn't mean you don't want to have fun just like everypony else. And that ponies can still surprise you no matter how well you think you know them. But I think the most important thing I've learned about friendship is that it takes work. You can't call a pony your friend just because you know each other's names, you have to be there for one another to talk, to listen, and to support.
In trying to help my sister and her friends out I've learned a lot more about friendship than I knew before and I think I learned a few things about myself along the way. As long as you're open to new experiences, sometimes with ponies you think you won't get along with at all, you just never know when a new friend might come along.