It was raining again, April showers as it were. Seemed to rain a lot these days not that Big Macintosh minded at all. The rain better suited his mood. There was a calming effect to the steady cadence of it on the roof, the way it fell on the already sodden grounds. He was cold sitting on the front porch while the storm circulated around the farm. The cold felt good, too. It reminded him that he could feel something other than pain. It had been a year already and still there was a dull ache in his heart, a wound to his spirit that would never heal. It hurt every day like it had in the beginning.
The door of the house opened and Applejack came out. She had a blanket between her teeth that she draped around Big Macintosh's withers. Then she took up a seat beside him and they sat together in silence. She sat with him like this a lot in the past year. They spoke less to each other than they had their entire lives, yet somehow they'd grown closer. He knew that without the support of his sisters he wouldn't have made it. Everything he was feeling would have consumed him long ago.
"Big Macintosh, think it's about time we had a talk."
"Don't want to."
"Don't rightly remember askin' if you wanted to or not."
"Not now, AJ." He must have said it forcefully enough because she didn't press the issue any more for a few minutes. Lightning flashed overhead giving the gloomy day a quick illusion of luminance. Inside there came a peal of filly laughter. Applejack turned her head to glance in through the window. There was a smile on her face when she turned back around. It faded when she looked at her brother. He turned away, reaching up to swipe at moisture on his face that definitely wasn't rainwater.
"Talk to me, big brother. I can't help unless I know what you're thinkin'."
"I'm thinkin' what I'm always thinkin'. That it hurts. That I could'a stopped it from happenin'. That I should'a said what I was feelin' an' not second guessed myself."
Applejack shook her head, her brow furrowing. "You can't blame yourself for any of it, Big Macintosh. It ain't your fault. Now we've let you have your time, watched you just mope around an' I ain't sayin' bein' sad ain't okay. You got plenty of right an' reason to be sad. But you're forgettin' us, your family. We're still here. We still love you and want you to be part of our lives. But what you've been doin' this past year ain't livin', big brother. It's just survivin'."
He opened his mouth to retort but nothing came out. Tears filled his eyes and he shook his head. He had only been just surviving, it was all he could do. Every morning had him rising to face the day feeling like he was missing half of himself. How did anyone just pick up the pieces and move on from that?
Placing a hoof over his Applejack spoke softly. "How can we help," she asked, her own voice heavy with emotion, "if you don't talk to us?"
"I don't know," he managed thickly. "I jus' don't know."
The ground was saturated and sodden from the excessive amount of rain they'd gotten that year. There were small hoofprints in the mud leaving a trail where Apple Bloom and the rest of the girls had run off together to go play. Beautiful flowers of purple and white grew out of the middle of a rain puddle defiant against the odds of drowning instead of living. Fluttershy sighed softly in the crisp Spring morning air. It was going to be a lovely day once the sun came out. And there was so much to be done! After a week of straight rain she would have so many animal homes to check on. Rebuilding some would be inevitable, as would helping to gather food and then restocking her own supplies.
With a creak the screen door opened behind her and she was joined by Applejack. "'Bout time Rainbow called off that storm," the earth pony mumbled sleepily. "Wonder how much damage it did to the crops."
"They looked fine to me," offered Fluttershy with a timid smile. "Oh, I hope you don't mind. I was up early with the girls and we all took a walk around the farm. Apple Bloom was worried, too."
Applejack gave a crooked grin. "Nah o'course I don't mind, Fluttershy. I'm glad she's already thinkin' about that stuff. An' besides you're part of the family now. This here's your land, too."
"Mornin'." Big Macintosh sidled out onto the porch as well, his orange mane disheveled and his eyes just barely open. Fluttershy giggled and moved over to nuzzle against him. He dipped his head to kiss her. "Hey there, darlin.' Did you get any sleep last night?"
She nodded leaning her head against him. "Poor thing had such a dreadful nightmare."
"I reckon I should'a gone in but I couldn't make myself get up."
"It's all right, Big Mac. I really didn't mind getting up. She went with the others to the clubhouse this morning though so it seems like she's all right."
Applejack's greeting pulled the couples' attention from one another to the gray pegasus trotting up the walk. "Morning Apple ponies, Flutter pony."
"Them mail sacks sure are full," Big Macintosh observed. "What you got for us?"
"Not you, big Apple pony." She pulled a letter from her saddlebags and passed it to Fluttershy. "Flutter pony."
Fluttershy blinked and tore open the letter, carefully unfolding it. Big Macintosh read over her shoulder. "Oh my," she breathed. She turned to look at Big Macintosh, watching his face as he finished the letter. He registered surprise and met her gaze.
"What in the hay is it?" Applejack asked.
"It's a letter from the mayor of Hoofington. It seems they have had an infestation of buzzing buzzards. Somehow they found out about my gifts with animals and want me to help them."
Derpy took off in a flurry of wings and Applejack nodded, impressed. "I ain't never been to Hoofington before. You gonna go?"
The yellow pegasus reread her letter, shrugging. She finally looked at Big Macintosh again and asked, "What do you think?"
He tilted his head to the side in a nonchalant gesture. "'S up to you, darlin'. If you think you can help 'em an' you want to go who am I to stop you?"
She gave him a small smile. "My husband."
With a grin Big Macintosh kissed her muzzle. "I think you want to go."
"I do? I mean yes, I suppose a part of me does. Those poor buzzards. There must be something going on. I can't imagine why they would take over a town like that unless something was terribly, terribly wrong. But I've never been that far away from Ponyville."
"That's why you take somepony with you."
Fluttershy looked at Applejack. "But who would I take? Everyone is so busy right now."
"Twilight would probably go. Especially if you pointed out that there would be a library down there that she's never seen. Somethin' tells me you mention that an' she'll have her saddlebags packed quicker than a clown runnin' from an angry bull at a rodeo."
"I'll have to go swiftly." There was obvious doubt in her eyes but they all knew she couldn't pass up the opportunity of helping anyone with an animal problem even if it was so far away. "I should go talk to Twilight and then I'll come back and pack."
"Stop by the clubhouse on your way back," Big Macintosh reminded gently.
"Oh of course I will!" Taking a deep breath, Fluttershy squared her withers and headed down the path that would lead from the farm and into Ponyville proper. The siblings watched her go and as soon as she was out of earshot, Applejack turned a critical eye on her brother.
"Out with it."
He blinked slowly. "Out with what?"
"I saw that look. You don't want her to go, that's obvious. What's the matter? 'Fraid you can't handle us crazy girls without her here to keep your head on straight?"
"Nope. Done it before. Pretty sure I can do it again."
"Can't stand the thought of her bein' gone for a few days? Ya'll been together long enough I would have thought that'd worn off by now."
"Nope. I'll miss her but I'll survive."
He was silent for a long moment, staring at the place Fluttershy slipped from their sight. When he spoke his admission was reluctant. "I don't know. Somethin' about this don't feel right." When Applejack just looked at him he shrugged. "I'm also workin' on only a few hours of sleep."
"You should tell her."
He looked at his sister trying to figure out if she was just trying to brush him off or if she thought he was serious. "Nothin' to tell. I reckon you're right an' I just don't want to be stuck here all by my lonesome with my crazy family."
"Who you callin' crazy?" Applejack demanded. "Besides, you've always had good instincts. If you feel like somethin's off then you should tell her."
"We'll see. C'mon. We got work to do."
He had to go into town to get a few things they were lacking at home. This was a trip Big Macintosh avoided if at all possible. His first time away from the security of the farm and it felt like everypony was just watching him, waiting for him to fall apart. He couldn't take the sad gazes, the touches, the words of sympathy. It was worse than shouldering the burden of his loss all on his own. Ponies he knew by name but never really spoke to came up to him as if they'd been friends forever. But that wasn't the worst of it.
Pinkie Pie burst into tears every time she saw him. He never thought he'd miss her non-sensical chatter, her bouncing, even her teeth grindingly annoying habit of calling him "Macky." But after the first few times she threw her forelegs around him and sobbed he knew he'd taken perky Pinkie for granted.
On the rare occasion he saw Rarity she all but ignored him. It was easy to blame him for what happened, he was aware of that. Big Macintosh blamed himself every day. How could he want for Rarity to find somewhere else to place the guilt? He could wish she'd act more like Rainbow Dash. The pegasus generally avoided the subject. She was melancholy like everyone else for a long time. Now however she was on the same page as Applejack and was trying to get life back to some semblance of normalcy. If only it was so easy.
Then there was Twilight Sparkle. She couldn't meet his eyes anymore. It was like she hurt just as much as he did and for almost all of the same reasons. Seeing her was the hardest part of his occasional trips into town. All they had to do was see one another across the way, lock eyes and know what the other was feeling. It was like having his heart ripped out fresh every time. And the pain wasn't worth even the basic conversation. Because it would never be easy for either of them.
He got what he needed and headed home as fast as he could. There was a rumble somewhere in the distance like the thundering of his hooves was echoing, bouncing back from the thick gray clouds above him. Good. Let it rain. Let it pour. Let lightning strike him and end this charade of a life he was living. Only in death would he ever find peace.
The thunder rumbled again, closer this time and sending vibrations into his bones. There was a bridge up ahead. If he cared about being smart he'd find someplace to hunker down in Ponyville. Or maybe more accurately if he cared about anything at all. As it was his pace slowed upon approaching the bridge. In the middle of it he paused and moved to look over the edge. The reflection in the water was like something from a fun-house mirror. Wind blew across the surface making the shifting clouds overhead move in odd and impossible ways. Lightning flashed above him and Big Macintosh took a breath before leaping over the railing.
The water wasn't deep by any means only coming up to his knees. But the wind was picking up tossing small sticks and pebbles at him. This was going to be one heck of a storm by the look of it. Still he waded in the water. His gait was slow as he walked deciding to follow it into the trees. What he would do or where he would go beyond that was not even a concern.
In the forest it was as though it was midnight for the lack of sunlight. Still he walked enjoying the howling wind, the way his heart raced with every strike of lightning and drum roll of thunder. With the lack of good light it had been near impossible to see the good sized rock in the stream ahead of him. Big Macintosh took a normal step knocking into it and tripping, and falling forward into the cold current.
Water rushed into his nose, his mouth, stinging his throat with ice as he coughed and tried to regain his footing. Lighting flashed as he stood. Shadows ghosted around him and he saw the rock. He snorted and turned around bucking the rock and sending it tumbling heavily away. He turned again bucking out with his rear legs to make harsh contact with a thick tree trunk. He did it again and again, anger and heartache combining in such a rush that he no longer had any control over himself. The tree gave a satisfying crunch and tilted, swaying before falling. He bit into a branch of the fallen tree and tore it from the rest of the limbs. His head swung and CRACK! he hit another tree with the branch. The rough wood cut into his gums and the sides of his mouth. Even tasting his own blood couldn't stop the storm he'd become, his ferocity a worthy rival of the storm high above. He wanted to destroy and moved like a feral beast.
Then he heard it. Somewhere between the bucking, the beating, the snorting, it reached him and cut through everything he was feeling to stop him dead in his tracks. It was crying. Soft, sweet, tender. He knew that cry like he knew his own heartbeat. Lightning flashed and he saw her standing down a ways. Her coloring was unmistakable, her mane, her wings, her sad eyes.
And he had made her cry.
Big Macintosh dropped the branch instantly, his breath heavy. "Darlin? What are you doin' down here?"
She didn't answer. Instead she turned her back on him and ran away echoes of her weeping trailing behind her.
"Wait," Big Macintosh whispered. He forced his legs to move, to follow her, willed his voice to regain some of it's strength. "Wait, don't go!" His body surged forward and he crashed through the underbrush following her as best as he could.
There was a distinct rumbling inside the library that made Twilight Sparkle lift her head. She'd found a book on carnivorous caterpillars and was learning so much. The distraction would have been annoying if it wasn't for the sheepish look on the face of her baby dragon. "Sorry," Spike offered quietly. "I'm starving. We've been here all day and lunch only lasts so long."
"It's all right, Spike. Here." Her horn glowed and something rose from her saddlebags to float over to Spike's open and willing hands. "It's not sapphires and rubies but hay, oats and honey tastes pretty good to me."
Spike tore the wrapper off the hay bar and shoved it into his mouth without reservation. "Tafets finn to mne." He swallowed seconds later. "I wonder what's taking Fluttershy so long. You don't think she forgot about us do you?"
Twilight laughed softly. "Oh Spike. You know Fluttershy. She'd never forget us. Besides, you saw all those buzzards flying around when we got here this morning. I'm not surprised at how long it's taking her. She's a talented pony when it comes to animals but she's still only one pony."
"I guess so." Spike fell silent and Twilight went back to reading her book. Though now that her concentration had been broken it wasn't as easy to get into and she could feel eyes on her.
"What?" she asked dryly seeing Spike staring at her.
The baby dragon put his elbows on the table they shared, resting his chin in his claws. "I was just thinking about what Big Macintosh said before we left."
Twilight's horn glowed again and her book closed. "Someday when you fall in love, Spike, you'll understand."
"I don't know, Twilight. He seemed really worried."
"Well of course he was. This is the first time he and Fluttershy have been apart for so long since they got married. And it's not like she just ran to Manehattan. Hoofington is quite the journey."
Spike still didn't seem convinced. "They're not exactly newlyweds anymore."
"Like I said you'll understand when you fall in love." She got up from the table, her book levitating in front of her as she moved through the racks of reading material. Big Macintosh certainly had seemed overly concerned when they'd gotten ready to leave. His "bad feeling" was something Twilight just chalked up to separation anxiety. She'd read all about it and different types of anxiety could manifest in so many various ways. Fluttershy would have stayed if Twilight hadn't convinced them both that it was silly to worry about anything. And she wouldn't be afraid to point out their foolish worries as soon as they were all back in Ponyville.
The heavy door to the library opened and Twilight smirked. "See, Spike? I bet that's her now isn't it?"
She found where her book was supposed to go and put it away turning back down the long open aisle to greet her friend and get a full report on the day. What she saw shocked her into speechlessness for the quickest moment. "Princes Celestia!" Every other pony in Equestria bowed upon seeing the princess but Twilight shared a special relationship with her mentor and trotted back through the library to be near her. The usual warm smile the princess wore was not present this time and it made Twilight draw up short. A knot wound itself in her stomach. "What's wrong?"
"My dear Twilight," began the princess solemnly. "I'm afraid my visit to Hoofington is not a simple social call. Something terrible has happened and I wanted to be the one to tell you."
Twilight swallowed a lump in her throat. As Spike joined her he touched her side gently, letting her know he was right there. Suddenly she wanted to just take him and leave, to not hear whatever it was that was weighing down Celestia's words. But she couldn't make her hooves move. "What's wrong?" she asked again, her voice shaking.
"There has been an accident."
She took a step back without meaning to. Spike moved closer to her and she stopped. "An accident?"
"The mystery of the invasion of buzzards has been solved thanks to your friend, Fluttershy. Several weeks ago it was discovered that the wild cats at the Fillydelphia zoo escaped. Everyone assumed they were still there somewhere in the area. But the cats moved farther south where it was warmer and they decided they very much liked the woods of Hoofington."
The princess mentioned Fluttershy. That was good right? So why did Celestia still look so burdened and why could Twilight no longer feel anything below her knees? Why was this dread only getting worse?
"There were many creatures hunted in the woods; the cats have only been here long enough to kill other wild animals thus far. It was the remains of their meals that drew the buzzards in. They were called to feed as well."
"What about Fluttershy?" Her demand was much stronger than she felt.
"Twilight...I am so very sorry. They surprised her and there was no time for her to react."
The room spun and all the colors blurred together before Twilight's eyes. Without the supporting touch of her best friend to ground her she would have blacked out. As it was her legs went out from under her and she sank to the floor. Tears filled her eyes, hot and stinging. Spike's arms went around her neck while she tried to wrap her brain around what was happening. Feral cats, buzzards, dead animals...dead Fluttershy.
The princess said her name and sparked an anger in the young unicorn that she never would have dreamed could exist. She looked up at Celestia with animosity and hurt. "You could have stopped it. You see everything! You could have stopped it!"
Celestia's own eyes were damp as she dipped her head to nuzzle against Twilight's cheek. "My dear Twilight..."
"No!" Twilight was on her hooves shoving away from Spike, from the princess. "Don't touch me! You could have stopped it! You could have saved her!"
"Twilight!" Through his own grief, Spike stared at his friend in subdued shock.
"I knew what was happening," Celestia explained, "but not what was going to happen, Twilight. I was helpless to do anything..."
"Then what good are you?" All of the anger fell from her, sorrow crushing anything else she could feel. She wanted to be angry at Celestia, to hate her. But it wasn't something she could do easily. Fluttershy, sweet, soft-spoken Fluttershy no longer smiled at the birds, whispered to the bunnies, sang with the butterflies. She no longer even drew a breath. It made the world feel colder somehow. And lonelier. And when Celestia reached out to her again Twilight let herself be enveloped in the embrace of a strong leg and the protective cocoon of Celestia's wings.
"I am so sorry," the princess whispered, making room for Spike as well.
Twilight wept clinging to Spike and the princess. She was going to have to go home now, to tell Fluttershy's Sweet Apple Acres family. She was going to have to look Big Macintosh in the eye and tell him his fears had been right and know nothing she could ever say or do would make up for her convincing them both the trip would be perfectly fine.
It was easier for her to move through the thick underbrush in the forest than it was for Big Macintosh. He lumbered through clumsily just keeping her in sight. And then just like that she was gone. He stopped to look around, panic rising. She was still crying somewhere up ahead. And so he pushed on breaking through to the more sparse part of the forest, just before it turned back into a field on one side and Ponyville on the other. She was crouched down at the edge of the stream, legs tucked under her, wings folded tight against her small body. Her turquoise eyes were locked on her own reflection watching herself as the rain fell down around her.
The ground had to have been cold underneath her and Big Macintosh felt the need to scoop her up and protect her from the elements. She looked so much like Fluttershy that this past year had made it hard to look at her for long, let alone be a real father to her. Her yellow coat that faded to orange then red at her ears and the tips of her wings, her pink mane and tail with streaks of orange throughout all matted and soaking. Even in the gloom of a storm she still looked like a winter sunrise. Her coloring was what prompted her parents to name her Morning Glory
She must have known he was standing there watching her because her head lifted eventually, heavy lidded eyes so full of sorrow. It made him move. The rain and the cold didn't matter as he got down on the ground beside his daughter, trucking his legs under himself as she had. "What are you doin' out here, Glory?"
"Aunt Applejack was worried."
"So she sent a little filly out into the storm?"
She shook her head and sniffled. "I snuck out."
Big Macintosh sighed. "You are more like your aunts than you'll ever know."
They were silent for a long time and she wouldn't meet his eyes either face to face or in their distorted stream-water reflections. He saw her shiver and readjusted himself so he could drape a strong foreleg around her and pull her closer. This started the waterworks again. Not knowing what else to do Big Macintosh lowered his head and laid it across her back, embracing and forming a sort of protection around her at the same time.
"I miss her, Daddy."
Her quiet confession brought his own emotions on strong once more and he answered her in a choked voice. "I know, darlin'. I miss her, too."
"I'm startin' to forget what her voice sounded like."
There was a twisted part of him that wished he could forget the sound of her voice or somehow give all his memories of Fluttershy singing, her gentle laugh to their daughter. Maybe it would make the pain less. Or maybe it would just make the pain less meaningful. "I can't forget it. You sound a lot like her."
Glory lifted her head searching her father's expression. "I do?"
"Especially when you sing. Both my girls always sounded like angels. You start missin' your mamma you just sing. That's all you need to do to remember her."
She bit her bottom lip looking like she was weighing whether or not to say something else. At length she seemed to make a decision and the lip she'd been worrying began to quiver. "I miss you, too, Daddy."
Big Macintosh looked at her quizzically, his brow furrowed. "I'm right here, darlin'. I've always been right here."
"No you haven't. It's like you died with her. You never talk to me, you never play with me, you don't even really look at me anymore. It's like you're not even really here."
He opened his mouth to rebut and he found he couldn't really make an argument. Her words stung but mostly because they were true. It was exactly as Applejack said to him that morning, that he hadn't been living just surviving. That meant mustering up enough energy to get himself out of bed every day, to eat, to work, even simply to breathe sometimes. When it was all said and done and the sun had set on another day there just wasn't enough in him to give to anyone else. His sisters could take it but ignoring his own daughter? How could he have let that happen and for so long? How could a father forget about his own daughter?
Sorrow can break even the strongest workhorse.
Fluttershy told him that when Granny Smith died. He'd felt so angry and at a loss that it all came to a high pressure breaking point and he didn't know what to do with himself. Much like now though this sorrow was different. The gentle reminder from his beloved may have been whispered in his ear right then for all he knew, the memory of her sweet voice still so strong. He could almost see her across the stream watching them sadly. You can't change the past, my love. It's your now and all the tomorrows that matter.
He blinked, pulled from his thoughts. His imagined vision of Fluttershy faded away and he fought the urge to chase it. He could still feel the little body in his grasp and the warmth she gave him, small as it was. It kept him there, grounded him. "I'm sorry," he said at length. He managed to tear his gaze away from the opposite bank and nuzzle against his daughter's cheek. "I been lettin' myself get so wrapped up in my own hurtin' that I forgot I'm not the only one who lost her. Can you forgive me for not bein' here for you?"
Without a word Glory wiggled out from under his leg and threw her hooves around his strong neck. "I swear it'll be different from now on," he promised holding her as close as he could. "We'll do this together."
"I love you, Daddy."
"Love you too, sugar. C'mon. Think it's time we headed back to the farm. I'll make us both some hot chocolate."
She let go of him and smiled. "With mint?"
"With mint just like your mamma used to make," he assured kissing her forehead. "Climb on up."
Glory scampered around and climbed up onto Big Macintosh's back. She wrapped her hooves around his neck once more and giggled. "Soon I'll be able to fly an' you won't have to carry me like this. Scootaloo said I'm doin' real good an' she expects me to take off any day!"
"I don't have to carry you like this now but I will. An' I want to. It's what I do."
"Cuz you're my daddy?"
"You got that right. Did I ever tell you about the day we told your auntie Applejack we was gonna have you?"
"No!" She clutched him tighter in excitement. "Tell me!"
"Well she an' all her friends were at the cafe talkin' about somethin'..." He turned back for home feeling lighter than he had in a long time. There was still a lot of healing that needed to happen and there would always be a piece of him missing. But now he realized it was not only his journey to peace. Morning Glory needed him to show her everything was going to be all right, that they could still be a family. He was determined to be the father she deserved and the stallion Fluttershy always believed he was.