For a day normally filled with laughter and conversation, this year's setup was woefully inadequate. Apple Bloom had never been so tired from a dancing lesson in her life. That coupled with Flim's dance took just about all of her spare energy. The story seemed to be the same with her friends too. Sweetie Belle was wrapping a streamer around the nearest tree with a dazed expression a zombie would be proud of. "Sweetie Belle, is that what we're supposed to be doin' with the streamers?"
Sweetie Belle turned to her, shrugging. "I don't know. But, if we take a while, then we won't have to dance."
"Urgh!" Scootaloo kicked the box, sending up a storm of multi-colored paper flowers. "I don't even want to talk about that stupid lesson!"
Apple Bloom jerked a nod, and proceeded to scoop up the flowers. Scootaloo had a point. If there was one thing she did not want to hear about for the rest of her life, it was Entropy's dance lesson. Apparently, their resident princess never got the memo about falling for the handsome prince. They needed something better to talk about. "So, what happened when you went home? I mean, after the stunt."
Sweetie Belle moaned, flopping dramatically on the grass. "Grounded! And I had to help Rarity make dresses."
Scootaloo gave an ill-concealed snigger, "I'll bet Rarity got a kick out of that." She leaned against the now streamer clad tree, "I was grounded too. But, that's not important. What I want to know is what happened? How did Flim rescue you?"
"Yeah!" Sweetie Belle's eyes bored into her own as though interrogating her. "What happened? Did he realize he could run?"
An irrational anger swept over her. Of course they would not know about Flim's condition, but that did not stop their words from being tactless. How could they be so cheerful? Flim nearly died because of them. Her voice shook as she tried to fight the urge to start shouting, "You don't understand, girls."
Scootaloo's eyes rolled clean over. "Understand what, Apple Bloom?"
Apple Bloom remembered Flim's words just as clearly as she remembered the stinging rain drenching her coat. He had begged her not to tell anypony, but he was so sick, it felt wrong to hide something that important from her friends and family. She looked at her three best friends in the entire world. Every fiber of her being was screaming at her to get it off of her chest. They could keep a secret, right? "He can run, but it makes him real sick. Like he can't breathe, sick." She tried to block the memory of his wheezing. "I think he almost died." There, she had said it at last.
They stood in silence for a moment. Sweetie Belle looked close to panic, and Scootaloo was actually shaking. The pegasus opened and closed her mouth, then managed to stammer, "He almost died?"
"Yeah. All because of us." It had been a stupid stunt. She knew it from the start, but had gone along because they wanted to try. The next time, she would put her hoof down, just like Big Mac, Applejack, or Flim would have done. "I ain't goin' to do any dumb stuff like that again! Got it?"
The girls looked at each other, nodding in unison. Once again, they fell into a kind of awkward silence. Thankfully, it was Scootaloo who broke the tension. "So, uh, earlier with Diamond, you said that Flim was your brother. Does that mean he's going to marry Applejack?"
What? Apple Bloom's heart skipped a beat. She was all for changing the subject, but this was just weird. "No. Least he ain't said anythin' about it."
A kind of glint had filled Sweetie Belle's eyes, a sure sign she had gone into intense romantic mode. "Maybe he's just shy." She sighed theatrically clutching her chest. "He was torn over conning Applejack, so he came to her side to beg her forgiveness, and win her heart!"
Scootaloo shot her an are you serious look before turning back to Apple Bloom. "Well?"
"That definitely isn't true!" In all the time Flim had been at the farm, he never acted remotely romantic towards Applejack. On the contrary, he had seemed grouchy to her until recently. "He came here because he was hungry. We had work, apples, an respect, so he offered to help. Simple as that."
Sweetie Belle tapped her hoof impatiently against the grass. "Why'd you call him your brother then?"
"Because Applejack told me that her an Big Mac had decided to make Flim part of the family." There really was not much else to it than that. "I like Flim, he's way nicer than Big Mac. So, I don't mind havin' another brother."
Scootaloo slapped a hoof to her face. "Seriously? Don't you get it Apple Bloom?" Seeing her blank expression, Scootaloo continued, waving her hooves for emphasis, "He's not a real part of your family, so he'll just up and leave when he gets the itch to. If you want him to stay, he needs to be an actual part of your family!"
"An actual part?" Apple Bloom's face heated up at the realization. "You don't mean . . . he's got to marry Applejack? He won't stay otherwise?"
"Duh." Scootaloo patted her head in a pitying fashion. "Too bad for you. Applejack's never so much as looked at a stallion romantically. You're going to lose your new brother for sure."
"No! I don't want that. But," She gulped, pawing at the grass, "I don't want him to marry Applejack. Applejack likes him as a brother, just like me."
Sweetie Belle cleared her throat, stepping between them. "Scootaloo's got a point, Apple Bloom. What's so bad about having Flim as a brother in law? It sounds like he'd be great at it, and he'd be a pretty cool dad too."
"Dad?" Apple Bloom's felt as though her face would melt completely off. The thought of Flim having foals with her big sister made her sick to her stomach. "Eeeeewe. No! Applejack don't want him like that."
"Well, who said she had to?" Scootaloo gave them a very suspicious grin.
Apple Bloom knew that it was better to humor her now. "What?"
"Marriage doesn't have to be about love." She started to pace, as though describing one of Twilight's theories. "I heard the mayor talking to Pinkie before she got married to Cheese. She said all they would have to do is sign a few papers, and then they were legally married."
"Papers?" Sweetie Belle gaped at her. "But, what about the wedding?"
"There doesn't have to be one! That's what the mayor said." Scootaloo clapped Apple Bloom hard on the shoulder. "So, all you have to do is convince them to sign those papers, then they'll be married, and Flim will have to stay with you guys. Besides," She jerked her head towards the tent where the adults were gathering, "Applejack wants him to stay as much as you do. This is the easiest way to make sure he does."
"Well . . ." There were probably a hundred different reasons not to agree to it, but there was no denying that the plan was safe. Nopony would get hurt, it was just a piece of paper after all, hardly a dangerous stunt. "All right, I'll try an get them to do it. But, it ain't goin' to be easy convincin' Flim, he's real smart."
Scootaloo chuckled almost manically. "Don't you worry about that, Apple Bloom. I've got you covered."
Apple Bloom gave her best smile, though it felt a little halfhearted. Why am I not convinced?
Flim was all for carry ins. They not only provided a mountain of food, but allowed ponies to get a glimpse of their respective traditions. Each and every family seemed to bring a little something different to their community table, and it was fun to try and guess who had brought what. He did not even mind when he was put in charge of keeping everypony away until it was time to start. Though, he was getting a little tired of his new fans.
"Oh, you poor dear." A wizened grey mare patted his shoulder in an overly maternal fashion. "You're skin and bones."
Flim rolled his eyes. The gaggle of elderly ponies had come to visit with him over half an hour ago. Though he tried having a normal conversation, they kept commenting on his condition. For once in his life, he really did not want to stand out, not like this. He could not stopper the nagging suspicion that the old mares just wanted fuel for their gossip.
An emerald pegasus, the leader of their little gang shook her head sadly. "That won't do at all. A handsome young stallion like yourself ought to be strong and healthy. Isn't Applejack feeding you?"
"She is!" The last thing he wanted was anypony dragging down Applejack's good name on his account. "She's been wonderful, and really understanding."
"Oooh ho ho." The yellow unicorn beside him flashed the most disturbingly crooked set of teeth Flim had ever seen. "Been romancing the farmer's daughter, have you?"
Flim thought steam might come out of his ears. "No! Nothing like that."
"Marzipan!" An excited giggle rippled around the group. The grey mare clapped a hoof on his back. "Go for it tiger! She could use some loving."
"Urgh! I'm not interested!" Truth be told, Flim was not entirely convinced he was uninterested, and that scared him. Applejack was stunning in a homely sort of way, with an enchanting smile to boot. With a wonderful work ethic and spunky personality, she was definitely his type. Would it be so wrong to think of her as more than an employer or sister? The answer was of course obvious. It was dead wrong, and, if he did not want to get kicked to the next county, he would have to watch himself.
"What's goin' on?" Big Mac's voice came from behind him as though sent from heaven.
Flim breathed a sigh of relief when the elderly mares shuffled off. He turned to his friend, a broad smile stretching from the corners of his mouth. "Thanks, I thought they'd never leave."
"Eeeyup. But," his attention turned to the retreating ponies, "what were you talkin' bout? What aren't you interested in?"
Flim's heart skipped a beat. "Nothing! Nothing at all." He could only imagine Big Mac's reaction if he admitted that he was starting to see Applejack as a potential mate. Definitely not something he wanted to discuss over dinner. Speaking of . . . "Say, Big Mac, have you seen Applejack? It's almost time to eat."
"Nope. I came to ask you." Big Mac frowned as though appraising him for a moment. "You didn't say somethin' to her, did you?"
Flim gulped, looking away. "Well, yes. But, it wasn't anything terrible." Though he had told Applejack about having to leave, telling Big Mac was more than a little awkward. "I . . . I'm going to have to leave the farm soon. When I told Applejack, she ran off."
A hurt expression flickered across Big Mac's face. "Oh. Guess that makes sense. You lookin' for Flam?"
"What? No, no, no." Flim dismissed the thought with a hasty wave of the hoof. He sighed heavily, looking back at him with a frown. "I'm sick, Big Mac. Really sick. I don't think I'll be physically able to work on the farm before too much longer."
He took a step back, looking nearly as shocked as Applejack. For the life of him, he could not figure out why. "You mean, yer dyin'?" He stammered, staring wide eyed at him.
Flim snorted a laugh, "Of course not." His eyes fell to his sides, "I'm not sure if you noticed, but my lungs are shot to hell. It's gotten to the point where I can hardly work without a coughing fit."
The stallion stared back at him for a long while, then nodded slowly. "I guess I just thought you were just tired since you ain't used to physical work. But, you're really sick?"
"Yes." He lowered his head, avoiding the lecture he was certain would come. After he had proclaimed himself to be honest, he had blatantly avoided mentioning something as important as his condition. "I understand if you're mad, and I'm sorry for not telling you sooner. I—"
Big Mac's hoof rested on his back, cutting him off. "It's okay. Sorry for not noticin' you were hurtin'." There was another awkward silence before he continued, "So, when are you leavin'?"
"I don't know. I want to try and work for a little while longer if that's okay." He grimaced, glancing at his ribs. The thought of wandering around Equestria without anything to eat again was far from pleasant. At least he was well fed at Sweet Apple Acres. "I don't want to be a burden on you, so when I get too sick to work, I'll leave."
Big Mac looked as though he might actually protest, but bit his lip, nodding. "All right, just promise you won't push yerself till it hurts."
"I'll do my best." Flim walked away from him, too embarrassed to say anything else. At his age, he ought to be able to keep up with the other stallions. Instead, he was on a rapid decline with no way out. Cob's words came back to him, even after all these years. 'If you run that race, even Celestia herself won't be able to put you back together.' He had ruined himself for life, and no amount of wanting would ever change that.
There were some subjects the Apple Family never brought up. Many were stupid mistakes from the past, or embarrassing situations best left forgotten, but some were so serious that they simply did not want to bring them up. Death was one of those subjects. Ever since his parents' death, nopony in their family broached the subject, it was just too painful. And yet, here he was prepared to discuss it with Applejack if she was ready to. It was about time for her to finally break down and admit she was scared.
She was not in the park, or in town. Big Mac knew better than to think she would, so he made his way towards the one place she always went, Sweet Apple Acres. He found her curled up underneath that big apple tree that leaned over the creek. "Applejack. What are you doin' over there?"
Applejack raised her head, eyes bloodshot. Flushing, she buried it between her hooves. "Go away."
"Nope." Without ceremony, he plopped down beside her. "Yer real predictable, Applejack. Always go to the same place every time yer mad."
"Sorry for being predictable." Her curt response said it all.
This was going to be a little more difficult than he thought. He looked up, watching the sunlight reflect off of the clear water. It was a beautiful spot, just the perfect place for thinking. "I spoke to Flim." He watched Applejack twitch, though she did not respond. "Seems you got the wrong idea with him. He ain't dyin', Applejack, his lungs are bad, that's it."
"WHAT?" Applejack raised her head, staring incredulously at him. "But he said he had to leave."
"Yeah, Sweet Apple Acres." He clapped a hoof on his sister's back. "He's not goin' to the next world quite yet."
Applejack's face was tomato red now. "Argh! You serious, Big Mac?"
"Eeeyup." Big Mac's eyes fell to his sister's frayed mane and tear stained cheeks. "Why were you so worried about him, anyway? It ain't like he's yer real brother."
"I told you, he's as good as family! Besides," her voice softened, "he's . . . he's really nice. I like havin' him around to talk to."
He felt his heart skip a beat. Something about her words felt off. "Do you like Flim, Applejack?" Seeing her confused expression, he decided to spell it out. "You keep tellin' me how you don't like him as a stallion, but then you go an get this upset over some misunderstanding you should've caught in the first place. It ain't like Flim's bad at explainin' himself." It seemed crazy, but his sister might actually be falling for the drifting ex-conman. "If you want to . . . to date him an get all friendly, I don't mind. Honest, I don't. I think he'd make a good husband for you, even if he is a little sickly."
Applejack actually toppled over on her side. "WHAT? It ain't like that, Big Mac! It ain't." She rubbed her forehead with a hoof. "It's just, it reminded me of Mom and Dad, that's all. That an Granny being so secretive made me a little nervous, that's all. Besides, I've gotten used to havin' Flim around for support when you aren't there."
"Oh." So that was it. It all came back to him moving out. Though it was inevitable, his sisters kept seeing it as a kind of betrayal. That coupled with the fact was that he, like Applejack was worried about Granny. The mare had been resting a lot more than usual, and never told them the whole truth about her illness. Big Mac was seriously considering the possibility that they would lose her soon, and, though they would not admit it, his sisters did too. "Applejack, you can't keep holdin' onto them. We all have to go at some point, there isn't any point in fightin' it."
"But, but," she moaned, burrowing her face into her hooves again, "what if I'm not ready?"
"Nopony's ready for it. It just happens, an that's part of life. We've just got to enjoy the time we do have." He sighed, getting to his hooves. "Come on, we've got to get back to the setup."
Applejack nodded, standing beside him. They set off towards Ponyville in silence. Big Mac knew he should say more to her, but for the life of him, could not think of what to say. Then he remembered, "Flim wanted to know if it'd be okay to stay until he couldn't work anymore."
"Of course it's okay. Shoot, I'm not goin' to throw him out." Applejack frowned, turning to him, "He didn't say what he was doin' afterwords, did he?"
"Nope." Big Mac's stomach churned as he thought of Flim's glum face. "I . . . think he's a little scared, Applejack."
Applejack's jaw clenched tight, "Yeah, I guessed as much. Do you think he'd be willin' to stay after he couldn't work?"
Her words made him a little irritated. She just doesn't get it, does she? "Nope." Applejack looked ready for another fight, so he hastened to explain. "Though he don't show it like a lot of other stallions, Flim's got a lot of pride. He was humble enough to work for us, an admit where he was wrong, but he's still proud." He looked out towards the town, wondering if Flim, Apple Bloom, and Granny were done with dinner yet. "Somepony like him doesn't want to freeload off of us. It'd eat him up on the inside, an he'd never be happy livin' like that."
"Oh, okay," Applejack murmured, eyes focused hard on the ground.
They did not say anything else the rest of the way. There really was no need to. Like it or not, Flim was leaving, and from the way it sounded, leaving soon. It was frustrating, and a little depressing, but it could not be helped.
"Hey Flim! Flim!"
"Huh?" Flim looked up from his book to stare at an overly enthusiastic Apple Bloom. The filly's mane hung down in a wet mess, more closely resembling a ketchup spill than its usual, almost floral look.. "Yes?"
She leaned in, looking expectantly into his eyes. "Do you know when Applejack's comin' back?"
He sighed, glancing up at the clock on the wall. It was nearly ten at night. When Applejack said she was staying behind to chat, he assumed it would be for an hour at most. This just felt wrong. "I don't know, Apple Bloom. Soon?"
"Urgh! Soon ain't good enough." She cuffed the floorboards with a hoof, pouting rather theatrically, and sending droplets of water in all directions.
Flim levitated her forgotten towel off of the floor and proceeded to rub her mane down. At first, she squirmed a little, but soon stood patiently, actually giggling a bit. When he had soaked through the towel, he dropped it, shooting her a bright grin. "How's that?"
Apple Bloom rubbed her mane, then nodded approval. "Good, I guess. Why didn't you use your magic to drag the water off?"
"What? For something like that?" He could not stifle his laugh. "I'm not that lazy, Apple Bloom." The chiming of the clock drew both their attention. Flim got to his hooves. "Come on, bed time."
She gripped his leg like a sloth. "Aweee. Can't I stay up till Applejack gets home?"
"Nope, or she'll have both our heads." Okay, maybe Applejack scolding him for something as stupid as that was a little bit of a stretch, but he was exhausted from the day's work and his latest fit.
A little reluctantly, Apple Bloom started towards the stairs. He plodded mechanically behind her. The filly darted into her room, and he stood in the doorway to make sure really did go to bed. After she was settled, he made to turn off the light, but stopped when she let out a loud gasp. "What?"
"Nothin', just . . ." Apple Bloom stared down at her quilt, fumbling with the blanket. "Could I ask you somethin'?"
Flim nodded, walking to the bedside. "What's on your mind?"
"Areyougoin'toleave?" The words tumbled out in a rush, but he got the gist of it.
So she figured it out. He gritted his teeth, looking away. "Yes. I have to soon. My lungs are getting worse."
Apple Bloom's voice shook, "It isn't my fault, is it, Flim? I don't want you to leave because of me!" To his amazement, she started to cry into her covers. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry."
Flim's heart ached at the sight. He leaned over, giving her a tight hug. "Hush, it's not your fault. It's my own fault, you didn't do a thing wrong." For a while, he rocked her, whispering softly into her ear.
Finally, she stopped, pulling away. "Okay. But," she sniffled, wiping the tears from her cheeks, "why can't you stay if yer sick? Granny an Applejack wouldn't care."
Flim sighed, shaking his head. "I can't, Apple Bloom. It wouldn't be right burdening your family with my problems."
"But, you are our family." She gripped his leg in her own. "Please stay, Flim. We need you."
Flim shook his head, prying her off of him. "Sorry, but I'm not your brother, Apple Bloom. I'm just some vagrant ex-conman."
As he walked out, she called out, "But, what if you could be part of the family for real?"
He stamped his hoof, turning around. "What are you getting at, Apple Bloom?"
She scrambled out of bed, pulling a piece of paper out of the drawer. With a pit of a flourish, she presented it to him. "If you sign this, you'll be our family for real!"
Humoring her, he levitated the paper to eye level. His stomach dropped out from under him as he read. "Apple Bloom, do you realize what this is?"
"It's a marriage certificate. We got if from town hall." She hopped up and down like Winona after a ball. "If you an Applejack sign that, then you'll be my brother in law, and you'll get to stay."
What do I tell her? Flim moaned, rubbing a hoof through his mane. "Apple Bloom, marriage isn't something you just slap down on a piece of paper, it goes a lot deeper than that. It's about love, and trust, and friendship." Despite his words, he could not stop that pounding in his heart that came with the thought of actually being married to Applejack. There was no way in Equestria that was happening. "Sorry, Apple Bloom, but I'm not going to marry your sister. She doesn't even like me like that."
She looked pleadingly back at him, "But, you don't have to love each other to get married. Scoots told me."
"Sure you can, but you shouldn't. It's not right." It was obvious the filly was not getting the point. How do I explain this? "How would you feel if Big Mac married somepony like Rarity or Carrot Top?"
"That'd be weird! Besides, he loves Cheerilee." Her head jerked to the window in the direction of Big Mac's house. "Why would he marry somepony he never even dated?"
Flim nodded sagely. "Yeah, now think of how Applejack would feel if she married me. She doesn't love me, and there's probably a stallion out there that she's meant to be with. Why would I rob her of the chance to find her true love, huh?"
He allowed her to ruminate on that before continuing. "Listen, just because I'm leaving doesn't mean I can't visit. I promise to come back when I can." He levitated the paper into the trashcan. "So, let's forget about any more crazy ideas, okay?"
Apple Bloom nodded, crawling back into bed. Her eyes followed him until he turned out the lights, and left the room. He stood in the hallway for a moment, breathing fast. What's gotten into her? I'm not going to marry Applejack just to freeload off of her. I'm not that shallow!
Flim walked into his room, closing the door behind him. His chest ached worse than ever as he settled down under the covers. Certainly, the day had been eventful, but not entirely pleasant on a multitude of levels. The ever present cough returned, jarring his ribs painfully. A part of him longed for another oxygen treatment, or some medicine, but he knew that was not happening.
Though he had worked for the Apples for a while, he would not get paid for his troubles. That was to be expected, he was here to earn back a positive reputation after all. But, that did not change the fact that he did not have a single bit to his name, and that he desperately needed medicine that was liable to be incredibly expensive. He had always taken for granted Flam's ability to scrape together enough bits to pay for it, no matter how broke they were. Ever since they split up, he had been forced to stop taking the medicine. If he thought about it, that was more than likely the cause of current predicament.
The door creaked open, and Applejack stepped inside. She looked more than a little exhausted, though she still managed to shoot him a soft smile, "You okay, Flim?"
"I guess," he gave a few more hollow coughs before getting control again, "chatting with your friends?"
"Not really." Applejack gritted her teeth, pawing at the boards. "There was a bit of an accident. Cheese cut his legs up. So, he's in the hospital gettin' stiches."
Cheese? Flim closed his eyes, trying to remember the stallion in question. "Oh. You mean Pinkie's husband, the really bouncy one?"
"Yeah." Applejack's soft laugh made his heart leap. "Yer right about that one, I guess. Did you get to talk to him today?"
"No." He rested his head against the pillow, coughing weakly. "Just saw him from a distance. He seems nice."
She nodded, frowning as she stared at him. "Sorry 'bout runnin' off. Big Mac explained what you meant. I thought you were sayin' you were dyin'."
"I'm still hanging around." At that moment, his lungs chose a rather inopportune time to start up another fit. It took at least a minute before he stopped, wheezing slightly. "Sorry."
Applejack strode forward, resting a hoof gently on his side. "Flim, you need to see a doctor. Maybe he can figure out what's wrong, and then," her voice lowered until it was barely audible, "maybe you could stay."
Flim shook his head. Of course he really did need to get treatment, but they would only tell him what he already knew. His lungs were ruined, he should never do any physical labor, and he really should take his medicine. There was no point. "I know what's wrong, Applejack, and I can't fix it."
"Oh." Applejack gave him an almost pitying expression before removing her hoof. "Guess you'd know best." Though she walked back to the door, her eyes kept darting to him. "Let me know if I can help."
"Sure." Flim watched the door close behind her, and tried to find a position that did not make his sides hurt worse than they already did. At that moment, he would have given anything to turn back time and stop himself from ever starting to run steeplechase, and before Flam had begun gambling. We really messed up, didn't we, Flam? Guess there's no turning back now.
The Crusaders are at it again. Don't think we've seen the last of their little stunt. The full story on why AJ was late can be found in TCARW.
This poor story. It's like a little orphaned puppy. Sorry about the wait guys and gals. I get so caught up in TCARW, that I fail to update this as often as it deserves. No excuses, just lazy.