Applejack had to admit, Flim was a hard worker. Despite having galloped through the worst downpour she had seen in years, Flim was ready and willing to do his best the very next day. Now, two days later, he was still working every bit as hard. She could not help but worry about him, however. The stallion seemed weak, almost lethargic, though he did not seem liable to admit it. "Flim, are you okay?"
Flim tossed the last clippings into the wagon with a decided finality. Then, he turned to face her, flashing a showy grin. "Right as rain, Applejack."
"But . . ." Though he looked perfectly fine, she could not let it slide. What if he really was sick, and she worked him to the point he collapsed? There was no way she would allow that to happen. Though the work was not terribly strenuous, he felt taxed
Big Mac's baritone voice came from behind her, "Leave him alone, Applejack."
Applejack jumped up in surprise, wheeling around to stare muzzle to muzzle with her brother. "What are you doin' sneakin' up on me like that?"
He rolled his eyes, placing the branches he was carrying in the wagon. "I wasn't sneakin' around."
"Your powers of observation could use some tending to, Applejack." Flim observed in his matter-of-fact tone.
Though she wanted to shoot them both a scathing retort, she held her tongue. They had a lot of work to do today, and even she had to admit, Flim had a point. So she turned her attention to the monumental task at hoof. Each and every one of their apple trees had to be checked, and any dead branches trimmed. It was never an easy task, but with Flim's help, it might be manageable in a day.
The summer heat would have been unbearable if they were not protected by the thick canopy of branches. Applejack worked with her usual precision, lassoing the dead branches with a rope and yanking them to the ground. The technique was second nature to her, and it worked well, though it required a good deal of strength. Before long, she had to take a break to avoid collapsing.
She had been so focused on her own work that she had failed to notice what Flim and Big Mac were up to. Big Mac's booming laugh made her turn to stare at them. They were chatting animatedly about something, Equestria knows what, while they worked on a tree. Flim's horn lit up, lowering the dead branches, while Big Mac hurried to collect them. A few days ago, it would have seemed like a bizarre scene. Now, it was almost natural.
Flim certainly had a flashier appearance than her brother, but he was no longer acting like a show off. In fact, covered in sweat and dirt like he was, laughing up a storm with Big Mac, he seemed to belong in their orchard. In a way, Applejack was beginning to see Flim as another brother. And, though strange, the thought was comforting. She could not help but smile as Flim helped Big Mac with a particularly large branch. Guess I could get used to havin' another brother around.
"Feelin' better?" Big Mac leaned against the wooden side of the outdoor shower, holding out a towel for him.
Flim took the towel in his magic and grinned back at his equally soaked friend. "Much better now that I'm clean. You?"
He shrugged, "Better, I guess. Don't really mind bein' sweaty, but it's Granny's rule."
Granny's rule? Well, it does fit. Granny Smith did seem quite the stickler for rules and traditions if her stories were anything to go by. His mind quickly flitted back to the first time they had met. At the time, Granny had been focused on maintaining the quality of their cider despite the obvious benefit their machine brought to the picture. Flim was still disgusted by his and Flam's actions. There was no reason to act the way they had other than arrogance.
"Flim? Flim?" Big Mac waved a hoof in front of him.
"Yes?" Flim managed to stammer.
Big Mac's head jerked pointedly to the door. "Want to go inside? Lunch will be done soon."
"Sure." As Flim stepped off towards the house, he could not help but think that something was off. Despite avoiding Apple Bloom's cold, he had been weak ever since his run. Of course he had expected it, but he did not expect it to be so troublesome. Normally, he would have recovered by now. After all, it had been four days. The stinging pain still came with each breath, making it more and more difficult to focus on work. And, for the first time in a long time, he wanted to work. It was even starting to become fun.
They entered the house through the kitchen and were promptly shooed to the living room by Granny and Applejack. Shrugging it off, Flim settled down on the couch. Though it was the heat of the day, he could not seem to get warm. He levitated one of the quilts on top of himself, closing his eyes. Each breath seemed more painful than the last. Must have pushed myself too hard again. A part of him wanted an oxygen mask like he had in the hospital. That would make breathing easier at least.
"Flim? Flim?" Applejack's soft voice woke him from his daydream. To his surprise she, Granny, and Big Mac were staring at him. Applejack had knelt down beside him, and was placing a hoof on his forehead.
When did she? Urgh, doesn't matter. She said something else, but he did not hear it. The chill he felt seemed even worse than before.Blanket, I need another blanket. Before he could react, Big Mac scooped him up like a ragdoll and slung him on his back. Flim attempted to hit him with a hoof, but it might as well have been a limp noodle for all the good it did. "Put me down."
"Nope." Big Mac walked on despite Flim's best efforts to resist.
Flim closed his eyes as the older stallion carried him up the steps. For some reason, it did not bother him anymore. All he really wanted was to crawl under a mountain of blankets, and get a long dose of oxygen treatment. Though he was certain none of them would think of the latter. He felt himself being deposited on a bed. Blearily, he looked around, noticing he was in one of the bedrooms.
Big Mac made him get under the blankets, and threw an extra pile of quilts on top of him. "Rest."
You don't have to tell me twice. Flim closed his eyes, distantly aware of Applejack's voice beside him. For the life of him, he could not bring himself to speak. In no time at all, the voices faded away.
"Is he goin' to be okay?" Applejack's eyes darted from the sleeping unicorn to her grandmother. When she did not reply, she rounded on Big Mac, "What happened?"
Big Mac shrugged, "Dunno. He just started shakin' real bad."
Applejack stamped her hoof hard against the floor. "Why didn't he say anythin' when I asked?"
"'Cause he didn't want you to worry." He supplied, as though the fact was common knowledge.
"How was I supposed to know that? It ain't like I'm a mind—"
"Applejack." Granny's voice made her grandchildren jump. She motioned Applejack over to the bedside. "This ain't the time to be arguin', dearie." Her hoof rested gently on Flim's chest. "He's havin' trouble breathin'."
Applejack felt her heart jump in her chest. Not breathing right? Do we need to get a doctor? "Is it pneumonia or somethin'?"
"No, dearie. He just ran himself sick the other day. But he does need some oxygen." She sighed, getting to her hooves again. "I've got some in my room."
Big Mac moved to the door. "I'll get it."
After he left, Applejack turned to her grandmother. Why in Equestria did she have oxygen in her room? Her thoughts drifted back to her wheezy laughs. Was she sick? She chose her next words carefully, "Granny, why do you have oxygen in yer room?"
Granny smiled, patting her on the forelock like a little filly. "When you get as old as I am, dearie, you need a little help."
Applejack raised an eyebrow, "A little help? How much is a little help?"
"Oh," She broke eye contact, lowering her voice. "every evenin'."
"Every evenin'?" Applejack could not help but stare dumbfounded at her grandmother. "How could you keep that a secret? It's not fair to us."
Granny sighed, sitting back down beside the bed. "I didn't want you to worry."
"Not you too. Urgh!" She ran a hoof through her mane, moaning in frustration. "Now I've got a Granny an two idiot brothers who won't tell me when somethin' goes wrong."
"Two brothers?" Big Mac was back, holding an oxygen tank and mask. Though he walked over to Granny, his eyes were fixed on his sister. "What in tarnation are you goin' on 'bout now?"
Applejack rolled her eyes. You can't be that dense. She jerked her head over to the unicorn on the bed, "I'm talkin' 'bout Flim."
Big Mac's eyes widened, jaw hung slack. "He ain't our brother."
She snorted, rolling her own eyes now. "Don't you think I know that? But, after all the help he's been, what with the farm an Apple Bloom, he might as well be our family."
"I . . ." Big Mac looked as though he might argue, but closed his mouth. Instead, his eyes fell on the younger stallion lying fast asleep. A soft smile stretched across his face, "Guess yer right."
Granny finished adjusting the mask on Flim's muzzle, and stared hard into Applejack's eyes. "I know you like Flim, dearie. But, best be careful makin' him out to be family." She started towards the door, "Yer liable to be disappointed one way or the other."
Applejack could only stare as her grandmother left the room. She turned to Big Mac, "Now what do you suppose she meant by that? I thought she liked him."
Big Mac shrugged, then looked back at Flim. His eyes widened with apparent shock, and he looked back at Applejack as though seeing her for the first time. "Applejack, do you like Flim?"
"What?" The question was so random, so sudden, that she did not know what to say. "I . . . I guess. Didn't I just get done sayin' how much he was like a brother?"
He shook his head, "Not like a brother, like a stallion."
"Like a WHAT?" Applejack felt her heart pounding in her chest so fast it might burst. "What in Equestria's gotten into you? NO!"
Big Mac shrugged waved his hoof in a hushing motion. "Calm down, didn't mean anythin' by it. But, "An irritating, knowing sort of smirk stretched across his face. "don't go blamin' me or Granny if you fall for yer 'brother.'"
"I'm not goin' to fall for him." Applejack stormed out of the room before he could get any more snide comments in. What did he know? Why did he think she was incapable of working platonically with Flim? He was as good as a brother. A much less irritating, younger brother who at least had the common curtsey to stick around the family instead of going off on his own. As far as she was concerned, Flim was a better brother than Big Mac had been these past few months.
When Flim awoke, the bedroom was nearly dark. Must've been asleep for hours. Smacking his lips, he turned over and looked at the bedside table. Thankfully, somepony, probably Applejack had left a pitcher full of water. He drained it in a few seconds, savoring the refreshingly cold liquid.
He lay back onto his side, looking around at the room. It was clean and sparse, but pictures of the Apple family lined the walls. They must have put him in the guest room. The thought was pleasant, if a little surreal. Guess they trust me enough to let me sleep in the house. Flim smiled, glad he was gaining at least some measure of reputation back.
"Flim?" The door creaked open, and Applejack poked her head inside. Light from the hallway illuminated the room and made Flim shield his eyes. Seeing that he was awake, she switched on the light, making him cringe. "Ooops. Sorry."
"It's fine." His voice felt uncomfortably hoarse. He watched Applejack pull up a chair to sit beside him. Flim realized that he had inadvertently skipped out on work for the rest of the day. "Sorry."
She raised an eyebrow, "Sorry 'bout what? It ain't yer fault you got sick." Applejack's hoof stroked his side gently, "I'm the one that should be apologizin'. I should've made you rest instead of lettin' you come back to work so soon."
She's got to be kidding. It's my fault for being a no good invalid. Speaking of . . . The stinging pain that had become so familiar was gone. He glanced down at his sides, and back at Applejack. "It doesn't hurt. What did you do?"
"Granny had the common sense to get you some oxygen." Applejack looked away, speaking in a strange, almost bitter voice. "Apparently she's been sick an ain't even told her own kin."
I know the feeling. Flim had not even told his parents about his illness, too afraid of what they would say. "Applejack, I'm sure she had her reasons."
"Yeah, yer probably right." She raised a cautious eyebrow, "Seems yer right a lot."
Flim gave a soft, genuine laugh. "Well now, I don't know about that. After all, I wasn't right when I said I was feeling okay." He lowered his head, avoiding her gaze, "Should've told you before it got this bad."
Applejack just looked at him for a good long time. Flim was prepared for her to start shouting or at the very least to give him a lecture on being honest. It never came. Instead, she burst out laughing. It was the first time Flim had ever seen her laugh like that. The kind of laughter that reached her eyes, casting a kind of glow around her. At that moment, she was the most beautiful mare he had ever seen.
It took a while to realize that she had stopped laughing. Applejack cuffed him playfully on the shoulder, "Honestly, why are both of my brothers so darn stubborn?"
Brothers? The word seemed so foreign coming from her. He watched her ring out a rag, placing it on his forehead. "What . . . what do you mean?"
She pressed him gently back against the mattress. "Lie down, Flim."
Grudgingly, he obliged, still staring up at her. "What did you mean?"
Applejack took a long, deep breath. "Well, the way I see it is this. You lost contact with yer brother, an yer own family ain't around right now." Her eyes darted around the mostly empty room. "Our family's been short on numbers for a while. With Big Mac movin' out, an Apple Bloom still in school, we could use an extra member. Shoot, after the way you helped Apple Bloom yer as good as a brother to me."
She can't be serious, can she? He raised an eyebrow, "Really?"
"I'm the Element of Honesty in case you forgot! I don't go 'round lyin' for the fun of it." Applejack snorted, standing up from her chair. "As long as you stay here, yer kin. Got it?"
Flim could only nod in response. What was there to say?
"Also," She paused by the door and gestured around the room. "This here's yer room from now on. Makes no sense for you to sleep in the barn."
"Thanks." The gesture genuinely surprised him. "But, aren't you still worried?"
Applejack dismissed the thought with a wave of her hoof, "Naw. You've proven yerself to be more than trustworthy, Flim."
Flim nodded, watching her turn off the lights and leave. Closing his eyes, he attempted to fall asleep, but one image kept coming the forefront of his thoughts. Applejack. He never realized it before, but she really was beautiful in her own way. Then he ran over her words, and attempted to shake loose the thought. As far as Applejack was concerned, he was her brother. Certainly there was nothing wrong with considering her as a sister in return, was there? Another sister. Flim chuckled at the thought. He could handle that. After all, he had plenty of sisters, what was the harm in adding one more?
Oh boy, they're in for a rude awakening.
Super sorry it took so long to publish this one, and it's short to boot. It was a really tricky chapter to write, and I had to rewrite it three times before I was satisfied. I promise the next one will be longer. Thanks for reading!