Apple Bloom had been in nerve wracking situations before, but this took the cake. There behind the door the family was discussing her potential rite of passage into semi-adulthood. If all went well, she would be given more responsibility for the farm than she had in her entire life. So she paced back and forth on the faded kitchen floor, playing through all the possible scenarios.
Applejack would be against it, that was a given, Big Mac and Granny were on the fence, so there was at least a chance they would come around, Flim on the other hoof, was completely for it, and was her advocate as far as that was concerned. Still, that did not mean much. If Applejack spoke out enough, then maybe they would all agree on not giving her a chance.
Before she could spin herself in any more circles, the door swung open. Applejack waved her inside the living room. She cantered inside, coming face to face with the whole family looking uncharacteristically serious. Her eyes followed Applejack as she went to stand beside Flim. The suspense was too much, and she blurted out, "Well? What'd you decide?"
Granny cleared her throat, "We have decided to," she paused, looking around at the others with a soft smile, "to put you in charge of yer own project."
"Yes!" Apple Bloom realized she had shouted, and flushed, lowering her voice, "I mean, that's great."
"Eeeyup." Big Mac eyed Flim as though waiting for something.
Applejack pushed the unicorn forward with a hoof, "It was Flim's idea, so you've got him to thank."
Flim chuckled nervously, adjusting his hat. "Well, yes it was. I think you're more than ready for a challenge."
The anticipation was starting to make her sweat all over, or maybe that was the midday heat. "What kind of challenge?"
They all looked at Flim, and the stallion continued a business like tone. "You are going to design a mechanism for making applesauce, a treat Granny says they have not made on the farm in years. She wants to bring it back, you up for the challenge?"
Applesauce? That doesn't sound so bad! She grinned, nodding vigorously. "I can do that!"
"Good. Now then," Flim levitated a notebook, and she took it nervously. "This is what's called a record log. Use it to keep track of ideas, progress, plans, and calculations as you work on the project. I'll expect a full report and all records when you're finished as well."
A report? "What is this? School?"
Flim shook his head, still looking serious. "No, this is the real world, Apple Bloom. And in the real world, no business is complete without records and reports."
Apple Bloom's heart skipped a beat as she looked down at the notebook. Suddenly, it sounded like a monumental undertaking. "So, that's it?"
"Essentially." Flim rubbed the back of his neck, frowning. "We'll help you with the labor, but we're not going to give you any freebies. This is all on you, including any profits."
"SERIOUSLY?" It was impossible not to be excited about that. She danced across the floorboards, hoof pumping the air. "Yes, yes yes!"
"Hold on there, youngin'." Granny's voice silenced her victory celebration.
She stopped, looking at Granny who turned to Flim. Apparently the stallion was their official spokespony. "There's one caveat."
She gave him a questioning stare, "Cavi-what now?"
"Caveat. It means that there's something you've got to do in turn." Flim pointed to the notebook he had given her. "You'll be using the farm's equipment and supplies for the project, and so you'll have to pay the family back for its use."
Apple Bloom looked to Big Mac for backup, but he seemed unwilling to argue the point. "Well, okay, I guess. But, what if I don't make any bits?"
"Then you'll have to work off the debt." Flim chuckled, coughing a few times as a result. "Trust me, you aren't going to end up in my boat, but Applejack says it'll be worth a good month's work."
A month? That seemed a little steep, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. She stood straight, puffing out her chest. "Okay. I'm ready to give it a shot."
Applejack patted her on the head. "Best get to workin', Sugarcube. If you want help from me or Flim, you'll have to catch us today or wait until the day after tomorrow."
"What? Where are you going?" Her heart started to skip a beat. Could it be possible? "Are you gettin' married?"
"WHAT?" Applejack took a step back, face turning beet red. "No! I . . . we're judgin' an apple contest in Appleloosa for Braeburn. Right, Flim?"
Flim looked highly taken aback, "Yeah, that's right," he mumbled under his breath.
"Oh." The hopeful feeling in her chest crashed in an instant. "Guess that's okay too." She scooped up her notebook, trotting off to the farmyard. This was her big chance, and she would not let a little concern over Applejack and Flim ruin it. Besides, if they were away from the farm, maybe, just maybe they would start to fall in love. Then again, that was a very long shot.
Flim put down the razor with a decided finality. As requested by Applejack, he had made himself "presentable" again, trimming his wildly overgrown mane and sideburns to a socially acceptable level. Though he could not bring himself to shave the sideburns completely off as they did a creditable job of hiding how sickly he was. To top of his presentable look, he had even slicked back his mane, though not as badly as he did during his conning days, just enough to look tidy.
The sound of crickets drifted out the open window of his bedroom. It was a summer night symphony that always made him tired. There was nothing quite as weird as getting ready for a trip when he normally would be headed to bed. Today's survey work may have been less taxing on his lungs, but all the walking and mental stimulation made him tired all over.
Sighing, he slipped into the green long sleeved shirt that was probably another of Applejack's father's possessions. However, she insisted that he look like "an official Apple" whatever that meant. So he buttoned up the shirt and accompanying brown vest with his magic. It felt incredibly strange wearing clothes again, and he marveled at the fact that it had been months since he had worn anything at all.
Scooping up his saddlebags and now clean hat, he walked out the door and down the stairs. Applejack was waiting for him at the bottom. Her smile flickered a bit when she took a good look at him. "What? Am I not presentable enough?"
Applejack shrugged, playing with her now braided mane. "Naw, it's just, you clean up real nice."
Flim was taken aback by the compliment. "Thanks, I guess." He glanced at the clock on the wall, it was nearly ten thirty. "Ready?"
"Yeah, let's get goin'." Applejack made to pick up her saddlebags, but Flim levitated them onto his own back. "I can carry them, Flim."
"Oh, I don't mind." Whistling a little, he stepped out the door into the cool evening air. They strode across the farmyard, Flim nodding his head methodically to the rhythm of their hooves against the dirt. It was a fresh, cool night, what Flam would have referred to as "scheming weather." Whatever it was called, it was perfect for an evening stroll beside a pretty mare, even if that mare was unquestionably off limits.
As they started into the orchard, Applejack spoke in a would-be-casual voice. "You ever been to Appaloosa, Flim?"
"Well . . ." Flim closed his eyes, mentally filtering through the mental file cabinet of town names. "No, I don't think so. But, it sounds like someplace Blackjack would head to."
Applejack raised an eyebrow, "Blackjack?"
"My oldest brother," he waved the thought away with a hoof, "bit of an oddball, but he's nice enough and the best gambler in all of Equestria." Yes, and the reason why Flam got into gambling in the first place. Flim did not blame Blackjack, but he had to admit that the stallion had a way of making gambling look all too easy. Would the situation with Flam had been any different if Blackjack had not been so vocal about it? More than likely not, but it still stung.
"Flim?" Applejack nudged him in the ribs, causing him to jump. "You okay?"
"Huh? Yeah, yeah. Just thinking." He sighed, looking around at the darkened orchard. "It's strange, you know? I've always . . . always had him around, had all of them around. Now it's just me." He felt his voice grow shaky, and he turned away from her.
Applejack sighed, looking up at the stars. "You know, I think we're a lot alike."
"Really?" He snorted a laugh, "You con town after town and break ties with your twin lately?"
She rolled her eyes, "No, but I sure know what it feels like to miss yer family. After I ran off to Manehattan when I was a filly, well," her hoof cuffed up a cloud of dirt, "I learned the hard way it's best to stick with them."
Manehattan? Flim chuckled softly, coughing a few times. A ridiculous mental image of the rough and tumble farm mare clad in Manehattan finery floated to the top of his mind. "Celestia, I would have paid to see that!"
"It's not funny." Applejack pouted, elbowing him hard in the chest. "An I'm tellin' the truth, Flim. It's a lot better to have yer family around. Ponies ain't meant to live life alone."
Flim grimaced, "You don't understand, Applejack. It's not that easy." It would never be easy, never again. After what Flam had done, after what he had done, there was no turning back. "I can't . . . can't go back."
Applejack stopped dead in her tracks, glowering at him. "Can't go back or won't? It's about time you make up yer mind, Flim!"
"You don't understand!" Stupid mare. "Don't pretend to understand me or Flam!"
"Don't understand, do I?" Applejack huffed, "I understand that yer too prideful to make up with yer brother. It ain't like he's beyond redemption, Flim, you just won't give him the chance."
Flim had no idea how or even why it happened, but in a split instant, he had blasted Applejack into the nearest tree with his magic. "You don't know a damn thing about us! If it weren't for that scum's gambling addiction, I wouldn't have broken my wind and this mess would never have happened." He snorted, huffing over her, and watching the expression of mixed shock and fear dance across her face. Slowly realization dawned, and he backed off of her. "Sorry, I . . . sorry," he murmured, looking away.
Applejack's green eyes grew as wide as saucers. "It's his fault yer so sick?"
"Yes, well . . . not entirely. I wanted to race, but, things got out of hoof quickly." He sighed, pawing at the dirt. "After I started steeplechase, Flam realized how good I was. It was only natural to bet on my winning, because I almost always did."
She got slowly to her hooves, shaking off the dust. "You were that good?"
Flim jerked a nod, "The best, if you want to get down to it. Timing is everything in steeplechase, and I can time my jumps perfectly. I won the amateur circuit no problem, then I moved to the high stakes." It felt terribly strange telling her, but a voice inside him was screaming that it was about time. "I was spending so much time at the track training with the others that I didn't realize how lonely he was."
Applejack did not speak, merely nodding thoughtfully. He took it as a sign to continue, "We used to do everything together, everything. But, Flam could never run like I could, and he never enjoyed it. So, we started to drift apart."
Flim watched the moonlight reflecting off her coat, reminding him of a similar night years ago. "He took to gambling hard, not just on me, but on just about everything. By the time I noticed, it was too late." It was always too late. "Around that time, I noticed my wind was touched. My trainer, he tried to warn me that I wasn't ready for the Cup yet. After a really bad fit, I was going to take his advice and rest. But," he stamped his hoof hard against the dirt, "that numskull bet on me winning the second race, and when I got third place, he ended up owing a lot of bits to some underhanded thugs."
"A lot of bits?" Applejack's voice was cautious, as though afraid of the answer.
"Three thousand." Flim snorted, "They were going to hurt him, hurt him really bad, Applejack. I couldn't let that happen to him, not after I ignored him for so long." Tears began to blur his vision as he continued shakily. "I ran that last race, ran my heart out. My body wasn't ready for the strain, but I knew I couldn't lose. So I came in first as I always had. Afterwards . . ."
Flim closed his eyes, fighting back the terrible wave of fear. Even after all these years, the pain would return as potent as ever. "I nearly died. I spent two weeks in the hospital. Flam, Flam was pretty tore up over it." He looked into Applejack's eyes, wishing she would understand, "I've never seen him so scared, Applejack. He blamed himself, I know he did. But, it was my fault to! If I hadn't been so obsessed, I would have noticed, I would have—"
"—Flim!" Applejack rested a hoof on his cheek. "It's okay, yer okay. Mistakes happen, but that doesn't mean you have to beat yerself up over them."
"But, they never should have happened in the first place." It was the bitter truth of the matter. "Mom and Dad raised us better, we should have known. Why did we turn to the wrong?" He stamped his hoof hard against the earth, "We could have gone home after that, but no. No, we had to turn to conning ponies and running up even more debt! I should have known, I should have known it would fall apart."
Applejack's hooves wrapped around his neck in a gentle hug. "It's okay, Flim. Nopony's blamin' you, it'll work out."
"How?" His throat felt tighter than it had in months, "He hates me, Applejack."
"He doesn't hate you, Flim. He could never hate you." She patted his back gently until he gained control again, pulling back.
"Sorry," he murmured.
Applejack cuffed him on the ear. "Don't you talk like that, Flim. There ain't nothin' to be sorry about. But," her eyes fell to the road before them, "we'd best be goin' or we'll miss the train."
"Right." He walked briskly alongside her, keenly aware of the mare's occasional glances his direction. It was a long walk, and he was starting to remember how exhausted he was. If Applejack's occasional yawns were any indication, she was in the same boat. It was soon apparent that they were too tired to talk anymore.
By the time they reached the station, Flim felt ready to collapse on just about any flat surface he could find. He watched as Applejack spoke with the conductor and waved him over. They went inside the empty cabin, walking to the farthest corner. Applejack collapsed on the nearest bed, and he took the one across from her. It had been an exhausting day, too exhausting to worry about anything but rest. Tomorrow, I'll think about it tomorrow.
There were few words that could adequately describe Appleloosa. Generally Applejack would have gone for something along the lines of "energetic" or "rough and tumble," but today was different. Today she would have gone for "vastly irritating." The instant they stepped off the train, they were ambushed by none other than Braeburn.
The golden stallion wrapped her in a bone crushing hug, "Howdy, cousin!"
"Howdy." Applejack managed to push her overbearing cousin away, watching Flim from the corner of her eye.
The stallion quite literally jumped backwards when Braeburn moved towards him. A Cheshire grin stretched from the corners of Braeburn's mouth. "Where are your manners, Applejack? Hidin' yer fiancé so casually." He held out a hoof for Flim. "Howdy! Name's Braeburn, an you are?"
Flim took it with all the air of touching a particularly poisonous snake. "Flim Skim. Uh, we aren't engaged."
Braeburn snorted, rolling his eyes. "An I an't a farmer! Shoot, it ain't every day Applejack comes over with a stallion in tow. Don't think I didn't notice yer cutie mark either."
Flim rolled his eyes, "It is figurative. I'm an inventor and entrepre—"
"—Awe if he ain't the fanciest thing you ever met! An a unicorn to boot! Shoot, Applejack. Why didn't you write to me 'bout this catch of yers sooner?" Braeburn leaned against her like a fence post, "Let me say, you've done a right good job. He looks just like Uncle Smith with those sideburns of his. You workin' for the family now, Flim?"
Applejack could see the growing irritation in Flim's eyes. Idly she wondered if he would give her cousin the same treatment he gave her last night. But, apparently he was either too tired or too collected to blast him with his power generating magic. Instead he nodded slowly, "Yes, I'm working at Sweet Apple Acres, but as I told you earlier, we aren't engaged."
"He's tellin' the truth, Braeburn. There ain't nothin' between us, honest." Applejack smirked at him, sure she had won this time. The honesty card always worked with her family. Well, almost always.
Rather than the expected shrug and apology, Braeburn merely elbowed her in the ribs. "Don't be shy, Applejack. I know two love birds when I see them." Then, whistling loudly, he trotted down the main road towards the apple orchard.
Flim groaned, lowering his hat over his head. Applejack felt absolutely terrible about the whole mess. "I'm so sorry, Flim. He's just the kind of pony you can't convince of anythin'."
"I know the type, Mom's the same way." He adjusted the saddlebags on his back, plodding along beside her.
The town was bustling as always, and had grown several buildings since her short absence. It was a boom town in every sense of the word, and she hoped rather than believed its prosperity would last. As they passed the saloon, a few strangers tracked their progress. Though dressed in expensive looking suits, a chill ran down her spine as their eyes stared unflinchingly back at her. Unconsciously, she pressed her side to Flim's.
"What's wrong?" Flim's eyes darted over to the saloon. Though she felt his entire body tense up, he said nothing, lowering his head.
As soon as they were out of earshot, Applejack hissed in his ear, "Who were those ponies?"
Flim sighed, eyes darting behind them at the ponies who were still looking their way. "They're our backers." He smiled sheepishly at her, "We sort of owe them an exorbitant amount of bits . . ."
"You what?" Applejack made to turn around, but Flim shook his head. Her heart raced at the almost scared look contorting Flim's sunken in face. "They're not the good kind of backers, are they?"
"No, they're just about the worst ponies in Equestria." He shuddered, still focusing straight ahead. "Flam's old gambling buddies if I'm not mistaken."
"Why would you borrow money from them?" It sounded unusually stupid of Flim.
Flim snorted, rolling his eyes. "Flam handles the money, I didn't exactly have a say in the matter."
"They're . . . they're not goin' to try an hurt you, are they?" The thought of Flim getting beat up after all he had been through was almost too much to take.
"I don't think so, not when I'm with you anyway. You're something of a legend around here." Though Flim smiled, it did not take an expert to see that it was hollow. The stallion continued to shake against her side. "I . . . I hope Flam's all right."
"Yeah, me too." Applejack nuzzled his cheek encouragingly. "It'll be all right, Flim."
Flim chuckled weakly, "Well, we can hope."
Braeburn's teasing voice jolted them out of their trance, "I know you two love birds want to chat an all, but there's a lot of work to get done."
Applejack felt her face heat up, realizing for the first time how their interaction must have looked. "We weren't bein' love birds, Braeburn! An don't you tell me 'bout needin' to get work done."
"All right, all right, Celestia yer touchy today." Braeburn chuckled, increasing his pace to a trot as they neared the orchard.
Appleloosa's orchard was hardly much of an orchard all considering, nothing compared to Sweet Apple Acres. But, the pride taken the townsponies took in that one orchard rivaled even that of her own farm. Braeburn stopped them in front of a group of ponies loading a wagon down with an assortment of apples. They ceased their activities to grin back at him. One of the mares, rushed over to embrace Applejack in a bone crushing hug. "Howdy, Betty."
"It's so good to see you again!" The light green mare released her, and started backwards as she noticed Flim for the first time. "Who's this, Applejack?"
Braeburn smirked, nudging Applejack in the ribs, "That's her fiancé, Flim."
Flim snorted, rolling his eyes. "I'm not really—"
"—Oh my Celestia! Applejack, you didn't tell me you were getting' married, an to a unicorn! What will Mom an Dad say?"
Applejack rolled her eyes. Probably how you shouldn't jump to conclusions. "Listen here, Betty, we ain't—"
"—Guys, come an meet Applejack's fiancé!" It seemed as though selective hearing ran in Betty's family. Before she or Flim could protest, they were surrounded by a throng of well-wishers. Applejack was a little taken aback by how shy Flim became. She always assumed the stallion loved attention, but, he looked as though he wanted to run away from the sudden and unwelcome praise.
Finally, the crowd dispersed back to work and they were left alone with Braeburn again. Applejack rounded on him like an angry timber wolf. "What in the hay is yer problem? You know right well we ain't engaged!"
"Aweee, but yer perfect for each other. Shoot, if I—" Braeburn never finished his sentence, as a gag magically appeared in his mouth.
Applejack turned to see Flim glowering at him. "Listen here, cousin of mine, you seem to be under quite the mistaken assumption." He leaned in closer, sneering at Braeburn, "You see, you're not the only pony here who comes from a very old family. And no Skim anywhere just stands by and takes the kind of lies you've been spouting." His horn lit up, green magic sparking in all directions, "I specialize in power generating magic, you know. I wonder what would happen if I created enough friction? Might singe that coat of yours, pretty boy."
Flim removed the gag and Braeburn gulped, "I see yer point, sorry, it . . . it won't happen again."
"Good." He started down the path again, "Now then, shall we get started on work, Applejack?"
"Sure." Applejack chuckled as they made their way down the road. Unicorns always had seemed like pussies to her, but now she was starting to see the advantage in having one around. "Thanks," she murmured.
Flim winked, "No problem."
"So, you ready for today?" Applejack eyed his side nervously.
Flim nodded, stepping a little higher, "I'm feeling a lot better today."
"Well good, just don't push yerself again." The last thing she needed was Flim having another of his fits. Though, she very much doubted he could resist the urge to work hard, he could be as stubborn as Big Mac when he wanted to be.
What was that numskull thinking? Flim slammed yet another crate onto the dusty earth with a decided finality. Normally he was into using his magic for just about everything, but today he was more than happy to do work the old fashioned way. He sighed, looking around the bustling farm yard. If only you could see this, Flam.
Appleloosa Valley was no Sweet Apple Acres, that was for certain. Despite the hard, dusty earth and decidedly minimal amount of buildings, it was still an Apple family farm and that meant food. Ever since he had split up with Applejack, he had been tasked with job after job. At the moment, he was preparing crates full of apples for sale. It did not bother him in the slightest, as it gave him ample time to reflect. What had those loan sharks been doing in Appleloosa? Were they looking for Flam? An icy chill went up his spine as he imagined another, more terrifying possibility. Maybe they found him already. What would they do to him if they did?
“Cousin? Cousin, Flim!” Braeburn’s voice broke his reverie like nails on a chalkboard.
He turned around to stare face to face with the beaming stallion. Though only a few years younger than him, judging from his appearance, the pony gave off an irritatingly coltish attitude. That coupled with the fact that he was now referring to him as “cousin Flim” was enough to want nothing to do with him. He waited for Braeburn to speak, but he only stared up expectantly at him. Rolling his eyes, Fim waved his hoof in a get on with it gesture.
“You sure did a lot of work! I came over to help, but,” he looked around at the neatly stacked crates with an approving nod, “seems you don’t rightly need help.”
“Yes, yes, I’m the picture of productivity.” Flim pushed him aside, scooping up the last of the crates. “Did you come here to gawk, or do something remotely resembling work?”
Braeburn’s cheeks turned a little red, “No. I . . . it’s time for lunch. Thought I’d fetch you.”
“Lunch?” After placing the crate down in its final resting place, he looked up at the sky. Sure enough, it was nearing noon. “Funny, it doesn’t feel that late.”
“Yeah.” He chuckled nervously, pawing at the dirt. “You want to head over? We’d best eat before the townsponies come by.”
Flim nodded, following the much shorter stallion along the path to their little picnic spot. He had been so focused on his work that he had not realized all the progress they had made. The entire barnyard had been transformed into an apple themed fair for all intents and purposes. They had even opened up the barn as a kind of dance floor. “Nice, did you plan all this yourself, Braeburn?”
“Oh, no.” He pointed to the streamers, “This is all my sisters’ work. They keep tellin’ me it’s good for publicity. Guess they’re right, it does bring out all kinds of ponies.” For a moment, it looked as though he might be silent the rest of the way, then, quietly, “Why?”
“Why what?” Flim was starting to get a little annoyed at the stallion’s continued vagaries. “You’ll have to be a touch more specific.”
“I mean,” he mumbled, eyes darting to look into his for a moment. “Why don’t you want to marry Applejack? She’s a right good mare, I can tell you that! Won’t find a more honest, lovin’ pony in all of Equestria.”
Flim rolled his eyes, walking a little faster. “I know that.”
Braeburn stretched his legs to keep up with his strides. “Then why?”
“Because . . .” Why not? It was not as though he did not enjoy dreaming about the possibility of having something more with Applejack. No, what really bothered him was the repercussions of such an irrational decision. “She wouldn’t take me, I’m sick.”
“Sick?” It was Braeburn’s turn to roll his eyes. “Yeah, Applejack mentioned somethin’ about yer lungs actin’ up.”
Flim’s heart skipped a beat. It did not seem like Applejack to go around divulging something like that without asking him first. “She did?”
“Well, yeah. She was worried ‘bout me pushin’ you too hard. But,” he clapped Flim on the back, “seems I didn’t have anythin’ to worry about after all.”
Flim stopped in his tracks, staring incredulously at him. “What do you mean? It doesn’t take a genius to know that my lungs are shot.” Instead of a response, the stallion looked at him as though he had lost his sanity. “What?”
“Just, cousin, you . . . you’ve been workin’ all mornin’ moving crates, settin’ up stands,” Braeburn sighed, pointing at Flim’s sides, “but I ain’t heard you cough at all, an you know how dusty it is out here.”
A sudden, sinking realization crashed over him, just as it had when he realized Flam’s gambling problem for the first time. “I didn’t cough?”
“Not once. An,” he gestured to all of him, “you look fit as a fiddle to me.”
“That’s . . . that’s impossible. I, I’m sick!” Flim felt as though his world was somehow collapsing in on itself. How? How was it even possible? Then it hit him, Entropy’s potion. He had been convinced it would not work, but here it was proving him dead wrong. Cautiously, he took a deep breath, marveling at how painless it was.
“See?” Braeburn nudged him in the ribs, winking slyly. “Now tell me again why you can’t go out with my cousin?”
“Well,” a small smile stretched across his face, “there’s no real reason. Heck, if you don’t mind, I think . . . I think I’d like to ask her.”
“Mind? Shoot, I’d be offended if you didn’t ask her!” Braeburn winked, trotting forward. “Come on, or we’ll miss lunch.”
“Right.” Flim chuckled, trotting alongside him. For the first time in days, he started to think of the possibility of staying around, of making a life for himself alongside Applejack. Heck, her family liked him, and the ponies in town seemed to be warming up to the idea of having him around. Add to the fact that he had a good business sense, a willingness to work hard, and an ardent respect for Applejack, it seemed silly not to ask her out.
Well, this is . . . interesting. Flim stared at the gaggle of fillies and colts, trying to keep a straight face. It was his task to judge the youth apple bake off. Treats of all varieties, from cobblers to pies were presented to him for judging. This would not have been much of a problem if the children had not “experimented” to varying degrees of success.
He pursed his lips at the latest creation, the “Granny Smith Sour Punch Pie.” It was different to say the least. “Very unique flavor,” he managed to gasp, quickly levitating the piece back to the table. Flim cleared his throat, addressing his audience seated on the straw bales in front of him. “I’ll just take a minute to think, then I’ll let you kids know.”
There was an excited buzzing from the kids, and they all proceeded to talk at once. Avoiding the inevitable headache, Flim escaped out of the tent, walking to the water trough. Thankfully, that area of the barnyard was decidedly empty, allowing the roar of conversation to die down to a dull whisper. Just as he was about to dunk his head into the trough, he felt something pull his neck back so violently, he thought it would snap. Another jerking movement threw him into the side of the barn with a loud thud. Wincing, he looked up into the eyes of the last ponies in Equestria he wanted to chat to.
The burly bay grinned maliciously, showing off his spectacular overbite. “Found you, Skim. Took a while. Yeah, me and Cox have been lookin’ all over for you.” He nodded to his cohort, a palomino with a neck wider than Flim’s chest.
“Can I help you?” Flim flinched as Cox lifted him into the air, pinning him by the throat to the barn. This is bad, really bad.
“Where’s that no account slime you call a brother?” Cox’s voice had the consistency of gravel as he continued, “And, before you ask, we know you split up.”
Flim winced, clawing at the pony’s dinner plate sized hooves. “Don’t know,” he managed to gasp.
The bay rolled his eyes, “Save the lies, Skim.”
“It’s the truth.” Flim was starting to feel lightheaded now. With his remaining concentration, he blasted Cox with a concentrated dose of magic. In an instant, he felt the pressure release off of his trachea. When he stood up, he saw Cox advancing towards him.
His cohort stopped him with a hoof, “Enough.”
“But, Ridge, he needs talking to.” Cox cast a longing look at Flim’s neck. Flim had the distinct impression that he wanted to snap it in two.
“Let me handle this, Cox.” Ridge stepped forward, brown eyes boring into Flim’s emerald ones. “Listen here, kid, because I’m only going to say this once. Your so called brother owes our boss big time.” He stamped his hoof so hard a six inch crater was left in the rock hard dirt. “You might think you’ve got off scott free, but he sure as hell hasn’t. I just want us on the same page here, Skim.”
Flim rolled his eyes, “It doesn’t matter what page we're on, you still wrote the book.”
“That’s right,” Ridge purred, leaning in close. “Now, in this book of ours, no account con-artists who don’t pay up get snuffed out.” He backed Flim against the wall of the barn. “Snuffed out for good, if you get my drift.”
Flim felt a pit form in his stomach. There was nothing, absolutely nothing that suggested Ridge was lying. After spending weeks with one of the most honest ponies in Equestria, he had learned that much. Flam was in trouble, big trouble. “How . . . how can you get him to pay up if he’s dead?” It was a valid point, if a little morbid.
Ridge’s harsh laugh sent a chill down Flim’s spine. “Oh, he won’t be paying, but your family will be, with at least fifty percent interest.”
“You wouldn’t dare.” Flim felt his confidence wavering as he stared into Ridge’s unfeeling eyes. “It’s not his fault. What kind of ponies lend money to a chronic gambler?”
“The kind that want payback.” Ridge wheeled around, walking away. “You’d best hope you find him before we do, kid.”
Flim could only watch as they melted into the orchard. It took him a moment to realize that he had been staring for several minutes. Taking a deep breath, he started back towards the tent, mind racing a mile a minute. He was running out of time, and not from his condition. Splitting up had seemed so easy at the time, now he was kicking himself for even considering it. The fact was that Flam needed him, and he had abandoned him at the one time they needed to stick together. There was nothing for it, he would have to find him, and fast.
Applejack loved barn dances, she had since she was a filly. It was not only an Apple family tradition, but a necessity to her. For, when you danced, you could forget your troubles for a while, forget about what you lost, and remember what you have. It was a special kind of magic that came around only once in a while. So, when she noticed Flim leaning against the wall of the barn, obviously ignoring the opportunity, she made to set it right. “Flim!”
He looked up, smiling as she trotted through the sea of ponies to stand beside him. She could not help but grin back at the crisp, decidedly non-sleazy appearance of her friend. “Lookin’ good.”
He raised an eyebrow, “Really? That’s it. No hi, how are you, just ‘lookin’ good.’” Flim lowered his head to her eye level, smirking, “What? You turning into Rarity? Going to tell me how coordinated my outfit is?”
Applejack burst out laughing, leaning on him for support. It was impressive that he did not fall over from the added weight. Instead he stared back at her, expression unusually blank. “What’s wrong, Flim?”
“Oh, nothing much.” He sighed, looking out at the dance. “Just thinking.”
“About the dance?” Applejack nudged him playfully in the ribs. “Well, thinkin’ about it isn’t goin’ to do a lick of good, come on.” She grabbed his hoof, dragging him to the dance floor. For an instant, it looked as though he might protest, then he relaxed following her willingly. Applejack could not help but feel that this evening’s dance was going to be the best of her life.
Crickets, the occasional hoot of an owl, and the unmistakable smell of an apple orchard at night. The only problem was that this was not her orchard, and she was not in the best of shape to be walking back to town. “Say, Flim?”
The stallion looked behind, him, “Hmmmm?”
“Could you slow down?” Under any normal circumstances, she would have been the one to have to slow down, but not tonight. She had danced a great deal longer than she intended, so had Flim undoubtedly. However, the normally sickly stallion had appeared almost healthy all day. In fact, she had hardly heard him cough at all.
Flim slowed his pace, picking up his legs a little so he could walk beside her. “Sorry. Just got a touch carried away.”
“It’s okay. Just,” she jerked a nod to his sides, “ain’t yer sides botherin’ you?”
“Well, not really.” Flim grinned in an overly mischievous way. He patted his saddlebags with the air of a thief bragging about a stolen crown. “I’m covered.”
Applejack could not help but raise a skeptical eyebrow, “Covered?”
“Yeah.” Flim started to prance a little, apparently too excited to keep it to himself. “Entropy gave me this potion, and it’s really helping my lungs.”
“Entropy?” Applejack felt a sinking sensation in her gut. The last pony she would trust with a potion would be Twilight’s stallion. However, she could not deny that it appeared to be working. “So, yer healed then?”
He stopped prancing, a little less exuberant now. “Well, no. I ruined my lungs for life. But,” he patted her gently on the back, “I think I’m safe in saying that I can keep working on Sweet Apple Acres.”
She skidded to a halt, staring open mouthed at him. Her heart raced wildly in her chest. It had to be a lie. There was no way he could stay, was there? “Yer serious?”
Flim turned back around, pumping his hoof in a can-do gesture. “Sure.”
Applejack breathed a long sigh of relief. “Thank Celestia, I was so worried you’d be leavin’. Boy, howdy, Granny, Big Mac an Apple Bloom will be over the moon about this.”
“Yeah, I’m sure they will.” Flim gritted his teeth then, looking down at the grass.
“What’s wrong, Flim?” There was something disconcerting about the expression marring his face. “Is this about Braeburn, ‘cause if it is, I’ll give him a—”
“No, it’s . . . it’s not that, Applejack. He’s actually a nice guy.” Flim let out a heavy sigh, eyes focusing on the starry canopy above them. “Those ponies, the ones we owe bits to came by today.”
Applejack felt her blood run cold. “What did they do to you?”
“Oh, the usual thug stuff.” Flim shook his head, as though wiping the memory away. “The point is, Applejack that they’re serious about tracking Flam down. And,” he gulped, pawing at the ground, “when they do, they’re going to hurt him bad, I’m scared they might actually kill him.”
Kill him? The thought of any pony wanted to kill Flam seemed a touch ridiculous, but then again, Cheese’s father did not seem to be bothered with that sort of thing. It was a disgusting to think that there were more ponies like him running loose around Equestria. “What . . . what are you goin’ to do?”
Flim stood up straight, eyes alight with a kind of determination Applejack had never seen before. “I’m going to look for him.”
“But, what about that feud of yers?” Applejack knew she should be happy Flim wanted to make up with Flam, but its implications were too much to take. “What about Sweet Apple Acres? We need you, Flim.” She looked into the stallion’s eyes, heart pounding in her chest. Why would he tell her he could stay just to run off again? “Please stay.”
“Applejack, this is important. I’m the only pony in all of Equestria who can find Flam! And if I don’t,” he lowered his voice to a near whisper, “if I don’t I’ll lose him forever. He’s family, Applejack. Isn’t that what you keep telling me is important?”
Feedin’ me my own words, eh, Flim? She sighed, placing a hoof on his shoulder. “Okay, but, will you comin' back?"
Flim jerked a nod. “Of course.” Then, after a long pause, he continued in a soft voice that made her heart leap. “Will you . . . will you wait for me?”
Applejack rolled her eyes, taking a step back. “Of course. Celestia above, don’t I keep tellin’ you that yer as good as family.”
Flim looked away, continuing in a would-be-casual voice, “You know, Applejack, family can mean a lot of different things. It could be a blood relative, a dear friend, or,” he looked back at her, seemingly contemplating something. Then, without word or warning, he leaned in close, pressing his muzzle to hers.
For a split second, Applejack contemplated pulling away, but she could not bring herself to do it. The taste of his muzzle to hers was the best feeling in the world, better than anything she had experienced before. It felt right, in so many ways.
She actually found herself disappointed when he pulled back, flushing. “Or a lover,” he mumbled, cream cheeks turning a violent shade of red. “I’ll ask you again, Applejack. Would you . . . would you wait for me? I want to get to know you more, not just as a friend or sister, but as a mare I very well might want to spend the rest of my life with.”
Applejack could not believe her ears. It was all happening too fast. “You . . . you want to date me?”
Flim nodded, pawing at the ground. “Would that be a problem?”
“No.” The word tumbled out of her mouth before she could stop herself. She felt her face heat up, “I mean . . . I’d be willin’ to give it a shot. You’ve proven more than respectable, Flim.”
He shot her a strange smile. It was not his typical, stage smile, nor was it a teasing smile. This was a genuine smile, one of deepest admiration. Before she could talk to him more, she felt him levitate her saddlebags onto her back. Flim chuckled at her confused expression. “Listen, I’ve got to go. Something tells me Flam’s not going to be loitering around Ponyville waiting for me.”
Applejack felt as though her world was collapsing in around her. “But, when will you be back?”
“Soon, I hope.” He leaned forward, pressing his muzzle to hers for a second captivating moment. “I’ll be thinking of you,” he breathed. Then, without further ado, he trotted the opposite direction, towards the badlands and Equestria knew what else.
Applejack could only watch him leave, allowing the realization to sink in like a bitter apple to the tongue. They had kissed, and she had enjoyed it. Flim was going to be healthy enough to keep working on Sweet Apple Acres, and Flam just might get killed if he did not leave her behind. For a crazy instant, she thought of joining him, but thought better of it. This was something Flim had to do for himself, and she could only pray he would return to her in one piece.
This is it. No, I'm not joking around. This is seriously it. We've reached the end. Don't know why or how I did it, but I think I managed to close out this story. There will be a sequel, but not for a while. I really hoped you enjoyed it, I had a lot of fun writing this one. Thanks for all the wonderful comments and support, everyone!