The roads are clear as I set off from Vanhoover toward Canterlot and the I-5. It’s early, and I don’t have to be in Ponyville until two this afternoon. Fortunately, Bon Bon’s lent me her sporty Marecedes CLK. The miles slip away as I floor the pedal to the metal.
My destination is the headquarters of Mr. McIntosh’s global enterprise. It’s a huge twenty-story barn: all crimson-and-cream wood, an architect’s utilitarian fantasy, with Sweet Apple Acres written discreetly in white over the blocky front doors. It’s a quarter to two when I arrive, greatly relieved that I’m not late as I walk into the enormous—and frankly intimidating—straw and concrete lobby. Behind the solid wooden desk, a very attractive, red-headed young mare smiles pleasantly at me. She’s wearing the sharpest ten-gallon hat I've ever seen. She looks immaculate with her cutie mark of a dumpling and two apple slices.
“I’m here to see Mr. McIntosh. Lyra Heartstrings for Bon Bon," I introduce myself.
“Excuse me one moment, Miss Heartstrings.” She arches her eyebrow slightly as I stand self-consciously before her.
I am beginning to wish I’d borrowed one of Bon Bon’s formal blazers rather than walk in bare. For me, this is smart. I tuck one of the escaped tendrils of my mane behind my ear as I pretend she doesn’t intimidate me.
“Miss Bon Bon is expected. Please sign in here, Miss Heartstrings. Ye’ll want the last elevator on the right. Press for the twentieth floor.” She smiles kindly at me, amused no doubt, as I sign in.
She hands me a security pass that has VISITOR very firmly stamped on the front. I can’t help my smirk. Surely it’s obvious that I’m just visiting. I don’t fit in here at all. Nothing changes, I inwardly sigh. Thanking her, I walk over to the bank of elevators past the two security colts who are both far more smartly dressed than I am in their well-cut blue overalls.
The elevator whisks me with terminal velocity to the twentieth floor. The doors slide open, and I’m in another large lobby—again all painted red and white like the iconic Equestrian farmhouse. I’m confronted by another desk of wood and another apple-ish mare dressed impeccably in farm duds who rises to greet me.
“Miss Heartstrings, could you wait here, please?” She points to a seating area of rickety old chairs.
Behind the wooden chairs is a spacious wood-walled meeting room with an equally spacious apple-engraved table and at least twenty matching stools around it. Beyond that, there is a floor-to-ceiling hole with a view of the Ponyville skyline that looks out through the city toward the Everfree Forest. It’s a stunning vista, and I’m momentarily paralyzed by the view. Wow.
I sit down, fish the questions from my saddlebag, and go through them, inwardly cursing Bon Bon for not providing me with a brief biography. I know nothing about this stallion I’m about to interview. He could be ninety, or he could be thirty. The uncertainty is galling, and my nerves resurface, making me fidget. I’ve never been comfortable with one-on-one interviews, preferring the anonymity of a group discussion where I can sit inconspicuously at the back of the room. To be honest, I prefer my own company, reading a classic Griffish novel, curled up in a chair in the local library. Not sitting and twitching nervously in a colossal apple-wood edifice.
I roll my eyes at myself. Get a grip, Hearstrings. Judging from the building, which is too homely and rustic, I guess McIntosh is in his forties: fit, tanned, and wickedly stylish to match the rest of the personnel.
Another elegant, flawlessly dressed apple cutie mark comes out of a large door to the right. What is it with all the apple marks? It’s creepy. Taking a deep breath, I stand up.
“Miss Heartstrings?” the latest apple asks.
“Yes,” I croak, and clear my throat. “Yes.” There, that sounded more confident.
“Mr. McIntosh will see you in a moment. Have you been offered any refreshment?”
“Um. No.” Oh dear, is Apple Pony #1 in trouble?
Apple Pony #2 frowns and eyes the young mare at the desk.
“How about an apple fritter, apple bumpkin, red gala, red delicious, golden delicious, caramel apple, apple strudel, apple tart, baked apples, apple brioche, apple pie, apple crumbler, apple cinnamon crisp, apple Brown Betty-?” she asks, turning her attention back to me.
“A glass of water. Thank you,” I murmur.
“Apple Leaves, please fetch Miss Heartstrings a glass of water.” Her voice is stern. Apple Leaves scoots up immediately and scurries to a door on the other side of the foyer.
“My apologies, Miss Heartstrings. Please be seated. Mr. McIntosh will be another five minutes.”
Apple Leaves returns with a glass of iced water.
“Here you go, Miss Heartstrings.”
Apple Pony #2 marches over to the large desk, her hooves clicking and echoing on the wooden floor. She sits down, and they both continue their work.
Perhaps Mr. McIntosh insists on all his employees being apple-marked. I’m wondering idly if that’s legal, when the office door opens and a tall, cloaked, striped pony with a square muzzle exits. I definitely should have dressed up.
She turns and says through the door. “Eighteen holes we'll golf this week. Yet for now, Big Mac, it's home I seek.”
I don’t hear the reply. She turns, sees me, and smiles, her cyan eyes crinkling at the corners. Apple Leaves has jumped up and called the elevator. She seems to excel at jumping from her seat. She’s more nervous than me!
“Good afternoon, ponies. But please settle down. Forcing a smile deepens an inner frown," she says as she departs through the sliding door.
“Mr. McIntosh will see you now, Miss Heartstrings. Do go through,” Apple Pony #2 says.
I stand rather shakily trying to suppress my nerves. Gathering up my saddlebag, I abandon my glass of water and make my way to the partially open door.
“You don’t need to knock—just go in.” She smiles kindly.
I push open the door and stumble through, tripping over my own fetlocks and falling head-first into the office.
Oh, horseapples—me and my four left hooves! I am on my knees in the doorway to Mr. McIntosh’s office, and gentle hooves are around me helping me to stand. I am so embarrassed; curse my clumsiness. I have to steel myself to glance up. Holy cow—he’s so young.
“Bon Bon.” He extends a brawny hoof to me once I’m upright. “Big Mac,” he offers as an introduction.
So young—and attractive, very attractive. He’s tall, dressed in a fine workhorse collar, and with an unruly orange mane and intense, bright green eyes that regard me shrewdly. It takes a moment for me to find my voice.
“Um. Actually–” I mutter. If this guy is over thirty, then I’m a donkey’s uncle. In a daze, I place my hoof in his, and we shake. As our fetlocks touch, I feel an odd and exhilarating shiver run through me. I withdraw my hoof hastily, embarrassed. Must be static. I blink rapidly, my eyelids matching my heart rate. “Miss Bon Bon is indisposed, so she sent me. I hope you don’t mind, Mr. McIntosh.”
“Eenope” His voice is warm, possibly amused, but it’s difficult to tell from his impassive expression. He looks mildly interested, but above all, polite.
“Lyra Heartstrings. I’m studying Equestrian Literature with Sweetie-... Um... Bon... Er... Miss Bon Bon."
“Eeyup,” he says simply. I think I see the ghost of a smile in his expression, but I’m not sure. He waves me toward a wooden bench.
His office is way too big for just one pony. In front of the gaping floor-to-ceiling hole, there’s a huge desk that six people could comfortably eat around. It matches the coffee table by the couch. Everything else is wooden too—ceiling, floors, and walls... except, on the wall by the door, where a mosaic of small photographs hangs—thirty-six of them arranged in a square. They are exquisite. Displayed together, they are breathtaking.
“...Eeyup,” says Big Mac when he catches my gaze.
“They’re lovely. Raising the ordinary to extraordinary,” I murmur, distracted both by him and the old photos. He cocks his head to one side and regards me intently.
“Eeyup,” he replies, his voice soft and for some inexplicable reason I find myself blushing.
Apart from the photos and the obvious damage, the rest of the office is warm and cozy. I wonder if it reflects the personality of the Seabiscuit who thumps gracefully upon one of the wooden stools opposite from me. I shake my head, disturbed at the direction of my thoughts, and retrieve Bon Bon’s questions from my saddlebag. Next, I set up the mini-disc recorder and am all hooves, dropping it twice on the coffee table in front of me. Big Mac says nothing, waiting patiently—I hope—as I become increasingly embarrassed and flustered. When I pluck up the courage to look at him, he’s watching me, one hoof relaxed in his lap and the other cupping his chin and trailing his big fetlock across his lips. I think he’s trying to suppress a smile.
“Sorry,” I stutter. “I’m not used to this.”
“Eeyup,” he says.
“Do you mind if I record your answers?”
I flush. He’s teasing me? I hope. I blink at him, unsure what to say, and I think he takes pity on me because he relents. “Eenope.”
“Did Sweetie, I mean, Miss Bon Bon, explain what the interview was for?”
“Good,” I swallow nervously, “I have some questions, Mr. McIntosh.” I smooth a stray lock of hair behind my ear.
“Eeyup,” he says, deadpan. He’s laughing at me deep down. My cheeks heat at the realization, and I sit up and square my shoulders in an attempt to look taller and more intimidating. Pressing the start button on the recorder, I try to look professional.
“You’re very young to have amassed such an empire. To what do you owe your success?” I glance up at him. His smile is rueful, but he looks vaguely disappointed.
“Work.” He pauses and fixes me with his green stare. “And a coupla apples.”
“Maybe you’re just lucky.” This isn’t on Bon Bon’s list—but he’s so arrogant. His eyes flare momentarily in surprise.
“A whole lotta apples.”
“You sound like a control freak.” The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them.
“Eeyup,” he says without a trace of humor in his smile. I look at him, and he holds my gaze steadily, impassive. My heartbeat quickens, and my face flushes again. Why does he have such an unnerving effect on me? His overwhelmingly good looks maybe? The way his eyes blaze at me? The way he strokes his hoof against his lower lip? I wish he’d stop doing that.
“Work comes with discipline,” he continues, his voice soft.
“Do you feel that you have discipline?” Control Freak.
My mouth drops open. I am staggered by his lack of humility.
“Don’t you have a board to answer to?” I ask, disgusted.
“Eenope?” He raises an eyebrow at me. I flush. Of course, I would know this if I had done some research. But sweet Celestia, he’s so arrogant. I change tack.
“And do you have any interests outside your work?”
“Eenope.” A ghost of a smile touches his lips. And for some reason, I’m confounded and heated by his steady gaze. His eyes are alight with some wicked thought.
“But if you work so hard, what do you do to chill out?”
“Work.” He smiles, revealing perfect white teeth. I stop breathing. He really is beautiful. No one should be this good-looking.
I glance quickly at Bon Bon’s questions, wanting to get off this subject.
“You invest in manufacturing. Why, specifically?” I ask. Why does he make me so uncomfortable?
“Ah like to work. Ah like to have the tools for my work.”
“Please, Mr. McIntosh, be serious...”
His mouth quirks up, and he stares appraisingly at me.
“Can't you say anything but 'yup'?”
“Eeyup.” His lip curls in a wry smile.
“...Would your friends say you’re easy to get to know?” And I regret the question as soon as I say it. It’s not on Bon Bon’s list.
“Eenope...” he trails off. "Ah don't talk much."
“Why did you agree to do this interview then?”
“Granny owes a favor to that Bon Bon.”
I know how tenacious Bon Bon can be. That’s why I’m sitting here squirming uncomfortably under his penetrating gaze, when I should be studying for my exams.
“You also give to charity. Why are you interested in that?”
“That sounds very philanthropic. Is it something you feel passionately about? Feeding the world’s poor?”
He shrugs, very non-committal. “Eeyup,” he murmurs, though I think he’s being disingenuous.
It doesn’t make sense—feeding the world’s poor? I can’t see the financial benefits of this, only the virtue of the ideal. I glance at the next question, confused by his attitude.
“Do you have a philosophy? If so, what is it?”
“A pony who acquires the ability to take full possession of his own mind may take possession of anything else to which he is justly entitled.”
I am blown away by this short flash of eloquence. It takes me a full minute to collect myself.
“...So you want to possess things then?” You are a control freak.
“Eenope. To deserve them.”
“You sound like the ultimate consumer.”
“Eeyup.” He smiles, but the smile doesn’t touch his eyes. Again this is at odds with someone who wants to feed the world, so I can’t help thinking that we’re talking about something else, but I’m absolutely mystified as to what it is. I swallow hard. The temperature in the room is rising, or maybe it’s just me. I just want this interview to be over. Surely Bon Bon has enough material now? I glance at the next question.
“You were born and raised here on the farm. How far do you think that’s shaped the way you are?” Oh, this is personal. I stare at him, hoping he’s not offended.
His brow furrows. He shrugs.
My interest is piqued.
“Have you ever wished you were raised somewhere else...?”
“Eenope.” His tone is stern.
“Sorry,” I squirm, and he’s made me feel like an errant child. I try again. “Have you had to sacrifice your family life for your work?”
“Eenope.” He’s terse.
“What about the Pies, Mr. McIntosh?”
He inhales sharply, and I cringe, mortified. Horseapples. Why didn’t I employ some kind of filter before I read this straight out? How can I tell him I’m just reading the questions? Curse Bon Bon and her curiosity!
“Eenope...” He raises his eyebrows, a cool gleam in his eyes. He does not look pleased.
“I apologize. It’s, um, written here.” My heartbeat has accelerated, and my cheeks are heating up again. Nervously, I tuck my loosened mane behind my ear.
He cocks his head to one side.
The blood drains from my head. Oh no.
“Er... Sweetie-... Miss Bon Bon—she compiled the questions. I didn't write them myself. She’s my roommate. I, uh, volunteered to do this interview... She's not well.” My voice is weak and apologetic.
He rubs his chin in quiet deliberation, his gray eyes appraising me. "Too bad," he says.
There’s a knock at the door, and Apple Pony #2 enters.
“Mr. McIntosh, forgive me for interrupting, but yer next meeting is in two minutes.”
Apple Pony #2 hesitates, gaping at him. She appears lost. He turns his head slowly to face her and raises his eyebrows. She flushes bright pink. Oh good. It’s not just me.
“Very well, Mr. McIntosh,” she mutters, "I will have it canceled."
“Please don’t let me keep you from anything!” I interrupt.
“...Did you get everything you need?” Big Mac asks in reply, his voice deadly quiet.
“Yes sir,” I answer, packing the recorder into my saddlebag. His eyes narrow speculatively.
“Thank you for the interview, Mr. McIntosh.”
“Eeyup,” he says, polite as ever.
As I rise, he stands and holds out his hoof.
“Bye,” he murmurs. And it sounds like a challenge, or a threat, I’m not sure which. I frown. When will we ever meet again? I shake his hand once more, astounded that this odd current between us is still there. It must be my nerves.
“Mr. McIntosh,” I nod at him.
Moving with lithe athletic grace to the door, he opens it wide. “Watch your step.” He gives me a small smile. Obviously, he’s referring to my earlier less-than-elegant entry into his office. I flush.
“That’s very considerate, Mr. McIntosh,” I snap, and his smile widens. I’m glad you find me entertaining, I glower inwardly, walking into the foyer.
“Eeyup,” Big Mac affirms. And mercifully, the doors close.