The white orb of burning and fusing gasses descended even further below the horizon, cascading its fractured rays of light across the sky. If you looked straight up, you could see blue. Then purple, and red, and orange, and it would all circle around the setting sun, half of which was still visible over the line where the earth met the sky in a blazing cacophony of color.
“You know, man... I'm really sorry. About everything.”
“'Salright. Things happen.”
Ever since AJ had broken the news of Granny Smith's death to me, I'd been moving back and forth through stages of grief. I didn't really remember what they were, but I knew they were things like denial and sorrow... and anger?
I didn't care. I focused my attention on the half-eaten pie that sat in front of me, then my eyes wandered to the empty one in front of Soarin. “You want the rest of my share, Soarin? Ah ain't got much of an appetite this evenin'.”
Soarin seemed guilty, but it seemed to be fleeting, because after just a few minutes of silence during which the sun managed to completely settle its rays below the yards and yards of endless orchard stretched out before me. He was, however, sober, even as he ate the pastry. “You know,” he stopped to lick the crumbs and bits of cooked apple from his lips, and wiped his mouth with his wrist. “... This reminds me of when my grandpa died.”
It wasn't so much that the statement was profound, it was more that it was profound coming from Soarin. My eyes widened a bit and my gaze turned in his direction. He shrugged, noting my surprise. He laughed a little, dryly. “It isn't that shocking, is it?”
Well. It kind of was. So far, to me, the kind of pony that Soarin had presented himself to be to me was somepony a little more frivolous. It hadn't seemed to me that he was the kind of stallion who would have gone through pain. “N-no,” I stammered, realizing I hadn't responded for several seconds. He raised an eyebrow, looking at me oddly before pausing to look back down at his share of my pie. “He's the one who taught me to fly. Celestia, I wouldn't be a Wonderbolt if not for him. It's so weird. It's like, the people in our lives have such an effect.” He paused, his eyes skimming across the sunset in front of us. “... Sorry. Sometimes I get like, all deep.”
I snorted a little, mumbling, “Hardly,” under my breath.
The sky had darkened significantly before anything else was said. “You know, Braeburn...” Soarin mumbled beside me. I could barely make out his sky blue outline under the scattered stars. “Call me crazy, but I think I like you. This is like, the start of a beautiful friendship or something.”
He tilted his head back down to look at me directly, his eyes glittering in the moonlight. I think that was the first moment I realized how damn attractive he was. It was no wonder he'd had mares tripping over him left and right for years. His jawline was nicely sculpted, his cheekbones high and perfect, and his eyes. His eyes were this beautiful shade of green. Perfect green, like the kind of green you'd find in a picture book for foals who were just learning colors.
And something strange came over me. Something horrifying, that would pursue me and chase me for the years that would come. It would haunt my very soul until I would come to terms with myself and my own very essence. I had the sudden urge to lean forward and kiss Soarin on the lips.
I made no move to do so, but I froze. The fact that I'd had that very instinct terrified me. I sat there, frozen. I tensed every muscle in my body and felt every individual hair of my fur stand on end.
I leaped to my hooves, suddenly distraught and concerned.
I watched Soarin's expression melt as he watched me. “Brae, are you okay?”
I shifted anxiously on my hooves. “Ah...” I bit my lip and stared at Soarin but had to tear my gaze away out of discomfort. “It's okay. Look, Ah should get going.”
Soarin wrinkled his nose, disgruntled. “Uh, okay. Sure. If that's what you want, dude...” he backed off slightly, one eyebrow cocked in what was ultimately confusion. “I'll see you around, then?” He extended a hoof and I glanced up at him in confusion before shaking his hoof.
It was odd. He seemed to extend the hoofshake long beyond what it was intended to be, not letting go of my own hoof for quite some time. I raised an eyebrow but finally moved back. “See you around, I guess.” He said, shrugging and taking off suddenly, leaving me down on the surface of the earth, my hooves still planted firmly on the grass.
I turned to face back at the Sweet Apple Acres property. To my right, the giant orchard of apple trees extended for acres and acres, but I had my sights set on the barn and farmhouse. Galloping toward the house, I hopped up onto the porch and ducked inside, the lingering sensations of Soarin's hoofshake remaining on my hoof.
And here was my family. Applejack was pacing back and forth, staring at the floor with her hard gaze focused on nothing in particular. Applebloom was seated quietly on the couch, her eyes looking red and bloodshot. She was the only one out of all four of us who had shed a single tear. I knew Applejack was far too proud and worried about keeping up her 'strong' face that she wouldn't dare to show proper emotion until she was alone and you could hear her sob through the walls.
Big MacIntosh was a bit more reserved. He had an order of business about him, keeping his head up and his eyes keen, as though he was preoccupied with something that I couldn't see or be bothered to pay attention to. But seeing Applebloom sitting silently on the couch, her face contorted with despair and tears running down her red face, something primal seemed to kind of take over me, something I couldn't control.
I took several steps forward and moved my front leg around my little cousin in a comforting embrace, sighing. “Heya there, Applebloom.”
Applebloom sniveled loudly before looking up at me with large, moist eyes. “H-Hi, Uncle Braeburn.”
“Look now,” I murmured, brushing a bit of her red mane behind her ear. “Ah know this is all real confusin' for you.” I sighed.
“Wh-what's gonna happen ta Granny?”
I paused, momentarily confused by her question. Fear struck into my heart. What did she mean? Did she not understand the concept of life or death yet? I'd imagine one of her siblings would have taught her something like that already. “What do you mean?”
“Ah mean Granny's soul. Where does it go? It doesn't just disappear, does it? Right? She... She watches us or somethin', right? She always talked 'bout Papa an' Mama watchin' me and Mac and Applejack...”
I paused, staring at her. My eyes burned for a second and I had to shut them to keep from bawling right then and there. “W-wanna...” I swallowed, wiping my closed eyes quickly with a hoof before continuing my sentence, steadying myself. “Wanna come o-outside with me, Applebloom?”
Applebloom said not a word but got to her hooves and followed me silently. As we went out the door, I turned my head back to Applejack without stopping my walking and nodded to her, telling her with my eyes that it was her time now-- she didn't have to be strong for Applebloom.
The Apple family has always stuck together like that, communicating at times with silence and simple gestures. For talking to ponies like Mac, it was mandatory that you can read expressions and speak the language of the perpetually silent.
I led Applebloom to the hill that Soarin and I had been seated on minutes ago. The impressions from our rears were still present in the grass. She took a seat where Soarin had been, fitting oddly into his imprint. She still seemed upset, but the night air put a certain blanket of calmness over her demeanor, shaking off the fear and mourning.
“See all these stars, Applebloom?” I asked, taking my hoof slowly and waving it above my head. Because Ponyville was a small town in itself with few bright lights, even in the center of town I'd noticed recently that you could still see the stars clearly. But, out here on the farm, it was even more vivid. The white glimmer of stars spread out on the black blanket of Luna's night above us, spilling out from horizon to horizon and coating every edge of my vision when I stared up.
I turned my gaze down to little Applebloom, who was staring up at the night sky in wonderment, as though it was some kind of enchanted object she'd never seen before. Tears were rolling silently down her face from her moist eyes. I looked back up to the sky and focused my attention on a single star. It was glimmering and twinkling brighter than any other star in the sky. “See that one right there?” I pointed a hoof upward to the sky, to the one my eyes were focused on. I was careful not to tear my gaze from it so that I wouldn't lose sight of it.
I watched Applebloom's eyes. It took her a moment to find it, but once she did, she had her eyes locked on it. “E-eeyup.” She sniffled.of it.
“Well. That's Granny. Watching us right now.”
“N-no it ain't! It's just a star. Miss Cheerilee taught us about 'em.”
“It might be a star, but you see all these stars? See, when ponies die, they go up into the sky so they can look down on people they love.” It was a bunch of nonsense. I knew it was a bunch of nonsense. But I had to do something to cheer up my little cousin. Seeing her this sad would mess with my head permanently for a good while.
“... You promise?” Applebloom asked quietly.
Applebloom, looking only slightly more cheerful, nodded slowly. “Okay... If you say so...” She looked uneasy and I smiled halfheartedly, leaning forward and ruffling her hair.
“Promise, kiddo. Granny's watchin' us. And look, even right beside her,” I pointed out two stars beside the one I had chosen at first. “There's your momma and papa. Lookin' down on you right now. They don't want you to be crying no more, Applebloom. Granny's in a better place now, with Aun- Ah mean, with them. It's gonna be okay. Ah promise. And, y'know, some day, if you're real good, as good as your granny and your momma and papa, you'll be up there with them, too."
It was moments like these throughout my life that I would find my mind traveling back to the most innapropriate and horrible thing I could be thinking of at that particular time. For instance, then, for whatever reason, the main thing on my mind was when Granny Smith had boxed my ears as a colt. I never loved her any less because of it, and even now, I look back on it with endearing memories. She'd done what she thought was best for her grandchild.
The filly took her eyes off of the star looked at the ground before nodding softly. “B-braeburn?” she blubbered, before glancing up at me.
“Ah love you too, Applebloom. Come on. It's way past your bedtime. Let's get you some shuteye. You might feel a little better in the morning, ya hear?”
I led Applebloom into the farmhouse and up the stairs. Coincidentally, all the lights were off, as if to signal a hush. I had to feel my way over the rug that lay in the center of the room to the creaky floorboards and up the stairs that lined the far side. I took a left down the hall and moved down, my younger cousin by my side. I knew which door was hers. It was at the end of the hall. I nudged my way through in the dark and moved across the floor, feeling my way over to her bed. I felt her hop up and my hooves pulled the quilt back. She snuggled under and I could feel her breath. I sighed and smiled weakly to myself before I leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. “Good night, Applebloom.”
Applebloom nodded, leaning up to kiss my cheek. “Night night, Uncle Braeburn.”
As I closed her door behind me and began to move into the guest bedroom where I was staying, I could have sworn I heard a quiet wail from a certain orange mare. A wail she didn't think no one would hear.
The Apple family always sticks together.
As moving as the scene in front of him had been, Soarin was completely unphased by it. He remembered sadder movies. However, it had been a little entertaining. He was almost bothered, though. He was actually starting to feel things for Braeburn. Nothing major. He wasn't in love with the stallion or anything like that. Braeburn had just somehow become something a little more important than a nice piece of flank. He supposed this was a little more than that, but not by much. Braeburn was a friend, though this confused him a little. How could he go from seeing Brae as just a sex object to something more? This certainly hadn't happened to him before.
When he'd flown from Braeburn, he'd only taken up residence on a small cloud that hovered just above the orchard so that he could look down and see whatever was going on down there. What he'd seen was cute, but not touching. Tell a little lie to get a little kid to stop crying about her grandma. Oh, boohoo.
His thoughts ended prematurely when he heard someone call to him, “HEY! I don't care how nice your flank is, I never gave you permission to hang out on my cloud! This is my property!”
The Wonderbolt turned just in time to see that mare from earlier, Rainbow Dash, land on the small island of cloud. Her hooves skidded forward, creating a large, fluffy white cushion at her hooves.
“Oh, hey there. Having better luck with those stallions? Also, your property? I don't see your name on it, and last I checked, there was a minimum size for a cloud to be eligible to be owned by somepony. This one looks about three times too small.”
After seeming to get over the initial shock that she was face-to-face with one of her idols, Soarin-freaking-Windsong, Rainbow Dash frowned. It seemed as though he’d offended her. What a shocker. “You know, butterscotch,” Soarin examined a hoof, a common habit for him. “You may want to check into yourself. I just made Apples to Apples over there admit something he's been brainwashed not to believe, and I can probably do the same to you.”
Rainbow Dash wrinkled her nose and Soarin moved forward, using the pillow of cloud her hooves had created to rest his head on. “I'm saying that maybe if we had another mare join us, you'd probably be totally okay with it. Am I right or am I right?”
Rainbow Dash's face contorted with anger and disgust and she lifted up a hoof, stamping it down on his face. “SHUT UP! I hate it when people do this!”
“Do what? Oh, Celestia, am I going to have to counsel you or something? I'm bad at this stuff.” He mumbled rubbing his nose and general facial area with a hoof, checking for blood and wincing.
Rainbow frowned, her eyes filling to the brim with tears. “You're a jerk, you know that? I used to think you were cool. I wanted to be like you, or at least like Spitfire.”
“She's a crazy bitch, that one.”
“I bet you say that about every mare.”
“Pretty damn close. Including you.”
“... What the bucking Hell is wrong with you?” Rainbow Dash asked, looking seriously offended for once. Soarin watched her eyes fill with tears and he blinked, taking a quick step back. “I used to think you were cool,” she repeated, seeming horrified for a second.
“Oh, boo hoo, you. Your life must be ruined,” Soarin snapped back bitterly. Rainbow Dash stared at him.
“Y-you know what? You're just a self-centered, pompous asshole! You're so self-conscious and terrified that people will know you're self-conscious that you pretend to be all high and mighty to cover up your own fear, huh?”
Though Soarin knew deep down in his heart that this accusation was even shallower than a foal's swimming pool, this still made him laugh. It was a nervous laugh, a small one. And it was completely fed by the fact that Soarin somehow also knew that it was true, even if in a small way. “You can go now,” he chuckled, smirking at Rainbow Dash and rolling his eyes.
“GET OFF MY CLOUD!” Rainbow suddenly screeched, actually making Soarin jump.
“Okay, okay. Oh Luna, you didn't have to be so mean about it, you know?” The stallion took off, finding a cloud only just several feet away. “I don't see your name on it!” he called to her, repeating what he had said just a few minutes prior.
However, when he turned his back to hear distant sobbing from Rainbow Dash's direction, he did feel something new, familiar, strange, and almost terrifying assault him. Guilt. Frowning slightly, he shook his head, wondering what the buck Braeburn was turning him into, and began to fly the other way, thinking himself in need of a good nap.