I shoved him back immediately, yelling and tumbling away and out of the chair. Whatever buzz the cider had left in me was gone by the mere shock of what had just transpired. My eyes suddenly burned with the pressure of tears building up behind them, and I realized that the music had stopped and everypony was now staring at me. I clenched my eyes shut and ran out of the club, trembling, with Soarin's gaze following me. I barreled blindly down the dark streets of Cloudsdale, my hooves squelching in the vaporous ground.
I ran blindly against the wind, my skin feeling the pins-and-needles pinpricks of cold piercing my body with every movement I made. Tears were rolling down my face now.
Did he still think that? Was that all anypony thought? I just felt so… so dirty. I felt violated. My stomach curled and I ran even faster, drawing from some sort of unknown, random burst of energy. Unease panged loudly in my chest, and blood rushed and danced through my ears. I had no doubt my face was red now.
Tears were streaming down my face, I could feel them dribbling off my jawline. How pathetic. Stupid, stupid, stupid and pathetic! A dull ache began to form in my chest and I simply ran harder, my hooves pounding against the fluid yet somehow still solid clouds, kicking up white vapor here and there that danced in my wake before settling again.
Many things happened at once.
My lungs lit fire and I gasped for air before slowing to a stop, struggling to draw breath. I’d forgotten how much thinner the air was up here. My heart thudded painfully against my chest. I’d fallen back on my haunches, my front hooves planted firmly in the ground, skidding slightly forward and leaving scuffmarks behind me, cloud gathered up on the front of my hooves. It dissolved almost immediately.
My chest and stomach heaved violently and I let out a sob, my throat burning and tense. I tried to pull myself together and reorient myself. I shook my head and found myself looking straight above. A clear night sky was spread out just above me, hovering there, dark and silent. Without the city lights of Ponyvile to outshine them, glittering stars lay out on a sheet of black velvet, woven with the clear air. They were just as, if not brighter, than they were back in my home town.
Dear Celestia, what was wrong with me?
The view of Luna’s night sky blurred overhead as my vision blurred with tears. My stomach clenched painfully and adrenaline ran through my veins like acid, burning me from the inside out. I took rapid, shallow breaths that didn’t fill my lungs enough.
I blinked to clear my vision and looked in front of me.
It was a miracle I hadn’t fallen over the edge. My hooves were mere inches from the brink of the cloud, where nothing but empty air stretched out in front of me. I deepened and calmed my breath, trying to analyze the situation.
Okay. I took another deep breath. Okay, okay, okay.
I wasn’t a coltcuddler. No, I couldn’t be. But… My heart twinged. I couldn’t say I hadn’t found Soarin at least slightly attractive on the way up to Cloudsdale. Or even in the club. Possibly even… right then. Somewhere, I knew I was lying to myself. I remembered my foalhood, the crush I’d had on Caramel. Granny Smith, boxing my ears because of a stupid question I’d asked. Occasionally, my ears still rang, or I’d have to ask somepony to repeat what they’d said.
I hung my head and shivered again. My ears were flat. I felt a small tap on my head. I opened my eyes and blinked, looking around for the source. Tilting my head back, I started as a drop of water landed squarely on the very tip of my nose. A thin, dark-looking haze was rolling in overhead from the east, obscuring a portion of the pool of inky night with its billowing vapor. The wispy overcast strongly resembled the steam that billowed from my nose with each exhale.
The droplets of water slowly became more and more frequent, and before long I had a consistent dribble from my nose. My mane was soaked, and water ran down my chest, flanks, and legs in rivulets, eddying into small pools that settled into the texture of the cloud and compressed the cloud beneath it.
It may have been a possibility that I was a coltcuddler. I shuddered at the notion. Maybe… Maybe just in the slightest. Just a little bit. Maybe I mostly liked mares. I didn’t have to tell anyone about this, right?
Right! My tears began to dry, though in the midst of the drizzle, it was impossible to tell. I didn’t have to tell anypony that maybe I liked stallions a little. Wasn’t that normal? To… To like stallions a little? I swallowed.
“Braeburn!” Soarin’s voice called behind me. I didn’t look up, still looking squarely at the edge of the cloud, seated firmly on my haunches. “Braeburn! Look, I’m sorry, maybe I had the wrong idea, but… Just, please don’t jump! You don’t have to do this! I’m really sorry, I’m kind of a lightweight drinker, and, and, and I don’t know! Just, come on, please back up from there! We can talk about this!” His words were pleading, his voice carrying a high pitch of desperation and concern.
I turned, very slowly, to face him. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling. Fear? Anger? Frustration? Relief? I snorted, but the consistent huffing and gasping of my breathing patterns broke apart my sentences and showed what was really going on as the remnants of my tears washed away by the now-torrential downpour. “I’m… I’m not gon-gonna jump, you- you idiot!” I gasped out. Though now, the idea didn’t seem any less appealing. My voice carried an irregular rhythm. “Wha- what d-do you wa-want?” I glared at him, lowering my eyebrows and narrowing my eyes.
Getting to my hooves, I became aware of a small vibration in the thin cloud below me, the cloud that I’d skidded and scraped my hooves over before sitting down.
“Get outta there, it isn’t safe. The clouds are unstable!” I saw Soarin shoot forward and wave his hooves frantically.
I saw what he meant before I even heard his words. The next hoof I planted went straight through the thin cloud layer, leaving a hole of empty air with the lights of Ponyville clear below through the gaps in the haze of other, lower-hanging clouds.
I gasped in panic, pulling my forehoof out of the hole before planting it in another area, where the incident repeated itself. My back hooves were sinking as well. I scrambled forward, only able to firmly plant my two front hooves on the very last edge of the thicker cloud. The thin remnants of the outskirts of the city evaporated under my weight. My back legs hung uselessly over the edge, flailing in a vain attempt to find some ground.
I yelled for help, my hooves still scrabbled for traction, but they only wore away more of the cloud. Though my view was cut off, half of it overtaken by the bottom of the cloud and the miles of air before the earth, I could immediately see the terror in Soarin’s face. “Hang on!” he called. My forelegs were cramping up, the cloud being surprisingly slippery as I continued trying to pull myself over the edge. My grip was fading almost as fast as it came. My back, torso, and hind legs were strong from years of applebucking, but my legs were seizing up with terror. I slowly brought my elbows up to rest on the cloud, strengthening my grip slightly, though it was only for a moment. My hooves began to slip again.
I heard a voice below me.
“I’m down here! Just let go! I’ll catch you!”
Adrenaline ran through my body, hitting me in distinct waves, and giving me enough strength to slightly pull myself up, but not enough to hoist myself over the edge. “No!” I refused. No, I could do this! Was he crazy? He was drunk! He couldn’t catch me.
“Come on, you have to trust me!”
My grip was weakening, and panic was setting in. “NO!” I hissed back immediately, struggling further. I could pull myself up!
More and more of the cloud was breaking away as I flailed. It seemed nopony else was around.
A large chunk of cloud broke away, leaving nothing for my left hoof to grab onto any longer. My right was slipping fast, in spite of my attempts to keep my grip. ”Just let go!” Soarin cried from below, right as my hoof became loose and slipped off the edge.
The wind left my lungs and time seemed to slow as I fell, watching in shock as Cloudsdale seemed to shoot up into the sky, further and further away from me. I braced myself for impact, screwing my eyes shut and tensing every muscle in my body.
I hit something hard, the painful impact sending a shockwave throughout my body, wracking my ribcage and skull. I cried out, but felt a pair of warm forehooves wrapping around me, strongly contrasting against the bitterly cold night.
I was off-kilter and felt myself rotate in mid-air for a second before my position reoriented. My head, neck, and shoulders were braced up against Soarin’s chest and stomach. His forelegs were wrapped under mine, keeping me up, though my legs dangled uselessly below us.
The rain had not ceased; it ran down his unfurled wings and back, down his neck. The warmth from his body heated it to a tepidness that was slightly more comfortable than the icy onslaught it had been consistent with earlier. It trailed down my body, now held vertically, and dribbled off my tail, further warmed by own body. My mane was plastered to the sides of my face and neck.
Soarin said nothing, though he took the occasional glance at me. We rose a bit and once again. I watched Cloudsdale bob closer and closer in time with each beat of his wings. He brought us in several yards from the very edge of the floating city, away from the unstable, crumbling area. The aftermath of my incident was still present.
He lowered me down to the fluffy surface without a word. My back hooves touched the cloud, and I was thankful for something firm to stand on, even if not solid ground.
Soarin crossed behind me and over to my side. Somehow, by the moonlight, I noticed stress lines and dark bags under his eyes; the product of many sleepless nights. “Never do that again,” he stressed flatly, his gaze trained on me. “I’m sorry if I had misconceptions about you; I understand who you are and I’ll accept that.” The seriousness in his voice was alarming. Up until then, I’d known him to be a conceited, silly pony who thought far too much of himself and not enough of others. “You don’t know this town, and I’d advise you not to pretend like you do,” Soarin sighed. “Now, uh, look. I’m tired. You look pretty beat, too. That’s enough excitement for one day. There’s a hotel kind of close by an-“
“But you told Appleja-“
“Screw Applejack!” Soarin snapped. I shrunk back. He paused and his face softened slightly. “No, look, I’m sorry, okay? I’m tired and drunk I don’t feel like taking you back down. Besides, drunk flying is a crime. Didn’t you learn anything in school?” He paused to chuckle at some unheard joke. I didn’t laugh. “There’s a hotel we can stay at. We’re pretty far off from my place, and far from yours, and there’s a hotel just close by. I can get these places to comp us a night. Just… Do me a favor, alright? …I apologized.” He cocked an eyebrow. “And saved your life. All in one day, too.”
I nodded slowly, looking down at my hooves and watching them sink into the cloud. “Hey, be more careful. This stuff is stable for the most part, but if you’re not a Pegasus get to a thin enough area, even with that cloud-walking potion…” He trailed off, walking down the billowy street. Flashes of neon rainbow seemed to lean in toward us, buildings now having a curvature.
I realized how tired I was. My eyes burned, begging to shut. My hooves ached from standing, my joints from running. I began to try to sort out my thoughts and the events of the night, but I was interrupted when Soarin nudged me to the right, tilting his head in the direction of a massive, imposing skyscraper made, just like all of the other buildings, of cloud. He ducked into the hotel, and I followed in his wake. It looked nice. Lamps hung from the walls, and somehow, by some stretch of technology and imagination, a roaring fireplace sat in the corner. I approached it as Soarin wandered towards the concierge. I heard bits and pieces of their conversation, with Soarin schmoozing him into letting us stay a free night.
My mind and body were mostly numb from the horror of the situation I’d found myself in, not to mention the cold night air. The fireplace stretched out a savage arm of heat and light in my direction; enough to crinkle hair in an instant. I shut my eyes and leaned back slightly, feeling my flesh thaw and my mane and tail begin to dry.
I only then realized that I had been dripping all over the floor, but it evidently wasn’t all that big of a deal to the Pegasi, it just sopped into the cloud anyway. Soarin trod over with two plastic cards in his mouth. I briefly wondered why, if he was a Wonderbolt and had all those bits, he’d wanted to get into the hotel for free. I said nothing and shirked away, dipping my head low in case he was angry with me. I was embarrassed. I acted like such an idiot.
The architecture of the Pegasi was intricate, if not astoundingly impressive. It was different from anything I’d ever seen. A long spiral staircase continued up the skyscraper, with rooms lining the walls and the occasional lamp lighting it.
Soarin only let me up a couple of steps up before he turned and lowered his head, mouth still full with the cards, spat out one card and wordlessly motioned it to me before he slid the remaining one into the lock on the door with his mouth.
I followed him into the hotel room. All of the furniture was constructed of clouds, with normal sheets and blankets and pillows, thank Celestia. A dresser sat in the corner, and there was a sliding glass door that led to a small, narrow balcony that looked out on the dimly lit Ponyville, so far beneath us and dark stretches that scarred the landscape.
Without a word, Soarin walked over to the bed, and plopped down on it, spread-eagle, his stomach resting on the sheets. He let out a low groan. After several seconds of standing there in awkward silence, I shifted.
Soarin sprung his head up, looking at me. “Listen man, I’m sorry. I guess I had misconceptions about you.”
I bit my lip. I supposed this was ultimately the moment of truth. With the remnants of adrenaline still pumping through my body, I paused and let out a sigh. “Maybe… maybe… Ah dunno.” I mumbled, looking down at my hooves and sighing.
“Maybe… Ah dunno. Ah remember bein’ real little, and Ah remember Ah used to have crushes on other colts, but-“ I stopped myself when I noticed that Soarin had straightened up. He was doing something out-of-character. He was leaning in intently, and in spite of the fact, judging by his sagging shoulders and half-lidded eyes, he was clearly exhausted, it was plain he was willing to listen to me. I hadn’t expected this of him. Slowly, he nodded and closed his eyes.
“No, look, it’s cool if you don’t want to talk about it. I don’t think it’s right. It’s just… It’s not cool for ponies to raise their families to believe stuff like that. But, if you totally don’t want to talk about it, I get it.” He bowed his head respectfully, and I was taken aback. How had he assumed that it was my family who had given me this idea?
“Since when’re you so considerate?”
“Since somepony else is in emotional turmoil. Y'know, I'm not as horrible as I may seem.”
I stopped. I wasn’t in emotional turmoil. I was perfectly fine. Soarin turned around and slid under the covers. I could already hear him adopting the familiar breathing patterns of sleep. I decided that if the conversation would ever continue, it would do so in the morning. I flipped back the corner of the satin sheet, topped with a heavy down comforter, and slid under it, my head resting on the cool pillow.
“Good night, Braeburn.” Soarin sighed, exhaling.
I reached over and flicked off the light.
Smiling softly in the warm embrace of the blankets, now heating from my body temperature, I curled up. My vision was now adjusting to the dark room, I could see the lights glimmering outside through the sliding door, and cheap paintings made by machines hanging on the walls. Soarin was already snoring quietly. “Night, Soarin," I murmured, though I knew he couldn't hear me.