“You should be lucky you’re hearing this from me, and not from Mrs. Stormbreak,” Spitfire said as she chastised her subordinate within the Wonderbolt’s break room. Soarin’, the room’s only other occupant, sat lazily in one of the blue-and-yellow colored, lightning-bolt patterned plush chairs along the indigo colored wall, which matched the practice uniforms they both wore. He halfheartedly paid attention to his captain’s diatribe as he stretched his goggles. “We’ve got two weeks before we perform in Trottingham, so we need to have this down. When we’re performing a move as complex as the Seismic Explosion, everypony needs to hit their mark on the dot.” She emphasized the end of her sentence with a brief clop on the checkerboard floor.
He let out a nonchalant sigh as he leaned himself backwards to rest against the wall. “I know, I know,” Soarin replied, “it’s the same old song and dance.”
“Which makes even less sense as to why you were nearly a second out of formation!” She began to glare at him, which went unnoticed by Soarin’s averted eyes. Spitfire paced around the room. “You need to understand, Soarin’, when you’re out of sync with the routine, ponies could get hurt. It’s a miracle that Rapidfire didn’t break both of his hind legs on the track today!”
Soarin’ sat up. “So I had an off day, it happens,” he shot back. “I don’t see why you’re getting pissy about this. It’s just practice, nothing more. We can still nail the routine in time, and even then, who’s going to know the difference? It’s not like the ponies out there need to know what’s going on behind closed doors.”
Spitfire quickly flicked her tail as she flattened her ears before letting out a groan. “What is with you, Soarin’? Those ponies are looking for a spectacular show, and we need to give them one.”
“And what if those stuffy Trottingham unicorns aren’t worth giving a show for?” Soarin’ countered, silencing the captain. “What if the ponies in that town are more concerned about one colt’s personal life than how well we do what we can do in our sleep?”
Sympathy quickly replaced anger on Spitfire’s face. “Did it happen again?”
He just looked away and gave a confirming snort.
“Soarin’... you know those are only rumors,” she cooed as she moved to sit next to her friend.
“Yeah, only rumors. Try telling that to the pair of colts I caught painting the words ‘stallion stuffer’ on my door this morning.” Soarin’ shook his head.
She sighed. “They don’t know any better. Besides, if they’re so easily led by baseless speculation, then those ponies aren’t worth your time.”
“Sure, it’s baseless,” Soarin’ replied as he gently rubbed his hooves. “Doesn’t mean ponies aren’t going to believe it."
Spitfire laid a hoof on her teammate’s shoulder. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Nah, it’s just stupidity. Nothing to get worked up over.”
“Well... if you need somepony to talk to. I’m always here.” She got up from her seat and walked to the door.
“Wait,” Soarin’ said. “There actually is something I’d like to talk about.” Spitfire stood attentively as he continued. “You know what the Wonderbolts need? We need something different. For the past five shows now, we’ve been going to these prim-and-proper cities to perform. It becomes a hassle to move anywhere within the city, to get a decent night’s rest, or even to have peace and quiet for five minutes. Then comes the day of the performance, and what do what we get in return? I’ll tell you what we get.
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. We may put on our best performance yet, but the unicorns in the stands can’t begin to give a rat’s flank about us. We’re just a minor distraction in their eyes while those unicorns join their circle-jerks and see who knows who and who has the best hat. It’s insulting to see how obvious it is that we’re wasting our time!”
Spitfire shrugged. “That’s just how the game works sometimes, Soarin’.” In response to Soarin's agitated gaze, she said, “What are you getting at?”
“What I’m saying is what if I don’t want to play ‘the game’ anymore? What if...” He paused to groan and sink into his chair. “What if we do something... I don’t know, just a little bit different?”
Both ponies were lost in thought. “So what you’re saying,” Spitfire started, “is that we should go to a town where nopony knows who we are and perform there?”
After a moment’s thought, Soarin’ sat upright. “Yeah... yeah! That’s exactly what we need!”
She shook her head. “I think we’d have better luck finding a city where I don’t have horny bachelors hounding me after a show.”
“Oh come on!” Soarin’ whined. “There’s gotta be somewhere out there!”
Spitfire let the possibilities run through her head. Suddenly her eyes lit up. “Appleloosa!” she cried. “It’s far away from all of this city life, and the ponies there probably know close to nothing about us.”
Soarin’ raised both eyebrows. “Appleloosa? I-I’m not complaining or anything, it’s just a little surprising to think of a town like that.” He began to rub the back of his neck.
She also cocked an eyebrow. “I thought you’d be eager to jump onto any option, sounding as desperate as you were earlier.”
Soarin’s shoulders slumped. “I am, it’s just, ugh, do you have any other suggestions?”
“It’s either that or Vanhoover...”
He shuddered at the thought. And deal with all of that cold? No thanks. “On second thought, Appleloosa sounds great.”
“I’m glad you agree,” Spitfire responded with a slight bounce. “Now comes the hard part.”
Soarin’ was confused for only a moment. “Oh.”
The two Wonderbolts stood in front of their manager’s burgundy door, seemingly unnoticed in the stretched hallway where several other Wonderbolts, in and out of uniform, walked up and down the hall, engaged in conversation. Soarin’ gulped as he noted a spot in the middle of the door, slightly worn from the many pegasi before them who attempted to make a personal request. “Okay, so the plan is we go in there, we make our case, give her time to process the idea, and if she releases the kraken, we high-tail it out of there, right?”
Spitfire rolled her eyes. “It’s not going to be that bad, Soarin’.”
“You haven’t asked her for things before, you don’t know what she’s like,” he said with widened eyes. “Celestia forbid you ask her for a favor on a bad day...” His left eye twitched during an unsettling memory.
With a chuckle, the Wonderbolt captain added, “Well maybe I should say this is my idea.”
Soarin’ paused for a moment. “That’s probably a good idea.”
Without another word, she knocked on the door and both ponies waited. After a moment, she knocked again. “Mrs. Stormbreak?” No response. “Mrs. Stormbreak, are you in there?” Still nothing. “Guess we’ll have to come back another time.”
“That won’t be necessary, you two,” said a middle-aged voice to their right. The two pegasi looked to see their manager, Stormbreak, a dark grey pegasus, walk down the narrow hall. Her short, light orange mane and tail slightly bobbed with each step she took. “I trust there’s a good reason you’re both huddled outside of my office?”
Soarin’ quickly looked to his cohort, as if to say, I sense the kraken, tread carefully.
“Actually, there is,” Spitfire said. “I’d like to discuss a possible venue option for the near future.”
“And this is your idea?”
The manager shifted her gaze towards Soarin’, who seemed determined not to look into her yellow eyes. With a slight chuckle, she answered, “Alright, Spitfire, step into my office.” Stormbreak unlocked her door, allowing Spitfire access. Soarin’ took a couple of steps forward before being stopped by his manager. “So what brings you by my office, Soarin’? Is there something you need? After all, this is Spitfire’s idea, right?” she asked with a small smirk.
“Y-yeah, one hundred percent her idea. I’m just here for support,” he answered with a dodgy smile. The two ponies stared at each other for an uncomfortable moment.
“Then you wouldn’t mind supporting her out here, would you?” There was no further argument as she shut the door. Soarin’ patiently waited outside of the office as the minutes passed. His boredom eventually enticed him to start counting the feathers on both of his wings when the door opened again.
“Thank you very much, Mrs. Stormbreak!” Spitfire called behind her, perking Soarin’s attention forward. She confidently walked towards her teammate as she held a manilla envelope under her right wing. He waited in anticipation as Spitfire took a deep inhale and let it out, revealing an exhausted look. “You know that kraken you mentioned? I think I almost saw it,” she commented, her wings drooping as though she had flown a full show.
“I told you so. But did it go okay?” Soarin’ asked as he stood on antsy hooves.
“It took a bit of convincing, and a little negotiation, but we might be heading to Appleloosa!”
Soarin’ let out a small cheer as he flipped in the air. “This is great! We can finally get away from all of those unicorns and...” He paused as he noticed Spitfire’s hesitant look. “Wait... might? A little negotiation? What happened in there?”
“I was just about to get to that.” She looked away as she continued. “If we want to go to Appleloosa, the team needs a scout to act as an emissary of sorts.”
Soarin’s expression faltered. “That scout being...”
Spitfire’s expression turned serious. “I’m not going to mince words, Soarin’. Mrs. Stormbreak isn’t pleased with how you’ve been performing lately. She told me that for the past five performances, you’ve been off in some form or fashion that ultimately affects the entire team. Truth be told, she’s considered cutting you from the Wonderbolts if you don’t shape up, and fast.” Soarin’ sat with his mouth slightly agape, lightly trembling as his captain’s words washed over him. She placed her hoof on his shoulder. “She’s giving you one more chance. You’ll being given one week of time off to explore Appleloosa and try to land an arrangement.”
“B-but... I, uh,” he stammered. “I have no experience making negotiations like this! What if I screw something up, and I’m cut because of it?”
She paused to present the envelope before Soarin’. “All you have to do is give whoever’s in charge this envelope. It’ll tell them exactly what they need to know and who to talk to. You don’t have to do a thing besides give this to them and leave. Though it probably couldn’t hurt to explain what the Wonderbolts are and why a show should take place over there.”
Soarin’ took the package in his wing and lightly jostled it. “Think of this as a little break. Whatever problems you’ve got going on, use this time to get them out of your system. I’m telling you this as both your captain and your friend.”
He sat silently. “I... I guess you’re right,” he reluctantly agreed. “Still, isn’t it a bit much to threaten me with being cut?”
Spitfire shrugged. “I guess she had to get your attention somehow.”
Soarin’ looked away. “Alright, I’ll do it. Maybe I really do need some R and R.”
“Good! First, you’re going to need this,” she mentioned, presenting a small, blue checkbook in her hoof.
He took the object, giving it a once over. “This is...”
“Your money for the trip. You have a limit of one hundred bits, anything extra comes out of your pay. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you to have this on you at all times.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Now, if I were you, I’d get moving. She’s letting you off for only a week, so gather anything you think might be important. Once you step out the doors, your week begins,” she added with a supportive smile.
The information processed in the male pegasus’ mind for a brief moment. He started to smile. “A week, huh? Guess I’ll have to make the most of it. Thanks, Spitfire.” He gave his wings a quick few flaps and flew off to gather a few belongings. He skillfully dodged unsuspecting pegasi and various obstacles as he made his way to the locker room. As he set himself down, he thought to himself, There’s no real time to grab anything major here or at home. Just gotta get out of this uniform and—
“Surprise tackle!” a gruff voice suddenly shouted as Soarin’ laid his hoof on the door handle.
He didn’t react, he didn’t look toward the source of the voice, nor did he attempt to fly away, for he knew it was already too late. All Soarin’ could think was, Why?, as a burgundy-colored pegasus, slightly shorter than the light-blue colt, launched himself into his teammate’s side. The two ponies rolled on the floor until Soarin’ was uncomfortably pinned on the floor.
“Oh yeah!” the pony remarked, praising himself, “That’s one more for Rapidfire!” He took a moment to style his curly purple hair in the reflection of his teammate’s eyewear. “And damn do I look gorgeous while being the best.”
With a huff, Soarin’ replied, “C’mon man, I don’t have time for this. I have somewhere to go.”
“Dude, it’s no fun if I just get off. You gotta work for your goals, you know that!”
“I’m serious! Get off of me!”
Realizing his friend was indeed serious, Rapidfire blankly blinked his blue eyes and said, “Okay,” as he lifted himself off of his teammate.
Soarin’ loosened his back muscles and added, “You’re seriously going to break my back one of these days, man.”
With a brief laugh, Rapidfire mentioned, “Then you’d better start hitting the gym if a frail pony like you wants to stay the top colt in the ‘bolts.” Soarin’ didn’t respond as he went inside the locker room, concerning his teammate. “Something bugging you, dude? You usually have some crack you’ve saved to snap back at me, not these quiet horse apples. What’s up?”
As Soarin’ put a few vital belongings into his sports bag, he replied, “Stormbreak’s having me go out for a week.”
“For what, dude?”
He hesitated before answering. “She said I haven’t been at the top of my game, and—”
“That’s complete horse feathers, man!” Rapidfire interrupted. “So you haven’t been all there, it’s not like you can’t get your horse apples together in time for a show!”
“Hey, Rapidfire, relax. It’s okay,” Soarin’ insisted as he held up a hoof. “It’s not a complete loss. I’m instead going to be a scout negotiating for us to perform at a new venue.”
Rapidfire uproariously laughed until he noticed Soarin’s serious expression. “Wait, for real? Why are we going to hick-country?”
Soarin’ looked over the few extra possessions he contemplated bringing. “It’ll be a nice change of scenery, man. I bet a lot of those ponies have never seen a real air show before! Just imagine the looks on their faces!” His brow slightly furrowed. “Besides, it’ll be better than having to entertain those Celestia-damned unicorns who think that they—”
“Okay, dude, you seriously have to stop whining so much about unicorns. It’s really getting annoying,” Rapidfire chastised.
“I... I know, and I’m sorry,” Soarin’ admitted.
“Why is it always unicorns, man?” his teammate asked. “You got a vendetta or some horse apples?”
“It’s a long story, and I don’t wanna talk about it.”
Rather than possibly antagonize his teammate, Rapidfire said, “Look, dude, it’s the past for a reason. You stay there too long and you’ll lose yourself. You’ve just gotta talk to somepony other than me when life starts to get you down. Besides, if this is something you’ve got against unicorns, you should know that not all of them are stuck-up pricks. Just like how not all pegasi are egotistical flankholes. I mean, sure, that describes me perfectly, no shame in admitting that, but not all pegasi are like me.”
Soarin’ slowly shut his locker door. “Yeah, maybe this trip will help me out somehow.” He fitted his gym bag onto his back and headed out, Rapidfire following close behind. “By the way, man... sorry about what happened at practice, I—”
Rapidfire blew a raspberry. “Dude, what did I just tell you about dwelling on the past? That’s water under the bridge,” he replied with a playful nudge to his teammate’s shoulder.
Soarin’ rubbed the affected area as he chuckled. “Alright, thanks. Anyhow, I oughta get going.”
“Take it easy, man. And bring me back some apples while you’re at it!”
“Please, you’d be lucky to get an apple core out of me when I’m through with the town.” They marched through the halls and towards the arena’s main lobby. He gave a quick wave before walking out the Wonderbolts’ entrance and taking to the sky. He breathed in the morning air as he flew through the cloud city. One week, huh? Better make the most of it. Oh, right, I should take a quick look around home.I might need something there. Soarin’ continued to fly over the cloud structures below until he finally arrived at a small apartment complex near the outskirts of Cloudsdale. He turned to his home and moved to open the door, but stopped. The graffiti from before was still present, freezing the colt in his tracks. He slowly shied away. You know... I don’t think I need anything here after all. As quickly as he arrived, Soarin’ lifted himself into the sky and flew towards his new destination.
Beads of sweat traveled down Braeburn’s forehead as he reared himself up to buck another apple tree in the arid fields of Appleloosa. He delivered a swift kick into the tree’s trunk, successfully removing eleven ripe apples that fell into an awaiting basket below. The light-gold colt momentarily lifted his brown cowboy hat to wipe the sweat from his brow and adjusted his brown vest before resuming his job.
As Braeburn moved onto the tree to his right, he heard a pony yell, “Braeburn!” He turned to see a brown earth pony who wore a white ten-gallon on his head trotting towards him. “What’re ya still doin’ out here?” Black Stone asked in his Appleloosan dialect.
“Oh, y’know, Black, doin’ what ah do best,” Braeburn answered, slightly out of breath. “Somethin’ wrong?”
His friend shook his head, his black mane swishing back and forth. “Didn’t ya hear boss call us in half ‘n hour ago?” Braeburn shook his head. The brown colt sighed as he gave Braeburn a concerned glance through his light-green eyes. “Boss told us that it’s gettin’ too damn hot out here ta work without riskin’ heat stroke. He gave us all the day off, sayin’ we got enough apples to get by fer a day.”
Braeburn gave a confused expression with his equally green eyes. “He said that?”
“Yep. Haven’t ya felt the heat... or noticed you’re the only pony out in the field?”
Braeburn took a look around the area. “Y’know, now that ya mention it, it did seem a lil’ strange.”
With a soft chuckle, Black Stone said, “C’mon, let’s go to The Salt Block.”
“But it’s only the afternoon.”
“Is there ever a time not meant fer some salt?” Both colts laughed as they walked away from the fields and over the dirt hills, heading towards the entrance to their town. Many earth ponies were seen moving in and out of the many shops lined up in two parallel rows. Near the middle of the long aisle of stores was an aged, wooden establishment adorned with a sign that had a painted-on salt shaker. Braeburn and Black Stone walked up the three small steps and through the saloon doors.
Nothing seemed different in the building: its wooden floor was still rickety and the wooden walls were still unpainted, a tan light filtered in through the windows on the first and second floor, and salt blocks and salt shakers decorated the wall behind the counter. They walked past a table where several cowponies were busy with a game of cards and sat in the middle of a row of booth seats, seated comfortably away from a brown earth pony who was at work on his fourth block of salt.
“This is new,” a lanky, grey earth pony with a curly black mustache and short black mane said from behind the counter. “I don’t usually see hide or tail of you two until the evenin’.”
“Howdy, Morton. Lookin’ sharp as always,” Braeburn commented upon noticing the stallion’s ensemble.
Morton Saltworthy seemed to instinctively flex his shoulders, as if to point out the features in his green dress shirt, black vest, and red necktie. He rested his forelegs on the table, donning a set of prim, white cuffs held together by golden cufflinks. The gaze in his blue eyes slightly hardened behind his monocle. “Don’t think flattery’s going to get you a discount this time, Brae. Will it be the usual, gentlecolts?”
“Yes sir,” Black Stone replied as he and Braeburn made themselves comfortable. The bartender eventually returned with two small dishes, each containing a block of salt, no bigger, taller, or wider than two inches. As Braeburn started to happily lick away, his friend spoke up. “So, Braeburn, this year’s harvest of apples sure looks nice, don’t it?”
“Sure does! We’ve been puttin’ a lotta hard work into it, after all.”
Black Stone licked his salt block several times. “Them buffalo will sure be lovin’ the pies this month, huh?”
Braeburn appeared to realize something before saying, “Ah bet. Jus’ like last month... and the month before that.”
“Ah hear we might make enough profits ta create a new spot o’ land across town.”
Braeburn hesitated before carrying on the conversation. “Yeah... ah remember that...”
Black Stone looked puzzled. “Y’alright? You usually brighten up when ah mention the apple fields.”
Braeburn stared at his salt. “Ah’m fine. It’s just... didn’t we talk ‘bout all this last week?”
He put a hoof to his chin. “Now that ya mention it...”
“It ain’t only that though. I just got to thinkin’.” Braeburn also rested his head on his hoof. “There ain’t much happenin’ ‘round these parts, are there?”
“Sometimes change isn’t best for all ponies,” Morton commented as he eavesdropped.
Braeburn now rested his head in both hooves. “Ah know, and don’t get me wrong, ah love everythin’ ‘bout this town. But is it wrong to want somethin’ unexpected? Just... somethin’ that’ll break the norm. Why can’t there be somethin’ different walkin’ in through the door?”
At that instant, he heard the saloon doors swing open, but didn’t turn around. The small conversations floating around the bar died down, and he heard Black Stone say, “Speak of the draconequus.”
Braeburn let his curiosity get the better of him as he looked to see what captivated his peers. In walked a blue pegasus, noticeably out of breath and glazed in sweat. He sat down two seats away from the two bar, taking an equally blue bag off of his back while paying no attention to the customers around him. “What can I do you for, stranger?” Morton asked with his usual friendliness.
The mysterious pegasus moved the dampened navy-blue strands of hair out of his eyes. “I’ve... I’ve been flying for a long time... pretty thirsty. Can I just get a glass of water?” he asked while placing two bits onto the counter.
The grey stallion pushed the money back towards his new customer. “Water’s free of charge in this bar.”
“Oh... I see,” the colt said with a smile. Soon enough, a tall mug of water was placed before the exhausted flyer. Without another word, he gripped the handle and drank until his glass was empty. He then placed the glass back on the counter as he let out a great exhale. “Thanks for that.”
The bartender replied, “I’ll get you another glass. You look positively parched.”
“Yeah, thanks. I just flew in, and my wings are tired.”
Braeburn lightly chuckled, attracting the pegasus’ attention. “Sorry, y’ just... nevermind.”
He turned away and took a controlled swig of water before setting the glass back on the countertop. Braeburn looked over this new pony, noting his features, including a cutie mark in the shape of a lightning bolt with a pair of wings. The pegasus sighed, a deadpan expression in his green eyes, before asking, “Can I help you with something?” with a slight tone of annoyance as he turned to face Braeburn.
“Oh, it’s nothin’,” he replied without missing a beat.
“If it’s nothing, then I’d appreciate it if you didn’t stare at me, okay?”
Braeburn silently nodded as he went back to licking his salt, allowing an awkward silence to set in. The cowpony cleared his throat. “So, stranger, what brings ya to town?”
The pegasus took a small sip of his water, merely glancing towards his interviewer. “I’m just here for... for business.”
“Ah see. So where ya from, stranger?”
“Cloudsdale,” he answered without even looking at Braeburn.
“Cloudsdale, huh? Ah hear it’s mighty nice this time a year. Hay, I hear it’s great all year round!” The pegasus stayed quiet, blankly staring at the wall before him while sloshing his water. Braeburn slowly looked away as both ponies stayed quiet. He felt a nudge in his side from Black Stone, who silently watched the scene unfold before him. “Ah’m sorry,” Braeburn said, “ah’m askin’ ya all these questions and ah don’t even know yer name. Whaddya call yerself, stranger? Ah’m Braeburn.” He held out his hoof towards the traveler.
The pegasus looked at Braeburn, staring blankly for a moment before turning his attention toward the extended hoof. He reluctantly reached his own hoof out to meet Braeburn’s. “Soarin’.” The flyer returned to paying attention to nothing, leaving Braeburn to reluctantly turn away. Guess he ain’t much a one fer talkin’. As both ponies began to finish their order, Soarin’ asked Morton, “Where’s the nearest hotel?”
“You’ll be looking for The Haystack Inn. It’s down the street and around the corner,” he answered.
“Thanks.” Soarin’ got out of his seat and walked out. Braeburn opened his mouth to say something to the passing colt, but the words were stuck in his throat. He stared as Soarin’ walked out of the building.
“Whaddya think brings a pegasus to Appleloosa?” Black said when normalcy returned to the bar. As the saloon doors swung shut, Braeburn took a look at his salt, then back to the doors. He rested his chin on a hoof as he stared at the floor. “Brae, y’alright?”
Suddenly, Braeburn laid four bits on the table as he stood up from his chair and said, “Ahm gonna hafta give ya a raincheck on this salt.”
“Yer leavin’? What’re ya gonna do?”
Braeburn looked to the door once more before turning back to his friend. “Somethin’ different.” He quickly headed outside.
Soarin’ deeply inhaled the town air as he walked towards his destination. A bit dry for my tastes, but this definitely beats any of those hoity-toity towns. A smile grew on his face.
“Hey, Soarin’, wait up!”
Only for it to dissipate as quickly as it arrived. Soarin turned around to face the approaching Braeburn. “You again. You sure you don’t need something?”
“Well, uh, not really,” he admitted, “but ah was just wonderin’... how long are ya stayin’ in town?”
Soarin’ hesitated before responding. “A week.”
“And how much money d’ya have fer all this time?”
His face scrunched up. “I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”
Braeburn took a slight step back. “Oh. Ah’m sorry. Y’see, ponies ‘round here are pretty open ‘bout most anythin’, so ah—”
“I’m not exactly a local,” Soarin’ deadpanned.
“Of course... of course.” Braeburn tried to hide his embarrassed expression with his hat, but to no avail.
Okay, maybe that was a bit too much. “Look, I know I’m being short with you,” the Wonderbolt apologized, “but I’ve been flying for quite some time, and I’d just like to get to a room so I can relax.”
“S’alright,” Braeburn replied. “Ah understand.”
“Okay. Now if you’ll excuse me,” Soarin’ walked off to—
“One more thing!”
He rolled his eyes. “Yes?” the pegasus called out from over his shoulder.
“Room n’ board are mighty expensive ‘round here,” Braeburn advised.
The thought ran through Soarin’s mind before quickly being tossed out. “I’m sure I can afford it.”
Braeburn watched Soarin’ walk a few steps away before adding, “Most places ‘round here charge ya thirty bits a night.”
Soarin’ stopped in his tracks and snapped around to give the informant an incredulous look. “Thirty?! That’s ridiculous! Why would anypony charge so much?”
“It’s because we don’t get many tourists, and a lot of them inn managers r’ lookin’ ta get every bit they can squeeze out of any travelers. Think ‘bout it. How far away is the nearest town from here?”
Soarin’ looked to sky. “About four or five hours, I think.”
“Exactly,” Braeburn explained, “that’s how they get their business.”
“Pretty shady business, if you ask me.”
“That’s not the only reason,” Braeburn explained. “It costs a lot to get food n’ drinks out here. Sure, we farm what we can, but not everypony is satisfied with home-grown cookin’. And it ain’t like yer not gettin’ yer money’s worth. Ya git some fine goods durin’ yer stay. Some pegasi have visited in the past and said the beds there feel better than a cloud! Real quality service over there.”
Soarin’ sat on his haunches. Thirty for a night? I can afford that for a couple of days, but then I’m digging into my own money for the rest of the week! Not only that, but I’ve still got to think of food and anything else I might need. I would never pay that much for a hotel, let alone a motel room... Is it worth it?
Braeburn shuffled his hooves. “If it saves ya time n’ money, you could come rest at my place.”
Hay yes it’s worth it. “I appreciate the offer,” Soarin’ said as he slowly inched away, “but I think I can manage. I’m just going to stick with that haystack place for now.”
Braeburn showed a flicker of disappointment before covering his expression with a smile. “Alright. Ah gitcha. But how ‘bout I give ya mah address in case ya change yer mind?”
Soarin’ stopped moving, now looking skeptical. “Why are you doing so much for me?”
Braeburn opened his mouth to answer, but the words were stuck in his throat. He looked away before saying, “Ah don’t know... ah guess ah just want ya t’ feel welcome here.”
Soarin’ eased some tension out of his shoulders, genuinely shocked at how far this local was willing to go to make sure he felt at home. Maybe if I take it, this Braeburn will get off my back. “Well, alright. I don’t see why not.”
“Great!” Braeburn replied happily. “Ah’ll write it down fer ya. Aw shoot, ah don’t have any paper on me. Gimme a sec!” He ran back to The Salt Block. Soarin’ immediately turned around and walked to The Haystack Inn. “Soarin’ wait!” he heard from behind. He quietly groaned as he faced Braeburn again. “It really ain’t gonna be long, honest. Besides, I forgot ta ask ya if ya had a pen or pencil.”
Soarin’ nearly motioned to his bag, but decided against it. “No, I don’t think I brought one with me.”
“That’s a shame. Oh well, ah’m sure somepony at the bar will have one. Be right back.” Braeburn took two steps before turning back to the Wonderbolt. “Will ya wait here fer me?”
Soarin’ rubbed a foreleg before responding. “Yeah, I’ll wait here.”
Wasting no time, Braeburn returned to the bar, leaving Soarin’ to patiently wait in the shady area of a building on the far opposite side of the bar. I’ll wait here? Why am I even doing this? He let out a sigh. Maybe if I let him think he’s helping, he’ll get off my back. He briefly studied what could loosely be called the city life that kicked up dust as it passed before him, noting how each citizen in town seemed to wear a hat, most commonly either a form of stetson or a coif. Some ponies danced intensely in the direct sunlight while others pulled carriages around the town. These ponies sure enjoy being stuck in yestercentury.
In no time, Braeburn finally returned with a piece of paper in his mouth. “Sorry ‘bout the wait,” he apologized as the pegasus accepted the paper and placed it into his bag. “Took me longer than it should’ve ta find a pen.”
With that matter settled, Braeburn headed back to his saloon and Soarin’ walked around the street corner to his destination. The Haystack Inn was a modest looking building: it was three stories tall with a coat of dark-red paint on its wooden exterior. The only obvious indication that this was the right place was the picture of a pile of hay on a sign outside. With all these pictures for signs, makes ya wonder if the ponies in this town can read.
He stepped inside and was hit with the same musty smell he encountered at the saloon. However, the first room was borderline elegance when compared to the rest of the town. The floor seemed recently polished, and smooth piano music played from a record player in the far left corner of the room. A few chairs and tables were arranged into a breakfast nook to his right, where one unicorn was busy reading a book. Directly in front of Soarin’ was a slightly-pudgy green earth pony with red hair who was busy sorting through paperwork as she sat behind a desk. She glanced up to see the Wonderbolt approach, immediately setting her work aside to put on a warm smile. “Welcome ta The Haystack Inn, darlin’. Ah’m Miracle Fix, what’s yer name?”
How can ah help ya, Mr. Soarin’?”
“I’d like to check into a room for a bit, please.” He replied as he removed his bag and pulled out his wallet and temporary checkbook.
“May ah please see some identification?” the receptionist asked as she opened a red leather book sitting on the counter to the current date. Soarin’ opened his wallet to show a Cloudsdale license inside. “Please sign yer name here,” she said while tapping the next empty box in her book. “N’ how long will you be stayin’ with us, Mr. Soarin’?”
“Probably a week, maybe less time than that. I’m not too sure.”
“A night’s stay is twenty five bits,” she explained. “Deadline to check out is eleven in the mornin’ every day, otherwise the next day’s stay will be billed at that time. You’ll find an information book ‘bout activities ta do ‘round town in the night-desk in yer room. D’ya have any other questions, sir?”
He shook his head. “No, I think I’ll be fine.”
“As of this moment, ah’ll need the first night’s pay.”
“Do you take checks?”
She cocked her head to the side. “Checks?”
Soarin’ stared at her for a good few seconds. “Yes... checks. You know, like these,” he mentioned, pushing his checkbook forward.
Miracle gave him a sympathetic look. “You haven’t been ta Appleloosa before, have ya?”
She sighed. “Ah hate ta be the bearer of bad news, darlin’, but stores in Appleloosa only take cash. We have no means ta accept credit ‘round these parts.”
Soarin’ slowly sat onto his haunches, staring in awe at Miracle Fix. “So... so what you’re trying to tell me,” he began, “is that even though I have plenty of money to my name, I can’t use one bit of it anywhere in this town?!”
“Ah’m sorry, dear.”
Soarin’ stepped away from the counter, turning around as he let out a frustrated huff. “Oh, thank you so much, Mrs. Stormbreak. Not only will you threaten me with being kicked out of the team, but you’ll also send me to a town that’s cash only? This is just perfect. I just can’t thank you enough for this, ma’am!”
As Soarin’ continued venting into nothing, the mare behind the counter looked over the checkbook, then back to him. This happened a few more times until her eyes lit up. “Oh, d-don’t worry, darlin’,” she stammered. “Ah think we can arrange fer ya ta pay when ya leave our establishment.”
He quickly turned around. “Come again?”
“Believe me, yer not the first pony ta come ta town unaware of our economic policies. Ah know a trustworthy customer when ah see ‘em, yes ah do. There’s a bank not far from here, so you can talk to whoever ya need to ta get yer money.” She gave a wink, which set Soarin’ at ease. She turned to the wall behind her and took a keyring off the wall. “Yer room is room 12. Just head up the stairs and it’ll be the room at the end of the hall.”
When Soarin’ finished his internal celebration, he said, “Thank you,” as he grabbed his bag in his mouth and walked away.
“Enjoy yer stay in Appleloosa!” the receptionist called as he went out of sight. Not long after this encounter, a delightful grin broke onto the earth pony’s face as she frantically started to write a letter.
It didn’t take Soarin’ long to finally reach his room, choosing to fly to the end of the second floor. He fumbled with the keys for a moment before unlocking his door and stepping inside. Soarin’ was first met with an unexpected green carpet floor. Next he laid eyes on a single bed in the back right corner. Between it and the wall was a wooden night table with a candlestick, supplied with an unused candle in it. Soarin’ took a quick look around his room, noticing it even had a bathroom, a food pantry, a small table to eat, and a stove-top supplied with its own pots and pans. Man, you really do get your money’s worth in a place like this.
He tossed his bag to the floor, noticing a piece of paper fall out of the opening. That’s right. He picked up the paper and read its contents, becoming slightly shocked. “He actually wrote down his address... that’s kinda stupid.” He crumpled up the paper and tossed it into his trash bin. “Honestly, what if I was a thief?” He chuckled as he began to impersonate the cowpony. “Howdy mister, ah don’t know y’all, but imma give ya my address. Hay, you can come on down any time ya like. Ahll even leave the door open for ya. Don’t steal everythin’ of mine now!” He laughed momentarily before calming down. “Sorry, Braeburn, but I don’t think we’ll be meeting again any time soon.”
His attention was drawn towards his luggage. “I’ll get to that later,” he commented as he turned to his bed and gently set himself into it, immediately noticing the comfort it brought. “Wow”, he said to himself with a relieved expression. “This bed really is comfy. It really does... feel like a... a cloud...” The trek from Cloudsdale finally took its toll as Soarin’s eyes slowly clamped shut, allowing him to fall into a much-needed rest.
Soarin’s eyes creaked open as his sight adjusted to the hotel room. All traces of daylight were nowhere to be seen. He rubbed his foggy eyes, but suddenly stopped when he noticed a damp trail running from his eye to his cheek. Soarin’ lifted his head off the bed and pressed his hoof against the area below him; it was damp. He groaned and sneered. “I thought I was done doing this,” he whispered to himself. Soarin’ plopped his head back onto the bed, staring at the ceiling above. “How long was I asleep?” He lit the nearby candle. The room’s only clock was on the opposite end, which read a quarter past ten. Jeez, I really needed to sleep, didn’t I?
Soarin’ rolled off the bed, taking the opportunity to stretch his muscles. “Gotta hand it to this place, they’ve got some awesome beds.” His eyes wandered to the window at the edge of the room, picking up on the shimmering light that poked through the blinds. Something going on out there? I didn’t think a town like this would be active at night. He reached a hoof through the blinds and looked outside, only to gasp as he quickly withdrew his hoof and backed away from the window. “Please tell me I did not just see that.” Soarin’ gulped before he moved forward and took another peek outside. Several photographers, reporters, and cameraponies were camped outside of the front entrance.
“No no no no no! How did they find me here? This is the last thing I need right now! If I go out there, I’m done for!” The Wonderbolt began to flutter around his room in a panic. “I’ve gotta get out of here, but where can I go?” He stopped his hovering and sat back on his bed. “Okay, take it easy, panicking isn’t going to help.” Soarin’ took several deep breaths and felt his mind clear. Isn’t there another way out? He looked at the room’s front door and noticed a map of the complex next to it. He got out of bed and got a closer look at the map, studying a red path. “Fire escape, that could work... but where would I go? I can’t go back to Cloudsdale without this deal. Might as well whip out my two-week’s notice if I go back now. Sure I could try another hotel, but who’s to say I won’t be found out there? I’m stuck in a town with nowhere to—”
Soarin’ stopped his train of thought and slowly turned to his wastebin. He peered into it, staring the crumpled piece of paper resting within. He reached in and pulled the paper out, unfurling it on the night table. “Wait, I’m not considering this, am I?” he asked himself. “For all I know, that Breaburn pony probably ratted me out! I bet he got paid to tell everypony where I am.” Soarin’ paced around the room momentarily before turning back to the paper. “But he did seem pretty clueless to who I was... and he doesn’t seem like the type to get into somepony’s privacy.” He snorted once. “Come on, Soarin’, you don’t even know this pony! Of course he seems nice, that’s what victim number eight says before they’re on the evening headlines. Are you really going to waltz up to his front door and let who knows what happen to you?” Soarin’ sat on the bed as he glanced at the window, then back to the paper. He sighed as he rested his head in a hoof. That’s exactly what I’m going to do, aren’t I?
He looked underneath the night table and pulled out a visitor’s guide to the city. He flipped through the pages until he found a map of Appleloosa. Let’s hope your place is easy to spot, Braeburn. He slowly dragged his hoof across the map, noticing it travel further and further away from the heart of the city. It finally came to rest over a spot near the outskirts of town, beyond the apple fields. “Kinda far out from town, aren’t ya?” he murmured. “Well, I guess that if I’m going to do this, I’d better do it now. Let’s just hope the paparazzi aren’t camped in front of the fire escape as well.”
Soarin’ grabbed his bag and made sure not to leave any trace of where he was going. As he opened the door and stood in the doorway, he looked down the hall to check for any ponies snooping the premises. Nopony’s around, good. He hugged the walls as he approached the portion of the walkway in direct view of the entrance. If anypony out there spots me, my escape is as good as done. It’s not too huge an opening, but I’ve gotta get through it as fast as possible. I’ve only got one shot at this. He took a moment to securely fasten his bag to his back as he reared up his hindquarters and got into a starting position. Soarin’s wings began to flap faster and faster before he shot away from his starting location, becoming a blur to anypony looking in his direction. Once he cleared the opening, he tried stopping himself, but ended up tumbling several times in the hall before sliding to a halt within a hair’s breadth of the wall at the opposite end. Nailed it. Soarin’ stealthily moved along the fire escape path until he found the back door. He gently pushed the door open, prepared to fly away at the drop of a pin, and was relieved to discover that nopony was waiting for him. He wasted no time and took to the sky. He looked at the ponies outside. Nopony seemed to have noticed him leave the building. He took a moment to flick his hoof under his chin at the media before flying away.
Oh, shoot, Soarin’ realized as he flew away. I never paid for the night, did I? Eh, I’ll think of some way to fix it later. Right now, I’ve gotta see whether or not ‘southern hospitality’ is just a figure of speech. He flew several miles until his destination was in sight. It was a small house surrounded by nothing but the desert sand and a lone apple sapling. He couldn’t tell much from the dim moonlight, but the wooden exterior looked aged, and the roof seemed to be suffering from disrepair. As he gently set himself on the ground, Soarin’ thought, Sure hope Braeburn’s not a deep sleeper.
A series of loud thuds roused Braeburn out of his slumber. He rubbed his eyes and tried several times to grasp a nearby candlestick on his night desk. When he found his way out of his small bed, he lit the candle, holding it in his mouth as he walked down a creaky flight of stairs to greet his nighttime visitor. What the hay is somepony wanting at ten-thirty at night? I’ve gotta wake up early for work tomorrow, for pony’s sake! The visitor knocked again. “Hold yer pantyhose, ah’m comin’!” he attempted to say with the object still gripped in his teeth.
Braeburn placed the candlestick on the small table next to the door and opened it. After taking a couple of seconds to register who was in front of him, Braeburn smiled. “Hey, Soarin’!” he greeted with a yawn. “Ah was thinkin’ ya weren’t gonna show.”
“Yeah,” Soarin’ replied with a chuckle. “Let’s just say things didn’t work out back there. I know it’s late and all, but uh... is it too late to take you up on that offer to crash here?”
Braeburn cocked his head to the side. “Is that how pegasi greet each other? Crashin’ into other ponies’ homes?”
“W-what? No. That’s not what—”
Braeburn chuckled. “Ah’m jus’ messin’ with ya. C’mon in and make yerself at home,” he said as he let his guest inside and shut the door.
Soarin’ looked around his living quarters for the next week. The candle’s light revealed a small couch in front of a wooden table to his left. He could also see the faint reflection of dinnerware across from him and a small flight of stairs leading to another room. “Nice place,” he commented with an indifferent tone.
“Ah know it don’t look like much, but it’s still mah humble abode. Yer probably tuckered out, so ah won’t waste yer time n’ ah’ll let ya get ta sleep.”
Soarin’ rubbed the back of his neck. “Actually, I kinda knocked out the moment I reached the hotel room. I only woke up an hour ago.”
“Is that so?” Braeburn replied with a yawn. “Want somethin’ ta drink? Ah got plenty a’ tea ta choose from.”
“No thanks, I’m not thirsty.” Soarin’ took a moment to note where each of the windows were located. “I’ll just put my things away and try to get some sleep, though.”
“Want me t’ give ya a tour of the house?”
“Nah, it’s late, and you probably need some rest.”
Braeburn shrugged. “Suit yerself. In that case, lemme take ya t’ where yer gonna sleep.” He grabbed the candlestick and led Soarin’ up the stairs into a small bedroom. It was mostly empty, except for a cabinet, a clothes drawer, a night desk, and a bed. A clock was placed on the wall opposite of the bed. Some framed pictures of a trio of ponies rested on top of the drawer, and a pair of horseshoes rested at the foot of the bed. He placed the candlestick on the night desk.
“So,” Soarin’ began, “I’ll just set myself up here?”
Braeburn nodded. “Yup! Ah’ll let ya get cozy. Ah’ve got work early in the mornin’, so if ah’m not home when ya wake up, that’s why. Oh, before ah forget, bathroom’s down the stairs and’ll be the door on the left.” He left Soarin’ to his business and walked downstairs.
“Where’ll you be?”
“Ah’ve got mahself a place ta sleep down here, don’t worry.”
“You don’t need a light?”
Braeburn looked over his shoulder. “Ah got pretty good eyesight in the dark, ah’ll be fine. If ya need anythin’, jus’ head on downstairs and ah’ll see what ah can do.” He continued down the stairs and headed to his couch, propping himself up and making several attempts to find a comfortable position. When he reached his comfort level, he started to fall back into sleep.
“Psst, hey, Braeburn,” Soarin’ quietly called out in no particular direction. “Where can I put my things?”
“Oh, any drawer is fine...”
“Yeah... any drawer...” Braeburn slipped back into sleep, but suddenly snapped his eyes open when he heard the drawers opening. He quickly got out of bed and headed to the stairs. “Wait! Soar—”
A small yelp from upstairs made Braeburn cringe as his ears fell flat. Please don’t tell me he looked in that drawer... He trudged up the stairs until Soarin’ finally came into sight. Braeburn’s darkest fears were confirmed when he saw that his guest was staring at the one object he’d forgotten about: a magazine filled with many stallions in provocative positions. Soarin’ stared at Braeburn, and looked back at the pamphlet on the floor. Braeburn swallowed the lump in his throat, marching towards the magazine picking it up in his mouth. He said nothing as he closed the drawer and walked away. Soarin’s eye twitched as he couldn’t help but stare at the ground in a paralyzing shock. The cowpony took it downstairs and placed it a bin at the opposite end of the house. He came back upstairs to see Soarin’ stare in silence.
“You uh... ya weren’t supposed ta see that,” Braeburn meekly told his guest. “... It was in the bottom drawer... Ya took it out?”
“I, uh... I couldn’t tell what it was at first.” Soarin’s face began to redden as he tried to turn his gaze away.
Braeburn shuffled his hooves. “This, uh... this sure ain’t the way ah wanted ta tell ya, but ah’m sure yer wonderin’ this right now, so ya deserve the right ta know.” He took a deep breath. “Soarin’... ah’m gay.”
Soarin’s eye twitched as he started to look like he’d seen a ghost. “You’re... gay?”
Braeburn nodded once. “Now... ah understand if ya feel too uncomfortable ta stay here. You can leave, ah won’t stop ya. Ah just... ah just hope ya won’t think less o’ me ‘cuz of this.” He bit his lower lip and his ears folded back as he waited for an answer.
Soarin’ stood in silence. Most of his body told him to get out, but his hooves told him to stay. “It’s uh... it’s a little out of the blue, I’ll tell you that.” Silence flooded the room as he tried to find the right words to say. “This could take a bit of getting used to, but... I don’t think it’ll be a problem.”
Braeburn slowly broke out a smile. “That’s a relief,” he said with a sigh.
“There, uh, aren’t going to be any more surprises waiting for me... are there?”
“No no no! That’s the only one ah have, honest!”
Soarin’ nodded and looked in the drawer above, inwardly making a sigh of relief to see clothes inside. “Okay, I think I’ll try to get some sleep now.”
“Right. G’night then, Soarin’! Ah’ll see ya in the mornin’.” Braeburn walked back down the stairs, leaving Soarin’ alone.
With Braeburn gone, the Wonderbolt cautiously settled himself in bed. You’re still gonna sleep in this house? he asked himself. Did you not see what he had stashed away in this room? Is that what he does? Does he just swoon ponies under his gaze and lure them here to fulfill his fetishes or something? His mind traveled back to the discovery made moments ago. Is it just a southern thing to keep your dirty laundry in plain sight? If he keeps things like that in guest rooms then- He stopped his train of thought as the pieces fell in place. This bed actually was kind of warm when I got here... and he never said this is a guest room.
Soarin’ got out of bed and walked to the stairs. He looked down and saw the faint silhouette of Braeburn sleeping on the couch. Did he... did he really give me his bed? Why? He fluttered back to bed and laid down. Well, if he’s just gonna give himself a bad back tomorrow, then that’s on him. Might as well enjoy the night. He blew out the flame and closed his eyes, allowing himself to drift off to sleep.
...Or so he thought. Soarin’ rolled around in bed, taking another look at the clock. One hour. A whole hour, and I still can’t get any sleep! He dragged his hooves over his face. What is it going to take for me to get some shuteye? He sat up and got out of bed, lighting his candle and grabbing it while hovering down to the first floor. He said the bathroom’s this way. When he reached the bathroom, he pushed the door open and looked inside. There was a shower, a toilet, a towel rack with one neatly folded towel, and a medicine cabinet. Jackpot. He opened the magnetic door on the cabinet and looked inside. Aside from toothpaste and other dental work, he found a box of pills inside. Thank Celestia, he has Lunasta. Just gotta pop a few of these back and I should be in ‘la la land’ in no time. Soarin’ took two pills into his mouth and turned on the faucet, gathering a mouthful of water to wash the capsules down.
Perfect. That should do the trick. He left the room and closed the door behind him. He froze when he heard Braeburn make a noise, but calmed down when he noticed his host just move in his sleep. He lifted himself into the air and meant to head back to bed, but he looked at Braeburn. How was he able to so easily talk about being gay? I’m a complete stranger to him, everything about this pony makes no sense! He returned to his bed and tucked himself back under the covers. Nothing left to do now except wa... wait for... wow, those... those pills kick in... pretty... He started to snore.
“Well well well, I knew it was only a matter of time.”
Soarin’s immediately sat up in bed. Before him was a splitting image of himself, save the dirty wonderbolt uniform and broken goggles it wore, staring back with a sly grin. He glared at the being before him. “I thought I got rid of you.”
His reflection chuckled while its image momentarily faded in and out. “I’m not somepony you can just toss aside.”
“We’ve been through this. Why can’t you just face the facts already?”
“The one who needs to face the facts is you!” The doppelganger accused as it pointed a flickering hoof.
“Looks like you’re not all there,” Soarin’ responded with a smirk. “You should bulk up on some protein, get some meat on those fake bones.”
“Shut up! I’m only like this because of you!”
Soarin’ shook his head. “Look at you. You’re so desperate to be something you’re not. It’s a little sad when you think about it.”
“I could say the same thing, me. We know each other too well,” the reflection replied, copying Soarin’s smirk.
The Wonderbolt’s expression subsided. “If you don’t have anything important to tell me, then leave me alone. I’m trying to get some sleep.”
“The only reason I’m here now is because part of you wanted me back. You want me here because you need somepony like me to talk to. ”
“Why would anypony want to talk to you?”
It walked toward Soarin’, crawling on top of the bed to look him in the eye. “Because you need me, and you know it. I’m the only pony you can trust with your deep, dark secrets, even the ones you’re so desperately trying to bury. Kinda like how you buried me.”
“For good reason,” Soarin’ responded as he pulled the covers over his head. “You’re just a parasite, and I want nothing to do with you.” He immediately felt the covers get ripped out of his hooves. Soarin’ felt his reflection’s front hooves plant themselves next to his head. He looked up to be locked into his opposite’s gaze.
Its eye twitched while it gnashed its teeth. “You might think you know everything about me, but you don’t know the half of it. We both know what you’re so afraid to admit to the world.”
“And what’s that?”
It opened its mouth to reply, but stopped itself. Its eyes widened as it sat back and started to giggle. “No. If I tell you now, then you wouldn’t need talk to me again. Why spoil the big surprise when I could watch you flop around so aimlessly, slowly coming to terms with the truth once there’s nowhere to run?” It hovered in the air above Soarin’. “See, this conversation of ours? This is only the beginning. I’ll let your subconscious nurture the few thoughts I’ve planted in your mind. When you start to figure it out, you’ll come looking for me, I’m sure of it. We’re one in the same, after all. Think of this as payback for ignoring me for so long.”
Soarin sat up. “Will you stop with these horseapples? There’s only one me, and I’m right here. You’re... you’re not... you...” Soarin held his head in his hooves and groaned.
The reflection gave a disapproving huff. “Looks like time is up, me. It’s been fun chatting, but we could use our beauty sleep.” It touched down on top of Soarin’, whose eyelids became heavier after each passing second. It whispered into his ear, “Goodbye for now.”
The sunlight and a pounding headache were there to greet Soarin’ as he sat up in his bed. Okay, sleep is one thing, but I could’ve done without this. He massaged his forehead as he looked at the clock. One in the afternoon? Hallucination or not, those pills sure did their job. He slowly slipped out of bed, shaking the tingles out of his legs and trying to ease the pressure out of his skull when he sniffed the air. Something smells really good! His closed his eyes while his nose dragged him down the flight of stairs and into the kitchen. As he approached the source of the alluring scent, wings fluttering along the way, various tangy spices became intertwined with the sound of ingredients simmering on the stovetop. He opened his eyes to see Braeburn, who was so focused on preparing his dish that he didn’t notice Soarin’ approach until his hooves landed on the floor with a small thud.
“Hey there!” Braeburn said over his shoulder. “Ah was beginnin’ ta think ya weren’ gonna wake up.”
Soarin’ stretched his neck. “Yeah, I had a little trouble falling asleep last night.” He noticed Braeburn wince, despite his trying to hide it. “Not because of... that, but because of how long I slept when I got to the hotel. Still managed to get to sleep after I... sat still for a bit.”
“Well that’s good. Ah hope yer rest gave ya an appetite. Ah made some stir fry, but ah don’t think you’ll like it.”
“Are you kidding? I love stir fry!” Soarin’ responded as his eyes grew huge and his wings flared. He was quickly reminded of his current condition and calmed down as he cleared his throat and refolded his wings. “What kind do you have?”
Braeburn scooped the meal into a large, oblong bowl, placing it on the table. Inside the dish was a meal decorated with various sizzling vegetables piled on top of a bed of brown rice.
Try as hard as he might, Soarin’ couldn’t make out a single ingredient. “This is...”
“Rainbow stir fry,” Braeburn finished as his ears folded back. “It’s a recipe ah picked up on a visit out of town once. Ya don’t seem a fan o’ southern cuisine, and you were plum tuckered out. No worries. Ah’ll pick up some of whatever ya like from the market.”
Soarin’ inspected the dish again. “If you want to, then sure. I could really go for a daffodil daisy sandwich.”
“Alright then. Gimme a few minutes and ah’ll head right on out!”
As Braeburn headed up the stairs to prepare for his trek, Soarin’ sat at the table, staring out the window across from him. He noticed the vast sandy landscape that seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. The scent of the stir fry summoned Soarin’s attention again. Against his better judgement, he scoured the cabinets around the room, subtly noticing most were empty, and eventually found an additional bowl. It was worn and chipped, but he accepted it nonetheless. With care, Soarin’ shook a small portion of the meal into his separate bowl. He eyed the food carefully before hazarding a small bite. Within seconds, a fireworks display erupted in his mouth as the blend of spices and herbs sent his taste buds into euphoria. Celestia damn it, this is amazing.
Braeburn walked down the stairs, now wearing a saddlebag. “Shouldn’t take too long fer me ta git whatcha need. Be back soon!”
Just as his hoof was on the door handle, Soarin’ said, “Wait.” The cowpony turned around, waiting patiently. “You made a meal for yourself, and it’s still hot. If anything we could split this bowl. It’s really really good. I could just have some of that for a meal.”
Braeburn cocked his head an inch to the side. “Ya like southern food?”
Soarin’ shrugged. “I’ve never actually had any before, but this is really something else.”
“That’s a surprise,” Braeburn admitted as he rubbed the back of his head. “You’d be surprised how many ponies ain’t willin’ ta try vegan food.” He placed his saddlebag over the top of his couch and pulled up a chair across from Soarin’. “Mighty sorry fer not gettin’ ya somethin’ in tune ta yer tastes.”
“It’s no trouble,” Soarin’ replied with a shake of his head. He handed the larger bowl to his host and started to eat. “What’s in this, anyway?”
“There’s quite a bit in here, ah wouldn’t wanna bore ya with the details, but ya got things like baby corn, cabbage, n’ chestnuts ta name a few.” Both ponies silently ate their meal, shooting awkward glances around the room. Braeburn decided to eventually speak up. “So, what brings ya t’ town? Ah don’t mean ta pry, but ah remember ya said you were in Appleloosa on business.”
Soarin’ quickly swallowed his mouthful. “That’s right.”
“Well, maybe ah can help ya out. Ah know this town like the back o’ mah hoof.”
The pegasus slowly looked down at his bowl. “That sounds... great and all, but I really shouldn’t be talking to anypony about this except for Appleloosa’s mayor.”
Braeburn’s eyes lit up. “We don’t have a mayor ‘round here, but we do have a sheriff; Sheriff Silverstar’s the pony you’re lookin’ for. He usually don’t got much time fer outsiders n’ their quips, usually cuz’ it’s a complaint about the dust, and he’s busy helpin’ settle disputes or any other problems that might pop up in town. Lucky fer you, ah’m on perty good relations with the sheriff, and ah can probably get ‘im ta talk to ya real quick.”
Soarin’ rested his head on his hoof. “Just like that?”
Braeburn nodded. “We can head to his office whenever yer ready.”
“Works for me,” Soarin’ replied with another mouthful. As the two ponies sat in more silence, a thought came to Soarin’s head, causing him to tap the table. “So... when you say ‘good relations’, do you mean you two are... you know...”
Braeburn stared with one eyebrow raised until his guest started bumping his hooves together. He snapped back in surprise. “N-no! Nothin’ like that! He’s like an uncle ta me, honest! Ah wouldn’t... ah couldn’t...”
“Okay, okay, sorry. It was just a question,” Soarin’ assured as he held his hooves in front of him.
“What exactly happened at the inn?” Braeburn asked, eager to move onto a different subject. “Ya seemed perty sure of yerself that ya were fine there.”
Soarin’ pointed to Braeburn and opened was about to explain, but decided against it. “I’d rather not get into that right now.” With the conversation effectively dead, both ponies ate until their stir fry was no more. “Welp, now’s as good a time as any to get going.”
Braeburn agreed while he gathered the dishes and placed them into his sink before getting ready to depart. While Braeburn was doing this, Soarin’ suddenly noticed the flaw in his plan. If I go out into the city, there’s a good chance those paparazzi are waiting for me. I’d stand out like a sore thumb, looking how I am. He called out to Braeburn. “Hey, do you happen to have any extra vests or something? I could sure use one if we’re heading out... preferably one that could cover my wings. Oh, and if you’ve got a really big hat stashed away, that would be great.”
His host laughed from afar. “If yer wanted from the law, Soarin’, headin’ to a sheriff’s office ain’t the best decision.”
Braeburn faced his companion, walking to meet him at the door. “Ya sure ‘bout that? It’s mighty toasty outside, and ah only got mah winter’s coat.”
“It’s fine, really. I could just use some help wrapping it around my wings.”
“Ain’t that gonna hurt?”
Soarin’ waved a hoof. “Nah, you kidding? Wings are pretty sturdy things. I bet I won’t even notice it.”
Braeburn took a good look at Soarin’, cocking his head to the side. “If ya say so. Ah’ve got a couple spare clothes. Be back in a jiffy.” He walked up the stairs and disappeared for a moment before returning with a white ten-gallon hat and a long burgundy vest. Soarin’ stifled a shudder upon seeing the clothing, which Braeburn failed to notice. “Ah dunno if this is such a good idea, Soarin’,” Braeburn stated as he worked the vest onto his companion’s body.
Soarin’ took the hat and fitted it on his head, ensuring a majority of his mane was covered. “Don’t even worry about it. Like I said, wings are really stur—.” His sentence was interrupted when a sharp jolt of pain shot up from his wing into his right ear. Soarin’ momentarily whimpered before merging the noise into his next sentence. “Why don’t we get going?” He tried his best to force a smile while being under Braeburn’s scrutinizing gaze.
“Okay...” Braeburn said while trying to get a grasp of what was going on. “Let’s get goin’.” He opened his front door, momentarily blinding Soarin’ as he held a hoof in front of his eyes. Once his eyesight adjusted, Braeburn stepped outside, turning back to urge Soarin’ to follow. “It shouldn’t be too long a trip. Just to the heart o’ town n’ back.”
Soarin’ gritted his teeth in a grin. “Oh? Into the middle of the town, great!” He began to follow Braeburn. Great...
Braeburn and Soarin' trekked through the landscape towards Appleloosa. By the time they reached the outskirts of the settlement, Soarin' appeared to have traveled through a monsoon in comparison to his guide.
Braeburn cast a concerned glance. "Ya sure ya don't wanna take that coat off?" he inquired. "There's sweatin' buckets, and then there's what ya look like right now. ‘Sides, ah don’ git why you’ve been walkin’ all this way. Ya could just fly."
"I'm... I'm fine," Soarin' insisted, resisting the urge to yet again rub the sweat out of his vision. "I figure, why waste the energy flying in this heat? You said it's not that far, right?"
"Yessir," Braeburn replied with a nod. "S'right next t' the Salt Block, as a matter o' fact."
"What's that?" Soarin' wondered.
"It's the bar ya came to yesterday."
Soarin' opted out of sighing in relief. The bartender there has free water, doesn't he? I'll see if I can slip over there while Braeburn does his thing.
Braeburn continued to lead his guest deeper into town until the two ponies reached their destination. It was a seemingly peaceful, light-green jailhouse with several barred windows in the wall. He ushered Soarin’ past the wooden support beams. "Now, Sheriff Silverstar usually don't got much to deal with at this time o' day, so ah'm sure we'll... wait. What's all the fuss?" As Braeburn and Soarin' pushed their way past the two white doors out front, they encountered a room full of chattering ponies.
Soarin' noticed some ponies were part of the mass of newsponies camped outside of the hotel, and quickly ducked out of sight. "Hey, Braeburn. How about you find out what you need to find out, and I go get some water at the Salt Block?"
Braeburn looked at Soarin'. "Sure, ah'll come git ya when ah find out what's goin’ on ‘round here."
As his guide merged into the sea of bodies, Soarin' took the opportunity to remain inconspicuous as he trotted towards the bar next door. When he entered, however, he discovered that there were a few stray newsponies inside, interviewing several bar patrons. Soarin' considered leaving the bar as well, but his scratchy throat and dry mouth insisted otherwise. He creeped quietly towards the row of stools at the back of the bar and sat down.
"And what can I get for you, stranger?" Morton asked, silently appearing before Soarin'.
The incognito Wonderbolt nearly froze in shock, but tried to play the situation naturally. "Ah'll haive ah sweg uh watuh, pahdnah," Soarin' replied in his best Appleloosan accent.
Morton stared at Soarin' for a few excruciating seconds, his lower lip quivering as he evidently was trying to force down a smile. "You got it... pahdnah." He left to fetch the customer his drink, snickering all the way.
Soarin' tried to forget his folly when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to see a dark-blue unicorn mare with a light-azure mane holding a pencil and notepad in the air with her magic. "Hello, sir. I'm Strawberry Dreams, and I'm a reporter with the Canterlot Gazette. Do you have a moment to answer a few questions?"
His mind immediately blanked as he tried to remain calm. Running won't do me any good, they'll be searching all over for me. You're a Wonderbolt, Soarin. Sure, you never really talk to the press, but interviews are practically in the contract. You can beat this, just throw them on the wrong trail. "Uh... s-shore ya kin, missy."
"Thanks," the journalist replied as she flipped her notepad to the first available page. "First, may I please get your name?"
Any name will do here, Soarin'. Think of a villain from those old games. "Mah name's Mulberry Twister."
She took a moment to write this information down. "Okay, Mr. Twister, is it safe to assume you’re a native of Appleloosa?"
Mulberry nodded. "Yess'm. Been heer mah whole life, ah have!"
Strawberry raised an eyebrow at the interviewee. "Well, that's certainly remarkable, considering the town's only been around for two years. Very intriguing, indeed."
This can't be good. "W-well, what ah mean iss, ah been heer since Appleloosa firs' popped up!" Mulberry shot his most convincing smile, which didn't seem to phase Strawberry.
"Of course... Now, are you aware of the buzz in this town? Have you seen any suspicious characters? Perhaps somepony that just stands out in a crowd?"
Mulberry put a hoof to his chin and audibly hummed. "Ahm afraid yer gunna hav'ta be mur spicific than that. Thar be a lotta ponies runnin' round these parts." He spotted a toothpick and quickly threw it in his mouth, hoping that chewing on the object would make his southern persona more believable.
She stared deadpan in response to seeing the colt awkwardly shift the toothpick in his mouth before continuing. "He's a pegasus that goes by the name Soarin'. A coat the same color as yours, dark blue lazy-hawk mane, cutie mark in the shape of a lightning bolt with wings. Ring any bells?"
He gave up on the toothpick and took it out of his mouth before answering, "Sorry, jus' ain't ringin' any o' them there bells in mah head. Y'all ought'a ask somepony else, doll."
Strawberry gave Mulberry another questionable glance before sighing. "Another bust," she murmured. "Well, if you happen to see anypony matching that description," she added as she pulled out a small business card, "come find me. My news crew will be waiting outside the Haystack Inn. If we’re gone, write a letter to us, and we'll get back to you as soon as possible." She turned around and walked towards the front door.
"Ah'll be shore as sugar ta tell ya if ah see any o’ them Wonderbolts 'round here!"
The reporter immediately stopped in her tracks and whipped her head around, her eyes shooting wide. She slowly approached Mulberry. "That's the funny thing... I never said that Soarin' was a Wonderbolt. How do you know that, I wonder?"
Mulberry felt his heartbeat quicken. "W-w-well, uh. Funny story 'bout that," he added as he began to chuckle. Horsefeathers! I was almost in the clear!
"I'm sure it is, and I'm all ears." Strawberry held her pencil and notepad in front of her, eager to write down any juicy details.
He started to tap his hoof on the tabletop as he attempted to come up with a believable story. "It, uh... it all started when ah... uh, ah was at-"
"Excuse me, miss." Morton said from behind the counter. "I'm going to have to ask you to stop pestering my guest. He's obviously very uncomfortable with your prying."
"Prying?" Strawberry parroted in an offended tone. "It was just a simple few questions, I highly would consider that to be prying."
Morton huffed. "As far as I'm concerned, your questions are enough to make this stallion uneasy. The Salt Block is a place for the townsfolk to unwind, not to be barraged with a multitude of questions."
"I'm just trying to get to the bottom of this story!"
"Well, you're not going to find it here. All of our pages are ripped out."
Strawberry glanced around her to see that she and Morton were the focus of the bar. "I apologize for inconveniencing you both. Since it seems I'm not quite welcome here, I'll take my leave." She turned around and headed for the doors. As she left, several other newsponies got the hint that any further interrogations in the bar would be fruitless, and took their leave as well.
As the mood of the bar became more social, Morton brought up the mug of water. "Sorry it took so long, the bar's barrel was empty and I had to go to the back to get another canister. Drink up, I'm sure you're thirsty."
Mulberry wasted no time in rehydrating himself. He set the now-empty mug on the counter. "Mighty thanks fer that, pahdnah! And thanks fer tellin' that lil' missy ta take a hike! Shoot, ah remember out on the bayou when mah pappy had-"
"Stop," Morton commanded. "Just stop. You're actually getting a little offensive now, Soarin'."
He froze. "W-whaddya mean? Who's Soarin'? Ah ain't that Soarin' fella, ah'm jus' plain ol' Mulberry, passin' through town like an ol' tumbleweed!" Mulberry rested his-
"That's another thing, Mulberry?" Morton interrupted, "Really? You could've come up with a million better names and you pick Mulberry? You really don't know a thing about this town, do you, Soarin'? And don't deny that it’s you, because I'll charge you double if you keep this up."
Soarin' sat, dumbfounded as he heard the murmurs directed toward him within the bar. Okay, I guess the jig is up. "But I thought water was free here."
"It is, but my bar, my rules."
Soarin' sighed in defeat. "How did you know?"
Morton tapped his head. "I remember everypony who has ever stepped into this bar. Got a mind like a catalogue, I do. Honestly took me a bit to recognize you, with you wearing that ridiculous getup, but it became clear once you spoke."
"But I was a nopony, is it really that easy?"
"Sometimes it's hard to forget an unfamiliar face."
Soarin' stared at his mug for a moment. "Thanks, by the way. If you hadn’t stepped in, I would’ve been shark bait."
The bartender took Soarin’s glass for a refill. "It's no trouble. I figure you've got your reasons for keeping who you are hidden. Your secret is safe with me." Soarin' appeared hopeful for a brief moment before pushing that emotion aside. "And that goes for the rest of ya!" Morton announced to everypony else in the bar. "If one word gets out about our guest, then nopony here will have their business welcome again! And I'll remember exactly who's who, so don't try anything, understand?" All patrons in the bar gave a quick shout of confirmation.
Soarin' sat in the bar, looking at all the ponies who now paid attention to their own concerns. "These ponies really respect you, don't they?"
Morton chuckled. "Being the best salt provider in town gets you that sort of reputation." He grabbed a stool from around the counter and sat in it, sitting before Soarin'. "Now, what in Equestria possessed you to wear that coat at a time like this? There's nothing but blistering heat outside, I'm surprised you haven't collapsed from heat stroke!"
You're not the first to say that. "I needed something to cover up my... you know." Soarin' remained cautious of any lingering ears and leaned in close to Morton as he whispered, "My wings."
Morton looked at the burgundy coat covering Soarin's body. "Wait here a moment. I have something you might like." He disappeared momentarily before coming back with a green vest and a tan Stetson. "I think these will prove more comfortable than your current garb. The hat blends in more with what other ponies wear, and the vest is a bit large, easy enough to make you look like an earth pony around here."
"Wow... thanks." Soarin' looked over the clothes. "Have anywhere I can change?" Morton pointed to the restroom in the front-left corner of the room. Soarin’ got out of his seat and entered the bathroom, taking the moment to remove his clothing and unfurl his wings. He couldn't stop the sigh of relief that followed. My Celestia, this feels so much better! Soarin' then looked at his new vest and hat, placing them on before taking a look in the mirror. "Not bad, I look like a damn good earth pony now," he murmured as he got a good look at himself. When his moment of narcissism was over, he left the room.
“Now doesn’t that suit you much better?” Morton commented as Soarin’ took his seat.
“It really does. Thanks.”
Morton rested his chin on his hoof before he murmured, “Aw shucks.” He reached under the table top and pulled a block of salt out and placed it before Soarin’. “Here, on the house.”
Soarin’ stared at the salt before looking back at the bartender. “You don’t have to do that, really.”
“Truth be told, I do. Considering I feel partially responsible for your current predicament,” Morton replied. Soarin’ stared for a moment, tilting his head to the side. “I sent you to The Haystack Inn, didn’t I? Therein lies your problem.” The Wonderbolt raised an eyebrow, but Morton continued before Soarin’ could interrupt. “You probably met a pony by the name of Miracle Fix, right? She recently became a fan of the Wonderbolts, and I sent you right to her. Knowing her circle of friends, she probably wrote to one friend, who wrote another, and I’m sure that information eventually followed its way to somepony who thought telling the news would get them a nice sack of bits.”
Before Soarin’ could respond, he heard, "Hey, Soarin’," from behind him. He turned to see Braeburn standing patiently. "Ah almost didn’t recognize ya with them new duds. They look perty good on ya, if ya don' mind my sayin'."
"Oh, uh... thanks," Soarin' replied. "Did you find out anything?"
Braeburn sighed. "Unfortunately, it seems the ruckus 'round town has got Sheriff as stuck as a patch o' quicksand. He won't be able to listen to ya fer a couple o' days."
Soarin' frowned. "Days?! How many days are we talking here? I'm on a bit of a time crunch, you know."
"Ah can't say fer sure, but I reckon he should get this mess sorted out in no time."
Soarin's seemed to ease up. "I hope you're right."
Shortly afterwards, Braeburn and Soarin' said goodbye to the patrons in the bar and stepped back onto the streets. Soarin' took a cautious glance before fully stepping into the open, peaking Braeburn's interest. "Hey, Soarin', whaddya say we head on home fer now?" he offered, which Soarin' readily accepted. After giving their thanks to Morton, the two ventured home, making sure to avoid the mob of the media.
As the two stallions headed to the outskirts of town, Soarin' noticed that travelling was evidently easier with his new clothes. "I've really gotta thank that Morton guy later for these." He turned to Braeburn. "I mean, I'm still thankful that you lent me what you had, but this just works out so much better, ya know?"
Braeburn nodded. "So long as yer feelin' fine, 'sall that matters."
Soarin' waited for Braeburn to continue, but he never did. He snuck a glance towards his host, and noticed that Braeburn seemed to be walking on autopilot, staring silently before him as they walked. Soarin' opted to not bring up any further conversation, relishing in the silence.
When both ponies reached home, Braeburn said, "C'mon to the table, ah got somethin' ah wanna talk t'ya 'bout."
Soarin' seemed to hesitate, but said, "Alright," and did what he was told.
When both ponies were seated at the dinner table, Braeburn took off his hat. "As ah was busy tryin' to talk to Sheriff, ah heard some things from quite a few ponies, and ah wanted to know if it's true."
"... Go for it," Soarin' replied, swallowing the thickening lump in his throat.
"A lotta ponies in the office said that they were lookin' fer somepony they called a Wonderbolt. Know what those are?"
Soarin' chewed on the inside of his mouth. If he knows already, then lying would probably make things worse. "Yeah, I've heard of them."
Braeburn nodded. "So ya know they're teams o' pegasi, right?"
"So ya see," Braeburn added as he started to smile, "ah remembered that ya were so busy tryin' to hide yer wings from everypony in town. Then it made me wonder why ya'd wanna do somethin' like that. So ah wanna know somethin' else, and ah hope you can be honest with me." He slightly leaned towards Soarin'. "Are ya the Wonderbolt they're lookin' for?"
The tips of Soarin's ears drooped slightly. He turned away, looking through a window. Wish this could've stayed a secret. He sighed as he answered,"Yeah, it's me." He began to plan the quickest way to escape, when Braeburn said the unexpected.
Soarin' had to do a double take. "That's... that's it? Just 'huh... okay'? You're not going to ask what a Wonderbolt is doing in your house, or why I never told you or anything?"
Braeburn shrugged. "Nah."
"'Cause it's none o' my business."
Soarin' stared, both in shock and amazement for a brief moment. "Really?"
It was Braeburn's turn to be amazed. "Ah'm not gonna try diggin' into yer backstory or anythin' like that, Soarin'. Yer a pony who has his secrets fer his own reasons, and ah respect that."
Soarin' continued to stare blankly before he recomposed himself. "That’s... that’s nice of you. Thanks."
Afterwards, both ponies proceeded with their own activities throughout the house. Soarin' spent time organizing all of his belongings so he could retrieve them later, placing the package of Wonderbolt information on his drawer. Braeburn started preparing dinner for the two of them. When the meal was ready, Braeburn called his guest downstairs to eat. Aside from a bowl, glass of water, and silverware on the table for both ponies apiece, there was a large red salad bowl, filled to the brim with a medley of vegetables. "This looks good," Soarin' stated as he took his seat.
"Thanks," Braeburn replied, "ah felt tonight would be a good day fer somethin' simple, so ah just whipped up this salad fer us." He grasped a spoon and scooped out a portion of the salad for the two of them. Both ponies started eating in comfortable silence. After a while, Braeburn spoke up. "So what's it like bein' one o' them Wonderbolts?"
Soarin' stopped eating for a moment and looked up at Braeburn. Then he looked away in thought. He really doesn't seem too bad, but I don't wanna just go spill my life story for some random stallion. Wait... that's it. "How about this," he finally replied. "In exchange for this question, I'd like to know something about you in return. Deal?"
Braeubrn nodded without hesitation. "Sure."
The Wonderbolt sat back in his chair. "Most ponies seem to think that all we do is show up in places, do a bunch of flips, and spend the rest of our time relaxing. But really it’s challenging work, not gonna lie. Practices usually go on for half of the day or longer, and it's us working on new techniques and routines to give us the edge in our upcoming events. Sometimes you'll even be sore in ways you never thought possible, but everypony has to keep going. Then there are the actual competitions. Going up against the other top species in the Equestria, being offered the occasional bribe to be off target by a couple of inches, making sure that everypony's around when it's time to be prepared, it's pretty rocky stuff."
His mood slightly soured. "Then there's the press. You do one little thing that somepony might disapprove of, and they eat it up like it's the only food they've had in weeks. Once they get a bite, they just keep coming, hounding you with the same questions again and again!" He began to grimace as he stared at the table. "Is it too much to just take 'no' for an answer? That the rumors aren't true, and that you just want to be left alone?" He stopped and realized his ranting, looking up to see a concerned Braeburn. "S-sorry, kinda got off topic there. Anything else about the 'Bolts that you wanna know?"
"No, no, that's okay," Braeburn said immediately. "Ah didn't intend to bring up any bad memories." He took another bite and swallowed. "Yer turn now. Whaddya wanna know?"
Soarin' rested his chin on his hoof. How do I approach this properly? "How are you... uh..." His lips curled as he searched for the words. "How can you be so happy?"
"Uh... happy?" Braeburn tilted his head to the side. "Ah'm afraid ah don't get what yer tryin' to say."
"Well..." Soarin' rubbed his hooves together. "How can you be so happy, and yet you're... gay?"
Braeburn stared at Soarin' blinking a few times. "So 'cause ah'm gay ah can't be happy?"
"No, I didn't mean that, I just... ugh. I figured that... you know, being in a town like this..."
Braeburn nodded slowly once. "Ah see. Ya think this town wouldn't care fer somepony like me?" Soarin' seemed to sink in his seat. "Well, ah don't blame ya. A lotta ponies come through here and have this idea that everypony in the south just loves to hate on them gays." He paused to take another bite of salad. "But that ain't true. Sure, some ponies 'round here don't care fer the sight of me, but others are quite acceptin'. Ah've been perty thankful fer the ponies ah know in my life now."
His ears slightly drooped. "But ya know... it wasn't easy. 'Specially growin' up." Braeburn drank some of his water. "Ah started realizin' how ah felt about colts in grade school one day. We talked about fairy tales fer some time, and were given this assignment. All the fillies were s’posed to write about the perfect prince they'd wanna have sweep ‘em offa their feet, and the colts were supposed to talk about their perfect princess. Ah sat there, tryin' to think about what to write, but it jus' didn't feel right, writin’ ‘bout some princess. But writin' about the perfect prince, that felt much more natural to me. So ah wrote it out and we all turned in our papers.
"Next day, the teacher passed the stories back. When ah got mine, it had a big, red zero on it, along with a note sayin' she wanted to see my folks in a conference that night. Ah didn't wanna show my ma and pa that ah got a bad grade, so ah just showed them the note. They looked concerned fer a bit, but decided to come along. Ah sat with my parents as my teacher went on about how ah wrote that ah wanted a prince instead of a princess. Ma and Pa were fumin' but fer different reasons. Ma was fumin' 'cause ah wrote somethin’ as terrible as not wantin’ a princess, but Pa was furious 'cause my Ma and the teacher were makin' such a fuss about what he said was nothin’. They all started yellin' and ah just covered my head in my hooves, hopin' it would all be over soon."
Soarin' stared as Braeburn continued. "They wouldn't talk to each other the whole walk home, but they were at it again that night." The storyteller shook his head. "Ah jus' remember cryin' in bed, coverin' my head, hopin' they'd just stop. Fer the next month, they were either yellin', or they just wouldn't talk to each other. Ah jus' kept hopin' that someday all that would change. Unfortunately, ah got my wish.
"Ah woke up one mornin' to see my Pa sittin' at the table. Ah said 'g'mornin' to him, but he didn't budge. He jus' stared at the cup o' coffee in fronna him. Ah nudged him a little, and that's when he said it: 'She's gone.’ Ah didn't geddit at first, but then ah looked 'round the house. Any pictures with my Ma on the wall were gone. Ah didn't wanna believe it, so ah ran to my folks' room. Everythin' of hers was gone too. That’s when it hit me: my own Ma walked out on me n' Pa."
Braeburn's hooves began to tremble. "Ah jus' sat there, cryin' fer who knows how long. Then ah felt a hoof on my shoulder. Pa was standin' there, eyes red from cryin' too, ah bet. Ah hugged him tight as ah could and we just sat there, tryin' to comfort each other. Eventually ah ask him if somethins wrong with me, and if Ma would'a stayed if ah wrote about a princess instead of a prince. He lowers himself to my level and looks me in the eye. 'Son,' he tells me, 'what ah'm 'bout to say is the most important thing yer ever gonna hear. There ain't nothin' wrong with ya. If ya like colts, then that's jus' who ya are. Ain't nothin' ah, nor anypony else, can do 'bout that. Yer my son, and ah'll always love ya.' Right then n’ there, he started cryin' too, n' we both sat there fer Celestia knows how long.
"Pa let me stay home that day, n' he told me 'bout what it meant to be gay, n' what some ponies thoughta ponies like me, n’ any other questions ah might’a had. He insisted that ah might find a mare ah like along the way, but ah jus' had to follow what my heart told me. We talked fer a while, and ah learned so much from him. The next day ah went to school and ah wanted to jus' git through the day. 'Course, the teacher went n' made a comment 'bout how sometime in our lives, the fillies will git some handsome stallion, and us colts will find a beautiful mare to fall in love with. She then shot me this sorta glare fer a moment. Part a me wanted to duck my head, but ah remembered what my Pa told me. Ah stood outta my seat and told the teacher, 'Ah don' wanna find no mare, ah wanna git me a stallion, and mah pa told me there ain't nothin' ya can do 'bout it!'” Braeburn took a moment to chuckle. “Pa weren't too happy 'bout needin' to come in the middle a work to take me home, but he was shore proud a me fer standin' up fer mahself."
Braeburn weakly smiled as he reminisced some more. Then he snapped his head up to look at Soarin'. "Oh, ah'm sorry, ah jus' kept ramblin' on and on 'bout my life story. That was mighty rude a me, ah apologize."
Soarin' also snapped himself back to reality. "I-it's no trouble. That's just... it's a lot to take in."
"Ah’m sorry," Braeburn replied with a chuckle. "It mus' sound so odd to ya."
Soarin' almost took another bite of his neglected meal, but stopped. "No... I kind of understand how you feel." Braeburn looked back with a quizzical expression. "My mom died when I was young.”
"Ah'm sorry to hear that. It couldn't a been easy."
“When I was six or so, she got really sick, and...” he paused as he closed his eyes and grimaced. “I'm sorry, I... I really don't wanna get into it." Soarin' took a drink of his water. "What about you though?" he asked. "Have you tried getting in touch with your mom?"
Braeburn looked down before shaking his head. "Nah, ah figure it just ain't worth it. Say ah do find her, whaddo ah do then? Do ah tell her ah missed her? Ask her why she walked out on me? Yell at her for not bein' able to accept her own kin? And even then, ah don't think she's in any rush to meet me. She didn't even try writin' to me, or visitin’ me. Ah don't think she'd even wanna see me if ah showed up. 'Sides, what if somethin' happened to her, and she turned up dead somewhere? Sometimes it's true what they say, ignorance is bliss."
Soarin' sat in his seat, reflecting on such insight. “What about your dad?”
“He’s doin’ fine,” Braeburn replied with a wistful smile. “Few years back he met a mare n’ the two of ‘em hit it off. They moved out to Dodge City not long after tyin’ the knot. They come on out n’ visit town every once in a while. He’s ‘bout as chipper as ever.” He looked out the window and saw the orange shade of the sky. “Well now, ah didn’t mean to talk the day away. Sorry ‘bout that.” Braeburn got out of his seat, grasping the now empty bowl in his mouth as he carried it to his sink. He walked to Soarin’. “Want me to get that fer ya?”
“That’s okay,” Soarin’ replied as he shook his head. “I’ll get this.” After clearing the dishes off the table, both ponies went about their business for the rest of the day, sharing occasional and brief conversations to cut up the stifling silence in the house. Eventually, Braeburn went to sleep on the couch, leaving Soarin’ with no real choice but to head for bed as well. “A couple more days, eh?” he said quietly, “It’ll be a bit of a crunch, but I think I can manage.” When he reached his bed, he almost moved under the covers when he remembered the picture on the dresser. He grabbed the frame and studied the three ponies within the photo. One was evidently Braeburn as a foal, but standing next to him were two ponies: an orange-red stallion with a blue mane and tail, and a white mare with a pink mane and tail. His parents? Soarin’ studied the picture more, noting the wrinkled edges and distilled color. I guess this is the only picture he has of her. He looked over his shoulder to where Braeburn slept. His dad supported him, huh? He’s lucky... He put the picture back on the dresser, pulled himself under the covers, and eventually fell into his awaited slumber.
Soarin' had a much easier time waking up today. He sat up in his bed, stretching his forelegs as he yawned. He glanced at the clock, which read six in the morning. He nearly asked himself if his host was awake when the distinct scent of cinnamon and nutmeg struck his nose. Easing himself out of bed and down the stairs, Soarin' saw Braeburn stirring what he could only imagine was their breakfast sitting in a metallic pot on the stovetop. He stepped past the table, seeing only one bowl, spoon, and cup on it. "Something smells good," he commented.
Braeburn jolted and turned around quickly, letting out a sigh when he saw who spoke. "Oh! S-Soarin'. Ya startled me."
"I did? Sorry about that." Soarin' peered around Braeburn and looked at the pot. "What's cookin'?"
"This? Oh, ah was just makin' m'self some hot oats n' cranberries. There ain’t much, but yer welcome ta have some if ya want."
"Hot oats?" Soarin' asked as he tilted his head.
Braeburn chuckled momentarily until he noticed his guest wasn't laughing. "Oh, uh, Oatmeal."
"Ah, right. Sure, I don't mind." Soarin' sat himself at the table as Braeburn began to look for a second bowl, spoon and cup.
"T' be honest, ah wasn't expectin' ya up so early, considerin' ya slept through the mornin' yesterday," Braeburn admitted as he placed the additional dishware on the table.
"Yeah, I uh... my sleep cycle was thrown out of whack when I got into town. The press showing up didn't help me too much either," Soarin' recollected with a small grimace.
"Ah dunno if they'll be in town much longer, but hopefully they skedaddle soon." Braeburn hoisted the pot onto the table, using a ladle to carefully scoop out a portion of the meal for the both of them. He also filled up both cups with a pitcher of apple juice before sitting down himself. "Dig in! Ah hope ya like it."
Without hesitation, Soarin' took a small bite before quickly dropping the mouthful back in the bowl. "Hot! Hot! Too hot!" He quickly doused his singed mouth with the glass of juice.
"Didn't think ya'd jus' throw it in yer mouth like that. Ah'd 've warned ya first." Braeburn was struggling to keep a straight face. "Do ya always try ta wolf down yer breakfast?"
Soarin' slammed down the glass with a hard 'thud' as he let out a sigh of relief. "Not... usually. I just thought they wouldn't be... well... that hot."
"Ah did call 'em hot oats fer a reason." Braeburn blew the bit of hot food before cautiously placing it in his mouth. "Just gotta let it cool off fer a bit is all."
Taking his host's example, Soarin' copied Braeburn's routine before taking a bite himself. Without the blazing hot temperature, his taste buds danced as the spice of cinnamon clashed with the tang of cranberries. The consistency of the oatmeal was also noteworthy; not too runny, but not too chunky either. "This is pretty good! Do you cook a lot?"
With a prideful smile, Braeburn replied, "Been cookin' fer a while now. Started learnin' so ah could help take some of the burden off my pa."
Soarin' stopped and looked at Braeburn, ears drooping slightly. "Oh... that’s right." He quieted down and continued to eat the oatmeal, which Braeburn noticed right away.
"It's okay, Soarin', honest," Braeburn quickly added. "Helpin' my pa cook fer the two of us was the one time we got to bond outta his busy days. Helped me fer the better!"
"Well, uh... okay," Soarin’ replied. An awkward silence momentarily filled the air before the Wonderbolt asked, "So, uh, what're you gonna do today?"
Braeburn finished off his mouthful of breakfast before he answered, "Ah'm headin' off to the Apple Orchard fer work today. Got a lotta apple trees to help buck."
"That sounds... fun?" Soarin' responded.
"Helps pay the bills. Now, the orchard's a ways out from town. Ah don't think ya'd have to worry 'bout any o' them newsponies showin' up, so yer welcome to tag along, if ya want." Soarin' looked up from his food. "Wouldn't want ya cooped up in the house, now."
Well, it sure beats being doing nothing. "I guess I'll give it a shot," Soarin' responded with a shrug.
"Then it’s settled!" Braeburn responded happily.
Both ponies decided they’d leave once their meal was finished. They spent the rest of breakfast talking about nonsensical topics until their bowls were empty. Soarin' found his disguise and covered himself up before following Braeburn to the apple orchard. Along the way, Soarin’ would shoot quick glances towards the townsfolk, who’d do nothing more than smile and wave at him when passing by. Much to his relief, nothing seemed amiss.
When the site was almost in sight, a voice behind them called out, "Braeburn!" Both stallions turned around to see Black Stone approaching. "Ah was wonderin' when ya'd show up. Ah gotta to ask ya somethin' important!"
"G'mornin' to ya, too, Stone," Braeburn replied with a curt look. "What's up?"
"Ya remember that pegasus ya ran after? The one from the bar?"
Soarin' tensed up as Braeburn replied, "Yeah, what 'bout him?"
Black Stone smiled. "All them newsponies runnin’ ‘round town? They're lookin' fer him. Say they wanna ask him some questions, and they'll pay out some big bits to anypony who knows where to find him!"
"Really now?" Braeburn replied. "Well ain't that somethin'."
"Please tell me ya know he went!" Stone pleaded as he put his hooves together.
Braeburn put a hoof to his chin as he hummed. In the meantime, Soarin’ began to tremble, ready to rip off his clothes and fly away from the scene as fast as possible. His acquaintence put this anticipation to rest when he answered, "Ah'm sorry, Stone. Ah just talked to him fer a bit and then he went off to the Haystack Inn. Didja check there?"
Stone slumped to the floor and stared at the dirt. "That's where them newsponies are, but he ain't there. Must'a caught wind an' snuck out or somethin'." He sluggishly looked up at Braeburn when he finally noticed the stallion standing behind his friend. Stone pointed his hoof at Soarin' and asked, "Friend o' yours?"
Braeburn and Soarin' made eye contact. Fear present in the Wonderbolt's eyes met a calming expression in the applebucker's own. "Yep! He’s from Dodge Junction. Met him a few years back, n' now he's come out fer a visit every now n then. Ah wanted to take him with me to the apple orchard."
Black Stone got to his hooves. "Well, where are mah manners? Mighty sorry to go on n' on 'bout that matter. And please excuse my rude friend for not introducin’ you, Mr...?" he asked as he walked up to the incognito pony and held out his hoof.
Soarin' stepped forward to return the gesture and replied, "Mulberry Twister. Nice ta meet ya, pahdnah."
"Right back at'cha. So, yer from Dodge, huh? Never been there m’self, but ah hope Appleloosa’s just as nice a place."
Stepping outside is like stepping into a fire. My coat feels stickier every minute the sun is up. I can't open my mouth without feeling my tongue dry out. The outhouse is this town's greatest scientific achievement. The ponies in this town don't know what personal space means. Oh, and I'm currently the target of a witch hunt. "This here town's pleasant as punch!" Mulberry replied with a wide grin.
Stone looked at Mulberry's attire. "Ain't ya a lil' overdressed for the weather?"
"Weyll," Mulberry replied as he gulped. "Ah figgurd this here'd be usefil fir any varmints that come 'round these parts. Scare 'em off n' all."
Stone silently looked at Mulberry. "You haven't been to an apple orchard before, have ya?"
Braeburn gave Mulberry a look as he subtly shook his head. "N... no, ah haven't. Ain't this what the ol' pioneers used ta wear?"
All three ponies were silent before Stone eventually chuckled. "Yer an odd one, Mulberry, but a good kinda odd, ya know that?"
Braeburn cleared his throat. "Well, we should get goin' to the orchard! Don't want boss to give us more work for dilly-dallyin’."
"Oh, shoot!" Stone replied. "Too true. Let's get movin'!" He took off, not noticing Braeburn and Mulberry staying behind.
"I, uh... I overdid it, didn't I?" Soarin' quietly asked.
Braeburn shrugged. "You'll get the hang of things sooner or later. Now let's hurry out to the orchard. Ah wasn’t kiddin’ ‘bout boss throwin’ a fit over late workers. We'll talk more there."
After moving at a brisk pace for a few minutes, the orchard finally came into view. Soarin's eyes grew big as he noticed row after row of bountiful apple trees. He licked his lips, then immediately regretted it as he passed through a small dust cloud.
Upon arrival, the front of the orchard had a tan lattice awning present to greet them. Braeburn and Soarin' stood in a small line of other mares and stallions as they walked up to a check-in trailer and took a card with them. After a seemingly long and somewhat silent wait, Braeburn received his card. He smiled. "Well ah’ll be!" He showed Soarin' the card, which had a letter ‘H’ on it. The Wonderbolt raised an eyebrow and tilted his head. "Oh, right,” Braeburn added. “Each pony here is given a section of the orchard to buck. You get paid more for a better harvest, so naturally everypony wants the best area. And that area happens to be Row H!"
"Wow, nice.” Both ponies walked away, towards the trees. “You sure I'm allowed in?" Soarin' whispered. "I think I stand out pretty badly over here."
Braeburn shook his head. "Don't worry, as long as them varmints get scared off by what yer wearin’, ah'm sure you'll blend in!" Soarin' stared deadpan as Braeburn tried not to burst into laughter. "C-c'mon, let's go," he said with a snicker.
Both ponies walked along a dirt road that divided the orchard perfectly into two halves, alphabetically organized rows on each side. “Fun fact,” Braeburn began, looking behind him, “this road wasn’t always here. The town put it in a couple months back after a dispute with the local buffalo.”
Soarin’ raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
Braeburn nodded. “When the foundin’ ponies discovered this land, they set up houses an’ livin’ space mighty quick. As it turns out, however... they... kinda built the town on sacred buffalo ground.”
Soarin’ gave his guide an incredulous look. “How did they find that out?”
“When the buffalo stopped all apple trees from comin’ into town, and threatened to demolish the place,” he replied with a sigh.
“That’s... a bit crazy.”
“What’s crazier is how—” Braeburn stopped and looked at the row to his right. “Ah’ll tell ya later, we’re here.”
Soarin's mouth hung open and his pupils grew big, seeing luscious red apples hanging from the countless branches that enshrouded his vision. He quickly wiped the streak of drool from his mouth and quietly asked. "So, uh, what kind of apples are these?"
"Whaddya need?" a feminine voice asked nearby.
Braeburn rolled his eyes. "Fer the hundredth time, not you Red Gala, ah'm talkin' 'bout these apples." Laughter was heard. "She does this all the time, ah tell ya."
“Are you able to take any of these home?” Soarin’ asked as he gulped.
“Only if there’s a surplus, and even then, that’s rare.”
The Wonderbolt’s ears drooped as he moved to sit in the shade as Braeburn worked. He started to stare at the sky as his wings began to ache. If these stupid paparazzi weren’t in town, I could scratch this itch. How do earth ponies live like this?
He was suddenly jolted out of his thoughts when a loud thud sounded off next to him. He looked to his left in time to see a multitude of apples fall neatly into a basket waiting below. Soarin’ stared as his acquaintance walked to another tree and repeated the process. He stood up and moved over to Braeburn as he asked,“How do you do that?”
“Buck the tree like that, I mean.”
Braeburn looked at the tree with a perplexed expression. “Ah... buck it? Uh... ah don’t git what’cha mean.”
“I was just wondering why the apples fall but not the leaves.”
The applebucker’s eyes lit up. “Oh! That’s just earth pony magic.”
Soarin’ stared at Braeburn’s unwavering expression. “... Come again?”
“Not like magic magic, but just earth pony magic. Ya do know ‘bout that, right?”
“I... never bothered to look into magic much,” Soarin’ replied while suppressing a sneer.
Braeburn walked to the next tree, his friend following close behind. “Ah don’t wanna offend, but ah’m a little surprised a Wonderbolt like yerself don’t know ‘bout this.”
Soarin’ huffed. “Like I said, wasn’t interested.”
With that comment, Braeburn decided against commenting further on what Soarin’ did or didn’t know. “Okay, it’s like this. Unicorns can shoot magic outta their horns, right? Well, we earth ponies and you pegasi do somethin’ jus’ like that, but with a tiny difference. Fer instance,” he stopped to face the next tree full of apples. “Try buckin’ that tree.” Soarin’ looked perplexedly at Braeburn, but reluctantly moved towards the plant. He reared himself up and delivered a swift kick into the tree’s trunk, leaving a noticeable groove. However, instead of hearing the surrounding baskets fill with apples, nothing aside from old twigs, some leaves, and a rotten apple or two made their destination. Soarin’ stared dumbfoundedly at his failure.
“Now watch what happens when ah do it,” Braeburn said as he stood before the tree. He readied himself before giving the tree a kick. This time, all apples on the tree fell off, effortlessly and neatly, into the baskets.
Soarin’s mouth hung open, enticing Braeburn to chuckle slightly. “That’s what ah mean by earth pony magic. Earth ponies... well, work the earth, so our magic is more in tune with the environment. Likewise, pegasi have magic that lets ‘em change the weather and walk on clouds. That’s perty much everythin’ ah learned.”
Soarin’ stared at the tree, noting how the indent he gave the trunk seemed untouched by Braeburn’s impact. “So any earth pony could just knock all the apple trees out?”
Braeburn shook his head. “Well, ya still gotta git good at buckin’ trees, o’course. Knowin’ the sweet spot, when it’s the right time to buck, tellin’ good apples from the bad. It’s all in the job.” He smiled as he noted how Soarin’ seemed to understand what he was talking about. Just as quick as it came, however, his smile dropped to an unpleasant look.
“Well lookit who’s here,” remarked a voice from behind. Soarin’ turned around to see two ponies walking towards Braeburn and himself. The pony on the left was gray with a black mane and brown ten gallon hat, and the pony on the right was a light shade of tan with a blue mane and a brown cowboy hat. “Of all the ponies to get H, it just had to be the colt-cuddler,” the tan pony added. Soarin’s eyes shrank and his lip twitched as he backed out of the way.
“Shamrock, Cherry Strudel, always a pleasure,” Braeburn replied. “To what do ah owe this auspicious occasion?”
“Shut yer trap, ya filth!” Shamrock, the gray pony, replied, seeming to shoot daggers from his blue eyes. “We were lookin’ to trade with one of our oh-so generous co-workers, but it seems this row’s tainted today. Might as well throw out all them apples now, don’t wanna infect the town with yer disease-ridden hooves.”
Braeburn began to tut as he shook his head. “Didn’t ya hear? Ah bathe every day in a vat of ‘Gay-Be-Gone’ before work, ah’m straight until the evenin’! But that’d make ya even more worried, wouldn’t it?”
Cherry Strudel walked forward, almost close enough for Braeburn to see his reflection in the other pony’s dark green eyes. “You think yer so smart, dont’cha?”
Braeburn smiled. “Ah ain’t smart, just got a lotta common sense. It don’t take much brains to buck apple trees, couple’a fine gentlecolts such as yerselves oughta know that.”
Cherry’s face scrunched into anger, but before he could do anything, Shamrock held him back, insisting, “He ain’t worth the trouble, Cherry. His time’ll come.” It was then that the gray stallion took note of Soarin’. “And who’re you supposed to be?”
Before he could say anything, Braeburn dictated, “He ain’t no one y’all need to care ‘bout.”
Shamrock smiled. “Ah ain’t seen yer face ‘round town. You this colt-cuddler’s boyfriend?” Any attempt made by Soarin’ not to appear scared failed as he started to back into the tree. “Come on, ah asked ya a question, now spit it out!”
Braeburn suddenly dashed to the spot between Soarin’ and Shamrock. “Ah told ya he ain’t important, now shove off!”
Shamrock and Cherry were now mere inches away from Braeburn. “Then do somethin’. We’re right here.” Soarin’ watched all three ponies stare each other down when an apple whistled over his head and towards shamrock’s hat, knocking it off.
“My stars, ah’m so terribly sorry!” came a young sultry voice from behind the trees. “Seems ah just got a touch careless n’ let an apple fly from my basket. How clumsy of me.” A light-green mare stepped out of the foliage, her yellow mane glistening in the few spots of sunlight peeking through the foliage. “Oh goodness, ah didn’t know we had a social goin’ on here. There ain’t a problem, right fellas?”
Both of the antagonizers seemed to stiffen up. “N-no, no problem here,” Cherry managed to reply.
“We were just on our way,” Shamrock quickly added.
Both ponies turned and left, casting ugly looks to Braeburn and Soarin’ as they walked away.
Braeburn sighed. “Thanks for helpin’ us out, Apple Munchies. Ah didn’t know what they were plannin’, but it couldn’t a been good.”
“Now what in tarnation was that all about, Brae? Ya can’t just go throwin’ words ‘round them two. Especially at work, for Pete’s sake!”
“But they were goin’ after my friend, and ah ain’t ‘bout to sit by n’ watch thugs like those two pick on anyone ah care ‘bout!”
Munchies turned to face Soarin’. “Well, that unpleasant encounter aside, pleasure to meet ya! Ah hope you’ll excuse those two lugs, they can be a bit of a problem at times.” She held out her hoof.
Soarin’ stared blankly for a moment before getting to his hooves. “It’s no-” he quickly cleared his throat, “Naw, tain’t a problem t’all, mayum. Mah name’s Mulberry Twister.” He quickly bumped hooves, throwing on an innocent smile.
“Well, Mulberry, ah’ll have ya know that not all ponies of sweet ol’ Appleloosa are like Shamrock n’ Cherry.” Her smile then disappeared as she patted the top of her head a few times. “Oh fiddlesticks, not again!” She looked behind her to see a blue bonnet with white dots hanging from a branch. She retrieved the headwear and re-tied it onto her head. “So what brings ya ‘round these parts, Mr. Twister?”
“Ah’m jus’ visitin’ from mah home out in Dodge Junkshun,” Mulberry added.
“Dodge, huh? Ah heard the cherry grove’s looking amazin’ this year, know anythin’ ‘bout that?”
“Well, uh...” Mulberry’s gaze instinctively shifted to Braeburn, who was quickly nodding his head. “Eyyup! It’s lookin perty good this year!”
Munchies sighed. “That’s great! After how the cherries were hit with Brown Rot, things looked mighty grim. Ah reckon the remedy ah suggested to Cherry perked it right back up!”
Mulberry nodded. “That’s right! Ah reckon he’s darn happy ‘bout how his trees look this year!”
Apple Munchies raised an eyebrow, unaware of Braeburn shaking his head. “Cherry Jubilee is... a mare.”
Mulberry’s eye twitched as he gulped. “O-oh,” he stammered in between nervous laughter, “Mah fault, ah must’a confoosed him wid ‘er husband.”
Braeburn started to shake his head even faster.
“But... Cherry never married...” Munchies gave him a side glance. “Do you even know who Cherry Jubilee is?”
Before Mulberry could think of anything to say, Braeburn leapt towards him, pushing his friend’s cheeks until his lips stuck out. “Well ah’ll be, Twister! Yer lips are drier than a dust cloud! Ah oughta get you some water right now!” He started dragging Mulberry before the other pony began walking on his own. “You oughta get back to work yerself, Munchies! We’ll talk more later!”
“Later. Munchies. Trust me on this. Thanks again for the help!” Both ponies hurriedly left a very confused mare behind.
“S-sorry about that,” Soarin’ murmured after being a distance away.
“It ain’t a problem,” Braeburn quietly replied. “Just gotta be careful ‘bout what we say ‘round her. She’s a smart cookie, and ah’m sure she’ll put the pieces together in no time if we let her.”
When Soarin’ and Braeburn walked past the rows of apple trees and to a trough filled with water. Both ponies dunked their heads right in and drank before pulling their heads back out as they sighed in relief.
“So, that mare,” the Wonderbolt began, “you and her are good friends?”
Braeburn nodded as he licked the water from his lips. “Yep! We go a ways back.”
Soarin’ sat on the floor. “You said she could put the pieces together ‘in no time’. Is it okay to just leave her alone?”
“She ain’t the type of pony to be spreadin’ secrets or rumors, ah can vouch for that.” Braeburn paused to roll the aches out of his neck. “Which is why ah feel we ought’a tell her the truth.”
Soarin’s eyes shot wide as he jolted himself on all fours. “What?! But you—”
“Ah know, ah know!” Braeburn whispered back, reminding Soarin’ of the public setting they were in. “But listen. We can trust her. It’ll be better if ah explain the situation to her, rather than her findin’ out and tellin’ one o’ her friends or one o’ them newsponies.”
“So she is the type—”
“Not if she knows somepony’s well bein’ is at stake!” Braeburn shot back.
Soarin’ gulped as he began pacing around. He shook his head. I can’t believe I’m considering this. “She can be trusted?”
Braeburn nodded. “Since the day ah met her. Stood up for me once against a coupl’a bullies in grade school.”
“That so?” Soarin’ replied, trying not to tremble.
“Three of ‘em, matter of fact. It wasn’t long after my momma left. Guess they thought I was fair game, given the circumstances. They began pushin’ me around, so ah pushed back. Their leader didn’t like that... so the next day he got me real riled up by talkin’ nonsense ‘bout how my Pa was a terrible parent. Soon as ah called ‘im out, he threw sand in my eye.”
“That so,” Soarin’ bluntly remarked. “What happened next?”
The cowpony cracked a smile. “He bucked me in the chest. Hurt somethin’ fierce. Ah laid on the floor, gaspin’ for breath. Soon as ah could start to see again, they were standin’ over me. I was expectin’ a real whippin’, but then Apple Munchies rushed in and tackled ‘em!”
Soarin’s eyes grew wide. “Just like that?!”
Braeburn nodded. “It was one of the most shockin’ and amazin’ thing my lil’ eyes ever did see. ‘Course ah soon realized it was three on one and she was takin’ as much of a whoopin’ as she was dealin’, so ah leapt in. We all received a suspension fer that. Pa was called to school and...”
“Wasn’t happy?” the Wonderbolt weakly completed as his hooves began to shake.
Braeburn shook his head. “Teacher told ‘im ah was causin’ a ruckus and that ah ought’a be disciplined more often. Pa started sayin’ in front’a everyone that ah can’t just get into fights all the time. How ah gotta be the bigger colt and how he was disappointed in me. Ah was startin’ to cry as we left the school, but when we were out of sight, he suddenly pulled me in for a hug as he was apologizin’, explainin’ that it was just a show for the teachers n such, and told me we were goin’ out for some ice cream.”
Soarin’ stared, slack jawed, as Braeburn smiled.
“Told me it wasn’t a reward for fightin’, it was for standin’ up for myself. Later, of course, he made sure ah knew the difference between pickin’ a fight and standin’ up for myself, and that him treatin’ me for gettin’ in a scuffle weren’t gonna be a regular thing.” Braeburn looked to the sky. “My pa really was somepony amazin’, even after ma left.”
“Your dad... really does sound like a great pony,” Soarin’ weakly replied as his gaze drifted to the floor.
Braeburn turned to his friend and saw the matching bittersweet smile and longing pair of eyes on his face. Before he had a chance to say anything, Munchies appeared from around the corner and asked, “Y’all plan on drinkin’ the town dry?” straightening the two stallions out. “Been gone an awful long time.”
“Don’t mind us! Just havin’ a lil’ chat is all,” Braeburn quickly covered.
“If ya got enough time fer chattin’, ya got time for workin’. Now let’s get back to it, boys.”
Braeburn and Soarin’ watched as Apple Munchies walked away. They looked at each other briefly.
“Guess we should head on back,” Soarin’ commented. Braeburn nodded and followed Soarin' back to row H.
With a swift kick, Braeburn once again knocked off the fruit hanging from their branches. He breathed a sigh of relief as he wiped the sweat from his brow. "That was the last one for the day!"
"Thank Celestia, it’s an oven out here!" Soarin' huffed.
“Says the pony who sat on his kiester durin’ my shift,” the cowpony replied with a chuckle.
Soarin’ couldn’t help but let a quick laugh escape his lips. He looked at the row of baskets filled to the brim with apples. "You probably have enough of these to feed the town three times over."
"Oh, ah wouldn't say that," Braeburn replied with a chuckle. “C’mon, we’re free to go.” He began walking back to the entrance, motioning for his friend to follow behind him.
"So do you guys just leave these baskets here, or does somepony come get them?" Soarin' asked.
"There's a separate team o’ ponies that come in n' collect the baskets. They then gotta tally each pony's harvest n' keep track of the state of the trees. We don't want some sorta disease to infect the whole orchard, after all," Braeburn explained.
Before Soarin' could comment, his stomach growled loudly, causing the Wonderbolt to giggle uneasily.
"Well that answers my next question." Braeburn briefly examined his surroundings. "If yer that hungry, you can grab an apple before we hit the road."
Soarin's ears perked up. "Won't you get in trouble for that?"
"It's perty unlikely," Braeburn answered with a shrug. "One missin' apple ain't gonna affect too much."
Despite his acquaintance having done so, Soarin' also took a moment to check for any wandering eyes. In the blink of an eye, he zipped over to an apple basket and rushed back to where he previously stood, a swiped apple effortlessly hidden under his hat.
"That was fast!"
"Years of practice," Soarin' casually replied.
"It shows," Braeburn mentioned. "Them Wonderbolts really made ya into a speedster, huh?"
Soarin' froze momentarily. "Y-yeah, that's right."
One walk and several odd topics of conversation later, both stallions were clear away from the apple orchard. "Gotta say," Soarin' started, "these clothes sure are a lot better to walk in than what I wore last time."
"Glad to hear it!" Braeburn added. "Ah wish ah had some better clothes for ya, but it's a good thing Morton had that getup for ya."
Both ponies continued walking for a time before Soarin' began talking again. "Still can't believe those jerks actually gave you a hard time back there."
Braeburn sighed through his nostrils. "They've had it out for me since ah came here. They ain't never done anythin' too crazy, but ah keep my wits about me whenever they're around." He paused to turn to his friend. "But ah'm sorry that you got involved. Wasn't even yer fight."
Soarin' scoffed. "They just got lucky because I gotta keep my low profile. If I didn't have this disguise, I'd have..." He began to trail off as he gradually came to a stop. "I'd..."
Braeburn stopped and looked at his friend. "Somethin' wrong?"
Soarin' gently shook his head. "I'd... have stood there... and done nothing." He looked up at Braeburn. "I just froze back there."
"It could'a happened to anypony," Braeburn justified. "Ya felt threatened. It's natural."
"No, you don't get it!" Soarin' shot back. "I could've said something to them, could've gotten in his face, or I could've even shoved him out of the way... but I didn't. That wasn't Mulberry who was scared back there... that was me."
Braeburn walked close to Soarin'. "It's okay to get scared. Ya don't need to beat yerself up about it."
"But this just means that nothing's changed..."
"Whaddya mean 'nothing's changed'?"
Soarin' opened his mouth to answer, but quickly jerked his head back as he stepped away. "It's nothing," he flatly stated as he nearly shoved his way past Braeburn. "Let's just get back to your house."
Braeburn trotted a bit faster than before to catch up. "Soarin', are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine, just don't worry about it."
"'Cause, ya know, you can tell me anythin', and ah-"
Soarin' suddenly whipped around, giving Braeburn a stern glare. "Actually, I don't know. Because in case you forgot, I've only known you for three whole days. Sure, that might seem like enough time for you to give me your life story, but not for me. So no, I don't think I can tell you just anything. Let me refresh your memory. We're not pals, we're not buddies, we're just two stallions who are in the same house for a week, then you're probably never going to see me again. The sooner you understand that, the sooner you'll be able to get over it when I'm gone, got it?"
Braeburn stood in shock as his ears slowly began to droop. "Yer... yer right. Ah'm sorry. Ah... ah shouldn't have assumed it would be okay."
Soarin' turned around and started walking, Braeburn silently following close behind. Neither of the ponies spoke to each other as they continued walking under the midday sun towards Braeburn's house. Upon reaching the front door, Braeburn unlocked the door and let Soarin’ inside. "Oh, ah, uh, just remembered," the cowpony mentioned from outside the doorway, "ah gotta go to the store and get a few things. Ah'll be back later."
Soarin’ looked back and shrugged. “Sure, whatever.” The door quietly shut. He found himself walking up the stairs before he plopped himself into his bed. Soarin’ rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling, replaying the day’s events. He heaved a heavy sigh. “He couldn’t have honestly expected me to just lay out my entire past for him, did he?”
The Wonderbolt sat up. “I mean, you don’t just expect somepony to talk about something he clearly doesn’t want to talk about.” As he continued to lay down, he started to remember his surroundings. The bed he was in, the room he was given, the food he’d eaten, none of which belonged to him. He laid back down. I... guess I shouldn’t have lashed out at him. Here he is, trying to understand me and keep me under the radar... and I respond by chewing him out.
Soarin’ got up and out of the bed, eyeing the couch on the level below. After a moment of staring at the piece of furniture, he decided to hover to the lower level, moving to the couch. He prodded a cushion with his hoof, gradually applying more weight into his foreleg. He pulled the hoof away, noticing no imprint in the surface. This thing’s as hard as a rock. How can he sleep on it? A thought crossed his mind, causing him to look off to the side. How would... I have slept on it? Once again, he sighed. “Damn it, he didn’t deserve any of that...” He started walking back upstairs. “I’ll apologize when he gets home, I owe him that much.”
It was at that time when a knock came from the door. Soarin’ turned around, an eyebrow raised. Does he think he needs permission to enter his own home? He walked to the door and opened it before freezing on the spot. A familiar reporter stood before him, looking a fraction as shocked as Soarin’.
“O-oh, what an unexpected surprise,” Strawberry Dreams admitted. “Word around town was that a pony by the name of Braeburn lived here, and yet I’ve run into you again, Mr. Twister.”
Mulberry forced a smile. “L-likewise, ma’am!”
“I don’t mean to be rude, but could you tell me where I can find this Braeburn fellow? I’d really like to ask him a few questions.”
“Well, ah’m afraid ya jist missed ‘im.”
“And you know Mr. Braeburn... how?”
“That’s cuz’ uh,” Mulberry paused as his eyes darted upward momentarily, “he’s a good friend of mine!”
“And you’re here because...”
“Ah’m stayin’ heer fer a few days.”
“Is that so...” Strawberry put a hoof to her chin. “That strikes me as somewhat odd, Mr. Twister.”
Mulberry’s lower lip twitched. “Ah, ah don’ unnerstand...”
“Anypony I spoke to that mentioned Braeburn said he lived alone, none of them said anything about somepony else living with him.”
“Oh, th-that ain’t a surprise,” Mulberry replied as he rubbed the back of his neck. “Ah jus’ recently had to room up with ‘im. Mah home ain’t in livin’ condishun right now. Bein’ fumigated fer now.”
Strawberry and Mulberry stared at each other for a moment. Eventually, the reporter cleared her throat. “Well, if Mr. Braeburn isn’t here, I do have other ponies I need to speak to. So I’ll take my leave. Farewell for now, Mr. Twister.”
Mulberry delightfully closed the d—
“One last thing,” Strawberry added, stopping the door with a hoof. “You might want to consider keeping your hat on. That manestyle of yours... it really stands out.” She gave an innocent smile. “‘Til we meet again.”
Mulberry slowly closed the door, immediately resting against it as he slid to the floor. He started to shake as his breathing grew heavier.
She knows. She’s gotta know. Soarin’ concluded. I gotta get out of here! He sprung to his hooves and flew up the stairs, looking frantically for his bag. As soon as he found it, he began looking for his belongings, but suddenly stopped. Woah, calm down! Let’s think about this for a second. He started pacing back and forth. Reporters thrive on exclusive scoops. She wouldn’t tell the entire press about what’s going on. If only she knows, it’s not going to be the end of the world. He stopped his train of thought to take a deep breath. This just means I’ve got to keep a really low profile. He loudly exhaled before walking to his bed and plopping his face onto the mattress as he let out a muffled groan. This week can’t end fast enough.