I can still remember the first time I had the slightest inkling that I might be different than everypony else. It was a silly thing. Cousin MacIntosh and Cousin Applejack had come to visit Appleoosa one summer. It was a really hot one, the kind of summer that makes you feel sticky all over, and want to jump into a pool of ice water. The kind of summer where you’d do anything to get some relief, whether that meant eating something cold, or going swimming, pouring cold water on your head. I’ve seen ponies do crazy things because of the heat.
The dusty streets of Appleoosa were unkind to the sinuses in the summer, and tourist ponies were prone to nosebleeds because of the dry air. One time, I got one. Even though it was one time, my mother panicked, she acted like I was dying or something of the sort. Blood dripped around the floor while she struggled to find a towel.
We were even more of a frontier town back then than we are now, but, for whatever reason, ponies insisted on coming and visiting, though they always seemed to regret their decision to come, and left straightaway. It seemed this was always the case, nopony ever was really truly happy. They always wanted something else, once they had gotten what they first wanted.
Where the initial appeal was, I had not a clue. Appleoosa was a good town to me, she was my home and I was proud of her. I wasn't afraid to show that. But, for some reason, some ponies just loved to show up, acting all excited to be in the frontier and see the orchards, but unless they were like AJ and Mac, they'd always leave after a day or two.
Now, Applejack, when she was younger, was always really wishy-washy about stuff. One minute, she liked the color blue, the next minute, she liked green, then she liked purple, then red. She just couldn’t make up her mind, which, I guess, is why she ran off with those Orange relatives of ours. I’d never met them, but they must have been real nice folks to let her stay there like that.
Applejack liked to argue. That never changed. Even if she knew she was wrong, she'd keep fighting and struggling. You liked green, she liked blue. You liked cake, she liked pie. She'd even go so far as to change her opinion for five minutes just to fight.
Big Mac didn’t really change in his base personality as he grew older. He was always a big, gentle giant. The guy was smarter than he let off. Other people’s opinions just weren’t all that important to him, I guess, which I think is better than always worrying what others think about you. When you asked him something, he'd think for a second, then answer with either 'eeyup' or 'nnnope', and that was that.
The two contrasted more than black and white. Applejack hotheaded and Big Mac was always so cool and collected, not wanting to rush into anything and making decisions after a lot of thought and consideration. Applejack, though, that filly was aggressive and acted only on her impulses.
The year that Mac and AJ came to Appleoosa, their Momma was still pregnant with Applebloom. That was a real tragedy. The two parents were great, and they raised some brilliant foals, but a few years after Applebloom was born, they got in this accident with their apple cart, and they didn't make it out.
That was the low point of our lives, I think. An eye-opener for all of us. Losing Uncle Johnny and Auntie Appleseed caused me to think more about my own life and my family. My father’s name was Green Delicious, and my mother was Apple Blossom. Auntie Appleseed and my mother were sisters, their mother being Granny Smith.
My pops was a nice guy, and that’s how I’d always like to remember him. He was an honest, hard-working stallion. Simple. He had a black mane and a grey coat. Half the time, he was so soaked with sweat that his coat even looked black. He was one of the original settlers of Appleoosa, as I got to hear about hundreds of times. Even if he was a nice guy, you could almost never make him mad. If you got him mad, though, he’d be the scariest damn thing to ever leap out of your nightmares. Screaming, hollering, shouting. You name it, my dad was doing it if he was mad enough.
My mom was a whole new story, though. Tiny little thing, but the most beautiful mare in all of Appleoosa. Long, gold mane that spilled across her ears and neck and shoulders like rivers, and the prettiest orange coat you’d ever see. I swear, it sparkled in the sunlight, sometimes.
In the morning, she’d always cook these pancakes with hunks of apples cooked right into the batter. Really thick, starchy things. You couldn’t even try to eat them without a glass of milk. They were dad’s favorites.
We were all pretty close, mom and her sister and dad and Uncle Johnny, and me and AJ and Mac. Maybe that’s why when my Aunt and Uncle died, everypony changed so much. Applejack got all mature, and MacIntosh kinda just stopped talking altogether. So, after that, when they did come to visit, they were always so dull. Growing up too fast does that to anyone, I suppose.
This particular summer that my cousins would come to visit would be start of a string of seemingly random events that would ultimately lead up to where I stand now, but, I was just a foal. I didn’t know any better. Whether destiny exists or not, life sure is funny sometimes.
We had been discussing something trivial that foals often spoke about in order to try to sound more grown-up: Marriage. Now, obviously, foals don’t understand the implications of the topic, but spoke about it anyway. Applejack was insisting that she was going to marry MacIntosh because all the other boys were nasty and had cooties, anyway. MacIntosh was, unsurprisingly, complacent about the whole ordeal and shrugged it off.
“Hey!” I interrupted smugly, crossing my front hooves over my chest. “What if Ah wanna marry MacIntosh?” I protested. There was nothing wrong with that, right?
Applejack wrinkled her freckled nose. “Colts can’t marry other colts!” She insisted, rolling her eyes. “Everypony knows that.”
“Why not?” I cocked my head to the side in genuine confusion.
“’Cause that’s how it just is!” Applejack muttered. “Yeesh, Braeburn, how dopey can you get?” She groaned out exasperatedly, waving a hoof toward me.
I still didn’t quite get it, so I stood up and put a hoof on the golden doorknob leading from my room to the hallway. The ways were a muted, warm shade of red, the floor and molding made of dark, polished, waxed oak that ran horizontally, against the natural grain of the wood itself. Aromas drifted around from the smooth flooring, filling my nostrils as I turned right, into the kitchen. My mom and dad were out running errands, and my Aunt and Uncle had to stay at Sweet Apple Acres, back in Ponyville, leaving Granny Smith to watch us for the length of the afternoon.
“Granny Smith?” I called politely into the room. Granny Smith was family, but still deserved a lot of respect, if even just because of her age.
“Yes, dear?” The elderly green mare set down her knitting needles into her lap and stopped rocking for a moment, smiling at her grandson.
“Can colts marry other colts?” I asked. My curiosity had been piqued; there really was no turning back at this point.
Granny Smith paused, cocking an eyebrow at me and leaning in. “Why’re you askin’, Braeburn?”
“’B’cause Cousin Applejack was sayin’ she wanted to marry MacIntosh, but Ah asked what if Ah wanted to marry him, and-“ My sentence was cut off when a thump hit both of my ears. A stinging pain reverberated through each one, down into my inner ear, leaving them ringing loudly with a lingering pain.
“Now, ya listen here!” Granny Smith snapped. I felt a shockingly firm grip on my shoulder drag me closer. “Colts don’t go marryin’ other colts. Ah don’t wanna hear no more nonsense ‘bout this. Colts do not marry other colts. You understand me, boy?”
“Yes’m.” I whimpered, shrinking back and scuttling to my room down the hall where a smug-looking Applejack and exasperated MacIntosh stood, waiting.
“She boxed yer ears!” Applejack laughed. “Ah told you it was a stupid idea, Braeburn!” The orange earth pony stuck out her tongue, blowing a raspberry at me. I scowled, raking my hooves nervously against the floor.
“Ah don’t get it. Why can’t colts be with other colts?” I persisted to Applejack, I felt tears rising behind my eyes.
“It’s best ya don’t go ‘round askin’ those sorts of questions,” AJ informed me, as though she were speaking to someone far younger than she. “Granny Smith’s done it ta me, an’ she’s done it ta Mac, an’ she’s gonna do it ta Applebloom.”
“Aren’t Grannies supposed ta be nice?” I asked, recoiling slightly.
“Granny Smith is nice! Yer just a dodo!” Applejack rolled her eyes, then she evidently noticed the tears in my eyes and frowned. “Aww, Brae, Ah didn’t mean it. Yer not really a dodo.”
“Really?” I swallowed, staring at my hooves.
Applejack nodded. “Really! An’ ya can marry me, ‘s okay, Mac’s gonna marry Granny Smith.”
“Okay.” I mumbled, still not sure I wanted to marry Applejack.
The rest of their trip, I said nothing of what had transpired. I kept my head low. When asked a question, I answered. I played with MacIntosh and Applejack like I always did, but the question still nagged at the back of my mind. Why couldn’t two colts get married? Could two mares get married? I let the question stew for a few months, until I decided to try something.
I grabbed the box of old coloring utensils that we kept by the icebox, and an old, yellowed piece of paper. It was crinkly around the edges, and evidently very old, but that didn’t matter to me, as my objective was clear. I looked down at my hooves and tried to discern the color closest to my own fur.
Yellow. Definitely yellow. I grabbed the crayon and began to scribble a waxy layer of yellow shapes on the thick sheet of paper, stopping only once to peel back the paper on the crayon itself. I frowned with the realization that I didn’t know my own eye color. I looked around for a mirror something, and took note of the window I was sitting beside. That would do. I leaned in, trying to see the reflection rather than through the glass.
Green. Bright, bright, piercing green. I’d never seen colors this bright before. Brighter than any apples I’d ever seen, let alone eyes. I took the opportunity to examine my mane as well. Orange, with several golden highlights. It travelled down my neck and ended there in a series of wavy, very loose curls. Part of it obstructed my forehead. Turning my head to my tail, I noticed they were the same color.
With this newfound information, I got to work. Light orange, dark orange, and green. I scribbled two orbs with the green on the face of the stick figure pony I had drawn, and began to scrabble on a mane. For good measure, I added the highlights as well with lighter orange. It wasn’t gold, but it would do.
I leaned out to examine my handiwork. It was a childish caricature of myself, but to me, it was my spitting image. Knowing the other pony I would draw, I grabbed dark brown, light brown, and blue. I began to sketch out what was roughly the shape of another pony and then scribbled another mane, much shorter than mine, and a tail, before adding two blue eyes.
It was Caramel, one of the other colts that lived in Appleoosa. His parents were friends with mine, and I had developed something of a crush on him in the past several weeks. He was prettier than any of the fillies were, to me. I liked fillies, but I like friends. For some reason, I got the idea I didn’t really feel like marrying one or having a girlfriend. I wondered if it was okay to have a boyfriend, if you were a colt, even if you couldn’t get married.
Proud of myself, I packed the crayons back into their rusty tin container and set them back into their position beside the sink. I still had to reach somewhat, being short. I hopped up into my chair and grabbed my drawing of me and Caramel, sneaking into the den. Maybe my dad would understand it. It was a stallion thing, I thought.
Now my father was generally a gentle, kind man. He was known for being a hard-flank, though, and could be one of the most stubborn ponies in all of Equestria if it weren’t for my mother, often cold argue until the sun came up.
I trotted up to him and held up my drawing. “Dad?”
“Eeyup?” He acknowledged, not looking up from his newspaper and coffee. He sat, stoic, in the middle of the den.
“Can colts marry other colts? Or have coltfriends?” I cocked my head at him, and watched him look up slowly, raising an eyebrow at me.
“Why you askin’, son?”
“Because cousin AJ said that Ah couldn’t marry another colt, but Ah think Ah like Caramel an’ so I was wonderin’ because yer always right ‘bout these sorts of things.”
My father was silent for several seconds. He folded his paper slowly, setting it in his lap, and took a sip of his coffee, swallowing audibly. He seemed thoughtful for several moments, tapping his hooves together. “Braeburn,” He finally addressed, looking up.
“Yes, sir?” I asked. Yes! Someone was going to give me an answer.
He snapped his eyes open, and I could tell by his shuddering voice, rather than by his face, that he was angry. “Ah want you to never mention any of this nonsense ever again.” He snapped, his voice growing in volume as he spoke. “Colts do not go together with other colts, that isn’t how we were intended to be. Ah never want to hear nothin’ ‘bout this ever again. You understand me, son?” He was glaring at me by this point, and I frowned.
“Go to yer room.”
I dashed away, my blood cold. It was a miracle he hadn’t hit me like Granny Smith had. Sometimes, I still couldn’t hear quite right.
Immediately, I crumpled up my drawing and dropped it in the wastebasket. This hadn’t been a good idea at all. I briefly wondered what exactly it was that I had done that was so wrong. Maybe only big ponies understood it? It was one of those rules. That’s what it had to be.
I heard the door open and close again, sending a familiar vibration through the house. I both heard and felt hooves walking along the wood flooring, and some murmurs. I pressed my ear up against the door, curious.
“It’s a big problem, awright!” I heard my father hissing. “Ahr son’s a queer!”
“Wha-?” My mother asked, a half-formed word she often asked, making her come off dazed. Then, she laughed. “Oh, please, Green. I know you don’t like his mane, but now you’re being ridiculous.”
A silence passed, before my father rumbled, “Ah’m not kiddin’, Apple Blossom. Somethin’ just ain’t right with that boy. He told me he has a crush on Caramel, the kid down the street?”
An even longer silence ensued, before I heard my mother whisper quietly and sadly, “Well, well… There’s a cure for these sorts of things! Old Miss Candy Apple was tellin’ me all ‘bout it. It’s a routine.”
“Pft,” My father scoffed. “Ah don’t believe in any of that mumbo jumbo nonsense. Our boy needs to straighten out, and fast.”
“What do you propose we do?” Mom drawled.
“Knock some good, hard work into ‘im! I heard this is the work of disharmony in ‘im. Gonna be awright, though. We’ll have ‘im work hard on the orchard, an’ he’ll pick up his feet soon enough.”
“Fine. Do it your way. I think there’s a medicine.”
“Too expensive,” Dad denied. “’Sides, why d'we need medicine when we can just put ‘im to work? That oughta do it, for sure.”
I hadn’t understood most of the conversation, of course, but I frowned and leaned against the wall.
Somehow, I got the idea I wasn’t a very good pony.
I walked through the phases of childhood as they came and went like the seasons. Somewhere along the lines, I learned to hold my tongue and keep my mouth shut when it came to things that could be even slightly controversial.
I was a hard worker, and a damn good applebucker. I could clear half of the orchard in an hour. I spent many hours, as a foal, bucking, harvesting, and just generally working until I felt like my legs were going to give out, or my back was going to break. Whichever came first.
My life was filled with my hooves pounding against the hard, dusty roads that winded through the orchard, twining through the trees, where the smell of apples was strongest. If you trotted fast enough, the wind rushing through your mane would be enough to cool you off, drying your sweat and plastering your coat to your skin.
It sounds silly, but I loved Appleoosa. I still do. She’s my home. She wasn’t the kindest, but she was where I was born, and would always be where I belonged. After those particular instances in my childhood, I continued like a normal colt should. I acted as though fillies were attractive to me when I was supposed to, smiled at the right moment, and didn’t bring the topic up again.
I tried very, very hard to find mares appealing. When one would speak to me, however, even if it was clear that they were flirting, I just didn’t have any attraction. They were perfectly nice ponies, so it wasn’t that by any means.
I grew to deny myself. It was just that that one special mare had failed to come along yet. That’s what I told myself, and that’s what I told others. Perhaps that was why I was so willing to go back and visit Ponyville when Applejack wanted to introduce me to a friend of hers.
Appleoosa had grown quiet and peaceful after the spat with the buffalo themselves had been solved. We had arranged a fair agreement, sharing their stampeding grounds. There had been no more issues with the trains, and because of that, trains ran three times, daily. Two to Canterlot, and one to Ponyville.
This caused a flood of ponies to come in and out of Appleoosa, particularly during Zap Apple season. My family and I were the ones who had to take care of making the jam, pies, cakes, fritters, and baked goods in general. This made sense, with us being the only relatives of the actual Apple family in all of Appleoosa, which had been settled sometime after Ponyville. A group of ponies decided that Ponyville was beginning too industrialized, and they wanted the simple type of life. It certainly wasn't hard to see why.
They were all real basic, boring kinds of guys, with wives that would stay at home to cook and clean and take care of the kids. The kids would grow up, and the cycle would start all over again.
Sure, there was the occasional old maid, but she had enough cats to keep her occupied, and would always have a checkers game or something arranged with the lonely old man. It was this particular old man that I’m sure my family feared I was going to become. I showed little to no interest in romance as an adolescent, I was simply concerned about work.
This didn’t seem right to anypony, including my parents, and my cousins. My matchmaking relatives would always try to set me up with mares, and I always felt bad when we’d have dinner and they’d be chatting enthusiastically, but all I’d ever see was the same mare every time. It was the same mare who seemed to think that favorite colors and middle names would be things I was interested in, things that would build a relationship.
So, after declining their invitation to come in for ‘coffee’, I’d trudge back home, much to the disappointment of my parents. Finally, Applejack decided she had had enough. I got a letter from her, demanding that I come out to Ponyville to meet a friend of hers who fancied me when they had visited Appleoosa. She said I should stay a few weeks.
I had nothing better to do, so I obliged with mock cheer, although my parents didn’t exactly give me much of a choice in the matter. I needed a vacation, they said. So, early on a foggy, Saturday morning at the beginning of winter, I hopped on the train for Ponyville. The harvest was over and we had received our first snow, which had dissolved and re-freezed into a crunchy iciness that crumbled with every step you took, caking your hooves with the stuff and leaving a clear path of where you had walked.
The train ride to Ponyville was bumpy, mostly because of the frosty wheels that ground against the tracks, occasionally stiffly hitting a rock or two, which would jolt the car itself, and cause a screeching noise to reverberate through the entire locomotive. I was a patient pony, so looking out the window was certainly enough to entertain me while the mustached stallion across the car from me snored away the trip. The bumpiness was easily tuned out as I mused the fauna. Scenery zipped by quicker than I'd ever imagined.
I hadn’t been to Ponyville before, as shocking as it sounded. Applejack and MacIntosh had always come to visit Appleoosa. I simply had never felt like leaving Appleoosa, it was the only town I really needed, because it had everything I needed; it got lonely, sometimes, but I had my parents, and a few other ponies that bucked apples with me.
Nonetheless, it was unmistakable when we entered Ponyville. Unicorns and Pegasi, along with the earth ponies, littered the masses. They were sprinkled throughout the population, something you didn’t see often in Appleoosa, which was a predominately earth pony town.
The train screeched to a halt, lurching forward as the metal groaned in protest of the sudden movement. The snow here was thickly laden, with everypony dressed up in hats, scarves, earmuffs, and boots. I was suddenly glad that I had my hat with me, but I worried that I was still too underdressed for what awaited me outside. It looked much, much colder than Appleoosa.
I pressed a hoof up against the window. Frigid. I pulled it back slowly, leaving behind a ring of moist fog on the glass, and shivered. I stared at my reflection in the frosty window, briefly remembering myself as a child and the first time I had noticed my eye color. When the green stallion across from me awoke, he smacked his lips obnoxiously and arranged himself on his hooves, rubbing his eyes before walking out.
I let out a sigh, standing up and grabbing my bag from underneath the seat and nudging my way out of the train, onto the platform. Celestia, it was cold. Though, I had the feeling I should have anticipated such weather. I shivered and inched forward a few steps, until I heard someone call my name.
“Brae! Braeburn!” Applejack’s voice sounded distant, but I could still hear it vaguely to my right, and pricked my ears, until I saw her orange head bobbing through the crowd.
“Hey, cuz!” I exclaimed, tightly hugging my forelegs around her. The temperature was forgotten.
“Hey,” she greeted, releasing me and grinning the silly way she usually did. The freckles on her nose had disappeared (though her cheeks were still dotted with them), giving her a somehow more mature air. “How ya been, Brae?”
“Well enough.” I smiled. “You?”
“Ah’ve been just fine. We’ve been gettin’ all ready for ya, though. Yer gonna like the mare Ah got in mind for you. Real sweet. Just like you. Works too hard, doesn’t think she needs ‘nyone else.”
I frowned. That wasn’t what I thought at all. I bit my tongue. “Really? Which one was she again?”
“Rainbow Dash. Now, she gets sorta sensitive, so Ah’m just warnin’ ya, be careful. She’s gonna be over here fer dinner. Ah got Granny Smith to go play bingo at the old pony’s home with some friends’a hers, once we get dinner started. So, it’s jus’ gonna be you, me, Mac, an’ Applebloom, but, uh-“ Applejack smirked and elbowed me. “If ya need some privacy, feel free to ask us to leave or leave yerselves whenever ya like.”
Heat rose to my face. “Uh. Yeah,” I muttered. “S-sure, AJ. Ah’ll remember that.” Disturbed by the notion, I looked at my hooves. Applejack rolled her eyes.
“Yer pretty darned sensitive yerself.”
“Ah know… Jus’, Ah’m not comfortable with that sorta stuff, y’know that.”
“S’pose Ah do. Sorry,” AJ mumbled. "Jus' horsin' 'round with ya, Brae."
“Nah, s’alright. Ah remember Rainbow Dash just fine. Did’ja propose this ta her as well?”
“As a matter of fact, she was tellin’ me all ‘bout how she fancied you entire time we were in Appleoosa. She acts all rough-an’-tumble, but she’s not as much of a hotshot as she seems. Told her Ah’d give you the proposition.”
“Awright, Ah s’pose Ah could stand to get to know somepony better,” I mumbled. I knew immediately how this would end. Rainbow Dash had been nice enough, particularly with helping out the buffalo, but I knew I just wouldn’t feel anything.
I was just going to hope I didn’t hurt her and continue on with my life, returning to Appleoosa and going back to work. “We’re here,” AJ informed me while I continued walking, staring at the ground and having lost myself.
I glanced up. “Wow, AJ. This place really is all ya said it was.” It was massive. I could spot a pig pen to my right, surrounded by picket fences, slathered in chipped red paint that exposed the dry, fibrous wood underneath in more places than one. Dried, partially frozen mud splattered in a radius around the pig pen while the pink and brown creatures sloshed around in it, though I’d imagined it to be freezing.
In the occasional gaps in the snow, the grass underhoof was dead, probably from frostbite or something. The dirt was a dry, cold powder on the topsoil, but as I stepped, my hooves dug in somewhat deeper, exposing the glaciating mud just underneath the surface.
To the left were fields that seemed to go on for hundreds of miles. Corn, carrots, potatoes… I could name each one of them. Bales of hay sat next to a large stack of the stuff beside an orange chicken coop, the peeling paint showing that the wood was in a condition like the pig pen’s picket fence. A sign with an egg resting in hay hung down on two thin chains from the top.
Finally, the apple orchard. The most wonderful smell wafted over me, fresh apples. There was no fruit currently on the trees, but the aftermath still existed on the breeze like some kind of distant memory.
Hills rolled endlessly, as though on the backdrop of a painting, fading into the distant clouds. I sighed quietly as my muscles began to relax, trudging toward the imposing, yet, somehow friendly orange barnhouse.
To my luck, I found the rest of my family sitting on the porch. Applebloom squealed with delight, trotting forward and grinning. “Uncle Braeburn!” She grinned, her bow bouncing as she pranced toward me and reached up, throwing her forehooves around my neck and hugging me. “Hi! Ah’m real close ta getting’ mah cutie mark!” In spite of the fact that we were technically cousins, the age difference was large enough to the point where I may as well have been her uncle.
“Really?” I beamed, patting her on the head and hugging her back. I continued up the porch steps, my brown bag sitting on my back, and nodded to Big MacIntosh while Applebloom chattered away, all about her friends and their cutie marks, as well as their misadventured attempts to find them.
MacIntosh and I exchanged a nod. “Evenin’,” he greeted. His voice was gruff, though his tone was friendly. He certainly was the same Big Mac I’d grown to know in my childhood.
“Evenin’ ta you, too, Mac.” I smirked, tilting my hat to the stallion, several hands taller than me, now. Finally, Granny Smith forced herself out of her rocking chair and grinned.
“Why if it ain’t Braeburn? How’s Appleoosa, son?” Granny Smith smiled widely, gruesomely displaying her dentures, but I grinned at her nonetheless and gave her gentle hug. She always seemed so frail, like if I touched her, her bones would shatter or turn to dust or something.
“Same as it’s always been, Granny. Fantastic.” I turned back to Applejack. “So, where will Ah be stayin’ in this fine establishment?” I felt a welcoming familiarity rise as I realized I was safe with them.
“Well, that was somethin’ we were debatin’, Brae,” Applejack informed me, shooting a silencing glare in Applebloom’s direction. The filly snapped her mouth shut and smiled coyly. “We were thinkin’ ya could hole up in Mac’s room, but it’s so darned messy-“ she paused, to glare at MacIntosh, who only rolled his eyes and continued absentmindedly chewing on his sprig of wheat. “- we figured it might just be easier for ya ta stay on the couch.”
“Ah’course that’s not a problem, AJ. Ah wouldn’t wanna be intrudin’ on nopony, Ah’m just a guest.” I nodded. “This is yer home, ‘n Ah’m just passin’ through.”
“Now, Braeburn Apple!” Granny Smith snapped, hobbling around my right side. She scrunched up her face, like she tasted something foul, and narrowed her eyes. “Yer always welcome here!” she exclaimed. “We’d never leave ya hangin’ fer no reason. Ya ever need ta come here, ya tell us,” she wrapped her forelegs around my neck.
“Thanks, Granny,” I smiled, shifting on my hooves and turning back to Applebloom. “So, what was that about Scootaloo?”
Applebloom grinned. “You were listenin’! Nopony ever listens ta me!”
Granny Smith hit her lightly on the back of the head. “That’s not the truth, ya know that.”
Applebloom winced at the same time I did. That had been unnecessary. I shook it off almost immediately. I was a guest, even if they were family. An awkward silence passed before Granny Smith glanced up at me. “Braeburn, how’s Apple Blossom doin’? She needs ta come visit with yer father,” Granny Smith demanded, returning to her original position in the rocking chair.
“Ah’ll tell them ya said that, Granny.” I realized how absolutely frigid it was, and shivered again. “Uh, if y’all don’t mind, this is a bit colder’n Appleoosa,” I mumbled, my teeth chattering. I felt goosebumps rise on my skin below my coat, sending every hair standing straight up.
“Brae, why didn’t’cha say somethin’ sooner?” Applejack laughed. “I’ve been freezing my flanks off, thinkin’ ya wanted to admire the house or something. Come on, then.” She tipped her head toward the door and swung it open. Applebloom, of her own accord, was staying outdoors with Mac and Granny Smith. I didn’t protest.
A redeeming wave of heat washed over me as I stepped in. A set of steps led up to the second level, though the entire house was made out of some dark wood. A dining room table with a checkered red and white tablecloth lay to the right, a cracked blue vase that held a single yellow daisy resting on top of it.
The furniture was all made up of warm colors. Reds, oranges, yellows, and browns seemed to litter the entire house. The curtains, tied to the sides of the windows, allowed the dying evening light to filter in through the glass, illuminating the barnhouse.
AJ flopped down onto the russet colored couch, moaning for a minute. “Ah. Worked. All. Day, Brae. Thank Celestia Mac’s cookin’ tonight. Y’know, he ain’t bad at it at all for a stallion. It ain’t pretty, but it sure tastes good. Best cider Ah’ve ever had, too. Gonna be nice for his marefriend, whenever he gets one.” Applejack paused thoughtfully. “So, Brae, what about you, then? Ya like RD at all when ya met ‘er?”
I bit my lip. “Yeah. Yeah, I liked her,” I mumbled, unsure of myself. “Ah can grow to like her like that, Ah s’pose.”
“Really?” Applejack grinned. “She’s gonna be the happiest filly on the face’a this earth if ya tell her that. She thought ya were the cutest darned thing in all of Equestria, figured you were already married or somethin’.”
My face heated up. “That’s… great, AJ.”
“’nyhow, we should be gettin’ one of our regulars droppin’ by here at some point. He’s got this crazy thing with pies.” My cousin got to her hooves. “’Said he’d be comin’ by earlier. Every time the Wonderbolts are in town, he’s here.” At that moment, there was a frantic knocking on the door. “Pro’lly him,” she mumbled, crossing the room over to the door and opening it.
A Pegasus rushed through the door. “Applejack!” He unfurled his blue wings. “I need a pie! I need, uh… uh, I need six! Six pies!” He shifted on his hooves, clearly agitated.
“No worries, Soarin. I gotcha.” Applejack casually walked over to the couch, taking a large bag from the other side of it and handing it to him. “Six apple p-“
Before she could finish her sentence, Soarin shoved a hoofful of bits into her face, faster than she could react; the coins clattered uselessly to the ground, scattering everywhere. Soarin snatched a pie from the bag, the pie tin clinking briefly on the floor, before he dove face-first into it and groaned.
Bits of pie sprayed in every direction while the stallion chewed hungrily, making disturbingly animalistic noises as he ate the pastry. It was gone in a matter of seconds, including the bottom crust. “Holey Moley,” I breathed, allowing my jaw to drop. “What in Equestria…”
Applejack seemed oddly accustomed to this, and was patiently picking up the bits from the floor. Soarin must have been paying quite a lot; this was generally the type of behavior that would send AJ off into a fluster, but she seemed relaxed enough.
“Who’s this?” Soarin asked, crudely wiping his muzzle and face with his hoof and adjusted the goggles resting just above his eyes. His eyes traveled briefly to Applejack.
“This here’s Braeburn. Mah cousin,” Applejack grinned, trotting over and patting me heartily on the back. I flinched.
“Nice to meet you, dude.” Soarin extended a sticky, pie-covered hoof. “In case you haven’t guessed, I’m Soarin Windsong. I’m totally a part of the Wonderbolts, so you’ve probably heard of me.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Err. Yes, Ah have.” I shrugged it off and shook his hoof. “Ah guess ya like AJ’s pies, huh? She makes the best ones. Ever been here during Zap Apple season?”
“Yeah,” Soarin laughed. “Tried one at the Gala, now I have to have my fix all the time. Every time we’re in Ponyville, I stock up. Winter Solstice performance is coming up.” While speaking, the stallion had taken to licking the pie tin, and I shrunk back. “You gonna be here for that? Our performance is pretty rad.”
“Most likely,” I mumbled, still somewhat off-put by his behavior. There was being fancy, and then there was being well-mannered. Soarin was neither. It was almost shocking, to say the least.
“Soarin, let me get you a bucking towel,” Applejack sighed, wetting a rag in the sink and handing it to Soarin, who wiped his hooves and face.
Promptly after tossing the towel back to AJ, he grabbed the pie tin and placed it on his head. "A stylish hat, no?" He turned to Applejack again. "Thanks, Jack.” Soarin winked at her, and Applejack shuddered with repulsion.
“Keep dreamin’, loverboy,” she snapped at him, narrowing her eyes.
“Fine, fine.” Soarin smiled. “Can you at least toss out this tin?” he asked, gesturing to the offending object on his head. “It’s going to kind of cramp my style flying around with a piece of trash.”
Another knock sounded at the door. Applejack groaned and walked over, opening it and allowing a familiar rainbow-maned Pegasus to speed in. “Okay, AJ, so, don’t freak out, but I came over here early because I really need to know what Braeburn’s favorite color is!”
Applejack froze for a moment, and then slowly, without breaking her gaze with Rainbow, tipped her head toward me. Her maroon eyes passed over me, and she stiffened. “O-oh. Ehehe. Braeburn. Hi.” Her cheeks reddened, and her eyes flickered about nervously before she spotted Soarin standing there not long after.
“Oh. My. Gosh.” The mare’s muscles tensed entirely. Soarin only maintained a satisfied smirk. “It’s… you!” she gasped, forgetting that I was there and squealing loudly. “YOU! SOARIN! Soarin Windsong! Standing right here! AJ told me you were here, but I always missed you and, and... Oh my GOSH!” Rainbow Dash’s jaw dropped and she released a jubilant cry, as though the stallion weren't sitting there, wearing a pie tin on his head.
Applejack glanced in my direction, cocking her head toward Rainbow as the Pegasus praised Soarin. AJ rolled her eyes and resumed picking up the leftover crumbs on the floor.
Well, at least she was nice.
Soarin had slipped Rainbow and me both tickets to the Winter Solstice performance later that night as he winked at us, sending shivers down my spine. Rainbow Dash had been nervously chattering away with him, until he finally told her that he’d be seeing her at the Solstice and took off.
I scoffed. What a showoff. He’d flown off with the pie tin still on his head, as if he hadn’t just been complaining about it. I stashed the tickets away anyway. No matter how I felt, I knew Applejack would still force me to go with Rainbow Dash.
I just hoped it wouldn’t end too badly. By this point, Rainbow had calmed down enough to turn around and grin widely. “Hey, Braeburn.”
“Uh, hey, Rainbow Dash,” I muttered. I wasn’t too sure how, precisely, I was meant to go about this. I didn’t even know her all that well.
“How was the train ride?” She seemed surprisingly calm, even if she had been nervous earlier. All four hooves were planted on the ground, her wings neatly tucked in.
“Nice enough. Colder here than I figured.”
Rainbow nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, I remember Appleoosa was always really, uh…” she stopped for a moment, pondering. “Different.” She flashed a smile.
Applejack trotted out the door, now that the floor was clean of crumbs and bits. I heard her say something that I couldn’t quite make out before MacIntosh nudged his way through the door with Applebloom weaving between his legs. She thought for a second before settling happily next to me on the couch.
“Granny Smith’s goin’ ta go play bingo.” Applejack told me again, though she was looking at Rainbow Dash. “So it’s just gonna be us. Applebloom, did ya talk ta Rarity ‘bout sleepin’ over with Sweetie Belle?”
“Eeyup!” Applebloom nodded vigorously. “Ah got mah bag packed. Rarity’ll be here soon.”
“Good,” agreed Applejack. “Well, Mac, if ya wouldn’t mind startin’ on dinner…?” She tilted her head to the red stallion, who was already standing in the small kitchen. Clanging pots and pans were heard.
The room was filled with an awkward silence with the occasional sizzle from the kitchen, until finally somepony, who I assumed was Rarity, knocked on the door for the third time that night. Applebloom hopped to her hooves as Applejack seemed to dart over, perhaps to block the doorway, and Rainbow Dash shrunk back.
I looked to her and raised an eyebrow, but kept my mouth shut. Applejack kind of hustled Applebloom out of the door and slammed the door shut, then grinned nervously and turned around. “Sorry. Ah didn’t want ‘er ta come in here an’ make a big deal about you an’ Brae.” She explained to Rainbow.
“Got it.” Rainbow Dash nodded. “So, what’s for dinner?” She turned to Big Mac. I realized that she somehow looked different than she generally did when she was in Appleoosa. Applejack was also squinting and looking at her.
She was wearing makeup, something I sure as shoot didn’t remember. Had she taken that much time to try to strike my fancy? I felt bad. Why in the hay was I so special?
The dinner was unmemorable, bread and mashed potatoes or something like that. We ate without really talking, which sometimes reminded me of dinner when my mom was busy and it would just be me and my dad. The only noise was forks scraping against our plates. I shifted uncomfortably, and finally decided to break the silence. “So, Soarin’s one of those Wonderbolts, right? The famous stunt fliers?”
“Ohhhhmygosh! They’re so cool! Soarin is the greatest of them! He’s the leader with Spitfire, there’s two. Soarin leads the stallions, and Spitfire leads the mares. Oh, man, I should ask him for an autograph tonight! Do you think he’ll give me one? I once got an autographed picture of Spitfire, she told me to follow my dreams. Isn’t that just so co-“ She snapped her jaw shut when Applejack glared at her. “Uh. Sorry.” She mumbled, redness creeping along her cheeks.
I actually laughed. Poor thing. “Y’know, err. He seemed a little weird. Celebrities are like that. Crazy drugs and the such.”
Rainbow paused, chewing over what I had said. “Yeah.” She finally agreed. “Well, I heard some weird rumors that he’s a coltcuddler or something,” she shrugged.
My jaw went slack. Was that really not a big deal at all to her? “That’s unnatural!” I blurted. Rainbow turned and stared at me, tilting her head.
“It’s not all that weird,” she muttered. “Oh, wait, sorry. I forgot! You guys,” she gestured around to the group. “aren’t used to the way Cloudsdale thinks about those kinds of things.”
“What sorts of things?” Applejack snapped. “Ah think just fine ‘bout anythin’!” She scrunched her nose and leaned in over the table.
“I mean, uh,” Rainbow quickly realized her mistake. “Fillyfoolers and coltcuddlers, y’know? Not as big of a deal to the Pegasi as it is to earth ponies. I heard the unicorns are getting used to it, organizations in Canterlot and stuff.”
Applejack scoffed. I knew she had plenty to say, but she kept her mouth shut. It actually surprised me, AJ wasn’t known for those kinds of things. She generally opened her mouth and spoke, then thought about what she had said after. Maybe she was just trying to be polite, or avoid things turning awkward, though it was a tad late for that.
I decided to avoid the topic. This wasn’t something I wanted to talk about. But, my mind still stayed in the same place. Those rumors about Soarin couldn’t be true, right? I knew celebrities had crazy lives, but it just…wasn’t right.
The rest of the night seemed like a blur of awkward discussions, avoiding the general topic until Applejack decided it was time for us to go and shoved us out. The night was cold, and I shivered. The dark blanket of night stretched out overhead. If it weren’t for the occasional street light lining the path to the center of Ponyville, I wouldn’t have known where the hay I was going.
“I hear Pinkie Pie’s making some of her special punch tonight. I can’t believe that the Wonderbolts are here, though.” A pause. “I wasn’t even going to go,” I heard Dash continue. The trees around us were dark and almost seemed to lean in, boxing us in. “Do you, uh, drink?”
I blinked. “Ah guess, sometimes. Some ponies have problems with it in Appleoosa, but Ah’ve had a drink here an’ there.”
“Hah, it’s pretty fun at parties. You ever been to Cloudsdale?”
“Ah’m an earth pony,” I pointed out flatly.
“Oh yeah,” She laughed nervously.
I felt mean. I was generally a friendly pony, but this was just so… uncomfortable. I reminded myself to not let Applejack set me up on any more dates with mares. I was being rude. I knew that, and part of me wanted to be nice. This was a nice filly. I knew, somewhere in my stomach, that I could be nicer. I tried to smile.
“Are you okay?” Her maroon eyes were trained on me.
“Uh, why wouldn’t Ah be?”
“You look like you’re in pain.”
I sighed heavily, and we turned onto Mane Street, Ponyville’s main road. Pastel-colored ponies flooded in front of me. All of them were talking, or eating, or dancing in an area I guessed was the dance floor, all lined up outdoors on the street. A few Pegasi hovered through the air, but the group of ponies soaring overhead caught my eye. They left behind smoky cloud trails that lingered for several minutes as they gradually dissipated with the cloud cover.
In the sky, there sat the faded remains of what was probably a show. “THE WONDERBOLTS” was burned across the night in a smoggy mess, being dragged in one direction with the wind. Rainbow Dash tipped her head to the sky and I heard her breathe in loudly. “Wow,” she murmured. “They’re so talented.” She turned around and grinned. I frowned.
“Yeah,” I mumbled, shifting on my hooves.
“Come on,” she said, trotting toward a table with a neon tablecloth draping over it, a massive punchbowl with a ladle sitting inside of it and plates with various foods sitting atop it. The punch was a radioactive reddish-pink color. It was actually kind of scary. It seemed like a small amount for such a large crowd, though.
Rainbow spooned a generous amount into a cup she held in one hoof and moaned quietly when she gulped it down. “Great stuff.” She mumbled. “Pinkie Pie only makes it, like, twice a year. I guess there’s some crazy ingredients or something.”
The only hard thing I’d really had to drink up until this point was cider. I saw the Pegasus mare looking my way. “C’mon,” she encouraged. “Have a sip.” She thrust the cup in my direction, and I shrugged. I took the cheap plastic thing in my hoof and tipped my head back.
Almost immediately, I felt myself shift. “Holy-“ The world swam for a moment, and I had to plant my hooves on the ground. “What is IN that?” I suppose I knew why there was so little. More than two cups or so of that stuff could kill somepony.
“I have no clue.” Dash took the cup back and stared into it for a moment. “But it’s pretty intense, huh?”
I didn’t even answer. I felt looser, somehow, like I’d had all my joints oiled. A healthy buzz rang through my mind.
Rainbow Dash seemed unfazed, and kept idly sipping the punch. “Ya wanna dance?” I grinned at her and snatched the cup, taking another swig of the stuff. Wow. What could have possibly been put in this?
Rainbow looked up, staring at me. She was wide-eyed. “Huh?” She relaxed again.
“You wanna dance?” She seemed alarmed, her ears pricked up and eyes big as dinner plates. The Pegasus relaxed after a second. “I mean, uh, sure.”
The night was a blur of dancing and punch as I dragged her out onto the dance floor. Boy, howdy, she could dance, once she got started. The alcohol made her uninhibited and brought down any walls she had up. Rainbow Dash was a party animal; and a wild one, at that. She’d flutter up a bit and come back down hard on her back hooves, sending a small vibration through the ground.
Sometimes she’d flit about, sometimes she’d be moving in time to the music. As the night wore on, we both entirely forgot about Soarin, and she grew closer to me. She pushed up against me and would occasionally let out a little groan or a grunt or some other noise.
The air had gotten warmer at some point, and I found myself up against a tree several hooves away from the dance floor.
We were farther away, but I could still hear the dull thudding of the music beating through my ears. Rainbow’s hooves were planted beside either side of my head. “You’re… So hot.” She slurred, grinning deviously and leaning in. I felt her moist, hot breath condense on my face. It carried along the scent of something like rotten fruit. She leaned in. Her face was flushed. Her forelock was plastered to her forehead by sweat, damp clusters of seven-colored hair obscuring her magenta eyes.
Those beautiful magenta eyes. Why hadn’t I seen them before? She leaned in, mashing her mouth against mine. I went along with it for several moments. As we’d been drinking the same stuff, her mouth tasted like mine, without much variation.
My heart dropped into my stomach, and I pushed her away quietly. “No,” I slurred, shaking my head, trying to clear the cloudiness. “This ain’t right, Rainbow.”
“Huh?” She pulled back, standing on all four hooves again. “Wha-?”
“Ain’t right, pretty mare like you…” I grumbled, not sure if I was making sense. “Yer a good mare. Ah don’t- this ain’t gonna work, Rainbow.”
“What are you talking about? This kick-“ She hiccupped. “This kicks flank! You’re really cute and nice and all that crap. What else do you want?” She rolled her eyes. “Now, back to what we were doing.” She wrapped a foreleg around my neck awkwardly and I shook her off.
“No,” I said flatly, shoving her away and glaring.
“Dude, what’s your problem?”
“Ah just don’t wanna… Ah ain’t interested.”
“You were just making out with me, and you tell me that now? What’s your malfunction, dude?” Rainbow snapped. Some of her words were still malformed.
“Ah’m sorry, but we should quit while we’re ahead and somepony gets hurt.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Rainbow Dash stamped a hoof, sending dust spiraling into the air. I coughed. “Why’d you even bother coming, then?” She was starting to snarl.
“Ah apologize. Ah shoulda jus-“
“You damn well better be sorry!” She glared, narrowing her eyes. “I shoulda known better, you were just another one of the-“
“Now, Rainbow, listen ta m-“
“Just another one of them! A stupid stallion,” she continued relentlessly, her voice becoming louder. “I should h-“
“If you would just l-“
“No! You listen to me, okay? I’ve dealt with you all my life, you are all the same. I figured since you’re related to Applejack you’d be different, b-“
“Ah like colts!” I wasn’t sure why I said that. It wasn’t true. I liked mares. The right one just hadn’t come along. I liked mares. Rainbow sat there for a second, entirely stiff. In spite of the alcohol from earlier, everything was stunningly clear. I saw the colour drain from her face. “Please don’t tell Applejack,” I murmured, terrified by the words that had come out of my own mouth.
“I-I… I have to go think.” Rainbow Dash hissed before flapping her wings. Apparently, the alcohol was still affecting her, because she flew lopsidedly from the ground, one side of her body higher up than the other and she disappeared. She moved faster than any earth pony or Pegasus I’d ever seen. I squinted after her, in hopes she’d be okay. She was going awfully fast.
A spectrum of colours burst forth from her, seven different hues peeling behind her as she reeled forward, evaporating in her wake. A shockwave pounded through the air, rattling the trees, me, and the dance floor several hooves away.
I knew this would happen. I leaned against the tree and sighed, reaching a back hoof to check to be sure that I still had my hat. I felt sober, now. I’d heard of the sonic rainboom before, but it didn’t seem to matter anymore. This was my fault.
I groaned loudly and slid my back down the tree, brushing my mane from my eyes, and tipping my hat down so that it at least partially covered my face. I didn’t need anyone seeing me like this. I hoped she would be okay, for everypony’s sake. Applejack was going to have my skin for this.
I just hoped that she didn’t tell Applejack what I’d said. I was intoxicated. That didn’t count, right?
I heard somepony’s hoofsteps and looked up. At first, I didn’t recognize the stallion until he pulled his goggles up from his eyes. “Was that true?” He asked. I stared at him for a moment before I recognized him as Soarin.
“Ah’m drunk,” I grumbled. “Go away.”
Soarin grabbed my hoof, practically forcing me up. I settled on all fours. “What?” I snapped.
“Listen, you seem like a cool guy.” Soarin grinned. “We should hang out.”
I stared at him, raising an eyebrow. “Uh. What? What Ah said back there was jus’ the punch talkin’.”
“Why don’t we have lunch or something tomorrow?” He asked, ignoring my explanation and cocking an eyebrow.
“C’mon, I’m a celebrity! You should be honored, dude.”
“Ah barely know you!”
“Great time to start! So, how 'bout one-thirty? I just wanna chill, it’s been a while since I’ve just talked with somepony other than team members. Or," He flicked his dark blue mane histrionically out of his eyes. "Raging fan mares."
I scoffed, already turning. “Ah’ve got more stuff to worry about.” I snapped, beginning to walk back toward the farm.
He fluttered over my head and landed in front of me, furrowing his eyebrows. “At least think about it, okay?”
“Fine.” The alcohol seemed like it was setting in again, and several of my steps were misplaced.
“See you tomorrow!” He called nonchalantly.
What an idiot.
I couldn’t sleep.
Desert nights in Appleoosa were generally freezing, but this was a whole other barrel. It was frigid. I couldn’t remember ever being this cold, but I certainly wasn’t about to go ask for another blanket. I needed to move around or get more blankets. I just couldn’t stay here.
It wasn’t just that. I had gotten home and AJ clearly hadn’t heard of what had happened between me and Rainbow. I’d come home eleven o’clock or so, entirely drunk and I’d fallen asleep on the couch promptly, curled up with some old quilt Granny Smith made years ago.
For whatever reason, the Apple family had always been, more or less, immune to hangovers. I hadn’t really known this from personal experience, but I’d seen plenty of ponies come home from the saloon, complaining of headaches and groaning at any loud noises. But my father, and even Applejack and Mac had never had those symptoms. I only felt a little fuzzier, but there certainly was no headache.
I was more concerned about what I’d said last night. Why had I said that? It wasn’t true by any means. I guessed I’d just blurted it out; after all, I hadn’t actually been attracted to her. I felt kind of disgusted by myself for kissing her. That’d been my first kiss. Of the few situations I’d thought of, that hadn’t been one of them.
It was definitely an excuse. I hadn’t wanted to hurt her. So, why did I get the idea that I had done more harm than good?
I touched a numb hoof to the wood floor and ran it through my tangled mane, clearing out most of the knots, but still leaving it messy. I shivered and grabbed my hat from the arm of the coathanger. I bent down and slipped my back hooves into boots as well.
Might as well get some work done. I grabbed one of Applejack’s scarves and draped it over my neck. The fibers tickled my nose, and I sneezed. I reached a hoof to the doorknob, worn with age, and swung it open, allowing the icy wind to roll through and I left, looking out at the sun, just barely beginning to peek over the edge of the horizon. Time to do some applebucking.
The constant murmur of casual pony conversation drifted lazily through one ear and out the other. Sunlight beamed around the welcoming shade of the blue umbrella. The pony citizen’s idle talk was of no interest to Soarin Windsong, except for one conversation in particular that he heard somewhere off to his left.
“Hey, wow! Is that Soarin? From the Wonderbolts?”
“… I think… it is!”
“Should I go say hi?”
“No, no. He looks like he’s trying to enjoy his lunch.”
The last statement distraught Soarin. He turned around and got to his hooves, scooting back the metal chair, which scraped across the cement foundation of the outside of the café. “I most certainly am not. I’ll always take time for a fan!” He turned and grinned. It was two Pegasus fillies. One with a cyan coat and piercing green eyes, complete with a disheveled purple mane that marked her at the epitome of foalhood: She simply didn’t care about her appearance.
Ah, to be innocent. The filly clearly cared little about judgment, and Soarin knew that would change in the next five years. The other Pegasus was white with a very light blue mane and large purple eyes.
Both of them paled
“R-really?!” The greenish one asked. “Can I have your autograph, then? Uh-“ She paused nervously. “Shoot,” she whispered under her breath.
The white one rolled her eyes. “You don’t have anything for him to sign, stupid!”
“Sorry.” The first one mumbled, frowning and looking at her hooves. “Anyway, I’m Cyan Skies.” She extended a hoof to him, and he shook it eagerly.
“Now, I’m sure we can find something for you to sign!” Soarin smirked. “And, who are you, may I ask?”
“Cotton Cloudy,” the foal admitted sheepishly, blushing. “But Cyan Skies has a crush on you!”
“Do not!” Cyan Skies protested, glowering.
Soarin spotted the waiter, a yellow earth pony, out of the corner of his eye, and raised a hoof to flag him down.
“Yes?” The waiter asked, raising an eyebrow. Clearly, he hadn’t recognized him.
“Can I get some paper or something? I need to sign autographs for two loving fans.” Soarin winked and flashed the waiter a smile.
The waiter nodded, and his eyelids drooped further. He looked bored, as though he’d been doing this all day. Clearly, this pony had no clue who he was. Of course, he wasn’t in his uniform, so he could see how somepony would make that mistake. He turned and kicked up small bits of dust as he did so.
Soarin rolled his eyes as the waiter entered the café. “I want to be just like you!” Cyan Skies gushed. “What is Spitfire like? Some day, I’m gonna be a Wonderbolt!” The filly stuck out her chest proudly and Soarin smiled, snatching a napkin from the waiter, who still looked uninterested, all of his features dragged downward.
There just was no changing some people.
Luckily, the waiter had brought him two napkins. On one, he scribbled, ‘To Cyan Skies,’ and on the other, ‘To Cotton Cloudy.’
On both, he wrote, ‘Follow your dreams!’ and signed them with his usual squiggle, and a tall, wobbly N to punctuate his name, and then he wrote Windsong with a curly G that looped out into a swirl. It looked remarkably feminine. He grasped one napkin in each hoof and handed them to both fillies. Cyan Skies squealed loudly, but Cotton Cloudy tried to perpetuate her calm demeanor.
“Th-thanks,” the white filly stammered, walking away stiffly and being led by Cyan Skies, her legs tense as though she were walking with toothpicks.
“Sorry I couldn’t get you a picture or something!” Soarin called, waving his hoof goodbye.
Soarin smiled and looked down at the coffee the waiter was pouring. It was in the middle of the afternoon, but Soarin was so used to sleeping or training, not lazily drifting between the two at a normal energy level. Spitfire would probably yell at him.
Soarin leaned over, grabbing a stirring straw and several small blue plastic containers of creamer that crinkled as they were lifted and tore them open, pouring them into the bitter brown liquid, stirring simultaneously. He stared down at the swirling mixture and wondered what Spitfire would do if she saw him like this.
She’d probably rant about caffeine and sigh about how he shouldn’t be drinking anything with that stuff, how it caused crashes. She was so high-maintenance.
Soarin sighed. Well, that was exactly why their relationship hadn’t worked out. She was hardworking, but… she had to have things a certain way, her way, all of the time. Sure, she was sexy. Many long-winded nights in bed had told him that much. Soarin exhaled with delight.
Spitfire certainly hadn’t been terrible, she was just so overpowering and in-control, high-strung; Soarin just couldn’t deal with that. He needed someone who could go with the flow and not flip out over everything, every little detail.
It didn’t really matter. They were friends, aside from some slight sexual tension every once in a while. An odd comment here or there. Whatever. He didn’t care. She was just his teammate, now. They might even be friends. For some reason, though, he still kept that 'crazy ex-girlfriend' mentality about her.
He looked up from the swirling abyss of his cheap diner coffee to see Braeburn approaching. He walked stiffly, and a vague pallor had overtaken his body. He looked tired; exhausted, even. It was like he hadn’t gotten any sleep at all.
As he approached down Mane Street and came closer and closer, his features gradually became more defined. His mane hung loosely around his face and slightly obscured his eyes, though most of it, in all of its orange and yellow glory, was hidden underneath a dusty old hat.
The muscles rippling underneath his flank made it obvious that he was well-built and hardworking, on par with most farmponies. His muscles were well-toned and his chest protruded slightly. His legs were built nicely, and his flank was absolutely perfect. Soarin licked his lips and smirked.
But, his most prominent asset was his eyes. Bright, bright green irises that looked like they were going to stare right through your soul. Though he appeared cheery, Soarin could tell by a certain tenseness in his face, with his nose screwed up and his eyes forced upward, that he wasn’t as happy as he seemed to be trying to convince everypony else.
Another closet case. Greeeeaatt.
Soarin had known from the moment he’d first seen Braeburn that he played for the opposite team, it wasn’t that hard to tell if you hung around them enough. However, you couldn’t just play these things outright. Some ponies were emotionally delicate; they had to be treated with care so that you wouldn’t hurt their feelings.
There were always that one pony who just didn't wanna accept who he was, whether it was because of his family or he was just a big coward. Sure, sometimes it was 'emotionally serious' or whatever. He just didn't understand. Why can't some ponies just loosen up and have some fun? In Cloudsdale, there were massive clubs dedicated just to people of certain sexualities.
Soarin had found himself very much so indulgent in those clubs, going whenever the Wonderbolts weren't on tour. He'd learned to appreciate the beauty of both genders, and why not? Both were fun to have a roll in the hay with, so long as the other pony understood he wanted to retain his masculinity.
He knew that the Apples were conservatives, but with how defensive Braeburn had been at the Solstice, it’d gotten him to worry. Was this kid really that uptight? Hell, did he even know what a coltcuddler was?
Soarin trained his eyes on Braeburn’s docks, where a simple red apple sat plainly. How boring. The rest of him, though? Might be a nice night… Of course, he'd never get the earth pony, the closest he'd get was to get Braeburn to admit his sexuality and be done with it.
He only hoped it'd be that simple. It occurred to him that, Braeburn probably was in self-denial, something that Soarin never had to deal with. He'd always figured, if he was having fun, what was the issue? He wasn't hurting nopony else.
Braeburn continued holding his façade, a grin that was painful to watch still plastered onto his face. His brow waffled. “Hello,” he hissed through gritted teeth.
“Hello!~” Soarin called, resting his hooves dramatically on the table in mock cheer. “How has your day been?”
Braeburn paused and grinned further. “Good. Ah woke up this morning and the sun was shining!”
“Great.” Soarin examined his hoof and leaned forward. “So, was it true?”
Soarin watched the color drain from Braeburn’s face as his mask faded. “W-was what true?” He asked, his voice low. He leaned back slightly in his chair on the back legs, his shoulders suddenly tense.
“What you said last night.” Soarin grinned, smirking to himself. Yep, just a closet case. It was so painfully obvious.
Ponies, just like any other sexually reproducing creatures, had courtship systems. Many of these were subconscious. Telling if somepony was a coltcuddler went beyond the pitch of their voice, the sway of their hips, the way they dressed. It was so much more than that, though it was easier to tell if they were the same gender, but someone experienced could notice there was just something different.
With ponies, oftentimes, these courtship systems are often subconscious. Braeburn was certainly no different. The glint in his eye. The way his voice became slightly more gravelly when he spoke to Soarin as opposed to Applejack or Rainbow Dash. Even little, minute things he couldn't pinpoint. It was like evolutionary flirting.
“What do you mean, ‘What I said last ni-“ Braeburn’s dialogue was interrupted when his chair, (which he had been anxiously leaning back on.) tumbled backward, sending him flying back as he yelped. He landed, still seated, more or less, with a loud thud. He groaned and pushed himself to his hooves.
The total of five other people sitting on the outside deck turned momentarily in shocked silence but descended back into their previous strings of conversation after several moments.
Braeburn, now coated with a thin film of dust, got to his hooves with a grunt, and Soarin chuckled. “You didn’t seem nervous or anything.”
Braeburn rolled his eyes. “So, what was it you were asking?” he mumbled, dusting himself off. Soarin could swear he could hear the farmpony growling, and he laughed uproariously, slamming his hooves down on the table. Ripples ran through the coffee.
“What you said last night.” Soarin finally calmed enough to say that with even cracking a smile.
Braeburn looked stunned. “Uh, what did Ah say last night?”
“You like colts?” Evidentally, Soarin had said it much louder than Braeburn would have liked. His ears pressed down and he winced, paling further.
“Wha- That’s not true.” He was on the cusp of screaming, his eyes filled with terror, pleading for Soarin to shut his mouth. Soarin cocked an eyebrow.
“You’re making a huge deal out of it, bro. Calm down.” The Pegasus stared at him. “Listen, I get that with your family and all, but come on, dude. You just ooze coltcuddler." He lowered his voice. "Listen, it's not a bad thing." He sighed. "Try to understand what I'm getting at, I know you're an earth pony and all, but this doesn't mean anything's wrong with you." Soarin smiled, in a moment of tenderness.
“Wh-what?” Braeburn’s voice went up several octaves and his eyes widened. “N-no! I love mares! Mares are awesome!”
Soarin examined his hoof, sighing. The other hoof resting against the dusty, worn metal table under the umbrella. The corners of the table were shockingly hot, occasionally burning his elbow. “You know, I’m not sure, but I think you mayyyy be proving my point, dude. Getting all defensive doesn’t help anything. I mean, pft, come on. You turned down what nice piece of flank last night.” He grinned at the memory. Rainbow was just so… lean. Her body was curvaceous but she was muscular, definitely not anywhere near masculine, though. Soarin would have had no problems taking her home. She was almost like Spitfire.
Almost. She was so much more laid-back than Spitfire ever would be, he could see that from the few times he had met the filly. Talented, too. Sonic Rainbooms had just been myths, until she’d done one. He’d heard the rumors of a filly doing one, but no one had taken it seriously. But, at the Best Young Flier’s Competition? That had been for the whole world to see. Soarin had tried to get Spitfire to offer her a place on the team, but having an even number of team members would have thrown them off.
The most Soarin had ever pulled off was a Sonic Cloudboom, and that had only been one time, with the rest of the team, practicing a routine for the Grand Galloping Gala for him to lead a V formation.
He’d been flying at the tip of the V, leading the group. The choreography was to have him lock his wings and nosedive while the V split off into two lines of five. He’d pulled his wings close into his body, experiencing a moment of weightlessness before gravity jerked him downward. He’d gained enough altitude at this point to hit terminal velocity if he wanted.
He continued gaining speed. His eyes would have watered furiously if not for his the thin film of plastic on his goggles preventing the wind from blinding him. Even so, a biting chill took root, starting in his nose. He couldn’t feel his muzzle any more.
Desperately fighting against the wind resistance, Soarin had extended both hooves forward as opposed to one, in an attempt to try something new. The skin on his face began to pull back, his cheeks flapping about noisily and he groaned, pressing forward and narrowing his eyes behind his flight goggles.
Sweat gathered on his brow and disappeared immediately in the drying wind, but he felt a familiar wetness under his latex uniform, where the air didn’t hit. Soarin knew that he would have to painstakingly peel the irritating thing from his skin.
Though this routine was generic, something about putting two hooves in front of him as opposed to one changed everything. He hit terminal velocity. He was rocketing toward the ground now, his hooves were stinging, his mane and tail whiplashing around wildly, feeling as though they were cutting deep wounds in his skin, and he screwed his eyes shut. A Mach cone had formed around his two front hooves.
An electric shock wracked his entire body, making him shudder and scream as his body flailed without his control. Suddenly, he felt heavier. The smell of singed hair and burning flesh filled his nostrils as he flailed helplessly in the air.
Soarin forced his eyes open, only to find he was still barreling toward the ground in a spiral. This was a situation he was familiar with. He felt a slight burning on his scalp, but with adrenaline coursing through his veins and blood pounding in his ears, he tightened his body into a ball, fighting gravity still while he rolled forward.
He landed with a thud and he rolled forward as a loud crack sounded and the ground reverberated while he still rolled forward, bits of dirt and shrubbery. The ground trembled. The impact had knocked the wind out of him. He scrambled to his hooves and looked behind him, every nerve of his body on fire.
He watched greyish-back stormclouds roll and billow around, dissipating from existence with lightning bolts shooting out and zip around, illuminating every crevice in the surface of the clouds. In his wake, he’d left tarry black storm clouds that were already beginning to blow over.
His heart was still pumping and blood was still rushing loudly through his ears. He felt incredibly lightweight, like he only weighed a few pounds and would float away at any moment. The large mass of charged water vapor still oscillating with occasional flashes of light. His mane was crinkled and he shook his head to try to clear it.
Soarin was brought back to reality from his reverie by Braeburn. Only a few seconds had passed. “She just…” He’d evidently been pondering it for the past few seconds. “She just wasn’t that special someone.”
Soarin laughed uproariously, banging his hooves obnoxiously on the table. “SPECIAL SOMEONE?” He chortled. “Please, man. Tell me you’re kidding. That’s the most pathetic thing I’ve ever heard,” he grinned.
Braeburn, however, was offended. His eyes darkened. This pony, who’s genuine personality seemed rather cheerful, had just snapped. He slowly scooted out of his chair, green eyes narrowed. He got to all four hooves. “I think I’ll go,” he hissed, his voice low. Soarin strained to hear.
“Hey, man. Listen, I’ve dealt with your type before. I know you think you get it, but come on,” the Pegasus rolled his eyes.
“My type?” spat Braeburn. “You don’t know anything about me, or who Ah am, or… or… or anything!” His voice trembled with a mixture of terror and anger. Braeburn turned on heel, his hat now covering a good portion of his face, and began to walk away.
Soarin narrowed his eyes. If he wanted to play it that way... Soarin might just have to convince him, then... He called, “You can’t hide from yourself, Braeburn!”
I had woken up at least twenty minutes ago, but I had no desire to leave the couch. Light filtered in through the windows, casting itself on the dark brown flooring. I rolled over onto my side, leaning toward the back of the couch and buried my face in my hooves, trying to shield my face.
I silently prayed to Celestia that Soarin would never, ever, ever talk to AJ of his suspicions about me. Damn it, damn it, damn it. I was beginning to doubt myself, just slightly. Was he right? Was that the reason I never liked mares? Was it possible that I just liked stallions, instead?
Ever since the incident with Caramel, I’d only focused on my work. That was all I had to focus on. I felt sick. Sick, and miserable. My eyes burned and I felt a familiar pressure behind them, but I held it back. I was not a coltcuddler!
Suddenly, and with surprising force, I threw my hoof forward. It sunk into the plush backing of the couch and sent dust floating through the air in billows. I sneezed and groaned, doubling over and curling up under my quilt. It smelled of Granny Smith. No doubt she’d made this one.
I thought about all the time I’d spent as a foal, happily playing and yelling and bounding about, and tears sprung to my eyes again.
I wanted to be a foal again. I noticed a piercing ache in my shoulder and sighed. I’d never stressed out so much. I dragged my hoof up and began to rub my neck and shoulder, burying my face in the couch.
I wanted to go home. I wanted to go home, and I wanted to be a foal. I scrunched up my face as my eyes continued to burn. My face reddened and my sinuses hurt behind the bridge of my nose.
Involuntarily, I let out a quiet sob. I was normal. I was normal. I was normal! Why did everypony else think otherwise? My chest began to tremor as I held my breath in an attempt to hide the tears I was holding back. Glancing down at my chest, it was still that same, ugly, worthless shade of yellow; I could even see my own heartbeat. I brushed a hoof through my mane and tried to pull myself together. Why was I making such a big deal about something this dumb?
I pulled myself together and didn’t get up from the couch. A loud knock came from the door. I wiped my face with the rough, itchy blanket, swung my back legs over so that they rested off the side of the couch, and got to my hooves.
I was still a little groggy, and I didn’t think to check to see who it was, I merely swung the door open. A biting wind swept in through the doorway, making each of my hairs stand on end and I shivered, suddenly feeling a little more collected. I rubbed my eyes to clear my vision of the blur of colors and blinked a few times.
A blue Pegasus stood on the porch. His cutie mark was a yellow lightning bolt with wings, and his mane and tail gave the illusion that a hard breeze was blowing it back. When I saw his eyes, which were peering into the farmhouse, I recognized him. “Soarin?” I glared; my voice rose a bit and frowned.
“Hey, bud. Listen, uh, bro. I’m really sorry about yesterday.” He poked his head into the house. “I know I was kind of a mule.” Raising a hoof, he scratched the back of his head. “So,” he glanced at the floorboards. “Ya wanna try again, man?” He tilted his head to the side and extended a hoof in my direction.
What in the hay? I stared at him and blinked. Why? He’d been such a hoss last night. I frowned and narrowed my eyes. What did he want from me…? “Why?” I took a suspicious step backward and nearly tripped.
“Come on, I want to get to know you!” Soarin grinned widely. I was still suspicious judging by how he had acted last time. He’d pretty much revealed what I’d said to the entire restaurant yesterday. “You seem cool! Come on, you can’t tell me you never wanted a second chance?”
He seemed almost… embarrassed. Like he felt bad and didn’t want to admit he’d done something wrong. I opened my mouth to deny him. “N-“
“He’d love to.” I heard Applejack from behind me and sighing heavily and frowning, I flattening my ears against my head. “Where ya wanna take him, Soarin?” My cousin continued.
Soarin smiled, oddly enough. Somehow, it didn’t come off as though he had some kind of other motive. I groaned. “AJ-“
“No,” Applejack snapped and smiled to Soarin. “Where do you wanna take him?” she repeated.
Soarin grinned and threw his foreleg around my neck. My frown deepened as he grinned. “I think my little pony here could use a trip to Cloudsdale!” He reached his other hoof over and dug it into my scalp, and I backed out of his headlock, shaking my head vigorously. My mane was now tangled even more than it had been when I woke up. A portion hung in front of my eyes, and I blew it out of my face with exasperation and violently shook my head at Applejack, mouthing ‘no!’
Applejack glared at me and smiled. “Sure, Soarin. Ah’m sure Brae could use a bit of a vacation.” She paused. “Isn’t that right, Braeburn?” Her words came out forced as she spoke through her teeth.
“Suuure,” I glared right back at Applejack. “But, uh, how exactly do I get to Cloudsdale?” I countered, recalling the conversation I’d had with Rainbow Dash. Soarin grinned.
“A marvelous question!” He smiled widely, displaying two rows of perfect, straight, white teeth. I could have sworn they gleamed at me in some sort of cheesy fashion. “How does an earth pony get to Cloudsdale, my friend?” Soarin smiled and pulled out a small vial. “Well, with the magic of Unicorn knowledge, all is now possible!” His tone dropped back to conversational as he handed me the tiny vial. The glass felt thin and delicate, the only thing keeping the liquid from spilling out was a lightweight, speckled cork. It was light in my hoof as I sloshed around the fluid inside.
Applejack leaned in, skeptical. “How’d ya get this?”
“Eh, I have my ways. Bottoms up, my applebucking friend!” Soarin snatched the vial from me and popped the cork off, reaching back over again and shoving the vial down my throat. I gasped, trying to pull away, but found I was caught in a headlock.
The liquid was thin and acidic, trailing down my throat and burning my stomach and mouth. I choked, but Soarin pulled it away quickly. He grinned cockily, placing the cork neatly back on the vial while I coughed violently, my throat itching and burning. I braced my hooves and gagged again. Applejack looked concerned and approached me, but I waved her away.
What was this pony getting me into? I hacked one last time, grimacing and screwing my eyes shut. My throat burned. I finally shook my head and sighed. My head was pounding. I raised my head and relaxed a little. To my shock, Soarin looked concerned, but the mischievous gleam had returned to his eyes. “You okay?” He asked. He was hiding something.
I nodded, swallowing the remaining thin residue on my teeth from the sour green potion. It hadn’t even been a pleasant candy type of sour; this just burned. I smacked my lips and licked the roof of my mouth vigorously a couple of times to try to clear the incessant taste.
Applejack was becoming more and more suspicious by the minute. “How are you gonna get th-“ She was interrupted by Soarin planting a hoof on her lips and grinning.
“Ah- ah- ah, Applejack, don’t you trust me? Come on, your cousin needs some bro time!”
“Bro… time?” I stared blankly at Soarin, mostly shocked that he used an expression so ridiculous. I wriggled my way out of his foreleg, now slung over my neck.
“Yeah, come on! It’s not like you have a bunch of friends in Nowheresville?”
“Nowheresville?” I snarled. Now free of his shockingly strong grip, I reared up onto my hind legs and neighed, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAPPLEOOSA-“ before landing again, and continuing: “is a fine and distinguished town, unlike your, your… cloud things!” I was truly offended now.
Soarin only grinned. Applejack was still very cautious. “Soarin, when will ya be back? He may just be vacationing, but he’s still got some work to do to earn ‘is fair share.”
Soarin tapped a hoof on his chin. “Hrm. I’ll have him back later tonight! Okay?” His confident demeanor changed slightly when he said that, though only briefly. It returned almost as fast as it left. He grinned at Applejack. “Come on, don’t you trust me?”
Applejack eyed him accusingly for a moment before sighing and nodding. “Ah s’pose. Jus’… Keep him safe, alright?”
“I’ll protect him with my life!” Soarin bowed histrionically and took a hoof, licked it, and slicked his hair back before winking at Applejack. I saw her shudder in horror.
“Err. Just be back.” She turned before I could protest, flicking her tail as Soarin shoved me out the door almost simultaneously, shutting it behind him.
I stared at him, dumbfounded. “What the hay?” I narrowed my eyes and snapped. “Just what are you doing? Why are you here?” Questions poured forward endlessly, and I was glaring at him now. “Especially after last time. You could have apologized,” I mumbled, looking down at the ground.
“Yo,” he rolled his eyes. “I said I was sorry, alright? This is my way of trying to make it up to you. Gimme a chance. Now, hop on.” He motioned to his back, and I stared back at him, cocking my head.
“I said, hop on! I don’t have all day, y’know.” Soarin backed up toward me, wiggling his haunches, and I stared blankly at him.
“On- on you?!”
“Yep! What else did you expect?”
“But…” Though Soarin was somewhat bigger than me, and he looked quite strong, I still wasn’t sure he could carry me. Or how he was going to without us being in some kind of awkward position. He spread his cyan wings to their full length, and I blinked. Easily, he had a seven or eight hoof wingspan. I watched the prominent muscles under his blue coat ripple for a moment.
“Come on!” Soarin tapped his hoof impatiently, and I warily climbed on top of him, wrapping my hooves around his neck and screwing my eyes shut. “I’ll go slow, okay?” He grinned and I felt a sudden jerk and cried out as his wings flapped once, taking us off the ground. I gasped and screamed.
We landed with a thud. “What? What?! Are you okay?” Soarin gasped. I opened my eyes to see him looking back at me, and I winced, mentally slapping myself for acting so silly.
“Yeah,” I mumbled, adjusting my position. His body heat contrasted strongly against the wind. I found it strangely comforting, even if I didn’t particularly like Soarin. His coat was soft. I sighed contentedly before I realized what I was doing and shook my head, trying to clear it. “Uh, j-just… go!” I snapped, shivering again as a wave of the icy wind hit me once again. Goosebumps appeared on my forelegs, tightly wrapped around Soarin’s throat. He coughed.
“Uh, hey, can you maybe try not to kill me?” He smirked back at me again and I nodded, realizing I was shaking. I needed this over. I needed this over now. AJ was going to kill me if I didn’t go with him. I clenched my eyes and teeth and felt the same jerking sensation again. I snapped my eyes open, looking down. Another jerk, though it was smaller this time. The ground swelled and shrunk with each passing beat. With each flap of Soarin’s wings, we only seemed to soar higher. I swallowed. My thighs were shaking. I realized I’d forgotten my hat, but thought almost nothing of it.
I knew ponies were supposed to shut their eyes if they were afraid of heights and high up, but I was terrified. I clenched my forearms harder around Soarin, releasing a strangled cry of horror. Soarin grunted in protest and I loosened my grip slightly, but remained just as tense, if not more so than before. His form was sturdy, as though he was made of steel and some kind of strong fabric. He wasn’t like frail old Granny Smith, he seemed strong and independent.
Though it did seem like he was struggling a little. As we rose, and I tried not to panic, I did see a bead of sweat collect on his neck and roll down his skin, gathering on his neckline before it plopped off into the endless sea of earth below.
Bundles of green foliage sprawled out beneath us, the occasional dots of reds, greens, yellows, and even the odd orange color. The brown splotch of pig pen and the encircling fence, the orange farmhouse and red barn, and what I could only assume was the Everfree Forest, which I had heard so many old pony tales about, was just coming into view, even a few mysteriously darkened patches.
Soarin was flying much slower than I’d ever seen him fly; he was clearly struggling to hold me and I tightened my grip. I felt his throat rumble hoarsely. The mechanic beats of his wings continued in a gentle cadence as I watched the ground below us breathe. Larger and smaller, larger and smaller.
I expected him to buck me off or do a barrel roll at some point, but for some reason, he seemed so engrossed in keeping us in the air and focused. His eyes were turned skyward.
For some reason, at this altitude, the sky was beautiful. It was even colder than it had been at ground level, but now, the sky was a perfect, unmuddled shade of blue. It was endless, stretching out on all sides and directions. At the edge of my vision, I could have sworn that I could see the curvature of the earth.
I felt strangely at peace. The ground was still rising and falling just as quickly, but we seemed to be slowly going upward. Soarin’s body temperature was rising gradually, and his coat was becoming damp with even more sweat. The sun was beating down even more. The cloud cover overhead had lessened significantly, limited only to a light mist that slightly shrouded the heavens.
It took my breath away. Every trace of fear disappeared for a split second as I looked up, the golden sun spreading its light across the land below us, and illuminating Soarin’s light blue coat, only a couple tints lighter than the ozone above us. Very faintly, I thought I could make out the occasional glint of stars.
No wonder Pegasi loved this so much. My grip loosened a great deal, and Soarin grunted. “Oi!” He gasped, his effort now plain in his strained voice. “Don’t let go, now,” he murmured, slightly softer and even more forced than before. I blinked and tightened my grip again, feeling shockingly safe.
Now that I thought about it, the position of Soarin’s massive wings somewhat cradled me. I was sure even if I let go, I’d probably still be just fine. My legs hung awkwardly off his sides, but I felt I was secure. I didn’t dare release my visegrip on him, though, my cheek pressed up against his back.
His shoulders were surprisingly tense. He’d seemed so laid-back and relaxed, but I could clearly distinguish muscle knots in his back. I blinked. We continued to ascend before Soarin began to glide forward, and I realized why he had me holding on to him like this. His wings left their upright positions at my sides and I gasped with the recognition that I could be thrown off at any moment. I clung tighter to him, tensing every muscle in my body and screwing my eyes shut, no longer admiring the view but simply fearing for my life as the cold wind pierced us while he sped up and zigzagged back and forth in seemingly random patterns.
He suddenly stopped, flipping over so that I was hanging upside down and shaking wildly, trying to throw me off. I cried out for dear life, keeping my eyes shut and biting my lip. I tasted blood as I tightened my grip, though I still, evidently, wasn’t strong enough. He threw me off with ease. I cried out, opening my eyes, expecting to fall for miles, but landed after only about two feet onto a soft, plush material.
I blinked after a moment, realizing there wasn’t any rock-hard ground to land on. I opened my eyes to see Soarin standing over me, looking exasperated. “Chill out. So high strung.” He nudged me to my hooves and I looked beneath me. White, fluffy clouds.
To the touch, they were cool and fluffy, almost slightly crunchy, like weightless snow. I paused, staring at the clouds and I raised a hoof. It came up clean and weightless, nothing stuck on it. Cool, but not frozen, and they didn’t seem to melt.
I stamped my hoof down again, and it descended into the whitish mass. I lifted it. The cloud bounced right back up again. I blinked in surprise and Soarin grinned. “Come on,” he motioned toward the city, neon lights strung along buildings and illuminating the sky. Pillars of cloud spiraled up toward the abyss of blue, swirling toward the sun.
The buildings themselves were constructed of cloud, in a type of architecture that would be impossible with any of the materials found on the ground. It was clear that they were hoofmade, the occasional out-of-place cloud wisp drifting somewhat in the breeze, but still kept its shape.
The buildings themselves were swirled together into something of a blob, arranged on several massive levels. They seemed to blend together- only the well-trained eye of a native would be able to tell where the saloon ended and the residencies began. Condensed water drained from the bottom of the massive cloud city, spilling into the atmosphere. Overhead, the occasional (somehow) harmless-looking dark cloud drifted by.
Pegasi flitted about, going about their days. Occasionally, one would stop to stare at me before shaking their heads or shrugging and continuing on. I saw the blurry edges of the famed Cloudiseum off in the distance, completely on the other side of the mass of clouds. Until now, it’d only been the stuff of legends.
Pathways of cloud led out and straight back into another area, often complete with a gaping hole of a doorway.
Floating individual islands of cloud drifted around, gently orbiting the city. It seemed only the breeze kept them in place. They were stacked high, liquid rainbows swirling down in torrential waterfalls and continuing to flow down the sides, before seeming to dissipate into some kind of gas that formed an arched rainbow just beneath the floating cloud city.
The Pegasi lived here?
I became aware of Soarin beside me, looking at the city with a proud gleam shimmering in his eyes. “It’s pretty fantastic, huh?” It was a little surprising. He actually looked…
I couldn’t put my finger on the word. He’d looked happy before. But, he looked…. Approachable. I didn’t hate him as much as I had before. Why was that?
I had no reason to like him. I wouldn’t go that far, yet. Though, I didn’t dislike him. He hadn’t killed me, flying up here. But, he’d held my own stupid, stupid words against me. I frowned, and my heart dropped, a burst of adrenaline shooting through my body. It’d bothered me. I swallowed, my throat felt thick. I didn’t like to think about the thing that I had mistakenly told Rainbow just to get her away from me.
He’d put stock into it, I bet. That was why he was taking me here! I scowled. I should have known it, I should have known this was just another swindle. I opened my mouth to demand he take me back down, that I’d found him out, but he turned, his eyes still sparkling. He smiled with a shockingly genuine charm.
I closed my mouth and decided I could stand to go with him. Hay, it might even be fun. Maybe it wouldn’t kill me. It’d make Applejack happy. I’d be home later that night…
“Yeah,” I murmured. “Yeah, it is. So, uh, where are we heading?”
“This great club. It’s open during the day, but I figured I should start you off easy. It just operates as a bar in daylight, but at night…” I watched Soarin lick his lips and smirk.
As we walked, I noticed that quite a few more Pegasi were staring at me than I could have liked. I shifted, slightly off-put. “Why are they staring at me?” I hissed through my teeth to Soarin, who paused.
“In case you haven’t noticed, bro, this is a Pegasus city. Earth ponies don’t spend much time up here.” Soarin paused, looking at me and raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah. Sorry.” I recalled what I said to Rainbow and winced.
The first building we approached was a thick, twirly mass of clouds, with liquid rainbow spelling out in large cursive, ‘CLOUD 9’. Soarin ducked in underneath a curtain. The door was propped open.
“Ayyyo!” he called loudly. I came in after him. I could see why this place would be alive at night. Strobe lights lay unused, attached to the walls, also constructed of cloud. A few trickles of rainbow ran down the walls. On the left side of the room, there sat a small stage with a DJ table, a book of records and an unused board collecting dust. Several lights with various colors of gels were lined up on the ceiling.
A bar sat on the far end of the room. All of the furniture was made of clouds as well, though it seemed masterfully crafted, with straight edges and sharp angles. The bar itself had intricate curves and carvings to it. It looked almost solid white.
A Pegasus mare sat behind the bar, a rag in her hoof. She seemed to be redundantly wiping down the cloud bar. Initially, I was surprised, but then I realized that the place looked high-end. Various bottles of miraculous colors I never thought possible, all with gaudy labels, were lined up on a cloud shelf built into the wall behind the mare.
The mare’s coat was a cream color; she nearly blended in with the clouds. A scarlet mane hung loosely down around her face. Her cutie mark was a frothy mug, filled to the brim, and she wore two hoop earrings. “Soarin,” she called with a smile.
“Hey,” Soarin grinned and hopped over, wrapping a foreleg around her neck as she did the same. She paused, looking at me and cocking an eyebrow.
“An earth pony, Soarin?”
“Yeah. He’s cool, though.” Soarin shrugged. “No worries.”
A weak smile curved onto the mare’s lips. “Whatever you say, kiddo. Hey, so you’re here early. Should I set you up?”
“The regular. Trot Island Tea.”
“You got it,” she mumbled, heading back behind the bar and grabbing several bottles in her hooves to prepare the drink. She paused for a moment. “Anything for your little buddy here?”
Soarin cocked an eyebrow to the 'little buddy' in question. “You want anything? My treat,” he said, tilting his head to the side.
The barmare stared blankly at me. “Cider? As in… apple cider?”
I nodded, and the barmare sighed. “Figures,” I heard her huff under her breath.
I creased my eyebrows but only sighed. It wasn’t worth it. I turned back to Soarin, who smiled good-naturedly. The situation suddenly seemed a bit more bearable. Why was he so nice all of a sudden?
Did he feel bad? If he did, it was well-deserved. He had done me wrong, and was now trying to make up for it. That seemed like perfectly logical reasoning to me. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that Soarin had some kind of ulterior motive. It was almost as though he wanted something from me. If only I could place my hoof on it.
The barmare set a tall glass filled with ice and a brown liquid, garnished with a lime and a small black mixing straw on the counter, as well as another glass, shaped more like an inverted cone, filled with a cloudy, amber drink. Most definitely my cider.
I approached the bar with Soarin and sat down in the chair, though it took me a few minutes to find my bearings with this new seat material. Soarin looked perfectly at home. Even more at home than he ever had on the ground.
I realized how little I knew about this pony. I’d only met him a couple days ago, and here he was, buying me drinks in Cloudsdale. I turned to him. “What’s your favorite color?” I asked, looking down at the cider and unsure whether or not it would compare to what I’d always had. I shrugged, realizing it didn’t matter. I took a sip.
Though it was good, and I had no doubt it was high-end, it still didn’t match up to Granny Smith’s cider, particularly if it was Zap Apple cider. I’d heard in my letters from Applejack of a pair of brothers with some kind of cider making machine. Their cider had been good, but not nearly as good as the homemade stuff.
Soarin paused. “Huh?”
“I asked what your favorite color was.” I took another tentative sip of the cider.
Soarin seemed thoughtful before he replied, “Purple.”
“Why purple? Mine’s green.”
“I dunno. Purple’s just cool, I guess.” He swept a hoof forward and took a gulp of the Trot Island Tea. Did he not have to worry about money at all? Maybe he was rich.
Of course he was rich! He was a Wonderbolt, for Celestia’s sake! What a stupid thing to wonder. That’s why he could afford to pay for me and all these things. I paused. Soarin slid his empty highball glass back toward the mare, who filled it with fluid from several different bottles and handed it straight back to him.
The night went on like this for quite some time. I watched, from the same seat at the bar, through the glass windows as the sun began to set and the club began to fill. A dark blue Pegasus stallion turned off the main lights and turned on the colored ones. They rotated and moved in seemingly impossible patterns. Some were stationary, but many traveled along the cloudy floor in some kind of set, mechanical pattern.
A unicorn trotted in, sporting an electric blue mane and tail and comically large sunglasses. By this time, Soarin was on his fourth drink, I merely nursing my second. I was tipsy, but Soarin seemed completely inebriated.
“Hey! Scratch!” Soarin called, obnoxiously waving a hoof across the club. I had my head relaxing on the bar, my eyes shut. Music was now thudding loudly through the place, my head and body were pounding in time with the massive vibrations.
“Soarin!” The unicorn, ‘Scratch’, turned and grinned, walking across the club and making her way through the droves of dancing Pegasi. She bumped hooves with him. “At it again, huh?” she smirked, tipping her head to me. “And an earth pony, too. Exotic.”
Soarin laughed uproariously, as though Scratch had just told the funniest joke he’d ever heard. It took him several minutes to collect himself. “Th-this here… This here’s Braeburn.”
“Nice. Hey, how you doing?” Scratch leaned toward me, holding out her hoof. I shook it with a dull smile. My head was foggy. I only realized later she had meant for me to bump mine with hers, as she did with Soarin. “I gotta go set up,” she explained. “Catch you later, though. You two have fun.” She wandered to the DJ table, swinging her hips.
The music, from that point on, became more intense. Rather than a dull thud, it became different reverberations that changed my body. Though I ordinarily wouldn’t hear this kind of music in Appleoosa, and I’d never really heard it anyway, I found myself tapping my hoof to the beat against the cloud seat I was placed in.
Soarin was completely gone. The barmare didn’t protest at all. She tended to other customers sitting near us. Soarin got to his hooves, swaying dangerously for a moment. I hopped out of my seat as well, feeling liberated. I could do anything!
Soarin grinned. “Want me ta teach ya how to dance… the Pegasus way?”
I grinned, my eyes half-lidded. “Yeah.”
Soarin began to dance in a style reminiscent of Rainbow Dash. He’d flit about and occasionally stamp his hooves while I stood there, bobbing my head like a socially awkward teenager while he danced like an expert. He began to draw a crowd. Various ponies of all colors and sizes circled around him, chanting his name as he performed stunts. Evidently, he was a regular here.
He’d zip around the room at record speeds or simply dance and spin on the ground, something I’d only seen earth ponies do, something called ‘buck dancing,’ and I’d only seen the occasional foal doing it, it was some kind of weird new dance craze.
As the night wore on, the music grew more intense and Soarin seemed to realize I had drifted away from him, simply taking to sitting by the bar.
“Wassrong?” he slurred, leaning in toward me. I could smell the alcohol on his breath.
“When we goin’ home?”
“You should loosen up…” Soarin murmured, leaning in toward me.
“Ah’m perfectly loose.” I rolled my eyes. The alcohol was only fogging my mind, but it had been weak in comparison to what I was used to. Soarin evidently found this hilarious and giggled like a schoolgirl.
“Oh, really?” He hiccupped, raising an eyebrow at me. “I bet I can prove you otherwise!”
“Bet you can’t,” I smirked.
“Oh?” Soarin paused. “Really, then?” He leaned in to me, his eyes half-lidded, and my face grew hot, but the rest of my body cold. “You so sure about that?” he whispered into my ear, his hot breath condensing on my skin.
“Y-yeah!” I gulped, looking at my hooves, but somehow still managing to retain a small amount of my earlier dignity, though it was only left in the form of anger and irritation.
Soarin drew back for a second, as if to think. Then, he leaned in swiftly and planted his lips against mine.
I shoved him back immediately, yelling and tumbling away and out of the chair. Whatever buzz the cider had left in me was gone by the mere shock of what had just transpired. My eyes suddenly burned with the pressure of tears building up behind them, and I realized that the music had stopped and everypony was now staring at me. I clenched my eyes shut and ran out of the club, trembling, with Soarin's gaze following me. I barreled blindly down the dark streets of Cloudsdale, my hooves squelching in the vaporous ground.
I ran blindly against the wind, my skin feeling the pins-and-needles pinpricks of cold piercing my body with every movement I made. Tears were rolling down my face now.
Did he still think that? Was that all anypony thought? I just felt so… so dirty. I felt violated. My stomach curled and I ran even faster, drawing from some sort of unknown, random burst of energy. Unease panged loudly in my chest, and blood rushed and danced through my ears. I had no doubt my face was red now.
Tears were streaming down my face, I could feel them dribbling off my jawline. How pathetic. Stupid, stupid, stupid and pathetic! A dull ache began to form in my chest and I simply ran harder, my hooves pounding against the fluid yet somehow still solid clouds, kicking up white vapor here and there that danced in my wake before settling again.
Many things happened at once.
My lungs lit fire and I gasped for air before slowing to a stop, struggling to draw breath. I’d forgotten how much thinner the air was up here. My heart thudded painfully against my chest. I’d fallen back on my haunches, my front hooves planted firmly in the ground, skidding slightly forward and leaving scuffmarks behind me, cloud gathered up on the front of my hooves. It dissolved almost immediately.
My chest and stomach heaved violently and I let out a sob, my throat burning and tense. I tried to pull myself together and reorient myself. I shook my head and found myself looking straight above. A clear night sky was spread out just above me, hovering there, dark and silent. Without the city lights of Ponyvile to outshine them, glittering stars lay out on a sheet of black velvet, woven with the clear air. They were just as, if not brighter, than they were back in my home town.
Dear Celestia, what was wrong with me?
The view of Luna’s night sky blurred overhead as my vision blurred with tears. My stomach clenched painfully and adrenaline ran through my veins like acid, burning me from the inside out. I took rapid, shallow breaths that didn’t fill my lungs enough.
I blinked to clear my vision and looked in front of me.
It was a miracle I hadn’t fallen over the edge. My hooves were mere inches from the brink of the cloud, where nothing but empty air stretched out in front of me. I deepened and calmed my breath, trying to analyze the situation.
Okay. I took another deep breath. Okay, okay, okay.
I wasn’t a coltcuddler. No, I couldn’t be. But… My heart twinged. I couldn’t say I hadn’t found Soarin at least slightly attractive on the way up to Cloudsdale. Or even in the club. Possibly even… right then. Somewhere, I knew I was lying to myself. I remembered my foalhood, the crush I’d had on Caramel. Granny Smith, boxing my ears because of a stupid question I’d asked. Occasionally, my ears still rang, or I’d have to ask somepony to repeat what they’d said.
I hung my head and shivered again. My ears were flat. I felt a small tap on my head. I opened my eyes and blinked, looking around for the source. Tilting my head back, I started as a drop of water landed squarely on the very tip of my nose. A thin, dark-looking haze was rolling in overhead from the east, obscuring a portion of the pool of inky night with its billowing vapor. The wispy overcast strongly resembled the steam that billowed from my nose with each exhale.
The droplets of water slowly became more and more frequent, and before long I had a consistent dribble from my nose. My mane was soaked, and water ran down my chest, flanks, and legs in rivulets, eddying into small pools that settled into the texture of the cloud and compressed the cloud beneath it.
It may have been a possibility that I was a coltcuddler. I shuddered at the notion. Maybe… Maybe just in the slightest. Just a little bit. Maybe I mostly liked mares. I didn’t have to tell anyone about this, right?
Right! My tears began to dry, though in the midst of the drizzle, it was impossible to tell. I didn’t have to tell anypony that maybe I liked stallions a little. Wasn’t that normal? To… To like stallions a little? I swallowed.
“Braeburn!” Soarin’s voice called behind me. I didn’t look up, still looking squarely at the edge of the cloud, seated firmly on my haunches. “Braeburn! Look, I’m sorry, maybe I had the wrong idea, but… Just, please don’t jump! You don’t have to do this! I’m really sorry, I’m kind of a lightweight drinker, and, and, and I don’t know! Just, come on, please back up from there! We can talk about this!” His words were pleading, his voice carrying a high pitch of desperation and concern.
I turned, very slowly, to face him. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling. Fear? Anger? Frustration? Relief? I snorted, but the consistent huffing and gasping of my breathing patterns broke apart my sentences and showed what was really going on as the remnants of my tears washed away by the now-torrential downpour. “I’m… I’m not gon-gonna jump, you- you idiot!” I gasped out. Though now, the idea didn’t seem any less appealing. My voice carried an irregular rhythm. “Wha- what d-do you wa-want?” I glared at him, lowering my eyebrows and narrowing my eyes.
Getting to my hooves, I became aware of a small vibration in the thin cloud below me, the cloud that I’d skidded and scraped my hooves over before sitting down.
“Get outta there, it isn’t safe. The clouds are unstable!” I saw Soarin shoot forward and wave his hooves frantically.
I saw what he meant before I even heard his words. The next hoof I planted went straight through the thin cloud layer, leaving a hole of empty air with the lights of Ponyville clear below through the gaps in the haze of other, lower-hanging clouds.
I gasped in panic, pulling my forehoof out of the hole before planting it in another area, where the incident repeated itself. My back hooves were sinking as well. I scrambled forward, only able to firmly plant my two front hooves on the very last edge of the thicker cloud. The thin remnants of the outskirts of the city evaporated under my weight. My back legs hung uselessly over the edge, flailing in a vain attempt to find some ground.
I yelled for help, my hooves still scrabbled for traction, but they only wore away more of the cloud. Though my view was cut off, half of it overtaken by the bottom of the cloud and the miles of air before the earth, I could immediately see the terror in Soarin’s face. “Hang on!” he called. My forelegs were cramping up, the cloud being surprisingly slippery as I continued trying to pull myself over the edge. My grip was fading almost as fast as it came. My back, torso, and hind legs were strong from years of applebucking, but my legs were seizing up with terror. I slowly brought my elbows up to rest on the cloud, strengthening my grip slightly, though it was only for a moment. My hooves began to slip again.
I heard a voice below me.
“I’m down here! Just let go! I’ll catch you!”
Adrenaline ran through my body, hitting me in distinct waves, and giving me enough strength to slightly pull myself up, but not enough to hoist myself over the edge. “No!” I refused. No, I could do this! Was he crazy? He was drunk! He couldn’t catch me.
“Come on, you have to trust me!”
My grip was weakening, and panic was setting in. “NO!” I hissed back immediately, struggling further. I could pull myself up!
More and more of the cloud was breaking away as I flailed. It seemed nopony else was around.
A large chunk of cloud broke away, leaving nothing for my left hoof to grab onto any longer. My right was slipping fast, in spite of my attempts to keep my grip. ”Just let go!” Soarin cried from below, right as my hoof became loose and slipped off the edge.
The wind left my lungs and time seemed to slow as I fell, watching in shock as Cloudsdale seemed to shoot up into the sky, further and further away from me. I braced myself for impact, screwing my eyes shut and tensing every muscle in my body.
I hit something hard, the painful impact sending a shockwave throughout my body, wracking my ribcage and skull. I cried out, but felt a pair of warm forehooves wrapping around me, strongly contrasting against the bitterly cold night.
I was off-kilter and felt myself rotate in mid-air for a second before my position reoriented. My head, neck, and shoulders were braced up against Soarin’s chest and stomach. His forelegs were wrapped under mine, keeping me up, though my legs dangled uselessly below us.
The rain had not ceased; it ran down his unfurled wings and back, down his neck. The warmth from his body heated it to a tepidness that was slightly more comfortable than the icy onslaught it had been consistent with earlier. It trailed down my body, now held vertically, and dribbled off my tail, further warmed by own body. My mane was plastered to the sides of my face and neck.
Soarin said nothing, though he took the occasional glance at me. We rose a bit and once again. I watched Cloudsdale bob closer and closer in time with each beat of his wings. He brought us in several yards from the very edge of the floating city, away from the unstable, crumbling area. The aftermath of my incident was still present.
He lowered me down to the fluffy surface without a word. My back hooves touched the cloud, and I was thankful for something firm to stand on, even if not solid ground.
Soarin crossed behind me and over to my side. Somehow, by the moonlight, I noticed stress lines and dark bags under his eyes; the product of many sleepless nights. “Never do that again,” he stressed flatly, his gaze trained on me. “I’m sorry if I had misconceptions about you; I understand who you are and I’ll accept that.” The seriousness in his voice was alarming. Up until then, I’d known him to be a conceited, silly pony who thought far too much of himself and not enough of others. “You don’t know this town, and I’d advise you not to pretend like you do,” Soarin sighed. “Now, uh, look. I’m tired. You look pretty beat, too. That’s enough excitement for one day. There’s a hotel kind of close by an-“
“But you told Appleja-“
“Screw Applejack!” Soarin snapped. I shrunk back. He paused and his face softened slightly. “No, look, I’m sorry, okay? I’m tired and drunk I don’t feel like taking you back down. Besides, drunk flying is a crime. Didn’t you learn anything in school?” He paused to chuckle at some unheard joke. I didn’t laugh. “There’s a hotel we can stay at. We’re pretty far off from my place, and far from yours, and there’s a hotel just close by. I can get these places to comp us a night. Just… Do me a favor, alright? …I apologized.” He cocked an eyebrow. “And saved your life. All in one day, too.”
I nodded slowly, looking down at my hooves and watching them sink into the cloud. “Hey, be more careful. This stuff is stable for the most part, but if you’re not a Pegasus get to a thin enough area, even with that cloud-walking potion…” He trailed off, walking down the billowy street. Flashes of neon rainbow seemed to lean in toward us, buildings now having a curvature.
I realized how tired I was. My eyes burned, begging to shut. My hooves ached from standing, my joints from running. I began to try to sort out my thoughts and the events of the night, but I was interrupted when Soarin nudged me to the right, tilting his head in the direction of a massive, imposing skyscraper made, just like all of the other buildings, of cloud. He ducked into the hotel, and I followed in his wake. It looked nice. Lamps hung from the walls, and somehow, by some stretch of technology and imagination, a roaring fireplace sat in the corner. I approached it as Soarin wandered towards the concierge. I heard bits and pieces of their conversation, with Soarin schmoozing him into letting us stay a free night.
My mind and body were mostly numb from the horror of the situation I’d found myself in, not to mention the cold night air. The fireplace stretched out a savage arm of heat and light in my direction; enough to crinkle hair in an instant. I shut my eyes and leaned back slightly, feeling my flesh thaw and my mane and tail begin to dry.
I only then realized that I had been dripping all over the floor, but it evidently wasn’t all that big of a deal to the Pegasi, it just sopped into the cloud anyway. Soarin trod over with two plastic cards in his mouth. I briefly wondered why, if he was a Wonderbolt and had all those bits, he’d wanted to get into the hotel for free. I said nothing and shirked away, dipping my head low in case he was angry with me. I was embarrassed. I acted like such an idiot.
The architecture of the Pegasi was intricate, if not astoundingly impressive. It was different from anything I’d ever seen. A long spiral staircase continued up the skyscraper, with rooms lining the walls and the occasional lamp lighting it.
Soarin only let me up a couple of steps up before he turned and lowered his head, mouth still full with the cards, spat out one card and wordlessly motioned it to me before he slid the remaining one into the lock on the door with his mouth.
I followed him into the hotel room. All of the furniture was constructed of clouds, with normal sheets and blankets and pillows, thank Celestia. A dresser sat in the corner, and there was a sliding glass door that led to a small, narrow balcony that looked out on the dimly lit Ponyville, so far beneath us and dark stretches that scarred the landscape.
Without a word, Soarin walked over to the bed, and plopped down on it, spread-eagle, his stomach resting on the sheets. He let out a low groan. After several seconds of standing there in awkward silence, I shifted.
Soarin sprung his head up, looking at me. “Listen man, I’m sorry. I guess I had misconceptions about you.”
I bit my lip. I supposed this was ultimately the moment of truth. With the remnants of adrenaline still pumping through my body, I paused and let out a sigh. “Maybe… maybe… Ah dunno.” I mumbled, looking down at my hooves and sighing.
“Maybe… Ah dunno. Ah remember bein’ real little, and Ah remember Ah used to have crushes on other colts, but-“ I stopped myself when I noticed that Soarin had straightened up. He was doing something out-of-character. He was leaning in intently, and in spite of the fact, judging by his sagging shoulders and half-lidded eyes, he was clearly exhausted, it was plain he was willing to listen to me. I hadn’t expected this of him. Slowly, he nodded and closed his eyes.
“No, look, it’s cool if you don’t want to talk about it. I don’t think it’s right. It’s just… It’s not cool for ponies to raise their families to believe stuff like that. But, if you totally don’t want to talk about it, I get it.” He bowed his head respectfully, and I was taken aback. How had he assumed that it was my family who had given me this idea?
“Since when’re you so considerate?”
“Since somepony else is in emotional turmoil. Y'know, I'm not as horrible as I may seem.”
I stopped. I wasn’t in emotional turmoil. I was perfectly fine. Soarin turned around and slid under the covers. I could already hear him adopting the familiar breathing patterns of sleep. I decided that if the conversation would ever continue, it would do so in the morning. I flipped back the corner of the satin sheet, topped with a heavy down comforter, and slid under it, my head resting on the cool pillow.
“Good night, Braeburn.” Soarin sighed, exhaling.
I reached over and flicked off the light.
Smiling softly in the warm embrace of the blankets, now heating from my body temperature, I curled up. My vision was now adjusting to the dark room, I could see the lights glimmering outside through the sliding door, and cheap paintings made by machines hanging on the walls. Soarin was already snoring quietly. “Night, Soarin," I murmured, though I knew he couldn't hear me.
"Aaaand, rise and shine, sleeping beauty!”
The sound of a thick, heavy metal door slamming vibrated the room. I buried my face further in my pillow and grasped the blanket harder in my still-numb hooves, drawing it up over my nose and muzzle.
Soarin’s voice hammered through the air, a drill poking and prodding at the edges of my skull from the inside-out. I flicked my ear dismissively. My body felt much heavier, as though gravity was affecting me more than it should have been. I became aware that my right side was uncomfortable and rolled over with a soft rustle. Much better.
“Come on, man. I got cherrychangas for breakfast.”
I creaked an eye open. My vision was foggy and bleary from sleep, but I could clearly make out Soarin’s cyan body rustling around the room. He had a white paper bag lodged in his maw, teeth firmly clamped down on the folded edges. “Huh?”
“Get up. Food.”
I felt a dull growl from my stomach and resolved to force myself up, groaning and rubbing my eyes. I pushed my back against the headboard. “What time is it?”
“Food,” Soarin repeated, digging a hoof into the bag and pulling out a somewhat cylindrical object and wound up his foreleg, chucking it across the room, where it landed with a wet flop on my face and slid down my chest before flipping onto the comforter. It was wrapped in white wax paper, oil seeping through in several areas, making it translucent and peppering it with dark spots, seeping with fat.
I picked up the soggy, limp greasy thing in my hoof and sniffed it. “Breakfast?”
“Why not?” Soarin shrugged, taking one of them in his mouth and hopping onto the bed. The blankets on both of our beds were disheveled and messy, but his were thrown about the room as though he’d done it on purpose.
With my vision still bleary, I shrugged and unraveled the so-called ‘breakfast’ from the waxy packaging. The cherrychanga itself was coated with black carbon, crusted on the edges. Oil gleamed from it, and some reddish-pink substance leaked from the corner of it.
I winced. But, I’d always been taught to have morals and values and be appreciative. I snuck a glance at Soarin, who looked just as bothered as I did, staring down at the blackened chunk of ‘food’ with his tongue part way out, gagging.
Apprehensive, I returned to my own and leaned forward, sniffing it. Soarin gagged loudly beside me, looking up as he did. He groaned and spat out the half-chewed mess of cherrychanga, his face growing greenish in color. “Do-don’t... don’t eat that.” He began to madly wipe at his tongue with his hooves and trotted over, snatching the spread in front of me and throwing it in the white paper bag, along with his own. “So, uh. You wanna go get some real food? We can talk some more.”
I shifted uncomfortably. Not that I didn't want to talk, but the awkwardness after last night's events still hung in the air. I paused to consider, but realized I couldn’t tell him no. Not after all he had done for me.
“Sure,” I said smiling, though I still felt a little nervous. “That sounds nice.”
Applejack’s face rose drearily from the compressed pillow as she forced herself up, planting her hooves against the gradually yellowing sheets, marked and folded with white spots in the creases. She shifted her weight and swung a hind leg over the edge of the bed, hearing the bedsprings creak in relief as the weight of her body was lifted. The sun had only peeked its rays halfway over the glowing horizon.
She blearily dragged a tingling hoof down her face. She realized that agonizingly enough, her entire right foreleg had fallen asleep. She shook it out, wincing softly at the heavy tingling running through it, tiny needles trying to force their way through her skin.
She shivered and tried to balance herself on her other three legs, the knee in her right foreleg being too weak to support her. Mentally, Applejack scolded herself for not sleeping in a better position, though she knew it’d fade in time anyway.
Hobbling over to the white and red checkered curtains, where light filtered and danced through to create intricate patterns on the floorboards, she drew them open and hung them behind a worn brass hook, allowing light to bathe the room and illuminate picture frames with old, sepia-toned photos lined up on a bookcase. A few worn novels, with thick, musty pages and crinkled corners sat, stacked vertically, on the shelf. They were falling from their bindings. Inscribed in varying degrees of intricacy on the spine was aways something to do with apples or farming. The warped pages held a spongy appearance, the pages seeming thicker than they were in actuality.
Applejack turned to stare into the mirror. Her blonde mane was slicked back with oil and grease, stuck closely to her head and hanging limply around her shoulders. Dark crescents had formed under her bloodshot green eyes, red spiderwebs crawling across the whites.
Braeburn had never come back. Though Rainbow Dash had given her a book to read - something about a mare who went on crazy adventures - she’d barely paid any attention to it. She’d simply lit the fireplace and turned on a lamp and waited. The clock had ticked on and on. To eight ‘o clock, nine, ten. Eventually, at three in the morning, she’d resolved to go lie down. In spite of this, she had simply lay awake, staring at the ceiling, worrying about him.
Braeburn was so… naïve. Applejack was all for being trusting and kind to everypony, but some ponies were just bad news. Soarin wasn’t the worst of the lot, but Applejack certainly wouldn’t trust the Pegasus with her life by any means. He was nicer than he let himself off to be. He didn’t want to ruin his image, or whatever the hay he babbled on about. She worried about Braeburn, though. Soarin was by no means responsible, as she’d found out in the short time she’d known him, and if Braeburn was coltnapped, or worse—she gulped and felt a familiar sense of rage rise to her face.
Her eyes automatically seemed to shut themselves. Her eyelids weighed hundreds of pounds. She violently blinked them back open and forced light to bleed into her eyes, burning her retinas. She lifted a hoof and rubbed the sleep from the corners of her eyes, snatching for the brush with her other hoof. She gripped it and brushed her shaggy bangs forward. She snickered to herself in remembrance of how she’d gotten her forelock cut.
As a filly, Applejack decided she needed her mane cut, and picked up the nearest pair of shearing scissors. She had taken massive chunks of hair out, mostly from the front of her head. So now, still remaining uncut since then, sat a tangled blonde forelock hanging down between her green eyes.
She grabbed the two red hair ties from the polished vanity and brushed her mane to the side, out of her face and keeping it from obscuring her vision. She tied it back. Almost simultaneously, she reached back, brushed quickly through her tail, and tied it up as well. This way, it’d keep from getting tangled in briars and branches and twigs that would lay around on the farm and normally snag in her tail.
She trotted over to the hat rack and grabbed her old Stetson from its classic position. Smiling softly, the orange mare spoke in a quiet voice as she was brought into her own reverie. “Miss ya every day, Pa.”
She briefly examined the hat. It was still caked with a thin layer of dust from yesterday’s work, but she shrugged it off. She’d still have a bit of work to do, yet.
Apples were seasonal fruits. Applebucking season lasted from August to December, and peaking just around the time of Nightmare Night. By Hearth’s Warming Eve, the season was normally over. Though, many varieties of apples grew in the off-season, and it would often be just enough to perpetuate the Apple Family through until applebucking season came around again. This was that part of the season. When the days were cold and the nights colder, darkness settling earlier, Luna’s night shimmering for several more hours than it generally did, that was the off-season.
Applejack turned to her door, silently praying to Celestia that Braeburn would be downstairs, lazily sprawled on the couch with a leg hanging limply over the edge. Augh, that colt could snore… She shouldered her way out of her door and breathed a heavy sigh. The floorboards creaked under the weight of her sleepy footsteps. She glided down the stairs, where the creaking sound only grew worse as the wood screamed in protest under her hoofsteps.
The muted orange mare rounded the corner of the staircase, her hooves planting on the solid floor level of the farmhouse. She ambled over toward a door, halfway cracked open. Granny Smith’s nasally snoring was audible. Applejack flicked her ear dismissively. The old mare had developed a bit of a cold since last night, and Applejack had insisted that she get some rest.
Now, the cowpony just hoped that Brae would be out in the living room. Her hooves met the worn carpet and she leaned in, hopeful that the yellow pony would be snoring away, his vest strewn somewhere on the floor. She was met with nothing.
Applejack sighed. What if he’d gotten hurt? Or kidnapped? What if he was being held for ransom? She shook her head to clear it of the various horrifying images that wormed their way into her mind.
She decided to go ask Rainbow if she could check up on them. Of course, he was probably fine. Still, if something had happened to him… Applejack shivered briefly. He’d probably be back tonight, but there was no harm in having Rainbow Dash look for them, right? After all, she was just worried for Braeburn. It was an innocent concern.
Today was her day off, so it didn't really matter. Mac would be doing all of the chores with Applebloom, and she hadn’t seen Rainbow in a while anyway. It'd give her a chance to ask how the date went, if anything.
With a nod of determination, the young mare lowered the cowpony hat on her head and swung open the thick dutch door. A swirl of cool air drifted into her coat and danced around her hooves, just brushing past her tail. The air was cool with the aftermath of the night, but the sun was bright and sent its rays spiraling in each direction. The wind carried a biting chill, though it was lost in the thawing rays of the sun.
A panorama of color stretched and burned into the horizon, lucid reds, yellows, and oranges bleeding together into an ever-swimming expanse of blue that was caught in an endless tango of light and darkness just above her head. She loved days like this. Nopony seemed to truly appreciate the beauty that nature and the simple life could give you. Earning your keep, and family. It was all so simplistic, but it was so rewarding. Each applebuck season she would see her labors come to fruition. Tangible, too. She'd know that she'd done a good job and fed her family and kept them together for one more day.
The mare broke into a trot and followed a path down from the farmhouse. In the autumn, leaves would spill out onto the ground and break into a ballet around her feet, twirling and leaping with each movement as they drifted across the lonely path. Now, the dirt road was barren and devoid of life. Trees lining the path bore no leaves, dead-looking branches swung quietly amongst themselves, occasionally emitting a quiet rustle.
Applejack, breaking into a canter, now, dipped her head forward so that her nose faced toward the dirt, racing below her as she continued traveling along her choice stretch of land. It felt so good to run again. Her hair, even in a ponytail, because looser and began to whip around wildly, smacking her in the back multiple times, individual hairs biting and slicing through her skin.
Her lungs filled with air and she felt her heart pump faster. She allowed her hooves to move quicker, beating against the dusty ground and kicking up dirt, some of which so fine that it filled her nostrils and dried her nose, causing her to sneeze as she ran.
Caught up in the moment, Applejack almost didn’t notice the singular cloud drifting over her head until it was almost too late. She stopped, skidding on her hooves and building up dirt underneath them. Sure enough, a blue Pegasus with a vivid rainbow mane was lounging lazily above her.
“Hm?” she asked, twisting her head around as she hung off the side of the cloud. “Oh, hey AJ!”
“Ah could use a favor. Are ya busy?” asked the straw-maned cowpony.
Rainbow Dash nodded, straightening out her body so she sat on the edge of the cloud. “You got it,” she began. “I had nothing to do today anyways.”
“Could ya go up to Cloudsdale an’ check on mah cousin? Soarin took him up there an’ Ah thought he could use some socializin’, but now he’s all gone an’ missin’. Ah’m worried.”
Applejack watched the color drain from Rainbow Dash’s face as she began to breath at a more quickened pace. “Uh, no." She said. "Sorry AJ, I can’t do that.”
With that, the orange mare watched her friend lift off and disappear at a noticeably faster speed than she usually flew.
Well, so much for the Element of Loyalty.
Applejack sighed. She would ask more questions later, it was certainly unlike Rainbow to run off like that. However, Braeburn was her focus right now.
Taking her mind of off Rainbow Dash, the frustrated farmer took off in the direction of Fluttershy’s cottage.
After a short gallop, Applejack turned at a crossroad and came upon the tiny cottage that was nestled on the edge of the forest. As usual, a variety of animal species inhabited the property, hopping around carelessly or flying above the tree tops.
Applejack trotted up the small path to her abode and leaned in, knocking quietly twice, as to not startle the small Pegasus who may have been sleeping inside. It was still pretty early, even for Fluttershy.
Surprisingly, Fluttershy opened the door almost immediately after Applejack’s hoof had landed on the door. She looked awake. “Oh, good morning, Applejack,” she greeted softly.
“Mornin’, Sugarcube. Came ta ask ya a favor.”
Fluttershy paused and blinked. “Oh, okay. What do you need? I-I’ll do my best."
Applejack smiled. She knew she could always count on Fluttershy. “Mah cousin headed up ta Cloudsdale with Soarin, the Wonderbolt, an’ Ah was wonderin’ if ya could go check up on ‘em. They’ve been gone fer some time now.”
“Oh, uhm. Okay, Applejack. I can do that, I guess.”
“Look man. I know you’re uncomfortable right now. But you’ve got some skeletons in the closet, and I wanna help you clear them. I’m probably not coming off as trustworthy, ‘cause I was kinda crazy. I get that.”
I frowned. Soarin had been oddly nice today. Not only bringing me food, but apologizing for how terrible it had been and he’d even taken me out to get something better. The restaurant wasn’t fancy, and I was glad for that, but I still felt guilty. I had no bits on me. I recalled the hotel last night. “Hey,” I murmured. Now was as good a time as any to ask him. “Why’d ya need to get the room fer free?”
Soarin paused and frowned. “Well,” He mumbled, grabbing a thin, red cocktail straw and stirring through his orange juice with it. Chunks of ice remained to swirl around in it even after he’d lifted it out and set it nearly beside the glass. “The thing is, that shows up on the team account. Usually, I’d put it on my account. The thing is, my account’s connected to the Wonderbolts. If Spitty sees I was spending nights in random hotels with other stallions, well. You could guess where that would go.” He winked and leaned forward, taking a gulp of orange juice. A drop of it dribbled out of the corner of his mouth, but he nonchalantly wiped it away with a hoof.
“Oh,” I said, looking down at the table as my cheeks grew hotter. “But why would they assume...“
“’Case ya haven’t noticed, bro, I like to have a wide variety available to me. I could care less. Mare, stallion, zebra, buffalo.” He shrugged. “Life’s too short for worrying about that kinda stuff. All that ‘settling down’ crap…” He rolled his eyes. “Not only that, but the last thing I need is Spitfire riding my flanks about wasting bits, even if we’ve got enough.” He stared at the corner of the table intently, his eyes darting around in the cut out circles dotting it. A light breeze rolled through under the canopy that kept us shaded from the unforgiving sun at this altitude.
“So she just doesn’t like that you’re… that you’re a coltcuddler?” I asked, tilting my head to the side. I became aware how irrevocably hungry I was. A grumble of hunger gnawed at my stomach as a waiter passed, carrying warm plates full of food. I couldn’t even remember what I’d ordered. I groaned and rested my head on the table, grabbing a glass and loudly sipping the ice water through a straw, trying to settle the incessant hunger.
“Well, she’s alright with that. Conspiracies and rumors are what perpetuate celebrities. Thunder Rush, uh, you don’t know him, but, for a while he had this coltcuddler rumor going on and he jumped to the most popular out of all eleven of us. Crowds would chant his name.” Soarin glanced up into the sky and leaned back in his chair, his forelegs swinging listlessly down at his sides. “It’s just… y’know, with me. Heh. I mean, she knows. Don’t get me wrong. But it really messes her up. See, we dated for a while. Nice mare, but she’s got total control problems. I think it has something to do with her responsibilities. Her grandfather was the leader of the original team. She gets stressy.” He chuckled softly and grinned.
“But, back to you.” Soarin nodded. “So, let’s start with this: Why do you not want to be a coltcuddler?”
“Well,” I began slowly. I felt a quiet ringing in my ears and flicked them, trying to silence it. “I don’t think that, well, it’s… morally correct. It’s wrong.”
I desperately tried to ignore my stomach’s constant grumbling and protesting to the lack of food. “Tain’t right.” I murmured, scuffing a hoof at the cloudy ground. “Just… It don’t seem right. We were all meant ta fill up Equestria an’ two stallions or two mares just don’t get the job done.”
“Equestria’s full up enough. My question is, do you find mares attractive?”
I froze, biting my lip and staring at the ground. My ears stopped ringing, but I didn’t hear anything. I looked up slowly, stealing a glance at a young yellow Pegasus filly, about my age, with her face tucked behind a menu. A neat spill of pink mane covered her eyes and what little of her face wasn’t covered by the menu.
I didn’t find her in the least bit attractive. She was pretty. She was very, very, very pretty. Gorgeous, even. But I wasn’t attracted to her. I sighed. “N-no, but lots of folks don’t! And Ah’m just waitin’ for the right mare ta come along!”
Soarin groaned, sliding back in his chair. “Dude. Look at you, you were, like, born to reproduce or something.”
“I ain’t got no ack-cent!”
He melted into his chair, sighing. “That. That. THAT. I don’t admit this often, but you are limitlessly attractive. I totally mean that, too. I mean, come on. Your voice, your personality.” His eyes trailed over my neck and chest, and I shifted uncomfortably. I felt violated, but I couldn’t lie if I also didn’t feel a bit flattered.
“That body…” He licked his lips and my face grew hot again. I stole a glance down at my hooves. “Uh, anyway. Sorry. I’ll lighten up. But, y’know. Okay, so if you don’t like mares, has there ever been any point in your life in which you liked stallions?”
I shifted anxiously and swallowed. “Okay. Uh... Yes.”
“Okay. So what do you think that the logical conclusion might be?”
I saw the waiter approaching with two plates of food, and I remembered what I ordered. Apple pancakes. “Okay, okay. Maybe... Maybe Ah am a coltcuddler. But only maybe. Ah’m not sure yet. It’s a possibility. Okay? Ah...” I paused, wincing. “Ah could… Ah could be a coltcuddler.” I swallowed.
I watched Soarin smile. “Okay.”
Fluttershy gasped as she looked down upon the two stallions eating breakfast, having accidentally overheard their most recent conversation.
We sat there for hours, chatting idly about silly little things that I can’t even bother to recall—our favorite foods and colors, what we thought of certain types of ponies, the things we hated.
Somehow, I found out he wasn’t all that different from me. The conversation wandered to mares, and while I had little complaints beyond how they had forced me to pay for dinner on all those failed dates my family had set me up on, Soarin had plenty to say. He’d rattle off names, listing countless mares and comparing them to others. I didn’t pay attention to most of them. The food seemed to keep coming; he’d just order more and more appetizers to nosh on and pick at. The table was cluttered with plates, sauces and little bits of food smeared across them.
He, evidently, couldn’t be bothered to worry about them. I was sure that the waiters knew who he was, as they were coming back to our table and refilling my water and his soda more than they were with anypony else. I caught the occasional angry eye from those around us and lowered my head. Soarin, however, was completely oblivious. He chattered on and on and on about mares.
“So, anyway,” he mumbled through a mouthful of hay fries smeared with cheese. “Life I wash shaying, she wash tofally crazshy.” He gulped loudly and made a circular motion by his ears with his hoof. “Totally bonkers. She threw this vase at me and chased me out,” he started to laugh through another bite. “Told me never to come back!” He was clutching his stomach in mirth, basking in the hilarity of it all. “Nothing compared to Spitfire, though. We lasted like, a month. Longest relationship I’ve ever had, and it was really only ‘cause she was a good lay,” said Soarin thoughtfully. “and I mean really, really really good. I mean she could ju-“ he cut himself off, noticing my discomfort and stopped. “Sorry. Heh, but, uh, she was pretty psycho. Craziest pony I’ve ever known. You wouldn’t really know it from just talking to her. She’d seem pretty chill, but once you got to know her or saw her mad…” Soarin shuddered. “You have any crazy exes? Prolly not, huh?”
I shook my head. “Nope,” I muttered, looking down at the table. I’d only nibbled on a couple of things in the spread.
“Figured as much.” Soarin flicked his ear dismissively. “Well, I’ve got practice today if you wanna show up and see for yourself.”
My emotions were mixed. On the one hoof, Applejack had been expecting me home last night. On the other, the idea of spending even more time with Soarin enticed me in a way I just didn’t quite understand, as though he has some sort of magnetism about him. He was drawing me toward him. And the closer I got, the closer I wanted to be. Yet at the same time, it was kind of like I felt a dragging sense of guilt. I had to get away from him at some point. I paused anxiously. “Well, er…”
“Look, it all depends on you. Every decision you make, m’kay? I’m not pressuring you to do anything. Whatever you want.” The corner of his mouth snuck upward.
I paused anxiously. Somehow, I was beginning to have second thoughts about the things I’d told Soarin earlier. Did I trust him enough? But, if I didn’t trust him, who else could I trust? Then, I realized something. I couldn’t tell Applejack about all my problems, or Big Mac, and definitely not my folks or Applebloom.
But I’d known them all my life. Why had I been able to talk to Soarin about how I felt as a colt? That stumped me. I trusted MacIntosh and Applejack with my life, but not with something as simple as that?
I stopped myself. Was I really a coltcuddler? I wasn’t just looking for attention? My stomach dropped at just the prospect. Had I wasted his time? I glanced back over at the yellow mare hiding behind the menu. It was morally wrong, but I wasn’t doing anything by going with him, was I?
Of course. It wasn’t unnatural or wrong for me to go with him just as friends, was it? It’d give me a chance to see the world-famous Wonderbolts I’d heard about. I could get Applebloom and her friends could get some autographs from Spitfire or something. I nodded internally, the plan sounding better and better in my head the more I thought about it.
“Yeah, sure,” I agreed, nodding. “Why not?”
Soarin smirked and waved down the waiter, taking a pen in his mouth and signing a receipt as the waiter handed him back a plastic card. “Just wait ‘till Spitty sees that,” he chortled, keeping his head low as we wandered down the busy streets
While dodging past crowds of ponies at different levels off of the road, I turned to him. “So, ever been to Appleoosa?”
“Nah, never needed to tour over there. I think Spits was saying something about it in the future, it’s getting big enough. It’s worth a shot. I’d be happy to go if it meant seeing you.”
I froze anxiously for a second. What was that supposed to mean? I focused on my hooves as I continued walking beside him. He snorted passively and looked over to the side. “This way,” he mumbled, turning down a corner.
I followed him around multiple streets. I almost asked him if he even knew where we were going this time but he had this lingering sense of confidence that told me he’d gone this way quite a few times, like he had the way memorized.
I don’t think I really expected him to lead me to the Cloudiseum, though. He ducked under a massive archway that cleared out and opened up to a huge arena, rows upon rows of blue and white cloud seats arching in a circle around the hollow centre that was entirely open, nothing on the ground.
Soarin turned, leading me up a series of stairs that ran up the seating arrangements. “Just sit somewhere around here.” He smirked, flitting an ear. “I gotta go get changed, but I’ll be back in a flash. We’ll be here just a few hours or something. Nothing intense. Just keeping up with our regimen.”
I could use this time to clear my head a little. I felt confused and maybe a breath of fresh air alone would help me reorient myself. I settled on my haunches, closing my eyes and feeling a breeze run through my mane.
I was transported back to Appleoosa, sitting on the edge of the cliffs as an adolescent, alone in the winter. The breezes would buffet around on the bluffs and would somehow level out and hit in even spurts of quiet energy, blowing my mane back, just like they were doing now in Cloudsdale.
I’d settle down on the edge of the overhang that looked out across the orchard and find myself there for hours, recounting every moment of the day with arid winds clearing the dust and dirt from my mane and carrying the crumbled leaves and bits of grit on its breeze.
For a moment, dry desert air filled my lungs and I had to open my eyes to remind myself of where I really was. I glanced up, seeing the famous stunt fliers already in formation. I spotted Soarin without much trouble as he zipped around and weaved in and out of the group, clearly exerting as much energy as he possibly could.
An orange-maned mare barked at him, and he straightened up, though something about his body language told me he was exasperated. I assumed that it was Spitfire.
Watching the practice was, overall, nothing too special. As a matter of fact, it was pretty boring. I watched them go through countless drills, circling around the stadium at shocking speeds. For some reason, none of it amazed me. I even watched Soarin perform some crazy stunt.
He stopped in mid-air, locking his wings at his sides, and he free-fell until he nearly hit what would have been the pit of the coliseum when dark clouds expoded and peeled back from him, leaving a thick ring of black smog with static crackling through and jumping around, charging and electrifying everything within range.
I was breathless, but not because of the fancy tricks or what they caused. I was amazed by his focus. I could rarely see the strain on his face, and if I could, it was so little. He looped and dove and soared and dipped, openly defying wherever the wind tried to force him to go. As practice wore on it seemed fewer and fewer Wonderbolts were in the sky, but I paid them no mind.
My eyes were trained on Soarin and his acrobatics, and at the way that he moved through the air almost like it was water, with ease, as though gravity just wasn’t present. He openly defied physics and tore away from whatever boundaries had been set for him. I guess I was too busy focusing on that, and maybe that’s why I didn’t notice the mare sitting beside me until she jabbed a hoof in my side.
“Hey,” murmured a scratchy voice in my ear. I glanced over to see none other than Spitfire. She wasn’t wearing her uniform, allowing me to see all of her yellow coat. “Soarin’s friend?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah.” I nodded, not taking my eyes off of Soarin, who was still zipping around in amazing patterns I wouldn’t have even thought of on my own, but he seemed to be mindlessly playing around with them on a whim, like it was foal’s play.
She paused for a while, turning to watch him as well. “Heh, I saw you watching me earlier.”
I glanced back at her, blinking. “Oh, no, sorry.” I smiled nervously, hoping not to offend her. “Ah was watching…” I nodded toward the blue Pegasus. “But, you’re pretty great.”
I watched her expression melt, and I slowly found myself frowning as well. Her mane covered her face slightly, and her face took a nosedive as she turned downward, eyebrows waffling. “Hmph,” she muttered, glancing away from me. “So, what’s your name again?”
“Braeburn. Braeburn Apple. You’re Spitfire, right?”
“Yeah,” she grumbled. I frowned, trying to be more polite and tearing my focus off of Soarin for a moment.
“You’re pretty great, though. No need to get real sore about it.” I tried to smile at her. “As a matter of fact, Ah think you’re real talented.”
“Hah, yeah. Right,” she hissed bitterly, poison dripping from her voice. I did my best to ignore it. I hadn’t meant to offend her.
Soarin finally dipped down between us, shattering the awkward barrier I had accidentally built up. “Heya!” He smirked, completely ignoring the tenseness between me and Spitfire. “I’ll go get changed, then we can head out. Cool?”
Soarin immediately left, nosing his way past the irritated-looking Spitfire. Once he had gone down the steps and headed toward some unseen locker room, Spitfire turned to me. “What, you his new plaything or something?”
Alarmed, I turned to her, taking my focus off of the passing clouds overhead. “Huh?”
“You heard me.” Spitfire glared at me. “New boyfriend for a week or something?”
“Wha? No, I’m not-“
“Oh, that’s what they all say. He’ll drop you in a week.”
“No. Surprise. Of course I mean Soarin, you idiot!” Her voice was staring to rise now, something that shocked me. I barely knew her, but she was practically screaming at me. I couldn’t even move.
“Look, he’ll drop you in a week after he’s gotten with you. Take this as a warning. He’ll either get what he wants, or he’s gonna give up. He’s not with you for some stupid emotional reason.”
Would he? Of course the second part wasn’t about to happen, but would he give up on me just because I refuted his attempts? It never occurred to me that how clear he’d made it that he was attracted to me.
And suddenly, I was a whole different degree of uncomfortable. If he felt that way… if he felt… romantically toward me… what kind of a pony was I to ignore his advances, or even worse, not notice them entirely? What if he desperately wanted me to like him back?
Somehow, I’d gotten the idea that I’d stop doing this when mares weren’t the ones making the advances. Now that it was Soarin, could I still defend myself?
Spitfire continued to fume angrily beside me, shouting things that I deafened out, lost in trying to make sense of the situation I’d just found myself in.
Then, I heard Soarin’s voice. “Hey! Spitfire! Look who I found!” He rounded the corner and bounded up the steps to the seats with a small Pegasus mare in tow. The same Pegasus mare from the diner earlier. She moved quietly, like a little canary, and her footsteps were muffled by the cloud, but I somehow got the idea that she walked quietly anyway.
I also managed to realize that she had come with Applejack to Appleoosa, when they’d needed to plant Bloomberg. She had helped settled the dispute with the buffalo. My blood ran cold. Why had she been here, of all places?
“Oh, um. Braeburn,” her voice was low and I had to strain to hear her. “Hi…”
“H-how long have you… have you been here?” I couldn’t swallow the lump in my throat.
“I’m sorry, uhm. Applejack wanted me to uh, see if you were okay, so I was at the restaurant and I kind of… overheard,” she squeaked out the last word.
All I could manage to get out was, “Please don’t say anything… please, you don’t understand! You can’t tell her anything you heard! I’m still… I’m still figuring things out! Please, you can’t tell her!” I was hysterical now, I could barely move, but I could hear my own heartbeat in my ears. Out of the corner of my eye, though I was focused on Fluttershy’s anxious face, I could see the color drain from Soarin’s face.
“O-okay…” She looked down quietly.
“Uh, Spitfire.” Soarin was clearly trying to ease the tension. “Fluttershy was the one Photo Finish was talking about… that one time.”
Spitfire nodded, glaring at Soarin momentarily before looking at Fluttershy and smiling good-naturedly. I’d never seen a faster transformation of emotion. It must have been a Wonderbolt thing. “So, Fluttershy…” Spitfire began to idly walk with the disoriented mare, leading her away from the general direction of me and Soarin. Their conversation dissolved into a quiet susurration as Soarin turned to me.
I only realized then that I was beginning to tear up. Remembering that my father always taught me that crying was for the weak, I wiped the unshed tears away immediately. I saw Soarin smile, faintly sympathetic. “You probably wanna start going home soon now, right?” he asked. “That potion’s gonna be wearing off in an hour or so, it’s only good for twenty-four hours.” He began to walk, heading toward the arched opening of the Cloudiseum that briefly obscured the massive, blue sky. I’d never seen it so clear.
“You know, we’re not on a tour right now. We’re just kind of hanging out and doing a couple of shows in Ponyville. How long will you be there?”
“Ah dunno.” I shrugged. “AJ and Mac wanted me out there so Ah could meet Rainbow Dash, but… Y’know how that went. They’re always tryin’ to set me up with some mare.”
“And you wonder if it’s not some mare that you’re looking for sometimes?”
I paused. “Well, yeah. Ah guess. Ah felt like Ah haven’t been myself these past few days, though. I’m usually so upbeat for everypony else, but lately…”
“You’re not comfortable.” He shrugged. “It’s normal. You don’t have to feel that way around me, though. I hope you know that. I kinda just… throw everything out there. No sense in hiding it. Hop on.” He motioned to his back once we had reached the edge of the cloudy platform. I hopped onto his back once again. It was odd. I wasn’t as terrified as I had been when we had come up here yesterday. I trusted him more. I wasn’t sure why, but I did.
The descent was easier than going up was; he strained less and seemed much looser. The sun cast its rays from the highest point in the sky. The flight was short and didn’t drag as awkwardly las I had expected it to. Somehow, it was nice, actually.
I had time to clear my head, or at least a little.
Well, I tried to. I couldn’t form a coherent string of thoughts, between the stallion beneath me and Spitfire’s words echoing through my head. Was that really all Soarin cared about?
We landed softly on one of the off-roads from the barn, winding through the middle of the red delicious orchard. He shook me off, then turned to me, smirking. “Hey, I don’t think she’ll say anything. It’s not worth stressing."
I was glad to have solid ground beneath my hooves again, and I stamped a couple of times for good measure. “Yeah, Ah don’t think so either.”
Soarin stared at me for several seconds. “Uh, hey. Mind if I come by again? We could… I dunno. Hang out, I guess. Have a real conversation.” The corners of his lips curled up slowly into a smile, and I blinked.
“Y-yeah, sounds good to me.”
Soarin approached me slowly, the light filtering through the trees dappled his body when he moved through. “This was fun,” he whispered coyly, moving closer and pressing his nose up against mine. My face warmed and for a moment, I was petrified. He darted back again and winked. “Let’s get you home, though.”
For whatever reason, that left me with an insatiable hunger for me to get just a bit closer to him again. I leaned in toward him as we walked. It was only when we came across the barn that I realized I had gotten uncomfortably near and jerked away.
He laughed at me as we wandered up the path to the barn, but I shoved him away. I felt strangely… safe.
This feeling didn’t last much longer, though. He ducked inside through the dutch door of the house with me, and I looked up to see Applejack. Everything shattered in a single moment. I could tell by her face something was wrong. The color was gone from her normally cheery, bright face. Big MacIntosh was sitting there as well, in quiet stoicism as he sat by the corner of the room. “Braeburn,” Applejack choked out, her expression a mixture of horrified sadness and guilt. Clearly, she was a little alarmed by my sudden appearance. “Somethin’ terrible’s happened.”
The white orb of burning and fusing gasses descended even further below the horizon, cascading its fractured rays of light across the sky. If you looked straight up, you could see blue. Then purple, and red, and orange, and it would all circle around the setting sun, half of which was still visible over the line where the earth met the sky in a blazing cacophony of color.
“You know, man... I'm really sorry. About everything.”
“'Salright. Things happen.”
Ever since AJ had broken the news of Granny Smith's death to me, I'd been moving back and forth through stages of grief. I didn't really remember what they were, but I knew they were things like denial and sorrow... and anger?
I didn't care. I focused my attention on the half-eaten pie that sat in front of me, then my eyes wandered to the empty one in front of Soarin. “You want the rest of my share, Soarin? Ah ain't got much of an appetite this evenin'.”
Soarin seemed guilty, but it seemed to be fleeting, because after just a few minutes of silence during which the sun managed to completely settle its rays below the yards and yards of endless orchard stretched out before me. He was, however, sober, even as he ate the pastry. “You know,” he stopped to lick the crumbs and bits of cooked apple from his lips, and wiped his mouth with his wrist. “... This reminds me of when my grandpa died.”
It wasn't so much that the statement was profound, it was more that it was profound coming from Soarin. My eyes widened a bit and my gaze turned in his direction. He shrugged, noting my surprise. He laughed a little, dryly. “It isn't that shocking, is it?”
Well. It kind of was. So far, to me, the kind of pony that Soarin had presented himself to be to me was somepony a little more frivolous. It hadn't seemed to me that he was the kind of stallion who would have gone through pain. “N-no,” I stammered, realizing I hadn't responded for several seconds. He raised an eyebrow, looking at me oddly before pausing to look back down at his share of my pie. “He's the one who taught me to fly. Celestia, I wouldn't be a Wonderbolt if not for him. It's so weird. It's like, the people in our lives have such an effect.” He paused, his eyes skimming across the sunset in front of us. “... Sorry. Sometimes I get like, all deep.”
I snorted a little, mumbling, “Hardly,” under my breath.
The sky had darkened significantly before anything else was said. “You know, Braeburn...” Soarin mumbled beside me. I could barely make out his sky blue outline under the scattered stars. “Call me crazy, but I think I like you. This is like, the start of a beautiful friendship or something.”
He tilted his head back down to look at me directly, his eyes glittering in the moonlight. I think that was the first moment I realized how damn attractive he was. It was no wonder he'd had mares tripping over him left and right for years. His jawline was nicely sculpted, his cheekbones high and perfect, and his eyes. His eyes were this beautiful shade of green. Perfect green, like the kind of green you'd find in a picture book for foals who were just learning colors.
And something strange came over me. Something horrifying, that would pursue me and chase me for the years that would come. It would haunt my very soul until I would come to terms with myself and my own very essence. I had the sudden urge to lean forward and kiss Soarin on the lips.
I made no move to do so, but I froze. The fact that I'd had that very instinct terrified me. I sat there, frozen. I tensed every muscle in my body and felt every individual hair of my fur stand on end.
I leaped to my hooves, suddenly distraught and concerned.
I watched Soarin's expression melt as he watched me. “Brae, are you okay?”
I shifted anxiously on my hooves. “Ah...” I bit my lip and stared at Soarin but had to tear my gaze away out of discomfort. “It's okay. Look, Ah should get going.”
Soarin wrinkled his nose, disgruntled. “Uh, okay. Sure. If that's what you want, dude...” he backed off slightly, one eyebrow cocked in what was ultimately confusion. “I'll see you around, then?” He extended a hoof and I glanced up at him in confusion before shaking his hoof.
It was odd. He seemed to extend the hoofshake long beyond what it was intended to be, not letting go of my own hoof for quite some time. I raised an eyebrow but finally moved back. “See you around, I guess.” He said, shrugging and taking off suddenly, leaving me down on the surface of the earth, my hooves still planted firmly on the grass.
I turned to face back at the Sweet Apple Acres property. To my right, the giant orchard of apple trees extended for acres and acres, but I had my sights set on the barn and farmhouse. Galloping toward the house, I hopped up onto the porch and ducked inside, the lingering sensations of Soarin's hoofshake remaining on my hoof.
And here was my family. Applejack was pacing back and forth, staring at the floor with her hard gaze focused on nothing in particular. Applebloom was seated quietly on the couch, her eyes looking red and bloodshot. She was the only one out of all four of us who had shed a single tear. I knew Applejack was far too proud and worried about keeping up her 'strong' face that she wouldn't dare to show proper emotion until she was alone and you could hear her sob through the walls.
Big MacIntosh was a bit more reserved. He had an order of business about him, keeping his head up and his eyes keen, as though he was preoccupied with something that I couldn't see or be bothered to pay attention to. But seeing Applebloom sitting silently on the couch, her face contorted with despair and tears running down her red face, something primal seemed to kind of take over me, something I couldn't control.
I took several steps forward and moved my front leg around my little cousin in a comforting embrace, sighing. “Heya there, Applebloom.”
Applebloom sniveled loudly before looking up at me with large, moist eyes. “H-Hi, Uncle Braeburn.”
“Look now,” I murmured, brushing a bit of her red mane behind her ear. “Ah know this is all real confusin' for you.” I sighed.
“Wh-what's gonna happen ta Granny?”
I paused, momentarily confused by her question. Fear struck into my heart. What did she mean? Did she not understand the concept of life or death yet? I'd imagine one of her siblings would have taught her something like that already. “What do you mean?”
“Ah mean Granny's soul. Where does it go? It doesn't just disappear, does it? Right? She... She watches us or somethin', right? She always talked 'bout Papa an' Mama watchin' me and Mac and Applejack...”
I paused, staring at her. My eyes burned for a second and I had to shut them to keep from bawling right then and there. “W-wanna...” I swallowed, wiping my closed eyes quickly with a hoof before continuing my sentence, steadying myself. “Wanna come o-outside with me, Applebloom?”
Applebloom said not a word but got to her hooves and followed me silently. As we went out the door, I turned my head back to Applejack without stopping my walking and nodded to her, telling her with my eyes that it was her time now-- she didn't have to be strong for Applebloom.
The Apple family has always stuck together like that, communicating at times with silence and simple gestures. For talking to ponies like Mac, it was mandatory that you can read expressions and speak the language of the perpetually silent.
I led Applebloom to the hill that Soarin and I had been seated on minutes ago. The impressions from our rears were still present in the grass. She took a seat where Soarin had been, fitting oddly into his imprint. She still seemed upset, but the night air put a certain blanket of calmness over her demeanor, shaking off the fear and mourning.
“See all these stars, Applebloom?” I asked, taking my hoof slowly and waving it above my head. Because Ponyville was a small town in itself with few bright lights, even in the center of town I'd noticed recently that you could still see the stars clearly. But, out here on the farm, it was even more vivid. The white glimmer of stars spread out on the black blanket of Luna's night above us, spilling out from horizon to horizon and coating every edge of my vision when I stared up.
I turned my gaze down to little Applebloom, who was staring up at the night sky in wonderment, as though it was some kind of enchanted object she'd never seen before. Tears were rolling silently down her face from her moist eyes. I looked back up to the sky and focused my attention on a single star. It was glimmering and twinkling brighter than any other star in the sky. “See that one right there?” I pointed a hoof upward to the sky, to the one my eyes were focused on. I was careful not to tear my gaze from it so that I wouldn't lose sight of it.
I watched Applebloom's eyes. It took her a moment to find it, but once she did, she had her eyes locked on it. “E-eeyup.” She sniffled.of it.
“Well. That's Granny. Watching us right now.”
“N-no it ain't! It's just a star. Miss Cheerilee taught us about 'em.”
“It might be a star, but you see all these stars? See, when ponies die, they go up into the sky so they can look down on people they love.” It was a bunch of nonsense. I knew it was a bunch of nonsense. But I had to do something to cheer up my little cousin. Seeing her this sad would mess with my head permanently for a good while.
“... You promise?” Applebloom asked quietly.
Applebloom, looking only slightly more cheerful, nodded slowly. “Okay... If you say so...” She looked uneasy and I smiled halfheartedly, leaning forward and ruffling her hair.
“Promise, kiddo. Granny's watchin' us. And look, even right beside her,” I pointed out two stars beside the one I had chosen at first. “There's your momma and papa. Lookin' down on you right now. They don't want you to be crying no more, Applebloom. Granny's in a better place now, with Aun- Ah mean, with them. It's gonna be okay. Ah promise. And, y'know, some day, if you're real good, as good as your granny and your momma and papa, you'll be up there with them, too."
It was moments like these throughout my life that I would find my mind traveling back to the most innapropriate and horrible thing I could be thinking of at that particular time. For instance, then, for whatever reason, the main thing on my mind was when Granny Smith had boxed my ears as a colt. I never loved her any less because of it, and even now, I look back on it with endearing memories. She'd done what she thought was best for her grandchild.
The filly took her eyes off of the star looked at the ground before nodding softly. “B-braeburn?” she blubbered, before glancing up at me.
“Ah love you too, Applebloom. Come on. It's way past your bedtime. Let's get you some shuteye. You might feel a little better in the morning, ya hear?”
I led Applebloom into the farmhouse and up the stairs. Coincidentally, all the lights were off, as if to signal a hush. I had to feel my way over the rug that lay in the center of the room to the creaky floorboards and up the stairs that lined the far side. I took a left down the hall and moved down, my younger cousin by my side. I knew which door was hers. It was at the end of the hall. I nudged my way through in the dark and moved across the floor, feeling my way over to her bed. I felt her hop up and my hooves pulled the quilt back. She snuggled under and I could feel her breath. I sighed and smiled weakly to myself before I leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. “Good night, Applebloom.”
Applebloom nodded, leaning up to kiss my cheek. “Night night, Uncle Braeburn.”
As I closed her door behind me and began to move into the guest bedroom where I was staying, I could have sworn I heard a quiet wail from a certain orange mare. A wail she didn't think no one would hear.
The Apple family always sticks together.
As moving as the scene in front of him had been, Soarin was completely unphased by it. He remembered sadder movies. However, it had been a little entertaining. He was almost bothered, though. He was actually starting to feel things for Braeburn. Nothing major. He wasn't in love with the stallion or anything like that. Braeburn had just somehow become something a little more important than a nice piece of flank. He supposed this was a little more than that, but not by much. Braeburn was a friend, though this confused him a little. How could he go from seeing Brae as just a sex object to something more? This certainly hadn't happened to him before.
When he'd flown from Braeburn, he'd only taken up residence on a small cloud that hovered just above the orchard so that he could look down and see whatever was going on down there. What he'd seen was cute, but not touching. Tell a little lie to get a little kid to stop crying about her grandma. Oh, boohoo.
His thoughts ended prematurely when he heard someone call to him, “HEY! I don't care how nice your flank is, I never gave you permission to hang out on my cloud! This is my property!”
The Wonderbolt turned just in time to see that mare from earlier, Rainbow Dash, land on the small island of cloud. Her hooves skidded forward, creating a large, fluffy white cushion at her hooves.
“Oh, hey there. Having better luck with those stallions? Also, your property? I don't see your name on it, and last I checked, there was a minimum size for a cloud to be eligible to be owned by somepony. This one looks about three times too small.”
After seeming to get over the initial shock that she was face-to-face with one of her idols, Soarin-freaking-Windsong, Rainbow Dash frowned. It seemed as though he’d offended her. What a shocker. “You know, butterscotch,” Soarin examined a hoof, a common habit for him. “You may want to check into yourself. I just made Apples to Apples over there admit something he's been brainwashed not to believe, and I can probably do the same to you.”
Rainbow Dash wrinkled her nose and Soarin moved forward, using the pillow of cloud her hooves had created to rest his head on. “I'm saying that maybe if we had another mare join us, you'd probably be totally okay with it. Am I right or am I right?”
Rainbow Dash's face contorted with anger and disgust and she lifted up a hoof, stamping it down on his face. “SHUT UP! I hate it when people do this!”
“Do what? Oh, Celestia, am I going to have to counsel you or something? I'm bad at this stuff.” He mumbled rubbing his nose and general facial area with a hoof, checking for blood and wincing.
Rainbow frowned, her eyes filling to the brim with tears. “You're a jerk, you know that? I used to think you were cool. I wanted to be like you, or at least like Spitfire.”
“She's a crazy bitch, that one.”
“I bet you say that about every mare.”
“Pretty damn close. Including you.”
“... What the bucking Hell is wrong with you?” Rainbow Dash asked, looking seriously offended for once. Soarin watched her eyes fill with tears and he blinked, taking a quick step back. “I used to think you were cool,” she repeated, seeming horrified for a second.
“Oh, boo hoo, you. Your life must be ruined,” Soarin snapped back bitterly. Rainbow Dash stared at him.
“Y-you know what? You're just a self-centered, pompous asshole! You're so self-conscious and terrified that people will know you're self-conscious that you pretend to be all high and mighty to cover up your own fear, huh?”
Though Soarin knew deep down in his heart that this accusation was even shallower than a foal's swimming pool, this still made him laugh. It was a nervous laugh, a small one. And it was completely fed by the fact that Soarin somehow also knew that it was true, even if in a small way. “You can go now,” he chuckled, smirking at Rainbow Dash and rolling his eyes.
“GET OFF MY CLOUD!” Rainbow suddenly screeched, actually making Soarin jump.
“Okay, okay. Oh Luna, you didn't have to be so mean about it, you know?” The stallion took off, finding a cloud only just several feet away. “I don't see your name on it!” he called to her, repeating what he had said just a few minutes prior.
However, when he turned his back to hear distant sobbing from Rainbow Dash's direction, he did feel something new, familiar, strange, and almost terrifying assault him. Guilt. Frowning slightly, he shook his head, wondering what the buck Braeburn was turning him into, and began to fly the other way, thinking himself in need of a good nap.
The cock’s crow was the first noise to rouse me from my sleepy reverie. I felt myself dragged from the pleasant blanket darkness into a world full of light, color, sound, and texture. I felt my senses gradually come alive, and my nerves light up to acknowledge the soft, but slightly itchy texture of an old wool quilt.
I exasperatedly blew a burst of air through my lips.. Sighing and pushing down the covers, I sat up and rubbed my eyes with my hooves. I glanced around the room basked and submerged in orange and yellow light from the rising sun filtering in through the soft white linen curtains, illuminating the wooden furniture and paneled floor of AJ’s guest bedroom.
It had been a week since Granny Smith’s death.
The Apple family had moved on in terms of obvious mourning. Applebloom had gone back to her Cutie Mark Crusaders work, Applejack had gotten back to bucking, and Big Mac had... well, stayed as Big Mac.
I had kept minimal contact with Soarin since the events of last week, and to be honest, I didn’t mind it quite that much. I was distraught, however.
Every night, when I closed my eyes, I couldn’t help but see his face. His awkward half-smile, his shimmering green eyes, and the way his mane blew perfectly in the wind, his charisma, his sarcastic attitude.
And how much I absolutely, positively loathed him. How much he made me seethe with anger and frustration and hate and how I just wanted to boil over and smash his ears into his head.
But for some reason, it made him all the more attractive in my eyes.
I was beginning to gradually realize something about myself.
I was changing. Alright, well, maybe not changing, But realizing something I should have realized about myself a long, long time ago. I was attracted to Soarin. Not as a friend; I didn’t really like his personality all that much. But I found myself harboring a deeply romantic and potentially sexual attraction for the stallion that was becoming harder for me to ignore.
It wasn’t like it was something I couldn’t keep under control, it was more that it was something that I could no longer hide from myself. This wasn’t life-changing, though. In a way, I felt like I had always been hiding some kind of darker attraction to the same sex from myself.
It was like it was always there but I hadn’t noticed it. It didn’t mean anything though. I wouldn’t be stopped from having foals or being in a normal relationship once I found the right mare. I didn’t trouble myself too much with my confusion, if it could be called that. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t want to face it.
Sadly, this was a behavior I’d struggled with for most of the span of my adult life, and it was something I’d continue to do for quite some time until I realized what I was doing to myself.
Stamping my hooves a couple times to ensure the floor beneath me was solid ground, I nudged my way through the door and began stepping down the staircase. My ears perked up when I heard a few noises, and then a voice in the kitchen.
“... wanted to come check on him... can’t deal with this too well...”
“Mighty kind of ya... sleeping... tired from helping us buck apples...”
I stepped down and walked into the kitchen, the smooth carpeting transitioning to linoleum beneath my hooves. “Mornin’.”
I opened my eyes and took my hooves off of them to see Soarin and Applejack talking, relaxed. Soarin had his usual demeanor, smooth and calm as he leaned back against the counter, a pie on his right side. “Hey, Brae,” he murmured in a way I wasn’t used to hearing him talk.
“... Hey,” I mumbled, still sleepy and a little confused.
“Came to check up on you.” He smiled good-naturedly and edged forward, tentatively resting a hoof on my shoulder.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up where he touched me, and my blood ran cold. I shivered. As if reading me, he pulled back.
“Ya know, Braeburn, ya’ve been workin’ hard... An’ ya’ve been mighty helpful. We needed the extra set ‘a hooves since Granny... well, ya know. Ah figure ya deserve a break. Take a li’l time off, ya know?”
I nodded quietly, looking out the window without really hearing what AJ was telling me. I turned to her. “Uhuh?”
“Why don’t ‘cha take a vacation? Some time back home?”
I raised an eyebrow at her. “Huh?”
“Well, Soarin here has never really been to Appleoosa, Ah was thinkin’ maybe ya could take ‘im. Take a train ride together. You two seem to get along and Ah’ve never really seen ya make any friends outside the family.”
My eyebrow twitched a bit at what Applejack was suggesting. “Don’t cha need more help here round the farm?”
“Not so much no more. We got used to it. Granny was old anyway. ‘Sides, ya can keep stayin’ here long as ya like, Ah just think Aunt an’ Uncle wanna see ya again. You could take Soarin on a train ride with ya.”
I nodded, blinking and thinking about what she’d said. “well... okay, I guess.”
“Cool! Dude, this’ll be great. We can get a sleeper car and chill and play cards and stuff!” Soarin hopped on all four hooves, a giant grin plastered on his face.
I looked at Applejack for another second though. “But... I thought I was here in Ponyville for a vacation in the first place.”
Applejack shrugged. “Maybe we need ya a bit more than we thought we did,” she smiled and elbowed me.
I glanced out the window. I’d never had a sleeper car in the train before, I’d never been able to afford it. But of course, the Wonderbolt had paid. I wondered if he could afford any luxury in Equestria. Of course, I wasn’t rude enough to ask such a foalish question.
I glanced over at him lounging on one of the beds that folded out of the wall. I was glad to discover there were two beds and not one. I could control myself and my own primal urges around Soarin just fine, but I didn’t know if I could do it with his warm body sleeping next to me, breathing on my ear...
I shook my head and cleared my thoughts, mentally hitting myself. That was foolish. Soarin glanced up at me and yawned. “I’m hungry,” he complained. I didn’t take my gaze off of the passing scenery, just a blur of green plants of various heights and species. The snow had melted since I’d come to Ponyville. I knew they’d have Winter Wrap-Up, some kind of event Mac and Applejack always looked forward to, soon.
I nodded as Soarin shifted to his hooves and leaned over, walking over to the door. “I’m going to the dining car, dude. You want anything?”
My eyes stayed on the outside scenery. “Uh... just uh... an apple fritter.”
He stood in the doorway for a second, looking a little confused, but shrugged. “You got it,” he mumbled, swishing his tail and leaving.
When he came back I took the fritter, wrapped in a square of wax paper, and took a bite. I should have known I’d be disappointed, because it couldn’t compare to what I was used to back in Appleoosa and even Sweet Apple Acres.
I turned around and looked at as he lounged on the bed. “Didn’t ya get anything?” I asked under my breath.
He kept staring at me and nodded. “I got a sandwich. I ate it back there.”
“... No offense, but you seem like, really out of it.”
“Granny Smith. You. Applejack. My dad.”
“... You seem worried about all of it. Why?”
I considered, for just the briefest of seconds, telling him. Telling him that I was attracted to him. But this was Soarin. Sex-crazed Soarin. I knew I had no business confessing anything to him.
“... Look,” Soarin sighed and shook his head, flicking an ear back. “I know you’re hurting. I know you’re not going to tell me you’re hurting. I know you miss her. I know she was a good mare. And I know you’ll deny everything I’m saying, but I want you to know something. I may be the greatest celebrity and the fastest flier to ever roam Equestria. I may be famous and rich. I may be totally awesome. But I’m still a pony. If you take all that away, I’m just another pegasus. And I will never repeat this ever again, but I have flaws, too. So look, I’m willing to talk to you about this but you have to open up to me.”
I turned my head and sighed, “I appreciate that and all, but I think I’m alright.”
Soarin frowned and got up, staring at me. I set my fritter down on the table. “Braeburn.”
He let out a puff of air through his nostrils.
I sighed and let my head fall a little. “Alright... It’s hard sometimes. I know that. Y’know that. I’m just... I keep thinkin’ about this one time and I feel like I’m not honoring her proper.”
“This one time?”
“As a colt, I asked her... I asked her if it was okay to marry colts. She got pretty mad. I dunno. I just feel so bad that I keep thinking back to that. It’s like...” Out of nowhere, my throat closed up and I choked back tears. “It’s like I’m not honorin’ her, but I loved her! I loved her, Soarin! I swear on it! Honest...”
In spite of my struggle to choke back emotion, I soon found myself doubled over in the seat, whimpering and bawling, blind to the world through a veil of blurry tears as they cascaded down my face.
I don’t know when or where, but I found myself encompassed by the softness of a fleece blanket, a pair of strong hooves pinning it around my body. I let the wet droplets slide down my face, gushing from my eyes and soaking the fabric of the chair beneath me. The tears coated my lips and nose, and all I could taste was salt. My face burned, partially with embarrassment, and partially with the exertion of crying harder than I ever remember crying. A deep, jabbing pain formed in my heart. A screaming, burning, insatiable desire.
I couldn’t believe she was gone. There one moment, and gone the next. Oh, Celestia... What about Applejack? and Applebloom? and Big Mac? Hadn’t they lost enough already? I whimpered like a foal and fell into an unconscious fit of sobs, only waking to find a warm weight settled on my head through the blanket. I looked up.
A pair of emerald eyes staring directly into mine.
I’d done this before. But never of my own accord.
Shuddering and trembling, I leaned in, pressing my lips to Soarin’s. My upper lip fit between his and I felt his strong forelegs wrap around my back, clutching my closer to him as I felt the last of the rolling, salty tears dry up and drip off my chin. His head tilted to the side. Mine, the opposite way. A pleasantly warm, tingling shiver, like hot apple cider, ran down my spine. The tensions washed and waned down my back as every muscle in my body stopped to relax in the bath of warm, strong comfort that encompassed me now.
And somehow, it all felt right. I couldn’t explain it, but it felt right.
I was kissing a stallion. On the lips.
But it felt right.