Was the price of my constant dishonesty worth being close to my family and the land?
I stared out at our orchard. The Apple family always took pride in our work, and I know I loved seeing apples pop up as a direct result of our hard work, but something kept dragging me down. The grass felt dewy and wet under my hooves, and not a breath of wind stirred the treetops, as though all of Ponyville didn't dare to exhale. The fading light cast a favorable shine over this grove, painting them with a hue that made them glow with warmth and life. The sight stirred a flutter of pride within me for my home and my friend. The price was worth it. It had to be.
This particular set of trees held many memories for me—it had been my little hideout when I was just a colt and Ma and Pa were still around. Those days had been innocent and fun, and I'd be lying if I said that part of me didn't miss them. A large part. Things had seemed so simple then, without any kind of complications. If there was one thing my simple nature couldn't abide, it was complications, and somehow, my life had picked up quite a few of them. Ironically, complications and subterfuge were what it took to keep my little lie of a life going. As I stood there, less pleasant memories rose to the surface of my time as a young colt.
“Come on, Mac. Just a little further!” Caramel had called. We were two young ones, just out for a bit of fun. He, a light-coated colt a few months older than I, had promised to show me a neat little hideout he had found amidst my family's orchards. We had been friends for quite a while, and he had always had this air of mystery about him, as though there were things about him that I could never know. I had always admired that; I had always been an open book, unable to hide even the simplest half-truth from prying eyes.
“Wait up, Caramel!” I ran after him with everything I had, trying to keep up with his powerful strides. We were heading out further than I had ever gone before—and further out than Granny ever allowed me to go—but I knew as long as I was with my good friend, I'd be fine. The grass flew by as I followed his lead, trying to keep up. My lanky legs had outgrown my body, and as a result, my balance was often thrown off.
A few minutes later, he stopped short, and I caught up, huffing and puffing. “Aw, come on, Mac. You tired? I thought a farmpony would be more suited to this sort of thing!”
I heaved. I'd never been much of a speedy runner, and Caramel had pushed me to my limits. I felt my body aching, and I knew tomorrow morning I'd wake up feeling sore all over. Still, if this was what it took to see this thing that he insisted I had to see, then it was worth it. “That... ain't fair, Caramel,” I said between heaves. “Just give me a moment to catch my breath.”
He snorted, and rather than wait for me, walked into the dense grove he had led me to. They weren't apple trees, but rather some twisted grove of dark-barked conifers. A cold feeling grew in the pit of my stomach just from looking at them, but I had to be brave. I couldn't leave my best friend and let him down. After standing still for a few minutes and savoring the warm feel of the fading sunlight on my coat, I followed him in. With any luck, whatever he wanted to show me wouldn't take too long; Granny always gave us both an earful when we were out all night. Caramel and I often loved to explore the countryside, and although Granny never stopped warning us about “strange creatures of the night who'd just as soon eat a pony as look at one,” we never heeded her advice. It had worked well for us so far.
I entered the grove, stepping carefully in the relative dark. Soon, the moon would be out, and it'd get even tougher to see once night fell. “C-Caramel? You there?” I called, taking shorter and shorter steps. I stepped forward with as much grace as I could muster, only to feel my hoof strike a root. My gangly, not-quite-colt and not-quite-stallion legs betrayed me, and I went toppling to the ground with a heavy thud.
My face flushed. “Caramel? Come on, this isn't funny! You know I can't see in the dark too well...” He had always been our faithful lookout on our overnight adventures. When I had settled down to nap for a bit, he had always stood guard over me like a faithful friend. No matter what horrors might have come, brave Caramel would chase them all off. This, I knew.
Gentle laughter came from behind me. “Oh, Mac. Always the clumsy one.”
I shifted my head, and there Caramel stood, with a radiant smile on his face. He lifted a hoof towards me. “Come on, get up, unless you wanna lie there all day.”
With a smile, I took his hoof and felt him strain to lift me to stable footing. “So, Caramel... what's this neat thing you wanted to show me?”
His lips parted in what almost seemed like slow motion as a sly look came over his face; I wondered if I was disoriented from my fall. “Just come a little closer,” he said as he took a few steps back and to the side. He gestured to an ordinary-looking tree. “Take a look at this.”
I trotted to the tree and put my curious muzzle so close to the bark, I could have licked it. The bark was rough and dark, full of furrows in it, but nothing that looked too unusual. As far as I could tell, this little grove was badly overgrown, almost like the Everfree Forest in that way. That oddity aside, this tree looked like any other.
“Caramel, this just looks like an ol' tree...” I turned, only to find Caramel standing right in front of me, his half-lidded eyes looking as soft as silk.
Then, he closed his eyes, put his muzzle to mine, and kissed me. My eyes shot open and my ears shot upward in shock as my longtime friend, who I knew better than anypony, kissed me like a pretty filly. I stood there, unable to react, as he wrapped a foreleg around my neck. I didn't know what was going on; we were friends! This wasn't what colts did. And yet... and yet...
I pulled away, wincing as I felt my rump smack the rough bark of the tree. “M-Mel...” In retrospect, calling him by the “secret nickname” I had given him wasn't the best idea, but I was young and in shock.
“What, Mac?” he whispered, only opening his eyes a sliver, so I could barely see his bright eyes. How had I never noticed the particular shade of blue they were before? His eyes were almost like the sky just after a dawn; they almost mesmerized me, the way they contrasted with his bright yellow coat. “What is it?” he repeated. His brown mane fell over one eye. I can still remember that, years later; I have no idea why his mane falling over his face stuck out in my mind, but it did.
I shook myself out of my little delirium. “I don't... I mean, do you really think we should be...” I had never been a very eloquent colt, and this new development had frozen any traces of the gift of gab that I already hadn't possessed. Caramel was my friend. We were both colts. These things I knew. I knew that we shouldn't be doing what Caramel wanted us to do. I knew that good ponies didn't behave that way. I knew that this was wrong. All my life, I had been taught and knew that mares and stallions were meant for each other by none other than my loving parents, bless their memory. I knew that the differences between a mare and a colt were what gave birth to everything great about equine life.
But what if what I “knew” was wrong?
“I mean, this is... it ain't quite right, Mel.” My shaky voice wasn't even convincing myself. Somehow, one thought kept repeating itself in my mind: It'd be okay with Mel.
“Shh.” He put a hoof on my mouth. “Just relax.” He leaned in again, and I stopped worrying about the consequences. Even if it was a little strange or a little wrong, even, it could be our secret. I closed my eyes and leaned in, ready to see where this would go. Together, we'd see where the “wrong” path went.
“Macintosh.” I'd know that reedy voice anywhere. I pulled away from Caramel in horror.
“G-Granny?” Granny Smith stood at the edge of the grove, quivering with scarcely restrained fury. Her features were set in a firm, unyielding stare, and I found myself quailing before her.
Caramel, unused to seeing her in such a state, walked right up to her. “Granny, Granny.” Even as I feared for what Granny Smith's determination was going to drive her to do, I had to admire Caramel's courage. He had never been afraid of anyone or anything, always counting on his silver tongue to see him through.
Granny gave him a glare that could pierce rock. “Get out of here, boy, and don't come back 'round no more.”
Caramel's famous courage stuck in his throat, and with a quick, longing look back at me, he galloped off. Meanwhile, Granny advanced on me, her hooffalls seeming to shake the very trees.
“Nothin'. Not a word from you.” With surprising strength, she smacked me in the face, sending my vision bursting with light and disorientation. “That ain't how colts behave, Mac. Now we're going to go home and you're going to forget all about this foolishness, y'hear?” She was shouting now, sending stray bits of spittle spraying all over my face with a furious anger I had never borne witness to before. I stood and took the punishment, distracted from her tirade by my still-reddened face.
She hit me again, lighter this time. “Now dagnabbit, you're too young to go to wrack and ruin like this. Come on, let's go home.”
We headed home, through the fading light and into the shining stronghold of pony values that was the Apple home. Applejack was waiting, her tiny eyes looking for answers that Granny wasn't about to give her. “Now you get up to bed, Mac.”
“Okay, Granny.” I started up the stairs, feeling thoroughly dejected. Maybe I could meet Caramel tomorrow and smooth things over. If nothing else, I needed more resolution than... whatever had just happened, even though part of me trembled at the thought of another meeting with my suddenly alien friend. Was “friend” even the right word? I didn't know what the word would be for what he was, for what I might be.
“And you won't be doing nothing but chores for the next two weeks! Definitely none of seeing that no-good little friend of yours,” Granny called up the stairs.
“Okay, Granny.” My ears drooped. Caramel would think I was avoiding him, and while I couldn't quite figure out if I actually wanted to see him or not, having the choice taken away from me felt even worse. That night, I fell asleep, only to be troubled by dreams of him of the sort I'd only had about fillies in town before that night.
My little grounding hadn't lasted forever, although it had felt like it, but Caramel and I had drifted apart after that. Granny hadn't looked kindly on me spending any time with him, and even Applejack had sniffled in disapproval, though she kept her thoughts on the matter, if any, to herself. I could only assume Caramel's family felt the same way.
The years went by, and Caramel and I had both stayed in Ponyville. Our colthood kiss had been forgotten—nothing but a phase, or so Granny had erroneously referred to it—and everyone had assumed we had grown up and moved on with our lives. To look at us, we had—although I didn't date often, I knew that had I been willing, more than a few of the town's mares would have been thrilled to be seen with me. Applejack never seemed to stop teasing me about having to beat the mares off me with a stick, a jibe I could do little more than give a restrained, insincere “Eeyup” to.
Not for a lack of trying, I never saw a fine mare I was truly interested in. Was that because of the kind of mares I met in Ponyville, or something else? I didn't know. From time to time, I couldn't help but think about what could have been. If I could have had the courage to be different. If I could have had the courage to be “wrong” instead of what my head had told me was right.
Not so far away, on the fringes of town, I saw Caramel with his new marefriend—what was this one's name? He flitted from mare to mare so quickly, I couldn't keep up. They were nuzzling, although only one of them was blushing. The pegasus he was with—Wind Whistler, I think her name was—was head over hooves in love with him, and everypony knew it. To the untrained eye, he seemed to feel much the same, but most wouldn't notice his distant stare fixated over his lover at the Sweet Apple Acres barn. Likewise, few would notice his halfhearted ministrations towards his “love”.
I reckon he, much like me, couldn't help but wonder what could have been, were the world only a little bit different. A slow, bitter smile crept over my face. How damn stubborn we both were. Nothing more than our surroundings and our families were what kept us apart, yet neither could stand to flee our roots.
With a start, I realized Caramel wasn't looking at the barn, but up at me, standing atop the hill. With the sunset at my back, I probably cut an impressive sight, but Caramel and I both knew that looking was all either of us could do.
I opened my mouth, perhaps to cry out and call to him, only to slowly, steadily clamp it shut once more. The price was worth it. It had to be worth it.
Below, Granny Smith hobbled out of the back door. “Maaac! Get your sorry behind in here so we can eat!”
I closed my eyes and pictured my two sisters, no doubt sitting at the table salivating over whatever delicious, apple-based entree Granny had prepared for us with her loving hooves, wondering why their older brother was holding them up from some traditional, quality family time.
“Okay, Granny.” I trotted down the hill towards the house, letting the sight of Caramel nuzzling a memory rather than a mare be swallowed up by the Apple family house. The price was worth it.
It had to be.