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.