• Published 25th Aug 2018
  • 795 Views, 52 Comments

Sensation - Appleloosa - Vivid Syntax



It's been an eventful year since the accident took Soarin's career from him, and Braeburn remembers every moment. He may say he's content, but there's something desperate behind those bright, green eyes.

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Chapter 3 - Welcome Home

==X===X===X===X===X==

"Breakfast is done," Soarin' calls out casually from the stove.

Braeburn leans back to speak to him, and his tail wags a few times. "You got it handled, Blue? I can slice an orange or something."

As he begins to stand, Big Mac held up a hoof. "I'll help him, Braeburn."

Braeburn furrows his brows, and his tail stills. "You're a guest, Mac. That ain't right."

Big Mac remains firm. "What ain't right is interrupting your story. Besides, you always say your home is my home, so I ain't really a guest."

Braeburn snorts, but then he shrugs and resigns himself with a wave of a hoof. "Alright, alright." He playfully jabs at Big Mac's hoof. "But I'm usin' that logic on you next time I come over."

"Fair enough," Big Mac says with a gentle nod. He's not smug, just straightforward. He walks to the fridge and digs for the fruit. As careful as he is, those big hooves of his knock against a few bottles and jars, but he ignores it.

Braeburn shakes his head. "If y'all keep treatin' me like a princess, you'll spoil me rotten." He turns back to me. "So where was I?"

My stomach rumbles. The food smells good – not Braeburn good, but tasty – and I say, "You were on the train, and everything was all packed up."

"Right. Well, uh…" He looks out the window and pauses with a dopey smile on his face. I see Soarin' behind him, looking at the back of his head with a sly grin. Braeburn continues. "It was a pretty quiet ride, really. We slept almost the whole–"

"AAAAHAHAHA!" Soarin' roars, barely hanging onto a plate.

"Soarin'!" Braeburn snaps at him, his face beet-red.

Soarin' wipes a tear. "Aw, c'mon, Applebutt. You don't expect him to believe that, do you?"

Braeburn frowns. "Blue, I'm tryin' to be polite here. We don't need to get into–"

"Y'all bucked," Big Mac casually states. He looks over his shoulder at Braeburn, who looks like he's swallowed a hot cattle brand. Big Mac smiles. "Nothin' to be embarrassed about. Yer with the colts, cousin. We've all been there."

"Oh, sweet!" Soarin' chimes in. "Sugar Belle finally putting out?" Soarin' serves the egg dish onto four plates on the counter. The steam billows from it, and the fresh scent of peppers hits me hard.

"Uh, e… eeyup." He continues cutting oranges with a wobbly hoof.

Braeburn chuckles. "Now who's embarrassed?"

Big Mac clears his throat as he finishes cutting oranges. "Well, I'd thank you to characterize it a little more nicely. Sugar Belle's a proper, respectable mare." His voice grows lighter, dreamier. "She's a sweetheart, and she deserves to be treated like the wonderful, kind–"

Soarin' winks. "You're helping with her cream pies. Got it." We share a laugh as Soarin' moves the plates to the dining table. He nuzzles Braeburn, who looks pensive. "See? It's okay to open up about this stuff, Applebutt. You're safe here." He looks at me with a smile, and my heart warms.

I chime in. "I certainly won't judge, Braeburn." My instincts tell me a dozen different techniques to get an interviewee to answer difficult questions, but if nothing else, I've gotten better at turning that part of myself off over the past year. "This is about you, and you don't have to share anything you're not comfortable with. I think you'll find it's easier to speak frankly, though, and it might make you feel better." Braeburn dodges my gaze. "Back me up, Soarin'?"

"He's right, babe." Another nuzzle. "It gets easier when you're honest."

As if to buy time, Braeburn takes a bite of his frittata. His face lights up like somepony's pinched his ass. "Mm!" He turns to Soarin' and kisses him. "Well, if your advice is half as good as this breakfast, I suppose it's worth following." Between bites, he continues.

==X===X===X===X===X==

Soon as the door closed on our sleeper car, we were bucking like it was a Celestia-damned rodeo. Can't say for sure what it was. Nervous energy? Excitement of moving in together? Just being pent up all day? Whatever it was, it was damn satisfying to get it out of our systems.

And I'm sorry to disappoint, but I ain't gonna go into all sorts of lurid details about it. I'd like to keep some things private.

I'll fill you in later.

Like hell you will.

To be fair, we did sleep some. Eventually, after we changed trains south of Canterlot late that night. It was a pleasant ride and a good sleep, and I remember waking up with Soarin's legs wrapped all around me. My back was sweaty, but I could feel his heartbeat, and I woke up slowly just before we pulled into home.

Appleloosa. Ain't no other place like it. Even in the desert, it's so full of life, from the busy stores to all the craftsponies' work stations to the constant hum of farming, and at night, it's like you can feel the whole town breathing in harmony. Those slow, beautiful moments… They linger, like a sweet, slow kiss, and the autumn air lets you know it's okay to put down your work and rest. The whole world is settling in with you.

It's quiet out here. It gives you time to think.

Time to just be.

I ain't wise enough to know why ponies need space like that, but it all works together to make me feel so good. Maybe the air's just cleaner. Maybe it's that out here, pulling into the train station, I knew I had a place in the community. In any case, having a small army of townsponies waiting for us at the landing didn't hurt.

They roared like lions as we got off the train. Their big cheers of "Welcome home, Soarin'!" and "Happy to see you!" just about made my ears ring. Of course, getting there on a Friday like we did, we were with a trainload of tourists, and the warm welcomes extended to them, too.

We gathered our bags, and I stepped off the train to another round of cheers. Smile on my face, I laughed and waved them down. "Alright, alright, settle down, y'all." All those ponies – my town – over a dozen had come out to welcome us, and I couldn't help but swell. It went quiet, like it does whenever they expect a speech, and as silly as I always feel addressing a big crowd like that, I've learned it's easier to give them what they want. "Y'all, thank you a whole bunch for making us feel welcome." I pulled Soarin' close, all casual-like, though he stumbled a bit. "Soarin's excited to be here, ain'tcha?"

"What he said!" Soarin' exclaimed to a chorus of laughs and stomps.

"And I am, too. Always feels good to return home." I pushed his hat down onto his head, and he laughed like a colt. But then, I remembered myself and cast a glance behind me at the trainload of ponies waiting for us. "But we're holdin' up the line, so let's focus that town pride on all our guests. Who's with me?"

The crowd erupted in cheers as the tourists filed off the train, and shoot, there wasn't a tourist in the bunch that didn't have two ponies offering to get their bags. Pride Song pulled out his guitar right away. Some of the city folk tried to sing along, and they just loved the accents of folks out here. I was all too happy to help, but others kept swooping in to lend a hoof, like country ponies do. A bit irritating for me, but they were just being polite. Silver lining: it gave me time to talk with the tourists about all the fun events we had planned for the weekend, and Soarin' got to take a few photos with fans, too.

Soarin's free to disagree with me, but those little moments are important to him. It's especially true out here, where we don't have much of a celebrity culture. Soarin' always bounces off the walls when one of the tourists wants to spend some time with him. He slips on the professional persona like a well-worn flight suit, too, like he does it every day. That's not to say he's disingenuous, of course – he takes time with every fan he meets, and he glows for days afterwards. It rejuvenates him. Lets him know that he's still somepony, and even while he's recovering, he's an inspiration to ponies across Equestria.

That about right, Blue?

Couldn't have said it better myself.

It fills me right up, too, because it's how I know he's okay. Appleloosa's great, but we don't have all the entertainment or restaurants or clubs like Cloudsdale does. I don't want Blue to get bored, even if he tells me not to worry about it.

That's because you don't have to worry about it.

See?

When the tourists were all on their way to the Tumbleweed, my good friend Slate stepped up to us. Slate's a good stallion. He's got a gray coat and a dark blue mane, and he always dresses in a nice, white shirt and a vest that has a constant layer of dust. He smells like cigar smoke, which his wife Desert Bloom doesn't appreciate, but I'm in no position to fault somepony for their vices, especially such a helpful stallion like him.

He smiled at us and tipped his hat. "Pleasure to have you both back. Trip go alright?"

"Pleasure's ours!" I said. I still hadn't toned down the excitement from talking to the guests, and I saw Slate's ears fold back. I quieted down a bit. "And yeah. It was a mighty fine ride." I subtly kicked Soarin's hoof with mine, and I said through gritted teeth, "Nice and relaxing." Soarin' got the hint, and Slate nodded politely. He's a right honorable stallion.

Hey, remember when he walked in on us after our first night together?

You know, the day the giant media scandal broke?

Eat your eggs.

Just saying. We probably smelled awful that day, too.

Slate rumbled a laugh. "Yeah, I'll buy that with an order of liquid sunshine." He bent down. "I'll get your bags."

I told him, "Aw, Slate, you don't have to get those. It ain't much."

He hoisted one onto his back. "If it ain't much, it won't kill me to help out. Besides, between the three of us, we can get it in one trip."

Soarin' made a move to pick up our biggest bag, but Slate, ever wise, played it off and got him to take a bunch of the smaller ones instead. From there, it was a short trip to the house. Slate caught me up on the repairs to the clock tower and the latest news from the buffalo, but I must admit I was only half paying attention. My heart was too busy fluttering on the approach.

My house might not be much to look at, but it's home. At that time, there wasn't much for decoration – just some knickknacks here and there with a few pictures of my parents back in Haulihay, where I grew up. I am proud of the nice curtains my Great Aunt Ginger made for me before she passed, and I always keep them clean. I'll admit, the house is big, too big for a bachelor pony living on his own, but it's… aspirational, I suppose is the right term. Built it myself with a lotta help from the townsponies early on in the settling process. My Pa, Cortland, wanted to come out and help, too, but I'd sheepishly asked him not to.

See, the decision to help start up Appleloosa was mine and mine alone, and even if I was too pigheaded and unsure to elucidate it at the time, it was important for me to make it on my own. Pa understood, though. He knows what a stallion needs, and I think he was proud of me for standing up for myself.

Course, walking through that door was nothing new to me, but it was new to Soarin', and I wasn't gonna miss it. I tried to lag behind him with Slate, but Soarin' hesitated on the front step.

I cocked my head. "You alright, Blue?"

His wings shifted a few times, and he turned back to me and smiled. "Just…" He blushed and looked down with a little grin. "I dunno. It's stupid."

I stepped beside him and pressed against him. "Aw, don't be that way, Blue. What is it?"

He shrugged, and his eyes flicked up. "Not to be too fruity, but I was kiiiiiiinda hoping you'd be the one to welcome me in." He flashed his teeth, the way he does whenever one of his fans says something that really gets to him and he doesn't want to show it.

"Heh heh," I chuckled. "Then allow me." I reached into my pocket, slowly took out the key, and unlocked the door. His eyes were fixed on that lock, and a smile broke out on his face like a crack across ice when the door finally opened. He stuck his face in like a dog after his supper, and I raced in a bit to keep him from injuring himself.

Slate dropped our bags inside the doorway, just past the tight little entryway with that old floorboard stain. Still need to replace those boards. Slate tipped his hat again and said, "I'll let you two get settled." We thanked him, and he left us alone.

Soarin' bounded into the living room, leg braces be damned. The curtains were drawn to keep the house cool, and as Soarin' threw them open, he looked… Well, I don't want to make him sound small, but he had the wild-eyed look of excitement a colt gets when he's someplace new. He kept sticking his face everywhere, examining everything from the stove to the grain of the wood. He got a mighty chuckle out of a very special pair of Wonderbolts goggles that I'd enshrined on a dresser, right where I could see them every day. And then, all at once, he stopped in the middle of the room, and he looked at me.

I wish I could frame that picture. The love of my life, standing in our home, looking as comfortable as a pony who'd been there his whole life. His eyes were soft and strong and handsome, and he wore this smile that seemed inviting and amused all at once. He stood with his forehooves together, proud and tall. And as blue as his coat is, it blended beautifully with the all warm colors around him, like he'd been painted there from the start.

I was drawn to him like a hen to a roost, and my heart fluttered as I moved close and whispered the words I'd been waiting to say for months: "Welcome home, Big Blue."

Without thought, I closed my eyes, and we met with a deep, deep kiss.

I can still remember that feeling. Warm. Soothing. Perfectly fit to my mouth.

Blue is an amazing kisser. He's gentle, but he always puts just a little force behind it, like a firm hug. It lets me know he really cares, and I think he knows it.

We lingered.

We let ourselves taste each other.

And we breathed together in our new home.

I love him so much.

When we finally broke apart, Soarin' looked deep into my eyes. "Surprised you aren't running off to welcome the tourists."

I softly brushed his face with my hoof, and I whispered, "I've got to a pony to welcome right here."

"Speaking of which…" I could almost hear his eyebrows raise.

I laughed, then brought him into a hug and lightly nipped at his shoulder, which made him melt. "Heh heh. Yeah, alright, ya' perv. I'll give you the proper western welcome."

==X===X===X===X===X==

Braeburn picks up his coffee mug with both hooves, and he looks out the window with a soft, warm smile. The sunlight makes his golden face glow. He doesn't squint at the light. He just closes his eyes and feels the warmth on his fur.

He takes a breath and moans softly.

Braeburn sips his coffee, sets his mug down with a small clink, and looks back at Soarin', who's been quietly watching him this whole time.

Braeburn clears his throat and looks down at Soarin's chest with a smile. "It's, uh…" He pauses.

Soarin' sets his hoof on Braeburn's, and they look deep into each other's eyes.

They kiss. It's quick but tender, and they both relax into it, like they're moments away from cuddling each other to sleep. Soarin' steals another quick peck on Braeburn's nose, and they look at each other for another moment.

Braeburn turns back to me and waits for just a moment longer. "Mmm…"

==X===X===X===X===X==

We, uh… We took our time getting reacquainted with each other. As excited as I was to show him the town in a new light, he deserved some comfort first. Weirdest thing, too – he'd never actually been inside my room before, so he was all jittery to make it into our room. I'd say we did a mighty fine job of it.

And like I said, I ain't gonna go on about our private moments, but we made love. Real love. The honorable kind, like you do with somepony you expect to spend all your days with. Every little touch is intentional, even if it's just a reaction to what came a moment before it, and we found our rhythm in no time. His body has always been astounding, from his hooves to the tips of those beautiful wings. Even better is his spirit. When we were locked together like that, I felt like the missing piece of me had filled in. I… I don't even know what I'd do without it anymore.

We were a hot mess a while later, but it didn't matter. We just marinated in that feeling. Soarin' was holding me, and his heavy, tired breath on the back of my neck sent shudders through my body as we both straddled the line between asleep and awake. Either way, I was living in a wonderful dream.

But I heard a loud knock on the door downstairs, and right as the fear of being walked in on was about to shoot through me, I felt a squeeze around my middle. Soarin' whispered in my ear, "Anypony important?"

A young mare's voice called out, "Mayor Braeburn? Are you home?"

I sighed. "Yeah, sounds like it." I rolled over and kissed his nose. "I can ask her to leave if you want."

Soarin' nibbled on my nose in response. Through a mouth full of snout, he mumbled, "Nah, I'm not here to get in your way, Applebutt." He let go when I giggled at how much it tickled. "Go be amazing. I'll be here when you get back."

"You're a dream, Blue." It was almost painful to tear myself away from him, but I stood up all the same. Even though it was already getting hot outside, the air felt so cold without him pressed against me, and a devilish part of me wanted to leap right back into bed. I've got a little self-control, though, so I went to the window, opened it up, and poked my head out. "Sorry, Abby. I'll be down in two minutes. That okay?"

Abby called up. "Oh! Great! I'll see you soon!"

I turned around to see Soarin' wiggling his ass at me. "I'll be juuuuuust fine, Applebutt. You go and focus on your play date. Don't let me distract you."

Shaking my head and smiling, I trotted to the bathroom and ran a wet rag over my dirtiest parts, and even if I was a little moist, I threw on a blue polo Soarin' bought me, and I looked presentable. Sort of. I rushed downstairs and opened the door. "Hoo! Sorry about that, Abby. Come on in."

Bright Abacus – folks just call her "Abby" for short – is the quickest pony you'll find. Smart as a whip, that one. She's average size for a mare, about my age, and her pastel green coat always makes her look cheery. Her maroon mane was up in a bun, like usual, tied up under that comically tiny hat she always wears. She grimaced with a foreleg full of papers. "Oh dear. I'm not catching you fresh out of the shower, am I?"

I waved off her concerns. "Naw, you're good, Abby. Those the sales tax numbers for the report?"

With an emphatic nod, she declared, "They sure are, sir!"

I raised an eyebrow.

She blushed. "Oop! Sorry, still working on that."

I've been trying to get her to just call me Braeburn since the election. She prefers "Mayor Apple," so "Mayor Braeburn" is our compromise.

Abby sat down and shuffled through a few of the papers. "I've drafted a copy of the full report as well. Could you please go over it with me if you have a moment?"

See, I was officially elected mayor about a month or so prior, and I knew I needed a deputy if Canterlot was gonna keep demanding my time and presence. Abby was the first to come to mind. I started to peek at the reports and–

You're really just gonna gloss over that part?

What, the election?

Yeah. It was a pretty big deal, Applebutt.

Aw, not really. It wasn't hardly even an election at all, since nopony else wanted the job. Heck, I'm half-convinced Daisy Spring just convinced everypony to give me the title, since I take on the work anyway. It means a lot to me that I got so many votes of confidence, but honestly, it didn't change how I spend my time all that much. I still write the reports and visit Canterlot, and the title just grants me a little extra authority when I sign letters to ponies that never read them. They gave me a real nice sash, though. It reads "Mayor" on it in big, red letters. It's soft and silky, and Blue likes when I wear it for, uh… nefarious purposes.

I… don't really need to spend more time tooting my own horn, I hope. It's just a job, and I'm happy to do it.

I nodded at Abby. "Sure, I'll take a look. Mind if we take it to the office, though? Soarin' probably needs his rest." I could already hear him snoring upstairs. "Sorry I don't have much to offer you."

Abby bowed demurely. "I wouldn't want to impose. And I'm sorry for jumping on you right away. The report's just due soon, and I haven't written a full one before, and I'm not sure what they're expecting, and–"

I held up a hoof and laughed. "You had me at 'please,' Abby."

We walked towards town. I didn't lock the door behind me – no need, of course, and I wouldn't want Soarin' to lock himself out somehow. Abby was off like a shot the moment we left the front porch. "I'm fairly confident the numbers are all correct. I compiled and tabulated them myself."

With a frown, I said, "Now, Abby, I told you not to do that."

She flinched, and her back stiffened. Her breathing was heavy all of a sudden, too, and she clammed right up.

I took a deep breath. Not like a big sigh or anything, but a big, relaxed breath of the warm air. I've found it's a lot easier to show somepony how to relax rather than tell them. Ha! Can you imagine? Somepony shouting, "Relax! Relax!" at you when you're all wound up? Wouldn't get far, I reckon.

Abby followed suit, though. She usually does. "I didn't want to leave it to chance, Mayor Braeburn. Woodwork's always a little lax on his numbers, and even if some degree of rounding error is acceptable, I don't want to get in the habit of accepting sub-par work."

I frowned. "But what did I tell you about the long term?"

Abby's lip stiffened, and she recited our previous conversation to an almost scary degree. "Doing work for other ponies when it's their responsibility is unsustainable. It centralizes too much work on one pony and robs the others of their opportunity to learn, grow, and feel satisfied by a job well done."

We passed by Haberdasher's Hat Shop, right as a unicorn couple, mare and stallion, walked out with some new, smart-looking hats. "That's right. You don't–" The unicorns gave me a big, star-struck smile, so I did what I'd learned to do: relax my shoulders, smile wide, and remind myself it wouldn't take long. I stopped in place. "Hold that thought, Abby." I turned to the unicorn couple and gave them a bright smile. "Hey there! Welcome to Appleloosa!"

The mare stepped forward. "Excuse me, but are you Braeburn? The one from the magazine articles?"

My mane prickled a bit as the memories flooded me all at once: all the details of my life that I'd tried so hard to keep private, scattered all over the pages of those rags, and I wanted to snarl. But I remembered the training Soarin' had given me. I shrugged politely. "'Fraid so. Sorry I ain't much to look at up close, but I'm excited you came out here all the same."

"Oh, nonsense!" the lanky stallion said. "You're every bit as handsome as Cosmare said you are." He withdrew a camera from a pouch. "May we?"

"Aw, of course," I said with a bit of dishonest cheer. "Thank ya' kindly for askin' first. Means a lot. Abby, would you please lend us a hoof?" She silently nodded and took the camera, hooves shaking. I kept up appearances and turned back to the couple. "Come on in close now. We can get Mane Street in the background."

Abby snapped a few pictures, and the couple thanked me about a dozen times. The mare introduced them as Twinkle Star and Gemcutter. "Thank you again so much," she said with a polite bow. "Do you think we'll find Soarin' around here somewhere?"

Some things never change, I suppose, no matter how remote you try to be. Forcing a grimace, I said, "Probably not today. He's resting now. We just moved him in this morning." They couldn't hide their frowns, so leaned in and whispered, all secret-like, "If you're here all weekend, though, you're likelier than not to bump into him."

Gemcutter smiled. "Superb! We'll let him rest and keep an eye out, then. Thank you again, sir."

"Heh. 'Braeburn' is just fine. Preferable, in fact. Pleasure meeting both of you." They said their goodbyes, and as they turned towards the Salt Block, I thought, 'You take all the time you need, Blue. I'll keep the fans off your back.' My tail whipped once, and I smiled. 'And tonight, I get to show you our home all over again.' I must have had the goofiest smile on my face, because I heard some snickering from Tender Leaf as she trotted by.

Abby snapped me out of my reverie. "How do you do it, Mayor Braeburn?"

"Do what?" I asked. I knew, of course, but she needed some practice being clear about what she needed.

Abby shuffled her hooves. "Well, talking so informally with visitors. And everyone else, I suppose."

Softly, I said, "By remembering that they're ponies, not just numbers that blow through town." I paused and waited for her to make eye contact. "They've got feelings, and even if I find them a bit forward, they deserve to be treated right. Everypony does."

She sighed. "I should be better at that. You need a deputy that can handle all your responsibilities."

I set a hoof on her withers. "Now, be gentle with yourself, Abby. It's a chance to grow." Withdrawing my hoof, I stood up and spoke firmly. "And rather than lecture you, I'll practice what I preach: why don't you give it another crack with Woodcraft this afternoon? After we look over the rest of the report."

"But… what will I say to him?"

"Something different from your usual. He's easygoing almost to a fault, so nothing you come up with is gonna offend him."

She smiled. "You've got it, sir."

I pursed my lips. "Abby…"

"Oops. Right."

With only a few more short stops to greet the visitors, we made it to the office. It's really just a big, public room with a desk and a few jail cells that hardly ever get used, but it's a nice place to get work done outside the house. A change of scenery can do wonders for my focus.

And I needed it. As much as I wanted to help Abby, my mind kept floating back to Soarin' and all the things I would show him. I bounced in my chair a bit, and I felt myself rushing to get everything set up. I took a deep breath and recentered, though. Work before play, after all.

We settled in to review her first report. Abby's good, and she's only gotten better as time has gone on, but she's a bit formal for my tastes (and even Canterlot's, it turns out). I gave her a few pointers about the power of a good anecdote and drafted some stories about how the new teacher, Shiny Apple (no relation), was doing so well in the new schoolhouse. We threw in another one about our plans for an elder care community, which needed to get moving sooner rather than later. Even the most underpaid clerk in Canterlot can't resist a good grandparent story.

It took about two hours to review the sales numbers, ensure we'd met all the expectations for the report, double-check our projections, revise our recommendations, and proofread everything. We can be efficient, but it takes time to do these things right. When we were satisfied, I turned to Abby. "Good work, Abby. You ready to go talk to Woodwork?"

She fiddled with her hat. "I'll try."

"That's all I can ask. You have a good one."

We parted ways, and I had to tell myself not to gallop all the way home. There was so much to show Soarin', and I wanted him to feel settled and at home as quickly as possible before the homesickness could get him. I knew all too well what it felt like, and I wasn't about to put him through it.

My mind absolutely swam with thoughts about what we'd do. I had my usual tour route memorized, of course, since I gave it to tourists at least once a week, but I kept thinking about little variations I could add to make it more special. I could show him the spot where I'd spent my first night under the stars, and there were lots of little alleys and places to sneak a kiss or two. My heart felt like it would burst just thinking about it all.

I didn't hear snoring when I got home. Soon as I walked inside, in fact, I knew he wasn't there. Call it a sixth sense or whatever you fancy, but it's real. Still, I snuck up to the bedroom and carefully opened the door.

I stuck my nose in, and I got a little thrill that it already smelled like him a little bit. I whispered, "You there, Blue?" No response. When I looked, it was clear he was gone.

It felt like the bottom had fallen out of my bucket, and I was left staring at a hollow, useless vessel.

I shouldn't complain. It was a small thing. Really, it was. But his hat, the one I'd given him, was gone, too, and the house felt incomplete, like it had before he'd moved in. It was tough, though, because I'd had all these plans, and… I really shouldn't complain.

I went back out. Not as quickly, mind. My hooves felt a little heavier, but I picked up my step and pranced along like nothing was wrong. That's something I'm probably a little too good at, if I'm honest, but I bet you'll find that most gay ponies in Equestria have gotten pretty skilled at it.

The town seemed huge all of a sudden, and I couldn't decide where to look. My head was all fuzzy. I felt like a she-bear in heat, like I was sniffing the wind all around for my partner with nothing else on my mind. Ponies bustled past me, and I was still friendly, of course, but from the way they stood off and waved rather than coming up to say hi, I figured I must have looked pretty desperate. I still feel guilty about that.

But when I heard a loud laugh coming from the Tumbleweed, I knew I'd found him.

I had to squeeze to get through the door. The Tumbleweed's lobby is plenty big, but it ain't meant to be a show stage for a group of thirty or so ponies like that, and Soarin' can command an audience wherever he goes. Seemed like nearly all the tourists were there to hear him talk about life with the Wonderbolts, and it reeked like perfume and big city pollution. Soarin' was perfectly casual, leaning back in a big chair with his foreleg over the back. It must have been hell on his spine, but he played it off all relaxed-like. "Streak was looking green, but, like, I couldn't blame him. It was a lot of tequila. I was freaking gone by that point, too, so when he started to yak, I grabbed the only thing I could reach: the face mask for his flight suit."

The crowd erupted in laughter and amused gasps, all but me. Somepony near the front asked, "Did you catch it all?"

Soarin' grimaced and rolled his eyes. "Aw, dude, heeeeell no. Those masks are good, but they aren't waterproof, and I'd conveniently forgotten about the eye and nose holes. I'd basically made a giant funnel, and my hooves and stomach were a huge mess."

Everypony laughed again, while I just felt cold, like I was alone on an island with a big ocean between me and Soarin'.

When they calmed down, I saw Gemcutter near the front ask, "Did he have a replacement?"

Soarin' grimaced evilly. "Oh, that's the best part. The team always provides clean ones for every show, buuuuuut there weren't visible stains, so Spitfire made him wear it to the show, and dudes, that smell was awful. Happy birthday to him, I guess." As the crowd applauded, Soarin' noticed me in the back. "Oh, hey! The star of the weekend is here!" He waved me up.

The crowd turned and stared at me. They weren't expecting a speech this time. I wasn't a leader; I was a toy. An amusement with a funny accent. But they parted, and I told myself that what mattered was everypony else having a good time. I could be a monkey for a few minutes if I had to be. As I made my way to the front, I steeled myself and loudly asked, "Y'all having a good time so far?" They cheered, and I smiled and laid on the thickest accent I could get away with. "Glad t' hear it. It's just about time for the historic tour, and don't forget, we've go our Countin' Stars Campout tonight." They all leaned in, and my tail wagged just a bit. "It'll be a hoot! And it's open to anypony that wants to join."

"Will Soarin' be there?" a mare blurted.

It was that empty bucket feeling all over again, and I couldn't help but count the number of eyes on Soarin'. There were damn near sixty of them.

"Well…" Soarin' rubbed his chin theatrically.

Somepony else in the crowd shouted, "Please? I'd love to hear more stories!"

I was speechless. My mind raced with all the activities we had planned for the weekend, and I wondered whether it was all just a big waste. Would anypony come to the dances? The big Sunday brunch? My joints were welded in place, and I felt foolish.

Soarin' began to answer. "I'd really–" He saw me. I was doing my best to hide what was behind my broad, stiff smile, but I can't hide from Blue. His mouth flickered down, but he recovered before anypony noticed. He addressed the crowd again. "Sorry, folks, but I've got a special one-on-one tour later." He leaned over and kissed my cheek, which drew an "Aw" from the visitors that just about covered up their disappointment. "You should all go, though. Applebutt puts on a hell of a show."

I can always count on Soarin' to lighten my mood in his own special way, and I slapped my face as the crowd burst out laughing again. I must have looked redder than a rose.

Soarin's wings and face drooped, and his ears folded back. "Uh… W-what did I say?"

I sighed, straightened up, and spoke in as bombastic a voice as I could. "That's Mayor Applebutt to you, mister."

Soarin' cocked his head askance. "Mayor Apple–" His eyes widened. His face flushed, and he covered himself with his wings. "Aw, fuck," he mumbled.

The crowd laughed again, and so did I. For real, this time. Sometimes you just gotta roll with things. If you can't laugh at yourself, you're in for a miserable life.

I suppose it all worked out in the end, and I should be thankful for that. I got to give three tours that day – two for the visitors and one for Blue – and they were all engaged with it once we got going. My tour with Soarin' was great, too, once Pride Song and Merriweather took a good majority of the tourists out to rough it in the wilderness.

It felt strange, of course, having Soarin' rescue me like that in front of the crowd. I… I didn't like it. I work hard to make sure everypony has a great time here, and seeing how easy it can be overshadowed hurt more than I want to admit.

And please don't think I didn't appreciate it, Blue. I did. Really. No, really. I mean it. It's just… I care so much and put in all this effort, and seeing that nopony gives a hoot as soon as–

Ugh. No, not like that. Sorry. What I mean is, I don't want anypony to feel…

Sorry. I… I really shouldn't complain.

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