• 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 4 - Because Somepony Has To

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

I sit rigidly, and my eyes dart to Soarin'. He wears a saccharine, stiff grin, the same one he once used for photos after particularly rough performances. We make eye contact and both avert our gazes. The only sound is the scrape of Big Mac's fork on the plate as he finishes the last few bites of his frittata. Big Mac doesn't look at anyone, which makes it easier to let my eyes linger on him.

He clears his throat and drains his coffee.

Soarin' and I say nothing.

And meanwhile, Braeburn continues to apologize. "Aw, I went and spoiled the mood." He laughs. It's hollow. "Water under the bridge, y'all." He waves a limp hoof.

No response, just a few restless shifts in our chairs and eyes that look anywhere but each other.

Braeburn senses it, too. "Really, colts. I'll be fine."

Soarin's ears swivel forward. His eyes brighten, the eyes of a university student who has finally solved their final math problem. "You're already fine, babe." He swoops in and kisses Braeburn's cheek, then wraps his wing around him for a side hug. "Finest stallion I've ever cuddled."

Braeburn gently rests his head on Soarin's shoulder. "You're a dream, Blue. I'm a lucky colt."

"Me, too, Applebutt." Soarin' stands and starts clearing our empty plates. "Aaaaaaand as much as I love being a snuggly snuggle pony, Vivid needs his tour, and I should probably finish getting the jamboree ready."

Braeburn chuckles. "I don't suppose you'll let me help clean up?"

"Heh. Not a chance."

There's a shift in Big Mac. I can't put my hoof on it, but we both breathe more easily. He stands as well. "We'll take care of it, cousin. You go show Vivid the town. There's a whole bunch to see, and it's a lot to be proud of."

And with a few sentences, here we are back in polite conversation. We prance along like everything is okay, just like Braeburn said. There's a part of my brain that desperately wants to believe in fairy tales, and it tells me that this problem is already solved. Braeburn will get to the end of his story, and I'll find that everything is okay. But it won't be, because the beauty and tragedy of stories is that they don't ever really end. They continue and linger, and innocence lost is nigh impossible to recover.

But it isn't all doom and gloom, either. The story goes on, and Braeburn can continue to grow and learn and heal and become stronger, just like Soarin'. That's the value of retelling stories, I suppose. You can learn from them. Ponies have had stories for as long as we've existed, to pass on wisdom and make sense of an inconceivably vast world.

And there is no vaster world than the inner mind of a pensive pony.

Braeburn shakes his head and finishes his coffee, then sighs. "I'll figure out a way to earn my keep again one of these days."

I raise an eyebrow. "You're a landowner, farmer, mayor, event organizer, and a tour guide. Frankly, you already do an unreasonable number of things, Braeburn."

Big Mac rumbles again with laughter. It's beautifully masculine, and it makes my skin tingle from the base of my spine to the top of my head. It could put me to sleep in seconds if I let it, and I start imagining–

Easy, there. He's taken.

Big Mac says, "Aw, never tell an Apple he's too busy. We don't do well with down time. Idle hooves and all that."

Braeburn stands and stretches in time with Soarin'. "Mac's right. And I s'pose we better get movin' before the devil decides he wants to play." He winks at Soarin'. "He gets mighty needy when he's riled up."

Soarin' wiggles his ass as he runs some water. "I'll be good, babe. And I'll–" His voice cracks just slightly, and my heart leaps to my throat. "–s-see you later. This afternoon. For the jamboree."

Braeburn squints and examines him. "Well, we might swing by for lunch."

Soarin' looks to me, and coolly, I ask, "I thought you usually take lunch out in the orchard?"

Braeburn shrugs, still eyeing Soarin', who shuffles in place and stretches his forelegs yet again. "Yeah, but it ain't the law or anything."

I chuckle. "Well, I'd like to get the full farm pony experience. I've had enough lunches at my desk for one lifetime."

Big Mac chimes in. "I'll bring a basket out with me when it's time."

I lean in. "Unless you're trying to make excuses to come back and check on the jamboree?" I smile broadly, head turned to the side.

Braeburn groans. "Can't get anything past y'all." He grunts. "Okay, let's brush our teeth and go. I could use a quick shower, too."

We clean ourselves up without further issue, and Braeburn grabs a hat off the hat rack. It's simple and wide-brimmed and looks much like the one he gave Soarin', but this one is a vanishingly light blue with a dark blue ribbon and trim. I stick with my t-shirt, jot a few notes down onto a notepad, and return it to a saddlebag that I strap onto my back. As Big Mac dries the last dishes, Braeburn nuzzles Soarin'. "Love you, Big Blue."

"Love you, too, Applebutt," he replies softly. They hug for a tender moment. "It's gonna be an amazing day."

I can't help but smile.

As we say a few more quick goodbyes, Braeburn steps outside. I stand at the entrance, look behind me, and give Soarin' a silent, crazy-eyed cheshire grin. Soarin' is shaking but trying to keep quiet, and Mac has a hoof on him to steady him. I let that image burn into my mind as I step into the dry air of the shaded porch, close the door behind me, and turn to find Braeburn staring at me.

In a stern, quiet voice, he says, "I know what y'all are doin'."

My tail thrashes involuntarily, and I sweat. I swallow the lump in my throat and face him.

Steady, now.

Equally quiet, I respond. "Soarin' is worried about you, Braeburn. He didn't give me tons of detail, but he knows that you're struggling."

Braeburn hangs his head. "So I need to keep acceptin' more and more help until I'm not doin' anything at all?"

I blink. "You do lots of–"

"Abby can more or less do the job on her own now." He looks up at me. "I've hired a manager for the orchard since I keep trottin' off to Canterlot for meetings, and Cactus Petal gives as many tours as I do these days. Shoot, probably more." His heavy eyes gleam. "All because I'm not here as much as I should be."

Tentatively, I ask, "Then… why do you do it?"

He shrugs and huffs. "Heh. Somepony's gotta, and I don't know if anypony else has the stomach for it."

I take a deep breath, hoping Braeburn will follow suit. To my relief, he does. "Then, maybe this is like what you said to Abby. Maybe you're giving everypony a chance to grow."

Braeburn snorts. "What's with everypony usin' my words against me today?"

"You've got a lot of wisdom." I step up and playfully nudge his shoulder with my nose. "You can't fault us for paying attention."

"Yeah, I guess." He shakes out his mane and readjusts his hat. "Sorry for bein' a downer. Let's get on with the tour, shall we?"

Good. Back on track.

I smile brightly. "Sure! But can I ask about your trips to Canterlot? How do you make it all work?"

He turns and steps out into the sun. "Truth be told, I ain't sure I do."

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

It was early November, about a month after Soarin' had moved in. We were at the train platform, and I straddled the threshold of the train door while Soarin' refused to let go of my hoof. I laughed, "Blue, I promise I'll be okay, and I'll be back Wednesday night."

I'd put off the big meetings for as long as I could, but the Ministry of Agriculture was having their big end-of-the-year summit that week, where we'd all have to answer about our production and tax policies for the year. It was doubly important, since most of the major budgeting and resource allocation decisions would be made that week, and Appleloosa needed a friendly voice at the table.

But Soarin' was stuck on me like a porcupine, wearing the hat I'd given him back in Baltimare. I could feel everypony's eyes on me – a whole train full of tourists was watchin' us. See, I was leaving on a Sunday afternoon, and as much fun as the weekend had been, I could tell they were eager to get home.

Soarin' was putting on a show for them. Well, for me, too. He whined, playfully, "But what if we need each other?"

I kissed his forehead as the train whistle blew. "We'll always need each other. Now I really gotta go. Love you, Blue."

"Love you, too, Applebutt." That part wasn't a show, and neither was the real sadness on his face as we finally parted.

The tourists on the train gave me space to walk, and the train started just as I sat down.

And, true to form, Soarin' ran along the platform as we pulled away. I opened the window and shouted, "Love you, Blue!"

"Don't forget about me!" he wailed.

I snickered. "I won't!"

He ran out of platform and took off flying. "And write to me every day!"

"Soarin', I'll be back before my letters would even get here!" The wind noise picked up, and the other ponies crowded around.

Soarin's wings beat faster. "I'll cover postage! For overnight!" He knew that I knew that he was being dramatic, but it showed he cared.

"Honey, how? We share a bank account!"

He had to shout to be heard. "Should I open a new account for it?"

The folks on the train were getting a good laugh. "Soarin', that's–"

"What? Can't hear you! I'll do that! Hey, can I borrow some bits from our account to open the new one? Or should I get a third account specifically to borrow the bits from?"

"Soar–"

"Do you think they'll suspect bank fraud? I don't need that on my record, and my candy ass won't survive two days in Silverstar's cell." His wings beat faster as the train picked up speed. "Maybe I should just rob the place and make it easy!"

The train was overtaking him, and he had to strain to keep up.

I shook my head. "Aw, no! I ain't gonna be an accessory to no crime!"

He flashed a grimace. "Oh! Speaking of accessories, pick up something fun from Spurs and Saddles!"

"BYE!" I slammed the window shut, blew my breath on it, and drew a little heart in the vapor while the rest of the passengers laughed their butts of at us.

Satisfied, Soarin' grimaced, blew me a kiss, and finally coasted to a soft landing behind us.

He's a hell of a stallion.

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

We reach Mane Street. It's idyllic, like a foal's book. Ponies canter about, setting up tables outside their shops or cleaning up the scant litter in the street, and it's even more colorful than I'd heard. Paper lanterns on thick ropes hang between buildings, which frames the big, open sky in beautiful pastel colors. Outside of almost every storefront are flags in rich blues and greens, the official Foal Scout colors. The townsponies smile as they place decorations and wash their windows, but their movements are efficient, the same way a nervous aunt would be just a few hours before guests arrive for Hearth's Warming. Still, most of them take time to wave when they notice us.

We trot along as Braeburn gestures to the city. "You'll have to excuse the scurryin'. Folks are excited for the jamboree. We want to put on our best face." He frowns and looks at a sign that a young mare is painting. From what I can see, it's the only one that references Troop #883R. "Wish Blue would have personalized the decorations a little more."

I cock my head to the side. "I think they look nice. Don't you like them?"

Braeburn shrugs. "I do. Quite a lot, actually, but it ain't about me. We gotta think about what the scouts would like." He sighs. "But that's Soarin' decision to make, I guess."

"He's got a lot on his mind," I say. "There's been a lot to plan, and he probably went with what he's most comfortable with." I lower my head a bit. "Not to put too fine a point on it, but he's learning, and he needs space to grow, too."

"I suppose," Braeburn groans. He turns and looks to me. "Now, first things first. We can't have you wanderin' around Appleloosa without a proper hat." He abruptly turns towards the nearest building, just a few steps away. "I'm takin' you to Haberdasher's."

A famous Appleloosa-crafted hat from Haberdasher's? "Sure!" I light up as we walk through the swinging doors.

Hasty Haberdasher stands up from beside a large box in the middle of an aisle, and she welcomes us in with a warm how-do-you-do. She looks like she's almost done restocking, and I shudder to think how long it must take her. I count a row, do some quick math, and… There must be nearly six-hundred hats in here! They're organized by foal/mare/stallion sizes and then by color, and they're straightened perfectly. Braeburn quickly explains that Hasty's business has been one of the biggest since tourism picked up, since all the hats make great souvenirs. Braeburn smirks. "Knickknacks may seem nice for a few minutes, but ya' can't beat practicality."

After refusing four times, I accept Braeburn's offer to buy me a hat. Hasty laughs and says there's no point in fighting hospitality. Plus, she'll give Braeburn a good deal, anyway.

Braeburn is very complimentary as I model several of the hats. Unhelpfully so, actually, and I settle on a deep, almost-black purple cowpony hat with silver rim and a lighter-purple band.

Braeburn smiles. "Old standby color?"

I adjust it. It fits my head perfectly. "Yeah. I think it looks elegant."

He throws his head back. "Ha! If it's elegant ya' want, ya' really gotta reconsider why we wear hats in the first place."

I shrug and look at myself in the mirror. I think it looks dashing, even if it does scream, "queer cowpony." I turn back to Braeburn. "Well, I like it. I'll take it."

Hasty is true to her word and gives Braeburn 30% off the sticker price. Hell of a deal. As we leave, I realize what a difference it can make to have the sun out of my eyes. The town sits before us. Each building is painted a different color, all with their own beautiful flaws, but in a similar enough style that none of them appear gaudy. I ask, "Do you do much shopping in Canterlot?"

Braeburn shakes his head. "The less time I can spend there, the better."

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

Those tall Canterlot buildings make me dizzy. The stale air near the train station and all the noise from the ponies don't help, either. Gives me a headache. I always pack some bastionroot to chew on for the way in, and that helps, but I rush to my hotel every time.

I'm lucky the train schedule favors me. We leave Appleloosa in the afternoon, so it's around midnight by the time we pull into the city. I ain't one to stay up late most nights, but it's worth it to make it through downtown when hardly anypony is around. Even that late on a Sunday, though, music, hoof traffic, and cabs can be found on every corner. The buildings stretch high – not as high as Baltimare or Manehattan, but tall enough to make me feel claustrophobic. And there's so much light, too, with barely any stars to speak of.

The… bars are open, too. They're frou-frou and spendy and downright foolishly posh, but none of that stops my mouth from watering. None of it keeps the cravings at bay, and it doesn't stop that dark voice at the back of my head that tells me, "You're stressed. Sit down and take a load off." Moments like that, though, I flick my fetlock and hear the clatter of those beads against each other, and I remind myself how many days in a row I've been sober. It's usually enough to clear my head.

Thank Celestia the government sector is quieter. Still too bright, but there aren't shops trying to entice you at all hours of the night, and the bar in the hotel lobby closes early. The check-in process at the Triple Fern is pretty slick, if a bit impersonal. All I need to do is show my ID, and a wooden-looking attendant in an over-starched jacket fetches a room key for me. It's almost always the same room, 214, which is a blessing. The less I have to navigate and think, the better.

It's always the same routine: I head up to my room, set my stuff down, and get ready for bed immediately. It's fast and simple. Thank my lucky stars, I'm always so tired from the ride and the late night that I flop into bed and fall asleep before I can start to feel lonely.

And I need the sleep, too. Meetings start at seven-thirty sharp, so it's always a short night, but at least I'm used to getting up at dawn. It gives me time to get cleaned up, grab some coffee, and put on my suit.

Don't laugh, now, but I'm proud of how I look in that suit. It's a nice, dark-brown three-piece with lacquered oak buttons. I put a lot of work into keeping it dust-free, and Soarin' keeps it pressed better than a professional launderer ever could. It's tailored to fit me perfectly, though it almost looks like I'll bust out of it if my chest puffs up too much, and I don't dare let myself start getting fat again. I wear a white undershirt with light-gray pinstripes and my granddaddy's bolo tie with the jeweled apple clasp. My blue stud earring needs to come out, unfortunately, but I learned a trick from Soarin': I pin it inside-out on my shirt, under my suit jacket, so I can feel it against my heart whenever I need it.

And, like I do every morning, I take a few minutes to sit on the bed, breathe, and repeat my daily affirmations.

"It's a…"

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

Braeburn's lips are pursed, and his eyes are unfocused.

He pauses, just for a moment, right in the middle of the street.

Gently, I say, "Would you–"

He shakes his head and waves a hoof. "Sorry. I'm…" He rolls a thought around in his head. "It's not that I'm embarrassed, per se. This is just mighty personal."

I spot a bench nearby and jerk towards it with my head. "Would you like to sit down?"

Braeburn opens his mouth, but instead of speaking, he just nods. We move to the bench and have a seat.

The dryness of the air finally hits me while we sit silently for a moment. I take another deep breath, and once again, so does Braeburn.

I don't rush him. He faces towards the dirt, but I catch him glancing at anypony that passes us by, and once it's just the two of us in earshot, he says, "I… don't wanna be afraid of it, though. I don't wanna feel like I'm alone with my you-know-what."

I give him more time.

Braeburn sneers at himself without looking at me. He chews on his lower lip, then sighs and mumbles, "My… alcoholism." He straightens out, makes very direct eye contact with me, and repeats in a clear but flat tone. "My alcoholism."

I don't allow my facial expression to change, and quietly, I respond, "Thank you for being honest with me. I can only imagine how hard that is to even say."

His jaw clenches, and he shakes his head and looks at the dirt again. His shoulders sag. He speaks much more quickly. "I suppose it's just a little embarrassing. Small town sensibilities, I guess. Kind of ironic, too: the most open secrets are the ones nopony wants to talk about."

He sighs, pauses, and continues.

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

Anyway. I, uh…

I was hunched over on my bed with the shades partly drawn. I got my bead kit out of my travel bag and started.

Loud enough so I knew I meant it, I said, "It's a new day, and a new opportunity." I carefully slipped my bracelet off my left foreleg. "Yesterday had challenges, but I did my best. I can take things one day at a time." I counted the beads, starting with the big, thirty-day ones. There were three of them: blue, yellow, blue. "I'm stronger every day. The past doesn't control me." I counted the weekly beads next. Just one medium-sized white one. "I believe in myself, and I have the support of my friends and loved ones." Two small daily beads: red and orange, the start of the rainbow. "I like who I am, and I deserve to treat myself with respect." All told, I had ninety-seven days' worth on my string, with a few clear square ones to fill it out on my foreleg.

There were so many days, so many struggles and victories on that simple little string. Beautiful colors, all of them, and I liked the design. Heh. You know, every time I get to thirty days, I get to rearrange the beads or decide on a new color scheme, however I want. It's a fun activity, and maybe it seems small, but it means a lot. It helps to have something to look forward to.

I undid the clasp on one end of the bracelet, reached into my little box of beads, and took out a yellow one. As I slipped it onto the string, I said, steady and proud, "I'm ninety-eight days sober, and today, all I have to do is make it to ninety-nine." My chest swelled up with pride. I re-clasped the bracelet, put it back on my foreleg, and took a moment to appreciate it. I was sad Soarin' would miss morning one-hundred, but I knew he'd help me celebrate on Wednesday evening, and until then, all I had to worry about was making it through the day. I knew I could do it, and I repeated my affirmations as I made my way out of the hotel and to my first meeting.

And this might seem… I dunno. Just, thank you for… Well…

Thank you.

Here. Let's take the long way to the town hall. I ain't gonna cheat you outta your tour just because I'm all mopey.

That Monday, the first meeting was with Agricultural Minister Wheatberry and a dozen representatives from the farming regions around Equestria. Most of them dwarf Appeloosa, but I'd bet my house the Southwest will be as big as the rest of them one day.

The government sector buzzed like a beehive, even before sunup. The major summits are staggered so as not to crowd too much, but it always seems like there are a thousand ponies there to keep Equestria running, and I'm sure I've bumped flanks with more than a few incredibly important ponies that I didn't recognize at the time. I managed to catch a glimpse of Princess Luna once, about a block away from me. It was quite a sight: even for somepony like her, the hive of ponies only paid the minimum required amount of deference before moving on to their other duties.

That morning, I was due in Puddinghead Hall. It's a regal building that doesn't really fit with its namesake, and it's all polished, brown stone and wood as far as the eye can see. The hallways are straight and utilitarian, with a few portraits and some frankly cheap-looking vases of fresh flowers every dozen steps or so. Makes me wonder who pays for that stuff, but I bet I wouldn't like the answer. The hallways were nearly at capacity that morning, and it seemed like everypony walked quickly and right up next to somepony else, talking at a pace that would make your head spin. Over the many months I'd traveled to Canterlot, I'd learned to suppress the urge to greet everypony I meet, but I still gave a friendly nod to anypony I made eye contact with.

The door to the Daisy Shine meeting room was wide open, and I slipped in along with two other representatives. A large oak table dominated the cramped room, and aside from a fancy portrait of Daisy Shine, the only decorations were a few end tables, some big, fabric squares to help with the acoustics, and a gem-lamp chandelier that cast the room in a warm, yellow light that felt out of place in such a cold, utilitarian space. With a few small, polite good-mornings, we all took our seats (and I took a much-needed breath) as the door closed behind me.

Minister Wheatberry banged her gavel, and the first half-day-long meeting began. Part of the challenge is just the stamina it takes to sit in those uncomfortable chairs without fidgeting or shivering too much. The meeting itself is a lot of listening, with just a few questions and very little chance for input. You really need to make your few words count.

And I still had a lot to learn.

I spoke evenly but firmly when my turn came up a couple hours in. "Our bumper crop of apples is going to partial waste. We can process and can some of them, but we still need the railway to be expanded south towards Klugetown, Mount Aris, and the Minotaur lands. As you'll see on page fourteen of my report, the Canterlot Economic Council's exploratory analysis found that demand is high for fresh fruit, and–"

Wheatberry adjusted her glassed and interrupted. "Mayor Apple, this isn't an infrastructural meeting." Her voice is screechy, and she wears those dark robes that all the ministers like so much. Her gray mane and golden-brown coat make her look older than she is, and the way she looks at you makes you feel like you're back in middle school history class without your homework. "Your concerns have been noted, and your proposal was submitted to Minister Hillcutter's office, so it will do us no good to complain further about irrelevant topics."

My collar felt hot. "But it ain't–" I took a quick breath. "–isn't irrelevant, your Honor. The tourism industry is doing well, but not enough to offset our losses from the apple deficit." My hooves tremored as I flipped through my copy of the report – can you believe they have ponies whose whole job is to scribe copies of those things? – and I found my data. "Our harvest was well within the council's recommendations from last spring, albeit on the higher end–" It always hurt to admit that we'd perhaps been a tad overzealous, but damn if I ain't an honest pony. "–but with our small population, our only feasible option is to push for higher production."

Representative Grapevine, a polished, slick-looking earth pony from San Franciscolt, leaned forward on the table and gestured loosely with a hoof. "Mayor, we all must reconcile with the variance in the council's estimates. None of the esteemed members claim to be perfect." Easy for him to say. The San Franciscolt region's been doing fine lately on the back of a wine trade deal with the dragon lands. He spoke dismissively and half-lidded his eyes. "Part of our job is to ensure the robustness of our economies." The condescending glee in his voice reminded me of all the reasons us country folk avoid the city. "I know that you're knew, but surely you were aware of that simple fact?"

Ugh! They do that all the time. It's a tactic. Ostensibly, all the farming regions cooperate for mutual benefit, but almost every pony in Canterlot seems like they're just out for themselves, and they try to score points by putting others down to make themselves seem more knowledgeable. Makes me angry enough to spit.

My shoulders tensed, but I steeled myself and met his gaze. "That variance is felt much more acutely when applied to a rural community. Macroeconomic pressures don't scale down based on output, and the council itself admits on page thirty-nine that, when taking Reinsian theory into account, the erratic behavior of the markets is more detrimental to smaller economies." Grapevine's slimy smile faltered, and I grinned a little wickedly. Forgive me for the hypocrisy, but I couldn't help but think, 'Damn straight. I did my homework, you son-of-a-bitch. You ain't the only one with big, fancy words.'

As usual, my inflated pride was short-lived. Wheatberry's brows crossed at me. "But you are clearly aware of those pressures, Mayor Apple, and you know that Appleloosa's losses are your responsibility." My blood ran cold. "Your town's startup fund loans are beginning to come due. You will need to produce those funds, preferably though proper management." She jotted a note down on her pad. "I suspect a raise in taxes would be the simplest way to secure them."

I grit my teeth a moment and wished I could splash some cold water on my face. Well, an everypony else's. "Taxes are already high, Minister. Raising them any more will threaten tourism and the ponies living there, especially the retirees." My voice was raising, both in volume and pitch. "Where else can they go? Farmers can't retire to Manehattan." I told myself to rein it in, but it was taking all my focus not to back down.

"If I may, Minister," came an airy voice. It was Primrose, the representative from Ponyville. She looked at me from across the table, in her seat next to Wheatberry. "This is why we advised you to diversify your economy last spring, Mayor. Ponyville's cut flower exports have been doing exceptionally well, as have our new expansions to the pear orchards. Why not invest in more than apples and pocket gardens?"

I always feel cornered by Primrose. I've got family in Ponyville, so I hate to push too much of my agenda at their expense, and she knows it. I flushed, barely keeping my voice level. "Ponyville has markets cornered clear past Haulihay, and we can't just grow a new crop overnight! What would you have us do?"

Wheatberry frowned and, somehow, grew stiffer. "Mayor Apple, I'm not unsympathetic to what you're trying to accomplish, but Appleloosa is your responsibility, not Representative Primrose's. If you cannot procure the funds by early next year, we may need to discuss bankruptcy options."

My heart fell to my hooves. The room went cold, and Primrose smirked as I tried to stutter a response. The walls closed in on me as a dozen ponies all snapped to attention and looked at me at once. I shuffled through pages of reports, looking for anything to help me, but I could barely read the words on the pages as images of an Appleloosa ghost town flashed through my mind.

And I thank my lucky stars for Cotton Creek. "Minister," he said in that smooth, Southern bayou voice of his. "With due respect, it has not been our policy to abandon regional economies, and bankruptcy proceedings would not be beneficial for anypony." Cree, as his friends call him, is a big, burly stallion with a milky coat, a light-brown mane, and a short, well-kempt beard. He represents the deep southeast, including the whole Hayseed Swamp region. "Hayseed would have folded too, a few years back, without a renegotiation of terms. I don't think we need to invoke the specter of bankruptcy yet."

My muscles unwound, and my jaw relaxed, but my ears folded back. I tried to tell myself I should be grateful for Cree's help, rather than embarrassed for my own shortcomings, but it doesn't really work like that.

Wheatberry spoke while I caught my breath. "To the contrary, Representative Creek. Great leadership, in no small part your own, helped your region to flourish in time to repay your most recent loans."

Cree, ever relaxed, nodded. "Thank you dearly, Minister, but it weren't just me, much as my ego would like to believe it." He shook his head. "Naw, we mustn't forget the boon we received from Mage Meadowbrook's return. It was a mighty windfall for us and our medicinal herb exports, but we'd be in the same boat as Appleloosa if it weren't for that lucky break, which frankly was a bit of a miracle."

The rest of the ponies at the meeting murmured. Leave it to Cree to defy convention. Wheatberry looked back at me. "Mayor Apple, do you have any reasonable near-term proposals to meet this year's targets?"

I looked at Cree, who gave me a reassuring nod. He'd bought me an opening, and I wasn't about to waste it. I took a slow breath, looked over the recommendations at the back of my report, and squared my shoulders. Right on cue, I felt Soarin's stud against my heart. "I propose a temporary zero-percent tax rate on exported fruit and hoofcrafted goods."

"Absolutely not," Grapevine interrupted.

I continued, unabated. "It's in line with the stimulus for Vanhoover a decade ago, and it would free up our funds for distribution further east. The Horseton economy is transitioning to finished products, which has led to a shortage of fresh food." I took a moment to read the room. I could see the gears turn behind Primrose's eyes, but she wasn't coming up with any counterpoints, and Wheatberry wasn't interrupting, either. "It would help establish a much-needed trade route within our national borders, and we'd make our losses back – and more – in the new markets over the next few seasons. We wouldn't miss any payments early next year, which would also ensure no delays to the other regions' support payments."

Cree didn't miss a beat. "Seconded."

Grapevine finally spoke up with forced confidence. "Granting a zero-percent tax rate again so soon sets a dangerous precedent."

It was a weak argument, and everypony knew it. Representative Russet from Seaddle just laughed. "We're all smarter than slippery slope arguments, Representative." He turned to Wheatberry. "Thirded."

I felt lighter than air, and I could feel the winds start to blow my way.

Wheatberry thought a moment, then looked around. "A one-percent tax rate through April of next year. We'll have six minutes to discuss."

Primrose and Grapevine argued against it, citing a rippling effect in lost revenue, but Cree and Russet helped argue back that Appleloosa struggling would have the same effect magnified threefold. That's the thing about slippery slopes – they cut both ways.

At the final vote, I held my breath and caught myself fiddling with my bracelet, which I'd tried hard to keep tucked into my sleeve. My lucky day, the final vote was nine "ayes" and four "nays," and Wheatberry had come around to our side as well. I finally started breathing again, and I told myself I owed Cree another meal.

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

We exchange greetings with a passing Sheriff Silverstar on our way into the town hall building. He sees my hat, stifles a chuckle as I shoot him a dirty look, then wanders away. Braeburn doesn't seem to notice.

I say, "Sounds like Cree is firmly in your corner."

Braeburn purses his lips. His mouth opens, but he doesn't say anything, so instead he closes it again and rolls his tongue around.

Sore spot? I try to move on. "Old friend of yours?"

Braeburn sighs. Talking about these meetings has made him tense. "Naw. He's just a good stallion who took me under his wing, so to speak."

With a raised eyebrow, I ask, "Wait, he was a pegasus?"

Braeburn rolls his eyes. "Earth pony. Does a hell of a good job, too." He shifts partly back into his tour guide voice, but some of his tension lingers. "This here's the town hall."

He gives me a quick tour. The town hall is mostly a large, empty space with rows and rows of benches and a couple long tables at the front. In one corner is a wood desk, which Braeburn explains was moved over from Silverstar's office for him to use in his official capacity as mayor. There's a door in the opposite corner that leads to the clock tower, as well as a kitchen area. "Since we use this place for birthday parties and wedding receptions and such," Braeburn explains.

"Looks nice." I want to pay attention, but I'm eager to jump back to his story. "Did Cree take you up on lunch?"

We sit down on a couple of the benches. "Heh. Dinner, actually. We never have time for lunch in Canterlot."

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

We ate at the Triple Fern's restaurant. It's overpriced, but it's easy and never too busy, since nopony but visiting officials and sensible folk would turn down that fancy Canterlot cuisine. Yeah, I know. Part of the political game is going out to dinner with the other representatives and pretending to have a good time, but a stallion can only take so much.

Cree and I sat at our table in a semi-private corner of the restaurant, ties loosened, shirts partly unbuttoned, as a waitress delivered two virgin margaritas. Cree drinks, but he abstains during our meals as a courtesy to me. It's bad enough that I have to decline all the various champagne toasts at the end of every summit, and I think he wants to cut me a break.

I had a hoof on my forehead, and my foreleg leaned on the table. Mighty impolite, but I had a splitting headache. I kept trying to sit up proper, and Cree, bless him, was too tired himself to correct my bad manners. "Two more days," I groaned.

"Y' did good, Braeburn." His accent came through a lot stronger outside the meetings, and he relaxed back into his chair in a way that couldn't have been good for his hips. I wasn't in any place to correct him, either. "Y' barely been at this a year. First summit, too. I know it feels like you should have it all figured out by now, but it's all too damn complex. There's still a hell of a lot I can't wrap my dumb ol' head around." He half-waved a hoof. "Wheatberry's tough, but y' stood your ground. Should be proud, that."

I mirrored his posture. "Heh. Hard to be proud when I needed a rescue."

Cree shrugged one shoulder. "Eh, everypony does from time to time. I was the same way at your age. S'like anything else: y' get used to it."

We both relaxed with our drinks, saying nothing. The waitress came back and told us about the special salad, which we both ordered without really even listening. She hurried away.

We kept sitting there. I felt like I could just melt into a puddle.

Occasionally, we'd sip our drinks.

We were just too damn tired to talk.

So instead, we let our bones rest.

I looked out the window. A light drizzle made everything seem dull and more lifeless than the desert. "How do you do it, Cree?"

He scratched at his belly. "Which part?"

I thought of Soarin' and of home, and my heart felt lethargic all of a sudden, like I was stuck in detention while all my friends played outside. "I mean puttin' up with all the bullshit and the travel and such. I miss home somethin' fierce right now, and it's barely been a day."

Cree took a big breath and let it out with a growl. He looked outside, too. I saw in our reflections that we had the same look: like we were both looking past the city and all the way back to our homes. "It's lonely work, I admit. But I do it the same as you." He shook his head. "I know there's a bunch of ponies counting on me, and if I don't do it, who will? Helps me to remember all the folks that work in transport and such." He turned back to me. "Just appreciate your time home when you can. Hold that colt of yours tight, and let him know you're always thinking about him."

Before I knew it, my hoof was on the stud, which was still pinned inside my shirt. I took it out, and without needing to look, I stuck it back in my ear. Feeling its weight again helped me remember what Soarin's hugs felt like. "I will, Cree."

He took a sip of his drink. "S'good. Y' never know how much time you'll have b'fore the next emergency comes up."

With another big sigh that turned into a yawn, I frowned and looked at him. "That sounds mighty ominous." I hesitated and fidgeted with my stud a bit. "How much time do you get with Honeydew these days?"

He paused, took a drink, and shrugged. Cree takes his time and chooses his words carefully. He's like Mac that way, and maybe that's why I gravitated to him in the first place. "I split my time fifty-fifty or so." He looked down and mumbled, "Maybe sixty-forty favoring Canterlot these days."

I frowned. "Sounds awful."

He shook his head. "Some ponies do a lot more than that. Seems like anypony that wants a steady career in this field is here almost all the time." He yawned, and his eyes darted around the room. When he was sure nopony was looking, he reached down and scratched his nethers. "Frankly, I don't understand how they can claim to represent the interests of their homes if they're never there. But it seems t' happen to everypony. The time away creeps up and up."

I shook my head and drank my margarita in a few big gulps. It didn't satisfy. Tasted fine, but it had no warmth to it. No life. "I don't wanna be uprooted, Cree."

"Mm-hm. It's a shitty choice to have to make, but y' gotta ask yourself whether you care more about your own health and happiness or making sure your region has theirs." His eyes glazed over. "Hell of a gamble either way, since you never really know as much as you need to for an informed decision."

"Hell of a choice…" I trailed off.

We sat silent for a few moments more while Cree sipped his drink. The waitress came, delivered our salads – fancy dressing can't cover up low-quality greens – and we quietly thanked her. I picked at my salad a bit.

Cree looked out the window again. "I'm lucky I've got Honeydew back home. She keeps me grounded." He looked back at me and smiled, and something about it made me think of Jonah. "And hey, now you've got Soarin', too."

That thought helped, but soon, I felt heavier again, and my thoughts rolled over in my head. Sure, Soarin's here in Appleloosa, but how long is that gonna last? A couple years, maybe? Appleloosa ain't for him, not long-term. He's a celebrity. He needs the cities to feel purpose just like I need the country, and my home feels like it's just a place for him to rest and recover. Are we gonna part ways again when he gets back into the 'Bolts? I didn't know.

I still don't know, and the more time goes by, the more I feel like I keep making the wrong choice. Soarin' and I… I wanna say we'll be together forever, but I… I don't know for sure. Who can? We have different needs. But then, what the hell am I talking about, like I understand what a pony needs? I should be spending the time I can with Soarin' while he's here, while he's available to me, and yet every few weeks or so I haul myself off to Canterlot, separating myself from him, from my hometown, from everypony. I need my roots, but more and more, it seems like I ain't got anything to be rooted to. Not my place in my community, not my coltfriend, nothing. I'm doing all this work to watch out for my community, but after all's said and done, who'll be left to watch out for me?

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