• Published 25th Aug 2018
  • 800 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 5 - To the Core

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

Braeburn abruptly stands and nickers. "Dammit, there I go again."

Softly, I say, "It's okay, Braeburn."

"But it ain't." His back hoof stomps involuntarily. "You were kind enough to come all the way out here. Least I can do is be a proper host." He wrenches his eyes shut and throws a hoof to his face before taking a deep breath. Softly, so he thinks I won't hear, he mumbles, "And now I've gone and flipped my lid at you."

Frustration radiates off him like skillet fresh off the fire, and instinct forces my body to shrink back. "I'm asking questions, Braeburn. I really just appreciate the honesty."

He squares his shoulders. "How your legs feelin'? Gonna be ready to buck some trees this afternoon?"

Do I steer him back to his story? He's still putting up walls, but perhaps it's best to let him relax for a moment.

"Of course," I reply with a smile. Despite my swirling thoughts, my reaction feels natural. "I haven't bucked apples since I was a colt."

Braeburn smirks. "Careful now. You city folk tend to get tired mighty quick."

"I'm known for my endurance," I say with a wink.

"Heh heh. We'll see." I lead the way to the door, then Braeburn quickly peers behind himself. "Let's get you a drink first."

My shoulders tense. "I'm fine with water from the hose," I mutter.

"Naw," he chuckles. "Handlebar gets after me if I don't bring guests to the Salt Block. He's got all these 'specials' he wants folks to try."

As we exit out the front door of the Town Hall, I ask quietly, "You're not going to try to get me loaded, are you?" It's shaky, and I swallow hard.

We trot across the street, where ponies eagerly hang a few more decorations and keep aggressively cleaning. "Depends on how much of a lightweight ya' are," he laughs.

A witty retort dies in my throat. Braeburn carries himself with the poise and bounciness of a young pony at their first Grand Galloping Gala. His tail swishes excitedly behind him, and I find myself waiting for him to falter in confirmation of my suspicions. He doesn't, and I remind myself how easy it is to become an enabler.

Braeburn slows and walks beside me. His smile is warm, like a friend who's caught you looking through his porn stash right before he admits he's done the same to you. "Ya' don't need to be so stiff." There's a beat. "Part of… livin' with my disease is acceptin' that others can be more responsible than me." He holds up his fetlock between steps. "I'll be good, I promise. I ain't throwin' all these beads away again."

I nod for lack of anything to say. I've known a few others like Braeburn in my life. They've all had slip-ups. Some of them got better. Others…

We step onto a porch underneath a giant, wooden sign that's probably the most freshly-painted thing in town. As we walk through the swinging doors, I inhale the rich, malty, woody smells of the Salt Block. Every Whinnyapolis brewpub wishes it had this level of authenticity, from the hoof-made bar stools and tables to the lingering smells of dirt and cigar smoke. A piano sits in the corner, and the bar itself has been polished to a sheen that I can see from the doorway, with a wide array of liquors and mixers arranged on several shelves behind it. There are enough seats for half the town, it seems, though currently the only patrons are an older green mare at the bar and a husky purple stallion that looks like he's getting ready to leave. Even with the emptiness of the bar, I can feel the residual energy from a hundred rowdy nights. The bar itself is attended by who I can only assume to be Handlebar. The mustache is a dead giveaway. He's a slender gray stallion wearing a tight-fitting, red-and-black vest, and he's got the only monocle I've ever seen outside of Canterlot.

Braeburn sneaks in past me while I gawk, and he releases a sigh of pride. "Yeah, it's mighty impressive. Handlebar peddles a hell of a product, so you best brace yourself. Drinks are strong out here."

I tell myself to lighten up, and I force a laugh. "I'm still an earth pony, Brae. It takes a lot to get us–"

I stop in my tracks and stare wide-eyed at the green mare sitting at the bar. She's got a white mane and an orange handkerchief tied around her neck, and the screechy voice she's using to berate Handlebar is impossible to miss.

Braeburn nudges me. "Uh, I suppose it's quite a sight, but you might wanna taste a…"

For a moment, I scramble to think of a reason to leave, but Braeburn pushes past and sees her, too.

"…Granny?"

Granny Smith turns her head, smiles broadly, and waves us over before downing what appears to be her third shot of peach schnapps. Handlebar has clearly decided it's just easier to leave the bottle with her at this point.

Braeburn trots quickly to her, and I'm a step behind. "Granny, what in tarnation are you doin' out here?"

"Teachin' this youngin' to respect his elders." She sneers at Handlebar and grumbles, "Tryin' to cut me off, the dang son of a–"

"No, I mean in Appleloosa." Braeburn cocks his head, unfazed, as if he's asking why somepony would bother painting their fence brown. "Ain't you needed for the harvest back home? What in Equestria dragged you all the way out here?"

I think I might pass out.

She rolls her eyes. "Eh, leave it to Big Mac to keep quiet 'bout the details." She waves a hoof. "The farm's fine. Applejack's got her friends and students helpin' her out, and frankly, their constant singin' was gettin' on m' nerves." She chuckles. "Ee-hee-hee. Course, I do appreciate her makin' a 'lesson' out of free labor." She looks back at Braeburn. "An' I figure you could use some sage advice out here."

Braeburn tries to blink away his confusion and stumbles over his words. "Uh, good to see you, too."

Granny Smith glares at me with eyes that could pick ice. "And who's this supposed to be? Some kinda namby-pamby, prim 'n proper, spikey-maned, colt-cuddlin', chickenhearted, flank-shakin', sequins-wearin', chuckle-headed, gadabout, ninny-rascal sauce-box stallion-of-the-week that spends all his time tryin' to smell like a Celestia-durned flower patch who wouldn't know a garden hose from a rattler snake if it bit him on the baby-makers?"

I blink.

Braeburn steps in. "No, Granny. This is Vivid. He helped Soarin' write that nice book."

"Oh! Pleasure to meet ya', then." She smiles so wide that her dentures start to fall out, and she extends the boniest leg I've ever seen.

"…Pleasure's all mine," I manage.

I suppose that could have gone worse.

Braeburn sits down next to Granny Smith, and I sit next to him. He nods at the barkeep and says, "Appleloosan Eye-Opener for each of 'em, and a sarsaparilla for me, please." He sets a small stack of bits on the bar and turns back to Granny Smith. "Granny, why didn't you tell me you were gonna visit? I coulda set you up someplace nice, and it's already a busy weekend." He shakes his head. "I'm mighty pleased to see you, of course, but this is all so unexpected."

Granny Smith blows a raspberry. "Aw, ya' ain't my keeper. I can do as I please." Her voice chills and lowers. "Besides, it ain't like you're knockin' down our door to visit."

Braeburn pouts slightly. "I guess, but–"

"But nothin'. And don't get all mopey, now. You're a busy stallion, and I know your diggin' in tight with that colt of yours." She cackles. "When he ain't diggin' into you, that is."

Groaning, Braeburn says, "Granny, can we please leave my sex life outta this?" He turns to me. "You'll have to excuse her. …Uh, Vivid?"

My mind is still reeling from visualizing that rattlesnake comment.

Braeburn snorts. "Aw, Granny, ya' spooked him!"

"No, no," I say, snapping back to reality. "I'm fine."

Three drinks slide down the bar with a slick grinding noise. One, the sarsaparilla, stops in front of Braeburn. The other two are an unsettling yellow, like orange juice that shouldn't be trusted, but there's no going back now. "Cheers," I say, raising the glass. I slam it back. It's sweet, sweeter than orange juice, with some kind of spice that's mild but WOW there it is. I feel like I might breathe fire, and my head reels back.

Granny snickers, but her reaction isn't much different after she drinks. "Hoo-wee!" She slams the bar with a hoof, and I worry she's going to snap herself in half. "That's what I was after. Nice work, Handlebar." She looks at me. "Still in your seat, city-slicker?"

I'll feel it later, I'm sure, but before I can speak, Braeburn says, shakily, "I-is it good? Do you like it?"

I look. And I frown. Braeburn is staring at me with the broad smile and wide eyes of a beggar pony asking his father if he can get that shiny new toy in the store window for Hearth's Warming. My heart aches. What can I say?

Through a cough and a broken smile, I mumble, "It certainly lives up to its name. I think I might need one of those sarsaparillas to chase it with."

Handlebar nods and starts pouring, and Braeburn relaxes. "Heh. Old Handlebar'll get ya' if you let him."

I look past Braeburn's shoulder at Granny Smith. Her ears are down, and her frown is even more pronounced through all her wrinkles. She glances between Braeburn and the bottle of schnapps, then pushes it away. Quietly to Handlebar, she says, "I'll, uh, call that good for now." She stands up, cracks her back, and boisterously announces, "I s'pose I better mosey 'fore I drink your friend here under the bar. Just don't get preg'nt or nothin'."

Braeburn laughs politely. "I won't, Granny."

Maybe it's the warmth in my cheeks, but I can't help but softly say, "Not that Soarin' isn't trying."

Before Braeburn can turn to me in disgust, Granny Smith grabs his shoulder and goes in for a hug. She says softly to him. "And don't you believe for a second that I'm goin' anywhere 'fore we spend some time. Your family loves you, Braeburn."

Braeburn clutches her tightly, pauses, and says, "Thanks, Granny."

She takes her leave, and a thought strikes Braeburn. He looks at Handlebar. "Uh… Did she pay?"

Handlebar, stiff as a broom, replies, "Mister Windsong said the drinks are on him this weekend."

"What? Why?" Braeburn narrows his eyes, then shakes his head. "Did he stop by and see Granny or somethin'?"

Handlebar pauses, wide-eyed, but then he calmly returns to cleaning up the shot glasses and putting away the bottles. "Mister Apple, have you ever spent a weekend away while being in charge of fifteen foals all on your own? I imagine the scout leaders will need some relief, and your very generous coltfriend has already paid me to open up my stores to whomever needs it."

Braeburn sighs. "I suppose."

I laugh nervously, and when I finish, I say, "You know, drinking bills aside, you have a pretty great family, Braeburn." I shake off the tingle of the Eye-Opener. "Not to put too fine a point on it, but they really seems like they're there for you, no matter how long you're gone."

Braeburn sighs as the second sarsaparilla comes my way. "Yeah, I suppose they are. They stuck with me through all the bullshit with the media and gettin' forced outta the closet and such." He spins his glass lazily and looks down. "Did Soarin' ever tell you about that night in Haulihay? At my parents' house, right after the story broke and we hid in Las Pegasus?"

I shake my head. "I got his perspective, but it seemed like you were alone with your parents for half of it. All I really know is what happened when he was with your dad or when he was waiting for you." I sip my drink. "It sounded like a pretty big night."

Braeburn drinks deeply, and he can't hide the frown on his face when his drink is so much less fun than mine was. "Heh. 'Big' doesn't do it justice." He stares ahead at the rows and rows of alcohol bottles. "Seems like things got 'big' every time I went home." Voice lowered, he turns to me. "Mind if I back up the story a bit?"

I nod. "Go right ahead."

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

Appleloosa's my home. I think it's always been my home since I first set hoof here, when it was just covered wagons, crates, and some building supplies. There were fourteen of us in those days, and even though Trailblazer had scouted the perfect spot – a nice valley, close enough to water and flat enough to actually grow crops – there were so many ways that it could all go wrong. Optimistic or not, we were at the edge of a cliff, and one major blunder could literally have killed us, leaving us nothing but piles of bleached bones out in the desert.

And it was all such a relief.

See, there were no expectations of me out here. Sure, I needed to do my part, and you bet I worked my ass off every single day to help things move along, but everypony was in the same boat. Nopony cared who you were or where you came from or who you liked, long as you put your back into everything you did. I didn't need to worry about everypony asking questions. Nopony felt like we could judge. Heck, half of us were out here because we had some kind of criminal record or debts we'd defaulted on.

That was the one thing we all had in common, I think: we wanted a fresh start. Copperline had left a marriage that had fallen to shambles, on mutual terms, of course. Dawn Light's carpentry business had failed, and she'd had to sell all her tools just to break even. Hell, Tinker was probably the one of us that had caused the least trouble, but even he'd found his family stifling once they'd tried for the hundredth time to make him a farmer.

And then there was me. My Pa, Cortland, had always envisioned me taking over the family farms, and in many ways, so had I. He joyed in showing me the way to tend the trees, manage a business, know who to hire, all of that. And please don't get me wrong. I appreciate it immensely. I am who I am today because of the guidance my father gave me. He was always there to assist me, but it got overwhelming. See, he taught me his methods, but then I was only allowed to use his methods. Any time I would try something different, he'd tell me why it was wrong or explain how he'd tried it before to no avail. I know his heart was in the right place – he wanted to save me time and grief – but he had his own vision for my life, and he held those ideas very, very close to his heart.

And, well, part of that vision was continuing the Apple line. He came from a big family, and it weighed heavy on him that he only had one son. Granted, he and my Ma – her name's Gala, and she's an angel – they had agreed to only having two foals. Pa'd gotten the procedure after I was born, before my big brother Jonah passed. I think it was always at the back of his mind that I was his legacy, so I had to turn out perfect.

That meant it was on my mind, too. He didn't know I was gay, of course, and I'd meant to keep it that way. I'd realized I was different about the time my hormones really started churning. Same story as a lot of folk, I think: confusion, denial, fear, and more than a little experimentation. I learned a hell of a lot about myself in the summer after graduation, much as Ma wouldn't approve. Course, that just led to more fear of being found out, which in turn meant deciding to just not talk about it. Thing is, I couldn't just not talk about, so I had to learn to talk around it, and I sure as hell never admitted what I was out loud.

You get it, right? Seeing all the love and hope in Pa's eyes whenever he'd talk about the bright future I had in front of me… You cannot imagine how hard it is to break someone's heart like that unless you've been through it. Ma, too, wanted grandfoals real badly, but nowhere near as much as Pa. I knew what it would do to him, so I put it off and put it off, but that mental burden proved to be far too much for me. I ain't sure anypony can deal with it forever. Eventually, you just gotta tell the truth.

Or, in my case, run.

To this day, I swear up and down that I didn't come to help found Appleloosa just because I'm gay, and I hope you understand that there were many, many layers to it. At least, that's what I tell myself.

If nothing else, I breathed easier out here. It was a hell of a lot quieter than Haulihay, which of course is silent compared to the big cities, but it's all about what you're used to, I suppose. In our case, we had to adjust to salty, dusty air, constant water runs, and living out of circled wagons with the distant coyote calls lulling us to sleep. That atmosphere gave us room to be ourselves, and far from being bored, we always had plenty of ways to make fun.

One night, Dawn Light was hiding behind one of the wagons, and she motioned me over. I moved quiet as I could. "Copperline's scared of ghosts," she whispered with a mischievous grin. She pointed daintily under the wagon at him. Poor Copperline. He was sharpening axes without a worry in the world.

I narrowed my eyes. "You're a terror."

"No, we're the terror." She flashed another smile. "My momma has these records all about this stuff. You need vocal effects to really sell it. You in?"

I didn't have a second thought.

It was well past dark, and Copperline started hauling some wood from a nearby grove, ready to be cut up. I've got good eyes, so I was lookout. "Here he comes," I whispered as he trotted on the opposite side of the camp.

Poor Copperline didn't stand a chance. He was whistling that same tune he never let up on, and as he crossed near us, we both groaned like we practiced, both at once: "Whooa…"

Copperline stiffened up like a goat. "Uh… Springleaf? That you?"

"Myuuunnggg…" We groaned and threw our voices every which way, not letting up.

Copperline shook. "Guh… G–" He dropped his wood and leapt in the air. "Spirits! Ghasts!" He wailed and ran in circles, and he didn't stop until the whole camp was on high alert and had found us busting our guts behind the wagon.

Springleaf wasn't too happy when she found us. She had feelings for Copperline, and she charged at us like a mad bull in heat. "Aw, you dogs! You sonabitches!" We were laughing too hard to run far, and she whacked us each a few dozen times with the soft side of a broom, and the camp got a good laugh as she chased us and beat us for a good five minutes.

We made it up to Copperline, of course. Dawn Light and I took half his chores for a week. He said it wasn't worth it, but he eventually came around, and if nothing else, we had each other to keep ourselves sane.

Good thing, too. Constructing the first few buildings was a lot harder than we'd thought. Dawn Light was plenty talented, but very few of us had built more than a barn before, and always with help. I've never sweat so much in my life as I did that first June, when the heat spiked before we'd been smart enough to build ourselves any shade. We were hungry all the time, and fights broke out, even if level heads always eventually prevailed. Still, it took a toll, and Juniper and Brushbuck ended up calling it quits in midsummer. We couldn't blame them, but hell if it didn't make everything even harder and put a tremendous amount of doubt in our minds.

There was one thing that made all the toil easier, though: a stallion named Flint Spark. Flint had come with us after his fiance had broken off the engagement. Said he wanted to work with his hooves and work out his frustrations with the world. "Better to build something out of the pieces than worry about how it used to be," he'd always say. He was the kindest, most laid-back pony I've ever met. He put in more than his fair share of work, of course, and that big, silvery chest of his just gleamed in the sunlight. If I close my eyes, I can still see him and remember the smell of that mighty, sexy beast working next to me. And whenever I had my way, he was working next to me.

There was a weird sense of bliss in those days that only comes from wearing your body out. Plus, I got to be near a pony that I'd have done just about anything for, but unlike back when I was at school or in Haulihay, I wasn't worried. It excited me, sure (in more ways than one), but it was a warm, tingly feeling all over my body, without any of the cold dread of anypony finding out. I hadn't told anypony at camp yet, and instead I just marinated in the feeling and the daydreaming while I could. I still miss those days sometimes. They were simple. They were full of hope.

Flint pulled me aside behind a wagon one hot day in August. He was all smiles and relaxed as can be. Meanwhile, my heart thumped in my head and my thoughts ran wild with possibilities. He sat on the dirt with a big plop, like he always did, and he shook his head and smiled at me.

I could barely stand, and my legs had locked up.

He invited me to sit, and at least I could remember how to do that. Mercifully, he didn't leave me hanging for long, and he rumbled with that low, smooth voice like a deep river. "Braeburn, I hope you know that I am very, very flattered, and you don't need to pretend around me."

My lip quivered, and I was light-headed. "Wh-what…" The primal section of my brain was, at that very moment, trying to will all my indecent thoughts into reality, but I was welded in place.

Flint nodded. "I see the way you look at me, Braeburn. Ya' ain't the first stallion to look at me like that. I just want you to know that you can tell me anything." He shrugged. "Now, I don't wanna string you along – I am a lover of mares and mares only–" He set a hoof on my shoulder, and I nearly melted. It felt just like all those dreams I'd had. "–but you're a good friend, and I'm happy to help you figure out anything you need." He looked at me straight with those beautiful, fiery red eyes.

My whole body relaxed, and my heart sang, along with my mouth. "I am so fuckin' gay for you, Flint Spark." My eyes opened like floodgates, and my hoof shot to my mouth. My stomach turned, and I shook so hard I thought I'd break a tooth.

Flint just nodded. "And you're a mighty brave pony for sayin' so. C'mere." He scooted forward and brought me into a hug. My brain kept flashing with ways he could hurt me and call me mean names or, preferably, how he could throw me down in the dirt and have his way with me, but neither came to pass. He just held me until I stopped shaking. "You ain't told anypony that before, have you?"

"Nuh–" My voice was weak. I took a couple deep breaths – that scent of his helped a bunch – and I whispered, "Never."

He said back softly. "Well, I know for a fact that every other pony here sees how much of yourself you're putting into the town, and I hope you feel comfortable enough to tell them one day, too."

Flint was an angel, and he quickly became my best friend out there. We'd drink whiskey late at night after most folks had gone to sleep. He played a decent banjo, and he'd let us take the edge off of our testosterone in each others' presence, which is a lot further than I ever thought I'd get with him. He said it was a thing that young stallions did together. I'd never done it so openly, for obvious reasons, but he said there wasn't necessarily anything gay about it, and he didn't mind me looking at him while I took care of myself. He even let me cuddle him a few times, though we never kissed. He said that was a little too far for him, and I respected it.

With time and with Flint's encouragement, I came out to the rest of our group. They were mostly warm to the idea, though a few were clearly uncomfortable, and it took a week for them to not eye me every time they turned around. I don't blame them, of course, but I can still wish it were different.

Flint was the one to encourage me to come out to my parents, too. He was a wise pony, but I think he projected his own relationship with his own parents onto mine. See, in his mind, telling them that he suddenly wasn't getting married was just like coming out, but it turns out he, uh… missed the mark on that one.

At the start of fall, the Appleloosans – Trailblazer came up with the name, and Dawn Light wouldn't stop making cracks about how loose the Appleloosan Apple was around Flint – we Appleloosans had come up with a rotation scheme. Not tons you can build in winter, and many of us were needed at home for the harvest, so we left about five ponies in town at a time while the rest of us went back to help (and, honestly, to beg for additional supplies).

It was September twenty-fourth when my turn came up. It was the first time in six months that I was visiting my parents, and as much as my stomach churned at the thought of our upcoming conversation, the trip home was over in the blink of an eye.

My home looked so familiar and yet foreign that day. It was the same as always, and I'd long ago memorized the steps to the front door. I walked up, smelling the sweet, ripe apples on the air with my suitcase in tow. Flint had told me to focus on the familiarity, and that's what I did: I remembered all the walks I'd taken with my Pa and all the cooking lessons from Ma, and it made it feel like home again.

Still, I knew there was a difficult conversation to be had. It felt a little like swinging a flashlight around in the darkness, with something you just can't see lurking there, but I focused on the light, and I walked to the front door.

Ma and Pa greeted me like always. See, my Ma, Gala, would always find some knitting to do when she knew I was coming home, so she could park by the window and watch me arrive. She's a light-orange mare, a little heavyset, but Pa just says it's 'cuz she's a real mare. I get the blonde streaks in my mane from her, though the rest of her mane is a much darker brown.

The moment I walked in, Ma bounded up to me, practically shouting, "Oh, my big strong Braeby is home!" She wrapped me in a warm hug that made me feel like a foal, and as much as I would have resisted that feeling before I'd left for Appleloosa, not having to be an adult for once felt really, really nice.

Pa wasn't far behind. He's a solidly-built stallion with a reddish-brown coat, about my size, and his golden mane has orange and brown mixed in. He gave me a hug, too, along with a, "Welcome back, son." With a jerk of his head towards the porch, he proclaimed, "Lemme pour my town-founding stallion a stiff drink. I wanna hear all about his stories on the frontier."

Ma jokingly scolded him. "Cort, you're really gonna start drinking at ten in the morning?"

Pa just gave me a side look and a smile, and he asked, "I bet my colt can handle himself, eh, Braeburn?"

I smiled and stared at him. "I bet I could take my old sire down a peg."

"Don't get cute, colt," he said with a lower voice. He pressed his forehead to mine, and we play-growled while we pushed at each other for a few moments until Ma broke us up.

"This is what I get for not having fillies," she said with a laugh. "I'll whip up some lunch in a while. Don't tip over, colts."

With his dominance firmly reestablished in his mind, Pa walked me through the kitchen and out to the porch. I remember he walked with more swagger, and at first, I thought it was because he felt like a king in his castle, but now, I think he was proud of me and ready to hear all about what we'd built.

And hooooo, did I have a lot to say. He poured us a few drinks, and we sat down. I told him about everything from foraging to gathering wood to all the little slip-ups and what went wrong. He reveled in it all, and he'd lean in and ask things like, "So how's your group with a saw? Folks cutting the boards right?"

I tipped another swallow of whiskey into my mouth and let the fire settle. It was the good stuff, too: River Valley Reserve, the stuff that went down smooth but left a burning fire in its wake. Not violent on the stomach, mind, but enough to make you question your choices and realize the strength in it. It had a little of that peat flavor I've never been a huge fan of, but the molasses-like sweetness came through on the front end, melting into a dry, almost oak-like flavor on the back that made your mouth feel like a well-worn brick furnace.

I licked the flavor off my teeth and said, "O' course, Pa." With some faux-humility, I added, "…and I showed them that clamp-and-block technique to help keep 'em the same size, like you said."

"And?" I could almost hear his smile curl up.

"And you were right. It makes it a lot easier." Truthfully, I was upselling it, mostly for his ego, but after all the advice he'd given me over the years, I could stand to give him a little extra credit now and again.

"Thatta colt!" he said, raising his drink. We clinked our glasses together and took another swig. "Which parts of the wood did you use for the baseboards?"

He had an opinion, and maybe the drink had loosened me up, but I didn't bother trying to sugar-coat it. "Well, honestly we didn't give as much thought to it as we could've. We needed to get it together so we could sleep indoors before the storms came, and the wagons can only do so much." I braced myself for a lecture.

But Pa just smiled and shrugged. "Well, y'all got a lot to think about out there. I'm sure you made the best with what you had."

I was damn near speechless. Years of lectures and lessons and opinions… I could even see it in his eyes that he might have told me about how he would have set aside the thickest boards right away, since they needed to take the most stress.

But he wasn't lecturing. He was just smiling and waiting for me to continue, not like I was a young upstart. Like I was an equal. It felt strange. I've been about his height since puberty, but it was the first time I'd ever felt like I was seeing him at eye level, without judgment. He wasn't trying to teach me. He was just letting me be. Letting me teach him and share my experiences, the experiences I'd gained on my own. Well, not entirely on my own. I'd put a lot of his lessons to use. They'd become my tools, but I was proving I knew how to use them. He was my father, and I was his son, but we were both stallions.

I wanted that conversation to go on forever, and it damn well may have. Ma came out at nearly one and said, "You know, I can lock this door if you're both going feral. Lunch is ready."

"Thank you kindly, Gal," Pa said, finally standing up. "How long we been cluckin' like hens out here?"

Ma laughed. "Near three hours by my clock."

I startled. "Three hours?"

"You seemed like you had a lot to talk about. I didn't want to interrupt."

Warmed, I said, "Thanks, Ma."

"Of course. Sandwiches are ready."

I didn't tell them at lunch. I wasn't avoiding it, I don't think. I was just embracing what I was feeling talking to them. Pa let Ma ask me all the same questions, and she didn't mind when I brushed over a few things I'd already told Pa, but she asked plenty about the people there and the food supply and the schedules and planning and everything.

It was a nice meal. Cucumber and roasted pepper sandwiches with homemade hummus spread on Ma's grainbelt bread. The fancy chips that Pa always said cost too much. Two pickle spears, with the stems cut off just how I liked them. A chocolate chip cookie Ma had baked the previous day, still soft. A glass of whole milk and a glass of water. Forks and knives "in case we need them." The sun hitting a little crystal flower that sat in the middle of the table and lit up like a rainbow. Just like all the meals I'd had growing up.

I took a nap after that, and so did Pa. We needed to sleep off the drink, but I only passed out for an hour or so.

When I came back downstairs, Ma was back to her knitting by the window. She looked so peaceful in the afternoon light, sitting in her big, puffy chair, and she barely had to even look at her work. Instead, she eyed the scenery outside: rolling hills of wheat and arugula and, of course, our orchards. Her chair rocked gently back and forth, the same rhythm she'd used when I'd been a newborn, and her breathing matched it. She took one deep breath, then turned to me, her eyes adjusting to the dimmer light inside. "Welcome back, son. Was worried you and Cort were going to sleep all afternoon. Hm-hm!"

I like her laugh. Some folks think it's a tad irritating, but to me, it's the sound of comfort. I haven't picked it up myself, but it echoes in my head whenever I find some banal, amusing truth out there in the world.

I picked up my pace just a hair and sat down next to her in the guest chair next to her. "Naw, I ain't much of a napper. Seems like a bad habit to get into."

Ma folded her work and let her hooves rest. "Can I be a mom for little bit, Braeby?" she asked with a smile.

"Course," I said with a nod. In my teen years, I would've bristled, but after a few months out in the desert, sitting and getting a little pampered seemed mighty nice.

With a tip of her head, Ma asked, "Are you getting enough sleep out there?" When I barely avoided rolling my eyes, she raised a hoof, as if she was going to bring it to my lips. "I know, I know. But sleep is important, and every night I think about you in those…" She rolled her head dramatically. "…uncomfortable bedrolls, and I worry. It's hard not to."

Something about her voice unsettled me. I leaned forward a bit. "Why are you worried?"

"It's my job, Braeby. Hm-hm!" She picked up her needles again and carefully watched each little stitch. "Cort doesn't want to replace our mattress, even though he's started complaining about his back. I know you're young, but that sort of thing can wreak havoc on you all your life, not to mention all the mistakes and accidents that can happen if you're sleepy and trying to, I don't know… to saw a log or something, and I shudder to think about those sorts of icky things. But it's hard not to, Braeby."

I chuckled to myself. "Ma, you don't need to worry about anything. I'm pretty good with my hooves, too." I picked up a couple knitting needles. "See?"

She smirked. "Little further back, dear."

"Well," I said with a shrug. "I bet I've got enough sleep to help you finish what you're workin' on."

She continued rocking. "Frankly, I'm more concerned about the whiskey than the lack of sleep." With a mock-scolding tone, she said, "So you better not get any blood on that scarf, young colt."

I smiled. "Somethin' for your Lily Mares group?"

She nodded and sighed. "Oh, you're insightful as always. Yes, we're doing the fundraiser for homeless ponies again this year. The sale's not until November, but it's never too early to start."

"Mighty fine cause," I said, starting the first few stitches. I remembered the basic technique, and as long as I was only doing a scarf, there wasn't anything complicated about it. "I s'pose I'm technically homeless myself for now. We're all sleepin' in the barracks until we can get a few houses up. "

I felt a hoof on my leg, and I looked up to my mother's soft eyes. They twinkled in the afternoon light. "Son, you're never homeless while we're around."

I paused, and then, I smiled, and I felt her loves deep down in my bones.

She was right. I was home.

We chatted as we worked, about Appleloosa and my friends and all our hopes for what we were building, and she showed me how to cover up my knitting mistakes so they wouldn't be so obvious. It all felt so easy, like a summer day from my colthood, where time barely seemed to pass. It wasn't until the sky became stained orange that Ma finally set down her scarf.

She stood up, stretched out her back, and softly kissed my forehead with warm lips. "My big, strong stallion." She didn't say anything else as she walked to the kitchen to prepare dinner.

I hardly remember any of my thoughts from that evening, other than the unpleasant few that danced around the back of my mind. I managed to ignore them, mostly, because everything was like it was supposed to be, and I had… I had a lot of faith in them. In all of us.

I… I held onto that faith as long as I could.

Dinner was stew.

I-I-I don't… I don't remember what kind, exactly. Something with onions.

…though that's most stew, I suppose.

Ma makes a really good onion cheese stew, full of…

It came up as we ate our salads. Mixed greens. Raspberry dressing.

Our forks tinked against the plates. Lots of chewing sounds. A little talk of plans for the weekend, tending to the orchard and restocking my supplies for out west and such, but eventually, there was a lull in the conversation.

I could feel it coming. I was excited. I was done with hiding. I was ready to get a big hug, tearful or not, and my posture straightened up. I thought I knew exactly how it would go.

Ma timidly approached the subject first. "Must get a little lonely out there with just the twelve of you," she said with a hint of mischief in her voice.

I knew immediately what she was needling for. A little chill went down my legs, but I followed Flint's advice and thought to myself, 'They're my parents. They love me. It doesn't change anything, and they'll be glad I was honest with them.'

Pa was quick on the uptake, too. "Got your sights on any of the mares out there, son?" His voice was so hopeful.

I chuckled nervously. "Not particularly."

Pa tapped his fork on his plate and pointed it at me. "Heh heh. What's the matter? Settler ponies look too homely for you?"

"Cort, be nice," Ma said with a small kick under the table. "Looks aren't everything. I married you, didn't I?" They both laughed and bumped noses, and Pa gave her a kiss and a loving nip on her nose.

Pa turned back to me. "I'm just saying, it takes a certain kind of pony to deal with the harshness out there, and that might not be what Braeburn is after." He looked up at me. "Though I hope you won't let the other stallions push you outta the way if somepony's caught your eye. You gotta fight for what you want, son."

I shook my head and told myself, 'It's okay.' I cleared my throat. "It's not that, exactly, Pa. I–"

Ma smirked. "Now don't you go telling us you're too busy to think about it. I know what young stallions like you are like. Little devils, only care about one thing." She cast a playful look at Pa, who grimaced proudly back and gave her a lusty wink. Ma rolled her eyes and looked back at me. "I know you're busy, Braeby, but you need to take time for yourself, too. You need to think long-term."

Pa cut in. "Just make sure you put a ring on her before you get her pregnant. I don't need grandfoals that badly." He and Ma laughed again.

"I…" I remembered that warmth on the porch and that reassuring touch from Ma. My head was spinning, but it felt like I was balancing an anvil on my back, and I was finally ready to let it drop. "I don't think you need to worry about that any time soon, Pa."

Pa asked, "Why's that? Mares go home for the winter?" He flashed another big, toothy smile.

"Naw, it ain't that," I said. I relaxed into my chair a bit. I could feel it bubbling up inside me, the words that I'd fought down for a decade. I thought of Flint and Appleloosa and all of the love my parents had for me, and the words grew like a tree out from my belly to my throat until the bloomed into a fully formed thought. "I'm… just gay."

Both of their faces wrinkled up. Pa snickered – Flint warned me he might – and he said, "Well, sure, and I'm next in line for Princess."

I took a deep breath and said it again. "I know it sounds loony, but I mean it, Pa. I'm gay." I shrugged, with all the tenderness I could muster in my voice. "Always have been, I think. I love you both. You're the most important ponies in the world to me, and I want to be honest with you: I like stallions." I leaned forward, bearing my soul to them.

And they didn't like it one bit.

They just stared, mouths open, not breathing, suddenly holding hooves. The table seemed like it was growing wider, and I felt like there was nothing below me, like when you take a step at the bottom of a staircase in the dark, but you've miscounted and there's nothing there, and you realize you're about to tumble.

That moment hung there like a long-dead spider in a web, and all the world was silent.

Pa lowered his voice and growled, "That ain't funny, son."

I sighed and sat up straighter. "It's–" My voice cracked. I cleared my throat. "It ain't a joke, Pa." I called on the strength I'd prepared, but I quickly found it in short supply. "This is hard, I know. It's hard for–"

He raised his voice and snarled. "Some kinda hippie commune out there, hm?! Teachin' you all kinds of nonsense?"

I shrunk back and looked at Ma. "Ma, I didn't mean–"

Her eyes were wide, and her face was pale. Barely above a whisper, she asked, "You haven't told anyone, have you?"

I felt the tears welling up, and my voice shook. "Ma, why is that what's botherin' you? Why–"

Pa cut in. "There's a hell of a lot 'bothering' us, Braeburn. What kind of bullshit is this?"

"Cortland!" Ma snapped. "Watch your mouth."

"I'll swear as much as I fuckin' want to, Gal! I–" He shook his head. "Sorry, but I…" He cranked his head back to me and growled, "Son, what the hell is wrong with you? "

Ma's eyes were glazed over. She shook her head, lost in her own world. "This…" She was starting to cry, too. "I… should get the stew."

"Gal, we don't need no damn stew right now," Pa said, annoyed.

"I… Excuse me." Ma stood up and left. She didn't walk to the kitchen. I tried to look up, but my eyes had fallen to my hooves, and I heard her racing up the stairs.

Pa pleaded, "Now, Gal, don't be like that." The door to their bedroom slammed, and his voice filled with fire. "Now see what you did?"

My ears rang. I tried to think of Flint, but all my damn brain could tell me was, 'He probably knew this would happen. I'm fuckin' stupid for thinking I wasn't alone.'

"Look at me, colt!"

I snapped to attention, just like when I was young.

Even with our eyes on the same level, he was looking down on me. I was left staring at a mountain of a pony with a mine shaft full of gunpowder.

Pa shook and sneered. "Son, I thought I raised you better than–" He slammed a hoof on the table and shook his head, and his eyes caught the mantle, where we kept our family pictures. Tears welled up in his eyes. "Dammit, B–…" He paused.

He wouldn't say my name. I drew a sharp breath and couldn't even sob.

Pa grabbed a half-smoked cigar from his ash tray and brought it shakily to his lips, all without looking away from the mantle. He felt around for a light, and when he didn't find one, he slapped the cigar back down on the table, marring it with tobacco. "Dammit."

My legs were weak, and so was my voice. I felt like I was at the bottom of a deep pit, a dark hole with just the slightest bit of light at the top, and I knew he was up there. It took all I had left to say, "Daddy, I love you both."

He was about to go off like a powder keg. I could feel the heat of his stare fill the room around me, enveloping me and threatening to blow the roof off the house.

He took a deep breath and let it out with a growl. "I know, and we…" He shook his head and grit his teeth. "We love you, too, but this ain't the time to talk about that!" He leaned in like a snake about to strike. "You see what you did? To your mother? You went and changed our lives forever, Braeburn. Forever. And you don't seem to understand–" He snorted. "You don't seem to appreciate that. Forever."

Their lives. Their lives! To this day, it kills me that I wasn't angry at him for saying that. Instead, I thought to myself, 'I'm a bad son.'

The chair screeched terribly as he stood up. "My wife needs me." A few words stopped in his throat, but after he thought for a moment, he let them out anyway. "And I'm going to be a strong husband for my wife, because that's how it's supposed to be." He stomped away up the stairs, marched into the room, and slammed the door behind him.

My mother cried. She tried to stifle it, but I heard her all the way downstairs. It was the only sound I could hear.

I sat there, stunned, for… three minutes, maybe? It had all happened so fast. It…

I was shut down. I had, in fact, taken a tumble, but unlike the bottom of the stairs, I never landed.

The stew was going to burn. I couldn't let the stew burn.

I got up from my chair. Silently, so I could still hear my mother's tears. I was afraid to make noise. My head and my heart were up there, waiting at the outside of their door, while my body put the stew away and cleaned up. Silently.

I sat in the kitchen. They didn't come down.

I didn't make it up to my room that night. Instead, I slept on the couch downstairs. Didn't use the rollaway, and I didn't give myself any pillows or blankets. The sun set, the tears came, and I shivered through the night.

Because, I told myself, I had ruined my parents' life, and I didn't deserve any better.

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Comments ( 5 )

Hoo boy, that was... something. Flint Spark is great, I love him.

jxj

Man, this was a really powerful chapter. I can't wait to see more of the fallout. Keep up the good work.

That was quite the shift in tone, and a rather heavy, relateable finale. I continue to be amazed at how personal your stories feel, featuring a wonderful balance in detailed descriptions of behaviors and experiences mixed with engaging interactions and dialogue. There's a joy in being swept up within the flow of your words, fully immersed in the story being told.

This was a great look back at where Brae came from. There's a beauty to the fondness with which he recalls the early days of Appleoosa, or engaging with his parents as his own stallion. Which makes the ending all the more powerful.

Thank you for writing another great story.

Granny Smith glares at me with eyes that could pick ice. "And who's this supposed to be? Some kinda namby-pamby, prim 'n proper, spikey-maned, colt-cuddlin', chickenhearted, flank-shakin', sequins-wearin', chuckle-headed, gadabout, ninny-rascal sauce-box stallion-of-the-week that spends all his time tryin' to smell like a Celestia-durned flower patch who wouldn't know a garden hose from a rattler snake if it bit him on the baby-makers?"

Ah, Granny. Never change.

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