• Published 7th Dec 2012
  • 3,798 Views, 273 Comments

Different Strokes - Guy_Incognito



Gentle Strokes is a cynical drunk from Dodge Junction. Stormy is the proud black sheep of a wealthy Manehattan family. College is a place for 'experimenting'.

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Civilian


Civilian.


The train came in breathless, with passengers restless and none more so than Gentle Strokes. The trip; from Camden to Dodge Junction, was a day and a half scenic detour of snow basked valleys, fields of yellowed dead grass and the occasional hay bale to break up the monotony of empty nothingness that the landscape provided. A thirty six hour slow burn through Equestria with nothing but quiet, sober thought to keep him occupied; and his mind was certainly offering that in spades during his time travelling.

Somewhere between Apploooza and a town called Ponyville, he’d kind of self diagnosed the sweaty mane and rapid heartbeat as nervousness--or, hesitation at the very least--and it only made sense that this came in regards to visiting his family. He hadn’t seen them; Ma, Pa, The Twins, Clem, even Huck, in almost a year and the last time he’d written to them he’d been a mess of closeted emotions with a hoof trembling from the tail end of his latest bender. Now, he was, well, he was gay, and in a gay relationship with a colt--and what a colt at that--but, if he knew Dodge Junction--and he did--it went without saying that he might only consider subtly hiding his insatiable lust for stallions and keeping it to himself. Dodge Junction wasn’t exactly known for it’s Alternative Lifestyle tolerance and he had no desire to turn a family reunion into a coming out party.

As self doubt and mental anguish plagued his mind, he started counting the number of hay bales between Ponyville and Dodge Junction. After the two hundred and thirty third bale, the train pulled into Dodge Junction and Gentle Strokes couldn’t have been left with any less of a resolution to his struggles.

Knowing, or in spite of this, he shuffled with the rest of the passengers off of the train until he stood in the half crowded train station, eagerly--and half nervously-waiting to see which family member had decided to meet him. Nights were drearily cold in Dodge Junction, and in that moment he was thankful for the scarf he wore tight around his throat that Stormy had bought him a few weeks prior. It was kind of silly, clinging to the scarf like it were some kind of metaphysical representation of Stormy, but, it was more than just the scarf’s fabric that warmed him when he did; it was knowing who bought it for him to keep warm that felt the most comforting.

Over the next few minutes the bodies in the train station slowly piled out, colts and fillies--mostly earth ponies--attached themselves to families and friends and wandered into town, and when they did, he was left standing alone with only his luggage and one other body in the train station; an earth pony, wicked navy grey coat, light brown mane chopped to a crew cut and a scornful look on the mess of mismatched fur of his face. He cocked a head towards Gentle Strokes, huffed something under his breath and broke off from the wall he leaned against, moving towards him.

“You look a little lost.” He announced as the space between the two got smaller. His voice was weathered and raspy, like a record scratching or rocks thrown in a quarry. “Need some help, boy?”

Gentle Strokes said nothing, just stared at the colt. Before he knew it he was right before him, scowling and raising a hoof. He tossed it forward, Gentle Strokes slighted for a second until the hoof graced the side of his neck and he felt himself pulled into a hug, which he returned.

“So, the prodigal son returns.” The colt said as he broke off the hug. “It’s good to see you, Gent. Your folks were busy so they told me to come pick your lazy flank up. Hope you don’t mind?”

Gent. He hadn’t heard a pony call him by that name in almost a year. Back at Camden he was either “That Pony Who Beat Up The Colt From Las Pegasus” at parties, “The Hick.” inbetween classes and behind his back, or just “Strokes", whispered into his ear from the pony he liked. It was kind of comforting.

“Nice to see you too, Huck.” He offered back, as Huck shouldered one of his two saddlebags and gave a grin. “How’re your folks?”

“Oh, you know my family,” Huck said with a chuckle. “Pa’s living up to his reputation as the town drunk and when my Ma’s not kicking his good for nothing flank to the curb she’s doing the same to me.”

There was a slight pause, before he turned to look at Gentle Strokes and spoke again.

“And look at you,” Huck chuckled. “Thin as a chain smoker and...what the Hells are you wearing? Is that a scarf?”

Gentle Strokes felt a twinge of embarrassment shoot up his spine, subconsciously loosing the offending article of clothing around his throat.

“Yeah...” He gave in a somewhat ashamed response. Huck gave a throaty, raspy, laugh then rolled his eyes.

“Geez. Camden, eh?” Huck grumbled under his breath. “Well, you might wanna take that off before we get into town. It kinda makes you look a little ‘Fru-Fru-Fruity’, if you know what I mean?”

So far he was sold on his decision to not bring up his newfound lust for stallions.

Gentle Strokes gave a sigh and undid the scarf, tossing it into the saddlebag. Huck smiled and when Gentle Strokes was finished zipping up the bag, led the two out of the train station and towards town.

***

The walk was nice and quiet. At night, the dusty road between town and his home was eerily quiet and devoid of life. It was cold, and without the scarf, Gentle Strokes felt the desert chill win him over and his teeth chattered, just slightly. Huck, was quite the opposite; he seemed naturally at ease and Gentle Strokes wondered if it was just his being away for as long as he had that made him uncomfortable to the climate, or if he’d always been this way.

Things in Dodge Junction hadn’t changed too much in the months he’d been gone; a few stores had painted their walls--Mr. Turner had finally gotten around to painting over the graffiti on his wall that read ‘Rough Trade’-a new shop had opened at the end of the street--a second barbershop--and there were a few more homes than when he’d left, but overall it was still very much the same dust and dirt hamlet of a town he’d left it.

There was only a little comfort he found in that.

After a strenuous twenty minute trek through the outskirts of Dodge Junction, they’d arrived; home at last. If Dodge Junction had remained more or less the same, home had never looked any more recognizable in his life; not a single inch of the porch was different, the love seat beside the door still hung from the roof and dipped slightly on one side, the door’s hinges were still stained and rusted and the screen scratched to Hells and back--with the doggy door still unlocked and open for Duke. It was fair to say that walking through the front door today wouldn’t be any different from walking through the front door exactly a year ago. Only now, he’d have something to say when his mom asked him how his day went.

“You gonna stand there and reminisce all day, Gent?” Huck asked from beside him, giving him a playful nudge on the shoulder. “Your Ma made Mac ‘N’ Cheese for dinner and I know there’s bound to be at least a plate worth of leftovers that you’re gonna wanna sink your teeth into.”

Huck rushed ahead and Gentle Strokes followed behind, taking a few quiet moments to admire the scenery, before entering the house after Huck.

“Hucklebuck! If you’re back here, again, without my son I will tan your hide something fierce!” The feminine voice of his mother shouted from the kitchen. The smell of boiled noodles, cooked veggies and, if he wasn’t mistaken, fresh baked cookies hit his nostrils and it took everything in his power not to float towards the smell like some kind of Pegasus.

“No, Ma’am, can’t say he is.” Huck shouted back. “I did find a hungry little hobo at the train station though. I thought I’d offer him a meal. You know; bein’ neighbourly and all.”

“Listen to me, Huck. Just because you’re my sister’s only born boy doesn’t mean I won’t tan that flank of yours with the biggest, baddest spoon in my drawer for bein’ such a smartass!” His mother shouted, her voice drawing closer until she stood in the doorway from the kitchen to the entry way. Her eyes lit up when they fell on Gentle Strokes and she gave a loud, delighted, squeal.

In the few seconds Gentle Strokes had before he was wrapped in a tight embrace by his mother he studied her figure; she looked as lively and vivacious as she ever had, if even a few pounds lighter--in the appropriately right places, hips, thighs and stomach--her orange coat glowed and her blonde mane flew behind her.

Gentle Strokes felt a pair of lips pepper his cheeks, both of them, with platonic kisses from his mother as she squeezed tighter. To his right, Huck grinned a light hearted smirk.

“Oh, Gent,” She said when she finally let him go. “Look at how thin you are.”

Gentle Strokes blushed and ran a hoof across his mane. He didn’t feel thinner, but, then again, he’d noticed that he lost a bit of his muscle and girth after the second month at Camden, so it probably made sense that he’d be a little smaller. Either way, his mother smiled up at him--she’d always been a few inches shorter, but now he felt almost dauntingly tall--and he felt comfortable.

“Huck, why don’t you go round up the twins, this time of night I reckon they’re up to no good anyhow. I think Clem’s in her room reading, too. You tell ‘em that Gent’s back and that if they don’t come and give their big brother a hug they’re gonna spend the entire week wishing they had.”

“Yes Ma’am” was Huck’s response as he trotted upstairs.

“Where’s Pa?” Gentle Strokes asked, noticing both his physical absence in the home and his name secluded from the list of bodies Huck had been tasked to gather.

“Oh, you know your father,” His mother began, leading him into the living room and taking a seat on the worn down green couch across from the fireplace. “Working his hooves to the bone I imagine. Miss Jubilee certainly does her part to make sure her hardest working family is well kept, but, even still your father’s been pulling more hours as of late. It breaks my heart when he comes in at night and doesn’t even have the time to grab dinner. He just sorta plops in bed and passes out.”

Something inside of Gentle Strokes stirred awake, some emotion he hadn’t felt in eons but couldn’t really recall the name of; embarrassment mixed with sorrow, shame mixed with heartache, pain mixed with acceptance. He knew that his absence would have caused a stir in the home, but he’d never imagined it would cost his father as much as it seemed he was paying; a day on a farm started at sunrise, and if he was working well past sundown that meant he was working nearly a fourteen hour day, six times a week, just to pick up his slack.

This unclear emotion didn’t exactly sit right with Gentle Strokes, who just bit his lower lip and took a seat beside his mother.

The clatter of pairs of hooves descending the staircase brought him out of his funk and he stared up to see the twins; two foals, boys, each the spitting image of a younger version of himself, only with inverted colours--brown manes and gold coats--and behind them, Clementine--just barely past ‘legal’ and still with that sensible air of education and excitement carried on her face. If the twins were anything like him, than Clementine was his polar opposite. She was a bookworm, well versed and probably the smartest character in all of Dodge Junction by his count.

She lunged at him, even sitting as he was, and nuzzled her head against his chest when she hugged him. He ran a hoof along her mane, and cupped her cheek, lovingly, and with his free hoof gripped both twins and pulled them tight to his body; this was a kodak moment if he’d ever lived one.

“We missed you.” His sister said, seeming to steal the words from everypony’s mouth.

***

An hour had passed since they’d sat down and during that time he’d been doing his best to answer questions about his time spent at Camden to a captivated audience. Clementine was the most curious, she sat on the edge of her seat, head resting in her hooves and just hummed in a mix of appeased excitement and curious intrigue whenever he answered a question she asked.

If anypony else was listening, she was inhaling knowledge, and in it’s own way, this brought a smile to his face; Clem had always been the brightest--Gentle Strokes certainly wasn’t dumb, but Clementine was ‘book smart’--she could do fractions in her head, she knew Pi to the fifteenth decimal and it was hard to find her outside of school without her face hidden behind some kind of Dickinson. or S. Thompson. novel--and her clinging to every word he said like he were some kind of prophet sprouting wisdom, filled him with delight. He’d always expected her to go places, and if hearing heavily watered down tales of his life at Camden brought her any closer to breaking the family tradition of having the mare of the family become a lowly housewife to some farm owner he’d be more than ecstatic.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said about his cousin Hucklebuck, who rolled his eyes and fought back an urge to, perhaps, say something from his heart which stood to make Gentle Strokes uncomfortable.

Regardless, Huck seized an opportunity--an awkward silence brought about when Gentle Strokes mother asked him if he was seeing anyone on campus, when he bit his tongue hard enough to draw blood--to turn the conversation towards himself.

“Well, things have been good around here too.” He boasted, taking a minute to sip from a tumbler of Gentlecolt Jack, grinning then setting the tumbler down. “I mean, we’re all doing alright.”

With all eyes drawn to Huck, he successfully stole the spotlight from Gentle Strokes--who certainly wasn’t complaining about it, he’d have done everything short of running scared and embarrassed into the night to avoid bringing up the fact that the ‘pretty mare who served coffee’ wasn’t in fact his girlfriend, but rather, a girl, he knew, who served him and his coltfriend coffee--and so no one complained when he continued.

“My folks have things at the store pretty much down to a science, so I’ve been helping your family out with work.” He smirked. “Course, I can’t quite keep up with your dad; that colt can buck cherry trees like nobody’s business, but I do alright.”

“You do more than alright, Hucklebuck. You’re damn near keeping this family from going under.” His mother offered with a proud grin in Huck’s direction. “If it wasn’t for your cousin we probably wouldn’t have made it through the winter.”

Gentle Strokes felt something inside him twitch; all his pride escaped his body and he suddenly felt utterly stupid boasting about his time spent surrounded by bohemian ponies with borderline personality disorders.

Had things really been that bad without him?

“Yeah, Huck even turned down a job for us.” One of the twins, who was probably Bucky--but he could shamefully never tell them apart to save his life--said, leaning backwards and gripping Huck’s lower hooves in a hug. “Plus, he helped Duke chase the rabbits in the garden away.”

The Twins beamed with some kinda aura, a golden glow of the kind of kinship he used to share with them that now, Huck, had seemed to take, and the pit in Gentle Strokes stomach grew. He huffed, inaudibly, and fought back apprehension. He was happy, for his cousin, for his family, but, hearing that he’d been dethroned as, well, himself in the family, was upsetting.

Huck, however, didn’t seem to mind, he took another sip of Gentlecolt Jack, grinned, then winked at Gentle Strokes. It was friendly, there really wasn’t a sinister edge behind it, but even still Gentle Strokes felt resentment shine through and said nothing.

“It wasn’t much of a choice.” Huck said in reference to the job in ‘Appleooza’--whatever that was. “Folk down there had some kinda squabble with some Buffalo; you know how they can be, but they squared it out and now the head of a farm down there’s lookin’ for any willing bodies to pull some shifts.”

“Oh, don’t be so modest.” His mother chived, batting a hoof against his leg. “Your cousin got offered three square meals, a cot and a roof over his head but he turned it down to throw us some extra bits. He’s a real sweetheart.”

At that, Gentle Strokes felt the weakest he’d felt in months; he knew they’d suffer without him, prayed they wouldn’t, but hearing they were taking charity from his cousin and that he’d turned down an offer for a better life to support them didn’t particularily fill him with glee.

Again, he huffed resentment--this time at himself--under his breath and faked a smile.

“That’s... awful kind of you, Huck.” He forced.

Huck, genuinely, smiled and brushed a hoof through his short mane.

“It really wasn’t all that much.” He grinned, “Plus, the feller who runs those farms down there; Something or other Apple, well... they say he’s real light on his hooves.”

“What’s that mean?” One of the twins--the other one this time--asked innocently while Gentle Strokes bit his lower lip as hard as he could without breaking skin and flesh.

“Well, um, it means he fanci...” Clem began, only to be interrupted.

“It means he’s a faggot.” Huck finished for her, with a scowl as he took a sip of Gentlecolt Jack, and a little part of Gentle Strokes died inside.

Internally, Strokes was as defeated as he’d been in a long time. Seeing no one, not even Clem, put up anything in the form of protest to a word which, a year ago would have meant nothing to him, but now was practically the antithesis of his entire identity, be tossed so casually into conversation really made him uncomfortable.

Maybe he should reconsider coming out to his family. Indefinitely.

“That’s one way of putting it.” He mumbled under his breath. He drew no ones interest -- save for a quick, sympathetic, glance from Clem -- then bowed his head in a private shame.

So his family didn’t mind the casual use of a term of endearment for, well, colts like him; Colt Cuddlers. That was kind of a problem. After all; he was a ‘faggot’ by that logic.

At Camden, it never really seemed to phase him like it did here. At Camden, with Stormy, he was just...Gentle Strokes. They were together, and they were happy like that. But, that also meant he was, well, gay. And that meant, when Huck insinuated that some farm owner in a town he’d been offered a job in was somehow less of a pony than others for his sexual orientation, that it also meant that he was less of a pony than others for his orientation.

Suddenly, Gentle Strokes missed Camden.

“I mean, they say this feller-” Huck paused, then shook his head in some form of protest to where his mind was going with his train of thought “-they say he’s trotting around with one of the Wonderbolts! A... colt even! That, ‘Soaring’ one! Can you believe that? I mean, say what you will about celebrities, but two colts; an Apple farmer and a stupid Wing-Back? Celestia! Might as well just hook up with a filthy zebra!”

There was an air of understandable silence that followed and Huck, drawn into an angry frenzy, seemed to realize this and calmed himself; his features, brow furrowed, mouth in a semi-stuck scowl and his buggy eyes, all fell flat and he uncomfortably licked his lips, exhaled a sharp breath of air then put on a cheeky smile.

“Sorry, I'm sorta...” He groaned. “Sorry.”

That seemed to set everything right and all was quickly forgiven; the tension escaped the room and suddenly, and confusingly to Gentle Strokes, they were back in the swing of things like they’d never missed a beat. No one questioned why Huck felt the need to bring Zebras, Pegasi and Gays into the conversation and give all three parties a negative spin, it just..didn’t happen.

Confused, upset and somewhat hurt, Gentle Strokes tried to pick his spirits up.

Thankfully, divine intervention allowed the front door to swing open and a tired, humbled body walked in through the door frame.

The last few months looked like a lifetime on his father: His coat had always been that same bleak, smoke grey it was now. But the body underneath was thin and frail. And his mane? As far back as he could remember his father's mane was always a distinctively combed, ink black. That's how it had been when he'd left, anyway. Now what was once a proud display of youth was an unkempt patchwork of mostly greying--some black--strands that shot in all different directions.

His facial features had also aged considerably. Deep black bags had formed under his baby blue eyes, almost like a racoon. Gentle Strokes noticed, mostly for personal reflection, that his once strong jaw had grown slack over time. This almost made him frown.

He turned to him, gave a soft smile, then spoke.

“It’s nice to see you son.”

It was simple, but, then again his father had never been much for words or actions. The smile on his face--almost naked to an untrained eye--was more than enough for Strokes, who broke off the couch and moved towards his father. When he stood before him, now looming uncomfortably above his form, all his father offered was his hoof, which Strokes took with his own and, with his father’s other, he gently patted him on the shoulder.

“Let’s have a drink.”

***

Sitting now, quite uncomfortably in his father’s study, with his father offering him a drink and Huck, now on his third of the night, and his father both staring down at him like refusing said drink was some grand offence to Celestia herself, Gentle Strokes hesitantly accepted and craddled the brown liquid in the clear glass tumbler with an uncertain ease.

It had been a while since he’d had ‘a drink’, he hadn’t entirely defeated his alcohol issues back at Camden, but with self interest--and the help of a caring stallion--he’d certainly curbed it to a healthy and respectable ‘weekends only and never to the point where he’d wake up in anypony else’s bed but Stormy’s.

And now, here he was, again; staring at a half full glass of Gentlecolt Jack about to share some kind of moment with his father and oldest cousin. He’d have felt a lot more dishonest taking a sip if Stormy had been beside him, but, then again, if Stormy had been beside him, he’d also have felt less uncomfortable about lying through his teeth about all the ‘tail’ he’d tagged at Camden.

His father was an honest man, and since he’d met Gentle Strokes mother he’d never stared eyes at another mare with ill intent, yet, before that, he’d been a good looking colt in a farming town in a town full of ugly colts who worked on a farm; he’d been a prime example of a ‘wild child’ a good time junkie who loved women nightly and drank daily. He’d certainly calmed himself of both habits over the years, but if there was one thing in particular he enjoyed it was boasting to the two colts he considered his closest kin about his youth.

This was one of those times.

“I remember,” He started, staring reflectively into the glass he held in his hoof, then smiling and continuing. “Cherry Valance--She used to run the farm before Miss Jubilee came around--and her and I used to spend more time rolling around in barns and hay bales than either of you have worked in both of your lives.”

He gave a chuckle, smiled then took a sip of his drink. With a head nod he turned the conversation towards Huck, who grinned, and spoke.

“Spring Song!” Huck laughed. “Now, there was a mare who could suck the bend out of a river.”

This had been the conversation for almost an hour now; mares around town that Gentle Strokes knew and whom both other colts in the room had slept with, which both were now boasting about like they were some kind of trophies. Gentle Strokes sat nervously, just waiting for the axe to fall and, for either his father, or Huck, to ask him about who he was sleeping with at Camden. Then, he wondered curiously if he were drunk enough to create an obscene lie, or if he’d just come out with a full blown confession about having spent the last two and a half months of his life in the company of a colt.

Either way, two sets of eyes were now turned on him.

He downed the drink in a long gulp, swallowed hard and decided that tonight, he was going to let the booze do the thinking.

“I’m seeing a mare on campus.” He found himself saying. “She’s... something else. I mean, I’ve never met any mare like her.”

Well, it certainly wasn’t a complete lie; Stormy definitely wasn’t like any mare he’d ever met. Mostly because he was a colt. But, just because he’d neglected to add that this ‘mare’ came equipped with something extra between her legs, and also that ‘she’ was a ‘he’, it didn’t mean he was a liar. He was just bending the truth a bit.

“Good for you, son.” His father said, smiling. He leaned over to slap a hoof on his shoulder, and shook his son without resistance. “It’s about time you found somepony to make you happy. I remember how you used to just jump from one mare to the next, but, if she makes you happy, then she’s alright by me.”

Well, he said that now...

“So, what’s she like?” Huck asked, twirling the ice in his drink. “I mean, what does she do?”

“She’s...” He felt uncomfortable reffering to Stormy as a ‘she’ but for the same of the conversation and his own status in the home, he could live with it. “She’s a, er, she’s into poetry..and, uh, she likes writing, books, movies. She’s got a great smile, and a really good sense of humor and she’s gets me like, well, nopony else that I’ve met.”

This-everything he’d just said--was true about Stormy, even if he had to throw him under the metaphorical cart by lying through gritted teeth about his gender to please his family.

“Nah, Gent! Who cares for personality?" Huck laughed. "What’s she like in bed?”

Of course, it had to be Huck to ask, with that stupid, earnest, grin and those inquisitive eyes. He didn’t mean to be the asshole he was being, it was just the situation, but still, Gentle Strokes found it hard to keep up the charade. The more he drank, the looser he felt, the looser he felt the more he wanted to just...say it. To admit that he was seeing the most wonderful colt he’d ever met, but, then he remembered who he was talking to and decided that a few more white lies couldn’t hurt.

“She’s...”

Great. Fantastic. Adventurous. Kind. Sexy. Imaginative. And, very much into the idea of putting Gentle Strokes before himself. Were all things he wanted to say. Instead he just mumbled “Pretty good.” under his breath and poured himself a drink.

Neither his father, nor Huck, looked worse for wear and he realized he could do this forever; lie to them without either of them finding doubt in his claims, but, where would that get him? He could be as straight as they’d want and need him to be, but, in the end he really wasn’t. He was a closet case; just like he’d been, maybe unknowingly, for his entire life and maybe, intentionally now, for the rest of it.

He downed another drink and decided to change the subject.

“What’s happening in town?”

With that, Huck gave a sly grin, and turned to his father, who returned it.

“Well, since ya’ asked.” Huck began, getting up from his seat. “Me and a couple of the boys from work decided to throw y’all a party for your homecoming. It’s not much, but, you might like it Mr. College Boy.”

Gentle Strokes got up with the help of Huck’s hoof, and stared at his father, who shrugged and urged the two into the hall, then, out the front door.

“It’s at The Great Ball Of Fire.” Was all Huck said before the two set off.

***

The Great Ball Of Fire was a bar just a stones throw outside of town. Far enough away that the loud southern themed music blaring from the speakers wouldn’t wake anypony up, but close enough that the townsfolk could all stumble their way home at the end of the night. A two story building that offered cheap drinks, live music and kinship with your neighbors.

That’s what it had been when Gentle Strokes had left at least, now, drawing closer to the wail of electric guitars and ruckus cheer, Gentle Strokes was somehow reminded of a more abusrd frat party at Camden; ponies, entirely of the ‘Earth’ variety, loitered around the outside, drinking beers and smoking cigarettes, while bright light shone through the windows above them. The music was loud--something that sounded like Skynyrd but just as easily could have been The Allmane Brothers--and just drunk enough for the proceeding events, Gentle Strokes felt a rush of comfortability run through his spine.

This was the Dodge Junction he remembered leaving behind almost eight months ago.

He felt at home here.

Both colts entered through the solid stainless steel doors and were met with a sight that even back at Camden, ponies would have found electrifying; more than seventy bodies piled into the two floors of The Great Ball Of Fire and not a single one of them looked anywhere near sober. There seemed to be an equal proprtion of mares to colts, and, it somewhat bothered Gentle Strokes that those mares looked suspiciously underdressed (Unless the theme of the night was ‘Come in your behind closed doors lingerie’ in which case all of them looked right at home)

“Ladies and Gentlecolts, the prodigal son returns!” Huck screamed to the crowd with drunken charm. Somehow, it caught the attention of more ponies than he’d expected and the next thing Gentle Strokes knew he was being tugged by his shoulders and dragged towards the bar, where shots of Tequila, lemon wedges and Buckweiser chaser was already awaiting him and the three or four bodies who had pulled him along.

To his right, a colt he vaguely remembered working with for a week on Miss Jubilee’s farm. This was either Plum Tuckered, or Tuckered Plum--but he knew that folks called him ‘Tucker’ regardless--to his left; Saddlesore, whom he’d worked with for years. Both looked delighted to see him and the next thing he knew he was firing back a shot of tequila and chasing it with the Buckweiser. After that, he was being pulled by Tucker, Saddlesore and Huck to the centre stage, where he was shoved into a chair and the lights began to dim.

A spotlight shone on the velvet curtains, the music stopped, a record changed and what had been either Skynyrd or The Allmane Brothers suddenly turned into a slow, sensual, Berry White album and the curtain started to draw back to hoots and whisltles from the crowd.

A beautiful mare, fully naked and alternatively covering her form with an overly large fan that she drafted a breeze over her body with, took centre stage and moved sensually towards Gentle Strokes, blowing kisses and winking her eye at him, she was followed by two equally gorgeous--and naked-mares doing the same.

The crowd was in an uproar of hoots and hollers, and Gentle Strokes could feel Huck’s squeeze tight on his shoulder.

Drunk and uncomfortable, Gentle Strokes waited, not eager, but neutral and curiously, to see what happened next.

The leading mare reached the stage, and descended the velvet wrapped staircase that led towards the chair he was sitting in. Standing before him, towering over her in what every other colt in the room must have considered wondrous and exotic naked glory, she tossed aside the fans, wrapped her hooves around his shoulders, and stepped, slowly, onto his lap, taking a seat and locking eyes with him.

Gentle Strokes had never felt more conflicted in his life.

This was a lapdance, from a beautiful mare, and he wanted no part of it.

The hoots and hollers of the crowd behind him suddenly became muted. All he could hear was his own heartbeat--firing away like a train engine--he could feel her, as her hooves graced his shoulders, his neck and then stroked his face. Her flank grinding against his lap. He could feel it but, he didn’t like it. This, whatever anypony else wanted to call it, was doing nothing for him and he tried his hardest not to show it.

Why the Hells did Huck have to do this to him?

She leaned her face against his and he felt a slight chill as the fur of her face brushed his, and her mouth found his ear. She bit down, not hard, nothing more than a nibble, then whispered “Your friends say I’m yours tonight.”

That was when Gentle Strokes realized exactly what this was.

She unlatched herself from his lap, stroked a hoof along his chin, and, then, to his surprise, leaned forward and captured his mouth with her own, sliding her tongue between his lips and, in front of a crowd of almost complete strangers, giving him the most passionate kiss he’d ever gotten from a stripper/hooker.

She broke off a minute later with him still in awe, then shook her flank, seductively at him as she trotted to the ‘Members Only’ door.

The lights came to life, the return of loud rock music followed and Gentle Strokes sat perplexed as ponies around him leapt right back into the shenanigans the bar had been just before all of this had taken place.

He got up from the chair, stared for a brief second at the ‘Members Only’ doors, and all the implications that came with them, shook his head and headed for the exit.

He didn’t need this tonight.

A few paces outside and he was ready to call it a night, when he felt a hoof grip his shoulder and spin his body around so that he came face to face with Hucklebuck, who looked uproaringly upset for some reason.

“Where the Hells are you going!” He shouted, pressing a hoof into his chest forcefully. “You gotta date waiting for you!”

“I...” Gentle Strokes paused, then realized he didn’t honestly need an excuse for this situation and continued. “..I’m not about to buck some hooker, Huck. I... have a girlfriend!”

“She’s not a hooker, Gent. She’s an escort!” Huck shouted.

“Whatever!”

“Yeah, well, we spent a lot of bits to make sure you had a good night. Don’t just walk away like an asshole!”

“I have a girlfriend.” Again, he repeated the lie. “I’m not gonna cheat on her!”

“And you need to take your balls out of her purse, little cousin! She ain’t here holding your hoof, is she?” Huck argued back, angrily pressing his chest against Gentle Strokes. “What’s a matter, you don’t appreciate all the time we put into this or something?”

“It’s not like that...” Gentle Strokes mumbled under his breath, shuffling his hoof along the dirt path. “I..just...don’t want to have sex with her, Huck.”

“Geez, Camden’s changed you, huh?” Huck said, taking a step back from Gentle Strokes and lighting a cigarette. “Before you left you’d be kissing my hooves to get a chance at a mare like that!”

“Hey, that’s enough!” Strokes argued back. “Just because I’m not gonna throw away a good relationship to buck some whore doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what you do, Huck!”

There was a moment of silence that passed where Huck just glared daggers at Gentle Strokes, inhaling cigarette and exhaling smoke, before he spoke.

“You think you know what I do?” he shouted. “You think you have any idea what me and your family have been doing while you’re off at Camden? Let me tell you something, Gentle Strokes, you’re a regular asshole! You know that? A real piece of shit! You run off when your family needs you the most to go to some Faggot Art School and spend your time rolling in the sack with some fancy pants little whore and think that makes it okay for you to look down on the rest of us working our hooves to the bone. Buck you, Gent!”

“I didn’t say that!” Gentle Strokes shouted back. This was heated, and if he knew Huck, he wasn’t liable to wind down until he said what was on his mind. “And, you know I don’t think that, either!”

“Oh, no?” He took pause to throw his cigarette at Gentle Strokes, who dodged it and continued to glare back at his cousin. “Look at you; you spend a few months with Wing-Backs, Horn-Heads and Dirt Stripes and suddenly you’re Mr. Liberal? You think any of those pansy-asses care about you? You think you’re anything more to them than a joke?”

Huck took a few breaths while he waited for a response that he knew was never coming, then calmer and more collected, he continued.

“They ain’t your kin and they ain’t your blood. I’m sure your little girlfriend thinks you’re mighty cute right now, but when she drops you like a bad habit you think you’re gonna be strong enough to take that? I tried to make you a proper colt, Gent. And I ain’t gonna watch you turn into some love-struck puppy dog for a mare who’s just using you. Ain’t nopony ever gonna care about you like your family, Gent. You just remember that.”

Gentle Strokes was left confused, upset and hurt when Huck wrapped his hooves around him and pulled him into a hug that should have been comforting, but only stood to add to his growing insecurity.

Huck trotted back to The Great Ball of Fire and left Gentle Strokes standing alone outside. He hadn’t ever considered the idea that maybe Stormy would get tired of him. And what then? What happened when Stormy moved on? Found a better pony? A better lover? Then Huck would have been right, and if he was right about that, Huck was probably right about everything else.

His family was suffering from his absence; Huck was picking up his slack, his father looked on death’s door and none but Huck and his intrusive personality were careless enough to say anything about it. How was he supposed to feel about that? How could he go back to Camden knowing it meant one less meal on the table if he did? How could he consider skipping another class to hang out with Stormy in the art lounge when it meant that his dad had to work an extra day of the week?

How was he supposed to feel like he was making the right choices when everyone he cared about was suffering because of them?

He grumbled a sigh and staring at The Great Ball Of Fire, he decided to push those thoughts out of his mind and find somepony inside who would buy him a drink instead.