“He did what?!” boggled Rainbow Dash, her jaw dropping in sheer shock.
“I told ya, he went and dragged m’ brother off to his house in front o’ everypony in town!”
The rainbow-maned pegasus blinked a few times, trying to imagine the scene - shy, flighty Caramel, stamping up to a stallion who was a few hands higher and - she broke off, blushing. “I... wow. That is totally, uh...”
“Y’ wouldn’t think he’d have had th’ guts for it?”
“I’m more amazed Big Macintosh let ‘im!”
Applejack coughed and rolled onto her back, staring up at the ceiling of the barn. “Uh... yeah. Say, Dash, I was thinkin’...”
“Yes...?” The cerulean filly puffed out her wings and stretched them lazily, watching motes of dust dance in the morning sunlight. She was well aware that her companion was trying to change the subject, but in her current contented state was too lazy to fight it.
The earth pony scuffed her hoof along the floor, stirring up the hay. “Well... my brother’s gonna inherit the farm when Granny... passes on.”
Rainbow Dash flexed one wing, then the other, and nodded slowly as the orange earth pony spoke. “Yeah, I know. Hay, everypony in Ponyville knows your brother runs the place!”
“Yeah, well...” Applejack trailed off, then coughed. “Looks like he’s not gonna be continuin’ th’ family line, if’n you follow my meanin’.”
“Soooo...?” the pegasus shrugged, making a gesture with a hoof to urge her friend to keep talking.
Applejack sighed and wiped out the patterns she’d scraped into the dirt underneath the matted hay. “What happens if’n somethin’ happens to m’ brother? Th’ farm goes t’ me, and, well...” she gave a rueful chuckle as she raised her eyes to her partner. “I’m in th’ same boat he is.”
The blue pegasus tapped her hoof impatiently. “Get to the point already!”
The barn sank into silence for a few moments.
“I want t’ adopt a foal.”
Rarity jerked her head up as a cry of “WHAT?!” rattled Carousel Boutique’s windows, just in time to finish ruining a perfect row of stitching. “I do say... wasn’t that Rainbow Dash’s voice, Opal?”
When her cat gave no reply aside from the usual haughty stare, and there were no further outbursts, the unicorn bowed her head and began to unpick the threads, sighing in annoyance.
There was always something.
“I can’t believe this! You want to adopt? When were you going to ask me about this?”
Applejack glowered across the barn. “I’m tellin’ ya now! ‘Sides, I’ve got...” she broke off, took a breath, and slumped. “I want t’ tell you ‘bout her first.”
“‘Her’?” Rainbow Dash crossed her hooves as she hovered in midair.
“She’s... she’s been sneakin’ apples from the orchard all winter, if not longer. Apple Bloom said she’s been hidin’ out in a... place where most adults wouldn’t be lookin’ for her. Most of ‘em don’t even know the place exists. ‘Parently she goes there after school to hide out an’ sleeps there. Been spendin’ all winter in a windy little shack.”
“Dash... I’m talkin’ ‘bout Scootaloo.”
The blue filly’s hooves touched ground. “She’s been... all winter?” Her voice was almost a whisper, and her eyes were large and horrified.
Applejack nodded awkwardly.
“Buck it, why didn’t you tell me, AJ? Why didn’t anypony?”
“Nopony knew. A few days ago I managed to get Bloom to tell me. I’d been wonderin’ for a while, even followed Scootaloo out to their ‘clubhouse’, but didn’t have any proof.”
“Right then.” The rainbow-maned pegasus scowled and stamped a hoof. “When you’re going to go in to get the paperwork filled out, I’m gonna be right there next to ya.”
Rainbow Dash shook her head. “I mean it. She’s... horseapples, AJ, she’s my biggest fan, and... I can’t just leave her out there!”
“I meant t’ say...” the farmpony tried again, picking her words carefully, “that if’n you’re with me, well... it’s kinda makin’ our little arrangement here official.”
A slow flush creeped across the blue mare’s face. “Oh. … Oh.”
“Now, I don’t mind, but... I rather thought y’ might. Just sayin’.”
A few moments passed while the pegasus thought furiously, and then with a shake of her head she returned to her normal rowdy self. “I’ll deal with it when it happens, that’s what!”
“So... how ‘bout we head on over to talk to the mayor ‘bout the paperwork we’ll need t’ pick up?” There was a faint smile playing over Applejack’s lips.
“You totally planned this,” her friend grumbled.
Blue. So blue.
He kicked off the cloud and fell, eyes staring up into the sky as he dropped through the spotty cloud layer, spinning slowly, feeling the air whisper past his body, then rush through his wings and mane as he picked up speed.
He loved the sky.
He loved the colors, the ever-shifting hues. From stormy grey, to the deep, resplendent blue it was now, to the light-sprinkled darkness of night, he loved them all. He loved the storms, the stillness, the gentle breezes, every way the wind could blow sang in his heart.
“Soarin’. You... well, some of us have started to worry about you. You need...” Spitfire had paused to take a breath, and continued on, awkwardly, reciting the official policy. One that he’d helped write, never once expecting it to be turned back on him. “It is the decision of the Wonderbolts’ head trainer and manager that you will be taking a three week leave of absence for rest and recuperation, effective immediately.”
He’d blinked, dumbfounded. He understood the reasons, but even so, he tried arguing. “But... Spitfire... I’m fine. I’m perfectly healthy, I’ve kept up with everyone in training, I’ve been helping with practice...”
She shook her head. “That’s just it. You’ve been working... well, I’m guessing something like seventy hours a week, if not more. You’ll wear yourself out, and... Soarin’, you’re getting-”
He’d broken her off there. “Right. I’ll just get my bits and go.” He couldn’t disguise the bitterness in his voice - oh, he knew why she did it, but it still stung.
The Wonderbolt lifted his head, staring unseeing at the rapidly approaching ground, and with instinct honed over years of work, flipped his wings open and twisted, pulling out into a perfectly even glide several hundred feet above the treetops.
“I’m not trying to force anything on you, Soarin’...”
“Horseapples. You are, but you know you don’t have a choice in the matter.”
She’d smiled, a touch sadly. “That’s right. Just like you don’t.”
He’d rolled his eyes as he finished pulling his uniform off and hanging it neatly in his locker. “So,” he began as neutrally as he could, “what sort of ‘relaxation’ do you have in mind for me?”
The flame-colored pegasus had coughed. “It’s... it’s at your discretion, Soarin’. I don’t have to tell you to go anywhere or do anything. That’s kind of the point.”
“... I guess I’ll go get some apple pie and think about it.”
“That’s the spirit!”
He’d given her an annoyed glare as he trotted out of the building and made his way to the edge of Cloudsdale.
The thermals, carefully cultivated by the weather team, caught his wings and carried him higher as he aimed himself towards a small town that, if memory served, had one of the best pies he’d ever had baked there. It also had the added benefit of being far, far away from his boss and the rest of the Wonderbolts.
It was still only a faint spot in the distance, near a much larger, darker one that sprawled over mountains and blurred off into the horizon - the borders of the Everfree Forest. It still made him feel nervous, how close Ponyville was to the eldritch place, but it hadn’t been his choice to settle there.
There were no other ponies around, and he tilted his wings, diving down, spinning and twisting before pulling into a steep climb. When he reached the peak, he hovered in place, eyes closed, taking a deep breath and reveling in the sheer joy of flight. Even if he were “on leave”, it was something that nopony could take from him, and he savored it.
Three weeks. He had three weeks before he could go back to Cloudsdale and the rest of the Wonderbolts.
His wings beat, pushing the air down as he thought. He’d visited Rainbow Dash’s friend’s place, once... Applejack had been her name, if he remembered properly.
Well, maybe she’d be all right with him stopping by unannounced. He flushed as a related memory uncurled.
She’d also had a rather attractive stallion brother, hadn’t she? He’d clearly been making eyes at the yellow colt sitting next to him, and the colt had been making them right back but...
It’d been far too long since he’d been able to set eyes on anypony quite as handsome as that crimson stallion. The Wonderbolts selected for sheer speed, agility, and skill. Seeing a pony who was bulkier and more thickly-muscled than his fellow teammates would certainly be a treat.
The pegasus leaned to the side and tilted his wings down slightly, starting a long, curving arc towards the small village.
Soarin’ peered over the edge of the cloud with a smile on his face. Though he was eager to get something to snack on, he couldn’t pass up the chance to ponywatch. He let his eyes unfocus, merely taking in the blur of the moving crowds, the colors of mane and coat, and the cheerful hubbub of happy ponies going about their business.
If he’d looked directly beneath his perch, he’d have seen the stallion he’d idly daydreamed right beneath him, sharing a lunch with his coltfriend and studiously ignoring the various stares and occasional mournful sigh from a smitten filly.
Caramel was grinning. He’d been grinning for the past half hour. “So... your little sister really slipped you a love potion.”
“And they gave the same one to, of all ponies, your ex-fillyfriend.”
“Eeeeyup.” That smile Caramel was giving him was maddening.
“And you were making eyes at your, what was it... ‘shmoopy doopy sweetie weetie pony pie’ for hours.”
“Eeeeyup.” Ah’m not gonna snap at him... Ah’m not gonna snap at him...
“And you were merrily bouncing through town to go see her... so you two could get married.”
“Buck it, Caramel, Ah saw y’ nuzzlin’ Golden Harvest and Spring Showers before Apple Bloom slipped me th’ potion!”
The red stallion’s irritation only increased when his partner fell over laughing. “I was thanking them for some advice they gave me!” he finally managed to say through his chuckles.
Big Macintosh gave the tan colt a long stare. “Advice? On what?”
The smaller pony got back to his hooves and scuffed one against the tiled patio. “Er... how to cook...”
“Ah couldn’t hear you. Just what did y’ ask about?”
“... I was getting some cooking recipes, okay? After... after Applejack said I did an okay job at making a pie, I thought...” he flushed, and continued. “I thought maybe I’d try to learn how to cook... for... when... For the future. You know. Just in case. … What are you staring at?”
Big Mac’s lips curled up as he nibbled at his salad. “Ah was just thinkin’, that’s a far cry from th’ shy little colt Ah remember was almost too scared t’ talk to me.”
Caramel flicked his ears backwards and ducked his head, a flush coming to his cheeks. “So, uh, exactly why did your sister drug you if she knew we were together?”
“Ah think she got carried away by her friends’ enthusiasm. Not th’ first time Ah’ve seen it happen.”
The tan colt nodded and took another bite out of his meal, occasionally glancing awkwardly at the few gawkers. Apparently his relationship with Macintosh was still a Thing.
Soarin’, oblivious to the scene, finally stretched out and prepared to make a visit to Sweet Apple Acres. The combined lure of pie and some eyecandy was finally too great to resist, and he gracefully kicked off his perch and smiled as the air thrummed through his feathers as he took a slow, banking descent towards the orchard and buildings.
Something had made a noise outside.
Braeburn’s eyes whipped back and forth. Granny Smith was asleep. Apple Bloom was bothering Rarity, along with the rest of the Cutie Mark Crusaders. Big Macintosh was out with... Caramel, and he had try not to grind his teeth at the thought of the tan pony, and Applejack had headed into town as well. He strained his ears, wondering if it had just been a fluke, the sound of wind banging... something... against a windowsill.
There it is again!
The Appleloosan frowned. If there was an invader, whether he liked it or not, it was up to him to defend the farmhouse. He glanced at the front door, and with his heart in his throat, slid the lock closed. The Apple family house - any Apple family house - was never locked. He felt almost as though he was breaking some sacred tradition, that had been passed on from pony to pony through the generations, and now his mother and father were looking down upon him from the heavens with shame.
Which was absolutely ridiculous, as his parents were both fine and he’d sent them a generic, bland, “I’m doing fine” letter just last week. Shaking the mood off, he tiptoed as best he could into the kitchen, all while trying to ignore the loud taptap his cast made on the floorboards. He selected the heaviest saucepan off the rack, and made his way as stealthily as he could up the stairs.
Whatever it was outside was still there - the farm had gone completely silent, save the noises the intruder was making. Braeburn dropped down to his belly and slid along the floor, inching closer and closer to the window nearest to the source of the commotion. Every inch he moved made his chest flutter, until at last he had his spine pressed to the wall. Clenching the handle of the pan in his teeth, he got to his hooves, peered out the window, and spotted the interloper.
With such an easy target, all it took was a bit of careful aim and a toss.
His head hurt. A lot.
Before memory came slipping back, Soarin’s first thought was that he’d been out celebrating with the Wonderbolts again, and Spitfire had slipped him another “accidentally” too-strong drink.
“You need to loosen up, Soarin’! You’ll never find a special somepony as uptight as you are.”
“Thanks for the advice, mom,” he’d retorted. She’d just given him that mellow grin and moved on, which just irritated him further. She knew why he’d been chaste for the past few...
Well, maybe she had a point, but still. It ought to be his decision to go looking, not hers... even if every pony he met was used to his dopey persona, and expected him to be as dumb as a sackful of hammers.
Then he remembered where he was - or where he had been, this rough floor certainly wasn’t the front porch of the Apples - and groaned as he lifted a hoof to rub his aching head.
Tried to lift a hoof to rub his aching head.
The pegasus opened his eyes, then blinked. He was in a barn. That was new. Well, perhaps he was still on Apple property, but that raised the question of who had brought him here and why.
He was tied up. That was also new, and... distinctly uncomfortable. His wings were both carefully bound, and he was sure his left one was starting to cramp. Added to that indignity, all his legs were hobbled together, and apparently the only reason his mouth wasn’t tied shut was because his captor had run out of rope.
And speak of the pony...
He was apparently being held prisoner by a rather sullen colt with an apple on his haunches, a cast on his leg, and given the expression on the pony’s muzzle, a massive chip on his shoulder. If he actually smiled, he would probably be pretty cute. Soarin’ shook his head. This was not the time, or the place, to start mooning over somepony. Especially somepony who had apparently knocked him out and tied him up with some surprisingly good knots. Not that Soarin’ would admit to knowing anything about knots when pressed, especially in front of anypony he knew.
“Awright, so what were y’ doing, tryin’ to break in to Sweet Apple Acres?”
“Break in? I was seeing if Applejack or Big Macintosh were home so I could... get one of their pies...?” It sounded weak, even to him, and Soarin’ gulped as he realized that, disoriented, he’d forgotten his stage accent.
Whoever the strange pony was, he just snorted and rolled his eyes. “Right, that’s exactly what you were doin’, stranger. Just tryin’ to get some pie.”
The blue pony had enough, and tried to get to his hooves. Unfortunately, Braeburn had bound him far too well for that, and all he managed was to fall over to his other side, his chin hitting the packed earth and straw. Soarin’ did his best to ignore the hardly-stifled laughter. “I’m not a stranger. I’m a Wonderbolt.”
Braeburn’s sniggering quieted, and he gave his “guest” a long look. “Right, and I’m th’ mayor of Appleloosa. C’mon, I’m not fallin’ for that one.”
Soarin’ glowered up from his ungainly posture, and tried to talk as best he could with his chin pinned by his own weight. “I’m Soarin’. I’m a Wonderbolt. I just normally talk like this, dude, now c’mon, let me go, bro. Did that help stir a few brain cells?”
The yellow stallion shifted awkwardly on his hooves. “Suppose... suppose you could be him... but that doesn’t explain why y’ were fluttering around outside the house.”
“I was trying to see if Big Macintosh or Applejack were home first, okay? Celestia, what burr got under your tail?”
The Appleloosan stomped the leg in a cast, and immediately regretted it. While it wasn’t paining him as much as it used to, it still hurt when he went and did a fool thing like that. “D’ you have eyes or not? This blasted leg’s broken. I think that ought t’ be reason enough to be a mite put out.”
Soarin’ stared up at the unbound pony for a long moment, and Braeburn shifted uncomfortably. Just as he opened his mouth to ask just what the blue pegasus was thinking, the Wonderbolt spoke. “Left front leg; left back leg; right wing, twice; jaw, right front leg, and both wings at the same time; and almost my spine.”
“That’s the list of all the bones I’ve broken... whoever you are. And you’ll notice I’m not sniping at someone I’ve tied up in a barn somewhere.” Soarin’ reflected that this was true; he was making snide comments right back, but he wasn’t making them at somepony who was trussed up in a bundle.
The injured stallion coughed; apparently, the roof of the barn was suddenly quite interesting. “The name’s Braeburn, and, uh... if you’ll just hold still a mite,” he continued as he took a step forward, “I’ll have ya untied in a jiffy.”
The pegasus flicked his wings unconsciously as the rope slithered off his body, and he pulled himself to his hooves with a shake. “Can I get some pie now?” he asked plaintively as his stomach rumbled.
Braeburn sighed and shook his head. “Fine... I’ll make y’ one on the house, to make up for the... inconvenience.”
“‘Inconvenience’, he says,” the Wonderbolt muttered under his breath as he walked out of the barn, and the yellow colt shot him an injured glare.
“There’s no call for that.”
Soarin’ came to a total halt. “No call? No call?! You knocked me out with... something heavy, I don’t know what... tie me up, try to interrogate me, and now you’re trying to act like nothing happened? I could have you arrested for assault, you’ve practically admitted to it! ‘Oh, sorry, sir, I didn’t realize he knew the owners of the house and was trying to see if they were in, I just thought he’d enjoy some surprise bondage’. I’m sure they’d believe you. It’s not like the Wonderbolts haven’t had any crazy stalkers do something similar before.”
“All right, I’m sorry. Are y’ happy now? I’m... sorry...”
The blue colt blinked in surprise as his assailant went from angry to sorrowful in three sentences. “Is... something wrong?”
Braeburn scrubbed at his face with a hoof. “Just hit me. This is the longest talk I’ve had with anypony in months.”
The pegasus stared, shocked. “Anypony? What about the Apples?”
“They...” the Appleloosan stared at the ground as he quietly spoke. “They avoid me. Can’t say I blame ‘em.”
Soarin’ looked up at the sky and sighed. “All right. How about you tell me all about it, while you make me an apple pie, just like the one I had last time I visited.”