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Reassigned, Part 2

tANDghouls Aug 24th, 2017 (edited) 816 Never
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  1. >”CHERRY.”
  2. >Your body jerks hard, pain erupting in your snout as something sturdy bashes into it.
  3. >Hurt and sleep-slow, you clutch your face and crack your eyes, trying to discern the nature and direction of the attack.
  4. >As the low light and tight quarters of the barracks finally fill back into your senses, a shrill, terrible sound hits your ears.
  5. >Laughter.
  6. >The coarse, feminine laughter of your squad mates, one of whom was lurking by the side of your bed.
  7. >”GOT’ER,” she cheers.
  8. >You instinctively take a swing at the orange pegasus in anger, one she easily sidesteps.
  9. “Chuck? What… what the buck…” you grouse, whipping around to hide the tears brimming in your eyes from the nose shot.
  10. >As the giggling continues you get a better sense of yourself and where and you are.
  11. >You also spot the weapon that was just used to strike the blow you were still reeling from; the bed above you.
  12. >… you just smashed your face into the top bunk like a sucker.
  13. >”Could you NOT be a pain in my ass this early in the morning?” a gravelly voice growls above you.
  14. >”Ah yes, your ‘beauty rest’. My bad, Shiv,” Chuck replies, casting a smirk back at the other girls, “Celestia knows you’d need it with THAT face.”
  15. >The bed above you squeaks as its occupant aggressively shifts to exit and Chuck whips around.
  16. >”J-Joking, joking Shiv. KIDDING, HELP, SNAPTRAP—!”
  17. >”That’s enough,” a third voice cuts in as Shiver tosses her rear legs over the edge to give chase.
  18. >”Stop screwing around and suit up. That goes for all of you! Up and at’em, girls! Wakey wakey – and that doesn’t mean ‘rest your eyes’! Heads OFF pillows!”
  19. >A chorus of groans fill the room as each mare moves to leave the comfort of their warm sheets and step out into the brisk open air.
  20. >You do the same and with just as much enthusiasm, the cold nipping at your uncovered legs and belly as you yank away the covers.
  21. “What… what times is it?” you slur in a steady voice as you stealthily whip your fetlock across your eyes.
  22. >”O’six hundred,” the same voice who made the announcement replies.
  23. >You turn to find Snaptrap, your SL, slipping out of her cot and yanking a box out from under it.
  24. >”It’s a big, bright new day, Private. Look alive.”
  25. >She turns her head up to speak to the rest of the room.
  26. >”You hear that!? Lets go! Faster we suit up the faster breakfast happens!”
  27. >”We ain’t deaf, can it already,” Shiver grumbles under her breath as she dismounts the top bunk and drops down.
  28. >You tense as you step out, unsure of whether or not the squad leader heard her backtalk.
  29. >She doesn’t say anything, thankfully, so the two of you dress silently and swiftly.
  30. >The various grunts and groans of displeasure amongst the squaddies slowly settle as all of you finish and stand at the ready for further orders.
  31. >Your eyes wander, and eventually you spot the brown earth pony Splint leaning up against her cot on your far right, standing next to a mare you didn’t know.
  32. >”I’m damn famished. What’s the grub like this mornin’?” she asks.
  33. >”You’ll find out when we get there,” Snaptrap replies passionlessly.
  34. >The mare huffs and, catching sight of you, casts you a put-upon look.
  35. >”Mare’s got to eat,” she says, “wasn’t exactly expectin’ that pittance from the wagon to be ‘dinner’.”
  36. >She turns back to Snaptrap.
  37. >”It’s cruel and unusual, I say.”
  38. >”File a complaint. I’m sure CO’d love to hear it.”
  39. >”Haw! ‘File a complaint’ she says! I’m complainin’ right now, lass. To ‘you’.”
  40. >”You just wanna stuff your face,” a pony on your immediate left comments.
  41. >You turn to find a smirking, light blue pegasus, another pony from the wagon ride – Dip.
  42. >”Aye, I do,” Splint replies honestly, “I wanna eat ‘till I’m full and drink cider ‘til I can’t feel the cold anymore. Don’t you?”
  43. >”I’ll stick with the jacket, thanks.”
  44. >”Awwww, you watchin’ your figure you wee little prince? Maybe you oughta’ slip on some lacy pink socks to go with that jacket? I’m sure the other boys would love’em.”
  45. >Your squad leader shakes her head and moves to depart, adjusting her helm one final time before shoving the exit door open with a heavy thud, the action loosing a large pile of snow that was previously hanging above the doorframe.
  46. >”SQUAD!” she cries.   
  47. >Both you and your companions turn ridged like boards and snap to attention.
  48. “YES MA’AM!” you return.
  49. >”FALL H’IN!”
  50. >You step forward without thinking and freeze, whipping back around to face your grey bunkmate a moment later.
  51. “Uh, my… am I okay? Is everything straight?” you ask, motioning at your uniform.
  52. >”Yes. Move,” Shiver says, nudging you.
  53. >You do as you're told, moving back toward the exit with the other mares before stopping a second time and whipping back around, nearly smashing snout-first back into the corporal.
  54. “S-Sorry,” you apologize in the wake of her intimidating growl, “My cloak, I-I didn’t—“
  55. >She brushes past you with a grunt of annoyance, nearly knocking you over.
  56. >Hot-faced, you squeeze by some of the other passing squaddies, snap up your cloak from your cot and whip it around your shoulders.
  57. >Already flustered, you waste no more time and quickly trot outside with the others to greet the morning.
  58. >It’s dark out, but not very; the dim sunlight still stings your eyes.
  59. >Considering the type of weather you’d witnessed yesterday, it probably wasn’t going to get much brighter all the way up here.
  60. >Spring is a lot… snowier, than you remember it being back home…
  61. >You wade through a patch of it fetlock-high as you leave the cabin barracks and line up with the rest of your weary squad mates.
  62. >The squads from the other barracks are emerging about now as well, you notice, and each mare takes their sweet time trudging through the frost to line up.
  63. >”Squad!” Snaptrap bellows as she takes her place at the front of your group.
  64. >You respond, she lines you up, and morning routine carries on like most any other would.
  65. >A welcome bit of familiarity to punctuate the start of your first day of service at Fort Brinn.
  66. >Even now you get hints of alien movement at the edges of your vision.
  67. >Traces of tall, slender things padding softly through the snow on your left and right.
  68. >You dare not turn away from your Squad Leader or your CO to look at them, though.
  69. >The lieutenant had already singled you out once for wandering eyes, and you didn’t much feel like testing your luck or reputation for the second time in two days.
  70. >You told her that you would be an upstanding an exemplary soldier during your first call of duty, and you meant it.
  71. >Head forward, clean dress, snappy movement, stay in formation.
  72. >You do roll call, and then Sergeant Snaptrap combs your squad for weak links, as do the others SL’s, before approaching Flechette and reciting their reports.
  73. >After that you do a few drills, march around for the practice and quite possibly to make a show of it for the locals – many of whom you hear whispering and chuckling as you trot about in circles.
  74. >Less than an hour later the squads are released and sent to one of three lodges located about the fort, the closest of which was to be yours.
  75. >Thank Celestia for that.
  76. >Even in winter-wear your temperature was steadily dropping.
  77. >By the time your squad was stepping into the lodge your limbs were full-on shaking, much to the impish joy of your feisty cohorts and much to your chagrin.
  78. >The lodge is large and warm, even considering how open to the elements it is.
  79. >Furs line the table seats, the floors, and even the walls in some places.
  80. >The massive bonfire at the center of it all didn’t hurt things, either.
  81. >A seat next to the center ring was probably the warmest place in the entire fort until you managed to reach another lodge.
  82. >Battles over seating are fierce and, on one occasion, non-figurative.
  83. >Thankfully, you manage to acquire a seat close enough to the flames to warm you up while you eat.
  84. >The meal is a Spartan combination of plain bread and fruit, but the nourishment is palpable, and the quantity is more than sufficient for you to get your fill.
  85. >Oddly, none of your Hume hosts are present in the hall as you eat.
  86. >Neither seated with you at tables nor doling out your food.
  87. >The lodge is actually quite sparse because of it, giving you ample opportunity to examine the finer points of your surroundings.
  88. >Having been in a few barns in your life, the rustic but precise architecture of the lodge is actually quite a sight.
  89. >There are few unnecessary or artsy flourishes so be seen, so the little ones here and there are all the more noticeable; not like the comparatively sterile and uniform make of the buildings in a place like Fort Zap or other modern pony cities.
  90. >There were even segmented carvings in some corners of the wall — not art, no, but measurements, places where young Humes had slashed at the wood to mark their improving height.
  91. >This place wasn’t just a military outpost.
  92. >Ponies, err, Humes rather, lived here, some probably most of their lives.
  93. >This lodge was a lot more worn and tested than the building you’d been sleeping in last night.
  94. >The pony barracks were newer, probably built over the last few months.
  95. >But this lodge?
  96. >This place had probably been around for generations…
  97. >The time you spend examining their work and stuffing your face passes quickly, and before you know it another hour has rushed by.
  98. >The heads of each squad eventually wrangle all their girls together to inform them of what their duties would be and how their schedule would be segmented.
  99. >Your squad, specifically, was put on off-duty until around noon, at which point you would be on ‘trench duty’ which, you assumed, meant you’d be digging.
  100. >There were lots of bodies at Fort Brinn already, so there wasn’t any need for everypony to be working at all times.
  101. >Until around ten o’clock you were free – as free as a guardsmare could be, at least – to do as you wanted.
  102. >The lodges were off limits outside official meal times, unfortunately, so you’d have to find somewhere else to keep warm until your number was up.
  103. >For a minute or two, this meant loitering just outside the lodge and staring longingly inside.
  104. >Thankfully this exercise in cruelty doesn’t last long.
  105. >”Oi Cherry.”
  106. >You turn to find Splint gesturing for you to follow her past the corner of the building.
  107. >You flash her a wary look and she rolls her vibrant green eyes, motioning again.
  108. >”I ain’t gonna fondle ya, lass. C’mon, I’m freezin’ an’ stone sober.”
  109. >She turns and goes on her way without another word, leaving you to worry in place.
  110. >After weighing your options and opinions of the mare, you decide to follow, trailing up to her right side.
  111. >The two of you walk in silence for a time, the sounds of your hooves crunching against the frosty dirt beneath standing in for your conversation for a time before you manage to speak up.
  112. “Where we going?”
  113. >The earth pony casts you an unimpressed look.
  114. >”To where there’s heat an’ drink, ya’ think?” she answers obviously.
  115. “Which is…?”
  116. >She chuckles.
  117. >”Patient sort, are ya’?”
  118. >She nods her head forward, and in the crack between two buildings in the distance you spot a small collection of mares seated next to each other on fur-covered logs near the south gate, the one your platoon entered through.
  119. >There’s about three of them, only two of whom you recognize.
  120. >You reach them in short time, and Splint manages a snatch a canteen meant for another mare mid-pass as she takes her seat.
  121. >”Startin’ without me? That’s manners,” she complains as she takes her swig and you take your seat.
  122. >The fuzz living the log under your rump is a touch damp from the snow, but the extra padding and heat-retention is much more pleasant than you’re expecting.
  123. >”We had to get SOMETHING before you and Shiv turned the flask inside out,” snarks Dip.
  124. >”Oh ya’ did, did—A-Ay!” Splint says, interrupted before can mount a proper retort as the canteen is stolen yet again, likewise by a new entrant into your group.
  125. >”Oh, speak’a the drunk,” Dip continues with a smart look.
  126. >”Shut up,” Shiver replies, the heavy clatter of her armor hitting your log as she sits making you jump.
  127. >The grey mare takes a great swig from the flask before planting it down at her side.
  128. >The bright yellow mare on her left regards the hollow sound it makes against the stump with a desolate look.  
  129. >”Shiv’d again,” Chuck quips with a shake of her head as she digs into the duffle at her side, “don’t worry ladies, I got more.”
  130. >Dip gestures between you and the yellow pony with her hoof.
  131. >”PFC Honeysuckle, Private Cherry,” she says, and then points to her, “Private Cherry, PFC Honeysuckle.”
  132. >”Hey,” the yellow mare says with a half-hearted wave.
  133. “Hey,” you respond.
  134. >Your group sits on that exchange for a while, enjoying the crackle and warmth of the meager fire that they’d assembled in the snow between them.
  135. >Even so close to the gate the wind still manages to cut through your team every now and then, chilling the bits of metal and fur peeking out between your cloaks.
  136. >You get passed the leftover cider once or twice, but the gesture does little more to warm you than the tiny flames near your rear hooves.
  137. >During one of your passes you catch sight of something at the far end of the wall.
  138. >It’s a Hume, a familiar one.
  139. >The same one you saw during fall-in yesterday.
  140. >The black-maned creature is conversing with a taller one of its brethren, and he seems quite animated about whatever the topic is.
  141. >A thought comes to mind after you watch them for a while, and you swivel your head to examine the rest of the fort you could see from your position.
  142. >The vantage point wasn’t great, but even so you could tell that there was a slight difference in number from the day before.
  143. >That wasn’t even mentioning the total lack of bipeds in the lodge during breakfast.
  144. >A minor discrepancy, but one that becomes more significant the longer you sit in the silence and boredom staring into the fire.
  145. >”So, uh,” you say eventually, gaining the other squaddies attention, “you guys notice there’s less, uh… of ‘them’ around lately?”
  146. >You point to the bipeds near the top of the wall amidst their confused looks.
  147. >”Hunting, gathering,” Shiver answers simply.
  148. >”… out there? Outside the fort?” you confirm with a frown.
  149. >”No greenie, they’re doing it up my ass.”
  150. >”Now THAT’S hopin’ if I ever heard it,” Splint retorts with a smirk.
  151. >Chuck snickers.
  152. >”Didn’t take you for a butt girl, Shiver!”
  153. >”How’d you like to be a ‘hoof in the face’ girl?” the grey mare threatens, only encouraging more chuckling at her expense.
  154. >You huff and turn back toward the wall to look at the Humes.
  155. >After a short conversation the larger of the two stoops and lifts a large stack of shaped rods – untipped spears if you had to guess – into his arms and hands them off to the smaller one.
  156. >Your heart strums as the stack shifts back and knocks into the smaller one’s face, making him sway in place near the edge of the wall-walk.
  157. >He catches his balance almost immediately however, and maneuvers his head around the bundle so that he can see where he’s going.
  158. “… Any of us out there with them?”
  159. >”Don’t think so. Not this time, at least,” Dip responds.
  160. >You frown again, watching as the short Hume turns awkwardly in place and begins farther down the wall with his cargo.
  161. “Is that okay? I mean…”
  162. >You fidget in place, thoughts of the soft-featured black-haired Hume and the grizzly visage of white wolves intermingling in your mind.
  163. “Isn’t it dangerous out there? They shouldn’t be out alone…”
  164. >”What? They ain’t alone, lass. There’s probably twent—“
  165. >Spint’s voice cuts out, and a moment later you feel a heavy foreleg being slung over your withers, drawing your attention back to the grinning field medic.
  166. >”Aww, ain’t she sweet, girls?” she remarks in a teasing voice.
  167. “W-What …?” you mumble feebly, feeling your face heat up.
  168. >The medic’s grin has spread to the rest of the squaddies around you.
  169. “What? What’d I say?”
  170. >They laugh amongst themselves, burning your face up even more.
  171. >Honeysuckle casts you a lighthearted look as she tosses a few more twigs into the fire.
  172. >”Don’t let’em getcha’ down. Ah understand the feelin’,” she says.
  173. >”Ah don’t much like it neither, but things are… well, things are different down here.”
  174. >She shrugs.
  175. >”Gatta’ be when the women-folk are sparse, ah guess. Ya’ get used to it after a while.”
  176. >”Wait… don’t tell me…” Splint says with some excitement.
  177. >She begins to examine you closely, her eyes narrowed to slits.
  178. >You lean away from her a tad, pressured by the intensity of her gaze.
  179. >”Chivalrous heart, vacant expression, pure as a newborn babe and just as thick…”
  180. >She smiles widely.
  181. >”We got another bumpkin in our midst!”
  182. >Your nose curls at the possible insult, but there isn’t any malice in the field medic’s eyes to speak of.
  183. >”Potatoes!” she says happily, gesturing to herself.
  184. “… Potatoes…?”
  185. >Splint turns back toward Honeysuckle who grins sheepishly.
  186. >”Hay,” she says, “little down past Filly Delphia.”
  187. >It takes a second, but the pieces finally click.
  188. ”Oh…” you say, summoning a small smile of your own.
  189. “Uhh… Cherries.”
  190. >”Hah,” Splint laughs, “o’course. ‘Course it’s cherries.”
  191. >Dip shakes her head and reaches out to scoop the canteen out of your hooves.
  192. >”I like to think I’m a progressive mare, honest,” she says, tipping the can, “but it’s getting hard not to stereotype when every earth pony I meet is a farmer.”
  193. >”Ohhh, ya’ got a problem with farmers, do ya’?” Splint remarks
  194. >Dip gives her an unserious smirk.
  195. >”There’s a few on my list.”
  196. >Their argument carries on and you ignore it for the most part, turning instead to keep watch over the wall-walk above you.
  197. >There’s one less Hume there, probably off doing some errand or… whatever it was he was doing before with the Minotaur.
  198. >You’d asked around a bit before lights out about it.
  199. >None of the other mares, not even Shiver, knew what ‘shaking a claw in somepony’s face’ meant – which was as close to what happened as you could describe.
  200. >You’d witnessed a few odd rituals the locals took part in since arriving here, but that one felt significant for some reason.
  201. >The only Hume you’d seen doing it certainly looked serious about it at the time.
  202. >Your ears perk up slightly at the sound of creaking wood in the distance.
  203. >The neutral expression on your face warms into a gentle smile as a patch of soft black hair peeks up over the edge of the stairs and the small Hume runs back into view.
  204. >He’s panting, doubled over, his lithe claws strapping to his knees as he stops before his comrade to sputter out a few words.
  205. >You watch the two of them in silence, further examining the subtleties in their dress and faces before the taller one turns in place.
  206. >He utters a few more words and then points a claw toward your group, grinning all the while.
  207. >You blink and momentarily look toward your fellow squaddies, none of whom showed any sign of even knowing that the Hume pointing at them existed.
  208. >When you turn back, you find the tall Hume adjusting his claw, singling out something more specific.
  209. >The black-haired Hume tilts his head and mutters something to his friend.
  210. >And then his eyes are on you.
  211. >His bright orbs look right into yours just like the day before , and his lips turn upward.
  212. >Your face prickles with warmth.
  213. >The other Hume isn’t pointing at your group – he’s pointing at YOU.
  214. >You’ve… been staring at them for a while, haven’t you?
  215. >You swallow hard and tear your face away, pointing your eyes down at the ground where they were less likely to get you into any trouble.
  216. >”Uh ohhh,” Splint says, “I know that look; somepony just got caught window shoppin’.”
  217. >”See something you like, Cherry?” Chuck sniggers.
  218. >You scowl into the fire indignantly, your embarrassment further puffing up the fur on your cheeks.
  219. >You keep to this position for a while, ignoring the squaddies and the Humes alike for fear of being caught leering again.
  220. >It’s a long while before you can summon the courage to lift your head again, and when you peer up at the wall-walk you do it much more subtly.
  221. >A quick cut of your eyes reveals that the Hume are no longer looking your way.
  222. >When you turn to look at them more closely, you find both of them staring over the teeth of the gate.
  223. >The small Hume points his claw just as the larger one lifts a curled instrument from his belt and presses it to his lips.
  224. >Several loud toots from the horn crack through the dry, chilly air and race across the fort, stirring you deep in the chest from the base and volume.
  225. >Several Humes and even a few squaddies emerge from the woodwork and trudge through the snow along the walls to the front gate.
  226. >Several ropes are tossed down from on high and into the waiting appendages of the fort members, all of whom collectively begin to pull.
  227. >The large wooden gate creaks, packed snow slipping away as the top-seated drawbridge pulls away from the ground and rises into the air.
  228. >An icy northern wind whistles through the far off opening they just created, and at the edge of your vision you notice the small Hume on the wall rush to the front gate excitedly.
  229. >Not a moment later the breach is filled with lithe bipeds from the outside.
  230. >Well over a dozen of them stream through holding various things, resources from the outside you imagine.
  231. >One such thing is harrowing spectacle, one you weren’t expecting; it was a mangled boar hanging from a wooden stake clutched between two Humes.
  232. >‘Hunting’ really does mean ‘hunting’ up here…
  233. >You’d read about meat-eaters in books before, mostly about griffons and the like.
  234. >You’d never actually seen the act take place before, though.
  235. >Even with what you’d learned about them over time, it was hard to imagine such unthreatening-looking creatures taking part in such harsh sport.
  236. >You grimace at the grizzly sight but can’t seem to look away, even if it turns your stomach somewhat.
  237. >Your eyes follow the hanging creature and its chaperones until it vanishes from sight around a nearby building.
  238. >You spot the black-haired Hume looking after them as well from the front gate; his expression is markedly different from yours.
  239. >Were they really going to eat that dead thing?
  240. >… him too?
  241. >”SOOOOOOOOOOOOOT!”
  242. >You jump as a loud voice hits your ears, a close one.
  243. >The noise turns several heads in the distance toward the orange pegasus beside you, as it does yours.
  244. >Chuck, who clearly wasn’t much of a morning pony, now smiles ear to ear, her eyes shining with energy.
  245. >She cups her fetlocks around her mouth and takes a big breath, getting ready to call out again.
  246. >”VELDEEEEEEG SOOOOOOOT!”
  247. >Shiver scrunches her snout and swings a heavy foreleg into her squad mate’s chestplate, but the act doesn’t dampen the winged pony’s spirits one bit.
  248. “Was that Humish?” you ask, turning to Shiver, “What did she say?”
  249. >”Nothing good,” she grumbles.
  250. >Chuck’s small frame shakes through her giggles.
  251. >”Don’t be such a stick in the ass, I’m just having a little fun.”
  252. >”Oh yeah?” Dip says, motioning at the front gate with the canteen.
  253. >“Well there’s some ‘fun’ coming your way.”
  254. >It was true.
  255. >A small hoofull of Humes that heard her calling out have broken away from their group and appear to be heading in your direction.
  256. >The mutterings of you squad mates dampen somewhat as they approach.
  257. >You, still having never been in direct contact with one of them, fidget nervously in place as the tall, well-armed and mildly enchanting creatures draw in.
  258. >There are three in total, one of which pulls slightly ahead of the pack.
  259. >He’s middle in height to the other two, with eggshell pale skin and cool grey eyes.
  260. >His fiery red mane is moderate in length and shaggy – not unlike Splint’s when she has her helmet off – and like all of his other kinsmen he is robed from neck to ankles in in thick tufts of loosely matching furs.
  261. >He smiles invitingly at your group, all of which return him a nod of respect.
  262. >”Du kan snakke dey?” he says.
  263. >”Nai,” Shiver answers for your group, clearing her throat and quickly gesturing at Chuck.
  264. >“Hun arr en, uhh… idiote? Dum – Ignorrar hennuh.”
  265. >”Ahhh…” the Hume replies, and his shoulders sag a bit.
  266. >He turns back to his two friends a moment, silently convening with them before turn back and focusing his attention on Chuck.
  267. >”… Hun vet eekat at det betyr?”
  268. >Chuck smiles sheepishly and shakes her head in the universal sign.
  269. >The Hume’s face falls.
  270. >Shiver cuts a dirty look at the pegasus.
  271. >”Nai,” she replies, “hun vet.”
  272. >The Hume’s expression instantly improves.
  273. >He takes a step forward and leans down, motioning at the pegasus with his claws.
  274. >”Yuu comm,” he says, then gestures at his chest, “me?”
  275. >”U-Uhh…” Chuck responds, cutting her eyes at the rest of you nervously.
  276. >It takes a second for her to finally reply, just as it does for you to realize that he was no longer speaking a different language.
  277. >”Come… with you? You want me to come with you?”
  278. >The Hume grins.
  279. >”Yuu come wiss me,” he amends slowly.
  280. >“Frendts?”
  281. >The two bipeds behind him take a few steps forward, one of whom places a claw on the stooping Hume’s shoulder.
  282. >Both of their eyes are pinned to the orange pegasus like darts, looking her up and down.
  283. >The red-haired Hume’s own eyes soften, and he nibbles at the corner of his bottom lip.
  284. >”Frendts…” he repeats softly.
  285. >Even you have a swallow the lump in your throat the settles from the silky smooth quality of his voice as he says that last word.
  286. >Chuck’s eyes widen, and you swear you can hear the heat being sucked out of her face.
  287. >”Chuck,” Shiver says, staring her down adamantly, “no.”
  288. >”Aww, look at that,” Dip says, nudging the other pegasus in the ribs, “he wants to be friends, Chuck.”
  289. >”REAL good friends, I reckon,” Splint adds, grinning.
  290. >Chuck’s snout scrunches up, her lips thinning as the Humes peer longingly at her, waiting patiently for her reply.
  291. >Is this…
  292. >Is he asking what you think he’s asking?
  293. >“Hnngg,” Chuck grunts in audible distress.
  294. >Honeysuckle sniggers and Splint hastily waves a hoof, shushing her.
  295. >”Easy now,” she says, “easy on’er. Gonna’ be the hardest decision of her Tartarus-damned life. Another day in the freezin’ cold with your guardsmare honor intact, or a devil’s foursome?”
  296. >”You gonna turn’em down?” Dip sneers, tilting her head at the bipeds.
  297. >“He just wants to be friends. What’s a dishonorable discharge between friends?”
  298. >If the orange pegasus’s snout crinkles any harder her face is going to become concave.
  299. >Shiver’s stare has turned into a full on glare.
  300. >”If I get one more write-up because of you and end up on consecutive latrine duties AGAIN…”
  301. >Chuck is literally shaking at this point, and for several tense moments you entertain the idea that your little crew is going to be a mare down for the rest of your post.
  302. >The pegasus’ chest plate swells with a massive breath.
  303. >From the look in her eyes you assume she’s considering the same.
  304. >”She’s gonna blow,” Dip laughs out.
  305. >Splint grins wolfishly.
  306. >”Aye, I’d assume ‘blowin’d be a big part of it considerin’ the ratio.”
  307. >Chuck lets loose a lung-clearing sigh and hunches over, hanging her head between her legs in defeat.
  308. >”I hate you gals, holy shit,” she mutters incredulously.
  309. >“I hate you so much. If I had evil magic powers I would use them on you. You girls would literally be my first evil deed on the road to villainy.”
  310. >Splint scoffs.
  311. >”If YOU had evil magic powers, you’d be too busy magicin’ cunts onta’ stallions or some other such deplorable strangeness to do mucha’ anything with any’a us, darlin’.”
  312. >Chuck huffs and peers up at the waiting Humes with nothing short of despair on her face.
  313. >”Noooo,” she says slowly, shaking her head clearly so that they could understand.
  314. >”Noo, sorry. Sorry…”
  315. >Visibly disheartened, the red-maned Hume slowly stands and, eventually, after a few more longing looks from him and his party, turns to part ways with your group.
  316. >Their pace is slow, and they look back at her many times before completely vanishing back into the fort, giving her ample opportunity to reconsider her decision the entire way which, thankfully, she doesn’t.
  317. >Their unintentionally masterful torture is reflected on their victim's face.
  318. >Shiver, satisfied, turns in her seat and hoofs a few more nearby twigs into the dying fire.
  319. “They’d really send you packing just for, uh… ‘fraternizing’?” you ask, curious and eager to change the subject that was just being entertained.
  320. >”It’s, ahh… been an issue…” Dip says cryptically, sipping at her canteen to punctuate her statement.
  321. >You turn to Chuck and smile weakly, hoping to raise her spirits.
  322. “Well… at least you can go home with your head held high?”
  323. >Splint reaches across your chest to pat Chuck on the withers.
  324. >”Yeah, don’t take it too hard,” she says with an edge of sarcasm, “I’m sure there’ll be plenty’a upstandin’ lads back home linin’ up for orgies with ya’, too – plenty.”
  325. >”I want to die,” Chuck says passionlessly.
  326. >”They should put THAT on the brochures,” Dip suggests, cradling an imaginary piece of paper in her hooves, “’Consider positions up north for your next reassignment – You’ll want to die’.”
  327. >”I’m just going to walk out into the snow and wait for them to get me.”
  328. >”Feh, don’t be so dramatic,” Splint says, waving her off.
  329. >”Bad way ta’ go, wolves,” Honeysuckle comments matter-o-factly, “we could just… bury ya’ in the snow. Ya’ll’d be gone before ya’ know it. Lot less messy.”
  330. >Chuck groans and hangs her head lower, the tips of her short yellow mane dipping into the frost on the ground.
  331. >Your team keeps to themselves for a while after that event which, incidentally, matches up with the dwindling time the little fire at your hooves seems to have left.
  332. >Not that is matters much; your time is almost up.
  333.  
  334.  
  335. >It’s much harder to tell up here, but the sun is getting pretty high.
  336. >Not noon yet, certainly, but getting close.
  337. >You have work to do.
  338. >When the embers finally start to sputter out for good, the five of you uproot from your seats and decide amongst yourselves to go and find that work – in an effort to keep warm if nothing else.
  339. >Your trip across Fort Brinn to accomplish that task is fairly routine if not for one curious outlier, one you didn’t notice when you started but were growing more keen to the farther you went.
  340. >You group wasn’t traveling alone.
  341. >Whether slipping between shacks, skirting around watchtowers or ducking beneath wall-walks, you couldn't shake that feeling.
  342. >That prickle on the back of your neck.
  343. >That primal tickle in your ears that only happens when something is watching you – and something IS watching you.
  344. >It isn’t until you turn sharply enough that you spot them.
  345. >It’s a Hume; a familiar one with black hair.
  346. >He's tailed you from your campsite near the south wall clear across the fort to the north gate, doing his best to stay out of sight.
  347. >He isn’t doing a very good job, but by Celestia is he trying.
  348. >Occasionally you spot him ducking behind buildings or eyeing your group through slats in gates or gaps in wagons.
  349. >He even scales the north wall and peeks at you through the wooden parapets while you and the other girls do your trench duty.
  350. >It’s hard work, much harder than it would be in a warmer climate and no easier with your… insistent audience member examining your every grunt and wipe of the brow.
  351. >The trenches lining the outer walls need to be cleared of snow on a daily basis and, as you hear it, the Hume are all but reluctant to let the visiting guardsmares do that little chore for them.
  352. >The tools they give you for the job are rough but sturdy – not that sturdiness helped much while you were chipping away at the solid ice that had accumulated at the bottom-most regions of the pit.
  353. >An hour passes, maybe two, maybe even three.
  354. >You don’t see your follower for a long while, but you also don’t see him leaving.
  355. >Your suspicions concerning his whereabouts are confirmed when you and the squaddies break for lunch and you trot back through the north gate to find him sitting on the wall-walk, playing with his claws boredly while he waits.
  356. >For you.
  357. >When he sees you looking straight at him he freezes for several seconds before tearing his eyes away and pretending that he doesn’t notice you.
  358. >You do the same, hardly wanting to leave a poor impression on him after you yourself had been caught doing the same to him not long ago.
  359. >It is now that you lose sight of him, and not much longer until you reach the lodge.
  360. >Your windy trudge back to it is cold and unpleasant, even moreso then your initial emergence from the barracks.
  361. >The curtain of heat that hits your face as you pass into the wide arch is heavenly, enough to help you forget your wet and frigid journey in no time.
  362. >The strong smell of honey and fresh bread wafting through the air doesn’t hurt your improving mood, either.
  363. >Unlike before, not only are the Hume there to witness you and the other mares from the 104th arriving, but they themselves appear to have been there for quite a while already.
  364. >Remnants of their finished food and drink still lay scattered about on the tables, chairs and floor as you and the girls take your seats.
  365. >The six of you manage to carve a little place out for yourselves in the corner where the heat from the bonfire isn’t too distant.
  366. >Unsurprisingly, the denser seating made spots closer to the bonfire a non-option before you even arrived.
  367. >Because of this, you can’t help but notice the invisible line cutting the center of the room and dividing its occupants into two groups.
  368. >As crowded as things were and as, well… ‘familiar’ as the Humes seem to be with the ponies, there was an obvious gap between the two of them in the eating hall.
  369. >Both sides were keeping to their own.
  370. >Well, if you use the term ‘their own’ loosely.
  371. >There are several Minos on the Hume side of the room, more than you’d ever seen in one place before.
  372. >Granted, you’d only seen your first one yesterday, but still...
  373. >There were at least seven, and judging by their proportions there wasn’t a non-female amongst them.
  374. >They eat, drink, and converse with the nearby Hume eagerly and casually, soaking up the vast male attention without a care in the world.
  375. >Chuck, who sits beside you and to the left, narrows her eyes at them in the wake of another round of their boisterous laughter.
  376. >”Cunts,” she grumbles.
  377. >”You had your chance, you know,” Dip comments from your right, “you’re just bitter.”
  378. >The orange pegasus folds her forelegs and hunches in her seat sourly.
  379. “Is it always like this?” you ask, motioning at the ‘other side’.
  380. >Dip thinks for a moment, then smirks and points farther down the table with her head.
  381. >You crane your neck to look where she gestures, and at the far side of the room, nearly hidden from view, sits a dark brown mare with her helm removed and a cloak draped over her withers.
  382. >Even with the cloth covering her pads – intentionally, no doubt – there wasn’t any mistaking her identity if you looked right at her.
  383. >It was second lieutenant Flechette; your CO.
  384. “Oh…” you mumble.
  385. >Dip nods. ”Usually the girls are at least a LITTLE daring around this time, but there isn’t much room for bravery when the battle-axe is hanging right over your head.”
  386. >”You gettin’ antsy for attention after just one day, Cherry mare?” Splint quips, eyeing you from further down the table.
  387. >“You’re right red-blooded, arencha’?”
  388. “That’s NOT why I was asking…” you retort.
  389. >”Sure sure, and Chuck here’s twisted up inta’ knots on acounta’ Gryphonia’s economic crisis.”
  390. >Dip snorts and lifts a hoof to cover her mouth.
  391. >”Ten bits says she goes out to ‘chop wood’ tonight when she thinks everypony’s asleep.”
  392. >”Hah! Well, she’ll be waitin’ in line,” Splint replies.
  393. >The brown mare adjusts her belt and flashes you all a look of mild discomfort.
  394. >“Could go for a good wood-choppin’ myself. I’m pent up like a virgin – ah, no offense,” she says, nodding her head at you and ignoring your unamused look.
  395. >Shiver twists up her face and pushes her plate food away.
  396. >”Uugh… TRYING to eat…“ she says.
  397. >”Don’t shoot the messenger. Just sayin’ what we’re all thinkin’,” Splint replies innocently.
  398. >”Yeah whatever.”
  399. >Shiver shakes her head and slips out of her place on the bench.
  400. >”Gatta’ use it,” she grunts. “Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone.”
  401. >There must have been a mischievous twinkle in Splint’s eye at the mention of a private break to the bathroom, because Shiver pauses on her way to shoot the medic a look that could curdle milk.
  402. >As the grey mare exits the lodge she draws your attention to something at the entrance, something you hadn’t had the will to notice while you were warming your bones and filling your gut.
  403. >’Someone’, rather.
  404. >The black-haired Hume has returned, no longer hiding and no longer alone in his endeavors.
  405. >He stands with two others, the same two others, you think, he’d been with the day prior.
  406. >When you saw him he was already looking in your direction, but he quickly pulls his eyes away and continues conversing with his companions once he notices that they’ve been spotted.
  407. >You look away, too, confused and a little apprehensive as to why you’d suddenly become so popular.
  408. >You had some reason to be.
  409. >Back home, boys collecting into groups and chatting while they pointed at you… usually… wasn’t a good sign.
  410. >It was usually the preamble to some embarrassing or cruel trick or rumor being started about you.
  411. >Thankfully you were rarely the target of such ruthless attacks, but you’d seen it happen more often then you’d like to remember.
  412. >The Hume were different, no doubt, but they were just similar enough to put you on edge with such a familiar trend.
  413. >You ignore him and his companions as well as you can, snacking on your bread and drinking out of your cup instead.
  414. >When you run out of food and drink you move on to your companions and exchange some meaningless banter.
  415. >Anything to keep your mind off of the familiar prickle worming its way back up your spine.
  416. >It isn’t until a pair of grey-black Hume shoes stop stark in front of your table that you finally realize your error in judgement.
  417. >The conversations your fellow guardsmares had been having up till now all cease at the unexpected arrival.
  418. >You lift your head, and your heart strums softly when you find him centered and completely focused on you.
  419. >At first you thought he might be following Chuck by request of those three fellows from before.
  420. >A second attempt to warm her to their request, perhaps.
  421. >Now that he’s standing before you though, there’s little doubt as to who he’d come to see.
  422. >You give him a weak smile, unsure of how else you might communicate.
  423. >The soft claws he’s pinned to his chest noticeably tighten at your gesture.
  424. >He’s closer to you than he’s ever been.
  425. >Now that he is, you learn a few more things about him.
  426. >Not just minor things like the cold blue of his eyes or the slight pink hue to his lips, even if you did notice those too.
  427. >No, there was something else – an error in judgement.
  428. >There were little to no wrinkles or blemishes to be found on his soft face.
  429. >The muzzle hair that was common in his larger, more grizzled brethren was in short supply, if definitely present.
  430. >You’d been thinking of him as shorter up until now – and he was, comparatively – by about a head.
  431. >But that wasn’t quite right.
  432. >He probably wasn’t short – not for his age, at least.
  433. >He was young. 
  434. >Younger than most others, probably, even if his exact age was indiscernible after such short contact with his species.
  435. >When he first parts his lips to speak, his first word cracks and his voice gives out.
  436. >Given his lack of fur, the ribbon of heat that crops up in his cheeks after his fumble is easily noticeable.
  437. >C-Cute…
  438. >He shrinks slightly, and for a moment you think he might leave.
  439. >He turns to the two older Hume behind him, one of which waves a claw at him to ‘go on’.
  440. >The young Hume doesn’t seem to gain much confidence from the gesture, but nevertheless he stays pinned to the spot and turns back on you.
  441. >His sigh comes out shaky and uneven.
  442. >“Vordan… har du dey froken…?” he mumbles just above a whisper.
  443. “U-Uh… I can’t…” you begin.
  444. >You instinctively turn to where Shiver used to be sitting for support, finding an empty spot instead.
  445. >The other mares can offer you little more than shrugs and curious looks for your effort.
  446. >The undue pressure you feel is amplified by the additional attention you’ve suddenly garnered from several of the other Hume on the other side of the room.
  447. >The young Hume flashes you an unsure look and drops his head, peering down at something wrapped in his claws.
  448. >A moment later he juts one of them awkwardly out in front of both him and you, flinching you from the quick movement.
  449. >Wait…
  450. >You’ve seen this before.
  451. >Now that you were closer though, you could much more easily see what you missed the first time.
  452. >A slender chain hangs from his digits.
  453. >Offered for you to take…
  454. >You think.
  455. >You peer up at him, trying to discern his intention with the token.
  456. >His face is twisted up and tense, and his eyes are screwed tightly shut in what appears to be fear.
  457. >Puzzled but eager to soothe the young male, you smile again and slowly reach up to take the gift.
  458. “For… me? Mine?” you say, and point to yourself.
  459. >He doesn’t respond, nor does he open his eyes.
  460. “… uhh, thanks… Thank you.”
  461. >The moment your hoof touches the chain and grazes the soft skin wrapped around it, all the anxiety in his face melts away in an instant.
  462. >The raw disbelief in his eyes as he opens them quickly morphs into joy as he drops the chain into your outstretched hoof, a joy that loosens his taut shoulders and visibly spreads throughout his body.
  463. >The unfiltered adoration in his eyes is nothing short of overwhelming, as is the heat it starts up in your face.
  464. >”Nesen dar litten ulv, nesen dar,” one of the older Humes in the background comments, drawing the younger’s attention.
  465. >”V-… Vah nuh?” the younger replies, turning.
  466. >The older Hume frowns.
  467. >”Vah meenair du ‘vah nuh’?” he responds, annoyed. “Du vey vah nuh.”
  468. >”Mey toongin,” the other Hume adds with a smirk.
  469. >The young Hume locks up and his pale face becomes as red as a cherry, all the anxiety he’d just lost visibly rushing back.
  470. >”V-V-Vah? N-Nah ye yor ikke…” he mutters back, shrinking into his shoulders.
  471. >”Vee dey ikke bruker toongin, teller dey ikke,” the older biped responds, snickering.
  472. >The look of anxious horror on the young Hume’s face as he turns back toward you is a touch unnerving, to say the least.
  473. “Uhh, ladies?” you say, casting them a needy look.
  474. “Help me out here… what’s going on? What’re they saying?”
  475. >”Ya’ got me, Cherry. Never seen anything like this before…” Splint responds.
  476. >You turn to Dip but she shakes her head.
  477. >”My Hume isn’t stellar, and they were talking too fast. I didn’t… do you know him or something?”
  478. “K-Kinda’? I mean, not really…”
  479. >The young Hume lingers in front of you, fidgeting in place.
  480. >Is… is he waiting for you to do something?
  481. >Was he expecting a gift in return?
  482. >Oh Celestia, what’s happening right now?
  483. >You whip your head around to address Splint, to address anypony who would listen.
  484. “Go get Shiver,” you say, “go get… ANYPONY. I don’t know what I’m doing h—“
  485. >Your voice cuts out when you feel something gently wrap around your left hoof where you held the Hume’s gift.
  486. >Before you can say another word a mixture of pale white and black fills your vision .
  487. >Your lips tremble with surprise as something warm and soft meshes against them, engaging them in a sudden, intimate kiss.
  488. >Your first kiss.
  489. >Your brain reels with the knowledge that you are no longer a kissless mouth-virgin, but it doesn’t have much time to catalogue the event properly.
  490. >Something slick and hot slides its way into your mouth, and you swear you hear your squad mates dropping their eating utensils.
  491. >You can’t be sure, though, because your brain just stopped functioning.
  492. >’T-Tongue,’ is the last thought it manages before going silent.
  493. >Worries over your inexperience and the setting quickly ramp – and then dull as the Hume adjusts his head and plunges further, a briskly sweet taste like sugary snow numbing your mouth.
  494. >Your conscience and animal ego clash in your mind, screaming at you to pull away before somepony sees AND kiss him back before somepony sees simultaneously.
  495. >After an eternity of deliberation with only a fraction of your usual brain power, you bravely choke and default to neither.
  496. >Oppositely, you DO manage to shiver and sigh like a lovestruck colt when he finally pulls away, drawing a thin line of saliva between you from the sloppy but eager kiss.
  497. >You try desperately to recompose yourself, seared lips chilling with every panting breath you take.
  498. >The black-haired Hume is in much the same state.
  499. >He brings a single soft claw up to trace across his weathered lips, a cryptic expression adorning his flush face.
  500. >With your senses returning, it doesn’t take long for you to realize that not just your group, but much of your entire side of the lodge has gone quiet in reaction to the stunt.
  501. >You spy a few troubled looks from the Hume side of the lodge as well, not to mention the rigid attention of one female Mino in particular.
  502. >She’s standing, eyeing you with clear and open dissent.
  503. >The voice to break the silence isn’t yours or the black-haired Hume’s, but a pony sitting next to you.
  504. >Chuck coughs out a chuckle half way between amused and baffled, a massive grin spreading out across her face.
  505. >”H-Holy shit…” she chokes out gleefully, and her voice carries to much of the quieted room, “I think Cherry just got buckin’ MARRIED or something!”
  506. >”That’s new…” whispers Splint, bright-eyed.  
  507. >”I was gone… for three minutes.”  
  508. >The rough tone of Shiver’s voice makes you jump in your seat.
  509. >You turn to hurl a million stuttered proclamations of your innocence but her heavy hoof silences you as it slams down on the table.
  510. >”THREE MINUTES, GREENIE,” she grinds out through her teeth incredulously.
  511. >”What the Tartarus just happened!? What the buck are you doing!?”
  512. >The young Hume takes a step back at the grey mare’s intensity only to fall into his two friends, both of whom catch him around the back of the withers with their arms.
  513. >”Hooooh! Sakten liten ulv, vee for det! Du ar en man,” the first says, obviously impressed.
  514. >”Vordon foler du dei? Storyah?” the second asks, pulling him along with him toward the exit.
  515. >A wise retreat, perhaps.
  516. >If only you were in a position to do the same.
  517. >The young Hume turns back to look at you over his shoulder, concerned, but his friends pull him along, chittering undecipherable praises.
  518. >You aren’t able to watch his retreat for long.
  519. >Something hard crunches down onto your skull, rattling around your brain.
  520. >You only realize the shock is Shiver’s doing once she finishes forcibly rotating your head away from the Hume and back toward her with her freakish strength.
  521. >”Explain,” she orders cooly.
  522. ”I-I… I didn’t, u-uhh—”  
  523. >”Ohoh, you did ‘SOMETHIN’,” Splint cuts in with a pop of the brow.
  524. >”Maybe I was too hasty with all the virgin talk? I think I saw stars in his wee eyes,” she jokes.
  525. >The Hume and Mino now muttering amongst themselves and not-so-subtly pointing at you to their companions does little to sooth the prickle in your cheeks – nor does it improve your souring report with the growling mare who now clutched your head in her frog.
  526. “Shut up,” you beg the field medic, “please.”
  527. >”I’m going to use your face as a mop,” Shiver hisses, “to clean out whatever disgusting pits or crevices they force all of us into for this.”
  528. >Dip comes back up from under the table and flips her helmet back onto her head, tugging the metal bucket farther down in front of her eyes.
  529. >”Heads down!” she says, “CO.”
  530. >An icy chill runs down your spine at the mention of your commanding officer, the one you only just now remembered was STILL in here with you.
  531. >The tight grip on your skull loosens and then vanishes as you turn to watch a hardy brown mare cross the room toward your portion of the table.
  532. >”Pray for’er, girls,” Splint whispers.
  533. >Chuck fixes her slouching posture in an instant and pulls her elbows off the table, instantly morphing into a model guard.
  534. >”You’ll always be in my heart, Cherry.”
  535. >You catch the back end of Shiver’s glare as she passes behind the orange pegasus and retakes her seat before tearing yourself away from your ‘companions’ and focusing back on your empty plate, waiting.
  536. >Waiting for the inevitable.
  537. >Waiting for the mare that you practically promised to be an upstanding and honorable soldier fit to serve in her platoon not 24 hours prior.    
  538. >The thud of her hooves on the floorboards behind you never leave military cadence.
  539. >Her steppers fall silent as she comes to halt behind you, directly behind you.
  540. >She, too, waits.
  541. >For what you can’t imagine, but the effect on your morale is devastating.
  542. >”Private Cherry,” she says calmly.
  543. >She doesn’t even have to see the name carved into breastplate to identify you.
  544. >Somehow that made it even worse.
  545. “Yes ma’am?” you return.
  546. >Another pause, and this one drags on and on and on, until you finally turn to look at her.
  547. >She was waiting for it.
  548. >Her steel eyes narrow ever so slightly before she turns them away from you and moves toward the exit.
  549. >You swallow.
  550. >”Collect your gear and step outside, please.”
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  573. Author's note:
  574.  
  575. The Humeish was a little thick in this chapter, wasn't it? I don't think I was too cryptic than I intended to be, but all the more reason to lay things out a little more clearly for those who were interested. For these reasons I've decided to translate several portions, especially the lines near the end, to give the readers who wanted to know more insight into what was happening. Keeping in mind that some might prefer not to know, I've placed the translations out of the way.
  576.  
  577. In other words, if you don't want to know, don't read ahead!
  578.  
  579.  
  580.  
  581.  
  582. >”[CUUUUUUUUTE!]”
  583. >You jump as a loud voice hits your ears, a close one.
  584. >The noise turns several heads in the distance toward the orange pegasus beside you, as it does yours.
  585. >Chuck, who clearly wasn’t much of a morning pony, now smiles ear to ear, her eyes shining with energy.
  586. >She cups her fetlocks around her mouth and takes a big breath, getting ready to call out again.
  587. >”[VERY CUUUUUUUUUUTE!]”
  588.  
  589. >”[… She doesn't know what she's saying?]”
  590. >Chuck smiles sheepishly and shakes her head in the universal sign.
  591. >The Hume’s face falls.
  592. >Shiver cuts a dirty look at the pegasus.
  593. >”[No,]” she replies, “[she does].”
  594. >The Hume’s expression instantly improves.
  595.  
  596. >“[How... how are you today, miss…?]” he mumbles just above a whisper.
  597. “U-Uh… I can’t…” you begin.
  598. >You instinctively turn to where Shiver used to be sitting for support, finding an empty spot instead.
  599.  
  600. >”[Almost there little wolf, almost there,]” one of the older Humes in the background comments, drawing the younger’s attention.
  601. >”[W-… what now?]” he replies, turning.
  602. >The older Hume frowns.
  603. >”[What do you mean ‘what now’?]” he responds, annoyed, “[you know what now.]”
  604. >”[With tongue,]” the other Hume adds with a smirk.
  605. >The young Hume locks up and his pale face becomes as red as a cherry, all the anxiety he’d just lost visibly rushing back.
  606. >”[W-W-What? T-That isn't true…]” he mutters back, shrinking into his shoulders.
  607. >”[If you don't use tongue, it doesn't count,]” the older biped responds, snickering.
  608. >The look of anxious horror on the young Hume’s face as he turns back toward you is a touch unnerving, to say the least.
  609.  
  610. >The young Hume takes a step back at the grey mare’s intensity only to fall into his two friends, both of whom catch him around the back of the withers with their arms.
  611. >”[Hooooh! Slow down little wolf, we get it! You're a great big man,]” the first says, obviously impressed.
  612. >”[How do you feel? Bigger?]” the second asks, pulling him along with him toward the exit.
  613. >A wise retreat, perhaps.
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