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Careful's Charge, Parts I & II

geodesic Aug 29th, 2016 (edited) 5,930 Never
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  1. Table of Contents:
  2. -Parts 1-2 (Careful's Charge, Catalog Careful): this page
  3. -Part III (Citizen Safe): http://pastebin.com/NtTss5aN
  4.  
  5. -Secret non-canon scene: search part 2
  6.  
  7. Part I: Careful's Charge
  8.  
  9. >WHUMP
  10. >Ow.
  11. >You take a moment to process what just happened.
  12. >Careful Watch, your guard-pony, has tackled you.
  13. >She's heavy, even for an earth pony.
  14. >With her armor, she feels like a pile of bricks in a soft pillowcase sitting on your chest.
  15. >Thankfully, you're in one of the grassy parks kept on Canterlot's main vista.
  16. >The soft, cushy grass is probably all that kept your head from splitting as you fell.
  17. >"Stay down, sir!"
  18. >You've had the wind knocked out of you, but you manage to squeeze out a monosyllable reply:
  19. "Urnf."
  20. >"Shh!"
  21. >You wonder what exactly Careful thinks she's just saved you from.
  22. >A few days ago, some Saddle-Arabian had harassed you in the street, saying something about you being a "hairless abomination" and needing to be purged.
  23. >He had later been found to have just eaten some bad mushrooms at a local food joint, but that hadn't kept a local guard precinct from prescribing you a second shadow.
  24. >"To prevent any more 'incidents,'" they said.
  25. >Careful, however, has been more alert than her job description calls for.
  26. >She jumps into fighting stance at each passing shadow, bristles at every unusual sound.
  27. >She hadn't even let you take your morning coffee today without first taking a few gulps herself.
  28. >Turns out she's sensitive to caffeine.
  29. >You've regained your breath.
  30. "What is it, Careful?"
  31. >"Unicorn with a bow and arrow on the rampart!"
  32. "After me?"
  33. >"Can't be too careful. Weapon like that could pincushion you before you even... oh."
  34. "What?"
  35. >"...tripod."
  36. "...What?"
  37. >"Wooden tripod for, uh, a camera. Tourist. I thought, I thought, um..."
  38. >'Fuck me,' you think.
  39. "That's OK, Careful. I'm OK."
  40. >"Good!" she says, looking down at you.
  41. >Some of her ginger mane hangs out from under her helmet.
  42. >It tickles your nose, which you can't move out of the way because your shoulders are pinned by the unusual weight of the small earth pone.
  43. "Can you get off me now, Careful?"
  44.  
  45. >She looks down in your eyes for a moment, not quite processing your request.
  46. >Finally, it clicks.
  47. >"Oh! OK."
  48. >She pops up effortlessly, trots over to the paved sidewalk she knocked you off a minute ago, and waits.
  49. >It feels like you dropped a barbell on your chest and a spotter just removed it.
  50.  
  51. >You take your time getting back to your feet.
  52. >Careful is back at attention, darting in this direction and that, shielding her eyes from the sun with one hoof, scanning the Canterlot vista with absolute focus.
  53. >Her posture, along with her coloration -- milky brown, flecked with white -- reminds you absurdly of an English Pointer.
  54. >Her behavior doesn't conceal the slight blush on her cheeks that is only now fading.
  55. >"Looks safe now, sir!" she says as it finally vanishes.
  56. >She trots up to you, looking at you and standing attentively.
  57. >"Where to?"
  58. >You contemplate the question, ignoring a stallion a few yards up the sidewalk staring bewilderedly at your situation.
  59. "How about lunch? Somewhere, uh, indoors. You know. Shorter sight-lines."
  60. >"Oh, great idea, sir!"
  61. "Know anywhere good?"
  62. >"Hmm."
  63. >She rubs her chin contemplatively for a moment. Then, a thought hitting her, her eyes widen.
  64. >"Pasture-ami's! She makes one of my favorites. Lettuce and tomato sandwich with hickory-smoked veggie strips!"
  65. >Of course. If any sandwich has inter-universal appeal, it must be the BLT.
  66. "Well, lead the way!"
  67. >You hope if she's working out directions, she'll be less focused on... well, her job.
  68.  
  69. >No such luck.
  70. >She struts ahead of you excitedly, nearly at a gallop, but doesn't fail to stop and check around the edge of every street corner, to size up each passing pony, and to examine every adjacent alley.
  71. >You are, of course, not allowed to proceed until she has done so.
  72. >Every time.
  73. >If you try, she gets kind of huffy.
  74. >A huffy pone is not a happy pone.
  75. >It is known.
  76. >So you let her do her thing.
  77. >You only get to Pasture-ami's at the tail end of the lunch rush.
  78. >Least there's no line.
  79.  
  80. >You follow Careful Watch's lead and order the BLT.
  81. >Once you're seated, you slice through it one way, then another, dividing it into quarters.
  82. >Careful leaves hers whole.
  83. >"Uh, sir!" she remarks as you go for your first bite.
  84. >Right. Like the coffee earlier.
  85. >You hand the quarter over for poison inspection.
  86. >First, she eyes it critically, going over it like a jeweler checking the cut of a diamond.
  87. >Then she sniffs it.
  88. >Then, finally, she takes a nibble, the smallest amount possible while still getting a little of every ingredient.
  89. >She chews carefully and swallows.
  90. >A minute passes.
  91. >"So... I look pale or anything?"
  92. "Nope."
  93. >"It's safe, then!"
  94. "Uh, great."
  95. >You both get to eating.
  96. >Careful consumes her own sandwich... with gusto.
  97. >It's like a video you saw once of a crab being sucked into an ocean pipeline.
  98. >You pace your own meal, conversing between quarters.
  99. "So, what would you do if it WAS poisoned?"
  100. >She doesn't dwell too long on the implication, but you do notice her barely hesitate.
  101. >"You'd... well, you'd be safe!"
  102. >It's suddenly a little hard to stay annoyed with the over-eager guard pony and her earlier physical assault.
  103. "I'd make sure you'd be okay, too."
  104. >Her ear twitches as she offers you a smile.
  105. >"Thank you."
  106.  
  107. ...
  108.  
  109. >"Sir?"
  110. >You pretend not to hear Careful as you walk down the road toward the library.
  111. >"Sirrr."
  112. >Fine.
  113. "Yeah?"
  114. >"It's getting late."
  115. "I noticed! Just wanna pick something up at the library. To read."
  116. >"It's out of the way, and it's getting dark, isn't it?"
  117.  
  118. >Lunch had relaxed Careful for a while.
  119. >Only a little, but enough.
  120. >She walked alongside you, glancing up at you occasionally, barely enough for you to catch her looking before she turned her eyes forward.
  121. >She would cross the street with you instead of bolting into it, halting any carriage cross-traffic before you could leave the sidewalk.
  122. >She even allowed a few pedestrians to say "hello" to you without cantering into position between you and them, staring witheringly at them until they left.
  123.  
  124. >But evening has put her back on guard.
  125. >For every two steps of yours, there are half a dozen clip-clops on the cobblestone ahead, accompanied by the rustle of feathered plate-armor.
  126. >She looks left, right... covering every way you might walk twice by the time you can even decide where to go.
  127. >As the sunlight dwindles, she pulls back closer to you, the range of her watch diminishing.
  128. >She's as on edge as she seemed in the park seconds before she effortlessly knocked you over.
  129. >And you're not on a patch of grass now.
  130.  
  131. "I'm just gonna pick up one book! Librarian's holding it for me. I like to read before I sleep. I promise it won't take long."
  132. >"Mmmh!" she grumbles.
  133. >The huff is real.
  134. >"Very well! It better not, mister."
  135. "Yes ma'am."
  136. >It's as good as you'll get.
  137.  
  138. >You really do want that book.
  139. >It's by Koltien, who's like the Equestrian equivalent of... yeah.
  140. >Horse high-fantasy lit is weird because, you know, magic exists here.
  141. >But it's neat to compare it to contemporary Earth stuff.
  142.  
  143. >The library is guarded by a few Royals at the gate, so Careful Watch is content -- barely -- to wait for you by the door, tapping her hoof impatiently.
  144. >You enter the library as last sliver of sun disappears behind the horizon.
  145.  
  146. >Book in hand, you make your way back out of the front door of the huge, antiquated building.
  147. >Careful Watch is standing in position, her head high and body erect, looking down over the grand staircase at the library's entrance, over the boulevard, over Canterlot's lamp-lit neighborhoods, businesses and back alleys, and over the rooftops visible from here.
  148. >The library is the oldest and highest in this district, you believe you've been told.
  149. >You absentmindedly examine Careful for a moment.
  150. >Flickering lamplight reflects off her bronze armor. The only part of her moving is her tail, swaying in the cool night breeze.
  151. "Got it, Careful."
  152. >"Good. Back to yours, I hope?"
  153. "Yeah."
  154. >You each take the first step down the staircase.
  155.  
  156. >Something in Careful's tone, just then, was off, you think.
  157. >Just the night putting her on edge, you figure.
  158. >Then your ears tune in to the quiet conversation the guards flanking the library entrance are making.
  159. >You only make out every few words over the tap-tap of Careful's hooves on the stone.
  160. >"...on the foreigner? ... not spread so thin ... Saddle- ... on salt ... thrown out anyway."
  161. >"I think ... throne and their appearances. ... and Watch ... trivial jobs. ... desperate ..."
  162. >You miss the rest as you and Careful reach the street.
  163. >"I think the safest way to your house is along... along Hooft's Terrace. Will that do, sir?"
  164. >You weren't wrong. There is something in her voice.
  165. >It's more noticeable, you could swear, after the other guards' conversation.
  166. "Sure, Careful."
  167. >It's exhaustion.
  168. >"Let's go, then."
  169. >Everything about Careful Watch's body language, from her hooves to her ears and the lines of her face, suggests she's rested, disciplined, and alert.
  170. >But for just a second in her speech -- around a pause you're not even sure you noticed -- her voice was one of a pony who hasn't slept in days.
  171. >For the first time this evening, you feel concerned.
  172.  
  173. ...
  174.  
  175. >It's a new moon tonight, so there's no light to walk home by except that emitted by the lamps.
  176. >The spots they illuminate don't overlap, so careful makes you wait by each one.
  177. >Each time, she darts to the next lamp, looks around, and darts back, always to confirm that nothing's lurking in the darkness between the lights.
  178. >There's a couple of lamps on each block, so the walk back takes... a while.
  179. >Nevertheless, you make it.
  180. >Eventually.
  181. "It's this one on the right, Careful."
  182. >"Lead the way."
  183. >You fumble for your keys and let yourself in.
  184. >You prepare to say a polite good-night to-
  185. >Careful trots past you into your house.
  186. >"Lock the door so I can canvas the place, sir?"
  187. >...Oh.
  188. >She's staying.
  189. >Ok.
  190. "Ok."
  191. >You shut and fasten the door.
  192. >Careful makes her way forward, lighting up your lamps for you and peeking her head into each room.
  193. >"Ground floor's good. Stay by the door while I check the upstairs?"
  194. "Sure."
  195. >She makes her way up.
  196. >Meanwhile, you wonder: did you do something to deserve this?
  197. >This pony companion that tackles you, delays your daily activities, and gets wicked huffy if you don't allow her to do so?
  198. >Good lord, the huff.
  199. >How long's it been? Three minutes? Five?
  200. >No way it could take her this long just to examine your bedroom and-
  201. >You hear the toilet flush.
  202. >Then some running water.
  203. >A minute later, Careful comes back down the stairs.
  204. >"Your sink is REALLY high!"
  205.  
  206. ...
  207.  
  208. >"No can do, sir!"
  209. "Come on! I insist."
  210. >"I'm on duty!"
  211. "My guest room has been lying untouched since I moved into this place. I want my money's worth!"
  212. >"I'm to guard you until dawn! Can't afford deep sleep. I'll doze on my feet where I can see the door."
  213. >You don't think you're going to win this one.
  214. >Well, no one can say you didn't try to be hospitable.
  215. >Not to say that hospitality's your only motive.
  216. >It'll get on your nerves, knowing there's a horse standing guard right outside your door while you're trying to sleep.
  217. >Well... you have some reading material, at least.
  218. "Fine. But you're missing out."
  219. >"Nope! I'm your guard. I'll be standing..."
  220. >She trots into place, standing between the stairs and the door.
  221. >She lifts her front leg and taps her foot twice on the floor.
  222. >"...right here, making sure nopony unwelcome comes through..."
  223. >She gestures with her hoof at the door.
  224. >"...that door! I'm your guard. It's most important to me that you feel safe."
  225. >...you suppose you feel safe, in addition to your nerves.
  226. >Of course, you felt safe before the Saddle-Arabian incident, too, but, again, you're on the losing side of your current discussion.
  227. "Eh, very well then. I'm off to bed."
  228. >"Good night, sir!"
  229. "Good... good night."
  230.  
  231. >This Koltien book, it's... it's fucking boring.
  232. >The first one was pretty good. A simple, unadulterated adventure story.
  233. >They went to some place and came back.
  234. >It was fun.
  235. >This one... every new paragraph describes, like, another fucking blade of grass.
  236. >There's a footnote every other page describing some obscure piece of pseudo-historic unicorn lore.
  237. >You force your eyes to scan each line of text in the light of your flickering bedside candle.
  238. >Still, your mind wanders.
  239. >It wanders to the pony standing guard right at the foot of your stairs.
  240. >The pony who, at any moment, might come busting down your door, knocking you out of bed and exclaiming that some night-owl cast a shadow on your window.
  241. >Right, Careful Watch: the pony who... who insisted on checking all you food for poison.
  242. >The pony who's been tripping over herself all day to make sure that you, of all people, feel safe and happy in a place totally unfamiliar to you.
  243. >...
  244. >The pony whose job you've been belittling all day, trying to make her stop.
  245. >The pony you ditched the first opportunity you got, ducking into your room early in the evening to read.
  246. >The pony of the race of ponies that thrive on socialization and get miserable when they're alone.
  247. >...
  248. >Come on. Do you even know that last one for sure?
  249. >...
  250. >Oh, damn it.
  251. >You flip Koltien shut, get out of bed, throw on some pajama pants and an undershirt, and head downstairs.
  252.  
  253. >Careful's standing in the living room a few feet from the foot of the stairs, facing the entryway.
  254. >Her head perks up a little as you come down.
  255. >"Sir?"
  256. "S'just me. You wanna...?"
  257. >'talk?' you wanted to finish.
  258. >But... would that be awkward?
  259. >She's just your guard, doing her job for an unusual client.
  260. >Maybe the shit you feel guilty about is just in your head.
  261. >You hear yourself finish:
  262. "glass of water?"
  263. >"Oh. Sure."
  264.  
  265. >You duck into the kitchen and pour a glass for Careful and yourself.
  266. >You plunk a few ice cubes in each for good measure. Warm night.
  267. >How ponies figured out refrigeration without electricity stumps you good.
  268. >They're inventive little fuckers.
  269.  
  270. >You come back to the living room with the drinks, setting them down on the coffee table, next to the couch.
  271. "Wanna come sit down?"
  272. >"No thanks. Wanna stay at my post."
  273. >You resist the urge to respond with some quip.
  274. "Alright, then."
  275. >You pluck a cushion off the couch -- crimson, quilted, and buttoned in the middle -- and toss it gently to a spot next to Careful on the rug.
  276. >You sit down on it cross-legged and put Careful's drink down.
  277. >She eyes it for a second.
  278. >"Can I have a straw?"
  279. "...yeah."
  280. >You get it and plop it in.
  281. >"Thank you!"
  282. "You're welcome."
  283.  
  284. >...
  285. >...okay, fine.
  286. >You can admit it to yourself now.
  287. >She's sweet.
  288. >...in her way.
  289. >You smile at her.
  290. "Cheers."
  291. >You plink your glass gently against hers.
  292. >She looks at you with slightly-widened eyes and an otherwise neutral expression that can only be startled confusion.
  293. >You guess... you guess ponies don't do "cheers."
  294. >Probably hard, with hooves.
  295. >Like drinking without a straw.
  296. "It means 'enjoy.'"
  297. >Satisfied, she offers a quick smile, sits down, and takes a sip of water.
  298. >You do the same.
  299.  
  300. >It's late enough that you can hear crickets outside now, you notice.
  301. >Funny that they can live this far up a mountainside.
  302. >"I guess it's okay to sit on the couch."
  303. "Huh?"
  304. >"The couch. View of the door from there is fine. Higher up and I could probably still jump off it real quick."
  305. "Cool."
  306. >You take a seat. She follows.
  307. >She sits with her legs out, head up, booty in your direction.
  308. >Not exactly supine, but it's more relaxed than you've seen her all evening.
  309. "Comfortable?"
  310. >"Yeah."
  311. >You hear something weird in her voice, so you look over at her.
  312. >She's looking down and her eyes are swimming.
  313. >Oh fuck.
  314. >What did you do now?
  315.  
  316. "Careful? You okay?"
  317. >She grits her teeth and forces her eyes shut for a moment, trying to stem her tears and still her lower lip.
  318. >She succeeds at neither.
  319. >"I-"
  320. >She hiccups.
  321. "You're fine. Take your time."
  322. >"Like this... I can't... the door."
  323. >She gestures over to the entryway with a hoof.
  324. "I'll keep an eye on it. Anyway, you've got those guard-senses. I'm sure you can still kick shit at a moment's notice."
  325. >She manages a smile for a second.
  326. >"Hee. Yeah. Kick shit."
  327. >She starts sobbing.
  328.  
  329. >You're not exactly sure what to do.
  330. >If she were a person, you'd hold her hand, you guess.
  331. >Closest you can get to that is, what... a foreleg?
  332. >Okay, a foreleg.
  333. >She's turned toward you a bit, so you gently place your hand on one of her outstretched legs.
  334. >In response, she gets up and crawls into your lap.
  335. >She's kind of big for it, but she curls up and rests her head on your leg.
  336. >This is... not what you expected.
  337. >She's as heavy as she was earlier in the park, but this time the couch does its fair part in supporting the earth pony's weight.
  338. >"I've," she manages to get out.
  339. >You get an arm around her.
  340. >She snuggles into you a little and calms down enough to continue.
  341. >"I've just been a nuisance to you all day. I'm really sorry."
  342. >Well, she's not wrong, but you don't... you appreciated she was trying, right?
  343. >And you definitely didn't want her to feel bad and break down into tears.
  344. >Like, holy shit. Look at her. She's adorable.
  345. >She even has freckles. You only just noticed.
  346. >You gotta fix this, Anon.
  347.  
  348. "You're doing your job. I appreciate it. Really! I'm sorry I didn't say so."
  349. >"No, not you, not you..."
  350. >Oh, thank fuck.
  351. >You definitely thought it was you.
  352. >"Those guards. The ones outside the library. Talking about me. They were... they were right."
  353.  
  354. >You remember those guards.
  355. >They had been speaking quietly, but you'd made out a few snippets of discussion:
  356. >"any job she can find ... desperate to ..."
  357. >Something like that.
  358. "We could barely hear them where we were. I'm sure they were talking about a different pony. Maybe not even about a pony."
  359. >At this, Careful Watch looks at you and gently flicks one of her ears with a hoof.
  360. >"Guard senses."
  361. >She looks at you, tears still flowing, lip still quivering.
  362. "...Oh."
  363.  
  364. >She can only speak quietly now -- whimpers between sobs -- but you manage to keep her talking to you.
  365. >"I k-know Canterlot is... it's the least dangerous place most ponies can think of. That most the guards are just for decoration. B-but bad... BAD..."
  366. >She's inconsolable again.
  367. >You throw aside formality and embrace her, hugging her to you, ignoring protruding bits of plate and mail that poke you.
  368. >After a bit, she calms down again.
  369. >"Bad things," she continues. "Can still happen to ponies. Even in Canterlot."
  370. >She seems to dwell on that last point.
  371. >Before you can ask her about it, she goes on:
  372. >"And decoration doesn't do any good when they do."
  373. "So you do your job proper regardless of where it is."
  374. >"It's more than that. I just want ponies... ponies to know, they're a-always... they're always safe, if I can be there for them. Even if it's only me.
  375. >"I... I know that, probably, nothing will come t-through your door tonight. But I want YOU to know that nothing will happen, even if something d-does. No matter what.
  376. >"Everypony deserves that."
  377. >As she says that, partially to you and partially to herself, it seems, she finally seems to calm down.
  378.  
  379. >Finally, she's relaxed.
  380. >"It means everything to me. But... I know it's silly. Maybe the other guards are right. Maybe... maybe I'm just a big stupid."
  381. >You're not sure what to say.
  382. >You're still awestruck by her outpouring.
  383. >This isn't what you would have bargained for this morning, in the park.
  384. >This... you don't think you've ever met a person or pony quite like this.
  385. >Then your mind snaps back to reality.
  386. >There's only one, completely obvious thing to say right now.
  387. "You're not a big stupid."
  388.  
  389. >"...Thank you."
  390. "How about I crash on the couch? Keep you company? Maybe it'll make the door-watch less monotonous."
  391. >"I'd really like that."
  392.  
  393. "...what about a unicorn?"
  394. >"Evade long enough to sneak up and kick them in the head. It's hard to cast when you've gotten kicked in the head."
  395. "Big earth pony?"
  396. >"Then I'm an earth pony too, but I'm wearing armor."
  397. "Pegasus?"
  398. >"Breaking down a door? Pfff."
  399.  
  400. >Once Careful had calmed down, she had carefully and embarassedly climbed out of your lap and off the couch before trotting back to her position in center of the room.
  401. >After standing there a moment, she had come back briefly, nuzzled your leg, and gone back.
  402. >Now, after she took a quick break to wash her face, you've just been shooting the candlelight shit for a while.
  403. >Trying to keep her entertained since she'll be up all night.
  404. >You're fading fast, though.
  405. >You shift a bit, getting yourself comfortable reclined on the soft cushions and pulling the light blanket you keep out here up to your neck.
  406.  
  407. "Minotaur?"
  408. >"Wouldn't be in Canterlot without a passport."
  409. "Just entertain me!"
  410. >"Well, we're told to... oh, it's embarassing."
  411. "Out with it!"
  412. >"Uh... 'low hanging fruit!'"
  413. >She giggles.
  414. "Oof, sorry I asked."
  415.  
  416. >You look at her, still standing at attention in your living room, of all places.
  417. "You sure you don't want to make yourself just a little comfortable? I mean, the couch has space."
  418. >Wait, what did you just say?
  419. "Eh, at that end there, I mean."
  420. >Smooth.
  421. >"I can't risk nodding off!"
  422. "But you conserve your energy at least... right?"
  423. >"Well... maybe."
  424. "Would you do it for me? I can ease up knowing you're at least relaxed. I trust you not to pass out if you just... you know, sit down."
  425. >You're certain she's rolling her eyes.
  426. >"Oh, fine! Will this do?"
  427. >She pulls over the cushion you left on the floor earlier, sits, and rests her front half on it, but keeps her head high and alert.
  428. "Perfect. You comfortable?"
  429. >"Very!"
  430. >You nod off a few minutes later while you were mumbling something tiredly to Careful.
  431. >Can't remember exactly what.
  432.  
  433. ...
  434.  
  435. >Another day, another walk in the park, another takedown by Careful Watch.
  436. >She got you good this time, knocking you onto the soft, pillowy grass, but your arms and legs are freer than they were yesterday.
  437. >You think about asking her what the threat was this time, and she says
  438. >"You're safe, I want you to be safe,"
  439. >while she looks down at you with hazel eyes, a fixed gaze, determined, not confused;
  440. >she gets closer, her nose brushes yours, you remember that you barely have anyone in Equestria you can call a "friend,"
  441. >and she's nuzzling your face now, and your free arms are wrapping around her midsection, pulling her close;
  442. >feeling contours of ribs through gaps in armor, subtle widening towards hips and muscular legs,
  443.  
  444. >...
  445.  
  446. >You wake up, feeling a bit weird.
  447. >Did you sleep in an awkward position?
  448. >Nah, the couch is wicked comfy.
  449. >Probably just some dream. You wish you could remember more than bits and pieces of them.
  450. >It's still dark.
  451. >You drift back off to sleep.
  452.  
  453. >...And there's the sun.
  454. >You yawn.
  455. >"Good morning, sir," a groggy voice says.
  456. "Morning, Careful."
  457. >You sit up, feeling fantastically rested.
  458. "Want some breakfast?"
  459. >"Uh... later."
  460. "Anything?"
  461. >"Well..."
  462. "What is it?"
  463. >"The sun's up, and you're up, which means my shift's over. So I'm here on my time now."
  464. "And?"
  465. >"...that guest room offer still stand?" she asks, smiling wearily, the corners of her eyes wrinkled.
  466. "Of course."
  467. >"Great. Breakfast in, uh... maybe a little later, then?"
  468. "Sure. I'll get veggie strips."
  469. >"Hee. Thanks."
  470. "Anything else?"
  471. >"Mind handling my armor? Just put it, you know, in the closet or something."
  472. "Sure."
  473. >"Great."
  474.  
  475. >You go to the kitchen and get to preparing some tea and toast for yourself.
  476. >In the other room, you hear clasps clicking, hoofsteps going toward the guest room door, and the occasional 'CLUNK' of an armlet or backplate dropping to the ground.
  477. >You come back in just in time to see Careful Watch slinking through the door, the last piece of armor, her helmet, discarded behind her...
  478. >And her long, ginger mane and tail trailing lightly on the floor.
  479. >Are... are you seeing this right?
  480. >Where was she hiding that all?
  481. >Must take some careful tucking to keep that out of the way while she's on duty.
  482. >She turns and pokes her head out, looking at you, her messy mane over one ear.
  483. >"See you in a little while, Anon!"
  484.  
  485. ...
  486.  
  487. >Each piece of that armor weighs, like, forty pounds.
  488. >It just looks like bronze or something.
  489. >Probably enchanted, you figure.
  490. >You manage to heft it all over to the coat closet and stow it in a saddle-bag.
  491.  
  492. >You sit down in the kitchen, sip some tea, have some buttered toast, look out the window, and listen to Careful snore in the other room.
  493. >It's been maybe five minutes and she's already out like a light.
  494. >You feel comfortable admitting to yourself that she's a wicked cute poner.
  495. >Notwithstanding the face that, if so motivated, she could probably kick your spleen hard enough to force it out your mouth.
  496.  
  497. >The view outside is nice.
  498. >It's overcast, but even overcast days look beautiful in fuckin' pony-topia.
  499. >Way off, over a narrow vista near your place, you can see a rain cloud unloading on a distant farm.
  500. >Sun rays pierce the puffy, white-grey veil every few square miles, keeping the landscape well-enough lit for the weather.
  501. >The sun god that rules over this place must have an aesthetic eye, you figure.
  502. >...you're not sure she's really a god, but that's the impression you get from her description, and you stopped asking those kinds of questions about this place the first time a little horse walked up to you and introduced itself in English.
  503.  
  504. >You finish your tea and toast, stretch, and look out over the road, seeing a few pastel pink, purple and blue mares and stallions coming out for the early shifts on your street's cafes and grocers.
  505. >Perfect time to go nab some of that veggie bacon Careful likes, you think.
  506. >You head to your room, thinking about what to throw on for your little morning jaunt.
  507.  
  508. ...
  509.  
  510. >Veggie bacon!
  511. >A whole forest of veggie bacon!
  512. >It's growing on trees, it's growing on bushes.
  513. >Red, brown, smoky, delicious, and everywhere.
  514. >You prance through the forest, your tail swishing back and forth, your eyes sparkling, your mouth agape and salivating.
  515. >So often what you find in stores is the junk: stuff made from salted, stamped-together, leftover bits of actual produce
  516. >But here, this is the tops, the primo: strips of beet, carrot, and yam, sliced fresh, glazed, and smoked to perfection over a pristine log of hickory, like Papa made, like Miss Ami makes since you brought her the old recipe, but that's not quite the same...
  517. >You run and forage, plucking strip after strip from the limbs you can reach and flipping them onto the platter skilfully balanced on your back.
  518. >Finally, you have enough for everyone.
  519. >You go to the clearing, crouch, and carefully slide the platter onto your picnic blanket.
  520. >Everyone's here: Papa, and Miss Ami, and even your new friend. He loves veggie bacon, too!
  521. >You all huddle close under the bright sun and dig in.
  522. >It's the happiest you've been in a long time.
  523.  
  524. >You wake up.
  525. >You're in bed, chewing on your mane.
  526. >You feel rested, but still weary; it's never until the second morning after a 24-hour watch that you really feel back to normal.
  527. >You pull your hair out of your mouth.
  528. >It was... it was that dream again.
  529. >You've spent two years visiting your shrink, but the dream still pops up once every month or two, in one variation or another.
  530. >This time in... in a very strange one.
  531. >You guess this is another morning you're going to start off with a good cry.
  532. >You'll have to offer to do laundry for Anon. Can't have him finding your face-print stained into this pillow, especially after last night...
  533. >Oh, Celestia's sake. He probably wouldn't be surprised after looking after you last night, like you were a little filly again.
  534. >On-shift, too!
  535.  
  536. >And who are you kidding? Anon's not a friend, just a client.
  537. >He didn't really need your help -- he knows it, you know it.
  538. >He's just being nice and making breakfast. Not unheard of.
  539. >It's what any nice stallion does for a houseguest.
  540. >Or... whatever he is. Sort of a smaller, handsome, more pony-like ogre?
  541. >You had sprung at the opportunity to help him, because he's from really far away, you heard, and you didn't think he has many friends here, and maybe he could use some company.
  542. >But he seems to do fine on his...
  543. >On his...
  544.  
  545. >You sniff the air.
  546. >Sweet potato and hickory.
  547. >He bought the GOOD stuff!
  548. >It's just enough to lift you from a weepy mood into a mopey one.
  549. >Just put on a smile, eat, excuse yourself, head home, and catch up on sleep.
  550. >Just another boring day for you, Careful.
  551. >You haul yourself out of the cozy guest bed and head to the kitchen.
  552.  
  553. ...
  554.  
  555. >As soon as the veggie bacon started to sizzle, you heard Careful stirring in the guest room.
  556. >Some hoofsteps... then, a moment of quiet.
  557. >"Anon?"
  558. >Bonk. Bonk.
  559. >"Haaaaaaaalp!"
  560. >...the doorknob.
  561. >Why the hell do you have the guest room fitted with a doorknob?
  562. >It has been months since you have met anyone or anything that can use a doorknob.
  563. >Should probably get that redesigned.
  564. >"You're there, right?"
  565. "Sorry. Be right over!"
  566.  
  567. >You put down your tea and spatula, scuttle over, and open the door.
  568. >It is, of course, Careful, but you've never seen her unadorned.
  569. >The mane you saw before wasn't a trick of the light. You've hardly seen any Canterlotters who wear it so long.
  570. >Her coat looks like you expected: light brown all over, like coffee mixed with a generous amount of cream.
  571. >Copper, ginger, or white flecks break its uniformity in only a few spots.
  572. >Some of them on her cheeks were the ones you thought of as "freckles."
  573. >She's not musclebound, but clearly fit; she needs to be to wear that three-hundred ton garb you have stowed in the closet.
  574. >Lastly, you had just thought her haunchplates were wide, but that was all her.
  575.  
  576. >You resist the urge to try to pat her head or something and let her into the kitchen.
  577. >Last night there had, of course, been some consensual petting.
  578. >But unsolicited petting?
  579. >You're a better man than that, Anon.
  580. >You don't pet a cute pone without her permission.
  581. >Like, if she's your good friend.
  582. >...
  583. >You haven't made many friends in Canterlot.
  584. >Careful... she seems nice.
  585. >And not bonkers, like the chronically overeager pones who constantly greet you in the streets, or the other ones that piss themselves when you so much as look their way.
  586. >You've been kind of a loner here long enough. Maybe it 's time to try giving a potential pone friend a shot?
  587. >Because friendship is... you know.
  588. >Important.
  589.  
  590. >May as well go for it.
  591. "Careful?"
  592. >She stops on her way to the kitchen and looks over her shoulder.
  593. >"Huh?"
  594. "Instead of splitting after breakfast, wanna hang out?"
  595. >"Oh! I..."
  596. >You hadn't noticed until now that there was something off in her demeanor -- a subtle weariness despite her nap, a strange disinterest in her favorite food cooking in the next room, the lack of the firm spring in her step she had when she was on duty yesterday.
  597. >As you said "hang out," some of it seemed to go away.
  598. "It's cool if you're busy. My schedule's free whenever you're not though. Cause all my friends are, you know. Back home."
  599. >At "friends," she perked up entirely.
  600. >"Y-yeah! I'm not busy. Always a few free days after 24-hour duty."
  601. "Great. Maybe you can show me some more spots in the city? I haven't been around much as I'd like. Like that sandwich place. I bet there's all sorts of little nooks I've got left to find."
  602. >"I know every one! Part of the job. Oh, you'll love it! Let's go!"
  603. "What, no breakfast?'
  604. >"Oh, right. Yes. Breakfast."
  605.  
  606. >To your surprise, Careful Watch eats her first piece of veg bacon very slowly.
  607. >She gnaws on it thoughtfully, savoring every bite.
  608. >She swallows.
  609. >"You got the good stuff! Sweet potato is my favorite."
  610. "Happy to oblige."
  611. >Then she...
  612. >Sweet Jesus.
  613. >It's like a bacon-hungry F5 tornado made landfall on your little oak table.
  614. >She chases the smacking, gobbling display of unearthly horrors with a mere sip of cranberry juice.
  615. >"I like the juice, too!"
  616. "It's from... from that organic place."
  617. >"Neat. So, you ready for your patented Careful Watch Tour of Canterlot?"
  618. "After I finish?"
  619. >You gesture to your plate, completely full except for a nibble from one of the smoky yam strips.
  620. >Careful blushes.
  621. >"Ehe. Take your time."
  622.  
  623. ...
  624.  
  625. >Getting around with Careful Watch had been slow-going while she was on duty.
  626. >She'd check every corner, size up every passerby...
  627. >Frankly, you'd thought she was a fucking nuisance.
  628. >...and now you feel terrible for remembering that.
  629. >Since last night, she's become your first and only friend in Equestria.
  630. >Or at least the closest thing you have to one.
  631. >You even long for that nice, leisurely pace last night, since, now, as she's helping you tour the streets of Canterlot's uptown, you can barely keep up with her.
  632. >She canters down each street, pointing out local views, shops, watering holes, and points of interest, all the while maintaining the pace of an adorable, cinnamon dart.
  633. >Sometimes you lose sight of her, only to see her peeking at you from around the corner at the end of the block, waving excitedly for you to follow.
  634. >Having someone -- er, "somepony" -- this enthusiastic to hang out with you, it's, well...
  635. >There's something you haven't wanted to acknowledge, a bit of yourself you know has been there a while but have never wanted to look directly at, stirring in you ever since you came to "Equestria," this crazy, horse-run, near-utopia.
  636. >You've just felt kind of out-of-place and miserable.
  637. >You had thought of it at first like a minority in a new country, but it's not even comparable to that.
  638. >You're the only thing like yourself anywhere in this world.
  639. >It had been dizzying and difficult to acknowledge this thought until you met this pony who did more than give you frivolous, culturally-expected "hellos" in the street, who went out of her way to get assigned to you, tackle you, and stay awake in your foyer just so you'd feel comfortable here.
  640. >Now you see it fine, and you're satisfied it's behind you.
  641. >Unlike the ginger tail flitting around a corner ahead of you.
  642. >Careful calls back to you:
  643. "Hey! You were looking for a new book, right?"
  644. >You round the corner to see a perfectly dingy sign:
  645. >"'Over the Moon:' Secondhoof Books for Discerning Ponies."
  646.  
  647. >This is exactly the type of place you dig.
  648. >Careful must have an eye for character better than her eye for, well... archery equipment.
  649. "I love it."
  650. >"After you!" she says.
  651.  
  652. >You open the door to book shop.
  653. >At the end of it's swing, it strikes a bell, producing less of a ring than a hollow 'ping.'
  654. >Upon close inspection, it looks like the little, dangly part that makes it ring is missing.
  655. >It's there more for appearance than for function, but it seems to fulfill both of these perfectly well, as you hear a voice call from the back of the shop:
  656. "Welcome to 'Over the Moon!' I'll be right with you!"
  657.  
  658. >The shopkeeper emerges from behind a counter, where, until you came in, she seems to have been engrossed in a text larger than her.
  659. >You're officially on a streak of meeting adorable poners today.
  660. >She's got a messy mane with bangs, red with a streak of purple down one side, and a creamy white coat.
  661. >To top it off, she's got some thick-rimmed glasses and a cozy-looking sweater with purple buttons, the kind you'd wear curled up in a corner with a good read at home.
  662. >This is clearly a pony who likes her day job.
  663. >"My name's Moondancer," she says, smiling up at you.
  664. >"Can I help you find anything?"
  665.  
  666. "Hi! I'm, uh, looking for something similar to a book I got the other day."
  667. >"What is it?"
  668. "Well, I liked Koltien's first book, but..."
  669. >"--You couldn't stand the rest? Right. That's a usual problem with, uh..."
  670. >Moondancer looks like she's carefully considering her next words.
  671. >"...the less... the type of readers who aren't, uh, *very* literate?"
  672. >Well, she tried.
  673. "Yeah. Couldn't make it past the half-book aside in the forest-mule's cabin. You know anything in the genre that's not so hung up on every scene?"
  674. >"Well, I always take notes when I'm reading. You know. So I can really appreciate it when it's detail heavy?
  675. >She's so sincere you couldn't possibly suspect her of passive-aggression.
  676. >Still, she seems to suddenly become aware of what she just said, blushing furiously and breaking eye contact for a moment.
  677. >"That is, I mean, uh... it wouldn't be very good for business if you just did that, though! And I'm sure I can help you find something that'll help you actually enjoy your reading time. That's most important!"
  678. >Nice recovery, book pone.
  679. "Of course!"
  680. >"I think I can help you pick out the perfect book for a discerning, uh..."
  681. >Another awkward pause.
  682. >"-what are you, exactly? I hope you don't mind my asking. I don't get out of Canterlot much?"
  683. "Well, it's a long story."
  684. >"That was the issue with Koltien, right?"
  685. >...is she serious?
  686. >Oh.
  687. >She's smiling.
  688. >It's a joke.
  689. >A cute little book-horse joke.
  690. "'Human.' Bipedal, intelligent, from way far away. Only one you'll probably meet."
  691. >"Neat! I'll have to look you up. Or maybe you can fill me in some time. I do a little science. Just... just dabbling."
  692. "Sounds good! I can see myself coming back here."
  693. >"Great! Let's head to the back. I keep all the fantasy there. Some of my favorites! You know, I actually arrange them chronologically, because I like to be able to look through them that way and see how the genre's developed with time, and..."
  694.  
  695. >You smile and nod as she chatters on like she doesn't have a care in the world.
  696. >You'll definitely visit here again.
  697. >You notice Careful Watch nosing through the "mystery" section.
  698. >Her eyes widen with excitement and a little fear when she pulls out a book with agrisly cover illustration.
  699. >She grins as she flips open the front cover and reads the flap.
  700.  
  701. >You get back to the fantasy section with Moondancer.
  702. >Looks pretty extensive.
  703. >You have no idea where to start.
  704. "What...?"
  705. >"I already know just what to recommend! Have you heard of R.R. Heyton's stuff? 'A Tale of Ash and Frostbite?'"
  706. "I... might have. Nope, I haven't read it, though."
  707. >"I think you'll really like it. A real page-turner. Still doesn't lack for detail. There's a nook in the corner, if you wanna read a little while with your friend, give it a go?"
  708. "I'd love that. Will let you know in a bit!"
  709. >"Great! I'll be at the counter."
  710. >Moondancer heads back behind the counter, ducking back into that massive tone.
  711.  
  712. >You meet up with Careful in the reading area by the window.
  713. >She smiles at you, gesturing with her head to a beanbag next to her.
  714. >You flop down on it, stretch your legs, and open Heyton.
  715.  
  716. >This IS up your alley.
  717. >The characters are interesting and the setting is endlessly cool.
  718. >It's also as saucy and murderous as any pone literature you've read.
  719. >Not pornographic, but not G-rated.
  720. >Maybe that's why you never found this thumbing through the library.
  721. >You have to look around briefly as you get to a particular passage about a royal unicorn brother and sister and a carrot on a stick.
  722. >Just a few other customers milling around. No one staring at you reading.
  723. >Only paranoia, Anon.
  724. >You quickly glance out the window, noting the sunny, bright weather.
  725. >You glance at Careful, noting her pensive expression as she reads, her wide, round hips, and the way she's curled up with the grisly mystery novel.
  726. >Anyway, this book seems like a keeper. Better ring it...
  727. >...
  728. >Wait.
  729. >What did you just think?
  730.  
  731. >...Did you really just size Careful up?
  732. >That's one hell of an intrusive thought.
  733. >Like, good lord, man.
  734. >She's a horse.
  735. >She... she just has good muscles on her.
  736. >Yeah!
  737. >She's gotta carry that heavy plated armor in back to give her buck some weight.
  738. >In case she needs to, you know, kick through a minotaur's eye socket.
  739.  
  740. >...
  741.  
  742. >Now you remember taking a quick glance at her butt before breakfast, too.
  743. >Ok.
  744. >Fine.
  745. >You simply see, objectively, that she's got a nice figure.
  746. >For a horse.
  747. >One little look doesn't make you some sort of deviant.
  748. >She's basically sort of human anyway, right?
  749. >Because, a real horse, it looks nothing like her.
  750. >...not that she's not real.
  751. >But, you know.
  752. >She can talk.
  753.  
  754. >You're humanizing her even more in your head, too.
  755. >It's just your reptile brain operating the way it does during a dry spell.
  756. >It's been months since you've seen a human, so there's not much you can do about that, is there?
  757. >...You're not even sure if you remember what exactly people look like.
  758. >Except yourself.
  759. >Each passing week, humanity's become more and more a memory.
  760. >And Equestria's become more and more real.
  761.  
  762. >...And you're still looking over the edge of your book at Careful's bum.
  763. >You turn back to your book, mindlessly running your eyes over the sentences.
  764.  
  765. >Look, Anon.
  766. >Here's the deal.
  767. >You're just overthinking an involuntary action.
  768. >...OK, two involuntary actions.
  769. >That's called "coincidence."
  770. >It happens. Statistically.
  771. >Regardless of what you think, all you're doing today is exploring the city with your new friend.
  772. >It's nothing more complicated than that.
  773. >Regardless of her physique.
  774.  
  775. >Anyway, you learned something about Careful just now.
  776. >Her cutie mark, it's a... like, a clock.
  777. >An unfinished one. More of a pocketwatch.
  778. >The face is off.
  779. >You can see the golden gears inside, colored intricately in the detail of her soft fur.
  780. >A timepiece for a pony who works strict hours.
  781. >That's pretty cool, right?
  782. >See, you're just learning.
  783. >Not ogling.
  784. >Yes.
  785. >Learning.
  786. >What an interesting thing you've learned about your friend.
  787.  
  788. >Anyway, it's been a while.
  789. >Heyton is good, you've found, so best go ring it up.
  790. "Careful?"
  791. >"Mmh?"
  792. "I'm gonna talk to Moondancer and buy this book. Want me to cover the one you've got there, too? My treat."
  793. >"Oh! I was just flippin' through it. You don't need to."
  794. "You're so into it! Come on. It'll make me happy. Really."
  795. >She holds her book out again, looking once more over the cover.
  796. >The illustration is a mare frightened by the presence of a character out-of-sight.
  797. >A candle casts the shadow of a hoof with a knife in it (how that works you still haven't figured out) on the wall behind her.
  798. >Careful scrunches indecisively.
  799. >Then: "Awh, yeah. I do really like it. You'll do that?"
  800. "I owe you at least that much for the night shift."
  801. >"Thanks!"
  802.  
  803. >Moondancer's back at the counter, her face buried in her tome again.
  804. >She's in her own world even as you walk right up to her.
  805. "Hey."
  806. >She looks up at you and smiles.
  807. >"Hey! How's Heyton?"
  808. "It's great. I'll take it. Picking this one up for my friend, too."
  809. >"'Hoofcule Poirot and the Fillydelphia Flayer.' Good one."
  810. "Looks like it."
  811. >"Hehe, yeah. Don't you love the illustrations?"
  812. >She magics out a list and quill from under the table.
  813. >Inventory, it looks like.
  814. >She makes a few checks.
  815. >"Okay. Six bits for both."
  816. "That little? You definitely have a new customer."
  817. >"I'm in this for the love of the books. You can come to Over the Moon and get a quality purchase on a book that needs a home at any time!"
  818. >Then she winks at you.
  819. >"I'm also giving you a little discount for choosing my place as a venue for your date. I'd be head-over-hooves for a stallion who brought me to a place like this!"
  820. >"-if I didn't already own one," she adds, smiling sheepishly.
  821. "Thanks. I'll make sure to... uhm... wait. What?"
  822.  
  823. >"Your date," says Moondancer.
  824.  
  825. "It's not a date."
  826. >"You're giving her a lot of attention for 'not a date.'"
  827. >She's smiling.
  828. >Knowingly.
  829. >...could she-?
  830.  
  831. "How would you know? That book's taller than you are."
  832. >She gestures to the opposite corner of the store.
  833. >Mirror.
  834. >Full view of the entrance and the reading-nook.
  835. >Careful sees you through it.
  836. >She waves.
  837. >You wave.
  838. >Moondancer waves.
  839.  
  840. >You turn back to Moondancer.
  841. >She's barely stifling a grin.
  842. "She was... I met her when she was on guard duty, right? I've never seen her cutie mark until now."
  843. >"Sure."
  844. "The uniform. It covered it up."
  845. >"Sure."
  846. "Isn't what you're suggesting illegal?"
  847. >"Nope."
  848. "W-what?"
  849. >"Is she sapient?"
  850. "Yeah."
  851. >"Are you sapient?"
  852. "Y-yeah."
  853. >"Fillies don't have hips like that. You're in the clear."
  854. "...you're kidding."
  855. >"Pony law is really easy."
  856.  
  857. "I... I..."
  858. >She's turned around to make notes in the ledger.
  859. >She also writes something inside the cover of your new book.
  860. >She bags it up and hands it to you.
  861. "...please don't tell her I was looking at her butt. She's my friend. Really. I'm just awkward. New here."
  862. >Moondancer's gleeful expression momentarily turns into one of concern.
  863. >"I'm sorry! Did I overdo it with the teasing? I didn't mean to upset you."
  864.  
  865. >...it's another cute bookhorse joke.
  866. >She got you good, Anon.
  867. >You roll your eyes and offer a smile.
  868. >She smiles back.
  869. >"Everypony likes butts. Don't worry."
  870. >"I'm a little awkward, too," she adds, gesturing to the title of her tome.
  871. >'The Encyclopedia of Sociability for Socially Awkward Ponies. T - S.'
  872. "Very funny. So, what's the full price come to?"
  873. >"Six bits."
  874. "Oh?"
  875. >"My cute 'humen' discount."
  876. >She flutters her eyelashes behind her thick-rimmed glasses.
  877. >"Left a little note in your book too. In case you'd like to take me on a 'friendly outing' some time?"
  878. "Uh... thanks!"
  879. >"Come again!" Moondancer calls as you and Careful make your way out.
  880.  
  881. >As the door swings shut, Careful whispers:
  882. >"I think Moondancer likes you, Anon!"
  883.  
  884. >You suddenly and painfully realize that Careful may have overheard your conversation with Moondancer.
  885. "W-what gave you that idea?"
  886. >"Little things. Expressions you'd miss if you weren't trained to look for them. I couldn't make out her tone of voice from across the shop, but let me tell you: she's into you."
  887. >Ah.
  888. >Relief.
  889. >You don't have the heart to tell Careful that Moondancer's expressions were pretty hard to misinterpret.
  890.  
  891. "Oh. You, uh, think so?"
  892. >"Yeah! Call it a mare's intuition. Also..."
  893. >She poses as if she's at attention, saluting with one hoof.
  894. >"Guard-senses!"
  895.  
  896. >Her attitude's infectious.
  897. >You can't help but grin.
  898. >You check the note Moondancer made in your book:
  899. >'Hope you enjoy! ~Moonie,' it says, followed by a list of store hours and a mailing address. 'Check back any time!'
  900. >And a smiley face.
  901.  
  902. "Well, she seems nice, but I think I'll keep things friendly."
  903. >"Good!" says Careful. "I mean, uh, yeah. Probably wouldn't wanna rush into, ah, ..."
  904. >She mumbles some conclusion to that thought.
  905. "Honestly, I didn't even know ponies were into... well, anything other than ponies."
  906. >Suddenly, she regains interest in the discussion.
  907. >"Oh, sure! It's perfectly allowed!"
  908. "So I've been told."
  909. >"We generally do keep among our selves, uh, like 'that.' But everypony likes variety."
  910.  
  911. "Do you like variety, Careful?"
  912.  
  913. >...It came out of your mouth before you could stop yourself.
  914. >Eh, it didn't sound too licentious.
  915. >You're probably fine.
  916. >...
  917. >Nope.
  918. >One furiously blushing poni.
  919. >Check.
  920.  
  921. >"T-t-that," Careful says, "I... I mean..."
  922. >She's sat down on her rump and hind legs, holding her long mane up to her face.
  923. >Still, her eyes peek out at you.
  924. >They say everything: she is one flustered pone.
  925. >You honestly hadn't expected her to react like this.
  926. >A little roll of her eyes, maybe, before addressing the question as if you both believed it was totally innocent.
  927. >But... this?
  928.  
  929. >...Okay.
  930. >You can admit it to yourself.
  931. >She's your friend, she's a girl, she's cute, and maybe
  932. >--MAYBE--
  933. >you like the attention.
  934. >Is that so bad?
  935.  
  936. >It goes no further than that, of course.
  937. >You're not some pervert.
  938. >You're not gonna PRESS it.
  939. >You're friends first.
  940. >You just like teasing her a little if it gets this kind of reaction out of her.
  941.  
  942. >...as long as she's okay with it.
  943. >You should make sure of that, because she is still speechlessly embarrassed.
  944. >Radio silence from Careful going on maybe half a minute now.
  945. >Those huge eyes are begging you for a lifeline.
  946. "--oh. Sorry! I only meant in general. You seem interested in... in the subject. In general."
  947.  
  948. >It takes a second, but Careful lets her mane back down.
  949. >Slowly.
  950. >One hoof at a time.
  951. >She gets walking down the street.
  952. >You follow alongside her.
  953.  
  954. >You... you didn't piss her off, did you?
  955. >You must have.
  956. >You put your foot in it, Anon.
  957. >You fucked up.
  958. >You--
  959.  
  960. >Oh.
  961. >She's smiling.
  962. >You're fine.
  963. >It's not exactly ear-to-ear.
  964. >Worst case, it's a "oh, I'm glad you didn't just publicly ask me if I wanted to go to Interspecies Town with you" smile.
  965. >Could've done worse.
  966.  
  967. >"You won't tell anyone?" she finally, quietly asks, her mane hanging over one eye.
  968. "It's all acceptable, isn't it?"
  969. >"That doesn't mean there aren't things we save for discussion in *private*."
  970. >...ok, she's a little pissed.
  971. >Well, she's still talking to you.
  972. "Sure thing, Careful. You've gotta tell me, though. This sounds juicy."
  973. >She scrunches momentarily.
  974. >"Anon!"
  975. "Sorry! I just like pushing your buttons."
  976. >"Leave my buttons alone."
  977. "I like your buttons."
  978. >That gets a little red back into her face.
  979. "It's... it's just my weird way of getting to know you. I know my guard-pony pretty well, from yesterday, but I'm still getting to know Careful Watch, right?"
  980.  
  981. >She thinks for a moment.
  982. >"Oh... fine! I'll tell you."
  983. >Aw yiss.
  984. >"--but you have to make up for embarrassing me nearly to tears outside the bookstore!"
  985. >Ah.
  986. >Well.
  987. >That's fair.
  988. "Anything in mind?"
  989. >"Well, I brought us this way for a reason!"
  990.  
  991. >She gestures at the storefront you've both just walked up to.
  992. >"Marescow Mel's Cocktails and Fudge!" an ornate, old-fashioned sign declares.
  993. >"My favorite!" Careful declares, awaiting your affirmation, her eyes sparkling.
  994. >She doesn't need to wait.
  995. >This looks fucking amazing.
  996. "We need this. Now."
  997. >"YAY!"
  998.  
  999. >You and Careful step into Marescow Mel's.
  1000. >You had thought it was just a candy shop.
  1001. >Oh, Anon.
  1002. >This is the land of the color horses.
  1003. >They don't fuck around when it comes to candy.
  1004.  
  1005. >This is the swankiest joint you've ever been in.
  1006. >It's like a horse speakeasy.
  1007. >The carpeting and walls are deep red; the dim lighting comes from simple candelabras.
  1008. >Up on the stage, a small group of the hippest-looking pones you've seen are blowing jazz smooth like you've never heard it.
  1009. >It's only the late afternoon and the place is already packed.
  1010. >There are tables out in the open, by the stage, and more intimate ones, boothed privately along the walls.
  1011. >Nearest the stage sit Canterlot's unicorn swingers and socialites, dressed in eveningwear, holding aloft umbrella drinks, smoking cigarettes in holders, and lifting perfect and colorful spheres of fudge on toothpicks to their mouths, to nibble like they're never going to finish them.
  1012. >Of course, besides them sit both empty bowls and bowls still full of dozens of delectable orbs.
  1013. >You decide to stop counting calories for the day.
  1014.  
  1015. >A voice rings out: sultry, husky, and nearly indistinguishable:
  1016. >"Kerfool! My darleenk. Your Mama Melexi not seen you in days. Vas vorried. Come giff us hug, sveetheart."
  1017. >"Hi, Mel!" says Careful, rushing over to embrace this new pone: an old but not elderly mare, her mane grey at the edges and faded gold at the roots, her coat a deep red, her cutie mark a maraschino cherry.
  1018. >"Is vonderful to see you, my dear,"
  1019. >Then, in a tone that sounds hushed but in a volume as loud as her greeting:
  1020. >"Kerfool. You have breeng ape in t-shirt in my establishment. Is joke, I hope?"
  1021.  
  1022. >"He's my friend, Mel!" says Careful.
  1023. >Mel looks at you skeptically.
  1024. >Her eyes get narrower... narrower...
  1025. >Do something, Anon.
  1026. >Break the tension.
  1027. "I promise I don't fling my own shit."
  1028. >Mel keeps looking at you.
  1029. >Then, she relaxes.
  1030. >"Good. Vas primary concern. I run clean establishment. Place for two?"
  1031. "Please."
  1032.  
  1033. >You end up in the one empty spot: a booth, private but close to the stage.
  1034. >You sit on one side, Careful sits on the other.
  1035. >Mel floats you some menus.
  1036. >"Enjoy," she dryly remarks.
  1037. >She whispers something to Careful and glances sideways at you.
  1038. >Careful giggles.
  1039. "Anything I should know?
  1040. >"Notheenk, monkey-boy," says Mel.
  1041. >Tactful.
  1042. >Careful gives you an apologetic smiles while Mel isn't looking.
  1043.  
  1044. >"You vant drinks," Mel says.
  1045. >It isn't a question.
  1046. >It's not unfriendly, either.
  1047. >The hostess has... she has kind of a charm.
  1048. >Probably why this place is hopping like it is.
  1049. >"The usual for me, Mel," says Careful.
  1050. >"Painkeeler. Stronk. Yes. You?" asks Mel.
  1051. "What do you recommend?"
  1052. >She sizes you up.
  1053. >"Stallion your size? You vill like 'Solar Eclipse.' Our 'drink fit for princess.' "
  1054. "Sounds great."
  1055. >Mel smiles.
  1056. >Maybe to herself.
  1057. >"Very good. Enjoy your..."
  1058. >She looks at Careful, then at you.
  1059. >She rolls her eyes.
  1060. >"Evenink."
  1061.  
  1062. ...
  1063.  
  1064. >"You... you gotta not... HIC!" says Careful, her chin resting on the table.
  1065. >The drinks have actual booze.
  1066. >You'd thought until now that the colorhorses hadn't figured out alcohol yet.
  1067. >"tell... ANYPONY," she finishes.
  1068. >They did figure it out, it turns out, but it hits them hard.
  1069. >You could barely even taste the rum in Careful's drink over the coconut and pineapple.
  1070.  
  1071. "I promise! Come on. It must be raunchy as hell for you to keep it so secret."
  1072. >"It isn't... not raunchy. Just private. And special."
  1073. "Of course. I'm sorry."
  1074.  
  1075. >Your own drink -- the 'Solar Eclipse' -- it's pretty good.
  1076. >No mixers you recognize. Something tart and something sweet.
  1077. >Strongest thing on the house, apparently.
  1078. >So... enough to give you a buzz.
  1079. >Eh, it's something.
  1080.  
  1081. >You peek your head out the booth and look around.
  1082. >The time's perfect.
  1083. >There's still an audience by a stage, but they're all at least a few feet off, and all focused on the act.
  1084. >The adjacent booth is unoccupied. No chance of eavesdroppers.
  1085. >There won't be a better time for her to tell you.
  1086.  
  1087. "So, what is it? Your tale of 'variety?'"
  1088. >Careful leans out of the booth herself, scanning the room.
  1089. >She looks satisfied.
  1090. >Still, she beckons you closer.
  1091. >You lean over the table.
  1092. >Careful begins.
  1093.  
  1094. >"For some of my training, I was stationed in Apple-Loosa."
  1095. "I'm not familiar."
  1096. >"Little farm-pony town. Arid. South of Everfree. I did rounds outside the town hall a few weeks."
  1097. "So, some banjo-backwater-one-horse town? Doesn't sound like a hub of exotic diversity."
  1098. >"I-I'm getting to that!"
  1099. "Okay."
  1100. >"Since a few years ago, they get, well, caravans. Trading. Food, construction materials. With, uh..."
  1101. >You lean closer, trying to look appropriately excited.
  1102. >And trying to ignore this nagging feeling of...
  1103. >...are you jealous?
  1104. >About something you haven't even heard yet?
  1105. >Over your completely pla(ohgodshesadorable)tonic friend?
  1106. >Get a grip, Anon.
  1107. >You must look sufficiently excited. Careful smiles.
  1108. >"With the... the nearby buffalo."
  1109.  
  1110. >Careful's biting her lip, barely keeping from grinning wide.
  1111. >It's the expression of a pony who's just told you the key point of her juiciest personal anecdote.
  1112. >Her excitement's contagious.
  1113. >You grin.
  1114. "Never knew you were so adventurous, Careful."
  1115. >She nods with continuing, barely-constrained glee.
  1116.  
  1117. >"A band of them, they were in town, once, in the market, while I was on-duty."
  1118. >"That's right by town hall," she adds.
  1119. >"And, this one... the chieftain usually comes in, right? He's this big, old, burly one. Fancy headdress. But he's always got a few personnel around. 'Braves,' I think they're called?"
  1120. >That name does ring a bell.
  1121.  
  1122. >"So, one day, one of the 'braves,' he comes over to me."
  1123. "What's he want?"
  1124. >"Well, I had no idea, right? I expected trouble, so I sized him up!"
  1125. >"For a buffalo, he was... small's not the right word. They're usually big, brawny. This one, he was..."
  1126. >Careful's wearing the dreamiest expression you've ever seen on her face.
  1127. >"-really lean, but muscular. Fast. A scout's build. Great mane. Wore a braid or two, like they do, with the beads. Not excessive, like some of them do."
  1128. >"So I'm prepared to tussle, and he comes up, and he says, 'I, uh, like your helmet!'"
  1129. >Her impression of him is dopey, but undeniably affectionate.
  1130. >"The fringe reminded him of the mohawks their warriors wear, he said. 'You must be really strong to get to wear that!'"
  1131.  
  1132. "I had to carry that helmet around while you were napping. He wasn't wrong."
  1133. >Careful smiles and flexes her right foreleg and shoulder, showing off muscle and sinew under that beautiful, light-coffee coat.
  1134. >It reminds you... you know.
  1135. >That she's a third your size and she could beat the piss out of you if she wanted.
  1136. >"Earth pony, born and raised!"
  1137. "No mistaking it."
  1138.  
  1139. >"Anyway -- so then, he shows me... he'd bought a pecan pie from one of the stalls! Wondered if I could take a lunch break with him. So that's what we did!"
  1140.  
  1141. "So, he comes right up to you, talking smooth and offering free pie?"
  1142. >"Not THAT smooth."
  1143. "Still. I mean, he was... ambitious."
  1144. >Careful snorts, going into a fit of giggles.
  1145. >You've forgotten she's still totally plastered.
  1146. "Come on. You liked him?"
  1147. >"Why, you sound defensive, Anon!"
  1148. >Careful leans further toward you, tilting her head, fluttering her eyelashes.
  1149. >A lock of that long mane falls across one of her eyes.
  1150. >"...anything I should know?"
  1151.  
  1152. >...um.
  1153. >She got you, Anon.
  1154. >The color got to your face before that question even registered.
  1155. >Fuck. Your drink's empty.
  1156. >When did you finish it?
  1157. >Must be boozy after all, under all that... all that sweet stuff.
  1158. >You hear your own mouth forming vowels and utterances:
  1159. "Uh... um. I, uh..."
  1160.  
  1161. >Okay, Anon.
  1162. >Ready to accept it?
  1163. >You're jealous.
  1164. >You're jealous that your cute poner friend may have had a little experience before she met you.
  1165. >That just because you've taken her on this outing you can't deny is a little north of "friendly" anymore, you might not be the first person even to get to... you know, have her lie across your lap, and pet her silky mane, and stuff.
  1166. >Not perverted shit. Come on.
  1167. >You're not... you're not into that.
  1168. >No way!
  1169. >Just... eating peanut-butter celery with her and shit.
  1170.  
  1171. >...
  1172.  
  1173. >You know what?
  1174. >Man the fuck up.
  1175. >You're the one who asked HER about whether she had ever gotten her freaky, interspecies groove on.
  1176. >This story's juicy.
  1177. >It's fuckin' good, Anon.
  1178. >And she's passionate as hell.
  1179. >"Anon?"
  1180. >Are you going to deny her telling it?
  1181. >Like, the first time she's probably told anyone?
  1182. >You're her friend.
  1183. >"Aaanon!"
  1184. >You WANNA hear this shit.
  1185.  
  1186. >BOOP.
  1187. >"Anon!"
  1188. >Did Careful... did she just boop you on the nose?
  1189. >...she's giggling hysterically again.
  1190. >"I gotcha back! For outside the bookstore!"
  1191. >She's gasping for breath between laughs.
  1192. >"Oh, your face... HIC!"
  1193.  
  1194. >Well, there's one good think going on tonight.
  1195. >She is not convincing at downplaying her flirting.
  1196.  
  1197. "...Careful?"
  1198. >Finally, she catches her breath.
  1199. >"Huh?"
  1200. "Ya got me. Maybe I'm a LITTLE jealous."
  1201. >You have once again escalated the blush war.
  1202. >The red is back in the pone face.
  1203. >She didn't lose her ability to speak this time, though.
  1204. >"Awh! Anon..."
  1205. >She crawls under the table onto your side of the booth.
  1206. >Rather than, you know, going around it like a normal poner.
  1207. >Cause... you know.
  1208. >Horse is hammered.
  1209.  
  1210. >Now she's...
  1211. >What the fuck is she doing?
  1212. >She's nudging your right arm with her nose.
  1213. >It tickles.
  1214. >Finally, she works your way under your pit and into the crook of your arm.
  1215. >You done it, anon.
  1216. >You got your arm around the purdy pony.
  1217. >Absurdly, you feel yourself go to, like, half-mast.
  1218. >Exhiliration, that must be.
  1219. >The kind you get when you do a sick bike jump.
  1220. >Or light up your first cigarette as a teen.
  1221. >Or, like, punch a yeti in the sack.
  1222. >Anyway, just gotta... scooch back... shift around...
  1223. >These jeans might be a size too small.
  1224. >...Ok.
  1225. >There you go.
  1226.  
  1227. >"I didn't wanna... -hic!- hurt your feelings. I just wanted to share my story with you."
  1228. "Go for it! I asked."
  1229. >"You did! I promise, you'll like it. It'sh a... it's a good-ass story."
  1230. "Language, Ms. Watch."
  1231.  
  1232. >Careful snorts with laughter and nuzzles your ribs.
  1233. >"'Watch' isn't my last name. It's just part of my name."
  1234. "What's your last name?"
  1235. >"-fudge?"
  1236. "...that's an interesting name, Careful."
  1237. >"I don't have one, Anon!"
  1238. >"No, you don't. Is vhy I ask if you'd like any."
  1239. >"I don't need one! My name's fine!"
  1240. >Oh, Mel is here.
  1241. "Sure, Ma'am."
  1242. >"'Ma'am?' That's a bizarre name suggestion. Don't have kids, Anon. Oh! Mel! Can we have fudge?"
  1243.  
  1244. >Mel looks kindly at Careful.
  1245. >"Of course, my dear. Vhat would you like?"
  1246. >...she looks sideways at your arm wrapped around Careful and glares at you.
  1247. >"...you, also."
  1248.  
  1249. >"Sho, we shtarted meeting for lunch like that every day," articulates Careful through a mouthful of cookies-and-cream fudge.
  1250. >This stuff is rich.
  1251. >Like, really, REALLY good.
  1252. >But rich.
  1253. >You can only manage one toothpick-ball at a time.
  1254. >Careful just got a whole slab.
  1255. >She's shoveling it in her mouth like her life depends on it.
  1256. "You gon get pudge from all that fudge."
  1257. >She looks at you, her mouth full of fudge and her eyes full of venom.
  1258. >"I'mma not a pudge."
  1259. "You're a pudge."
  1260. >She makes a face -- to the extent she can make one, with her mouth full -- and sits defiantly, her hind legs splayed out, her forelegs on the seat between them, her gaze lazer-focused on a spot on the wall, away from you.
  1261. >You're drunk and stupid enough to go for a tickle.
  1262. >She lifts her left leg and kicks you.
  1263. >Guard senses.
  1264. >You try it again.
  1265. >She kicks you again.
  1266. >"Mmmmph! Anon! You're interrupting."
  1267. >You're pretty sure if you try that again she'll actually put force behind it.
  1268. "Do go on."
  1269.  
  1270. >Careful continues, even now doing you the courtesy of not eating and storytelling simultaneously.
  1271. >She's up close.
  1272. >Her breath is pleasantly sweet and boozy.
  1273. >"I was stationed there for two weeks, so, pretty quick, we're friends. We'd talk about guard stuff."
  1274. "But he was a brave."
  1275. >"That's basically a guard if they're not at war."
  1276. "Right."
  1277. >"So, we'd spend that time together. Later we even found time to meet up during off-hours. Never for too long, but he knew some great places. Grassy place with a little fishpond. Part of the orchard where you don't get bucked for nicking an apple or two."
  1278. "Sounds like fun!"
  1279. >"It was! And, oh... I liked looking at him."
  1280. "Oooooh."
  1281. >"Muscly, shaggy... mmm."
  1282. "So salacious."
  1283.  
  1284. >"So... that's my 'variety' story."
  1285. "What!"
  1286. >"Hey, not a lot of ponies would admit to that!"
  1287. "So, you didn't... you know. Ever let him know?"
  1288. >"Well..."
  1289. "Go on!"
  1290. >"The day I left, before I got on the train... I stopped to see him, and I gave him a big smooch!"
  1291. "How naughty. Was he, uh... receptive?"
  1292. >"Oh, he was really embarrassed. But he was sad to see me go! Never saw such a big guy try to hold back tears so hard like that. What a cutie."
  1293.  
  1294. >You feel one question remains unanswered.
  1295. "So.. was it mutual? Did he like you too, you think?"
  1296. >"I think so."
  1297. "How do you know?"
  1298. >Careful turns to you, smiling, looking right into your eyes as you idle gnaw a fudge ball.
  1299. >"A lot of the time we were together, when he thought I wasn't looking... he'd always be staring right at my butt!"
  1300.  
  1301. >You nearly inhale your fudge ball.
  1302. >I-it's no biggie, Anon.
  1303. >B-but... she keeps... looking... right at you.
  1304. >She just, she's just... making a joke.
  1305. >Right?
  1306. >Yeah, there's nothing she could say to convince you that wasn't a-
  1307.  
  1308. >"Guard senses."
  1309.  
  1310. ...
  1311.  
  1312. >You blew it.
  1313. >You're in the pasture with your pants down at 2AM, and the farmer just jumped out with his shotgun from behind Bessie, where he had been lying in wait for forty minutes.
  1314. >THAT'S how much you blew it.
  1315. >This was your first shot at making a friend in this place.
  1316. >Now she thinks you're only hanging out with her because you're a ponyphilic creep, trolling for some exotic, local dish.
  1317. >You can deal with rejection, but, shit, that doesn't make it suck less.
  1318. >Still, you know how it goes.
  1319. >Time to quickly and politely cut your losses.
  1320. >This way you may at least not end up with a reputation among Careful's peers in law enforcement.
  1321.  
  1322. >You manage to smile regretfully, against your muscles pulling desparately in the opposite direction.
  1323. "Guard senses, huh?"
  1324. "Mm-hm," says Careful, nonchalantly.
  1325. >You haven't looked at her since she last spoke.
  1326. >Can't bring yourself to make eye contact.
  1327. "I... shit. Look, I'm sorry, Careful. I really like you, but you got me. I'm a creep. If you wanna get going, I'll... I'll stick here and cover the-"
  1328. >"Anon."
  1329. "Huh?"
  1330.  
  1331. >You muster the last of your waning bravado to look at her while she shoots you down.
  1332. >...Oh.
  1333. >She's smiling.
  1334. >And the way she's looking at you... she's concerned?
  1335. >"I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. You' okay?"
  1336. "Long as you're around."
  1337. >"You're not a creep," she says gently.
  1338. >Okay.
  1339. >Good.
  1340. >Proceed as normal.
  1341. >...Say something normal.
  1342. "Glad to hear it. Uh, want some more fudg-"
  1343. >"You're a big TEASE!"
  1344.  
  1345. "...oh. I. Uh."
  1346. >Careful's smiling and blushing.
  1347. >You're definitely blushing.
  1348. >"Flirting all evening! Ogling my booty and asking my about 'variety' like you think I don't know what you're getting at."
  1349. >You stammer something.
  1350. >She keeps looking at you.
  1351.  
  1352.  
  1353. "I like you a lot. I'd like it so much if we can keep hanging out. I barely know anyone here. You're the first friend I've made."
  1354. >"...and?"
  1355. "...You're super cute. And not human. And I... I don't know what to feel about that."
  1356.  
  1357. >You hadn't meant for all that to tumble out at once.
  1358. >Well, all to do now is wait and see how she reacts.
  1359.  
  1360. >"...'cute,' huh?" says Careful, breaking the few seconds' silence.
  1361. "Yeah."
  1362. >"...'SUPER cute.'"
  1363. "Yep."
  1364. >"What kind of cute?"
  1365. "What?"
  1366.  
  1367. >"Uh... right. Well, I figure there are two kinds. First, you're pretty big."
  1368. "How flattering."
  1369. >"Nonono! I mean, as a human, you're big. Like two, maybe three times pony-size. That must make us pretty adorable to you."
  1370. >She puts her hooves to the sides of her face and rubs her cheeks, like she's examining some fragile, foreign object.
  1371. >"I even look at the mirror in the morning sometimes, and I think, 'hey, I'm pretty adorable.' We're sort of aware of it. Read any Equestrian histories? We've used it in war. Surprisingly effective."
  1372. >"-and then there's the kind of cute that... where there's.... uh... the butt, and... um!"
  1373. >She looks to the side and down, a little contemplative, a little embarrassed to say outright the first thing on her mind to describe this.
  1374. >You're afraid you already know what she means.
  1375. >"-you know. The kind of cute you buy somepony flowers for!"
  1376. "Oh."
  1377. >"So! Which is it?"
  1378.  
  1379. "Well, definitely some of the first. And... well..."
  1380. >You're honestly not sure what to say for the latter.
  1381. >The feelings you have on this are confusing and weird.
  1382. >Neither of those adjectives sits well with you.
  1383. >"Aww, come on! Out with it, Anon."
  1384. >...you're still not sure exactly what to say.
  1385. >"Ok. I'll tell YOU what I think about you, and then you tell me what you think about me. Sound fair?
  1386. >Good a suggestion as any.
  1387. >It could help, but, more importantly, it'll buy you time!
  1388. "Uh, sure!"
  1389.  
  1390. >Careful scooches away and lies on her back, putting her head on your leg.
  1391. >"So! Uh."
  1392. >She pauses, looking sideways again for a moment.
  1393. >You'd call these pauses tonight 'awkward,' but with Careful, you don't really mind.
  1394. >"Heh! I talked myself up like this would be so easy. Ok. I think you're a cutie. Both ways."
  1395. "Oh?"
  1396. >"Ha! Like you don't know. Coming out to keep me company while I was on night duty. Buying me breakfast just for doin' my job! You were nicer to me on duty than anyone ever has, and I think you still even thought you were a prick!"
  1397. "...and?"
  1398. >"Well... he-he... you're, uh, very tall. And, from last night... you give those good snuggles. And ear scratches. You were really patient with me even though I wasn't... I wasn't being professional."
  1399.  
  1400. >You hadn't thought she'd mention that again.
  1401. >Might as well ask.
  1402. "Were you doing okay?"
  1403. >"Oh... well, a few of the other guards, they always give me guff when I'm on my way out. 'Nopony needs a bodyguard in Canterlot! You light on bits, Watch?' That kind of stuff."
  1404. "Why DO you put up with it?"
  1405. >"I just like the work!"
  1406. >She pauses.
  1407. >"...it's not just the work. I'll tell you some time. Not now."
  1408. >"But... I was thinking about that while I thought you were asleep. If it made me cry every time I thought about it, I wouldn't be a very good guard. But, well, you coming in and being so nice, that was unexpected! And... well, I knew the waterworks were coming as soon as you sprawled out on that couch and started chatting."
  1409. >She blushes.
  1410. >"And you handled that like one of the sensitive, handsome stallions in my guilty pleasure romance novels. So... yeah. I think you're both kinds of cute."
  1411.  
  1412. >This is... more than you bargained for.
  1413. >Oh no.
  1414. >You still can't bring yourself to talk.
  1415. >All you can do is dwell on what a pussy you-
  1416.  
  1417. >"You know no matter what you say we can still be friends, right?"
  1418.  
  1419. >...
  1420.  
  1421. "Both kinds."
  1422.  
  1423. >Careful lights up, looking right into your eyes.
  1424. >"Aww! You dog. See? Wasn't that hard."
  1425. "No, it was pretty hard."
  1426. >She blows a raspberry at you.
  1427.  
  1428. >You ARE glad to have this off your chest. And that she reciprocates.
  1429. >...but you're uneasy.
  1430. >This isn't an admission you'll get to take back.
  1431.  
  1432. >"...Anon?"
  1433. "Huh?"
  1434. >"You okay? You look a little... not okay."
  1435. "Well..."
  1436. "I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable. We-w can forget the whole thing, if you like. I like hanging out with you. I think we'll make great friends."
  1437. >She's dimmed a little, but manages a sincere smile with those last few words.
  1438. >...agh.
  1439. >You owe her an explanation.
  1440.  
  1441. "I'm fine. Don't worry."
  1442. >She nods, waiting for you to continue.
  1443. "What we just had, it might be a acceptable conversation. A little out-of-the-norm, but acceptable here. In Equestria, I mean."
  1444. >"You mean it's frowned upon where you come from?"
  1445. "It's... it's just completely alien. Ponies, like you, they don't live there. They're not even known."
  1446. >"Not even griffons? Dragons?"
  1447. "Never heard of them until I moved here."
  1448. >"From how far away ARE you?"
  1449. "Really far."
  1450.  
  1451. >Careful looks unsure what to say.
  1452. >You know what to say, but the prospect puts you back in embarrassed, stammering, blushing mode:
  1453. "I-I do like you. Let's, uh, let's see where it goes, maybe. Just understand... it's new to me. Really new."
  1454. >Now she looks satisfied.
  1455. >She sits up and nuzzles your arm.
  1456. >"That's fine with me. Let's give the subject a rest until later, huh? Just... enjoy our time out for now."
  1457. "Sure!"
  1458.  
  1459. >"Wanna try some of my fudge? It's really tasty."
  1460. "Love to. It's, what. Peanut butter or something?"
  1461. >"Or something," Careful says, smiling as she plucks a toothpick off her napkin with her teeth, spears a marble-sized piece on it, and presents it to you.
  1462. >You turn to take it, sliding the confection off the pick in her mouth and popping it in yours.
  1463. >Faster than you can process, she drops the pick, leans in, and kisses you.
  1464.  
  1465. >Her lips are wet and warm.
  1466. >Her nose is fuzzy against yours, but nothing about this feels dirty, hairy or weird.
  1467. >This isn't the unintelligent affection of an animal just licking you on the face.
  1468. >A cute girl's giving you a kiss.
  1469. >That's all it feels like.
  1470. >It's nice.
  1471.  
  1472. >That's all you have time to register before it breaks.
  1473. >It wasn't open-mouthed or anything, but it was certainly more than a peck.
  1474. >Careful lingers near your face a moment before sitting back down.
  1475.  
  1476. >"How you like the fudge?" she asks as if nothing just happened.
  1477.  
  1478. "The peanut butter tastes great. The 'or something' was unexpected."
  1479. >Careful tilts her head.
  1480. "-but not unwelcome."
  1481. >She smiles.
  1482. >As proud as you are of whatever self-esteem you just projected with that line, you betray it by looking over your shoulder and around the restaurant to see if anyone's looking.
  1483. >"No one saw," says Careful. "These booths are nice and snug. Everyone next to us is focused on the music."
  1484.  
  1485. >Incidentally, you were just looking at the musicians, poised elegantly and coolly on the red, velvet-lined stage.
  1486. >The bassist is making eye contact with you.
  1487. >She saw everything.
  1488. >She's grey-coated and black-maned, wearing a pink necktie and a hip jacket and pair of specs.
  1489. >In the moonlight from the arched window across the room, you see her cutie mark is a violet treble clef.
  1490. >Thanksfully, she's not judgemental: she nods toward Careful and winks.
  1491. >You smile and wave.
  1492. >She smiles, leans over, and whispers something behind her hoof to the lead.
  1493. >They fade out their current tune...
  1494. >...and break into something that sounds unnervingly like "Careless Whisper."
  1495.  
  1496. "Yeah, totally clear."
  1497. >"See, though? Nothing to be shy about," says Careful, leaning into you as the music starts.
  1498. >You concede.
  1499. "Wanna get a second round?"
  1500. >She giggles.
  1501. >"Celestia, no. Just water."
  1502. "You can have my fudge if you want. My sweet tooth's overloaded."
  1503. >"Awww yiss!"
  1504.  
  1505. >You and Careful sit side-by-side as Mel bring over two cool, pristine glasses of water.
  1506. >Careful's simmered down.
  1507. >So have you, probably, you figure.
  1508. >Maybe she feels she's gotten you back sufficiently for teasing her.
  1509. >Whatever the reason, things are more relaxed now.
  1510. >No subtle, alluring undertones to all of your discussion.
  1511. >No constant probing of eachother for xenophilic tendencies.
  1512. >No bedroom eyes weighing on you like hazel lead.
  1513. >But still, undeniably, affection.
  1514.  
  1515. >Her full attention is on you each time you speak, even when you're mumbling, babbling, or telling that one stupid joke you have about the bear.
  1516. >Likewise, you're always focused on her.
  1517. >The bear joke puts her in stiches.
  1518. >She buries her face in your shoulder and pats you with her hoof as she cracks up.
  1519. >The contact gives you a rush of dopamine and oxytocin like you haven't felt in ages.
  1520. >As she lifts her head and sees you were looking at her the whole time, she smiles knowingly, discontinuing any notion you have that what happened earlier was unintentional, some mutual drunken breach of unspoken etiquette that neither of you will ever again acknowledge.
  1521. >It'll be something to be discussed later, in private.
  1522.  
  1523. >Until then, the tension's out of the way.
  1524. >You two are able to get friendly like you've wanted to all day.
  1525. >You tell her about your favorite books, your old friends, your hands (since, inevitably, she asked about them), and, in hushed tones, meat.
  1526. >...you did have to downplay that a lot, though.
  1527. >You may have given Careful the idea that cows where you're from have the same intellectual capacity as, say, trees.
  1528. >Eh, what she doesn't know.
  1529.  
  1530. >"I thought you might. From the sharp teeth you have near the front?" Careful says on the subject.
  1531. >"...but I was nervous to ask."
  1532. "Thought I might eat ponies?"
  1533. >Careful scrunches her muzzle.
  1534. >"Because I thought it would be impolite!"
  1535. >She pauses a moment.
  1536. >"...and perhaps potential pony-eating was a small concern."
  1537. "I wouldn't have tried to eat you."
  1538. >"Good!"
  1539. "All that armor? It'd be like trying to eat whole pineapple. Too much work."
  1540. >Careful steps back, tilts her head, and narrows her eyes.
  1541. "...joking."
  1542.  
  1543. >She smiles.
  1544. >"I could take you without the armor, too."
  1545. "You'd use your guard-senses to outwit me?"
  1546. >"I'd kick you really hard."
  1547. >You think neither for the first nor last time of all that lean muscle in her badonk and legs.
  1548. "Yeah, that would probably do it. Least I wouldn't die."
  1549. >Careful purses her lips, breaks eye contact, and makes a so-so gesture with a forehoof.
  1550. >"Ehh... maybe? I'd go for center of mass on a big target like you, and, well..."
  1551. "Ah, come on. How hard can you kick?"
  1552. >"I spent one day on duty in Appleloosa uprooting tree stumps with my hind legs."
  1553. "I... please never kick me."
  1554. >"Oh, never! That's just guard training."
  1555. "It's that serious, huh?"
  1556. >"Yep! And we're proud of it."
  1557.  
  1558. "Why'd you join up, anyway?"
  1559. >"Oh! Uh, well, I wanted to do my duty to my home. All that."
  1560. "I believe you, but you're really driven. There must be more to it."
  1561. >She looks down for a moment.
  1562. >"Same reason I... well... you asked earlier why I put up with the other guards?"
  1563. >You remember. She hadn't felt comfortable answering.
  1564. "Right. Sorry. Didn't mean to pull that up if you don't wanna talk about it. I'm just curious -- it seems important to you."
  1565. >"Don't feel bad. You're... you're right.. It is. I want to tell you."
  1566. >You've sobered up enough from that water -- maybe it's enchanted or something, you don't know -- to feel a lot of weight behind Careful saying that to you.
  1567. >"...maybe somewhere else, though?"
  1568. "Somewhere else, yeah. You about done then?"
  1569. >"Even I have my fudge limit!"
  1570. "I find that hard to believe, the way you went through it."
  1571. >Careful sticks her tongue out at you and waves Mel over.
  1572. >You give a few bits to Careful to cover the drinks. She covers the fudge.
  1573. >While Careful is paying the bill and chatting with Mel, your gaze wanders idly over the the musicians.
  1574. >The bassist is waving at you, trying to get your attention.
  1575. >She's got it.
  1576. >She gestures over at Careful, then to you, puts both hooves to one side of her face, and swoons exaggeratedly.
  1577. >You roll your eyes and wave at her.
  1578. >She gets back to plucking out a catchy line for their current tune.
  1579.  
  1580. >You and Careful exit onto the front step of Mel's well into the evening.
  1581. >The clouds have retreated; the moon's a fat, waxing gibbous, lighting the streets almost as well as the warm, orange-burning lanterns.
  1582. >A westerly breeze blows, making the early fall night cool just to the edge of shivering.
  1583. >Mel's is a bit of a walk from your place, but it should be just manageable at this time of night.
  1584. "So... I wanna pick up that conversation, if you'd like. You wanna hang at mine? Guest room's still open."
  1585. >"I actually live right by here!" says Careful, a little eagerly.
  1586. >Suddenly aware of this, she glances sideways and paws the ground shyly.
  1587. >"Uh, if you'd like to visit. Since I owe you some hospitality."
  1588. "Sounds fine, Careful."
  1589. >"-and the walk's safer. Since I'm off duty!"
  1590. "Careful! It's cool. I'd love to see it."
  1591. >"Ah. Uh, good!"
  1592.  
  1593. >With that established, Careful leads you down the well-lit St. Fetlock's Ave.
  1594. >You've been around Canterlot long enough to know that this area is a step above your more entry-level pad in the market district.
  1595. >It seems Ms. Watch may be better off than she lets on with her humble public servant job.
  1596. >You look with wonder into the lit windows of the swanky unicorn dwellings, sculpted in the classical, multi-spired architecture of the race, lit everywhere in a stunning, magic array of blue, gold, and violet.
  1597. >This is gonna be fuckin' awesome.
  1598. >You wonder which one will be Careful's.
  1599. >"Here it is!" she declares.
  1600. >You turn your head to see...
  1601. >Nothing.
  1602. >You thought it was just dark stretch of lawn between two other houses, but, as your eyes adjust, you see a homely old two-level building lit by a single torch, rather than the magical adornments of the other houses on the street.
  1603. >Careful's an earth pony. Right.
  1604. >Above the door of the building is an ornate, wooden, hand(or hoof)-crafted sign:
  1605. >METICULOUS GEAR'S QUALITY TIMEPIECES
  1606.  
  1607. >A realization hits you like a billiard ball between the eyes.
  1608. >"Careful Watch."
  1609. >...
  1610. >This must be the place.
  1611.  
  1612. >From the building's appearance, you expected the door's hinges to creak, but they make hardly a sound as Careful opens it.
  1613. >They are bronze, shiny, oiled, and free of any rust or discoloration.
  1614. >They must be either brand new or maintainedf by an observant and meticulous homeowner indeed.
  1615.  
  1616. >"Come in, Anon. Don't want you to catch a chill."
  1617. >The air has gotten chilly.
  1618. >Fall's knocking. The wind answered.
  1619. >If this had caught you on the way back to your place, you'd have needed a warm shower immediately.
  1620. >Hell, you could use one now.
  1621. >You look up and down the street, for what you're not sure, and examine Careful's house once more before stepping in.
  1622. "It is a bit nippy. Those engineers don't mess around with the seasonal transitions. The ones at, uh... the place with the weather factory?"
  1623. >"Cloudsdale. And they don't! Must be even worse without fur. I'll start a fire."
  1624. "In a hearth, I hope."
  1625. >"Arson's illegal" says Careful, nuzzling your leg as she passes by.
  1626. "Not conduct becoming a guard."
  1627. >"No... 'sir.'"
  1628. >It's the first time she's addressed you like that since yesterday.
  1629. >She sounds almost formal.
  1630. >Almost.
  1631.  
  1632. >You wander the ground floor of the house while Careful piles wood in the hearth.
  1633. >You hear the strike of flint on steel and the flare of igniting tinder.
  1634. >A warm, orange glow emerges, casting Careful's silhouette and your own on the wall before you, brightening those dim parts of the interior untouched by the magic lanterns outside.
  1635. >Illuminated in the front corner, by the window, are a counter, a work bench, and ample shelving, stocked fully with all manners of gears, screws, nails, small planks, weights, chains, pulleys, and metal sheeting.
  1636. >It looks like a discontinued storefront, but still everything is so clean it shines in the firelight and organized to millimeter tolerance.
  1637. >You remember the old sign above the entrance.
  1638. "'Meticulous Gear,' huh?"
  1639. >"My papa."
  1640. "He keep this place in such good shape?"
  1641. >"He taught me to."
  1642.  
  1643. >You examine the array of devices and instruments on the storefront once more.
  1644. "Seems like an interesting guy."
  1645. >"He was."
  1646. >A nicely patterned sofa faces the fireplace.
  1647. >Careful climbs into it and watches the fire.
  1648. >Her mane is a beautiful red in the light of the flames.
  1649. "I'm sorry."
  1650. >"Thank you."
  1651. >You walk over and sit beside her.
  1652. >"Don't worry. It was years ago. I won't cry on you again!"
  1653. "That's fine."
  1654.  
  1655. >You each sit a minute and watch the fire.
  1656. >The night's chill from earlier has left.
  1657. "This is nice and warm. Thanks, Careful."
  1658. "You're welcome."
  1659. >Her response is closer and clearer than you expected.
  1660. >She's scootched up to you a bit, looking at you measuringly, as if trying to guage the distance she has to clear before leaping over a cliff.
  1661. "You wanna talk about it."
  1662. >She nods.
  1663.  
  1664. >She's still looking at you.
  1665. >Waiting for something.
  1666. >And something occurs to you.
  1667. >The seat of this couch is nice and wide.
  1668. >Probably so a pony can sit back-to-front on all fours, looking forward, and have their fore and hind legs supported.
  1669. >Sideways, though...
  1670. >Plenty of space.
  1671. >You take off your shoes, move a cushion, and lie back, on your side, against the arm of the couch, extending your legs down and past Careful.
  1672. >She blushes furiously, so this must be the "something" she was waiting on.
  1673.  
  1674. >Eh, you're alone now.
  1675. >No reason to dance around all this anymore.
  1676. "You okay with...?"
  1677. >"Yeah."
  1678. >Careful slides up besides you and wriggles into place.
  1679. >God, she's... she's warm.
  1680. >You wrap an arm around her and let your hand lightly brush her chest.
  1681. "You wanted to tell me about why you became a guard?"
  1682. >"I did."
  1683.  
  1684. >You lie together comfortably and quietly for a few minutes.
  1685. >You begin to hear more subtle sounds under the crackling of the fire: Careful's breathing, each of your slight shifting, the rustle of her fur as you idly run your fingers through the fluffiest part of her coat...
  1686. >"I don't know where to begin."
  1687. "Maybe with your cutie mark?"
  1688. >"Sure. Have you been wondering about it?"
  1689.  
  1690. >You have.
  1691. >The golden, unfinished pocketwatch has turned over and over in your head since you first got a good look at it.
  1692. "A timepiece for a pony who works long hours, I figured. Until you brought me here, I wouldn't have guessed why it was faceless, though."
  1693. >"It looks just like the first one I built while papa was teaching me the ropes. I was proud already when I popped the last internal into place. Then there was a glow behind me... and POP! There this was."
  1694. >She wiggles her hips.
  1695. >"I was so happy!"
  1696.  
  1697. "So your special talent has nothing to do with being a guard?"
  1698. >"Nope! That's not uncommon for guards, though. We all have lives off-duty. Some do get a helmet with the royal crest or a shield on their flanks. They're more common with officers and higher ranks."
  1699. "...but?"
  1700. >"Er... I think for all of them, though, guard-work is their primary source of income."
  1701. "You're kidding."
  1702. >You say this, but you remember again overhearing the library guards the other night: "...desperate ... any job that comes her way, now matter how low-..."
  1703.  
  1704. >"Nope!" says Careful.
  1705. >You snap out of it.
  1706. "So you don't just keep the workshop in shape out of sentiment? You're a clockmaker?"
  1707. >"Well, any unicorn can do a little sundial conjuration. Proper wizards can even transmute a gold bar into something that ticks on its own. But there's no craftsmanship in that, and enchants can even go funny before they wear off. Canterlotters know that, and the classiest will pay a lot for an artisan product, something hoof-made, wound manually... beautiful, reliable, each gear perfect..."
  1708.  
  1709. >You hadn't expected her to gush like this.
  1710. >...wait a minute.
  1711. >The mare wears hundreds of pounds of armor in twenty-hour shifts, Anon.
  1712. "You're not just having me on, are you, Careful?"
  1713. >She turns onto her belly and looks at you, all smiles, almost encouragingly.
  1714. >"What's my name, Anon?"
  1715. "Careful Watch."
  1716. >She lets that sink in...
  1717. >leans forward...
  1718. >and boops your nose with hers.
  1719. "...oh."
  1720.  
  1721. >"Now you get it."
  1722. "Clever of your folks. It suits you in more ways than one."
  1723. >"Oh?"
  1724. "You kept a 'careful watch' over me. I don't think I've properly thanked you for that. I appreciated it."
  1725. >"Aw, shucks. You don't have to lay it on so thick. I know it wasn't really needed... they got the guy before I could even take the job, after all."
  1726. "It's more than that. I-"
  1727.  
  1728. >The admission you're about to make hits you behind the eyes like a load of bricks.
  1729. "I..."
  1730. >It's too late, Anon.
  1731. >You've been sitting on this for months.
  1732. "..."
  1733. >It's a frothy bottle of shit-champagne, and you got so comfortable with this pone you unthinkingly knocked the cork loose for her.
  1734.  
  1735. >"Oh... Anon... I'm here, don't worry..."
  1736. >You hear these words distantly in Careful's voice.
  1737. >This isn't how this was supposed to go, Anon.
  1738. >She was just -- JUST -- about to tell you the story of why she became a guard.
  1739. >Probably a really tragic one, too.
  1740.  
  1741. >"Oh, sweetie, you're okay..." says Careful, nuzzling your neck...
  1742.  
  1743. >And you were gonna be the one there for HER. Like the other night.
  1744. >Not the other way around.
  1745. >Just say 'sorry I'm tired' or something and get on with the night.
  1746.  
  1747. "I'm lonely...I'm just so lonely here... Oh my God, I'm alone."
  1748.  
  1749. >...not like that, Anon.
  1750.  
  1751. >"No you're not... I'm right here... I'm here with you..."
  1752.  
  1753. >...
  1754.  
  1755. >Finally, your breath comes back to you.
  1756. "Moving here was a one-time opportunity. I'll never see anyone I knew from home again."
  1757. >"Never?"
  1758. "Never."
  1759. >"I'm sorry."
  1760. "Ponies... they're different. I scare a lot of them and barely get the rest. You're... you're the first friend I've made here. And you cared about me. Something you had never seen, someone you had never met."
  1761.  
  1762. >There's a little, respectful silence.
  1763. >Careful looks at you sympathetically. Expectantly.
  1764. "...It meant a lot. That's all."
  1765. >"Even though I tackled you?"
  1766. "Even though you tackled me."
  1767.  
  1768. >She smiles.
  1769. >You lean in and kiss her forehead.
  1770.  
  1771. >Careful shuts her eyes as one of her ears twitches in a little spasm of pleasure.
  1772. >She looks at you as you lean back.
  1773. >The fire's behind her; it makes her mane glow.
  1774. >"Cutie."
  1775. "Me?"
  1776. >"You," she says, poking you in the chest.
  1777. "I didn't know you thought so. My being, you know, a primate three times your size."
  1778. >"Well... you don't have hooves, sure. But besides that you look pretty ponylike. Like... your mane! You have a mane."
  1779. "I wouldn't call it that. I guess you have a point, though."
  1780.  
  1781. >Careful looks pleased with herself.
  1782. "I think you look a little human, myself."
  1783. >"If you were a griffon you'd tell me I'm kind of eagle-like, too. Equestria has all kinds. I think we're each reciting some pretty standard lines now."
  1784. "I don't know anything about lines. I just like you."
  1785. >"I like you too. I'm happy I have someone to say lines to."
  1786. "Aww. You know, you're pretty cute, too."
  1787. >"I know!"
  1788.  
  1789. >You spend some time just looking at each other's eyes..
  1790. >Then you remember the earlier conversation you were distracted from.
  1791. "I went and got you off-topic. Watchmaker to guard. How'd it happen?"
  1792. >"...oh. Right."
  1793. >She sombers up noticeably.
  1794. "Sorry. If you don't want-"
  1795. >"I do. Really. Been waiting too long to tell somepony."
  1796.  
  1797. >Careful quiets for a moment, then seems to gather her resolve.
  1798. >She gestures to the doorway.
  1799. >"They broke in through the front door. It was locked. The three of them, they kicked it right in. Violent for a break-and-enter. Usually thiefs use windows. They planned to clean the whole place out, though. Needed a big exit."
  1800. "I can't believe that happened in a place like this."
  1801. >"Neither could anypony else. After my mom passed, papa brought us here because it's the safest place in Equestria. So safe the guards barely even have to patrol. If you think we're only ceremonial now... then, they were more so."
  1802. >"Papa and I got down the stairs just in time to see them leaving with our floor clock. The most valuable thing we owned. His father made it before him. I thought I was scared then, but when looked at papa and saw how scared HE was... I couldn't move."
  1803.  
  1804. >Her ears droop and her gaze drops.
  1805. >You stay quiet, but lift your free hand to rub her shoulders reassuringly.
  1806.  
  1807. >"...and I couldn't do anything when he ran after them, begging them to bring it back. They had already loaded it on their cart and were taking off. He went after them."
  1808. >"But he wasn't in the shape I am. Craftsman through-and-through. And he hadn't been getting any younger. I hear he still kept up, though. It was his life's work in that cart."
  1809. >She stops again.
  1810. >For quite a while, this time.
  1811. "What happened?"
  1812.  
  1813. >"...there was an accident. Papa had got a hold of the back of the cart, they were dragging him, and... in all the excitement, I guess, they were distracted... they took a wrong turn. Off an edge between this district and the next."
  1814. >"They fell a whole story onto some stairs and tumbled the rest of the way. Cart was wrecked. A lot of our stuff in it was wrecked. Thiefs were bruised but fine. The grandfather clock--some miracle--was fine. Papa... he wasn't."
  1815. >...
  1816. >"He died two days later. The thieves turned themselves in. They never wanted to hurt anypony. They just thought we weren't home. That's why they used the door."
  1817. >"I forgave them. I don't know how, but I did. I just wanted to spend as much time with my papa as I could before he left. I told him the grandfather clock was safe and that I would fix everything else. Everything. He was so happy about the clock, and he told me not to worry. The rest was 'just things,' he said. The important thing is that I was safe, he said."
  1818. >"'I love you,' he said, after every single sentence. I was trying to act like he would get better, but he knew what was coming. So did I, I guess. 'I love you.' 'I love you.' 'I love you.' Every other word, reliable like a minute-hand."
  1819. >"...I said it a lot, too. I still don't think I said it enough."
  1820.  
  1821. >"If I could have done something. Anything. If he had just known that someone was there. If he had just known that he was safe... That there were ponies around who wouldn't let them get away with everything that mattered to us... He wouldn't have had to follow them himself. He wouldn't..."
  1822. >She trails off.
  1823.  
  1824. >True to her word, she is keeping her composure, if not with some understandable difficulty.
  1825. >Hell, you're having trouble yourself.
  1826. >But you can't cry hysterically on front of a cute girl twice in one night, Anon.
  1827. >Come on.
  1828. >...
  1829. >Okay, just keep it low-key.
  1830. >You pull Careful close and nuzzle the back of her neck to hide your watering eyes from her.
  1831. >You say the only thing you can right now:
  1832. "I'm sorry, Careful."
  1833.  
  1834. >...You're reminded of what Careful Watch said the first night you two had spent together, staying up late and chatting:
  1835.  
  1836. >>"I just want ponies... ponies to know, they're a-always... they're always safe, if I can be there for them. Even if it's only me.
  1837. >>"I... I know that, probably, nothing will come t-through your door tonight. But I want YOU to know that nothing will happen, even if something d-does. No matter what.
  1838. >>"Everypony deserves that."
  1839.  
  1840. >"...I've never told anypony that before," Careful says after a long silence.
  1841. "It must feel nice to have it off your chest."
  1842. >"It does."
  1843. >She hiccups.
  1844. >A few tears have pooled up in her eyes. A few roll down her face.
  1845. >"Aw. I went and told you I wouldn't be crying. Sorry."
  1846. "Don't worry. Gotta come clean myself, I've been wiping my face with your mane a little."
  1847. >"...hee hee," says Careful.
  1848. >...
  1849.  
  1850. >then she collapses into a fit of giggles.
  1851. >You pull her close.
  1852. >She nuzzles back into you almost aggressively, ceasing her assault only once to peck you on the cheek.
  1853. >Her mane is everywhere.
  1854. >You tidy it up for her, brushing it over her shoulder, behind her.
  1855. >She looks at you, and, almost unconsciously, you lean in and kiss her on the mouth.
  1856. >It's just a little one, proportional to the one you two had at Mel's.
  1857. >You owed Careful one on your own initiative after that, you figure.
  1858. >She pauses her giggling to meet it and quickly returns to it after, but it's more relaxed.
  1859. >After another minute, she's calmed down.
  1860. >An appropriate amount of somber has worked its way back into the room.
  1861.  
  1862. >"...yeah, I miss him."
  1863. >She looks around.
  1864. >"I'm glad, though. I've kept up his work. I think he'd be proud. And becoming a guard, it's made me more satisfied with life than I ever believed it would."
  1865. >Then she looks at you, her expression inquisitive, but... expectant.
  1866.  
  1867. >"and, uh, I guess... I have you now, too?"
  1868. >The question isn't rhetorical.
  1869. "...that you do."
  1870.  
  1871. >You and Careful spoon another hour and watch the remaining firewood burn away in the hearth.
  1872. >In the quiet, you become aware of the ticking of several clocks, distinguishable from one another but perfectly in sync, from behind the workshop and counter.
  1873. >The sound's regularity contrasts nicely with the fire's more staggered flickering and sputtering, punctuated by the occasional hiss of a wandering ember extinguished by the hearth's protective stone-enchantments.
  1874. >Most relaxing of all is Careful's warmth next to you, the steady rise and fall of her chest...
  1875. >...you're not sure when the last time was you felt this kind of intimacy with someone, even with other humans.
  1876.  
  1877. >Finally, the fire is extinguished, reduced to glowing wood and ash that pulses with the movement of the air.
  1878. "Getting late."
  1879. >Careful yawns.
  1880. >"Past bedtime."
  1881. "This couch is plenty cozy, if you don't mind my crashing here."
  1882. >"Oh, that was the plan. Crashing, I mean. I wouldn't send you home through the cold at this time of night."
  1883. >You sit up. Careful climbs down from the couch.
  1884. >"Um... unless..."
  1885. >Without the fire the room is dim, but you can clearly see Careful looking at you in the moonlight through the window.
  1886. >"Would ya like to come to bed?"
  1887.  
  1888. >...well, there it is.
  1889.  
  1890. >Nothing unstated, no wink of an eye, no sultry, accompanying expression... just wide, inquisitive eyes and a tired smile.
  1891. >You're not... naive... as to what may come of this.
  1892. >But you're certain Careful means no more and no less by her question than what she asked.
  1893.  
  1894. >"It's, uh..."
  1895. >Careful looks shyly at the ground and pushes something around with her hoof.
  1896. >"It's more comfortable than the couch. I think."
  1897. >You get up.
  1898. "Lead the way."
  1899.  
  1900. >The stairs are at the other end of the first floor from the entryway.
  1901. >Careful half-leads you to them, and half trots alongside you, nuzzling your leg each other step, threatening to trip you up.
  1902.  
  1903. >You follow her up the steps.
  1904. >They're a bit steep.
  1905.  
  1906. >...
  1907. >Yes, you get a peek.
  1908. >You're not going to... you know... dwell on it, or anything.
  1909. >It just happens to be at the right height, her tail happened to sway just right...
  1910. >You know, coincidence.
  1911. >It happens.
  1912. >Statistically.
  1913. >And they're... you know, they're naked all the time, anyway.
  1914. >One curious glance can't be that bad.
  1915. >It's... well... it's different, but it's nice.
  1916. >It's really...
  1917. >Um...
  1918. >...
  1919. >Puffy.
  1920.  
  1921. >...
  1922. >Okay, you're dwelling.
  1923. >...How far do these stairs go?
  1924. >They're narrow, how does she fit up them with those hips?
  1925.  
  1926. >...
  1927.  
  1928. >You reach the top after an eternity of maybe ten seconds.
  1929. >"My room's at the end of the hall. Bathroom on the right, if you need it!"
  1930. "'Kay."
  1931.  
  1932. "I'd like to clean up, now that you mention it."
  1933. >"Sure! There are clean washcloths on the rack. I'll wait for you."
  1934.  
  1935. >You enter the bathroom and shut the door.
  1936. >You take a cloth from the rack -- a red one, from close to the door, and turn to face the-
  1937. >... is that a bidet?
  1938. >Man, you've gathered that Careful is well-off, but-
  1939. >... ah.
  1940. >It's the sink.
  1941. >It's at pone-height, unlike yours.
  1942. >You kneel down and it's perfectly comfortable. No biggie.
  1943. >You hang your shirt on the rack and run some warm water.
  1944. >You soap the cloth and wash your face.
  1945. >You lean over and get the back of your neck, behind your ears...
  1946. >Always feels good.
  1947. >You run the water a little cooler to rinse off.
  1948. >You get your pits, your chest, upper back...
  1949.  
  1950. >You need this to calm down, because your blood is running hot.
  1951. >You need a cool, collected, private moment to think, because as soon as Careful invited you to bed you surrendered yourself to chemical autopilot.
  1952. >You can admit this much to yourself: you like this mare.
  1953. >It's all the attention you've had from a girl -- from anyone -- in ages, though.
  1954. >And she's not human.
  1955. >... no, no. You've already thought that over.
  1956. >There's nothing wrong, you think, ethically, with this. Definitely not for Careful. Probably not for you.
  1957. >... even if there is for you, if you were to pick up some philosophical treatise convincing you exactly why it's morally reprehensible from the human-side of things, it doesn't exactly matter, does it?
  1958. >You're in Equestria. The laws, customs and ethics belong to the Equestrians.
  1959. >You know: When in Rome.
  1960.  
  1961. >... customs, though.
  1962. >Now that you think of it, that's what's got you uneasy.
  1963. >Do Careful and you both have the same idea of the situation? Even if you do, do you know how to do... well... the right thing?
  1964. >What if you botch this? If you do, it could make things awkward. You could lose your only... your only...
  1965. >You splash your face with some more cool water.
  1966. >Careful knocks on the door.
  1967.  
  1968. "Yeah?"
  1969. >"Can I c'min?"
  1970. "... yeah."
  1971.  
  1972. >You hear the door open.
  1973. >Careful trots up beside you and sits prone.
  1974. >Your automatically raise your hand and scratch her neck.
  1975. >Can't help that no matter how on-edge you are.
  1976.  
  1977. >"... y'alright?"
  1978. >You wonder for a moment how to lie in response.
  1979. >Screw it. She's already figured you out.
  1980. "Nervous."
  1981. >She scootches closer, against you.
  1982. >"I gathered. What about?"
  1983. "I... I just wonder if anything's lost in translation. You're the first pers- er, pony- I've been this close to in ages. Don't wanna fuck that up."
  1984. >"You can't. Promise. Talk to me, though. What's got your goat?"
  1985.  
  1986. "Okay. Inviting me up here. I guess, for humans, that's almost always... well... a euphemistic request? And, I mean, you know, we can be quick to that kind of... thing. But me, I like to, uh, you know... coffee, flowers, a little... uh, time..."
  1987. >"It's a little more than just... asking you to be close."
  1988. "Yeah."
  1989. >"Well, I'd say we've done the coffee and flowers. But... if it makes you comfortable, it's been a bit overcast lately."
  1990. >You stare at Careful with all the wisdom and understanding of a dachsund watching television.
  1991. >"I mean, sure, you get those pretty godsrays over the farmland you see from the vistas, but it's dim in Canterlot. And on top of that, with the seasonal changes, it's getting chillier... I mean, some mares like this, but me, around this time of year, I... you have no idea what I'm talking about."
  1992.  
  1993. "I'm admittedly wondering what the weather has to do with anything."
  1994. >Careful looks like she's at a loss to explain herself.
  1995. >She shrugs and pipes up.
  1996. >"So, you'd be nervous if I was suggesting we..."
  1997. >She nuzzles against your chest.
  1998. >"Make a little love?"
  1999. >Your heartrate skyrockets.
  2000. "Eh... yeah. Not that I don't like you! I... it's just-"
  2001. >"It's fine! I'd be nervous, too. We'd be... pioneers, after all."
  2002.  
  2003. >You're more at ease now.
  2004. >Can't help but to chuckle.
  2005. "'Pioneers?'"
  2006. >"What, you've met other couples like us?"
  2007. "Point taken."
  2008. >"I'd be... nervous, and... confused. And excited!"
  2009. "Right."
  2010. >"But, uh, I was really just asking if you wanted to snuggle in bed. Stay nice and warm with me. If you would like that."
  2011. >She blushes.
  2012. >"I'm, uh... not in heat right now. Is what I was trying to say with the weather. In particular."
  2013.  
  2014. >Realization hits you like a cement block to the face.
  2015. "You're... talking about estrus?"
  2016. >She smiles.
  2017. >"Glad I don't have to give you the WHOLE talk!"
  2018. "Er, maybe the short version?"
  2019. >"We get horny when it's sunny. Especially during the summer."
  2020. >She gets up on her hind legs and kisses your cheek.
  2021. >"The rest of the time, we just like to cuddle, and kiss, and talk, and fall asleep together."
  2022. >"... like I'm asking you to do with me," she whispers to you.
  2023.  
  2024. >You each have a glass of water and head to Careful's room.
  2025. >It's a pretty serious master bedroom.
  2026. >There's a picture window, curtains drawn; an ornate dresser, a full-size mirror, two closets, a wood stove, oriental rug...
  2027. >And the bed's huge. King-sized plus. Ornately covered. Ample and assorted pillow selection.
  2028. >Not bad for your first unintentional gold-dig.
  2029. >"I'll get the stove going. Get cozy."
  2030.  
  2031. >You sit on the bed, watching Careful work while you take and examine each pillow on the bed, squeezing them gently, firmly; shaking them, seeing how the stuffing settles...
  2032. >You decide on a classic rectangle one with a cream-colored case.
  2033. >Careful returns with a little lit tinder from the stove.
  2034. >She uses it to light a candle on her nightstand and spits it out on a tray.
  2035. >"Pah."
  2036. "You're special to me."
  2037. >It's a good thing sex - in the conventional sense, anyway - isn't actually on the table tonight. This makes several many early and unwanted ejaculations now.
  2038.  
  2039. >Careful looks at you - quizzical, for a moment, and then enamored, crossing one hoof over another.
  2040. >"Do go on."
  2041. "I know we've only known each other a few days. And I don't know where this is heading. Not that I'm not optimistic. Still, I just want you to know. My time in Equestria's gonna be divided into before and after meeting you now. You're the first person - sorry, pony - here who's made me feel welcome and loved."
  2042. >She looks astonished. Speechless.
  2043. "Don't wanna embarrass you. Just felt I owed you the full explanation without any of my bullshit at least once. That's all."
  2044. >She hops to your side and kisses you.
  2045. >"... Nicest thing anypony's ever said to me. You're special to me, too."
  2046. >She hops back down.
  2047.  
  2048. >"So... about getting cozy?"
  2049. >You realize you've been sitting awkwardly on the bed's edge for minutes now.
  2050. "I - right."
  2051. >"I like the fuzz on your chest. Do you... uh..."
  2052. >She nudges your knee with her nose.
  2053. >"Do you have it on your legs, too?"
  2054.  
  2055. >... Ah.
  2056. >Right.
  2057. >You're still wearing your jeans.
  2058.  
  2059. >You start with your socks, flinging them away.
  2060. >Careful looks at your feet.
  2061. >She gestures with a hoof.
  2062. >"Toes."
  2063. "Th-thanks."
  2064. >"Can you pick stuff up with them?"
  2065. "They're for balancing."
  2066. >"Ah," she says, nodding knowledgeably.
  2067.  
  2068. >Then the jeans.
  2069. >No ceremony.
  2070. >"You dooo," says Careful.
  2071.  
  2072. >You think you're blushing again.
  2073. >Deflect, Anon! Deflect!
  2074. "You have some funny kinks for a horse."
  2075. >She scrunches her muzzle.
  2076. >"Oh, I'm sorry for paying you a compliment!"
  2077. >The huff is real, Anon.
  2078. "Have I mentioned how pretty you look tonight?"
  2079. >"Have I mentioned your plaid undies look goofy?"
  2080. "Owch."
  2081.  
  2082. >You stick out your lower lip and try your best to look terribly hurt.
  2083. >It works.
  2084. >"Aww... okay. I like plaid."
  2085. "I have a few other pairs at home if you'd like some. Nice to sleep in."
  2086. >"There's even a hole for my tail!"
  2087. "Y-yeah."
  2088.  
  2089. >You look up at her.
  2090. >One shit-eating grin: accounted for.
  2091. "Funny. You want these off, too?"
  2092. >"If this is how you sleep, you're good."
  2093. >She hops up, leans in, and kisses your ear.
  2094. >"... I'll stay naked, though!"
  2095.  
  2096. >While you tuck in, Careful closes a shutter on the woodstove, leaving you lit only by the candle on the bedside table.
  2097. >You lay your head on your favorite pillow and try to calm your racing heart.
  2098. >You feel pressure on the bedsprings as Careful joins you.
  2099.  
  2100. >She has her own favorite pillow, too.
  2101. >She lays it beside yours and shimmies under the covers.
  2102. >Her coat is pristine and soft against your chest.
  2103. >You savor every moment as she wriggles into a comfortable position.
  2104. >She's so close, you can feel her quick, light heartbeat -- probably normal rhythm given her size -- against you.
  2105.  
  2106. >You lie for a few minutes quietly in the near-dark, listening to each other's breathing, feeling each other shifting around to get close and warm.
  2107. >Finally, something just seems right.
  2108. >As the space under the blanket -- your den -- reaches body temperature, it becomes a sanctuary: a shell separating you and Careful from the rest of the world.
  2109. >There's only her here.
  2110.  
  2111. "Care."
  2112. >"Mh?"
  2113. >She turns her head.
  2114. >You engage a in smooch, parting your lips a little for her for the first time.
  2115. >Her eyes widen in a moment of surprise, but she meets your gesture, meeting your tongue with her slightly broader one, tracing it lightly along your lips.
  2116. >You respond in turn, and each of you continues until you feel you've communicated all you want to with the gesture.
  2117. >As you part, she whimpers contentedly.
  2118. >Her breath is smoky, like veggie bacon strips.
  2119.  
  2120. "I do okay?"
  2121. >She catches her breath.
  2122. >"You... you did."
  2123. "So did you."
  2124. >"... what would you like to do now?"
  2125. "Well, I'm adventurous, and I trust you. You wanna lead?"
  2126. >"Hee! I didn't think I'd get, well, this far. You're warm and cuddly and handsome, and you have perfect hugging-appendages. All I wanted. Any ideas?"
  2127.  
  2128. "Well..."
  2129. >You idly twirl her mane with your finger.\
  2130. >Eh. Out with it.
  2131. >You've wanted to say it for hours.
  2132. "I'd like to... pet you. If that's okay."
  2133. >Careful looks you in the eye, pressing her nose to yours.
  2134. >"Ear. Scritches."
  2135.  
  2136. >You've worked on Careful's ears for five or ten minutes now.
  2137. >She's butter in your arms.
  2138. >You have one around her midsection, your hand beside her, holding her close.
  2139. >The other's your ear-scratching hand.
  2140. >She likes your ear-scratching hand.
  2141. >You alternate between lightly scratching her flat-lying ears with your fingertips, and rubbing her face and neck with your palm.
  2142. >She nuzzles your face when you perform these later actions.
  2143.  
  2144. >Every other muscle of hers is free of tension.
  2145. >You can't get over how soft and warm she's gotten.
  2146. >Under the covers, the heat from her radiates up to your head and down to your toes.
  2147. >You're tired, yeah, but something about this is magical.
  2148. >Maybe literally.
  2149. >You're conscious, you're sure, but simultaneously you feel the zen and tranquility of being dead asleep, oblivious to the world.
  2150. >All you see in the candlelight is you and Careful.
  2151. >All you hear are your heartbeats, your breathing, and Careful's small, contented sighs as you scratch her ears, barely audible and higher-pitched than her ordinary voice.
  2152.  
  2153. >Careful mumbles something.
  2154. >You're a little surprised -- if your state is like a light nap, you figured hers was like a fucking coma.
  2155. "What's that?"
  2156. >"Gimme kissies."
  2157. >You oblige.
  2158. >She turns to you and meets your last few pecks.
  2159. >You had a few reservations, but you can admit to yourself now: this cool-season sexy-time is amazing.
  2160. >... not that the old-fashioned way isn't fun, but what you've had of that in your life until now is like cola compared to opium.
  2161.  
  2162. >Finally, she seems satisfied with her ears.
  2163. >You each lie contended for a few more minutes.
  2164. >Then you move a hand down to her hips.
  2165. >She nuzzles you and sways her rear under your grasp.
  2166. "Would you like...?"
  2167. >You can see her blush even under the candlelight.
  2168. >"Yeah."
  2169.  
  2170. >You've done it, Anon.
  2171. >Careful's shifted on top of you, looking down into your eyes.
  2172. >You're reminded of the first time you got a good look at her, when she clumsily pinned you down in the soft grass of one of the vista parks, mistaking a tourist for an assailant.
  2173. >That feels like months ago. Has it really only been a few days?
  2174. >On top of you, she feels similar.
  2175. >Not quite so heavy, without the neutron-star density armor, but you're reminded she's still an earth pony.
  2176. >A lot of muscle and sinew and a lot of soft, cushy fur.
  2177. >Maybe a little lighter than what she'd be as a human.
  2178. >Maybe one of those wing-poners would be lighter and fluffier, but Careful's earth heritage gives her... substance. Reality.
  2179. >Reality you're reminded of as each of your hands caresses her flanks.
  2180. >Between which she's carrying a lot of substance.
  2181.  
  2182. "I've mentioned you're... well-endowed?"
  2183. >"Several times," Careful coos.
  2184. "R-really?"
  2185. >"Not always verbally. Or consciously."
  2186. "... I stare."
  2187. >"You stare."
  2188. >Smooch.
  2189. "So..."
  2190. >Careful raises an eyebrow, inviting your question.
  2191. "... is it muscle? Bone structure?"
  2192. >"And veggie bacon."
  2193. >Smooch.
  2194. "Anything in particular you'd like?"
  2195. >"Haunches like massages."
  2196.  
  2197. >"Oh!"
  2198. "You alright?"
  2199. >"Yeahhh... oh. That spot. Right there."
  2200. >You work that spot, around the top of her upper thigh.
  2201. >She rests her forelegs on your free arm and nuzzles your neck as you work.
  2202. >Her breath is warm and moist on your face.
  2203. "You really like that, huh?"
  2204. >"You're a natural. You could get spa work, you know."
  2205. "I... don't know about that."
  2206. >"Suit yourself. You'd be popular with the mare clientele, I think. Probably a few stallions-"
  2207. >You pinch her butt.
  2208. >"eep!"
  2209.  
  2210. >...
  2211.  
  2212. >You wonder if it's been hours or just minutes of this now.
  2213. >Probably the latter. Your cuddly, warm, oxytocin high is still flowing, but it hasn't wore you out yet.
  2214. >Somewhere along the line, you had started carressing the back of Careful's legs, which she liked.
  2215. >You had traced each of them from the back of the hooves, up to her ankles, along the tendons, up to the small of her back.
  2216. >Then you'd scratch her right above the base of her tail. She liked that too.
  2217. >Your hands came inevitably to rest on each side of her rear.
  2218. >She blushed and kissed your neck when you took it in two light handfuls.
  2219. >She looks in your eyes.
  2220. >You look in hers.
  2221. >You play a little drumbeat on her ass with your fingers on each hand.
  2222. >She can't not grin.
  2223.  
  2224. >You roll back on your side, plopping her on the bed beside you.
  2225. >She stands up and stretches her legs before getting back down.
  2226. >"So... I, uh."
  2227. "Mh?"
  2228. >"I'm sorry I'm not in... I can't... you must be... I noticed you looking-"
  2229. "I'm fine. And whatever we're having now... the alternative? I like it."
  2230. >She brightens up.
  2231. >"I'm glad. I like being with you."
  2232. "I would have wanted to talk a little about it first, anyway. I figure some aspect might be... different."
  2233. >She presses her nose agaisnt yours and bats her eyes.
  2234. >"The fundamentals are the same, I'm sure."
  2235. >She kisses you and curls up with you as the candle starts to dim.
  2236.  
  2237. >For a few minutes after the candle went out, you looked at each other in the dark.
  2238. >You love those saucer-like eyes.
  2239. >You could tell she was looking at you even in the low light.
  2240. >She closed them in contentment as you ran one hand through her mane, stroking her head, neck, and back.
  2241. >Where other gestures like this had excited her, this calmed her.
  2242.  
  2243. >You've kept it up.
  2244. >She's closed her eyes, tucked her legs under her, and put her head down.
  2245. >Her chest is rising and falling in a slow, regular rythm.
  2246. >"Good night, Anon," she says.
  2247. "Good night."
  2248. >... it's not quite enough.
  2249. >You need to say something else. To let her know how you feel.
  2250. >Not... nothing too strong, but something meaningful.
  2251. >Come on, Anon.
  2252. >Before she falls asleep.
  2253.  
  2254. "I'm here with you."
  2255. >It's... it's a lot said in very few words, but it'll have to do.
  2256. >You hope she'll get it.
  2257. >...
  2258. >She stirs, opening her eyes drowsily and looking into yours once more.
  2259. >She gets up just high enough to give you a kiss.
  2260. "I'm here with you, too," she says as it breaks.
  2261. >She scooches close to you, curls back up, and nods off to sleep.
  2262.  
  2263. >You lie awake a while, listen to Careful breathe, and mull things over.
  2264. >Over the past day or so, you realized something: you haven't been okay here.
  2265. >Equestria isn't free of problems, but it's close to it.
  2266. >To some, coming here would have been like stepping into Wonderland. A utopia too ideal ever to be achieved back home.
  2267. >To you... nothing might as well have changed.
  2268. >As amicable as Equestria's pony residents are, you felt no less alien to them than you remember often feeling around other people.
  2269. >You have it nice, here, but any feeling that it was... a paradise? A refuge from whatever problems you used to face? None.
  2270. >Not until you met this pony who tackled you in a park to protect you from a photograph.
  2271. >With Careful, you finally feel...
  2272. >...
  2273. >... what's the right word? You're dozing off...
  2274. >...
  2275. >Safe.
  2276.  
  2277. Part II: Catalog Careful
  2278.  
  2279. >WHAM!
  2280.  
  2281. >That would be the door.
  2282. >It's big and heavy as hell and slams if you let it close on its own.
  2283. >Remarkably, the frame stays intact.
  2284. >It's a sturdy, ornate piece, not unlike the devices scattered around the workshop (which, incidentally, is also the living room, and the entryway): gears and clockwork, all shiny, precise, and permanently in the process of assembly.
  2285.  
  2286. >You put down the book you're reading a peek over the back of the couch.
  2287. >Careful Watch -- your best friend, a talking horse, a Royal Canterlot Guard, a general badass, and a clockmaker -- is home.
  2288. >She's in full armor today. The padded stuff, to keep her toasty in the cold weather.
  2289. >The ornate, thick, interconnected sheets of bronze cover most of her figure.
  2290. >At the joints, you can see the dense wool layer underlying the plating.
  2291. >You know from experience the gear weighs at least a hundred pounds, total.
  2292. >Careful strolls in and wipes her hooves on the welcome mat like she's wearing casual digs.
  2293.  
  2294. "Hey, Careful."
  2295. >"Hey."
  2296. >She sounds disappointed.
  2297. "How was the assignment?"
  2298. >She pauses.
  2299. >The door swings shut behind her.
  2300. >She paws at the welcome mat with a forehoof and mumbles something:
  2301. >"... 'matos."
  2302. "Come again?"
  2303. >"Tomatoes."
  2304. "What about them?"
  2305. >"... I don't like tomatoes."
  2306.  
  2307. >You notice, now, that the hue of Careful's armor is a bit... off.
  2308. >It's reddish.
  2309. >There's tomato juice all over it, and it's frozen on.
  2310. >It looks like it's gotten into her coat, mane, and tail in more than one place.
  2311. "... Ah."
  2312. >"It's... it's so... sticky."
  2313. >Poor thing.
  2314.  
  2315. >You sit up from the couch, smile sympathetically, rub your hands together, and raise them vertically, to your shoulders, as if you're scrubbed-up, sterilized, and about to perform surgery.
  2316. "Would a bath help?"
  2317. >"Yes. Yes it would."
  2318. "I'll go get it running."
  2319.  
  2320. >You make your way to the stairs as Careful removes her armor.
  2321. >Each piece hits the floor with a solid 'thud.'
  2322. >It weighs at least a hundred pounds, total.
  2323. >Earth pones ain't nothin' to fuck with.
  2324.  
  2325. >The bathroom's on the right, at the top of the stairs.
  2326. >You duck in, grab a towel and washcloth, lay them by the tub, plug the drain, and twist the hot water tap.
  2327. >It heats up in no time. The mirrors mist up as the tub fills.
  2328. >You sit and watch it fill.
  2329. >One inch... another.
  2330. >You always like watching this.
  2331. >It's zen or something. You don't know.
  2332. >You probably just like the ritual because of its result: you get to wash pone.
  2333. >The pone whose residence and bed you've shared regularly over the past few weeks.
  2334.  
  2335. >... It's not weird! Really!
  2336. >She thinks, acts, and speaks like a person.
  2337. >And you two really click.
  2338. >It's just... she's a horse.
  2339. >What's the big deal? You haven't seen a human in months. You're pretty sure they don't even exist here.
  2340. >Yeah.
  2341. >You're not weird.
  2342. >You're just acclimating.
  2343. >With your girlfr-... er. Marefriend.
  2344. >Is that the right word?
  2345. >They use both, you're pretty sure.
  2346.  
  2347. "It's ready."
  2348. >"Kay," you hear her distant reply.
  2349.  
  2350. >This is one of many perks of dating a pone.
  2351. >The baths.
  2352. >They're naked all the time, so it's not even necessarily an intimate thing.
  2353. >It's no different than being in a room with someone washing their hands.
  2354. >But you have hands, so you get the privelege of doing occasional scrubbing after Careful's come back from a hard assignment.
  2355. >Five-fingered ear-scritchers plus shampoo make for a relaxing experience on her end, apparently.
  2356. >You yourself get a deep satisfaction out of it you can't explain.
  2357. >Clean pone, happy pone.
  2358. >It is known.
  2359.  
  2360. "Where you want me to start?"
  2361. >Careful's gotten in the tub.
  2362. >She stretches, relaxes, and sinks into the water.
  2363. >"Do my mane while I scrub my face. I like tomatoes, but... oh. The smell gets to you after a while. Thank Celestia it's not hot out..."
  2364. >She submerges her mouth and nose and exhales, blowing bubbles.
  2365. >Some of the flaky, icy tomato juice and pulp is already melting and dissipating in the bath.
  2366. >If someone walked in, they'd think you're cleaning Careful up after a murder.
  2367.  
  2368. "So, you gonna make me ask?"
  2369. >You grab the soap, build a lather on your hands, and work it into her mane.
  2370. >"Right. You know I've been working the market?"
  2371. "That I do."
  2372. >Winter's close. Street vendors are at each others' throats cashing in all their surplus produce they don't have room to store.
  2373. >It's not uncommon for a few guards to keep the peace at this time of year.
  2374. >Competition for popular stall-spots in the market at prime time can get... contentious.
  2375.  
  2376. "... you were assigned to the celery mare, right?"
  2377. >"Yeah. Xyla Phlo. Who, it turns out, has rivals."
  2378. "Who sell tomatoes?"
  2379. >"How ever did you guess."
  2380. >You rinse the soap out of Careful's mane and start working on her back and sides.
  2381. >This is her favorite part, you've gathered.
  2382. >"Mmm."
  2383. "Make up for your day?"
  2384. >"Almost."
  2385.  
  2386. >You finish rinsing off Careful and pat the back of her neck.
  2387. "Bet you did a good-ass job, though."
  2388. >She smiles.
  2389. >"Xy didn't get a drop on her. She really appreciated it. Sent me home with a few stalks."
  2390. "Awesome. You have any peanut butter?"
  2391. >Careful looks at you, deadly serious.
  2392. >"I ALWAYS have peanut butter."
  2393. >She puts her smile back on and gives you a wet smooch.
  2394. >"Second cupboard to the right of the sink. Celery's on the counter. Make a few for me. I'm..."
  2395. >She wriggles a little, biting her lip momentarily.
  2396. >It's not an expression you've seen her wear before.
  2397. >"I'll soak for a while and come down. Get to chopping and spreading. I'm quite peckish."
  2398. "I'll make extra."
  2399.  
  2400. ...
  2401.  
  2402. >You have gone back downstairs and assembled an armada of peanut-butter celery stalks.
  2403. >It's nearly evening and a few snowflakes are beginning to fall outside, so you put on some hot chocolate, too.
  2404. >Careful comes down after fifteen minutes or so, wrapped in a warm, dry, blue towel like a hooded robe.
  2405. >You're reminded of the type of mysterious questgiver or shopkeeper you'd encounter in a role-playing game.
  2406. >What's visible of her face and legs is quite fluffy from a vigorous drying.
  2407.  
  2408. >"I smell cocoa."
  2409. "First snow of the season outside. Take a look. Thought I'd celebrate."
  2410. >She looks out the window, pressing her nose to the glass.
  2411. >Satisfied, she turns to you.
  2412. >"Gimme cocoa."
  2413. >You put the mugs on a platter with the celery and walk it to the coffee table by the fireplace.
  2414. >A fire you started earlier is dwindling but still going.
  2415. >You add a few logs to it while Careful situates herself and slurps her cocoa.
  2416.  
  2417. >She looks up at you as you get back on the couch, revealing a chocolate moustache from the drink.
  2418. >You can't suppress a grin while she sticks her tongue out and screws up her face to lick her upper lip.
  2419. >"And what are YOU laughing at?"
  2420. "You."
  2421. >"I shall make no apologies for my love of hot beverages."
  2422.  
  2423. >She puts her drink on the table and scooches up to you, getting under your arm and cuddling your side.
  2424. >"You did a lovely job with the fire."
  2425. "I like the old-fashioned hearths. More ambient than the radiators at my place."
  2426. >"You've had time to practice with them too. You haven't been home since... when?"
  2427. "Few days ago. Picked up some clothes. Not overstaying my welcome, am I?"
  2428. >"Naw. I like having you around. It's just... what do you do while I'm on duty?"
  2429. "Read. Clean. Go for... walks."
  2430. >Careful tilts her head.
  2431. "... wait for you to get back."
  2432.  
  2433. >Careful's taken a PB-celery bite and popped it in her mouth.
  2434. >She talks through the mouthful of crunchy goodness.
  2435. >"Hope you're not bored. I like having you here, but I do want you to be happy, yanno."
  2436. "I'm pretty happy. Especially since I met you. But... maybe I could use more to do."
  2437. >There's a pause as she crunches away.
  2438. "So. Think I should find a job? Squander my precious New Citizen stipend?"
  2439. >"Ponies get bored of it, and there's no shortage of interesting things to work on in Canterlot."
  2440. "Might as well do something with my lazy ass."
  2441. >"Oh, not like that! You're not... I don't think you're a fixer-upper. I just wanna help. If you're not happy."
  2442. >You peck Careful on the cheek.
  2443. "Let's go on a walk this weekend. Show me around. Let's look for something I can do."
  2444. >She beams.
  2445. >"It's a plan!"
  2446.  
  2447. >You cuddle with Careful by the fire, sip your cocoa, and help yourself to a few PB celeries.
  2448. >Careful has touched surprisingly few.
  2449. >Usually, when she's hungry, she... well.
  2450. >She eats like an F5 tornado hitting a defenseless Kansas town.
  2451. >Never makes a mess, though.
  2452. >Very clean.
  2453. >It's kind of cute.
  2454. >... or cute enough that it outweighs "scary."
  2455. >No: her attention's on you tonight.
  2456. >Not the food.
  2457. >...
  2458. >Like... REALLY on you.
  2459. >The gaze she's had on you for a few minutes... again, it's not an expression you've quite seen on her before.
  2460. >Sometimes, when you meet it, she shyly looks away for a moment, blushing, before looking back at you.
  2461.  
  2462. >You believe you know what this behavior calls for: belly scratches.
  2463. >You slip a hand under a fold of her towel, warm from the fire and her body heat, and get to work rubbing her sides and tummy.
  2464. >You do not get the reaction you expect.
  2465. >She likes it, to be sure.
  2466. >But, usually, she just relaxes, melts... lets you do your work.
  2467. >Tonight, she's... reciprocating.
  2468. >She's blushing heavily and nuzzling your neck, making little, affectionate noises.
  2469. >Kissing you, even giving you little licks.
  2470. >They leave cool patches on your neck that dissipate in the warmth of the room.
  2471.  
  2472. >Something occurs to you.
  2473. >You did actually take a walk.
  2474. >Today and the day before.
  2475. >And at no other time the past few weeks.
  2476. >Your earlier insinuation that you get out of Careful's place all the time... well, that may have been a white lie.
  2477. >You didn't want her to worry, after all.
  2478.  
  2479. >But, these past few days, you noticed something while you were out.
  2480. >You only needed a light jacket.
  2481. >The weather itself was cool, but it was a dry cold, the kind that comes once in a while accompanied not by a single cloud in the sky.
  2482. >The kind where you don't have to dress overly warm, because the sun...
  2483. >... the sun is radiant.
  2484.  
  2485. "C-Careful?"
  2486. >"Mmm?"
  2487. "Feelin' alright?"
  2488. >"I feel... really good," she says, punctuating it with a kiss right under your ear. "I thought after all this time maybe YOU can use a... belly rub."
  2489. >She sneaks a hoof under your shirt and strokes your chest.
  2490. >"Hee. Fuzzy."
  2491.  
  2492. >Does... is she... ?
  2493. >A lump rises in your throat.
  2494. >Your heart races.
  2495. >Lub dub.
  2496. >Lub-dub.
  2497. >LUBDUBLUBDUBLUB-
  2498.  
  2499. >-wait.
  2500. >D-don't jump to conclusions.
  2501. >Don't presume.
  2502. >You can find an explanation.
  2503. >You can solve the mystery.
  2504. >You've read Sherlock Holmes.
  2505. >J-just look at her expression.
  2506. >You can read a lot from a pony's...
  2507.  
  2508. >... oh.
  2509. >Oh Lord.
  2510.  
  2511. >So, Careful loves to give you bedroom eyes to beckon you up for bedtime.
  2512. >It's something you look forward to every night.
  2513. >That heavy, partially-lidded gaze, a little nod toward the stairs...
  2514. >... and some comfy, good-ass snuggles in bed.
  2515.  
  2516. >The expression she's giving you now makes her usual bedroom eyes look innocent by comparison.
  2517. >Her face is flushed.
  2518. >Her lips are ever-so-slightly parted, begging you to lean in and meet them with your own.
  2519. >Her eyes... her pupils are wide and deep with desire: two inscrutable, dark singularities.
  2520.  
  2521. >Lastly, you realize, the fire in the hearth isn't going as strong as you thought it was.
  2522. >The utter warmth and comfort you feel is rolling off Careful in waves.
  2523.  
  2524. >You've ruled out the impossible, Sherlock.
  2525. >Whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
  2526. "Careful... Are you in... ?"
  2527. >She nods.
  2528. >"We've had a few days of sun. You notice? We usually get to see it one more time like this before winter hits in earnest."
  2529. "Enough for... how long?"
  2530. >"Long enough."
  2531. >She kisses you.
  2532. >"I like to think Celestia knows what she's doing."
  2533.  
  2534. >Exerting every muscle in your body to keep your hand from shaking, you move to stroke her back, removing her warm, blue towel in the process.
  2535. >The lovely red socks she's wearing under it surprise you almost as much as the lacy panties of the same color.
  2536.  
  2537. ...
  2538.  
  2539. >Frost covers Careful's bedroom windows.
  2540. >Through it you can make out dim, diffracted patterns from orange streetlamps.
  2541. >Careful's asleep.
  2542. >The woodstove had run low; you, having no fur, felt the chill first, and got up to restock it.
  2543. >Now you're lying in bed, watching Careful, listening to the fire in the stove.
  2544.  
  2545. >It's the time of night when whether it's late or early is undecided.
  2546. >Here and there you hear a clink of metal, a clunk of lumber, a hoofstep crushing fresh ice: the lamplighter returning home, maybe.
  2547. >You caught him the other day, out on one of your walks.
  2548. >You complimented his work -- the lamps' soft glow always makes you feel at home.
  2549. >He had gone on for ten minutes about the oil mixture he developed to get that effect before his wife dragged him in.
  2550. >Cool guy. Too bad he's practically nocturnal.
  2551.  
  2552. >...
  2553.  
  2554. >Oh, right.
  2555. >You and Careful had sex.
  2556. >"Making love," she likes calling it.
  2557. >You guess you like it too.
  2558.  
  2559. >Admittedly, you had been nervous.
  2560. >Sure, you two have been sleeping together for weeks, but you hadn't been sure "it" was going to work until it happened.
  2561. >More than just physically... although, incidentally, that worked fine, once you each figured out comfortable positions.
  2562. >You feel closer to Careful than anyone you've ever met, but you thought, somehow, sex would... make things weird.
  2563. >A mutually indulged fetish, instead of the amazing, blissful, close relationship it's been so far.
  2564.  
  2565. >And you were so wrong.
  2566. >You've never felt as close as you do now.
  2567. >After, when you were both supine, gazing at each other, you told her you loved her.
  2568. >One of those stupid things that slips out sometimes.
  2569. >But then she said it too.
  2570.  
  2571. >The only thing that went close to wrong was... well.
  2572. >You hadn't expected how much fluid there was going to be.
  2573. >Maybe you should have, after she insisted you lay a towel over the sheets before you start.
  2574. >But... that wasn't unpleasant, was it?
  2575.  
  2576. >Your attention drifts back to Careful and her soft snoring.
  2577. >You chuckle quietly to yourself: she looks totally beat and happy.
  2578. >She's on her back, her mane's everywhere, her mouth's hanging open...
  2579. >Last time you saw her like this was the night after you both did the Rum and Nacho challenge at Mel's.
  2580. >Careful's good at the Rum and Nacho challenge.
  2581. >So good that Mel put a limit of one attempt per month per pony.
  2582. >You had been confused the day before when Careful, her eyes glittering, announced that "her time of the month" was coming.
  2583. >You have it in your head that, if you ever come across another place with an eating challenge you have to sign a waiver to take, you should tell Careful about it.
  2584. >... perhaps prioritizing those that involve fewer beans.
  2585. >Snuggles should never carry the risk of suffocation they did that night.
  2586.  
  2587. >Speaking of Mel's -- wouldn't that be a good place to land a job?
  2588. >Ah, yes: bartender. The noble ambition of every college drop-out.
  2589. >Mel hates you, of course, but, hey, you like her, and you know you coming along with Careful so often must carry some weight.
  2590. >You'd probably make as good a mixologist as any unicorn, what, with your hands and all.
  2591. >Yeah.
  2592. >It's not a good idea at all, you know, but, hey, it's not the worst you've ever had.
  2593. >That makes it worth trying.
  2594.  
  2595. >Careful grunts and twitches her foreleg.
  2596. >You scratch her shoulder.
  2597. >She sighs contentedly and resumes snoring.
  2598. >You watch her and listen to her until you feel yourself drifting away.
  2599. >You don't want this night to end, but you can't wait until tomorrow.
  2600.  
  2601. ...
  2602.  
  2603. >Mmm.
  2604. >So toasty.
  2605. >The sun, orange-red as it peeks over the horizon, is shining in, melting the window-frost.
  2606. >Anon must have stocked the wood-stove during the night, too.
  2607. >Looks like he's still fast asleep.
  2608. >He loves cuddles while he's awake, but he makes a pretty good bed-warmer asleep, too.
  2609. >Yes... this bed is toasty inside and out.
  2610. >Let pony or princess try to drag you out of it right now.
  2611. >They will fail.
  2612. >...
  2613. >But you COULD be toastier.
  2614. >It will be a perilous journey.
  2615. >You must scooch all the way over to the domain of the slumbering cuddler.
  2616. >You will fit perfectly into the crook formed by his fetal position.
  2617. >Exponentially higher amounts of toastiness await you there.
  2618. >You know. Inverse-square laws and stuff.
  2619. >You've heard that term somewhere.
  2620.  
  2621. >But you can't wake him.
  2622. >When he wakes, you need to both bundle up, and go... outside.
  2623. >Where it's cold.
  2624. >Toastiness evaluation: minimal.
  2625. >So... you need to be careful.
  2626.  
  2627. >You start by scooching your shoulders.
  2628. >Then your butt.
  2629. >...
  2630. >He doesn't stir.
  2631. >Shoulder.
  2632. >Butt.
  2633. >Shoulder.
  2634. >Butt.
  2635. >Almost there.
  2636. >You're still... from last night... is "sore" the right word?
  2637. >No, not really.
  2638. >Just warm, and tender, and sensitive. Lingering.
  2639. >You like it.
  2640.  
  2641. >Shoulder.
  2642. >Butt.
  2643. >Shoul-OHNOOHNO
  2644. >HE'S AWAKE
  2645. >IT'S RUI-
  2646. >Anon grabs you, muddles something incoherent, pulls you in, and resumes sleeping.
  2647. >You chomp the edge of the displaced comforter and pull it up to your neck.
  2648. >Mission successful, R.G. Careful.
  2649. >Maximum toastiness: achieved.
  2650. >You smack your lips, wriggle in, close your eyes, and prepare to nap.
  2651. >Just for a little longer...
  2652.  
  2653. >"C-Careful."
  2654. >It's Anon!
  2655. >You're in the park together.
  2656. >The sun's rising behind him.
  2657. >You've always loved the view on this vista.
  2658. >He's wearing his Haynley shirt.
  2659. >You like that shirt.
  2660. >It hugs his figure nicely.
  2661. >You always have to contain yourself a little while he's wearing it.
  2662. >You know. Not slobber too much.
  2663. >He's a little skinny, but you tell him it shows off his muscles.
  2664. >He pretends to blow off the comment, but you can tell he appreciates it.
  2665. >The rehearsed roll of his eyes is always followed by a quick glance back at you he thinks you don't see.
  2666. >It's a hunt for veracity -- maybe not for the literal comment, but for the intent, for the love and appreciation behind it.
  2667. >When it's satisfied, he can't suppress his reaction to it.
  2668. >The rapid pulse; the slight blushing, sometimes.
  2669. >The kind of stuff you can pick up with a sideways glance, a twitch of an ear...
  2670. >You know.
  2671. >Guard senses.
  2672.  
  2673. >He kneels down for you.
  2674. >You go to him at a gallop, eager for him to pick you up, to hold you close..
  2675. >To... to scratch your ears.
  2676. >Celestia, the ear scratches are good.
  2677. >"I... Careful..."
  2678. >He's so warm.
  2679. >Could he be... a little... ?
  2680. >Maybe.
  2681. >You've been too embarrassed to ask, but you've gathered that Anon probably... "works..." just like a stallion.
  2682. >You hope you don't neglect him.
  2683. >You know that, sometimes, for boyfriends, mares do... favors.
  2684. >But you don't know how he'd react if you offered.
  2685. >He's never been pushy.
  2686. >Maybe, now that you've... you can bring it up.
  2687. >"Careful? Please?"
  2688.  
  2689. >... oh.
  2690. >You're asleep.
  2691. >Right.
  2692. >Come on, Careful.
  2693. >Open your eyes.
  2694. >Wake up.
  2695. >...
  2696.  
  2697. >You've got Anon in an iron cuddle.
  2698. >He's having trouble getting out.
  2699. >And, uh... breathing.
  2700. >You loosen up.
  2701. "Oh, sorry! I'm sorry. I-"
  2702. >He kisses you on the forehead.
  2703. >"I'll recover. God, you're cute."
  2704. >Yes, of course.
  2705. >You're adorable.
  2706. >You smooch him back.
  2707. >"I'm gonna make break-"
  2708. "Can you wear your Haynley shirt today?"
  2709.  
  2710. >...
  2711.  
  2712. "Err... Mel's?"
  2713. >"Yep! Mel's."
  2714. "You're sure."
  2715. >"I'm sure! I've got good mixing skills. And hands."
  2716. "Most of the bartenders are unicorns."
  2717. >"So they have finesse! I have..."
  2718. >Anon wiggles his gloved fingers.
  2719. >"-dexterity," he says, as if it settles the issue.
  2720.  
  2721. >He had brought this up earlier, in the tub, after you had each had breakfast and were scrubbing... last night... off each other.
  2722. >You had been kind enough to tell him it wasn't the worst idea ever...
  2723. >... but not honest enough to tell him it still wasn't a GOOD idea.
  2724. >Not that you have anything against Mel.
  2725. >You love Mel.
  2726. >It's mutual.
  2727. >If you considered anypony in this town friend and family before you met Anon, it was her.
  2728.  
  2729. >You don't know exactly how it was she knew Papa.
  2730. >You think she helped him make business contacts to set up shop in this part of town before you were born.
  2731. >You rarely spoke with her while until Papa died.
  2732. >But, then, she had been the first pony on your doorstep, when you were suffering, when you were alone.
  2733. >She had dropped the phony showpony's accent and demeanor she puts on at her bar and actually talked to you.
  2734. >She came by daily for months, always checking up on you.
  2735. >If it weren't for her strength and support bolstering your own, you might not have ever moved on with your life, kept the business running, or joined the Guard.
  2736. >After that, she had given you some space again.
  2737. >"You're a strong mare, my darling," she had said. "You don't need an old mare like me doting over you now."
  2738. >Still, you liked visiting her place now and then.
  2739. >Occasionally to talk with her on off-hours.
  2740. >Mostly just to see her.
  2741. >Knowing she's around makes you feel strangely comfortable.
  2742.  
  2743. >Anon, though...
  2744. >Well, accent or no accent, Mel's not a fan of Anon.
  2745. >Or "that lazy, silly boy," as she calls him every time you stop by to talk.
  2746. >She tolerates him when he comes with you, but if he ever stopped by alone...
  2747. >Well, you hope hoofprints on hit ass would be the worst of his problems.
  2748.  
  2749. ...
  2750.  
  2751. >You stroll down the boulevard, you in your heavy coat, your flannel-lined jeans, and that shirt Careful seems to like.
  2752. >Careful's in her armor. The wool-lined stuff.
  2753. >It's an off-day, but she insists it's as good and comfy as any coat she owns.
  2754. >Also something about reassuring citizens of guard presence.
  2755. >You guess it makes sense.
  2756. >You think she just gets a kick out of getting to go out on a weekend dressed like a badass.
  2757.  
  2758. >Speaking of badass, you're pretty sure you're about to bag a gig at the hottest bar in town.
  2759. >Sure, the owner isn't a huge fan of yours, but she is of Careful's.
  2760. >With her vouching for you, and the skill you naturally have at this sort of thing, how can you fail?
  2761. >Lady doesn't have to like you to sign you a paycheck and give you a decent number of work-hours per week, anyway.
  2762.  
  2763. >You turn the corner... and there it is.
  2764. >Marescow Mel's Cocktails and Fudge.
  2765. >You grin at Careful.
  2766. >She looks back at you with strained reassurance.
  2767.  
  2768. >You hold the door for Careful and follow her in.
  2769. >"Careful!" you hear a voice exclaim which can only be Mel's. "Come in."
  2770. >Careful trots up to Mel and gives her a hug.
  2771. >Looking at them side-by-side, you can't help but notice that the same touch of red in Careful's mane seems to be the solid color of Mel's.
  2772. >Probably a coincidence.
  2773. >Only so many colors, after all.
  2774. >You're pretty sure Mel dyes, anyway.
  2775. >"... oh. And you."
  2776. "Hi, Mel!"
  2777. >"Right."
  2778. >She turns back to Careful.
  2779. >"So. What would the two of you like today?"
  2780. >"Actually," Careful says. "Uh."
  2781. >She gestures to you.
  2782. >Mel looks at you, sighs, rests an elbow on the bar and her face in her hoof.
  2783. >"This should be good. What is it?"
  2784.  
  2785. ...
  2786.  
  2787. >That went... better than expected, you think.
  2788. >You and Anon are at a nearby vista.
  2789. >He's leaning on the thick, barrier wall, watching snow fall on distant farms at the foot of the mountain.
  2790. >"I didn't think she'd laugh."
  2791. "I'm... I'm sure it wasn't AT you?"
  2792. >He looks at you.
  2793. >You look at him.
  2794. "Okay. It was at you."
  2795. >"I thought laughter and happiness were foreign concepts to her. Like light to a space alien with no fuckin' eyes. Stuff you need to consult a goddamn philosopher to even communicate to her right."
  2796. "Oh, now you're just being mean."
  2797. >"Sorry. Yeah. I know you like her. I just... I thought, you know, she'd take it seriously. As a business proposition."
  2798. "You did have, well, ever-so-slightly... optimistic... expectations. I mean, she hasn't even been looking for help. Maybe you were just experiencing a bit of... well... bravado?"
  2799. >"What, me? Confident?"
  2800. >He contemplates this for a moment.
  2801. >"I... may have been."
  2802. "'Cause you got lucky with a super-cute mare not twelve hours prior?"
  2803. >"This... sounds like something I might do."
  2804. "Maybe."
  2805. >"So... bum plan from the start. Sorry if I let you down, Care. I don't think I have a plan B for today."
  2806.  
  2807. >You cuddle his leg.
  2808. >As well as you can in your armor, anyway.
  2809. "I like you plan B or not. We'll think of something to look into tomorrow. Let's just have some fun for now. Anything you want to do?"
  2810. >Anon shuffles a bit, looks away, tries to hide his blush.
  2811. >It would probably work for somepony else, but not for you.
  2812. >He knows you know it.
  2813. >He knows you know he knows you know it.
  2814. >Can't control reflex, though.
  2815. >"I'm... nearly at the end of the latest Hayten book. Need something new soon."
  2816. "Great! Moondancer's it is."
  2817.  
  2818. ...
  2819.  
  2820. >"'Over the Moon:' Secondhoof Books for Discerning Ponies."
  2821. >Your Mecca in Canterlot, if you have one.
  2822. >The library's just not the same.
  2823. >It has history, but not character.
  2824. >... and you get shushed if you so much as open a hardcover with a creaky binding.
  2825. >That librarian hears like a fuckin' bat and has a shush like an airhorn.
  2826. >You nearly have PTSD from one too many shushes.
  2827. >You get shush-triggered now.
  2828. >Too bad there's no Tumblr in Equestria.
  2829.  
  2830. >Unfortunately... well, there don't seem to be a lot of "Discerning Ponies" in Canterlot.
  2831. >Except you.
  2832. >But... well.
  2833. >You're not a pony.
  2834. >So.
  2835.  
  2836. >... well, there is that one guy, a stallion you've seen in there a few times.
  2837. >Orange and yellow, wire full-moon specs.
  2838. >Usually digging around the esoterica section, or chuckling and blushing heavily at the counter while Moondancer rings up his purchase.
  2839. >Eh, give him the benefit of the doubt.
  2840. >He's probably "discerning."
  2841. >Yeah.
  2842.  
  2843. >Anyway... yeah, Moondancer, she has a great selection here.
  2844. >She always knows what you should pick out, even if you only vaguely know what you want.
  2845. >You know what you want today, though: the next Heyton book.
  2846. >Series is great so far.
  2847. >It's got intrigue, murder, romance... taboo...
  2848. >A refreshing break from the saccharine flavor Equestria occasionally has.
  2849.  
  2850. >You open the door, ringing the entry bell.
  2851. "After you!"
  2852. >"Why, thank you."
  2853. >Careful trots in, her armor clinking and rustling.
  2854. >You follow.
  2855.  
  2856. >"Hello-oh! Careful Watch! Anon! Come in!"
  2857. >Moondancer pops from one side of the counter to the other with a glint of indigo magic.
  2858. >She trots toward you.
  2859. >"What brings you here today? Books? Ambiance? Pastries and tea?"
  2860. "Just your company, Miss Moonie."
  2861. >"and what's this about pastries?" adds Careful, excitedly.
  2862.  
  2863. >Moondancer's amicable chuckle and slight glow at the your dumb flattery makes you feel at home.
  2864. >She's on a very short list of ponies you're comfortable talking normally with.
  2865.  
  2866. >"Well, I saw the library has a cafe. So I thought: why not here?"
  2867. "A cafe, huh?"
  2868. >"More like... home-made cookies from my kitchen? I've been reading about baking and thought I'd give it a go. They're free, if you wanna buy a book or just read in the corner."
  2869. "Sounds-"
  2870. >"What kinda cookies?" interjects Careful.
  2871. >"Oatmeal raisin. I've also experimented adding milk and white chocolate to a few, and macademia-"
  2872. >Careful leaps forth, coming nose-to-nose with the bookish pony.
  2873. >"Cookie please."
  2874.  
  2875. >Moondancer smiles.
  2876. >"Right in back. Anon, you want anything?"
  2877. "One for me, too, and some peppermint tea?"
  2878. >"Sure. Technically, though, peppermint's not 'tea,' since it's not made from the leafs of the camellia sinensis-"
  2879. "Ya have it?"
  2880. >She winks at you.
  2881. >"Yep!"
  2882. >Stupid, adorable book horse and her book horse jokes.
  2883.  
  2884. >Fine.
  2885. >You flash her a smile for that one.
  2886. >She looks pleased.
  2887. "... and I'm just finishing the last Heyton book I got here. You have the next?"
  2888. >"I have all of them! You know where I keep the fantasy. You go get it while..."
  2889. >Careful's still barely an inch from her.
  2890. >Her eyes are glittering with anticipation.
  2891. >"... Careful and I... get the cookies?"
  2892. "Sure!"
  2893.  
  2894. >Moondancer makes for the back of the store.
  2895. >Careful follows, nearly hopping with joy.
  2896. >You make for the fantasy section as you hear Moondancer start:
  2897. >"I love that you're in armor today! I rarely get to see it - is that plating the traditional make? I was just leafing through an old encyclopedia entry about..."
  2898.  
  2899. >You search the fantasy section, looking at first for "H" for "Heyton."
  2900. >Then you remember Moondancer's method of organization.
  2901. >It's modern lit, so it's probably near the end of the order.
  2902. >... there it is. "A Tale of Ash and Frostbite."
  2903. >Copies of book one... two... three...
  2904. >...
  2905. >Where's four?
  2906. >Didn't Moondancer say she had all of them?
  2907. >Eh, better ask her.
  2908. >She'll know what's up.
  2909.  
  2910. >You stroll over to the back, glancing over the shelves and the covers and bindings of countless tomes as you go.
  2911. >The dustiest and oldest are in the back-most section: the esoterica.
  2912. >Most books in Over the Moon are available written in the modern Equestrian alphabet, which, incidentally, is identical to English.
  2913. >Not so with the esoterica.
  2914. >They're all in classical script, in bold, connected letters like the bastard children of Greek and Cyrillic.
  2915. >Any pony can read it and the modern, but you haven't bothered to learn it except those bits that sometimes appear in flyers and ads for stylistic flair.
  2916. >The shelves get strange here, too.
  2917. >As do the books.
  2918. >Some are angled in or out, leaving the books looking like they should fall off or shear from the awkward alignment, but they stay firmly in place.
  2919. >Others are upside-down, hanging from the ceiling.
  2920. >Their books sit on the shelves all the same, obeying some locally-inverted law of gravitation.
  2921. >Or maybe they're just glued.
  2922. >You don't know.
  2923. >You're not touching them to find out.
  2924. >Then there are the... connections.
  2925. >Arced shelves spanning the isle, appearing to have grown organically.
  2926. >They're never in the same place each time you come in.
  2927. >You have to duck under them to get anywhere.
  2928. >As you do so now, a few books float off the shelves and switch places.
  2929. >You stare.
  2930.  
  2931. >"They do that," says Moondancer.
  2932. "Oh. Right. Of course they do."
  2933. >"I understand your surprise! At libraries, a few staff always know the right wards to keep them calm and ordinary. So do I, but I like to let them... 'breathe.'"
  2934. "'Breathe.'"
  2935. >"Yeah! Like... well, if you had a pet rat, you wouldn't just keep him in a shoebox, right? You'd give him as much room as you can reasonably accommodate."
  2936. "Because they're intelligent, sure. You're saying the books are intelligent, then."
  2937. >"Insofar as they contain the wisdom of the words and abstract ideas written within them, yes."
  2938. "You don't think that's personifying them a bit much?"
  2939. >"I understand your skepticism on the matter. I suppose there's not concrete, empirical evidence for their intelligence. I feel the same, but, still, I could swear sometimes I see it in them. Anyway, if they show behavior at least resembling intelligence, don't they deserve the benefit of the doubt before we quell them?"
  2940.  
  2941. >One book -- a thin, old, yellowed one -- orbits around the arc over Moondancer, and comes to a stop beside her head as she speaks.
  2942. >"-oh! Hello, 'Principia!'"
  2943. >She boops it with her nose.
  2944. >It bobs in the air in response, looking almost... satisfied.
  2945. >Or it could just be moving in response to her boop.
  2946. >Then it resumes its orbit.
  2947. >You feel like pressing the discussion a bit more until you look at Moondancer.
  2948. >She smiles, and her eyes glitter with love and recognition as they follow the book completing its next orbit, then another...
  2949. >"It does this whenever I come by," she explains. "Ever since I saved it from a dusty old cellar and spent a few weeks taking notes on it."
  2950. "That's... really interesting."
  2951. >She nods, still following the book.
  2952. >Hadn't you wanted to ask her something?
  2953. >...
  2954. >Eh, fuck.
  2955. >You've forgotten.
  2956. "So, Careful's in back?"
  2957. >"Yeah! Let's go."
  2958.  
  2959. "... ten years?"
  2960. >"Yep. Once a decade. You just finished the latest."
  2961. >You remembered to ask Moondancer about Heyton.
  2962. >She did not give you the answer you wanted to hear.
  2963. "He... why... WHAT!"
  2964. >"He does a lot of planning, plotting, writing, and proofreading."
  2965. "How long do ponies even live?!"
  2966. >"If we're lucky, a few--oh! Careful! How are the cookies?"
  2967.  
  2968. >Careful, next to a half-empty plate of cookies, mumbles something through a mouthful of dough.
  2969. >Her eyes are watering.
  2970. >"Good! I'm glad! Anon, would you like one?"
  2971. >You nod.
  2972. >Moondancer magics one into your hand.
  2973. >You take a bite of the thick, soft morsel.
  2974. >Unsurprisingly, it's amazing.
  2975. >Moonie probably put as much work into studying the oldest and most esteemed recipes for baking these as she does into... well... everything she reads.
  2976. >Careful swallows her huge mouthful of cookie and gasps for breath.
  2977. >"T-they're... amazing..."
  2978. >"You can bring a few home, if you like. I made plenty more!"
  2979. >Careful raises her front hooves pleadingly, closes her eyes, and nods in appreciation, letting loose a barely-audible squeak of pleasure.
  2980. >Moondancer smiles.
  2981. >"My pleasure. I... don't know how many of the rest I'll be able to give out, but best to be optimistic, right?"
  2982.  
  2983. >Something in her tone wavers.
  2984. >You noticed it, so Careful must have noticed it and more.
  2985. >As Moondancer turns to open a door and retrieve some plastic wrap, you glance over at her.
  2986. >Sure enough, she's looking at you.
  2987. >She clears her throat and nods toward Moondancer.
  2988. >Her meaning's clear enough: "I've been robbed of my voice by cookie overload, but Moondancer needs someone to talk to, and you're the one she crushes on, so, you know, you should probably get on that."
  2989. >Yep, that's exactly what she would say.
  2990. >Psychic link. No other explanation is possible.
  2991. >As Moondancer magics the sealed, remaining cookies over to Careful, you ask her.
  2992. "Now that you mention it... how's business?"
  2993.  
  2994. >"Ah! Well... it's. You know," says Moondancer.
  2995. "I do?"
  2996. >"I'd say 'it's been better,' but, actually, it's... always slow."
  2997. "Really?"
  2998. >"You're my most frequent customer."
  2999. "Oof. Thought I just visited during slow hours."
  3000. >Careful is quietly gnawing on one of her cookies.
  3001. >"Nope. Most of the day, I just sit inside and read."
  3002. "I'm sorry."
  3003. >"No need to be! It's a labor of love. I've got bits to keep it running a while. Just not indefinitely."
  3004.  
  3005. >...
  3006. >Wait.
  3007. >An idea forms in your head.
  3008. >An idea almost too perfect to behold--yet there it is.
  3009. >Gleaming.
  3010. >Perfect.
  3011. >... probably.
  3012.  
  3013. "Well, I'd hate to see the place go. Sounds like it's far from too late to fix things, though. You thought of advertising?"
  3014. >Moonie ruminates on this.
  3015. >"I suppose I did underestimate how many ponies the woodwork on my sign would pull in..."
  3016. "It worked for me, but maybe you could increase the scale? Fliers? Word-of-mouth?"
  3017. >"Well... yes! I could!"
  3018. >She grins for a second, but then shifts back to contemplative."
  3019. >"... I can't leave the shop unattended, though. No good."
  3020. "... unless you hired someone to take care of it while you hit the streets?"
  3021. >She thinks on this for a moment, then looks up, ecstatic.
  3022. >"That's a great idea! You're offering, Anon? I c-can't think of ANYPONY-"
  3023. >She blushes and tones down a bit.
  3024. >"A-anypony better suited to the job. Except me. Hehe."
  3025. >Jackpot.
  3026. >You beam down at her.
  3027. "When can I start?"
  3028. >"Tomorrow! I get in at sunrise and open an hour later. Meet me then?"
  3029. "Sure thing."
  3030.  
  3031. >You look over to Careful, hoping to catch her approving glance.
  3032. >The cookie-bag is empty.
  3033. >She's nearly in a stupor.
  3034. >"... oh!" Moondancer comments. "I'm glad you like them, Careful. I'll... uh, I'll have to make more!"
  3035. "I'm sure she'll appreciate that. We've gotta split for now. See you in the morning?"
  3036. >"Yeah!"
  3037.  
  3038. >You and Careful head for the door.
  3039. >Just as you leave-
  3040. >"Oh! A-anon? I'll pay you, too! In case, uh, you were-"
  3041. "That's great, Moonie."
  3042. >"Ok!"
  3043. >She beams at you as you head out.
  3044.  
  3045. >Another night, another sleepover at Careful's.
  3046. >She spends the rest of the evening finishing the gears for a hoof-watch she's been working on.
  3047. >You're not sure how she manages such precision work with hooves, but she manages it.
  3048. >With fine-tipped tools she handles parts so little that a single twitch would send them rolling away.
  3049. >No wonder there's such high demand yet short supply for this work.
  3050. >Even magic can't suspend stuff in the air without it bobbing around.
  3051. >Girl's got it made.
  3052.  
  3053. >You have a light dinner while she works.
  3054. >She declines to have any.
  3055. >"The... the cookies," she explains, when she's not gripping some jeweler's tool in her teeth. "Enough for today..."
  3056.  
  3057. >Bedtime, as always, is divinely comfy.
  3058. >Careful lies on top of you as she gets in.
  3059. >You spent a few minutes pecking each other on the nose, taking turns, saying "love you," testing the phrase out, seeing how it feels to say it, to hear it.
  3060. >It's not something you'd ordinarily say to someone you've known for only a few weeks, but, fuck it, didn't you throw that rulebook out months ago?
  3061. >You snuggle for a few minutes, listening to the fuel in the wood-stove crackle.
  3062. >"Will... uh..." Careful begins.
  3063. "Yeah?"
  3064. >"Will... I be available often enough? P-physically? I know it's strange for you. My not being human."
  3065. >The question makes you blush. Better hope the light's dim.
  3066. "It's new... Yeah. I've been fine so far. I like being with you whatever we're doing. Not to... uh, understate that... you know. It was good."
  3067. >"There are potions. Just so you know."
  3068. >The light's not dim enough to conceal the flash of excitement on your face.
  3069. "That's good to know."
  3070. >"That's why I ask. So we know what, uh, tools are available. If we want them."
  3071. "If we want them."
  3072. >She smiles.
  3073.  
  3074. >You smooch her and scuttle out from under her, getting in a proper position to doze off.
  3075. >Before you can, though...
  3076. >Careful shifts, getting up and sitting with her back to the headboard.
  3077. >"So... that Moondancer's pretty cute. Right?"
  3078.  
  3079. "Huh?"
  3080. >Is she serious?
  3081. >She's not jealous, surely.
  3082. >You roll over and look at her.
  3083. >She leans in and presses her nose to yours.
  3084. >"Whaddaya think?"
  3085. "Well..."
  3086. >It's only Careful, Anon.
  3087. >The truth will set you free.
  3088. "Yeah, she's pretty adorable."
  3089. >She leans back and sighs with relief.
  3090. >"Oh, good. It's not just me."
  3091.  
  3092. "I... what?"
  3093. >"Ponies aren't TOTALLY immune to each other's adorableness. Otherwise we would have wiped each other out when the races still didn't get along. But you can still forget, then wham! Reality hits you hard!"
  3094. >She resumes a prone position beside you.
  3095. >"That sweater, Anon! It looks so cozy. Cozier than anything. So cozy, when we were in the same room, I felt... vicariously cozy."
  3096. "You just have a crush on her 'cause she gave you cookies."
  3097. >Somehow, even in the dark, you can see Careful's face redden.
  3098. >She averts her eyes.
  3099. >"N-no!"
  3100. "Oh, come on. You don't have just a little thing for librarians? It's cute. I get it. What, with the-"
  3101. >"W-whether or not we were getting the cookies while you looked for your book, and she took her glasses off for a second to clean them, and I looked at her with them off and sort of idly thought about what kissing her would be -- er, whatever -- is completely irrelevant! If you'll just, uh, let me... let me get to... the point..."
  3102. >You broke the Careful, Anon.
  3103. >Welp.
  3104. >Time to empty the last ten seconds outta the ol' short term memory and backpedal like hell.
  3105. "... I was just joking, Careful."
  3106. >She manages to re-establish eye contact with you.
  3107. >"R-right. I knew."
  3108.  
  3109. "So. What's the point we're getting to?"
  3110. >"I think she's kind of lonely, Anon."
  3111. >She flicks her ear.
  3112. >"Guard senses. You know. And it's a shame, 'cause she's so nice, and... yeah."
  3113. "I sort of picked up on that, but she's kind of private, right? I figure... you know, if she got comfortable, she can always hang out with us, if she asks."
  3114. >"She might, yeah. But you gotta be on the lookout for stuff she doesn't say, too! And, since you're gonna be working with her..."
  3115. "Yeah?"
  3116. >Careful looks at you quite seriously.
  3117. >"You gotta give Moondancer snuggles, Anon!"
  3118.  
  3119. >Well, you hadn't expected that.
  3120. >Your turn to be embarrassed now.
  3121. "I, well. You know, I'm a one-mare kind of dude, Careful, and, uh... if you really want-"
  3122. >Careful shakes her head.
  3123. >"No, no, no! Snuggles are for friends too, Anon. They're great, and they make loneliness go away, and you -- you're an OPTIMAL snuggler. Like, your body's made to snuggle. With your strong arms, you know, and, like, you've got that fuzz on all the relevant points of contact, and-"
  3124. "Come on. I'd keep my shirt on."
  3125. >"... right, yeah, forget that last thing. What I'm saying is I think Moondancer would like it, and, you know, she should know we like her, and we're there for her and stuff. Right?"
  3126. >You wonder for a moment about the potential pros and cons of snuggling a sweater horse.
  3127. >Hm.
  3128. >Yes.
  3129. >There are lots of pros
  3130. >... and no cons.
  3131. >It would seem to be a wise course of action.
  3132.  
  3133. "I'll keep an eye on her at work. We'll see what happens."
  3134. >"Great!"
  3135. "Wanna sleep now?"
  3136. >"Yep!"
  3137. >She flops over and seems to immediately fall pass out, except for a few, quiet utterances:
  3138. >"Anon and Careful! Makin' friends! Being social! Aw... *YAWN*... aww yeah..."
  3139. >She starts snoring.
  3140. >You close your eyes and idly run your fingers through her mane as you drift off.
  3141.  
  3142. >...
  3143.  
  3144. >You stroll up to Over the Moon, coffee in hand.
  3145. >Knock. Knock.
  3146. "Hey! Moonie?"
  3147. >...
  3148. >No response.
  3149. >KNOCK. KNOCK. KNOCK.
  3150. >"Hey! Moondancer! You there?"
  3151. >You hear movement inside, the sound of something clattering to the floor, and a muffled "shit!"
  3152. >There's a pause, then a series of clip-clops approaching the door.
  3153. >The handle glows with magic and it opens, revealing a bedraggled, half-asleep Moondancer, absent of her glasses, sweater, and hair-tie.
  3154. >"YAAAAWN... ah. Good morning Anon!"
  3155. >She brushes her long, unkempt bangs aside and squints at you.
  3156. >"It is you, right? I'm pretty blind without..."
  3157. "Yep. Morning!"
  3158. >She smiles, satisfied, and blinks drowsily.
  3159. >"Come in."
  3160.  
  3161. >The door swings shut behind you.
  3162. "Late night?"
  3163. >"Heh. Yeah."
  3164. "I expected you'd be more of a morning pony since you suggested this time. Hope you weren't depending on my coming late?"
  3165. >"Oh! No! I'm sorry, sometimes I just get caught up researching or reading late, and I nod off."
  3166. >She yawns again, quite loudly.
  3167. "I feel ya. Coffee?"
  3168. >"Ah! yes. Thank you."
  3169. >You expect her to take it with magic, but she trots up, takes it between her hooves, sits, closes her eyes, and sips furtively.
  3170. >"... I even have a little half-furnished bedroom in back when I feel like staying over. Didn't need the space for anything else."
  3171. "Neat. Home away from home, huh?"
  3172. >"Mmm," she affirms.
  3173.  
  3174. >You can almost see the energy and warmth from the drink deep through Moondancer, from her head to her hooves.
  3175. >As it does so, she seems to become more awake and aware.
  3176. >She glances at each shoulder, noticing only now, you figure, that she answered the door undressed.
  3177. >Her eyes open wide.
  3178. >She looks at you.
  3179. >She knows you know.
  3180. >You smile reassuringly and avert your gaze.
  3181. >"I, uh," she says, magicking your drink back into your hands. "I'm gonna put something on."
  3182. >She manages to smile even through her blush of embarrassment.
  3183. "I'll hang my coat."
  3184.  
  3185. ....
  3186.  
  3187. >You are R.R. Heyton, the renowned author of "A Tale of Ash and Frostbite."
  3188. >Today, you should be working on the next book in the series: "A Shower of Savageries."
  3189. >However, a more pressing duty calls you: winter is coming, so you're playing Father Hearthswarming in the Canterlot market.
  3190. >You're ideal for the role. As one of Canterlot's few dodeca-genarians, you have acquired the wise, mystic aura appropriate to such a figure -- or, at least, you're good at pretending to have one.
  3191. >Your bushy white beard and jolly gut you've developed in your older years help, too.
  3192.  
  3193. >As a younger stallion, you had disliked the role -- for the first hour.
  3194. >"Hearthswarming has become too commercialized," you thought. "We should be focusing on the history of it! The origin of pony unity!" For, at the time, you were a hobbying historian.
  3195. >But talking to the little fillies and colts who came to see you, turn after turn, changed your opinion.
  3196. >They looked at you with such admiration and love. To them, you're real, a figure magical in a sense that can't even be studied.
  3197. >So you've continued the job for decades, even since then. Long after you stopped needing the cash to tie ends together while your then-fledgling fantasy series floundered.
  3198.  
  3199. >Today, an... older filly... is next in line.
  3200. >Not that that matters one bit! To Father Hearthswarming, ponies and foals alike are his children, and they are equally deserving of his attention.
  3201. >Generally speaking, though, the fillies aren't wearing padded armor.
  3202. >Oh well.
  3203. >This may be a trial for R.R. Heyton, but, to Father Hearthswarming, she shall be but the weight of a feather!
  3204. >"OH-HO-HO!" you boom. "COME HITHER, COME HITHER!"
  3205. >You pat your lap.
  3206. >She beams and jumps up onto your icy throne.
  3207. >Oof.
  3208. >Well, she's heavy, but you'll live.
  3209. >You might be a unicorn, but your mother was an earth pony, after all.
  3210. >"Hi, Father Hearthswarming!"
  3211. >"WHY, HELLO THERE, LITTLE FILLY! WHAT NAME HAVEST THOU?"
  3212. >"I'm Careful Watch!" says the guard.
  3213.  
  3214. >"'CAREFUL!' OH, A FINE NAME THAT IS, LITTLE FILLY! ESPECIALLY FOR A GUARD OF CANTERLOT'S OTHER LITTLE COLTS AND FILLIES! OH-HO-HO!"
  3215. >She nods pridefully.
  3216. >"TELL ME, CAREFUL! WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE FOR HEARTHSWARMING?"
  3217. >"Well, first, my coltfriend couldn't be here today, can I ask for something on his behalf first?"
  3218. >"OF COURSE, MY DEAR; OF COURSE!"
  3219. >"Well, he'd like a set of all the R.R. Heyton Books! The 'Game of Gallops' ones? Oh, and he hopes the next one will come out soon, he tells me."
  3220.  
  3221. >She couldn't...?
  3222. >No, of course not!
  3223. >The true identity of Father Hearthswarming -- or the fact that Father Hearthswarming even has another identity -- is one of Canterlot's best-kept secrets!
  3224. >"WHY, OF COURSE, LITTLY FILLY! THE WHOLE SET! AND, WHY, MR. HEYTON IS A FRIEND OF MINE, YOU KNOW! HE IS HARD AT WORK ON HIS NEXT BOOK, EVEN AT THIS MOMENT!"
  3225. >You wink at her jovially.
  3226. >"AND, MY, WILL IT BE A KICKER!"
  3227. >She nods enthusiastically.
  3228. >"That's so great! I'll tell him."
  3229. >"NOW: WHAT ABOUT YOUR GIFTS, MS. CAREFUL?"
  3230.  
  3231. >"Well, I'd like a nice sweater! 'Cause my winter armor is warm, but it's also heavy. And it's not great casual wear."
  3232. >"HEAVY? WHY, I HADN'T NOTICED AT ALL, LITTLE FILLY! OH-HO!"
  3233. >She giggles.
  3234. >"ANYTHING ELSE, MY DEAR?"
  3235. >She contemplates.
  3236. >"... is there, like, a magic banana-bunch holder? And it keeps the bananas from turning brown too fast? I can never get them just right between green and brown..."
  3237. >"WELL... I... OH, OF COURSE, MY DEAR! FATHER HEARTHSWARMING WILL SPARE NOT A MOMENT'S REST BEFORE FINDING YOU A NICE BREAD-BOX WITH THE PROPER ENCHANTMENT!"
  3238. >"Oh, thank you!"
  3239. >She hugs you and hops off your lap.
  3240. >"Have a happy winter, Father Hearthswarming!"
  3241. >"AND YOU, MY DEAR! AND YOU!"
  3242.  
  3243. ...
  3244.  
  3245. >Back at Over the Moon...
  3246.  
  3247. >"So, you'll want to sit there, and look over any books, and help any customers! Prices are charted under the desk."
  3248. >You had just asked Moondancer to sum up your store duties while she's out pinning up adverts for Over the Moon.
  3249. >You expected more than two sentences on the topic.
  3250. "And... that's all?"
  3251. >"Uh... well, I sweep every day, too. But they're books, and, so far, I don't get a lot of hoof traffic to generate more work."
  3252. "Nothing else?"
  3253. >"The door's enchanted to shut thieves in and sleep-spell them, so that's not a concern. Hm. Well, the Esoteria sometimes need taking care of. Would you like to get to know them better?"
  3254. "'Get to know them?'"
  3255. >Moondancer nods excitedly.
  3256. "Hey, sure!"
  3257.  
  3258. >You each head to the back corner of the store.
  3259. >Immediately, a thick hardcover floats over Moondancer's head and rests on it like a hat.
  3260. >"Hey! 'Untranslated Runes!' Naughty boy! No!"
  3261. >It floats up, flips closed, and reshelves itself.
  3262. "'...naughty boy?'"
  3263. >"That's 'Encyclopedia of Untranslated Runes," she explains. "I don't have much reason to read it, so it acts out if I don't come by and just flip through it now and then."
  3264. "Got it."
  3265.  
  3266. >She proceeds through the rest of the books floating around, explaining their titles, activities, temperaments, and shelving preferences.
  3267. >One she ignores.
  3268. >It floats over to you, bobs on front of your face, and shelves itself tightly between two other tomes.
  3269. >It has a ruby-red cover.
  3270. >You feel compelled to reach and take it off the shelf, which you do.
  3271. "Which book's this?"
  3272. >"Oh!" exclaims Moondancer, surprised, and, it seems, faintly embarrassed. "That one doesn't usually come off the shelf."
  3273. "What is it?"
  3274. >"Well, it doesn't have a title. It's one of my more unique items I found at an antique sale. The former owner said, uh..."
  3275. >She readjusts her tone to an academic affect.
  3276. >"To its reader, it appears to recount his or her recent sex life."
  3277. "How about that. Hey, what's it say for you, Moonie?"
  3278.  
  3279. >As usual, your mouth operates faster than your brain.
  3280. >She's blushing like hell.
  3281. >Damn it, Anon, don't tease the poner.
  3282. >"Well... really saucy stuff! Wow, I can't even go into detail, it would take so long... ha-ha! Ha!"
  3283. >She purses her lips and looks at you accusingly.
  3284. >"You can't go asking me that without telling me what it says for YOU!"
  3285. "Sure."
  3286. >She tilts her head, looking quite interested in whatever you're about to tell her.
  3287. >You crack the tome open...
  3288. >...
  3289. >This book has no print.
  3290. >These pages are blank.
  3291. >Fuck. All you find is one line scrawled a few pages in, maybe where a story would start after a table of contents:
  3292. >"7e1XnNji"
  3293. >Graffiti or some shit.
  3294.  
  3295. >'So much detail' your ass!
  3296. >Eh, poor Moonie, though.
  3297. >Give her a break. Probably just got scammed.
  3298. >And Careful's right. She might be lonely.
  3299. >Not that no sex life means lonely.
  3300. >Hell, you've known plenty of great people who couldn't get laid to save their lives.
  3301. >...usually because they were ugly.
  3302. >...but Moondancer's cute as hell.
  3303. >Fuck it, you're speculating.
  3304. >Just keep an eye on her.
  3305. >You and Careful are here for her if no one else.
  3306.  
  3307. "Wow."
  3308. >You pull your collar."
  3309. "R-really saucy stuff here. Heh. You weren't kidding!"
  3310. >Moondancer smiles smugly.
  3311. "Let's just put that back. I think I'm good to hold down the fort if you wanna get ready and head out. Sound good?"
  3312. >"Sounds great!"
  3313. >She trots up, gives you a hug, and darts off toward the room in back.
  3314.  
  3315. >"Hey!" calls Moondancer from the back. "What's Careful up to today?"
  3316. "She told me she has an important guard meeting in the market."
  3317. >"Neat! That's where I think I'll head to pin up flyers. Maybe I'll run into her!"
  3318. "Keep it on the down-low, though. She said she couldn't give me all the details 'for my safety.' Informant or something."
  3319. >"I'll keep that in mind."
  3320.  
  3321. >Moondancer emerges from the back wearing as many layers of clothing as you've ever seen on a pony.
  3322. >A thick, furry, brown parka covers her from head to hoof, from front to flank, even sleeving the base of her tail.
  3323. >It covers a windbreaker, which probably covers her sweater, and then, you figure, thermal undies.
  3324. >Sometimes, you feel strongly compelled to touch a pony without asking, to kneel down, pet it, and squeeze it, like a retard groping a strange and unfriendly dog.
  3325.  
  3326. >This is one of those times.
  3327.  
  3328. >Somehow, you manage to restrain yourself.
  3329. >Just not your mouth.
  3330. "You look adorable in all that fluff. Holy shit."
  3331. >Moondancer scrunches intensely at you while you giggle.
  3332. >"... you done?"
  3333. "Y-... he-he. Yeah."
  3334. >"I like wearing this. Artificial thermoregulation is an ancient invention. I make no apologies for my parka-"
  3335. >She strikes a pose, showing it off.
  3336. >"which, as you've astutely observed, is fluffy."
  3337. >Her expression turns to one of satisfaction and delight.
  3338. >"And incredibly cozy, even in freezing temperatures. I love it! You wanna feel?"
  3339. "I-"
  3340. >"N-not to feel me, I mean, to feel, uh, you know, the parka, and, uh-"
  3341. "Yeah, sure, Moonie."
  3342.  
  3343. >You stroll over to her and nonchalantly pick her up around her midsection.
  3344. >Her eyes widen in slight surprise.
  3345. >"Ah. Okay."
  3346. "You're right. You're super soft."
  3347. >"I can, uh, recommend you a place to get... uh..."
  3348. >She regains her focus and scrunches at you.
  3349. >"P-put me down!"
  3350. >You do so.
  3351. >"J-just... ask first before you... gee..." she mumbles, blushing furiously.
  3352. "Sorry. See you later, Moonie."
  3353. >She can't entirely withhold a forgiving smile.
  3354. >"See you!"
  3355.  
  3356. ...
  3357.  
  3358. >Visiting Father Hearthswarming always puts a smile on your face when the weather gets cold.
  3359. >Sure, he's probably not mythical.
  3360. >You can admit that, Careful.
  3361. >You're not a little filly anymore.
  3362. >Still, he's been at it for decades, Papa once told you.
  3363. >And, more importantly, he delivers.
  3364. >Or else leaves a nice note explaining why he can't deliver the crown jewels or an entire castle to your doorstep.
  3365. >That year had been disappointing.
  3366.  
  3367. >You prance away from his chair, happy to have satisfied your yearly tradition in the privacy of an anonymous crowd --
  3368. >...
  3369. >Moondancer's right there.
  3370. >She saw the whole thing.
  3371. >"Hi, Careful! So, Father Hearthswarming's your secret informant?"
  3372. >You look over your shoulder at the old unicorn, back at Moondancer, and nod sheepishly.
  3373. "Uh... yeah. Hi, Moondancer."
  3374. >She smiles at you.
  3375. >... Celestia, that parka is cute.
  3376. >Her face and large-framed glasses barely emerge from the bundled, woolly garment.
  3377. >That's what you should have asked for! It looks supremely warm.
  3378. >"Must be a good informant. Keeping tabs on all the criminals' wish-lists!"
  3379. >You giggle.
  3380. "And mine!"
  3381. >"I was shy of him as a filly, myself. I may visit him this year, though. Last time I got nervous and just asked for 'a book.' He got me a medieval history I didn't have in my collection!"
  3382. "I asked him for a sweater. My armor's warm, but it gets clunky."
  3383. >"Ooh!"
  3384. >She looks thoughtful for a moment.
  3385. >"Good choice! I'm sure he'll get you just the thing."
  3386.  
  3387. >...time to change the topic.
  3388. "So -- Anon's holding down the fort while you pin up adverts?"
  3389. >"Yep! I think he'll do a good job. Even if he's a little... eh, nevermind."
  3390. >Your guard-senses tell you that unsolicited petting may have occurred.
  3391. >Good... good.
  3392. "Thought about word-of-mouth? A little vocal advertisement? Might get everypony's attention better than a pamphlet!"
  3393. >"W-well, I'm a little quiet, but maybe you...?" she asks suggestively.
  3394. "Got it."
  3395.  
  3396. >As Moondancer gets to work with the posters, you find a central spot in the market, clear your throat, and undo the cork that usually mitigates your native Bronclyn accent from foalhood, before Canterlot...
  3397.  
  3398. "OVA' THE MOON! QUALITY, CURATED BOOK COLLECTION! ALL GENRES! FIND YA FAVORITE! PAY A MODEST SUM! BRING IT HOME FOR GOOD! RUN BY MOONDANCER! OVER THERE, IN THE PAHKA! REAL SMARTIE! IMPECCABLE TASTE! OVA' THE MOON, FOLKS! RIGHT OFF NIGHTSHADE STREET! ..."
  3399.  
  3400. >Your remember your Royal Guard entrance exams.
  3401. >Your other scores hadn't been dismal, but you remember which skill of yours sealed the deal.
  3402. >'Yelling suspects into submission:' top of the class.
  3403.  
  3404. ...
  3405.  
  3406. >This place really does get slow business.
  3407. >It's been two hours, maybe two-and-a-half since Moondancer left.
  3408. >After the first hour you had resigned to leafing through the material she had left around the desk: "Street Signs of the 12th C. Celestian Era: A Reference." "Coprophagy in the Greater Rodents." "Lonely Cowboys of the Appleoosan Highlands."
  3409. >You opted for the first of these, even though the last was illustrated.
  3410.  
  3411. >A while later, the other regular, the light-orange unicorn, comes by.
  3412. >He looks like he meant to duck back out the door until he saw that you saw him.
  3413. >Maybe he's not interested in sticking around except for the shop's cute proprieter.
  3414. >Can't blame him.
  3415. "Howdy! Welcome to Over the Moon. You know the layout, I take it. Let me know if you need anything."
  3416. >"Hi! Yeah. Thanks."
  3417. >He plods over to the esoteria and starts rooting around.
  3418.  
  3419. >He comes to the counter with a recent tome on transfiguration spells.
  3420. >He wears some full-moon specs, you notice.
  3421. >"Haven't picked up the new edition yet. Heard they nailed all the errata. Know the price on it?"
  3422. >You check the list.
  3423. "Fifty bits."
  3424. >"Good price for a text."
  3425. "Probably 'cause it's secondhand. I think Moondancer reads all these before she sells them off. Couldn't tell you where she gets them from, though."
  3426. >He perks up a bit at Moondancer's name.
  3427. >His tone becomes more friendly.
  3428. >"Book junkies, we pick them up from all over. Sometimes firsthand."
  3429. "Think she got a lot that way?"
  3430. >"Well, I've been meaning to ask... uh, ask her. But I forget."
  3431. "Forget?"
  3432. >"Y-yeah."
  3433. "You get that smitten at the counter?"
  3434. >He jumps with alarm and looks left, right, and behind him for any eavesdroppers.
  3435. >"I'm that obvious?!"
  3436. "To everyone in here but her. So... me. I think you've noticed we're the only regulars here."
  3437. >"Right," he says, rubbing his neck. "So, you're... working here, now?"
  3438. "Yep. Holding the fort so Moondancer can advertise. Get more hoof-traffic."
  3439. >He nods approvingly, causing his specs to slide down his nose.
  3440. >He readjusts them.
  3441. >"This place could use it. Very few items here you can get at a public library. Treasure everywhere."
  3442. "Not just the books, right?"
  3443. >This elicits an embarrassed chuckle from him.
  3444. >"Heh. Yeah. Right."
  3445. >You ring him up and hand him his book.
  3446. "I'll tell her you came by. Talk to her next time she's at the counter. I think she'd like it."
  3447. >"Thanks!"
  3448.  
  3449. >He dons a scarf and nearly makes his way out before-
  3450. >WHUMPF
  3451. >... Careful and Moondancer enter at a full gallop, bowling him over.
  3452. >Careful lands ass-over-head against a bookshelf.
  3453. >Moondancer lands on your fellow patron.
  3454. >He looks addled and very confused.
  3455. >She looks down at him.
  3456. >"Oh! Hi, Sunburst!"
  3457. >"H-hi, Moondancer."
  3458.  
  3459. >She looks around, becoming aware of the situation at hand.
  3460. >"I knocked you over. Sorry."
  3461. >"It's good. I mean... fine. It's fine!"
  3462. >She gets off him as Careful reorients herself.
  3463.  
  3464. >Careful, you notice, has her business face on.
  3465. >It's about the scariest face she can make, which is pretty serious.
  3466. >... still a little cute, but serious.
  3467. >You've only seen it twice: once when you helped her practice it (you left out "cute" then), and once before she bowled you over in the park mere hours after meeting you, saving you from an imagined attacker.
  3468. >From this and the manner of the girls' entrance, you gather that something's wrong.
  3469.  
  3470. >"Moonie!" says Careful. "D'you allow them to enter?"
  3471. >"What?"
  3472. >"Do ya allow them to enter, Moonie! 'Yes' or 'no.' We're on the clock!"
  3473. >"Oh. No."
  3474. >Careful nods.
  3475. >"That's all I need. I'll get out there, get 'em behaved, and run down to HQ to request a post. Don't interact with them until I get back or until business hours are over."
  3476. >"Okay. Thanks, Careful."
  3477. >"Aw, don't mention it."
  3478. >Careful boops Moondancer, who looks slightly concerned now.
  3479. >"You'll be fine. So will the store. I'm just makin' sure this goes clean and civil."
  3480. >Moondancer smiles at this reassurance.
  3481.  
  3482. >You walk up to the front window to get a look outside, stepping over the stunned Sunburst.
  3483. "Careful, what's going... on?"
  3484.  
  3485. >Of all fucking things: a protest?
  3486. >... A protest.
  3487. >Picket-signs and all.
  3488. >Outside the store there are a dozen or so young-ish to mature mares, some cute and all very angry.
  3489. >Their signs are each titled in bold, red print:
  3490. >"Mothers in League against Filthiness: MILFs."
  3491.  
  3492. "Oh my God."
  3493. >You stagger back from the window.
  3494. "It's not just a protest. It's... a concerned mothers' group."
  3495.  
  3496. >Moondancer nods sadly.
  3497. >Sunburst gasps in shock and disgust.
  3498. >"They meet weekly in the market," Moondancer explains. "Apparently, my shop has been one of the hot topics in their past few sessions."
  3499. "Why the hell is that?"
  3500. >She shrugs.
  3501. >"From what they were yelling while we ran away, I think they're upset I'm not set up the same way as Canterlot Library. Public libraries here have to section off adult literature from colt and filly-friendly books. Most private bookstores follow suit even though they're not required to. 'Over the Moon' doesn't."
  3502. "Why don't you?"
  3503. >Moonie scrunches slightly.
  3504. "There's no official list of age-ratings. It's all arbitrary per-shop! Just makes things harder to find."
  3505. "So they're pissed you don't organize to some general library standard?"
  3506. >"That's what they said. Er... shorter and more inflammatory, though."
  3507.  
  3508. >A snowball hits the window.
  3509. >A mare's voice yells outside: "FILTHY SMUT PEDDLER!"
  3510.  
  3511. >...
  3512. >"That was the final straw," murmurs Careful.
  3513.  
  3514. >She send the door flying open with a forehoof and leaps out.
  3515. >It swings shut behind her.
  3516. >"ROYAL GUARD! AWAY FROM THE FUCKIN' DOAH! YOU ARE DENIED ENTRY--BACK FIVE METAHS! I'M DRAWIN' A LINE--AY! PUT DOWN THE PROJECTILE, OR I'M PUTTIN' THAT SIGN-"
  3517.  
  3518. >... sometimes, you forget Careful is a guard.
  3519. >Not just a cute pony who lets you cuddle her.
  3520. >A pony whose common-Canterlot affect doesn't entirely conceal the Bronclyn roots detectable in her voice.
  3521. >A pony who sounds terrifying on-duty when she ditches it.
  3522.  
  3523. >"I'M GETTIN' THIS SORTED OUT AT HQ. YOU KEEP YOUR PROTEST BEHIND THAT LINE, OR ELSE!"
  3524.  
  3525. >"... I don't shelve THAT much porn..." says Moondancer, miserably.
  3526.  
  3527. >...
  3528.  
  3529. >It's been a few minutes since Careful went out.
  3530. >Outside, you hear the protesters yelling to every passerby as they wave their signs and aggressively hand out brochures and pins.
  3531. >At least they're respecting the five-meter line.
  3532. >They have their hooves right on it.
  3533.  
  3534. "... how could they hold off so much business from the market? Everyone on this street seems eager to get away from them."
  3535. >"They're, er, persuasive," explains Moondancer.
  3536. "You mean loud, intimidating, and nosy?"
  3537. >She nods.
  3538. >"The presidents are upper-crust types. Canterlot high-society is obsessively exclusive. Visiting a business the MILFs are boycotting can get you blacklisted by anyone in their social circles."
  3539. >"Guess that explains why I don't get invited to parties," quips Sunburst, hiding under the windowsill.
  3540. >You and Moondancer have just stuck to the reading corner, dealing with the occasional mean stares of protestors through the picture-window.
  3541. "So you didn't know about the boycott until now?"
  3542. >"Not until they mobbed Careful and I in the market today."
  3543. >She breaks eye contact.
  3544.  
  3545. >Pony seems sad.
  3546. >You'd reach out rub her ear or something, but maybe not while they're company over.
  3547. >Or while MILFs are glaring at you through the windows.
  3548. >You deal with enough staring ponies in public already.
  3549. >Rumors don't need to spread that you're some kind of molester.
  3550. >Next best thing: change the subject.
  3551. "...So, uh, Sunburst. What do you do?"
  3552.  
  3553. >Sunburst's description of himself is... about what you expected.
  3554. >He works as some sort of wizard, though you can't figure out if he means academia or more as a trade and hobby.
  3555. >At home, he reads magic and history, practices magic, and masturbates.
  3556. >... that's not what he said, just how you interpret it.
  3557. >You shouldn't make fun: one day ago your own life was exactly the same, but without the wizardry and noteworthy interests and hobbies.
  3558. >With some coaxing, you get him and Moondancer to chat about the last history he read, something about an old farming town near the mountain's base.
  3559. >The resulting banter nearly puts you to sleep.
  3560.  
  3561. >THUNK.
  3562. >The noise awakes you from your near stupor.
  3563. >Was that another snowball?
  3564. >For fuck's sake, they could break the window.
  3565. >You ought to go out and give those MILFs a piece of your-
  3566. >"Did I fuckin' stutta before? NO. SNOWBALLS."
  3567. >Another voice pipes up:
  3568. >"Those projectiles could harm the property. Any more and we will no longer regard this protest as lawful. This would entail no gathering within a hundred meters until each of you obtains proper accreditation-"
  3569. >"We'll kick you off the street, she's sayin'."
  3570. >"... Yes."
  3571. >"Brevity, Safe."
  3572.  
  3573. >There's mixed squabbling and murmuring in the crowd before an apparent ringleader comes forward and concedes to the terms.
  3574. >"... Good," Careful concludes, tiredly. "We're going in to speak with the owner. Behave. Take five. Get your... soy lattes. Or whatever."
  3575.  
  3576. >In comes Careful accompanied by another guard: a pegasus pastel-blue with a rich blueberry and blackberry-colored mane and a pair of fancy, hi-tech, ruby flight goggles around her neck.
  3577.  
  3578. >"Everyone," Careful announces, "we've got the case. RG's glad to keep order wherever MILFs are involved. They stir up a lot of trouble when left unsupervised. This-"
  3579. >She gestures to the pegasus.
  3580. >"Is my friend and partner on this, Safety First. Between us, we'll be able to keep you covered twenty-four hours, Moonie. Safe?"
  3581. >Safety trots up to you, Sunburst, and Moondancer.
  3582. >A small array of tools - guard and goggle-maintainance stuff, you figure - jingles off a short belt secured to her left flank-plate.
  3583. >"Hello," she says, flatly.
  3584. >You expect her to elaborate on the case, or on how she knows Careful, or something, but that's it.
  3585. >The slight smile on her face and the look in her eyes suggest at least an attempted friendliness, but she's not saying anything more.
  3586.  
  3587. >Maybe she's just shy.
  3588. >Say something, Anon.
  3589. "Hi."
  3590.  
  3591. >... she's not shy.
  3592. >She's fluttered up and perched on your head, shoulders, and back.
  3593. >You try not to stagger under her.
  3594. >You thought pegasi were featherweights.
  3595. >Not so.
  3596. >She's no earth pony, or you'd have sustained fractures by now, but still.
  3597. >"Is this the guy, Careful?" she asks.
  3598. >"He's the guy, Safe," says Careful, barely containing her laughter.
  3599. >"My! You're a tall one."
  3600. "T-thanks."
  3601. >She looks around.
  3602. >"And you're Moondancer."
  3603. >"Yes," says Moondancer, nodding politely.
  3604. >"She IS cute," Safe remarks to Careful, who now looks mortified.
  3605. >"Y-yeah... heh-heh..."
  3606. >Moondancer blushes.
  3607.  
  3608. >You interject:
  3609. "Safe, if I'm gonna carry you, can I wear your goggles?"
  3610. >"They're darkened and polarized for flight above cloud cover. You wouldn't be able to see anything. You would bump into things. That would be bad for us both."
  3611. "... Okay."
  3612. >She turns, finally, to Sunburst.
  3613. >"Oh, and you."
  3614. >...
  3615. >"Who are you?" she asks.
  3616. >"I'm Sunburst."
  3617. >"I don't know you."
  3618. >"M-me too."
  3619.  
  3620. >She hops off you, faces the three of you again, and smiles kindly and adorably enough that you forget your aching shoulders for a moment.
  3621. >"Nice to meet you all. I hope we can be friends."
  3622.  
  3623. >You brush a feather off your shoulder.
  3624. "Well, glad to make your acquaintance."
  3625. >"Likewise!" says Moondancer.
  3626. >"M-me too," says Sunburst.
  3627.  
  3628. >"So, Careful," says Moondancer. "How will this work? I guess you can't just make them stop."
  3629. >"No, but their protest is formally recognized and under watch at RG. They can whine, but only until the end of business hours, and only beyond five meters from the door, since you've denied them entry."
  3630. >"We handle MILFs regularly," adds Safe. "They follow the law dutifully, if begrudgingly, when it's imposed. Still, we can't rule out the possibility of lone, unlawful actors existing within the group, ever since-"
  3631. >Careful nudges her.
  3632. >They exchange a few whispers.
  3633. >"Well, Careful and I are your assigned detail now, Moondancer. We'll keep you and Over the Moon secure 24/7."
  3634. >Moondancer smiles, showing a little cheer for the first time since this ordeal started.
  3635. >"Great! Thank you both so much."
  3636.  
  3637. >Safe and Careful spend a minute discussing who will take first watch.
  3638. >They agree on six-hour shifts.
  3639. >Safe's already had dinner, so she'll take the first.
  3640. >...dinner.
  3641. >Yes.
  3642. >All this commotion has made you hungry.
  3643. >Also, you suspect a certain pony needs a break from this ordeal.
  3644. >Moondancer's kept that smile on her face for suspiciously long.
  3645. >You can see her quiver with effort to maintain it.
  3646. >You know just the solution to her problem.
  3647. >A temporary solution, but a solution nonetheless:
  3648. >Booze.
  3649.  
  3650.  
  3651. ...
  3652.  
  3653.  
  3654. >Mel looks at you sideways as you enter her bar with Moondancer.
  3655. >The mare already hated you enough, and that's when you were with Careful.
  3656. >Without Careful, you'd expect she'd just blow her top at you for even trying to get a seat in her establishment.
  3657. >Instead, she just... glares at you.
  3658. >You nearly make for the door just as Careful follows you in.
  3659. >Mel's expression changes to one of welcome.
  3660. >"Ah! Careful. A place for you and friends? We have nice booth open near stage. Come, come..."
  3661.  
  3662. >Careful sits across from you and Moondancer.
  3663. >You start with a charcuterie platter (with beans, rather than meat) and drinks.
  3664. >You have a whiskey on rocks.
  3665. >Moondancer has a Manehattan.
  3666. >Careful has water.
  3667. >"I'm technically on duty," she explains, sheepishly.
  3668.  
  3669. >The music act at Marescows' is interesting tonight: a decrepit old lavender stallion in a silk robe and fez blows a didgeridoo and jingles a tambourine.
  3670. >It's surprisingly chill and ambient.
  3671. >Guy has rhythm.
  3672.  
  3673. >As your meals and second round of drinks come, Careful looks at you.
  3674. >You look at her.
  3675. >She nods towards Moondancer.
  3676. >You nod.
  3677. >You realize, even without your own guard senses, that today's events are eating at Moondancer.
  3678. >She's reserved and clever enough to keep a smile on and affect a positive attitude in friendly company, but they're clearly enough a little strained.
  3679. >She probably needs help beyond that a guard at her door can offer.
  3680.  
  3681. >You turn the conversation towards this subject at a convenient pause.
  3682. "So. Those MILFs. What a crowd, huh?"
  3683.  
  3684. >A crowd they indeed were.
  3685. >Upon exiting Over the Moon an hour before its ordinary closing, you had found yourself among a sea of picket signs, red lipstick, light crows' feet, and thick asses.
  3686. >Honestly, if you were still on Earth, you might have joined in whatever they were chanting, mingled with the crowd, tried to find someone in good shape, maybe recently divorced...
  3687. >But, tonight, circumstances are different.
  3688.  
  3689. >One of them barked at you:
  3690. >"Sir! Are you a PATRON of this... 'establishment?'"
  3691. "And employee, actually."
  3692.  
  3693. >She looks shocked.
  3694. >"You're not a pony."
  3695. "An astute observation."
  3696. >"I've never met a... a... somepony like you. How long have you been a resident Equestrian?"
  3697. "Few months. Not that it's your business."
  3698.  
  3699. >Careful and Moondancer, in her fluffy-as-hell parka, managed to sneak by as you conversed with the protestor.
  3700.  
  3701. >"You mean to say that..."
  3702. >She raises her voice, garnering the attention of her nearby MILFs.
  3703. >"BESIDES mixing in smut with its catalog of literature, in the face of publicly-known standards of decency, this business employs and pays a NEW citizen, whose welfare is already accounted for by the Royals, rather than a native pony?"
  3704. "I waived the new citizen bits, and my salary is out-of-pocket from the owner, not publicly funded, so..."
  3705.  
  3706. >The MILF continues to yammer some alarmed-sounding bullshit at you from her fabricated moral high ground.
  3707. >A few of her cronies join in.
  3708. >Suddenly, you feel elated.
  3709. >You realize you can say something you've wanted your entire life to say, but never until now have had the opportunity to do so.
  3710. >You savor the moment as the words roll off your tongue:
  3711. "You know, I think you're just racist."
  3712.  
  3713. >The MILF recoils in shock and appall.
  3714. >"ME?! Racist?"
  3715. "I just explained myself and you're still harassing me. Unless you didn't hear me. What's the issue? Don't understand my human accent? Is it not 'civilized' enough for you?"
  3716. >... your 'accent' is no different than any pony's, since English and Equestrian are, incidentally, the same spoken language.
  3717. >But they don't know that.
  3718.  
  3719. >The lead MILF turns a one-eighty, giving you a view of her floofy tail and wide ass, un-slimmable and un-assailable by any fad diet, yoga seminar, or stairmaster clone.
  3720. >They squabble among themselves for a minute before she turns back to you.
  3721. >"Well, disregarding all that, the hired... help... for this business is quite RUDE."
  3722. "Fair enough."
  3723.  
  3724. "... and then I walked off and caught up with you two. Bunch of characters, huh?"
  3725. >The girls laugh: Careful earnestly, Moondancer courteously.
  3726. "I hope they didn't give you much more trouble, Moon?"
  3727.  
  3728. >She's at the bottom of her first Manehattan.
  3729. >She doesn't notice your question at first.
  3730. "Moonie?"
  3731. >"Oh! Well. I heard enough while they chased me a mile to my store."
  3732. >You wait for her to elaborate.
  3733. >She doesn't.
  3734.  
  3735. >You pat her on the back.
  3736. "They won't be there when we get back to close shop. Business hours are done. We're here. No worries."
  3737. >"Yeah."
  3738. >She forces a smile.
  3739. >"Thanks!"
  3740. >It'll have to do.
  3741.  
  3742. >You and Careful tuck into your meals.
  3743. >Moondancer nibbles at her hayburger with disinterest, her head on the table, before magicking her second drink over and taking a long swig.
  3744.  
  3745. >"It's funny," she remarks, with your meals done and her second drink bottomed out.
  3746. >"I thought that Over the Moon didn't get business because, for once, ponies were just... *HIC...* ignoring me. Not because they didn't like me."
  3747. >"Moonie-" Careful starts.
  3748. >"-Hey!" Moondancer beckons to a waitress. "Another for me?"
  3749. "I think you're all set on-"
  3750. >Too late.
  3751. >The third Manehattan hits the table.
  3752. >"... turns out," Moondancer continues. "It was still the latter all along. Seems to be a pattern in my life."
  3753.  
  3754. >Obviously, the booze is getting to her.
  3755. >She's quite flushed under her coat.
  3756. >You figure the time's right to scratch her on the back of her neck.
  3757. >She seems to like it.
  3758. >Even nuzzles back up against your hand a bit.
  3759. >She stops and smiles when she realizes what she's doing.
  3760. "Don't pay them any mind, Moonie."
  3761. >"Yeah."
  3762.  
  3763. >You manage to get her to eat a few pieces of peanut-butter fudge before she downs her third drink, but it's not quite enough to dilute it.
  3764. >Book pony is incoherent, snuggling you aggressively.
  3765. >You let her crawl into your nap and lightly snooze while Careful and you finish up.
  3766. >You and Careful exchange a smile.
  3767. >"Wha... whaddo they puddin... ?" asks Moondancer, half an hour later.
  3768. >"You downed them fast, hon. You're only on the tail of the second," explains Careful.
  3769. >"Ah... oh. Hehe!"
  3770. >She giggles drunkenly for a minute and falls asleep.
  3771.  
  3772. >You put Moondancer's parka on her, sling her over your shoulder, and carry her out while Careful pays the bill.
  3773. >The roll-of-the-eyes Mel gives you on your way out would flatten lesser men.
  3774. >You stick your tongue out at her and make your way into the cold.
  3775.  
  3776. >It's dusk as you three arrive back at Over the Moon.
  3777. >"What did you eat?" asks Safety First, poised dutifully outside the door, in the cold.
  3778. >"That's 'Safe-ese' for 'how was your dinner,'" whispers Careful.
  3779. "Hayburgers, drinks, and dessert at Mel's. We had a great time."
  3780. >"Brought you some leftover fudge, Safe. You like peanut butter?" asks Careful.
  3781. >"Yes."
  3782. >She pauses for a second.
  3783. >"Oh. Uh, thank you!"
  3784. >"Course!" replies Careful.
  3785.  
  3786. >You follow Careful in through the front door, Moondancer still slung over your shoulder in her furry bundle of winter-wear.
  3787. >You glance over your other shoulder at Safety, who's standing motionless at guard.
  3788. >Her armor's as padded and insulated as Careful's, but her wings are only protected by loose flaps of material, and she's been out in this weather for hours.
  3789. >She doesn't show it, but she must be quite chilly.
  3790. >It'll get even worse if the wind blows, which it might.
  3791. "Safe, you want to come in?"
  3792. >She expels an icy cloud of breath.
  3793. >"Not while I'm at my post"
  3794. "The building's well-heated. You can see the street from the front window, and this is the only entrance."
  3795. >"Protocol states..."
  3796. >She can't suppress one shiver, interrupting her long description before it starts.
  3797. >"It's... it's pretty well-defined."
  3798. >Moondancer stirs.
  3799. >Her tail twitches, brushing across your face.
  3800. >"Please. Come in. It'd make me... make me feel better," she tiredly explains.
  3801. >Orders override protocol: Safety doesn't hesitate to trot straight and soldierly through the door.
  3802. >"Yes, ma'am."
  3803.  
  3804. "Look who's awake."
  3805. >"Oh!" exclaims Careful, watching Moondancer tiredly stretch and kick with her heavily-clothed backside hanging over your shoulder.
  3806. >She chuckles.
  3807. >"You, uh, wanna come down, Moonie?"
  3808. >"...yeah. Lemme down," confirms Moondancer, wriggling backwards out of your grip.
  3809. >You put her down gently on the floor, where she trots over the the coat rack and magicks off her parka, nearly wobbling over in the process.
  3810. >"And how about some water," suggests Careful, witnessing the display.
  3811. >"HIC. Please."
  3812. >She trots off towards the half-kitchen in back.
  3813.  
  3814. >Moondancer breathes a sigh of relief to be through talking, only to have Safe approach her.
  3815. >"Ma'am?"
  3816. >"Uhn. Yes?"
  3817. >"You can relocate to your house if you like. Careful and I could go on split duty. I could stay here and she..."
  3818. >"No... no. I have a nook here. Stay and read overnight sometimes. No biggie. Want you two take turns. Get sleep too."
  3819. >Safe nods and returns to her post.
  3820. >"Glad to hear it," says Careful, returning with a glass of water. "With that said, I think I'll get forty winks myself, before my shift. Beanbag in the nook will work fine for me. Anon, you wanna stick around? Take care of Moon... I mean, well, lend us a little guard duty support?"
  3821. >You remember Moondancer's drunken rambling at Mel's.
  3822. >She might need a friend as well as a guard detail tonight.
  3823. >Careful's keen on snuggling, a fact she regularly makes known, but you don't know Moondancer.
  3824. >Maybe she's not the snuggling type.
  3825. >Maybe just a little one-on-one chat will cheer her up.
  3826. >Whatever. You're sure she has a couch or something in her private nook in back.
  3827.  
  3828. "Sure. Yeah, Careful. Moonie, you've mentioned you stay over here sometimes...?"
  3829. >"Yeah," she answers, after sipping the last of her water. "Room's in back. Wanna get to sleep myself."
  3830. >She leads you back there as Careful curls up on the beanbag.
  3831. >The space is... very cozy.
  3832. >Woodstove, bookshelf, desk...
  3833. >Exactly one bed.
  3834.  
  3835. "Well, this is a nice little space."
  3836. >"Not too little, I hope?" asks Moondancer.
  3837. >Time to put it bluntly.
  3838. "If I'm honest, I was expecting... er, a couch AND bed."
  3839. >She blushes.
  3840. >"Sorry. I just never expected I'd have company in here. The bed's... pretty big, but if you're not comfortable with that, um, I can... Careful and I can bunk and you... uh..."
  3841. "If you're fine, I'm fine. Just wanted to make sure."
  3842. >"R-right. Okay."
  3843.  
  3844. >From how forward Moondancer was when you met, you didn't expect that, now, she'd be so skittish.
  3845. >Both of you know this isn't anything serious.
  3846. >The bed's roomy enough that you can sleep side-by-side without touching the whole night.
  3847. >Anyway, Careful's in the next room, and she has condoned and encouraged this arrangement.
  3848. >She flat-out told you she thinks you should snuggle the fuck out of this pony.
  3849. >She thought that was a good arrangement even when you WEREN'T under an royal guard lockdown.
  3850.  
  3851. >Moondancer shifts a little uncomfortably.
  3852. >She's got something to say.
  3853. >Out with it, little pony.
  3854. >It's late as fuck.
  3855. >"I... I don't usually sleep with my sweater."
  3856. "Cool."
  3857. >...
  3858. "... oh. Right. I'll, uh... turn around."
  3859. >You've managed to learn a little about ponies' weird privacy customs while living with Careful.
  3860. >They're weird, of course, because of the "always-naked" thing.
  3861. >Clothed, unclothed, either of those is fine in public.
  3862. >But watching a pony CHANGE clothing?
  3863. >That's lewd.
  3864. >Lewd bordering on criminal.
  3865. >You're no criminal.
  3866. >Not by this particular country's laws.
  3867.  
  3868. >So, you turn your back while Moonie changes.
  3869. >And your tired brain can't think of anything but what she must look like changing.
  3870. >Does she gently remove that hair tie with magic and swish her mane around like a supermodel?
  3871. >Shed the glasses and become exponentially cuter, like the underdog love interest in an eighties teen-romance movie?
  3872. >What's her physique under that sweater, too?
  3873. >This and other mysteries claw at your conscience.
  3874.  
  3875. >...
  3876. >Oh, fuck it.
  3877. >One quick look.
  3878. >She won't catch you.
  3879.  
  3880. >You glance over your shoulder.
  3881. >You expect to see her removing and folding her sweater with magic, cleaning her glasses and placing them gently on a convenient, flat surface...
  3882. >Her sweater's inside-out, pulled over her head but not off.
  3883. >She's pinned it with her hooves, trying to extract her head from the woven deathtrap.
  3884. >You'd help her, but then she'd know you're looking.
  3885. >Can't have that.
  3886. >You avert your gaze and let her sort it out.
  3887.  
  3888. >Yourself, you're wearing your thermals under your clothes, so you can disrobe in a perfectly modest and wholesome manner.
  3889. >With Careful, you'd do away with the undershirt, pull her close, feel her coat while you go to sleep. She's warm enough to offset the cold of being uncovered.
  3890. >Wrong time, place, and pony for that now, though.
  3891.  
  3892. >You seat yourself on the bed and wait for Moondancer to finish.
  3893. >"O-okay," she signals.
  3894. >You look over at her.
  3895.  
  3896. >Without her mane-tie, her bangs nearly reach her nose.
  3897. >She sweeps them to the side so she can see.
  3898. >She has to squint slightly to see you without her glasses.
  3899. >She looks tipsy, relaxed, untidy, and adorable.
  3900.  
  3901. >"You all set?"
  3902. "Yeah."
  3903.  
  3904. >You fold down the covers, scooch back on the bed, and lie closest to the wall.
  3905. >Moondancer climbs up to join you.
  3906.  
  3907. >You each get into comfortable positions and relax.
  3908. >Moondancer lies facing away from you, toward the far wall.
  3909. >"So..." she starts.
  3910. "Yeah?"
  3911. >"Careful's okay with this arrangement?"
  3912. "Yeah. We discussed it."
  3913. >You leave out that you and Careful discussed it before either of you were aware of any threat against Moondancer and her shop.
  3914. >Also, that Careful herself suggested it.
  3915. >"Okay. Um. Good night."
  3916. "G'night."
  3917. >She magically snuffs out the bedside candle.
  3918.  
  3919. >You each lie side-by-side, trying to sleep for five minutes, ten, fifteen...
  3920. >"...Anon?"
  3921. "Hm?"
  3922. >"Careful's mentioned that you..."
  3923. >She takes a deep breath.
  3924. >"Givegoodsnuggles," she completes her thought.
  3925. "So she's told me, yeah."
  3926. >...
  3927. >"May I -- oh, okay."
  3928. >You reached over mid-sentence and pulled her over to your side of the bed, right up against you.
  3929.  
  3930. >She's a little tense for a minute, but, slowly, she relaxes, wriggling into you, returning the cuddle.
  3931. >The sensation is fuzzy, warm, and lovely, like with Careful, but they're different.
  3932. >Careful's an earth pony in peak physical condition, so she's heavier, and her muscles are firmer, almost like a second layer of armor when she flexes and moves around.
  3933. >Moondancer, on the other hand, is a unicorn, and more sedentary than Careful.
  3934. >She's lighter, smaller, and softer, like a plush toy.
  3935. >She's...
  3936. >... well, you're not quite sure how to tell for a pony, but she might be a little pudgy.
  3937. >Not enough for anyone to notice or care if she were to go about without the sweater.
  3938. >You recall her being embarrassed this morning when you walked in on her without it.
  3939. >You hope it doesn't make her feel bad or anything.
  3940. >Bottom line, she has the build you'd expect, really.
  3941. >And you're gonna cuddle the shit out of her.
  3942.  
  3943. ...
  3944.  
  3945. >You each get into comfortable positions and relax.
  3946. >Moondancer lies facing away from you, toward the far wall.
  3947. >"So..." she starts.
  3948. "Yeah?"
  3949. >"Careful's okay with this arrangement?"
  3950. "Yeah. We discussed it."
  3951. >You leave out that you and Careful discussed it before either of you were aware of any threat against Moondancer and her shop.
  3952. >Also, that Careful herself suggested it.
  3953. >"Okay. Um. Good night."
  3954. "G'night."
  3955. >She magically snuffs out the bedside candle.
  3956.  
  3957. >You each lie side-by-side, trying to sleep for five minutes, ten, fifteen...
  3958. >"...Anon?"
  3959. "Hm?"
  3960. >"Careful's mentioned that you..."
  3961. >She takes a deep breath.
  3962. >"Givegoodsnuggles," she completes her thought.
  3963. "So she's told me, yeah."
  3964. >...
  3965. >"May I -- oh, okay."
  3966. >You reached over mid-sentence and pulled her over to your side of the bed, right up against you.
  3967.  
  3968. >She's a little tense for a minute, but, slowly, she relaxes, wriggling into you, returning the cuddle.
  3969. >The sensation is fuzzy, warm, and lovely, like with Careful, but they're different.
  3970. >Careful's an earth pony in peak physical condition, so she's heavier, and her muscles are firmer, almost like a second layer of armor when she flexes and moves around.
  3971. >Moondancer, on the other hand, is a unicorn, and more sedentary than Careful.
  3972. >She's lighter, smaller, and softer, like a plush toy.
  3973. >She's...
  3974. >... well, you're not quite sure how to tell for a pony, but she might be a little pudgy.
  3975. >Not enough for anyone to notice or care if she were to go about without the sweater.
  3976. >You recall her being embarrassed this morning when you walked in on her without it.
  3977. >You hope it doesn't make her feel bad or anything.
  3978. >Bottom line, she has the build you'd expect, really.
  3979. >And you're gonna cuddle the shit out of her.
  3980.  
  3981. >"I... I've never cuddled with a stallion, before," admits Moondancer.
  3982. "Well. One more off the bucket list."
  3983. >You reach under her arm and lightly stroke her chest.
  3984. >You can practically feel her blush through the dark.
  3985. >"I-it's embarrassing. I'm a full-grown mare and I haven't been on a date. I've never even-"
  3986. >She stops abruptly, realizing what she's about to say, you figure.
  3987. >You pick up the conversation before the silence becomes awkward.
  3988. "It's nothing to worry about, Moonie. It's how the cards fall for a lot of ponies. Just less talked about than the alternative."
  3989. >She mumbles some syllable of acknowledgement but shakes her head.
  3990. >"Still."
  3991. >You think you can hazard getting a little more personal.
  3992. "You know."
  3993. >"Hm?"
  3994. "I never cuddled a mare before Careful, actually."
  3995. >"R-really?"
  3996. >You've got her interest.
  3997. >Of course, the message you might have gotten across to her is bullshit.
  3998. >Kind of.
  3999. >But, technically, you're not lying.
  4000. "Really!"
  4001.  
  4002. >As time passes, Moonie gets more and more comfortable, turning to face you, returning the cuddle, huddling every inch of herself under your arm and against your chest.
  4003. >Her tail swishes over your thighs and lower body underneath the blanket.
  4004. >It tickles.
  4005. >She even nuzzles your face, neck, and chest.
  4006. >You occasionally feel what you think is a light kiss on the fabric of your thermals.
  4007. >She occasionally sighs and inhales softly through her nose, getting a whiff of you, you figure.
  4008. >Little weird, but, you know.
  4009. >Pony stuff.
  4010. >You've suspected Careful does the same, but she's more low-key.
  4011. >"Guard sense" training or something, you figure.
  4012. "I wash up OK this morning?"
  4013. >"Oh! Y-yeah..." replies Moonie, nonplussed. "Not like a pony, but... uh. Nice."
  4014. "I'll take it."
  4015. >"Can we stay like this?" she asks, after a minute passes. "Just for a while. I don't... I don't want to fall asleep yet."
  4016. >You rub the back of her neck, her her tight, reassuringly...
  4017. "Sure thing."
  4018.  
  4019. "So... Moonie?"
  4020. >You whisper, not intending to wake her up if she's drifted off.
  4021. >"Yeah."
  4022. >She's nearly coiled underneath your arm.
  4023. >If she was a cat, you suspect she'd be purring.
  4024. "You feeling alright?"
  4025. >She pauses.
  4026. >"I've sobered up a bit. Sleepy, though."
  4027. >Okay.
  4028. >So she's being that way.
  4029. "I don't want to pry. But, some stuff you were saying at Mel's? Careful and I, we're concerned. If you want talk..."
  4030.  
  4031. >Suddenly and unexpectedly, she wriggles out of your grasp, moving to the far side of the bed.
  4032. >"I was drunk. I don't remember what I said. I'm fine."
  4033. >You reach for her shoulder, but she shifts uncomfortably under your touch.
  4034. >You retract your hand.
  4035. >"Let's just go to sleep. Forget all about this by morning."
  4036. "... yeah. Okay."
  4037.  
  4038. >You rest your head, but something nags at your conscience.
  4039. >You know you won't forgive yourself if you don't just say something.
  4040. >Anything.
  4041. "Careful and I, right. You're kind of our only friend. We want you to be safe and happy. Tonight, all the time. If something's ever wrong, you can tell us. That's all."
  4042. >"Thank you, Anon," she says, impatiently. "Good night."
  4043. >"Night."
  4044.  
  4045. >Hours later, or minutes later - you can't tell - you're stirred awake.
  4046. >Moondancer's moving - heaving - unnaturally, her face pressed hard into the bed and pillows.
  4047. >If she wasn't a horse, you'd think she's sick, about to vomit or something.
  4048. >It can't be that, but, still, you're alarmed.
  4049. "Moon-?"
  4050. >She barrels into your grasp, knocking the wind out of you.
  4051. >She's crying.
  4052. >Hard.
  4053. >"I don't understand," she gets out between sobs.
  4054. >You take her in your arms, make some reflexive assurance...
  4055. >No good.
  4056. >"I don't understand..."
  4057. "I know."
  4058. >You don't, but you need to say something.
  4059. >She seems to respond to this.
  4060. >... or, at least, she's content not to try to talk anymore.
  4061. "I know."
  4062. >She cries into your thermals in the darkness of the room in back of the shop.
  4063.  
  4064. >...
  4065. >"Other ponies don't like me," she finally manages to explain. "Just a p-pattern in my life. I don't know why."
  4066. >You stroke her mane and let her talk.
  4067. >"I opened this shop and got no business. I didn't mind, because I thought, for once, nopony hated me. That I wasn't of any mind to them. Then I figure out it's just these... these CUNTS."
  4068. >She picks up something in the dark of the room and hurls it against the wall with her magic.
  4069. >Whatever it is, it shatters.
  4070. >"They needed to protest something and ruin lives, and, oh, there's the public flogging-pony, Moondancer..."
  4071.  
  4072. >"Moonie?"
  4073. >It's Careful, just inside the door of the back room.
  4074. >You never noticed it open.
  4075. >"Oh. C-Careful. Hi."
  4076. >Careful trots over.
  4077. >She's not in her armor.
  4078. >Safe must still be on shift. It's the only reason you can think of that Careful would ditch the uniform while on-duty.
  4079. >"I'm sorry. Couldn't help overhearin'. Then there was the noise."
  4080. >She gestures to the wall where Moondancer threw the... it looks like a vase.
  4081. >"I'm sorry. Didn't mean to wake you," explains Moondancer.
  4082. >"No worries. I sleep light on duty. And Safe, she'll come down from the rafters, eventually."
  4083. >"Oh my..."
  4084.  
  4085. >"So. There room left in there?"
  4086. >Before you or Moondancer can answer, Careful's crawling under the sheets, making a sandwich with Moonie as the filling.
  4087. >It's just roomy enough for the three of you to lie comfortably.
  4088. >"Listen, Moonie. This place'll be booming once those MILFs are gone. They've used legal loopholes to bully ponies too long. The whole RG is tired of them. They're getting disbanded first misstep they make."
  4089. >"Provided they make one..."
  4090. >"We love ya. Everypony'll love ya. And don't count on those mares keeping it clean much longer. I think they'll slip up soon.
  4091. >She smiles.
  4092.  
  4093. >Moonie doesn't manage to smile back, but she's calmed down.
  4094. >"I... thank you both. I'm really tired. Can we just...?"
  4095. >"Yeah," you and Careful agree.
  4096. >You pull them both close, close your eyes, and slowly doze off.
  4097.  
  4098. >Something stirs, rousing you from sleep.
  4099. >It can't be morning yet - no light under the door - but you feel you've slept about half the night.
  4100. >Somehow, you've ended up between two ponies instead of beside them.
  4101. >You feel around.
  4102. >Pone closest to the wall has a horn.
  4103. >Moondancer somehow got over you, then.
  4104.  
  4105. >Eager to get back to sleep, but not wanting to do so without an armful of pone, you reach for Careful and pull her close.
  4106. >She feels light, probably limber from her deep sleep.
  4107. >You stroke her idly as sleep takes you again, rubbing her ears, her back, her wings, her haunches...
  4108. >...
  4109. >Wait a minute.
  4110. >"Are you awake, Anon?" asks Safety.
  4111.  
  4112. >Reality hit you just early enough that you don't startle straight out of bed
  4113. >Moondancer snores on, belly-up, blissfully.
  4114. "Safe! I, uh."
  4115. >You just snuggled a royal guard non-consensually, Anon.
  4116. >Cut the late-night mush-mouth before you get tossed in whatever hellish facsimile of human prison criminals go to in horse country.
  4117. "God. I thought you were Careful. Sorry."
  4118. >"I suspected that when you rubbed my butt."
  4119. >You look at her.
  4120. >She looks at you.
  4121. >There's just enough light to see her neutral, tired expression.
  4122. >The silence is killing you.
  4123. >This is it, Anon.
  4124. >You're getting put away.
  4125. >You're-
  4126.  
  4127. >Safe is... pensive.
  4128. >Her eyes dart this way and that, like she's looking for something.
  4129. >Then, they widen with realization.
  4130. >She smiles, her ears flopping back unaggressively.
  4131. >You smile back, appreciating the gesture, even if the overall display was a little unsettling.
  4132.  
  4133. "Didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. My bad."
  4134. >"On the contrary! I had an itch by my cutie mark. You got it quite nicely."
  4135. "Right. Glad to help. You're, um, cool, sleeping here?"
  4136. >"Yes. Um, if you're comfortable. 'Cool.' I mean. See, I'd wanted to sleep close to my post when Careful took over..."
  4137. >Right, the six-hour shifts.
  4138. >"-but she suggested I sleep in here."
  4139. >She pauses.
  4140. >"She said - suggested - that you, uh... 'give good snuggles?'"
  4141.  
  4142. >Your role in this group suddenly materializes: you are the designated snuggler.
  4143. >This is your fate.
  4144. >You are doomed to it by your size, reach, body temperature, and modest chest hair.
  4145. >At this rate, perhaps you could become Equestria's first human male model.
  4146. >Go on tour, wash out, assassinate the prime maneister of Mareasia, retire.
  4147. >Not a bad plan.
  4148.  
  4149. >You nearly nod off before you remember to respond.
  4150. "I... yeah."
  4151. >"Oh!"
  4152.  
  4153. >Safety stares at you.
  4154. >...
  4155. >She has no idea what to do.
  4156. "Here... here."
  4157. >You pull her close to you, put your head down, and close your eyes.
  4158. "Get as comfortable as you like. Let's get our snooze on while it's still dark..."
  4159. >"Okay."
  4160. >She begins wriggling around.
  4161. >You nearly scold her before you realize she's just fluffing up her feathers.
  4162. >Thankfully, they feel clean and soft, not scraggy and dirt-smothered like you expected.
  4163. "See, you're a natural at this."
  4164. >"I am?"
  4165. "Yes."
  4166. >She fluffs up a little more.
  4167. >"Thank you."
  4168. "You're welcome."
  4169.  
  4170. >With each of you satisfied, you shut your eyes tighter, doubly determined to return to sleep-
  4171. >"Is there another step?"
  4172. >Oh, come on.
  4173. "... optional ones."
  4174. >You keep your eyes forced shut, but you know she's just turned her head to look at you.
  4175. >Quizzically.
  4176. >Probably adorably.
  4177. >Adorable in her unique, alexithymic way, which, you admit, is growing on you.
  4178. "Well, the last few mares I've snuggled get comfortable with me, then they get teary and confide in me. That seems to be a trend. Then I say something reassuring."
  4179. >You think of what else you could possibly... appropriately... suggest.
  4180. >Nada.
  4181. "Then. We. Go. To. Sleep."
  4182. >"Okay. Let's do that."
  4183. >Thank God.
  4184. >You finally feel yourself drifting off...
  4185.  
  4186. >...
  4187. >"Thank you for being so patient with me. I know I have trouble understanding ponies. It makes me feel awfully sad sometimes..."
  4188. >Damn it.
  4189.  
  4190. >"... and they're not real goggles, just designer sunglasses. I wear them so ponies think I'm smart even though I'm... like I am."
  4191.  
  4192. >You're tired.
  4193. >Exhausted.
  4194. >But... okay.
  4195. >Admit it.
  4196. >You feel bad for the pony.
  4197. >If she were human, your armchair diagnosis would be that she's somewhere on the autism spectrum.
  4198. >But she's a pony.
  4199. >From what you know of pony medicine, physical and mental, it's effective in practice - what, with magic and all - but gritty and alchemical in theory.
  4200. >They know what works, but not why, you gather.
  4201. >So, if you're neurologically atypical, unless you're visibly sick from it, they don't call it disorder, just disposition.
  4202. >And so ponies like Safe get the shit end of the deal.
  4203. >What a nice, ringing reminder that this place isn't the paradise you've occasionally mistaken it for.
  4204. >You're exhausted by his, in a different way than your lack of sleep.
  4205. >You need to follow up with Careful when this is over.
  4206. >No more snuggle-loans except with her.
  4207. >No more therapy Anon.
  4208. >Your heart and mind can't take it.
  4209.  
  4210. >... but, at the moment, with Safe, you're committed.
  4211. >Also, you're sandwiched.
  4212. >Not going anywhere soon.
  4213.  
  4214. >You've been idly stroking Safe while thinking this all over.
  4215. "... Careful could."
  4216. >"Huh?"
  4217. "Goggles. Fit you out for some. Modify your shades, maybe."
  4218. >She's confused.
  4219. "She's a clockmaker. Her day job. Knows jewelry like you know law. Which, by the way, makes you smart as hell."
  4220.  
  4221. >"Oh. Do you really think so?"
  4222. "Definitely. So do Careful and Moondancer, I'm sure."
  4223. >"Mmnrrminnm," elaborates Moondancer.
  4224. >You turn to rub the back of her neck, causing her ears to lie flat.
  4225. "Get to sleep, sweetie. Don't mind us."
  4226. >The intimate pronoun kind of slipped out.
  4227. >You didn't mean much by it: she IS sweet. "Sweetie" is an apt word to describe her.
  4228. >... still, you hope maybe she won't remember your saying that come morning.
  4229. >You're on the woman's - er, mare's - payroll, after all.
  4230. >"MMmh... mm. ... ZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzz..."
  4231. >Chances seem good.
  4232.  
  4233. >You turn back to Safe.
  4234. "You're sweet too, I think. I hope we get to know each other better in coming days."
  4235. >"You... really think so?" repeats Safe.
  4236. >Her ordinarily flat tone flexes just perceptibly, like a bow with its string ever-so lightly drawn.
  4237. "Yeah. You're a real cutie."
  4238. >You think - THINK - she might be blushing.
  4239. >Slightly.
  4240. >"I don't think a stallion's ever... told me that?"
  4241. >You can't tell whether she's flattered or confused.
  4242. >Maybe both.
  4243. "They should start."
  4244.  
  4245. >Safe cuddles into you hard.
  4246. >"Th-... thank... thank you."
  4247. >She goes in for what you think is a kiss to your cheek, but she's not quite comfortable with it.
  4248. >So, she rubs her nose against yours.
  4249. >You can't stay upset with that face for keeping you up.
  4250. >And anyway: finally, blessedly, Safe looks exhausted.
  4251. "Sleep well, Safe."
  4252. >"Good night."
  4253.  
  4254. >You wait.
  4255. >And wait...
  4256. >...
  4257. >"Zzz."
  4258.  
  4259. >Good.
  4260. >Safe's asleep.
  4261. >Now to...
  4262. >To.
  4263. >...
  4264. >You can't sleep.
  4265. >You're certain that, when you climbed into this bed, it felt soft and inviting.
  4266. >Now it feels like you're on two-by-fours.
  4267. >You take a big gulp of air and sigh with exasperation.
  4268. >This only oxigenates your blood, waking you up more.
  4269. >As if to punctuate the moment, the little window to the back room begins glowing with the barest hint of sunrise.
  4270. >Fuck it, you can nap later.
  4271. >You decide to get up and walk around.
  4272. >You know for a fact, at least, that you'll have company.
  4273.  
  4274. >You look down on the bed to see Safe and Moonie sadly separated.
  4275. >Safe wasn't completely under the ragged yet comfy old quilt Moondancer adorned the thing with.
  4276. >Without your body heat, she shivers pathetically.
  4277. >This is as a log settles in the woodstove, still crackling audibly, no less.
  4278. >You sigh and flip the quilt down, exposing both the ponies to the "night air."
  4279. >Moondancer, by some fluke, is positioned with her head pressed into her pillow and her rear sticking up, snoozing soundly.
  4280. >You flip her tail off her back to cover her decency, pick her up, and plop her closer to the center of the mattress.
  4281. >You do the same with Safe.
  4282. >Like magnets, they instinctively flip over and latch onto each other in their sleep.
  4283. >The pony urge to cuddle must operate on some subconscious neurological circuit.
  4284. >You re-cover them with the quilt and head out to the main area of Over the Moon.
  4285.  
  4286. >"Anonymous," you hear, as soon as you shut the door behind you.
  4287. >Careful's at guard, in front, by the door.
  4288. >You reply, making fun of her using your whole name:
  4289. "Careful Watch."
  4290.  
  4291. >She doesn't turn her head in response, but her right ear twitches in apparent acknowledgement.
  4292. >She takes her guard duties as seriously as ever.
  4293. >Come to think of it, you haven't really seen her at it since she guarded you.
  4294. >As you pass behind her and seat yourself in the reading-nook beanbag chair, she spares you only a glance, refocusing on the outside immediately, albeit with the barest hint of a smile on her face.
  4295. >Seeing her like this, you... admire her.
  4296. >Have you ever felt this for her? Admiration?
  4297. >Or have you taken this attribute of hers for granted while you've known her?
  4298.  
  4299. >You continue to watch her.
  4300. >She's as still and attentive as any of the beaver-hat guys at Buckingham.
  4301. >... yes, it's called that here, too.
  4302. >There's a stark contrast between who you see before you now - a stark professional, standing vigilant at ungodly hours to protect her charge from an unruly mob - and who you thought you met weeks ago: a clumsy but well-meaning rookie saving you from a shroom-popper and a photographer in the park.
  4303. >Has Careful Watch changed dramatically over the past weeks, or...
  4304.  
  4305. >Is the lens you look through now the same one you possessed back then?
  4306. >Was her behavior then like it is now, but filtered through an early, biased perception of her?
  4307. >Was your early opinion of her that she was nothing more than a cute pony playing the artificial role of a protector?
  4308. >... Were you... wrong?
  4309.  
  4310. >You think back to the day you met:
  4311. >How she scrutinized every passer-by.
  4312. >How, at night, she checked every alley and street-corner.
  4313. >How she insisted on your staying even closer to her side as it got especially dim.
  4314. >How she insisted on staying at watch all night on your behalf.
  4315. >How she cried because she knew, basically, she was using every ounce of her ability on a fluke job with no real danger.
  4316.  
  4317. >It just... doesn't add up.
  4318. >She's a professional.
  4319. >She's a royal guard.
  4320. >ROYAL.
  4321. >In the capital city of an empire.
  4322. > And she's in the best shape of any pony you've met.
  4323. >She once said she could kill you with a kick - she was joking, of course, but the joke was about her intent, not her ability.
  4324.  
  4325. >You don't understand how to add it all up.
  4326. >Some things that first day were... off-key.
  4327. >But was it you, or her?
  4328.  
  4329. >"Trouble sleeping?" asks Careful, ignorant, of course, of your entirely internal dialogue that just took place.
  4330. "I woke up, chatted with Safety First. Couldn't get back to sleep."
  4331. >"She okay?"
  4332. "... yeah. I think. She wants you to help with her goggles while she's off duty."
  4333. >"The sunglasses, you mean."
  4334. >She chuckles.
  4335. >You guess that's not such a well-kept secret.
  4336. >At least among Safe's...
  4337. >Her friends.
  4338. >You feel compelled to ask:
  4339. "How long you known Safety?"
  4340. >"While back. Joined RG a few months after me. She's good. This isn't the first case we've worked together."
  4341. "Are you friends?"
  4342. >"As... friendly as coworkers get. I never see her outside work. But I like talking with her when I can. She's... you saw. Funny. In her way."
  4343. "A good acquaintance, then."
  4344. >"Yeah."
  4345.  
  4346. "Have any others?"
  4347. >Careful chuckles, nodding amicably but keeping her eyes on the street outside the building.
  4348. >She's incredibly on-point.
  4349. >This conversation is a favor to you. She's multitasking.
  4350. >It's not something she would do if she were an amateur at what she does.
  4351. "Plenty."
  4352.  
  4353. "... Most of the guard are decent ponies," she continues. "The few that give me trouble..."
  4354. >She pauses, looking sorry for herself only for a second.
  4355. >"Well, you know what I think of them. It troubles me sometimes, but never more than I've been able to handle."
  4356. "On your own?"
  4357. >"With support or without."
  4358.  
  4359. >You feel... strange.
  4360. >You realize, in your mind, you're thinking this as a conversation between yourself, Anon, and Careful Watch, member, enforcer, and protector for the Royal Guard.
  4361. >The same Royal Guard that forms an entourage around this land's _GODS_ when they deign to meet the public.
  4362. >Shit, you probably first saw Careful in one of those parades before you ever met her personally.
  4363. >This Careful Watch, you realize, is a separate entity in your head from "Care," your girlfriend, the cute pony who loves you, who you love, who you feel you would be miserable without...
  4364. >... who you were sure would be miserable without you.
  4365. >Helpless without you.
  4366.  
  4367. >The strangeness turns to bitterness.
  4368. >The bitterness to nausea.
  4369. >You mumble something about getting water and wander over to the kitchen.
  4370. >You pour yourself a glass of water and gulp half of it down.
  4371. >It sort of helps, sort of doesn't.
  4372. >You gulp air, close your eyes, try to recenter yourself.
  4373. >You manage to relax.
  4374. >Slightly.
  4375.  
  4376. >"Anon."
  4377. >You look behind you.
  4378. >It's Care, your girlfriend, away from her post.
  4379. >For you.
  4380. >Dim light from outside glints in her concerned eyes.
  4381. >You know you're not hiding your distress at all.
  4382. >Not to any ordinary pony, much less to Guard Senses.
  4383. >You sit down in a nearby chair.
  4384. >Hard.
  4385. >She hops halfway up it, planting her front hooves on the left edge of the seat, and pecks you on the cheek.
  4386. >"You okay?"
  4387.  
  4388. "I..."
  4389. >She's listening closely.
  4390. "It's exhausting, this... what you want me to do. Cheering everybody... 'pony...' up."
  4391. >A fat lie.
  4392. >Not outright, but of omission.
  4393.  
  4394. >You force a chuckle.
  4395. "And I'm gonna fall in love with our friends if you keep me at it! I don't want to make you jealous."
  4396.  
  4397. >Of who? You?
  4398. >You know, maybe, you're wrong.
  4399. >Somewhere, your internal line of reasoning is wrong. Distorted.
  4400. >But you don't know how.
  4401. >You'd be honest and ask her outright, but... what kind of question would that be?
  4402.  
  4403. >>'Do you need me like I need you?'
  4404. >>'Did you settle? Did I really help you like you helped me? Because...'
  4405. >>'...'
  4406. >>'Because you're normal, your problems are normal, you weren't beyond any ordinary pony's ability to help'
  4407. >>'Because your life would be fine without me.'
  4408.  
  4409. >You nearly choke as the finale of your mental orchestration hits you.
  4410. >"I... see. Okay," says Careful, replying only to the remark you made out loud. "It's... exhausting. Being the one someone close to you relies on so heavily, like that. I'm sorry for putting you up to it."
  4411.  
  4412. >>'Like you are for me?' you almost want to ask.
  4413.  
  4414. >"It's enough that you're there just for me."
  4415. >Careful nuzzles your neck.
  4416. >"I love you."
  4417.  
  4418. >Damn your heart, swaying in the calmest breeze.
  4419. >She made you feel better.
  4420. >Three words and you're fine.
  4421. >Everything you've been thinking about is still in your mind, but, for now, you can look away from it.
  4422. >You troubled, but fine.
  4423. >For now.
  4424.  
  4425. >You look to your side, to love, to attention, to Care.
  4426. "I..."
  4427. >Your tone is flat.
  4428. >You force it to change.
  4429. "I love you, too."
  4430. >You touch your forehead to hers.
  4431. >She nuzzles you back.
  4432.  
  4433. >You crack a smile after a minute.
  4434. "Sorry. I've kept you off your post long enough."
  4435. >"You never have to be sorry," she says.
  4436. >She kisses you once more, turns around, and trots back to her post.
  4437.  
  4438. >You finish your water.
  4439. >Only one other think lingers on your mind, which you forget as soon as you fall back upon the nook beanbag and pass out immediately.
  4440. >Something was in Careful Watch's eyes just before she returned to her post.
  4441. >Something that looked slightly like Guard Senses.
  4442.  
  4443. >...
  4444.  
  4445. >Tap-tap.
  4446. >...
  4447. >Tap-tap.
  4448. >"Anon."
  4449. >Tap-tap tap-tap.
  4450. >"Anon."
  4451. >Tap-tap tap-tap.
  4452.  
  4453. >"Anon!" whispers Careful harshly, jolting you awake.
  4454.  
  4455. >"Shh," she urges as you sit up.
  4456. >She gestures to the roof.
  4457. >That's the source of the tapping... and it's moving.
  4458. >From the back, towards Moondancer's room, towards the front of the store.
  4459. >Halfway across so far.
  4460. >Coming to your senses, you recognize the sound: quadrupedal footsteps. Two sets... three?
  4461. >Enough to worry you.
  4462.  
  4463. >"To Moonie's. Now. Keep her safe. Keep her there."
  4464. >That's Safe's voice, you realize, coming from somewhere else.
  4465. >You turn your head to see her perched, fully-armored and defensively-positioned, on top of a sturdy bookcase.
  4466. >Had she been here before you woke up, or did it take her all of a few seconds to suit up and bolt out here at the first sign of trouble?
  4467. >You wouldn't put it past her.
  4468. >You nod and walk light-footed to the back of the store.
  4469.  
  4470. >Moondancer's awake, shaking with anxiety, clinging desperately to her ratty quilt, draped around her shoulders.
  4471. "Moondancer?"
  4472. >"Y-y-yeah."
  4473. >Her voice would betray her shock and terror if her body language didn't already.
  4474. "They've got this, Moon. We'll be fine. I'm gonna be right here too."
  4475. >"... yeah."
  4476. >She hardly sounds reassured.
  4477. "This room's well-hidden, yeah? I never saw it until you pointed it out to me. Even harder to find in the dark, I bet."
  4478. >"M-maybe."
  4479. >You put your arm around her.
  4480. >She's shaking uncontrollably.
  4481. "They'll keep you safe. So will I. They're..."
  4482. >You recall Careful once mentioning that she could kick a dead tree stump straight out of the ground.
  4483. "They're as amazing at what they do as you can imagine. And then some."
  4484.  
  4485. >Holding her steady for another half a minute, her shaking abates a little.
  4486. >She nods at you.
  4487. >"I... want to see. Just in case."
  4488. >She uses her magic to draw a curtain, shrouding the room in complete darkness.
  4489. >You could crack the door, see out, and still have an invisible hiding spot.
  4490. "Let's do it."
  4491.  
  4492. >You lean slowly over Moondancer's spot in the crack between the door and the frame, allowing your eyes to adjust and capture the scene unfolding just outside.
  4493. >Your heart is racing.
  4494. >Your assurance to Moondancer that you could keep her safe was, of course, a lie.
  4495. >If whoever or whatever is outside wants to come in and cause trouble, and if it can get through Careful and Safe...
  4496. >Well, you could at least distract it while Moondancer climbs out the window.
  4497. >That'll have to do.
  4498.  
  4499. ...
  4500.  
  4501. >At academy, you and Careful Watch took the same course on environmental awareness.
  4502. >You each excelled at the subject, but in different ways.
  4503. >Careful's "guard senses," as she refers to her skill, are those of a detective:
  4504. >She can gauge the tone or topic of a conversation from across a noisy room, read body language like a book, and guess at ponies' private intentions by casually studying their faces.
  4505. >Your own talents lie elsewhere.
  4506. >You've never understood ponies like Careful does.
  4507. >Or even like average ponies do.
  4508. >But to the characteristics of your physical environment you are exceptionally well-attuned.
  4509. >You can detect and place the position of a whisper where other ponies, even other guards, would hear nothing.
  4510. >You can feel the slightest change of a breeze, sense any shift in the ambient air pressure - though that comes partially from being a pegasus, you acknowledge - and see any sudden change, even in the dark, fast enough to react to it before anypony else in a room.
  4511.  
  4512. >You apply your skills now and listen to the silence in Over the Moon from your perch atop the sturdy bookshelf.
  4513. >First: the flutter of a curtain shutting. The creak of a door. Hushed conversation.
  4514. >Moondancer and Anon must be watching from the dark.
  4515. >It's for the best. They are perhaps safer being able to see any intruders first than they would be behind a locked door.
  4516. >As you learned as a filly in the house of a locksmith: locks can be picked.
  4517. >Speaking of which: a tumbler just clicked into place.
  4518.  
  4519. "Door."
  4520. >You hardly even vocalize the word. It comes out as less than a whisper.
  4521. >Careful Watch picks it up as though you called across the room.
  4522. >She silently and quickly takes cover behind a bookcase near the far wall.
  4523. >You need not move. Atop the case you're on, the low light from outside doesn't reach you.
  4524. >You've invisible to any but the most observant intruder so long as you stay still.
  4525. >A draft prompts you to fluff your feathers.
  4526. >It's as much of a problem as you'll have to deal with unless - until - this becomes confrontational.
  4527.  
  4528. >The second tumbler clicks.
  4529.  
  4530. >You've always had an acute sense of time.
  4531. >In only a few seconds, the lock will give.
  4532. >Careful, you can tell, is on edge.
  4533. >She will be the first to engage the intruders.
  4534. >Verbally, at first.
  4535. >Hopefully, that will be all.
  4536. >In the best-case scenario, you will not need to intervene.
  4537.  
  4538. >Careful is poised, now, for the immediate danger.
  4539. >You, however, always appreciate the serenity of a moment.
  4540. >You watch her as the final tumbler clicks, as the shaft of the lock is twisted in its socket, free of its restraining pins, until the deadbolt retracts.
  4541. >Even Careful hears that.
  4542. >Her ears twitch at the sound.
  4543. >The reaction propagates through her body like water flows down a stream.
  4544. >From the top of her head to her shoulders, where her forelegs begin to bow, putting her in position to charge or pounce, as the situation warrants.
  4545. >From there to her posterior, where her tail flicks and her powerful, shapely legs flex in preparation.
  4546. >She ordinarily tucks her long mane under her helmet, but tonight she left a lock of it free in the dark.
  4547. >It sways in response to her movement.
  4548.  
  4549. >... she's so beautiful.
  4550.  
  4551. >What an intrusive thought at such a moment.
  4552. >You've always wanted to tell her, but you don't know if or when it would be appropriate, or how she would respond...
  4553. >Is it the type of thing you tell to a coworker or only a friend? Or someone more?
  4554.  
  4555. >... *are* you friends, for that matter?
  4556. >You've never grasped the criteria by which other ponies decide that condition is satisfied.
  4557.  
  4558. >Of all your coworkers, you know Careful best, but, still, you're afraid to ask her.
  4559. >You think she'd laugh.
  4560. >That's what other ponies tend to do when you're so straightforward with them.
  4561. >It's never derisive laughter.
  4562. >You're not misanthropic enough to believe so.
  4563. >Ponies are nice, you think.
  4564. >Generally.
  4565.  
  4566. >Their laughter is usually... supportive?
  4567. >The type of laughter given to a pony who has just made a funny joke.
  4568. >But, in a way, that's worse.
  4569. >You don't understand jokes, so you don't make them.
  4570. >Their laughter only reminds you they don't understand you.
  4571. >You're not sure you understand yourself, either.
  4572. >You don't like that.
  4573. >Knowledge and information have always brought you comfort. Security.
  4574. >Without them, you feel vulnerable, with or without your suit of armor.
  4575.  
  4576. >But you digress.
  4577. >In your contemplation, all of two seconds, the intruders have entered.
  4578. >Two. Clothed in black.
  4579. >Careful has sprung forward, made her presence known.
  4580. >She barks the textbook orders at them.
  4581. >Their compliance, or lack thereof, will determine whether this turns violent.
  4582. >'Wrath is a FINAL resort.' That is the vital rule taught to all guards in training. It is sacred.
  4583. >You do not know whether it will apply here.
  4584. >You do know-
  4585.  
  4586. >Wait.
  4587.  
  4588. >Earlier, you had felt a draft.
  4589. >This building is not centrally-heated.
  4590. >There are woodstoves, but you are placed in no location where you'd feel the currents they stimulate in the air.
  4591. >You selected this spot for that reason, among others.
  4592. >And that draft...
  4593. >You had felt it BEFORE the door opened.
  4594.  
  4595. >You hear something.
  4596. >You don't bother wasting time to process what it is.
  4597. >You strike with your hind legs.
  4598. >There's a whiplike crack as your right hoof connects with the jaw and temple of the black-clad pony behind you.
  4599. >She topples over the bookshelve's edge, snoring unconsciously even in mid-air.
  4600.  
  4601. >Careful charges.
  4602.  
  4603. ...
  4604.  
  4605. >"YOU WILL LEAVE."
  4606. >Careful's deafening command resonates through Over the Moon.
  4607. >Whoever received this command has not so far complied.
  4608. >You have no view of them, even from your higher spot in the door-crack, above Moondancer.
  4609. >"You have entered premises off-limits and under Royal protection. We are armed and authorized to visit Her Wrath upon you if you vandalize this place, steal from this place -"
  4610. >You hear a single hoofstep.
  4611. >"- OR TAKE A SINGLE. STEP. FURTHER."
  4612.  
  4613. >You know you're naive, but you hope that settles the matter.
  4614. >Maybe they'll leave peacefu-
  4615.  
  4616. >CRACK.
  4617.  
  4618. >The sound is like two-by-four splitting in half.
  4619. >A dark figure stumbles from the bookcase a combat-poised Safe is on and falls sideways to the floor.
  4620. >That pony's out-fucking-cold.
  4621. >You'd have never guessed Safe could kick so hard.
  4622. >She's not out-of-shape, but, compared to Careful, at least, she is lithe and light.
  4623.  
  4624. >You have no more time to dwell on this as Careful swiftly and wordlessly tackles one of the intruders in front, creating a shower of splintered wood on impact with the wall.
  4625.  
  4626. >"Go," says Safe, some semblance of urgency finding its way into her ordinarily flat tone of voice.
  4627. >The intruders probably figured she was talking to them or Careful.
  4628. >She's clearly saying it to you and Moondancer over her shoulder.
  4629. >The both of you are, of course, invisible in the dark you're in.
  4630.  
  4631. >Moondancer prods your leg.
  4632. >"Side door. The kitchen," she whispers.
  4633. >You nod.
  4634.  
  4635. >More combatants join the brawl in front.
  4636. >Through the doors, the windows... look to be a dozen of them.
  4637. >You trust Careful and Safety to hold their own for the time being. They're badasses.
  4638. >But this is a lot of ponies.
  4639. >You need to get the hell out of here with Moondancer, and you need to get help.
  4640. >As you and Moondancer edge out into the hall - quietly and slowly, but steadily - you mentally prepare yourself for the sprint ahead to RGHQ - what's the fastest route...?
  4641.  
  4642. >Then, a shape drops down before you.
  4643. >A pony, clad in black.
  4644. >She's blocking the path to the kitchen. Nowhere to go.
  4645. >"Darklight enchantment," the pony explains, gesturing to her protruding horn, then her eyes, peering out from her mask. "We see you plain as day."
  4646.  
  4647. >At the sound of her voice, you fully understand the situation you are in.
  4648. >She sounds husky. Mature, but not old. Not even quite middle-aged, but close to it.
  4649. >In the dark, you can't make out many details through her black outfit, but you can see her frame.
  4650. >You can make out her wide hips and thick ass as clearly as she claims she sees you.
  4651. >No, these are no ordinary intruders.
  4652. >Not even ordinary ninjas.
  4653. >No: tonight, Over the Moon is under attack by MILF ninjas.
  4654.  
  4655. >"I suppose you're wondering-OHHhhh!-"
  4656. >You wind up and kick that pony as hard as you can before she can elaborate.
  4657. >You guess that was your fight-or-flight reaction going off.
  4658. >You're surprised.
  4659. >You thought you were more of a pussy.
  4660. >She careens into a wood-and-glass display case a few feet away, which splinters and shatters on impact.
  4661. >"CELESTIA, Anon!" exclaims Moondance, all at once exasperated, frightened, and exhilirated.
  4662. "THEY'RE FUCKING NINJAS, MOON. NO CHANCES."
  4663. >You scoop her up underarm and bolt for the kitchen.
  4664.  
  4665. >It's too late: the door from the kitchen to the outside is blocked by two ponies.
  4666. >The whole cabal is here in Over the Moon, you think.
  4667. >A dozen of them at least. Likely more.
  4668. >The sounds of Careful and Safe fighting persist in the other room, but, as capable as they are, you struggle to imagine their holding off every single intruder tonight.
  4669. >They're here to wreck the shop, you gather, from those of them you've seen off to the sides, unoccupied with the skirmish in front.
  4670. >They're destroying shelves, flinging books to the floor, tearing out pages.
  4671. >Your heart sinks into your stomach.
  4672. >More than fear, now, you feel pity.
  4673. >Moondancer doesn't deserve this.
  4674.  
  4675. >"You need to understand, Moondancer," explains one of the guards at the door. "You pushed us to this. It's our only recourse, if you insist upon acting against common decency, on having your friends abuse their power to-"
  4676.  
  4677. >An electric spark flashes at the tip of her ear and propogates down, through her head, along her side, and out her back-left hoof into the floor, like a lightning bolt arcing across the sky.
  4678. >It glows red through her body like a finger held to a flashlight, visible even through her pitch-black outfit.
  4679. >She slumps over, twitching.
  4680. >It was Moondancer who interrupted the monologue this time.
  4681.  
  4682. >"OUT!!!" Moondancer screams at the other guard, who promptly bolts out the door, leaving it ajar.
  4683. >The cold drifts in from outside.
  4684. >You stare.
  4685.  
  4686. "... Fuck. Moonie. Did you-?"
  4687. >"No chances," she says, at once furiously and miserably.
  4688. >A tear, glowing and ionized from her spell, drips from her face to the floor, crackling and hissing as it soaks into the wood.
  4689.  
  4690. >She takes a slow, deep breath, desperately trying to compose herself in the midst of this chaos.
  4691. >"Knocked her out," she manages to say. "Can't do another. I need..."
  4692. >She looks back into the main room at the fight unfolding.
  4693. >Her expression is absolutely hopeless.
  4694. >She heads for the door, unaware or ignorant of the chill coming in through it.
  4695. >"I need to get help," she continues. "Stay. Keep it safe. Please."
  4696. "I will."
  4697. >You don't even want to look back at what's happening, but you guess you'll have to.
  4698. >"See you soon."
  4699. >She steps out into the cold.
  4700.  
  4701. >You sneak back into the storefront and behind the counter, evading the remaining intruders.
  4702. >They're either knocked-out, fighting, or focusing on wrecking what remains untouched in the store.
  4703. >As you squat to keep your head down, an unwelcome pain radiates from your leg.
  4704. >It's from booting that unicorn, of course.
  4705. >You're just now feeling the damage done, descending from an incredible adrenaline high.
  4706. >Newton's third law's a bitch. You feel the same kick that pony did right in your shin and ankle.
  4707. >For the first time, you envy Careful getting to wear her heavy-ass armor. The plating and padding would have distributed the impact nicely.
  4708. >Instead, you're definitely bruised, and possibly strained or fractured.
  4709. >You're upright for now, but once you're down, you won't be walking off.
  4710. >You could fight one more like that unicorn, maybe two if your life depends on it.
  4711. >A pathetic figure, but, then, you're not the one decked out in medieval hardware.
  4712.  
  4713. >Your attention turns back to the scene unfolding on the other side of the counter.
  4714. >Keep Over the Moon as intact as possible. That's what Moonie asked. That's what you need to do.
  4715. >Careful and Safe are occupied up front. It's on you.
  4716. >You need to act quickly and decisively to save what's left of the shop.
  4717. >... and you have no idea how.
  4718.  
  4719. >You sigh, pressing your palms to your temples.
  4720. >CLINK.
  4721. >It's hopeless. You can't possibly-
  4722. >CLINK.
  4723. >A noise catches your attention.
  4724. >Something metal coming loose. Rattling. Rolling.
  4725. >You hazard a peek around the counter.
  4726.  
  4727. >Ninja. Separated from the rest.
  4728. >She's a pegasus, but she's grounded.
  4729. >She has... they look like hedge trimmers.
  4730. >As something shiny rolls and rattles away from her, you realize what she's up to.
  4731. >The bookshelves here are tall, wooden, old, and closely-spaced, so they've been bolted down for safety and security.
  4732. >This pony is prying these supports from the floor, one-by-one.
  4733. >You don't need a PhD to figure out what she'll do once she reaches the last one.
  4734.  
  4735. >You have only one idea.
  4736. >She's a pegasus, so she's thin and light, especially so compared to you.
  4737. >She's unarmored, and you have the element of surprise.
  4738. >Help is on its way or will soon be. An RG emergency unit will be at the door in five minutes, you figure.
  4739. >You don't need to knock her out. You just need to stop her.
  4740.  
  4741. >The idea's only half-formed in your head, but with each CLINK, you have fewer seconds to act.
  4742. >You sneak out from behind the counter, get as close as you can, and fling yourself onto her.
  4743.  
  4744. >You've got--FUCK.
  4745. >You've got her, but you weren't fast enough to avoid a kick to the thigh on the way down.
  4746. >That's the leg you already fucked up, too.
  4747. >The pain's so bad it blurs your vision, but you manage to pin her down.
  4748. >You clamp your right hand over her mouth, choke-hold her with your left arm, and use your lower body and legs to grip her around the waist.
  4749.  
  4750. >This doesn't keep her free wing from flapping around and her from wriggling hard and frantically.
  4751. >You don't want to hurt her, but you can't keep holding her if she keeps up.
  4752. "Cut it out."
  4753. >She doesn't respond to your whisper.
  4754. "Stop it or I'll squeeze until you pop."
  4755. >... that works more effectively.
  4756. >She slumps, accepting her fate.
  4757. >You tighten your grip just enough to re-occupy the space freed by her muscles relaxing.
  4758. >That's right, hon.
  4759. >You've read about Houdini.
  4760. >No escape artistry tonight.
  4761. >"Mmph," she objects.
  4762. "Just making sure."
  4763.  
  4764. >You listen to the sounds of the fight in front.
  4765. >It's dying down.
  4766. >Fewer crashes and cracking impacts, more scuffing, grunting, panting, and thumping.
  4767. >Then, galloping from the back to the front.
  4768. >The last ninjas in back quit their vandalism to join the fray, it sounds like.
  4769.  
  4770. >There's a metallic clang of a reflected blow followed by the *thwack* of a hoof hitting soft tissue.
  4771. >This will be done shortly.
  4772. >Careful and Safe are good at their work.
  4773. >Backup will be here in minutes, and you have the nice, comfy job of keeping this pony-
  4774.  
  4775. >"Mmph. Mm mmph."
  4776. "Qui-"
  4777. >As you look down to her, you see your captive's looking straight at you.
  4778. >She looks...
  4779. >... oh, fuck.
  4780. >Those eyes.
  4781. >"Mm. Mm... pl..."
  4782. "You seriously want to talk."
  4783. >She squeaks pathetically.
  4784. "Don't you pull that. I know you know you're cute."
  4785.  
  4786. >She shuts up, but keeps looking at you.
  4787. >In this light, you can't tell her eye or coat color.
  4788. >You can just see her huge, dilated pupils.
  4789. >They search your face for any sign of mercy.
  4790. >You try your best to keep any from showing.
  4791. >Resigned, she breaks eye contact, allowing her head to go limp.
  4792.  
  4793. >"HUAAA-YAH!" shrieks a combatant from up front.
  4794. >There's a clang like a padded mallet hitting a tower bell.
  4795. >"Oof," you hear Safe exclaim.
  4796. >Then there's a flap of wings, followed by a "put me down! PUT ME DOWN!"
  4797. >Predictably, there's a thump as something heavy falls to the floor.
  4798.  
  4799. >At the sound, your captive starts shaking.
  4800. >Hard. Like she's freezing cold.
  4801. >It's the only thing close to resistance she gives against your continuing grasp.
  4802. >The movement's definitely involuntary. Fear or shock.
  4803. >Probably at getting caught, but, still.
  4804.  
  4805. >You act before you let your judgement get the better of you.
  4806. "I'll... let you take some deep breaths."
  4807. >She looks at you.
  4808. "DON'T call for help."
  4809. >You allow the 'or else' to linger, unsaid.
  4810. >She nods.
  4811.  
  4812. >You remove her mask.
  4813. >Should know what she looks like, just in case.
  4814. >Some of her mane comes loose, but the rest of it's tucked away.
  4815. >In the dark, you can't make out any colors.
  4816. >She looks like... a pony.
  4817. >Nondescript otherwise.
  4818. >Maybe you could place her face in a lineup.
  4819. >Maybe.
  4820.  
  4821. >Slowly, you relax your hand.
  4822. >She gasps, intaking and expelling her first breath quickly.
  4823. >Drops of saliva mist your fingers.
  4824. >She takes a few slower, measured breaths.
  4825. >She inhales slowly, exhales more slowly.
  4826. >The shaking starts to abate.
  4827.  
  4828. >"That one's up again," says Safe, matter-of-factly, up front.
  4829.  
  4830. >"C'MERE!" yells Careful
  4831. .
  4832. >Galloping follows.
  4833. >Sounds like they're chasing a last ninja around the mess that is now the store.
  4834.  
  4835. >In your moment of distraction, the captive speaks.
  4836. >"They black-"
  4837.  
  4838. >You re-fasten your hand over her mouth.
  4839. >...
  4840. >Her words were hushed, controlled, despite her obviously panicked state.
  4841. >No one else was meant to hear them.
  4842.  
  4843. >You sigh and once again release your grip.
  4844.  
  4845. >She looks at you, making not a sound despite her freedom.
  4846. >You concede.
  4847.  
  4848. "Fine."
  4849.  
  4850. >"They blackmailed me."
  4851.  
  4852. >Does she think you're stupid?
  4853. >You already see where this is going:
  4854. >Pity card, plea for freedom.
  4855. >It's exactly what you'd do in her position, her arrest all but inevatable now.
  4856. >You won't fall for it.
  4857.  
  4858. "You could have pressed charges. You could have avoided coming here to do this. It's too late even if I believed you."
  4859.  
  4860. >"You saw what I was doing. It would have made a mess, but nothing would have been badly damaged. They'd all see I tried to do my part, so I'd be safe, and Moondancer would just be... inconvenienced."
  4861.  
  4862. >You think on this.
  4863.  
  4864. "You had to get involved before they knew you well enough to blackmail you."
  4865.  
  4866. >"I j-just thought it would be a good way to meet other mares like me. Moms. I didn't know much about the politics. They're innocuous on the surface, aren't they? T-this is the first time they've been caught so bad... I think."
  4867.  
  4868. >You look at her as she talks.
  4869. >She's younger. Maybe Careful's age.
  4870. >You could believe -- maybe -- she really was just naive.
  4871. >But that doesn't mean you should let her go.
  4872. >Actions have consequences. Naivety-independent.
  4873.  
  4874. "You want to get off the hook. Fine. You gotta give me something more, though. I can't just take your word."
  4875. >She hesitates.
  4876. "I'm not letting you go, but maybe I can still help you. Could you name everyone else here tonight? Even if they, say, took you alone, separate from them? Prove this was premeditated, not just some ragtag group?"
  4877. >She nods.
  4878. "Well, they'll be here soon, and I can tell them you'll do that. That you didn't do any harm. Besides... well, I jumped you, so whatever. But give me something. You understand I can't trust you until you do."
  4879.  
  4880. >She starts to speak, hesitates, and closes her mouth.
  4881. >She's the picture of apprehension.
  4882. "What they blackmailed you for. Tell me. I won't tell a soul if you're not lying. I'm not some... vengeful person. But I've got nothing to trust you on. If it's THAT bad, that just makes it better collateral."
  4883.  
  4884. >She looks close to cracking. Maybe crying. Or puking.
  4885. "We have minutes. Maybe seconds. Out. With. It."
  4886.  
  4887. >"I-I'm... Honey Hive. Because I... my talent... job... is..."
  4888. "You beekeep. Sell honey."
  4889. >She nods.
  4890. >"Times were hard. Lost my swarm to a cold snap last year. I was out of inventory. My little foal and I were hungry. And... and I..."
  4891. >She stifles a sob.
  4892. >"I had nothing to sell but... except... I sold... mysel-"
  4893.  
  4894. >She's floating away from you.
  4895. >No.
  4896. >Wait.
  4897. >You're floating away from her.
  4898. >There's just no sensation of movement.
  4899. >Weird.
  4900. >Are you having a seizure or something?
  4901. >Hallucinating?
  4902. >And everything... it's tinted purple?
  4903.  
  4904. >That's when you see the unicorn you kicked into the glass-paneled bookshelf.
  4905. >She's on front of you.
  4906. >Also, below you.
  4907. >Her horn is glowing.
  4908. >This is probably bad.
  4909.  
  4910. >She's unsteady on her four legs.
  4911. >Her uniform's torn in places, she's bleeding from scratches here and there...
  4912. >But, other than that, she looks fine.
  4913. >Nothing broken.
  4914. >Nothing injured beyond salves, bandages, and bedrests.
  4915. >Ponies are more durable than you thought, you think, helplessly.
  4916.  
  4917. >She speaks:
  4918. >"Let's see. How. You. Like it."
  4919.  
  4920. >Again, there's no sensation of movement whatsoever, but the shop flips upside-down and backwards.
  4921. >Or, rather, you flip head-over-heels.
  4922. >Honey Hive is standing upside-down, on the ceiling.
  4923. >Or, rather, upright, on the... you get the idea.
  4924. >You thought she'd look smug. Satisfied.
  4925. >After all, she successfully distracted you with her bullshit until her friend came around.
  4926.  
  4927. >She looks horrified.
  4928.  
  4929. >She stares helplessly into your eyes, like she was drowning and someone threw her a raft, only to sink it with an arrow.
  4930.  
  4931. >She starts getting smaller.
  4932. >And smaller.
  4933. >The injured unicorn zips past you above - er, below - your head, even though she's standing in place.
  4934. >The room spins slowly around you until you see the shattered wreck of the glass-paneled bookshelf.
  4935. >It rushes towards you.
  4936.  
  4937. >...
  4938.  
  4939. >The impact startles you awake.
  4940. >Damn. That was serious, as far as dreams go.
  4941. >Usually when you dream about danger it's something ridiculous, like a monkey chasing you with a knife.
  4942. >Hell, you'd pay to meet a real monkey with a knife.
  4943.  
  4944. >This one, though, felt real.
  4945. >It felt so real the feelings you had in it linger in your head.
  4946. >Better sit up, get some water, and banish them from your head.
  4947. >A few minutes awake will clear them out.
  4948. >You take a deep breath, open your eyes, and crawl out of bed, being careful not to wake a snoozing Safety First.
  4949. >Wouldn't be polite, what, with her taking the first shift to guard Over the Moon.
  4950. >Even if she did keep you up for a while with platonic pillow-talk.
  4951.  
  4952. >You look down on the bed to see her and Moonie sadly separated.
  4953. >She's not completely covered with the ragged yet comfy old quilt Moondancer has adorned the thing with.
  4954. >Without your body heat, she shivers pathetically.
  4955. >This is as a log settles in the woodstove, still crackling audibly, no less.
  4956. >You sigh and flip the quilt down, exposing both the ponies to the "night air."
  4957. >Moondancer, by some fluke, is positioned with her head pressed into her pillow and her rear sticking up, snoozing soundly.
  4958. >You flip her tail off her back to cover her decency, pick her up, and plop her closer to the center of the mattress.
  4959. >You do the same with Safe.
  4960. >Like magnets, they instinctively flip over and latch onto each other in their sleep.
  4961. >The pony urge to cuddle must operate on some subconscious neurological circuit.
  4962. >You re-cover them with the quilt and head out to the main area of Over the Moon.
  4963.  
  4964. >It's pitch-black out here. Dead of night.
  4965. >As your eyes adjust, though, you see Careful, standing guard at the entrance.
  4966. >She hears you enter, of course.
  4967. >"You with me, Anon?" she asks.
  4968. "Yep. Bad dreams."
  4969. >"I'm sorry. You're okay now."
  4970. >You pop into the kitchen and come back out with your cup of water.
  4971. >"Can you stay with me, Anon?"
  4972. >What, at this time?
  4973. >She's on duty, and you're exhausted.
  4974. "I'm tired. Gonna get my zees."
  4975. >"You can't do that, Anon. You need to stay awake. Stay with me."
  4976. "I'm too tired, Careful. Sorry. G'night."
  4977. >"No, Anon..."
  4978.  
  4979. >She doesn't sound too displeased, you think, as you shut the bedroom door behind you.
  4980. >Whatever she wants to talk about, it can wait until morning.
  4981. >Speaking of which...
  4982. >...
  4983. >Speaking of which, what?
  4984. >You can't think of what.
  4985. >It's troubling you as you lie back down, pull the quilt over you, grab an armful of Safe and Moonie, and try to go back to sleep.
  4986. >You hear Careful's hoofsteps approaching the bedroom door.
  4987. >Then it hits you.
  4988.  
  4989. >It's pitch black tonight.
  4990.  
  4991. >When you went to sleep with Safe, earlier, it was just beginning to brighten.
  4992.  
  4993. >"... Anon!" says Careful.
  4994.  
  4995. >You wake up.
  4996.  
  4997. >It's Careful.
  4998. >She's still in uniform except for a single lock of her mane hanging free.
  4999. >It's brushing against your face.
  5000. >You must be on the floor, then.
  5001.  
  5002. >"Stay with me this time," she adds.
  5003. "... right."
  5004. >"You're... you're going to be okay."
  5005.  
  5006. >That's right.
  5007. >You were flung into an antique bookcase.
  5008. >That must not have been part of your dream.
  5009. >That was real.
  5010. >The last thing you actually remember was that unicorn picking you up.
  5011. >In context, it had been pretty clear what was about to happen.
  5012. >You must have been knocked out.
  5013. >Hence the dreaming.
  5014.  
  5015. >There's something wrong with Careful's face.
  5016. >No, that means, like, she's ugly, or something.
  5017. >You can't think clearly.
  5018. >What's the temporary face-state... thing?
  5019. >...
  5020. >Like, the shape you turn your face into.
  5021. >To say things. Without speaking.
  5022. >That looks wrong on her right now.
  5023. >She's still in "guard mode," but there's something wrong.
  5024. >Like she's forcing that expression on to conceal something else.
  5025. >You can see it in her eyes.
  5026. >She's quavering.
  5027. >Scared.
  5028.  
  5029. >"The paramedics are nearly here. They'll take care of you. Y-you'll be fine."
  5030. "Okay."
  5031.  
  5032. >Her stammer's barely audible, but it was there.
  5033. >Are you fucked up or something? You feel fine.
  5034. >You don't really feel like moving around, though.
  5035. >Let the paramedics ferry you around on a stretcher once they get here. That sounds good.
  5036.  
  5037. >You shift your attention to your surroundings.
  5038. >Those besides Careful, namely.
  5039. >Over the Moon is a wreck, but the fight's over.
  5040. >A bunch of unicorn guards are here.
  5041. >They have special uniforms. You think they're a kind of SWAT squad.
  5042. >They're leading one cuffed ninja out after another.
  5043. >One, they have to float out.
  5044. >There's a massive bruise over half of her face and she is thoroughly unconscious.
  5045. >You recognize it as the unicorn who threw you.
  5046. >Behind her, a guard leads another ninja, unmasked and uninjured.
  5047. >Her coat's a dandelion-yellow, and her mane hangs down in a cascade of black curls.
  5048. >It's Honey Hive, you realize.
  5049. >You hadn't gotten such a good look at her in the dark.
  5050. >It's much lighter in here, now.
  5051. >You wonder how much time elapsed while you were unconscious.
  5052. "She was nice."
  5053. >You can't remember why you wanted to say that, but you believe you agreed to do something for her.
  5054. "Be nice to her."
  5055. >That'll have to do for now.
  5056. >The guard escorting her appears to briefly acknowledge you, though not without a  measure of confusion.
  5057.  
  5058. >"I," starts Honey, as she passes by.
  5059. >As she looks your way, she blanches.
  5060. >"-oh, I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry. Oh no... I... oh," she says, helplessly.
  5061. >She seems distressed. You feel bad.
  5062. "Don't feel bad."
  5063. >"... oh. Okay! I... oh, get better!" she says, rushing to finish her thought as her escort shoves her onwards.
  5064.  
  5065. >"You made a friend?" observes Careful.
  5066. "Yeah. Can't remember why."
  5067. >She chuckles.
  5068. >That's something. A chuckle.
  5069. >It makes you feel better than the severe way she was talking just before this.
  5070. >Like there was something REALLY wrong with you.
  5071. >"Of course you did," she says, continuing to laugh.
  5072. >She can't stop laughing.
  5073. >Tears roll down her face.
  5074.  
  5075. >Someone pulls her back.
  5076. >"Careful. They're here, Careful. They'll take care of him. They... wanna take a look at us, too, Careful. And Moondancer. Symptoms of shock. You and her."
  5077. >It's Safe's voice, you think.
  5078. >She usually speaks in longer sentences.
  5079. >She's so terse now.
  5080. >This must be what she sounds like when she's really serious.
  5081. >It makes you chuckle as the paramedics magic you onto a stretcher.
  5082. >You keep chuckling to yourself as you're carted out to a covered ambulance-cart.
  5083. >Something's off, though.
  5084. >You feel funny.
  5085. >You think you haven't had feeling in your limbs, but they're starting to tingle, like something's coming back.
  5086. >They're tingling more and more.
  5087. >You stop chuckling when you realize the feeling coming back is pain.
  5088.  
  5089. >...
  5090.  
  5091. >They sedated you as soon as you started groaning from the pain.
  5092. >It put you to sleep immediately.
  5093. >The last thing you saw was Moondancer, sitting still at the entrance and overlooking her shop, ignorant or unaware of the lingering commotion.
  5094.  
  5095. >Next thing you remember is being wheeled into surgery.
  5096. >If you were in your right mind, you'd have been concerned, as none of the doctors could ever have operated on a human before.
  5097. >But you were concussed and stoned out of your mind on painkillers.
  5098. >It seems to have turned out fine, or else... well.
  5099.  
  5100. >You woke up a few minutes ago in this hospital room.
  5101. >It's the early afternoon now.
  5102. >You've spent your time awake examining yourself.
  5103. >Your left arm is in a cast and sling, first of all.
  5104. >You have limited range of motion in your fingers, and none whatsoever in your elbow or wrist.
  5105. >Must have been bad for them to splint it like that.
  5106. >At least you can move it at the shoulder, which isn't broken but still is sore as hell.
  5107.  
  5108. >The rest of you is mobile, but not much better off.
  5109. >You've counted stitches in a dozen places, and those are only the ones you can see.
  5110. >It hurts too much to twist around and look, but you're pretty sure there are more in your ass and thigh, left side. Must have been the primary region of impact.
  5111.  
  5112. >Many more superficial abrasions and lacerations on your arms, legs, chest, and back have been treated with a salve.
  5113. >Your neck, mercifully, seems to be okay, but your head aches terribly.
  5114.  
  5115. >It's quiet in here.
  5116. >Incredibly so.
  5117. >No sounds from outside the door.
  5118. >Either it's well-insulated, or it's an otherwise quiet day in the hospital.
  5119. >You wish there were at least some noise. Some hustle and bustle to listen to other than the ringing in your ears.
  5120.  
  5121. >You pour yourself a glass of water from a pitcher left to the side of your bed.
  5122. >It's not very cool, but you're parched.
  5123. >You sip at it and contemplate your situation.
  5124. >For the first time in a while, you feel lonely.
  5125. >Your family's not here, you think, not for the first time. They never will be.
  5126. >There was no one to tell them your medical information, make decisions or sign things on your behalf when you went into surgery.
  5127. >There was no one here waiting while you were unconscious, in case anything else went wrong.
  5128. >There was-
  5129.  
  5130. >A pegasus pony you don't recognize enters through the door.
  5131. >"You're awake," she observes.
  5132.  
  5133. >Who...?
  5134. >Wait.
  5135. >You know that voice.
  5136.  
  5137. >It's Safety First.
  5138. >You've just never seen her in the light without her armor and goggles.
  5139. >Not that unusual, considering you've known her less than twenty-four hours, but still.
  5140.  
  5141. >"Are you well?"
  5142. "I think so."
  5143. >The words come out as a dry croak. You take another sip of water.
  5144. "Good."
  5145. >She puts on the same smile she tried last night: the one that looks like she must practice in a mirror, that she has to consciously remind herself to put on in situations like these.
  5146. >You're flattered.
  5147.  
  5148. >She sits down in a chair besides your bed, content to wait in silence, it seems.
  5149. >Works for you. It kind of hurt to talk, anyway.
  5150. >You take the opportunity to look her over.
  5151. >You've never seen her like this in the light, after all.
  5152. >Her coat's not so much a solid blue as a white-blue, like glacial ice.
  5153. >Her mane, like some ponies', is two-colored: mostly a dark, near-navy blue, but with a wide streak of brighter blue, like freshly-picked blueberries.
  5154. >Without her helmet on, it falls to shoulder-length.
  5155. >The brighter-blue portion and some of the navy covers her left eye, and part of her face with it.
  5156. >If you didn't know her, you'd mistake her as shy for choosing the style.
  5157. >For all you know, of course, she could be around everyone but you and Careful, given her awkward disposition.
  5158. >You wonder: would she have been so forward with you if anyone else had introduced her?
  5159. >But you digress. Her cutie mark, you finally notice, appears to be a cross-section of a brass pin-and-tumbler lock.
  5160. >A similarity strikes you between her and Careful.
  5161. >'... SAFEty First.'
  5162.  
  5163. "Is your dad a locksmith?"
  5164. >You ask it seemingly out of nowhere, but Safe doesn't hesitate at all in replying.
  5165. >"Yes. My mom, too. I learned all about it at a very early age. I got my cutie mark when I picked my five-hundredth lock. They were disappointed when I turned out to be interested in different facets of public security."
  5166. >One other question nags at your mind.
  5167. "Where's Careful?"
  5168.  
  5169. >Safe leans in close to you, looking at you oddly intently.
  5170. >"She is debriefing our commanding officer. On last night's occurences."
  5171. >She studies your face as you react.
  5172. >You think... she's trying to lie?
  5173. >Well, okay.
  5174. >'A' for effort.
  5175. >You nod.
  5176. "I understand. She must be busy."
  5177.  
  5178. >Safe smiles and sits back down, satisfied from your reaction that she successfully relayed the narrative somepony must have given her. Maybe Careful?
  5179. >You guess you really do understand, but you also worry a little. Why else wouldn't she be here?
  5180. >You can't stop your concern from showing, but you don't want to disappoint Safe.
  5181. >With all else that's been fucked up today, she doesn't need to know she can't lie worth a damn, too.
  5182. >That would be like a Maraschino cherry on top of this fucked-up day, you feel.
  5183. >Come on, Anon.
  5184. >Find a way not to ruin this last pony's day.
  5185.  
  5186. "I'm not feeling too well, Safe."
  5187. >Technically the truth. Good start.
  5188. >"Oh. Shall I get a bucket?"
  5189. >Stupid cute pony.
  5190. "Not like that. I... I just need a hug."
  5191. >"Okay! That's easier. And there's less risk of splashing."
  5192. >She flutters to the side of your bed and wriggles under your right arm.
  5193. >You suspect she'd perch on you again, like when she met you, if your medical circumstances did not prohibit it.
  5194. >"Is this good?"
  5195. "This is good."
  5196. >It is.
  5197. >You sit with Safe, taking calm pleasure in the fact that, for at least one pony, you've prevented today from going completely to hell.
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