Ah, solitude. It was a surprisingly easy thing to find in Canterlot, even in the middle of a crowd. Sat as he was outside of Graze, Sketchy found it easy to focus on his internal musings as the world passed him by in a meaningless hubbub of background chatter and the clopping of hooves. It was very freeing to the mind, having the means to distract your senses and let your thoughts roam; and indeed, for an artist seeking something of a muse, distraction and free thought were helpful.
It had been two years now since that sodden evening when he’d arrived on the doorstep of this very establishment, seeking a night’s warmth and shelter and the familiarity of friends. Since then, life had been very much ordinary: he’d settled into his new home in the tower apartment in one corner of the Old Chapel, albeit with some initial teething troubles. The apartment, it had transpired, was not cheap to rent without reason - as he’d discovered during what he would later term his own personal winter of discontent during his first year of residence. The freezing northern gusts blew relentlessly against the exposed tower and, with it being a somewhat ancient building made of stone, heating it reliably under such conditions had proved nigh-on impossible. Rather, it was a simpler matter to just try to keep oneself warm instead; a feat he’d accomplished primarily by making sure the flat had a large supply of quilts and blankets available.
Still, the very thing that made the apartment a freezing tomb during the winter also made it a cool oasis during the warmer parts of the year - a fact he’d been quite grateful of during the summer following his arrival. Perhaps due to her elation at the return of her long-lost younger sibling, Princess Celestia had taken it upon herself to bless the inhabitants of Equestria with a rather long and sweltering summer. Having spent so many years in the far flung and considerably colder Shetland region, he’d been ill-prepared for such an onslaught of heat - and, hence, the apartment had provided a delightful refuge from the otherwise welcome summer sun. Indeed, the summer heat had been a factor in him running into one of his only other friends living in Canterlot. He smiled to himself as he cast his mind back to the day, two summers ago.
It had been an exceptionally hot day, and he’d been out enjoying the sunshine whilst simultaneously mentally cursing the overwhelming heat it brought. He’d found himself standing around near the edge of the grand plaza overlooking the moutainside, admiring the water cascading into one of the city’s reservoirs some distance below. A near-by bench made for an inviting perch, and he trotted over to it, clambering upon it and settling down into a comfortable slouch. He lay there for some time, idly watching the world go by... and, slowly, feeling his consciousness fade from the heat. He hadn’t the will to fight it off, and his head sank down between his front hooves as he dozed off.
BOOM! A loud clap of thunder stirred him from his sleep. He sat up, shivering, rain soaking his coat. What time is it!? he thought in a panic, noting the lack of light. He stumbled off the bench, disorientated. Around him was almost sheer darkness, the sky a sheet of angry black clouds and his vision blurred by torrential rain. The stone pavement was slippery under his hooves, and offered little in the way of steady footing. He stumbled forward through the darkness, his mind still trying to catch up with his body.
It was then, as he stumbled forward, that he suddenly felt nothing but thin air under his hooves.
He pitched forward over the edge of the plateau, tumbling through the cold air. An incoherent scream of fear erupted from his throat as he fell, flailing for something to catch on to. Nothing met his grasp, and suddenly he crashed into something; a cold but forgiving surface that gave way under his weight. Water! He was thrown into a greater panic as he sank under the surface, flailing his limbs and trying not waste what air had still been in his lungs. A powerful current was sweeping him on, and a deep feeling of dread welled up in him as his memory finally caught up to where he was. He must have fallen into the reservoir, the edge of which had a magnificent and majestic cascade of water flowing out and down toward the river... a few hundred feet below. He desperately began to try fighting the current but, strong as he was, nature was stronger. He could hear the roar of the water flowing over the edge as he was swept along, between bouts of sinking briefly and re-surfacing as he was buffeted by the water’s flow. He closed his eyes tightly, fearing the end that was to come.
What happened next would stay with him forever.
He heard a swoosh overhead, as something swifter than the current rocketed past, and then suddenly he felt the air above him ripple. Something powered through the water, scooping him up with astounding strength. He felt cold metal under his limbs and freezing air blowing through his coat. Daring to squint open an eye, he gasped in surprise. He was being hold aloft under a pristine white coloured pegasus, clad in golden armour. A Royal Guard! Never had he expected to be so glad to see one of the normally stoic and stern-faced pegasi up close like this. He coughed and choked a bit as he was swiftly carried to safety, hanging a few feet over the surface of the pool below. The pegasus carrying him flew round behind the curtain of water falling from above, and into a small cavern behind. Torches lit the walls of this cavern, which he could dimly see stretched back a ways into the cliff face and had been artificially augmented into a passageway leading upwards. His saviour deposited him slightly unceremoniously on the ground and then alighted with a soft click of armoured hooves on the stone floor before him.
“Are you alive?” came the stern inquiry in a voice that scythed through the air with an icy chill. It made him shiver a little to hear it, but he sat up slowly, coughing and spluttering some water out of his lungs.
“Ugh... yeah... yeah, I’m alive. I’ll... I’ll live I think.” he replied, lifting his head to look at the guard as his eyes worked to re-focus in the better lit conditions. He saw a set of pale blue eyes dead set in a stern gaze looking back at him. He shook his head instinctively, spraying water off his mane. The guard barely even flinched.
“You’re extremely lucky I was here.” the guard continued. Sketchy squinted slightly. The guard’s voice sounded a bit young and high-pitched for an adult pegasus... which could only mean one of two things.
“I am. Ah, thank you... ma’am...?” he replied, hoping he hadn’t just trodden on a young guard’s hooves. He was relieved to see no hint of offence on the guard’s face - which, he then thought, meant either this guard was indeed a mare, or was used to having his gender mistaken.
“You’re welcome.” she replied. The lack of any correction reassured the earth pony that yes, she was indeed female. “Just doing my job.” she continued in a slightly gruff manner, looking him over with a slight frown. “Can you stand? Walk, even?” she asked of him.
He slowly pulled himself up to his hooves, a little unsteadily. “...looks like it.” he replied, his teeth chattering a bit.
“Alright, then follow me upstairs.” the pegasus replied in a commanding tone, flaring her wings as she turned and marched along the passageway. She turned and headed up a set of shallow-cut stairs which wound their way upward. Sketchy followed her, shivering all the way and feeling a trifle sorry for himself. His pitiful mood wasn’t helped much by the fact that every so often the white pegasus kept glancing back over her shoulder at him with an irritated look, as though he’d done something to personally offend her.
At the top of the stairs, he was led into a small office off the side of the passageway. Inside there was a large fireplace which his pegasus companion was now building a fire in, stoking the flames with gentle gusts from her wings every now and again.
“Sit yourself down and warm up. I’ll get you a towel.” she ordered, marching out of the room. He did as he was told, the thought striking him that perhaps, in spite of this guard’s gruff manner, she at least had a caring side. There had been the faintest undertone of concern in her voice when she’d issued that last command. He decided it best not to worry her, as she was clearly only trying to do her job, and his presence was an unneeded distraction from... well, whatever it was she did here. He huddled close to the fire, hearing the clanking footfalls of the pegasus returning behind him. A big, fluffy white towel was draped over him from behind.
“There. Dry yourself off a bit before you die of pneumonia.” she told him, walking round to one side of him to tend the fire. Only now did he have enough of his sense about him to notice something a little odd about the guard: her tail wasn’t cut in the same sort of regulation military style as most guards he’d seen, but was instead a touch longer and of a somewhat puffier style. Colour-wise, it matched the shade of her eyes, throwing it into stark contrast with her snowy white coat. He also noted that she was of quite a formidable build, standing taller than most mares he’d ever met; though nevertheless not as tall as himself. With that said he could see quite easily that she had a more muscular frame than he did, and for that he was grateful. Without it, he wouldn’t be sitting here now looking at her, after all.
The pegasus turned to look at his slightly spaced out expression, and arched an eyebrow.
“Hey, you alright? Stay with me here.” she said, clicking her tongue a few times to get his attention. He shook his head slightly and nodded attentively.
“Sorry, sorry. Still a bit out of it... I’ll be fine, promise.”
“You’d better.” she replied. “I don’t want to have to deal with flying your sorry butt to the hospital or anything like that. Here, let’s keep your mind active, check that you didn’t damage your memory. What’s your name?”
“My name?” he repeated, blinking. “It’s Sketchy Sounds.” he said with a smile. He had been about to continue on to ask the guard her name, but he was cut short by her gasping in shock, with a sudden huge grin plastering itself across her face.
“Oh my gosh! It is you!” she said, her tone all of a sudden melodious and happy. Sketchy couldn’t decide whether this was more frightening than her being gruff or not, but had little time to ponder it as the guard jerked her head to the side, sending her helmet flying off. The very moment she did so, he instantly recognised the face beneath.
There was only one pegasus he knew, after all, with a pure white coat and ice blue mane, tail and eyes, and especially a mane that poofed out in all directions like this mare’s did.
“The one and only! Celestia save us, how long has it been, you scally-wag?” she grinned, tackling him to the floor in a hug.
“Ack! Ease up, Freezy! I’m half dead and you’re built like a tank!” he complained half seriously, shoving her off in a playful manner. She chuckled back at him slightly sheepishly at that.
“Sorry dude. Forgot where I was for a moment.” she replied, grinning as she picked herself up. “And technically speaking, I still oughta be giving you the cold shoulder. I’m a Royal Guard on duty after all, we ain’t supposed to display much if any emotion, so’s we blend into the background.”
The earth pony nodded his head at that. “I’ve noticed. Most of you are pretty good--hang on though, when did you get into the Guard in the first place? I mean, last time I saw you, you were about to try again for, what, the third time? And I know there’s no way you were built like you are now.” he added, noting again how much his pegasus friend had changed since the last time he’d seen her. She was definitely no longer the slender-limbed filly he remembered from his foalhood; indeed, now she stood as a fine example of a soldier in her prime. Her limbs were toned and firm, her posture proud and alert. Clad in the golden armour of Celestia’s finest, save for her head at this moment, she reflected all the qualities expected of the Guard - save for the fact that at this moment she was grinning like an idiot.
“Well, Sketchy, I failed on that attempt. And the attempt after. It was then that I sat down to have a serious think about my career prospects, and what I was gonna do with myself. I knew I wanted to be in the Guard - so I decided that, seeing as it was the rigorous physical test that I kept on missing the bar by just an inch or two on, I’d have to toughen up.”
Sketchy nodded. The story didn’t surprise him - if there was one thing he knew Freeze Pop well for, it was her tenacity. “Go on.”
“Well, the best way I found for that was to step up my working out. Like, really step it up. So, I started making long-haul flights every day, towards the north. The further and higher you go, the colder and thinner the air gets. So your body has to start working harder just to keep going. I tell you dude, it was hard core. I almost died a few times when I started out - only cos I pushed too hard too fast, though... when I learned what I could and couldn’t endure, I was able to really push myself to the limit.”
“Sounds just like you, Freeze. Glad to see time hasn’t changed you for the worse.” he grinned. His friend laughed at that.
“As if it could. You know me, Sketchy. Cool as ice, soft as snow, tough as a glacier: and that’s how I roll!”
Sketchy rolled his eyes at that, laughing. “You still have that daft chant stuck in your head?”
“Call it what you want bud,” she replied, smirking slightly, “daft as it might be, one of us is a Royal Guard and hence has achieved a lifelong dream.”
That sobering thought brought him back down to the ground with a bit of a bump. He nodded sombrely. “True. You have, and I’m honestly delighted to see it... I wish I could say the same thing for myself.”
Freeze Pop’s expression softened at that, and she laid a reassuring hoof on her friend’s shoulder. “Hey now. Don’t go getting all down on me. I’m pretty sure whatever grandiose dreams you’ve got floatin’ around in your head, they’re a little bit harder to accomplish than getting into the Guard. Not that this wasn’t difficult, mind, but it’s apples to oranges, y’know?”
Sketchy tilted his head slightly at that. “Not sure I follow you, Freeze.”
“What I’m saying is, don’t go beating yourself up just because you haven’t got your name in lights or written across the sky. If there’s one thing I learned from my past experiences, it’s that you can’t rush things. I wasn’t allowed into the Guards til I was good and ready - and heck, after all the training I did, word actually got around about my exploits and they came looking for me. They remembered me from beforehand and essentially insisted I try again. So I did, and I aced the physical. It was pretty smooth sailing from then, as they say.”
“Ahh, I see.” he nodded, smiling broadly once more. “It’s not the end of the world just because I’m not famous and all.”
“Exactly right.” his pegasus friend agreed, pulling her helmet back on. Sketchy wasn’t entirely sure how it was that she got her mane to all fit under it, but get it to fit she did, as it tucked neatly under the golden headpiece. “Now then.” she went on. “If you’re dry, you should head home. The storm’ll be stopping in about five minutes or so. You should have no trouble finding your way.”
Sketchy bowed his head briefly in thanks, rising to his feet. “Thanks, Freeze... for everything, I mean. It’s good to be back.”
“Aha? So you’re sticking around in Canterlot?” she replied, sounding somewhat happy to hear it.
“I am, yeah. I’m living on the top floor of the Old Chapel on Beech Grove.”
“Oh, nice. Well then, I’ll be sure to come and knock on your window some time and scare the heck out of ya!” the white pegasus replied cheekily. Sketchy just rolled his eyes, chuckling.
“Knowing you, I don’t doubt it. I’ll look forward to it. Catch you later, Freeze!”
His mind returned to the present day as a clatter of crockery on his table alerted him to the presence of his rosy-coated unicorn friend . She smiled to him as she levitated his empty plate and cup off the table.
“Bit for your thoughts, Sketchy?” she said with a smile as she deftly whipped a cloth across the table’s surface, giving it a brief wipe down.
“Oh, nothing in particular. I was just thinking back to when Freezy pulled me out of the reservoir a year or so ago. Remember, when Celestia gave us that real hot summer?”
“Ah yes, I remember that alright.” Salad replied, her tone formal and refined as was usually the case when she was working around customers. “That was quite the scare when I heard of it. I was relieved to hear you were alright.”
“Yeah. Still, it was awesome to see her again after all that time - and I’d probably never have found the way down to that reservoir on my own.”
Salad nodded. “And she’s been letting you in to look around and practice every so often, as I recall, hasn’t she?”
“Yeah. Real nice of her to do so, there aren’t many places with good acoustics like that - well, not that I can get into, anyway.” he said, the latter part coming out with a sigh.
Salad knew that look, or rather, that look and that sigh. While she knew that her friend would quite likely thoroughly enjoy the use of some of the more refined establishments where music was practiced, she also knew he had an ulterior motive for wanting to be in such a place. It was a motive whose seeds were sown years ago, when the two were still going through school, but had only budded and bloomed visibly in more recent times.
“Well, I believe I know upon whom your mind is dwelling.” she said in a teasing tone. The subsequent flush that lit up her friend’s cheeks told her she was right on the mark. “I can’t say I blame you, though. She is quite the musician, after all. It makes sense that you’d be drawn to her.”
Her earth pony friend smiled sheepishly. “She’s more than just a talented musician.” he replied. “She’s pretty as well. And classy. Refined. Every part a professional. And, everything I’m not.” he finished glumly. Salad’s clicking tongue cut off any further wallowing.
“Now now, don’t you go saying that. You’re an artist in your own right, and you’re good at what you do. And besides, what has talent got to do with it anyway? I mean, Ah deal with all kinds of ponies day in and day out, rich and poor, famous and nobodies. They’re not really all that different on the inside. ‘s just that most folks only ever see the outside.” she said, her chiding briefly making her refined tones drop slightly.
Sketchy nodded thoughtfully, his face slowly creasing back into a smile from the frown it had dropped in to. “You’re right, Sally. Heck, she’s probably not that different from you or me, really.” he said happily, getting up from his seat. “Thanks for that. I think I’ve found some inspiration there today.”
“Always a pleasure, Sketchy.” she smiled at him. “On you go then, and don’t waste it!”
He nodded to her briefly and set off down the street at a swift trot.
Salad, meanwhile, returned to her post behind the counter at Graze once she was done wiping down the table her friend had occupied. The bell over the door tinkled softly as it was pushed open, and she looked up with her usual friendly smile at the incoming customer. Her expression became more openly delighted to see that the customer was one of the newer regulars of the establishment, and somepony whose visits she’d grown accustomed to and fond of.
“Good afternoon, Miss Octavia!” she called cheerily. “I was just talking about you!”