After a bit of meandering, Joy and I approached a large oak tree overlooking a broad valley. I cast a glance at Joy, our eyes met, and the site was decided upon. In the shade of the ancient tree, we carefully unload the contents of our assorted bags, and took a moment to revel in the feeling of freedom as we laid down our burden.
From the depths of one of the various bags, Joy extracted a rather large red and white checkered blanket. With a flourish of magic, she spread the sheet out on the ground and somehow enticed it to lie down perfectly flat.
Not even a wrinkle.
I took a moment to lament that never, in this life or any other, will I possess the skills to do such a thing.
Dang unicorns and their cheating magic...
I couldn't even try to remain bitter as the feast was laid out before us. In lieu of what most would consider "traditional" picnic fare, we had settled for sandwiches and a variety of hoof foods. This way, we didn't need any utensils to eat with (a feat I had yet to attempt and was loathe to try) and needed no special preparation for consumption. My mouth began to water as I gazed out onto the feast that was laid out before us. Joy and I took our respective positions on either side of the blanket, and with a consenting nod we both began to eat.
And by "began to eat" I mean she stared on in awe and revulsion as my sandwich disappeared with a swiftness that even Pinkie would approve of. No, this was not a supernatural ability I had acquired since landing in Equestria. It was a skill I gained in basic and had honed through years of practice. As I was absentmindedly rubbing my contented stomach, I happened to catch a glance at the mare sitting across from me. Luckily, she was outside of the "splash zone" and was thus untouched by flying condiments and the like. This however did nothing to change her expression from that of intrigued disgust…not unlike one who was watching a particularly gnarly bug crawling on a branch.
Wiping my mouth with the back of my hoof, I raised one eyebrow inquisitively. Closing her mouth and shaking her head to get her thoughts back in order, she addressed me.
"Dave...did you even chew that?"
"Huh? Nah. Eat now, taste it later. In training, if you don't eat fast, you don't eat. I guess I was a bit hungrier than I thought..."
I swear, Joy could have made a killing as an impressionist. First, there was her incredible rendition of a tomato, and now she was pulling off an impeccable mimicry of a gold fish. Wide, vacant eyes; gaping mouth, opening and closing slowly; the way she just sat there, unmoving...spot on, let me tell you.
She shook her head again, apparently trying to shake the mental image out of her head. It seemed that she succeeded, for she was once again minding her sandwich. This suited me just fine, and I picked up an apple and bit into it absentmindedly. As the first splash of juice assaulted my palette, I froze instantly.
This...this cannot be real. There simply is no way anything could taste so…crisp, so delicious. It was overwhelming. Perhaps it can be attributed to my more sensitive pony-palette or perhaps the apple was truly this amazingly delectable. It mattered not; the experience was transcendent to say the least.
For the second time in as many minutes, I became aware of Joy staring at me. I was barely aware of this until she called out to me, rousing me from my food bliss.
"Dave? Why...why are you crying?"
"Whmph? Um numph cryinmph."
Dammit. Swallow, then talk. Why was this so difficult to remember?
Swallowing hard, I addressed the mare again.
"I said, I'm not crying. This is just...the best apple I've ever had. And I got something in my eye..."
Joy was unconvinced, but she let it slide. I continued to eat the apple in a dreamy silence. Every now and again, we would catch the other staring and smile slightly as we turned away. We passed a good while in this comfortable silence. Soon though, the sun had shifted and the shadow in which I had been sheltering eroded, leaving my position untenable. I stood up without a word and took my place next to Joy. We sat together in the shade, so close that our flanks were touching; neither of us minded. Soon, we began a game of trying to pick shapes out of the clouds as they drifted past.
From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a technicolor streak as it rapidly approached a cloud, before suddenly decelerating to land on the cottony surface with a surprising grace. I was going to remark on the sight, but Joy called out the shape of another cloud and I realized that I was the only one to have seen Dash. For a reason I couldn't define, this made the whole thing special, as if it was just between Dash and me.
As we discussed whether a cloud was shaped more like a filly or a colt, we somehow got onto the topic of baby names.
I was partial to James, but Joy said you can't pick these things out ahead of time. I disagreed...after all, you can't go wrong with a name like Hope, now can you?
Joy opened her mouth to reply, but she seemed unable to come up with a valid rebuttal. She closed her mouth and narrowed her eyes in an expression that seemed to say "Oh, you think you're so clever, don't you..." to which I simply smirked.
And right about then, it hit me. Perhaps it was the way the sunlight was filtering through the foliage, dappling her entire form in soft, ever-shifting patterns of sunlight. Her eyes sparkled in the soft light, and the breeze gently tousled her hair. This mare was simply gorgeous; there were no two ways about it. As I was simply awestruck by her beauty, I felt something stirring in my chest, a sensation I had not experienced in some time. This sensation frightened me on some level, as it indicated that my involvement in this whole experience was about to get far more complicated.
It struck home at that moment that I had forgone the notion that this was just a hallucination. I realized that I had actually let the notion fade away over the course of the day, but in the revelation of these feelings that I had only just let come to light had it really struck home. In admitting that I might feel any form of emotion towards the members of this "dream", I had on some level validated its reality.
I was jarred from my introspection by Joy calling my name.
I shook my head to clear it and focused on the mare who had addressed me.
"You didn't hear a word I said, did you."
"Not a one. What's up?"
"I said, 'it's getting late, we should head back now'."
I looked up, and indeed it had gotten a bit later in the day. The sun was working its way towards the horizon, and even without checking my watch I could tell that we had to get going if she was going to get to work on time. We packed up quickly and set off towards the house. The journey home was passed in nearly unremitting silence, though not an uncomfortable one. I was lost in thought, and Joy just seemed to be enjoying my presence.
Soon enough, we arrived back at Casa Redheart, whereupon Joy swiftly disappeared from my side. Her presence was betrayed by the sound of running water however, and I was pretty occupied trying to wrap my head around all that I was feeling. On some level, there was a distinct panic and discomfort at being stranded in this place, so far from everything I'd ever known. This however was far and away overwhelmed by these strange new feelings growing in my chest, the feelings of desire and longing.
I had almost forgotten what it was like to feel much of anything. Sure, this would be the perfect time to point out that I was married, had a wife and son, and should obviously have felt pretty strongly about them. To be fair, you are right, I should have. Whether or not I did feel something, and whether or not I felt it as strongly as I should have, is another matter entirely. A matter which would take entirely too much time and effort to properly convey the nuances of, and which will subsequently not be spoken about.
I felt as if I was emerging from a long sleep, rubbing my eyes in the glorious light of the new day; the dull dreams I had dreamt were being washed away in the light of the dawn. For me, Joy was the dawn. I was pretty sure she felt the same way about me, though likely not for the same reasons. In the end, she liked me and I liked her. I may not have dated for a good while, but I'm pretty sure that's how these things work.
The sounds of running water coming from upstairs ceased, snapping me out of my day dreaming. I took a seat on the couch and began to unpack the assorted debris that had accumulated in my bags. I had barely opened the first one and pulled out a book when Joy came around the corner. She regarded my activities with a wary eye for a moment before she addressed me.
"So Dave, you were looking for ways to help out, right?"
"Yeah. What do you have in mind?"
"Well, that depends. How much pride do you have?"
"Pride? What is this ‘pride’ of which thou speaketh? It sounds like one of those made up words, like ‘dignity’ or ‘shame’. I know not the meaning of these words."
Joy stared at me for a moment as she considered whether or not I was serious before shaking her head and carrying on.
"Well...alright then. I might be able to get you a job at the clinic as a janitor, as long as you don't mind...well, being a janitor."
"My dear, you are looking at it wrong. I would not be a lowly janitor. No, I would be an esteemed sanitation engineer. It's all in how you look at it. Plus, perhaps we could spend more time together this way."
Smooth, dude. Go ahead; show the nice mare how creepy and clingy you are. That bodes well for this whole deal.
Despite my initial fears of appearing too clingy, Joy veritably glowed as she contemplated spending more time with me.
Well... that went better than expected. I would have to try to contain my excitement though. After all, there was still no guarantee that I would get the job. Joy came up and gave me a hug before she left, reminding me to take my medication and to try not to break anything.
As I turned to walk away with my head held high in an imperious fashion as if to say "perish the thought" I bumped into the end table, sending the lamp on it careening towards the ground. A minty blue glow enveloped the device just before it smashed on the floor, levitating it back to its rightful place. My ears drooped as did my head, and I turned towards Joy and shot her a sheepish smile. Everything about her, from the way she stood with her head cocked to the side to the expression on her face seemed to scream "told you so". Instead of rubbing it in, she simply said
"Be careful, Dave. Alright?"
She rolled her eyes with a smile as she turned towards the door.
"Don't stay up too late. You should rest and give your injuries time to heal. I'll see you when my shift is over."
I teased her as she walked out the door. I took pride in the exasperated sigh I got from her as she closed the door behind her with a soft thud.
I had unconsciously followed her to the door, having become accustomed to shadowing her wherever she went in the day or so that I had been here.
In the wake of her absence, I suddenly felt quite alone. I think this was the first time since I had arrived that I was not in the immediate vicinity of at least one other pony, and it was a bit nerve wracking for the first few minutes. After my initial anxiety had worn away, I settled back down to the couch and began to unpack my saddlebags.
What the hell were these things made from?
I reached into one, and every time I did, there was something else to pull out. I was shoulder deep in this damned thing! Some sort of wormhole or quantum storage matrix...this was ridiculous. I filed that one away for things that future Dave would have to think about. Nevertheless, I soon had an immense pile of garbage and assorted detritus in front of me.
I ended up consigning most of it to the garbage, but I kept the things that seemed pertinent. Remembering the book that Joy had checked out for me earlier, I grabbed a pencil and a sheet of mostly blank paper and began to sketch out the town, referencing where I had been and what I remembered against the map in the book.
In short order, I had compiled all of my (insubstantial) knowledge into the map, finally getting a rough idea of the town's layout in my head. In Ponyville, there were a few landmarks that should be easy enough to pick out from damn near anywhere in the town.
By memorizing the relative position of the landmarks to each other and within the town itself, I could use the location of the two known points to figure out where I was at any given time. The process of determining your current location by using the position of two known points and their orientation relative to you is a concept known as resection, and it is pretty handy to know. Who says the army doesn't teach you anything useful?
I was just adding some finishing touches to the map when I heard the front door open and close softly. I looked at my watch and noted that it was only 17:30. Joy had only left an hour or so ago, she shouldn't be back so soon. Intrigued, I got off the couch to investigate the entryway. As I poked my head around the corner, I nearly collided with an alabaster mare and both of us froze in place for a moment; she, out of fright; myself, out of a desire not to spook her further.
After a moment of tense silence, she exhaled deeply, prompting me to do the same. She contemplated me calmly for a moment before she spoke up.
"You must be Dave. Joy told me to expect you."
"And you must forgive me; Joy did not tell me she had a sister."
My attempt at a lighthearted introduction fell flat on its face, as Nurse Redheart simply sighed. I held my smile for a moment longer before it became apparent that I was not going to receive one in return. Nurse Redheart allowed me to squirm in uncomfortable silence a moment longer.
"Well, she wasn't wrong about how sweet you are. Now, I'm sure you are aware of my daughter's... love life. Or perhaps more accurately, lack thereof."
At this, I could do nothing but look on in utter confusion and dread, silently hoping that this conversation was not about to go the way I thought it was. Nurse Redheart continued, her eyes the color of a glacier and every bit as cold and hard as one.
"I suspected as much. Heed my words, son. Joy is inexperienced in love in all of its forms. She is naive and entirely too trusting. She has never had a broken heart, and has no defense against one. I am all for her meeting somepony special and forming that once in a lifetime bond. However, know this: should it become apparent that you intentions are...less than wholesome...things will not end pleasantly for you. Do you understand?"
What could I do but shake my head dumbly? The conversation had gone just as I feared, though it did make a few things understandable. For instance, I know now why Joy was never approached by colts in her younger years...her mother was fucking SCARY. Note to self: do not piss this mare off. I quickly collected my wits (all four of them) and responded to the ultimatum.
"Miss Redheart, your daughter has been nothing less than a saint since my arrival. She has gone out of her way to show me around town, take care of my wounds, and make me feel as if I mattered again. I know you distrust my intentions, and I cannot blame you a bit. But I will say this. I give you my word that I will treat your daughter with the kindness and respect she deserves. I know my word holds no weight to you, but I shall prove myself in time. All I ask for is the time to do so."
Nurse Redheart contemplated me for another moment, almost as if she was sizing me up. After another tense silence, she spoke.
"In all these years, after all the colts that I've given that speech to...you are the only one who didn't babble like an idiot or run like a coward. I'm not sure if this is because I'm losing my touch, or if you are just made of tougher stuff. Either way, I'm impressed. Do not take my warning lightly, but consider this my blessing."
And just like that, I was alone again. Nurse Redheart went upstairs, her departure punctuated after a brief silence by the sound of running water from above. After standing around for a moment longer in the wake of the unexpected conversation, I headed back to the couch to finish my mapping project. Once the map was completed to the standard I wanted, I tried to read the rest of the guide. I say "tried" because my next recollection was of myself being prodded awake by Joy.
Rousing myself from the pool of drool that had accumulated under my head as I slept, I tried to figure out what exactly I was being woken for. Joy interrupted this terribly laborious process with a quick observation.
"Hey sleepyhead...if you drool on that book any more, Twilight is gonna make you buy it."
Wearily, I lifted my head from its resting place, a sheet of notes still stuck to the side of my face. I clumsily swatted at it, and ended up giving myself quite a thump. As I pressed a hoof to the injury and tried to rub the pain away, the offending paper fell away. Attempting to make some witty comeback or another, I ended up mumbling something that not even I understood.
Joy favored me with a tender look and told me to go to bed. At the mention of the bed, she cast a glance at it with a sigh. Using that wonderful cheating unicorn magic, she enveloped the entire bed in a light blue glow, and in a moment it had made itself. The last pillow had barely fallen into place before I stumbled over and flopped down upon it.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her giving me a dirty look for messing up her handiwork. I just smiled, a gesture that was soon overtaken by a yawn. The last thing I could recall was Joy tucking me in like a child, and leaning in to kiss me on the forehead. And just like that, everything faded to a comfortable blackness, like the arms of a loved one embracing you after a long time apart.
In the morning, I was roused once again, though this time it was due to the heavenly scent that permeated my nostrils. As if to punctuate the thought, the sound of utensils pierced the air, waking me further. I couldn't help myself. With a loud moan, I rolled out of bed.
All the way out.
Hearing the moan, followed by a loud thump, Joy peeked around the corner to make sure I was still alive. Seeing that I was not moving, she called out to me.
"Am I going to have to get the defibrillator?"
I grunted loudly, the limit of my linguistic capabilities so early in the morning. Apparently satisfied that I was not in fact dead, Joy returned to the kitchen and resumed her cacophonous preparations. It was entirely too early for my brain to be working properly, but even so, the mental picture of myself flopping around on the floor like a fish out of water was simultaneously funny as hell and something I'd rather not do. Summoning my strength and every ounce of willpower I had, I stood.
Well, I tried to, anyways. These traitorous limbs of mine were quite insubordinate as of late. Once I got them all back under my control, I was going to look into a general Courts Martial against them on charges of treason. I began to contemplate where I would find a lawyer (both for the prosecution and the defense) and how I would go about enacting any sort of punishment against the appendages. It was truly a sign of how tired I was that I didn't even pause to contemplate the idiocy of this train of thought...this is a perfectly acceptable practice, putting your own limbs on trial.
In lieu of any coordinated or graceful form of movement, I ended up propelling my body across the floor using the "Sweetie Belle" method, dragging my useless front limbs across the ground. In no time at all, I had locomoted myself into the kitchen, following the trail of amazing scent.
As I entered the kitchen, Joy simply stared at me as if I had a penis dangling from my forehead. This is actually an expression I use pretty frequently, mostly due to the reaction of the audience at which the simile is directed. More importantly, it conjures (in my mind, at least) an image of the perfect "what in the fuck?" expression.
And that is exactly the expression I was receiving from the cerulean mare at the moment: a perfect blend of shock and incomprehension, tinted with a little bit of "I'm surrounded by idiots". I am quite familiar with the expression...at least once per day at work I am confronted with such astounding idiocy that there is no other recourse. One of the pitfalls of being in the army, I suppose. But really...some of these people must have been fed a steady diet of paint chips as kids. At the risk of forgetting my point (which was what, again?) I have an anecdote for you.
Suppose for a moment that you are a civilian with no clue about security clearances and all that jazz.
Got it? Awesome.
Say, for the sake of argument, that you are placed in a job that has you dealing with just that: security clearances and so forth. The knowledge that there really are people placed in positions they know nothing about makes me cry a little inside...anyways, back to the anecdote.
Now, picture this: you are sitting at your desk just being awesome, when someone comes round the corner asking for you. You turn around, and immediately jump to your feet and stand at the position of attention, since the person who just walked up has so much rank it makes your head spin...this person is a Commanding Officer, in charge of hundreds of soldiers.
He/she tells you to relax, and take a seat. They just have a few questions and they will be on their way. Awesome...too easy. The first question is what their clearance status is. You pop it into the system, and lo and behold, they have a Top Secret clearance. Cool beans. And then, you have the following conversation with them:
Them: "So I have a Top Secret. When does that run out?"
You: *name off the date*
Them: "Alright. So, I'm going to (foreign country) tomorrow...is there anything you need from me before I go?"
You: "(foreign country)? Hmmm...So long as you have had your request cleared through (agency name), you should be covered."
Them: *repeats agency name* "Who're they?"
Stop (hammer time). Right here, with you knowing nothing about clearances, does it seem obvious that if you have one of the highest clearance levels in the United States Government, you might want to get clearance before traveling to a foreign country? Alright, at least I'm not alone.
What is frightening is that this person was IN CHARGE of other people. You look at them like they have suddenly sprouted incredibly well endowed male genitalia from their forehead. It would be career-ending to facepalm, so you do everything in your power to convey (respectfully) how wrong this person is.
Welcome to my hell.
While this anecdote is purposefully vague and possibly slightly modified, the core elements are the truth. Someone in a position of trust who wields significant power has absolutely no idea what they are doing.
Any who, back on track.
That penis-forehead-disbelief look is exactly the one I was receiving from Joy as I scooted my happy ass into the kitchen. Again, there she was, doing her goldfish impression. I believed she was contemplating whether or not I'd had a stroke. I decided to speak up and inform her that I lacked my usual muscular coordination due to the time of day and the fact that I had just awoken from a deep slumber.
"Meh...tired...too early...I can't...legs."
Her eye twitched in a very similar manner to the way it moved after I slobbered all over her forehead the day before. Yeah, that came out about as well as I had expected.
"You can't...legs. Legs?"
At this, she did a double take, though she didn't call me on it. Instead of questioning my odd method of locomotion, calling me funny names, or anything of the sort, she gave me a devious grin. Reaching for something on the counter, I half expected something either heavy or sticky to rain down upon me.
Instead, she grabbed a scrap of something yellow with her magic and waved it before me. Instantly, my vision swam and my mouth watered as the scent of whatever it was struck me, full force. I craned my neck to devour the delicious smelling thing, only to find it moved just beyond my reach. I scooted forward and attempted again, this time having my jaws close disappointingly around nothing as the scrap now dangled just over my nose. I reached up to try again, refusing to be bested by something that smelled so good. I lunged wildly and nearly caught it, only to have it jump out of my reach at the last instant.
And so it went, as I chased the morsel that was eternally just beyond my reach. With a last, surging lunge, I victoriously snatched the morsel from the air and reveled in the sweet taste of victory.
At least, I did until the sound of valiantly suppressed laughter pierced my early morning haze. Turning towards the sound, I noticed that Joy was nearly doubled over, one hoof over her mouth and the other on her gut. Even as I began to form a question as to why she was like that, the answer became quite clear. As she dangled the food in front of me, she had kept moving it just beyond my reach. And I, just like a cat, had followed it. By the time I realized it, it was already too late...I was standing on my back legs, using my front hooves to brace against the counter, and stretching my neck up as far as I could reach to try and grab the morsel.
As she saw me piece everything together, Joy lost control, laughing so hard she cried.
Well, looks like I can "legs" after all.
Once Joy calmed down enough to breathe normally again, she muttered something along the lines of "priceless" ; I grumbled under my breath.
"Friggin unicorns and their cheating magic..."
When she inquired as to what I said, I grumbled louder, asking what was for breakfast. She looked at me inquisitively for a moment before her features lit up in a bright grin as she replied with the most wonderful thing I'd heard all day.
As she replied, she nodded vigorously, obviously quite pleased with herself. Personally, I was attempting to piece my mind back together after it had exploded. No idea why I thought that ponies were strictly herbivores, but somehow I had accepted it as the truth despite any evidence. My mind was blown.
"Uh huh! I remember you saying that you grew up with griffins, so I figured you had been raised on a high-protein diet. If so, then it would mean that your body was acclimated to it, and to suddenly change your diet to one without as much protein could make you very sick. So to prevent that from happening, I'll be modifying your diet to reduce your protein intake gradually; that way your body has time to adjust."
Wow. It was a bit hard to wrap my fragmented head around all of the big words so early in the morning. On top of that, it struck me as incredibly sweet and more than a bit flattering that Joy had not only considered my well-being in such depth, but had also taken the time to implement a special diet to accommodate me. I felt my heart well a bit with an emotion I hadn’t felt in a good while...it was as if...as if I was falling.
That was when it first hit me.
An icy fist wrapped itself around my heart, squeezing every trace of warmth and happiness from it; my breath hitched in my throat, a feeling that was so strong it nearly strangled me; and my eyes burned as if I was back in the Gas Chamber in basic training. I must have swayed on my hooves or something of the sort, because quite suddenly my vision was dominated by a blurry blue form.
Joy was crouched in front of me, her eyes wide with panic as she tried desperately to coax a reaction from me. I could vaguely hear her calling my name, though it sounded as if she was trying to yell over the cacophonous roar of a raging river. Dimly, I realized that the roar of the river was the sound of the blood rushing in my ears. The glacial fist around my chest constricted further, slowing my heart to a pace so slow, I momentarily wondered if it stopped.
The guilt of feeling so strongly about a mare I had only just met, coupled with the immeasurable sense of loss I felt in the pit of my stomach whenever I thought of my wife and son, combined into a blackness that swept through me. The world around me simply ceased to be as the blackness consumed everything...I ceased to be, the blackness consumed me as well.
There is a reason you cannot willingly venture into your subconscious. I see now that it is a defense mechanism, to prevent you from stumbling into the abysmal grottoes where your darkest nature lay. I was miles away from everything. My heartbeat was an impossibly slow rhythm echoing from the blackness, and the only source of illumination in the entire damnable hell-scape was a single disk of light miles above. The skylight to hell dimly illuminated a circle about ten meters in diameter, in the center of which I stood in all of my human glory.
I didn’t even question where I was...there could be no other place. I was in the chasm in my mind into which I shoved the worst of my memories, the most base of urges, and anything else that I couldn’t handle in my life. The blackness around me seemed to fester with malignant shadows, each seemingly plotting its attack to pay retribution to the one that had condemned it to the abyss.
Ahead of me, a familiar form emerged from the darkness.
My wife looked exactly as she had the last time I had seen her, the tears still wet upon her face. In her arms, our son wailed in silence, the void stealing all sound from his lips. I nearly lost it...I was overcome by emotion, and I started towards my wife to hold her in my arms and tell her everything was going to be alright. To tell her that I loved her, and that I was going to come home to her.
I had not taken a single step towards my wife before a massive, clawed appendage swept from the darkness and stole her from the light. There was no scream, no cries for help, no sound at all. In an instant, there was nothing to say that she had ever been there at all. Nothing, that is, save for the splattered crimson drops on the ground she once stood upon.
I raised my hand to my mouth to keep myself from calling out to her, and that was when I noticed it.
My hands were covered in blood...blood that could only have been from one person.
I might not have been the brightest person of all, but I knew my own mind, dammit, and I knew exactly what this represented. That night I chose to come to Equestria...I had killed my old life. I had forsaken that life and all things in it for the chance to start over anew in Equestria. The beast in the darkness had not stolen her from me. By forsaking her, I had stolen myself from her.
With a terrible, shuddering finality, I was struck by an epiphany that carried the terrible weight of the truth, a crushing burden. There is no way back. For better or worse, Equestria is my home now.
The truth was bittersweet. I would never see my wife or son again. I would never have a chance to make up for the way I acted. My son would grow up without a father as I did, something I swore on my life would never come to pass. I would never see him off to his first day at school, never see him get married...The magnitude of all I had lost sat upon my shoulders; I had become Atlas.
And yet, the terrible weight was also a gift. I now knew the price I had paid; I knew what I had lost. Knowing that there was no way back was liberating in a terrible way. There is no use lamenting over that which you cannot change, and this is a principal upon which I have built my life. By shouldering the burden and accepting the ramifications of my actions, I would be able to move forward.
The thought of my wife and son still caused my gut to clench around a ball of ice and my breath to catch in my throat, but knowing that they were irrevocably removed from my life dulled the edge. I supposed it would always hurt to think of them. But if I had truly given up everything to come to this world, then I was going to make it worth the sacrifice. By Celestia’s Beard, I was going to live a life worthy of the price paid for it.
Even as I felt my resolve harden under the weight of my new-found appreciation for this life I had sold my soul for, the world around me began to quake.
Vaguely, I became aware of a familiar sound, though I could not place it to save my life. The disk of light above began to waver, elongating and distorting into unknowable shapes before shrinking back to begin again.
From the abyss, the sounds rose again. It was so familiar, so comforting, and yet so difficult to place, that it was nearly maddening. Despite the fact that I was a human standing on the floor of an abyss with nothing around me, I had the distinct sensation of being constricted gently, and of being rocked slightly. From the blackness came a gentle breeze, carrying on it a distinct smell...it smelled like...like...
Everything came together at once for me. The sound which echoed in the abyss mingled with the smell of mint on the breeze...and just like that, everything clicked into place. The sound...it was the sound of Joy’s melodious voice. The scent of mint on the wind was the scent of Joy’s favorite shampoo, the smell of her mane. The constriction around my chest assumed the familiar contours of a certain cerulean mare, though it was a much firmer hold than I was accustomed to from her.
As the pieces began to form a picture in my mind, the blackness surrounding me perceptibly lightened. The moment that I had an image of Joy flash through my mind, I felt myself being ripped from the floor of the chasm, as if a hook in my chest was being tugged with tremendous force. The disk of light above me rapidly swelled to fill the sky entirely. I passed through the ocean of light, feeling the slight tickle of the light playing across my skin for an instant, but an instant later the feeling had passed.
Have you ever been sitting in a chair, dozing off comfortably, when you have the sudden sensation of falling, followed by the sensation that you just dropped about a foot into the chair? This was like that, only worse. I fell back into my own body (for lack of a better way to describe it) with a jolt. Just like that, everything was crystal clear again.
The first thing I noted about my situation was that I was sitting on my haunches, much like a dog sits. Second thing was that Joy had her arms wrapped around me, locking me into an embrace that was a great deal more forceful than her usual hugs. The most disconcerting thing about the whole thing was Joy: she was sobbing heavily as she held onto me for dear life.
“Joy? Are you okay?”
Joy jerked back from me as if electrocuted, staring at me with puffy red eyes for a moment, as if she was searching for something. I raised a concerned eyebrow, and she reacted in an unusual manner.
For the record, being slapped across the face by a creature with hooves is a decidedly unpleasant experience. As I was still reeling from the blow, I remained rooted to the spot, my head still cocked to the side. Very slowly, I turned my head back to the front to face Joy. She was regarding me with a mixture of anger, relief, and deep concern. I ventured another attempt at non physical communication.
“Ow. Joy, why was that necessary?”
“You...you...no. Never...never do that...Dave...don’t leave me like that again.”
Ah...so that’s what this is about. How long was I gone?
“I’m sorry, Jo-”
“Stop. Right there. Not another word from you right now. Do you have ANY idea how scared I was? How badly you frightened me? One second you are chasing a bit of egg and mumbling things about breakfast, and the next you fall over like you were tackled by a Manticore. I rushed over to you to make sure you were okay, and you wouldn’t answer. You couldn’t even look at me. You were completely unresponsive, even to pain. Your eyes were open wide, and your pupils were pinpricks. I’ve never seen anypony with pupils like that, not even in the textbooks. Your heart was pounding so hard I thought you would have a heart attack, and you were having trouble breathing...Dave, I thought I was going to lose you. I...I don’t know why, but I was terrified. I was terrified...Dave...please. I beg you...never leave me like that again. Don’t scare me like that...I don’t think I can take it...”
And then she collapsed into tears again. I took her into my arms and just held her, letting her get it all out. In the back of my mind, I was still trying to process the events that had taken place in my fugue state. Mostly, I was trying to come to terms with my own sense of loss that my epiphany had inspired in me.
There was no way this was going to blow over...I had a good deal of thinking to do, and I couldn’t just push this off onto future Dave, either. My thought process ground to a halt as more immediate needs made themselves known. My stomach growled so loudly that it caused Joy to jump in fright. In the wake of my gastronomical outburst, we shared a weary chuckle. The experience that had just come to pass had taken its toll on the both of us, draining us of most of our energy. Trying to make the best out of the situation, I piped up.
“So...*ahem*...what’s for breakfast?”
Joy looked at me like she was about to cry again, but instead she cracked a wry smile.
“Still omelets, silly pony. I swear, do you ever listen?”
I had taken to scratching my ear, and made a big show out of pretending to dig something out of it and examine the specimen before replying.
“Huh? You say something?”
She let out an exasperated sigh, but the smile on her face was a mile wide. It was good to see that she could bounce back from something so strange, so quickly. It spoke volumes about the strength of her character.
Wrapping the still (mostly) warm omelets in a glow of magic, she set them down on their respective plates, beside which rested my current nemesis: flatware.
Upon closer inspection however, I realized that my apprehension towards using the utensils was largely unfounded. Instead of the human style of silverware, these ended not in a long, flat grasping surface, but rather in a clip of some sort. Based on the size and shape of the clip, I deduced that it was to be slid over the edge of the hoof, fastening itself onto the wall of the hoof.
At first, Joy had taken no small amount of amusement at my attempts to affix the utensils to my hooves, and once I had succeeded at that, she got further jollies from watching me try to maneuver the devices in a coherent manner. Soon enough though, I had gotten the hang of them and was shoveling food into my mouth like a champ.
As much as we tried to hide it by acting like our normal selves, the events that had transpired had left an indelible mark upon the both of us. I was sure the effects would fade soon enough, but for the time being it was hanging over our heads; unseen though it might be, its presence was felt nonetheless.
As breakfast was winding to a close, Joy spoke up briefly.
"Oh! Before I forget, you got the job at the clinic. Well, you kinda have it. You'll have a two week internship to learn the ropes, and if you do well in that time, the job is yours."
This was a bit of unexpected good news, and it brought a smile to my face.
"Wow...that was swift. Awesome...thanks, Joy. When do I start?"
Joy beamed with pride for a moment before answering.
"Well, I figured that you wanted to get started as soon as you could, so I managed to get you on the swing shift starting today. Your shift starts at 15:00."
Even better news. Now, I could not only get a head start on my internship, but I could also have some time alone to begin dealing with my revelation.
"Joy, have I ever told you how awesome you are? Because really...you are pretty damned awesome."
She both beamed and flushed at this compliment. I had a miniature heart attack as the diabeetus flared up again. She was a cerulean and alabaster mare, but the scarlet tint on her cheeks fit her perfectly. It makes sense if you don't think about it.
Joy waved her hoof in front of me to get my attention.
"Hello? Equestria to Dave, come in Dave."
"Huh? Was I zoned out again?"
"Yeah. You were looking at me for a second, and then you just drifted off into la-la land. What were you thinking about?"
How gorgeous you are...
"Meh...nothing important. Why do you ask?"
"Well, you just had this huge smile on your face...I was betting you were thinking about food."
Son of a bitch. I've only just arrived, and this mare already had me pegged. She was wrong, but it was a damned good guess anyways...I do have a tendency to do that as well.
About this time, what she had said earlier about my shift finally clicked into place.
"Hold on a second. Go back a bit. My shift is at 15:00 at the clinic? Is there a uniform or anything I need to be prepared for?"
"Duh it's at the clinic. If there is a uniform, they would issue it to you there, and as far as anything else goes, I'm sure you will find out soon enough."
I simply nodded, contemplating how to spend the time before my shift. I brought this up to Joy.
"Well, that's settled. Since we have half a day to kill, what do you want to do before I have to go to work?"
Joy shot me a puzzled look as she answered.
"Half a day? Dave, you have no idea what time it is, do you?"
"Ummm...about zero eight or nine?"
"Not even close. It's almost thirteen right now."
What now? I checked my watch to verify, and was shocked at the time.
"Well I'll be a monkey's uncle."
"Hmmm...do you have any siblings? Because I don't, and it is hard to be an uncle without a tertiary family member, and even harder to get them to adopt a monkey..."
I stared at Joy for a moment to see if I was being trolled. She was looking up and to her left, tapping her chin with a hoof, apparently lost in thought. I couldn't tell whether or not I was being gotten again, and I soon gave up trying.
I decided that if I was being had (and if not, oh well), I was going to have some fun with this.
“Actually, I do have a brother, so to speak. My parents adopted a hatchling griffin when I was young, and he was wandering through the Everfree one day when he stumbled upon a young primate, who had been separated from the rest of his troop. To make a long story short, the monkey followed him home, and my brother eventually adopted him.”
Joy has snapped out of her reverie to regard me with an expression that was nothing short of...what I guess would be considered “astounded”. And right on cue, the Goldfish imitation began. She snapped out of it sooner than average this time, though, so I didn't even have time to enjoy her confusion.
“Wait a minute...you never mentioned you had a brother...I would have figured you would have brought this up sooner...”
“In my defense, I’ve only been here for two days...”
“Yeah, but don’t you think that’s kind of a big thing to overlook when you were telling Twilight and me about your past?”
“Perhaps. Did I ever tell you about the time I was a pirate?”
Joy narrowed her eyes suspiciously at me.
“No. You failed to mention that as well. What else haven’t you told me?”
“Anyways, did you know that if you say ‘gullible’ really slowly, it sounds like you are saying ‘orange’?”
The notion hit her in the sweet spot between skepticism and curiosity, and she lowered her gaze from me as she tried to puzzle it out.
I cannot properly express how incredibly hilarious Joy looked as she kept mouthing the word to herself, over and over...first, there were all the crazy expressions she was making. Try this for yourself...try and make ‘gullible’ sound like ‘orange’, but do it in front of a camera. Once you rage quit, watch your expressions on the video.
On top of that was how she grew more and more frustrated as she kept trying. Now you understand my struggle, as I fought valiantly to suppress my laughter. It had to have been the tenth time she sounded it out (or tried to, anyways) before she finally looked back up at me.
I had managed to contain myself until then, but at that point I couldn’t help but chuckle. For a moment, Joy seemed almost hurt by this.
“You...you tricked me. Gullible doesn’t sound like orange...”
Before I could respond to reassure her that it was all in good fun, her face lit up with a flash of comprehension before it settled into an unamused mask of indifference. She cut off my reply by continuing to speak.
“None of that was true, was it.”
“Not since the 'monkey’s uncle' bit. Everything before that was, though.”
Joy’s only reply for a moment was a tired sigh. A moment of silence passed before she spoke up again.
“How did I not see this coming?”
“Because I’m amazing?”
“Hmmm. Nope, that isn’t it. Though I’ve got to hoof it to you, you were very convincing. Still a horrible pony for tricking an innocent, defenseless mare, but convincing nonetheless.”
I was not entirely sure whether I should feel proud or ashamed...but since the second option required something I did not possess (something called “shame”), I opted for the former.
“Well, what can I say...I’ve got a silver tongue.”
I lowered my voice for the last two words, trying to sound deep and mysterious as I punctuated my statement with a suggestive wink.
Remember what I said about ten seconds ago?
About not having any shame?
Case and point.
My tactics were effective, to say the least, and I watched as Joy gulped noisily and turned quite scarlet. She cleared her throat much louder than necessary, overtly indicating that the subject was to be changed forthwith.
“So then. I think it’s about time you got ready for your shift, don’t you? Good, I thought you might. A shower, excellent idea...well, I won’t hold you from your hygienic concerns any longer. Have fun.”
Joy had a one sided conversation in my direction, clearly indicating what I was expected to do in the immediate future. To call it a hint would be like calling the Titanic “a minor accident”, but I took it to heart anyways, leaving the scarlet hued and quite fidgety mare in solitude at the table. As I set off towards the shower, I cast a glance over my shoulder at Joy, who was chewing her lower lip nervously as I walked away. We made eye contact, and she blushed all the harder for it, averting her eyes swiftly.
I couldn't figure this mare out. This really didn't surprise me, though. After all, there is no living creature that can read the mind of a female...not even her. I'm not saying that I was a magician or anything, but I used to be pretty accurate at guessing what women were thinking. And by pretty accurate, I mean I had a one-in-ten success rate. Impressive, no?
And yet, I still found myself continuously baffled by this one. I guess it makes sense in the grand scheme of things...it also fit nicely into my worldview. I have a motto of sorts..."You can never understand women. You can empathize, sympathize, and relate to them, but never fully understand them. Accept this, and carry on. If you one day you think you have it all figured out, you are wrong, period. That's pretty much all you'll ever truly know about women."
It might be a mouthful, but it is accurate. There I was, thinking that I had begun to understand a little bit about the way females thought, and then along came Joy to send me back to square one. I really should have seen it coming.
As I had been contemplating how very little I actually knew, my hooves had carried me to the shower. I turned the tap onto a comfortable temperature and stepped in. In this enclosed space with the sound of the running water muting all sound, I allowed myself to indulge in something that I find to be a useless waste of time for me: I allowed myself to weep. In silence, I wept for the loss of everything I had ever known. Not only my wife and my son, though they were arguably the loss which caused the most acute pain, but also for my friends and family.
Even the people with whom I dreaded having to interact with, I strangely found myself lamenting over. Under the constant stream of warm water, my grief was manifested and expelled from my body; my tears intermingling with the rivulets of the shower as they ran down my face, becoming one before being swept away into the drain.
As I wept, the burden of grief upon my shoulders lessened.
Now, I honestly don't know a lot about dealing with grief. My life had been pretty uneventful before the recent events. I'd never encountered anything I couldn't simply shrug off apathetically. I had discovered long ago that events only hold the power you give them. The more you care, the more power events have over you. To protect myself from my past, I learned to let everything go, to stay distant from everything. I said this many years ago, and even now I could still see the wisdom in it: "If they cannot find your heart, they cannot break it."
This single phrase was the foundation upon which I had built a life of emotional distance. Even though I could see that it was flawed, and a symptom of a deeper dysfunction, I still embraced it and lived it. Because of this, I had never been in a meaningful relationship before I met my wife. And despite my every effort to the contrary, I found myself emotionally distant from her as well. Not even the birth of our son could thaw my heart, though it did begin to defrost.
Who knows, in a few years I might actually have been able to form a semblance of a normal emotional attachment, not that it mattered anymore.
It was because of this known emotional detachment of mine that the grief of what had transpired struck home so soundly. I had never known how much they had meant to me until I lost them. I couldn't love them like I should've when I had the chance, but as soon as they were gone forever, I realized how important they were to me. The irony was suffocating.
Soon the water began to run cold, and the change in temperature prompted a change in my disposition. My grief had been alleviated for the most part, and the burden that it placed upon my shoulders lessened accordingly. All told, I was feeling better than I had in weeks. I staunched the flow of water, and proceeded to towel off.
By my watch, I had only been in the shower for about twenty minutes. While this was about four or five times longer than my usual shower (another habit picked up in basic), it was still within what most consider a reasonable amount of time. By the time I was dried, my spirits had risen back to their customary exuberance. Looking in the mirror, I got an idea. I mussed my mane as best I could, persuading it to stand nearly on-end before walking out to the living room.
As I exited the hallway, Joy rounded the corner from the kitchen and caught sight of my ridiculous appearance. My ploy had exactly the intended effect, and Joy was almost instantly doubled over with laughter. The tears were streaming freely down her face as she tried to communicate her thoughts on my hair style.
Needless to say, it was a garbled mess of “your hair” this, and “electrocuted” that. In order to spare you the details of her incomprehensible mumblings, suffice it to say that her initial impression of my hair was the same as mine: I looked like I had just gotten a crash course in Applied Electric Theory.
Once she had settled down to a semi coherent state and wiped the tears from her eyes, she spoke the first sensible phrase since I had come around the corner.
“Oh, Celestia...that was hilarious...my sides hurt.”
This warmed my heart a little bit. Despite all of my flaws (and copious testimony to the contrary) I was not a bad person, nor a bad pony. Perhaps I might have been misguided at some times, and I must admit that I had acted out of spite on more than one occasion, but on the whole I tried to bring whatever happiness I could to those around me. That said, seeing the way Joy had laughed, and the joy that I had brought her, it filled me with a certain glow-ey feeling. Perhaps it was accomplishment, perhaps contentment. I cannot really say what the emotion was, exactly, but the general idea is that it was a pleasant one.
Regardless, she got her jollies from my outlandish appearance, and I got mine from bringing happiness to her. it was a win-win all around. To her, I simply said,
“Heh. I’m glad this amuses you. Now if I could bother you to help me fix it, I would be most grateful.”
Thus, I implemented part two of my (not very) nefarious plot: "Operation: Have Joy Play With My Mane."
Of course Joy agreed to rectify my follicular folly, and everything went according to plan.
Oh, don’t look at me like that. Everypony out there can testify that there are few more wonderful feelings than having your head rubbed. I sat in contented bliss as the cerulean mare did her best to smooth my unruly hair-do. After what felt like a blissful eternity, I felt a pat on my shoulder, coupled by the announcement that Joy had completed her task. I happened to glance at my watch (yet another army-inspired habit) and was a bit disappointed to see that it was already 14:15. With a reluctant sigh, I spoke up.
“Darn...Joy? It’s about time for me to head to work. Any last-minute advice?”
“Aw...shoot. I was having fun messing with your mane...I guess I can finish when you get off shift. As for advice....Don’t set anything on fire and you should be good. Ask the front desk pony where you should go to report for your shift, and you should be set.”
“Well, alright then...I s’pose I'll be heading out then. Have fun, Joy. I’ll see you after my shift is over.”
"Actually, I’ll see you in a few hours. I work night shift this month, and since you are on the swing shift, out shifts overlap a couple hours.”
I nodded in a generalized expression of comprehension and turned towards the door. As I was walking out the door, I turned back and waved to Joy. She returned the gesture with a smile, one that I could not help but return as I exited the house that had become a home to me.
And thus, I set off towards the clinic, a bit apprehensive as to what might lay ahead.
After a good bit of walking, I finally drew near to the clinic. Walking in the same doors I had been carted through not more than seventy two hours before was a bit of a strange experience, inspiring in me a vague sense of Deja Vu. I put all of that aside as I entered the reception area.
At the desk I spoke to a Nurse Tenderheart, apparently new to Ponyville and pulling double duty as a nurse and receptionist. After a brief conversation with her, I learned that she was an Intern as well, though her internship was a whole six months long, as opposed to my two weeks. She was only 19 days into her internship as a nurse, and so she was tasked out to cover down on an opening caused by the normal receptionist falling ill.
A few moments more of conversation revealed that she had trained in the Canterlot School of Medicine, and did not mind filling in for a secretary when necessary. Based on what she had told me and what (little) I knew of Canterlot, I pretty much associated it with the same level of prestige as was afforded to West Point graduates. If I was correct in my association (and there was no evidence on hoof to support or disprove this theory) then this Nurse Tenderheart was a well trained intern from a prestigious academy.
I decided then and there that it would be a good idea to keep an eye on miss May Tenderheart (I had also discovered she was named for the month in which she was born...not terribly original, but a pretty name none the less).
Soon enough, I had asked where I would head to meet up with the “Sanitation Engineer”. My inquiry was initially met with a moment of silence as the receptionist contemplated what I had actually intended to ask. In a short moment, Her eyes lit up in comprehension, and she proceeded to name off a series of twists and turns that made my head spin to even try and contemplate.
Instead of relying on my memory (which was dubious at best) to find my way through the labyrinth of corridors, we both decided that it would be best to write it down, along with landmarks within the clinic.
After a few minutes, several strange looks, and more than a few wrong turns, I arrived in a section of the basement dedicated to the mechanical innards of the facility. the entire room was actually quite large, though it was crammed with every type of mechanical equipment imaginable (and some that weren’t).
I approached the only pony in the subterranean cavern, assuming that he was the one who would be my boss for the foreseeable future. I cautiously addressed this scraggly looking earth pony.
“Ummm..Hi there. My name is Dave, and I believe that Nurse Joy spoke with you earlier today about a possible internship position as janitor?”
The stallion seated behind the desk calmly flipped the page on his newspaper as if he had not heard me. I was contemplating reiterating myself a bit louder when he spoke up.
“So you’re the new pony? Alright. How good are you with electricity and plumbing?”
“Well...I’m familiar with both, to a certain extent, and I’m pretty good at problem solving...”
At this point, I barely managed to catch the wrench that had been flung in my direction.
“Name’s Scruffy, the head Janitor. Take that there wrench and head to room 3306. See if you can fix what’s wrong. If not, come back. Questions?”
“Uhhh...Nope. I think I can handle this.”
To this, Scruffy simply replied with a grunt, licking the tip of his hoof and turning the page. Not wanting to kick the proverbial hornet’s nest on the first day of my internship, I left the room without comment and headed up to the third floor. On my way, I might have passed a half dozen ponies, but I couldn’t recall even a single one by the time I had arrived at the room.
Once I walked in, the scene that greeted me was deceptively calm. Honestly, I had expected a geyser erupting from a toilet, or a faucet that was shooting water up to the ceiling. Instead, I was greeted by a trashcan that had been placed under the sink to catch the water from a slow leak.
I figured all I would have to do is tighten up the coupling a bit and everything would be good to go.
I figured wrong.
As it turns out, the threads on the joint were almost entirely stripped, and from the loose seal there seeped a slow but steady stream of water.
Well...shit. It's not a difficult fix if you have the proper tools...just shut off the water, loosen and remove the damaged coupling, wind some sealant tape around the threads, put everything back and you're done. This repair becomes slightly more difficult without the tape to create a seal, though, so I was going to have to get creative.
Have wrench, will Macgyver.
I scratched my chin with the wrench as I contemplated the best way to solve this conundrum. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for some some cheating unicorn magic right now...Nope, all I get are these wings that I can’t even use for a few more weeks...wings that I’m not even sure I will know how to use.
Wings that are composed mostly of horse feathers and other tricksy magic. That might just work...I turned my head and craned my neck as far as I could, grasping a feather and tugging.
The feather did not even budge.
Again I tugged at the feather, though harder this time. Still nothing. Quickly becoming fed up with this lack of success, I bit down as hard as I could and yanked with all my might.
Not quite sure what actually happened, but somehow I ended up on the ground.
That damned feather was still stubbornly in place, my head was hurting, and I had been entirely defeated by my own physiology...again. Climbing back to my feet, I stared daggers at the feather that refused to be moved from its position. I mean, I’d heard that pegasus wings had some sort of integral magic, but I never would have guessed that it made them damn near indestructible...
My nose suddenly began to itch, and with a tremendous inhalation, I sneezed so hard I felt like my head was going to explode. The sneeze was so violent, it made me dizzy for a moment...it felt amazing. As my head tried to get itself back together, I became aware of a familiar looking color on the floor, just a pace away from me.
No. There is no way that after all of that, it was a sneeze that knocked it loose...
I turned my head to look back at my wing, and I groaned very loudly.
That damnable feather was no longer attached to the place I had tried to dislodge it from; it was now a pace away on the floor. I’m pretty sure my eye was twitching in a similar fashion as Joy’s had a tendency to do.
I swear, there is something up there that just loved to mess with me...
I gathered up the feather and marveled a moment at its lightness. It was one of the primaries (the long ones) and despite being the length of my entire leg it was so light I could barely feel it. It was also much stiffer than I would have expected, behaving more like a ruler or something similar than a feather.
After marveling at the incredible feather for a much longer period than I had intended, I figured I might as well get around to fixing this leak. I had damn near undone the connector in the sink without turning off the water, but I caught the mistake just in time to save myself a good soaking.
Once I had rectified the possible disaster by shutting off the water supply, I quickly finished disassembling the fixture. I wrapped the feather around the threads of the pipe and then put every thing back together. The feather made it pretty difficult to reassemble the whole contraption, but soon enough it all came together. I wrenched the fixture closed, feeling pretty damn smug about my problem solving.
Then came the moment of truth: turning on the water.
I took a deep breath and turned the knob.
The sink exploded and flooded the entire hospital, drowning everypony. The end.
In reality, none of that happened. The water gurgled through the pipes for a moment, but the repair held. I tried both of the taps and was pleased as punch to see that all traces of the leak had disappeared. I dumped out the can that had been placed to catch the drops before setting off back towards the janitorial cavern. My initial impression of that area was one of a dank cave, and it was just such a vivid mental image that I didn't think I'd ever shake it.
I walked into Scruffy's office, the cloying dampness slapping me in the face as I entered. The olive coated earth stallion simply looked up from his paper and studied me for a moment. I highly doubted that he had moved since I had left. Instead of saying anything, I figured I would wait for him to speak first. Luckily, this was not a long wait.
"You fix the leak?"
Scruffy looked around a moment before turning back to me.
"My Pa is 'sir', I'm Scruffy."
"Alright then. I fixed the leak, Scruffy."
"Hmmm. What'd you use to seal the pipe?"
"Well, since I didn't have anything else at my disposal, I just plucked a feather and wound it around the threads. Seemed to work."
At this, Scruffy rubbed his chin thoughtfully. A moment of silence passed before he spoke up.
"Pegasus feathers are naturally water repellant, and pretty durable at that. I'd say that it will make a fine seal. Good thinking."
"Heh...thanks. Anything else you need done right now?"
"Hmmm...nope. You passed the test, and other than that there isn't much to do for a few hours. It's about 16:00 right now, shift change is in about an hour, and we usually begin cleaning a bit after that. In the mean time, grab a seat and relax for a bit."
"No problem. One last question...is there a uniform standard or special directions I need to be aware of?"
Scruffy rubbed his chin again, a gesture that I began to see was something of a habit for him.
"Well, we have utility barding that we use when we go to clean or repair things...I suppose that's a uniform. Just make sure you keep yourself looking tidy. Hay, you can grow a beard for all the hoots I give. Just keep it tidy and you'll be fine."
Shut the front door. Grow a beard? I didn't even know it was possible to grow facial hair as a pony. Does this mean I'll have to shave? How do I shave without being bald around the muzzle? How do I...oh, my head is starting to hurt....dammit. Scruffy continued.
"And as far as special directions...Doctors and Nurses have the right of way. They have more important places to be than stuck behind you in the hallway. One last thing...if you are ever told to go to the fourth floor for any reason, under no circumstances are you to go up there without a respirator. I recommend carrying one with you at all times, just in case."
This piqued my interest.
"What's on the fourth floor?"
"Mostly the mechanical guts of the clinic, but there is also the isolation ward up there. You should never be called into the iso ward, I'm the pony that handles that. If for some reason you have to go in there, remember to use the decon shower before you enter, and once you leave. Shoot, shower twice when you leave. There is nothing in there that you want to carry out with you."
"Fair enough. Is it a safe guess that I'll be trained how to fix certain equipment as a part of my job?"
"You'll learn what you need as you need it."
Great. Scruffy was waxing cryptic on me. I was getting the distinct impression that I had gotten all the information I was likely to get for now, and this was his way of politely telling me so. I nodded at him to indicate that I understood what he meant, and then I walked over to the vacant seat and popped open the newspaper. It was a local publication, talking about the local problems in Ponyville.
There was a short story detailing the complications during the last winter wrap up, the somewhat sketchy condition that the school playground equipment was in, and an opinion column about a price gouging conspiracy in the town market.
The rest of the paper was fluff pieces about the school fillies and things like that. The part that really caught my attention was the section that contained the various coupons and advertisements for the vendors in town. I saw one for Berry's Smoothies, and I knew what I was going to be doing after work.
For the next hour and a half or so, I read and re-read the articles in the newspaper. Their editor should be fired...I found no less than four spelling mistakes...isn't that what the editor was for? I was in the midst of working myself into a righteous lather to write a strongly worded letter to the editor when I caught sight of the banner just below the headline: Produced by the Journalism Club at Ponyville Primary School. Instantly, my opinion of the paper did a complete 180° flip. Instead of being appalled at the number of spelling errors, I became rather impressed that there had been so few. I still wanted to write to the editor, but the letter would be a much more pleasant one in light of the new evidence.
As I was thinking about how to word this letter, Scruffy cleared his throat.
"It's about that time, Dave. Grab that barding, suit up, and follow me."
I did as I was told, suiting up as best I could with the limited manual dexterity I possessed. After a brief struggle, I ended up triumphant and walked up to Scruffy. He gave me a quick once over and nodded in approval. Without a word he set off down the hall, and I fell into step behind him.
Through the next couple hours we performed standard janitorial duties as we wiped down counters and cleaned the latrines. By the time we had finished with that task and had swept and mopped all of the floors, it was approaching midnight. Most of the patient rooms were vacant and only required a quick touch up before we moved on. Once or twice I had caught sight of Joy as I passed through the hallways, though we never had a chance to do anything other than wave or nod at each other, being that we were both in the middle of some task or another.
By the time that the floors had all been sanitized to the point of being nearly luminous, it was almost zero two in the morning. Scruffy and I had just returned the last of the cleaning supplies to the closet when he turned to me.
"Whelp. That about does it for tonight."
"Anything else before I take off?"
"Nope. So far, I can tell you are a hard worker and at least slightly mechanically inclined. I'll need a bit more time to make sure you aren't just putting on an act, but as long as you keep up what you are doing, I think you'll be a good addition to the force."
"Thanks, Scruffy. I'm glad to hear that. Same time tomorrow?"
"Nope. Come in at 18:00 tomorrow, and make sure you get a good night's sleep. You will be working the night shift tomorrow."
"Alright, sounds good. See you then, Scruffy."
He grunted in acknowledgement, and with that I took my leave. After so many hours sweeping and mopping the corridors, I had expanded my mental map of the facility to the point that it was almost useful. At the bare minimum , I knew my way to the cafeteria and to the assorted exits. At least I knew the important stuff.
I then began to test the integrity of the other mental map I had built in the last day, as I navigated towards Berry's Smoothies. I began to get turned around on the way there, but by taking a second to reference the location of the landmarks in town, I figured I was heading the right way, just along a different route than I had taken last time.
Sure enough, I emerged from a side road into the main avenue, just a block south of the smoothie shop. As I walked through the door, Berry looked up from her book and did a double take.
"Hey you. Where's Joy?"
"She's still at the clinic. I was working the swing shift, so I got off before she did."
Berry raised an eyebrow suggestively.
"I'll bet you did, Flyboy."
I couldn't help but chuckle at that. Not only at the dirty joke, but also at the nickname...I quite liked it.
"Heh...good one. Guess I set myself up for that one. And Flyboy? Really?"
"Yeah you did. And what's wrong, don't like the nickname? Would you prefer 'mummy'?"
"Hehehe...no, I think I like Flyboy better."
"Alright, it's settled. What'll it be, Flyboy?"
"Let me get a tall, cool drink of punch."
Again with the eyebrow...
"And how would your marefriend feel about that?"
Right about then it had hit me what I had said. Apparently, my facehoof was answer enough.
"Alright, Flyboy. Don't hurt yourself, I was only joking. Four bits, please."
I silently dug out the appropriate change from my coin satchel (not coin purse, dammit) and paid the fee. As the magnificent beverage was slid across the counter to me, I caught a glance at the price board over the register. A tall, cool drink of Punch's (I swear, it actually was called that. Must have been a running joke for Berry...) was six bits, not four. Huh...seems I'd gotten a friendship discount or something.
I took a seat near the counter, and in a moment Berry had joined me.
"You're the most interesting thing to happen in the last four hours. So, did I hear correctly that you are now working at the clinic?"
"Indeed you did, and indeed I do. I am interning for a position as a sanitation engineer, with a possible side job as master mechanical mechanism repair pony."
At first Berry seemed quite impressed by the titles, but soon enough she began to contemplate what the jobs might actually entail. She roused from her reverie to favor me with a flat look.
"You're going to be a janitor slash repair pony."
Now it was her turn to facehoof. I seemed to have that effect on mares...from behind her hoof, she spoke up.
"You know, you just reminded me of a customer that comes through here from time to time. Enormous earth pony, red color, tends to wear a yoke...ever see him?"
"Not that I recall. Why?"
"No real reason. I was just wondering, because he says 'eyup' as well."
"Sounds like a classy fellow."
At this, Berry laughed a bit, a laugh that cut off abruptly with a small snort. She quickly covered her face with both hooves and began to turn red. Seems I have that effect on mares as well. Realizing that she was quite embarrassed, I tried to break the tension.
"Heh. That was adorable."
Berry shot me a death glare. I was three for three with expressions so far.
"No it wasn't. It was embarrassing... I can't believe you saw that."
"What,you think you are the first mare I've seen snort? It happens from time to time. No big deal. I find it kinda cute, but then again I am a bit strange..."
"Yeah, no kidding. You are pretty...well, you're pretty something alright. Not sure what, though."
I took a mock bow to the best of my ability while seated.
"Thank you, m'lady. I try."
She groaned and rolled her eyes. The reaction quad-fecta. Perhaps a smarter pony would have made the connection that all of these expressions were related to my aptitude for nonsense, but such trivial matters were below my notice.
I finished my smoothie and rose to leave, when Berry spoke up.
"Awww, leaving so soon?"
"Afraid so. I'm on night shift tomorrow, and I need to get some rest. I'll swing by again tomorrow, though."
"Alright, very well then. I'll hold you to that."
"You can count on me. Good night, Berry."
I stepped out into the blissful night air. I had noticed that since I had arrived here, I had been much more sensitive to the air currents around me, seemingly in tune with every breath of wind. I supposed it was a pegasus thing, and didn't question it too deeply. I was walking home as the exhaustion hit me. I yawned mightily, my limbs suddenly feeling quite heavy.
I nearly got lost a few times on the way home, the only thing that saved me was my knowledge of the landmarks. Soon enough I approached the place that had become a home for me since my arrival, the colorful flowers in the planter by the door acting as a beacon to guide me home.
Only moments after I had walked in, I was in bed and thoroughly racked out. Just before I had laid down, I'd set my watch to go off at 13:00. This way, I could get the sleep I needed but also have time to hang out with Joy before work.
My watch sounded at its designated time, rousing me from my slumber. My mouth was so dry it was struck together. As I stretched, I caught a whiff of myself....yep, that's the last time I would go to bed without a shower. Climbing to my hooves, I set off for the shower. The shower was invigorating, and I stepped from my ablution feeling like a whole new pony.
Based on a lack of directions to the contrary, I assumed I was permitted in the fridge. As I opened said cold storage device, I saw a pair of little brown paper sacks with my name on them. One said brunch, the other said dinner. Though I might be a bit slow on the uptake, even I could figure this one out. What I couldn't figure out was when Joy had made the time to make this for me...I seriously owed this mare.
About then, an idea that had been floating around in my head for a while burst to the forefront of my mind: with my first payday, I was going to treat Joy to a night on the town to repay her for all she's done for me. I was going to take her out on a date...something about it just seemed right.
I grabbed the pair of sacks to place them in my saddlebags, but as I removed them from the shelf, my attention was caught by a scrap of paper that had been placed beneath them. I placed the bags into my pouches and turned back to investigate the note.
"Dave, I had to run to the market to buy some vegetables. You have obviously found the meals I made for you, but remember that those are for your shift tonight. Don't eat them too soon, or you'll be hungry later. If you are hungry when you wake up, there is food on the counter. I should be back by 15:00, and I'm excited to hear about your first day. I'll see you when I get home.
Seriously, did this mare ever sleep? She got off shift after I did, yet she was up before me and out shopping? I was more than a bit concerned that she was sacrificing her health to better care for me. I could tell she had a nurturing instinct, but I'd be damned before I let her run herself ragged on my behalf...we were going to have a talk when she got back...in two hours or so. To pass the time, I walked back to the living room, and approached a phonograph that I had spied earlier. Beside the archaic looking device was a stack of records, and I gently flipped through them. One caught my eye, and I pulled it out for closer inspection.
It was something by "Steedivarious", though I couldn't tell exactly what since the label was so worn. Gingerly, I removed it from the cardboard sleeve and placed it on the device. I cranked the handle carefully, winding the spring inside. I flipped the lever and slowly guided the needle to the record. At first it was little but static pops and clicks, but soon a haunting melody began to emerge.
I closed my eyes for a moment, allowing myself to be swept away by the music. The melody brought me back to the meadow with Joy, sitting under the shade of the oak tree. I could almost feel the warmth of the sun upon my hide, hear the wind dancing in the leaves. I opened my eyes with a huge smile upon my face, feeling singularly at ease.
I turned around and was going to head back to the table and grab something to eat, when I saw something so shocking it almost caused me to trip. Sitting in the chair across from the couch I was using as a bed was Nurse Redheart, sipping on a cup of something, most likely tea. That was not surprising. What was surprising was the fact that she was smiling, a sight that was both heartwarming and a bit disconcerting. Strange combination, I know, but in light of the talk we had the other day, it was not unwarranted. Holding the smile on my face, I greeted her.
"Good afternoon, Miss Redheart. How are you today?"
"Good afternoon to you too, Dave. Good to see you are finally awake... I thought I might have to grab a stick and begin poking you."
This caught me entirely off guard. Not only did I not expect her to be so pleasant, the fact that she was cracking jokes at me was beyond my comprehension. She seemed to pick up on this and spoke up.
"Oh, come on Dave. I hope you'll not be holding our last exchange against me. After all, didn't I say you two had my blessing?"
"Y...yes ma'am, you did. I suppose I was just caught a bit off guard by your joke. I suppose you could say that your first impression was a memorable one."
"As was my intent. Tell me, Dave: if you were a stallion with questionable motives, would you have continued to stay here after that exchange?
"Not if I had an ounce of sense. Then again, I'm not entirely sure that I do, so this becomes a conundrum."
"Dave, you sell yourself short. You are rather intelligent, and quite crafty. At least, that is what I have heard about you from Joy and Clements."
"I'm not sure I'm familiar with Clements. Are you sure we've met?"
"Well, you were mopping the hallways with him last night, so I should think so."
"Ahhh. He'd introduced himself as Scruffy, not as Clements."
"Yeah, he does prefer that name to his formal name. I honestly don't see why...Clements sounds so much nicer than Scruffy."
"Perhaps...but you have to admit, Scruffy seems to suit him."
"Well, I guess there is no accounting for taste."
My stomach decided to interject into our dialogue, and loudly at that. I quickly excused myself and made a beeline towards the food on the counter. As I opened the container, I saw that the food was a salad consisting mostly of beans and sprouts of some sort, though there were some flowers mixed in as well. I helped myself to a plate of the stuff, and after grabbing a clip-fork (fork-clip?) I took the tray in my mouth and wandered back to the couch.
As I sat down, the overture of the last song faded away, and a new melody began in its stead. Where the last piece called forth imagery of a sunlit afternoon, the current piece called forth imagery of a winter's night, the pale beams of a full moon glinting softly off the snow. It was a cold and desolate piece, though beautiful in its own right. I excused myself ahead of time for eating during our conversation, though Nurse Redheart waved it off with a hoof.
As I ate, Nurse Redheart and I held a light conversation about things like the weather and about the sketchy playground equipment at the school house. She was especially interested in the latter, and she even listed off a series of accidents and injuries that had been caused by the faulty equipment. We spoke for a while about the different places in town, and it was interesting to get the opinion of somepony else when it came to the various establishments in town. As time wore on and the both of us opened up a bit and became more comfortable amongst each other, it became apparent where Joy's nurturing instinct came from.
Nurse Redheart was an extremely gentle soul, and it was obvious that she loved her daughter with all her heart. Honestly, it was pretty touching to see how much love there was between these two mares. We passed the time in this manner, and almost before we knew it, there was the sound of the door opening and closing. From the entryway, Joy's voice called out.
From the living room, I called back.
"Nope. Nopony in here."
I could hear the smile in her voice as she replied, and it brought a smile to my face.
"Hey there, nopony. Want to give me a hoof putting all this stuff away?"
"No problem. Be there in a second."
I turned to Nurse Redheart, excusing myself for a few minutes. She nodded and waved me off with a hoof as she lost herself in the music. I stood and headed into the kitchen, and I damn near fell on my face in shock when I arrived in the dining room. There were bags EVERYWHERE. There is no way on Equestria that she had carried all of that from the market. Even as I thought this though, I saw the faint sheen of sweat on her brow. Friggin unicorns and their friggin cheating magic...if I had tried to carry all of this, I might have died. Joy simply looked a bit winded, but nothing that would indicate the enormity of the task she had just undertaken.
Damn...where can I get myself one of those horn things?
By the time we had all of the groceries squirreled away into the various cupboards, it was nearly sixteen hundred. As Joy went to take a quick shower before work, I did the dishes. I surprised myself with this, but in the end I assumed it was from guilt at not carrying the groceries for Joy. By the time the last utensil was cleaned and put away, Joy was emerging from the shower. Once I had gathered up my mess and packed it away into my saddlebags, I went to wait by the door. In just a moment's time, Joy was by my side in her nurse regalia, and we left the house a moment later. As we walked to the clinic side by side, I filled her in on my shift the night before. I had just concluded my riveting tale of hallway sanitation when we walked through the door. Joy gave me a hug as we went our separate ways.
It only took a moment for me to get to the janitorial grotto. As I walked in, Scruffy was in the same place he had been the night before.
"Evening, Scruffy. How are you tonight?"
"Same as ever."
So, cryptic it was. This suited me just fine, and I was just going to ask one more question for the night...if I could help it, that is.
"Scruffy, when do you want me to start on the cleaning?"
"Huh. About an hour, go ahead and do it then."
"Alright. Anything else?"
Well then. That's that, I suppose. I had about an hour to kill before I started cleaning, so I grabbed the newspaper and began to read about pretty much the same stories as yesterday. Apparently, one of the fillies at the school had been injured on the playground equipment, and as a result the entire recess area had been closed until it could be fixed. As I though more about this, I wondered if there might be something I could do about it. I might not be able to repair the more damaged areas, but I should be able to get at least part of the playground safe to use again. Once I got off shift, I would head over to the school and see what I could do about fixing the equipment.
Casting a glance at my watch, I saw that it was about time to start cleaning. After donning my utility barding, I struck out towards the supply closet on the top floor. As I walked, I kept thinking about the playground. It was Thursday night, and depending on what time I got off, I might be able to run by the school and investigate the equipment. As it was right now though, I could not rely on getting off at a reasonable time. My shift yesterday had been nearly twelve hours long, and there was no reason to believe that this would be any different.
Soon enough I had reached the top floor (I called the third floor the top floor since the fourth was essentially off limits) and retrieved the cleaning supplies. Much the same as the previous night, I swept and mopped with the same diligence that I had seen displayed the previous night by Scruffy. By the time I had finished with all three floors, I was pretty beat. I was sweating a little bit, and my neck was sore from maneuvering the bucket and mop all over the place, but I was entirely too pleased with how clean everything was for my own good. It was almost intoxicating, this sense of accomplishment. Just like day before, I had finished up at about zero three. Granted, we had finished a bit sooner the night before, but there had also been more ponies working as well.
I returned to the grotto and was simply stunned by the sight I beheld: Scruffy's chair was vacant. I felt like my entire life was a lie. Once I had kicked my melodramatic streak though, I figured that he was just checking behind me. This guess proved true as the janitor entered a few minutes later. He gave me what I took for an approving nod before addressing me.
"You did a fine job. Wish I had something else for you to do right now, but I don't. Take an hour for lunch, be back here at zero four."
"Can do. See you at zero four."
With that, I turned and left. I should have plenty of time to evaluate the state of the playground and still grab a smoothie and chat with Berry for a bit. Determined to accomplish this mission I had given myself, and also feeling mildly motivated to do some exercise, I ended up taking off towards the school at a quick jog. After about three blocks, I sped myself up to a run as I warmed up. The pavement flew beneath my hooves like nothing, and I felt not even the slightest hint of exhaustion. I again kicked up the speed to what must have been a dead sprint, and I began to feel the first hints of fatigue creeping up on me. All too soon, the school came into view and I dropped my speed to a slow jog to cool down. I looked at my watch, and I had to stare at it for a few seconds before I finally believed it. I had run about three miles in a bit over ten minutes. Holy fuck, I loved having four legs.
As the adrenaline slowly faded, I walked over to look over the equipment. At first, it looked simple enough. There was some corrosion and some loose nuts and bolts, but nothing too serious at all. One of the pieces was wrapped up in warning tape, likely the scene of the accident earlier. As I looked closer, I could see where one of the struts on the climbing gym had broken. Looking closely at the breaking point, I could see that it was a fatigue fracture. If you take a paperclip and bend it back and forth repeatedly, it will break. Each time it bends, it forms small stress cracks. Over time these build up, and if not addressed they can cause a catastrophic failure of structural integrity. To put it simply, it will break. This is a fatigue fracture, and that is exactly what had happened here. Looking at the other struts and cross members, it was clear that it was a widespread problem.
I moved from one piece of equipment to another, and over all, everything was in pretty good condition. It could all be fixed with a bit of elbow grease and some time....everything but the climbing gym, that is. That would require some extra loving to get back to operational status. My assessment concluded, I picked up a canter towards Berry's. Once I had warmed back up, I moved on into a dead sprint, reveling in the feeling of speed and of freedom. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, I was turning the corner to Berry's. Again I slowed to allow myself a cool down period, and by the time I was at her door I had nearly caught my breath.
I was breathing a bit heavily and sweating slightly as I walked into the shop, and DAMN it felt good. As much as I complain about it, I do love a good run. Berry however, must not have been expecting a pumped up pegasus to come sauntering through her door, and she regarded me wearily for a moment before speaking.
"Well...where's the fire?"
"No fire. I just felt like going for a run....I feel pretty pumped right now."
"Now I've seen everything...a pegasus that likes to run. Go figure. You are a strange one, Flyboy."
"I try. Thank you for noticing."
"Yeah yeah, I'm amazing. "
Berry punctuated this last exchange with a casual wave of her hoof. She spoke up again before I had a chance to.
"Same thing as last night, Flyboy?"
"You know, I'll have to come up with a nickname for you now. Can't let you have all the fun, now can I?"
"Was that a yes?"
My reply was met by a blank stare. Berry just shook her head and began to make me one anyways. By the time she had finished I had already fished the bits from my saddlebags and stacked them neatly on the counter. The exchange was made and I took the same seat I had the night before. As she had the night before, Berry once again sat across from me. In time, this would become our routine each night. We would regale each other with stories from our lives over a smoothie. For that night, however, I only had a limited amount of time to spend, and soon I had to leave to report back to Scruffy. Waving farewell, I set back out to the clinic. I arrived precisely at zero three forty, and had plenty of time to catch my breath and calm the beating of my heart.
I spent a few minutes conversing with Nurse Tenderheart, who was still covering the front desk. She told me that Joy had been looking for me earlier, but that something had come up a little while ago and she was going to be occupied for a bit. I nodded and thanked her before setting off to the sanitation alcove. When I walked in, everything was right in the universe: Scruffy was seated in the place of honor, his customary newspaper opened to some unknowable story. Before I even spoke up, he beat me to it.
"Ten minutes early is on time. On time is ten minutes late, and late is wrong."
Scruffy seemed to think about this for a moment before grunting and nodding. I took a seat across from him, and popped open a newspaper of my own, reading the words without anything sinking in. I was pondering how best to fix the playground equipment so the young ones could have a place to frolic during their free period. I was so deep in thought that I almost didn't hear Scruffy clear his throat to get my attention. Looking up at him, he simply jerked his head towards the door, indicating that I was free to leave. I nodded and disrobed of my utility barding, hanging it up on my way out. As I walked out the door I could have sworn I heard Scruffy mumble "congratulations" though I couldn't be sure. I was debating waiting for Joy on the bench where I had met her that first day, but as soon as I stepped outside I decided it was simply too beautiful not to go running.
I popped back into the reception area to let Nurse Tenderheart know that I was going for a run, and that if Joy was still here when I got back I would walk her home. She nodded in acknowledgement, and I turned around and started off at a slow jog. Even though I had been running for a good while by this point, I felt nothing of the exhaustion one would expect. The sun was just beginning to light the horizon as I slowly increased my speed. Once again I had settled into what should have been nothing less than an all out sprint, yet I felt very little exertion from it.
To my surprise, I discovered that I could push myself farther yet, my legs a veritable blur beneath me. I soon left the metropolitan area of Ponyville (if you could call it that) and was threading my way through the outskirts.I must have run at least halfway around the town before I slowed to a canter to check my watch. Only twenty minutes had elapsed since I had left the clinic, so I picked my pace back up and circled back. On the way back, the exertion finally began to catch up to me, and I could feel my lungs burning as my legs grew steadily heavier. I pushed through despite this, and by the time I had arrived at the clinic I was completely winded, gasping for breath. I stretched out my muscles as best I could, wiping away the sweat on my brow. I took a few moments to breathe deeply and calm my racing pulse.
All of the exertion had taken its toll on my damaged muscles, and they burned in protest. I reached into the bag and pulled out my dose of painkillers and swallowed it dry.
At least, I tried to. My throat was so dry the medication only made it halfway. Reluctantly, I dragged my sweaty, smelly self inside to get some water. As I was passing through the halls on my way to the latrine, I couldn't help but notice that I was being stared at by everypony I walked past. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out what everypony was staring at. Every nurse I passed did the same thing. By the time I had arrived at the latrine I was one paranoid parrot. I must have something horrible attached to me, or perhaps my wings had fallen off...it only took a single glance at the mirror to calm my fears...and also to boost my ego to dangerous levels.
As I looked in the mirror, I barely recognized the pegasus staring back at me. My coat was slightly darker and matted with perspiration, causing it to lay flat and subsequently showcase every one of my muscles. My healthy diet and constant exercise had contributed to my lean and muscular physique, and each one of the muscle groups was slightly swollen from the exertion, causing them to stand out more than usual. Between the swelling and the matted coat, I looked like I was chiseled from stone. Despite my tendency to exaggerate my own physical condition to cater to my ego, even I had to admit that I felt amazing. Suddenly all of the stares made sense. I had an ego to stoke, so I quickly drank from the tap and sauntered back to the exit, basking in the warmth of the open mouth staring that I was receiving.
As I walked through the door to the lobby, Joy caught sight of me from the corner of her eye and turned to greet me. Whatever she had been about to say died on her lips as her mouth fell open, eyes widening to the size of dinner plates. She was turning a bit red in the cheeks as I approached. I spoke up, my voice still a little shaky from the run.
"You ready to go? I kinda need to take a shower."
It seemed to be all she could manage to nod. I began to walk out of the clinic when I noticed that she was not by my side. I turned to look back and see what was keeping her, and I kinda wished I didn't. At the very least, there were eight pairs of eyes fixed on my hindquarters as I walked away. Yep, this had just gone from being really good for my ego to pretty damned creepy in ten seconds flat. Unconsciously, my tail swished, and that seemed to break the trance. All eight pairs of eyes broke free from their previous target and stared me in the eyes. All eight pairs suddenly looked elsewhere, every pony to whom they belonged turning quite red.
I decided I would wait outside for Joy. I had barely stepped through the door before I heard Joy approaching from behind. I quickly looked back to confirm it was her, and I was rewarded with seeing her sporting a "deer-in-the-headlights" look as I caught her staring at my flank. She pulled her tried and true "tomato" impression, much to my amusement. We walked in silence for a few moments before she spoke up.
"Hehehe....yeah, I went for a run this morning. It feels great to exercise again."
"You look...really good... yeah."
"Thanks. You don't look so bad yourself..."
At this, Joy hung her head.
"Yeah right. I wish I had a figure like that..."
"Want this one?"
I punctuated this question with a wink, reducing her to a stuttering mess again. This was simply too much fun...she tried valiantly to recover.
I cut her off before she got too far.
"If you like, we could work out sometime. It's not hard, you just have to stick with it. That's all it takes."
Joy seemed to contemplate this for a moment before nodding in agreement.
"Actually, that sounds wonderful. I'd like that very much."
"Great! All we have to do now is find the time for it."
The conversation continued in much the same fashion for the rest of the walk home. As we neared the house, I mentioned my plan to try and fix up some of the playground fixtures at the school, an idea that Joy simply fell in love with. She was very proud of me for wanting to go the extra mile to help out, and she even volunteered to help. There is no way I could possibly say no. Even if not for the puppy dog eyes and the very obvious satisfaction it would bring her to do something for the foals, there is no way to deny the value of having cheating unicorn magic on your team...especially when you lack opposable thumbs.
As it turned out, we both had the day off Saturday, so we decided that we would borrow some tools from Scruffy and see what we could do to fix the playground fixtures. Before we knew it, our conversation had made the distance disappear, and we were standing on the porch. My exhaustion crashed down upon me like a tidal wave, and I could do nothing to stifle a yawn. Of course, this made Joy yawn as well, which made me want to yawn... I barged into the house before we were trapped in a recursive cycle of yawning for all of eternity.
All I wanted to do was go to bed...
But first, a shower.
End of Day 4.