By the time I had showered and gotten to bed, it was already nearly zero six, and I was so exhausted I think I might have fallen asleep even before my head had hit the pillow.
You know the expression "let sleeping dogs lie"? Well, apparently Joy didn't.
I was roused abruptly from my slumber by the sensation of being caught up in a magnitude seven earthquake. My initial instinct was to flop about and scream like a frightened child, but that was quelled before it began by the delightful sound that accompanied the quake.
"Dave Dave Dave wake up wake up! C'mon, sleepyhead. Get up!"
Ah, Joy. My blessing; my curse. I would be the one to bond with the single-perkiest morning mare I had ever met, now wouldn't I...as I attempted to still my racing heart, I took a series of deep breaths before looking up at this biological alarm clock.
Joy was grinning ear to ear, bursting with excitement for some unfathomable reason or another. As much as I wanted to be cranky for my abrupt awakening, I simply could not. Have I mentioned before that this mare is too damned cute for her own good? She is too cute for MY own good, as well. Makes sense if you don't think about it. In spite of myself, I cracked a wan smile back at the mare.
"Joy? You know I'm not a morning pony, right?"
"I gathered, yes. But that's okay, because it's the afternoon now."
I once upon a time had the ability to restrain from facehoofing. As Joy answered my question, a little pony in the back of my head was narrating my thoughts. 'Dave has the ability to withhold a facehoof... aaaand it's gone.'
And then I facehoofed.
It might be the afternoon, but I didn't have enough sleep for this. From the other side of my hoof, I could hear Joy snickering at my reaction. My, how the tables have turned.
Groaning, I attempted to stand. I really wasn't all that surprised when my limbs only half heartedly responded to my will, allowing me to rise a couple inches before flopping back down. I'm a pegasus…I don't need these friggin limbs, right? Good, that's what I thought. If ever these appendages decided to obey my commands, all of Equestria will tremble before the mighty pounding of my hooves; hooves that bowed to my will and did as I pleased.
Did I mention that I wasn't quite awake yet?
I must have zoned out again, because Joy interrupted my fantasy by waving a hoof in front of my face. Blinking in confusion, I stared at her for a moment. She was returning my gaze with an expectant look. I broke the silence this time.
"May I…help you?"
Wrong answer. Her expectant gaze morphed into an almost maniacal smile as her horn began to glow. I felt the effervescent glow of her magic wrap around me, and I knew that I had inadvertently boned myself, having somehow volunteered for something as yet unknown.
Fuck me running. Why do I always do this? One of these days, I'll actually remember to THINK before I speak, and when that happens, look out world! I'll be unstoppable. In the mean time though, I was set down a bit roughly by the front door.
I'm certain it was not Joy's intent to drop me like a hot potato, but what should have been a graceful landing was pretty much spoiled by a lack of cooperation from my supporting appendages. She regarded me with an ashamed look, as if appalled that she had dropped her charge so roughly, but I waved her off with a casual hoof.
"Meh, it's not so bad. After all, I've had much harder landings recently."
Her worries assuaged, Joy took off down the hallway, turning a corner before disappearing up the stairs. I stood at the threshold of Casa Redheart, wallowing in a pit of jealousy at the incredible display of early morning coordination I had just witnessed. When I grow up, I want to be able to do THAT.
My envious funk was dispelled by a set of riveting blue orbs that seemed veritably luminous in contrast to the gloom of the hallway. As she exited the hallway and stepped into the better-lit foyer area, Joy was simply radiant. Her eyes shone like diamonds, twinkling like stars in the night sky in the glow from her eager smile.
Though I still had no idea what exactly it was that I had gotten myself into, seeing the unadulterated glee that possessed Joy left me with a strange sense of excitement as well. As rapt as I was at the sight of this splendid mare, I failed to notice the blue glow approaching from my right until it was too late. My daze was abruptly broken by the impact of my saddlebags against my ribs. I hissed at the contact, as much from the pain as from the breaking of my trance.
"I'm so sorry, Dave! I thought you would grab them, or…something. Are you okay?"
Joy blushed heavily in shame at having injured me a second time in less than five minutes, and I tried to dismiss her concerns with a casual wave of the hoof, to moderate effect.
"Heh…my hoof-eye coordination is a bit…lacking when I wake up."
"You don't say?"
Shut the front door. Was my Joy using sarcasm? I…I think I need to lay down…
Joy could clearly see she had won this round, and took a bit more pleasure from this than might be necessary. And you know what? I couldn't even be upset at this. She was in such a good humor that it was impossible to be unhappy in her presence, and for the first time I truly understood how infectious a good mood could be. I finished affixing my saddlebags as Joy opened up the door and reveled in the light of the mid-afternoon sun.
She was simply radiant. To call her anything less would be tantamount to an insult.
She opened her eyes, shaking off her reverie, and cast a glance back over her shoulder at me. The only way I can possibly describe the expression she shot me would be to call it "smoldering". Her half-lidded eyes, her single raised eyebrow, the smirk she wore, and the way she was looking over her shoulder at me all conspired to stir feelings in a part of me that was not allowed to feel things.
She held her gaze for but a moment before she casually flicked her mane and took off out the door, her words trailing behind her.
"Are you coming or not?"
Not yet, I'm not…but if you keep that up…
I violently shook my head to derail that train of thought as I called back a more appropriate response.
"Yeah, I'm going, I'm going…"
I walked out the door, squinting a moment in the bright sunlight as my eyes adjusted. I closed the door behind me and quickened my pace to catch up to Joy, who had opted not to wait for me. With no small amount of bitterness, I internally scolded my mutinous limbs.
'Oh, sure…you bastards can't be bothered to catch me when I'm dropped a foot onto the tile, but when it comes time to follow a magnificent flank, all the sudden you guys are in perfect working order. Soon as my wings are healed, the lot of you are going to be out of a job.'
A swish of color somewhere ahead of me caught my attention. My eyes automatically focused on the movement to identify it, and it turned out that it was just Joy's tail. But the universe and the powers that be apparently weren't satisfied that I knew I was but an object of their amusement; As soon as my eyes had locked on the swishy object in front of me, Joy cast a glance back at me.
And just like that, I had been caught staring at her flanks…even though I wasn’t. I could feel my cheeks getting rosy, a sensation that was becoming entirely too common as of late. Just before I hung my head in shame, I caught sight of a devious glint in this cerulean mare's eye.
There was no way…she couldn't have…I don’t think…son of a bitch.
She did it on purpose. She swished her tail to catch my attention, and then looked back to make me feel like I'd been caught doing something naughty. And much to my chagrin, it worked. What had happened to that shy nurse from the first night? Not only was she not blushing as much as she did before, now she was using sarcasm and was trolling me?
Either she was a damned quick learner, or she was getting used to me and opening up a bit more. One way or the other, I was going to have to stay on my toes around this crafty mare. To preclude further shenanigans, I decided the safest place to be was most certainly not right behind Joy. Though, the view was pretty nice…Back on track, Casanova.
I drew up abreast of Joy, and I swear she looked a little disappointed. Before she had another chance to mess with me before my brain fully warmed up, I decided I had a few questions to ask, starting with the obvious one.
"So, Joy…where are we going?"
"Remember the thing we talked about last night? About fixing up the playground?"
"Ummm…yes, yes I do. But I thought we were going to do that on Saturday?"
Being cryptic, are we. Fine then.
"Joy, you are aware that today is Friday, right?"
"I know what day it is, Dave."
"Alright, alright…I didn't mean to push any buttons. I'm just not quite sure what we are doing, is all."
"Dave, I swear…sometimes you can be so dense…"
At this, Joy cast a sidelong glance at me along with a smile, indicating that she was just poking fun. Good thing, too…I might have been a bit indignant if not for the easy smile she wore. Now that I knew I was being toyed with, I decided to join in the fun.
"Well…most of the time. Part of your charm, I suppose."
At this, we shared a look and a bit of a giggle. If there's something I'm good at, it's making fun of myself.
"Well, seeing as how I am charmingly dense, why don't you break it down for me?"
"I guess I'll have to. I asked you if you remembered the plan. I never said we would actually be doing it, now did I?"
I shook my head.
"Right. Well, I wanted to gather a few things today, so we wouldn’t have to do it tomorrow. That way, we will have more time to actually fix things."
"Makes perfect sense. So, what all are we going to pick up?"
"I was hoping you could tell me, actually. You're the one that actually looked over the equipment, so it stands to reason that you know what we'd need to fix it."
"Huh. Give me a minute to think about what we'll need."
"Only a minute, huh?"
"Well…maybe a few minutes…"
This elicited another laugh from the both of us. I reflected back on everything I had seen the night before. For the most part, everything was in decent enough condition and could be fixed up with a coat of paint. That which wasn't in such good repair could easily be swapped out with some new timber…the question is, how much timber would we need?
Most of the cross members are about a shoulder and a half long, and from what I saw, there were about a half dozen that would need replacing. So, about nine shoulders, plus another half shoulder or so to compensate for errors in measurement.
Fixing a reasonable figure in my head, I looked up at Joy. She was walking absentmindedly next to me, humming something I couldn’t quite recognize. I cleared my throat to get her attention, causing her to pause in the midst of a verse and regard me skeptically.
"So, I figured out how much material we need."
"Alright, what did you come up with?"
"By my estimation, we will need about ten shoulders of timber, a box of nails, some paint supplies, and some two-part epoxy."
Joy had been nodding in agreement with my list right up until I had listed off the epoxy.
"Epoxy? What for?"
"Unless that talented horn of yours can fix iron as well as it can fix ponies, we'll need it for the jungle gym."
Joy's' eyebrows raised in a gesture of understanding. She seemingly drifted off, lost in thought. I took a moment to try and figure out where exactly we were in town, twisting and turning my neck to locate some landmarks. Once I had succeeded in that, it only took me a moment to figure out that we were in the northwest sector of town, a place I had yet to visit. This section of town was filled with blank façades of buildings, their unmarked faces giving no indication as to what they held.
Interspersed randomly amongst the blank buildings were assorted specialty shops. Among the ones that caught my eye was one which only sold quills and couches. Before I could give myself a headache trying to figure out how a place like that stayed in business very long, I let it go and filed it under "things that just…are", a mental filing cabinet that was getting more and more cramped by the hour.
Finally, we arrived at our destination: a tiny little shop by the name of "Screwball's". Can you guess what they sold here? If you guessed sports equipment and hardware, give yourself a pat on the back. The first word that came to mind when I saw the store was "hovel", though it was hardly accurate. The store might have been a bit cozy, and the lighting left something to be desired, but the entire store was immaculate from top to bottom. Not a single item was out of place, nor was there a speck of dust to be found.
As I meandered through the aisles, I could see that even the nails were lined up in an orderly fashion. This was either the product of that cheating unicorn magic I was so jealous of, or a sign of some sort of compulsive disorder. As I looked away from the somewhat entrancing sight of so many small parts aligned dress-right-dress, I was relieved to see that it was the former of the two possibilities. Looking up from behind a desk littered with small tools of various shapes and sizes was a grandfatherly looking unicorn, bespectacled as he was by several sets of lenses attached to a most unusual pair of glasses.
It became clear to me what the glasses were for as I walked towards him to ask for assistance. Each of the assorted lenses was attached to the frame of the spectacles by a fine brass armature, and I recognized it as a variable-magnification pair of jewelers' glasses. I greeted the unicorn with a polite bow of my head.
He returned the gesture in kind, concluding the formalities, and we got down to business.
"Afternoon, sir. Do you carry lumber here?"
The elder unicorn tapped his hoof to his chin for a moment as he thought.
"Usually just from the wagon into the back of the store, as much as I can help it."
I was torn between facehoofing and chuckling, but I opted for the second option. The rest of the transaction passed in much the same way, and by the time I had acquired everything we would need I was in pretty good spirits. At some point in our banter, Joy had come up behind me and was giggling like a school filly by the end of it. I paid for the materials, placing the paint, the brushes, and the nails into my saddlebags. Despite holding three gallons of paint each (in addition to all the other crud in there), the saddlebags did not bulge in the slightest to betray their contents.
Yet another thing to file away in that over-stuffed cabinet in my head…
Once the owner heard what the supplies were for, he not only gave us a ten percent discount on everything we bought, but he also promised to deliver the timber to the schoolyard in the morning, free of charge. Upon hearing the news, Joy looked so happy she could cry. As we settled the tab and thanked the owner again, I took a moment to introduce myself, reaching out for a hoofshake.
"Sir, thank you again for everything. It occurs to me now that I have been quite rude, and have not introduced myself. My name is Dave, and I am truly pleased to make your acquaintance, Mister…?"
The owner met my hoof with his, and let me tell you; his appearance of age belied his vigor.
"Ash. Ash Longshank. Good to meet you, too. It's refreshing to see that young ponies still have manners these days. Sometimes, I wonder…bah, that's a story for another day. Dave, would you care to introduce me to this darling mare accompanying you?"
Hearing herself referred to as 'darling' by this gentlecolt made Joy blush deeply, though she could not hide her smile. I proceeded to introduce her.
"This lovely mare right here's named Joy."
Hearing her name, Joy reached out a hoof and favored Ash with a bashful smile a certain butter-colored pegasus would be proud of. If her blush was red before, it became positively crimson at what Ash did next. Taking her hoof in his, he gave it a quick peck.
"Pleased to meet you, Miss Joy."
Joy just sorta sat there for a moment in shock, slowly turning darker and darker shades of scarlet. I decided to try and intervene on her behalf, as she had done for me on more than one occasion.
"Aaaannndd…she's gone. You'll have to pardon her, Ash. She is sadly unfamiliar with the concept of chivalry, and I'm fairly certain she wasn't prepared for that."
Ash looked positively chastised at this, and quickly apologized.
"I beg your pardon, Miss Joy. I didn't mean to distress you."
Joy seemed to rouse at this, and she quickly spoke up to reassure Ash that he had done nothing out of line.
"Oh, no, no…it's nothing like that, Ash. I'm just…not very used to receiving kindness, that's all. Well, before THIS colt came along, that is."
The frosty glare that Ash had affixed me with at the "kindness" remark melted away as Joy concluded her statement, nodding her head in my direction. Before things had a chance to get awkward again, I interjected a farewell. Perhaps I cut the conversation off a bit abruptly, but there didn't appear to be any hard feelings among those present. With a final wave goodbye, Joy and I exited the hardware and sports shop.
We were headed back in the general direction of our domicile when a random question bubbled to the top of my head. Being entirely stumped by this question, I decided to ask Joy what she thought.
"Huh? What's up, Dave?"
"I was wondering…What are the hours of operation for Berry's?"
"Huh…that…that is a really good question."
"So, you're saying you don't know?"
"I never really thought about it. Give me a minute to think…"
"Only a minute?"
Joy shot me a mock-angry glare.
"That's my line, buddy."
To this, I just smiled. It was nice to not be on the defensive again. As Joy tried to puzzle out Berry's hours of operation, she began to mumble to herself. I walked a bit closer, trying to listen in on her ramblings.
"Well…she caters to the clinic staff during the night shift…but she is also open during the day for the rest of the town…when does she sleep?"
From there, her grumblings grew quieter and more jumbled to the point that they were incomprehensible. Several moments passed before she spoke up.
"Well…her usual hours are from around zero six to about twenty-two…but you said she was there at four something last night?"
"Almost. I went by there at right around zero three."
"Hmmm…was she expecting you?"
"Possibly. I'd mentioned that I'd be stopping by last night, but I never said when."
"Well, I suppose it's possible that she waited for you, as unlikely as it seems. That's the best explanation I can come up with, even if it does have a few holes in it."
I simply shrugged. Into the filing cabinet it goes…I was in the midst of contemplating what might happen if this filing cabinet of mine ever overflowed when my stomach interrupted my thought process. I was about to reiterate the concerns voiced by my gastrointestinal tract when Joy preempted me.
"I heard that. We're almost home…think you can survive that long?"
"I'll do my best."
I stuck my tongue out at her. I was standing behind and slightly to the right of Joy, well out of her line of sight, so I pretty much figured she would be none the wiser to my antics.
One of these days, I'll learn.
Through some form of cheating unicorn magic or another, I was proved wrong. Even as I began to retract my tongue it was surrounded by a deep blue glow. The effervescent aura wrapped around the offending appendage, preventing me from returning it to its rightful place in my mouth. Even as the situation registered in my mind, a voice called out from ahead of me.
"Dave, you seem to have dropped this. Don't worry, I'll hold on to it for you."
"Wha? Gimme bath ma thung!"
"Dave, don't talk with your mouth full. It's not polite."
"Buth you goth my thung!"
"I've already asked you not to talk with your mouth full. Besides, it's hard to understand you with your hoof in your mouth like that."
Damn…I was going to need some ice for that burn. I began wondering when Joy was going to let me go…Her point had been made, and she didn't seem like one to humiliate somepony by parading them around town by their tongue, and yet my tongue was still firmly in her grasp. Just as I was becoming convinced that she intended to do just that, the blue aura faded, and my tongue retreated back to its normal position like a scalded wiener dog.
Don't ask how I come up with these similes…I'm not even sure.
As I worked my jaw in circles to restore feeling, again I heard Joy call out from ahead.
"Learned your lesson?"
"Yes…'never stick your tongue out at unicorns with eyes in the backs of their heads'."
Joy shot me a sidelong glance before rolling her eyes in frustration. I swear, if she kept doing that, one day they were just going to keep rolling and she'd end up looking like Derpy.
"Hey, Joy? All shenanigans aside, how'd you do that?"
My question caught her off guard, and she actually smiled a bit as she explained herself.
"It was actually an accident. We were discussing your imminent starvation, and after you failed to respond to my last rebuttal, I went to bop your nose. As I gathered the magic, what should I happen to find but a tongue? I figured you must have dropped it, so I picked it up for you. No need to thank me, though. Just doing my part."
I had to hand it to her, that was pretty crafty. Underhooved, but crafty.
As we walked into the house, my stomach reminded everypony within earshot that it still had not been fed. Joy whipped up a quick meal, comprising of a few sandwiches and a side of some sort of bean…abomination. Concoction, I mean. Concoction, not abomination. Anyways, our dinner consisted of sandwiches and a side of beans, which was actually much tastier than it sounded.
After the beast within my gut had been satisfied, Joy began to ask questions about our upcoming exercise regimen. I'd almost forgotten about that…
"So, when do we start?"
"Why not today?"
"Because we just ate, and you might just see it again if we were to exercise right now."
"Well…why not later? Or in the morning?"
"Neither one of those would be a good idea, since we are going to be doing a lot of manual labor tomorrow."
"Alright, fine. So, what are we doing on Sunday?"
"Honestly, it depends on several factors. Most important will be how dead we are from working on the playground tomorrow. We'll just go from there."
"Several factors, huh? What are the other ones?"
I couldn't tell if she really wanted to know, or if she was just trying to call my bluff. Either way, I answered as best I could.
"Well, let me respond to your question with one of my own. What are you trying to get out of this? Are you looking to get slimmer, build muscle, or just get toned?"
"I'd say…get toned."
"For that, we'll just stick to my old routine. Cardio three days a week, muscle failure two days a week, one day of resistance training, and a day of rest. Sound good?"
"Actually, when you say it like that…it's a bit intimidating."
"All you have to do is give it your all. Do that, and the rest will fall into place."
"Trust me. It will suck, but it will get easier the more you do it."
"Well, that inspires confidence…"
"Hey, it's what I do."
I concluded my remark with a wink and my best "used car salesman" smile. Joy remained skeptical. We continued to discuss our plans for the coming weeks, and the more we talked about the subject of exercise, the more excited Joy grew. It was about nineteen hundred when she finally snapped.
"I can't wait…I'm too excited. Could we start tonight?"
"Joy, didn’t we already go over this?"
"Well, yeah…but what if we take it slow? Call it a warm up or something?"
"I'm not sure it's a good idea. After all, what if you wear yourself out tonight? We won't be very effective tomorrow if we can barely walk."
"Well…you might not be…"
Joy punctuated her remark by tapping the tip of her horn. Damned cheating magical appendages…I've got to get one of those. Hmmm…if I DID get one, would I become an Alicorn? If I was an Alicorn, would I be a prince? Wait…that Blueblood fellow is a prince…so I'd be above him…in theory anyways…a Jack? Is there such thing as a Jack in the hierarchy of a monarchy? I am not qualified for anything above that, really. To be honest, I'm pretty sure "court jester" is out of my qualifications range. Hmmm...
Again, I was snapped from my reverie by a hoof waving in front of my face.
"Dave, has anypony ever told you that you zone out entirely too frequently?"
"A time or five. Anyways, back to the matter at hoof."
"If you are so dead set on this, we could go for a sedate little jog tonight. Nothing crazy, just something to get the blood pumping. Sound good?"
Joy's reply was a nearly bone-crushing hug. Even through the haze of medication, the pain was still plenty sharp enough to elicit a wince from me. Joy released her grip, still beaming ear to ear.
"Well? What are you waiting for? Let's get going!"
I got to my hooves with a sigh and headed out the door. What have I gotten myself into? I haven't even hydrated properly…this is going to suck.
I just hoped that Joy would give out before I did…otherwise, this would be pretty embarrassing.
No sooner had we stepped outside than Joy took off running. I called out to her.
"Joy! Where are you going?"
She stopped abruptly, turning to face me.
At this, she simply hung her head and began to walk back.
After a few minutes of stretching, I figured we were about as ready as we would ever be. Signaling to Joy, I started off at a brisk trot. As per the instructions I had given while we were stretching, Joy remained by my side. As we warmed up from a trot into a light canter, Joy kept asking to run faster.
"I thought we were going to get some cardio?"
"Not at this pace, we aren't."
"That's because we are still warming up."
"Can we warm up faster?"
"That wouldn't be a good idea."
"Trust me on this one."
As we had been conversing, I had slowly but steadily sped up, and Joy's reply was cut off as she began to focus on her breathing. And so it began.
We were running at a moderate pace over flat ground, and the amount of effort I had to put into my stride was almost non-existent. Joy, on the other hoof, seemed to be having a much rougher time of it.
I observed her as best I could while the two of us were running and avoiding hazards in the road, and soon I began to pick out things that she could improve on.
First was her stride. The only way to describe it would be to call it 'stiff'. As she ran, her legs remained almost straight, both on the push off and the forward stroke, and it was taking a toll on her stamina. There was no fluid movement, only a jerky scuttle.
The next thing I noticed was being compounded by the first: Joy's breathing was coming in short, rapid breaths. She was not expanding her lungs as fully as she could, reducing her oxygen intake.
Finally, there was her pacing. Rather, her lack thereof. Even though I was running next to her and keeping a steady pace, she kept alternately pulling ahead and falling behind. She would sprint to catch up and wind up ahead of me, then slow down to match my speed and end up falling behind, and the cycle would repeat. We had only gone about a mile before I brought us to a halt.
Despite her best attempts to hide it, her stamina was just about gone. I had her keep walking once we stopped, to prevent lactic acid from building up in her muscles. As she walked in slow circles around me, I gave her a few pointers on her form and her breathing. Did I expect this to make an immediate, significant impact on her running? No, I did not. Did I expect it to make enough of an impact to make her realize the validity of my advice? Without a doubt.
Once Joy had gotten her breath under control, we set off back towards the house. As soon as the pace picked up, the difference was clear. Though her stride could still use some work, it was much more fluid than it had been. Likewise, her breathing was more even, more measured. Her pace still sucked, but she was doing much better at keeping next to me.
Despite the improvements, we had only made it about halfway back before I noticed her breathing growing shallow and ragged again, her steps becoming more erratic. Immediately, I brought us to a full stop and had Joy stand in place for a moment. As she stood, she swayed slightly on her hooves, and she was blinking rapidly as if she was trying to clear her vision.
"Joy? Joy, are you okay?"
"I feel…a bit…dizzy."
She spoke between deep breaths.
"Joy, come here. We're going to walk back now, but I want you to lean against me, okay?"
She complied without a complaint. I recognized her symptoms from my own past, having had them myself on several occasions. She was dehydrated, and her blood wasn't carrying enough oxygen to her brain, causing mild disorientation and dizziness.
I have to admit, I enjoyed the feeling of this mare leaning against me more than I probably should have. In my defense though, she seemed to enjoy it as well. By the time we drew near the house, her breathing had slowed to normal levels, as had her pulse, yet she still leaned against me. I wasn't going to complain, though.
Once we arrived back at the house, we took a solid ten minutes to do some deep stretching, trying to force out as much of the built up lactic acid as we could.
On a completely unrelated note, the hamstring stretch looks extremely provocative when a mare does it…just sayin'. As we were stretching, I decided to take a moment to give Joy some feedback from the run.
"You might have gotten off to a rough start, but on the way back you were doing MUCH better. With a bit more practice, you'll be running ten miles like nothing."
"Heh. How far did we run tonight? Four miles?"
"Ummm…about one and a half."
"One and a half?"
"Yeah, that's about right."
"Wow…I thought we ran a lot farther than that…now I feel out of shape."
"Compared to the first time I ran, you are doing pretty darn well."
"You don't need to try and make me feel better. I appreciate it and all, but it isn't necessary. If I view this as a failure, then I'll just try that much harder next time."
I contemplated this for a moment before I replied with a maniacal grin.
"In that case…that was supposed to be a twenty six mile run. Looks like you've got some work ahead of you!"
Joy replied with a grin, and I could see the gears in her head turning as she contemplated the challenge before her. With a brief nod, she accepted the challenge.
"Thank you. I enjoyed that, even though it was a lot harder than I expected."
"That's what she said."
"What who said?"
"Just…never mind. I'll explain it later, alright?"
"Who is this 'she' you're talking about? I'm confused."
"It's a joke where I come from. Like I said, I'll get into it later. First, I think we both need to hit the showers."
Sniffing inquisitively at herself, Joy blanched.
"Yuck…you're right about that."
"I told you so. Also, you are going to want to drink a LOT of water tonight. And stretch, too."
"Dave. I'm a nurse, remember?"
"It's alright. Say, think you could help me wash my back? It's just so hard to reach…I could really use a big, strong stallion to help me get those...hard to reach places…"
ERROR 404: BRAIN NOT FOUND.
In my mind, there was chaos. I had one pony throwing a fit, screaming "DO IT!" over and over and over, there was another who was telling me that I shouldn't do it for some reason or another, another was crying in the corner, and one simply looked around and said "fuck it" while putting on some shades. Shades Pony then took a seat in a plastic lawn chair before yelling "PUNCH OUT! PUNCH OUT! PUNCH OUT!" and pulling a mysterious handle, causing him to rocket away on a tower of flames and smoke. Lawn chair...ejection seat?
Somepony, somewhere, must have pulled the plug, seeing as how everything went white for a second before my eyes were able to focus again. Whatever happened must have caused a hard reset, because I was once again aware of my surroundings. Namely, I was aware of the mare whose face was extremely proximal to mine. She must have seen the light come on in my head, because she spoke up as soon as my brain started to function again.
"You're so cute when you're flustered. Has anypony ever told you that?"
"I thought as much. I'll be upstairs…"
Joy punctuated this last phrase with a wink as she swished away from me, across the threshold and into the gloom of the interior. After another moment had passed, I shook the images from my brain and headed into the house. As soon as the door closed behind me, the shower upstairs came to life. I was now faced with what might be one of the most difficult choices I've had to make in several years.
Straight ahead was the hallway which led to the stairs. To my right lay the living room and the guest shower. Within the next thirty seconds, I would be in a shower, one way or the other. Choices, choices. My hooves began to move of their own accord, in a predictable direction. Of course, leave it to these four yahoos to make up my mind for me. Even as I was taking the first step towards the hallway, I knew it wasn't right.
As much as I wanted to, (and you can bet a shiny nickel that I wanted to) I knew deep down that nothing good would come of it. Nothing good ever came from rushing headlong into these situations.
Finally demonstrating an ability to force my limbs to bend to my will, I turned away from the hallway and the stairs therein, heading to the guest shower instead. Without stopping to let the water heat up, I stripped out of my saddlebags and stepped right into the arctic runoff of the shower. Even this frigid deluge took a moment to clear my mind, stripping away my thoughts one by one, until there were but two thoughts remaining.
The first thought that remained was simply the knowledge that I had done the right thing. By no means was it easy to do, but that just made all the more satisfying to have done.
The second thought was a much simpler one, untainted by various perceptions of right and wrong, moral and reprehensible, or good and bad. It was simply: "I am fucking freezing."
I stayed in the shower until I was shaking so hard it was difficult to stand. Vaguely, I realized that I was far more resistant to cold than I had been in the past, another side effect of being a pegasus, I suppose. Even after I had toweled off, I was still shivering violently from the cold. Perhaps I overdid it a little…oh well. It had the desired effect in that it had clarified my mind, allowing me to see things objectively.
Still shivering, I made my way out to the living room, quite intent on flopping into bed and bundling up in as many sheets as I could wrap around myself. My plans were nearly derailed as I beheld a sight that made me consider returning to the shower.
Stretched out on the bed was Joy, lying on her side with her head propped up with a hoof.
Paint her like one of your French mares.
Shut up, brain. Don't make me stab you with a Q-tip.
Just as I was debating a return to the shower, I was wracked by an especially powerful, convulsive shiver that drove me to my knees. About this time, Joy grasped the fact that I was shivering violently, something she had failed to notice earlier in the dim light. All traces of anything other than a nurse disappeared in an instant as Joy rushed over to evaluate me.
As soon as she laid a hoof on me, her demeanor took on a hard edge.
"Dave, why are you so cold?"
"I n-needed a c-cold sh-shower."
"How long were you in there?"
Not bothering to ask questions to which there were obvious answers, Nurse Joy wrapped me in her magical embrace and set me roughly on the couch-bed. I was immediately mummified in blankets as Nurse Joy disappeared from sight for a moment, only to return with a thermometer. I opened my mouth to accept the instrument, and as the seconds ticked by Nurse Joy's expression grew more and more concerned.
In an instant, I had been de-mummified as all of the blankets were removed from my body. Before I had time to ponder this, my entire back was set aflame. I tried to shimmy away from the burning feeling, only to find a pair of cerulean forelegs wrapped tightly around me, holding me fast. Every part of my skin that they touched burned as if immolated. I tried to shimmy out of this infernal grasp, only to find myself held tighter.
In my ear, a familiar voice whispered to me.
"Dave, stop fighting me. This is for your own good; you are hypothermic, and I'm using my body heat to warm you. You need to relax and let Nurse Joy do her job, okay? Okay? Just relax, Dave, just be calm…"
By Celestia's sweet, fiery nethers, I was going to die. I was going to burn to death. I trusted Joy, I really and truly did. Even so, it was almost impossible to quell my urge to struggle, my urge to scream. If not for Joy's constant reassurances in my ear, I don't think I could have done it. Not on my own. But I did it, and the burning eventually subsided to a more manageable pain, a deep ache. I began to regain feeling I didn't know I'd lost as the warmth returned slowly to me.
As I lay there, Joy's hooves began to knead my extremities, causing a fresh hell of pins and needles. It was a bit comical to think that all of this was because of a cold shower…
In a few minutes the pins and needles had subsided, though Joy's hooves had not. I heard Joy remark to herself that my body temperature was nearing a normal level, though whatever came after that was lost to me. Something about friction, I think.
Joy's hooves became restless, venturing closer and closer to areas they ought not touch. I had held out hope that this was just part of her previous method to restore blood flow, but it soon became clear that the blood flow she was encouraging was not one I was comfortable with.
"Joy…please. Don't do this."
"Do what, Dave? I'm just checking your capillary response, and ensuring that everything works as it should…"
"Joy, you know what I mean. Please…"
Her demeanor cracked a little, shifting away from that of a medical professional towards that of a disappointed mare.
"Don't worry, Dave; I know what I'm doing."
"That's the least of my concerns…"
Even in the midst of my protests, her restless hooves ventured ever nearer. Frustrated, I shimmied from her grasp while she was focused on…other things…and pulled myself to a sitting position just out of hooves' reach. Her expression momentarily waxed towards petulant, but quickly settled on defeated. She too pulled herself to a sitting position, facing my direction though avoiding my gaze.
"What am I doing wrong?"
That caught me off guard.
"I don't know what else to do. I've done everything I could think of…and nothing worked."
"What, exactly, are you trying to do?"
She said nothing, but her blush was all the answer I needed.
"Joy…why are you trying to make…THAT happen?"
"In all the books I've read, the dashing stallion always ends up rutting the beautiful maiden, and they live happily ever after, the end."
Must. Not. Facehoof. Breathe deeply, think, and then reply.
"Joy…these books to which you refer. Do they have pictures of obscenely handsome stallions and impossibly pretty mares on their covers?"
"And are these books full of…love-making scenes described in exquisite detail?"
Another nod, accompanied by a deeper blush.
Son of a…why couldn't this be easy? It would be just my luck that this mare would have built her concept of romance on a foundation of trashy novels.
"Joy…you know that I'm not very…elegant…when it comes to explaining things. That said, you'll have to forgive me if this seems…blunt."
Hoo boy, here we go. Take a deep breath, and go for it.
"Those stories…well, that's just it. They're stories. They portray…an…unrealistic portrait of romance. I'm hesitant to even call it that. In real life, ponies typically do not fall in love at first sight, nor do they find their one true love on the first try, or wind up making love to ponies they just met. For every successful love story, there are at least a dozen failed ones. It sucks, and it hurts, but that's just how it happens. On the flip side, when you do find that special somepony, it makes it that much sweeter."
Joy was sitting just across from me and had begun weeping silently, and yet I knew there was nothing to do but continue.
"The thing is…those novels have almost nothing in common with real life…well, except for the physical portions. I hate to say it, I really do…but…any concept of what love is like that you got from those books…it's probably best to let them go."
Joy's shoulders drooped even lower, if such a thing was even possible…well, I've done a fine job of crushing her dreams and discrediting everything she thought she knew about love…I'd better wrap this up before she melts into the sofa…
"There is some good news in all of this though…I am a firm believer that if you bring up a problem, you should also bring a solution. Well, I have a solution that you can take or leave at your discretion. Ummm…since I pretty much…sunk…what you knew about love, my offer is simply this: I'll teach you what I know."
For the first time since I started talking, Joy looked me in the eye. She looked…vulnerable, scared, hopeful…and fragile. So very, very fragile. I needed to pick my next words very carefully.
"The thing is, Joy…I like you. I like you a lot more than I should for how long we've known each other. I get the feeling you know exactly what I'm talking about."
Joy simply gave a nod to confirm, still fixing me with those hopeful eyes.
"This…complicates things, though. When you feel that way about somepony, you sometimes listen to your heart and ignore your brain. Sometimes…sometimes your heart is wrong. But by the time you figure that out, everything is moving too fast, spiraling out of control with no way to stop. And that's how ponies get hurt, how hearts get broken. This terrifies me, especially with you. You are without a doubt the sweetest mare I've ever met. I want nothing but the best for you, and you deserve nothing less."
Behind the tears, there was a glimmer of pride in Joy's eyes.
"On the other hoof, you've never experienced heartbreak. You've never learned to cope with the pain, never had to build walls to protect yourself, and never had to tear down the walls somepony else has built to protect themselves. Hopefully, you'll never experience the first two."
Behind this last sentence was an unspoken promise. 'You'll never have to experience the first two if I can be the pony you need, the pony you deserve.' Joy was a sharp mare, and she undoubtedly picked up on the unspoken promise. Not only that, but she picked up the cue for her to ask the one question that needed to be asked, the one question I wished I could avoid.
"Dave? Have you…have you ever loved somepony...and had your heart broken?"
Deep breath, then answer her truthfully.
"Yes. Yes I have…it…it's very painful to talk about…I'm sorry, I can't say anymore than that right now…let's just say…my walls are higher than most, and leave it at that. At least, for now…okay?"
"Well…like I was saying earlier…I'll teach you what I know about love…if you want me to, that is."
Joy performed some odd sort of waddle-scooting motion, and brought herself to within embracing distance.
"Dave, I can think of nothing better."
And then, we kissed. It wasn't some quick little peck, nor was it a passionate kiss based on ulterior motives. No, this kiss was more than just a kiss: it was a promise.
End of Day 5
At some point, I had fallen asleep in the company of this most wonderful of mares, though exactly when that might have been, I could not say. This was the second time in less than a week that we had "slept together" (*gasp!* naughty ponies!), though the method of awakening was infinitely more pleasant this time around.
By some mechanism or another, Joy had ended up in possession of about eighty-five percent of the covers (no surprise there) and about sixty percent of the real estate on the bed (again, not surprising). I woke up with the first rays of dawn, having no covers under which to seek refuge.
Stretching languidly, I indulged in an enormous yawn, squinting my eyes shut. This has to be one of the top ten best feelings ever. Remaining sprawled out from the yawn, I managed to crack open an eyeball to survey my surroundings. My investigation halted as soon as it began.
Not more than a hoof's distance away from my face lay Joy, snuggled up in the covers in such a way as to be entirely obscured, except for her snout, her eyes, her horn, and a single unruly tuft of royal blue mane.
My heart cannot take all this cute so early in the morning. I must have died and gone to heaven or something…that would explain the angel that lay in front of me. I decided it would be best if I just laid there and watched her sleep. Creepy? Perhaps. Is it creepy when you watch a kitten napping? Same concept, only about seven times cuter.
I noticed at about that time that Joy snores in her sleep. It was a very dainty, very faint sound, but it was definitely there. Okay, about twelve times cuter. My heart…it hurts…this is how I die. Yep, I'm totally okay with this.
Joy must have been able to read my thoughts (there is a reason I keep coming back to this…her timing is too damned perfect for this not to be a possibility), because she began to stir once I started saying my goodbyes to this world.
From the depths of her cover-chrysalis, her left eye popped open a fraction of the way, just enough for the underlying orb to scan the surroundings. It floated aimlessly for a moment before locking on my gaze. She must not have been expecting somepony to be watching her, because a split second after that azure orb locked on my gaze, both eyes opened simultaneously, wide with shock. Once they focused on my face and registered what pony it belonged to, the lids drooped back to half mast, fixing me with a dreamy gaze. I could stare into those eyes all day…The azure eyes widened once again, though for reasons that were not immediately apparent.
And just like that, they were gone, as the mare they belonged to made a beeline for the guest bathroom. This struck me as rather humorous, and I chuckled heartily at the situation.
Apparently, my bladder hadn't yet realized that it was full to bursting until I began to laugh. An instant later I was on my hooves, making a beeline for the latrine. As I skid to a halt outside the door, the sound of a flush forced me to squeeze my legs closed so that I didn’t make a puddle on the floor. The sound of more water running signified a thorough hoof-washing.
How long does it take to wash your damn hooves, especially with tricksy unicorn wizardry?
Impatiently, I rapped on the door to remind her that there were other ponies in this house with biological needs.
My prayers were answered a moment later as the tap was shut off, followed by the sound of hooves on a towel. Yes, yes, dry your hooves and then MOVE IT.
After an eternity the door finally swung open, and without a moment's hesitation I swooped through and paid my homage to the porcelain god, with gusto.
After washing my hooves (a process that seemed hundreds of times swifter from this side of the door), I sauntered back into the living room, feeling like a new pony. Joy had flopped unceremoniously back onto the couch-bed, sprawled on her back in a very…revealing…manner. Averting my eyes, I cleared my throat to alert her to my presence in the room. The only response this elicited from her was a half-roll, so that she was positioned on her stomach in a much less exposed manner.
In a role reversal that I never thought I'd see, not only was I awake and functioning before Joy was, I was doing it on limbs that carried out my bidding and bent to my will, no less. Today was going to be a good day. Well, it would be, if I could get Joy off of the couch-bed in a timely manner. I approached her, savoring the opportunity to pester her until she was awake.
I figured I'd be nice, so I settled for poking her in the cutie mark with a hoof until she got up. After a few jabs, she tried to whip my hoof with her tail, but she was no match for my cat-like reflexes.
A few more pokes, and she groaned something into the pillow she had buried her face in. I hadn't the foggiest as to what she'd said, so I kept poking away. Sooner or later, she would have to get up. Another flurry of flank-jabs, and again, a mumbled response, muffled by the pillow.
"What was that, Joy? Keep poking? Well, if you insist."
Jab jab jab jab. Jabba jab jab. Poke. Jab.
This time, Joy motioned me to come close so she could tell me something.
Closer still…by this time, my ear was damn near pressed to her muzzle. Or at least it would be, if said muzzle wasn't buried in a pillow. I mentally braced myself for a hoof to noggin transfer of kinetic energy.
Once again, this mare outsmarted me. As my ear was positioned mere centimeters away from her face, Joy did something…devious.
Lifting her head from the pillow to position her nose in physical contact with my ear, she whispered breathily, purring each word.
"You keep teasing me like that, I'll have to make you finish what you started."
And the cherry on top? She punctuated her ultimatum with a quick nibble on my ear.
Oh, hey…yeah, I just remembered that I had some business to take care of…in the bathroom…yeah…okay thanks bye!
I made my way to the latrine as quickly as I could, something that GREW more difficult with each step; certain obstacles seemed to SWELL up from out of nowhere…[insert phallic innuendo here] You get the point. [zing!]
After splashing my…face…with cold water a few times, I managed to regain control of myself. Taking a moment to ensure my control was complete, I dared to venture back out to the living room.
Note to self: Perhaps Joy did learn something from those romance novels after all. Exercise caution.
Joy was exactly where I'd left her. If we didn't get going soon, we might not be at the playground in time to receive the lumber that Ash was going to be delivering. Seeing as playing nice had gotten me nowhere, I decided that more drastic measures were in order. I noisily walked into the kitchen, and proceeded to open the fridge before calling out quite loudly,
"Who left this box of cupcakes here?"
I had just finished my inquisitive exclamation, and I withdrew my head from the icebox to watch Joy come around the corner. There was just one problem.
Joy was already standing DIRECTLY in front of me. As is my custom, I expressed my alarm at her presence, which was most unusual for a variety of factors. First, was the fact that an entire second had not yet passed since I concluded my declaration, and yet here she stood. Second; I found the fact that she had moved such a distance so quickly, but also silently, to be stupendously disconcerting. It should go without saying that I communicated the aforementioned notions in a straightforward and logical manner, utilizing my expansive vernacular prowess to its fullest extent. So, in essence, this:
"HOLY SHI-WHAT THE FU-SON OF A-MOTHERFUCKER!"
Now, try to say that at the top of your lungs in under a second. Behold my masterpiece.
*Pro tip: practice this at full volume in public places. Hilarity ensues.*
Joy was visibly shaken by my outburst, though I was a little preoccupied with preventing my heart from exploding to take much notice. After a series of deep breathing exercises, I managed to get my heart rate down under a hundred and fifty beats per minute.
By the time I had stifled the heart attack, I looked up to see a positively downtrodden Joy.
"I'm sorry, Joy. I didn’t mean to yell at you like that…you just gave me quite the fright is all."
Joy looked perplexed for a moment before responding with a voice that was veritably dripping with disappointment.
"It's not the yelling…you said there were cupcakes…"
Ah, there it is. I'd nearly forgotten what it felt like to be an inconsiderate ass, but I sure do recall the feeling now, by golly.
"I'm sorry about that. It was the first thing that popped into my head when I was trying to get you out of bed this morning."
"Get me out of bed? Did you consider asking that I get up? Or telling me that it was time to get up so we could do great things in the name of Celestia?"
Dammit…I was sucking at life today.
"So, instead of asking me to get up, or informing me that we needed to get moving to get things done, you decided it would be best to trick me?"
"I tried poking you…"
At this, Joy cracked an absentminded grin, as if recalling a fond childhood memory.
"Yeah…that felt nice…"
Note to self, part 2: No touching of Cutie Marks. Period.
"Anyways…I tell you what. After we finish up at the playground, we can go by that bakery in town that you were talking about the other day, and I'll buy us some cupcakes then. Deal?"
We shook on it, each of us with a smile on our face. After packing away a high protein breakfast to fuel our labors, we packed a light lunch to take with us. By the time we actually set out to the clinic, it was barely zero nine. After borrowing a few tools from the spare toolbox (with Scruffy's blessing, of course), we set off towards the schoolhouse.
We arrived at about half past the hour, and immediately set to work. The bits of equipment that could be fixed with the least work were tackled first, and within an hour we had over half of the equipment as good as new. Joy volunteered to paint the finished sets while I got started on the rest. One of the diagonal support beams on the swing set was badly splintered and rotting, so that was the first thing to go.
Retrieving a timber from the stack Ash had dropped off this morning would have been a truly daunting task if not for this nifty tool he left us. He had christened it the "Log Dog", and the moniker was quite fitting. Basically, it was quite similar to a pair of pliers, only the "pliers" portion had been replaced by a set of opposing pincers to grasp the log, and the other end was attached to a harness. The harder you pull, the harder the Log Dog gripped.
Even with the benefit of the Log Dog, hauling the timber was no easy feat. I was feeling a bit of a burn by the time I had arrived at the swings, and I took a moment to be thankful there were only four of the timbers. Once I had the beam where it was needed, I made short work of measuring and cutting it to the proper dimensions. From the time the timber was placed to the time everything had been cut, shaped, and nailed together, only ten minutes had elapsed.
All of the smaller pieces had been taken care of and restored to a serviceable condition before lunch, meaning the only remaining fixture in disrepair was the jungle gym. It might better be described as a miniature timber castle, seeing as how it was composed of a number of different levels, slides, and rope-and-plank bridges. The floor boards were in the best shape out of all the components of the castle, likely having been replaced semi-recently.
In spite of many years of obviously heavy usage, the structure as a whole was remarkably sound. A few cross-members were showing signs of decay, and at least one showed signs of what appeared to be parasprite bites, but aside from that everything was essentially intact.
Displaying her knack for impeccable timing, Joy showed up just as I was contemplating the best way to simultaneously hold the beam over my head and nail it in place.
"Need a hoof?"
"Hoof? No. But I sure could use one of those 'horn' thingies right about now…"
"A horn, you say? Too bad there aren't any incredibly talented, beautiful, and just generally amazing unicorns around here."
Joy was tapping a hoof to her chin thoughtfully, staring into the distance as she said this last bit.
"Yeah, too bad. Would you happen to know of a unicorn such as this, who might be willing to help?"
Joy was staring daggers at me for my retort, gasping in an overly-dramatic fashion. I cut off her inevitable reply with one of my own.
"Wait! I know just the mare for the job. Anypony know how to contact Trixie?"
I only just managed to dodge the hoof aimed at my head, and I decided that it might be time to deep six the shenanigans before I got myself in trouble.
"Oh, Joy! I didn't see you there. You know what, I was just looking for you. I just happen to require a mare of your specific qualifications."
"Oh? And what qualifications are those?"
"Incredibly talented, beautiful, and just generally amazing."
Joy narrowed her eyes at me, probably debating taking another crack at my noggin.
"Hmmm…Where have I heard that before, I wonder?"
"I have no idea. But you are the mare for the job, without a doubt. So, care to put that horn of yours to work?"
Again, Joy surprised me. You know the "I'm watching you" gesture? I never thought that it would translate into equestrian, but lo and behold, there it was. Joy pointed her hoof at her eyes and then at me, narrowing her eyes. My life is now complete.
Once our tomfoolery drew to a close, the remainder of the repairs went rather quickly, aided as they were by this cheating unicorn magic that I was increasingly jealous of. I'm not sure if it was that I was actually jealous of the magic, or if I was just missing my opposable thumbs, but either way I wanted to get me some of that dang magic voodoo stuff.
After we repaired the last of the wooden beams, I moved on towards that which actually prompted me to undertake this project in the first place: the metal supports for the bridge anchors. It would seem that being used as a plaything for hundreds of foals over the years can be detrimental to the overall structural integrity of just about anything. Imagine that…
My follow up to my initial investigation upheld my earlier conclusion. Every one of the four support poles that held tension on the rope-and-plank bridge was in the midst of a fatigue induced fracture, though to varying degrees. The one that had broken and sent a filly for a tumble was still lying where it had come to rest, still connected to the guide wire.
It took almost half an hour, a bit of swearing, a lot of Macguyvering, and several attempts, but eventually we had managed to persuade the broken support to fit back together into the stump it had broken off of. And by persuaded, I mean that we mercilessly beat it into submission to make it fit.
Once it was firmly in place, I had Joy mix up a heaping helping of the epoxy. Why would I have her do it? It's simple, really. Epoxy doesn’t stick to magic. This meant there was little chance of one of us accidentally permanently affixing ourselves to the playground equipment. As soon as the mixture was thoroughly blended, Joy smeared copious amounts of the stuff on all four of the anchor poles at their weakest points. Ugly as it might have looked, if this compound was really as tough as it said on the packaging, then what was once the weakest point on the structure just became the strongest by a factor of five or so.
As soon as the epoxy cured, the structure would be fit to play on again. It was already getting into the late afternoon hours by the time we had finished. Taking a moment to survey the fruits of our labor, I could not help but feel extremely accomplished. Casting a sidelong glance at Joy, I could see that she felt the same, though to a greater extent. It felt very rewarding to know that with a little bit of elbow grease, ingenuity, and initiative we had given something back to the community, something that would leave a lasting imprint on the children; the future.
As I walked flank to flank with Joy, I could feel the strain of the day pressing down on me. Right about then, all I wanted was a nice, hot shower, and to cuddle up next to Joy to the soundtrack of Steedivarious. Yeah...that sounded wonderful right about now...the rest of the walk home, I was trying to figure out a way to convince Joy to relax with me to the tune of classical music.
By the time we got home, I had a plan.