“So do we go to a dark alley somewhere and whisper some secret code word into a door?”
“No. That's cliché and you know it.” Buck adjusted his thick, ragged coat before moving on down the grime-filled sidewalk of the city.
“Then where are we going?” Jovin asked, looking across at him as he followed alongside. “You said we were meeting your guy, right?”
“I said we’re going to the diner. Are you really going to assume that every time I suggest we go someplace, it’s going to be some kind of secret meetup?”
“I mean, I’ll get it right eventually.”
It felt like ages since Buck laid out his offer. All the time spent without a job left Jovin with a lot of dead time. Time he spent refreshing on his coding skills, hacking, and whatever else kept him in shape in regards to what he did best.
At least, that’s what he did for the first day. Soon enough, he grew bored and was playing games, often with Buck when he wasn’t being yelled at to do chores or restock all the groceries that he kept eating. When he couldn’t get away with that, he tuned and flew his drones through the alleys, dodging whatever power lines he could. It was never as fun as the real thing, but it was better than personally running into that mare again…
“It hasn’t even been a week, Jovin. You’ll be fine.” He sighed and plodded on ahead. “You need to get out anyway. Besides, if you knew what was coming, you’d probably end up making a fool out of yourself. Not that you have much trouble with that to begin with.”
“Soooo… We are going to meet your frie—"
“Please, shut up.”
Jovin let out a chuckle, knowing all too well what he was doing. The two took a metro further uptown before finding themselves in a place a good bit more populated than before, and more difficult to see the tops of the skyscrapers. If it didn’t mean leaving Buck behind, grounded, Jovin would’ve flown. It was too constricting down here.
But this diner was where Buck wanted to go, neither out of the way from today’s chores, nor anything all that special. Jovin had been on edge since he woke, naturally quite eager to find himself employed again, and the fact that whatever he’d be involved in was at the very least questionable in the eyes of the law carried an endearing sense of danger. Unless this particular establishment had something extremely worthwhile, he couldn’t imagine any other reason to go here besides an undisclosed appointment. It had to be. He wasn’t an idiot.
“Here we are,” Buck muttered as they crossed the street toward what looked like an old oversized Winnebago. The city around it dwarfed the diner, making it feel smaller than it actually was, but up close, it seemed barely large enough to fit a kitchen, let alone a bar and seating booths.
It was a relic from an older age, when the city wasn’t nearly as developed, and when the sky wasn’t so clogged with smog. And somehow, despite all these years, it hadn’t been swept away with the times, replaced by something newer, more flashy. It refused to change, and it showed.
“This place? This place is a dump. It’s like the ones in movies only worse. How come they haven’t bulldozed it yet?”
“Because it’s even more stubborn than you.” Buck glanced over his shoulder with a smirk. “Come on. Let’s eat already.”
“I’m not stubborn…” Jovin grumbled before following him in.
The interior was a mixed bag; it was what you’d expect from a diner: run down, but trying to keep it clean where the signs of age and deterioration wasn’t beyond saving. That being said, the war was already lost — even the waitress looked like she’d been waiting for retirement to kick in for the past decade.
“Shit,” Buck uttered to himself, stopping in place.
Jovin followed his gaze . He didn’t need to look far to notice what drew his attention.
She was practically a beacon through the fog of dilapidation and wayward souls, her warm, soft, light pink fur and bleached hair almost impossibly clean if they weren’t so clearly real. Her mane curled around her face and shoulders, pastel blue and magenta streaks rolling with it. And her eyes were piercing — a sharp, icy blue that suggested a different story than her well-groomed appearance told.
There was a calm, cool, calculating air about her, and all Jovin had seen her do so far was sit in a cushioned booth and sip from a mug of coffee.
She noticed him and Buck almost the exact second the cup returned to the table, her gaze half-lidded, but focused. Judgemental. And then the hint of a smirk curled at the edge of her lips.
“Friend of yours?” Jovin queried, leaning over to Buck without taking his eyes off her.
“She’s early.” Buck took a deep breath, tense for the moment before finally forcing himself to take a few steps. “She just had to get here first…”
“She wouldn’t happen to be—"
“Please, don’t.” He begrudgingly continued to her booth with a rather excited Jovin in tow.
The mystery mare — a unicorn, he soon realized — kept her eyes on Buck, that subtle smirk never leaving her face even as he took pause at his seat
Without a word, he slid in and sidled across, and Jovin joined soon after, his own smirk looking a bit apprehensive. “Well… you look like you’re doing better for yourself lately, Pastel.” Buck leaned back in his seat, sitting taller than any of them.
“And you look even more tired and boring than before.” She smiled as she toyed with her cup on the table, its creamy white contents swirling about, further distorting whatever pattern the barista had made in it. And then she leaned in on her elbows. . “I was wondering if I’d see you again, you fuzzy bull. When did you get out?”
“Pastel, I should—"
“Buck, come on now. I haven’t seen you in years.” The smile turned sweet, but with an edge — barely noticeable, but there. Batting eyelashes revealed she’d had shadow applied, and it was only now that Jovin realized she had freckles, the white spots on either cheek almost invisible against her coat and in this light. “You can tell me, can’t you?”
Buck turned away from her, though whether he was embarrassed or ashamed, Jovin couldn’t tell. “Two years ago. I’ve been out since. Out-out. I’m not here to start up any of that again.”
“I know,” she said with an even bigger grin; even her teeth looked immaculate, “but I miss hearing you fretting over me. Such a sweetheart.”
Buck opened his mouth as if to retort, but paused, thinking it over. And then he let his breath go in a quiet sigh, pursing his lips and knitting his brows together in an expression of bittersweet remembrance. “You look great. Better than ever, really. You must be doing well for yourself.”
Pastel giggled before sipping her coffee again. “I told you I would make it.”
“But you’re still in…”
Her smile thinned. “There is still some more to do…”
“Pastel…” he gently shook his head, “that’s not making it.”
“And there’s the Buck I missed, always worried.”
There was a pause as the two stared at each other, Buck concerned and clearly at odds with her on something, Pastel knowing and somewhat smug about it. An unspoken tension filled the air.
“Soooooo…” Jovin leaned in from the other side of the table on an elbow. “I hope I’m not breaking up the couple therapy session, but—"
“We’re not a couple,” Buck decisively replied.
“I think your friend here is wanting to order some food.” She smirked at Jovin, cocking an eyebrow. “You haven’t even introduced us yet.”
“This here,” Buck said with a mild grumble, “is Jovin Sharpsight. He’s the nerd I mentioned to you before.”
“Hey, I’m a lot more than just a ner—"
“Jovin, this is Pastel Pastiche. An ‘associate’ of mine from some time ago.”
“Coworker, actually. Don’t downplay our work history now.” She flashed a sharp smile at Buck before turning a softer, more analytical one on Jovin. “Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Sharpsight.”
“Lady, I don’t make enough bank to be called by my last name, so ‘Jovin’ will be just fine.”
Pastel chuckled to herself, examining him more closely. “I like your getup. And your mane.”
“Uh… Thanks. I just… had it done at the bed head salon.” Jovin couldn’t help feeling a little off-guard. He never thought the minute of attention he gave his mane every morning really warranted a comment, even if it was probably more polite than genuine. To him, it was just spikey whatever. “You look like you’re clean enough to live in one of those penthouses in downtown.”
Pastel chuckled once more. “Hardly. It would be nice to live there though.”
“Pastel here is cut from the same cloth as we are,” Buck managed to say before being interrupted by the rather firm sound of the very same mare clearing her throat.
There was another pause at the table, Pastel’s expression not outwardly critical, but her eyes spoke volumes. And then she resumed her calm smile. “And yet, I’m doing quite fine for myself as you can see.”
Buck let out a sigh, looking away. The silence between them began to grow and Jovin could only glance between them both.
“...I think it’s best I leave you two alone to talk business. Be careful who you trust, Jovin.”
“Oh, okay.” Jovin slid out of his seat to let Buck get out of the booth, a bit bewildered by how the two were not getting along so well. “I’ll catch up with you later?”
“You got my handle. You tell me if you need anything,” he said, not looking back as he left a rather confused Jovin behind. He knew he’d be on his own after their introductions, but he didn’t think it would be so literal.
“Don’t mind him, he has his reasons,” Pastel soothed with a small, dismissive wave, sounding a bit more somber as she looked into her coffee. “Things were more difficult back then, making ends meet. I didn’t know he’d changed so much.”
Jovin returned to Pastel. “Were you two…?”
“A couple? No. We weren’t like that. Close friends, once upon a time.” She lingered on the steam rising from her cup, eyes unfocused for several moments before she switched her attention back to Jovin. “And you?”
“Huh? Oh, just roommates.”
“Really?” She seemed a little surprised. “Both of you together just seem…”
“Lady, I am pretty sure Buck doesn’t swing that way.”
Pastel gave him a rather mischievous smile. “But you do?”
“What? No I... I mean, I’ll swing whichever way I damn well want.”
She only giggled to herself even more, settling into a smirk as she sat back, turning her nose up at him somewhat. She was slightly taller, or so it seemed — it was hard to tell when they were both in different postures. “I see. You can never be sure with a pony such as yourself.”
“Oh, and just what's that supposed to mean?”
She raised a brow, looking him up and down.
Jovin scowled, his cheeks burning as he reached for a menu and opened it before him, scanning its contents with righteous indignation.
“Oh, sorry.” Her tone lightened, but not by much. “Is that a sore subject?”
“No,” he grumbled. “But you’re not doing yourself any fucking favors either.”
“My apologies. I like to poke and figure ponies out.” She picked up a menu herself, glancing over it. “Especially since you’re interested in some work.”
Jovin felt himself freeze a bit. Did that make this an interview? He straightened up his posture in the booth.
“Oh, well.” He cleared his throat. “I’m sure you heard plenty about me from Buck. Ex-military, data specialist. I like to get hooves on with my work.”
Pastel put a hoof up. “Let’s talk business at the end. Right now, I could really go for some waffles.”
Jovin only felt more anxious at that and began to scan the menu even more. “Uh… Umm… I’ll have the same.” He tossed the menu down before looking around expectantly. “They don’t have automatic servers here do they?”
It took a few moments of looking before they realized there was a rather poorly lit display at the far end of the table to input orders. Once that was taken care of, Pastel was the first to resume the conversation.
“I love the eyeliner by the way. Really sharpens the eyes.”
“Thank you!” Jovin threw his hooves out. “Everyone thinks its weird but nothing says cool like glowing eyes with a dark outline.” He put his chin up with pride, unfurling his wings a little.
“Oh, I know. It took me ages to figure mine out. And some just like to get a bit too wild with it.”
“You’re kidding. You’re so bright you could make any cosmetic look good in moderation.”
“Oh. Complimenting me now are we?” She smiled at him coyly.
Jovin shrugged. “You started it.”
Pastel giggled again, then took a moment to think. “Did Buck say anything about me to you, by chance?”
Jovin felt the slightest shift in tone from her. Buck hadn’t said a thing and yet he felt inclined to dodge the question. “Uh, did he tell you anything about me?”
She shook her head. “He’s a good fellow.”
A grumpy-looking bat pony approached their table, apron covered with stains. She casually slid two plates of waffles in front of them, hardly taking the time to acknowledge them before placing their utensils, syrup, and then left.
“Enjoy,” came a dead-sounding tone.
The two looked at their waffles, mostly at the giant glob of ‘butter’ that was on top.
“Well, I bet that makes up for the fact it's fake butter,” Jovin groused, deploying his claws before taking a knife and smearing the lump all over.
“Oh.” Pastel looked in curiosity. “You have… fingers?”
“Yeah.” He smirked, raising up the other to flex and show them off. “Claws, talons, hands, grabbies. Whatever you want to call ‘em. Pretty useful when you need to actually grab something, or climb. Helps me a lot in my line of work.”
Pastel neatly cut her waffle, her magic making fine, precise work of it. She took a bite and looked over Jovin’s limbs more carefully.
“Is that why you got them?”
There was a bit of silence as Jovin took a bite, barely masking his hesitation to answer.
“…No. It was a… mishap. Nothing you’d find interesting.”
She leaned a little closer. “And if I do find it interesting?”
Jovin had to admit that Pastel was quite the curious type, but something about her seemed a bit off. Her refined behavior and appearance seemed better suited to the skyscrapers, yet her being here in this part of the city with the kind of work that Buck was implying she did made her stick out. The worst part was, he was starting to like it.
“...I’ll tell you more if you tell me about yourself.” He leaned closer as well, smirking right back at her.
Pastel only grinned even more, amused. “Alright. I’ll answer any one question you have. But first, tell me about your legs.”
“Alright. So, my last military job. Still had my organic legs and all. Eyes and implants were required, as was the wing assists — reason being was that the military company I was in did salvage operations. A lot of stuff outside the city limits where it’s all frozen wastes, and let me tell you, it gets cold. You’re flying on borrowed time in that kind of environment: your wings freeze solid without something to keep them warm, and keep the snow from refreezing on your feathers.”
He unfurled one, displaying it like a trophy. The cybernetics attached to the leading edge were light and simple, with aerodynamics in mind. The joints hid some automation that helped give them their power and flexibility.
“You can fly for quite a while with these babies. Anyhow, I spent a fair bit of my initial years in data work before I moved into on-location scouting; the company would send out scouts to areas they suspected there would be anything of value to find from before the sun poofed. Resources, tech, data, anything that was scrambled together before they realized they were outside the bubble of survival.”
“Hmm. Where does the military part of this come in, though?”
“Well, you see, not everything we found was unclaimed. And most of those were ponies who didn’t want a single thing to do with anything here. They usually fired first.”
Pastel quirked an eyebrow. “Usually?”
“Yeah. They liked to salvage too. Sometimes raid the fringes of smaller settlements. Anyhow, they didn’t like us taking stuff we found so naturally things got violent. My company didn’t even start off in salvage initially. It was ‘projected preventative anti-crime’ or whatever the higher-ups would call it. The salvage became a way to make extra money since, well, it wasn’t really making enough profit or something.”
“Sounds like any corporate-minded business.”
“Yeah. So, I was out scouting, doing some data decrypting on some drives I found at this site, and on the fly back… well… I got shot down.” He shrugged, eyes trailing off. “By the time my buddies found me, frostbite had taken a toll on my legs from trying to wade through the snow… You don’t know what cold really is until… Well, yeah.”
Jovin pulled in his legs, looking at them blankly.
“That must have been quite traumatic, losing a part of yourself…”
“Yeah…” He stared at his plate, thinking, before clearing his throat and forcing a smile. “But hey, I got these awesome legs now! I can do all sorts of things with ‘em.”
She was nearly startled by his change in behavior before that coy smile of hers returned.
“Oh?” She said deviously.
And just like that Jovin was back to blushing. “Oh… Uh…” He quickly busied himself by shoving a fork full of waffle in his mouth all the while Pastel giggled to herself.
“Sorry. You just make it so easy.”
“I see why Buck warned me about you. You’re a flipping tease.”
“You handle it almost as badly as he does. He’s always so reserved.”
“Yeah. He does play it safe a lot and is always checking up on things. He’s like a second mom or something.”
“That’s exactly what I used to tell him.” Pastel laughed, pointing a hoof.
“Yeah. I guess you guys got some interesting history, eh?”
“Depends. Is that your question?”
“Your question. You know. I ask you something about you and then you ask me?”
He raised a brow, her specificity making him think twice, but before he could reply, there was a distinct buzzing in the air. Pastel held up a hoof to him while fetching what appeared to be a mobile pad. With a simple glance at the screen and a touch to her ear, an unseen blink of light came from within and she spoke to herself with far more business like tone and expression.
“Yes? Alright… Fifteen? No, twenty… Soon. I’m prospecting now.”
Jovin raised a brow, watching her talk like she just closed a deal on some business transaction.
“Send me the details and the advance.” She wriggled her ear and jostled her head, likely prompting for the call to end. “Sorry about that. Important.”
“I didn’t figure you to be the retro type.”
“Oh, this?” She held up her mobile. “I suppose you could call me that. I prefer the term minimalist.”
Swiping the mobile over the menu screen the machine chirped awake, initiating the payment transaction. “However, I’m afraid your question for me will have to wait. It’s time to get to work.”
Jovin felt his mood drop, jaw opening to try and find something to say. He wasn’t sure if he was disappointed or angry, but before he could even get a word in edgewise, Pastel gently pushed his chin up.
“That includes you. You make this job happen and you’re hired.”
He blinked, eyes just staring at her like they were looking at headlights. “...What even is—"
“Data jacking. Yes, it’s illegal. Yes, it’s dangerous. Don’t pretend you’re saying no otherwise you wouldn’t have even showed up. Let’s get going. Our ride is waiting.”
Taking a deep breath and swallowing, Jovin managed to find a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. “...Okay!”