• Published 8th Sep 2015
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The Dancer and the Diplomat - Flint-Lock



Months after they first meet, Starlight Nightflier and Daniel want to become more than friends, but something's holding them back...

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Dinner, Daniel, and Denial

Starlight used to pity humans.

The Nightmother of their world had been rather stingy when it came to blessings: no magic, no natural strength, no wings, not even coats! There were times when she used to wonder just how they’d managed to survive, flourish even, without the things that most ponies took for granted.

As she learned more about the strange primates, she realized that humans didn’t need pity. They may not have had magic or wings, but they had something even better: a talent for invention. With their wonderful tools, they could build chariots that could fly higher and faster than any pegasus, cannons that could turn the strongest castle to rubble, even mechanical worms that could bore their way through mountains. It was no wonder that they were the dominant species on their world.

However, there were times when she wondered if it was possible to be too inventive. Once, she’d read the story of a human stallion who flew close to the sun, carried by wax wings, only to have them melt and send him falling to the earth. The more she’d pondered on it, the more she’d realized that story spoke of humanity as a whole.

“Damn it,” Starlight’s dinner companion cursed, pecking at the glowing tablet in his hands.

Case in point.

“Daniel?” Starlight growled.

The human held up a palm. “One second.” Her companion tapped something on the screen, then slammed a fist on the table, making the silverware rattle. ”Dammit!” he growled, his finger pecking at the screen like a hen at grain. “Send the message. That’s all you need to do. Just send one miserable little…”

Daniel! Stop right now, ”Starlight shouted at him, using the voice she normally reserved for her son when she caught him chewing on the furniture. That little unicorn could be a handful.

Restaurant goers were beginning to take note of the nearby commotion, some openly stared while others whispered and caught quick glances. Starlight ignored them; if they found their companions so boring, then let them stare.

For a moment, the human was freed from his technological trance. He looked up. “Sorry, Star,” he said, holding up a hand. ”Just give me one second. I need to send this.” His eyes turned back to the cyclopean gaze of his master, falling back under its spell.

Starlight gave a low hiss. Back in her home country of Letyucha, such a brazen act of poor manners would’ve socially obligated her to crush the infernal device beneath her hoof. In some dens, it would have been grounds for a duel, or even war.

In Canterlot, it was just rude.

Starlight sighed and returned to her meal. She gripped the two wooden sticks by her plate—Daniel had called them “chop sticks”— with her wrists and tried to pick up some of the noodles on her plate. After several failed attempts she gave up and went back to using a fork.

Popping some more noodles into her mouth Starlight let out an appreciative murmur, licking the sweet and sour sauce off her jet-black lips. They certainly didn’t have food like this back in Letyucha. There was no bitter aftertaste, no thick rinds, and no coarseness, just flavor.

With her dinner companion under the spell of his electronic overlord, Starlight passed the time by looking around the restaurant. With the huge demand for human products and services, businesses like it were popping up all over Canterlot. The restaurant smelled of cooking oil and spices, with a hint of barely-dried paint. Stylized gold dragons were carved into the walls, while jade lions guarded the entrance to nearly every doorway. The restaurant was staffed by a mix of human and pony waiters, who dashed back and forth between tables and the kitchen like worker ants.

With a final flourish, Daniel tapped his phone one last time, then tucked it away into the pocket of his coat. “Really sorry about that Star,” he said, smoothing down his salt-and pepper hair. “Modern conveniences my hairy human ass,” he muttered under his breath.

Starlight rolled her eyes and groaned. “Must you take your work with you everywhere?”

Ever since she’d started working at the Human embassy some four months ago, Starlight had noticed something odd about Daniel’s culture: its total obsession with work. It seemed that everywhere she looked, she’d see a human checking those strange little tablets—what Daniel had called “Eye-Phones”. While Daniel claimed that the devices could be used for recreational purposes, she had a hard time believing that humans would be that invested in an expensive toy.

Then again, there was still a lot she didn’t know about humans.

Daniel rubbed his temples. “I don’t have a choice. With that big conference coming up, I have to stay in contact twenty-four seven.” He pulled at a strand of hair. “I swear, I’m gonna be completely grey by the time this is done.”

Starlight raised an eyebrow. “If this conference is stressing you so much, can you not take a vacation? I am certain that the princesses would not mind if you, how do you say, took a break?”

“Starlight, in my job, there’s no such thing as a break,” Daniel said with a wry smile. “No matter how far I go, no matter how much fun I’m having, there'll always be that little voice in my head telling me that there’s still work to do back at the office.”

“I am knowing the feeling,” Starlight said. “When my Denfather was educating me, it seemed that I could never escape my studies. Mathematical problems appeared every which way I looked. Every cloud in the sky, when I looked at them, was turned into a diagram of troop movements during the Griffonic Wars. ”

“My senior year in a nutshell.” Daniel said with a chuckle.

Starlight nodded. “Since we are speaking about stress, why are humans stallions so, what is the word, ‘worked up’ about grey hair?”

Daniel sighed. “Because it’s a sign that we’re getting old.” He ran a hand through his hair, a grimace on his face. “When you get your first grey hair, you know that the best years of your life are gone, and your slow, steady slide into old age has begun.”

Starlight couldn’t help but scoff at the melodrama of Daniel’s comment. Ever since they met about six months ago, the human had a talent for making everything seem like some horrible burden.

“Not so in my country. In Letyucha, a greying mane is a sign of great wisdom. It is a sign that one had survived much, and has overcome all obstacles that life has put in their way.” She gave a sly wink, hoping to coax out a smile from her companion. “It is also considered very handsome.”

Daniel gave a half smile. “Handsome, huh?” He chuckled. “If that’s the case, I’d be a real hunk in your country, huh?”

“Yes you are—” Starlight stopped in mid-sentence. Are? Why had she said are? “Would, I mean yes you would very much be a hunk there.” Starlight laughed, it sounding hollow even to her own ears. She felt an urgent need to change the subject. Now. “So, your food, how are you liking it?”

“It’s good.” Daniel lifted a piece of sauce-slathered chicken with those “chopsticks” and popped it into his mouth. “It’s been a while since I’ve had actual Chinese food.”

As her human companion ate, Starlight found her eyes wandering down to his hands, watching every small twitch and movement in fascination The first time she’d seen a human, those appendages had revolted her; so pale and spindly, like five-legged spiders. Now, she envied them.

She wondered what it would be like to have them in her everyday life, how easy it would be to write a letter or to clean a room. Even fixing her mane in the mornings would be remarkably easy. The thought was so palpable it made her shiver; a soft hand combing through her mane, before its fingertips brushed down her side, running across her leathery wings, only pausing briefly before it continued its journey....

“So, Star. What do you think of this place?” Daniel asked, bringing her daydream to a screeching hault. Starlight took a shuddering breath, a light blush playing over her cheeks. Bad thoughts. Very bad thoughts.

“It is a nice place,” Star hastily murmured, before taking a long draught of water to cool herself down. She prayed to the Nightmother that Daniel hadn’t noticed her odd behavior. “It reminds me of time when my Denfather made me accompany him on a business trip to Chineigh.”

“What was that like?” Daniel asked.

Starlight slumped into her seat, feeling her muscles unclench. “It was, in some ways, very similar to this little meal.” She snorted, a smirk playing across her face. “The Empress and my Denfather talked business while I sat there, ignored.”

“Sorry...” Daniel hung his head.

Starlight chittered. “Tis alright. Just do not do it again.” She continued. “The big difference between that meal and our own: no veiled threats disguised as compliments, no food tasters, and no Denfather watching every move that I am making.” She pointed to the two Royal Guard ponies sitting at a table across from them, one short, one tall. ”Though I still have bodyguards, albeit not nearly as, what is the word, intimidating?

Daniel looked over at the two and smirked. The shorter one, who he’d dubbed “Lenny”, had given up any semblance of manners and was stabbing at his plate with a chopstick. “George”, the tall one, delivered a smack to the back of his partner’s head, before hoofing over a fork.

“That still sounds better than my visit to the Diamond Dog’s underground city,” Daniel said with a grimace. “Everything there smelled like wet dog, including the food. One of the regents’ daughters tried to trick me into marrying her, and I’m pretty sure I almost started a war by sneezing,” He snorted. “I’ve been a cat lover ever since.”

”One can bet,” Starlight said, giving a soft laugh, though her expression soon soured. “I do not care for either. A son does tend to dull one’s ambitions for pet ownership, and Slate has always been unlucky when it comes to animals,” She tutted, shaking her head. “Poor boy. He loves animals, but thestrals… animals are unnerved by us.” Her ears drooped. “They are not the only ones.”

“Why? Is it the sharp teeth?”

“No, not entirely. It is our eyes.” Starlight pointed a forehoof at one of of her cat-like eyes. “These eyes, they are good for seeing in low light. But when I am talking to a non-thestral they are… not so good.” She sighed. “When most see these eyes, they see a predator, observing its next meal.”

Daniel leaned forward, hunching over a little so as to bring him down to Star’s eye level. He blinked at her, his green eyes unmoving as he regarded her, his expression unreadable. Fighting the urge to look away, she instead stared right back.

When Starlight first met a human, their eyes had unnerved her; to have such tiny eyes lost in the great canvas of their face just looked so alien. But Daniel’s were different. Behind the weariness, cynicism, and perpetual stress, there was a warmth, coupled to an unyielding loyalty to his friends.

“Hmm…well, I don’t know about everyone else,” he said, breaking the silence that had fallen between them. “But I didn’t see a predator in there.”

“Oh?” Starlight said. “Then what did you see?”

“I saw a being that grew up in one of the harshest lands in Equestria. One that has been tempered and tested every single day of her existence, yet always manages to pull through. In short, I saw you.”

Starlight smiled. “You are good.”

Daniel beamed. “It’s a gift.” His face turned sour. “One that’s often more trouble than it's worth.”

Starlight gave a chittering laugh. “That it is, that it is.”

As the conversation lulled into silence, Starlight became aware of how her tail was sandwiched against the back of her chair, putting pressure on the base of her spine. Making sure that Daniel wasn’t looking, she gave her rump a quick shimmy, just enough to free her trapped tail and leaving it hanging off one side of her seat. It had only taken a few seconds, but Starlight couldn’t help but notice the eyes of the stallion the next table over observing her flank.

“Speaking of things that are trouble,” she said with a nervous laugh, shooting the peeping stallion a glare. “Let us talk about the conference. It is about immigration, no?

Daniel wiped his mouth with a napkin, to Starlight’s trained eye it was a sure sign of stalling. “That’s right. In a week or so, I’m going to try and convince the Council to liberalize Equestria’s immigration policies.” He rubbed his eyes, Starlight noticing the dark bags under them. “I’m not exactly looking forward to it.”

“Do not be such a, how do you say, ‘nervous Nellie’,” Starlight said, reaching over to give his hand a reassuring pat. “I am certain that the Council will see the benefits of letting more humans into Equestria. The economical benefits alone will deter most of the neighsayers”

“Yeah.” Daniel stared off into space, pushing around a piece of chicken with a chopstick. “Star, can you keep a secret?”

“Always,” replied Starlight, not hesitating for a second.

“Right.” Daniel took a sip from his wineglass, one that looked far too deep for polite company. After that he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, then released it. ”The thing is, I don’t want more humans in Equestria ”

Starlight nearly choked on a noodle, only managing to displace it with a spluttering cough that drew a few curious eyes. “What?! But you yourself were the first immigrant. How can you be saying something like that?”

Daniel held his hands palms out. “I’m not saying humans should never be allowed in Equestria. I know that our two worlds can really help each other out. It’s just...”

“It is just what?” Starlight interrupted, her eyes narrowing.

Daniel rested his chin on his open palm, propping his head up. “How do I explain this.” He drummed his fingers against the table. “Star. You’ve heard of economic and cultural imperialism, yes?”

“Yes. It is not exactly exclusive to humans.” The gears in her head started turning. ”Is that the problem; you are afraid that your world's culture, it will absorb ours, no?”

“Something like that,” Daniel said. “Well, I’m worried that It won't so much absorb it as it will shove it aside. Marginalize it.”

“I am seriously doubting that.” Starlight said. “Human and Equestrian cultures are very similar, yes? There should be a minimum of, how do you say, compatibility issues.”

“I know that.” Daniel snorted. “Back home, anthropologists are tearing their hair out trying to explain it.” Daniel went to take another sip of wine, only to find his glass empty and no waiter in sight. With a frown he returned it to the table. “But, there’s one very big difference.”

“Magic?”

“Not just that. It’s… well, I guess I can only describe it as a whimsy. Everything about Equestria; its holidays, its culture, even its naming conventions, all have a whimsical, fairytale charm to them. I mean, you have towns named ‘Appleloosa’ and ‘Hoofington’’. For cripes sake. Your most recent armed conflict was a town of ponies throwing apple pies at buffaloes!”

Daniel sighed. “It all gives Equestria a sort of childlike innocence. One that Earth lost a long, long time ago.”

“And you are believing that too many humans will destroy that innocence?”

“Exactly. Just look at Playboy and Hustler; they’ve already found a thriving market in Equestria by marketing it as ‘adult educational material’, and I’ve heard whispers of a mares only edition in the works. It’s only a matter of time before everyone’s scrambling for a piece of the Equestrian pie. Soon we’ll have McDonald's adding hayburgers and hayfries to their menu. Disney will turn Equestrian history into animated musicals and merchandise them to death. Nike will start marketing designer horseshoes. ”

Daniel closed his eyes and took a breath. “Once that starts, everything will change; before you know it, we’ll have ponies walking along human-made sidewalks listening to human music on a human music player while wearing human clothes and shouting human greetings to their friends.” He hung his head. “Equestria just won’t be Equestria anymore.”

Starlight shook her head and clicked her tongue. That was Daniel. The eternal pessimist. “I think you are underestimating Equestria.”

Daniel raised an eyebrow. “Come again?”

“Daniel, despite what you might be thinking, Equestria is not some delicate flower that must be cared for every second. It has survived Windigoes, Discord, and Nightmare Moon,” Starlight smiled. “I am very certain that it can survive Disney and McDonalds.”

Like a true diplomat, Daniel’s expression did not change, though Starlight noticed his shoulders dropped. It was no more than an inch or two, but at least some of their tension was gone. “Maybe you’re right” His thumb ran along the edge of his wineglass. Maybe I’m just being a ‘nervous nellie’.” He chuckled. “I guess it comes with the job.”

“I think it is noble to care so deeply about the future,” Starlight said. “In order to apply as diplomat, one must...” Starlight trailed off. Something was resting on her forehoof. Something warm and smooth. Starlight looked down to see a Daniel’s hand cupping her hoof, his thumb running back and forth through her fur.

At the pause in the conversation Daniel blinked, his eyes refocusing back on her face. At the same time he snatched back his hand as if Starlight were red hot. “Sorry Star…” He blushed. “I… kind of…”

“No, no, it’s alright.” Starlight said, barely louder than a whisper, her own cheeks burning. The sudden contact had startled her, but now that the hand was gone she missed its warmth.

For a minute, thestral and human just stared at each other. Every sound in the restaurant thundered in her ears; the giggle of the mare a table over, the scraping of a waiter’s shoe as he exited the kitchen.

“So, um, Star... enough about me,” Daniel mumbled, breaking the silence, though his eye did not leave his plate. “How… how about we talk about you for a change. How’s…” He paused for a minute, tapping a finger against the tabletop. ”...How’s your son doing?”

Star felt something uncoil inside her. Talking about her little shining star always helped her relax.

“Oh, Slate... he is... doing well at magical preschool. Already he is making new friends. Though he is tending to chew on things.” She groaned. Just thinking about it made her head pound, and it was even worse now she was living at the embassy. “I am very much impatient for his fangs to develop. It is one blessing of the Nightmother I am thinking we could do without.”

“Hey, it could be worse,” Daniel said. “He could be going through puberty.”

Starlight shuddered. “That I am not looking forward to.”

“And what about yourself, Star, how is the new job?”

“It is a tiring job, being a maid. But it is much superior to my previous occupation.”

It wasn’t the whole truth. While her new job was much more respectable than being rutted for money, she was still… uneasy.

“That’s good. What about your skydancing? Had any luck?”

Starlight's ears drooped. "No." She sighed.

“I might be able to help you with that,” Daniel said. He rubbed his chin for a second. “One of my colleagues is a regular contributor to the Canterlot Opera. He’s a decent pony, I’m sure once he saw you perform he could see about getting you an aud-”

“No!” Starlight slammed a hoof on the table, a few drops of red wine staining the pristine tablecloth. She took a deep breath, forcing her anger deep down inside her. “I mean, you have already been doing so much for my son and I, with our new job and home. I would not wish to be a bother.”

“A bother?” Daniel smiled. ”Star, these little get-togethers have been the only thing keeping me sane these past few months. If it weren’t for you, I would have been committed months ago.”

Daniel put a hand on her shoulder. “Star, if anything, you’ve earned it.”

Something stirred within Starlight. “Daniel…” She said, her voice starting to crack.

Something bloomed within Starlight’s barrel; a little voice in the back of her mind, screaming Say it, say it over and over again.

Sweat trickled down Starlight’s brow. Her stomach turned to ice. No, not now, not here.

She furrowed her brows. Yes here, and yes now. The Nightflier family may have cast her out, but their blood still ran through her veins. Her ancestors had carved out a home in the harshest region of an inhospitable country. Entire generations of her family had fought against the griffons. There was no obstacle too high for them. No challenge too daunting.

So why did she feel like a foal about to take their first flight?

“Daniel, there is…” Starlight gulped, trying to keep her voice from cracking. “...something I am needing to tell you.”

Daniel folded his hands in front of him. “All right. What is it?”

Daniel, you make me happy?

Daniel, you are the best thing that has ever happened to me?

Daniel, I can’t stop thinking about you?

How could she sum up all of her feeling towards him?

Starlight took a deep breath, her heart pounding. “Daniel, I-I..”

The words grew thick and sticky in her throat. Old memories bubbled up from the depths of her mind; flashes of loneliness, memories of betrayal and anger, spikes of irrational fear.

“I-I…” Starlight slumped in her seat, her ears drooped “...Nothing. It is nothing.”

Daniel just sat there. Hands folded in front of him. “Yeah,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. “Yeah it probably is.”

*****

Idiot!

Daniel clenched his fist, manicured nails digging into his palm. The human propped his head up against the carriage window, smearing the warded glass.

“Apple-headed, hay-brained idiot!” he swore under his breath. Glancing out of the corner of his eye, he was relieved to find Star looking out the window. The last thing he needed was an awkward conversation over his self-abuse.

It had been the perfect chance; the kind that came around once in a lifetime. With just a few words, he could have told Star how he really felt about her, but he’d panicked, like some lovestruck teenager talking to his crush.

“You okay, Mr. Ambassador?”

Daniel turned to see Lenny looking at him.

“Yes, I’m fine,” He sighed, his hand starting to throb. “Just… had a little too much to drink that’s all.”

“You sure?” asked the guardspony

“Yes,” Daniel replied.

“Okay, if you say so, Mr. Ambassador,” Having said his part Lenny returned to attention, his face a mask, though Daniel could feel the stallion’s eyes watching him.

Something shuffled in the seat next to him. Daniel turned to see Starlight staring out the passenger side window.

As the thestral gazed out the window, Daniel reached into his wallet and pulled out the old photograph of himself and Twilight Sparkle at the Ponyville Summer’s End carnival. Both pony and human were huddling next to each other, cradling a stuffed Timberwolf between them and making silly faces at the camera. He let out a soft sigh.

Would it happen again?

“Daniel, Daniel. Are you okay?” Star asked, her silky voice a searchlight, piercing through the fog of self loathing.

“Yeah,” he said, rubbing a hand over his face. “I’m fine.”