• Published 28th May 2021
  • 158 Views, 3 Comments

Seeking: Fountain of Youth - mushroompone



Braeburn wishes he had more time. An anonymous stranger offers a rather literal solution.

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Chapter 2

SEEKING: MISSED CONNECTION

I put out an ad looking for help feeling young again. You replied with the promise of eternal life.

Maybe it's a stupid question, but are you pulling my leg?

I'd appreciate it if you leveled with me - I only got so much time to root through all this junk mail.

Contact Braeburn, 6 Appleloosa Ct, AL


Braeburn read his second ad over a few times, scratching absent-mindedly at his scalp as he did so.

It felt stupid.

For a lot of reasons.

Mostly because he couldn't figure out how to make it sound any less desperate. Partly because he couldn't really explain why he wanted more information in the first place.

A little bit because he actually felt a fluttering nervousness in his chest, the way one's heart thrums before climbing into the front seat of a roller coaster.

He sighed.

Part of him wanted to twist around and pass the draft to the patron in the next booth over, just to get a second opinion, but he pushed that instinct down as far as he could. The Salt Lick wasn't exactly the friendliest place in the world, even with the way the Appleloosa tourism scene had grown these past few years.

Actually… now that he thought about it, Braeburn figured tourism had likely pushed this place to become as insular as it was.

Now that anypony could just wander in, even fewer ponies were actually welcome here.

Funny how that works.

Braeburn tapped his hooves arrhythmically on the tabletop, reading through the ad once more.

It got stupider every time.

Just as Braeburn was about to crumple his draft into a tiny ball and chuck it under the table, a creek rang out through the Salt Lick.

The place went silent in less than a second. Everypony who wasn't already dead drunk searched instinctively for the source of the sound.

It wasn't hard to find; the saloon doors still swung against one another as Hondo Flanks stood, frozen and awkward, only a few steps inside.

He chuckled, a strained and awkward sound. "Howdy, folks," he said. He added a small wave, the sort a shy foal would give their kindergarten class.

The patrons seemed to grumble in unison, all of them returning to their drinks.

Braeburn sank lower in his seat, tipping his hat downward to disguise the flush of second-hoof embarrassment rising in his cheeks. Though he couldn't see Hondo, he could very easily hear the way the floorboards squeaked under him as the clumsy stallion crossed the room.

"Howdy, there, coach," Hondo said, his voice an out-of-breath hiss. "Tough crowd, eh?"

Braeburn tipped his hat back on his head, and peered up at Hondo.

He had a funny way of smiling. Actually, it was rather funny that he was smiling at all. But he stood there, his lips pressed shut, his mustache curling upwards in the suggestion of a colt-like grin.

"Howdy, Hondo," Braeburn murmured.

Despite the sarcasm, Braeburn's greeting seemed to relax Hondo. He let out a breath of relief and squeezed himself in the seat across from Braeburn (with no small amount of grunting).

"Thanks again fer comin' out like this, coach," Hondo said as he settled into the seat. "Boy, I tell ya-- it's quite a relief to be outta that hot sun. Downright icy out there at night, eh?"

"I told you not to call me coach," Braeburn said. "Braeburn is just fine."

"Right, right…" Hondo waved dismissively in Braeburn's direction. He then took off his straw hat and set it down on the table, exposing a strangely thick dark brown mane that unfurled onto his forehead.

Braeburn eyes it with some measure of jealousy. After all, he had already noticed some thinning on the back of his own scalp.

He reached up to touch at the balding place. He supposed being a personal trainer paid off when it came to things like this-- after a few years, you know all the best tonics and remedies for nearly every little thing.

Hondo clapped his forehooves together. "Okay, then! Let's get down to brass tacks, Braeburn," he said, rubbing his hooves together in a sort of glee. "I wanna hear about those players a'yours. See, I find that coaches always know better than the players themselves when it comes to strengths and weaknesses."

Braeburn nodded, a bit of a smirk creeping onto his face. "Right you are," he said. "I brought along some notes. I think, in general, the reserves need--"

He looked down at the pad of paper in front of him, and his ad nearly leapt off the page and bit him in the face.

He froze.

Hondo, being the nosy stallion he is, stretched up a bit to see what had Braeburn tied up in a knot. The seat creaked under him.

This was enough to snap Braeburn out of his momentary paralysis. He quickly, messily, flipped back a few pages to the scribbled lists of notes he'd been keeping.

"Uh… sorry, what was I saying?" Braeburn asked.

Hondo flashed his weird grin again. His mustache twisted up into a furry crescent. "Erm… the reserves?" he suggested.

Braeburn grunted. "The reserves, right. I think the reserves need, uh…" He scanned over his notes again, trying to gleen anything from them at all, but found that the heat of embarrassment in his cheeks somehow clouded his vision. "Well, they need the most work, I guess. They're reserves for a reason, ain't they?"

"What kinds of work did you have in mind?" Hondo asked.

"Um…" Braeburn looked back down at his paper. He tried to smooth it out a bit, but found that the pressure from his hoof only smeared the pencil around. "Mostly stamina-type problems? Reaction time takes a dive by the fourth round or so. Anything you can do for that?"

Hondo leaned back and sighed, deeply and thoughtfully. "It's not my usual sort of thing, but I betcha I can figure somethin' out," he said.

"Good, good…" Braeburn leaned down a bit and squinted at the paper. He sniffled a bit as he struggled to read it. "Consarnit, don't tell me I need glasses now…"

Hondo held his tongue as Braeburn struggled to make out his notes, squinting and grimacing and sliding the paper about on the tabletop. Braeburn tried very hard not to splutter out something stupid in the heat of his own embarrassment.

He could only hold his tongue so long, though.

"So," Hondo said, drawing the word out as long as equinely possible. "Putting out another ad, eh?"

Braeburn stiffened.

"I'm guessin' you didn't hear back from anypony worth followin' up with?" Hondo continued. "That's a darn shame. I thought it was such a good idea, too."

"I, uh…" Braeburn cleared his throat, then smoothed his pad of paper out again. "I don't know what you're talkin' about."

Hondo furrowed his brows. "It had your name on it, there, didn't it?" he asked. "I'm only bringin' it up on account of… well, I was thinkin' about replyin'. I just figured you probably got so many responses that my little letter wouldn't make much of a splash."

Braeburn looked up at his dining companion, head cocked in confusion.

"I'm a personal trainer," Hondo reminded him. "You asked for 'em specifically in your ad."

"Right!" Braeburn smacked his forehead with one hoof. "Of course, I-- sorry. Of course."

It was Hondo's turn to stare at Braeburn in a mix of confusion and concern. As his abnormally fluffy brows knit together, he appeared to have a second mustache creeping down his forehead. "Pardon me for askin' but… you're actin' awful hinky about that ad. Did something happen?"

Did something happen?

An excellent question with a less-than-excellent answer.

"No, no…" Braeburn shook his head. "Just piles 'n' piles of junk mail. I'm beginnin' to regret ever even postin' that thing, t'be honest."

Hondo clucked his tongue. "Ain't that a shame. I was thinkin' about trying it out, myself. It was such a neat idea."

Braeburn grunted his acknowledgement, though he didn't quite agree. He didn't find the ad to be 'neat' at all-- just desperate and smelling strongly of a mid-life crisis. He hated that he was becoming the sort of pony to complain publicly about his age. That was what old stallions did.

And Braeburn wasn't old.

Right?

He sighed, sliding down a bit in his seat. The motion only put unwanted pressure on his spine, though, and he found that he had to noisily haul himself right back into an upright position.

Hondo, being the kind stallion that he is, stayed politely silent.

"I s'pose I… did get one response that's been buggin' me," Braeburn said.

As soon as the thought left his mouth, he wished desperately he could stuff it back inside.

What was he thinking? He didn't want to talk about this. Especially not with Hondo Flanks, of all ponies-- he hadn't exactly marketed himself as the sort of stallion you could have deep conversations with, after all.

Hondo blinked. "Y'don't say?"

Braeburn gave a half-hearted shrug. "Somepony with far too much time on their hooves wrote me a letter sayin' they could stop me from agin'," he said. "Or… y'know. Somethin' along those lines."

There was a little flicker of something in Hondo's eyes. To call it shock wouldn't have been quite right, though Braeburn couldn't think of any other way to interpret it.

"You don't say," Hondo repeated. It came out slower this time, less of a friendly question.

Braeburn grumbled wordlessly.

Hondo tugged at his mustache with a tendril of blue magic. When that didn't suffice, he switched to combing it downward with little glittering claws of mist. "If y'don't mind me askin'," he said, "what's buggin' you so much about that?"

Braeburn scoffed. "I think you'll agree it's a mighty strange letter to get in the mail," he said. "If I had it with me, I'd letcha read it-- certainly more than a friendly joke."

"You don't think it's a threat, do you?" Hondo asked, a measure of panic rising in his voice.

"What?" Braeburn laughed-- actually laughed. "No, no. I just meant… well, it sure didn't give me a chuckle."

Hondo made a face. It wasn't quite a grin, though it did spread his mustache across his face like an inchworm. A grimace? A look of sympathy? A look meant to look like something while communicating nothing.

Braeburn sighed. "Anyways. I won't lie, I've been a mite distracted. But--"

"You think you'd do it, then?" Hondo asked.

"Pardon?"

"Take the offer," Hondo said. "Assumin' it's real, a'course. Do you think it's real?"

"It ain't real!" Braeburn argued. "For the love of-- you can't seriously think somepony out there is offerin' immortality to whoever happens to post an ad."

"But if it was," Hondo said. He leaned across the table, peering at Braeburn with his strange, beady little eyes. "Would you do it?"

He was serious.

The stallion was actually serious.

Braeburn narrowed his eyes, daring Hondo to drop the subject.

Hondo did not back down.

Braeburn nickered softly and threw himself back against the inside of the booth. "How about you ask me after a drink, Hondo?" he muttered.

He reached out to snatch his notepad off the table, intending to launch back into his discussion of his somewhat deficient buckball players, but Hondo's hoof shot into the air.

"Waiter? Uh-- 'scuse me, waiter?" he called.

The bartender paused his wiping of the pint glasses to scowl in Hondo's direction.

Braeburn reached over to tug down Hondo's hoof. "Hondo, that's not how you--"

"Pardon me, there, sir!" Hondo continued. "Two sidecars, please!"

Other patrons were starting to stare. The bartender slowly set down his glass, now using his whole being to give Hondo a dirty look.

Braeburn released Hondo's foreleg to bury his face in his hooves.

"You like bourbon, doncha, coach?" Hondo asked. "I thought I had you pegged as a bourbon fella. Course I can getcha an old fashioned if that's more up your alley. Or-- say, how about a sarsaparilla?"

Before Braeburn could even pull his face out from under his hooves, there came a heavy sound of glass on wood.

Braeburn peeked out at the table. Two sidecars--albeit in pint glasses--sat before him.

He turned his eyes up a little higher. The bartender stood over their table, inscrutable as always.

"Boy, you're a quick one," Hondo commented. "Thanks a million, sir."

Braeburn sucked in a breath through his teeth. "Sorry about my colleague, here. He's not from around--"

But the bartender didn't wait for Braeburn to finish. He just turned and lurched back over to the bar.

"Interesting fella," Hondo commented.

Braeburn scoffed. "Could say the same thing about you."

Hondo shrugged. "So ponies tell me," he said. "Have a sip. You ever had a sidecar before?"

"I don't think anypony's had a sidecar in about forty years," Braeburn muttered.

Hondo only laughed. It was a fatherly laugh, a mischievous little tittering sound not unlike a comic book villain's moderately bumbling sidekick. He reached out to grab his pint glass and began suck down the strong drink with ease.

Braeburn tried not to comment on that, taking a sip from his own glass.

The stallion practically sizzled in the sun, yet he could put away bourbon like a damn draft horse. Not a bit bothered by it, either.

Hondo set his glass down, let out a mighty sigh of satisfaction, and smiled that strange mustachioed smile. "Alrighty, then. We've had a drink, so answer my question."

Braeburn chuckled. "I think you mean you've had a drink, my friend," he said. "I've had a swallow."

"Would you agree to immortality?" Hondo asked again.

Braeburn shook his head, laughing at the mere idea, and took another small sip of alcohol.

"C'mon, coach," Hondo teased. "No better way to shake the feeling than to talk it through. Tell me what you're thinkin'."

"This ain't a therapy session!" Braeburn argued, laughing all the while. "This is work!"

Hondo took a deep breath, then let it out in a slow snort. "Y'know, I got two beautiful daughters. Workaholics, both of 'em," he said. "If I know one thing, it's that pushin' down your problems fer the sake a'work never led to a job well done."

Braeburn sighed heavily. He ran his hoof around the edge of his glass. "Married, huh?"

"Eh… was." Hondo looked down at his lap. "But you quit changin' the subject! Would you take the deal?"

Braeburn shook his head. "This is nuts…"

"Not hearin' an answer…" Hondo prompted gently.

"Aw, for the love of-- I dunno, Hondo," Braeburn said, throwing his hooves up in exasperation. "I mean, who wouldn't want a chance like that? Imagine all the stuff you could do with all that time, even with joints like mine."

"Couldja really, though?" Hondo asked.

Braeburn furrowed his brows. "Pardon?"

Hondo opened his mouth to answer, then quickly snapped it shut. "Er. What I mean is… well, seems like this pony's keepin' eternal life to himself, don't it?" he stuttered. "Maybe… y'know, maybe he needs to keep it on the down low. Couldn't be showin' off all the time-- other ponies would figure it out right quick, don'cha think?"

Braeburn pulled his drink in closer. "If that's the case, you wouldn't be able to do much more than watch." He took a sip from his drink, then chuckled. "I'm an athlete, Hondo. Couldn't watch if I tried!"

"Don't know about that. I think you could pull it off," Hondo said softly. "You certainly seem to be a mighty good coach."

"And how would you know that?" Braeburn asked. "You've only been to one practice."

"Well, I am a watcher, doncha know?" Hondo said. "Always have been. And, in all my years a'watchin', I never seen anything quite like your buckball team."

He said it softly. Genuinely.

He said it while looking across the table at Braeburn, his mustache curled up at one end, his beady eyes brimming with admiration.

He said it in a way that almost made Braeburn believe it.

Braeburn looked down at his lap to disguise the smirk on his face. "Aw, shucks, I… I dunno about all that," he murmured. "And besides. Coachin' and watchin' aren't near the same thing."

"They could be, though," Hondo said. "Y'know. Workin' behind the scenes, pullin' all the strings. Could make a lotta difference never even showin' yet face, if y'think about it."

"If you can get anypony to listen to you, that is," Braeburn said. He tipped his hat back with one hoof and groaned softly. "Sometimes I feel like everything I say to those yearlings goes in one ear and out the other."

Hondo raised a hoof and wiggled his very thick eyebrows. "Which is where I come in, eh?" He wiggled his brows a few more times, hoping for a reaction but getting none. "Good ol', two-pronged attack. Whip 'em right into shape. If we can get our stories straight, that is."

Braeburn laughed wryly. "That's the trick, ain't it?" He looked down at his hooves, studying the cracked and clouded surface. "Even so, who's gonna listen to two old coots like us?"

"You sure talk a lot about bein' old for somepony barely into their fifties," Hondo said.

"Call it a mid-life crisis, I s'pose…" Braeburn muttered. "Though, to be fair, I have worked my body harder than the average fifty-year-old."

Hondo shrugged. "Touché."

The pair fell silent.

For a moment, Braeburn actually felt guilty. Here he was, a former athlete, likely in better shape than anypony else his age-- including, of course, the stallion who sat across from him. Despite his career and his cutie mark, he was quite the uncoordinated klutz.

And yet…

As Braeburn looked at him, at the way his eyes glimmered behind his thick, dark bangs, he realized he couldn't place the stallion's age at all.

He knew he was around fifty. Factually. That was certain. But his eyes were older, and his smile so much younger. His care in choice of word and turn of phrase-- it seemed clumsy, what with all the stuttering and the simple words and the heavy accent, but it was always perfectly thoughtful and exact.

Braeburn, for perhaps the first time, truly considered the stallion across from him. By all rights, he should have been the one having a midlife crisis. But he wasn't. He was here, contently enjoying life and rolling along with the flow.

"No responses, then?" Hondo said.

Breaburn blinked, torn out of his nebulously rolling thoughts. "Huh?"

"I'm guessin' you didn't get any responses to yer ad?" Hondo asked. "Not any good ones, anyway."

Braeburn sighed. "I dunno. Plenty good ones, if I'm honest. I got exactly what I thought I would."

He didn't finish his thought.

"Eh… but?" Hondo prompted.

"But…" Braeburn thought a moment. "I didn't take any of the offers. There just wasn't anything special. Not sure why I thought there would be, really. Just a bunch of ponies tryna make a few bits."

Hondo nodded slowly. "Are you still lookin'?"

Breaburn shrugged. "Maybe. Possibly. Not so actively anymore."

"Well. Only reason I didn't reply was because… y'know, I thought you'd hear somethin' better," Hondo said. He tapped the tabletop with one hoof, slow and rhythmic. "The way you're helpin' me with all these new clients… I mean, it's the least I can do, doncha think?"

Braeburn sat up a little straighter. "I don't see what you're gettin' at."

"You wanna start tossin' a ball around a few times a week?" He said it quickly, as if he shouldn't have. As if he were blurting out a much more intimate confession. "Long as you don't mind doin' it in the dark. I can give you some advice and… heck, help ya stretch and all that."

Hondo peered up at Braeburn through his mane.

Braeburn frowned. "You wanna be my personal trainer?"

"Not-- I mean, if that's what you think you need, then sure," Hondo said. "But… maybe I could just be somepony to talk to, y'know?"

"Is that right?" Braeburn mumbled.

"Well… I'm goin' through lots of the same stuff, doncha know," Hondo continued. He used a little swirl of blue magic to sweep his mane out of his face. "In a way. Could be nice to talk about it, 'stead a'spending all your time with athletes half your age."

He laughed.

It was a belly laugh, but one that he was desperately trying to tame. A deep, round thing that he forced up through his nose to sound small and fatherly and friendly.

And it made Braeburn think that maybe this stallion did know a thing or two about getting old.

Braeburn picked up his drink and held it out for a toast. "You drive a hard bargain, Mr. Flanks. I'll just have to take you up on that."

Hondo beamed, that mustache-twisting smile spreading over his face. "Oh, I was hopin' you'd say so, coach," he said, lifting his own drink to toast with Braeburn. "I'll show you a good time, I promise."

Braeburn chuckled as he drew his drink to his lips.

Hondo tried to force down his smile as he, too, sipped from his drink. It clung to his mustache like seafoam on kelp.

"Wait. Did you say you wanna toss a ball around in the dark?"


Howdy, Braeburn -

I've been thinking it over. The eternal life thing, that is. I'm starting to think it might be good for you. Or maybe not necessarily good, but certainly not bad.

That sorta thing can really change a pony. I can't go dishing it out all willy-nilly. Gotta think carefully about this.

That said, you seem like a good stallion at heart. You also seem like the sort of pony who might do something good with eternal life, instead of just frittering it away like some other ponies.

I need to think about this a little longer. Just thought I'd give you an update.


Night in the desert is cool. Refreshing, almost. When that occasional breeze curled through the stadium, filling Hondo's shirt like a windsock and threatening to take Braeburn's hat off his head, it seemed almost like night anywhere else. Like night in the suburbs, maybe. Or night by the pool.

But it wasn't quite that. It may have been the same night--physically, you know? It was the same dark sky and moon and stars as any other place--but it didn't feel it. And the feeling was beyond the coolness of the breeze or the dryness in the air. It was something inexplicable, something that sank down to your bones and told you that this was someplace altogether different.

Maybe it would have been the same if Braeburn had just kept his eyes closed.

But… no. He knew he was in the desert. You can't quit knowing. Not even if you close your eyes.

Braeburn breathed deeply of the cool, dry air before the kickoff.

Hondo, as always, made a little sound of surprise. He seemed to have trouble predicting where the ball might go nearly every time-- which was as funny as it was deeply sweet.

Breaburn chuckled to himself as Hondo dove for the ball, only just barely catching it in the basket he clutched with his magic as he slammed chest-first into the ground.

"Hondo!" Braeburn called. "How many times I gotta tell ya-- use your magic, not your legs!"

Hondo coughed up a bit of sand as he got to his hooves. "How else am I s'posed to get any exercise?" he yelled back, wheezing ever so slightly.

Braeburn only shook his head, still chuckling all the while. "Toss it back, now!"

"A-alrighty!"

Hondo's face contorted into a look of deep concentration as he hovered the basket beside his head. He seemed to be doing some sort of calculation, perhaps on angle or power, before he whipped it in a circle around his head and released the ball straight towards Braeburn.

"Whoa!" Braeburn whirled and gave it a powerful kick with his hind legs, sending it sailing back the other direction.

Hondo dove for it again, this time managing to catch the ball without slamming into the ground.

"Hey-hey!" Braeburn whooped at the catch, waving one hoof wildly in the air. "Good catch, Hondo!"

That made Hondo grin. A rare, open-mouthed affair as he tried to catch his breath.

The tiniest bit of moonlight glinted off his perfectly white teeth. Even at this distance, Braeburn wondered why he'd ever tried to hide them.


Howdy, Braeburn -

Me again.

I've been wondering what you think you would want to do with eternal life. Would you change careers, maybe? Travel? Get married?

Goals are important things to have, especially when you have eternity to attain them. It's easier than you'd think to just become the world's best couch potato.

I'm still thinking. But you should think, too. Maybe write a list. Figure out what it is you want out of life before you commit to having one.


"So, what do you want to do?" Hondo asked. "Y'know, bucket list type stuff. Since he asked 'n' all."

"Me?" Braeburn nickered to himself. "Gee, I don't really know. For a while, I wanted to be the greatest rodeo pony of all time! Then buckball came along and… well, that felt just as right as the rodeo ever did."

Braeburn gave the ball a kick, and it skipped and hopped over the uneven bits of sand towards Hondo.

Hondo stopped the ball with his forehoof and held it there a moment. "And coachin'?"

Braeburn shrugged. "I dunno. It's not really the same…" he said softly. "Then again, I thought that about buckball, too."

Hondo nodded. He wordlessly kicked the ball back in Braeburn's direction.

Braeburn caught it easily. "Maybe that's just how it is, right? Less one true destiny, more a set of talents and a certain type'a attitude. Y'know?"

"Ooh, that's a lil too philosophical for me, there, coach," Hondo said, a light chuckle escaping him.

"Speakin' of, I been meaning to ask," Braeburn said, pausing to keep the ball under one hoof. "Were you ever an athlete?"

"Me?" Hondo guffawed out loud and shook his head. "Oh, no. No, no, no-- not with these hooves. Or these legs. Or these eyes. Or any of it, really."

Braeburn scoffed. "Dunno what you're goin' on about. You're a plenty fine athlete, far as I can tell."

He gave the ball a firm kick with his forehoof, and it went flying over the sand towards Hondo.

Hondo stopped the ball under his own forehoof and looked up at Braeburn. "I'm just doin' what I did with my girls. And what I do with my clients from time to time," he said. "A friendly game of catch is one thing. A game of buckball is a whole other animal-- you know that."

Braeburn shrugged. "You have what we in the business call 'good fundamentals'."

"Aw, heck-- it's my business, too, coach!" Hondo gave the ball a kick, and it went careening off at an odd angle. "Ope! Sorry about that!"

Braeburn wasted not a second in taking off after the ball at a gallop. He, thankfully, managed to tackle it before it bounced off into a nearby patch of cacti.

Hondo made a face of distress as he surveyed the near-disaster. "Uh… good catch, there!" he shouted.

Braeburn laughed. "You gotta get better at usin' your magic! For my sake!"

"Oh, for your sake…" Hondo muttered.

He took his hat off his head, then used the back of his hoof to wipe sweat from his brow.

The breeze whipped up around him. It ruffled his mane, sent it twisting about his horn in a great tangled dance.

For a moment, he just soaked it up. He stood there with a strange, wistful smile as the breeze cooled his sweaty face. Then he shivered. Perhaps it was a little too cold.

He sat his hat back on his head.

Braeburn took off at a light canter towards him, juggling the ball between his two front hooves as he did. It was as familiar to his mind as it was foreign to his joints-- or perhaps the other way around.

"We wrappin' up, coach?" Hondo asked, his exhaustion more than apparent in his labored speech. "Only been around an hour."

"I told you to quit callin' me coach," Braeburn said. He cocked an eyebrow in Hondo's direction as he nudged the ball his way.

Though there was only a few feet between them, Hondo lunged for the slow-rolling ball. "Yeah, but… well, I like it. It's kinda like a nickname, doncha think?"

"How are you ever gonna feel okay about givin' me advice if you keep on callin' me coach?" Braeburn asked.

Hondo rolled his eyes. "Oh, fine. You want some advice?" Hondo pursed his lips, and his mustache stuck out like an awning over them. "Stallions our age give nicknames to darn near everything."

Braeburn cocked his head. "Is that a fact?" he asked, feigning surprise and interest. "Why, that'll surely help me get through this midlife crisis. I'll just start actin' my age, huh?"

"Make all the jokes you like, coach," Hondo said with a shrug. "But nicknames sure do bring a bit a'joy to the little things."

"So the secret to a happy life is to start makin' up names for things?" Braeburn asked, a sneer tugging at his lips.

"Long as you don't go dishing 'em out all willy-nilly-- you gotta be precise!" Hondo raised a hoof in the air, as if he were some great (and very out of breath) orator. "Nicknames are earned."

"You sayin' I earned mine?" Braeburn said, giving his friend a nudge.

Hondo tilted his hat forward, disguising his rapidly reddening face with all the grace of an elephant. "Would you get back in position? I'm chargin' ya for a full session whether or not we use all the time, doncha know."

"You told me these were free!" Braeburn scolded. His glee was poorly disguised, though.

"Well, I changed my mind," Hondo said, snout in the air, smile barely hidden under his mustache.

Braeburn gave his friend a shove.

Hondo shoved back.

Braeburn lunged at Hondo, tossing his hat off his head and trapping him under his foreleg for a noogie.

He didn't fight it.

Braeburn thought Hondo's mane felt remarkably soft.

Hondo thought Braeburn's touch was just the same.

And they laughed-- nasally but raucous, like colts doing something they shouldn't.

And that's rather what they were. Because stallions their age didn't play-wrestle, and they didn't giggle, and they didn't talk like these two talked.

But there wasn't anypony there to tell them otherwise.


Hiya, Braeburn -

To be honest, I'm not quite sure why I keep writing you when I know you can't write back. I'm sure it must be mighty frustrating.

I just wanted to let you know that I think I've decided to talk to you. You know, pony-to-pony, face-to-face. There's only so much thinking I can expect you to do when we can't talk back and forth.

You probably have questions, too. It's best to get those worked through, don't you think?

Anyway, just be ready. I'll try to find a good time for it, but that's no guarantee it won't be a shock for you.


"You alright, there, coach?" Hondo asked.

"Hm?"

Braeburn looked up from the ball. He realized, with some measure of embarrassment, that he had been passing it gently between his own forehooves for the better part of a minute now.

Silently.

"Y'alright?" Hondo repeated. "You seem, eh… well, I dunno what you seem. Just different."

Braeburn scratched his temple with one hoof. After a moment's contemplation, he kicked the ball over to Hondo.

"Ain't nothin' worth worryin' about," he said.

Hondo kicked the ball back without pausing. "You sure about that?" he asked. "Like to think, after a few months, I know ya pretty well. Ya don't seem yourself, there, coach."

The ball made a hollow sound as it bounced off Braeburn's hoof. "Just thinkin', I guess."

"What about?"

Another hollow kick.

The ball skipped over the sand like a stone over water.

Braeburn caught it under one quick hoof, and froze there. Considering. Rolling the ball gently from side to side under his hoof.

"Coach?"

"I got a weird letter today," Braeburn said simply.

Hondo cupped a hoof around his ear. "Huh? Whaddja say?"

Braeburn looked up. "I got a weird letter today!" he repeated, this time from down in his chest. "And I just… I dunno, it's been making me think."

"Eh… that so?" Hondo's brows furrowed into one long, furry ferret. "About what, exactly?"

About what, indeed?

Braeburn took a long breath. The air was cool and dry, yet still held the memory of heat within it. It must have been all wrapped up in the smell, he thought.

"We know one another pretty well by now, don't we?" Braeburn called back to Hondo.

Hondo shrugged. "I like to think we do."

"Maybe you can give me some advice, then," Braeburn said.

He abandoned the ball in its place in the sand and trotted towards Hondo.

"I'll do my best, coach," Hondo said with a chuckle. "You may have to settle for a friendly headpat or two."

Braeburn snorted. "He said, as if his whole job wasn't givin' other ponies advice."

"All the same." Hondo tugged down on his mustache. "Got a feeling this might be a bit different."

"Might be," Braeburn admitted.

He sidled up next to Hondo, very nearly touching him, before lowering himself to the ground. The sand still held some warmth from the sun, and it radiated up into his chest.

Braeburn looked up at Hondo. "Why don't you have a seat?"

Hondo blinked. "Uh. Sure. Why not, eh?"

With considerably less grace and a wider dust cloud, Hondo managed to get himself down into the sand beside Braeburn. He tugged on his mustache again, then pulled his hat down as low as it would go.

Braeburn sighed. "That fella who's been writing me says he's gonna show up soon," he said simply.

Hondo was quiet for a moment. "Uh-huh."

"It's just got me thinkin'," Braeburn said. "Not that I really believe in eternal life or anything. Just hard not to think about, huh?"

"I-I guess so," Hondo replied with a little chuckle.

Braeburn chuckled in response. "I know it sounds corny," he said, looking down at his hooves. "I just-- well. Seein' as you're more of a watcher 'n' all. Would you take it?"

Hondo's eyes went rather wide. "Me? Take…" He pointed to himself, as if shocked by the very idea. "Well. I guess I never really thought about it."

"Not even with all the talkin' I've been doin'?" Braeburn asked. "No way that's true."

"Sure is!" Hondo argued. "I mean… you get used to life bein' one way. Nopony ever asked me if I liked it, doncha know?"

His face sort of contorted into an odd grimace. Braeburn watched him carefully, wondering if he may dispense some of his more expected wisdom, but he said nothing. He just stared down at the ground--at a little pebble, it seemed--and chewed the inside of his cheek with a strange ferocity.

"Alright, alright-- different question," Braeburn said, giving his friend a clap on the shoulder. "Didn't mean to send you into an existential crisis, there, Hondo."

Hondo gave a half-hearted and breathy laugh.

"You're a-- well, you're a once-married stallion," Braeburn said. "Would you, uh… would you do it again?"

"Get married?" Hondo let out a long sigh. "Boy, that's a heck of a question. More'n you probably think."

"Not married. Not necessarily," Braeburn corrected quickly. "Just… y'know, the whole romance thing. Would you do any of that again? Don't have to be the whole nine yards."

Hondo cast his friend a glance out of the corner of his eye. "Still a hard question, there."

"Alright, fine, fine," Braeburn huffed.

He tried to say something, but the words seemed stuck. His mouth opened, closed, opened again-- then he took off his hat and slapped it down into the sand.

"Shoot," he said. "I guess what I'm askin' is-- well, seein' as a might be immortal soon, you think it's wise to start datin' somepony? Or would that be irresponsible of me?"

Hondo laughed. "That depends on who you're thinkin' of datin', don't it? You got a princess on the hook that I should know about?"

"Consarn it, Hondo, I meant you!"

That sure shut him up.

Hondo's brows climbed up his forehead, higher and higher, until they vanished completely into his floppy forelock. He tried to keep his eyes trained on the ground, but Braeburn caught them flick his way once or twice.

Braeburn just tried not to say anything else stupid. He bit down on his tongue as a bit of extra assurance.

Hondo cleared his throat. "Oh."

"For the record, I was plannin' on sayin' it a lot nicer'n that," Braeburn said. "Dunno exactly what I was gonna say. But I was plannin' on it bein' better."

Hondo lifted a hoof to his mouth and pulled down on his mustache. "That… sure wasn't what I thought you were gonna say," he said softly. "Listen, coach, I--"

"Don't call me coach, Hondo," Braeburn interrupted, burying his face in his hooves. "I'm already embarrassed enough as it is, I don't need--"

"Braeburn."

A breeze wound its way through Braeburn's mane as he looked up at his friend.

"I need to be honest with you about somethin'," Hondo said.

His tone was so deadly serious that it nearly stopped Braeburn's heart.

"Boy, I don't really know how to say this…" Hondo said. A nervous chuckle escaped him, curling that fuzzy caterpillar on his lip.

Say what?

You don't like stallions?

You don't like this stallion?

There's somepony else?

"Oh, shoot, I…" Hondo sucked in a small breath. "I'm the one that's been writin' you those letters," he whispered.

That did it.

That stopped his heart.

"And… I wasn't lyin', either," he continued, lifting his head and, at long last, flashing his friend a grin.

A toothy grin.

A fanged grin.

"Surprised?"