It was a slow night at the Carrot and Stick, even for a Tuesday. It was a small, old-fashioned earth pony bar, the kind with timber framing, sawdust on the floor, and one dartboard. A few regulars stood clustered together at the far end of the bar, which was the warmest spot on a chilly evening. They had run out of opinions on what the weather should be next week, the lineup that the Ponyville Plowbusters should use against the Coltwich Coursers in next week's hoofball match, and natural versus artificial fertilizer. They were now nursing their drinks silently, staving off for another few minutes the necessity of returning to homes that were either uncomfortably empty or uncomfortably full.
A yellow pegasus mare stood by herself near the other, emptier end of the bar, her eyes locked with those of her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. She seemed not to notice the occasional blast of cold air when somepony went in or out the door behind her, except to shake her head when it blew her long pink mane into her eyes. Every so often she sipped at her empty glass, or swirled her cinnamon stick to mix the remaining ice cubes with a sound like hooves on gravel. The bartender had long since given up asking her if she wanted a refill.
An earth pony stallion with a maple-sugar coat and mane pushed through the door and, after a glance around the bar, walked up and stood at the bar to her left, and called for a scotch on the rocks. Then he turned to look at the yellow mare. She pulled her wings in more tightly, and sipped at her empty drink more urgently.
"Hey, Full," he called to the unicorn tending the bar, then nodded toward the yellow mare. "Fill hers back up, on me."
"Oh, no, I couldn't," she protested, so quietly he had to lift both ears and pivot them towards her. "I'm fine, really." She hadn't planned on anypony buying her a drink. She'd have to talk to him then. Perhaps he'd give up if she didn't make eye contact. But one bottle of carrot juice and one of gin were already floating in front of her and turning over to refill her carrot-and-gin.
"You're suckin' rocks there," he observed. "You look kinda far-off. Something on your mind?"
She raised her eyes to him guiltily. "I was just thinking that I should be going. It's getting colder, and I need to close the chicken coop door after the hens go in or the chicks might get cold at night. I need to wake the mice up, they're nocturnal you know, or they'll sleep in too long and won't get enough to eat before daybreak, and—"
He raised a hoof to interrupt her. "Now, hold on there. Slow down. Take a breath. You don't seem like the type who comes here to drink. That means you came to talk."
Fluttershy considered this, and nodded hesitantly. It might be true. The last time anypony had spoken to her had been over a week ago, when she'd restocked on birdseed. The clerk had told her the total and asked if she needed anything else.
"But you haven't talked to anypony since you came here, have you?"
She frowned, then shook her head almost imperceptibly.
"Okay," he said, "you can go after you talk to me for three minutes. Then you won't have made a trip for nothing. How about it?"
She sipped dutifully at her refilled drink, then spoke without turning her head, glancing at him with one eye every few words. "It wasn't for nothing. It was nice just to sit with some other ponies for a while. I had a nice time." In fact, this was already more conversation than she'd had in weeks.
He set his tumbler down and turned to face her. "What, don't you have friends? Family?"
"I have lots of friends!" she said, and her face lit up. "Rabbits and chickens and frogs and mice. Dozens of little friends!" Then the glow faded. "Not many ponies, yet. But I've only been in Ponyville a little while. I'm sure I'll make more friends, somehow."
"Uh-huh. So, you're pretty comfortable with animals?"
She nodded. "I guess so." Why had she felt compelled to leave them and come sit in a dingy, smelly room with strange ponies? She took a longer drink from her glass.
"You're in luck! I'm something of an animal myself," he said with a laugh.
"Oh!" she gasped, shifting slightly away to her right. "I don't... That's not a very nice thing to say."
He raised an eyebrow. "It isn't? I thought you liked animals."
The gin and carrot juice had begun to warm Fluttershy's cheeks, and she felt a strange clear-headedness come over her, a confidence that the words forming in her head were important and true and that there was no reason to hold them back. She stood up straight, flicked her wingtips, and looked him in the eye reprovingly. "I love animals," she said. "I love them when they run up and lick me and cuddle me. And I love them when they growl and snap, and try to bite me because they're scared or annoyed or just ornery. I love them no matter what they do. They can't help it. They're just being animals."
He nodded and waved a hoof dismissively. "Sure. And ponies aren't?"
She inhaled sharply. "Of course not! Ponies know better. Ponies have duties and responsibilities. Ponies have... morals." She sighed sadly. "And they're terribly smart."
He lowered his head thoughtfully for a moment, then look backed up. "Ponies are complicated, huh?" He gestured around the room with one hoof at the unicorn drinking quietly off to her right, the bartender, and the last three old-timers in the far corner. "Maybe even a little scary?"
She blushed and nodded.
He leaned in alarmingly close, and spoke in a soft, low voice. "Just watch what they do, and pretend they're animals. You'll figure it out a lot quicker."
She squeaked and turned her head away. "No," she insisted, frowning. "That's wrong. And that's a terrible thing to say."
"Well," the stallion said, still leaning in, "would you believe two plus two is five?"
She blinked, and cocked her head sideways at him. "But... you know that's wrong."
"Yeah," he agreed with a smile, turning back to his scotch as though he had scored a point. "But it didn't make you mad when I said it."
She just stared at her drink, and sipped it again, to have something to do and somewhere to look. She heard a strange thumping sound and realized it was her own heart.
"You got any of those romance novels at home? The kind with pictures of big strapping stallions on the cover?"
She looked even further away. "Of course not!"
"Right." He laid a hoof on her foreleg. "Look—hey, look at me. I'm trying to help you here."
She looked up at the overly-intrusive pony without raising her head. She wished he would take his hoof off of her.
"Just go home," he said. "Maybe you think you came here 'coz you were bored, or curious. But maybe part of you wants to meet somepony special. And maybe another part of you just wants to be mounted and knocked up and squeeze out a foal or two. No, listen," he said, tugging at her foreleg as she turned crimson and tried to look away. "Go home until you figure out what you want."
"Thank you for the drink," she said, pulling away, "but I don't think I want to talk anymore." She tried to busy herself with her drink again, and found, to her surprise, that it was empty.
He removed his hoof from her leg and let it fall back to the floor. "Sure," he said, "sure. Good luck, kid." He dropped a mouthful of bits on the counter and backed away from the bar. Fluttershy kept her eyes straight forward until she felt a blast of cold air on her flank and heard the bar door slam shut.
She let her breath out and looked behind her. He was gone. She pressed her empty glass tightly between her hooves and stared forward, waiting for her racing heart to slow. How had he known about her romance novels? Could everypony tell just by looking at her?
And what was this she was feeling? Fluttershy knew fears the way some ponies knew fine wines. From the morning fear, like a vague heaviness on your chest when you first woke up and wondered what might go wrong today, to the final evening fear that felt like a falling, like drowning, when you started slipping out of consciousness and into dreams beyond your control, she knew every variety of fear in its fullness, and was as sensitive to the fine gradations between their symptoms as an arctic pony was to the density and granularity of snow. This feeling she had now, it made her eyes open wide, like the fear of the dark; it made her body tense, like the scent of a griffin. But unlike any other fear she knew, it made her want more of it.