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Herd 11

By Hawkeye
Created: 18th December 2020 04:24:27 PM

  1. >"Anon!" a happy voice chirps from behind you.
  2. >Looking over your shoulder, you see Lyra trotting around the seats.
  3. >"Where are the girls?"
  4. "They went home, Lyra. It's Sunday night and some ponies have work tomorrow."
  5. >"Aww, I was looking forward to introducing them to Tavi!"
  6. "You four do seem awfully close." you say, standing up and ruffling her mane.
  7. >She coos happily as you scratch behind an ear.
  8. >"That's- that's because- oh man, right there!"
  9. "Great concert by the way. I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised to see you featured so prominently in those folk songs."
  10. >"Thanks, Anon! It isn't often ponies can really hear me through the orchestra, I just got lucky with that song!"
  11. "I'm sure the conductor wouldn't have chosen it if he didn't think you were up to the task."
  12. >"Shushushush." she says, flailing her hooves at you.
  13. >Smiling, you kneel down and wrap the flustered mare in a one-armed hug.
  14.  
  15. >Straightening up, you offer a final ear scritch and look down at Lyra.
  16. "Come on, let's get going."
  17. >You walk out into the hall before motioning for Lyra to lead the way.
  18. >Following close behind her, a thought comes to you.
  19. "Do you go to the spa a lot, Lyra?"
  20. >"Sometimes, but I can't really afford that kind of thing." she shrugs. "Spent it all on the house."
  21. "Because somepony told me that the four of you are spending a lot of time together."
  22. >"Ohhh, I thought you meant for a spa day or something. Yeah, we hang out together a lot now! Aloe and Lotus are a lot of fun to be around, and Rose just seems to know so much about everypony!"
  23. "You know, you're pretty fun to be around too, Lyra."
  24. >"Thanks, Anon." she says, rubbing up against your leg. "C'mon, this way."
  25.  
  26. >Eventually Lyra leads you across the stage to a collection of dressing rooms and rehearsal spaces.
  27. >Pushing on the door to one of them, she calls out.
  28. >"Tavi? It's Lyra. Can we come in?"
  29. >"Oh! Lyra, yes, of course."
  30. >As the two of you enter, Octavia looks up from her instrument case.
  31. >She neatly tucks her sheet music into a side pocket.
  32. >Closing the case, she walks up to Lyra and embraces her.
  33. >"It has been too long." she sighs.
  34. >"I know, I know." Lyra agrees. "But you're always on tour, and I just can't afford to travel that much."
  35. >"You're such a gifted musician Lyra. Something will open up in time."
  36. >Lyra shifts a little uncomfortably at the praise.
  37. >"Thanks...oh, this is Anon!" she quickly redirects. "We're dating!"
  38. "A pleasure to meet you." you say, offering a hand.
  39. >She gives it a firm, single shake accompanied by a curt nod.
  40. >"A pleasure to meet you." she says before hopping onto a nearby stool. "Please, make yourselves comfortable."
  41. >There's a low couch against the wall, and Lyra hops over to it.
  42. >Sizing it up, you decide it will be easier to lean against the wall.
  43. >"So Anon, are you a musician as well then?"
  44. "Nope. Quit band as a kid, wasn't very good at it." you chuckle. "I'm better at listening to music than playing it."
  45. >"Anon is an architect." Lyra offers helpfully.
  46. >"Oh, I see. How did you two meet then?"
  47. "We met at a party thrown by a mutual friend."
  48. >"I already knew who he was, the newspaper had run a few stories about him."
  49. >"Really? I can't say that I recognize him."
  50. "Lyra is making me seem like a bigger deal than I am." you say, throwing Lyra a wink. "Most of my work was done in Canterlot, if you're from Filly then you probably get different headlines."
  51. >"Hmmm, yes, that makes sense." she nods
  52. >"Anoooon aren't you going to sit?"
  53. "There is no way I'm ever going to get out of that couch."
  54. >"Pleeease?"
  55. >"He is correct, Lyra. There is no graceful way for him to join you."
  56. >"Don't take his side!"
  57. >"I am just stating the facts-"
  58. >You unceremoniously drop onto the cushions beside Lyra.
  59. "You" you state flatly "are lucky I happen to like you."
  60. >Lyra beams in response.
  61. >"Be careful, Anon. She'll drag you into all kinds of trouble if you let her."
  62. >"What? Why would you accuse me of such a thing!"
  63. "Do I feel a story coming on?" you ask, leaning forward eagerly.
  64. >"Well, there was the time you got us lost in Manehattan and we missed our train home-"
  65. >"That wasn't entirely my fault! Normal places don't have both Blue and /Light Blue/ train routes!"
  66. >Octavia just looks from Lyra to you with a deadpan expression.
  67. >"We didn't get back to the city until an hour after the last train to Canterlot left."
  68. >"But hey, Vinyl took us to that really neat club since we were in the city for another night!"
  69. >"Ugh. We are /not/ discussing all of the hijinks you and Vinyl got us into together."
  70. >"Awww, well I had fun..."
  71. >"Some ponies just like the quieter things in life."
  72. >"But it's important to roll with the changes, Tavi. You've got to learn to be flexible, like me!"
  73. >You lift an eyebrow as you look over at your beaming companion.
  74. >Before you can form your doubtless witty remark, Octavia pushes on.
  75. >"I just wish there were a few less close calls."
  76. "Close calls?"
  77. >"I had a date the next afternoon. I only barely managed to be make it on-time, and I'm afraid I was a little disheveled-"
  78. >"How is Minnie these days anyways?" Lyra asks, looking around as if the mare was hiding in a corner.
  79. >"I wouldn't know." Octavia sniffs. "We broke up a few months ago."
  80. >"Aw, Tavi. I'm sorry."
  81. >"It's fine. I'm the one who broke it off. I think- I think you and Vinyl were right about her."
  82. >"Still, you really cared about her."
  83. >"We'll have to catch up later this week. I'd... rather not talk about this in front of Anon."
  84. >"Oh. Right."
  85. "I can leave, if you-"
  86. >"Nonono, we'll talk later this week!" Lyra objects. "We can go to Hazel's place!"
  87. >"Oh, so this is where she decided to move to? I knew she left Canterlot."
  88. "I remember Hazel. She seems pretty cool."
  89. >"Her dedication to her craft is amazing."
  90. >"Octavia and Hazel both get super focused sometimes."
  91. "You say it like it's a bad thing."
  92. >"Focus is important!" Octavia huffs.
  93. >"Music is more than notes on paper Tavi. You can't expect to express on paper what you haven't felt in your heart!"
  94. >"Wha-Lyra! We are not having this argument again."
  95. "So what do you do for fun in Filly?" you intervene.
  96. >"Oh, well I, um." Octavia stumbles.
  97. >Lyra giggles into her hoof.
  98. >"I spend a lot of time practicing, but I do sometimes go out with a small group of friends from the orchestra. I enjoy listening to music in the park. And I visit mother and father every month."
  99. >"Tavi is a homebody." Lyra whispers in your ear, the grey mare narrowing her eyes.
  100. >"I can hear you, Lyra." she growls.
  101. >"Eheheheh, it's not like it's a big secret Octavia."
  102. >"That doesn't mean I want to be introduced that way!"
  103. "Well you should come by Ponyville more often." you suggest. "I'm sure Lyra and Bonbon would be happy to host you."
  104. >"Ah, how is Bonbon?" Octavia asks, quickly redirecting the conversation.
  105. "Charming as ever."
  106. >That earns you a light slug on the shoulder.
  107. >"You know Bonnie. She's just been kind of serious since it happened."
  108. >Octavia nods knowingly.
  109. >"I take it Anon has met her then?"
  110. >"A few times. Not a lot."
  111. "We really should do something about that."
  112. >"Wellll how about the three of us go somewhere sometime?"
  113. >Et tu, Lyra?
  114. >You're about just ask what trip she wants to go on, when she starts rattling off ideas.
  115. >Nice, affordable, local ideas.
  116. >She just meant to do something together.
  117. >Damn, you're getting paranoid Anon.
  118. >But seriously, these mares are bleeding you dry.
  119. "-or we could go to Running of the Leaves together." she continues "Oh! And Million Bit Quartet is coming to the auditorium next month, and when the snow arrives we could-"
  120. >You smile at no one as she rolls through an unending list of things to do.
  121. >This mare really deserves more of your time.
  122. >Soon.
  123. >Soon you'll have more time.
  124. >Or at least free weekends again.
  125. >With a quick tousle of her mane, you seize a perky little pony ear and rub gently.
  126. >"A-Anooon! Not in front of Tavi!"
  127. >Looking over at the surprised Cellist, you offer a wink and a grin.
  128. "Hey, you know I'll make time for you. I think the real trick will be getting Bonbon to agree to go."
  129. >"Anon has a point." Octavia interjects "Bonbon wasn't very social before, I can only imagine how she is now."
  130. >"Did-stop that!- did you two practice this conversation earlier or something?" Lyra asks, batting your hand away from her ears.
  131. "Nope. But you know what they say, Great Minds think alike!"
  132. >Octavia scoffs.
  133. "Oh, you don't agree? I am hurt, Octavia."
  134. >Lyra snickers into a hoof and the grey mare rolls her eyes.
  135. >"Stating the obvious does not make somepony a 'great mind', Anon."
  136. >Feigning ignorance you point to your companion.
  137. "But Lyra overlooked that detail, and she's Bonbon's best friend!"
  138. >"Lyra approaches /everything/ with unwarranted enthusiasm."
  139. >"Well maybe you should come with to help us, then!" Lyra shoots back.
  140. >"I have to get back to Fillydelphia-"
  141. >"We both know that you aren't busy. Your cello and music are already here with you in Ponyville, and I have a spare bedroom at home you can use!"
  142. "Ponyville is a very quiet place compared the city." you offer.
  143. >"I-I suppose I don't have any performances coming up-"
  144. >"Awesome! Now we just need to get Vinyl-"
  145. >"Celestia no!"
  146. >"Aw, but we're getting the band back together!"
  147. >"I just want to relax, Lyra."
  148. "I know the feeling." you commiserate "Lyra, let's give her a week to settle in first."
  149. >Lyra looks between you two before deflating a little.
  150. >"Okaaaay."
  151. >"So Octavia, got any more good stories about your groups adventures?"
  152.  
  153.  
  154.  
  155. >As the door closes behind Anon, you look over at your old friend.
  156. >It's late, but you don't have work tomorrow.
  157. >Neither does Octavia, though she is going to Canterlot for a few days this week.
  158. >She hops off of her stool and takes Anon's place next to you.
  159. >"He seems nice."
  160. "He's the best."
  161. >"I didn't know you had a coltfriend."
  162. "We've only officially been together for a little while now."
  163. >"How does Bonnie feel about him?"
  164. "Well..."
  165. >"Is it because of Anon, or-"
  166. "It isn't Anon. At least, I don't think it's Anon." you reply carefully. "I'm trying to get her to agree to go on a date with him!"
  167. >"Forming a Herd isn't something to take lightly, even if it's with Bonbon, Lyra."
  168. "Oh! Right! It never came up, but Anon was explicitly told to build a herd. I'm trying to get Bonnie to take one of the spots."
  169. >"A stallion -or whatever- of station?"
  170. "Eh, kind of? I don't really know how any of that works, Octavia."
  171. >She smiles gently.
  172. >"Bonnie always did handle that sort of thing, didn't she?"
  173. "I just...I'm always worried that I'll screw up!"
  174. >"You seem to be doing just fine with Anon."
  175. "I hope so... I like the other girls so far too!"
  176. >"How many are there?"
  177. "Four of us right now. Me and Roseluck and then Aloe and Lotus!"
  178. >"That doesn't leave any room for Bonbon, are you trying to push one of the others out?" she asks, frowning slightly.
  179. "N-no! I couldn't do that!"
  180. >"It wouldn't be worth it to help your best friend?"
  181. "But I won't have to!" you quickly explain. "Anon- he was told by the princess that he needs seven mares, so there's plenty of room!"
  182. >"Seven!?"
  183. "Yeah! Yeah, so you know, I won't have to push anyone out..."
  184. >Your expression must be giving you away, because Tavi leans in close.
  185. >"Lyra? Is something wrong?"
  186. "What if...what if I get pushed out?"
  187.  
  188.  
  189.  
  190. >A familiar bell rings as you enter the spa.
  191. >Nopony is at the desk, so you check the sign-in sheet.
  192. >Hmm, both are in with customers...
  193. >Looking surreptitiously around, you see nopony around.
  194. >So you walk around the desk.
  195. >The little book of reservations is lying open on the counter.
  196. >Checking your watch, you run a finger down the column to 1:15.
  197. >Hmm...
  198. >It seems that there are back to back doubles.
  199. >Cheerilee and Bonbon are in with them currently.
  200. >Daisy and Lily should be arriving in fifteen minutes...
  201. >But if you recall correctly, the first half of the treatment only needs one pony.
  202. >They're just chaperoning the sauna and tubs.
  203. >Assuming your experience was typical, of course.
  204. >Which it probably wasn't.
  205. >Eh, you only need to catch Aloe for a minute or two.
  206. >Making your way back around the desk, you take a seat in the reception area and lean your head back.
  207. >Closing your eyes, you quickly run through your theoretical Canterlot itinerary:
  208. >Get to Canterlot
  209. >Meeting with the Academy
  210. >Take Aloe to the Institute of Art
  211. >Meet with the Pink Demon
  212. >Take Aloe somewhere nice for Dinner
  213. >This does leave you with a bit of time still.
  214. >And you need to find something for Aloe to do while you're in those meetings.
  215. >You'll need to write back to Cadence and ask for suggestions.
  216. >Realistically, you know what her response will be for the first meeting.
  217. >She's going to drag Aloe shopping.
  218. >Because the Imperial Treasury can afford it, and -more importantly- it gives Cadence a chance to talk to Aloe and snoop around your relationships.
  219. >Letting out a sigh, you roll the thought around for a moment.
  220. >You /suppose/ it's reasonable.
  221. >She /is/ the Princess of Love after all.
  222. >Not that she seems so directly involved in anyone else's love life.
  223. >The bell rings and you open an eye.
  224. >Lily and Daisy have arrived a bit early it seems.
  225. "You're a bit early." you offer, closing your eye again.
  226. >"Ten minutes isn't that early." Daisy counters.
  227. >"I hope we aren't interrupting anything." Lily adds.
  228. >Sitting upright, you put up your hands.
  229. "Nothing exciting, just need a quick word with Aloe." you say. "Hoping to catch her between appointments."
  230. >"We won't judge you for wanting to spend some time with your marefriends-" Daisy says, sitting down next to you.
  231. >"But you really should make an appointment!" Lily finishes, dropping into the seat next to you.
  232. >You can feel your face heating up a little.
  233. "Well, I, uh-"
  234. >The two just crack up laughing.
  235. >"Too-Too easy!" Daisy sputters.
  236. "Rose put you up to this, didn't she?"
  237. >"Not really." Lily says, her breathing normalizing. "She said some things that gave us the idea, but we had no idea you'd be here today."
  238. "Fair enough."
  239. >"So you're here just to see Aloe?" Daisy asks.
  240. "Yeah, I need to ask about her schedule."
  241. >"But not Lotus?"
  242. "Not this time, no. Why?"
  243. >"She's just being nosy." Lily interjects, rolling her eyes.
  244. >"Hey, I'm just trying to keep tabs on Rose's coltfriend."
  245. "Oh really now?"
  246. >"Oh, because you're such an expert on coltfriends?"
  247. >"Lily!"
  248. >"He's a nice stallion and you should be happy for Rose!"
  249. >"Not in front of-"
  250. "I hope I'm not causing-"
  251. >"Am I interrupting...?"
  252. >All heads turn to see Aloe in the doorway.
  253. "Just chatting while they wait." you offer cheerily.
  254. >"Okay then." Aloe says slowly. "Well, Miss Daisy, Miss Lily, Lotus is waiting for you by the hot tub. If you'd follow me please?"
  255. >Daisy heads into the back followed by Lily, who turns to give you a wink before she disappears into the spa.
  256. >Furrowing your brow, you digest what just happened.
  257. >You're going to have to talk to Roseluck.
  258. >And since you saw the schedule, you happen to know that her sisters will be at the spa for the next two hours.
  259. >Aloe first though.
  260. >A few moments later Aloe returns.
  261. >"Anon? Why /are/ you here?"
  262. "You." you offer, standing up.
  263. >You follow her into the break room where she promptly collapses into a chair.
  264. "Long day?"
  265. >"Absolutely unbelievable." she groans "Lotus handled the scheduling while I was sick, and she likes to pack all of the difficult appointments into one day so the rest of the week is easy."
  266. "That's an interesting way of doing things."
  267. >"It is also why she isn't in charge of scheduling."
  268. >You shake your head and laugh.
  269. >Picking Aloe up out of her chair, you cradle her in your arms and retreat to the futon against the wall.
  270. >Dropping into a corner, you stretch Aloe across the cushions.
  271. >She rests her head in your lap while you gently rub up and down her back.
  272. >"We should teach you how to really use those hands."
  273. "Some mares would argue that I already know how."
  274. >"Incorrigible." she snorts.
  275. "What did you have in mind?"
  276. >"Hmmm, I'm not sure. But give me and Lotus some time to think about it."
  277. "Well, if I have my way, you'll be stuck with me for a very long time."
  278. >"Good. Because I'm too tired right now."
  279. "How long until you have to go help Lotus?"
  280. >"Oh, I'll have to go prep the tables in half an hour or so."
  281. >You just hum in acknowledgement.
  282. >This is nice.
  283. >The quiet is nice.
  284. >Aloe is nice.
  285. >You need to do less, savor more.
  286. >...
  287. >You're here for a reason, idiot!
  288. "Before I forget, I did come here for a reason."
  289. >"You mean you didn't come here just to see me?"
  290. "No, I came here for you. But I needed to ask about your schedule."
  291. >She cocks her head just enough to look at you with one sleepy eye.
  292. "So you mentioned how Lotus plans things... want to leave her to handle the light load and come to Canterlot with me?"
  293. >She shakes her head as she closes her eyes again, heaving a sigh.
  294. >"You're lucky Lotus is so bad at scheduling."
  295. "Is that a yes?"
  296. >"When do we leave?"
  297. "8 o'clock on Thursday work for you?"
  298. >"Mhmm. When do we get back?"
  299. "I'm thinking Friday afternoon. It can be sooner if you need it to be."
  300. >"What if I want it to last longer?"
  301. >You look down at her.
  302. >She's not looking up at you, but her one ear is adorably cocked, waiting for an answer.
  303. >This mare.
  304. "Well, I can't take you away from Lotus for too long, or you'll get another schedule like this." you muse. "However, we could always catch an evening train instead."
  305.  
  306. >Sadly, but predictably, Aloe did eventually leave you to return to work.
  307. >On your own once more, you venture out into the cold afternoon and start heading back to the castle.
  308. >Or wait...
  309. >Lily and Daisy are at the spa.
  310. >Changing course, you head for Ponyville's only florist shop.
  311. >Inside the shop, you don't find anypony.
  312. >A bell says ring for assistance, but you opt to simply walk through the back of the shop.
  313. >Sticking your head out the back door, you can see Rose loading up a cart in the greenhouse.
  314. >Crossing the yard, you surreptitiously bump her flank as you come up alongside her.
  315. "Need any help?"
  316. >"Are you in any shape to do so?"
  317. "Hey, I only have to rest the one arm."
  318. >"Speaking of, where is your sling?"
  319. "Back at the castle."
  320. >"It doesn't work if you don't wear it, Anon."
  321. "Hey, it's uncomfortable and in the way. I've done a good job of not using my left arm so far."
  322. >"Just don't be surprised when Redheart gives you grief about it later."
  323. "What she doesn't know won't hurt her."
  324. >"It might hurt you, though." she shoots back, before fixing you with a smirk "And don't be so sure she won't know."
  325. "Are you implying" you answer, taking hold of the cart with your good arm "that one of my marefriends -my most trusted confidantes- would rat me out to Nurse Redheart?"
  326. >With a heave you begin to drag the cart along behind you.
  327. >"I am implying that your marefriends, who care very much about you, would do their best to keep their big strong hoofball player healthy, even if he has taken a few too many blows to the head."
  328. "Hey now." you start to argue as you enter the shop. "I think you're overhyping this."
  329. >Rose motions for you to lean in close.
  330. >She places a quick kiss on your cheek.
  331. >"Aloe is right. You can be really dumb sometimes."
  332.  
  333. >You were now sitting on a couch upstairs.
  334. >While Roseluck unloaded the cart, you had been sent back to the castle to put your sling on.
  335. >There was much grumbling, but Rose would hear none of your arguments.
  336. >You admit she is probably right, of course.
  337. >But this damn thing is uncomfortable around your neck and tends to get sweaty.
  338. >Just because you know you should doesn't mean you want to wear the sling.
  339. >Rose returns to the room with coffee.
  340. >Thanking her, you take a mug and lean back as she snuggles in beside you.
  341. >Reaching behind you, the mug is set on the window sill, freeing up your good arm to pet the pony.
  342. >She's a very good pony, the kind of pony that seems to know how to make you do the right thing without ever raising her voice.
  343. >The kind of pony that other mares are comfortable confiding in.
  344. >And the kind of pony that they take advice from, too.
  345. >You reach up to scratch an ear affectionately.
  346. "How is it, princess, that you are so intuitive with ponies?"
  347. >"Oh, it's just a combination of who I am and what I do."
  348. "That's not much of an answer." you chide.
  349. >"I am a florist. Who do most ponies buy flowers for?"
  350. "Their marefriend?"
  351. >"Their marefriend." she nods. "And who do you think they talk about while buying those flowers?"
  352. "Their marefriend?"
  353. >"You're catching on." she teases. "So if you're just good at listening, a lot of ponies will tell you all about their relationships and thank you for it. After a while, you just get a feeling for how things will go."
  354. "Hmmm, I see. So tell me, oh wise one... do your sisters like me?"
  355. >There's a pause, and Rose shifts to look up at you.
  356. >"Lily likes you. Daisy does too, but she feels like it's her job to look out for me because I always looked out for them."
  357. "That's sweet."
  358. >"It is, but it is also irritating."
  359. "Oh?"
  360. >"She's not very good at it."
  361. >Squeezing Roseluck, you can't help but laugh.
  362.  
  363. >The rest of the day, and the next few as well, are spent buried in your work.
  364. >You visit the House several times, but there isn't much to oversee during the gutting process.
  365.  >Also, Jim threatens to punt you over the fence himself if you keep bothering him and the crew.
  366. >You knew there was a reason you liked him.
  367. >Technically it was your property and you had a right to be there.
  368. >But you respect him as a foreman and understand that, ultimately, you were distracting the work crews.
  369. >You sent a few letters, just getting things in order.
  370. >Letting a few ponies know you were coming and such.
  371. >The remaining time is spent making final revisions to your botanical garden plans based on feedback from your last visit.
  372. >The goal, as overly optimistic as it may be, is to get the plans approved on the first pass.
  373. >You know that, even if they're approved, you will be dealing with countless revisions right up until the final day of work.
  374. >But at least the overall vision won't change.
  375. >You've got to start somewhere.
  376.  
  377. >Thursday evening you went down to the practice field to watch the team.
  378. >You had told Rainbow about your arm earlier in the week, so your absence would have been excused.
  379. >But it was good to coach the offense a little.
  380. >Particularly the quarterback.
  381. >They'll be fine.
  382. >Not like this game really matters.
  383. >Thunderlane and Company's win last weekend effectively ended your hopes for a playoff berth.
  384. >Technically possible...
  385. >...but highly unlikely.
  386. >As you walk back to the castle the cold night breeze starts to really pick up.
  387. >Autumn is fading fast.
  388. >Next weekend will be the end of the good weather, probably.
  389. >Hopefully it holds out just long enough for Fluttershy's shindig.
  390. >Pushing through the doors, you catch a glimpse of a roaring fire in the study on your way upstairs.
  391. >Hanging up your coat, you consider your schedule.
  392. >8 o'clock train means picking up Aloe at 7:30...
  393. >Have to leave here by 7:15...
  394. >You've got a little time left tonight.
  395.  
  396. >Grabbing a bottle of bourbon and a rocks glass, you head downstairs.
  397. >On the sofa is a passed out purple pony.
  398. >Her nose pressed into an open book.
  399. >Giving her a light shake, you find her dead asleep.
  400. >Chuckling to yourself, you heft her into your arms and somehow manage to grab her book as well.
  401. >Carefully keeping it open to her page, you carry both up to her bedroom.
  402. >The book goes on the nightstand.
  403. >The pony goes under the Princess Celestia covers.
  404. >Some things never change.
  405. >Sitting by the fire a few minutes later, you think about what Rose had told you.
  406. >Did Twilight like you as more than a friend?
  407. >Do you like her as more than a friend?
  408. >You already know there's going to be a thousand rules about dating a princess.
  409. >Quickly parrying the oncoming headache with a drink of the elixir of life, you dismiss those thoughts.
  410. >Too much thinking for a nice night like this.
  411. >Tipping a bit more into your glass, you watch the firelight reflect off the amber liquid.
  412. >The oaken body, the hint of sweetness at the finish and the sting of good alcohol eventually lull you to sleep.
  413.  
  414. >The next morning finds you (after taking a shower and a few aspirin) cheerily yet blearily making your way to the train station with Aloe.
  415. >While you will never admit it to the pony beside you, it was only Spike that saved you from oversleeping.
  416. >Needless to say, after racing through your morning routine, you had taken a few seconds to leave a more tangible thank you for the little dragon.
  417. >Which reminds you to talk to Celestia about scribe training for him while you're in Canterlot.
  418. >So much to do, and so little time!
  419. >All aboard!
  420.  
  421. >Stepping off the train in Canterlot, you pause to take in the hustle and bustle of the city.
  422. >It really is an entirely different feel than the ambling pace of Ponyville.
  423. >"So where to?" Aloe asks, looking up at you expectantly.
  424. "To the castle."
  425. >"The castle!?"
  426. "The castle." You nod "It's not as intimidating as you'd think, c'mon."
  427. >Leading the way, you push a path through the sea of ponies milling about the terminal.
  428. >Outside isn't much better.
  429. >"It reminds me of Stalliongrad."
  430. "I guess that makes sense, they're both big cities."
  431. >"Canterlot doesn't have as much soot though."
  432. "Yeah, Canterlot is a money and politics kind of place."
  433. >"It's nice!"
  434. "It's just dirty in other ways. Shall we?"
  435. >Aloe offers a cute nod, and you press on into the city.
  436.  
  437. >After a quick visit to your apartment, Cadence arrives to whisk Aloe away.
  438. >You probably should have warned Aloe about that.
  439. >To you, Cadence is a friend -albeit a sometimes overbearing one- but to Aloe she's still a princess.
  440. >You're looking forward to her expression when she finds out tomorrow afternoon's schedule of events.
  441. >Ah well, one thing at a time.
  442. >Right now you're in a conference room at the Academy.
  443. >Have been for over an hour now.
  444. >And somehow this project got better and worse at the same time.
  445. >Dear Celestia and Luna made a deal to match donations to the Royal Canterlot Academies (up to a certain amount, of course) and the bits poured in.
  446. >Including several donations specifically towards this project.
  447. >Large donations.
  448. >The Board of Regents has decided to considerably expand the size of this project.
  449. "Gentlecolts, I appreciate your enthusiasm." you begin slowly, quelling the oncoming migraine. "But I must point out that you cannot simply double all numbers in the drawings to produce a compound of twice the size."
  450. >"Surely it is within your capabilities, though?" the Chairman asks, leaning forward expectantly.
  451. >You sigh, and close your eyes.
  452. >A list of all the things you will need to do floats through your mind.
  453. >Opening your eyes, you meet the Chairman's gaze.
  454. "I can do it. But it won't be free."
  455. >"We have already budgeted for that." the Treasurer nods. "We'll be doubling your compensation."
  456. >It takes a moment for her words to sink in.
  457. >Wow.
  458. >That's a lot of bits.
  459. >You could do a lot with that kind of money.
  460. "What's the catch?"
  461. >The Chairman looks to his right, and a stallion two rows down shuffles some papers.
  462. >"Yes, well, in addition to the increases in the overall scope, there are a few other changes."
  463. "Such as...?" you growl.
  464. >"Oh, most of them are very minor." he chuckles nervously. "We do, ah, however, need to have some sort of nod to the larger donors in each of the buildings."
  465. "Ah. You sold the naming rights."
  466. >"Pardon?"
  467. "Is that not a thing here? In my world it wasn't uncommon to sell the name to a building as part of the financing. This was quite common on University campuses."
  468. >"It isn't something we'd considered, no." the Chairman answers. "How would that work?"
  469. "Well, Let's say that Prince Blueblood is the primary donor behind the Vahoover house. We could name it 'The Prince Blueblood Hall of the Northwest' and inside both ends would be a small lobby with restrooms and a bust of the Prince."
  470. >"How much extra work will that create? And how much more will that cost?" the Treasurer asks.
  471. "Expanding the size of the project this way more or less requires that bathrooms be added to every building. This simply uses that same space, so the only change in costs will be the art piece dedicated to the sponsor."
  472. >"So not too awful." an older stallion on your left rumbles. "I can handle that part of the project."
  473. >Ah yes, that's his name: Brass Tacks.
  474. >Owner of a small art foundry here in the Canterlot, and a much larger -and dirtier- mill out in Filly.
  475. "As soon as I have the new drawings, I'll get in touch to work out the details."
  476. >"So you're taking the job then, Anonymous?"
  477. "Did you really think I would say no?"
  478. >"Well, er-"
  479. >"We know you relocated to Ponyville to recuperate." the Treasurer chimes in.
  480. "It seems that everyone knows something about my personal life these days." you say, rolling your eyes as you get to your feet. "But I will indeed continue to serve as your architect."
  481. >Shaking hooves with all assembled, you pull on your overcoat and head out the door.
  482. >As you pass through the lobby and out into the cold mountain air, a thought hits you.
  483. >What will your mares say?
  484.  
  485. >You're near the end of your third martini when Aloe returns.
  486. >Unlike Rose, she seems to have actually enjoyed her time with Cadence.
  487. "Have a good time?"
  488. >"Oh Celestia yes! It was so much fun!" she exclaims, hopping up onto the couch beside you.
  489. >A moment later a guard enters your apartment and drops a dozen bags and boxes on the table.
  490. >With a grim nod to you, he leaves.
  491. >Before you can even ask, Aloe starts describing her day.
  492. >After you parted ways, the Pink Princess had taken her straight away to go clothes shopping.
  493. >Which she apparently considered 'warming up'.
  494. >Then the usual spa trip with a twist.
  495. >Aloe and Lotus run a spa after all, so the usual simply wouldn't do.
  496. "So where did you end up going?"
  497. >"It's called 'Caspian' and it's run by two lovely Ibexian mares. Lots of traditional and natural cures and treatments from the wilds beyond Stalliongrad."
  498. "Any new ideas to bring home?"
  499. >"There were lots of new things, but Ponyville is so old-fashioned sometimes..."
  500. "Ah, yeah. Maybe just something for you and Lotus to do together sometime."
  501. >"Yes, that's a great idea! You'll have to take her there!"
  502. "I will?"
  503. >"Somepony has to be at the spa, Anon!" she giggles.
  504. "You can't just close for the day?"
  505. >"Afraid of going alone?"
  506. "I wouldn't want to give Lotus any more ideas than she already has."
  507. >"She's harmless."
  508. >You lean down to plant a kiss on Aloe's forehead.
  509. "I also promised to take her to the ocean."
  510. >"I understand." Aloe says, eyes gleaming. "You're afraid that taking her to a spa will give her ideas, but you don't think that laying around in the sun and the sea will?"
  511. >...
  512. "I may have made a miscalculation."
  513. >Aloe finally breaks eye contact as she collapses into a giggle-fit.
  514. >You down the last of your drink.
  515. >Mares.
  516. "So what else did you do today?"
  517. >"Oh, after that we went to a bunch of galleries."
  518. "Galleries?"
  519. >"Some art and a lot of jewelry."
  520. "Cadence does know how to drain the Treasury."
  521. >"You're always so critical of her! She's a wonderful pony!"
  522. "...what did you get?"
  523. >"A pair of silver and pearl lily mane pins. One for me, and one for Lotus."
  524. "Ah, like the ones you wore to the concert?"
  525. >She nods. "And we located a few places that do custom work...for Herds."
  526. "Alright, you crazy mare." you say, scooping her up into your arms as you get to your feet.
  527. >"Where are we going?"
  528. "I figured we walk through the Upper Market and eat while we browse"
  529. >"I can't walk if you don't put me down, Anon."
  530. "You'll live."
  531.  
  532.  
  533.  
  534. >The next morning, having dropped off Aloe with Princess Luna, you proceed directly to the usual place.
  535. >Walking into the spacious parlor, you kick back on your favorite chaise lounge.
  536. >Closing your eyes, you soak up the warm morning sunlight.
  537. >Stretching, your joints pop as you release a contented sigh.
  538. >You don't even open your eyes when the door opens.
  539. >The soft clinking of decorative horseshoes on the floor tells you that your company is royal.
  540. >"Comfortable, Anon?"
  541. "Thanks for coming, Cadence."
  542. >"It is very rare that you actually ask to see me, I usually have to chase you down. Call me curious."
  543. "You were always very good at it."
  544. >"I only did what was necessary."
  545. "Was it all really necessary?"
  546. >"You needed a social life."
  547. "I needed a break."
  548. >"And now Twilight has arranged one for you!" she exclaims gleefully.
  549. "Uh-huh. And somepony gave her the idea to force me to form a Herd while on this break."
  550. >...
  551. "Somepony who happens to know a lot about Love, Relationships and the magic and law surrounding them."
  552. >...
  553. "Cadence." you say, opening your eyes and meeting her gaze.
  554. >"Yes?"
  555. "Why?"
  556. >She looks away and huffs.
  557. >"Because you need a mare...or seven."
  558. >Giving her your best incredulous stare, you open your mouth to protest only to be cut off.
  559. >"No! Don't object! Don't tell me that you're fine and just tired and whatever! I am the Princess of Love, Anonymous! I could feel the loneliness every time I stepped into your studio."
  560. >You sit up as she begins to pace.
  561. >"It positively radiated from the untouched spaces of your apartment, and screamed at me from the chaos of your home office."
  562. >You're caught off-guard by her intensity.
  563. >Was it really that bad?
  564. >Are you lonely?
  565. >Surely not anymore, but back then?
  566. >"Whether you were ready to admit it or not, you desperately wanted somepony. You clung to Celestia and Luna as your closest friends, and they love you for it. Few people see them as equals, and that makes you precious to them. But there are rules about dating royalty, and they know it. So I started throwing mares in front of you!"
  567. "I never said-"
  568. >"SHUT UP!" she shouts. "Just listen to me!"
  569. >Swinging your legs around so you can face her, you set your feet on the floor and nod for her to continue.
  570. >"Maybe I didn't know you well enough, but I had to do something Anonymous. So whenever I found a mare that I thought might hold your interest, I looked into their relationships. If they were single, I set up blind dates."
  571. >You want to say something before closing your mouth when Cadence's posture sags.
  572. >"And when that inevitably went down in flames, I took the time to help each and every one of them find a good coltfriend." she sighs sadly. "Nothing I ever did seemed to work."
  573. >...
  574. >Well
  575. >Aren't you just an asshole.
  576. >You fumble for words to convey what you're thinking.
  577. >On one hand, you feel a need to apologize.
  578. >Cadence was really only trying to help.
  579. >On the other, you really couldn't possibly have balanced all of that work and a relationship at the same time.
  580. >Your mouth opens and closes a few times.
  581. >False starts as you try to piece together a response.
  582. >"So...So yes, Anonymous." the pink princess sniffles. "When the opportunity presented itself, I pushed. And I pushed hard."
  583. "I- I don't know what to say Cadence."
  584. >"It doesn't matter. You seem to be doing better in Ponyville, now that you're away from work."
  585. "Yeah, I guess so."
  586. >"Oh, don't think I don't know, Anon."
  587. "What?"
  588. >"About the House. And you told me yourself about the botanical garden. And there's always hoofball." she says, rolling her eyes. "For such a cultured colt, your love of that sport is truly typical."
  589. "Hey, you wanted me to be social. Don't rag on the one thing I do for fun!"
  590. >"Even when we send you away you still manage to take on more work than you can handle."
  591. "Hoofball is over in two weeks. Construction is beginning on the House which should be done by Hearthswarming. That will leave me with the gardens, which I only took on because I needed the bits."
  592. >"Lots of gambling debts, Anon?"
  593. "What? No, not really my kind of thing. Why?"
  594. >"Then you really aren't hurting for bits." she shoots back "I know you think you are, but only because you're either a stubborn colt or a clueless human."
  595. >Well...
  596. >"Probably both."
  597.  "Alright, so tell me about the bits you think I have."
  598. >"So clueless then." she says, abruptly sitting on the couch.
  599. >With a sigh, you heave yourself onto your feet only to move to the couch and flop into the corner opposite Cadence.
  600. "Actually, that's the real reason I wanted to talk to you."
  601. >"What's that? You didn't just come here...to be angry?"
  602. "No." you admit. "I needed to be angry -this whole thing is a mess sometimes- but it's not the real purpose of coming here."
  603. >She gives you a small nod.
  604. "I said it was a mess sometimes. One of the reasons for that is that I know nothing about Equestrian dating, let alone the apparently very tradition-rich etiquette of herding."
  605. >"So you-"
  606. "I need your help."
  607. >Cadence stares at you for a moment...
  608. >...before a tremendous grin spreads across her face.
  609. >"Oh Anonymous! This is amazing! I never thought I'd see the day!"
  610. >You just sink into the cushions.
  611. >Leaning your head back, you stare at the ceiling while she titters excitedly for a few minutes.
  612. >"Anon? Anon!"
  613. "Yessss?"
  614. >"So where do we begin?"
  615. "Well, I think we've cleared up the issue with pony dating speed."
  616. >She nods.
  617. "Just about everything else is like an old-school human romance, as far as I can tell." you continue "And I've had to have a lot of conversations about human dating."
  618. >"So herding then?"
  619. "Herding."
  620. >"Well, that's kind of broad." she begins slowly. "I suppose you understand the base concept, so we'll go from there."
  621. "Sounds good to me."
  622. >"So Herds form around successful stallions simply because there are more mares than stallions. Even so, it's considered a mark of status to have a second mare."
  623. >You roll your eyes and lay your head back down.
  624. >"I know you aren't thrilled about it Anon, but understand that the task ahead of you is a big deal in most circles. You might not realize it because you lived in Upper Canterlot for so long, and herds are common there, but think about Ponyville. How many stallions there have even a second mare?"
  625. >It's a good question.
  626. >You can't name a single one.
  627. >Sitting up, you look over to her.
  628. "Why is that?"
  629. >"If you have one mare, it isn't uncommon for her to work. But if you have a second, it's expected that at least one of your mares will stay home and raise the foals."
  630. "Ah I see. So the Cakes, for example..."
  631. >"They pay the bills, their foals are fed, and their home is warm. What little else they have they save -just in case."
  632. "But if suddenly they were the only baker in town, and their business quadrupled-"
  633. >"-probably, yes." Cadence says after considering it for a second. "But we're moving off topic."
  634. "I don't-"
  635. >"You make plenty of money. In fact, by Ponyville standards you're quite well to do."
  636. >You can't argue that.
  637. >Even if you're rather housepoor.
  638. >"So it is expected that some, if not all, of your mares will stay home."
  639. "See? I keep telling-"
  640. >"Hush, I'm not finished." Cadence says, waving a hoof. "Yes, you're very concerned about money. I've heard as much."
  641. "Who told y-"
  642. >"Don't worry about that. Just know that your mares don't all have to quit their jobs immediately. It's normal for them to slowly fall into their places in the Herd."
  643. "Places?"
  644. >"While every herd is different, with the mares taking on all sorts of roles, there are only two specific roles that every herd has." she explains. "The Herd Stallion -that's you- and the Alpha Mare."
  645. >Now where have you heard that term before...
  646. >"The stallion is expected to lead the herd. How he does this is up to him, but it's his job to take care of the Family. And you're going to do just fine."
  647. "Thanks."
  648. >"But" she continues. "You could stand to be a little more...in command."
  649. "What?"
  650. >"I know that your philosophy towards your Herd has been rather...C'est la Vie, but if you want to preserve peace in your household, you really need to step in and take charge more often."
  651. "Fair enough."
  652. >"Now the Alpha Mare, that's one way to help you take charge Anon" Cadence offers. "She's intended to be the stallion's right hoof."
  653. >She explains that, since you cannot be everywhere, the Alpha Mare will be there to help you take care of the family.
  654. >"Some Alphas are like lieutenants, others are more autonomous. Again, that comes down to how you want to lead your herd."
  655. "Like lieutenants?"
  656. >"They check in with their stallion before he leaves for work, and then again when he gets home. He gives them the marching orders for the herd for the day."
  657. >You pull a face and Cadence giggles.
  658. >"I know, you aren't the micromanaging type. But not everypony is you, Anon."
  659. "Whatever works, I guess." you say, standing. "Drink?"
  660. >"I'm fine, thank you." She declines. "Anyways, those are the two roles every herd has. Oh, and just a warning, Anon?"
  661. "Hmm?"
  662. >"You can expect the mares to compete for that title until you choose your Alpha."
  663. "Ahhh. Yeah. That makes some sense now." you say, watching the tonic water fizz.
  664. >Glass in hand, you return to your seat.
  665. >Mmmm, that's some high quality gin.
  666. >"There is one last universal constant in Herding."
  667. "Oh?"
  668. >"A dowry."
  669. "Seriously?"
  670. >"Of course! We already established that a mare joining a herd wasn't free. In olden times, this was meant to keep the poor from marrying up through herds. But now it's just to ease the impact on the family."
  671. "See, now this becomes difficult!" you exclaim.
  672. >Hopping onto your feet, you take a sip of your drink and waggle a finger at the princess.
  673. "This used to be a thing back in the day with humans, but it hasn't been a part of my culture for a very long time. I have no idea how to handle a dowry."
  674. >She just keeps staring at you sweetly.
  675. "Stop giving me that look! I mean, is there a negotiation? Does the mare talk to me about it? Do I talk to her about it? How do I know if I'm being low-balled? Is it an insult if they do?"
  676. >"Anonymous."
  677. "I don't *think* that any of them would do that to me, but what if they can't afford an 'appropriate' dowry? Do I kick them out just for that? I mean-"
  678. >"Anonymous, please! Sit down."
  679. >You look over at her.
  680. >"Anonymous. Relax. I can help you."
  681. "How?"
  682. >"First, sit. Then I'll answer some of those questions."
  683. >You quickly return to your seat.
  684. >"So yes, there is a negotiation of sorts. Traditionally the stallion would ask the mare's father for permission to marry his daughter. If he said yes, he would then initiate a conversation about the dowry."
  685. "How quaint."
  686. >"You said it yourself, Anon. Herding has a lot of tradition surrounding it." she smiles reassuringly. "But times have changed. If you feel her family is traditional like that, go that route. But more commonly, a stallion will invite a mare into his herd, and a day or two later the mare's parents will write to schedule a visit and it gets discussed then."
  687. "Okay, so I just let them come to me. I can deal with that."
  688. >"See? Not so hard after all."
  689. "How do I know how-"
  690. >"Yes, the amount. This is going to be hard for you, and some stallions will try to use it as a test on you. So I am proposing this: let me know when these visits happen, and I'll either arrange to be in Ponyville or Canterlot."
  691. "Oh. Wow." you reply dumbly. "Really?"
  692. >"Anon, we know that we tossed you into the deep end of the pool with all of this. The fact that nopony realized that humans dated less than half as fast as ponies taught us that." she confesses. "It would be wrong of us not to help you with some of the more subtle nuances of herding."
  693. "Us?"
  694. >"Myself, Twilight, and of course Luna and Celestia."
  695. "There was a time when I was suspicious of the four of you discussing my life."
  696. >"And now?"
  697. "I've just come to accept the meddling."
  698. >"So melodramatic." she chides.
  699. "It is good to know that I'll have a skilled negotiator with me. Feels kind of like cheating though."
  700. >"It's not uncommon for negotiations to go back and forth across a weekend together. Maybe you could just consult with me, and do it yourself... if that better suits your ego?"
  701. "Hey, I- alright, that's actually true." you say, finishing your gin and tonic. "And yes, it feels more manly."
  702. >"Colts."
  703. "Yeah, yeah."
  704. >"Oh, hmmm, there's more to consider, but we'll get there. So those are basically the common things that happen in every herd. But there are lots of things to consider about how you want your particular herd to function."
  705. "I think a lot of that is going to depend on who ends up in the Herd, don't you think?"
  706. >Cadence offers you a bright smile.
  707. >"Smart colt." she says with a smirk. "And while that is certainly true, you should be thinking about some of these things as you build your herd."
  708. "Okay, shoot." you say, pouring a fresh drink.
  709.  
  710. >"There are two things at this point you should consider. The first is how you want to make herd membership official."
  711. >Your confused expression and hand gestures convey your lack of understanding.
  712. >"I know, herding is... complicated sometimes."
  713. "Don't I just propose to the mares?" you finally blurt out.
  714. >"Yes... No... Sometimes?" she answers with a shrug.
  715. >...
  716. "Go on..."
  717. >"A lot of it depends on family traditions and what you and your mares want. In unicorn tradition, for example, the Alpha Mare is the only one who marries the Herd Stallion."
  718. "And in the others?"
  719. >"Pegasi and Earth traditions vary, based on the ancient clans' differing traditions." she sighs.
  720. "So I'm just going to have to talk to all of them about this."
  721. >"To be blunt...yes. That would be best."
  722. "Okay." you nod, standing up again. "Are there any common arrangements?"
  723. >"The two most common are every mare being married to the stallion, and just brood mares being married."
  724. "Brood mares?" you ask, rummaging through a desk.
  725. >Procuring a legal pad as well as a fountain pen and ink, you take a seat.
  726. >As you scribble down notes about marriage arrangements, Cadence explains how some herds only have certain mares designated for bearing foals.
  727. >Usually these are the same mares that stay at home, while the non-brood mares maintain their jobs outside the home.
  728. >Apparently this is most common among Pegasi.
  729. >Duly noted.
  730. >When your note taking finally catches up, you look up to see Cadence talking quietly to a butler.
  731. >Once he has left, you nod.
  732. "What else do I need to know."
  733. >"That." she smirks "Is a very large amount of information. But let's just stick to herding for now, okay?"
  734. >...you really walked right into that one.
  735. >Well played, Pink Princess.
  736. >Well played.
  737. >"So the other thing to think about is how you want to handle a wedding."
  738. "This soon?"
  739. >"Well, that's the thing. You don't have to marry them all at once."
  740. "I think I remember Snap mentioning that, come to think of it."
  741. >"Snap?"
  742. "Roseluck's dad."
  743. >"Meeting the parents already? You might be doing better than I expected, Anon."
  744. "It was her idea, but yeah. They're good ponies."
  745. >"Well her father was correct. You could theoretically marry Roseluck, and then Aloe, and so on and so forth."
  746. "I suppose that might be easier to plan."
  747. >"Naturally, the first mare that you wed should be your Alpha."
  748. "Makes sense."
  749. >"And this does assume that you're marrying more than just the Alpha." she continues as the butler from before enters with tea service. "Though even if you don't marry any of the others, some sort of ceremony would be nice. Every mare dreams about her wedding day, after all."
  750. "That seems rather stereotypical, but I suppose you're the expert."
  751. >"I am, aren't I?" she giggles.
  752. "Let's not push it, Cadence." you warn, watching the butler leave.
  753. >"No fun..." she mumbles, shaking her head.
  754. "Anything else about the weddings I should keep in mind?"
  755. >"Just that many families have traditions about weddings, and you need to be conscious as to how they may interact or interfere with each other."
  756. "That...is a headache for future Anon."
  757.  
  758. >"I believe I have heard about living arrangements already being in the works?"
  759. "Yup. I've got that handled."
  760. >"Do tell." she says, sipping from her tea.
  761. "We can talk about the house in detail later -it's one of my favorite subjects, in fact- but for now let's just say that it's spacious, with rooms for every mare plus a master bedroom."
  762. >"And if the family grows?"
  763. "It is on a large plot of land in the country, and the farmhouse design is built to take expansions."
  764. >"How insightful of you." she smiles over her saucer. "I may have underestimated your nesting instincts."
  765. "I will choose to take that as a compliment."
  766. >"It is." she says "So you're going to have all of your mares living with you in time?"
  767. "I wasn't aware that there was any other arrangement?"
  768. >"Again, every herd is different-"
  769. "Of course."
  770. >"-but some arrangements will leave the mares in their own homes."
  771. "How is that even supposed to work?"
  772. "Sometimes the mares stay at their homes and spend the weekends at the family home, this is common in herds with working mares and brood mares."
  773. "Okay?"
  774. >"And other times, brand new herds will have everypony in their own homes, with the mares alternating who spends a week with the stallion."
  775. "Just until they find a family home though, right?"
  776. >"Usually. Though sometimes the stallion moves between homes as well, if the herd is really spread out. That isn't very common though."
  777. "I can't imagine why."
  778. >"Yes, it isn't an auspicious start for a herd. But with love and dedication, it can work for a time."
  779. "Well, I don't live so far out of town that any of my mares will need a satellite home."
  780. >"It sounds like you've got that pretty much figured out on your end. What about on their end?"
  781. "I, uh, what do you mean?"
  782. >"Well Anonymous, I presume none of your marefriends are homeless?"
  783. "Naturally."
  784. >"Then they have homes of their own already. If they only have apartments it is a simple matter of terminating or waiting out the lease. If they have houses, those will become the Herd's."
  785. "I see. And what if they have a shared interest in a house?"
  786. >"Like Rose and her sisters?"
  787. "You know much."
  788. >"Please, Anon. You're too paranoid. I spent an entire day shopping with her while you were out looking at buildings or whatever it is you do for work."
  789. "Something like that." you grumble.
  790. >"Unfortunately there is no easy solution to that kind of arrangement." she explains with a shrug "You'll simply have to work that our on a case-by-case basis."
  791. "Lovely."
  792. >"Look at it this way, that's potential money coming into the Herd."
  793. "I suppose it won't hurt."
  794. >"That reminds me, you'll be in charge of finances for the entire herd, unless you designate a mare to do that."
  795. "Is that one of the 'roles' you mentioned earlier?"
  796. >"One of many possibilities, yes."
  797. "Okay, that's pretty normal." you sigh in relief. "I was waiting for some sort of weird ritualistic roles or something."
  798. >Cadence lets out a burst of laughter.
  799. >"Ohhhh...that's so...oh Celestia. That's amazing Anon."
  800. "Well, come on. Look at it from my perspective."
  801. >Cadence ignores you and continues to giggle uncontrollably for another minute or so.
  802. >When she finally calms down, you clear your throat.
  803. "Alright, very funny. I get it. Is there anything else I should know?"
  804. >"Not too much." she sighs, taking a long sip from her tea.
  805. >She talks a bit more about divvying up responsibilities in the household amongst the mares.
  806. >Her logic is sound, you're not the micromanaging type.
  807. >If you have a herd of mares you trust, why would you expend that kind of energy when they can easily handle it?
  808. >Most importantly, it will allow you to keep working, so that they don't have to.
  809. >Which is important to you.
  810. >It just feels right that way.
  811. >"One final subject to think about, Anon."
  812. "Just to think about?"
  813. >"You won't need to make any decisions just yet." she nods. "Which of your mares you plan to have foals with."
  814. >And suddenly you have a headache.
  815. "I'm not sure if that's even possible yet-"
  816. >"Anon, don't give me that." she says, shaking her head. "You and I both know that the magic exists to help you with that problem. It has for centuries."
  817. "Humans are different from Gryffons and Minotaurs, Cadence."
  818. "Then accept that your children will all be ponies." she shoots back. "The potions for maternal-linked crossbreeding are tried and true."
  819. "I suppose I should have known that my usual deflections wouldn't fly with the Princess of Love."
  820. >"Like you said, I'm the expert on these things."
  821. "I suppose I /would/ like to have kids..."
  822. >"I know."
  823. "How-"
  824. >"Just call it a feeling."
  825. >You sigh, and set down the notepad.
  826. "Okay. Anything else?"
  827. >"That's it. Any other details are between you and your marefriends."
  828. "Fantastic."
  829. >"Oh, and I hear you've bought a large home?"
  830. "I have. You'll be pleased to know that I bought it specifically with my mares in mind."
  831. >"Twilight tells me it's become a big project for you."
  832. "Well, they're just finishing up some demolition work right now, but down the line..."
  833. >"Absolutely typical, Anonymous."
  834. "Hey, you know full well how picky I am, and Ponyville isn't exactly Equestria's largest real estate market."
  835. >"I want to see it."
  836. "Of course. As soon as it's done I'll-"
  837. >"No, this weekend when I'm in. I want to see what has you so fascinated."
  838. "Of course." you sigh.
  839. >Glancing at the clock, you realize it's been an hour already.
  840. "Cadence, I have to admit, it was good to finally talk to you about all of this."
  841. >"Mhm!"
  842. "And we should do it again sometime. But for now-"
  843. >"You're thinking about your marefriend." she smiles knowingly "Go on, I'll see you this weekend."
  844.  
  845. >"Yes, Sister tells us she personally hosted him for an entire Summer at the Royal Retreat on Horseshoe Bay."
  846. >"Is that place very rural?" Aloe asks, as you step silently into the room behind them.
  847. "Quite. But it is very peaceful." you answer, stepping into place beside your marefriend.
  848. >"Anonymous, welcome." Luna offers with a smile. "And yes, he is correct. It is built far from the prying eyes of the public."
  849. >"You've been there?" Aloe asks, whirling to look up at you.
  850. "A few times, yes." you nod "I was actually going to try to escape there for a bit before I was rerouted to Ponyville for my vacation."
  851. >Luna has the good grace to look a bit uncomfortable.
  852. >"If you worked less you would enjoy your vacation more, I think."
  853. >You size Aloe up in confusion.
  854. >"What? What are you looking for?"
  855. "The zipper. There's no way you're not Rose in an Aloe suit."
  856. >"Oh no, you have figured out my secret." she says, rolling her eyes.
  857. "So what exactly are we looking at here?" you ask, gesturing to the large painting in front of you.
  858. >Placing a hand on her withers, you let Aloe and Luna explain the story of the naval battle before you.
  859. >It is a nice painting.
  860. >You can clearly understand the subjects, and it conveys the motion of the ships well.
  861. >Internally, you sigh in relief that Aloe has such good taste.
  862. >You could have ended up at some awful post-modern gallery.
  863. >And while a real Manet is well out of your price range, you would be perfectly happy to acquire a copy to hang in the house when it's complete.
  864. >Hell, "The Battle of Cherbourg" may hang in your office.
  865. >Allowing yourself to be lead into the next room, filled with more of Equestria's finest Impressionism, you hang back to allow Aloe and Luna to dive into the paintings together.
  866. >Aloe may be your marefriend, but when it comes to fine art you are the odd man out in this trio.
  867. >They are enjoying themselves.
  868. >That's what matters.
  869. >Eventually you settle into a post beside Aloe, hand on her withers, letting her and Luna meander through the Exhibit.
  870. >A thought strikes you.
  871. >It would be good for Luna and Celly to hang out with your mares like this.
  872. >They're two of your closest friends.
  873. >And, frankly, they need some friends of their own.
  874. >Most ponies are cowed by the mere presence of their Diarchs, but it seems that their common interest in your relationships serves as an adequate bridge.
  875. >Rose and Aloe had no trouble with Cadence.
  876. >Aloe is now talking animatedly about a series of paintings of the Grand Canal in Venice.
  877. >Clearly she is comfortable around Luna.
  878. >That would be good.
  879. >With a nod to yourself, you resolve to make this happen.
  880. >Now if only you had something to drink...
  881.  
  882. >As you finished with Manet -and with dusk fast approaching- Princess Luna excused herself to return to the castle.
  883. >She still has duties of her own, after all.
  884. >You've got tickets for the last train to Ponyville, leaving at 10pm on the Apploosan Overnight, which gives you just enough time.
  885. >Stopping at the apartment, Aloe takes a moment to change while you grab your trusty pea coat.
  886. >When she emerges from the bedroom, she has donned a carolina-blue pea coat of her own, accentuated with a white scarf and a matching blue hat.
  887. >It's a good thing your coat is black- you aren't ready to do the matching couple thing yet.
  888. >You open the door, and as she walks by you notice the lily pin she mentioned clasped to the side of her hat.
  889. "So did you get a hat like that for Lotus too?"
  890. >"No, why?"
  891. "I just noticed the pin. I remember you saying you got a matching one for Lotus."
  892. >"Yes! But we don't /always/ have to match, Anon." she says, adopting a fake pout. "I just liked the hat, the karakul was very popular in Stalliongrad."
  893. "Ah, a little piece of home?"
  894. >"Mhm. And you can pull them down over your ears when it gets really cold!"
  895. "Well I daresay it's a cute outfit for a cute mare."
  896. >She tries to bump your leg, but misses and ends up brushing you with her tail instead.
  897. "And here I thought you weren't like your sister."
  898. >She overcompensates on her second attempt and you topple over onto a nearby bench, catching yourself with your bad arm.
  899. >Wincing at the pain, you straighten up and shrug it off while making a show of straightening your coat before turning back to a wide-eyed Aloe.
  900. "Alright, alright." you say, hands up in mock surrender. "No more teasing."
  901.  
  902. >You reach Perimeter Park just after sunset.
  903. >The noise of the milling crowd mingles with the mixed smells of fair food and seasonal treats.
  904. >Rows of tents and stalls line the long paths, with strings of lights crisscrossing overhead to provide a soft warm glow as sunset fades to night.
  905. >Wandering the unending rows of stalls, hand resting gently on Aloe's back, you mull over how to tell the girls that your workload just doubled.
  906. >You needed the bits, it was no secret.
  907. >Cadence had clued you in that your situation wasn't as dire as you had thought.
  908. >But you still had a considerable mortgage to pay off...
  909. >You look down at Aloe, who is picking through some blankets at a Yak vendor.
  910. >If you tightened your belt and quit drinking so much you could probably afford to hire some help...
  911. >Or you could just expect to pay your mortgage off more slowly.
  912. >It isn't ideal, but you feel like maybe having a mortgage is just part of being a responsible adult though.
  913. >Aloe tries on a couple of scarves and a poncho, but eventually decides not to buy anything.
  914. "I dunno, the poncho was kind of cute."
  915. >"It was heavy." she shrugs as the two of you walk away. "And unless you plan to take me to Apploosa, I can't imagine where I would ever wear it."
  916. "I guess it is kind of niche, isn't it?"
  917. >"Very." she agrees. "Oooh, where's that smell coming from~"
  918. "And here I thought you were worried about your figure."
  919. >Aloe, however, pays you no mind, following her nose until you find yourself in front of a familiar looking brown chef mare.
  920. >"Anonymous! You're a bit far from Ponyville!"
  921. >"You know her?"
  922. "She's a friend of Lyra's." you explain, stepping forward as Hazel serves a pony at the counter. "She has a restaurant in Ponyville."
  923. >"Is this the Roseluck Lyra has told me about?" Hazel asks, sliding a plate of food to a waiting mare.
  924. >"My name is Aloe." your marefriend answers as the two of you step up to the till. "I run the Ponyville Day Spa with my sister."
  925. >"Ohh, I think I've seen you before. Sorry, I'm new to Ponyville still."
  926. >You order a butternut-pecan waffle, then nudge the pony next to you.
  927. "Aloe, food time now."
  928. >With a little squeak, she returns her focus to the menu and quickly settles on the apple-cranberry bread pudding.
  929. >Two mugs of hot mulled cider complete the order.
  930. >Stepping to the side, you watch as Hazel barks instructions at her assistants.
  931. >"So is Lyra trying to set you up with her?" Aloe asks, holding onto your side as she whispers at your ear.
  932. "I don't think so." you say, shaking your head. "We went to her restaurant on a date."
  933. >"That doesn't mean she isn't."
  934. "Would it bother you if she was?"
  935. >"Noooo..."
  936. "Aloe"
  937. >"Every mare knows the way to a colt's heart is through his stomach." she mumbles. "And she is very pretty."
  938. "Seriously?"
  939. >"Well, Lotus says it's through something else-"
  940. "Alright" you interrupt. "Ask Lyra about it next time you see her, but I think she's more concerned about Bonbon than Hazel."
  941. >"Hmm, we do have plans to go for drinks next week sometime..."
  942. "Oh, so there /are/ secret meetings."
  943. >"It takes a lot of planning to court somepony as busy as you."
  944. >Before you can reply, a golden brown waffle is slid forward, with a light drizzle of maple syrup and a generous dollop of whipped butter.
  945. >It is followed by an enormous slab of bread pudding, dusted lightly with powdered sugar.
  946. >Aloe takes her plate, and you grab yours as well as the two mugs that are pushed towards you.
  947. >"Come by sometime, Anon. Maybe bring her next time, eh?" Hazel says with a wave and a wink.
  948. >You just nod and go to join Aloe.
  949.  
  950. >Late that night, you sit on a train bound for Ponyville.
  951. >Half of Aloe's food came home with you, warm in your coat pocket.
  952. >Your other side is kept warm by the pink pony snoozing quietly against your side.
  953. >Sleep had evaded you thus far and, with only half an hour left to Ponyville, there was no point in trying anymore.
  954. >Instead, your mind gnawed worriedly on how to bring up the extra work you'd taken on.
  955. >Cadence will be furious, probably.
  956. >But she wasn't in Ponyville much, so that won't be too bad.
  957. >It's really Roseluck and Aloe you worry about.
  958. >Lyra will be understanding -she always is- and Lotus will simply give you a wry smile and make some sort of lewd implication.
  959. >But Aloe and Rose are going to be disappointed.
  960. >You do not understand why they don't understand.
  961. >Everything costs bits, that's just how the world works.
  962. >This solution allowed you to make more bits while keeping the burden completely on yourself.
  963. >It's perfect.
  964. >But you know that they won't see it that way.
  965. >With a tired sigh, you turn your gaze out the window and watch as the few distant lights of Ponyville come into view.
Herd Herding Hawkeye

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