Those Four Guys

Created 27 Oct 2019 • Last modified 26 Sep 2021

Four young male adults in Manehattan navigate sexuality, romance, work, academia, and the magic of friendship.

Smut note: this story contains discussion of sex and some vulgar language, but no detailed depictions of sex.

  1. In "The Anatomy Lesson", Gilbert the griffon tries to get a date, learns more than he wanted to about dragons, and makes some friends.
  2. In "Sexy Bugs", the four guys visit a new changeling dance club.
  3. In "Nerd Fights", Crag the dragon and Whisperwing the pegasus tussle with their greatest enemy: scholarly publishing.
  4. In "The Ravenous Beast of the Wilderness", Gilbert tries really hard not to mess up a date.
  5. In "Shining Armor Isn't Gay", Hearty Hooves the earth pony gets in an argument with Whisperwing at a fancy sex shop.
  6. In "Autodidacticsm", the four guys catch up on celebrity gossip.
  7. In "Upstate", Gilbert goes on an adventure and belatedly learns about changelings.
  8. In "Doctorates & Dragons", the four guys play a game and Crag complains about work.
  9. In "Like Having a Pet", Whisperwing goes to the zoo with somecreature much bigger than the zoo animals.
  10. In "What Is This, Some Kind of Joke?", the four guys catch up and think about the future.

The Anatomy Lesson

It was a busy afternoon at Manehattan's Museum of the Ancient World, and now that it was one-o'-clock, the café was packed. Gilbert, the young griffon, loaded his tray with some unappetizing fish—you couldn't be too picky when it came to meat in Equestria—and searched for a free seat with his keen avian eyes. They weren't all that keen, really, but surmounting his big hooked beak, which was easily his best feature, he looked like an all-seeing eagle, and could convincingly lie of being able to see something miles away. Suddenly, jackpot: Gilbert saw a free stool right next to just the dragon he wanted the ear of. He flew over, muttering an excuse-me as he brushed past a bulky pegasus, and landed gently on the floor nearby. He cleared his throat and said "Mind if I…"

"Siddown." said one the dragon's dining companions, in a friendly tone. The speaker was a largish teal earth-pony stallion with a cutie mark of a rabbit. "I'm Hearty Hooves. This is Whisperwing—"

"Good afternoon." said a pegasus through a mouthful of oatburger.

"—and Crag."

"Hey." said the dragon. He was even more intimidatingly huge up close. He was relatively skinny, like most young dragons seemed to be, but his head was easily eight feel off the ground while he was sitting. He had dull green scales and two stubby white horns.

"What's your name, buddy?" said Hearty Hooves.

"Gil." said Gilbert. He settled down and folded up his wings. "So, you guys know each other?"

"Whisp and I have been friends for a long time." said Crag. "We met at the School of Friendship, and then, conveniently, he got a job in Manehattan. Hearty's the new guy." Hearty laughed in a manner befitting his name.

"So you don't all work here?" said Gilbert, glancing between the three of them.

"No, just me." said Crag, drinking some soda out of a very long straw. "And most of the time, I'm on campus, anyway. Or what passes for a campus at ESM."

"That sounds fun." said Gilbert. "What do you do?"

"Complain about the state of higher education in Equestria, mostly." said Whisperwing. He had white fur, a dark, short-clipped mane, wings that seemed a bit too large for his scrawny body, a cutie mark of a lemniscate, and a remarkable ability to talk while inhaling fast food. "Not that the Dragonlands have any education to speak of, so he's one to talk."

"Education comes in a lot of forms, all right?" said Crag. "And now I have a better appreciation of how messed up Equestria's supposedly world-leading one is."

"Are you a professor?" said Gilbert.

"Nope, doctoral student." said Crag. "I'm in my second year in the history department. I'm only fifty-two." Gilbert looked at him with some puzzlement, and he went on "Adulthood for dragons starts at fifty."

"Gee, long time to wait." said Gilbert. "I'm nineteen. Say, that yellow lady dragon, you work with her, right? Do you know her?"

"Yeah, that's Magma. She started a moon ago. Why?"

"I was hoping to maybe get a date with her." said Gilbert, grinning. "She's a cutie. Any hints?"

"Wait, wait." said Hearty. "Even if you're okay with dating a dragon… and the age gap… she's a lot bigger than you, bro. Is she bigger than you, Crag?"

"Probably." said Crag.

"Yeah," said Hearty, turning back to Gilbert, "so, do you have, like… specific tastes? Giantesses, maybe? Or are you one of those bang-everypony-that-moves types?"

"Kind of the opposite." said Gilbert, looking away. "I'm a virgin. Not for lack of trying, but here I am."

"Didn't you say you're nineteen?" said Hearty. "Relax, buddy. It'll happen when it happens."

"I always screw something up." said Gilbert. "I haven't even gotten a second date. My parents were an arranged marriage. All griffons were, for generations. But I didn't get a match, and in the Equestrian dating scene, I'm just floundering." He scratched his beak and scowled. "I feel like, without any sex, I'm missing out on the best part of life."

The other three looked at each other.

"Sex is not the best part of life." said Whisperwing with mild disgust.

"There's no rush." Hearty insisted. "It'll happen when it happens. You don't want meaningless boning, anyway, bro. It's satisfying as an integrated part of a loving relationship."

"I'd certainly be willing to settle for some meaningless boning." said Gilbert, crossing his forelegs.

"You know dragons don't have sex for fun, right?" said Crag.

Gilbert looked gobsmacked. "No. I guess that changes things with respect to Magma, huh?"

"Yes." said Crag. "I'm sure there are dragons in interspecies relationships who have sex because their partners want it, but… so far as we're concerned, it's for having children. We look forward to the eggs, not the cloacal kiss."

"The what?" said Gilbert, looking worried.

Whisperwing winced, and Hearty Hooves laughed. "What sort of sex education did you get?" said Whisperwing.

"That's not a thing in Griffonstone." said Gilbert. "Unless you count porn."

"I emphatically do not count porn." said Whisperwing. "Pop quiz: what sex is this creature?" He pointed a hoof at Crag.

"Muh—male?" said Gilbert.

"Yes," said Whisperwing, "but, important follow-up question, what sort of genitalia does he have?" Crag looked only mildly embarrassed at being made an example of.

"…Is he trans?" Gilbert ventured.

"No." said Whisperwing.

"So he has a penis, then." said Gilbert.

"No." said Whisperwing. Gilbert blanched, and Hearty Hooves's laughter collapsed into coughing. "You have some reading to do."

"Museums are supposed to be educational." said Crag, patting Gilbert on the back. "Ask us what you want to know."

Gilbert smoothed some of the feathers on his head. He looked at the faces of the other three. They might be having some fun at his expense, but they looked friendly, too. He felt relieved. "Well… is the old joke true? Are unicorns horny?"

"Absolutely, judging from the ones I know." said Hearty Hooves. "I can't blame 'em. My first girlfriend was a unicorn, and magic in the bedroom is absolutely something else. If I could make my dick feel like that whenever I wanted, I'd probably never leave my room."

"You do clop anyway, right?" said Gilbert.

"Oh, for sure." said Hearty. "Whispy does too; he just won't admit it." Whisperwing frowned. "It must be a lot easier with those flexible bird toes, huh?"

"Don't know what I'd do without 'em." said Gilbert, smiling. "How do you manage?"

"Oh, we manage." said Hearty. "There's toys, furniture, and Old Reliable: your own barrel. In the old days, every colt and filly had to figure it out for him- or herself. That's earth-pony ingenuity for you. We manage."

Gilbert nodded, and ate the last bite of the fish he could stomach. He looked up at Crag. "What do you think of all this? I mean, dragons don't masturbate, right?"

"Ponies are weird." said Crag. "They all look the same, they're obsessed with making friends and having sex, they build ludicrously elaborate homes, and they're always bursting into musical numbers. And the most famous dragon in a pony's mind is a baby, his wings less than a decade old, who's now some kind of advisor to the head of state, who's also his adoptive sister, or mother, or something. And for a brief moment in history, he was Dragonlord. Living in Equestria as a dragon is about acceptance." He removed a shard of quartz from his teeth. "Being straight with you, I only learned a few years ago that griffons have mammalian genitals. They look avian, so I assumed avian anatomy."

"See, even Smarty-Pants here doesn't know everything." said Hearty. "Or didn't always, anyway."

"I'm the designated smart guy in this friend group." said Whisperwing. "We've been over this."

Sexy Bugs

Gilbert didn't neglect to trade addresses with his new friends, and one day after work, he was just thinking about getting in touch with them when he got a scroll in a puff of red Crag-fire. The boys were going out bowling this Saturday afternoon, and would Gilbert care to join them? He did, if only to see how an earth pony managed a bowling ball, and he met them outside a bowling alley in midtown Manehattan.

"Hey, brospeh." said Hearty Hooves. "Bowling's not happening today, unfortunately."

"It looks like a herd of yaks stampeded through the place." said Whisperwing, peering through the window. "Apparently, it was a colony of giant mole rats, which sounds little better."

"Why is this kind of thing always happening in Equestria?" said Gilbert. "Now especially, I thought the new princess would… kind of… clean the place up?"

"There's only so much she can do," said Whisperwing, a bit offended, "especially now that she's running the country. She and her bosom-friends used to be important peacekeepers, and now she has to groom a whole new generation to replace them."

"What about the Student Six?" said Gilbert.

"None of them seem to be the adventuring or monster-wrangling type," said Whisperwing, "at least in the two years since they graduated. When I met Sandbar at—"

"So what are we doing?" said Crag, bending his head down to the eye level of the others. "I've got to get my hours' worth out of this leisure time, you know."

Gilbert thought about it. "Wanna go to Corny Island?"

"I can't fit on any of the rides." said Crag. "Sorry. Is anycreature in the mood for a sightseeing flight?"

"That sounds pleasant." said Whisperwing, unfurling his prodigious wings. They were very pretty, actually—fluffy, snow-white, and shapely—and Gilbert felt a bit jealous.

Gilbert jerked a talon at the earth pony. "How's he—"

"Crag gives me a lift." said Hearty. "But let's not, guys. I don't have the stomach for it today. And I just remembered something." He grinned. "A changeling dance club just opened a few blocks uptown. Well, bros? Are you down for some bug poon?"

Gilbert raised his eyebrows. "So by 'dance club', you mean…"

"Sexy dances." said Hearty Hooves. "Nothing to the imagination."

"Cool." said Gilbert. "I've never been, but, first time for everything, right?"

"That's the spirit!" said Hearty, clapping Gilbert on the shoulder.

"But, er, Crag, are you interested in that sort of thing?" said Gilbert. "I mean, if dragons don't have sex for fun… is watching sexy dances any fun?"

"Eh," said Crag, "I can appreciate a pretty girl as much as anypony."

"Well, Whispy?" said Hearty. "Are you feelin' it?"

"Do we have to do this?" said Whisperwing with a pained look.

"Of course not, dawg." said Hearty. "If you don't want to do it, we won't do it. We'll do something else. I can take Gil there some other day."

Whisperwing looked thoughtful. "No, let's try it, actually. But thanks for giving the option."

"Attaboy." said Hearty Hooves. "Let's go see some holes."

"Do you mean 'hos'?" said Gilbert, as they started walking.

"No, 'holes'." said Hearty. "Well, I guess Chrysalis has most of 'em, and she's a statue now. Never mind."

The club was busier than might have been expected, considering the sun was still out. Ponies, and a fair number of other creatures, crowded around tables and stages, day-drinking and enjoying the eye candy. There was just enough room for Crag to stand on two legs without hitting his head on the ceiling.

The first performer that caught Gilbert's eye took the shape of a lamia. She had a lovely mare's face on top with a long shining yellow mane, and a long, sinuous green-scaled tail on the bottom. She swayed seductively from a pole, her tail wrapped around it, giving everybody a good look at her moist equine vulva and supple udder.

"Knows how to work it, doesn't she?" said Hearty, chuckling.

"Yeah." Gilbert muttered. He shifted position on his stool, trying to make his erection a bit more discreet; now he could see why they kept the place dark outside the spotlights. "Imagine having a girl like that to yourself, huh?"

"For sure, my dude." said Hearty.

"Hey, uh… you don't think any of the changelings are really male, and they just put on female shapes, do you?"

"Changelings can't change which parts they've got." said Hearty. "That girl's got a muff, for sure, even if's not really a horse muff. Or whatever girl parts changelings have. And they don't usually like to look like the other gender, though it's easy for them to, if you don't see between their legs."

"Oh, man, that is a relief." said Gilbert, smiling.

Hearty snorted. "Don't wanna catch the gay, huh? You're missing out, brophocles. Look at that hunk Whispy's got his queer eyes on."

In spite of himself, Gilbert looked. On the table Whisperwing sat at was a unicorn, tall and skinny like an alicorn princess, but with an exaggeratedly male muzzle. He had long, beautiful eyelashes and a mane piled up on his neck like seafoam. He slowly circled the table as an impressively thick penis twitched beneath him, his tail lifted just high enough to put his anus on display. Whisperwing, for his part, had a wingboner so massive it was taking up the stools on either side of him.

"Well, that's certainly something." said Gilbert.

"Asbo-buckin'-lutely." said Hearty. "I'm so glad we decided to go here. Where else would you see this stuff, outside a magazine?"

Gilbert hesitated, then asked "Are you gay?"

"I'm bisexual." said Hearty. "Best of both worlds. I prefer the ladies, although I appreciate a nice dick. Whispy's gay, though. Very gay."

"What about Crag?" said Gilbert.

"Straight as you, buddy." said Hearty.

"Where is Crag, anyway?" said Gilbert, searching the room. "How does a two-ton dragon hide in a crowd?"

"Hey, guys." said Crag, making them both jump. Gilbert now noticed that the dragon was approximately the same color as the green interiors of the club, and his smooth matte scales seemed to drink in the light. "Give me a break. I'm not even four hundred pounds yet. Anyway, are you having fun?"

"To be honest, I'm not sure yet." said Gilbert. "How about you? Anycreature catch your eye?"

"There was," said Crag, "but she changed form." He looked around. "Oh, she's back." He picked up Hearty Hooves in one hand, as if on instinct, although it was easy enough to see all the dancers from the floor given their elevation. "Take a look at that."

The dancer took the shape of a zebra, large and muscular, but graceful. She danced rapidly as four great silver rings round her barrel flew back and forth, in complex visual interplay with her stripes. She occasionally stopped in certain poses, like a stand on one forehoof, to flaunt her genitals, but overall she was much more engaged in dancing per se than most of the other dancers.

"Artsy." said Gilbert.

"You would look for art in a sexy dance club, if anypony would." said Hearty, laughing.

Crag shrugged. "I yam what I yam."

"What about you, Hearty?" said Gilbert. "Who do you think's the hottest dancer here?"

Hearty snorted. "That's like trying to choose a favorite child. No, wait, that was a bad analogy."

"You don't say." said Whisperwing, who had just trotted over.

"I guess I'm really into that one." said Hearty, pointing a hoof. This dancer was a petite orange pegasus. She trotted cheerily around the stage as she chatted with the audience about mundane things. She could pass for an ordinary country girl—maybe a little smaller than normal, and a little better-proportioned, but certainly not as exotic as the minotaurs and multi-headed felines elsewhere in the club. "She's adorable!" said Hearty. "I just want to marry her and raise her foals and grow old with her. With a lot of vigorous, sweaty horseplay along the way."

"That'd be nice." said Gilbert, smiling.

Afterwards, they went out for ice cream. "That club was a blast." said Hearty, eating a maraschino cherry. "Are we making this a regular thing?" The other three looked away. "What? Just me? Gil, c'mon, I know you appreciated those girls."

"I guess I did, but it's unsatisfying, you know?" Gilbert gestured vaguely with a taloned forefoot. "You can look, but you can't touch."

"Say what?" said Hearty. "Don't you like porn?"

"I love porn." said Gilbert, blushing.

"I knew it, bro." said Hearty with a chuckle. "We have to swap collections sometime."

"But in a dance club, she's there in person, and at the same time, you can't touch her. She's pretending to be into you and stuff, but, of course, she's not. It's… unsatisfying. And you can't touch yourself, either."

"So save it for the spank bank."

"Believe me, I will. I just don't really want to go back."

"So, brothel next time instead?"

Gilbert coughed. "Is that even legal in Equestria?"

"Technically, no." said Hearty. "But nopony really cares, if you have any tact about it. There's some agency that does regular venereal testing and so on. It's all pretty above-board."

"Whatever. I don't think that's really my sort of thing, either. Not for my first time, anyway."

Hearty nodded. "I get ya. I don't think I could pay for sex myself. Well, Crag, what did you think?"

Crag was idly trying to balance a tiny wooden spoon on one of his claws. "It was okay. It wasn't very interesting after the first half-hour, and it's a little uncomfortable being around all those horny people. It's like attending a service at a foreign church. You can go through the motions, but you know you're not having the experience you're supposed to."

"Well, thanks for giving it a try, old buddy." said Hearty. "Whispy, what's the verdict?"

"I can't complain about the experience as an audience member." said Whisperwing, working on some chocolate ice-cream cake. "Not that I, a pegasus, could readily deceive anypony about such things. It was gratifying indeed. Still… I don't think I can support such a business. It's ultimately exploitative of the performers."

"Exploitative how?" said Crag, bringing his head right over Whisperwing.

Even after they'd been friends for years, Whisperwing couldn't help but feel a bit intimidated with those gigantic reptilian jaws so close. He was pretty sure Crag did it on purpose when the dragon felt challenged.

"I didn't see any labor abuse going on there." Crag went on. "Are you just against sex work categorically?"

"Well, yes." said Whisperwing. "It's ostensibly consensual, but by taking money to do it, the workers imply that they wouldn't if they didn't need the money, which implies they don't have the minimum degree of freedom to refuse that's necessary to grant consent."

"You could say that about any kind of work." said Crag with a peeved puff of smoke from his nostrils.

"Absolutely," said Whisperwing, flapping a wing, "but the least we can do, if we're stuck with capitalism, is to allow workers to earn a good living without having to engage in sexual activity that they'd rather not. Otherwise, we're just sexually abusing people on the scale of a society."

"I hope you find these nerd fights as amusing as I do, Gil," said Hearty Hooves, nudging the griffon with a hoof, "because if you keep hanging around with us, you're gonna to hear a lot of 'em."

Sorry if it seems needlessly mean to transgender readers (and transgender fetishists) to go out of my way to say that changelings can't readily change sex. The reason I decided this is that all the changelings we know from the show have definite, consistent, binary genders (and they never even try to disguise themselves as the opposite gender, to my memory). If changelings could change their genitalia as readily and thoroughly as they could change the rest of their bodies, then I don't think it would be normal for them to think of themselves as male or female.

Nerd Fights

With class over, Crag was eager to get home. He rapidly fielded questions from a few students while loading his knapsack, told the rest to catch him at his office hours tomorrow, squeezed through the door out onto the sidewalk, and launched himself into the sky. He always enjoyed his commute, when the weather was good. He watched Manehattanites scurry about their business hundreds of feet below and relished the wind beneath his wings. Soon the streets and buildings of the island gave way to the pine forests and mountains of the mainland, and he came to rest outside a cave mouth that faced the late-afternoon sun. Crag liked his cave, but it was horrendously expensive—it turned out that location, not electricity or running water, was the rule when it came to real estate.

"Hi, honey." said Crag's girlfriend, Shelly, a pale-yellow dragon one year his senior and a bit shorter. "How was class?"

"Hey, babe." They hugged and Crag kissed the end of her snout. "It's fine. We just got to the atrocities of the Second Solar Dynasty and they're taking it okay. It's funny how Twilight just took the throne three years ago and ponies are already identifying less with pre-Equestrian societies. It's for the best, though. Ponies can't spend the rest of their lives wringing their hands over the sins of the fathers."

"Hands?" said Shelly with a smirk.

"Ugh, whatever." said Crag, curling up on the floor of the cave and stretching his forelegs. "How were your classes?"

"Wednesday's my day off, remember?" said Shelly. "I spent the morning studying, though. Trig substitution can suck my eggs."

"Yeah, I don't have a lot of regrets about going into social studies. Although, that reminds me, I have to finish that manuscript." He got up. "Can you make dinner tonight?"

"Sure, I've gotta do something with those fire opals. They look great. Is that a new paper you're working on?"

"I wish. It's the third submission to this journal, fifth overall. The coauthors all say it's not usually this bad, but I'd feel better if I had just one publication, somewhere, to show for everything."

"I'm sure you'll do it, sweetie." said Shelly. "Just give it time."

Crag smiled at her. With a small sigh, he settled down at his desk with his roc's quill, an inkpot, and piles and piles of books. It was nicer to work by sunlight while he still could.

Whisperwing finally mopped off the last few tiles of the bathroom, peeled off his plastic booties, and surveyed his hoofwork. He could feel others' pity when he told them he was a janitor, especially at a big bank like this one, where he was surrounded by much wealthier and ostensibly more important ponies. But he liked it, overall. The occasional toilet catastrophe aside, the job was undemanding and meditative. It was easy to think about math, doing the same sort of work over and over again, and he took a certain satisfaction in knowing that he was engaged in far more meaningful, necessary, and honest work than the labor-leeching middlemanship that the investors and managers who surrounded him were so ludicrously overpaid for. Between Equestrian law, city law, and the union, he was treated decently by his employer.

Now was his dinner break. That meant first of all dinner, but secondly some math, while his mind was fresh from an afternoon of wandering. Whisperwing thought his unusual career path was working well so far. After the School of Friendship, he'd decided to eschew higher education entirely in lieu of doing whatever work would feed him while teaching himself mathematics and doing research in his free time. He was pretty sure that few other 20-year-olds had a solid grasp of category theory and three promising lemmata towards a proof of the absolute normality of the square root of 2, which he'd just published in Analysis Equestria.

Whisperwing sat down in an office he hadn't cleaned yet. He consumed a Dagwood and a large bag of corn chips and took out the refurbished typewriter he'd imported from Klugetown. Many-key typewriters like this one were starting to become popular among pegasi; using their wings, a pegasus could type more easily than on the traditional binary typewriters that earth ponies were stuck with. Today, Whisperwing's mathematical work was an unenviable task, but it would, he hoped, help give him some much-needed legitimacy as an outsider to academia—he had outright begged several editors to let him do it. He had to write a peer review for a prospective journal article. A second review, in fact, for a paper he hadn't thought was very good the first time.

Crag's work began inauspiciously. Reviewer 1 had asked him to cite "Alabaster, 1002"—a paper by somecreature named Alabaster, published 1,002 years after Luna's banishment. This would be a simple enough task, especially if Crag didn't bother to read the paper himself, but the reviewer hadn't included a bibliography in their review. From the name, it wasn't even obvious if the author of the paper was a pony or a dragon, so Crag had to check two different weighty indices of ancient-history publications in 1002 ALB (which Crag had bought copies of at great expense, because he needed them frequently and all the library copies in Manehattan were non-circulating). As luck would have it, both species had more than one Alabaster who was fairly productive in ancient history, and a careful scrutiny of the listed publications revealed no paper that was an obvious fit for the context, at least judging by the article titles. Crag wondered if Reviewer 1 was one of these Alabasters, trying to pad their citation count. Oh, well. He'd choose the least inappropriate-looking paper and hope that that's what the reviewer wanted. His doctoral advisor was always telling him to pick his battles, and this battle wasn't worth fighting.

Next, Reviewer 1 wanted some discussion of Tirek's possible role in the assassination of Greathoof II and the subsequent years-long drought in earth-pony lands. This was an idea stupid in its very inception that had been refuted a thousand times with both earth-pony and unicorn sources, and while Tirek claimed to have killed Greathoof himself in recent Tartarus interviews, this was far from the only lie that Tirek had told about his past. And it wasn't as if more oral history was going to be collected now that Tirek was in permanent residence at the Canterlot statue garden with his co-conspirators. Crag took a moment to calm himself—the smoke that was pouring from his nose in considerable volume proved that he was letting his annoyance get the better of him—and leafed through his earlier unpublished essays for some tactful language he remembered that he'd written about this.

Crag looked back at Reviewer 3's review. It was a paragraph long, just like last time, and the uselessly vague request to "please make Table 2 more clearer" had been copied exactly from the first round, poor grammar and all. The editor seemed to have largely ignored Reviewer 3 and Crag's responses to them last time, but then, if the editor shared Crag's suspicion that the reviewer hadn't actually read the paper anyway, why had she asked them to look at the resubmission? Crag supposed that if Reviewer 3 could copy a vague complaint, Crag could copy his polite request for clarification. That only seemed fair.

Whisperwing was disappointed, but not surprised, to find that only superficial attempts to repair, or rather complete, the paper had been made. Most notably, the "remark" that Theorem 2 critically depended upon to generalize from Lipschitz-continuous functions to almost-everywhere-differentiable functions had gotten only a few more hints towards a proof, not the full proof Whisperwing had asked for, which he suspected wasn't actually possible because the remark, as stated, was false, although a counterexample had eluded him. The authors wrote as if straining against a word limit when they actually had upwards of 1,000 words left. Whisperwing considered mailing in with his review some of the notes he'd taken last time in an extended attempt to prove the remark, if only to better convince the authors that it wasn't nearly as easy as they seemed to think.

Flipping forward to the conclusion of the paper, Whisperwing was also displeased to find that the material about chaos he'd objected to had been incompletely excised. In the first submission, the authors had repeatedly praised their work as usable to construct a new notion of chaos that better captured a scientist's intuitive notion of a chaotic system and was easier to apply. Whisperwing's first review had gone to some lengths to explain that the author's proposal was just a slightly more complicated and poorly explained version of the well-known notion of topological transitivity, and that there were good reasons that topological transitivity was conventionally considered to be insufficient for a dynamical system to be chaotic. The authors had removed the passages Whisperwing had actually quoted, but not the other material saying basically the same thing. No doubt they'd been encouraged by the other reviewer's uncritical acceptance of basically everything they said. At least there was no question that Whisperwing had an important role to play here.

"So how's that paper going?" said Shelly gingerly over dinner.

"Slowly." said Crag morosely. "I think I've only gotten out a paragraph tonight, total. Everything seems to take forever, and so little of it involves actually doing history."

"Poor baby." said Shelly, hugging him. "You've just started being a real historian. I'm sure it's gonna get easier as you get experience."

"Yeah, I hope so." said Crag, hugging her back.

Whisperwing assessed his work in progress grimly. It was a lot of words he'd written, and carefully, but it was anypony's guess if the authors would take them to heart, or even understand them. This system of peer review that academia had somehow settled on was obviously a bad system: it was unclear in what it set out to do and it wasn't especially good at doing anything. How much did Whisperwing want academic acceptance, anyway? Was it worth it?

Whisperwing walked around the offices. Everypony was gone now except for him and another janitor, who was working at the other end of the building. It was dark and lonely. Whisperwing sighed and looked once more at the personal ad he had gotten into today's issue of The Manehattan Monitor. Would he ever find another stallion interested in a serious relationship, instead of mere casual sex? If Manehattan was supposed to be the capital of Equestrian homosexuality, why did it feel so sparse sometimes? Water, water everywhere; and not a drop to drink.

Whisperwing went to a toilet stall and masturbated furiously. He didn't usually masturbate at work, but he felt he needed it tonight. Feeling a little better, he picked up his mop and got back to work.

I have research experience in psychology, public health, earth science, and applied statistics, but not pure math or history, so the above may or may not be a fair representation of peer review in those fields. In my defense, I'm entitled to imagine that cartoon-horse scholarship looks like pretty much anything, considering the lack of canonical material on the matter.

It is perhaps anachronistic for the vaguely old-timey Equestria to have modern math, but I had enough trouble writing a convincing-sounding description of modern mathematical research. I'd be hard-pressed to describe the cutting edge of mathematical research as it appeared in, say, 1910. For any math I know about that was discovered in the 19th or early 20th centuries, like real analysis, I only know how to describe it with the terms and notions that are favored today.

The Ravenous Beast of the Wilderness

Gilbert ultimately decided not to ask out Magma—"I'm looking for a girlfriend who'd actually be interested in having sex with me, at this point in my life, anyway"—but Hearty Hooves was able to set him up with a friend of a friend. Gilbert walked into the fancy restaurant in the financial district a few minutes early to find her already there. They greeted each other and he sat down across from her. Her name was Evening Breeze. She was a shapely unicorn with blue-purple fur, big green eyes, and a long black mane. She wore a white dress that was sheer enough that Gilbert could plainly make out her cutie mark of an inkpot. Frankly, Gilbert thought, Hearty Hooves's description of her as "scorching hot" was seeming like an understatement.

"So, my friend says you make a living as a poet." said Gilbert, once he found his tongue. "That's super-impressive! You must be really good at it."

Evening Breeze smiled, and Gilbert automatically smiled back. "That's… not entirely true, I'm afraid. I also do some freelance editing work, and that pays a lot of the bills."

"Oh, ha, sorry," said Gilbert, realizing as soon as the words left his mouth that an apology wasn't called for. "But it must be nice to be your own boss." That's such a cliché. he thought. Why would you say that? Stupid.

"I suppose." said Evening Breeze. "I've never been the best at following instructions."

Evening Breeze ordered a buttercup salad and Gilbert ordered the chicken. The waiter, seeing that Gilbert was a griffon, brought him a fork without Gilbert having to ask. This was a classy place.

"So, do you work with any interesting characters?" said Evening Breeze as their food arrived. "I was a secretary too, not long ago, and I found that you learn a lot about people from taking dictation."

"Oh, absolutely." said Gilbert. "There's this ancient pegasus who's always having me slip in some gratuitous reference to his exercise routine." Gilbert imitated the stallion's plodding, gravelly voice: "'I received your letter from the mailmare as I was finishing my last set of wing-ups this morning directly before breakfast.' Meanwhile, his wings look like wet cardboard. The only thing he's gonna push up with those things is daisies, and we're all counting down the days." Evening Breeze laughed heartily, and Gilbert wanted to tear up with happiness just seeing it. Am I actually doing this? God, I hope I'm doing this.

"Well, at least you're having some fun there." said Evening Breeze. "Speaking of which, what do you do for fun?"

Gilbert licked the end of his beak. "Well, not too much. I hang out with my friends. See some movies, fly around. I don't have a cool hobby or anything."

"Me neither." said Evening Breeze with a sheepish grin. "You know, I've been trying to learn some magic tricks, but… it always just feels like more work, and when I'm done with work, I'm really more in a mood to relax."

"Oh man, I know just how you feel." said Gilbert.

The evening went on in a fashion that was nerveracking but also, Gilbert felt, one of the best dates he'd had in a long time. He liked Evening Breeze more than he'd ever expected to like a poet, and from the way she looked at him and engaged with him, he dared to imagine the feeling was mutual.

After some time, they were outside the restaurant and Gilbert was enjoying Evening Breeze's namesake. "Listen," he said to her, "I had a wonderful time. When can we do this again?"

"Um…" Evening Breeze glanced aside. "Gilbert, you're a great guy, so I don't want to lie to you or leave you hanging. Tonight was fun, but I don't think we're going to work out."

Gilbert bit his tongue. Internally, he was screaming, but he managed to say "What happened?"

"Nothing! You didn't do anything. Only I feel we're not the best match." There was an awkward pause, and she hastily added "Sorry."

"It's… uh… it happens."

"Good night," said Evening Breeze, "and better luck in the future. I'm sure there's a girl for you out there."

"Yeah." said Gilbert weakly as she hurried away. "Good night."

"So you liked her, huh?" said Hearty Hooves over brunch the following morning.

"Totally." said Gilbert. "More than I've liked anycreature from just one date. I don't wanna use the 'L'-word, but… she's got everything. Brains, a great body, natural sexy grace, a job, a sense of humor, down-to-earth. Just to have it all disappear right when I thought I had it. Ugh."

"Does she make your spiky little kitty-dick hard?" said Hearty Hooves.

"Please, please, please don't call it that." said Gilbert.

"Oh, what do you call him?" Hearty teased. "Li'l G?"

"I am not in the mood for this." Gilbert hissed, stabbing his waffle with a fork. "It's nerveracking enough to think that in order to have sex with a mare, I'll have to stay hard with a blunting condom on. And they're not 'spikes', by the way. They're called 'spines'."

Hearty shook his head. "Well, where do you think it went wrong?"

"That's the thing! I have no idea! She seemed so relaxed and giggling the whole time, and she wouldn't tell me what it was."

"You did kind of put her on the spot, brokowski. Imagine if you'd had to tell a bad date to her face why it was bad. Of course you'd say something vague about 'not being a good match' instead of putting both of you through the face-meltingly-awkward experience of telling her the real reason you couldn't stand her. She took a big risk just telling you in person that she wasn't interested, instead of sending a letter."

"I guess." said Gilbert morosely. "I… may or may not have given a non-answer like that myself, to other girls. Back when I was less desperately horny."

Together, they tried to guess where Gilbert had gone wrong, if it had even been something he'd done. Gilbert mentioned how he'd neglected to dress up (not having realized how fancy the place was), how he'd admitted to having no real hobbies, and how he'd gone to the bathroom three times. Hearty opined that none of these faux pas were really enough to change a mare's mind about somecreature.

"Let's begin from the beginning." said Hearty Hooves, who was now totally dedicated to solving the mystery. "What was the first thing you said when you saw her?"

Gilbert described the date in detail and got as far as "so I ordered the chicken" when Hearty did a double-take and said "You ordered what?"

"The chicken marsala." said Gilbert. "It was great, actually. Is that not classy?"

"Oh, my dude, it has nothing to do with class. You do not eat meat on the first date with a pony."

"M—meat?" said Gilbert, incredulous. "You think that was it?"

"I'd bet a million bits." said Hearty. "Buddy, you need to remember, we're herbivores. We like to think we're a tolerant people and we welcome all these new races in our land, but… eating meat is, you know, what wolves or bears do. Or serial killers."

"But… nopony's ever, like, given me a problem about it." said Gilbert.

"Of course they don't. We're trying to be polite. But it's still unnerving. And unicorns are usually the most conservative of the three races, you know. Blue blood and all that. Evening Breeze tried to be as polite as she could, and she might not have held it against a business partner or a family friend, but a first date, somepony she's just met and is now trying to imagine being around all the time, living with, sharing her body with…" Hearty waved a hoof. "You know how you don't fart around somepony until you know 'em well, right? Same thing, except instead of looking dirty, you look like a ravenous beast of the wilderness."

Gilbert moaned. "It's not fair. Eating meat is totally natural for griffons. Ponies don't get angry at real 'beasts of the wilderness' just for doing their thing, do they? So how can they hold it against griffons?"

"Look, I'll give you another analogy. Griffons feed their chicks by, uh, regurgitation, and the nipples are totally vestigial, right?"


"You know that nipples are not vestigial in ponies."


"So how would you feel if Evening Breeze had whipped out her drooping, lactating udder in the middle of that fancy dinner you two were having and nursed her foal?"

Gilbert grimaced. "In public? In a restaurant?"

"For sure. Foals get hungry a lot. You sure didn't seem to mind all those nipples swinging around in that dance club the other day."

"That's—that's not the same thing."

"That's what I'm tryin' to tell you!"

Gilbert sighed. "Okay. I get it. Great. What if I apologize to her and say I won't eat meat in front of her again?"

"Let her go, brostein. She's made up her mind. That ship has sailed. The SS Gilbreeze struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and went down with all hooves."

"Yeah. You're right." Gilbert sighed again. "God, what I wouldn't do for a girlfriend. Is that so much to ask for?"

Hearty raised an eyebrow. "How sure are you that you're completely straight?"

Gilbert's feathers were ruffled. "What kind of question is that?" he said angrily. "What is your problem? How the heck would I be 'sure' or not? Just because I can't get a girlfriend, I'm gay? I don't give you crap about your orientation, do I?"

"I—I'm sorry." said Hearty, shrinking. "You're right. That was uncalled for."

They finished their meals silently. Finally, Gilbert said "I'm sorry I snapped at you like that. I'm just upset about Evening Breeze."

"It's okay, bro." Hearty still looked embarrassed, which was not an emotion that Gilbert had seen him display before.

"Did, uh… were you coming onto me?" said Gilbert.

Hearty sighed. "I… well, I like you a lot, Gil, and we're friends, and we're both pretty horny dudes, and I feel like you're just going to waste, so, yeah, I guess I was hopin'. I think you'd make a great boyfriend, Gil."

Gilbert smiled a little. "Well, I'm flattered. Tell you what, if I ever change my mind and I want to experiment with guys, you'll be the first to know."

"Seriously?" said Hearty, looking up.

"Yes, I promise. But don't hold your breath. I can't remember ever being attracted to a guy, and I don't see how that would change."

"I'll take it."

"Anyway, I don't know about you, but all this moping about Evening Breeze has gotten me pretty horny, and I'm real bored of my porn. Wanna swap mags?"

Hearty perked up and grinned. "I thought you'd never ask."

Outside the café, Hearty said "Where are we going? My place?"

"Sure." said Gilbert, and they began walking. "Straight and female stuff only, please."

"Of course, amigo. Since you've got a unicorn on the brain, how about some magic-job stuff?"

"That'd be great."

"Any interest in clopping with me? It's a—"

"Hard pass."

"Lots of straight guys do it."

"'No' means 'no', Hearty. Or rather, 'hard pass' means 'no'."

"Ah, okay, you got me there."

Why are griffons monothesists? Because "God" begins with the letter "G", obviously.

Shining Armor Isn't Gay

Gilbert continued to mope as the days went by and he didn't receive a letter—nor, as he most liked to imagine, a surprise visit—from Evening Breeze begging his forgiveness. Hearty Hooves declared that to cheer him up, they should go to Tenderhoof, a massive sex shop downtown.

"How's that supposed to cheer him up?" said Crag, stretching his head around to look at Hearty Hooves, who was riding on his back. Crag flew alongside Gilbert and Whisperwing as they admired the stars high above and the ocean far below. "Must you keep reminding him of what he doesn't have?"

"Oh, let him speak for himself." said Hearty. "What do you think, Gil?"

Gilbert flapped closer, carefully staying out of the way of Crag's massive wings. "Well… uh… I guess Crag's got a point. But honestly, I think that'd be fun. It's not like I'm trying not to think about sex or something. Sure, masturbation's lonely sometimes, but on the other foot, it gives me a certain independence." (Hearty Hooves was sorely tempted to interject "It doesn't have to be lonely.", but thought better of it.) "I don't have to wait for a girl who's into me to get sexual satisfaction."

"See, that's a good attitude." said Hearty. "Crag, Whispy, are you coming?"

"Not interested." said Crag. "I need to get some sleep, anyway. I'll just drop you off there."

"I'll come." said Whisperwing. "I enjoy that place." Hearty Hooves looked at him wide-eyed. "What?"

"I… I thought you'd have some objection, is all." said Hearty.

Whisperwing snorted. "There are plenty of objectionable things for sale there, but no shortage of perfectly good things, too."

"Well," said Hearty, "I suppose I shouldn't look a—hmm, look an irritable horse in the mouth."

To Gilbert, the store was intimidatingly large. It had three floors, a distinctive black-and-red color scheme, and salesponies numerous enough to be helpful but also appropriately mindful of how jumpy and uncomfortable people could be in a sex shop. Gilbert was surprised, maybe even a little scandalized, to see just as many mares in the store as elsewhere in Manehattan. This was a far cry from Griffonstone, where only the youngest and most noncomformist of hens would publicly indicate an active interest in sex, especially when cocks were around.

Whisperwing opined that something else was intimidatingly large. "They seem to have bigger ones every time I check here," he said, standing before shelves upon shelves of dildos. "Meanwhile, pony orifices aren't getting any bigger, so who buys these?" He gestured at one that rivaled the size of the foreleg with which he was gesturing. "Capitalism is deeply bizarre."

"I'm sure somepony does." said Hearty. "There's naught queer as pones—especially queer pones."

"The racial diversity is nice, though." said Whisperwing. "Look, this one's an ovipositor. And this one has spines, like—"

"How about this stuff, though, huh?" Gilbert broke in quickly. He pointed a talon at small vials of a glowing green liquid that were sold in pairs. "It says 'Potion of Exchange'. What gets exchanged?"

"Entire bodies." said Whisperwing. "You drink it with a partner and the two of you live in each other's bodies for a short time. I'm surprised it got approved for recreational use. It was intended as a psychiatric treatment for certain kinds of relationship conflict. Then, like all technology, people used it for sex."

"Can't blame 'em." said Hearty. "That is smokin' hot. I've always liked to imagine being a sexy mare. And then, on top a' that, bein' able to have sex with myself… phew."

"I can absolutely see the appeal." said Whisperwing, nodding. "And maybe it would increase empathy between partners, or at least their understanding of what the other's body feels like to have sex in, which must be a particularly salient issue for opposite-sex couples. I assume."

"Gil, you've been quiet." said Hearty. "What do you think?"

Gilbert shrugged. "Seems pretty gay to me."

"Gay?" said Hearty. "When you're having sex with a mare? But you'd be in an opposite-sex body, so you're still having straight sex."

"Don't be dense, Hearty." said Whisperwing. "Gil is obviously right. Both members of an opposite-sex couple who get exchanged would be having sex with a person who has the genitals of their original sex. Being in a new body won't change who you're attracted to."

"Whatever." said Hearty. "Are we here to argue or buy stuff?"

"Argue, obviously." said Gilbert, trying not to laugh.

Hearty went to the second floor to look at clothes while Gilbert and Whisperwing continued to explore the magic section. "The 'want-it-need-it' spell?" said Gilbert, reading from a page of The Horniest Little Spellbook in Equestria. "Isn't that infamously dangerous?"

"Yes." said Whisperwing, looking over Gilbert's shoulder. "In the School of Friendship, I heard Twilight give a lecture about—oh, this isn't even a real spell description. This is pseudomagic. See, look, this notation is just gibberish in Old Ponish. I'm disappointed that Tenderhoof is mixing this kind of garbage into the same section as their actual magical goods, but it comes to show that a sex shop isn't the first place to go for a rigorous spellbook."

"How do you even know about magic? You're a pegasus."

"There's a lot of overlap with mathematics. A good mathematician needs to know a few things about magic. For that matter, unicorns can't get very far into spellcasting without learning some math."

"If you say so." said Gilbert. "But that looks real." He pointed at a string of anal beads that was moving through the air on its own, like a flying snake.

"That it is." said Whisperwing. "It's more fun than it looks, too, if you're quite careful with it. I have a small one."

"Hearty said… that you masturbate, but don't admit it. I think."

"Hearty says a lot of things. I do masturbate, and I'll be the first to admit it, but…" Whisperwing flapped his wings in irritation, knocking down a small figurine of Princess Cadance in a sexy outfit. The box read "The Royal MILB". Whisperwing sighed quietly and put it back on the shelf. "Look, here's something you might actually like." he said, pointing at a tube of yellow cloth. "It's a masturbation sleeve with an integrated illusion projector. You can program in the appearance of a partner to your liking and get a sort of animated sex doll."

"Actually," said Gilbert, "that does sound lonelier than I'm ready for… and geez," he continued, squinting at the price tag, "it's not cheap."

"Hmm." said Whisperwing, looking around. "This is probably my favorite sex toy." He picked up what looked like a pair of large copper bracelets. "It's a small magic portal that lets you penetrate yourself. But, I suppose it would be too gay for you."

"Yeah, I like some butt stuff, but that's a dick too far."

"Understandable. I myself prefer topping, when it comes to partnered sex. If you're ever curious what anal sex or oral sex are like, though, it's a good way to get your feet wet—or rather, your glans wet. You can do some fun things with it with a partner, too. Anyway…" Whisperwing stroked his chin. "Oh, I know. Here's another versatile one."

Whisperwing picked up a jar of pale orange fluid. Gilbert could see it bubbling gently, even though the lid was tightly sealed. "'Erogenous Ointment'?" Gilbert read aloud. "What the herring is that?"

"You smear it on any part of your skin and the affected part becomes a strongly erogenous zone." said Whisperwing. "So, rubbing or otherwise stimulating the area feels just as erotically exciting as stimulating your genitals."

"Why would I want that when I already have a penis?"

"Because there are all other sorts of sensations you can have. You can put it on your tongue, for example, which is already a wet and flexible organ, and masturbate to orgasm merely by licking the inside of your mouth. You can put it on your tail or leg and feel like you have a gigantic second penis. Or you can just put it on your wings and—well, in your case, I'm guessing, your forefeet, and masturbate normally, and feel twice the stimulation."

"Wow, I'm sold." said Gilbert with a lascivious grin. He picked up a jar. "It sounds fun to come up with more ways to use it, too."

"It is."

"Thanks, dude." Gilbert thought. "Say, earlier, you were saying something about Hearty? That he 'says a lot of things'?"

"Oh, yes." said Whisperwing. "Well, Gil… can you not talk about this to Hearty? What I'm about to tell you?"

"Sure, no problem. What's the issue?"

"I asked Hearty for a real date a few moons ago. I thought we'd be a great match. He turned me down, and now he kind of mocks me for it. And I'm bitter about it. I know I shouldn't be, that he was perfectly entitled to say 'no'. But I am." Whisperwing shrugged sadly.

"Oh." said Gilbert quietly. "Um… did he say why?"

"Yes. He said I'm too young for him. He's twenty-eight and I'm twenty. I, personally, don't see the problem with that sort of age gap."

"Yeah, that's… say, did you know that he came onto me the other day?"

Whisperwing stared at Gilbert. "He did? Very interesting. And you're nineteen, right?"


"Very interesting." Whisperwing glowered. "All right, let's settle this." He trotted over to the staircase. As luck would have it, Hearty Hooves was coming down at the same time.

"No, Whispy, don't do this!" said Gilbert.

"Do what?" said Hearty.

"So Gilbert tells me you propositioned him." said Whisperwing, before Gilbert could interrupt.

Hearty glanced perplexedly at Gilbert, who was covering his face with his forefeet, then back at Whisperwing. "So what if I did?"

"I'm too young for you, but he's not?" said Whisperwing. "You don't need a combinatorial proof to show that that math doesn't add up."

Hearty looked very uncomfortable. "All right, brobinowitz. You got me. I made that up. Tryin' to be nice."

"So what's the real reason?" said Whisperwing. "We're both what the other's looking for right now, aren't we?"

"Now, now, girls…" said Gilbert, nervously glancing around to see if passers-by were staring. They weren't.

"Well, I didn't want to say this," said Hearty Hooves, "but, you're kind of a prude, Whispy. I don't think we'd get along."

Whisperwing was deeply offended. "Me? A prude? How the hay did you reach that conclusion? What, because I don't spend eight hours a day manning a glory hole, I'm not sexually liberated enough for you? Is that the minimum requirement for a gay stallion, in your mind? Am I failing to meet your personal cocksucking quota?"

"It's your business what you do with your body." said Hearty Hooves, probably more angrily than this particular sentence had ever been said before. "But it isn't what I'd want in a relationship. That's all!"

"Calm down, guys." said Gilbert, trying to play the peacemaker, but only being reminded that nocreature ever calms down when you tell them to. "Er, Hearty Hooves, maybe you could explain to me why you feel that Whisperwing would be, uh, too prudish for your needs."

"Well, he's always talking about how he's not interested in casual sex, for one thing." said Hearty.

"So do you," said Whisperwing, "you imbecilic mudpony!"

Hearty was shocked. Now some bystanders were paying attention. That wasn't the sort of word that you said quite that loudly in Equestria without getting negative attention. Even Gilbert knew that.

"How could you say that?" said Hearty, in a genuinely hurt tone.

Whisperwing looked around at the shoppers staring at him. "That was too far." he said, after a silence. "I'm sorry."

"'Sorry' isn't good enough," said Hearty, "you chickenfeathered faggot." Whisperwing looked shocked, too, and Hearty said "There. Now we're even."

Whisperwing looked down. "Yeah. I guess."

The three of them stood there in an uncomfortable silence. A small hippogriff meekly asked if he could squeeze by them to get some lubricant from the shelves they were standing in front of, so they got out of the way, and that roused them from their torpor.

"That's not the real reason either, is it?" said Whisperwing. "I mean… the way you phrased it, by calling me a prude, stung. There's a lot of pressure for gay stallions to be 'sexually liberated', which in reality has nothing to do with liberation or class consciousness, and everything to do with conformity to norms of promiscuity. But I know what you actually meant. I have moral objections to things like professional pornography. You think my scruples are silly and needlessly restrictive. But you can't really think that that would stand in the way of us having a sexually fulfilling relationship. I like sex. You know that. And you don't think sex is everything, the way some ponies do. So actually, we have an important point of potential compatibility here."

"Yeah." said Hearty Hooves. "That's all true."

"So what's the real reason?"

Hearty Hooves frowned. "You really want to know?"

"I do."

"Can you promise not to give me a hard time about it?"


"Like you gave me a hard time about the other thing literally five minutes ago?"

"I promise, Hearty. I'm sorry."

"I'm just not attracted to you, Whispy. That's it."

Whisperwing clenched his teeth. "Well, thanks for telling me. That really hurts. But it's not your fault. You're courageous to have told me so."

Gilbert licked his beak. So at least by Hearty Hooves's reckoning—

Whisperwing, who was thinking approximately the same thing, said "But you're into Gilbert."

"Yeah." said Hearty, not looking at Gilbert.

"Why?" said Whisperwing.

"What do you mean, 'why'?" said Hearty. "You know, wingéd Cupid is paint—"

"It's because he's straight, isn't it?" said Whisperwing.

"What?" Hearty and Gilbert said at the same time.

"I'm thinking about it now and I can't remember you ever describing a stallion as attractive who might conceivably be attracted to you. Not counting yourself, I suppose. Coal Shovel is straight. Running Brook is straight. The registrar's husband is presumably straight. Your biggest celebrity crush is—"

"—Shining Armor." said Hearty Hooves. "Oh no. I think you're right."

"A lot of gay guys like straight boys, Hearty." said Whisperwing. "Especially Shining Armor. Who doesn't want Shiny's heinie? That interview where he finally denied the rumor that he had an eye for stallions was one of the most heartbreaking things I ever read. But if you want an actual boyfriend, you need to move on at some point. Enjoy them as eye candy, but don't invest all your precious homosexual desire in them. Or get a girlfriend instead."

"Yeah." said Hearty. "Maybe I'd better to stick to mares for now."

"Have you ever dated a guy?" Gilbert ventured.

"No." said Hearty.

"Are you sure you don't wanna try with Whispy?" said Gilbert, who was as surprised as anycreature to find himself suddenly invested in this ship.

"I'm sure." said Hearty.

"Yeah, now I myself suspect it may be for the better." said Whisperwing.

"Okay, let's get out of here already." said Gilbert. "It's late and I have a hot date with a jar of orange goop."


Crag listened with interest as Gilbert told him what had happened at Tenderhoof the other night. Hearty Hoof chuckled good-naturedly at the whole thing while Whisperwing contributed a few details. Gilbert and the ponies sat on a large boulder in Canter Park while Crag sat beside them in the grass.

"It feels odd to talk about sexuality on a nice sunny morning like this." said Crag, shifting his weight. He felt much more comfortable in an open natural setting like this one than in the cramped buildings the ponies lived in.

"What are you talkin' about?" said Hearty Hooves. "What's more light and vivacious and vernal than sex?"

"I dunno." said Crag. "It's just… well, I feel bad, knowing all of you are looking for significant others, and there's not much I can do for you. A lot of the people I know are dragons; a lot of the non-dragons are my students, and I think setting one of my students up with one of my friends would be kind of creepy. It's not quite against the rules, but it seems in poor taste."

The others agreed it wouldn't be a good look.

"Actually, I'm not so sure I'm on the prowl anymore." said Hearty.

"Hmm?" said Gilbert.

"I thought about it," said Hearty, "and all my relationships have sucked. I never dumped her—she always dumped me—but still, none of 'em were much good, if I'm honest. Anyway, I don't even know what I'm doing with my life. College is a stalling tactic. I still haven't decided on a major, let alone what I'm gonna do once I'm outta here."

"You're a little old to be in college, aren't you?" said Gilbert.

"Yeah." said Hearty. "I spent… a lot of my life working on the folks' farm, but after a point, I had to realize that I'd never like it and I'd never be good at it. My little sibs are perfectly at home there, anyway. They don't need me. So I went to college in the big city, if only to change things as much as I could. Turns out that wherever you go, there you are. Who knew?"

"Where'd you go to college, Crag?" said Gilbert.

"I didn't." said Crag.

"So then how'd you get into grad school?"

"Learning works differently in the Dragonlands. We don't have schools. Our parents teach us the basic things, the kinds of things that ponies teach in primary school. That's the chief part of parenting, as we see it. After that, usually after a dragon turns ten, it's up to him or her to study things if he or she's inclined. History, remembering and retelling the past, has always been one of our great strengths as a race—we have continuous written records far older than the oldest pony writings, and, frankly, a much deeper oral tradition as well—so it isn't too unusual these days for dragons to want to become historians at Equestrian schools. I applied to ESM and they accepted me on the basis of my past contributions to draconic literature and a sample lecture. Also, I like to think I know Old Ponish and pre-Equestrian pony history pretty well for a dragon, and that helped. Not to mention having graduated from the School of Friendship." Crag looked up. "Sorry, that was probably more of a lecture than you'd wanted."

"Maybe a little." said Gilbert, smiling. Griffons didn't send their youngest chicks to primary school, either, but Griffonstone had had universal education for teenagers for some time. Gilbert had completed that just before moving to Equestria.

Hearty Hooves, leafing through a newspaper, said, "Oh, speaking of that school, this gossip column says that Applejack and Rainbow Dash are dating. The photograph isn't real convincing, though."

"Finally." said Whisperwing. "The sexual tension between the two of them was absurd. I didn't see them together often, and Applejack left after my and Crag's first year, but when I did…"

"I thought the rumor was that Applejack had a thing for Rarity, and Rainbow Dash for Twilight." said Gilbert.

"Yeah, yeah, there are a lot of rumors." said Whisperwing. "They're six young mares who are famous for being such close friends. Of course everypony thought they were having orgies all the time. Wishful thinking, just like Cadance's mythological harem. Twilight is showing no indication of deviating from Celestia and Luna's tradition of celibacy."

"Ponies have an ancient tradition of celibacy as a marker of status, and a source of legitimacy." said Crag. "The old unicorn monarchy was maintained through appointment, not a bloodline. It was something of a liability that marriage wasn't available as a means to form alliances. On the other hand, free choice of a successor helps with ensuring the competence of rulers—look at the eminently qualified Twilight Sparkle—and being able to dangle that kind of gift over the heads of lower-ranking nobles helps to keep the aristocracy loyal to the crown. And… personally, I think there's benefit to being above the fray of horniness. It must not be nice to have to deal with sexual feelings."

"Just 'cause Twilight's not getting any doesn't mean she doesn't feel it." said Hearty Hooves.

"Tell me about it." Gilbert grumbled.

"Ah, yes, I guess that's true." said Crag. "But… well… don't you ever wish you didn't have these feelings? It seems very burdensome sometimes. All-consuming."

"What?" said Hearty. "No."

"What kind of question is that?" said Gilbert.

"You have no idea what you're missing, bro." Hearty added.

Crag looked wordlessly at Whisperwing.

"All right, I suppose the thought passes through my mind sometimes." said Whisperwing. "But it's a silly hypothetical. Sexuality is not optional. The only choice we get to make is what to do with those emotions and motivations."

"All these ridiculously elaborate magical sex toys," said Crag, "and nopony's hit on a way to just remove the issue entirely. That, you really have to admit, is the peak of pony decadence. You have so much technology and so little wisdom to use it with."

"Tough talk for a race with no notion of public health." said Hearty.

"Let's not get into it, gentlemen." said Whisperwing quickly. "Listen, Crag. Do you think you could set me up with a dragon?"

Crag's eyes widened. "Seriously?"

"Yes. At this point in my life, sex is not what I'm really aching for."

"You should hear about Whispy's wild and crazy teenage years." said Hearty, nudging Gilbert.

"Hmm." said Crag. "I don't suppose you'd consider a female dragon."

"That's not what I'm looking for, no." said Whisperwing.

"That's a shame." said Crag. "There aren't a lot of gay dragons, and poor Magma's been single for a long time. But I can ask."

"Thanks." said Whisperwing.

"Any port in a storm, huh?" said Gilbert.

Whisperwing looked at him severely. "You're one to talk, being so desperate."

Gilbert, chastened, didn't reply. At least, he said to himself, he had a date that very night. This time, maybe he'd finally get lucky.


Gilbert waited nervously at the pier for fifteen minutes. Finally, a red-orange changeling alighted beside him. She had large, sparkly orange wings, a single small horn on her forehead, and a grin that was so large and full of teeth that it was a bit disconcerting. "Anne, right?" said Gilbert.

"Yeah." she said. "You must be Gil."

"The one and only. 'Anne'; that's an unusual name for a changeling, isn't it?"

"It's a nickname. My whole name's 'Antenna'."

"Oh. But… changelings don't have antennas. I mean, antennae."

In a flash of changeling transformation magic, Anne grew two three-foot-long antennae on top of her head. "Happy?" she said, sticking out her long, thin tongue. The antennae disappeared. "C'mon, let's go."

They flew off, soaring high above the city. They passed over the great forests of the north and came to the mountains, not far from the cave where Crag lived with his girlfriend.

"I'm so glad you went in with my idea for more of an adventure date." said Anne, flying close beside Gilbert. They had a tailwind, propelling them both ahead at a pleasantly brisk pace. "The construction I do for a living, it's good exercise, but not a lot of excitement. And it's hard to find guys in Manehattan with a sense of adventure, y'know? "

"Yeah, sure, city folk." said Gilbert, chuckling. He pointed at some interesting-looking mountain ridges, and they began to swoop down to see them up close. "I love Manehattan, but it's always nice to get out into nature again, like the land I grew up in."

"What's Griffonstone like?" said Anne.

"Rocky and mountainous. Not so colorful as Equestria. Austere, but with a lot of beauty once you get to know it."

They landed on the cliff. The full moon revealed itself from behind a cloud, and Gilbert took a deep breath of the invigorating pine-scented air.

"Does that describe any griffons you know?" said Anne, smiling insinuatingly at Gilbert.

"You tell me." said Gilbert, smiling back. Hey, this is going well. he thought. Can't get my hopes up too much, though.

"Oooh, look, a cave!" said Anne. She pointed a hoof at an opening in the mountainside. It was large, but mostly hidden behind a boulder.

"Cool." said Gilbert. They walked up to the cave mouth and peered into it. The moonlight penetrated little into the darkness, suggesting only a large passage that widened further inside. "Rats, I didn't think to bring a lantern."

"Well, that just makes it more exciting." Anne tugged on Gilbert's forefoot and trotted towards the cave.

Anne's carapace felt warmer than Gilbert had expected. He silently delighted at her touch. But he wasn't totally on board with her plan. "Hang on. Spelunking is dangerous, and not just because of pits and water and getting lost—this is Equestria, you know."

"So? I can handle myself. Can't you?"

"I like to think so, but that doesn't—"

"Come on." Anne groaned. "Are we here to have an adventure or what?"

Gilbert was trying to decide whether he was being too much of a wimp for his own good when they were startled by a huge snarl echoing from the cave. They both took to the air on instinct, and not a moment too soon, as a great gray-green mouth emerged from the black depths. The mouth belonged to a linnorm, a long serpentine relative of the dragon, with a reputation for being much less intelligent but just as temperamental. It arced towards Gilbert and Anne as it drew forth more and more of its prodigious length from the cave, its beady yellow eyes fixed on them.

"Apparently, yes." said Gilbert.

"Now we're talkin'." said Anne. "Distract it for a moment, will you?" She turned into a small bug.

Hardly being able to see Anne, the linnorm turned its whole attention to Gilbert. Gilbert flew as fast as he could in wild arcs and loops, keeping just ahead of the linnorm's griffon-sized maw. The monster was fast, too, but at least its great size kept it from moving with quite as much agility. I can't keep this up. Gilbert thought, the tuft of his lion's tail barely escaping a crash of teeth. Choking down his fear, he U-turned and dove past the linnorm's face, slashing at its eye with his talons. The linnorm cringed and roared.

Just then, while the linnorm was in pain, Anne reappeared. As a practically invisible bug, she had flown around to the other end of the linnorm. Now she was a giant crablike monstrosity, and with one great pincer she squeezed the linnorm's small, sensitive tail. The monster writhed and roared in agony. Anne released her grasp, and the linnorm wasted no time plunging back into the cave.

"Let's get outta here, before it changes its mind." said Gilbert.

Anne returned to her natural form and nodded. They flew down into the deepest part of the forest. They found a small patch of moonlight, where they could see but were still reasonably well-hidden, and lay there panting.

Once they had regained their breaths, Anne said "Now that was fun."

"You have a weird idea of fun." said Gilbert.

"Me?" said Anne. "Moi? You were right. You can handle yourself. Don't tell me you didn't have fun."

"Maybe a little." said Gilbert, smiling. "I'm just not sure it's what I would've picked for a date."

"Oh right, this is a date. Well, ready to blow off some steam, big boy?" She grinned again.

"Er… are you saying… uh…"

"Yeah, I'm saying let's buck, you dope. Ever done it outdoors?" She turned into the spitting image of Princess Twilight Sparkle. "Or with royalty?"

Gilbert licked his beak. He'd been pining away for this moment for years, and inevitably, now that it was so suddenly upon him, he felt unready. Being in the presence of what looked and sounded like the supreme ruler of Equestria didn't help. "Er… this… would be my first time, actually."

"Really?" said the false Twilight, raising one eyebrow. "Let's make it a good one, then. This pony probably uses her cooter as a bookbag. What are you in the mood for?" Anne changed into Coloratura. "How do you feel about overproduced pop music? Or maybe self-indulgent piano solos?"

"Hang on." said Gilbert. "Don't get me wrong… I really do want to do this…"

Anne assumed her natural form and craned her head down so she could see Gilbert's penis, which was quite erect. "Yeah, looks like it. Spikes, though. I forgot about that. Not a problem. I can adapt back there."

Gilbert had to stop himself from correcting Anne's use of the word "spikes". "It's just… well, we've just met. I'm not against the idea of sex on the first date, just the opposite, but let's set some boundaries, or expectations, or something."

"Way to kill the mood." said Anne, but her tone was tolerant. "Okay, what's your concern?"

"Well, what are we? Are you hoping for a fling, or are you interested in a serious relationship? Because I'm looking for a relationship. And I like you a lot, Anne, so I hope you want to give that a shot, too."

Anne looked perplexed. "What kind of a relationship?"

Gilbert was even more perplexed. "You know, the relationship kind of relationship. Boyfriend and girlfriend. Testing the waters for something with more commitment down the line."

"You, uh… oh boy." Anne frowned and her wings buzzed. "Listen, chick, I don't know what you've heard about changelings, but we don't do that."

"You don't… have boyfriends?"

"Well, not in the pony sense. Or the griffon sense, I guess. We don't do squishy pony romance stuff. I know we have a reputation for being a cuddly feel-your-feelings race since the metamorphosis, but that feeling isn't a feeling we have."

"You don't have love? What in God's name? Don't you literally need that to live?"

"Not that kind of love. In our native language, we use very different words to describe that and… I think it's called 'brotherly love' in Ponish. The love of friends. That's what we need to live, and what Equestria has so much of, which is why Chrysalis invaded. Didn't you hear about how Chrysalis nearly died from too much exposure to romantic love that time?"

"Yeah," said Gilbert sheepishly, "but I thought that was because she was evil, or something."

"Ugh." said Anne. "No, it's not because she was evil. What a hackneyed idea. That's like something out of a fantasy story for little girls. Romantic love is toxic to us because it's not what we need. That's just how we're built. So are we having sex or what? I'm dripping over here."

"So… I guess we could be friends with benefits?"

"Totally. I'd love to be your friend, Gilbert, if you'll let me feed on that kind of love."

Gilbert looked away sadly. "Sorry. It's not what I'm looking for. Especially for my first time."

"Seriously? Ugh." Anne kicked a pebble. "Well, can I get a goodnight kiss, at least?"

"Sure." said Gilbert. "I'd love to."

They kissed. The sensation of Gilbert's beak on Anne's warm carapace was a strange one. There was an even stranger sensation, too, one that Gilbert would've struggled to describe—a kind of almost-spiritual nostalgic longing—which he realized was probably the sensation of being love-drained. They looked in each other's eyes, and Gilbert felt a third, more familiar sensation: the painful sinking sensation of having what he wanted just in sight and then letting it slip away.

Anne made a face. "That love didn't agree with me. Did you catch feelings for me already?"

"Yeah," said Gilbert, blushing, "I guess I tend to do that. Does it hurt? I didn't mean to hurt you."

"Not too much." she said. "It's okay." She shook her head. "Have a good night, okay, Gil?"

"Good night, Anne."

She flew away. Gilbert watched her go away mournfully. He had been lost in painful thoughts for some time when he noticed two other, more familiar shapes in the sky. He flew up to meet them.

"Gil!" said Crag. "What are you doing out here? There's a linnorm on the loose. Shelly and I just heard it roaring a few minutes ago."

Gilbert sheepishly recounted how he and Anne had roused and dealt with the linnorm. With the dragons satisfied that nocreature was in imminent danger of being eaten by a linnorm, Gilbert then described the rest of his and Anne's time together.

"Huh." said Shelly. "That fight—the one with the linnorm, I mean—is that what ponies call a 'meet-cute'?"

"Not exactly." said Gilbert.

"So, I have to ask." said Crag. "You made a connection with somecreature who's interested in having sex with you. And you know there are creatures out there who might date you but aren't especially interested in sex, like dragons. So why not get one of each?"

"Oh God, that is such a Crag question." said Gilbert.

Shelly laughed. "It totally is!"

"Well?" said Crag. "Am I getting a Gilbert answer?"

"That's not how it works, Crag." said Gilbert. "I want one person who will love me and have sex with me and who I love back. You know… a girlfriend. Or a wife, eventually. I'm not looking for some polyamory thing."

"If you're going to be this picky," said Crag, "you really have nocreature to blame but yourself for not getting what you want."

"Honey, that was needlessly harsh." said Shelly.

"He's my friend." said Crag. "I'm trying to help you, Gil."

"Well, I am not being picky!" said Gilbert. "This is what griffons, and ponies for that matter, have gotten for generations. That's how we have generations!"

"Have they really, though?" said Crag. "Of course that notion of sexual-romantic love is literally ancient in ponies, but as a historian, I see it most clearly as an ideal. What a culture strives for and urges its people to actualize isn't necessarily what it actually gets. In griffons, the idea is not even that old, and is probably due to Equestrian influence."

"Well, if I can't get that, then what's the point?" said Gilbert. "The point of everything, I mean. My education, my move to Equestria, my job… what am I even supposed to be without a real girlfriend?"

"I can't answer those questions for you." said Crag. "But it sounds like you're long overdue on asking them."

Doctorates & Dragons

"Greetings, uh, good sir." said the steely-eyed, crimson-armored unicorn. "I beg forgiveness for my insolence, but mine eyes spied thee at yonder table and I couldst immediately see that thou art a man with an heroic character. I am Red Banner, knight of the Holy Order of Protection. Wilt thou accompany me in mine quest for justice?"

"Okey-dokey." said the other pony. He was an enormous, grotesquely muscular earth pony. His bulges were covered with the scars of past battles and tattoos depicting his victories. He wore a horned helmet and sipped cider from a gigantic mug.

"Most excellent! Prithee, what be thy name?"

"Smash Stuff."

"'Smash Stuff'?" said Gilbert. "Is that seriously your character's name?"

"Well, he's a barbarian." said Hearty Hooves. "It describes him, and barbarians aren't real clever with names, right?"

"Let's try to stay in character." said Crag, peeking over the top of his giant GM screen. "And be nice about everycreature's character concepts, hmm?"

The four of them were gathered around a table in a group study room of ESM's central library. There were big windows with a pretty view of a nearby park, and a whiteboard for mapping and the division of loot. Gilbert and Hearty Hooves had never played Ogres & Oubliettes before and were excited to have the chance. Crag and Whisperwing were veterans, but had never been in the same group before.

"But I heard you giggling when I did my first speech." said Gilbert to Crag.

"I'm sorry." said Crag. "You're right, that was rude. I just… it's always a bit awkward when most ponies try to speak in early modern Ponish. Like, people think that 'thou' and 'thee' are more formal than 'ye' and 'you', but it's actually the opposite. And 'mine' is only substituted for 'my' before a vowel, like 'an' versus 'a'."

"Fine, I'll stop." said Gilbert. "Anyway." He cleared his throat and went back to his deeper Red-Banner voice. "Well, what are your adventuring skills, brave Smash Stuff? I, as a holy knight, am skilled in both sword and spell."

"Take a wild guess." said Smash Stuff. "I smash monsters and I smash the ladies."

"At this point," said Crag, "your conversation is observed by another unicorn. He's wearing a long black robe and carrying a knotted old ebony staff."

"Two unicorns?" said Hearty, laughing. "You guys got horn envy?"

"I wanted to play a wizard." said Whisperwing gruffly.

Gilbert shrugged. "I was going for a Shining Armor type. Well, but somewhat less of a dork."

"Imagine playing O&O and tryin' not to be a dork." said Hearty.

"I hear the call of adventure." said Whisperwing. It took everycreature else a moment to realize he was talking in character, since he wasn't using a voice. "I am Colure, master of the moon and stars. Perhaps you have need of my services. I understand that many great organizations of heroes and do-gooders have been conceived in taverns just like this one."

"Go easy on me, too, okay, guys?" said Crag, rubbing his eyes. "Grad school's a lot of work. I had to write up this whole one-shot in the space of two hours late last night. You're going to see a cliché or two. Clichés become clichés in the first place because they're narratively effective."

"All right, understandable." said Whisperwing.

"Let's go find some quests." said Gilbert. "I ask around and see who needs help from heroes."

"I hit on one of the tavern wenches." said Hearty Hooves.

"Of course you do." said Crag. "While I'm thinking of what to do with that, Gilbert, Red Banner hears from the innkeeper that the king of this country, Purple Raiment, wants some brave souls to investigate a lair of strange monsters."

"Awesome." said Gilbert. "Let's do it."

"I cast Moonlight Revelation on the innkeeper." said Whisperwing.

"So I say to the wench 'Wanna give my club a swing?'." said Hearty.

"One thing at a time." said Crag. "Hearty, I'm not going to roleplay with you while you try to seduce this NPC."

"So, fade to black?" said Hearty hopefully.

"Not in the middle of the day, no." said Crag. "Whisp, your spell shows that the innkeeper is telling the truth, so far as he knows."

"But the spell calls for more than that." said Whisperwing. He flipped to one of dozens of bookmarks poking out of his copy of the O&O Spellweaver's Guide and recited "'The moon's revealing light not only pierces lies but provides guidance towards your most pressing need.' So the spell should also provide a hint regarding Colure's 'most pressing need'."

"Like, directions to the bathroom?" said Crag. "Ponies put moons on outhouses."

"No, unless you're saying that my character has to urinate immediately or he will die of some hitherto completely unmentioned curse on his bladder. You need to answer in respect to what Colure needs most, from an omniscient perspective."

"Doesn't this spell only function at night, anyway?"

"Normally, yes, but I spent two leftover destiny points at character creation to make Colure be born under the Sign of the Owl, which—"

"All right, all right. The moon says that you should go see the king."

"In this steppe," said the white-mustached King Purple Raiment, "which you will find to the southeast of the buffalo kingdom, hunters and explorers have long trembled in fear of these creeping things. I charge you to encounter these creatures, learn what you can of them, and write a comprehensive report on their nature in close collaboration with my chief minister of wildlife, Vivium."

"You're giving us a quest to write a report?" said Red Banner. "Who are you, Princess Twilight?"

"Do you say that in character?" said Crag.

"Uh, I guess not." said Gilbert.

"But seriously, Crag." said Hearty. "I was told that this game only looks like homework."

"Calm down, guys." said Crag. "I'm not going to make you actually write a report. You'll roll for it once you have the knowledge and resources."

"Whatever." said Hearty. "Is there anything I can loot in the throne room?"

"The king and at least six guards are looking straight at you." said Crag. "Do you really want to steal from the king right in front of his nose?"

Hearty grabbed a dice cup in his mouth, shook it, and poured it out on the table. "There. Thirty-one. That's my Stealth test. Is that good enough, bro'flanagan?"

"It doesn't matter what you roll." said Crag. "They're looking straight at you."

"So then what's the point of havin' the skill?" said Hearty.

"I cast Worldly Ways." said Whisperwing.

Glad for the interruption, Crag said "All right. You feel… no, wait, that's a tier-3 spell, and restricted to diplomats. You shouldn't be able to cast that twice over."

Whisperwing replied "But I used Wandering Star when I woke up, before we met in the tavern, to count as being born under the Sign of the Dove, which lets me qualify for any diplomat perk so long as I have the normal minimum Moxie required plus two, which I do thanks to my Staff of Social Acumen."

"So then there's five problems." said Crag, counting off on his claws. "One, you didn't tell me that you used Wandering Star; two, Worldly Ways is a spell, not a perk; three, you can't use equipment to qualify for a spell; four, you're still on tier 2 in any case; and five, you already used a feature from a different starsign earlier in the day."

"So about this quest…" Gilbert began.

"How closely have you read the relevant language?" said Whisperwing. "Look, the passage about Wandering Star says nothing about losing access to your natural-born starsign. You, quote, 'gain', end quote, the abilities of the new sign; they don't replace anything. I know you're thinking of a ruling in that famous organized game in Canterlot, but that hasn't made it into errata, and for good reason. Likewise, the core spell rules don't—"

"While you nerds are arguing," said Hearty, "I whip my dick out."

Gritting his teeth, and fighting through the agony of the poison that was just now being pumped into his veins, Red Banner swept his spiritual halberd through the monster's closely packed row of limbs.

"Aw, yeah!" said Gilbert. "Seventy-two damage."

"You're looking at the slashing-weapon-versus-abomination table." said Crag.

"So?" said Gilbert. "Aren't I slashing an abomination?"

"Yes," said Crag, "but the ectoplasmic-weapon-versus-abomination table is what applies in this case."

"Ugh." said Gilbert, flipping through the rulebook again. "Sometimes this game feels needlessly complicated."

"That's because it is." said Crag. "Its heritage in wargames really shows. We're only using O&O instead of a better, more streamlined system because Hearty and Whisp insisted. You'd think that a handless race would prefer games that involved less page-turning."

"I don't wanna play diet O&O." said Hearty Hooves. "None of those other games even have rules for anal circumference."

Crag grimaced. "Third-party splatbooks that were officially condemned by royal decree are not allowed at this table."

Having slain and skinned several of the beasts and captured a live juvenile specimen, the heroes returned to the royal palace. Smash Stuff swiped a painting over Red Banner's strenuous objections ("Well, at least you didn't smash it."), and then they searched for Vivium. But the minister was nowhere to be found. She wasn't in her office, nor her laboratory, nor her quarters. Red Banner begged the king for help, but he told them scornfully that it was their job. Then Red Banner, with the help of a few threatening gestures from Smash Stuff, convinced the royal messenger, a purple baby dragon (Crag: "Did you think I'd miss a chance to pay homage to the most important dragon in Equestria?") to send a few tensely worded scrolls to Vivium, but no reply came. Even Colure's scrying spells proved ineffective. Finally, Colure forcibly teleported Vivium into her own lab with an original use of a body-swapping spell that even Crag had to admit was clever.

"Finally." said Gilbert. "Okay, we get to work writing that report."

"How do you try to persuade her to help you?" said Crag.

"Persuade her?" said Gilbert. "She's a royal minister and this in an order directly from the king."

"She's very busy with other projects, though." said Crag. "Or so she claims."

"Fine." said Gilbert. "This was a complete waste of our time. Let's just write it ourselves."

"The king made it clear that he would never accept the report without her stamp of approval." said Whisperwing morosely.

The heroes not only had to persuade Vivium to help them write the report, although, in the end, she did little writing. They also had to fight her attempts to slant the report's interpretation of their findings to make the monsters sound friendlier than they really were; Vivium kept insisting the report had to "tell a compelling story" and was not pleased by Colure's insistence that storytelling was quite a different matter from scholarship. And they were just about to deliver the report when they realized that Vivium had added another seven authors to it who weren't even NPCs they'd met yet, let alone had contributed to the report in any meaningful way. Smash Stuff was quick to point out that more authors meant an even smaller division of the reward for the PCs, so he turned right around and threatened Vivium for her insolence, as if he hadn't been trying to seduce her half an hour ago. Red Banner somehow managed to repair the situation, and finally they submitted the complete, somewhat over-authored report.

"The pleasure was all ours." said Red Banner. "How can you reward us, Your Majesty?"

"Reward?" said Purple Raiment. "I don't recall discussion of a reward."

"Are you bucking kidding me?" said Smash Stuff.

"Do you say that in character?" said Crag.

"Yes!" said Hearty.

The only reward they ended up getting was the request to help evaluate others' reports in the future. And that was the end of the game.

"And to think how you guys looked at me when I wanted to take his stuff." said Hearty Hooves. "Turns out this guy is an even bigger douchecanoe than the scientist."

"You know, Crag," said Whisperwing, "if you wanted to make a point about your working conditions, you could have just told us an anecdote or two instead of putting us all through an RPG allegory of it. Or, better, started a union."

"Where's the fun in that?" said Crag, grinning. "Now you all know how terrible academia is first-hand."

"So why not drop out?" said Whisperwing. "Seriously. I seem to enjoy reasonable success as a mathematician outside the system. Don't let an institution that's actively exploiting you fool you into sacrificing yourself to it."

Crag shook his head. "Whispy, you know I've always supported you, but I've always been afraid you're not going to get as far as you hope that way. And that kind of amateurism would be an even harder sell in history, where there's less enthusiasm for the idea of raw native genius. I decided to enter the academy because I saw the virtues of Equestria's more formal treatment of learning and research, through the university system, than the desultory scholarship of dragonkind. Those virtues are still real, even if everything was a lot less noble than it looked from the outside.

"And here's the thing." Crag got up and rose to his full height. "If everycreature who cares about scholarship gets up and leaves academia, then who will be left? Just the careerists, cynics, and posers. I know I'm a no-name, immigrant, trainee academic, but all that means is that I have less to lose. If I don't stand up for scholarship and say what needs to be said, who will?"

"Maybe somepony with less delusions of grandeur." said Hearty Hooves. "And, y'know, who makes his protests in effective ways instead of taking it out on his O&O group."

"I'm not going to roleplay with you while you try to seduce this NPC" is a verbatim quote from DM of the Rings.

I got the idea of astrological signs as character statistics from Morrowind, but presumably it appeared in a tabletop game earlier.

"Moxie" is a character statistic in Kingdom of Loathing and West of Loathing.

Highly specific damage rules are best remembered as a feature of Rolemaster.

Rules for anal circumference are the hallmark of everybody's favorite tabletop game, FATAL.

Like Having a Pet

Whisperwing saw something enormous at the Bronc Zoo and wondered what marvelous creature was on display today, only to find that it was his date. There was a dragon with scales as black as night, two great spiraling horns, and a pair of thick glasses. Standing on his hind legs and somewhat hunched over, he must have been at least twenty feet tall, tall enough to look down on the biggest giraffes. Whisperwing flew down to his head and looked into great bespectacled green eyes.

"Hey, you must be Basalt. I'm Whisperwing."

"Hi." said Basalt, drawing his head back a bit. He had a very deep voice, which sounded as if he were trying to speak quietly, but booming from a throat that massive, it wasn't actually quiet. "Yeah, that's me."

It's a good thing there's no expectation that we have sex. Whisperwing thought. I could more readily penetrate his cloaca with my whole body than a part of it. I might as well throw a hot dog down a hallway. Or rather, a knitting needle down a canyon.

"So…" said Basalt.

"Sorry, yes." said Whisperwing. "I got distracted."

"You've never seen a dragon my age, have you?" said Basalt. "It's okay."

"How old are you?" said Whisperwing.

"Straight to the point, huh?" said Basalt, gritting his massive teeth and adjusting his glasses. "I'm eighty-four."

"I'm twenty." said Whisperwing. "That doesn't make me too young for you, does it?"

"I don't care. I mean, you're an adult, right?"

"A new one, but yes."

"Then it's fine. That's all that matters, if you're cool with it."

"Yes, to be sure. I don't mind that at all."

"What about my size, though? You mind that, don't you?" Basalt hunched down a bit more, by a length equal to about Whisperwing's entire height, so Whisperwing descended accordingly.

"Well… it's a new experience for me, but I'm not against it categorically." said Whisperwing, in what he hoped was a reassuring tone. "Not by any means. Let's get to know each other."

"Okay." Basalt mumbled, smiling a little.

"Shall we go see the animals?"

"Yeah, sure."

They browsed the zoo, Whisperwing mostly keeping to the air so he could stay at eye level with Basalt. Basalt liked to talk to the animals and make kissing noises at them, which Whisperwing would have found ridiculous even from a pony.

"So what do you do?" said Basalt, turning to Whisperwing as they admired the Bronc Zoo's prize specimen, a half-ton hodag from western Equestria.

"Oh, I'm a janitor at a bank downtown. But I also do amateur mathematics."

"What's that?"

"I mean, I conduct mathematical research, even though I'm not employed by a university."

"Oh! You must be really smart." Basalt looked thoughtful. "But why?"

"Why aren't I employed by a university, I mean?"

"No, I mean, why do research for fun? I mean, is it fun? But then it wouldn't be research, right?"

"Well, it isn't for fun."

"So why, then?"

Whisperwing hesitated. "It's of inherent importance. Mathematics describes the absolute limits of the possible. Sure, it may be fun, but that's not why we do it."

"Interesting!" said Basalt, in an overly enthusiastic tone of voice suggesting he didn't understand.

"What do you do?" said Whisperwing.

"I don't know yet. I just moved to Equestria a moon ago."

"What did you do back home?"

"Um, the Dragonlands doesn't have jobs. I just hunted for myself. Gems or prey, whatever I could find. That's kind of what we all do."

"Oh. Well then, how are you liking capitalism?"

"It's tough. I don't know how I'm going to make rent next moon."

Whisperwing chuckled softly. "Yes, that's a good summary. How did you decide to move here?"

Basalt looked aside. "You're a smart guy. I bet you can guess."

Whispwering thought about it. "Were you looking for love?"

"That's right. I only learned I was gay like fifteen years ago. It's lonely being gay in the Dragonlands. Feels like all the others are taken. Or… well, what's the pony word? 'Closeted'. Yeah. Everydragon wants eggs, maybe not right now, but someday, and if you admit to yourself that you're gay, then you're never going to have an egg with a dragon you love."

Whisperwing licked his lips. "Are your parents accepting of you?"

"Sure, it's easy for them! They don't have to think about this stuff." Basalt looked grave.

"Do you want children?" Whisperwing said carefully.

"Badly." A deep sigh rumbled out of the gigantic dragon like a distant avalanche. "Maybe I'll still have an egg with a female dragon, but it's not the same as having an egg with my own husband—'gems of love', you know. And I don't want to adopt a pony. It would be so hard to watch them grow up, grow old, and die before I'm even two hundred."

"You realize that the same thing is going to happen if you take a pony as a boyfriend."

"Yeah, but that doesn't seem so bad. I mean, one of my friends is married to a pony—a mare, I mean—and he says he'll just move onto another mare, or maybe a dragon, when his wife dies. It's like having a pet." Whisperwing looked a bit horrified as he considered the implications of this, and Basalt said "Uh, sorry. That was kind of mean. It's just, um, that's what it feels like for us. A child's different. Kids are supposed to outlive you."

"I understand." said Whisperwing, not quite truthfully.

"And then gay ponies want to make love anyway, which is completely pointless. It's right there in the name, even in Ponish. If you don't make anything…" Basalt seemed to suddenly remember who he was talking to. "I mean, I guess I could try or something, if you want to. I mean, if my boyfriend wants to. Because you're not my boyfriend. I mean, not yet. I mean, unless—uh, I'm gonna stop talking now." Whisperwing could barely make out a blush under the black scales of the dragon's face.

"It's all right." said Whisperwing softly. "These things are delicate for all of us. All that differs is the reasons."

"Thanks." said Basalt.

They were quiet a while. Whisperwing took a quick tour through the aviary while Basalt, who didn't quite fit inside, glanced through the windows, and then they went to see the giraffes.

"Pretty, aren't they?" said Basalt.

"Yes." said Whisperwing. "They have a certain unearthly grace about them… their proportions are all different from, um, other creatures of that size, but they move so easily all the same. I think that before I saw one in the flesh, I would have expected them not to be so comfortable in their own skin."

"Yeah." said Basalt. "Sort of on that… how'd you learn you were gay, Whisperwing?"

"Oh." said Whispwering, laughing. "I remember it well. I was twelve years old. There was a Crash Fortune blockbuster out at the time, and all my male friends at school were crushing on Countess Coloratura, who played the love interest, while my female friends preferred the stallion who played the title role. I thought the fillies had the right idea. That was my awakening."

"I remember that guy. He was a legit snack. What happened to him?"

"He couldn't act, so he went back to porn."

"What's that?"

"What's what?"


Whisperwing tried to think of the word for it in the language of dragons. Then he remembered an awkward conversation with Crag back in their school days in which he learned that there wasn't one. "Um… it's a less prestigious performance art. How about you? You said you realized your own homosexuality fifteen years ago, didn't you? You would still have been an adult then."

"Yeah. It took a long time. I didn't know gayness was a thing for a long time. And then I didn't wanna be gay. But I hadn't had a girlfriend for decades, anyway. I thought I'd be happier if I wasn't living in denial."

They watched the giraffes silently for a few moments, and Whisperwing said "And have you been so?"

"I don't know." said Basalt in a voice that was recognizable as a timid mumble for all its booming depth. "I thought I'd have life figured out by now. Here I am at eighty-four, starting all over again. I have to say… I envy you, Whisperwing. You seem so smart and you've got it all figured out, and you're a lot younger than me, even counting the race difference."

"No, I think I misled you." said Whisperwing hurriedly. "I have more than a few fears and uncertainties of my own. We have things in common." On impulse, he flew closer to Basalt and kissed him quickly on the end of his snout. Basalt seemed shocked, but then he smiled earnestly, and Whisperwing reflexively smiled back. "I liked that." said Whisperwing. "How did you like it?"

In reply, Basalt licked Whisperwing's face with his great forked tongue. Whisperwing couldn't help but laugh. Basalt was blushing intensely now. "So, can we get another date sometime?" said Basalt.

"Let's." said Whisperwing, and they embraced as gracefully as they could, given the size difference.

The line "Sure, it [mathematics] may be fun, but that's not why we do it" is an inversion of a quip apocryphally attributed to Richard Feynman: "Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it."

What Is This, Some Kind of Joke?

On a Friday evening one year later, the four friends were getting together at a small bar.

"Root beer, please." said Gilbert to the hippogriff waiter, who nodded and darted away.

"Root beer?" said Hearty Hooves, shoving Gilbert playfully. "Aren't we ever gonna get you drunk, Gil?"

"No, I think that the law against alcohol is one thing my country got right," said Gilbert, "judging from what it does to you people." he added in a joking tone, shoving Hearty back.

"Do you miss Griffonstone?" said Whisperwing.

"Not much." said Gilbert. "I visit every few moons. It's nice to see my family, but I've never really regretted moving to Manehattan. It's so… dead there. By comparison. Besides, my girlfriend was happy to meet my parents, but she hates it there."

"Your what?" said the other three simultaneously.

"My girlfriend." said Gilbert, puffing out his feathers smugly.

"Congratulations, brobert!" said Hearty, enveloping Gilbert in a hug that threatened to crush the delicate avian bones of his upper body. "Now, tell us everything!"

"Well, if you insist." said Gilbert, with a grin as wide as his wings. "She's an earth pony. She's twenty-three. She has a light-blue mane and a cream coat. She works in high fashion, but she's very kind and straightforward; she's not prissy and she doesn't look down on me at all."

"What's her name?" said Hearty Hooves.

"Coco Pommel."

Whisperwing arched an eyebrow. "That rings a bell…"

"I remember." said Crag. "She's one of Rarity's colleagues. Rarity mentioned her in class once."

"But the important question is," said Hearty Hooves, "have you gotten lucky yet?"

"Yes," said Gilbert, "as a matter of fact, I have."

"Well?" said Hearty Hooves. "What's the verdict?"

"It's great." said Gilbert with a sudden lack of enthusiasm.

The others stared at him, and he only took a long drink of his root beer as he avoided their gaze.

"Somehow, I'm not convinced." said Whisperwing.

"Well…" said Gilbert. "I'm not lying… it's just… Oh, I'm never going to be satisfied with anything, am I?"

"Did you poke her with a dick-spike?" said Hearty Hooves.

Gilbert didn't dignify that with a response.

"You had it all hyped up, huh?" said Hearty in a more serious tone. "You expected fireworks and a parade and a transcendent life-defining experience and had an orgasm instead?"

"Uh… sort of." said Gilbert. "I mean, I knew that sex couldn't be everything I hoped or wanted it to be, because of course it would be magnified in my imagination by the wait, and sheer longing. So when it was merely nice, and fun, and pleasurable, I was prepared. What I wasn't prepared for… it's hard to articulate."

"Enjoy it while you have it." said Crag with sudden venom.

"Buddy, this is not the time for sex-shaming." said Hearty Hooves defensively.

"No, that's…" Crag sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm just bitter. Shelly dumped me. I proposed to her and she said 'no'."

"Crag, buddy," said Whisperwing, taking the dragon's hand in one hoof, "that's awful. Why didn't you tell us?"

"It's been a hard week." said Crag. "Because, I also just learned that this will be my last semester at ESM."

"What?" said Gilbert. "Why?"

"Just what Shelly warned me: rocking the boat. It wasn't just one thing. I've been 'uppity' my whole time at ESM. I'm always challenging bad research practices and trying to do better. I tried to phrase things gently, but my advisor and some other coauthors weren't so slow as to miss the implication that if it really was so necessary to tighten standards, as I was suggesting, then their own careers were built out of straw. I tried citing prominent, respected historians, pony and dragon, who'd made the same criticisms decades ago that I make now, and I thought that would take some of the heat off of me. But it just made me come off as more sure of myself. And it made my demands all the more embarrassing to them."

Crag took a gulp of his gin and tonic. "And they warned me. Repeatedly. And I knew I couldn't live with myself, I knew that doing history would become pointless, if I gave in and did history badly. So I just watched myself kill my own career. Slowly and helplessly."

"Holy Celestia." Whisperwing muttered.

"Shelly's not in grad school, right?" said Gilbert.

"No, she's in college." said Crag. "But I always talked to her about these things, because what is a relationship if you can't talk about what's bothering you? She told me, gently, that I was choosing poorly. And that I was letting grad school consume me, and that I was too stubborn in general. I heard her, and I understood her, but there was never a chance that I was going to change any of those things. The question was just whether she could tolerate it. She decided she couldn't.

"It's devastating. It means that, in some sense… she never loved me for the right reason." Crag shuddered. "But, I dunno, I guess I can't blame her. So here I am after nearly three years in Manehattan with no degree and no girlfriend; just one published paper to my name." He took another drink. "I have to get drunk while I'm still young enough that it's not so expensive."

"So, what now?" said Gilbert.

"I'm keeping the cave, at least." said Crag. "That's convenient. I'm applying to other doctoral programs in history. Mostly in Manehattan. I could end up elsewhere in Equestria. I'd really like a new girlfriend, but that's not my top priority right now."

"I'd hate for you to leave Manehattan." said Gilbert. "We all would."

"Don't worry." said Crag. "I'd definitely come back to visit you guys. It'll give my wings some exercise. And you're my best friends. I mean that."

"You can't be serious about going back to academia," said Whisperwing, "after that."

"I am." said Crag. "It's all the clearer to me now. That's what I'm here to do. I'll find the minority of other historians who are willing to get serious about history, and we'll do what we can. That's the only way the academy can ever be fixed, by people advocating for and practicing change, and braving the scorn of the traditionalists."

The others could practically see the gears turning in Whisperwing's head. Finally, he chuckled. "Celly bless you, Crag; you're shaping up to be a fine leftist. I'm sorry I ever doubted you."

"Thanks." said Crag. "Hearing that from you means a lot to me."

There was a lull in the conversation for some time, and then Whisperwing said, "Hearty, what have you been up to? Who are you dating?"

"Nopony yet." said Hearty. "I've been pretty focused on school. I'm sure it's not as hard as the stuff you've been doing, Crag, but it doesn't come to me that easy. I still feel like a yokel sometimes. I'm busting my plot just to get 'B's. And, well, when the work's very abstract, like in math, it's hard to stay motivated."

"Oh, that sucks." said Gilbert.

"Well, actually, things are a lot better than they were before." said Hearty. "I actually know what want I now! I'm gonna be a social worker."

Whisperwing leaned back. "My friend, I hate to say things like 'you?', but…"

"Shut up, Whispy." said Hearty. "If you hate to say it, then don't. I know it's going to be hard and I'm gonna be in school for a while. But I know what I want. And what's the greatest virtue of the humble earth pony? Stubbornness. I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna get through those classes; I'm gonna get neck-deep in the worst personal crises that the ordinary folk of Manehattan have to offer; and I'm gonna help them get the things that I take for granted, like bein' able to go to college, 'cause I have family that can support me when I'm doing fanciful things like that, 'stead of me having to say home so I can support them. I love Manehattan, and I wanna make it a better place."

"Well, that's very noble of you." said Gilbert.

Whisperwing shrugged. "Far be it from me to stop you."

"Yeah." said Hearty Hooves, grinning.

"This is about girls, though, isn't it?" said Gilbert.

"No." said Hearty. "It's not about all the cute girls I'll be studying with. They're just a bonus."

"Yeah, that sounds more like you." said Crag.

"How about you, Whispy?" said Hearty Hooves. "How are you coping without my tender embraces?"

"Somehow, inexplicably, I'm surviving." said Whisperwing in his most sarcastic voice. He took a sip of his screwdriver and continued in a more serious tone "Basalt and I are still dating… despite what I think I expected."

"Yeah, I'm surprised." said Hearty. "So have you ended up going on the fabled voyage to the center of the cloaca after all?"

"I'm going to need a lot of nachos for this." said Whisperwing. "Waiter? Well, er, yes, we tried to have sex. Once. He's generous, which is an important skill in this domain, but his lack of enthusiasm is infectious. I don't think I can enjoy sex with someone who is so little invested in it himself. The anatomy differences and the size differences are unhelpful. In fact, although it took me some time to admit it to myself, I'm not physically attracted to him. He's kind of cute, but that's not enough for my sexual appetite. His impressive size is a terrible waste without a penis to match."

"Oh, that sounds pretty depressing." said Gilbert.

"What would you even do with a penis of that size?" said Crag.

Whisperwing shrugged. "Admire it, I suppose. It would be something."

"I can tell you what I'd do with it." said Hearty.

"Spare me." said Crag.

"So why do you think you're still together?" said Gilbert to Whisperwing in a sympathetic tone. "Just inertia?"

"That's the funny thing." said Whisperwing. "This relationship is actually the best relationship I've ever had. Despite the sexual dissatisfaction; despite how I always imagined loving a fellow intellectual, a scientist or an artist or an activist; I like what I have. We get along better than I've ever gotten along with anycreature. The truth is, I love him.

"Will that ever change? Well, who can say? It's good enough for now. More than good enough. And for Basalt, even if I grow old and die with him, he'll only know me for a small part of life. For most of his life, I'll be a memory. It was only once I thought about that that I realized how patient he is with me, and how he treasures every moment. Imagine how Princess Cadance feels about Shining Armor."

Hearty Hooves could only say "Huh."

"It's a scary thought," said Crag, "that you guys and every other pony and griffon I know are going to be dead inside of a century. I try not to think about it."

"It sounds a little spooky just to live that long." said Hearty Hooves. "Eons passing you by and all that."

"Not at all." said Crag. "I'm happy to know how much history I'll get to see with my own eyes. I just wish I could bring you squirts along for the ride."

"But you say you're unsatisfied." Gilbert pressed Whisperwing.

"In some ways, yes." said Whisperwing.

"So move on." said Gilbert. "Dude, I thought you were about changing things instead of just tolerating them. You deserve better than this."

"I can't speak to what I deserve. Other than these nachos." (Which had just arrived.) "Mmm, seitan." Whisperwing dug in without so much as a pause in his speech. "I keep thinking about starting a diet, but there always seems to be something more important to attend to first. On that note, Gilbert, I feel ultimately that my dissatisfaction is not important. What I have isn't perfect, but I'm happy with it, and that's much more than I've ever had before. Some matters, such as mathematics, and politics, are important to me. I feel they're worth getting right. But for everything else, such as food, relationships, and tabletop role-playing games, 'good enough' is good enough. Life's too short for perfectionism. In my research, on the other hoof, there are still lots of challenges, but I'm making more progress than ever—not that any of you cared enough to ask."

"Yeah, your math stuff isn't the kind of thing I… understand." said Gilbert.

"Gil," said Hearty, "I get what you're saying to Whispy, but you didn't sound totally satisfied with the critter you've been smooching yourself."

"Well…" Gilbert fidgeted uncomfortably. "I think it's not that there's anything bad, or anything missing. I like Coco a lot. It's just… I don't know what… I don't know what I want now. I was trying to get a girlfriend for so long—since I was twelve, more or less—that now it's like, now what?"

"Hmm." said Crag. "I remember you asked me, that night you nearly got yourself killed by a linnorm, what you were expected to do with your life without a girlfriend. It seems that you don't know what to do with one, either."

Gilbert sighed. "Yep. Ironic, isn't it?"

"Wait, is that technically ironic?" said Hearty.

"I swear to your respective cultures' traditional deities," said Crag, "that if you have this discussion in front of me, I will devour both of you."

"Kinky." said Hearty.

"I dunno." said Gilbert. "Thinking about it, talking to you guys, it seems like you all have something going for you. I mean, Crag, I'm not trying to minimize what happened to you, but you're obviously really passionate about changing how history researchers do things, and I envy that. Whispy's got his math, and Hearty's got this new social-worker thing he's working towards. You all have something you're fighting for that gives you a sense of meaning. I don't."

"You don't have to struggle, bro." said Hearty. "It's totally okay to just enjoy what you have."

"I do enjoy it." said Gilbert. "And it's not that I want to struggle. It's just… I need… say. Hmm."

"What is it?" said Crag.

"Have any of you guys been to Griffonstone?" said Gilbert. None of them had. "Yeah, I'm not surprised. It's a landscape only a griffon could love. At least the Dragonlands have some cool volcanoes. But you know, it's easy to describe what's missing from there the most and why Manehattan's so much better." He paused. "Crag? Whispy? You guys should know this." Crag stared back uncomprehendingly while Whisperwing stared at what was left of the nachos. "Hearty?"

"Friendship?" Hearty hazarded.

"Exactly." said Gilbert. "There's no community in Griffonstone. There's no sense of mutual aid, or even mutual interest. Nogriffon wants to know anything about anygriffon outside of immediate family. Even arranged marriage is just an elaborate way to minimize social contact. And guys, I don't know what I would've done without you, all this time in Equestria. We need to see each other more often again. It's been a while."

"For sure." said Hearty.

"Yes, by all means." said Whisperwing.

"So, I think that's what I need to do with my life." said Gilbert. "At least for now. I'm not sure how, but I need to do something to spread friendship and community. My thoughts turned inward, to just the two of us, when I finally got that girlfriend, but I need to look outward. Maybe I'll go grease the squeaky wheel back home, or maybe I'll figure out something here. I've gotta find some way to… let the magic of friendship grow."

"Maybe it's the cider talkin'," said Hearty Hooves, "but I feel a song coming on."

"No, please, Hearty, not in public." said Gilbert. "I'm still not that much of a pony. Yet."