A Fragile Heart

by Newtaloo

Chapter 1: A Fragile Heart

His legs are bouncing uncontrollably, making the table shake and jump with jackhammer-intensity. His eyes glance from the clock to the door and back again in synch with the amped-up rhythm of his heart, and he can't seem to hold on to any coherent thoughts for longer than a moment or two before his mind leaps back to the all-important fact: she's on her way.

The cheerful pink pony has to try three times before she finally gets his attention, though the smile on her face is just as bright on the third "Hi! How are you today?" as it was on the first. He shakes his head and coughs. "Oh, yes, sorry, no," he stutters.

The pink pony laughs. "Yes, sorry, no what now?"

"Oh, sorry," he says. "I thought you were asking for my order. I'm doing okay, I'm just, um, I'm not ready to order yet. I'm waiting for somepony."

"Oooooh, is this a special sort of somepony?" she asks with a giggle that makes her curly mane bounce.

He blushes and looks back at the clock again. "Well, sort of. Something like that, I guess."

Her eyes widen, and her smile brightens several degrees. "Is it a first date?" He hesitates, then nods, and she squeals with delight. "Oh, I'm so excited! It's not every day I get to help somepony with their first date! Is there anything I can do to make it extra-special? Some flowers, maybe? Ooh! Or I could put out some candles! I mean, I know it's the middle of the day, but candles are always romantic..."

"Oh, no, that's okay," he interrupts. "Thanks, but I just want to try to keep it low-key, you know? I don't want to make too big a deal out of it. It's just lunch."

"Okie dokie, low-key it is," she replies with a wink. "I bet she'll appreciate that. Don't want too much pressure on a first date! Gotta keep it fun and casual, like a pool party." She nods sagely. "Oh, speaking of pools, I bet you're thirsty. Could I get you something to drink while you wait?"

He nods and allows himself a nervous grin. "That sounds great, yeah. Thanks."

She stares at him until the silence gets uncomfortable, and he starts to fidget with his napkin. "Sooooo what kind of drink do you want?" she prompts.

"Oh, right. Right, sorry. Can I get a Foala-Cola?"

"Is Pepneigh okay?" she asks.

He nods, perhaps a little more vigorously than necessary. "Yeah, of course. That's great."

"Alrighty! I can get that for you in a jiffy," she says, then trounces back towards the kitchen.

He feels a little bad for misleading her - she seemed so excited - but it wasn't technically a lie. Depending on how things go, this could be a first date of sorts. Then again, it could be the last.

After the pink pony comes bouncing back with his soda, he switches up his routine - a glance at the clock, a glance at the door, an infinitesimal sip of cola, a glance at the clock, a glance at the door, a sip of cola, clock, door, cola, repeat until he's too nervous to even pretend to drink his cola anymore.

This isn't the first time he's found himself alone, waiting for her to show up, wondering if she'll even bother, but none of the others were like this. At least back then he knew he'd see her again - if not where and when they'd agreed, then somewhere else later on with an apology and an excuse to patch over his bruised feelings - but they're out of patchable territory now. Every minute that passes leaves a cut on his heart, stinging and raw, and every cut brings him closer to breaking.

The friendly pony comes by a few more times, and each time she asks, "Is there anything I can get for you?" his "I think I'll wait a little longer" grows a little more frail, a little more cracked, until at last his composure breaks. "Can I get an order of hay fries?" he asks with as much nonchalance as he can muster. "You know, just to hold me over until she gets here." The tiny pause between "she" and "gets here" burns like bile in the back of his throat, and he barely chokes out the mangled remains of the phrase.

Her smile dips into a tight-lipped frown, just long enough for him to catch a glimpse before she turns on the hi-beams again. "One basket of fresh hay fries coming right up!" she announces. The words are louder and more eager than they ought to be, and he winces as her pity sinks in, like salt in a fresh wound.

He glances at the clock less often, lets his eyes settle on the table in front of him and his heart sink to the floor. Every time the bell above the door rings he turns to look, but each time he sees it's not her he turns back to his table more slowly, and each time the bell rings it grates more harshly on his ears. Alone, it chimes. Alonealonealone.

The cheerful pink pony brings the fries without a word, and he stares at them just as silently for a long time, listening to the shuffling of hooves and the murmur of voices punctuated by the shrill chime of the bell. Eventually the smell of warm hay and the growl of his empty stomach untie the knot in his throat and he gives in. As he swallows the first bite, the truth he's been trying to hold at bay breaks loose - she's not coming. When he finishes these fries, he's going to pay his bill and go home alone. When he finishes these fries, he has to admit to himself that it's over.

He eats slowly, mechanically, his head hunched over the basket of fries and his eyes shut tight. He lets the sullen rhythm of chewing and swallowing drown out everything else, but memories of his time with her still surface, unwelcome and unbidden.

Lazy afternoons in their apartment, the blinds closed, relaxing comfortably, aimlessly, content to be in one another's presence. Their fight in the park a week ago, the last of so many, all meaning in their words stripped away by the raw fury with which they spoke them. Their first date, right here at this table, the sun streaming through the window and illuminating infinity in her eyes. She had been so vibrant, so happy, smiling and laughing at every little thing that caught her fancy - the tiny filly in the high chair with a bad case of adorably tiny hiccups, the misspelling of the word "bagel" ("bagle") on the menu, and then the way he pronounced "bagel" ("It's 'bay-gull', silly!"). She had always teased him about that when they were together, but it was the sort of teasing that made him want to say "bagel" more often just so he could watch the corners of her eyes crinkle and hear her silly imitations. "Mmm, I love bag-gulls! Don't you think a nice bag-gull would hit the spot right now?"

Staring at the menu now, he can't see for the life of him why they'd found it so entertaining. The word "bagle" looks sad, awkward, out of place, like it's the only one that doesn't realize how silly it looks and all the other words are embarrassed for it. He wonders if that's how he looks, if everyone else in the diner is embarrassed for him. More likely they haven't even noticed that he's there.

There is one pony, of course, who's noticed. The pink pony watches him from across the room and frowns as her mind races to find some way to help him. A grand gesture seems out of place for somepony who looks so sad, but she can't just ignore his plight, so she walks over to him and offers him a gentle smile. "Those fries are on me," she says. "I'm sorry things didn't turn out so well."
He looks up at her, flustered, and shakes his head. "No, that's okay," he says, and his voice is thick and heavy. A holding-back-tears voice. "I want to pay, I don't mind."

"I insist," she says. "You look like you could use a little kindness today." He grimaces, and she stammers, "Not that you look bad or anything, I mean it's none of my business and you don't have to talk about it if you don't want to, I just wanted to do this for you because you were waiting for somepony special and she never showed up and you seem so sad and seeing you sad is making me so sad and I was just hoping I could do something to make you smile just a little bit. I'm sorry."

He looks at her for a moment in silence, weighing her words and intentions, then he sighs. "I appreciate the gesture," he says, "but it's going to take a lot more than a free basket of hay fries to make me smile right now."

She wants to ask him a million questions, but the look on his face tells her now is not the time, so she does her best to hold them all in. One word slips out - "Why?"

He debates how much to tell her. "She was an incredible listener," he could say. "She wasn't just quiet, you could tell that she was paying attention to you while you were talking, and when you were done she knew just what to say. She understood what you meant even when you were hardly making sense to yourself. But she doesn't listen to me anymore, and now I don't know what to do."

Or perhaps, "She had the most ridiculous sense of humor. She'd laugh at the strangest things, but once she did start laughing it was impossible to make her stop. Everybody would be cracking up by the time she was done because her laugh was so infectious. She used to make life more fun just by being there. Now every time we talk we fight. I haven't heard her laugh in weeks, and I was hoping I could change that today, but she didn't even come. I've tried everything I can think of to fix things between us, to start over, and I'm just not sure how much longer I can wait."

But all that is too much, too soon for a stranger. Or rather, it's too little, too late for the pony he should have told those things to weeks ago. Finally, he settles on an appropriate answer for a kindly diner waitress. "Because she isn't here yet," he says. "I've waited and waited and waited, and she's still not here. And I want to believe she's on her way to meet me, that she just got lost or she's running late, but the longer I wait the harder that gets."

She nods. "That is pretty rough," she says, her voice sympathetic. "I know how hard it can be to wait for somepony, especially when you're nervous. Still, you wouldn't still be waiting for her if she wasn't worth waiting for, right?"

He stares straight ahead, frozen, the question weighing on his mind, crushing him. Is she worth waiting for? He thinks of all the other times she's stood him up, made him feel small, only to tell him he was the one in the wrong for making a fuss about it. He remembers all the little ways she used his adoration like a blank check, a means to an end, as if it would never run dry. He wonders, if she did walk through that door right now, what would be left to say? And would they even be able to say it? Then he realizes that he's been staring at the pink pony, that she's starting to look a little puzzled, and he nods and looks away. "Right," he says. She starts to grin, then he adds, "can I have my check, please?"

She stops mid-grin and blinks. "What?"

"I'm ready to go," he says. "I'd like my check. For the soda."

"Oh, I don't work here, silly," she giggles. "You looked really excited about something so I came over to introduce myself, and then I wanted to help make sure your first date went super-duper, but then your date was super late and you looked really sad so I bought you some fries to cheer you up. And don't worry about the soda, I've got that covered, too."

He narrows his eyes, waiting for her to drop the joke and give him his check, but as far as he can tell she's not messing with him. He shrugs. "Okay, well. Thanks," he says. He stands, feeling a little awkward but not sure what else to do.

"You're welcome!" she says, then she casts him a suspicious look. "Wait, you're leaving? Now? But she's not here yet!"

He sighs. "Exactly."

He hesitates for just a moment, something in him urging him to sit down, to wait, but he crushes the impulse, forces his feet to carry him to the door. The pink pony deflates a little as she watches him go, but she doesn't try to stop him. As he steps outside, the bell over the door chimes one last time. It echoes for a moment, then the air goes still.

A few minutes later, the bell above the door rings again and she trots into the diner - casual, collected, and as beautiful as ever, an excuse ready on her lips - but there is nothing waiting for her except a half-eaten basket of hay fries and the ghost of a fragile heart freshly broken.

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