Part One: The Store
Dana’s Discount Floofer Hut, Coniston outlet, February 19, 20XX
“Psst! Tiwwy! ‘Ou am wakies?”
Tilly opened her eyes. A mare stared down at her, the red of her fluff barely discernible in the low light. “Saffwon? It nu am time fow wakies yet…” She looked at the clock on the wall. She didn’t know how to read human numbers, but the shorter hand was pointing a little to the right of the bottom one, which meant it was too early to be up.
Saffron’s brow furrowed, tugging at the scar that bisected her right eye. “Saffwon am wan’ nummies, but nu can get outsies awone. ‘Ou wan’ nummies too?”
Tilly paused, trying to ignore the gnawing in her tummy. Everyone knew what happened to fluffies who tried to escape, or get more than their fair share of nummies. Or those who found themselves wound up in one of Saffron’s schemes. “It nu am time fow nummies, Saffwon. ‘Ou wemembew wha’ happen tu Wupewt?”
“Dummeh nu-mawe was too woud.” Saffron gestured towards herself with a hoof. “Saffwon nu make noisies wike dummeh. Am sneakiest, smawtiest fwuffy. ‘Ou coming?”
She trotted over towards a stack of blocks, over by the gate on the other side of the pen. Tilly glanced at the other fluffies around them. None of them seemed to be awake yet. She sighed, got up off the floor, and followed.
Saffron gestured towards the pile of blocks as Tilly approached. “Saffwon am nee’ cwimb bwockies, an’ den onto Tiwwy’s backsies, su can cwimb outsies and open gatesie. Tiwwy nee’ wie down dewe,” she pointed to the left of the stack, “an’ stay vewy, vewy stiww.”
“Why Saffwon am haf to cwimb? Tiwwy can—”
Saffron rolled here eyes.“ Tiwwy am too widdwe, an’ Saffwon am bestes’ cwimbing fwuffy ebuh! Now, come on. Nee’ Tiwwy fow make cwimbies!”
Tilly sighed, and got down on all fours where Saffron had pointed. She watched Saffron climb onto the blocks out of the corner of her eye, and grunted as she felt the other mare’s weight press down on her back. She heard a scuffling sound as Saffron lifted her forelegs over the top of the pen and pulled herself up over the top, followed by a thud on the other side.
Twenty seconds or so passed, before Tilly heard the latch slide up. Saffron nudged the gate open, and led her out, past several other fluffy pens, out into the back hallway.
“Saffwon know whewe nummies awe?” Tilly asked. She had only been out into the back rooms once, when she first arrived at the fluffy store, many forevers ago.
Saffron nodded. “Saffwon am do dis befowe. Am towd Tiwwy befowe, am bestes’, sneakiest cwimbing fwuffy.” She pointed with a forehoof, towards an open room near the end of the hall. “Dewe am—”
She paused as a lock clicked behind them, down the other end of the hall. She ducked behind a stack of boxes, and waved Tilly over. Tilly followed, squeezing herself into the shadows as best as she could. She heard the door creak open, and felt a jolt in her tummy.
“—I’m just saying, I think the theatrical ending wrapped it up nicely,” a voice said. Tilly recognised the voice as Stefano, one of the humans who worked at the shelter.
“That ending was a travesty,” said another voice, this time a female. It was Aimee, the nice lady who sometimes let the fluffies have sketties instead of kibble on Fridays, if they’d been good that week. “The director’s cut ending is where it’s at. Without that, it’s basically a non-event—a few flashbacks, Will Smith talks to mannequins, hunts some vampires, and then there’s some shallow feel-good ‘humans win’ crap to wrap it up.”
“Not everything needs to be some philosophical magnum opus, you know,” Stefano said.
“Why is it that most sentences starting with ‘not everything needs to be…’ are usually just bitching about people actually having standards?”
A light turned on down the hall. Tilly heard the humans walk into one of the other rooms, where they continued their conversation. She turned to Saffron. “Nu am safe. Nee’ gu back, ow hoomins wiww catch fwuffies.”
“Nu!” Saffron said quietly, scowling. “Saffwon am wan’ nummies, an’ am wan’ nao!” She ducked her head out to check that the humans were still in the room. “Come on, dummeh!”
They walked into the storeroom. In the dim light, Tilly could see several large plastic sacks, water bottles, and lots of other things she didn’t recognise, piled up on a pair of steel shelves. Saffron walked over to a sack tucked under one of the shelving units, and planted her forehooves against it. “Kibbow nummies! Come on, Tiwwy, hewp Saffwon get nummies outsies!”
Saffron began tugging at a corner of the sack with her teeth. Tilly walked up, grabbed another corner in her mouth, and started pushing against a water bottle with her right hoof while pulling with her teeth. The sack shifted a little, and she pushed even harder. Saffron grunted next to her and took a step back, extending her neck a little before giving the sack another yank.
The sack lurched forward, sagged, and toppled over, knocking Tilly over and pinning her on her back. A white-hot flash ran up her left hindleg, and her mind went blank. The sack split, spilling bits of kibble all over her face and upper body. She felt her bowels relax, and a rancid smell met her nostrils a moment later.
Saffron let out a shriek, along with the contents of her own poopie place, and bolted out of the room as fast as possible. Tilly wailed, and began swatting at the sack with her forehooves.
“What the hell!” Tilly saw the hallway light come on, and tried to blink the tears out of her eyes. “Saffron? What— hey, get back here! Aimee, I think there’s another one in the storeroom!”
“Dummeh hoomin! Nu catch Saff—HEY! Wet Saffwon GU!”
Saffron continued to shout at Stefano for a moment, and then Tilly thumping sound. She heard footsteps approaching, and other fluffies calling out from the main room.
The storeroom light turned on. Tilly screeched and turned her head away, eyes screwed shut. She felt the bag lift off her, and a pair of human hands grabbed her around the ribs, hoisting her up off the floor.
“Tilly?” Tilly opened her eyes and saw Aimee stating at her, eyes wide. “What the hell are you doing? I’ve told you before, not to do anything Saffron tells you!”
Tilly sobbed. “T-T-Tiwwy haf owwies! K-kibbow nummies am gif w-w-wowstest h-huwties! Pwease h-h-h—”
“Ohhh, no. I don’t think so!” Tilly felt her heart skip a beat. “No, you and Saffron are in big, big trouble, young lady!”
Tilly hit the floor.
Saffron landed next to her a moment later. Tilly saw a spattering of boo-boo juice across her purple mane. The other mare’s eyes were closed, but she was still breathing.
Tilly sighed, and fought the urge to go to her. Her leg still throbbed, although she had thankfully landed on her good side.
Stefano walked down the length of the room, opening the doors to the fluffy pens as he went. “Okay, rodents! Get out here and line up!”
Dozens of mares, stallions, and foals plodded out of their enclosures, and lined up along outside. Some stared at Tilly and Saffron, or whispered to each other; others bowed their heads. A few foals shrank up against their mothers, or covered their eyes.
“Good.” Stefano walked over to Tilly and Saffron, and stood over them. Tilly thought she saw something long in his hand for a moment, out of the corner of her eye.
“Aimee and I just caught these two trying to steal food from the storeroom. And you know what happens to fluffies who try and steal from the storeroom, right?”
“Well?” Tilly saw Stefano smack something long against the palm of his hand. “Speak up, vermin!”
Tilly saw Aimee come into the room. The woman opened her mouth for a moment, but said nothing.
“Steawy fwuffies get sowwy stick?” a blue colt said, averting his gaze.
“Yes.” Stefano smacked the long object against his palm a couple more times. “Fluffies who steal get the sorry stick. Fluffies who break any of the rules get the sorry stick.”
He reached down, and pulled Tilly off the floor by her mane. She squealed and flailed her legs for a moment, and then went still.
“And Tilly and Saffron have broken the rules, so Tilly and Saffron get the sorry stick.”
The first blow caught Tilly in the ribs. She squealed, but went silent as the second caught her in the jaw. The hurties rained down, one after another. She lost count of how many times she was hit. The world started turning choppy and fragmented, like some twisted fever dream.
Eventually, the hurties stopped coming. Stefano dropped Tilly back onto the floor. She didn’t try to get up. Her whole body ached from the jaw down, and she could barely feel her bad leg.
The world slowly slipped back into focus. She saw Stefano pick up Saffron, who had woken up, and was now struggling to escape.
“STOOPI HOOMIN! WET SAFFWON DOWN!”
Stefano didn’t reply. He lifted up the sorry stick, and smacked her across the face. She cried out, but her scowl quickly came back.
“Dummeh hoomin nu gif owwies to Saffwon! Am bestes’, most cwevewest fwuffy! Am SMAWT—”
Blood dribbled down Saffron’s face; the blow had re-opened the scar around her brow. She looked at the sorry stick, but Stefano threw it aside. He reached for his belt, and pulled out something big and dark, which looked like a cross between a handgun and a power drill.
“Stefano, wait!” Aimee raised her hand, and took a step towards him. “Look, I know what she just said, but do you really have to do it in front of—”
“Sorry, Aimee,” Stefano said. “Boss’s orders.” He turned to the crowd of fluffies, some of whom had started to cry. “Looks like we’ve got a smarty, shitrats! Now, who can tell me what happens to smarties here?”
Silence. Stefano looked around, and raised the captive bolt pistol. The red mare stared at Tilly, and mouthed a single word: Hewp.
“No one? Well then, guess you’re all gonna learn something new!” Stefano pressed the muzzle up against Saffron’s head. “This is what happens to smarties!”
Stefano pulled the trigger.
A week later…
“Bye, Avril! Have a good day!”
Eleanor Hutchins watched her daughter walk away. She turned on the car radio, made her way out onto the street, and began heading into the city centre.
She arrived at the fluffy store a few minutes later. The sounds—and smells—of dozens of fluffies assailed her as she walked inside. A young woman with a bob cut walked up to her.
“Hi there!” the woman said, smiling wide. “I’m Aimee! How can I help you?”
“Hey,” Eleanor said, shaking the woman’s hand. “My husband and I recently started rehabilitating a feral stallion that we found in the park, and we’re looking to pick up a good breeding mare for him.”
“Ah, doing a little matchmaking, are we?” Aimee said, winking. “Right this way!”
She led Eleanor over to a pen with eleven mares inside. Some had litters, ranging from chirpies to ‘big babbehs’ with short, wispy manes. Several piped up as she approached, most falling back on the usual pre-programmed phrases.
“Are you just after the mare, or do you want one with foals as well?” Aimee asked. “Because if you’re interested in a family deal—”
Eleanor shook her head, smiling. “No, thanks. Just the mare.”
“No problem.” Aimee gestured to a lone pegasus with pea-green fluff, who pushed aside the ball she had been playing with and waddled over to the gate. The fluffy stared up at the women, doe-eyed.
“This is Corinthia.” She lowered her voice. “She had her fourth litter last week, but they got picked for Foal in a Can, so she had to let them go.” Her brow furrowed for a moment. “So, what do you think of her?”
“Hewwo, nice hoomin wady!” Corinthia held out a hoof. “Gib huggies?”
Eleanor considered the fluffy. “Mmm … her colours would contrast nicely with Roosevelt’s. What’s her temperament like?”
“Usually really loving, but she can be … well, a bit oversensitive, honestly. Even by fluffy standards. She was in tears yesterday when her favourite toy got put in one of the other pens by mistake.”
“Ah.” Eleanor spotted a violet earth mare with a brown mane, lying alone in the corner. “What about that one?”
“Oh…” Aimee bit her lip. “That’s Tilly. She’s not doing so well right now. She got into a bit of trouble a few weeks ago. She’s barely spoken or eaten since.”
“Pwetty hoomin wady nu wike Cowinfia? Am bad fwuffy?”
“What happened?” Eleanor asked.
“Wai nu wike Cowinfia? Nu unnastan—”
“Shh, Corinthia, the humans are talking. Go play with your ball.” Aimee lowered her voice again. “My colleague and I caught her and another mare trying to steal food last week. Our manager is pretty strict when it comes to discipline…” She grimaced. “So she didn’t get let off easily, exactly. And then the other mare went and called herself a smarty…”
“Oh.” Eleanor didn’t reply for a moment. “Right in front of the others?”
“You know … that might not be such a bad thing. Any past litters?”
“Not yet. My manager wants to try pairing her off next week, if she’s feeling up to it. You want me to bring her over?”
Eleanor nodded. Aimee called out to Tilly, who slowly got to her feet and shuffled over. The mare looked up at Eleanor for a moment, before bowing her head. Her cheeks and muzzle were damp, and she looked to be favouring her right side.
“Hello, Tilly,” Eleanor said, getting down on one knee. “I’m Eleanor. How are you doing today?”
The fluffy didn’t look up. “Hewoo … Tiwwy am gud…”
“Well, that’s great to hear. Listen, I’m looking for a new … friend for one of my boy fluffies. Do you think you’d be up for making a new friend?”
“Tiwwy…” Tilly’s face brightened a little. She raised her head. “Tiwwy w-wuv nyu fwends. Nice wady haf fwuffies at housie?”
“I sure do.” Eleanor smiled. “But I need to ask you something. I know you got into a bit of trouble recently, but do you think you can stay on your best behaviour if you come home with me? I need to make sure you can keep out of trouble.”
Tilly’s eyes widened, and then she started to crying. “Yus! T-Tiwwy fowwow aww da w-w-wuwes! N-nu wan’ bweak wuwes ‘gain! Tiwwy pwomise nyu m-m-mummah dat Tiwwy be g-gud! Nu wan fow-fowebah sweep—”
Eleanor put a hand on the mare’s mane, stroking it. “Shhh. Don’t worry, Tilly, there won’t be any ‘forever sleepies’. Not if you’re a good fluffy and keep your promise.” She petted the fluffy a moment longer, and then looked up at Aimee.
“I’ll take her.”