Tux was glad when everypony started clearing out of his cottage. He was tired and wanted nothing more than to curl up under a blanket and go to sleep. Spending all his time as a wallflower with Fluttershy had been a very pleasant experience, though; just as Twilight had predicted, they seemed to be kindred spirits.
He expected her to be one of the first to leave the party, but she was actually one of the last. She outlasted even the great Pinkie Pie, helping her clean up after the festivities.
As Tux talked with her, he felt a shift inside of him. Twilight was still very attractive, but there was something he felt about Fluttershy that endeared her to him. Maybe it was the fact that he felt comfortable around her, more comfortable than with anypony else. He could come out of his shell and just be himself. No expectations to meet, no social conventions to try and follow. He didn't even have to talk with her in order to feel good about their interactions.
"I have to get to sleep," she yawned at long last. "You're free to come help with my choir whenever you want."
"Thanks, Fluttershy. And I'm thinking about starting a pony choir as well. I'd be honored if you could join."
"And if you do, I will." She grinned and laid her head on his shoulder for a brief moment. He returned the gesture tentatively, but the lack of aversion from her allowed him to be freer.
No words could describe how good it felt to be hugged like this. His cold, cynical heart grew and warmed. He didn't want to let her go, lest the feeling vanish, but when he felt her head lift, he was forced to do the same. "I had a great time tonight," she smiled.
"You're welcome here day or night," he replied. "Even if I'm not here. If you ever need a place to crash, don't hesitate."
"I'll have to do that sometime. Goodnight, Tux."
"Goodnight," he repeated.
Just after they had parted ways, Twilight, the only pony left, walked up and said, "I've never seen her open up like that. You two kept to yourselves the whole time."
"We have a lot in common," he replied. "I find that when I'm talking with extroverts, I feel like I'm expected to say something, and that dead air is bad like it is on the radio. But when I talk to Fluttershy, dead air is just as much communicatory as a full on conversation. Like we can read each other's minds."
"There's a lot of value in that. My brother Shining Armor and I were like that when we were younger. For that matter, we're still kind of like that, but I don't get to see him very much."
"I think I've found a new best friend," he smiled. "I haven't had one in a very long time."
"I'm glad for you. Good night, Tux. This was quite the day."
Tux turned out the lights and walked up the stairs as Twilight left, but his brain was moving too fast for him to sleep. He walked out onto the balcony and looked over Ponyville. A song sprang into his mind, and he sang:
Could it be?
Could it be that I have found my place?
Could it be?
Could I have found a trace of purpose?
In all my years, I have never found a place as this.
In all my years, I have never found this kind of gentleness.
In all my years, I'd never thought I'd find
Where everyone was kind and friendship could be mine.
I've always been a loner; I have always been aloof.
I barely said a word; I always thought that I would goof.
But now I see a wealth of friends like I have never seen before,
And now I see the glow of magic, of the opening of doors.
In all my years, I have never found a place as this.
In all my years, I have never found this kind of gentleness.
In all my years, I never thought I'd find
Where everyone was kind and friendship could be mine.
I've never had a purpose, but I've always had a dream,
But it was trodden underhoof; good things are never as they seem.
Now, by the moon and stars above, my dreams are born again!
Like a phoenix from the ashes; now my joy will never end!
Like a phoenix from the ashes; now my joy will never end!
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed somepony poke their head out from behind a building before disappearing into the night. There wasn't enough light to discern who it was, but he had his suspicions.
He plodded over to the bed and slid under the warm blankets. Tomorrow was going to be a big day.
He awoke to the bright sun and the crow of a drowsy rooster. After combing his mane and tail, he made his way to the Carousel Boutique, where Rarity was waiting for him. She was busy tossing papers onto a desk.
"Good morning, Tux," she greeted. "I trust you'll find everything here. Sweetie Belle got her hooves on the records a few days ago, and she neglected to organize them."
"It's really no problem," he sighed.
"I'll pay you twenty bits per diem if you can help sort out this..." She grimaced. "...God-awful mess."
He nearly fell over. "Twenty bits?"
"Yes. Business is good. But that means you're going to be working your tail off."
"I'll get right on it." He opened his saddle bags and set up his pens. It took him three hours to get all the papers in the right order. The first thing he noticed was that the documents were written in two different shades of red. He sniffed the darker and immediately knew what Twilight had done.
"Rarity," he called, "could you come here for a moment?"
"What is it?" she asked, emerging from her inspiration room.
"I figured out why everything is red. Twilight did the books in iron-gall, as opposed to black. Her mix is a bit thin, or the difference would be much more obvious."
"Oh, thank goodness!" Rarity groaned. "I was worried for a moment."
"It's probably a Canterlot habit; they use iron-gall for all important documents up there."
"Well, should it be fixed?"
"I will make a note when the iron-gall starts. I'll just use normal black."
"Thank you. And do hurry; I'm running out of supplies, and I don't want to be caught in the red when I order. That happened once before, back when I was first starting out, and I don't want it to happen again."
"Before you get back to work, have you thought about going digital?"
"Going what, now?"
"Never mind; it's not important." Rarity didn't seem to be the type to use a computer, anyway.
Tux worked quickly, checking, cross-referencing, and switching pens quite often. "Now I wish I was ambidextrous," he sighed, flexing his wing. The records were months out of date, and he hadn't made anywhere near the amount of progress he'd hoped for. The hours crawled by, and he lost total track of time.
"Tux!" Rarity said without warning, coming up behind him. He jumped at her voice and her tone, thinking he'd done something wrong. "Lunch. Now, if you could; I don't have much time."
"All right, just a minute." He flipped the stack over and sealed his ink wells before joining her.
"How are things coming along?" she asked.
"Not as well as I would have hoped, but I hope to have caught up fairly soon. How are your supplies?"
"Not critically low, but getting there fast. It seems that all of Canterlot wants me to make them something."
They arrived shortly at the café, and a waiter was with them soon after they sat down. "What will it be?" he asked.
"Daffodil sandwich," Rarity replied. "Extra flowery."
"The same, with a side of hay fries," Tux added.
"Water," Rarity replied.
"I'll have it out soon," the waiter said, walking off.
"So what exactly brings you to Ponyville?" Rarity asked.
"It's a long, complicated story," he replied. "Probably longer than you have time for."
"Nonsense, Tux. I want to know my employees."
"Don't say I didn't warn you." He began to tell his story, though he elected to skimp on some of the details.
"I came here from Hoofton. It's basically Manehattan, but east of Canterlot instead of west. I was stuck in a dead-end accounting job until I decided to move here. But I didn't always live in Hoofton. I grew up on a farm growing tomatoes, corn, wheat, and all kinds of other crops. Business was good until the recession hit."
"I remember that," she commented.
"It hit us so hard that we couldn't afford to keep the farm without a loan modification on our mortgage. The bank refused to work with us, so we had to walk away. We moved to Hoofton soon afterward.
"Moving wasn't easy. Not only did I have to leave behind my childhood home, but the weekend after we moved out, my friend and mentor Ottava Basso, the one who taught me almost everything I know about music, was killed in a freak buggy accident."
"Oh my gosh! I'm so sorry!" She reached a comforting hoof across the table.
"Thanks." He sighed. "It took me a while to get over it, but I finally did. I decided to carry on his legacy, and I made up my mind that I was going to go to music school there in Hoofton."
"It sounds like you were pretty happy."
"I was for a while." At least, he was happy until he met the pony who he was certain was the love of his life. He was too shy to act, and he spent every day beating himself up over his cowardice. When he finally got up the courage to get off his plot and ask her out, he learned that she was already taken with some young stallion. A year later, he fell for his closest friend and thought the same thing. But it turned out that she wasn't as close to him as he was to her. She cut him off and left Hoofton for Celestia knows where. He'd tried to get back in touch with her, to try and rekindle their broken friendship, but any attempt was met with only a cold, stern rebuff.
"So why did you leave Hoofton?" Rarity asked, sipping her water.
"Actually, I left Hoofton on a voyage of discovery. I was stagnant in the city; I knew lots of people, but I had no friends. Everypony was always doing their own thing."
"But why Ponyville and not some other town?"
"Would you believe, I don't know. I felt something drawing me here, some higher purpose. It's a voice I've learned to heed well."
"Well, I would say you've found a great place to discover yourself. You should talk to ponies and see if you can find some musical opportunities. There will be days when I won't need you to come in; that's why I hired you per-diem. Use those to get to know the town. You'll fit in rather well."
"Thank you, Rarity."
They finished their meal without much more non-business discourse, and when the bill came, Tux offered to split it, but Rarity insisted, "No. I'm not going to write this one off, either. Don't worry a thing about it. It's my housewarming present to you." She held up her glass, with what little remained in it. "Here's to the start of a great friendship."
"I'll drink to that," he smiled.
He thanked her for the meal, and they walked together back to Carousel Boutique. Before Rarity disappeared back into her studio, she said, "Oh, and I think you should go for it."
"Go for what?" he asked.
"Twilight. Your heart is on your withers, and she's bound to recognize it at some point. It took me all of five seconds. Ask her to dinner sometime."
"Not that it's any of my business." She cleared her throat. "Back to work for me."
Heart-on-withers was the condition that had caused his closest friend, Rosie Gardner to leave, out of the blue, cutting him off. She didn't answer his calls or his letters anymore, and she didn't leave any clue as to where their friendship stood. Now he was petrified that Twilight would do the same.
The thought dogged him for the rest of the day. He made a handful of mistakes that he nearly missed. He wrote down transactions in the wrong accounts. Eventually, he sealed his ink wells and washed his pen nibs. He couldn't go on like this.
He searched the boutique until he found Rarity, and he told her that he couldn't continue, explaining his new tendency for errors.
"You've worked hard," she replied. "Go ahead and take off; the rest of the books can wait for tomorrow."
He made his way through the market on the way home; his cupboards were just as empty as Old Mother Hubbard's. His saddlebags were nearly filled with produce when he spotted Fluttershy haggling with the same vendor that had tried to overcharge him. Moreover, she kept stamping her hoof for emphasis. At the end of the argument, he heard her say "complain" and "Better Business Bureau." The vendor handed over a basket of cherries, and Fluttershy dropped a sack of coins on the table, looking rather satisfied with herself.
"Fluttershy!" he called, trotting over.
"Hi, Tux," she smiled. "Did you see me face down that unscrupulous seller?" She frowned with resolve. "He was trying, yet again, to charge me double the market price."
"Nice job. Did you get a discount out of it?"
She smiled. "No; I wouldn't short him. I paid fair market price for them, not a bit more."
"So how is the choir going?"
"Oh, the birds are improving so much! I tried what you told me, to just count and let the birds do the rest. It started out as a disaster, but after a few times, they were doing so much better. How was your first day at work?"
"Crazy," he replied with a chuckle. "Is Rarity always this busy, or is this a special occasion?"
She shrugged. "Ever since the royal wedding in Canterlot, they've been dumping wagonloads of requests on her. I told her to set up a waiting list, but she won't listen."
"That's a good idea," he nodded. "It'll give her time to regroup and have a life."
"Like she used to. We don't even go to the spa anymore." She hung her head.
"I'll see if I can prod her to get back into things," he said, patting her on the withers with his wing. "Let's walk, shall we?"
"I don't know."
"Why don't we go over to my place?" she suggested. "You can stay for dinner. Well, uh, unless you have other plans."
"No, I'm totally free," he replied as they started down the path. "Dinner sounds very good."
It was dusk by the time they finished eating, talking, and enjoying the company of Fluttershy's many animal acquaintances. He helped her with her chores, putting animals to bed, feeding a nest of orphaned robin chicks, and medicating a sick but cranky badger. It wasn't normally his idea of a good time, but with the right company, it was rather enjoyable.
As he was heading down the path, he heard a voice above him. "Tux!"
"Hey, Rainbow Dash," he replied. "What's up?"
"You got a minute?"
"I was just heading home."
"I'm carrying twenty pounds of corn and potatoes in my saddlebags."
"Pshh. I could do that!"
"Be my guest."
She swooped down and he put his saddlebags on her back. "That is heavy," she grunted at the weight. "But not that heavy!" She unfurled her wings and started flapping. She took off easily, but before long, the shifting weight changed her flight patterns.
"Quit hitting the cider!" he taunted.
"Hey!" she shot back. "I'm not balanced anymore!"
"So it's harder than you thought?"
"Yeah. Whoa!" She lost lift, flapping madly as she plummeted to the ground. He spread his wings and took off, catching her mere feet from the hard-packed dirt.
"Thanks," she said, blushing and chuckling nervously.
He put the saddlebags back on and offered, "If you want to go for a flight, I think I have some time. I just have to unload this stuff back at my cottage."
"I'll help you," she smiled, walking with him. "I've been trying what you told me to do the other day, and it's not working. I can feel the air, but I can't...'paint a picture.' What does that even mean?"
"It's going to take me a little bit of mental elbow grease to teach you to glide, but it can be done. The biggest thing you will need is individual feather dexterity. Yeah, you can do wing pushups and resistance training, but if you want real agility, you need more than just quick reflexes and strength."
"Get out. That's not possible."
He trotted in front of her and extended his right wing. He moved each of his primary and secondary feathers independently. "You were saying?"
"How do you do that?" she gaped.
"Lots and lots of practice," he replied with a proud smile. "Gliding is all about finesse." He stopped, put his saddlebags beside the road, and sang:
When you use your wings, your first instinct is to flap till you're feathers are sore.
That's fine and good, but really you should take it easy and save room for more.
When too high you fly, if you fall, you die, so if you get a stitch in your side,
Remember that you aren't a bat; you're a pony, you have feathers, so glide!
They took to the skies and he sang as he flew alongside her:
It's a graceful dance like an earth pony's prance; it's a skill that is learned, not gained.
But it's the best way to end a beautiful day, to ease any number of pains.
You may have the speed, but what you need is a peace that comes from inside.
You can flap and fly through the sunset sky, but it's so much more fun to glide!
You just lock your wings
And forget the travails which plague you.
And unlearn those things about using your wings
That are holding you back: this I beg you.
So slow it down and look around at the beautiful world that surrounds you.
The birds, the bees, the evergreen trees have details that will confound you.
If you're in a yank, you will break the bank; you'll waste all the power inside.
So slow it down and look around. Just lock your wings and glide!
When he landed and reclaimed his saddlebags, she landed next to him. "And that's how you do it," he smiled.
"I still don't know what the hay you're talking about," she replied.
He hung his head and chuckled. "You'll learn. Come back to my place, and we'll both hit the skies. Maybe one of these days you can show me Cloudsdale."
"If you'll teach me how to do aerobatics like you, we've got a deal."
After they delivered Tux's groceries, they went to the outskirts of Ponyville and Tux talked with her about the mechanics of gliding, working on some dexterity exercises and watching her take short flights without using her wings for propulsion once she got in the air. She struggled at first, but she was able to handle herself at slower speeds after a while.
"This is tough," she said, landing. "It works a whole different muscle group."
"Absolutely," he replied. "But you were lookin' good up there!"
"Ugh, I think I'm going to be sore tomorrow."
"Maybe, maybe not," he said, shrugging his wings. "Once you master your figure-eights, maybe we'll work on some rolls."
"Can you even roll while gliding? Wouldn't that screw up your flight?"
"Of course. It just takes finesse. You probably roll by torque, which is perfectly acceptable if you have enough speed. But if you're gliding, you could lose lift with too hard a twist. Watch." He flew high and glided in a lazy S pattern. He did his usual barrel roll, and then he torqued his body. His wings pulled in, and he fell twenty feet or so before catching the air again.
"I'll have to practice after I clear the clouds tomorrow," Rainbow Dash remarked. "Do you think you could help me?"
"I have to finish organizing Rarity's books," he replied. "But perhaps then I can watch you."
"And if you're free this weekend, we can head up to Cloudsdale."
"Sounds like a plan."
"Good night, Tux," she called, taking to the air.
"Good night," he replied, turning to leave. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw somepony duck behind a bush. He flapped leisurely into the air and flew over the bush to see who it was, but nopony was there. "Odd," he remarked.
He trotted down the road back to his cottage, all the while feeling like somepony was watching him. But it remained a sneaking sensation in the back of his mind. He thought nothing of it when he went to bed.
Then the nightmares started.
He relived--vividly--the death of his mentor. The loss of his love. The loss of his mind, and his flight to Ponyville. That same sneaking sensation, that same distant foreboding was present in every situation. Every time he failed a class. Every time he bungled his speech. Every little screw-up...it was there. He searched for something tangible. Some name he could assign to this enigmatic foe. But all he heard was a sinister voice whispering in his ear, "Though my body be trapped in stone, my spirit e'er be free to roam." These two lines repeated over and over again until they drowned out everything else.
He bolted upright, breathing heavily. He'd tossed his sheets onto the floor, but it didn't matter; his mattress was soaked with lather. He rolled out of bed and opened the door to his balcony, letting in a waft of cold night air. "He's trapped in stone," he reassured himself. "Discord has no spirit. Discord has no power. It's all in my head."
He bumbled down the stairs and filled his trough with cold water. He took a long drink to cool his parched throat, then he dunked his head under the water, shaking it vigorously. His forelock hung down, clinging uncomfortably to his forehead, so he tossed his head back to remedy the situation. He contacted something hard, and when he turned to look for the object, he saw only empty space. "Leave me alone!" he shouted, loping up the stairs. Instead of going for his bed, he leaped off the balcony and flew up to an isolated stratocumulus cloud.
The could was soft and moist, but not cold. The night was warm enough that he wouldn't need his blanket, so long as he could use the condensed vapor to insulate himself. He burrowed into the cloud's fluffy body, leaving only his head and neck exposed. If Rainbow Dash inadvertently woke him with a kick, he'd easily be able to catch himself before he hit the ground. He closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep.
When he awoke the next day, the sun was peeking over the horizon. He wriggled free of the cloud and gave it a healthy kick, sending it scattering again into invisible vapor. He dove for Ponyville, realizing that he'd flown much higher than he'd initially thought. He picked his cottage out, and he landed clumsily on the balcony. What he saw when he looked through the open doors made his heart stop.
His bedroom was covered with footprints from two different animals. One was reptillian; the other was of a goat. Written above his door was a single line of verse: "My spirit e'er be free to roam."
"Okay, this isn't funny!" he called, walking cautiously into the room. "Whoever vandalized my--" When he blinked his eyes, the footprints and writing vanished. "It's gotta be those mushrooms Fluttershy put in the salad," he said, shaking his head vigorously. "I'm hallucinating!"
He dipped his head in the trough again to make sure his mane wasn't disheveled from his restless sleep, and he trotted back upstairs and collected his saddlebags before heading out the door for Carousel Boutique.
Shortly before he arrived, he heard a bloodcurdling scream emanate from the store. The blood drained from his face, and he spread his wings, propelling himself at top speed through the open front door. "Rarity!" he called. "What's wrong?"
"Of all the worst things that could happen," she keened, "this is the...worst...possible...THING!"
"What is it?"
"I am completely out of supplies. I could have sworn I had enough to finish this order, but it's all gone! I've been ROBBED!" Her horn glowed, and a chaise longue raced into the room from a nearby storage closet. She threw herself onto it, weeping melodramatically.
"Calm down, Rarity," Tux pleaded. "They'll understand. Just send word to your clients that you were--"
"You don't understand," she moaned in despair. "These clients won't understand. They were born with silver spoons in their mouths. They've never been up against a wall in their lives. They always take; they never give. If I don't get them their clothes by the deadline they set, I won't get a single, solitary bit!" She began hyperventilating, and Tux looked around to try and find a paper bag, but she was way ahead of him. A bag whipped through the air glowing the same blue as her horn, almost striking him in the face, and covered her muzzle.
"Just breathe," he said. "Can you get new supplies in a rush?"
"I can certainly try, but it isn't going to work. The deadline is tomorrow!" She jammed the bag back over her muzzle.
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Figure out if we have any money left. I'm going to scour Ponyville to see if there is any silk to be had. I'm going to have to take this out of my personal accounts and reimburse myself later."
"What if you can't afford more supplies?"
"Banish the thought, Tux!" she gasped. "No. We will be able to afford new supplies. If you need me, I'll be out and about. Ponies will have seen me." She hurriedly donned a pair of saddlebags and loped out the door.
"Breathe, Tux," he said, sitting down at the desk where he'd worked the previous day. "This is just a coincidence." He opened to the page where he left off, and written across the bottom line were the words from his dreams. The blood once again drained from his face, and he backed away from the desk.
"Hello, Tux," whispered a voice in his ear. He spun around to see if he could find who it was, but the room was empty. "The wheels are rolling. The bell is tolling. And soon you will all be mine. I'll leave you here, but do not fear. I WILL be back in time." The voice faded with a sinister laugh.
"Rarity!" cried Sweetie Belle from an adjacent room.
"Sweetie Belle, are you all right?" Tux asked, searching for her. When he found her, she was huddled under a blanket, shivering in fear.
"I heard a voice," she cried. "It was scary."
"Don't worry. I'm here." He sat down next to her and wrapped her in his wing. "Everything is going to be okay."
"Where is Rarity?"
"She had to go shopping; somepony robbed her last night."
"That's not possible," she said, poking her head out from under the blanket. "I would have heard the bells on the door. I was up all night because I had nightmares about Discord."
"So was I," he sighed. "This is not good."
"Is Discord going to return?"
"No. He isn't. He can't. He's trapped in stone, remember?"
"Yeah, but what if somepony let him out? Last time it was the Crusaders. We were arguing, and it gave him the energy to break out."
"I haven't heard any arguing, have you? Besides, I think they learned their lesson last time."
"Thanks, Tux," she sighed. "I feel better now." She hugged his front leg.
"If you need anything, I'll be finishing the books. We need to figure out if your sister has any money left." She nodded and released him.
He went back to the desk and hurried through the rest of the calculations. It took him a couple of hours and got him feather cramps, but he finally labelled and accounted for every last transaction. The final balance was pitiful. Thinking he'd made a mistake somewhere, he checked everything. Twice.
Rarity burst through the door with full saddlebags and heavy laden with fabric, thread, gemstones, and other supplies. "Whoever took these is going to DIE!" she fumed, steam jetting from her flared nostrils.
"Where did you find them?"
"Sweet Apple Acres," she replied. "Apparently they just appeared in Applejack's barn. She had no idea how they got there."
"Bite your tongue, Tux n Tails. Applejack is the portrait of honesty. I would be able to tell if she was fibbing. I must get back to work."
"I finished the books," he said as she began walking away. "It's a good thing you didn't have to order more supplies, because we're less than five bits in the black."
He closed his eyes and sighed, trying not to believe it. But there was no avoiding the truth. "Yes. At least we're still there. But you have to get these orders filled. And you really have to stop collecting on delivery. You have a big enough reputation to start charging up front. I say this as your accountant and as your friend."
"I'll mull it over," she said. "Oh, and since you're done with the books, you might want to knock off for the day and go see what you can do for Applejack. She's having problems, too." She shuffled off to the back room and closed the door behind her.
"Problems?" he thought aloud.
He left the boutique and took to the skies, flying as quickly as he could to the Apples' orchard. He found Applejack and Big Macintosh pulling carts along the road. He circled until they got to the barn, and then he landed. "I heard you were having problems," he said.
"Normally I'd say we can handle it, but this time I gotta admit it. Overnight we had a hundred of our trees just grow new apples, out of the blue. That just don't happen. I wish we could just let it go, but we gotta buck 'em anyway, or they'll ruin the orchard. Without help, this will set us too far back for us to complete our harvest by the end of the season."
"So you told Rarity to send me."
"Yes. You said you had some experience with farmin', so let's see it."
He put on one of Big Macintosh's collars, which was much too big, but it was all they had. Big Macintosh and Applejack hooked him up to a cart, and the three of them trotted out to the offending grove. The apples there looked strange; he couldn't quite figure out why. But he was certain that they'd been put there by somepony. "Have you ever bucked apples before?" asked Big Mac.
"Once or twice."
"Just plant your kick square in the middle of the trunk like this." He hauled back and drove both his hind hooves into the trunk. The entire tree's worth of apples filled his cart, which he pushed to the side. "Your turn."
Tux unhooked his cart and positioned it under the tree under Big Mac's direction. It took him two kicks to bring down the whole tree, but it worked.
By the time they were halfway through the grove, Tux had bucking down to a science. He knew exactly where to plant his hooves, exactly how hard to kick. As the hours went by and the sun began to dip below the horizon, the last apple fell at Big Mac's behest, and the trio hooked into their cart trains and trudged back to the barn.
They worked until all the apples were unloaded, and, panting, Applejack said, "We...we did it." She collapsed onto Big Mac's supportive side and wiped her brow with her hat. She looked at Tux and said, "Thank you. We couldn't have done it without you."
"Any time, ma'am."
"Confound it, call me Applejack. We're beyond pleasantries." She smiled slightly, walked forward, and placed her head on his shoulder. "You're welcome any time, Tux."
He returned the gesture, wrapping his wing around her neck, and a moment later they parted. "I should be going now," he said, shaking hooves with the both of them.
"I'll see him out," Big Mac said. "You get cleaned up and get to sleep. We have a big day tomorrow."
"Right-o," Applejack replied. She got back on her feet, swaying momentarily as she caught her balance, and headed for the house.
Big Mac watched her, and when he was confident she was out of earshot, he said, "She likes you. I ain't never seen her that twitterpated, and I ain't never seen her that affectionate, unless it was toward her family."
"I picked up on that," Tux replied.
"Let's walk." He started out of the barn, and Tux walked alongside him on the path back to Ponyville. After a couple of minutes, Big Mac asked, "Is it mutual?"
"I don't know," Tux replied with a shrug. "I'd say not really."
"You'll have to tell her at some point in time. I would say that if you break her heart I'll break your spine, but I know you're a gentlecolt. Just let her down gently. She may be tough on the outside, but deep down she's still a lady. Not many ponies get to see that."
"Maybe I could give it a shot...." Tux pondered.
"Hey," he chided. "If you ain't certain of somethin', don't do it. I mean, don't settle. When I asked Miss Cheerilee to dinner the first time, my heart was in my throat. But by thunder, I was sure that she was the mare for me."
"I've never been sure of anything in my life."
"It's high time you changed that, boy. Be the stallion you are, not some colt with his ears still wet."
"Thanks, Big Macintosh. I'll think about it."
"And confound it, give it some time. You've been here less than a week, for hoof's sake. I knew Miss Cheerilee for years before I made my choice."
"Did it have anything to do with the Crusaders' meddling?"
He huffed, and was silent for a time. But then he replied, "Not a bit. They just made me see how much I cared for her. You want somepony that you're comfortable to be with."
"I've tried that way. I got friend-zoned."
"That wasn't you;" Big Mac admonished, "that was her. The only way you'll every be happy is if you're friends first. Don't rush, especially if you're thinkin' about choosing my little sister."
"I have to get back to the farm," Big Mac said, looking skyward. "The moon is a-risin', which means I should be in bed. Take care, ya hear?" He turned back, and they parted ways.
As he continued along the path, he heard the soft flapping of wings high above him. He looked up and saw a hint of the unique mane and tail of none other than Rainbow Dash. He opened his wings and took off, which she didn't seem to notice. He flew around behind her and asked, "Were you following me?"
"Gaah!" she gasped, falling a good ten feet. She circled around to fly beside him. "I wasn't really following you per se; I just.... Were you talking to Big Macintosh?"
"What's so bad about that?"
"He never talks. To anypony. All he every says is 'eeyup' and 'nnope'. What got him to open up to you?"
"We'll leave that between him and me."
"Oh come on. I won't tell anypony."
"I will tell you that he thanked me for all my help. You see, Discord seeded a hundred of their trees with extra apples, and--"
"Discord?" she asked, a confused look on her face. "But he's locked in stone. We defeated him over a year ago."
"I don't know what's going on. But I am going to find out."
"Talk to Twilight. If something is hokey, she'll know about it."
"So why were you following me?"
"I wanted to ask you something."
"Is it true what they say about long wings?"
"I beg your pardon!"
"That they're better for gliding!" she recovered. "I couldn't care less if the other thing is true. I mean...." She growled in frustration. "I noticed your wings are longer than most stallions', and I wonder if that made any difference."
"I think so," he replied, clearing his throat. "Extra wing length certainly gives you more stability, but the big thing is feather dexterity and being able to lock your wings for extended periods of time. There's also a direct correlation between wing length and wingpower."
"Well, wingpower isn't an area where I come up short." She puffed out her chest proudly.
"How many at last measuring?"
"Sixteen and a half."
"What about you, Mr. Glide?"
"I tried an anemometer a couple of years ago, but I don't want to embarrass myself."
"Come on, spill it!"
"Well, you're no slouch. Seven is pretty buckin' good. I mean pretty darn good. Pardon my French."
"I've heard worse. I lived in Hoofton for a good chunk of my life. I've heard vulgarities you've never even thought of."
"I'll take your word for it."
"So what about that trip to Canterlot? Are we still on for this weekend?"
Rainbow Dash's pupils shrank to pinpoints and the color drained from her face. "Oh my gosh, I can't believe I forgot!" She took off, calling back, "Sorry, Tux! I'll talk to you again tomorrow!"
"Rainbow Dash!" he called after her, trying to catch her. "What's the hurry?"
"I blew off Soarin' to come to your houswarming party. I rescheduled our date for tonight, but I totally forgot!"
"Wait, you're dating Soarin'?"
"Sorta. We've gone out a couple of times, but it's slow going."
"What about Spitfire?"
"Do you actually believe the straw they publish in Weekly World Hooves? That's just a Canterlot tabloid headline. She's actually the one who set us up."
"The six of you are all pretty important now, aren't you?"
"We have saved Equestria twice."
"What about Chrysalis?"
"Um...ask Twilight about that one. We don't really talk about it. It was actually Cadance and Shining Armor that defeated her."
"Can I come with you and meet Soarin'?"
"Probably not the best time," she replied, accelerating beyond his wingpower limit. As she left him, she called back, "I promise, this weekend I'll take you to Cloudsdale!"
"Loyalty is as Loyalty does," he said with a sigh, and he turned back. He locked his wings and glided toward Ponyville, absorbing the pale moonlight and relishing the utter silence, but for the wind whistling past his swept-back ears. But he wasn't headed for his cottage. He needed to resolve this matter about Discord now, not later.
He set his eye on the tree at the west end of Ponyville, the one where lived the resident expert on magic, mythology, and all things pertaining to the salvation of Equestria. And when the salvation of Equestria hung in the balance, there was no way she could turn him away.
He landed at the front door of the library and knocked his steel-shod hoof against it. "Twilight, are you up?" he called. "I have something important I need to talk to you about."
"Who?" asked an owl on a perch above him.
"Twilight," he replied. "The librarian? I need to talk to her about something. Is she in?"
"Is that a yes or a no?"
"Oh, for Pete's...." He knocked again, and this time, Twilight came to the door looking quite drowsy. "Twilight, I'm so glad you're up. I hope I didn't wake you."
"What? No, I was just sitting down for my tea. Why do you need me?"
"Discord is loose. I don't know how, but I swear it. He robbed Rarity and put her supplies in the Apples' barn. Then he seeded a hundred of their trees with new apples, which I helped take down. Then, because Rainbow Dash was following me, she was late for her date."
"Wait, Rainbow is dating?" Twilight interrupted. "Since when?"
"You know what, I might not have been supposed to say that."
"Whatever. What's this about Discord?"
"He's been mucking with my life for years, causing me grief any chance he got. It all stopped just over a year ago when you imprisoned him in stone. But last night he came back. Somehow, he came back."
"This is troubling news," she frowned.
"Is there some sort of flaw in the imprisonment spell?"
"No way," Twilight replied indignantly. "It was designed by Princess Celestia herself. The most powerful magician in all of Equestria."
"But if the spell was perfect, then how did he get out? Just ask Applejack and Rarity. And Sweetie Belle! She heard him taunt me!"
"I believe you, Tux," she sighed. "But there's nothing we can do about it tonight. You'd have to ask Princess Celestia, and the last train to Canterlot left already. You could walk or fly, but you'll need me in order to get an audience. The soonest I can go is tomorrow."
"Then we'll go tomorrow. But this has to be sorted out. The fate of Equestria hangs in the balance!"
"I think you're exaggerating a little bit. We'll go to Canterlot tomorrow for an emergency audience with the Princesses. We'll sort everything out then. Meet me at the train station at nine. Okay?"
"Okay," he sighed. He felt like an idiot, like he was overreacting. But if he was right, it meant that something serious was going to happen, and soon.