It was a particularly lazy Sunday morning, and Tux had completely blacked out his windows the night before so that he could sleep as late as he wanted. When his body had finally said, "Enough!", he shuffled to the balcony doors and took down the blackout blinds. The vengeful sun immediately kicked him in the face. He squinted until his eyes began to adjust, and finally he was able to get started with his day.
As he brushed his mane, which was much easier at its new length, he began to smell potatoes frying in the kitchen. "Levi, what did I say about playing with the stove?" he chided in jest.
"Mreah," the miniature panther replied, looking up at him with eyes that said, "It's not me."
Now more curious than anything, Tux put his mane comb down and slowly descended the stairs. When he reached the bottom, Wrangler came running, seemingly relieved to know that somepony familiar was in the house. As she rubbed against his legs, he looked up to see if anypony else was present. He nearly jumped eight hands in the air when he saw Princess Celestia sitting on his couch with a cup of tea and a saucer floating in front of her.
"Princess!" he coughed, bowing. "What are you doing in my cottage?"
"Making breakfast," came Princess Luna's voice from the kitchen.
"Why?" he puzzled.
"The meal was Luna's idea," Celestia explained as he stood again. She patted the cushion next to her, and he sat down. "The real reason we came here is to talk to you about music."
She nodded and sipped her tea. "As you may well know, the Grand Galloping Gala is approaching. While it is still distant on the horizon, I was wanting to feature Ponyville this year, especially after the debacle last year. This town has gotten a bad reputation over the years, and I wanted to show all the Canterlot elites that small towns have their merits."
"So, are you commissioning something? I've never composed professionally."
"Actually, what I'm commissioning is a choir. I understand that you've been trying to put one together, and I love the idea."
"I'm hard pressed to find ponies in Ponyville who want to sing in the choir," he replied. "I currently have two: Fluttershy and Simple Song. I need at least a couple more."
"I'm well aware of this. That's why I want you to find the best singers in all of Equestria. I want you to hold an audition tour, which I will sponsor. It will be called 'Equestrian Idol'." She gestured with her hoof as if the words were in front of her. She looked over at Tux. "What do you think?"
He frowned. "I really think you should find somepony else."
"Why?" she asked. "You would be perfect!"
"I'm no good at organizing things," he protested in a truly Mosaic fashion.
"Says the accountant who has worked wonders for Carousel Boutique," she quipped.
"Okay, I can organize finances, but an entire audition tour? No way!"
"I still think you're the best pony for the job. You've taught voice lessons before. You've conducted a choir. All the rest is creativity, which I know you have in abundance."
"Do I have a choice?" he asked. This question seemed to be on his lips a lot as of late.
"Not really," she winked. "Musicians for the Gala always have to be booked far in advance, and my backups just wrote me to confirm that they have a concert elsewhere that night."
"All right, fine," he sighed. "Can I at least have some help?"
"Of course. We bid you adieu." She walked off into the kitchen and fetched Luna, who was reticent to leave; Celestia practically had to drag the younger princess out the door. "Make sure you don't burn the potatoes," she cautioned as the door closed.
Tux loped into the kitchen just in time to shut off the stove and take the hashbrowns off the burner before they burst into flame. Even with them slightly charred, he was thankful that he didn't have to cook, and he sat down and ate as he brainstormed. He would need an organizer and a couple of judges who knew their stuff. He would also have to have the overriding decision as to whether a singer would make the cut, but he was determined to make it fair.
If he were to tour Equestria, like the princess wanted, then he would likely be unable to pick the size of choir that he wanted--thirty-two--from just the initial audition rounds, so if it came to it, he would have to move on to a second round to winnow the singers further. And of course, all of this depended on the music he would be conducting. He'd seen songs split up into as many as fourteen parts before, though he didn't plan on getting that intricate.
He brainstormed a bit to figure out whom he wanted to be judges. The most obvious choice was Fluttershy. She was probably the most musical of the six, and most apt to make a fair judgment. But getting her to join him would be another challenge altogether. Another possible judge would be Twilight; he knew she was decent musically, and that she could look at things from an analytical perspective. She could also be blunt when necessary, unlike Fluttershy. For an organizer, he felt that Rarity would do the best job, since she was able to keep the Boutique afloat without losing her mind. Well, most of the time.
After he finished his breakfast and did his chores--namely, feeding his two impatient cats--he flew to Fluttershy's cottage, a distance which seemed to grow shorter with each trip. She was inside, fixing up some fried tofu for a family of snakes. "Hi, Tux," she greeted with a smile. "How are you doing?"
"Pretty good," he replied. "Get this. Today, I woke up to something close to breakfast in bed."
"Oh wow, that sounds special. Who fixed it?"
Fluttershy jumped, inadvertently rattling the frying pan on the stovetop. "And, uh...what was the occasion?"
"Princess Celestia wants me to go around Equestria to find ponies for my choir. It'll be a grand tour called, 'Equestrian Idol'." He gestured with his hoof, mocking the way Celestia had.
"That sounds like fun," she remarked, even though he could tell she was being facetious.
He walked up next to her. "I'm going to ask Rarity to help organize and promote it, and Twilight to come along as a judge. I need one more. Are you interested."
Her cheeks grew rosy, and her expression drooped a bit. "Oh, Tux, I don't know why you'd want to pick me. You know I don't do well with that sort of thing."
He put a wing around her. "You're the most musical of anypony I know. Simple Song may have a high C, but it has no soul. You don't have to say a word; just nod or shake your head, and your vote will be in."
"No, Tux, I'm sorry." She turned the tofu cubes over in the pan and added some soy sauce. "I have animals to take care of, and nopony else knows them as well as I do. Besides, I just don't think I'd be a good judge. I'd say yes to everypony, even if I didn't think they were good enough."
"I understand," he replied, hugging her with his wing. "While I'm here, is there anything I can help you with?"
"No, thank you," she replied. "Unless you want some tofu."
"No, thanks. Believe it or not, I'm allergic."
"Oh dear," she gasped. "Maybe you'd better leave before you have a reaction."
"I'm not that allergic," he assured. "But I guess I should go anyway. I still have stuff to plan and ponies to talk to."
"How long will you be gone?" she asked.
"I don't know," he replied. "I'll try not to make it too long."
"Well, you know what they say," she sighed. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder."
"Bye," he called, and he left without considering the implications of her remark.
His next stop was the Carousel Boutique, where he found Rarity shut up in her studio, busy scribbling with charcoal on a piece of bristol board. "What new and exciting designs are you churning out this time?" he asked with a smile.
"Nothing," she almost snapped, jumping at the sound of his voice. She flipped the piece around and locked the easel in a nearby cabinet with a quick burst of magic. "Uh, dragon fashions."
"Designing for one dragon in particular?"
"No! I mean, no, I'm not. It's just a brainstorm right now, but.... Anyway, is there something you wanted from me? It is a Sunday morning, after all, and you don't need to come in and work."
"I actually have something to ask you." He told her about Celestia's proposal and asked her if she would like to work on promotion and organization, in addition to judging.
"Would I?" she gasped. "Would I ever! Oh, I have so many ideas already!"
"Who else should we get to judge?" he asked. "I want to have at least three."
"I'm going to Canterlot tomorrow for a consultation with Fleur Dis Lee, and I have an invitation to sit in on a practice session for the Royal Canterlot Philharmonic. I think I can convince Octavia to be a part of it."
"That would be great!" he gasped. "We need a professional musician or two on the panel."
"Now, if I may, I suggest you talk to Twilight about organizing things behind the scenes. She would be a much better fit than I would, but I'll still do marketing and promotion."
"That is a good idea," he acknowledged. "Besides, now I wouldn't have any excuses not to take her out to a fancy restaurant."
"Take her-- Oh my gosh, are you two...?"
"We're giving it a try."
"Oh, I'm so happy for you!" She leaped forward and squeezed him tightly, cutting off his air supply. "I probably shouldn't say, 'I told you so,' but I told you so."
"Keep it quiet, though," he whispered. "We're trying to be discreet for now. You know, until we see whether it's going to work."
"Oh, darling, you really should be a bit less timid. This is cause for celebration!"
"Which is exactly why Pinkie doesn't know yet. Twilight and I are together in this, and I need you to be on board as well."
"If you insist," she groaned. "But you'd better start acting like a normal couple before long. Dating in secret is no fun at all."
"I've never seen you with a stallion, Rarity," he remarked.
"Well, I just haven't found the right one, is all," she shrugged. "Besides, I'm much, much too busy with my work to worry about the male sex. No offense to you."
"Uh, none taken."
"Be off with you, now," she said, shooing him. "I have work to finish."
"I thought this was Sunday."
"Darling, you should know by now that Sundays are just a part of my work week."
"I'm willing to sign a non-disclosure agreement if you let me look at those secret designs. I could help you out, give you feedback on cost effectiveness, whatever."
"No thank you, Tux. Not this time. It'll stay as just as idea, I assure you."
"Later, then." He left her there, still curious as to why she was hiding her new designs; she'd asked for his input in the past, and he'd given simple opinions, disclaiming that he knew as much about fashion as a fencepost, but she had always assured him that his feedback was valuable.
When he got to the library, he found Twilight outside tending the flowers. "Nice day for some gardening," he commented idly, never mind that it was late autumn.
"Yeah, I guess," she replied. "But I really don't have time for this. I need to go through the shelves again. The Crusaders had their way with the library and didn't bother to look at the sign that said, 'Please don't reshelve books on your own.'" With a grunt, she ripped a flower out of the soil, roots and all, and tossed it into a wooden bucket.
"Did you mean to do that?"
"I'm pulling everything out to prepare for winter," she replied. "I do it every year."
"Need a hoof with the shelves? If I got to know your call system, I could easily do it for you."
"If you know the Library of Canterlot system, be my guest; it'll be a walk in the park. I would really appreciate it."
"LC is the best way to go," he commented. "I know it well."
"Well, the shelves are waiting for you."
He went inside to find Spike already working on pulling books off the upper shelves. "Hey, Tux," he said, turning around briefly before getting back to his work.
"I'm here to lend you a hoof," Tux greeted.
"You take M through Z, and I'll do A through L."
"Sounds good to me," he said, flapping up to the top of what should have been the M section. The books were by no means in Library of Canterlot order, but they were all organized by color, and then alphabetically by title. "So how have things been going since you got back from Canterlot?"
"Twilight has been giving me more responsibilities around the library. She says that since I'm old enough to do a research project, I'm old enough to have a job."
"It'll look good on your résumé," Tux commented. After he finished reordering two shelves, he called out to Twilight, "So I was wondering if I could get your help with something."
"Is it library-related?"
"No, not really."
"Then what is it?"
"I have an assignment from Princess Celestia."
He related his plans and ideas for the tour, and she seemed to like it, her constant grumbling at the flowerbed notwithstanding. "I was wondering if you could help organize it behind the scenes. Rarity is already working on promotional materials and marketing, and she said that you would be great as an organizer. And maybe you could come along, too. Maybe be a part of the panel of judges."
"It'll probably depend on when we kick things off, but yeah, I think it'll be fun, though I don't care to judge. I sure hope the whole tour is going to be paid for, though. These things are expensive."
"The princess said that she would sponsor it." Spike let out a tremendous belch, and a scroll appeared in the fire erupting from his mouth. He lost his balance, and both he and the scroll fell to the floor.
"It's paid for, all right," he said, reading the scroll. "Here's a receipt for all the hotel reservations, convention center rentals, train tickets...everything you could possibly think of. There's also a list of tour stops enclosed and some dates."
"When is it supposed to start?" Tux asked, landing next to Spike.
"January nineteenth," Spike replied.
"Spike, could you run this over to Rarity?" Tux asked. "She'll need to see the list so that she can make the proper posters."
"Right away, sir!" Spike said eagerly. He was out the door before Tux could blink.
"He really has it bad, doesn't he?" Tux observed.
"Pretty bad," Twilight replied, coming into the library and joining him. "He's been taking every excuse to spend time with her since he got back from Canterlot. Having her gone with us on tour is going to be really hard on him."
"Do you think he can handle it?"
"He's definitely old enough to be left home alone. He learned his lesson last time."
"What happened last time?"
"While the girls and I went to the Crystal Empire to host the Canterlot Games Location Committee's representative, he stayed behind and took care of all the pets. It went...poorly."
"Any loss of life or limb?"
"Almost," she replied. "But in the end, he learned a thing or two about responsibility. I think he's ready to watch the library on his own. And by the time January rolls around, he'll know the ins and outs of my job here."
"What will that mean for you?"
"More days off," she smiled.
Tux chuckled. "Ho boy, we could all use more of those."
Time passed slowly until the middle of January came around. Tux spent most of his time trying to think of audition criteria to send to the growing list of applicants. He was looking for musicality, a good vocal timbre, and the ability to sing well enough in tune that his discerning ear would be satisfied. What time he didn't spend on brainstorming audition criteria he spent on researching restaurants and other date-like activities.
It wasn't a moment too soon before Tux heard back from Octavia, the principal cellist of the Royal Canterlot Philharmonic. She agreed to be a judge, but on condition that her roomate, DJ Vinyl Scratch, could also be on the panel. Since without Octavia there would be only two judges, he had no choice but to concede.
Los Pegasus was the first top on the tour, and early in the morning on the nineteenth, Tux, Twilight and Rarity boarded the train. As it pulled away from the station, Twilight asked, "Where are Octavia and Vinyl? I thought they'd be joining us."
"We'll meet them in LP," Tux replied. "The Royal Canterlot Philharmonic had a concert last night. I would have loved to have gone, but tickets cost money."
"Maybe I can get you a season pass," Twilight suggested. "I have connections."
"Oh, you don't have to."
"It would make a great date...." She nudged him.
"Oh, I have plans. Don't worry." He found an unclaimed booth and stepped inside. "All right, ladies. Brainstorming time."
The three of them spent the hours further discussing the audition process, and Twilight expressed concerns about there being four judges. Tux assured her that he had veto power, but that still didn't alleviate her concerns.
"If you have veto power, why have judges at all, unless it were a façade?" she asked. "At least, with an odd number of judges, there's the possibility for a majority vote. If you're always the one to break any tie by fiat, then how can it be real?"
"Well, I wanted to get the final say in things."
"As you should, since you're the one auditioning everypony, and you're the one in charge of the choir. But what's the point in having judges if you just bulldoze the rest of them."
"If you wish, I will recuse myself," Rarity sighed.
Tux shook his head. "No, Rarity, I want you in on this. And Twilight, you can as well."
"I agreed to work behind the scenes, Tux," she replied. "Besides, five judges is way too many."
"Well, what should I do? Tell either Vinyl or Octavia to take a hike? No. I promised them they could be a part of the process, but I can't let them down."
"You'll see," Twilight warned. "Things aren't going to go as smoothly as you think they will."
"We'll see tonight, I guess."
The first round of auditions was that very night, and as much as Tux wanted to relax after the long train ride, he had to survive on a nap alone. Octavia and Vinyl were waiting at the train station, and Tux briefed them on the way to the convention center. Octavia wasn't too pleased with Tux having carte blanche veto power, but he assured her that he wouldn't use it unless he absolutely had to.
The four judges were led to the room where the auditions were to take place, and Twilight took up her position outside, calling the contestants when their turns came. "Are you all ready?" Tux asked.
"As we'll ever be," Vinyl said eagerly.
"All right," Tux said into the microphone that connected him to Twilight, "send in the first contestant." He looked at the top name on his stack of audition sheets. "Crème de Menthe."
A mint green earth pony mare shuffled into the center of the room a moment later. "Hello," she said in a thick French accent, her voice mousier than Fluttershy's. There was a shakiness to it that didn't bode well for her impending audition.
"Bonjour," Rarity greeted. "How has your day been?"
"Long," Crème replied.
"What's your name, and what part are you auditioning for?" Tux asked.
"I'm Crème de Menthe, and I'm auditioning for soprano."
"First or second?"
"First," she replied.
"Very good," Tux replied, marking down some brief notes on her audition sheet. "And what would you like to sing for us today?" He looked through her audition packet and found the copy of her score. The questions he was asking were more to test the contestant's knowledge of the music than to find out what was being sung.
"Notre amour, set by Gabriel Fauré."
"Whenever you are ready," Octavia said.
When the staff accompanist began playing, Crème's character changed instantly. A smile lit her face, and she began singing with a barely contained joy, waxing poetic about true love. Her diction was crisp, and her tone was clear as a bell. She not only knew what she was singing, but knew how to express that meaning. He wrote a YES in capital letters in the corner of the sheet.
When she had finished, she reverted to her previous, mousy self. "Thank you," she said softly.
Rarity and Octavia both applauded, and Tux smiled. "What kind of music experience do you have?" he asked.
"I have been taking voice lessons since I was a filly," she replied. "A year ago, I sang Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro."
"Good role for you," Tux commented. "I know you didn't prepare this, but can you sing L'ho perduta?"
"Mm-hmm," she nodded. She turned and looked at the accompanist, who flipped through a music book and nodded that he was ready. Crème sang the short aria, embodying perfectly the panic in Barbarina's eyes as she realizes that she has lost Susana's brooch.
"Brava," Tux smiled as she finished the aria. "It's a resounding yes from me."
"And from me," Rarity added. "You're simply delightful."
"A third yes from me," Octavia smiled.
"Vinyl, would you make it unanimous?" Tux asked.
"Yeah, I guess so," the blue-haired pony shrugged. "Not really my style of music, but...yeah, I guess you're pretty good."
"Welcome aboard, Crème," Tux smiled. "We'll keep in touch, and I'll see you in Ponyville." As the green pony pranced back out, he began to regret bringing Vinyl aboard. Twilight was right; this wasn't going to go nearly as smoothly as he would have wanted. "Next," he said into the microphone. He looked at the next audition packet. "Berry White." He glanced over the audition sheet and then at Rarity. "Seriously?"
The white draft pony stallion walked proudly into the room. "Berry White, basso profundo, at your service." His voice boomed like a cannon. His cutie mark resembled a white mulberry, explaining his name.
"Nice to meet you, Berry," Tux replied. "What would you like to sing for us? I don't, uh, see a score in this packet."
"Sorry about that," he said, handing out several copies of his music. "I'll be singing Son imbrogliato from La serva padrona."
"I'll listen for those E-flats," Tux said, clearing his throat. "Both the low ones and the high ones."
Berry's low range was impressive; the extremely conspicuous and notoriously difficult low E-flat was clean and strong. But his high E-flat was pinched and strained. His Italian was sloppy, and it had a thick English accent, one of Tux's biggest musical peeves. When Berry finished, he winked and said, "I'll see you in Canterlot."
"Aww yeah!" Vinyl exclaimed. "Now that's some bass! It's a yes from me!"
"Not so fast, Vinyl," Octavia contradicted. "I had a problem with your high range. It was...thin, weak. I say no."
"It's a maybe from me," Tux added. "You need some work, and I can fix your range and diction problems, but you'll have to consent to a month or so of daily private coaching before the Gala."
"Rarity, what do you say?"
"Yes," she replied. "True basses are hard to come by. How low can you sing?"
"B-flat," he replied with a grin, sending his voice at least that far down.
"That explains it. I won't require you to sing above two octaves," Tux assured. "You're moving on to the next round. Thank you."
With the next nearly three dozen auditions, Tux realized just how hard the tour was going to be. Vinyl seemed to be judging based on a different set of criteria than Tux, Rarity and Octavia. And as talented as Octavia was, she didn't know how to judge diction, and she argued numerous times when Tux pointed out pitch problems. On top of it all, truly good singers were astoundingly rare among the pool of applicants, and of the thirty-six singers they heard that day, only three made it to the next round, and one of those was Tux's first veto.
The third contestant to make the cut was a young Pegasus tenor who sang Una furtiva lagrima, a slow aria that nearly put Vinyl to sleep. Octavia objected because his tone as a lyric tenor was "too bright". Rarity and Tux had both voted to put him through, but when they all arrived at a stalemate, a recasting of the votes didn't yield any progress. Much to Octavia's chagrin, Tux said, "Well, I have the final say, and I say you're in."
After the last contestant had left, Octavia spoke up. "I hope my vote still counts," she said with a certain contempt in her voice.
"It does, but if I really want somebody in the choir, they'll be in the choir."
"It does give an air of meaninglessness to the whole voting process," Rarity commented. "You can't take too much control for yourself."
"Tomorrow I'll try to make it more fair. But what should we do in case of a tie like earlier tonight?"
"I'll be willing to cast a vote, if need be," said the accompanist.
"Are you paying that much attention to the singer?" Octavia questioned.
"Not to toot my own horn," he grinned, "but I am that good."
"I'm sorry," Tux chuckled, "I don't think we've been formally introduced. Everything was so busy this evening."
"Ivory Coast," he replied. "I'm the rehearsal pianist for the Royal Canterlot Opera, and I'm with you for the whole tour."
"Well, it's nice to meet you. And I think you'll make a great tiebreaker vote. And with that, it's settled. It's almost ten; shall we turn in?"
"I think that's a fantastic idea," Octavia acknowledged.
"To the hotel!" Vinyl proclaimed. "To the hot tub!"
Upon checkin, Twilight bore the bad news that there were only two rooms. Ivory Coast was able to stay with his parents, and Rarity had a cousin who was willing to host her for the night. Vinyl and Octavia claimed one of the hotel rooms, and that left Tux and Twilight to share the second.
"I'll just get another room," Tux offered.
"No, I don't mind," Twilight replied. "It's just one night, isn't it? Besides, it would be just like that time you fell asleep in the library."
"Except I was on a Lovesac that time, not in bed, and we weren't, uh, dating."
"But I did fall asleep on the Lovesac next to yours. And to be honest, we haven't been out on too many, well, dates."
"Like I said earlier," he assured, "I have plans. I'll just go see if there is another room I can use." But there wasn't; there had originally been three rooms, but one of them had to be given away. Since Celestia was the one whose name was on the reservation, she was the one who was notified, and she was the one who authorized it. Whether or not she realized the implications for her protégée and her coltfriend was dubious.
He walked slowly back up the stairs to the room, his heart thumping in his chest. "Just go to bed, Tux," he muttered. "You'll be asleep in no time."
But that wasn't true, either. He spent the next few hours on a "date" with Twilight; she'd brought along the latest Daring Do book, Daring Do and the Blarney Blue, and they took turns reading it to each other. While Twilight used a more standard narration style, Tux brought his acting skills to the table, changing his voice to reflect the characters.
They kept reading on into the wee hours of the morning, even knowing that they had an early start and a long day of auditions. Eventually, the two of them had to force an end to their revelry and turn out the lights.
Tux woke as the sunrise peeked through the window. The shower was running, and Twilight's bed was empty but made. He almost wondered if she hadn't used it. In fact, the thought of her snuggling up next to him was something he was afraid to think.
She emerged from the bathroom as Tux was making his bed, her mane hanging wet about her neck. "Good morning," she smiled. "Sleep well?"
"Yeah, but not enough. Maybe we should have stopped at chapter eight."
"But then we wouldn't know whether Daring escaped from Farleigh Castle." She levitated a brush from out of her suitcase and put it to her mane. "I really like your characterization of McCapaill. You missed your call as an actor."
"How much sleep do you reckon you got?" Tux wondered. "Think you'll make it till five?"
"Maybe," she replied. "What about you?"
"I'm going to have a tough time, but I think I'll make it. I plan on taking you out somewhere nice tonight."
"We need to quit sooner tonight, either way."
"Honestly, I would still rather get my own room."
"I don't mind, really."
He shrugged. "If they don't have another room, I'll be fine. See you at breakfast."
He trotted down the stairs and made his way to the lobby, where a continental breakfast was being served. He took a bit of this and a bit of that, and he took a seat across from Rarity. "I thought this was for guests," he jabbed.
"I asked if I could partake, and the management was glad to let me after they learned that I was a part of Idol." She sipped from her teacup. "I heard through the grapevine that you spent the night with Twilight," she whispered.
"What grapevine?" he asked, squinting at Vinyl and Octavia, who were sitting at an adjacent table. "Only four ponies knew."
"Oh darling, there's nothing wrong with it. That's the growing trend nowadays."
"We stayed up most of the night reading Daring Do, and then we went to bed. Nothing happened beyond that."
"Come on, Rarity, that's the last thing on my mind. You know that."
"Well, at least you have integrity. Were you not already spoken for, I wouldn't have minded a date or two with you. I've dated nothing but knaves and male chauvinist pigs."
"Well, I do know somepony who worships the ground you walk upon."
"You mean some-dragon," she sighed. "I know, Tux. I've known for quite some time."
"Spike's...infatuation. As much as I think of him as a friend, I don't think I could ever see myself ending up with him."
"If it's just a crush, it'll pass," Tux shrugged. "I know from experience. And they say that if it doesn't pass, it's true love. I also know that from experience."
"What does it matter to you, anyhow?" she groaned.
"You'll eventually come to an impasse. You'll either have to break his heart or indulge him. Take my advice and don't beat around the bush with this. If the answer is no, don't lead him along."
"Don't lead who along?" Twilight asked, joining them.
"Spike," Rarity sighed. "Is he still as smitten as he always was?"
"Isn't it obvious? He makes excuses to spend time with you as often as he possibly can. But who am I to judge. You should ask him yourself." She took a bite of her bagel. "Are you two ready for today?"
"I certainly am, but I can't say the same for your coltfriend here."
"I told her I didn't get much sleep," he explained.
"After I told him that the rumor mill was turning."
"Yet another reason to get my own room."
"If I remember correctly, there were three rooms on the receipt," Rarity commented. "I'll double-check and talk to the concierge tonight."
"Already done," Tux replied. "They refunded me the price of the third room, but they had to give it away. Some celebrity or something. They wouldn't tell me who."
"Perhaps another room will become available," she suggested.
Tux nodded. "Way ahead of you. They'll let me know if that happens."
The second day of auditions was no more productive than the first, even given the greater number of applicants. Tensions flared once again over who should or should not be a part of the second round, and Ivory Coast was called into action no less than a dozen times. In the vast majority of the tied votes, it came down to a matter of musical preference rather than anything to do with Tux's specific criteria.
Vinyl always showed approval toward the singers with good pop voices, regardless of whether the rest of the judges thought they were right for the choir. Octavia had a rather narrow opinion of what was and was not music, as well, and she consistently voted pop-voiced ponies down even when they followed up with an aria or two, no matter how well sung.
Fortunately, though, Ivory and Rarity tended to vote with Tux. There were at times differences of opinion among them, but Tux had expected that. What he hadn't expected, though, was the last pony to walk through the door.
"Last contestant," Tux called to Twilight. "Rosie Cooper." He barely even glanced at her audition packet; eyestrain and fried-brain were wreaking havoc on his attention span. When he looked up, though, he could see clearer than ever. "Rosie Gardner?" he gasped, beholding the pony who had years earlier broken his heart and cut him out of her life.
"It's Cooper now," she said, kicking the ground timidly with one of her front hooves. "You do remember me, then."
"Of course I do!" he replied.
"Old flame?" Rarity wondered.
"No, just an old friend. But yeah, I went to music school with her." He turned back to Rosie. "I haven't seen you in years. What happened?"
"Oh, you know. Stuff." She cleared her throat, seemingly wanting to drop the subject.
"Let's get down to this, then. What part are you auditioning for?"
"Soprano," she replied.
"First or second?" he asked.
"First. Solo if one is available."
He scribbled down a note about that on her audition sheet. "And what will you be singing for us?"
"O mio babbino caro, from Gianni Schicchi," she replied.
"Whenever you're ready."
She nodded to Ivory, who began playing the intricate accompaniment. She started strong, but all her tone vanished when she reached for the high note, failed to get all the way up to it, and then recovered by squeezing. Tux sat straight-faced, trying to be as objective as possible, in some ways wishing that he had recused himself. But he wanted to seem as agreeable as possible, to possibly heal the breach and gain back a long-lost friend.
Every high note was the same as the first. Flat, pinched, forced, not resonant at all. Octavia was visibly unimpressed, wrinkling her nose every time. Vinyl was literally asleep. Rarity was fighting back tears. And the whole time, Tux was trying to work up the courage to say what needed to be said.
When Rosie finished the short aria, Rarity burst out crying. "Yes, yes, yes, Rosie!" she bawled. "That was the most beautiful song I've ever heard!"
"Do you know what it's about?" Octavia asked.
"What does it matter?" Rarity replied, drying her eyes with a hankie.
Tux leaned over and explained it quietly. "It's about a teenager who wants to get married and her father won't let her. She's basically saying, 'I really do love him! If you don't let me get married, I'll jump off a bridge and kill myself.' Prettiest temper tantrum ever."
"Oh...." Rarity cleared her throat.
"Well, I thought it was fine, but only just," Octavia sighed. "You need some work for sure."
"I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get a solo," Rosie smiled. Tux swallowed hard. She wasn't getting a solo, that was for sure.
"Scratch, what do you think?" Tux asked. "Vinyl?"
Octavia nudged the blue-haired pony hard, and she woke up with a start and a snort. "Wha-?" she mumbled.
"Did you hear Rosie's song at all?" Octavia asked exasperatedly.
"It might be a good idea not to vote, then," Tux suggested. "Octavia, verdict? You never did say yea or nay."
"It's a no," she replied. "I'm sorry."
Vinyl cleared her throat. "I uh.... Well, since I was asleep, I'm gonna have to recuse myself or whatever it's called. Sorry, it's been a long day and there's a hot tub calling my name."
"So that's one yea and one nay," Tux sighed. "And it comes down to me to decide your fate." He swallowed to try and get rid of his sudden dry mouth, but it didn't work. "Do you want it straight, or should I beat around the bush?"
"Just tell me."
He took in a deep breath as he tried to find the words. "You...you need a lot of work, as Octavia said. You had a noticeable English accent, which I can fix. But it was about a fourth too high for you. And without a year or two of hard work, that isn't going to change. You're no first soprano, and certainly no soprano soloist; you're a mezzo at the highest. I can put you on second soprano or first alto. Which would you rather have?"
"I really wanted first soprano, and I'm willing to work for it."
"I was afraid you'd say that," he sighed. "Even if you had that range, we don't have the time to work you that much. If you're not willing to work on my terms, then I'm going to have to say no. I'm sorry."
She looked devastated. Her jaw quivered ever so slightly, and her unblinking eyes showed signs of welling up. But her mood quickly changed. "You're just trying to get back to me after I hung you out to dry!" she snapped angrily. "Is it my fault that I was scared? Is it my fault that I had other crap going on in my life? No!"
The adrenaline began flowing, and he went into full-on fight-or-flight. "Rosie, you 'dumped me' via letter, and you did it long before I ever made my feelings clear. To tell you the truth, one of the only reasons I was thinking about asking you out is because I thought you liked me. Everypony thought that you liked me!
"And then you take the most indirect route possible to tell me you're not interested. I was fine with being friends, but no, you cut me off, you avoided me, you didn't answer my letters, and when you up and left Hoofton, you gave me no means of contacting you. Now you show up expecting me to grant you preferential treatment because of our history together? Where did you get the gall?"
"See! You're trying to get back at me!"
"Trying to get back at you? I got over you a long dang time ago. Even if you were my best friend, I wouldn't have given you a solo part that you were downright wrong for. What makes you think that a friendship that you ruined will influence my decision in your favor? I offered you a part that fits your voice, and you rejected it. As such, you have given me no choice but to send you away empty hooved. Good day, Mrs. Cooper."
It took her a few moments to admit something resembling defeat, and she left the room red-faced with rage. The room was eerily quiet for far too long, but finally, Octavia spoke.
"Well, that was...interesting," she said, clearing her throat.
"Why didn't you recuse yourself?" Rarity asked.
"If I had, she would have taken it the same way," he sighed, rubbing his temples. "There was no good way out of that, and I knew it from the moment she started singing." He crossed his forelegs on the table and put his head down. "Y'all are free. I'll clean up."
Vinyl, Octavia and Ivory left, but Rarity stayed behind, putting a comforting hoof on his shoulder. "Are you all right?" she asked.
"Old wounds should not be reopened," he sighed. "Much less have salt rubbed into them. I should have just recused myself, passed it off on Ivory. He would have voted my way."
"Don't blame yourself for this," she said softly. "True friends will stay with you no matter what. Like me; I will never leave you. Neither will Twilight. Nor anypony among our little group." She swept up the stack of audition packets. "I'll clean up. You take the rest of the day off."
He sat in silence for a few moments as she walked off with the stack of packets. Soon, Twilight came and sat in the chair that Rarity had recently vacated. "I came as soon as I could get away," she said, hugging him. "I heard the whole thing. I'm so sorry; I had no idea who she was."
"Neither did I, until I saw her face," he sighed. "If she'd just walked away when I said no, then I'd be just dandy. But she had to dredge up ancient history."
"What exactly happened between the two of you?" she asked.
"I don't really want to talk about it," he replied. "It was the second most traumatic experience of my life."
"I want to know how to help you, Tux. You obviously have a deep gash, and I want to do my best to stitch it up."
He related the whole story. How he met Rosie, what good friends they became, and the suddenness and coldness of her departure. "She destroyed my trust in friendship. It's no wonder I have trouble making friends."
"She didn't destroy anything," Twilight chided. "You've always had the same pony deep down inside." She put a hoof over his heart. "All Rosie did was teach you a bad lesson. And it will take time to unlearn it. But we will all help you as much as we can." She kissed him softly on the cheek. "You are loved, and don't let anypony tell you differently."
He extended his wing around her, still reluctant to lift up his head. They stayed there for ten minutes at least, just listening to the silence around them. Finally, Tux lifted up his head. "Do you know who John Cage is?" he asked.
"A composer, I believe," she replied. "Famous for aleatoric and avant-garde works."
"Yup," he replied. "He wrote one of the most meaningful, intimate pieces of all time, called 4'33". The last few minutes--that was the most beautiful performance I've ever heard."
"I didn't hear any music," she said confusedly.
"That's the idea behind the piece. The music is all around us; we just have to stop and listen to it."
"What was so beautiful about it?"
He drew in a slow, deep breath. "The gentle sound of your breathing. The rustle of my feathers whenever you moved. The feeling of your hoof over my shoulder. The faint scent of your perfume."
"Are you sure that isn't Rarity's?"
"Positive. Rarity was wearing lavender. But I smell orchids."
"I didn't think you notice," she blushed. "They're one of my favorite flowers."
"Mine, too," he smiled. "Orchids and irises. Maybe next spring we can plant a few together."
"It's a date," she replied.
"Speaking of which, I have reservations for seven o'clock at Sweet Barley. It's a soup and salad joint that I've heard great things about."
"You sit tight," she said, giving him another kiss on the cheek. "I'll call us up a carriage."