“So did you enjoy the audition tour?” the princess asked, sipping a cup of aromatic tea.
“I didn’t know there would be so many ponies turning out,” Tux replied. “All in all, we put sixty-five through to the winnowing round in Ponyville. I enjoyed the good auditions, but the bad ones....”
“I understand,” Celestia chuckled. “I also heard that you gave two of your judges the old heave-ho.”
“Yeah,” he sighed, “Vinyl and Octavia. They kept arguing, even in front of the singers, and eventually I had to do something about it. They’re not unhappy about it, are they?”
“I heard that Vinyl was pretty upset about it, but now they both seem to be fine.”
“Thankfully, I had Ivory Coast to balance things out, up until the very end.” He took a mouthful of his cider, thinking it might have a bit too much spice. The Apples’ cider was much better. “Too bad he turned out to be a flake. And a sell out who didn’t care about other ponies’ reputations.”
“Yeah, the pianist you sent along.”
Celestia frowned. “I never sent a pianist with you. In fact, I thought you would take care of that as well.”
“What do you mean?”
“I figured you knew somepony who you wanted to use. I furnished the pianos at all the venues, but not the players.”
He raised an eyebrow. “So you’re saying you didn’t hire the Symphony’s rehersal pianist for the tour?”
“There’s never been an ‘Ivory Coast’ working with the Symphony,” she replied. “The current pianist is Ebony Key, and she’s been with us for the last three years. The last one was a stallion who went by ‘Marbles’.”
“He put the wool over my eyes.” He groaned in disgust. “I hate that!”
“Don’t let it get to you, Tux,” she reassured. “You have a nice pool of singers for the choir, and you’ll be able to start working on it soon. Did I mention that I’m going to be paying you a decent stipend?”
“You didn’t mention that,” he replied with renewed eagerness.
“What you’ll be conducting is essentially the Royal Canterlot Choir, even though it’ll be based in Ponyville. I’ll be talking to the singers who make the final cut and asking them if they’re willing to stay onboard and move to Canterlot after the Gala. That includes you, Tux.”
“Think about it.”
“I will, Princess. But I think that I might just stay in Ponyville. See, the two things I hate most in this world are liars and moving.”
“I understand,” she nodded. “Speaking of staying in Ponyville, how is your relationship with Twilight working out?”
“You heard about that, didn’t you?”
“Mostly in her letters. She’s been curiously quiet on the subject recently.”
“She and I are going through a rough patch,” he sighed. “Well, sort of. We agreed to evaluate the relationship after the tour was over and see where we stood. To be honest, I don’t think it’s going to work out. I want it to, but...yeah.”
“Well, I’m sorry it isn’t working out.”
“At least we’re still friends.”
Celestia smiled. “At least.” She left him standing there by the cider tap, and he refilled his glass. Rarity shuffled up to him and gave a weak greeting.
“Haven’t seen you all day,” Tux remarked. “Is something wrong?”
She dropped her gaze. “Yes, Tux, something is dreadfully wrong. The other night, when I snapped at you about Twilight? I have no idea what came over me.”
“It’s nothing, really.”
“No! You must hear me out. You see, part of the reason I was so short with you was because I was jealous.”
“Jealous?” he balked. “What in Equestria do you mean?”
“For the last few months I’ve been struggling with intrusive thoughts,” she explained, “with dreams bringing back memories that I don’t have. I’ve tried ignoring them, but my efforts have been in vain. I know you think of me as only a friend, and you know that that’s I view you. But these thoughts, these...” She grimaced. “...feelings tell me otherwise.”
He raised a confused eyebrow. “Did somepony spike the punch?”
“Ugh,” she groaned, “no matter how I say it, it still comes out wrong. I’ve had an unwelcome crush on you, one that came from nowhere. Most days, it’s gone. But sometimes, it comes to the surface.
“I was jealous of your relationship with Twilight, and I took it out on you, channeling her annoyance into something sinister. I wanted to say that I’m sorry.”
“It’s really all right, Rarity.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Aldous Pipesmoke standing in a corner. “Thanks for telling me,” he said, trying to end the conversation. “I never held it against you, anyway.”
“I appreciate your forgiveness,” she said with a bow. “I won’t take any more of your time.”
He tried to be as nonchalant as possible making his way toward Pipesmoke’s corner, and the inspector seemed to be waiting for him when he arrived.
“So I hear you want me to find that Ivory Coast character,” Pipesmoke commented.
“Yup,” Tux replied. “How much?”
“Since you’re a friend of Deryn’s, two hundred. Up front.”
“Sold. But I don’t have it with me,” Tux replied.
“Just have a courier take it to this address.” The inspector pushed a scrap of paper across the table, and Tux tucked it into his wing for safekeeping. “I always get my pony. That’s why I charge flat.”
“How long will it take?”
The inspector finished his cider. “I’ll report in a month, or when I find him, whichever comes first. I’ll start my search the day I receive those bits.”
“As soon as I get back to Ponyville.”
“I have somewhere to be,” the inspector said, bowing. “Good evening.”
Tux continued standing in the corner after Pipesmoke left, and eventually, Twilight shuffled over to join him. “Trying to get away from the crowd, eh?” she asked.
“Eeyup,” he replied. “Always hated ‘em.”
“What do you say we go somewhere private? Have a little chat.”
“Now’s as good a time as any,” he replied. “You know this place better than anybody, so you lead the way.”
The two of them slipped out of the party and made their way to the library, which was probably the most private room in the castle at the moment, aside from their bedrooms, of course. Most importantly, it was quiet enough for them to be able to think straight.
“So I’ve been thinking about the tour,” she started. “And been looking at our relationship with a critical eye.”
“What’s your verdict,” he asked, dreading the answer.
“I really do like you, Tux. But it doesn’t seem like I like you in that special way. We’re friends. And the whole time, we acted like friends. All the time we spent together felt like friends-time, not date-time. And ultimately...” She sighed. “...I just don’t think I’m ready for a relationship. With anypony.”
“Probably a wise decision,” he sighed. “I’ve been looking back at it, too, and even though I’ve been saying for years that I was ready, I don’t think I am, either.”
“Friends,” he nodded.
“One for the road?” She held out her cheek.
“I don’t see why not,” he smiled. He puckered his lips and moved in, but at the last minute, she turned and stole a peck on the lips. He sighed and hugged her with a wing. It may not have been as sweet an ending as he had planned, but it was certainly sweeter than he had thought it would be. And that, he could live with.