“They sure do look nice, Applejack,” Tux marveled as he gazed out over the orchard. “You and Mac take really good care of them.” He was lying on his belly next to her in the haymow of the Sweet Apple Acres barn, watching the changing colors of the sky as the sun set. The once white apple blossoms that dotted the leafy trees were now turning pink and orange like the wispy cirrus clouds above, and the the sky was fading to indigo in a rich gradient.
“You got that right,” she sighed. “Thanks for helpin’ us today, Tux. Without you, we’d be in some serious hot water. At least this time, we knew how to get rid of the little buggers.”
Earlier that day, a swarm of parasprites had come out of the Everfree Forest, threatening Ponyville’s food supply, namely the orchards of Sweet Apple Acres. But thanks to some prior experiences, several of the girls were able to help Pinkie Pie gather the necessary instruments to create her pied-piper band contraption, which she used to lead the bothersome creatures back into the forest whence they came.
During the fiasco, Tux had helped keep the orchard safe from the invading pests, herding them around until Pinkie could swing by and lead them off. He still had some soreness from his wing injuries just over a month before during Winter Wrap-up, but other than that, he was just tired.
“You know what I could use right now?” he asked. “A nice salad. And some hay fries. Maybe a garden burger.”
“Are you finally makin’ good on that dinner you owe me?” she chuckled.
“Yeah. I have it written down on a little notepad. You promised me dinner back in September, and you haven’t made good on it yet. Now that you’re not with Twilight anymore, I figured maybe you could, y’know....”
“I’m really sorry, AJ,” he sighed. “I totally forgot about that. Well, I still don’t really remember, but.... A promise is a promise.”
“When and where?” she asked with a grin. “I’ll mark it down.”
“Can I get back to you?” Upon saying this, he heard Blessing’s words echoing in his mind. He still hadn’t heard back from her. “You know what, no. I’m not leaving this property until we have a date on our calendars.”
“Saturday night the tenth,” she suggested. “That might be my only opening.”
“I have a Crusaders campout that night,” he groaned.
“Then, maybe the seventeenth? I’m sure I could push something aside for that.”
He tried to visualize his calendar, and he didn’t think there was anything going on for him that night. “I’ll pencil it in. I’m not sure, so I’ll check my calendar and then let you know. Where do you want to go?”
“Ain’t you the one supposed to be doin’ that kind of stuff?” she asked quizzically.
“You know I’m bad at planning events,” he sighed. “After all, you’re the one who reminded me of my promise.”
“How about...the Spade.”
“Are you sure? I’m not made of money.” Besides, that restaurant had been the place where he had taken Twilight on their first date months before, and he had to admit that his heart still fluttered whenever he thought about that night. To him, taking Applejack there would be tantamount to adultery. “Besides, reservations, blah, blah, blah. It’s hard to get in there.”
She groaned in frustration. “Well, what other classy joints are there ‘round here?”
“What about just plain, old Sugarcube Corner?”
“Yer missin’ the point,” she coughed. “I wanna get away from the familiar. I wanna go for somethin’ unknown. Y’know, kinda like seein’ if we’d work together.”
“I’ll try to get reservations at the Spade,” he conceded. “But we might have to go Dutch. Like I said, that place is really pricey. When I took Twilight there, it almost--”
“You took Twilight there?” she grimaced. “Uh, how about someplace else, then?”
“How about Molly’s?” he suggested, somewhat relieved. “It’s not as local or classy as the Spade, but it’s a really upscale place that’s not far from Ponyville. They serve breakfast all day long. And we don’t need a reservation.”
“That sounds scrumptious, Tux,” she smiled. “Saturday night the seventeenth. How far is it away?”
“Half an hour’s walk north?” he estimated.
“Then pick me up at six. And I’ll be waitin’, now. I ain’t gonna take an extra hour to get ready like Rarity does, makin’ sure every dang hair is in place.”
“You’ll probably still want to dress up,” he cautioned.
“Don’t you fear none, I’ll be dressed up.”
“I should be getting home,” he sighed, noticing that the sun had crept beneath the horizon, and the twilight was fading rapidly to night. Several stars now dotted the sky, and the moon was rising slowly in the east. “I’ll be seeing you.”
“Night, Tux,” she called as he glided down from the haymow.
The next morning, he went to the Boutique in order to see if business was back to booming. Winter had been slow, for the most part, and even into the present spring, things hadn’t been moving too quickly. He’d been living off his savings for a month or two, and things were starting to look bleak.
When he arrived, however, the place seemed deserted. He checked the studios, the main fabric room, and the kitchen, but there was no sign of his employer anywhere. Finally, he decided to check the Inspiration Room just to see if she was so deep in thought that she was blocking out everything else.
His jaw dropped when he stepped into the room. Amidst discarded scraps of silk, disheveled bolts of linen, and the occasional spool of neglected ribbon were drawings, paintings, art piece upon art piece with a single theme throughout. “Spike?” he marveled, perusing the collection. The collection represented every medium from pencil sketches to charcoal drawings to watercolor and oil paints, and each one showcased a slightly older, bulkier version of the purple and green dragon that Ponyville knew and loved.
The paintings, drawings and sketches also featured dozens upon dozens of new clothing designs, an output of creativity the likes of which Tux had never seen from Rarity’s easel before. But spending all her time obsessing over Spike could mean only one thing for her business.
“How long have you been standing there?” asked a blushing Rarity from behind him as she returned to the Boutique.
Tux turned to face her. “A few minutes.” He motioned to her art collection with a hoof. “Is this why we haven’t been getting new orders?” She nodded. “You haven’t been taking them, have you?” Again, she nodded. “And you’ve been keeping me away from work to try and cover up the fact that we’re in the red.” A third time, she nodded. “Rarity, you can’t run a business like this.”
“I know, Tux,” she sighed. “You know how it is to be obsessed with somepony.”
“You mean somedragon,” he corrected, echoing her words from the recent audition tour. “I thought you said there wasn’t anything between you.”
“There isn’t,” she groaned, “and that’s the problem. I miss him here. He’s been spending all his time at the library, and none of it with me. I mean, he gave me the most darling pendant for Hearts and Hooves Day--well, it had to have been him, at least--and he left it at that. He hasn’t been by the Boutique in a month, and I haven’t seen him since last week. When I did, all he said was, ‘Hey, Rarity,’ without so much as a swoon.”
“Have you talked to him about it?” Tux asked.
“Moi? Oh, don’t be absurd, Tux! You know perfectly well that a lady never asks a gentlecolt out. Oh, how uncouth that would be.”
“I think he takes your indifference for a rebuff.”
“No!” she gasped.
“Especially considering your past behavior.”
“But you don’t think he’d...hold it against me?”
He sighed, and after a moment’s pause, he nodded. “I’m intimately acquainted with how he must feel, so I have it on good authority that he very well could. Unrequited love may not be so painful for a child, but he’s a young adult now. Right at the age when hearts start to break.”
“Then what am I to do?” she despaired.
“I’ll talk to him about it. In the meantime, you’ve gotta get your business back up and running.”
“But I don’t have any new designs,” she groaned. Her horn sparked aglow, and a familiar chaise longue slid toward her at blinding speed, nearly bowling Tux over. Rarity leaped into the air, striking a dramatic pose before plopping down onto the red, velvet cushions. “How am I ever to revive my business if I don’t have any new offerings for my demanding customers? Ah, sventura! Woe is me!”
“You have dozens of new designs all over the room,” he suggested, motioning to several of them with his hoof. “You’re smart, you’re creative; figure out how to adapt them. I’m sure there are ponies who will pay top bit to wear some of this stuff.”
“It’s not that easy, Tux,” she scoffed. “I can’t just take an ensemble designed for a hunky dragon and shrink it down to pony size. Actually....” Her horn glowed once again, and several of the drawings zipped past Tux’s head, coming to a stop before Rarity’s eyes. She got down off the chaise longue and stowed the sofa in a nearby closet, which appeared to be designed for the sole purpose of storing that particular piece of furniture. “I may be able to do something with these designs after all. While I work, would you work on getting the books sorted out?”
“But didn’t you say we were out of money?”
“You get back pay for this. Plus a twenty-percent bonus for the rest of the month.”
“All right then,” he sighed, shuffling out of the room. The door slammed behind him, and he jumped forward, his heart skipping a beat. As his heartrate descended back to normal levels, he kept shuffling toward his desk, where a stack of expense reports sat in the center. “No idea what’s going on with her,” he muttered as he opened up his long-dormant inkwells. Despite the corks’ protection, the ink had been sitting so long that it had become little more than a dry mass. It wasn’t supposed to happen this quickly.
He groaned and made his way to the kitchen so that he could get some water in the two wells. When he rounded the bend, both wells slipped from his grasp and clattered to the floor. His eyes shrunk to pinpoints, his mouth dropped open, and his heart froze in terror. Standing casually at the sink was the towering figure of Discord, a terrible grin shining his face. “Blink and you miss me,” he chortled, throwing a glassful of water at Tux’s face. He closed his eyes and braced for the splash, but the water never met its mark. In fact, when he opened his eyes again, neither the glass, nor the water, nor the draconequus himself were there.
“You must be losing your mind,” echoed Discord’s disembodied voice. “Seeing things that aren’t really there.” He felt a slight tickle at the base of his neck, and he whirled around only to see nopony there.
“Discord, I swear....”
“‘Surely,’ say you, ‘surely that is something at my window lattice. Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore.’“ He felt Discord’s breath hot on his ear in an ethereal whisper: “‘Tis the wind, and nothing more!”
“Discord, where are you?” he cried to the empty air. “Show yourself!”
“To whom?” asked the draconequus, materializing again by the sink. “You’re the only pony who can see me, hear me, feel me. As far as anypony else is concerned, you’re the only one in this kitchen.”
“Tux, are you all right?” Rarity called, emerging from her Inspiration Room and galloping toward the kitchen. Discord slipped behind her and began making faces.
“Behind you!” Tux gasped, pointing with his hoof.
“What? A bee?!” She gasped, glancing around.
“Discord?” She turned back to him, an eyebrow raised. “I don’t see him anywhere.”
“He’s right behind you, waggling his tongue. Now he’s doing googly eyes!”
She looked behind her again, right at Discord. “Boo!” he shouted at her. No reaction. “You see, Tux?”
“There’s nopony there,” the two of them said in unison. While Rarity’s air was one of confusion, Discord’s sneer betrayed his emotions. He snapped his fingers and vanished into thin air.
“Tux, are you sure you’re all right?” Rarity asked, a look of sympathy coming over her visage. “You look really flustered, and you’re starting to hyperventilate.” She levitated a paper bag out of one of the cupboards and held it in front of his muzzle. He tried to calm himself, to control his breathing, and slowly he was able to regain his composure. “Have you been sleeping well?” she asked.
“Uh, not particularly,” he replied. “Not since the blizzard incident.”
“You must be hallucinating.”
“Look, Rarity, what I saw was real. Discord was really there, right behind you. He’s trying to get inside my head.”
“It would appear that he’s succeeded.”
“You’re right,” he acknowledged, swallowing hard. “He’s gotten inside my head. He’s won.”
“He doesn’t win unless you let him, Tux. You’re having a nervous breakdown.” She picked up his inkwells off the floor and set them gently on the counter. “I’ll do the books. You take some time off and get some help.”
“I don’t need help,” he groaned. “I’m fine!”
“You have a history of depression and anxiety. And I can only imagine how it must be to nearly lose your life.”
“Are you saying I’m shell shocked?”
“Post-traumatic stress disorder, yes,” she nodded. “Go home, Tux. Don’t just do it for yourself; do it for me, for all your friends. We don’t want to see you suffering like this.”
“I’m not a PTSD case,” he defended, fruitlessly.
“If you wish, I have a psychiatrist friend to whom I can refer you. Her name is Chaise Longue--yes, just like the couch--and she specializes in finding the core of problems like this and providing a lasting solution.”
“I don’t have a prob--”
She put a hoof to his lips. “Yes, you do.”
Maybe he did. Maybe he was seeing things, after all. He knew that Rarity wouldn’t be one to lie to him, especially about a fiend like Discord. If he really had been there, she would have stood with him and fought. “Can’t I just--?”
“No,” she cut him off with a scolding tone. “You are not to think about work until you get your Discord problems sorted out. Run along, now. I won’t have you exacerbating anything.”
He walked slowly past her, dragging his feet. He wanted to help the Boutique get back on track, and he had to admit that he didn’t trust Rarity to do it, even though she had run her business for years before he had ever even thought about coming to Ponyville. But he knew that getting the physical and spiritual rest he needed was key to his survival. He remained dejected as he reached for the front door, but not defeated.
“If it’s any consolation,” Rarity called, “I don’t doubt he was there. Now that I’ve thought it over again, I realize that he wouldn’t have revealed himself to me if his goal were to torment you. I suppose that would also mean that his body is where it has been for the last few years, locked in that statue in the Royal Gardens. It means he’s not powerful enough to do any real damage.”
“I hope so,” Tux sighed.
“And as long as you have that, he can’t touch you. Remember this.”
Discord did not reappear. As the time passed, Rarity gave Tux daily progress reports regarding her business’s financial health, and the numbers gave him rest as he fought against himself. He started counseling with Chaise Longue, something which helped him more than he would have expected.
After a couple of weeks, he felt much better. He stopped fearing Discord, and he started seeing his hope for peace becoming a reality. When the time came for the Crusader Campout, he was actually excited for the expedition, banishing the dread that he had felt in Discord’s shadow.
Though Rarity hadn’t deigned to attend the campout, both Rainbow Dash and Applejack had cleared their schedules so that Tux didn’t have to be the only adult present. Although Sweetie Belle was disappointed at her sister’s absence, she was glad that she wouldn’t have to haul Rarity’s colossal “tent” through the woods, and Tux shared her sentiments, knowing that Rarity would have harnessed him up.
At the campsite, Scootaloo asked Tux to accompany them on some sort of escapade in effort to earn their cutie marks, and a red flag immediately went up in his mind. “This wouldn’t be ‘Cutie Mark Crusader snake charmers’, would it?” he asked.
“Aww,” Scootaloo moaned. “How’d you know?”
“Nuh-uh,” Applejack protested, her ears pricking when the club name was paired with a venomous animal. “No sister of mine is gonna have a rattler on her rump.”
“She is right,” Tux concurred. “Not only would it be tough to find a cobra outside Saddle Arabia, but it’s far too dangerous for anypony, let alone you three.”
“Then how do we know if we’re destined to be snake charmers?” Sweetie Belle whined.
“We should probably trust the grown-ups,” Apple Bloom conceded. “Besides, rattlers ain’t somethin’ to be played with.”
“As fun as that sounds,” Dash chimed in, “I’m gonna have to side with Tux.”
“I have an idea,” Tux suggested. “How about we sit down and go around in a circle discussing the things we’re good at?”
“That sounds boring,” Scootaloo scoffed.
“Just hear him out, little fillies,” Applejack encouraged. “Remember, a cutie mark represents your special talent. What you’re best at.”
“So why don’t you start, AJ? What’s your cutie mark represent, and how did you get it?”
“We’ve heard that story already,” Scootaloo groaned.
“Well, I haven’t heard it from either Applejack or Rainbow Dash, so let’s just have a sit and listen.”
Applejack beamed as she began her story. “Well, it all started when I was a filly, just about Apple Bloom’s age....”
Tux listened eagerly to Applejack’s and Rainbow’s stories. AJ’s was the most compelling to him; she, too, had gone searching for what she thought she wanted, and for her, things had been fruitless as well. Her story gave him a renewed sense of hope that he would one day find his own cutie mark. And he was happy to see how consummate Dash had been in her desire to right wrongs and beat the bullies. In fact, he remembered seeing that Rainboom himself a number of years ago and marveling at the sight. “Hey, it’s too bad you didn’t help me earn my cutie mark, too,” he quipped.
“Well, let’s hear your story,” Applejack invited. “What have you tried that didn’t work?”
“Where do I start,” he groaned. “Listen up, girls, or you’ll wind up repeating history.” He described his lifelong search for his special talent, his true purpose, and all the schemes he’d tried in order to earn his cutie mark. Most of them weren’t nearly as hare-brained as the things the Crusaders usually did as a part of their escapades, but in hindsight, Tux had to admit that being a barber wasn’t something he was cut out for. He tried his best to juxtapose his failures with their feverish ploys without crushing their enthusiasm outright.
“Then it’s no wonder nothin’s workin’,” Apple Bloom remarked after he had finished. “We’re just like you, tryin’ everything that we don’t know instead of stickin’ to the stuff we do.”
“Well, what are you three good at?” he asked.
“I love to sing!” Sweetie Belle squeaked.
Scootaloo piped up. “And just like my big sis Rainbow Dash, I have the need for speed. And I can dance circles around any of you.”
“And what about you, Apple Bloom?”
She scratched her head. “Well, I like fixin’ stuff. And buildin’ stuff. I designed us a better chicken coop last month, and Big Mac and Applejack are gonna work on buildin’ it next week.”
“Awesome,” Tux smiled. “When you’re trying to get your cutie marks, you should stick to what you know, what you’re good at. Embrace your natural talents, and you’re sure to shine.”
“But what about you?” Sweetie Belle asked. “You’re good at so many things that I can’t count them.”
“She’s got a point,” Applejack shrugged.
“Well, I don’t know,” he replied. “Yeah, I’m good at music and writing and languages, but that all boils down to one thing. I’m always learning something new. Whether it’s a new language, a new instrument, or a new song, I never stop learning.” He chuckled and gave a contemplative smile. “Maybe my cutie mark will be an encyclopedia. But that’s the point. You never know until it appears. And when it does, it’s not going to tell you what your special talent is.”
“It’s not?” the girls asked in unison.
“No, it’s not,” he replied. “Your special talent is what tells your cutie mark to appear. And it won’t happen until it’s ready.”
Scootaloo frowned and kicked a rock with a forehoof. “So...do we have to stop trying to earn our cutie marks the way we always have?”
“Not at all,” Tux replied. “Keep doing crazy things together. Those are the times you’ll remember for the rest of your lives: the fun you had, the love and friendship that you strengthened day after day. The three of you have a special bond. You’re not just friends, not just a club. You are sisters. Family.” His lip began to tremble as he spoke those words. He remembered his own family: his brother and sisters, his mother and father. And he missed them more than anything. He swallowed a lump in his throat. “Nothing can tear you three apart. Even if one gets her cutie mark tomorrow and the next gets hers next year. Even if you have to change the club’s name, you three are never going to split up, because you know what? You are a family.”
“I think that’s a good signal for y’all to hit the hay,” Applejack piped up. “It’s dark, and I ain’t gonna see y’all draggin’ your hooves in the mornin’.”
“Aww,” the three fillies groaned.
“No buts, little missies. Hep, hep, hep, off to bed with y’all!” She put her herding skills into action to corral the lively fillies, and she ran them until they dropped. Then, with all the love and care of a mother, she carried Applejack and Sweetie Belle to their sleeping bags and tucked them in. Rainbow did the same with Scootaloo, showing the same motherly tenderness.
“I’m gonna hit the hay myself,” Dash yawned, stotting upward and floating down into her sleeping bag. “I hope you two don’t mind snoring.”
“I can live with it,” Tux sighed. But she was already gone. When the sawmill started, he cringed and gritted his teeth. It was much worse than he remembered. “Maybe not.”
“Come on, Tux,” Applejack invited. “Let’s go off and leave ‘em for a spell.”
“You sure, AJ?” he asked.
“They’ll be fine. Come on. Moon’s risin’.”
He nodded and took a pair of blankets from his stuff sack. He knew they would have to reach a higher elevation in order to get a good view of the rising moon, and he didn’t want the two of them to be chilly.
He followed Applejack to the top of a nearby ridge, often carrying her when she couldn’t ascend on her own. Off in the distance, they could see Horseshoe Falls, behind which was the enormous, sepia disc of the rising moon. “Picturesque,” he commented, lying down on a patch of grass. “I wonder if Luna can paint the sky like Celestia can.”
“I think she heard you,” she replied, pointing a hoof skyward. Before his eyes, a bank of noctilucent clouds spread across the firmament, framed by thousands of twinkling stars. Tux rolled onto his back and spread one of the blankets over himself. Applejack soon followed suit.
Tux spent time explaining the constellations and major stars, the Milky Way and the Pleiades, the Dippers and Polaris. He pointed at other planets in the solar system, wishing he could have a telescope to show her their nearest celestial neighbors in greater detail. He secretly wished for a new moon so that he could keep gazing out into the heavens, but Luna’s light eventually obliterated much of the starry mantle.
“It’s too bad we can’t see the Magellanic Clouds,” he sighed. “They are two galaxies just outside our own.”
“Gee, Tux, you sure are smart,” Applejack sighed. “All I can do is smile and listen. Science never really was my thing.” She sighed. “It’s no wonder you were so enamored with Twilight.” He raised an eyebrow and turned his head toward her. “I mean, you have so much in common. Love of science, reading all day long, always talkin’ about ancient Equestria....” She closed her eyes and breathed a pained sigh. “How could a country bumpkin like me compete with that?”
“There’s no competition, AJ,” he replied. “Twilight and I have moved on.”
“Sure don’t look like it,” she frowned. “At least, not on your end.” She rolled onto her side, a deep sadness on her face. “I can read ponies, Tux. I know a liar when I see one.”
“But I’m not lying,” he defended.
“Maybe not to me. But it don’t change the fact that you’re lyin’. To yourself.” She looked back up at the moon. “Sometimes we can’t cope with the truth so much that we tell ourselves that the truth is a lie. And we say it over and over again, hopin’ it’ll come true. But it don’t.”
“You sound like you’ve been there.”
“I.... You heard the story, Tux. I wanted to leave the farm so bad that I had to convince myself I didn’t belong. Then I realized that the truth wasn’t so hard to stomach.”
“But in my case, the truth is hard to stomach,” he replied. “It’s been hard to stomach every single time. You can take only so many kicks to the ribs before your heart just...stops.”
She rolled over and put her ear to his chest, closing her eyes. “It sounds fine to me,” she comforted. “You haven’t given up just yet.”
“Maybe not,” he sighed. “But I probably will soon. I mean, I’ve poured so much of myself into finding my one, true love that sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever find her.”
“I like to think that she’s closer than you realize.”
“You mean you.”
Applejack stifled a gasp, her cheeks flushing. “I, uh.... I ain’t gonna answer that.”
He sighed sadly. “You don’t have to, AJ.” He closed his eyes and reluctantly gave in to sleep’s siren song.
For the first time in a month, Tux dreamed. He found himself standing alone in the middle of a meadow, atop one of many hillocks that dotted the endless landscape. A gentle summer wind rippled through the grass and flowers, which rose up to his elbows. He saw neither sun nor moon, but the meadow was lit nonetheless in an orange glow like that of a sunset. He began walking forward, looking for something, but he didn’t know what it was.
He heard a familiar chortle behind him, and he turned around to see Discord standing at the top of the hillock that he had once occupied. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.
“Am I here?” Discord replied. “What is real?” He slithered down the back side of the hill, and Tux took off in pursuit. The thick foliage was hard to push through in places, and at times, he felt thistles poke and scratch at him. With a firm resolve, he pressed on, but Discord’s trail abruptly ended at the top of another hillock. “Vanity of vanities, everything is meaningless,” Discord sighed, appearing to Tux’s left. “All your struggles, all your strivings, none of them means a thing.”
“You’re wrong,” Tux retorted.
“Am I? You’re lying there, wallowing in your own misery. Meanwhile, I’m well into a grand scheme to take over Equestria. And there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”
“I thought you said I was a threat.”
“I lied,” Discord shrugged. “How could you possibly threaten me?”
The sky suddenly grew dark, and the meadow was lit with bright moonlight. A voice echoed, “It was no lie.” Discord gasped and looked around frantically. Princess Luna appeared behind him, eyes wide and glowing with a blinding, white light. Her horn sparked with that same light, and it enveloped Discord, disintegrating him and casting him to the wind. “And that was not Discord.”
“Princess Luna,” he said, bowing. “Is this a dream, or...?”
“It is indeed a dream, Tux n Tails,” Luna replied. She lifted his chin up with a wing, and he opened his eyes. There was a look of worry on her face. “But I am really here. It is my duty to enter the dreams of my subjects, should the need arise.”
“It is an ancient and complicated magic that you may never understand,” she replied after asking him to stand. “But I am not here to silence your inner critic.”
“A false projection of Discord created by your subconscious mind, an avatar to convey self-destructive thoughts and feelings to your conscious. He lay dormant for years until the Equestrian Idol tour, when the real Discord began meddling with you once again.
“Again, I did not come here to silence your inner critic. I came here with a message, one which I cannot convey any other way without risking my rapport with my sister.”
“Discord is indeed loose. I don’t know how or by what means, but he is escaping his prison nearly weekly. Rest assured that he is nearly powerless in his current state, for his body is still encased in stone, as it has been for the last two or so years. But the increased frequency of his escapement lends itself to graver news. He is slowly gaining what power he lacks.”
“And what if he gains enough to escape?”
“That will not happen; that particular flaw was remedied at his last imprisonment. Somepony must release him, and only one pony can.”
“The mare who designed the prison in the first place.”
Luna nodded. “I will do what I can to ensure that does not happen.”
Tux looked at the ground, his thoughts swimming in a sea of confusion. “Are you implying that Celestia is...letting him out? They’re enemies.”
“Mortal enemies,” she nodded. “She would kill him if she had the chance. Fortunately, the spells which would allow her to do that were hidden away at my request long ago.”
“What would she stand to gain?” he pondered.
“Time,” she replied. “With the Hidden Codex, she would stand to gain another few centuries, possibly another millennium at her post. She would continue to become drunk with power. And eventually, she would become....” She swallowed. “She would become as wretched a creature as I once was.”
“So who’s the real villain here?”
“Tux n Tails, how dast thou cast such aspersions!” Luna bellowed. “My sister is not a tyrant. She is thy ruler as much as I, and thou wouldst do well to respect her as such.”
“I’m sorry!” Tux apologized, shrinking away at the princess’s display of raw power.
Luna took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “The path of righteousness is not the edge of a knife. It is a levee, onto which those who have fallen may be pulled again. I stand before you as proof of this. I will not trespass on your mind any longer.”
“Wait, what am I going to do?” he asked frantically. “How am I a threat to Discord?”
“I know not,” she replied. “My mother does, and she refuses to tell either of us. But you will know when the time comes.”
The wind began to blow faster and harder, whipping his mane and tail as Luna began to vanish. “Don’t leave me, please,” he called, just barely raising his voice above the rush of the wind.
“I must, and you must let go of me.”
“But what if Discord comes back?”
“He won’t,” she replied. “Discord’s spirit cannot invade your mind. And your false projection is banished from this dream tonight. Besides, the night is drawing to a close, and you will soon wake.”
“When will my time come?” he asked again.
“Patience is a virtue that few possess in abundance,” she called as she unfurled her wings and rose into the starry sky. “You have it. Use it well.”
Reluctantly he let her leave, and the wind dropped to a dead stop. The strange, sunless dusk returned, save for a smattering of the brightest stars and planets. He stood there speechless as the day grew brighter. He closed his eyes, trying to block out the rising, vindictive sun. But it was fruitless.
As the sun rose in his dream, the real sun crept up over the horizon, bringing him out of his slumber. Applejack lay close beside him, deep in a peaceful sleep. Her face, however, told a different story. It was weathered and weary like her brother’s, hiding a weight of stress that she didn’t deserve. He slid out from under his blanket and rose to his hooves, stretching his sore muscles. “Aw crap. Neck,” he grumbled as a pain shot up his neck. He put his head between his forelegs and twisted. A series of loud pops and cracks sounded in the otherwise silent air, and relief rushed down his spine.
“Sleep well?” Applejack yawned.
“Better,” he replied. “At least, I think. I had a visitor come by.”
“Princess Luna. She can enter ponies’ dreams, and she came by to dispel my inner demons.”
“Well, that was mighty kind of her,” she remarked, stretching. “We should get back to the campsite. I bet they’re wondering where we are.”
Tux carried her the entire way down To the campsite, where they found the Crusaders busy braiding the mane and tail of a still sleeping Rainbow Dash. “Shh!” Sweetie Belle whispered as she noticed their arrival. “We’re trying to prank Rainbow Dash. And to get our cutie marks in hairdressing.”
“Make sure you put in lots of wildflowers,” Applejack snickered. “She’ll flip!”
“She’s waking up!” Scootaloo gasped, jumping back with a buzzing flutter of her wings.
“One more flower,” Apple Bloom insisted, reaching out to place the blossom in a tight braid. She tied the tress off with ease and jumped back to join her compatriots.
Dash sat up in bed, opening her mouth in a cavernous yawn and contorting her forelegs and wings into unnatural positions as she stretched. “What’s everypony looking at?” she asked groggily. The Crusaders began giggling, trying and failing to stifle their mirth. “What?” Applejack joined in the snickering, and Tux shrugged.
The turquoise mare dug through her stuff sack and produced a small mirror. When she beheld her coiffure, her pupils shrank to pinpoints and her jaw dropped open. “My mane!” she shrieked, shaking the flowers from it and pulling out the plaits. “Very funny, you guys,” she grumbled.
“Ain’t you forgettin’ something?” Applejack jeered, turning and shaking her tail.
“Aww come on,” Dash groaned, biting the tie on the tip of her tail and yanking it off. “I’ll have to fly this one out.”
“I think it actually looks pretty good on you,” Tux commented. “Add a laurel wreath, and you’ll look like a Pegasellic athlete.”
“Really?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he replied. He explained the ancient significance of the laurel wreath in Pegasellic culture, how it was like a medal, awarded to Olympic champions. She wondered whether she could have held her own in the ancient games, and he said she would have won without even trying. Taken by a renewed sense of vigor, she challenged Tux to a race. With a shrug, he agreed, and the two of them decided on a course before taking their places at the starting line.
“I’ll go easy on ya,” she jabbed, elbowing him.
“I want a challenge,” he replied, fully intending to take it easy.
“All righty, then.” She set herself with a determined grin and squinted eyes, waiting for Scootaloo’s signal.
“On your marks...” Tux took a deep breath. He hadn’t been able to fly nearly as well since the blizzard incident. “Get set...” He swallowed a lump that formed in his throat. Something in the pit of his stomach was telling him not to do this, and he was inclined to trust the feeling. But peer pressure won out in the end. “GO!”
Rainbow dashed forward, leaving behind a multicolored streak in the air. Tux shot after her, following the course through the forest. He’d raced barrels before, and it was similar, but he didn’t have the agility that Dash did, and he swung wide around the first tree. Once he got back on course, he fixed his eyes on the next tree, sprinting for it. Everything he ever learned about stunt flying raced through his head, and he barely had time to get the distraction out of his head to bank hard right and pitch around the tree.
His mind was racing faster than he could keep up with as he ducked back and forth between a series of trees that were designed to be like poles in a rodeo event. His longer wings presented a bit of a challenge, and he almost had to pull them in once or twice to avoid clipping them on a nearby trunk. He rounded the next bend and made for the straightaway, glad to see that Rainbow had already finished the course. The path ahead gave him plenty of room, at least until the trees started to move.
Time stood still as he watched his path narrow. He put on as much speed as he could and banked hard, hoping to fit through the gap. He did--just barely--and he thought he was free and clear, but just after he leveled out, a stray limb moved directly into his path, and he didn’t have the reaction time required to compensate. He pitched up as much as he could, but it wasn’t enough, and the limb struck him in the legs, sending him reeling out of the forest. He hit the ground hard and slid a dozen feet before coming to a stop. Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and the Crusaders rushed to his side, looks of panicked concern coloring their features. Applejack and Rainbow Dash bombarded him with questions about his health, but all he could manage to mumble was, “Not again.”
Tux sat in his wheelchair in the hospital exam room, anxiously awaiting the report from Doctor Rojo. His wing was still sore, but his forelegs caused him the most pain, still aching from the bruises the tree gave him. The doctor entered the room carrying a large manila envelope, which he set on the table. Those were undoubtedly his x-rays. “Dr. Rojo,” he greeted.
“I prefer Dr. Cruz,” he replied. “Dr. Rojo is my mother.”
“How much time do I have?” Tux let out a light chuckle, but Dr. Cruz shook his head.
“Dark humor is not my style, Mr. Tails.”
Dr. Cruz opened the manila envelope and took out the x-ray negatives, putting them up one by one on the light box on the wall. “I have some good news, but I don’t think you’ll like my prescription,” he remarked. “First, the good news.” With a spark of his horn, he flicked the switch on the light box, and the x-ray negatives flashed to life. “Nothing is broken. It’s even better news because you should have broken your legs. But you probably wouldn’t have been able to feel it, because you also should have broken your neck. I don’t exaggerate when I say that somepony must be watching over you.
“But now for the bad news.” He took out a red laser pointer out of his coat pocket. “You see this?”
“That’s my shoulder,” he observed, stating the obvious.
“It’s also an injured rotator cuff, one that you almost tore. This is the same wing you dislocated back in March, yes?”
“I think so,” he replied.
“Well, you were flying too fast and too hard,” the doctor scolded. “You’re not built for speed, Mr. Tails. No more racing.”
“I don’t really like racing, anyway.”
“Good for you. Now, because you’ve got an injured rotator cuff, I need you grounded for a month at least, ideally more.”
Tux shrugged. “I can stay grounded for as long as it takes to heal.”
“All right then. How about six weeks?”
Tux’s spirits sank. While he knew he could go six weeks without flying, he had promised Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash that he would go to Cloudsdale with them, a trip that he would now have to cancel. “Can I do five?”
“It depends. Why five?”
“I have a trip to Cloudsdale planned.”
“Then cancel it. I’m not about to let you take a trip like that with a bum wing.”
“All right,” Tux sighed. “Is that it?”
“Eat one of these with every meal,” Dr. Cruz replied, handing Tux a bag of tuberous roots. “It’ll help you with the pain. If you need more, ask Zecora; she no doubt sells them much cheaper than the hospital does.”
“How much will this cost me?” he asked, anxious to hear the answer. His monetary well was beginning to run dry, and his regular expenses wouldn’t carry through to the end of summer. The last thing he needed was a thousand-bit hospital bill.
“A wealthy benefactor has offered to cover your expenses.”
Tux raised an eyebrow, running through a mental list of the wealthy ponies he knew. And he knew that none of them would be inclined to pay for another pony’s medical care. “May I ask who?”
“Princess Luna,” he replied. “I have no idea why she’s doing it, but apparently she thinks you’re pretty important.” He levitated a clipboard and pen in front of Tux. “Just autograph this right there on the line, and you’ll be free to go.” When Tux took the pen and clipboard with his wings, Dr. Cruz held out a hoof to stop him. “Hey! When I say grounded, it means don’t use your wings for anything.”
“But I’m a bookkeeper,” Tux protested, relinquishing the clipboard and pen to Dr. Cruz’s magic and furling his wings. “I have to use my wings to write so that I can make a living.”
“Don’t lift anything heavier than a pen,” the doctor replied. “If you do, you risk exacerbating that rotator cuff injury.”
Tux signed the clipboard and folded his wing back at his side. “I’ll make sure to take it easy. No flying, no heavy lifting.”
“And no wing-ups. I have no idea why anypony does those in the first place; they can destroy your primary feathers.”
“I’ll remember that,” Tux said as the doctor left the room. He didn’t need the wheelchair to walk, so he rolled to the counter and left it with the orderly after he got clearance for discharge.
Rainbow Dash and Applejack were waiting for him anxiously in the reception area. They immediately beset him with questions about his injuries, each offering to care for him, to wait on him like a king. But he explained that it wasn’t anything serious, and that all he needed was to stay grounded.
“Does that mean you can’t come to Cloudsdale with Fluttershy and me?” Rainbow asked, devastation in her voice. Tux nodded dolefully. “Aww, we were gonna do all the stuff we didn’t get to do last time.”
“If I push it, I’ll screw up my wing even more. You understand.”
She sighed in concession. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Can you still help out around the farm?” Applejack asked. “Mac’s been workin’ his tail off ever since the parasprite attack, tryin’ to replant our other crops.”
“I think, so,” he replied. “He could probably use a nice vacation.”
“No,” Rainbow said stubbornly, crossing her forelegs as she hovered. “If I can’t have him, you can’t have him.”
“But RD, Big Macintosh’s health is gonna go down if he don’t take a break. It’s not like Tux is gonna be just sittin’ around eatin’ apple fritters or somethin’. He’s gonna be workin’, and I’m gonna be payin’ him.”
“Girls,” he tried.
“But it still isn’t fair!” Rainbow argued back, ignoring him. “You’re just looking for an excuse to spend time with him so that you can try to seduce him.”
“Well, I could say the same thing to you about your little trip to Cloudsdale, salt sphere.”
Rainbow’s jaw fell open. “Salt sphere?!” she gasped. “Rotten apple!”
“Girls!” Tux shouted. Then he brought his voice down to admonish them. “First, this is a waiting room, and literally everypony is looking at you two. Second, this is not a contest for my heart. Rainbow, I still want to go to Cloudsdale with you, but it will have to wait until I’m cleared for takeoff. And I’m helping the Apples out because I want to give Big Macintosh a little time to himself, and because friends help each other.”
Rainbow Dash groaned and pushed her way out the front doors of the hospital. Tux followed her, stepping on her tail before she could take off and leave. “Please don’t be upset,” he beseeched. “If you blame anypony, blame Discord.”
“I know about your date on Saturday night,” Rainbow snapped, turning around and pressing toward him. “What, am I not good enough for you? Why are you taking her out but not even thinking about it with me?”
“We’ve been over this, Rainbow,” he sighed.
“I know we have,” she growled. “I just don’t see why she gets a date and I don’t.”
“It’s because I owe her one. It was a promise I made a long time ago, and I have to keep it.”
Rainbow hung her head. “I guess I understand.” She extended her wings and turned around to prep for a quick takeoff. She looked back at him and glared. “Fish or cut bait, Tux.” In a flash of color, she was gone.
“What did she mean by that?” Applejack asked from behind him.
“I don’t really know,” he sighed. But he did know what Dash had meant: she was just as fed up with his indecision as the next pony. He had been bouncing from romance to romance like a Canterlot playboy, and at this point, even he didn’t know what he wanted. With things as complicated as they were, he would much rather have cut bait, and he would have, were it not for his promise to fish with Applejack.
Saturday night found Tux in a familiar position. He once again donned his tweed sports jacket and plaid bow tie. He once again groomed his mane until no hair was out of place. “It’s just AJ,” he kept telling himself. “And it’s just one date.”
“Mrr,” Levi mumbled, brushing up against his master’s leg.
“But I promised,” Tux sighed, straightening his tie with his wings. He still wasn’t satisfied with his ham-hoofed attempt at tying, so he pulled it out and tried again. “Doctor’s orders my plot,” he muttered. “My wings are fine.”
“Mew,” said Wrangler as she hopped up onto the dresser by way of the chair next to it.
“No, Wrangler,” he chided, lifting her with a hoof and setting her on the ground. She rubbed feverishly against his legs while droning a soft, breathy purr. “I’ll brush you later. When I get back from Molly’s.”
“Mreow,” Wrangler asked, as if to say, “Who’s Molly?”
“How do I look, Levi?” Levi hopped up on the dresser, but instead of looking at Tux, he looked at his own reflection, batting playfully at his new friend. “You’re no help.” Levi turned around and blinked his honey-colored eyes before mumbling his approval. “All right, wish me luck.”
He trotted down the stairs and out the front door, beginning the trek to Sweet Apple Acres to pick up his date. Being late in spring, the sun was still low on the horizon, and he was glad for the light so that he wouldn’t have to be alone in the dark, where Discord could more easily leap out and throttle him. He reached the orchard at about sunset, and Big Macintosh was outside waiting for him.
“Is Applejack ready?” he asked.
“Eeyup,” the larger stallion replied. He turned and entered the house, and through the open windows, Tux could hear him call, “AJ, Tux is here to pick you up.”
“Tell him I’ll be down in a minute,” she replied, her voice distant and muffled.
Mac came back out and took a seat in a chair on the porch. “Have a sit, will ya? This is a minute in hoofball time, at least.”
“So ten minutes,” Tux chuckled, taking the chair next to Mac’s. “I wish I’d been able to afford a carriage. But I’m thinking that might have been overkill.”
“You never took Twilight out in a carriage, did you?”
“I did once, actually. Our second date. Most expensive night of my life.”
“Yeah, carriages can cost a shiny bit. I took Miss Cheerilee out in a carriage once, myself.”
“Oh yeah? How did that go?”
Mac just shrugged. “I think we both would have rather walked. It was bumpy and slow, and noisy to boot. We couldn’t talk as much as we usually do.”
“Do you talk as much with her as you talk with me?”
He chuckled. “I suppose it’s good to have a friend that you don’t really need to talk to.”
It was just about then that Applejack came walking through the front door. She was wearing a simple, green dress, and her hair was in a complex, braided up-do, with a matching braid in her tail. She had on just a hint of makeup, but it wasn’t garish or messy, as if it were applied by somepony who didn’t know how to do so.
“Well, you’re looking mighty fine tonight, miss Applejack,” Tux greeted.
“You’re lookin’ sharp yourself,” she replied. “If you’re ready, then let’s hit the road. Still got a few minutes’ walk ahead of us.”
“I would’ve gotten a carriage,” Tux apologized after they bade Mac goodbye and left, “but my wallet’s not as heavy as it used to be.”
“Yeah, what with your hospital bills and all.”
“Actually, somepony’s taking care of those, and not just the most recent ones.”
“Really,” she pondered. “Who?”
“Princess Luna. Who’d have thunk it?”
This put a thoughtful frown on Applejack’s face, which cleared after a few moments and a shrug. “I’m sure she has her reasons.”
“Did Apple Bloom do your hair tonight?” he asked, changing the subject. “It looks very nice.”
“Actually, Mac did it,” she replied. “Turns out, he’s pretty good with those big ol’ hooves of his.”
“Well, maybe there’s hope for me using my hooves, after all,” Tux chuckled.
Dinner wasn’t as awkward an experience as Tux had originally thought it would be. Applejack seemed to be sharing Tux’s view and treating the evening as a casual outing between friends. They did a lot of talking, most of it about farming and farm equipment, and Applejack thanked Tux for his help many a time. When the time came to pay for the meal, Tux offered to pick up the entire bill like a gentlecolt, but Applejack refused. “This ain’t nothin’ more than dinner,” she said, digging through her coin purse.
“But I promised I’d buy it for you,” he recalled.
“You promised you’d take me out. Weren’t nothin’ in that promise about buyin’.”
“Well, if you insist,” he sighed. He was grateful for the help, nonetheless. “All right, I’ll walk you home.”
“And if you don’t mind, I’d like you to stay a spell,” she requested. “I have somethin’ I wanna show you.”
“Okay,” he shrugged. But he wasn’t too eager to walk home alone in the dark, and the longer he stayed, the darker it would get. “After you, ma’am.”
They didn’t talk much on the way back to Sweet Apple Acres, and the two of them walked a bit quicker and more warily than they had earlier that night. Applejack knew that Tux was more anxious about Discord’s spirit since that last attack, and he was glad she was there to help protect him, should he encounter the draconequus once more.
But they reached the farm without incident, and Applejack led him to the barn. The building was a spectacle he’d already seen half a dozen times at least, but she led him to the very end of the aisle and took a rope in her teeth. “Well, what’re you waitin’ for?” she called. Curious, he sidled over next to her, and when she jerked the rope, the floor began to sink while a hidden set of gears and pulleys squeaked and chirped.
“What is this?” he marveled.
“Well, I know that, but where does it lead?”
A proud grin spread on her face as the elevator reached the bottom of its short shaft. “Our cider cellar!”
Tux marveled over the barrels of cider that lined the shelves before him. There had to have been at least a hundred of them there. “I didn’t know you saved cider,” he commented, recalling the last Sweet Apple Cider Festival, when he had almost missed his mug due to short supply and high demand.
“Yup, we save about a quarter of it every year. Then we ship it out all over Equestria. It makes us a few extra bits, and it gets the name out there. We just started doing it a couple years ago, after those dad-gum Flim Flam Brothers pulled into town and almost cheated us out of house and home. We had a ton of extra and nowhere to put it, so we dug this here cellar.”
“AJ, this is a great idea!” Tux grinned. “But why are we down here?”
“Since you almost didn’t get any last year, I figured I’d bring you down for a little sample.” She slid open a cupboard and produced a tap and two mugs, and she led Tux down the spacious aisle until she found a barrel that was to her liking. She hauled back, and with one stroke, drove the tap into the barrel’s wooden lid. She twisted the valve, and a stream of golden cider flowed into the mug. “Just a little QC first....” She took a tentative sip, but when she found it satisfying, she drank the rest down. “Yee-haw, that’s the stuff!”
“You sure it’s still good?” he asked as he poured himself a mug. “I mean, how long has this been sitting here?”
“Oh, it’ll keep for a pretty long time.”
He took her at her word and swallowed a mouthful of the sweet drink. There was something off about the flavor, though. “Yeah, it’ll keep, but if the conditions are right, it’ll ferment.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Tux,” she dismissed as she finished her second mug. “You know Ponyville’s in a dry county.”
“That just means it’s illegal to sell it,” he replied. “It’s not illegal to make it.”
“Don’t be such a foal, Tux. It can’t be more than twenty proof.” She took another sip. “Tastes more like ten.”
“Is that why you’re guzzling it like you’ve been bucking all day without water?” He sighed and set his mug on the shelf next to the barrel. “I’m done, AJ. I hope you’ll understand.”
“Tux, please, don’t go. I need to do this.”
“Why do you need to get plastered?” he chided. “Unless the goal is to get me plastered....”
“No, no, I need a little bit of liquid persuasion this time.” She sighed, looking down at the ground. “Otherwise, I can’t tell you the truth.”
He looked back at his mug, then back at the sad expression on Applejack’s face. It was clear that she needed to say something which was difficult for her to say. And what kind of friend would he be if he didn’t let her say it, in whatever way she needed to? “All right,” he sighed. “I don’t see the problem with it just this once. But don’t make me cut you off.”
The two of them each took a full mug and sat down in a little nook that was cut into one side of the cellar near the elevator. The couch they sat on was dusty, but it was comfortable, so he didn’t complain. The two of them got to talking about nothing in particular, and while Tux stopped at his third mug of cider, Applejack went back for fifth before she got to the point where she couldn’t drink anymore. While he was still only buzzed, she was a bit more than tipsy, and she decided that now was the time to get whatever it was she needed to say off her chest.
“Tux, you’ve been here for almost a year now, and the whole time, I’ve been, well, strugglin’.”
“What do you mean?”
She sighed and shrugged. “I honestly don’t know. You blew into Ponyville like a tumbleweed on the wind, tall, dark and handsome. And mysterious. There was somethin’ about you, this...I don’t know.” She huffed and put a hoof to her forehead in thought. “You’re not charmin’. Well, not charmin’ like a scoundrel, charmin’, but...you know what I mean. You’re a tender soul, and I really like that in you. That’s how you’re charmin’.
“I guess, what I’m tryin’ to say is I’ve had a crush on you the whole time. And I didn’t say nothin’ because I knew you didn’t share my feelin’s. Bein’ friends is fine, but it still broke my heart when you started datin’ Twilight. And when you two went splitsville, I got hopeful again, but...I just can’t bring myself to try and win your heart. It don’t amount to nothin’ that you’re single; your heart belongs to Twilight, and it don’t matter none what I think about it.”
“AJ, if you want, we can give this a try,” he offered, trying to come to a middle ground. “I do like you.”
“No,” she said with resolve. “I will not be somepony’s consolation prize.” He opened his mouth to comment, but she held up a hoof and cut him off. “It don’t matter none, because the truth is, you wouldn’t have even considered datin’ me if I didn’t spill my guts in the first place. Deep down, I know you still love Twilight, and darn it if she don’t love you.”
“You shut your mouth and let me finish,” she snapped. “A wise old rodeo pony once told me that win or lose, every event is just one more step on the road of life, one more step on the road to your dreams comin’ true. You and Twilight are just goin’ through a rough patch, and I know if you give it enough time, things will smooth out. And buck me if I don’t do what I can to stop you from makin’ the worst decision of your life. Don’t you dare settle for second best.”
Tux was speechless for a moment as he watched Applejack hang her head in sadness, a few stray tears staining her coat with dark orange dots. “AJ, I don’t know what to say. I don’t want you to abandon your dreams....”
“It’s just another step, Tux,” she sniffed. “I love you too much, so I have to cut bait. You remember that saying RD said earlier?”
“Yeah,” he said instinctively. “Uh, actually, no.”
“Remember? She told you to fish or cut bait. Means either go steady or stay single. I’m makin’ your decision for you, at least this time. It’s what’s best for both of us.” She picked up her neglected mug and turned it upside down with a sigh before shaking her head and putting it down hard on the end table where it had sat for the duration of their conversation. “You should be gettin’ home,” she urged. “I need a moment to myself. I asked Mac to take you home; he should be waitin’ in the livin’ room.”
Tux had trouble accepting the fact, but the pain on Applejack’s face told him that he wasn’t wanted. With great reluctance, he dragged his feet to the elevator and tried to guess how it worked. Right before he found the correct rope and jerked it with his teeth, he heard the faint sound of Applejack’s sobs, and he looked back to see her with her face buried in her hooves.
He shut his eyes and hung his head low as the elevator climbed to its destination, and he was glad that he opened his eyes before starting out of the barn; if he hadn’t, he would have run smack into a pair of thick, sorrel legs. He snapped to attention, his eyes wide at the sight of Big Macintosh’s displeased glare. “Big Mac,” he greeted with a nervous chuckle.
“Do I smell booze on your breath?” the draft stallion snorted. “And why is my little sister cryin’?”
“My wing to Celestia, I didn’t do anything,” Tux stammered. “It was Applejack’s idea. I didn’t even know the cider was hard, and I won’t tell a soul about your operation. Go talk to her, and she’ll tell you.”
“Go wait in the livin’ room,” Mac commanded, his eyes a squint and his voice a quiet rumble. “If you’re lyin’, you ain’t goin’ home, ‘less you’re in a cast.”
Tux swallowed hard and stepped off the elevator, loping his way from the barn to the house. He took up a seat in a living room chair and sat there stone-still, his heart racing in dread. “Element of Honesty,” he repeated in a futile attempt to calm his nerves. “She won’t tell a lie.”
The wait was short, much shorter than Tux had expected: no more than five minutes, according to the grandfather clock which stood between two chairs across the room. But soon, Tux heard the squeak of cart wheels and a shrill whistle beckoning him to leave the hot seat.
He left the parlor to find the sorrel stallion hitched to a small, two-wheeled cart, similar to some of the taxis he saw in Manehattan. The vehicle was old and weathered, but it looked solid enough. Mac looked at Tux and nodded his head in the cart’s direction. “Get in.”
“Are you sure you can pull me, Mac?” Tux asked tentatively.
“If I can haul a cart of apples, I can sure as heck haul a cart of drunk pony. Now get in.”
Tux climbed up into the cart, grateful that he didn’t have to walk home. The cart jerked as Mac started moseying on down the path. For a long time, the only sounds Tux could hear were the gentle thump, thumping of Mac’s dinnerplate hooves on the packed earth and the soft squeaking of the cart’s wheels and frame.
But shortly after they passed the farm’s outer gate, the sorrel stallion broke his stoic silence. “I’m sorry for givin’ you that scare back there,” he apologized. “You’re a good pony, and I trust you. It’s just that when I hear my little sis crying, I know that somethin’ just ain’t right. And when I smelled that cider on your breath, I went to assumin’ the worst. I know you wouldn’t never hurt my AJ.”
“You’re a very loving brother,” Tux remarked. “I would have done the same thing for either one my sisters.”
“Then you understand.” He paused for a moment and then commented, “I wouldn’t have minded you for a brother. And I know you would make AJ very happy, if she weren’t sometimes such a stubborn little she-ass. But I sense a little bit of ass in you, too.”
Tux shrugged. “I have a distant relative by marriage who was a donkey, but other than that....”
“Well, I’d bet that’s enough to put a little bit of stubbornness in your bones.”
The rest of their trip to Ponyville was spent in silence except for the sounds of the forest. Tux’s buzz was wearing off, and he was getting very sleepy, so he lay down on the seat of the cart, looking up at the stars. Just as he was about to nod off, the cart jerked to a stop. He nearly rolled off the seat, but he managed to catch himself.
He bade Big Macintosh good night and shuffled into his cottage. His cats greeted him with loving rubs and expectant mews, but aside from a brief greeting, he didn’t have any energy to spend on them. He climbed the stairs with measured steps and tumbled into the warm embrace of his bed.