• Published 8th Jul 2019
  • 665 Views, 310 Comments

The Rains of Vanhoover - kudzuhaiku

It was raining in Vanhoover. It was always raining in Vanhoover.

  • ...

Go loco for Coco

Suspended from the choker collar, seven diamonds gleamed like fat, frozen raindrops. Left to stare at her reflection in the mirror, Tater Blossom seemed more confused than anything else. She squinnied into the mirror and had only an incredulous stare for her reflection. Taffy and Pod had brushed her to a state of smooth, silken perfection, and then dressed her up in one of Pod’s old-but-still-fabulous gowns, something in a subdued pastel shade of orange with a creamed-coffee trim.

With a startled wicker, Tater Blossom scooted away from her reflection, pressed up against the wall, and then with slow caution, she raised her head around the frame of the mirror to sneak up on her own reflection so that she might have a second look. When she chame to eye-to-eye with her own reflection, she wickered again while she ducked away.

Nut allowed himself a bit of a chuckle and the soft, mirthful sound made Pod give him a bit of well-deserved side-eye. Potato Blossom, as evidenced by the game she played with her reflection, was a silly pony. Every time she saw herself looking back, she scooted away to avoid her own astonished gaze.

“I don’t recognise myself,” Tater Blossom said at last. She pointed at the mirror with her hoof. “That pony in the mirror, she looks a bit like me, but she ain’t me. She looks like a princess.”

“Oh, this is casual, not formal.” Taffy sniffed once, blinked, and shook her head. “We could, in fact, make you look like a princess. But that means you holding still and not squirming.”

“Nuts to that,” Tater replied.

Taffy tittered, but did her best to appear serious.

“I am still surprised the gown fits,” Pod said.

“You went through an awkward husky phase—”

“Nut, how could you!” Pod whirled around and her face had a somewhat purple hue beneath the green. “It’s bad enough to say that about me, but think of how Tater feels!”

Just as Nut was about to address this accusation, Tater Blossom exploded with laughter. She brayed like a donkey, with her head held low, and with each peal of laughter, her tail rose and fell. This unrestrained laughter echoed around the bedroom, and of all those present, Pod was the one most caught off guard. She stood there, awkwardly blinking, her face growing ever-more purple with each passing second.

To make matters worse, Taffy giggled. It started with a little giggle-snort that escaped, followed by a few more, and then poor Taffy was completely overcome. The giggles turned into shrill barks of laughter, and Nut, a serious, reserved type, exchanged a glance with Pod, who shuffled in place whilst she wore a purplefied expression of embarrassment.

“Honestly, I liked you more during your husky phase,” Nut said, brave as ever in the face of mortal peril. “There was a lot of enticingly jiggly bits when we played badminton or tennis. It’s the reason I kept losing. Impossible to ignore distractions caused no end of mishap.”

Pod’s face now turned deadpan, expressionless, and she stared straight ahead.

“I was always so self-conscious about my weight,” she said, almost whispering. “Clove would say things that left me insecure. Suggestions about sleek, slender ponies being happy ponies. If only I would have known that you liked it. A part of me wondered if that was the reason you broke our bonds of betrothal.”

“Pod, you have my sincere and heartfelt apologies.” Nut leaned in a little closer, but then wasn’t sure what to do next. “You are my friend, Pod. Had we stayed together, nothing could have possibly changed my state of attraction for you.” He became aware that both Tater and Taffy had gone silent, and the two of them were pressed together, watching the exchange with wide-eyed, eager intent.

“Well”—Pod’s voice creaked like an unoiled door hinge—“that actually makes me feel better. I’ve been carrying this around now for a couple of years.”

“Pod, I’m disappointed. You should know better. I wish you thought better of me.” Nut cleared his throat and allowed himself a little sarcasm. “All this talk of being a mare of the new era, just brimming with modernity, free from the trappings of our vulgar past.”

“Oh, shut it, Nut. I don’t care about what others think of me, just you. And, well, Taffy, if I’m honest. It’s not about being shallow, or vapid, or having the depth of a teaspoon. I just want to know that I am desirable to the pony that I’ve taken an interest in.” Pod took a deep breath, let it all out in a huff, inhaled again, and some of the dark colour drained away from her face. “I don’t want everypony to find me pretty, just the ponies that I love.”

“Fair enough,” Nut replied.

“Fair enough?” Pod snorted and she drew herself up to her full height. “That’s not terribly satisfying after I poured my heart out.”

“Nut loves a pegasus that had both of her front legs bitten off by an orca.” Tater’s ears fell back to a more submissive position when Nut turned to look at her. “Maybe love is too strong a word?”

Nut applied the pressure by narrowing his eyes and he cast a sidelong glance at his apprentice. Oh, he didn’t want to scare her, he just wanted her to squirm a bit, and squirm she did. A little glowering would do the trick, for certain. Tater Blossom’s eyes darted left, then right, left again, and then she looked at Taffy, perhaps in need of some support.

“I’m not sure that looks matter, is all I’m sayin’.”

“Tater Blossom, your flower power is no match for Nut’s glower power,” Taffy said to the filly pressed tight against her side. “Calm down. Relax a little. You’ll rumple your gown. It seems to me that you got under Nut’s skin, which suggests that he does, indeed, have feelings for this Black Maple. Complicated feelings, so we shan’t tease him about them. ‘Tis unseemly.”

“Taffy”— he allowed his stern expression to relax—“I like you.”

“Oh, capital!” Pod’s face brightened a bit when she beamed. “The father of my future young likes my betrothed. Smashing.”

“All this talk,” Taffy said whilst she blushed. “We’re getting nothing done! We have to be going! Nut, go get dressed. Don’t argue! I see it in your eyes! Pod, you too. Go finish. We all were sidetracked by Tater Blossom’s inspection.”

“But I do not wish to go—”

“Nut, you’re going, and that’s final.”

“You’re not my mother,” he said with as much defiance as he dared.

“Now is not the time to argue. This is Tater’s night to be a princess. Now go dress up a bit. Remember, this is dress casual. Go for a dark and sombre tweed jacket if you have one. You’ll contrast well with your apprentice.”

“But I—”

“No buts!” Taffy stomped her hoof. “Now go! Do as I say!”

“Nut, you’re strutting,” Pod said.

“I am escorting some rather pretty ponies,” he replied.

“The streets are too narrow for a carriage.” Taffy sighed. “At least all the walking keeps me trim. I’m a bit peeved with Gestalt… just winked and left us all behind.”

“I’m pretty,” Tater Blossom announced whilst she pranced alongside Taffy.

Canterlot was orange; it was brilliantly ablaze with the setting of the sun, which settled to the west. It felt good to trot down these narrow streets once more with Pod by his side. Things had changed between them; what these changes were remained unknown, but he could sense a difference. The air had been cleared a bit, and she seemed supportive of his relationship with Black Maple—which, if he were honest, confounded him.

Then again, he was quite happy about Pod’s relationship with Taffy, so there was that.

“So, what is our socialite objective for this even?” he asked with only the barest hint of sarcasm. “For what brave, noble reason do we leave our tower, the place of ideological purity that we call home?”

“We’re going to Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns,” Pod replied. “A lot of parents are enlisted. Many parents are away. From what little I know, Princess Celestia is going to appeal to the ponies of Canterlot to open their hearts and their homes to take in foals whose parents are away during the holidays and other days when school is out. Weekend visits and what not.”

A tight-lipped grimace pressed Nut’s mouth into a thin line. “Well… I suppose that seems reasonable enough. I’ll keep my sarcastic disdain to a minimum, perhaps.”

“So gracious, Lord Nut.”

“Oh, I know, Lady Pod, I know.”

“So, when do we meet Black Maple?”

“Hopefully never, Pod.”

“Oh, pish posh.” Pod rolled her eyes in a theatrical way while her flowing gown fluttered in the breeze as she trotted beside Nut. “We could live together. Be a family. I’ve heard that cohabitational herds have become quite trendy, due in no small part because of Twilight Sparkle, the Princess of Friendship.”

“I will not subject myself to a tactical disadvantage,” Nut replied whilst he held back a full-body shudder brought about by the unnerving thought. “Besides, I have other plans. Not to mention my life is currently in Vanhoover.”

“That may be true, but it is still fun to think about. What about you, Taffy? What are your thoughts on the issue?”

“It’s fun to discuss and think about, and that is all I have to say.”

Nut didn’t find it fun. Not in the slightest. He didn’t wish to discuss it, but didn’t want to spoil the mood. Perhaps, with some luck, Pod might change the subject. Against his will, his thoughts turned to Black Maple, and he wondered how she was. If she was angry. He worried about their friendship—and if something existed beyond friendship. Maybe this was just what he needed, some time away to clear his head.

Maybe absence made the heart grow fonder, but he had his doubts.

“Secundus has twelve mothers,” Pod remarked. “Sometimes, I feel a bit sad that our family isn’t larger. I plan to have a large family, even if it means sacrificing my career just a little. Of course, having a large family would be easier with a herd of some sort, otherwise I’ll just have to hire nannies, I suppose. A mare must be practical.”

“I don’t know what I want.” Tater’s head swung from side to side, unseen behind Nut.

Though he said nothing, Nut wasn’t wholly certain of what he wanted either.

Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns was decorated in festive streamers and bows. From the looks of things, the students had done the decorations, and they’d done a fine job. The Royal Pony Sisters were immortalised in a mosaic of dyed macaroni noodles, which Nut had to admit took a while to warm up to. Carriages pulled up to the front and passengers got to make a grand red carpet entrance.

Almost right away, Nut hated it.

The pop of flashbulbs dazzled his eyes and brought out the very worst within him. Ponies were here to be seen. Why was this even allowed? What ever happened to dignified, sombre entrances? The funeral for restraint must have gone by, unnoticed. At least Nut never received an invitation. Even worse, Tater Blossom seemed to be having the time of her life, which was dreadful. Now he would have to make sure to hide his sour mood so he would not spoil her good time.

“Oh, I do believe that is Coco Pommel,” Pod said to her companions. “She’s wearing a sundress… ooh la la.”

“It’s just a sundress.” Nut shrugged while he also shook his head. “I don’t see what the big deal is.”

Pod frowned, wickered, and whinnied, but said nothing to Nut.

“She’s here to draw attention to Manehattan’s reconstruction, no doubt.”

“Oh, for certain, Taffy.” Pod sighed, an airy, breathy sound, and then groaned out her heartfelt sentiment, “Oh, how I wish I could wear something as simple as a sundress and have it look that good.”

“Alas, the tragedy of dear, poor Pod, she’s—”

“Don’t you say it, Nut!”

“—green with envy.”

“Argh, you said it. You’ll pay for that, Nut. It seems as though I was mistaken to believe that you might have matured a little during your time away.” Turning about, Pod faced off with Nut, her face contorted with mock-outrage that held more than a little real outrage.

It was all in her eyes, which Nut found quite enchanting.

The old flame still blazed brightly, as it were.

“All these pretty ponies and I’m stuck being green.” Pod stomped her hoof for emphasis while she also tossed her head about. “Green. The most difficult colour to be. I’m stuck this way. Green. I am the colour of pea soup, the least appetising of all soup colours. It’s hard to buy dresses, or clothing, or anything, because I’m the colour of grotty pea soup. And you, Nut… when you were younger, you had the audacity to say to me that my appearance would be improved with a necklace of saltines. I’m still mad at you.”

“Might I inquire what brought all this about?”

“You came back.” All trace of expression left Pod’s face. “Nut… you broke everything off when we were young, and then pretended as if nothing was wrong. Even worse, you pretended as if nothing had changed. But everything changed. Everything that could change did change, and all of your playful barbs, and quips, and witty retorts… I saw them all in a different light. After your rejection, all those words previously said took on new meaning. I didn’t want all of this slipping out, but it did. It has. Here comes the flood.”

Nut inhaled, ready to say something, he had high hopes of making things better—

“I was starting to move on. I found Taffy. Secundus and I consoled one another. Little by little, I let things go. It was painful, but I let them slip away. I couldn’t have done it without Taffy. But then you came back. Quite suddenly and without warning. Much to my dismay, the things I thought I’d let go of still had a hold of me.”

“Would it be for the best if I left?” he asked.

“Is that your solution to everything? Leaving?”

“Allow me to be honest,” he said with a low voice. “I didn’t want to be here. Very much against my will, I was dragged here, and I only came along to be agreeable. If all of this had been said at home, in private, then I could have avoided what was sure to be a long, stressful, awkward, unpleasant evening of forced smiles and pretending that everything is great.”

“Ooh… Inconvenienced, are you? How terrible.” Cursing beneath her breath, Pod stormed away, and showers of sparks could be seen shooting from the tip of her horn.

Taffy watched Pod go and when the furious unicorn was several yards away, Taffy said to Nut, “Don’t tell her I said this, but you kind of have a point. I’m going to go and try to calm her down. Wish me luck.”

Neither Tater Blossom nor Nut said anything as Taffy went running after Pod.

The gardens behind the school were a lovely place but there were far too many ponies for Nut to be comfortable. He dutifully remained though, because his apprentice was having the time of her life. Tater, overjoyed, went from display to display, each of them set up in a nook, an alcove, or some corner in the garden, and she read random facts about the school.

As he was dragged from one display to another, Nut had far too many mares on his mind. The well-being of his apprentice stood out in the forefront of his thoughts, as well as a sense of regret that he might have spoiled her evening. Pod too, was something floating around near the surface, as he pondered just how many mistakes he might have made. There was just no way of knowing. Then there was Black Maple, which was, indeed, a subject every bit as sticky as her namesake.

Lurking in the depths of his thoughts was the knowledge that he was attracted to Taffy.

“So, tell me, Nut… only unicorns can come here. Why?”

Pulled from his distracted state, he focused his attention on his apprentice. A good answer was important, and he already had a suitable one in mind. “Specialisation,” he said to her in a gentle tone of instruction. “Everything is specialised around the instruction of unicorns and magic. It allows for focused instructors. It’s not a matter of exclusion, it is just a matter of specialisation. Magic is the most difficult subject to teach, and there are few instructors capable of doing so. If earth ponies and pegasus ponies were allowed to attend here, the talents of the teachers would be wasted. I suppose it is a matter of priority.”

“Yer sayin’ that the time is better spent doin’ what they know to do.”

“Hmm, yes.”

“Huh. That makes sense. But it might look bad to a pony that don’t know no better.”

“Why, yes, I suppose it might, Miss Blossom.”

“So if an earth pony or a pegasus pony were to demand to come here, it’d do harm in some complicated way.”

“Correct, Miss Blossom.”

“That sign over there said that unicorn foals are the most proportionally neglected foals in the education system, but that popular public opinion says that earth ponies are the most neglected. I’m stuck trying to figure out what is true, and I don’t know where to begin.”

“Quite a conundrum, Miss Blossom. Truth be told, I don’t have all the relevant and necessary facts to say what might be true.”

“What does proportionally neglected mean, anyhow?”

“It means that a statistic can be used to make anything seem possible, but in this instance, it means that it might appear that earth ponies receive poor education, but even a poor education is better than no education in a vital skill, such as magic. An earth pony that receives a terrible education in reading, writing, and arithmetic is still getting a better education than a unicorn that doesn’t receive a remedial understanding of how their own magic works.”

“Oh.” The lights went on in Tater Blossom’s eyes as she had a profound moment of understanding. “Oh. So me with my hick education and my hick learning, I’m still better off than a unicorn that didn’t learn how to unicorn. Oh golly-gosh, that’s making me think big thinks about thinkity-thunks that I don’t understand.”

“You are a clever girl, you know that?”

“It’s caused me no end of trouble,” she replied with a fierce blush.

“Solving the earth pony education problem is far, far easier than solving the unicorn education problem, but both of them are difficult for very different reasons. There’s far too many unicorns and not enough qualified magic instructors. Solving the earth pony education crisis can be done by increasing spending on education budgets and raising standards.”

“But the real problem is, most of us earth ponies is hicks, and we don’t think a hifalutin education ain’t worth a thing. We like to wallow in our ignorance like a pig in shi—”

“Miss Blossom, might I remind you that this is a school?”

Her blush intensified. “I have the will to get smart, and I was shamed for it. So there’s these uh… I don’t know the word. But where I live and how I was raised, we’re only taught enough to do what needs to be done. A filly is taught just enough arithmetic to do baking and household stuff. Like, I learned some of my fractions and basic measurements. And then that was it. No more. Readin’ was a gift though, because once I understood the basics, I could keep readin’ to learn myself how to do all kinds of stuff, if only I had the books.”

“Yes,” he said, agreeing with what she had to say. “And we have the same problem in the cities. Education is doled out in meagre portions. Training for factory work, or carpentry, or the various trades. We’re robbing ourselves of our potential greatness by not expanding our education standards. Advanced education is seen as optional, or worse, a detriment.”

“Uh-huh.” She nodded, which made her ears bob.

Then, somewhat suddenly, she went still. Her mouth puckered into a tight scowl, her jaw muscles went taut, and her eyes glittered as she cogitated. Nut could see her mental processes at work, and patient as always, he waited for her to arrive at whatever conclusion awaited. Her head turned, and she looked at the sign. As she did so, her eyebrow arched, her ears rose, and her nostrils flared wide when she drew in a long, steady inhale.

“I ain’t learned enough to sort out this big think of mine. But I’ll get there.”

“Miss Blossom, might I recommend keeping a journal so you can revisit these marvellous thoughts later, when you have more comprehension and understanding?”

“I’d like that,” she replied.

“I’ll make it happen. You have my word.” He gestured at the doors with his extended hoof. “It seems as though they are about to begin. Shall we go inside?”

“Yeah, let’s do that. What’ll we do once we’re in there?”

“Socialise,” he responded in deadpan. “An exercise in excessive boredom.”

For a casual affair, far too many ponies were dressed in tuxedos and formal gowns. Nut didn’t like it, not at all, not in the slightest. There was no sign of Pod or Taffy. Gestalt was nowhere to be seen either. While he himself was miserable, Tater seemed to be having a marvellous time. For Nut, the school-made decorations were far too jarring in contrast to the tuxedos and finery on display.

Ponies were laughing—at their own jokes no doubt—and everything felt a little less than real. Nut could not help but notice that it was just ponies, with no other creatures present. At least with Vanhoover, there was variety. Nothing felt right, or real for that matter, almost as if this was all some surreal dream of some sort, a mockery of the waking hours.

In a dreadful, peculiar moment, Nut felt all alone in a crowded room, and it left him quite disturbed. The crêpe paper flowers made by students were far too garish and out of place among the sea of tuxedos and silken evening gowns. Ponies were here to be seen, and to be seen, one had to stand out, to be noticed. Nut had spent most of his foalhood having pounded into his head that he should not be noticed, so right now he felt a rising sense of profound confusion.

A bubble-blowing machine spat out an endless stream of rainbow-hued bubbles.



“That rhymes!”

It took him a moment to determine what she meant. “I say, so it does.”

“These games… what’re they for?”

“They’re carnival games, Miss Blossom. Slightly rigged games of chance or skill. Somehow manage to overcome the odds, and you can win prizes.” Without realising it, his eyes narrowed as he said, “Crown-sponsored grift. But fun, I suppose, if you can somehow win a trinket.”

“All this fun and not many ponies a-playin’.”

“Oh, I suspect they’re too uptight to have fun.”

“Good thing yer not uptight in any way.”

Nut froze; he knew he was being played right now, but also knew that if he confronted Miss Blossom about this, the accusation of uptightness would stick to him like well-chewed bubblegum. Her manipulations were not malicious; she just wanted to play, to have fun. He studied her, read her face, examined her eyes, and watched how her ears pivoted around to catch every sound that could be heard around them.

“Very well, Miss Blossom. I shall win a token for you. But I get to pick the game. Most of these are cheaty in the extreme.” He slipped his monocle over his eye, squinted, and had a good look at the carnival row that lined one wall. There were about a dozen booths or so, with things like horseshoe tosses, ball and cup games, card games, and in the corner… a shooting gallery.

When Nut grinned, several nearby ponies sucked in a sharp breath as they backed away to give him some room. He was just that sort of pony. His grin? Maniacal. His movements? Predatory. As he started to move towards the corner, the crowd parted as if by magic. Tater Blossom followed just behind him, her trot a bit over-enthusiastic and bouncy. The both of them could not be two more different ponies.

The sign stated quite plainly, “No magic.”

A row of tin ducks bobbed along a conveyor, powered by a clanking, buzzing machine. There was a crossbow on the counter, and a container full of dum-dum bolts. It was a simple crossbow, one meant to be used with no magic. Hold it in the fetlocks and give the simple lever trigger a squeeze. For most ponies, this would be a challenge, but for most unicorns who only used magic to do everything—this was, indeed, a rigged game.

“Five quarrels for a gold bit,” the barker said.

“That’s pricey,” Nut replied.

“It’s for a good cause, pal. What? Are ya stingy?”

“Yes.” Nut nodded. “I tend to be just that.”

“I want the hat with the antlers, Nut.”

At the sound of Tater’s voice, Nut checked the pile of prizes. Up on top, sitting on top of a giant stuffed bear, he saw it. A brown wool felted hat with white spots. Two stubby antlers. Brown fuzzy ears with a pink wool felt lining. Much to his surprise, the beanie was well made. Right away, he saw it for what it was—a lure. Which meant that it was probably impossible to get under most circumstances, if not all.

“All you gotta do to win that,” the barker said, “is knock down six ducks with five quarrels.”

“Easy-peasy,” Nut replied in a fantastic steady deadpan that was the ultimate proof of his fine breeding. Of course, saying it and doing it were two very different things.

He spent a few moments with his eyes on the fawn beanie, which was a ridiculous thing, and then turned his attention to the ducks. He measured the distance between them, and then he considered the dum-dum bolts. His eyes went to the ducks, then back to the bolts. There was maybe eight or nine inches between the ducks, and each bolt was maybe twelve inches long.

“Remember, pal… no magic. If your horn lights up even just a little, you’re disqualified.”

Nut’s horn did ignite, but it was to plunk down a gold bit upon the counter. “I’ll be having that fawn beanie.”

In response, the barker let out a raspy chuckle.

“I’m a-gettin’ me some deer ears. Ooh, I bet I’ll look cute!”

Nut rose into a bipedal stance; using his front hooves, he lifted up the crossbow and gave it a heft to test its weight as well as its balance. It was military surplus, no doubt about it. Lever trigger, squeezed in the fetlock, and it was cocked with a lever as well, which, when drawn back, would engage some cogs to draw back the string. It was ancient, but well-maintained. No doubt, many a pegasus pony rained down death from above with such a weapon of war.

Bracing it against himself, he pulled the cocking lever. One pull brought back the string about a third of the way. Another tug on the lever brought it back a little more. A third pull brought it all the way back and there was a click as the lever trigger locked into place. It was ready to fire. The barker, a helpful fellow, held out a quarrel with his wing. Nut took it, gripped it in his fetlock, and with considerable skill, loaded it into the crossbow, which was now ready to fire.

A crowd had gathered.

Standing tall on his hind legs, Nut raised the crossbow, braced it against his shoulder, and found a good grip on the well-polished wood. Some considerate pony had removed the sights from this crossbow, not that it mattered to Nut. He didn’t need sights, just a target. He had to knock down six ducks with five bolts somehow, and had a pretty good notion of how to do it.

Peering through his monocle, he lined up his shot.

Had the crossbow been weakened for firing indoors?

He was about to find out.

Releasing his held breath, he gave the trigger lever a gentle squeeze. There was a mechanical clunk, a brassy sound of metal parts in motion, and the bolt flew with surprising speed. Yes, the crossbow had been weakened, but it still had surprising punch. Enough to startle a pony and possibly make them miss their shot.

A duck fell over when it was slammed by a dum-dum bolt.

“Hmm, I say. A lucky shot.” Nut grinned, his broad, perfect teeth on display.

“Yeah… a lucky shot.” The barker, no longer smiling, now had a sour expression of contempt. “Remember. Six ducks with five quarrels. No magic.”

Five would be tricky, but not wholly impossible. He needed another shot or two to determine how the bolts flew, their momentum, impact, and flight characteristics. Nut felt this was only mildly improbable, not impossible. He could do improbable things, and regularly did. Like, walk into an infestation of basilisks and emerge in a not-stoned state. Or face off with an archive full of mimics. Sometimes, he did the improbable twice before lunch.

Wearing a cocky grin, he repeated the reloading ritual, and offered up a curt nod when the barker held out a quarrel for him. His brain was already performing the necessary mental gymnastics, the improbable calculations for his cunning stunt. But to pull it off, he’d need more data. Raising the crossbow, he took steady aim…


The duck toppled.

Two ducks down, two shots fired.

He could hear the crowd talking now, the murmur of hushed, genteel voices with austere bearing. Reloading the crossbow was second-nature now, he’d become intimate with it, and every weapon was his friend. Across the counter, the barker wore a curious smirk, a ploy at confidence, but it was betrayed by the doubt that glittered in his eyes.

“I’m a-gettin’ me a fawn hat. I just know it.”

“How will he do it?” a bespectacled mare asked in a hushed whisper.

With the third bolt loaded, Nut took aim, but did not fire right away. Instead, he lined up his shot and then spent a bit of time leading his target. The tin ducks, painted a vivid yellow, were all dented and dinged in the middle. They even had a red bullseye. But hitting the bullseye was folly. Nut’s ears splayed out sideways as he took careful, steady aim.

A third duck met a violent end and was knocked over.

“He’s got two shots left but needs three ducks,” the bespectacled mare said.

Before reloading, Nut craned his head around to peer at the fallen duck. It was hard to spot, but he could see a fresh nick in the paint on the neck, a bright bit of tin. He’d need to lead his shot a bit more, but how much more was a tricky, tricky guess. His ears pricked and he felt just a bit sweaty beneath his collar.

“Somepony is a dutiful big brother.”

“Oh yes, quite.”

Without a word said, Nut cocked the crossbow and loaded his fourth bolt. This shot would prove important. If he messed this up, he’d likely fail completely. He only had one chance to get this right, and if this went just perfect, he’d only get one shot to do the improbable. Slim odds, but not impossible.

Both Nut and the barker were sweating a bit.

The crossbow was perfectly still when Nut fired, and a fourth duck went down with a clink of metal on metal. He found himself wondering if the big stuffed bear was the prize for five out of five, but the ginormous stuffy was not the goal. Miss Blossom wanted the silly deer-ears, and so she would have it. Surely, it would keep her head warm on chilly days.

“Four out of four,” the barker announced, and Nut took great satisfaction in the soft tremour he heard.

Yes. Four out of four. Done with no sights, no means to draw a bead on the target. Now was the time for the finale. The big finish. Quite a crowd had gathered, and Nut took immense pleasure in their suspense. Watching the barker squirm was also rather pleasing. Calm, his breathing slow and regular, Nut cocked the crossbow as the barker held out the fifth and final quarrel.

“The anticipation is terrible,” the bespectacled mare said.

“I hope it lasts,” another pony remarked.

“Oh, pish-posh,” yet another said, “this is Canterlot, the city where anything is possible.”

Nut loaded the bolt backwards.

There was a nervous chuckle from the barker, but nothing was said.

No room for errors. Failure wasn’t an option. This shot would have to be beyond perfect. Luck was no substitute for geometry and the mathematics of improbability. Squinting through his monocle, Nut carefully led his shot, but did not fire. He followed the duck as it bobbed along the conveyor, waiting for just the right time. His target was directly behind another duck, and he planned to take both of them out.

When he fired, the bolt had a dreadful wobble, but flew true enough. The crowd had gone silent, save for the sound of breathing, and Nut watched as the backwards bolt struck the duck on the leading edge of its neck. For a fraction of a second, nothing happened, but then the duck slowly teetered over as the dum-dum bolt swung around. The heavy, weighted tip carried momentum well, and it collided with the duck in front of the one hit. It was a one-in-million shot, but for Nut, he was fairly certain he could repeat this, if necessary.

With a faint squeak, the second duck collapsed.

“Fronk me,” the barker breathed.

“No no, I just want the hat, please.” Nut set the crossbow down on the counter, dropped down on all fours, and then took a moment to tug at his damp collar. One had to look nonchalant after achieving the improbable, otherwise, what was the point?

“I knew it!” Tater Blossom crowed in what was most decidedly not an indoor voice.

“Take the hat,” the barker said to Nut. “You deserve it. Good show and all that.”

“Why, thank you.” Nut offered a gracious bow of his head. There was no sense in gloating about it. Reaching out with his magic, he plucked the woollen beanie off of the bear’s head, and then dangled it just in front of his apprentice’s nose. “I believe this is yours, Miss Blossom.”

“Oh, thank ya kindly!”

Beaming, she shoved her ears into the beanie held before her and Nut could not help but smile. She looked ridiculous wearing the gown, the diamond choker, and the antlered hat. But she was happy, so what did it matter? With his telekinesis, he slipped it down over her head, and then gave it a few adjustments.

Her happiness was his own.

“You are very deer to me—”

“Nut, no… don’t ruin the moment. Come on.” She winced, as if experiencing physical pain, and took a step back. “It was a beautiful moment, but then you had to say that.”

“Allow me to fawn over you—”

“No!” Tater Blossom stomped her hoof. “Ugh, that’s awful. Don’t do that!” Tater Blossom now appeared as though she’d chewed some lemons.

Smirking, Nut was about to come up with something else that was witty, but the sound of trumpets gave him pause. He turned, and so did everypony else in the vast auditorium. Guards assembled near the brass-trimmed double doors. A reverent, expectant hush fell over the crowd, and Tater Blossom’s expression went from sour to curious.

“Ladies and gents,” the announcer said, “please welcome our Headmistress, Her Royal Majesty, Princess Celestia.”

On cue, the double doors opened, and there she was, larger than life. Princess Celestia strode through the double doors, ducking her head somewhat so her horn wouldn’t scrape. She wore a loose-fitting gown made of silk so pink that it could be described as lustful. It was unmentionably pink, a scandalous colour.

He heard a bleating cry from beside him, an almost throttled sound, there was something almost like a sob, and then he heard Miss Blossom say, “No! Don’t let her near me. I’m wicked. I’ll burn… I’ll burn! I’m not fit to be in her shadow. I disobeyed my parents! Brought shame on myself and them! I’m shunned!”

Her words were cut off with a gurgle and he heard a sucking sound. When he turned around, she was fighting to breathe, struggling for air, and he could hear pained wheezes. Then, while he stood in shock watching, her legs went limp and she tumbled to the floor. Collapsed, she curled into a fetal position, and then bawled in a horrible, strangled sort of way.

It was all so sudden.

“Oh my. Move aside, please!”

When the crowd did not move, Princess Celestia took matters into her own hooves. Or wings, in this instance. She shoved, pushed, and made her way through the crowd until she was mere inches away from Nut, who now stood frozen. Then, he too was knocked out of the way as the glorious giantess took charge.

Right beside Princess Celestia was Raven, who said, “Some kind of anxiety attack I’d guess.”

“Poor dear. Raven, help me move her to a quiet, secluded place, will you?”

“Of course.” Turning about, Raven affixed her commanding gaze upon the crowd. “Give us room. Now.

Stricken, Nut stared down at Potato Blossom, who had her face covered with her forelegs. Her gown was rumpled, disheveled, all made worse as she kicked and convulsed. He’d never seen anything quite like it and didn’t know how to react. What exactly did one do during a moment like this one?

“I’m sorry,” Princess Celestia said to the crowd. “All of you came to enjoy my company, but you must excuse me. Somepony is in need of some help. I’ll return to visit with you once this is sorted out, I promise.” Then, without further ado, the princess lifted Potato Blossom from the floor and carried her towards the double doors.

Still frozen, Nut watched them go while his brain screamed for action.

Author's Note:

If you go back in previous chapters, you can actually see where things are falling apart with Pod. Nut is oblivious, and by extension, so is the reader.

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