The Tale of Tux n Tails

by mbrsart

First published

The newest blankflank in Ponyville is no colt, but rather a stallion who seems to have drawn the short straw his whole life. Will he find his one, true purpose? And what of his one, true love?

Tux n Tails is a pony who has drawn the short straw his entire life. Being a blankflank is nothing if you're still a foal, but as a stallion, he doesn't quite fit in. He escapes his stagnant life in Hoofton to start afresh in Ponyville, with one driving force: the hope of finding both his purpose and his true love. But soon, he finds himself caught up in a vast conspiracy, with the very fate of Equestria weighing heavy on his shoulders.

(This story takes place largely between seasons two and three.)

Prologue, pt 1 - A Tourist?

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Ponyville was a sunny, happy place. It wasn't without its problems, but no matter what happened, its residents seemed to be able to work things out. That was exactly why Tux n Tails was drawn there; his home town in Hoofton wasn't a very happy place for him.

He was a tall, dark grey Pegasus stallion with a salt-and-pepper mane and tail and four matching socks. His passions were numerous: making music, writing and telling stories, romance and chivalry, and kindness toward his fellow pony. The only problem with this was that his flank was blank. In Hoofton, most ponies got their cutie marks early on, and some didn't get theirs until they were grown, but it seemed that nopony else was a blankflank, especially this late in life.

So one day he left Hoofton behind and struck out on his own. He needed a place where he could fit in, a place where ponies would accept him for who he was.

The journey to Ponyville was long, even taking the train. He used the days to write music, to write stories and poetry. He even wrote love letters to the mare he would one day marry, even though he didn't know who she was yet. While other ponies struck up small talk on the train with strangers, he kept to himself, as he was very shy. When ponies did speak to him, he was polite and responded, answering any questions, but he never asked any of his own.

At long last, the train pulled into the station at Ponyville. Tux gathered up his notebooks and his music and tucked them neatly into his saddlebags. He put on his coat, making sure to cover his flank, and took a deep breath before stepping out of the car onto the platform.

His first impression of Ponyville was very good. It was a small town, which pleased him greatly; Hoofton was a larger city where nopony cared about anypony else. Ponyville was a colorful town, with buildings painted brightly, green grass abounding, and ponies of every color roaming the streets. Hoofton was steel and concrete, with paved streets and almost exclusively chestnut, grey and black ponies, all wearing their drab business suits.

Many of the Hoofton ponies were engineers. Many of them were accountants. The majority of them managed or owned businesses. But most of all, none of them respected Tux's passions. They told him in school to study profitable careers. When he expressed a desire to be a musician, they told him the only thing he could do with it was teach, and that didn't fit his personality at all.

Even so, leaving Hoofton was hard. His home was there; his family was there; what few friends he had were there. They begged and pleaded with him, beseeching him not to leave, but he had to. Everypony knew his reasons, but nopony understood. Hopefully Ponyville would change that.

He felt foolish as he walked through the streets, eyes wide. "I'm such a tourist," he said, casting his eyes to the road.

"A tourist?!" asked a pink pony with a frizzy mane and tail. She startled him, and he nearly fell over. An ear-to-ear grin split her face. "My name is Pinkie Pie. What's yours?"

"Tux n Tails," he replied. "And I'm not a tourist. Not really. I mean, I'm--"

"Well, if you're not a tourist, then what are you, silly?"

"Well," he tried again, "I'm going to try and live here."

"No way!" Pinkie said in awe. "We're going to have to throw you a housewarming party! And do you know who's going to plan it?"

"I don't--"

"ME!" she burst. "Oh, I can't wait to plan your housewarming party. It's going to so awesome!" She bounced away, leaving him speechless.

He didn't know what to think of her. Ponies like this made him uneasy. He didn't know why; they just did. Maybe it was their constant noise level. Maybe their rapid speech overloaded his senses. Whatever it was, he somehow knew that he was going to have to deal with it more in the future.

He continued walking through the streets, looking for a newspaper so that he could find a house to rent. But no matter where he looked, he couldn't find one. Exasperated, he looked around for somepony that could help him. His eyes settled on a large building in the center of town. He walked into the lobby and asked the pony behind the desk, "Excuse me, I'm new in town and I'm looking for city hall."

"It's right here," the receptionist smiled.

Relieved, he asked, "Do you know where I can find a house to rent? I'm looking to stay for quite some time."

"Why, sure," the receptionist replied cheerily. "Go talk to Brixon Mortar at Mortar, Stone and Wood. He should be able to find a place that will fit you quite nicely. But exactly why you'd come to city hall for information is beyond me."

"Well," he said shyly, "that's what everypony does in Hoofton."

"Hey, I have a cousin in Hoofton. Do you know a mare named Cinnamon Swirl? She runs a bakery there."

"I can't say I do. Thank you for the help."

"You're very welcome, mister..."

"Tails," he replied. "Tux n Tails."

"Wow, that's an interesting name. It sounds right out of Canterlot."

"Oh, I'd love to go to Canterlot," he sighed. "My dream is to conduct the Canterlot choir. I always thought my cutie mark would be a baton."

"But it's not, is it?"

Blood rushed to his face. "No, it'" He sighed and reluctantly pulled back his coat. "Blank," he said with a mouthful of cloth.

"Mr. Tails, everypony gets their cutie mark. You have nothing to be ashamed of."

"Thanks." He cleared his throat. "Well, have a nice day. I'm off to talk to Mortar. Uh, where is it, by the way?"

"Just follow this street. The office will be on the left."

He left the building and continued down the street. He felt like everypony was looking at him, even though he knew this wasn't the case. If he wanted to fit in at all, he would have to get to know ponies, and fast. Maybe Pinkie Pie throwing him a housewarming party would help after all.

Just where the receptionist had said it would be, he found the real estate brokers' firm. He thought that the brokers' names were quaint and suited the business well: Brixon Mortar, Hardee Stone, and Cherry Wood. The building itself was a cottage, too, quite unlike the steel boxes that encased most businesses in Hoofton.

He went inside and saw three ponies behind desks. On each desk was a name badge. The pony on Tux's left was Brixon Mortar, a fleabitten grey draft stallion. To his left sat Hardee Stone, a skinny grullo stallion. On the far right was Cherry Wood, a sorrel overo mare. He found them so...normal in this sea of strangely colored ponies. And it gave him the comfort he needed to wait to be served.

"May we help you?" Mortar asked soon after Tux sat down.

"I'm new in town, and I'm looking for a place to rent," Tux replied.

"You take this one, Brixon," Wood said, dropping the pencil from her mouth.

"My pleasure." He came out from behind his desk and asked, "So what did you have in mind? Large? Small? Somewhere in the middle?"

"Somewhere in the middle, I think," Tux replied. "My apartment in Hoofton was too small. Stifling."

"Well, we have several options. Do you have the time to look at them now?"

"I suppose."

"Splendid. Follow me, Mr...."

"Tails. Tux n Tails."

"And you may call me Brixon. Or Mortar. Whatever strikes your fancy."

Tux followed Mortar out of the office and down the street to one of the vacant houses. It was a small cottage somewhere near the center of Ponyville, and he liked it at first, but upon seeing the interior he balked. "This one is too small," he said, shaking his head.

"Not a problem," Mortar replied. "There are plenty more cottages to choose from."

Mortar led him to another cottage, and when he stepped inside, he knew immediately that it wouldn't work. "This one is too big," he said, his voice echoing in the space. "Maybe if I had a huge family, but it's going to be just me."

"Not a problem," Mortar replied. "I think I know the size you're looking for."

At last, Tux was led to a cottage that looked like a good fit. It was just the right size, was painted a plain light brown, and had sensible furniture. He grinned as he walked through the cottage, and Mortar led him upstairs.

"And this," Mortar said, "is the study."

Tux marveled at it. It had large windows and a skylight, with double glass doors that opened onto a balcony. There was a desk, an inkwell, and a quill pen with a permanent, metal nib. "I think it's perfect, Brixon," he beamed. "How much is the rent?"

"One-fifty a month."

He almost choked on his tongue. "That low?"

"It's actually a fairly sizable rent here in Ponyville."

"Where do I sign?" In Hoofton, a hundred and fifty bits per month got you a sheet of cardboard in the gutter in the dirtiest corner of the slums.

"The paperwork is back at the office. The first month's rent is due up front, but is refundable within thirty days if you should change your mind."

"Do you take checks?"

"Of course."

Tux shuddered with pent-up excitement. He followed Mortar back to the office, and upon entering, Wood asked, "That was quick. Did you find a place?"

"Yes I did, Ms. Wood," he grinned.

"Glad to hear it."

Mortar took a document from his desk and slid it over to Tux. "Not very complicated contract, but take your time."

"I appreciate you letting me read it at my leisure," Tux remarked. "In Hoofton, any contract anypony has to sign is a book, and so a lawyer reads it to you." He read it over and found nothing untoward, so he nodded, and Mortar passed him a pen. He took it in his mouth and signed his name.

"Fantastic penmanship," Mortar remarked. "Usually it's chicken-scratch if you're not a unicorn."

"I write a lot," Tux blushed, chuckling. "That's why the study is so perfect for me."

"Well, I hope you enjoy it! Here are the keys." He passed a ring across the table in exchange for the contract and a check for 150 bits. "It's always a pleasure doing business with you, and I encourage you to come to us anytime with questions, comments, or concerns."

"Or if you just want to talk with a bunch of real estate salesponies," Stone laughed. "We're always available unless one of us is out."

"Goodbye," Tux smiled as he left the office. He trotted happily along the street, holding the keys in his mouth. But his inattention led to yet another run-in.

He slammed into somepony and fell to the ground. "Oh, I'm terribly sorry; I didn't see you there," he said.

"Oh, it's not a problem," the other pony replied.

When he stood again, shook off the dust, and opened his eyes, he saw a violet-colored unicorn with large, violet eyes and indigo and pink hair. It was a simple, natural style, and it curled around her neck. Her voice was warm, sultry. He swallowed hard. She was the most beautiful pony he'd ever seen.

"I'm Twilight Sparkle," she smiled. "But you can call me Twilight."

"Tux n Tails," he said, his voice cracking. He cleared it and repeated his name. "Call me Tux."

"You must be new here," she observed. He nodded. "Well, if you ever need to know your way around Ponyville, I'm your pony. I used to be the new girl in town, but not anymore. I live in the old library. Big, hollowed out tree. You can't miss it."

"You like to read, I take it?" he said, trying to make small talk. His voice nearly failed him, to say nothing of his knees.

"Oh yes, I love to read. I'm an egghead, as Rainbow Dash puts it. But she's an egghead, too." She laughed smugly. "I introduced her to Daring Do, and she's bought every book in the collection. I would have let her borrow my copies for longer, but she insisted on the purchase."

"Daring Do?" His ears pricked. "I...I know the author."

"A.K. Yearling?"

"Sure. I'm sure they wish to remain so." The author of the Daring Do series was a foalhood friend of his. His dream was to be as successful as she had been, but he hadn't ever published anything. Not his music, not his stories, not even his essay about the singing voices of unicorns who chose to augment their abilities with magic.

"So what do you like to read?" Twilight asked. "Walk with me."

He walked beside her. "I never thought about it before," he sighed. "I like adventure stories like Daring Do, but I also like to read romance. The classics, not that saddle-ripper trash."

"Like Mane Austen? Oh, I just love Mansfield Pasture!"

"I'm partial to Sense and Sensibility myself," he shrugged. "I always identified with Brandon."

"The strong, silent type, I see. When I first met my friend Fluttershy, she was just like you: couldn't get a word out. But then she saw my little 'brother' Spike and she opened right up. Hey, that's a great idea! I should introduce you to all my friends!"

The prospect of meeting even more people was not appealing. He'd had his fill of social intercourse, and he wanted nothing but to go to his new home, unpack his saddlebags and relax. "I'm sorry, but I really need to be going," he said, breaking off. "Can I take a rain check on that?"

"Okay. Remember, the big tree. Just hit me up if you want to meet some totally awesome ponies."

Relieved to be out of Twilight's company, he walked down his street and up to his new cottage. He unlocked the door and opened it warily, half expecting Pinkie Pie to be lying in wait with a bundle of balloons and a pyramid of gifts. But the house was quiet.

He sighed, plodded up the stairs, and dropped his saddle bags in the study. He lay down in the sunlight that streamed through the skylight and closed his eyes. "Peace and quiet at last," he said softly.

Prologue, pt 2 - Five for Fighting

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When Tux woke, the sun was down. He stood and stretched, sore from the hard floor. He flicked the switch to light the room, but nothing happened. "Breaker box," he grumbled. In Hoofton, most vacant houses had their mane breakers turned off so that their meters wouldn't run up charges.

"Break whose box?" he heard whispered from the shadows.


"Break whose box?" the voice repeated.

"Curse my overactive imagination," he remarked, walking back down the stairs. "There's nopony there."

"Whose box are you going to break?" the voice asked again, this time more assertively.

He loped nervously into the mud room, where he guessed the breaker box was kept. He ran right into somepony. When he got up, he saw a towering, gaunt pony that had several black tentacles instead of wings. Her eyes were empty, and a permanent grin split her face. "Slender Mare," he choked, backing away. "Holy flying road apples, you do exist!"

"Slender Mare? Where?!" The Slender Mare screamed. "Don't let her gobble me up!"

"I know that voice," he gasped. He found the box on the wall, opened it, and flipped the mane breaker.

Before him quivered Pinkie Pie, wearing stilts and covered in streamers. "Pinkie, what are you doing here?"

"I was going to throw you a housewarming party, but if the Slender Mare is loping around, I want to go home!" She began bawling, two jets of water shooting from her eyes.

"No! Pinkie!" Nothing could get through to her. "The Slender Mare is not real! A friend of mine created her for one of his campfire stories!"

"What?" Pinkie stopped crying.

"I have an overactive imagination. But how did you figure out where I lived? Did you...stalk me?"

"No, silly. I just went to Mortar, Stone and Wood, and I asked them if you'd come by. Then I went to City Hall and I asked if your address had been entered yet. I did the same thing when Twilight Sparkle came to town. But she was just a party pooper. She didn't freak out like you did. Well, she did at first, but then she just went to bed while her baby dragon Spike partied with us."

"I really appreciate the sentiment, Pinkie Pie, but I still need to get settled. Tomorrow, maybe?"

"Why do it tomorrow when I could do it today?"

"Please, Pinkie? I'll let you throw me a party tomorrow night."

"Oh, okay," she sighed.

"Thank you."

Pinkie hung her head and left. He closed the door behind her and whispered, "Glad that's over."

Unable to go back to sleep, he decided to take a turn and find a nice cloud so that he could get to know the area a little bit better. He walked back up to the study, went out onto the balcony, and jumped off.

Before long, he was rising into the air, flying for the first time in months. The wind in his mane was a feeling he missed greatly; nopony in Hoofton ever flew, and he wasn't one to challenge it. The moon was high and full, and the air was clear. He could see for miles and miles. Ponyville slumbered below him. Canterlot twinkled in the distance. Cloudsdale glowed with an internal light. It was beautiful.

He glided through the air, looping and spiraling, climbing and diving. At long last, he was tired enough to try and sleep. He flew around until he found an unoccupied cloud, and he landed on it. Far off in the distance, he could see the glow of Hoofton. His entire life was there. "It's in the past, Tux," he sighed. His heart ached; he was torn between his new home and his old life.

"What am I doing here?" He buried his head in the vapor. For a split second, he thought he'd made a mistake in leaving Hoofton, in coming to Ponyville. "No," he said, stamping his hoof. "I can't go back." He stood, turned, and planted himself facing away from Hoofton, toward Canterlot. "Soon," he said. He closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

When he opened his eyes, somepony was flapping by his cloud. "Go away," he said groggily.

"I saw you out late last night," the pony said. "You got some pretty sick moves."

He pulled a blanket of cloud over his head. "I'm still trying to sleep."

"I'm Rainbow Dash," the pony said. "And to be totally honest, I gotta get rid of this cloud."

"Fine," he growled. He rolled off the cloud and unfurled his wings, gliding to the ground below.

"Hey, where are you going?" Dash called as he started walking away.

"Home," he replied.

"Where did you learn to glide like that?" she asked.

"A long time ago in a faraway place."

"How do you control your feathers?"

"I don't know. Listen, kid. I'm tired and I'm not in the mood to talk. If you really want to learn how to glide, head to Cloudsdale and take some lessons. I'm not a good teacher."

"But can't you just give me a few tips?"

"Lock your wings. Feel the air. Paint a picture. That's all I can give you, really."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

He stopped and whipped around in exasperation. "Look, I don't know how I do it. I just do it. My brain doesn't work right early in the morning, so anything I say to anypony isn't going to make sense. I'm still getting acclimated, so please don't press the issue. Just take your answer and go."

"Jeez, somepony woke up on the wrong side of the cloud," Dash grumbled as she flapped away. He felt like a heel for snapping at her, but at least he wasn't saddled with trying to explain something that he knew only intuitively.

When he reached his front door, he half expected Pinkie Pie to leap out and smother him in cake frosting and confetti. But the house was empty. He went to the clock, and he saw that it was far too late for him to finish sleeping. Today was the day he had to find a job.

He flapped up the stairs and donned his saddlebags. He glided down from the balcony and trotted off into town. With no sign of the newspaper, he had no idea who was looking for work, so he decided to just stop in and ask ponies whether they were hiring.

The first place he saw was a tasty looking building with a sign that read, "Sugarcube Corner". Not knowing anything about baking, but being a connoisseur of cakes and a clerical king, he figured that he could help keep the books at least.

When he walked in the door, he was greeted by a yellow stallion with a boxy jaw. "Well, hello, there," he smiled. "I don't think I've seen you in town before. I'm Carrot Cake, and my wife and I run the shop. Is there something we can do for you?"

"I'm actually looking for work. You wouldn't by chance be looking for a bookkeeper?"

"I'm sorry, but we're not hiring," Mr. Cake replied. Off in the distance, a baby's cry sounded. "Twin foals put quite a divot in the budget. But we could certainly use the help, if you care to volunteer."

He was about to say yes, but then he remembered that he had rent to pay. "Sorry, as much as I'd love to help, I can't afford to volunteer."

"I understand, son. Good luck in your search!"

Dejected, he walked back out into the street, trying to find some other shop that was hiring. Everypony in the market was a small outfit that couldn't afford him. Two vendors even had the gall to try and foist expensive tomatoes and cherries on him.

After making up his mind that nopony wanted clerical work, he started looking for manual labor. The local contractors weren't hiring, and neither were the local groundskeepers. After searching everywhere with no luck, he sat down on a park bench next to a peculiar aquamarine pony, who was sitting almost on her back.

"Why the long face?" she asked after a moment.

"Very funny," he grumbled. "Anyhoof, I'm looking for work, and I'm not having much luck. You don't happen to know whether anypony is hiring, do you?"

"I would check Sweet Apple Acres. They're just outside Ponyville. And Rarity's dress shop."

"Thanks," he sighed. "Maybe tomorrow."

"You miss a hundred percent of the shots you don't take," the pony shrugged. She slid off the bench, and he expected her to stand on her hind legs, but she resumed a more natural posture. "Good luck!" she smiled as she began walking away.

Sweet Apple Acres sounded like a farm. He had spent some of his life working on a ranch, so he figured that he knew a thing or two about the business, so he looked around and asked around until he finally found his way to the immense orchard.

He walked up to the first pony he saw, a large, sorrel stallion pulling a cart of apples. "Excuse me, is this Sweet Apple acres?" he asked.

"Eeyup," said the stallion.

"Are you hiring, perchance?"


"Road apples," he muttered.

"I'll handle this one, Big Macintosh," said a thickly accented voice from behind him.

"Thanks, sis," Big Macintosh said as he started walking onward.

He turned around to see a palomino pony in a straw hat trotting up to him. "The name's Applejack," she greeted. "My family owns and runs Sweet Apple Acres."

"Tux n Tails," he replied. "I'm new in town, and I'm wondering if you could use a hoof or two."

"As much as I'd love to offer you a job, Mr. Tails, we really don't have nothin' open. We've been a family business for generations, and it's sorta...against tradition to go out hirin'."

"Not even volunteer labor?"

"On rare occasions, we'll take on some volunteers, but those occasions are rare. For instance, one time, Big Macintosh over there hurt himself and couldn't buck apples. I did half the orchard by my lonesome, but I couldn't get the rest of it, so I let some friends of mine help. But only after a lot of convincin'."

"I understand," he nodded.

"Check with Rarity at the Carousel Boutique. She might need some help."

"I've gotten a referral," he chuckled. "I don't care to work in a dress shop, but it's better than nothing."

"And it's certainly better than sweating buckets in the hot sun. Hey, before you go, can I interest you in a free sample?"

"I don't see why not. I haven't had breakfast today."

"Then follow me!"

She led him to a bakery where a geriatric, green pony was making pastries and pies. She plucked a plate from the counter, and he held out his wing. She set it on his feathers, and he turned his head so that he could reach whatever was on it. After taking a bite, he closed his eyes and moaned with pleasure. "Delicious," he praised. "What is it?"

"Never had a cinnamon apple crisp before, have you?" Applejack smirked. "See, I could tell you were a city slicker from the moment you walked up."

"I'm not a city slicker," he retorted through a full mouth. "I grew up on a ranch outside Hoofton."

"Anything within twenty miles of Hoofton is city." She hung her head. "Trust me."

"Bad experience?"

"Not with Hoofton, but with the big city in general. City ponies carry themselves a certain way. I can see you have some country in you, but you've lost most of it."

"Well, I seem to have come to the right town to get some of my old spirit back."

"Yeah," she chuckled. "Ponyville has no shortage of spirit. Hay, even Filthy Rich has more spirit than any stuck up city pony. N-not that you're a stuck up city pony, mind you. Aw, road apples, sometimes I swear I have hoof-in-mouth disease."

"Oh, I don't mind, Applejack," he said, returning the plate. "Thank you very much. I'd love to stay and chat, but I have to go."

"I'll probably be seein' you 'round. Bye."

As he walked away, a gloomy cloud settled over him. Normally, when a mare acted like that, it was some way of trying to bury a crush. Granted, nopony had acted like that with him in a long time. But he knew it because he was the same way.

He made his way back into town and found the dress shop. He pushed the door open and a bell tinkled, signaling his arrival. "I'll be with you in one moment!" came a distant shout. Two moments later, a white-coated pony with indigo hair came trotting in. "Welcome to Rarity's boutique. What can I do for you?"

"Are you looking for a bookkeeper?"

"Oh, don't be silly! I don't gamble!"

"Um, no, not a *bookie*. A bookkeeper. An accountant."

"Oh! Gosh, I must have my wires crossed. Of course I'm looking for an accountant, mister..."

"Tails," he said. "Tux n Tails."


"Call me Tux."

"Tux. How soon can you start? I've been so busy lately that my books are a mess."

"I can start tomorrow morning."

"Splendid! I'll draw up the paperwork. We'll discuss wages when you come in tomorrow. If you'll excuse me, I have a large order to fill for an upcoming Canterlot party, and I simply must get back to work. Have a nice day!"

"Thank you," he smiled as she walked off. He left the shop feeling his first real sense of accomplishment in the last two years. He'd bounced from job to job, doing everything from accounting to gardening to the odd choir gig. He hoped this would be something to last.

As he walked down the street, his eye caught a sign that said, "Golden Oaks Library." His heart jumped with excitement; he hadn't been able to read a good book in a year. "Awesome!" he laughed, loping toward the converted tree. He walked inside and found himself in a large room lined with full shelves. "Hello?" he called. "Is there a librarian around here?"

"Tux, is that you?" answered Twilight's voice from up the stairs. She came trotting down. "I didn't think you would come looking for me."

"I was actually looking for a good book."

"Ah. Well, nopony ever comes to borrow anything, but you're welcome anytime! Well, anytime during normal business hours, of course."

"Do you have any books on linguistics and modern languages?"

"Um...I'm sure I do. Why, is that one of your hobbies?"

"I actually create languages. It was a hobby I picked up while I studied music."

"Oh, fun! I didn't know that ponies actually created languages. I'd imagine it's hard to do."

"It's a very tedious and time consuming process. But I created a language that I use to write my journal. I could teach you sometime."

"Maybe so. Hey, do yo have a minute to get the cook's tour of Ponyville? I need to introduce you to a very special group of ponies."

"No thanks, I've already met enough ponies today."

"Oh come on, Tux! I was exactly like you when I came to Ponyville. Let's go!"

"Okay," he groaned. "Lead the way."

Prologue, pt 3 - Six of One

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Tux followed Twilight out the door and moved up beside her as they walked down the street. "So where are you from?" she asked him.

"Hoofton," he replied. "It's a crummy city to say the least."

"I hear it's pretty good if you're a business owner."

"But I'm not. My training is in music and language, not something useful."

"Oh, but music is very useful. It just takes a special something to be able to use it. And only those who are serious about music go to music school. Maybe that's what you'll wind up with."

"For what?"

"Your career. And your cutie mark." She nudged him.

"I've accepted that it'll never show up."

"Hey, don't talk like that. All ponies get their cutie marks." They came to the Carousel Boutique and went inside. "Hey Rarity, I have somebody to introduce you to!"

"Actually, I--"

"Oh, nonsense. Rarity, are you free?"

"Be right down," Rarity's voice replied. "Ow! No more needles for you, Sweetie Belle!"

"I'm sorry!" replied a smaller voice.

Rarity trotted out a moment later. When she saw him, she said, "Twilight! I see you've met my new accountant, Mr. Tails."

"Tux," he corrected quietly.

"New accountant?" Twilight asked. "I thought I did your books."

"Yes, but last time you did, you wrote everything in this ugly, red ink. Since that can't be right, I thought I'd give Mr., Tux the job. He needs work, and I'm confident in his abilities."

"But I could have sworn I used black ink, too," Twilight said in disbelief. "You're right, Rarity, that can't be right. Can I just take a look at your books really quick?"

"I'm sorry, but I don't have the time. Not even with my sister helping me. I have massive orders to fill. I'm sorry I can't stay and talk longer. Toodle-oo!" She trotted back into the back room just in time to shout, "Sweetie Belle, what have you done?! Sequins are not to be applied with glue!"

"Sorry about that," Twilight said, adding a nervous chuckle. "Canterlot has been buzzing about her ever since the royal wedding a few months ago. She's been so busy." She sighed. "A little too busy, I'd say."

"You miss her, I take it?"

"We haven't spent very much time together in the last few weeks. Spike has taken it the hardest."

"Why has he?"

"Walk with me." They left the dress shop and started walking back down the road. "Spike has a tremendous crush on Rarity, and I think there could be something mutual. I know it's crazy, but they just click. He's on special assignment in Canterlot this week so that he can get his mind off it."

"So I guess I'll meet him when he gets back."

"Bingo. Hey, let's check Sugarcube Corner to see if Pinkie Pie is there."

"I've actually met her already. She was the first pony I met in town. Besides, she's probably already redecorating my house."

"Oh my gosh, I need to tell you about when I first met Pinkie. I had just come to town, and when she saw me, she gasped and took off. When I got back to the library, everypony in Ponyville was in the reading room for a surprise party that she threw."

"At least she talked to me. I would have bugged out if she'd done that."

"She's gotten better about it. I guess we can wait until the big housewarming party to get the formal introduction going. So who else have you met?"

"Just lead me around. Where to next?"

"Let's head to Sweet Apple Acres."

"Been there, too. But I'm all for going back." They walked quietly for a while, but then the silence got awkward. "So I take it that you haven't always lived in Ponyville. Where are you from?"

"Canterlot. I'm actually Princess Celestia's protogée. I was sent to Ponyville before the Summer Sun Celebration last year so that I could check on the preparations. Nightmare Moon crashed the party, and Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Fluttershy and I defeated her with the Elements of Harmony, making her see the error of her ways. Now she's back to her old self as Princess Luna, and she's in Canterlot doing her old job."

"You're the six who defeated Nightmare Moon and Discord?"

"Yes, we happen to be."

"I am in the presence of greatness," he marveled. "And I'm surprised you're so...normal."

"Yup. Normal as chocolate cake."

"Of the six of you, I haven't met Fluttershy yet."

"Oh, then I'll have to introduce you. I think you'll get along very well."

"So yesterday you said you loved to read," he commented. "What do you like to read?"

"Everything," she replied. "History, biography, fiction, encyclopedias--you name it! What about you?"

"I love a good story. And I also like reading about linguistics."

"That's a topic I have yet to tackle. It's much too technical for my taste."

"It can get pretty hairy sometimes. But I've learned a lot, enough to create my own languages. One thing I can't stand, though, is history. It's so...boring."

"Then all you've had are textbooks. They leave out all the juicy little scandals. I have books about secret lovers, betrayals, and bribes that shaped the world as we see it today."

"I'll have to borrow those," he said. "That actually sounds interesting."

"You said that you create languages. Does that mean you also speak other languages?"

"Well, I can speak a little Spanish and Esperanto, which is itself a constructed language. But most of my experience comes from singing. I've sung in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Latin. Because of that, I can understand each of them to a little bit of facility."

"So if I asked you to translate my sister-in-law's name, 'Mi Amore Candenza', you could tell me what it means?"

"Yes. But it's half Spanish and half Italian. 'Mi' is the Spanish first-person possessive. 'Amore' is Italian for 'love'. Cadenza is a musical term, a long, showy, improvised phrase. Beethoofen wrote one in one of his piano sonatas that was a couple pages long."

"So it's more just a name in this case."


"We just call her Cadance, anyway."

"Now, a cadence is different than a cadenza. A cadence is like this." He sang a series of notes and demonstrated his point. "Whereas a cadenza is like this." He sang the cadenza from an aria he learned in school. "I'd need a piano or a guitar to show you better."

"I think I get it," Twilight smiled. "And you have a very nice voice."

"Thanks." He blushed.

"Do you play piano, too?"

"Not very well. I just can't get my feathers to cooperate."

"Feather dexterity. Very interesting."

"I do everything with them. I hold my pen, I play my instruments, and I have full control of my flight."

"Rainbow Dash would love to have dextrous feathers like that, I bet."

"All she needs is practice and some lessons."

A group of three young fillies came trotting briskly down the road. "Hey, girls!" Twilight greeted.

"Hey, Twilight!" they responded in unison.

"Girls, I want you to meet Tux n Tails. He's new around here."

"Hi, Tux!"

She stood beside them and introduced each one in turn. "Tux, this is Apple Bloom, Applejack's sister; Sweetie Belle, Rarity's sister; and Scootaloo, Rainbow Dash's number one fan."

"We're the Cutie Mark Crusaders!" Apple Bloom exclaimed gleefully.

"They have a mission to find their cutie marks. Hey, maybe you should join them!" Twilight winked and nudged him.

"Ew, a boy in our club?" grimaced Sweetie Belle, a white filly with voluptuous pastel pink and mauve curls.

"A grown-up, no less," Scootaloo added. He could easily see that she was as tomboyish as Rainbow Dash was, and he wondered if her mane and tail's color was natural. It clashed a bit with her orange coat.

"Hey, he's a blankflank, too," Apple Bloom defended. She was very much the country bumpkin, wearing a big, red bow in her relatively unstyled, red mane. Her southern accent mirrored that of her older sister. "I think he should at least be an honorary member."

"Oh no, that's fine," he said. "I don't need to be a part if you want to keep it exclusive."

"Next meeting, we'll discuss it," Scootaloo suggested.

"Hey, Sweetie Belle," he asked, "weren't you at Carousel Boutique just a bit ago?"

"Rarity kicked me out," she replied. "I had a Crusaders meeting to attend, anyway, and I had to really hoof it. Besides, I cut across the field instead of taking the road like you two."

"Where are you off to now?" Twilight asked.

"Lunch," Scootaloo replied. "Pinkie Pie fixed us a picnic at the gazebo. She's waiting for us there."

"Well, I won't keep you any longer. Have fun!" The three trotted off, and Twilight explained, "They formed that group a year or so ago. All their contrived attempts to force their cutie marks to appear have been met with disaster. They really need an adult giving them guidance, and I think you would be a good candidate. There's something about you that makes me want to trust you implicitly."

"I try to be a pony of integrity," he said, inclining his head respectfully.

"True integrity can be hard to find."

Several minutes later, they arrived at Sweet Apple Acres. Applejack was unhooking herself from an empty apple cart when she saw them. "Hi, guys!" she greeted, trotting over. "Tux, I didn't expect you back so soon, not that it's a bad thing."

"So I take it that your initial meeting went fairly well," Twilight said.

"It was...decent as far as first meetings go," Tux commented.

"Tux came here looking for work, but I had to turn him away. You know how that works. Did Rarity have anything for you, Tux?"

"Yeah," Tux replied. "I'm going to be doing her books."

"Well, good for you. Granny Smith does our books now, but she's getting on in years. We're workin' on trainin' Apple Bloom to do it, and at this rate, we'll have a calculator on her flank in no time at all."

"Calculators are commonplace for cutie marks in Hoofton," Tux commented. "I've seen at least a dozen ponies with them.

"Bleh," Applejack grimaced. "I hate all them numbers. I like buckin' and bakin'. Somethin' I can do with my hooves."

"So I guess Pinkie Pie is throwing me a housewarming party tonight. Are you, Big Macintosh and Apple Bloom going to be there?"

"Not Apple Bloom. She has to go to bed at a decent hour. But I think it's safe to say I'll be there. The only way Big Mac will come out of his shell is if Cheerilee is there. So make sure to extend the invitation to her."

"Are they an...item now?" Twilight asked inquisitively.

"Very discreet, so don't tell nopony about it. But yes. Ever since that little stunt my sister pulled with her posse, he's been awful close to her."

"Cheerilee is the schoolteacher," Twilight explained. "I'll tell you the story of the whole Hearts and Hooves debacle later. Hey, Applejack, have you seen Rainbow Dash?"

"Not lately. Yesterday, she said something about going to Cloudsdale for a couple of days. She left after her chores this morning, far as I know."

"Well, I hope she can make the party."

"I think she will," Tux smiled. "She wants to pick my brain for gliding tips."

"We'll let you get back to work, Applejack," Twilight said. "We're going to see if we can find Fluttershy. Tux and she are kindred spirits, I think, and she's the only one of the six of us that he hasn't yet met."

"All righty, then. Take care!"

As they left, Twilight explained what the Cutie Mark Crusaders had done on the last Hearts and Hooves Day, and how they'd learned that meddling in the love lives of others was not a good idea most of the time. He found the story both amusing and disheartening at the same time, because any matchmaking that anypony had done for him, or that he'd done for himself, had led only to awkwardness and heartbreak rather than a good relationship.

He had all but given up hope of finding his very special somepony, but the more he talked with Twilight, the more he felt he had a chance with her. This time, he was determined to follow his sister's advice and become good friends before asking her out. But half of him still wanted to jump in; in the past, waiting had always resulted in failure. Somepony else always came in and snapped her up. Maybe a happy medium was the best.

It wasn't very long before they came to a small cottage somewhere near a large and foreboding forest. "That's the Everfree Forest," Twilight informed. "I'll have to introduce you to Zecora sometime. She's a zebra, and our resident herbalist. She lives in the Forest. But this is Fluttershy's cottage. She might not be in, but we'll check."

She knocked on the door. "Fluttershy, are you in?" She opened the door and went inside. "Fluttershy?" A small rabbit hopped over and pointed out the window then waved its arms rhythmically. "Thanks, Angel." She turned and started walking for the door.

"Wait, what?" Tux wondered.

"She's practicing with her songbird choir."

"Really?" His ears pricked. "She's musical, eh?"

"Very musical. Very shy. But not as much as she used to be."

He followed her until he heard a familiar Renaissance anthem wafting through the air. "William Byrd," he pointed out. He chuckled. "Birds singing Byrd. How fitting!"

When they were within sight, he heard a soft voice say, "All right, from the top. Remember to count; this has to be perfect." She began conducting, and Tux joined and sang the baritone part:

Sing joyfully unto God our strength;

Sing loud unto the God of Jacob!

Take the song, bring forth the timbrel,

The pleasant harp, and the viol.

Blow the trumpet in the new moon,

Even in the time appointed, and at our feast day.

For this is a statute for Israel,

And a law of the God of Jacob.

After the end of the song, Fluttershy landed and turned around, blushing. "Hello," she said. "I didn't realize you were there until I heard you singing." He blushed as well.

"Fluttershy, this is Tux n Tails. He's new in town, and I figured you and he would get along."

"It's very nice to meet you, Tux. It sounds like you've had some singing experience."

"A little bit," he replied.

"Oh, don't be so modest," she smiled. "You're very good."

"I actually went to music school."

"Then maybe you can teach me a thing or two. I'm self-taught, but I love music so much."


"I need to get back to Ponyville," Twilight said. "I'll leave you two."

In the first few minutes after Twilight left, it was awkward silence between the two of them. One of the birds chirped expectantly, and Fluttershy said, "Oh, sorry. You all did a fantastic job. You're dismissed."

As the birds flew off, Tux tried to initiate some conversation. "So what kind of music does your choir usually sing?"

"I usually write my own, but we're supposed to be guest performers at the next Grand Galloping Gala, so I figured we'd try something a bit more complicated."

"How long have they been working on the Byrd anthem?"

"A couple of months. We've worked for an hour every day since then. It's been really hard on me because it's so complex."

"I noticed that you were trying to cue everybody. You're making it harder for yourself than it could be. All you need to do is keep a steady beat like this." He conducted with his right wing as he sang the song. "Cue the important parts, and put the burden on the birds. They can do it."

"Oh, I couldn't do that."

"It'll be a lot better if you do. Trust me."

"Okay, I'll try it."

"You know, you're not nearly as shy as I thought you would be."

"I've gotten a lot better about it since Twilight came to town," she confessed. "But I still get bad stage fright."

"Everybody gets stage fright. I can know an aria backward and forward, and when I get up to sing it, my heart pounds."

"What arias do you know?" she asked. "I've been looking for somebody to sing a duet with."

"What part do you sing?"


"I don't know any baritone-soprano duets, but if you had something in mind, I could learn it. I could also write something."

"I think I would like that more."

"It's settled, then. Maybe we can perform at the Gala."

Fluttershy smiled. "I'll have to ask the princess about it. But I'm sure she would approve."

Later, as Tux was walking down the road to his cottage, ideas for new choral works running through his head. He was about to reach for the door handle when he paused and remembered Pinkie Pie's party idea. Chuckling to himself, he went around to face the balcony and flapped up to it. He pulled the door open as quietly as he could. His bedroom was empty, but it was no indication of the state of the downstairs. He sneaked down the stairs and saw every square inch packed with anticipating ponies.

He took a deep, silent breath and said in his most sinister sounding voice, "Surprise!"

Half the crowd shrieked, and most of them jumped. Tux guffawed at the reaction. "Nice try. But thank you so much for throwing this party. I've never had an entire town turn out for anything having to do with me, but then again, this is an apartment building's worth in Hoofton." Some of them chuckled. "Speaking of Hoofton, I just flew in from there, and boy are my wings tired!"

Only a cricket responded, and it with a heckle. "I guess that doesn't work when you're a pegasus. Um...."

"Leave the comedy to the comedians," said a raspy voice behind him. He turned and came face to face with a tall, jet black mare whose mane shown with starlight and whose fangs glistened. Her eyes glowed behind her crystal helm, and her wings were extended in a gesture of authority that only a pegasus would fully understand.

"Nightmare Moon...." He stammered.

"Yes," she grinned.

"Wait a minute. You've gotta be Princess Luna in disguise."

"Disguise?" she bellowed. "Absurd! We have only recently realized our true potential. And that potential can be realized only in this form. Thou art unique among ponies, a threat to our plans. It is only fit to paint over this threat with nothingness." She lunged at him in a show of superiority.

Tux shrieked in terror and backed further down the stairs. "Don't kill me! I'm nothing! I'm nopony!"


"Quick, girls!" Twilight rallied, bursting into the now clear main room. "The Elements of Harmony!" She wore a crown of some kind, set with an amethyst.

"Loyalty!" shouted Rainbow Dash as she flew through the door.

"Kindness!" Fluttershy announced, emerging from the kitchen.

"Honesty!" Applejack called as she entered the room.

"Generosity!" Rarity bellowed.

"Laughter!" Pinkie Pie giggled.

"And Magic!" Twilight shouted. Her eyes glowed with a blinding, white light, and she levitated as the tip of her horn gathered an orb of pure light. Each of the ponies was wearing a different piece of jewelry with a different gem, and they each shot a beam of light at Nightmare Moon behind Tux. He ducked and covered his eyes with his front legs, but a split second later, the light had vanished. He kept low as he turned to look at what was left of the villain. He didn't notice a change.

"It didn't work!" he shrieked, kowtowing before her.

"We demand that thou wilt rise before us," the princess bellowed. "And open thine eyes! Look us in the face!"

Slowly, he looked up. But this time he didn't see Nightmare Moon. Instead, he saw somepony else. "Welcome to Ponyville, Tux n Tails," she said. "I'm sorry for this. I could not continue this ruse any longer." She glared at somepony behind him. "Pinkie Pie thought it would be a good idea to scare you, especially seeing as how you were born on Nightmare Night, but seeing your genuine fear changed my heart. Please rise, Tux n Tails."

"T-Tux," he stammered, scrambling to his feet. His heart pounded, pumping adrenaline through his veins. "I understand why Pinkie thought it would be a good idea. I know there was no malice in it."

"I'm sorry, Tux," Pinkie said.

"No, no, it's fine." He turned and walked up to her. "I really appreciate the sentiment. It would have been much better as an actual Nightmare Night party. Keep that one in mind."

"Well, I couldn't get Luna for Nightmare Night, but she was free tonight. So I figured, why not?"

Princess Luna walked around him and joined the other six ponies. "If it weren't for these six, I would never have seen the error of my ways. I used to be Nightmare Moon, but I'm not anymore."

Tux inclined his head. "Thanks to you six, there is hope for me. It's a long story, and I don't like to tell it. Maybe someday I will. But for tonight, let's party, shall we?"

Pinkie Pie shouted, "Hit it!" and a bass drop the size of Manehattan shook the tiny house. A black-light illuminated a pony who stood behind a set of turntables. "Cake!" Pinkie bellowed, and Mr. and Mrs. Cake wheeled in a tall chocolate cake covered in fluorescent frosting that shone in the ultraviolet rays. "Punch!"

Somepony came in and said, "Berry drank it all."

"What the hoof? I'm going to have to have a talk with that girl. Applejack?"

"Cider!" Applejack called, and Big Macintosh wheeled in a keg of the drink. "Come and get it!"

Ponies started filtering back into the room. Twilight cut a piece of the cake and gave it to Tux. "Welcome to Ponyville," she smile. "Officially."

"Thank you, Twilight."

"Now go mingle."

He went around talking, making introductions, and doing other social things. He was glad to be able to put names to most ponies' faces, but it quickly tired him out. He procured a mug of cider and hung by the wall, blending in with the darkness, watching Scootaloo and Rainbow Dash dancing like robots along with the music.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a rather dejected looking mare doing the same thing as he. He refilled his mug and got one for her, and he went over and made small talk. "Hey, Fluttershy. Tired?"

"Yeah," she replied. He could barely hear her, but she was loud enough to be understood.


"Thank you," she replied.

"So...dubstep. I wonder how Pinkie knew. You'd think she's stalking me or something."

"It wouldn't surprise me. So this is dubstep?"


"I knew Vinyl Scratch was into electronic music, but I didn't know about this."

"Is it a good or a bad thing?"

"Oh no, I like it. You can never have too much bass. It's just that parties drain me."

"Well, they drain me, too. Let's have a party of two, shall we?"

She took the mug of cider in her teeth and took a sip. "Sounds good."

Prologue, pt 4 - Life's a Mess

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Tux was glad when everypony started clearing out of his cottage. He was tired and wanted nothing more than to curl up under a blanket and go to sleep. Spending all his time as a wallflower with Fluttershy had been a very pleasant experience, though; just as Twilight had predicted, they seemed to be kindred spirits.

He expected her to be one of the first to leave the party, but she was actually one of the last. She outlasted even the great Pinkie Pie, helping her clean up after the festivities.

As Tux talked with her, he felt a shift inside of him. Twilight was still very attractive, but there was something he felt about Fluttershy that endeared her to him. Maybe it was the fact that he felt comfortable around her, more comfortable than with anypony else. He could come out of his shell and just be himself. No expectations to meet, no social conventions to try and follow. He didn't even have to talk with her in order to feel good about their interactions.

"I have to get to sleep," she yawned at long last. "You're free to come help with my choir whenever you want."

"Thanks, Fluttershy. And I'm thinking about starting a pony choir as well. I'd be honored if you could join."

"And if you do, I will." She grinned and laid her head on his shoulder for a brief moment. He returned the gesture tentatively, but the lack of aversion from her allowed him to be freer.

No words could describe how good it felt to be hugged like this. His cold, cynical heart grew and warmed. He didn't want to let her go, lest the feeling vanish, but when he felt her head lift, he was forced to do the same. "I had a great time tonight," she smiled.

"You're welcome here day or night," he replied. "Even if I'm not here. If you ever need a place to crash, don't hesitate."

"I'll have to do that sometime. Goodnight, Tux."

"Goodnight," he repeated.

Just after they had parted ways, Twilight, the only pony left, walked up and said, "I've never seen her open up like that. You two kept to yourselves the whole time."

"We have a lot in common," he replied. "I find that when I'm talking with extroverts, I feel like I'm expected to say something, and that dead air is bad like it is on the radio. But when I talk to Fluttershy, dead air is just as much communicatory as a full on conversation. Like we can read each other's minds."

"There's a lot of value in that. My brother Shining Armor and I were like that when we were younger. For that matter, we're still kind of like that, but I don't get to see him very much."

"I think I've found a new best friend," he smiled. "I haven't had one in a very long time."

"I'm glad for you. Good night, Tux. This was quite the day."


Tux turned out the lights and walked up the stairs as Twilight left, but his brain was moving too fast for him to sleep. He walked out onto the balcony and looked over Ponyville. A song sprang into his mind, and he sang:

Could it be?

Could it be that I have found my place?

Could it be?

Could I have found a trace of purpose?

In all my years, I have never found a place as this.

In all my years, I have never found this kind of gentleness.

In all my years, I'd never thought I'd find

Where everyone was kind and friendship could be mine.

I've always been a loner; I have always been aloof.

I barely said a word; I always thought that I would goof.

But now I see a wealth of friends like I have never seen before,

And now I see the glow of magic, of the opening of doors.

In all my years, I have never found a place as this.

In all my years, I have never found this kind of gentleness.

In all my years, I never thought I'd find

Where everyone was kind and friendship could be mine.

I've never had a purpose, but I've always had a dream,

But it was trodden underhoof; good things are never as they seem.

Now, by the moon and stars above, my dreams are born again!

Like a phoenix from the ashes; now my joy will never end!

Like a phoenix from the ashes; now my joy will never end!

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed somepony poke their head out from behind a building before disappearing into the night. There wasn't enough light to discern who it was, but he had his suspicions.

He plodded over to the bed and slid under the warm blankets. Tomorrow was going to be a big day.

He awoke to the bright sun and the crow of a drowsy rooster. After combing his mane and tail, he made his way to the Carousel Boutique, where Rarity was waiting for him. She was busy tossing papers onto a desk.

"Good morning, Tux," she greeted. "I trust you'll find everything here. Sweetie Belle got her hooves on the records a few days ago, and she neglected to organize them."

"It's really no problem," he sighed.

"I'll pay you twenty bits per diem if you can help sort out this..." She grimaced. "...God-awful mess."

He nearly fell over. "Twenty bits?"

"Yes. Business is good. But that means you're going to be working your tail off."

"I'll get right on it." He opened his saddle bags and set up his pens. It took him three hours to get all the papers in the right order. The first thing he noticed was that the documents were written in two different shades of red. He sniffed the darker and immediately knew what Twilight had done.

"Rarity," he called, "could you come here for a moment?"

"What is it?" she asked, emerging from her inspiration room.

"I figured out why everything is red. Twilight did the books in iron-gall, as opposed to black. Her mix is a bit thin, or the difference would be much more obvious."

"Oh, thank goodness!" Rarity groaned. "I was worried for a moment."

"It's probably a Canterlot habit; they use iron-gall for all important documents up there."

"Well, should it be fixed?"

"I will make a note when the iron-gall starts. I'll just use normal black."

"Thank you. And do hurry; I'm running out of supplies, and I don't want to be caught in the red when I order. That happened once before, back when I was first starting out, and I don't want it to happen again."

"Before you get back to work, have you thought about going digital?"

"Going what, now?"

"Never mind; it's not important." Rarity didn't seem to be the type to use a computer, anyway.

Tux worked quickly, checking, cross-referencing, and switching pens quite often. "Now I wish I was ambidextrous," he sighed, flexing his wing. The records were months out of date, and he hadn't made anywhere near the amount of progress he'd hoped for. The hours crawled by, and he lost total track of time.

"Tux!" Rarity said without warning, coming up behind him. He jumped at her voice and her tone, thinking he'd done something wrong. "Lunch. Now, if you could; I don't have much time."

"All right, just a minute." He flipped the stack over and sealed his ink wells before joining her.

"How are things coming along?" she asked.

"Not as well as I would have hoped, but I hope to have caught up fairly soon. How are your supplies?"

"Not critically low, but getting there fast. It seems that all of Canterlot wants me to make them something."

They arrived shortly at the café, and a waiter was with them soon after they sat down. "What will it be?" he asked.

"Daffodil sandwich," Rarity replied. "Extra flowery."

"The same, with a side of hay fries," Tux added.

"To drink?"

"Water," Rarity replied.


"I'll have it out soon," the waiter said, walking off.

"So what exactly brings you to Ponyville?" Rarity asked.

"It's a long, complicated story," he replied. "Probably longer than you have time for."

"Nonsense, Tux. I want to know my employees."

"Don't say I didn't warn you." He began to tell his story, though he elected to skimp on some of the details.

"I came here from Hoofton. It's basically Manehattan, but east of Canterlot instead of west. I was stuck in a dead-end accounting job until I decided to move here. But I didn't always live in Hoofton. I grew up on a farm growing tomatoes, corn, wheat, and all kinds of other crops. Business was good until the recession hit."

"I remember that," she commented.

"It hit us so hard that we couldn't afford to keep the farm without a loan modification on our mortgage. The bank refused to work with us, so we had to walk away. We moved to Hoofton soon afterward.

"Moving wasn't easy. Not only did I have to leave behind my childhood home, but the weekend after we moved out, my friend and mentor Ottava Basso, the one who taught me almost everything I know about music, was killed in a freak buggy accident."

"Oh my gosh! I'm so sorry!" She reached a comforting hoof across the table.

"Thanks." He sighed. "It took me a while to get over it, but I finally did. I decided to carry on his legacy, and I made up my mind that I was going to go to music school there in Hoofton."

"It sounds like you were pretty happy."

"I was for a while." At least, he was happy until he met the pony who he was certain was the love of his life. He was too shy to act, and he spent every day beating himself up over his cowardice. When he finally got up the courage to get off his plot and ask her out, he learned that she was already taken with some young stallion. A year later, he fell for his closest friend and thought the same thing. But it turned out that she wasn't as close to him as he was to her. She cut him off and left Hoofton for Celestia knows where. He'd tried to get back in touch with her, to try and rekindle their broken friendship, but any attempt was met with only a cold, stern rebuff.

"So why did you leave Hoofton?" Rarity asked, sipping her water.

"Actually, I left Hoofton on a voyage of discovery. I was stagnant in the city; I knew lots of people, but I had no friends. Everypony was always doing their own thing."

"But why Ponyville and not some other town?"

"Would you believe, I don't know. I felt something drawing me here, some higher purpose. It's a voice I've learned to heed well."

"Well, I would say you've found a great place to discover yourself. You should talk to ponies and see if you can find some musical opportunities. There will be days when I won't need you to come in; that's why I hired you per-diem. Use those to get to know the town. You'll fit in rather well."

"Thank you, Rarity."

They finished their meal without much more non-business discourse, and when the bill came, Tux offered to split it, but Rarity insisted, "No. I'm not going to write this one off, either. Don't worry a thing about it. It's my housewarming present to you." She held up her glass, with what little remained in it. "Here's to the start of a great friendship."

"I'll drink to that," he smiled.

He thanked her for the meal, and they walked together back to Carousel Boutique. Before Rarity disappeared back into her studio, she said, "Oh, and I think you should go for it."

"Go for what?" he asked.

"Twilight. Your heart is on your withers, and she's bound to recognize it at some point. It took me all of five seconds. Ask her to dinner sometime."


"Not that it's any of my business." She cleared her throat. "Back to work for me."

Heart-on-withers was the condition that had caused his closest friend, Rosie Gardner to leave, out of the blue, cutting him off. She didn't answer his calls or his letters anymore, and she didn't leave any clue as to where their friendship stood. Now he was petrified that Twilight would do the same.

The thought dogged him for the rest of the day. He made a handful of mistakes that he nearly missed. He wrote down transactions in the wrong accounts. Eventually, he sealed his ink wells and washed his pen nibs. He couldn't go on like this.

He searched the boutique until he found Rarity, and he told her that he couldn't continue, explaining his new tendency for errors.

"You've worked hard," she replied. "Go ahead and take off; the rest of the books can wait for tomorrow."

"Thanks, Rarity."

He made his way through the market on the way home; his cupboards were just as empty as Old Mother Hubbard's. His saddlebags were nearly filled with produce when he spotted Fluttershy haggling with the same vendor that had tried to overcharge him. Moreover, she kept stamping her hoof for emphasis. At the end of the argument, he heard her say "complain" and "Better Business Bureau." The vendor handed over a basket of cherries, and Fluttershy dropped a sack of coins on the table, looking rather satisfied with herself.

"Fluttershy!" he called, trotting over.

"Hi, Tux," she smiled. "Did you see me face down that unscrupulous seller?" She frowned with resolve. "He was trying, yet again, to charge me double the market price."

"Nice job. Did you get a discount out of it?"

She smiled. "No; I wouldn't short him. I paid fair market price for them, not a bit more."

"So how is the choir going?"

"Oh, the birds are improving so much! I tried what you told me, to just count and let the birds do the rest. It started out as a disaster, but after a few times, they were doing so much better. How was your first day at work?"

"Crazy," he replied with a chuckle. "Is Rarity always this busy, or is this a special occasion?"

She shrugged. "Ever since the royal wedding in Canterlot, they've been dumping wagonloads of requests on her. I told her to set up a waiting list, but she won't listen."

"That's a good idea," he nodded. "It'll give her time to regroup and have a life."

"Like she used to. We don't even go to the spa anymore." She hung her head.

"I'll see if I can prod her to get back into things," he said, patting her on the withers with his wing. "Let's walk, shall we?"

"Where to?"

"I don't know."

"Why don't we go over to my place?" she suggested. "You can stay for dinner. Well, uh, unless you have other plans."

"No, I'm totally free," he replied as they started down the path. "Dinner sounds very good."

It was dusk by the time they finished eating, talking, and enjoying the company of Fluttershy's many animal acquaintances. He helped her with her chores, putting animals to bed, feeding a nest of orphaned robin chicks, and medicating a sick but cranky badger. It wasn't normally his idea of a good time, but with the right company, it was rather enjoyable.

As he was heading down the path, he heard a voice above him. "Tux!"

"Hey, Rainbow Dash," he replied. "What's up?"

"You got a minute?"

"I was just heading home."

"Why walk?"

"I'm carrying twenty pounds of corn and potatoes in my saddlebags."

"Pshh. I could do that!"

"Be my guest."

She swooped down and he put his saddlebags on her back. "That is heavy," she grunted at the weight. "But not that heavy!" She unfurled her wings and started flapping. She took off easily, but before long, the shifting weight changed her flight patterns.

"Quit hitting the cider!" he taunted.

"Hey!" she shot back. "I'm not balanced anymore!"

"So it's harder than you thought?"

"Yeah. Whoa!" She lost lift, flapping madly as she plummeted to the ground. He spread his wings and took off, catching her mere feet from the hard-packed dirt.

"Thanks," she said, blushing and chuckling nervously.

He put the saddlebags back on and offered, "If you want to go for a flight, I think I have some time. I just have to unload this stuff back at my cottage."

"I'll help you," she smiled, walking with him. "I've been trying what you told me to do the other day, and it's not working. I can feel the air, but I can't...'paint a picture.' What does that even mean?"

"It's going to take me a little bit of mental elbow grease to teach you to glide, but it can be done. The biggest thing you will need is individual feather dexterity. Yeah, you can do wing pushups and resistance training, but if you want real agility, you need more than just quick reflexes and strength."

"Get out. That's not possible."

He trotted in front of her and extended his right wing. He moved each of his primary and secondary feathers independently. "You were saying?"

"How do you do that?" she gaped.

"Lots and lots of practice," he replied with a proud smile. "Gliding is all about finesse." He stopped, put his saddlebags beside the road, and sang:

When you use your wings, your first instinct is to flap till you're feathers are sore.

That's fine and good, but really you should take it easy and save room for more.

When too high you fly, if you fall, you die, so if you get a stitch in your side,

Remember that you aren't a bat; you're a pony, you have feathers, so glide!

They took to the skies and he sang as he flew alongside her:

It's a graceful dance like an earth pony's prance; it's a skill that is learned, not gained.

But it's the best way to end a beautiful day, to ease any number of pains.

You may have the speed, but what you need is a peace that comes from inside.

You can flap and fly through the sunset sky, but it's so much more fun to glide!

You just lock your wings

And forget the travails which plague you.

And unlearn those things about using your wings

That are holding you back: this I beg you.

So slow it down and look around at the beautiful world that surrounds you.

The birds, the bees, the evergreen trees have details that will confound you.

If you're in a yank, you will break the bank; you'll waste all the power inside.

So slow it down and look around. Just lock your wings and glide!

When he landed and reclaimed his saddlebags, she landed next to him. "And that's how you do it," he smiled.

"I still don't know what the hay you're talking about," she replied.

He hung his head and chuckled. "You'll learn. Come back to my place, and we'll both hit the skies. Maybe one of these days you can show me Cloudsdale."

"If you'll teach me how to do aerobatics like you, we've got a deal."

After they delivered Tux's groceries, they went to the outskirts of Ponyville and Tux talked with her about the mechanics of gliding, working on some dexterity exercises and watching her take short flights without using her wings for propulsion once she got in the air. She struggled at first, but she was able to handle herself at slower speeds after a while.

"This is tough," she said, landing. "It works a whole different muscle group."

"Absolutely," he replied. "But you were lookin' good up there!"

"Ugh, I think I'm going to be sore tomorrow."

"Maybe, maybe not," he said, shrugging his wings. "Once you master your figure-eights, maybe we'll work on some rolls."

"Can you even roll while gliding? Wouldn't that screw up your flight?"

"Of course. It just takes finesse. You probably roll by torque, which is perfectly acceptable if you have enough speed. But if you're gliding, you could lose lift with too hard a twist. Watch." He flew high and glided in a lazy S pattern. He did his usual barrel roll, and then he torqued his body. His wings pulled in, and he fell twenty feet or so before catching the air again.

"I'll have to practice after I clear the clouds tomorrow," Rainbow Dash remarked. "Do you think you could help me?"

"I have to finish organizing Rarity's books," he replied. "But perhaps then I can watch you."

"And if you're free this weekend, we can head up to Cloudsdale."

"Sounds like a plan."

"Good night, Tux," she called, taking to the air.

"Good night," he replied, turning to leave. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw somepony duck behind a bush. He flapped leisurely into the air and flew over the bush to see who it was, but nopony was there. "Odd," he remarked.

He trotted down the road back to his cottage, all the while feeling like somepony was watching him. But it remained a sneaking sensation in the back of his mind. He thought nothing of it when he went to bed.

Then the nightmares started.

He relived--vividly--the death of his mentor. The loss of his love. The loss of his mind, and his flight to Ponyville. That same sneaking sensation, that same distant foreboding was present in every situation. Every time he failed a class. Every time he bungled his speech. Every little was there. He searched for something tangible. Some name he could assign to this enigmatic foe. But all he heard was a sinister voice whispering in his ear, "Though my body be trapped in stone, my spirit e'er be free to roam." These two lines repeated over and over again until they drowned out everything else.

He bolted upright, breathing heavily. He'd tossed his sheets onto the floor, but it didn't matter; his mattress was soaked with lather. He rolled out of bed and opened the door to his balcony, letting in a waft of cold night air. "He's trapped in stone," he reassured himself. "Discord has no spirit. Discord has no power. It's all in my head."

He bumbled down the stairs and filled his trough with cold water. He took a long drink to cool his parched throat, then he dunked his head under the water, shaking it vigorously. His forelock hung down, clinging uncomfortably to his forehead, so he tossed his head back to remedy the situation. He contacted something hard, and when he turned to look for the object, he saw only empty space. "Leave me alone!" he shouted, loping up the stairs. Instead of going for his bed, he leaped off the balcony and flew up to an isolated stratocumulus cloud.

The could was soft and moist, but not cold. The night was warm enough that he wouldn't need his blanket, so long as he could use the condensed vapor to insulate himself. He burrowed into the cloud's fluffy body, leaving only his head and neck exposed. If Rainbow Dash inadvertently woke him with a kick, he'd easily be able to catch himself before he hit the ground. He closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep.

When he awoke the next day, the sun was peeking over the horizon. He wriggled free of the cloud and gave it a healthy kick, sending it scattering again into invisible vapor. He dove for Ponyville, realizing that he'd flown much higher than he'd initially thought. He picked his cottage out, and he landed clumsily on the balcony. What he saw when he looked through the open doors made his heart stop.

His bedroom was covered with footprints from two different animals. One was reptillian; the other was of a goat. Written above his door was a single line of verse: "My spirit e'er be free to roam."

"Okay, this isn't funny!" he called, walking cautiously into the room. "Whoever vandalized my--" When he blinked his eyes, the footprints and writing vanished. "It's gotta be those mushrooms Fluttershy put in the salad," he said, shaking his head vigorously. "I'm hallucinating!"

He dipped his head in the trough again to make sure his mane wasn't disheveled from his restless sleep, and he trotted back upstairs and collected his saddlebags before heading out the door for Carousel Boutique.

Shortly before he arrived, he heard a bloodcurdling scream emanate from the store. The blood drained from his face, and he spread his wings, propelling himself at top speed through the open front door. "Rarity!" he called. "What's wrong?"

"Of all the worst things that could happen," she keened, "this is the...worst...possible...THING!"

"What is it?"

"I am completely out of supplies. I could have sworn I had enough to finish this order, but it's all gone! I've been ROBBED!" Her horn glowed, and a chaise longue raced into the room from a nearby storage closet. She threw herself onto it, weeping melodramatically.

"Calm down, Rarity," Tux pleaded. "They'll understand. Just send word to your clients that you were--"

"You don't understand," she moaned in despair. "These clients won't understand. They were born with silver spoons in their mouths. They've never been up against a wall in their lives. They always take; they never give. If I don't get them their clothes by the deadline they set, I won't get a single, solitary bit!" She began hyperventilating, and Tux looked around to try and find a paper bag, but she was way ahead of him. A bag whipped through the air glowing the same blue as her horn, almost striking him in the face, and covered her muzzle.

"Just breathe," he said. "Can you get new supplies in a rush?"

"I can certainly try, but it isn't going to work. The deadline is tomorrow!" She jammed the bag back over her muzzle.

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Figure out if we have any money left. I'm going to scour Ponyville to see if there is any silk to be had. I'm going to have to take this out of my personal accounts and reimburse myself later."

"What if you can't afford more supplies?"

"Banish the thought, Tux!" she gasped. "No. We will be able to afford new supplies. If you need me, I'll be out and about. Ponies will have seen me." She hurriedly donned a pair of saddlebags and loped out the door.

"Breathe, Tux," he said, sitting down at the desk where he'd worked the previous day. "This is just a coincidence." He opened to the page where he left off, and written across the bottom line were the words from his dreams. The blood once again drained from his face, and he backed away from the desk.

"Hello, Tux," whispered a voice in his ear. He spun around to see if he could find who it was, but the room was empty. "The wheels are rolling. The bell is tolling. And soon you will all be mine. I'll leave you here, but do not fear. I WILL be back in time." The voice faded with a sinister laugh.

"Rarity!" cried Sweetie Belle from an adjacent room.

"Sweetie Belle, are you all right?" Tux asked, searching for her. When he found her, she was huddled under a blanket, shivering in fear.

"I heard a voice," she cried. "It was scary."

"Don't worry. I'm here." He sat down next to her and wrapped her in his wing. "Everything is going to be okay."

"Where is Rarity?"

"She had to go shopping; somepony robbed her last night."

"That's not possible," she said, poking her head out from under the blanket. "I would have heard the bells on the door. I was up all night because I had nightmares about Discord."

"So was I," he sighed. "This is not good."

"Is Discord going to return?"

"No. He isn't. He can't. He's trapped in stone, remember?"

"Yeah, but what if somepony let him out? Last time it was the Crusaders. We were arguing, and it gave him the energy to break out."

"I haven't heard any arguing, have you? Besides, I think they learned their lesson last time."

"You do?"

"I do."

"Thanks, Tux," she sighed. "I feel better now." She hugged his front leg.

"If you need anything, I'll be finishing the books. We need to figure out if your sister has any money left." She nodded and released him.

He went back to the desk and hurried through the rest of the calculations. It took him a couple of hours and got him feather cramps, but he finally labelled and accounted for every last transaction. The final balance was pitiful. Thinking he'd made a mistake somewhere, he checked everything. Twice.

Rarity burst through the door with full saddlebags and heavy laden with fabric, thread, gemstones, and other supplies. "Whoever took these is going to DIE!" she fumed, steam jetting from her flared nostrils.

"Where did you find them?"

"Sweet Apple Acres," she replied. "Apparently they just appeared in Applejack's barn. She had no idea how they got there."

"Could she--"

"Bite your tongue, Tux n Tails. Applejack is the portrait of honesty. I would be able to tell if she was fibbing. I must get back to work."

"I finished the books," he said as she began walking away. "It's a good thing you didn't have to order more supplies, because we're less than five bits in the black."


He closed his eyes and sighed, trying not to believe it. But there was no avoiding the truth. "Yes. At least we're still there. But you have to get these orders filled. And you really have to stop collecting on delivery. You have a big enough reputation to start charging up front. I say this as your accountant and as your friend."

"I'll mull it over," she said. "Oh, and since you're done with the books, you might want to knock off for the day and go see what you can do for Applejack. She's having problems, too." She shuffled off to the back room and closed the door behind her.

"Problems?" he thought aloud.

He left the boutique and took to the skies, flying as quickly as he could to the Apples' orchard. He found Applejack and Big Macintosh pulling carts along the road. He circled until they got to the barn, and then he landed. "I heard you were having problems," he said.

"Normally I'd say we can handle it, but this time I gotta admit it. Overnight we had a hundred of our trees just grow new apples, out of the blue. That just don't happen. I wish we could just let it go, but we gotta buck 'em anyway, or they'll ruin the orchard. Without help, this will set us too far back for us to complete our harvest by the end of the season."

"So you told Rarity to send me."

"Yes. You said you had some experience with farmin', so let's see it."

He put on one of Big Macintosh's collars, which was much too big, but it was all they had. Big Macintosh and Applejack hooked him up to a cart, and the three of them trotted out to the offending grove. The apples there looked strange; he couldn't quite figure out why. But he was certain that they'd been put there by somepony. "Have you ever bucked apples before?" asked Big Mac.

"Once or twice."

"Just plant your kick square in the middle of the trunk like this." He hauled back and drove both his hind hooves into the trunk. The entire tree's worth of apples filled his cart, which he pushed to the side. "Your turn."

Tux unhooked his cart and positioned it under the tree under Big Mac's direction. It took him two kicks to bring down the whole tree, but it worked.

By the time they were halfway through the grove, Tux had bucking down to a science. He knew exactly where to plant his hooves, exactly how hard to kick. As the hours went by and the sun began to dip below the horizon, the last apple fell at Big Mac's behest, and the trio hooked into their cart trains and trudged back to the barn.

They worked until all the apples were unloaded, and, panting, Applejack said, "We...we did it." She collapsed onto Big Mac's supportive side and wiped her brow with her hat. She looked at Tux and said, "Thank you. We couldn't have done it without you."

"Any time, ma'am."

"Confound it, call me Applejack. We're beyond pleasantries." She smiled slightly, walked forward, and placed her head on his shoulder. "You're welcome any time, Tux."

He returned the gesture, wrapping his wing around her neck, and a moment later they parted. "I should be going now," he said, shaking hooves with the both of them.

"I'll see him out," Big Mac said. "You get cleaned up and get to sleep. We have a big day tomorrow."

"Right-o," Applejack replied. She got back on her feet, swaying momentarily as she caught her balance, and headed for the house.

Big Mac watched her, and when he was confident she was out of earshot, he said, "She likes you. I ain't never seen her that twitterpated, and I ain't never seen her that affectionate, unless it was toward her family."

"I picked up on that," Tux replied.

"Let's walk." He started out of the barn, and Tux walked alongside him on the path back to Ponyville. After a couple of minutes, Big Mac asked, "Is it mutual?"

"I don't know," Tux replied with a shrug. "I'd say not really."

"You'll have to tell her at some point in time. I would say that if you break her heart I'll break your spine, but I know you're a gentlecolt. Just let her down gently. She may be tough on the outside, but deep down she's still a lady. Not many ponies get to see that."

"Maybe I could give it a shot...." Tux pondered.

"Hey," he chided. "If you ain't certain of somethin', don't do it. I mean, don't settle. When I asked Miss Cheerilee to dinner the first time, my heart was in my throat. But by thunder, I was sure that she was the mare for me."

"I've never been sure of anything in my life."

"It's high time you changed that, boy. Be the stallion you are, not some colt with his ears still wet."

"Thanks, Big Macintosh. I'll think about it."

"And confound it, give it some time. You've been here less than a week, for hoof's sake. I knew Miss Cheerilee for years before I made my choice."

"Did it have anything to do with the Crusaders' meddling?"

He huffed, and was silent for a time. But then he replied, "Not a bit. They just made me see how much I cared for her. You want somepony that you're comfortable to be with."

"I've tried that way. I got friend-zoned."

"That wasn't you;" Big Mac admonished, "that was her. The only way you'll every be happy is if you're friends first. Don't rush, especially if you're thinkin' about choosing my little sister."

"Thanks again."

"I have to get back to the farm," Big Mac said, looking skyward. "The moon is a-risin', which means I should be in bed. Take care, ya hear?" He turned back, and they parted ways.

As he continued along the path, he heard the soft flapping of wings high above him. He looked up and saw a hint of the unique mane and tail of none other than Rainbow Dash. He opened his wings and took off, which she didn't seem to notice. He flew around behind her and asked, "Were you following me?"

"Gaah!" she gasped, falling a good ten feet. She circled around to fly beside him. "I wasn't really following you per se; I just.... Were you talking to Big Macintosh?"

"What's so bad about that?"

"He never talks. To anypony. All he every says is 'eeyup' and 'nnope'. What got him to open up to you?"

"We'll leave that between him and me."

"Oh come on. I won't tell anypony."

"I will tell you that he thanked me for all my help. You see, Discord seeded a hundred of their trees with extra apples, and--"

"Discord?" she asked, a confused look on her face. "But he's locked in stone. We defeated him over a year ago."

"I don't know what's going on. But I am going to find out."

"Talk to Twilight. If something is hokey, she'll know about it."

"So why were you following me?"

"I wanted to ask you something."

"Fire away."

"Is it true what they say about long wings?"

"I beg your pardon!"

"That they're better for gliding!" she recovered. "I couldn't care less if the other thing is true. I mean...." She growled in frustration. "I noticed your wings are longer than most stallions', and I wonder if that made any difference."

"I think so," he replied, clearing his throat. "Extra wing length certainly gives you more stability, but the big thing is feather dexterity and being able to lock your wings for extended periods of time. There's also a direct correlation between wing length and wingpower."

"Well, wingpower isn't an area where I come up short." She puffed out her chest proudly.

"How many at last measuring?"

"Sixteen and a half."


"What about you, Mr. Glide?"

"I tried an anemometer a couple of years ago, but I don't want to embarrass myself."

"Come on, spill it!"


"Well, you're no slouch. Seven is pretty buckin' good. I mean pretty darn good. Pardon my French."

"I've heard worse. I lived in Hoofton for a good chunk of my life. I've heard vulgarities you've never even thought of."

"I'll take your word for it."

"So what about that trip to Canterlot? Are we still on for this weekend?"

Rainbow Dash's pupils shrank to pinpoints and the color drained from her face. "Oh my gosh, I can't believe I forgot!" She took off, calling back, "Sorry, Tux! I'll talk to you again tomorrow!"

"Rainbow Dash!" he called after her, trying to catch her. "What's the hurry?"

"I blew off Soarin' to come to your houswarming party. I rescheduled our date for tonight, but I totally forgot!"

"Wait, you're dating Soarin'?"

"Sorta. We've gone out a couple of times, but it's slow going."

"What about Spitfire?"

"Do you actually believe the straw they publish in Weekly World Hooves? That's just a Canterlot tabloid headline. She's actually the one who set us up."

"The six of you are all pretty important now, aren't you?"

"We have saved Equestria twice."

"What about Chrysalis?"

"Um...ask Twilight about that one. We don't really talk about it. It was actually Cadance and Shining Armor that defeated her."

"Can I come with you and meet Soarin'?"

"Probably not the best time," she replied, accelerating beyond his wingpower limit. As she left him, she called back, "I promise, this weekend I'll take you to Cloudsdale!"

"Loyalty is as Loyalty does," he said with a sigh, and he turned back. He locked his wings and glided toward Ponyville, absorbing the pale moonlight and relishing the utter silence, but for the wind whistling past his swept-back ears. But he wasn't headed for his cottage. He needed to resolve this matter about Discord now, not later.

He set his eye on the tree at the west end of Ponyville, the one where lived the resident expert on magic, mythology, and all things pertaining to the salvation of Equestria. And when the salvation of Equestria hung in the balance, there was no way she could turn him away.

He landed at the front door of the library and knocked his steel-shod hoof against it. "Twilight, are you up?" he called. "I have something important I need to talk to you about."

"Who?" asked an owl on a perch above him.

"Twilight," he replied. "The librarian? I need to talk to her about something. Is she in?"


"Is that a yes or a no?"


"Oh, for Pete's...." He knocked again, and this time, Twilight came to the door looking quite drowsy. "Twilight, I'm so glad you're up. I hope I didn't wake you."

"What? No, I was just sitting down for my tea. Why do you need me?"

"Discord is loose. I don't know how, but I swear it. He robbed Rarity and put her supplies in the Apples' barn. Then he seeded a hundred of their trees with new apples, which I helped take down. Then, because Rainbow Dash was following me, she was late for her date."

"Wait, Rainbow is dating?" Twilight interrupted. "Since when?"

"You know what, I might not have been supposed to say that."

"Whatever. What's this about Discord?"

"He's been mucking with my life for years, causing me grief any chance he got. It all stopped just over a year ago when you imprisoned him in stone. But last night he came back. Somehow, he came back."

"This is troubling news," she frowned.

"Is there some sort of flaw in the imprisonment spell?"

"No way," Twilight replied indignantly. "It was designed by Princess Celestia herself. The most powerful magician in all of Equestria."

"But if the spell was perfect, then how did he get out? Just ask Applejack and Rarity. And Sweetie Belle! She heard him taunt me!"

"I believe you, Tux," she sighed. "But there's nothing we can do about it tonight. You'd have to ask Princess Celestia, and the last train to Canterlot left already. You could walk or fly, but you'll need me in order to get an audience. The soonest I can go is tomorrow."

"Then we'll go tomorrow. But this has to be sorted out. The fate of Equestria hangs in the balance!"

"I think you're exaggerating a little bit. We'll go to Canterlot tomorrow for an emergency audience with the Princesses. We'll sort everything out then. Meet me at the train station at nine. Okay?"

"Okay," he sighed. He felt like an idiot, like he was overreacting. But if he was right, it meant that something serious was going to happen, and soon.

Prologue, pt 5 - Mr. Tux Goes to Canterlot

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The next morning, Tux first went to Carousel Boutique to beg off work, and when Rarity approved the trip to Canterlot, giving him a shopping list and the company checkbook as a contingency, he set off for the train station. Twilight was waiting for him on the platform, a pair of tickets levitating beside her. He silently took one and tucked it snugly into his feathers.

"Thank you," he said, looking at the ground.

"For what?" she replied blankly.

"For getting me an audience with the Princess."

"Think nothing of it," she replied. "If what you're saying is true, and Discord actually got out of his prison somehow, this has to be handled with all seriousness. I have to admit my skepticism, but as one of the keepers of the Elements of Harmony, the burden of proof is on me."

"Rarity gave me a list, besides. So this counts as a business trip."

Twilight's demeanor lightened a bit, and she chuckled. "I guess since she can't rub withers with high society, she's making you do her dirty work. Make sure you get some autographs."

The attendants opened the boarding gates, and Twilight and Tux handed over their tickets as they stepped into their coach. The ride to Canterlot wasn't a long one, she explained, but it was long enough for them to have some time to talk. They took up facing seats in one of the private boxes in the main passenger car, and when the door was closed, Twilight asked him to recount the entire day before.

He told her about his nightmares, about the writing and the draconequus footprints on his walls, about the voices heard by not only him, but also Sweetie Belle, and about about the lines of verse prophesying the villain's return. He recounted the unusual appearance of the apples he'd helped harvest, and how he'd sampled one and found it to be inordinately sweet, like it was already infused with caramel, or like the sugar content was far higher than normal for that particular cultivar. Lastly, he mentioned how Rainbow Dash had totally forgotten about her date with Soarin', whom he didn't name, and Twilight agreed that forgetting an appointment was quite unlike the cyan spirit of Loyalty.

"But there's one thing I don't seem to get," she puzzled. "You make it seem like Discord has been singling you out. Why would he do something like that?"

"All my life that draconequus has dogged me," Tux sneered. "Everywhere I go, whatever I do, I can't seem to escape his clutches. He's taken everything from me. Friends, family, the love of my life...." He shut himself up before he made another faux pas. He was already talking about erstwhile crushes, which was one of the quickest ways to destroy what chance he had with Twilight.

"I'm so sorry," Twilight consoled. "But it still doesn't make sense why he would target you specifically. Last time he got out, he wreaked whatever havoc he could. I would have thought he'd do the same this time, but he left Ponyville alone for the most part. My day was actually quite normal."

"Maybe Princess Celestia would have some sort of clue."

"Let's hope." She cast a glance out the window for a moment, and then back to him. "So let's just say that Discord does have it in for you. There's a reason for everything, so what could this one be?"

"I have no idea," he replied with a sigh. "Wait, do you remember what Princess Luna said to me the other night? She said that I was unique, that I was a threat. What if...but how could I be a threat to Discord?"

"Maybe Princess Luna would know. Though, I'd hate to wake her."

"Whatever she knows, Princess Celestia would know."

"Of course," Twilight acknowledged.

But then again, he wondered. The princesses were different ponies, and they had a history of uncooperative behavior. They seemed to be at harmony, but day and night were like Yin and Yang, opposites in every way.

The rest of the train ride was quiet. Tux didn't dare divulge the details of his past, other than what he'd told Rarity. And they didn't talk much once they got to Canterlot, either. He figured that she was an introvert like he was, and that conversation was contingent on there being a subject to converse about.

They walked up to the castle gates, and a pair of royal guards stopped them, crossing their lances. "Halt!" the senior guard commanded. "Access to the palace is restricted."

"Tin, you know me!" Twilight chuckled.

"Even for you, Twilight," Tin replied. "There has been a Changeling threat against the Princess, and we must keep the place sealed."

"That makes no sense, Tin. They can't have returned."

"They haven't. But the threat is just as real. Our intelligence is sound."

"Where's my brother? He'll let me in."

"Shining Armor and Princess Cadance are still in the North. I am acting Captain."

Twilight's expression drooped slightly. "But Tin, you know me. Search my mind; you won't find a Changeling."

"And him? You expect me to just let some nondescript nobody into the palace? You must think I'm dense."

Tux spoke up with urgency, rattling off the mental speech he had composed in his mind. "Night before last, Discord escaped from his stone prison--in spirit, not in body. He meddled with the lives of three ponies in Ponyville, both of which were closely connected to me. He stole my employer's supplies and added one hundred trees' worth of apples to the Ponyville orchard. He came to me in dreams and wrote a message on my walls, vowing that he would return. My name is Tux n Tails, and I have information that could be crucial to the survival of Equestria. I seek an audience with the Princess so that she may be prepared."

Tin glared at him until a voice came from the room behind: "Let him in, Brazen."

"Yes, my liege."

The guards stepped aside, and an alicorn horse walked slowly out of the palace and into the courtyard. Her wings were folded loosely at her sides, and her mane and tail flowed despite the lack of wind. Her face showed something resembling distress, but her features were for the most part blank.

"Bow," Twilight whispered harshly. Tux followed her as the princess continued to approach. "Princess Celestia, we seek an--"

"I know why you're here, Twilight," the princess replied shortly. "Come inside."

As they walked, Tux asked, "Why did you call the guard Tin? The princess called him Brazen."

"His name is Brazen Shield, and his parents were Tin Can and Copper Pot. He has more of his father in him, so we called him Tin. He's a childhood friend of my brother's. If he's not letting me in, this must be a lot worse of a threat than we thought."

"The threat is from Queen Chrysalis and her Changeling army," Celestia interrupted. "There is no physical threat yet; we are merely taking precautions. As a wise pony once said, 'Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.'"

"But Chrysalis was rendered powerless when Shining and Cadance cleansed the city," Twilight questioned. "Without a source of power, there is no way she could threaten the throne."

"She found somepony to feed off of. Somepony powerful. We can sense the threat rising, and it is close."

"What about Discord?" Tux asked. "You must have heard my spiel; shouldn't we consider him a threat?"

"What about him? He is trapped in an unbreakable prison cell, and only I hold the key." She sat down on a large cushion on a dais at the head of the throne room. "He is no threat."

"Use a memory spell, please," Tux asked. "Read my mind. Discord visited me!"

"It was probably some vandal," the princess dismissed.

"Perhaps the spell is imperfect," Twilight suggested. "After all, he escaped once before."

"That was one incident," the princess snapped. "The weakness was corrected, and Discord cannot escape again. I designed the first imprisonment spell when I was young, when I wasn't as well versed in the magical arts. But your magic seems to have patched the hole."

"But I didn't make any changes to the original spell," Twilight contradicted. "I didn't even analyze it; there was no time."

"The change wouldn't have been conscious. The Elements would have taken the more complete picture embodied by the six of you, analyzed the design, and fixed what was wrong. Their magic is mysterious even to me." Off in the distance, a clock tower signaled the hour. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I must pay a visit to the Crystal Empire. I'm sorry I couldn't be of more help."

"We understand, Princess," Twilight said, bowing. Tux followed suit, and Celestia left the room.

"I'm sorry we took this trip for nothing," he sighed. "Maybe I was just hallucinating."

"I trust you, Tux. Especially if Applejack and Rarity can corroborate your story. But there could be another explanation. Maybe it was Chrysalis trying to fake you out and scare you off."

"I don't know...."

"Remember, I couldn't tell the difference between the fake Cadance and the real one."

"Excuse me," said a familiar voice from off in the hallway. Princess Luna stepped cautiously into the throne room, then walked up to the two of them. "Exactly when was this?"

"Um...night before last," Tux replied.

"I know you speak the truth. To understand this, you must first understand the design of Discord's prison. Adjourn with me to my chambers."

They followed her curiously down the hall, away from the guards. Luna's bedroom was spacious, with room enough for a large bed, which was dressed with crimson sheets and a royal-blue comforter. The walls were adorned with the colors of the night sky, with hoof-painted depictions of the Milky Way, the constellations, and the Moon itself.

"Why did you bring us here?" Twilight inquired. "Why couldn't you tell us in the throne room?"

"Because my sister refuses to acknowledge what she knows to be true. When we first imprisoned Discord with the Elements, Celestia designed the prison. She neither requested nor needed my input; she was, and is the superior magician. What I didn't learn until nearly fifteen hundred years later, the night before last, is how exactly she designed the spell.

"I was forced into Discord's prison that night by Queen Chrysalis, who altered the spell so that any mortal injury I sustained from within the dream world would affect me in kind without. Her intent was to frame me for my sister's murder, which would result in my execution within the dream.

"I learned the nature of the nightmare when Discord appeared to me. He explained that Celestia had designed the spell to torture him; every night he experiences vividly her death. I have given an unbreakable oath of secrecy as to why this affects him, but if you use logic, the reason will not be too difficult to discern.

"He alluded to a way out, an exit of sorts. After I learned that death within would mean death without rather than waking, I realized that my only recourse was to trust him to lead me to the exit. I thought he had sacrificed his life to save mine, but then I received evidence that reassured me he was alive.

"I now know of two places aside from Canterlot where he went on that night: as I just learned, he visited Ponyville first, and thence he entered Tartarus for reasons unknown.

"I will tell you that I have confirmed his current presence, in body and spirit, within the statue-prison. He cannot escape unless he makes it to the exit again, which he has done twice now in fifteen hundred years. This goes to show how difficult it is to reach the prison's exit, even in the best circumstances."

"So he's safe," Twilight observed.

"As a sleeping bunny."

"But why would he single me out?" Tux asked. "He could have turned other ponies' lives upside down, but he's always singled me out."

"I know, but cannot say. That information must remain secret until my sister is asleep rather than in mere absence. Even walls have ears." She nodded her head toward a decorative lighting fixture.

"A security camera," Twilight explained.

"I offer both of you a room for the night. It is spacious, but has only a single bed. For that I apologize."

"I'll sleep on the floor," Tux offered.

"No thank you, Princess Luna," Twilight said, bowing. "I have responsibilities in Ponyville, and I have to be back by dinnertime. Tux?"

"Go," he said, closing his eyes disappointedly. "I have errands to run for Rarity, and she'll have my head if I don't run them here. Besides, I have to know for sure why Discord has dogged me my whole life."

"All right. Goodbye, Tux." She briefly put her head on his shoulder then left the room and walked back down the hall.

"Run your errands now, Tux n Tails," Princess Luna suggested. "I will show you to your room after sunset."

Tux found Canterlot's downtown agora to be a rather unsettling place. It was a bustling courtyard with three quarters. The first, the one closest to the palace, was a mall of indoor shops that sold various wares becoming of the high life, from jewelry to clothing to big-screen televisions, albeit at slightly discounted prices from the shops further uptown in the wealthier districts.

The second quarter, Tux's target, held a bazaar where merchants sold textiles; small quantities of gold, both ore and refined; cut and uncut gemstones; and various and sundry kinds of ribbon.

The third quarter was an open-air produce market selling imported fruits and vegetables from around Equestria. It was largely deserted, but even some of the higher society ponies could be seen milling about and perusing the stands. Apparently even the Canterlot elite realized that nothing was better than home-grown produce.

He made his way toward the bazaar, skimming the list out of the corner of his eye. Rarity needed silk from a specific seller, some assorted rough-cut gems, a couple hundred yards of ribbon, and some gold ingots for custom casting. He knew it would be heavy, and he'd neglected to bring his saddlebags, but he could easily rent a cart or use his wings to help balance the load.

The nearest seller on the list was Silkworm, a unicorn whose special talent was weaving silk. According to Rarity's list, his silk was the finest in Equestria. Tux thought it would mean considerable expense, but when he walked up to the counter, Silkworm eyed the list and asked, "Was Rarity unable to come this time?"

"She has a large order to fill."

"So she sent a pack mule, eh?" He laughed. "Since you're not a unicorn, you get a set of my bags. Just have Rarity send them back when you return to Ponyville." He levitated a pair of sturdy burlap saddlebags over the counter and set them on Tux's back. He then filled them with several bolts of various colors of silk, which were a lot heavier than Tux had expected. "Off with you, now," Silkworm said. "You probably have other errands to run. Don't worry about payment; I have a contract with her."

"Oh, okay. Have a nice day, then."

"And when you get back to Ponyville, tell Rarity that prices are going up next year."

"All right." He knew that it would be a stretch for her to afford much of an increase, but perhaps she could work something out.

He kept walking, albeit slightly unbalanced due to the heavy load, until he came to the group of vendors hawking gemstones. As he eyed the first two vendors' displays, the third called out to him in a noticeable South Trottingham accent. "Mate!" Tux looked around to confirm the origin of the call. "Yes, you! You with the salt-and-pepper mop!" Tux trotted over, lost his balance, and when he picked himself up, the vendor said, "Hey, mate, I hear tell you're looking for a bunch of gems."

"Some very specific gems, actually," Tux replied, taking out the list. "I need one dozen aquamarines, one dozen opals, six dark sapphires, eight rubies, five emeralds, three diamonds, and cubic zirconia? All rough cut."

"Running errands for a dress maker, eh?"

"How did you know?"

"Well, for starters, who buys gemstones, ingots, ribbon and silk but a dressmaker? And you're obviously not a dressmaker, though you'd look smashing in a nice suit. Just wait for that one. But before I give you these, let me give you a piece of advice. Watch out." He slid two bags of gems across the counter.

"What do you mean?"

"Just keep your eyes open and your head up, and everything will work out in the end. And whatever you do, listen to your friends. If you don't, you'll end up clear up a creek without a paddle. You could use your hooves, but they'd really start to stink."


"It'll all be clear in due time. That'll be three hundred quid."


"Pounds. Bits. Credits. Cheese. Monies."

"Do you accept checks?"

"I don't, but the bloke who runs the stand does, so scratch away. I'm just watching it for him while he's in Los Peg." He set a pen on the counter, and Tux wrote out the correct amount. Rarity didn't have the funds according to Discord's altered books, but she had at least a thousand bits coming in with her current order.

"Oh, and you'll be back."

"But I've got everything on the list."

"I know." The vendor smiled broadly.

"Have a nice day," Tux said, chuckling as he walked away. He found the vendor to be somewhat strange, but not in a bad way. He had a certain charm and charisma that would make him a shoo-in for a salesman.

After purchasing the rest of the items on the list without event, he slowly made his way back to the palace. He expected Brazen Shield to deny him entry once again, but the armored stallion stepped aside. "Princess Luna is waiting for you in the throne room," he said. "She has also instructed me to grant you access to the palace whenever you choose."

"Thank you, Brazen Shield." As he neared the throne room, he felt his load lighten, and his saddlebags separated from him and levitated into the throne room, settling at the princess's hooves. "And thank you, princess."

"You're welcome, Tux n Tails. Er...Tux. I believe that is what you requested to be called at our first meeting, yes?"

"Yeah, I think so."

"Follow me." She picked up his saddlebags and led him down the hall to a door. "This is your room for the night. I'll tell you everything you want to know if you'll meet me in the throne room at ten o'clock. In the meantime, somepony wants to see you. His quarters are down the hall, third door on the right." She deposited his saddlebags against the dresser and returned to the throne room.

Tux made his way down the hall until he came to the door that Luna had mentioned, and he knocked on it. When it opened, Tux saw a smallish, purple and green dragon. "You must be Tux n Tails," the dragon greeted. "I'm Spike."

"Oh, Twilight's 'little brother'," Tux remembered. "Nice to meet you, Spike. Call me Tux."

"Come on in." As Tux entered, Spike said, "I'm sorry I couldn't make it to your housewarming party. Believe me, I tried, but I just couldn't get away." He got up on a stepping stool and poured two cups of tea.

"What exactly are you doing here?"

"A research project on the Elements of Harmony. It was Twilight's idea, and she was going to do it herself, but I volunteered to compile notes for her."

"I hear that you have ulterior motives."

"What do you mean?"

"I heard that you needed to get away."

"Oh yeah, that." He hopped down from the stepping stool and handed Tux one of the teacups. "Sometimes you just have to take a step back and look at things."

"I totally know the feeling." He took a sip of the tea. It was a bit black for his taste, but he didn't complain. "So when are you returning to Ponyville?"

"I can go back whenever I want to. But I still have a few more books to read."

"Have you learned anything?"

"Yeah, but nothing that Twilight doesn't already know. Anything worth a look is buried in books I can't read."

"Why not? Are they locked in Special Collections?"

"No, they're in some old language that has different writing. It looks kinda like little pictures."

"Ponese," Tux recognized. "I can read it, and I can translate some, but I can't stay long."

"Maybe you can come back sometime."

"Perhaps I will," he shrugged after another sip of tea. The conversation died there, and Tux waited in silence for another couple of minutes. He tried to build up the courage to ask Spike something about Twilight, but the words kept crawling back down his throat. But after another minute of silence, he forced the question out.

"So...Spike, if I were to ask Twilight out, what should I do for a first date?"

"Wha?" The dragon looked up from his teacup.

"I kinda want to ask her out. You know, get to know her better."

"Yeah, I know. I'm not a baby anymore. Why are you asking her out to get to know her? She'll just say no. Get to know her first."

"That's what I thought you'd say," he chuckled wryly, taking another sip of tea. "Have you found anything in your research to suggest that the Elements' magic could be imperfect? How else could Discord have broken out?"

"Some ponies think that the Elements represent perfection, but they actually represent Good. Discord's escape was caused by a second spell, one that he cast as he was being imprisoned the first time. He can't escape again unless somepony lets him out."

"Who could do that?"

"Only Princess Celestia has the key."

One way or another, Celestia was responsible for Discord's most recent escape. But at least it was good to know that another petty quarrel in the statue's presence wouldn't release the fiend once again.

Spike interrupted Tux's thought stream. "You know, if you're so crazy about Twilight, you should have gone back with her on the train. It would have been a perfect opportunity to talk to her more. And she seemed to like you well enough when she stopped to see me earlier today."

"This trip has higher purposes," Tux chuckled. "As much as I'd love to chat her up, it's more important to figure out why Discord has been dogging me my whole life."

"But he's been locked in prison," Spike said confusedly.

"It's hard to explain. Maybe someday I'll tell you, but for now, I should probably get some shuteye. The last two nights haven't been very kind to me." He finished his tea and set the cup next to the kettle that sat on the dresser. "Nice to meet you, Spike."

"Likewise, Tux." Spike fished a gemstone out of his teacup and popped it in his mouth with a cringeworthy crunch. He noticed Tux grimacing and said, mouth full, "What? Didn't you know that dragons eat gemstones all the time? Rubies are some of the best; they taste like ripe raspberries."

"Good to know," he said, still a bit put off by the thought of eating a hard, crystalline mineral. He turned and walked out the door, and he went back to his room and lay on the bed. It was a lot softer than the one in his cottage, much closer to sleeping in a cloud. He set the alarm clock for ten o'clock and closed his eyes, but he had trouble sleeping without closure. He couldn't keep his mind off of Discord, and he kept speculating about what Princess Luna would tell him.

He was still awake when his alarm went off, and he silenced it hastily. He rolled out of bed and plodded down the hall to the throne room. Princess Luna waited there, out on the balcony, watching over the land. "Princess?" he called. His voice reverberated on the marble floor.

"Tux," she greeted, turning around and walking toward him. "I am glad you came. I ordered the security systems to be turned off for the duration of our meeting."

"So what's the big deal? Why has Discord been haunting me my whole life?"

"It hasn't been Discord. The Four Horses, the lords of Chaos, have many agents, and Discord is only one of them. The moment I saw you, I knew that there was something special about you. You are a threat to the Four Horses, one of the only non-alicorns who can wield all of the Elements of Harmony. As such, the Horses have been trying to destroy you from the day you were born. You stopped breathing twice as a newborn foal in the hospital, and the agents of Chaos almost succeeded, but for a miracle."

"How do you know about that?" he asked. "I've never told anypony else!"

"Alicorns have ways of finding out about things, but in short, I read your mind. I know your entire life: every memory, every triumph, every failure."

"I'm not so sure I like that."

"What is done is done; the past cannot be changed. But take comfort in that what I know will not leave my lips."

He took some relief in her pledge, but his mind was still restless. "If I'm a threat to the lords of Chaos, that means they'll never leave me alone, right?"

"That is correct. Your life will be as good as you make it, but you will always be a target, as will those around you."

"Thank you, Princess." He bowed. "I should get back to sleep; I have a train to catch in the morning."

"To Ponyville, I hope...."

Her cryptic question confused him. "Of course. Where else would I go?"

"Good night, Tux. May Harmony ever attend you."

He adjourned to his room and crawled into bed, but his newfound knowledge didn't give him any pause. As long as he was in Ponyville, nopony was safe. And as much as he hated the thought, there was only one remedy.

Early the next morning, he bade the princesses goodbye and carried Rarity's load of supplies toward the train station. The burlap saddlebags itched, nearly driving him out of his mind, and he shed them when he reached the ticket office. "When does the next train to Ponyville leave?" he asked.

"Ten o'clock," the clerk replied. Tux looked at the clock. He still had an hour. "If you buy a ticket, we'll load your bags for you so that you don't have to wait around."

"Sold," Tux replied. But then he realized that he didn't have any money on him. "Hey, did a purple unicorn get a refund for my ticket last night? We were supposed to head back last night, but I got waylaid."

"Oh, Twilight? Yes, she actually turned in the ticket for a one-way raincheck, which she left in your name. All you need to do is verify."

"Tux n Tails."

"Bingo. One ticket for the 10am train. But don't run off for too long; if you miss it, your ticket is non-refundable and non-transferable."

"Oh, I won't go far."

The clerk rung a bell, and an attendant came quickly to collect Tux's saddlebags. Once they were safely under guard, awaiting the train's arrival, Tux trotted back downtown to the bazaar. He looked around for something he could buy Twilight, but every time something caught his eye, he remembered that he hadn't brought any money of his own. He could run back and get Rarity's checkbook, then replace the money in her accounts later, but that would be dishonest.

He wandered around until he came across the booth of the Trottingham pony who had sold him the gemstones the day before. He fully expected the admitted temporary proprietor to be gone, but he was still there. "I told you you'd be back."

Tux shook his head. "I'm not here to buy anything; I'm just wandering around."

"I know. Here." He put a medium-sized, rough cut ruby up on the counter. "For the dragon. Delicious and nutricious. Plus, it'll earn you some points with the lady, I think." He winked and flashed a toothy grin.

"No thanks. I don't have any money, remember? And I can't take it in good conscience, especially since you're only a temp."

"A temp? I'm insulted! I can do whatever I please!"

"Keep your gem, please."

The vendor scoffed indignantly. "I dug this prime-age ruby out of the ground with my own hooves just for you, and you stand here telling me that you won't take it? I've been holding onto it for years, just for this occasion."

"No, you haven't."

"Look me in the face and tell me I'm lying."

There was something about the vendor's expression that unsettled Tux. It was impossible to look the light brown pony in the eye unless he let himself believe that what the vendor said was true. "I can't."

"I'm telling the truth when I say this gem is meant to be yours. To give to Twilight, for her to give to Spike."

"How do you know their names?"

"I know things. I also know that this won't be our last meeting."

"Who are you, really?"

"I'm nopony." He pushed the gem further across the counter, and Tux took it with his wing, holding it against his body. "Off with you, now," the vendor said, shooing Tux with his hoof.

Tux walked back to the train station. He'd give the gem to Twilight, sure enough, but it would be the last thing he ever gave her. He had to leave Ponyville in order to keep everypony safe. This was all he could think about on the ride back. He would never get a chance with Twilight. He would never hang out with Fluttershy again. He would never see Rainbow Dash in a gliding exhibition. He would never see Rarity make a mint. He would never get to help buck apples for Applejack. And he would never get another Pinkie party.

When he got off the train, he went to his cottage first, switching the itchy burlap saddlebags for his own. The strap was padded and lined with fleece for comfort, and it made the heavy load much easier to carry. The walk to the Carousel Boutique was longer than ever before with the foreshadowing of his giving up gainful employment.

"Rarity, I'm here," he called as he entered. "Rarity?"

"In a minute!" she called. "I'm in the middle of a fitting!"

"OW!" shrieked Rainbow Dash, her voice equally distant. "If you stick me one more time, I swear to Celestia, I'm gonna clobber you!"

"If you weren't so fidgety, you'd be done by now. Stand still!"

Tux waited for several more minutes, and eventually, Rainbow came storming down the stairs, mumbling curses. Her language was as blue as her coat until she saw him there. "Sorry," she said, chuckling nervously. "I just don't like being a pincushion."

"Your leg is bleeding," he observed. "You can say whatever you want."

"Where'd that cloud come from?"

"What cloud?"

"The dark one over your head. You look like a pile of soggy straw. What's up?"

"I have to leave Ponyville. I probably won't be able to stay in touch."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa. You just got here this week!"

"I know, but I need to go. I don't know where."

"Of all the nerve!"

"I'm sorry I couldn't teach you mo--"

"Is it some family emergency or something?"

"No," he sighed. "It's not you; it's me."

"What are we, breaking up? Ugh. You don't have to explain yourself. Just...." She huffed and stormed the rest of the way out.

"Smooth," he sighed. Soon, Rarity came down the stairs levitating the beginnings of a dress. "Thank you so much for running my Canterlot errands. A bonus is in it for you."

"We can't afford a bonus."

"Pish posh. You're getting a bonus even if I have to take it out of my own pocket."

"Rarity, I need--" She went into a side room and shut the door. He shrugged off his saddlebags and started to follow her, but she burst through the door again, nearly hitting him in the face. She lifted the various supplies out of the saddlebags and carried them toward a supply room.

"What was it that you needed, darling?"

"I need to talk to you."

"I'm really busy, Tux. If you want to talk, you need to walk."

"I need to give you my notice." The supplies suddenly fell to the ground. "Rarity, are you all right?"

"Um, yes," she replied, recovering the supplies and shelving them appropriately. "Why exactly are you intent on resigning?"

"I have to leave Ponyville."


"Something has come up."

She turned around. "Tux, is there anything I can do to convince you to stay? I could give you a raise, I could change your job description, I...I...."

"There's nothing you can do," he said. "It's because as long as I'm here, I'm a threat to your safety. The agents of Chaos won't rest until I and those around me are gone. Do you understand?"

"I.... Yes, I think I do."

"I hope to be out of here as soon as I can get away. And the sooner it happens, the better off you'll all be." He put his supplies into his saddlebags, and he held out his hoof to shake. Instead, Rarity embraced him.

"Tux, I may have known you for only a short time, but I consider you a friend. There is something special about you, ne sais quoi. I hope to the heavens that you will return one day. Goodbye."

He stepped out and paused for a moment. "What in the hoof am I doing?" he sighed. But his decision was set.

His next stop was the Library; the sooner he said goodbye to Twilight, the easier it would be to get to the others. But most importantly, he wanted to say goodbye to Fluttershy last.

When he reached the Library, he found Twilight organizing books on the main floor. When she greeted him cheerfully, he didn't know what to say, so he decided to start somewhere else and try to work his way toward his eventual goal. "So basically, Princess Luna said that I can wield the Elements of Harmony."

"But what about Magic? You're not a unicorn."

"I know. I would have to research it. But that's basically why the Four Horses have been after me."

She shelved another book. "The Four Horses are just an ancient Pegasus myth, Tux."

"Not according to the princess. She called them the lords of Chaos."

"Well, they're no match for all of us."

"Actually...that's what I came here to talk about. I need to leave Ponyville as soon as I can."

"Don't be silly, Tux."

"I'm serious, Twilight."

She stopped shelving and turned around. "Tux, you're being rash."

"No, I'm not," he defended. "As long as I'm here, you are in danger. All of you. Discord is nothing compared to the Horses. You won't stand a chance. If they come after me, I don't want anypony caught in the crossfire."

"I guess we can't stop you," she sighed.

"I have a present for Spike. It's a ruby. But it's back at my place."

"I'll come with you," she said, putting the rest of the unshelved books onto a cart and pushing it off into a side room. She followed him out, and they walked silently down the road. Time and again, he wanted to tell her about his crush, but the words refused to leave his mouth. It was what he imagined a stutter would be like, and it was horrible.

When they reached his cottage, Twilight asked him once again to reconsider, but he replied, "I'm absolutely certain that this is what needs to be done."

"Okay." She opened the door and ushered him inside. There, in the front room, were the other five of the Element-keepers. Their expressions were varied: Pinkie was struggling to hold back a waterfall of tears; Rainbow Dash glowered, and Applejack glared in disapproval; Rarity's expression was warm but stern, like a mother intent on disciplining an errant child; but the one who tugged at his heart was Fluttershy, who was sniffling, having been unsuccessful in holding her composure. Tears stained her cheeks, and her lip quivered as she quietly whimpered.

"What are you all doing here?" Tux asked.

"This," Rarity said, "is an intervention."

"When I heard you were gonna bail on us, I had to warn the gang," Rainbow Dash said proudly.

"It's not going to work," he sighed.

"Hear us out," Twilight urged, walking forward to join them. "You may think that you have to leave, but you're so much happier here than you were in Hoofton."

Rarity made her entreaty. "You have friends here, you're gainfully employed, and it doesn't take a soothsayer to know that you're special. Besides, we've handled monsters in the past, and we can do it again." She stamped her foot softly and lifted her chin defiantly.

Applejack spoke up next. "Ya may think that we'll be fine lettin' ya go away like this, and I'd even say that it's true that we don't really need ya 'round. But hang all that; we want ya 'round. 'Specially Fluttershy and I."

"That's right," Fluttershy said, sniffing. "You're the closest pony friend I've had in a long time. Somepony who I really feel comfortable with. No expectations, no conventions; I can just be. I'm not even like that with these girls."

"And in case that didn't move you," Rainbow Dash said, flying forward and sticking her nose in his face, "I know this guy in Cloudsdale, who shall remain nameless, who actually knows Rosie Gardner's brother." She landed again, still glowering. "Think of what that little punk did to you. Now think of what you were going to do to us."

He hadn't thought of it that way. And she was right. Just like Rosie had done to him, he had planned on leaving Ponyville without giving much notice or a way to contact him. His reasons were different, but that didn't matter. He looked at the group for a long moment then conceded. "You're right. I shouldn't run away from my problems. I guess that's just what I've been doing my whole life, and I'd gotten used to it."

"You don't have to run anymore, Tux," Fluttershy said softly. She walked up to him and put her head on his withers, wrapping a foreleg around him. As he extended a wing to embrace her, the rest of the group filed into position around him, crushing him in a huge group hug.

Then and there, Tux broke down and cried.

Chapter 1 - Maintenance Order

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Tux sat on his couch, deftly working his needles and yarn, working to make a hat and matching scarf for the upcoming winter season. He was excited, as it was to be his first winter away from Hoofton, his first real, snowy winter. Back in Hoofton, winter was always wet and miserable instead of crisp and cool.

He looked up at Fluttershy, who was herself knitting a scarf, proudly wearing the hat she'd just finished. How she could knit so well without using her wings was beyond his understanding. "Looks great," he remarked, returning to his own work.

"Thank you," she smiled from the other end of the couch. "Yours looks good, too. You're almost done."

"I have about fifteen rows left on the hat," he replied. He flipped his cable needle, twisting the pattern. His hat had several cables that ran straight up it. He'd originally wanted to have four cables dividing into eight, then crossing and going back to four, but it was much too challenging for him, and he couldn't be ponied to be that ambitious.

"Yours is really cute," he said, looking back up at her. She grinned and blushed. Her hat was several shades of brown, with oversized, teddy-bear ears, and a pair of shiny eyes, a button nose, and a black yarn smile completed the teddy-bear face. Her scarf was in the same color scheme, even though she was knitting a simple argyle pattern (which was also too ambitious for him).

"How's the choir?" he asked as he finished another row on his hat. His feathers were starting to cramp up, and now he was wishing that Fluttershy would tell him her secrets of hoof dexterity.

"They're doing so much better now that you've been working with me," she said with a smile. "This performance might actually come together after all. How's your choir coming?"

"The pony choir?" he scoffed. "No takers so far. Well, besides you and the other five."

"Oh, that's too bad," she sighed. "I think having a pony choir from Ponyville is a great idea. Maybe you could ask Twilight to get in touch with ponies in Canterlot. I'm sure you could find somepony there."

"Yeah," he shrugged as the topic dropped off. As he finished another row, he got up the courage and asked, "Speaking of asking Twilight things, you know her a lot better than I do."


"And you probably know me better than she does."


"Um, I was thinking of...." His words failed him. *This must be what a stutter is like*, he thought. "I was, um, thinking of, uh, asking her out."

"Oh, road apples," she grunted, starting at his words. "I slipped a stitch." She took the yarn in her teeth and quickly remedied the situation. She resumed knitting with a stone look on her face. "I don't mean to badmouth anypony," she said without looking up, "but you and she wouldn't make a good match."

"Why not?" he asked. "We get along nicely, and she seems to like me well enough."

She finished a row and put her needles down. She scooted one cushion over so that she was sitting right next to him. "She's high-maintenance. More so than Rarity."


"You need somepony a bit more laid back. Somepony like...." She seemed to start to say something, but she backed down. "Well, I don't really know who, but I'll keep my eyes open. If that's okay with you, of course."

"Sure. I'd trust my sister to play matchmaker any day; what makes you any different?" He smiled, and she blushed. But it looked like more of a nervous blush than a bashful one. "It's okay if you don't feel up to it."

"Oh no, it's not that I don't feel up to it. I mean, I think I could choose somepony perfect. It's just that I've never played matchmaker before."

"Go with your instincts," he replied. "But in the meantime, I think I'd like to go with mine, if you know what I mean."

"Um...I don't."

"Twilight," he explained. "I've had a crush on her ever since I met her."

"A whole week," she marveled in mockery. "It's meant to be."

"Hey, it's perfectly normal. I know a lot of ponies who married their crushes."

"I'm sorry, Tux, but I can't give you my blessing until you know what you're getting yourself into. Twilight and I have a lunch date in two days, and you're coming as my plus-one."

"All right," he replied. "Hey, we should double-date. I'm sure there's some handsome stallion here in Ponyville that you've been eyeing."

"Um, n-no. I m-mean, yes." She sighed, her ears drooping. "But he would never think of me."

"Rubbish," he replied. "Who-pony in their right mind would turn down a mare like you?" She blushed and grinned bashfully. "There's the Fluttershy I know."

The clarion call of Ponyville's bell tower sounded in the distance. "I have to go," Fluttershy said, rolling up her scarf and tucking it with her hat into her knitting bag. "I'll see you soon."

"You really should wear that hat," he said, nodding at the bag. "It's really cute."

"Okay," she said, pulling the hat out of the bag and putting it on. "Better?"

"Much better. Bye." They shared a quick hug before he left for his cottage.

The time came for the lunch trio, and Tux made his way to the café at noon, and he found Fluttershy and Twilight sitting there already, an empty chair reserving his place at the table. "Hey, ladies!" he called, trotting over. He took his place and picked up the menu.

"Fluttershy was just telling me that you're fairly handy with a pair of needles," Twilight said. "I had no idea you knitted."

"Yeah, it's sort of a hobby," he replied proudly. "I've never made anything really extravagant, though."

"Well, it's still a good thing to be able to do, especially considering how cold it's going to get this winter. Rainbow Dash says that there's going to be a cloud shortage."

"How would a cloud shortage make it colder?" Fluttershy asked.

"Well, for starters, the clouds insulate during the night, so clear nights allow more heat to escape from the Earth's surface. True, clouds block the sunlight during the day, but enough of it gets through to heat things up a little bit. Sometimes I wish that somepony could fix the planet's twenty-three degree axial tilt so that it would be balmy all year round. Wait, is it twenty-three degrees, or is it twenty-seven? Ugh, that's going to bug me for the rest of the day."

"Earth's obliquity is twenty-three degrees," Tux explained.

"Thanks," Twilight smiled.

"You're welcome. I've actually got an idea for a story where, in the future, space ponies try to do that and totally screw up the ecosystem."

"I'll have to read that when you finish it," she said enthusiastically. "Hey, I'll be right back." She got up and trotted off toward the restrooms.

"I was trying to prove a point," Fluttershy said in a harsh whisper. "She can talk your ears off."

"So can I," he shrugged. "I can talk for hours on very narrow topics, especially writing, music theory, and linguistics."

"Touché," she sighed. "But this isn't the only reason Twilight wouldn't be a good match. You'll see."

Tux was beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable. This definitely wasn't the kind, timid Fluttershy who he knew. She had to have some sort of reason to be fault-finding like this. "It's really not going to work," he sighed. "I don't think there's any way to convince me. Why are you doing this, anyway?"

"Because I care about you, Tux. You told me about all your past heartbreak, and I don't want this to be your last. I really don't think you can take another one."

"You're probably right about that one." He'd told himself long ago that one more unfair rejection, and he would throw in the towel and get out of the game for good. But if it didn't work out with Twilight, he didn't think it would necessarily break his heart, though he would definitely be disappointed about it.

"All right, I'm back," Twilight said with a smile, sitting down again. Out of the corner of his eye, Tux saw Fluttershy nonchalantly put her fork askew. Upon noticing it, Twilight cleared her throat and said, "Um, Fluttershy, your fork is...."

"It looks fine to me," the yellow pony replied. "What about it?"


"No, it's not," Fluttershy argued.

"Here, let me just...." Twilight ignited her horn and fixed the flatware. "There." Not five seconds later, when Twilight glanced away, Fluttershy bumped the fork again. When Twilight looked up, her mouth fell open for a moment. "Sorry, it's...." She righted the fork again.

When Fluttershy did it a third time, Tux spoke up. "In all honesty, it bugs me, too." He shrugged and moved the fork back with his wing. Her mouth dropped open. He shrugged again.

The meeting continued normally for a while, and all of Fluttershy's contrived attempts at stamping out Tux's fire of infatuation failed outright. Twilight was getting more and more impatient, and the last straw came when everypony's food arrived.

Twilight and Fluttershy had gotten similar orders of sweet oat-flour pasta with marinara sauce, though Fluttershy had gotten a sandwich instead of a salad. Tux watched as Twilight carefully separated the pasta and salad, not even allowing her roll to touch the tomato sauce. He had always been a bit less particular about his foods touching; desserts were always to stay separate, but virtually everything else was fair game. Fluttershy was usually the same way, but this time she opened her sandwich, added a forkful of pasta, and took a bite.

"Food..." Twilight stammered, her eye twitching slightly, "...touching...."

"Was that really necessary?" Tux whispered as Twilight went catatonic.

"Yes," Fluttershy replied.

"But I can live with that," he protested. "My sister is just like that with her food. So is my brother. I'm sorry, but you still haven't convinced me that this isn't a good match. All you've done is tortured an innocent mare."

"I guess you're right," she sighed sadly. "This really isn't like me. I figured that I'd be saving you the trouble of finding out for yourself.

"I appreciate the sentiment, but I think it may be best to pave my own way with this." Fluttershy agreed to stop trying to interfere, and he helped her finish the pasta sandwich, which wasn't terrible, but had a strange texture.

Almost as soon as it was gone, Twilight snapped out of her catatonia and asked, "What happened? Did the...thing go away?"

"It's gone," Tux assured.

"Oh, thank goodness."

"You didn't...hear anything we said while you were out, did you?"

"Not a word," she replied. "Why?"

"We were just talking about Tux's family," Fluttershy replied. It wasn't altogether untrue. "He said that his sister and brother are also picky with their food."

"My brother will eat only rolled oats whenever we go to the Feed Bucket," Tux explained. "That's a restaurant chain on the east coast. When we fix greens, he'll eat only alfalfa, and when he grazes, he'll eat only clover."

"That is pretty picky," Twilight remarked. "Oh, Tux, before I forget, which I usually don't do, but you know how things get when you have a busy schedule, anyhoof, before I forget, I thought you'd like to borrow a book I have on the history of Equestria. You know, the one that talks about all the sordid little details that other textbooks don't give you?"

"Oh, yeah," he said eagerly. "Are you going to bring it by?"

"I would, but I don't have the time; Princess Celestia has me doing a major research project on the Crystal Empire. You should be excited to know that Ponese is still one of their most widely spoken languages. Anyhoof, I was wondering if you could swing by later today, maybe when you get off work. You could pick up the book, and I could show you more of the library."

"That sounds great," he smiled. Off in the distance, the clock tower chimed One.

"Gah!" Twilight gasped, shoveling the remnants of her salad into her mouth, chewing hurriedly and swallowing prematurely. Once the look of discomfort left her face, she said, "I'm sorry, but I have to get back to my research. I'll see you both later!" She stood up and left the table.

As soon as she was out of earshot, Tux said, "I think I might ask her out to dinner when I go over later. It's the perfect opportunity."

"Please, Tux, be careful," Fluttershy beseeched, her normal timbre returning, replacing the disapproving tone she'd been using when speaking about the idea of Tux and Twilight as a couple. "Be sure this is what you want before you do anything you'll regret. And I know you will regret it."

"We'll see," he replied. "I've never been so sure of anything in my life."

"Famous last words," she said under her breath.

Later that day, Tux made his way to the library and found two royal guards stationed outside. He hesitated, but one of them asked, "You are Tux n Tails?"

"Yeah," he replied.

"Twilight Sparkle said you'd be coming by. Come right in."

"Why are you two here?" he asked.

"The Princess has made a visit to consult with Twilight on her research," said the other guard.

Tux walked past them into the library and found Twilight standing there next to Princess Celestia. They were conferring over a stack of very old books with crystal-studded bindings. They were apparently so into their discussion that Twilight didn't see him enter. The princess looked over at him and said, "Welcome, Tux n Tails."

"Please call me Tux," he corrected, bowing.

"Yes, I seem to recall from our last meeting that you preferred just your first name. I'm sorry we didn't meet under better conditions, Tux."

"It's fine, Princess."

"You may get up now...."

Tux clambered back to his hooves and looked to Twilight. "I'm here to borrow that book."

"Oh, sure," she said with a smile. "Follow me." She led him up the stairs and into her bedroom. Everything inside was immaculate. Not a thread was out of place, not a pen or piece of paper skewed; not even a speck of dust found place on any surface. Her bed was made with perfect hospital-corners, and the bedspread was exactly centered. The hem was parallel to the headboard and folded over at what appeared to be exactly one tenth of the beds's total length.

But what really told the story was the to-do list on the desk, which Tux read cursorily as Twilight searched for the book in her personal shelves.

_x_ Make checklist about supplies for making checklists

_x_ Quills

_x_ Ink

_x_ Parchment

_x_ Make to-do list

_x_ Feed Spike

_x_ Feed Owlowiscious

_x_ Read *A Brief History of the Crystal Empire*

_x_ Write report about *A Brief History of the Crystal Empire*

The list continued on in the same vein for quite a distance, all written in calligraphy so perfect that it looked typed. One thing that Tux hated was lists. They didn't help at all, overwhelming him and stressing him out. Another thing that Tux knew he couldn't live with was a neat-freak, and he knew this from experience. He himself was more cluttered than neat. Not messy per se, but very cluttered. His bedroom back home in Hoofton was like Rarity's inspiration room: organized chaos. Surely something that Discord would see as an abomination.

"Found it!" Twilight proclaimed, producing the book. It had a simple black cover with red lettering that read, "The True History of Equestria". "It somehow got stuck in the wrong spot. You see, I use the Library of Canterlot call number system rather than the Dewey Decimal system. It makes things easier to find, unless they get misplaced. I'll have to talk to Spike about this; he probably shelved it."

"Thanks a million," he said as she put the book in his saddlebags.

"Hey, I have an idea," she gasped. "Let's talk to Princess Celestia about you writing her letters whenever you learn about friendship. I figured, since you're a part of our circle of friends, you might as well be included."

"Sure," he said with a shrug.

He followed Twilight down the stairs and waited to hear the princess's response to Twilight's proposal. After a few moments of thought, the princess said, "Yes, I think that would be splendid. Tux, the way this works is that whenever you learn something about friendship, you will write me a letter and send it via dragon-mail. Spike has the address, so he will take care of that for you. Remember, send me a letter if and only if you learn something about friendship. There was one time when--"

"Please, Princess Celestia, don't tell that story."

"Twilight can tell you the story, then. But later; we still have research to discuss."

"I'll be off, then." He bowed briefly and left the library. Fluttershy was standing outside conversing with a chipmunk. "Hi, Fluttershy," he greeted.

"Did you see her bedroom?" she asked.

"I think I'm starting to see a problem," he sighed. "But it's nothing that I can't overlook."

"And I thought I wore rose-colored glasses," she quipped.

"Fluttershy, have you ever been in love?"

She paused, her ears drooping. "Yes," she replied. "I prefer not to talk about it. It's such a sad story."

"And if you had a shot with the stallion of your dreams, would you take that opportunity?"

"No...." She sniffed. "I'm...too shy."

"Don't cry, Fluttershy," he said, wrapping a wing around her. "I didn't mean to bring up any unpleasant memories."

"I know," she sniffed. "It was a long time ago. And I made a mistake, thinking that a bad match was a good one. I don't want you to make that same mistake."

"I've made it before. I think by now, I've become a pretty good judge of what's good for me. I really do appreciate that you want to look out for me. Not many ponies want to do that. And those who do are my true friends."

"Thank you," she murmured, smiling weakly.

"In fact, I'd go so far as to say that you're my best friend." She put her head on his withers, and her returned the gesture. Once again, he felt the tearing deep inside of him that he'd felt at the end of his housewarming party, and he realized that this whole love business was going to be much harder than he'd originally anticipated.

After he had bidden Fluttershy farewell, he started making his way back to his cottage. He was sorry to leave her there, but he figured that there was really nothing he could do to make her feel better. They had agreed to meet for lunch the next day, but in all honesty, he wasn't really looking forward to the meeting. Fluttershy had proven that she had a dark side. It was something that he didn't like.

When he reached his cottage when skin, he found it to be emptier than it used to be. It wasn't that all of his stuff was gone; it was that there wasn't anypony else there. He had heard it said that home was where you made it, but he had also heard it said that home is where the heart is. And his heart was with other ponies. He had always considered himself to be a loner, but that wasn't really true. He desired, even needed companionship, and when he didn't have that, he found himself to be stagnant.

Perhaps that was why he wanted Twilight so badly. Maybe he wasn't looking for a mate, but rather a friend. But he had found that in Fluttershy already, so why was he so insistent on dating Twilight? Tux hated it when his thoughts confused him, and that was what they were doing. He was just like Twilight in some ways; he needed everything to be just the way it should be. Anything else, and he would go insane.

A knock sounded on his door. He heard Rarity's voice calling out, "Tux are you home?"

"Yeah, I'll be there in a minute," he said. He shed is saddlebags, and he hurried to the door. When he opened it, he saw Rarity and her cat, Opalescense, standing there to greet him. Rarity had a smile on her face, but Opalescense didn't look so happy. Tux had never met Opalescense before, and he said, "Hey, I didn't know you had a cat."

"Oh, yes, she is such a dear," Rarity beamed, levitating the feline and hugging her. Opalescense lashed out with her paws, buffeting Rarity's face, but she did no damage. Tux chuckled at the cat's disapproving antics, smiling broadly.

"That's what I need!" he exclaimed. "That's what'll cheer Fluttershy up!"

"What's that, dear?" Rarity asked.
"I'll have her help me pick out a pet," Tux explained. "It's really an ingenious plan."

"Why does she need cheering up?" Rarity asked.

"It's a long story, and I don't want to get into it." He stepped out of the doorway and invited them in. "Come right in. Is there anything in particular you wanted to see me about, or did you drop by just for the heck of it?"

"You actually left your jacket at the boutique," she replied. "Opalescense and I were out for a walk, so we decided we would drop by."

"She doesn't really seem to like that harness, does she?" he observed. The feline was scratching manically, trying to shed the apparatus.

"Oh, she's fine with it," Rarity replied. "She does this every time I take her out. You know, whatever has Fluttershy down, helping her help you find a pet will cheer her right up. Though, from what I gather, you're not really interested in her, are you?"

"And how would you know who I'm interested in?" he asked.

"Darling, you wear your heart on your withers," she replied. "I've seen how you act around Twilight--you're practically falling all over her."

"I am not!" he retorted.

"Oh please," she scoffed. "I've never seen someone so enamored. You, my friend, are lovestruck."

"I guess I am," he sighed.

"So, are you going to ask her out?"

It then occurred to him that he hadn't ask her out at the library, even though he had planned on it. Usually, when he set his mind to do something, he did it. Especially if it was something important to him. Maybe Fluttershy was right. Maybe this was just a crush. He didn't want something that would last a little while; he wanted something that would last forever. And in all his years, every single crush had ended up dying out. As much as it pained him to admit, it was probably better that he remain single than to settle for somepony that he didn't love, or at least somepony that he thought he loved. If you were to be happy, he needed to be with somepony who he knew he loved.

"Rarity, I think you just taught me something about friendship," he chuckled.

"I'm lost," she replied. "Exactly what did I teach you?"

"You and Fluttershy just taught me that you should listen to friends who are concerned about your well-being. I think she'll be happy to know I'm going to take her advice after all. Even though I won't like it, I am not going to ask Twilight out."

"And why not?" Rarity demanded. "You melt every time she walks into the room. Not only is she oblivious of your feelings, but she doesn't think ill of you, and she never will. If you ask her, she will say yes."

"Maybe I will ask her out eventually," he shrugged. "But I don't think it's the right time. I should get to know her better. I'm not looking for just companionship; I'm looking for the mare who will be the mother of my children. I'm looking for the mare who I will spend the rest of my life with. I can't afford mistakes."

Rarity groaned. "Tux, you are out of your mind. Nopony does things like that. If you marry the first pony date, how do you know that there isn't a better match out there for you?"

"I don't," he replied. "But if I trust those who care about me, I won't need to find a better match."

"Well, good luck," she bade, leaving Tux's jacket on the couch. "Just know that I care about you as well."

"I know you do," he quipped. "But it's not only your advice that I'm going to be taking into account. I need to listen to all of the ponies who care about me, not just one. That's why I'm going to get six blessings before I make any major decisions."

"Well, if you still want to pursue twilight, you have my blessing in that. Opal and I have to go now, but I'll see you bright and early tomorrow morning at work."

"Enjoy the rest of your night," he said as they walked out the door. Even though he was hungry, he climbed the stairs and went to his writing desk. He produced a pen and a piece of paper, and he began penning his first letter.

Dear Princess Celestia

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Dear Princess Celestia,

Today I learned that your true friends are the ponies who care about you the most. Sometimes they may do things which you may not like, and sometimes they do things which you may not want to hear. But in the end, listening to the advice of a true friend is always the best course of action.

Your faithful servant,
Tux n Tails

Chapter 1.5 - The Perfect Pet

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Tux looked at the array of animals before him, and needless to say, he was overwhelmed. Fluttershy had gathered together dozens of different potential pets, ranging from hummingbirds and eagles to dogs and cats. "I have to choose?" he asked.

"You can always choose more than one," Fluttershy replied with a smile. "But if you choose too many, they could be too hard to take care of."

"I've always admired eagles," he pondered. "They're so majestic. And this one looks like she would love to fly with me." The bird chirped in approval.

"But hummingbirds are so cute," he said, moving on. The little bird began flitting back and forth, chirping gleefully. "And all I'd have to feed him is sugar and water, instead of...mice and rats."

The bird nodded with a cheerful, "Mm-hmm."

"Hummingbirds make very good pets," Fluttershy commented.

"But I've always wanted a faithful dog." He lowered his head, looking eye-to-eye with a particularly droopy basset hound, who was panting and wagging his tail. "Like you, for instance."

"Woof!" he barked, licking Tux in the face.

But then he felt something brushing against his legs, purring and mewing. He looked down to see a smiling calico cat. "Aww, you're so pretty."

"Mrao," the cat agreed.

He felt a gentle tug on his tail, and he turned around to see an unbearably cute lemur-looking primate with huge, brown eyes reaching up for him with its tiny hands. His heart melted. "A slow loris?"

"Not a wild one, either. Her family has been domesticated for three generations."

At this point, it was impossible for him to decide. He kept going to every animal and weighing their pros, their cons, and their overall cuteness factor. The decision got harder and harder to make, until he saw a pair of black cats off to the side, looking somewhat sad. He walked over and asked, "What about them?"

"Nopony seems to want them," Fluttershy sighed sadly. "They're considered bad luck across Equestria."

"Well, I don't believe in luck." One of the cats was sleek like a panther, and the other was just about the fluffiest cat he'd ever seen. "Hey, there," he greeted, reaching down and touching the sleeker one with the tip of his wing.

"Mrrao," the cat replied. It sounded like he was muttering. The other one looked up and mewed daintily, rubbing against Tux's leg.

"You guys are really sweet," he smiled. "It's too bad I can't keep both of you."

"Mao," the sleeker one said.

"They're very close," Fluttershy explained. "They're brother and sister, the only two left in their litter."

"I know how much I love my sister," he sighed. "I guess I could take both of them." By now, they were both swirling around his legs, purring quietly.

"What will you name them?"

"Well, who's what?"

"The sleek one is the boy, and the fluffy one is the girl."

"I think I'll call him Levi, and her Wrangler," he said after some thought.

"Interesting names," she commented.

"They're the two most popular saddle makers in Equestria. Those names are perfect. How do you like your name, Levi?"

"Mew," he replied approvingly.

"Meerow," Wrangler added affectionately.

"I think I've found my perfect pets," Tux smiled.

Dear Princess Celestia

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Dear Princess Celestia,

Today I learned that sometimes, in order to have a friend, you need to be a friend.

Your faithful servant,
Tux n Tails

Chapter 2 - Don't Kiss and Tell

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Tux yawned and opened his eyes. It was already morning, and the sunlight was knocking gently at his balcony door, bringing with it the crisp early autumn air. Levi was asleep on the bed next to him, a placid look on his face. Tux tried unsuccessfully to get up without disturbing the sleeping cat, who stirred and stretched with a cavernous yawn. "Good morning, Levi," he greeted as his hooves hit the floor. He winced at their soreness; he was outgrowing his shoes, and he desperately needed to make a trip to the farrier for a trim and a reshoe.

"Murr," Levi mumbled in his signature fashion, rubbing against Tux's legs. Wrangler joined him, mewing loudly for her food, her voice colored by her constant purring.

"No, not yet, kitties," he replied. "Give me a minute, and I'll feed you."


"In a minute." He walked down the stairs and poured himself a bowl of Oateys and made an alfalfa and barley smoothie. Then he went to fetch the cats' bowl. He was almost there when he heard a knock on the door. He quickly poured a scoop of kibble into the bowl and slid it along the floor. "Coming!" he called, loping toward the door as tenderly as he could.

He opened it to the smiling face of Pinkie Pie, who was bouncing up and down. "Good morning, Tux!" she beamed. "Are you going to be busy today?"

"I have to stop by the Boutique, get reshod, and then I'm pretty free."

"Good, because I'm going to throw you a little pet-warming party at Sugarcube Corner! Bring Levi and Wrangler, and we'll have a super fantabulous time!"

"Okay, what time is it?"

She stopped bouncing. "Eight oh-seven. But you didn't need to ask me about that."

"No, what time's the party?"

"Oh, that. Let's do it at five."

"I'll see you there, then," he said. He was about to close the door when Pinkie suddenly jumped forward and planted a kiss on his cheek. "What was that for?" he asked.

"What was what for?"

"You just kissed me."

"Oh, I guess I did." She laughed as if it was just a simple happenstance. "Well, I'll see you later. Gummy is looking forward to meeting Levi and Wrangler for the first time." She bounced off down the road, singing a simple, wordless tune.

"Weird," he thought aloud, closing the door and walking back to the kitchen. Wrangler had run off, but Levi was still there, playing with his food as he ate it one kibble at a time. "Murr," he mumbled as Tux entered the room.

"Did you see what happened?" Tux asked.


"I guess not." He started munching on his cereal. Twilight had suggested it, and it was much better than the swill he had eaten in Hoofton. Rolled oats and beardless barley glazed with molasses, which, coupled with his sweet alfalfa smoothie, made for a great breakfast.

He gathered his saddlebags and walked out the door, deciding to rely on his wings for the trip to work so that he wouldn't have to use his sore hooves. As he started the journey, everything seemed normal, but once he got closer to downtown Ponyville, he saw that the streets were virtually deserted. What ponies he did see were couples gazing longingly into each other's eyes, giving each other sundry kisses from short pecks on the cheek to long, passionate embraces of the lips.

He would have figured that this kind of thing was normal for Hearts and Hooves Day, but this was a nondescript weekday in late September. On top of it, several of the couples seemed wrong. Not unexpectedly, Big Macinotsh and Miss Cheerilee were nuzzling each other, but sitting on the adjacent bench were Thunderlane and Rose, locked in an embrace, contented looks on their faces. Likewise, Lyra was snuggling with Caramel, Bonbon and Noteworthy were locked together at the lips.

Even a couple of strange love triangles could be seen: Berry Punch was staring longingly at Time Turner, who was occupied with Derpy, who was rocking happily back and forth, grinning broadly and holding a small filly. This was contrasted with Daisy and Lily Valley both fighting over Shortround, who seemed to be torn between the two of them, himself.

"What the hay is going on?" he thought aloud.

"Nothing, silly!" Pinkie said, kissing him again on the cheek. "Nothing weird, at least. Hey, did I tell you about the time that I walked in on Spike kissing a picture of Rarity? Oops, did I actually tell you that? He made me swear never to tell anypony. I even Pinkie Promised, too. Oh my gosh, I just broke a Pinkie Promise. Now I'm going to have to stick a cupcake in my eye. That's gonna hurt like the dickens." She groaned, kissed him again, and bounced away.

Something was definitely wrong.

He kept going until he got to the Boutique. Rarity wasn't readily found, so he dropped his saddlebags and called after her. Soon, he heard her voice coming from a back room. "Oh Tux, I was beginning to worry that you weren't going to show up." Something about her tone was different. Scary, even. She appeared moments later, clad in a crimson cloak and black lace stockings, wearing midnight eyeshadow and burgundy lipstick. She approached him seductively. "Tux, I came to a realization this morning that you were so much more than a mere employee. You are tall, dark and handsome. You have a brilliant mind. You write to me in a journal every night. How much more romantic could a stallion get?"

He backed away from her. "Rarity, you and I both know that journal is not about you. I would never have told you about it if it were."

"Don't be silly, Tux." A sinister grin split her face. "It couldn't possibly be about anypony else."

"Rarity, you look, uh, fetching in that outfit, but you're making me really uncomfortable right now." He hit the wall.

"Fetching? You insult me! I am beautiful, more so than even the goddess Houphrodite!"

"What has gotten into you?" he cried in fear as she approached.

"Oh, nothing, my long...oh, so long-winged friend." She giggled maniacally. "I ask for a simple favor: a deep, ravenous kiss that leaves me gasping for air. And then, when you realize your destiny..." She had reached him by now, and she whispered something incredibly unladylike in his ear.

"No!" he shrieked, ducking past her.

"Come here!" she roared. "Sire my foals!"

"Not if you were the last mare in Equestria." He kept trying to dodge her. She was surprisingly quick and agile.

"You and I both know that isn't true," she pleaded. "You want me. You dream about me! Nasty, rotten dreams that would make even Princess Celestia blush."

"I dream about aliens and music and missing tests!" he defended. "I have never had an impure dream in my life!" He made for the door, but she blocked him.

"Road apples," she scoffed. "Everypony has a naughty dream now and then. Why, just last night I dreamed that you and I were walking on the beach and you--"

He couldn't take it anymore, and he flew through one of the upper windows, destroying it in the process. He knew the damage would probably come out of his paycheck, but it was worth it if it meant getting away from Rabid Rarity.

But Rabid Rarity was the least of his concerns.

"Hey, handsome." It was Rainbow Dash's voice, and it was very close behind him. He felt the wash from her wings as she wrapped her forelegs around him. "What do you say to a little getaway? Maybe to Cloud Nine?"

"That club in Los Pegasus?"

"We could fly off into the sunset. Just the two of us."

"But what about Soarin'?"

"Forget Soarin'. He's nowhere near as good as you are. Besides, I hear that hot-for-teacher is the new trend." She licked his neck, and shivers ran down his spine, his pupils constricting to pinpoints.

"Hold it!" he shouted, trying to pull away from her. When he was finally successful, he demanded, "What the hoof are you trying to do, Rainbow?"

"Just shut up and kiss me, will ya?" She shot forward and took hold of him, placing her lips against his.

"Wuf are ou doing?!" he cried, smothered by her affection. He placed his hooves on her shoulders and pushed as hard as he could, somehow managing to break the two of them apart. "Rainbow, control yourself!"

"Pshh, I'm always in control." She lifted her chin smugly.

"Not this time." He pulled his wings in and pointed his nose at the ground below, making a beeline for Sweet Apple Acres. He knew that she wouldn't be able to find him if he got to the barn and buried himself in hay. He flew through the open window of the haymow, but he couldn't slow himself down quickly enough, and he landed hard, causing quite a racket.

"What's all that noise?" said a creaky voice. "Rainbow Dash, is that you?"

"No, Granny Smith," Tux replied, gliding down to the floor. "I'm trying to hide from her, actually. Something is...wrong. She's flirting. Aggressively. And she won't take no for an answer."

"A filly chasing after a colt?" she scoffed. "It's just improper. You should be the one chasing her."

"But she has a coltfriend! Granny Smith, I just need a place to hide."

"Well, why didn't you say so? I'm sure Big Macintosh wouldn't mind you hiding in his r--" He didn't give her the opportunity to finish her sentence. He leaped past her, flying for the front door as quickly as he could. He didn't see Rainbow anywhere, so he took a second to breathe a sigh of relief once he crossed the threshold.

He clambered up the stairs, looking at the doors. "Which one is Mac's?" he thought aloud. The door decorated with childlike drawings was obviously Apple Bloom's. The other three rooms were completely nondescript, so he entered the first one. The walls were orange, and a photo of the four Apple family members adorned the nightstand. There was no way to tell whose room it was, but it probably wasn't Granny Smith's.

He turned and closed the door, then closed the shades and slumped against the bed. "What's wrong with everypony?" he sighed, burying his head in his hooves. While Pinkie's behavior was at worst awkward, there was no excuse for how amorous, if not downright indecent both Rarity and Rainbow had been. If anypony else came after him, he'd have to hide in the Everfree Forest until whatever it was passed.

Or maybe this was a nightmare. He bit himself on the withers to rule out that possibility, and, sadly, his situation didn't change. "It's not a dream," he sighed plaintively.

"Tux, is that you?" It was Applejack's voice coming from the other side of the door. "What're you doin' in my room?"

"Road apples," he muttered as the door swung open. "Sorry, AJ. I was looking for Big Mac's room. Granny Smith said I could hide there."

"Mac's room is next door. Who you hidin' from?"

"Rainbow Dash," he replied as she came over and sat down next to him. "She tried to steal me away, to fly off into the sunset with me, to take me clubbing in Los Pegasus. Then she kissed me, without warning and totally unwelcome."

"That little trollop," Applejack huffed. "Always tryin' to beat me at every cotton pickin' thing." Tux realized that she was leaning on his shoulder, her foreleg wrapped around him. He swallowed hard. "Nah, that's too harsh. But she don't know how to act ladylike. I, on the other hoof, will win my kiss fair and square." She turned his head in her direction. "And I will win my kiss."

She hovered there, no more than two inches separating them. He pulled back slightly and said, "Applejack, what's going on?"

"Did I ever tell you how handsome you are?" she swooned. "Oh, you're no draft, but you still have that husky look." She rumpled his mane.

"AJ, please, not now."

"If not now, when?" she sighed, trotting her hoof up his chest. "When'll you ask me out? When'll you whisper in my ear and say you love me? When'll we walk down the aisle together?"

"Something's wrong with you, AJ."

"Nothin's wrong with me," she said quietly. She put her hoof behind his head and brought him closer. He planted a hoof in the center of her chest and pushed away. She squinted at him. "If you ask me, somethin's wrong with you."

"I'm sorry, AJ, but I can't stay here." He stood and left the room. He turned around in the doorway and said, "Maybe sometime we will go out. But you're not right in the head. Something's wrong with just about everypony I've met today. And I need to find out what it is."

"Don't go, Tux," she begged. She trotted over to him. "I need you."

"I promise I'll take you to dinner. But only if you let me go."

She looked confused, disappointed, and hopeful all at the same time. She didn't say a word, but after several moments, she nodded. "All right. But if you break your promise...."

"Big Mac will break my spine. You tell him I promised you."

A look of acceptance came over her face, and she let him go. He was glad that she hadn't been as rabid as the last two that he'd encountered. He gave her a kiss on the cheek before he left, though she voiced her dissatisfaction with the gesture.

If he were to find out what the hay was wrong with everypony, he would need to dig through encyclopedias and medical reference books. Those were sure to be found at the Library. He cautiously left the orchard for Ponyville, making sure to fly through the trees in effort to avoid the hawk-eyes of Rainbow Dash. He quickly ran through every possible psychosis he could think of, but none of them would be this widespread and exhibit the same symptoms. It was evident that everypony was desperately in love with somepony, though he still couldn't see why Pinkie, Rarity, Rainbow and Applejack were all attracted uniquely to him.

He arrived at the Golden Oak Library and peered through the window. Twilight was nowhere to be found, so he pushed on the door, and it swung open. "Is anypony here?" he asked. "Spike? Owlowiscious?"

"Tux, what are you doing here?" Spike asked. He was hiding out in a closet under the stairs. "You've gotta get out of here."


"Twilight has gone crazy. She's obsessed with you. If she knows you're here, she'll come after you. I've read stories about this kind of thing. It always ends up with you pushing up daisies."

"She's not that kind of stalker," Tux explained in hushed tones. "She wants to kiss me, not kill me."

"Coming from Twilight, what's the difference?"

"Do you have any idea what this is?"

"No. I tried finding it somewhere in the reference section, but I can't find anything in the books. Go to Zecora's hut. Follow the path into the Everfree Forest. And avoid the Poison Joke."

"Thanks," he said. He started for the door, but something stopped him. He turned slowly and saw Twilight peering down from her bedroom, euphoria on her face. "I've been discovered," he whispered.

"Get out of here!" Spike shouted.

"No, I can use this to my advantage," he realized. "Spike, I have a massive crush on Twilight, and maybe this can help me break the ice."

"Tux, don't do it!"

Twilight trotted eagerly down the stairs toward him, and he prepared to receive whatever she was going to give him. But he never got the chance. Ever-rabid Rainbow Dash burst through the door and roared, "I've found you!"

"Holy shoes!" Tux gasped, frantically searching for somewhere to go. But Rainbow didn't fly for him. Instead, she flew straight for Twilight and began shouting in her face.

"What makes you think you have a chance with him?" she growled. "I saw him first! He's mine!"

"No way, Rainbow," Twilight replied. "I met him long before you did. He's mine."

"But you're no better than an earth pony," Rainbow insulted. "You can't fly!"

"Oh yeah? I can do this!" Twilight's eyes began to glow, and she lifted off the floor, a blinding spark on the tip of her horn.

Tux took the opportunity to slip out the door before something exploded and somepony got hurt. And he ran right into Rabid Rarity. Her face was streaked black with mascara, and she was still trying to sniff back the tears he had caused in his rejection. Upon seeing him, immediately seized him with a powerful spell, walking toward him with mischief in her eyes. "There you are, Tux," she scolded. "How could you go running off like that? Don't you know it's not safe?"

"I'm just trying to get to Zecora's hut," he said, trying to wriggle out of the grip of her magic. It was useless.

"Zecora?" she gasped. "Whyever would you want such a short-maned, striped, foreign, downright strange mare as her?"

"No, I want to go there to find out what's wrong with you?"

"I've already told you, there's nothing wrong with me." She reached him and rubbed her head against his neck. "I've just realized how much I've always loved you."

"What about Spike?" he asked. "He would be very upset if you were to choose me over him."

"Spike is a child," she scoffed. "Besides, he knows very well that I would never think of him as more than just a friend."

Out of the corner of his eye, Tux noticed the purple dragon peering out from behind the door, and he regretted opening his mouth. With a moment of intense concentration, he somehow broke free of the spell, unfurling his wings and trying to take off. But Rarity was quicker. Seizing the opportunity, she brought her hooves down on his wing shoulders, effectively and painfully removing potential flight from the equation.

"You will be mine, or you will be nopony's," she threatened before pressing her lips to his. He tried to move, but she sparked up another spell, holding him firmly in place.

"Ftof it!" he said, his words muffled.

"I'll never stop," she replied, gazing longingly into his eyes.

"Oh yeah?" shouted Rainbow Dash.

"You're not going to make it out of here alive," added Twilight.

"What about me?" Tux asked. "Spare me, please!"

The three mares exchanged glances, shook their heads, and said in unison, "You will be mine, or you will be nopony's."

"Buck this apple tree," he said, sprinting past them and around the library. They followed him for a short distance, but before long they went back to fighting amongst themselves, becoming an amorphous mass of dust, flying hooves, and sundry curses.

As he ran down the road, he heard hoofbeats coming up beside him, and he saw Applejack out of the corner of his eye. "I just can't stop thinkin' about ya, Tux!" she called over the sound of her hoofbeats. "I tried doin' my chores, I tried goin' for a walk, but it just didn't work. Please, Tux, all I want is a kiss!"

"You aren't getting anything until I can figure out what's going on. Twilight, Rarity and Rainbow were just fighting over me like a bunch of bridesmaids fighting over a bouquet."

"Nuh-uh," she laughed. "I ain't that whacked out! If somepony were to challenge me, I'd do things the civilized way. I'd go for the battle of wits."

"And if that didn't work?"

"I'd buck her in the face, tie you up, and whisk you away while she was unconscious."

"You're certifiable, Applejack!" he tried galloping faster, but she had no problems matching his pace.

"You're not makin' things any easier!" she shouted, lunging for him. She missed, nearly taking out his legs. "Get back here!"

"You're not sober, Applejack!"

"Of course I am!" she retorded, lunging at him again. He jumped to avoid her, nearly losing his footing. "Don't you know that Ponyville is in a dry county? The only cider we brew is fresh!"

"No, I'm not making accusations; I'm saying that something is causing you to obsess over me. You and everypony else!"

"Hogwash!" She put on one last burst of speed and launched herself at his front legs, and they both went sprawling on the ground, tumbling and finally skidding to a stop. She rolled him onto his back and moved in to kiss him, but she stopped inches from his face. "What am I doing?" she thought aloud.

"Trying to steal your kiss," he said, wincing in pain from his bruised face. "Well?"

"This ain't right," she said sadly. "You're my friend, Tux, and now I gone and done you harm just to get my way."

He closed his eyes and let out a sigh of relief. Soon, he felt Applejack's lips press tenderly against the bruise on his cheek. He didn't have the energy to resist, so he relaxed and braced for the worst. But instead of trying again, she rolled off of him. "What are you doing?" he asked.

"Tryin' hard to think of somepony besides you. Are you goin' anywhere in particular?"

"I was going to check with Fluttershy. And if she isn't affected like you and everypony else, I plan on having her take me to Zecora's hut. That's where Spike told me to go."

"She's sure is a knowledgeable pony when it comes to stuff like this," she commented. "You'd best be gettin' out of here before I relapse."

"Well, you banged me up pretty good with that tackle."

"Sorry 'bout that."

He rolled away from her onto his hooves and tried to stand. It was hard and very painful, but he managed to become ambulatory once again. "I'll see you later, AJ," he said as he began walking away. "Hopefully once I figure out what's wrong with all of you."

"Y'all come back now, ya hear?"

"I promise. After all, we have a dinner date to do at some point."

Applejack started galloping off toward town, and Tux continued west along the road to Fluttershy's cottage. He was glad that he wasn't accosted anymore by any of the five ponies whom he knew were after a kiss. But when he arrived, Angel stood outside with a sign that read, "Tux, please stay away."

"I need to see Fluttershy," he said. Angel just shook his head. He put the sign down and began speaking rapidly in some kind of sign language. "I don't understand, Angel." Angel slapped his forehead and pointed to Tux, then to the cottage, and then he brought his hands together in a sign that Tux did understand. "I need to get to Zecora's hut. I need to figure out what's wrong with Fluttershy and try to find a cure."

Angel pointed at the immense Everfree Forest. "I know," Tux said. "A map would be nice, if you have one." Angel shook his head sadly. "Okay. Even the Four Horses of the Apocalypse couldn't stop me from getting there. I'll be back."

He made his way toward what appeared to be a path into the forest. He was hesitant to continue; he didn't know the way. But it's funny how fate works. "Are you going to Zecora's hut?" asked a voice behind him.

He started at the sound, then turned around. There stood a beige unicorn mare with a cinnamon-roll brown mane and tail. "Yeah," he replied. "Trying to find some cure for whatever's wrong with Ponyville."

"I'm headed a bit further inward," she said. "Something tells me you're lost."

"Am I that obvious?"

"I know the way. And see those blue leaves? Avoid them like the plague."

"I'm Tux, by the way," he introduced as they began walking.

"I'm Simple Song," she replied.

"Are you musical?"

"Have a look." He peered back at her flank, and her cutie mark was a series of musical notes. "I have a degree in music performance from RCC Manehattan."

"The Royal Canterlot Conservatory? What are you doing down here?"

"I work at the post office. I'm too shy to audition for the Met. Or any opera company for that matter. So I got a job where I could."

"You never get a part you don't go for," he advised. "To be honest, I've never been rejected, but I've only auditioned for one part before."

"I landed a bunch of parts in school. Once I graduated, I had a chance to play a role that I'd wanted since I was a filly, but I didn't get it. It went to some other mare."

"I'm sorry," he said. "Have you had an opportunity since then?"

"No," she replied. "Ponyville doesn't have an opera company, and I can't afford to live anyplace that does."

"Hey, I'm trying to start up a pony choir. You could join that."

"I'd love to."

They chewed the fat for a while, until finally Simple Song led him to a cozy-looking hut ornamented with charms from a far-off land. "Thanks again for showing me the way," he said as they parted ways.

"It was great to meet you, Tux. I'll probably see you around."

"Take care," he said as she walked off, and he waved with his wing.

"Who has come upon my door? A pony I haven't seen before." He turned around when he heard the mare's low, contralto voice.

"My name is Tux n Tails," he introduced, looking around. "Are you Zecora?"

"Apparently you have heard of me. Come right in. I'll make you some tea."

"Thank you." The zebra opened the door, and he entered the hut, still somewhat cautious.

"Now, what would your purpose with me be? Tell me, so that perhaps I may see."

"Well, everypony in Ponyville has been affected by some sort of lovesickness," he started, continuing to relate all the troubles that had befallen him thus far. "...and so, I'm wondering if you know what's wrong and how to fix it."

After a moment of thought, Zecora nodded. "I'm glad that you came through my door; this sickness, I have seen before. I've had it, yes, I must confess. It causes ponies to obsess upon the first pony to enter their mind, a strong desire to go and find that pony and to give them a kiss."

"I really wasn't prepared for this."

"You have just completed my rhyme. That happens almost none of the time."

"So is there a way to fix it?"

Zecora nodded. She fetched an ancient book from her bookcase. After a minute, she found the correct page. "You will not like this cure, I think; it can't be put into a drink, for in the book it tells me this: it must be given via kiss."

"You're pulling my leg," he scoffed. She tapped the page emphatically with her hoof, and he came over. After skimming the page, he admitted that she was right.

"On the lips or on the cheek: it doesn't matter which they seek, so kiss them once and kiss them well. It's the only way to break the spell."

He read the ingredient list and found it deceptively simple. "So let me get this straight: I smear this gak made with wild strawberry juice on my lips, and kissing everypony will make them normal again?"

"I wish it not for you to be daunted, but you must give them what they've wanted."

His hopes immediately sank. "Surely there's another way."

"If you wait, it will be gone in seven days."

"But before that week is up, they'll all have figured out that I'm here. You won't have a hut left standing."

"This I know, yes, very well. So get your plot out there and break that spell."

"You're kicking me out?" She nodded. "Can't I have my tea first?"

About an hour and a half later, having particularly enjoyed talking with Zecora about her native language, Zebrili, he walked out the door, admittedly unprepared for what was to come. Before he stepped off the porch, Zecora said, "This sickness has a price to pay; tomorrow, they won't remember today."

"So unless I tell them what happened, it'll be just like it never did?"

She nodded. "I sense in you some mischief, Tails. I sense, at love, you've always failed."

"Well, would it be wrong to use this to break the ice, even if only on my end?"

"Remember, Tux, it is your choice, but also, this adoration has no real voice. It is an illusion, a falsehood, a trick. So finish the task, and finish it quick."

"The sooner I get it over with, the sooner I can get over it. Yeah, I get it." He set off down the poorly marked trail through the forest, wishing he had Simple Song by his side to pass the time. But soon enough, he was back in the open.

It wasn't surprising when he heard Rainbow Dash shout off in the distance, and he saw her dive for him. He got out of her way, and she touched down with a long slide. She began walking toward him, mischief in her eyes. The idea of having to kiss her was daunting enough to cause him to involuntarily back away.

"What have you done with the others?" he asked.

"Taken care of," she replied. "Don't worry about it. I'm the only girl you need to be worrying about."

"Why worry?"

"Because I always get what I want."

"And what do you want from me?"

"A kiss, dummy. Deep. Passionate. Real. And I'll know if you're fakin' it."

"If you get your kiss, will you leave me alone?"

She burst out laughing, her hooves lifting off the ground. She continued flapping toward him after a brief moment. "You can't be serious. I'm going to have you all to myself! We'll go to Canterlot and get married. Spitfire will be the Best Mare, and Soarin' will be the Stallion of Honor. Princess Celestia will preside over the ceremony. We'll start churning out foals right away, of course."

"Whoa, Nellie," he said, backing away quicker. "I'm not ready for any kind of commitment. And doesn't the groom choose the Stallion of Honor?"

"Pshh, normally. But what's normal about this?"

He gritted his teeth and stood his ground. The sooner he kissed her, the sooner she would stop with these delusions of grandeur. "Enough talk, Rainbow. Get your plot over here."

She shot to his side, coming to a dead stop in a move that simply defied the laws of physics; her momentum should have bowled him over. "I love it when you call me Rainbow," she whispered in his ear. Her breath tickled, and he had to stifle a giggle.

"Well, Rainbow, you wanted a kiss. So here you go." He took her face with his wing and brought their lips together.

The first thought that ran through his mind was, "How long do I have to hold this?" But the experience was a bit less unpleasant as soon as the awkwardness went away. But as soon as the awkwardness went away, something like a static spark sent a jolt of pain to his lips, separating him from his adoring friend. "Did it work?" he thought aloud.

Rainbow sat there with a blank look on her face. She began looking around confusedly. "Where am I?" she asked.

"Just outside Ponyville," he replied. "Do you remember anything from this morning?"


"It's probably better that way."

"Why were you...kissing me?" she grimaced.

"I guess I have to tell you," he sighed. "All day long, you and four other ponies have been chasing after me, fighting over me, obsessed with kissing me."


"Hey!" he protested.

"Well, it's not like kissing you is grody. It's just that me kissing other ponies uncool!"

"You've never kissed Soarin'?"

"Again, ew."

"But isn't that something that you...normally do when you're dating somepony?"

"I'm just not the touchy-feely, kissyface type of pony, okay. He's doesn't seem too happy about it, but we make it work."

"Are you really sure it's working?" he asked. "You sound awfully defensive."

"I'm totally sure. I got this."

"Doesn't sound like it. In order for a relationship to work, it has to be a hundred percent. And if you aren't giving a hundred percent, you should reconsider."

"I didn't ask for your advice."

"You'll forget it in the morning anyway," he shrugged.

"I'll forget it in five minutes," she retorted, flapping away angrily.

As much as he wanted to go after her and apologize, he had work to do, and he just didn't want to deal with an argument. So after she was far enough away, he started off toward Sweet Apple Acres. Even though Fluttershy was closer, he wanted to save the last of his energy for the only pony of the six obsessed with him who didn't want to indulge her desires.

By the time he arrived, his hooves were killing him. He wasn't used to this much walking, much less on shoes that were too small. "Applejack?" he called as he searched the barn. Next, he tried the house, but she didn't seem to be there, either.

He went out to the garden and found Granny Smith working on pulling weeds. "Granny Smith, have you seen Applejack?" he asked. "I need to lend a hoof and help her out of a jam."

"Jam? We don't make jam until the end of the season."

"No, Granny. She has the Kissing Sickness, and I need to help her get rid of it."

"Oh, she has mono? You don't want to kiss her, or you'll get it, too."

"No, not mononucleosis. It's an altered mental state caused by the spores of a certain mold that makes you obsess over the first pony who comes into your mind."

"Oh, the Kissing Curse. Yeah, I had that once. Is that why Applejack and Big Macintosh are so twitterpated with their special someponies?"

"Yes. I can cure Applejack, but first I need to find her."

"Well, why didn't you say so in the first place? She went to Stargazing Hill. Wait...she said not to tell you that."

"Thank you," he said, taking off. His wings weren't in as much pain as they had been when Rarity had disabled them. He surveyed the landscape as he flew, trying to find the hill in question. He'd never been there, but Twilight had told him about it.

Finally, when his wings were just about to call it quits, he saw a small, orange blob sitting at the top of a hill. He glided down toward Applejack and landed gently, but not so gently that she didn't know he was there. She was lying down, resting her head on her forelegs, her hat sitting at her side. "Well?" she asked.

"I have a cure."

"What if I don't want to be cured?"

"Either I cure you now, or you wait seven days. I'd prefer it sooner than later."

She looked up at him briefly, then sighed and put her head back down. "Tux, this is the best I've felt in a good, long time. I woke up yesterday with a ragin' crush and no hope. Now I have a ragin' crush and the drive to do somethin' about it."

"But I promised to take you out to dinner, didn't I?"

"Yeah. But not as a special somepony. Let's face it, you goin' out with me is like you takin' your sister to lunch."

"What do you want, Applejack?"

"You, Tux," she replied. "I wanna have you all to myself for the rest of forever. I wanna get hitched. I want a son and a daughter."

"So does everypony else, I bet."

"Forget them!" she grumbled.

"I can't give you a wedding, Applejack, but I can give you a kiss." He walked over and lay down next to her, moving her hat with his wing. "Don't you want one of those?"

"Course I do," she blushed. "But I know that if I get one, it'll mean curing this thing that I got."

"What if I told you that I wanted to kiss you, too?"

"You're just sayin' that."

He scooted closer. "Do my eyes lie?"

She looked at him, her eyes moist, large as dinner plates. "No."

"Then kiss me, Applejack."

She hesitated for a moment, then moved forward. It took much longer for the spark to happen, but they finally separated. "What just happened?" she asked, dazed.

"You had the Kissing Sickness, and I was the first one to pop into your head. I cured you."

"That explains it," she sighed. "Anypony else thinkin' of you?"

"Yeah. All six of you."

"You certainly have your hooves full. Lookin' forward to tomorrow, when all of us forget?"

"In some ways, yes." He chuckled. "I even promised to take you out on a date. I didn't know at the time that you'd forget about it, though."

"I can," she replied.

"My word is bond," he said, clearing his throat. "Write it down when you get home."

"Will do, Tux." She kissed him on the cheek, got up, and walked off.

He sighed in relief and got up himself. "Who's next?" he thought aloud. He still had Twilight, Rarity, and Pinkie Pie before he went to cure Fluttershy, and of those three, Pinkie Pie appealed to him the most. She'd been kissing him on the cheek all day long, and so that was probably what it would take to cure her. No problem. What would be a problem, though, was getting to her without attracting the attention of the most rabid of the three.

He was probably going to have to cure Rarity first.

Walking due to tired wings, he grudgingly made his way back toward Ponyville, each step more painful than the last. He wished he had the tools needed to remove the steel shoes, but it would have to wait, especially if the farrier was suffering as well. He eventually got to the point where he couldn't go any farther without using his wings, which didn't get him more than fifty yards. He groaned and dropped to his belly, lying there, waiting for the pain to subside. Off in the distance, he heard the clock tower strike three. "The farrier closes at four," he thought aloud. "One more night."

"Oh no," said Applejack's voice from behind him. "I may not be a pro, but I saw you walkin' on eggshells, so I went and grabbed my tools. I'll get those shoes off and get you trimmed up."

He turned toward her. "Are you sure?"

"I've been doin' Mac's shoes even since I could swing a hammer," she replied. "Plus, you won't have to shell out four bits for this job." She shrugged off the bag of tools she was carrying. "Though, I've said time and time again that he don't need no dang shoes. I never used 'em. Hay, you don't need shoes unless you're walkin' on pavement all day. And even then, I prefer bein' barefoot better."

She encouraged him to his feet and went to work, deftly cutting the clinches and prying off the shoes. As soon as they were gone, his feet felt infinitely better, and as she trimmed his hooves, he relaxed almost to the point of falling over. Before long, she was done. "Thanks," he smiled.

"No problem. Hey, next time you need a trim, go ahead and come to the barn and give me a hollar. I'd be happy to do it for you."

"You've made me a very happy stallion," he chuckled as they parted ways. His hooves were still sore as he continued the trek to Ponyville, but they were much happier.

As he neared Ponyville, he kept noticing a bush that should have left his field of view. But every time he looked back at it, it seemed to be in the same spot. Just to make sure nothing else strange was going on, he looked at the ground and took a step forward. Sure enough, the ground was moving. He checked the bush again and saw that it was closer. "Uh-oh," he muttered, realizing he was being followed. But it was too late to do anything about it; the bush pounced, and a white hoof pressed a cloth to his nose. Whatever the cloth was soaked with smelled sweet, and by the time he realized that it was chloroform, it was far too late.

He awoke lying on somepony's bed, his head aching and dizziness clouding his vision. The room was painted with pastel colors, with a distinct chic. There was a framed photo of Sweetie Belle sitting on the nightstand, as well as a portrait of Rarity and Spike. "Oh, road apples," he moaned.

"Oh good, you're awake." Rarity's voice came from his right, and he turned to see her lying next to him, staring unblinkingly, a rather unsettling grin spread across her face. "I was beginning to worry about you."

"Rarity!" He tried to wriggle away, but she held him in place with a spark of magic. "Do you have any idea how dangerous chloroform can be?"

"Desperate times call for desperate measures," she replied. "One way or another, I will have you."

"Why are you doing this?"

She sighed, supporting her head with a hoof. "Because you made the mistake of choosing somepony else. Especially that tramp, that...rube. I had to force myself not to retch when I heard you voicing your satisfaction."

"Because she trimmed my hooves!" he defended.

"Oh, pish posh. I saw the whole thing. Why you would deign to kiss such a filthy mouth is beyond knowledge. But there is nothing between us now." Without expending any effort, she sprung to her feet, scooting him into the middle of the bed and straddling him. He felt his legs being pulled to the corners of the four-poster bed, and they were suddenly secured with four sturdy straps. His eyes widened in fear.

"What are you doing?" he stammered.

"Taking advantage of you, of course," she giggled. She put on a fresh coat of lipstick, which he hoped wouldn't hinder the curative powers of his own. "You're going to love me. Whether you like it or not."

Chills raced down his spine as she bent down, licking his neck. He pulled hard on the straps, but they didn't even creak. "Gah!" he croaked as she started nibbling on his ear. "Rarity!"

"Oh, be quiet," she commanded. "Unless you want to cooperate...."

"Yes!" he blurted out. "Anything if it gets you to leave me the hoof alone!"

"That's not very sportscoltlike," she scolded.

"What do you want, Rarity?" he asked, trying to sound as enthralled as she was.

"Everything," she whispered in his ear. "I want your last name next to my first name. I want little foals running around the Boutique. I want raw, unbridled passion, passion that I know you have buried deep inside!"

"You want to see how passionate I can be?"

"Yes!" she screamed in ecstasy at the thought of his cooperation.

"Well, then, shouldn't we start with a kiss?"

"Oh, of course," she chuckled. "I want to show you something I learned when I went to Paris for a month when I was a fledgling fashionista." She closed the gap between them, pressing her lips to his. The kiss was the longest of all of them. And it was indeed very French. But finally the static spark gapped between them, the most painful one thus far. Rarity's dilated pupils shrunk, and she paused in mid-kiss. She pulled away in horror.

"What is going on?" she asked.

"You had a case of the Kissing Sickness, and I was the first pony you thought of today."

"Is that why you're..." She grimaced. "...tied to my bed?" He nodded. "Nothing...happened between us?"

"Besides curing you with a kiss, no."

"Let us never speak of this again," she said, clearing her throat and untying him.

"No problem," he said, shuddering one last time.

"Who else has been affected?" she wondered.

"All six of you, actually. I still have Pinkie, Fluttershy, and Twilight to cure."

"Pinkie will be the easiest. She'd sooner be seen eating a rock than fawning over any stallion."

"Yeah, the only thing she's tried to do to me was peck me on the cheek. I hope that's what'll cure her."

"Now, Twilight won't be hard. Especially for you. Fluttershy, on the other hand...."

"Yeah, I already tried to stop by her cottage. Angel warded me off."

"That's what I feared. Listen, when you're ready, come get me, and I'll go with you. I can keep Angel occupied while you do your business."

"You make it sound like I'm going to be...." He trailed off before he said something unfortunate, but she nodded in agreement.

"You never know."

He gulped at the lump of uncertainty that formed in his throat. Hopefully things wouldn't get too out of hoof. "I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," he said in self-assurance. "I'll see you later, I guess."

"Yes," she urged. "Kindly leave my bedroom and never return."


Finding Pinkie Pie was not as easy as he would have liked. She wasn't at Sugar Cube Corner, and she wasn't loitering near his cottage. He checked the market, the schoolhouse, the train station, and even Town Hall. But his efforts were in vain. "Pinkie, where the hay are you?" he asked aloud as he stood in the town square. The clock struck five.

From out of nowhere, he felt something on his cheek, accompanied by the sound of a kiss. But there was nopony around. He felt another kiss on his other cheek. "Pinkie, what are you doing?"

"Nothing." Another kiss, on his other cheek.

"Please, Pinkie, I want to get this over with as soon as possible."

"Not yet." He looked toward her voice, and he felt a kiss on his opposite cheek, and when he looked that direction, she kissed him again, switching sides.


"Now!" she shouted, appearing less than a foot in front of him. He reared up in surprise, lost his footing, and fell backward. She stood over him, giggling happily. "Wow, I sure scared you."

"Not really," he replied.

"You turned white for a second!"

"Why did you keep hiding from me?"

"I have to give you one kiss for each hour on the clock. Well, not really. But it's a game I came up with while I was waiting for you to come back from Zecora's. Hey, did you know that we could cure this entire town if we sprinkled them with wild strawberry juice? It would make the town super sticky, but everypony would kiss everypony else and kill the mold that causes it."

"How do you know?"

"I hung out at the library with Spike, and he finally found the right encyclopedia and researched the cure."

"Did you know that I'm wearing wild strawberry lip balm?"

" could cure me?"

"Yeah. All I need to do is give you what you want."

"Oh, that's no problem. And it is kind of annoying to have this compulsion." She kissed him on the cheek again. "I don't know what I want from you. But I seem to remember that you have to reciprocate on the other pony's compulsion in order to fix the problem. So if you kissed me on the cheek, it should work."

He wormed his way out from under her and stood back up. Almost as soon as his lips touched her cheek, the spark snapped, and she jumped back with a surprised look on her face. "Ouch, I didn't think that would hurt so much," she grumbled.

"Do you remember anything?"

"Yeah," she said, as if it was common knowledge.

"But nopony else did."

"I'm not a regular pony," she shrugged. "I have a memory like an elephant. Wait, did I have the memory of an elephant, or an elephant's fear of mice?" She suddenly gasped, standing there petrified.


"Cake!" she replied. "Mr. Cake was going to teach me how to make fondant today!"

"I'm pretty sure Mr. and Mrs. Cake are...ocupado."

"What does that mean?" she asked, tilting her head to the side.

"Busy. Doing other things. They probably have the Kissing Sickness, too."

"Oh, I see. Maybe I can figure it out myself. I mean, it can't be too hard to make fondant."

"Don't bakeries usually order it pre-made?"

"Not Sugarcube Corner. We make everything from scratch. Hey! Speaking of making cakes from scratch, I've already got ideas for your birthday cake. I'm gonna make the whole thing myself. You should come and watch me work sometime."

"Sure thing," he promised. She grinned and bounced away. "Four down, two to go." He made his way to the library, only to find Spike standing in front of the door, arms crossed in front of his chest. "What's going on?"

"I'm making sure you don't do something wrong. I ain't letting you in if you have ulterior motives."

"Would you rather have her stew for seven days and forget the whole week, or let me do what needs to be done? I have the cure, and I know how to administer it."

He sighed and stepped aside. "All right. But you have to be honest when she asks you why you're kissing her."

Tux opened the door and walked cautiously into the main room of the library. "Twilight, are you around?"

She appeared in front of him in a blinding flash of magic, a look of adoration in her eyes. "Tux, I'm so glad you're here! I've been hoping to see you all day long."

"Last time, things didn't turn out so well," he recalled.

"Whatever you did to the others, I'm glad they're going to be out of our manes."

"How did you know I cured them?"

"You cured them?" She sighed. "Actually, I guess I can live with that. You did what you had to do to keep them from getting between us. Besides, there was nothing real there. You kissed them because you had to. I, on the other hand.... You actually want this as much as I do."

"How do you know?"

She laid her head on his withers. "You've had a crush on me since the day you set hoof in Ponyville," she replied. "You wear your heart right here."

Hot blood rushed to his face as he asked, "Was it ever mutual?"

"Not until today, when I realized how much I loved you."

His heart sank. The answer he'd been expecting, had been desiring, was, "Always." But this was a disappointment to end all disappointments. " just had an epiphany and realized that you wanted me?"

"Yup," she swooned. "But this isn't the sickness talking. I've got that completely under control."

"What is it that you want, Twilight?" he asked feebly, trying to choke back the lump in his throat. He knew what she would say, and when the deed was done, it would be the end of it.

"More than anything in the entire, vast universe, a kiss from the one who stole my heart."

With a wing, he brought her face to his. Ever so tenderly, he touched her lips to his, expecting the cururative spark to occur instantaneously. But it took what seemed like minutes of being lost in Twilight's entrancing embrace before the tiniest indication was felt that she was indeed cured.

She pulled away slowly. Deliberately. When he opened his eyes, he found her wearing an expression less of horror than extreme confusion. "Wh-- What happened?" she asked, oblivious of the day's events, just like most of the others.

"You were sick with something called the Kissing Sickness," he explained.

"And you had the cure?"

He nodded slowly, deigning to mention neither what she had said, nor his own ulterior motives. At least, at first. But after brief consideration, he sighed and bared his soul. "I thought for a moment I might have a shot with you, that this sickness, even if it lasted just for a week, would give me a chance to fulfill my greatest fantasy: walking side by side in the cool of evening through a tranquil garden, wrapping my wing around somepony who loved me." He hung his head. "But it's never going to be anything more than a fantasy."

"Don't lie to yourself," she said softly, lifting his head up with her own. And she left it at that. "Is there anypony else that needs curing?"

"The entire town, but I still have to cure Fluttershy. I'm going to need some help getting past Angel. Rarity has already promised to help, but I think I'll need more than that."

"I can help, too. I also think I have a way to cure the rest of the town."

It was dusk by the time the three of them reached Fluttershy's cottage. Angel was still standing outside with the vigilance of a Royal Guard. When he saw them coming, he waved his arms about wildly, making several warning gestures.

"No, Angel," Tux asserted. "I have to go in there." He explained the illness and the cure, but Angel still refused. The bunny balled a tiny fist and pounded it into his open palm. "I'm sorry it had to come to this."

On his cue, Rarity and Twilight both reached out with their magic to restrain the bunny's arms, lifting him off the ground, while his tiny feet kicked helplessly. Tux pushed the door open and entered the cottage.

It was lit dimly with candles, but apart from that, it was dark. The atmosphere was nothing short of unsettling. He went through each room in turn, starting at nearly every creak of the floorboards, expecting the normally soft spoken pony to leap out of the shadows and pounce on him at any moment, ravaging him, or as the case would be, ravishing him with her unbridled desires.

Instead, he found her nearly catatonic, lying on her bed, a dark stain on the pillow beneath her head. "Fluttershy?" he said quietly.

"Get away," she replied hoarsely, eyes red from crying.

"I'm here to help you," he consoled.

"Get away from me!" she snapped, causing him to back up a step. "I can't control myself."

"You won't have to," he replied. "One kiss, and you'll be cured. Come tomorrow, you'll forget everything."

"You don't understand!" she growled, floating down from the bed and walking toward him, wings extended, a scowl on her face. "I can't just forget. This will always be here, gnawing at the back of my mind, driving me crazy!"

"Fluttershy, please! I don't want to see you like this."

"Get out of my cottage and leave me to my misery!"

"I can either leave you here, and you'll be like this for a week, or I can end it tonight and you can go back to how it was. Which do you want?"

"I would rather die than l--"

He didn't let her finish her thought. He jumped forward and planted a kiss square on her lips, lucky enough to have the spark--exceptionally painful, this time--happen before his momentum carried the two of them off balance and into the ground.

Angel came hopping into the room as fast as he could, and he started shaking Fluttershy's shoulder vigorously, despite the fact that his tiny hands couldn't do much to move her. She slowly opened her eyes and asked, "What happened?"

"You hit your head," he replied, twisting the truth. "I wanted to see whether you were all right."

Her eyes flitted back and forth for a few moments, and then she shook her head. "I remember everything."

He sighed. "Can you forgive me for trying to cover it up?"

"I know why you did," she replied. "Yes, I forgive you."

Soon, Twilight and Rarity came loping into the room. "We couldn't hold him for long," Rarity apologized. "Is everything back to normal?"

"Yes, it is," Fluttershy replied. She was still hoarse, and she sniffed back a tear. "I'm looking forward to getting some rest."

"We'll let you get to it," Tux promised. He placed a brief kiss on her forehead and stood up. "I think we could all use some rest."

The next morning, it rained in Ponyville. But this rain was sweet and sticky, tasting like wild strawberries. With a little help from Zecora and Cloudsdale, Tux and Rainbow Dash worked to position the custom made clouds to cure the entire town. Twilight and Pinkie Pie had volunteered to go around with spray bottles, spritzing ponies who dast not come outside. But when the very moisture in the air became tainted with the strawberry rain, no spritzing was needed.

After Rainbow had cleared the second round of clouds, having replaced the strawberry ones with normal rainclouds to wash away the sticky strawberry juice, Tux had Mayor Mare gather everypony in the town square. When the crowd had assembled, she stepped aside, and Tux stepped up to the podium.

He gulped hard at a lump that had formed in his throat. Public speaking wasn't his forte, but this speech had to be made, lest an entire town start jumping to conclusions as to why they had forgotten the events of the day before.

"Citizens of Ponyville," he started, knees shaking. "You have no cause for fear. Alarm, yes, but fear, no. Since yesterday morning, the entire town, with a couple of exceptions, was affected by something called the Kissing Sickness. It's an acute mental illness caused by psychotropic compounds found in the airborne spores of a certain kind of mold. In short, it made you all crazy in love with the first pony to enter your mind.

"Now, I have good news and...actually, more good news. All of you are now immune to the Kissing Sickness, and you'll never have to suffer through it again. The other good news is that you'll forget everything that happened yesterday and today. I guess you could call that bad news if you actually want to remember something that happened, so if that's the case, write it down before you go to sleep.

"None of this would have been possible without the herbalism of Zecora the zebra, as well as Twilight Sparkle, Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash, who helped distribute the cure."

"And especially Tux n Tails," interrupted Rainbow, shoving him aside. "He never got sick, so he was able to cure my friends and me, who in turn were able to cure all of you. So let's hear it for Tux n Tails!"

Tux turned white as Ponyville began to applaud him, stamping their hooves and roaring out cheers. A smile crossed his face, and he blushed, grateful that it was hidden by his dark coat. "Uh, thank you," he said into the microphone before backing away.

Something warmed inside of him as he stepped off the stage. Everywhere he looked, ponies were chanting his name, cheering for him. The times, they were a-changing; from this point on, he would no longer be a nobody. Though he would never remember why everypony now knew his name, for the next day, he forgot the whole incident.

Dear Princess Celestia

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Dear Princess Celestia,

Today I learned that love isn't love unless it is given. It can't be borrowed, stolen, finagled, cheated, contrived, or forced.

Your faithful servant,
Tux n Tails

P.S. I wrote this letter yesterday but forgot to send it. Now I've forgotten why I learned this lesson. Doesn't change how true it is, though.

Chapter 3 - Model Citizen

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Tux was having a fairly carefree day today. His toast hadn't burned, his alarm clock hadn't broken, and there was a high probability that he wouldn't need to go to work after all. But he still needed to stop by the Boutique to get confirmation from Rarity.

He had a great day planned. He was going to lunch with Rainbow Dash and dinner with Fluttershy. After that, the two of them were going to go to open mic night at the Livery Yard, the premier coffee house in Ponyville. He planned on reciting some of his poetry, or maybe giving a stand-up comedy routine. One of these days, he planned on singing a duet with Fluttershy.

But the first sign that something was not right came when he happened upon Fluttershy on her way to the market. "Good morning," he said with a smile. "Excited for our date tonight."

A frown crossed her face, and she hung her head. "I'm so sorry, Tux, but I'm going to have to cancel. Angel is sick, and I need to go get him some medicine."

"Aw, that's too bad," he sighed. "Hey, I'll tell you what. If I can get out of work today, I'll come help you. Check at the boutique on your way back home."

"Okay," she said, her expression brightening a little bit. "I really appreciate the help."

"My pleasure," he replied. "I'd rather spend time with you than do Rarity's books all day. I get feather cramps just thinking about it."

"I'd better be off to the market now," she sighed. She put her head on his withers, and he returned the gesture. Normally he wasn't one for hugs, but whenever his best friend hugged him, it made him feel like a million bits.

Best friend. He hadn't had one in years, and now that he did, he didn't think he could be happier. Especially because his crush on Twilight had finally, inexplicably, flickered and gone out. He was done with mares, probably for good. He didn't want anything more than friendship.

He continued on to the boutique, and when he went in, he called, "Rarity, I'm just stopping by to make sure you don't have anything for me to do. If not, I'll be on my way."

"Not so fast," she called back. "I have something very important that absolutely, positively must be done today. Come see me in the Inspiration Room."

He walked somewhat cautiously to the room where she got her most of her inspiration. It was a disaster area, and she always called it "organized chaos". It was something that Discord would have been proud of....

No sooner had he crossed the threshold than she assaulted him with a tape measure. He figured that she wasn't trying to strangle him, but with the way she measured the girth of his neck, she may as well have been. "Um, it's a little tight," he protested.

"Oh, darling, I know," she apologized. "I just have to be quick about this. Don't you worry yourself grey; I've been doing this for years. All your measurements will come out absolutely perfect."

"But why are you measuring me?"

"Oh, that's obvious, isn't it? You're going to model for me."

"I'm what, now?" he gasped. "Rarity, with all due respect, you hired me to be an accountant. I don't think this is a part of my job description."

"Oh, pish posh. The employment contract that you signed includes the words 'and any other responsibilities that the Employer assigns.' You can go back and read it if you don't believe me."

"But I have things to do today," he protested again as she stretched out his wing and measured it.

"Other than working for me? Banish the thought."

"I promised Fluttershy I'd help take care of Angel."

"Oh, I think she's got it fairly well in hoof. Besides, if Angel hadn't gotten sick, this wouldn't have been so fortuitous! There's a silver lining to every cloud, you see."

"Ow!" he said as she measured his other wing. "Not so hard, please."

"Oh, I'm terribly sorry. But this idea came to me literally five minutes before you walked through the door. You see, when Fluttershy came by yesterday to cancel today's modeling gig, I simply had to find a replacement. And I think you'll be quite pleased with my choice."


"No, darling," she laughed. "You'll see when she gets here. But for now, I need you to stand still. I have to measure your hind inseam."

"Oh no you don't," he said, sitting down. "Not even if you were a stallion."

"Please, Tux. This has a higher purpose." She lifted his rump off the ground and stretched out his leg. "I promise I won't get anywhere near making you uncomfortable." He gritted his teeth until she was done, and she finished up by taking his front inseam measurement.

"I'm not wearing pants," he groused.

"You most certainly are. You'll change your tune when you see the absolutely smashing, debonair ensemble that I have planned for you." She giggled giddily. "Ooh, this is my best idea yet! You two will look so adorable together!"

"Is there anything else you need from me, Miss Woodhouse?"

"Oh, please, I'm not trying to play matchmaker...though I do admire the Mane Austen reference. I'm just trying to test out a new design."

"What is it?"

"I've already told you. It's a secret. Now, for this, you're going to have to be shod, so go to the spa and get a hooficure. Then have the farrier fit you with some temporaries. Thence, to the barber for a mane cut. That mop is..." She shuddered, grimacing. "...simply dreadful."

"What about my partner?"

"Oh, she'll be barefoot. Besides, she had a hooficure a couple of days ago. Be on your way, now." She ushered him out the door with a telekinetic spell, and the door practically slammed behind him. He heard faint traces of an almost maniacal laughter from deep within the boutique, and he swallowed hard.

Since he probably wouldn't be back to the boutique by the time Fluttershy came through, he decided to go find her at the market before heading to the spa. It was on the way, anyway. But sadly, when he got there, she was nowhere to be found. "Dang," he huffed. "I'll have to go find her after work. It couldn't possibly take all day.

He made his way to the spa and pushed the door open, feeling rather self-conscious. He'd always taken care of himself. No regular coiffing, no regular hoof care, nothing but regular checkups with the doctor, and an odd trip to the farrier when his hooves began getting too long.

The waiting area was very plush, and the desk clerk smiled at him. "And what can I get for you today, sir?"

"Um, I have orders for a hooficure...."

"Very good," she replied. "It'll be a short wait, but we'll see you very soon."

He thanked her and took a seat on one of the cushioned chairs. All of the magazines on the tables were mare-magazines. Ponies, Equestria Weekly, and cheap tabloids like the Celestial Enquirer. Tux had no interest in what colt was dating what filly in Manehattan. Where was Carriage and Puller Magazine? What about Stallion's Health? Bass Player? Guns n Ammo? He was definitely out of his element here.

"Tux n Tails," called the clerk at last. How she knew his name was beyond him. He was led back to a room, and he lay on a cot, wanting to flop about like the fish-out-of-water he was. Two mares came and trimmed and dressed his hooves. They were very good at plying their craft, and they worked to relax him as they went.

But before long, they practically pushed him off the cot and out the door, and the clerk assured him that payment was unnecessary, since the whole thing was going on Rarity's tab. He thanked her and made his way to the farrier a couple of doors down.

It had been a long time since he'd been to a farrier, and he seemed to recall Applejack removing his old shoes for some reason. When he walked into the lobby, the farrier greeted him. He was an older, cream colored unicorn sporting a set of salt-and-pepper friendly mutton chops, which matched his mane and tail. "I've already gotten word from Rarity," he said. "I had to bump an appointment, but this won't take long at all, especially since you've already gotten your tootsies prettied up."

"I resent that remark," Tux grumbled. "These are ranch hooves. They're supposed to be dirty and scuffed."

"I'm just giving you a hard time," the farrier laughed. He had Tux lie back in what looked like a dentist's chair, and he went to work. "Now, normally I'd be nailing these on, but they're made of acrylic. Far too soft for long-term use. So I'll be gluing them. So try not to throw one."

"When do I get them off?"

"Come back tomorrow," the farrier replied, gluing the first shoe onto Tux's hoof. "I really wish I'd been able to fit you beforehand, but these will have to do." As he glued the second shoe on, he asked, "Who took your last shoes off?"

"Applejack. Why?"

The farrier frowned. "Hmm...she did a decent job. But she chewed up your hooves cutting those clinches. They'll grow out, but they won't look pretty."

"I hope Rarity will be fine with it."

"She should be. They already did a pretty good job of dressing at the salon." By now, the fourth shoe was fitted, and Tux made an appointment for their removal. From there, he was off to the barber.

When he arrived at the barbershop, the pony inside was shouting rapidly in Italian, and Tux could make out the general gist of what he was saying. It was something about a lazy, incompetent intern forgetting to order a new supply of disinfectant for the scissors. When the intern protested rather disrespectfully, the barber bid him to take a trip to Naples, which Tux knew was slang for a trip to Tartarus.

He stepped into the shop and sat down. The barber noticed him immediately and said in a rather thick accent, "Buon giorno, signor. I am Barberino, il barbiere. Rarity has already given me instructions to do what I think is-a best for you, so have a seat in this-a chair and watch Barberino work his-a magic."

The unicorn barber picked Tux up with a spell and plunked him down in the chair. "Please don't take too much off," he pleaded.

"Shush," Barberino said, going to work. "I should take it all off. What a disgrace."

Tux watched as his mane fell away one lock at a time. By the end of it, he had something that more closely resembled the Doctor's mane-do than did Big Macintosh's, as it used to. "I guess it looks good," he shrugged.

"Tu sei impazzo!" Barberino scoffed. "This-a work is-a perfetto! A piece of art. Barberino always-a does what is best. Now go. I have other customers." He picked Tux up again and set him down just outside the shop.

"That was...interesting," Tux commented.

He didn't care for his new mane at first, but as made his way back through town, he received many a compliment, which put his spirits up, if only a little bit. He still didn't know what Fluttershy would think of it, not that it should matter to her. He made his way back to the boutique, and when he passed by the town hall, he noticed that only two and a half hours had gone by. "Whatever it is, she can't be done by now," he thought aloud. "I still have time to stop by Fluttershy's." He took to the skies to save a little bit of time, and he started west toward the Everfree Forest.

Along the way, Rainbow Dash caught up to him. "Hey, Mr. Lone Wolf," she greeted.

"I'm kinda busy, Rainbow," he replied. "I need to get to Fluttershy's and then back to Rarity's before she starts looking for me."

"I like your new do. It's kinda rebel. Not as rebel as Thunderlane's, but...."


"Are we still on for lunch today?"

"No guarantees. I don't really know how long Rarity will be keeping me locked up. I hear tales of what happens to her models, how sometimes they aren't heard from for days at a time."

"You're modeling?" She guffawed at the notion. "How did you get roped into that?"

"I showed up," he sighed. "Something tells me I should have just called in sick."

"Well, if you don't show up at the café, I'll take it as a sign that you're being held against your will."

"How'd your date with Soarin' go last night?"

"We broke up," she shrugged.

"What do you mean? I thought you two were doing great!"

She shrugged again. "We just weren't right for each other. I don't know. I'll tell you more about it over lunch, if we get there. I should probably let you go."

"Hey, if you want to talk about it, I'm here."

"What is there to talk about?" She banked off and returned to Ponyville, and Tux saw that he had almost overflown his destination.

He dropped into a dive, and when he got to the appropriate altitude, he opened his wings and let his feathers fill with air, flapping slightly to slow down as he came to rest on Fluttershy's porch.

"Fluttershy, are you in? Rarity has me modeling today, so I won't be able to help you out with Angel." When he heard no response, he pushed open the door. "Fluttershy?"

Angel shuffled up to him and shook his head, pointing eastward and miming drinking a bottle of medicine. Either that or he said she was getting drunk at the bar, but there was no bar in Ponyville, unlike Hoofton, which had a bar on virtually every block. "She's still looking for your medicine?" Tux asked.

Angel nodded and went into a coughing fit that made it seem like he would surrender a lung. "She'll be back," Tux assured. "Could you tell her that Rarity has me modeling for her, and I won't be able to help out today?" Again, Angel nodded.

He sighed and turned around, walking out the door. He flapped lazily back to Ponyville, keeping an eye out for Fluttershy as he went. But the path was still empty. He saw Rainbow off in the distance practicing her gliding, and he wished he could take a detour and do it with her, but Rarity wasn't paying him to dawdle.

He came in for a landing at the boutique's doorstep, and Rarity was lying in wait for him. She tried to smother him with a blindfold, and once it was fitted, she shoved him along until they got to the back room. "What's this for?" he asked. "Is it done? Is my partner here?"

"Oh, you just missed her. But yes, your ensemble is finished!" She untied the blindfold and whipped it away. "Ta-da!"

He smiled at what he saw. Sitting on the mannequin in front of him was a white silk tuxedo with a black tie. The coat had tails extended almost to the dock of the mannequin's tail, and the pants were cut in a way that would expose his cutie mark, if he were to ever get one. "It looks great, Rarity," he complimented.

"And it's enchanted, to boot. I would have given you two of them, a black one and a white one, for special occasions, but I had a special silk that I was saving for a special outfit. You can change the color with magic!"

" case you didn't notice, I'm a pegasus."

"Oh, darling, I know. That's why I had Twilight enchant the silk itself. All you have to do is say the magic words. I heard you were a big fan of language study, so I gave you special cufflinks so that you would never forget them."

He examined the cufflinks, and saw that they were words written in a stylized Ancient Ponese script. One of them meant "to color black", and the other meant "to color white". He smiled again and said, "Chián tsei." The jacket, pants, and tie inverted in color. "Wow, Rarity...."

"Oh, don't mention it. It was the least I could do for a friend like you."

"You said that this idea popped into your head only a couple of hours ago?"

"It's the fastest I've ever worked. But I think it turned out quite well, don't you?"

"It's absolutely perfect."

"Just wait until you see what I have planned for the photoshoot." She stifled another maniacal laugh.

"Are you sure you aren't trying to fix me up with somepony?"

"Yes, I'm quite sure," she dismissed. "You'll want that to be white for the shoot. Chián bai." The outfit reverted to its original state.

"Why, will I be getting married?" he bantered. She just walked out of the room. "Rarity?"

"Hopefully, everything will be ready to go after lunch. Your mystery mare should be back from the errands I have her running. I'll also have her ensemble done by then. But you're free for a while. Come back at one-thirty, and not a moment later."

"Um, okay." He turned and walked out the front door, then to the café where he was supposed to meet Rainbow Dash. She wasn't there, so he bumbled around the market until the clock in Town Square struck noon, their original agreed-upon meeting time. When he returned to the café, the cyan pony was sitting restlessly at a table waiting for him. Sitting still was often hard for her, but especially so when she was expected to conform to standard table manners.

"I have until about one-thirty," Tux said, sitting down. "You should come by and see if you can sit in on the shoot this afternoon."

"Bleh, no thanks," she said, stinking out her tongue and grimacing. "No offense, but that kind of thing bores me to tears."

"I totally understand. If I wasn't getting paid, I probably wouldn't be doing this." The waiter stopped by and took their orders. Once he left, Tux asked, "So what's this I hear about you breaking up with Soarin' last night?"

"It's no big deal," she sighed. "It just wasn't going to work out."

"Come on, RD. Tell me the truth. Please."

She sighed. "Don't tell anypony. I don't want to seem like a sap."

"Rainbow, you're not a sap. You'll always be ten times more awesome than anypony else I know."

"Thanks. We were dating for like a week, and it just died. I loved it when he treated me like a princess, but I didn't return his affection. I treated him like a friend. The only reason I was really keeping it up was that he idolized me. That, and I loved the idea of dating a celebrity. So I did what was right and passed the baton."

"You passed it?"

"To the pony who really cared about him."

"Spitfire," he assumed. She nodded. "You don't seem very happy about it. Are you sure you were dating him only because he wanted it? Or did you abdicate because you felt selfish when you saw Spitfire's care?"

In the intervening silence, the waiter brought their food, and Rainbow picked idly at her apple and clover sandwich. He didn't press her for an answer, but at long last, she opened her mouth. "Maybe."

"It's really nice of you to put others first. You probably even felt you were being...disloyal by cutting him loose." She looked surprised at his allusion for a moment, but then she nodded sadly. "If you want somepony to sweep you off your feet, he'll come."

"You're one to talk," she scoffed.

"Hey," he chided, trying not to snap at her. "If you want to go to somepony else for romantic advice, then fine. Just try not to rub my failings in my face." He munched on his salad, trying to encourage her to eat. "So how has your gliding today?"

"It was pretty good," she said, nibbling her sandwich. "I think I'm starting to get the hang of it."

"I think I can start you on some more intensive feather dexterity exercises. Maybe teach you to play the piano."

"No," she coughed, nearly choking on her sandwich. "I can barely even sing!"

"Okay, then maybe something else. There's always advanced gliding aerobatics. I have it on good authority that Firestreak got his spot on the 'Bolts by flying an obstacle course without flapping once. He used only inertia from his initial dive."

"What if I don't want to be on the 'Bolts anymore?"

Tux paused with a few hay fries poised at his open mouth. He knew what this meant. "Rainbow, this has been your dream ever since you were a filly. Why abandon it now? Is it about Soarin' and Spitfire?" Rainbow just shrugged. "I think you're having an identity crisis."

"What are you, some kind of shrink?"

"I almost went into that profession," he replied. "I know from experience that you'll have to sort this out on your own. I'm here for support if you need it, but only you can find what you seek. I...I can't imagine what it's like post-cutie mark."

"I should probably cut this short," she said, clearing her throat. "It's getting kinda awkward."

"So sorry."

"Nah, it's no biggie. I'll see ya later." She stuffed the rest of the sandwich into her mouth and flapped away.

"Yeah," he sighed. "Later."

The clock told him that he had another hour to hoof around before he had to report back to the boutique, so he made his way to the library to check out a book or two. There was a new Daring Do due out, and he'd secured a signed advance copy for the shelves, as well as one for Rainbow's upcoming birthday. He had the gift sitting under his bed, but he knew better than to crack it open, especially since it had been hoof-wrapped by the author. Hopefully, Twilight would be done with it by now and willing to loan it out.

He knocked on the door, expecting to be greeted by the violet mare, but the tree seemed deserted. "Twilight, are you here?" he called.

"Who?" came the reply.

"Oh, hi, Owlowiscious," Tux greeted. "Is Twilight around?"

"She actually went to the boutique," Spike said as he came out of the back room with a cart of books. He'd grown at least a few inches since they'd met some months before in Canterlot. "She's running errands for Rarity, who promised to send me back some gemstones."

"What every growing dragon needs," Tux commented. "I'm modeling for her, for some reason, so maybe I'll see Twilight when I get back to work."

"What a coincidence," Spike smiled. "Twi--"

"Who!" Owlowiscious interrupted.

"What? She didn't tell me that."


"Figures. Always out of the loop."

"What coincidence?" Tux asked quizzically.

"Oh, nothing."

There were only a handful of coincidences that Spike could have been referring to, and only one of them was likely. Still, he played naïve as he thanked the two of them and left. He decided to get it over with and go straight to the boutique. Rarity would have more time to make sure the suit fit him that way.

When he arrived, Rarity was locked in a back room, with Sweetie Belle standing guard. "Aren't you supposed to be in school?" Tux asked, squinting at her.

"Half-day today because of parent-teacher conferences," the filly replied. "You can't go in there."

"And why not?"

"Because Rarity said so. Only two ponies are allowed past: Rarity and your partner."

"Why all this secrecy?" Tux groaned. "Is it Twilight?"

"I don't know. Rarity didn't give me a name, and she had me go in the other room when your partner got here."

"You're not even going to tell a fellow Crusader?"

Sweetie Belle was not amused, and she made this plain on her face. "She didn't give me a name. For a reason."


"She didn't give me the reason."

"Rarity, you're killing me!" he shouted at the door.

"Oh, I'm sorry, darling," was the muffled reply. "Go ahead and try that suit on, will you? I know it will fit, but one can never be too sure."

He sighed with a shrug and shuffled off to the room where his ensemble was waiting. Normally, dressing oneself was a chore without the aid of magic; that was why most ponies didn't wear much, if anything. But Tux was used to the task, and he quickly pulled on all the pieces of the tuxedo.

They fit him perfectly: neither too loose, nor too tight, with plenty of breathing room for a full opera breath. His wings had room to move, which was tough for most pegasi wearing non-tailored garments. And the very best part of the whole thing was that it was quite versatile. He tried using specific color words from ancient Ponese, and the enchanted fabric responded accordingly. The outfit didn't look very good in cyan or fire-engine red, but at least Tux knew he had options. The entire spectrum of greys was available, too, which was very relieving; sometimes, pure black or white weren't the best choices.

On a hunch, he tried telling only the tie to change color. It took him a while to find the right words, but it was possible. He made sure to reset the color to white with a black tie, for the sake of the shoot. He was sure he would forget if he didn't do it now.

He waited for what seemed like an eternity for Rarity to come and check the tuxedo's fit and finish, and she seemed pleased. So pleased, in fact, that that maniacal laugh once again escaped her lips. "Who is this mystery mare?" Tux pressed. "I know she's here. When will I meet her?"

"Oh, you'll meet her on set. And she's almost ready; she's just getting fitted for her dress. It won't be long now."

"Please tell me why all this secrecy," he pleaded. "I've been getting nothing but dismissive answers and partial leads all day long. I have to know."

"Mum's the word."

"Ugh," he groaned. "How much longer, then?"

"Just a few minutes. Go ahead and take a look at the set. I think you'll like it."

He left the dressing room and made his way down the hall to the boutique's recently added photo studio. When it wasn't decorated for a specific shoot, it was an ugly, plain matte black from floor to ceiling. Rarity would often have a local model or two come in to demo her latest fashions for the Canterlot crowd. Sometimes she would bring in ponies from Manehattan or Fillydelphia, but she preferred not to; she said that most of the east-coast ponies were mules in more than just attitude.

When he opened the door to the studio, he was greeted with a sight that made his heart stop. A white trellis covered in red climbing-roses, an ornate heart standing in for the arch's keystone. A table with a cake covered in white rolled fondant, with red buttercream roses and white piping dotting the edges of its five, tiered layers. Atop the cake was no topper; that would have given away the surprise identity of his partner. "How did you throw all of this together in just a day?" he marveled.

Rarity's voice came in behind him. "Oh, the wedding theme has been months in the making; that's my latest line. You were a last-minute addition, of course, when I found a replacement for Fluttershy. As I said before, if she hadn't called to cancel so that she could care for poor Angel, this plan never would have existed. Go ahead and stand at the altar, and I'll send in your bride."

He walked slowly up onto the stage and stood in the groom's customary spot. Rarity left the room, and several minutes later, she returned, levitating an expensive-looking camera in front of her. His modeling partner came out into the hallway, and he couldn't really discern her identity while she was in the shadows. His heart beat faster and faster in anticipation as she approached the light of the studio. But it again stopped when she crossed the threshold.

There stood a beautiful, violet pony, her tresses done up in complex plaits, a look of unease on her face. She wore a sparkling, white dress adorned with milky pearls and elegant lace. Though a gossamer veil covered her face, he could easily see past it. Never before had Twilight Sparkle looked this stunning.

"Hi, Tux," she said, a sheepish grin on her face. "I had no idea what I was getting myself into, I guess."

"No idea," he repeated. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of Sweetie Belle gesturing for him to close his mouth.

"Well, what do you think?" Rarity asked. "Go on, be honest."

"She's beautiful," he gaped. Twilight blushed.

"Oh, you two will make such a cute couple!" Rarity laughed again, and Tux's heart sank. He had just recently shut out his feelings for Twilight, just recently let them die. And now, seeing her like this, they were back in full force. His heart burned, ached, wishing this was something more real than a photoshoot. In some ways, he resented Rarity for being so conniving as to set him up with the one pony he'd liked. But in other ways, he was thankful that she was considerate enough of him to try playing matchmaker.

"Couple?" he laughed nervously. "Nah, we're just friends. You know that." Twilight looked somewhat relieved.

"But consider the possibilities!" Rarity rejoiced.

Behind Rarity, Sweetie Belle was burying her face in her hooves. At least somepony else thought this was madness; she knew firsthand what could become of playing matchmaker.

Rarity raised the camera to take a shot, but a look of exasperation came over her face. "Oh, road apples, this camera.... I'll be right back. The battery is dead." She trotted out of the room, leaving Tux and Twilight with enough privacy to feel alone.

"Let's do her a favor," Tux said quietly. "It's only a photoshoot, so let's play it up. It shouldn't be too bad; she's got ethics after all."

Twilight smiled. "Yeah, you're right. I mean, it's not often that I get to dress up like this. At least she chose somepony I know. If she'd chosen some stranger, I don't think I'd be able to do this."

"Tell me about it," he chuckled.

About that time, Rarity returned with a working camera, and she began to bark orders like any good photographer. The only thing was that Tux had never actually worked with a photographer, unlike Rarity's original modeling choice, who had posed and modeled for Photo Finish.

"All right, I want a shot of you two standing at the altar." She levitated a bouquet to Twilight. "Oh, this won't do at all. Look happy! This is supposed to be the best day of your lives!" They each forced smiles, and after a few shots, Rarity said, "That will have to do for now. Maybe we'll come back.

"Now go over to the cake. I had Pinkie bake it special for this shoot. Black raspberry and white mulberry, with a cheesecake filling." This brought a genuine smile to Twilight's face, but Tux suddenly felt very self-conscious. Normally, he would take pride in eating such a confection, but around Twilight it made him feel piggish.

As she walked toward the cake, he steeled himself, whispering words of encouragement. "She's just like Rainbow. Or Fluttershy. You wouldn't be embarrassed to pig out in front of Pinkie, would you? And what about Applejack, when she beat you in the fritter eating contest? Yeah, it's just like that."

He walked over and joined Twilight, and they cut the cake together. He did his best to grip the serving knife with his wing, while she used her magic. Rarity praised them, saying that folks in Canterlot and abroad would love them.

As the shoot went on, Tux felt more comfortable acting naturally with Twilight, and he could tell that she did, as well. "I think the worst is over," he chuckled while Rarity switched memory cards in her camera.

"Yeah, I think the storm has blown over for good," Twilight added with a smile. "I'm actually having fun like this. I mean, stuffing cake in your face was a blast. But why didn't you do it to me?"

"I would never stuff cake in your face, Twilight. Especially if this was a real wedding." He silently cursed himself for his adoring tone, but she didn't seem to take any notice of it. And for that, he was more than thankful.

The next half hour was spent adopting various poses. There were several shots of Tux carrying Twilight on his back, and even some of her levitating him with ease. Rarity got her revisit of the shots under the trellis, but she still didn't seem quite happy with them. "You're not gazing deeply, longingly into each other's eyes," she chided. "I want love here, not lackluster lookings about."

"Well, it's still kinda awkward to pretend to be in love," Twilight shrugged.

"Well, then, get past it."

"Try to study my iris," he suggested. "Or count the blood vessels. Or picture a crossword puzzle on my pupil."

She laughed, and Rarity's camera shutter clicked wildly. "Perfect!" she shouted. "That was the shot I needed! Now kiss!"

"What?!" Tux choked.

"What's a wedding album without a nice, romantic kiss?"

He looked over at Twilight, who was now beet red and seemed like she wanted to disappear, to say nothing of how he himself felt. "You saw how awkward it was to gaze into each other's eyes!"

"Pretty please?" Rarity pouted like a puppy dog.

"We have to draw the line somewhere."

"But Tux, I need this shot. Just try it."

"I've never kissed a filly. It'll look awkward!"

"Oh, please. I know lots of couples who shared their first kiss at the altar. You'll look just fine. And it's not like it's going to be real. I mean, every time you go out to see a play or an opera, you get the actors kissing, and it's nothing to them."

"Still too awkward," Twilight said through clenched teeth, grinning nervously.

Rarity groaned in exasperation. "All right, we'll do this the hard way. I'm not letting you two leave this studio without giving me that shot, so we'll resort to something my acting coach taught me. Touch noses and stare forward. Hold it for five whole minutes."

"Are you sure this will work?" Twilight asked.

Tux was about to outright refuse to do it, but he knew that Rarity could also refuse to pay him. You're getting twenty bits for all this trouble, he told himself. Might as well earn it. He walked up close to Twilight, and they faced each other, touching noses. Her lips were almost touching his. Her eyes were like black holes, trying to swallow him up. His heart raced as every memory and every fantasy he'd ever had about her flashed through his mind. Time seemed to stand still; the five minutes seemed like five hours. The more his feelings renewed themselves, the more time seemed to slow, until finally, he heard new orders from his employer.

"Now each of you turn your head slightly to the right and close the gap. Once it looks real, I'll start taking photos. And I'll tell you when to stop."

He swallowed hard as he felt Twilight's head tilt. Almost out of instinct, he did the same. He took one step forward, and their lips met. At first it was awkward and forced, like a devious little filly forcing her two dolls to kiss. But soon he found his eyes closed, his heart racing, a warmth filling him from deep within his chest. Their heads were tilted at just the right angle. Her lips parted slightly, and the two ponies fit together like two pieces of a puzzle.

The shutter stopped clicking, but Twilight didn't break away immediately. It was a very long moment indeed before they finally pulled apart.

"Now that was a shot," Rarity gaped. She set the camera down and said, "I think it's safe to say that you're both free to go."

Twilight smiled graciously but forcedly as Rarity thanked her, and she left the room. Once he was sure Twilight was out of earshot, Tux said, "Rarity, I need to have a word with you. Privately."

Rarity nodded and excused Sweetie Belle from the room. "Before you start," she began, "you and Twilight have real chemistry."

"Based on a one-time kiss?" he scoffed. "Rarity, I know that your intentions were good. You know that I've been lonely, and you know that I've had a crush on Twilight. But no doubt you noticed how awkward it all was."

"I fixed it, didn't I?"

"That's not my point. I did have a crush on Twilight, but not anymore. I spent so much time and worked so hard on letting it go, on letting it burn out. And then, two weeks ago, it finally did. I was content with being single, but you might have inadvertently brought back the feelings that I didn't want."

"Do you want me to throw out the shoot?" she asked sadly.

"No," he replied. "You worked hard for it, so publish it. Just make me a promise and don't try to fix me up with anypony unless I ask you. But I do trust you; you know me well."

"I promise," she sighed. "What's next for you two?"

"Damage control, I guess," he replied plaintively. "I don't know how to interpret it, so I'll have to confront her about it. We'll see."

Tux was grateful that Twilight had agreed to meet him for dinner the next evening. He had solicited the meeting as one between friends, and he suspected that his being explicit about this contributed to her approval. Nevertheless, she thought that it would be a good idea to dress up. Not wanting to wear his new tuxedo, Tux commissioned a simple, black suit from Rarity, and she gladly obliged. He wore it with a cravat as he walked up to the door of the Library.

Twilight was there waiting for him, wearing a crimson satin dress accented with ruffles and satin roses. "You look very nice tonight," he smiled. She was also wearing a hint of perfume, which made him slightly embarrassed that he hadn't worn a fragrance of his own.

"Thank you," she replied. "You're looking pretty dashing yourself. Did I tell you that I like your new mane cut?"


"Where are we going?" she asked.

"The Spade," he replied. It was an expensive restaurant on the outskirts of Ponyville. It was fairly new, the proprietors having moved recently from Canterlot, and Rarity was dying to patronize the eatery. Tux had thought about taking her, but in all honesty, he would rather take Twilight.

The carriage ride to the restaurant was silent as ever, and it wasn't until they were seated that either pony finally spoke. And it was Twilight who broke the silence.

"Thank you for taking me to dinner," she said.

"My pleasure," he smiled. "To be honest, I can't be happier that you actually said yes. I've had my share of rejection in the past, and it created an overwhelming fear inside me." At this point, he didn't care if she knew about his past failings.

"That wasn't because of you," she said with a small smile. "It's a wonder that you're still single."

The waiter interrupted them to take their orders, and when he was gone, Tux replied, "Well, all this time, I've been trying to cobble together the courage I needed to ask you out."

"And Rarity gave you an extra boost."

"Well, to be honest, in recent days I've seen you as just a friend. I mean, I had the biggest crush ever when I first met you, but after time, the infatuation went away and I finally saw straight."

"I probably would have said yes, but only after a few weeks of getting to know you first." She chuckled. "If you'd asked me when we first met, I would have turned you down for sure."

"I'm glad I waited, then," he smiled.

"Good things come to those who wait."

"Well, I hope we don't have to wait too long for our salads."

After a bit more dead-air silence, she asked, "So, did you ask me to dinner tonight to apologize for the whole debacle, or is there something else? Because, honestly, I'm fine with kissing you for a photoshoot as long as it won't affect our friendship."

"I asked you to dinner to apologize," he replied. "But ultimately, that kiss rekindled my feelings, and I wanted you to know that."

"So you don't expect anything from me?"

"Nothing at all," he replied. "As long as we can still be friends without it being awkward."

"Of course," she nodded. "And really, if you want to try this, I'm willing to try it as well."

He was floored. He'd expected her to be the happy-single type like Pinkie Pie or maybe Rainbow Dash. But she seemed to actually like him. He was excited to start dating Twilight, but at the same time, he was afraid it would affect their friendship negatively. And as they say, love conquered all. "Yeah," he said, nodding. "Maybe so. Tonight could be our first date."

"Tonight always was our first date," she shrugged. "But you didn't really have to go so fancy."

"No," he said, "I did. I want tonight to be special. Maybe a turning point in our friendship, whatever turning point that might be."

"Well, if this is a date, we should probably be getting to know each other better. You've told me about yourself, so let's turn it around."

She went on to recount the stories of how she got her cutie mark and became Celestia's protégée, how she and her friends defeated Nightmare Moon and Discord, and how others' teamwork saved Equestria from Chrysalis, and the Crystal Empire from King Sombra. Then she told him that she had suspected his feelings for quite a while.

"Really?" he sighed.

"You did a pretty good job of hiding them," she replied. "But I still saw through you, especially when I saw your reaction to me in a wedding dress. It was like you flashed forward."

"I...kinda did," he said sheepishly, blushing.

"Well, as long as you don't set anything in stone, I think we'll do fine. I'm really not looking for anything super serious right now. I mean, I was content being single, so this is an adventure for me."

"I understand completely," he replied. "And who better to go on an adventure with than a close friend?"

He actually enjoyed himself for the rest of the evening. For the most part, they kept on talking about music, politics, history, and language. He taught her some basic phrases in Ponese, and she taught him a basic history of modern magic. Then they discussed their favorite composers from the Renaissance to the modern era.

The conversation got a bit more awkward, though, as they discussed the current Equestrian political climate, especially in light of what they'd learned on their visit to Canterlot. Twilight still trusted Celestia implicitly, especially being her personal student. But Tux was suspicious, especially because of what Celestia had elected to hide about Discord, the prison spell, and Tux's unique traits. Eventually she conceded that it wasn't right to bury crucial information.

"But I still trust Princess Celestia's judgment," she defended. "Even if she has her flaws, she's still good at heart. She's brought Equestria this far, and we've got to give her that much."

"Oh, I don't doubt it," he replied. "And she probably has her reasons for being so secretive. I mean, if everypony knew everything about how she worked, then there would be no security. And we know how important that is."

"It's been that way ever since the beginning," she added. "Princess Celestia has always protected sensitive information. Like, for instance, the Mare in the Moon. When I approached her to say that Nightmare Moon was returning, she virtually brushed me off. Of course, if she'd never done that, I would never have become who I am today, holder of the Element of Magic."

"And Hope."

"What?" she asked confusedly.

"The seventh Element," he replied, as if she should know this.

"There is no seventh Element, Tux," she replied, wrinkling her nose and tilting her head. "Where did you hear of that?"

"I..." He didn't seem to remember. It was something far and away, yet he knew it was there. It was almost like somepony had deliberately blocked access to the memories. "I don't know," he said, frowning.

"Well, if you can find it, let me know. I'd love to get my hooves on that source for the library."

"Will do," he nodded determinedly. "I seem to recall something about the Archives. It must be a book there. But I've never been to the Archives."

"Well, that's gonna change. I'll do you a solid." She grinned and winked at him.

As their date drew to a close, Tux walked her back to the Golden Oak Library, and along the way they talked about nothing in particular. They spent most of their time speculating about character development in the Daring Do book series. Somehow, Tux found himself promising to ask the author to make a trip to Ponyville for a book signing. Then Twilight thanked him again for getting her a signed copy of the latest novel. "It's one of the best gifts you could have given me," she smiled.

"Well, I'm glad I did something right."

"You've really done a lot of stuff right, Tux," she chided as they arrived at the library. "The whole time I've known you, you've been pretty hard on yourself. There's a difference between humility and self-deprecation."

"Yeah," he sighed. "I think it's a relic of personality from my younger days and my troubled past."

"I'd recommend getting rid of it. There's nothing wrong with patting yourself on the withers. I know that you're in no danger of becoming a narcissist."

"Like Prince Blueblood," he commented, alluding to an earlier conversation they'd had about the Grand Galloping Gala.

"Eeyup," she replied. "I'm glad she smashed that slipper. Ugh."

"Would you rather see Rarity with somepony specific?"

"No pony specifically. But...well, you know how much of a crush Spike has on her. I think it goes beyond that, at least on his end. She, though...."

"I know that feel."


"'s kind of an allusion to an internet meme."

"Oh. I think I get it," she nodded. "Whoever she winds up with, I hope he's as great as you." She smiled demurely and batted her eyelashes, blushing. His heart fluttered as she took a step forward, stopping just in front of him. Inviting him.

He froze.

He had imagined this moment for years. And now that the mare of his dreams was inviting him to kiss her, this time with complete sobriety, his nerves had gotten the better of him. He stood motionless as his opportunity slipped away. "That's okay," she said softly. She rested her head on his withers for a moment, then pulled away and turned toward the front door of the library.

"Wait," he called, stretching out a wing reflexively.

She stopped and closed the door again. "Yes?"

"I...know it's not the same, but--"

"Shh." She placed a spell on his lips, stopping his words. This time, she didn't wait for him to act; she closed the gap completely, and they kissed. Soon, too soon, she pulled away, leaving him weak in the knees. "Good night, Tux," she said with a smile, opening the library door and going inside.

"Good night, Twilight," he whispered in reply.

Dear Princess Celestia

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Dear Princess Celestia,

Today I learned that friends often have the best of intentions, but sometimes you need to tell them when to stop.

Today I learned that sometimes, horrible situations can work out for the better, especially when your friends are willing to help you through them and try new things.

Your faithful servant,
Tux n Tails

P.S. I also learned that I need to buy more paper.

Chapter 4, pt. 1 - Equestrian Idol: Los Pegasus

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It was a particularly lazy Sunday morning, and Tux had completely blacked out his windows the night before so that he could sleep as late as he wanted. When his body had finally said, "Enough!", he shuffled to the balcony doors and took down the blackout blinds. The vengeful sun immediately kicked him in the face. He squinted until his eyes began to adjust, and finally he was able to get started with his day.

As he brushed his mane, which was much easier at its new length, he began to smell potatoes frying in the kitchen. "Levi, what did I say about playing with the stove?" he chided in jest.

"Mreah," the miniature panther replied, looking up at him with eyes that said, "It's not me."

Now more curious than anything, Tux put his mane comb down and slowly descended the stairs. When he reached the bottom, Wrangler came running, seemingly relieved to know that somepony familiar was in the house. As she rubbed against his legs, he looked up to see if anypony else was present. He nearly jumped eight hands in the air when he saw Princess Celestia sitting on his couch with a cup of tea and a saucer floating in front of her.

"Princess!" he coughed, bowing. "What are you doing in my cottage?"

"Making breakfast," came Princess Luna's voice from the kitchen.

"Why?" he puzzled.

"The meal was Luna's idea," Celestia explained as he stood again. She patted the cushion next to her, and he sat down. "The real reason we came here is to talk to you about music."


She nodded and sipped her tea. "As you may well know, the Grand Galloping Gala is approaching. While it is still distant on the horizon, I was wanting to feature Ponyville this year, especially after the debacle last year. This town has gotten a bad reputation over the years, and I wanted to show all the Canterlot elites that small towns have their merits."

"So, are you commissioning something? I've never composed professionally."

"Actually, what I'm commissioning is a choir. I understand that you've been trying to put one together, and I love the idea."

"I'm hard pressed to find ponies in Ponyville who want to sing in the choir," he replied. "I currently have two: Fluttershy and Simple Song. I need at least a couple more."

"I'm well aware of this. That's why I want you to find the best singers in all of Equestria. I want you to hold an audition tour, which I will sponsor. It will be called 'Equestrian Idol'." She gestured with her hoof as if the words were in front of her. She looked over at Tux. "What do you think?"

He frowned. "I really think you should find somepony else."

"Why?" she asked. "You would be perfect!"

"I'm no good at organizing things," he protested in a truly Mosaic fashion.

"Says the accountant who has worked wonders for Carousel Boutique," she quipped.

"Okay, I can organize finances, but an entire audition tour? No way!"

"I still think you're the best pony for the job. You've taught voice lessons before. You've conducted a choir. All the rest is creativity, which I know you have in abundance."

"Do I have a choice?" he asked. This question seemed to be on his lips a lot as of late.

"Not really," she winked. "Musicians for the Gala always have to be booked far in advance, and my backups just wrote me to confirm that they have a concert elsewhere that night."

"All right, fine," he sighed. "Can I at least have some help?"

"Of course. We bid you adieu." She walked off into the kitchen and fetched Luna, who was reticent to leave; Celestia practically had to drag the younger princess out the door. "Make sure you don't burn the potatoes," she cautioned as the door closed.

Tux loped into the kitchen just in time to shut off the stove and take the hashbrowns off the burner before they burst into flame. Even with them slightly charred, he was thankful that he didn't have to cook, and he sat down and ate as he brainstormed. He would need an organizer and a couple of judges who knew their stuff. He would also have to have the overriding decision as to whether a singer would make the cut, but he was determined to make it fair.

If he were to tour Equestria, like the princess wanted, then he would likely be unable to pick the size of choir that he wanted--thirty-two--from just the initial audition rounds, so if it came to it, he would have to move on to a second round to winnow the singers further. And of course, all of this depended on the music he would be conducting. He'd seen songs split up into as many as fourteen parts before, though he didn't plan on getting that intricate.

He brainstormed a bit to figure out whom he wanted to be judges. The most obvious choice was Fluttershy. She was probably the most musical of the six, and most apt to make a fair judgment. But getting her to join him would be another challenge altogether. Another possible judge would be Twilight; he knew she was decent musically, and that she could look at things from an analytical perspective. She could also be blunt when necessary, unlike Fluttershy. For an organizer, he felt that Rarity would do the best job, since she was able to keep the Boutique afloat without losing her mind. Well, most of the time.

After he finished his breakfast and did his chores--namely, feeding his two impatient cats--he flew to Fluttershy's cottage, a distance which seemed to grow shorter with each trip. She was inside, fixing up some fried tofu for a family of snakes. "Hi, Tux," she greeted with a smile. "How are you doing?"

"Pretty good," he replied. "Get this. Today, I woke up to something close to breakfast in bed."

"Oh wow, that sounds special. Who fixed it?"

"Princess Luna."

Fluttershy jumped, inadvertently rattling the frying pan on the stovetop. "And, uh...what was the occasion?"

"Princess Celestia wants me to go around Equestria to find ponies for my choir. It'll be a grand tour called, 'Equestrian Idol'." He gestured with his hoof, mocking the way Celestia had.

"That sounds like fun," she remarked, even though he could tell she was being facetious.

He walked up next to her. "I'm going to ask Rarity to help organize and promote it, and Twilight to come along as a judge. I need one more. Are you interested."

Her cheeks grew rosy, and her expression drooped a bit. "Oh, Tux, I don't know why you'd want to pick me. You know I don't do well with that sort of thing."

He put a wing around her. "You're the most musical of anypony I know. Simple Song may have a high C, but it has no soul. You don't have to say a word; just nod or shake your head, and your vote will be in."

"No, Tux, I'm sorry." She turned the tofu cubes over in the pan and added some soy sauce. "I have animals to take care of, and nopony else knows them as well as I do. Besides, I just don't think I'd be a good judge. I'd say yes to everypony, even if I didn't think they were good enough."

"I understand," he replied, hugging her with his wing. "While I'm here, is there anything I can help you with?"

"No, thank you," she replied. "Unless you want some tofu."

"No, thanks. Believe it or not, I'm allergic."

"Oh dear," she gasped. "Maybe you'd better leave before you have a reaction."

"I'm not that allergic," he assured. "But I guess I should go anyway. I still have stuff to plan and ponies to talk to."

"How long will you be gone?" she asked.

"I don't know," he replied. "I'll try not to make it too long."

"Well, you know what they say," she sighed. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder."

"Bye," he called, and he left without considering the implications of her remark.

His next stop was the Carousel Boutique, where he found Rarity shut up in her studio, busy scribbling with charcoal on a piece of bristol board. "What new and exciting designs are you churning out this time?" he asked with a smile.

"Nothing," she almost snapped, jumping at the sound of his voice. She flipped the piece around and locked the easel in a nearby cabinet with a quick burst of magic. "Uh, dragon fashions."

"Designing for one dragon in particular?"

"No! I mean, no, I'm not. It's just a brainstorm right now, but.... Anyway, is there something you wanted from me? It is a Sunday morning, after all, and you don't need to come in and work."

"I actually have something to ask you." He told her about Celestia's proposal and asked her if she would like to work on promotion and organization, in addition to judging.

"Would I?" she gasped. "Would I ever! Oh, I have so many ideas already!"

"Who else should we get to judge?" he asked. "I want to have at least three."

"I'm going to Canterlot tomorrow for a consultation with Fleur Dis Lee, and I have an invitation to sit in on a practice session for the Royal Canterlot Philharmonic. I think I can convince Octavia to be a part of it."

"That would be great!" he gasped. "We need a professional musician or two on the panel."

"Now, if I may, I suggest you talk to Twilight about organizing things behind the scenes. She would be a much better fit than I would, but I'll still do marketing and promotion."

"That is a good idea," he acknowledged. "Besides, now I wouldn't have any excuses not to take her out to a fancy restaurant."

"Take her-- Oh my gosh, are you two...?"

"We're giving it a try."

"Oh, I'm so happy for you!" She leaped forward and squeezed him tightly, cutting off his air supply. "I probably shouldn't say, 'I told you so,' but I told you so."

"Keep it quiet, though," he whispered. "We're trying to be discreet for now. You know, until we see whether it's going to work."

"Oh, darling, you really should be a bit less timid. This is cause for celebration!"

"Which is exactly why Pinkie doesn't know yet. Twilight and I are together in this, and I need you to be on board as well."

"If you insist," she groaned. "But you'd better start acting like a normal couple before long. Dating in secret is no fun at all."

"I've never seen you with a stallion, Rarity," he remarked.

"Well, I just haven't found the right one, is all," she shrugged. "Besides, I'm much, much too busy with my work to worry about the male sex. No offense to you."

"Uh, none taken."

"Be off with you, now," she said, shooing him. "I have work to finish."

"I thought this was Sunday."

"Darling, you should know by now that Sundays are just a part of my work week."

"I'm willing to sign a non-disclosure agreement if you let me look at those secret designs. I could help you out, give you feedback on cost effectiveness, whatever."

"No thank you, Tux. Not this time. It'll stay as just as idea, I assure you."

"Later, then." He left her there, still curious as to why she was hiding her new designs; she'd asked for his input in the past, and he'd given simple opinions, disclaiming that he knew as much about fashion as a fencepost, but she had always assured him that his feedback was valuable.

When he got to the library, he found Twilight outside tending the flowers. "Nice day for some gardening," he commented idly, never mind that it was late autumn.

"Yeah, I guess," she replied. "But I really don't have time for this. I need to go through the shelves again. The Crusaders had their way with the library and didn't bother to look at the sign that said, 'Please don't reshelve books on your own.'" With a grunt, she ripped a flower out of the soil, roots and all, and tossed it into a wooden bucket.

"Did you mean to do that?"

"I'm pulling everything out to prepare for winter," she replied. "I do it every year."

"Need a hoof with the shelves? If I got to know your call system, I could easily do it for you."

"If you know the Library of Canterlot system, be my guest; it'll be a walk in the park. I would really appreciate it."

"LC is the best way to go," he commented. "I know it well."

"Well, the shelves are waiting for you."

He went inside to find Spike already working on pulling books off the upper shelves. "Hey, Tux," he said, turning around briefly before getting back to his work.

"I'm here to lend you a hoof," Tux greeted.

"You take M through Z, and I'll do A through L."

"Sounds good to me," he said, flapping up to the top of what should have been the M section. The books were by no means in Library of Canterlot order, but they were all organized by color, and then alphabetically by title. "So how have things been going since you got back from Canterlot?"

"Twilight has been giving me more responsibilities around the library. She says that since I'm old enough to do a research project, I'm old enough to have a job."

"It'll look good on your résumé," Tux commented. After he finished reordering two shelves, he called out to Twilight, "So I was wondering if I could get your help with something."

"Is it library-related?"

"No, not really."

"Then what is it?"

"I have an assignment from Princess Celestia."

"I'm listening."

He related his plans and ideas for the tour, and she seemed to like it, her constant grumbling at the flowerbed notwithstanding. "I was wondering if you could help organize it behind the scenes. Rarity is already working on promotional materials and marketing, and she said that you would be great as an organizer. And maybe you could come along, too. Maybe be a part of the panel of judges."

"It'll probably depend on when we kick things off, but yeah, I think it'll be fun, though I don't care to judge. I sure hope the whole tour is going to be paid for, though. These things are expensive."

"The princess said that she would sponsor it." Spike let out a tremendous belch, and a scroll appeared in the fire erupting from his mouth. He lost his balance, and both he and the scroll fell to the floor.

"It's paid for, all right," he said, reading the scroll. "Here's a receipt for all the hotel reservations, convention center rentals, train tickets...everything you could possibly think of. There's also a list of tour stops enclosed and some dates."

"When is it supposed to start?" Tux asked, landing next to Spike.

"January nineteenth," Spike replied.

"Spike, could you run this over to Rarity?" Tux asked. "She'll need to see the list so that she can make the proper posters."

"Right away, sir!" Spike said eagerly. He was out the door before Tux could blink.

"He really has it bad, doesn't he?" Tux observed.

"Pretty bad," Twilight replied, coming into the library and joining him. "He's been taking every excuse to spend time with her since he got back from Canterlot. Having her gone with us on tour is going to be really hard on him."

"Do you think he can handle it?"

"He's definitely old enough to be left home alone. He learned his lesson last time."

"What happened last time?"

"While the girls and I went to the Crystal Empire to host the Canterlot Games Location Committee's representative, he stayed behind and took care of all the pets. It went...poorly."

"Any loss of life or limb?"

"Almost," she replied. "But in the end, he learned a thing or two about responsibility. I think he's ready to watch the library on his own. And by the time January rolls around, he'll know the ins and outs of my job here."

"What will that mean for you?"

"More days off," she smiled.

Tux chuckled. "Ho boy, we could all use more of those."

Time passed slowly until the middle of January came around. Tux spent most of his time trying to think of audition criteria to send to the growing list of applicants. He was looking for musicality, a good vocal timbre, and the ability to sing well enough in tune that his discerning ear would be satisfied. What time he didn't spend on brainstorming audition criteria he spent on researching restaurants and other date-like activities.

It wasn't a moment too soon before Tux heard back from Octavia, the principal cellist of the Royal Canterlot Philharmonic. She agreed to be a judge, but on condition that her roomate, DJ Vinyl Scratch, could also be on the panel. Since without Octavia there would be only two judges, he had no choice but to concede.

Los Pegasus was the first top on the tour, and early in the morning on the nineteenth, Tux, Twilight and Rarity boarded the train. As it pulled away from the station, Twilight asked, "Where are Octavia and Vinyl? I thought they'd be joining us."

"We'll meet them in LP," Tux replied. "The Royal Canterlot Philharmonic had a concert last night. I would have loved to have gone, but tickets cost money."

"Maybe I can get you a season pass," Twilight suggested. "I have connections."

"Oh, you don't have to."

"It would make a great date...." She nudged him.

"Oh, I have plans. Don't worry." He found an unclaimed booth and stepped inside. "All right, ladies. Brainstorming time."

The three of them spent the hours further discussing the audition process, and Twilight expressed concerns about there being four judges. Tux assured her that he had veto power, but that still didn't alleviate her concerns.

"If you have veto power, why have judges at all, unless it were a façade?" she asked. "At least, with an odd number of judges, there's the possibility for a majority vote. If you're always the one to break any tie by fiat, then how can it be real?"

"Well, I wanted to get the final say in things."

"As you should, since you're the one auditioning everypony, and you're the one in charge of the choir. But what's the point in having judges if you just bulldoze the rest of them."

"If you wish, I will recuse myself," Rarity sighed.

Tux shook his head. "No, Rarity, I want you in on this. And Twilight, you can as well."

"I agreed to work behind the scenes, Tux," she replied. "Besides, five judges is way too many."

"Well, what should I do? Tell either Vinyl or Octavia to take a hike? No. I promised them they could be a part of the process, but I can't let them down."

"You'll see," Twilight warned. "Things aren't going to go as smoothly as you think they will."

"We'll see tonight, I guess."

The first round of auditions was that very night, and as much as Tux wanted to relax after the long train ride, he had to survive on a nap alone. Octavia and Vinyl were waiting at the train station, and Tux briefed them on the way to the convention center. Octavia wasn't too pleased with Tux having carte blanche veto power, but he assured her that he wouldn't use it unless he absolutely had to.

The four judges were led to the room where the auditions were to take place, and Twilight took up her position outside, calling the contestants when their turns came. "Are you all ready?" Tux asked.

"As we'll ever be," Vinyl said eagerly.

"All right," Tux said into the microphone that connected him to Twilight, "send in the first contestant." He looked at the top name on his stack of audition sheets. "Crème de Menthe."

A mint green earth pony mare shuffled into the center of the room a moment later. "Hello," she said in a thick French accent, her voice mousier than Fluttershy's. There was a shakiness to it that didn't bode well for her impending audition.

"Bonjour," Rarity greeted. "How has your day been?"

"Long," Crème replied.

"What's your name, and what part are you auditioning for?" Tux asked.

"I'm Crème de Menthe, and I'm auditioning for soprano."

"First or second?"

"First," she replied.

"Very good," Tux replied, marking down some brief notes on her audition sheet. "And what would you like to sing for us today?" He looked through her audition packet and found the copy of her score. The questions he was asking were more to test the contestant's knowledge of the music than to find out what was being sung.

"Notre amour, set by Gabriel Fauré."

"Whenever you are ready," Octavia said.

When the staff accompanist began playing, Crème's character changed instantly. A smile lit her face, and she began singing with a barely contained joy, waxing poetic about true love. Her diction was crisp, and her tone was clear as a bell. She not only knew what she was singing, but knew how to express that meaning. He wrote a YES in capital letters in the corner of the sheet.

When she had finished, she reverted to her previous, mousy self. "Thank you," she said softly.

Rarity and Octavia both applauded, and Tux smiled. "What kind of music experience do you have?" he asked.

"I have been taking voice lessons since I was a filly," she replied. "A year ago, I sang Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro."

"Good role for you," Tux commented. "I know you didn't prepare this, but can you sing L'ho perduta?"

"Mm-hmm," she nodded. She turned and looked at the accompanist, who flipped through a music book and nodded that he was ready. Crème sang the short aria, embodying perfectly the panic in Barbarina's eyes as she realizes that she has lost Susana's brooch.

"Brava," Tux smiled as she finished the aria. "It's a resounding yes from me."

"And from me," Rarity added. "You're simply delightful."

"A third yes from me," Octavia smiled.

"Vinyl, would you make it unanimous?" Tux asked.

"Yeah, I guess so," the blue-haired pony shrugged. "Not really my style of music, but...yeah, I guess you're pretty good."

"Welcome aboard, Crème," Tux smiled. "We'll keep in touch, and I'll see you in Ponyville." As the green pony pranced back out, he began to regret bringing Vinyl aboard. Twilight was right; this wasn't going to go nearly as smoothly as he would have wanted. "Next," he said into the microphone. He looked at the next audition packet. "Berry White." He glanced over the audition sheet and then at Rarity. "Seriously?"

The white draft pony stallion walked proudly into the room. "Berry White, basso profundo, at your service." His voice boomed like a cannon. His cutie mark resembled a white mulberry, explaining his name.

"Nice to meet you, Berry," Tux replied. "What would you like to sing for us? I don't, uh, see a score in this packet."

"Sorry about that," he said, handing out several copies of his music. "I'll be singing Son imbrogliato from La serva padrona."

"I'll listen for those E-flats," Tux said, clearing his throat. "Both the low ones and the high ones."

Berry's low range was impressive; the extremely conspicuous and notoriously difficult low E-flat was clean and strong. But his high E-flat was pinched and strained. His Italian was sloppy, and it had a thick English accent, one of Tux's biggest musical peeves. When Berry finished, he winked and said, "I'll see you in Canterlot."

"Aww yeah!" Vinyl exclaimed. "Now that's some bass! It's a yes from me!"

"Not so fast, Vinyl," Octavia contradicted. "I had a problem with your high range. It was...thin, weak. I say no."

"It's a maybe from me," Tux added. "You need some work, and I can fix your range and diction problems, but you'll have to consent to a month or so of daily private coaching before the Gala."


"Rarity, what do you say?"

"Yes," she replied. "True basses are hard to come by. How low can you sing?"

"B-flat," he replied with a grin, sending his voice at least that far down.

"That explains it. I won't require you to sing above two octaves," Tux assured. "You're moving on to the next round. Thank you."

With the next nearly three dozen auditions, Tux realized just how hard the tour was going to be. Vinyl seemed to be judging based on a different set of criteria than Tux, Rarity and Octavia. And as talented as Octavia was, she didn't know how to judge diction, and she argued numerous times when Tux pointed out pitch problems. On top of it all, truly good singers were astoundingly rare among the pool of applicants, and of the thirty-six singers they heard that day, only three made it to the next round, and one of those was Tux's first veto.

The third contestant to make the cut was a young Pegasus tenor who sang Una furtiva lagrima, a slow aria that nearly put Vinyl to sleep. Octavia objected because his tone as a lyric tenor was "too bright". Rarity and Tux had both voted to put him through, but when they all arrived at a stalemate, a recasting of the votes didn't yield any progress. Much to Octavia's chagrin, Tux said, "Well, I have the final say, and I say you're in."

After the last contestant had left, Octavia spoke up. "I hope my vote still counts," she said with a certain contempt in her voice.

"It does, but if I really want somebody in the choir, they'll be in the choir."

"It does give an air of meaninglessness to the whole voting process," Rarity commented. "You can't take too much control for yourself."

"Tomorrow I'll try to make it more fair. But what should we do in case of a tie like earlier tonight?"

"I'll be willing to cast a vote, if need be," said the accompanist.

"Are you paying that much attention to the singer?" Octavia questioned.

"Not to toot my own horn," he grinned, "but I am that good."

"I'm sorry," Tux chuckled, "I don't think we've been formally introduced. Everything was so busy this evening."

"Ivory Coast," he replied. "I'm the rehearsal pianist for the Royal Canterlot Opera, and I'm with you for the whole tour."

"Well, it's nice to meet you. And I think you'll make a great tiebreaker vote. And with that, it's settled. It's almost ten; shall we turn in?"

"I think that's a fantastic idea," Octavia acknowledged.

"To the hotel!" Vinyl proclaimed. "To the hot tub!"

Upon checkin, Twilight bore the bad news that there were only two rooms. Ivory Coast was able to stay with his parents, and Rarity had a cousin who was willing to host her for the night. Vinyl and Octavia claimed one of the hotel rooms, and that left Tux and Twilight to share the second.

"I'll just get another room," Tux offered.

"No, I don't mind," Twilight replied. "It's just one night, isn't it? Besides, it would be just like that time you fell asleep in the library."

"Except I was on a Lovesac that time, not in bed, and we weren't, uh, dating."

"But I did fall asleep on the Lovesac next to yours. And to be honest, we haven't been out on too many, well, dates."

"Like I said earlier," he assured, "I have plans. I'll just go see if there is another room I can use." But there wasn't; there had originally been three rooms, but one of them had to be given away. Since Celestia was the one whose name was on the reservation, she was the one who was notified, and she was the one who authorized it. Whether or not she realized the implications for her protégée and her coltfriend was dubious.

He walked slowly back up the stairs to the room, his heart thumping in his chest. "Just go to bed, Tux," he muttered. "You'll be asleep in no time."

But that wasn't true, either. He spent the next few hours on a "date" with Twilight; she'd brought along the latest Daring Do book, Daring Do and the Blarney Blue, and they took turns reading it to each other. While Twilight used a more standard narration style, Tux brought his acting skills to the table, changing his voice to reflect the characters.

They kept reading on into the wee hours of the morning, even knowing that they had an early start and a long day of auditions. Eventually, the two of them had to force an end to their revelry and turn out the lights.

Tux woke as the sunrise peeked through the window. The shower was running, and Twilight's bed was empty but made. He almost wondered if she hadn't used it. In fact, the thought of her snuggling up next to him was something he was afraid to think.

She emerged from the bathroom as Tux was making his bed, her mane hanging wet about her neck. "Good morning," she smiled. "Sleep well?"

"Yeah, but not enough. Maybe we should have stopped at chapter eight."

"But then we wouldn't know whether Daring escaped from Farleigh Castle." She levitated a brush from out of her suitcase and put it to her mane. "I really like your characterization of McCapaill. You missed your call as an actor."

"How much sleep do you reckon you got?" Tux wondered. "Think you'll make it till five?"

"Maybe," she replied. "What about you?"

"I'm going to have a tough time, but I think I'll make it. I plan on taking you out somewhere nice tonight."

"We need to quit sooner tonight, either way."

"Honestly, I would still rather get my own room."

"I don't mind, really."

He shrugged. "If they don't have another room, I'll be fine. See you at breakfast."

He trotted down the stairs and made his way to the lobby, where a continental breakfast was being served. He took a bit of this and a bit of that, and he took a seat across from Rarity. "I thought this was for guests," he jabbed.

"I asked if I could partake, and the management was glad to let me after they learned that I was a part of Idol." She sipped from her teacup. "I heard through the grapevine that you spent the night with Twilight," she whispered.

"What grapevine?" he asked, squinting at Vinyl and Octavia, who were sitting at an adjacent table. "Only four ponies knew."

"Oh darling, there's nothing wrong with it. That's the growing trend nowadays."

"We stayed up most of the night reading Daring Do, and then we went to bed. Nothing happened beyond that."


"Come on, Rarity, that's the last thing on my mind. You know that."

"Well, at least you have integrity. Were you not already spoken for, I wouldn't have minded a date or two with you. I've dated nothing but knaves and male chauvinist pigs."

"Well, I do know somepony who worships the ground you walk upon."

"You mean some-dragon," she sighed. "I know, Tux. I've known for quite some time."

"About what?"

"Spike's...infatuation. As much as I think of him as a friend, I don't think I could ever see myself ending up with him."

"If it's just a crush, it'll pass," Tux shrugged. "I know from experience. And they say that if it doesn't pass, it's true love. I also know that from experience."

"What does it matter to you, anyhow?" she groaned.

"You'll eventually come to an impasse. You'll either have to break his heart or indulge him. Take my advice and don't beat around the bush with this. If the answer is no, don't lead him along."

"Don't lead who along?" Twilight asked, joining them.

"Spike," Rarity sighed. "Is he still as smitten as he always was?"

"Isn't it obvious? He makes excuses to spend time with you as often as he possibly can. But who am I to judge. You should ask him yourself." She took a bite of her bagel. "Are you two ready for today?"

"I certainly am, but I can't say the same for your coltfriend here."

"I told her I didn't get much sleep," he explained.

"After I told him that the rumor mill was turning."

"Yet another reason to get my own room."

"If I remember correctly, there were three rooms on the receipt," Rarity commented. "I'll double-check and talk to the concierge tonight."

"Already done," Tux replied. "They refunded me the price of the third room, but they had to give it away. Some celebrity or something. They wouldn't tell me who."

"Perhaps another room will become available," she suggested.

Tux nodded. "Way ahead of you. They'll let me know if that happens."

The second day of auditions was no more productive than the first, even given the greater number of applicants. Tensions flared once again over who should or should not be a part of the second round, and Ivory Coast was called into action no less than a dozen times. In the vast majority of the tied votes, it came down to a matter of musical preference rather than anything to do with Tux's specific criteria.

Vinyl always showed approval toward the singers with good pop voices, regardless of whether the rest of the judges thought they were right for the choir. Octavia had a rather narrow opinion of what was and was not music, as well, and she consistently voted pop-voiced ponies down even when they followed up with an aria or two, no matter how well sung.

Fortunately, though, Ivory and Rarity tended to vote with Tux. There were at times differences of opinion among them, but Tux had expected that. What he hadn't expected, though, was the last pony to walk through the door.

"Last contestant," Tux called to Twilight. "Rosie Cooper." He barely even glanced at her audition packet; eyestrain and fried-brain were wreaking havoc on his attention span. When he looked up, though, he could see clearer than ever. "Rosie Gardner?" he gasped, beholding the pony who had years earlier broken his heart and cut him out of her life.

"It's Cooper now," she said, kicking the ground timidly with one of her front hooves. "You do remember me, then."

"Of course I do!" he replied.

"Old flame?" Rarity wondered.

"No, just an old friend. But yeah, I went to music school with her." He turned back to Rosie. "I haven't seen you in years. What happened?"

"Oh, you know. Stuff." She cleared her throat, seemingly wanting to drop the subject.

"Let's get down to this, then. What part are you auditioning for?"

"Soprano," she replied.

"First or second?" he asked.

"First. Solo if one is available."

He scribbled down a note about that on her audition sheet. "And what will you be singing for us?"

"O mio babbino caro, from Gianni Schicchi," she replied.

"Whenever you're ready."

She nodded to Ivory, who began playing the intricate accompaniment. She started strong, but all her tone vanished when she reached for the high note, failed to get all the way up to it, and then recovered by squeezing. Tux sat straight-faced, trying to be as objective as possible, in some ways wishing that he had recused himself. But he wanted to seem as agreeable as possible, to possibly heal the breach and gain back a long-lost friend.

Every high note was the same as the first. Flat, pinched, forced, not resonant at all. Octavia was visibly unimpressed, wrinkling her nose every time. Vinyl was literally asleep. Rarity was fighting back tears. And the whole time, Tux was trying to work up the courage to say what needed to be said.

When Rosie finished the short aria, Rarity burst out crying. "Yes, yes, yes, Rosie!" she bawled. "That was the most beautiful song I've ever heard!"

"Do you know what it's about?" Octavia asked.

"What does it matter?" Rarity replied, drying her eyes with a hankie.

Tux leaned over and explained it quietly. "It's about a teenager who wants to get married and her father won't let her. She's basically saying, 'I really do love him! If you don't let me get married, I'll jump off a bridge and kill myself.' Prettiest temper tantrum ever."

"Oh...." Rarity cleared her throat.

"Well, I thought it was fine, but only just," Octavia sighed. "You need some work for sure."

"I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get a solo," Rosie smiled. Tux swallowed hard. She wasn't getting a solo, that was for sure.

"Scratch, what do you think?" Tux asked. "Vinyl?"

Octavia nudged the blue-haired pony hard, and she woke up with a start and a snort. "Wha-?" she mumbled.

"Did you hear Rosie's song at all?" Octavia asked exasperatedly.


"It might be a good idea not to vote, then," Tux suggested. "Octavia, verdict? You never did say yea or nay."

"It's a no," she replied. "I'm sorry."

Vinyl cleared her throat. "I uh.... Well, since I was asleep, I'm gonna have to recuse myself or whatever it's called. Sorry, it's been a long day and there's a hot tub calling my name."

"So that's one yea and one nay," Tux sighed. "And it comes down to me to decide your fate." He swallowed to try and get rid of his sudden dry mouth, but it didn't work. "Do you want it straight, or should I beat around the bush?"

"Just tell me."

He took in a deep breath as he tried to find the words. " need a lot of work, as Octavia said. You had a noticeable English accent, which I can fix. But it was about a fourth too high for you. And without a year or two of hard work, that isn't going to change. You're no first soprano, and certainly no soprano soloist; you're a mezzo at the highest. I can put you on second soprano or first alto. Which would you rather have?"

"I really wanted first soprano, and I'm willing to work for it."

"I was afraid you'd say that," he sighed. "Even if you had that range, we don't have the time to work you that much. If you're not willing to work on my terms, then I'm going to have to say no. I'm sorry."

She looked devastated. Her jaw quivered ever so slightly, and her unblinking eyes showed signs of welling up. But her mood quickly changed. "You're just trying to get back to me after I hung you out to dry!" she snapped angrily. "Is it my fault that I was scared? Is it my fault that I had other crap going on in my life? No!"

The adrenaline began flowing, and he went into full-on fight-or-flight. "Rosie, you 'dumped me' via letter, and you did it long before I ever made my feelings clear. To tell you the truth, one of the only reasons I was thinking about asking you out is because I thought you liked me. Everypony thought that you liked me!

"And then you take the most indirect route possible to tell me you're not interested. I was fine with being friends, but no, you cut me off, you avoided me, you didn't answer my letters, and when you up and left Hoofton, you gave me no means of contacting you. Now you show up expecting me to grant you preferential treatment because of our history together? Where did you get the gall?"

"See! You're trying to get back at me!"

"Trying to get back at you? I got over you a long dang time ago. Even if you were my best friend, I wouldn't have given you a solo part that you were downright wrong for. What makes you think that a friendship that you ruined will influence my decision in your favor? I offered you a part that fits your voice, and you rejected it. As such, you have given me no choice but to send you away empty hooved. Good day, Mrs. Cooper."

It took her a few moments to admit something resembling defeat, and she left the room red-faced with rage. The room was eerily quiet for far too long, but finally, Octavia spoke.

"Well, that was...interesting," she said, clearing her throat.

"Why didn't you recuse yourself?" Rarity asked.

"If I had, she would have taken it the same way," he sighed, rubbing his temples. "There was no good way out of that, and I knew it from the moment she started singing." He crossed his forelegs on the table and put his head down. "Y'all are free. I'll clean up."

Vinyl, Octavia and Ivory left, but Rarity stayed behind, putting a comforting hoof on his shoulder. "Are you all right?" she asked.

"Old wounds should not be reopened," he sighed. "Much less have salt rubbed into them. I should have just recused myself, passed it off on Ivory. He would have voted my way."

"Don't blame yourself for this," she said softly. "True friends will stay with you no matter what. Like me; I will never leave you. Neither will Twilight. Nor anypony among our little group." She swept up the stack of audition packets. "I'll clean up. You take the rest of the day off."

He sat in silence for a few moments as she walked off with the stack of packets. Soon, Twilight came and sat in the chair that Rarity had recently vacated. "I came as soon as I could get away," she said, hugging him. "I heard the whole thing. I'm so sorry; I had no idea who she was."

"Neither did I, until I saw her face," he sighed. "If she'd just walked away when I said no, then I'd be just dandy. But she had to dredge up ancient history."

"What exactly happened between the two of you?" she asked.

"I don't really want to talk about it," he replied. "It was the second most traumatic experience of my life."

"I want to know how to help you, Tux. You obviously have a deep gash, and I want to do my best to stitch it up."

He related the whole story. How he met Rosie, what good friends they became, and the suddenness and coldness of her departure. "She destroyed my trust in friendship. It's no wonder I have trouble making friends."

"She didn't destroy anything," Twilight chided. "You've always had the same pony deep down inside." She put a hoof over his heart. "All Rosie did was teach you a bad lesson. And it will take time to unlearn it. But we will all help you as much as we can." She kissed him softly on the cheek. "You are loved, and don't let anypony tell you differently."

He extended his wing around her, still reluctant to lift up his head. They stayed there for ten minutes at least, just listening to the silence around them. Finally, Tux lifted up his head. "Do you know who John Cage is?" he asked.

"A composer, I believe," she replied. "Famous for aleatoric and avant-garde works."

"Yup," he replied. "He wrote one of the most meaningful, intimate pieces of all time, called 4'33". The last few minutes--that was the most beautiful performance I've ever heard."

"I didn't hear any music," she said confusedly.

"That's the idea behind the piece. The music is all around us; we just have to stop and listen to it."

"What was so beautiful about it?"

He drew in a slow, deep breath. "The gentle sound of your breathing. The rustle of my feathers whenever you moved. The feeling of your hoof over my shoulder. The faint scent of your perfume."

"Are you sure that isn't Rarity's?"

"Positive. Rarity was wearing lavender. But I smell orchids."

"I didn't think you notice," she blushed. "They're one of my favorite flowers."

"Mine, too," he smiled. "Orchids and irises. Maybe next spring we can plant a few together."

"It's a date," she replied.

"Speaking of which, I have reservations for seven o'clock at Sweet Barley. It's a soup and salad joint that I've heard great things about."

"You sit tight," she said, giving him another kiss on the cheek. "I'll call us up a carriage."

Chapter 4, pt. 2 - Equestrian Idol: Vanhoover

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Tux and Twilight sat across the table from each other, each waiting on a sourdough bread bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. They had almost finished their salads, and up until this point, the meal had been relatively quiet. Tux had no qualms about talking with his mouth full; he and everybody else in his family did so with impunity at the dinner table. But in the presence of a lady, he would rather leave a sentence unsaid or a question unanswered than to be so rude as to open a full mouth.

“So I’ve been thinking,” he said after swallowing the last bite of his salad, “having Vinyl and Octavia might be a bit of a problem.”

“You can tell me tomorrow,” she said, shaking her head. “There’s no use stressing about work matters when you’re supposed to be relaxing.”

“I know,” he groaned. “I just.... I obsess over things easily.”

“Living with obsessive compulsive disorder can be a pain, but I get by.” She cleared her throat and dabbed her lips with her napkin.

“I’m not OCD,” he defended. “I have Asperger’s. There’s a difference; my obsessions are not caused by intrusive thoughts, but rather by a fascination.”

“Or perfectionism,” she shrugged, taking a sip of her raspberry and kale juice. “But obsessions, even those caused by fascination, have some component of intrusive thoughts. Any time a thought is unwelcome and involuntary, it can be classified as intrusive. For instance, if you’re trying to get to sleep, but you can’t stop thinking about your ink recipe.”

“Yours may be a bit thin,” he quipped. “But at least it won’t eat through the paper. I use India rather than iron gall.”

“But iron gall is so much easier to make,” she replied, jabbing at him with her fork. “Have you ever tried scraping lampblack? It makes my horn tired, and that’s saying something.” She picked up her glass again.

“Oh, I just buy it from the store.”

Twilight choked on her juice, flying into a coughing fit that lasted for several seconds. “Blasphemy!” she coughed when she regained use of her voice. “Every true writer makes their own ink. I suppose you also use metal nibs.”

“They don’t break. But I know how to cut a quill, and I know how to make my own ink. I do make my own red ink, but I use henna instead of the standard iron gall recipe. Less tannic acid to worry about, but it’s not as permanent.”

“Soup, bread bowl, with grilled cheddar and havarti?” said the waiter as he walked up, levitating two plates in front of him. Tux raised his wing. “And we also have a soup with a bread bowl with grilled munster and cottage.”

“That would be me,” Twilight smiled, waving a hoof.

“I can count on my hooves the number of ponies who have ordered cottage cheese on a grilled sandwich,” the waiter said as he set the plate down in front of her.

“I figured I’d try something new.”

They kept talking as they finished their bowls of soup. Tux always thought that the bread bowl was one of the best inventions of all time; not only was it one of the ultimate realizations of the reason bread was first invented, but it eliminated one dish from the sink.

Tux kept inadvertently bringing up the issues of the past two days, and eventually Twilight had to step in. “If the problems continue, just cut them loose. You have Rarity and Ivory, and that makes three. Problem solved.” She finished her juice. “Now can we finally put this to bed?”

“Yeah,” he replied.

The waiter walked up shortly and asked, “Are you doing all right? Can I get you any dessert?”

“I’d like a slice of blueberry cheesecake,” Tux replied. “How big is that?”

“It’s pretty big.”

“Then we’ll just split it. I’m pretty full as it is.”

“And I’ll take a marionberry pie shake,” Twilight added. “To split.”

The waiter scribbled on his pad. “One blueberry cheesecake and one large marionberry pie shake. Will that be all?”

“I think so,” Tux replied.

“We’ll go Dutch,” Twilight offered after the waiter left again. “I’ve been watching the bill.”

“Uh-uh,” he replied, shaking his head. “This is all on me.”

Soon, the waiter brought the two desserts and the check. “The desserts are complements of an anonymous gentlecolt.”

“Hmm,” Tux muttered, looking at the bill. “Thanks.”

“Anonymous gentlecolt?” Twilight wondered.

“I was thinking the same thing. Why remain anonymous?”

“Random act of kindness?”

“I suppose so.” He took a bite of the cheesecake. “I sure wish I could thank him.”

That night was much the same as the night before. There were no vacant rooms that Tux could rent, and he didn’t want to take his business elsewhere because he was certain he didn’t have the cash to spend at another hotel.

He stayed up with Twilight, and they continued reading their Daring Do book, this time quitting much earlier; the long train ride to Vanhoover began early in the day.

At breakfast the next morning, Rarity passed him the latest issue of the Canterlot Questioner, a popular tabloid that was widely regarded as trash, but was always first to break any major scandal which turned out to be true. “What’s this about?” he asked without bothering to read the headline.

“The rumor mill is turning faster than ever,” she whispered. “Look who’s on the cover.”

He looked down at the large, bright letters: “Twilight and Shadows: does the Magic of Friendship come with benefits?” Hot blood rushed to his face and his heart began racing. On the cover was a photo of him standing outside the hotel room with Twilight two nights before. He flipped through the pages until he found the article, and he skimmed it, reading aloud.

“Princess Celestia’s protégée Twilight Sparkle was seen in downtown Los Pegasus entering a hotel room with a mysterious pegasus stallion, whom we have dubbed ‘Silent Shadows’. A source close to the Questioner said that, though they claim to be friends, they are secretly dating. Who is this suspicious stallion, and what sort of things happened behind closed doors? Stay tuned for more.” He dropped his head to the table. “Why is this happening?”

“I’ll get to the bottom of this, Tux,” Rarity assured. “Whoever is churning this out will be silenced. I could have the informant sued on your behalf for defamation of character. I could get a gag order. I could even make them disappear.”

“Don’t do anything drastic,” he advised. “Does Twilight know yet?”

“Do I know what?” the lavender mare asked as she sat down at the table.

He passed the magazine over to her. “Somepony has been following us with a camera.”

“Oh gosh, this is bad,” she groaned. “The princess will never tolerate behavior like this! Last time I was in the tabloids, I practically died of embarrassment!”

“You’ve been in the tabloids before?”

“Well, nothing national like the Questioner! I and everypony else in Ponyville was gossiped about by Gabby Gums, who turned out to be the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ pen name. Ugh, when will ponies realize that gossip can hurt?”

“Well, if you weren’t so private with your relationship, I suppose it wouldn’t come under such scrutiny,” Rarity suggested. Both Tux and Twilight glared at her. “I’m just saying....”

“We’re keeping this private for good reason,” Tux chided. “Twilight is fairly well known as Princess Celestia’s protégée, and she doesn’t want this exact thing to happen.”

“Besides,” Twilight added, “this is just testing a what-if scenario. It’s nothing serious at all.”

“Right,” Tux acknowledged. But something deep within roared, “I told you so, you dope!” The ensuing silence had everypony at the table glancing around nervously.

“Uh, I think we should make our way to the train station soon,” Rarity said as she got up from the table. “My luggage is already aboard, so I’ll, uh, see you all there.”

“I’m sorry, Tux,” Twilight whispered as Rarity left. “I was just letting my mouth go like a loose cannon.”

“We’ll talk about it later,” he replied, clearing his throat. “Are you all packed, or do you need a hoof?”

“All ready to go,” she replied.

“I’ll head to the train station and reserve us a booth.” He made his way up to the room to grab his suitcase, and he came across Octavia as he was coming out. He steeled himself, walked up to her, and confronted her. “Are you the one who sold us out?” he demanded.

“Absolutely not,” she retorted. “I saw that unfortunate issue of the Questioner, and it made me want to vomit. Vinyl and I understand your situation, and we know better than to gossip about anything, much less something which is completely untrue. I understand why you are accusing me, and I honestly don’t know who else could have known about the two of you. Perhaps you should try contacting the Questioner’s staff; I have gotten nowhere with them.”

“You’ve talked to them?”

“Yes, in fact. I called them this morning with a request to retract their story, but as expected, they hung up. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to the train station, as should you.”

He stood there in reflection as she took her suitcase in her teeth and trotted into the elevator. He had misjudged her, and he felt like a heel for it. He pushed his own suitcase slowly into the next elevator, sighing in regret as he did so. Twilight joined him, and after the doors had closed, she asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I talked to Octavia about the tabloid,” he replied. “She wasn’t the source, and neither was Vinyl. And she rebuked me for it.”

“Well, she can’t fault you for taking the most logical course of action.”

“She suggested I call the Questioner, but I don’t have the time, and I don’t think the train has a phone on it. Keep your ears peeled, and if you find anything out, let me know.”

“Will do,” she replied.

They managed to claim one of the private booths on the train so that they could talk without worrying about anypony overhearing. Tux didn’t know how to say what he needed to, but he had to say it, so he decided that frankness would be the best course of action.

“Did you mean what you said earlier?” he asked. “You know, what you said about our relationship not being serious.”

“I....” She sighed. “Yes and no.”

“If you’re leading me on, even a little bit, then I want you to tell me right here, right now, that it’s over. I’ve been led on before, and when things came crashing down, it did much more damage than a simple ‘no’ would have. Besides, if there’s one thing I hate in this world, it’s a liar.”

“I’m not leading you on,” she defended. “Yes, I said that this relationship wasn’t serious. What I mean is that we’re dating, but we’re not courting. You of all ponies should know the difference. I’m still getting to know you, Tux, and until I feel like I’m in love, I’m going to call this casual. But I know that it’s much more to you.”

“That’s how I work, Twilight. I’ve been shot full of holes so many times that I hang on to any lift I can get, lest I crash and die. I treat any yes like true love, and I know I shouldn’t. But it’s not my fault.” He sighed. “I’m sensing some overtones of ‘It’s not working out.’“

“I’m not going to lie, Tux; this is hard. I don’t know how to be a fillyfriend; all I can do is read books on the subject. But at the same time, I still want to give this a chance. That’s why I came on this trip: to evaluate our relationship and see where it needs to go.”

“Where does it need to go?”

“When I know, I’ll tell you.”

They arrived several hours later in Vanhoover, and Tux was relieved that this time, auditions didn’t start until the next morning. He double-checked with the concierge to make sure that there were enough rooms for everypony, and sure enough, there were five in total, one for each of them. He checked in as quickly as possible so that nopony could meddle with the arrangements, and once he cast his suitcase onto the single bed in the room, he was finally able to relax.

He picked up the hotel phone and called the toll-free tip line listed on the inside back cover of the Questioner issue that Rarity had given him. After a few minutes of pushing buttons and being passed from operator to operator, he was finally able to connect to the author of the story.

“Who is this?” the reporter demanded. “Be quick; I don’t have time.”

“I’m calling about the Twilight Sparkle story,” Tux replied, clearing his throat.

“Got any more for me, or are you another foal complaining about it?”

“I want it retracted,” he replied.

“You and a dozen others. Look, pal, you’re the first stallion to call in, so I can only assume that you’re Silent Shadows, whatever your real name is. I don’t give a pile of manure if you want me to retract it. I’m not gonna do it. But if you give me your real name, I’ll make it up to you. Five grand in cold, hard cash.”

“You want my name? Take a hike, that’s my name. You sit here casting aspersions and spreading rumors without regard to the feelings and dignity of the ponies you write about. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“Here’s the thing, Shadows. I make money spinning yarn about famous ponies. Lots of money. I could make you rich, but it sounds like you don’t want to take my offer. So yeah. Ciao.”

“Wait, who’s your source?”

The reporter chuckled. “Give me your name, and I’ll give you his.”

Tux slammed the receiver back in its cradle, his blood boiling with rage. He cursed in Ponese and stamped his hoof. “Stupid son of a nag.”


He gasped and whirled around to see Twilight standing in his open doorway. “How much of that did you hear?”

“A little bit. Who was that? And what did he do to make you so angry?”

“That was Inkwell, the author of that Questioner article. I was trying to get him to reveal his source, and he tried to buy me off. He doesn’t even care about what he might be doing to us.”

“Tux, you need to stop obsessing over this. It’s just a stupid tabloid, and it’ll all go away in a week. Sometimes, you have to accept your fate rather than take justice into your own hooves.”


“I came by to see if you wanted to come to the pier with Rarity and me to get some cocoa. Do you?”

He nodded. “Sure.”

“We’ll be leaving in a few minutes. Meet us by the lobby.”

She turned to leave, and as she did, he called after her, “You know, it takes a lot to set me off. I’ve always been really slow to anger.”

“It’s not the speed I’m concerned about,” she replied.

He hung his head in shame and shuffled over to the table, taking the small journal out of his saddlebag. It had been a long time since he had written in it, and he felt somewhat disingenuous in doing it, but he felt that it needed to be done. Taking the ball-point pen off the desk, he put it to the page.

My beloved, today I realized that I am still a flawed stallion. Even though I am a meek pony most of the time, sometimes things can stretch me to the breaking point. And then I snap. My friend Twilight brought this to my attention a moment ago. When I first started this journal, I set out to find what flaws I needed to fix, and this one will be a real toughie. But you can rest assured that I would sooner die than hurt you. I love you more than anything else in this world.

He signed his name and sighed, hanging his head. “I just hope I didn’t blow it, darling.”

“Is that your infamous journal?” Tux jumped at the sound of Rarity’s voice, slamming the journal shut in a reflex.

“Yeah, it is,” he replied. “I just got another entry put down.”

“May I see it?”

“No,” he said indignantly. “I won’t even let my sister look at this. You can see the cover, but only two ponies are ever going to read this.”

“We’re almost ready to leave, so come join us if you still want to go. If not, I’ll make an excuse for you.”

“I’ll be right there.” He tucked the journal into his saddlebag, but then he thought better of it and slipped it into the wall safe and set the combination to something only he could remember. If there was somebody snooping about for things to sell to the tabloids, that was the one thing he didn’t want them to find.

He trotted down the stairs to the lobby and found Twilight and Rarity there waiting for him. “So glad you could join us,” Rarity smiled. “We’re going to the Vanhoover Art Museum this afternoon, and we thought you might want to accompany us.”

“They have a rare book exhibit going on right now that I thought you might like.”

“Oh, you know me,” he smiled. “Still going for some cocoa?”

“There’s a chic little coffee shop down the street, and I’ve been dying to go there for years.” She produced a floppy, red beret and a mauve scarf from her saddlebag and put them on. “And I’m finally in the right place for these.”

“Don’t you have a scarf, Tux?” Twilight asked, donning her own neckware.

“I didn’t think I would need it. Has it gotten colder since we got off the train?”

“It is a bit nippy out,” Rarity acknowledged. “If you don’t have one, I have one or, well, ten extra that you can borrow.”

“Be right back. You two can leave, and I’ll catch up with you.” He loped back up the stairs to his room, only to find Ivory standing in front of his door. “Hey, Ivory, ¿qué pasa?” he asked.

“Oh, Tux, I was, uh, just looking for you. A buddy of mine was wondering if you wanted to, uh, come to a jam session.”

“I’d love to, but I have other plans,” he replied. “I’m hanging out with Twilight and Rarity this afternoon. Rain check?”


Tux unlocked his room and slipped inside. “Just came up to grab my scarf and hat.” He had been wearing an older scarf all winter, and this was the first time he had the opportunity to wear the most recent winter wear that he had knitted while spending weekend time with Fluttershy. The ensemble was a brown and white, argyle-patterned scarf with a matching brown cable knit cap, all knitted in some of the bulkiest yarn he could find. Fluttershy had encouraged him try intarsia knitting, and he was glad she had.

He slung the scarf about his neck and fitted his cap before walking back down the stairs. Ivory was gone by then, so he just rejoined the girls. Rarity gasped when she saw his ensemble, and beamed, “Oh, Tux, they are just too, too chic. You say that you have as much fashion sense as a parking meter, but deep down, you know what looks good.”

“Those look nice and warm,” Twilight added. “Is it wool or acrylic?”

“Pure wool,” he replied. “And yeah, it’s pretty warm. Fluttershy helped me with the technique, but I designed it.”

“I like it,” Twilight smiled.

“Have you seen hers?” he asked. “It’s the cutest thing!”

“The one with the ears?” Rarity gasped. “Oh, simply to die for! I’m going to have her knit me one just like it.”

The cocoa at the coffee shop was some of the best he’d ever tasted. Unlike the cocoa at his coffee shop back home, it was sweet and creamy rather than dark and bitter, and it was just the right temperature. Rarity got herself a cappuccino, and while Tux took a taste, Twilight didn’t care for coffee.

After the trip to the coffee shop, they made their way to the museum. Rarity paid admission for the three of them, and they all grabbed maps. “Let’s meet back here at five o’clock sharp,” Rarity suggested. “That will give us a few hours to go see the rest of the museum.”

“And if our paths cross after we’re done with the book exhibit, I think we’ll join up with you,” Tux added. They parted ways, and Tux walked with Twilight, wandering the halls of the museum, trying to follow the map to the rare book exhibit. “I wished I’d grabbed an English map,” he sighed, trying to translate.

“Books is ‘Bücher’, isn’t it?” Twilight guessed.

“Yeah, but I don’t see it anywhere on this map.”

“Let me see it,” Twilight offered, snatching the map from his grasp. “As a male, you’re predisposed to three forms of blindness: refrigerator blindness, pantry blindness, cartographic blindness.”

“I’m not cartographically blind,” he defended. “I just can’t sift that easily though all these blasted compound words.”

“German sure likes to do that, doesn’t it?” She stopped for a moment, burying her head in the map. “Aha! Builder...hand...schriften. I have no idea how to say that.”

Bilderhandschriften,” he corrected, taking back the map. “It literally means, ‘picture hand writings.’“ He found the exhibit on the map. “Die Bilderhandschriften des Equestria, The Illuminated Manuscripts of Equestria. I hope they have some chant books. Maybe I’ll do an impromptu performance.”

“Even though this is a museum?”

“Then I’ll sing quietly.”

The two of them followed the map until they came to a large, black-walled room with a series of signs that prohibited flash photography. Within were several pedestals, upon which rested antique books in glass cases. Each of them was open to a page adorned with brilliant inks, gorgeous drawings, and exquisite penmanship. “hundreds of years ago, books were special,” he explained. “Normally, only the richest ponies could afford them. And especially with sacred texts, they were made to be works of art worthy of their owners.”

He read some of the plaques at the bases of the pedestals. The books were mostly volumes of history, translations of the great Unicornic and Pegasellic the philosophers, and sacred texts.

He found a beautiful chant book and hummed the melody written on the page. “You can actually read that?” she asked.

“Chant was one of my favorite chapters in Music History class,” he replied. “I learned how to read the older notation.”

She gasped and loped over to another display case, which housed a large text in old Alicornish. Tux wasn’t as familiar with the language, but it was clear that Twilight knew exactly what she was looking at.

“Codex Thirteen, Starswirl the Bearded, circa 200FE.”

“Oh my gosh, so you know what this is?” she panted. “Starswirl the Bearded’s lost codex, in his very own hornwriting! This is the only book the Royal Canterlot Library doesn’t have.”

“Twilight, you’re hyperventilating.”

“I can’t stop, Tux. So you know exactly what this means?”

“That the lost codex isn’t lost anymore?”

“I’m reading spells that haven’t been read for more than a thousand years!”

“What’s this one about?”

“It looks like...” She wrinkled her nose. “...notes on the effects of a flight spell. I’ve actually used this one before, and I wish I’d had these notes. I could have avoided a lot of side effects.” She took a deep breath. “Oh, what I would give to see the rest of it!”

A museum staff member walked up “I think I can arrange that.”

“ Really?” Twilight gasped. “Are you sure that isn’t against the rules or something?”

“You’re a special case. You’re Twilight Sparkle, right?”

“That’s me.”

“Princess Celestia arranged with the curator to let you see this book, should you stop by. She’s been trying to acquire it for years, but the owner isn’t selling.”

Several minutes later, the three of them were in a climate controlled reading room, and the staff member set the book on the table in front of them. Twilight’s horn sparked alive, gently lifting the cover. She skimmed the pages, many of which were illuminated, and her expression changed as she went along. “A lot of this doesn’t make sense,” she sighed. “I mean, the effects of the spells are written about in Old Alicornish, but the spells themselves are in a completely different alphabet.”

“It’s an abugida, I think,” Tux commented. “The main characters are consonants, and the vowels are diacritics. Ponese is a hybrid between an alphabet and an abugida, but this looks nothing like it.”

“There’s a page missing,” Twilight gasped. “More than one!”

The librarian nodded. “Legend has it that Starswirl himself tore out those pages. Nopony knows why. He bound them together and hid them. That is the real Lost Codex. Ponies just refer to this one as the Lost Codex because it is the source book from which those pages came.”

“But why would he tear those pages out?” Twilight said pensively.

“There’s a lot if speculation surrounding it,” the librarian replied. “Some say that he did it to prevent the spells contained in that codex from falling into Nightmare Moon’s grasp. At least, that’s the explanation that makes the most sense.”

“I wish I knew where that codex was,” Twilight sighed.

“I think I may know somepony who does,” Tux commented. Both Twilight and the librarian looked at him like he was crazy. He explained, “The pony who writes the Daring Do books is an archaeologist, and a good one at that. I’ll write her a letter when we get back to Ponyville and see what she says.”

“As much as I would love to stay, I think Mr. Tails and I should go,” Twilight said, looking at the clock. There were other exhibits I wanted to see, and we have only until five o’clock. Thank you so much for letting us see this.”

“I understand,” the librarian replied.

“I could stay longer if you wanted to,” Tux offered. But Twilight insisted on leaving.

As they all left the reading room, Twilight suggested, “You know, the search for the Lost Codex would make a pretty good novel.”

“It would,” he replied. “I’ll run it by her in that letter.”

“So, you said she’s an archaeologist. Does she base her book on real digs, or are they completely fictional?”

“I’m not at liberty to say that,” he replied. “But I will say that there is definitely fiction. And I can definitely say that some of the artifacts are real. The Blarney Stone, for instance.”

They moved on to the next exhibit, a series of Renaissance era paintings by less than famous artists. He wished he could have seen paintings from bigger names, but the ones on display were still just as beautiful as some of the more famous works.

“Oh, check this one out!” Twilight exclaimed. “Commissioned in the year 3RS, this painting was hidden for many years, coming to light only after the anonymous artist’s death. Named ‘A Lunar Lament’, it depicts Nightmare Moon as she was, a downtrodden Princess Luna crying crystal tears for a love that none would give her.”

Tux gazed at the painting, absorbing every detail contained within. “Did anypony sign it?” he asked.

“It doesn’t look like it,” she replied.

“The pony who painted this sure loved her.”

“Usually it’s the commissioner who loves the pony in question,” she posited.

“It was probably both,” he shrugged. “This looks a lot like Raphael, and it was rumored that he was involved in the Lunati.”

“Lunati?” she balked. “What is that?”

“A secret society of Princess Luna’s supporters, which was accused of worshiping Nightmare Moon. Some people say they still exist, but they were officially disbanded in the first century RS.”

“Do you think the allegations had any credence to them?”

“I don’t think they worshiped her per se, but I think it’s fairly well documented that they were critical of the banishment.”

“I’ve never read this in any history book,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “How did you learn it all?”

“Did i mention that Ann Nonymous is also a history buff? She has quite the library. Lots of old and rare books, some of them dating back to before the establishment of the Summer Sun Celebration at the beginning of Renaissance. She was a big influence in learning ancient Pegasellic.”

“I need to meet this mare,” Twilight gaped.

“Next book tour, I’ll ask her to come to Ponyville.”

“You’ll have to convince her to do a book tour first.”

“Oh, there you are!” Rarity said as she entered the room. “I stopped by the book exhibit, and neither of you were there. Did you know that one of the books was missing? And from the plaque, it was quite the valuable piece, too.”

“It wasn’t missing,” Twilight corrected. “If fact, we were reading it. Princess Celestia called ahead and arranged for me to be able to see it.”

“Well, that was perceptive of her. Did you learn anything from it?”

“Actually, most of the spells were in some sort of code, and dozens of them were totally missing. As it turns out, Starswirl took them out on purpose, hiding them away. I think they must have been pretty powerful for him to do that. And Tux here was talking about how an archaeologist friend of his might know where those lost pages are.”

“Oh Twilight, dear, you would look just fetching in a pith helmet,” Rarity commented. “Oh, fiddlesticks, I have ideas in my head and no paper to put them down!”

“I think this might be an original Raphael,” Tux said, nodding at the painting of Luna. “What do you think?”

She produced a pair of glasses from her saddlebag and squinted at the painting. “Hmm.... I don’t think it’s a Raphael. But it could be a student of his. Look at the tones of the coat. They’re too brilliant. Raphael painted Princess Luna dozens of times, and he always used a flatter blue, even in sunlit scenes. This brushwork is also too coarse for Raphael, and the portrait is too...busy, for lack of a better word. But nevertheless, it’s a beautiful work. It must have cost a fortune.”

“Since when did you become an art historian?” Tux asked.

“Darling, it’s a part of my calling. Fashion is art, and art is fashion. They go together like jam and toast. I tend to care more for the mid to late Romantic period, but the Renaissance was truly a golden age of art, music, and literature.”

Tux smiled. “You know, Rarity, I don’t think I could have picked a better judge.”

The next morning, auditions began at ten o’clock in the morning. But Vanhoover didn’t seem to have a lot of shining talent, or at least, not among those who auditioned. Tux heard at least four horrible renditions of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma, perhaps his most famous aria. There were a few bubbly pop singers, one of whom demonstrated her J-pop skills, drawing perhaps the first unanimous vote from the judge panel.

And perhaps the most contested vote of the first few hours was a heavy metal singer who had a passion for singing opera. Tux was surprised to hear the strongest, sweetest bass voice of the tour thus far. The only judge who turned him down was Octavia, who did it on principle. But after a heated argument between Tux and her, she finally decided to vote more objectively.

All in all, four singers made the cut that day, one for each part. Octavia invited them all to a local Thai restaurant to celebrate, but Tux already had plans. “I have reservations at Il Bello Cioccolato,” he explained to Twilight, “but if you want to get Thai instead, it’s fine with me.”

“I think we could do a group thing and still have it be a date,” Twilight replied. “And afterward, we could do some more reading.”

“It’s a deal.” Tux walked back into the room where Ivory and the three other judges were waiting and let them know that he and Twilight would be joining them after all.

“But I won’t, sadly,” Ivory sighed. “I have matters to attend to.”

“Your buddy want to get together for drinks?” Tux wondered.

“He called me just a few minutes ago, and I’m meeting him for happy hour.”

“Don’t go too crazy,” Vinyl chuckled. “If we’re ready, then let’s bounce.”

“Laa gòn ná,” Ivory smiled. Everybody stared at him. “It means ‘goodbye’ in Thai.”

“You speak Thai?” Tux asked.

“Just a couple words. Eh, I thought it was funny.”

“See you tomorrow,” Rarity called after him as he left the room.

“What do mean, you don’t like curry?” Rarity gasped as Tux looked up from his menu. “Everypony likes curry!”

“I don’t like curry,” Vinyl commented.

“Neither does Fluttershy,” Twilight added. “And I don’t think Applejack does, either.”

“My entire world has come crashing down,” she moaned.

“You’re such a drama queen,” Twilight quipped. “But we’re still ordering family style, right?”

“Well, if none of you like curry....”

“Yeah, let’s do it,” Tux shrugged. “We can all grab a little bit of whatever we want, and we can skip what we don’t.”

“That sounds reasonable enough,” Octavia approved.

Soon, the waiter came by and took their orders, and when he was gone, Rarity started things off by toasting to a successful tour thus far. “As much as Tux here didn’t want to do this, I think he’s done a splendid job.”

“Hear, hear,” Octavia cheered. “Disagree as we may, it takes a special stuff to lead this charge.”

“So, who’s excited for Manehattan?” Rarity asked.

“I know I am,” Vinyl grinned. “The Big Apple, the city that never sleeps. I need to check out some of those clubs, since we’re doing two days there. Too bad I don’t have my turntables with me.

“I’m planning on catching Der Ring des Nibelungen,” Octavia added. “I wish I could see the whole Ring Cycle, but I’ll have to do it on my next concert tour.”

Rarity was almost bouncing with excitement. “I’m most excited for an exhibition of the latest haute couture. I’m going to be taking notes.”

“I’m going to visit Equestria’s second biggest bookstore,” Twilight smiled. “I need some new literature for the library. What about you, Tux?”

“I’m actually not too excited about Manehattan,” he shrugged, taking a sip of his ice water.

“You’re not?” Rarity gasped. “First you don’t like curry, now you don’t like the Big Apple?”

“You see, I tend toward agoraphobia,” he explained. “And ochlophobia. It’s not a panic-inducing phobia, but big cities and large crowds tend to make me uncomfortable.”

“All you have to do is face your fears,” Rarity encouraged.

“Like I said, it’s not a fear. I mean, I’ve been to Honolulu, and I was fine there. In fact, I really liked it there. But Manehattan is totally not my kind of city, partly because it’s overhyped.”

“Overhyped?” Vinyl gasped.

“I would have thought that the Met alone would be enough to make you eager for the whole thing,” Octavia added.

“Honolulu isn’t nearly as bustling as Manehattan,” Twilight defended. “Besides, I don’t like the city, either. Everypony is in a yank to get everywhere, and you’ll never see more rudeness. At least, that’s what I hear.”

“Well, I suppose you have a point,” Rarity conceded. “But honestly, I think an actual visit will prove you both wrong.”

“That’s certainly how it was with Honolulu,” Tux shrugged.

“See?” Rarity said with a smug grin. “Don’t knock something until you’ve tried it.”

Everypony’s food and exotic drinks came soon, and Tux heaped his plate with savory vegetables, fried rice, and sweet and sour eggplant. When he picked a piece up off the plate, Rarity grimaced as if she’d seen a rotting fish carcass. “What is that?”

“Eggplant,” he replied. “Want some?”

“I’ll, uh, pass,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

“I’ll have my eggplant, and you can keep your curry.”

“Touché.” She sipped her tea.

“I didn’t know you could use chop sticks,” Twilight marveled as he took the utensils in his feathers.

“It’s definitely harder than if I had magic to help me,” he acknowledged, “but yeah, I mastered it a number of years ago.”

The meal marched on, full of comments about the food and how good it was. They all ate until they were satiated, and with the check, the waiter brought a plate of ichigo daifuku, which he set between Tux and Twilight.

“That ain’t on the menu,” Tux remarked.

“A special order from an anonymous gentlecolt,” the waiter replied.

“Xie xie,” Tux smiled.

“The gentlecolt also has a message for you: ‘Wo ni ge wai se.’“

“Well, tell him I said thanks,” Tux replied. “Xie xie.” The waiter bowed and left.

“What does that all mean?” Rarity wondered. “It sounded like Ponese.”

“It was,” he replied. “Xie xie means, ‘thank you,’ but that message, ‘wo ni ge wai se’? It means, ‘I’m always watching you.’“

“That doesn’t bode well,” Octavia grimaced.

“No, it doesn’t. First, how could this anonymous gentlecolt know that I’ve always wanted to try ichigo daifuku? Second, how could he have gave gotten it to this table without a lot of foresight? This dessert is Ponese, not Thai, and I think Al Nonymous knows it. That’s why the message was in Ponese.”

“You have a stalker, dude,” Vinyl gasped.

“No, merely un paparazzo,” Tux corrected. “A pony who’s trying to spread scurrilous rumors about Twilight and me. Well, I’m not putting up with it. You hear that, Inkwell? I’m not afraid of you.”

“Yeah!” Vinyl encouraged. “Stick it to the pony!”

“And there are enough of these little cakes for everybody,” he said, counting the balls of dough on the plate. “This is gonna knock your stockings off. Everypony take one.”

Chapter 4, pt. 3 - Equestrian Idol: Manehattan

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Manehattan, the next-to-last stop on the audition round of the tour, was the one that Tux was most apprehensive about. The train ride dragged along for what seemed like an eternity. Tux tried to take a nap, but what he could get was short and restless, so he spent time writing in his journal and reading Daring Do. While he hadn’t come to an agreement with Twilight that he wouldn’t read ahead, he still felt guilty for doing so. He thought about going and asking her if she wanted to come and spend time reading with him, but he knew she was asleep, and he didn’t want to disturb her.

“You know, Deryn, this one isn’t as good as your others,” he sighed. “I mean, who would steal the Blarney Stone?” But maybe he was just trying to think about the search for the Lost Codex and what a good book that would make.

He put the book down and took out a blank piece of paper and a pen. He hated using fountain pens, but that was what he was stuck with whenever he was riding the train. He usually hated starting letters; it was as hard as starting novels. But whenever he wrote to Deryn, Daring Do’s creator, the words flowed freely.

Dear Deryn, he penned,

It’s been far too long since I’ve written you, and far longer since we’ve seen each other. Your advice to uproot and move to Ponyville was probably the best you’ve ever given me. I’ve been living a good life as an accountant, and I’ve met a whole bunch of amazing ponies who are helping me relearn how to be friends and discover myself.

When you said that I was stagnating in Hoofton, I think you were right. Now I’ve found that my creativity is as active as it once was. I’m singing more, writing more, and even reading more. Speaking of which, your latest book isn’t your best, to be honest. But I have a sneaking suspicion that you added more fiction to this one than you have to your previous stories, if you know what I mean.

I’ve been reading it with a friend of mine over the past few days. Her name is Twilight, and she happens to be the de facto president of Ponyville’s Daring Do Fanclub. There are four of us altogether, three of which are adults. Probably your biggest fan is a fellow Pegasus named Rainbow Dash. She thought that reading was for eggheads, but then Twilight brought you into her life and changed it all. Then Dash got her adopted sister Scootaloo into it. Now Scootaloo is trying to get the rest of the Cutie Mark Crusaders into the fandom.

Oh, you don’t know about them. The Crusaders are a group of four fillies (one of whom lives in Manehattan) who are all late-blooming blankflanks. Since I’m kind of in the same boat, I have an honorary membership, but I don’t attend meetings. Maybe I should, since they’re always trying hare-brained schemes to earn their cutie marks, none of which work. They’ve tried everything from hang gliding to learning French, which they asked me to help them with. You know how well that turned out.

When I was in Vanhoover the other day, Twilight and I went to see a rare book exhibit at the museum there. There were a bunch of gorgeous manuscripts, and I wish you could have been there, especially because we got a special look at an original autograph of Starswirl the Bearded. Codex Thirteen to be specific. We also got wind of a Lost Codex, and I immediately thought of you. That might make a great future book.

And speaking of that, you really need to try and do a book tour, if only just to a few cities, or even just to Ponyville. I know you want to keep quiet, but there are plenty of authors who lead quiet lives and still have a public face. I know that our little unofficial fan club would love to meet you as much as I would love to show you around Ponyville.

I can’t wait to see you again, but I suppose a letter will suffice. Nos vemos.

Love as always,

He folded the paper and slid it into an envelope, sealing it with his signet and some soft, red wax that would harden in an hour. He wished he was able to do a proper wax seal, but he didn’t have any sealing wax with him, never mind a means with which to melt it. He addressed the envelope to Deryn Doo, Derbyshire, Trottingham.

“Who are you writing to?” asked a yawning Twilight as she poked her head around the corner and into his booth.

“Oh, a friend of mine,” he replied. “Trying to get her to do a book tour to Ponyville.”

“Ooh, what do you think she’ll say?”

“She’ll probably say no, but it’s worth a shot. Besides, I haven’t seen her in a long time, and I think it’s time for her to come to Equestria for a change.”

“So she’s in one of the autonomous states,” Twilight grinned. “I’m milking you for information, little by little.”

“Trottingham,” he shrugged. “I thought everypony knew that. If she lived any closer, I’d go visit once a year, maybe more. But getting across the ocean? Not my favorite.”

“Can you fly across the ocean?” Twilight marveled.

“I can fly about a hundred miles before I’m done. It’s about three hundred from Manehattan to Trottingham. I usually just take a ship. But that presents a whole ‘nother load of challenges.”

“Do you get seasick?”

“I have a stronger stomach than most ponies, but if there’s a lot of motion, yeah. This filly, on the other hand, has a titanium stomach. And it’s her turn to travel.”

“Well, let me know if miss Nonymous ever decides to come our way.”

And that night, it seemed, she did. Upon arriving at the hotel and checking in, Tux found that he had a letter waiting for him, a letter from Deryn, with no postmark. It had been hoof-delivered, either by a proxy or the mare herself. When he got up to his room, he opened the letter and read it eagerly and with great curiosity.

Dear Tux, he read,

A few of your little posters made it all the way to Trottingham thanks to a mutual friend of ours, and I was glad to get my hooves on one. I immediately contacted Princess Celestia and demanded that she give me your itinerary. Yeah, I’m tight like that. When I compared our calendars, I learned that the best thing for both of us would be to plan a trip and meet you here in Manehattan. If you’re not busy tonight--and I would suffer a guess that you aren’t--I would love to meet you for dinner at La Casa Cerrada. Meet me there at seven o’clock. We have some catching up to do.


Somepony knocked at his door, and he called, “It’s open.”

“How are you getting settled?” Twilight asked as she entered.

“Well enough,” he replied. He slipped the letter into his saddlebag.

“Where are we going tonight?”

“Actually,” he started, trying in vain to come up with the words. “Actually, something’s come up, and I have another engagement. I’ll make it up to you tomorrow night, I promise.”

“What’s come up?” she wondered, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, I got a letter from my friend Deryn. She’s in town, and I have to meet her for dinner at seven.”

“Why is Deryn more important than your prior plans, namely me?”

“Well, you know I haven’t seen her in a while. Besides, she’s basically family, so I don’t have a choice.”

Twilight groaned and rolled her eyes. “All right, just this once. Maybe Rarity and I can have a girls’ night out.” She turned around and headed out, shutting the door a bit harder than usual.

Any meeting with Deryn, especially one at an exclusive restaurant like La Casa Cerrada, was cause to dress up. It wouldn’t be a black-tie event, but it certainly called for a jacket. After a hot shower, Tux took out the tweed sportcoat and blue plaid bow tie that Rarity had made him for his birthday. He pressed out every wrinkle, lifted every piece of lint with the utmost care. He tied and retied his bow tie half a dozen times before he was finally satisfied with the knot. He polished his hooves until they shone, wishing he had a set of fancy shoes to go with the whole thing. By the time he had styled his mane, it was half past six, and he had to go.

He ran into Twilight and Rarity on the way through the lobby. “My, you look dashing tonight,” Rarity remarked. “I think I may actually be jealous of this Deryn filly.”

“I know I am,” Twilight added. “You never look this spiffy when you take me out.”

“I will tomorrow night,” he assured.

“Not really the point,” she sighed. “Traffic jam; you’ll be better off walking. Best get a move on.”

Even though Tux was admittedly bad at reading ponies, he knew that Twilight was more than a little bit miffed at his blowing her off in favor of, well, another mare. And no amount of justification made it seem right. He should have figured out a way to get a message to Deryn, taken Twilight out like he’d originally planned, and met Deryn another night. After all, somepony like her should be able to accomodate.

He arrived at La Casa Cerrada at two minutes ‘til, a bit out of breath from the brisk walk. Deryn was there waiting for him, her appearance quite the opposite from the rugged archaeologist she wrote about in her somewhat fictionalized, autobiographical novels. Her grey mane was pulled up into a bun held in place by a pair of chop sticks, and she wore an olive-green dress that reminded him of a design he’d seen on one of Rarity’s mannequins recently. Her raspberry red eyes caught his, and she smiled, walking over.

“Oh Tux, it’s been a long time,” she sighed, resting her head on his withers.

He wrapped a wing around her. “That, it has,” he nodded. “You look ravishing tonight.”

“Why, thank you,” she smiled, walking with him through the front doors of the restaurant. “It’s one of my favorite dresses. I believe you know the designer.”

“I thought I recognized Rarity’s work,” he chuckled, nodding his head. “It is hers, right?” Deryn nodded. “Does she know exactly who you are?”

“No; she knows me only by my pen name, and we’ve never met. But perhaps that will change someday.”

“I want to let you know in advance that I’ve had somepony stalking me with a camera recently.”

She gave a wry chuckle. “Yes, I saw your little tabloid story. You always wanted to be famous, but not this way. Don’t you worry; I have everything taken care of. If anypony takes a picture of us, it won’t survive the night.”

They were taken to a table for two, situated in the middle of the main dining area. They took some time deciding what they wanted to order, and after they were ready, they talked while they waited for the waiter.

“You dish first,” Deryn said as she dunked a tortilla chip into the spicier cup of salsa. “Who’s this Twilight Sparkle filly I keep hearing about? Or, as it were, reading about?”

“Well, she’s the de facto president of the Daring Do fan club in Ponyville. She’s also the local librarian and a history buff like you. And to cap it off, she’s Princess Celestia’s protégée.”

“What’s she like?”

“She’s smart, humble; beautiful, yet plain at the same time. Way out of my league, that’s for sure.” He crammed a stack of chips into his mouth. Deryn may have been a lady, but she didn’t stand upon ceremony at the table.

“Are you dating?” she asked. “Is it serious?”

“Kinda,” he said through a full mouth. “I’m serious, but she’s not really.”

“Uh-oh,” she remarked. “This sounds familiar.”

“Hey, ouch!” he shot back. He swallowed his mouthful of chips. “She and I are in the beta testing phase, so to speak. She said that we’re dating but not courting. Her exact words.” He took a large chipful of the milder salsa.

“That was exactly what happened last time.”

“That was two dates. There was no understanding between us.” He groaned in exasperation. “Twilight’s a lot more willing than Charity was.”

“And do you remember Blessing? She still hasn’t gotten back to you.”

“She’s dating somepony else.”

“Why are you trying to woo miss Sparkle, hmm? Was it love at first sight again?” He shrunk down, pinning his ears back and putting on a frown. She shook a chip at him at him. “That’s your big problem, Tux. You say you’re stifled, that you don’t have any friends, and then you promptly fall flank over fetlock with the first pretty mare to catch your eyes. And then, when somepony does show genuine interest in you, you turn around and break her heart, just like your idée fixe always does to you.”

“You’re always criticizing my romantic choices, Deryn,” he defended. “And when I asked you to set me up with somepony, you refused.”

“That’s because I was crushing on you at the time. Duh.” She crunched on another chip. “And now, I can’t do it because we live on practically opposite sides of Equestria. Besides, Derbyshire isn’t quite the hotbed of singles that you seem to desire.”

“What do you want me to do? Break it off with Twilight?”

“Either you do it or she will.”

He was crestfallen. Once again, he felt all his efforts were in vain. It was Charity, all over again. “She said she wasn’t leading me on,” he sighed.

“Neither was Charity,” Deryn shrugged. “But for the love of Celestia, don’t let my ignorant postulates erase your hope. She said she’s giving this a try, and who knows? Maybe things will look up. But you really need to do the same thing that she is.”

“To step back and evaluate everything?”

“Objectively,” she nodded. “I know it’s hard, but sometimes you have to take a good, hard look at your life. Humble pie might not taste very good, but it’s better for you than a false hope.”

“Well, I’m clinging to what hope I have left.”

“There’s always more hope, Tux; you just have to find it. Or lean on somepony else and let them find it for you. Besides, if you let it, friendship will last far your ‘failures’, as you call them. But you have to let it.” She lifted another chip from the bowl and took a hearty helping of salsa.

“How can you stand that much capsaicin?” Tux wondered.

“I love spicy food,” she said matter-of-factly. “And I acquired a taste for hotter foods while I was spending time in Saddle Arabia, digging up sand.”

“What did you find?”

“Sand,” she replied with a groan. “I was working with Sandy Stone, another archaeologist, who found what she thought were ancient potsherds. As it turns out, they were there for only about sixty years, come from a water jar that fell out of somepony’s saddlebags.”

“Sandy isn’t a very good archaeologist, is she?”

“Oh no, she’s brilliant. But we all have our slumps now and again. In her defense, the jar was several hundred years old by the time it broke. Some ponies take very good care of their pottery. Well, until it falls off a precarious perch and breaks.”

“Is that why Blarney Blue was a little bit more fictional than your other books?” he asked.

“In part, yes. Daring Do and the Shifting Sands wouldn’t be a very good...actually, that’s a good title.”

“I do have an idea for a future book,” Tux said, seeing an opportunity. “When I was in Vanhoover, Twilight and I went to the museum and got a special look at one of Starswirl the Bearded’s works, called Codex Thirteen.”

“Ah yes, the Lost Codex. Couldn’t read a lick of it, could you?”

“Yeah, it was in some sort of code. But the librarian said that the Lost Codex was actually the pages Starswirl tore out of Thirteen.”

Deryn shook her head. “No, Thirteen is the Lost Codex. There’s nothing lost about those missing pages; he tore them out and hid them away. I like to call it the Hidden Codex. Now, its hiding place is pretty much lost to the centuries, but I think I know where it might be. I think I know where you’re going, but tell me anyway.”

“What do you say to going and getting it?”

She nodded slightly, not so much an acknowledgement of his idea, but more of a confirmation of her foresight. Then she shook her head. “Not this one, Tux. Starswirl hid that codex for a good reason. Legend has it that he was dabbling in dark magic.”

“Dark magic?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Spells that harm, spells that kill. The spell that drives the Alicorn Amulet. Rumor has it that the Hidden Codex also contains time travel spells, conjuring spells, and even alchemy and necromancy. If that codex were to fall into the wrong hooves, Equestria could be a very dark place.”

“What’s the Alicorn Amulet?”

“A talisman that Starswirl created late in his life,” she replied. “I know it exists, but not where it is, which is unfortunate. It’s yet another artifact that, in the wrong hooves, would mean a bad day in Equestria. It essentially amplifies a unicorn’s power, giving the wearer almost godlike abilities. But this comes at a hefty price. The wearer also gets an insatiable lust for power, corrupting them to the core.”

“Daring Do and the Alicorn Amulet is another good title.”

“Just as dangerous as the Codex. The two of them together....” She shuddered. “Not something I want to imagine.”

“But the Codex was encrypted, right? Neither of us could read it.”

“You should appreciate this: Starswirl was a conlanger. He created two separate languages, giving the same alphabet two sound systems, two lexica, and two grammars. Read it in one language, and the spells are all very banal; that book is in the Archives. Starswirl kept the other grammar with him at all times, but it disappeared some sixty years after his death. Nopony knows what happened to it or where it is now.”

“That would be quite the thing to learn.”

“I would love it for my collection. I’d geek out over its features, use it for inspiration, and lock it in a vault.”

He chuckled. “But hey, I guess I should try and look at his other language if I want to figure that out. Maybe at our stop in Canterlot, I’ll see if I can get into the Archives.”

“If you do, take notes. I’ve been petitioning for access to Special Collections for years.”

The rest of their dinner was spent talking about the tour, Deryn’s latest exploits and stories, and a possible visit to Ponyville. Deryn confessed that she had been entertaining the idea of revealing herself to the public for a while, ever since the runaway success of her first book. Eventually, the two of them came to an agreement: if Tux promised to evaluate his relationship with Twilight, Deryn would plan a trip to Ponyville for a small book signing.

When Tux got back to the hotel, Rarity was waiting outside his room. “Enjoy your evening?” she asked.

“Yeah, it was great to catch up with Deryn again,” he replied. “I convinced her to come to Ponyville for a book signing.”

She shoved an issue of the Questioner in his face. “What is this?”

“The Shadow has Materialized: Mystery Stallion’s Name Revealed. That’s a great question, what the hoof is this?”

“Read the article.”

He read aloud as his eyes skimmed the lines. “The formerly unknown stallion, who has been seen with Twilight Sparkle, has been confirmed to be Tux n Tails, the chief judge for Princess Celestia’s nationwide choral audition tour, Equestrian Idol. A recent graduate from Hoofton College, he is slated to conduct the newly formed Royal Canterlot Choir at this year’s Grand Galloping Gala. A source close to the competition told the Questioner that Tails is going through a rough patch with his fillyfriend, and that the relationship could soon be over. Just how serious the relationship ever was, however, is nebulous. Our source says that, while he is as serious as they come, she’s just not that into him. Ouch.

“The weird thing is that the two of them put on quite the unassuming face. Every time our source sees them, they seem to be perfectly happy, enjoying one another’s company as if they were merely friends. But our source tells us that this is not the case. ‘Why else,’ asks our source, ‘would they be sharing a room in Los Pegasus, unless there were a steamy love affair going on? It’s obvious from the way he looks at her that they’re much more than mere friends.’“

“I can’t read the rest of it,” he scowled, throwing the magazine on the ground. “Somepony needs to put these scurrilous rumors six feet under. What can you do to help me?”

“At this point, nothing. You didn’t want me to help you at the beginning, and you’ve dug yourself too far down for me to help you now. I called the Questioner, and that Inkwell chap said that you were the one who called him!”

He gasped in indignation. “Yes, I called him, taking your advice, to try and get the story retracted, or at least killed. Did he say that I was the source?”

“As a matter of fact, he did. He said you were very forthcoming, that you relished the thought of the attention this article would bring you.”

“That’s a pile of crap and you know it,” he growled. “I don’t want this sort of attention. Do you know how apprehensive I was when Celestia gave me this assignment?”

“You could have turned her down.”

“No, I couldn’t have! She orchestrated things so that I was her only option.”

“There are always other options. And I don’t believe the princess would be that manipulative.”

“Believe it, Rarity. Every time I’m in her presence, I sense something. Something dark. She covered up Discord’s escape from prison, something which Luna confirmed. And I don’t know how much I can trust somepony who isn’t forthcoming about something which affects my life to such a degree.”

“You shouldn’t be so critical, Tux,” Rarity scolded. “If I were to list your character flaws, that would be at the very top.”

“List away,” he challenged.

“You have narcicisstic tendencies; you’re self-deprecating and critical of other ponies behind their backs. You’re a chronic pessimist, and most of the time, you can’t see the forest for the trees. And one of the worst of your flaws became apparent when you erupted at Rosie Cooper.”

“Hey, I can control my temper,” he sneered.

“If not just barely. I think Twilight could add another one to the list, too.”

“And what would that be?”

“You’re too willing to break promises if you think it would be better for you in the end.”

“I didn’t promise crap, Rarity. And I didn’t have a choice. I had to go to dinner with Deryn tonight.”

“You’re not that much of a doormat, Tux. You were just as complicit in it.”

“Is that what she thinks?”

“I believe her exact words were, ‘Why doesn’t he just date Deryn, if she’s important enough to cancel plans with me?’“

“You don’t understand,” he groaned. “I couldn’t move the dinner because I didn’t have a way of contacting her.”

“You could have at least brought Twilight along.”

“You made Deryn’s dress; you know how private she is.”

“She’s not too private to be seen in public, at an expensive Mexican restaurant, having what appears to be a romantic dinner with Twilight Sparkle’s coltfriend. This does not lend well to your potential fidelity.”

“My potential fidel--? I’m the loyalest pony you’ll ever meet!”

“Then prove it.” She thrust a piece of paper at him. “This is a florist friend of mine who is waiting for you at his shop. It’s up to you to craft the right sentiment.”

He read the address. “I have no idea where this is.”

“Ask for directions. Or is that beneath you as a stallion?” She left him there at the door, walking away with her nose turned up.

He looked down at the piece of paper sitting on his feathers. There was no way he could undo a mistake that he didn’t make. He felt like Twilight was being irrational if nothing else. But still, he could feel that Rarity was right. He had to do something. Without changing, he took the elevator back to the lobby and walked out onto the busy sidewalk. It was cold, and it had started raining, and Tux didn’t have an umbrella with him. “I have to do this,” he sighed. He stepped in front of a passerby. “Excuse me, do you know where to find the Bearded Iris? It’s on 32nd Street.”

“I don’t think it’s open this late,” the passerby replied.

“It is for me,” he replied. “I have an apology to make.”

Half an hour later, he was knocking at Twilight’s door, one wing clutching a bouquet of pink roses and baby’s breath. He had sheltered the flowers from the pouring rain with his wing, and his mane hung wet about his neck. Twilight looked at the flowers, then at him. “What’s this?” she asked.

“I felt bad for blowing you off, so I thought I’d bring a peace offering.”

She rolled her eyes and sighed. “Rarity chewed you out, didn’t she? She’s certainly madder than I am. But I am still kind of disappointed.”

“It’s not too late for dinner,” he suggested. “I brought macaroni salad and some steamed garlic kale from the deli down the street.”

“Come on in,” she sighed, taking the flowers from one wing and the food from the other. “You should take a hot shower; you’re shivering, and you smell like you’ve been rolling in the mud.”

“So how mad are you that I cancelled dinner?”

“I did some thinking, and I understand that you couldn’t get out of it. I wish you’d tried a little harder to push it back, but that probably wasn’t easy to do, either. So I won’t count it against you. That is, not if I can meet Deryn for myself.”

“She’ll come to Ponyville for a little book signing. That’s all I could get from her.”

“I guess that’s good enough. I’ll set the table, you clean up.”

Tux stepped into the shower and shampooed his mane, tail and coat, taking time to relax in the hot water and collect his thoughts. He always did his best thinking in the shower, and he was able to cobble together some sort of apology, some sort of promise to be a better stallion in the future. But after he came out of the bathroom, any words he’d planned on saying were lost in his throat. Twilight sat at the table in her pajamas, stirring the macaroni salad, a haggard look on her face.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked.

“I’m just tired, is all,” she replied. “It’s been a long tour. And you smell like lavender.”

“We’re introverts,” he acknowledged. “We need time to recharge our batteries.”

“I was kind of hoping to get that recharge with you tonight. I spent time with Rarity, but the Manehattan night life isn’t exactly what I’d call relaxing.”

“Last stop on the tour. Then we’re done.”

“All of us, or just us?”

Tux swallowed hard. He knew what she meant. “You’re leaning toward going back to the way things were, aren’t you?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I still reserve judgment until the end of the tour.”

“If you decide to go back to being just friends, I’m warning you that I’m probably going to withdraw. Talking to you will be awkward for a while, so know that it’s nothing personal. And you’re going to have to be the one maintaining the friendship, or at least doing the lion’s share of the work at first.”

“Friendship is what I do best, isn’t it?” she smiled. “But it can’t be one-sided. You still have to do your part.”

“As long as you’re the one initiating the interaction, I can do whatever needs to be done. Before long, I should get back to the point where things aren’t awkward anymore.”

“Not to change the subject, but this macaroni salad is really good,” Twilight remarked. “Are those sweet pickles?”

He took a bite. “Sure enough,” he said, his mouth full. “And those chunks of cucumber!”

“I know, right? If you learn to make macaroni salad like this, I’ll marry you.”

“I hear the kale is even better.” He spooned some of the broccoli and kale out onto his plate. It was steamed and sautéed in butter and garlic, and it looked like there was some sort of cheese sprinkled in. He grasped the fork with his feathers and speared a kale leaf and a head of broccoli. Twilight stole some off his plate and held it in front of her face. “Down the hatch.”

“Where have you been all my life?” Twilight smiled. “I guess there’s something good in Manehattan after all.”

“So, do you want to read another chapter or something?”

She shook her head. “Actually, let’s just sit here and recharge. We don’t have to talk. We don’t have to read. We don’t have to do anything at all. Just sit.”

“Finally, somepony who gets it,” he sighed with a smile.

After they finished eating, Twilight dimmed the lights, and they sat on the couch listening to a choral music mix that she had compiled. Each song was as beautiful as the last, filling the room with the richest of sounds. Before long, he could no longer keep his eyes open, and he whispered, “I need to go to bed.”

But it seemed she was already asleep on his shoulder, and he couldn’t bear to wake her. He closed his eyes, and as he drifted off, he heard the faintest sound come from Twilight’s horn. The lights dimmed until the room was dark, and a gentle whisper rose from her lips. “Good night, Tux.”

The next morning, a sharp rapping at the door jolted Tux from his pleasant slumber. Twilight was still next to him on the couch, and before he could get up, the lock clicked, and Rarity entered the room. “Twilight, do you have any idea what time it—” Her mouth dropped open.

“What?” Tux asked.

“We were supposed to be at the convention center half an hour ago!” Rarity scolded. “Well, this explains why you weren’t in your room.”

“Wait, what’s going on?” Vinyl asked, walking in with Octavia. Her mouth dropped open as well. “Whoa, Tails, are you and Twilight, like, dancin’ know?”

“Vinyl!” Octavia snapped.

Tux shook dropped his jaw in shock and disgust. “How could you even insinuate? I hurt her feelings yesterday, and I brought a bouquet of flowers and some dinner. We sat here listening to music, and just fell asleep. That’s it!”

“Well your manes need an hour’s worth of work before you’ll be fit for public appearance,” Rarity coughed. “I sent Ivory on ahead for damage control.”

“I’ll be ready in ten minutes,” Tux promised. Just let me run a comb through my mane.”

“No time for that,” Rarity pressed, producing a comb from thin air. She pushed him off the couch and pinned him to the ground, madly combing his mane. “Twilight, darling, wake up!”

“I don’t feel like working today,” the lavender mare protested.

“Comb your mane. Vinyl, Octavia, go on to the convention center and start the auditions. We may miss two or three, but Tux and I will be there as soon as we can.”

“Don’t start without me,” Tux opposed.

“No,” Rarity asserted. “You dropped the ball on this one. Vinyl, Octavia and Ivory will be the three judges until we get there. If you are seen leaving Twilight’s room with this atrocity of a mane, the Questioner wet themselves with excitement. I have a friend who paid top bit to take photos of you and Deryn at La Casa Cerrada out of circulation. I can’t imagine what a tabloid like that would pay for photos of you and your fillyfriend emerging groggy and disheveled from the same hotel room. Did I mention how completely incensed I am that--”

“I get the picture, Rarity,” he groaned. “But won’t the outcome be the same if we walk out of the same room at all?”

“You’re flying out the back way.”

“You can’t be serious,” he chuckled wryly.

“Do I look like I’m joking?”

She clearly wasn’t. “Can you let me up?” he sighed.

“Yes. I suppose flying through Manehattan will wreck everything I just did, but it’s probably for the best.” She took her knee out of his back and went to combing Twilight’s mane.

“Which way is it?” he asked, scrambling to his feet.

“Due northwest. You won’t be able to miss it.”

“I’ll see you there.” He walked out onto the balcony and spread his wings. “Why do I get this feeling that everything’s about to go to Tartarus?” He hopped over the railing.

By the time Tux arrived at the convention center, there was still a line of ponies out the front door, with two burly draft stallions controlling a rope barrier that kept the crowd from flooding in too quickly. He started for the barrier, but one of the bouncers held up a hoof. “Back of the line, pal.”

“What?” Tux scoffed. “I’m the dude running this show. Let me in.”

“You look like some generic Pegasus meathead to me. If you were with the rest of the judges, the story would be different.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he groaned. “Go in there and get Vinyl or Octavia. They’ll vouch for me. Hay, get Ivory Coast, the accompanist. Anypony on the staff should be able to confirm my identity!”

“Listen, pal. Bones and I have to keep these rabid ponies from exceeding the maximum capacity allowed by the fire code. If you need to be in there, you’ll have a badge. The other judges had theirs. So either come back with a badge or hit the back of the line.”

“Badge,” Tux gasped, remembering that he had left his staff ID badge in his saddlebag. “But that would take another half hour! I need to get in there now so that I can make sure everypony who deserves a spot gets it.”

“Then it’ll take half an hour before you can pull the strings.”

“Fine,” Tux growled. “I’ll go get my badge. And next time, you’ll know who I am, capisce?”

“It’s just policy.”

Tux just as soon would have waited until Rarity and Twilight showed up to vouch for him, but he was angry, and he wanted to shove that badge up the bouncer’s nose. “I shouldn’t need a badge,” he grumbled as he flew. “My freaking face is all over the tabloids. Stubborn son of a nag probably knows exactly who I am. What did I ever do to him?”

As he neared the hotel, he remembered that his room key card was in the pocket of his jacket, which was hanging up in Twilight’s room, and he didn’t want to show his face there and risk drawing Rarity’s ire. He thought he might have left his own balcony door unlocked, so he flew by until he figured out which one was his, landed, and tried the door. Not only was it unlocked, but it wasn’t latched. That was something he knew he wouldn’t have let slide, so he poked his head in and called, “Hello? Do I have the right room?”

“I figured you’d be coming back,” said Deryn from the shadows. “I hope you didn’t mind; I let myself in.”

“At least you’re not from the Questioner. I’m just here to get my badge.”

She pulled the cord on the bedside lamp, filling the room with light. “A friend of mine came by at four this morning with these.” She dropped a stack of large photographs on the bed. “I had my assurances that there would be no paparazzi. But they have no way to prevent a peeper with a telephoto lens from snapping a shot or two.”

Tux walked over to the bed and browsed the photos. They must have been the ones Rarity had mentioned earlier. “The photos are out of circulation. So what?”

“You’re dealing with somepony who has a special kind of stuff, somepony who is so obsessed with you that they would follow you with a ten-thousand-bit rig just to snap a photo of you doing something that would besmirch your name. I’ve dealt with Quillan Inkwell before, and he isn’t your problem. His source, on the other hand, is somepony who you don’t want to mess with.”

“Do you know who?”

“I dropped my friend a bit or two so that he can investigate it for me. I’ll let you know.” She picked the photos up again. “But this is a wakeup call. I certainly need a more public presence. It’s going to happen one way or another, and I’d rather come out as the real Daring Do myself than have Quillan Inkwell publish some sort of conjectural crap.”

“What are you saying?”

“At about five o’clock, I’m going to be stopping by the convention center for a visit. I’ll let you know then if my PI has found anything new. But at the very least, I’ll help you make up for ditching Twilight last night.”

“I think I might be good in that arena.”

“It certainly wouldn’t hurt.”

He fished his badge out of the saddlebag and hung it around his neck. “I’ll let the bouncer know you’re coming.”

“I’m pretty sure he’ll let me in.”

“Don’t get your hopes up; I had to fly all the way back here just to have a chance at getting to my desk. Bye.” He walked back out to the balcony. “Could you do me a favor and lock up when you leave?”

“Don’t forget your room key.” She tossed the key card at him, and he caught it in his teeth.

“Thanks,” he said, slipping the key card into the plastic pouch behind his badge. “I’ll see you later.”

He flew as fast as he could to the convention center, coming in for a long landing. He skidded up to the bouncer and held up his badge. “See?” he asked.

“Right this way, Mr. Tails,” the bouncer replied with a victorious smile.

“Oh, and if you or your boys get a pony named Deryn coming up to the door, let her in. It should be some time near the end of the day.”

“Whatever, pal,” the bouncer shrugged.

He walked around the bouncer and made his way through to the audition room. He put his ear to the door and heard the tail end of the audition in progress. “Put her through on probation,” he whispered. “Her highs were flat.” He heard Octavia’s muffled voice, and a few moments later, the singer walked through the door. “Did you make it?” he asked.

“Two yesses,” she replied.

“I’m looking forward to working with you,” he smiled. “I’m supposed to be one of the ones judging you; I’m just late.”

“Oh, well, pleased to meet you.”

He slipped into the room and took his seat. “Sorry, I’m late,” he said as Octavia slid the stack of applications over to him. “The neanderthal out front didn’t let me in, so I had to fly all the way back to the hotel and get my badge.”

“You didn’t see the other two coming, did you?” Octavia asked.

“No, sorry. But I’m sure they’ll be here soon. In the meantime, let’s get going.”

He took on the responsibility of calling each of the singers until Rarity and Twilight arrived half an hour later. Twilight blamed the traffic and the inability to fly, but Tux suspected that Rarity had been part of the holdup, though probably not by choice.

The rest of the auditions went well. Vinyl and Octavia didn’t cause a problem when it came to the voting overall; Octavia was thinking much more objectively, even though Vinyl still beat her own path. They did, however, cause many a disruption by fighting between the two of them. At first it was apparent that the disputes were merely a matter of musical taste. But as the day progressed, things grew increasingly personal, and Tux had to send half a dozen embarrassed singers out while the two judges tussled.

Eventually, Tux couldn’t take the squabbling anymore. After vetoing a no-vote and putting an exceptional singer through to the next round, he leaned in close and asked, “Rarity, could you leave the room?”

“Whatever for?”

“Today’s auditions are done. Could you let everypony know?”

“But we still have ten ponies left,” she protested.

“Just....” He took a deep breath in a feeble attempt to calm himself. “Just tell them. They’ll be first in line tomorrow.”

“Will do,” she said tentatively.

“And make sure the door shuts tight.” As she trotted out the door and latched it, he remembered that Ivory was still sitting at the piano. “You too, Ivory.”

“I kind of want to see this,” the pianist shrugged. “Could be good.”

“Get the hoof out of this room,” Tux growled.

Ivory got up from the piano in a hurry. “All right, all right! Good grief.”

Tux tried once again to suppress his anger as Ivory left the room. As soon as the door latched, he turned toward the sill-arguing Octavia and Vinyl, and he released the pressure valve. “Shut up, both of you!” he roared, blood rushing to his face and adrenaline coursing through his veins. “I’m sick and tired of your crap!”

Both of them turned to face him, shock in their eyes. Octavia opened her mouth to speak, but he held up his hoof and silenced her. “No. I’m speaking. You two have been fighting with me and each other since day one, and you’re really making my plot tired.

“Octavia, you just turned down one of the best performances of twelve-tone music I’ve ever heard, by a singer who had perfect pitch and angelic tone, and why? Because you said it wasn’t music. You complain about my veto power, but it seems you still haven’t gotten through your thick skull that this is not about your musical tastes.” He looked over at Vinyl, who wore an air of victory, which he found contemptible.

“And Vinyl,” he continued, “you wipe that stupid, smug smile off your face! You have consistently voted the opposite way that I have. This is not a pop singing contest. I don’t want ponies who sound like Sapphire Shores. I want ponies that sound like they’ve come here from Heaven, not Downtown. You may know how to drop the bass, but I’m going to write you a prescription for your musical ignorance: take the money you’ve made spinning records and go back to school. Take a music theory class at the Canterlot Conservatory, and follow that up by filling in the last thousand hears of music history, and then maybe, just maybe you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

“Now, I’ve given you both more than enough chances. Honestly, neither of you has done anything to help this audition tour, and the only reason either of you is here is that I couldn’t persuade Twilight to be on the panel, and you came as a package deal. Since you’ve shown that you can’t at the very least show some restraint when it comes to arguing--or sleeping--on the job, I suggest you both take a hike.”

“Very well, Mr. Tails, if we’re not wanted, then we’ll go our way. You won’t be seeing us here tomorrow.”

“Tux, give me another shot,” Vinyl pleaded. “I can try to--”

“No,” he snapped. “You’ve struck out.”

“Come on, Vinyl, let’s go,” Octavia sighed. “It’s happy hour. Or it will be in about twenty minutes. Since we’re sleeping in tomorrow, we might as well drown our sorrows.”

Tux dropped his head to the desk as the last of his energy flowed out of him. His catharsis went from roaring fury to despaired tears. He still felt that dismissing Vinyl and Octavia was the best way to handle the situation, but he regretted allowing his anger to boil over. He felt a tentative touch on his shoulder, and it startled him, but upon looking up and seeing Twilight’s face, he returned to his sullen withdrawal.

“I.... I guess those doors aren’t as soundproof as I thought they were.”

“Heh,” he said dryly. “How much did you hear?”

“All of it. It, well, kind of scared me. And Vinyl and Octavia left the room looking traumatized.”

“I’ve lost my temper thrice in the last two weeks. That never happens.” He sighed. “I hardly ever snap, but when I do, it’s a thermonuclear explosion. It doesn’t last long, though, as you can see. I would never get violent. Please understand that.”

“The thought never crossed my mind. You know, even Fluttershy can snap like that. It just surprised us, is all.”

“I threw them off the panel,” he explained. “Too much infighting, too many creative differences. Did I do the right thing?”

“I think you did what you had to,” she replied. “You should have done it in Los Pegasus, though.”

“I’m out two judges now. I don’t want Ivory to be a full time judge, so.... If you could.”

“Since it’s just tomorrow, yes. I can sit on the panel.”

Rarity poked her head in just then, annoyance on her face. “Tux, I hope I’m not interrupting, but there’s somepony here who says you invited her. She’s not a singer; she doesn’t have a number. And she refuses to leave. Could you try to persuade her?

“Honey colored coat, grey mane and tail, map cutie mark?”

“So, maybe you did invite her.”

“Let her in.”

Deryn trotted in, looking around the small studio. “By Celestia’s beard, this is a dull room. I know you didn’t have much time before you had to begin seeing auditions, but you could have at least put down a carpet.”

“Who is this?” Twilight asked, her mouth hanging open in surprise.

“Deryn Doo.”

“You’re pulling my leg.”

“Nope, it’s me,” Deryn replied. “Deryn Doo, better known as Ann Nonymous. Yes, I do look like Daring Do, and the reason is that I am Daring Do.”

Twilight took a deep breath in effort to control herself. “Well, it’s nice to meet you. I have a few, well, dozen questions to ask you, but now’s not really the time for that.”

“Something’s wrong with Tux,” Deryn nodded. “I haven’t seen him this vacant in years.”

“He snapped at two of the judges, who were arguing pretty heatedly. I think he’ll be fine.”

“Snap is probably an understatement. Were he a unicorn, he would have rage-shifted.”

“Now I understand a little bit more. That’s happened to me before.”

Deryn smiled. “In a couple hours, he’ll be right as rain.”

“I think I’ll be cancelling our dinner tonight,” Twilight sighed. “Unless we eat in. But I can tell you don’t want to go out.”

“Yeah, not really,” he chuckled.

“We’ll eat in, then. If that’s all right with you.”

He nodded. “By then, I’ll be better.”

Instead of a romantic Italian dinner with the finest grape juice, Tux and Twilight spent their night eating microwave lasagna and spinach salad. Later, Deryn stopped by, and the three of talked about Deryn’s adventures. Twilight was surprised to learn about the relative truth of the books, and Deryn gave her permission to talk to the fan club about it.

Twilight offered to let Deryn room with her, but she said that she already had living arrangements. Twilight left them soon afterward, and Tux asked where Deryn was staying.

“Well, I was staying with Aldous Pipesmoke, that PI friend of mine. But given the circumstances, I was able to pay for a night here.”

“Cool. What’s your room number?”


“That’s right next door,” he commented, glancing at the adjoining-room door. “Did you plan it that way?”

“Of course. I want to be there for you if you need me.”

“I’m not a colt anymore, Deryn. I can handle myself.”

“I know you, Tux. Relying on your own strength is what caused your depression in the first place. Do you want to go back there?”

“I’m happy,” he grumbled. “I’m gainfully employed, I’m dating the mare of my dreams, and I live in the perfect town. I have everything I ever wanted.”

“Except happiness.”

He looked down at his hooves. “I guess you may be right.”

“If you need to talk or anything else, I’m right on the other side of the wall.” She went into the other room and left the door open. Tux slipped into bed and closed his eyes, falling into a restless sleep.

The next morning, Tux thought about the events of the tour as he got ready to go back to the convention center. He still felt bad for dismissing Vinyl and Octavia so harshly, but he was glad that he had Twilight for the final day of the tour. The four of them met for breakfast at a local eatery, and Tux asked Deryn to take Twilight’s place to call each audition into the room. She accepted gladly.

But her position didn’t last long. Half on hour after everypony was supposed to be in place at the convention center, Ivory still hadn’t shown his face. Neither Twilight nor Rarity could play the piano to the degree that Tux needed, so he slipped outside.

“I think we may need you in here today,” he sighed. “Our pianist flaked, for who knows what reason. I can’t play as well as I need to in order to fake it and listen at the same time. Can you?”

“It’s been ten years since I took lessons, Tux,” she admitted. “I’m rustier than a discarded shoe.”

“Please? I’ll call the auditions in.”

“All right,” she sighed. “But you owe me. Exactly what price, I have yet to decide.”

She sat down at the piano, and Tux took all the scores out of his audition packets, writing down the ponies’ names on each one. Deryn looked them over, playing several of them to test her abilities. Tux was confident that she would be able to do well enough, so he called in the first pony on the list.

He was a tall, thin pony, and Tux thought he could easily be horse-sized. He had a placid demeanor, and his spiel was almost rehearsed. “My name is Linguine, and I am auditioning for the part of first tenor. I will be singing ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’ from Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe’.”

“Well, let’s get down to it, then,” Tux acknowledged as the music started. Linguine’s voice was warm and sweet without sacrificing presence and ping. He was perfectly in tune, and he expressed himself beautifully. After the short song finished, he bowed briefly and awaited the verdict.

Tux looked at Twilight, who sat next to him, and then at Rarity, who had taken the seat vacated by Octavia. “Yes,” they said simultaneously.

“Fantastic performance,” Tux smiled. “Would you consider a solo, if our repertoire calls for one?”

“Yes, I would,” Linguine replied. “I can sing choral music, but solo is my strongest.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” Tux replied, harkening back to his music school years. “We’ll see you in Ponyville for round two. I think you’re pretty much guaranteed a shot in the choir, but we have to go through formalities like this anyway.”

“Thank you,” Linguine said with a bow before walking out.

“Shortest audition ever,” Twilight remarked once the door had closed. “I might actually be able to survive this.”

She changed her mind after the next audition. It was a pony named Almond who seemingly couldn’t carry a tune, singing a song that wasn’t right for her, without accompaniment. Twilight ground her teeth throughout the entire audition, and she was the first judge to speak up after the singer finished. “I’m gonna have to say no. Sorry.”

“You have spirit,” Rarity sighed. “And I suppose you get points for that. But not enough to put you through. I’m sorry.”

“Do you have any other hobbies?” Tux asked. “Knitting? Baking?”

“Listening to music,” Almond shrugged. “Only reason I did this is because I lost a bet. I don’t even like to sing.”

“Well, that explains it. Why you didn’t seem to like it, that is.”

“I also added a little extra bad into it.”

Tux furrowed his brow. “I wish I could hear your actual singing voice. Would you care to sing for us again? And something other than...Sexyback?”

“I don’t have any music with me.”

“I noticed you submitted ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’ in your audition packet,” Rarity suggested.

“Oh, that,” the singer replied. “I just submitted it because I needed something classical on the list.”

“Can you sing it, or can’t you?” Tux asked impatiently.

Almond nodded. Deryn flipped through the pages until she found the music, and she looked at Almond to signal that she was ready. Almond nodded, and the music started. Tux expected a mediocre performance, but as soon as Almond started singing, he sat there breathless.

Her contralto voice was warm and sweet, but with a believable bitterness that perfectly reflected the text, of which he could understand every word. The song took him back in time, bringing up memories of depression and rejection, of singing this very song at his senior recital, of the tears that flowed down his cheeks as he once longed for a companion so true as the Brook was to the Miller.

When the song finished, Tux felt Twilight’s hoof on his shoulder. He snapped back to reality and found his cheeks wet. “I’m fine,” he whispered. “I’ll tell you later.”

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“I’m fine,” he asserted. He looked back up at Almond. “Almond, why don’t you like to sing?” he asked.

“Well, because none of my friends like the music I sing. They say it’s boring.”

“Don’t listen to them,” he encouraged. “You are a very talented singer. But this brings me to an impasse. You said you came here because you lost a bet. Do you want to be in the choir?”

Almond’s expression sunk. “No,” she replied. “Choirs aren’t my thing. Again, I just lost a bet. That’s it. Sorry I wasted your time. I just wanted to do my penance and get out.”

“You certainly didn’t waste my time,” Tux replied. “Never stop singing. That’s all I have to say.”

“Thank you,” she said with a weak smile. She walked out with a sparkle in her eye.

“What was it about that song?” Twilight asked.

“I guess we’re all friends here,” he sighed. “First, the story of the song cycle.” He explained to them about Die schöne Müllerin, a song cycle about a wanderer who falls for the beautiful daughter of a miller he meets in his travels. He settles down and tries to woo her, but a strapping, young hunter comes and sweeps her off her feet. Then he translated the song. “The Wanderer is so overcome with sadness that he drowns himself in the Brook. This song is the last in the cycle, The Brook’s Lullaby.

“How awful!” Rarity gasped. “So sad.”

“It’s meant to be bittersweet,” he chuckled wryly.

Rarity was tentative. “I hope you never....”

“Never,” he acknowledged. “But there were times when I was emotionally numb. It may be a cliché, but it’s true.” He got up to call the next singer in.

“How did you cope?” Twilight asked.

“I got better,” he replied. “And I met you.”

The rest of the auditions were mostly good. Tux had to narrow his criteria to avoid having too many ponies in the next round, and it pained him to turn down singers who would have been good additions to the choir. But he left each one with a word of encouragement, trying to assure them that it wasn’t anything they had done, but rather that there just wasn’t any more room.

The three of them stayed well past the time when they had planned on quitting, making sure to get down to the very last pony on the list. By the time Tux dropped her audition packet on the top of the pile, his nerves were frayed, and he was ready to sleep for a year.

Somepony knocked on the door. Tux groaned and shuffled over, opening it just a crack. “Auditions are over,” he said. “If I don’t have your packet, then I’m sorry, but you’ve come here for nothing.”

“Somepony’s here to see you,” said one of the burly security guards who had harrassed him the day before.

“Who? I don’t have time if they don’t have a name.”

“Some private eye. You in any sort of trouble?”

“He’s with me,” Deryn piped up. “Let him in.”

Tux nodded, and a tall, black unicorn walked into the room. “Aldous Pipesmoke at your service,” he introduced.

“Tux n Tails,” Tux replied. “Deryn has mentioned you. Not by name, though.”

“You shouldn’t have any more problems with the tabloids, Mr. Tails,” Pipesmoke smiled. “They’ve printed a retraction, under pain of a lawsuit. Defamation of character.”


“Deryn, I’ve found the elusive source that Inkwell used. A shady character by the name of Ivory Coast.”

“Ivory?!” Tux gasped in indignation. “I trusted him!”

“It’s no wonder he flaked,” Deryn remarked. “He knew my guy was onto him.”

“Where is he?” Tux demanded.

“Nowhere I know of,” the investigator shrugged. “He hopped the first train to Canterlot this morning.”

“Can you find him?”

“I can, but it will cost you. Meet me for lunch tomorrow, and we’ll powwow.”

“We’re all leaving for Canterlot tomorrow morning,” Tux replied.

“Then meet me for lunch day after tomorrow. Deryn, ladies, Mr. Tails, good evening.” As quickly as he had appeared, he was gone again.

“Let him go, Tux,” Rarity advised.

“I need to know where he--”

“Let him go,” Deryn said sternly. “You’ll probably never see him again.”

“You may be right,” he sighed. “I certainly hope you are.”

Chapter 4, Epilogue

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“So did you enjoy the audition tour?” the princess asked, sipping a cup of aromatic tea.

“I didn’t know there would be so many ponies turning out,” Tux replied. “All in all, we put sixty-five through to the winnowing round in Ponyville. I enjoyed the good auditions, but the bad ones....”

“I understand,” Celestia chuckled. “I also heard that you gave two of your judges the old heave-ho.”

“Yeah,” he sighed, “Vinyl and Octavia. They kept arguing, even in front of the singers, and eventually I had to do something about it. They’re not unhappy about it, are they?”

“I heard that Vinyl was pretty upset about it, but now they both seem to be fine.”

“Thankfully, I had Ivory Coast to balance things out, up until the very end.” He took a mouthful of his cider, thinking it might have a bit too much spice. The Apples’ cider was much better. “Too bad he turned out to be a flake. And a sell out who didn’t care about other ponies’ reputations.”

“Ivory Coast?”

“Yeah, the pianist you sent along.”

Celestia frowned. “I never sent a pianist with you. In fact, I thought you would take care of that as well.”

“What do you mean?”

“I figured you knew somepony who you wanted to use. I furnished the pianos at all the venues, but not the players.”

He raised an eyebrow. “So you’re saying you didn’t hire the Symphony’s rehersal pianist for the tour?”

“There’s never been an ‘Ivory Coast’ working with the Symphony,” she replied. “The current pianist is Ebony Key, and she’s been with us for the last three years. The last one was a stallion who went by ‘Marbles’.”

“He put the wool over my eyes.” He groaned in disgust. “I hate that!”

“Don’t let it get to you, Tux,” she reassured. “You have a nice pool of singers for the choir, and you’ll be able to start working on it soon. Did I mention that I’m going to be paying you a decent stipend?”

“You didn’t mention that,” he replied with renewed eagerness.

“What you’ll be conducting is essentially the Royal Canterlot Choir, even though it’ll be based in Ponyville. I’ll be talking to the singers who make the final cut and asking them if they’re willing to stay onboard and move to Canterlot after the Gala. That includes you, Tux.”

“I, uh....”

“Think about it.”

“I will, Princess. But I think that I might just stay in Ponyville. See, the two things I hate most in this world are liars and moving.”

“I understand,” she nodded. “Speaking of staying in Ponyville, how is your relationship with Twilight working out?”

“You heard about that, didn’t you?”

“Mostly in her letters. She’s been curiously quiet on the subject recently.”

“She and I are going through a rough patch,” he sighed. “Well, sort of. We agreed to evaluate the relationship after the tour was over and see where we stood. To be honest, I don’t think it’s going to work out. I want it to, but...yeah.”

“Well, I’m sorry it isn’t working out.”

“At least we’re still friends.”

Celestia smiled. “At least.” She left him standing there by the cider tap, and he refilled his glass. Rarity shuffled up to him and gave a weak greeting.

“Haven’t seen you all day,” Tux remarked. “Is something wrong?”

She dropped her gaze. “Yes, Tux, something is dreadfully wrong. The other night, when I snapped at you about Twilight? I have no idea what came over me.”

“It’s nothing, really.”

“No! You must hear me out. You see, part of the reason I was so short with you was because I was jealous.”

“Jealous?” he balked. “What in Equestria do you mean?”

“For the last few months I’ve been struggling with intrusive thoughts,” she explained, “with dreams bringing back memories that I don’t have. I’ve tried ignoring them, but my efforts have been in vain. I know you think of me as only a friend, and you know that that’s I view you. But these thoughts, these...” She grimaced. “...feelings tell me otherwise.”

He raised a confused eyebrow. “Did somepony spike the punch?”

“Ugh,” she groaned, “no matter how I say it, it still comes out wrong. I’ve had an unwelcome crush on you, one that came from nowhere. Most days, it’s gone. But sometimes, it comes to the surface.

“I was jealous of your relationship with Twilight, and I took it out on you, channeling her annoyance into something sinister. I wanted to say that I’m sorry.”

“It’s really all right, Rarity.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Aldous Pipesmoke standing in a corner. “Thanks for telling me,” he said, trying to end the conversation. “I never held it against you, anyway.”

“I appreciate your forgiveness,” she said with a bow. “I won’t take any more of your time.”

He tried to be as nonchalant as possible making his way toward Pipesmoke’s corner, and the inspector seemed to be waiting for him when he arrived.

“So I hear you want me to find that Ivory Coast character,” Pipesmoke commented.

“Yup,” Tux replied. “How much?”

“Since you’re a friend of Deryn’s, two hundred. Up front.”

“Sold. But I don’t have it with me,” Tux replied.

“Just have a courier take it to this address.” The inspector pushed a scrap of paper across the table, and Tux tucked it into his wing for safekeeping. “I always get my pony. That’s why I charge flat.”

“How long will it take?”

The inspector finished his cider. “I’ll report in a month, or when I find him, whichever comes first. I’ll start my search the day I receive those bits.”

“As soon as I get back to Ponyville.”

“I have somewhere to be,” the inspector said, bowing. “Good evening.”

Tux continued standing in the corner after Pipesmoke left, and eventually, Twilight shuffled over to join him. “Trying to get away from the crowd, eh?” she asked.

“Eeyup,” he replied. “Always hated ‘em.”

“What do you say we go somewhere private? Have a little chat.”

“Now’s as good a time as any,” he replied. “You know this place better than anybody, so you lead the way.”

The two of them slipped out of the party and made their way to the library, which was probably the most private room in the castle at the moment, aside from their bedrooms, of course. Most importantly, it was quiet enough for them to be able to think straight.

“So I’ve been thinking about the tour,” she started. “And been looking at our relationship with a critical eye.”

“What’s your verdict,” he asked, dreading the answer.

“I really do like you, Tux. But it doesn’t seem like I like you in that special way. We’re friends. And the whole time, we acted like friends. All the time we spent together felt like friends-time, not date-time. And ultimately...” She sighed. “...I just don’t think I’m ready for a relationship. With anypony.”

“Probably a wise decision,” he sighed. “I’ve been looking back at it, too, and even though I’ve been saying for years that I was ready, I don’t think I am, either.”

“Friends, then.”

“Friends,” he nodded.

“One for the road?” She held out her cheek.

“I don’t see why not,” he smiled. He puckered his lips and moved in, but at the last minute, she turned and stole a peck on the lips. He sighed and hugged her with a wing. It may not have been as sweet an ending as he had planned, but it was certainly sweeter than he had thought it would be. And that, he could live with.

05 In the Shadow of His Wings

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Tux stood halfway to his hocks in snow, trying his best not to shiver. A rogue blizzard had struck Ponyville just before Winter Wrap-up Day, and the storm was still threatening to circle back and undo everypony’s hard work. Somepony had to chase down that storm and buck it into submission. And apparently Twilight thought that Tux had the stuff.

He stood at attention next to Rainbow Dash as Twilight explained the assignment. “You two are the most competent fliers in Ponyville,” she praised, “and that’s why I need you to chase down that storm. It’s a big one, but I know you can corral it.”

“If anypony can do it, we can,” Rainbow grinned. “I can squeeze it down to nothing, and then Tux can blast it out of existence with his monster kickers.”

“Are you sure the rest of the weather team will be fine without us?” he asked tentatively.

“We don’t have time to lose!” Twilight asserted. “Cloud Kicker said that it’s behaving erratically, like somepony is controlling it, and it’s circling back toward us. We have to exterminate it before it hits us again.”

“You can count on us, Twi,” Rainbow said, thumping her chest proudly. “That storm doesn’t stand a chance.”

“Good. I expect you both to return soon.”

Tux and Rainbow took to the skies, flying as fast as they could toward the colossal storm, which was roughly twenty miles outside Ponyville, blanketing the Everfree Forest in inch upon inch of white powder. The closer they got, the more uncomfortable he felt about the whole thing.

“You and I both know that I don’t have much experience flying in high-wind environments,” Tux shouted over the gale roaring in his ears.

“Piece of cake,” Rainbow replied. “You’ll do better than I ever could, with your dextrous feathers and superior wing control.”

“But you have a sprinter’s wings. Mine have like twice the surface area.”

“Just don’t catch a draft, then.”

The storm grew larger and larger in his vision as they approached, until it filled the sky. Even above the rushing of the air past his ears, he could hear the roar of the blizzard below. He and Rainbow paused just short of the cloud wall, and he looked over, awaiting her command. Her eyes were darting this way and that, sizing up the task before them. Her expression went slowly from one of gumption to one of doubt. “You sure we can do this?” he asked.

“No,” she sighed. “But we have to try! For Twilight! For Ponyville!” She bolted for the cloud wall, making a sharp right as she began corralling the storm. Tux followed her lead, but the two of them didn’t seem to be making inroads on the monster.

“We need help!” he called. “It’s too big for just the two of us!”

“The two of us are the only ones Twi could spare,” she replied. “Besides, it’s too dangerous for anypony else.” She put on more speed, and he struggled to catch her, but eventually he lost her. Then the cloud wall reached out and swallowed him.

He couldn’t explain what had happened. Storms weren’t alive; they couldn’t reach out and eat their attackers. They couldn’t knock those attackers around with rapidly changing wind gusts. And most of all, they didn’t have voices.

“What’s the matter, Tux?” the storm taunted. “Can’t keep up with Dashie?” He recognized the voice immediately.

“Discord?” he gasped, flying for his very life. “What the hoof are you doing here?” He ducked and weaved, trying to anticipate the changing air currents, trying to keep one step ahead of whoever was controlling the storm. He was so far into the clouds that he had lost all sense of direction, besides up and down. “Rainbow!” he called, hoping she would hear him over the gale.

“She can’t help you now,” Discord sneered. “You’re going to crash...” An updraft threw him for a loop. “...and you’re going to burn.”

While he was still reeling from the updraft, a fierce downdraft caught him, hurling him for the trees below. He tumbled, hurtled end over end, with no recourse. “Rainbow!” he screamed in vain, knowing that his life was nearly at an end. Everything was a blur around him, but he knew that the trees were coming up fast. “Rainbow!” Something, no, somepony hit him, slowing his fall. But it was too late to keep them out of the forest, and he and his savior clipped a thick trunk, losing all lift, and hurtling for the ground. He saw a turquoise blur as he spun out of control, and he reached out to try and save her, but it was too late.

Even though the forest floor was covered in snow and pine needles, Tux and Rainbow hit it hard. Tux bounced back into the air, hitting another trunk, which stopped him dead. He struggled to his feet, but a dislocated wing kept him from reaching a better vantage point. “Rainbow!” he called, trying to plod through the snow. “Rainbow, are you all right?”

A pained squeal echoed above the howling winds, and he followed it, stotting to the best of his ability through the thick, white carpet. Finally, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a bright blotch that had to be Rainbow Dash. He stotted over and found her crumpled in a heap, choking out sobs of agony. “Broken,” she stammered, pointing to her right wing. “Can’t move.”

“Don’t worry, Rainbow,” he comforted. “I’ll find us shelter and get you to it.”

“Not with that wing, you won’t.” She motioned to Tux’s dislocated left wing.

“I’m fine; it just hurts.”

“It’ll hurt more unless you fix it.”

“How could I fix it at a time like this?” he protested. “We’re going to die of hypothermia unless I can find us a cave or something.” He knelt down, and she pulled herself onto his back. He struggled to lift her, but once he was back on all fours, he told himself that he would not stop walking until the two of them were safe.

“The wind is dying down,” Rainbow murmured.

“That, it is,” Tux acknowledged. The clouds above were starting to break up, as well. “This storm had it in for me. And now that I’m out of the picture, his work is done.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I’ll tell you later.” He began trudging in the direction he thought was north, hoping that the Everfree Caverns weren’t very far off. All he needed to do was reach them, and then he could collapse. The last thing he could do was give up when Rainbow was in danger as well.

It had been nearly an hour of trudging through the snow. He was about a quarter draft draft, so he had a thicker winter coat and was sturdier build than some other ponies, namely Rainbow Dash. Where she was shivering, he was only chilly. But he knew that if he didn’t get to a cave soon, no amount of thick fur would do him any good.

“Cold,” Rainbow moaned, her teeth chattering in the bitter chill.

“On the bright side, it’s keeping the swelling down in your wing.”

“How much...further?”

“We’re almost there,” he replied, trying to keep his hopes high.

“You said that...last time.”

“We’re closer than we were last time.”

“How...can you tell?”

He couldn’t. The wind had stopped, and the clouds were thinner, but they still blocked the sun. He didn’t have any sense of direction except the thinning of the trees, which he suspected meant that he was nearing the caves. With each step, he lost a shred of hope. What if he didn’t find the caves? And if he did, what if he couldn’t find fuel? What if he couldn’t start a fire? These questions plagued his mind for the next hour.

But after that hour, something caught his eye in the distance. If the ground weren’t covered with snow, he probably would have missed it, but now it was plain as day. It was a large, roughly circular depression in the side of a rock face, and it wasn’t too far off, either. He steeled himself and doubled his pace, his joints burning from the frigid weather. But at last he reached the cave, which was deep enough to afford them some shelter from the snow. Deep inside the cave, despite the near total darkness, it was a balmy fifty degrees--still chilly, but easily survivable. Tux let Rainbow down and checked her vital signs, glad to know that she was out of danger.

“Wake up, Rainbow,” he said, gently shaking her. “We made it.”

“I can’t see anything,” she moaned.

“There isn’t a whole lot of light in here yet,” he replied. “But I’m going to go see if I can find some firewood.”

“Stay here,” she pleaded.

“I’ll be right back. You’ll be safe here, I promise.”


He felt bad leaving her there, but without a fire, the two of them would have a much harder time. He struck out into the open again, searching until he had found a decent number of dry sticks to get a fire started. Working with what little light he had, he was finally able to get a single, glowing ember. After much care and feeding, that ember became a small flame, which was enough to cast a dim glow on the walls of their cave.

“It needs more wood,” Rainbow observed.

“I know,” Tux replied. “But I can’t carry anything heavy with this wing.”

“At least yours isn’t broken,” she sighed.

“Just dislocated. I can deal with it later.”

“Or...” She struggled to her feet. “...I could do it now.”

“Rainbow, what are you doing?” He backed away from her, but the cave wall stopped his progress.

“I’ve fixed half a dozen of these, two on myself.”

“Rainbow, I’d prefer it if a medical professional did--” She seized his dislocated wing, and with a deft twist, reset it. Searing pain ran up Tux’s spine, and he dropped to his knees, crying out in agony. “Why did you do that?” he sobbed.

“Because it needed to be done,” she replied. “The pain will stop soon.” She returned to her place by the fire, lay down, and closed her eyes.

Sure enough, the pain subsided quickly, and in a short time, Tux had his full range of motion back. As much as he hated the action, he was grateful that Rainbow had reset his wing. He walked back over and told her that he was going to find some more wood, but she didn’t respond. Just to make sure she was all right, he checked her pulse again, but when he did, she shifted in her sleep and grabbed his hoof, holding it close, wrinkling her nose and moaning in pain.

“You’re fine,” he sighed, reclaiming his appendage. “I’ll be back with a splint, too.”

Outside the cave, the outlook was bleak. He found a couple of logs for the fire, but there was nothing straight and strong enough that he could use to splint Rainbow’s wing. So after he added the fuel to the fire, he went against his better judgment and struck out deeper into the cave, carrying with him a flaming stick for lighting. He knew that these caves were occasionally home to vagabonds, and that sometimes they would leave their shelters behind for others to use if necessary.

After an hour of nothing but dead ends, his efforts finally paid off. He found a small shelter with a roughly a cord of firewood, a collection of blankets, and plenty of twine. “Is anypony home?” he asked, his voice echoing in the cavern. He slowly pushed open the door, poking his head and torch inside. Above the single bed hung a symbol that Tux recognized. “Vacant. Thank you, hobos.”

He used what was left of his torch to light candles around the shanty, and he dug through the drawers until he found a flashlight. “Oh, it’s a shaker,” he said, noticing the inner workings through the transparent housing. He shook it for a couple of minutes, and the beam shone out bright. He smiled. “This couldn’t be better.”

After carefully marking the trail back to the cabin, he helped Rainbow hobble into the cave. Not only was her wing broken, but she had a sprained ankle, and she couldn’t walk very well or very far on her own. When Tux told her about the shanty’s amenities, she started crying. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Just.... I mean, they have a bed.” She chuckled. “I thought I would have to sleep on the cold cave floor.”

“Nope,” he smiled. “We’ll be safe and sound.”

“What if the owners come back?”

“The shelter has been vacant for a while,” he explained. “I don’t think anypony’s going to come and take it from us.”

“I’m hungry. Is there any food in there?”

“Um....” He hadn’t seen any. But he didn’t want to dash Rainbow’s hopes. “I’m sure there is.”

“What if there isn’t?” she pressed.

“Then I’ll find us some.”

Along the way, Tux tried to think of what kind of food could possibly last in a hobo shanty. But upon searching the cupboards, he had his answer. “I hope you like canned corn,” he called to Rainbow, who was lying on the bed.

“I can learn to,” she groaned. “Is there anything else?”

He moved some of the cans aside. “Not really. Some green beans, but they’re past their date. By a while, too. I wouldn’t eat them.”

“Ew, pass.”

“At least we have a fire so that we don’t have to-- Wait a minute, we have some pinto beans, too. Too bad we don’t have any lettuce, or I’d make a nice taco salad.”

“Well, are you going to heat some up, or not?”

“Coming right up.” He took two cans of corn and dumped them into a charred metal cookpot with one can of beans and some spices and dried vegetables he had found in another cupboard. “A little stew is good for what ails you.”

“I’d prefer a taco salad,” she grimaced.

“Well, unless you want to eat dried onions, we don’t have much of a choice. Don’t worry; I used to do Whatcha Got Stew once a week when I was in college.” He lit the fire and began cooking. He was grateful that Rainbow didn’t complain about how long it took. He had to tweak the mix of spices several times before it finally tasted like a decent stew, and he ladled out two steaming bowls.

He joined her on the bed and handed her a bowl and spoon. “It’s really hot,” he warned. “Be careful.”

She took a spoonful and blew on it for a few moments. “Smells like a manure pile,” she remarked.

“But I assure you it tastes much better.”

She took her first bite and nodded. “Yeah, it’s actually pretty good.”

“Usually, I’m a whiz at fruit punch, but it’s really the same deal with Whatcha Got Stew.” He dipped into his own soup. “So, have I ever told you that I know Daring Do?”

“I’m confused,” she replied. “I thought she was a fictional character.”

He shook his head. “For the most part, she’s as real as you or I. Her name is Deryn Doo, and she’s coming to Ponyville to do a book signing, come her next release.” He explained how Deryn was an archaeologist and based her stories on her own adventures. She listened eagerly as he recounted the true stories of each novel, each no less interesting than its fictionalized counterpart.

He continued long after they had finished their stew, and even after Rainbow had fallen asleep. When he finally noticed that she was in dreamland, he tucked her into bed, being careful not to jar her broken wing. “Tomorrow, I’ll tell you what you missed.”

He took a few blankets and made a ramshackle bedroll, which he laid out by the fire. It wasn’t as soft as a bed, but it was better than hard cave floor. He watched the dying embers of the fire until his eyes could no longer remain open. “Sleep tight, Rainbow Dash,” he yawned, glancing at the shanty one more time. “Tomorrow is going to be a long day.”

Rainbow was still asleep when Tux awoke the next morning. He went outside to see no evidence of the storm except for the foot and a half of snow that blanketed the ground. The sky was blue, and the sun was warm, even though he could still see his breath. His wing still ached from dislocation the day before, but he felt like flying wasn’t out of the question. He flapped as gently as he could up to the top of a large tree, trying to survey the landscape and get his bearings.

Off in the distance, he could see what he thought was Ponyville, but he couldn’t be sure. He also couldn’t be sure of the distance, maybe thirty miles. The wind started blowing, whipping his mane, and bending the tree he was on. Snow began swirling up around the tree next to his, and he nearly lost his footing because of it. Finally, the snow coalesced into a golem with a familiar, serpentine shape. Its eyes flashed a bright orange, and Discord’s voice spoke through it. “Hello, Tux. Did you miss me?”

“That’s not possible,” Tux stammered. “You’re rotting in prison where you belong!”

“Who are you to judge where I should be?” the Discord-golem sneered. “Especially when you don’t have the power to keep me there.”

“Why are you here?” Tux demanded. “How are you here?”

“You’re not the only one allowed to have friends, Tux,” the golem sighed. “Somepony very close to me has devised a way to let me out of my stone cell, even if I have to resort to animating snow if I wish to make my presence known.

“Now for the why of it all.” In a flash, the golem slithered through the air to Tux’s tree and seized him by the throat with an icy claw, lifting him from his treetop perch. “You are the only pony standing between me and the throne of Equestria.” The golem squeezed tighter, and Tux struggled to breathe.

“What did I ever do to you?!” Tux choked.

“From the moment you entered this world, you were my enemy,” the golem growled, its eyes blazing brighter. “My mission in life is to see to it that yours ends.” The claw squeezed tighter still. “Every single time I have tried to kill you, one of Harmony’s agents has seen to it that you somehow survived. But no more! Your precious Rainbow Dash can’t catch you this time. You know, they say it isn’t the impact that kills you, but rather the sudden deceleration. This time, I’ll make sure there’s enough of it to do the job.” The snow golem leaped off the tree and hurled Tux at the ground. He flailed about with his wings, but there was nothing he could do to prevent the inevitable. He hit hard, and the last thing he saw before his vision faded was the snow golem dissolving into the wind.

Slowly his consciousness returned to him. He could hear faint cries, echoing as if they were far off in the distance. “Tux!” the voice screamed, a raw voice laced with the most primal fear. “Tux, wake up!” He started to feel somepony shaking him, gripping him firmly by the shoulders. “Wake up, you nag, wake up!”

“I’m awake,” he tried to say. “I’m fine.” But his lips refused to move, his voice refused to sound. He felt a weight on his chest. Heaving sobs from whoever was trying to wake him. “I’m fine,” he tried again, but to no avail.

His vision returned slowly, and all he could see was colors. Turquoise, red, orange, green, blue, a rainbow mane buried in his chest, a friend sobbing over her loss. “Rainbow!” he called, blinking. “Rainbow, I’m okay.”

“You’re....” she gasped, lifting her head up. Her jaw hung open in shock.

“Like I said,” he repeated, “I’m fine.”

She picked him up off the ground, wrapping him in a tight embrace. “I heard something happening outside, and I came out to investigate, and I found you...lying in the snow. I--” She began sobbing again. “You weren’t breathing, and I didn’t know what to do, I--”

“It’s okay, Rainbow,” he comforted.

“No, it’s not okay!” she shot back. “Here I am with a broken wing, lost in the Everfree Forest, and not only are you my ticket out of here, but you are the only pony keeping me from losing my mind!”

“Calm down, Rainbow,” he urged. “I know where Ponyville is from here. We can leave in the morning.”

“Why not now?”

“Because if we leave today...forces will conspire to keep us from ever getting back.”

“What do you mean, ‘forces’?”

He looked up at the sky, trying to figure out what to say. “Help me back inside, and I’ll tell you.” She knelt down and helped him up. He walked with a nasty limp, probably from a sprained ankle, and he also couldn’t move his left wing. But Rainbow didn’t need to know that. Finally, the two of them were back at the shanty deep within the cave. Rainbow helped Tux up onto the bed and lay down next to him, demanding to know everything that had happened.

“It all started yesterday,” he sighed, recalling the events. “The storm pulled me in, and I came face to voice with Discord. He was controlling it.”

“Wait, what?”

“Let me finish. Discord was controlling the storm, and he tried to hit me with a downdraft and smash me into the ground. That’s when you saved me. This morning, he was still lurking about, and he created a snow golem that tried again. This time I hit the ground, and I probably should have died, but something stopped it from happening.”

Rainbow held up her forehooves. “Back up, now. You said that Discord was controlling the storm?”

“It had to have been him,” Tux replied. “I heard his voice. And I think I might have seen his face.”

“How could he have gotten out?” she scoffed. “The girls and I locked him in tight.”

“This isn’t the first time he’s gotten out since I’ve come to Ponyville,” he recalled. “If you recall, soon after I arrived, he tried to get me to leave. Pony knows what else he’s been doing behind the scenes.”

“But how could he get out?”

“I recall Luna saying something about dreams and exits, and Discord’s golem said something about having friends who help him escape.”

“We need to tell Princess Celestia about this. Now!”

“I tried,” he groaned. “She either refused to believe me or refused to hear me. I think she knows a lot more than she’s letting on.”

“Do you think she’s the one letting him out?”

“You didn’t hear it from me,” he said balefully.

“So we just sit here until Discord is gone?”

He nodded. “That’s the plan.”

“Well, how will we know?”

“We won’t,” he replied. “What we should really do is wait for the rescue party. I’m sure Mayor Mare is hot on our trail.”

“I need to get this wing to the hospital,” she reminded him. “And your ankle is swollen.”

“We’ll be fine at least until tomorrow morning. As far as I know, Discord can be out for only a day at a time, and it’s not easy for him to make it, even with help.”

“Then we’ll wait,” she nodded. “I trust you, Tux.”

“I really like how you can be independent and loyal at the same time,” he sighed. “You’re one of the strongest spirited ponies I’ve ever met.”

“Well, you’re kinda the same way,” she replied. “That’s why.... Oh, never mind.”

“That’s why what?” he asked.

“Just drop it, it’s stupid.”

“Dash, I care about you. I care about what you think. If you want to talk, then let’s talk.”

She didn’t reply for quite some time, and he listened for anything she wanted to say, while giving her the right to remain silent if she so chose. But finally, she spoke up. “That’s why I look up to you,” she mumbled. “That’s why I...think I’m in love with you.”

His expression sank. He could have seen this coming, but then again, he could never read anypony well enough to know their feelings about him. It had gotten him in trouble many a time before. Instead of saying outright that he couldn’t reciprocate, though, he went for a more diplomatic approach. “It’s too soon after Twilight for anything to happen, Dash. You know that.”

“Yeah, I do,” she huffed. “See? I told you it was stupid.”

“It’s not stupid,” he contradicted. “Is that why you left Soarin’?”

“I left Soarin’ because we weren’t right for each other. Don’t you remember saying that if I wasn’t in it lock, stock, and barrel, then I should reconsider. I wasn’t, so I did.”

“I don’t remember giving you that advice.... It sounds like something I would say, but I don’t ever remember saying it.”

“Back in September? When all of Ponyville got some kissing sickness?”


“Not mono. Don’t tell me you can’t remember it!” she groaned.

“No, I....” But he could. In the back of his mind, he remembered her flying off in a huff. He remembered kissing her. “Actually, I do.”

“Well, ever since then, I’ve been having trouble. First, I dump Soarin’. Then I dump my dream of being a Wonderbolt. Then...this!”

“Well, why did you break up with Soarin’?” he asked. “Was it because of me?”

“No, not exactly,” she sighed. “It’s just...somepony loved him more than I did. And I couldn’t be selfish and keep him from seeing it, so I.... I stepped aside.”

“A very noble thing to do,” he nodded.

“And know, after I broke up with him, how I cried? You were there for me. You didn’t judge me. And I trusted you enough to carry me through. You see, I’ve spent my whole life putting on this tomcoltish face, making everypony think I’m tough, and don’t get me wrong; I am. But I have a soft side, too. And you’re the only pony I’ve really ever shown it to.”

“And that’s why you think you’re in love with me.”

“Because you get me. You get what I’m going through.”

He understood perfectly now. If any of his mare friends had been close enough to hold him when he cried over lost love, then he would have fallen for them, too. But he didn’t feel the same way about her. Maybe it was too soon after Twilight, as he had said, but maybe he just thought of Rainbow as a friend, like Applejack. He couldn’t bear to discuss it any further, though he knew that before their time at the shanty was over, he would have to broach the subject again. “So...what about giving up your Wonderbolts dream?”

“Yeah, that....” She sighed. “At least this doesn’t screw up my image. When I was with Soarin’, he complained once or twice about never being able to see his family. I met his mom and dad, his brother, his sister.... It got me to thinking. If I joined the Wonderbolts, then I would be on tour all the time, just like he was. I would have to leave Ponyville.”

“Not for good,” he contradicted.

“But I would never be able to see my family there. I had to make a choice between my dream and my friends. And I made the right choice.”

“That’s an even nobler choice, Dash,” he acknowledged. “But you don’t have to give up your dream. Apply for the Academy, and if you make the team, you can always turn them down. You’ll know that you’re good enough.”

“But what if I’m not good enough?”

“You are good enough. More than good enough.”

“You’re just trying to stroke my ego.”

He shook his head. “I never exaggerate when I’m talking about a friend. Promise when we get out of here, you’ll apply to the Academy.”

“I promise,” she replied grudgingly. “Cross my heart and hope to fly...” She glanced at her splinted wing. “...stick a cupcake in my eye.”

“That’s the Rainbow Dash I know and love.”

She blushed. “So you do love me.”

“As a friend,” he clarified. “But yes, I do.”

Both he and Rainbow were too tired to get up for much of anything, so they decided to bite the bullet of awkwardness and both spend the night in the bed. Tux had to admit that it was a more comfortable solution overall than rebuilding the fire and sleeping on the thin bedroll. Their shared warmth helped take away the soreness of his various sprains and dislocations, and despite a bit of snoring, he was able to get a better rest than he had the night before.

But the fact still remained that he didn’t have the strength to carry Rainbow the distance to Ponyville, and she didn’t have the strength to walk. The only thing they could do was wait there for help. They passed their time playing cards with a worn deck they found in a cupboard, talking about flying techniques, and trying to figure out what to do about Discord.

The only course of action they could take was to tell Princess Celestia about it. The Elements of Harmony were locked up in a vault in Canterlot Palace, where they weren’t readily accessible, and without a darn good reason, Celestia wouldn’t allow access. After all, wanton use of power, without fail, leads to corruption.

The next day, the two of them didn’t do much. They were too bored to play cards, and neither one wanted to talk about Discord. Tux still didn’t feel strong enough to leave, and even though Rainbow could walk, she couldn’t carry him, and her wing was still broken. He refused to let her walk back to Ponyville alone, fearing that she would get lost and freeze to death in the lingering cold of winter and the labyrinthine complexity of the forest.

Yet another day passed, and the two of them were beginning to go stir crazy. Rainbow threatened to leave in spite of him, doing whatever she could to keep him from stopping her. But their wait finally came to a close. Off in the distance, Tux heard a familiar voice with a familiar lilt: “Over here! This is the place. They must have found this wanderer’s space.”

“Zecora?” he gasped, his ears pricking.

“It can’t be,” Rainbow scoffed.

“Tux! Rainbow!” It was Twilight’s voice.

“Speak up if you can hear us!” called Applejack.

“We’re fine!” Tux called back. “Follow the markers!”

It wasn’t long before the three mares came to the shanty. “Oh, thank Celestia, you’re all right,” Applejack said, rushing forward and hugging Tux and Rainbow. “We were worried sick for y’all.”

“Aside from a broken wing, there was nothing serious,” Tux explained. “But that blizzard was a doozy. Pretty...chaotic.”

“Are you trying to be cryptic?” Twilight asked, lifting an eyebrow.

“Dash and I will talk to you when we get back to Ponyville. I hope you brought a cart; we’re pretty banged up and can’t walk too far.”

“I think Mac can answer that question,” Applejack winked.

The sorrel stallion poked his head through the door and smiled. “Eeyup.”

“I’m afraid that isn’t possible.” Tux found the princess’s denial unsurprising but nonetheless disappointing.

“I know what I saw, what I heard,” he asserted. “It was Discord.”

“While generally, I am not one to doubt the veracity of your claims, this time I know that you’re mistaken.”

“Princess,” Twilight protested, “we have to take these allegations seriously. If Discord is indeed able to escape his prison, any way it may occur, then he is a threat to the security of Equestria.”

“I designed the spell which holds him into place. Its one documented failure was a flaw which you and your friends remedied.”

“But...I trust Tux. Rainbow can corroborate his story.”

Celestia lifted an eyebrow. “She didn’t witness the alleged attack, did she?”

“No,” he replied, “but she saved me from the first one.”

Celestia dismissed it with a wave of her hoof. “As you’ve said, a downdraft in a rogue blizzard.”

“With all due respect, Princess, you did this last time. Only Princess Luna gave me any credence.”

“You’ve said enough, Tux,” Celestia snapped. “I’m sorry to be short with you. But my sister is still a very sensitive subject. I have the final word on the matter. Good day.”

Tux shuffled out of the room, defeat weighing heavy on his shoulders. His blood boiled with frustration at Celestia’s dismissiveness. Where was Luna when he needed her? And why was Celestia so quick to quash any mention of her name like a downpour extinguishes a campfire.

Twilight came loping after him. “Tux, wait!” she called. “I know you’re mad, but think about it. If Discord gets out, what’s that going to do for her public image?”

“That’s exactly it,” Tux snapped, jabbing a hoof back at the throne room. “She’s so concerned about what her subjects think of her, how they look at her, that she refuses to acknowledge the biggest threat in Equestria.” Twilight balked at his harsh tone and frankness of criticism. “I don’t know if it’s her colossal ego or if she just can’t bear the thought that she’s already powerless to stop him.”


Tux stopped, caught his breath. His heart skipped a beat when he realized that he’d gone one step too far. He chose his words carefully. “She isn’t as powerful as she used to be. That’s why she needed you to find the Elements. That’s why she didn’t show up when Nightmare Moon came back.”

“I thought Nightmare Moon...I don’t know, did something to her.”

“There are two sides to every coin. And her dark side is spreading. When I look at her, I can feel it deep in the pit of my stomach. She knows Discord is loose, but she doesn’t want to do anything about it.”

“Tux, those are some pretty strong allegations.”

“There will come a time when you will have to choose your loyalty,” he warned. “It’ll be either her...or me.”

“I trust you, Tux,” she supported. “I believe you. But I can’t throw away my loyalty to Princess Celestia.”

He shook his head. “You don’t have to throw away anything. Not just yet.”

“If the time comes to choose, I’ll make sure to do what’s right, whatever that may be.”

“And I trust your judgment,” he replied. He unfurled his wings. “If you need me, I’ll be in the labyrinth.”

06 An Apple a Day

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“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.

“No, Discord!”

“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. “ 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.”

“But how?”

“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.”

“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.”

“All right....”

“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.

“An elevator.”

“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’, 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.”

“But we’re--”

“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.