The gargantuan stadium was packed to the brim, ponies from all over Equestria lined up within its cavernous walls for the chance to catch even a glimpse, a glimmer, a glance of the marvelous main act poised to stun them with his phenomenal, perfected performance. The fillies in the crowd wanted to be with him, the colts to be like him, and everypony aspired in their wildest imaginations and dreams to reach the heights his skills and sorcery had achieved; to be on that stage, with their names in lights on the Neighgas Strip for all to see.
The silence of the crowd crumbled into a cacophony of cheers and excitement as the lights focused on the stage. The roar of the crowd grew into a deafening din as he appeared with the drawing of the crimson curtains, his light red mane contrasted roughly against his coat of dark brown, cloaked in a dark indigo cloth embroidered with shining silver stars and a matching hat square atop his head. The cacophony contorted into a symphony at his arrival as every voice chanted out in harmonious reprise, an angelic chorus that echoed through the vast halls of the stadium, his name chanted by thousands of devoted fans begging for him...
The shout roused the poor colt from his slumber as he fell out of the bed in shock. His arrival on the floor echoed through the small apartment as sunlight filtered through the dirty, stained windows. A hoof arrived at his forehead, quickly accompanied by a pounding headache, no doubt brought on by the previous night’s debauchery. “You know, there are kinder ways to wake a sleeping genius from his morning slumber, in case you were wondering.”
A colt almost half the size of Nickel stood at the foot of the bed, his short grey mane soaking in what little light found its way into the small abode while his coat of bright violet tried to provide some glimmer to replace what his mane snuffed out. He shook his head lightly at Nickel’s state before he turned to walk cautiously over the floor littered with trash, his deep voice an ironic contrast to his size. “And I’d consider them if it were the morning, or you were genius. I guess we’ll have to suffice with a rude awakening until either of those becomes true.”
With a great amount of struggle, Nickel found himself on his three hooves, his fourth preoccupied with attending to his forehead for the time being. He walked, or rather limped behind his companion as his eyelids endeavored to open in the searing sunlight, “Oh Marbles, however would I find myself in good spirits without your charming and wondrous wit.”
“I’m sure you’d find some way Nickel, but you know we have a big day ahead of us, or at least we were supposed to... was it 5 days ago?” He opened the small fridge with a hoof while his mouth managed to pick up a small container of apple juice from inside.
“I told you, a bit of relaxation before a performance helps, and besides, I had more than a few bits burning a hole in my saddlebags. It was just about finding the right entertainment to pass the time.” He pushed past Marbles to find his way to a bottle of viscous green liquid near the back of the fridge. With a begrudging groan and the sounds of imminent vomiting he popped the lid of the bottle off and titled it back in his mouth for a few moments. A rough cough accompanied the sound of the bottle as it wobbled on the counter, a mix of the taste of three weeks bad apples and boiled cherry cough syrup stuck on his taste buds.
“And how much a thrill that was, oh wait, that’s right, you managed to go out on the town without me... again.” The small colt fetched a head of lettuce from under the counter, along with a few pieces of bread and sealed bag of ‘fresh’ grass.
Nickel shook his head as the near toxic remedy started to take effect on his headache and offered him at least a moment of relief, “We’ve been over this before Marbles. You’re really not that big, and everypony manages to think you’re too young about ninety-five percent of the time. Now, how about we put this behind us and get to the important stuff, right?” As he saw Marbles crush the head of lettuce with his hoof, he was more than quick to retrieve his own portion, taking a large bite in an attempt to overpower the rancid taste still on his tongue.
Marbles rolled his eyes as he finished preparing the sandwich and took a small bite before he glanced over at a board which bore a map of Canterlot, dotted with large red X’s and small blue circles, “Right...Well, of course, a few parts of the city are still out of the question. The guards around the castle and the merchant’s district are still carrying your picture.”
Nickel was focused on finding another source of food as his hunger started to grow, head buried in the fridge, “Is it the good one or the bad one? You know how I feel about that portrait from the incident with the Duchess of Trottingham.”
“I’m surprised the Duke didn’t cut your head off for that one, and it’s not like I know what they’re carrying, now would you pay attention?”
The dark brown colt withdrew his head from the fridge as he spoke through a mouth full of apple, “Hey, hefonly saf the affermaf-” Nickel swallowed to clear his throat before he continued, “-not what actually happened. I’m just lucky the Duchess screamed or he would’ve thought I hadn’t just arrived to rob him... Though depending on your viewpoints I did steal something...about two, maybe three times.” Nickel quickly noticed Marbles’s glare, “What? It’s not like I can control who my silver tongue ensnares... and I didn’t know who she was... and I was hammered... and she technically dragged me to her room, you can continue by the way.”
“...Right. The poorer districts are still an option, since you haven’t really performed there in a few months.”
“Oh, certainly, let me beg for bits from ponies begging for bits. I’m sure we’ll all delight in the splendid infinite cycle of depression until the end of days... plus it smells like rank cabbage, next.”
Marbles took another careful look over the options left on the map, “There’s the arts district... I know you think it’s too high-strung but-”
“All of those high-class ponies are too preoccupied with sniffing for daisies with their heads up their own flanks to know what real art is anyway... It’s perfect!” Nickel walked over to a small cabinet next to windows and threw its doors wide open. Inside was the same cloak and hat he had worn in his dreams, though its fabric was drained of some color from age and overuse. It only took a moment for him to don his apparel as he turned back to Marble, “Let’s go make some magic.”
The vast cobble streets of Canterlot’s art district were known for their dazzling displays that ranged from art galleries and museums all the way to some of Equestria’s finest theatres for the dramatic arts. However, above them all in true importance were the verdant trees that littered the walkways of the Fairwind Park, known to most of its occupants and proprietors as “The Lush Stage,” so called because nearly every performer, artist, and swindler who fell short of affording a real stand in the merchant’s quarter found their way to its paths, and sought fame and fortune in their own feeble ways.
At the base of a worn down willow tree, a small wooden stage of mahogany stood, hiding something behind its velvet curtains. As a meager crowd started to gather ‘round, the performer made his move, a burst of smoke creating a veil between the crowd and stage as the curtains drew apart, revealing the brown colt and his indigo drape. His voice bellowed through the crowd like the melodious notes of a harp, a sign of his honed craft, “Fillies and Gentlecolts, welcome to spectacular spectacle, the marvelous matinee, the amazing achievements of the Wondrous Willow!”
The fanfare of trumpets echoed from behind the stage as a small set of explosions accompanied their arrival in the breeze while he struck a pose, followed by the light pitter patter of hooves from his crowd. A hoof pointed at a young filly in the crowd as he continued his well-rehearsed act, “Young madame, would you care to test the skills of this humble sorcerer by being his lovely assistant?”
The filly blushed lightly as she looked between her friends who offered a giggle as she approached the stage. A small puff of smoke accompanied the arrival of a deck of cards at his hoof, fanned out at a moment’s notice to face his unwitting assistant, “Simply pick a card assistant, and make sure not to reveal its content to me.” She picked a single card after a moment of thought and quickly placed it back into the deck after its image was burned in her brain.
Nickel’s hooves stamped together on the deck as it vanished from sight, “Now, with any sign of my assistant’s choice vanished from this realm, I will recall it to existence at only her thought.” He placed his hoof on the filly’s forehead before his eyes closed tightly, “Focus on your card, and with your will and my magic, we will make it return from the great beyond!” A few moments passed before he drew his hoof up to her mane, the flick of a card accompanied with her gasp as he pulled it back, her chosen card inches before her eyes.
“T-that’s it! That was amazing!” The stamping of hooves grew louder in applause as she exited the stage, a few coins finding their way into a small basket at the stage’s side. The small feats continued with his audience members for several minutes as the basket’s contents started to overflow. Nickel’s eyes scanned the crowd at the end of another act until he spotted an aged colt wearing a fine pressed saddle with a jingling bag of coins tied to its side. A smirk crossed his lips as he pointed at the gentlecolt, “You, fine sire! Would you care to accompany me in another fantastical feat beyond imagining?”
The colt let out a chuckle of amusement as he stepped onto the stage. It was only a moment before the small bag of bits was plucked from his saddle, and before the first sign of his protest it began to float between Nickel’s grasp, even as he twisted his hooves around it in the air. A puff of smoke appeared as he stamped his hooves together once more, the bag gone from sight as the cloud dissipated. “Worry not sir, I’ve yet to lose any good sum of money in my life. It’s simply a matter of finding a way to replace it, and getting back more than you gave.”
The sound of jingling came from the colt’s side as the bag was clipped back to his saddle, and appeared larger than it was before. The crowd once again cheered in response as Nickel’s assistant left his side. The cloaked colt turned back to the crowd with a bow as he continued with his performance while the gentlecolt began to make his leave from the park. It was only as he was on the verge of departure that his mind decided upon an act of generosity, and a hoof reached into his bag. It was as he drew his hoof out of the pouch that he was greeted by a set of small dull bells in his grasp.
Nickel’s voice echoed through the crowd, “And now, for my final act!”
The gentlecolt’s mane was visibly frazzled as he turned back to the stage, Nickel’s shout drowned out by a yell, “GUARDS! That colt is a thief and a fraud! Seize him at this very moment!”
Nickel stopped in the middle of his thrilling climax as two white pegasi began to trot over to the stage. He began to laugh nervously as his eyes darted around the crowd before locking on a small violet colt, “I will make my grand escape!” He kicked the side of the stage as the explosions that had begun his performance signaled its abrupt end, accompanied by a massive cloud of smoke and the coughing of several audience members.
As the smoke cleared and the guards arrived at the stage, they found nothing left but its rickety wooden boards and faux curtain, while the small basket that had been filled to the brim with bits was gone, and only a note was left in its place: “It was a lovely show while it lasted.”
As the sun receded in the sky to give way to Luna’s moon, the park’s population dwindled to nothingness as time passed by in a flash, the street lamps illuminated and then dimmed like the flickering of a light bulb. At the base of the large willow, amidst the symphony of crickets that performed for the emptiness, was the sound of knocking from within. After a few moments, a small ‘hatch’ opened in the tree’s bark and two colts fell out of the small hole onto the soft grass. Nickel looked up from the ground with a small groan as they landed in the darkness, “Well... it’s a good thing they’re gone or this would be a fine mess we fell into, though surprisingly dramatic, I’ll have to keep it in mind.”
Marbles was quick to struggle out from underneath Nickel’s hind legs as he stood up, “You just had to make the snag on the first mark. I keep telling you to only take a few bits, not the whole thing!” The violet colt shoved his head into the hole of the tree and emerged moments later with the basket, bustling with the day’s profits.
Nickel rose to his feet as he brushed some dirt out of his mane and cloak, “Oh come on, you know how little anypony with some serious coin finds themselves gazing at The Lush Stage, though in retrospect it might of been wise given the fact he was more observant than the others... would you laugh if I said I thought the monocle meant he had bad eyesight?”
Marbles pulled out two saddlebags from within the tree as he carefully poured the basket’s contents inside. Once the bits were secure inside he lifted them onto Nickel’s flank with some difficulty before he took a breath, “I hope that’s a joke...but does that also explain...those bits you lifted off that filly too?”
Nickel grunted as the heavy load was dropped on his haunches, shotting a glare back at his companion, “Oh there’s no way in Celestia’s name you saw that.”
Marbles rolled his eyes, “It was a bit obvious given that I knew exactly what you were planning to do in the first place. Misdirection doesn’t work when you don’t have a pony’s attention in the first place. Don’t you at least feel ashamed about it?”
Nickel placed a hoof on his chest, grasping at the clasp of his cloak as his usual smile faded to a frown, “Of course, my heart and soul are truly shattered over the terrible deed I have afflicted upon such a tender maiden’s soul... but then again my body is telling me I need to eat too, so there’s that to consider.” He shot a glance around the corner of the tree and shook his head at the sight of his ‘glorious stage’ now in ruins, “You think someponies could be civil about these things.” He trotted over to its remains and, after knocking a few boards loose, managed to pull the curtain from its maw, “Well, this is in good shape at least.”
Marbles glanced about nervously, “We really should get going you know. Guards patrol around here every few hours, and I don’t want to get caught returning to the scene of the crime.”
Nickel’s shook a hoof in the air, “Ah ah ah, don’t go saying that. Technically we never, well, left the scene of the crime. You do have a point though, given how late it is. I wonder if The Apple Core is still open...” He chuckled slightly at the glare he received from Marbles, “Right, maybe lay off on the heavy celebrations for tonight. How about a stop at a cafe for some daisy sandwiches and a cold glass of cider at least, the fine gentlecolt’s treat.” He pulled out the jingling pouch from the saddlebags as they made their exit from park.
The center of Canterlot was still brightly illuminated during Luna’s night, a mix of shops and restaurants open late enough to cater to those ponies that found themselves out and about at such a late hour, though there weren’t many tonight. It was at a small cafe on a corner that the two colts found themselves enjoying a late dinner, a stack of hay fries and an apple cider on the table before Marbles as he shook his head at Nickel.
“I swear, it’s like you don’t have any concern for longevity.” He took a quick bite of hay fries and a sip of apple cider through a straw before he continued, “I mean you’re always rushing to finish everything... like that sandwich.”
Nickel looked down at his empty plate for a moment, “It’s about living life to its fullest Marbles. You have to take it by the horns as it were, and there’s no time to fuss about what could have been. Besides, if you’re worried about another stage name off the list, I have five or six lined up. Hay, anything is better than Nickel, I mean what even goes with that? Notable, Noble, Neif...”
Marbles interjected, “That last one is a noun, and means foolish.”
He took a large sip of his drink, a mix of alcohol and juices, “Oh quiet... it does sound cool though. ‘The Neif Nickel’. How many ponies do you think would know what it means?”
“Fair point. Regardless, sticking with an alias is like holding onto a used tissue until every inch is soaking wet. What’s the point when you’re going to toss it away at the end anyway, or at least when you’ll need it for another day. After all, Willow started out back in Ponyville when we were just passing through and it did give me a chance to think on my hooves... that pink filly sure was concerned with finding out who I was.”
Marbles glared at Nickel as his ears pressed against the sides of his face, a hoof at his forehead, “Right, and what happens when you happen to pull one out of thin air that just so happens to match somepony else’s exactly?”
“The odds are too small for that to ever happen. Plus, there’s hundreds of thousands of ponies out there. Some are bound to have the same name... maybe.” Nickel clopped his hooves together to call a waiter over, “Another drink please, and surprise me.” His order was accompanied by a few bits in the waiter’s pocket as he left with a nod. “You know, I do wonder though. Why do we keep at it?”
“Because you don’t want to get a job like a normal pony.”
Nickel continued as he tried to ignore the interruption, “We scrimp and save and perform and grasp at the strings that are so close to us, but they always slip by. We start the whole thing over again, and what do we have to show for it? A few mugshots on my behalf and several headaches on yours.” He pushed a hoof along the edges of his plate, “The world is unkind to ponies like me Marbles.”
Marbles rolled his eyes in response, having heard the rants dozens of times before, “And why do you say that?”
Nickel’s movements became erratic as he was caught up in the moment, “I had dreams you know, hay, I have dreams still. To be somepony, my name in lights and ponies clamouring to see me perform on stage. But no, nopony wants to see sleight of hand and a quick wit, they want real magic, and who has real magic? Unicorns.” Nickel lifted the magician’s hat long enough to showcase his bare forehead before he slammed a hoof down on the table, “I’ve wanted to be a showcolt, a magician, since I was a foal Marbles, but all these books on magic are written for unicorns. There’s no magic words, no incantations, nothing but this, rambling on about focusing with your horn and visualizing it come to reality.” Nickel’s hooves waved around as if he were going crazy, just as the waiter returned with an eyebrow raised as he sat the drink down and left.
“...You may want to hold the outbursts until we’re, you know, not in public.”
“The point is Marbles, we’re doing nothing sitting around here day after day. We have to go where things happen because you make them happen. Where anypony can be anything they want in the blink of an eye. Where fortunes are won and lost as fast as the dreams of having them and nightmares of losing them come to thought.”
“Please don’t go on about this again....”
“Where show business happens, where magic happens, where dreams are reality. With today’s bits, we have more than enough to get us there.”
“I’ve told you a dozen times already-”
“Then one more isn’t going to make a difference, is it? We’re going Marbles, and that’s that. Tomorrow, we set out for Las Neighgas, on the first train out of Canterlot.”