Belle Star and Coral trudged wearily into New Pony. The city streets were blanketed with snow. The two fillies were cold and hungry, and out of money.
"Oh! What are we going to do?" whined Belle Star. "We spent our last jangles in the last town and we don't know anyone here we could stay with."
Coral grinned. "Don't worry about anything! I'll take care of everything! Come on!" She grabbed Belle Star's foreleg and dragged her down the street. Coral looked about frantically. "I know there's an art gallery around here somewhere."
"Art gallery? Do they have food?"
"Sure, some. But there's much better things to be found at galleries."
"What's better than food?"
Coral's face brightened. "There it is! Come on!" She dragged her friend across the street to a brightly lit building. They stormed up the steps and through the door, almost barreling over a well dressed stallion.
"You two seem to be in a hurry! To tell you the truth, this exhibit isn't really worth getting that worked up over."
Belle Star bowed deeply. "I'm so sorry..."
"It's all right. No harm done. Are the two of you fans of Sergio?"
"Ah... who?" Belle Star scratched her head.
Coral shrugged. "I heard he was an up and coming painter who might just be the next big thing."
The stallion nodded. "Yes, that was last week. His latest efforts have been somewhat lacking. The one to watch now is Rodan."
Belle Star's face brightened. "You mean like in the monster movies?"
Coral and the stallion regarded the tan pony with quizzical expressions. The stallion broke into laughter. "What a breath of fresh air you are, my dear. Now, let me introduce you two to Rodan. I think I saw him just a couple of minutes ago. Oh, by the way, my name's Roger, Roger Smith."
Belle Star bowed. "Oh, nice to meet you Mr. Roger Smith. I am Belle Star."
"And I'm Coral."
"Well, Miss Belle Star, Miss Coral, I'm honored to make your acquaintance. Now, let's find Rodan, shall we." Roger led the two fillies through the crowded gallery, craning his neck to see over the crowd. "Ah, there he is. Eh, Rodan! I've got a couple of ponies I'd like you to meet."
Rodan, a red pony with orange hair, turned from the painting he had been scrutinizing. "Not more critics, I hope. The last thing I need is more criticism."
"Oh, not at all," Roger assured him. "Just a couple of beautiful young fillies with an interest in the arts."
Rodan regarded Coral and Belle Star. "Yes, beautiful indeed. And I am sure much better company than critics. So, you two are interested in the arts? Then whatever are you doing here? I suppose if one needed a new doormat, one of these canvases might do; but art, you'd be better off hanging the palate on the wall than any of these... paintings."
Belle Star looked about the room. "Um, I don't see any paintings."
Rodan clapped his forehooves together. "Well said! You are truly a pony of vision."
Coral nodded. "Yes. It does seem that the works seem to be lacking something. It's like he forgot the meaning of his art."
"Oh yes. I dare say he was blinded by money. Quantity over quality. He gave only enough effort to get himself recognized, and now he's simply trying to get as much money as he can before they realize he's a fraud."
Just then, Belle Star's stomach growled. "I'm sorry. Do you have anything to eat?"
"Well, there are some hors d'oeuvres," said Rodan. "Two beauties like you deserve a proper meal, and some good company. What do you say, Roger? Your treat?"
Roger shrugged. "Oh, I suppose. Can't expect you to dirty your hooves with money."
* * *
The four ponies sat around the table at a rather expensive restaurant. Belle Star looked nervously through the menu. "It's all so expensive."
"Oh, don't worry about it; just order whatever you want," said Rodan.
"Yes, it's not like it's your money."
Belle Star shook her head. "I... I couldn't."
"Why don't I order for you?" offered Rodan.
Roger shrugged. "You might as well..."
"That would be very kind of you," said Coral.
"I'm beginning to wonder why I'm even here," mumbled Roger. "I could have just given you my wallet."
"Nonsense! Your charming personality would have been sorely missed. Besides, you're the one with standing reservations. I doubt the rest of us would have gotten through the door."
Coral and Roger laughed; Belle Star was confused. "Oh, Belle Star!" Coral said. "They're just joking!"
Belle Star smiled and giggled, but didn't join in the full fledged laughter of her companions.
Rodan ordered for the group, and the meal was quite delicious. Once they were finished, Roger asked the girls, "So, what brings you to New Pony for the holidays?"
Belle Star hung her head; Coral answered Roger's question. "Well, Belle Star is having some problems with her boyfriend and she needed some space and time to work out her feelings for him. I figured a cross country trip would do her good, and we just happened to get into town today."
Rodan nodded. "I see."
"Where are you staying? It would be ungentlemanly for Rodan and me not to walk you home."
"We haven't really made any plans yet..."
"Then I insist you stay with me while you're in town!"
Belle Star shook her head. "Oh no! Mr. Roger, you've been too generous already! We couldn't..."
"But Belle Star," Coral cut her friend off, "we don't want the gentleman to think us rude."
"Oh, it's quite all right. If you'd rather make other arrangements, I'd fully understand."
"No!" Coral blurted out. "To tell you the truth, we don't really have any money. We spent our last jangles to buy sandwiches yesterday, and..."
"Oh. Well, in that case I must insist that you stay with me. The streets are no place for a couple of delicate fillies like you to be spending the night. And you'll have a hot breakfast in the morning; in fact, you'll have hot meals for as long as you choose to stay!"
Coral bowed. "You are too kind."
Belle Star followed her friend's lead. "Well, I guess, if you insist..."
"Then it's settled!" announced Rodan boisterously.
Roger shook his head. "I don't think I'll ever understand those artist types."
"But Coral is an artist," Belle Star pointed out.
"Really! Why didn't you say so sooner?"
Coral shrugged. "I'm not really in Rodan's league. I just do portraits and landscapes to pay the rent."
"Well, I've dabbled in painting a bit; never really caught the knack, though," said Roger. "But I still have a small studio set up. If you'd care to do some painting while you're staying with me, you're welcome."
Coral bowed deeply. "Oh! You really are too kind!"
"And I'd love to see some of your work," Rodan said. "I'll have to stop by after you've had a chance to get something done and have a look."
After Roger had payed the bill, the four ponies walked several blocks to Roger's home.
"This is an unusual house," Coral commented at the sight of the imposing facade of the building.
Rodan nodded. "Yes, Roger's father was a banker, and a successful one at that; but he squandered the family fortune and left Roger the debt. To settle the debt, Roger sold the family house, and moved into the bank. Caused quite a stir when it happened, but people have gotten used to it."
Roger led his guests up the front steps into the grandiose lobby of the bank. "This place is every bit as elegant as the house was, but it's much more convenient; within easy walking distance of all the best restaurants and galleries."
Belle Star looked about in awe. The floors were polished marble, fluted columns lined the walls, and the vaulted ceiling was gilded in gold.
Roger ushered them to the elevator. "The living quarters are on the top floor," he explained.
Rodan bowed politely at the elevator door. "I'll be headed home for the night. It was a pleasure meeting you, ladies."
Belle Star returned his bow, and almost got her mane caught in the closing elevator doors.
When the elevator doors opened on the top floor, an old, dark gray pony greeted them. "Ah, Master Roger, you're back. And you've brought guests. I'll go make up the guest rooms."
"Very good, Norman. Now ladies, I forgot to mention, but I have only one rule for my guests: you must wear black."
"Ah, but Mr. Roger..." Belle Star began.
"I'm sorry, but I cannot make any exceptions. It's a matter of aesthetics. Don't worry, the guest rooms have fully stocked wardrobes.
"Norman! Are the rooms ready yet?"
The dark gray pony returned and bowed. "Yes, Master Roger."
"Why don't you show the ladies to their rooms." Roger yawned. "I'm beat. I'll be turning in now."
"Very good, Master Roger. This way, ladies." Norman led Coral and Belle Star down the hallway into a spacious room with a sofa and big screen TV. There were three doors leading from the room. The butler gestured to two of the doors. "Those are your rooms. The third door is the facilities. Feel free to use the telly, but keep the volume to a polite level. If you have any questions, just ring." With that, he gestured to a velvet rope hanging in the corner.
"Ah... I've got a question..." said Coral.
"About the black?" Norman nodded. "Master Roger is an eccentric; he lives in a bank and collects model robots, but he has money and ponies have learned to put up with him. I suggest you just play along."
Coral and Belle Star nodded.
"Very good; now, if that will be all, I'll be turning in myself for the night."
"Good night, Norman," said Belle Star.
"And to you as well," he replied with a bow, and departed.
"Wow! This place is great!" said Coral once Norman was gone.
Belle Star surveyed the richly furnished room in awe. "Yeah, we sure are lucky we ran into a nice pony like Roger."
"Luck had nothing to do with it! You just have to know how to play these society types."
Belle Star was confused.
"Don't worry, these society types are always looking for stray artists to take in. It makes them feel like they're doing a good deed, and if the artist has any talent, they get the credit for 'discovering' the new artist."
"Come on! Cheer up! Just enjoy yourself! That's what we're here for, after all. Now come on, let's check out our new wardrobes!"
The two friends spent several hours going through the various black outfits left them by their host before turning in for the night.
* * *
The next morning, Norman fetched the girls bright and early for breakfast and escorted them to the dining room. Coral was wearing a black vest and Belle Star had a big black bow tied in her tail.
"I hope you ladies slept well last night," Roger greeted them. He wore the same black tie he had worn the night before, or one just like it.
"Oh yes, quite well," replied Coral.
Belle Star yawned.
"Was there a problem with your room?"
"Huh? What? Oh, I'm just not a morning pony, I guess."
Roger nodded. "I see. Well, tomorrow you can sleep in, and Norman will fix you breakfast whenever you get up."
Just then, Norman arrived with the breakfast, eggs, toast and jelly, and a pot of black coffee.
"Oh, do you have any green tea?" Belle Star asked.
"I'm sorry, we only have coffee," replied Norman. "But I can be sure to have some on hand for tomorrow, if you like."
"Oh yes, that would be very nice of you."
"Would you have any requests, Mistress Coral?" the butler inquired.
"Not at all. Good old fashioned black coffee is just fine by me. But would you have any salt?"
The ponies ate their breakfast, Coral finishing several cups of heavily salted coffee, and then Roger showed them to his studio. It was a large room with high ceilings. The entire north wall was glass and offered an excellent view of the city. There were two large easels and numerous canvases scattered about the room. Some of the canvases had unfinished paintings or just sketches, but the majority were empty. There was also a stack of sketchpads and pencils. Across from the windows was a sink and counter scattered with tubes of paint, brushes, knives, jars, and bottles. On the far side of the room from the door, to the east, the windows had been shaded and there was a large table with an elaborate lighting arrangement suspended over it. The whole room smelled of linseed oil and turpentine.
"Well, here it is. Feel free to use any of the canvases; I don't plan on finishing any of them."
Belle Star regarded one of the unfinished paintings. "It doesn't look that bad to me."
Roger blushed. "Oh, you flatter me. But I'm sure Coral will be able to point out their failings. Now, I've got to be going. You two enjoy yourselves and if you need anything, just ring Norman."
Roger left and Belle Star continued to regard the painting. "Ah, Coral, what do you think?"
The painter studied the painting. "Hm, I'd say his failing as an artist is lack of self-confidence. This is actually pretty good, for a beginner." Coral picked up the canvas and set it on an easel.
"You're not going to paint over it, are you?" Belle Star whined.
"Of course not! I'm going to finish it!"
While Coral gathered supplies from around the room, Belle Star went to investigate the table at the far end of the room. She pulled the string to turn on the lights suspended over the table to illuminate a detailed model of the city. She looked out the windows and then back at the model; it was a perfect likeness for the city below the studio, except for the giant robots. Unlike the city outside the window, the model was devoid of giant robots wreaking havoc. Actually, it was the other way around; model robots wreaked havoc on the model city.
"Wow!" Belle Star leaned close to the model to study the intricate details. She was so lost in the detail of the miniature world that she didn't realize she was leaning too far over the table and was about to lose her balance. But just before she extended herself across that line, Coral called out to her.
"Belle Star, could you give me a hand with this for a minute?"
"Oh! Yes." Belle Star spun around, bumping into the table, knocking half the robots over. "Oh my!" she fretted, turning back to the table. "Now what have I done? Mr. Roger is going to throw us out on the street now!"
"Don't worry about it. I'm sure he'll forgive you. Now just come here and give me a hand before you cause any more trouble."
"Oh, all right." Belle Star helped Coral move the easel until the light was to her liking. Then Coral began to paint. Belle Star watched for a while as she began to fill in the foreground on the unfinished landscape. But she soon got bored watching her friend paint and wandered off. She sat down next to the stack of sketchbook and began to flip through them one by one. This bored her quickly, as they were mostly empty. She picked up one of the pencils that laid next to the stack of books and began to doodle on one of the blank pages. After half an hour of intensive drawing, she held up the sketchbook for Coral to see, a drawing of two ponies in a heart.
"It's me and Clever Clover!" Belle Star announced proudly.
Coral glanced at the drawing and smiled. "That's pretty good, but you're supposed to be getting your mind off of him. Why don't you try drawing something else? How about something for the holidays?"
Belle Star hung her head. "Oh. All right." And she began to draw again.
When Coral was finished with the painting, she turned to her friend, who had been quiet for quite some time. "So, what have you come up with?"
Belle Star showed her friend her new drawing, a huge Christmas tree in a grandiose hall, all decked out for the season.
"Wow! That is really great! Would you mind if I did a painting of it?"
Belle Star tore the page from the book and handed it to her friend. "I'd like that." Then she went back to sketching.
Coral paused for a moment before returning to the easel. "Belle Star, don't feel bad. I know you miss Clever Clover, but you've got to get your mind off him if only for a little while. It's for your own good." Belle Star didn't reply. While Coral was taking the finished canvas from the easel, Belle Star wiped a tear from her eye.
Coral spent the rest of the day painting Belle Star's Christmas tree, but Belle Star had grown bored with her drawing by early afternoon. She wandered from the studio and bumped into Norman, whom she asked for a bag of potato chips. With her chips in hoof, she went to the room adjoining the guest rooms to watch some TV.
It was early evening when Roger returned. He found Coral putting the finishing touches on the Christmas tree when he arrived.
"That is brilliant!" he beamed. "You are truly a great artist!"
Coral smiled. "Well, I can't take all the credit. The idea was Belle Star's." She held up the drawing her friend had done.
"Well, you are both very talented. Now, where is Belle Star?"
"She is watching the television," Norman informed him.
"Well, bring her here! This painting, and the two lovely fillies responsible for it, are going to be the centerpieces for my Christmas ball!"
When Norman returned with Belle Star, the tan pony's eyes welled up with tears at the sight of the finished painting. "It... it's just like Malachite Castle, two years ago. Oh, that Christmas was so romantic; it was sort of like Clever Clover's and my first date."
Coral shook her head. "You are hopeless."
Roger looked thoughtfully at the painting. "This Clever Clover is the one she's having trouble with? That sort of intense emotion is always good for a creative mind. If only I'd had someone as dear to me as that, maybe my paintings would have amounted to something. Oh well. Christmas is only two days away, and if the two of you are going to be the stars of the party, you'll have to go out tomorrow and buy some nice clothes, something tasteful, in black."
* * *
The next afternoon (Belle Star slept until noon), Coral and Belle Star hit all the most exclusive dress shops in New Pony, with a note from Roger promising to pay for any purchases in full, as long as the dresses were black. Coral was thoroughly enjoying herself. Belle Star, however, was rather down. Coral was aware of her friend's emotional state, but had learned better than to try and cheer her up. All she could do was wait it out.
When they got back to the bank, they found Norman in the process of decorating the lobby.
"Could you use a hand with that?" Coral offered.
"That's very kind of you, but I don't think Master Roger would approve of his guests laboring alongside the hired help. But don't worry, I'll manage."
Coral shrugged and made for the elevator. Belle Star set down her bags and walked over to the pile of decorations that still needed to be hung. She picked up a large wreath and asked, "Where does this go?"
Norman stared at her for a moment then smiled. "That would look quite excellent over the front entry. There is a step ladder in the closet next to the elevator."
"I'll get it!" called out Coral. A warm grin spread across Belle Star's face.
The girls spent most of Christmas Eve helping Norman finish decorating, much to Roger's objections. By evening, everything was ready for the grand ball on Christmas day, and Rodan stopped by to wish his friend a Merry Christmas, and to deliver some Christmas presents. He had one for everyone- Roger, Coral, Belle Star, and even Norman- and he insisted that they open them immediately, though they were only wrapped in the bags of the boutiques he had bought them at earlier that day. For Roger there was a bright red scarf; for Coral, an art book; for Belle Star, a charm bracelet with a gold star charm; and for Norman, a black bow tie.
They sat and talked for much of the night before turning in. Rodan slept on the couch. They were up bright and early the next morning, even Belle Star, who was actually up by nine o'clock.
On Christmas morning, Roger was the one handing out gifts. He started by giving his butler a bright red scarf that looked surprisingly like the one Rodan had given him the night before. Norman was so moved that he gave Roger a black bow tie. Rodan received a black beret. For Coral there was a set of very expensive paintbrushes; and for Belle Star, a silver star charm for her bracelet.
"Your gifts are so wonderful, both of you; I only wish I had something I could give you in return," said Belle Star.
"Nonsense!" replied Rodan. "A gift is not truly a gift if one expects to be repaid!"
Roger nodded. "Besides, we all know you two don't have any money. As far as we're concerned, your company is gift enough."
"Here here!" added Rodan.
"Right-o," Norman chimed in.
* * *
The evening came, and the ball started. Coral's painting of the Christmas tree hung high on the wall in the bank lobby. Roger insisted that the girls be available for the first couple of hours of the ball at least so that they could be shown off. Coral was reveling in the attention, but Belle Star was uncomfortable. It was only an hour into the ball when she excused herself for some fresh air.
The fresh cold air felt good as she walked down the front steps of the bank. "I'll just go for a walk around the block," she said to no one in particular. She walked slowly, almost oblivious to the world around her, except for the snow. She had always liked the snow. It was so pure, and clean, and gentle as it drifted down to earth. She watched a large snowflake land on her nose. It lifted her spirits, a little. Just then she heard something from across the street, the sound of laughter. She looked, and saw five baby ponies having a snowball fight in a park. She walked over toward them.
"Merry Christmas!" she greeted them. "But what are you doing out here all by yourselves this late at night?" Now that she was closer, Belle Star could see that the baby ponies seemed not to have bathed in quite some time.
One of the babies, a little boy, blue with red hair, looked up at her and shrugged. "We don' 'ave no place 'go."
Another baby, a little filly, tugged on Belle Star's skirt. "A' you a pwincess?"
Belle Star smiled at the little pony. "No. But I do know a princess, and a prince."
The little girl's eyes widened. "Wealy? Tew me bou' the pwince an' pwincess!"
"All right." Belle Star sat down on a park bench and set the little girl on her lap. "Would the rest of you like to hear a story?" The other baby ponies gathered around and stared at Belle Star with rapt attention.
"Well, once upon a time there was a brave and handsome prince who lived in a far away land. And this prince had three friends, a pirate, a princess, and a common girl. The pirate and the princess both wanted to marry the prince, and they fought furiously over him, but the common girl was happy just to be his friend. One day, the prince and his three friends went for a walk in the woods, but it started to snow very hard. They all got separated and lost, but the brave prince was determined to find his friends. He found the princess and the pirate and took them to a cave where they would be safe from the storm. Then he went looking for the common girl. He looked and he looked, and just when he thought he would never find her, he stumbled onto the place where she had taken refuge from the storm next to a big rock. The prince was overjoyed to find his lost friend, because she was the one he truly loved, and right then and there he asked her to marry him."
"Oh! Oh!" cried the little girl pony in delight. "What did she say?"
"Well, at first she didn't believe that the prince was really asking her, the common girl, to marry him. She thought it was just a dream brought on by the cold. But when she felt the prince's warm forelegs around her, she knew that it was true, and she said yes!"
"And did they live happiwy eva' afta'?" asked the little girl.
Belle Star's smile faded a bit. "I... hope so." She took a folded piece of paper from her purse and handed her drawing of her and Clever Clover to the little girl. "There, you see? It's the prince and his common girl."
The little girl looked at the page with wide eyes full of wonder, then handed it back to Belle Star, but the tan pony shook her head. "You keep it, as a Christmas present."
"Oh! Tank you vewy much!"
Belle Star set the little girl down. "Now, I want you to go get your parents, your brothers and sisters, and all your friends, and I'll give you all a Christmas present!"
"Yay!" the little ponies cheered in unison as they scampered off in all directions.
* * *
Roger surveyed the crowd at his ball. Coral was playing her part well, but Belle Star was nowhere to be seen. Then something caught his eye that seemed out of place, a scraggly looking pony wearing a tattered and dirty scarf. Not wanting to make a scene, Roger made his way toward the out-of-place pony. But on the way he noticed another, and another, a whole swarm of dirty street ponies! Then he saw Belle Star, leading them to the buffet!
"Belle Star!? What is going on here!?"
The tan pony stepped forward with a big grin upon her face. "These are my dear friends, and I asked them over for a bite to eat."
Roger was flabbergasted. His mouth opened and closed several times, but no words came out. An awkward silence fell over the room. The silence was soon broken by the sound of clapping hooves. "Bravo! Bravo, Belle Star!" It was Rodan. "You truly are a breath of fresh air!"
Roger began to laugh. "Yes, well done! Any friend of yours is surely welcome at my party! Please, all of you, enjoy yourselves. And have a Merry Christmas, everyone!"