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    A zebra, a stallion, and a manticore walked into a bar.

    The bar in question went by the name of Torramund and could be found in the small town bordering Eventide Isle. The decrepit yet inviting establishment had been home to many a drunkard throughout the years, and its elderly bartender had heard more secrets and confessions than most priests had in their entire lifetimes.

    The bartender, Tundra Leaf, was of zebra origins. Though she was born in Equestria, she had lived in the Undiscovered West most of her life, which was hardly undiscovered but Equestrians always did love pretending only Equestria mattered.

    As she cleaned glasses behind the counter, she observed with vague interest the new arrivals. The stallion, she noticed, was young and handsome, smiling brightly as he held the door open for the others. A zebra strode in afterwards, the expression in her face starkly contrasting with the stallion’s cheerful one. Finally, a manticore stepped in, and Tundra wondered how such a ferocious beast could manage to look so terrified of others as he awkwardly followed his companions, his eyes avoiding the gaze of the interested patrons.

    “Well, at least no one died!” exclaimed the stallion as he sat down on a bench and put his torn messenger bag on the table. “I’m sure that gryphon can handle one or two stabbings in the leg.”

    The zebra sat beside him, taking care to shoot him a nasty glare before turning to the manticore and offering a much kinder gaze.

    “Sit, Sweet Fruit,” she said, and the manticore hesitated, clutching a small pouch against his chest as he continued to watch the other patrons. He mewled in reply, almost like a kitten, and when nearby patrons snickered, a look from the young zebra quickly silenced them. “I am here, Sweet Fruit,” she continued, and then added, with another glare at the stallion, “and so is this Equestrian wajinga.”

    “What’s the fact that I’m Equestrian have to do with me being stupid?” he asked.

    “Everything,” the bartender replied, and the younger zebra smiled with delight. Tundra Leaf put her clean glasses under the counter and gave her three patrons a hard stare. “What’s your business?”

    “To have a drink?” suggested the stallion.

    “A hard drink,” the zebra added.

    The manticore, who’d moved a stool away and sat down, simply blinked and mewled in reply.

    “I don’t serve strangers,” said Tundra Leaf. She was old and set in her ways, and these young ones reeked of trouble. And yet, she amended her statement and pointed to the manticore. “I’ll serve him.”

    The manticore clapped his paws together in reply, his grin endearing despite his massive sharp fangs.

    “Don’t be fooled,” warned the stallion. “Tangerine looks adorable, but he’s only acting.”

    The younger zebra snorted. “At least he is convincing when he tries to act cute.”

    “And yet you still love me!” he replied.

    The zebra sighed. “I never had good taste,” she murmured, and Tundra was impressed somepony could grin so much when faced with such a comment.

    “That’s fair,” the stallion said, and finally turned to Tundra. “If I tell you my name, will I still be a stranger?”

    “No,” she replied, “but you’ll still be Equestrian.” She glanced at the zebra. “My deepest sympathies.”

    She sighed. “Thank you.”

    “Really, how do you know Equestrians are so bad?” the stallion asked.

    Tundra’s reply was short. “I’m married to one.”

    “Oh.” He turned to his beloved. “What do you think about open relationships?” he asked, and yelped when she thwacked him with her hoof. “So you do want to marry me?” he asked upon recovering, and yelped again when her hoof met his face once again.

    “I am Frost Flower,” said the zebra, bowing her head. She then gestured to the stallion. “And this is North Ridge.”

    “And we’re wanted innocents,” he added.

    “North!” gasped Frost Flower.

    Tangerine mewled in reply, turning to Tundra and shaking his head.

    “What?” asked North Ridge. “It’s true, isn’t? I’d call us wanted criminals, but we’re not criminals!”

    “Stabbing a gryphon,” Tundra said, “is usually considered a criminal activity.”

    Frost Flower gritted her teeth. “Your mouth runs like the river of deadly Lake Naresh, North, and if you continue this way, soon we will be in the company of the bodies lying in its depths.”

    Tangerine mewled again, and Frost Flower smiled kindly. “Worry not, Sweet Fruit. We are safe.” She gestured towards the door. “Please, will you not look outside and see if Saffir is coming?”

    Tangerine nodded, slurping down the last of his milk before politely putting the cup down and mewling brightly at Tundra. When she nodded in reply, he finally scurried off. North Ridge followed him with his eyes, and as soon as the manticore was out of the establishment, he turned to the zebra. “Saffir? Why didn’t you tell me he’s ali—”

    “He is not.”

    “Dear stars.” He looked towards the bar, crossing his forelegs, which Tundra now noticed were wrapped in bloodied bandages. “How?”

    “A spear.”

    “Were you there with him?”

    Frost Flower fell silent, tears twinkling in her eyes, and Tundra’s heart softened as the stallion leaned over to nuzzle the zebra, planting a kiss on her cheeks.

    After a moment, she folded her hooves on the table and softly said, “How many more?”

    He leaned back and reached into his saddlebag. “Until the job is done, who knows,” he said, retrieving a ragged blanket and draping it over her shoulders. “Until our debt is paid, who knows.”

    “Wajinga,” she whispered. “You should go back to Equestria. Go back to your land and be a fool there.”

    “Will you come with me?” he asked.

    “I will die in my lands,” she replied, “buried beneath the Great Fruit Tree.”

    He sighed and when he lifted his forehoof, his blood stained the wooden counter. Tundra grunted, handing him a wet cloth with which he wiped the blood and continued to speak.

    “Then that’s the day I will return to Equestria,” he declared. “When the frosted flowers have returned to the soil in hopefully at least a hundred more decades.”

    “Or tomorrow,” she said coldly. “Or next week, or the next if the Commander finds us.” She turned her eyes back to Tundra, who had been watching in silence. “Are we still strangers?”

    “No,” Tundra replied. “What would you want?”

    “Tea, please,” North Ridge said.

    “Coffee. Black. Please,” Frost Flower added.

    He grinned. “It’s her favorite dri—”

    Yells from outside interrupted. Dozens of them, louder and louder, like a riot unleashed, and before anyone could turn around, the front door slammed open and Tangerine rushed in, panicked and frenzied and bleeding from the spot where an arrow had been jammed into his shoulder.

    Frost Flower cursed loudly, getting up to her hooves and grabbing her bag. “The Commander!” she gasped. “Sweet Fruit, the door! The door!”

    As Tangerine closed the door, North turned to Tundra and flashed her a grin. “Can we take those to go?”

    “FROST FLOWER!” a voice boomed from outside. “WE KNOW YOU’RE IN HERE!”

    Tundra stared at the three intruders, from the grinning stallion to the frigid zebra to the terrified manticore. She made a choice.

    “The backdoor!” she yelled to the three strangers and to all her patrons. She gestured to a door near the back of the bar. “It will lead you into the tunnels.”

    In a panicked frenzy, the bar’s patrons rushed towards the door, running past the bartender and the three intruders.

    Once they were alone, truly and completely, Frost turned to Tundra and bowed her head. “Thank you,” she said before gesturing towards Tangerine. “Sweet Fruit! Come!”

    Frost Flower and Tangerine left first, the latter mewling piteously at the blood leaking from his wound. North lingered for a moment, turning to the bartender and glancing towards the front door being pounded on by angry strangers.

    “I’m sorry,” he said. “We’ll be back to pay for any damages.”

    “Five hundred coins,” she said when the door splintered and an axe embedded itself in it. “Five hundred silver coins will do.”

    He smiled. “Very well! You have my word!”

    “I will be waiting,” she said, watching as large claws ripped the door open. “Leave.”

    And so he did, without another word, and Tundra Leaf simply sighed, took a glass and started to clean.

    A cloaked stallion walked into a bar.

    The sweltering heat rushed in when he opened the door, and young Summer Leaf stopped cleaning a glass in favor of blinking curiously at the hooded intruder. Wasn’t he melting under that cloak? He looked suspicious, to be clear, but unlike her long-gone grandmother, Summer tried not to judge before meeting a new patron.

    “Hello!” she greeted brightly, and so did the stallion walk up to her. “Please sit down!”

    “Thank you,” a gruff voice replied, scratchy and hoarse from old age, perhaps? He took off the hood and so was an older stallion revealed, wrinkles decorating his face all the way up to his reddened, weary eyes.

    She did not ask.

    “What can I get you?” she asked instead, eager to help.

    He smiled. “Black coffee, please,” he said and then paused, eyes narrowing. “You… You’re new here?”

    Summer smiled nervously, reaching down the counter for a clean cup. “Oh, uh, not really? A little?” she said, pouring hot coffee into the cup. “I’ve only been working here for a few years, but the bar belongs to my family. My grandmother used to be the bartender.”

    He hummed. “Was she a zebra that did not serve strangers?” he asked and grinned widely when she giggled.

    “That’s her!” she exclaimed, and so did a knot form in her throat. “She’s gone now, though,” she said, placing the cup in front of him. “She’s gone.”

    His expression softened. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

    “It’s fine!” she quickly said, taking a seat before him and crossing her forelegs. “Everybody goes in the end.”

    “That is true!” He took a sip of the coffee and smiled. “We are all stories in the end.”

    Before she could ask a single more question, she watched with shock as he downed the entire cup of steaming coffee in a single gulp. When he finished, he placed the cup down on the counter and cleared his throat.

    “Very good coffee.”

    “Uhhhhh…” She cleared her throat as well. “I’m glad you liked it! Would you, uh, like another?” she asked, already reaching for the pot.

    “No,” he said with a kind smile, pushing the cup towards her. “Thank you, but I must be going now.”

    “Oh, all right!” she said, truthfully a bit disappointed. She was enjoying the stallion’s presence, as she often did when patrons had stories of her grandmother. “That will be two coins, please!”

    He reached into his bag and pulled out a satchel, placing it on the counter with a large thud after which it fell over, allowing dozens or so of gold coins to spill out.

    “There you go,” he said. “That should be enough?”

    Summer gasped. “Wh-what?! For me?”

    “Yes, for you!” he exclaimed. “All for you, young bartender.”

    Summer was besides herself. Never in her life had she seen so many golden coins before her!

    “But these are— I can’t acce—”

    “You have to,” he cut off. “They’re not mine, either. It was a debt I owed your dear grandmother.” He leaned in and grinned. “Did she ever tell you of the time a zebra, a stallion and a manticore visited her?”

    Summer stopped. “Wait…” She stepped back, eyes widening. “That… that was you?! You’re the ones who had the bar completely destroyed?! With the zebra and the manticore that mewled like a kitten and all that?!”

    “That was us, yes!” he exclaimed, and he seemed proud of the fact. “And I did promise your grandmother I would pay her back! And I have!” He pushed the coins towards Summer. “A few decades late, but I did it.” He then cleared his throat and stepped back. “But, as I said, I must go. I have a long journey ahead.”

    “A — a long journey?” she asked.

    He nodded and offered a sad smile.

    “The frosted flowers have returned to the soil,” he said, “and now I must go home to Equestria.”

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    1. A Deer
      Jun 12, '23 at 2:38 am

      This story has so much character packed into every part. Felt like the sense of all the characters came through clear and vivid. Very fluid prose that was enjoyable to read. And great backstory on North who we meet in TEK. Will start back up on finishing my reread of TEK here soon I think, when I’m good to go.

      Also never liked it when someone came and wrecked my place of work. Didn’t get paid enough for that.

    2. Zanna Zannolin
      Oct 24, '22 at 8:06 pm

      i am amazed that in less than 3k words you managed to get me attached to frost flower to the point where i’m sad that she died when i KNEW she was going to die because she’s dead in the current events of tek. that takes some skill. idk just…her and north’s dynamic…her calling him stupid as both an insult and an expression of fondness. how unlikely they are and their wonderful banter. him drinking her favorite drink after she dies. :((( i hope they had many happy years together because i am wailing right now.

    3. AFanaticRabbit (Ashley)
      Apr 10, '22 at 2:32 am

      Oh noooo