When I awake in the morning I am, somehow, not surprised to find myself a Changeling sandwiched between two other Changelings, specifically Twin, whom I’m facing but who is facing away from me, and Replie, who is to my back, with Reflection on the other side of Twin. No, not “somehow”… I can still… feel my appearance. That, and everything I’ve felt… those strange sensations no human has ever experienced before… Can ever experience, really… “Human”… I grimace at the thought as it brings forth a never ending swirl of those impossible questions: How had this happened to me? Why? I begin to stand, wanting to distract myself with my morning routine—whatever that means for Changelings…—but before I can even get one hoof under me, two forelegs wrap around my neck and pull me back down; of course, as I can clearly see that Twin is facing away from me, towards Reflection, I know there is only one who can have her legs wrapped around me—their holes are obvious as she squeezes me lightly and playfully.
To think I would have to confront such a thing so soon! I instantly berate myself for such a thought, however, for if Queen Chysalis had not been merely symbolic when referring to the Changelings as “her children”—which something, perhaps more of my Changeling mind, tells me she was indeed being literal—then Changelings are likely to have a very different view from humans of intimacy, sexuality, and everything both in between and beyond. Again, I mentally slap myself, reasoning that even if such things weren’t true, then it is likely that their views would still be different in much the same way that pony society, so similar to human culture, accepts public nudity and who knows what else yet!
Still, I can’t help but to try to keep myself from shivering, only to make myself freeze instead. Thankfully, Replie doesn’t seem to notice, or doesn’t care, as she places her head on top of mine and whispers into my ears with the cultured voice of the pegasus stallion Reflection had been disguised as last evening. “Relax, Altie. We don’t have to get up just yet, so why don’t you stay in bed with me… for me.” Despite the fact I know objectively that it can only be Replie imitating, as only a Changeling can, the voice of that yet-to-be-known stallion, whatever part of my brain that makes me a heterosexual panics at the voice. That part, however, is gently twisted by my new instincts, and instead of turning around to push her away, my hindlegs kick out against the bed in an attempt to buck her away instead.
Apparently having anticipated this, Replie spreads her hindlegs so that I slam myself against her belly. Before I can wiggle my lower half back away from her—for she continues to hold my neck loosely yet firmly with her forelegs—she then squeezes my flanks with her hindlegs and crosses them under my belly, and though they are far less fit for holding onto things between them compared to forelegs, I don’t bother to attempt an escape. Instead, as she giggles—whether at her own clever trap, or my reaction, I don’t know—and I can feel her chest bounce against my back with each laugh, I force myself through my initial panic with a few deep breaths and long sighs, at first only locking my joints until I’m calm enough to let myself fall limp in Replie’s embrace.
Replie’s embrace… Some part of my mind, some deeper part where my humanity remains firmly seated, squirms most uncomfortably at both our closeness and the difference between—that had once been between—our species. Humanity… I wonder only briefly about the life I had led before this, but push such potentially depressing thoughts away swiftly. Whatever brought me here and transformed me obviously did it without revealing itself… and without even that single clue… could I even hope to find a way back?… Perhaps there’s something in the Everf- No! Way too dangerous, too far… and too close to Canterlot—and Ponyville—for such a slim chance… I should just forget it, like… Ponyville and… everypony. I realize too late that my eyes are wet—how much of it is for my former human life, and how much is for what I did to the friendship between the Elements, even I can’t tell, and I’m not sure I even care for such useless percentages—and though I move quickly to try to wipe away my tears, enough escape me to trickle down my face and form a small pool of wetness on the fur of Replie’s foreleg. In an instant, she stops laughing.
It takes me a long time to notice that Twin has turned around to stare curiously and worriedly at me; Reflection has a similar wrinkle to her brow as she looks over Twin’s shoulder, having raised herself up on her forelegs into a kind of half-sitting position, roughly equivalent to a human raising herself up on her elbows. Replie loosens her grip and gently wiggles her legs out from underneath me, but she does this all while keeping her one foreleg draped over my neck, for which I silently thank her. I sigh and squeeze my eyes shut, inadvertently forcing out a couple more trickles of tears; I know I can’t leave the questions I can hear as if they are some echo from the future, but to give them the truth now… I can’t do that as much as I could yesterday…
After what happened last night, I know that waiting and hoping that they may leave me alone with my tears is the most naïve thought I’ve yet had in Equestria. Still, I wait until Replie asks, “Altie?” speaking in the softest way and with such worry and care that it hurts in a nearly physical way—so much so, in fact, that I gasp as if struck. I twist myself around to lay on my stomach with my head between my forelegs so that, as much as I can, I don’t have to look directly at any one of those who have so compassionately taken my in and yet to whom I now have to lie… again…
It’s only now that I realize the true consequences and actual point to the card game last night: As we had played, tiny nuances—barely discernable, but there all the same, if only detectable by careful examination—in the inflowing emotions could be felt; changes that operated like a sign in another’s emotional state. So, just as I am certain that they had turned to me worriedly upon feeling my depression, I realize I, even turned away from their faces, can all the same feel their concern for me.
“I-,” my voice comes out nasally, and I sniffle before trying to speak again, though it barely helps. “I-… Yesterday, I-… there was so much going on I barely had time to process it all… Being caught, brought before Celestia, then Chrysalis, and found and taken in by you three…” I raise my tone slightly as I mention the last event—like a scrap of wood in a turbulent sea… No. Better than that…—I sigh before continuing, “Now that I’m safe, and-… I’m finally able to think about what I did… to that pony who defended me.” Fluttershy, who, no matter how her friends support her or Celestia forgives her, will still worry about me, dampening her days for who knows how long… and there’s no way I can risk contacting her. “I-… I-…” I feel I need to say it, to tell some truth, even if it’s not the reason behind my tears… or the reason my tears had started, at least, but my throat constricts and spasms as a weightlifter’s muscles when trying to lift a weight just barely under his ability.
The words seem to threaten to choke me to death, yet all at once it stops when Replie pulls herself on top of me and hugs me from behind—her forelegs wrapping around my neck and squeezing me somehow stoppering my sobs and helping me breathe. Still, even as I quiet and my deep, slow breaths unsteadily return to a more normal rhythm with occasional shudders, I don’t manage to speak before Replie does. “You wish you had found some other way… some way you could have saved yourself without having to deceive her…” she says with a slow voice as strangely wistful as that look from last night. Replie… Did something happen to you?
With no desire to continue being pitied, nor to ask Replie about her all too accurate words—even with the apparently relatively high chance of her being willing to tell that tale—I take in a few deep breaths and chant silently, Let it go… Let it go… until I can breathe out without so much as a hint of a shudder. Wiggling and turning under Replie, I eventually manage to face her—all the while, she doesn’t lessen her grip on me, thought whether it’s for me, herself, or in part both of us, I cannot tell—and as I hug her in turn and feel our emotions crash against each other, I release my old self. Goodbye, humanity… you served me well, but now I must not only leave you, but forget… Though my eyes threaten to tear again, I manage to fight it down this time, so when Replie pulls back, the tears she wipes off my face are already drying.
In contrast, tears are silently leaking out of her own eyes to trickle down her muzzle and drip onto my (still strangely long) neck—only now do I realize that my mane and the top of my head is slightly wet. With another odd look in her eyes, this one practically the opposite of the wistfulness from before with its fierceness and almost anger, Replie seems to stop her tears by will before she steps slowly over me, giving me a view of that place between her hindlegs and under her tail that leaves nothing to my imagination. Different mores… Different mores! I chant to myself, though I all the same cannot prevent myself from blushing even then as it could have been nothing more than an accident—or so I try to tell myself as another part of me, hopefully the new Changeling part, argues otherwise. Whiplash! Too much mood whiplash! I try to explain away such thoughts, but… if I’m going to abandon my past and live as a scavenger Changeling… Why… not?… Yet even though all these thoughts that always-analytical part of me realizes something else: No… mammary glands?… I’m not even a mammal anymore?!
Shaking my head as if the motion can rid me of such thoughts, I notice Reflection looking at me with a strange—perhaps knowing, or at least something close to it, though either way it is not the slightest bit disapproving—smile, and that Twin’s and Replie’s emotions toward increase and change slightly, though they seem to be making a point not to look back at me as they make their way to the circle of chairs and couches. As I stand and stretch, intending to follow them to learn about the day-to-day work of a scavenger Changeling, my eyes wander for a moment before locking onto Reflection’s egg, and again Chrysalis’s words about “her children” replay in my mind. If she wasn’t being symbolic, and she really is the mother of every Changeling in her hive, then would she enforce some law that no other’s can have a child without her? And how severely would such a law be enforced and punished?… Or do Changelings even have ‘levels’ of crime? In what ways and to what extent would the Changeling ability to feel each others’ emotions affect prosecution and punishment?… I think being dropped off in the middle of Russia or Peru would have been less of a culture shock! At least then I would still be around hu-! No! Alternate! Stop that line of thought… Russia and Peru are in a completely different reality, if not “only” on the other side of the Universe… Though if I managed—somehow—to get here, then the reverse should be possi-. Wha-!?
My thoughts are interrupted by a large something appearing in the corner of my sight before quickly filling my vision and slamming into the side of my face. Momentarily blinded and deafened by the impact, I stumble back, trip, and fall to my side. For one terrifying second that seems to stretch into infinity, my mind throws at me the most horrific scenarios involving Celestia or Chrysalis having magically traced me and now attacking the ones who had saved my life, but when my eyes and ears start working again, I hear laughter and see myself laying behind the chair I had obviously trotted into. Who knew trotting was so dangerous? I ask myself as I shake my head of the last remnants of my daze, and I find mind myself chuckling lightly along with them. Reflection steps over me, shaking her head in bemusement and sighing before offering a hoof to help me up while asking with a hint of seriousness, “Still a bit lost in thought?”
Hooking my foreleg around hers, I pull myself back up and sway for a moment, my still rapidly beating heart from that second of fear making me slightly lightheaded. Once I’m standing still, if a bit stiffly, I nod somewhat distractedly as I put a forehoof on my chest, taking a moment to feel my heart slow through the fleshy part of my hoof. I’d never really bothered to learn much equestrian terminology before… I hope that doesn’t get me into some kind of trouble down the line… If I get found out because of some stupid pony-based pun, I’ll-!… Gah! It doesn’t matter, and thinking about it’ll just make me more likely to make a mistake…
Thankfully I manage to turn away such thoughts just as Reflection is finishing chuckling and shaking her head slowly at me. “Well, I wouldn’t be surprised to find you have more on your mind that what you’ve just told us, but right now we need you to focus,” she says back to me as I follow her around the chair I had just ran into to join Replie and Twin. I tilt my head at that—Need to focus on what?—and Reflection answers without waiting for me to ask or looking back at me, instead likely sensing my confusion. “About what happened last evening with the guards, incase we need to follow-up whatever story you and Twin told them.” She explains as we settle into a couch opposite the other two.
As I let out a hum of understanding, Twin nods with a grim smile—Interesting…—before answering Reflection’s implied question. “Yes… the guards didn’t appear too suspicious of us,” Reflection nods curtly at this, “but I still think it would be a good idea to follow through with our story… That is, we said we have been visiting family and would be leaving for home today.”
The room turns quiet for a moment as Reflection thinks over this before asking, “Did either of you say where ‘home’ is?” Twin shakes his head almost immediately, and I soon follow him after quickly going over the questions the guards had asked. “Or when or how you would be leaving?” More shakes of our heads, and more quickly from me this time. “Good.” Reflection nods curtly again and allows a small smile. “Good! That simplifies things. Then all we need are two train tickets to anywhere and some luggage, I think, to make it look as if you had really been staying here… anything else?”
The four of us look between each other for a moment, yet while Twin shakes his head and Replie shrugs, I tap a forehoof against my chin thoughtfully, one thing that Twin had said nagging me. “I think… that the bigger the place Hopping Hills and Green Fields live, the better…” I trail off, unsure, but Twin rolls his head as if telling me to go on. “It’s just something you had said, Twin.” He tilts his head, and instantly I “taste” the confusion coming from him that Reflection must have tasted coming from me a moment ago. “about this other foal… Wing Something or Something Wing? If the place is too small, and a colt with that name doesn’t or never lived there, and those guards are more suspicious of us than they let on, then…” I trail off, both afraid to mention what might happen and sure I don’t need to.
After a short, tense moment, Reflection looks between the two of us again. “Okay… one complication that shouldn’t be too difficult to accommodate… anything else?” Although I have yet one more question—What about documentation for our train coming in?…—I suppose that if the others are not concerned, then the perhaps-too-lenient Equestria simply doesn’t have such a system; a shake of the head from both of them seems to clear that matter and I follow their example. “Okay, good. Luckily,” she turns to me, “we keep luggage for such an event as this, but tickets are impossible to plan around… I think, if there are any guards watching, that buying tickets now would be too… convenient, so it would probably be safer to steal them from a couple of tourists. I suppose it’s only luck on our side again, as ironic as it is, that tourism in Apploosa has really jumped since… a few months ago,” she finishes with a swift look away from everyone and an audible gulp, and even if I hadn’t been able to sense the sudden tension in her emotions I still would have known exactly what she’s talking about—or so I think.
In an attempt to quickly dissipate the swiftly growing awkward, tense, and tragic air, I try to turn the focus onto something else. “S-steal?” I ask, and thankfully it seems that Reflection had been waiting for such a distraction, as she looks back up at me with such speed I wince in sympathy for her neck. Yet even as she appears to latch onto my question, I can still feel her emotions shaken by her memories of the failed siege of Canterlot. Interesting… so even Changelings, who can feel such nuances in each other’s emotions, put on at least physical façades… Why? Is it purely for one’s self, as she knows it isn’t healthy to dwell on such thoughts? Or maybe for others, to instead tell them silently that she’s dealing with it? So many questions from such a simple change as being able to feel other’s emotions!… If only I could ask them!
Reflection opens her mouth, ready to answer, but Replie sighs, and after a short, sad look towards her, Reflection turns back to me with a nod. “Yes… I know that it’s bad enough we resort to stealing their love, but if any three of the ponies we’ve constructed buys tickets now, it would only serve as a mark against us, and constructing yet another pony with which to buy the tickets would only be more dangerous, and trying to take the form of any of the townsponies or tourists is similarly too risky in such a small place as Apploosa.” With a sad look in her eyes again, she shakes her head slowly. “So, unless you can come up with another plan, I can’t see any other way.”
Twin and Replie shrug and shake their heads as well, though I instead frown and close my eyes to concentrate. Another way… maybe there isn’t another way… we just need to look at our choices differently!… With a plan forming, my frown slowly turns into a smile and I open my eyes to see the others staring with poorly disguised eager curiosity. “We lost our tickets. That will be Green Fields’ story when she buys new tickets today.”
The other three quickly look between themselves; Replie beams, suddenly cheerful again, Twin’s smile is more reserved, and Reflection’s expression is the most careful of them all as she starts to slowly say, “That is… advantageous… in making it easier to get the kind of tickets we need to a larger city… and the closer to night the train arrives at its destination, the better, as well…” That makes me raise my brow, but I decide to keep the question to myself for the moment. “I still think that buying the tickets, no matter our story, will still raise some suspicion.”
Twin nods at this. “I think so, too. It would seem too, as you said, ‘convenient.’” I frown for a moment before falling completely into my previous grimace, and with a nod I concede to their point. However, now it is Replie that is turning thoughtful, though instead of closing her eyes, she turns to stare not so much at me as towards me, given the far-off look in her eyes. Now it is my turn, along with Twin and Reflection, to wait and watch curiously.
At some length, Replie finally comes back to herself, grinning widely as she now definitely looks at me. Still, her inner insecurity is evident by her hesitation. “What if-… What if we ‘buy’ the tickets… but without anypony knowing?” At the confusion she receives from all three of us, she flicks her ears as if they’re being annoyed by something before explaining. “I mean, we steal the tickets, but we leave bits in their place. With just the right luck, the two tourists we steal from will think they had only just forget to buy returning tickets.”
After a moment of confusion, a myriad of emotions crosses Reflection’s face too quickly for me to either read on her face or identify in the taste of her love, though eventually she settles on a cautious smile. “Yes… I suppose that could work… as we have so little use for the bits we earn as Wood Work…” she ponders as she nods slightly and slowly. Hmm… “so little use for bits”?… I suppose Changelings wouldn’t need to buy pony food, but what else?… Never mind. I suppose I’ll find out, sooner or later. I interrupt my thoughts as Reflection goes on, now looking at me. “I think this would be an good chance to teach you about our disguise, the pegasus stallion, Wood Work, by taking on the form of Hopping Hills as a cover for Wood Work teaching his curious nephew.”
I tilt my head at that, pondering the plan, which at first glance seems like an excellent opportunity to learn about the pony I would perhaps be playing the rest of my life as, but there is one detail… “What about… these?” I indicate my still-bandaged scrapes from yesterday’s fall, which are still quite a ways away from healing. “It certainly wouldn’t be a good idea to have the injuries switch from mother to son.” I finish with a bare hint of sarcasm which the others don’t even seem to acknowledge, which makes me in turn shrug—and pull my injured shoulder.
Instead of pondering upon this dilemma, however, Replie only giggles and says, “Oh, there’s no need to worry about that at all since I learned a few healing tricks while taking the place of a nurse about a year ago! A little spell to get rid of those cuts, then Twin will copy them as best he can on myself so I can take the place of Green Fields!” That make me hum in thought for a moment, and not only because Replie, based only on what I know so far, would not be my first choice of the other three to go on this thievery mission. Rather, her willingness to be injured when it’s unnecessary—after all, I don’t have to learn about this Wood Work disguise first-hoof—surprises me in the most unpleasant ways. But then… there are those stories from last night… to Changelings, injuring themselves as part of a disguise is probably completely normal…
Despite any such thoughts and reasonings, however, I eventually shake my head. “No. You don’t have to do that. I’ll be Green Fields again and steal the tickets. I don’t need to learn about Wood Work neither today, nor in such a manner.” I finish even as Reflection starts to shake her head before I’m half way done and Twin and Replie turn confused. After a moment of none of them saying anything, I sigh. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m just used to working alone and not having anyone else hurt themselves for me.” Yet again, however, my words seem to have the opposite effect of their meaning as Reflection returns from looking negative to positive.
“No. You’re right,” she says with a short huff, the meaning of which I have no idea. “Not only what you said about learning about Wood Work—I wouldn’t expect you to be able to start working as him until at least a week of study anyway; one day, even of such direct study, wouldn’t be enough—but we shouldn’t waste our energy on any magic as complex and energy-intensive as healing unless it’s absolutely needed, and that week would be plenty enough time for you to heal on your own…” She finishes with a tone that indicates she’s about to say something else, but only says, “So, if you insist, then it won’t be difficult to accommodate at all, so no pressure,” and her untainted emotions confirm her words.
I turn to Replie, who is now more intrigued than confused, then Twin, who is now scratching the side of his head with a forehoof as if trying to wrap his mind about what I’d just said. No doubt the concept of “chivalry” is completely alien to Changelings… although that fact strangely doesn’t preclude their proclivity towards being kind and generous and… well, “in harmony” with one another…There is no “code” because, perhaps, Changelings don’t need one… That thought makes me shake my head slightly. Forget what I mused earlier about Changelings “being able to change,” for if the Changelings who’ve remained with Chrysalis are like this… then “trust” may be behind this conflict after all… Stop! Not that I’ll ever know or be able to find out! So stop! I let out a sigh that hides a sarcastic laugh before finally answering, “Yes. I do insist.”
Reflection nods again. “I was half hoping you would. It will certainly make things easier… especially without putting pressure on our energy.” I nod back, as if this had truly been the primary reason behind my decision, but if the slight strengthening in Replie’s emotions indicate anything, it seems she at least sees through this. Reflection then turns to Twin, “So, I assume you will take Hopping Hills again as well, Twin?” A nod. “Then I will take up my turn as Wood Work before this afternoon when, hopefully”—here she gives me an imploring look, reminding me of the importance of retrieving tickets that arrive as late as possible—“I will take the place of Green Fields,”—I tilt my head at that, and though I know she must feel my confusion, she dismisses it with a strange grimace and burst of emotion that passes too quickly for me to attempt to identify—“and leave with Twin, where we will abandon the identities upon leaving the train before making our way back here,” a short pause in which she looks between the three of us, “Any last questions?”
For a moment I consider bringing up her plan of taking Green Fields’ place where I’m sure I could do perfectly well, but after thinking over that… insisting contorted expression and the relative harmlessness of the switch taking into account the fact the train cars are likely to have compartments as on the show so that the discovery of Reflection’s uncut cheek and shoulder is minimal at best, I shake my head with the others. All of this planning just to get two small identities out of the potential spotlight… if Chrysalis is so adamant on infiltrating Canterlot again… how? I growl lightly at myself and shake my head yet again to rid my mind of such useless thoughts, and when I come back to the physical world I give a sheepish grin upon seeing Reflection staring at me as if fearing for my sanity. “Sorry. Again. I suppose I should be going to catch those tourists leaving their hotels for the morning…”
“Yes.” Twin answers before Reflection, looking not at all disturbed by my actions just then. “The morning would be one of the best times to catch them unawares.” Twin seems to suddenly remember himself as if coming out of his own thoughts before saying a little too quickly and with a renewed injection of respect in his emotions toward me, “though of course someone as experienced as you would already know that!”
A moment after that it seems everyone comes to a silent agreement that nothing else need be said, so Reflection, Twin, and I all assume our identities with three flashes of our green flame-like Changeling magic and bid a good day to Replie by rearing up to give a short cross stance—this I do only after the other two—and I continue to ponder this symbol’s meaning as leave “Wood Work’s” home/shop, of which the shop doesn’t even have a name, though I suppose it doesn’t need one in such a small settlement. So, I wander halfway aimlessly though the wide and dusty streets with a saddle bag full of bits, looking for a hotel or the train station, from which I assume I’ll be able to find a hotel close by it. Thankfully, Apploosa is as small as the guards had said, and it’s not even a hour before I find myself before perhaps the largest building in… well, not exactly “town,” considering the “Station Hotel” is still only three stories high and about as wide as two and a half train engines. If nothing else, it certainly appears to be the most “fancy” place around… a place where city ponies might stay if they’re not looking for the “authentic experience!”
I grin at the idea that this may all simply fall into my lap—or whatever I have now—yet, but… I need some kind of… “cover”… so I don’t look suspicious just hanging around a hotel… Sure enough, and luckily enough, just one building over and across the street is a restaurant with tables to the open air where, indeed, quite a few city-looking ponies are having breakfast. I wonder for a moment if the Station Hotel doesn’t offer free breakfast, but then shrug the question off—doesn’t matter—as I take a seat and one of the waitresses brings over a menu and glass of water; it’s enough for me that at least these obvious tourists are eating here.
As I look over the menu, somewhat curious about Equestrian cuisine, I still keep my ears pealed for any mention of “train,” “leave,” “today,” or anything else of that nature. I catch quite a few snippets before the waitress returns, but they’re all useless, mentioning either a train that’s leaving after breakfast, or cities either useless—Canterlot… I… don’t think so…—or ones I don’t recognize—Clawstead? Is that perhaps some griffin or dragon city?¬ Doesn’t matter; I’m definitely not gambling on any unknown city—so it’s with a sigh I finally order the “breakfast hash” with apple juice.
Soon after the waitress leaves me, however, I notice, as I look around for anypony whose travel plans I might not have overheard yet, how she looks over her shoulder worriedly at me and instantly I recognize that flowing feeling, only now it’s one-way again. I grimace and look away when I see her shiver as she delivers menus to what appears to be a couple who had just arrived. Get used to it… You’re going to need to get used to it, even if you don’t like it… at least she isn’t somepony you know, like Rarity… Gah! And that’s supposed to make it right? Of course not… Easier? If only… just… calm down… remember where you are…
The breakfast hash doesn’t take long to arrive, and I try to use it as a momentary distraction, even as I know I need to focus on finding a couple of ponies with just the right tickets, but all the same it doesn’t last long as a diversion. Instead, I notice a peculiar taste as I eat, and my first instinct is to panic with thoughts I had been found out and had been poisoned, but those quickly subside when my mind catches up with itself and I realize the taste is actually, a lack of taste?… Of course, I should have realized from all the evidence that Changelings wouldn’t need much, if any, sense of taste; this seems to be confirmed when I take a sip of the apple juice, which, besides its appearance and the slightest difference in texture, isn’t distinguishable from the water. I almost want to chuckle at the idea as I think, Well… I guess now I’ll never know what Sweet Apple Acre’s apples taste like!… then an instant later I frown at the compulsion.
With such thoughts on my mind, I’m sure at first that hearing the name, “… Applejack…” as if on the wind is my imagination, but my ears—still so strange—turn towards an indeed real, physical source: the couple who had arrived as I was ordering. They aren’t just any old couple, though… no, they seem… almost familiar. I can’t put my hoof on it, however, until I think of looking at their Cutie Marks which mark them as, Applejack’s Aunt and Uncle Orange?! I hadn’t recognized them at first because they had obviously aged since Applejack had earned her Cutie Mark; notably, Mr. Orange now has a few grey hairs “accenting” his otherwise still intrusively green mane. Yes! Manehattan! Perfect! Now… wipe that grin off your face so you don’t look like a serial killer identifying his-… her next target! I almost facehoof at myself, but remember my injuries in time. Okay… Now to find out their itinerary… Somehow… Hopefully they say something on their own…
Neither mention anything about any plans for the day, however, instead reliving and laughing good-naturedly about what had happened so far during their stay; I don’t bother to pay much attention to it, however, instead letting their words float over my head just a bit closer than the rest of the low babble of the restaurant's other patrons. I grit my teeth as I notice my hash disappearing, leaving less and less time with which to eavesdrop unsuspected; even as I eat as slowly as I dare, it seems the Oranges have enough stories to fill an entire year of visiting their relatives.
Finally, with my plate practically licked clean I finally hear Mr. Orange’s distinct voice—at least distinct among the Apploosan accent—ask, “What was the plan for today, again, Dear?” I jerk my head up at this perhaps a bit too quickly and eagerly, but thankfully nopony seems to notice… or perhaps notice too much, as the movement pulls the cut on my shoulder, making me wince, which brings with it a small burst of pity from the ponies around me who all seem to have by now noted my bandages. They don’t even know anything about “Green Fields,” and yet they care about her, apparently without even the slightest worry that she, a stranger, may yet be a Changeling… Certainly makes my new life easier, but at the same time it makes Chrysalis’s plans easier as well… Which makes Celestia’s arguments sound more-. Gah! Need to focus!
“—Braeburn, and have an early dinner before getting on the train.” Mrs. Orange finishes, her words nearly making me jump into the air and give a Woohoo! Pinkie Pie-style; I keep the celebration inside, however, as I still have yet more objectives before my first “Changeling mission” becomes a success: get the tickets, “deposit” the bits, and get out. I’m all but certain that the Oranges are staying in the Station Hotel… but where? It may not be the biggest place I’ve ever seen, but still it would take some time to search without direction… Perhaps I could take the form of one of them and say I lost my key… but my bandages… I frown as I realize I may have been too hasty in taking on this job. I could still go back and get Replie to help… no, that would complicate things… and I’d lose track of them, which… wouldn’t be good… Damn it… Looks like I’m on my own. Apparently I manage to keep all these thoughts off my expression, as the waitress hands me my check without the slightest change in her worry. It seems tasting others emotions is helpful in more than just forging trust…
However, it seems that whatever I had missed while lost in my own thoughts included something about returning to the room, for they, receiving their check immediately after me, turn to the Station Hotel. Now! I drop an extra bit on my table before calmly following the Oranges some eight or so pony-lengths behind them. The two of them seem to have chattered themselves into a silence, or something along those lines, as the three of us make our way silently through the faux ornate doors of the Station Hotel and up a flight of stairs. When the Oranges step onto the landing and turn immediately to what I assume is their door—first room on the right? Checkmate, train tickets!—I try to quickly decide whether to simply turn around right then and there or go up to the third floor to obfuscate the reason for my coming and going, but the banging of the front doors and a shout of, “Miss?!” interrupts me.
I learn the hard way that turning around to look behind myself while walking up stairs in an unfamiliar body, no matter how kind fate may have been in providing me the instincts to use it, is still a bad idea. Further more, seeing as how I’m now walking on all fours instead of “just my hind legs,” I also find that it is indeed possible to trip on two hooves at the same time. My entire body falls, making a good THUMP that’s at least halfway to a BANG as my belly and shoulder take the brunt of my weight against the corners of the stairs, instantly robbing me of breath, forcing me to curl up into a ball, and setting my leg on fire with renewed pain.
Beyond all the oh dear’s and oh my’s and the sensation of… quite a few trickles of emotion, I hear the rush of hooves towards me and then the waitress’s voice louder… closer than everypony else, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have just rushed in like that and surprised you, but… oh, I don’t imagine you care right now, but you forgot a bit on your table…” I manage to open my eyes and focus through the tears of pain enough to see her looking down at me more worriedly than ever, biting her lip as she balances my tip on her nose. I can’t help but chuckle at the image, the involuntary act actually pushing though my spasming diaphragm to help me breathe again; though my laughter seems to make the waitress simultaneously relieved and more worried.
“It’s-… It’s-…” I try to say before realizing I had to have missed something if a waitress is running after me to return her tip. Closing my eyes again under the cover of a pretended wave of pain, I quickly go over my breakfast, but I’d been so focused on the other patrons and their travel plans I hadn’t actually bothered with observing the restaurant itself… but one thing I do at least realize now: the Oranges, at least, hadn’t left a tip. Stupid again, Alternate… you’re going to have to pay more attention to everything around you to survive as a Changeling! “I’m… okay…” I manage at length, though of course the waitress doesn’t look the least bit convinced.
However, it’s not her that speaks next. “My… you don’t look the slightest bit ‘okay’ to me!” comes Mrs. Orange’s voice, and I turn to look up the stairs, at the top of which are both Oranges with their eyebrows knitted with concern. Concern… Wait!… Maybe… I, without a word, stand, take my bit with a nod of thanks, and (mostly) fake a shaky stance and limp as I make the rest of the way up the stairs and past the Oranges. Just as I’d hoped, however, she asks, “At least tell me your room isn’t on the third floor!”
I almost smile before turning back to her to say, with perfect implication without actually lying, “I’m alright; I can make it... Then I just need to rest a little while.” I make to turn around again to continue towards the next set of stairs, but both Oranges rush forward to block my way before I manage four steps, turning their bodies to side to block the entire hallway.
“Nonsense!” Mr. Orange shakes his head at my faked stubbornness, “We insist! It won’t be a bother at all to let you into our room… for a few hours, if need be.” There it is again: trust… I let out a sigh of exasperation that manages to be both fake and real, before hanging my head slightly, which incidentally reveals to me the fresh blood seeping into the bandage of my shoulder, at which I gasp with honest surprise. “Nor would it be any trouble to change that,” Mr. Orange says with a kind smile and a point of his hoof before stepping to the side to look back down the stairs. “No need to worry, miss, she’s in good hooves now; you can get back to work.”
Retreating hoofsteps signal that I don’t need to look back at the pony responsible for giving me the perfect opportunity to get into the Oranges’ room, and I don’t even know her name… Another time, maybe… I’ll certainly have plenty of that once Green Fields and Hopping Hills are safely out of the way, I’m sure. “Tha-thank you… but… okay…” I concede with appropriate hesitation as Mrs. Orange slides the key through the lock and pushes the door open; then, Mr. Orange steps up to my side, obviously offering support, which I take with a sigh and affected wince. “but I don’t want to be a bother, so I’ll leave as soon-.”
“You won’t be bother at all, dear! Why, I can say that it should be quite impossible, as we’ll be leaving as soon as you’re settled in,” Mrs. Orange says with that laugh that sounds like it should be annoying, but strangely isn’t. Leaving me alone almost immediately? This is better than I thought! More time to find those tickets and get back, then… but I can’t help… I have the feeling I’m missing something… There is a such thing as “too easy,” especially for… something like this!… Isn’t there?
Though I decide to skip asking about them leaving me alone—if I’ve learned anything about Equestria, it’s that trust is far more easy and wide spread here than on Earth—so I ask instead, “You're going? Where?” as Mr. Orange escorts me into the hotel-sized (cramped, even for one pony) bathroom, where he wastes no time in gripping the bandage and ripping it off in one-go-without-warning style, taking a good bit of my… fur—it’s still strange to think about myself actually having a coat of fur—with it. I turn my head to look at the bandage, only intent on seeing just how blood-soaked it is, but notice instead something far worse: the fur that the medical tape had ripped away with it shimmers green for a second before reverting into a far too obvious black!
It seems I’m lucky, however, in this time having an earth pony tending to my wounds, as it seems Mr. Orange isn’t interested in examining the bandage, even if he had been capable, as he simply depresses the pedal of a trashcan with, thankfully, a lid, so that even afterwards neither pony is liable to notice; it also seems just as well that the bathroom is so small, otherwise Mrs. Orange might have offered her help as well, and then she certainly would have noticed. As it is, however, she answers cheerfully as she digs through some drawers, “Why, to see my nephew, Braeburn, of course! The whole reason we’re here! Though I must say seeing the border was an exciting bonus!”
I barely manage to hold in a grimace at that, but I never had a hope of suppressing the shudder that runs up and down my spine. Mr. Orange, however, seems not to share his…—wife? or sister? No, she said “my nephew,” not “our nephew”… Now you’re getting it, Alternate—his wife’s sentiment if his own grimace and muttered, “I think I’ll pass on the ‘excitement’ next time,” is anything to go by.
When he shivers, I at first think it’s also the idea of the… border, but then Mrs. Orange, apparently having found whatever she was searching for, soon reminds me of my effect on ponies that care for me with her next words. “My, there must be something wrong with this thermostat; it is definitely not twenty-two degrees in here!” I bite my tongue and try to keep myself from lingering on what my feeding is doing to them by thinking, Centigrade? curious… I wonder if Equestria uses meters as well… it would certainly avoid the whole “foot to hoof” conversion issue… though that wouldn’t exclude “hooves” as a non-standard measure, I suppose… Curious “foot” note (haha…): the foot was divided into inches from the Latin word uncia meaning “twelfth part,” so it was actually the foot that was split into inches, not inches that made a foot. The words “mile” and “kilo” descended from the same word meaning “thousand,” from which the word “million” was also derived. “Billion” was actually originally borrowed from French, where it means “a million million,” which was its original English meaning as well, until “milliard” fell out of use and billion became “a thousand million.”
“Done!” Mr. Orange announces around the roll of medical tape between his teeth, and by the look on his face I can tell he’d made this announcement because he could tell (by the look on my own face) that my thoughts had been far away. Stupid, stupid… You can’t just blank out like that no matter how much you want to… What if you missed something important! Gah! No use worrying about it now; I’ll just have to move as quickly as possible… Or should I wait?… No. Quick will be best… as soon as they leave.
Luckily, they seem to be in a hurry to get to Braeburn’s—probably because they’re leaving… or they think they’re leaving this evening—so as soon as they see me safely tucked into the bed to rest my shoulder… with a bag of ice Mrs. Orange had insisted on… they canter out the door with a slightly hastened air about their expressions. No trouble, indeed. I sigh, but don’t linger on the thoughts as I jump up instantly, tossing the bag of ice into the kitchen sink with a flick of magic so it won’t accidentally spill onto the sheets. I may be a thief, now, but I’ll never be inconsiderate! I almost have to force myself to chuckle at my attempt to lighten the mood.
Tickets, tickets, tickets… where might-?… Hmm… Drawers or bags? I lean back and forth for a moment before jumping off the bed and next to the nightstand. With no need to maintain my disguise, I magic the drawers open and pull everything out at once—though I’m not so foolish as to actually reveal my Changeling self, just in case… Not that I have a story for going though these drawers if one of the Oranges does come back… Except… I was looking for medicine. Pain medicine. Yes… “harmless” ibuprofen… unless… can horses, or ponies, even take ibuprofen? Does it even matter, since Equestrian ponies are obviously completely different? I think Pinkie Pie mentioned hot dogs once, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were- Gah! It doesn’t matter! Either way, ponies have to have some manner of pain relief, right?
Indeed, it doesn’t matter, for I almost instantly find the tickets slipped into some kind of novel that one of the Oranges must have brought, apparently using the tickets as a bookmark. Well, that’s one way to make sure you never lose them, I suppose… if you don’t worry about them being stolen. I grimace, not only at the fact I’m taking advantage of the abundant trust in Equestria… just as Celestia all-but-said I would… but at the fact that, as bookmarks, they’re liable to be missed and it would probably take more than just replacement bits to convince the Oranges they had forgotten to purchase returning tickets. Great… Excellent! Really!… Now what?… Let’s see… brochures… postcards… ticket stubs from the train ride here? I guess it’s the best I got…
Having smartly kept the book open to the page the tickets had been in, I simply slip the stubs into their place, and… facehoof before trying to remember where everything had been in the drawer. With a sigh of mixed exasperation and satisfaction at a job done as well as it could be, I turn to the luggage, now, for the other side of the… “trade.” As I hadn’t seen so much as a single bit in the drawers, I figure that their money must be kept in their saddle bags, thankfully of which Mr. Orange had left his. One look is all it takes to find a pull-string bag clinking with coinage and I leave the appropriate amount bits. With that, I have nothing to do but escape.
Easy enough. I just walk right out the front door, and not one pony suspects a thing.
I consider taking a moment to walk around Apploosa a while to try to make myself familiar with it, which I think would be easier under the guise of a “tourist” unfamiliar with the place, but even if I do so later, I figure I should deliver the tickets first so Reflection can alter… that is, smooth out the plan according to the time on the tickets. After a short show of “Mama! You’re back!” “How was your morning, Sister?” “Lovely, thank you.” put on for the ponies trotting slowly up and down the street outside Wood Work’s home/shop, we step inside and I, mindful of the windows and the fact this is still a shop where customers might come in at any moment, pull the tickets out of my bag only once we’re in the kitchen with my teeth and lay them on the counter for Reflection to look over.
She looks over them with an appreciative eye, her smile growing steadily wider as she murmurs, “Manehatten… Leaves at five thirty-five today; arrives tomorrow at seven twenty in the evening… and one coach cabin for two.” Coach? I guess Mr. and Mrs. Orange save their money for impressing their friends… that, or… it has been a good number of years since Applejack earned her Cutie Mark, so… something could have happened… Again, it doesn’t matter since I left enough money from them to buy new tickets… actually, enough money to buy first class tickets… Can’t do anything about that now. Nodding before slipping the tickets back into the saddlebags for me, she says, “Even more perfect than I thought would be possible… and in such a short time, too.”
Twin chuckles and smirks at this. “It’s only like I told you; when are you going to start believing I do have an intuition when it comes to things like this?” Apparently feeling my confusion and anticipating my question, Twin immediately turns to me, “I mean with you… specifically, your abilities…” That only make me raise an eyebrow, which in turn makes Twin ask, “What? Did you think I was hiding near the border, at the point where you crossed, by coincidence?” Actually… yes.
Before I get to say so, however, Reflection nods as if she understands… something… as she explains, “Yes… of course you couldn’t be expected to know,” she gives Twin a playful-fierce glance at this, “but Twin is… sensitive to certain ways in how magic flows through the air. It’s one of the ways we were able to tell you were being truthful about what had happened to you because it fit the evidence of Twin having felt a strong, long-distance teleportation spell with a weaker shorter-distance one following almost immediately.” Only one weaker one? I think before recalling that Twin wouldn’t have yet felt Chrysalis teleporting me back to the border before finding me there, and therefore he wouldn’t have been able to tell either Reflection or Replie about such. Still, “feeling” teleportation spells? And I thought “smelling” transformation spells was going to be the strangest thing I heard from a Changeling… Well, if one can be true, why not the other? Magic. Who cares how it works? Besides Twilight.
I start to say, “But that doesn’t explai-,” but at that moment I’m interrupted by the ring of a tiny bell signaling the arrival of a customer, so with a small jerk of her head and a look in her eyes that says “sorry; have to go,” Reflection leaves the two of us in the kitchen. With the indecipherable murmurings of business going on beyond the kitchen’s walls, I raise my eyebrow at Twin, who shuffles on his forelegs… which makes him look all too cute in his Hopping Hills little colt disguise… but I’m not about to relent just because of that.
With a long sigh of one deciding to just relent and bite the bullet—Guns? In Equestria?—Twin finally says, “it’s not really ‘intuition,’ actually… Just that, after I heard what happened to you—after hearing what you managed to do—I was impressed, and maybe a bit too confident about what you’d be able to do today, so… Reflection made a little bet with me, and now, thanks to you, she has to take my next two turns!” I smirk at that, both at understanding what Twin must mean by “turns” and realizing almost instantly what Reflection had actually been doing, putting Twin in such a position: toying, joking, just like a pony might… not that that’s surprising any more… “Hey!” Twin suddenly brings me out of my thoughts, “I just had an idea! This is the perfect chance to show you around Apploosa!”
My thoughts exactly, Twin, so we do just that. Though I am somewhat disappointed he skipped over the Braeburn impression, I could live with simply repeating it in my head, imagining it in Hopping Hill’s somewhat higher voice—the disguise is still a young colt, after all, which makes all the (cute) difference. Also, it certainly helps that he shows me everything Braeburn had shown Twilight & Friends—I still don’t know what it is about “mild West dances” that always makes me chuckle…—and more until four o’clock comes around, seemingly all too quickly, and we head back to “the hideout in plain sight” to prepare.
Switching out Replie for Reflection to take place as Wood Work is much easier than it sounds… which actually sounds quite easy already, given the, as I’m constantly reminded of, low population of Apploosa. With that, it’s simply a matter of… “WHAT?!” I cry so loudly that Reflection winces—not that she doesn’t deserve it…—as the word fills the basement the two of us are currently hiding in, having dropped our disguises to… as Reflection put it: “prepare.”
“Please!… I know, Alternate, that it’s-… that this isn’t… optimal, but it is the best plan we’ve got!” She all but begs, seeming to reveal her true self: how she is without other Changelings behind her… “seeming” being the key word… I only scoff, instantly regretting it when her shoulders slump… but what else could I do? How else could I be expected to react, when…
“And why- why does this include reopening the wound on my shoulder for a second time to bloody another bandage when you could look “authentic” enough without it?! In fact… why don’t I just go? Why are you insisting on taking Green Fields to Manehatten?” My anger peters out quickly… it is, after all, difficult to be so much as annoyed with someone whose love for me I can taste all too tangibly… But still! I don’t think it’s a good idea to just keep opening a wound like this when I want it to actually heal!
“Why I’m-?” Reflection shifts her forelegs, hesitant, before sitting with a sigh and looking away from me. “for the same reason you insisted on getting the tickets… actually, I got the idea only after you objected to my original plan.” She says slightly more cheerfully, but far from actual cheeriness, still looking away from me. Not that she needs to look at me to feel my question. “For Replie,” she says, finally looking at me… with a small smile, no less. Not that that explains anything… Or so I say to myself until I remember what had happened just that morning. “That is… it’ll be… easier if you just see for yourself… I mean, let me just say that, even when it’s not her turn… she still… lies.” At that, she grimaces as if she’d just vomited into the back of her throat, and though she surely must feel that this has only confused me further, I can tell with just as much surety that she isn’t going to say anything else.
With a thoughtful hum, I just shrug, pulling my cut as far as I can on purpose, before magicking off my bandage and pressing the gauze that will make up Reflection’s disguise against the (again) bleeding cut. As I wait for the appropriate amount to seep into the two pads of gauze (the second being for her cheek, of course), Reflection, now smiling and her love spiced by a powerful thanks, carefully places a stretch of medical tape on her shoulder before ripping away her own fur, copying the look of my shoulder with the precision only a Changeling could possess… though I think that perhaps only another Changeling would be able to tell if it was only the slightest bit off.
Seeing as how I cannot leave the basement without a fourth disguise, I must bid Reflection and Twin a “farewell, good night, and see you when you make it back” in the basement before they leave me… alone, as Replie… ponies? mares?… Stupid puns… that is, she takes up position in order to… No. Actually… forget it… She mans the station as Wood Work… Leaving me down here alone…
The perfect opportunity to think…
I look towards the book shelves, itching to distract myself, but I know it won’t even be five minutes before my eyes begin to slide sightlessly over the words as my thoughts fight to be heard. I sigh and grimace at suddenly being reminded of what I had last said to Reflection and Twin: “-see you when you make it back”… It is certainly not an impossibility that one or both may not make it back for one reason or another… chief among them being that they’re somehow found out, either while on their way to Manehatten or on their way back here.
Only now do I see the foolishness in this ridiculous plan… a plan that I had taken part in… a plan that very well may kill two Changelings just trying to help a practical stranger as they eke out a living at the edge of pony society… I sigh and put a forehoof up to my face as if in shame, but of course no one is there to see it, Changeling or otherwise. In time I raise my head to gaze over the room, taking in its emptiness: the bare chairs, the blankets next to the shelves, and the bed… I… think I could really use a nap…
So I lay down. I don’t sleep, though. My thoughts seem to whirl, yet my mind is empty.
I come out of my waking coma at the sound of… the slamming of something. My mind instantly provides the image of Reflection, Twin, and Replie turned into a Changeling shish kabob, and now the Royal Guard has finally found the trap door so that they can add me before presenting the lot of us to Celestia, who will de-wing our bodies to be added to the countless ones already pinned to the posts at the border; then-…! Thankfully, Replie, completely unhurt and unworried, soon appears in the doorway to dispel the horrid fantasy, and I, unaware that I had started, stop shivering. Get used to it… This is just how Changelings live… and without fear, because it’s normal for them… Which makes it normal for you now, too, Alternate…
With no windows, and having not kept track of the time in my stupor, I have no way to tell the time, but given the nature of settlements like Apploosa—or at least settlements like it on Earth—I estimate that it must be nearing, or maybe after, sundown. Replie, at least, appears tired from a hard… afternoon’s work as she opts to fly—I can’t speak for pegasi, obviously, but for Changelings flying is about as easy and energy intensive as trotting—from the entrance to the bed, letting her hooves hang under her as if they are sore.
Normal… “So, is this really closing time, or could Wood Work just not wait to get back to his sister?” I try to joke using Green Field’s voice, playing off of Replie’s tease from this morning, and I think that it should be painfully obvious that my mind is not on cracking jokes, and not only because of the wince-worthy setup, but Replie either doesn’t care or doesn’t see.
“Hmm…” She taps her chin with a forehoof after landing beside me—I pull myself up to sit beside her so as not to have to crane my neck to look her in the face—“Well,” she says with Wood Work’s voice, “seeing as I’m only five minute early… I think it could be seen as going either way!” We share a laugh at this that comes easier than I think it should… No… I can’t just compare humans and Changelings like that… like I shouldn’t have compared ponies with Changelings before… If Replie isn’t worried, then I shouldn’t be—plus, she is my best cue for how to act like a Changeling… “-Si fueris alibi, vivito sicut ibi,” after all… If only it was that easy…
When our laughing slows to a stop, perhaps a bit more quickly than it should have, Replie takes a swift glance towards the chairs- or rather, one chair in particular… Stupid! Stupid! I berate myself silently as I look once again upon Reflection’s egg. Why didn’t I think of that?! I could have talked her out of this stupid plan using that for sure! I’m quickly brought out of fuming at myself, however, by Replie staring into my eyes with a… concerned? No… scared, look on her face, but it’s not me she’s scared for or of, judging by her emotions.
“A-… Alternate?” I let out a short sigh before shifting my head to indicate I’m listening, even as I turn away from her to stare at the cross—the centerpiece of the room. “Are you-… with-…” she chokes on her words, then swallows before saying in a rush, “Are you really planning on staying with us?”
Not having expected that question, I turn to her with surprise. “Well…” I pause, and though it may sound like hesitation, I’m only just trying to catch up with my thoughts after that tripwire of a question. “Yes!” I intone emphatically in an attempt to make up for my pause.
Either Replie can sense my earnesty, didn’t look too much into my apparent “hesitation,” or simply didn’t take notice of it—just as I only now notice the distant look in her eyes telling me she isn’t entirely in the present—as she simply goes on, “Then-… then you need to know… something.” She sniffles then, and I lean forward so as to touch my shoulder to hers, unsure of if she would welcome comfort at the moment, and how much of it if she would; at least she doesn’t pull away, but building tears become obvious in her eyes before she continues. “Do you remember… that Reflection, last night, mentioned… that… we… played a part in the siege?… On Canterlot?”
I certainly do remember such a thing, yet… she had said something about “having pride,” if I can trust my own memories… something I can’t do entirely at the moment, considering just yesterday I had awoke in the Everfree Forest with no knowledge of how I got there, and in the body of a Changeling, sure I had been a human the day before… but I’m rambling again… “Yes, but I thought she said something about ‘pride… in-…’” I slow down as Replie shakes her head and squeezes her eyes shut, forcing a trickle of tears to frame her muzzle.
I give her as long as she needs to gather the courage to say… what I don’t want to imagine. “Pride… Maybe… we do… in helping do what Chrysalis’s Watarsharuti called ‘impossible,’ but… you weren’t there… What the three of us did to-… The three of us made up a…” she seems to struggle to find the words before resorting to what I assume to be the Changeling language, “chakalrahu… Nusagim Riflakshun.”
I try to quickly go over the words in my mind, though I know I haven’t got a hope of translating anything before starting to look suspicious. Okay. Something the three of them “made up”… she probably means the “something” “consisted of” them… “Riflakshun” may be Reflection… or something entirely different that just happens to sound similar… Hmm… Hasharstan… -stan… If “Equestrian” is so similar to English, then this language may be “related” to a Semitic language… or an Indo-Iranian language… Perfect. Two completely different families. That’s narrowing it down, Alternate!… Either way, I’m all but certain “Riflakshun” is Reflection, and I need to gamble and say something one way or another! Gamble… yes, exactly like scavenger Changelings do every day… So I reason as Replie seems to be waiting for something… or had lost her nerve, in which case I still need to do something. “I can… certainly… see that… in her.” I say hesitantly, trying to convey without outright saying that I’d prefer to return to using English/Equestrian/Whateverit’scalledhere.
My luck doesn’t appear to have run out, as she giggles, though the bursts of laughter are interspersed with tiny hiccups and repressed sobs. “Yes… she’s always been the type to take charge… and poor Twin would’ve killed himself if she said so,”—yikes… grim way to say “done anything”… but “would have”?… Was at the border because Reflection ordered him there after he told her of the teleportation spells?—“or… killed someone else… which-… which-.”
I grimace, knowing that the truth is two words away. No. Not even that. You already know the truth; you don’t need her to say it. “Which you did… in Canterlot…” Excellent. That’s how you do it, Alter. Ignoring your own problems by focusing on others’ issues. You may just be the single most psychologically healthy being in Equestria. At least I manage to not let one hint of these thoughts escape me as I release my previous inhibition, wrapping my forelegs around her and pulling her close, even as she struggles, though only weakly.
Still, even after she settles down, she doesn’t lift even one foreleg to return the hug, nor does she release the emotions she’s obviously pent up. Or at least not right yet. “What-… what are… you doing?” Her words are choked by the sobs she’s so stubbornly holding onto; the strain in her voice becomes worse as she speaks—not long now… she just needs one little push. Or two…—“How could you… still want-?… Why would a… scavenger… like you... stay with… murderers? I’m-… we-… I-… I’m… a-… a monster!”
She starts struggling again, though much more fiercely now, and I at first only respond by holding her tighter. She pulls one of her forehooves up as if to “punch” me, so without thinking I throw her to the side, instantly jumping onto her and pinning her to the bed; she tries to yell something at me, but with one of my hooves on the back of her head, all she can do is shout incoherently into the mattress. “Replie. Listen.”—but she doesn’t stop yelling—“Listen!” I cry as I shove against her, which at least gets her to be quiet. “Replie, you… and Twin and Reflection are not monsters.” She tries to say something, at least more calmly now, but another shove silences her. “Now, I’m going to let you up, and you’re going to prove—to yourself—that you’re not a monster by answering my questions.” I don’t wait for her to nod. “First: Why did you kill those ponies?”
Though I step off of her even before I finish asking the question, Replie doesn’t move for a few moments; when she does, she shakily pushes herself up into a sitting position, though she keeps her eyes closed. “Because… Sagim Riflakshun said-… she ordered-… I had to-…” she trails off into incoherent mumble-sobbing, and I sigh as quietly as I can, trying to make it sound caring instead of exasperated. So, she wants to make this like pulling teeth? Not surprising… but let’s cut to the part where the tooth comes free, why don’t we?
I move forward to try to hug her again, but she flinches and steps away from me. I simply stare at her for a moment as she refuses to look at me before moving to hug her again, at which she simply jumps away from me. I sigh, wondering for a moment if this is how Fluttershy had felt when I tried to ask her to stop caring about me. I suppose I can chase her, even off the bed and around the room, if she insisted, but I decide to sit instead to say, “And… Sagim Riflakshun ordered you to because Chrysalis ordered her to,” she nods at this, but having already figured it out, I go on without pause, “So, why do you think Chrysalis ordered her to do such a thing?”
She lets out her loudest sniffle yet before answering, “Mahusayii… of course…” I worry for a moment that she’s not going to elaborate or even give me a hint of what mahusayii is, but then, “-to strengthen the soldiers for the siege… There wasn’t any logistical way to get them out of the way to be replaced, so…” She finishes with a squeak, trying to convince me she can’t go on, but the tiny shifts in her emotions tell me her defense is indeed being worn. So… mahusayii is love? Or a kind of love, perhaps?… It would, after all, make sense for a Changeling language to be much more specific about different types of love when they can feel it so tangibly…
Also, her attempt at steering the conversation away from where I want it to go does not slip so easily under my radar. “Enough, Replie; you know what I was really asking about. There’s only one answer to the question of why Chrysalis did what she did—and does what she does—and I’m sure you know it. It’s the same as the reason Celestia does what she does. Whatever you think of Chrysalis or Celestia… maybe you even think one or both of them are evil,” she shakes her head at this, “… They’re both doing what they think they need to do to help their own kind. Think it’s what they need to do. What’s happened… happening… probably isn’t the best way this could have been handled… by either side… but under the circumstances we’ve been swept up by, we’re only doing what we need to do to survive. Before Canterlot, I’m sure you thought Chrysalis was doing the right thing,” that gets her to finally look at me, even if it is in confusion, “otherwise I’m sure you wouldn’t have… participated,” and just like that, she looks away again, making me bite my lip in frustration. “Either way-,” I mean only to intone, but my Changeling body instead adds a hiss for emphasis, which makes me pause for a second, “Either way… you regret what you did… I’m guessing that you even wish with all your might that you could somehow take it back, and that makes you the exact opposite of a monster.”
Nothing happens at first, besides the fact she slowly begins to tremble, eventually shivering so terribly it starts to shake the bed and, in turn, me. As she continues to not say anything, I soon swallow before yet again attempting to reach out to her, yet this time with only one hoof intended to pat her back softly and perhaps lay across her shoulders if she allowed. Intended. Instead, she jumps towards me, practically falling onto her stomach at my feet as if begging and wrapping her forelegs around my chest and hugging me as tightly as she could, almost squeezing the air out of my lungs. I only sit still for a moment, shocked until I finally process that she’s now allowing herself to cry, soaking the fur on my chest; her sobs render whatever she’s trying to say completely incoherent.
Closing my eyes and pushing back the nagging feeling that, as good as this is, my own problems still have yet to be dealt with, I hug her in turn, one foreleg behind her head and the other around her neck, as I hush her words, “Shhh… You don’t need to say anything else… just cry it out…” and she does so, stopping trying to talk through her pain.
We remain like this for a time that I don’t, nor care, to know, but eventually we lay down, I pull the covers over us, and Replie’s sobbing slows until, finally, she falls asleep. I all but know—knowing about as much as even a Changeling can know about emotions—that this is anything but over. Killing isn’t something one gets over in a single night, after all, nor after one speech… even, I think—I hope—for an alicorn protecting the ponies of her nation or a Changeling queen trying to secure a future for her children.
That night, even after all the “excitement” of the day, I don’t sleep.