The walls practically cried for all the condensation. Moss grew thick on what little Korrick could see through the grate of their cell door, creeping up the walls. It was a luminescent plant which the guards allowed to grow. It saved them the trouble of having to place torches or use magic, assuming enough of it grew to provide sufficient light.
Normally the dry air of T'rahk Enox was hot and parched the throat by breathing alone. But here in the underground cells of the capital's dungeons, the heavier moist air gathered, the water clinging to the cold stone walls. At first it had been a soothing climate change, but Korrick had quickly found that changelings did not do well in cold, damp places. He spent his nights shivering, for he refused to share any warmth with that witch of a companion.
Still, she was a companion all the same. For weeks they had been talking, growing a careful, paper-thin trust between them. Enough so that Korrick was certain that he would have his answers, and she would not betray her end of the bargain.
And she trusted him enough to know that he would keep his promise of crushing her flat if she failed to uphold her end of the deal.
Friendly enough, considering the circumstances. That grim thought echoed around in his head as he quietly continued counting, silently keeping the measure. As it had been for the three days, the new guards in charge of their stretch of the dungeon came by at the precise second he had come to expect. They probably had no idea they were so punctual, he thought grumblingly. They were creatures of habit, nothing more, and certainly terrible guards.
The precise level of terrible he had been waiting for. The plans were laid carefully, and he and Chrysalis had been prepared to spring a week earlier. But a change in the guards had foiled everything for them, and so they had to wait as Korrick once again attuned himself to their schedule.
Everything had to be in perfect place.
Korrick had everything in line. The door was made of a nasty sort of stone that reflected magic of any sort back into the room. Many a prisoner had injured or killed himself trying to break down the door with a spell too strong for his own good. No amount of force could unhinge that heavy slab of black rock. Even attempts to put a spell through the bars would result in failure, as the magic would simply bounce between them, so tight were the spaces involved. The only opening large enough to effectively use magic through was the meal slot. And it could only be opened from outside.
Coincidentally, it was meal time.
The guards came on slowly from the end of the hall. 'Hurry' simply wasn't a word used in this line of work, as it wasn't likely anyone was going anywhere. Korrick hissed to Chrysalis, getting her attention as the guards wandered along loudly, laughing like idiots at some joke nobody was paying attention to.
She nodded from the back, knowing that her place was to stay far removed from the door. Korrick would have precious little time himself to get clear of it when the moment came.
"Alright you sorry chunks of shell, here's your stinking food," one of the guards growled, lowering his head down to open the slot and push the tray through.
The tray rocketed back into his face, loudly cracking his shell as Korrick put his plan into motion.
It was a simple spell that could be used to do most anything; blow out candles, move small objects. All it did was manipulate the particles in the air, moving them around. But in a confined space like the meal slot, it had a very different effect.
The door did its best to repel the magic, and in its defense the spell didn't exit the far side of the food slot immediately, unlike the meal tray that had crushed the idiot guard's face in. Instead the air pressure built up inside the meal slot as the door tried to funnel the spell back inside the cell. Korrick fought with all of his considerable magical knowledge and skill, more than making up for his lack of energy with precision and control.
It could not best him. Its effect was diminished in such an open space as the meal slot, and so Korrick continued to pump the spell in faster than it could be bailed out. In the end, the door began to bulge outward, until the edges of the meal slot peeled back, the stone bending in on itself like hot iron.
Korrick dove clear, covering his head as physics took their toll. The two peeled pieces of the slot came to face each other perfectly for a few moments, bouncing the spell between them like some shining ball-game of death. Each impact pushed the plates out further, wider and wider until at last the spell exploded out into the hallway.
The air-ball ricocheted wildly off of other cell doors and their own, eventually bouncing off the skull of the remaining, completely flabbergasted guard. It hit him with a dull thumping sound, tossing him a few feet to the side, completely out cold.
It had all taken only a few seconds. And aside from the usual noise of a tray hitting the floor, or metal scraping on metal, it hadn't made a sound. The air ball had been completely silent, doing its work in secrecy.
Korrick worked quickly, wasting no time. The door had no locks. Unless the changeling inside could reach the solitary handle outside with magic, there was no need. Fortunately, Korrick now had little trouble doing so. Funneling his spell accurately through the makeshift tunnel in the meal-slot took a few attempts, but at last he had the door swinging open.
He and Chrysalis rushed out into the hall. Adrenaline more than made up for her lack of good health. She waited as Korrick tossed the guards back into the cell, shutting the door on them. As dim-witted as these two were, it would take them days to get the door back open, even with such a large hole in it. And Korrick highly doubted any of the guards here would come rushing to answer their cries for help. Prisoners cried out all the time.
"We have to go," Chrysalis hissed. "I know a way out two halls down. I used to spend much of my time down here when I ran things," she said with a dark little smile, trotting further down the hallway.
"Why am I not surprised to hear that?" Korrick grumbled, following her quickly.
"Don't sound so disappointed." she chided, turning down an intersection and racing through another. No alarms had sounded yet, and their guards were still knocked out from their head injuries. The odds of them being caught by another patrol were slim to none, but speed was of the essence all the same.
"I suppose I shouldn't, but I have to ask," he said cautiously, gaining ground and running next to her. "Where does this little 'exit' of yours lead?"
"To the sewers. Where else?" she asked with a sly little laugh.
Korrick swallowed his distaste, masking it with logic. At least it was better than trying to escape above ground in the middle of the city. The sewer system was extensive, and at the very least they could make their way above in some secluded corner of the capital. Or perhaps even further, somewhere in the outskirts of town.
The two ran like bats out of hell until they came to a grate in the center of an intersection. Korrick threw it aside, practically pushing Chrysalis in as he heard one of their guards finally crying out back the way they had come. He followed her in quickly, replacing the grate behind them.
Freedom had never smelled so terrible.
"Honestly darling, it's been two weeks now and you still haven't told him?" Rarity asked aghast.
"Well judgin' by the look on yer face when I told ya, I can't imagine it's gonna exactly go over well." Applejack paced around the plush parlor that she was sharing with Rarity during her 'vacation'. She and all the girls were staying at the castle while Aurus trained intensively. Nobody besides Twilight or the princesses had seen him in almost five days now.
To make matters worse, what little she had seen of him had felt uncomfortable and awkward. She couldn't talk to him anymore without feeling guilty, as if somehow she was honor-bound to tell him how she felt. After her first admission to Rarity, she'd had plenty of doubts, had even gone through a period of hoping that it was just a phase and that the feeling in her stomach would stop acting up whenever she looked at him.
"Now I admit I was a little shocked," Rarity replied, her eyes narrowing as she laid the emphasis on 'little'.
"Rarity, ya tipped over," Applejack deadpanned, scowling harshly at her friend.
Rarity flush a light rose color and cleared her throat. "Yes, well, I'll have you know I tip over concerning a lot of things." She turned her nose up as if somehow that point was not only contrary, but in her defense. Applejack just smirked at her for her poorly made point, but Rarity pointedly ignored it.
"What I'm getting at is that you're wasting your time. Those feelings aren't going to go away anytime soon; that's simply not how young love works." Rarity scowled and shook her head, stomping a hoof to add credence to her point. "You should march right up to see him on his next break and tell him!"
Applejack looked away from Rarity, blushing and taking a few very small, subconscious steps backward.
Rarity looked at her hard, stalking across the white marble floor to keep up with her uncomfortable retreat. "You're not scared of him, are you?" she asked slyly.
"Well no... I mean yes... I mean..." Applejack stammered, stepping back and dashing her eyes side to side as Rarity backed her into a tapestry next to the bed. It became clear to her that there was no escape from this line of questioning. "It jus' seems wrong!" she practically shouted in her desperation.
That backed Rarity off a bit, giving AJ some breathing room. Still, the white unicorn wore a smug, knowing sort of look. As if she not only understood what Applejack meant, but had suspected as much all along. "Applejack, it only feels that way because you're not being honest with yourself," she said calmly, trotting back over towards her bed and hopping up on it.
"What d' ya mean?" Applejack followed her with a puzzled expression, still blushing from her embarrassing outburst. She took up a place at the end of the bed as Rarity snuggled into the plush mattress, curling her legs under her and getting comfortable.
"What's keeping you from telling him?" Rarity asked in reply, looking her hard in the eyes.
"Well, he's jus' been so busy, an' it hasn't felt like there's been a decent time t' tell him," she said cautiously. It was true enough, but somehow that reason just felt empty to her.
"That's precisely the kind of thing I'm talking about," Rarity huffed, rolling her eyes. "You keep making excuses like that in your head, instead of tackling the real issues."
Applejack puzzled over that. Her, dishonest with herself? It shocked her to find a ring of truth to that. Rationalizing everything wasn't lying outright, but in the end she was just fooling herself and dodging the real reasons she hadn't told him. She wasn't sure how many of them there might be, or what they even really were.
Rarity could see the struggle going on in her friend's eyes as Applejack gazed right through her. "It's perfectly understandable to be nervous and afraid, but you need to talk this out, I think." Rarity patted the bed next to her with a warm and friendly smile.
After only a moment's consideration, Applejack hopped up on the mattress across from her. It was getting strange talking up at her from the floor anyways. "So how d' ya suppose we go about talkin' this through, then?" she asked skeptically. She wasn't so much of a talker as a doer, unlike her purple-maned friend.
"Well, for starters I'll ask you some questions. And all you have to do is answer them honestly," Rarity said with a mischievous little tweak to her smile.
Applejack would have shuffled uncomfortably, had she not been sinking into the mattress for the last few moments. "Alright, but I don't really see how this is gonna help me talk t' him."
"Well, for starters, why do you like him? And I mean details." Her tone was stern, for she knew well in advance that Applejack would try to dodge the interesting answers when put on the spot like that.
"Well, I... I dunno, really. Ever since I've met him he's been kindhearted an' respectful, an' respect goes a long way fer me. Things like that, right?" Applejack asked, clarifying that she was on the right track. If it was just stuff like that that Rarity was looking for, then Applejack had no qualms telling her.
"More or less," Rarity replied slyly, narrowing her eyes and looking at Applejack out the corners of her eyes, as if she expected she was hiding something. Still, she gave the nod to continue, and so Applejack went on, though she had a sinking feeling in her stomach that this little interrogation was eventually going to get uncomfortably personal.
"Well, let's see... He is perty brave, somethin' ya don't find every day in a fella. I mean, the way he saved my life on the train, it's a stroke of luck bein' that he didn't get hurt himself. An' then layin' his life on the line to catch that assassin like that." She was getting into the swing of things, and her tone was getting fonder, her gaze further away as she took the mental trip Rarity had been hoping for; to the deeper part of herself, where her true thoughts and feelings for Aurus were hiding out.
"He's got a way with words, too; somethin' I've never been much good at myself. He's open an' honest, an' he speaks his mind." Applejack sat up a little straighter, her hind end on the bed with her forelegs propping her front end up. She put a hoof to her chin in thought, narrowing her eyes as she delved for more.
She blushed suddenly as she stumbled upon something she wasn't sure she was comfortable admitting to. Rarity had been waiting for exactly that, and had to hide her smile as Applejack stammered to get it out. She knew that if she just let it slip by, Rarity would harass her for that particular detail.
"An'... h-he's mighty strong." She kneaded her front hooves back and forth on the comforter, looking directly at them and not at Rarity as her blush deepened. "There's jus' somethin' enticin' about a fella that can... Well, ya know," she finished lamely, flopping down suddenly and burying her face in the blanket.
"Something about a gentlecolt that can literally sweep you off your hooves? Believe me darling, I know all about that," Rarity said soothingly, doing her best to alleviate Applejack's embarrassment. "It sounds to me like you have a thing for the heroic type. And Aurus certainly fits that description, after everything he's done to get this far. Now then, get your eyes back up here," she said, adding a little mock-sternness to her tone. "There's nothing to be ashamed of."
Applejack sighed, the little rush of air almost completely muffled as she tried to alleviate the burning in her cheeks. When she had recovered a mote of control, she finally sat back up, though she was still blushing badly, and had trouble meeting Rarity's eyes for very long. After a short pause she cleared her throat and finally spoke up. "Yeah, that... I know it sounds mighty unlike me, but it's nice t' think maybe he's a fella I could lean on. It ain't easy bein' the strong one all the time. An' I meant more than jus' pushin' and pullin'... Anypony else would've given up on this mission of his after what he's been through."
Another pause followed, where Rarity waited patiently, nodding and smiling to show she understood. With no verbal feedback forthcoming, Applejack finished on a lame note. "I don't rightly know what else there is t' say."
Rarity just laughed, but not mockingly. "To be fair, that's much more than I expected. But now I'm going to have to tweak the question a little... What is it you like about him physically?" she asked, her tone teasing. She watched with satisfaction as Applejack lit up like a lamp, shooting up straight.
"Do I really have t' answer this?" she grumbled, looking at Rarity out the top of her eyes, like a puppy that had been scolded.
"Yes. Now come on, this is just a friendly talk. It's not like I'm going to run around telling these things to everypony," she said with a comforting, encouraging smile.
"Pinkie Promise?" Applejack insisted after a slight pause. It was the only way to be sure.
"Well of course. Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye," Rarity said, going through all of the comical actions associated with the little rhyme Pinkie had invented. It had the desired effect, bringing a cautious smile to Applejack's lips.
"Well alright then... T' be honest the first thing that comes t' mind is his eyes. They're downright beautiful; like the green on an apple leaf. I know yer s'posed to look a fella in the eye when you talk to him, but when it's him I can't hardly look away sometimes," she said sheepishly, pawing at the blankets again.
For a first-timer, Applejack was doing surprisingly well, or so Rarity thought. "Believe me, I know all about those eyes of his," she said, gushing over them in a friendly, supportive sort of way. "I'd have trouble looking away from them myself, if he wasn't always so busy looking at you."
Applejack seemed to collect a mixture of discomfort and confidence from that remark; a contrary but all too common pair of feelings in romance. "Then there's those fangs of his... I know most folk find 'em frightenin', but I jus' don't see em that way. I feel like they make his smile more natural; like if they weren't there, he'd jus' look funny," she said with a nervous laugh. Rarity returned it, both out of sincere amusement and support.
"Do you like him better when he's in disguise?" Rarity asked with a wink. It was no secret that his go-to disguise since their arrival was incredibly attractive.
Applejack blushed deeper, but her response was earnest and unwavering. "No, I don't. I don't think it's right, him havin' t' hide himself like that. He's more attractive without all that masqueradin'." Applejack's scowl as she finished only proved that she meant it. "I like him jus' fine the way he is."
Rarity did her best to hide her surprise at that little outburst behind one final, conniving grin. "Well, one last question then I suppose."
Applejack just nodded, the sincere and forthright moment a second ago helping her to regain her confidence in this little interrogation.
"What made you say 'it just seems wrong'? After everything you've told me, what makes him so bad? I've heard only good things from you, and I can't find a single thing wrong with it myself."
Applejack sighed, looking puzzled. "I don't know, Rarity... When I said that, I didn't know half the things I know right now. Shoot, I didn't know 'em until they left my lips," she said with a nervous chuckle. "But I think I understand now... What made it wrong wasn't him, it was me. I was bein' as skittish as a fox-feared chicken because I was confused." Applejack looked ashamed, hanging her head and sighing before bringing her eyes back up.
"But I've got it figured now, thanks t' yer help. If ya hadn't gone askin' all ya did, I never would have got my head straight," she said, smiling warmly and leaning forward to hug Rarity. The two came together in a sisterly embrace, smiling like everything was finally right in the world.
"What are friends for?" Rarity asked with a warm laugh, finally breaking off the hug. "Now then, after all that, what's really keeping you from telling him how you feel?" Rarity coaxed, smiling knowingly as Applejack just shook her head, hopping off the bed. She made her way to the door, determination in her step, obviously intending to go looking for him right then and there, before she lost her nerve.
Looking over her shoulder, Applejack just tipped her hat lower and grinned out from underneath it. "What's really keepin' me? T' be honest, I reckon it's nothin'."
"Well, I guess it could be worse," Twilight said, her smile clearly forced as she looked at the poorly tied knot that Aurus had been working on. It was no kind of recognizable pattern at all, just a jumble of string.
"Like hell it could," he muttered under his breath in changeling. He sighed to himself though, letting the failure go. These first few weeks were going to be much like this, he knew, and patience would serve him well and speed his progress in the long run.
The princesses and Twilight had spent the last two weeks studying his abilities intensively, putting him through a series of basic tests. The most obvious flaw in his use of magic was his lack of control. He could almost always accomplish the desired purpose of a spell, as long as it didn't require much precision. Objectives like threading a needle using magic alone, or opening a door from the opposite side eluded him; simple tasks that any unicorn Twilight's age could do with little trouble. These spells more often resulted in the thread bursting into green flame, or the door being blown off its hinges.
The only other incredibly obvious point they had garnered from the tests was that where raw spell power was concerned Aurus had much to spare. Their gauging of his magical strength had been simple enough. All he had to do was toss a small rock as high as he could, straight up. Based on the time it took to come back down, Twilight could figure out how far it had flown, and then calculate how much spell power Aurus really had pent up in his kingly body. It was a test unicorns went through each year of their magical education, to gauge their growth.
In Aurus' case the rock had never really come back down; the stone had leapt off the ground with such speed behind it that it had caught fire and burned up from air resistance after only a few hundred feet.
After recovering from her shock, Twilight had spent a few days trying to figure out how fast the rock had been going. She had eventually settled on a number, but the conversion was astronomical. Apparently Aurus was capable of flinging the rock nearly ten times the distance of her own most recent attempt, assuming it didn't burn up immediately after launch.
Needless to say the princesses had opted to ignore such trivial things as magical endurance training, or any similar methods of increasing his already obscene level of magical force.
But it was precisely this raw power that doomed him in terms of precision. All his life he had spent only what magic was necessary, lifting grocery bags or opening doors, which wasn't exactly conducive to his experience level. His magical releases at the coronation had been monumental, requiring less precision and more purpose, affecting a wide area. According to Twilight, either he was used to spending hardly any magic at all, or a great deal of it all at once.
Performing a task such as threading a needle required a different approach; the task was, in fact, much more magically intensive than lifting a grocery bag. On top of having to use his magic to lift the thread, he would have to guide one end very carefully. This required numerous magical pushes and pulls, which confused Aurus' habitual understanding of magic. You only pushed a door one way, after all.
Still, the first two weeks had gone better than expected. A few day-long training sessions with Twilight had him threading the needle. He still struggled with tasks like this knot tying experiment though, where he was forced to guide both ends of the string simultaneously.
By the time he had finished reflecting on his progress, Twilight had finally undone his ball of string into a straight line again. "Alright, let's start over from the top again. Just do a simple knot. I think you still need practice on that before you try the bow thing again," she said with a warm, supportive chuckle.
Aurus just smiled in defeat. "Yes ma'am. You know, it's odd to think that this is considered magical training," he said, screwing up his face as he held the string up in front of him. He turned his head this way and that as he fiddled with it, as if somehow that would affect the flight paths of the string's ends. It was comical to say the least, and after much lip chewing and head jerking, he had finally tied a single square knot.
"Well, two days ago you couldn't have done it," Twilight replied with a smile, pulling the string from him and inspecting the work. "I have no doubt you could do this in your sleep if we asked you to tie a steel bar, but what you need to learn is control. The small things in magic are infinitely more important than brute strength." She nodded, satisfied with his handiwork, untying it quickly and passing it back to him.
"I know, I know... Ever since I started working with smaller things like this, it's changed the way I do everything else," he said with a laugh, taking the string and scowling at it as he put it through another circuit of knot making. "I mean, when I used to open a door I would just turn the handle and then push the whole thing. When I was younger, my father used to yell at me for bending the hinges." He chuckled to himself as he finished his second knot, much faster than the previous one.
"But lately I keep thinking of more efficient ways to do even the simplest things. Instead of pushing the whole door, I push just a small part of it, like the handle. It does exactly the same thing, but it requires so much less energy... Not that I don't have it to spare, but it's just embarrassing. I don't like to think I'm a stupid changeling, most days, but I've been using magic wrong my entire life," he said with a sigh that was caught somewhere between regretful and letting it go. He passed the new knot back to Twilight, but she didn't take it. She just untied it without ever looking at it, too absorbed in the conversation.
"That's exactly what I mean. Imagine what you could do with all that energy if you had finesse. To be honest, after what I saw the first week you've improved by leaps and bounds already. I was worried I'd have my hooves full, teaching you," she said with a friendly laugh.
Aurus tied another knot, again faster than before. He wasn't looking at it this time though, but closed his eyes and shared her laugh. Only days prior he couldn't even move the end of the string around unless he was completely undisturbed. But here he was, talking and tying knots at the same time. Twilight knew that the key to any good instruction was to give and take; to criticize and encourage in equal parts. A good student would become cocky if all he received was praise, and downtrodden if scolded. A careful mix was vital.
Aurus responded well to both, but lately Twilight had trouble finding things to critique him on. Most of it was just down to repetition; he understood the laws of magic inside and out now, could recite them on cue any time she asked him. He knew the spells he needed to use, at least for these simple tasks. His knowledge was far from complete, but for the tasks at hoof the best she could do was hold his work to higher and higher standards. She was proud to see him progressing so well, especially on days where he had failed repeatedly. He would simply keep at it until he finally succeeded, refusing breaks and pressing on.
"Ready to try the bow again?" she asked, letting him untie his own string this time.
He just nodded, doing his best to look determined, though in the pit of his stomach he was nervous to fail at such a childish task again. Still, when it came to his mission and his people, his pride was of little consequence. He took a deep breath, letting his worries go and focusing on the string. He worked for a few moments, messing up the second loop twice in a row before finally getting it to stay put. He almost had the bow once, lopsided as it was, but he pulled too hard on one loop, unraveling the whole thing.
Scowling and snorting out a quick puff of frustration, he put the string through the works again. He was more careful as he pulled this time, tightening the knot at the bow's center without pulling an end of the string all the way through. At last he had a bow, though one loop was much larger than the other, and the knot was clearly not centered. Still, he smiled as he presented it to Twilight, as if he had done the unimaginable and deserved a medal for it.
Twilight had seen that fake-smug look enough times in the recent weeks to not think he was actually being prideful. She just looked over the bow with an overly critical eye like she always did, ignoring his false bravado. "Not bad for a first try, but I don't think it would hold up very well," she said with a laugh, untying it in one deft pull and passing it back to him. "I think you can do better."
Aurus just sighed, having expected that reaction; he'd been receiving it for days. "As usual, I suppose I'll just have to try. There's no pleasing you, I hope you know that," he grumbled, scowling at her before going back to his work. It took about the same number of attempts, but he finally made a second one. And again, and again, each bow coming closer and closer to symmetry.
Finally Twilight seemed pleased. Aurus didn't exhibit any signs of magical fatigue; near as she could tell he never had, and never would. Still, unless she gave him breaks now and then, he'd never really master the material. Having him do the same thing over and over non-stop only gave the appearance of progress. The true test was to get him to do it after he'd spent a while not working on it.
"Well, I suppose this will just have to do," she said with mock disappointment. "Anyways, what do you say we break for lunch?"
Aurus just nodded, doing his best not to laugh at her obvious drama. "Sounds like a plan. I'll make you the best bow you've ever seen once I have a full stomach," he said, patting his underside for illustration.
The two shared a laugh and a friendly nod. The terms of lunch breaks had already been argued over once before, and they both knew the drill; back to the library in an hour. Twilight took off to go have her usual training talk with the ever-busy princess Celestia. Aurus just let himself calm down from his training angst, pacing around the same dimly-lit library room they had convened in not long ago as his nerves settled.
The princesses would be taking his training into their own hooves once he was ready for more advanced studies in magic. That could be weeks away, he knew. And even months after that he wasn't sure he would be capable of retaking his nation. There was much to learn, much he felt he had to know before he could feel ready. And even at the rate he was progressing, the numbers weren't flattering.
Still, he kept on day to day by telling himself the same thing; he wasn't letting them down. He was here, in the capital of what were once his enemies. Here, preparing the freedom of his people from a new tyrant. He couldn't come for them now, but someday he would be back. He wasn't abandoning them, but ensuring that he would be the hope they could depend on when at last he returned.
That revelation kept him awake at night lately. So much rested on his shoulders; a humble changeling boy who had never even considered his career. Had never applied himself to his magical studies. He was a prime example of what most changelings would consider mediocrity, and yet they loved him dearly. Desired his success, found purpose in his ideals.
Perhaps it was simply true that the masses were stupid, but Aurus didn't want to believe that. His one true strength in life was his strength of character; his determination and resolve. He had his standards and his ideals, and he would never abandon them, no matter the effort or the cost. Korrick had once told him that that alone made him a strong leader. The fact that he wanted to share those dreams with his people and watch them benefit from it made him more than a strong leader, though. It made him a righteous one.
The glory wasn't important. They needed him, all of them. He had lead the charge into an era of peace, with all the nation behind him. But a spear without its head was useless, and so if he faltered, they all would too.
He sighed, shaking his head and driving himself away from any further thought on the matter. It was just going to consume him again in the later hours, so why dwell on it twice in one day? A grumble from somewhere below him helped to further clear his head, driving any solid thoughts out with a wave of hunger. Chuckling forlornly to himself, he patted his stomach consolingly before making his way out into the hall.
Rounding the corner, he nearly floored Applejack, who was walking at an unnaturally quick pace. The two of them collided hard, Aurus' unstoppable frame not budging an inch despite the solid hit and the fact that she was moving much faster than he was.
As she bounced off of him, heading fast for the stone tile of the library hall floor, Aurus subconsciously caught her with magic. Prior to his intensive training sessions, that catch would have been rough and uncomfortable, more like a push from below to counter the fall. Now it was more fluid, slowing her drop before gently pulling her back to her hooves. He did it almost without meaning to, setting her back under her own power on the stone.
"Are you alright?" he asked, concerned. A quick look over made it clear enough to him that the bump hadn't done any damage, but had startled her badly. "I'm really sorry about that, I should have heard you coming," he said in apology, dipping his head.
"Shoot, that ain't nothin' compared t' some of the falls I've taken," she replied with a nervous laugh. Aurus could feel that strange feeling coming from her again. The one that filled him top to bottom with warmth, that he had no name for. Whatever it was, he hadn't felt it in days, not since the last time he had seen her. And it was significantly stronger now, flooding him instead of trickling in. "Thanks fer catchin' me, Aurus," she added suddenly, blushing slightly and moving as if she were going to look away from him. She didn't though, but kept up her eye contact.
"Not a problem," he said back, doing his best to smile despite his confusion. "Is something wrong? You look like you're running a fever or something," he said with some concern, though he tried to laugh it off like it was a joke.
Applejack's blush only deepened. "No, no problem... Jus'... Aurus, can we talk?" she asked, pawing the floor gently with her right hoof and lowering her head a bit to try and hide her blush. In the end it just gave her the appearance of being worried, as if she expected him to tell her that talking wasn't an option.
Aurus just looked up and down the hall, double checking that it was empty. Whatever it was she needed to say, she wouldn't be acting like this if it wasn't a private matter. Satisfied that they were alone, he smiled at her sincerely. "We're talking now, aren't we? Besides, what did I tell you before? You can talk to me about anything, Applejack," he said warmly.
That seemed to help her regain some of her composure, and she cleared her throat. "It's been a bit since we last got t' talkin'. I reckon you probably felt that it wasn't quite on the level?" she asked.
Aurus just nodded, recalling those conversations. She had seemed a little off, despite his best efforts to make the conversations natural and friendly. "Yeah, you're right about that. Ever since we captured Malik you've been acting different... Not bad, just not yourself," he clarified as she shuffled at his comment. He wanted to try and explain the weird feeling he was getting from her, but he didn't know how to put it into words. Besides that, ponies didn't experience things the same way as changelings, and it always just got jumbled in translation, so he kept quiet about it.
"Is it something I did?" he asked quietly, sounding concerned. "It's the Malik thing, isn't it?"
She sighed, that single breath coming out shaky. "No, it ain't that. I think ya handled him right fine, and I'm glad it all turned out. It's..." she paused, blushing badly and shifting from hoof to hoof. She broke eye contact with him, as if somehow looking at him just wouldn't let the words come.
"Aurus, I know this is gonna sound mighty strange... But I have feelins' for ya. I can't sit face to face with ya without thinkin' of yerself an' me!" she said loudly and quickly, as if those words were pent up to the breaking point and had to come out in an explosion. She calmed down a bit, at least in tone, as she continued. "You're one heck of a fella, and there ain't a thing I don't like about ya. There's been a couple nights I don't sleep right cuz my mind's running circles 'round itself over this. I'm sorry to spring it on ya like this, but if I don't say it, it jus' ain't fair to ya." She was still looking away from him, down at her hooves and glowing at the cheeks like a fireplace. Her eyes were clamped shut, like she expected to look up any moment and see him glaring at her, like a child admitting she had broken something.
Aurus was shocked. So that's what it was! That feeling coming from her, the one he had never felt before; it was love. Love in its infant form; nothing like the love of family or the people. Love before it even went by that name, pure and noble, even in its incompletion. It stormed his body like a castle under siege, breaking into his heart with such purpose that he was powerless to stop it.
He never would have tried. Nobody had ever given him this feeling. Nobody had ever needed him this way. He had never had eyes for any girl; they had always been selfish and sly, after something he didn't understand in a male. Applejack was the first female he had ever met that didn't set him on edge. That he actually liked being around. She was honest, kind, pure, and concerned about him.
He had been too busy to see her nervousness for what it was. To see her the way he did now. She wasn't just a friend, and those feelings she had weren't just one way. Everything he reflected on about her just solidified it in his own heart, each fond memory of his short span of existence in her life bringing him closer to the undeniable truth. There were feelings in his heart for her, too.
He smiled as he came to realize that. Those feelings were young; new to his mind, though familiar to his heart. But they were real, and like his talent for magic they just needed to be honed. They needed the chance to be seen and understood. To be acted upon. He had always heard that young love was like a hair-trigger trap; you had no idea you were in it until it had sprung.
His smile widened as that analogy sounded all to clearly in his head. He picked her chin up with a hoof, as he had done weeks before. His touch was gentle and careful, bringing her eyes up to his. She opened them slowly, looking away at first, but finally meeting his gaze. His smile never faltered, stayed warm and comforting all the way through it.
"Applejack, you're not alone. You don't have to be afraid to like me... I feel the same way," he said quietly, words meant just for her. "I've never met a girl like you, and never been with anyone before. But I couldn't imagine this happening with anyone else. It just feels right to me," he said comfortingly. The distance between them seemed to close of its own accord, as if space itself felt the need to clear out before something terrible and mushy happened to it.
They paused a comfortable span apart, neither of them realizing they had drawn closer at all. They were both too consumed searching for sincerity and acceptance in the eyes of the other. It was crazy and sudden, felt stupid and rushed, but neither of them cared. They both wanted this chance, to explore this possibility.
Applejack's blush went from burning and embarrassed to warm and happy as she heard the reply she never would have dreamed of. She'd come here to tell him expecting rejection, not reciprocation. She didn't have the words to reply to him; fancy speaking was more his department anyways.
He didn't let her down. The moment passed quietly between them, and at last AJ pulled away gently as he lowered his hoof. His smile never wavered, his eyes didn't deviate from hers. "What do you say we grab lunch?" he asked with a small laugh, taking a short step closer to her. "Just you and me."
She took the cue, stepping forward and falling into a gentle embrace; one as full of gratitude and relief as it was with budding love. She liked the closeness, the idea that she could just have it; had been invited to it.
"That sounds perfect," she replied quietly. She stayed that way a short while, neck to neck with him as she closed her eyes.
Down the hall and around the corner, Rarity smiled to herself as the pair made their way in the opposite direction, heading for the staircase and then into town on their impromptu date.
"That's my girl."