A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
By Dee Pad
Bonus Chapter 1: Evaluation
The sleeping changeling stirred in his slumber. Though his sleep was not restless, his mind was telling him something was wrong. Shade tried to push those thoughts back. It had been a month since the incident with Guise and the following weeks had been ludicrously peaceful. So then why did something feel off?
He wasn’t going to worry about it. Those days of worrying that one little thing would strip him of everything he had gained and loved were gone. Why should today feel any different from any other day?
But even if he had trouble removing those thoughts from his conscience, there was always one surefire way to ease his concerns.
Shade rolled over and reached out his hooves, wrapping them around the white body of his lover and drawing her closer to him, snuggling into her back like a soft, feathery pillow.
Shade’s jade eyes finally opened. Lifting his head, he took a better look at his "lover." In place of a slumbering pegasus was, in fact, a warm, plush pillow. The mare in question was nowhere to be seen.
The navy-maned changeling sighed, a sign of his disappointment, annoyance, and relief. At least he knew what that off feeling was now. Everyday since things had calmed down, he’d awoken to the embrace of his favorite pegasus, one with whom he shared his life and his love with. His mind must have just grown accustomed to waking up that way. It certainly beat rising with a mouthful of dead leaves.
Now that one question had been answered, it was time to tackle the second: where did Winter go? Had she gone to work? Shade glanced at the alarm clock on the bedside table. He knew there was no way she would have beaten the alarm to the punch; she wasn’t a morning person in any sense of the term. Besides that, it was only six o’ clock. It would have taken something big--really big--to make her want to get to work that early.
Shade sniffed the air. A pleasant aroma drifted through the room. It smelled like food cooking.
Is...Is she cooking breakfast? That thought worried him.
He considered Winter to be absolutely perfect in every way imaginable. Her lovable personality, her stunning good looks, and all the cute, little intricacies of her demeanor that Shade found irresistible.
But if somepony were to force him to pick one thing about her that maybe wasn’t really entirely perfect, he would probably say it was her cooking skills. It’s not that she was a bad cook, it’s that she was so easily distracted from whatever it was she was preparing. For every good meal she made, she ruined ten more. By the time she had gotten it right, he would have no time to eat it because he had business somewhere else. The only food she’s ever really been able to cook properly on a consistent basis was toast. And this didn’t smell like toast.
Shade stretched his still tired body, flittering his thin, translucent wings as he gave a mighty yawn. Reluctantly, he removed himself from the bed and made for the bedroom door if only to satisfy his growing curiosity. The sizzling of food on a frying pan became louder as he descended the staircase towards the kitchen. It smelled delicious but he didn’t want to get his hopes up.
As he suspected, Winter was standing in front of the stove keeping a vigilant eye on the searing vegetables in the pan. The white apron she was wearing seemed to have been stained in multiple spots but Shade couldn’t determine the origins of each individual one.
Though Winter being this determined to prepare a good meal was unsettling in and of itself, that didn’t really compare to the feeling Shade got when he noticed the mountain of dishes that had been piled up in the sink and the virtual compost heap of charred and discarded food scraps in the trash can.
She appeared to be cooking a stir-fry. That’s not even something normal people eat for breakfast. What would possess her to be cooking it at six o’ clock in the morning or, given the amount of used materials that had accumulated, even much earlier?
“Winter, what’s going on?” Shade asked trepidatiously.
Winter’s head spun around so quickly that Shade was surprised it didn’t snap clean off. “Shade!” she bellowed. She quickly ran over to him, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him furiously, a look of unbridled terror on her face. “You’ve gotta help me! I’ve been trying to get this dish just right but it’s not working! I’ve tried following the recipe but it burned, then I tried turning the heat up a little higher and it just burned faster, then I tried turning it down but it still burned! I don’t know what I’m doing wrong!”
Shade finally managed to free himself before her shaking caused his head to pop off. He observed the panicked look in her baggy, sleep-deprived, amber eyes, which were almost on the verge of tears.
“Have you been cooking all night?” he asked her.
“Not the point right now, Shade,” she said narrowing her eyes. “I. Need. Your. Help.”
“What am I supposed to do? I don’t even know what you’re doing.” Her manic behavior was only serving to confuse Shade further.
“You work in a restaurant, help me cook!” she demanded rather loudly.
Shade rubbed his ear with a hoof. “I’m a waiter, not a chef. Look, just calm down and explain to me what it is you’re doing in the first place.”
Winter raised an eyebrow in perplexed frustration. “I’m making supper, what’s it look like?”
“‘S-Supper’?!” Shade echoed. “Do you even realize what time it is?! We won’t be eating supper for, like, twelve hours!”
“I kno-o-ow!” Winter cried as she finally broke down. “I’ve already wasted so much time! I’ll never finish at this rate!”
Shade couldn’t help but stare at her incredulously. He had never seen her this upset about something so trivial. The changeling steeled himself, grabbed his girlfriend by the shoulders, and looked her straight in the eye.
Her bawling halted immediately and she gave him her full attention.
“What. Is. The. Problem?” he asked slowly and clearly.
Winter took a deep breath, the words in her throat almost making her want to vomit. “My parents are coming for a visit.”
Shade released her and stood silently as he waited for the punchline, but all he received was a worried stare. “That’s it? That’s what has you up in arms? Your parents?”
She gave a nervous nod. “I found a letter from them last night lying in the dirt next to the mailbox. I was probably supposed to get it yesterday morning but Derpy must have dropped it. They’re coming here from Cloudsdale today.”
“And why does this have you up at all hours of the night just to cook one meal?”
Winter stepped forward defiantly. “Because this meal needs to be perfect! If I spend every waking hour working on it, then I’m bound to get lucky sometime and stumble upon the perfect dish!”
Shade pressed his hoof against the bridge of his nose. “Then why didn’t you just ask for help in the first place? I’m sure somepony would be willing to--”
Shade took a step back in surprise.
“I have to cook it myself! I need to show them that I’m independent and can take care of myself!”
Shade passed her a puzzled look. “But you just asked me for help.”
Winter fell onto her haunches and hung her head ashamedly. “I know. I was just getting desperate.” She cast a sidelong glance at the overflowing trash can. “We’re almost out of food.”
Shade sighed. “Alright, I’ll lend you a hoof and you can take credit for it. How does that sound?”
Winter tried to force a smile but it faltered. “Thanks,” she muttered dejectedly.
The green-eyed changeling placed a hoof on her shoulder and smiled reassuringly. “Come on, it’s not going to be the end of the world if your parents have a sub-par meal. Won’t they just be happy to see you?”
Winter looked back at him, her expression telling him that his words were doing nothing to alleviate her worry. “It’s not just about the food, Shade,” she said quietly.
He lifted an eyebrow. “It’s not? Then what’s bothering you?”
The concerned pegasus took another deep breath. “I haven’t been in contact with my parents since I moved to Ponyville. I haven’t seen or heard from them in about four months.”
“Okay, so wouldn’t that mean they’d be even happier to see you?”
Winter continued to gaze at him with defeated eyes. “They don’t know what happened here last month. They don’t know about you.”
The gloomy shadow that had been hovering over Winter had finally managed to catch Shade under its overcast as well. “Oh...Well, why didn’t you tell them?”
“Like I said, I haven’t seen them since I moved here,” she explained. “So, unless they caught wind of it from somepony, they’re still in the dark about the whole thing.” She hung her head apologetically.
Shade groaned and craned his neck toward the ceiling. He could already tell that this encounter was not going to be pleasant. “I can’t imagine how they’ll react when they get here.”
Winter scratched the back of her head nervously. “Yeah, see, the thing is, we’re not telling them.”
The changeling blinked. “What?”
“I’m gonna need you to go ahead and disguise yourself when they arrive,” Winter told him without a hint of jest.
“You’re...joking, right?” He couldn’t believe she would even suggest such a thing. “I am not shapeshifting tonight, or ever again if I can help it.”
Winter attempted to sway him by trying on her puppy dog eyes. “Please, Shade. This is really important. My parents can’t know you’re a changeling.”
“They’re going to find out eventually,” Shade pointed out, “Wouldn’t it be better to get it over with from the start?”
The pegasus sighed and passed Shade a remorseful gaze. “You don’t understand, Shade. Maybe it’ll be easy with my mom, but Dad? He’s a whole other story. He’s super strict and kind of old-fashioned. He’s...not really fond of non-pegasi, unicorns in particular. I can only imagine how he’d feel to know I was dating a changeling.
“Come on, he can’t be that bad.”
“Well, let me put it in perspective for you: My dad was the one who hired me to work at the weather factory in Cloudsdale,” Winter explained.
“How does that prove--”
“He’s also the one who fired me. On my first day.”
Shade gulped. “That seems a little...extreme.”
Winter shook her head. “You don’t know the half of it. So, just change for one day, just until they leave.”
The shapeshifter took a moment to contemplate her words before he shook his head. “Sorry, but the answer is still no.”
Winter’s expression suddenly became dead serious. “I’m not making a request, Shade.”
Shade took a cautious step back, a single drop of sweat forming on his neck. He managed to compose himself before pursuing his argument. “Winter, I’m not going to do that. You know how I feel about wearing a disguise. Besides, you were the one who told me to be myself. So, sorry, it’s not happening.”
Winter’s eyes narrowed to tiny slits. She thrust her hoof forward, wrapping it firmly around his curved horn and pulled him directly in front of her so their noses were pressed against one another. A sudden surge of regret and dread shot through Shade’s mind and body. She hissed at him through clenched teeth.
“You are going to lie to my parents or I swear to the sun this whole thing we have here,” She indicated the house using a circling motion with her free hoof. “is over.”
He took a second to ensure that he had heard her correctly. “What?”
“You heard me,” she said, her expression unmoving. She released his horn from her death grip. “I’m going to count down from five and if you don’t say yes, then you can just march your flank right out that door and back to the Golden Glade. Five.”
A seed of worry implanted itself into Shade’s mind. “You can’t be serious.”
He forced a knowing grin. “You’re bluffing.”
And suddenly his smile faded. “Okay, this isn’t funny anymore.”
Panic began to set. “After all we’ve been through, you would end it just like that?!”
“Alright! Okay! I’ll do it!” Shade shouted in a desperate gamble to abort the countdown.
Winter’s lips curved into the warm smile that he was so familiar with. “There. Was that so hard?”
Shade groaned in defeat. “I never thought you could be so cruel...”
She frowned regretfully. “I’m sorry,” she apologized, leaning in and giving him a peck on his cheek, “but I really need you to do this for me. I promise I‘ll make it up to you, okay?”
He could see in her eyes just how much she was worried about this. If it really was so important to her then he wanted to help, even if it meant breaking his new credo. Plus, he never really believed she would break up with him because of something so simple, but he didn’t want to take any chances on losing everything he held dear. “Fine, but for the record, I’m not comfortable with--is that smoke?”
Winter peered over her shoulder in time to catch sight of the billowing fumes rising from the neglected frying pan.
She dashed over to the stove and haphazardly grabbed the pan’s metal handle which she immediately dropped to the floor with a resounding clang.
“Gah! Hot!” the pegasus shrieked. She lifted her singed hoof to her lips and began to suckle on the afflicted area in an attempt to ease the quickly escalating pain.
Using his magic, Shade pulled a first-aid kit from a nearby cupboard and removed a length of bandage, delicately wrapping it around Winter’s burned hoof; it wasn’t the first time she had injured herself in the kitchen. She whimpered as her boyfriend pulled the bandage taut and looked at him pleadingly.
Shade sighed, finally giving in to her guilt-inducing gaze. “Let’s get this mess cleaned up before we do anything else.”
***** ***** *****
Thankfully, Shade was able to eventually dial Winter’s state of urgency back several notches to the point where, when she did feel she was starting to freak out, she could take a deep breath to cool her head. It helped to have his supportive hoof on her shoulder as well; looking into his reassuring eyes and loving smile kept her at ease, even if one or two dinner plates had shattered on the floor as a result of shaky hooves.
The table had been set with the finest--well, second finest--dinnerware that Winter owned or could afford, which admittedly wasn’t very impressive. She had even suggested going out to purchase an entirely new dinette set. Shade had to keep reminding her constantly that they weren’t going to be entertaining royalty. Nonetheless, their meal had been prepared. The dishes and cutlery marked out four areas around the table where the three ponies and one changeling would be seated this evening. Through the combined efforts of both residents of the household, the stir-fry did eventually turn out. Not perfectly, but compared to the multitude of the pegasus’s failed attempts it was definitely a step up and would have to suffice.
Winter scrutinously critiqued her work, walking circles around the table and eyeing each and every piece she had painstakingly positioned to perfection. She spread her wings and rose towards the ceiling to get a birds-eye view--a low-flying bird anyway--of the dining room.
Winter narrowed her eyes. “Hmm. Mom’s glass is two inches from her plate but Dad’s is two and a half...” She fluttered down to correct her imperceptible error, nudging the glass she had placed for her father's glass slighter closer to his plate before returning to the ceiling for a second assessment. She smiled and dropped back to the floor. “Perfect,” she beamed with self-satisfaction, but a small frown appeared to replace it. “At least, I hope so.”
The sound of hoofsteps turned her attention away from her obsessive arrangements and to the staircase where she saw a white-coated, cobalt-maned unicorn begrudgingly descending to the first floor.
“I’m going to ask once more: do I really need to do this?” Shade groaned.
Winter approached him wearing the same reassuring smile he had been giving her all day. “I’m sorry, Shade, but it’s just for one day. I really appreciate you doing this for me.”
“You didn’t really give me much choice,” he deadpanned.
Winter took a step back and looked Shade up and down, her eyes eventually stopping on his horn and lingering there for a moment. She hummed in thought. “Can’t you lose the horn? Maybe even give yourself a pair of wings or something?”
“Shapeshifting doesn’t work like that,” the disapproving changeling stated. “We can only imitate real ponies that we’ve seen before. We can’t just create our own bodies since the spell works based on our memories, not our imaginations.”
Winter frowned. “Well, what if you just pretend to be one of the pegasi from around here?”
She only received an unamused glare at her suggestion.
“Just asking. Sorry.”
Shade exhaled deeply. “Can we just get this over with? When will your parents be here?”
Winter looked to the clock on the wall. Surprisingly, simply preparing everything for her parents had eaten up their whole day. “They should be here pretty soon.” A sudden wave anxiety came over her. “Ohh, I don’t know if I can do this. Maybe I should reschedule.”
She felt Shade place his fabricated hoof on her shoulder. “Hey, come on now, you put a lot of effort into getting everything ready. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you knew my dad. And besides, it’s you I’m worried about.”
“Your dad really doesn’t like unicorns?” Shade asked concernedly.
“Please don’t think he’s a bad guy,” Winter pleaded. “He’s stern, but--”
Winter suddenly jumped at the sound of knocking on the front door. “Cripes!” She placed a hoof on her chest to ensure her heart hadn’t stopped. She took a deep breath and turned to the door. “Too late to second guess now I suppose,” she sighed. “They’re here.”
“Just relax, Winter. I really doubt it’s going to be as bad as you--what are you doing?”
Shade cocked an eyebrow as he observed how Winter had begun to fidget nervously and crossed her hind legs.
“I have to use the bathroom. Dangit, why does this always happen? Whenever I know I’m going to have an unpleasant encounter with my parents, I suddenly need to use the toilet.”
“Well, hurry up. The sooner we get started, the sooner it’ll be over,” Shade coaxed.
“We can’t keep them waiting,” she argued, hopping in place more frantically now, “Look, as much as I would rather you didn’t, you’re going to have to entertain them until I get back.”
“‘Entertain them’?!” Shade balked. “But what about everything you told me?”
“It can’t be helped. Just introduce yourself and keep your mouth shut afterwards. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Without waiting a moment longer, Winter bolted to the upstairs bathroom in a white and red blur. Shade turned towards the door again and a second knock echoed from the wooden frame. He could almost hear Winter whimpering upstairs, knowing that they had made her parents wait too long already.
Shade cautiously used his magic to turn the doorknob, allowing the door to swing inward and reveal the two pegasi waiting on the other side.
The first--a stallion and clearly Winter’s father--was a rather tall and sleek individual. His coat was a dull blue and his short mane a much darker shade of blue. His eyes were a dim hazel color and he appeared to have a cutie mark consisting of three small, white clouds. If he had been smiling before the door opened, he was doing a good job of hiding it. The expression on his face was as stern as Winter had described and even more so the longer he glared at Shade. The changeling felt like his gaze was drilling a hole straight through him.
In complete contrast to the stallion was the mare that was with him. Shade had to perform a double take to ensure he wasn’t seeing things. This mare was the spitting image of Winter, though, considering this was Winter’s mother, it would be the other way around. The only features that differentiated the two were her inverted color scheme--a bright red coat and long, white mane--her cutie mark, which depicted a snowflake, and a few distinguishing signs of age such as wrinkles around her eyes and a silver sheen in her mane and tail. However, Winter had apparently inherited her beautiful, amber eyes. She had been smiling warmly much like Winter often did until she laid eyes on the stallion that had opened the door.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she started, her voice just as melodious as her daughter’s. “We must have the wrong house. We’re looking for Winter Maple’s residence. Do you know where it is, sir?”
Shade’s brain momentarily blanked. He suddenly understood why Winter was so nervous, though, for whatever reason, he couldn’t explain why he understood. Something about her father’s gaze made him feel uneasy. He had to recall Winter’s instructions before she had disappeared upstairs.
“Actually, this is Winter’s house,” Shade corrected.
“Oh.” The mare seemed confused, but it made sense; she didn’t know yet that Winter had a boyfriend.
“Then who are you?”
Shade shuddered as her father spoke, his icy tone chilling him to his very core.
“I-I’m Shade. I’m Winter’s...” He hesitated briefly. What sort of reaction would his answer elicit? “...Her boyfriend.”
Shade shut his eyes tight as if awaiting something terrible to happen. When nothing did, he cautiously opened them once more. The stallion’s eyes had narrowed to very thin slits, but, to Shade’s relief, he stayed where he was. The mare’s eyes, on the other hoof, had widened considerably and a wide, excited smile appeared on her lips.
“Oh my goodness!” she gasped. “I had no idea my little filly had found a special somepony! It’s lovely to meet you!” She stepped inside and placed a hoof against his cheek and looked him up and down. “And such a handsome stallion as well,” she added coyly.
A light tinge of pink appeared on his white coat at the compliment. He chanced a glance over to the stallion still standing on the threshold. His intensely burning, hazel eyes appeared to be fixated on Shade’s horn before glowering directly into his own green irises.
Winter’s mother looked over Shade’s shoulder and peered around the house. “Where is Winter then?”
“In the bathroom. She’ll be down shortly,” Shade answered, though he regretted being so terse.
“Hmph,” Winter’s father grunted. “She should have done that before we arrived.”
The mare waved a crimson hoof dismissively. “Oh, don’t be so hard on her, Nimbus. It’s our first visit since she moved out. She’s just a tad nervous.”
The stallion--apparently named Nimbus--scoffed once more. “A habit she should have grown out of years ago.” He finally let himself inside to assess the establishment, though Shade couldn’t help but notice him glance in his direction every now and then.
They turned their eyes to the staircase when they heard a set of hoofsteps approaching.
“Ah, that’s better,” Winter sighed with relief as she sauntered downstairs. She stopped dead in her tracks at the bottom when she noticed the three pairs of eyes staring at her, a small blush appearing on her cheeks.
Another smile graced her mother’s lips. “There you are, Winter!” She walked over to give her daughter a tight hug.
Winter matched her mother’s grin. “Hi, Mom.”
“Oh, it’s been such a long time. How’s my little powder puff doing?”
Shade forced himself to stifle a chuckle. ‘Powder puff'? I’ve gotta stow that one away for later.
“I’m great, Mom.” Winter freed herself from her mother’s loving embrace and turned to her father. “Hey, Dad.” Shade couldn’t help but noticed a slight catch in her voice. Nevertheless, she wrapped her hooves around her father’s neck and hugged him as she had done for her mother. For the most fleeting of moments, Shade could detect some degree of emotion in Nimbus’s expression as he returned her embrace.
Winter looked back to Shade. The look on her face indicated that she had briefly forgotten he had been present. “Oh, right!” Winter pointed a hoof to her father. “Shade, this is my dad, Nimbus...”
He continued to glare icily at Shade without saying a word, only nodding slightly to acknowledge his introduction. Shade gulped involuntarily.
Winter then turned Shade towards her mother. “...And this is my mom, Autumn Maple. Mom, Dad, this is Shade...” She hesitated just as Shade had when he introduced himself. “...My boyfriend.”
Even though Shade wasn’t looking at Nimbus, he could feel the stallion’s gaze boring a hole into his skull.
“I’ve got supper ready for all of us,” Winter said, gesturing to the kitchen. “I hope you like it. I worked hard to get it just right.”
“Thank you, sweetie,” Autumn said as she and Nimbus made their way to the table.
Shade started to follow them but felt something yank on his tail. Winter was glaring at him rather harshly with his tail gripped between her teeth. “What did I tell you?!” she hissed quietly at him.
“What? I just did what you told me,” he whispered.
“I told you to introduce yourself. You weren’t supposed to let them in until I got back.”
“So I was supposed to just let them stand outside in the cold?”
Winter groaned and shook her head. “Ugh, nevermind. Let’s just have our supper and get this over with.”
“I still think you’re overreacting to this whole thing,” Shade stated.
Winter put on a fake smile as she and Shade took their seats on one side of the dining table while Nimbus and Autumn sat opposite to them. Autumn inhaled deeply through her nose.
“Mmm, it smells delicious, honey. Did you make it yourself?” she asked curiously.
Winter looked at Shade warmly. “Well, I had a little help.”
The changeling returned her smile, feeling a little more secure than he had been up until now.
“What, did he just materialize the whole thing or something?” Nimbus accused, once more glaring at Shade. “Taking the easy way out?”
Nimbus’s words stung. Shade was surprised that he’d be so direct with such a thinly veiled insult.
“Dad, please,” Winter whispered, frowning. “We cooked the whole thing from scratch, I swear.”
Nimbus simply shrugged his shoulders in response.
Autumn cleared her throat. “Anyway,” she started, attempting to change the subject as she lifted her fork to her mouth, preparing to take a bite. Her eyes bounced between the two younger ponies across the table. “You never told us you had a boyfriend, Winter. How did you two meet?”
The white pegasus smiled as she recalled the day she met Shade, before she discovered he was a changeling. “Actually, it’s kind of a funny story. A mischievous storm cloud got away from me one day and ended up raining on Shade on his first day of work.” She giggled when she saw the look of embarrassment on Shade’s face.
“You let a cloud get away from you?”
Winter’s grin vanished instantly. Had she not been so caught up in her reminiscing, she would have left that little detail out. Unfortunately, her father had picked on it and decided to focus on that aspect of her brief story.
“Need I remind you, Winter, that daydreaming while you’re on the clock is exactly why you were fired from the weather factory,” Nimbus pointed out to his daughter.
“I wasn’t daydreaming!” Winter insisted. “It was a wily one. It could have gotten away from anypony!”
“Making excuses only makes you look worse.”
He was absolutely relentless, even to his own daughter. Winter wasn’t kidding about him.
“Nimbus, dear, is this really the time for this?” Autumn interjected, trying to veer the subject to another topic. “Let’s try and talk about something else, hm?”
Nimbus shrugged his shoulders, apparently agreeing to drop the subject. He lifted a mouthful of stir-fry to his lips. He wasn’t complaining about their cooking, at least that was something.
“Anyway,” Autumn continued with a partially forced smile, “you mentioned you met Shade while he was working. What do you do, Shade?”
The changeling smiled genuinely; he may not have been good at a lot of things, but he was still good at his job and he took pride in that. “I’m a waiter at a local restaurant.” What could Nimbus say to belittle that? Shade grinned cockily as he waited for a response.
“So, you’re a servant who just gets ordered around by the common pony. Admirable. It takes guts to devote oneself to such a demeaning position.”
Any ounce of confidence he had built up was instantly drained from Shade’s face. His ears drooped and his gaze fell disheartenedly down to his plate. This guy was just looking for reasons to put people down.
“Nimbus, that’s enough,” Autumn commanded with a stern tone. “We came here to see our daughter, not criticize her and her boyfriend.”
Nimbus went back to his food without so much as an apology. Autumn once more looked to her hosts with an even more forced smile. “Now then,” she said clearing her throat, “Shade, if you don’t mind my asking, what exactly does your cutie mark have to do with being a waiter? Pardon me for being ignorant, but I’m not quite sure what it is.”
Shade’s eyes widened. Until now he had forgotten that in this form he even had a cutie mark. “Oh, that. Uh, well, actually it doesn’t have anything to do with it.”
Autumn tilted her head in confusion. Even Nimbus arched an eyebrow slightly, awaiting his explanation so he could no doubt be even more condescending. “It doesn’t?” Autumn asked. “Then what does it mean?”
Shade was really hoping this wouldn’t come up. Even after how long he’d been here, he hadn’t actually learned what these "video game" things were.
“It means he has a talent for playing video games,” Winter answered in his stead.
All eyes once again turned to the dull blue pegasus.
Shade glared at him discreetly. Great. What insult could you have prepared now?
“Leave it to a lazy unicorn to spend all of his time on the couch staring at one of those idiot boxes.”
Shade ground his teeth in aggravation. This statement didn’t technically apply to Shade at all, but it was infuriating that Nimbus would be so unapologetic about it. The very pony he was insulting was sitting right in front of him.
“Actually...” Shade hissed through his clenched teeth. He had to take a deep breath to prevent himself from lashing back at the stallion. “...I don’t believe that a pony needs to be defined by their cutie mark. It’s not a brand, it’s simply a symbol of something they excel at. It doesn’t have to define who they are.”
Nimbus was silent for a moment, looking thoughtfully at Shade. Had he actually said something that the pegasus couldn’t disparage?
“I suppose you have a point.”
Both Shade and Winter were caught completely off guard. Neither one had expected him to comply with Shade’s thought.
“Or perhaps, more likely, you’re just humiliated that you have such a useless talent.”
You’ve gotta be kidding me!
“Winter,” Shade addressed, trying with all his might to keep his rage in check, “can I talk to you for a minute?”
Without waiting for a reply, Shade dragged his girlfriend into the next room. She already knew where this was going.
“What is his deal?!” Shade snapped quietly.
“I tried to tell you,” Winter said, shaking her head.
“I didn’t expect every word out of his mouth to be a so depreciative! How did you put up with this your whole life?!”
She sighed and looked apologetically into his emerald eyes. “Because he’s my dad. I...guess you wouldn’t understand.”
Shade sat down on the floor, his ears folding back to display his displeasure. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take, Winter. He’s just so...infuriating!” Shade looked at his own hooves. They were actually shaking and he wasn’t sure if it was due to his taking her father’s comments a little too seriously or because of his quickly escalating animosity towards him.
Winter placed a hoof under his chin and gently lifted his head. “I know it’s rough, but it’s just for a little while longer. Just try not to take anything he says to heart, okay?”
Shade nodded slowly before rising to his hooves again. The two took their seats at the table once more.
“Sorry about that,” Winter apologized with an uncomfortable smile, “So, where were we? Oh! Mom, why don’t you tell Shade about your job?”
Autumn tapped a hoof to her chin. “Hmm, I suppose I could. Well, it’s nothing spectacular, but I design snowflakes for use during the winter season.” She smiled warmly at her daughter. “That’s actually how Winter got her name; out of all the little snowflakes I’ve created over the years, she is by far the most unique and precious.”
Winter looked away, blushing with embarrassment. “Oh, I don’t know about that,“ Winter said modestly. “I don’t think I’ll ever be quite as unique as this snowflake.” Winter held up the sparkling necklace hanging around her neck to show to her mother.
“My goodness!” Autumn exclaimed. “That is absolutely beautiful, Winter! Is that diamond?! How in Equestria could you afford it?!”
Winter couldn’t help but giggle slightly. She knew this was the one thing that her father couldn’t belittle. “Actually, Shade bought it for me. He gave it to me the first time he said he loved me. He had been saving up money for a house of his own but decided to forego that to give me a gift that holds a great deal of significance to both of us.”
Autumn nearly swooned. “Oh my. That’s so romantic! Isn’t that just the most heartwarming thing you’ve ever heard, Nimbus?”
All three ponies looked at Nimbus, awaiting his response with bated breath. Shade could have sworn he saw a small smirk creasing the corners of his lips.
No..., Shade thought, You can’t possibly have something derogative to say about that!
“So instead of doing the responsible thing and getting your own place, you spent all your money on a little trinket so you could continue to mooch off of somepony else.” He glared intensely at Shade. “Just like a lazy unicorn.”
Shade barely fought back the urge to lunge across the table and strangle him.
“Oh dear,” Autumn sighed. “Winter, honey, perhaps your father and I should be going. Maybe we should visit another time when things aren’t so...tense.”
Winter groaned in reluctant agreement. “Yeah, this isn’t exactly going as I’d hoped. Dad, can’t you just apologize to Shade?”
Nimbus rose from his chair, preparing to make his way to the door. Apparently, he was pretty eager to get out of this as well. “I have nothing to apologize for,” he stated simply.
Autumn rose to follow him. “I’m sorry, sweetheart,” she whispered to Winter. “We’ll be sure to visit again soon.”
From the next room, Nimbus spoke up again. “I’ll come back when you’ve found yourself a more responsible boyfriend. Maybe somepony with less...horn.”
Not even Shade was sure if his outburst was meant to be out loud like that, but he didn’t really care; he couldn’t take it anymore. He stormed forward, stopping inches away from Nimbus and looking up into the taller pony’s face. When he had first arrived, he had found Nimbus’s stature to be a little imposing, but now he stared him down fearlessly. He needed to lay into this absolutely aggravating stallion.
“What is your problem?! You’ve done nothing but act condescending and insulting ever since you got here! Not just to me, but your own daughter! What kind of heartless monster talks about his daughter that way?!”
Nimbus didn’t respond. He knew Shade wasn’t finished and waited for him to finish his spiel.
Winter and Autumn kept their distance, watching Shade tear into Nimbus as if it were a train wreck waiting to happen and there was nothing they could do to stop it.
“And, what, you don’t like me just because I’m a unicorn? Your distaste for unicorns is so deep that you would probe every little detail for anything you could use against them?!”
Nimbus continued to glower fiercely. Shade stepped back slightly, putting a little distance between the two. His voice became eerily calm but still dripped with resenting venom.
“So, you don’t like unicorns? Fine, then I’ve got good news for you,” Shade started, his horn igniting with a vibrant, green aura, “I’m not a unicorn.”
Winter’s eyes went wide with panic. “Shade! Don’t!”
Shade ignored Winter’s plea, keeping his focus trained squarely on the antagonistic pegasus. A ring of incandescent, green fire formed a circle on the carpet around Shade. Both Nimbus and Autumn stepped back cautiously, perplexed and even a little frightened by what was happening. Winter was trying desperately to coax him out of it, but Shade had had enough of this torture. It was time to show Nimbus what he was up against. The flames erupted upwards, completely enveloping Shade and dissipating a moment later.
The look on Nimbus’ face was absolutely priceless.
For once, his stern gaze had vanished, his eyes wide and his jaw slacked in shock. It was exactly the reaction Shade was hoping for: stunned silence.
“What’s the matter?” the unhidden changeling asked rhetorically. “No clever quips, no insults? Don’t have anything in your bag of degradation for a changeling?!”
Winter was mortified. Her eyes kept jumping back and forth between her boyfriend and her parents, wondering which would throw the first punch.
“Come on,” Shade goaded Nimbus. “Say something!”
The bewildered pegasus looked the creature up and down, wondering if his eyes were playing tricks on him. When he finally decided that what he was looking at was real, he narrowed his eyes once more, his glare burning with the fires of Tartarus.
“We’re leaving,” he announced in a low, icy, venom-oozing tone. He turned his back to Shade and passed through the front door, slamming it violently behind him.
Shade felt the heat from his rage lift and cool. He took a deep, calming breath and fell back onto his haunches. He was just glad that it was over. However, not everything was as it once was in their home.
Autumn still stood there, petrified, her pupils shrunk in shock and horror. Somehow she managed to find her voice. “W-What’s going on here?” she stammered shakily.
Winter stepped forward, wrapping her hooves around her mother’s neck. “It’s okay, Mom. You don’t have to be afraid. It’s just Shade.”
The crimson mare looked into the eyes of the changeling. Even though they looked different, they still felt the same. The anger had completely vanished from his face and all that was left was a remorseful and apologetic gaze.
She turned to her daughter. So many questions sat upon her tongue. “W-Winter, did you know about this?”
The ivory pegasus nodded solemnly. “Yes. And I’m sorry we lied to you. I promise he’s not going to hurt anypony. He’s a nice guy, really. And I love him.”
Autumn’s eyes once again fell back to the changeling. “How did you two even--”
Winter held up her hoof to interrupt her mother. “It’s a long story. Let’s just say we’ve been through a lot and leave it at that for now.”
“I wanted to tell you the truth from the beginning, honest,” Shade chimed in. She must have found it strange to hear that coming from a changeling.
Autumn trepidatiously approached Shade, still wondering if it was safe. “I...see,” she said in a interested tone as she looked him over.
“I’m sorry,” Winter repeated. “We should have told you from the beginning. I was just worried about what Dad would do. You understand, right?”
A comforting smile graced her mother’s lips. “Of course, dear. I know your father better than anypony. I can confidently say that he certainly wouldn’t have taken it lightly to find a changeling in his daughter’s home. I think the only reason he didn’t do anything just now is because he was so shocked.”
“So, you don’t think I’m...a monster or anything?” Shade asked.
She grinned widely at him. “Of course not. The only people who are monsters are those who act like monsters. And so far you haven’t done that.”
Shade almost felt like hugging her. He had always waited for a day where he would meet somepony who didn’t immediately judge him based on his appearance.
She continued speaking. “You’ll have to excuse Nimbus. He can be a bit abrasive at times.”
“That’s an understatement,” Shade chuckled. “He seems about as friendly as a briar patch.”
“But why does he have to demean everypony he meets?” Winter asked. “Even after all the time I’ve known him, I never understood why he is the way he is.”
Autumn sighed and placed a hoof on Winter’s cheek. “Winter, sweetie, Nimbus is a firm believer in negative reinforcement. He thinks that insulting others and talking down to them will upset them enough that they’ll want to better themselves just to prove to him that he’s wrong.” She giggled to herself. “It hasn’t exactly worked in any cases I’ve known of. But I don’t think his hostility tonight had anything to do with that. At least not the things he said to Shade.”
Winter tilted her head in puzzlement. “Then why was he so mean to him? Because he was a unicorn?”
Autumn shook her head. “No, I don’t think it was that either. Nimbus has never been as upfront with his insults as he was tonight. I think the real reason for his behavior was because he was looking out for you.”
Winter groaned. “What do I have to do to prove to him that I can take care of myself? I have a stable job, my own house. What else does he want from me?”
Again, Autumn shook her head. “It’s not that either. Winter, the thing about your father is...well, he’s a father.”
Both Winter and Shade cocked their eyebrows. “I’m not following,” the younger mare said.
“He just wants to make sure that if he’s not going to be the one taking care of you anymore, then you should be in the hooves of an equally capable stallion.” Autumn looked back at Shade. “It has nothing to do with you personally, Shade. Nopony’s ever been, or ever will be able to meet his standards. He only treats you that way because he wants to protect his little filly.”
Winter hung her head and sighed deeply. “Still, I wish this could have gone better. I really wanted both of you to like Shade. I was hoping that, if you thought he was a pony, then you would take the chance to get to know him. That way, when we decided to tell the truth, you would be more accepting.”
Autumn closed her eyes and poked Winter lightly with her hoof, putting on an expression of mock sternness. “Now, Winter, we taught you better than to go about telling lies.” She grinned and looked at Winter through one, open eye. “Next time I expect you to be completely honest with us, do you hear me, young lady?”
Winter smiled and gave her mother a loving hug. “I will. And thank you for being so understanding.”
Shade had sat quietly for some time, taking in everything Autumn was saying. It warmed his heart to know that she would be so accepting of him. The older mare faced him once more, wearing the same comforting smile.
“I’m putting my trust in you, Shade. Take good care of my daughter, okay?” She held her dainty, scarlet hoof out to him.
The changeling smiled for the first time in what felt like ages as he took her hoof in a friendly hoofshake. “Yeah, you don’t have to worry about that.”
“It’s comforting to know that my little powder puff is in the capable hooves of a person as nice as you, Shade.” She turned towards the door, opening it and allowing the cool, evening breeze to blow through. “I should go. Nimbus is going to be rather cross with me if I keep him waiting. Winter, I expect you to tell me the whole story the next time we visit. Oh, and I’ll try to talk to your father. I’m sure with some proper coaxing I can convince him to give Shade a fair shake.”
Winter hugged her mother once more before she left. “Thanks, Mom. It was good to see you again.”
With a final wave farewell, the door shut gently behind her, leaving the residents of the house alone and in silence.
Shade breathed an exasperated sigh. He was so glad that he managed to survive this encounter. He had been worried that somepony would end up seriously hurt after everything he had to put up with.
Winter punched Shade in the shoulder. Not a playful jab, but a real, forceful punch.
“Ow! What was that f--”
“You idiot! What’s wrong with you?!”
Shade rubbed his shoulder and shot Winter a scowl.
“I thought I made it abundantly clear that you were not to tell them that you were a changeling!”
“Hey, there’s only so much abuse I can take before I crack, alright?” Shade argued. “Your dad got on my last nerve. I wasn’t just going to sit there and take it.”
“You should thank the stars he didn’t punch you out right then and there. I’ve seen him do it to much less deserving people than you,” she scolded.
“You think I deserved to be hit?”
Winter sat next to him and sighed. “No, of course not. I’m just saying that you could have gotten hurt. What you did was just reckless.”
Shade didn’t even try to stifle his soft laughter. “Yeah, it was, wasn’t it? I gotta say, it was kind of a rush standing up to your dad like that. I could tell he was a pretty tough stallion and that if things did get violent, I probably wouldn’t have stood a chance. Guess I got lucky, huh?”
The alabaster pegasus’s voice graced his ears with her angelic laughter. “Lucky? I’d say it was a miracle. Though, I’ve gotta say, seeing you standing up to him like that was very courageous.” She leaned into him, tracing a circle on his chest with her hoof before leaning in to kiss him.
Shade spoke again when their lips parted. “How did a mare like your mom ever wind up with somepony like your dad?”
Winter snuggled into the changeling’s neck. “No idea, but I guess it’s true what they say...” She looked up into his eyes lovingly and placed a hoof over the jewel dangling by her chest. “Opposites attract.”
Shade wrapped his hoof around her and pulled her further into their embrace. Today had been a whirlwind of stress for both of them, but at least at the end of the day they would always know they had someone there to keep them smiling.