The pony’s eyes shot open.
For a moment he lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. The dream had driven every other thought out of his mind, and for the moment, this room felt less real than the nightmare he’d just woken from.
His eyes darted about the room. Rustic. He was not wealthy. The window just beside his bed gave him a clear view of village houses and rolling green hills. Ponyville. He was in Ponyville. Turning over, he saw a simple bedside table, with a picture of a yellow earth pony with carefully styled hair propped up. He had no family. He was single.
Resting on the table was a single wrapped caramel chew.
Caramel. His name was Caramel. Caramel Chance, clueless forgetful do-nothing of Ponyville. He had no family and had recently broken up with Sassalee Jade, his girlfriend of five months. His house was the result of a lucky bet he’d made years ago.
Picking up the caramel, he popped it in his mouth, to be jolted wide awake by the unexpected taste of hot chili peppers.
Caramel leapt out of bed and dashed into the bathroom, holding his throat. He stuck his head under the faucet, gulping down water to soothe the fire raging in his mouth.
After about five minutes of this he raised his head, panting, and looked at his face in the mirror. All right. He was awake.
A quick shower completed the wakening ritual, and then he spent a few moments in front of the mirror, carefully arranging his appearance to match the picture. The hair took him a while. It didn’t really matter, he supposed, but it was important in a way—no one would remember him without his hair. Barely anyone noticed Caramel Chance as it was, and he was fine with that, but you didn’t want to overdo it. You wanted to be just noticeable enough to be familiar, but not noticeable enough to be memorable.
Still drying off from the shower, he walked around the house. Trotting over to the kitchen, he started warming a pot of coffee. While he waited, he quickly walked through the house. Five windows, two doors. All still locked. He looked into the study and glanced over the bookcase.
Everything looked in order. Nodding in satisfaction, he slung a pair of saddlebags over his back, grabbed a list from the counter (without really looking at it), and cantered out the front door.
He made sure to lock the door after him.
Twilight Sparkle was just opening the library’s doors when a gold-and-brown pony came barreling out of nowhere and smashed into her. “Oops!” Caramel said, picking himself up. “Sorry, Miss Spinkle. I’ve got to stop doing that.”
“Yes, we’ve got to stop meeting like this.” Twilight smiled, picking herself up also.
Caramel’s forehead wrinkled. “Sorry, Miss Spinkle?”
“Nothing.” The alicorn princess shook her head. “You just reminded me of something, that’s all. And I keep telling you, my name is Sparkle. Twilight Sparkle.”
“Oh. Right.” Caramel was visibly ashamed. He suddenly brightened. “Hey, twilight comes in the evening, right?”
“Unless it’s a sunset.” Spike, standing in the doorway, grinned back.
“Hahaha!” Caramel clapped his hooves, laughing along with the dragon. “Ah, that never gets old.”
“If you two say so.” Twilight said, turning to walk back into the library. She’d never really gotten the joke, but Spike and Caramel seemed to find it hilarious. “What can I do for you today, Caramel?”
“I wanna check out a book. A book about... uh...” Caramel blinked slowly. “Oh, dang it, I know this. I even wrote it down on a list yesterday to remember it...”
“Is that the list you have taped around your left hoof?” Spike gestured helpfully.
The pony raised his hoof to eye-level and squinted at it. “Things-to-Remember list. Hey, I guess it is!” He lifted his head for a moment and beamed at Twilight “Well, how about that?”
“I’m so glad that worked!” Twilight beamed back. “See? A little organization, and everything is easier to remember.”
Caramel was reading the list. “Sweet Apple Acres... the cottage... oh, here you are! It says ‘return overdue library book to Twilight.’”
“Among the Changelings by Goodall Gorilla, right?” Twilight nodded eagerly.
“That’s what it says here.” Caramel smiled. He started to root through his bags. “I should have it right...” His face suddenly fell. “Ohhhh darn it. I’ll bet I left that at home.”
“Again?” Twilight shook her head. “Honestly, Caramel, you may as well buy it by this point. I’ve gotten a second copy already and the fine you’ve built up on it is... pretty substantial.”
“Probably more than the book is worth.” Spike observed
“No!” Caramel shook his head firmly. “A Chance always Completes his Challenges! I’ll circle it, that’ll make sure I remember.” He picked up a pen with his teeth and carefully circled the item on his hoof-list.
“Hey!” Spike, looking at the list over his shoulder, spoke up. “It says ‘the boutique’ on there... Are you going to visit RARITY?”
“Am I?” Caramel glanced at the entry. “Oh! Yeah, I need a pair of new saddlebags. Things keep falling out of these ones.”
“Well, THAT’S not surprising.” Twilight eyed the ratty pair of bags.
“Can I come with you?” Spike’s eyes were big, round, and pleading.
“Well, uh...” Caramel blinked. “Isn’t that up to Twilight?”
“Twilight? Can I go with him?”
Twilight just sighed. “Very well. Just be back in time for lunch. We’ve got a lot of organizing to do today.”
“When don’t we.” Spike grumbled.
Ignoring him, Twilight looked at Caramel again. “Is there anything else?” She asked.
“I did want to check out a book.” Caramel’s gaze moved further down the list. “Here it is: So You’ve Been Brainwashed by Clear Mind.”
“Ooooh!’ Twilight clapped her hooves. “I’ve read that! It’s a fascinating study on the after-effects of mind-magic and ways to recognize illusions. The key is to have something that the illusionist won't know. They’ve got these totem things, and...” Twilight checked herself in what was destined to be one of her book-summary lectures that got patrons so mad. “Ahem. Yes, we have that.” She nodded. “But Caramel, you’re not really allowed to check out a new book until you’ve paid your fines.”
“Awww.” Caramel slumped. “Fine. How much do I owe you?”
Twilight did a rapid calculation. “Forty bits, I’d say.”
“Forty!?” Caramel gaped.
“You’ve had that book out nearly a year.” Spike observed.
“Oh, fine.” Caramel dug in his saddlebag and brought out a handful of coins. “Guess I’ll put off buying that new pair of saddlebags...”
“Sorry, Caramel.” Twilight gave him a rueful smile. “Those are the rules. Remember to bring the book back and it won’t be a problem.”
“I’ve got it circled.” Caramel nodded determinedly.
“Are we still going to the boutique?” Spike’s mind was rather one-track.
“I still need to get these fixed. I have enough bits for that.” Caramel grinned. His face clouded momentarily. “At least, I think so...” He shook his head. “Hop up.”
“Oh hey, Caramel!” Twilight called, as they were leaving. “I thought of something weird the other day. Were you at my brother’s wedding?”
Caramel paused to give this some thought. “You have a brother?”
“Of course I do! I told you about him last... Ugh.” Twilight buried her face in a hoof. “Never mind. It’s just I was thinking back the other day, and I could have sworn I saw you at his wedding.”
“Well, I’m not sure.” Twilight admitted. “I was sorta distracted, what with planning the wedding and keeping the Changeling queen at bay and everything. Not a lot of time to pay attention to stuff. But for some reason I keep thinking you were the best man there.”
Caramel slowly shook his head. “Can’t say I remember it.”
“Of course not.” Twilight smiled. She waved. “All right then. Goodbye and good luck.”
“...and it’s just amazing the way she can make all those dresses, you know?” Spike continued.
“Uh-huh.” Caramel agreed. The obliging stallion had agreed to let Spike ride on his back.
“Man, it feels good to talk about this with a guy. Whenever I go on about it, Twilight says she feels weird talking about one of her friends like this.” Spike frowned in thought. “I guess I can see her point. But sometimes I worry...” His voice trailed off.
“What about?” Caramel asked.
“Well... about...” Spike sat up and shrugged lamely. “I mean, I don’t like to think about it, but... we’re just so different. She’s so beautiful and talented, and my major skill set is making checklists. And she’s like twice as old as me.”
“Plus, she’s a pony and you’re a dragon.” Caramel observed.
“That too.” Spike nodded ruefully. “I mean, do you think people will talk or if Princess Celestia will allow it or if Twilight will still be friends...”
“Aren’t you guys still reforming that personification of chaos who caused havoc and disintegration of all order in Equestria?” Caramel asked.
Spike blinked, not quite expecting such an odd question. “Uhh... yeah.”
Caramel snorted. “You should be fine.”
Spike didn’t quite see the connection, and something else about the question seemed strange, but he had no more time to think, because now they were at the boutique.
Caramel blew in the doors. “Hey, Miss Rarity!”
The fashionista was at the other end of the store, affixing a gleaming gem onto a shimmering gown. “Be with you in a minute, dear!” She called, throwing a look back. “Oh, Spike, hello!”
“Hi Rarity!” The little dragon piped up. “What kind of gem is that you have there?” He licked his lips. “Looks tasty.”
“Don’t even think it, Spikey-wikey!” The unicorn admonished. “I would have to get Twilight to make a whole new glamorstone, and you know how much of a pain it can be to get all the illusions in it JUST right. There!” She stepped back and surveyed her work proudly. “A thousand dresses in one, and all of them fabulous!” Turning around, she smiled at Caramel. “What can I do for you, dear?”
“Oh!” Caramel’s face lit up. “I need, uh...” He consulted his list. “uh... hang on...”
“My STARS!” Rarity’s eyes flew open. She darted about Caramel, tsking at the saddlebags slung on either side. “My dear, these will simply not do! They are old, raggedy, full of holes! And so out of style! Green? SO yesterday. There is no flow, no glamour...” she shook her head sadly. “Dear, you NEED a new pair.”
“That’s it!” Caramel had found the relevant item on the list. “’Get a new pair of saddlebags from Rarity.’ Says it right here.” He indicated the list triumphantly.
“Except you can’t afford a new pair, because of your library fines.” Spike reminded him helpfully.
“Oh... right.” Caramel’s face fell. He scuffed the ground at his feet. “Well... can you just fix them up, then? That hole’s been a real problem.”
Rarity sighed, a look of strong distaste on her features. “Oh, I SUPPOSE I can keep the ratty old thing clinging to life for a few days more.” She prodded the bag reluctantly. “I can make it SERVICEABLE, if I must. But you need to get them replaced, dear.”
“I know.” Caramel nodded mournfully. He glanced up hopefully. “Do you think you could... give me a special discount? You know... for that one time I uh...” He squinted in thought. “...did that one thing... at that one party?”
Rarity looked puzzled for a moment, then suddenly her face cleared. “Oh, of course! You helped pull our carriage to the Grand Galloping Gala.” She gave him a gracious smile. “SO gentlemanly.”
“Not if he’s using it to get a discount, it isn’t.” Spike interrupted, frowning.
“Oh, hush, Spike.” Rarity waved a hoof at him. “It WAS gentlemanly, but it is ALSO ladylike to return the favor. Besides...” Again she threw a look of distaste at the saddlebags. “...I look on it as a service to fashion in general.” She turned around and marched to the sewing machine. “I’ll fix up a new pair for you in no time, my dear!”
“Hmmph.” Spike crossed his arms and glared at Caramel. The stallion tried to placate him with a quick smile, but the dragon just narrowed his eyes.
“How is Twilight doing, Spikey-wikey?” Rarity called back. She had not turned, but she seemed aware of the tension regardless.
Spike broke his glare. “She’s doing well.” He answered. “Still having trouble with her wings, but getting better. She keeps having to ward off Mayor Mare... apparently they want to build a palace to her or something.”
“A palace?” Caramel gaped.
“Well, of COURSE they do!” Rarity cocked her head in agreement. “A palace would so brighten things up around here, and it isn’t right for a PRINCESS to keep living in a drafty old library like that.”
“Yeah... but I think she prefers a library to a palace.” Spike shrugged. “Even in Canterlot, the palace libraries were practically the only place she spent any time in. Besides, she keeps going on about ‘budget concerns’ and how ‘Ponyville’s economic resources’ and stuff like that.”
Rarity rolled her eyes. “Oh, pooh. Ponyville is perfectly able to support a MODEST palace. Say, four-hundred rooms, thirty-seven ballrooms, nine hundred art galleries...”
“Fifty ice-cream cafes...” Caramel submitted.
The others looked at him in amusement. “Besides, surely our dear princess has some funds from the royal treasury or something she could spend...?” She looked to Spike for confirmation.
The dragon just shrugged. “Beats me. I’ve got no idea what the financial arrangements are. Twilight doesn’t care about them, and Princess Celestia hasn’t mentioned anything.”
A look of mild annoyance crossed the unicorn’s face. “Honestly, it seems as though the princesses could do SOMETHING to make Twilight more like... like a princess. If not a palace, then at least some new dresses or wearing her crown more often or some guards. I mean, she IS royalty. Doesn’t she deserve some protection?”
“Maybe some new locks would be useful.” Caramel suggested helpfully.
“Actually, she keeps getting letters from her brother about that.” Spike noted.
Caramel blinked at him. “New door locks?”
“No, guards.” Spike sent him a pitying look. “He keeps trying to get some guards moved from Canterlot or the Crystal Kingdom to Ponyville. He says she’s going to need them, at least to ward off fanponies.”
“I knew I liked Shining Armor for a reason.” Rarity nodded triumphantly.
“Who’s Shining Armor?” Caramel asked.
“Her brother. Remember? Twilight was asking if you were at his wedding? Seriously, dude, keep up here.”
“So? When can we expect some handsome strapping stallions to take up the job of defending our dear princess?” Rarity smiled.
“Uh... never.” Spike shrugged uncomfortably. “Princess Celestia says they need all the soldiers they can to defend the Crystal Kingdom. She pointed out that, after all, Twilight HAS five of the greatest heroes of Equestria living right next door.”
Rarity actually blushed. “Oh... WELL. I suppose she’s right.” A sigh broke loose. “A shame, though. I was looking forward to more stallions about the town.”
“I don’t see how it’s any great loss.” Spike grumbled.
Rarity gave him a smile. “Of course, dear. Well.” She swung the saddlebags back over the counter to Caramel. “There you are, dear! They’re not the most glamorous saddlebags one could wish for, but they’re much better than THOSE horrid old things.” Once more she wrinkled her nose in distaste.
“Thanks, Miss Rarity!” Caramel took the saddlebags and tossed them over his flank, beaming. “I’ll make this up to you sometime, I promise!”
“Oh, don’t worry about it, dear. Oh, by the way...” Rarity called as the earth pony turned to leave. “You wouldn’t happen to have a twin sister, would you?”
Caramel’s eyes rolled to the back of his head in thought. “...I don’t think so. Why?”
“Oh, a passing fancy.” Rarity waved a hoof airily. “I remember seeing this pretty little mare at one of Pinkie’s shows. A dainty little thing. Looked just like you... Oh dear, that’s not quite what I meant...”
Caramel was wilting with shame, but Spike was howling with laughter.
“Be quiet, spikey-wikey!” Rarity admonished him. “You know very well that’s not remotely what I meant. I’m sorry, Caramel dear.” She continued. “I just meant that she had your colors—yellow fur with long brown, silky hair like yours... oh be quiet, Spike, that’s not what I meant either!”
Caramel slowly shook his head. “I don’t think I have any sisters.” He answered.
“Oh? Ah well, like I said. A passing fancy.” Rarity waved. “Good-day, dear.”
Pinkie Pie was already bouncing around the bakery as he trotted in the door. “Oh YAY! A customer!” She leapt to the counter. “Oooooh! You look like a sooper-duper secret agent. Or maybe Caramel! OR maybe a super-secret agent masquerading as Caramel!!! Oh, but how would I know? Oh, the suspense!”
“Huh?” Caramel asked.
Pinkie stopped and gave him a great beaming smile that took up way more of her face than it was supposed to. “Hi Caramel! How’s it going!? You okay? Is Sassalee okay? Oh wait, you guys are broken up.” Her eyes darted about. “Awkward. Isn’t this weather super-diddly-tastic? You want pie? OOH! Or maybe a cupcake?” She wacked her head. “No, that’s silly, no one likes Cupcakes, they just throw the reference in there for laughs. No, YOU want a donut! A chocolate-rainbow-frosted-with-white-sprinkles donut!”
“Uh...” Caramel finally seemed to settle on an answer. “Yeah, I would like a donut, thanks, but I got this other thing I need to talk to you about... where is it...I put it on something so I wouldn’t forget this time...”
“Is it on that list you’ve got taped around your hoof? The one that says ‘stuff-to-remember’ on it!?” Pinkie pointed.
“Oh! Well, I guess it would be.” Caramel brought the hoof up to eye-level and looked at it. “Uh... return book to library... get new saddlebags...”
“Buy half-a-dozen seed cakes to take to Fluttershy’s house? I have them right here!” Pinkie dove from the ceiling and pulled a comically oversized bag from nowhere.
Caramel blinked at the pony. “I...” He sighed and slumped a little. “It’s really sad when you remember what I’m supposed to do better than I do.” He muttered.
“Are you playing dumb again?” Pinkie cocked her head. Her eyes lit up. “Oooh! Oooh! Let me try!” Eyes dulling suddenly, she let her head hang and magically grew a pair of buckteeth. “Hi-I-am-a-pony-of-small-brain-and-I-wouldNOPE!” She shook her head back into full zany mode again. “Can’t do it. Too boring! It’s really great how you can be so boring all the time, Caramel!” She beamed.
“Um... Okay.” Caramel’s eyes were darting around. “Can... Can I have the seed cakes now?”
“Sure!” Pinkie leapt into the air and pitched the massive bag at the earth pony, who yelped and flailed backwards, only for the huge bag to somehow get sucked inside one of his far-too-small saddlebags.
Caramel looked from the bags, to the smiling pink pony, to the bags, and back to the pony again. “How... did... I...” He poked his head into the bag, as if to ascertain they were really there.
“You want something else, right?” Pinkie was practically vibrating with enthusiasm. “Rightrightright? Tell me what it is! Tell me!”
Caramel looked at her. “Don’t you already know?” He asked suspiciously.
Pinkie giggled madly. “Oooh, yeah, but you want to say it.” Her eyes twinkled.
“Well...” casting another doubtful look at his saddlebag, Caramel shrugged. “I do need another bag of the usual...”
“WEEE!” Pinkie practically somersaulted to the back wall and slid down the shelf, tossing off random candy jars as she did so. “Oooh boy! Nobody else ever asks for my sooper-dooper incredibly surprising Caramel Surprises, did you know? Well, I mean, you do, and of course you know it NOW, but you didn’t know it then and now you do and everything is so much more FUN!” She leapt off the shelf, hoisting a fat bag of small, individually wrapped caramel treats. “Here you go! Caramels for Caramel!”
Caramel inspected the sack thoughtfully. “What... do they taste like?” He asked, looking up at Pinkie.
Pinkie giggled again. “I can’t tell you THAT! If I told you what the secret surprise in the sooper-dooper incredibly surprising Caramel Surprises was, they wouldn’t be SURPRISING!”
“...Right...” Caramel eyed the treats warily. “Just... do any of them taste like caramel?”
Pinkie seemed affronted by the idea. “Why would I have one of the sooper-dooper incredibly surprising Caramel Surprises just take like caramel? BOR-ing.”
“Yes, but...” Caramel looked doubtful. “...you might do it just to surprise ponies. Like... something not-surprising in their surprise... package... might... uh...” He seemed to be having some trouble.
“That would be fun,” admitted Pinkie, hoof on chin. “But it seems a boring sort of surprise. Like holding a laundry party instead of a real party. I’d never do that!”
Caramel still seemed suspicious. “You’re not... just telling me that to throw me off guard, are you?”
“Of course not!” Pinkie grinned.
For a long moment, Caramel just studied her with narrowed eyes. Finally, reaching out carefully, he snagged the little brown treats and stuffed them into his other saddlebag. “Fine.” He said, dropping a few bits on the counter.
“Yay!” Pinkie cheered, scooping up the coins and tossing them in her mouth. “Oh!” She called out as Caramel moved to the door. “SO cool to see you last week!”
Caramel looked at her oddly. “I... didn’t see you last week.”
“Yes you did!” Pinkie’s head bobbed up and down excitedly. “I know it was you! I mean, you had a different mane and a different color and cutie mark and you were a pegasus not a pony and this was several hundred thousand miles away and you didn’t notice me because I was busy being a tree but I KNOW it was you.” She smiled. For a moment she cocked her head. “What were you doing in the Crystal Empire anyway?”
“Uh...” Caramel backed up a few steps more. “...you tell me.”
And with that, Caramel bolted.
Rainbow Dash was lying on the fluffiest, warmest cloud in the sky, sunning in the glorious warm intoxication of sunbeams, when some idiot on the road below starting humming.
Ordinarily, nothing short of a loud cannon blast would be enough to rouse Dash out of her bed, but on this occasion she chanced to roll over and catch sight of the perpetrator... a yellow earth pony with silky brown hair.
Instantly, Dash was wide awake. She leapt up and shot down at the stallion. “Hold it right there, buster!” She shouted, zipping in front of the stallion and adopting a fighting pose. “I’ve got some questions for you!”
Caramel stopped stock-still in the road and stared. “Uh... hi Dash.” He managed. “What’s... going on?”
“I’ll tell you what’s going on.” Dash snorted. “I’ve got a bone to pick with you about... wait, is that a donut?”
Caramel’s eyes darted to the half-eaten donut in his hand, back to Rainbow. “Well... yes, it is, but...”
“A CHOCOLATE Donut?” Dash zoomed in perilously close to study it. “With white sprinkles? And RAINBOW frosting?”
“Yeah, I got it from...”
“Give it to me and I might forget why I’m mad with you.” Rainbow’s hoof shot out.
“But—but...” Caramel’s eyes flickered back and forth between the pegasus and the donut several times before relinquishing it with a sigh.
Rainbow gave a confident nod. “I THOUGHT so.” She said. Tossing the donut in her mouth, she chewed for a moment in blissful contemplation. “Oh... MAN! Pinkie’s rainbow frosting is the absolute BEST!”
“I’ll... just be going then...” Caramel tried to sidle away.
“Ohhhh NO you DON’T!” Rainbow shot in front of him again. “Where you been today, mister?”
“I’ve... uh... I’ve...” Caramel’s eyes were wide and blank. “Well, I think...”
“Better remember fast, bub!” Dash warned.
“Here!” Caramel looked at his wrist. “I’ve been here, and I was just at the bakery, and I went there from the boutique, and there from the library.”
“A likely story.” Dash frowned. “Any proof?”
Caramel blinked. “Well... I had the donut, but you ate that.”
“Oh. Right.” The reminder seemed to deflate Dash. “What’s that on your wrist, anyway?” She asked, cocking her head to look.
“Reminders!” Caramel displayed them proudly. “Twilight’s idea. She said if I wrote things down on a list to remember, I might not forget so many things!”
“Heh. That’s Twilight alright. A list for everything.” Dash rolled her eyes in fond annoyance. “Huh.” She zipped a little ways into the sky and studied Caramel critically. “Well, if you’ve got something like that, I’m going to have to think of some tougher questions.”
“Upppupupupupup!” Dash held up a hoof. “Me. Asking Questions. You. Answering them. What did you have for breakfast three weeks ago today?”
Caramel’s eyes clouded over. “How could I possibly remember that!?” He wailed.
“Good point.” Dash frowned. “Okay, how about... “What did you do the night of the Grand Galloping Gala?” She demanded.
“I pulled the carriage for you and your friends.” Caramel supplied.
A sudden smile burst across Dash’s face. “Right! Congratulations! You passed!”
“Uh... Good?” Caramel watched the pegasus warily. “What’s all this about, anyway? What are you doing?”
“Keeping watch!” Rainbow darted further up into the sky and looked in six different directions before dashing back down. “I don’t know if you noticed, Caramel, but there’s a new princess in Ponyville, and somepony’s gotta watch her back!”
“And... that’s what you’re doing?”
“You betcha!” Dash offered a confident salute. “Princess Celestia doesn’t need to send any namby-pamby guards to stand around Twilight’s door while awesome defender Rainbow Dash is on the job!” She did a little shadow-boxing to prove her point.
“Oh good.” Caramel nodded. “So, are you looking out for timber wolves or manticores or dragons or Discord...”
“Psh! Why would any of those be interested in Twilight?” Rainbow scoffed. “Discord can rip this place up anytime he wants to, and all those others just stick in the Everfree. No, I’m on the watch for CHANGELINGS.”
Caramel blinked. “Changelings?”
“What do you know about the war against the changelings?” Dash asked.
For a moment, Caramel searched his mind about this. “I don’t remember anything.” He decided.
“Exactly!” Dash nodded triumphantly. “Because there NEVER WAS ONE. Cadence and Shining Armor drop-kicked their butts out of Canterlot all right, but what nobody seems to realize is that we never actually did anything else! We just... let them alone to limp back to wherever they came from!” Rainbow Dash leaned closer. “But you know what I think?” She whispered. “I’ll bet all those bug-shape-shifting, brain-washing losers are just waiting for a chance to make a comeback!”
The gears in Caramel’s head were slowly turning. “And... you think they’ll attack Twilight.”
“Where else?” Rainbow snorted, leaning back again. “The Crystal Kingdom has got an awesome shield around it, and Canterlot’s got oodles of guards sitting around, but Twilight’s got nobody except me.”
“And the other four elements.” Caramel pointed out.
“Yeah, yeah, them too.” Rainbow waved casually. “My point is that Twilight’s the most tempting target. Especially since that bug-queen has got to be pretty mad about her ratting her out like that.”
“Makes sense, I guess.” Caramel shrugged. “So... you’re stopping people on the road to check if they’re changelings? Like that one character, in that one book...”
“Now you’re getting it!” Rainbow noogied the stallion’s hair. “EXACTLY like Daring Do in The Adventure of the Changeling Idol. See, if you were a changeling, you wouldn’t remember that Galloping Gala thing, now would you?” She visibly swelled. “Pretty smart, huh? But just to be sure...” She leaned closer. “...we should come up with a code.”
“Yep!” Dash nodded enthusiastically. “So like, next time I see you, I’ll say ‘Hey Caramel,’ and you’ll say, ‘you’re awesome, Rainbow Dash!’ Right?” She cocked her head to see if the dim-witted pony had gotten it. “And if you don’t say it, I’ll know you’re a changeling, and if I don’t say it, you’ll know I’m a changeling.” She spread her arms wide. “Eh? Eh? Am I a genius or WHAT?”
“You’re awesome, Rainbow Dash.” Caramel said dutifully.
“Of course, you’re so forgetful, you might not remember that.” Rainbow Dash frowned at him. Then her face cleared. “Write it down on that list of yours, how about?”
“Oh, okay!” Caramel picked out a pen and scrawled the password and call-sign down on it.
“That’s great.” Rainbow Dash nodded her approval. “Okay. Now that we’re sure you’re not a changeling, you can continue going on.”
“Thanks.” Caramel started to trot forward. “See you later, Dashinator.”
Dash snickered. “Ring the bell, Cara--WAIT!” Suddenly Rainbow Dash shot in front of him again, a new suspicion in her eyes. “I just remembered why I was mad at you!”
“Were you ever at the Cloudsdale Academy Flying Competition?” Rainbow Dash asked.
“Uh, no.” Caramel shook his head. “Earth pony, remember?” He indicated his distinct lack of wings. “What would I be doing in a flying competition?”
“A VERY good question.” Dash’s eyes narrowed. “Because I saw a pegasus there that looked JUST like you.”
Caramel seemed puzzled by this. “...Did he have wings?”
“Of COURSE he had wings, you idiot.” Dash rolled her eyes spectacularly. “But everything else looked JUST like you. Same fur, same hair, same cutie mark, same stupid smile. You were even hitting on a mare, like you always do here.”
“I do not!”
“Psh.” Rainbow brushed the denial off. “So.” She stared at him. “Mind explaining how, if you’re not a changeling—unless you are—you grew a pair of wings and were showing off in Cloudsdale?”
“Rainbow, I really don’t ever remember being in Cloudsdale.” Caramel whined.
Rainbow Dash was clearly not satisfied. “What did you do at the last Winter-Wrap-Up?” She demanded.
“I, uh...” Caramel blinked. “Oh! I lost the grass seeds. Applejack was really mad at me.”
“...Fine. You pass. This time.” Rainbow flew a little up and out of the earth pony’s way. “But I’m watching you!” She called.
“Thanks for bringing those seed cakes down here for me, Caramel.” Fluttershy remarked, spreading several on the ground and watching the birds fly down to them. “It’s a really busy time for me and I didn’t want to leave all my little friends here while I went into town.”
“No problem.” Caramel was eyeing the massive grizzly bear alongside Fluttershy. “Uh... don’t you ever... get a little... scared of living out here?”
“What? Oh no.” Fluttershy shook her head, turning around to face the earth pony. “All my little friends are so gentle, I never have to worry about anything.”
Caramel was still eyeing the grizzly bear. “I guess.” Then his expression brightened. “Plus, I guess if anything did happen, you could always... do the...” His eyes squinted in thought. “...you know... the one thing.. you did that one time... ...with that one creature.”
“Oh, I could NEVER use the Stare on anyone of my little friends!” Fluttershy looked horrified at the very thought. “I only did it to that dragon because he was being such a meanie-pants.”
Caramel shrugged. “Yeah, but there are a lot of nasty monsters in the Everfree, right? Ever run into any changelings?”
“Ch-changelings?” Fluttershy looked at him in alarm. “Why do you ask about that?”
With an embarrassed chuckle, Caramel rubbed the back of his head. “I... kinda ran into Rainbow Dash on the way here...”
“Oh... is she doing that patrol thing of hers again?” A faint expression of exasperation filled Fluttershy’s face. “Oh dear. I did tell her to stop that.”
“Yeah. I might not use that road again for a while.” Caramel chuckled.
“It’s not just that...” Fluttershy’s face looked distressed. “Twilight said if people start worrying about Changelings, they’ll start being suspicious of their neighbors and getting into fights and stuff. And that could cause a riot and oh dear oh dear...” Fluttershy shook her head and looked away. “I get nervous just thinking about it.”
“And... you don’t get nervous thinking about changelings?” Caramel cocked his head quizzically. “Is that because of that one... teacher you had that... that one time...”
“Iron Will? Oh, no!” Fluttershy smiled. “I’m sure that what happened at Canterlot was all just a big misunderstanding. Besides, if there was any real danger, I’m sure Princess Celestia would send some big guards down here to keep a watch on things.”
“But... wouldn’t that... also cause a panic?” Caramel’s face was screwed up in thought.
“Maybe...” Clearly Fluttershy did not like thinking about it, for she shook her head and moved away. “I need to get going.” She explained. “Mr. and Mrs. Sparrow are building a new nest and I need to help them find twigs.”
“Right.” Caramel offered her an easy smile. “I guess I’ll head over to Sweet Apple Acres before it gets dark.”
“Yes, you’d better.” Fluttershy agreed, looking up at the sky. “Um, Caramel...” She hesitated. “Did you ever...work on a farm before?”
“Me?” Caramel blinked askance at the mare. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked a lick in my life. Certainly not on a farm. Why?”
“Oh... not important.” Plainly seeing that Caramel was not satisfied, Fluttershy hid her face in her hooves. “I just... I was thinking the other day, of what life was like in Ponyville before Twilight got here, and for some reason I was remembering you as this big, strong farmhorse. I mean, not to say that you aren’t big and strong NOW,” She added hastily, “but, um... he just... he looked like Big Mac.”
Caramel thought this over. “Wasn’t me, that’s all I know.” He smiled ruefully. “You sure you’re remembering right? That’s the first time I’ve heard anything like that.”
“I... I guess I could be remembering wrong.” Fluttershy admitted. She again moved away. “Have a nice day.”
Applejack looked up as the pony came trotting through the gate. “Well-ell. Look who it is.” She set her hooves on her haunches and glared. “Caramel Chance, you got a lotta nerve comin’ around here.”
“Aw, c’mon, Applejack.” Caramel had the grace to blush. “You’re not still holding the one... uh, the one thing against me with the... the...”
“Yeah, I’m still mad about that stunt with the cider.” Applejack glared. “To say nothing of you bein’ an unreliable layabout at the best of times.” Sighing at the stallion’s expression, she shook her head. “What can I do you for?” She asked.
“Uh... urm...” Caramel glanced at his list again. “Ah! A saddlebag’s worth of apples.” He answered.
“Fine then.” Applejack trotted off. “If’n you don’t mind WAITIN’ AROUND SOME, I’ll be right back.”
Caramel eyed her retreating form doubtfully. “She’s going to make me wait extra long, isn’t she?” He asked the nearby Big Mac.
Big Mac shifted the hay strand from one side of his mouth to the other. “Eeyup.”
Sighing, Caramel trotted over to the big farmhorse. “How’s it going?” He asked, as they bumped hooves and then elbows.
Mac shrugged. “Can’t complain.”
“Granny still holding up?”
“Applejack looks well.”
“Applebloom? She good too?”
“Farm comin’ along well?”
Mac took a few moments more to think about this one. “Eeyup.” He finally decided. “Little trouble with the South Field, but we got plenty of time for that one. Gonna haveta make more sales this coming fall to keep the barn, but...” He nodded confidently. “Should be able to do that.”
“Hiya, Caramel!” Something latched onto his leg and Caramel looked down. Little Applebloom was there, hugging for dear life. “How you doin’?”
“Just fine.” Caramel grinned at the little filly. “Now... let me see... I promised to bring something to you next time I was here, didn’t I... what was it... Hope I didn’t leave it at home...”
“A caramel!” Applebloom shouted, anxious her treat should not be forgotten. “You said you’d get me one of Pinkie Pie’s surprise caramels if I persuaded her to talk to you again.” Her face clouded. “You didn’t leave it at home, didja?”
“Nope!” Caramel pulled one out of his saddlebag triumphantly. “Here you are. Be careful though... some of those have got a kick to them.”
Ignoring the warning, Applebloom popped the candy in her mouth. For a moment she chewed on it, making thoughtful noises and screwing her face up in what was either disgust or concentration. “This one tastes like garlic.” She observed.
“They’re all different.” Caramel grinned. “Pinkie promised me. Here, have another. Maybe this one will be better.”
This time, a huge grin spread over the filly’s face. “Now this one tastes like strawberries.” She stamped her foot in excitement. “Dagnabit!”
“Language, Applebloom.” Mac warned.
“How does she do it?” Applebloom asked eagerly. “Can y’tell which are the good ones and which are the bad?”
“Nope.” Caramel shook his head, still smiling. “You have to eat each one to find out. That’s why most people don’t buy them.”
“Well, why do you buy them?” Applebloom asked, looking up at the stallion.
Caramel shrugged. “I like a little surprise in the morning.” He answered. “Let’s me know I’m not still dreaming.”
“Here’s your apples.” Applejack came trotting back from the barn. “Say, while you’re here, did I ever tell you that I’ve got a cousin that looks just like you? I mean, different colors, but the hair is the exact same.”
“Nope. but it’s not too surprising.” Caramel shrugged. “This is a very popular hairstyle.”
“Don’t know why.” Applejack regarded the hairdo with faint scorn. “Well, t’ain’t no matter. You have a good day, Caramel, y’hear?”
“Already have.” Caramel nodded, turning toward the road back to Ponyville.
The sunset was darkening the sky as Caramel returned back to his house. He looked both ways as he unlocked his door, and he looked both ways again before locking it back up and drawing the shades.
He reached up into his hair and pulled free a gemstone.
Instantly, his earth pony form shimmered away.In its place stood a brighter golden pegasus with spiky blue hair. A band was passed around his chest, securing his wings tightly to his sides. With a sigh, he dislodged it and shook his wings free.
Trotting into the study, he moved to the bookcase and selected a volume, Among the Changelings by Goodall Gorilla. With a faint rasping sound, the bookcase swung away to reveal a doorway and set of steps leading downward. Caramel trotted down the steps quickly, moving the display case back over the entrance as he did so. As the basement lit up with light, he looked about him and nodded with satisfaction.
The stone walls were lined on every side with a variety of weaponry—lances, shields, even the incredibly-impractical swords. An owl cocked its head at him in greeting from its perch by the chimney. A gleaming suit of armor stood in the corner, and just before him was a desk with some writing material.
Caramel made his way over to the desk and picked up the quill in his teeth. After a moment’s thought, he began to write.
TO Commander Shining Armor of the Royal Guard, Lord Protector of the Crystal City.
The situation remains unchanged. Over the past week, audits conducted of neighborhoods 7-9 have confirmed that that sector remains clear of infiltrators. Inspection of six elements conducted today: successful. All are, to the best of my knowledge, uncompromised. (Though I must again reiterate the difficulty of determining this with Element 5, Pinkamena Pie.)
A troubling development: Element 4, or Rainbow Dash, has started an independent investigation into potential infiltrators. This has not yet compromised my own work, but it could prove problematic in the long run, as element has expressed reservations about my loyalty and a determination to “watch me” in the future. It is also possible that her independent and highly public campaign may alert any infiltrators in the town. I recommend a distractionary measure to fixate her attention on some other matter, but as ever, I will await your orders.
My cover in Ponyville may have been penetrated. Comments from Element 5 and questions from the others about former cover identities of mine have led me to believe they may be starting to suspect my true purpose here. Accordingly, the purpose of the “Caramel” identity may have served its purpose. I ask your lordship to consider the formation of a new glamorstone for a new identity.
Your Faithful Servant,
1st Marshal Flash Sentry, Royal Guard.