I woke to find Pinkie Pie still asleep beside me. She had pulled all the blankets off of me and wrapped herself up in a tangled mess of them. Her mane and tail were a mess as well, knotted and disarrayed.
I propped myself up on my elbow and watched her sleep. Her mind was a fuzzy blur of nothing in particular. There wasn't much to sense during sleep, unless the sleeper was dreaming. Her mind began to slowly clear. A moment later she opened her eyes. She stared blankly into space, a dull, bitter sorrow wafting from her, then rolled over and closed them again with a heavy sigh.
She sighed again. "Not that good."
I pulled her to me and hugged her.
"I wish I didn't have to get up today. I wish I could just lie here with you. Then I wouldn't have to talk to any other ponies. I know the Princess said I shouldn't hide being sad, but I'll make all the ponies I talk to sad. I'm supposed to make ponies happy. I wish I could be happy. I don't even know why I'm so sad, there's no good reason for it. I hate it."
I didn't know what to say in response to that, so I just held her. After a while she slowly pulled herself from my embrace. "I promised the Cakes I'd help with the shop today. I never break a promise, so I have to get up." She sighed again, but climbed from the bed.
She sat in front of her mirror, looking at her tangled hair, and picked up a brush. I had a sudden memory of my very first infiltration. I'd joined a group of teenage mares, posing as one of their number who wasn't present that day. They'd spent a great deal of time brushing each other's manes and tails. The hive memory had informed me at the time that mutual grooming was a very important social interaction among ponies. I'd gotten a very good haul of affection and friendship from the little group when I'd joined in.
It was funny, really, how much I knew, once I stopped always reaching for the hive's knowledge first and instead consulted my own memories.
I sat next to Pinkie and gently took the brush from her with my magic. Let me. I brushed her mane with care, and I felt some of the sadness in her ease as I worked. She leaned against my shoulder a bit. I smiled and kept brushing. Eventually her mane and tail both lay smooth. She gave me a wan smile. Thank you.
You're always welcome.
We went downstairs together. It was barely light outside, but the scent of baked goods already filled the air. Mrs. Cake was in the big kitchen, pulling muffins out of the oven.
"Morning, Pinkie. Morning, Sweetcake. Have a muffin. There's another half hour before we open."
"Thanks, Mrs. Cake. I was wondering though... I know I said I'd work the counter today, but would it be all right if I stayed in the kitchen and baked instead? I'm not really feeling like talking to ponies today."
Mrs. Cake looked up from her muffins, and I felt a flicker of grapefruit-tart surprise from her. "Is something wrong, Pinkie?"
She sighed, drooping a little more. "Nothing in particular. I'm just not feeling well today."
"If you're sick you could take the day off, dear. Shouldn't be baking if you're sick."
"No, I'm not sick."
"Just in the dumps, dear? Well, all right then. Why don't you pour out the next batch of muffins, and I'll go get the counter ready to open?"
"Thanks, Mrs. Cake. I appreciate it."
I spent the day with her in the kitchen, expanding my knowledge of baking. It was fairly pleasant. But even while I was sampling muffins or cookies or cinnamon rolls, I could taste the lingering bitterness of Pinkie's sadness. I couldn't help but dwell on my own sorrows as well. Being with Pinkie was good, but it still wasn't like being part of the hive. I was getting used to reaching for my own memories, yes. Yet I didn't think I could ever stop missing the hum of thousands of other changelings in the back of my mind.
When Pinkie was done working we both simply returned to her room without needing to discuss it. We climbed into the bed and lay there, holding each other, sharing our sorrow, as afternoon deepened to evening and eventually sleep claimed us both once more.
I trotted through the streets of Ponyville, towards the market square. I was on a mission from Pinkie Pie. She was going to be hosting a cuteceañera for one of the town's fillies this evening. She'd sent me to pick out streamers for the party. The past few days had been rough, Pinkie had been depressed, and I hadn't been exactly cheerful either. But throwing a party always improved her mood, and today she'd been pretty much her usual bouncy self.
I reached the streamer booth and started looking over the colors available. I could feel Pinkie's attention focused on me. She had closed her eyes and was looking through mine. There, that one, said Pinkie. I pointed a hoof at the streamer roll in question, then kept scanning the rack so Pinkie could see the rest as the shopkeeper set it on the counter.
Soon I'd picked out all I needed and had tucked them into my saddlebags. At Pinkie's suggestion I headed for Applejack's apple booth, to get two apples for our lunch.
"Hey there, Sweetcake." Applejack gave me a nod as I handed over my bits. I heard a sharp noise and looked down to see her dog, Winona, sniffing at my hooves intently. Applejack looked down at the creature, then up at me again. "Guess she can smell when a pony's hiding somethin'." Applejack tasted of irritation, rather like black pepper.
Applejack snorted. "If you were really sorry for lyin' to the whole dang town, you'd stop doin' it."
I looked around the crowded square. "Applejack... if I were to 'stop lyin'' as you put it, half the town would run away in panic and the other half would try to kill me."
"Maybe, maybe not. But the longer you keep lyin', the worse it'll be if they ever do find out. You oughta just come clean with it. My friends and I wouldn't let anypony hurt you. If fer no other reason than to keep Pinkie from bein' upset over it."
I shook my head. There was no way in the world I was going to reveal myself as a changeling to the town. It went against everything I knew, and against every bit of common sense I had as well. They would not react well at all.
Winona was still snuffling intently at my legs as Applejack continued. "Sweetcake, I know you ain't a bad pony..."
A racket drew my attention from her to a commotion a few yards away. Three fillies were barreling through the crowd, one on a scooter, the other two being towed behind it in a wagon. They were moving at a very rapid rate, headed right towards Applejack's booth. "Hey, sis!" yelled one of the fillies in the wagon.
"Woah, look out!" shouted the one on the scooter, veering around a pony in front of her. The scooter teetered, tipped, and suddenly the whole thing was sliding sideways, out of control, headed not for the booth itself but almost straight at me. Except that Winona was standing between the careening scooter and myself, still focused on sniffing my hooves.
I didn't even think about it, I just dove to scoop her up and roll aside. She yelped in frantic surprise and bit me. I winced but kept holding her until we'd rolled well clear of the scooter crash. I let go of the dog as soon as we stopped tumbling. She scrambled frantically free of my arms, but then turned, snarling, and flung herself at me, snapping furiously. I put my hooves up protectively, trying to figure out how to fend her off without hurting her.
Immediately the attack ceased.
"Ah, buck! Sweetcake, are you all right?" I lowered my hooves and inspected myself. She'd bitten me on the upper foreleg, nearly at the shoulder, and that one looked pretty bad. She'd also left several bites along my lower forelegs, though they were more superficial.
"Oh no! We need to get those cleaned out right away! If they get infected it will be very bad." I looked up to see that Fluttershy was suddenly standing over me. She tasted of concern and nothing else; there was no fear there at all.
I went to get up, but Fluttershy put a firm hoof on my chest. "You stay right there. You're bleeding and you shouldn't move." She inspected the bite marks, then pressed one hoof over the one on my shoulder, applying pressure to stop the bleeding.
"Oh my gosh, Sweetcake! Are you okay? Is he okay?" Pinkie Pie was suddenly at my side too. I felt puzzled. Only a minute ago she'd been halfway across town. How did she do that?
"I think he'll be fine," said Fluttershy. "Somepony should go get a doctor though. He needs to have all these bites thoroughly cleaned."
"I'll go!" I could tell that Pinkie was worried almost to the point of panic. I reached out and reassured her. I'll be fine.
Not if you bleed to death! She raced towards the hospital, once again somehow covering the ground far faster than a pony should be able to.
I won't bleed to death. Fluttershy is here. You're getting a doctor for me. Everything will be fine.
"I am so sorry, Sweetcake. I really am. Winona should know better than to attack ponies, even if they are, uh, ponies that smell weird."
I blinked, drawn away from reassuring Pinkie by Applejack. "It's okay. She was just afraid. She didn't expect me to grab her like that."
"Well I'm mighty glad you did. She mighta' been crushed! Thank you. Looks like the girls are okay too. So I guess yer the only casualty of this little disaster."
"That was very brave of you, to risk yourself to save Winona." Fluttershy still had her hoof pressed over the bite mark. She gave me a shy little smile. I tasted admiration, both from her and from Applejack. That wasn't something I'd tasted often, though I'd gotten a good taste of it from Rainbow Dash a few days before. It was sweet too, a fruity kind of sweetness like peaches or apples. I had the thought that if I knew any healing spells I would probably be able to heal myself. I'd been getting enough positive emotions to feed half the hive, lately. I could probably out-magic any other drone in the world right now, with so much power to draw on.
"Here!" Pinkie Pie skidded to a halt next to me. A breathless white mare arrived close behind her.
"Let's have... a look... at him." She was panting, but immediately started examining me.
Fluttershy carefully took her hoof off of my foreleg. Blood immediately began to ooze slowly from the wound there. "He needs to have these cleaned out, otherwise they'll get infected."
"Yes, I see that. What happened? Pinkie didn't have time to tell me anything."
"He saved Winona from gettin' squashed by a crashin' scooter, but she didn't take kindly to bein' snatched up by a stranger and she bit him."
"Oh my! Yes, we definitely need to get the lacerations disinfected then. I'm going to need more disinfectant than I have in my kit." She gestured at the saddle bags she wore. "Do you think you can walk?"
I nodded and started to get slowly to my feet.
"Let's go to the hospital. No need to rush, take it slow so you don't start bleeding again."
"Yes, ma'am." I made my way at the white pony's side, with Pinkie and Fluttershy both hovering next to me. Pinkie was still deeply worried, though not quite as panicked as before.
"You're sure he's going to be okay?" she said softly to Fluttershy.
Fluttershy nuzzled her. "I'm sure. They'll get him all cleaned up and bandaged, and soon he'll be as good as new."
An hour or so later I was indeed cleaned, bandaged, and feeling fine. I was even well enough to help Pinkie with the cuteceañera. Fluttershy was there, and she no longer tasted so strongly of fear when she came near me. Applejack was there too. Her emotions were a mix of fruity admiration and peppery irritation. It was a very odd combination.
Pinkie Pie, however, tasted of happiness, relief, and love, which seemed even stronger than ever. Just being near her made me feel like I could take on the world.
"Really, darling, I know you like him, and from what I've heard he's a nice enough pony, given... who he is. But I feel like you are missing out on so many things! You can hardly have a proper romance with that."
My eyes were closed, so I could see the spa tub where Pinkie Pie, Rarity, and Fluttershy were soaking. She had been invited to join Rarity and Fluttershy's usual spa day, at Rarity's insistence. I was back at Sugarcube Corner, helping Mr. Cake bake a batch of cupcakes. It had been several days since the incident with Winona. Most of my bandages had been removed, only the one over the worst of the bites remained. The brace on my leg was finally gone as well.
Right now I was waiting until the cupcakes were cool enough to be frosted. Mr. Cake was busy with more batter, but I had nothing to do for the moment, so I listened in on Pinkie Pie. She had said she didn't mind, and I felt admittedly curious what her friends might say about me.
"He understands me. That's what's most important," said Pinkie.
"He is brave and kind too," said Fluttershy. "Risking himself like that for Winona took a lot of courage."
"But what about courtship? What about flowers and chocolates? What about flattering the color of your eyes? What about poetry, what about candlelit dinners? What about romance? Haven't you ever wanted to be wooed, Pinkie?"
"Not really! Anyway, there are other nice things about being with Sweetcake."
"What could possibly make up for a complete lack of romance, Pinkie, darling?"
"He always knows when I'm sad." Pinkie smiled.
Rarity shuddered. "Only because he's feeding on your emotions." I couldn't taste her revulsion at this distance, but I didn't really need to.
"Sshh," said Fluttershy. "Somepony might hear."
"Sorry, darling. I just cannot get over knowing, well... It makes my skin crawl."
"Rarity! You're being a meaniepants again." Pinkie Pie was glaring at Rarity now. I could feel her anger. I couldn't blame her either.
"Ready to mix up some frosting, Sweetcake?"
I snapped back to the kitchen and nodded. I knew how to do frosting. It was very simple. I rather thought I'd prefer doing frosting to listening through Pinkie's ears any further.
"Blue for these, I think. And set one aside to put gemstones on. Spike is very fond of them."
"Twilight Sparkle's little dragon assistant."
"Ah." I nodded as if I understood, though I really didn't. But I'd long since learned the art of nodding and agreeing when I didn't have a clue. It was an essential skill for any changeling infiltrator.
There was a chime as somepony opened the door, and Mr. Cake left me to my frosting while he went to check on the new customer. I heard voices, then Mr. Cake called out, "Sweetcake? Can you please box up half a dozen of those cranberry muffins from the cooling rack? They should be cool enough."
"Yes, sir." I pulled out a box, then floated six of the muffins into it and folded it closed over them. Carrying it in my magic, I went into the front of the shop. Derpy Hooves was standing there, her slightly off-kilter eyes bright as she looked at the muffin box I carried. She was obviously anticipating them quite strongly. I floated the box to her and she took it with a chirp of thanks, then turned and trotted out. It was only after she'd gone out the door that I realized something.
She had looked as though she were anticipating the muffins, but she hadn't tasted like it. In fact she'd tasted like nothing at all, there had been no flavor of emotion from her whatsoever.
Oh my gosh, what is it? Is something wrong? I could tell she was still at the spa, and I hated to interrupt her, but this was important.
Maybe, but maybe not. I need you to do something. You know Derpy Hooves, the pegasus?
She's headed home from Sugarcube Corner right now. Do you think you can get to her house before she does?
Sure! She lives near the spa and she usually walks instead of flies when she's not delivering mail. Why?
You need to go there quickly, check her bedroom, and see if she's asleep in her bed.
Right! "Gotta go, girls! Be right back!" I heard her call, and then she was out of the spa and moving across town faster than she really should have been able to go. I still had no idea how she did that, no matter how many times I sensed her at it. She arrived at her destination only seconds later, and I looked through her eyes as she opened the thankfully unlocked door.
I opened my eyes, seeing Mr. Cake staring at me curiously.
"Sorry. Just lost in thought."
"Can you finish frosting those cupcakes?"
"Yes. sir." I went back into the kitchen, half my mind still occupied with following Pinkie through Derpy's house. She reached the bedroom just as I picked up the frosting decorator with its star-shaped tip. I wasn't really paying attention to that though, I was seeing what Pinkie saw.
The bedroom was dark, but soft snores came from the bed, and Pinkie's eyes swiftly adjusted enough for her to see the shape of Derpy, lying there asleep.
Thank goodness, I said. Better get out soon before she gets back.
But if she's here, how can she get back? How could she be out buying muffins while... oh! The one buying muffins is a changeling, isn't she?
Yes. And I'd rather not let her know that you know she's there.
Righty-o. Pinkie swiftly tip-hooved out of the house and bounced back towards the spa. You seemed really glad that Derpy was in her bed, she said as she went.
Oh yes. It means that this is just ordinary food gathering for the hive, and not another invasion. A changeling is just spending a day as Derpy. It happens all the time. It's probably happened to you at some point. Ever had a week when you could swear it should be one day, but somehow it's the next day already, and you don't remember anything from the day before?
Wow. I have! That's weird. So it's a changeling, being me for a day, while making me sleep?
Probably. Some infiltrators make up ponies that don't exist, and form long term relationships, but it's easier to just take the place of a pony for a day and use the relationships they already have. Long-term replacement of an existing pony doesn't normally happen. Not unless the hive is trying to actually take over a town, which isn't common.
"Oh!" I opened my eyes and realized I'd been holding the decorator and the cupcake in the air for some time without actually doing anything. Mr. Cake was peering in through the kitchen door at me. "Sorry, sir." I went back to work, only vaguely aware of Pinkie Pie returning to the spa.
I was shortly distracted again by the realization that she was discussing what we'd just discovered with her friends. It was proving harder to tune out one single pony than it had been to tune out the hum of several thousand other changelings.
"We should tell the Princesses, darling. Another changeling invasion..."
"It's not an invasion, Sweetcake said it was just normal food gathering for the hive."
"Still, I can't help but feel that you should tell somepony. Twilight, at least ought to know."
"Sweetcake? You seem very distracted."
I jumped. Mr. Cake was standing right next to me. I gave him a guilty smile. I'd only frosted one cupcake. "Sorry. I guess I am."
"Why don't you go and let me finish this then?"
"Yeah, that might be a good idea. Sorry." I put down the frosting and trotted out of the kitchen. Pinkie was headed for Twilight's home, so I decided I might as well join her.
I met Pinkie, Rarity, and Fluttershy just outside the library, and we all went inside together. Fortunately Twilight wasn't busy, so we were able to tell her what had happened immediately.
"You're absolutely certain this isn't another invasion, Sweetcake?"
"Fairly. Invasions aren't common, I've only, uh, participated in the one. But there's no point in putting a pony to sleep and replacing them for a day as part of an invasion, that's just normal food gathering. I can check on Derpy tomorrow to be certain she's fine, if you want."
"I would appreciate that. But I can't help but feel that we ought to be doing something to prepare just in case there ever is another invasion. You seem to be able to spot other changelings, but we can't depend on you alone for warning."
"I can only tell up close, anyway," I said. "And it's easy to miss if I'm not paying attention."
Twilight nodded absently, obviously deep in thought. "I need a changeling identification spell. Or at least a changeling revealing spell so I can check, if somepony seems suspicious. That would have saved so much trouble at the wedding!"
"You didn't know there was such a thing as a changeling at the time, darling," said Rarity.
"True. Still, it would be very useful. Let me see what I can come up with." She picked up a quill and a scroll. "Sweetcake, do you mind if I test it on you? That way I'll know for certain if it works."
"I don't mind," I said. Although I felt a little nervous. Having a pony test an unknown anti-changeling spell on me sounded a bit frightening. Still, Twilight had trusted me. I should trust her in return.
It's okay, Twilight is really good at magic, said Pinkie silently to me. She sat down next to me and we leaned together while Twilight scribbled out ideas on a long scroll.
"Uhm, I need to go feed my animals," said Fluttershy. "If that's all right with you."
"Hmm?" Twilight looked up from her work, blinking. "Oh, yes, of course, Fluttershy. Though I'd appreciate it if Rarity stayed. I think this spell will be one she could learn, once I get it figured out."
"Of course, darling," said Rarity.
The door shut behind Fluttershy, and then there was silence except for the scratching of Twilight's pen.
"So, Sweetcake," said Rarity, a little stiffly, "I hear that you are working at Sugarcube Corner as well now?" I could taste a hint of revulsion from her, but she was obviously making an effort to put it aside.
"Yes. Just part time, but I seem to be pretty good at it."
There was a long, somewhat uncomfortable pause. I started to wonder if I should say something else, but what? I heard Pinkie Pie draw breath, probably to start in on some random ramble or other.
"There!" said Twilight suddenly. "I think this will work." Twilight's horn lit up and before I had a chance to react she'd shot a beam of magic at me. I let out a rather undignified squeak of surprise as it hit. It didn't hurt, exactly, but there was a slightly uncomfortable wrenching sensation, and I found I had indeed reverted to my natural form.
"Aha! It works!" Twilight danced in place, radiating satisfied excitement, which tasted rather like a rootbeer float, creamy and effervescent. Rarity's distaste, on the other hoof, had suddenly gotten much, much stronger. So I wasn't really able to enjoy Twilight's satisfaction.
I got to experience the discomfort of the spell twice more when Twilight taught it to Rarity, and then had me learn to cast it on myself. It was an elegantly simple thing, and I couldn't help but admire the skill with which Twilight had constructed it.
The spell learned, Rarity, Pinkie and I said our goodbyes to Twilight and left. Though not before Twilight made me promise to return tomorrow to be quizzed about emotional flavors.
Pinkie walked sedately at my side as we made our way back towards Sugar Cube corner. I could taste a faint hint of worry though, like spoiled milk, wafting from her. What's wrong?
Nothing, she tried to say, but I could tell it was a lie.
You can tell me. It's okay.
I guess I still can't lie to you. Okay. I just keep thinking... If there are other changelings here, what if you get your hive bond back, and go away?
I couldn't pretend the thought hadn't crossed my mind already. But when I answered her I wasn't lying. I would never leave you, Pinkie. No matter what. Even if I somehow got my hive bond back, I would stay.
Pinkie Pie promise? She sent a flicker of information with that thought. I recognized the seemingly nonsensical oath that she'd sworn to Rainbow Dash.
I pulled in the images she'd sent and replied, pausing to make the appropriate motions. Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye.
Nopony breaks a Pinkie Pie promise, she said. I knew she meant it.
"So the obvious place to start is with love." Twilight Sparkle's quill was poised over her paper. Her eyes were shining with bright eagerness. I could practically make a real meal of her curiosity and enthusiasm, even though such emotions were usually considered too weak to be worth collecting. "What does love taste like?"
"Cupcakes!" said Pinkie brightly.
"It is rather like pastry," I said, nodding. "And it's definitely sweet, but it has a solidity to it. It doesn't taste anything like meat, but..." I halted, as a flicker of surprise from Pinkie reminded me that ponies were vegetarians. "Uhm. You can't live off of cupcakes, while you can live off of love. It's not exactly savory, but it's hearty. And it does amazing things for your magical energies."
"I see." Twilight's quill scratched across the paper. "What about hate, then?"
"Hate is bitter. Though it's not like sadness, it's more complicated. It's this layered bitterness, like a really tannic red wine. It's not nourishing at all, but some changelings actually develop a taste for it."
"Sadness is bitter too?"
"Yes. It's a bit like bitter almond, tolerable but not really that pleasant."
"Interesting. And what about..."
A knock at the door interrupted Twilight. "Bother. I'll be right back." She set down her quill and trotted to the library door.
"Hey, Twi! The mayor asked me to put these up around town. Though you might want to post one in the library." It was Rainbow Dash, holding a stack of posters. I couldn't make out what was on them, but apparently Pinkie could. She was on the other side of the room so fast I'm not sure I even saw her move at all.
"Oh my gosh! An all-ages talent show! Eee!" She danced in place excitedly. I felt almost overwhelmed by her sudden enthusiasm. It was like drowning in a sea of sarsaparilla, but it wasn't just the taste, it was the feeling of it inside my head. She bounced back over to my side. "We are so competing, Sweetcake!"
"Uhm. What's a talent show?" I had absolutely no idea what was going on.
"It's where ponies show off their talents in front of a big crowd of other ponies," said Rainbow Dash. "I don't usually compete, even though I have a ton of awesome talents, because they hold it at the town hall and my stuff doesn't really work indoors. Anyway, gotta jet. Lots more of these to put up." She turned and zoomed away. I tried to sort out what I should feel about her explanation. A public competition? I wasn't sure I liked the idea of drawing attention to myself like that, even with Pinkie's enthusiasm trying to make me feel excited too.
"Are you going to compete too, Twilight?" asked Pinkie.
"Oh, I suppose I could put on some kind of magic show. I'm not really much of a showpony though." She smiled. "I leave that sort of thing to Trixie. What about you? I know you'll enter, but what sort of act are you going to do?"
"A song! Or a comedy routine! Or a comedy song! Or maybe I can gargle Gershwin!"
"Uhm. Those all sound nice." Twilight seemed about as confused as I was. Confusion never tastes quite the same way twice, this one tasted like popcorn.
"Come on, Sweetcake! We have plans to make!"
"Uhm. Pinkie? I still haven't finished cataloging emotional flavors. In fact I've hardly started."
"Oh. Right. Sorry!" She plopped down next to me. I could hear her thinking about the talent show, a low mutter of ideas in the back of my head, but when Twilight started asking me about emotions again, I was thankfully able to mostly ignore it. Though every now and then the mental mutter would break out into actual muttering. "Tires maybe? Or there's always oatmeal, I could get a vat..."
Twilight ignored it with the ease of one well used to Pinkie. "So. We should really be organized about this. I have a list of emotional states, so we can go through them one by one."
Twilight lifted her quill again. Then there was another knock on the door. She set it down with a sigh. "The price I pay for living in a library. I'll be right back."
This time the pony at the door proved to be Rarity. "Hello Twilight, darling. I just came by for a little light reading material. Do you happen to have anything new on the romance shelf?" Her eyes flicked past Twilight to Pinkie and me, and she frowned faintly. I was just close enough to taste the edges of her sudden distaste. She still didn't like me.
"Yes I do!" said Twilight with a smile. "Hold on a second, I'll get it for you."
While she trotted past us to her shelves, Pinkie bounced up to Rarity. "Are you going to enter the talent show?"
"I have never been one for that sort of performance, my dear," said Rarity. "I prefer to stay behind the scenes and create fabulous costumes instead."
"Ooo! You could make costumes for me and Sweetcake! That would be totally, awesomely, stupendously amazing!"
Rarity's eyes flicked to me again, and that little frown came back for a moment. "You? And Sweetcake?"
"Yes! We'll look so adorable in matching outfits when we demolish a carriage to the tune of the Anvil Chorus!"
"Uhm." Rarity's confusion tasted like fried rice. "Well..."
"Pretty please? I'll pay for it and everything!"
"Oh no, darling. You can pay for the materials, as usual, but my friends do not pay for my work! Don't worry, it will be a pleasure to make matching outfits for you." She smiled at me, even though I could taste that she still thought I was a disgusting bug. "It will be quite simple, really. You have the same colors, after all. That will make it almost too easy!"
"Here's the book you wanted, Rarity," said Twilight as she trotted up.
"Thank you, darling." She flashed Twilight a sincere smile, then turned back to Pinkie Pie. "Come over to my shop tomorrow so I can take Sweetcake's measurements and we can decide on a design."
I followed Pinkie into Rarity's boutique with a certain amount of resignation. I wasn't sure about this talent show, and I was also not sure about spending this much time around a pony who was actively disgusted by me.
"Welcome, darlings!" Rarity beamed at us both. The distaste was actually not that strong right now. Instead I mostly tasted effervescent anticipation, mixed with a generous dose of bright, metallic pride. Like sucking on a copper penny, it wasn't anything like food, but it was rather pleasant. "I've had several marvelous ideas for your outfits. I can hardly wait to show you, I know you will just love them! Come in, come in!"
Pinkie and I walked into the boutique. Rarity immediately chivvied us over to her drafting table and was soon flipping through half a dozen different sketches, her magic sending swatches of fabric flying about as she pointed out different possible color combinations, and held them against Pinkie's coat for comparison.
She and Pinkie discussed the designs for quite a while. I sat down out of the way and just listened. I couldn't think of anything to say.
I had ended up sitting aside and watching quite a bit since coming to Ponyville. For a moment I felt utterly isolated. I was an alien here, among these ponies. I didn't belong in their world. I never had belonged among ponies, but I'd belonged with my hive. Now I had lost them too.
Pinkie was there, though, bubbling happily in my mind. She was genuinely excited about this talent show, and about working with Rarity. She was happy. I couldn't stay sad for long when she was happy.
"Okie-dokie-lokie!" said Pinkie cheerfully. "It's definitely this one!" Her hoof tapped on one of the sketches, with several swatches now pinned to it.
"You're quite certain?" asked Rarity.
"You don't want to look at any more swatches?"
"I could do a few more sketches, if you like. This one really isn't quite perfect..."
"It's good, I like it."
Rarity's eyes went to me. The pride and anticipation I'd tasted before were both entirely gone now. Revulsion was all I could taste from her. Pinkie could no doubt taste it too, she wrinkled her nose and stuck her tongue out, but she didn't say anything this time.
"Well. I suppose it's time to acquire some measurements, then. I already have yours, Pinkie. I just need to take Sweetcake's." Rarity picked up a cloth tape and looked at me. She gave a tiny little shudder. I felt a little queasy from how strong her distaste had become.
"Wow," said Pinkie, "You really do think he's an icky bug, don't you?" Pinkie Pie's earlier happiness began to fade, and her hair faded just a little bit too.
Rarity shot a look at Pinkie. "I thought we weren't speaking of that any further?"
"He's... fine. Twilight trusts him. Rainbow Dash thinks he is 'awesome'. Fluttershy says he is kind. He is fine, and I will be fine." She lifted her head, her expression hardening into one of dogged determination. "Now, if you would be so kind as to stand, so that I can measure you?" she said to me.
I nodded and rose. Rarity didn't come any closer, but her tape measure flew over to me and started to measure. The wave of revulsion coming from her ebbed just a little as she worked.
"Thank you for doing this," I said after a few minutes.
"Think nothing of it, darling. I enjoy making things for my friends."
I didn't want to say that I could tell she wasn't enjoying it at all. I did want to say that I admired the way she was able to hide her feelings so well, but I suspected she might take it the wrong way, so I remained silent. I knew ponies generally didn't like being complimented on their skill at lying.
She had nearly finished when the bell over her door rang and a tan stallion stepped into the boutique.
"Welcome to Carousel Boutique," began Rarity, then she stopped. "Oh! Mr. Davenport! Let me finish here and I shall be right with you!"
"No need, I just came to say that something has come up and I can't stay for my fitting."
"Oh. You're not going to the Sofa Summit then?"
"I am, and I will still need the suit, but you'll just have to make it without my measurements. Sorry! Very busy! Gotta run!" The stallion turned and left, leaving Rarity staring after him, her hoof raised as if to stop him.
She was radiating an intense, peppery frustration when she turned back to me, but all she did was take a deep breath and pick up her cloth tape again.
"Gosh, that was kind of rude!"
"The rudeness isn't what upsets me, darling," said Rarity. "The possibility of an ill-fitting suit upsets me. It will look horrid, and not reflect well on my work at all. But what else can I do? If he will not be fitted, I must make do as best I can. Perhaps I could find another stallion with a similar build..." She scribbled down a final measurement as she spoke, then let the tape fall. "In any case we are done. I'll have your outfits early next week."
"Okay." Pinkie smiled, her hair once more at full fluff. "Thank you Rarity."
I wasn't thinking about the outfits though, I was thinking about something that Rarity had said. "Rarity, if it's all right with you, I think I can help you."
"Help me?" She cocked her head to the side curiously.
"With Mr. Davenport's suit. I can be him for you, and you can take your measurements."
She blinked at me rather owlishly for a long moment. "Oh! You... I suppose you could. That... Why that would be marvelous!"
"First, can you close the shop? I wouldn't want somepony to come in and start wondering how Mr. Davenport is in here while he's also out there."
"Of course. Just a moment." Rarity went over to the door, flipped the sign on it over, and locked it. "There." She took a deep breath. "Do your thing."
I concentrated, remembering the pony I'd just seen. A moment later green fire flashed over me and I was him.
"Oh!" Rarity sounded delighted. "For some reason I thought you would change back into... well... your other form first. This is much nicer."
"Sheesh. You might as well just say that you're happy to not have to see an icky bug," said Pinkie grumpily.
"We're not talking about that, remember?" said Rarity archly.
Pinkie scowled. "Because I was getting all mad when you did talk about it, but not talking about it is making me all mad too! Why don't you like Sweetcake?"
Rarity's tape measure lifted towards me as she answered. "I do like him, Pinkie, dear. Or I want to like him. He does seem quite nice, and I appreciate how helpful he's being. I just can't help it. I don't like creepy crawly things; I never have. Spiders and bugs and things with far too many legs..." She shuddered. "I truly can't help it! It's even worse to see a bug that's pony-shaped. It's frightfully creepy. But that doesn't mean I don't like Sweetcake. I am just much more comfortable when he stays like this." She gave me a hesitant little smile. She was still radiating a faint revulsion, but also quite a lot of sincerity, which was sharp and pleasant, like feta cheese.
"I like you too, Rarity," I said, venturing a small smile in return.
Suddenly Pinkie was pulling me in for a hug with one arm, and Rarity with the other. "Yay! Oh my gosh, this is the best thing ever!" Rarity squeaked in surprise, and for a moment her revulsion flickered over into outright fear—acrid and sharp—but it almost immediately went away as Pinkie hugged us both.
There were tears in Pinkie's eye when she finally let us go, but I knew that they were happy tears, not sad ones. "I'll let you do your measuring now, Rarity. I'm just so happy. My friends don't hate my special somepony after all."
"Of course we don't, darling." Rarity might have had a hint of a happy tear in her eye as well as she lifted the tape measure. Certainly she tasted frosting-sweet. "Of course we don't."