The Irony of Applejack Aftermath: A Warm Hearth

by Mister Friendly

Part 4

The Great Hall of Canterlot Castle was alive with commotion. On a normal year, the pageant could draw in hundreds, if not thousands of visitors and locals, all cramming in together just to see the play. Their voices would mingle into a deafening, mind-numbing drawl of senseless noise, charging the air with excitement and anticipation.

That year, however, there were even more than usual. Ponies from across Equestria filled the hall front to back, like every year. But this year, there was an entirely new demographic; a corded-off section encompassing nearly a quarter of the entire floor.

And it was jam-packed with changelings.

For many in the audience, this was their first ever time seeing the bug-like ponies, and in all honesty, there seemed to be much, much more of them than their little section should have allowed, like they were all sitting two to a chair or something of the sort.

None were disguised and most were made skittish by that simple fact and prone to ducking out of sight whenever they caught somepony staring.

Nopony crossed the boundary line of velvet rope. But that didn’t mean they were completely closed off from the rest of the crowd.

Stallions and mares sat just on the other side, across an auspicious divide. Even so, many were leaning forward, speaking animatedly or privately with a drone on the other side. Some of those drones were even sitting backwards on their chairs, leaning over to better see their partners, simply killing time as the clock ticked down the last few minutes before the show began.

High above the throngs, Princess Celestia sat in her regal chair, eyes turned not to the stage and its drawn curtains but to the ponies and changelings below. She watched quietly with a barely perceptible air of relaxation.

Of the faces she could see far below, the vast majority looked upon the changelings with only a sense of curiosity, either reserved or open. The changelings themselves, while clearly uncomfortable and nervous, were behaving themselves to the letter, no doubt the work of young Applejack and her lieutenants.

All in all, everything was going just as well as she could have hoped, if not better. It had not been easy, mind, but she was satisfied with the way things were progressing, for changelings and ponies alike.

Of course, the ones sharing the balcony with her weren’t quite as warmed by the sight below. They kept their conversations low and private, given whose presence they were in, but she was aware of it well enough.

But to Celestia, it sounded less like distrusting adults and more like grumbling foals who hadn’t gotten their way. They’d tried their best to exclude the changelings from Canterlot altogether – even offered some fairly poignant arguments to the matter. It was lucky they’d conceded just enough when they did, or else Celestia would have resorted to letting Luna deal with them. Oh what a sight that would have been…

“Good evening, sister.”

Celestia didn’t jump, but she looked around quicker than was called for, to find the very alicorn she was thinking of lowering herself into a chair lined with dark blue velvet that had been placed on her right side.

Luna hardly looked fully awake yet, like she’d just rolled out of bed. A mug of steaming coffee, printed with a festive design of snowflakes, bells and holly leaves, floated dutifully under her nose, allowing tongues of aromatic steam from the jet black coffee to tantalize her nostrils.

“Up late again, Luna?” Celestia chided, giving her sister a smile.

Luna didn’t react to the provocation – not yet. It was too early in the night for that. “In case you hadn’t noticed, there are a fair number of foals in Equestria, and they have been dreaming of tomorrow morning,” she said, her inflection carefully neutral. “As they have been for weeks now.”

Celestia turned to give her a knowing look and a smile to match. “Would that be why the stores in town have so inexplicably encountered shortages this year as well? And why you’ve been so busy with that list of yours?”

Luna didn’t rise to the bait… but her flush gave her away. “Dear sister, whatever do you mean?”

Celestia merely chuckled, and placed one wing around her despondent sister’s equally despondent shoulders. “Nightmare Night and Hearth’s Warming… At this rate there won’t be anything left for me!”

There was the smile she was trying to work out of her. “Oh perish the thought,” Luna said in good humor.

The two shared a private laugh, which nevertheless drew inquisitive eyes from their nearest neighbors on the balcony. The two royal sisters ignored the attention and once they were finished, turned their attention instead towards the distant stage.

The curtain was rustling – ponies moving quickly around behind it, putting on the finishing touches. Off to one side, Celestia just spied the distant shape of a baby dragon reading over his script one last time – though odds were he already had the whole thing memorized.

Luna suddenly speaking up distracted her again, however. “Will Cadenza not be joining us?” she asked, giving Celestia a questioning look.

“Unfortunately no,” Celestia said with a sad smile. “It seems some manner of important business has come up.”

Celestia was expecting Luna to give her a confused look. When her expression instead bent into a dark frown, it was she who turned a questioning look on her sister.

Luna tried to ignore her at first, but when her sister did not relent, she said with a clipped tone, “much has been weighing on her dreams of late, sister. Snow and things best left dead and forgotten.”

“Ah…,” lamented Celestia, suddenly fully comprehending. “And here I had hoped she’d finally let that matter lie… Curious though; I wonder what brought it on this time…?”

“Who’s to say,” Luna said with a shrug. “Her family was never one to easily give up on that dream.”

Celestia turned to look out one of the many windows, a deep-seated look of worry in her eyes as she looked out over the spires of Canterlot, past the mighty Canterhorn itself, and into the gloom of the night far to the frigid north…

Luna, however, watched the stage with more of a mercurial disposition. “Speaking of troubled youths,” she said, “how is Twilight Sparkle going to handle her own demons?”

Celestia turned to glance at her, then turned her gaze back to the stage. “That, dear sister, is up to her.”

“Ah. You always did love your tests.”



“Ah’m tellin’ ya, this ain’t goin’ ta work,” Applejack pointed out.

“Oh come on, AJ! this is awesome!” enthused Rainbow buzzing through the air.

Applejack was hardly convinced, unsurprisingly. “Twi’, how exactly is this supposed ta be an apology?”

“Trust me, Applejack – you’ll see,” Twilight said while tightening the drawstring of her costume around her neck.

“And how exactly did y’all convince Verily?”

“Applejack, why are you so worried?”

“Because, Twi’, this whole thing is… just…”

“Try to have a little faith, Applejack darling. Consider it a… rehash of a timeless classic. Now where is Princess Platinum’s crown… ah! Here we are! Oooo, just as beautiful as I remember it!”

“And… yer fine with all this, sugarcube?”

“Well… aesthetics aside, I think it’s a lovely idea. A little unorthodox, but – Pinkie, darling? whatever are you doing?”

“… Aw, I thought I had it that time…”

“Pinkie, don’t take this the wrong way,” said Twilight, “but I’d be absolutely terrified if that thing did work. Oh! Found your… pudding hat… thing.”

“Yippie!” cheered Pinkie, changing gears instantly before cramming the hat on her head and turning around towards Applejack. “Oh hey Smart Cookie! Long time no see! There’s something different about you… waitwait, don’t tell me! You cut your mane! No! You had your coat dyed!”

Applejack just stared, at a loss for words. “Uh…”

“Teeth straightened! Definitely teeth straightened!”

Applejack didn’t even bother putting words to the stare she gave her friend now.

“Knew it! Oh hey, why aren’t you in costume yet? The show starts in, like, now!”

Applejack just blinked, then turned to look at the clock.

“It’s five minutes and twenty one seconds fast,” dismissed Twilight, handing Applejack her tunic and hat. “We’ve got a little time.”

Applejack accepted it, then caught Twilight’s gaze. “Twi’… Why are y’all doin’ this? What if it don’t work?”

Twilight just smiled. Not a nervous smile, or an uncertain smile. It was her confident smile, the one that she couldn’t replicate unless she truly meant it. “Don’t worry about that, AJ. I know it will, you’ll see. Just go out there and do your best. We’ll be right there beside you, promise.”

“… Ya know ya avoided my question, sugarcube.”


How was Verily okay with this?”

“Oh. I forgot to tell her.”


“Oh hey look at the time! We better get into positions!”

“Twilight, what did y’all just say?!”

“No time, Applejack! Positions!”



Music began to fill the Great Hall as the orchestra pit came to life. Immediately the crowds hushed. Conversations petered out, and all eyes turned together towards the stage in quiet, yet electrically charged, anticipation.

Even Celestia, who must have seen every rendition of the play since its inception countless lifetimes ago, found herself sitting up and paying close attention to the stage, right as a spotlight fell upon the closed curtain. Somehow, she knew today was going to be particularly special.

The lights in the Great Hall dimmed. Even the windows seemed to let in less light that normal, as if a pocket of night had inexplicably descended upon them. Torches burned lower. Lamps guttered. Nopony could have missed the shaft of light now striking the stage, just as the great curtains split open.

Spike stood revealed, standing by a fireplace crackling merrily with magical flames that emitted no smoke.

Immediately everypony recognized him; his purple outfit, the garish orange feather sticking out of his puffy antiquated hat. Yes, this was the narrator for this age old tale.

Spike wasted no time either, as if he’d been waiting for everypony to show up, not vice versa. “Once upon a time, long before the peaceful rule of Celestia,” he began, accenting his words with an archaic mannerism, “and before ponies discovered our beautiful land of Equestria, ponies did not know harmony.”

His voice echoed across the hall; those in the back rows would hear him just as well as those in the front. Twilight’s handiwork no doubt.

Celestia glanced down from the stage, and even through the darkness, she clearly made out what looked like ponies of immense stature in the crowd: fathers and mothers giving their children a boost to see over the crowd.

Nowhere did she see this more than in a corded-off section of the room apparently containing a small galaxy of blue lights, all dead focused upon the stage in front of them.

So far, everything was going according to plan, Celestia noted. But she didn’t dare relax just yet.

Spike was oblivious to all the keen attention he was getting. He stepped forward, right up to the edge of the stage, reciting his lines to the front row of ponies.

“It was a strange and dark time,” he spoke, “A time when ponies were torn apart… by hatred.”

For some reason, the way he emphasized his last word – and the resulting gasp that stole around the room – had Celestia grinning in amusement. Something about just how engrossed he was in his role struck her as rather endearing.

To her surprise, however, the changelings remained oddly silent. They blinked and watched, a congregation of ghostly lamps winking off and on here and there. They were clearly captivated, but unanimated like the other ponies. Were they trying to be on their best behavior? Or… was this motif not so unusual to them?

“I know, that’s what I said,” Spike huffed, shrugging, momentarily falling back into his normal manner before immediately getting back in character.

“During this frightful age, each of the three tribes cared not for what befell the other tribes, but only for their own welfare.”

Celestia cocked her head slightly, curious. Odd… normally the tribes were introduced before that line… Perhaps Verily had made some minor modifications? No… it had been generations since anypony had taken even the slightest liberties with the pageant in Canterlot. It was something of an unspoken rule; even telling lines out of order was somewhat frowned upon – not by her, by no means, but there were plenty of traditionalists who would look down on it.

So… what could be going on?

Keenly focused now, Celestia watched – along with the rest of the crowd – as Spike trotted off from center stage towards the right.

He really was skipping over that part. How curious…

“In those troubled times, as now,” Spike went on without missing a step, “the pegasi were the stewards of the weather.”

He turned and gestured upward, just as the curtains flew open with a hiss… and the entire hall let out a collective gasp.

For it wasn’t two pegasi mares dressed in traditional garb that they saw. In fact, not one had a single feather upon their gossamer wings.

It was two fully dressed changelings, buzzing high in the air, shaking a prop cloud as if trying to dislodge something from inside it. Both were frowning with quite convincing levels of discontent, and were completely oblivious to the stares they got.

And it only got better from there. Or worse, depending on one’s outlook.

“But,” Spike spoke, carrying on with the narrative like nothing was out of place at all, “They demanded something in return: food that could only be grown by the earth ponies.”

The background changed swiftly; a familiar painted backdrop of farmlands flew into place… as two cloaked changeling drones, laden down with hefty bags of produce, trotted grumpily onto the stage.

The two “pegasi” drifted down, noses held up high, and stuck their holey hooves out expectantly. The “earth ponies” glowered at them both, and then thrust bushels of beets, radishes and celery into their expectant grasps.

The “pegasi” took flight, buzzing away without so much as a ‘thank you’ or even a backwards glance.

“The unicorns demanded the same,” stated Spike, “in return for magically bringing forth day and night.”

And sure enough, a pair of “unicorns” trotted across the stage; one changeling who looked incredibly odd with a golden crown upon her head. After taking their dues from the “earth ponies”, one of the newcomers raised her head grumpily and ignited her sharp horn.

Right on cue, the sun hanging overhead whipped out of sight and out came the moon instead.

Now Celestia began to hear murmuring in the seats closest to her. The golden rule had been broken; the pageant had been altered. But that was small beans; there were changelings dominating their pageant!

Dark and saddened words flew around all around her; one would think the whole of the theatre arts had been desecrated with this one travesty.

As for Celestia… she was trying very hard not be overcome by an unsightly fit of giggles. Even Luna had that glint of mischief in her eyes and a forced neutral straightness to her lips that was quickly screwing up.

Spike, dutiful as ever, didn’t even miss a step. He trotted back out onto the stage, just as the changeling representatives for all three tribes went their separate ways, shooting loathsome looks over their shoulders at each other as they did.

“And so, mistrust between the tribes festered,” Spike said darkly, “until one day, it came to a boil. And what prompted the ponies to clash? ‘Twas a mysterious blizzard that overtook the land and toppled the tribes’ precarious peace.”

As he finished speaking, snow began to drift from the stage’s ceiling, moments before everyone slipped out of sight and the curtains were drawn.


Princess Luna and Princess Celestia sat in their seats, wide-eyed and, for all intents and purposes, struck dumb along with half the audience.

And the other half… was carrying an electrical charge like a collective of live wires.

One pony whistled… one pony whooped… then silence beneath a smothering wave of anticipation.

“…Well now,” Luna finally mustered. “This is… unexpected.”

“… Indeed,” Celestia responded. “Indeed it is.”


In every way, the pageant proceeded just like it always had. Only, now every single part was being played not by ponies, but by changelings. And yet, that was the only exception.

Nopony could figure it out; where had all of these drones come from? And where had they gotten their acting lessons from? Pretending to be somepony else was one thing, but theater skills as well? Even the Guard was scratching their collective heads while looking on from their posts, completely at a loss.

What was more, they were playing their roles to the letter. No missteps, no mistakes – all flawlessly executed, as if performed by theatre professionals. Those with an experienced eye could tell it wasn’t just acting, but execution as well – everyone was on their marks, everyone was coordinated, no one was just going through motions – there was real investment into their roles, even among the extras. This was no last-minute change to the cast. And that left quite a few higher-ups completely stumped.

“… And so it was decided,” Spike finally proclaimed, “that a grand summit would be held to figure out a way to cope with the blizzard.”

Once again, Celestia sat forward in her seat, eyes on the stage. She had been quite enjoying herself up to that point, but now her ears perked up with anticipation. If everypony had been replaced with changelings, then did that mean…?

The curtains flew open, revealing the inside of a castle hall, a table at its center, and a balcony ringing it from above. All of it was perfectly familiar… save for the crowds of grumpy and argumentative changelings bickering in the overhead balcony.

“Each tribe sent their leaders,” Spike announced, a few seconds before trumpets blared. “Daughter of the unicorn king, Princess Platinum!”

The doors at the back of the set flew open, and in walked…

Every changeling in the crowd gasped in one collective intake – the loudest sound they’d made all night.

For it wasn’t a unicorn that walked out onto the stage now, dressed in a regal cape and crown. Nor was it a drone.

What walked out onto the stage had all the right hallmarks of a changeling; black, leathery chitin, crescent fangs, a razor sharp horn, hole-ridden legs – they were all there. But so was her silvery, perfectly coifed mane.

Celestia stared, and like the rest of the audience, she was at a complete loss for an explanation. That was quite clearly a changeling queen striding purposefully across the stage; there was no mistaking it. Only… she wasn’t.

No, Celestia realized only a moment later. There was only one pony she knew of who wore her mane quite like that…

That, right there, was when it all clicked for her in one great big revelation, a split second before the trumpets were bugling again.

“Ruler of the pegasi,” announced Spike, “Commander Hurricane.”

Lo and behold, in came another changeling queen, with a ragged, holey tail of sky blue. Her chitinous body was clad in dark grey armor, and yet Celestia thought she could just make out the bands of blue across her belly – a carapace that matched her vivid hair. Her double-ringed eyes flashed almost dangerously as she glanced around from under her helmet, eyes brimming with contempt.

“Commander Hurricane” buzzed into view on thrumming wings, and yet her body bobbed up and down, out of tune with the constant motion of her insectoid wings. That was the final piece of evidence Celestia needed to finally get a firm grasp on what was going on.

“Rainbow Dash…,” she said under her breath, utterly impressed. “Twilight, my student, how did you pull this off…?”

She almost missed the trumpets bleating out a third time, just as Pinkie Pie made her appearance, her jarringly pink mane and eyes clashing spectacularly with the dark blackness of her hairless hide.

Celestia watched in amazement as all three calmly walked up to the table, placed their hats, crowns and helmets onto the table, and proceed to have a shouting match that rang off the vaulted ceiling.

She glanced back towards the changeling section, critical of their reaction, but already they had settled back down. Apparently it was Rainbow’s voice that gave her away to them – it was the only explanation that made sense.

But now the question was… how?


Applejack watched apprehensively from just off the stage. Anxious and stressed didn’t begin to describe how she felt as her eyes flashed from the crowd, to the apparent trio of changeling queens throwing accusations at one another, and back.

Everypony in the crowd was looking on with a uniform expression of sheer dumbfounded amazement. Nopony seemed to notice the slight inconsistencies with the trio’s appearances, like how Rainbow’s fluttering wings were the only ones to be animated, while Rarity’s and Pinkie Pie’s remained motionlessly pinned to their sides as lifelessly as their garments.

Rarity’s horn popped and cracked with very convincing frustration, but it did so with her normal signature of blue light, not the acidic green typical of changelings. Rainbow’s and Pinkie’s horns didn’t utter even a single spark.

They weren’t actually changelings… but they sure looked authentic. And just looking close enough worried Applejack to no end.

Just what was Twilight and the other girls trying to prove by throwing themselves head-first into the crosshairs for every close-minded individual in Canterlot? Were they really that oblivious to what it was like to be a changeling in Equestria right now? She could endure their discrimination; it wasn’t that big of a deal to her. But what about Rarity, who dreamed of the high life? Or Rainbow, who aspired to greatness herself? How could they be so utterly reckless?

Part of her expected to hear booing and hissing start at any moment. Things she normally did her best to tune out – like whispers and furtive looks – were suddenly at the forefront of her awareness as she scanned the crowds. But it was so dark that it was difficult to make out anything, not counting the sea of twinkling blue lights in one corner of the hall.

She was so focused on what was going on out there that she almost missed the sound of a set of hooves trotting up behind her.

“So? What do you think?” asked Twilight’s voice.

Applejack jumped, then turned around.

A part of her couldn’t help but marvel at the creature in front of her. It was clearly Twilight; nopony else wore their mane like that, or spoke with a voice like that. But, well, she clearly wasn’t a pony at all anymore.

Two double-iris cat-eyes looked questioningly back at her. Her normally purple face was now jet black chitin, and arranged in a nervous smile. She looked positively giddy and embarrassed all at the same time, like a good filly doing something forbidden. If her wings had actually been real, Applejack could visualize them thrumming noisily – a little too well, actually.

“Honestly,” Applejack said numbly, “Ah don’t have a clue what ta think anymore. How Verily hasn’t shut this whole operation down by now is beyond me.”

Twilight winced, but hardly looked repentant. “Well, I can’t imagine she’s thrilled, but it’s a little too late for that… I’ll find some way to make it up to her, don’t worry.”

She glanced across the stage – passed the set and the trio of fake changelings still bickering and into the shadows on the other side. It was hard to be sure, but she just thought she saw Verily’s red coat in the shadows. Nothing more distinct, but right now, Applejack wasn’t sure she wanted to know specifics about her mood.

Yes, Twilight would undoubtedly catch tartaurus for this little stunt, but if she’d really been against it, Verily could have put a stop to the whole thing in a heartbeat, no matter what Twilight said. One word from her, a few minutes of a delay, and everything would be back on track. But that hadn’t happened. Why? Who knew.

Applejack glanced back towards the stage, just as Rainbow declared “I’m leaving first!”, followed immediately by Pinkie’s “No, I’m leaving first!”

“Twi, seriously,” Applejack said, using her best serious voice, “why are ya doin’ all this? Don’t ya know yer goin’ ta be the laughin’ stock of Canterlot by mornin’? What about Rarity, or Rainbow? What about all these actors and actresses? What if all of this backfires and we end up ruinin’ their lives? And how in the blazes are they okay with that?” She added that last part with a tone of complete confusion, more to herself than anypony else.

Twilight didn’t even blink. She watched as three of their changelingified friends tried to fight their way through a set of double doors first, enchanted snow swirling around their heads.

“Applejack, do you know what this pageant is all about?” she asked.

“Of course,” Applejack said without hesitation. “It’s about how ponies first discovered Equestria and learned about harmony.”

“Exactly,” said Twilight, waving a hoof. “Harmony. Three tribes learning that deep down, we all aren’t all that different, really. If there’d been more time before the pageant, I might have been able to come up with something better, but…”

Twilight turned towards her, right as the curtains fell, and the stage went dark. But even in the gloom, Applejack could see the gleam off of her friend’s eyes as she turned towards her. “I think that, maybe, this will be enough.”

Applejack shot her a look, then opened her mouth to say something in return.

That was when a different sound rose to reach her ears. Applejack blinked, her comment completely forgotten, as she cocked her head to one side.

That sound… it wasn’t coming from the backstage area. Or the front stage area, for that matter. It was coming from beyond, out in the Great Hall itself… from the crowd.

They were clapping.

Not a whole lot, no, but… they were clapping their hooves against the marble floor. It was unmistakable.

The smattering of applause lasted a few seconds, then faded away. But it continued to ring off of the inside of Applejack’s head for a long time afterwards.

“See?” Twilight said happily. “They’re starting to get it!”

Applejack turned to look at her with a baffled look. “Get what?”

“With things the way they are with ponies and changelings… well, can you think of any better story to tell?” she asked. “Can you think of any story that needs to be told more right now?”

Applejack blinked, right as three queens came bounding up to them, barely containing their voices.

“Oh my gosh, that was so unbelievably awesome!” Rainbow squealed. “Did you see their faces when we came out? It was so priceless!”

‘Queen’ Pinkie giggled hysterically in response. “I know! it was like –” and she gave a huge, theatrical gasp, which was somewhat ruined by the pointed fangs lining her mouth. “More maybe a little more –” another, smaller gasp with a deeper tone, “or maybe –”

Of the three, only ‘Queen’ Rarity looked even remotely royal, what with her costume. But even she was fighting back giggles. “I must say, these holes completely ruin this ensemble, but I do think I manage to pull it off somehow.” She looked down at her hooves and pulled a face when she caught sight of the floor through a hole. “Is a little symmetry too much to ask for, though?”

“Oh come on, Rarity,” Rainbow complained, rolling her eyes. “Can’t you just not be frou-frou for, like, two hours?”

“When you set aside being ‘awesome’,” she said, putting air quotes around the last word. Ignoring Rainbow's responding glare, she glanced over her shoulder. “At least these wings aren’t real. Considering my track record with fake wings, I’d rather avoid another faux-pas, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” giggled Twilight, glancing over her shoulder at herself as well, “They seem kind of nice.”

“Y’all would think so,” Applejack said sourly, her own – real – wings buzzing discontentedly. “Try sleepin’ on one and keep that attitude.”

“By the way, where’s Fluttershy?” Rainbow questioned, looking up over their heads and around. “We’re up next. She better not be hiding in the costume box again, like she was last year.”

“Actually,” Twilight spoke up, pointing over her shoulder, “Derpy should just about be done with her.”

Applejack followed her indicating hoof, and bore witness to what was going on behind her.

A whole group of changelings stood backstage – at least six, mingling amongst pony actors and actresses. As the group of friends turned, they just caught sight of Fluttershy’s yellow coat off to one side, away from the main gathering point. Standing in front of her was a smiling changeling, who seemed to be trying to placate her.

“Okay, Miss Fluttershy,” said the drone mare enthusiastically and with a big smile, “here we go! Just a liiittle boop aaaand…”

Fluttershy held perfectly still – perfectly. She didn’t even blink. She may have even stopped breathing.

The drone leaned forward, then carefully prodded her on the forehead with the underside of her jagged black horn, in order to keep the sharp end from pricking her. “Boop!”

A soft green glow spread over her body – not fire at all, but more like an aurora dancing over her coat, nose to tail tip.

A brief flash, and the light dissipated, seeping into her skin. And lo and behold, there was another changeling queen walking around Canterlot.

Fluttershy looked down at herself, taking in her black forelegs riddled with holes and her now-canary yellow mane. Her eyes were wide, equal parts astonished, amazed, and a little frightened. She even backpedaled a few steps before it sunk in that those hooves were her own.

“All done!” said the drone happily, utterly oblivious to Fluttershy’s panic. “That wasn’t so bad, right?”

Fluttershy blinked rapidly a few times, spinning in circles like a puppy chasing its tail. She then stopped, blinked again, and gave the beaming changeling a sheepish grin. “N-no, it actually wasn’t. Um… thank you.”

“Yeah,” shouted Rainbow, causing both of them to turn in her direction, “thanks a lot, Derpy! We couldn’t have done it without you!”

The drone turned and gave her a smile so sunny it was almost blinding to look directly at. “You’re welcome! Do you need help with anythi—”

“No! W-we’ve got everything else under control, thanks. Just… don’t touch anything.”

Derpy just smiled, and took a seat right where she was standing. For some reason, that made Rainbow tense with a hiss, and sigh when nothing further happened.

Applejack looked on, amazed despite herself. “Ah still have no idea how ya knew changelin’s could do that,” she said. “Ah didn’t even know that! Not that that’s sayin’ much, mind you, but still.”

“Well,” Twilight mumbled, fidgeting. “I kinda had help figuring it out. I actually thought only parents knew how to do it, and I only knew of one changeling mother… but it looks like a lot more knew about it than I’d thought. Which is a good thing! I don’t think Derpy alone could’ve changed everypony quick enough.”

Around the room, other changelings were helping extras get changed into proper forms. Some seemed hesitant to put themselves under the horns of the savage-looking creatures, but most seemed to relax immediately after they opened their eyes and found themselves sporting new looks. Some were even teasing one another, or running their tongues over their sharpened teeth, or staring wide-eyed at themselves in the mirror.

Applejack didn’t know what Twilight had said to convince the rest of the cast so easily. The moment she’d presented the idea, most had pretty much jumped at the chance. But she still couldn’t help but feel the absence of Verily, which worried her considerably. Either she was so livid that she couldn’t stand to see them right now, or she was up to something even more disquieting.

Applejack glanced over all of this, then turned her eyes back towards Twilight. She was grinning as she watched Fluttershy hastily don her armor and oversized helmet. She had to work for a moment to balance it against the fake horn on her forehead; useless, but hardly immaterial, it seemed, like the magic had solidified into a very convincing costume.

“Come on, AJ; lighten up,” scoffed a raspy voice beside her. Applejack didn’t even give the ornery “changeling” the benefit of a glower.

Rainbow was standing on her other side, looking like the most laid back pony-bug-thing in the entire room. “You’ve been all gloom and doom for a while now. What’s the big deal? Twilight seems to think it’ll work, and she has a pretty good track record with her plans. Uh, not counting recent ones, of course.”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Sugarcube, y’all know full well why Ah’m anxious about everypony disguisin' themselves as changelin’s. We ain’t exactly popular right now.”

“Yeah,” Rainbow drawled, “but that’s because they haven’t gotten a load of me yet!”

“Oh good gravy…”

She felt something nudge her shoulder – something she didn’t immediately realize was Rainbow, simply because of the chitin-on-chitin contact.

“You heard them just now, AJ. They like us, really! Those weren’t just changelings cheering out there, you know. When you go out there, you’ll see. Trust me. Just… trust me, okay? I know this will turn out great. And that nothing we say will convince you either way, but… I know, once you see for yourself, you’ll figure it out. Just try not to pull a Fluttershy and tune them out, okay?”

It was hard to tell who was more put out by Rainbow’s careless comment; Applejack or Fluttershy herself.

“Speaking of Flutters,” Rainbow suddenly added, her eyes turning onto her acting partner, “we better go get into our positions. We’re up next!”

Fluttershy’s expression went from mild annoyance to startled terror in record speed. “N-now?” she asked, gossamer wings buzzing frightfully. “B-but I still need to –”

“Yes, now!” snickered Rainbow, grabbed her friend around the neck, and hauled her off before another word of complaint could be uttered. “Can’t keep our audience waiting!”

Applejack watched her go, frowning. What exactly had she meant?


Even as the curtains came up and Spike’s narrative filled the hall, the audience was anything but quiet. They weren’t loud or obnoxious, but there was a definite drone in the air of whispers and speculation.

In her balcony seat, Princess Celestia couldn’t help but ponder what was going to happen next as Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy – both resembling changelings to the letter – appeared on stage amid set pieces of clouds and pegasi architecture.

Again, aside from their appearances, nothing was out of place. Rainbow Dash’s depiction of Commander Hurricane was almost scarily authentic, and even Fluttershy’s timidness did credit to her portrayal. No lines were out of place, nor were their actions. It was all the Hearth’s Warming pageant, through and through.

So, Celestia couldn’t help but wonder; was this the extent of Twilight’s little stunt… or was there still more to come? She knew her protégé well, and this scheme of hers seemed just a little too… simplistic.

She couldn’t help but smile to herself, feeling oddly younger than she had in a long time. The mystery of it all was so very captivating!

The ponies she was sharing the balcony with were hardly so enchanted. Celestia soundly ignored their grumbles of discontent and disappointment.

“Has Vermillion completely lost control of this pageant?” they would say. “Just what kind of stunt is she trying to pull?”

“It’s tragic… simply tragic…” somepony would respond.

And yet, not everypony was complaining. Some, Celestia noticed, were quietly watching, sipping glasses of wine, a glimmer of amusement in their eyes. Not mocking or derisive, but genuine in nature.

At least some ponies weren’t so cooped up in tradition.

Celestia had become so embroiled in pony-watching that she didn’t notice when the curtains shuffled closed again, though the lights stayed on. Commander Hurricane’s and Private Pansy’s scene was over. And that meant next was…

“Excuse me… pardon me…”

Celestia cocked her head. That hadn’t been a grumpy aristocrat airing grievances.

She turned her head, and smiled at the newcomer bustling along the row, headed for a seat at her other side.

“Sorry for being so late,” said Princess Cadance, giving Celestia a sheepish look of apology. “Something came up that I couldn’t put off… Have I missed anything?”

Celestia had started to say something placating… until she said those last four harmless words. Then she caught herself.

“…What?” asked Cadance, suddenly cautious. She knew that look. Even Luna was looking at her with a twinkle of mirth.

“Have a seat,” Celestia said. “You’ll see soon enough.”

Cadance blinked, then sat down… just as the lights on the stage bloomed to life once again, and the hall went silent, the air charged with anticipation.

“Is Twilight up to something?” Cadance asked in an undertone.

Celestia chuckled knowingly. “Oh Cadance… you really have no idea.”

Confusion crossed Cadance’s face, just as the curtains lifted once more.

The set had changed drastically. The clouds, cumulus columns and pegasi statues were all gone. Instead, the inside of a castle hall appeared before the spectators, complete with bannisters and a set of double doors flung open wide, letting in a bitter draft of snow flakes and icy wind.

And that was when Rarity came stumbling in over the threshold, looking about ready to faint from her terrible ordeal.

And all Cadance could do was stare, hard. “I-i-is th-that…?”

“Wait for it,” purred Celestia knowingly.

‘Princess Platinum stumbled woozily into the castle’s interior, took a few more steps, and then propped herself up against the door. “Clover the Clever!” she whined, “I need you!”

And in trotted ‘Clover the Clever’. Minus a coat of fur, and a smile deprived of pointed fangs, of course.

Even with her hooded cloak, everypony could see the mare underneath, and she was definitely not a pony.

While the shock had lost most of its wow-factor with Celestia, poor Cadance looked like she was on the verge of a heart attack.

“I-is that…?”

“I do believe it is,” Celestia chuckled.

“But how did she…? Why is she…? Oh… dear. If Shiny sees this…”

“T-Twily?!” cried a distant voice.

“Too late,” chimed in Luna.

Celestia had to work rather hard to keep her voice down after that. Oh she was not going to forget this pageant for a very, very long time.


The lights were going down for the third time as Applejack stood apprehensively off to one side of the stage, trying very hard to quell the butterflies in her chest. Last year it hadn’t been that big of a deal; just go out, play her part, and try to keep up with Pinkie Pie.

But last year, she’d been a pony as far as everypony was concerned. This year… She looked down at herself – her undisguised self. Every soul in Canterlot would be looking at it soon enough – hundreds of eyes, scrutinizing the thing that, up until recently, had been her most closely guarded, most private of secrets.

Ponies in small groups, she could handle staring at her. But a whole audience who had nothing to look at but her? Applejack wasn’t normally one for stage fright, but at that moment, she suddenly had a whole new level of sympathy for Fluttershy.

Stagehands were hastily pushing set pieces off of the stage; a castle wall whisked past her without a sound. At the same time, a mare pushed a familiar chimney prop past her, moving way too fast for Applejack’s liking.

The table was next, and the double doors…

Applejack just focused on her breathing, but her legs weren’t moving. Every possible bad outcome whipped through her head, tormenting her like her own pack of Windigos.

Just… trust me…

Applejack steadied herself. She gritted her teeth. What was the matter with her? Was she really just some timid little filly? She’d stared down manticores, invading armies, even a demi-god. And now a couple ordinary ponies were going to scare her stiff?

She took a deep breath, stood up straight, and feeling like she was throwing herself off a cliff, she lifted one of her forelegs… and stepped forward.

The curtains were still drawn. There were no lights, save for the glow of unicorn horns from the stage crew. But she knew where she needed to be.

Applejack quickly and silently crept up to the far side of the stage, towards the double doors. There was no mark on the floor, but she remembered where she had to stand. At the moment, it was the only thing consuming her thought process.

Get in position… okay, good. Now breathe, cowgirl. Get those nerves under control. Y’all know these lines by heart. Just… just focus on Pinkie Pie and everythin’ will be just peachy.

The music was starting up, ramping up her pulse all over again. There would be no narrative to stall for time; as soon as the curtains went up, she’d be under the spotlight.

Applejack heard the scuffle of hooves above her – Pinkie Pie preparing to drop down the chimney.

The curtains rose – where were the lights? – and gradually, the lamps brightened once more.

Applejack could feel them. Hundreds upon hundreds of eyes, staring straight at her only recently exposed secret. Up until then it hadn’t been that big of a deal, but now… now it was.

In a way, she almost wished the crowd started whispering at the mere sight of her. But instead, everypony was dead silent. And somehow, that was worse.

Just trust me…

Ponyfeathers… y’all better have been on ta somethin’ this time, Rainbow…

In a way, Applejack’s moment of petrification aided her. She was so gripped by stage fright that she didn’t move an inch, no matter how much the morbidly curious part of her tried to twist her head around to meet the eyes boring holes in her side. She stayed perfectly motionless, and apparently watching the double doors expectantly.

Right up until Pinkie Pie came crashing down the chimney in a puff of soot and smoke.

Applejack jumped and turned around – momentarily forgetting where she was. But when she saw Pinkie’s pudding-hat emerge through the settling cloud, she remembered.


She raised a hoof, pointing at the door.

“Wouldn’t… it have been easier ta use the door, chancellor?” she said.

She cursed under her breath. Hopefully she’d played off that moment of hesitation as surprise, given ‘Chancellor Pudding Head’s’ unorthodox entry.

Something murmured in her ears. Voices – nearby voices, undoubtedly spawned from her behavior. No, she couldn’t pay them any mind – stay on task. Focus. If her concentration wavered, even a little bit, things were going to end poorly. She just knew it.

Pinkie, for her part, didn’t miss a beat. She turned her chitinous nose up, the picture of haughtiness. “Maybe for you, Smart Cookie,” she recited in an infuriatingly knowing manner, “But I’m the Chancellor! I was elected because I think outside the box, which means…” She took two steps back and shoved her head up into her impromptu entryway. “I can think inside the chimney! Can you think inside the chimney?”

It wasn’t that Pinkie was acting in character. Pinkie was acting like… well, Pinkie. It was for that reason that Applejack could focus on her, her line practically off the cuff. “er…”

“I didn’t think so,” ‘Queen’ Pinkie said smugly as she strode on by. She didn’t even care about the coating of soot plastered across her face.

As Pinkie walked by, Applejack turned to follow her, with her usual incredulous expression. But her eyes didn’t stay on Pinkie for long.

A yawning darkness beyond caught her attention – a cavernous hall filled with eyes. Lots and lots of eyes, all watching her.

So many ponies, all staring at her, expectant, scrutinizing. She couldn’t see them all, but she could make out the gleams off of eyes cast back at her from the stage, again and again off of a thousand judgmental eyes. Her mind’s eye, cruel as it was, was only too happy to fill in the blanks left by the shadows.

She could feel the breath catching in her lungs, her legs locking up. She should be better than this, but no amount of willpower would overcome it.

And then, just as the those eyes started to bear down on her, she noticed them.

At least two hundred more eyes – glowing blue, blinking and watching keenly. Applejack could only clearly make out the first two rows – that was as far as the lights from the stage could go. But each drone was watching her. Some were leaning forward, some looked like they hadn’t blinked in ages.

Some barely restrained smiles as they noticed her eyes flick in their direction. To them, she wasn’t strange. She was normal. Special in a way, true, but not strange. It was that, and that alone, that kept her in check.

And there were others – an old green shadow, a great red shape, a filly wearing a bow…

All of this seemed to pass under Applejack’s scrutiny within an hour. But in actuality, it happened within moments. Time only sped back up when Pinkie abruptly came to a stop, her eyes flying open wide in revelation.

“Oh my gosh…” she said, whipping her head to the side so fast it flung the grime from her face, “Hold on to your hooves! I’m just about to be brilliant!”


Everything restarted. She noticed the rapid thumping of her heart, the terrified jitter in her veins throbbing heat through her body.

Applejack remembered where she was, and time started up again. “That’d be a first,” she grumbled to herself in a private aside. The shake in her voice didn’t even vocalize beyond Applejack’s ears. She was proud of how steady she was holding herself up, but on the inside, it felt like she’d just gone through an earthquake.

And then she heard it. That sound again – voices hissing and sizzling in her ears. But they weren’t forming words… they were forming sounds.

Laughter… they were laughing. Not harshly, not scornfully. Humorously.

The sound didn’t come from just one side of the room or the other, either. Changelings alone weren’t responsible, but neither were ponies. Granted, the changelings in the room seemed a lot more mortified, but not all of them could keep their voices down.

Fillies giggled. Adults chuckled while struggling to stay quiet. It all united as a drone buzzing in Applejack’s ears.

Pinkie paused, letting the crowd have their laugh. Applejack noticed the unusual lag, and discretely glanced in her direction.

A pink, double-ringed eye was looking back at her with a look that so clearly said “See? Told you so”. Nopony else could have noticed – not that or the wink – as she turned back around, slipping back into character as easy as turning on a light-bulb.

“I have decided that the earth ponies are going to go it alone!” she declared, like she’d just come up with the greatest, brightest idea ever conceived by ponykind.

Applejack bent her expression into one of deep concern, like she’d practiced. She delivered her following line, like she’d practiced. And at the same time, she did everything she could to keep her attention riveted on the theatre and Pinkie… and not the countless ponies watching her with captivated interest. Not just changelings… ponies.

And above all, she struggled not to feel as discombobulated as she felt.


The act seemed to drag on and on, but eventually the curtains fell and the stage was swallowed by safe darkness.

But even as Applejack was hastening to get off the stage, a sound gave her pause.

The audience was applauding again – louder than before. Even through the curtains, Applejack could hear it linger in the air. It wasn’t just brave individuals airing their opinions anymore… there were too many involved for that at this point.

Applejack realized she’d been standing still on the set after Pinkie bounded up to her. “Soooo?” she asked, rotating her head impossibly far to one side.

Applejack looked at her, blinked, then said quietly, “They’re… applaudin’ us.”


“They’re applaudin’ changelin’s.”


Applejack frowned up at the insides of the curtains. “And… Ah’m startin’ ta think that Roseluck… might have been on ta somethin’… Maybe Ah have been a little too… narrow-minded about ponies lately.”

She chuckled humorlessly to herself once. “Heh… go figure… bein’ narrow-minded around narrow-minded ponies.”

Pinkie looked at her, smiling. “Well duh!” she said, earning her a look from Applejack. “We all have things we don’t want anypony to know, and when they do know, all we look for is how badly they take it! I mean, if anypony found out my Super Duper Deluxe Cupcake Special Mark Eight was actually just a blueberry muffin with two layers of frosting, I’d just DIE!”

Applejack blinked at her, expression blank.

“So, it’s sorta like what you’re going through,” Pinkie finished, still obliviously grinning. “Minus one or two little things. But if you only look for the bad stuff, you’ll only see the bad stuff and miss all the good stuff! Twilight didn’t see it before, but now she’s trying to. So now it’s your turn!”

With that, she went bouncing away, once, twice… only to quickly spring back to where she’d been standing, still smiling bright as ever. “And if you tell anypony about my Super Duper Deluxe Cupcake Special Mark Eight, I’ll shave you bald in your sleep!” And with that, she went on her merry way, humming a carol to herself while Applejack watched her go with an incredulous expression.


Applejack trotted off the stage just as the stagehands went to work again, preparing for a three-way scene; the second to last of the night.

She moved automatically, dodging ponies but bumping into one or two of them as she went. She was only on autopilot, her mind a million miles away.

Her mind was abuzz. On most occasions, that wasn’t really a good thing, because it inevitably led to a long bout of stewing and running around in mental circles. It was all about as helpful as it sounded.

But when it did find something constructive to do, it would not be ignored. This was one of those moments.

Thoughts swirled through her head – some intelligible, some not. Some were just noise whenever her train of thought got too hectic.

The only thing that drew her out of her stupor was the sight of five familiar faces – distorted somewhat by enchantment, borderline unrecognizable, but far from unfamiliar.

Applejack paused, her eyes finally taking in what was in front of her properly. She found them all in front of her, looking at her… and smiling slightly.

For a good long while, no one said anything. No one seemed to know what to say, nor what needed to be said.

The whole time, Applejack kept hearing the echo in her head – the applause, the laughter and giggles… all given to her, a changeling.

At last, Twilight took a step forward, drawing Applejack’s attention. “Um… I know it’s not much. And I know it’s kind of strange to go through all of this, but…”

“No… no, Ah get it.”

Twilight blinked at her gentle smile.

“Ah guess… Ah guess Ah’m just not used ta lettin’ ponies see me like this,” she said as she diverted her eyes. “Or… listenin’ ta what they think of me.”

Twilight stepped forward a little closer. “And… we’re not used to seeing you like this, either,” she said. “I’m… kind of a case in point.”

Applejack glanced up at Twilight. For a second, she took in her strange appearance, and couldn’t help but see where she was coming from. If their places had been reversed, would anything be any different? True, Twilight would probably be a better fit for the title of queen than her, but that wasn’t the issue, was it?

Twilight’s voice drew her back to reality. “Hearth’s Warming Eve is about how the three tribes came together and overcame their differences,” she said. “It’s not just about how Equestria was made. It’s how we all learned to see each other not for our differences, but our similarities. With things the way they are between ponies and changelings right now, it wouldn’t hurt to remind everypony about what brought us all together in the first place. And… and that who we are isn’t skin deep.”

Applejack didn’t know what to say to that. None of the rest of their friends seemed to, either.

Twilight’s eyes flicked down to the ground – pensive, and a little reserved for a moment – before returning to Applejack. “I’m going to keep trying, Applejack. I can’t promise I’ll change overnight, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to give up. Even if it takes me months to… to see past what you are, I just want you to know that no matter what, I will always want to be your friend.”

“Us, too!” chimed in Pinkie Pie, bounding forward, sunny smile on her face as she bounced in place. All she was missing was some buzzing from her wings to be the picture of a gleeful changeling, but they of course stayed lifelessly at her sides.

“It should go without saying,” Rarity said, giving an elegant flip of her silvery mane and pretending quite convincingly not to pay attention to the rampant holes riddling it now.

Only one pony present didn’t say anything as she sidled up beside Applejack. Yet Applejack didn’t need to see her to know who it was.

Of course, while she was content with that, her other friends weren’t. Each gave Rainbow a look – Rarity arched an eyebrow meaningfully, Pinkie stared, Twilight tried not to scowl, Fluttershy discretely bobbed her head in Applejack’s direction.

All the got, though, was a scowl in return. “Hey, I broke my wing for her already. Pretty sure that counts for a hundred apologies, easy.”

The rest of her friends rolled their eyes in response. They were all so busy showering Rainbow with their disapproval that they didn’t notice Applejack still standing motionlessly in the same spot, wishing desperately for a Stetson to hide behind while she rearranged her outward appearance.

“Twilight,” she said, and suddenly all attention was back on her.

A simple smile was on her face. Not a forced one, not a careful one, or even a calculated one. There was no guard behind it, no divide between what she was showing and how open she really was being. It was just a smile, simple and honest. It didn’t even look strange with those accenting fangs and chitin.

“As long as y’all don’t give up on me,” she said, “Ah ain’t ever gonna give up on you. Y’all saw me for what Ah really was – saw this – but ya still stuck up for me, against yer own brother and the princess, no less!”

She took a step forward, towards a blinking Twilight. “Ah may lose my temper now and again, but… Ah ain’t ever gonna hate ya. So long as y’all keep your word, Ah’ll always meet ya halfway.”

Applejack flashed a grin at her. “That’s a promise.”

For one moment, Twilight just stared at her, expression blank. Then, for a more terrible moment, Applejack thought Twilight was going to burst into tears.

Her transmogrified eyes grew alarmingly misty, her lips pursing together. But before she could really start falling apart, Twilight unexpectedly lunged forward and caught her around the neck in a tight, slightly tremulous hug.

“Thanks, Applejack,” she mumbled into the side of her neck.

Applejack paused, then put a hoof around her shoulders. “No… thank you, sugarcube.”

Five ponies on all sides started making awing and giggling sounds as they closed in around the reconciling pair. But, just for a moment before the hug turned social, Applejack basked in the warm feeling in her heart, the strength surging through her legs and body, and the ones responsible for no small part of it all.


For the first time in countless ages, Princess Celestia could safely and wholeheartedly say she was enjoying the Hearth’s Warming pageant.

Not that she’d never garnered some level of it in the past; far from it. She was hardly that critical of a pony. But one could only watch the same old thing so many times before it becomes somewhat… dull? Predictable? Expected, perhaps. Yes, it had all become very expected. Muscle memory, practically. Ponies in Canterlot were always loathe to let things change, especially when it came to tradition.

She’d been around when the pageant was first conceptualized to pay homage to a time before even her. But after well over a thousand years, the play had begun to feel like hardly more than a motion she had to go through every winter; routine. Tradition might be a kinder way to put it.

But this year… she’d figured the surprises had all come and gone. Between discovering changelings, the attack, and admitting a new demographic into Equestria, the year had already been jam-packed with twists and turns.

Now this was simply the cherry atop the cake of unexpected events.

As she watched the rest of the pageant unfold and heard the reactions of the crowd, she knew that not all of her ponies were stubborn as mules. The laughter birthed when Commander Hurricane unceremoniously dropped Private Pansy out of her arms – when Princess Platinum forced Clover the Clever to ‘carry’ her across a trickling stream – when Chancellor Pudding Head stuck the map to Smart Cookie’s face – all of it was proof of the true nature of ponies and their kind hearts.

The ponies seated around her didn’t seem to share in the same opinion, of course, but she continued to pay them no mind. They would grumble and groan and completely miss the point of it all, and tomorrow they’d undoubtedly flood her inbox with outrages and heartfelt apologies, as if they knew her mind. There would be petitions, bickering, and a few political pouting sessions, but all in all, she knew she could bear the brunt of it.

But for the time being, she sat on her cushioned chair, and continued her new favorite game; trying to predict what would happen next. Surely Twilight wasn’t completely out of tricks yet.

On her one side, Princess Luna, ever the dedicated one, maintained a façade of regal composure, though her sister knew her well enough to see the glimmer of attentiveness in the back of her eyes. She was getting a kick out of this almost as much as she was.

Cadance had gotten over a significant portion of her shock at seeing a changeling version of her favorite sister-in-law. She still seemed out of sorts, and just one look told Celestia that she was still trying to grapple with the mechanics of what she was bearing witness to.

Shining Armor had had to be rushed from the Great Hall, if only to save himself the indignity of being the only Captain of the Guard to faint during the Hearth’s Warming pageant.

But it wasn’t until Applejack had appeared on stage that things suddenly seemed to make sense to Cadance, at least. The dumbfounded expression on her face slipped away, and a look of comprehension took its place, muddled though it was behind a cloud of perplexion.

“Are you starting to catch on?” Celestia asked.

Cadance jumped ever so slightly, glanced towards her, and nodded. “I… I think so,” she said mutely. “All of this… it’s for Applejack, isn’t it?”

Celestia smiled. “If I had to guess, I would say it is,” she said, turning back to look at the stage. “She blends in quite nicely with the rest of her friends, don’t you think?”

Cadance nodded numbly. “She does. She barely looks out of place anymore.”

Celestia looked out over the heads of ponies and changelings alike. “Doesn’t she?”

For the first time in half an hour, Cadance tore her eyes away from the play and turned a concerned pair of eyes onto Celestia. “I hope she realizes this won’t stop at just Applejack,” she said. “Something like this… changing the pageant to this degree… there’s going to be some backlash.”

Celestia seemed to consider that for a moment while, on stage, six ponies fled a vaguely pony-shaped apparition, its conjurer hidden behind the stage left curtains.

The crowd gasped as enchanted snow flurried over their heads, dissolving into particles of light before it touched anypony or anyone, despite a few fillies and colts reaching up to bat at them.

“Equestria has a long way to go,” Celestia said at last. “Though, maybe not as much as some ponies think.”

Cadance looked at her searchingly.

“There are wounds that need to be healed,” Celestia went on. “Captain Shining Armor and yourself should know this better than anypony. But ponies are not spiteful by nature. Sooner or later, these growing pains will subside. They have before. I think this is an important step, even if just a small one, whether Twilight intended it to be or not.”

Cadance looked at her questioningly. “Why wouldn’t she?”

Celestia smiled as the curtains came up, revealing the inside of a cave and three groups of confrontational changelings squaring off.

“She has a long way to go yet,” Celestia said, almost to herself. “But she has made considerable strides. Someday… yes, someday, she will begin to see how far her actions will take her, step by step.”

Hardly any of Cadance’s confusion had alleviated. But before she could question the cryptic alicorn further, an eruption of light bathed the hall.

Ponies all around gasped – even some of those grumpy nobles intent on having the worst time possible. All eyes turned back to the stage as something burst forth into the air above – a gigantic pink heart, roiling with tongues of magical fire and surging with a real heat that washed over the front rows.

It arose off of one small horn… a lavender horn.

As the light began to subside, the crowd looked on in awe as the fire of friendship illuminated the three figures standing together in the center of the stage; not three strange-looking changelings, but a unicorn, a pegasus, and a queen, all looking stunned by their change of fortune.

‘Clover the Clever’ stood as herself once more – purple coat, the brighter stripe in her mane immediately visible to Celestia and those on the balcony, no matter the distance. And nopony could have missed ‘Private Pansy’s' suddenly yellow coat.

Only ‘Smart Cookie’ remained unchanged, her black hide and brilliant amber mane and eyes immediately sticking out spectacularly.

But she didn’t seem to notice.

Even with every eye in the room on her – some scrutinizing and judgmental – she paid them little heed. She just stared up at the heart-shaped fire overhead. Then, she looked down, exchanging a look with ‘Pansy’ and ‘Clover’.

“What was that?” asked ‘Pansy’ in her diminutive voice. Not once did she look at herself, as if she hadn’t even noticed her transformation back.

“Ah didn’t know unicorns could do that.” ‘Smart Cookie’ put in, sounding awed.

‘Clover’ shook her head, eyes turned up as well. “I… didn’t either. Nothing like this has ever happened before.”

Then, she looked down, taking in the pony and changeling in front of her as if seeing them for the first time. “But I know it couldn’t have been just me. It came from all three of us.” Her eyes intentionally turned towards ‘Smart Cookie’ then. “Joined together in friendship.”

Far on the other side of the room, up above in the balcony, Princess Luna leaned in against her sister. “Perhaps you weren’t giving her enough credit, dear sister,” she whispered.

Celestia blinked as the narrative wound down. The curtains fell, and the Great Hall was filled to the brim with enthusiastic applause.