• Published 31st Jul 2013
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The Advent of Applejack - Mister Friendly



Applejack has yet to truly know what it means to be a changeling...

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Chapter 2: Preparations

Chapter 2: Preparations

It’d been fortunate enough that Twilight hadn’t been snuggled down in bed long enough to make her cranky when somepony started knocking urgently on her bedroom doors.

So she may have magically opened one of the double doors just a wee bit harder than what was called for. As in, she hit the door with such a telekinetic shove that it smashed against the wall hard enough to crack the crystalline surface.

It was only by chance that Applejack had been rapping her hoof on the other of the two sides of the door. Of course, she stopped the moment she witnessed what fate had just befallen the other half.

The moment Twilight laid eyes on the amber-maned black figure of her friend, however, her understandable irritation immediately receded. “Applejack? Is something wrong?”

“Uh…,” was the changeling’s response, still eying the door Twilight had flung open wide. “Is… now a bad time?”

Any other time, and Twilight might’ve answered in the affirmative. But the look on Applejack’s face hinted at something very urgent indeed.

“Not if it’s something of an emergency,” Twilight prompted. True, some of her irritation put an edge to some of her words, but she could see it in the amber eyes of the changeling in front of her; an emergency very well could’ve been the case

As Twilight looked her friend over, she couldn’t help but notice something strange balanced on her back; a small, slightly grubby-looking cardboard box. “And… what’s that?” she couldn’t help but ask.

Applejack glanced back for a moment, then pursed her lips. “The reason why Ah’m here.”

~~***~~

Both mares sat across from each other in plush chairs, their eyes centered on the suddenly foreboding object sitting silently on the glass coffee table between them. The only sound between them – and the grandfather clock ticking away in the corner – was the occasional anxious buzz of Applejack’s gossamer wings.

“And that’s all he said?” Twilight inquired. Her voice was calm, yet analytical. Though she’d started to panic a bit when Applejack told her about the intruder and his mentioning of angering the other changeling queens, she’d immediately been drawn to the mystery of the parcel he left behind. Now, sleep was the furthest thing from her mind.

“Yep,” Applejack responded, not nearly as intrigued as she was worried. She’d become accustomed to some of the behaviors of changelings over the past few months, especially the ones from the wilds to the south of Equestria; their predisposition towards servitude and trying to please their queen – namely her, now. That was taking some doing to iron out, but it was improving. But this caused her to wonder if it was going over as well as she’d thought…

“So, the message is in the box?” Twilight inquired, a hoof on her chin.

“Ah guess,” Applejack grunted. “Haven’t look inside just yet. Thought ya’d want a crack at it first.”

If there was a pony out there more capable of discerning any sort of magical booby-trap, Twilight was at the top of Applejack’s list.

Twilight frowned, continuing to run one hoof under her chin absently, her eyes fixed on her latest puzzle. “Well, the box doesn’t really look all that airtight, so I doubt it’s filled with some sort of poison.”

Applejack had never even thought about that. Just another reason she felt reassured in coming to Twilight first.

“But,” Twilight went on, “if it’s changeling magic, I don’t know what all I can do.”

They had all learned early on that changeling magic wasn’t quite like the brand wielded by unicorns. It was similar, yet abstract enough to resist most forms of unicorn probing and countering. Even with the other changelings in Ponyville to help shed some light on the subject, the simple truth was that the very nature of their magic wasn’t something so easily overcome.

When Twilight caught sight of Applejack biting her lip, she couldn’t help but pause, then hastily add, “but, at the very least, I can find out if it has a spell on it.”

That was true, Applejack realized. Recognizing changeling magic was much different than countering it.

The pair of them lapsed into silence for a time after that. Applejack waited for Twilight to finish thinking while the lavender alicorn continued to puzzle in silence, her wings ruffling every so often.

“Well,” Twilight said, immediately gaining Applejack’s undivided attention, “I guess there’s only one thing to do.”

Applejack braced herself when she saw the violet shimmer of light envelope Twilight’s horn. She watched apprehensively as the box was wrapped in a similar sheen of magic, the apple farmer’s breath catching.

But nothing happened. At least, not visually. Twilight closed her eyes, and for the next few minutes, her face would occasionally twitch every now and then, the slightest crease of a frown popping up from time to time only to nearly instantaneously smooth out again.

The fact that it took so long only worried Applejack still further. Magic may not be her forte, but she could tell that Twilight had found something; something that seemed to be confusing her.

And yet, after ten minutes, the only explanation she got came when Twilight’s eyes opened again, her brows knitting together for real now as she said perhaps the most anticlimactic thing Applejack had ever heard.

“Huh.”

Applejack waited for a little bit for any further explanation, but Twilight only seemed more puzzled than ever.

“Did ya find anythin’?” Applejack prompted, trying to keep her impatience in check. It didn’t really work, judging by the slightly sheepish look Twilight gave her.

“Well… yes, but… I don’t know…,” Twilight muttered. “There’s something in there, no doubt about it. But it’s so weak…”

Twilight glanced up at Applejack, and the two looked at each other for a bit. “Well, I guess there’s really only one thing left to do,” Twilight said quietly.

If Applejack had been tense before, it was nothing to what she was after that. But she only nodded to Twilight, muscles keyed.

Twilight gulped, then very carefully, she lit her horn, sliced the sealing tape… and threw the top open wide.

Immediately both mares dove to the side, hitting the ground as fast as they possible could and threw both hooves over their heads protectively.

The silence in the room seemed to bear down on them, punctuated every so often by a soft tick… tock…

After almost ten ticks of the clock, Twilight nosed her muzzle up over the edge of the table, big eyes fixed on the grubby little box still sitting innocently in the center of the table.

“Well… that went well,” she noted, sitting up as Applejack peeked her head up as well.

The box still sat in the same spot, totally unchanged, save for the flaps thrown open wide on the top… and a dull bottle green light smoldering from within.

Again, both mares exchanged a look, and then Twilight lit her horn once more, reached out her magic into the box before her, and gingerly hefted the object within into the air.

Out of the box rose a perfectly round, peerlessly smooth ball the size of a melon. It looked to be made of flawless glass, or perhaps some kind of gemstone. Its interior was cloudy and marbled with innumerable shards of colorful imperfections. And at its heart glowed an otherworldly, eerie light that seemed to dully flicker like a muddled candle.

The moment it entered the open air, something caught Applejack’s attention. Something hissed through the air all around her, like the distant sound of somepony’s voice…

“Do y’all hear that?” she asked quietly, eyes locked on the strange object.

“Hear what?” Twilight asked, ears pricking up.

Again, Applejack heard the sound, louder now. It was still too distant to make out anything besides inconsistency, but there was something there… muttering in the distance…

“Ah can hear somepony,” Applejack muttered, leaning in closer, eyes narrowing.

She heard a sharp gasp, and suddenly the glassy orb was thrust back into its box, disappearing from sight. Before Applejack had time to process what’d happened, the flaps on top were slammed shut and the tape knitted back together.

The next thing Applejack knew, Twilight was – for some reason – apologizing to her. “I-I’m sorry, Applejack!” Twilight said hastily. “There must’ve been some sort of spell I couldn’t find! I should’ve been more thorough, or taken more precautions, or…”

“What in the wide world of Equestria are ya goin’ on about?” Applejack asked, baffled. “Nothin’ happened, did it?”

But Twilight continued to give her a look border-lining on panic. “But Applejack… I couldn’t hear anything.”

Applejack paused then, her chitin crawling. “Wait… what?”

“I couldn’t hear a thing,” Twilight repeated, her eyes wide. “Whatever you heard… it wasn’t a normal sound. It wasn’t a natural sound.”

Applejack’s heart thudded hard in her chest.

While she continued to reel, Twilight continued to weave spells over the seemingly harmless cardboard box, sealing it off under layer upon layer of protection.

With one last enchantment that glowed in the shape of a keyhole upon the box’s top, Twilight immediately turned her eyes back towards her friend, looking her up and down critically.

“We should get you checked out, just in case,” she said urgently. “I don’t really know what happened, but that was obviously magic meant only for a changeling – and probably just for you. We have to make sure you’re alright.”

Applejack nodded, only now her heart was lurching for a new reason. If the other changelings caught wind of this, it would kick up a panic for sure.

“But Ah feel fine,” she tried to argue, flapping her holey legs a little. “We’re just gonna make everyone worry back home.”

“I’m willing to take that risk if it means preventing something potentially serious happening to you,” Twilight said, quickly rising from her seat. “Now come on! There has to be a changeling around here somewhere to do a checkup on you. We’ll have this cleared up in no time, then I’ll have that… whatever that thing is checked out in greater detail.”

Applejack could only sigh and haul herself up. She knew it was pointless to resist, but deep down she wished she could.

Ah feel just fine. All this is gonna do is make Roseluck and the others worry… Dagnabit, it ain’t like it did anythin’ ta me anyway. What’s the big deal?

~~***~~

A few days later…

Applejack was thrown back into wakefulness hard enough to cause her to leap partway out of bed with a cry, forget what she was doing, and promptly slam face-first into the hard, unforgiving floor.

Certainly, it wasn’t her best morning.

Applejack took a moment to allow herself a groan, one leg twitching in the air. She’d at least fallen onto a nest of her bed’s sheets – cast off during the fitful night – but it only cushioned the blow so much.

She stayed in place for a couple moments, half on and half off her bed, staring off grumpily to one side across the room. She tried to cast the residual images from her sleep from her mind, both too agitated to deal with them and too anxious to face them anyway.

A nightmare… it was just a nightmare. Of course it was… my friends would never…

Applejack suppressed a shudder, but the longer she sat there, the more and more her dream slipped away, until all that remained was the terrible aches and pains in her chest and the thing that’d thrown her back into awareness; a familiar sight of endless acres and ordered rows of trees sprouting from rolling hills and fields, standing in defiance of the distant, untamed bulge of unchecked forest, standing dark and vast.

And farther still, deep within the shadowed woods, a light was radiating like a beacon – like a second sun…

The sight of that light had filled Applejack with a sense of dread far worse than anything before it. She didn’t want to go there. She didn’t want to know what it was…

Applejack shivered again. She had to find something else to put her mind to. She instead stared across her bedroom floor; across the familiar worn floorboards and to the bright green and yellow wallpaper lining the walls, punctuated at regular intervals by a big, red apple.

It’d been a few days since she’d returned from the Crystal Empire, yet it still felt like she hadn’t quite returned to her normal routine. Heck, not much of what’d once been her ‘normal routine’ existed anymore, but she’d at least grown used to her double life as a farm pony and changeling educator.

She left most of the heavy lifting to some of the more capable changelings in town, such as Roseluck, but every now and then Applejack herself had to be called in. It wasn’t backbreaking work in any degree, but it could be time-consuming at times.

It was only when she was called out of town for problems beyond her capability of even addressing that things started to get… complicated. And things hadn’t quite gone back to Applejack’s new normal since returning just yet, something she became all-too aware of after a few moments.

Birds were singing merry little tunes outside her bedroom window, but it still took Applejack a minute or two to realize that these were no roosters heralding a new day, and what that implied.

She’d overslept, and by quite a big margin, by the looks of things. The sunlight pouring in through her uncovered window had long-since shed the last trace of dawn, and now its golden rays filled the room top to bottom.

“Dagnabit,” she growled, springing upright and bolting for the door. She was never going to hear the end of this…

But when she reached the door and pushed one hoof against it, she immediately recoiled with a hiss.

An acute pang raced up from her hoof to her elbow, hitting her hard enough to make her reel back a bit. Confused – and a little accusing – Applejack looked down at the bottom of her hoof with a frown. But all her eyes found was the usual orange coat of fur, and as quickly as it'd come, the inexplicable pain was gone.

So, she tried again, only this time she shoved the door open without any difficulties whatsoever. She may have even overdone it a bit, considering she ended up knocking open the door so hard it banged loudly against the wall.

But that only gave Applejack more cause for concern, rather than alleviate what she already had. Only now she had suspicion to go along with it.

Don’t tell me…

~~***~~

As she’d thought, Applejack had slept in. The household was devoid of inhabitants – even Granny Smith was missing, probably making one of her rare trips into town for something or other. She tended to do that from time to time when she had something special in mind.

Unfortunately, it was Granny Smith herself whom Applejack wanted to talk to. For a moment, she considered pursuing the Apple family matriarch into Ponyville, but she only entertained the idea for a moment or two. She’d already lost too much time; she couldn’t put off tending to the apple-laden orchards any more, and going into town would only bog her down even more.

It can wait, she reassured herself, then made for the front door. Not like it’s gonna happen right this second.

Still, Applejack looked back at her hoof with another frown. But why now, after all this time?

She sighed – nothing she could do about it, after all – and instead headed for the door. There was still plenty of work to do; there’d be plenty of time to sort through other things later.

But it seemed that the current rhythm of her day wouldn’t be so easily changed. Applejack found that out the moment she pried open the front door and took only a solitary step over the threshold.

There was a pegasus waiting for her, likely having spotted the apple farmer from an open window. A few puffs of dust were still settling around her cyan hooves, but otherwise it looked like she could’ve been standing there all along.

The moment Applejack laid eyes on her, Rainbow Dash was already giving her an expectant look. She had a pair of flight goggles around her neck, and a conspicuous second pair gripped lightly in her mouth, which was curled up in a hopeful smile, her eyes gleaming brightly.

Just the sight of the eager pegasus drew Applejack up short, and then sigh. “Oh sugarcube, not this again…”

Rainbow, unfazed, spat out her spare pair of flight goggles onto the ground with a small “pleh”, her smile still in place. “Oh come on, Applejack!” she said. “At least hear me out.”

Applejack rolled her eyes, but decided to humor the ornery pegasus anyway. Not like she had much of a choice to begin with, but she decided to go with it regardless.

This had become something of a routine for the two of them. Every so often, Rainbow would turn up, bound and determined to teach Applejack how to fly.

But Applejack was having none of it. Besides having only used her wings once or twice in her life, she had very little ambition of getting more than a few feet off the ground again, especially after the last few airborne experiences she'd had – namely, the series of spectacular crashes.

But, ever since Rainbow’s wing had healed up after the battle with Vigil, she’d been just as determined to get her friend airborne as Applejack was determined to do otherwise.

So, the two friends headed off into the orchards, side by side, locked in a battle of wits. Sort of.

“Please?”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “RD, that’s gotta be the most unconvincing argument y’all have made so far.”

But that only made Rainbow perk up more. “So that means you were convinced by something I said?”

“Yep,” Applejack chuckled, “that yer nuttier than a fat squirrel’s winter food stash.”

Rainbow didn’t even pause in her attack. “Come on, AJ; don’t pretend like it wasn’t awesome to fly yourself. You know it was.”

Applejack rolled her eyes again. “Rainbow, the last time Ah flew, there was a tower fallin’ on me.”

“Yeah, but it was awesome, right?” Rainbow said, nudging her friend’s side knowingly.

Applejack raised her eyes to the sky in exasperation, but there was a good-natured smile on her face. “Sugarcube, are ya ever gonna give this up?”

“Nope,” Rainbow replied immediately, grinning smugly.

Applejack turned an eye on Rainbow then. “And what about Twi’? or Scootaloo fer that matter? Ah bet they’d love gettin’ some flyin’ lessons in with ya.”

Rainbow shrugged, waving a hoof. “Yeah, sure, but Twilight’s more interested in reading up on it first. Seriously, she had, like, all the books from my school in Cloudsdale. She’s going full egghead and it’s kinda starting to freak me out. And Scootaloo, well, she likes hanging out more than anything. She just keeps making me demonstrate moves over and over. I, heh, kinda get carried away and forget what I was doing.”

Applejack didn’t bother holding back a small chuckle at the mental image she got; Twilight, sitting on a blanket in a field, nose buried in some dusty old foal’s book with avid curiosity while a short ways away, Scootaloo watched the skyward form of Rainbow Dash doing loop-de-loops and corkscrews through the air as if the filly could see for the first time in her life.

“Anyway,” Rainbow went on casually, “none of them would be as awesome at it as you. I mean think about it; we race all the time your way. It’s about time we do it my way, too, and once I’m done with you, you may even stand a chance.”

Applejack chuckled again, shaking her head. “Rainbow, do me a favor and never take up bein’ a salespony.”

Rainbow gave her a confused look. She got the sneaking suspicion she was about to be insulted, but she couldn’t quite be sure. “Uh… why?”

“Yer terrible at givin’ sales pitches.”

While Rainbow frowned indignantly, Applejack couldn’t help laughing a little louder.

“Okay, how’s this as a sales pitch,” Rainbow shot. It was clear that she was incensed now. “Think about how handy it’ll be to reach all those annoying apples way up in the trees!”

Applejack didn’t say anything. Instead, she sidled up to a tree as they were about to pass it and, still smiling to herself, smacked one hind leg into it with confidence, ejecting every single apple from their branches and dumping them en mass into awaiting baskets huddling around the tree’s trunk.

She then just gave Rainbow a humorous look. “You were sayin’ somethin’?”

Rainbow frowned, which of course only spread Applejack’s smile wider. But the prismatic pegasus wasn’t quite so easily dissuaded. “Come on, AJ, just once? You might actually have fun, you know.”

Applejack slowed then, sighing softly through her nostrils. “Odds are. But it’ll have ta wait, anyway, so there's no point in arguing over it.”

Seeing the look Rainbow gave her, Applejack added – in a patient voice – “Ah don’t know if ya noticed, but Ah’ve got work ta do. It’s Applebuck season, so Ah can’t be takin’ all that much time off. It ain’t fair ta Macintosh. And then there’s the Summer Sun Celebration ta be worryin’ about…”

But Rainbow barely seemed to notice Applejack trailing off. She was too focused on something else, something far more important. “So you’ll try? You’ll go flying with me?”

AJ sighed. “Ah ain’t promisin’ anythin’, sugarcube. Ah got too much work ta think about before then. Once the harvest’s done… we’ll see.”

But Rainbow had heard what she wanted to hear. Her smile grew to almost Pinkie-levels, and there was a definite bounce in her step from then on while she suppressed a cheer.

Applejack noticed, but she kept her chuckle to herself. She didn’t want to admit it, but seeing the cyan mare in that kind of mood always drew a similar one out of herself, too. And at the moment, she needed it.

~~***~~

The two headed deeper into the verdant orchards, heading out towards the east at a decent clip. With Applejack in a hurry to catch up with her chores, and Rainbow easily keeping pace a few inches off the ground, they made good time.

The whole way, the two talked about little things – Rainbow’s latest stunt endeavors, the weather forecast and what it might mean for the orchards, and a number of little things of little importance. It was easy conversation, though, and Applejack found her heart all the lighter for it.

It wasn’t until they were almost to Applejack’s destination that Rainbow paused, her grin slipping somewhat.

“So,” the pegasus started slowly, “is everything alright? I mean, nothing’s bothering you, right?”

Applejack paused mid-step and looked at Rainbow curiously. Seeing the wordless question in her eyes, Rainbow went on with a shrug.

“You slept in today,” Rainbow said plainly, as if it wasn’t a big deal. “You never sleep in.”

Applejack’s smile wilted, and when she saw it, so did Rainbow’s. “I’m right?” she asked, suddenly realizing the potential was true. She’d only been trying to get the ball rolling, not make accurate predictions.

But Applejack remained quiet for a bit. She instead turned back to look down the rows of trees filled with dappled light trickling in through the dense overhead canopies.

For a moment, reluctance plagued Applejack, and Rainbow could see it plain as day on her face; the uncomfortable grimace, bordering on disgust. It was the same expression she’d worn the night Rainbow had found out the truth about the apple farmer.

Something squirmed inside Rainbow; something she didn’t like. The last time Applejack had looked like that, she’d looked so scared, so ashamed. So… alone.

Rainbow suddenly sped up a little, flapping her wings to get herself in front of Applejack and forcing her to a stop. “Okay, spill it,” she said firmly. “What’s up, Applejack?”

Applejack looked at her for a moment… and then glanced away, much to Rainbow’s surprise. “It’s… okay, it’s gonna sound pretty darn weird, understand?” Applejack muttered.

Rainbow just waited, perplexed. “Are we talking changeling weird? Cuz you know that stuff doesn’t really bother me, right?”

“Ah know, sugarcube, Ah know,” Applejack sighed heavily. That was the only reason she was considering confiding in her friend in the first place. “But… how do Ah say this…”

Rainbow waited patiently this time, cocking her head to one side while Applejack struggled to put together a good explanation.

“Ah think,” Applejack started very slowly, “And Ah know this is gonna sound mighty strange ta ya, but… Ah think Ah’m gonna… Ah mean, when Ah was a little filly, once or twice, Ah used ta…”

“Applejack!”

Both mares jumped nearly a foot in the air in surprise. Rainbow stayed there, her wings instinctively taking her weight as she hastily looked around, startled.

And there, buzzing over the treetops towards them, was something Rainbow was still trying to get used to seeing just flying around everywhere nowadays.

The changeling’s black silhouette contrasted quite spectacularly against the otherwise unblemished sapphire of the sky overhead, And for a time that was all both mares could see if the speaker. Only when it reached the top of the tree right beside them did her features become more apparent; the featureless blue eyes, the ivory-white fangs, the barely visible blur of her translucent, ragged wings buzzing through the air.

The first thing Applejack noticed, however, was the look of anxiety on the changeling’s face. “I-I’m really sorry for bothering you here Your—I mean, ma’am, er – Applejack, but we’ve got a problem!”

Applejack recognized the changeling’s behavior. It was a familiar panic so common amongst the queenless refugees from the southern wilds – the homeland of the changelings. Whenever something went wrong – and wrong enough to get Applejack involved – the immigrant drones always behaved as if their failure would be the end of them.

And it probably woulda been, if they were still followin’ that fiend Chrysalis and her court… Applejack thought soberly.

Of course, this was no new phenomenon to Applejack, even if it was one she didn’t like. By now, though, she’d experienced it enough to know how to deal with it somewhat.

“Whoa, there,” Applejack said, gesturing with one hoof in what she hoped was a placating manner. “Just calm down and take it slow. Take a couple breaths and start over.”

The drone nodded. She alighted on the ground a few feet away, still looking beyond nervous. “S-sorry, I…,” she took a few deep breaths, letting the last one out slowly. “I apologize for interrupting you during your own duties, but Miss Roseluck sent me asking for your help.”

“Alright,” Applejack said as gently as she could. She found that speaking to panicked drones as if they were scared foals always seemed to do the trick. “Did she say what the trouble was?”

The drone shook her head, wincing back a step as if expecting a harsh reprimand for neglecting to find out the particulars of her message. “She only said it was about the preparations for the Summer Sun Celebration.”

Applejack had to restrain a sigh.

The Summer Sun Celebration… now there was something she didn’t want on her plate at the moment, either. It’d been only a few weeks ago that she’d learned that it would be taking place in Ponyville again, and Applejack had a pretty darn good idea of why Princess Celestia had decided that.

And considering how well it’d gone the last time it’d been held in Applejack’s hometown…

Of course, now Applejack was struck with a dilemma. The Summer Sun Celebration was important – vastly important. It would be the first major holiday since the changeling presence in Ponyville was revealed. Winter Wrap Up had been important – Hearts and Hooves Day, too. But none of those had been a true celebration like the day-long festivities line but for the day meant to honor Princess Celestia herself. And it would be the first time the changelings themselves had a major voice in the preparations.

But on the other hoof, Applebuck season was not waiting for anypony. The livelihood of her entire family depended upon every single crop, and not getting the most out of even one could mean tighter times for all of them. It wouldn’t spell the end of Sweet Apple Acres, but not working her hardest to milk the harvest of every last bit she could seemed like a horrible injustice Applejack simply couldn’t overlook, nor forgive.

So, what to do…

“I’ll go,” said Rainbow suddenly.

Surprised, Applejack looked up, eyebrows shooting up, but Rainbow wasn’t looking at her. She was instead turned to face the equally surprised drone, looking just as relaxed as ever. “She probably just needs some helping hooves anyway. How much work could it be?”

Still, her words took Applejack completely by surprise, but in a good way. Rainbow? Willing to do work? And just when she’d started to lose faith in her friend’s work ethic. Again.

Still, Applejack didn’t like pushing her own responsibilities off onto somepony else, but at the moment she didn’t have much choice, did she? It was either this, or probably have a repeat of that Applebuck season again.

“Ya sure, sugarcube?” Applejack asked uncomfortably. “Ah’m sure Ah could make it later today…”

Rainbow only shrugged indifferently. “Nah, I got this. Not like they could’ve gotten into much trouble with Rose and the others there.”

Applejack could only look at Rainbow and feel rather impressed with the pegasus. Of all the ponies in Ponyville, Applejack knew she could count on Rainbow, too. It wasn’t just because she was the most loyal pegasus around, or one of the more dependable ones, either. Out of the many ponies Applejack knew, Rainbow was routinely the most unbothered by working with changelings, or even being around large groups of them.

Applejack didn’t really understand why, but at the moment she didn’t feel much like looking a gift horse in the mouth.

“Well then,” she said, “Ah guess Ah’ll be countin’ on ya ‘till Ah get done here.”

Rainbow cocked a slight grin and threw a salute. “Sure thing, cowgirl. But you should know I have one little condition.”

Applejack raised a brow. “And that is?”

Rainbow just grinned meaningfully at her. “Oh you know.”

She beat her wings just a little bit harder, hard enough to make every flap very audible in the quite orchard while fixing Applejack with a meaningful look.

Applejack rolled her eyes yet again, shooing Rainbow away with a dismissive hoof. “Oh get going, you. We’ll talk later.”

“I’ll just take that for a yes,” Rainbow snickered.

But just as The cyan pegasus was about to leave, she paused. Her smile faded, and a serious look replaced it. “And when I get back… we talk. Got it?”

Applejack actually winced at that. She should’ve known she wouldn’t be getting off the hook that easily.

“Alright… we’ll talk later, then."

Once more Rainbow’s smile grew, then she turned towards the very confused – and slightly curious – drone standing off to one side. “Come on, let’s get going. Don’t want to keep ‘em waiting!”

A split second later, she shot up into the sky with a woosh, and disappeared from sight through the canopy.

The drone turned to Applejack, bobbed her head in a series of respectful bows – maybe trying to apologize for Rainbow’s brash behavior for some reason – and took flight at a frantic pace in an effort to catch up, leaving Applejack alone amid the trees.

Applejack sighed to herself once she was alone. Only with Rainbow’s absence did she realize just how big she’d been smiling, made clear to her only by how the corners of her mouth sagged again.

It didn’t feel right, pushing her workload off onto somepony else. But until she found a way to be in two places at once that didn’t involve eldritch ponds in the middle of the Everfree, she’d just have to make do.

As she started to head off in search of her brother, Applejack paused when she caught sight of the sky overhead; peerlessly blue, not a breeze to disturb it, bright and warm as the summer sun.

You might actually have fun, you know…

Odds are…

Applejack huffed, her expression softening as she started off again in earnest. If yer there, it’d be real hard not ta have fun, sugarcube… Now where’d Big Mac get off to…

~~***~~

The flight into Ponyville was a markedly lazy one. It was a mild, warm day with only a slight breeze just strong enough to rustle trees and get wind chimes on the eves of houses tinkling softly.

Most ponies were not in a major rush to get anywhere or do anything. It was the kind of day that begged somepony to grab a blanket, find the shade of a tree, and curl up with a book or loved one.

As Rainbow glided by, she predictably spotted Twilight Sparkle nestled onto her favorite bench, book in hoof, enjoying what must’ve been a precious few moments to herself. What with the Celebration just around the corner, it was a wonder she could find time to decompress at all.

She only glanced up when Rainbow passed by overhead, and by that point the pegasus was hardly more than a rainbow trail pointing towards the nearby thatched roofs across the park from the lavender alicorn.

As Rainbow Dash continued on, she saw the many different preparations taking place all across town.

Against the better judgments of some, Pinkie Pie had been given free rein to do as she pleased, and she’d leapt at the opportunity with gusto. Streamers hung from lamp post to lamp post, from eve to nearby eve, and occasionally from things that ought not be decorated, like trash cans and bulging, reeking garbage bags and the occasional aghast pony's tail that stood in place for slightly too long.

The rest of the planning committee – headed up by Rarity – didn’t so much keep up with the hyper ball of pink as they did travel in her wake, turning a decoration explosion into a very tasteful display indeed.

As Rainbow passed, she spotted Pinkie Pie lying flat on her belly, legs splayed every which way, panting fitfully, tongue lolling while somepony hurriedly fanned her with a folded up newspaper. How much work she must’ve done to get her to that point truly unsettled Rainbow.

Further down the block, Rainbow spotted a number of carts and stalls being rigorously scrubbed and cleaned. Wooden boards were stripped of old paint in preparation of fresh new coats. Squeaking hinges were oiled, wobbling wheels addressed, and displays checked and double checked again and again.

Everypony knew that this year promised to have a big turnout from well beyond Ponyville’s borders, and not one business intended to let the opportunity slip them by.

As Rainbow flew on, she noticed several pegasi whizzing through the air – messengers speeding off into the distance, undoubtedly bound for Cloudsdale. Rainbow could just picture her mom, sitting in her weather management office, barking out orders as fast as she could, trying to organize an entire district’s weather team in a way it’d never had to be organized before.

Everything had to be perfect, and it wasn’t just the ponies that were striving for that goal.

Rainbow banked slightly, adjusting her course to aim her out towards the edge of Ponyville… and towards what looked like a forest that’d grown to swallow part of it whole.

~~***~~

There was no official boundary between Ponyville and the strange new district that’d popped up in only a matter of months on what’d once been an undeveloped hillside. But then again, a boundary was completely unnecessary in the first place.

If anypony was to be asked what the biggest feature of the changelings’ refuge in Ponyville was, they would likely respond the same way; trees.

They were everywhere, sprouting up all over the place like a manicured wood, some growing so huge as to tower over the roofs of houses. The changeling district was less a district and more of a grove with houses built in it. Trees grew along sidewalks, on unused medians, between buildings, even straight out out a house or two.

Even the structures seemed like formations of nature; trees and bushes that just happened to grow into the shapes of houses, like some miracle of nature repeated over and over again. If it weren’t for the doors, windows and various other furnishings, they very well might’ve been some sort of natural phenomenon.

Each of the four corners of a house seemed to be made from living trees which had been planted, then grown into the shape of the house itself, including the outline of the angled roof and everything. Branches and vines were then used to fill in the walls, giving most every house an almost log cabin aesthetic. Some of the tree branches on a few houses even seemed to have been stylized, too, giving each and every home its own character.

Lamp posts stuck up out of the ground on sturdy roots, their swirling, twirling wooden stalks forming a cage of little branches on the end that met together at the top, where a small bulb sat dormant and pale amid a small cloud of butterflies, gnats and hummingbirds that eagerly fed upon its sweet nectar.

And there were flowerbeds everywhere. Hanging in woven baskets on window sills, filling small gardens, even decorating homes and lamp posts with creeping vines laden with all manner of flowering blooms; the changelings seemed as ingenious with incorporating flowers into their architecture as they were making it in the first place. The effect was to put colors everywhere, dotting everything, and filling the air with the sweet, soft scent of wildflowers.

Cobblestone paths ran this way and that like dried up river beds amid a carpet of grass that seemed to have a firm grip over nearly every square inch of the ground.

Shade was everywhere, the dappled traces of light swaying this way and that on the breeze. It wasn’t gloomy by any stretch of the imagination, either; there was enough sunlight streaming in through the hanging branches overhead to keep things plenty bright while the tree’s shadows shielded the inhabitants below from the worst of it.

And everywhere in the sheltered sanctuary, there were changelings tending to business.

When Rainbow came in for a landing – no longer capable of safely navigating the flourishing canopy wrapping most of the sky over the district – she immediately saw dozens of changelings all around her milling about, occupied with some task or another. Those that weren’t seemed to be sizing up the situation around them from various vantage points, as if looking for something to do or someone to help.

As she watched, one turned its horn down towards a tiny stalk and started to cast to a spell. Right before Rainbow’s eyes, that tiny sprig burst forth seemingly with a life of its own, winding up towards the sky like a blind snake.

Two more changelings added their own magic to the mix, and within only a few seconds, the sprig had grown to a fully developed sapling, and more.

At the same time, another team of changelings began the process on a slightly more developed tree, and as Rainbow watched in fascination, the two were arched towards each other, their tops finding one another before wrapping together securely in a tight twist.

And just like that, there was a new archway over a small winding path.

Already the changelings were discussing excitedly what else they could do with it; adding flowers, widening a small canopy for extra overhead cover, since there was a gaping hole in the trees above it, even adding strings of what they called ‘light bulbs’ across the underside of the arch. One then suggested planting more stems so that they could make a lattice for things to grow on, and the whole group fell into speculative silence.

Such activities were taking place all around Rainbow – changelings tending to their surroundings, obsessively trying to make them as totally perfect as they possibly could by cultivating flowerbeds – some of which were filled with blooms Rainbow had never, ever seen before – manicuring bushes and tree limbs into eye-catching shapes, and trimming back unsightly overgrowths.

Hardly anyone was just lying around, enjoying the serenity of their surroundings. Only the very young frolicked and flitted through the boughs, childish laughter occasionally reaching Rainbow’s ears as one of the younglings scampered past her.

As she trotted by, Rainbow witnessed an adult changeling stalk up to a hollow in the side of what must’ve been some sort of playhouse, lunge, and peer inside the hollow with a playful noise, resulting in a chorus of squeals and giggles from within.

The whole scene was totally unlike anything Rainbow had ever dreamed a changeling living environment would be like. It never ceased to kind of take her breath away. Not much, though; it was rather difficult to truly impress such an awesome mare.

To Rainbow’s surprise, she even found some ponies trotting around here and there. Every now and then, she would spot what looked like construction workers inspecting houses, checking them over critically – and with no small degree of fascination. Then, they would exchange a look, then shrug in bewilderment, as if to say “I got nothing”.

It wasn’t unusual to see a changeling masquerading as a pony, either, but as per Applejack’s wishes, none wore guises of anypony else in town, and instead made their own. But some of the ponies around Rainbow were very recognizable.

“Hey, Cloudkicker!” Rainbow called out upon spotting the familiar shape of a golden-maned, lavender-blue coated pegasus flitting through the air only a few feet over her head.

Immediately Cloudkicker changed her mind, falling to the ground in front of Rainbow with a thud. “Oh hey, boss. Didn’t expect to see you around here,” she commented with a friendly smile. “Thought you’d still be over at Sweet Apple Acres as usual. What happened, get shot down again?”

Rainbow rolled her eyes in exasperation. “No. I heard Rose needed something, and since Applejack was busy, I came instead.”

“Oh,” Cloudkicker said, frowning. “Well that’s boring.”

Rainbow huffed at that. “So why are you here?”

“Easy there, boss,” Cloudkicker said, offering a lazy smile. “I’m just admiring the sights. Mrs. Bossmare wanted me to see if these guys were all set, what with all the greenery they got around here. Amazing how they hardly need any extra water at all. With all this foliage, you’d think they’d be drinking up half the reservoir.”

Rainbow couldn’t keep herself from glancing around at the wonder that’d literally sprouted up all around her. A few of the changelings waved her way, some clearly recognizing her, even if she couldn’t put names to their identical black faces. “Yeah,” Rainbow said with a grin, “it’s amazing Twilight doesn’t live out of here now. I’m amazed she can ever leave.”

Cloudkicker turned a smirk onto her weather captain – something Rainbow could very nearly feel. “Wow, I never pegged you for liking flowers. Then again, I never figured you for a changeling-chaser, either, but eh – proved me wrong.”

Rainbow rounded on the weatherpony, bristling. “I do not like flowers! And I’m not a… a…” she paused, her anger giving way to confusion. “What’s a changeling-chaser?”

“Nothing,” Cloudkicker said, waving a hoof. “Just something I heard – no big deal – I wouldn’t worry yourself over it.”

“Uh-huh,” Rainbow grunted skeptically, but she let it drop. “Did my mom tell you to do anything else? You know… besides bug me?”

“You mean, besides ‘kick that filly Rainbow’s flank for me and get her in gear’?” Cloudkicker said with more than a little amusement. “Nope, not much. Think Mrs. Bossmare thought you’d be out with your friends by now. Or at least, one of them.”

“Okay, you’re starting to irritate me and I don’t know why,” Rainbow growled, turning away. “Just… go tell mom I’ll be helping Roseluck for a while or something.”

“Somepony say my name?”

Both pegasi turned around, caught off guard, to find a changeling sidling up towards them, looking curious. She was virtually identical to all of her peers, yet for some reason this changeling had what looked like some kind of rose in full glorious bloom cradled behind one ear. As if that wasn’t enough of a tipoff to who she was, Rainbow immediately recognized Roseluck’s voice just as the changeling spotted her.

In many respects, Roseluck wasn’t merely some changeling here. If it hadn’t been for her, things may not have gone as smoothly for the changelings in Ponyville as they did. She was the one that usually stepped up to deal with problems too small to be brought to Applejack’s or Twilight’s or the mayor’s attention. When it came to problems of a changeling nature in Ponyville, it was usually safe to say that Roseluck, or her team of veteran Ponyvillian changelings, weren’t very far behind.

In a way, they ran things on a level Applejack was either too uncomfortable or too inexperienced to handle, and so far it’d worked out very well for the changelings in Ponyville – both the long-time residents and the newer immigrants.

It couldn’t have been easy work, and between running her shop with her two sisters and mediating the day-to-day troubles of integrating changelings, it must’ve been backbreaking at times. And yet, Roseluck never once complained, and even seemed to prefer taking on the burden over burdening Applejack instead. After all, of all the changelings in Equestria, few understood – nor were relied on by – Applejack quite as much as Roseluck, and everypony knew it.

“Oh, Rainbow! I wasn’t expecting to see you around here today,” Roseluck said, but she was smiling in welcome. “Did something happen with Applejack? I know things on the farm are a little hectic right now, but I wasn’t planning on seeing anyone until later today.”

The senior changeling turned a narrowed eye towards some spot behind Rainbow, and only then did she remember that she’d had a companion all the way in.

“I hope Lilac didn’t give the wrong impression,” she said, using a tone as if she knew all-too well.

Rainbow glanced between Roseluck and the little changeling now cowering behind her, before saying hastily, “Oh no, totally nailed it I think. I sure didn’t think it was a big deal.”

Roseluck gave the cyan pegasus a look, but relented with a small smile. She wasn’t one to be overly hard on others, anyway. “Alright, if you say so, Rainbow,” she said. “I was hoping to speak with Applejack, but you’ll do just fine instead.”

“Well, if it’s anything major, I’ll pass it along once AJ’s done with her chores,” Rainbow responded. “But it doesn’t sound like anything too serious anyway.”

Roseluck chuckled under her breath. “Probably not. At any rate, walk with me; there are a few things I’d like your opinion on.”

Opinions… Already it sounded like it was going to be very… very dull work. But, Rainbow had promised Applejack she’d do it, and with such a tantalizing reward dangling before her, she would just have to put up with it.

“Well, I guess that’s my cue to get out of here,” Cloudkicker spoke up. “There are a few more errands I gotta run before my shift’s over, so… guess I’ll catch you ‘round, Rainbow. Try not to have too much fun!”

A moment later, she was gliding down the street, heading for the edge of the canopy and the open sky beyond, much to Rainbow’s relief.

~~***~~

Rainbow and Roseluck walked down the main lane of the changeling district together in relative silence. Rainbow kept finding her attention drawn to one thing or another, and Roseluck seemed only too happy to let her gawk.

“Hey, what’re those?” Rainbow asked, pointing at a string of strange bulbs hanging from a vine stretched across an open window. They were all manner of sizes and colors, ranging from golden yellow, tomato red and verdant green, with matching leaves cupping the base of each. The biggest was about the size of an apple, while the ones on the smaller side were around the size of a date.

They were all shaped almost like a bell, and each had a small hole in the bottom that gave off a light, mellow scent. Rainbow only noticed them because when she passed, they gave off a soft, musical tinkling sound when the breeze rattled them together, each producing a different note based on its size.

“Bell peppers,” Roseluck explained with a smile. “Great for calming babies, and they taste pretty good, too. Some of the drones brought up some seeds from the southern lands, and we only recently got them approved for planting here in Ponyville. We might even be serving some tomorrow.”

“Wow,” Rainbow muttered, eying one of the musical floras a little closer, “you guys sure love to plant stuff, huh?”

Roseluck merely chuckled, though it had an oddly sad note to it. “This is pretty much all that remains of our culture, you know,” she said.

Rainbow looked up at her then, but the changeling only smiled a little. “After Queen Phantasma… Well, not much survived that,” she said quietly. “Not many of us know how to do this anymore,” she added, motioning with a hoof toward her surroundings; at the grand houses and fixtures, all literally grown for their purposes.

Rainbow frowned a little before looking around again. “Well, looks like that Phantasma creep didn’t do a very good job. I mean, look at you guys now!”

Roseluck actually chuckled at that, and this time it didn’t sound quite so melancholy. “No, I suppose not. And thank you for saying so, Rainbow. I’m glad Applejack has somepony like you at her side.”

Rainbow merely fidgeted a little, wings ruffling slightly as she looked away.

Then again, I never figured you for a changeling-chaser, either, but eh – proved me wrong…

Just what did she mean by that? Ugh, now it’s going to drive me crazy…

While she continued to grumble internally, the two rounded a corner and emerged upon a sight that immediately refocused Rainbow’s attention.

Roseluck had just lead her into the center of the district; a wide open square with a break in the trees overhead that let in plenty of sunlight onto the clearing below.

And in the center of the square was a huge, tan tent that stood straight and boxy almost two stories high. Across from that was a set of glimmering stands lined with seats. At the center of the grand array jutted up the places of honor – seats held within a small, gilded balcony with a peerless view of the square. Obviously that balcony was meant for the royalty, with everypony else gathered around the foot of it in tiers.

Rainbow immediately knew that this was where some sort of event planned for the Celebration would take place. Something big was in the works, she could tell, but she wasn’t sure what…

Now her curiosity was piqued, and she couldn’t help but find herself wondering what Roseluck had in store for the audience.

“So, what’s under the tent?” Rainbow asked, staring intently at the object of her curiosity. She had half a mind to just dart over and stick her muzzle underneath to get a look at it, but she held back.

Roseluck, however, only laughed a little. “You’ll see tomorrow,” she said cryptically.

“What’s the harm in me just catching a small peek now?” Rainbow asked hopefully, but Rose just shook her head.

“No. It’s a surprise, Rainbow,” she said with a patient smile. But after a moment, that smile started to slip again, and though it could sometimes be hard to read her featureless blue eyes, Rainbow could tell that Roseluck’s gaze become somewhat distant.

“Tomorrow is a very important day for us, you know,” she said.

“Yeah, I heard,” Rainbow said, but Roseluck shook her head.

“No, I don’t mean like that,” the changeling said back softly.

Rainbow paused to look at her, and when she did so, Roseluck stopped to turn to meet that look with an odd one.

“Tomorrow marks the seventeenth anniversary of the day Queen Phantasma was vanquished,” she said. “Seventeen years ago tomorrow is the day Applejack’s mother died.”

Rainbow felt a cold chill run down her spine, her breath catching.

She’d heard about the story from Applejack. All of their friends had. They’d heard about how Applejack’s birth mother – Queen Carnation – sacrificed herself to end the reign of a monstrous tyrant; her own cousin, Queen Phantasma. That was the reason why Applejack had been left with the Apples, rather than growing up surrounded by other changelings.

“That is one of the reasons I wanted to talk to her today,” Roseluck went on. “I have a few ideas, along with the rest of the committee. But… maybe it’s best if we run them by you first.”

Rainbow paused and gave Roseluck an uncertain look. “I don’t know. This sounds like something AJ would want to hear, not me.”

Rainbow knew that if she could help it, Applejack would avoid talking about her mysterious birth mother, even around her. It just… wasn’t a topic she enjoyed exploring.

Now it felt like Rainbow would be putting her nose where it really didn’t belong, and as much as she loved irritating Applejack, angering her was not on the same list.

But, to her surprise, Roseluck was adamant. “No, I’d like it to be a surprise for Applejack,” she said.

“Why?” Rainbow asked, confused.

Roseluck smiled. “Two reasons, really. Because the ponies of Equestria should know about Queen Carnation. And secondly, because of tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Rainbow inquired, even more baffled. “What about it?”

“Think about it for a moment, Dash,” Roseluck said with a humorous smile now. “What’s so important about tomorrow to Applejack?”

Without even thinking, Rainbow responded, “It’s her birth—”

And then she stopped, eyes growing wider. “Her… birthday.”

Roseluck nodded. “The day she started living in Sweet Apple Acres,” she said.

Applejack never made a big deal about her birthday. Usually there was some cake, a few well-wishes, and not much more. She just was never comfortable being the guest of honor, and Pinkie was usually kind enough to respect her wishes. She'd tried to throw her bigger bashes every now and then, but all she succeeded in doing was making Applejack uncomfortable and embarrassed, so she began dialing it back a few years ago.

But hearing what Roseluck said sparked off a new question in Rainbow’s head; one she’d never, ever even thought to consider.

Hey… When is Applejack’s real birthday, anyway?

She’d never stopped to think about that. But surely they were different, weren’t they?

Before she could ask Roseluck herself – probably one of the only ones left alive who would know – she found herself cut off by the changeling’s voice.

“There’s still plenty of work left to do, though,” Roseluck went on. “Making a place like this fit for Canterlot’s finest isn’t easy, you know.”

Rainbow blinked, trying to catch back up with this new train of thought. “Uh… I don’t see the problem. What’s so bad about a little grass?”

Roseluck laughed. “If only it were that simple, but we both know how picky they can be about their venue. All of their poor wittle hoovsies…”

Rainbow snorted before she could catch herself, and then she didn’t bother holding back a further chuckle or two.

Roseluck laughed along with her, looking a little sheepish but unrepentant for what she’d just said. “Now, about that list... Where is… ah!”

When Rainbow turned around, she noticed Roseluck looking at something and smiling brightly. When Rainbow followed the changeling’s gaze, she noticed a pegasus trotting up to them wearing an answering smile of her own.

She was young – not quite a filly, but not quite a mare, either. She was somewhere in between; young, but not entirely childish. Her unusually neat, sleek blue mane fell just short of her gleaming lavender eyes and was placed tidily against one cloudy gray shoulder.

A pegasus with a well-maintained mane and tail was quite the oddity, especially one that long, so right away Rainbow had a very good idea about what she really was.

“Sorry if I’m interrupting,” the disguised changeling said, offering Roseluck a paper. “The list of VIPs coming to the event,” she explained, “just like you wanted.”

“Perfect,” Roseluck said back, taking the paper in her telekinetic grip and levitating it towards her, her expression becoming critical – and after a few moments – bothered. “Oh… dear, that’s a lot from Canterlot,” she muttered to herself. “Caesar, Prince Blueblood, Bullion, Fancy Pants, Fleur De Lis, Photo Finish… My word…”

She then paused when she noticed both Rainbow and the pegasus eying each other curiously, and motioned with a hoof without raising her eyes away from the bothersome thing hovering in front of her face.

“Rainbow, I’d like you to meet Agave. She’s been helping out with the preparations. Agave, this is Rainbow Dash, one of Applejack’s closest friends.”

The moment she heard that, Agave’s eyes shot open wide, a small gasp on her lips. “Oh! So you’re Rainbow Dash! I've heard all about you!”

Rainbow cocked a grin. Now this was something she was qualified to handle. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah!” Agave enthused. “I heard that you could do all sorts of tricks, and that you were one of the fastest flyers in Equestria!”

“Sorry, I’m afraid you’re not quite right,” Rainbow said, her expression falling for a moment.

“What? I heard wrong?” Agave asked, totally confused and even a little panicked. Had she gotten the wrong pony? But how many pegasi walked around with rainbow-colored manes? More than she knew?

But then Rainbow’s smile came back in force, her chest puffing up. “I’m the fastest!” she stated proudly, zipping off her hooves and shooting around the square a bit to demonstrate the validity of her point.

“Good grief,” Roseluck grumbled to herself, though she was smiling good-naturedly.

After a few moments of showboating, Rainbow skidded back to a standstill exactly where she’d been before, a big smug smile on her face.

Agave clapped her hooves together enthusiastically, but when Roseluck cleared her throat, she refocused. “Oh, um… sorry. Do you need anything else, Roseluck?”

The senior drone sighed, but she seemed hardly bothered. “We were just about to go over the plans for the Summer Sun Celebration,” Roseluck said patiently. “Would you mind getting our notes for me? They should still be at City Hall.”

Agave smiled still bigger – positively beaming now – and saluted. “Aye, aye, ma’am,” she giggled, then ran off down the main street towards the rest of Ponyville.

As soon as she was gone, Roseluck sighed, her eyes still on Agave’s shrinking shape.

“Something wrong?” Rainbow asked, eying her curiously.

“No, not really,” the changeling responded, though her smile seemed oddly weary. “I was just thinking… If it wasn’t for Applejack, changelings like her would never have stood a chance in the Hive. If she was still there… Agave would most certainly be dead by now.”

Rainbow felt another chill run down her spine before she looked back towards the sunny, bouncing figure of the young changeling bounding away from them – a changeling who must’ve evaded certain death by a knife’s edge.

But why? Because she was so bright and sweet? Because she wasn’t some cold-blooded machine bent only on serving the queens and nothing else? The thought twisted Rainbow’s gut into knots.

“Well, we should get going,” Roseluck said, motioning towards a hut set to one side of the square. “We’ve got a lot to discuss.”

Still, as they started off, Rainbow paused again to look back in the direction Agave had disappeared down, a frown on her face. Was it really that bad where all these changelings came from…?

Rainbow was literally jolted out of her thoughts when something bumped into her, nearly knocking her over.

“Hey, watch it,” She snapped, looking around irritably.

She noticed the culprit only a few inches away; a drone, only… a very strange one.

The eye he turned towards Rainbow was, for lack of a better word, not there. There was only an eye-patch slung across his forehead; something that very nearly disappeared against his charcoal chitin. The only thing that gave it away was a pair of words that were stitched into the leather with a silvery thread directly over his eye that spelled out “No Evil”.

“Oh, my apologies,” he said in a slightly raspy, oddly friendly voice. “I didn’t see you there, sonrisa.”

When Rainbow flashed a look at him, the changeling gave her a leisurely, toothy smile before proceeding on his way. “I hope we don’t make a habit out of this,” was the last thing he said before rounding a corner and disappearing from sight.

Rainbow stared after him, completely confused – particularly why her skin was crawling so much.

“Who the hay was that?”

Author's Note:

Introducing the Spaniard! All I need now is a six-fingered man and a dread pirate and I can continue my trend of quoting things I've never seen before!

I'm not to pleased with the opening part. It should've gone with the previous chapter, but I can't find a good place to sneak it in there. Not that I would, though; I don't like rewriting my own works, especially to such an extent. Editing little errors doesn't count, but putting in a whole new scene? It feels like I'm trying to take something back, or cover something up. So, I'll just stick to my guns and keep it like this.

Anyway, I had a lot of fun writing this chapter, just as soon as I got to the changeling district. I may have gotten a bit carried away with the detailing, so I apologize if it was a little thick. I just had one of those "Oh my god, I have to do that" moments, and i blame the inspiration for it on this song. Careful; if you've ever been a Final Fantasy fan, it may hit you right in the nostalgia.

So now, what's going on with Applejack? What dastardly plan is being set into motion on the Summer Sun Celebration? Just who the hell is that spanish-speaking cyclops?
Ahdunno, let's find out next chapter.

As usual, rate/comment/do that voodoo you guys do so good, and I'll see you in the next chapter.

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