• Published 26th Dec 2013
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The Irony of Applejack Aftermath: A Warm Hearth - Mister Friendly



A return to normal couldn't be too much to ask for... right?

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Part 3

Don’t think about it. Just focus on what needs gettin’ done…

Again the thought passed through Applejack’s mind. It was swiftly turning into a chant that kept her on track and focused on her current task, and not on more… bothersome things.

In front of her, a congregation of changeling drones all stood with their undivided attention turned towards her, as was typical with any group of changelings she was presented with. Not one was disguised, and at last headcount Applejack had counted upwards of fifty huddled together, some craning their necks to get a look at their queen from over the shoulders of their fellows. Each passing minute saw more changelings passing security to come scampering over to the safety of the group, causing the gathering to slowly but surely swell as time went on.

And since they were all standing in the castle’s grand foyer, no matter how far off to one side they shuffled, they were nevertheless attracting a lot of attention from everypony and anypony. The guards, at least, were subtle about their gawking, resorting only to sidelong stoic surveillance with as minimal head movement as was physically possible, as if believing changeling eyesight was based on movement. The other guests, however, were less tactful to the point of being rude with their staring, hasty whispers – for the more polite ones – and quick departures.

Applejack was able to tune it out by giving the congregation in front of her all of the attention she could muster, sparing none for the oglers by the wayside.

“Alright,” she spoke up, loud enough for the tightly packed drones to hear her. “Now Ah know we went over the rules before comin’ here, but Ah just want ta make sure everypony is on the same page.”

Some nodded. Others waited quietly, looking antsy. The anxiety was nothing new to Applejack at this point; some drones hung off of her every word, as if half expecting to be quizzed on what they’d heard at a later time. It was clear that the presence of a changeling queen standing before them was even more stressful than standing inside the doors of Equestria’s seat of power. Perhaps, Applejack thought, it might’ve been better to let Roseluck and her group handle things after all.

I’m… I’m sorry, Applejack… I didn’t know… I was only trying…

Applejack’s shake of the head was masterfully subdued – barely more than a twitch to one side, her voice only catching in her throat for a fraction of a second. That was all that made it through her composure.

Don’t think about it. Just focus on what needs gettin’ done…

“Now, first off,” Applejack went on while raising one hoof for emphasis, her voice satisfyingly strong and level, “Princess Celestia has asked that we keep from changin’ durin’ the pageant. Ponies are still real nervous ‘round our kind right now, so let’s not go and give ‘em any real reason ta worry, and lettin’ ‘em keep track of us is probably the only thing we can do. If ya got reason ta disguise yourself, feel free ta bring it up with Rose’s group and they’ll take care of ya.”

Several of the drones nodded in understanding. One or two exchanged a quick glance with their neighbor, but for the most part their focus remained on Applejack.

“Secondly,” Applejack went on, sobering up a little bit, “If y’all have got pony families or loved ones here at the pageant… Ah hate ta tell ya this, but we ain’t gonna be able ta sit y’all together. Ah tried, but the board in charge of the pageant wouldn’t budge on seatin’ arrangements. Best we could do is get y’all seats as close together as possible.”

The reaction was predictable. Some of the drones looked disappointed, even a little crestfallen at the news. But none raised their voices, not even the pair of younglings that’d made the trip clinging – in one case literally – to their mothers’ sides. For those affected by her words, they simply took her news in stride, and kept their opinions private.

Some part of Applejack, buried deep down, almost wished that one of them would’ve objected, or at least shown more than resignation; to raise their voices and declare their treatment to be unfair, and to demand the equality afforded by the ponies surrounding them.

But the desire was nothing more than a strain of some darker emotion deep within Applejack’s heart – something she easily identified, then scorned into silence. Such thoughts were nothing but poison, born of nothing but foalish frustration; Unreasonable, irrational – stupid.

I’m sorry…

Focus, AJ.

“But once the pageant’s over,” Applejack added, trying to brighten up the mood for the group’s sake, “y’all are free ta spend the rest of the holiday with yer families, so don’t go worryin’ too much. It’s just a little extra security ta put the nobles at ease.”

The reaction wasn’t as satisfactory as the last, at least for Applejack. Whatever relief the relevant changelings felt was almost entirely kept in check except to dissipate whatever gloom had seeped into their demeanors. Even the Equestrian changelings were striving to be on their utmost best behavior while in her presence. Applejack still had a long way to go to get rid of that tendency of theirs, but given how apparently massive the divide was between drone and queen, it was likely going to be a very steep uphill battle.

“And of course, do yer best ta cooperate with the Royal Guard,” Applejack added, though at that point it should’ve gone without saying, and even she had to admit that her words sounded a little too rehearsed to sound natural. Still, it didn’t hurt to reiterate it, if only to give herself some peace of mind. “If there’s anythin’ yer still unclear on, or if ya need help with somethin’, be sure ta talk ta Rose’s group. And of course, my door is always open if ya need any help. Now, does anyone have any questions?”

Applejack could see the uncertainty flittering around the group after her last sentence. Bringing their personal problems to the queen herself still seemed like a daunting proposition for most changelings, especially the ones who hadn’t been in Equestria for long. Likely the only time Applejack would hear of any problems would be after it was mediated to her through someone else – usually Roseluck or her band of managers. It was mildly irksome to Applejack to be treated like some big bad boogiemare, but it wasn’t like she couldn’t understand why they acted the way they did; Applejack was aware of twelve solid reasons to the south – sometimes painfully so.

She still wasn’t expecting to get any sort of response to her question – no more than a few shaking heads or, Celestia forbid, a quickly mumbled “no, Your Highness” or two. A hive didn’t burden their queen with their problems – a hive burdened itself with the queen’s problems. That was just how it worked, as little as Applejack cared for such levels of idolism.

So when a squeaky voice actually did speak up, it took Applejack completely by surprise.

“U-u-um… I have a, um… a question, Your Highness, Miss Applejack… Ma’am,” squeaked a timid, shaky voice from the front of the crowd.

It wasn’t hard to find the speaker. She was standing right at the head of the group, one trembling hoof held up at shoulder height for all to see, as if to single herself out for whatever retribution may come.

The other changelings around her looked at her like she’d inexplicably gone mad. Most were looking at the meek drone with just as much surprise as Applejack was; none seemed able to fully process what’d just happened.

Applejack managed to bounce back quick enough, though. She blinked, then immediately smiled; this was a surprise she could stand, without a doubt.

“Oh! Well alright then, shoot. Anythin’ Ah can help with?”

The changeling shuffled nervously, probably trying to make herself appear as small and unthreatening as was physically possible. “Well, it’s… it’s not a question like… that,” she mumbled with extreme reluctance. “I was just, um, wondering if… if everything’s alright. You know… with you.”

Again, Applejack found herself taken aback, too surprised to make an intelligent response. “With… me? What makes ya ask that, sugarcube?” she asked, truly confused.

The drone was cringing so much now that it looked like she was halfway between standing and throwing herself on the floor, as if preparing to prostrate herself for forgiveness at the first sign of aggravation from Applejack. And yet she continued speaking, even if her already squeaky voice had risen a few octaves.

“Y-you seem… you seem…,” she floundered, gulped, then blurted out in one breath, “You seem troubled by something Your Highness any way we can help?”

Applejack paused, growing still as she processed the changeling’s rushed words. It took her a while, and even then, she couldn’t help but feel thunderstruck all over again.

She could’ve sworn she’d covered up perfectly. And yet this drone had seen through her? How had she slipped up? When?

On top of that, now that the question had been voiced, Applejack noticed several other drones giving her the same apprehensive look; not a kind born of some heightened sense of a perceived social gap, but a different kind that led Applejack to believe that while only one had managed to build up the nerve to speak, she had not been the only one with that question on her mind.

A hive exists to burden itself with a queen’s problems indeed. The drones were always so aware of her, always so perceptive of every little thing about her, especially it seemed whenever she least wanted them to be…

Applejack sighed, her smile slipping somewhat. But she managed to keep a trace of it, lest she really frighten the panicky changeling. “Don’t you be worryin’ about me,” Applejack said reassuringly. “Ah’m just fine. What Ah’m dealin’ with… it ain’t anythin’ Ah haven’t dealt with before. So don’t ya worry.”

The drone quickly nodded in understanding, accepting Applejack’s response without question. But still, the feelings in those big glowing eyes didn’t change. “O-of course, A-Applejack,” the changeling stammered, bowing graciously. “I apologize i-if I was too forward.”

Applejack rematerialized her smile almost immediately. “Nonsense. There ain’t nothin’ wrong with sayin’ what’s on yer mind, sugarcube,” she said bracingly.

“Just look at them all… The princesses have such bleeding hearts to favor savages like them…”

“… Most of the time,” Applejack amended, her smile souring upon hearing the barely whispered comment from somewhere behind her. She didn’t bother looking; odds are the culprit had already scurried off, and Applejack didn’t feel like wasting the energy anyway.

Some of the changelings exchanged glances, not entirely convinced by the looks of them. If anything, they seemed even more concerned than before. However, their courage had dried up, and now they had not a word to say.

But Applejack was undaunted. “Now, now, it’s fine,” she pressed, a little firmer this time. “The only thing Ah want y’all worryin’ about is havin’ a good time today. Think y’all can do that for me?”

It was underhanded, she grudgingly admitted, using the drones’ compulsory need to obey a queen’s orders against them, but if it got them to actually enjoy themselves, Applejack could put up with it. You can’t corral cattle without a little strong-arming once in a while, as her Pa used to say.

“Well… alright, Miss Applejack,” one of the drone spoke up, though he sounded noticeably hesitant about dropping the subject himself. “If you insist.”

“Ah do,” Applejack said with a kinder smile. “Now go have some fun, and Ah’ll see y’all at the pageant.”

Still more glances were had, but no one questioned her command. They moved off together, already taking in the sights and sounds, and probably looking for a familiar face or two. In time, they’d be too absorbed to ever trouble themselves on her behalf. At least, that was the hope.

Applejack watched them go, the rest of her breath escaping through her tired smile. Today really was proving to be a wearisome day…

A distant, echoing bong cut through the hustle and bustle of the foyer, catching Applejack off guard. Once… twice… Five times it rang out across the castle grounds, ringing through the halls and off the snow-covered towers for all to hear.

Applejack turned her head to follow the sound of the tolling clock tower… and inadvertently found herself gazing up the grand stairway dominating the back of the foyer, and the gigantic pair of double doors that stood atop them.

But it was beyond those double doors that gave Applejack pause. They were shut at the moment, but Applejack still could’ve sworn she heard the hubbub from the Great Hall echoing back to her like a disliked recurring memory.

…Ain’t anything Ah ain’t dealt with before… Ain’t that the truth…

Applejack sighed and turned to leave… only to realize she wasn’t by herself after all.

Ponies continued to filter through the front gate in a steady trickle. Aside from a few stares, most ponies gave the unusual, amber-maned changeling a wide berth, giving her plenty of personal space that few felt like intruding upon – that is, except for a single black figure with bright, staring eyes.

Roseluck stood less than ten feet behind her, watching Applejack quietly. Applejack knew it was her, even undisguised. There just weren’t that many changelings that would look at her like that.

There was something in her featureless blue eyes that twisted Applejack’s gut, almost like an accusation wrapped in deep worry that the young queen just couldn’t bring herself to face. It was a look that told Applejack that Rose had seen it all, and like the drone who’d spoken up, she’d seen straight through her like she hadn’t even been trying to put up a front. But unlike the drone from before, Rose wasn’t about to pretend to be satisfied.

Applejack looked away, hoping perhaps childishly that she’d be left alone. She lifted her chin, squared her shoulders and moved off, the picture of indifference.

She even almost made it passed the troubled drone, too.

“Applejack,” spoke Rose softly, but to the changeling in question, it felt almost like she’d been shouted at.

Applejack immediately stuttered to a halt, unwilling to meet the drone’s gaze – even though she could practically feel it boring into the side of her head.

“Some of us respect you too much to pry,” Roseluck added, her tone somber. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t worry about you.”

Applejack frowned, struggling with her composure. But then she let out her breath, visibly slouching an inch or two lower. “Don’t Ah know it, Rose,” she admitted heavily. “But these changelin’s have enough ta worry themselves over instead of every little problem Ah come across.”

“Problems that make you separate yourself from your friends?” Roseluck asked almost casually.

Applejack frowned, hard. She had half a mind to snap at the nosy drone to mind her own business and let her tend to hers. But she couldn’t quite follow through. Even as annoyed as she was, she simply couldn’t bring herself to do it. Her heart simply wasn’t in it.

Instead, she started walking, opting to not dignify Roseluck’s comment with an answer.

There was one problem, however; Roseluck had legs, too, and they were just as good at walking as hers were.

“I’m sorry,” Roseluck said apologetically, keeping up with Applejack’s quick stride. “That was out of line. It’s just… It’s been a while since I’ve seen you this upset.”

Applejack sighed through her nostrils. “Rose… yer makin’ a mountain outta a mole hill. It ain’t that big of a deal fer me, honest.”

Finally, she couldn’t keep from turning her head to meet her associate’s troubled stare. She offered a small but reassuring smile as best she could. “Ah wasn’t lyin’ when Ah said it ain’t nothin’ new. Ah’ve dealt with it before. Ah’ll get over it.”

She looked away then, unable to keep the corners of her mouth turned up any longer. “It’s just… the usual, Ah guess,” she finished dully.

Roseluck was silent for some time after that. In silence, they trotted through the double doors at the head of the foyer and into the hall beyond. Here, not so many ponies milled about. Only those on official business were allowed through for now, so save for the trace courier or patrolling guard, the corridor was virtually deserted. It was only then that Roseluck spoke up again, when there was no danger of being overheard.

“Applejack… I apologize if I am out of line again, but… when is being upset supposed to be normal?” she asked.

Applejack pursed her lips, her eyes not moving from the end of the hall. She didn’t seem keen on answering, and instead seemed more inclined to keep her silence, and through that, imply Rose should keep hers.

Roseluck remained quiet, recognizing a strained temper when she saw one, but on the inside, she was anything but. Perhaps she was pushing the boundaries of their relationship a little much, but even amongst Applejack’s closest friends, Rose knew that she didn’t open up unless backed into a corner. As it stood, Roseluck was plenty aware that she was nowhere near that level, and in no position to pry any of the changeling queen’s woes from her.

On top of that, she was trying to wrest said woes from a queen. Relationship aside, the social divide between drone and queen was one of the few ironclad realities left to the changelings, and ignoring that gap was simply not something that happened, even to a drone as desensitized as Roseluck. Every now and then the pony in her got the better of her sensibilities, but never for long. Why, if her mother had heard even a part of what she’d just said to Applejack, she’d have had her hide tanned until the sun came up again.

To question is not our place! To answer is! Her mother’s old mantra, cast aside and forgotten until recently, played through her head again.

The pony in her yearned to help. The changeling in her, however, dictated respectful silence before she acted completely insubordinate. Frustrating, yes, but she had her place in the scheme of things. And that was not –

“Can Ah ask ya a question, Rose?” asked Applejack completely out of the blue.

Okay, that one she could work with.

Roseluck had to scramble to reorganize her thoughts and compose herself. She nevertheless still almost missed a step and fell flat on her face out of sheer surprise.

Applejack’s expression had… well, softened might be the wrong word for it. Dulled sounded more appropriate, unfortunately. The sharpness to her mood had lost it’s edge, worn down by something else hiding behind Applejack’s composed mask. But if there was an explanation to be had in her face, Applejack was still hiding it too well for Roseluck to spot.

“Of course, Applejack,” she said while trying not to sound surprised that she’d feel the need to ask in the first place. Our place is to answer

The changeling queen still wasn’t looking at her, but the dull set to her eyes told Roseluck that there was something very much weighing on her mind. That was the first time she’d been able to clearly interpret it, so guarded was Applejack at any one time. Or, to put it better perhaps, so strong-willed was she.

“Daisy and Lily… they’re ponies, right?” Applejack asked plainly.

Her question startled Roseluck. Why in Equestria would she ask a question like that, especially since Rose was fairly certain she already knew the answer?

Equal parts curious and cautious, Roseluck chose her words carefully. “… Yes, they are.”

Something crossed Applejack’s face – not necessarily something dark, but definitely something… gloomier than usual. “Was it ever… hard livin’ together?” she asked.

Applejack had tried a little too hard to make her question sound casual. But Roseluck picked up on it. When one such as Applejack kept so much to herself, it was up to ones such as Roseluck to learn to spot the smallest details to make sense of. It took a while, but sooner or later, it became clear what kind of mood she might be in beneath her thick skin.

At the same time, a picture was starting to formulate in the back of Roseluck’s mind in the same way scum forms on the surface of a pond; unpleasantly. She was starting to get a sense of what was bothering Applejack and, at the same time, coming to realize that it may have been as bad as – if not worse than – as she’d suspected.

Again, Roseluck found herself picking her words with considerable care. “I… would be lying if I said no,” she said honestly. “But I am as guilty of that as they were. I was young… some would say confident.” She snorted. “Head-strong would be more appropriate, I freely admit.”

Seeing Applejack turn her head to look at her, Roseluck’s mouth twitched up a little. “I was a little younger than you are now when I met them,” she said. “It was… the first time I’d ever left the hive. I’d like to say I did so voluntarily, but… I think you know what really happened.”

Applejack nodded grimly. She did.

Roseluck looked forward again, but her eyes didn’t seem to watch where she was headed. They just gazed off into nothingness, her expression becoming almost vacant.

“I was half-starved, weak in many ways and delirious with a fever from wandering around in the rain when they found me,” Rose said. “I didn’t even have enough strength to keep disguised. Really, I thought I was the last one left; I’d been searching the Everfree for days, looking for anyone else. I guess at some point, I found my way into Ponyville. I… don’t remember much, only that I stumbled into a yard while Daisy and Lily were weatherproofing their gardens.”

Roseluck shook her head, laughing humorlessly. “Maker, the looks they gave me when they saw this –” she nodded to her chest to indicate her unintentionally monstrous visage – “I thought they were going to run away and call for somepony bigger to finish me off. But… they didn’t.”

Again she huffed, but this time her smile wasn’t nearly as empty. “I don’t remember who saved me; I passed out before I made it a step further. It was probably Daisy… Lily is too timid, though she has surprised me before. When I woke up next, I was in their house, stowed away in a back room where they kept their produce. They had so many roses… When they asked for my name, that’s all I could say. So, the name stuck. They called me Lucky Rose for a very long time, because even with them nursing me back to health, it was no small miracle that I survived. I didn’t even have the magic to fend off a common cold, and for several months it seemed like I would get better only to fall sick again. Sometimes, being so utterly dependent on magic we can’t produce ourselves can be quite the curse.”

Applejack gave her an inquisitive look, frowning. “So… Roseluck ain’t yer real name?”

Rose merely smiled at her. “Forgive me if I sound a tad cryptic, but Roseluck is my real name… just not my first. Whoever I was before Daisy and Lily took me in, well… I left her behind in the Everfree, along with many other things. But anyway, you didn’t ask me how I came to be in Ponyville.”

Roseluck’s expression straightened, becoming serious. “We had our hardships, I admit. For the first few days, one would think none of us even spoke the same language. They were both always so cautious around me; poor Lily couldn’t stand being left in the same room as me by herself unless she really had to be. Daisy was always acting like she was stepping on eggshells around me, too; always acting overly cautious of what mood I was in. It took them hours just to decide what to feed me when I first turned up because they were afraid I had a… meatier… diet.”

Roseluck sighed. “I tried to tell them as little as possible – at least until I got better – in case something prompted them to kick me out. It was selfish, but if for whatever reason I scared them… I knew I’d never survive in the open world. At the same time, it was something of a learning process adapting to their behaviors and mannerisms. The way they could live without ever being told what to do – how they could just all of a sudden decide to do something by themselves, without anypony coming along to deliver orders… I couldn’t wrap my head around it. It seemed foolhardy and irrational, like they were simply doing whatever struck their fancy without the slightest bit of thought. At first it felt like they had no structure governing their lives. Just whimsy and brash recklessness.”

Applejack couldn’t help but sympathize in some way. Being friends with Rainbow Dash, the most brash, most reckless pony around, she could understand Rose’s reservations about trusting somepony like that with taking care of her.

“It was worrying at times, in all honesty,” went on Rose, a hint of melancholy in her voice as she stared off into memories. “It took me a while, but eventually, I realized that that was just how ponies live, not just Daisy and Lily. But that did not happen for quite a while.

“I expected to only stay with them for a month or so – to at least recover enough to fend for myself, and then I would continue looking for the rest of the hive. That was what I told myself; that that house and those two were only temporary, and that inevitably I would have to leave them behind, get back to my old life, and let them get on with theirs. Someone like me, and someponies like them… we just weren’t meant to mingle for long.”

Applejack bit her lip, her heart weighing heavily in her chest. But Applejack kept herself composed, struggling to seem sympathetic without hanging off of Roseluck’s every word like a desperate filly, which she most certainly, most definitely was not. “Did… did anythin’ happen ta change that?” she asked.

To her relief, Roseluck smiled softly. “Yes, it did,” Roseluck said.

Mid-step, her wings unexpectedly buzzed to life, taking the task of walking off of her forelegs so that she could lift them up, turn her hooves inward, and bring them to within a millimeter of each other’s bottoms, like she was miming holding onto something with both hooves.

And as Applejack watched in total confusion, she saw it – a jolt of emerald light, arcing from one hoof to the other with an audible pop Applejack could hear even at arm’s length. More currents of changeling magic curled and arced between Roseluck’s hooves with an audible buzz and occasional pop, radiating a soft heat only slightly warmer than a candle that made Applejack’s chitin tingle unusually. Roseluck just gazed at it, her shoulders tensed with exertion and her expression focused yet unreadable.

“One day, I was helping in the garden,” Roseluck explained. “I couldn’t do much back then, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t try. I had something of a debt to work at repaying, after all. We were working on planting seeds – hydrangeas, I remember it so clearly. Daisy was digging the holes, Lily was putting in the seeds, and I was packing the dirt. When I started on the first seed… I felt it.”

She looked up towards Applejack, grinning rather uncharacteristically for the usually composed mare, her eyes twinkling. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? That sensation that feels like the ground is reverberating through the bottoms of your hooves, like there’s a static charge lingering in the dirt.”

Applejack smiled. Yes, she knew that sensation. She’d felt it every day she toiled in the orchards – in every tree she bucked, in every leaf she pruned, and in every seed she planted. It wasn’t something that could be easily or accurately described in a single try – everypony had their own version, truth be told. To her, it felt like heat seeping from the ground into her hooves, like a hot cup of cocoa settling in her muscles instead of her belly. But she knew it; every earth pony alive did.

Roseluck’s glowing eyes twinkled in response. “When I pulled my hoof back, there was a tiny sprout sticking up out of the dirt. We both know hooves can’t do that. But what courses through our hooves… that can.”

Roseluck set herself back down abruptly, letting a stray curl of emerald lightning dance through the air as she drew her hooves away and relaxed her shoulders.

“For the first time in… over a year, Applejack, I’d used magic. I had magic to use, and I hadn’t even realized it! And no small amount of it to make a seed sprout like that without using my horn,” she said excitedly.

A beat later, she calmed. Maybe she’d realized she’d been getting carried away and recomposed herself, though Applejack had a sneaking suspicion that something else was responsible.

“And… there was really only one place it could’ve come from,” she said, her voice dropping noticeably. “When I found that out… I realized how self-absorbed I’d been. I’d been too fixated on their cautiousness to ever wonder why they acted that way. And that’s when I took a step back and noticed things I should’ve seen all along.”

Roseluck looked down, her expression subduing further. “Lily, Daisy… they’ve always been a lonely pair. Nopony really paid any attention to them until I showed up, and they never were the outgoing types to begin with. And despite my best efforts… they grew attached. I don’t know when it started, I don’t know why it started. I just know that they wanted me – this –” she gestured to her chitinous, fanged, savage visage again, “—to stay with them. When I realized that, I figured out that I’d been looking at our problem all wrong.”

Roseluck shook her head, looking disappointed in herself for her past oversights. “I am a changeling. They are ponies. We are as different as two races can be… but only if we can’t see around it.”

Roseluck lifted her head again. Only this time, she wore a look so resolute and sure it was unlike anything Applejack had ever thought to expect from her. “I am a changeling… who has spent her life gardening and cultivating flowers, learning the intricacies of flower arrangement and living contentedly with the two she holds the most dear. And now, in her off time, she mediates the needs of a growing changeling community, like she was born to do a lifetime ago.”

She turned then; just enough to settle her twinkling eyes on Applejack. Without even realizing it, they’d come to a complete standstill in the hallway, but Applejack seemed entirely oblivious to that fact up until that moment.

“So, Applejack, forgive me if this seems like an entirely unnecessary question by now, but… who are you?”

Applejack stared, she blinked, and then she quickly looked away before her crumbling composure could betray her.

“Ah… am somepony with a lot ta think about.”

Roseluck seemed to fight back a chuckle or two. Then she did something that confused Applejack.

The drone lifted a hoof, started to reach towards her… and then just as quickly replaced her hoof back where it’d been. Rose didn’t even seem aware she’d done it; her expression didn’t even shift, though she wasn’t quite looking Applejack in the eye. What exactly she’d been intending to do, Applejack would never know, but for whatever reason it left her feeling just a tad dissatisfied.

“All I’m trying to say, Applejack, is that even if our species aren’t the same, our hearts are not so different. So… you shouldn’t give up on your friends yet,” Roseluck said bracingly. “As your advisor, I’d very much advise against it.”

Applejack couldn’t help but crook an eyebrow, bemused by the changeling’s sudden lapse into professionalism. “And what about as a friend, sugarcube?” she asked, smiling faintly.

It’d been a simple question – for a pony, anyway. Roseluck, however, was not a pony, and now she looked at the changeling queen like she’d just been blindsided. “As… as a friend?” she asked dumbly, blinking repeatedly.

It was the first time, in all the time Applejack had known her, that she’d ever seen the dutiful mare actually struck dumb. It really was a sight to behold; a changeling drone, frozen in place, eyes as big as dinner plates and mouth ever so slightly agape. To look at her, one would think Applejack had just asked her if she’d like to be a queen, too.

“Yeah, Rose, as a friend,” Applejack chortled, struggling to keep her grin polite.

With each passing second now, Roseluck started to restart. Applejack knew this, because with each passing second, the drone got steadily more and more flustered.

Now it was all she could do to look anywhere but at Applejack. “Oh! Oh gosh, um… well, uh, if I had to think… f-from a… a friend’s perspective…”

Applejack’s eyebrow was hitching up higher. “Yes?”

Roseluck shuffled nervously in response. “I’d… I’d have to say… that you should still believe in your… your friends because they… you know… are likely to have the same thoughts troubling them as well.”

Applejack exhaled through her nose and turned to face the end of the long, long hall ahead of her. What little grin she had on her face disappeared, leaving her looking pensive once again. “Ah don’t know how, but… there’s one way to find out fer sure.”

~~***~~

Applejack trotted in silence, eyes down and watching her own black hooves as she made her way down the length of a long hallway lined with towering arched windows so impractically huge only unicorns could’ve conceived them.

The sky beyond those windows was dark, brooding with a collection of storm clouds dappling the horizon. What little sky was visible had turned a spectacular shade of bloody crimson, like red-hot magma under a blackened crust that’d come to cover the heavens. It was getting late, no matter how much Applejack tried not to think about that.

Every now and then, Applejack’s attention would be grabbed by a flutter of movement outside a nearby window, and when she’d look, she find snow drifting from the sky – in oddly small patches. When she’d look up, she would find the culprits; squads of pegasi carefully and deliberately escorting relatively small bundles of black storm clouds around the highest spires of Canterlot Castle for some precision snow placement, likely a last minute effort to make sure everything was as enchanting as was equinely possible for the impending pageant.

The hall she found herself in was deserted for the most part, barring a few stationed guards who couldn’t help but glance in the changeling’s direction, scrutinizing her unusual appearance warily for any signs of a threat. Applejack was impervious to their looks, however; it wasn’t anything new, especially in the castle, and at least the guards had enough sense to not be obvious. Besides, she was plenty preoccupied with other things.

Having left Rose to attend to further changeling arrivals, Applejack was alone with her thoughts, which was a good thing; she still had much to sort through, and more to deal with. Likely she would need many long corridors such as this one before she worked through everything, but since she didn’t have the time nor patience for such a herculean task, she would have to make do with what she had on hoof.

Her slow, steady pace was giving Applejack the time she needed, at least, to organize her thoughts and compose herself anew for the task ahead, instead of stewing in her own malignant musings like she would be doing if she let her mind wander however it saw fit.

So she’d wandered along the scenic route back to the Great Hall to buy herself a few extra minutes; she had time still, and it wasn’t like she had no experience nor practice in her upcoming part. The mirror in the bathroom back home would attest to that if it could.

All things considered, she felt calm, unusually so. Usually at a time like this she’d be on guard, braced amply to take whatever her friends could throw at her when she saw them next. It was a trained response unfortunately, one that she’d only just gotten used to. Though, as recent events have shown, she thought, maybe not as much as she’d figured.

But now… now, she wasn’t as tense as she could’ve been. She was just… calm. Maybe she was getting used to being treated the way she was – an unpleasant thought, but a grudgingly plausible one. Or maybe…

Applejack paused to glance out a window, once again distracted by the weather ponies busily bustling through the sky with their little storm clouds, constantly gauging the spread of snowdrifts on the ground below.

Maybe, she thought to herself, she had something else nagging at her now…

It was with that in mind that she turned, lifted her gaze towards the end of the hall before her, and was on the verge of sinking back into the more tangled recesses of her mind… only to bear witness to something most peculiar in the distance.

For just a fraction of a second, she could’ve sworn she saw a something multi-hued flash from one side of the hall to the other. This event was followed by the more definite phenomena of a loud series of alarming bangs and crashes, along with a few telltale shrieks of terror and maybe an explosion or two.

Applejack stared for a long time, not entirely sure what she’d just witnessed – or if she should go get help – when she spotted a head poke out from around a towering marble column some thirty meters ahead of her.

At least, she thought it was a head. Whatever it was, it seemed to be partially wrapped in what looked like some kind of bright, toxic green banner, fixtures and all still attached with little stubs of stone on the ends from where it’d been ripped from the wall. Around the purported head hung a brass sign on a tangled length of chain, hitching it higher on one side than the other – a sign that read simply:

Royal Apothecary

Danger: Authorized Ponies Only

It was a very absurd sight, one that Applejack wasn’t sure if she should laugh at or be worried about.

She got her answer in no time at all at least, when the strange, tangled up creature suddenly cried out in a carrying – and all-too familiar – voice.

“Applejack! There you are!”

It was Rainbow. That simple fact shouldn’t have surprised Applejack quite as much as it did, but her brain still found itself unable to process the amount of information her eyes and ears were giving her.

Conversely, Rainbow was already in motion.

She tried to launch herself in the direction of the stalled changeling – tried being the operative word. After falling, flailing fervently and uttering a few choice profanities not fit for filly ears, she managed to untangle herself from the mess of fabric and metal, pause to kick a bit of bracketing off her hind leg rather casually, and then streak at breakneck speeds towards a still stationary Applejack in less time than it took her target to inhale a gasp and stand up straight in alarm.

Fortunately, the only thing to hit Applejack was the speedy pegasus’ tailwind. Rainbow managed to come to a screeching halt just before she could collide with anything else.

More alarmingly, however, Rainbow was staring at Applejack with wild eyes, looking so worked up that it was putting the changeling on edge.

“Applejack,” Rainbow blurted out, her words tumbling over themselves in their haste to get out. “I just want you to know that this wasn’t my idea.”

“Wha—”

That was all she got out before something else happened that she didn’t – or couldn’t – think to expect.

Rainbow lunged, moving faster than Applejack. Even then, it still took Applejack several very long seconds of feeling a pair of hooves around her neck to come up with some sort of explanation, no matter how strange it seemed to be.

For some reason, her friend seemed to be trying to gingerly throttle her. It was the only thing that made sense… as little of it there was. It could’ve been a hug, except Rainbow was leaning her head so far away from Applejack’s that one would think she’d suddenly developed a putrid smell. It was as if she was deathly afraid of touching one side of the changeling’s face with her own. A spot just behind one of her leathery ears, perhaps.

“Uh… RD… whatcha doin’?” Applejack asked uncertainly, her voice an octave or two too high. She still hadn’t ruled out the possibility that her friend was trying to kill her for some reason, and just happened to be really bad at it.

A moment later, an awkward Rainbow let her go and moved back. Yet, she seemed to now be frowning as well, as if dissatisfied. “I dunno; it was Pinkie’s idea,” she grumbled, tracing circles in the carpet with her hoof.

“… Beg pardon?” Applejack said, even more confused than before.

Rainbow gave her a really uncomfortable look, opened her mouth to say something – and was immediately cut off by a blaring noise.

CUT!” shrieked an irritated – and impossibly loud – voice right in Applejack’s right ear, causing her to flinch and jump a foot in the air.

And there, hardly a pony-length away off to one side, was a megaphone-wielding Pinkie Pie, who looked very cross indeed in her director’s chair. How she’d gotten there with so much stuff and still not made a single noise was a mystery no living thing would ever solve.

“Okay, from the top,” she said critically, “let’s do that again, only better. Like, five times better. Ooh! Maybe seven! Yes, seven times better! No wait, eight!... No, definitely seven.”

Now Rainbow was flustered. Applejack, meanwhile, had adopted the fitting look of a deer caught in the headlights.

“Come on, Pinkie!” Dash complained, “Can’t I do something else? This is so lame!”

“Uh… would somepony mind tellin’ me what the hay is goin’ on?”

“But Dashie!” whined Pinkie even more than the pegasus, “You’re trying to make up for getting Applejack mad, and as Granny Pie used to say, ‘when things are getting tough and a sorry is not enough, just hug it out and you’ll forget about… it… No, that doesn’t sound right…”

While the pink pony sat down and put a thoughtful hoof to her chin, Rainbow Dash squirmed, scowling in self-defense. “I know what we’re doing, Pinkie,” she griped. “I just don’t get why we have to do it like that! I mean, she’s wearing meh… mistle… She’s not a hugger,” she blurted loudly, which earned her a confused look from Applejack.

“Ah aint?”

No. You’re not.”

“Aw, but Dashie,” whined Pinkie, giving her best, most winningest smile she could. “It would look soooooo super cute!”

And just like that, Rainbow’s expression turned flat. “Okay, no,” she grunted shortly, turned to Applejack, and while still wearing the same expression, said, “Applejack, I’m sorry for hurting your feelings. We’re still cool, right?”

Applejack could only cock an eyebrow at her in disbelief, her brain reengaging. She may not have the whole story – Celestia knows if anypony did if Pinkie and Rainbow were collaborating – but she had a good inclination as to what was going on. “Is that the best ya can do?”

Rainbow pointed at the changeling’s chest threateningly. “Don’t. Push me,” she growled temperamentally. “I already know I messed up. There, I said it; happy now? I messed up and hurt your feelings and I’m an awful friend! What’s the point of me saying it, huh?”

The bite to her words, Applejack suddenly realized, was not aimed at her – not at all. Rainbow still looked at Applejack as if daring her to laugh or tease her for her comment, but the anger burning in her eyes looked less like anger, and more like pain.

But Applejack merely stood in place, nothing on her face but wide-eyed surprise, her mouth firmly shut.

Seeing that no snide comment was coming like she’d been dreading, Rainbow finally lost heart and glanced away, rubbing the back of her neck.

“Yeah, so… that’s all I was gonna say…” She managed to glance in Applejack’s direction, hold her gaze for a heartbeat, then avert her gaze all over again. “I’m… sorry. I won’t ever let it happen again, I swear.”

Even though Rainbow couldn’t bring herself to look her friend in her amber eyes anymore, she still gave her her undivided attention. That much was clear, considering the pegasus kept twitching every time the changeling so much as shifted her weight. Rainbow was keenly aware of every little reaction Applejack had to give, even if she was too embarrassed to look for it directly.

Even then, she did not expect what Applejack did next.

In one move, Applejack lifted one hoof, and knocked Rainbow on her forehead with a quick, disciplinary rap.

Rainbow recoiled with a yelp, her hooves flying up to her brow. But even stranger still was the sound that followed suit from her attacker; a single, low chuckle escaping through fanged lips.

“Rainbow, yer actin’ silly,” Applejack said, shaking her head in mock despair.

Even Pinkie stared in amazement.

“W-what was that for?” Rainbow griped, looking hurt.

“That,” Applejack said curtly through a polite smile, “was yer punishment. Now we’re even, sugarcube.”

Somehow, Rainbow had the nerve to look at her friend with wide-eyed astonishment. “That’s it?!” she gasped. “But-but, you were so mad! The last time I saw you, you looked like you were ready to buck somepony’s face in!”

Applejack pursed her lips – the better to hide her incredulity. “Ah’m gettin’ the feelin’ y’all have a real hurtful view of my disposition,” she said, fighting back her humor.

Immediately she had Rainbow backpedalling as fast as equinely possible. “N-no, I didn’t mean – I wasn’t saying –”

Another light smack on the forehead cut her off.

“Easy there, sugarcube,” Applejack said with a smile. “Ah’m only pullin’ yer leg. Ya don’t need ta get so worked up over somethin’ so small. Ah’m just fine, honest. All Ah needed was some time ta cool off.”

Rainbow still looked at Applejack like she simply couldn’t believe her ears. “Applejack, I’ve seen you get mad for weeks over smaller stuff than this. It hasn’t even been half an hour and you’re already over it?”

“Over it?” Applejack questioned back, her attitude noticeably cooling. “No. Ah don’t appreciate bein’ coddled and all y’all should know it. But…”

While Rainbow flinched, the changeling sighed, relenting. “… Ah know what y’all were tryin’ ta do, and the fact that ya were, after… everythin’, Ah guess… it means more than whatever ya did ta get on my nerves.”

Now Rainbow exchanged a look with Pinkie, who seemed just as lost as her partner in crime. “…Okay, spill it,” Rainbow shot, giving the amber-maned changeling a suspicious once-over. “What the hay happened after you left?”

Some of the mirth evaporated off of Applejack’s features, her teasing grin finally reined in by a more serious undercurrent. “Someone went and reminded me of somethin’ important,” she said simply. “Nothin’ more to it.”

She reached out and patted Rainbow on the shoulder, much to her surprise, all the while keeping her own amusement in check. “Y’all are my friends, sugarcube. We’ve been through thick and thin together. Ain’t nothin’ gonna change that.”

Applejack then leaned to one side – all the better to speak out over Rainbow’s unmoving shoulder. “The same goes for the rest of ya, too!” she called out.

She’d seen Rarity’s uniquely coifed tail sticking out around a distant corner, even if the rest of her was trying its best to remain unseen. And where there was one…

Sure enough, when a certain alabaster unicorn stuck her head out in the open, so did another, bashful pegasus.

Both guiltily made their way over to the rest of the group; Rarity, in her case, holding her chin up somewhat, owning up to her choices on some level while Fluttershy trotted along in her shadow, head held lower in apology.

“I’m ever so sorry for all of this, darling,” Rarity said, looking sincere at least. “We simply could not talk Pinkie out of it. But we also had to find some way to apologize for that mess we made for ourselves.”

“Yeah, and they picked me to do it,” Rainbow grumbled sourly.

“’Picked’?” Rarity echoed, shooting Dash a sidelong look that she deliberately did not return.

“We didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” Fluttershy said earnestly, ignoring the two in favor of Applejack. “We just didn’t want you to get hurt even more.”

“A lot has happened to you lately,” Rarity said, her tone dropping. “Why, having one’s whole world turned upside down is no small thing, even for somepony like you. Not to mention recent… losses.”

Rainbow shot her a warning glance, but Rarity showed no more signs of elaborating anyway. Still, it’d been the closest they’d all come to acknowledging the newest plot in the Apples' corner of the cemetery.

Even the slight mention brought a pang to Applejack’s heart, but she hid it. That pain was a pain she was accustomed to carrying.

Just as the mood was on the verge of dipping even further, it was saved by the loudest, cheeriest pony there.

“And we wanted to make sure you knew we weren’t being big meanies,” Pinkie chimed in. She was still smiling, but there was something more subdued than usual in her eyes. “Looking out for a friend is what a friend is supposed to do! Today is supposed to be a super special, amazing day for everypony as well as everyone! But we were trying a teensy bit too hard to make it super special for you, too. Soooo…”

A look of pure concentration crossed Pinkie’s features; the tip of her tongue poked out of the corner of her mouth while her eyes narrowed, sights locked directly on a motionless farmer. What nopony saw was Pinkie’s tail quite literally coiling like a spring to launch her out of her seat. Everypony figured out what she was doing, however, when she was catapulted forward, hooves outstretched to give Applejack the biggest, squeeziest hug she’d yet been subjected to by the party pony, and that was quite an extensive list.

It was the kind of hug only Pinkie could give; the kind that could melt even the coldest of hearts. Or, in Applejack’s case at that moment, cause borderline strangulation.

“Sorry,” whispered the most sincere, most apologetic voice Applejack had ever heard before in her ear. But when she turned, taken aback by that tone, Pinkie was just as bright and sunny as before, even if there was something not quite right to the set of her eyes.

“Changelings, ponies, it doesn’t matter when we’re all friends!” she said cheerfully. “Because that’s what we are; friends! And friends look out for each other!”

All of the ponies chimed in with agreement all around her. Rainbow, Rarity, Fluttershy, Pinkie; all were smiling. At her. Not her fangs, or her horn, or her strange eyes, or holes or wings. Her.

And that, right there, was the moment it clicked for Applejack. The moment Roseluck had described; the moment it hit her how wrong she’d been looking at everything.

She’d told herself she understood, that she got it. But it wasn’t until then that it finally sank into her. Her friends – Rainbow, Rarity, Pinkie, Fluttershy, Twilight – they were all struggling to hang on to the same as thing she was. Each other.

That also happened to be when Applejack’s composure went crack.

Pinkie squeaked when she was suddenly pulled in for a hug, Applejack hiding her face against her shoulder so that nopony could see it.

“Thanks, y’all. Just… thanks…”

She heard the pink pony giggle softly – so softly it was almost under her breath. She could just barely make out through Pinkie’s poofy, curly mane the shapes of the rest of her friends moving in all around her, but it did not distract her from Pinkie’s private response. “What are friends for, right?”

“Right…”

~~***~~

Twilight had a lot on her mind. Granted that wasn’t unusual, but… in this case, she had a lot to think about.

And for the past five minutes, most of that quote-unquote ‘thinking’ involved repeatedly smacking her head against a marble balustrade.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid!” she hissed at herself, punctuating each word with another headbutt. Either she was going to knock herself unconscious and – hopefully – cause irreparable damage to this annoying, bothersome thing between her ears, or she would cause enough property damage to have her thrown in the dungeons for being such a stupid, destructive filly and never be allowed in public again. At this point, she’d take either.

Twilight paused, a little wobbly on her hooves and feeling a little punch drunk to boot. She slumped onto the guard rail in front of her while she caught her breath and tried not to watch how the space in front of her rocked to and fro, like a ship at sea.

She was currently standing on a balcony overlooking one end of the Great Hall. Before her, the countless rows of seats stood on either side of an impossibly long, embroidered red carpet, which led all the way up to the expansive stage dominating the spacious hall.

Ponies in far better, less troubled moods than her still scuttled around the stage, putting the finishing touches on the sequestered orchestra pit, testing the lighting around the hall magically, and generally milling about, looking for last-minute details that had the gall to not be absolutely perfect for the rapidly approaching pageant. Meanwhile, the orchestra was tuning their instruments, filling the hall with a disjointed, almost eerie sound.

Twilight, however, stood alone on the empty, dimly lit balcony. Seats were behind her as well, and judging by the sheer extravagance of them, they were reserved for no common folk, who could be filing in at any minute.

The lavender unicorn didn’t care, however. She had enough tormenting thoughts to occupy her, thank you very much.

“Why? Why can’t I do this right?” she moaned despairingly. “Why do I keep messing up so… so… badly?”

The empty chairs behind her didn’t feel like giving her the answers to her woes. All she got was the distant tuning of instruments and muffled conversations of oblivious ponies.

Twilight groaned heavily, slumping still further until she was resting her cheek against the cold marble of the balustrade that ran the length of the balcony’s edge.

“Why can’t Applejack be… Applejack anymore?” she mumbled. “Is wanting her to stay the same really… so much to ask for?”

“You have some nerve, Twilight Sparkle.”

Twilight yelped, jumping upright at the same time. This time she had gotten a response from somepony standing almost immediately behind her.

She whirled around in shock, and there – standing only a few short feet away – stood an irritable Verily Vermillion.

To be fair, an ‘irritable’ Verily was hardly recognizable from how she normally was, except that there was now an exceptionally dangerous flash in her eyes, and her mouth – already thin to begin with – had become the thinnest of lines, as if surgically cut by a scalpel.

Before Twilight could say anything, Verily cut across her as she moved purposefully towards the balcony railing. “I understand that Applejack is a very busy mare of late, so her turning up late for our meeting was one thing. But then I find out you had disappeared completely… I do hope you and your friends are capable of summoning up more professionalism in the next hour before the pageant, Miss Sparkle. Need I remind you how many eyes will be watching if you don’t?”

Twilight was quailing under the clipped, icy fury emitting from Verily like frigid condensation. Perhaps irritable had been the wrong emotion. Downright angry might’ve fit better.

“S-sorry, Miss Verily,” Twilight stammered, all the while feeling like she was steadily shrinking in the livid mare’s presence. “I just… I needed to sort some things out. I promise everypony will be ready in time for the pageant.”

It was a hollow promise, and Twilight knew it. She could barely speak for herself, and how Applejack would even be able to stand to see her right now, let alone stand on stage and act with her was beyond her. And whatever solution there was, it would most definitely need more time than a measly hour to prepare properly.

Twilight was expecting Verily to say something, probably to the effect of being thoroughly unconvinced or at the very least letting her short temper be known, but to her surprise the mare remained unsettlingly quiet.

She watched Twilight out of the corner of her piercing eye, her expression unreadable and thoughts her own for some time, long enough for Twilight to turn back towards the hall, glum as ever.

When she did speak up again, her voice was oddly level, especially for what she said. “I have also become aware that you and your friends were making some rather untoward assumptions about me,” she said evenly.

Twilight’s reaction was satisfying; she flinched as if electrocuted, leaving her frozen for a moment or two in a state of shock before she could process the statement she’d heard.

“I-I… who told you that?” she stammered.

Verily cocked an eyebrow. “Is that really the first thing you should say to me?”

Again, Twilight winced, but this time she settled down into a gloomier demeanor. “No… you’re right.”

She then straightened up, turned to face Verily fully – an action that mildly surprised her, if she was perfectly honest – and held her head low.

“Miss Verily – or rather, Missus Verily – I’m sorry for jumping to conclusions over what kind of a pony you are. I’ve just been seeing the worst in so many ponies lately that I… No, that’s just an excuse. I should have considered everything more carefully. So… I’m sorry.”

Verily didn’t seem to react to Twilight’s apology. She continued to stand there, cool as a statue, utterly composed. Yet, the truth of the matter was that she was actually struck speechless. She was just very good at hiding it.

Twilight didn’t pick up on it – few ponies ever did. Only when Verily’s temper frayed did others seem acutely aware of her state of mind.

The lavender unicorn turned away with a heavy sigh, once again slouching onto the marble railing. “Ever since I… found out what my friend Applejack really is, it feels like I constantly have to protect her from the rest of Equestria. First Canterlot, then Ponyville… changelings haven’t left a very good impression on anypony lately.”

Twilight bit her lip and started fidgeting restlessly with her hooves. “It wasn’t always like this – I wasn’t always like this. But then again, Applejack wasn’t always a changeling to me…”

She trailed off, sinking deeper into whatever pit of worry and doubt she’d dug for herself.

Verily merely stood in silence, so stoic she could’ve given any of the Guard a run for their bits. Whatever agitation or restlessness she must’ve felt, she didn’t let any of it slip through her façade.

Twilight couldn’t help but notice that, which only further made her uneasy in the imposing director’s presence. It was as if Verily was waiting for something; perhaps an answer to some question Twilight had forgotten she’d asked.

But instead, when Twilight looked over at the red mare, something else came to mind entirely; or rather, someone.

“Miss Verily,” Twilight started, licking her lips apprehensively. “Or, I mean… Missus Verily… I know I’m in no position to ask you this, but if you wouldn’t mind… What is it like, being married to a changeling?”

Verily’s only reaction was to sweep her eyes back towards the distant stage, blank-faced. “What is it like having earth ponies and pegasi for friends?” she retorted coolly.

Twilight floundered for a moment, grappling with her usually quick-witted mind. “Th-that’s different.”

“Is it?” Verily asked, arching an eyebrow skeptically. “I can’t imagine how. Certainly we all have our physical differences, but I hardly pegged you for somepony with such superficial perceptions.”

Even in her depressed state, Twilight found it in her to feel a pang of indignation. “Changelings are very different from ponies,” she said petulantly. “They change shapes, they have no self-sufficient magic capabilities while being completely dependent upon magic for virtually every –”

“Yes, yes,” Verily cut across. Somehow she knew that if she’d let the studious unicorn finish her tirade, she’d only come away from it with an even worse headache than before. “All of which are physical properties. By the same token, all three pony tribes are vastly different from one another, and yet we all have found a way to come together regardless.”

Something seemed to catch Verily’s eye all of a sudden. Her attention snapped downward, focusing on something on the floor below.

Twilight couldn’t help but silently follow her gaze – down towards a stormy grey stallion standing amid a small troupe of stagehands and workers. He was motioning around, speaking to each pony in turn as he issued orders. And even from the considerable distance between them, when he turned his head, Twilight could just see a flash of something silvery around the base of his horn.

Twilight glanced back towards Verily, hoping to see some change in her expression – for once.

At first, she didn’t. Verily was just as stony faced as always, wearing her usual air of dominance like one might wear an elegant dress. It was mindboggling to think anypony so cold and unfeeling could ever find love in the first place, especially in something as unconventional as the impish looks of a changeling.

But the closer Twilight looked… no, maybe it was just her mind playing tricks on her. Such a faintly gentle softness to the stern mare’s features could’ve only been wishful thinking.

“To answer your question properly, Miss Sparkle,” Verily spoke up suddenly, causing Twilight to jump back a step. “I did not marry a changeling. I married Clover.”

Verily must’ve sensed Twilight’s mouth opening to say something completely uncomprehending, because before she’d gotten more than a single syllable off her tongue, Verily was speaking again.

“The difference, Twilight,” she said loudly in order to silence her, “is something, I think, you should already be aware of. The difference is perspective.”

Twilight blinked, first at being so rudely interrupted, and then again once her brain had processed the director’s last sentence.

“Perspective?” she repeated dumbly.

Verily nodded curtly. “As the saying goes, first impressions are always the most important. While the incident during Princess Mi Amore Cadenza’s and Captain Shining Armor’s wedding was without question the first impression changelings made on nearly every Equestrian, it was not mine. That is simply because I have known Clover for much… much longer.”

Twilight glanced back down, back towards the stallion far below. For a few moments, he continued to issue commands in Verily’s absence, indicating this way, motioning that, until suddenly something seemed to catch his attention, and after hastily finishing his instructions to a pegasus mare, he suddenly went galloping away, and disappeared beneath the edge of the balcony.

Twilight looked back up, right as Verily glanced sideways all of a sudden, instinctively making Twilight freeze. There was something in her eye; something not as indomitable or cold as the rest of her tried to appear, but authoritative nonetheless.

“To me, he has been ‘Clover’ long before he has been ‘a changeling’,” she said. “Had I met him a few months ago, however, our situation most likely would have been much different.”

Twilight couldn’t help but squirm under Verily’s scrutiny. “You… must care about him a lot,” she mumbled, and immediately set about mentally kicking herself for such an obvious statement.

Verily didn’t seem to notice. Or, at least, she didn’t feel the need to acknowledge Twilight’s state of mind. She just nodded, her eyes turning away – much to Twilight’s relief.

“I would not be where I am, were it not for him,” she said. For some reason, her voice had become dull and flat – until Twilight realized that that was likely as close to being soft spoken as the intimidating mare could get. “But that does not mean I take enjoyment in that fact.”

Twilight frowned, confused. “Why not?”

The scowl came back to Verily’s features, though she mercifully kept her attention elsewhere still. “I have made my fortune demonizing the one I love,” she stated bluntly, harshly. “I have spent the last fifteen years of my life pretending who I loved was what Equestria deemed to be a regular stallion, and now for the sake of my… reputation… I must keep up the charade.”

Her words took Twilight completely by surprise. Here she was, picturing Verily as a mare who stood solely focused upon her career, only to hear the mare herself spit out the word ‘reputation’ like a bit of phlegm.

“But… why?” Twilight asked, sounding small.

She didn’t know why she spoke up then; it took her brain almost as long to process that she had in fact said something as it did Verily, who slowly turned back towards her.

But Twilight licked her lips, squared her shoulders, and pressed on. She’d started it; she’d just have to finish it, too.

“If you care about him so much, why put up with a false front? Why not just… I don’t know…”

“Be brave?” Verily offered, catching Twilight off guard. It didn’t sound spiteful or derisive at all, but Twilight still found herself giving a few internal winces. “Stand up and be proud?”

“S… something like that, I suppose,” Twilight muttered, scratching her nose absently. “Somepony shouldn’t have to… have to lie just to make everypony else feel better. Wouldn’t it be better to stand tall and proud of who and what you are? If you care that much about somepony to put yourself through that, surely those closest to you would be there to support you in kind.”

As usual, Verily’s expression defied any attempts to dissect it. She looked at Twilight, her eyes unknowable.

“That is a very idyllic way of looking at things,” she said. “It is a pity so few others share it.”

Twilight squirmed a little. She wasn’t sure if she was being praised or made fun of, though given the mare’s mood, it likely wasn’t anything positive.

Verily looked away again, her eyes settling on the distant stage. “The truth is, Twilight, that sometimes a lie is easier to live with. Sometimes, to be the very best we can be for the ones we care the most for, we have to keep our weaknesses in the dark and let our actions speak louder. Because when we open ourselves up and expose our flaws, they become all others see, and they become blind to everything else that makes us special. Is it cowardice to hide from the judgment of others? Or bravery to forge ahead regardless and strive to shine brighter than our darkness? Or is it simply a coping mechanism to justify to ourselves the choices we make? That, Twilight, is all a matter of perspective.”

She sighed, and for the first time, she did something; her hoof came up and absently adjusted her black rim glasses, the lenses momentarily flashing in the light of the Great Hall below.

“If my peers found out about Clover, it would be over. All I’ve strived for, all I’ve bled and cried for; undone. My status as a rising star in the eyes of the elite in the industry would fade and I would become undesirable… flawed. I would not be Verily Vermillion, the director; I’d become Verily Vermillion, wife to a changeling. And nopony in high society would want to work with somepony like that.”

She stared out towards the stage; stared at it like it was the single most important goal in her life.

“I could live with it… in time, but I will not give Clover and… I will not settle for anything but the best life I can make for us. That is the only reason I continue along the path I’ve made.”

Twilight glanced towards Verily. She’d caught the hesitation in the director mare’s words, as finite a moment as it had been. Clover and… And who?

Obviously Verily could tell she’d spoken out of line, because she was scowling once more.

“And hopefully, someday, you will understand that for yourself,” she said, and turned to leave. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a pageant to –”

Both mares jumped as, unexpectedly, the door at the far end of the balcony banged open.

Twilight spun around, alarmed… only to witness something that froze her in place.

The first one she saw was Clover, who was sprinting for all he was worth, panting and wheezing like he’d been running flat out since he’d disappeared. “N-no… haah… stop right there… haah…!” he panted.

At first, Twilight couldn’t imagine who he was speaking to… until she heard the highest, most desperate squeaking sound she had ever heard.

“Muuu!”

Twilight spotted it at the same moment Verily did – a tiny, tiny shape shooting through the air, headed straight for the tall mare herself.

To her credit, Verily didn’t act in the least bit taken aback. She merely raised one hoof, and caught the little thing against her chest.

And that was when Twilight saw it; it’s miniscule wings, still thrumming frantically, its tiny black hooves curled up against Verily’s fuzzy chest, the nub of a pointy horn atop a small forehead… a miniature changeling, so utterly small and frail-looking, like a rag-doll given life.

It couldn’t have been more than a few months old, if that. Its mane was so short it was virtually non-existent. Its eyes were so big and round, though Twilight only caught the occasional glimpse – the tiny changeling was wholly interested only in burying its face as far into Verily’s breast as it could physically go, as if wanting to block out the whole world.

“I’m sorry, Verily,” panted Clover, sprinted up. “I don’t know what got into her.”

“It’s alright, Clover.”

That tone… it took Twilight completely by surprise. It wasn’t harsh, or stern, or anything like it’d been before. It was… soft. Maybe she’d just gotten so used to the normal brusque attitude of the mare, but now it seemed to her like Verily spoke with a voice as gentle as a purr.

Twilight turned to Verily. Again she found herself wondering what kind of expression she’d be wearing.

At first, she was disappointed. No smile was to be seen, momentarily throwing Twilight off. But the more she looked…

Verily’s eyes weren’t as severe as they once were. The set to her jaw, not as stiff. Her mouth, not as thin a line, either. It was akin to someone taking a picture of her, and airbrushing out all the sharp details and leaving only something… softer.

It was so subtle, so very subtle, but Twilight thought she could just see it. That as when the realization hit her like a ten ton sucker punch to the chest.

She could see it in Verily’s expression, in the way the hatchly silenced her fussing the moment she’d snuggled securely against Verily. For a moment, it was as if the whole world had ceased to exist around those two, and they simply enjoyed a moment that was burning itself into Twilight’s head.

“Muuu…,” cooed the baby changeling, already sounding drowsy.

“That’s right… I’m here,” Verily promised quietly. Then, in a slightly louder voice, “I suppose it can’t be helped. Clover? Would you mind?”

Now confusion came back to Twilight, restarting some portion of her brain. She finally tore her eyes away from the hatchling and looked up, just as Clover stepped closer to his wife.

He lowered his head, pointing his horn towards the innocent little creature cradled against Verily’s chest. Just a moment before his horn touched the tiny creature’s forehead, it glowed a bright, brilliant green.

When he touched his horn to the baby, that glow spread off of it, seeping down and across the tiny shape like running water, until it had completely enveloped the hatchling in a glowing green coating.

It hummed, growing brighter for a moment… and then it faded. And in its place, there was not a tiny black changeling; there was, instead, a small innocent unicorn foal with a coat of pink and a little fringe of yellow.

The baby blinked, as if it wasn’t entirely sure what had just happened. That was when she noticed Twilight, took one look at her, and promptly hid her face against Verily’s chest once more and refused to come back out.

“There,” Clover said, straightening up. “That should do for a few hours.” Then, he looked up questioningly towards Verily. “Are you sure you don’t want me to…?”

“Yes, Clover, I’m sure,” Verily said with a faint smile. “I could use her company.”

Her husband did not protest, but he continued to keep an eye on Verily, as if half expecting her to change her mind.

Verily looked down at the hatchling, and even if she didn’t smile, even if her eyes didn’t sparkle, Twilight could’ve sworn she was glowing.

I will not settle for anything but the best life I can make for us. That is the only reason I continue along the path I’ve made…

Verily’s words echoed through her mind again. Only this time, it was a different pony’s voice she envisioned. Not the one standing before her, but one out there, in the castle…

Ah ain’t gonna settle fer second best, sugarcube. Fer my family, fer my friends, it don’t matter. Ah will be the best pony Ah can be, no matter what…

That would be something Applejack would say… wouldn’t it?

Something moved, catching Twilight’s attention and returning her to awareness. Without her realizing it, she’d been staring at the little hatchling, and to her surprise, now she found it peeking at her, as if it didn’t think Twilight would notice.

Verily, however, did. She raised her head, and caught Twilight’s eye.

Twilight knew she should say something, but nothing immediately came to mind. For that matter, it felt like her brain had completely disengaged, some flywheel within its inner workings loose and spinning out of control without anything to connect to.

Then, Verily said something Twilight had not been expecting.

“Would you like to hold her?”

Twilight blinked… then blinked again. “U-uh,” said her mouth, “O… Okay.”

Verily stepped closer. Now Twilight felt like that loose flywheel was starting to rattle and bang around in her head, distressing everything else.

But there was no time to back out. Verily was standing right in front of her in only one long stride. Twilight could see the filly – such a small thing, smaller than a satchel, looking like a fuzzy pink piglet tucked behind Verily’s foreleg. Albeit, one with a nub of a horn.

As she drew closer, the filly turned her head, realized Twilight was staring, and immediately hid again.

Heart jackhammering a million miles an hour in her chest, Twilight reached out her hooves, just as Verily pulled the filly away from her chest.

The hatchling did not protest, or even resist. She only looked over her shoulder, as if she knew what was going on.

The moment Twilight felt the tiny creature’s weight place against one hoof, she felt a rush run through her body. She’d only ever guessed what a diaper actually felt like, and yet right then, she knew precisely what was coming to rest against her.

Then, just like that, she was holding her. The hatchling didn’t complain – this was something of a routine for her. She just looked up at Twilight, as if trying to figure out what she was. Certainly not “Muu”, but similar in a way. She didn’t seem able to make up her tiny, few-month-old mind whether that was a good thing or not.

Twilight, on the other hoof, was borderline freaking out. The machinery in her head had well and truly reached critical failure. This was nothing like when Missus Cake had let her hold Pumpkin Cake at the hospital.

… But why was that? Maybe it was because this hatchling was awake, and staring so curiously at her? Or something else?

Twilight licked her lips. “W-what’s her name?”

Verily watched the hatchling, who’d glanced back to her inquisitively, just taking in the sights. “Butterfly,” she said in response.

Twilight couldn’t help but feel slightly taken aback. Such an ordinary name… Maybe not the most stereotypical unicorn name, but ordinary nonetheless.

“She’s not yet old enough to maintain her own pony form,” Verily explained, “So, in the meantime, Clover must facilitate it himself.”

“We’re trying to keep her as out of the public eye as possible,” murmured Clover, looking on uncertainly. “At least until she’s older. And well… at least while she’s like this, she can’t fly…”

Twilight finally tore her eyes off Butterfly to glance at Clover, and take in how exhausted he was. In a way, he reminded her of Mister and Missus Cake before Pinkie took over foalsitting the twins.

When she looked down, she found little Butterfly looked up at her again, blink-blinking at her. Then, it was like she’d finally made up her mind on how to feel about the situation.

She turned back to Verily, and flung out her tiny hooves in her mother’s direction. “Muu!” she cooed, almost whined.

Twilight got the message. She relinquished the foal to her mother’s awaiting embrace, still feeling bent out of shape. The moment Butterfly was tucked up against Verily’s chest again, she immediately hid her face against her breast once more, and didn’t come back out.

“She’s still getting used to others,” Verily said. “This is the first time she’s been out in public in her whole life. It might have been safer to keep her at home with a nanny, but…”

Verily looked up; not to Twilight, but past her, out over the Great Hall, and towards the stage that waited impatiently for them all.

“This will be her first Hearth’s Warming,” Verily said. “Even if she’s too young to remember it, I want to make it the best it can be.”

Twilight looked out towards the stage, following Verily’s gaze, then turned towards Verily herself. Like magnets, her eyes were then drawn down to little Butterfly, who had yet to move behind Verily’s supporting foreleg.

Something very odd struck Twilight then. Not necessarily an emotion, but… a feeling she couldn’t quite process. Something that made her look down at her own forelegs, which had been occupied until just recently, and wonder absently why the suddenly felt so cold…

She’d been warm, Twilight realized. Soft, warm, and light as could be. Pumpkin Cake and been like that, too, she remembered, like a teddy bear left out in the sun. She remembered how she’d gushed over that little foal with the rest of her friends. And if she remembered correctly, Pumpkin Cake had cried for her mother, too, after Twilight had picked her up.

Two different foals… and yet, how different had it really been?

It no longer felt like her brain was rattling and shaking itself to pieces. The nerves, the panic, the irrational chaos of it all… it all subsided. There she was, and there stood Verily, holding Butterfly. As simple a picture as it could have been.

Because it was simple. Not complicated, not unknowable or abstract. A mother and daughter; that was what she was looking at. Not a mother who was a unicorn and a daughter who was a changeling, the sheer mechanics of which were mind boggling. No; just a mother and her daughter.

It was all just a matter of perspective…

It clicked then. The synapse fired that she’d been desperately hoping would fire in her head. The connection was made. And suddenly… she knew exactly what she would do.

“Twilight,” said Verily in a raise voice. She’d been about to walk right out of the room.

Twilight turned around, and found herself subjected to Verily’s piercing gaze. Only this time, though she knew it would cut right through her like a laser beam, she didn’t quail underneath it.

Verily scrutinized her with an unfathomable look, then said, “Do try not to be any later.”

Twilight hesitated, then nodded. “I promise, Verily.” She said, and with a bright flash of purple light and crack of magic, she was gone.

Verily continued to look in the same spot, her thoughts her own, before turning to Clover. “Tell the extras to get ready,” she ordered, her crisp manner back in force. “We’ve got a pageant to put on.”

~~***~~

Five mares walked through the vaulted doors of the Great Hall, talking animatedly to each other.

They were ignorant of the ponies filing in along with them, holding up tickets to catch the light and scanning over aisle numbers, looking for loved ones, and clambering for seats.

Already one section was full; an entire quarter of the room, all filled with uniform black shapes and big, curious eyes flitting this way and that.

Applejack stopped near the door and looked around. Even in her pony form, she felt certain that judgmental eyes were falling on her from the throngs of early ponies surrounding her.

But she pushed the feeling to the back of her mind. She had more important things to worry about.

“Okay, so; game plan,” Rainbow said seriously beside her, planting one hoof into the other fiercely. “We go in there, we talk some sense into Twilight, put on the biggest show in Equestria, and go home heroes. So, like… Fridays, but with sleigh bells and mistle… holly!”

Applejack ignored the misstep. “Pretty much.”

“We have to find her first,” Rarity said. “You know how she gets when she’s like this. For all we know she’s –”

Bam!

“Hi girls, no time to explain,” said Twilight hastily as the flash of arcane light faded around her, “Do you know where… oh.”

Twilight fell silent, her eyes falling on Applejack at the same time Applejack saw her. For a moment, it was hard to tell who was more surprised to see who.

Then, all of a sudden, Twilight stepped up purposefully towards Applejack. The set of her jaw alone was cause for Applejack to take an automatic step back.

“Applejack…,” she said, and it was clear by the hesitation in her voice that she hadn’t thought all the way through what she was going to say. But it came out anyway. “I’m… I’m not going to tell you sorry. Not yet. Because I feel like I’ve been doing nothing but say sorry for way too long. This time… this time I’m going to truly, truly mean it. N-not that I didn’t mean it before, but – I mean…”

“Twi’…”

“R-right, sorry,” Twilight said, shaking her head dismissively. “What I mean to say is… let me show you that I’m sorry, instead.”

Applejack looked at her, confused, curious, but not in the least bit hostile like Twilight had feared.

The rest of their friends stood by, silent – no thanks to Rarity stuffing a hoof into Rainbow mouth, much to her chagrin.

“Please?” Twilight said. “Just… one last time?”

This time, Applejack’s expression changed. A look of surprise took over. “Last time? Sugarcube, what’re y’all talkin’ like that for?”

“I-I know I messed up,” Twilight went on hastily, “but I want to –”

That was when Applejack stuffed her hoof into Twilight’s mouth, which made it very hard for her to babble on.

“Would ya give me a sec?” Applejack said irritably. “Landsakes, yer gettin’ carried away again.”

“But,” Twilight tried to protest, though it only came out as an unintelligible vocalization around Applejack’s hoof.

“Yer always so prone ta overreactin’, Ah swear,” Applejack sighed. “Look, this ain’t nopony’s last chance.”

Seeing the dumbstruck look on Twilight face, she finally let her speak again. “O-oh,” Twilight mumbled. “Eh… sorry. Guess I did get carried away again. It’s just… I don’t want to lose you as a friend. You know that, right?”

Applejack rolled her eyes, but her irritability vanished. “Lose me as a friend? Darlin’, y’all are goin’ to have to try a lot harder than that ta pull that off,” she said.

Twilight just shook her head. “Maybe not this time, but what about next time? Or the time after that? If things don’t change, I’m just going to keep messing up until you do hate me. So… let me make it up to you. Please?”

Applejack looked Twilight over, but said nothing at first. Perhaps… Rose had really been on ta somethin’… Same thoughts, huh…?

“Alright, sugarcube,” Applejack said after only a moment’s hesitation. “What did ya have in mind?”

Twilight would get to that in a moment – after she was finished giving Applejack a great big happy hug.

“Thank you, thank you!” she squealed. “I promise, you won’t regret it!”

Applejack chuckled lightly. She could hear the rest of their friends letting out a collectively held breath, their relief almost palpable. “Well then, what did ya have in mind?”

Twilight abruptly let her go and took a step back. Her eyes were sparkling, her features brighter and more eager than they’d ever been before. “Okay, but we’re going to need a little help.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “What kind?”

Twilight answered that with a question of her own; one that was perhaps the most unexpecting thing to come out of her mouth all night.

“You wouldn’t happen to know where Derpy is, would you?”


Author's Note:

Changeling Fun Fact: when they are newborn, changelings cannot transform under their own power. They simply don't have the motor skill to perform the task, even if they would have the magic to do so. The ability usually manifests after they reach a year to 18 months of age. A changeling's first transformation is usually one of their own design, created by their own vivid imaginations (Example: Applejack, Hyacinth, Vigil). In an emergency, though, an adult changeling can cast a certain spell to disguise a hatchling, particularly useful if the changeling is replacing a mother, or trying to pass off a hatchling as a mother's foal for a few hours. It won't last long, though, so it's used as more of a temporary solution to something.
In the context of this story, Equestrian changelings use it most when moving through public, in order to protect their children. Drones are particularly protective of hatchlings, however - viciously, in some cases, so it is very rare that a hatchling as young as Butterfly would ever see the outside of a hive, or any further than the innermost layers of said hive for that matter.

Now, off to see... Derpy?

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