• Published 16th Jun 2020
  • 484 Views, 11 Comments

The Power of Two - Locomotion



A young changeling runs away from home, only to be attacked by timberwolves in the Everfree Forest. Fortunately, Locomotion is on hoof to save her - but little do they know that she has a spy on her tail...

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Chapter 11: Secrets and Lies

The following Tuesday afternoon, Locomotion was shopping for groceries in Market Square. It was meant to be Steamer's turn, but he had been working late the previous night, so the red-furred teenager had had to go out in his place while he looked after Hornette.

Locomotion didn't mind, of course. At least it gave him a chance to stop and chat with his friends; something he hadn't had the time to do since he and Steamer had taken Hornette in. If there was one thing that bothered him, it was that almost every shopkeeper or stall owner he met seemed to have something to say about the young changeling – and very little he wanted to hear. Some were asking if he himself was alright, others were outright discrediting her, and one even wished him luck in a way that sounded as if she knew something suspicious.

Though he tried not to show it, Locomotion found it increasingly annoying, and was glad when he found he had only one more stall left to visit. Why could nopony else just sort their lives out and leave poor Hornette alone, he thought crossly? They didn't even know her, let alone whether she was up to anything malicious, so what right had they to smear her name like that?! But his internal gripe was quickly brought to a halt by three familiar voices from the vicinity of his final destination.

“At least somepony understands her,” he murmured thankfully.

Apple Bloom was in charge of the Apple Family stall that day, and Scootaloo and Sweetie-Belle had stopped by for a friendly chat. Scootaloo was the first to notice him approaching. “Oh, hullo, Loco,” she said cheerfully.

“Hey there, girls.”

“Howdy, Loco,” chimed in Apple Bloom. “Business or pleasure?”

Locomotion smirked wryly as he pulled out his shopping list. “Well, let's put it this way, Apple Bloom – it's always a pleasure doing business with you,” he replied, earning an amused chuckle from the yellow Earth mare. “I'd like a four-pack of apple juice and two dozen Red Delicious, please.”

“Comin' right up. By the way, did ya want some apple fritters?” offered Apple Bloom as she began bagging up his order.

“How much are they going for?”

“Eighty cents a fritter, or three fo' two bits.”

“Ah, well, in that case, I'll take six,” decided Locomotion. “Might as well, considering how much Hornette liked 'em when we were having lunch with you guys.”

“Actually, speaking of Hornette,” piped up Sweetie-Belle curiously, “how is she doing at the moment?”

Locomotion frowned and looked at his hooves. “Not bad,” he answered in an off-hoof tone. “At least Uncle Steamer's not as wary of her as some other ponies I could mention.”

“Such as?”

“Don't ask,” muttered Locomotion, his frustration beginning to bubble to the surface again. “It's always the same blinking story wherever I go – all I want is to get the shopping done and get back home, and all anypony seems to do is come up to me and go 'Oh, you wanna watch out with that changeling, Loco, she's gonna drain you of your love and leave you for dead one of these days'! Honestly, what in the hay happened to the friendly backwater that Ponyville used to be?! That would have been the perfect home for a conscientious changeling who never even deserved...”

“Hey, hey, cool it, Loco,” interrupted Scootaloo, a look of anxiety crossing her face, “you're ranting again.”

“And why not?” went on Locomotion, raising his voice. “Does nopony else even realise just how much they're hurting the poor girl's feelings?! Hornette may be a changeling, but that doesn't make her any less flesh and blood...”

“Loco, fo' ponies' sake, calm down!” bellowed Apple Bloom, cutting him off once again. “Yo' makin' an exhibition of yourself!”

Suddenly realising how edgy he had just been, the red-furred unicorn sighed heavily and began scuffing the ground with shame. “Sorry, Apple Bloom,” he mumbled ruefully. “I'm just so hacked off by all this idle gossip. It's as if I'm the only one who can see the real Hornette – who even wants to see it, for that matter.”

The three mares exchanged sympathetic glances as they took in his words. Locomotion had stood up for them several times in the past, especially with Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon; but at least he had other ponies to back him up in their case. With Hornette, it seemed he was quite right – aside from close family and the Friendship Council, the only thing anypony else seemed to see in her was yet another threat to Equestria.

“Well...I do, for a start,” said Scootaloo at last.

Locomotion rolled his eyes, unconvinced. “Yeah, right – you'd probably chew her out as soon as look at her.”

“No, really, Loco, I'm serious!” insisted Scootaloo. “I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm a little apprehensive about meeting this Hornette, but neither Sweetie-Belle nor Apple Bloom have had a bad thing to say about her, so why should I? That's more Dash's shtick than mine.”

“I'm guessing she's none too happy about the whole thing,” surmised Sweetie-Belle.

Scootaloo nodded gravely. “Yeah, she's been griping about it non-stop since Twilight told us two weeks ago. I guess she still hasn't gotten over the whole Canterlot invasion malarkey.”

“I'm surprised you have,” said Locomotion dubiously. “Honestly, what happened to the single-minded Rainbow Dash fangirl?”

The orange-coated filly chuckled almost derisively. “Aw, please!” she retorted with a smirk. “Just because I look up to Rainbow Dash doesn't mean I side with her all the time. Remember that Applewood Derby a few years back?”

“Uh...I think so. What, did you seriously fall out with her back then?”

“Yeah, sort'a. It was only meant to be us three with our sisters' help, but then they got all carried away and started taking full control over the whole thing.”

“You were probably away in Manehattan at the time,” put in Apple Bloom.

Locomotion could only nod wryly in response. “Yeah, 'cause Rail-Con fell on the same weekend,” he recalled. He turned back to Scootaloo with an almost plaintive expression; “But seriously, Scoot, you wouldn't joke about such a sensitive subject...would you?” he all but pleaded with her. “She's seen no end of trouble even before I took her in...”

Scootaloo chuckled again and held up a hoof, silencing the red-furred stallion before he got too carried away. “Loco, it's okay,” she soothed. “I give you my solemn word as a Cutie Mark Crusader that I'm more than willing to give her a shot. Let's just hope me and Soarin can convince Rainbow Dash to do the same.”

At any other time, Locomotion would have chortled lightly at her pledge, given how the three mares seemed to overuse their collective title; but after dealing with so much flak on Hornette's behalf, he found himself welcoming it more than ever. “Thanks, Scoot,” he said quietly. “I guess I kinda needed that.”

“No problem,” smiled Scootaloo. “At least Soarin seems to be warming to the idea, even if it did come as a shock when Twilight told us about her.”

“When are y'all gonna be meetin' up, anyways?” inquired Apple Bloom, who had just finished gathering his purchase.

“Not until the day after tomorrow, according to Twilight,” answered Locomotion, pulling out his wallet. “She said we were to make acquaintance with Pinkie Pie first.”

Sweetie-Belle nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, I can see the sense in that. Give both parties enough time to get used to the idea of meeting up, and gain her a few more allies in the process, right?”

“Yes, that's the whole idea – present Rainbow Dash with an unassailable majority within the Friendship Council, and hopefully, that'll lower her guard.”

“Well, let's just hope it works out.” Apple Bloom paused to count the change Locomotion had laid on the counter. “Yup, thirteen bits an' twenty cents, that's great. Y'all off home then, Loco?”

“Yep,” affirmed Locomotion, already feeling much happier as he packed his goods into his almost full saddlebag. “See you later, girls; and thanks for your reassurance.”

“That's okay, Loco,” said Sweetie-Belle. “Say hi to Hornette for us.”

Locomotion promised he would, and ambled away with a small, grateful smile on his face. So what if Rainbow Dash was going to be so difficult about the whole issue, he thought optimistically – at least Scootaloo and potentially Soarin would stand up for Hornette when they met her. But his good mood was all too soon cut short when he noticed something black up ahead.

“Oh, D-rat!” he growled with anguish. “You just had to pick the most convenient time, didn't you?!”

Sure enough, Diesel was at the end of the road, talking with an unfamiliar green Earth stallion. Neither pony seemed to be paying much attention to what was going on around them, but Locomotion was taking no chances; thinking quickly, he bolted towards a nearby alley as quietly and as swiftly as he could, trying not to arouse suspicion. Once he was hidden away between the buildings, he cautiously looked over his shoulder, only to find the alleyway almost empty. With a sigh of relief, he continued on his way – but no sooner had he left the alley than...

“Well, well, well, if it isn't the changeling tamer I met last week. And how are we this fine day?”

Locomotion cursed inwardly, but tried not to lose his patience as he walked right past the shady black Pegasus. “Not now, Diesel,” he said sternly. “I'm very busy right now, so if you'll excuse me, I'll be on my way.”

Diesel continued to shadow him. “Oh, but surely a gentlecolt like you would at least make a little bit of time for his friends?” he prodded innocently.

Not for you, at any rate, thought Locomotion, gruffly staring straight ahead and pretending not to notice. All he wanted was for this obnoxious pony to get off his case and leave him alone.

“Or is this to do with that little pet changeling of yours?”

Locomotion spun round sharply. “Excuse me?!” he snapped. “Hornette is not my 'pet', thank you so very blasted much! She is her own person, and she is entitled to make her own choices!”

“Ah, but do you think that's wise? We all know what changelings are really like,” went on Diesel cryptically. “Sure, she says she wants safe haven, but who's to say she won't get bored of living in this sedentary town? What's stopping her from moving out and leaving you behind for good?”

The red-furred unicorn frowned and looked away. As much as he hated to admit it, Diesel had a point – maybe Hornette wouldn't think of Ponyville as her true home. Maybe she would indeed pull up her sticks again, and set off in search of the Promised Land she had so often dreamed about in her youth. The mere notion almost brought a mournful frown to his face; but he only just managed to compose himself. “Oh yeah? And what's stopping you from finding a job here like you said you were?” he retorted.

“Oh, please, I have all the time in the world for all that rubbish,” said Diesel, as if he couldn't care less. “Besides, somepony has to look out for the likes of you, knowing what dangers these overgrown bug ponies can pose.”

The only response he elicited from Locomotion, however, was little more than a dramatic eye-roll and a mutter of, “I don't have time for this,” as he stomped huffily onwards. But Diesel wasn't finished yet – just as Locomotion had advanced a few yards, he uttered something that made the red-furred stallion's blood run so cold that he might as well have been an iceberg:

“Deary me, Locomotion, you're even more blasé than I thought.”

Locomotion stopped again, his heart skipping a beat. “How do you know my name?” he demanded, with more strength than he felt.

“Now, now,” goaded Diesel, “no need to look so surprised. I should think there are very few ponies who don't know about you, and your incredible achievements – oh, but where to begin?” he continued furtively. “How about...learning to drive an express train at the age of six? Or maybe giving a bigoted principal at a school in Manehattan a much-needed dressing down? Such marvellous feats on your part, I must say; and so good of that pony at the train depot to tell me all about you.”

“Which pony?”

Diesel smirked broadly. “Why, one of your relatives, I believe – such a polite old brick, and so full of praise for you too. I just wish I could remember his name,” he added, feigning dismay. “Something to do with those...cloud things that come out of a train...Smokey, I think...or was it Vapour...Cardinal Puff, perhaps...?”

Locomotion's eyes narrowed as he listened to Diesel rambling on. Somehow, he had a nasty feeling who he was referring to...


“...he said what?!”

“That's right,” affirmed Locomotion grimly. It was late in the evening, and he, Hornette and Steamer had had their dinner ages ago. “For whatever reason, Diesel seems to know all there is to know about me – even some of my lesser known achievements. And apparently you were the one who told him about them.”

“I did nothing of the sort!!” spluttered Steamer indignantly. “I've never even met him before – and even if I had, do you seriously think he'd get anything out of me?”

“And you're absolutely certain you didn't mistake him for somepony else?”

“Of course I am! The only pony I spoke to last night was Max; and even then we were more focussed on the Special Train Notices than family and friends!” insisted Steamer defensively. “Get Twilight to probe my mind if you don't...”

“That won't be necessary, Steamer,” interrupted Twilight, who had arrived only a quarter of an hour ago to refresh Hornette's suppression spell. “I've already had a report from Flash – apparently, No. 2 Section of the 1st Pegasus Platoon sighted a pony in Sweet Apple Acres last night who matches Diesel's description.”

Steamer perked up. “When exactly?”

“About the same time you returned; and Superintendent Max Pressure confirms that no such pony was seen around the depot at any other time.”

Locomotion's eyebrows straightened. “So Diesel really was lying all along. I thought as much,” he muttered gruffly to himself.

“Yeah, but what I don't understand is how he learned so much about you in the first place,” said Steamer, too confused and anxious to feel relieved at his own exoneration. “I mean, Horse Junction was all over the papers, but mastering 'City of Cloudsdale' so young? Hardly anypony knows about that outside of close family and friends.”

“Yeah, and the whole business with me and the Crusaders taking Principal Cinch down a peg or twelve,” added Locomotion, staring at Twilight. “I thought you'd hushed it all up during the tribunal.”

Twilight nodded gravely. “All the accounts you gave me from that day were classified to protect your reputations and identities. And yet,” she observed, arching a dubious eyebrow, “somehow, that information – and much more besides – has found its way into the wrong hooves.”

“Well, I don't like it. Whatever this Diesel punk is up to, there's no way it can be anything good if he's prepared to filch info on me.” The red-furred unicorn gazed out of the window, trying to make sense of this disconcerting enigma. “I wouldn't be surprised if he turned out to have a criminal record or something.”

“That's just it, Loco,” went on Twilight. “I've already had a reply from City Hall, Whinneapolis, and they don't have so much as a scrap of information on an Electro Diesel – no criminal records, no medical insurance number...not even a close match in terms of appearance.”

“So what, you think he might be some kind of spy?”

“Quite possibly – but obviously not from Royal Intelligence, otherwise I'd have had it in writing from Princess Celestia ages ago.”

“Well, why not just raid his house and bring him back to the castle for interrogation?” asked Steamer, agitated.

“Easier said than done,” said Twilight, shaking her head. “We don't even have his address; and even when we try arresting him in public, he manages to evade us every time.”

“So we can't even issue a restraining order on him?”

“I'm afraid not, Loco. All we can do is consult with the main records office in Canterlot and see what they come up with; but frankly, I'm not holding my breath,” finished Twilight doubtfully.

Locomotion gazed at the floor with an uneasy frown. “Well...thanks, Twilight. I guess I'll see you tomorrow, then.” He watched unhappily as his uncle showed Twilight to the front door, the memory of his earlier clash with Diesel eating away at him like a woodlouse on a fence post. Only when Steamer returned to the dining room did he finally voice what was on his mind. “Cripes, Hornette's gonna find this very reassuring – I don't think,” he muttered glumly, his voice heavy with irony.

“Yeah, I'm really starting to hate that guy,” agreed Steamer. “I'll be glad when Twilight does manage to shed a bit of light on the whole thing.”

“You and me both, Uncle,” sighed Locomotion, turning his gaze towards the stairs. “Anyway, I'm gonna go see how Hornette's doing. She'll want to know what we've been discussing.”

Steamer nodded understandingly as his nephew trotted past. “Alright then, Loco. I'll take care of the washing up.”

“Thanks, Uncle Steamer.” The red-furred unicorn made his way upstairs, still brooding over how Hornette would take the news – but just as he was about to knock at her door, he became aware of a sombre melody coming from the other side. Puzzled, he surreptitiously undid the latch and, as the door quietly swung open, he peered curiously into the room; only to be awestruck by what he saw. Hornette was leaning against the window sill, singing quietly up at the moon. Her voice was soft and delicate, like the gentle touch of a mother's hoof, and the words she sang flowed with all the emotion of a Disney heroine longing to find her place in the world.

Locomotion looked on, transfixed. He had never heard anything so solemn and melodic since hearing Sweetie-Belle sing for the first time. Only when Hornette finally fell silent did he find his voice. “Wow,” he breathed admiringly. “That was beautiful.”

Realising that she was no longer alone, Hornette gazed over her shoulder with a humble half-smile. “An old friend sang it to me once,” she explained. “I was at a really low ebb, almost ready to give up my quest for the Promised Land; but she encouraged me never to lose faith, and to keep following my dreams.” She returned her gaze to the window with a distant look in her eyes. “Sometimes, when I'm feeling low, I like to sing that very same song to try and keep my spirits up,” she went on, “to remind myself that there's still hope for creatures like me.”

“And quite right too,” agreed Locomotion softly. “I'm kinda surprised I never heard you sing before, though.”

Hornette smiled ruefully. “I was usually alone when I did. Queen Chrysalis never allowed it back home. Do you...do you really like it?” she ventured.

Locomotion nodded without hesitation. “I get a bit...irritated if anyone sings the slightest bit out of tune; but you sounded like a true professional,” he said. “Heck, you could probably put even the likes of Coloratura and Lavender Rhapsody to shame with that voice of yours!”

Despite having no idea who Coloratura or Lavender Rhapsody were, Hornette could only blush with pride; but her smile faded again as a disheartening thought occurred to her. “Loco,” she stammered, hanging her head and averting her gaze, “do I ever...intimidate you?”

“Eh? Of course not,” objected Locomotion. “Well...apart from that one time when I first laid eye on you, that is,” he added lamely, “but only because I didn't know what to expect. Why do you ask?”

“Because of what Diesel had been saying,” replied Hornette gloomily. “What if he's right about me being a danger to you ponies? What if I really am just a spy?”

Locomotion's perplexed gaze gave way to a look of gentle reproach. “Have you been eavesdropping on us?”

“I didn't mean to. I was just so worried when you said you bumped into him earlier.”

But far from the stern admonition she was expecting, Locomotion just smiled wryly. “That's okay, Hornette. Truth be told, I've been guilty of that sort of thing myself once or twice – particularly when I think others are talking about me behind my back. Besides, I'd have an easier time believing you'd been banished than sent up here as a spy,” he went on feelingly. “Diesel's just trying to muck us about, trying to make us question our trust in each other.” He allowed himself a small smirk as he stared out of the window, almost expecting to see the shady black Pegasus hovering outside. “At least we have a princess and some memory scans to back up our case.”

Hornette managed to smile weakly at this. “Yes, I'd forgotten all about that,” she remarked quietly. “Speaking of Twilight, what did she find out about him?”

Locomotion's smirk changed to a worried frown. “Well...only that my earlier hunch about him not being from Whinneapolis was correct – but other than that, nothing,” he confessed. “We don't even know if he's had any past convictions.”

“Is there any other way we can find out?”

“Only by searching through the Canterlot records office; and even that could take several weeks...or even months.” Seeing the look of uncertainty in Hornette's eyes, Locomotion leaned forward and patted her shoulder comfortingly. “Don't you worry, Hornette. Whatever Diesel's up to, we're sure to expose him yet – and if he thinks he can waltz up and start playing the fool with us one more time, I'll be more than happy to give him something to 'play the fool' with.”

The smile returned to Hornette's face as she took in his words of reassurance. “Yeah, I guess you're right,” she conceded. “I guess I should be grateful to have such friends as you and Twilight.”

Locomotion smiled back, but only briefly. “Just one thing, Hornette...” he added hesitantly, not wanting to strike a raw nerve, “...if you ever do decide to move on...”

“Eh? Why should I?”

“Because of your wish for this so-called Promised Land. I don't wanna stop you trying to find it, but if you do...you won't forget me, will you?”

Hornette couldn't be certain, but she could have sworn she heard Locomotion's voice starting to crack as he spoke. Her instincts took over, and after quickly checking that nopony else was looking (she wasn't sure why), she took his front hooves in hers and gazed sincerely into his eyes. “After all you've done for me, Loco,” she whispered, “I don't think I ever could. I don't even know if I'll be leaving anytime soon – at least not as long as I pass my probation.”

“Won't you?” asked Locomotion, perplexed. “But I thought...”

The young changeling cut him off with a wistful nod. “I still do,” she affirmed, “but none of my kind really know where the Promised Land is. It could be anywhere in the world...” chuckling slightly as an unlikely thought occurred to her, “...goodness knows it might even be here in Equestria.”

I sure hope so, thought Locomotion, forcing a small chuckle of his own as he returned her gaze. Very rarely had he found himself parting ways with a close friend in the past, and the young changeling was growing to be the best he had ever had; indeed, the mere notion of Hornette settling down in Ponyville for good warmed his heart like fire in an engine's boiler. But at the same time, a small part of him was a little afraid that she might yet change her mind – and if so, what were the chances she would forget about him?

“Well, you could be right,” he mused, quietly shunting his woes into a lonely siding at the back of his mind. “Anyways...you want your story? It's nearly nine o'clock.”

“Oh...yes please. Just let me use the bathroom, and I'll be right back.” With a cheerful smile of anticipation, Hornette went to clean her teeth and brush her mane while Locomotion trotted off to his own room, still deep in thought.


Despite his anxiety about Diesel, Locomotion at least managed to get a mediocre night's rest. He was still a little perturbed when morning came, but tried not to let it distract him as he began making breakfast; hopefully, he told himself, a hearty chat with Pinkie Pie might help them forget their troubles.

But when he and Hornette left for Sugarcube Corner, the red-furred teenager found himself on tenterhooks again. Due to an important audience, Twilight had been unable to escort them to the bakery that morning, so they had agreed to meet her there instead. Secretly, Locomotion wasn't the least bit comfortable with this arrangement – even with Twilight accompanying them, Hornette had been receiving more than her fair share of cold stares, but Celestia only knew what could happen now that they were on their own. Not wanting to worry Hornette as well, he attempted to make small talk with her in a bid to soothe his nerves.

“Hornette,” he ventured, “just out of curiosity...when you think of the Promised Land, what do you imagine it as?”

The young changeling giggled wryly. “What else?” she replied. “A land of peace and harmony, where all creatures can live their lives as equals – ponies, changelings, griffins...even the more vicious kinds like bears or dragons.”

“And the wildlife?”

“Lots of lovely meadows and woodlands, with all kinds of cute little animals.”

“Does it have railways?”

“Um...probably,” decided Hornette with a soft smile. “To be honest, no such thought had ever crossed my mind before I met you.”

Locomotion let out a light chuckle. “Yeah, 'cause you never had them out in the Badlands, did you? And no wonder,” he added, seeing Hornette shake her head in response; “from what I've been told, you'd be lucky to find enough water to keep the engines going, let alone coal or firewood.”

“It's a miracle we even had enough for ourselves,” agreed Hornette. “You're the lucky ones, Loco, having such a lush, cool climate and so much sustenance around you.”

“Yeah...very lucky indeed,” sighed Locomotion, gazing thoughtfully up at the sky. Hornette sure wasn't wrong, he thought – with the description she had given of her old homeland, he didn't fancy his chances of ever visiting that...dreadful place, especially not as long as Queen Chrysalis was in power. But what would happen when she finally passed away – if ever? Would the next king or queen rule with the same iron hoof as she was doing now? Or would they realise the effects of her tyranny and attempt a reform? And more to the point, who would succeed her? Thorax would have been an appealing candidate were he still around; but then again, given what Spike and Hornette had told him, he was probably out of the question already...just like a certain other pony he used to know...

“Loco? Is something wrong?”

“Eh?” Locomotion quickly snapped out of his reverie to notice Hornette gazing at him with deep concern. “Oh...nothing,” he murmured awkwardly. “Just kinda drifted off in thought, that's all.”

Hornette cocked her head with anxious curiosity. “What were you thinking about?” she asked.

Locomotion fell silent again. He didn't want to hide anything from her, but at the same time, he didn't feel too comfortable sharing these particular thoughts. If anything, he felt far too much pain in his heart to make them known to anyone, let alone a young changeling whom he had only...

“Hey, Loco,” a casual voice interrupted his mental quandary.

The red-furred stallion turned his head, perplexed – and was pleasantly surprised when he saw the source of the voice. “Oh, hullo, Surfie,” he remarked. “What are you doing here? I thought you were at summer camp.”

“'Surfie'?” Hornette followed Locomotion's gaze to notice a pink pre-teen unicorn filly trotting across the road towards them. She was smiling cheerfully as she approached, but this was replaced with a look of deep disappointment the moment Locomotion mentioned the words 'summer camp'.

“They had to cancel at the last minute because of a forest fire,” the filly explained unhappily. “I only found out when my train arrived at Trotley Ferrers.”

“Oh...I'm sorry to hear that,” answered Locomotion sympathetically. “But hey, at least now you get to meet Hornette in person,” he added, trying to lighten the mood.

“Oh, what, the changeling?” asked the filly, perking up.

“Yep, that's the one,” affirmed Locomotion, and cocked his head towards the young insectoid.

The filly smiled again, and held out a hoof for Hornette to shake. “Nice to meet you, Hornette,” she said politely. “I'm Surfing Star – call me Surfie.”

“Hi,” replied Hornette, shyly accepting.

“So how have things been with you, Loco?” went on Surfie.

“Not too bad, all things considered. It's all been a bit hectic, what with looking after Hornette, helping her to settle in – even introducing her to the Friendship Council as per the terms of her probation.”

“Oh right?” said Surfie, interested. “How come they wanted to introduce themselves so soon?”

Locomotion raised a hoof to his chin as he pondered the question. “Do you know, I never really thought to ask,” he observed. “Maybe I'd better bring it up with Twilight; she promised to meet us at Sugarcube Corner this morning.”

“Oh, well that's convenient,” mused Surfie. “I'm headed that way myself, to discuss my birthday party plans with Pinkie and the Cakes.”

“Oh, right...” but Locomotion quickly broke off as a sudden realisation struck him. “Aw, cinders and ashes,” he cursed himself in dismay, “I completely forgot!”

“Eh? What's the problem?” wondered Hornette, confused.

“Surfie's gonna be turning thirteen on the 28th of this month,” explained Locomotion. “I promised her I'd be attending her birthday party, but I'm not sure that's gonna happen now.”

“Why not?” quizzed Surfie. “Are you on duty that night?”

“No, I haven't been anywhere near the sheds for nearly three weeks now. It's just...I don't know if I dare leave Hornette in the house on her own,” not even bothering to explain why, “but I'm just as worried she might not be able to cope with so much company – if you follow my meaning.” He frowned and furrowed his brow, trying to think of a quick and easy solution. “Perhaps if I asked Fluttershy or Miss Cheerilee...”

“You don't need to, Loco,” soothed Surfie before Locomotion's anxiety could get any worse. “If it's any help to you, I'd actually quite like to see more of her at my party. And don't worry about the crowds; we'll make sure she feels safe and welcome.”

“You will?” asked Hornette tentatively.

“Of course we will,” smiled Surfie. “Twilight told us all about you. We'll try not to take you out of your comfort zone, I assure you.”

The only response Hornette could manage was a shaky smile of gratitude. Locomotion's family may not have known her, she realised, but they sure were being lenient towards her – maybe more so than she deserved. She wanted to say something, but before she could even think of a suitable verbal response...

“Aww, what a sweet sight – so sweet it's giving me toothache.”

Locomotion swung round sharply, only to let out an exasperated sigh when he saw who had just spoken. “Ugh, not you again,” he groused. “What do you want this time?”

Diesel cocked an eyebrow, feigning ignorance. “What?” he objected. “Can't a pony enjoy a morning stroll and a cup of coffee without being lambasted by random strangers?”

“Not if they've been hounding said 'random strangers' for a week,” retorted Locomotion, scowling bitterly at the strong stench radiating from Diesel's paper cup. He hated the smell of coffee; but espresso, in his mind, was the worst of all.

Surfie, who had been warily eyeing the oily black Pegasus, turned her attention back to Locomotion. “You know this pony?” she asked suspiciously.

“You bet your Cutie Mark I do – and I really wish I didn't...”

“Electro Diesel, a very good friend of Locomotion's,” interrupted the stallion, emphasising his defence through gritted teeth.

Locomotion scowled harder. “Yeah, you keep telling yourself that,” he muttered.

“And what might your name be?” asked Diesel, turning his attention to Surfie and ignoring Locomotion completely.

But Surfie refused to buy into his act. “None of your business,” she replied coldly. “In fact, allow me to answer your question with a question – just what do you have against my brother?”

Diesel looked hurt. “What, me, sink to the level of a common changeling? My dear little filly, I must confess I am dreadfully grieved. Let me see,” he continued, examining her carefully. “Pink fur...braided blonde mane...a flower and some waves for a Cutie Mark...”

“And you can cut out the descriptions as well!” snapped Surfie. “Uncle Steamer warned me about you, Diesel!”

“Ah, so you are related to Locomotion, are you?”

“Yes I am – and if you think you can just prowl around after him on my watch, then you've got another thing coming!” ordered Surfie.

“Yeah, why don't you go pick on somepony your own size?” chimed in Hornette, trying to assert herself for once.

“Like you, perchance?” smirked Diesel, seizing a chance to add fuel to the fire.

“Why me?” protested Hornette. “I'm not the one who's been...”

“We all know what you changelings are like. You say you want to be treated like equals in some Promised Land, but what you really mean is that you're trying to expand your empire and drain us of our love. For all we know, you could be manipulating these two ponies into complying with your villainous plans, trying to lull them into a false...”

“Look,” cut in Locomotion, losing his temper, “are you gonna leave us alone, or do I have to snitch on you with Twilight?!”

This had an immediate and deeply uncanny effect on Diesel. Instead of the obnoxious wisecrack he likely had lined up, he just stared at the two unicorns and their changeling friend with wide eyes full of disbelief. If Surfie and Locomotion didn't know better, they would have sworn his shady façade had begun to wane at this point – if anything, he seemed almost frightened. “As in...the Twilight Sparkle?” he stammered. “The Princess of Friendship? The leader of the Elements of Harmony?”

Locomotion quickly realised he had gained the upper hoof, and took full advantage of it. “And the very same pony who not only granted Hornette her probation, but also has evidence against your 'evil changeling' slander. But even more than that,” he ranted, refusing to allow Diesel to get a word in edgeways, “she has evidence to suggest that the real enemy is an alleged 'Whinneapolitan jobseeker' who has spent less time looking for work and more time stalking me and Hornette. Would it not stand to reason that your so-called 'intellect' on changelings was merely a ruse to distract attention from yourself?! And how come you know all about me when Twilight and the records offices don't even have a birth certificate to prove who you are?!” He narrowed his eyes menacingly before finishing his verbal barrage in a low, threatening tone. “We're onto you, buddy. I don't know what the hay you're up to, but you keep this up one minute longer, and pop goes the Diesel!”

The black Pegasus grinned nervously, trying in vain to maintain a suave demeanour. “Well, uh...circumstances alter cases...I suppose. I guess I'd better leave you to it then,” he replied in an unconvincingly blithe manner. “Good luck with your probation, Hornette – you'll need it,” and he scuttled away without another word.

Surfie shuddered in disgust as she watched him leave. “Ugh!” she spat. “What a nut-job!”

“Tell me about it,” agreed Locomotion darkly. “Diamond Tiara may have been a right creep in the past, but that Diesel is something else.”

“Yeah, but I still don't understand,” said Hornette uncertainly, “why he just backed off as soon as you mentioned Twilight. He didn't even make a fight of it. Don't you think that's a bit...suspicious?”

Locomotion just snorted impatiently. “So what?” he dismissed. “He should know Twilight and the Elements of Harmony are a force to be reckoned with. It was only a matter of time before someone told him that.”

But even as the two ponies led the young changeling onwards to Sugarcube Corner, none of them could realise that Diesel hadn't completely left them alone. He watched from behind a nearby building, scowling hard at Locomotion as he secretly poured his untouched coffee into the gutter.

“Yes,” he muttered sourly, crumpling his cup and throwing it into a nearby bin, “very good luck indeed. So our fugitive changeling friend not only has an insolent young train lover on her side, but a Princess of Equestria and an entire council – all of whom represent...” his scowl hardened still further, “...the Elements of Harmony! Very commendable, Locomotion – it seems I have underestimated you.” He paused, letting his scowl give way to a menacing smirk. “However,” he went on, “it makes little difference. That changeling will break your heart soon enough – and when she does, she will be severely punished.” He said no more, but chuckled quietly and fiendishly as he went on his way...

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