• Published 11th Mar 2019
  • 1,013 Views, 83 Comments

The Pegasus who Kicked the Changelings' Hive - A M Shark

After being injured during the events of "The Ponies who Played with Fire" a now-captive Discord is facing trial for murder, while Fluttershy and her small band of allies are in a desperate struggle both to clear his name and avoid their own capture.

  • ...

Chapter 7. Proverbs 20:6

Author's Note:

Phew! I'm back, folks. Sorry to keep you waiting so long. My excuse this time around? Well, (for those of you who haven't seen my blog post) it turns out I bought a house in early 2020, and got moved in during the later months. I'm thrilled to have the place, but unfortunately for you poor readers it also meant I was busy those several months with paperwork, getting things packed up to move, then getting them unpacked and set up in the new location. Not to mention taking care of water, electricity, internet, etc. And all the Covid restrictions on pretty much everything didn't exactly speed things up. But enough of that. We're not here for my autobiography. We're here to follow the plight of these colorful cartoon ponies.

As always, a big thank you to Nightwalker for his suggestions and editing.

Chapter 7

"Many a man proclaims his own loyalty, But who can find a trustworthy man?"—Proverbs 20:6

Underneath his bandages, Discord felt one of the moths on his neck vibrate. Keeping his eyes on his room's closed door, he cautiously eased a folded paper out from where he'd hidden it under the bedsheets.

Flipping the paper open, he read the words written inside.

Fluttershy: "Discord, could you please tell me if you ever made anything that looked like a pony with its skeleton on the outside?"

The draconequus blinked and reread the words. No, he hadn't misread them. That really had been Fluttershy's question, but what had prompted it?

A faint smile tugged at his mouth. What are you trying to do with this odd question, my dear? Steal my job? He mentally scrolled through his cinematic memory. Though the shackles on his wrists prevented him from using his power in the real world, they couldn't stop him from privately delving into his own mind.

He'd made plenty of strange creations over the course of his long life, but he couldn't recall making anything specifically like what Fluttershy had just described. Granted, he didn't always put much planning into what he made so he might have unknowingly made such a creature, but still...

He looked back down at the note, intending to give his answer, when the words suddenly twitched. A blob of ink oozed out of the question mark, ran a short distance down the paper, and scribbled itself into a new message.

Skywishes: "Asking him about Bonfire, I see?"

Bonfire? Discord squinted at the words. What's Bonfire?

The fact that the word was capitalized made him suspect it probably referred to something other than the common noun—

At that moment the words twitched again and spat another line out below them.

Skywishes: "Max, leave her alone!"

Leave who alone? What's going on? He peered at the paper, willing more words to appear, to clarify what was happening on Fluttershy's end, but none did. The seconds passed with still no word while he drummed his claws impatiently on the bedsheet. Then his impatience began turning to worry. What if Fluttershy was the 'her' Skywishes was referring to? What if she was hurt and that's why she wasn't saying anything?!

He had to know. Straining against the strap holding his neck in place, he nipped at a small section of the spiraled tattoo on his right shoulder that was still visible under its layer of bandages. He had originally planned on conserving the magic stored in his tattoos as much as possible since there was no telling how long it would last but this was an emergency. Teasing the tattoo up between his fang and forked tongue, he pinched it between his tongue's twin tips and flicked it up into the air. Fortunately the strand of tattoo seemed to understand what he wanted and stretched itself out long enough to thread itself into his ear. He brushed a talon over the exclamation point at the end of Max, leave her alone! in a scrolling gesture and heard faint sounds in his ear. He continued scrolling, causing the volume to increase as his brain began wildly formulating ways to help Fluttershy given his current restrictions.

"Asking him about Bonfire, I see?"

Fluttershy started at the sound of Skywishes's voice behind her. She had been so focused on the paper in front of her, awaiting Discord's reply, she had completely tuned out the rest of her surroundings.

She was just turning to face her fellow pegasus when Skywishes shouted, "Max, leave her alone!"

The next moment, Fluttershy was almost knocked over as Skywishes shot past her into the air.

Mache Max was diving straight toward the bubble that held Bonfire. Just before he struck it, Skywishes intercepted him, wrapping him in one wing and cutting a wide arch through the air as she swung away from the pipe-covered ceiling. Inside the bubble, Bonfire had been sleeping, but at Skywishes's shout, she promptly sprang awake, stumbling on her splinted leg and snarling as she looked about wildly for an attack.

"It's all right, Bonfire!" Fluttershy cried, dropping the letter as she hurried forward. "It's all right! Nopony's going to hurt you."

Bonfire's snarls softened slightly, but her stance remained tense as she continued eyeing her surroundings.

Skywishes landed next to Fluttershy. She was dressed in her usual camo but her black watch cap had fallen off, revealing a shock of cobalt blue hair in place of her usual pink-and-purple streaks. Bonfire looked toward the coral-colored pegasus and her snarling surged back up.

Skywishes sighed. "Sorry about that. Didn't mean to wake you—!" The brusque apology was abruptly cut off when her wing still holding Mache Max was suddenly yanked up and out to the side as the parrot struggled to get out. Just as he squirted free, Fluttershy reached up and caught him in her hooves.

"Mache Max," she said sternly, "you know we've told you not to bother Bonfire."

"He knows, he just doesn't care," Skywishes muttered as Mache Max's only response to the chastisement was to nuzzle against Fluttershy's hooves. Skywishes started to turn away from them when a magenta aura surrounded her. "It's Cardinal, Trinity," she stated, not even bothering to look at the alicorn generating the aura.

"Just making sure," said Twilight as she released the pegasus.

"It's appreciated," said Skywishes, moving toward the TreeHAB's entrance panel, which Fluttershy now noticed was open. Twilight followed her and stationed herself right beside the entrance, horn at the ready. Skywishes maneuvered one of the large baskets on the pulley system down through the opening, then followed it with a rope ladder. Fluttershy looked from them to Bonfire. The little one's eyes were trained on Mache Max, a low continuous warning growl rumbling from her throat.

"I'm not going to let him bother you, sweetie," Fluttershy soothed, tucking Mache Max against her chest, and backing away from Bonfire. The more space she put between them, the calmer Bonfire seemed to become, though Fluttershy noticed that the little one's tension never completely vanished. She wondered yet again what had caused Bonfire to be so distrustful.

For several agonizing seconds, Discord heard nothing but a low steady growl and the sounds of someone moving or something being dragged along a surface. Oh, Fluttershy, what's going on over there?! he mentally whisper-shouted. Just give me some clue that you're all right! Give me—!

"I'm not going to let him bother you, sweetie."

Instant relief rushed through Discord at the sound of that familiar soft voice, at the fact that she sounded neither hurt nor afraid ... Then just as suddenly this relief vanished. What 'him' was Fluttershy referring to? He felt his claws clench on the bedsheets. And just who exactly was that 'sweetie' she had been talking to? The beep of his heart monitor sped up, but at that moment he heard Twilight's voice in his ear.

"State your name."

There were several seconds of rustling before a posh female voice announced, "Regal."

"Plague," said a second female voice with a country accent.

"Wait Plague," said a male voice with a similar accent. "I was enjoying the scenery."

"Are you really that desperate for a kick in the head?!" the voice identified as Plague shot back.

This was greeted with a snort. "Please, O sable-haired beauty of my dreams, you hit like a girl."

This was followed by sounds of both female indignation and male amusement before a second much raspier male voice cut in.

"She might, but I don't. And unlike you I'm not enjoying the scenery, so unless you've changed your mind about wanting kids..."

This was answered with a yip and a flurry of rustling.

"State your name!" Twilight repeated.

"Highsenberg," the first male voice responded, then muttered in an undertone, "Seriously, there is just no pleasing some ponies."

This was followed by a thud and a raspy "Falcon."

If she hadn't heard them speak their code words (and hadn't seen them donning their disguises earlier) Fluttershy doubted she would have recognized the four camo-clad ponies that emerged up the rope ladder. While Skywishes had simply blued-out her mane and tail, the rest of the scouting/supply-gathering party had gone for more complete makeovers.

Rarity's coat was pale turquoise while her mane and tail were a deeper shade of turquoise. Applejack's coat was bubblegum pink, and her mane and tail were as black as Screwjob's normally were. Both mares had also rearranged their mane-styles. Screwjob had not altered his mane-style, but had removed the bandages that had been covering his left eye and busted left eyebrow for the past several days. The stitches seemed almost invisible against the bleached blond hair he'd opted for once again. With that blond hair now coupled with a lavender coat, he could have passed for Dinky's long-lost older brother. Last came Highflyer with his coat dyed a green that matched his current mask so perfectly it almost looked as if he wasn't wearing one, and a black watch cap pulled well-down to disguise his lack of a mane.

"Is this everything?" Fluttershy heard Dinky ask, and turned to see the young teenager leaning into the pulley system basket, carefully picking over its contents with her front hooves. Her magic was still shot, but at least she had finally recovered enough physical strength to walk around without exhausting herself. Her ragged mane hadn't been sheared off to the point of nonexistence as Highflyer's was, but it had been cut down to a very short even layer of fuzz. However, this layer of fuzz was almost entirely hidden by a stylish beret Rarity had fashioned for her from one of Highflyer's masks, a black one with red trim. Coupled with the camo everyone had taken to wearing constantly even inside the TreeHAB to ward off cold, the effect was very militaristic.

"Just about," said Skywishes, grimacing as she massaged a wing with her hooves.

"Are you okay?" Fluttershy asked, moving closer to her. "Max didn't—?"

"No, it wasn't him, for once. This time it was the weather." While Skywishes continued massaging that wing, the other one sprang out on reflex, inadvertently brushing against Fluttershy's cheek in the process. The pinions were as cold as if they were made of icicles rather than feathers.

"You've been flying around in the freezing cold weather out there!" Fluttershy gasped.

"Don't have much choice when it's the only way to get up here without a basket or rope ladder." Skywishes muttered.

Fluttershy had known that, but it was one thing to academically know the few choices they had for survival, and to actually see the evidence of Skywishes risking frostbite in her efforts to guide the other ponies from the TreeHAB through the forest into the surrounding towns and back again.

Looking down at the origami parrot she still held tucked against her chest, Fluttershy said in her sternest voice, "Mache Max, I am ordering you to leave Bonfire and Skywishes alone from here on out." Sure, he might eventually forget her order and resume his usual taunting and teasing, but Fluttershy had also noticed he would always obey her at least for a while.

There's that word again, thought Discord. Must be somepony's name, but whose? Could it be some sort of code or nickname among the group?

Mache Max responded to the order by nuzzling both his heads against Fluttershy's cheeks while uttering a soft drawn-out "Hhhhhhaaaaaa," before jumping out of her hooves and hopping away towards the greenhouse.

Fluttershy turned back to Skywishes. "Please let me see your wings."

Skywishes studied her several seconds with those dead eyes, but then extended her wings. Sitting down in front of Skywishes, Fluttershy pulled the icy wings inside her own jerkin and tucked them against her sides to warm them. Then Skywishes sat down as well, facing Fluttershy but looking everywhere except directly at her. Fluttershy had to admit their position must look rather odd to an outside observer: Skywishes with her wings under Fluttershy's clothes as if trying to give her an awkwardly intimate hug. But she didn't feel right just leaving Skywishes to cope with potentially frozen wings when she herself was unable to assist with the actual flying.

"Thank you," Skywishes suddenly murmured, looking at the narrow section of floor between them.

"Oh, it's the least I can do after all you've—"

"Don't." The word was neither snapped nor shouted, but there was a definite warning edge to it. Fluttershy fell silent and just focused on rubbing warmth into Skywishes's wings while listening to snippets of the remaining group's verbal reports to Twilight.

"We didn't see many ponies out and about. Even with the news that Discord was captured, I think the worsening weather is keeping them inside."

"The papers still have us, Apple Bloom, and Scootaloo all listed as missing."

"There's been no word from Celestia or Luna either. It's as if they just vanished."

"We also stopped at Zecora's place, but she wasn't there. We didn't see any sign of a struggle but the place also didn't look like it had been lived in for a while."

Fluttershy mentally sighed. More of the same. Hoping the young mares' continued absence meant they had managed to avoid capture, but fearing the opposite might be true. Hoping and fearing the same in the Royal Sisters' case. Hoping and fearing the same in everypony's case...

"Fluttershy, she's doing it again," Skywishes suddenly muttered, jerking her out of these thoughts. She looked up to see Bonfire a short distance from them with her eyes trained on Skywishes. Ever since spotting that picture of Skywishes and Sunny Daze as fillies, the little mystery creature seemed to have developed an odd fixation on the coral-colored pegasus that all the ponies had noticed but never been able to explain.

Bonfire studied Skywishes as Fluttershy chafed her wings.

"What is it, little one?" Fluttershy prodded gently. "Are you trying to tell us something?"

Bonfire broke eye contact but didn't let the two ponies completely out of her sight. The constant patience Fluttershy displayed toward her unnerved her. It had to be some sort of trap. It just had to be. It couldn't possibly be anything else. Why wouldn't the pony just let the trap spring and get it over with?

Now the other pony ... Skywishes may have given her an apology after waking her up earlier, but the coral-colored pegasus had also made it quite clear she would abandon Bonfire in favor of saving the other ponies. This knowledge hurt, but at least it was something familiar. Something she could trust and understand.

Fluttershy felt herself mentally slump as Bonfire's only response to her gentle question was to break eye-contact and let out a mixture of purrs and clicks that could have meant anything.

Her experiment of sponge-feeding broth to the little one had been a success and over the next several days they had moved on to giving Bonfire various foods cut into pieces small enough for her to eat without chewing. Fluttershy glanced down at her bandaged left foreleg. There was something cruelly ironic in the fact that Bonfire had teeth capable of inflicting such a vicious bite, yet had so much difficulty eating with those same teeth thanks to her lack of a tongue and proper cheeks.

"You know, I don't think she's actually completely tongueless," said Skywishes, her own eyes on Bonfire as she slipped one thawed wing out of Fluttershy's jerkin and flexed it experimentally.

"What do you mean?" Fluttershy asked, startled that Skywishes's words were so in sync with her own current thoughts.

Skywishes withdrew her other wing as well. "I mean sure, she doesn't have a conventional tongue, but she does seem to have a scrap of meat back there that helps her make all the sounds that she does."

That was true, Fluttershy thought. Over the past weeks Bonfire had growled, clicked, chirped, chittered, hummed and trilled but never once had she spoken an understandable word. And though Fluttershy had employed everything she knew about the non-verbal way many animals communicated with each other, none of it ever seemed to work when she applied it to Bonfire. Maybe that was the source of her current discouragement. Despite her success in giving the little one physical nourishment she seemed no closer to cracking the enigma known as Bonfire.

Why does that seem so famil—? "Excuse me, Skywishes," she breathed before dashing back to the letter that she'd dropped earlier. Picking it up, she saw that Discord had not yet responded to her question, but Skywishes had apparently been close enough to her earlier that her comments had been unintentionally recorded.

The writing on Discord's note twitched then reformed into new words.

Fluttershy: "Sorry, Discord. I got distracted there for a bit."

Though he saw the words appear on the paper, he didn't need to read them as he also heard Fluttershy's voice speak them in his ear.

Scarcely had Fluttershy finished speaking the words, then Discord's response scrawled itself below them.

Discord: "I noticed."

"The other ponies just got back with more supplies."

Discord: "I know, I heard."

Fluttershy blinked. "You ... heard?"

The surprise in Fluttershy's voice pulled Discord up short, and he felt an unexpected jab of guilt. As if he'd just misled her or something...

There was several seconds of uneasy silence while Fluttershy just watched the paper before Discord's words appeared slowly, hesitantly.

Discord: "Yesss ... I heard. When you didn't say anything after Skywishes's shouting, I got worried and ... Well, I eavesdropped through the tattoo ink to make sure you were okay."

Fluttershy felt her face flush. Partly because—while she hadn't done or said anything to be ashamed of—the idea of someone listening in without her knowledge made her uncomfortable. And yet at the same time, she also felt very touched at the fact that he had been worried about her. However she wasn't sure how to mention this aloud. All she said was:

"I didn't realize you could do that."

"I wasn't planning to, since it uses up more magic than dictating our comments, but I felt this was one time worth risking it." Of course Discord neglected to mention that he still had the volume turned up, not because he needed it, but because he wanted to keep listening to her voice.

Fluttershy: "So I guess you understand what's going on now at the TreeHAB?"

"Parts of it, but not all. For example, what's that Bonfire you kept mentioning?"

Fluttershy: "She's the pony-like creature I was asking you about."

"The one with its skeleton on the outside?"

Fluttershy: "Yes. Did you ever make anything like that?"

"Not that I'm aware of. Why?"

Fluttershy: "It's a bit of a long story..."

He chuckled ruefully. "I'm not exactly going anywhere at the moment, darling."

"No..." Fluttershy murmured, though more to herself than to him. "I guess you're not..."

She continued to stare down at the words, suddenly wishing she could have heard him say them instead. It was that 'darling' he'd tacked on the end. She just couldn't tell from the writing if it was meant to be affectionate or sarcastic.

The words suddenly twitched, scrawling themselves into a new message.

Discord: "Well, could I hear this allegedly long story?"

"Oh! Of course." And she quickly proceeded to explain how they had first found Bonfire in the Everfree, brought her back to the TreeHAB, named her, were caring for her as best they could, and had been trying to figure her out ever since then. Discord seemed quite intrigued by the little creature because he kept interrupting with questions about Bonfire, everything from her appearance to her behavior. Fluttershy found this encouraging. Maybe their talk was jogging his memory regarding one of his own creations! Maybe—!

Then fresh words appeared.

Discord: "While she certainly sounds fascinating enough that I'd love to take credit ... I'm about ninety-nine point seven percent sure I would definitely have remembered making such a creature."

Fluttershy felt her rising spirit promptly deflate like a leaky balloon. "So ... you didn't make her?"

Discord: "As far as I know ... No."

Another dead end. Only then did Fluttershy realize how much she had staked on the idea of Bonfire being Discord's creation and that by extension he could provide her with the answers she so desperately needed regarding the little one. And she'd just lost her stake. She couldn't help letting out a sigh and the paper she was holding promptly recorded it.

Discord: "What's wrong, darling?"

"Oh, it's nothing, I just ... I guess I was just really hoping that you made Bonfire and could explain her because I don't seem to be getting anywhere with her." Then as an afterthought she found herself adding, "Plus, she seems to be just as immune to my Stare as you are and I thought—"

Wait a minute! Fluttershy's brows creased in a frown. Discord and Bonfire had both been immune to her Stare ... She'd been thinking—hoping—that might point to some sort of link between them, but now she suddenly noticed an element of their immunity she'd always missed before.

She had told Skywishes that Bonfire had reacted to her Stare by attacking out of fear and she'd honestly believed that.

But Discord had never reacted that way toward her Stare. He had been utterly impervious to it. He'd had all the power in that situation, he'd known it, and he'd made sure she knew it as well. Bonfire's reaction on the other hoof had been that of one who had found the smallest scrap of leverage and was clinging desperately to it. A position of terror and powerlessness Fluttershy had become well-acquainted with those first terrible days when Discord had shown up at the cabin...

He's not like that anymore! He might have been that way at first, but he changed! And he saved my life later on!

Sure, said a small cynical voice in the back of her head. And after saving your life, he later abandoned you for over a year without so much as a goodbye. What makes you think he won't just do the same if we somehow manage to survive this situation?!

She felt her body hunch forward under the mental accusation. I don't know that he won't leave me again! And that was the truth of it. Yes, her former partner said he had been worried about her enough to eavesdrop. Yes, he seemed to care for her ... but he had also seemed to be that way a year ago right before he vanished from her life. There was just no way to know if he—

That doesn't matter now! Fluttershy's hooves dug into the wood floor as she reclaimed her resolve. I don't know that he won't leave me again if he gets the chance, but I do know he's being accused of a crime he didn't commit, and I swear I'm not going to let him be convicted for it!

Meanwhile Discord was facing his own inner battle. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't block out the words he'd just heard Fluttershy murmur.

"She seems to be just as immune to my Stare as you are..."

Oh, why did you have to mention that, Fluttershy?! he mentally groaned, even as his cinematic memory dredged up that moment in all its explicit detail. Sights, sounds, smells, emotions. It sickened him to now recall not only her fear and helplessness with such perfect clarity ... but to have the whole memory tainted with the pleasure he'd felt back then tormenting her.

In that moment he loathed having a cinematic memory. Loathed the fact that it would never let him forget what he'd—

At that moment he heard the room's doorknob turning.

Fluttershy looked back down at the paper, noticing Discord hadn't said anything after her comment regarding her Stare. She suddenly wondered if he was remembering that particularly uncomfortable piece of their history as vividly as she was. If not even more so.


The ink spat out a fresh sentence just below hers.

Discord: "Gotta go!"

Just as the door creaked open, Discord thrust the paper under the blanket, and jerked the strand of tattoo from his ear, mentally urging it to get back into place while he closed his eyes and tried to look fast asleep.

"Alright, open up those big shifty sunken-in eyes of yours," said a brisk voice he recognized as the main doctor who had been working on him.

"Flattery will get you nowhere," he retorted before opening one eye.

"The other eye too," the doctor ordered. Discord complied and the doctor gave him an annoyed look. "Both at once."

Discord humphed and obeyed. As much as he'd have liked to antagonize the pony, he knew he also had to be careful. If he acted up too much, they might decide they needed to keep a much closer eye on him. It was bad enough they had decided to put in a visit right when he and Fluttershy had finally gotten a chance to talk!

The doctor shone a light in first one of his eyes, then the other.

"Hmm, your pupils won't stay the same size, but I can't exactly say if that would be down to sustained injury or just you being you. At least they both contract when the light hits them."

Not only that, but they can shoot out beams of their own that would put that flashlight to shame if I wasn't shackled. Discord mentally muttered as the doctor and several assistants all began checking the rest of his vitals.

"Discord?!" Fluttershy gasped even as part of her brain thought: He's left you again! See! Even now he doesn't want anything to do with—!

At that moment the words on the paper twitched and a new line appeared below them.

Spike: "The doctors are working on him."

Oh. Relief washed over Fluttershy, followed quickly by embarrassment at her initial panic. Of course he wouldn't want the doctors to catch him whispering words onto a paper. Of course that's why he had to leave like that ... Then her embarrassment doubled as she remembered that Spike also carried a letter identical to hers and had probably been following the whole conversation. It might have made communication a lot quicker and more efficient than having to send messages between him and Twilight, but it also made it awkward to bring up more personal things knowing there was an audience...

"You've been having quite the conversation down there."

Fluttershy looked up to see Skywishes perched on one of the ceiling's larger pipes, a belt of plumbing tools strapped diagonally across her body, an adjustable wrench held loosely in one front hoof. Pink streaks were emerging in her blue mane, indicating the potion she'd drunk was wearing off.

"I noticed that too," said Twilight, moving to join them. Or rather to join Fluttershy on the floor. "Did you find out anything?"

"Well..." Fluttershy filled them in on what she'd discussed with Discord, and how he denied knowing anything about Bonfire. However, she didn't mention the disconnection she'd noticed between how the draconequus and the skeletal mystery creature had reacted to her Stare because though she felt it was important, she couldn't really explain why yet. During her recitation, they were joined by Dinky, Applejack, Highflyer, Rarity, and Screwjob. The latter four ponies were all slowly reverting back to their usual colors just as Skywishes's hair was.

When Fluttershy finished, all the group looked toward Bonfire, who had moved to a spot where she could keep them all in her sights without having to turn around. Noticing them watching her, she hunkered down under her camouflage blanket and let out a series of low throaty clicks. Fluttershy couldn't tell if it sounded more like a cat's purr or a rattlesnake's rattle but Screwjob seemed to think the latter because he shivered.

"So back to the old sketchpad with our mystery guest then?" he asked, scratching at the back of his mane which was steadily darkening as if he were aging in reverse.

"Yes," Fluttershy breathed, turning to address the wrestler. "I'm afraid so..." Her words trailed off as she got her first clear look at his face. "What happened to my stitches?!" It was the first time she'd seen them since putting them there. "How'd they get all—?"

"Those aren't your stitches," Screwjob cut in. "I busted yours at Apps's farm, remember? You're looking at her hoofiwork."

Applejack looked insulted and muttered, "They're not that bad."

"Well ... no..." Fluttershy had to admit that while Applejack's stitching was a far cry from her own careful efforts to minimize scarring, it was at least serviceable. "It's..." What was she supposed to say?

Screwjob squinted at her. "What's got you freaked out?"

Fluttershy shot Applejack an apologetic look before turning back to the wrestler. "Well, the wound is closed, but ... well ... it's all scarred up now."

"Really?" Screwjob suddenly looked interested. "Let's see it."

Rarity produced a mirror and a pair of scissors. When the stitches were snipped and pulled out, Screwjob looked down at the mirror to examine the pale vertical scar that now sliced through his left eyebrow. He didn't seem bothered by it. In fact, he grinned.

"You did a beautiful job, Apps. This has already become my new favorite scar."

Applejack just rolled her eyes ceilingward, her expression clearly saying: "What have I done to deserve this?"

Highflyer came over and reared up to get a better look at the much-taller stallion's forehead. "Not bad. I wouldn't mind having one of those."

Screwjob arched his intact right eyebrow. "Why? It wouldn't show with your mask on anyway."

Highflyer shrugged. "Maybe, but it's the principle of the thing."

Screwjob jutted out his lips and tilted his head back in a playfully pondering look. "True. Plus it's not like you don't have scars on your back and splatter burns on your chest under all that ink anyway. So hiding extra scars under your mask wouldn't exactly be out of character for you." He traced the now-very-noticeable split in his left eyebrow. "Of course, I suppose I'll have to hide this somehow next time we sneak into town."

"Um, about that..." said Fluttershy. "I think Skywishes might need a break from guiding us to the surrounding towns because this time she came back with her wings all frozen."

The other ponies all looked up at Skywishes, their expressions varying degrees of shock. "Why didn't you say anything about your wings?" Twilight demanded of her.

Skywishes's mouth twitched in an almost smile. "I was planning to but Fluttershy just beat me to it. Though ... now that we're on the subject..." She shifted her position on the pipe to more fully face the ponies below her. "Since we've finally managed to stock up enough supplies to last a good several months, I think it's time we quit leaving the HAB."

"But we can't just hang out here while changelings are probably snatching ponies willy-nilly!" Applejack protested. "Why not just let the rest of us go out while you rest? We've gotten better at finding this tree. We could go down in the basket or on the rope ladder—"

"And how'll you get back up here afterward? We can't just leave the basket or ladder hanging there for anyone to find."

"Maybe we could come up with some way to signal when we get back. Or we could use one of those letters Discord gave us."

Skywishes shook her head. "That might work if it was just a matter of me freezing my pinions off, but there's also the fact that it's started snowing a lot harder than before. If it keeps up, all but our two fliers won't be able to go to or from the HAB without leaving tracks. And as invisible as we might be now, it probably won't take the changelings long to figure out what's going on if they find a bunch of trails leading to and away from this tree."

"We could maybe disguise our tracks..." Rarity suggested.

"When the snow's up to your chest?" Skywishes challenged, and Fluttershy felt herself pale at the memory of going out in such deep snow.

She turned quickly to the other ponies. "We don't want to try that. Believe me, I know." She turned back to Skywishes. "Has it really gotten that bad already?"

"Not yet, but it looks like it's headed that way." Skywishes waggled her wrench toward a nearby pipe. "That's why I'm working on the water-reclaimer. Have to close off the major pipes so I can put salt in the main collection tank and hook up the desalination container."

This seemed to pique Twilight's interest. "Is the salt to keep the water in the main collection tank from freezing?"

"Mm-hmm." Skywishes nodded as she resumed working on the pipe.

"And that other thing you mentioned? The—?"

"Desalination container. That's to get the salt back out of the water so it's actually drinkable."

Twilight flew up to join her. "How's it do that?"

"Heats the salty water until it evaporates, leaving the salt behind. Then it collects the steam separately so it can condense back into useable freshwater."

"I suppose all those extra steps are why you don't use it all the time."

"You suppose correct. It only comes into play when I'm worried about the water freezing and causing a pipe to burst or something. Like now." Skywishes pushed off and flew to another pipe, silently signaling the conversation was over.

Normally Discord would have appreciated a visit from the doctors as it usually included a chance to get out of bed and stretch his limbs. Granted his legs were always hobbled, his hands were always chained behind him, and he was always surrounded by at least half a dozen security guards ready to pounce at the first hint of trouble, but those heavily monitored trips to and from physical therapy were better than nothing.

This time however all he wanted to do was get back to talking with Fluttershy. He went through the therapy session as quickly as possible, almost ran back to his room despite being hobbled, and even held his limbs out accommodatingly when it was time to exchange the chains for the restraining straps.

"Hmm, apart from when I was first checking your eyes, you've been surprisingly cooperative this time around." the lead doctor observed, eyeing him suspiciously.

Discord quickly hitched a smirk on his face. "Why else do you think I did it? I have to behave once in a while to keep you ponies guessing." Meanwhile inside his head he was screaming at the top of his lungs: Get out! Get out! Get out! Get out! Get out!

Finally at long last they left him alone and after what felt like an equally long time of waiting to make sure they wouldn't suddenly pop back in, he retrieved his paper.

Twilight was just dropping back down to rejoin the other ponies when Fluttershy felt the paper in her hooves squirm. She held it up so the other ponies could also see it as new words formed on it.

Discord: "I'm sorry, darling. The good doctor decided to put in a visit. What'd I miss?"

Fluttershy glanced around her before filling him in on Skywishes's reasons for feeling they should stay at the TreeHAB from now on.

"And the frustrating thing is that I'd be glad to just wait out the storm here, but I'm afraid the changelings are using their windigo essence to cause this weather like they did last time."

"Don't think I'm unaware of that, Fluttershy," Skywishes called from her spot above them. "I realize this is likely more than just an ordinary storm, but as things stand trying to spy on the surrounding towns is netting us too much risk and not enough reward."

Twilight sighed. "Unfortunately she's right. If it were just a matter of facing a blizzard to rescue our friends and families, I'd be all for striking out to find them. But now any friend or loved one we find might just as easily be a disguised changeling intending to trap us."

Discord stared at Twilight's words: If it were just a matter of facing a blizzard to rescue our friends and families, I'd be all for striking out to find them.

A small voice in the back of his head murmured: And yet Fluttershy braved one for you when you were neither...

With that thought and his memories of tormenting her still so clear in his mind at the moment, he suddenly wanted her there with him. Words on a paper weren't enough. He wanted to hold her close, wanted to beg her face-to-face to take him back, wanted to just make things right between them. If he could he would have reached through the ink on both letters and yanked her through them right into his room. But of course he couldn't. Not with those blasted shackles—

Do I do something to be loved, or in order to love? Derpy's words suddenly sprang up in his mind, jolting him like a slap. Do you want Fluttershy here for her sake? Or for your own? her voice continued.

He squeezed his eyes shut and would have rubbed at the skin between them if he weren't being restrained. As much as he wanted it, having Fluttershy here with him would not fix anything.

Then what will fix things? the voice continued and he mentally frowned. Why did that voice sound so much like Derpy? As he thought of the skew-eyed pegasus, his mind suddenly drifted back to the guilt he'd felt toward her and her daughters while lying on that cave floor with his head busted open. Of how he'd wished he'd made more effort to—

His eyes snapped open and he looked down at the paper in time to see new words suddenly appear below Twilight's.

Highflyer: "If they're wearing anything, we could try stripping it off them to see if they're a real pony or not. That's worked before."

Fluttershy: "The problem with that is you have to get right up close to them to do it. If only we had some way of knowing for sure what they were without tipping them off..."

Discord inhaled resolutely then exhaled. Maybe he couldn't make things right between himself and Fluttershy, but so help him he would make things right between himself and another pegasus. "You all seem to have forgotten the fact that there are no fewer than two ponies in need that you can be sure aren't disguised changelings. The two I allegedly attacked, and who are currently residing at this very hospital."

The group stared at his words, realizing that in the midst of all their worrying about the ponies they weren't in a position to help, they'd also lost sight of the two they might actually be in a position to help.

Spike: "That's some straight thinking you got there, Discord."

Discord: "Don't get too used to it, I try not to let it happen often."

Screwjob snorted in amusement at that. "I know just how you feel, buddy."

"Yes..." Fluttershy murmured thoughtfully mostly to herself. "Focus on them and let the others worry about themselves for now." Then her eyes widened as she suddenly realized how that must have sounded and quickly added, "Not that I mean we don't care about anypony else out there, I just—"

"We know what you meant, Shy," said Screwjob, his tone still amused. Then his amusement faded. "If any changelings try posing as me to go after my aunt, we'll just have to hope that for once Big Tim's hatred of me is stronger than his devotion to her." He shook his head. "Can't believe I'm actually wishing for that."

Applejack snorted. "For once we agr—" She suddenly caught herself and shifted uncomfortably. "Uh, for what it's worth ... They probably won't pose as you as long as they don't know where the real you is."

Screwjob's expression seemed to turn cautiously hopeful. "You sure about that?"

"No, but they never appeared to any of my family members disguised as me during the ten years I was in hiding. I think that might have been because they knew I was out there somewhere and didn't want to risk me showing up and blowing their cover—" Catching sight of his expression, she quickly rearranged hers into a glare. "Look, don't think this has anything to do with you! I just said that for your aunt's benefit!" And with that, she marched stiffly away from him.

Screwjob watched her go, now fighting to hold back a grin. "She likes me."

"Do not!"

He chuckled. "I'll let you win this round, Apps." Then he turned back to the other ponies, his expression serious again. "So how exactly are we supposed to help Derpy and Amethyst if they're at the hospital and we're here?"

Spike: "That'll be tricky considering I can't keep an eye on both of them twenty-four-seven. Especially if that one security guard we first saw watching Amethyst is on duty. I thought him snapping awake that first time we peeked in the room was a fluke, but he's done it several times since then, no matter how quiet I am, and I'm worried he's going to catch me at some point."

Discord: "Hmm. I wonder how he'd fare against some fly-on-the-wall surveillance. Or rather moth-on-the-wall surveillance."

"You know it's odd, given the fact that they want me, Jobs and the kid dead that none of the changelings seem to have gone after Derpy or Amethyst," Highflyer mused several days later while the group was discussing the hospitalized ponies' situation. Discord had sent a couple of his moth tattoos to hang out in Derpy and Amethyst's rooms and report back to him should anything happen, but so far nothing had apart from the routine patient care. "I mean, those two aren't exactly in a position to defend themselves."

"Maybe the changelings think it will turn suspicion away from Discord if Derpy and Amethyst suddenly died while he was under lock and key," said Twilight.

"True, but they could probably make it look like an accident," said Highflyer, pulling out one of the butterfly knives he seemed to have commandeered from Skywishes and idly flipping it about. "Just pull out some of Derpy's life-support systems or block Amethyst's windpipe."

"Oh, that's ghastly," Rarity shivered.

"But odd that it hasn't been tried," Highflyer pressed.

Spike: "Given how closely they're both currently being monitored, trying to kill them like that might set off some alarm. And trying to disconnect that alarm might just trigger another."

Screwjob scratched at his beard thoughtfully. "Judging by the fact that they don't seem to want to attract any attention, maybe they don't think Derpy's much of a threat at the moment considering she can't really do anything as long as she's stuck all inside-out. And the only threat Amethyst would pose is if she suddenly woke up and started yapping her head off about what she saw."

Spike: "That might be it. Incoming mail."

Seconds later a newspaper and a paper-wrapped medical textbook flashed into existence in front of Twilight who snatched the latter with her magic. After her disappearance, it seemed that the doctors had scrambled to get every medical book they could delivered from the Canterlot Library to the hospital in hopes of finding a cure for Derpy. Spike and Twilight had agreed that while there was the chance of a genuine doctor finding a cure and using it to save the pegasus, there was an equal if not greater chance of a disguised changeling finding and destroying the text. Since then Spike had been kept quite busy sending book after book to Twilight, then—when she'd made sure they didn't contain the spell she was seeking—smuggling them back into the doctors' collection so they wouldn't be missed. It was a chancy setup but the best they could do under the circumstances.

While Twilight began pouring over this latest book, Rarity retrieved the newspaper Spike had also sent and unfurled it to read.

Applejack glanced over the unicorn's shoulder at the headlines and grimaced. "How can you stand to keep reading that trash?"

"Know thy enemy, darling."

Applejack snorted dismissively. "All we've learned from those papers is our enemy is either feeding all the reporters lies, or taken over all the papers and printing their own lies."

"I'm with her," said Highflyer, still twirling his knife. "All those recent articles about Loo's disappearance never had a single word about Ray's parents—or rather the fakers I left tied up there—but they sure had plenty to say about finding my blood all over the place. And the way they phrased it, you'd think my carcass was used to repaint the walls rather than me just spitting out a few mouthfuls."

Screwjob wrinkled up his muzzle before stating matter-of-factly, "High. You're gross."

Highflyer's response was equally matter-of-fact. "How about I sock you in the mouth and see how you handle it?"

"Wait your turn, son. Apps hasn't gotten in her two shots yet."

Applejack spluttered at this. "Don't tell me you're keeping score!"

Screwjob smirked. "Okay, I won't tell you that I am."

At that moment there was a sharp gasp behind them. The group looked up to see Mache Max shooting toward Dinky, who was standing on her hind legs with a tray of hot cocoa in her front hooves, unable to dodge out of the way without spilling its contents. Then Highflyer was suddenly in front of her, one foreleg blurring as it whipped toward Mache Max. The knife blade flashed, there was the harsh sound of paper ripping, and the parrot fell to the floor with one of his remaining five wings now severed.

"You okay, kid?" Highflyer asked Dinky over his shoulder as he flipped the knife closed in a quick rollover movement.

"Watch out!" she cried, looking past him. He snapped his head back around just in time to feel an unknown object bounce off his masked forehead. He looked up to see Mache Max's severed wing whirling through the air before boomeranging back to the parrot who bounced up to catch it on one of his heads like a hat and promptly strutted away as though proud of himself.

"Weirdo," Highflyer muttered disgustedly after him.

"Ha!" Mache Max retorted.

"Shut up," Skywishes tossed after the parrot while Fluttershy watched him uncertainly. When Highflyer had accidentally or intentionally (she couldn't really be sure which) chopped one of his wings off, her first instinct had been to rush forward and comfort the parrot, never mind that he had been in the wrong going after Dinky like that. But now since he didn't seem the least bit upset about losing the wing, she began to feel her concern might have been misplaced and turned it on the young unicorn. "You okay, Dinky?"

"Yeah, I..." Dinky shook her head as if to clear it. "Well, actually this doesn't have anything to do with what just happened but ... I've had something on my mind."

"Do you want to tell us about it?"

Dinky nodded, and carefully put the tray down in the middle of the group before looking around at them, her gaze stopping on Screwjob. "You mentioned something about Amethyst waking up and ... that just got me thinking. If ... if she ever did wake up ... she'd probably be really confused after all this time." She turned to Highflyer. "You remember what happened when I first woke up and saw you after we escaped the changelings?"

"Yeah, you got pretty spooked."

She nodded. "I recognized your mask because I'd seen pictures of it before, but I didn't have any memory of actually meeting you. At least not right away." She looked around at the rest of the group. "And I wasn't even in a coma at the time, so Amethyst's memory loss would probably be a lot worse..." She dropped her gaze. "I keep worrying what if she doesn't remember Mom, or me, or even who she is?!" She raised her head, the frustration in her voice growing stronger. "But then I start wondering if maybe she'd be a lot safer not remembering anything!"

"We know, Dinky," Twilight sounded tired as she wrapped a wing around the teenager's withers. "We've all been thinking about both those scenarios and trying to—"

At that moment Mache Max came capering over with his detached wing now wrapped around him like a cape, and began rolling himself up in the discarded paper that had covered the medical book.

Twilight cast him an annoyed look. "No, I'm not sending you over to Spike."

"But what if you ... sent one of us?" Fluttershy murmured, running a hoof across her mouth, her eyes fixed on the parrot.

"What?!" Twilight—along with the rest of the ponies—whipped around to stare at her.

Fluttershy started at the eyes all now fixed on her. "Oh, sorry! I just started thinking about how Spike's been sending all those big medical books to you by wrapping them in the paper he usually uses for scrolls and watching Max roll around in that paper just made me think of when he traveled with that first note I sent Discord and I just suddenly wondered..." She felt herself blushing. "What if we could wrap ourselves up and travel the same way?" Hearing herself say the idea aloud made it seem even more ridiculous. Oh, it was so embarrassing. She wished she still had wings to wrap around herself or her long mane to hide behind. "It was just a random thought that popped into my..."

But her words trailed off as she caught sight of the speculative looks on the other ponies' faces.

Discord had been snoozing when his dragon tattoo suddenly stretched its head down onto his chest and vibrated, jolting him awake. Blinking blearily, he pulled his folded paper from its hiding place to see Fluttershy's message.

Fluttershy: "Discord, I just wanted you to know we have a new idea. We're going to see if Spike and Twilight can use their messaging system to teleport a pony the way they've been doing with letters, scrolls, and books."

Instantly Discord was wide awake, his mind jumping through the myriad of possibilities this new experiment could open up if successful.

Twilight looked down at the little figure curled up in front of her, wrapped in a scroll like a mummy. "You ready?"

There was a soft rustle of paper as the figure nodded and let out a muffled, "Mm-hmm."

"You sure?" This time Twilight wasn't able to hide her apprehension. "Maybe we should think about this a bit more. Make sure it—"

The paper rustled again only this time the figure was shaking its head. "Hen me!" said the muffled voice, which Fluttershy was pretty sure translated to send me.

"I don't think the test subject is currently open to discussion." Screwjob's tone was dry but Fluttershy felt sure that behind it he was every bit as uneasy about this experiment as the rest of them were.

Twilight shot the wrestler an aggravated look. "Well, I've never done this before! There's so many ways this could go wrong! What if he ends up injured?!"

"Then it's a good thing you're sending him to a hospital."

But Twilight didn't seem to have heard him, continuing on, "Or what if he dies?! I can't stand the thought of it, that I might be responsible for—!"

At that moment Screwjob caught her by the withers and jerked her toward him so they were face-to-face, halting her mid-rant. "Twilight, he knows the risks. Sure, this is something he's never done before, but his chosen profession involves facing possible injuries—and sometimes even the possibility of death—on a surprisingly routine basis. So he's not exactly as new to this sort of situation as you might think."

"Hi-hight! Hurry hup!" the wrapped figure demanded.

Screwjob looked deep into Twilight's eyes. "He knows the risks, Twilight. He knows and he's willing to take the chance. For all of us."

The surety in his voice seemed to calm something in her. Giving him a firm nod, she turned from him, and fired up her magic.

From his usual hiding place in the hospital ceiling, Spike braced himself as a large burst of flames belched from his mouth. He was momentarily blinded by the brilliant light, but as his eyes readjusted he saw what looked like the world's most sloppily rolled scroll drop down from the flames. As the shape tumbled a short distance over the uneven surface, a pair of small tattooed forelimbs shot out from between the layers of paper, scrabbling for purchase. Then the rest of the masked stallion's familiar tiny form emerged from the wrapping like a snake shedding its skin.

Discord stared at the paper, waiting with bated breath, when new words appeared.

Spike: "It worked! Highflyer came through just fine! He's not even singed!"

Wonderful! Excellent! Discord mentally cheered. Now, maybe they could—

But at that moment one of the moths on his neck buzzed loudly. And this time it wasn't to signal an incoming message.

Meanwhile the ponies at the TreeHAB were all breathing sighs of relief when another message suddenly scrawled itself right under Spike's in much bigger letters.

Discord: "Hate to halt the celebrating, but Amethyst is waking up!"