• Published 18th Jun 2020
  • 4,975 Views, 638 Comments

Unending Love - Azure Notion

After trials and heartache, Firefly, undercover changeling love collector and wife, received a wonderful and joyous gift. But what will happen when the inevitable fallout of the failed Canterlot invasion reaches her home?

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Act I ~ Chapter 3

Meadowlark sat, staring out of the train with half lidded eyes, elbow planted on the window ledge, cheek resting in her hoof. She hadn’t kept track of how long she’d been apathetically watching the landscape slowly pass by, turning from endless hilly grassland into interspersed rural communities. Her gaze lingered, then flicked from one area to the next. A couple carriages passing each other. Farmers working fields in the mid-morning autumn weather. Ponies constructing a new barn’s frame.

“Next stop, Cincinneighti! If this is your final destination, please begin gathering your belongings. We will be arriving in about fifteen minutes.”

She turned away from the window, watching as the conductor passed her, probably to give the same message to the next car. Glancing over at her saddlebags on the seat next to her, she nodded to herself that they were indeed still there. She then turned her gaze to the cabin once again.

The mare and stallion who had been on the train since Meadowlark joined at Hoofington were still in the same seats two rows ahead of her, facing away and quietly talking. The mother at the far corner of the carriage was waking her filly, no doubt to depart at the next stop. No one else had joined their cabin since Hoofington.

Meadowlark yawned and covered her mouth with a hoof. Feeling the urge, she breathed in deep and stretched, arching her back and flaring her wings. Little grunts escaped her as her spine popped. Releasing the tension and folding her wings, she licked her dry lips and shifted to find a more comfortable position. Finally settling down away from the window, she twisted her lower half, resting on a thigh and lowering her chest to the seat. Relaxing fully, she let out a long, quiet sigh.

She was tired, her back hurt, and she was pretty sure she was starting to smell again. None of that was surprising when one spent the previous two nights sleeping on a park bench after finding an easy house to repossess goods and bits from. Prowling long hours into the night and hardly restful sleep did not make it easy to keep up one’s comfort or appearance. Checking to make sure none of the other four cabin occupants were looking, she put her muzzle close to her underarm then wing pit, taking a couple sniffs. She pulled away grimacing as, sure enough, the odor was returning.

Huffing, Meadowlark realized she’d need to clean herself up before leaving the train. Reluctantly, she moved from her comfy spot and slid out of her seat. Donning her saddlebags, she left the cabin through the door behind her. Entering the short hallway, she saw three doors. Ahead led to the next carriage, on her right was marked for employees only, and on her left was the restroom. She slid open the left door, walked into the small space, and closed then locked it.

Putting her saddlebags on a coat hook, she eyed the toilet. She didn’t really need to go, but figured it would be best to do so while she could.

After finishing her business, she stood in front of the sink and mirror. She listened for a short moment behind her and, once satisfied the only sound was clunking of train wheels over tracks, she closed her eyes, letting signature green flames engulf her. Opening her eyes again, Spindle took in her changeling form once more. Even in this form, she looked tired. Her shoulders were slumped and her eyes drooping. That would have to be fixed. In a little bit, though.

Focusing on her body, she looked along her head and frills, spotting definite signs of grease. She shifted her wings and felt slickness on her black chitin.

She grabbed some paper towels in her magic, wetting them with water and hoof soap and began to scrub herself down. Spindle thought, not for the first time, that it would be much more convenient for bodily excretions to simply disappear when transforming.

But no, she rolled her eyes as she wiped down her wings, that would be too easy.

Though she was a little grateful that she could transform her mane and coat into a combed state and a lot grateful that her chitin was far easier to clean and dry than fur.

After soaping herself, she ran multiple wet paper towels over her body until there was no soap, then finished by wiping up any leftover wetness with dry towels. Throwing away the used products into the waste bin, she looked herself in the mirror once more. Green flames engulfed her again and greeting her was Meadowlark's light grey coat, darker grey mane, and… green eyes?

Meadowlark squinted into her own orbs, trying to remember if they were, indeed, green. She scowled at herself for not remembering even the most basic of things a changeling needed to remember when disguised. In her own defense, she’d made her pony guise in a rush, finding some colors that worked and moving on; it wasn’t like she looked at her own eyes very often anyway.

She rolled her decidedly wrong eyes at herself. Defending you from yourself? Really? She shook her head, focusing again on her irises, knowing she needed to fix the color.

Flash. Yellow? No, that looked terrible with grays. Flash. Blue? It wasn’t a bad combination, but it still wasn’t the right one. Flash. Magenta? Kind of? But it still wasn’t clicking. Flash. Purple?

Her eyes lit up in recognition. Purple! That was the one. Purple. Remember purple.

Taking her focus off the color of her eyes, she noticed that while it was less obvious, her eyelids were still drooping with fatigue. She took a deep breath and straightened her back, squeezing her eyes shut then rapidly blinking away her tiredness.

It worked as well as could be expected. That is, not very well. Hopefully she’d wake up after she got moving into Cincinneighti proper.

Her body jerked and she caught herself as the train suddenly lurched, slowing down. She looked back at the door, realizing they must be arriving.

She grabbed her saddle bags, secured them onto her back, and right as she was about to head out the door, she stopped. Another flash of green flames engulfed her. She decided that she may as well have her pheromone glands in place, just in case she ran into another changeling.

With that taken care of, she headed out into the little hallway and then the cabin. As she walked towards the next train car, she looked out the window and saw city streets and buildings passing ever slower outside.

Back in front of her, the mare and stallion were naught to be seen and the mother was ushering her daughter through the cabin door on the far side of the carriage. She hurried over, following the two into the next cabin and waiting with several other ponies. Soon enough, the train passed into a large, enclosed station. Inside was a fair-sized crowd waiting on benches or in front of the boarding area.

The locomotive crawled to a stop and the conductor opened the door, releasing the horde of ponies into the station. Meadowlark followed at the rear of the gaggle and soon exited the carriage. Outside of the train stood the conductor, repeating himself every few seconds. She locked eyes with him and he smiled, offering her the same statement.

“Welcome to Cincinneighti!”

Meadowlark stopped next to the train employee. “Thank you. You wouldn’t happen to know where the nearest welcome center is, would you?”

“Of course!” He offered a smile. “Head out the big double doors and take a right. It’s at the end of the block on the other side of the street. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you again.” Receiving a nod from the conductor, she left, crossing the large building and exiting through the double doors.

The first thing she noticed was the smell. It came and went; one breath it would be there, another couple and it was gone. Her nose wrinkled as she sniffed a few more times to try and place it. The closest thing she could think of was the days old musty pizza and grilled cheese that Wavy Palette sometimes left out when struck by inspiration. She immediately decided she wasn’t particularly fond of it.

“Hey, you mind movin’?”

Behind her she noticed she’d blocked one side of the doors, ponies passing around her through the other.

“Sorry.” She scampered off down the sidewalk. Looking across the street at the end of the block, sure enough there was a building with a wide, wooden sign. In big, arching letters, it said “Welcome Center” and under the text was a cornucopia of ponies. A ballerina dancer next to a tiger, an opera singer next to a chef holding a plate, and an artist painting next to a pony playing guitar.

Meadowlark raised an eyebrow at it. The sign was very… enthusiastic looking, but its grandeur was offset by the building’s noticeably faded white paint. Though, it didn’t matter what it looked like, as long as it could get her what she needed. Reaching the intersection crosswalk, she stopped, waiting for the traffic of carriages to free up.

After a short bit, other ponies began to cross and she stepped off with them. Once across the street, she walked over to the welcome center’s front door and peered at the well-worn open sign. It featured a smiling magenta, earth pony mare with a coral mane, happy, bright sky blue eyes, and a hoof held out in welcome. Meadowlark pulled open the door, bells jingling above her. In front was an old, chipped counter about chest height running all the way to the right wall. Placed all across it were stands displaying pictures and pamphlets of attractions and locations to visit. To the left was a small hallway and to the right a small area with a well packed brochure stand along the side and front walls.

Seeing nopony around, she went over and looked through the brochures. There were so many, she wasn’t sure where to even start. Right as she was reaching a hoof to grab one about art museums, she heard a door open in the hallway. She turned and saw a middle aged, magenta mare round the corner, featuring a coral mane and tail, matching the open sign pony in everything but age.

“Well hello there dearie!” The mare gave her beaming smile. She came to stop behind the counter opposite of Meadowlark. “Welcome to Cincinneighti! My name’s Rosy Swirl and I run this welcome center. Though everypony just calls me Mamma Rose. Now who might you be?”

“Uh, hi,” Spindle hesitated, initially put off by the utter cheer the pony was exuding. “My name’s Meadowlark.”

“Wonderful to meetcha Miss Meadowlark! I saw you were looking through those brochures. Anything in particular you’re looking for?”

“Yeah, I’m kinda new here.” She paused for a second, then awkwardly chuckled as she realized how silly that was. “B-But you probably already knew that. I’m wanting to find some art shows or galleries.”

Mamma Rose hummed for a moment, then turned and walked out from behind the counter. “Well, I’m not too sure about art shows at the moment, but we’ve got a few art galleries downtown, east of here.” She came to a stop next to Meadowlark and, reaching into the sea of brochures, she plucked out a set of three. “Here you are Miss Meadowlark. These are the only ones I’m aware of. Was there anything else you were looking for?”

“Yes, do you happen to know of any inns on the, erm, cheaper side?”

“Well…” she began slowly, “you certainly won’t find any in the downtown area. I would try heading north of Downtown. There’s some decent lodging on the cheaper side. Further west of here are very cheap motels, but I’m afraid I couldn’t recommend you that way and would advise you stay clear of there. The area has quite a few unsavory neighborhoods and businesses.”

Unsavory neighborhoods might have to be what Spindle reduced herself to. Hoofington was small enough to not have many criminals or ne’er-do-wells, so sleeping on a bench wasn’t much of an issue. Here, she definitely didn’t want to risk falling asleep around who knew what kind of ponies. Not to mention she had no idea how the local guard dealt with homelessness.

“Thank you for the advice. You said Downtown was East of here?”

“Oh, sweetie.” She set a hoof on Meadowlark’s shoulder. “Cincinneighti might not be a sprawling Manehatten metropolis, but it’s certainly quite large. The heart of downtown is around twenty or so blocks from here and I would definitely recommend taking a taxi.”

“That’s okay.” Meadowlark put on a smile, knowing she didn’t have the bits to spare for a taxi. “I don’t mind walking.”

Mamma Rose gave her a tilted glance and a raised eyebrow. “If you’re sure. It’s a bit of a trek.”

At Meadowlark’s nod, the older mare continued.

“Alrighty then, dear.” She reached over to stand on the counter and pulled out a city map. She opened it and set it on a clear counter space, pointing to a spot on the map. “Okay, we’re here near the center of the city. East of us over here,” she moved her hoof right, “is where you’ll want to go. Could I borrow those brochures for a moment please?”

Meadowlark hoofed them over and Mamma Rose grabbed a pen on the counter. The magenta mare scribbled dots and named them, then drew a circle a little ways north. Once she was done, she moved aside, reaching over and pointed to the three dots downtown. “Here are all three of your art galleries. And up here is where I would start your look for hotels. Any questions?”

Meadowlark studied the map for a few moments, making sure she knew which direction to head. “No, ma’am. Thank you for your help.”

“It’s what I’m here for, dearie.” Mamma Rose beamed then grabbed and folded up the map, giving it and the brochures back to Meadowlark. “Now, if you ever need something else or just wanna have a nice chat, you’re always welcome back.”

“Thank you,” Meadowlark said again, placing the pieces of paper in her saddlebags. She waved at the kind mare and turned, opening the door, the bells jingling on her way out.

She walked to the street corner and took a left, moving deeper into the city.

Not for the first time, the thought of being on her own reared its head as she continued down the sparsely crowded streets. When she first arrived in Hoofington, Skitter had been there to receive her and show her around. She remembered from her training in the hive that there were groups of love collectors in multiple cities, including Cincinneighti. She simply had no way of finding them in such a large place. The best she could do was find a motel or place to stay and send a letter back to the hive.

Before she’d left the hive for Hoofington, Spindle also had a proper set of saddlebags with a bag full of bits and love crystals. Now she only had a pair of reappropriated, somewhat weathered saddlebags and a mere dozen and a half bits left after purchasing her train ticket. She could attempt to raid more houses, but that in itself was quite risky. She preferred to play it safe and wait for the hive to respond.

As she waited at another busy cross street, an empty, clawing sensation grew deep in her chest not for the first time. She ignored it as best as she could. There was nothing to do about her growing hunger for love. The only way to fix it was to wait for something from the hive or find a pony to love her.

It was quite unlikely she’d find the latter in any reasonable amount of time.

The street cleared and she crossed, continuing into the outskirts of downtown Cincinneghti. She’d only had a couple months to get used to it, but already she missed having a home to return to and a pony to give her love. She missed getting to spend time with Firefly and even Fine Roast. She missed the monthly changeling meetings, but most of all, she missed not being hungry.

A bit selfishly, she was happy she’d been able to make it through collector training, even if it was by only a small margin. There were times such as those present when she would be hungry, but back at the hive, love rations were always limited. There was plenty of solid food at the eatery, but no changeling was ever portioned out enough love to be satisfied. Spindle idly wondered how much worse it was going to get at the hive now.

A deep growl emanated from her stomach and she put a hoof over her belly, a stark reminder she hadn’t eaten anything physical since the evening before. Having entered downtown proper, she kept an eye out as she continued walking. Not but a few minutes later, she spotted what looked like a half outdoor cafe the next block down.

Once she’d crossed the street and neared the place, found it indeed was what she suspected. A sign above the cafe proclaimed it as The Fancy Unicorn with a silhouette of the same in an elegant pose. A decorative, chest high, black metal fence surrounded the outdoor seating area. Nearly the entire side of the building was a wide, open door, leading to the indoor seating. Standing next to the single open gate was a hostess in a tuxedo suit top.

Meadowlark stepped up to the open gate and faced the well dressed mare.

“Good morning and welcome to The Fancy Unicorn!” the hostess greeted cheerily. “How many are we seating today?”

“Just one, please.”

“Sure!” She grabbed a menu and a set of utensils. “Would you like inside or outside?”

“I think inside would be best.”

“Of course. Please follow me.”

It was a little less than an hour from lunch time and there were several ponies already seated. The hostess led her past other guests to a table inside and placed the menu and utensils down. “Your server will be with you shortly.”

Meadowlark placed her saddlebags on the opposite chair and sat down. The interior of the restaurant was a soft blue with interspersed stone-like columns and sparse modern art paintings that she was sure somepony, somewhere could find meaning in. Even with one of her skill focuses in training being artistry and coming from a role dating an artist, she still didn’t understand how four different colored, haphazardly placed circles on a canvas could be considered art.

She nearly contemplated it for a moment, but decided then wasn’t the time to attempt unraveling the universe’s mysteries. Opening the menu, she looked the first page over and realized she might have made a little mistake. While she could probably afford some of it, a proper meal would likely cost nearly all the bits she’d pilfered.

“Hey there!” A pink earth pony in a suit came practically skipped up to her table. “My name’s Juniper. Can I get you started with something to drink?”

“Uh, just water please.” Meadowlark said, considering if she should simply leave and find somewhere more affordable.

“You got it! Any appetizers for you?”

“No thank you.”

“Gotcha. I’ll be right back with that water.” The server trotted off towards the kitchen.

Humming, Meadowlark tapped the table as she perused the menu, looking over the prices. Thinking about it and considering where she was, she doubted there would be many cheaper restaurants in the area, except maybe a Hayburger joint. She shrugged, deciding she’d simply not pay. She was a changeling after all, though she did feel a tiny bit guilty about it.

Now then, what to eat? Going to the first entree page, she looked over her options. Preferably she’d like something light in carbs. Even though she was in a pony’s body, she still had no use for them. Though as Skitter liked to make known every meeting, they often could be quite tasty.

Looking away from the menu, she considered for a moment. If she were ever in a negative size waist disguise, that excuse would work great. It would allow plenty more nutrients that her body could actually process rather than throwing bits at food that went to waste. At least, she thought that’s how those diets worked.

Yeah, like you’d ever find a role as a model. Keep dreaming.

She snorted and shook her head, focusing back on the menu. Eventually she reached the salad section and was pleasantly surprised to find a salad topped with tofu, peas, quinoa, and a peanut butter dressing. It even had a fitting name. She set the menu down as looking further was decidedly not needed.

A few moments later, her server came from behind and set her glass of water on the table. “Here you are, ma’am. Have you decided what you’d like to eat?”

“Yes. Could I get the protein kicker salad please?”

“Absolutely. Anything else?”

Meadowlark shook her head. “No thank you, that’s it.”

“You got it. I’ll get that put in as soon as I can.”

Less than half an hour later, Meadowlark set the fork down, chewing on the last bits of her salad. She swallowed and sat back, a contented sigh escaping her lips. The meal was more than decent and if she’d ended up staying in Cincinneighti, she would make this one of her go-to restaurants. Assuming she found somepony that made decent bits or if she could make some herself.

She felt bad for not compensating the ponies for such a tasty meal, but she’d done the math and she’d only have a single bit left after paying for it, not including the tip. She preferred to have money for later in case there were situations she couldn’t change her way out of.

Pushing her seat back, she stood, moved around to the other side of the table, and donned her saddlebags. After situating them on her back, she looked around and spotted the restroom sign in the back. She nearly took a first step before a voice called from behind her.

“Excuse me, ma’am.”

Meadowlark turned around and saw her waitress a few steps behind. “Yes?”

“Pardon the intrusion, I was just about to check in and see if there was anything else you needed before I brought you the check.”

Well that was inconvenient. She was hoping to get out without her server noticing. “No, I don’t. I need to make a trip to the restroom and I’ll be right back out.”

“Of course! Take your time.”

The mare was very smooth. A pony could have easily been fooled by her smile and disarming tone. Though beneath that cheery, smiling exterior, Spindle felt suspicion oozing out and Spindle couldn’t blame her. She’d likely experienced such eat-and-run tactics before.

Unluckily for the poor server, she wasn’t dealing with a pony.

Meadowlark offered the mare a final smile then turned towards the restrooms. Making her way around tables and along the rear wall, she entered the mare’s room. The decor matched the main indoor area, though the strong floral scent was an addition she could have done without. She wrinkled her nose at the smell as she walked past the couch and sinks on the left and the first two stalls on the right. Thankfully, only the first stall was in use and she entered the last. Closing the door, she set her saddlebags on the coat hook then stood silently as she waited for the other occupant to leave.

She could feel a sneeze coming on from the potent flowery scent. There were worse smells in such facilities, but— “AH CHOO!” —she wiped her nose, wishing it weren’t this potent. No other mare’s restrooms she’d been to in Equestria had been this bad or was even like this at all. Maybe it was something fancy restaurants did?

Soon enough, the mare in the other stall finished, washed her hooves, and left. Now alone, Spindle tapped her chin in thought as she tried to come up with a good disguise. She figured a pegasus would be good here. While she was scouting for potential sources, mobility would be nice to have. She also still wanted to be a mare; she was never very good at behaving like a stallion. Her acting was passable and had gotten her through training, but she never felt right playing as a stallion. Plus having male “equipment” was plain weird.

With a flash, she changed into a… pegasus? Her brows furrowed as it felt like nothing had changed. Realization dawned on her and she facehooved. You were already a pegasus, you dummy. Well at least with the shift she’d also changed to a random mare voice.

Moving on and ignoring her lack of attentiveness, for a cutie mark, she was a pegasus, so something cloud related. Her flanks flashed and a sun partially hiding behind clouds appeared. Turning to inspect it, she had no complaints. This was likely a throw away disguise anyway, so no need to spend that much time on it.

Along with a cutie mark came a name. No need to be all that creative. Something Breeze maybe. Silver Breeze? She shook her head. Meadow Breeze? She almost decided against it, but figured it would be good enough. There was only one pony who knew her current disguise’s name anyway and she had no intention of using that barely-there connection.

That just left colors. Spindle wished she could be in front of a mirror. All collectors were taught color theory, but her imagination of colors was always a bit off. They never seemed right until she could see herself all together and make little tweaks. But it was simply too risky for somepony to walk in on her as she was changing.

Spindle looked her current disguise over, Lifting a foreleg, she inspected her light gray coat and pulled her darker gray mane into sight. She would have looked at her green—no, purple. Purple!—eyes, but she had no reflective surfaces. For her purposes, she needed something different enough from her current form so she could waltz right past the servers and hostess.

Perhaps yellow? She shifted her coat and cringed at the bright banana yellow. Eugh, no. Something less offensive. Shifting again, she went with a cream coat, not too dissimilar from Fine Roast’s fur. She shrugged, figuring it was good enough.

Now mane color to match. Yellow’s complement is purple, so cream’s would be… light purple? She was pretty sure that was right and shifted into it, making her mane extra long to compare colors. Laying her hair over her foreleg, she scrunched her muzzle, not sold on the combination.

Perhaps go monochrome instead? Shifting her mane again into a darker cream, almost brown, she still didn’t like it. Augh! This wouldn’t be so tedious every time if ponies weren’t somehow born with color coordinated bodies! She huffed and decided one of the triadic colors would be it, even if it didn’t look great. She closed her eyes, trying to remember the color wheel again.

The left side of the triangle would be… pinkish, rose I think. And the right would be light blue. She decided to go light blue, shifted, and held her foreleg up to her long mane once again. Wavering for a moment, she shrugged and thought it good enough. Eyes, she decided, would need a little contrast and would be green. Actually green this time.

Shifting again into green eyes and a slightly windswept, withers-length mane, she put her saddlebags on and opened the stall door looking straight ahead at a mirror. She walked up to it and squinted at her reflection. Her eyes were okay, but her mane wasn’t quite right, rather it was too light. She glanced over at the door and quickly shifted her mane into a slightly darker sky blue.

Satisfied with her appearance, surprisingly quickly at that, she turned left and headed out of the restroom. Meadow Breeze snorted at the fresh air, happy to be free of the cloying fragrance. Walking towards the exit, she discreetly glanced over at her, or rather Meadowlark’s, table and saw there was indeed a check there. She decided if she ever did come back to the restaurant and got the same waitress, she would leave a big tip for her.

Passing through the now fairly crowded restaurant and into the outdoor section, she headed for the exit where the hostess was posted. As she neared, they locked eyes for a brief moment, giving each other a nod. As the other mare opened her mouth to speak, she instead looked around Meadow Breeze when the well dressed mare turned to look at her.

“Hey, miss!” a voice called behind her.

Maybe it didn’t have anything to do with her, and maybe whatever anger was flooding from behind her was for someone else. So Meadow Breeze decided to continue on, nearly reaching the gate.

“Hey, lady!”

“Excuse me.” The hostess held up a hoof in front of Meadow Breeze. “It looks like my partner’s trying to get your attention.”

“Oh, uh, thanks,” Meadow said, grumbling internally at the interruption. She turned and saw Meadowlark’s waitress, Juniper if she remembered correctly, looking right at her, anger very evident on her face. She almost panicked.

What did I do?!

“Miss,” the server began sharply, “if I’m not mistaken, those are not your saddlebags.”

Spindle barely managed to keep the surprise off her face. Oh for the love of Chrysalis! I didn’t even think about my saddlebags!

“Ah, uh,” Meadow stammered and looked back at the bags on her back. She really wanted to keep these bits and the pamphlets, but she couldn’t think of anything to say that would let her keep them. Out of ideas and time, she faced the waitress again. “I’m so sorry. I have a pair like this at home and I saw them resting on the couch in the restroom and I just grabbed them without thinking. I’m really sorry, I’ll go put them back.”

Juniper gave her a glare, searching her face with skepticism dripping from her. “Alright,” she said simply, stepping to the side.

Meadow Breeze walked back to the restroom, more than a few pony’s eyes on her. Several were regarding her with disdain, some openly showing it, some only sensible by Spindle. She opened the restroom door, unhooked her saddlebags, and set them on the couch. Her nose wrinkled again at the smell and she took a step towards the door, but suddenly paused at a thought. Those pamphlets showed exactly where she was heading. Looking at the stalls and seeing no pony had entered since she left, she opened her bags, took out the three pamphlets and map. She walked to the trash can, looking over the three pamphlets.

She had no idea how long she had before the server got testy and came inside, so she looked over the pamphlets, trying to commit the names to memory, then threw them away. She turned back and headed out the door. She stopped immediately, startled as she came face to face with the waitress.

“I-It’s back in there. I’m sorry for the mix up,” Meadow Breeze said once again. Feeling hot under the other mare’s gaze and her own stupidity, she wished she was anywhere but there. Her nose twitching didn’t help the situation.

“Mind lifting up your wings?” Juniper asked, still squinting.

“I, um. Yes, sure.”

Seemingly satisfied when nothing fell from under the lifted appendages, Juniper puffed out of her nostrils. “Thank you. I’m sorry for being so unpleasant. This wouldn’t have been the first time somepony tried to steal here, from the restaurant or guests.”

“It’s, uh… uh, AH CHOO!” Meadow snorted noisily and wiped her nose again. “Sorry, that fragrance is really strong. Your actions were perfectly understandable.” Meadow put on her most convincing, sympathetic smile.

“Well, bless you, I suppose. And sorry again. Feel free to go about your day.” She gave Meadow a nod and walked off towards the kitchen.

“T-Thanks…” Meadow Breeze stammered lowly. She watched Juniper for a few seconds and saw her looking over towards Meadowbreeze’s table. Deciding she really did not want to have to deal with her again should she find no pony in the restroom, she began walking as naturally as she could towards the exit. She passed by the hostess, giving her a nod and silently sighing in relief as she finally wasn’t stopped.

Turning onto the street, she forced herself to stay calm and refused to think about anything. She couldn’t think. If she did, she didn’t know what she’d do.

Stop thinking about not thinking.

Once again, she waited for carriage traffic to lighten before crossing. Out of the corner of her eye, she peered over at one of the ponies crossing with her. He wasn’t paying attention to her at all, but she wondered if he were to look over, would he see a normal, calm pony or would he see the disaster of a mare she felt like? Would she be able to assuage his concerns if he sensed something was off?

It was easy in training. Well, easier. Even when they had to go into life threatening situations, it was still only a simulation of the real thing. It was only the changeling instructors she had to fool and as long as she passed each lesson, everything went back to normal until the next performance check.

The real, pony world never went back to normal.

And you’re still thinking!

She’d only traveled a block and she was already cracking. The thoughts wouldn’t stay out of her head and she was fighting to keep her jaw from trembling. She came to an alleyway and stopped, peering down it. Seeing it empty, she hurried into it. Nearly halfway to the next street, she sat herself down between some trash cans.

“W-Why can’t you just… be like all the other collectors?” Spindle whispered to herself. Why can’t you remember things? Why can’t you pay attention to big, glaring details like a whole Chrysalis damned pair of saddlebags?! Why can’t you even remember your own disguise?

Tears began pooling in her eyes. It wasn’t fair. None of the others had the problems she did. When she got put under stress, she would start to lose focus and miss details, not that she had that great of a memory to begin with. She’d been able to scrape by collector training by remembering over and over that it was only training. Rarely were they actually put into threatening situations when they were tested. Telling herself that over and over let her focus on the things she needed to in order to not fail. Thankfully, even the few times she did mess up, the instructors never caught it.

None of that mattered now though. The real world didn’t forgive mistakes. She’d gotten lucky again and it was only a matter of time before… she didn’t want to think about that.

She sniffled as a tear finally broke free from her eye, leaving a wet trail down her false fur. You stupid, little… you can’t even keep your emotions in check. She couldn’t be feeling like this right now. Somepony could come by at any moment and she’d be done. They’d take her to the guards and they’d make her tell them where her queen was and then they’d…

Stop it. Stop it, stop it, stop it!

Real collectors didn’t cry. They didn’t let their emotions get the better of them. Firefly never let her emotions get the better of her and if Firefly could do it, so could she. Wiping the moisture from her eyes, she set her trembling jaw stiff, willing the stupid sadness away. Thankfully, there weren’t any other collectors around. If they’d seen her and known what she was blabbering about, they’d probably throw her in a cocoon and ship her back to the hive.

She breathed in deep, held for a moment, then let it out with only a little shakiness. She had to move, she had to start her look for a source, and she had to find a place to stay. Changelings back home were counting on collectors like her.

Standing, she stepped out of her trashcan cubby and made her way back out of the alley. This wasn’t the safety of the hive and it wasn’t a test where life would go back to normal after. This was the cold, uncaring pony world and her only option was to continue on and do better. She’d locked herself into that decision by leaving the hive.

Choice hadn’t been a luxury of hers for a long time.

The Fine Line.

Meadow Breeze stood in front of the unassuming building, looking up at the small, minimalistic sign bearing a line of its name above the door. It took her half an hour of trotting down random streets before she gave up and asked for directions. It only took three ponies before she found a stallion who knew the place. A few blocks later and there she was.

She stepped forward, opening the door and going inside. Immediately she was greeted by a wide, oddly shaped hallway that narrowed unevenly to the right side. On the left side was a small passage with a restroom sign next to it and hanging on the walls were a plethora of paintings and drawings. Only one stallion was in this area admiring the artwork and he paid her no mind as she continued on into the next weirdly dimensioned room.

“Hello!” a mare greeted, sitting at a desk immediately on the left in the room. “Welcome to The Fine Line. Would you like a brochure?” She gestured to the tri-folds sitting fanned out on the table.

“Yes please. Thank you,” Meadow replied, taking a pamphlet. She looked it over as she continued deeper into the gallery. The first page said this particular set of artwork had been on display for the past six days. Further along, it showed all the artists that had contributed their creations. She noticed several big names at the top, but didn’t recognize anyone from the last half.

Satisfied that those were more than likely the local artists, she set off down the odd angled room to another odd angled hallway. Several scattered ponies stood in front of artwork, admiring them or chatting quietly amongst themselves. She peered at the nametags displayed below the frames ponies were near, checking if any matched those she was interested in.

Finally, in the next room a mare and a stallion stood quietly in front of a set of artwork belonging to a pony named Masonite. The pamphlet had a picture of her that showed her to be a unicorn mare. While Spindle had never had a female source before, she was confident she could remember her training about dating mares. Plus, it wasn’t like she could be picky in this situation.

Walking up to a painting two down from the couple, she idly observed the artwork. It seemed this line was all about strangely drawn ponies expressing disconnected and out of place emotions amongst contrasting scenes. Perhaps a metaphor about the inner self’s disparity with the rest of the world? She wasn’t quite sure.

A moment later, the couple took a step towards Meadow Breeze, observing the painting to her right. Meadow looked over and saw the painting to be a mare at a cafe gazing lovingly at a stallion across the street while everyone except her was running from a giant sea monster. A sea monster which happened to be crushing a table right next to the mare.

“I wonder what the artist’s special somepony thinks of her works,” Meadow quietly thought out loud.

The stallion on her right glanced over at her. “I’m not sure. I’d like to imagine he thinks it rather intriguing if he’s still with her after the last year.”

“Hm. I suppose so.”

Well that’s probably a bust. While she could put Masonite’s special somepony on a mental list of ponies to replace, she didn’t have the time to stalk them and get a hang of their relationship. Not to mention, she didn’t know anyling right now that could get her any history on them. She didn’t even know if there was a changeling in Cincinneighti that had access to city records.

On top of that, it wasn’t clear if this stallion really knew if Masonite’s stallion friend even existed. She certainly wasn’t going to ask again and make him suspicious.

Meadow stuck around for a few more minutes, pretending to contemplate the paintings before moving on. It took slowly wandering for what was probably around fifteen minutes until she found another pony observing an artist’s paintings she was interested in. Looking at the nametag under the painting, these indeed belonged to a Silver Varnish. A unicorn stallion, she recalled the pamphlet saying. It even mentioned him being born and raised in Cincinneighti.

Exactly what Spindle was looking for. She hoped so, anyway.

Sweeping her gaze around at the line of artwork, they appeared to be slices of life from ancient Marecedonia. Some of them, she noted, even depicted war. One had a unicorn mare holding a sword to another pony’s throat with battered and bruised allies on both sides.

Meadow Breeze recoiled slightly at one painting immediately to her right. Some risqué things were allowed in the name of art, she knew, but that one was just plain lewd. She decided to observe near where her targeted mare was, which happened to be on the opposite side from that painting.

The one Meadow had chosen was a depiction of public baths in an old style column-filled building. It was definitely very detailed in every part of pony anatomy.

“The ponies in these paintings are so realistic,” Meadow Breeze spoke out her crafted words. “I wonder if he used a live model for practice. Maybe a special somepony?”

The mare next to her turned her head and regarded her. Sure enough, the oddly specific, prying question got a response of confusion and incredulity from her. “I don’t know,” she finally replied, turning back to the painting in front of her. “But I bet if you were curious enough, you could go ask him yourself. I’m sure he’d love to tell you.”

“Ask him?”

The mare hummed in affirmation. “He started showing his new paintings down at Fresh Take yesterday. I’d bet he’s there again today.”

“Huh. I suppose it’d be interesting to meet him.”

The other mare snorted, but said nothing else.

Inside Meadow was cheering. It took her over two weeks of searching the artist scene back in Hoofington before she’d gotten a solid lead on Wavy Palette. Maybe this would be her chance!

For appearance sake, she stuck around for several more minutes before heading back to the main entrance. The Fresh Take gallery was in the three galleries that Mamma Rose had given her, but she wasn’t sure where exactly it was. She decided asking was probably a good idea.

Stopping at the front desk, she waited for the stallion talking to the receptionist to finish. A short moment later, he left with a pamphlet and Meadow stepped up.

“Hello. Was there something I can help you with?” the mare behind the desk asked.

“Yes. I lost my brochures along the way here. Would you be able to tell me where the Fresh Take gallery is?”

“Absolutely!” The mare smiled happily. “I hear they got a new set of artwork yesterday. It’s actually on this same street. Head right from here and it’s about five blocks down on the other side of the road.”

“Perfect. Thank you very much.” Meadow turned and left, walking back to the oddly shaped entry hall. Looking around to make sure nopony was looking, she entered the single unisex restroom and shut the door.

A short while later, Spindle stepped out wearing a brand new, unicorn body.

Violet Mural was rather proud of her lilac coat and purple mane combinations and she thought her new light blue eyes accentuated the look of both. And her cutie mark of bold to fading cyan, magenta, and yellow rainbow strokes fit such an artsy atmosphere well.

Feeling enthused about herself and her potential new source, she left one gallery, heading for another.

The Fresh Take was much more open than The Fine Line. It was a large, rectangular room with high ceilings. In the middle there were several almost-rooms with wide archways. As she walked along the outer walls, she noticed each inner area displayed a single artist’s work, most notably for popular and well known ponies. In the corners were smaller areas with little diagonal walls opposite the corner that displayed a single, less well known artist’s contributions.

Passing one of the corner displays, she saw along the walls were framed canvases from various ponies she’d never heard of along with several ponies viewing them. Halfway to the next corner, her heart began racing as she saw the name hanging on the far wall: “Silver Varnish.”

Three ponies were in his area, two of which were admiring paintings while one stallion with a light green coat and dark cyan mane stood near the corner, facing the rest of the building.

That’s gotta be him.

Spindle stopped, turning to admire some random pony’s artwork on the wall and willed herself to calm down. He might be her next source, but it was entirely possible he already had a special somepony or even simply wasn’t interested. Regardless, there was no reason to hype herself up for disappointment.

Just be smooth and act like a normal mare. See if he’ll introduce himself when you move on to his paintings.

Slowly, Violet began making her way over, stopping to view a painting for a couple minutes before moving to the next. It wouldn’t do to head straight to him; subtlety was key here. Throughout her gradual journey to his corner, she looked over every time she moved to the next painting. She occasionally saw him politely conversing with some mare or stallion, a friendly smile always on his face.

That certainly boded well for her. Dealing with a stuck up artist was difficult, not even taking into account her true intentions. Or perhaps it worked against her and somepony already got to him first.

Finally, after what had to be over a dozen more paintings, she arrived at his corner. Stepping into the Silver Varnish section, she made a show of looking at the paintings on the far wall. She noticed his eyes on her, but was genuinely surprised to see the quality of this artwork was even greater than those featured at The Fine Line. She wasn’t only prodding for information when she’d said his ancient Marecedonian series was well done. Though this time, it seemed from her cursory glance most of his pieces on display were unrelated, minus maybe a couple here or there.

After viewing part of Silver Varnish’s stock, she grazed her eyes back across his paintings then onto him. He’d been politely not staring at her, but when she peered his way, his eyes snapped back to her.

“Hello! I’m Silver Varnish, though you probably already knew that,” he said with the same friendly smile she’d seen him use with other visitors. “Welcome to my little section of the gallery. Please let me know if you have any questions.”

“Thank you.” She returned his smile and began perusing his work. She tried to see and memorize all the different subtleties he used, his shading technique, the emotions behind them. She’d passed through the first eight on the right wall and moved on to the far wall’s eight. So many of his pieces captured the happiness, despair, and even sensuality of the scenes they were in. Merely looking at one for long enough made Spindle feel like she was really there. Finally, she finished the other wall and moved to the diagonal wall.

Her heart nearly stopped and she froze.

There on the wall were two paintings of unmistakable changelings. Her jaw dropped slightly and her mouth went dry as she looked over them. On top was a painting just above eye level of a scene in Canterlot. It showed a high viewpoint, looking down at an unsuspecting mare at an outdoor cafe as three changelings flew away from the viewer at her, vicious snarls visible from the sides of their faces.

On the bottom was the same scene, but from the mare’s point of view. She had turned to the approaching changelings, her forelegs covering the edges. Through her legs, a changeling was less than a pony’s length away, taking up three quarters of the canvas with its wide open jaw baring vicious fangs.

She should have known something like this could be on display, but she never would have expected it could be so realistic, consuming… enthralling. They looked almost exactly like the real thing, except with maybe thicker tongues and longer, more fierce-looking fangs.

“Rather unsettling aren’t they?”

Spindle gasped and nearly jumped, turning to find Silver Varnish observing his paintings with her.

“I-Is that what they’re really like?” She said, trying to get her heart under control. She couldn’t help but think if this really was what happened on the day of the wedding. Were ponies this terrified? Did her queen’s army really charge at ponies like this? Did they kill anypony?

“I can’t say for certain, as I wasn’t there. Though I gathered every visual and written representation from the papers I could. I brought these two in only early this morning. Tell me, how did they make you feel?”

“Honestly, terrified,” Violet said with more sincerity than she’d like, though she felt like she’d calmed down enough to resume her act. “It feels so realistic and to see it coming directly at me, it’s quite alarming. The way you use the top painting to prepare you for the bottom painting sets the tone very well and the ferocity of the changeling on the bottom is stunning.”

“I’m glad they were able to evoke the emotions I intended. When I saw them in the papers two days ago, I was drawn into a fit of inspiration. I painted long into the night, even with the show the next morning.”

“It seemed to be worth it, if you ask me.”

“Mmm. Though despite my depictions of them, I have to wonder,” he said wistfully, “these creatures, changelings, they were unknown to us until three days ago. Where did they come from and how long have they been hiding? Are they really the predatory species the papers have made them out to be? How many more are there living amongst us in anonymity? So many questions and yet I feel we will never have our answers.”

“I… can’t really say.” Violet said, slow and quiet. “I hadn’t thought about it until you brought it up. If they were willing to perform an outright siege against Canterlot, there’s no way they can’t be at least somewhat evil.” She didn’t really believe that, but figured plenty of ponies did.

“Perhaps you’re right.” He turned to face her. “Though we ponies have done some rather unsavory things in our past. In any case, though you aren’t the first to have such a strong reaction to my paintings, you’re certainly one of the few. Do you mind if I ask your name?”

“Erm, no, of course not.” She turned to face him as well. “My name’s Violet Mural.” Spindle wasn’t quite sure at this point whether she wanted to continue this charade. He was obviously interested in changelings and while that could prove to be difficult later on, it wasn’t like other ponies couldn’t be suspicious of her either.

“So tell me, Miss Mural,” he peered at her cutie mark, “what do you find most interesting about art?”

“Oh!” This really was progressing well. It did help that stallions were often easier to romance, from a mare’s perspective. Though this meant story time and she’d only been half thinking about Violet’s backstory. Time to make something up. “Well, when I was a filly, I’d been far more interested in fashion design, but after a dozen near-disasters, I’d decided it simply wasn’t for me. It wasn’t until months after my parents gifted me a foal’s painting set that I realized my creative energies had been misplaced. Though it certainly wasn’t easy, I just loved making my creations come to life. In fact…”

“...And the viewpoint on this piece was one of the hardest to get right. Would you believe me if I told you I have three versions at home that simply didn’t come out right?”

Violet giggled. “I can only imagine! I feel like three quarters of an artist’s life is feeling unsatisfied with your work and redoing it.”

“Quite right, that!” Silver Varnish looked, up and past Violet. “Oh goodness. I can’t believe we’ve been chatting for over an hour already.”

Violet followed his gaze back behind her, seeing a large clock on the rear wall. It indeed was almost half past one in the afternoon.

“I’m terribly sorry, Miss Mural, but I am here for a reason. Regardless of how entertaining it’s been, I should probably focus on my work.”

“Of course! Though, again please, call me Violet,” she said for the second time in their conversation. She debated not pushing the budding relationship any further at this time, but decided she might not get another opportunity to meet him if she didn’t. “And pardon me for asking, but would you perhaps be interested in grabbing a bite to eat at some point?”

“Hmm.” He tapped his chin, looking up and off into the distance. “Well, I suppose since I don’t usually schedule lunches for art show days…” he put his hoof down and looked at her, smiling, “what would you think about dinner tonight?”

Oh. That was fast. Fast enough to be almost suspicious. Though she felt nothing but excitement from him, so it wasn’t impossible for him to be biting at the first mare he’d clicked with in some time. At least she hoped that’s what it was.

“That sounds wonderful! Do you have any suggestions on location?”

“Actually, I do. There’s this place just a little ways north of downtown called La Casa Spaghetti. Wonderful place and I’ve rather been craving some good Neightallian food. How does meeting there at seven sound?”

“That’s perfect!”

“Then I shall see you there.”

“Of course. I’m looking forward to it.” She smiled and waved a hoof, then put it down and moved around him. As she stepped away, she felt his gaze on her and was delighted to feel a short bit of carnal desire from him. He really was interested!

“Oh and Miss—I mean Violet,” he called right as she stepped past his last painting.

She turned back, and tilted her head. “Yes?”

“Tonight, it’ll be my treat.”

Her eyes widened slightly, though she kept them from fully expressing her surprise and excitement. She held a hoof over her mouth and giggled. “Oh, my. Are you sure, Mr. Varnish?”

“Absolutely.” Had she been a pony, she was certain his smile would have melted her.

“Then I’ll be looking forward to it even more.”