• Published 21st Oct 2012
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A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing - Dee Pad



Can a changeling truly renounce his identity and find happiness amongst those he was taught to hate?

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Chapter 3: Pocket Change

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 3: Pocket Change

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It may very well have been the first time in his life that he had ever woken up smiling.

The melodic voices of birds perched on the windowsill had informed Shade of the approximate hour. The bright, morning rays of the sun had warmed his face as it slowly made its day-to-day journey across the vast sky. The scent of a hearty breakfast wafting about his nostrils was foreign to him but welcome nonetheless. He had been reluctant to remove himself from his cocoon of absolute comfort. It was the perfect morning, one he could never hope to experience back home.

But all good things must come to an end. Today promised to be a busy day.

Twilight Sparkle had insisted that she guide him throughout Ponyville and give him the grand tour, all the while searching for potential places to land a well-paying job. Their first stop? Sweet Apple Acres; a huge apple orchard and cattle ranch on the outskirts of town. Twilight had told Shade that she was close friends with the owner, an earth pony by the name of Applejack. Given the size and scope of the orchard, Twilight figured having some extra hooves around would take some of the weight off of Applejack’s shoulders. She was a little concerned about how well this would go over though since Sweet Apple Acres was a family owned and operated business; they very rarely accepted outside help, but it was worth a shot.

The orchard was clearly visible from almost anywhere in Ponyville. Twilight was able to point it out to Shade the second they stepped out of the library. Large, rolling hills peppered with apple trees as far as the eye could see. And apparently only four ponies worked there with just two of them being strong enough to actually harvest the seemingly infinite supply of apples. The shapeshifter could see why the unicorn thought they could use some help.

Upon reaching the farm proper, Shade could see various buildings around the grounds. A bright red farmhouse, chicken coops and fenced in pens where various farm animals such as sheep and cows could be seen grazing. It looked pretty much like a typical farm, to the average equine that is. This was a new sight for the changeling.

Another new sight was the earth pony mare he saw exiting the farm house. Her coat was orange in color and her irises were a green hue similar to his own. Her mane and tail were blonde and tied off near the ends with red hair bands. She wore a stetson on her head which struck Shade as a little odd considering ponies didn’t usually wear any kind of clothes. As they made their way closer to her, he was able to make out her cutie mark, a trio of red apples. Seemed appropriate, all things considered.

But, once again, a grim realization came to him. Great. Another one of them. Gonna go out on a limb and say that all six of them live here then. Just my luck.

“Good morning, Applejack!” called Twilight cheerily.

The earth pony looked in their direction. “Well howdy, Twilight!” the mare called back with a rather thick southern drawl. “What brings y’all ‘round here this mornin’?”

“Actually, him.” Twilight pointed a hoof at the stallion standing next to her.

“Hey now, Twi,” Applejack said as she looked the stranger up and down with a mischievous smirk. “When did y’all go an’ get yerself a boyfriend?”

“W-what!?” the two stammered in unison.

“No no no, he’s not my boyfriend!” Twilight desperately defended, both her and Shade’s cheeks burning red. “I brought him here to meet you.”

“Uh, no offense, Twi, but Ah don’t need ya to go settin’ me up on dates. Ah’m perfectly capable of handlin’ that mahself.”

Shade’s blush only deepened.

“Ugh, no, Applejack,” Twilight said putting a hoof against the bridge of her nose. “Look, let’s start at the beginning. Applejack, this is Shade. He just moved to Ponyville yesterday from Las Pegasus.”

“Oh, a city boy, eh?” Applejack said with slight amusement. “Well, I think you’ll find Ponyville ta be a far cry from what yer used to out there.”

“I think I’ll manage,” he retorted. Ponyville was practically urban compared to the Changeling Kingdom. If anything, he would have to adjust to a more fast-paced life.

“If ya say so,” the country pony chuckled. “Ah jus’ hope yer prepared to put in an honest day’s work. Ain’t no pony gonna get away with bein’ lazy ‘round here. Well, ‘cept Rainbow Dash, but at least she gets her job done.”

“Actually, that’s why we’re here,” Twilight spoke up, taking advantage of the change of topic. “Shade needs a job and we were wondering if maybe he could help out on the farm.”

Applejack looked at the two of them with reluctance. “Ah don’t know, Twi. That ain’t how things work ‘round here. This here’s a family business. We’ve never hired outside work before.”

“What are you talking about?” Twilight inquired. “We help you guys out all the time.”

“Yeah, but we consider y’all ta be honorary family members. Plus, ya refuse ta accept any sorta payment,” Applejack pointed out.

“Please, Applejack,” Twilight pleaded with her. “It’ll probably only be temporary. At least until he can save up a respectable amount or find a different job.”

Applejack thought for a moment, feeling guilty about turning down a favor for a friend. She sighed in resignation. “Ugh, fine. But only ‘cuz it’s you. Ah don’t need every unemployed pony marchin’ up here looking for a job. We’d have no bits left over to take care of ourselves.”

“Thank you, Applejack,” Twilight said gratefully.

“Yeah, thanks,” Shade added. “This’ll be a load off my mind.” If he could secure a job here then that will only serve to further cement his integration into their society. Things were looking up.

Shade's attention was suddenly grabbed by a series of excited barks. A small brown and white dog wearing a red collar ran up alongside Applejack, panting happily with its tongue hanging out. Applejack playfully tousled the canine’s head.

“Hey there, Winona,” she chuckled. “Finished yer breakfast already?”

Winona barked cheerfully.

“Good girl.” She smiled and ruffled the pup’s fur once more. “Hey, there’s somepony here you should meet. This here’s-”

Applejack’s introduction was cut short when Winona looked towards the unfamiliar pony and began to snarl. Shade took a cautious step back.

“Whoa, easy girl!” the farm pony heeled, trying to calm the animal down. She only growled more loudly. Shade was starting to get a little worried. Was she going to attack him?

“Winona, hush!” Applejack commanded firmly, stomping a hoof on the grass for emphasis. The canine let out a surprised whimper. “Why don’t y’all go an’ play wit’ Applebloom fer a while?”

Winona heeded her owner’s order and started to turn back towards the farmhouse. She turned back briefly to snarl at the stranger once more before running home.

“Well, that was strange,” Twilight commented, lifting an eyebrow.

“Ah’m real sorry ‘bout that, Shade,” Applejack apologized with a sigh. “Normally Winona’s friendly wit’ everypony, even strangers. Somethin’ must be botherin’ her...”

“I-It’s fine,” he assured, shaking slightly.

“Ferget about it. Let’s git back on topic.” She turned to Twilight. “So what’re you showin’ Shade around Ponyville yerself fer, Twilight?” the earth pony asked curiously, “Don’t Pinkie Pie usually handle new ponies?”

“Normally, yes,” Twilight answered, “But since Shade’s staying with me at the library, I figured I might as well help him out a little, you know?”

“Whoa, whoa, hold yer horses there, girl. Did y’all just say he was livin’ with ya?” Applejack asked in disbelief.

“Well, yes,” she replied, somewhat confused as to why her friend had taken such a disapproving tone. “He had nowhere else to stay since he doesn’t have family here and there are no houses available for him to move into, so I offered him the spare bed at my place.”

“Are you outta yer gotdang mind!?”

Both unicorns were taken aback at the sudden outburst.

“Y’all jus’ met ‘im yesterday! And ya just let him sleep in yer house!?”

“Applejack, he-” she started but she was cut off as Applejack continued her lecture.

“Ya don’t know anythin’ about ‘im! What if he’s not who he says he is?”

Shade gulped, afraid of where this train of thought might lead.

“What if he’s one o’ them creepy stalker types or somethin’ who jus’ stands there an’ watches ya sleep or worse...” She trailed off, not wanting to get into any further detail about that. “Mah point is, ya don’t even know th’ guy, yet ya trust him right off the bat? Ah thought you were smarter than that, Twilight.”

Twilight furrowed her brow at her angry friend. “Well, exuuuuuse me for trying to make new friends!” Applejack stepped back in surprise. She hadn’t expected Twilight to respond so strongly. “I always thought that the first step to making friends was trust. If you can’t trust somepony, how can you expect to befriend them? I would have thought that the Element of Honesty would know all about trust.”

Shade’s heart sank deeper with each mention of the word "trust." Each utterance was like a hammer striking a nail, driving it deeper and deeper until it was embedded so deep that the only way to remove it was to tear apart the wood around it, leaving behind a splintered mess of lies which would make getting the nail back in a pointless endeavor.

The studious unicorn breathed deep to calm herself. “Besides, he’s only staying at my place until he can get a place of his own. You all showed me a great deal of hospitality when I first moved here, so I should be able to do the same.”

Applejack allowed herself a moment to think about what she said. “Ah reckon ya got a point there. Ya can’t have friendship without trust. But one should have ta earn that trust first, don’tcha think? Guy comes in ta town, no place to stay, no jobs lined up. Sounds a mite suspicious if ya ask me.”

The farm pony was staring straight at him with an accusing gaze. Shade tried to remain stone faced. He didn’t want to screw up now so he had to remain as calm as possible so as not to raise further suspicion.

“Can you at least let him work here for a while?” Twilight tried pleading once more. “Try to get to know him a little before you start to judge him. He just wants to live a normal life like the rest of us.”

“You could try takin’ yer own advice.”

“We all need to learn more about him, yes, but the difference between you and me is that I haven’t been judging him.”

Applejack paused in thought. “Fair ‘nough,” she conceded. “Alright then, city slicker, let’s have a gander at yer work ethic. See if y’all can pull yer weight ‘round here.”

***** ***** *****

Shade’s body slumped onto the grass in a sweaty heap. He panted heavily as if the oxygen around him were trying desperately to avoid his lungs. He was absolutely exhausted. Bucking tree after tree and hauling bushel after bushel. Was this work or some form of cruel and unusual punishment for a crime he didn’t commit?

This would be far easier if he could use his magic. He had tried when he first started, plucking a dozen apples from the nearest tree with ease but was promptly halted by Applejack.

“Hold up there, city boy,” she had said, “Y’all might be used ta doin’ things th’ easy way where you come from, but ‘round here is differ’nt. We come from a long line of proud earth ponies and we ain’t never needed magic ta get the job done, save for th’ real crisis situations. You can call me old fashioned or what-have-you but that’s just the way it works and that’s the way you’ll be workin’ too. Am Ah makin’ mahself clear?”

Shade continued to gasp for breath as he recounted Applejack’s words. She had a point, he guessed. If they just had some unicorns using magic all the time, then she and her family would be out of work. But still, this was a lot of work for what was usually just two ponies.

With the supposed intention of adding insult to injury, the tree that the changeling currently lay under decided to toss one last apple his way. As if this were some kind of divine prank planned by the gods, the rosy red fruit managed to skewered itself perfectly on his horn, splattering his face with its sweet juice. It wasn’t all bad. The cool liquid felt refreshing on his otherwise burning and sweaty face. A welcome reprieve from his weariness.

“Ya, givin’ up already?”

Shade turned his head slightly to look at Applejack who was smirking triumphantly, like she had just won a bet.

“It’s only been an hour, ya know,” she said pointedly.

At first, Shade thought she was messing with him. Come on, it’s been way more than an hour. He looked skyward with the intention to correct her and not give her the satisfaction of falling for her trick.

But sure enough, there it was.

The sun had hardly moved since he arrived at the farm. It felt like he had been here for at least three, maybe three and half, hours, and he had the sweat and sore muscles to back that up.

Shade didn’t say a word. His head just hit the ground in defeat.

“Yer too soft, city boy. Ya ain’t cut out fer this kinda work.” Applejack reached down and plucked the apple off of his horn and took a big, smug bite of it. She was deliberately trying to irk him. What was her deal? Did she really distrust him so badly? If that was the case, he wasn’t so sure that a job here would be very desirable. She was liable to figure him out eventually if she kept prodding him. He could only hope that her intention was to look out for Twilight’s wellbeing.

Shade slowly and laboriously rose to his hooves, shaking slightly from his exhaustion.

“You’re right,” he falsely admitted. He decided to play along since he didn’t really want to stay here anymore anyway. “I’d be better suited to something less...”

“Strenuous?” she finished.

Shade paused to analyze her cocky grin. “Yeah...”

She chuckled. “Aw, now don’t feel too bad. I don’t wanna sound like I’m prejudiced or nothin’, but unicorns ain’t usually th’ best fit fer manual labor anyhow.” Shade might have gotten some comfort from that had it not sounded so blatantly patronizing. “But, hey, if’n y’all feel like gettin’ a good workout sometime, look me up. Ah’ll treat ya to mah personal trainin’ regime. That oughta toughen you up,” she laughed.

Shade kept silent as he walked past her to make his way back to the library.

“Hey, hold up a sec!”

Shade turned around in time to see a small, brown sack plop onto the ground next to him. It made a curious jingling noise upon impact. He looked quizzically back at Applejack and awaited an explanation.

“Ah figure since ya did put in some effort, then th’ least Ah can do is pay ya fer th’ work ya done.”

Shade lifted the bag with his magic and pulled the drawstring, opening the sack. Inside he found a hefty amount of bright, gold coins.

“Ah know it may seem like a lot fer just an hour’s work, but I reckon ya can consider it a welcome gift from me. At th’ very least it’ll bring ya one step closer to gettin’ yer butt outta Twi’s place.”

“Thanks,” Shade said half heartedly as he sealed the bag up again. Strange how she had this with her even before she found him collapsed in the grass. She must have been planning on giving him the boot anyway. What does a guy have to do to earn this one’s trust?

“One more thing,” she called out to him again. “If you touch one hair on Twi’s head, or anypony else’s fer that matter, you’ll have ta deal wit me. Got it?”

Shade said nothing, he just nodded his head in acknowledgement. He turned his back to Applejack once more and finally made to put this unpleasant experience behind him.

***** ***** *****

The trek back to the library gave him time to mull over what he’d just gone through. He had managed to earn the trust of Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle, three out of six ponies he had hoped, at one point, never to see again. It was a real confidence booster at first. If he could befriend the bearers of the Elements of Harmony then he shouldn’t have any trouble living here. It was naïve of him to think that everypony would be so quick to trust him. It would probably be for the best if he could make as little contact with Applejack as possible.

When he had finally made it back to the library, Twilight was, unsurprisingly, a little disappointed. He had given up after just one hour. Well, that’s what she accused him of. He tried to defend himself but to little avail. In any case, his hostess was graciously willing to continue aiding him in his job hunt and suggested they visit her friend, Rarity.

Shade recognized the name immediately. Pinkie Pie had made mention of a pony by that name. If she was anything like he had imagined, then this would probably be a much more tolerable encounter compared to the party pony’s exuberance and the farm pony’s distaste for him. After taking a quick shower at the behest of a purple unicorn overwhelmed by the stench of perspiration, he was ready to go. For once he was actually looking forward to meeting somepony even if she was, more than likely, another one of the Elements.

That anticipation flew out the window about a minute after the introductions had ended.

How did I get myself roped into this?

Now he found himself standing in the middle of Rarity’s fashion parlor, Carousel Boutique, surrounded by mannequins draped in fancy clothes, mirrors on all sides, and a slightly over-eager white coated, unicorn mare with a curly, expertly styled, violet mane.

He stood there with the most unamused expression he could manage. Rarity had insisted--no, "insisted" wasn’t the right word--demanded that he be her guinea pig for the next hour or so. So here he was, forced to remain perfectly still, wearing an incomplete, gentlemanly tuxedo while the white mare took various measurements which occasionally caused her to get uncomfortably close to areas of his body he’d rather have left untouched.

His lack of enthusiasm was only accented by the color of the outfit: a bright...pink.

“Ow! Can you be a little more careful? You keep poking me with that thing,” Shade sneered in irritation.

“Perhaps I wouldn’t be poking you so much if you would just keep still,” Rarity shot back. She threaded the needle held by her aura of powder blue magic through the tuxedo once more.

“This is ridiculous,” he muttered. “Why did I agree to this again? Oh, wait, I didn’t.”

“There’s no need to get huffy, dear,” the white unicorn scolded. “Besides, we’re just about finished.”

Twilight Sparkle looked on in silence as her friend continued to circle the newcomer, swinging the needle expertly through the seams as she went. She would occasionally look up at Shade to see him looking back at her pleadingly as if he wanted to scream "help me," but she, without many ideas as to what she could do, could only shrug her shoulders in response.

What was the purpose of this? Ponies didn’t need clothes, why would this one be so obsessive about making them? There had been plenty of ponies in Canterlot that were dressed up for the royal wedding but he had assumed that was because of the occasion. How could somepony make a living doing this kind of thing when they didn’t wear clothes on every other normal day? It was completely impractical. It just didn’t make any sense to him.

“There. All done,” Rarity finally announced, stepping down from the platform where she had been working and moving beside Twilight. Shade made to follow her but was quickly stopped in his tracks by an outstretched, white hoof. She forced him to remain still for a little longer, much to his dismay. She lifted a hoof to her chin and looked him up and down from behind a pair of orange spectacles, critiquing her work.

A smile creased her lips. “Oh, you look positively dapper, darling!” she exclaimed. “A little mane gel and some cologne and you’d fit right in among even the socialites of Canterlot.” The fashionista paused for a moment. “Although now that I see it, perhaps pink doesn’t really go with your colors. A darker fabric would probably work better to contrast your lovely white coat.”

Ugh, thank you, he thought, breathing a sigh of relief. “Wait, does that mean you want me to stand here while you put together another suit?!”

“Oh, heavens, no. I can simply go by the measurements I’ve already taken and fashion a new one without the need for a model.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, Rarity,” Twilight spoke up, “Why didn’t you just use a mannequin for this tuxedo?”

“Because I’m currently lacking in male mannequins,” she explained. “I very rarely get requests to design clothes for stallions and I always figured that if I ever needed to, I could simply coax one of the strapping young stallions around here into volunteering. It is so much easier and more fun to work with a live pony.” She leaned closer to Twilight. “Plus, I thought it would be a great way to meet eligible bachelors.”

“So, is there really any reason you needed me for this?” Shade asked, clearly still annoyed.

“Well,” the white unicorn started, “Acquiring a volunteer isn’t exactly easy and you are clearly demonstrating why. They believe it to be emasculating. The only stallion I could get is Big Macintosh with his kind and helpful nature, but, although I’m appreciative, he isn’t exactly of an average build. A suit made with him would have to be for him.” Her expression perked up. “Which is why I am ever so grateful for your assistance, Mr. Shade.”

“Uh, you’re welcome.” At the very least she was being friendly with him, a nice change of pace from Applejack.

“You knooooow...” Rarity mused, looking at him with a glint in her eyes, “You mentioned you were currently looking for a job, yes?”

Shade nodded, a little nervous about where this was headed.

“I think I may be able to help you and, in the process, you’d be doing me a great service as well.”

“There you go, Shade!” Twilight said happily, “A job offer! That’s great, right?”

“You appear to have a very average body for a stallion...”

Was that supposed to be a compliment? It sounded like one, but for some reason it didn’t feel like one.

“How would you like to come on as a full-time live mannequin at my boutique?”

That’s exactly where he thought this was headed.

“Uh, thanks, but I think I’ll pass.”

“Oh? Well, can’t say I didn’t try. Thank you anyway, dear,” Rarity said, visibly disappointed.

“Now hold on a second,” Twilight interrupted. “She’s offering you a job, Shade. You can’t really afford to look a gift horse in the mouth. This is a great opportunity.”

“I don’t want to do this, it’s demeaning,” he protested.

“So? Lots of ponies have demeaning or embarrassing jobs, but they just suck it up and live with it.”

“Now, now, Twilight,” Rarity interjected. “No pony should be forced to work a job they do not enjoy. If Shade doesn’t want to work for me then that’s his decision. I’m not going to try and convince him otherwise.”

“Thank you,” Shade said gratefully. This really wasn’t a job he ever thought he’d be doing, nor existed in the first place.

“Well, I suppose you need to be on your way then,” the fashion designer said. “Just remember: If your job search yields little results, my offer is still on the table.” She unfastened the buttons on his tuxedo to remove it.

Shade and Twilight--the latter of which still irritated that the former would so hastily turn down such an opportunity--made their way to the door.

“It was nice seeing you, Twilight.” Rarity waved. “And it was lovely meeting you, Shade.”

“You too, Rarity,” the changeling called back.

“Oh, and Twilight,” the fashionista called out again.

“Hm?” The bookworm turned to face her.

“Do have something done about his lively arrangements, darling. It’s very kind of you to offer him a bed to sleep in, but the two of you sleeping in the same room? It’s simply scandalous! We don’t want everypony spreading rumors about now, do we?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” Twilight giggled.

With a final wave farewell, the two exited the boutique. All things considered, the meeting wasn’t half bad. The whole debacle with the tuxedo aside, Rarity was a charming mare and certainly more tolerable than a certain pink earth pony. Twilight continued to give Shade an earful about turning down her offer, but the day was still young; there was plenty of time left for him to find his place in the community.

***** ***** *****

The library was certainly not in the same state they had left it. It was...tidy. Books were returned to their proper place amongst the shelves and no longer strewn about the lobby, stray papers were neatly stacked, spilled ink had been wiped clean. Apparently Spike had been busy. No wonder Twilight called him her number one assistant.

Shade took a seat at the reading table as he admired the new pristine condition of the room. But his attention was quickly drawn when Twilight slapped something down on the table with a loud fwap. Shade curiously eyed the pile of paper she had just dropped in front of him.

“What’s this?” he asked.

The Ponyville Express. It’s the local newspaper,” she stated matter-of-factly. “This should help in your job search.”

“And how’s that?” he asked quizzically.

Twilight gave a blank stare. “A list of all available jobs in Ponyville are detailed in the classifieds.” She couldn’t believe she had to explain this to him like a sheltered foal. “You look them over and if you see any you would be interested in, just let me know and I’ll bring you there so you can apply, got it?”

Shade nodded nervously.

She smiled. “Good. I’ll be in my room when you need me, okay?” She ascended the staircase and disappeared behind the bedroom door.

The changeling stared at the newspaper.

And stared. And stared.

What was he supposed to do? He couldn’t read. How did she expect him to flip through this and find a job when everything in front of him was like trying to decipher a language forgotten by time itself?

“You okay, Shade?”

The fake unicorn jumped in shock. He whirled around to see Spike standing behind him holding a stack of three books in his arms. Shade hadn’t even realized the dragon had been in the room the whole time.

“You’ve just been staring at the cover of that paper for a few minutes now,” he observed. “The classifieds are further in the back.”

“Uh, r-right,” Shade stammered as he began tentatively turning the pages, hoping against hope he stopped on the right page.

“See? There they are.” Spike jabbed a claw on the page. “Now you just gotta pick one you like.”

One I like. Right. Easier said than done.

The baby dragon returned to his duties leaving Shade to blankly and annoyedly gaze at the tabloid. The two pages open to him were filled with text and numbers encased in various squares and rectangles of black ink. The numbers he could recognize at the very least, but the ways in which they were arranged befuddled him. They were mixed in with foreign letters which made them look like some kind of archaic algorithms. And the pages were littered with them. What was he to make of this?

“How’s it going down there?”

Shade looked up from the paper. Twilight was standing at the top of the staircase.

“It’s been fifteen minutes. Haven’t you found anything yet?” She trotted down the stairs. “Is there a problem?”

“Umm...no, no problem,” he lied. What would she think if she found out? Surely it was abnormal for a full grown stallion to be unable to read or write. She would certainly think something was up.

“Well, alright then,” the mare said as she turned back towards the stairs.

“Wait,” he beckoned, “What’s your job, Twilight.” He was a little desperate to take the focus off of himself for a bit.

“Huh?” She seemed to be caught off guard by the question. “My job? Well, I guess, technically, I don’t have one.”

Shade shot her a look of accusing hypocrisy.

“What I mean to say is,” she continued, “I’m here as a student studying the magic of friendship. I do help anypony who comes looking for a book to read or a quiet place to study, but that’s really more like volunteer work. Most of my expenses are taken care of by Princess Celestia.”

Celestia.

The mere mention of the name sent an involuntary shiver down his spine. For his entire life, and centuries before, the changelings had had it beaten into their skulls that Celestia was an oppressive tyrant who shunned any non-ponies. They were told that she was the reason they were forced to live in poverty and any attempt at diplomacy was quickly shot down. Whether these were lies made up by Chrysalis and the former rulers or not, Shade had no clue. He wanted to believe the alicorn was benevolent to all species. But if that were the case, why did the changelings still struggle for survival?

In retrospect that was a stupid question. Changelings were inherently bad. They were greedy, selfish and power-hungry. They were kept away from the rest of Equestria for good reason.

“But just because I don’t actually have a paying job doesn’t mean you’ll get away with it.”

Twilight’s voice snapped him out of his stupor. He shook any thought of Celestia or the changelings from his head, focusing again on the topic at hoof: his glaring illiteracy.

“Anyway, you keep looking and if you find something just let me know.” The mare swiveled around to return to her studies once more.

He couldn’t ignore his problem forever. If he didn’t bring it up now, it was going to become a major issue in the future.

“Actually...” he started reluctantly.

The lavender unicorn turned back to him.

“I...”

“What? What’s the matter?”

“I...can’t read,” he whispered.

“What’s that?” She hadn’t quite heard him.

“I can’t read,” he openly admitted. He waited for her irritated response. She must think he was idiot. What grown pony doesn’t know how to read?

“What!?” Her voice sounded more concerned than upset, “Oh my gosh! I had no idea! That’s horrible!” She gasped. “Oh no! And I made you stay in a library! Geez, how could I be so insensitive!? I’m so sorry, I must look like a total jerk!”

That was not the reaction he expected to get.

“Uh, it’s fine,” he assured her. “I don’t think you’re a jerk.”

“I still feel like one.” Her ears flattened against her head.

How was it that he couldn’t read but she was the one who felt bad, like it was her fault? But maybe this was an opportunity in disguise. If he was going to live with ponies, he may as well learn the skills necessary to get by.

“Hey, uh...” He wasn’t sure how this was going to go over. She’s done so much for him already. “Do you think you could...teach me?”

Twilight perked up immediately. “Teach you? Me?” She pointed a hoof at herself.

“Yeah. I mean, you live in a library, right? So I would think you’d make a great teacher,” Shade complimented.

The mare’s face lit up, a broad smile spreading across her face. “Really!? Me, a teacher?” She was ecstatic. “Wow. I guess it never occurred to me to actually teach other ponies. I could be just like Princess Celestia is to me: a mentor. I could be your mentor, Shade!”

“Yeah, sounds...fun?” Maybe she was getting a little too excited.

“This is gonna be great! Wait until the princess hears that I have my very own pupil!” She started to calm down a bit. “Oh, but maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself. You still need a job, don’t you?”

Her newly appointed pupil nodded.

“Right then. Let’s see here...” She snatched the newspaper off of the table with her magic. “Hmmm...Oh! Here’s something you might be able to do. They’re looking for a waiter at the local café. It’s a really nice place. I enjoy a nice meal there from time to time. It should be pretty simple. Just bringing food to customers. Oh, but I guess you would have to write down orders though. Sorry...” She was starting to feel guilty again.

“What if I just memorize the orders? Would that work?” he asked.

“Hmm...maybe,” she pondered. “But memorizing multiple orders can be difficult. You think you could do it?”

“It’s worth a shot. Besides, if it doesn’t work out I could always look for a different job.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” she agreed. “Plus, you could always fall back on Rarity’s offer. I’m sure that position wouldn’t require any reading or writing.”

Shade shuddered at the thought. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Twilight laughed. “Right. In any case, once I teach you how to read...” She stifled an elated giggle. “...It shouldn’t be a problem for you to find and maintain a job. So, shall we go?”

***** ***** *****

At first glance, one would think that the café looked like nothing more than a larger, fancier Ponyville residence. And they’d be half right. The size was meant to accommodate both the indoor portion of the restaurant and housing for the owner, which made up most of the second floor. At least, according to Twilight. However, although the restaurant proper was located inside, the real draw of this establishment was the outdoor dining area directly outside the front door. A plethora of ponies could already be seen gathered around the many tables, sitting upon small mounds of hay, leisurely engaging in idle gossip as they enjoyed their meals.

Twilight had told him that the owner and head waiter was an earth pony by the name of Horte Cuisine and that he was a rather upscale citizen of their humble little town, hailing from a distant, foreign country and well versed in proper etiquette. She warned Shade about minding his manners around him.

Upon entering the establishment, the pony in question could be seen minding the till, tallying up the payments of his most recent customers. He was a very pompous sort, standing tall and lifting his nose into the air. Over his off-white coat he wore a black vest with a white undershirt accompanied by a red bow tie. His gray-blue mane was slicked back giving him an air of sophistication. Topping off the upper class ensemble was the thin mustache upon his lip. Personally, Shade thought it looked a little silly but then again what did he know about class? The very last thing he noticed about Horte Cuisine was his cutie mark--a covered, silver serving dish--which became visible when he stepped out from behind the counter to greet them.

“Bonjour, Mademoiselle Sparkle,” he welcomed her in a thick accent that Shade had never heard before. “‘Ow may I serve you today?” He glanced at the stallion standing next to her. “A table for two per’aps?”

“Oh no, Monsieur Cuisine. We’re not here to eat,” the mare corrected. She nudged Shade forward. She couldn’t hold his hoof forever; he would have to learn to do this himself just in case his job hunt didn’t end here.

Horte stared at the other stallion with indifference, waiting for him to say whatever it was he wanted to say. His gaze was a little intimidating.

“Right, uh, Mr...Cuisine? My name’s Shade. I noticed you had an ad in the paper saying that you were looking to hire a new waiter and I’d like to apply,” he informed Horte, trying to muster up as much confidence as he could.

“I see,” the head waiter replied. “Do you ‘ave any prior experience?”

“Um, well...no.” Shade lowered his head slightly.

“Hmm...Well zen, do you consider yourself to be a very sociable pony?” Horte asked.

“Sociable? Well, uh...not...really. I haven’t exactly had a lot of outside contact in the past.” This didn’t seem to be going well, but he wasn’t about to give up. “But that’s part of the reason I moved to Ponyville. I want to get to know other ponies and I want them to know and like me.”

Twilight sighed and smiled at his save. He may be able to bounce back.

“Very well,” Horte continued. “Zen do you zink you are able to ‘andle taking multiple orders from zee customers in a timely manner?”

“Well, actually...” Here was the kill shot. “I...can’t read or write.” He lowered his head in resignation. The outlook was looking grim.

“Vraiment? Well zen, I am sorry but-”

“Monsieur Cuisine, wait,” Twilight chimed in. “It’s true that Shade is illiterate but I’ve agreed to give him lessons. I’m sure that in due time he’ll be able to take down simple meal orders. Until then, he can try and memorize the orders or find different ways to remember them. Could you at least let him work here on a trial basis or something?”

Horte closed his eyes and hummed in thought.

“I did put zat ad in zee paper over a month ago and ‘ave ‘ad not even one application since, so I suppose I cannot afford to be picky. We are somewhat...‘ow you say? Understaffed, at zee moment.”

“So, does that mean...” Shade held his breath in anticipation.

“Oui, I will give you un chance.”

The changeling let out a relieved sigh which was accompanied by Twilight’s own. “So, when do I start?” he asked, eager to begin.

Horte reached behind the counter and pulled out a vest identical to his own but sealed in a plastic bag and placed it on the countertop.

“Immediately,” he replied. “Change into your uniform and meet me in front of zee café. I will instruct you further when you are ready.”

“Isn’t this great, Shade? You’ve got a job now!” Twilight exclaimed happily. “Well, I’ll let you get to it. I’m sure Monsieur Cuisine can handle things from here. Good luck!” She waved farewell as she exited the restaurant leaving Shade and Horte alone near the register. The head waiter soon found his way to the door after pointing Shade to the employee’s quarters so he could change.

Once again, as he slipped into the white shirt and black vest, he found himself pondering the possible reasons for why some equines found the desire to wear clothes. In this situation though, he could understand. The uniform helped the customers figure out who worked there so they knew who to address if they needed something.

But another question had arisen in his mind: Why was the bow tie he had been given yellow instead of red, like Horte’s? His employer provided an explanation when he voiced his curiosity. Apparently, new employees were given yellow ties so that the customers knew that they were trainees. They may be more willing to forgive minor mistakes in their performance if they knew the waiter lacked experience. Of course, new employees earned less than experienced waiters, who were recognized by their blue ties, but on the flipside, if a trainee shows exemplary skill and could impress the customer with their service, they may receive larger tips. Additionally, if they kept up the good work, they would receive a promotion and be given a blue tie and a slight pay raise. As for why Horte’s bow tie was red? It simply meant that he was the head waiter, nothing more.

The business world was a complex affair. Twilight had said that being a waiter would be a simple job. Shade wasn’t expecting all of these little intricacies that could have such a big impact on his salary. Maybe he was in over his head.

His employer had suggested that, for the first hour or so, Shade could do what Horte called "shadowing." He would simply follow Horte around and observe how he took orders, learning by example. The changeling made mental notes about everything. Not only the way Horte jotted down each order on his notepad, but also his form. Stand straight, look confident, and be courteous. As for how Shade himself was going to handle taking orders, memorization would have to do for now, at least until he could find a way to remember individual orders. He figured drawing various shapes to represent different foods would help, like drawing a triangle if somepony ordered a sandwich.

Finally the time came for Shade to take the helm. He was a little nervous to be sure, but he persevered nonetheless. It was surprising, even to him, how quickly he was catching on. Of course, that may have been due in part by Horte’s insistence that he take a smaller workload on his first day. He was only taking one order at a time which made memorization a snap. Even so, this was doing wonders for his confidence.

Several hours went by and Shade had hardly noticed. He was met by warm smiles from the customers and even received a few generous tips. Horte Cuisine had even complimented him on how well he was doing. This day was finally starting to turn around.

Shade stopped in his tracks as he made his way to pass the cooks his latest order. A single raindrop had dripped onto his nose. He surveyed the sky only to find that it was clear and sunny. Nopony else around him seemed concerned about the weather as their chatter did not cease. He shrugged his shoulders, passing it off as just a bird flying overhead that had just taken a bath or something.

Before he could take another step, a sudden torrent of rain water crashed over him in an instant, soaking him to the bone. Shade pushed his wet, matted mane out of his eyes to gaze directly upwards. A small storm cloud had perched itself right above his head and released its entire stock upon him. He sighed and let his mane fall over his eyes once more. The changeling could only stand there, unamused, as he contemplated why he was constantly the target for these unfortunate, but otherwise hilarious, pranks. Was this supposed to be karma or something? What did he do to deserve this?

He could hear the reactions of the various ponies around him. Some gasped in surprise, but for the most part, they were laughing; nothing too boisterous as they attempted to retain some modicum of courtesy by stifling their giggles. Soon, though, they all returned to minding their own business much to Shade’s relief.

Standing there in a dripping mess wasn’t going to solve anything. He was going to have to see if Horte had any spare uniforms he could use.

“Cripes, I’m soooo sorry!” came a mare’s voice from above. He heard the owner of the voice touch down in front of him. “I-It just got away from me! I tried to catch it but it got caught up in a strong breeze and-and...Oh, I’m sorry!”

Shade brushed his cobalt mane from his view again in order to stare his offender straight in the eyes.

Those...beautiful...amber eyes...

He found himself transfixed by the pegasus. Each iris like the setting sun on the horizon. Her bright red mane reminded him of the forests back home, but not in the way that a changeling would see it; as one who was witnessing its loveliness under the incandescent glow of the sunrise for the first time. Her coat and feathers were as white as the purest snow that he had never had the privilege to experience himself. Finally, upon her flank, a red maple leaf. It must have represented the last autumn maple tree, clinging to its remaining fragile leaves so that it could witness the majesty of winter for itself.

Was this true beauty?

“Um, y-you’re not mad, are you, mister?” came the voice of an angel to his ears.

“W-what?” He shook himself out of his trance. He had to piece everything together again just to remember where he was and what he was doing.

He looked again at the mare’s apologetic expression.

“Oh. Uh, no, no. I’m not mad.” What?! What are you saying?! You have every right to be mad! “These things happen.” He smiled genuinely at her.

“Oh, thank goodness,” she sighed. “The last thing I need right now is somepony sending a complaint to my boss. If she found out I let one rain on somepony, she’s gonna get real mad.”

“Your secret’s safe with me,” Shade said as he used his magic to wring out his mane and tail.

“Thank you so much.” She bowed her head. “I’m Winter Maple.” She extended her hoof to him.

“Shade.” He took her hoof in his. Her coat was so smooth and warm. “It’s nice to meet you.” He looked down, realizing that the moisture from his leg was getting her hoof wet. “Oops, sorry.” He pulled away.

“That’s okay,” she giggled. “I work with rain clouds all day. I’m used to a little water.”

Her laughter had the effect of a choir of songbirds; when he heard it, he could not resist the urge to smile. It could bring happiness to even the crankiest of individuals.

Silence fell over the two for a few moments, neither of them knowing what to say next, but for some reason, that was enough.

“Oh! I, uh...” Winter Maple started. “I have to get back to work. I need to get more water for that troublesome cloud.” She looked Shade up and down. “And I think you need to get cleaned up,” she laughed.

He looked himself over, having completely forgotten that he was soaked from head to hoof. “Right. Better get on that then.” He smiled.

“It was nice talking to you, Shade,” she said as she lifted into the air. “And sorry again.”

“You too.” He waved as she took to the sky. “And don’t worry about it.”

Shade watched as she wrangled up the mischievous cumulus. He found himself unable to remove his gaze from her form until she had completely disappeared from view.

The changeling shook his head. This was no time to get distracted. He had work to do. But first he would have to do something about his uniform. He glanced over his shoulder one more time before entering the restaurant as if he expected her to come back.

No, not "expected..."

Wanted.

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