• 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 4: Changing Focus

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 4: Changing Focus

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To say that Shade had been distracted for the past few days would be an understatement.

Things had started off well at his new job, but for some reason his attention was beginning to dwindle. He had screwed up orders and had almost tripped over himself several times. It’s a wonder he hasn’t dropped any of the customer’s meals on the ground.

Even his literacy lessons with Twilight were being tuned out. The two would usually take an hour out of the day when Shade had returned from work to do some basic learning; the first step being, of course, to teach him the alphabet. But when Twilight would ask him a question about what he was learning, he could only seem to recall a muffled drone. She was starting to find it a little frustrating to say the least. He was like that colt who sat in the back of the class and doodled in his notebook all day instead of paying attention to what the teacher was saying.

He often found himself daydreaming, lost in his thoughts for no apparent reason. On two separate occasions he ended up getting lost on the way back from work, somehow ending up on the other end of town or walking straight past the library completely.

What was wrong with him? Was his intelligence deteriorating? Was having a routine day-to-day life turning him into a mindless zombie?

No. He knew why. He wanted to believe he didn’t, but he did. The reason he was so unfocused and out of it...

It was her. That mare he had met on his first day of work.

Winter Maple...

He had repeated the name to himself thousands of times since he met her and never did the words lose meaning. He started to see her image everywhere. Her flawless form implausibly coalescing from inanimate objects that otherwise didn’t resemble a pony at all: The unreadable text in the books Twilight had been using to teach him, the soups and salads he delivered to his customers, even the twinkling stars of Luna’s night seemed to have dedicated a constellation to her that only he could perceive. He had subconsciously drawn no less than half a dozen maple leaves in his notepad when he should have been jotting down orders.

His mind was plagued with thoughts of her. No, "plagued" would imply that it was a bad thing. The fact that he had been caught several times with a goofy smile on his face told him that, whatever was going on, he was enjoying it, but it was ultimately having a negative impact on this new life he had begun to make for himself. Whether he liked it or not, something had to be done.

“Shade!”

The changeling jumped at the sound of Twilight’s hoof hitting the table.

“W-What? What’s going on?” he flustered.

“Were you paying attention at all?”

“Uh, sure. Yeah, every word,” he lied.

She shot him a stern look. “No you weren’t.”

“If you knew, then why’d you ask?”

“You’re in no position to get smart with me, mister,” she lectured. “Your inattention is starting to become a major problem. A foal in kindergarten could have memorized the alphabet by now but you’ve been too busy going into space every day.” She took a more concerned tone. “If this keeps up, Shade, you could lose your job.”

“Y-Yeah. I know...”

“I know not everypony likes to learn as much as I do,” she said sympathetically. “But this is an essential skill that you can’t really afford to live without. To be honest, I’m surprised you’ve made it this far in life without it.”

She was really starting to make him feel small. He’d never been afforded the opportunity to learn. He and the other changelings were too preoccupied with surviving the next night. Of course, he couldn’t tell her that.

“You’re right,” he admitted. “Sorry, I’ll try to focus more from now on.”

“Good.” She smiled. “Now then, back to the teaching you the alphab-”

A light rapping on the front door elicited an exasperated sigh from the lavender unicorn. With great annoyance, she rose to identify the visitor and opened the door.

“Good evening, Twilight, darling!” Rarity greeted with great enthusiasm as she invited herself in.

“We’re kind of busy here, Rarity. Did you need something?” Twilight asked, not trying very hard to veil her irritation.

“No, not really, dear. We were just in the neighborhood and thought we would stop by for a visit.”

“‘We'?”

“Hello, Twilight,” came a quiet voice from beyond the threshold.

Finally making her way inside was a pale yellow pegasus with a long, flowing, pink mane. Shade had met her once within the time he’d been living in Ponyville, but she hadn’t spoken a word to him. All he knew about her was from what Twilight had told him. Her name was Fluttershy and she was an animal caretaker who lived on the outskirts of town. A very soft spoken type, but Shade could have figured that out without Twilight’s help.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Fluttershy. I didn’t see you there,” the violet mare apologized.

“That’s okay. I’m used to it.”

And completely passive. Shade had trouble believing that she wielded one of the Elements of Harmony.

Her eyes drifted over to the stallion seated at the table. If she had been planning on saying anything else, it wasn’t coming out now. She seemed to lose her voice whenever Shade was nearby. All she would utter were little meeps and whimpers. Twilight had told him that she just wasn’t good with strangers, but from his point of view it almost seemed like she was afraid of him.

“Anyhow,” Rarity interjected, “What are you two up to this evening, hmm?”

“Same as usual,” the other unicorn answered. “I’m teaching him how to read. Or at least I would be if he would get his head out of the clouds for two seconds.” She shot him a look.

“Hey, I said I would try to pay more attention,” the stallion defended.

“Perhaps we could help?” the white unicorn offered.

“No offense, Rarity, but this is really a one pony job,” she said as she took her seat next to Shade once more.

“I’m sorry, dear, but do you have any experience with helping foals with their schoolwork?” Rarity said condescendingly. “I’ve spent many an hour helping Sweetie Belle with her studies, whether it be reading, mathematics or what-have-you. I know how to properly educate a young foal.”

“I’m not a foal...” Shade muttered under his breath but was ignored.

“Fine, if you want to teach him, be my guest.” She tossed the notebook that she had written the alphabet in to the side of the table where Rarity was standing.

The fashionista looked at the book, surprised. “No, no, you’ve already made it quite clear that you don’t need my help.” She slid the notebook back to Twilight.

The pair continued their little back and forth. With a sigh, Shade stood and walked towards Fluttershy hoping to take advantage of the two unicorns’ distraction and maybe get her to open up to him a little bit.

“Do they do this often?” he asked casually.

She didn’t reply. The pegasus only turned her head to hide her teal eyes behind her pink mane and shuffled a few inches away from him. That wasn’t about to deter him from trying.

He wanted to start a topic of conversation, hoping that something would bring her out of her shell. He figured he may as well speak about what was on his mind. “You know, I think the only reason I’ve been having trouble concentrating lately is because I met this mare the other day and-”

“What was that?” He suddenly had Rarity’s full attention, as though her little argument with Twilight had never happened.

“Uh, what?” Shade tried to feign ignorance and pretend he hadn’t said anything. He didn’t know they would hear him.

“Did you just say you met a mare?” the white unicorn asked, taking a step closer to him.

“Um...maybe?” He didn’t like that look in her eye.

“And she’s the reason you’ve been so distracted lately?” Another step.

Shade tried to match her steps forward with his own steps back.

“Rarity, what are you inferring?” Twilight asked. Her tone suggested that she knew exactly what she was inferring, but didn’t voice it out loud just in case she was wrong and didn’t want to plant any ideas into the other unicorn’s brain.

“I think our new resident may be smitten!” Rarity clapped her hooves together in glee. “Oh, we simply must know who, darling! Tell us!” She pushed forward until she was directly in Shade’s face.

“I-I...S-She...”

“Rarity, you’re scaring him,” Twilight stated flatly.

Realizing she had encroached horribly on his personal space, Rarity backed off. “Ahem, yes...well...my apologies. But you must tell us, dear! Which lucky mare has stolen your heart?”

"Lucky mare?" "Stolen his heart?" What was she going on about?

“I’m not sure I understand exactly what you think is going on,” Shade said.

“What’s to understand, darling? You’ve been distracted ever since you met her and you’ve been thinking about her ever since. You are clearly taken with this mare,” Rarity explained.

“‘Taken'?” he repeated.

“Just give us a name, dear. We’re dying to know.”

He certainly couldn’t forget that. It was one of the only things that had remained constant in his subconscious.

He sighed in defeat. He wasn’t getting out of this. “Winter Maple.”

“‘Winter Maple'?” Rarity repeated to herself, tapping a hoof on her chin. “No, not ringing any bells. Twilight?”

“Nope, sorry. Can’t say I’ve heard the name before either.”

“I know her.”

“What does she look like? Maybe we’ve seen her around,” Twilight suggested.

Shade had no trouble recalling her features from memory. He had only known her for about three minutes but her image was burned into his memory. “She’s a pegasus with a red mane, a white coat and a maple leaf cutie mark.”

“I know her.”

“Sounds sort of familiar,” Twilight attempted to recall. “But then again there are lot of ponies here, some of them tend to look the same. I might be remembering a different one. What about you, Rarity.”

“Hmm, no, sorry. I bet Pinkie Pie would know who she is though. Perhaps we should ask her?”

“I KNOW HER!”

Fluttershy clapped her hooves over her mouth when the three unicorns looked in her direction in complete awe.

“Um...I mean...I know her.”

“Y-You do?” Twilight was still in minor shock from the sudden outburst.

“Yes...well, no, not really. That is to say, I know of her.”

“So you haven’t actually met her in person?” Rarity assumed.

“No. Rainbow Dash told me about her. She’s part of the weather team,” Fluttershy quietly clarified.

“That makes sense,” Shade spoke up. “When I met her she was rounding up a storm cloud.”

“‘Storm cloud'?” Twilight wondered aloud. “Oh, it must be for that storm they have planned for this weekend.”

“Oh, those kind of details aren’t important, dear. What is important is what she’s like. Do tell, Fluttershy.” Rarity listened intently for the desired information.

“Well, I don’t know. Like I said, I haven’t actually met her. You should to ask Rainbow Dash,” the pegasus suggested.

“Then we shall do just that. Come along, everypony.” The white unicorn made her way to the door but stopped when she realized that she could hear only one set of hoofsteps following her. She looked back at Twilight and Shade who hadn’t moved. “Is there a problem?”

“Right now?” Twilight asked. “We were in the middle of something here before you two arrived. We haven’t been able to get any studying done these past few days and I’m not about to waste the rest of this day tracking down information about Shade’s crush.”

The lone stallion in the room turned away with crimson cheeks.

“But Twiliiiiiight...” Rarity pouted.

“I know how much you like to play matchmaker, Rarity, but can this at least wait until tomorrow?” the exasperated unicorn asked.

“I...suppose,” the dejected mare gave in. “Fine. Tomorrow then. Come, Fluttershy, let us take our leave. We are obviously not wanted here.”

“Oh, alright,” Fluttershy peeped. “Bye, Twilight.”

The door closed quietly behind them, leaving the remaining two unicorns alone in the library’s lobby.

“I think she’s upset with you,” Shade pointed out.

“She’ll get over it. Whenever she hears that somepony is having relationship issues, she always insists on getting involved. She’ll have forgotten this whole debacle tomorrow.” Twilight sat herself down at the table once more. “Now, can we please get some studying done tonight? That is, if you can keep your mind off of Winter Maple for the time being.” She smiled mockingly at him.

“Please don’t do that. I’m uncomfortable enough as it is.”

Twilight giggled as Shade joined her. Now that his conscience was clear and he let somepony know what was going on, maybe he would be able to concentrate on his studies.

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

Or maybe not...

Shade had been determined to learn something that night, but his mind just wouldn’t allow it. He even insisted that they stay awake late into the night. It was as if his brain was afraid that any new information would somehow push out his memories--however short they were--of Winter Maple. It was the moment that Twilight’s head hit the table that he decided it was a futile effort.

As with every morning he had awoken in Ponyville, Shade was jostled from his slumber by a chorus of singing meadowlarks...or he would have had he gotten a wink of sleep. Apparently, telling somepony about the issue did nothing to resolve it. In fact, it only proved to make the situation worse. His night was completely restless, tossing and turning, thoughts of the beautiful snow-coated pegasus pervading his dreams.

He slowly opened his weary, sleepless, emerald eyes and scanned the room to confirm the time. Sure enough, the morning star was beaming its rays throughout the room. But this wasn’t the same room he had spent his first night in. On the same day that he acquired his job as a waiter, Twilight had been busy moving the spare bed from her own bedroom into this one: the library’s observatory. It wasn’t originally intended to be an observatory, but the studious mare had done some remodeling after moving in. As with every other room in the building, its walls were lined with countless tomes, most of them, according to Twilight, pertaining to astronomy, meteorology, astrology and other foreign words that Shade had never heard before. The more defining features of the room were the various devices and gadgets that were laying around. There was only really one that the changeling recognized: the large telescope pointing out of the window. The rest had purposes that were far beyond his comprehension.

Shade lazily rolled himself over to the edge of the mattress and let himself plop onto the floor below, dragging his pink sheets with him. He was still so somnolent that on any other normal morning he could have drifted back to sleep right then and there, but that wasn’t going to happen for two reasons: For one, if the previous night was any indication it would prove to be a fruitless endeavor. For another, he had to get ready for work. The only thing that gave him the motivation to keep moving was the beckoning aroma of breakfast wafting up from the kitchen. He was worried that he may have been developing an addiction to Spike’s homemade pancakes. After tasting their soft, fluffy, maple syrupy goodness for the first time, he didn’t see how it would be possible for him to go back to living in the Changeling Kingdom, feeding on scraps of rotten fruit and malnourished wildlife.

His eyes refused to help him, mentally screaming at him to get his butt back to bed, so he had to rely on the vaporous fragrance of Spike’s cooking to lead him to the door and down to the lobby. By the time he had made it to the kitchen, his optics were back in full operation, if only to behold the sight of those magnificent blueberry pancakes.

“Morning, Shade,” the baby dragon greeted. As he usually did when he prepared a meal, he was adorned with a white apron and chef’s hat. A little much for just pancakes but who was he to spoil the little guy's fun? Spike observed the unicorn’s current physical state of dishevelment. “Geez, you look awful, dude. You see what happens when you stay up so late studying?”

“Ugh, you don’t get to lecture me about that this morning, Spike. It was his idea.” Twilight’s voice came through the doorway shortly followed by the unicorn herself, rubbing her puffy eyes with a hoof. Shade would have turned to acknowledge her presence had he not been busy scarfing down pancakes.

“Actually, I was talking to him,” Spike said as he placed a second plate of the divine golden discs on the table for her. “But now that you mention it, you don’t look so good yourself.”

“Noted,” she replied with a hint of vexation as she seated herself at the table.

Twilight had been ready to shovel a forkful of pancake into her mouth, but her open jaw let slip an irritated sigh instead when an incessant knock came at the front door. “Augh, who in Equestria would come over here at this hour? Shade, get the door.”

“Me?” the hungry stallion said with a mouthful of pancake and syrup before swallowing. “I’m just as tired as you. Get Spike to do it.”

“Little busy over here,” the dragon called from atop a stool at the stove, tending to his own breakfast. “I have to eat too ya know.”

Defeated, and with great reluctance, Shade rose from his seat. “Fine, I’ll get it.”

“Thank you.” Twilight flashed him a mocking grin as she dug into her meal.

The changeling muttered under his breath as he made his way to the library’s main entrance. With a cast of his neon green magic, the door swung open.

“Do you need someth-”

His lethargic greeting was cut short by a shower of colorful confetti and streamers which were accompanied by the screeching sound of a blaring kazoo. Shade flinched as if in physical pain from the offending noise.

“Goooooood morning!” came the enthusiastic voice of an all-too-familiar earth pony.

Shade rubbed his poor ears and used his magic to pluck the party favors off of his face and torso. “Pinkie, do you have to that so early in the morning?”

“What better way to wake up a sleepy sleepyhead?” she answered cheerfully, batting her eyes.

“Whatever. Do you need something?” he finally managed to ask.

“Uh-huh. I came to make a delivery!”

“Doesn’t the mailpony usually handle that?” Shade pointed out. He was a little surprised at how quickly that knowledge came to him. He had learned more than he thought in his short time here.

“Well, if this were normal, boring mail, then yes,” she started. “But this a super-special delivery and the only way to deliver a super-special delivery is in person!” The pink pony reached into her poofy mane, pulled out a pink, sealed envelope with a gold trim and thrust it into Shade’s possession.

Shade held the object aloft with his magic and attempted to analyze it. “What’s this?”

“It’s an invitation, silly, can’t you tell? I used my invitation envelope and everything,” Pinkie stated, pointing out the flamboyant features of the detailed paper.

“An invitation to what?” the increasingly puzzled changeling asked.

“Duh! Your party!” she exclaimed, tossing another load of confetti into his mane, much to his annoyance.

Shade raised an eyebrow. “My...party?” He tried to recall any mention of a party recently but none came to mind.

“Yeah, you know? Your Super-Fantabulous-Welcome-To-Ponyville-Party!?”

She was met by a pair of uncomprehending eyes.

“Or maybe you don’t remember because I keep changing the name?” She waited for his look of remembrance. She didn’t get one. “Anyways, the party is later today at five p.m. sharp, got it? This invitation is good for you, Twilight and Spike. I know it seems silly to think that you wouldn’t be there because you are the guest of honor and everything, but you never know. You did forget your luggage when you moved here after all.” Pinkie looked back at the blank stare she was receiving from the unicorn. “Well, if you do forget any of the details, just look at the invitation, everything’s in there. Or get Twilight to look at it, cuz you can’t read.”

The two stood there staring at each other in silence for several moments, one with a friendly, unimposing smile, the other with a look of bewilderment. Shade, in his sleep-deprived state, was attempting to decipher everything Pinkie Pie said, but noticed that she had said "get Twilight to look at it." Sounded like a plan to him.

“So, that’s everything. I’ll leave you alone now so you can get back to your...” She paused to sniff the air. “Ooooo, pancakes!” She made to step inside but was halted by a white hoof, forced to perform an about face and nudged out the door. “Right, sorry! I’ll see you at the party then!” the earth pony called over her shoulder as she bounced back to Sugarcube Corner.

Shade looked at the delivery again. He shrugged and made his way back to his no doubt cold breakfast. Twilight had just finished the final bite of her meal when she heard him re-enter the kitchen.

“So, what was that about?” she asked, visibly relieved that she hadn’t been the one to answer the door after she heard the voice of the visitor.

Shade slapped the envelope down on the table and returned to his seat, intent on finishing his breakfast. The mare glanced quizzically at the ornate package before realizing what it was.

“Ah, an invitation,” she deduced. The violet unicorn lifted the pink paper with her magic. She held it away from herself, turned her head to the side, and squinted her one exposed eye. Shade watched in confusion as Twilight performed this weird ritual. She slowly lifted the seal to open the envelope. A burst of confetti shot forth from the paper and drifted to the floor.

“Where does she keep all that stuff?” Shade pondered aloud.

“It’s best not to think about it. I’ve spent two years trying to figure her out and only wound up more confused. Now let’s see...” Twilight removed the note within and examined it. Shade followed her eyes as they shifted from left to right, reading the message. “Okay, so there’s a party for you at five and Spike and I are invited. Alright then.” She tossed the note and envelope over her shoulder, the two pieces of paper floating into the trash can. “I guess we’ll head over to Sugarcube Corner when you get off from work.”

“Is there a purpose to this party?” he asked with genuine curiosity, wondering if this is something he really wanted to attend.

“A couple of reasons really,” she started. “First, Pinkie is always looking for an excuse to throw a party and a new pony in town is her favorite excuse. Second, it’ll be a great way for you to introduce yourself to the community.”

“‘The community’? Just how many ponies is she planning to invite?”

“Weeeeeell...”

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

This is a tad overwhelming, Shade thought as he entered Ponyville’s famous bakery, Sugarcube Corner, an establishment that resembled a giant gingerbread house. He, Twilight and Spike arrived at five in the afternoon just as Pinkie Pie had requested and already the place was packed with dozens of enthusiastic ponies mingling and conversing and enjoying the snacks that had been laid out. The three had to push their way through the crowd just to get inside.

A pleasant, sugary aroma filled the entire room. Shade could pinpoint the source immediately. Several long tables of food had been set about the lobby of the bakery, lining the walls. Atop them were an innumerable amount of pastries, candies and various other snacks. The changeling’s attention was fixated on the foreign treats; they didn’t serve this kind of stuff at the café. There were plates of small, brown discs with little darker-brown chunks inside them, apples on sticks that had been slathered in some bizarre, sticky goo, trays of round-topped pastries with pink frosting and small, rainbow-colored specks and topped off with bright, red cherries. He didn’t know what they were, all he knew was that they smelled delicious.

“Gangway! Comin’ through!”

Before Shade had time to react, he was abruptly shoved to the side by a ravenous, rainbow-maned pegasus who proceeded to stuff her face with the delectable treats.

“Hi, Rainbow Dash.” Shade attempted to be social and tried to get a conversation going. After all, that’s part of the reason he was here. Of course, he had already met Rainbow Dash, but it was a start.

The pegasus paused to look his direction. “Shup?” she greeted with a mouthful of cupcake, crumbs spraying from her open mouth, before returning to devouring the party snacks. This obviously wasn’t going to go anywhere.

“Sweet! Cookies!” A pair of small, purple claws clasped the edge of the table allowing Spike to pull himself up high enough to spot the sumptuous confectioneries. He reached a claw towards the desired sweets. A cyan hoof quickly pinned the baby dragon’s talons against the fuchsia tablecloth, followed by an angry growl from the pegasus who was baring her teeth like a lone wolf defending its kill. “Ow! Okay, fine. I’ll try another table,” he surrendered as he pulled his claw from the grip of death. Rainbow Dash watched until the dragon disappeared into the crowd before continuing her feast.

Shade had watched the encounter unfold with a hint of uneasiness. “Right, I’m just gonna, uh...go...over here now.” He slowly backed away from the mare, careful not to make any sudden movements, and pushed through the crowd.

The changeling managed to find himself a clear, open spot near the back of the room where he could actually stretch his legs more than three inches. He surveyed the crowd for a minute. “Great. I lost Twilight. I should probably find her.”

“Shade? Is that you?”

He turned around to see a pink mane peek out from a nearby archway.

“Oh, good, you made it!” Pinkie Pie said as she entered the room proper. She was wearing a pair of odd, powder blue gloves on her front hooves. “I was starting to worry that the guest of honor wasn’t gonna show. That would be awkward because then everypony’d be like, ‘Hey! Where’s that guy this party is for? I wanna meet him!’ and I wouldn’t wanna disappoint my guests. But it’s okay now cuz here you are! Oh! We should totally introduce you to everypony!”

Pinkie inhaled deeply. Shade scrambled to stop her, slapping a hoof over her mouth. “T-That’s okay, Pinkie! You don’t have to do that!” He removed his hoof, hoping he had been successful in preventing her from grabbing everypony’s attention.

She frowned. “Aw, but I wanna do it. I always do it for every new pony when I throw them their Welcome-To-Ponyville party.” The dejected look in her eyes almost made Shade want to change his mind and let her.

“Thanks, but I think I’d rather take my time with this. You know, introduce myself to them one by one.”

“But that’ll take so loooooooong.” The pink pony’s bottom lip began to quiver. Once again, Shade felt a twinge of guilt.

“Look, I’m just not comfortable being the center of attention. You wouldn’t want your guest of honor to feel uncomfortable, would you?” Hopefully this worked. He wasn’t sure if he could stand one more assault from her sad, puppy dog eyes.

“Oh. Well, since you put it that way, I guess that’s okay.” She still sounded slightly let down, but at least she was listening. “Anyway, I have to get back to the kitchen. There’s a lot of ponies here and I don’t think there’s enough snacks to satisfy ‘em all. Plus, I’ve got a big treat for you later. So, have fun until then, ‘kay?”

“Yeah, I’ll do that,” Shade said with a smile as she returned to the adjacent room.

The disguised changeling took another look around the overpopulated room. Amongst the crowd were a few ponies he recognized as customers who had come by the café, although he didn’t know their names. Perhaps now would be a good time to introduce himself. He began to squeeze into the group once more and looked around for the ideal pony to greet first. Of course, he was just telling himself that as an excuse for putting it off for as long as possible. The more who know him, the harder it would be to keep his secret, but he’d have to if he planned on living here indefinitely. It was a bit of a predicament. He positioned himself near one of the many snack tables, purposely picking the least crowded one. Maybe if he was lucky somepony would introduce themselves first and save him the trouble.

“Oh, there you are, dear!”

Shade turned his head to see a smiling Rarity excusing herself through the cluster of guests, uttering many "excuse mes" and "beg your pardons" before sidling up next to him.

“So, is she here?” Rarity asked with a sly grin.

“Who, Twilight?” Shade assumed. “Yeah, we came in together but we must have gotten separated at some point.” He cast a gaze over the mass of ponies again in hopes of spotting said unicorn. Having failed to see her, he picked up a cupcake from a nearby tray and brought it to his mouth.

“No, dear, not Twilight. Her.” The mare’s eyebrows bounced up and down.

Shade gave her a confused glance as he took his first bite of the pastry. What’s she talking about? Who is--Oh wow, this is really good! His attention was diverted away from Rarity as he savored the delicate texture and irresistible taste of Pinkie Pie’s homemade cupcake. Now he could understand why Rainbow Dash was so protective of this stuff. If Spike’s pancakes were good enough for a king, Pinkie’s cupcakes were fit for a god.

Hellooooo?” Rarity tapped a hoof on the table.

Shade snapped back to the topic at hand which was...what exactly? “Oh, sorry. You say something?” He finally swallowed the bite he had taken.

Do try to pay attention when you’re speaking with a lady, dear. It’s terribly rude to ignore your company,” she lectured, delivering a stern look.

“Right, sorry,” the stallion apologized. “So, who’s ‘she'?”

“Why, Winter Maple, of course! Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about her already. What kind of boyfriend would you be if you just up and forgot about her so quickly.”

Shade choked on his second bite of cupcake, coughing and pounding a hoof on his chest in a desperate attempt to help force the food down his esophagus. When the crumbs finally managed their way down his throat, he gasped for breath. “What?!”

“Well, isn’t that what you want? To date her? Why else would she be on your mind so much lately?”

Shade had to absorb that for a minute. "Boyfriend?" "Date?" They had talked about this yesterday but it wasn’t until those choice words had been mentioned that he began to realize what was going on in his head. He was attracted to her? Was that it? How was that possible? How could he be certain that that’s what was happening?

Mating was a much different and much more simplified affair for changelings. Choosing a mate wasn’t about physical attraction or emotional bonds formed between two individuals. Mating had one purpose for them: expansion. Expansion of the colony and the hive. Reproducing for the sole purpose of enlarging their swarm. A changeling didn’t seek the ideal partner, they would mate with any available member of the opposite sex, as long as it meant increasing their numbers and, by extension, their chances of survival or, in the case of recent years, taking over of Equestria.

The thought of this made Shade want to retch. Here he was, ready to start a new life amongst ponies, creatures he was taught to despise, and finding himself attracted to one of them. It was made possible by this new mindset of his; he didn’t want to expand the swarm, he just wanted to live peacefully. But the knowledge was there. The knowledge of his participation in the colony’s expansion. Some of the changelings out there may very well have been his spawn. The thought disgusted him. He’d never met them, nor would he likely recognize them if he did. It may even be possible that the females he had mated with never conceived, but just knowing that the possibility existed made him sick to his stomach.

He slowly placed the half-eaten cupcake on the table, unable to take another bite.

Rarity noticed that he seemed to be deep in thought. “Are you alright, dear?”

Shade coughed into his hoof to clear his throat. “Y-Yeah, fine,” he sighed. He tried to brighten up a little. “So, I’m...attracted to Winter Maple?” He wanted to make sure that that was indeed the case.

“It would appear so,” Rarity said, smiling. A look of realization appeared as she thought about his words. She gave him a comforting smile. “This is the first time you’ve been smitten with a mare I take it.”

“Yeah, I guess it is.” Shade couldn’t help but smile too. He was feeling things that changelings weren’t known for feeling. Affection. Attraction. These were emotions that were common for ponies. It gave him comfort knowing that he could feel them too. Maybe he could fit in around them better than he thought.

“Well, if you need any pointers, feel free to ask. I’m well versed in these matters.”

“Thanks,” he said with genuine gratuity.

Rarity nodded her head politely before returning to mingle with the horde of partygoers.

Shade took another look around the room. All the colors that mixed with one another made it difficult to identify anypony there. If Winter Maple was here, finding her was going to be an ordeal. He chuckled inwardly to himself. Heh. How about that? I actually want to find her. The fact that he was eager to actually talk to somepony lifted his spirits. It just meant that he really did want to spend his life here.

The party continued into the night with ponies talking, laughing, even singing joyously. Pinkie Pie’s parties certainly were all they were cracked up to be. Even though Shade never did find the resolve to actually introduce himself to anypony, he still wore a contented smile the whole evening. He had noticed, however, that the herd had started to thin out. For once there was actually room to breath in the overcrowded bakery. Ponies tired from dancing and singing or who had jobs to attend in the morning had decided to head home for the night. There was still a sizable crowd but a much more manageable one. He even reunited with Twilight again who had apparently gotten blocked into the bathroom by a quintet of gossipy mares.

Just when everything seemed to be quieting down, everypony’s attention was captured by a blaring fanfare of trumpets from nowhere in particular followed by the familiar voice of their hostess echoing through the building, but the pink pony was nowhere to be seen.

“Fillies and gentlecolts, thank you all so very very much for coming down to Sugarcube Corner tonight!”

A few ponies in the group bid "You’re welcome" jokingly to the disembodied voice, stirring a light round of chuckles from the others.

“Aw, glad to hear you’re all enjoying yourselves,” her voice echoed again. “Anyway! I think it’s time we all get to the main event of the night! Whaddaya think?”

Several partygoers stomped their hooves against the wood-panelled floor in approving applause.

Shade smiled at the display. “They’re really getting into this, huh?” he whispered to Twilight next to him as he lifted a cup of punch to his lips.

“Of course. Pinkie’s parties are always a grand occasion. Everypony always has fun.” She glanced around the room. “Bit of a small turnout this time, however.”

Shade nearly performed a spit take. “‘Small?!'” he coughed. “There was barely room to move earlier!”

Twilight looked at him rather nonchalantly, as if this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. “Exactly. Small. A lot of her parties tend to have guests spilling out into the streets. It’s her own fault really. She sends out way too many invitations. She doesn’t bother to memorize the approximate occupancy of Sugarcube Corner, not to mention the variables like each ponies individual size or how much food she plans on serving. I told her she should consult me about these things; organization is one of my specialties. But her answer is always the same: ‘I just like to wing it,’ and always followed by, ‘even though I don’t have wings.'”

Pinkie Pie’s voice continued to call out over the room as she went into an increasingly off-topic tangent. If the laughter from the crowd was anything to go by, she was currently in the middle of telling jokes.

“One second,” Twilight said. She raised a hoof to her mouth and cleared her throat rather loudly. The pink pony’s voice quickly went quiet. “Pinkie, weren’t you in the middle of something?” the unicorn addressed the disembodied voice.

“Oops! Guess I got a little carried away there,” she giggled, “Anyway! Again! I’ll get right to it!”

The sound of static replaced her voice but promptly faded out as well. Seconds later, a large trolley made it’s way through the archway from the kitchen. Perched atop it was a monumental cake spanning three tiers and towering at least twice the height of anypony in the room. The crowd reacted with "ohs" and "ahs" as the enormous confection rolled to the center of the room.

Shade had never seen anything like it in his life. He’d been to Sugarcube Corner, he’d seen cakes, but nothing came close to the colossal pastry that loomed over him. The entire thing was covered in pure white icing and pink frosting trimmed the round edges. The bottom most and largest tier had been decorated with strawberries placed upside down and embedded in the icing around its perimeter. Around the edge were words spelled out in more pink frosting that he, unfortunately, still didn’t have the knowledge to decipher. The second and middle tier was decorated in much the same way but with bright red cherries instead and no writing. It was the top tier that was the most unique in his eyes; many blueberries dotted the layer around its sides. Their haphazard distribution conveyed an image of an inverted night where the sky was bright and littered with dark blue stars. The image was even completed by the placement of a small, chocolate cookie representing a dark moon on a bright night sky. Pinkie Pie wasn’t just a pastry chef; she was an artist.

“Ta-da!” announced Pinkie Pie, emerging from the opposite side of the cake from where Shade was standing. “Well? Is it ha-mazing or what?” she addressed her guest of honor.

“It’s...uh...” Shade was at a loss for words. The sheer size of the cake must have been a feat in and of itself. The decorations were...well...the icing on the cake, so to speak. “It’s incredible,” he finally managed to say, jaw still slacked in awe.

A bright flash suddenly grabbed his attention. He gawked in fright at the large, razor sharp, metal knife pointed straight at his muzzle and the innocently smiling earth pony holding it there.

“Now you gotta cut the cake. Here.”

Shade nervously took the blade with his magic, if only to remove it from the eccentric mare’s grip. Seeing her holding it with such an unimposing grin was an unsettling image to him; she was the last pony he wanted to see playing with knives. He stepped toward the cake and stopped just next of it. Looking around the room he could see that all eyes were on him, exactly what he told her he didn’t want. But it couldn’t be helped now. He positioned the knife over the cake’s bottom tier and slowly cut through the moist, chocolate body. Drops of cherry filling coated the knife as he removed it.

“Hooray!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed, arousing yet another round of applause from the gaggle of guests. “Now you’re an official Ponyville-ian!”

“Pony-what?” He cocked an eyebrow at her strange vocabulary.

“Ponyville-ian!” she reiterated. “Ponyville-ite? Ponyville-ese? Uhhhhh...Twilight! What’s the word for somepony who lives in Ponyville?”

“Um-” Twilight placed a hoof to her chin but didn’t get a chance to think on it.

“Oh, whatever,” Pinkie Pie dismissed. “It just means you’re one of us now! Cool, right? Oh, gimme that.” She snatched the levitating knife from Shade’s magical grasp and proceeded to slowly run her tongue along its surface, licking the deep red goo from its polished blade. The image elicited an involuntary shudder from Shade.

“Pinkie, we need that knife to cut out pieces of the cake for the guests,” Twilight pointed out. “Now it’s got your saliva all over it.”

“Oh. Whoops. I’ll just go get another one.”

Twilight sighed. “Nevermind, I’ll handle it.” The unicorn morphed her aura of pink magic into a blade and cut the cake near Shade’s incision, removing a slice and placing it upon a paper plate. She held it out to Shade. “Here. Since this is your party, you should get the first slice.”

The changeling took the plate in his grip and moved a fork into position. He scooped a piece into his mouth.

Pure. Chocolate. Bliss. Pinkie Pie really was a master of the culinary arts.

The party was back in full swing. The music came back on and ponies returned to their conversations. Several of them, now knowing the face of the secretive guest of honor, approached him to give brief, friendly welcomes. The majority did indeed recognize him as the newest waiter at the local café, but he was quick to attempt a change of subject so as not to bring attention to his subpar performance the past few days.

Not surprisingly, the tables around the bakery were covered in uneaten or half eaten food. Pinkie Pie made sure to replace each and every tray that went bare. By this time in the night though, everypony had had their fill leaving a lot of leftovers. The ponies actually had an overabundance of food. Yet another reason for the changelings to despise them.

Shade admired what was left of Pinkie’s impressive cake. It was so beautiful to look at, it was almost a shame to see it eaten. He cut himself another slice and bit into the delectable, black forest masterpiece. Almost.

“Hello again.”

Shade’s heart skipped a beat as the melodious sound of a familiar voice graced his fabricated, white ears. He was almost afraid to turn around in fear that his hopes would be crushed if it wasn’t who he thought it was. He swallowed his bite of cake and slowly turned to face the opposite direction...

...And there she was, staring at him with those gorgeous, amber eyes, a cheery smile curved along her muzzle.

Winter Maple.

He wondered how she had found the time to come here what with how busy she was occupying his thoughts as of late.

“H-Hi,” he stammered but returned her happy smile. “I was wondering if you’d be here.”

“You were?” She tilted her head in confusion.

Aw, crap! Was that too forward? “W-What I meant was, Pinkie invited so many ponies, I figured that maybe you would be here too.” He cracked a nervous smile.

“Yeah, Pinkie Pie came knocking on my door early this morning with an invitation. I was still in bed and really sleepy,” she laughed. “I was just gonna ignore the invite at first, but when I saw your name on it, I thought I’d come by to say hi. It’s the least I could do to apologize for what happened before.”

Is this what they call ‘fate'?

“I was gonna come over and talk to you earlier,” she continued, scuffing a hoof on the floor. “But you seemed busy, what with the food and the other ponies and the whole ‘cake’ thing.”

There was that comfortable silence again. Neither of them said anything, yet they continued to smile as if nothing needed to be said.

“So, you’re new in town then?” Winter finally asked him, breaking the silence.

“Yeah, moved here a few days ago,” he replied.

“Do you like it here?”

Anywhere is better than the Changeling Kingdom. “Yeah, I’m really enjoying living here.”

She smiled. “That’s great. I actually moved here a month ago myself.”

“Really?” Shade was willing to latch onto anything the two of them might have in common.

“Uh-huh. I worked at the weather factory in Cloudsdale for a while, but I got fired.” Her expression dropped slightly. “I needed to find an easier job and when I heard there was a position open on the Ponyville weather team, I jumped on it.” She perked up again. “And here I am.”

“I’m glad things worked out for you in the end,” Shade said with genuine happiness.

“Thank you. I’m just relieved to know I’m not the only new pony around here. I’m still kind of getting used to this place. Cloudsdale is a pretty bustling city. Where are you from?”

“The Ch-” He cut himself off as quickly as he could. Whoa! That was a close one. He had nearly spilled the beans. What happened there? It was like his mind wouldn’t let him lie to her. “Las Pegasus,” he corrected himself.

“Wow, I guess we’re in the same boat then, huh?” she giggled. Shade nervously joined in, simply glad that she hadn’t picked up on his little slip up. “Hey, maybe since we’re both new here, we could learn a little more about this place together.”

“‘T-Together’?” His cheeks began to tint with pink.

“Yeah, maybe we could hang out sometime. Walk around town, figure out where everything is, you know?” Now her cheeks were becoming flushed. “I can be a bit forgetful at times, so getting a good look around will help me remember where everything is.”

“That...sounds fun.” Shade couldn’t keep the smile off of his face. This was exactly what he had hoped for.

Winter glanced up at the clock on the wall. “Aw, geez, it’s getting pretty late, isn’t it?”

Shade’s eyes followed hers to the timeface. In his short time here, he had learned on his own how to tell time using an analog clock. He would simply compare the positions of the hands to the sun and moon’s position in the sky. Easy. He noticed the time was nearing midnight. It wasn’t until he saw that that he realized he was actually pretty tired himself and let out an involuntary yawn.

“Sorry, I’ve gotta get up early tomorrow to round up more rain clouds,” she said apologetically. “Maybe we can get together tomorrow evening?”

“That sounds great,” the changeling agreed.

“Alright then. It’s a date,” she giggled jokingly as she turned to head towards the front entrance of the bakery.

As Shade had done the first time he met her, he watched her leave until she was completely hidden from his sight. When she was gone, he sighed contentedly to himself. This had gone better than he could have hoped. His heart was beating out of his chest, sweat had began to form underneath his coat, and his face was hotter than the sun. But he was happy. Happy that he had finally seen her again. Maybe now a good night’s sleep wouldn’t elude him.

“So, was that her?” Twilight walked up to him, apparently having eavesdropped on the entire exchange.

“Yeah, that’s Winter.” He didn’t take his eyes off the empty doorway.

Twilight flashed him a sly smirk. “It looks like you two really hit it off. And did I hear correctly? You have a date tomorrow?”

Shade chuckled. “Heh, I guess I do,” he said in minor disbelief. “I have a date.”

A sudden realization dawned on him and his eyes went wide as if he had only just managed to wrap his head around what had happened.

“Oh crap! I have a DATE!

Twilight was unexpectedly shoved out of the way as Shade shot past her and burst out the door of the bakery in a panic. The mare stood there, bewildered.

“Um...what?”

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