• 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 5: A Change of Pace

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 5: A Change of Pace

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The night air was still and calm over Ponyville with the exception of the upbeat music and raucous laughter emanating from Sugarcube Corner. No doubt they would be hearing complaints the next morning, but such was the usual when it came to Pinkie Pie’s parties. Aside from that, the atmosphere was quiet and serene. The town’s residents were tucked snugly in their beds, ready to tackle the dawn when it came knocking.

“Rarity!”

A white-coated, unicorn stallion flung himself through the front door of Carousel Boutique in a panic. His eyes darted about the room, scanning for the mare in question. She had left the party earlier in the night saying something about needing her beauty sleep. The sound of hurried hoofsteps could be heard rushing towards the lobby.

“What is all this commotion?” Rarity said as she turned the corner from an adjacent hallway wearing a plush, pink robe and slippers, and a sleep mask over her forehead. “Shade? What in Equestria are doing here at this hour?”

“I need your help!” the panicked stallion blurted. His chest was heaving rapidly showing that he had run all the way here from Sugarcube Corner and his shouting was doing nothing to remedy that.

Rarity rubbed her temple with a hoof. “Look, just calm down. There’s no need for shouting. What’s the matter?”

“I have a date! With Winter! Tomorrow!” Shade yelled hysterically.

The violet-maned mare gasped with glee. “Really!? Well, that’s wonderful, darling! But why are in such distress? I thought that’s what you wanted?”

“I-It is! But...” He paused and took a deep breath to calm his nerves. “I don’t know the first thing about dating.” Shade hung his head in embarrassment.

“Is that all?” Rarity chuckled, waving a hoof. “Well now, that’s nothing to be so worked up over.”

He lifted an eyebrow. “It’s not? But what if I do something wrong and screw everything up?”

“Listen to me, darling.” She walked closer to him, placed a hoof on his shoulder and smiled at him reassuringly. “I told you that if you needed advice you need only ask. I would be glad to share with you the many dating tips I have in my repertoire.”

Shade let out a sigh of relief. “Thanks, I could really use some pointers. I want this to go as well as possible.”

“Well, that shouldn’t be a problem, darling. But as eager as I am to lend a helping hoof, can’t it wait until tomorrow?” she asked, rubbing her eyes for emphasis.

“B-But my date is tomorrow,” the changeling stammered worriedly. “I need your advice now!”

Rarity closed her eyes. “What time do you start work tomorrow?” she asked tiredly, stifling a yawn.

“I have the afternoon shift. Why?” Shade asked, tilting his head.

“Then just stop by my boutique in the morning. We should have plenty of time to go over the necessary information,” she explained. “Now, if you’ll please excuse me. I was in the middle of the most exquisite dream before you so rudely barged in. And might I recommend that you head straight to bed yourself. You wouldn’t want to show up for your date with horrible bags under your eyes,” Rarity suggested as she sleepily made her way back towards her bedroom.

It hadn’t occurred to him until she mentioned it, but he was pretty tired. “Yeah, I’ll do that.” In the grip of his green aura, the front door of the parlor swung open in a much less violent fashion than it had when he entered and he stepped beyond the threshold. “And thanks again.”

He quietly closed the door behind him. He had already startled her once tonight, she probably wouldn’t be as forgiving the second time. Heeding Rarity’s advice, Shade strolled towards the library to get as much rest as he could for the next day.

He observed the flawless night sky as he walked, appreciating Princess Luna’s artistry. Unlike Celestia, the changelings held little disdain for the Princess of the Night, after all she had been absent for the past thousand years. In actuality, many changelings respected her--or rather respected what she once was: Nightmare Moon. As nocturnal creatures, changelings would have thrived in the eternal night that the corrupted moon princess had sought. But then again, life cannot exist without the sun. Had she been successful, it would only be a matter of time before Equestria were reduced to a dark, barren wasteland. As far as he knew though, changelings were more or less indifferent to Princess Luna since her purification and return to the throne, but they still reveled in her beautiful night. Bright, shining stars, the glow of the moon and the complexity but artistic flair of the constellations she so expertly weaved. It was a shame to let such a magnificent night go to waste.

The activities of the night were beginning to catch up to him. He felt his eyelids becoming heavy and feared he may not be able to stave off sleep until he reached the library.

"Oof." Shade’s muzzle collided with the solid wooden frame of the library’s door. In his lethargic state he hadn’t even noticed how close he’d been. He grumbled lazily to himself and opened the door, eyeing it angrily while he rubbed his nose as if it had somehow offended him.

“Oh, there you are.”

Shade’s ears almost completely tuned out Twilight’s voice as he entered. He was too tired to talk right now.

“After you took off, I went to look for you. What was all that about back there anyway? You just ran off in a panic for no reason. The least you could have done is told me where you were going.”

Shade groggily walked past her, making his way to his bed. “Can we talk about this over breakfast?” he mumbled. “I’m kinda tired.”

Twilight held a hoof out to stop him. “You seemed really worried about something. Maybe we should talk about it. Is it about Winter?”

He gave her an annoyed, half-lidded stare. “It’s nothing serious, okay? Like I said, I’ll explain tomorrow.”

“Oh. Alright then. As long as everything’s okay.” She allowed him to continue staggering his way to his room. Twilight eyed him curiously as he disappeared at the top of the stairs. She smiled and giggled to herself. “Guess the sugar high wore off, huh?”

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

“Wow. I didn’t know you were so worried about this. You must really like her,” Twilight laughed.

Shade hurriedly scarfed down spoonful after spoonful of cereal. He wasn’t necessarily hungry, especially after how much he had eaten the previous night, but he was in a rush to get through breakfast.

“I guess so.” He still wasn’t entirely sure what was going on in his brain. These feelings were still pretty new to him. Maybe going on a date would be the perfect way to get some answers to the questions that were plaguing his mind. Even though he was still quite nervous, he was actually looking forward to this.

Twilight smiled. “Don’t worry, I’m sure Rarity will clear up any concerns you have.”

“I hope so.” Shade twirled his spoon through his cereal thoughtfully, watching as the vortex he created in the bowl pushed the pieces towards the edge, forming an almost unobstructed pool of milk in the middle with a few lingering bits spinning about. His thoughts were swirling just as much as his breakfast. “Do you think she likes me too?”

“Well, she probably wouldn’t have asked you out if she didn’t like you,” the violet mare pointed out. “Listen, you’re worrying too much about this. I’m sure that once you have your little talk with Rarity you’ll start to feel more confident. That is, if you pay more attention to what she’s saying than you do to your lessons.” She cast a glance through one eye as she lifted her spoon to her mouth.

“Maybe you’re right,” he sighed. “I should get over there as quickly as possible then.” He stood from his seat, ignoring the cereal that remained in his bowl.

“Good luck. And most of all, enjoy yourself.” Twilight waved as Shade made his way to the door.

Stepping out into the fresh, morning air, Shade inhaled deeply. It was a morning ritual he partook in every day. No matter how many times he did it, he still found it hard to believe that he could live somewhere other than the Changeling Kingdom. Every night he expected to wake up lying on a cold pile of cracked, dead leaves with the heartless, bitter wind blowing over his starved body. He was living a vivid dream, one from which he wished never to wake.

Just as his ritual had been no different, nor was the rest of Ponyville. Ponies of all shapes and sizes were going about their usual business as well. Earth ponies tending to their gardens, pegasi swooping through the air to clear the skies. He even gave a passing greeting to Zecora as she came to share her herbal medicines with the townsfolk.

The difference between today and every other day, however, was how many more ponies he noticed waving and saying hello to him. Almost everypony he passed greeted him with a smile and some even addressed him by name even though he could swear he hadn’t met them before. This must have been Pinkie Pie’s doing. With all the ponies that had been at his welcome party, a lot more of them recognized him now. It gave him an odd mixed feeling of comfort and unease. Now that so many ponies knew him, he was going to have to be extra careful in keeping his secret. By some miracle he had earned their trust. He didn’t want to compromise that.

“Howdy, stranger.”

Shade cringed when he heard her familiar southern accent. She was the last pony he wanted to see right now. No doubt this encounter was going to become a blemish on what he hoped would be a perfect day. He had made an effort to avoid Applejack wherever possible, but with her being one of the bearers of the Elements and him living with one, she was bound to show up sometimes and such encounters were never pleasant.

He recalled one particular encounter when she had stopped by the library to visit Twilight. They had been in the middle of one of his reading lessons and upon learning that he was illiterate began do deliver a salvo of veiled insults. She kept up a friendly demeanor--no doubt due to Twilight's presence--but he could feel the sting from each and every one. Shade had tried to tell Twilight about it, but she simply suggested that Applejack could sometimes be a bit abrasive and that he shouldn't take it personally. He didn't see any other way to take it. It was blatantly obvious that her intentions were to tick him off to the point where he would want to leave Ponyville.

The sound of her hoofsteps were accompanied by the creaking of wagon wheels. Applejack was towing a decorated cart behind her with various apple-based food products laid out in an organized fashion upon its shelves. He’d seen her lugging this thing about before. She was on her way to the market to sell her wares, another one of the many duties a member of the Apple clan was tasked with. Even though they seemed to have a mutual dislike for one another, he certainly had to respect her dedication to her work and her family.

“I s’pose yer off ta work too, city slicker?” she asked, her mock friendliness not doing much to mask her patronizing tone.

“No. I’m not,” he responded without looking in her direction.

“Oh? Then where ya headed?”

He really didn’t want to have this conversation with her. It would only lead to more hazing, but there was no getting around it. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I’m heading over to see Rarity,” Shade answered, hoping his audible irritation was enough of a hint to get her to back off.

But he would have no such luck.

“Rarity? What, so now yer gettin’ chummy wit’ her?”

He stopped walking and turned to face her. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked defensively.

“Ah’m saying you better not try any funny stuff wit’ mah friends.” For what seemed like the first time, Applejack stared at him with a look of defiance. She wasn’t wearing her usual subtly accusing grin.

“For your information, I’m going to her for dating advice.” He wasn’t happy to relinquish that info, but if it would shut her up...

“‘Datin’ advice’?” Applejack sounded legitimately confused. “Whadda y’all need datin’ advice fer?”

Shade simply scoffed and turned to continue walking with Applejack pursuing him. He didn’t feel the need to dignify her question with a response. The answer should have been obvious anyway. She caught on quickly enough though.

“Ya got a date ‘r’ somethin’ comin’ up,” she prodded. The earth pony seemed wary of his motives.

“Yes,” he replied blandly.

“With who?” Now she just sounded angry.

“I know what you’re thinking, and it’s not Twilight.”

“Oh, so now Twi ain’t good enough fer ya.”

Shade stopped in his tracks. That’s it! I’ve had it! He grit his teeth and swung around to face his interrogator again.

“What is your problem?!” he snapped

Applejack took a step back as best she could with the apple cart strapped to her. “W-Wha-”

“All you’ve done since I got to this town is antagonize me! What could I have possibly done to you or your friends to deserve that kind of treatment?! I thought everypony here was supposed to friendly!”

Applejack was at a loss for words. Shade had seemed so passive up until now, she had never expected him to lash out like that.

“Why don’t you just leave me alone and let me live how I want to live, alright?” He was more or less just attacking any obstacles that were getting in the way of his happiness at this point. And she was the biggest hurdle yet.

Shade turned his back to her and began to trot away, continuing on the path to Rarity’s boutique. The sound of a remorseful sigh caught his attention.

“Yer right...”

He stopped and turned his head back to Applejack.

“Ah’ve been a right jerk to ya. An’ ya didn’t do anythin’ ta deserve that. I guess Ah’m still a little on edge about the whole weddin’ thing. Ah felt like Ah had ta be more cautious ‘bout the ponies Ah let git close ta mah friends, like I thought that anypony could wind up bein’ one o’ them there changelin’s or somethin’.”

Shade’s stomach sank. She had actually suspected him of being a changeling from the very beginning?

“Twi was right. Ah should have given ya the benefit of the doubt. Ya do seem ta fit right in ‘round here. Yer doin’ honest work an’ yer makin’ friends. Ya seem like an all ‘round nice guy. An’ Ah just went ‘n’ made yer move here even harder. Ah guess Ah can kinda relate. Ah had a similar experience when Ah was a little filly livin’ in a new place. But there’s no excuse fer the way Ah’ve treated ya these past few days. An’...Ah’m sorry.”

Shade was touched. Applejack really did sound honest about it. Of course, she was the Element of Honesty, but still.

“It’s...fine. Don’t beat yourself up over it.” Now he felt guilty. She was apologizing for something that she was actually right about. It was all the more reason to never let anypony find out.

“Ya can’t honestly fergive me fer the way Ah acted, can ya?”

Shade thought for a second. “You were just looking out for your friends. Anypony else would have done the same, right?”

Applejack scratched the back of her head. “Ah reckon so. Still, that don’t stop me from bein’ sorry.”

“Fine. I forgive you.”

“Thanks. Ah feel like we should get things back on the right hoof. The Applejack y’all have seen ain’t who Ah really am. So why don’t we start fresh?” She extended her foreleg out to him. “Welcome ta Ponyville, Shade.” A warm, genuine smile appeared on her face. For once, Shade felt like he could be comfortable around this pony. His hoof met hers with a clack and the two shared a moment of mutual camaraderie. Now he actually felt like he could be friends with her.

“So,” she cut in after they broke off the hoofbump, “Just who is the lucky mare?”

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

An energetic knock reverberated from the door of Carousel Boutique. After a few moments, a white-coated, unicorn mare opened the door to greet her expected company.

“Good morning, Shade,” Rarity said cheerily.

“Good morning,” he returned, his voice unusually chipper and his smile broad.

“Come in, dear, make yourself at home,” she graciously offered.

Stepping inside, Shade noticed immediately the number of pony mannequins placed about the room. Most of them were being used as cloth racks with various odds and ends draped across their backs, but others were adorned with unfinished dresses and accessories.

“You’re not busy, are you?” the stallion asked.

“Hm?” Rarity followed his eyes to the mannequins and picked up on his meaning. “Oh, no...well, nothing important...well, they are important, but it can wait. The point is, I’m making you and your issues a priority. I can have these outfits finished by tonight if need be, so don’t feel like you’re distracting me. It’s really no problem at all.”

“That’s good. I wouldn’t want to keep you from your work.” He moved closer to examine one of the dresses.

She smiled proudly at him. “I see we are already off to a wonderful start.”

He blinked. “Huh?”

Always put your date before yourself. She will no doubt be moved by your selflessness.”

“Is that one of things you were planning to teach me?”

“Indeed it is.” She flicked her mane with a hoof. “I can tell already that this won’t take long. My first impression is that you seem to be quite charming as is.”

“So, what’s next then?” he asked eagerly. If he was a natural at this as she said he was, then tonight’s date would go smoothly.

Rarity contemplated briefly. She paced back and forth in front of the mirrored stage in the boutique’s lobby.

“Well, obviously you want this first date to be memorable.” She looked to Shade who complied with a nod. “Then you should do everything in your power to make it memorable.”

“And how do I do that?”

“First of all, buy her gift. Something small. Some flowers or something along those lines. We wouldn’t want to come on too strongly by buying her expensive jewelry now, would we? It’s only your first date after all. But the sentiment will go a long way.”

Shade made a mental note. “Flowers. Right.”

“Next, always be courteous. If you enter a restaurant, open the door for her and pull out her seat.” Rarity thought for a moment. “Speaking of which, do you know what it is you’ll be doing on your date? Dinner? Movie? Stroll through the park?”

He thought back to the previous night and the conversation he had with Winter. “I think we’re just going to walk around Ponyville. Winter said she hasn’t been living here that long herself, so she suggested we learn more about the town together.”

“Oh...” The mare lowered her gaze and placed a hoof to her chin. Shade caught sight of her sudden change in expression.

“Why? Is that important? Does that change anything?” He was beginning to get worried now.

“Shade, dear, how exactly did she ask you out?” Rarity asked cautiously.

“Well...uh...hang on, let me think...” He tapped a hoof to his forehead as he recalled. “We were talking about how we were both new here...” He looked up toward the ceiling. “Then she proposed that we take a look around town together...”

“Do you remember exactly what she said when you agreed?”

Shade was a little afraid of what exactly Rarity was getting at here. “She said, ‘Alright then, it’s a date.'”

“Hmm...” Rarity hummed hesitatingly.

That doesn’t seem good.

“I-Is something wrong?”

“Well...um,” she started slowly. “I don’t mean to alarm you, dear, but it may be possible that she said that as a little joke.”

He suddenly felt a huge weight in his stomach. “‘A-A joke’? What do you mean ‘a joke'?” Panic began to set in.

“Now, now, try not to overthink this, dear. It’s only a possibility. She may have been trying to be funny or she could have been flirting with you.” Rarity almost seemed to be as worried about this as he was.

Shade stared at the floor as he let the realization sink in. “So, this might not actually be a date?”

The fashionista looked at him apologetically. “I suppose so. I’m sorry if I got your hopes up.”

He sighed heavily and lowered his head. He had gotten so worked up over this. Now he finds out that it wasn’t even what he thought it was. “Thanks anyway, Rarity.” He turned towards the door and made to leave, head hanging low.

“Wait! You can’t just give up!” Rarity exclaimed, running over to him to prevent him from leaving. “Just because this may or may not be a date does not mean that it can’t become one.”

Shade raised an eyebrow in confusion. “What do you mean by that?”

“If you play your cards right, you could win her over. Treat this as if it were a date and maybe she will play along. My advice would still be applicable.”

“Really?” Shade’s spirits lifted instantly. “So, I can take an ordinary outing and turn it into date?”

“Yes! Although you may have to scale things back a bit. Perhaps forego the gift giving until you arrange a proper date. But everything else should still apply.” Rarity’s mood matched his at every turn. She was just as excited about this as he was.

“So, what other advice do you have?” he asked anxiously.

A prideful smile creased her lips. “I think the better question is: what advice don’t I have?”

Before Rarity could share her words of wisdom, she was cut off by the jingling bell over the boutique’s entrance. Peeking her head inside was the familiar face of a cyan, rainbow-maned pegasus.

“Rainbow Dash?” Rarity addressed her. “What brings you here?”

“Uh, Twilight sent me over. She said you could use my help with something.” She sounded somewhat confused and a little hesitant.

“She did?” The unicorn was just as befuddled as the pegasus.

“Yeah,” Rainbow Dash affirmed. She glanced around the room, taking notice of the many mannequins and dresses in progress. She scrunched up her face. “Look, I’m all for helping out a friend, but if it involves modelling one of these, count me out. If you need a pegasus, just get Fluttershy or something. Don’t drag me into this.”

The mention of the timid, yellow mare sparked a realization. Rarity gasped in sudden understanding. “Oh! Of course!” She quickly approached the multi-colored mare and urged her inside, using her magic to shut the door behind her.

“H-Hey, what’re you doing?” Rainbow Dash struggled against the other mare dragging her inside. “I already told you, I’m not trying on any dresses!”

“This isn’t about dresses, darling, it’s about him.”

She stopped pushing the pegasus, leaving her standing face to face with Shade. Rainbow Dash looked at him in hopes of getting an explanation, but she only received a puzzled shrug from the stallion.

“What about him?” the feathered mare turned her head to ask the pushy unicorn.

“I’m just as lost as she is,” Shade spoke up. “Can you please tell us what this is about?”

“My, you’re dense,” Rarity huffed, rolling her eyes. “But very well. I shall get to the point.” She turned to Rainbow Dash. “Rainbow, dear. The other day, Fluttershy mentioned that you might know a mare by the name of Winter Maple. Is this true?”

“Oh, yeah!” Shade exclaimed, finally catching on.

Rainbow Dash’s eyes shot between the two unicorns, now feeling like she was the only one still out of the loop. “Winter? Yeah, I know her. Why?”

“Wonderful! Because Shade here has a date with her tonight,” she informed.

The pegasus faced the stallion, at first giving him a surprised look, but shifted to a sly grin.

“Really? Well, look at you, stud. You’ve only been in town a few days and you’ve already got the mares crawling all over you, huh?” she laughed and nudged his ribs. Shade turned away to hide the pink tinge forming on his cheeks. “So, what’s that got to do with me?” she asked, turning back to Rarity.

“It means,” the unicorn started, “That you can tell us a little bit about her as neither of us know much at the moment.”

“You want to know more about her?” Rainbow Dash said, tilting her head.

“If you would be so kind,” Rarity responded. “It would probably be less intrusive to speak with her directly, but I’m much too curious myself.”

“Well, alright I guess. I don’t really know her on a personal level or anything, but I’ve talked to her a little. I was the one who hired her.” She ran a hoof through her mane, taking pride in her position on the weather team. “Let’s see...” she started, tapping a hoof to her chin. “Well, she’s been on the team for about...a month, I think? Yeah, I remember sending out ads regarding positions on the weather team after the near-disaster trying to get the water from the reservoir up to Cloudsdale; we got lucky last time, so I figured we should hire some new pegasi just in case. I sent one ad to the Cloudsdale Courier and the first application we received was from Winter. Apparently, she got fired from the weather factory and was looking for a new job. We were kinda desperate, so we hired her anyway despite her track record.”

“‘Track record'?” Shade repeated.

“Yeah, we found out exactly why she got fired when she got here. She’s a total scatterbrain.”

Shade thought back to when he had first met her. Winter had lost control of a storm cloud she was suppose to wrangle and because of that, he got rained on. But then again, if that hadn’t happened, he’d never have met her.

“I can’t tell you how many clouds she’s after losing track of,” Rainbow Dash continued. “But every time I bring it up she starts with the ‘I’m sorrys.’ She’s really apologetic. It gets kind of annoying”

Shade smiled as he recalled how many times she had apologized to him for soaking him with rainwater. Rainbow Dash may have found it irritating, but he found it kind of endearing. But his smile was replaced with worry as a thought occurred to him.

“Wait, she’s not in danger of being fired again, is she?” For some reason he couldn’t stand the thought of something even remotely bad happening to her.

“Well, not really,” the pegasus said, shaking her head. “We really only hired her and a few other pegasi as token members. The weather team as it was without them was perfectly capable of taking care of things around here. She’s not really setting us back or anything. Plus, she’s still a rookie. She’s just got a thing or two to learn about keeping up with pesky storm clouds.”

Shade sighed in relief. She had already been fired once, to be fired a second time so soon would really be a hit to one’s self-esteem and the thought of Winter becoming depressed made his heart sink.

“Well, thank you very much, Rainbow Dash, dear,” Rarity thanked. “This was most informative.”

“No problem,” the pegasus shrugged. “As long as I don’t have to try on any dresses.”

“Actually, since you’re here-”

“Whoa, hey, look at the time!” Rainbow Dash said, looking at a non-existent watch on her foreleg. “I gotta get going! See ya around!” She took flight and fluttered over to the door before turning back momentarily. “Oh, and good luck, player.” She winked at Shade causing him to blush once more and turn away in embarrassment before she flew out the door.

Rarity let out a slightly disappointed sigh but decided to let it go. She spun around with a satisfied smile to address Shade once more now that they had this new information. “That went rather well, didn’t it? We know quite a bit more about Winter Maple now. I do feel bad that we gathered this information behind her back though. Perhaps it would be best not to tell her, hm?”

Shade nodded his head. He knew pretty much everything the pegasus had told them or at the very least had seen some sort of hint, but this info might go a long way in striking up conversation on his date.

“Now then,” Rarity interrupted his pondering. “Where were we? Ah, yes. Let’s teach you some proper etiquette, shall we? Can’t have you acting like a barbarian if you two decide to stop for a bite to eat now, can we?”

Shade sighed and looked at the clock on the wall that Rainbow Dash had apparently neglected to notice. There were still three hours left before he had to get to work.

It’s going to be a long morning, isn’t it?

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

Shade pocketed a handful of bits left at the table that a couple had recently occupied. With a smile, he straightened his bow tie and made to deliver the final cheque of the day.

His mind had been preoccupied by thoughts of Winter and his upcoming date, but this time they had not in any way hindered his performance at the café. He was chipper, enthusiastic and eager. And his positive attitude was reflected in his tips. He had made more money today than on every other combined. He had gone over the extensive advice Rarity had given him countless times throughout the day so as not to forget any of it. He could recite her every word by heart if he needed to.

Shade placed the final cheque tucked into his pocket onto a table shared by two mares. The pair were regulars at this point. He could easily recognize the mint-green unicorn and cream-colored earth pony when they came to have a bite to eat. Though they never really paid him much mind; they seemed too busy with one another, as if no other ponies existed to them. He was, admittedly, a little envious. The earth pony absentmindedly placed a few bits on top of the paper, apparently knowing exactly how much their dinner would cost as they ordered the same thing every time they visited. Shade stowed the bits away and made to deliver them straight to Horte who was currently manning the register inside, in the process of counting the day’s earnings up to this point.

The sound of fluttering wings caught his ears followed by a sudden breeze that ruffled his cobalt mane. Shade could hear the two mares behind him giggle at his new, disheveled state. Sure, now they know I exist.

“Oh, cripes! Sorry, Shade!”

His slight embarrassment and irritation melted away instantly as soon as Winter’s heavenly vocals danced through his ears and a smile creased his lips.

“Guess I flew in a little too close, huh?” she said, her cheeks red with embarrassment.

“Not a problem,” he said cheerily, running his hoof over his messy mane in an attempt to correct it. “What are you doing here though?”

Winter scratched the back of her head and smiled nervously. “Well, I kind of realized that we forgot to set a place for us to meet up. So, since I know you work here, I figured I’d just meet you when you get off work. That’s okay, isn’t it? I’m not being too pushy, am I?”

“It’s fine,” Shade laughed. “I was about to clock out anyway. Give me a sec.”

Winter nodded as Shade entered the restaurant, waiting for him to return. She blushed slightly as she was receiving sly looks from the nearby pair of nosy mares.

It was weird. Winter seemed to be even more nervous about this than Shade had been. Did she really share his feelings? Maybe this was a real date.

After a few minutes, Shade returned having removed his uniform and was ready to hit the town. The only item remaining on his person was a small brown satchel tied around his neck containing the tips he had collected that day. The pair of mares he had last served had left and one final token of appreciation for his service lay upon their table. He quickly dropped the bit in with the rest before returning his attention to Winter.

“So, what should we do first,” he asked eagerly.

“Well, I figure we could just wander around aimlessly and see where we end up,” Winter responded innocently. “I like spontaneity. Makes things more fun.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Shade chuckled.

The two began their leisurely stroll through their new home, a calm silence hanging over them. That silence was beginning to become a regular thing apparently, where nothing was said and nothing needed to be said. Or maybe they were just bad at small talk.

Shade chanced a quick glance at the mare walking beside him. He was fascinated by her and now he finally had an opportunity to observe her. It was almost like a dream he had had recently had come to life; just the two of them walking side by side, a gentle breeze blowing through their manes. They could have just walked all day and night and Shade would be happy.

Winter’s eyes drifted all around, looking at the buildings and ponies that littered the small town, but not really focusing on them. Her mind seemed to be elsewhere. Through the corner of her eye she spotted her companion staring at her. He hadn’t meant to stare, he just wanted a quick look at her beauty, but found himself unable tear his gaze away until she caught him. Shade looked away, pretending as if he hadn’t been looking at her, but he couldn’t hide the slight blush on his cheeks. An almost inaudible noise escaped Winter’s lips. He couldn’t really tell what it was, but judging by the pink on her face as well, it was probably a sign of bashfulness.

“So,” Winter coughed, hoping to strike up a conversation. “I’ve already told you where I’m from. How about telling me a little about yourself?” She looked at him with earnest.

Even though he knew the question would pop up at some point, it still caught him off guard.

“Well,” Shade started. “I’m from...Las Pegasus.” He felt his stomach tighten. Something about this didn’t sit right with him.

“Yeah, you told me that last night. Still, that’s pretty far away. Why would you move all the way to Ponyville?” she asked curiously.

How many times had he had to give this explanation at this point? Every friendly pony who thought to introduce themselves to him seemed to ask the same question and he always gave the same reply.

“I didn’t feel like my life was going anywhere,” Shade said, his eyes showing how strongly he felt about this. “I was tired of eking by and figured I’d try and find somewhere I could live peacefully and comfortably.” It was the truth. Not the whole truth, but the truth nonetheless.

“Sounds like you had it pretty rough,” Winter said sympathetically, to which Shade nodded in response. “Is it something you’re uncomfortable talking about? If it is, I’m sorry I brought it up. You don’t have to tell me anything more if you don’t want to.”

Her kindness was moving, and even more so with the fact that she had given him a free pass to avoid talking about his past.

“I’d rather not talk about it right now, no,” he said apologetically. “I’m trying to put that all behind me now. It’s a chapter of my life I’d rather forget.”

“Okay,” she said with an understanding smile. “So, let’s talk about something else then.” Her eyes wandered around in hopes of finding something that might spark a new topic of conversation. Her gaze inadvertently ended up on his flank. “That’s an interesting cutie mark. What’s your special talent, Shade?”

“Hm?” Shade glanced back at his own rear, having completely forgotten that he’d even had a cutie mark. “Oh, that. Um...” What had Twilight and Spike said it was? “Playing...video games?”

“‘Video games’?” Winter repeated, cocking her head. “That’s an odd talent.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Shade was still just as confused about it as she was, probably more so.

“But you’re a waiter,” she pointed out. “That has nothing to do with video games.”

“Right...” Shade said nervously. What now? He still didn’t even know what a "video game" was, how could he possibly explain anything about it? “I don’t really think a pony should have to be labelled by their cutie mark. Who’s to say somepony can’t be good at more than one thing?” Huh, that was unusually profound of me.

“That’s true,” Winter said thoughtfully. “That’s the kind of mentality those three little fillies seem to have. What did they call themselves? ‘The Cutie Mark Collectors'? Something like that.”

“Crusaders,” Shade corrected. According to Twilight, if you lived in Ponyville, chances are you were going to receive a visit from The Cutie Mark Crusaders eventually. Although Shade had only met one of them; Rarity’s little sister, Sweetie Belle. Apparently one of them was Applejack’s little sister as well, but considering he had spent so much time avoiding her, it was no surprise he hadn’t met her yet. Perhaps now that they seemed to be on better terms, he’d get to meet her.

“Right, sorry. Rainbow Dash said I should probably hide if I saw them, so I haven’t actually met them.”

Shade dared a quick glance at his companion’s flank, careful not to look for too long.

“Try not to stare at her too much. You may find her attractive, but you don’t want to creep her out.”

Rarity’s words echoed in his mind. After he had seen what he was looking for--the maple leaf on her flank--he discreetly averted his eyes and returned to the topic at hoof.

“Speaking of cutie marks, what does yours represent,” he asked, eager to learn anything he could about her that Rainbow Dash may not have informed him of.

“Mine? Actually, I’m rather proud of my cutie mark,” she stated with self-satisfaction. “It represents my dedication to the changing of seasons.”

Shade lifted an eyebrow. “What does that mean exactly?”

“Well, my favorite seasons are autumn and winter. And my favorite time of the year is when the pegasi get ready to transition into winter. We clean up all the beautiful leaves that were brought down during the Running of the Leaves and position new clouds in the sky in preparation for the first snowfall. Equestria goes from the vibrant colors of autumn, to the pure whiteness of winter. They’re both so breathtaking to look at.”

Not if you’ve spent your entire life staring at the ‘vibrant colors of autumn.' It might as well be a dreary grey.

“That’s why I got a job at the Cloudsdale weather factory; I wanted to make snowflakes. I wanted to make the most unique snowflakes anypony had ever seen!” The passion in her voice was clear as day. “But it turns out I’m a little too clumsy to handle something as delicate as snowflakes,” she giggled and scratched her head. “So I just took up any position at the factory they could offer me. I was never really great at anything I did there, but it paid the bills. For a while anyway.”

“Wait, if you weren’t great at anything there, then how did get your cutie mark?” Shade wasn’t an expert on the subject, but he was pretty sure somepony wouldn’t get a cutie mark for being "good enough" at something.

“I said I got it because of my dedication,” Winter reminded him. “I may not be the best at what I do, but I’ve never stopped wanting to help. And the changing seasons is still something I look forward to every year. And I hope this year to actually participate in the Running of the Leaves. I’ve never had the chance in the past, what with me living in Cloudsdale and all, and it’s been my dream since I was a filly. It’s such an important part of the transition into winter.” She paused. She seemed to be thinking something over.

“Something wrong?” Shade asked, concerned.

“I was wondering,” Winter began, “Las Pegasus is in the sky, like Cloudsdale, right? Those sorts of places usually distribute snow, but don’t typically get any themselves. Does it snow in Las Pegasus?”

Does it? He had no idea. But maybe now was another opportunity to be truthful.

“If it does, I’ve never seen it,” Shade answered.

Winter’s expression was a mix of disappointment and pity. “Oh, that’s too bad. Hopefully, you’ll get to see it while you’re here in Ponyville. It’s a ways off yet, what with it being spring and all, but it’s worth the wait. Winter is really beautiful.”

“Yeah, it is,” he said absentmindedly, smiling admiringly at the pegasus beside him.

“Huh?” She shot him a confused look.

Shade shook his head. “Oh, nothing.”

That same silence loomed over them once more as they continued their stroll, passing many houses, ponies and places of business. They hadn’t stipulated a destination, so in all likelihood they would just keep walking until they ended up at the town limits before turning back and heading home.

But he wasn’t going to let this end so easily.

Glancing down a nearby street, Shade caught sight of Ponyville’s market, a place where food vendors and entrepreneurs could peddle their wares. He’d been there once before. Twilight had sent Spike to buy groceries and elected for Shade to join him so that he could get a better feel for the town. He probably couldn’t have found the place if he had been looking, but it was lucky that they happened upon it.

“Hey, we should visit the market!” Winter piped up excitedly, beating Shade to the punch. “I’m getting pretty hungry and I think it’s about supper time anyway.”

The changeling couldn’t ignore his own rumbling belly. It seemed that whenever somepony mentioned food around here, he suddenly became hungry. Perhaps that had to do with the many exotic snacks he’d gotten to enjoy since arriving.

“Yeah, I could go for a bite,” Shade agreed with a grin.

The market was rather packed today. There weren’t half as many ponies here during his first visit. If they wanted something to eat, they would have to wait their turn.

“Why are there so many ponies here today?” Shade voiced his thoughts.

“They must be stocking up for the weekend,” Winter assumed. “Me and the other pegasi have been preparing for a big storm that’s supposed to last all weekend, so everypony’s got to get their shopping done while they have a chance.”

That made sense. Trying to buy groceries--or selling them for that matter--would be an awfully risky task in an open-air market during a downpour.

“So that’s why you were chasing that cloud the other day?” Shade inferred. He knew that’s what she was doing, but he wanted to hear it from her. Like Rarity, he felt a tad guilty about getting information about her from Rainbow Dash, like he was trying to convict her of a felony.

“Yup,” she affirmed with a quick nod. “We finished collecting clouds yesterday and tomorrow morning we’ll be hanging them all over Ponyville.” Her expression became wistful. “I always liked the rain. The constant pitter-patter of raindrops against the windows and the beauty it leaves behind when it’s all over; rainbows and glistening dew.”

Winter seemed to be lost in reminiscence. The look of tranquility on her face was making Shade feel at peace.

She snapped herself out of her daze. “Oh, uh, sorry. I have a tendency to daydream at the worst times. That’s kinda how I lost control of that cloud.” She giggled with embarrassment. “Oh, and thanks for not telling Rainbow Dash about that by the way.”

“Rainbow Dash is your boss?” Yet another point he already knew, but figured he’d press anyway. Anything to hear her speak some more so he wouldn’t have to talk about himself. It was Rarity’s advice anyway: “Don’t be self-absorbed. Ask her as many questions about herself as possible. That way, she should know you’re interested.”

“Well, more like my supervisor,” the pegasus corrected. “But she’s still pretty strict. She really laid into me once for letting a storm cloud precipitate prematurely. I didn’t want to go through that again. It can be hard to fill them with water again by yourself though.”

“You had to refill it by yourself because it rained on me? Geez, I’m sorry,” Shade apologized.

“Oh no!” Winter said waving a hoof. “It’s not your fault. I let it get away because I got careless. I should be apologizing to you.”

“You already have. Several times actually,” Shade laughed.

“Oh, right. But one more to be safe. Sorry.”

The pair shared a laugh together before their impatient stomachs chimed in to remind them of why they were in the market to begin with.

“Oops. Guess we got a little sidetracked, huh?” Winter giggled.

She looked around them, browsing the various stands for the ideal meal. Shade decided to help, or at least look like he was helping. He hasn’t really had a chance to sample every item of food this culture had to offer and he didn’t want to end up picking something they wouldn’t like.

“Oh! Over here, Shade!” Winter called out, having apparently moved away towards one particular cart and vendor.

It was a rather large one compared to most of the others, but there was a reason for that. Whereas most of the others stands focused on selling raw fruits and vegetables or the individual ingredients one would need to cook a meal by themselves, this one was equipped with its own cooking surface where the customers could watch as their meal was prepared right before their eyes. The smell was alluring, although signalled that the food here was probably fairly greasy and unhealthy. But changelings couldn’t really afford to be picky eaters.

“Doesn’t this stuff look good?” his companion asked as she mulled over the chalkboard menu standing beside the cart. “What are you gonna get?”

“M-Me?”

Shade stared at the black menu which may as well have just had a chicken with chalk dust on its talons walk all over it.

“What’s up?” Winter asked. “Isn’t there anything here you like?”

“Uhhh...”

Confession time.

“Actually, Winter.” He swallowed. “I...can’t read.”

There was silence.

Not the same, comfortable silence he was used to when he was around her, but a heavy, pregnant silence.

“Oh...” was all she could utter. “I-I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”

Her reaction wasn’t like Twilight’s at all. If anything it was worse. He felt like he had just physically hurt her.

“Hey, it’s not your fault,” Shade said, attempting to remedy the situation. “I probably should have told you before. It’s a pretty big detail to leave out, I guess.”

“I-I didn’t offend you, did I?” The remorse in her voice was heartbreaking. “If I did, I’m really sorry.”

“It’s fine. You don’t need to feel bad. See?” He smiled to show her that he wasn’t bothered. Seeing that she hadn’t hurt his feelings in any way, she returned his smile in relief. “Why don’t you just order some food? We’ll have something to eat and take our minds off of this.”

“Alright then,” she said, her voice returning to its usual cheeriness. She turned to the vendor standing behind the cart, who had probably overheard the entire exchange but was desperately trying to look busy so he didn’t seem like an eavesdropper. “I’ll have some hay fries please.”

“I’ll have what she’s having,” Shade added.

The cook nodded and tossed a batch of frozen hay fries into the deep fryer attached to his cart. The pair waited as the sound of sizzling grease prevented them from having another round of soft silence.

Frying hay. It seemed a little ridiculous to him.

The vendor passed them two containers of freshly cooked hay fries with a smile. “There ya go. That’ll be six bits.”

Another of Rarity’s tips flashed in Shade’s memory.

“If you stop for a bite to eat at anytime during the evening, pay for her food. Don’t announce it, just do it.”

Heeding the unicorn’s advice, Shade opened the satchel tied around his neck and removed exactly six gold coins, passing them to the vendor. Winter wasn’t about to let his gesture go unnoticed.

“Oh, you don’t have to pay for mine, Shade. I can get it.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Shade resisted. “I’ve got plenty here. A few extra bits isn’t gonna hurt me.”

“You sure?” She received a reassuring nod. “Well, okay, I guess. I feel a little guilty though...” Winter frowned.

That wasn’t exactly the reaction Rarity had said he’d get. She told him that Winter would probably show great gratitude, not guilt.

“Hey, there’s no need to feel bad. I’m happy to do it,” Shade said, trying to right the scenario as it had been told to him.

“Thanks.” She smiled sheepishly. “Still, I feel like I’m the one who should be paying for your food. You know, to say sorry.”

Shade chuckled. “How many times do I have to say it? It’s fine.”

A much more genuine smile creased her lips as she finally gave in. Shade finally passed the vendor the bits and the two made to return to their aimless stroll, hay fries in tow. The changeling offered to hold the two sets of fries with his magic, allowing Winter to walk sensibly; it’s not exactly easy for a pony to walk while holding something in one hoof.

Winter took a enthusiastic bite of one of her fries, humming happily as she chewed.

“These are good, huh?”

Shade raised one to his mouth. He hadn’t tried one of these before. Yet another experiment for him to take on, but if the previous, similar situations were any indication, he was in for a treat. With little hesitation, he chomped on the fry.

Not bad.

It was nothing spectacular. Nowhere near as sweet as the other foods he’d partook in and significantly greasier, but palatable nonetheless.

But the lack of flavor and punch brought up urges that he had been suppressing since he left the Changeling Kingdom. He had begun to become accustomed to a vegetarian diet since leaving home, especially considering the alternatives offered by the pony culture, but now he was having trouble ignoring his cravings.

He missed the taste of meat.

He was no stranger to fruits that happened to grow in the forests of his homeland. But every now and then, a changeling would get lucky enough to spot small animals wandering into their territory, where they had no business being. Mostly rats and squirrels, but occasionally the odd rabbit or two would come by.

Shade thought back to the feeling of sinking his fangs into the tender hide of some helpless rodent. A meal like that, as small as it was, was enough to satisfy a changeling for some time. It was one of the few small samples of happiness they had access to.

And how would that taste cooked up like the food here was? The mere thought made his mouth water.

“Wow, you must really like them!” Winter exclaimed, taking notice of the tiny trickle of drool running down the corner of his mouth.

Shade quickly wiped a hoof across his muzzle. “Uh, yeah, they’re pretty good,” he chuckled nervously. He took another bite, trying to shake his mind of anything regarding his former home.

Winter happily chewed her meal, all the while her eyes darting about to all the buildings that surrounded them. To get to know the town better. That is what they were here for.

“Oh, hey! Look!” Winter pointed a hoof towards a building across the street from where they had been walking.

It was a simple place of business. It didn’t really stand out much aside from the large display windows on its front, flanking the entrance. The sign over the door was decorated with the image of a diamond ring.

Winter was already hurriedly making her way over, weaving past other ponies in the street. Catching up to her, Shade followed her gaze. She was admiring various pieces of jewelry being displayed behind the windows. Her broad smile made her look like a foal in a candy store.

“What is this place?” Shade asked, unable to decipher the meaning of the sign.

“It’s a jewelry store,” Winter explained without removing her eyes from the glass. “The owner of this place makes and sells jewelry. Rings, bracelets, necklaces. You name it, Karat’s got it.”

“‘Karat'?”

“That’s the owner’s name. He’s a real nice guy. I come by here once in awhile a do a little window shopping.” She scrunched up her muzzle and pressed her nose on the window longingly. “Though if I actually wanted to buy anything here, I’d have to sell my left hind leg.”

“For jewelry?!”

“I know, right? This stuffs super expensive,” she said, not having realized that her metaphor had gone right over her companion’s head. “But it’s top quality. Karat’s so talented, I’m surprised he decided to set up shop in Ponyville. You’d think Canterlot would be a more fitting venue for somepony of his skill. Just goes to show how down-to-earth he his.”

Shade thought for a moment. “Maybe I should meet him.”

“That’d be great,” Winter smiled. “But the shop’s closed at this hour. He won’t be opening again until Monday.”

“Huh, too bad.”

Shade looked over all the assorted trinkets beyond the glass barrier. They really were a sight to behold. How did one go about cutting these gems, and so precisely to boot? It seemed every day there was something new that these ponies did that Shade could respect.

Winter breathed a longing and disappointed sigh as she reluctantly removed her nose from the shop’s window, allowing the two to return to their walk.

The sun was beginning to make its descent towards to horizon, the bright blue sky fading into an orange glow. The sunset was another one of those fleeting moments of happiness a changeling was able to enjoy, although it dulled over time and became a reminder that another day of struggle awaited them. But now, Shade had no interest in the setting sun. If he wanted to witness the beauty of a bright, amber sphere, he need only glance into the eyes of the mare walking next to him. And the best part was there were two of them.

Their stroll had brought them to the park, a place of leisure for the residents of Ponyville. Shade had seen couples having picnics and foals playing games around here before but, at this time of day, there were few ponies around.

Without saying a word, Winter hopped up onto a nearby bench, laying down with her hooves beneath her. “Have a seat, Shade.” She pat the empty space next to her. “We’ve been on our hooves for awhile now. I could use a break.”

Before accepting her offer, Shade discarded the now empty food containers in a nearby trash can. He climbed onto the bench to join Winter, opting for a sitting position rather than a reclined one like hers. He looked around the park briefly. The few ponies that were here he didn’t recognize, most of them older couples reminiscing about their long pasts. They certainly seemed happy.

Winter looked pensively at Shade. “Uh, I know you said we should just forget about it,” she said hesitantly. “But I can’t help but wonder: how come you never learned how to read? Didn’t you go to school when you were a foal?”

He took no offense to her decision to revive the topic. It was understandable to be curious about it.

“No,” the changeling answered simply.

“Could your parents not afford it?”

This was not a topic he had ever considered would come up.

“I don’t know my parents. I was raised by the...the ponies around me.”

To her, Shade sounded strangely nonchalant about the fact that he had no parents. To him, though, it wasn’t anything unusual. Changeling infants were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. They usually went their whole lives without ever meeting their parents. It was just the way of the hive.

“That’s so sad. I’m sorry.” She frowned.

Shade felt the warm touch of a hoof against his own. He turned his gaze down to see Winter’s hoof draped over his and looking at him with sympathetic eyes of amber. She almost looked like she wanted to cry, but for some reason he didn’t want to try and prevent it. Sympathy was not something the changelings were used to receiving. It felt nice to know that somepony else actually cared about you.

He flashed her a warm smile, to which she responded by smiling back. The pegasus could tell by his expression that he didn’t feel strongly about the subject one way or the other and was relieved that she hadn’t dredged up any painful memories.

“Oh!” She suddenly jerked her hoof away from Shade’s, feeling that she had held it there a little too long. A blush formed on her cheeks.

Shade smiled inwardly. This was going well. They were talking and learning more about one another. This was going almost exactly as Rarity had told him it would. It had become a real date.

But did Winter know that?

A frigid breeze blew through the air causing the pegasus to shiver.

“Brrr,” she shuddered. “It got kinda chilly all of a sudden, huh?”

The wind did seem to be picking up. It might have had something to do with the preparations for tomorrow’s storm.

“Do you want to go somewhere warmer?” Shade asked.

“‘W-Warmer’?” Winter’s blush deepened.

Shade, realizing that his suggestion had been misconstrued, waved his hooves in front of himself frantically. “Ah! No, that’s not what I meant! I just meant we should go somewhere...warmer?” How else could he say it?

“Oh, sorry,” the mare sighed. “I guess I shouldn’t jump to conclusions.” She laughed nervously, scratching her head.

The sky was gradually becoming darker with each passing minute. In no time, it would be completely dark and thus even colder.

“It’s getting kinda late, huh?” She sounded disappointed. “Maybe it’s about time we headed home.”

As much as he didn’t want to, he had to agree. The encroaching darkness and chilly wind would make remaining outside rather uncomfortable.

“Yeah, I guess so,” he agreed tentatively.

The two hopped off the bench together and set their sights on the path home.

“Um,” Winter peeped. “Would you mind if I walked back with you until we get to your place?”

Shade lifted an eyebrow. “Why?” Not that he minded spending a little more time with her.

“Well, if you have to walk all the way home by yourself, you’re gonna get pretty cold,” she elaborated. “We, uh...” Another blush formed as she paused. “We could keep each other warm as we walk.”

“How would we do that?” the changeling asked.

Winter sidled up next to him and unfurled one of her white, feathered wings, draping it over Shade’s back. He felt a warmth flow over him. Not from the shared body heat, but from the thought of being this close to her. Their pristine, white coats rubbing against one another. It was a sensation he’d never felt before. And he liked it. The pair reddened in unison at their closeness. Both were admittedly somewhat embarrassed, but they were comfortable.

The trek home had started, the two walking literally side by side and smiling contently, though the blood never left their cheeks.

Winter broke the silence hanging over them.

“So, where do you live exactly?” she asked with a grin.

“The library.”

Winter stopped, forcing Shade to stop as well.

“‘The library’? But isn’t that where Twilight Sparkle lives?” She tilted her head in confusion.

“Yeah, I’m living with her. Why?” He wasn’t sure why she seemed so apprehensive.

“Oh, I see...” She lowered her head. “I’m sorry. I-I didn’t know.”

“Know what?” Now he was confused.

“That you and Twilight were-”

He immediately caught on to her train of thought. “What?! No! No, no! We’re not!”

“So, she’s not your girlfriend?” There was a glint of hopefulness in her eyes.

“No!” Shade exclaimed. He took a deep breath to calm himself. “I’m just living at the library until I can afford a place of my own.”

“Oh, okay.” The pegasus nodded in understanding. “Sorry. I was making assumptions again, huh?” she laughed.

“I guess it’s a natural mistake to make. You’re not the first one,” he chuckled. “Actually, Twilight is teaching me how to read while I’m staying with her.”

“Really?! That’s great! And what better place to learn than a library,” she laughed.

The pair shared another round of laughter together. The nip in the air was being all but ignored, yet Winter never removed her wing from her companion. Soon enough, the building in question came into view. They stopped just outside its entrance.

“It was really great getting to know you a bit better, Shade,” Winter smiled. “Maybe we could hang out again sometime?”

“I’d like that.” Shade’s grin never weakened.

“Though, I guess we’ll have to wait until Monday, what with the storm and all,” she frowned.

“I guess so.” He felt a little downtrodden knowing that he wouldn’t see her for two whole days, but he’d persevere.

“Well, I guess this is good night.” Winter scraped a hoof on the ground pensively.

“Can you get home alright? It’s still pretty cold.” He shivered at that moment, adding emphasis.

“I can get home by flying in no time. It’s no problem.” She flared her wings to reassure him. “But, thanks for asking.”

Winter tentatively leaned forward until her muzzle was adjacent to Shade’s. The changeling felt her lips upon his cheek for only a fraction of a second, but it felt like an eternity.

“Good night, Shade,” she bid him, a pink tinge upon her face.

“Uh, g-good night,” he returned absentmindedly.

He watched as she took flight and headed home, disappearing beyond a veil of growing darkness. He lifted a hoof to his cheek and rubbed it, wondering if it had really happened.

She had kissed him.

To the average pony it may not have looked like much, but to him it was the highlight of his night. Maybe she did share his feelings after all. Maybe things between them could get serious. Maybe they could actually have a future together.

Maybe...

The smile faded from Shade’s face. He opened the door to the library and entered. Twilight didn’t seem to be around. She must be studying in her room. He entered the nearby bathroom and closed the door behind him.

Something was preventing him from fully enjoying this moment. Something that he was hiding. Something he didn’t want anypony to find out about. Especially Winter.

He was a changeling.

No matter what he did, that fact would never change. It was an ironic truth that he could never truly change who and what he was. And it burned him.

Shade stood before the mirror hanging over the bathroom sink. He gazed at his reflection. No. Not his reflection. That was somepony else entirely that was staring back at him. A likeness that he had stolen. His horn glowed with a vibrant green light and emerald flames enveloped his body.

Staring back at him now was what he really was.

It was the first time he had changed back since he found that pony in the Everfree Forest. And it was also the first time he had ever really looked at himself. He had seen his reflection in the ponds and creeks he drank from, but he never really stopped to look at himself. His curved horn, his hole-riddled mane, his sharp, protruding fangs, and the bright blue glow behind his jade irises.

Guise was right. They were monsters. Disgusting, horrifying monsters. He knew now why ponies feared them, why they were condemned to live isolated from the rest of Equestria, what they were and the things they could do. He didn’t blame them for being afraid. They were monsters.

Something flew past the mirror, between Shade and his reflection, disrupting his thoughts. Following it with his eyes, he waited until it perched itself on the edge of the sink. A large moth. It must have followed him when he came inside, attracted to the lights of the library. Shade’s horn began to glow and trapped the insect in a small bubble of magic. It fluttered its wings trying to escape. The unhidden changeling lifted the winged critter closer to his face and stared at it through narrowed eyes.

Those cravings resurfaced once more. His desire to feed on another living creature. A small insect such as this was little sustenance, but changelings had to take what they could get. Back in the Changeling Kingdom, one had to make due with what they could find. For the most part, that was small bugs and the occasional fruit. Often times, fruit found in the forests of his former home were found rotten, having fallen from a nearby tree and left unseen in the grass. Some changelings were brave enough--or perhaps "desperate" was more accurate--to consume the decaying items if they happened upon them. Those individuals were usually later rewarded for their recklessness with vomiting and sickness, leaving their bellies emptier than they had started. Most changelings tended to avoid fruit for this reason, leading to an almost entirely carnivorous diet, feeding mostly on bugs and the stray rodent or two if they got lucky. They were too thick-headed to learn how to discern what was edible. They just ate because they were hungry.

They preferred meat anyway. Even Shade had to admit that the taste of flesh was something he enjoyed. But he hadn’t had any in quite a while. And now, he held this creature in his grasp. Moths were among the more sought after insects for changelings. They were bigger than most of the other bugs found in their forests. He could eat it. Bite right into it and nopony would be the wiser. He could finally quell his urges.

But would it really satisfy him or would it simply open the floodgates and make him want more?

Shade closed his eyes. The moth struggled against its prison, desperate to escape becoming a meal. The changeling’s glowing horn dimmed and the magic bubble dissipated. The moth flew away, relishing its mercifully returned freedom. Shade watched the critter flutter about the lamp lighting the room. He couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t do it. He felt a connection to this moth now. A creature who had been trapped in a hostile environment, but finding freedom and comfort within the home of a pony. He could relate.

“Shade? Are you in there?”

Shade nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of Twilight’s voice just outside the bathroom door. Having been lost in his thoughts upon returning home, he had neglected to lock the door. If Twilight hadn’t suspected him of being in there, she would have walked in to find a changeling occupying her bathroom. The jig would have been up right there and then.

“Yeah, I’ll be out in a minute,” he responded with a slight catch in his throat.

“That’s okay. I was just wondering if that was you I heard coming in. I’m heading to bed, lock up the library when you turn in, okay?”

“Sure.”

Shade listened as her hoofsteps traveled up the staircase and back into her bedroom. When he heard her door shut behind her, he finally let out his breath.

That was close. I need to be more careful.

She could have found him out. Then everything he had worked so hard for would have been for naught. His new life would be reduced to nothing. What would Winter think if she found out too?

The moth flew around Shade’s head carelessly. He lifted one of his hole-filled legs up, allowing the insect to perch upon it.

No.

She wouldn’t find out. She couldn’t find out. He had spared the life of this moth. No changeling would have been strong enough to let a potential meal escape. No changeling would have come to live peacefully with the ponies. How could somepony find out something that wasn’t true?

His horn glowed once more. The moth took flight as the emerald flames again surrounded Shade’s form. Opening his eyes, he stared at the face of the pony in the mirror. His face. His new face. As long as he never changed back, nopony would ever find out.

He wasn’t a changeling anymore.

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