• 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 6: The Winds of Change

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 6: The Winds of Change

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Shade awoke within the library’s observatory, his eyelids still feeling incredibly heavy. Unlike most mornings, it wasn’t the bright, welcoming rays of the sun that woke him, but the sound of raindrops against the window. The storm had started, just as Winter had told him, although by the sound alone, one would think it was hail, not rain. Each drop tackled the window like a barrage of aqueous pebbles. It was a wonder the glass had not cracked under the assault.

Looking toward the sky would do him no good in gauging the time this morning. The shadowy overcast made it seem as if it were still night time. Shade rolled over in bed, setting his sight on the alarm clock sitting on the bedside table. The long hand pointed to the four, and the short hand the six. He groaned in disapproval as he pulled his sheets over his face, hoping that the additional darkness would allow him to drift back to sleep. But Mother Nature would have none of it. The continuous noise of the rain made it simply impossible for him to doze off.

He freed his face from its cotton cover and sighed in defeat. Finally a day where he didn’t have to go to work and he couldn’t have the privilege to sleep in. Not only that, but he’d have to spend the whole weekend cooped up in the library like a bird in a cage.

Even if he wasn’t going to get another second of shuteye, he couldn’t find the energy to lift himself from his bed. He just lay there, hoping that perhaps a particularly thick book would fall from a nearby shelf and whack him on the head, knocking him out cold and allowing him to return to La-La Land and maybe wake up at an hour that wasn’t so ridiculously early. No such luck.

He found himself lying on his back, staring blankly at the ceiling. The wooden surface was adorned with the same sun-shaped mural that decorated the ceiling of both the lobby and Twilight’s bedroom as well. In his time here, he had thought that it seemed familiar for some reason and eventually deduced why. It looked exactly like Princess Celestia’s cutie mark. Shade grimaced at the decoration above him. Even though he had renounced his identity as a changeling, for some unknown reason he still could not bring himself to think well of the supposed "Sun Goddess." But he had every reason to. Everypony under her rule was happy. Clearly she wasn’t the tyrant the changeling rulers made her out to be. So why did he still feel such disdain for her? Perhaps not all of his habits would be broken so easily. This was something he had been taught since the moment he was born. “Celestia is evil and needs to be removed from the throne.” That’s what Chrysalis had led him to believe. And she had used Luna’s transmogrification into Nightmare Moon as an example, telling them that one day the same will happen to the sun princess and Equestria would fall into disaster.

Shade slammed his eyes shut and pressed his hooves against his temples.

Come on! I’m not a changeling anymore! Why do I keep thinking about these things!?

Now that his mind was on the subject, he couldn't help but think about what he had left behind. Granted, he had next to nothing to his name prior to leaving aside from the few sticks and leaves slapped together that he called a house, but there was something more important than that back there; the one thing for which he may have regretted leaving. He had to wonder how Chamella was doing. Shade let out a sigh as he thought about her. She was one of the only things that Shade could have considered a luxury in his meager life, someone he could call his friend and the only thing besides himself he actually cared about. But he had given her a chance to come with him, which she turned down. He wasn't really surprised. This entire endeavor was a long shot for sure. He may have very well put her life in danger had she come with him. Shade wondered if she was well. She was never great a finding food herself, relying mostly on him to share with her, which he was happy to do. Would she really be alright without him?

Shade shook his head. He shouldn't be concerning himself with such things. He gave her a chance, she said no. That was that. He needed to look toward the future and forget the past, starting with getting a little more sleep.

But it was no use. He wasn’t going to get back to sleep, and if he just lay here his mind would wander into territory he’d rather have left behind. He discontentedly rose to a sitting position and rubbed his tired eyes. If anything good were to come of his early rise at this ungodly hour, it was that Winter wouldn’t have to see him with, as Rarity had put it, horrible bags under his eyes.

But what was he going to do? Twilight and Spike were probably still sound asleep unless the rain had woken them too. He would just be stuck in the library, twiddling his hooves until they got up.

He fell forward lazily, landing on his stomach, his chin resting at the foot of the bed. He gazed straight ahead, looking at nothing in particular but too tired to look anywhere else. His eyes fell upon one of the many bookshelves that littered the library.

Hmm...Maybe I could...

He slid off the bed rather ungracefully, but making sure to land on his hooves so as not to cause a ruckus and wake the library’s other two occupants--although if they were awake, at least he would have somepony to talk to and could kill some time. He shambled over to the bookshelf and looked over the exposed spines.

I don’t know what any of this stuff is...

He indiscriminately pulled one out and glanced at the cover. Of course, he couldn’t make out the title. Whatever it was, it looked complicated. The title must have consisted of at least thirty letters. He didn’t know what it was, but it was most definitely out of his league. That didn’t stop him, however, and he flicked through its pages anyway. It was filled with an insurmountable sum of words, but to his relief also contained some pictures. Drawings of the night sky and the stars and moon. This must be one of those "astronomy" books Twilight told him about, the study of celestial objects outside of their planet. It baffled him that she believed things existed beyond the sky. If that were the case, how come no pegasus has flown there? If nopony could even get so close to the sun, moon, and stars--objects that were within their sky--how could they have the knowledge of anything beyond?

Still, he recognized many of the images within the book. Constellations. Changelings used the formations of the stars as guides when traveling at night. But these pages showed how the stars connected to make abstract shapes. He wasn’t quite sure how some of these shapes came about; they looked nothing like how the stars were arranged.

Shade shook his head and closed the book. No matter how hard he argued he wouldn’t win. It was an inanimate tome that he couldn’t read. He didn’t stand a chance.

Replacing the book, he pulled out another from a lower shelf. The ones on this level were significantly thinner than the one he had just perused. And much more colorful. And the words were printed in very large letters. And there were bright pictures of ponies and flowers and other optimistic imagery. And each page only contained a sentence or two. He still couldn’t read it, but it was much less imposing. He found himself looking at the modestly detailed artwork within the book. Pictures of foals playing on a schoolground, pictures of foals eating a hearty breakfast, pictures of foals playing sports. There were a lot of pictures of foals. He spied a picture in which a group of foals were happily reading books. The covers of the books looked suspiciously similar to the one he was currently browsing: vibrant and colorful.

Shade groaned. Great. It’s a kid’s book. Even these foals can read better than me.

He finally decided to give up. Without Twilight’s direction he wasn’t going to learn anything. He placed the book back on the shelf and planted himself on the floor. Maybe he could just wait. Wait until Twilight or Spike woke up and-

The sound of a hoof rapping against wood rang up from the library's lobby. Was somepony at the door? At this hour? In this weather?

He heard no sign of the other two being roused from their slumber, so it fell to him to identify the visitor.

The sleepy changeling stumbled his way downstairs. What little light there was in the lobby wouldn’t do much for him in his current form. For all intents and purposes, he was a pony, and thus the night vision that came naturally to changelings was not currently accessible. He could change back, but for more reasons than one, that was out of the question. He would just have to be extra careful to not-

“Ow!” he cursed to himself as silently as he could, having bumped his knee on the prominent reading table.

Grumbling under his breath, he approached the front door and opened it with a flourish of his green aura.

“Good morning!” came the chipper, singsong voice of Ponyville’s resident mailmare, a grey-coated pegasus with a blonde mane and a cutie mark consisting of seven bubbles. But by far her most defining feature were her bright, golden eyes which were oddly askew most of the time. Currently, she was outfitted in a yellow, rubber rain cap and coat, providing protection from the harsh weather.

“Derpy? What are you doing here?” Shade asked. Surely she must have a good reason for braving this storm.

“Whaddaya mean? I’m delivering mail, silly!” she stated matter-of-factly, a big, oblivious smile on her face.

“In this weather?”

“You know what they say: Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow.” She lifted her hoof to her forehead, performing a proud salute. He certainly had to respect her dedication to her job. To go out into such miserable conditions and still have a smile on your face must take some serious devotion.

“Whatever,” Shade sighed, still too tired to care about the logic behind her actions. “So what do you have?”

“Ummm, let’s see...” Derpy reached into her coat and rummaged around in the bag strapped to her torso underneath it. “Ah, here we go.” She pulled out a single envelope. “Just a letter for Twilight today.”

Taking the letter from her with his magic, a thought occurred to the changeling. “Why didn’t you just put it in the mailbox?”

“Because!” she blurted, perhaps more loudly than what was necessary. “Twilight wouldn’t want to go out in this weather to get one little letter. So, being the good Samaritan that I am, I thought I’d just bring it straight to the door!”

“And possibly wake up the library’s sleeping residents,” Shade pointed out.

“Well, if I’m being honest...” Derpy started, looking away, yet looking at him at the same time, “...there...might have been an accident when I got here. It’s pretty dark and muggy out there ya know, so let’s not go throwing blame around.”

Shade looked past the pegasus to verify the "accident." From this distance, it was difficult to see through the thick curtain of rain outside, but he could barely make out the shape of Twilight’s mailbox...lying on its side in the mud. He glared silently at the mailmare who shrugged and chuckled nervously.

“Well, another letter duly delivered my work here is done see ya later!” Derpy said hurriedly, intent to avoid having somepony get mad at her. She haphazardly opened her wings--inadvertently spraying Shade with water--and took off back into the stormy sky.

Shade groaned in annoyance as he scooped up the water in his mane and coat into a ball of green magic, releasing it through the open door. He shook his head, dismissing the exchange with the mailmare, and glanced at the letter she had delivered.

“Shade? Is that you down there?” Twilight’s groggy voice addressed him from the top of the staircase. With a flick of her magic, the lights in the lobby flickered on, forcing the two unicorns to narrow their eyes as they adjusted to the increased brightness.

“Yeah, it’s me,” he answered, attempting to block out the light with a raised hoof.

The violet mare descended the stairs slowly, rubbing her eyes sleepily. “What are you doing up so early? Was somepony at the door?”

“Just Derpy. She came to deliver a letter to you. Oh, by the way, she knocked over your mailbox.”

“Ugh, again?” Twilight moaned, rolling her eyes. “I keep telling her she needs to be more careful, but does she listen?” She breathed an exasperated sigh. “Well, whatever. Do you know who the letter’s from?”

“Uh...” Shade held the envelope in front of his face and scanned it. “It’s from Canterlot.”

Twilight blinked. “What?”

“What?” he echoed. “Is it something important?”

What did it say?” Twilight asked with an incredulous look.

“Canter-...-lot...”

The two unicorns stood silently, staring at one another in disbelief.

“Did...Did Derpy tell you that?” the mare inquired, unsure if she was reading the situation correctly.

“N-No...” The stallion’s brain desperately worked to wrapped his head around what had just happened.

“Then...” A beaming smile spread across Twilight’s face. “You read it! You read it, Shade!”

“I-I did?” He still couldn’t completely fathom what was going on.

“You did! You read it! This is amazing!” Twilight leaped forward, embracing him in a tight hug. “I can’t believe it!”

It finally began to sink in. He had read that off the envelope. Derpy hadn’t told him it was from Canterlot, right? She just said it was for Twilight. He had looked at the letter, analyzed the words written on it, and said “Canterlot." He read the word “Canterlot."

Twilight pulled back to look her student in the eyes with a wide, proud grin. “Do you know what this means?” She paused, somewhat hoping he’d answer her, even if she made the question sound rhetorical. “It means that I’m actually a good teacher!”

Shade shot her a corrective glare.

The mare blushed lightly. “Aaaand that you’re on the road to literacy,” she giggled, forcing back her pride as a teacher. “But it also means that, despite how inattentive you’ve been because of Winter, my lessons still managed to sink in. Oh, wait until I tell Princess Celestia! She’s gonna be so proud of me! Uh, us!” Twilight finally released her grip on the stallion.

The navy-maned stallion knit his brow in confusion. “Wait a minute. I was just looking through some books upstairs. I couldn’t even read any words in a children’s book. How did I read that?”

Twilight waved a hoof in front of her. “Who knows and who cares. The fact is, you did read it! Isn’t that great?!”

A smile appeared on the changeling’s face. The sense of pride he felt at this moment was unlike anything he’d ever felt before. He had truly learned something. It was a huge step towards his goal of seeking a better life.

“Yeah. Yeah, it is.”

Twilight pulled Shade in for another hug. This time, the changeling returned the sentiment, wrapping a hoof around his mentor as a sign of his deepest gratitude.

“Geez, can you guys knock off with the shouting? Some of us are trying to sleep, ya know?” a grumpy, purple dragon lectured from the staircase.

The two unicorns apologized to the lethargic dragon. But since they were all up anyway, they decided it was just as well to make some breakfast, including celebratory pancakes.

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

“So, what does the pony-shaped one do?”

After breakfast had been consumed, the trio found that the early hours of the morning were crawling along at a snail’s pace. It didn’t take long for boredom to set in. By Twilight’s suggestion, they had decided to try passing the time with some engaging board games, starting with the studious unicorn’s favorite: chess.

“That’s a knight,” Twilight explained to Shade. “For beginners like you, they’re probably the most complicated piece. They can move on an ‘L’ shaped path, either moving forward three spaces and then one to the left or right, or three spaces left or right and then one space forward. See?” She demonstrated by moving one of her two black knights forward and to the left, eliminating one of Shade’s white pawns.

“Right...” He was clearly having trouble grasping the rules of this game.

“Okay, it’s your move now,” the mare announced.

Shade mulled over his options. He had a bishop that was cornered by one of Twilight’s rooks, one of his own rooks flanked on three sides by black pawns, and a severe lack of pawns himself. Even though it was his first game, she wasn’t going easy on him. Or maybe she was, that was the scary part.

“Give it up, dude,” Spike chimed in. “She had this game won when you made your first move.”

“How’s that possible?” Shade asked skeptically.

“She has this uncanny ability to foresee her opponent’s every move based on the first move they make. And she has a counter-strategy for every possible scenario.”

“He’s right,” Twilight stated, all semblance of modesty being tossed out the window. “Not even Princess Celestia has ever beaten me.”

“Then this seems like an effort in futility,” the changeling noticed dejectedly.

“I guess so,” Twilight chuckled guiltily. “I guess when it comes to games of strategy and intelligence, I can be a little over-competitive. Maybe you’d be more suited to playing with somepony that’s more on your skill level. Spike, sit in for me.”

The dragon stared begrudgingly at her. “That sounded like an insult.”

“Oh, stop whining and sit down,” she laughed.

“Fine, whatever,” Spike shrugged. “Fair warning though: I may not be as good as Twilight, but I spent my fair share of time living with her in Canterlot Castle. So, I know a lot of her strategies.” He climbed onto the table, sitting behind his newly appointed army of ebony soldiers, his arms folded over his chest to proclaim his superiority. “I believe it’s your move,” he said cockily.

Once more, Shade looked over the grayscale battlefield. The odds were certainly not in his favor, even with this new handicap. Spike’s dark forces greatly outnumbered his ivory troops. He was in a lose-lose situation. No matter what move he made, Spike’s soldiers were ready to counterattack. But such are the sacrifices of war. Shade used his entrapped rook to defeat one of his opponent’s many pawns, although now it was completely exposed and defenseless.

Spike grinned triumphantly. “Bad move,” he said wagging a claw at his disadvantaged foe. The baby dragon picked up his queen and slid it diagonally along the board, toppling Shade’s rook. “You really need to be more careful with such an invaluable piece,” he said condescendingly, flipping the captured unit between his claws. “But whatever. Your move again.”

A captain leading his forces into battle would certainly feel the pressure in a situation like this, but Shade had assumed from the get go that he would lose considering that this was his first time playing the game, and it was difficult to feel nervous about something you were sure of. Regardless, he once again surveyed the battlefield, looking for any openings that would make his defeat appear at least a little less one-sided. He tentatively lifted his own queen with his aura of green magic and glided it down a diagonal path through an opening in the playing field that was now open from Spike’s last move, positioning his piece squarely in front of the dark king.

“Wait, what!?” the flustered dragon sputtered. “How did-? Huh?”

“What? What happened?” Shade looked at Twilight with puzzlement.

“That’s checkmate,” the violet unicorn announced.

“No way!” Spike protested. “There’s gotta be some mistake!”

“What’s ‘checkmate'?” the still befuddled changeling asked.

“Checkmate is when one player’s king--the piece that you just moved your queen next to--is unable to make any moves that will allow it to avoid capture on their opponent’s next turn, and if the king is defeated, the game ends. Therefore, since the king will be eliminated on his foe’s next turn, it’s considered an automatic win.”

“So...I won?”

“Yup, congratulations,” Twilight smiled.

Huh. Remove the head and the body will die. I see now. Without a leader, the troops are powerless. Sounds kind of familiar actually...

Spike stood up and angrily hopped off the table. “This game’s stupid anyway. I’m gonna go get Chutes and Ladders.”

“Because you’re better at random chance?” Twilight joked.

The dragon shot her an unamused scowl. “Shut up...”

“Hey! Don’t you take that tone with me, mister huffy-pants!” Twilight scolded. “I wasn’t your opponent this time.”

“Whatever, 'Mom,'” Spike muttered under his breath as he ascended the staircase.

Shade watched the miffed reptile disappear behind the bedroom door. “Should I apologize?”

“Nah, he’s just a sore loser,” the mare said, waving it off. “He’s just gonna sulk up there for a bit before he brings down another game, eager for a rematch.”

“So, what should we do in the meantime?”

“Hmmm...” Twilight tapped her chin and took a look around. “Well, we’re stuck in a library for the weekend, maybe we should jump on that newfound literacy thing you have going.”

“Yeah, that’s a great idea.” The thought of learning more and potentially becoming fully literate excited him. He’d never been so eager to learn before. And knowing that he was actually progressing gave him a great deal of motivation.

“Just a sec. I’ll find something that you should hopefully be able to handle.”

Twilight stood up and walked over to a nearby bookshelf, perusing its contents. Shade sat quietly as he waited for her to choose the most suitable material for his current skill level, which was admittedly still pretty darn low.

Another round of rapping on the front door drew the attention of the two unicorns.

“Who is it this time?” Shade asked, wondering just how many ponies would enjoy going for a leisurely jaunt through Ponyville in this kind of weather.

“Derpy probably just forgot something,” Twilight guessed, rolling her eyes. “Can you get that?”

Shade rose from his haunches and moved to open the door. Swinging it open, he was taken aback by the familiar face that stood smiling sheepishly at him, her bright red mane matted over her eyes.

Winter?!

“H-Hi, Shade,” the white pegasus greeted through a forced smile and chattering teeth.

At the mention of the visitor’s name, Twilight spun around and made a mad dash for the door. “Oh my goodness! What are you doing out there?!” Twilight blurted, but continued before she could receive an answer. “Come in or you’ll catch a cold!”

“T-Thanks,” the sopping wet pegasus stammered as Twilight coaxed her inside.

“Hold on, I’ll get you a towel.” Twilight made straight for the bathroom and vanished behind the door.

Shade stood dumbstruck at what he was seeing. “Winter, are you okay?”

She sniffed. “I’m fine. Little cold, a little wet, that’s all.” The noticeable shivers proved that she was understating it.

Twilight quickly re-emerged from the bathroom, two pink towels floating behind her, carried by her magic. “Here, dry yourself off.” She offered one of the towels.

Winter graciously took the towel and proceeded to soak up the water from her dripping mane and coat. Once she was sufficiently dry, Twilight guided her to the reading table, pushing aside the chess set, and draped the second towel over her unexpected guest.

“What are you doing here, Winter?” Shade asked, his voice overflowing with concern.

“Uh, well, you see...” Winter started. “It’s...kind of embarrassing...”

The two unicorns waited in suspense for her explanation.

“See, it started early this morning. I woke up and headed out to meet up with the rest of the weather team and we moved all of the storm clouds we had gathered over Ponyville. When everything was ready, we started the storm, so everypony had to hurry home before they got soaked. But when I got back to my place...” She paused, glancing around to try and hide her embarrassment. “I realized...that I locked myself out of the house.” Winter hung her head in shame.

“So, you forgot your key?” Twilight deduced.

Winter nodded glumly.

“How long were out there?” she added.

“I’m not sure. About...ten minutes, I think?” She looked up at a nearby clock. “Yeah, I was sitting in the rain at my front door for around ten or fifteen minutes.”

“Why didn’t you ask Rainbow Dash for help?” Shade asked curiously, “She’s your supervisor, right? Couldn’t she do something to help?

“Well, yeah, I thought of that. But while I was standing on her doorstep, I started having second thoughts. I didn’t want her to find out that I locked myself out. That would make her think I’m irresponsible, wouldn’t it?” Winter looked to Shade for reassurance.

“I...don’t really know...” he answered, disheartened.

“Rainbow does have a tendency to demand perfection when she sets her mind to something,” Twilight observed. “She and Rarity are a lot alike in that regard. Oh, uh, don’t tell her I said that by the way.”

“Then it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t, huh?” Winter sighed.

“And your second thought was to come here?” Twilight continued, pursuing a full explanation.

“Yeah, but I didn’t think of it right away,” she admitted. “If I had, I would have been here sooner.” She looked warmly at Shade. “Plus, I wouldn’t have thought to come here at all if Shade and I hadn’t gone out together yesterday.

“Oh yeah, I totally forgot!” Twilight shouted. “I didn’t ask you how your date went!”

Shade’s face turned pale--paler than normal anyway--when he heard Twilight use that word. He still wasn’t entirely sure if it was a date and, if it was, did Winter realize that too? The smile on the pegasus’ face was enough assurance that she was aware of the fact, allowing Shade to breath a relieved sigh.

“It was great,” Winter answered for him. “I had a lot of fun getting to know Shade better and exploring the town with him.”

“Why don’t you tell me all about it?” Twilight requested with no regard for the pair’s privacy, ”We can chat over some hot chocolate. Spike!” The other two ponies jumped in alarm at the sudden increase in the volume of her voice.

The grumpy dragon peeked his head out from the bedroom doorway. “Geez, I’m only right up here. Who are you, Pinkie Pie?”

Twilight lowered her voice back to a more appropriate volume for a library. “Spike, we have a guest. Go make some hot chocolate.”

“Aye aye, ‘Captain,'” he saluted sarcastically.

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

Winter shuddered, followed by a loud sniffle.

“You okay, Winter?” Shade asked the pegasus with concern. She had been sniffing rather frequently since she had arrived. It was beginning to worry him.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” Winter smiled. “Just a minor case of the sniffles.” She lifted her second mug of hot chocolate to her muzzle.

Twilight had insisted that they hold the mugs in little pink cozies so that they wouldn’t burn their hooves to which Spike scoffed and told her to suck it up. Of course, with perfect comedic timing, he had burned himself immediately afterward.

“You don’t sound fine,” Twilight retorted. “I think you might be coming down with a cold.”

Spike hopped to his feet. “Whoa, if she’s sick, then I’m gettin’ outta here. I don’t wanna catch whatever bug she’s got.” He tapped his chin in thought. “Although, if I were sick, Twilight would have to take over all my chores and stuff while I’m bedridden.”

“I am not doing your chores,” the unicorn corrected. “Whether you’re sick or not. Especially if you get sick on purpose. In fact, if you do that, then I’ll make sure you have more chores by the time you got better.”

Spike sat back down on the table. “Come on, I was just joking. I thought you’d be able to catch on to my incredible wit by now.”

Another sniff.

Winter received a trio of silent stares.

“What? I’m fine. It’s nothing to worry about,” the congested pegasus defended.

The purple dragon shrugged his shoulders. “Look can we just get back to the game?”

He pointed a claw at the board set up between the four of them. Just as Twilight had predicted, Spike insisted on a rematch. The battlefield this time? Chutes and Ladders, just as he had declared. The current standings put Spike’s green piece near the top, sitting comfortably on space number ninety-six, with Shade’s blue piece closing in from space eighty-four, Twilight’s red piece catching a break after climbing a conveniently placed ladder to space seventy-two, and Winter’s yellow piece lagging behind at space forty.

“Ugh, I suck at this game,” Winter complained.

“You suck at random chance?” Spike said with a condescending tone, eliciting a stern glare from the violet unicorn sitting next to him.

“Ignore him,” Twilight suggested, rolling her eyes. “Just take your roll.”

Winter picked up the small, six-sided die and tossed it lightly on the table.

“Four. One, two, three, four,” the pegasus counted off as she moved her piece. She sighed heavily. “What’s the point anyway? I can’t win at this rate.”

Twilight stepped in to motivate her. “Well, you never know. You could always get-”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Spike interrupted. “I’ve had this game in the bag from the beginning.” He arrogantly reached for the die and rolled it.

“Three. One, two-”

Twilight smirked with satisfaction. “What’s the matter, Spike? I thought you liked playing on slides.”

Spike knit his brow. “This game’s too juvenile for me anyway. I’m better suited to something more mature, not this foal’s game.” He hopped up and wandered off in a huff. Two failures in a row was apparently all he could handle before he would just up and quit.

Twilight giggled. “Well, now that that’s out of the way, Shade, why don’t we do some studying?”

Shade took his eyes off of the angry dragon storming into the kitchen. “Don’t you want to finish the game?”

“Not really,” the unicorn shrugged. “I was just hoping somepony would put Spike in his place. Who would have thought it’d be himself. Although, now I feel kind of sorry for him,” she laughed. “Now, why don’t I find a nice book for us to read? Oh, Winter, you can help too!”

The red-maned pegasus tilted her head. “I can?”

“Sure,” Twilight nodded. “Besides, I’m sure Shade would be more willing to listen to you than me.” The bookworm winked rather non-discreetly, forcing the pair of white ponies to blush.

The violet mare excused herself and jogged upstairs in search of a specific book, leaving the pair of bashful ponies alone in the room.

Another sniff.

Shade glanced at the mare sitting next to him, taking notice of how broken down she looked.

“You’re not okay, Winter. You’re sick,” the changeling insisted.

“No, I’m not!" Another sniff. "I’m fine.” She shook her head in a futile attempt to make herself feel better. “Look, I’ll be alright in a little while. It’s just the sniffles,” she insisted, punctuated with yet another sniff.

“Found one!” Twilight’s voice called out from the second floor.

She hurriedly trotted down the stairs back into the lobby carrying a thin, colorful book with her magic. Much to Shade’s dismay and embarrassment, it was another foal’s book. “I figure this one should be the easiest for you, Shade,” she stated, floating the book blatantly before the pair of white ponies. “So, shall we get started?”

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

The fresh scent of a home cooked meal began to permeate the library. Spike was still busy sulking, so Twilight had to take it upon herself to fix everypony some lunch. Shade and Winter had offered to help, but for some reason she declined, giving the pair a sly wink.

Now they were once again alone in the lobby. Winter had sidled up next to Shade, a blanket draped over her back as she still had a mild case of shivers. The changeling was enjoying their closeness. Every now and then Winter’s wings would twitch and her feathers would brush against his side. He wasn’t entirely certain though if the action was a result of her shivering or perhaps just a nervous twitch from being in such close proximity to him. The blush on her cheeks suggested the latter, although he was still unsure.

The primary reason for their closeness, however, was not intimacy. Open in front of the two ponies lying on the floor together was one of the foal’s books Twilight had collected for Shade. After running through a few of them, she decided to just get the whole kit and caboodle for Winter to read to him while the purple unicorn cooked lunch. Though the closeness was definitely a bonus.

...And the little filly closed her eyes and drifted off into a sound sleep,” Winter finished reading with a soft, motherly voice.

Shade didn’t react. All he could do was gaze at her with an intense longing as he watched her lips move and her voice played music for his ears.

“This is kind of silly, isn’t it?” Winter giggled.

The white unicorn shook his head. Hearing Winter’s tone return to normal snapped him out of his trance. “Huh? Oh, no, not really. It’s not silly.”

“Really?” Winter said skeptically, followed by a short sniff. “You’re supposed to be the one who’s reading, aren’t you? Or at least trying anyway.”

“It’s okay, I’m paying attention,” Shade smiled. Really he just wanted her to keep reading. Something about her voice just moved him. “Let’s try another one.” His embarrassment over the situation had all but faded into nothing since Twilight left the room. It was much easier to be comfortable with Winter when they were alone. He picked up yet another book from the pile and hovered it over to them. Winter took a look at the cover.

“Aww, The Ugly Duckling. I love that book.” The pegasus smiled as she recognized the story.

“You know this story?” Shade asked.

“Yeah, I used to read this to my baby cousin when I would foalsit her. It was her favorite.” She began to look nostalgic as she smiled warmly towards the book.

“What’s it about?” As if the title didn’t provide any clues.

“It’s about a little duckling who doesn’t really look like the other ducklings. They all treat him like he doesn’t belong with them though, just because he’s different.” Her face turned sombre. “He tries to fit in elsewhere, find somewhere where he will be accepted for who he is, not what he is or what he looks like.”

Shade was silent.

Winter continued. “But no matter where he went, every other animal he met treated him poorly, making him feel like some kind of monster: ugly and unwanted...”

Shade turned away. “Let’s read something else,” he suggested quietly, lifting the book away from Winter abruptly and tossing it into the pile of the ones they had already finished.

“Huh? Why?”

Shade looked into her eyes. Winter looked like she had been hurt, a grey sadness falling over her features. He had hurt her. It wasn’t something he intended to do, but it happened. The dejected expression she wore made it feel like somepony had thrust a knife through his heart. How could he do something like that to her of all ponies?

Winter sat through Shade’s silence. She knew something was bothering him, but couldn’t pinpoint what. “It has a happy ending,” she said with a smile. “I promise.”

The changeling observed the warm smile she was giving him. Even if that book was likely to dredge up thoughts he hoped to forget, he couldn’t bring himself to do anything that would make Winter unhappy. He trusted her.

He levitated the book back to them and placed it open in front of his companion without saying a word.

She grinned happily at him. “Thank you.”

Shade could swear he felt a feather from her wing brush along his side; deliberately this time. “You...really like this book, huh?”

The mare nodded. “Mm-hm. It’s one of my favorites. My mom used to read it to me all the time too when I was a filly.” She giggled. “See, I was kinda klutzy when I was a foal. The other foals would tease me sometimes, so I felt like an outsider. I guess one of the reasons I enjoy this story so much is because I can relate to it.”

She...can relate to it?

Winter’s wistful expression returned. “Mom used to cheer me up with this book. She said that I was like the ugly duckling myself, and that even though others might not respect me now, I may yet still grow up to be a beautiful-” She caught herself before saying any more. “Oops,” she laughed. “I almost spoiled the ending!”

Shade was almost brought to tears. Perhaps due to Winter’s heartfelt reminiscence or maybe the fact that anypony would hurt her feelings like that.

“I feel like I can relate to it a little too,” Shade added.

Winter tilted her head in thought. “Hmm...Yeah. I guess we have that in common, huh?”

The pair laughed quietly together before turning their gazes toward one another. Winter stared at him with half-lidded eyes, her features--including flushed cheeks--showing signs of anxiety. But she never removed her bright, amber eyes from his deep, emerald irises. There was something between them; a connection. Shade had been unknowingly looking for the one thing that they shared, one piece of common ground that would give him an excuse to pursue this pony’s feelings, but, considering his history, he didn’t expect to find it.

The air around them seemed to become drastically warmer. There was a sparkle in Winter’s eye. It was calling out to him, beckoning him. Slowly he moved his head forward, inching closer and closer to the alluring pegasus’s muzzle. Shade had no idea what he was doing, but Winter wasn’t trying to stop him, in fact, she was moving towards him as well. Neither one took their eyes off the other until their lips were mere centimeters apart. Winter closed her eyes, readied her lips, and-

“Ah...AH-CHOO!”

Shade looked like he had just been slapped in the face. All romantic thoughts in his head shattered like glass in a hurricane.

Winter sniffed deeply. At least she had the common courtesy to turn away at the last second, saving Shade from getting a face full of mucus.

“Ugh, sorry,” the pegasus sniffled before sneezing a second time, much less loudly, “I guess I am sick...”

Shade’s thoughts were a complete mess right now. What just happened?

“Did I hear a sneeze out here?” Twilight stuck her head out of the kitchen door.

Her answer came in the form of yet another sneeze. Shade never thought he’d ever find himself backing away from Winter, but here he was, shuffling to put a small amount of distance between them.

Twilight sighed heavily, its weight successfully relaying the message of "I told you so." “I’ll put on some soup.”

The changeling turned back to the sniffling pegasus lying beside him. Perhaps her reddened cheeks were actually a result of her gradually elevating malady.

“Sorry...” the stuffy mare apologized again.

“Uh, it’s...okay...” Shade pat her shoulder pensively, doing nothing to alleviate her distress. He noticed that she had started to shiver again. “Do you want to lie down somewhere? You can use my bed if you want.”

The pegasus smiled gratefully. “Yeah, that’d be nice. Warm sheets and hot soup sounds really good right now. Ah-choo!”

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

Winter’s sinuses were throbbing. She lay in Shade’s bed staring blankly at the ceiling. At least she was comfortable and warm, but her head still hurt like somepony had jammed a nail into her nose. Maybe she should have listened to Twilight when she said she was sick, then maybe this could have been avoided. And just when she and Shade were about to-

The door to the observatory clicked open. Winter turned her head to the side to see Shade peek into the room.

“How are you feeling, Winter?” he asked. The genuine concern in his voice made her feel better somehow.

“Like I was just run over by a chariot,” she laughed weakly.

Seeing that she was at least well enough to make jokes, Shade entered the room fully. With him floated a small dining tray with a bowl of steaming soup and a glass of orange juice on top of it.

“We made some soup. Twilight says it should help you feel better.” The unicorn approached the bed, somewhat transfixed by Winter’s smile. How she still remained so optimistic in light of the circumstances was beyond him.

The ill pegasus laboriously rose to a sitting position, her skull feeling as though it were made of lead. Shade gently placed the tray over her lap. Winter attempted to inhale the soup’s aroma, but found that quite impossible in her current state. Still, the warm steam felt nice on her face; she was starting to feel better already.

“Thanks.” She smiled as best as she could at Shade as a gesture of gratitude. Maybe there was a better way to thank him, but that probably wouldn’t be a good idea while she had a cold.

Vegetable soup. So much delicious produce floating in the hot broth: carrots, potatoes, turnips and much more. Too bad she wouldn’t be able to taste it. Her sense of taste was just as negated as her sense of smell. She lifted the spoon to her mouth to verify that theory, popping a few chunks of potato in as well. As she thought: nothing...except intense heat.

She swallowed abruptly without even chewing and stuck her tongue out, waving her hoof to fan it. “Ow, hot!” the surprised pegasus sputtered. She hastily reached for her glass of orange juice, dousing the fire on her palate.

“You okay?” Shade asked, watching Winter down half the glass in one go.

After a quick gasp for air, the bedridden mare looked at him in stunned silence. Anypony else would have laughed at her misfortune. It was a pretty comedic sight and there was really no harm done, so laughing wouldn’t have hurt her feelings or anything. But he didn’t. He cared too much about her wellbeing to laugh. She was starting to realize just how different Shade was from the other ponies she’d met.

“I’m fine,” she said, grinning. “Just a little hot, that’s all. I should let it cool a bit before I eat anymore.”

“Alright. As long as you’re okay.” Shade smiled tenderly.

Winter felt her heart melt at his show of concern for her. He really was one of kind.

“If you need anything else, just ask, okay?” Shade turned to exit the room.

“Wait!” Winter called, perhaps a little more loudly than was necessary. “Uh, I mean...you don’t have to go. Well, I’m sure you don’t want to get sick too, but you can keep me company for a while if you want.” Winter’s ears perked up. “Oh, I know! While we wait for my soup to cool, we can read The Ugly Duckling together.”

Shade was conflicted. On the one hoof, from what he’s been told, that book seems as though it would hit a little too close to home for him to enjoy. But on the other, it was one of Winter’s favorite books, and he was willing to do anything to make her feel better in her time of need.

“Sure,” he agreed with a smile. “Just let me run down and get it.”

He briskly cantered back down to the lobby before returning with the book floating next to him and placed it on the bed, next to Winter.

“Okay,” the pegasus began, opening to the first page. “You’ll have to excuse me, my voice is probably going to detract from the tone of the story a little.”

“That’s fine,” Shade said, taking a seat on the floor by the bedside. “It doesn’t bother me.”

“Alright then.” Winter cleared her throat as best she could and started reading. “Once upon a time down on an old farm, lived a duck family, and Mother Duck had been sitting on a clutch of new eggs...”

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

A tray holding an empty bowl and glass sat upon the bedside table, the earthy fragrance of cooked vegetables still floating within the immediate vicinity, and a stuffy pegasus lay snoring softly beneath the pink sheets of the bed itself.

When Winter had been nearing the story’s end, Shade took notice of her decline in energy. She had been struggling to keep her eyes open and only barely managed to power through the last few pages. It was still pretty early in the day, only mid-afternoon, but the cold seemed to be taking its toll on the pegasus. Before she drifted off, Shade had offered to keep an eye on her while she slept, only so that he could be there when she woke, in case she needed anything. She hardly had any time to answer him before she flopped her heavy head onto his pillow and began sawing logs. She looked so peaceful as she slept, even if her nose was making one of the most grating noises he’d ever heard a pony produce.

Shade’s mind, oddly enough, was not on Winter right now, but instead the story she had recently finished regaling to him. He was flipping through the pages and analyzing the illustrations that went along with them. Interestingly, he found that some of the words no longer looked like gibberish. The terms “duck” and “duckling” had been used so many times that he could actually recognize and read them.

He’d have been proud of himself if his mind hadn’t been preoccupied with other problems.

Winter had assured him that the story had a happy ending. That’s not how he interpreted it. The titular character, he learned, was not a duckling at all, but a swan. He had tried to find where he belonged, make a better life where he could live without worry. Instead he was ostracized by every other creature he came across, because of what he looked like. And in the end, found that the only group that was willing to accept him were his own kind.

Happy ending my hoof...

Listening to this story was like gazing into a window of what could have been. What would have happened if he had arrived in Ponyville as a changeling? Would they have chased him out like the old mare and her cat did to the poor "duckling?" Would he really only be welcome amongst the other changelings? Is this how the world worked? If something is different, do you just try to get rid of it instead of accepting it?

Is this really my fate? The fate of all changelings?

A sound from behind him caught his attention. A still comatose Winter rolled over and tugged the sheets closer to her body. A somewhat silly looking grin adorned her sleeping face. She was either having a good dream or was just really cozy.

A small smile crept its way onto Shade’s face as well. Of course this wasn’t his fate. He had found a comfortable new life for himself, unlike the ugly duckling who was forced to only mingle with his own species. Sure, he had a secret, one he hoped nopony would ever find out, but did they have to find out? There was no guarantee that they would, and as long as he kept up appearances, they wouldn’t find out. Besides, even if they did, he had no ill intentions, he hasn’t done anything wrong. Even as a changeling he could still be one of them; he was still himself.

The more he thought about it, the more he realized that he was much better off than the "duckling." The other animals knew that he wasn’t normal and that’s why he was an outcast. Nopony knew Shade’s true identity, he still had a chance to live the life he made for himself here.

Shade closed the book and stored it back on the bookshelf. He wasn’t going to worry about it anymore. Nothing had gone wrong since he got here, and who knew if anything at all would as long as he kept doing what he was doing. He had renounced his former identity the night before, but still had trouble truly getting away from what he was.

But no more. He is a pony, and he isn’t going anywhere.

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

Sunday morning. Rain still beat against the windows and the sky over Ponyville was still grey. But a ray of sunshine penetrated the gloomy atmosphere in the form of a cheery, whistling stallion who was busying himself by helping out with a cleanup around the library.

“Wow, you’re awfully chipper this morning, Shade.” Twilight took slight amusement in the stallion’s unusual bout of whimsy.

Shade enthusiastically ran a feather duster over a series of empty bookshelves. “And why shouldn’t I be? I’m a pony with a lot to see and do, and I’m not gonna stop ‘til I see it all. Grab life by the horns until it moos, Twilight. Until. It. Moos.”

Twilight blinked. This was even more bizarre than she had thought. Normally Shade was sort of reserved, but now he was like a completely different pony. Not that it was a bad thing.

“Dude, you’re kinda freakin’ me out,” Spike spoke from atop a nearby ladder as he dusted the top shelves.

Shade chuckled and kept dusting without responding.

“Well, I think it’s great,” Twilight chirped. “It’s like you have a whole new lease on life.”

“Yup. Nothin’s gonna keep me down,” Shade said in a singsong voice.

Twilight casually walked up to Shade, eyeing him with a mischievous smirk. “Did something happen last night?” she pried, wiggling her eyebrows.

Usually such action would prompt Shade to blush with embarrassment, but he shot her a smile and replied evenly. “Not really. At least, not what you’re thinking. We read a book and then Winter fell asleep.”

The studious mare tilted her head. “That’s it? Then what in Equestria brought about this new attitude of yours?”

“I just did some thinking, that’s all. Nothing you need to concern yourself with. Personal stuff, you know?”

His behavior was confusing her more and more by the minute. Something must have happened.

The creaking of floorboards and the sound of approaching hoofsteps made Shade turn his head and watch the staircase to the second floor anxiously. Sure enough, the familiar form of the white pegasus appeared, her bright red mane in a comedic state of disarray. At least she was smiling, and that meant Shade was smiling too.

“Good morning, sleepyhead,” Shade greeted her with a welcoming grin.

Winter seemed surprised at his bouncy mood this morning. “Oh, uh, good morning.”

“How are you feeling today, Winter?” Twilight inquired.

Winter inhaled deeply through her nose. “Like a million bits. I think that soup really helped.”

Twilight giggled. “Well, it should. I put some herbs that I got from Zecora in there. She said that they were great for clearing up your sinuses. They’re supposed to be bitter, but that’s why I put the other vegetables in there.”

“It’s not like I would have been able to taste them anyway,” the pegasus pointed out.

“You know...” Spike chimed in, “...the longer you guys keep talking, the more work I have to do.”

“What’s your point?” Twilight snorted, eliciting a couple of giggles from the other ponies in the room. The dragon rolled his eyes, ignoring the unicorn’s joke.

“Anyway...” Winter continued, “...I should get going. I’ve probably overstayed my welcome being an uninvited guest and all.”

“What? We don’t mind having you at all, Winter,” Twilight said, passing her a friendly smile. “You’re Shade’s friend, you’re welcome here anytime. Heck, even if you weren’t his friend you’d still be welcome. This is a public library after all. Besides, it’s still pouring out there and your house is still locked, right?”

“Well, I was thinking.” Winter looked between the two unicorns in the room. “You guys can use magic. Couldn’t you cast a spell or something that could unlock my door?”

“Don’t you have magic-proof locks?” Twilight asked. “They’re practically a necessity to prevent theft.”

“Actually, I never got around to having them installed at my place,” the pegasus admitted, “I figured that since they were so common, everypony would think I had them and not even bother. It’s worked so far.”

“And it didn’t occur to you to ask that yesterday?” Spike asked, re-joining the conversation.

Winter looked at the dragon with mild offense. “Hey, I can be forgetful sometimes. It happens to everypony once in awhile.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Shade placed a hoof on her shoulder. “I can walk you home if you want.” He was eager to jump on the opportunity.

“Really? Thanks, Shade!” Winter beamed.

“Be sure to take an umbrella.” Twilight pointed a hoof to her bedroom door on the second floor. “There’s one in the closet in my room.”

After a quick jog upstairs, Shade and Winter were ready to go. The pegasus bid farewell to the unicorn and dragon who had so kindly offered her a place to stay for the night. Shade unfolded the umbrella and held it above his companion.

“Shade, if you hold it like that you’ll get wet,” Winter pointed out as she noticed his coat already starting to accumulate moisture.

“Don’t worry about me. It would be unfair if you were to get sick again,” he chuckled lightheartedly.

“Fine.” Winter sidestepped so that she was standing directly against Shade’s side. “Then the least I can do is get a little closer so then at least we’ll be partially dry.”

It was true that now Shade’s right side and Winter’s left side were at the mercy of the foul weather, but their opposite sides were warm and comfortable. It was a position that Shade found himself becoming accustomed to.

But the moment had to end sometime, and within minutes they had arrived at Winter’s house. From the outside, it was nothing special. Nothing really set it apart from the other homes in Ponyville, but perhaps simplicity was the point. Either way, it didn’t really matter. Shade’s mind wasn’t focused on the house anyway.

“So, can you open it?” Winter looked at him expectantly.

Shade just stood there, silent.

Wait, what am I doing?

His mind completely blanked. He was so happy to walk Winter home that he completely spaced as to what he was going to do when he got there. He had used locks before, but only with keys. He didn’t know how they worked. Normally it was stick the key in, turn it, and the door opened. Simple. But now he didn’t have a key. Winter expected him to use his magic to finagle the thing open. How was he supposed to do that?

“Uhhhh...”

“Do you know how to open it?” Winter’s faith in his ability was starting to wane. Perhaps with all of her magical talent, Twilight would have been a better choice to go with her.

“I can give it a shot, I guess,” he said with little confidence.

His horn lit up in its usual bright green and the deadbolt of the door did the same. Shade was no stranger to using precision with his magic. Most changelings were pretty skilled with magic. Maybe not in the same league as the average unicorn, but one had to have some kind of skill in order to pull off transformation spells, though, admittedly, they didn't really know many different kinds of spells, only a few that helped with their continued survival.

A strand of his jade aura slithered into the keyhole. In his mind’s eye, he could feel the magic working its way between the complex mechanisms, though he had no idea what he was doing. His plan was to fiddle around until something happened.

Or until he heard that click he'd just heard.

“You did it!” Winter announced jovially.

Wait, that’s it? That was surprisingly easy. Maybe she really should invest in these ‘magic-proof locks.'

Winter ran inside immediately with Shade absentmindedly following her.

“Thank you so much, Shade,” Winter said with a grateful bow. “I don’t know what I would’ve done without you.”

“It’s no big deal,” he said modestly, scratching the back of his head. “I’m happy to help.”

“I’m not just talking about the lock.” Her voice suddenly lowered to a more soothing tone. “I mean, for everything. For listening to me prattle on about myself the other day, for showing concern when I needed help, and for taking care of me while I was sick. You were willing to do that for me even though we haven’t known each other very long. So, thank you.”

Shade couldn’t find the words to respond. All the enthusiasm he had earlier wasn’t helping him in the face of her hypnotizing, amber eyes, like two bright sunrises on an otherwise miserable morning.

A red tinge appeared on Winter’s cheeks when she noticed him staring at her. But she didn’t shy away, she looked right back at him and smiled.

This is it, Shade. Your big chance. Grab life by the horns.

“Winter...” he started, but couldn’t figure out what he wanted to say to finish it.

The decision came to him. Words weren’t enough to express how he felt. He lifted a hoof and placed it gently upon the pegasus’s alabaster cheek. Winter let out a small whimper in anticipation. In one, smooth, deliberate motion, Shade brought his lips to hers and they shared their first kiss. Winter’s eyes widened at first. Even though she had been expecting it, his resolve still surprised her; it happened so suddenly. But it felt good. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to sink into his embrace, wrapping one of her own hooves around his neck. Shade reveled in the feeling of her soft, warm lips against his. Everything he had been feeling since he first laid eyes on her culminated into this single moment.

The whole experience was brief, but it left a lasting impression on both of them. Although it pained them to do so, their lips parted. They stared into each other’s half-lidded eyes, waiting for the other to voice some kind of opinion or criticism.

But instead, there was silence. That silence. That silence where nothing was said and nothing needed to be said. They knew.

Finally, the silence was broken.

“Shade...” Winter whispered but couldn’t complete her thought before Shade spoke up as well..

“Winter, I’m the one who should be thanking you,” he declared.

“Me? For what?”

“For everything,” Shade echoed. “For letting that cloud rain on me, for coming to my welcome party, for showing me that I have something to strive for in my life. A goal. A mission. I came here seeking a better life, but what I found was something far greater.”

Winter’s heart felt as though it was going to beat right out of her chest.

“I found you.”

She couldn’t respond. Any words she wanted to say had caught in her throat and died. So she responded the only way she could think of at that moment.

Once more, her lips pressed against his. She moaned quietly into his muzzle before pulling away again.

“You don’t have to say anymore, Shade,” she said quietly, her forehead resting against his, “I feel the same way.”

Hearing those words lifted an immense weight from his shoulders. He finally had an answer, and it was the one he had desperately hoped for.

So this is what it feels like to have somepony who actually cares about you so deeply. I could get used to this.

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