• 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 7: Exchange

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 7: Exchange

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One month.

It’s been one whole month since he left. One whole month since he arrived in Ponyville. One whole month since he had settled into this new place, got a comfortable job, and even found a girlfriend; somepony who actually cared about him more than anypony ever has.

Life was good.

Shade was living worry free. He was a normal member of the community now. He had friends, he had a roof over his head and food within hoof’s reach. Changelings would kill for these kind of luxuries, and that’s not an exaggeration.

And who’d have thought that all it took was a little friendliness. Don’t show any hostility towards them and they’ll show none to you. It was as simple as that. Why couldn’t more changelings realize that? Granted, he was living under a disguise, but this was who he was now. He had no intentions of ever changing back. Everything he had done before he showed up in Ponyville would be forgotten as if it never happened. Eating meat, his force-fed hatred against the ponies, his involvement in the invasion? All forgotten.

His life was here now, with the ponies.

With Winter.

“You seem to have found your place in our fair town. And yet you show no signs of slowing down,” the friendly zebra spoke in her signature rhyming couplet.

“And why should I? I’ve got a lot going for me now, but there’s so much more I can see and do. I’ve got my second wind, Zecora,” Shade said with a wide grin.

A familiar, yet still pungent, aroma filled Zecora’s hut as the zebra methodically stirred the contents of her large, cast iron cauldron.

Shade wasn’t the same creature that he was when he first arrived. Normally reserved and antisocial, he now approached everything with inspired vigor, eager to talk to other ponies and help them with their problems; to contribute something to the community that he had become a part of. Currently, he was aiding Zecora with the mixing of some herbal medicine which she intended to sell at the local pharmacy. But right now, they were taking a short lunch break. And what should be on the menu today? The same meal she had served when they first met: a hearty vegetable stew.

He owed the zebra a great deal of debt. If it weren’t for her, he would have probably been left to aimlessly wander the Everfree Forest for days and died of starvation. If the forest’s predators didn’t get to him first that is. Now though, the labyrinth of trees posed little concern to his mind. Shade knew the path to her hut. He was making an effort to help out Zecora whenever he had time or whenever she could use it. It was the least he could do to repay her.

The striped herbalist lifted her large, wooden spoon to her lips, sampling the stew. She licked her lips as she analyzed the flavor.

“Hmm...It is not quite ready yet. Perhaps a few more slices of carrot,” Zecora pondered aloud.

“Anything I can do?” Shade offered enthusiastically.

Zecora glanced about at her shelves. A particular empty jar caught her eye.

“I appear to be out of ginseng. If it isn’t too much trouble, finding some would be considered helping.”

“I’ll run out and get some then.” He opened the door and took a step outside.

“Remember, a nearby bog is where they grow. Our lunch will be ready soon, so don’t be slow.”

He nodded, tossed Zecora’s saddlebags onto his back and made his way out into the forest. The place was still just as spooky as the first time he’d been here. The only difference now was in his confidence. He knew the area around Zecora’s hut pretty well by this point, but still, he wasn’t going to press his luck. He recalled Twilight telling him about the ancient castle of the Royal Pony Sisters deep within the depths of the forest. That wasn’t a place he was willing to go. How Celestia and Luna had once lived there was a mystery to him, but then again, this forest probably didn’t appear until after the castle was abandoned, after Luna’s transcendence into Nightmare Moon. The forest’s birth may have been a result of the Queen of the Night’s malevolent magic.

Huh. I think spending so much time around Twilight is starting to turn me into an egghead.

Focusing on the task at hoof, Shade sought out the location pointed out to him by Zecora. It didn’t take him long to find it.

A thick mist crawled over the soggy grass as he got nearer and nearer to the bog. The air was fat with the unending sounds of croaking toads. Shade could barely hear himself think over the noisy amphibians. But sure enough, growing near the edge of the murky swamp water was the ginseng. Using his magic, he plucked several stalks of the herb and placed them within the zebra’s saddlebags.

That was rather hassle free. Normally, one would think even the simplest of tasks would become life or death excursions in the Everfree Forest. So far, Shade didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. Sure, the place was creepy, and it was easy to get lost, but he had yet to see any of the creatures that were said to live here. Still, he wasn’t one to ignore such warnings. He just got settled in here, he wasn’t going to risk losing all that he had gained by being reckless.

Shade turned his head. Something was wrong. He sniffed the air cautiously. A strange, yet oddly familiar, scent was in the air. He was a changeling. He knew this smell all too well.

Blood and decay.

When you’ve lived in the Changeling Kingdom as long as he had, you became accustomed to such a stench. The smell of rotting animal carcases and even dead and decomposing changelings who had died of starvation. If he still lived there, he may not have even noticed the smell. It had been a long time since he left and actually experienced this odor.

And he already knew what it was.

Following his olfactory senses, he weaved his way through the trees in pursuit of the stench. He desperately hoped it wasn’t what he thought it was.

After several minutes of walking, nearly tripping over outlying tree roots and avoiding being tangled in networks of hanging vines, he found the spot where the smell was strongest.

And there, lying dormant between the twisted roots of a large tree, was his own body. Or rather, the body he borrowed--although stole would probably be more appropriate.

The body of the unicorn he had met when he first left home still lay in the exact same spot where he died, a swarm of flies buzzing about with the intention of making the corpse their new breeding ground. It was a surreal experience to see what he now recognized as himself dead and decaying on the ground. By all rights, it should have been his body there. He only managed to survive because he broke his promise to himself and took the form of this pony. He may have owed this unicorn a greater debt of gratitude than he did to Zecora.

Come to think of it, it was a miracle that Zecora never found the body. She walked this forest daily, and to think that not once did she happen upon it. Certainly the smell would have caught her attention. It didn’t matter at this point, as long as Shade found it before anypony else. Even in death, this equine was the only one who could oust him if somepony were to find it. He needed to do something.

Shade focused his magic and used it to scoop a large clump of dirt from the ground, tossing it aside, and repeating. Burying it would be the best way to hide it for now.

He felt like a criminal, like he had just committed murder and was now concealing the evidence. He might as well have been this pony’s killer, even though he actually wanted to help.

The hole seemed deep enough now that he could securely bury the body without the repugnant scent of decay seeping through the dirt. Now for the hard part. Not hard physically, but emotionally. He hoisted the corpse with his magic and hovered it over the hole. Upon closer examination, the unicorn’s fatal wound seemed to be larger. Not only that but there were other marks on his hide as well: Teeth marks. Some hungry animal must have smelled the blood at some point and decided to indulge in a free meal. The poor guy didn’t deserve this.

It was time to put the last remnant of his past to rest. Shade slowly lowered the body into the hole until it lay on the bottom. Scooping up all the dirt he had dug up, he piled it back in its place until it was completely caved in. It looked somewhat suspicious being just a dirt mound surrounded by green grass, but there wasn’t much he could do about that. He’d just have to hope nopony noticed.

It was all behind him now. Shade was wracked with guilt, but it was something he was going to have to live with. The unicorn’s blood wasn’t on his hooves. He could rest a little easier knowing that.

He’d done what he came to do, it was time to head back. Checking Zecora’s saddlebags once more to remind himself that he had picked the ginseng, he set off back to the medicine mare’s hut.

Shade’s ears perked up. First a strong smell, now a suspicious noise. He felt like his conscience was messing with him. The sound of rustling leaves entered his ears. He wasn’t alone here. Had somepony seen him?

A second sound caught his attention. This one much more frightening.

Snarling.

Whipping his head around, Shade watched as a ferocious beast emerged from the nearby shrubbery. It was lupine in shape, but its body was composed of twigs and leaves.

A timberwolf.

He had never seen one before, but knew enough that he could recognize one when he did. It may have been a distinct possibility that this creature was what had left those bite marks on the deceased unicorn, maybe even been what left that huge gash and killed him.

He didn’t really have time to ponder the possible scenarios revolving around the stranger’s death, the beast was staring him down and snarling menacingly. It was bigger than he was, not by much, but enough to be thoroughly terrifying. Shade didn’t know what to do. The creature was baring its fangs with the intent to kill. His history as a predator in the Changeling Kingdom wasn’t going to help here. There were so few animals there that the only other predators they competed with were other changelings.

Shade instinctively backed away slowly, it was the only plan of action his brain could piece together. It was fight or flight, and he chose flight.

But fate was a cruel mistress this afternoon as after only a few steps backwards he bumped straight into a tree. Perhaps the malevolent forest put it there on purpose. He couldn’t run now. If he tried to swerve around the tree, the wolf would no doubt give chase. Why it hadn’t pounced at this point was nothing short of a miracle, unless it liked to toy with its prey.

The vicious lupine inched closer, closing the gap. Shade could practically smell its rancid breath, even from the remaining few feet away. Drool dripped from the timberwolf’s pointed, brown fangs. It dug its claws into the ground, lowered its stance, and prepared to pounce.

So this is how it ends, Shade thought, his sudden acceptance masking his terror. In the very forest where I took my first step towards a new and better life. How ironic.

Shade braced himself for the wolf’s attempt at his jugular, closing his eyes tight and gulping.

The sudden and very loud sound of metal slamming against metal rang through the forest. The timberwolf’s attention was diverted as it desperately sought out the source of the offending noise. When none could be seen, it backed away, shooting Shade one last angry glare before turning tail and running back into the forest.

The changeling breathed a sigh of relief and collapsed to the ground. He tapped himself on the head to make sure he wasn’t just having some bizarre nightmare.

“Are you alright, my friend? Is your peril at its end?”

From behind the tree where Shade lay, the familiar zebra emerged holding a large metal pot with a similar metal spoon resting in it.

“Zecora,” Shade breathed. “You saved my life. Thank you.” He rose to his hooves and gave Zecora a grateful hoofshake.

The zebra smiled. “I am just glad you are not hurt. Death is not somepony with whom anypony should flirt.”

Shade nodded. His eyes turned back to the pot and spoon she held. “Is that what you used to make all that noise?”

She held the pot up as if to examine it. “The timberwolves, they fear loud noise. As such, this pot and this spoon, they are not toys.”

At first, Shade was confused. Of course they weren’t toys, they were cooking utensils. But the meaning of her words soon dawned on him. “Oh, I get it. These are like your weapons for battling timberwolves.” Now that he thought about it, he never saw her use them for cooking. She had always used her cauldron and a wooden spoon. These utensils were specifically used for repelling timberwolves.

“Indeed. It is a trick I learned from Granny Smith. For combat with the wolves, this is what I fight with.”

“But how did you know I needed help?” Zecora may have been smart, but she certainly wasn’t psychic.

“I saw a shadow outside my window shortly after you had left. It must have followed with stealth rather deft.”

“Well, all I know is that you saved me. I guess that’s two I owe you now.”

“I do not like to harbor favors from a friend. If my comrades are in trouble, I’ll gladly defend.”

With that, Shade and Zecora made their way back to her hut, ginseng in tow. He was definitely looking forward to that stew now. After a near-death experience, that would really hit the spot.

Putting the last piece of his bruised history behind him, Shade’s smile returned. Now he could really live without worry.

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

“Here’s your order, ladies.” Shade smiled genuinely as he placed a tray holding a large plate of spaghetti on one of the tables of the café’s outdoor dining area.

The two familiar mares--the mint-green unicorn and cream-colored earth pony--smiled gratefully to him before they began eagerly feasting on the pasta, the unicorn attempting to continue their conversation despite having a mouthful of food. Her friend was treated to smatterings of bright red tomato sauce all over her face which earned the rude pony an icy glare. Shade began to walk away to continue his duties, but glanced back to see the unicorn chuckle nervously before apologizing and wiping down her friend’s muzzle with a napkin. The earth pony was still rather unamused, but forgave her companion nonetheless.

Shade used to envy the two of them. Their relationship seemed perfect. Nothing kept them from caring about one another. He had observed that the minty unicorn lacked any sort of table manners and was a bit of a loudmouth, but her exasperated partner would always put up with her shenanigans. It took a special kind of bond to be able to tolerate somepony like that, and the way they looked at each other told Shade that they shared that bond. Although putting it that way seemed a tad shallow. He knew their relationship must have went much deeper than that.

He used to envy them. Not so much anymore though. Now, he related to them. He had a special somepony of his very own now, somepony he could confide in, somepony who cared about him, somepony who was always there and had been there almost everyday since the day he arrived.

“Shade!”

He couldn’t help but smile every time he heard her voice. It was like a symphony of the most beautiful songbirds performing a serenade for his ears.

“Hi, Winter.” Shade grinned as his girlfriend touched down next to him. He wasted no time planting a quick kiss on her sublime lips. It was an activity that he found himself enjoying more and more the more often they did it. Who’d have thought that the simple action of pressing one’s lips against another’s could be so tantalizing? It definitely helped that Winter would blush lightly whenever they kissed. Shade found that particular characteristic absolutely adorable. “What brings you around here?”

“What are you talking about?” she replied, grinning coyly. “I came to see you.”

Shade chuckled. “Not that I’m complaining or anything, but aren’t you supposed to be working too?”

“I am. I just took a break to visit you.” She nuzzled his cheek softly.

Being in this relationship was something he had desired for some time and, although he relished having that dream come true, he wasn’t really fond of the looks they would occasionally receive from passersby when they showed their affection in public. Currently, the two mares chowing down on spaghetti were giggling and making kissy faces. He really wasn’t fond of their nosiness, plus it was pretty ironic coming from them.

“Are you sure Rainbow Dash would let you take a break?” Shade asked. “She’s pretty strict about these things. As hypocritical as it is, she really doesn’t tolerate slackers.”

“Hey!” Winter blurted in mock offense. “Are you calling me a slacker?”

“Well, you did fall asleep on the job that one time,” Shade reminded her, recalling the particular incident from a few days prior.

“Hey, that wasn’t my fault!” Winter argued. “That cloud was too comfortable. Anypony would have fallen asleep on it.”

“Yeah, sure,” he laughed.

Winter punched him lightly on the shoulder, a clear indication that he should stop teasing her.

“So, hey,” she piped up, changing the topic, “I was wondering: Do you think we could go somewhere when we get off work? I was thinking it would be nice to get a bite to eat somewhere, maybe go for a stroll through the park.”

“Yeah, that sounds great,” Shade beamed. He’d never turn down a chance to go on a date with Winter. Plus, this might be the perfect opportunity...

“Cool. So, I’ll see you in...uh...” Winter glanced at a large clock face on a nearby street pole. “About an hour? You’ll be off work by then, right?”

“Yeah, I’ll see you then.”

Winter smiled and pecked Shade on the cheek once more. She crouched down as she prepared to lift back into the air.

“Hey! Winter!” cried a livid, cyan pegasus from the air. “Who said you could take another break? These clouds ain’t gonna clear themselves, ya know.”

The changeling shot his girlfriend a triumphant smirk. “You didn’t ask for a break, did you?”

Winter cringed. He hit the nail on the head.

“Uh, I gotta go,” Winter stated hurriedly and nervously. She wasn’t looking forward to another lecture.

Taking to the air once more, Winter flew back to the rainbow-maned pegasus who proceeded to chew her out as they went back to work. Although he took a little satisfaction in teasing her, Shade worried about her. Her absent-mindedness wasn’t great for her already abysmal track record. He adored every little aspect about her and, as much as he didn’t want her to change, she was going to have to do something if she wanted to keep her job.

He shrugged his shoulders. If they were going to fire her, they would have done it by now for sure. Sure, she got sidetracked now and then, but she was still good at her job.

Speaking of jobs, he still had one he needed to perform himself. Shade entered the café and approached the pickup counter where another plate of food was waiting to be delivered to a hungry customer.

“Shade,” came the sophisticated tone of his superior, Horte Cuisine. “May I speak wis you in private, s'il vous plait?”

That didn’t sound good. Normally, whenever Horte asked to speak with one of the employees in private, they usually ended up hanging up their uniforms and walking out disheartened and jobless, some on their first day even. He must have been doing something right if he was still employed here.

Shade nervously followed his employer into the employee lounge. In stark contrast to the rest of the restaurant’s classy atmosphere, the lounge was no more than a simple dining room with a folding table in the middle where the staff could sit and eat, a refrigerator where employees who had brought their own lunch could store their food and eat it during their break, and a sink where they would clean any dishes they used. There was also a microwave. Shade never could figure out how the things worked, but it didn’t matter since this one was broken and nopony had gotten around to replacing it.

Horte motioned for Shade to take a seat at the table. His unreadable expression, as per usual, was more than a little intimidating and made the unicorn feel even more uneasy about the whole situation. Had he done something wrong? He didn’t do anything different lately than usual. The more he thought about it, the more perplexed and worried he became. What was worse was the silence that filled the room. Horte was pacing back and forth and looked to be deep in thought, so the room was dead silent until Shade decided to voice his concern.

“What’s this about, sir?” he asked the head waiter. He immediately regretted just speaking up out of the blue. Clearly Horte wanted to talk to him, so Shade should have let him start.

“Hm?” Horte looked at Shade as if he had forgotten that he had been sharing the room with somepony. “My apologies, Shade. I am merely zinking of ‘ow to say zis.”

That wasn’t making him feel any better. Most of the other employees who got fired usually got the quick and painless treatment. Well, maybe not painless, they always came out like they had just gotten a shot from a particularly nasty nurse. The fact that Horte had to think of what to say must have meant that this instance was a big deal. That had Shade worried.

Horte nodded his head, seemingly confirming something in his thoughts. “Shade, you ’ave worked ‘ere for only un mois, zat is to say, one month.”

“Right...” Shade tried to remain level headed. Maybe if he kept his cool, Horte would be willing to give him a second chance.

“In zat time you ‘ave learned much très rapide, especially for somepony ‘oo ‘as not ‘ad any prior training. Apart from some difficulties during your first few days, you ‘ave excelled in your performance ‘ere at mon établissement.”

These statements were sounding strangely like praise.

“As such, I ‘ave come to zee decision zat you ‘ave earned zee right to move up, ‘ow you say, ‘zee corporate ladder’? Iz zat right?” Horte asked himself more than anything.

Horte picked something up from the nearby countertop. Shade hadn’t picked up on it until now as it had been obscured by the plastic food containers that had been left scattered about by the other employees. Even if he had seen it, he probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it.

“‘Ere.” Horte passed the object to Shade.

The unicorn examined it, puzzled. “A bow tie?”

“A blue bowtie,” the mustachioed stallion corrected.

Shade’s brain recollected the information Horte had fed to him back on his first day of working here. New waiters were required to wear yellow bow ties and wouldn’t receive a blue tie until they got a promotion.

The pieces finally clicked together.

“Wait, does this mean...?”

Horte nodded. “Oui, you are being promoted from trainee status. You are now a full fledged waiter.”

The changeling stared at the accessory, dumbstruck. Promoted?

“Shade.”

He turned his sight back to his employer. Horte was smiling. Horte never smiled. He always maintained a look of detachment which accented his professionalism. Most ponies didn’t think he was capable of showing emotion. But despite how alien this occurrence was, it wasn’t uncomfortable. His smile was natural and warm. Shade could sense the respect that Horte felt for him. A mutual respect. The kind of respect a proud father felt for his son. In some ways, Horte was the closest thing Shade had to a father.

“I consider eet a pleasure to work wis you, and I ‘ope you will continue to work ‘ere for much longer. You are an asset to mon restaurant.”

“Me? An asset, sir?” Shade was still in minor shock over the whole thing.

Horte simply nodded his head. The head waiter finally realized that he had been smiling rather noticeably and cleared his throat, returning to his usual, professional demeanor.

“In any case, you will receive a salary increase and a bonus.”

Horte pointed to a brown, leather sack sitting on the table. Shade hovered it over to himself and peeked inside. It was filled to the brim with gold coins. There must have been at least a hundred bits in there.

Horte cleared his throat once more. “Now zen, I zink eet is about time for you to clock out. I am sure you ‘ave plans for zis evening.” He grinned knowingly at Shade. He must have overheard his conversation with Winter.

“Y-yes, sir,” Shade said with a grateful nod. “And thank you.”

“Just remember, I expect zee utmost quality from a full fledged waiter. Do not make me regret zis decision.”

“I won’t let you down, sir.” Shade bowed to his boss and the two exchanged a respectful hoofshake before he removed his uniform and exited the establishment.

All of Shade’s worry had been completely alleviated. And as if Equestria itself were celebrating his good fortune, the sky suddenly seemed clearer.

As if on cue, the cheery voice of his expected company swooped down to speak with him. Winter landed in a hurry and looked around nervously.

“Hey, something wrong?” he asked.

“Look, Shade...” Winter started, scratching the dirt with a hoof, “...Rainbow Dash was pretty mad about me taking an unauthorized break and she’s making me work overtime to compensate. So, I’m not gonna be able to make our date until a little later. Is that okay?”

The changeling sighed. “Well, it’s your own fault really. You should take your work more seriously. Like me.” He smiled proudly.

Winter cocked an eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I just got promoted,” he stated blatantly.

“What!? Really!?” She seemed happy and angry at the same time. “That’s great, Shade!” She leapt at him to give him a congratulatory hug. He could feel her jealousy in the form of her surprisingly tight grip.

“Oh, but we can talk about it later. I need to get back before-”

“Hey!”

Winter cringed as her supervisor once again shouted down at her.

“What did I tell you about fraternizing on the job? Get back to work! Honestly, it’s like I’m talking to a foal.”

“She’s being a little harsh, isn’t she?” Shade glared at the pegasus from the ground.

“I think she just takes her position a little too seriously,” Winter giggled. “She’s pretty easy going if your doing your job well.”

“Shouldn’t that be more incentive for you to work hard?” he teased.

“Hey, I don’t tell you how to do your job!” the pegasus huffed, ruffling her feathers.

Shade laughed at her, earning him another, slightly harder punch to the shoulder. Winter stuck out her tongue at him in order stifle her own laughter so that she looked offended, attempting to make him feel guilty. It wasn’t working. Shade got a kick out of teasing her and she always tried to make him regret it, but to no avail. She knew, though, that he wasn’t being serious, it was just one of the little playful things he did with her.

Still in her pretend miffed mood, Winter took off to rejoin Rainbow Dash. As usual, Shade watched until she disappeared from sight.

He hoisted the moderately sized sack of bits in front of himself. This promotion couldn’t have come at a better time. He had already earmarked the coins, the only thing left to do now was to get the rest and head over to the business district. But first, he would need to make a stop back at the library.

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

Shade tossed the bag of coins onto the wooden table with a clatter. The library was dead silent. No Twilight, no Spike, no anypony. He wasn’t here to talk anyway, he had plans and he’d have to hurry if he wanted to get things done before his date with Winter.

The navy-maned changeling-in-disguise opened the door to the library’s basement with a grating creak. The room underneath the large tree was actually a hollowed out section of earth beneath the tree’s roots, but the design of the wall paneling would make one think that it was an extension of the great oak; it looked perfectly natural.

The room was pitch black, which was a little dangerous considering that the staircase leading down had no rails, and the drop was quite a distance, certainly high enough to inflict injury, such as a broken bone or two, if somepony happened to trip.

Luckily, Shade didn’t have to come down here too often, usually only when Twilight wanted him to retrieve one of the books that was stored down here. Most of them were her personal belongings that she had taken with her when she moved from Canterlot, stuff that the general public didn’t get access to. Advanced spell books, history texts and an assortment of scientific material. Twilight also used the basement as a laboratory of sorts, with beakers and test tubes containing all manner of chemicals and magical serums and such. It all went right over Shade’s head really. He’d had enough trouble learning to read, he most definitely was not going to overload his brain with all of these complex equations and algorithms.

Clicking on the light switch beside the door, Shade descended the precarious staircase and began searching the room, pushing aside boxes and bizarre machines that he didn’t really have the courage to inquire about for fear of the answer the lavender unicorn would provide.

“Shade? That you down there?” called the voice of said unicorn from the basement’s doorway.

The busy stallion lifted his head from the box he was currently searching through. “Oh, hey, Twilight,” he called back. “I didn’t think you were home.”

“I was just taking a shower,” she explained.

Now that he was looking at her, he could see that she was busy drying her damp mane with a large towel. Judging from how wet her coat was, he assumed that she had brought her bathing to an abrupt end, no doubt because she heard some strange noises coming from the basement.

“Are you looking for something?” she asked, noticing how many boxes Shade had overturned in his search.

The stallion returned his head to the box in front of him. “Yeah, where have you been storing the money I’ve made since I got here? I can’t seem to find it.”

Twilight lifted an eyebrow. “Your money? It’s in a lockbox under the pile of spare bed sheets.”

Shade glanced around until he took notice of the pile in question. Tossing aside sheet after sheet, he finally unveiled a brown, lacquer box whose lid was locked tight with a magic-imbued padlock. Ah, that’s right. She put it here so nopony could steal it...Although they could just take the box and break the lock when they got home. That’s not really very secure.

“Oh! That reminds me,” the mare started while descending the stairs. “I heard that Mr. and Mrs. Parsley are moving back to Baltimare and they’re putting their house up for sale.”

“Uh-huh...” Shade nodded his head, although he was actually tuning her out as he tried to recall the combination for the lock that Twilight had told him.

“Which means that there’ll be a house on the market that you can buy.”

“Uh-huh...” He turned the dial on the lock a few times. Twilight had showed him how to use it, but the information kept slipping away from him. He could see why ponies used these to protect their belongings. If even the owner couldn’t get to it, it must be perfectly safe.

“Are you even paying attention?”

“Uh-huh...”

Twilight snatched up the large box with her magic and held it behind her. Shade quickly tried to grab it out of the air before it got away but ended up losing his balance and falling to the floor at the mare’s hooves. With the stallion subdued, Twilight turned the dial back and forth a few times, causing the lock to open effortlessly with a distinct click. Shade tried to swipe the box back from her, but she held it out of his reach like a school filly playing keepaway. She flipped open the lid and peered in at its contents, mumbling seemingly random numbers to herself.

“Shade, you’ve saved up quite a lot of money. Another few weeks and you should have enough to buy a place of your own, or at least rent a place.” She smiled and clapped the lid shut.

Shade finally managed to pull the container from her magical grasp. “Sorry, but I’ve got other plans for these bits.”

“What?! What plans?!”

“It’s...private.” Shade shied away, hoping that Twilight wouldn’t pursue further.

“Shade, you can’t just spend that money willy-nilly. You’ve been saving up for a house since you got here. You’ll have to start from square one.”

“Look, Twilight,” Shade interrupted, staring defiantly at her. “Some things in this world are more important than me, and those things take priority.”

“What could be more important than getting your own place? You can’t just live with me forever,” Twilight argued.

“I’ll make up for it, I promise. I’ll take up more chores around the library. Heck, I’ll take Spike’s chores if you want. But I’m going to remain completely adamant on this. You’re not going to stop me.”

The mare was silent for a moment, glaring at Shade, before letting out an exasperated grunt. “Fine, whatever. It’s your money, I guess. Do what you want. But don’t go complaining when you’re spending all your free time tidying up the library.”

“Okay,” he nodded, glad that was finally over, “Now, I just need to borrow your saddlebags for a while and I’ll get going.”

The attention of the two unicorns was caught by the sound of knocking on the front door followed by the southern drawl of the orange farm pony.

“Twi? Y’all home?” Applejack called out.

“Just a sec! We’ll be right there!” the violet mare called back.

Hurrying back up the stairs to greet her friend, Twilight, followed by Shade, re-entered the lobby to find the stetson-wearing earth pony standing at the threshold.

“You know, you’re welcome to come in. It isn’t necessary for you to knock either, you’re always welcome here. I thought you’d have figured that out by now,” Twilight giggled.

“Well, actually, Ah ain’t here fer a visit. I came ta see him.” She pointed a hoof towards the white stallion.

“Oh. Well, that’s fine too. You still don’t need to knock.”

“What do you need to see me for?” Shade asked curiously. Even though he and Applejack have since reconciled their differences, they still didn’t see much of each other, more or less just exchanging greetings when they passed by one another in the mornings or when she came by the library.

“Look, Ah need to speak ta ya in private.” She glared at him with an intensity that Shade hadn’t seen for some time. Did she still mistrust him, even after all this time?

“Uh, sure. Is there some place you had in mind?”

“Jus’ follow me.”

Applejack motioned for Shade to trail behind her out of the library. He took a minute to acquire Twilight's saddlebags, dump the contents of the lockbox inside then, and wave goodbye to Twilight before following the farm pony.

This was definitely odd.

He had assumed that they were just going to talk outside so Twilight couldn’t hear them, but the earth pony was leading him to the outskirts of town. They trotted across a stone bridge arching over a creek and were headed for the treeline of the Everfree Forest. Any attempts that Shade made to get an answer from her was met with silence and ignored, but he couldn’t help but notice the stern expression on Applejack’s face. Had he done something to tick her off?

When they finally reached the edge of the forest, the blonde-maned mare stopped walking. She took a look around at their surroundings, making sure that nopony was within earshot. From this far away, somepony would have to be listening very carefully to hear them. The only way to make this private conversation more private would be to actually enter the forest itself.

Satisfied that nopony was around, Applejack roughly prodded Shade’s chest with a hoof.

“Listen,” she started, anger seething in her voice, “Ah don’t know what you think yer doin’ here, but you kin be sure as shoot that Ah don’t like it one bit.”

“W-Wha...!?” Where was this coming from all of sudden? “What are you talking about!?”

Applejack narrowed her eyes. “Ah saw what you did.”

“What I did? Can you be a little more specific?” His joking tone was not helping the situation.

“In th’ forest.” She pointed a hoof to the trees behind her. “Ah saw you.”

His eyes went wide. He finally knew what this was about.

She...She saw me?!

“W-What do you mean?” He desperately tried to bluff his way out of this. Maybe he could come up with some sort of explanation.

“Don’t play dumb wit’ me.” She jabbed him in the chest. “Ah saw ya bury that pony in there.”

Shade audibly gulped. How was he supposed to talk his way out of this?

“Now, it was hard ta tell what wit’ how dark it was and how bad o’ shape that pony was in, but Ah noticed that it looked an awful lot like ya. An’ don’t try th’ whole ‘evil twin' thing, I ain’t that gullible.”

Sweat was pouring down the stallion’s face. He didn’t even know what to say to defend himself. He was caught red-hoofed.

“Ah kin put two an’ two together, ya know, an’ Ah know what you are...changeling.”

Shade felt like his heart had stopped. The mere utterance of that word sent an indescribable chill through his whole body as if all the blood had been drained away. And to hear it coming from the mouth of another pony only amplified his fears.

Applejack glared icily at him, waiting for him to devise some sort of retort, but all he could manage were incoherent stammerings. He could very well have died at that moment.

The earth pony’s expression suddenly shifted to a mischievous grin and she stepped back from him, chuckling, serving to bewilder Shade even further.

“Heh heh, had you going there for a minute, didn’t I?” she laughed, her accent completely vanishing.

“W-What?”

What was this? Some kind of cruel prank?

“Oh, man, you should see the look on your face. What’s the matter, Shade, don’t you recognize your old pal?” the orange pony asked, her tone sounding of both amusement and mock hurt.

Applejack’s body suddenly began to glow an eerie green before vivid, emerald flames swept over her entire body, revealing the true identity of the creature before him: another changeling, one with a spiky, red mane and matching red eyes.

“G-Guise!?” Shade’s thoughts finally began to coalesce once more as he recognized the familiar face. He glanced around in a state of panic. “What are you doing here?!” he whispered as quietly as possible.

“Hey, now, is that any way to greet an old friend? It’s been a month since I’ve seen you, I thought you’d be happy.” Guise’s tendency to act insulted certainly hasn’t changed. “Oh, by the way, you need to work on that whole ‘sweating bullets’ thing you got going on. Seriously, this is how you act when somepony accuses you? You’re a changeling, you should be better at deceiving.”

Shade ignored his "advice" and jumped straight to the questions that were on his mind. “How did you find me?”

“Oh, that? Geez, that was easy,” he chuckled. “But I guess I should start at the beginning. First thing’s first, I owe you an apology.”

“‘Apology'? For what?”

“When you left, I wagered that you wouldn’t even make it a week. But, egg on my face, you made it a whole month. Congrats, buddy.”

His tone was incredibly patronizing, but then again, this was Guise. Backhoofed compliments and sarcasm were basically the extent of his conversational aptitude.

“So, I decided I’d go looking for you and give you my congratulations and my apology in person.”

Shade didn’t believe that for a minute and his silence relayed his thoughts.

“Alright, ya got me. I really came out to see whether or not you were dead. It’s the only way I figured you could have made it this long, heh heh.”

“You still haven’t answered my question, Guise.” Shade’s tone made it quite clear that he didn’t want him here.

“Take it easy, I was getting to that. Anyway, in order to find you, I needed to do some thinking. Where could you go? The only place populated by ponies that you knew how to get to was Canterlot, but I knew even you wouldn’t be dumb enough to go to someplace so close to the princesses. So, after doing some scouting, I found this cozy little place. Quiet, easygoing, an all around nice place to settle down. And sure enough, here you are.” He finished with a flourish of his hoof. “Bit of advice, though: Next time, if you don’t want to be tracked down so easily, don’t use your real name. It took no time at all to find you here.”

“Wait, how long have you been here?”

“Hmm...About a whole day now I’d say. Been doing a little spying on ya, hope you don’t mind,” he laughed. “You seem to be fitting in pretty well around here, all things considered. And your strategy intrigues me. You’re not just focused on the usual love-siphoning, you’re going the whole nine yards. You got a job and everything. You practically are a pony at this point.”

Shade couldn’t help but detect a note of venom in his voice at the end.

“And, wow, not only did you choose the town that the Elements of Harmony live in, but you’re actually living with one of them. And the most powerful one too. I have to admire your guts, Shade, and your cunning. What’s the best place to hide from your enemies? Right under their noses, pulling the wool over their eyes like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Ha! I honestly didn’t think you had the chops to pull something like this off.”

Shade sighed and looked behind him. The townsfolk were going about their usual business, completely unaware of what was happening just outside their town.

“Listen, Guise, you shouldn’t be here. If anypony sees a changeling around, they’re gonna get suspicious.”

“Ah, right, and you don’t want me to blow your cover. I getcha.” Guise winked. "But before I go, may I just compliment you on your work?”

Shade cocked an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“Like I said earlier, I saw you in the forest. Killing a pony? I really underestimated you. That’s the perfect crime. No evidence left behind, right?”

The disguised changeling stepped forward. “Let me clarify something here: I did not kill that pony. Something attacked him and I tried to help, but he died before I could do anything. I only buried him so nopony could find him and figure out that I’m a fake.”

“Riiiiiight, sure. Heh, whatever helps you sleep at night.”

Shade couldn’t tell if he actually didn’t believe him or if he did and was just messing with him.

“By the way,” the red-eyed changeling added, “That’s a cute little love bug you’ve snagged yourself. What was her name? Winter something?”

Shade grit his teeth. “Don’t call her that.”

Love bug. It was term that Guise came up with to describe a changeling’s victim, a pony who was targeted so that they could feed off of the love they felt for the pony the changeling was impersonating. Technically, the term would be more suited to describing the changelings themselves.

“Whoa, chill out. You’d think you actually had feelings for her or something.”

Guise looked into Shade’s eyes. The blue-maned stallion’s glare was unwavering. Guise’s smug grin fell.

“You’re kidding me,” he uttered in disbelief.

“I told you when I left that I was going to be peaceful about this. I didn’t come here to siphon love from somepony, I came here to live. As a pony. Well, at some point that’s what the plan became.”

“I don’t believe this.” Guise’s tone shifted to disappointment and mild anger. “Have you completely forgotten what you are, you idiot. You’re a changeling! You can’t coexist with them! You’re nothing but a parasite to them. A vampire! If you were here for the power, then at least if they found out you’d have something to run away with. You intend to live out the rest of your life in this place then?”

Shade nodded confidently. He wasn’t going to let Guise’s words sway him.

“And what happens when they find out?”

Shade was about to answer but was cut off as Guise continued.

“And it’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when.’ They’re gonna find out someday. You can’t keep up this farce forever. At some point you’re gonna slip up or they’re gonna put the pieces together. Then what? All you can do then is come crying back home to us and beg us to take you back.”

“I’m never going back!” Shade barked. “I’m not like the rest of you anymore! I’m not a changeling anymore! I. Am. A. Pony!”

Guise paused. He took a long, hard look at his old friend. He suddenly burst out into a malicious cackle.

“Ha ha ha ha ha! You really are an idiot, aren’t you? Do you really think you can fool them?” Guise sighed, wiping a tear from his eye. The idea of Shade actually believing he could be a pony was just about the funniest thing he’d ever heard. “Fine, you know what? I’ll get out of your hair.” The discouraging changeling buzzed his insect-like wings, lifting himself into the air. “But I guarantee you that this charade won’t last forever. Soon enough this whole wall of trust you’ve built for yourself is gonna collapse in on itself and you’ll be left a mangled wreck beneath it. But I’ll tell you what: When you do come back, I might just keep this whole thing to myself. You know, save you from the ridicule you’d get from the other changelings. How’s that sound?”

Shade didn’t answer. Right now, he didn’t want to see Guise’s face anymore, or ever again for that matter.

Seeing that he wasn’t going to get a response, Guise scoffed and turned his back to Shade and the small town and flew back over the Everfree Forest. The remaining changeling glared at the gradually shrinking, black figure as it left until it disappeared completely.

He sighed to himself. Guise’s words hadn’t gotten to him, but seeing him couldn’t be considered a good thing. Guise knew where he was now. If he had the mind to, he could ruin everything that Shade had going for himself.

He shook his head. This was no time to worry about that. He had other matters to attend to right now, and getting them done was more important now than ever.

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

With each step Shade took, his saddlebags rang out with the sound of dozens of jingling, gold coins. They were totally stuffed with bits and their additional weight was more than noticeable. He found himself having to correct his balance and keep from falling over.

You would think they’d have devised something for carrying a lot of bits at once. I don’t know, different kinds of bits representing different values or something?

The noise produced from his bags caught the attention of just about everypony he passed, looking at him like he had two heads. They were probably suspicious of him. Nopony just walks around with that much money, they probably thought he stole it or something. But even if somepony called him out on it, he wasn’t worried; Twilight would vouch for him.

His hooves haven’t been in this much pain in a long time. They throbbed from the added weight of the coins and his muscles begged him to lose the bags and lie down somewhere. But the pain was going to be worth it. A little soreness was not going to deter him from his mission.

Traveling down the central street of Ponyville’s business district, Shade kept an eye out for his destination. This wasn’t an area of town he often visited, so he was still fairly unfamiliar with it. He took notice of several other shops along the way, including Quills & Sofas, a store where they specialized in selling...well, quills and sofas. He had even heard that Pinkie Pie ran a part-time business around here, although it may have been more of a hobby. Apparently, she occasionally played the role of a fortune teller and, oddly enough, most of her fortunes ended up being true, although they were really nondescript things like "something’s gonna fall" or something along those lines. But now that he thought about it, it sounded vaguely familiar to something she had said at some point, but for some reason it was like his brain had shut off at that point in time and he couldn’t recall what she said. It all seemed like a blur. Weird...

Finally, the shop he had been searching for came into view. He stood outside the establishment to take a deep breath, knowing that what happened from here was left up to fate. He looked at the hanging sign over the door which displayed the image of a diamond ring. He exhaled deeply and stepped through the door.

The jingling of the entrance bell alerted the store’s owner to his presence. Standing behind the glass counter that doubled as a display case for his works, was a blue-grey earth pony with hazel colored eyes and was sporting a sleek and distinguished silver mane. He wore a light brown sweater vest and on his forehead he donned a transparent green visor. Upon his nose was a strange optical device that he used to examine jewels with scrutiny and precision.

“Ah, Shade, I was wondering when you’d show up,” the jeweler greeted his customer.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Karat.” Shade relieved himself of his heavy burden and placed the hefty bag of bits on the floor, allowing him to finally stretch his aching legs. “Awww, that’s so much better,” he sighed.

“You carried that all the way here?” Karat asked. “If it’s so heavy, why didn’t you just use your magic to lift them?”

Shade blinked. He mentally slapped himself in the forehead for not having thought of that sooner. Hindsight is always twenty/twenty.

“Well, in any case, you arrived right on time. I finished your order just a few hours ago.” Karat turned around and passed behind a curtain, disappearing from sight for a few moments.

“H-How did it turn out?” Shade was a little anxious. If he was going to shell out this much dough on something, it had to be perfect.

“It turned out beautifully, if you would allow me to toot my own horn a little,” the older stallion answered from the next room. He soon returned, carrying something in his mouth and placing it on the counter. “But I must say, it was certainly an odd request. I’ve never cut something quite like this before.”

Shade stared at the small container sitting on the glass countertop. It was a flat case about five inches across and half an inch thick lined with black velvet. Its top was adorned with a large capital ‘K’ stitched in a sophisticated font with many smooth curves. On the front was a small, golden clasp that held the case shut.

But it wasn’t the case that had Shade gulping with anticipation. It was the contents.

He carefully unclipped the clasp with his magic. He moved slowly and deliberately as if one false move would destroy the whole thing. The lid finally flipped open and Shade gazed in awe at the object within.

He was speechless. It was absolutely flawless and exactly how he had envisioned. There was only one thing in the world more beautiful...

“It’s perfect,” Shade complemented, still awestruck and impressed with Karat’s level of skill.

Karat wiped his brow with a handkerchief. “That’s good to hear. It was such a strange design that I was worried that the finished product wouldn’t turn out like you wanted. Do me a favor, would you? Don’t request something like that again. It’s too nerve-wracking.”

“Sure,” Shade chuckled. “Next time it’ll be something simpler.”

As his final display of gratitude to the jeweler, Shade hoisted his saddlebags onto the counter, placing them carefully so that their weight didn’t break the well-polished countertop.

“Will this be enough?” he asked, flipping the bags open, allowing the multitude of gold coins to glitter in the generous lighting of the jewelry store.

Karat silently began counting the bits laid out before him. He was so used to counting large amounts of money that it took no time for him to tally up the total.

“Yep, looks like you’ve got enough here. With a little change left over too.” He looked at Shade with curiosity. “This is an awful lot of money for somepony that’s only lived here for a month. How’d you get all this?”

“Honest and hard work, sir. I took as many hours at the restaurant as I could and even helped out some of the ponies around town. But it was all worth it to see the fruits of my labor.”

Shade stood tall and proud. Just saying that made him feel like a better pony. A better creature in general. Changelings worked for selfish gain, but he was using his gains for somepony else entirely.

“Fruits of our labors, you mean,” Karat corrected jokingly. “This project wasn’t easy, you know.”

“Right, sorry. Thank you so much, Mr. Karat. You have no idea how much I appreciate your help.” Shade bowed to the jeweler before placing the velvet case and the leftover bits into his saddlebag and securing it to his back once again. He was relieved to feel the immense reduction in weight on his spine.

“Don’t mention it. The smile of satisfaction on a customers face is all I need. Although, this is pretty nice too,” he laughed, gesturing to the large mound of bits on the counter. “Just be sure to let me know what she thinks of it, okay? Technically, she’s the customer in this case. If she’s not satisfied, I’m not satisfied.”

“I’ll let you know, sir.”

The two exchanged nods as Shade exited the building and returned to the open air of the business district.

So far so good. Despite his unpleasant encounter with Guise, Shade was feeling good. The air was fresh and crisp, the sky was clear, the wind was light and cool. It was as if Mother Nature herself was going to great lengths to make sure everything went perfectly today.

Now, he just needed to play his part.

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

Shade sat quietly on a wooden park bench watching all the other ponies pass him by. Every now and then he would cast a sidelong glance at the saddlebags sitting next to him, occasionally even opening them to see if their contents were still present. He was hopelessly worried that somehow, by some stroke of random misfortune, it would just spontaneously vanish into thin air. His heart was pounding out of his chest. This had to go absolutely perfectly.

Shade looked around, his eyes stopping on a nearby elm tree that overshadowed the bench he was sitting on. He chose this spot for a particular reason. He and Winter had spent some time on this very bench during their first date. It held a sentimental significance to him. Although, Winter had once again neglected to specify a meeting place for their current date, so another reason to choose this spot was to be noticeable if she flew overhead looking for him. He regretted not returning to the library and giving Twilight the information should Winter look for him there.

The changeling looked at a nearby post adorned with a clock face. He’d been waiting here for nearly a half an hour. Surely Winter should be finished with her overtime work by now. Maybe she was already out searching for him.

Time began to slowly pass and the number of visitors to the park was starting to dwindle. The glowing orb of the daytime sky was gradually making its way toward the opposite horizon from the one from which it had emerged, and the sky was beginning to reflect the passing of time with its vibrant shade of orange.

She didn’t forget, did she? She has a tendency to do that, it wouldn’t be the first time. But today of all days?

Shade sighed and took one last, hopeful look around, maybe by some chance he would spot her. No such luck. There wasn’t a pony in sight anymore. The purple veil rising from the horizon had signified that they should be heading home and was coaxing him to do the same.

Just a little longer. She has to come.

He could have waited there all night if he knew for a fact that she would show up at some point. But he didn’t know for certain. Maybe she had forgotten, maybe she was looking for him, or maybe Rainbow Dash was being spiteful and forcing her to work the graveyard shift, if the weather team even had such a thing.

Who am I kidding? Fate is playing some kind of mean prank on me or something. This whole thing probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. I should just go home...

With a gloomy expression, Shade forced himself to his hooves, placing the saddlebags on his back. Even if this didn’t go as planned, he still had the gift he purchased from Karat. There were always other days.

He started his dreary walk back to the library, head hung low. He hasn’t felt so disheartened in a long time. He almost felt...betrayed. The irony of the thought was like hot metal on his chest. He’s the last pony who should be feeling betrayed.

Shade’s ears perked up as they caught the sound of furiously beating wings. As if from nowhere, an unseeable figure tackled him from behind almost hard enough to knock him off his hooves. Surprised, Shade turned to find a white pegasus clinging tightly to his abdomen.

“Cripes! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sooooorry!” the mare bawled into the back of his neck. “As soon as Rainbow Dash let me go, I went straight home like I usually do. I totally forgot about our date! I’m soooooo sorry!”

Shade couldn’t help but smile, both due to the fact that he found her tendency to exaggerate apologies irresistibly cute, and that she had shown up after all, despite his worries. He remained silent for a minute, letting Winter sob apologetically into his mane. He didn’t like to hear her cry--actually, he’d never heard her cry at all--but the tears she was shedding were not out of pain, but with guilt. It was harmless. Once he acknowledged her, she would be fine.

“Take it easy, Winter. I plan on showering when I get back to the library, you don’t have to do it for me.”

The pegasus lifted her head and gazed into the warm smile her boyfriend was passing her. She wiped a hoof across her eyes to clean up the moisture before returning his smile.

“Y-You’re not mad then?” she asked worriedly.

“Of course not,” he chuckled. “I know you, Winter. You would never stand me up on purpose.” He took notice of how she was still clinging to his back, her hooves wrapped around his neck. His legs were begging him not to put them through anymore trauma tonight. “Speaking of standing up. You mind?”

Winter blushed sheepishly and clumsily slid off of the stallion’s back, landing on her own four hooves.

“Sorry,” she giggled. Winter gazed at the setting sun and orange sky above her. “I guess it’s a little late for a date now, huh?” the pegasus sighed, her ears flattening against her head. “Stuff like this wouldn’t happen if I weren’t so scatterbrained.”

Shade placed a hoof on her chin and lifted her head until her amber eyes were level with his emerald ones. “Look, the date’s not important right now.”

Winter cast him a confused and somewhat hurt look. “What do you mean? I thought you were looking forward to it.”

“I was, and I’m a little sad that we won’t get to do anything together tonight.” Shade looked over his shoulder to his saddlebags. “But there’s something more important that I wanted to do today and I think there’s still time to do it.”

He removed his saddlebags once more, returning them to their spot on the bench.

“First things first, I have something I need to get off my chest.”

Shade took a deep breath. The moment he’d been waiting for was upon him. He must have gone over this scenario at least a thousand times in his head over just the last few days. It had to be perfect.

“Winter,” he started, nervousness evident in just that one word, “before I arrived in Ponyville, I was a nobody, a random creature that just existed and nothing more, living only for the sake of my continued existence. I was surrounded by other nondescript creatures who I didn’t know on a personal level and didn’t care for in the slightest. I came to Ponyville in hopes of finding validation, maybe a higher calling. Acceptance. I was tired of being nopony and I was tired of doing things their way. I wanted to go my own way. And that’s what lead me here. Here, I found ponies who cared and were happy. They acknowledged my existence and even helped me find my place. Maybe I don’t lead a terribly exciting life here, but that’s just what I’ve been looking for.”

Winter remained completely silent, hanging on his every word. The passion in Shade’s eyes was mesmerizing.

“I had a home, a job, friends. I thought my new life couldn’t get any better.”

The pegasus gulped, anticipating what he was going to say next.

“Then, I met you.” Shade gently placed a hoof on her cheek. Her eyes never tore away from his. “And suddenly, I felt things I had never felt before, emotions that were alien to me. Seeing your face, hearing your voice. It brought me joy like I’ve never experienced before. I couldn’t get you out of my head. And that became my mission. I wanted you--no, needed you. I didn’t know why and, honestly, I still don’t, but that fact hasn’t changed since the day I first laid eyes on you.”

Shade took another deep breath before continuing.

“I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing snow in my life. But even if I never see it as long as I live, I don’t care. I’ve already witnessed the most beautiful ‘Winter’ Equestria has ever seen.”

He waited for her to laugh at him, mocking his horrible pun. But all he received was the same captivated look she had been giving him since he started talking. He took that as his cue to make his next move.

Shade opened the latch on his saddlebags and removed the black, velvet case from within. Winter finally managed to turn her gaze away from him to see what it was. She was suddenly overcome with extreme nervousness, her wings twitching involuntarily.

“I got this for you,” he said simply. “It’s supposed to be a symbol of my feelings for you.”

He unfastened the golden clasp and opened the case, allowing Winter to gaze in awe at its contents.

Inside was a shining, translucent necklace, expertly cut by Karat into the shape of a snowflake--or rather, two snowflakes. The design was completely asymmetrical. Both halves showed common designs for snowflakes, but to have both sides forming a single flake was bizarre.

Winter stared dumbstruck and confused at the piece of jewelry. It was so strange, yet so beautiful at the same time.

Shade lifted the necklace from its case and dangled it in front of Winter.

She finally managed to find her voice again. “W-What is this?”

“Like I said, it’s a symbol of my affection. Do you like it?” Shade waited anxiously for her answer.

“Is-Is this crystal?” she asked, admiring how the setting sun glinted off of its finely cut edges.

“Diamond, actually.”

Winter shot her eyes up to his, widening them as far as her eyelids would allow. “D-Diamond!?”

“Yeah, I told Rarity what I planned to do and she graciously offered me one of the ones she found. Karat did the rest.”

“Karat...cut this?”

Shade smiled. “Uh-huh. I remembered what you told me about him and how much you admired his work but could never afford it, so I had him make this for you.”

Winter gulped. She was tentative about her next question, but if she didn’t ask, it would nag at her until she found out. “How...How much did this cost?”

“Almost every bit I had.”

Winter was flabbergasted. Almost every single bit he had earned since arriving here, spent on this one little bauble. “B-But you were supposed to be saving that money for a house, weren’t you? Now it’s gonna take twice as long to get all that money back!”

Shade held a hoof to her lips. “It doesn’t matter. Some things are more important to me than money.”

He moved the necklace over Winter’s head, sliding its silver chain around her neck. The diamond snowflake seemed to shine even more radiantly against her alabaster coat. Winter looked down at it as it hung from her neck, lifting it with her hoof.

“The most important thing to me, is you, Winter. I would do anything to see you smile, to hear your voice and to make you happy...”

Winter, once more, looked into his deep, jade eyes, her cheeks burning red.

“I...” Shade paused as the three little words finally made their desperate escape from his mouth.

“I love you.”

He received no verbal answer. What he got instead was the mare he had just confessed his feelings for throwing herself at him and pulling him into a deep, passionate kiss. He took that as a reciprocation of his feelings.

When their lips finally parted, Winter stared at him with half-lidded eyes. “I...I love you too,” she whispered and pulled him back in to continue their kiss.

There had been a moment when Shade felt worried that Winter would reject his confession and shatter the heart he had slowly been incubating since he left the Changeling Kingdom. But those fears were unfounded, fortunately.

Their kiss broke off once more, but their foreheads remained pressed against each other. There was a heat in the air. A strange, unfamiliar heat. Shade felt a tingle in his horn which soon spread through his entire body. He felt invigorated, like he had just been given an intense burst of energy.

They had been standing alone in the park for longer than they had anticipated. Celestia’s cosmic jewel had since packed in for the night and Luna’s celestial pearl now hung brightly in the sky. But neither of them wanted to move.

Winter broke the silence once more. “So...what do we do now?” she whispered.

He hadn’t thought of that. What does one do to follow up a confession of love that won’t make the situation awkward? Do they just go home and go about their lives like normal? That didn’t seem right. This was a very important moment for both of them, they had to do something.

Winter took Shade’s silence as a hint that he had no answer for her question. But a thought occurred to her. “Shade, I don’t think what you did is fair to Twilight.”

“Twilight?” Shade echoed, raising an eyebrow. “What does she have to do with this?”

“Well, for one, you’re living with her until you can get your own place and you just haphazardly spent all your money.”

“It wasn’t haphazard. I knew what I was doing,” he defended.

“But now you have to save up even more bits which means you’ll have to board with her even longer. That’s not fair to her.”

That had never occurred to him. Twilight brought it up, but he was so focused on Winter that he completely ignored her. She probably wasn’t going to be too happy with him for a while.

“I guess not. I didn’t even think of that,” Shade sighed.

Winter stared at Shade thoughtfully. A question waited at her lips, but she was hesitant to ask. “Well...um...”

He looked into the pegasus’s eyes, but she didn’t look back. She was gazing upward as she mulled over the query on her tongue.

“You could...” She paused and gulped, a deep red appearing on her face. “...move in with me.”

“What?” Shade passed her a puzzled look.

“Well, yeah. Why not?” Winter smiled, her confidence gradually growing. “I mean, we’ve been going out for a while now and we just...confessed to each other...” Her blush deepened. “So, it seems like the next logical step, right?”

Shade stared straight into her eyes. She was serious. She actually wanted him to move in with her. Really this was a no-brainer. If it meant being close to her more often...

“That’s...a great idea. I’d love to, Winter,” Shade beamed.

Winter relaxed her muscles. She was worried that she had been too forward or was moving too quickly, but it paid off in the end.

“Then, why don’t we head back now?” she suggested, turning away from him slightly, but still looking at him through the corner of her eye. “There’s no reason for this night to end so early.” Her voice was quiet and sultry and her eyes half-lidded and glinting.

Shade responded by pulling her in for yet another kiss. He was never going to get tired of doing that.

“Let’s go then,” he said, his tone of voice matching her own.

As the two made their way along the park’s cobblestone path, Winter admired the necklace that had been gifted to her. The design was bizarre yet artful, but it posed a question.

“Shade, why is the necklace shaped like this?”

The stallion smiled. He was hoping she would ask him about that. “There’s two reasons for that actually. The first is how you once said your dream was to make the most unique snowflakes the world has ever seen, but since you don’t work at the snowflake production facility in Cloudsdale anymore, you can’t really do that. So, I thought the next best thing would be to possess the most unique snowflake in the world. And what’s more unique than a diamond snowflake with two completely different halves?”

Winter smiled warmly. “You remembered that?”

“Of course. I treasure every moment I spend with you.” He nuzzled his face against hers.

“As for the second reason,” he continued, “It was meant to be a representation of how two things that have no right being together can live in perfect harmony.”

Winter tilted her head, perplexed. “‘No right’? You don’t think we have a right to be together?”

Shade hastily struggled to reword his explanation. “N-No no, that’s not exactly what I meant. What I mean is...I don’t deserve you. Yet here you are, by my side.”

Winter giggled and sidled up against him. “Don’t think for a second that you don’t deserve me, buster. You and me? I think we do belong together.”

She closed her eyes wistfully and silence returned to the air. Shade stared up at the clear, night sky. His first explanation of the second reason was actually the correct one, but he couldn’t tell her that. Perhaps that would’ve been better off as a hidden meaning that only he could perceive.

But as he looked down at the mare cuddling into his neck, he couldn’t help but think that she was right.

They did belong together.

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

A bitter wind blew through the auburn forests of the Changeling Kingdom, chilling its insectoid inhabitants to their cores. Things hadn’t changed much there in the past month and the changelings still struggled for food and shelter. Many of them were growing impatient with their leader who had promised them redemption but had yet to reveal any sort of attack plan. Surely another uprising was inevitable.

But Chrysalis’s problems were of little concern to one changeling.

Deep within one of the kingdom’s many lifeless forests, a purple-maned, female changeling lay quietly on her bed of dried, cracked leaves within her makeshift home. A half eaten apple lay beside her, already beginning to rot. To let perfectly good food go to waste was not common for changelings, but, despite their hardships and perpetual hunger, she didn’t have any appetite. She hadn’t eaten much at all lately, even less than usual, and her malnutrition was beginning to show. Her jet black hide was starting to pale and her cheeks were sunken in. But she was simply too depressed to eat. She was just waiting for death to do its will. It’s all she had left to do these days.

Chamella had no thoughts of herself or the changelings or Chrysalis. Only for the friend that she had lost one month ago. She played the moment Shade had left over and over in her mind as if she could somehow alter the events of that day through mere thought. Maybe she could have convinced him to stay. Maybe she should have gone with him. If she weren’t so insecure and passive, she might have been able to make a decision that would have allowed her to keep her closest friend nearby. She should have at least told him before he left...

There was a very strong possibility that she would never see him again. Guise seemed certain that he would probably die out there all by himself, but she held onto the hope that he still yet lived. But would he ever come back? Would he even want to come back? Had he truly found happiness and peace with the ponies they were taught to loathe? No, that was impossible. Guise said it best: They were monsters. Monsters couldn’t live peacefully with other races.

She had to face facts. Shade was gone. All she had left now were her memories.

----- ----- -----

“Don’t touch me,” peeped a small changeling, hiding behind her long, purple mane.

She had been backed into a tree by two other young, male changelings who were chiding her.

“Stop being such a wimp,” one said. “We’re only trying to toughen you up.”

“Yeah,” added the other. “A weak changeling like you is no use to Queen Chrysalis.”

“I-I can be useful,” the young Chamella attempted to assert, but her quiet tone did nothing to convince the two bullies.

“Sure you can,” said the first, patronizingly. “I’m sure Queen Chrysalis could find a good use for you, right?” He smirked to his accomplice.

“Yeah, as food for the larvae! Ha ha ha!”

Chamella cowered against the tree trunk. She was visibly shaking. The prospect of being torn to shreds by ravenous newborn changelings terrified her.

“Seriously, what good is a meek changeling like you other than being dinner?”

“Yeah, Queen Chrysalis needs strong warriors to help her beat the ponies and kick out Princess Celtsia.”

'Celestia,' you dimwit.”

“Yeah, that’s what I meant.”

Chamella attempted to stand firm and stare down her abusers, but her knees were still shaking. “I...I’m going to be strong someday.” Her voice still didn’t come off as terribly confident.

“Someday ain’t good enough,” the first bully growled. “You’re either born tough or you ain’t. And if you ain’t? You get eaten.”

“Yeah!” the second cheered. “Actually, I’m pretty hungry right now. Who says she has to be the larvae’s dinner?”

Fear instantly filled Chamella’s eyes as the two began to inch toward her, licking their lips and their developing fangs. She collapsed to the ground and threw her hooves over her eyes, whimpering pitifully.

“Hey!”

The two bullies stopped in their tracks and turned to see another male changeling, with a scruffy, deep blue mane, staring them down from nearby.

“Leave her alone, you jerks!”

The pair exchanged glances for a moment before turning back to the interloper with confident grins.

“Or what?” said the first. “There are two of us and one of you. You can’t beat us in a fight.”

“No, probably not,” he admitted, his glare unfaltering. “But I can tell Queen Chrysalis what you’re doing.”

“What do we care?” the second one shrugged. “Every changeling knows that the weak are consumed.”

“Then I guess you have no problem being consumed too.”

The bullies looked at each other, surprised.

“W-What are you talking about?” the first said nervously. “We’re not weak, she is!”

“Really?” the blue-maned changeling said, cocking an eyebrow. “So two male changelings picking on one weak, female changeling makes you strong, does it?”

“Uhhh...” The first bully looked up as he tried to comprehend the question.

The defending male wasn’t going to wait around for Celestia knows how long for the other changeling to organize his thoughts and provide an answer. “Do you think Queen Chrysalis would think you’re strong doing something like that? You two are just cowards for ganging up on a helpless changeling. She would probably feed you to the larvae for treating your own kind that way.”

The second bully looked worriedly at his cohort. “S-She wouldn’t do that, would she?”

“Uhhh...” The first was still trying to form a response. “If...If she thought we were weak, then she might.”

“M-Maybe we should go,” the second said shakily. “I don’t wanna make Queen Chrysalis mad and I definitely don’t want to be larva dinner!”

Without another word, the duo spread their thin wings and buzzed into the air, fleeing the area. Chamella finally stood, her hooves still shaking slightly.

“Thanks, Shade,” she sniffed. “I...I’m sorry. They’re right. I am weak.”

“But that doesn’t mean you can’t get stronger. You just have to be a little more aggressive. If some jerk pushes you, push back. That’s what we’re gonna do to those ponies someday, right?”

Chamella wiped away the tears that had formed in her pink eyes. “Yeah. Thanks, Shade.”

She wrapped her hooves around his neck and hugged him, grateful for his reassuring words.

“Geez, knock it off, Chamella. That’s embarrassing,” Shade groaned, blushing.

She planted her hooves on the ground once more and giggled sheepishly. “Oops, sorry.”

----- ----- -----

Thinking back on how many times Shade had stuck up for her when they were still little made her eyes start welling up again. She had cried silently almost everyday since he left. The only way she managed to get any rest was to cry herself to sleep.

She needed Shade. She had always needed him. She was too helpless to defend herself when some other changeling would yell at her for one reason or another, calling her weak and useless. Shade always protected her. Other than Chrysalis, he was the only one that she could depend on. Friends were a rare thing for changelings to have. And now he was gone.

Guise was still her friend, but he didn’t go to the lengths that Shade had to protect her. Guise usually just told her to suck it up. And even he was gone now, leaving the day before to find what he predicted to be Shade’s dead body. Would he meet the same fate? Would she truly be left all alone with no one to protect her?

“Guess who’s baaaack.”

The familiar, self-absorbed tone of her one remaining friend was enough to get her to move more than she even had the energy to.

Guise stood cockily in the entrance to her hut wearing a smug grin as he levitated Chamella’s half eaten apple to his mouth and took a big, toothy bite of it.

“Guise, you’re back!” she attempted to shout, but found her hoarse throat stymied her efforts.

“Yep, I’m not about to up and leave ya like he did. I’m a true friend.”

Chamella shot the spiky-maned male a harsh glare. She didn’t like him talking about Shade that way. Even if he did leave, she still considered Shade her closest friend. Guise would never take his place.

She let her anger subside for the moment to ask the burning question that was on her mind.

“D-Did you find him? Is he okay?”

Guise chuckled darkly. “Boy, do I have news for you.”

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