Faint Glimmer

by SoloBrony

First published

The final sidestory to The Queen and I. Are you sure you want to read this?

Final story of the Iqqelverse

Are you sure you want to hear this story? Everyone's already got a happy ending, so why can't we just let things be?

Alright, alright... if you're absolutely sure. Let's see, then...

We're sure

View Online

Alright, alright... if you're absolutely sure. Let's see, then... it was around thirteen years ago, now, I think.

I was relaxing in my study, puffing on a pipe, reading over incident reports, and contemplating my own loneliness as I considered the next prank I might play on Celestia or my direct superiors. That was my state when I heard a sharp, urgent rap come at my door, along with a muffled voice. I groaned and irritably set my pipe down as I stood up.

Who in Equestria would be bothering me at this hour, in the middle of a rainstorm? Some officer must have screwed up again, I figured, and come running to old Talon for help. I began contemplating what my snarky reply would be if it was Shining Armor again as I made my way to the door. The insistent, panicked knocking continued as I grumbled and opened it.

And my breath hitched when I saw the grey-coated, blue-maned mare on the other side. Her black cloak, wild blue eyes, and terrified expression almost defied recognition. Almost.

"Jack? What's wrong?!"

Jacqueline mumbled something and pitched forward, and I only just barely caught her in my hooves. Countless emotions and thoughts ran through my mind – anger at her sudden departure two years ago, confusion at her sudden appearance, hope that this meant our friendship could pick up where it left off, fear at her apparent distress – but I shut and locked the door, and carried her into the study without question. As I laid her on the couch, her cloak slid open.

She had an arrow lodged in her barrel.

I leapt back in a panic, and flailed about for a second in confusion before dashing off to the bathroom. I came back fumbling medical supplies in my mouth and hooves. Jacqueline groaned in protest as I broke the arrowshaft and set about removing the arrowhead, and passed into exhausted sleep once I had bandaged her. My task finished, I sat back and let panic overtake me.

Who had shot her? Why? Was her cover compromised? Was mine? I considered trying to flee with her, but I realized she was in no state to move.

I deeply wished to let her rest, but I knew I needed answers, now. I hesitantly drew smelling salts from my supplies, and held them under her nose while gently nudging her cheek. On the third attempt, her eyes snapped open, unfocused and scared, and darted all around the room. She smacked my hoof away and tried to sit up, then groaned and clutched her barrel as she reclined back to the couch and scrunched her face together. She hissed out her words between heaving breaths.

"Where... am I?!"

I saw her horn light up as she wrenched her eyes open, but the aura guttered out as her eyes focused on my face. The fear on her face gave way to concern. She laid back into the couch a bit and took a few deep breaths before speaking again.

"Am—Talon... how long have I been out?"

I started at hearing her nearly say my real name. No one was around, but it was utterly unlike her to take such a risk.

"Only a few minutes."

She nodded quickly, and began trying to sit up again.

"He's after me, he's after me. We need to get... get out of here..."

She wobbled in her upright position, and slowly sank back to the couch. I scooted closer to her and cradled her head, and that's when I realized something that had only unconsciously occurred to me as I had operated on her.

She was nearly room-temperature. She barely gave off any heat.

"Talon... I think I've lost too much blood..."

She and I locked eyes. While I had been operating on her, waking her up, I had been on autopilot – doing what the situation required, like I was trained. It had all been too much to take in – her sudden appearance, her injury – but now I had to face the real weight of the situation. My friend was dying. I considered asking her what happened, or what she was afraid of, but I just stared at her.

What's the right thing to say when you won't ever see someone again?

She raised a hoof to my cheek and shook her head. I realized she was crying.

"Talon... Ammon... I'm sorry. I'm sorry I left..."

She trailed off, still trying to speak and rubbing my face. I clutched her hoof and shook my head.

"No, no, Jack, it's fine. I understood your reasons, okay? I was... I was angry, but I understood."

Jack sniffled and gently lowered her hoof. She relaxed into the couch and shuddered. When she spoke again, her voice was weak and distant.

"I trusted you. It was just her I didn't trust. I wanted to protect them—"

I squeezed her hoof.

"I know."

She sniffled and looked over at me again, though her eyes were wandering around, like she couldn't focus.

"They're gone... they're gone. Ammon, you're all that's left. Please live."

"W... what? What do you mean they're gone?"

Her jaw worked soundlessly a few times, and her eyes darted around the room like she saw the shadows moving. Her eyelids worked their way shut. I panicked, and threw my hooves around her, shaking her awake. I heard her take a deep breath, and mutter.

"I love you, Ammon."

I froze, caught between confusion and desperation. I barely managed to stammer out a reply.

"I... I love you too, Jack."

She smiled faintly, and sighed. I nudged her, but she didn't respond. I panicked, shaking her and calling her name, but it was too late. When I had exhausted my energy, I just held her, and my voice came out hoarse and wet.

"... Jack?"

It's not always easy.

View Online

I was relaxing in the living room, sipping on some cider and reading over the latest academy reports when I heard the door slam.


I jumped out of my chair and wheeled around in time to see the familiar sight of a grey-coated, blue-maned filly.

Familiar aside from her lack of fangs and puffy, red eyes.

"Ver? What's wrong?"

Laverna froze stiff in surprise, eyes wide, and then waved a hoof at me frantically.

"Nothing, nothing! Just... uhh... aren't you supposed to be in Cloudsdale, Soarin?"

She wasn't expectin' me here, huh?

"Ver, talk to me."

Laverna shook her head and averted her eyes.

"Look, dude, I didn't know you'd be here today. I wasn't thinking. Don't worry about it, 'kay? It's no big deal."

I almost objected, but stopped myself. I chewed over my lip for a second.

Still getting the hang of where the lines are. I guess it's her business...

"... If that's what you want, sure. You wanna do anything to take your mind off it?"

Laverna looked at me for a moment, and sniffled. Then she shook her head.

"Nah, man... thanks, though. Like I said, don't let it bug you. I'm just being stupid, it's nothing. I'm gonna... just go clear my head."

I nodded and grinned at her, though it wasn't genuine.

"Alright, kiddo. Won't bug me if it doesn't bug you."

Laverna nodded and sauntered to her room.

Okay, don't worry about it.

I spent the next half-hour worrying about it intensely.

I was still staring at the reports and running possible disaster-scenarios through my mind when Laverna quietly strode back into the room.

"So, uh... Soarin? You wanna go, like... get some food?"

I looked up from the table at her, and found myself drawn to the lack of fangs again.

That struck me as weird when she first got back, but I figured there was a reason... she should have turned back by now.

Laverna shifted uncomfortably and I realized I was kinda staring.

"What? Something wrong?"

"Ver, where're your fangs? And... did you change your face and other stuff, too?"

It was hard to be sure, but it seemed like she was taller and more lithe than usual. Laverna cringed and blushed terribly, averting her eyes and shaking her head.

"So what? Dude, I went around transformed all the time in public before. It's no biggie."

"Yeah, before. If we're going to hit the town, I'd rather be seen with you, Ver."

Laverna squared off and frowned up at me indignantly.

"So, what, you get to dictate what I should look like, now?"


Ah, ponyfeathers. This is gonna be complicated, isn't it?

Laverna snorted and rolled her eyes.

"I don't get to decide what to look like when we head out together. That's what you're sayin', right?"

"I just mean you shouldn't go out transformed. Twilight said it was important that you spend most of your time in the form you're most comfortable with, remember?"

Laverna grimaced.

"So what, man? Right now, I'm most comfortable looking like this, alright?"

I groaned and rubbed my forehead with a hoof.

I have no idea what the right way to handle this is.

After rubbing my head for a few moments, I stopped and looked at Laverna.

"Look... I have no idea what the right way to handle this is. I may have zoned out a few times during Twilight's lectures, but I know that's not how your transformations work... but if this is something you need, I mean, I dunno. I just don't want to see you hurting yourself."

Laverna shuffled and shrugged.

"Whatever. It's not your problem, don't worry about it."

Finally, something simple to respond to.

"Ver, if it's your problem, it's my problem."

Laverna groaned and rolled her eyes, staring at the ceiling. Her voice came out exasperated.

"What, 'cuz you're my guardian?"

"No. Because I'm your friend."

Laverna flinched a bit from that, and I stood up and strode over to the couch. I patted a seat next to me, and she reluctantly parked herself on it.

"Look... I get that it's your business, and all, but could you just tell me what's going on?"

Laverna shrugged, looking away.

"Nothing, I just feel more comfortable this way now."

"Comfortable for you, or comfortable for everypony else?"

Hey, that almost sounded profound.

Laverna fidgeted, and looked at the floor. She opened her mouth, then frowned and closed it. I was about to say something when she unexpectedly leaned in against me and pulled one of my wings over her.

"I'm not... actually a changeling, right? Twilight was wrong about that, wasn't she?"

I blinked at her in confusion, then cringed as I started to suspect what was going on.

Someone must have said something nasty to her about it.

"Ver... I'm sorry. We don't know who your parents are, or what they are, but it wouldn't matter if you were."

Smooth phrasing, me. Ugh.

I felt her shudder through my wing as her breath hitched.

"It matters to me. I'm not a monster."

Both of us were quiet for a few moments, and I felt how ragged her breathing was.

That's not just her being upset, is it? Does she have transformation fatigue...? Has she been transformed all day?

I cleared my throat and tried to speak carefully.

"Ver... I hope you know I'm here for you."

Laverna sniffled and chuckled.

"Uh-oh. That sounds like you're about to say something I won't like."

"Huh? No, I just... I dunno. Where do I even go with this? It's a lot to take in, y'know? I didn't know you felt that way."

"Well why wouldn't I?! Would you want to be a changeling?!"

"That's the thing, I just don't get why it's such a big deal."

I felt Laverna huffing, and I hurried to add something.

"Could you explain it to me? Please?"

Soooo bad at this...

"Dude... changelings invaded Canterlot, took two princesses hostage, tried to take over and suck everypony dry of their love... what in Tartarus is that all about? And with the exchange program, we've found out that there's all kinds of other messed-up stuff they've been doing for years. It's like their whole society just exists to make life suck for everypony else. How could you be okay being part of that?"

"Well, did you mean being a changeling physically, or being from their hive?"

Laverna blew a raspberry.

"Totally missing my point, dude."

I felt somewhat numb, and shook my head.

"I'm serious. When you asked if I'd want to be a changeling, I thought you meant physically. Isn't that what you meant?"

"I know what you're going to say, but—"

"Ver, do you want to be a monster?"

Laverna pushed away from my torso, though she was still wrapped in my wing, and looked at me indignantly. I noticed her eyes were glassy and wet.

"No, dude! That's basically what I'm saying!"

"Then you aren't one. End of story."

Laverna just squinted at me in confusion, and I looked away from her while pulling her in tight.

"Ver, monsters don't spend their time fretting about whether or not they're monsters. They just hurt ponies. The stuff you're talking about... it's messed up, yeah. And the fact that you know it's messed up, that you don't want any part of all of that... that means you aren't the type to do that stuff."

Ver sniffled and I felt her head nuzzle into my side.

"Hmph. That's easy for you to say."

I scrambled mentally to find a point of comparison. I came up blank until I remembered something that had bothered me in a similar way, once.

"Ver, you remember the lessons about Sombra, right? All the awful stuff he did?"

Laverna was quiet for a few moments, but then nodded. I sighed.

"When I heard about everything he'd done... I dunno. It changed how I thought about ponies. 'Wow', I thought. 'We're capable of some terrible stuff.' I kinda looked at everypony a little different for a while. But then I realized something."

There were a few moments of silence. I could tell Laverna was hesitant to encourage me to go on, but her curiosity finally got the better of her.

"What did you realize?"

"Back in the old days, before Equestria, a pegasus like me would probably have said, 'well, Sombra is a unicorn'. So we would have been suspicious of the unicorns, because Sombra showed how bad they could be. But that had nothing to do with us, because we're pegasi."

"What? That makes no sense, though! It's not like unicorns think differently from pegasi!"

I shrugged.


"Sure, but that was just how ponies divided things up back then. Now, we just think of ourselves as ponies, so my immediate reaction was to think about how Sombra's actions reflected on me... on all of us. But in the end, Sombra was just Sombra. He was his own thing – and we've seen our share of villains from all walks of life in Equestria. There's no reason to think changelings think differently either, so... yeah."

"Soarin, their entire society took part in the invasion. It's not like that was just an isolated thing, just one pony acting on their own. It's not the same! It kinda seems like they don't care. Or can't care."

"Well... you care. So if you're a changeling, then that's not the issue. That's why I said it doesn't matter; it's not like you're just going to change and start, I dunno, stealing love or whatever just because we find out more about you. Ver, you're you – nopony can take that from you, and nopony else can make you look bad. Nah, they all look bad when they have to be measured against you – think on that!"

Laverna giggled and jabbed me lightly in the ribs. The pain was worth the relief of hearing her laugh again.

"Okay, yeah, it does suck to be stacked against all this awesome."

We were quiet for a while then, just sitting together. I found myself thinking over the conversation and bucking myself over what seemed like stupid mistakes, wondering if I'd made her feel better or worse.

After a good five minutes of suspense, Laverna finally spoke up again.

"You've got a lot of faith in me, huh?"

I shrugged.

"I dunno if I'd call it faith. Just, I've seen how you act, and you've earned my trust. I dunno if that counts or not, heh."

Should've just said 'yes', idiot!

Laverna chuckled.

"Thanks, Soarin. I think... I'mma ask Twilight to stop teaching me about changeling stuff."

I chewed my lip for a bit, then nodded.

"She's been emphasizing that stuff for you?"

"Yeah, she thought it was important for me to 'connect with my likely heritage' or whatever. But I don't really 'connect' with any of that stuff. Actually it just disgusts me!"

That last bit had come out hot and angry. Laverna was breathing hard, and tried to steady herself. I chewed my lip.


"No, go ahead. It's okay to say what you feel. So... it disgusts you?"

"Well... yeah! All of the horrible stuff they've done, and the fact that they did it with a straight face, basically – like, there aren't records of rebellions or protests or anything, and the whole Ceremony of Names thing with the changelings having to pick a role and stick with it for life... it's all just so messed-up! The more I learn about it the more I want to back away and put as much space between that stuff and me as I can. I can't even think about it without my skin crawling. I don't know why, it just... it really rubs me the wrong way. I don't get how a whole society could be so messed-up all at once like that. And like you said, if they really aren't that different from ponies, is there some way that could happen here?"

I chewed my lip over a bit harder, and sighed, unsure of what to say or do.

"I've worried about the same kind of thing. You feel really strongly about this, huh?"

Laverna's voice came out watery, but hot with anger.

"Of course I do! Celestia and Twilight have been nothing but angels to me, the idea of someone screwing with them like that, it makes me want to strangle something! How am I supposed to 'relate' to this 'culture' when they tried to attack the only good ponies I've ever met? Maybe if I'd just kept my distance, if I wasn't getting tied up in this, I'd be like, 'okay, I don't understand you at all, but whatever'. But I guess Twilight telling me 'oh, these are your ponies, you should study them', well, I took a close and hard look, a lot more than I think I probably should have. And I'm just sick of it. All it's made me feel is sick. Revulsion and contempt – that's what I feel for the hive, some mix of those two."

I flinched slightly from the onslaught, partially because of how unsure I was of how to proceed.

"Whoa. It sounds like you've been bottling this stuff up for a while, huh? Why didn't you say something sooner?"

That got an entirely unexpected reaction. Laverna, so hot with anger a moment before, started shaking violently in my wing until she just started crying into me. I froze in alarm, unsure of what to do, and my mind uselessly zipped to half-remembered methods for calming crying foals.

So bad at this! So bad at this!

I settled for gently brushing her deep blue mane while trying not to panic. As her own violent sobs began to subside, I realized that I felt horrible. A crushing, draining sensation had snuck into my chest during our conversation – a reaction both to Laverna's suffering and my shared frustration with the whole situation. Eventually, Laverna's hoarse voice came out again.

"I figured as soon as I said anything, somepony would jump all over me telling me how wrong I am, or something. There's some stupid reason why I'm not allowed to be angry or put off. I'm sure I'll be told I need to go meet and talk to some changelings, or go study more, and I don't want to study more. I've read way too much as it is. I wish I could just unlearn all of this junk about changelings! I don't want Twilight to tell me I need to be like them. I'm not like them. I'm not a monster. I'm not a monster."

I pulled her close.

"I know, I know. You're not a monster, Ver. You're fine, okay? And I don't think Twilight or anypony else is going to tell you to be like that, okay? Nopony wants you to change. We love you the way you are."

I cradled her while speaking, and kept her close while she cried the rest of it out.

I am the queen

View Online

I'm a monster. I'm a monster. Make sure they know it, don't let them forget it. I can do this.

I took a deep, steadying breath, and shook my head.

"I can take it from here, Iqqel. Thank you."

"Yes, my queen."

I felt Iqqel's steadying embrace leave me, and I heard her wings buzz her a few feet to my right. Behind me, I could hear the breaths of my guests. I drew another deep breath and opened my eyes, taking care to keep them pointed forward.

It was harder than it sounds, since I couldn't see anything.

"Please remember what I said, everyone. I..."

I trailed off. I had reacquired a powerful, regal voice – albeit not the many-layered timbre I'd had before – but it merely served to mask the uncertainty I felt. Twilight's voice came from behind me, reassuringly.

"Don't worry, Cecily. Queen Cecily. We trust you."

I nodded, and took a sharp breath.

"Alright. Iqqel... please announce for me. I am ready."

"Yes, my queen."

I saw the deep blue and red glow I associated with Iqqel zip forward, but I forced myself not to track the motion. I heard the great doors open in front of me. Twenty-two strides forward and I would be standing right at the edge of the balcony of the spire – precisely twenty-two, no more, no less, even stride. Iqqel had coached me through it for weeks, helping me regain my ability to walk straight, helping me to shut out the bombardment of sounds and smells and... sights, such as they were.

Iqqel always thinks of everything... here's hoping I don't lengthen my strides because of adrenaline and walk right over the cliff.

My keen ears picked up the sounds of changelings muttering at the foot of the Spire. Iqqel's announcement of my arrival drew cheers and excitement from the crowd – but I could tell there was trepidation, as well. I smiled until my fangs were fully visible.

I'll turn that trepidation into terror, and that terror into adoration. Watch this, Celestia.

I began my stride forward – not lazy, not hurried, and certainly not weak. With each step I sent a faint tremor through the stone, like a sonar pinging off of the luminite fragments embedded into the Spire. No one in or near the Spire could fail to hear my approach, and the crowd grew silent.

They've never been subject to such a spectacle from me. Well, it's time they learn precisely who their queen is.

Twenty-two. I stopped, and I could feel from the tremor that I was less than six inches from the edge. Below me, I saw a swirling pool of blue, with flecks of red and gold caught in the currents. I softened my smile from predatory to caring.

I can't see my subjects, but I can see what matters.

I sent a faint charge through my horn, and when I spoke my voice came out as conversational, soft – yet wove through the crowd, whispering in every ear.

"Subjects. It has been too long since I have addressed all of you in this fashion – but your queen has returned!"

A cacophony of cheers, whistling, stomping, and buzzing reached my ears. I knew it was as much for my benefit as it was out of true affection.

Many of them have been terribly worried about me. Well, I'll put a stop to that!

I patiently smiled down on them until the sound subsided. My eyes wandered over the pool beneath me – I hoped the action would look like I was scanning the individuals in the crowd, though that was impossible for me now – and nodded.

"I appreciate your show of support. You know the road has been long, and fraught with difficulties – but it is behind us now. It is time to embrace a new, glorious chapter in the history of our society. Before, it was said that my epithet would be Chrysalis the Reformer – but my past accomplishments pale in comparison to what lies ahead!"

Another chorus of cheers rose up to greet me, and I could see the intensity of my subjects' affection, but my keen ears also picked out murmurs hidden beneath the mirth.

"I am sure all of you are aware of the pain that has been inflicted by my near-absence from duty. Dissent, uncertainty – there are those among you who say I am no longer a true queen, or who question the future of our hive. Even those still truly loyal have turned to questioning my ability to lead, to rule, and to care for my subjects."

Hisses and snarls rose up from various parts of the crowd, though not with the same intensity as the cheering. More murmurs rippled through the crowd, and my smile unintentionally grew wide open and predatory again.

It isn't like a queen to bring up dissent openly, is it? They have no idea where I'm going with this.


"I'm sure all of you only want what's best for the hive. So it is in the best interests of the hive that I clear up this misunderstanding, so that we can all move forward. First, let me address those who seem to feel I've grown too weak to lead, or protect, my subjects... especially from those threats which have grown within our own hive."

The crowd was silent, focused on my every word. They could feel it, now – something big was coming.

I'm treading dangerous waters, here, conflating those who question my leadership with outright seditious sentiments. I hope the Speakers can clarify and soften my meaning when this is all done.

With that cheerful thought, I took a deep breath. My smile vanished, because I did not hold any mirth for what I was about to do.

"Keko-Sessar. Come up here immediately."

Murmurs and gasps rippled through the crowd. I picked out an irregularity in the blue whirlpool beneath me, and gently sent a spark to my horn, tuning most of it out. I was able to track a small mote of light, gold and blue, which detached itself from the pool and rose up to the Spire. I gestured to a position on my left, and I heard Sessar's wings buzz to that position, and the soft clop of his hooves on stone. I heard his chitin creak ever-so-faintly as he bowed.

"I am here, my queen."

"Sessar. You are one of my greatest warriors and commanders, and have great sway within my hive. Were it not so, your recent... concern for my health would not be worthy of my notice. No, my subjects – speak your minds freely, and voice your concerns and misgivings. All of you... except those whose words hold such sway that they can cause fear, and panic, to spread among the hive. Sessar, you should have known better."

I augmented Sessar's voice like my own, and his anguished reply was clear for all to hear.

"I am ashamed, my queen."

I fought to keep my face neutral and passive.

I hate every bit of this... but it's what Sessar would want me to do. We both know what's at stake, here. I can do this... I must do this.

I took a deep breath, and nodded.

"Were it not for the persistence of these rumors, I would have reproached you in private. This would be the end of it. But words are no longer enough."

Gasps and murmurs again erupted through the crowd. My eyes flicked around, straining to pick up the details, but they could not. I could hear Sessar's heartrate pick up, hear his breathing become lighter and quicker. I let that fear simmer for a few moments before I spoke again.

"Sessar. Your words were a challenge to my fitness as a soveriegn and my strength as a defender of the hive. I accept your challenge."

Cries of surprise and alarm went through the crowd. I heard Sessar shrink back a couple of steps before stopping himself. I could not tell if he was holding his wings open – the traditional sign that a changeling wished to speak – but I decided to split the difference.

"What say you, Sessar?"

"My queen, I would gladly hurl myself from this spire for you. I beg you to allow me that, rather than force me to even try to harm you."

I shook my head firmly.

"You will fight, Sessar. You will honor me with your efforts."

"But I can't! I can't... I can't kill you!"

At that, though there was no sincerity in it, I opened my mouth as far as I could and threw my head back. My laughter – cold, cruel, well-practiced – rang out across the entire hive. Not even a nymph in the hatchery could have missed it. After a few moments, I turned my gaze back to him, still smiling – all shark and no warmth.

"True, but you will try. You will try with everything you have, because that is the order I have given you. You will not challenge me with words and then throw yourself to destruction rather than face me openly. No, Sessar – you started this, and I command you to finish it. Serve as my example, and wash away the doubts you helped feed."

I heard Sessar choke back a sob, and I felt a horrible lance of grief strike through my chest. I wasn't sure if I had winced visibly – I certainly tried not to – but the cruelty of this display hurt me in ways I did not know I could hurt.

After all, I've never deliberately harmed my subjects, before...

"Yes... my queen. I obey your every will."

I heard Sessar march away until he was the appropriate distance, and I heard him unsheathe his sword – an incredible luminite artifact, whose origins had been lost to time, but always passed down to our fiercest warriors – and take his stance. His sword was a gleaming white lance to my sight. All around us, I heard shallow breaths, or no breathing at all – Celestia, Twilight, Cadance, and Chiri were certainly holding their breath. Iqqel, on the other hand, sounded like she was trying to steal all of the air for herself.

"My queen. I am ready."

I tilted my head to the side, my expression still a cold neutral.

"Are you? Sessar, I don't think you know what it means to challenge your queen. It means to challenge the very foundation of the hive beneath your hooves... so I recommend that you fly!"

I brought a hoof up and slammed it down faster than the blink of an eye. A horrible crash filled my ears, and I felt the ground before me split open; terrible fissures erupted, until the entire half of the balcony under Sessar was blown off by exploding shards of luminite. The stones pitched down off of the far side of the Spire, towards changeling homes below, and the crashing sounds of impact sent terror and alarm through everyone watching. Each sound pinged in my head, adding up to a mild headache.

I heard Sessar buzz side to side, dodging shards of rock that had been flung upwards by my display. I sent a spark through my horn, and all sounds of his movement ceased – though I could see he had managed to land on a nearby outcropping, where he seemed to be writhing on the ground. His sword, meanwhile, fell from his grasp and tumbled out of sight.

"It is to challenge the very air that gives you breath!"

I saw a white flame engulf Sessar as he began burning his internal reserves of love energy to sustain himself. He stood up, and he began charging at me, hissing. For all that he was the fastest warrior we had ever trained in the air, his progress on the ground was so slow as to be agonizing for me; it took him more than a full second to clear the air-dispersal field I had conjured. When he was almost upon me, I grabbed him in my telekinesis, and floated him mere inches from my face.

"But most of all... it is to reject the love she has given you. That the hive has given you."

At such close range, I could see him with some clarity. I could see him still dutifully struggling against my telekinesis, but at my words he nodded and waited. I reached out and pressed a hoof to his chest.

And just like that, the white flame was gone, and he crumpled to the ground with a crunchy thump. I scooped his body up with one of my hooves, and frowned at the body, balanced lifelessly on my extended hoof. I could hear horrified gasps and cries coming from his family and close associates, but I pushed that as far down in my mind as I could.

"Hmm. It would seem Sessar did not have the strength in himself to challenge the queen after all. Perhaps those saying I am too weak to defend you should take note of this failure – though, perhaps they think I am getting too thin, and wish to provide me with a snack!"

With that, I flicked my hoof upwards, sending a spark through my horn to empower the motion. The body flew lifelessly through the air, and fell off the far side of the Spire.

I could hear Twilight's breathing becoming labored, and mentally thanked her for not ruining everything by challenging me here. I looked out over the crowd – which I had suggested she do when she doubted me most – and I saw what I'd hoped to see. The gold had intensified, and I heard cheers and excited murmurs rise up.

Time to finish the journey, then.

"My subjects. Fear not any longer; I will not allow anyone to challenge the order we have established. You can rest your minds at ease."

A booming cheer rose from the crowd, and I nodded, though I couldn't force myself to smile. The reaction from the crowd drew a horrified gasp from Twilight. I mentally debated whether to verbalize the point she was missing, but decided it wouldn't dilute the impact of my message to do so.

"I know what I hear from all of you is a cry of relief. You have all labored under the specter of losing your queen, of her being weak or incapable, for too long. You have all lived with unease about sedition, rebels left unchecked and unpunished, for too long. It is something, perhaps, our pony guests do not understand... but I do. We are the hive. We trust each other with our lives, with our hopes and our dreams, with our creations and efforts. That trust permeates our society; it is a trait that is unique to us, I think. When a Maker-nymph in the hatchery leaves behind a mural, they know the next nymph to see it won't wipe it away to write their own; they'll add to it. When you receive food, or love, the Tenders and Feeders know that you're aware of the labor, the struggle, to provide it. They know you will not waste it willingly. We build on each other, we strengthen each other, and that implicit trust is what makes this hive beautiful. To those who think I am overly enamored of pony traditions, who say I don't value the hive – hear me. Our caves are bereft of precious minerals, but we have a gold all our own. We give it to each other freely, but guard it jealously against all threats; it is the currency we strive for, only so we can give it in turn to those who also deserve it. To us, here, in this hive... respect is our greatest resource."

The prolonged cheers of the crowd covered up my quick breathing and moments spent regaining my composure. To my right, I could hear Iqqel fidgeting uncomfortably, as she always did when I spoke spontaneously. I stiffened when Celestia's melodic voice drifted, ever so quietly, into my ears.

"I understand."

Tears welled up in my eyes; a terror I'd not recognized washed out of me with those simple words. I clenched my eyes shut and took a deep breath, trying desperately to regain my composure, and slowly opened them again. I lifted a hoof, and the crowd silenced themselves.

"To those who doubt my capability, some reminders are in order. It is not to disrespect any of you I say this, but I shall also reproach those who mistakenly disrespect my own efforts."

I leaned forward over the crowd, and drew up all of my negative feelings, all of the fear and hatred – mostly at myself – I could, and channeled them into my eyes. The effort intensified my headache, but slowly, the faces of my subjects came into view. Many of them quailed before me – and no wonder, with my eyes suddenly turning red and green – but most watched in fascination. I smiled down on them, and part of me just felt such joy to see them again that I stood there dumbly for a few moments. Then I shook myself free and turned my gaze, now stern, towards the representatives of the Thinkers present.

"Thinkers! Who among you can claim such advancements in luminite engineering or magical theory within the hive as I? Who among you has mastered all of the codices, and can make such claim as to stand as my peer as Grand Historian? Which of you has outshone my political and social theories, and done such grand things for our children? Who could replace me as the Head Instructor of Whitefalls Academy? Present yourselves, if you are out there, that you may be showered with honors for such great achievements!"

Murmurs of assent and bows rippled through the Thinkers. Satisfied, I looked over to the Makers. I stared at them for a few moments, and smirked; many of them smirked and nodded in turn.

"Makers. It is the duty of every queen to remake the hive, and so she is bequeathed the title of Supreme Artisan. Many of my predecessors neglected this duty, but I have instead embraced it. No queen has ever reshaped so much of the hive, creating caves of beauty and wonder for you to develop further through your arts, as I have. I recently learned that the music I composed as a nymph – once the pride and joy of the hive in its own right – has fascinated and captivated Equestrians for many years, as well. Strive for this, brethren; when one of you has the fame – but more importantly, the respect – for your works as I have earned for mine, I think it shall be one of the happiest accomplishments of my tenure. But it is not so, yet."

Nods and bows again rippled through the crowd – though some of the dancers had their own ideas on how to bow properly. I turned my eyes towards the Workers and Tenders both.

"Workers. Tenders. I address you both, because my point is shared between you. Those who believe I an insufficient as a provider of the hive, tell me; do you hunger? Are your duties too difficult, yet too direly needed to be lessened? More importantly, who among you believes you have the skill and perspective to organize the thousands who pursue your duties? I know all of you have suffered under a bad foreling at least once, so you know the value of good leadership in your roles. It eases the burden of a long day's work when you don't need to fret over what the others are doing. So who will take my place in organizing the entire harvest this year?"

The Workers let out a proper workling's whoop, and many of them removed their hardhats and waved them to me. The Tenders, for their part, mostly waved and nodded.

They always were the least formal of the castes.

I glanced over to the Speaker caste, and just shook my head.

"To the Speakers I say nothing, for my actions speak for themselves, and they are most keenly aware of it."

The uniformity and depth of their bows actually drew a small, amused eyeroll from me. I then turned my attention to the changelings on the perimeter.

"Feeders, reveal yourselves."

The other castes found themselves surrounded by a ring of red eyes and smirking faces, much to their surprise. The Feeders had not organized into a single, small group, but had instead deliberately placed themselves all over the fringes. It had an imposing effect, and I smiled at their cunning.

"I know you need no address, for none of you have spoken out against me in the slightest. It is not the Feeder way to become embroiled in politics unnecessarily. To the rest of the hive, I ask you recognize their example; the Feeders worry not over hypotheticals, and await the revelation of a true, tangible threat or harm to the hive to speak their minds. Feeders... you are the smallest caste, the one least seen and least recognized, but your silence speaks louder than the murmurs of the rest of the hive. 'Endure in silence'. Some changelings may think your motto means you never question or weigh in on matters, but we know better. Thank you, for your silent vote of confidence."

Simple nods and sincere smiles were the response I got, and it got the same in turn. Finally, I turned my gaze to the Warrior caste.

"Warriors. Ours has been the most difficult relationship in the recent history of the hive, and I recognize your fears. I am blind – short-lived magic notwithstanding – and our invasion was a failure. Now, there is concern that you will be irrelevant, as we have pursued the path of peace. Warriors, the future is always an uncertainty, fraught with perils. It is your job, more than any other caste, to defend us from the worst possibilities. None of us can know what lies ahead, but know that you have my respect – the respect of all of us. Your concerns will not go unaddressed, and your homes will not be undefended while I draw breath. Not only because my wrath is terrible, for it is not just destruction with which I defend you..."

I lit my horn up, and my headache intensified terribly. I grit my teeth, but my expression remained passive, as though it was no effort at all to drag all of the stones which had fallen from the Spire – and been caught in the luminite-powered magical net I had spread out beforehand – back up. I made it look easy to fuse the stone of the Spire back together, to levitate Sessar's body back up and lay it on the ground at my feet. It was a relief to finally release that net. I gazed down at Sessar, and gently placed a hoof on his thorax.

"... it is construction, creation, and healing as well."

Sessar's love reserves, which I had suppressed, came back to life, and he snapped awake in a daze. The crowd cheered, and I turned to them with a smile, but a sudden impact to my thorax knocked me slightly off-balance. I frowned in confusion and looked down to see a scuff-mark on my chestplate where Sessar had tried to gore me with his horn, which he was now clutching in pain. He lunged for one of my forelegs with his fangs, and I quickly snapped it out of reach and pinned him down. He flailed and struggled – somewhat a pitiful sight – for a few moments until I realized what was going on.

"Sessar, you lost. The challenge is concluded."

Sessar turned his eyes up at me, and in the position he was in it reminded me of nothing so much as an adorable nymph.

"But it was to the death...?"

"I killed you. I brought you back."

"... Oh. Uh... sorry?"

I rolled my eyes with a smirk and released him, and he scrambled up to his hooves and bowed to me. I could see he was blushing furiously, but shrugged and pointed down to his companions in the crowd.

"Return to your loved ones, Sessar. And thank you."

Sessar hastily thanked me and bowed a few more times before sheepishly flying down into the swarm. I waved down at all of them as I felt my enchantment fading, and my eyesight began to darken progressively.

"All I have left to say, is... I respect all of you. I love all of you. Please, if only for me... love and respect each other, and support each other through this period of change."

Waves and nods came back to me, and I held onto the sight as long as I could. Once it had all faded to darkness and swirling light again, I strode away from the balcony, and returned to the antechamber. I strode forward 45 out of 48 steps before ramming nose-first into a wall. Embarassed, I stumbled around until I felt my cushion, and flopped on it.

Must have been taking longer strides this ti—


Twilight's panicked voice rang out across my antechamber, and brought my headache back with a vengeance. I rubbed my head as I heard Celestia trying to calm the hyperventilating, heaving mare. Then I felt a familiar touch press into my neck and my pain gave way to rest as I heard Iqqel's voice.

"You were amazing. Just rest; I can take it from here, Cecily."


View Online

Everypony in this hive is crazy!

I was still fuming as I made my way out of the antechamber, muttering to myself and gesturing at no one in particular.

She couldn't have at least said, 'Oh, by the way, Twilight, I'm going to kill one of my subjects to assert my authority and make it look like you approve of my actions, but don't worry about it, he'll get better'?! I thought I was going to have a heart attack (even though I am in excellent cardiac health and that makes no sense from a medical standpoint)! Small miracle Sessar and his family aren't up here screaming about—

I paused in my mental rant when I heard approaching voices echoing through the halls.

"And that's when she brought you back."

"Wow. Sounds like I, ah, missed the best part."

"Hah! You know, it's rude to sneak a dirt-nap in while the queen is giving a speech, Sess! Bet you're being summoned to come apologize."

"Yeah, yeah."

Two changelings rounded the corner, chatting amicably. While all of the changelings had donned a uniform, bald appearance for the ceremony, they now had hair out and proud, matching their eyes. The one on the left had a distracting neon-green short cut that seemed perpetually in his face, but I fixated on the blue-eyed, blue-mohawked (can that be a word?) changeling on the right.


The two of them glanced in my direction and caught me gawking, and I quickly straightened myself out and cleared my throat as regally as possible. They both paused and gave short, courteous bows, as Sessar greeted me.

"Ah, Princess Twilight. It's good to see you. What did you think of the queen's speech?"

My jaw clenched itself open and shut several times as I struggled to figure out how to handle this like a proper diplomat, rather than simply bursting into flame and venting my fury on all in my path. I finally managed to carve something resembling a smile and wrench out a vague response.

"I'm still figuring out how to feel about it."

The two changelings rose, and Sessar's green-eyed companion elbowed him in the ribs with a smirk.

"You musta spoiled it for her by gettin' whupped so easy, Sess!"

Sessar frowned at his companion and gestured towards me as he spoke.

"Lellan, she's clearly upset. Now's not the time for jests."

He turned back towards me, taking a few steps, and his gaze softened as he spoke further.

"Princess, please feel free to speak frankly with us. Nothing you say need leave this chamber, but we so rarely hear an Equestrian perspective here, and it is vital that we understand our new allies if we're to have mutual respect and cooperation. I ask you honestly... what did you think?"

I was taken aback by his attitude, but I collected myself quickly. I dropped my fake smile, and took a long, deep breath, letting it out in a long sigh while I collected my thoughts.

"I'm upset. I don't even know if I'm being entirely fair, but... in Equestria, we would never have done something like that. Hurting one of our own subjects, issuing ultimatums, it all came off as a horrible thing to do, terrorizing her own subjects. Cecily – er, Queen Chrysalis – and I are friends, but I've never seen her act that way before, and I just don't know how to mesh it with the protective mare I met. I don't even know how you can stand to be here after what she did – I'd expect you, or your family, or someling to be outraged!"

It's strange to be complimenting Queen Chrysalis on being too kind and gentle for something, but HERE WE ARE!

Both of the changelings were silent. Lellan seemed worried, looking between us, but Sessar merely seemed contemplative. He rubbed at his chin with a hoof, and then spoke, his voice surprisingly delicate.

"Princess, would you care to hear my thoughts?"

I nodded eagerly, hopeful to gain some insight into this whole mess. Sessar set his hoof down and drew a sharp breath before speaking.

"The queen gave me the chance to correct my mistake. She reversed the damage I had inadvertently caused, and she did so in a way that gave confidence to all of us in her abilities. I would gladly have given my life to bring that closure to my fellows – that she found a way to spare me without cheapening the message was a testament to her wisdom and compassion for us."

I chewed over my lip, and considered debating him, but decided against it.

"Thank you for sharing your perspective, Keko-Sessar."

He smiled at me and bowed courteously again.

"My pleasure, princess. And thank you for yours."

The two changelings continued on their progress up the Spire, while I just stood there, dumbfounded.

How could he feel it was appropriate for her to use him as an example, to hurt him... just for speaking his mind about her health?! It's like everyling is brainwashed! There's nothing fair about that!

As I continued descending the Spire, I felt an anxiety growing that Equestria and Hive Chrysalis could never truly culturally integrate.

Are the differences between us too vast? Is the hive too sick for harmony to really take root here? Friendship and harmony are universal... right?

I had just worked myself into an existential lather, passing by countless rooms and changelings. All voices were turned to the topic of the speech, though I only caught bits and pieces of conversations. It was only when I heard a mare crying I stopped, and found myself inching closer to a door despite the impropriety of it. I heard two voices – one faint and tinged by the watery timbre of weeping, and the other clear and strong.

"Do you really mean that?"

"Absolutely. Sweetie, we've been living here for a while, now. I understand what it's like – what she was trying to do. Most ponies probably wouldn't be able to relate, but you didn't marry me for narrowmindedness."

"Thank you..."

I heard some shuffling on the other side, and kept mentally berating myself for eavesdropping while being unable to tear myself away.

That voice... is that Stargazer? Our ambassador to the changelings? Explains why she's in the Spire, but why is she crying?

"Oh, sweetie. Were you really that worried I would take it badly?"

"Yes! But that's not all. Just... what she did there brought up so many bad memories. Of what things were like before, the way previous queens dealt with dissent, the problems that permeate this place... I've been in Equestria so long I'd put it out of my mind. Those old wounds don't heal easily, and I just don't... I didn't want you to see any of that."

I heard sniffling and rustling for a while before Stargazer spoke up again.

"I'm so sorry my home is so screwed-up."

"Oh, sweetie! Don't talk like that. I'm happy that we're here – you remember why we chose to leave Equestria, don't you? Camaraderie. That simple sense of respect between people, everyone doing their part... it just wasn't there in Canterlot. I may get my share of strange looks and shy changelings, but I was shocked that not a single 'ling has had even a single cross word to say about my teaching positions at the academy or university."

"Of course they wouldn't! You do a great job – and besides, that was the queen's territory, appointing you. Everyling knows she has good judgement, and besides, why would anyling bother you for doing your part in the hive?"

"But do you think a changeling wouldn't get a hard time if they went around foals in Equestria?"

"I... guess they would, yeah."

"That respect Chrysalis was talking about... that's what I've been missing. My colleagues at the university here take my work seriously – they take pride in working with me! You've got nothing to apologize for or feel ashamed of, Starry. I've been happy here."

"Heh... it figures. I think that speech was for the benefit of the Equestrians in the audience. Everyling knows that stuff by heart already."

"Well it worked! I sure am glad she took the time to spell out her meaning, if only for our sakes."

The two went silent for a short while, and I almost broke away from the door when I heard Stargazer speak up again, voice still soft.

"I still can't believe Chrysalis sprang a surprise like that in front of her entourage."

"You think their surprise was genuine? I figured it was all staged."

"No way. Infiltrators are trained to spot that stuff. I guess that's why she did it that way; we could all see their reactions were genuine, but none of them stopped her. That made a big statement. She really is in charge."

"Yeah... I love and respect the princesses, but I don't think they'd know how to run this place."

"Were you surprised when she brought Sessar back?"

"Not really. I mean, we know what she's all about. She's an Equestrian at heart, at least as much as anypony."

"I... for a second, I didn't think so. I thought..."

"You thought she was turning into her mom?"

I heard a choked sob, and backed away from the door. I put some distance between myself and the corridor, and found myself standing in a hallway, gazing out at the clusters from a huge window. I stood there for a few minutes, just thinking things over.

There's so much pain, here. I wonder how much more is waiting to be unearthed, with all the secret-keeping that goes on in this place. But, there's also a lot of beauty here – not the type I'm used to looking for, but a kind of harmony all its own. At least... she's trying. She's trying, and she understands this place better than I do.

I took a bracing breath, and leapt out of the window, spreading my wings. I began ascending the Spire quickly.

My friend needs me.

It didn't take me long to reach the top. I perched in a window near Cecily's office and spotted Iqqel speaking with some of the Caste representatives. I waited patiently, and it wasn't long before she spotted me and flew over.

"You need something?"

Her brusque tone made me wince, but I knew her irritation was justified.

"I-I... wanted to apologize to Cecily for my outburst."

Iqqel just buzzed in place for a second, like a stuck machine. Her purple eyes bore into me until she finally blinked and adjusted her glasses, seeming flustered.

"Oh. Well. I believe she's free. Go ahead."

Iqqel made a slightly-faster-than-necessary retreat to her other duties, and I sighed as I crossed to Cecily's office doorway.

I wish that hadn't surprised her so much... it's not that strange that I'd want to apologize for something, is it?

I was still mentally evaluating whether I had been arrogant in the hive when I entered the office. I saw Cecily embracing Sessar, who seemed a bit unsure what to do with himself.

"I'm so, so sorry. I never wanted to hurt you. You know that, right?"

Sessar's knit brows and forced smile told me he had no idea how to handle this situation.

"I, er, certainly, my queen. Really, really, no apology is necessary. I am thankful that you gave me the chance to—"

"An apology is necessary! You're not expendable. None of you are expendable. Please don't ever think of yourself that way, please don't think I think of you that way. I know you understand why I did it, but... please, if just for my sake, understand that I didn't want to hurt you."

I just stood there awkwardly, glancing around the office like I was afraid someone would judge me.

Dangit, I don't want to eavesdrop again, but I'm not sure if I should interrupt!

"My queen, my only regret in your actions is that they brought you such distress. I am a soldier. Facing some temporary fear is the least of my concerns in service to the hive."

Starting to see why he's regarded so highly as a soldier. Talk about unwavering focus on commitment.

The entire spectacle was just making me feel worse about my own position in things, and I finally stepped forward and cleared my throat. Cecily's ears shot up and she released Sessar immediately, blushing furiously.

"Oh! Er, who's there? Iqqel—no, not Iqqel..."

I smiled uneasily at Sessar, who seemed relieved to have been released, and looked back to Cecily before speaking. Her eyes searched the area around me, like she was trying to pick me out in a dark room.

"It's me—er, that is, it's Twilight."


Cecily's ears drooped, and she curled back a little. I strode forward and gently placed a hoof on her shoulder.

"Cecily, I came to apologize. My reaction was..."

Misguided? No... rude? No...

I found myself at a loss for words for a moment. I glanced at Sessar, and he just shrugged helplessly. I took a deep breath.

"... wrong, I guess. You had just gone through a really difficult, painful... thing, doing your best for your people, and I should have trusted you and been more respectful. I'm sorry."

Cecily looked up in response, her face twisted in pain and confusion. She seemed to be trying to make eye contact just a little left of my face.

"No! I mean, I understood your reaction, it made sense. I'm still not sure what I did was right, I just, I thought... it seemed like the best... I don't know."

"Cecily, at the very least, your speech helped me to recognize something I hadn't before. I see a beauty here that I wouldn't have, otherwise. And... yeah, okay, the bit with Sessar freaked me out a lot. But I understand that there's still a lot of... pain here. There are wounds that run deep, and they don't heal in a day. A lot is changing, and you had to make sure everyling knew what was going to stay the same, give them a point of their culture to focus on preserving. It's not how I would have handled it, but that's why I'm not in charge here. Cecily, whatever you need to do, I'm going to be here for you. I needed to make sure you still knew that."

I found myself tearing up at the end of my little speech despite myself. Cecily pulled me into a hug, and we just stayed that way for a few seconds before Sessar's voice reached us.

"Pain, huh. That's a good way to put it. You really had a change of heart, huh, Princess?"

I gently broke from Cecily and nodded to him.

"Yeah... Astra set me straight, heh."

Cecily perked up at that.

"Astra's been a godsend at the academy. She really does understand our culture so easily. I'm glad we had her to represent us to you."

I immediately flushed and looked around a bit nervously.

"Oh, er, she didn't... she wasn't really aware I was listening. I just caught the conversation while passing by."

Sessar made an appreciative sturgeon expression and nodded.

"Covert intel-gathering to assess the situation and make your next move. You ponies keep impressing me."

Both Cecily and I looked at him (or approximately in his direction) with mystified expressions. He glanced around nervously and smiled unconvincingly.

"Oh, er... I think I'll leave you two be, your majesties."

As he beat a hasty retreat, Cecily and I shared a discreet chuckle at his expense. Cecily sighed as she leaned back on her couch.

"He's always been a bit stiff around authority figures. But, Twilight, thank you for coming back up here to tell me that. It means a lot."

"I wouldn't be much of a Princess of Friendship if I didn't. I guess it was always easy for me to just think of the hive as... sick, I guess. Needing to be cured by Equestria. I mean, I wanted to understand your culture and customs, but in the back of my mind—"

"We were always the ones who invaded Canterlot, terrified everypony, and nearly cost you everything."

I nodded, then realized the gesture was pointless and sighed.

"Yeah. I'm sorry. I kept thinking that just couldn't happen in a society that understood harmony, which was what led to the whole friendship duplicate thing. Things are a lot more complicated than that."

Cecily nodded, frowning.

"I was always a bit of a misfit around here as a nymph. I related to Equestrian culture much more deeply, and some of that persists even now. I want to lead my people to a better future, but sometimes I feel almost as lost as you. I finally had to accept that, if I'm going to continue being queen... I need to be able to speak in terms my people understand. Even as I try to bring change, I need to speak to the concerns that exist in the moment. My subjects need to know I respect them."

Respect... in the end, I guess that was what the whole speech was about. Commanding respect from her subjects, assuring them of respect in turn... so everyling can live in harmony.

"And if we're going to move forward as shared cultures and kingdoms, we need to respect each other, too. I guess that's why I'm here right now; I want you to know that I respect you, even when I disagree with you or I'm upset. Ponies should know about all of the things worth admiring here in the hive."

Cecily nodded, and for a few moments we shared a simple, companionable silence. Then I realized I had screwed up something very important.

"Cecily, that concert you're planning. Would it be alright to have a Wonderbolt opening act?"

Accepting Me

View Online

"Hey, Terrent? Did you hear that they decided to have a big Wonderbolt show for the Cambirvir concert?"

Ask her ask her ask her ask her wait, what? What the heck is a Cambirvir? Wonderbolts? Wait is this a pony thing should I know this already oh god I'm going to look so ignorant crap what do I do quick saysomethingandstopstaring!

I shook my head confidently and smoothly reached across the table, placing my hoof on Cheerilee's and meeting her eyes.

"No," I said, "but before you explain, I need to ask you something important."

Pshyeah, no, maybe in my dreams. Actually I just stuttered a bit and then shook my head. She didn't seem to mind too much, and just shrugged.

"Oh. Well, they decided to do that. Do you like the Wonderbolts?"

"Huh? Oh! Er, yes, they're very impressive! Very fearsome. Definitely wouldn't want to try fighting them, no sir."

Cheerilee just stared at me for a second, and then squinted at me.

"Terrent... do you even know who the Wonderbolts are?"

Hah! I know this! Time to show off my pony knowledge – you won't make me look stupid this time, fate!

"Yeah! They're an elite military flight team for Equestria! They wear those blue uniforms with the lightning bolts on'em."

I was smiling while I explained, but my smile got a little uneasy when Cheerilee stared at me like I'd grown a second head.

Because I didn't grow a second head this time! I'd learned long ago not to try transforming under too much pressure.

At least, I don't think I did.

I was just about to check for additional appendages when Cheerilee spoke again.

"Terrent, they're stuntponies. They do tricks."

"Oh. So... they're not military?"

"What made you think they were? Is that something you heard in the hive?"

I barely resisted the urge to hit my face with my hoof, because I didn't want Cheerilee thinking I thought she had said something stupid. No, the stupid-talk was all me, today, apparently.

You win again, fate.

"Nah, I didn't hear anything about Equestria in the hive except how feeble and full of love it was – and that was waaaaay off-base. Well, the feeble part, that is. I mean, you're saying the Wonderbolts aren't military, but I've definitely seen them doing military drills and combat practice! If even your civilians are like that..."

I suddenly realized that Cheerilee was also a pony civilian, and suddenly my suspicions that all ponies were secretly as unto demigods of destruction seemed a lot less superstitious.

I'm way too weak and skittish to be hanging around a warrior-society like this! Cheerilee probably thinks I'm a joke. Or maybe ponies don't even realize other races aren't super-powered? WHAT IF IT'S ALL BEEN A HUGE MISUNDERSTANDING

"Terrent? Did you hear me?"

I snapped back to attention and tried to suavely cover my blush and apprehension by stammering like an idiot and flailing a hoof a bit.

I keep it smooth, you see.

I finally got out 'No', and she just smiled and rolled her eyes before repeating herself.

"I asked what sort of 'combat practice' you'd seen."

"Well, the rainbow one who lives around here, I've seen her smashing rocks!"

"Well, I mean, that's just physical strength exer—"


We both just stared at each other for a few seconds. Cheerilee set one of her elbows on the table, and covered her eyes with her hoof as she rubbed her forehead.

"I... have no idea why she would be doing that, but it's not a normal part of Wonderbolt training—"

"I've also seen her dive-bomb buildings and blow them to pieces! She's like a one-pony artillery squad!"

"Listen, that's just Rainbow Dash. She's a bit, erm, intense, even by Wonderbolt standards."

"But I also saw the Wonderbolts create a huge tornado and and lay waste to a huge patch of forest one day!"

Cheerilee leaned back in her chair and snickered to herself, shaking her head slowly.

"... Would you believe me if I said that was just an accident?"

"... You ponies create natural disasters by accident?!"


"No! I mean, some of us, sometimes..."

"Wow, that must be really stressful."

She perked up at that, and nodded hurriedly.

"It really is! I mean, you never know when the next crazy magical spell or big weather mishap will happen around here."

"Dang. What sorts of disasters do earthponies cause?"

Cheerilee's pink coat turned red around the ears and face, and she stammered a bit. My mind went into red alert mode.

Quit focusing on your stupid paranoia about ponies and pay attention to what she said, me! Don't make me bust out the embarassing memories again!

So goaded on by, er, the personified voice of my own self-loathing – which I realized I should maybe try to work on not having at some point – I thought about what she'd said, and I realized where I'd gone off into my own imagination and planted my hoof in my mouth.

So I actually stuck my hoof in my mouth. Which was pretty uncomfortable, but it did the trick; Cheerilee went from an uncomfortable stammer to a confused stare.

"Terrent? What are you doing?"

I garbled a bit at her, then spat my hoof out.

"Oh, y'know. Since I was doing so well at sticking my hoof in my mouth..."

Cheerille shook her head and smiled sheepishly at me.

"No, it's alright. I think I understand why you might think we're strange, or frightening."

"No, no! I think you're awesome! I just—"

I cut myself off mid-rant and clammed up. Cheerilee just smiled lightly and took a sip of her apple cider before looking up at me again.

"Well, I'm glad to hear ponies have made such a good impression, despite the crazy—"

"Imeantyou. Not, uhhhhh... I mean, I guess Rainbow Dash is awesome, sorta, in her own crazy blowing-stuff-up way. But, I mean, that's..."

I gave in and just planted my hoof on my face. I kept it there for a few seconds, trying to solve the eternal conundrum that defined my existence.

How is it that a species that has relied on subterfuge to survive and feed on love for so long could produce someling so utterly hopeless at this stuff?

To my surprise, Cheerilee didn't say anything. I finally lowered my hoof to look at her, and saw that she was staring at me intently, but her face seemed fairly neutral. I realized she was waiting for me to explain, so I took a deep breath and tried to take it slowly.

"Sorry. I, uh... I mean... what I mean is that I don't find you strange. Or, er, scary. You've been great since I got here, which is probably better than I'd do for me, if I were you. I've been, well... kind of a jerk, sometimes. I don't mean any harm, but you've probably figured out... no... you know I'm really skittish. I say stupid things without thinking, and I'm sure I've accidentally offended you, or embarassed you, or... I dunno. I'm sure I've trod on your hooves at least a couple of times. I really appreciate that you've been patient with me despite all that."

Cheerilee tapped at her chin while studying the clouds, and took another sip of her cider. She smirked and looked back at me.

"So you're saying you do find some ponies scary, then?"

"Oh, yeah. Definitely. I don't mean to, just, y'know... I guess I'm a scaredy-ling. Heh."

"But not me."


I nodded, satisfied that we had cleared the air. Then I noticed Cheerilee's smile was accompanied by a squint and a raised eyebrow, and it altogether looked a bit predatory. My mind went neatly blank.

Terrent's brain isn't available right now. Please leave a message and I'll get back to you when I'm not so horribly confused.

"Uh... Cheerilee? What is it?"

"Oh, nothing."

Cheerilee continued sipping her cider and glanced back up at the clouds, though she was still smirking.

I probably missed something, there. Oh well, I'm sure that happens a lot.

Cheerilee set her cider down again and looked over it at me.

"Sooo... Terrent, would it be too scary to accompany me to that Cambirvir concert, then?"

"Huh? OH! I, er, yes! I mean, no! Yes. I'll go. It wouldn't be too scary."



Cheerilee jerked upright at that, and blinked a couple of times.





"Oh, er, sorry! I mean what date is it taking place on? Eheh!"


Cheerilee relaxed slightly, and chuckled while rolling her eyes.

"It's in three days."

"Great! I'm looking forward to it!"

I quickly took a bite of my stew in order to occupy my mouth with something other than embarassing myself.

Smooth. I'm sure Keko-Sissil doesn't mind at all that I invoked him for my Ceremony of Names. Totally doing generations of changelings proud, here. Yep. PARAGON.

Cheerilee snickered and cradled her head in her hoof, smirking at me.

"Even though Rainbow Dash will be there? You're not worried she'll divebomb you or anything?"

"Nff, eh—"

I swallowed my stew and swore to NEVER EAT AGAIN.

"No, I don't find that, like... I mean, I used to work around changeling soldiers while they practiced. They had a dive-bomb maneuver they would practice all the time, and they'd ask me to bring back big rocks to practice on. They use a sort of energy shield to protect themselves and transfer more force into what they hit. It leaves a little crater where they hit, it was kinda cool. I guess that's why I figured Dash was a soldier."

Cheerilee nodded, her eyes becoming more intent and her smile lifting.

"Ah, right. I heard about that. Ponies said there were changelings divebombing with green energy cones around them during the invasion of Canterlot."

I grimaced and immediately leaned back slightly.

"Oh... right. I guess that would be where ponies would have seen that. I-I'm really sorry about that.

Cheerilee bit her lip slightly, and mumbled something.

"Earthpony disaster type? Romantic, obviously."

"Huh? Sorry, I didn't catch that."

"Terrent, were you part of the invasion?"

"I, uh, sort of? I'm not a soldier, and my group was supposed to relay the results of the invasion back to the hive. We were acting as messengers. I, uh... well, what I've generally told people is that I got lost in the Everfree Forest."

"Is that not true?"

"It's true, I did get lost. But what I leave out is that my group wasn't supposed to pass through the Everfree Forest at all. I... deserted. I actually ran away before the invasion got in full swing."

Cheerilee took her hoof off of the table and sat upright. Her eyes were fixated on me much more clearly, now, but I didn't let it make me clam up.

She wants to know what happened, so I'll tell her. Just gotta stay calm.

"Why? Were you scared of the ponies?"

"No... we'd been told ponies were weak. That you all wouldn't stand a chance. That's a big part of why I ran, actually. I, uh... it bothered me. I used to take care of little animals I would find, back in the hive. Mostly, they'd get lost, and wander into whatever tunnel I was working in. Sometimes... some of the changelings thought I should be taking their love, if I was going to waste my time doing that. Do my part."

"Did you?"

"Never. It struck me as bullying. I've been on the receiving end of that, I'd never inflict it on anyone else. The whole concept... it kinda makes me sick."

Cheerilee smirked at me, which took me pretty well off-guard.

Uh-oh. Did I say something stupid?

"So, Terrent. Why are you apologizing for the invasion if you didn't even take part in it?"

"Oh. I don't know. I guess I just... it's just how I feel. I feel bad about the whole thing. I feel bad I couldn't do anything to stop it. When I tried to speak out about it in the hive, I just got some angry changelings riding my thorax about 'not being supportive enough of the war effort'. The whole thing just makes me cringe. I wish it had never happened. I know it's not the sort of thing I can just say, 'sorry about that', and you can say 'oh, no problem' and it's all fine or whatever. But that's how I feel. I'm sorry to be evenly remotely attached to that mess."

Cheerilee leaned in and placed a hoof on mine, and looked straight into my eyes. I must have turned so red she thought I was shapeshifting.

Just ask her already!

"I don't scare you."


Best I could manage.

"Even though I'm a pony."

I nodded. Vocalization was out of the question.

"Well, I don't feel like you're scary either, Terrent. I don't associate you with the invasion. You don't have to apologize for what other changelings do; I'm no more worried about you doing something bad than you are about me creating a tornado. I'm sorry bringing it up hurt you, though I'm happy to know more about you. You've been really quiet, lately – thanks for opening up to me about that."

"Cheerilee, are you having a good time?"

She leaned back in surprise, and seemed to consider her response. She nodded.

"Yeah, I've been enjoying these outings. Thank you for inviting me. You've been asking that a lot, lately, though."


I ran what I had said back in my mind.

Aww, damnit! I said the wrong thing!

You would think saying the phrase 'do you want to be my special somepony' would be pretty easy. I do have working vocal chords, after all.

The problem is all the stuff attached to them.

"Ah, yeah. Sorry. That's just a nervous habit of mine, I guess. I've been running the changeling shelter, y'know? I'm really bad at picking up on cues, sometimes, and somelings will just suffer in silence. That's even the Feeder motto, or something like it. I just try to confirm how everyone is doing whenever I'm not sure."

Cheerilee smiled broadly, and nodded a couple of times

"Oh, absolutely. I do the same with my students. It's not just you; everypony – er, everyone – can miss those cues, sometimes. Some people are good at hiding how they feel – usually because they don't want to admit it to themselves, or they're trying to deny it."

Aww, that's sweet. Really applicable to me, too.

Wait, was that about me? Is there some kind of subtext here?! AM I MISSING SOME KIND OF CUE

"But... you'll tell me if something is wrong, right? If I'm bothering you?"

Cheerilee froze for a moment, and nodded slowly.

"I... Yes. I'll tell you if you bother me. So you don't need to worry over it, alright?"

"Thank you."

I relaxed a bit, and brushed some of my hair back a bit. I'd put it into a ponytail (changeling-tail?) to keep myself from constantly hiding behind it during our visit, but I still found myself messing with it whenever I was nervous. I was lost in my thoughts when Cheerilee's voice jarred me.

"What about you? How are you feeling?"

Typical pony responses: Fine, good, great, just fine, getting by. Hey, even 'happy to be here' works.

"Nervous. And happy."

I'm hopeless at this.


Cheerilee raised an eyebrow and squinted at me again, grinning. It was back to that oddly-predatory look I'd seen before. She leaned in and pressed further.

"And why's that?"

"Because I want to be your special somepony."

Cheerilee froze, and her grin went slack. She blinked a couple of times.

Then she smiled more broadly than I'd ever seen.