The Power of Two

by Locomotion

First published

A young changeling runs away from home, only to be attacked by timberwolves in the Everfree Forest. Fortunately, Locomotion is on hoof to save her - but little do they know that she has a spy on her tail...

While returning home through the Everfree Forest, Locomotion discovers a nameless and badly beaten young changeling lying in the undergrowth. Feeling sorry for her, he brings her back to Ponyville and tries to help her fit in among his fellow residents, bestowing her with the name Hornette. As time passes, the two of them grow close - but in doing so, they are about to discover the true nature of the dreaded Queen Chrysalis, and how a whole species was turned against Equestria...

This story takes place in an alternate universe in which To Where And Back Again and certain post-Season 6 episodes never happened. Dark, Death, Self-Harm, Violence and Gore tags for much later in the story. Also contains Flashlight, Sparity, Soarindash, Carajack, mentions of Fluttermac, Pinkieburn, Vinyltavia, Rumbaloo, Lyrabon, SweetieSplit and ShadyBase, and references to a vengeful and homicidal real-life maniac who ruled over a certain Central European country with an iron fist, as well as the events that ensued.


View Online one were to travel south to lands beyond Equestria, lands to which few ponies, griffins or even dragons would dare venture, that was all they would see for miles around. Apart from the odd cactus and small insect, it would seem almost impossible for anything could flourish out in this barren wilderness, far away from the nearest source of water, and with such intense heat streaming down from the sun during the daytime. Perhaps it was little wonder, then, that most creatures, should they ever refer to this place by name, would have described it simply as “the Badlands”.

But the harsh, lonely and potentially deadly environment was far from the sole reason behind such a name, for behind their borders, the Badlands concealed what had to be the most feared race in the known world. These intimidating creatures, referred to throughout the world as changelings, were notorious for feeding on the love of their unsuspecting victims, and for their ability to change their forms, enabling them to pose as any other living being they chose. They were much bigger than the insects alongside which they lived, and although they too consisted of chitinous exoskeletons and wasp-like wings, they differed considerably in being built very much like ponies. Each was armed with a single magically empowered horn on its forehead, just like a unicorn; but their ears were more tubular in shape, their legs were perforated in several places, and most of them featured little more than vacant, sinister blue orbs for eyes. Their most vicious features were the jagged fangs poking out of their mouths, which gave them more in common with carnivores.

In the midst of a huge palace-like structure, located deep in the heart of the Badlands, one such creature was standing guard over one of the many hallways. Darkness had fallen long ago, and he, just like his fellow officers, was under orders to keep a sharp lookout for any foreign creature that dared to intrude, or for any other changeling foolish enough to be up and about so late without royal consent. Everything around him seemed quiet and still as he scanned the hallway with those haunting blue eyes of his – not even a locust or a scorpion to be seen, and not so much as a rustle to be heard. It was almost as if he could fall asleep on the job and nothing would happen all night...



The changeling looked left and right, startled. He could have sworn that something – or someone – had raced past him just now; but to his confusion, he found no-one else in the hallway other than himself. The only “creatures” in sight were the stone statues on either side. With a light grunt, he shrugged and resumed his vigil.

But what he couldn't realise was that he wasn't alone in that hallway. Under the cover of a cloaking spell, another changeling peered nervously out from behind one of the statues, hardly daring to breathe. She was much younger than the guard at around sixteen years of age; her fangs were smaller and more blunt, and her eyes, more reptilian in appearance than those of the rest of her kind, bore an expression of deep trepidation as she scanned the passage for any guards that might have heard her hoofsteps. Having ascertained that no-one had seen or heard her, she broke out from her hiding place and scurried down the corridor as quickly and as quietly as she could.

Further and further she went, stopping to hide at brief intervals in case she alerted the guards' attention, until at last she was nearly at the end of the corridor – but just when she had gone a hundred yards or so from the last statue, her ears picked up a rhythmic, rumbling sound of clomping hooves, almost like a march. Cautiously, she slackened her pace and looked ahead; and sure enough, she could see a small platoon of guards making their way down the hallway.

Thinking quickly, the changeling flung herself flat against the wall and held her breath, watching fearfully as the guards closed in on her and hoping to goodness that her cloaking spell would be effective enough. The fourteen changeling stallions marched slowly past, looking left and right for any signs of trouble as they went; but predictably, none of them seemed to notice anything amiss with their surroundings, let alone the young fugitive trying to sneak out without being noticed. As they receded further and further down the corridor, the young changeling lowered herself back on all fours with a deep sigh of relief – what a close call that was, she thought as she resumed her escape plan.

Ahead of her, on one side of the next corridor, she finally found what she was looking for – a large, open window overlooking one of the mountain ranges that surrounded the Badlands. Beyond these mountains lay the promises of a new life in a new home, of a place where she could live in peace and harmony with creatures other than her own kind, where she could be embraced as an equal rather than judged for being a changeling. Beyond these mountains lay what she believed to be the Promised Land. All she had to do now was to cross those mountains, and she would no longer have to put up with her old way of life.

Thus, after one final check left and right, the young changeling steeled herself for the long road ahead as she leaped out through the window and slowly drifted down towards the desert below. Once her hooves came into contact with the dry, crumbly ground, she took a deep breath and broke out into a hard gallop across the vast wilderness – now or never, she thought as she made her gallant dash for freedom.

The trek across the sandy, gravelly desert seemed to go on for eternity, but the changeling bravely carried on, never stopping once even to check if she was being followed. How far she had run, and how long it had been since she had left the hive, she didn't know; but of what relevance was that to her? By now, all she needed to know was that she had almost reached the border – once she had crossed it, she would have no further need to worry...or so she hoped, at least.

But that was when she remembered – there was bound to be a small scattering of guards spread out along each and every frontier, and in several places, huge wire fences had been erected to prevent their own kind from fleeing the land and others from invading. She slowed her pace to a trot and looked around. Just as she feared, there was a small blockhouse nearby, and a changeling stallion clad in armour was standing in the sentry box immediately outside. Behind them was one of the many fences surrounding what she used to call her homeland, like a net waiting to wrap itself around an unsuspecting fish.

Maintaining her invisibility cloak, the young changeling made her way towards the fence in search of a way round. She certainly couldn't fly over it, for each and every border was also protected by a highly energised forcefield hanging mere hooves above the lowest material object. Any creature that came into contact with that forcefield would be flung back for several miles, and then if the guards didn't catch her first, her injuries might easily finish her off. If only she could find some way of tunnelling under the wire...

But after only a few seconds of searching, she noticed that part of the fence had been bent upwards from below, leaving a gap just big enough for her to squeeze through. It seemed that some other living being must have tried to infiltrate the Badlands from the direction of the Promised Land. If that was the case, the changeling thought to herself, she owed a great debt to whatever creature it was that had provided her with a way out. Quietly, slowly, cautiously, she trotted towards the gap and gingerly wriggled under the fence until at last she had made it onto the other side. As she got to her hooves, she looked over her shoulder towards the blockhouse, and was relieved to find that the sentry hadn't moved from his box. He didn't even seem to have noticed the gap in the fence.

The young changeling, however, was taking no chances. With only the mountains now keeping her from reaching safe haven, she began to trot away from the fence, rapidly quickening her pace to a frantic gallop and setting her wings into motion until, after only a few seconds, her hooves parted company with the ground altogether and she slowly but surely began to gain altitude. Looking back one more time, she gazed upon her former homeland as it receded further and further into the distance, along with the remainder of her species.

In that very instant, all her fears were swept away by a deep sense of euphoria, prompting her to perform a couple of joyous barrel rolls in her delight. No longer did she have to live such a cruel and harsh life under an iron-hoofed ruler – after sixteen long and difficult years, she was free. All that remained now was to try and find the Promised Land she had always dreamed about; and judging by the fields of green on the other side of the mountains, it couldn't be too far away now...

But as the young escapee ventured further and further into the unknown, intent on finding a new home and a new life, dark forces were already starting to conspire against her. Several miles away, in the very hive that used to serve as her home, the night guards were slowly coming off duty as the remainder of their species awoke to the start of a new day. Right in the midst of the hive, in a large, spacious chambe, sat a much larger changeling with a gnarled horn, a long blue mane and tail, and a small black crown resting atop her head. This was Queen Chrysalis, the tyrannical ruler of the Badlands, and the most loathed of all changelings. For many years now, this cunning, cold-hearted creature had had her sights set on invading that well-known land of harmony, love and ponies, a land that would provide her and her subjects with an eternal source of nourishment and enable her to achieve her foalhood ambition of world domination; but any and all of her attempts to capture Equestria thus far had only resulted in defeat at the eleventh hour, thanks in no small part to those accursed ponies who called themselves “the Elements of Harmony”.

The Elements of Harmony...the mere mention of such a title was enough to strike a sense of fury and spite into the iron-hoofed monarch. Had it not been for those meddling mares, she would have captured Equestria years ago, and even that pathetic pair of weakling alicorns known as Princess Celestia and Princess Luna would have had no choice but to step down in her favour. And that third alicorn – that Princess Cadance who had foiled her very first attempt...

Her thoughts were interrupted as the doors slowly swung open, and one of the guards entered the room with a grim look on his face. He bowed down low before the royal changeling before speaking up; “Your Majesty, I bring you news of a disturbing nature,” he said in a low, slithery voice. “It would appear that one of our own has defected from our hive and is headed for the land of the ponies.”

Chrysalis' eyes narrowed. “Which one?”

“We have checked through all the chambers, and all occupants are present except for CH001FD14726198305,” replied the guard. “The last we saw of her, she was entering her chamber for the night; and when we checked this morning, she was gone. We have no idea how or when she escaped – all we know is that it took place late last night.”

For a brief moment, Chrysalis could only stare at the guard with agitated disbelief. “You fool! Here I am, trying to ensure the abundance of my subjects, and you have to turn your back long enough to let one of them escape?!” she bellowed.

The guard took on an apologetic expression, but didn't even flinch. “I never did let my guard down, Your Majesty,” he stated. “She must have used some sort of invisibility spell to avoid being detected.”

“Oh, did she?” snarled Chrysalis. “Well, I'll give her something to avoid soon enough! Send for CH001MD38964587233 and his platoon at once – if that foolish filly thinks she can outrun the great Queen Chrysalis, then I should like to see her prove it!”

“As you wish, Your Majesty.” The guard bowed down low again and made his way out of the throne room. As he passed through the doors, Chrysalis' horn glowed a menacing green colour as she generated a magical image of the changeling in question, almost like a faded old colour film from times past. The image showed the young rogue galloping through vast grassland, cautiously trying to avoid being seen by any other creature, and her face bore an expression of anxiety, hope and determination mingled into one.

The sly, conniving queen leered evilly at the foolish young fugitive. “Run all you like, you little traitor,” she murmured, “but you'll never escape me...”

Chapter 1: Changeling in the Everfree Forest

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How unpredictable life could be sometimes. No matter where you looked, nor how hard you tried, fate never seemed to make up its mind as to whether it wanted you to be happy or miserable, weak or powerful, useless or helpful, popular or obscure. It could give you everything you ever wanted, and then just when you started to enjoy your quality of life, it could take it all away and leave you in ruins. Even when you made friends, Lady Luck never seemed care how close you were or how much you had in common – if she decided to end that friendship, no matter how brutally, there was no way anything could dissuade her. But how was this fair? How could she simply kill someone off just because she felt like it?

Those were the thoughts that flowed through the mind of a red-furred unicorn teenager as he made his way home. It had been over three years since the accident, and it still pained his heart just thinking about it – indeed, it had been a terrible blow to the whole family. Particularly hard hit by the news were his father, his paternal uncle Steamer, and his aunt's husband Maestro with whom he had just been spending the weekend. But why, he asked himself – why was it that so many ponies had to resort to carnage in order to get their way?! Why was it that vice and violence was so heartily embraced by so many living beings?

All those thoughts were swiftly swept aside as Locomotion began the most treacherous stage of his journey. His uncle Maestro lived in a remote cottage in the Buckskin Mountains, the only access to which was up a long and twisty path that ran along one side of a deep valley, and this took him through one of the wildest, darkest and most dangerous places in all Equestria – the dreaded Everfree Forest. Few ponies ever liked venturing into these woodlands; indeed, only a brave and blasé few ever dared to set hoof here after dark, for they harboured some of the most fearsome creatures in the nation from scorpions to manticores. Judging by the sun, he noted, he would have to pick up the pace lest he spend a whole night wandering among those tall, menacing shadows that seemed to tower above him.

Cautiously, he picked his way through the forest, keeping a sharp lookout not just for carnivorous beasts, but for any flora that might pose a threat. It wouldn't be quite so bad if it were just poison joke – that kind of ailment was easily cured, but mandrakes, triffids and cyanide creepers could be fatal. He couldn't see any of those, but he could just make out a foul smell like a heap of rotting compost combined with skunk fumes. He recoiled in disgust as the stench burned his nostrils; but almost at once, his eyes widened as he realised where it might be coming from.

“Timberwolves!” he gasped. Sure enough, as he looked through a cluster of trees immediately to his right, he could just make out six of the huge wooden predators prowling nearby, their leaf-like ears erect as they sniffed the ground intently. “Oh, grief, they're gonna pick up my scent! I gotta get out of here!”

Locomotion hurriedly scanned his surroundings for a stealthy escape route, but found none – the only suitable paths he could take were either back the way he came, or onwards towards the timberwolves. As he looked back at the sentient heaps of twigs, driftwood and branches, he saw that one of them had turned its attention to the clearing in which he was currently standing. It didn't seem to have noticed him, but the red-furred unicorn was taking no chances; in desperation, he ran towards a large hollow beneath a nearby tree and, not caring what sort of creatures might be living there, dived straight in and braced himself for the end.

The minutes ticked slowly by, but still there was neither sound nor smell of the giant wooden canines lurking outside. Silently wondering why they didn't just pounce on him and get it over with, Locomotion cautiously shifted himself round and peered out of the hollow, hardly daring to breathe. He couldn't see the timberwolves, but he could just make out a low growl as if they were ready to make an attack.

“Weird,” he thought aloud. “What's got them all worked up?”

He got his answer sooner than he thought. Without warning, a loud rustling registered in his ears as the timberwolves lunged at their prey. The red-furred teenager hastily ducked back into the hollow again – but all fears for his own safety suddenly vanished when he heard a distant scream of terrified agony. He couldn't quite work out where it was coming from, but it sounded like a small filly had been caught by these deadly creatures and was being torn to shreds.

Without a moment's hesitation, Locomotion leaped out of the hollow and sprang into action. Running hard at the timberwolves, he fired a rapid succession of energy bolts at them, striking the legs of the wooden monsters and smashing all but one of them to matchwood. The final timberwolf, probably the leader of the pack judging by his size, turned around to face him with a gruesome snarl; but Locomotion bravely stood his ground.

“Come on at me, you great rotten mutt!” he taunted, his horn glowing brightly. “You want pony for dinner? You've got your pony!”

The timberwolf growled aggressively as he advanced towards him, poising himself ready to pounce on the little lump of flesh that dared to strike his pack down. But Locomotion was too quick for him; the moment the furious wooden hound made his leap, a powerful ball of magical energy burst forward from the unicorn's horn and hit the timberwolf squarely in the face, causing him to explode in mid-air and sending a deluge of splintered wood flying in all directions. Casting a barrier around himself to avoid being hit by the debris, the red-furred teenager trotted forth to see how badly their victim had been hurt.

There was no sign of an injured filly, but he could just about make out the scent of fresh blood coming from under a nearby bush, and a tuft of baby blue fur was just poking out from underneath. Stooping down to get a closer look, he carefully lifted the branches out of the way – but almost immediately he wished he hadn't, for there, lying unconscious before his very eyes, was a badly beaten changeling of roughly the same age as him.

Locomotion froze over in shock, unsure whether to speak, yell out for help or run for all his worth. He had never met a changeling before, but he knew all too well about their attempted invasion of Canterlot; and deep down, he couldn't help but fear for his life. If this one should awaken, he thought, then goodness only knew what it might do to him. Slowly, carefully, he backed away from the injured creature, hoping to get away before it spotted him – but after only a single step, he heard a weak groan which stopped him in his tracks.

“Oh, D-rat!”

The changeling's eyes flickered, and it slowly turned its head, wearily mumbling something to itself in a voice that didn't sound too far off Fluttershy; except slightly higher pitched and more delicate, almost like the buzzing of a juvenile bluebottle. Clearly, then, this had to be a female. As her eyelids parted, Locomotion further realised that there was something different about her. From what he had heard, most changelings had vacant blue orbs for eyes; but these were more reptilian in appearance, with slit-like black pupils and green irises, and the only blue parts were the scleras...

Suddenly, the changeling let out a loud shriek, causing the red-furred unicorn to yelp himself and jump back a few hooves. He watched in shock as she backed herself up and cowered against the trunk of the bush. “No...don't come near me!” she whimpered in terror. “Please don't hurt me!”

But Locomotion didn't move. He didn't know what frightened him more – the mere fact that there was a changeling in the middle of the Everfree Forest, or the revelation that she was more afraid of him than he of her. He just stood and stared upon the injured changeling, unsure what to make of the situation – but as he did so, his fears began to recede in favour of a deep sorrow and dismay for the unfortunate creature. What she was doing in his neck of the woods, he couldn't quite comprehend, but he could tell just from looking into her eyes that she was genuinely terrified. No creature alive could ever fake something like that. Without a word, he reached a hoof out and slowly edged forward.

“NO! STOP!” screamed the changeling, her eyes brimming with frightened tears. “GET AWAY FROM ME! PLEASE, LEAVE ME ALONE!!”

Locomotion took no notice, and simply shuffled closer. The changeling curled into a ball and prepared for the worst – but rather than grabbing her and making off, or inflicting further injury upon her, the red-furred pony began running his hoof along her shoulder in a gentle, reassuring manner. Daring to open her eyes, the changeling looked up and was greeted with a soft, sympathetic smile.

“Hey,” he soothed, “take it easy. I'm not gonna hurt you.”

“You're...not?” The changeling gazed up at the unicorn teenager, still understandably scared even when he shook his head in affirmation. “But...why not? Don't you even know what I am?”

“In a bad way, that's what,” replied Locomotion gravely. “You're lucky I happened to be nearby, otherwise you might have been mauled to death by those timberwolves.”

The changeling could hardly believe her ears. Not only did this pony not seem to care what she was – he was actually showing concern for her as if she was an equal! Surely this couldn't be happening, not after how her race had terrorised this beautiful land. “But...but I'm a changeling!” she faltered.

“Yeah – a weak and injured changeling in need of medical attention,” insisted Locomotion calmly. “I know the rest of my kind...well, take a dim view of yours, but there's no way I'm going to just stand by and let a helpless creature die.”

“ don't even care that my species tried to enslave yours?”

Locomotion smiled knowingly. “Have you ever done anything to harm me and my friends?”

“Oh, gosh, no!” blustered the changeling. “I've never wanted to hurt anyone in all my life! I don't even know who you are!”

“And did you have any part in the attempted invasion?”

“No, of course not!”

“Well, there you go – I've no reason to hold a grudge against you,” said Locomotion kindly. “Come on, now, I'm gonna take you to Zecora's hut and see if she can patch you up.” He crouched down low and motioned for the changeling to climb onto his back, but she was still too afraid to move.

“What's...Zecora's hut?” she asked nervously.

“Zecora's a zebra who lives in this very forest,” the red-furred unicorn explained. “She works as an apothecary, making all sorts of weird and wonderful potions. Hopefully she might have something in her hut that'll mend your wounds.”

“Um...a zebra?”

“Yeah, sort of like a pony except striped black and white, and their tails have more in common with donkeys,” clarified Locomotion.

The changeling looked away, her face awash with fear and unease. “You don't think she'll have me locked away if she sees me?”

Locomotion cringed inwardly. As much as he hated to admit it, the changeling had a valid point. “Oh...I don't think so,” he replied, trying to hide the uncertainty in his voice. “She's never been the sort to judge others before she gets to know them – heck, many ponies used to call her a witch just because she was different, so she knows how that feels. I think you'll be okay.”

But the changeling didn't seem convinced. A smallish hint of regret crept into her expression as she averted her gaze. “Um...if it's all the same to you, Mr Pony,” she stammered, “I'd rather stay out here.”

“What, and just bleed to death?!” exclaimed Locomotion, visibly horrified.

“I...I don't want to cause you ponies any trouble,” replied the changeling pathetically.

“Don't be so daft,” retorted Locomotion. “No offence, but I doubt you'll be able to do anything in your weakened state. And don't worry about those other ponies – no matter what happens, I'll try my level best to bring them round.”

This took the changeling completely by surprise. Had she heard this pony right, she asked herself? Was he really willing to go out of his way just so that she wouldn't have to suffer? Cautiously, she looked into his eyes again and was met with an expression of utmost sincerity, prompting hers to turn less timid and more hopeful.

Locomotion greeted this with a reassuring smile. “I promise,” he added softly.

At last, the changeling relented. “Well......alright,” she murmured.

“That's the spirit,” encouraged Locomotion kindly, reaching out with his magic and carefully helping the wounded changeling onto his back. “Come on then, miss, let's get you healed up.”

“Um...okay, Mr Pony,” conceded the changeling, gently clinging onto her saviour's back as they made their way through the forest. It was rather strange, but deep down, even though she was still scared, she couldn't help feeling safe and secure in the presence of this red-furred stranger. But how could this be, she wondered? Why did she feel so grateful towards a creature who should have been her enemy, who should have put an end to her like the huge wooden monsters had tried to do? Why didn't he just stand by and let nature finish her off? And more importantly, why was he being so kind and gentle after all the harm her species had tried to inflict on his?

A small tear trickled down her cheek and dropped onto the unicorn teenager's shoulder, the soft red fur soaking it up as she buried her face in his long, flowing mane. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you so much.”

Zecora's home was located in a clearing only ten minutes away from the edge of the forest. It wasn't so much a hut as a broad, hollowed out beech tree, much like the former Golden Oak Library except that it was furnished in a more exotic Zebrican style. Bottles of potions hung from the branches, and a tribal mask was attached just above the doorway which, along with the windows, was arranged to resemble the face of a zebra keeping a sharp lookout for any intruders. The interior was similarly furnished, with an open hearth over which a large black cauldron resided, two beds made of bamboo and chimera wool, further masks hanging from the walls, and shelf after shelf of potions and ingredients. All told, it was rather Spartan compared with Ponyville; but it had a quaint and cosy charm all to itself.

The only downside to the hut was that it could appear intimidating to the unwary. Locomotion had seen it many times before, particularly on Nightmare Night, so the craggy appearance of the tree and the spooky expressions of the masks didn't scare him in the slightest. By stark contrast, the changeling couldn't help but recoil in terror at the sight of the zebra's abode.

“Oh dear,” she whimpered, trembling with fear. “Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.”

Locomotion chuckled wryly. “Yeah, I can see where you're coming from,” he sympathised. “There's nothing to be afraid of, though. This may bear the hallmarks of a witch-doctor's lair, but Zecora's nothing like...well, actually, she is...kind of a witch-doctor, in a way,” he hastily corrected himself, “but not the sort who would use black magic. She's like...really friendly and wise.”

“To you ponies, maybe,” replied the changeling uneasily. “I'll be lucky if she takes any kind of pity on me.”

Secretly, Locomotion had his doubts, but thought better of saying so. Instead, he trotted over to the hut and gently levitated the changeling off his back, setting her down on one of the tree's roots. “Right, you wait here while I go speak to her,” he instructed. “I'll be right back.”

“You won't let her do anything horrible to me, will you?” asked the changeling.

“No way, no how,” promised Locomotion, and made his way over to the front door. The changeling watched anxiously, wondering what this Zecora creature would actually be like. As the red-furred unicorn knocked on the door, both pony and changeling heard voices on the other side. One of them spoke with a thick, deep-toned Zebrican accent, but the other one was so familiar to Locomotion that it sent an ominous chill down his spine.

“Hullo. Sounds like you've got another visitor, Zecora.”

Locomotion's face blanched to a hot-pink in alarm. “Oh no!” he burst out. “Not Princess Twilight Sparkle! Aw, heck, now what am I gonna do?!”

“What in the world is with all this commotion?” In that moment, Locomotion could hear hoofsteps approaching the door. He looked back towards the changeling in a blind panic, wondering whether he should pick her up and run for home, but the door was already being opened before he could come to a firm decision. All he could do now was dither in place as the zebra greeted him with a warm smile. “Why, if it isn't young Locomotion!”

“Oh, hullo, Loco. Not often we see you in these parts.” The lavender-coated Princess of Friendship stood just behind Zecora, directing a small smile of her own upon the teenaged unicorn stallion.

Locomotion grinned nervously. “Uh...hi there, Twilight,” he stuttered. “Um...yeah, this is a pleasant surprise...I think?”

“So what brings you round to my neck of the woods?” asked Zecora politely. “Did you require some of my goods?”

“,” said Locomotion uneasily. “It's just...oh, bonker, how am I gonna say this in front of...'ere, Twilight, would it be okay if me and Zecora discussed this in private? I'm not sure you'd take this very well.”

“Take what?” Twilight raised a concerned eyebrow. “Loco...what's the matter? You're acting really strange – and what's with all that blood on your fur?”

The red-furred teenager bit his lip anxiously. Perhaps the changeling was right, he thought – perhaps taking her to see Zecora wasn't such a good idea after all. But what choice did he have? He couldn't simply leave the poor soul to slip away, and crazy though his logic might have been, the zebra was the only one he could think of who might know how to treat wounded changelings. If only he didn't have to confront Twilight about it right now; he knew he'd have to come clean about the injured young creature sooner or later, but now definitely wasn't a good time.

Seeing the inner turmoil he was going through, Zecora tentatively stepped in. “Unless I'm mistaken, you're in a real bind. Tell us, young friend, what's on your mind?”

Locomotion heaved a deep sigh. He had been dreading this moment, but clearly there was no easy way out. “Alright,” he conceded gravely. “I'll tell you – but you've gotta promise me the following terms...”

“I'm listening,” answered Twilight attentively.

“ you let me tell you the whole story and get to the point in my own time – two: you won't jump to conclusions, no matter what – three: you won't breathe a word about this to a single living soul without my say-so – and four: you won't do anything horrible to the creature in question.”

“Creature, you say? What kind, if I may?” inquired Zecora.

“And what makes you think we'll go so hard on...whoever it is you're talking about?” added Twilight, confused.

“Because you've had a bad rap with them in the past.”

“Them?” repeated Twilight, taken aback.

“Do you promise or don't you?!” asked Locomotion, more sharply than he intended.

Twilight paused, raising a thoughtful hoof to her chin. “Um...I don't know about this, Loco,” she admitted doubtfully. “Until I have further information on...whoever it is you're talking about, I'm not sure I can promise.”

“Twilight, you have to!” insisted Locomotion. “This creature needs seeing to, and if we don't hurry up, she could die!”

Twilight and Zecora's eyes widened. They still didn't pretend to understand what Locomotion was talking about, but from the tone of his voice, it was clear to both that they had a very dire situation on their hooves. There was a long, tense silence as both zebra and alicorn mulled over the red-furred unicorn's plight.

“Alright, Loco,” conceded Twilight at last, “I promise.”

“I do too, fair and true,” chimed in Zecora.

“Pinkie Promise?”

“Pinkie Promise.”

“Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye.”

Thus, Locomotion took a deep breath and began to tell them what had happened earlier that day, how he had avoided being hunted down by timberwolves and later struck the whole pack down in order to save the “mystery” creature they were trying to make a meal out of. To one side of the hut, the creature in question listened anxiously, unable to make head or tail of what was going on.

But even when Locomotion finished his story, Twilight still couldn't fathom why he was being so urgent and secretive at the same time. “That's all very well, Loco, but what exactly is this creature you rescued and won't tell me about?”

“Well, this is where I'm scared you might freak out,” explained Locomotion. “You see, Twilight...well...that is...” He paused pathetically. “...let's just say all you know of them is that their leader posed as your sister-in-law prior to her wedding.”

“Their lead...” Twilight promptly broke off as she realised what the red-furred teenager was implying. “Wait just a minute – are you trying to tell me there's a changeling here?!”

“It's not like you think it is, Twilight!” blustered Locomotion, trying his best to drive his point across. “That girl...nymph...mare...whatever you call the females – not only was she badly injured, but she was blooming well scared to death! You should have seen the look of terror on her face when she saw me!”

Twilight paused for a moment to take in his words. This hadn't been the first time a changeling had been found in Equestria, but out of all those that she herself had encountered, only one had ever shown any degree of compassion towards ponykind, and that was years ago – apart from him, all the others seemed almost as ruthless and power-mad as Queen Chrysalis herself, and if she had managed to take over the mind of her brother Shining Armour, why shouldn't a lesser changeling be able to do the same to an ordinary unicorn like Locomotion? And yet there was something about the tone of his voice that sounded so...genuine, like he actually meant what he said straight from the heart. “I...see,” she said gravely. “Well, in that case, I probably ought to run a memory scan, just to make sure.”

Locomotion was appalled at such a suggestion. “What do you mean, 'just to make sure?!” he burst out defensively. “She was cowering against the trunk of the bush! There were tears in her eyes! She was pleading with me not to hurt her, poor thing! I ask you, how do you fake that? Eh?!”

“Loco, please, calm down,” ordered Twilight sternly. “I'm not saying I don't believe you – I just want to be absolutely certain that this changeling doesn't intend any harm on the likes of us ponies.”

“So in other words, you're just gonna go ahead and victimise her anyway!” accused Locomotion, raising his voice.

“No, Loco, I'm not victimising anyone. I know this is a sensitive issue for you, but as Princess of Friendship, I have a duty to the welfare of our subjects; and as much as I want to believe in your story, I can ill afford to take any risks.” Twilight paused for a few seconds so that the red-furred teen could take it all in. “I'm sorry, Loco, but I'm afraid that's how it has to be.”

Locomotion frowned unhappily. He was clearly on the road to saving this changeling's life, he realised; but at a price he was loathed to pay. Now she would probably be locked up for the rest of her days. “Alright then,” he mumbled, not even daring to look at the lavender-coated alicorn.

“Good. Now where is she?”

“Round one side of the hut.” Locomotion led them over to where the changeling lay awaiting her sentence. She bore an expression of deep despair, but also awe as she gazed upon the red-furred unicorn, for even though her future had been all but decided, she could hardly believe the lengths to which he had gone just to try and talk his princess into giving her the benefit of the doubt. But the look of defeat on his face spoke for itself. “I'm sorry,” he apologised gloomily. “I tried my best.”

The changeling didn't reply. She simply closed her eyes and accepted her fate as Twilight's horn began to glow, encasing her head in a pink aura. All Locomotion could do was direct a sad stare towards Zecora, who frowned sympathetically in response.

This went on for about a minute or so before Twilight finally let go of the spell, a look of bewilderment crossing her face as her horn stopped glowing. “O...kay, this is interesting,” she mused, raising an eyebrow. “I can't detect any malicious intent in her whatsoever.”

“You...huh?” The changeling stared in confusion at Twilight, and then in stunned realisation at an equally flabbergasted Locomotion.

“ mean to say she's...” The only reply he received from Twilight was a perplexed nod of affirmation. Almost at once, the red-furred unicorn felt his spirits leap up again. “Ha!” he exclaimed triumphantly. “Innocent – just like I said she was! Now do you believe me?!”

“Yeah, but...this is uncanny,” remarked Twilight. “I was expecting to find...”

“You thought she would be making evil plans against you just because of what she was?” retorted Locomotion smugly. “Really, Twilight, I'm surprised at you – and just when I thought you'd learned a thing or two from when you took Zecora for a witch!”

“And would I be mistaken, Princess Twilight, in assuming your memory scan is always right?” added Zecora, ignoring the red-furred youth's cheek.

Twilight opened her mouth to reply, but quickly realised the point the zebra was trying to make. She had only learned the spell two years ago, but it turned out to have been so well-written that, out of all the times she had used it, she had never once had a false reading. “ you come to mention it, Zecora...yes, it is always right,” she conceded thoughtfully. With an awkward grin, she turned her attention back to the changeling; “Yeah, sorry if I came across as mistrusting.”

“Apology accepted,” chuckled Locomotion.

“Oh, please don't,” faltered the changeling. “You and your kind have every right to fear mine. We've been nothing but trouble to this kingdom of yours; I don't deserve an apology.”

“Well, I say you do,” insisted Twilight soothingly. “I will admit that I'd seen what you changelings could be like first-hoof, but I've dealt with equally hostile creatures in the past and still managed to make some new allies among them; and if my memory scan is as accurate as it appears to be, then I'd say you qualify.”

The changeling looked down at her front hooves, now completely lost in her emotions. She couldn't believe that these ponies were being so kind and gentle towards a forbidden creature like her – the red-furred one she could kind of understand, for there was something about that unicorn that made him seem like he had never held it against her species at all, but how that princess had gone from apprehensive to apologetic in a single heartbeat was beyond her. Did she really mean it? Or was it just a trick? Any fears that the latter might be true were suddenly washed away as she felt her vitality slowly beginning to improve, and for the very first time since she had met these three equines, she smiled softly upon them. It was only a small, timid smile, but it brimmed with warm, humble gratitude. “Well...if you say so,” she murmured.

“Good – now let's get you inside. Zecora, could you fix up your spare bed and make up a healing potion?”

“Your wish is my command, dear Twilight,” said Zecora dutifully. She then directed a friendly smile of her own upon her young patient; “Fear not, young friend, we'll soon put you right. Come, Locomotion, let's bring her into the hut; she'll need a lot of care for each bruise and cut.”

“Right with you, Zecora.” Locomotion carefully lifted the changeling onto his back again and trotted inside after the two mares.

Chapter 2: In Search of Acceptance

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The changeling's altercation with the timberwolves had left her in a poor state, but as Locomotion had predicted, her difference in species proved no obstacle to Zecora who seemed to take it well within her stride. While the red-furred young stallion was washing the blood off his fur, the zebra set about making a healing potion for their patient before helping Twilight bandage her wounds, taking care not to use anything that might have an adverse effect on her.

As they worked, Locomotion decided to try and get the young interloper to open up a little more. “So, uh...what's your name?” he asked politely.

“Name?” The changeling looked at Locomotion as if she didn't know the meaning of the word.

“Yes, name,” Locomotion coaxed gently. “You know, the title you were given to tell you apart from the rest of your species.”

The changeling closed her eyes and sombrely hung her head, as if she were about to reveal a terrible secret. “I don't have a name,” she confessed sadly.

“WHAT?!” Locomotion's jaw almost dropped out of its sockets.

“It's true,” the changeling went on solemnly. “Back where I came from, only the really important ones like the queen and her council ever had names. The rest of us were just given identification numbers; mine was CH001FD14726198305.”

“Wow,” remarked Twilight. “Rather a clunky identity, wouldn't you say?”

Locomotion looked put out. “Clunky?! I think the word you're looking for is 'degrading'!” he retorted feelingly. “I mean...really, what kind of ruler would insist on referring to his or her subjects by number?! It'' makes you seem like nothing more than an accounting exercise!” He looked back to the changeling; “You mean to say...your kind were never allowed basic rights?!”

“Not that I know of,” affirmed the changeling. “Our queen expected us to be tough and ruthless, and didn't even let us think for ourselves. She said we all had a responsibility to the throne and to the growth of her empire, and that we had to fight other nations in order to gain more love and power. But I never wanted to be like that,” she went on, her eyes brimming once again. “I never wanted to live up to the reputation of the rest of my kind.”

“But how did you end up in the Everfree Forest?” inquired Twilight. “Had you been forced to take part in an invasion and then deserted them at the eleventh hour?”

“No. None of us were allowed out of our hives until we were sixteen years old, and even then we had to attend some...patriotic speech thingy that our queen held every year.” The changeling paused, a look of dread spreading across her face. “What frightens me is that all my friends went to that speech saying they would never be persuaded to fight other nations, and then came back all sinister and cruel. I don't know what caused it, but I was afraid the same thing might happen to me if I stayed, so I ran away.”

This made Locomotion's heart bleed, and he almost shed a few tears of his own in his dismay. “Aw, you poor thing,” he murmured, raising a solemn hoof to his chest. “That's terrible!”

“That's how I ended up here,” finished the changeling. “I wanted to find a place I could call the Promised Land – somewhere I could be welcomed with open arms, where I could be loved naturally rather than by force. I was hoping it might be somewhere north of Equestria.”

Twilight shook her head gravely. “There's nothing north of Equestria except frozen wasteland. Even if you made it up there, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Promised Land, per se.”

“Well...yes and no,” put in Locomotion. “There are inhabitable areas within the Frozen North, like Bearlarus, Yakyakistan and the Crystal Empire; but the bears would probably make a meal out of you like the timberwolves nearly did, the rulers of the Crystal Empire might be a bit slow to forgive your kind and so, by extension, will their subjects – and don't even get me started on the yaks! No need to worry, though,” he soothed, resting his hoof on the nervous changeling's shoulder, “we'll at least try and make you welcome here in Equestria, won't we, Twilight?”

“Um...hmm......” Twilight pondered for a few seconds. “...I don't know, Loco; somehow I don't think Princess Celestia will approve.”

“Aw, please, Twilight,” pleaded Locomotion despairingly, “at least try and talk it out with her. I mean, just look at the poor soul – she's got nothing. No friends, no family...nowhere to go, even! It wouldn't be fair to just leave her in the lurch like this; and besides, we've already established that she doesn't have any malicious intentions.”

“I know that, Loco, but there is a law here in Equestria...”

“...that any changeling in Equestria is to be arrested and clapped into jail for the rest of their lives. Yes, I know that, Twilight,” protested Locomotion, “but the law is wrong! All it ever tells us is that all changelings are evil, and I don't care what anypony else calls it – legislation, protection or what – as far as I'm concerned, it's nothing less than out and out racism!” He choked back a small sob, visibly terrified for the young changeling's welfare. “Please help her, Twilight – for me. I'll never forgive myself if anything happens to her.”

Twilight smiled softly. “Alright then, Loco,” she conceded. “If it means so much to you, I'll gladly try and fight your case through; but I can't make any promises.”

Locomotion brightened up at once. “Aw, thanks, Twilight,” he said, jumping up and flinging his arms around her withers in a grateful embrace. “You really are the Princess of Friendship.”

“We'll still need to think of a name for her,” advised Twilight. “There's no point in calling her 'the changeling' or...whatever her ID number was.”

“Oh, grief, yeah,” remarked Locomotion as he released his grip and lowered himself back on all fours. “Yeah, I can see that's gonna be a bit of a problem. Only thing is, what kind of name would suit such a creature?”

“I don't know.” Twilight looked questioningly at the changeling for help; but all the response she got was an unhappy shake of the head. “Any ideas, Zecora?”

“For changelings, no – not as far as I know.”

“Hmm...maybe if we tried naming a few insects?” asked Locomotion thoughtfully. “Might lead to something, you never know.”

“What, like...Bumblebee?”

The red-furred teenager stifled a chuckle. “I don't think so, Twilight. That'd just make her sound clumsy. We want something that makes her sound kind of...I don't know...sweet and innocent, but brave and resilient at the same time.” He fell silent again, trying to think of a few other possibilities, but none of them seemed quite right. 'Wasp' sounded too aggressive; she wasn't the right colour for 'Mantis', which in itself sounded rather masculine; 'Click Beetle' was too clunky; 'Black Widow' made her sound like a serial killer...if only there was something a little more fitting, he thought to himself...

His mind started to wander as he gazed upon the young escapee, checking out her features without even realising what he was doing. She seemed surprisingly attractive for a changeling, much smoother and less angular in body shape, almost like a pony; but with a thin barrel just like Celestia and Luna, and with many of the hallmarks of her own kind. Somehow, he thought, even these added to her charm – that flowing baby-blue mane and tail...that heart-shaped hole in her left hind leg...those gentle, timid green eyes...those cute little fangs that poked out over her lower lip...that smooth, curved-back horn...

All of a sudden, his eyes lit up with inspiration. “I know!” he exclaimed eagerly. “We'll call you Hornette!”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Hornette?”

“Yes – Hornette!” repeated Locomotion. “It's like 'Hornet', but more sort of feminine.”

“Hmm...” Twilight looked thoughtfully at the changeling. “You know, Loco, that might actually work. Reckon so, Zecora?”

The zebra nodded. “A very interesting choice of name – but is it one that our changeling will claim?”

“Well?” asked Locomotion hopefully. “What do you think?”

The changeling smiled approvingly. “Um...yeah, I quite like it,” she decided. “It has a really nice feel......I think it'd suit me.”

“Alright then – Hornette it shall be.” Twilight wrapped the last bandage around the young changeling's head and carefully secured it in place with a safety pin. “There you go, Hornette,” she said softly. “How's that feel?”

“Um...much better than it was earlier,” replied Hornette gratefully. “Thank you, your Highness. I don't know what I did to deserve your kindness, but thank you.”

“You don't need to call me that,” chuckled Twilight. “I may be a princess, but I'd rather be treated as an ordinary pony – no bowing and scraping and such, just plain old Twilight Sparkle. Besides, it's Locomotion here you should be thanking, not me.”

Locomotion blushed modestly. “Aw, heck, Twilight, it was nothing really. I could hardly just stand by and let a helpless creature perish in her hour of need, now could I?”

“I'm glad you didn't,” whispered Hornette. “I'd never have stood a chance against those monsters if it weren't for you.” A small tear welled up in her eye as she smiled warmly upon him. “You saved my life.”

“Forget it,” said Locomotion, returning the smile in kind. “The main thing is you're alive and, uh...on the mend, so to speak.” He gazed out of the window, wondering what time it was. To his dismay, he noticed that the moon and stars had already started to come out. “Hmm...doesn't look like I'm gonna make it back to Ponyville any time soon,” he thought aloud.

“Well, that's okay, Loco,” interjected Twilight. “I can always tell your parents where you are, if you like.”

At the mention of his parents, the red-furred teenager was once again overtaken by dread. Even if Twilight managed to talk Celestia into giving the changeling a proper chance to prove herself, he thought, the rest of his family might not be so willing. “You won't tell them about Hornette, will you?” he asked desperately.

“I'm afraid they're going to have to learn about her sooner or later, Loco, and so is the rest of Ponyville,” replied Twilight gravely. “Either I tell them once I've spoken with Celestia, or you turn up with her tomorrow morning and end up in a row with them because you've defied the law. Which would you prefer?”

Locomotion gritted his teeth. He wasn't sure he wanted anypony else to know about Hornette just yet, but he couldn't argue with the facts presented to him. “Alright then, Twilight – but you might as well let Uncle Steamer in on this too, seeing as I'm living with him now.”

“As you wish. I'll be back as soon as I can, Zecora,” said Twilight as she made her way out of the hut. “Make sure Hornette and Locomotion have everything they need.”

Secretly, Zecora still had her doubts about how Celestia would take this news, but wisely kept them to herself. “Any issues they have, to those I shall attend,” she conceded. “Good luck with persuading Celestia, my friend.”

“Thanks, Zecora – I'll probably need it.”

All was quiet in the now empty streets of Ponyville as Twilight gently touched down in front of the Castle of Friendship. Most of the other residents had already turned in for the night, and apart from a lonely light shining from the odd house, the only visible signs of life were the night guards standing just outside the front entrance. They bowed graciously at Twilight's approach, but in her concern, she paid them little heed. Only when she passed through the door and heard the sound of a certain orange Pegasus calling out her name did she snap out of her reverie.

“Hey there, Twily,” remarked Flash. “You were pretty late getting back. What kept you?”

“Had a bit of an emergency out in the forest,” explained Twilight. “Loco came knocking just after I'd arrived at Zecora's hut for the tea I asked for, and...well, long story short, I need to write to Celestia about something.”

“Eh? What's Celestia got to do with it?” inquired Flash, arching a confused eyebrow as he trotted after her.

Twilight paused momentarily. She knew she had already promised Locomotion that she wouldn't tell anypony else about Hornette without his permission, but if her consort was to understand, then this was probably where she had to start breaking it. “Well, before you jump to any conclusions, Flash, I'd like you to know that I'd already scanned her memory and found no serious malice in that creature whatsoever – just fear and distress plus a hint of...some other emotion I can't quite put my hoof on.”


“And you know from experience that the memory scan spell has never yet failed me, right?” she went on.

“Uh...yeah, so?”

“Now...I know this might sound crazy, seeing as this was my first time using such a spell on a changeling, but you have to believe me when I say she was genuinely scared of us...”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” interrupted Flash, his eyes wide with shock. “You mean to tell me there's...a changeling?! In the Everfree Forest?!”

“Yes, there's a changeling in the Everfree Forest,” stated Twilight calmly, mentally apologising to Locomotion for what she had just revealed. “Look, I know they've been a threat to this nation in the past, and believe me, I've seen first-hoof how manipulative they can be; but this is no Queen Chrysalis we're dealing with here. Hornette doesn't want to start taking advantage of us just for a bit of changeling food – she just wants to find a safe haven, somewhere she can feel safe and wanted and loved without forcing it on other ponies.”

If Flash was confused earlier, he was now utterly flabbergasted. Surely this couldn't be true of a changeling, he thought – no, that creature must be playing with Twilight's head just as their queen had done to her brother all those years ago! And more to the point, why would this one be trying to find safe haven in Equestria? All she was likely to find here was a painfully prolonged end in the Canterlot dungeons. “Well...that's all very well, Twily, but how do you think Princess Celestia might take it?” he blurted out at last.

“That's what I'm hoping to find out,” murmured Twilight, gazing out of a nearby window towards Canterlot and hoping that her former mentor would understand the young changeling's plight and give her a fair trial. “Meet me in my bedroom, Flash. I'll tell you the whole story once I've sent this letter,” and before Flash could answer, she cantered swiftly down the hallway towards her private study.

The moment she entered, the lavender-coated alicorn hastily levitated a quill and a fresh sheet of parchment over to her desk and began writing with an anxious flourish. There was a time when she could safely depend on her dragon assistant Spike to write, proofread and dispatch her letters, but since he had moved in with Rarity, the lavender-coated alicorn had had to shoulder that responsibility all by herself. After a few minutes and around twenty discarded sheets, Twilight scanned through the latest draft of her letter for anything that might need rewording. Normally she was rather confident in her choice of phrasing when it came to writing letters, but tonight was different – one wrong word, and it would be off to the dungeons with Hornette.

Dear Princess Celestia,

My apologies for keeping you up so late, but there is an urgent matter that I need to negotiate ASAP. Earlier today, one of my subjects discovered a badly injured changeling in the Everfree Forest who says she is on the run from the Badlands in search of a new homeland. She has only ever been referred to by an ID number while under Queen Chrysalis, so we have opted to name her Hornette. She further claims, and I quote, that she “never wanted to live up to the reputation of the rest of [her] kind”, but instead wishes to be “welcomed with open arms” and “loved naturally instead of by force”. I have already scanned her memory and determined that she is telling the truth, so I am writing to ask that you make an exception to the Anti-Changeling Protection Act and grant her a probation. Hoping you will understand.

Your Most Faithful Former Student
Princess Twilight Sparkle

“Hmm...good enough, I guess,” the lavender-coated alicorn decided at last, rolling up the parchment and tying a length of ribbon around it with the Friendship Rainbow Kingdom seal. “ goes nothing.”

She closed her eyes and focussed her thoughts on her former mentor, and with a burst of light from her horn, the letter disintegrated into a small purple cloud of magic. The cloud swept away through the fireplace and up the chimney on the far side of the room, from whence it would be carried away on the wind towards Canterlot Castle. Not long now before Hornette's fate was decided, Twilight thought to herself as she retired to her bed chamber.

Flash was still waiting anxiously on the divan as the lavender-coated princess entered. Twilight settled down next to her consort and told him all about Hornette, how Locomotion had rescued her from the timberwolves and taken her to Zecora's hut for medical attention and recovery, and all the hardships she had been through before sneaking out of the Badlands in search of her “Promised Land”.

The orange-coated Pegasus guardspony could only stare in disbelief. “A changeling...wanting to treat us ponies like...equals? Gee whiz, what are the chances of that?!” he remarked.

“'s possible,” observed Twilight. “Thorax wasn't so bad once you got to know him, and he's a changeling.” A deep sigh escaped her lips as she recalled her and Spike's encounter with the guilt-ridden changeling. Up to that point, the mere mention of such creatures had been more than enough to strike fear, anger and hatred into her; but after seeing how tame and friendly Thorax was, she now felt ashamed of herself for holding it against his and Hornette's kind for so long. If only she knew what had become of him in the seven years since she had first seen him.

“I still don't understand, though,” went on Flash. “Why would this one be trying to find a Promised Land in Equestria of all places? The law says that no changeling should ever be allowed to run free here.”

“I'm aware of that, Flash, and that's precisely why I'm writing to Princess Celestia,” explained Twilight gravely. “Hornette may be a changeling, but she's nothing like the ones that attempted to invade Canterlot all those years ago – and in any case, I did promise Loco that I'd try to grant her immunity from the Anti-Changeling Act.”

“Yeah, I can kind of see where you're coming from with this one,” agreed Flash thoughtfully. “She hardly sounds like the stereotypical changeling. Still, I wouldn't mind meeting her face to face, just so I know what we're dealing with.”

“Well, I did plan on heading back to Zecora's hut to deliver Celestia's verdict anyway, so you can come as my bodyguard if you want,” suggested Twilight helpfully.

“Yeah, I think I'd feel safer if I did,” admitted Flash. “At least that way I could be sure that this Hornette girl is as innocent as you make her out to be.”

Twilight smiled wryly; but before she could reply, a swirl of off-white magic drifted out of the fireplace and materialised itself into a scroll just in front of her. “Gosh, that was quick,” she thought out loud, noting that it was sealed with the Royal Canterlot emblem. Promptly, she opened up the scroll and began to read its contents.

“Celestia's reply?” asked Flash inquisitively.

“Yeah, it's from Celestia alright,” affirmed Twilight. Her eyebrows straightened as she rolled up the letter again and tucked it under her mane. “Seems you'll be getting your chance sooner than we thought...”

Chapter 3: The Benefit of the Doubt

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Locomotion yawned. It had been a long trek from Uncle Maestro's cottage, and what with the fiasco with Hornette and the timberwolves, he hadn't even had the chance to find himself some food, let alone sit down and rest. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

“A bit better, I guess...but I'm hungry,” answered Hornette, frowning wearily at the emptiness in her stomach.

“Yeah, me too,” sympathised Locomotion. “What's on the menu tonight, Zecora?”

The zebra paused midway through laying down a fresh blanket of wool. “Well...there's eucalyptus salad and apple pie – and there's baobab soup if you're willing to try.”

“Thanks, but I think I'd rather just go for the salad and the pie,” the red-furred unicorn decided. “How about you, Hornette? You want some, or are you content with whatever love we have to offer?”

“What?! Oh, gosh, no!” cried Hornette, visibly horrified. “I could never bring myself to feed on someone else's love against their will! That's just...barbaric!”

“But......but I thought that was the main part of a changeling's diet,” objected Locomotion, confused.

“Well...our queen keeps telling us that, but I'm not exactly sure it's true myself,” admitted Hornette, trying to calm herself down. “I've hardly ever tasted love in all my life, and I don't think too many of the others have either – and yet I'm still here after all this time. But even if we do need love to survive, I'd rather starve to death than drain other creatures of it,” she finished emphatically.

Locomotion stared in bewilderment. Like many other ponies, he had always assumed that changelings practically thrived on love, and yet the first one he had ever met was telling him completely different. Not only was she openly refusing it, but apparently only a precious few of her kind had ever had what he thought of as a healthy intake of love – and on top of that, she had seemingly gone for years on end without it and still managed to stay alive. Could it really be that love wasn't such a vital commodity after all? Or had she been feeding off other creatures' love before now and not realised it? After a while, he decided that the former must be true, and promptly resumed their original conversation; “So...what kinds of food do you changelings feed on other than love?”

“Um...insects, mostly,” replied Hornette. “We sometimes have acacia berries and chopped cactuses and other plants as well – just...anything we can lay our hooves on.”

“So what kind of insects do you like best?” asked Locomotion curiously.

Hornette paused. “ you have any cockroaches?”

The red-furred teenager looked thoughtfully across to the zebra. “How about it, Zecora? You know where you can find some?”

“Hmm...cockroaches – now let me see...” Zecora pondered for a moment. “There might be some in a nearby tree. You stay here and recuperate while I go and investigate – and do help yourself to what you want, Loco. It wouldn't do for you to starve, you know.” Placing an intimidating looking mask over her face for protection, she picked up a small wicker basket and went outside.

Hornette and Locomotion were now all alone, with nothing to do but sit around and enjoy the calm silence and the gentle crackle of dying flames from within the hearth. Fighting off another yawn, Locomotion stood up and plodded over to the table to dish out some of the salad. It wasn't much – just eucalyptus leaves, cashew nuts, sliced zap apples and a dressing of olive oil – but throw in the apple pie, and that was probably more than enough to keep him going till morning. Indeed, there was just about enough, he noted, for him to give some to Hornette and still have enough left for Zecora when she returned; and judging by her current condition, she could certainly do with it. With that in mind, he scooped a small helping of the salad into an empty gourd and levitated it across to the young changeling. “Here,” he offered softly. “I know it's not insects, but you might like it.”

He certainly hoped she would at any rate. Being a changeling, it stood to reason that Hornette might not be overly fond of the sort of food that ponies were used to. If Twilight's account of her brother's wedding was anything to go by, Queen Chrysalis certainly wasn't – according to the lavender-coated alicorn, she had been disrespectful enough to spit out the free sample of Applejack's culinary when she thought nopony was looking! Whether this was because changelings couldn't safely digest ordinary pony food or just out of spite towards ponies in general remained a mystery, but personally Locomotion assumed that the latter had to be true.

He watched anxiously as Hornette took an experimental bite of her salad, almost expecting her to grimace in disgust the moment she started chewing – but much to his surprise and relief, the nervous look of apprehension on her face gave way to a small smile as the sweetness of the zap apples and the bland yet pleasant flavour of the leaves filled her mouth. She leaned in for another mouthful, prompting Locomotion to give a warm smile of his own.

“You like?” he asked.

Hornette nodded and tried to reply; but because her mouth was still full of salad, her speech came out all slurred and muffled. Locomotion rolled his eyes in subtle mirth as she hastily swallowed her food and tried again; “It's certainly a lot better than I expected.”

“That's good to know. Just a friendly tip for next time, though – it's not really considered polite among us ponies to speak with your mouth full,” advised Locomotion tactfully.

“Oh...” The young changeling looked down at her front hooves, mildly embarrassed. “Sorry about that.”

“Nah, it's okay, you weren't to know,” soothed Locomotion; but anything else he had to say was promptly interrupted as the door opened. “Ah, Zecora. You managed to find that cockroach nest?”

“It took some doing, but I did indeed,” affirmed Zecora thankfully. She reached into her basket and pulled out a jar containing the insects in question, which she emptied out into Hornette's bowl. “That should be enough on which for you to feed,” she added as the young changeling leaned in for a mouthful, “but if there's not enough in store, I can always go out and find you some more.”

“I wouldn't worry about that, Zecora,” chuckled Locomotion. “We can always dish out some of your eucalyptus salad if she's still hungry. I've already let her have a taste of that stuff, and I think she likes it.”

Zecora looked surprised, but pleased. “Very well, Loco – if you say so.”

Hornette looked up from her bowl again, a grateful smile adorning her face as she licked some of the cockroach blood from her lips. “Thank you, Miss Zecora,” she said softly. “These insects are delicious.”

“You're very welcome, my young friend. Hopefully now you should be on the mend,” replied Zecora, patting her on the back. She then made her way over to the table to dish out her own supper – but her attention was promptly diverted by a knock at the door, which opened to reveal Twilight and an orange Pegasus pony in gold-plated armour.

Hornette shied away in terror when she saw the guardspony. She had been dreading this moment all the while, and now it was coming true – but in her panic, she failed to notice that the orange-coated pony was by no means as surly as stunned by her reaction. This changeling really was scared of their kind, he realised.

“Flash Sentry?!” exclaimed Locomotion, visibly shocked. “What in the hay are you doing here?!”

Flash quickly snapped out of his stupor and turned his attention to the red-furred teenager. “Oh...Twilight said there was a changeling out here in the Everfree Forest,” he replied hastily. “I asked if I could come along for added protection.”

Locomotion glared angrily at the lavender-coated alicorn. “Twilight!” he burst out indignantly. “I thought you promised to keep this a secret!”

“Yes, yes, I know that, Loco!” interrupted Twilight. She took a deep sigh before continuing; “Look, I'm sorry I broke my promise, I really am – but you know how Flash can get when he doesn't know where I am or what I'm doing with myself. I only let him in on this because he was worried for me; and I can assure you, I've done everything in my power to persuade him that Hornette doesn't wish us any harm.”

“So...he's not going to harm her back?” asked Locomotion, his anger beginning to fade in spite of his apprehension.

“Not at all,” affirmed Flash softly. “I mean, yeah, I'm still having a tough time trying to wrap my head around all this, but if she really does want to make friends with us ponies, then who am I to object?”

Locomotion suddenly felt a little ashamed of himself. Twilight was clearly trying to help him by letting Flash in on Hornette, and his only response had been to berate her for being dishonest with him. “Sorry, Twilight,” he apologised unhappily. “I'm just so...”

“You don't need to apologise for anything, Loco,” soothed Twilight. “You were just doing your bit to protect Hornette – I can't fault you for that. Anyway, good news...”

Locomotion and Hornette perked up.

“...Celestia's agreed to give you the benefit of the doubt, Hornette, and grant you a parole. If you can prove your true worth within the space of two months, you'll be allowed to stay here in Equestria for as long as you like; but there are a few provisos. Firstly, when you feel ready, she wants you to make acquaintance with the remainder of the Friendship Council – that's the body of ponies that governs this part of Equestria...”

“More ponies?” asked Hornette, a little uneasily.

“Yes, more ponies,” affirmed Twilight. “You won't have to meet them all at once – just one member at a time, and I'll make sure they know about you first. Secondly, I've been instructed that you're to stay within the general area of Ponyville unless you have me or a Royal Guard as an escort. Finally, she's advised that I cast a suppression spell on you and renew it every 24 hours.”

Locomotion groaned and slapped a hoof to his face. “Just as I thought,” he grumbled. “Never trust changelings, they say. Block all their magic and render them vulnerable, they say.”

Hornette gave Twilight a wry half-smile. “Well...I think I'd feel a lot happier if you could cast that spell on me,” she admitted.

“You what?” Locomotion shot her a bewildered double-take, clearly taken aback. “But suppose you find...”

“It's only meant to stop her from hypnotising other creatures, Loco,” interrupted Twilight reasonably. “She'll still be able to use magic, and she'll still be able to feed on love – if anypony has any to spare, at least – but she won't be able to force anypony to love her against their will.” She rested a reassuring hoof on his shoulder. “I'd never wish to drain anyone of their magic, Loco, let alone a changeling – that's the sort of thing Tirek would have done. Besides, it'd be a shame to let all that potential go to waste.”

“What potential?” asked Locomotion, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, I didn't say anything earlier because we were so focussed on patching her up, but when I was running that memory scan on Hornette earlier, I happened to detect a magical ability which, given time and practice, could become almost as good as mine was at her age. I'd be happy to teach her if she wants.”

Hornette hesitated. “Um...hmm...I'm going to have to think about that,” she replied doubtfully.

Twilight chuckled and patted her shoulder. “You take it at whatever pace you want, Hornette – I won't rush you into it before you're ready. But as I said, you've got a lot of magic in that frame of yours, and it'd be great if you could develop it further.”

“Well...probably,” agreed Hornette thoughtfully. “Maybe when I'm feeling a little home, perhaps?”

“Maybe,” conceded Twilight with a hearty grin as she closed her eyes and began focussing her magic. Her horn glowed brightly, its pinkish aura softly curling around the young changeling before seeping into her head.

Locomotion could only gaze unhappily, a deep sense of sorrow and injustice apparent in his eyes. He and Twilight had done a great deal to help the poor young creature thus far, and the red-furred unicorn was glad to know that it had paid off – but it still didn't soften the sting he felt from having to see Hornette's magic suppressed. To him, it felt more like a violation than a precaution.

Nearly a minute passed before Twilight let go of her magic and gave the young changeling and her rescuer her full attention. “Sorry to have had to do this to you, Hornette,” she apologised. “No hard feelings?”

Hornette shook her head no in reply. “I'd rather the rest of you were safe than be able to steal anyone's love, even if I wanted to.”

“Can't exactly say I'm happy about it myself,” sighed Locomotion unhappily, “but I'm not gonna start an argument.”

Sensing the hurt in his voice, Twilight sidled up to the red-furred unicorn and wrapped an arm around his withers. “Try to cheer up,” she soothed. “At least Hornette's getting a fair trial – and on top of that, you get to look after her yourself.”

This threw Locomotion for a loop. With a look of surprise and anticipation on his face, he slowly lifted his head to meet the lavender-coated alicorn's gaze. “” he stammered.

Twilight nodded. “She does seem to like you better than the rest of us. Besides, you were the one who saved her and brought her back here – I think it's only right that you're allowed to put her up and teach her our ways. What do you say to that?” she asked kindly.

“Well...I'm honoured, Twilight, I really am, but why me?” objected Locomotion, barely able to believe what he was hearing. “Surely one of your guards would...” but he quickly broke off as he remembered what sort of creature they were dealing with. If it had been one of the guards, they probably would have made the young changeling's life a living Tartarus – and that was the last thing he wanted her to go through.

“You'll do fine, Loco,” encouraged Twilight. “You're already doing her a world of good, and I wouldn't ask you to carry on if I didn't believe in you.”

“Yeah, but what about the rest of Ponyville?” interjected Flash, his brow furrowing with concern. “Sure, we're all willing to give her a chance, but unless Hornette poses as another pony or...or something, I can't see anypony else going so easy on her.”

“Oh, gosh, I hadn't thought of that.” Twilight pondered the problem for a moment before turning back to Hornette. “How long do you think it'll be before you can start changing your form again?” she asked anxiously.

“Again? But I've never used that kind of magic,” protested Hornette. “The closest I ever got was an invisibility spell, and then only to help me escape from home.”

Flash's eyes widened in disbelief. “But...but I thought all changelings could...”

Twilight frowned anxiously. By the looks of it, Hornette was in for a pretty rocky start. “Right!” she decided firmly. “In that case, we'd better try and nip any potential discrimination in the bud. As soon as I get the chance, I'm going to let the whole town know that you're on parole and are to be treated as an equal – and don't you worry about a thing, Loco,” she added quickly, before the unicorn teenager could object, “I'll see to it that the mayor, the Royal Guards and the local police department give us their full cooperation.”

Locomotion looked back over his shoulder towards the young changeling. He hated to admit it, but the way things were going right now, this seemed to be the only way of ensuring fair treatment towards her. “You alright with that, Hornette?”

“Um...I don't know,” faltered Hornette, visibly scared. “I'm not sure I'd feel safe with a whole town knowing about a creature like me. I mean...what's to stop them from harming me?”

“Nopony's gonna hurt you on my watch,” Locomotion assured her resolutely. “I know it's a bit much too soon, and I can see you're scared, but you won't have to go it alone. I promise I'll be right by your side the whole time – and if anypony has anything horrible to say about you or wants to start beating you up, they'll have to go through me first.”

Hornette was so deeply touched that she didn't know what to say. For far too long, she had been expected to look out for herself just like the rest of her species; and now a creature from the very nation that they had been targeting all these years was willingly standing up for her. Never in all her life had she been shown such loyalty, especially by a pony. “Really?” she stammered.

“Definitely,” stated Locomotion simply.

The young changeling smiled faintly. “ that case.”

“Good – that's settled then,” declared Twilight. “I'll go and let Steamer know he's going to be taking in an extra resident. You'd better head back to the castle, Flash, and check on the night guard.”

“Will do, Twily. Any idea what time you'll be back?”

“Um...within the hour at the latest, I should imagine.”

“Right, I'll see you later then.” But before Flash took his leave, he gave the injured changeling a friendly smile and said, “Best of luck with your parole, Hornette.”

Twilight smiled faintly as the orange-coated Pegasus left the hut and made his way back to the castle. “Will you be okay to put Loco and Hornette up for the night, Zecora?”

Up until this point, Zecora had tactfully excused herself from the conversation and allowed Hornette and the three ponies to do the talking. “There may be only one spare bed,” she observed, “but I can always sleep on the floor instead.”

“You don't need to do that, Zecora,” said Locomotion hastily. “I'll take the floor.”

Zecora shook her head. “A kind offer, but I must protest – no host should do such a thing to a guest.”

“You can both take the beds,” began Hornette, trying to stand up. “I wouldn't want...” but she inhaled sharply and collapsed onto her barrel again as a sharp pain coursed its way through her injured leg. Locomotion flinched in alarm, but quickly composed himself.

“No, Hornette, you stay where you are,” he insisted gently. “I don't want you hurting yourself.” He looked back to Zecora; “Look, I appreciate your offer, but I'd much rather be on hoof in case Hornette needs anything.”

“He's got a point, Zecora,” put in Twilight sagely. Inwardly, she was taken aback by Locomotion's decision to sleep on the floor (normally he preferred a nice, warm bed), but she kept her opinions to herself. “Hornette could benefit from having somepony by her side for the night, especially somepony with whom she feels safe.”

“Hmm...a reasonable assessment, I suppose,” conceded Zecora. “Very well, Locomotion, I won't impose – whatever you think is the right thing to do, I'm perfectly happy to side with you.”

“Thanks, Zecora.” Locomotion returned his attention to Twilight; “I take it we'll see you in the morning?”

Twilight nodded. “I'll be back here around 9:00am. You take good care of Hornette in the meantime.”

“No sweat, Twilight,” asserted Locomotion as he went to help Zecora lay out a few sheets next to Hornette's bed. “If I have anything to do with it, she'll be right as rain by the time you get back.”

“That's a good colt,” cajoled Twilight. “I'll leave you to it then. See you tomorrow, you two, and take it easy.”

“Goodnight, Twilight.”

Twilight glided serenely through the night sky, just a few hooves above the town that had come to mean so much to her since she had first moved in from Canterlot. In the distance, she could see light coming from a greyish house not too far from the station, where she knew Locomotion's uncle would be waiting for him. Sure enough, as she descended towards the ground, she noticed the buff-coated stallion pacing anxiously back and forth in the front room with an agitated look on his face.

“Sorry to have to dump this on you so abruptly, Steamer,” she thought aloud as she knocked at the door. She barely had to wait three seconds before it opened.

Steamer was most surprised to see the lavender-coated alicorn standing outside his house. “Princess Twilight?” he exclaimed, bowing out of respect. “Good grief, this is...unexpected.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Alright, Steamer, stand up. There's no need for all the formalities.”

“, beg your pardon,” apologised Steamer. “What can I do for you?”

“I've got some important news about your nephew Locomotion,” explained Twilight. “Less than two hours...”
“What about Loco? Did something happen to him?”

“No, he's fine – he just has to spend the night at Zecora's hut with a refugee he's rescued.”

Steamer looked confused. “I don't understand.”

“Two hours ago – or thereabouts – he narrowly managed to avoid being ravaged by timberwolves, but had to go on the attack because they were trying to make mincemeat out of what he assumed was another pony,” continued Twilight. “The creature was in pretty bad shape, so he brought her back to Zecora's place for first aid. I happened to be visiting at the time, and after scanning her memory, I can confirm that she intends no harm on our kind whatsoever, even if the rest of her species do; all she wants is to find somewhere she can feel safe and loved and wanted without having to force it on anypony.”

The buff-coated Earth pony sighed heavily. “Look, Twilight, could you please cut to the chase?” he asked wearily. “I'm struggling to see what you're talking about here.”

“Very well – but I warn you, this might be a bit of a shock.” Twilight paused for a few seconds to allow Steamer to prepare himself. “Her name is Hornette, put it bluntly, she's a changeling.”

“WHAT?!” Steamer's eyes widened, and his face took on a pale magnolia shade as he began to splutter like a damp squib. “My mean to...there's...but how...I can't believe......are you serious?!” he blurted out, his voice almost loud enough to wake up the neighbours.

“Oh, I'm dead serious,” replied Twilight patiently. “About...seventy times I've been using that spell so far, and it's never failed me yet – okay, so perhaps I'd never used it on changelings before, but Hornette looked and sounded as scared and as guilt-ridden as the spell made her out to be...”

“ do you know she hadn't been hypnotising Loco into this?!” objected Steamer defensively.

“Steamer, she has not hypnotised Loco into doing anything!” stated Twilight firmly. “He saved her life of his own accord; she was too badly injured to use any form of magic on him, and in any case, I've already blocked her from performing anything malign once she gets her strength back.”

Steamer frowned and gritted his teeth. “I'm gonna have to have some serious words with that colt when he gets back. Imagine breaking the anti-changeling law like this...”

“Actually, Steamer, I've already written to Princess Celestia, and she's agreed to let Hornette off on parole as long as she's kept under supervision,” went on Twilight. “After some careful consideration, I've decided that your nephew shall be the one to accompany her wherever she goes, and you will be her tenant for the next two months at least.”

If Steamer was shocked earlier, he now looked as if he had just been asked to stop the tide. “Me, lend my home out as asylum for a changeling?!”

“Yes, you lend your home out as asylum for a changeling,” repeated Twilight bluntly.

“But...this is too much!” argued Steamer. “Some things I'd be willing to do for you – for the whole country, even – but I'd rather be trapped in a wrecked passenger carriage than have to risk my life to a changeling! I mean, supposing she suddenly turns against us? And you know how naïve Loco can be...”

“Yes, but I promised him I'd give Hornette a fair chance,” interrupted Twilight. “She's led a rough life under Queen Chrysalis, and it's only fair that we try to include her in our own society.”

“Well, yeah, that's all very well, but why can't you keep her at the castle?” protested Steamer. “Surely you'll be able to contain her better there if she...”

“Look, I appreciate your feelings, and I can see you're kinda wary about Hornette, but she already feels alienated here as it is – keeping her in the castle is just going to make her feel trapped, even if it's in one of the bed chambers. I'm sorry, Steamer, but a promise is a promise,” finished Twilight sternly. “Hornette is staying here by Royal Command and that's the end of it.”

Steamer sighed again, this time with exasperation. He still wasn't happy about accepting a changeling as a lodger, but even he knew better than to argue with a princess about it. “Alright then,” he conceded grudgingly, “but I'm not accepting any responsibility if this turns out to have been a trick on her part.”

“Very well, Steamer. I'll bring her along with Loco tomorrow morning.” With a powerful flap of her wings, Twilight took off again and flew away back to the castle for the night.

Steamer turned and made his way upstairs, grumbling to himself about the turn of events. It was bad enough to know there was a changeling in Equestria, but having to provide her with food and shelter?! How in Tartarus could Twilight be fool enough to think that would work out?

The lonely hooting of a distant owl and the chirping of crickets were the only sounds to be heard for miles around. The moon was high up in the dark blue sky, the stars were twinkling like diamonds, and there wasn't a cloud in sight. But a small cloud of doubt still hung over Hornette as she tossed and turned in her bed, trying in vain to make herself comfortable. How long had it been since Twilight had left? How long since the lights had been extinguished? How long would it be before daybreak? Might as well be forever, she thought, for although the soreness of her injuries had left her feeling drowsy, there were so many questions flowing through her mind that she couldn't sleep.

An uncanny feeling of guilt washed over her as she gazed upon the slumbering form of Locomotion at the foot of the bed. This was the sort of creature who should have hated her species with an unbridled passion, who should have torn her to shreds or left her trapped in solitary confinement for the rest of her days – and yet, against all the odds, he had not only taken pity on her, but also single-hoofedly saved her from a whole pack of timberwolves, stood up for her with Twilight and Zecora and managed to persuade them both to side with him – and gained the approval of this country's own ruler to boot. But why? Why was he doing this for her?

“Um...Locomotion...” she ventured at last.

Locomotion stirred and cracked an eye open. “What? Something need overhaul?” he muttered sleepily.

“Sorry to disturb you, Locomotion,” apologised Hornette meekly. “I just...”

A light chuckle escaped Locomotion's lips as he reoriented himself. “It's okay, Hornette – and just Loco is fine,” he replied, gingerly sitting up so that he could make eye contact. “What's on your mind?”

“...I still don't understand. Why are you doing so much for some worthless changeling like me?” went on Hornette. “I should be locked up in a dungeon somewhere, not resting up in an ordinary pony's home.” She paused pathetically. “Why are you being so...kind and...helpful to me?”

“Because you're hurt, of course,” retorted Locomotion, a hint of amusement in his voice. “What kind of a friend would I be if I wasn't?”

Friend......friend......never in all her life had any other word meant so much to the troubled changeling. Others of her kind she could...sort of understand, even though the few friends she had had back in her homeland all seemed to turn savage at some point – but to hear that from a pony? A creature that should have loathed and despised her kind to the point where they wanted rid of them completely?

“I never believed in that 'all changelings are evil' nonsense,” went on Locomotion, his expression turning solemn again. “I liked to think that there were at least a few who might have a heart and conscience, who would want to make peace with this nation instead of waging war with it. Granted, I've only known you for like......a few hours, but you're already proving my point, strengthening my beliefs.” He smiled softly and wrapped a kindly hoof around hers. “Other creatures could learn a great deal from the likes of you – even Princess Celestia.”

This brought the smile back to Hornette's face. No changeling, nor any other creature for that matter, had ever done so much for her. It was almost too good to be true; but at the same time, it warmed her hitherto empty heart so much that she nearly began to shed tears again.

“Loco...” she stammered.

“Yes, Hornette?”

The young changeling paused for another few seconds. She almost felt too unworthy for what she wanted to say, but at last she managed to pluck up her courage again. “Thank you,” she murmured softly, “for everything.”

Locomotion said no more, but smiled warmly in reply before settling himself down again. Hornette was clearly no ordinary changeling, he thought to himself as he slowly drifted off back to sleep...

Chapter 4: First Day in Ponyville

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The morning sun hovered gently above the horizon as the nation of Equestria awoke to a brand new day, blissfully unaware of the interloper from the Badlands. Over in Zecora's hut, Hornette, her wounds healed and most of the dressing removed, was tucking into a bowl of stag beetles with a side of fresh grass, while Zecora was making some toast for herself and Locomotion. She had slept surprisingly well given the previous day's escapade, and though she was still nervous about meeting the other local residents, the young changeling was glad to at least have the red-furred unicorn by her side.

Locomotion took a cheerful bite out of his breakfast. “Nothing like a good slice of toasted corn bread and some marmalade to start my day – except for a nice fry-up, of course,” he mused. “You enjoying yours, Hornette?”

“I sure am,” replied Hornette, pausing for a few seconds to toss one of the insects into her mouth. “I never knew these beetles tasted so good steamed.”

“I must confess, neither did I, but I was still sure you'd be willing to try,” intoned Zecora kindly as she turned over the slice of bread she was currently toasting.

“Well, I'm glad I did get to try them. They're delicious.”

“Don't let Fluttershy hear you say that,” quipped Locomotion cheekily.

Hornette cocked her head. “Who's Fluttershy?”

“Oh, that's the name of our local animal caretaker,” explained Locomotion. “She's pretty......well, shy; but can be really, really friendly once you get to know her. Matter of fact, she's on the Friendship Council too, so if you were hoping to meet her, you're more than in luck.”

“You...have ponies who take care of animals?” Hornette was surprised.

“Oh, yeah,” affirmed Locomotion. “You may not believe this, but even nature requires us ponies to keep it going around here, whether it's tending to the animals, sowing seeds or moving clouds or whatever. It's not the case in some of the more treacherous places like here in the Everfree Forest, but other than that...well, you get the idea. But yeah, she's had a natural talent for looking after and interacting with various creatures since foalhood,” he went on, taking another bite of his toast. “First time here on the ground, she was so good with the local animals that she gained her Cutie Mark after just...five minutes or something in their company.”

“Gosh, that's amazing,” remarked Hornette; but her awe quickly turned back to puzzlement. “Um...forgive my ignorance, Loco, but...what's a Cutie Mark?”

Locomotion chuckled heartily. Clearly, Hornette had a lot to learn about ponies. “It's a...sort of an emblem that each of us have on our flanks which denotes our individual personalities, mostly to do with special talents and such. Take mine, for example,” he elaborated, proudly pointing to the golden spoked wheel and black locomotive chimney spouting smoke and steam on his flank. “That's the emblem of Equestrian National Railways, and indicates towards a career, talent and general interest in trains.”

“Oh, I see...I think,” said Hornette. “So is it just ponies who get them, or do other creatures have Cutie Marks as well?”

“Um...not a lot, as far as I know,” admitted Locomotion. “I mean, as you can see, Zecora has one herself, and apparently so do the rest of her species; but other than that, I'm not sure.”

“Oh, okay. By the way, what are trains?”

“They' shall I put it...they're like a pony and cart, except that they're mechanised and run on special paths made of metal rails bolted to wooden sleepers, which we ponies call railways. I've been a great fan of them since I was just a yearling, and my uncle Steamer and I actually work for them on a daily basis.” Being such a huge railway enthusiast, he would have wanted to go a lot further, but he tactfully decided against it for fear of overloading her. In any case, he realised as Twilight knocked on the door and entered the hut, it was almost time for them to go. “Hullo again, Twilight.”

“Good morning, Loco. You and Hornette sleep well last night?”

“Pretty much, considering.”

“How about you, Hornette? Feeling better?” asked Twilight.

Hornette smiled faintly. “I think so, Twilight – just a little...nervous.”

“About coming to live in Ponyville?”


Locomotion gave the young changeling a small, supportive smile of his own. “Yeah, I know how you feel. So would I be if I were stuck out somewhere I'm not familiar with. Never mind,” he soothed. “I'll be right behind you all the way.”

“You and me both,” put in Twilight. “If anypony has a problem with there being a changeling in Ponyville, they'll have me to answer to. Anyway, Hornette,” she added, “will you be able to walk from here to Steamer's house, or do you need somepony to carry you?”

Hornette felt much more at ease knowing that both Locomotion and Twilight would be looking out for her, but she was a little reluctant to accept too much help from either of them. “Oh...I don't want to be a burden on you ponies,” she stuttered.

“You're not,” objected Locomotion kindly. “If you need help, you need help – there's no two ways about it. But yeah, can you stand up?”

“Um...I'll try.” Gingerly, Hornette shifted herself to the edge of the bed and rolled herself over so that she was on all fours. Her legs wobbled a little as she tried to maintain her balance, her face contorting with discomfort as she felt a stabbing pain in her right hind cannon, and Locomotion was forced to stand immediately next to her for support.

“You alright?” he asked anxiously.

“Ouch...sort of,” groaned Hornette. “Just a little sore where that timberwolf bit me.”

“Hmm...yeah, that was a close run thing,” remarked Locomotion quietly, gazing at the bandages around her leg. Too much further up and that timberwolf could have killed her. “Okay, you just take it easy and try not to put too much weight on it. I'll support your bad side.”

“Okay,” murmured Hornette, leaning cautiously against the red-furred young stallion. She felt a little awkward being in such close contact with him, and silently wished that her leg hadn't taken so long to heal; but for some strange reason, she also felt a faint flutter in her heart as his soft fur brushed against her carapace.

“Right, well, we'd best be on our way,” declared Twilight. “Steamer's probably worrying himself sick about you, Loco.” She turned her attention to the zebra apothecary as she, Locomotion and Hornette made for the door; “Thanks for putting them up at such short notice, Zecora. I'll see you in a week, if not sooner.”

“Always glad to help in a bad situation,” smiled Zecora. “Farewell, young Hornette, and good luck with your probation.”

“Goodbye, Miss Zecora,” replied Hornette gratefully. “Thank you for helping me.”

Zecora responded with a polite nod and closed the door behind them. Hornette, meanwhile, continued to steal glance after glance upon the hut until it was out of sight. She didn't know if she would ever get the chance to visit that place ever again (indeed, after what had nearly happened to her with the timberwolves, it was touch and go whether she could even muster up the courage!), but after all that the kindly zebra had done for her, both were almost certain to remain with her for the rest of her life.

But what of Ponyville, she wondered as they neared the edge of the forest? What were the chances of fitting in with its other residents just as she had done with Locomotion, Zecora, Twilight and Flash? This was Equestria, after all – she didn't know how long it had been since the last attempt at an invasion by her kind, but these ponies weren't all that likely to have forgotten, particularly in the light of the siege on...what was their capital city called...Canterlot, that was it. And this Steamer pony they kept mentioning – how would he react to finding a changeling at his front door? Somehow, she didn't think he would be anywhere near as willing to accept her as Locomotion had been, even if the two were related.

“Um...Loco,” she piped up shyly, “what's your uncle like?”

“Oh...pretty sociable sort, kinda laid back half the time, but really dedicated to his role as a locomotive driver,” answered Locomotion. “He's like a second father to me – taught me a great deal about trains and railways when I was a kid, and often let me ride in the cab with him on the express runs. He even put in a good word for me with the Motive Power Superintendent at the local engine sheds, and after that, I was allowed to work for them as a part-time cleaner. I've been working my way through the ranks ever since.”

“Do you...think he'll like me?”

Locomotion frowned and averted his gaze. “I...don't really know,” he confessed, looking up to Twilight for reassurance.

“Well...let's just say he'll need time to get used to you,” decided Twilight, anxious not to go into any detail lest she make Hornette feel insecure; but her skirting round the issue didn't exactly put Locomotion at ease. He didn't have the heart to tell either of them, but somehow, deep down, he had a hunch that his uncle wouldn't take very kindly to the young changeling – not at first, anyway.

Soon – too soon for Locomotion and Hornette's liking – the three of them had left the open countryside behind and were making their way through the streets of Ponyville, where the sight of a changeling in the midst of this provincial town was causing quite a stir. Several townsponies were staring in shock, fear, disgust and confusion, while others took one look at Hornette before bolting to the nearest alleyway, peering cautiously out of their hiding places as she passed them by. Locomotion found this most frustrating!

But when at last they reached Steamer's house, his annoyance with the townsponies was quickly swept aside as his fears came back with a vengeance. He raised a hoof to knock at the door, but such was his anxiety that it seemed to seize up completely.

“Go on, Loco,” encouraged Twilight.

Locomotion slowly lowered his hoof to the doorstep. “I can't,” he muttered pathetically. “Steamer's gonna have a fit when he sees Hornette!”

Twilight shook her head in dismay. The red-furred railway enthusiast was clearly having a harder time trying to steel himself for the inevitable than he made out. “You can't put it off forever, Loco,” she coaxed gently. “The longer you leave it, the harder he'll take the whole thing, and then he probably won't trust her at all,” and before Locomotion could reply, she leaned over him and knocked three times.

Every second felt like an hour as the three of them waited for Steamer to answer the door. Locomotion stared down at his front hooves, biting his lip anxiously while Hornette looked nervously left and right, presumably for somewhere to hide. “Um...maybe he's not home?” she stammered, trying to sound helpful.

“I'd give it another minute or so...” began Twilight; but the door swung open before she could finish.

Locomotion gulped and drew himself upright. Now, he thought, he was really going to face the music. “Uh...morning, Uncle Steamer,” he spoke up, trying to sound casual. “Sorry I didn't make it back when I said I would, know...”

“That's alright, Loco – at least you're back safe and sound.” Steamer was trying his best to look and sound nonchalant, but his nephew could sense a hint of reproof in his voice. “Now then, what's this I hear about you rescuing a changeling in the Everfree Forest?”

“It's true,” admitted Locomotion meekly. “Now look, I know what you're thinking,” he added hastily before Steamer could reprimand him, “but please hear me out – Hornette doesn't want to be like all the other changelings. She doesn't want to force other creatures to love her, and neither does she want to be a part of any changeling war against Equestria; she just wants to find somewhere she can be genuinely loved and cared for. And another thing, I didn't even know she was a changeling in the first place – I just heard a scream from nearby and assumed that another pony or some such creature was being attacked by those timberwolves.”

“I...see.” Steamer's eyebrows straightened. “Well, I probably don't need to tell you how disappointed I am, Loco,” he said in a quiet yet chastising tone. “I'd have thought you'd know better than to defy the law like this.”

“Uncle, I had to!” protested Locomotion. “I couldn't just leave her there, not in her condition – heck, she could have bled to death if she didn't die of shock first! And yes, you heard me right just then – that changeling was terrified of me when she first saw me, and I'm just a pony!” His voice began to break as he ranted on, and he found it increasingly difficult to hold back tears. “She could have done something really horrible to me the moment she came round, but she didn't because she thought I was gonna hurt her! She was pleading for mercy! She actually wanted me to leave her alone even though I was her last hope! Heck, I'm surprised I managed to calm her down, even!” and he choked back a sob, unable to carry on.

Steamer sighed heavily. “Alright, where is she?” he asked, softening his demeanour slightly.

Locomotion indicated towards his left side, trying to pull himself together; but he was startled to find that Hornette had completely vanished. “Hornette?” he called anxiously. “Hornette, where are you?”

“I'll handle this, Loco.” Twilight sent out a wave of magic, and in an instant, the young changeling reappeared immediately next to Locomotion. Her face was ashen with fear as she gazed upon Steamer, who eyed her suspiciously.

“So you're Hornette, huh?”

“Um...y...yes, sir,” faltered Hornette in a timid, squeaky, jittery tone.

“Hmm...well, I like to think I'm a stallion of my word,” stated Steamer bluntly, “so if Twilight says you're to stay here, then who am I to argue? But if you dare to hurt my nephew, there'll be consequences.”

Hornette didn't reply. She just backed away and hid herself behind Locomotion, who rolled his eyes and directed a disapproving glance of his own towards his uncle.

“Now, Steamer,” concluded Twilight, “I'll be visiting here at 7pm each day to renew the suppression spell I cast on her, and I want to hear that you're treating Hornette well. If Locomotion tells me otherwise, I'll be having stern words with you.”

“As you wish,” muttered Steamer reluctantly. He watched as Twilight took off for the castle, and retired to the living room with a weary expression on his face. “You feel free to settle her in, Loco – as far as I'm concerned, she's your responsibility.”

“Wouldn't have it any other way,” retorted Locomotion under his breath as he led Hornette into the house.

Hornette found Steamer's house rather different to the tribal style of Zecora's hut. The living room was large and airy, with a wide-screen television, an ornamental fireplace made out of a type of rock that Locomotion called slate, and a comfortable-looking sofa that he explained could also be converted into a double bed if need be. There were also several framed pictures hanging from the walls, many of famous locomotives from all around the world – indeed, there were plenty more out in the hallway, the kitchen and the dining room.

The upstairs floor, meanwhile, consisted of a bathroom, a study and three bedrooms, of which Locomotion owned one and Steamer the other. The third one turned out to be little more than a guest room, that much was apparent from the lack of appealing décor other than a blue fitted carpet; whereas, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Locomotion's room was alive with colour and even had its own television set and desktop computer. All told, Hornette rather liked her new home – it was a huge change from what she was used to, but the smaller space of this typical Equestrian house felt far cosier and more inviting than the massive hive in which she had previously lived. It just felt so...homely.

“You ponies sure know how to build your homes,” she sighed contentedly as she and Locomotion hung out in his room.

Locomotion chuckled. “Yeah, well...we do our best,” he answered modestly.

“No, really,” insisted Hornette, “where I'm from, you don't get others of my kind owning a separate house at all. The most we ever get is a chamber in each hive, and we even have to share a single dining space.”

After what she had said about no “inferior” changelings being given names, this hardly came as a surprise to Locomotion; but it still didn't stop him from scowling bitterly. This was no kingdom Hornette was talking about, he thought angrily – this was a dictatorship! No ruler in the world, no matter how powerful or revered, should ever treat their subjects this way. “Good thing you never get Princess Celestia being so ruthless,” he muttered feelingly. “Faust bless democracy.”


“Queen Faust,” explained Locomotion, calming himself down a little. “That's the name of the great Goddess of Equestria, the mother of Celestia and Luna. And a democracy is when you have a ruler who actually listens to the peoples of his or her nation and does what they want of him or her.”

Hornette looked stunned. “You mean...your Princess Celestia actually puts her subjects first?”

“Yeah,” affirmed Locomotion matter-of-factly. “If she didn't, we'd probably still be living in the dark ages just like we did before the founding of Equestria,” making a mental note to explain it in greater detail at some point in the near future, “and you'd probably be in a dungeon by now.”

“But...I thought that a ruler always had the final word,” exclaimed Hornette, taken aback.

Locomotion laughed in an almost derisive tone. “That's not necessarily true, Hornette,” he clarified. “We lesser subjects have our own wills and imaginations just like any other living creature, and if a ruler doesn't respect that, they don't deserve to be in charge. Take the griffins, for example; after King Guto died and their sacred Idol of Boreas went missing, his subjects were so devastated that no-one offered themselves as heir to the throne, and he didn't even have a son or daughter to succeed him. Instead, their country fell into a state of anarchy, and the former capital city of Griffonstone all but lost its significance.

“Over the years, some other griffins tried to form a new government, but it wasn't until 1933 that a particularly bitter and power-hungry griffin named Adolf Hawker assumed control. He had taken a real dislike to ponies in his youth, and consistently blamed Equestria for all the hardships Griffonia had been facing. But worse than that,” he went on darkly, “he was so determined to make Griffonia the greatest nation on the planet that he began invading other countries.”

“Just like the rest of my kind are trying to do now?” asked Hornette breathlessly.

“Exactly! In the end, Celestia was forced to declare war on him against her better judgement, and from 1939 to '45, we found ourselves fighting endlessly against Griffonia until at last, with the help of the Prench, the Arabians, the reindeer and the zebras, we managed to defeat Hawker's regime once and for all.” Locomotion sighed unhappily and closed his eyes. “We managed to help Griffonia back onto its feet and reform its government afterwards, but the Great Griffin War, as we call it, has gone down as the deadliest conflict in history – over 60 million dead worldwide, most of them civilians. All I can say is, thank the lucky stars I wasn't around then.”

Hornette raised a hoof to her heart. “Oh, Loco...that sounds awful.”

Locomotion smiled ruefully. “It's the way of the world, unfortunately. Sometimes we make peace with other nations; other times, we find ourselves at war with them. Still, all species have a good streak in them somewhere,” he added. “Who knows? Maybe someday, the rest of yours may yet see the light and make peace with us ponies.”

“I certainly hope we will,” agreed Hornette longingly.

If Steamer had been hoping not to have anything to do with Hornette, he soon found that it wasn't to be the case. He still wasn't comfortable with the idea of sharing his house with a changeling, and intended to stay out of her way as much as possible; but to his dismay, when they sat down to lunch, Locomotion strongly insisted that she be allowed to eat with them rather than alone in the guest room. It wouldn't do to make her feel excluded, he argued, and Twilight wouldn't be too pleased either.

The buff-coated stallion nibbled unhappily at his piece of the cherry pie he had baked for dessert, not even daring to look at Hornette. The young changeling, on the other hoof, was enjoying her own helping so much that she barely noticed.

“Mm...this is so sweet,” she remarked. There was still a little bit of pie in her mouth, but only a small enough amount that she could shift it to one side and speak clearly. “I never knew your foods could get any better than insects.”

“Well...I wouldn't know,” chuckled Locomotion, who was just helping himself to a couple of cupcakes, “but I'm glad you're enjoying it.”

Steamer looked a little disturbed. “Who in the world would want to make a meal out of insects?!” he exclaimed, wrinkling his snout.

“Maybe not you, Uncle Steamer,” Locomotion pointed out, “but there are plenty of other creatures whose dietary habits are worlds apart from ours – griffins, bears, chimeras, hydras, dragons...”

“Yes, yes, I know,” interrupted Steamer, flustered. “You don't have to remind me.”

Locomotion smirked with satisfaction and turned back to Hornette; “On a serious note, though, you'll be hard-pressed to find enough insects of any variety for a decent meal,” he advised. “And Uncle Steamer does have a point – your appetite for such creatures might take the rest of Equestria some getting used to, so you might want to be a bit discreet with that one.”

“Why insects anyway?” wondered Steamer. “I thought...”

“...that all changelings fed on love and nothing else?” Locomotion stifled a chortle. “Well, good guess, but according to Hornette, they don't really need love to survive. They can live off any food they...” He broke off as an ominous groan caught his attention. Looking over his shoulder, he noticed that Hornette's cheerful expression had turned sickly, and she was clutching her stomach with discomfort. “What's wrong, Hornette?” he asked.

“Ooh...I don't feel so good,” Hornette croaked. No sooner had she said that than her body convulsed, and she quickly flung both front hooves over her mouth.

Locomotion's eyes widened in alarm. “Quick! Upstairs!” he commanded urgently, grabbing the young changeling by the arm and practically dragging her out of the room. Steamer looked even more confused for a moment – but all soon became clear as he heard the sounds of retching and sloshing from above.

Panting and shuddering with exhaustion, Hornette slumped against the toilet bowl, her stomach still aching dully and her face a pale shade of charcoal. Having flushed away the unpleasant evidence of what had just happened, Locomotion sat down next to her and gingerly ran a hoof down her back. “Are you okay?” he asked softly.

“Mm-hmm – sort of,” murmured Hornette wearily, trying not to speak too much in case she should throw up again.

Locomotion hung his head with regret. “Sorry, Hornette,” he apologised unhappily. “I guess giving you hayburgers and cherry pie for lunch wasn't such a good idea after all.”

“Please don't blame yourself,” pleaded Hornette. “I didn't know it was going to make me sick either. I would have given you plenty of warning if I did.” She closed her eyes with shame; “I'm just sorry I spoiled your meal.”

“No, it's alright,” soothed Locomotion. “You're just not used to the sort of food we ponies take for granted. Tell you what,” he suggested, “how about we start off with simple foods and work our way up gradually?”

With a shaky smile, Hornette nodded her agreement. “That'd be much easier.”

Locomotion smiled back as he helped the young changeling back onto her hooves; but on the other side of the door, Steamer groaned and clapped a hoof to his face. Clearly, this was going to be a lot harder than he had bargained for...

Chapter 5: Meeting the Elements - Fluttershy

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The following week, as far as Steamer was concerned, was the most chaotic he had experienced in years. Given her difference in species, Hornette was a surprisingly fast learner, and didn't take very long to grasp certain Equestrian concepts and customs; but even then, she would occasionally do something that she didn't know was frowned upon by ponies, which would lead to her being rebuked by Steamer and gently corrected by Locomotion. Whenever she was getting peckish, for instance, and saw an insect of any kind, she would gladly make a leap for it without a moment's hesitation. This frequently resulted in overturned furniture in the house and damaged plants in the garden, and there were a number of times when she ended up knocking either Steamer or Locomotion off their hooves in the process.

Even more maddening was her habit of spinning cocoons around herself at night. This left a hard, crusty, translucent green shell that Steamer and Locomotion would have to spend the morning breaking up and stuffing away into the dustbin, and while Locomotion tried his best to take it in his stride, it drove Steamer so far up the wall that he had a job trying to hide his agitation – not just with the extra work he had to do in order to keep the house tidy and feed Hornette without making her sick, but because he still didn't trust her. Sure, Twilight had said she was under suppression and wouldn't do anything to his nephew, but how in the hay could she be so sure it would work? Surely changelings could still manipulate ponies even without using magic...couldn't they?

By this time, Twilight had already told the whole town about Hornette, and that they weren't allowed to discriminate against her just for being a changeling. It didn't make them any less apprehensive towards the young refugee, but at least she could show her face in public without being attacked by an angry mob as long as Locomotion was with her. Because of her constant need for his support, the red-furred railway enthusiast was unable to carry out his jobs at Ponyville MPD, which by now mostly consisted of shunting the yards. Perhaps it was just as well, because the staff at the sheds wouldn't stop joking about how soft he and Steamer were going on the young changeling. Even Steamer's regular engine, No. 2508 “City of Cloudsdale”, seemed to be rubbing salt into the wound by throwing herself into a wheelspin every time he set her into motion!

By the end of the week, the buff-coated stallion was so exhausted that he could barely think straight. “Have you ever had one of these mornings where you just want to not exist for a few months?” he lamented as he broke up the last of Hornette's latest cocoon.

“Believe me, Uncle Steamer, there have been a number of times when I've felt like that,” replied Locomotion patiently.

“Seriously, this is getting ridiculous!” growled an agitated Steamer. “If I have to deal with one more empty cocoon, I swear I'm gonna complain about it to Princess Twilight.”

“You really need to take a chill pill, Uncle Steamer,” retorted Locomotion. “Hornette won't be able to hear you if you shout about it.”

But Steamer failed to see the funny side of it. “Loco, I've set certain rules in this house,” he began, “and I expect them to be obeyed....”

“And so has Twilight regarding how Hornette should be treated,” Locomotion reminded him. “I know you've been a role model to me in the past, but that doesn't entitle anypony to put her down like this.” Without even bothering to wait for a reply, he curtly turned tail and left the room to find a crestfallen Hornette standing outside. “Hey again, Hornette. Bit for your thoughts?”

The young changeling ruefully brushed a hoof against the floor. “I'm sorry, Loco,” she murmured meekly.

“Eh?!” Locomotion cocked a confused eyebrow. “What the hay for?”

“About the cocoons,” explained Hornette sadly. “I didn't mean to be such a burden on you ponies – I just...I just wanted to feel safe.”

“Well, making a mess of my house isn't exactly going to help, you know,” retorted Steamer's chastising voice from inside her room.

Locomotion rolled his eyes dramatically. “Look, give it a rest, will you, Uncle?” he chided back. “Hornette's still getting used to this place; it'll be a while yet before she feels comfortable here.”

“Well, that's fine by me – as long as she doesn't leave any more cocoons for me to clear up!”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” grunted Locomotion dismissively. He was growing tired of his uncle's antagonism by now, and couldn't help wishing that the buff-coated stallion would just wake up and smell the roses. “Try not to take it personally, Hornette,” he advised gently, trying not to appear irritated. “It's not as if you're doing this on purpose. Uncle Steamer's just being difficult because he's no more used to you than the next pony; but he's quite nice really.”

Hornette didn't appear convinced, but nodded as if in understanding. “If you say so,” she answered doubtfully. “I just hope these...Friendship Council ponies will like me better.”

“Well...again, it might take a little while for them to get used to having you around,” observed Locomotion, “but if I know Twilight, she'll still manage to persuade them to give you a trial run at the very least. Which reminds me,” he added, “she said she'd be taking us to see Fluttershy after lunch.”

“What?” squeaked Hornette, startled. “Today?”

“Yep – that's what she told me,” affirmed Locomotion.

The young changeling stared out of the nearby window, her confidence beginning to waver again. “Oh dear,” she murmured nervously. “I'd forgotten all about that. Oh...I sure hope this Fluttershy pony doesn't overreact when she sees me...”

“...well, yes, she might well overreact, but I'm sure you'll get along famously once she gets over the initial shock,” said Twilight as they made their way up the path towards Fluttershy's cottage. Because Hornette was so scared about meeting the remainder of the Friendship Council, the lavender-coated alicorn had already arranged with Locomotion to come along and ensure fair play with whoever she was being introduced to, and to provide moral support if need be.

Hornette didn't reply, instead choosing to gaze upon the abode they were approaching. Nervous though she was about meeting Fluttershy, she couldn't help but marvel at the way the cottage seemed to blend into the hill on which it had been built, almost as if it had been carved out of the ground. Its roof was covered in a thick layer of grass, and the surrounding territory was abundant with nests, birdhouses, dens, burrows, warrens and setts, one of which was tucked away under a wooden bridge that spanned a small stream. All told, it looked like the epitome of a nature lover's dream home.

But as soon as they reached the front door, the young changeling's awe was quickly overtaken by her earlier fears. She watched anxiously as Twilight knocked, almost tempted to turn herself invisible for fear of how this Friendship Council pony would react; but the door was already opening before she could make up her mind. Two timid blue eyes peered out from behind it.

“Hello, Fluttershy,” announced Twilight cheerfully.

“Oh...hello, Twilight.” The canary-yellow Pegasus stepped out of the house with a small smile. “You, had somepony you wanted me to meet?”

“Sure did. You remember me telling you about Locomotion finding a changeling in the Everfree Forest?”

Fluttershy nodded.

“Well, now's your chance to meet her.” Twilight turned to the young changeling, who backed away a little upon meeting her gaze. “Come on, Hornette, don't be shy,” she coaxed.

Hornette muttered an indistinct response and slowly turned her attention towards the canary-yellow mare. “Um...nice to meet you?” she stammered.

“Likewise,” responded Fluttershy meekly, her face partially hidden by her long, pale pink mane. A long, awkward silence ensued as the two of them tried to think what else to say.

Locomotion chuckled lightly in spite of himself. “Blimey,” he murmured. “I've heard of a 'sponsored silence', but that's taking it a bit excessively.”

“'re the changeling that Loco saved from the timberwolves?” asked Fluttershy tentatively.

Hornette emitted a trepid squeak in reply. Realising that she was too shy to speak for herself, Locomotion tactfully stepped in.

“Yeah, that's the one,” he spoke up. “She's on the run from her homeland won't believe this, but she doesn't agree with Queen Chrysalis' sentiments.”

Fluttershy goggled in astonishment. “She...doesn't?”

“No,” affirmed Locomotion gravely. “She believes in peace and equality where Chrysalis believes in power and supremacy. She'd been sorely mistreated for it back home, and that's why she ran away.” He directed an apologetic grin towards Hornette, who looked down at her front hooves.

“Oh...” Fluttershy gazed into Hornette's eyes and was met with a tearful expression of deep, pained, guilt-ridden sorrow. “Oh, you poor changeling,” she whispered. “I'm so, so sorry. I didn't're not mad at me, are you?”

“What? N-n-no, of course not,” faltered Hornette, taken aback. “I thought...I just thought you might be...well...I'm the one you should be mad at...after what my kind...”

“No, I'm not mad at you. I behaviour was inexcusable – I shouldn't have've every right...”

“Girls, you don't need to start an argument over who should be mad at whom,” interrupted Twilight with a chuckle. “The important thing is that you, Hornette, have come here with good intentions; and that you, Fluttershy – correct me if I'm wrong – are willing to give her a proper chance?”

“Oh, goodness, yes,” replied Fluttershy, anxious to make amends for her earlier apprehensions. “So...would you all like to come in? I was just about to make myself some tea, but I can do some for all of you...” quickly returning to her usual shy persona, “ you want, that is.”

“Well, I wouldn't say no,” conceded Twilight without hesitation.

“Don't mind if I do – but do you mind if I just have apple juice?” requested Locomotion politely.

“Oh...of course not, Loco; you're more than welcome to some.”

“Thanks, Fluttershy. Hornette, you having anything?”

But Hornette barely heard him. She was so stunned by what had just transpired that she had simply frozen in place. Had this pony really invited her, a changeling, into her own home? After seeing the rest of her species up close at least once before, and then only for how vicious and warlike they were? How in the world was this happening?

“Hornette? Am I coming in clear?”

Hornette looked up. “Um...what was that, Loco?”

“I was asking you if you wanted something to drink.” Locomotion's brow furrowed with concern. “Is everything okay?” he asked. “You seemed to be spacing out a bit there.”

“Oh...sorry, Loco. I'm just so...overwhelmed,” admitted Hornette. “I was expecting her to be scared of me.”

“Well...maybe she was a little scared, but our Fluttershy doesn't represent the Element of Kindness for nothing,” soothed Locomotion. “I don't think there's anypony here in Ponyville who's as good at gauging the feelings of others as she is. Besides, you're going against practically everything the rest of your kind stand for; anypony would have to be stupid not to recognise that.” He smiled reassuringly and beckoned for her to come into the cottage.

Hornette looked back towards Fluttershy, who gave a small smile of her own. “So...what would you like then?”

“Um...just a glass of water, please,” the young changeling answered.

“Yeah, Twilight would know all about that, wouldn't you?” joked Locomotion, shifting his eyebrows.

The lavender-coated alicorn cringed, but pretended not to hear. She didn't like being reminded of the time when Discord had crashed her quality time with her former foalsitter by pretending to be ill!

If the outside of the cottage looked like a self-contained nature reserve, Hornette was pleasantly surprised – amazed, even – to see that the living room was little different. Everywhere she looked, there were little holes, nests and further birdhouses set into the walls and the rafters, and the only furniture she could find were a coffee table, two sofas and a small bookcase. Several animals were still frolicking around the room having not long finished their lunch; but as soon as they saw the young changeling, they all stopped what they were doing and stared curiously at her, wondering what she was.

Hornette gazed back at them with interest. She had seen all these creatures out in the wild, but never so many in the same place all at once. A chirping noise caught her attention, and she turned around just in time to notice an energetic red squirrel scampering towards Locomotion. It darted up his leg, scrambled onto his back and nuzzled his mane affectionately.

“Hullo, Nutkin,” chuckled Locomotion heartily. “You miss me?”

The squirrel chirped happily in reply.

“Sorry I haven't been visiting as much as I should have done,” the red-furred teenager apologised. “I guess it's just busy for me lately, especially with my new friend here.”

Hornette looked surprised. “You know this animal?”

“Oh yeah,” replied Locomotion proudly. “I found this little guy a couple of Winter Wrap-Ups ago while helping to clear the main line. He'd come out of hibernation a bit too early and was half-dead when I found him; but a couple of days in front of the fire saw him back on his feet. Fluttershy was really grateful for my saving him, and allowed me to call him Nutkin. He's still pretty fond of me, as you can see, so I make a point to come and visit every once in a while.” He looked back towards the squirrel; “Wanna say hello to Hornette?” he offered, holding out a hoof so that he could climb on.

Nutkin looked down at the hoof, and then back to Hornette with an uneasy expression. Locomotion chuckled again, gently petting the red-furred critter in an attempt to soothe his nerves. After only a few seconds, Nutkin climbed onto his hoof, and the unicorn gently set him down. Twilight and Fluttershy watched patiently, wondering how he might respond.

The little red squirrel tiptoed across to Hornette and examined her carefully. Apart from her small fangs, her slim barrel and the holes in her legs, she didn't look that different to an ordinary pony. He sniffed curiously at her hoof. Her scent was an unusual one, somewhere between a pony, a spider and a beetle – but still a friendly smell, he decided. With a soft chirp of approval, he scrambled onto her back and began to nuzzle her mane.

“Oh my goodness!” remarked Fluttershy, mesmerised. Never in all her life had she seen one of her animals take to a changeling so quickly – yet Nutkin was already growing friendly with Hornette after little more than two minutes.

“Aww,” cooed Locomotion, “I think he likes you.”

Hornette was so touched and astonished that she didn't know how to respond. Taking Nutkin's cue, the rest of the animals slowly set aside their timidity and began to gather around the black pony in insect's clothing – and before anyone realised it, most of them were fawning over the young changeling as if they had known her for years. Locomotion smiled warmly as he watched each and every one of them offer her the paw, talon or wing of friendship in their own way.

Three robins perched themselves on her head, tweeting merrily while a family of mice played hide and seek through the holes in her hind legs, and an orange-coated cat lovingly rubbed his head against her left arm. Caught up in the sweetness of this otherwise uncanny moment, Hornette instinctively reached out to the cat and began running her hoof along his back, earning a soft purr in response. Far from being scared to visit, she was growing rather fond of this place.

“Wow,” remarked Locomotion at last. “Way to make a good first impression, Hornette. How in the world are you so good with animals?”

“I don't know,” said Hornette, the smile never once leaving her face. “I guess I'm just...that good.” She gazed around herself for the umpteenth time, quietly revelling in her new-found popularity as the animals eagerly continued to frolic around her – all except for a white rabbit who glowered fiercely at her as if to say “Keep your dirty hooves off my companions, you scum!” The young changeling didn't seem to pick up on this she was so busy basking in the other animals' company; but Fluttershy did.

“Um...Angel Bunny? Aren't you going to go and say hello?” she asked.

Angel continued to scowl at the black beast that had dared to set hoof in his home, ignoring Fluttershy completely. He had heard all about these so-called changelings, and there was no way he was going to let this one off the hook. And why were they giving that...that thing a name?! She didn't even belong here!

“Now, Angel, be nice,” coaxed Fluttershy, calmly but firmly. “Just because Hornette's a changeling doesn't mean she's nasty.”

The heck it doesn't, thought Angel sourly as he hopped away to another corner of the room. Fluttershy was disappointed, but reluctantly shrugged him off.

“Um...I'll just go and get your drinks,” she announced. “I won't be long.”

“Thanks, Fluttershy. Oh, and by the way...”

Fluttershy stopped. “Yes, Loco?”

“ still got some of that nice marble cake that Pinkie likes to make from time to time?” asked Locomotion. “I know it's not been that long since lunch, but I'm still a little snacky.”

“I'll see what I've got,” answered Fluttershy.

“Yeah, while we're at it, Fluttershy,” put in Twilight as she followed the canary-yellow mare into the kitchen, “I just wanted to ask you a few things about the upcoming...”

Locomotion listened curiously, but the last few words were blocked out completely as the lavender-coated alicorn closed the door behind her. Reasoning that it probably wasn't all that important, he went straight back to watching the animals playing with Hornette...but only for a moment.

Without warning, a blur of white shot across the room, causing the animals to scatter in alarm; and the next thing either of them knew, Angel had tackled the young changeling to the floor and was kicking, punching, biting and clawing at her with all his might. Hornette screamed in terror, rolling about and flailing her legs in a blind panic, while some of the other animals tried desperately to prise Angel away from her. But no matter how hard they tried, the militant rabbit fought them off with ease.

Locomotion sprang to his hooves. “HORNETTE, HOLD STILL!!” he shouted, and swiped at Angel with such force that he sent him flying across the room, landing with a thud next to the staircase. Angel hastily recovered and tried to lunge at Hornette again; but the red-furred stallion only just managed to grab him by the ears with his magic before he could even poise himself. He hovered the white-furred fiend right in front of his face and leered furiously at him. “YOU DARE TO HURT HORNETTE?!?”

Angel snarled and flailed his legs in an attempt to kick Locomotion in the eye, but the livid unicorn kept him well out of reach. “HEY! PACK IT IN, YOU PEST!!” he thundered. “THAT CHANGELING HAS DONE NOTHING TO DESERVE...”

“Loco?! What's going on in here?”

Locomotion was so startled that he nearly let go of his telekinesis. He swung around just in time to see a perturbed Twilight and Fluttershy exiting the kitchen. “It was Angel's fault!” he blustered defensively, suddenly overtaken by shock. “He started beating Hornette up as soon as you left the room!”

“He what?!” Twilight was even more startled to find Hornette curled up in the middle of the room, trembling and sobbing in sheer terror as the rest of the shaken animals tried to comfort her. “Oh my gosh! Are you okay, Hornette?”

But the frightened changeling was in too much of a state to reply. At first, Fluttershy could only feel sorry for her – but then her own expression turned to one of untold fury, and she glared disapprovingly at her pet. “How dare you, Angel!” she scolded. “That's no way to treat a guest!”

Had Angel not still been suspended in mid-air, he would have huffily turned his back on the pathetic pushover who called herself his owner. Instead, he shot her a sulky scowl – only for Fluttershy's glare to harden.

“Don't you look at me like that, mister!” she ordered fiercely. “That was very inappropriate, and you know it! Locomotion's quite right; Hornette doesn't deserve this kind of treatment! Just for that, you're on a big time-out – I'm sorry to have to do this to you, but you've crossed the line once too often!”

Angel's look of disdain quickly faded, and he cowered in discomfort as Locomotion set him down. He may have liked to think he was in charge around the cottage, but even he was no match for “the Stare”. As soon as he was back on firm ground, he slunk meekly up the stairs – but not before shooting the unicorn a final condescending sneer of hatred.

Locomotion glared back at him. “It's your own fault, you little bully,” he snorted under his breath; but he quickly composed himself and began looking Hornette all over for any injuries. Twilight had managed to calm her down and help her into a sitting position, but the young changeling was still visibly shaken from Angel's ambush. “You alright, Hornette?” he asked anxiously. “Not hurt, are you?”

No sooner had he said that than Hornette flung her arms around his withers and cried feverishly into his chest, still quivering with fright. Locomotion was so taken aback by the sudden embrace that at first he didn't know what to think, and even his red pelt did little to disguise the flustered blush that was spreading across his cheeks – he may not exactly have been the touchy sort, but other than his parents, his older sister and one or two of his friends, nopony had ever subjected him to this level of contact. But his shock was soon replaced by sorrow as he felt her tears soaking into his fur, and he gently wrapped his own forelegs around her barrel in a bid to comfort her.

After a while, Hornette finally managed to regain control of herself and pull back for air. “Has he gone?” she whimpered, scanning the room for any sign of Angel.

“Yeah, we've seen him off,” said Locomotion. “You're gonna be alright now.”

Hornette gazed up the stairs with a light sniffle. “Gosh,” she murmured, her voice still shaky. “I never knew rabbits could be so brutal.”

“I'm really sorry, Hornette,” whispered Fluttershy. “I don't know what's gotten into Angel. He's never usually this vicious.”

“Not your fault, Fluttershy,” said Twilight reassuringly. “We've never had a changeling here before; he probably thought she was up to something.” She hastily corrected herself at this point; “Uh...well...apart from that unconfirmed sighting at Cranky and Matilda's wedding.”

“There was a changeling there too?!” Locomotion was so stunned that he momentarily forgot about Hornette. “I thought Shady and the rest of them were joking!”

“Well...we don't know for certain. It could have just been Alula playing another of her pranks,” observed Twilight.

“I wouldn't know, personally,” put in Locomotion. “I was in another part of the hall, so even if there was a changeling in there, I wouldn't have seen it.” His eyes lit up with curiosity as a minor possibility occurred to him; “It wasn't you, was it?”

“No. I don't even know who Cranky and Matilda are,” replied Hornette, confused.

“Oh...” Locomotion's face fell. “...well...just a thought. Still,” he went on, forcing a smile, “no point in getting all worked up about unconfirmed rumours. Still wanna socialise with Fluttershy and her charges?”

Hornette looked back towards the animals, her earlier shock and distress fading completely as they began to gather round her again. She had no idea what the word “socialise” meant, but as long as she could spend time with her new little friends, she didn't mind that in the least – in fact, so glad was she of their affection that she forgot all about Angel and his unprovoked assault. With a soft smile, she laid herself down on her barrel and let them climb all around her.

Locomotion chuckled quietly. “I'll take that as a yes,” he mused.

Over the course of their visit, Hornette found Fluttershy to be just as amicable as the animals that lived in and around her cottage; and with Locomotion and Twilight's help, she gradually opened up to the canary-yellow mare until the two of them were chatting away like old friends. Fluttershy, for her part, was rather disturbed when she learned the full story of the young changeling's troubled past and escape from the Badlands. “Oh, Hornette...that's awful,” she sympathised. “I can't think how you managed to put up with it for so long.”

Hornette smiled sadly. “Neither can I,” she mused. “There were times when I felt like I was the only one with a we were meant to be ruthless and cruel towards you ponies.” She paused briefly, raising a thoughtful hoof to her chin. “I just wish I knew why they were turning bad so suddenly.”

“Hmm...yeah, does seem a bit...suspicious,” agreed Twilight. “Still, I've seen how vindictive Chrysalis can be, so I wouldn't be surprised if she herself had something to do with it.”

“You and me both, Twilight,” muttered Locomotion. “Vile dictatress! It's a wonder she ever got to the throne in the first place.”

“Unless she was an immortal like Princess Celestia,” Fluttershy theorised.

Hornette shook her head. “I can't be too sure, but I think there might have been others before her. A lot of other changeling foals had been saying something about her having an older sister, but I never found out too much about her or any of the other rulers because Chrysalis never allowed us to speak of them.”

Locomotion's eyes narrowed suspiciously. “So you're saying there might have been a much nicer heir to the changeling throne? That that power-hungry, two-faced cad might have been trying to cover it up all this time?”

“Well...probably,” answered Hornette. “Again, I don't know for definite – and to be honest, I don't think I ever will. Not that it matters anyway; I've been through enough of Chrysalis' reign, and I'm not going is, unless there was a way to reform them,” she added meekly.

“How about it, Twilight?” put in Locomotion optimistically. “Will you and the other Elements be able to sort them out with those...wicked cool Rainbow Powers of yours?”

“Uh...I'm not sure,” said Twilight doubtfully. “Granted, the Elements of Harmony can work miracles in the right hooves, but I don't see them changing the personalities of entire races. If they could, we'd have made peace with the changelings years ago, and Hornette wouldn't have needed to run away.”

Locomotion looked down at the floor with a disappointed frown. “So...unless Chrysalis gets overthrown or some massive disaster or whatever gets them to see the light, we've no choice but to keep fighting for our lives, is that it?”

“That's about the size of it, as far as I can see.”

Hornette looked somewhat perturbed. “But...I don't want to fight,” she protested. “I can't possibly bring myself to hurt you ponies.”

Sensing the young changeling's discomfort as if it were her own, Fluttershy patted her shoulder reassuringly. “It's okay, Hornette,” she soothed. “Nopony ever said you had to fight – and even if they do, then you don't have to listen to them.”

“Yeah, just because you're a changeling doesn't automatically make you a savage, you know,” put in Locomotion feelingly. “You are who you choose to be, and no pony or changeling can tell you different – least of all that lunatic who calls herself your queen.”

This coming from Locomotion and Fluttershy filled Hornette's heart with an uncanny warmth. For far too long, she had grown up in a society where others expected her – demanded her, even – to become a dangerous, brutal, unfeeling barbarian with no conscience whatsoever, to go against her true nature just for the sake of expanding their empire, whereas all she really wanted was to be her own person, make her own choices, live her own life. To be told that she was perfectly entitled to do so, that she didn't need to be anything like what others wanted her to be – that was all she had ever wanted to hear from any other creature, let alone ponies; but never in all her life had she expected it to come true. She smiled gratefully, shedding a small tear.

Angel, meanwhile, was nowhere near as moved by Locomotion and Fluttershy's kindness as Hornette was. He sulked bitterly at the top of the stairs, glowering upon the changeling with deep resentment. It wasn't his fault that some no-good creep had come here and tried to stir up his fellow animals – she was the one who deserved to be punished, not him. Looking through the window behind the three ponies, his anger turned to suspicion as he noticed a pair of vacant blue eyes, almost like those of an insect, which gazed furtively into the cottage. They seemed particularly focussed on the black monster that had rubbed him up the wrong way, and indeed the face to which they belonged looked very little different.

The white-furred rabbit narrowed his eyes warily as the creature receded into the shadows. Clearly, he thought to himself, there was something very fishy going on here...

Chapter 6: Friend or Foe?

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It was late in the afternoon when Hornette decided that she'd had enough for the day and wanted to head back to Steamer's house. She was sorry to have to leave the animals, but promised to come back and visit another time. Twilight, her work done for the time being, opted to stay behind and continue talking with Fluttershy, leaving Locomotion and Hornette to make their own way back home.

“So what did you think of Fluttershy then?” ventured Locomotion as they headed sedately down the path.

Hornette smiled. “You were right about her, Loco. She really is a nice pony,” she observed. “I like her.”

The red-furred teen chuckled and returned the smile in kind. “Yeah, she seems to be taking quite the shine to you too,” he remarked.

“Do you think the others will take to me as well as Fluttershy did?” asked Hornette hopefully.

“There's a good chance,” conceded Locomotion confidently. “Thing about Fluttershy is that...well, to put it bluntly, she finds it pretty tough to make new friends, and generally tends to hang onto those she already has. If you could win her over so easily, I shouldn't think the rest of the Friendship Council will be all that difficult.”

“Oh, good.” To say Hornette was no longer shy about meeting the Friendship Council would be untrue; but her time with Fluttershy had left her with an improved sense of optimism and self-confidence. “What about your uncle? Will he think any better of me if they do?”

“He'd better!” chuckled Locomotion. “I mean, I get that he's not happy with having a changeling around, but that doesn't...mean...he's...” but his voice trailed away mid-sentence, and he gradually slowed his pace to a complete stop, his brow furrowing with anxiety as he directed a sidelong glance towards the young changeling. “Do you get the feeling we're being followed?” he asked in a discreet, hushed tone.

Hornette stopped too. “Yes...yes I do, now you come to mention it,” she affirmed uneasily, her own voice little more than a faint whisper. Her eyes widened at this point as an awful thought struck her; “You don't you?”

“Okay, calm down, Hornette,” instructed Locomotion quietly. “Just listen to me very carefully – turn around, nice and slow, and whatever you do, don't – make – any – sudden – moves.”

Cautiously, ever so slowly, the red-furred unicorn and his changeling companion turned to face the way they had just come, Hornette ready to take off at the first sign of trouble while Locomotion braced himself for battle should the need arise. Almost immediately behind them stood a shifty-looking Pegasus stallion whom Locomotion had never seen before. He was black in colour, with a spiky crimson mane and tail riddled with rusty streaks of orange, and his Cutie Mark consisted of a red jerry-can with a yellow lightning bolt on it. His sly green eyes seemed to be scanning the young changeling from head to hoof, but as soon as the two teenagers turned around, he quickly changed his demeanour.

“Excuse me, my little ponies,” he asked in an oily voice, “but could either of you help me? I seem to have gotten quite lost.”

Locomotion glared at the suspicious-looking stranger. “Who the hay are you? And what do you mean by sneaking up on us like that?!” he demanded.

“ remiss of me,” said the stallion, his expression a noticeable parody of dismay. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Diesel – Electro Diesel. I've only just moved here from my birthplace in Whinneapolis in search of a job. Tell me,” he went on ingratiatingly, “could either of you direct me to a place called Sugarcube Corner?”

Locomotion hesitated for a very brief moment. He wasn't exactly sure he trusted this Diesel character. “Ugh...I suppose so,” he grunted at last. “Carry on down the road for about...five blocks, turn left, then second right, and you'll see it straight ahead. You can't miss it.”

“Ah, thank you,” purred Diesel. “Most helpful of you indeed, young stallion.” He returned his gaze towards Hornette. “And most interesting to see that you're trying to tame a changeling as well.”

“What are you talking about?!” retorted Locomotion indignantly. “Hornette doesn't need any 'taming' – just food and shelter, same as the rest of us!”

The black Pegasus stallion smirked as if in amusement. “That's what they all say,” he replied greasily. “Anyway, I won't detain you any longer. Farewell, my friend – no doubt we shall meet again.”

Locomotion didn't even bother to answer. He just leered warily as Diesel made his way down the road, quietly praying that they didn't. Only when the shady black Pegasus was out of earshot did he finally allow himself to speak. “What do you make of him, Hornette?”

“I don't like him, Loco,” confessed an uneasy Hornette without missing a beat. “He's creepy.”

“Yeah, he seems a bit too smooth for my liking,” agreed Locomotion darkly. “He reminds me of a Rodney the Railway Engine antagonist of the same name – and that Whinneapolis alibi of his hardly rings true either.”

Hornette cocked her head in confusion. “What's...Whinneapolis?”

“It's a city up in northern Equestria. Their natives speak with a pretty distinctive accent, don't-cha know?” explained Locomotion, putting on his best Whinneapolitan dialect. “But that wasn't how that Diesel character spoke just now. If anything, his accent sounded more like...somewhere between Prench, Griffonian and Høylandic.”

“Did it?” asked Hornette, a hint of dread creeping into her voice. “Because it didn't sound much like a pony to me.”

“Hmm...” Locomotion gazed down the road again, mulling over what Hornette had just said. “...yeah, now you come to mention it, I don't think I've ever heard anyone speak with that kind of accent before. Perhaps I'd better have a word with Twilight about him next time we meet up, see if she can shed a bit of light on the whole thing,” he decided.

Night was slowly descending over Ponyville as Steamer trudged wearily home. Today had been one of the most difficult days he had experienced in a long time – not only had his fellow drivers been poking fun at him again, but faulty brakes on one of the coaches had led to him stalling halfway up the Long Draft with the Appleloosan, and they had to remove the offending vehicle at Horse Junction. This in turn made him so late getting into Delamare that he ended up missing his “path” for Fort Maine, and a much slower local train was allowed to set off ahead of them.

The return journey was no better. The Princess Class locomotive that should have worked the Friendship Express that day had been failed with damaged firebars, so Steamer and “City of Cloudsdale” were drafted in at the last minute, while a smaller engine took charge of the semi-fast that they were meant to be pulling. But the heavy train was almost too much for “City of Cloudsdale” to handle alone, and the gradients over the Buckskin Mountains held her back to such an extent that the express was nearly an hour late reaching Ponyville.

The buff-coated stallion sighed heavily as he plodded into the house. His life seemed to be getting worse and worse – first the changeling, then his engine and workmates laughing at him, and now he had ended up messing up the timetable! What next, he wondered – Lord Tirek escaping from Tartarus again?!

“Ugh...what a day,” he groaned, collapsing onto the sofa.

“You alright, Uncle Steamer?” Locomotion emerged from the kitchen with a glass of water.

“What do you think?” murmured Steamer bitterly. “All day long, it's been nothing but delay after flaming delay.” He sighed again, trying to massage the tension out of his face. “Honestly, why does it have to be me? Why couldn't Twilight have taken care of the changeling?”

Oh grief, here we go again, thought Locomotion; slightly amused by the irony of the inexplicable role reversal. Usually it was Steamer who was consoling and steering him in the right direction while he himself lamented over whatever issue was troubling him, not the other way round. “Come on, Uncle Steamer,” he soothed, “you're just stressed is all. I know you don't exactly like Hornette right now, but there's no need to take it all out on her. Besides, you never know – someday, you might be grateful for her being here in the first place.”

“Maybe,” said Steamer, unconvinced. “I just...worry about you, Loco. You're taking on a big responsibility here...”

“Ah, you worry too much,” scoffed Locomotion. “I've been managing fine with Hornette so far. Okay, so perhaps we may have had a bit of a scuffle at Fluttershy's place...”

Steamer's blood ran cold.

“...but it was Angel who started it, the little blighter! The rest of the animals were fine with her, and so was Fluttershy.”

“Was she?” Steamer blinked in amazement. He knew Angel could be a right terror at times, but the last thing he had expected was Ponyville's most timid pony to befriend a creature who should have been her enemy.

“You bet your buffers she was!” smirked Locomotion. He meant to say “hooves”, but being a railway enthusiast, he often tended to use the locomotive equivalent. “Anyway, what good would being stuck in a castle have done the poor thing? I'm not just looking after her – I'm teaching her social skills and countless other life lessons that no castle in the world can teach.”

“And you're saying Twilight can't?” asked Steamer dubiously. “She is the Princess of Friendship, after all.”

“Yeah, but what's the point in turning to the Princess of Friendship for everything?” retorted Locomotion. “We're trying to make Hornette feel integrated, not trapped. And if you're still sore about the whole cocoon thing, you can forget all about it,” he added, “because she's already promised not to spin another one.”

Yet another sigh escaped Steamer's lips, this time one of relief. “Thank Celestia for that. I don't think I could have taken another clean-up session after today.”

Locomotion chuckled lightly and left his uncle to unwind. Even he had to admit that things had been getting rather hectic since rescuing Hornette, but he wasn't going to let a little thing like that dampen his spirits. At least he was doing her a good turn, he reasoned – any other pony would have either finished her off, dragged her away to a dungeon or left her for dead.

But what about that shady Diesel pony who had been stalking him and Hornette earlier, he wondered? What was he really doing here? He couldn't possibly be trying to find a job as he had claimed – Whinneapolis was a much bigger place than Ponyville, so he wouldn't have had any trouble finding employment there, native or not. And that voice...that creepy, slithery, oily and thoroughly intimidating voice, almost like a cross between a snake and a could never trust anyone who spoke in that tone, even if that someone happened to be a pony. What really worried him, however, was how interested the black Pegasus stallion seemed in Hornette. It was almost as if he had been trying to hunt her down...

The red-furred railway enthusiast furrowed his brow as he entered his room. He could only hope that Twilight would be able to clear everything up. Then he remembered the Rodney the Railway Engine fan story he had been working on since before the fiasco in the Everfree Forest. Perhaps that might help him keep his mind off Diesel, he thought as he sat down, booted up his computer, opened up the appropriate word document and began typing;

Meanwhile, back at Onyx Junction, Claudia had finished shunting and was backing on shed for a well-earned rest before her next train. She was just coming to a halt over the inspection pit when a Porter came trotting across the yard.

“There's been an accident at the foot of Cardinal's Grade,” he reported to her Driver. “Manticore and his train have jumped the rails and gone down the embankment. We need the wrecking train out there immediately.”

“Anypony hurt?” asked Claudia's Driver anxiously.

“Afraid so,” said the Porter. “The Driver and Second Pony have broken their arms and can't get out.”

“Right!” stated the Driver, scrambling back into Claudia's cab. “We've not a moment to lose. Come on, old girl, let's get the cranes.”

Claudia frowned as she clanked away to fetch the wrecking train. “I warned him,” she murmured gravely. “'Diesels are meant to use brake tenders on unfitted goods trains for a reason,' I told him – but all he did was call me an old relic. It's no wonder he crashed.”

“Ah well,” chuckled her Firepony, “we live and learn.”

“I hope he does,” went on Claudia. “Too much of that attitude, and he'll end up damaging himself beyond repair.”

“You're telling

But before Locomotion could complete the paragraph, he was startled by a piercing scream from the guest room.

“Oh, grief,” he muttered. “Looks like my fanfic will have to wait,” and he dashed out into the hallway, inadvertently knocking his chair over in the process.

Hornette sat bolt upright, panting and sweating in terror as she scanned her surroundings. She almost expected to find herself in the very last place she could ever want to be, confronted by the one creature she feared the most – but as soon as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, the frightened changeling found herself back in the safety and comfort of the guest bedroom. Overcome with relief, but still horribly shaken, she buried her face in the soft pillows and began to cry.

Unbeknown to her, the door slowly, ever so silently swung open as Locomotion peered anxiously into the room. He couldn't see much, but the darkness did little to hide the sight of the distressed changeling curled up on the far end of the bed, trembling and sobbing feverishly as she hugged her blanket and pillows. The red-furred unicorn choked back a small gasp and lifted a hoof to his mouth in dismay, his eyes moistening slightly and threatening to produce a few small tears of their own. Quietly, so as not to startle her, he tiptoed inside and sat down next to her bed, propping himself up against the mattress with his right arm.

“Hornette?” he whispered.

Still sobbing, Hornette gingerly lifted her head. “ that you, Loco?” she stammered.

“Yeah, it's me.” Locomotion gazed upon the traumatised changeling with an expression of kindly concern, trying to hide his own upset at seeing her in such a tizzy. “What's wrong?” he asked softly.

Hornette looked down at her dampened pillows, visibly ashamed. Realising that he might have touched a nerve, Locomotion hastily tried to backtrack; “Y-y-you don't have to tell me don't want...”

“Oh, Loco,” burst out Hornette suddenly, her tears flowing thick and fast again, “I've just had the most horrible nightmare! I was back in my homeland, trying to escape just like I'd already done – only there were hundreds of other changelings chasing after me. I tried to outrun them, but they just...they kept coming at me from all directions, and just as I was about to reach the border, they surrounded me and dragged me back to my hive. Next thing I knew, I was in front of Queen Chrysalis herself. She was scolding me for betraying our kind, and there was some kind of magic flowing into my head from her horn that made me feel like I was slipping away...and that was when I woke up!”

“Blimey,” remarked Locomotion breathlessly. “That must have been horrific.”

“It was,” faltered Hornette. “I...I've been getting it every night since...since I ran away. I was just so afraid that other changelings would try to hunt me down...and that's why I kept cocooning myself.”

Locomotion smiled sympathetically and rested his hoof on hers. “You really have had it rough since your escape, haven't you?” he murmured.

Just outside the doorway, Steamer frowned with guilt and sorrow as he eavesdropped on their conversation. He too had heard Hornette's frightened scream, but didn't think very much of it at first – Locomotion had a habit of talking to himself when working out the dialogue for his fan stories, so the buff-coated stallion was used to him getting overly dramatic at times for no apparent reason. All the same, that voice sounded rather high for his nephew, so he grudgingly elected to go and see what was going on.

But when he reached the top of the stairs, he was beside himself with bewilderment to hear Hornette telling Locomotion all about some horrible nightmare she had just had – and what really stunned him was that she sounded genuinely terrified! It was almost impossible to believe that she was anything like as scared as she made out to be, but even Steamer knew that no creature alive, not even a changeling, could ever fake that level of fear. As he stood and listened, his wariness and disdain gradually melted away like a comet on a collision course with the sun, and he felt all the more ashamed of himself for treating her with such deep suspicion. As much as he hated to admit it, Locomotion was right – Hornette was nothing like what he had expected her to be.

“Sorry if I woke you up, Loco,” he heard Hornette saying after a while. By now, her sobs had ebbed away into tiny sniffles, allowing her to speak more calmly. “I didn't mean to...”

“Nah, it's okay,” soothed Locomotion. “I hadn't even got close to turning in yet, and I don't intend to for another hour. Is there anything I can do for you?” he added helpfully. “You know...just to help you get off to sleep or whatever?”

Hornette took a moment to consider this. “Um...well......there is one thing,” she stammered uneasily.

“What's that?” asked Locomotion kindly.

“Well...I know this sounds kind of, you'll only laugh at me if I told you.”

Locomotion looked surprised. “What makes you think I'm gonna laugh?” he objected.

“It's stupid,” replied Hornette awkwardly, trying to withhold the pang of embarrassment she felt for what she was about to ask.

“So what? As long as it helps you get to sleep, I'll try anything once,” coaxed Locomotion. “Come on, Hornette, please tell me what you want. I won't judge you for it.”

Hornette paused for another few seconds, turning her gaze back to her pillows as she tried to pluck up her courage. No creature in the world had been anywhere near as understanding as Locomotion, so she could probably do worse than confess what was on her mind. “Loco,” she ventured shyly, “can you tell me a bedtime story?”

Locomotion was suddenly overcome by an uncanny shyness of his own. He gazed blankly at Hornette, unsure how to respond. “Do...what?” he stammered.

The young changeling hung her head with shame. This wasn't quite the response she had been expecting, but she still felt abashed with herself. “I'm sorry,” she said sadly. “Forget I ever said that.”

“Wait, hang on, Hornette,” cut in Locomotion, quickly realising that he might have hurt her feelings, “I didn't say I wouldn't. It's just...I'm just trying to understand – why do you want a bedtime story? That's the sort of thing you do for foals.”

Hornette frowned, shedding another few tears. “I never had that luxury back at home,” she confessed wistfully. “I never even had a proper foalhood. All I had was my mother, and even she never cared enough to let me be as carefree and playful as I wanted to be. She saw to my daily needs, but she never played with me, she didn't care what I thought about my way of life, and she never even came to tuck me in at night.”

“What about your father? Was he ever there for you?”

“No. I never even knew him.” Hornette almost began sobbing anew as she spoke. “It was like they didn't even notice me – like I wasn't even there to begin with.”

Locomotion nodded understandingly. His own parents had always done their best to ensure he led a happy life, so he couldn't even imagine what it was like to not be able to have the fun and innocence that every little foal should. But this only strengthened his sorrow for the troubled changeling, and how she had been forced to suppress her inner child all these years. “Okay, Hornette,” he conceded with a broad grin, “you've talked me into it. Yes, I'll tell you a bedtime story.”

Hornette perked up. “You will? I...I don't have to if you don't want to.”

“After all you've been through, it'd be tactless not to,” said Locomotion resolutely. “In fact,” he went on, an eager smile crossing his face, “I'll tell you one of my favourite Rodney the Railway Engine stories. It's about a little tank engine named Timothy who was...rather like you, in a way. He was on the run as well, except that where you were trying to escape from oppression, he was trying to escape from scrap.”

“So...what happened?” asked Hornette.

“This,” replied Locomotion, “is what happened,” and with an enthusiastic glint in his eyes, he began his story in earnest. “It was a dark, moonless night. Brian had taken the Midnight Goods to a station in a faraway part of Equestria where only the diesels worked...”

Steamer allowed himself a small smile of his own as his nephew eagerly recited the tale of how Brian, a heavy goods engine, had discovered Timothy languishing in a cold, damp siding and taken him back to the safety of the Crystal Empire. He could remember his own brother reading that very same story to Locomotion when he was younger, and though he didn't see diesels as anything like the threat that they posed to steam engines in the Rodney the Railway Engine books, it had provided all three of them with joy, entertainment and a perspective of what life must have been like for refugees escaping from Adolf Hawker's Griffonia.

Hornette, for her part, was awestruck by the similarity of Timothy's plight to her own. It almost felt like she was living the story, particularly when he was explaining about his dangerous journey north;

'We've had worse,' smiled Timothy. 'We ran mainly at night. Friendly signalponies would pass us from box to box when no trains were about. We got on well until Control heard of a mystery train. Then they tried to hunt us down.'

'What did ya do then?'

'A signalpony let us hide on an old quarry branch. Driver, Firepony and Guard blocked the cutting with rubbish and levered one of the approach rails away. We stayed there for days and days, with diesels baying and growling like timberwolves outside. I was frightened then.'

'Can hardly say Ah blame ya,” said Brian feelingly...”

Even when they made it across the border and into the Crystal Empire, the story almost read like a carbon copy of her own adventures. After Brian had left Timothy at the Works for restoration, he went home and told the other engines all about his find, leading to an anxious debate on the danger still looming over the tank engine refugee. It reminded Hornette of the lengths to which Locomotion had gone to ensure her own safety; and even the Crystal Dispatcher, the pony who ran the railway, seemed to play a similar role to Twilight by resolving the situation.

The story ended on a high note. After being “mended and painted in full Great Western colours,” Timothy and his coach Bella were sent to work on a seaside branch line alongside another tank engine named Griff, while his brake-van, Caboose, chose to work regularly with Brian as a token of gratitude. The Crystal Dispatcher was even good enough to give their line the air of a typical Great Western backwater, making the two tank engines feel right at home. “The other engines laughed at first, and called their branch 'the Little Western'. Griff and Timothy were delighted – and now, nopony thinks of calling it anything else.”

“So there you have it,” finished Locomotion. “The story of an engine who strove for a new lease of life, overcame all opposition and finally achieved his freedom. Did you like it?”

But he got no reply. Hornette was so tired from earlier that she had drifted off before Locomotion could finish the story, and was now sound asleep with a warm smile adorning her lips. The red-furred unicorn chuckled quietly as he stood up and pulled the covers over her – and then, with a soft smile of his own, he nuzzled tenderly against the side of her head. She purred contentedly at the feel of his soft fur against her chitin flesh, a soft, gentle sound almost like a cross between a cat's purr and a parasprite chirp, but more within her natural vocal range.

Locomotion's smile grew wider. She sure was cute for a changeling, he thought – and she sounded like it too. “Goodnight, Hornette,” he whispered fondly. “Sweet dreams.” With that, he backed slowly and quietly out into the hallway, keeping his eye on Hornette until he had closed the door.

“You sure make a decent storyteller.”

Locomotion spun round, startled. “Uncle Steamer? How long had you been standing out there for?”

“Long enough to realise I might have been wrong about Hornette,” said Steamer gravely.

This caught Locomotion completely off guard. “Um...did I hear you right just now?” he asked incredulously, almost expecting it to be some kind of prank. “Because I could have sworn I heard you saying you were wrong...and since when did you start using her proper name freely?”

Steamer sighed ruefully. “Yes, you did hear me correctly,” he admitted. “I'm gonna be honest with you, Loco – from the moment Twilight told me about her last week, I was kinda torn down the middle. I wanted to believe you were doing the right thing, but...well, you know what happened the last time we had changelings here in Equestria, don't you?”

“Um...yeah? Where are you going with this?” quizzed Locomotion.

“Well, it rather clouded my judgement,” his uncle continued. “I was so focussed on the negative that I feared Hornette might be taking advantage of your kindness just so that she could make a meal out of it. I can see now that she was telling the truth about her escape from the Badlands – and about wanting to fit in with us ponies like an equal.”

Locomotion's jaw dropped open in astonishment. “ actually trust her now?”

“Well...sort of. Not fully, but after hearing what she's been through in the past, it'd be wrong of me not to at least give her a trial run.” Steamer reached forward and rested a hoof on his nephew's shoulder. “I know you're probably more than a little upset with me – and you've every right to be, considering how cold I've been towards Hornette. But I really do want to make it up to her,” he added softly. “Do you...reckon you can find it in your heart to help me?”

Locomotion paused, hanging his head. He was still a little annoyed, and part of him wanted to go into a rant there and then, demanding to know why he didn't still hold an unwarranted grudge against her – but the rest of him felt ashamed of himself for even contemplating such an outburst. This pony had taught him so many tricks of the railway trade, supported him through so many bad patches in his life and helped him face so many new challenges that it just seemed ungrateful to ignore the remorse in his voice. With a deep sigh, he made up his mind and lifted his head again to meet his uncle's gaze. “Well...alright then.”

“That's my boy!” smiled Steamer gratefully, giving Locomotion an affectionate pat on the back.

“I don't get it, though,” went on Locomotion, still visibly perplexed. “I thought you didn't like her – why are you being so...inviting towards her now?”

The rueful frown returned to Steamer's face. “Well...I didn't so much dislike her as fear for your safety, Loco,” he admitted. “I was afraid she might toy with your affections and then betray you out of thin air. When I heard her talking to you about that nightmare of hers......she almost sounded like you after the Horse Junction crash, only worse. You remember how much it stung, hearing you put yourself down for the nine lives lost back then?”

“Yeah...I remember,” murmured Locomotion, casting his mind back to when the Bridleway Limited had rammed into a pair of light engines. It had been over seven years since the accident, but the events of that fateful night remained fresh in his memory. It had taken him a long time to get over the whole fiasco, and even though he had been treated as a hero for saving so many lives at such a young age, his only real consolation was that he ended up reuniting one of the victims with the love of her life. “Yeah, now you come to mention it, it does ring a similar tone to what Hornette's going through.”

Steamer nodded faintly. “Just as well she's got somepony like you in her life,” he observed.

“Well...I try my best,” chuckled his nephew, managing a small smile at long last. “By the way,” he added thoughtfully, “I might have one little idea for how you could atone for your earlier behaviour.”

“Oh right? How?”

Locomotion grinned knowingly and whispered something into Steamer's ear...

Chapter 7: Changelings and Pesticides Don't Mix!

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Hornette yawned and stretched the stiffness out of her limbs, a small smile adorning her lips as she gently arose from her slumber. That sure was kind of Locomotion to tell her such a deep and beautiful story, she thought blissfully – it hadn't exactly been a fairy tale, but the way a fellow changeling would have told it, she wouldn't have been able to sleep a wink for fear of another nightmare. Instead, the red-furred stallion had chased it away completely and made her feel safe and secure, something that she had never truly experienced back in her former homeland. Even in her dreams had he come to her aid, with her as a rusty old tank engine awaiting scrapping, and him in the form of a handsome young goods engine. Upon seeing her lying cold and frightened on a lonely siding, he had sneaked her onto his train and towed her all the way back to the Promised Land, where she was to be mended and put to work on her own little branch line. If only there was a way in which she could repay him...

But her train of thought was promptly disturbed by a soft knock as Locomotion quietly opened the door and peeked into her room. “Morning, Hornette,” he whispered. “You sleep okay last night?”

Hornette gave the red-furred unicorn a drowsy smile. “Like a log,” she murmured.

“Oh, good,” said Locomotion, sitting himself down next to her bed with a thankful smile of his own. He paused for a few moments, trying to work out what to say next; but Hornette beat him to it.

“Loco,” she ventured softly, “thank you for being there for me last night – and for the story. I don't think I'd ever slept so well in all my life.” She glanced bashfully down at the mattress, a mild blush registering on her cheeks. “You're a lot kinder than I deserve.”

“I only wish I could do more,” chuckled Locomotion modestly. At that moment, an unintelligible mumble caught his attention, and he looked over his shoulder to see his uncle entering the room with a tray of food in his mouth. Taking the hint, the young railway enthusiast took hold of the tray with his magic and levitated it to the bedside table.

Hornette raised an eyebrow and stared at the tray, clearly taken aback. “What's this?”

“ and Uncle Steamer felt you needed a bit of pampering to cheer you up after last night,” explained Locomotion, “so we decided to give you breakfast in bed.”

“But...I thought you always had breakfast in the dining room.”

“Well...mostly, yeah – except for if one of us is feeling ill or depressed or there's a special occasion. Besides, I believe Uncle Steamer has something he wants to say to you.”

Steamer nodded in agreement as he sat down next to them. The young changeling fell silent again and looked away, almost expecting him to start chewing her out for whatever had upset him; but for some reason, the buff-coated stallion seemed to be taking forever to tell her what was on his mind. Daring to look back at him, she was even more bewildered to notice a look of shame on his face as he gazed at the carpet. Locomotion rolled his eyes and waved his hoof around in small circles, trying to snap him out of it.

At last, with a deep sigh, Steamer spoke up; “Listen, Hornette,” he said in a soft, meek, apologetic tone, “I'm really sorry for the way I've been treating you.”

Hornette's jaw dropped. “What?” she managed to stammer.

“I didn't mean to hurt you like this,” Steamer went on unhappily. “It's must understand, Loco means about as much to me as he does to his own parents, if not more. He's very much a kindred spirit, and I'd hate for anything to happen to him.” He closed his eyes and took another sigh before continuing; “That's why I'd been so edgy since I first heard about you. I didn't know what to expect out of you changelings, and feared you might...take advantage of him.”

“ disliked me because you were scared?”

Steamer frowned wryly. “I wouldn't say I disliked you,” he replied. “I'm actually quite agreed with Loco that every species has to have a little bit of good in them somewhere. The trouble is, all I'd ever heard about yours was anything but good, tell you the truth, Loco does have a bit of a naïve streak...”

Locomotion snorted indignantly.

“ I was a little afraid he might be seeing things in you that...just weren't there.”

“Then why are you being so forgiving now?” asked Hornette, visibly unnerved.

“Because I happened to overhear you talking to Loco last night,” explained Steamer. “You were obviously pretty shaken up; I could tell from the sound of your voice, and it' a way, it rather helped me put things into perspective. I can see now why you were so desperate to leave your own clan behind.” He smiled kindly and held out a hoof. “What say you, Hornette? You wanna start afresh?”

Hornette stared into space, completely lost in her emotions. She was truly touched by Steamer's forgiveness and anxiety to make amends for his behaviour, but this was all happening so quickly. In the space of a single night, he had gone from wary to sympathetic – and all towards the kind of creature that he should have viewed as a threat, especially to his beloved nephew. Where was the apprehensive Steamer with so little patience for her every misdeed, however unintentional? Why was he owning up to the error of his own ways so soon? Did she really deserve his kindness after how much of a danger the rest of her kind had been towards Equestria? And more to the point, could she truly bring herself to accept it? Looking back at the buff-coated stallion, she detected a look of genuine sympathy in his eyes, and felt a gentle tug at her heart as if she were being offered a dose of fatherly love. In that very instant, she realised that there was only one answer...

“Yes,” she replied simply, smiling once again and gently shaking Steamer's hoof as her eyes began to water. “I'd be truly honoured, sir.”

“ hard feelings?”

“Oh, gosh, no,” said Hornette. “I could never fault somepony just for looking out for their own family and friends.”

Steamer's smile broadened as the young changeling let go of his hoof again and sat up to allow Locomotion to levitate the tray onto her lap. “Well...what can I say? And no need to call me 'sir',” he added modestly. “Just plain Steamer will do.”

Hornette's only response was an apologetic grin as she made a start on her breakfast.

“You see?” piped up Locomotion cheerfully. “That wasn't so hard, was it now, Uncle Steamer?”

“Easy for you to say, Loco!” the buff-coated stallion teased, ruffling his nephew's mane.

Both Locomotion and Steamer had already had their breakfast, so they chose to stay with Hornette and keep her company while she ate. As time went by, the buff-coated stallion and the young changeling gradually opened up to one another, and by the time she had finished, it was almost as if Steamer had never held anything against her in the first place.

Hornette licked the last few crumbs of toast from her lips with a contented smile. “That sure was good,” she mused. “Thank you both for doing this for me.”

“Not at all,” said Locomotion. “Besides, it was Steamer who did all the hard work, not me.”

“What are you talking about?” chuckled Steamer heartily. “I wasn't the one who fried those eggs so well.”

“Oh yeah? Well whose idea was it to serve her breakfast in bed in the first place?”


Locomotion's smart comeback was quickly halted as he burst into laughter at his own faux-pas and the casual manner in which his uncle had just spoken. “Did I ever mention how much I hate it when you do that?” he joked.

“Well...serves you right for not thinking it through, Loco,” chortled Steamer. “Trouble with you is you're too modest.”

“I think you've both done a wonderful job,” observed Hornette. “I don't know what it was you put on my toast, but I really liked how sweet it tasted.”

“Yeah, I thought you'd like it,” put in Locomotion sagely. “I know I don't have toast that often, but you're quite right – there's nothing like a bit of honey to sweeten it up.”

Steamer chuckled again and nodded in agreement; but Hornette looked rather puzzled. “What's honey?” she quizzed.

“It's the stuff that bees make from nectar. They gather it from flowers, fly it back to their hives shall I put it......inject it with enzymes that break its structure down until it becomes all thick and sticky,” explained Locomotion, choosing his words carefully so as to avoid disturbing her. “We ponies use it for making cakes and candy and other things, and there are one or two who actually keep a few bee colonies so they can extract their honey and sell it on.”

Hornette gazed at him, awestruck. “Wow,” she remarked. “I never knew insects could be so useful.”

“Well...all creatures have their uses if you put your mind to it. Cows are good for providing milk, sheep's wool is brilliant for clothing – even predatory creatures like cats and dogs can be tamed to the point where they can be an asset to us ponies rather than a danger.”

“Had you really never tasted honey before?” asked Steamer curiously.

“I...did get a taste of bees once,” said Hornette. “I think it must have been about...four days after I crossed the border; I was having trouble finding food, so I tried to make a meal out of some that were nesting in a nearby tree. I have to admit, though, they tasted a bit too sour and waxy for my liking,” she finished, wrinkling her snout.

“They didn't try to sting you, did they?!” exclaimed Locomotion, visibly perturbed.

“I'm afraid they did, Loco. It didn't exactly hurt, and I managed to shake them off in the end; but I felt so itchy afterwards that it kept me awake for a whole night.” Hornette shuddered delicately as she remembered the discomfort she had had to endure. “It's a good thing I've learned to tame them by now. There's no way I want to go through all that again.”

Locomotion winced uncomfortably. “Neither would I,” he remarked; but his attention was promptly averted by a frantic knock on the front door. Perplexed, he left Steamer and Hornette to talk amongst each other and headed downstairs to answer. When at last he opened the door, he was surprised to see one of his fellow railway workers standing outside with an anxious look on his face. “Oh, hullo, Selkirk. What's up?”

“We've got an emergency over at Windy Vale,” said Selkirk. “The No. 429 Mixed Freight has suffered a blowback in the Buckskin Mountains and burned the smoke agent. Max needs you to go and relieve him.”

The red-furred unicorn frowned hesitantly. “Isn't there anypony else available?”

“With all this extra summertime traffic? You'd be lucky!” replied Selkirk gravely. “You're the only one Max can rely on at short notice.”

“Hmm...” Locomotion looked back up the stairs, weighing up his options. He knew he had a duty to the smooth running of the railways, but he wasn't sure he wanted to leave Hornette alone, even with his uncle around. Then again, Steamer did seem a lot more accepting towards the young changeling...maybe he could trust him...

“What's up, Loco?” Steamer came trotting down the stairs, somewhat perplexed to see Selkirk standing outside.

“Blowback on the No. 429 goods,” explained Locomotion tersely. “They need me to go fill in for an injured firepony. Can I count on you to look after Hornette while I'm gone?”

Steamer smiled and nodded. “I'll do my best, Loco, for your sake,” he conceded.

“You promise you won't do anything to hurt her?”

“I swear on my life that she'll be in safe hooves,” Steamer assured him. “You go and take care of that freight – I'll see that Hornette knows what's going on.”

“Thanks, Uncle Steamer. See you when I get back.” With that, Locomotion darted out of the house and galloped towards the depot...

“ I'm afraid it's just you and me for the time being.”

An inexplicable feeling of emptiness seemed to manifest in Hornette's heart as she gazed out of the window. “But...he will be back...won't he?” she stammered anxiously.

“What makes you think he won't?” objected Steamer. “It's only going to take a couple of hours at the longest.” He smiled kindly and gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Cheer up, Hornette. Loco may be dedicated to the railways, but there's no way he'd abandon his friends without a good reason.”

Hornette heaved a deep sigh. “I know. It's's ever been so loyal and protective towards me before.”

“Well, I promise you won't come to any harm on my watch,” soothed Steamer. “Loco would never let me hear the end of it otherwise. Tell you what,” he went on, “why don't I teach you a bit of gardening? That might help pass the time.”

“Um...sure, I guess,” said Hornette uncertainly. “But don't you have your own trains to run?”

Steamer chuckled. “Nope – today's my rest day, so I can do whatever I want. But yeah, the rose bush needs pruning, and I could do with planting some more daffodils, so I wouldn't mind a bit of help.”

Hornette looked out of the window again – and then back to Steamer with a small smile. “Sure,” she conceded.

“Good. I'll just go get some secateurs, and then we can get started.”

“Okay, sir...I-I-I mean, uh...Mr Steamer,” replied Hornette as she turned to make her way into the front garden. But just as she was about to open the door, she remembered what Locomotion had been telling her earlier about how bees worked, and raised a thoughtful hoof to her chin. “Hmm...I wonder...”

It was almost lunchtime when Locomotion returned home. In spite of his uncle's promise, he couldn't stop brooding over Hornette, and was most relieved to find that the buff-coated older stallion had been as good as his word. The first thing he noticed as he walked through the front gate was Steamer watering one of the window boxes, while Hornette was doing something with the daffodils that the red-furred unicorn couldn't quite place his hoof on.

“Hey again, Hornette,” he called.

Hornette looked up with a smile. “Hello, Loco,” she chirped. “Welcome back.”

“Hey, Loco, how did it go?” asked Steamer.

Locomotion shrugged indifferently. “More or less okay,” he replied. “The backhead was pretty scorched, so Max has had to take the 985 out of service for closer inspection; but at least we managed to nurse her home okay. Good thing it's all down hill from Windy Vale to Trotley Ferrers Junction. How about Hornette – you been taking care of her like you said you would?”

Steamer chortled. “Loco, I'm a stallion of word – surely my own nephew would know that by now. And yes, I've been looking after her well.”

“Am I ever glad to hear that,” sighed Locomotion thankfully, turning his attention back to the young changeling. That was when he noticed a small collection of jars sitting on the edge of the lawn, most of them filled with a familiar yellow substance. “Hmm...something smells pretty sweet around here,” he mused. “What have you been up to?”

“I'm making honey,” replied Hornette brightly.

Locomotion blinked in astonishment. “Doing what?”

“I've worked out a spell that allows me to gather the nectar and break it down before putting it in the jars. Watch...” Hornette leaned in towards the flowerbed, her horn glowing a gentle green colour as she inserted it into one of the flowers, pausing for around half a minute before pulling back and repeating the process with the next one. Each time, the sheen it left on her horn grew shinier and shinier until it became a dull yellow colour, at which point she stopped gathering the nectar and began casting the next part of her spell. Locomotion watched with interest, and was even more astounded to see the nectar slowly becoming thicker, more yellow and less transparent.

“Blow my stack!” he remarked, intrigued. “How in Equestria do you do it, Hornette?”

“You know what you were saying earlier about how bees used...what do you call them...enzymes, to make this stuff? Well, I thought maybe I could use my magic to generate them,” explained Hornette simply. “The only catch is that I can't inject them into the nectar from a distance, which is why I have to attract it to my horn; but I can easily get it off again once it's done.” To prove her point, she lowered her head so that her horn was pointing into a half-full jar and set it aglow once more, whereupon the honey slid off into the jar in a single glob, leaving her horn as clean as a whistle.

Locomotion was most impressed. “Cor, blimey,” he quipped. “Seems we've got the makings of a bee-free apiary right there! Might I get a taste of it, perhaps?”

“Oh, sure,” said Hornette. “Your uncle had a sample earlier, but I'd be glad to let you do the same.”

“Thanks.” Locomotion levitated a small blob of honey out of the jar, assuming a focussed expression as he let it dissolve in his mouth. His eyes instantly widened as its sweetness brushed against his tongue; “Cripes, that properly does taste like honey and all! Brilliant job, Hornette!”

The young changeling blushed with a deep sense of pride and achievement like nothing she had ever felt before. “Well, gosh, it''s nothing really,” she stammered modestly. “I mean...surely there must be others who can...”

“None that I know of,” chuckled Steamer, who was now toting a spray gun and a small tank. “I mean, sure, we do have a few local bee keepers around here – but even they can't play their bees at their own game, unlike you.”

“Yeah, obviously,” retorted Locomotion cheekily, “because most of them are Earth ponies anyway.”

“Most of them, yes,” Steamer pointed out, “but not old Goldsboro. He's a unicorn, lest you forget; and he's never even managed to imitate his own insects, not even at flying.”

Locomotion chortled. “Yeah, good point. But yeah, that's impressive what you managed to do, Hornette, so don't let anypony tell you different.”

“Well...what can I say?” smiled Hornette.

“By the way,” went on Steamer tactfully, “you might want to move to one side for a moment; I need to start spraying the greenfly. Don't let that stop you from what you're doing, though.”

Hornette arched an eyebrow. “Spraying greenfly? Why, do they need to be washed?”

Locomotion smirked in amusement. “No, no, no, that wasn't what Uncle Steamer meant. He's just spraying those flowers with pesticide so that they don't get ravaged by slugs or insects,” he clarified. “If they do try to eat them, they'll only make themselves sick.”

“So...will it do the same to us?” asked Hornette warily.

“Nah, it washes off pretty easily, that stuff. A quick rinse in the sink, and it's safe as a plush toy.”

“Oh, okay.” With a light shrug, Hornette went straight back to gathering nectar while Steamer began spraying the pesticide onto the flowers.

But what none of them realised was that the nozzle hadn't been fixed on properly, so that when Steamer activated the spray gun, some of the pesticide escaped through one side. The buff-coated stallion was so focussed on his spraying that he didn't even notice what was going on – until he was startled by a blood-curdling scream of pain and alarm from Hornette.

“STOP! STOP!” yelled Locomotion in horror. Steamer quickly turned off the gun and spun round to see what had happened. The young changeling's face was contorted with agony, and her front left leg was riddled with nasty-looking marks that resembled acid burns.

“Good grief!” he exclaimed loudly. “Hornette, are you okay?!”

But Hornette was in such a state that she could barely hear him. “Ow...leg...hurts...” she wailed in a strained voice.

Steamer desperately looked to Locomotion for help, but the red-furred railway enthusiast didn't seem to know what was going on any more than his uncle did. “Go get Twilight and Zecora!” he ordered urgently. “Tell 'em we need their help post-haste!”

“Right, I'm on my way!” Without a second thought, Steamer flung the pesticide tank off his back and sprinted out onto the street.

As luck would have it, Twilight was just passing by on her way back from holding an audience with the mayor, so it wasn't long before Steamer caught up to her and told her all about the inexplicable wound that Hornette had sustained. The lavender-coated alicorn was equally shocked when she heard the news. “How is she?!” she asked tersely.

“In distress, as far as I can tell,” said Steamer anxiously. “Loco's keeping an eye on her, but until we know what's caused this, we daren't leave it untreated.”

“Right, you go to Zecora's hut and bring her back here as fast as you can!” instructed Twilight. “I'll see to Hornette!”

Steamer nodded and galloped off towards the Everfree Forest, while Twilight dashed back down the street and into his front garden. She found Hornette hunched over and crying in pain as she clung onto her injured leg, while Locomotion frantically tried to calm her down; but as soon as he saw the lavender-coated princess, his desperation quickly turned to relief.

“Twilight!” he exclaimed thankfully. “Blimey, am I ever glad you turned up! Steamer told you about...”

“About Hornette's leg? Yeah, he told me,” affirmed Twilight, stooping down to her eye level. “How are you holding out, Hornette?”

“Not good,” whimpered Hornette, barely able to speak. “It hurts so bad...”

Twilight hissed through her teeth as she inspected the damage. “Ooh, yes, it sure looks like it. Come on, Loco, let's get her inside,” she said, gently picking Hornette up with her magic and carrying her into the house.

“Any idea what it could be?” quizzed Locomotion worriedly.

“I'm not sure, to be honest,” admitted Twilight. “We'll probably just have to hope Zecora can answer that for us.” A thoughtful expression crossed her face as she lowered Hornette onto the sofa in the living room; “But I have a theory...”

“Yeah, what?” asked Locomotion after a long pause.

“...that this might have had something to do with the pesticide Steamer was using.”

Locomotion's eyes widened. “You...think...”

“It's plausible,” mused Twilight. “He did say himself that she seemed perfectly fine until he started spraying the greenfly. It could be that pesticide has a similar effect on changelings to vitriol on ponies.”

Locomotion winced uncomfortably. “Sweet Celestia on a skateboard! No wonder the poor thing reacted the way she did,” he murmured. “I sure hope Zecora can fix this.”

Over a quarter of an hour had elapsed by the time Steamer returned with Zecora. Twilight had managed to dull the pain in Hornette's leg, but the young changeling was still in distress. The zebra apothecary wasted no time in tending to her wound, gently rubbing an ointment into her burnt flesh that smelt like lavender with a hint of rose water, and then carefully wrapping a gauze bandage around the affected area. All the while, Locomotion stood by and offered moral support.

At last, Zecora stood up. “There you go, young Hornette,” she said soothingly. “Now you've no more need to fret – you may have taken a nasty chemical burn, but hopefully now it should be on the turn.”

“Mm...thank you, Miss Zecora,” murmured Hornette wearily. Even though the pain in her leg had all but ebbed away into a barely noticeable throbbing sensation, her wound and Twilight's pain blocking spell had left her visibly disoriented.

Steamer hung his head with shame. “I'm really sorry about the pesticide, Hornette...”

“Not your fault, Uncle Steamer,” cut in Locomotion ruefully. “None of us were to know this'd happen. If we did, I would have been a bit more careful about where we worked.”

“Well, we've all got a lot to learn about changelings,” observed Twilight philosophically. “At least now we know the damage pesticides can do to them. In fact, if we ever do make peace with the Badlands, we ought to pass restrictions on that stuff to prevent possible hate crime.”

“Oh, yeah, that reminds me,” remarked Locomotion, suddenly remembering the events of the previous afternoon, “there's something I forgot to tell you last night when you were scanning Hornette's memory.”

“Yeah? What sort of something?”

“When me and Hornette were on our way home from Fluttershy's place yesterday, we were stopped in the street by some shady Pegasus pony who calls himself Electro Diesel. He says he's from Whinneapolis and is trying to find a job in Ponyville, but I've got a hunch that there's an ulterior reason for him being here,” the red-furred stallion explained grimly.

Twilight gazed into space, visibly perplexed. “Why would he be coming all the way to a backwater like Ponyville for a job? Whinneapolis is a much bigger place than here.”

“Yeah, and his accent hardly matches that city either – heck, it doesn't even sound Equestrian,” continued Locomotion. “What really gives me the creeps is that he seemed pretty interested in Hornette; and as if that wasn't enough, he spoke about her as if she was just a pet!”

“Hmm...” Twilight paused for a moment while she took in the red-furred unicorn's troubled words. “...well, thanks for telling me about it, Loco. I'll have to check the records and see if I can find out a bit more about this Diesel pony; but if he does anything untoward to you or Hornette – anything whatsoever – then you let me know at once, understand?”

“Will do,” conceded Locomotion.

“Good. Now you make sure you get plenty of rest, Hornette. Your leg should be fit for walking by tomorrow morning, but knowing Applejack, you'll need all your strength for when we take you to meet her.”

Hornette gave a weak nod in reply.

“By the way, just out of curiosity, what exactly were you doing at the time?” inquired Twilight. “I could have sworn there was the smell of honey in your front garden.”

In spite of his guilt for what he had unintentionally done to Hornette, Steamer managed a small smile. “Well, as a matter of fact, Twilight, that's exactly what it was. See, Loco had been telling Hornette how bees work earlier today, and she wanted to give it a go herself, so I let her borrow a few empty jars and use my daffodils as a...sort of a test-bed, so to speak.”

“Oh, really?” Twilight was most interested. “How did it go?”

“Like a treat – literally!” stated Locomotion, quickly forgetting his anxiety and motioning towards the five full jars that were now sitting on the coffee table. “You should try it sometime, Twilight. It's got a wonderful rich flavour to it.”

Twilight gazed thoughtfully at the jars. “Well, no time like the present, I suppose,” she decided, and levitated a smallish blob from the one Hornette had been in the process of filling. Hovering it just in front of her mouth, she licked tentatively at it. “Gosh, you're right, Loco! It's almost like manuka honey with a hint of cinnamon. Mind if I take a jarful and run a few lab tests on it, Steamer?” she requested.

“Be my guest,” said Steamer wholeheartedly.

“Thanks,” smiled Twilight, picking one at random and placing it in her saddlebag. “Right, well, I'd best be off to the castle – I've still got my report to send off to Princess Celestia. See you this evening, Loco.”

“Okay, see you, Twilight,” replied Locomotion as Twilight took her leave. “And thanks again.”

“Same to you, Zecora,” put in Steamer. “I don't know what we would have done without you – or your knowledge of foreign creatures.”
Zecora nodded modestly. “Think nothing of it, Steamer, the pleasure is mine,” she assured him. “Besides, I could hardly let Hornette's health decline. Now I must get back and sort out my shelves; those potions won't rearrange themselves.”

Steamer chuckled and led the zebra to the front door, leaving Locomotion and Hornette alone in the living room. Relieved that their little episode was over, the red-furred railway enthusiast sighed wearily and sat down next to the sofa. “Blimey, what a morning,” he thought aloud. “First that incapacitated firepony, then me having to go cover for him, and now we've gone and hurt you without even realising it.”

“Yeah, that wasn't the most pleasant experience,” mumbled Hornette groggily. A faint smile crossed her face as she gazed back at Locomotion through half-open eyes. “You really were scared for me, weren't you?”

“Scared? I was flaming terrified for you!” exclaimed Locomotion emphatically. “Even more so because I didn't know what was wrong at the time – could have been voodoo for all I knew!” He took a few deep breaths to calm himself down. “Sorry if I overreacted.”

Hornette made a sound like she was trying to laugh, but couldn't quite manage it. “Please don't be sorry, Loco,” she soothed. “It wasn't your fault. If I'd known what pesticide could do to us changelings, I would have stood well back.”

“Yeah, but...” Locomotion broke off when he realised just how right Hornette was. Tactfully deciding that there was no point in arguing any further about the whole débâcle, he swiftly changed the subject; “ you want to watch a movie or something? Better that than just lying around until your leg gets better.”

“Hmm...yeah, why not?” agreed Hornette, perking up a little. “What shall we watch?”

Locomotion stood up and trotted across to the shelf on which the video tapes were kept. “Right, let's have a look......'Battle of the Griffins'? Nah, too violent......that's a bit racy......ugh, no way am I having anything to do with that lot! What about......again, too violent. Daren't take Hornette out of her comfort zone......perhaps......yes! That'd probably fit the bill!” he decided, pulling out a video seemingly at random.

“So what are we going for?” asked Hornette.

“One of the first films ever directed by Technicolour Tarquin,” proclaimed Locomotion, holding up the case for her to see.

“'Bridleway Limited'? Isn't that one of the trains you and your uncle travel on?”

“Oh, yeah,” affirmed Locomotion, puffing out his chest. “It was the pride of the Pennsylhaynia Railroad back in the day, which is why Tarquin chose to set this film on that very express. It's quite a comical film; I think you'll like it.”

Hornette smiled again. “Well...I suppose it can't hurt to try.”

At that moment, Steamer poked his head through the doorway. “Loco? Could you come in the kitchen for a minute, please?”

“What for?” asked Locomotion.

“There's something I want to discuss with you.”

The red-furred young stallion frowned at the tone of concern in Steamer's voice. “Be with you in a tick,” he said, inserting the cassette into the VCR and pressing the pause button before it had a chance to start playing. That done, he left Hornette in peace and trotted anxiously into the kitchen. “So what's the problem? Still upset about the pesticide accident?”

“Well...kinda. But that's not...”

“Uncle, I already told you, there's no need to start blaming yourself for it,” insisted Locomotion. “Neither of us knew it would...”
“I know – I know,” interrupted Steamer calmly. “I was actually more worried about this Diesel you said had been following you around yesterday. What exactly did he look like?”

“Well...he was a Pegasus pony, somewhat slender in build with a pretty shifty look about him – same colours as me, just about, but in reverse. Why, had you met that pony before?”

“No, but I thought I saw the occasional flash of black and red lurking in the shadows at Ponyville MPD when I booked on for the Appleloosan. I don't know if it's the same pony, but I have a tantalising feeling you could be right about him trying to stir up trouble.” Steamer rested a shaky hoof on Locomotion's shoulder and gave him a pleading look; “Listen, Loco – if you ever run into that pony ever again, I want you to promise that you'll tell me all about it, okay?”

Locomotion nodded gravely. “I promise.”

“Good lad,” smiled Steamer, patting his nephew's withers.

“By the way, Uncle Steamer,” put in Locomotion with a small, grateful smile of his own, “thanks for looking after Hornette – and for getting help after that pesticide burn. Guess she really is starting to grow on you after all, huh?”

Steamer chuckled wryly. “I suppose you could say that. Anyway, I'm gonna make a start on lunch. You want me to bring it through to the living room for you?”

“Probably for the best in Hornette's condition,” decided Locomotion. “She's still feeling a bit woozy from all the pain.”

“Okay, well you run along and keep an eye on her. I'll take care of the food.” But inwardly, even though his nephew had promised not to hide anything from him about Diesel, the buff-coated stallion couldn't stop worrying – and not just for Locomotion either. For the first time in his life, he was genuinely concerned for Hornette's safety, and there was a niggling feeling in the back of his mind that the young changeling might be the reason for him being here; why, he didn't know, but it all seemed far too convenient to be a coincidence. With a heavy sigh, he set to work preparing a wild clover salad with some of the honey she had made.

Chapter 8: Meeting the Elements - Applejack

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Fortunately for Locomotion and Hornette, the rest of the day went by without any further mishap, and the two of them spent a quiet afternoon watching railway movies together while Steamer went about his gardening. For someone who didn't seem to have any prior understanding of comedy, the young changeling found “Bridleway Limited” surprisingly entertaining to watch, and more than once, Locomotion had to pause the video just so that she could pull herself together. Not that he minded, of course – if anything, it was a joy to see her laughing so much.

Hornette slept a lot more soundly that night. Locomotion had had no reservations about reading her another story, and she enjoyed looking over the illustrations in the book as he told her how two tank engines had tormented a mild-mannered diesel in the mistaken belief that he had stolen their trucks. Her leg was still a little sore when she woke up the following morning, but after a hearty breakfast of oatmeal bangers, baked beans and fried bread, she was so contented that she barely noticed until Locomotion asked her how she was doing a little later on.

“I'm okay, I guess,” she replied, sitting herself down on the sofa in the living room. “At least my leg's not as bad as it was yesterday.”

“Well that's something,” mused Locomotion as he quietly flicked through the pages of a railway history book. “I tell you what, I don't know how it is that Zecora knows so much about you changelings, but I'm sure glad she does.”

Hornette nodded her agreement. “I guess I'm really lucky to have someone like her to turn to,” she remarked. “Can you imagine going down with a really horrible illness, and no-one can do anything about it because they don't know enough about your species?”

“Mm...scary thought, that. I bet it was the same with a lot of creatures when they first came to Equestria.”

“Yes, it must have been. So anyway, um......about this Applejack?”

“Eh what?” Locomotion looked a little fogged for a few seconds, but quickly remembered what Hornette was talking about. “Oh yeah, she runs the orchard at Sweet Apple Acres along with her husband Caramel, her brother Big Macintosh, her sister Apple Bloom and her cousin Braeburn. She's a bit of a workaholic, that one, and pretty serious-minded too, so you'll have to forgive her if she comes across as being...well, kinda gruff.”

“I understand, but what's an orchard?”

“It's...basically a farm on which you grow trees or bushes for certain fruits and vegetables, such as apples, nuts and cherries,” explained Locomotion simply. “There are a lot of them in the local area, but Sweet Apple Acres is pretty much the prime example.”

“Oh, I see. And what about these other ponies you mentioned...what are they like?”

“Well, Apple Bloom is one of...” but a knock at the front door cut Locomotion off mid-sentence, and with a light shrug, he got to his hooves and trotted out into the hallway to answer. Hornette sat and listened patiently as she waited for him to return, still wondering how these Sweet Apple Acres ponies would take to her.

Sweet Apple Acres was only ten minutes away from Steamer's house, so the two teenagers, accompanied by Twilight once again, arrived at the homestead in good time to find the orange-coated farm pony preparing for a hard day's work. She had just finished loading a cart with fruit baskets, and was now running a final check before setting off.

“Morning, Applejack,” called Twilight as she, Locomotion and Hornette drew near.

“Howdy, Twilight.” Applejack politely tipped her Stetson in greeting; but Locomotion couldn't help noticing a hint of apprehension in her voice. “Is that the changeling y'all were talkin' about last week? The one what Loco found in the Everfree Forest?”

“She sure is,” affirmed Twilight, and turned her attention back to the young changeling; “Hornette, meet Applejack.”

The only response Hornette could manage was a shy nod. Already this Applejack pony seemed far more intimidating than Fluttershy or Locomotion.

“So,” said Applejack, staring dubiously back at the interloper, “Twilight tells me y'all ran away from yo' homeland 'cause ya din' wanna live la'k a savage?”

“Um...yes?” faltered Hornette, cowering slightly under her gaze.

Sensing her discomfort, Locomotion tried to intervene; but the moment he opened his mouth to speak, Twilight gave him a gentle nudge and shook her head.

“Any particular reason why ya came to Equestria of all places?”

Hornette gulped. “I thought that...I'd find the Promised Land beyond here,” she explained nervously.

“Have any o' yo' clan ever been there, or is this just an old folk tale?” quizzed Applejack.

“I don't know. Other changelings talked about it all the time...this sort away from the Badlands where all creatures were equal, even our own fighting, no torture, no corruption – just peace and fair justice.”

“Uh-huh,” mused Applejack thoughtfully. It was still a little early to tell, she thought, but this changeling seemed pretty genuine so far. “Well, we Apples are always prepared ta give rookies la'k you a fair trial, so y'all can come help me gather the first apple crop – but no funny business, mind,” she added firmly.

“Oh, no, Miss...uh, Mrs Applejack...I-I-I wouldn't dream of it,” stammered Hornette meekly.

“Good – an' by the way, don't bother with all the fancy titles. Just call me Applejack.” The orange-coated mare turned to Locomotion; “You mind lendin' a hoof as well, Loco? The Bramley apple crop's lookin' pretty heavy at the moment.”

“Yeah, might as well, seeing as I'm here,” conceded Locomotion; but once Applejack had turned to fetch another two carts from the barn, he directed a disapproving sidelong glance at the lavender-coated alicorn. “Really, Twilight? The one moment where Hornette needed me to speak up for her, and you didn't even let me?”

“It wouldn't have been very wise under the circumstances,” replied Twilight gravely. “You trying to vouch for her would only have aroused Applejack's suspicions even further.”

“So? The poor girl was way out of her comfort zone already without being grilled by Applejack,” retorted Locomotion.

“Well...that's how it is, I'm afraid.” Twilight smiled apologetically. “Never mind, Loco, at least she's starting to warm up – I doubt she'd have let her anywhere near the orchard otherwise.”

The red-furred teen grunted and rolled his eyes again. “She sure has a funny way of showing it,” he muttered to himself.

Having loaded the carts with extra baskets, Applejack led Hornette and Locomotion out to the orchard to begin harvesting, while Twilight kept a close watch on them from overhead. As they went, the young changeling gazed with interest upon the vast groves of apple trees, quietly admiring their abundance and the sweet smell of the fruits that hung from their branches. These Apple ponies sure had done a good job with this orchard, she thought – it almost felt like an enchanted forest.

But her admiration was soon tempered by the effort and dexterity she had to put into gathering the apples. Applejack had given her a quick pep talk just before they set to work, but Hornette found the job of apple-bucking frustratingly difficult. No matter how hard she kicked from whatever angle, she only managed to shake a precious few apples loose each time, whereas Locomotion only needed to kick four or five times in order to bring the whole crop down.

In the end, the young changeling grew so impatient that she flew up into the tree and began shaking its branches vigorously. The intense rustling sound quickly caught Locomotion's attention, and he trotted over to see what was going on. “Having trouble, Hornette?” he called anxiously; but quickly stepped back as a deluge of apples began to rain down into the baskets below.

“I'm...fine!” came a strained grunt from within the tree, its branches starting to sway again. “Just...trying to...get...apples...out of...tree!”

“ already have!” exclaimed Locomotion. “There's not a single one left!”

The rustling quickly stopped, and Hornette drifted back down to firm ground, one eyebrow raised in confusion. Sure enough, she noticed that the baskets were now full to the brim. “Oh,” she murmured meekly, rubbing her right front leg with her left hoof. “Guess I didn't realise.”

Locomotion smiled sympathetically. Hornette was clearly trying her best to make a lasting impression on Applejack, but in his eyes, she was probably trying a bit too hard for her own good. “It's okay to just use your magic,” he soothed.

Hornette frowned and shook her head. “Um...thanks, Loco, but I'd rather not,” she replied. “I don't know if Applejack will like that.”
“Well...maybe not if you teleport them or whatever,” said Locomotion reasonably, “but I don't see that she'd have anything against basic telekinesis.”

“I...suppose not. I just don't feel right using magic when you aren't.”

The red-furred teenager nodded understandingly. “Yeah, on second thought, your method...kinda works well in its own right,” he observed. “Alright then, Hornette, whatever you feel comfortable with; but don't hesitate to ask for help if you get in trouble.”

“I will,” promised Hornette with a small smile.

With that, Locomotion left her to her own devices and went back to work – but just as he was raising his hind legs to buck his next tree, he heard another rustling noise from somewhere behind him. Perplexed, he lowered himself back on all fours and turned around to investigate. He couldn't see very clearly through the thick layer of leaves, but he could have sworn there was a slender black creature of some kind skulking in the branches only a couple of trees away.

The red-furred railway enthusiast stared suspiciously at the tree in question, wondering why some random pony would be hiding in Sweet Apple Acres. All of a sudden, an alarm bell started to ring in the back of his head – what if it was that Electro Diesel pony who had been following him and Hornette the other day?! Mentally bracing himself, he galloped across to the tree for a closer look – but barely was he a few yards away when there was a flash of green, and when he finally gathered his awareness, the mysterious creature had vanished into thin air.

Locomotion grimaced and gave an annoyed grunt as he went to resume his apple-bucking. That creature couldn't possibly have been Diesel, he thought, for no Pegasus would have been capable of teleportation – but something still didn't feel right. If anything, it felt as if there were a thousand eyes staring at him and Hornette from every angle, slyly watching their every move and waiting for the perfect opportunity...though for what, he couldn't yet place his hoof on. He remained on tenterhooks for the rest of the morning, keeping a suspicious eye open for any other would-be spies as he and Hornette kicked and shook the apples out of the trees. There were none to be seen, but it wasn't until they arrived back at the farmhouse, their carts fully laden, and found Twilight awaiting their return that he finally relaxed his guard.

Hornette, on the other hoof, was too exhausted to care. It had been hard enough trying to steer the cart even when it was empty, and its harness, though adjusted to allow her wings to flex freely, felt awkward and uncomfortable around her barrel; but combined with a surprisingly heavy cargo and the effort she had to put into shaking it loose from the trees, the job of hauling them back to the barn had proven so taxing that she could hardly stand.

The weary changeling parked her cart just outside the house and collapsed onto her haunches. “What a morning,” she panted, trying to catch her breath.

“Had enough, Hornette?” asked Twilight kindly.

Hornette nodded in reply as Locomotion, already shot of his own cart, set about undoing her harness. As much as she hated to admit it, she felt a little jealous of his strength. “I don't know how it is that you ponies can cope with all this,” she murmured unhappily.

“That's okay, Hornette,” comforted Locomotion. “You actually did pretty well for a first-timer. Thing about us unicorns and other magically capable creatures is that we tend to take our powers for granted, so we're generally not used to physical stuff like this.”

“Aren't you?” Hornette looked confused. “ can you not be used to pulling and apple-bucking? You were handling that cart like it wasn't even there!”

Locomotion chuckled faintly. “Yeah, well...I guess that's what comes from all those firing turns,” he remarked modestly. “Mind you, it kinda helps that I'm part Earth pony myself.”

Hornette responded with a thoughtful half-smile before gazing down at her hooves. “Maybe we changelings just aren't built to pull,” she muttered sadly.

“Aw, cheer up, Hornette,” cajoled Locomotion, patting her shoulder reassuringly. “You'll get used to it eventually.”

That was when Applejack, who had already left her cart in the barn ready for unloading later in the day, decided to step forward. “Ah got somethin' ta say ta y'all, young Hornette,” she stated, still bearing the same stern look and wary tone from earlier.

“Y-y-yes, M......uh, Applejack?” stammered Hornette, instinctively sidling up to her red-furred confidante.

“We Apples 'ave never had a changeling work on Sweet Apple Acres before, an' we've 'ad way mo' trouble from them than they're worth,” said Applejack in a stoic manner, “so Ah just want ya ta know that if y'all even think of comin' up this way ever again...”

Locomotion slapped an exasperated hoof to his face. Could the poor changeling never catch a break?

“...y'all are mo' than welcome here.”

Hornette was so stunned that she could only stare in disbelief. “I...I am?”

This caught Locomotion completely unawares. With a bewildered expression on his face, he slowly lifted his head so that his eyes were only just peering over his hoof – and sure enough, Applejack's mask of apprehension had melted away into a kind, welcoming smile.

“Darn tootin'. Only fair, after all, seein' the effort ya put into yo' work this mornin' – an' without usin' magic either! That's real dedication in mah book. Just a friendly tip fo' next time, though – don't feel ya have to overexert yourself when the goin' gets tough,” Applejack advised. “Ah won't take offence to you levitatin' them apples off the trees if ya can't buck 'em down – an' Ah'm sure Loco wouldn't want ya hurtin' yourself now, would he?”

“But...why are you being so trusting towards me all of a sudden?” blustered Hornette, now completely unnerved. “How do you know I'm not going to cause any trouble to this place?”

Applejack merely rolled her eyes in amusement. “If you really intended any harm around 'ere, you'd 'ave inflicted it by now,” she explained. “That's kinda why Ah was actin' so cold earlier – it was mah way of testin' yo' integrity an' work ethic.”

Only then did Locomotion see the funny side of it. “You mean to say you were faking it the whole time?” he chortled. “Blimey, Applejack, some Element of Honesty you turn out to be!”

“Well...not entirely, Loco,” Applejack pointed out firmly. “But yeah, sorry about mah earlier behaviour,” she went on. “Last thing Ah wanted was ta make ya feel threatened or whatever, 'specially after what a rough time y'all 'ad been through back home.”

There was a long silence as Hornette took in the apology and verbal seal of approval – but after a while, she managed a small, humble smile in response. “It's okay,” she replied softly. “I'm just glad I could make myself useful around here.”

“Well, you've sure done a good job, Ah'll tell ya that much fo' nothin'. So – you wanna stay fo' lunch?”

Hornette got on extremely well with the rest of the Apple Family. They were a little wary of her at first, but after Applejack told them how well she had managed with the apple harvest, they gradually began to warm to her. Braeburn and Apple Bloom in particular were keen to learn more about Hornette and her kind, and didn't hesitate to strike up conversation with the young changeling.

“So how ya la'kin' this place, Hornette?” chirped Apple Bloom.

“ sure is different to what my old life used to be like,” admitted Hornette with a wry smile. “Certainly a lot more friendly than I expected, even from you ponies.”

Braeburn chuckled heartily. “Ah can imagine it would be. Home o' the Elements o' Harmony – need Ah say more?”

“Includin' yours an' Big Mac's wives an' mahself,” put in Applejack.

Hornette gazed at the two older stallions with interest. “You two are married? What are they like?” she asked curiously.

“Need ya ask?” replied Braeburn knowingly. “Ah happen ta be married ta the Element o' Laughter herself – Pinkie Pie. Now that there's a real fun pony, an' no mistake – nothin' she enjoys better than puttin' a smile on other ponies' faces, hence why she works as a baker an' party planner over at Sugarcube Corner.”

“Hmm...speaking of Pinkie,” remarked Locomotion, raising an eyebrow, “what's she been up to lately? I haven't seen her all week.”

“Oh, she's over in Manehattan. Cheese Sandwich needed her help organising a birthday party, and then the two of them were invited to host Anthro-Con at Rodeo City Music Hall,” explained Twilight. “I was planning on heading over there myself with Lyra and Moondancer this weekend, but I can't exactly leave you and Hornette alone.”

Locomotion gazed sheepishly at his plate, mentally berating himself for having upset Twilight's plans. “Ah...well, that's a little...awkward,” he muttered.

“Don't worry about it, Loco. I can always go next year; and besides, it's not as if Moondancer's going to hold it against me like she did when I first came here.”

“But...why would she be mad at somepony like you, Twilight?” asked Hornette, perplexed. “And what's Anthro-Con?”

Twilight rubbed a hoof against the back of her head with a rueful smile. “Well...back when we were in school together, Moondancer tended to be rather shy. She did eventually start to come out of her shell and interact a bit more with what few friends she did have, but it was just unfortunate that I had to leave for Ponyville the very same day as that birthday party she had been persuaded to throw,” she confessed. “It kind of broke her heart in a way, because she'd always looked up to me as a role model, and it wasn't until I came back and threw another party in her honour that she finally forgave me for it.”

“She sometimes comes down 'ere ta visit Twilight an' Lyra,” said Applejack knowingly. “Apparently she's become quite the Hu-Mare since Lyra first took 'er to Anthro-Con in Fillydelphia four years ago.”

Hornette was even more puzzled. “Hu-Mare?” she repeated.

“It's a nickname for fans of a TV series called 'Equestria Girls',” Locomotion clarified. “The show's got such a huge following these days that, at certain times of the year, they hold a huge convention known as Anthro-Con, so that Hu-Mares and Bro-Men can get together, talk with the creators, buy all sorts of cool merchandise and just...generally talk humans. I'm sort of a small-time fan of the series and so are some of my friends, but I never really got into Anthro-Con myself.”

Hornette merely nodded in acknowledgement. All this information about humans, Bro-Men and Hu-Mares was starting to hurt her brain, so she swiftly decided to change the subject; “ about you, Mr Macintosh? What's your wife like?”

Big Macintosh, who was already taking a noticeable shine to Hornette, stifled a chortle. “Well...Ah do believe y'all were hangin' out with her only a couple o' days ago,” he pointed out.

“I was? But the only pony I met that day was...” Hornette's eyes widened as she realised what the big red stallion was talking about. “You mean...Fluttershy?”

“Eeyup – an' Ah'd known 'er since foalhood, which makes it even mo' special,” added Big Macintosh fondly. “Mind you, she an' Ah wouldn't 'ave got this far if it weren't fo' Apple Bloom an' 'er Cutie Mark Crusader friends bringin' us together.”

Apple Bloom smiled modestly. “Yeah, well, it was mo' luck than anythin' else.”

The young changeling gazed at Big Macintosh in awe. “So that's who the other pony was!” she remarked.

“Uh...say what now?” quizzed Apple Bloom, taken aback.

“There was this photograph that Fluttershy had shown me of her and her husband when Loco and Twilight took me to meet her,” explained Hornette. “I thought that pony might have been Loco's older brother for some reason.”

Locomotion and Apple Bloom promptly burst into fits of laughter, causing Hornette to cock her head in confusion. “What's so funny?”

“Uh...good guess, Hornette, but a little wide of the mark,” replied Locomotion, pulling himself together. “Big Mac and I may share the same coat colour, but that doesn't mean we're related.”

Up to this point, Caramel, who was still uneasy about making acquaintance with a changeling, had refrained from saying anything for fear of offending her. But at the mention of relatives, he couldn't avoid murmuring to himself, “Yeah, but I can kind of understand why she'd think that,” in a tone that almost sounded derisive.

Applejack nudged him sharply in the ribs. “Caramel!” she hissed sternly. “Don't be so rude, y'all!”

“What'd you say, Caramel?” asked Locomotion, who hadn't quite been listening.

“Uh...nothing,” stammered Caramel hastily; but quickly rethought what he was going to say as he felt another harsh poke against his chest. “What I meant to say is...I was under the impression that you changelings were all offspring of the one queen.”

“Oh, no, Mr Caramel,” replied Hornette earnestly, “our mothers and fathers were completely different changelings to our queen, and I don't think there were any families that had more than a dozen foals.” With a shudder of discomfort and a disturbed look in her eyes, she added, “It's bad enough to have been one of her subjects – I can't imagine what life would have been like if I was her daughter!”

“ actually have...what do you call the males of your species?”

“Stallions? Yes, we do.”

“What made you think they didn't?” questioned Locomotion.

“Well...I know from Fluttershy that some insect species tend to eat the males after mating, and...”

“What?! No!!” exclaimed Hornette in alarm. “We're changelings, not cannibals!”

Locomotion, equally appalled, looked daggers at the tan-furred stallion. “Really, Caramel?” he chided. “Was there any need for that?”

Caramel sighed and hung his head in shame. “Sorry, Loco,” he apologised meekly. “I just...this is the first time I've even seen a changeling, let alone met one. All I had to go by were the Friendship Council's accounts of the Canterlot invasion plus whatever myths I happened to pick up from my friends down at the tavern.”

“It's alright, Caramel,” interjected Twilight calmly. “Just try not to take those rumours so seriously. Although now you come to mention it, there's something I've just realised...”

“Oh yeah?” said Locomotion curiously, forgetting to be cross. “What's that?”

“Well...all the changelings we encountered in Canterlot were bald with bare docks, and yet Hornette's got a full head and tail of hair, same as Chrysalis. Is there a reason for that, or is it just...changeling genetics?”

“I don't really know,” admitted Hornette. “Some other changelings did actually have manes and tail hair, but for whatever reason, our queen keeps forcing us to shave them right off. I guess she probably didn't want her subjects to look like her.”

Braeburn scoffed dismissively. “That's just stupid!” he retorted. “We have a sayin' 'ere in Equestria that 'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery'. Surely even Chrysalis should recognise that!”

“I'll say,” agreed Locomotion feelingly. “I mean, why would anypony want to disfigure someone as...well, as sweet and innocent and...pretty as you? It's just...wrong!”

This brought a shy blush to Hornette's cheeks, and she bashfully turned her head away so that her mane was hiding part of her face. Had Locomotion really just called her...pretty? A mere changeling such as herself? Surely not, she thought.

What she didn't notice was that Twilight was now gazing coyly at her and Locomotion with a thoughtful expression on her face. The suppression spell had clearly been doing its job, that much was obvious from the memory scans she had run on them every time she came to renew it; and yet the red-furred unicorn had somehow managed to tickle the young changeling pink without meaning to. If this wasn't down to magical seduction, then...maybe this was something she needed to look into a little more closely at some point, she decided.

After lunch, Locomotion and Hornette hung out a little while longer before heading home. While Braeburn took care of the washing up, the rest of them went to relax in the living room, where they spent a good hour or so quietly chatting with the young changeling and generally getting to know her better, as well as sharing their own life stories. Even Caramel was good enough to tell her about his lonesome past in Manehattan, and how he too had migrated to Ponyville after the collapse of the infamous shopping mall walkways had disabled his mother and killed his best friend.

Hornette was amazed to learn how much she and Caramel had in common, but was even more fascinated by Apple Bloom's anecdotes of her own adventures with the Cutie Mark Crusaders, especially when she learned that the group had since grown into a nationwide charity. She admired how the yellow-furred mare and her friends, just as they had done for each other in the past, were now helping other little fillies and colts discover their true colours and gain their Cutie Marks; although deep down, she couldn't help feeling a little saddened by the knowledge that, as a changeling, she would never gain one of her own. Indeed, the two of them got along so well that it was nearly three o'clock when she decided she wanted to head back to Steamer's house.

“Thank you for having me over,” she said as she and Locomotion got ready to leave. “It was really nice getting to know you all.”

“Don't mention it, y'all,” replied Applejack kindly. “Least we could do, after a' yo' help this mornin'.”

“Yeah, an' it was nice gettin' ta know you too, Hornette,” put in Apple Bloom. “We should totally hang out again sometime – maybe invite Scoot an' Sweetie-Belle along too.”

Hornette smiled in agreement. “That would be wonderful, Apple Bloom. So...does this mean we're friends?”

“Darn tootin'!” affirmed Apple Bloom with a hearty smile of her own. “Good luck with yo' parole, by the way. Hope ta see you again soon – you too, Loco.”

“So long, Apple Bloom. Take care.”

With a final friendly nod, Locomotion led Hornette out of the farmhouse and across the orchard towards home, Apple Bloom keeping her eye on the young changeling until they were out of sight. “Boy howdy,” she mused, “that Hornette sure was nice. Never thought changelings could be so friendly – or that Ah'd ever make friends with one, fo' that matter.”

“Ah don't think any of us did,” said Braeburn, who had only just finished with the dishes. “Guess it just goes ta show – li'l bit o' good in everypony, so long as ya look hard enough.”

Big Macintosh nodded thoughtfully. “She kinda reminds me o' Fluttershy,” he observed.

“I take it from those reactions that you all like her then?” asked Twilight.

“You bet yo' boots we do, Twilight!” chuckled Applejack, and all the other Apples murmured in agreement. “The way she was goin' at it earlier, it's as if she really looked up to us ponies.”

Even Caramel had to admit that Hornette wasn't so bad after all. “She's...different,” he said simply, “but in a good way.”

The lavender-coated alicorn acknowledged this with a faint smile of satisfaction. “Right, well I'd better go finish writing my census report to Princess Celestia.” But just as she was about to open the door, she suddenly remembered something that caused her brow to furrow with concern as she turned back to face Applejack. “Actually, that reminds me – did you happen to see a black creature hiding in the trees near where you were working this morning?”

Applejack looked confused. “Uh...don't think so. Ah was too busy keepin' an eye on Loco an' Hornette. Why do ya ask?”

Twilight didn't reply. She just gazed out across the orchard, her eyes narrow with suspicion. “Right...maybe I'd better have a word with Loco about this...”

Chapter 9: Meeting the Elements - Rarity

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Twilight had intended to talk to Locomotion about the mystery creature at the first possible opportunity; but an urgent request for an audience that evening meant that she only had enough time to renew the suppression spell before heading back to the castle. It wasn't until the following morning, while they were making their way to the Carousel Boutique, that she managed to bring up the subject.

The red-furred teen gazed over his shoulder in the general direction of Sweet Apple Acres. “Yeah, I had a feeling somepony was spying on us – and not by royal appointment either,” he muttered grimly. “Any idea who it might have been?” Somehow, he suspected he already knew the answer, but he still wanted to be sure.

“I'm afraid not, Loco – aside from the main colour being black, I couldn't make out very much through the leaves,” answered Twilight. “I did try to get a better look, but he vanished before I could get close enough.”

“You don't think...could it have been another changeling?” quavered Hornette nervously.

Locomotion frowned and gave an uncertain shrug in reply. “Could have been anything, really – a changeling, a unicorn, a reindeer – heck, it could even be a murder of crows, for all we know.”

“A...a murder?” Hornette winced, visibly disturbed. “Why would anypony want to go killing birds out of...”

“What? No, I didn't mean that kind of murder!” blustered Locomotion hastily. “I meant 'murder' as in 'a group of crows'.”

But this did little to quell Hornette's unease. “But...why would you call them a 'murder'?” she objected, now completely unnerved. “Surely they don't kill other they?”

Twilight suppressed a dismayed chuckle. “No, Hornette, of course they don't,” she explained gently. “It's just another of those...confusing terms for groups of certain animals – kind of like 'pride' can also mean a group of lions, for example. You see what I mean?”

“Um...I think so. I always thought of them as flocks, though – I never knew you ponies used such a...morbid word to describe them in groups.”

The lavender-coated alicorn smiled understandingly. “Yeah, language is a funny thing. Sometimes you get it first time, others it just goes right over your head. Even I get confused from time to time when Pinkie comes up with a new word.”

“Seriously?” Locomotion raised an incredulous eyebrow.

“Yeah – and I've the highest IQ of anyone in Ponyville, if not this part of Equestria. But anyway, getting back to the matter at hoof,” Twilight went on, “I've already asked Flash to double the unicorn patrols, so if it really is another changeling, hopefully we'll find out soon enough.”

“Emphasis on 'hopefully',” muttered Locomotion to nopony in particular. If Twilight's experience at the Canterlot invasion was anything to go by, he thought to himself, it would take some extremely perceptive ponies to sniff out a swarm of changelings in disguise. Hornette didn't seem very much at ease either, for the red-furred unicorn could still detect a hint of fear in her eyes. If they hadn't been out in public at that moment, he would have given her a gentle nuzzle in an attempt to calm her down; but he didn't dare in case he aroused some other pony's suspicions by mistake. Instead, he wrapped his hoof around hers and whispered, “Don't worry, Hornette, nothing's gonna happen to you.”

That had the desired effect. The moment their hooves made contact, the young changeling felt her anxiety fade; and despite her earlier concerns about being stalked, she managed a small smile in return as they stopped just outside the front door of the Carousel Boutique.

“I sure hope Rarity's okay with all this,” mused Twilight as she rang the doorbell. “Spike tells me she's been having a pretty busy time lately...”

At the mention of Spike, Locomotion goggled in alarm. “Oh, D-rat!!” he burst out, his face nearly turning pink. “How in the world could I be so stupid?!”

“Eh? What are you talking about?” asked Twilight, perplexed.

“I completely forgot to explain about Spike!” blustered Locomotion, screwing up his eyes and gripping his temples in a fit of hysteria. “Aw, heck, how's Hornette gonna react when she finds out Rarity's married to a...”


Both Locomotion and Twilight nearly jumped out of their skin as Hornette leaped into the air with a terrified scream and fled to a nearby tree, trembling feverishly as she clung onto one of its boughs for dear life. Shocked and confused, the lavender-coated alicorn hastily scanned the area for the practical joker who had tried to scare them out of their wits – only to find him standing in the doorway and staring at the tree with a stunned look on his face. Rarity stood immediately behind him, equally flabbergasted by what had just transpired.

Only then did Twilight realise what had gotten the young changeling in such a panic. “Uh...just a second, you lot,” she said hurriedly, and trotted over to the tree before any of them could answer.

There was a very awkward silence. Locomotion grinned awkwardly and rubbed the back of his neck, almost expecting an endless stream of questions; but both Spike and Rarity were at a complete loss for words, and could do little more than gaze upon the frightened changeling in confusion. It almost seemed like an eternity before Spike finally managed to choke out a bewildered, “What in the hay was that?!”

The red-furred unicorn gave a feeble chuckle. “That,” he replied simply, a hint of embarrassment in his expression, “was genuine evidence of a changeling showing her fear.”

Rarity's jaw hung open in disbelief. “My word!” she exclaimed breathlessly. “If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes...”

Spike nodded in wordless agreement as he watched Twilight trying to coax the shaken changeling out of the tree. This wasn't the first time he had seen the good side of a changeling, but the notion of one being terrified of a dragon such as himself seemed almost surreal.

“Come on, Hornette,” he heard her say, “there's no need to be afraid.”

“ do I know that...that dragon won't gobble me up as soon as look at me?” whimpered Hornette, refusing to let go of her branch.

Twilight smiled kindly and rested a hoof on her shoulder. “He won't. I've known Spike ever since I hatched him. Give him a sizeable hoard of gems, and he'll wolf them down to his heart's content; but he'd never make a meal out of a living creature if his life depended on it.” Her hoof moved over to Hornette's face and lifted it a little so that she could meet her gaze. “Come on now – be brave.”
Hornette didn't seem entirely convinced, but shakily unhooked herself from the tree and drifted back down to firm ground, still hiding behind Twilight as the lavender-coated alicorn led her back towards the Element of Generosity and her reptilian husband.

“Right,” Twilight thought aloud, “let's try this again,” and she trotted forward to share a sisterly hug with her former assistant. “Hello, Spike. Great to see you again.”

Spike was still overwhelmed by the turn of events, but returned the hug without hesitation. “You too, Twilight. Everything been okay with you?”

“Not bad,” replied Twilight, releasing him from her hold and drawing back to stand on all fours again. “Been a bit hectic lately, what with all this changeling business and everything else; but otherwise okay. Anyway, onto the introductions,” she went on, “Spike, Rarity, this is Hornette. She's the changeling I was telling you about last week.” She promptly gave the young interloper a discreet nudge with her right elbow; “Say hello, Hornette.”

Hornette gave a timid squeak in reply, hardly daring to make eye contact. Quickly forgetting himself, Spike politely held out a claw for her to shake; but only succeeded in making her flinch nervously.

“Go on, Hornette,” encouraged Twilight softly, “he's not gonna bite.”

Still as alert as a kitten approaching a bulldog, Hornette nervously shuffled out from behind her meat shield and edged her way over to the big purple reptile. After what seemed like an age to Twilight and Locomotion, she finally came close enough to extend her front hoof and rest it in the palm of his claw, silently bracing herself for whatever he was about to do – but the last thing she expected was for him to give it a gentle squeeze. Cautiously, she cast her gaze upwards, and was even more surprised to notice a welcoming if slightly uneasy smile on his face.

“'re not going to hurt me?” she whispered after a lengthy pause.

“Heck, no,” affirmed Spike reassuringly, letting go of her hoof. “Just because I'm a dragon doesn't automatically make me a brute. Sorry I gave you such a scare, by the way,” he finished with a wry grin.

Hornette looked away, mildly ashamed of her skittish reaction.

“It's okay, Spike,” piped up Locomotion. “She was just as scared of me and Twilight when we first made acquaintance with her. Besides, she's probably never even met a dragon before.” He turned to Hornette with an inquisitive expression; “Have you?”

Hornette shook her head. “I was always too scared to even try,” she confided. “I'd heard all sorts of stories about dragons, and...well, none of them were particularly...comforting.”

Spike grinned knowingly. “Not all dragons are like that. Just look at little old me, for example; I'm a dragon, and as far as I'm...”

“Uh...define 'little', Spike?” quipped Twilight, raising an eyebrow.

Only then did Spike realise his faux-pas and remember how much he had grown in the last few years. “Uh...yeah, okay, I retract the word 'little',” he chortled awkwardly. “Still, no-one's ever lost their lives because of me – even if I did come pretty darn close that one time. On the plus side, at least it gave me and Rarity a new meaning to the term 'falling in love' when it was all over.”

Hornette was a little confused as to what the big purple dragon could mean by this, but thought better of asking. At this point, Rarity remembered her manners and gestured inside the boutique; “Tea, anypony?”

“Well, I wouldn't say no,” conceded Twilight cheerfully.

“Just a glass of squash for me, if you have any,” said Locomotion. “How about you, Hornette – just water be fine for you?”

The young changeling pondered for a moment. “Um...actually, would it be okay for me to...try some tea?” she asked shyly.

“Oh, but of course, darling,” smiled Rarity graciously. “Spike, be a dear and put the kettle on, will you?”

“Sure thing, love.” Spike gave her a fond nuzzle and retreated to the kitchen, while the three ponies and their changeling guest made themselves comfortable in the lobby.

As she entered, Hornette inspected her surroundings with awestruck curiosity. The pleasant mix of gold, white and various shades of purple gave it an air of gentile elegance, which almost perfectly matched the beautiful lines of clothing hanging from the racks on one side of the room, patiently awaiting the next customer. A small chest of gemstones sat in the opposite corner, their finely polished facets glowing softly in the sunlight shining through the front windows; and either side of the front door stood a pair of pony-like objects clad in somewhat glamorous sets of saddlery.

“So...this is where you live?” she ventured, silently marvelling at the sheer beauty of the boutique.

Rarity, who had been trying to think of a decent conversation starter all the while, nodded modestly as she sat herself down on her favourite fainting couch. “And where I make all the dresses for my chain of Carousel Boutiques,” she added. “It's nothing all that special really, but...”

Locomotion scoffed dismissively. “Oh, please – first commercial building in Ponyville, one-time Rich's Barnyard Bargains outlet, now a Grade II Listed Building, and you're saying it's 'nothing that special'?!” he retorted. “Really, Rarity, I would have thought you'd be selling yourself a bit more than that.”

Rarity looked slightly put out, but decided not to dignify Locomotion's facetious observation with a response.

“I think it's really nice,” said Hornette earnestly. “It's certainly a lot brighter and more cheerful than my homeland; but then we changelings have never really had boutiques, or even dresses for that matter.” She gazed back at the clothing ranges, a grave frown crossing her face. “Only the higher-ups were entitled to such frivolities.”

“I'm hardly surprised,” murmured Twilight sympathetically, ignoring Rarity's appalled stare.

“You're telling me,” agreed Locomotion bitterly. “And don't even get me started on...” but before he could continue, he was interrupted by a flustered meowing noise, followed by the babbling of an eighteen-month-old foal at play. Looking towards the staircase, he could only smirk in amusement as he saw Opal sprinting into the lobby with a small, playful kirin filly hot on her tail.

Hornette saw them too, and was intrigued by the sight of the strange, furry draconic creature chasing after the white cat. “What's that?” she asked curiously.

“What's what?” quizzed Spike, who had only just returned with their drinks in time to catch the tail-end of the conversation.

“Oh, that'd be Jade Filigree,” explained Twilight. “She's Spike and Rarity's little girl.”

“You...that's your daughter?” gasped Hornette, gazing up at Spike who smiled and nodded proudly. “Oh my gosh! I never knew it was possible for a pony and a dragon to have foals together!” She looked back towards the little green kirin admiringly. “Aww, isn't she the cutest thing?” she cooed, placing a hoof over her chest.

Overhearing the compliment, Jade stopped chasing Opal and turned to face the source of the unfamiliar voice. Her eyes widened with curiosity as she gazed upon the strange black creature sitting next to Locomotion; a creature that resembled something from one of her many story books, but nowhere near as scary or vicious. Slowly, cautiously, she padded over to the creature who unconsciously followed her lead.

“Uh...Jade,” began Rarity, hastily lighting up her horn, “I think you'd better...” but she was promptly cut off as Twilight blocked her levitation spell.

“Let's just wait and see what happens,” she whispered coyly.

Rarity looked back to Spike for support; but Spike just casually stood by and watched with interest, pretending not to notice his wife's anxious gestures. All she could do was bite her lip as she watched her daughter sidle up to the changeling, silently praying that neither would come to any harm.

Taking care not to make any sudden moves, Hornette gently stooped to eye-level with Jade, who reached out a tiny paw. The little kirin's eyes lit up with fascination as she made contact with the changeling's face – it felt tough, but fairly soft at the same time, almost like a linoleum floor tile wrapped in a thin layer of velvet. Gurgling with ecstasy, she stood up on her hind legs and hugged Hornette as tightly as she could. The young changeling responded by scooping her up and cradling her in her front legs, purring and cooing affectionately as she nuzzled the baby hybrid.

Rarity's jaw dropped open in astonishment. “Well, I'll be blessed!” she gasped, barely able to believe her eyes.

Locomotion, for his part, could only look on in admiration at how well Hornette was handling the little filly. “Wow,” he breathed. “I never expected her to be this good with kids.” He listened to her soft purring and Jade's adoring squeaks, completely caught up in the sweetness of their interaction. “Aww, isn't that cute?”

“I'll say,” murmured Spike with a proud smile. “This must be the first time Jade's taken to a complete stranger so quickly.”

“And no mind magic from Hornette either,” put in Twilight knowingly. “So, Rarity, still afraid to let her near your daughter?”

By now, even Rarity couldn't help but smile warmly herself. Her own little filly, friends with a changeling? It was all so hard to believe; and yet, somehow...she believed it. “Not after seeing this,” she remarked softly. “In fact, I think I can safely say that she's all but earned my trust.” It was only then that she noticed something else; “By the way, did nopony ever tell you how impolite it is to stare?” she announced with a broad smirk.

Hornette tore her attention away from Jade with an inquisitive chirp. Peering at her from the foot of the staircase, just around the corner, was a teenaged white unicorn mare with a two-tone pink mane and tail. Her pale green eyes were wide with disbelief, and her jaw quivered as she struggled to find her voice.

Locomotion promptly burst into laughter. “What's up, Sweetie-Belle? Opal got your tongue?!” he joked.

But Sweetie-Belle was so flabbergasted by what she had just seen that she barely noticed him. “ your name Hornette?” she asked breathlessly.

“Uh...yes,” replied Hornette, perplexed. “How did you know?”

“ way!!” exclaimed Sweetie-Belle, clapping a hoof to her mouth in amazement. “So Apple Bloom wasn't joking after all!”

Now it was Spike's turn to laugh. “You seriously think the Element of Honesty's younger sister would pull a fast one on you, Sweetie-Belle? Come on, even I know a changeling when I see one!”

“No, really, Spike,” insisted Sweetie-Belle meekly, “I didn't know changelings could be so...well...”

“Gentle? Benevolent? Conscientious?”

“Well...yes and no,” the white-furred teenager admitted. “I wanted to believe what Apple Bloom had said about her, but know...”

“Yeah, yeah, we know,” interrupted Locomotion, hastily pulling himself together as he realised where Sweetie-Belle was going. “But hey, Hornette's nowhere near as bad as all that,” he added soothingly. “Why else would she be handling your niece so delicately?”

Sweetie-Belle considered for a moment before nodding in thoughtful agreement. “Yeah, I guess I can't argue with that,” she conceded. “So how did you come to meet her, Loco?”

Locomotion smiled meekly and rested a hoof against the back of his neck. “Kinda by accident, really,” he admitted. “You see, it's like this...” and he and Hornette explained about the timberwolf attack in the Everfree Forest.

By the time they had finished, Sweetie-Belle could only gaze upon the young changeling in sorrow and dismay. “Aw, that's so sad,” she sympathised.

“And disgraceful,” put in Rarity feelingly. “I knew Chrysalis was a tyrant, but to her own subjects?! That's even worse!”

“Yeah, no kidding,” agreed Locomotion gravely. “Small wonder she's been having all those nightmares about being abducted in her sleep.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “That's the first I've ever heard about nightmares.”

“It's true. Even before arriving in Ponyville, she kept cocooning herself at night,” confided Locomotion. “It rather got up Uncle Steamer's nose, having to clear up after her every morning, so eventually she resolved to try and manage without.” He frowned sadly and let loose a solemn snort. “In the end, I had to come and comfort her after she woke up screaming. That's how scared she was.”

“ did you manage to cope with it all this time?” questioned Rarity.

Hornette frowned as she stared into space. “I didn't,” she answered sadly. “There was never a time when I could just let loose and feel at peace with the world. Even at home, I was in constant fear of reprisal just because I didn't share the queen's views.”

“Well, if I could have my two cents,” observed Locomotion, “I'd say those bedtime stories might have helped to a degree. Basically, for information's sake,” he explained to the other three ponies and one dragon, “I've been reading her some of my favourite Rodney the Railway Engine stories to help her get off to sleep.”

“Aww, that's really sweet of you, Loco,” remarked Twilight warmly.

Sweetie-Belle nodded in agreement. “Bit weird, yeah, long as it helps her cope.”

“What's so weird about it?” retorted Locomotion, slightly offended.

“Nothing!” began Sweetie-Belle, taken aback. “I just thought...what age are you, Hornette?”

“Who cares?” scoffed Locomotion before Hornette could answer. “There's no such thing as 'too old' with Rodney. Besides, when do you ever catch me saying you're too old to be owning dolls?”

Sweetie-Belle opened her mouth to reply, but quickly shut it as she realised just how right Locomotion was. Perhaps, she decided, it would be best to change the subject; but before she could, Rarity spoke up in a sing-song tone – “IDEA!!”

Locomotion perked up. “What?”

“Uh...Rarity,” began Twilight cautiously, “don't you think this is a bit too soon to be trying dress designs?”

To everypony's surprise, Rarity laughed dismissively. “Who said anything about dresses? I'm simply offering to make a bespoke doll for this fine young changeling to call her own.”

“Oh yeah!” said Sweetie-Belle, her eyes lighting up in sudden realisation. “Yeah, that's not such a bad idea, sis.”

Hornette cocked her head in confusion. “What's a...doll?” she wondered aloud.

Sweetie-Belle shot her a look of disbelief. “Have you seriously never played with dolls before?”

“No. I've never even heard of them before now.”

The white-furred teen smiled understandingly, and proceeded to explain; “They're basically little plush figurines that you can play with, or cuddle up to at night, or just put on display. I've got a whole collection of them at home.”

“Yeah, I was gonna ask,” put in Locomotion curiously, “do you still have that rag doll Rarity made for your birthday one year? The one with amethyst cabochons for eyes?”

“Oh, yeah, Cindy,” affirmed Sweetie-Belle fondly. “Yeah, she's way too special for me to give away. She protected me from nightmares when I was just a filly. Maybe yours might do the same for you, Hornette.”

“You reckon?” asked Hornette hopefully.

“'s worth a try,” offered Rarity. “If you want, you could help me make it as well. I'd be very happy to teach you.”

Hornette paused for a moment to consider. “ that case,” she conceded with a small nod.

“Smashing! Then let us head up to my workroom at once!”

Chapter 10: Alas, Poor Thorax...

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Rarity was as good as her word. After helping Hornette choose the colours and fabrics she wanted, she carefully guided the young changeling through the process of cutting the material to the right shape and size before showing her how to stitch on the eyes, mane, tail and other features. Occasionally, Twilight and Locomotion would chip in and offer their own advice; but for the most part, they simply sat to one side with Spike, Jade and Sweetie-Belle to watch them work.

Hornette was uneasy at first, but quickly got the hang of the cutting and stitching, and even began to enjoy herself. Only when it came to the final assembly did her anxiety catch up with her.

“Are you sure you don't want to try your hoof on the sewing machine?” asked Rarity.

“Uh...I'd rather not, if that's okay with you,” answered Hornette as tactfully as she could. “I don't really trust that thing.”

Rarity nodded kindly. “Alright, darling, I'll take it from here. You go and chat with Loco and Sweetie-Belle for the time being. I'll let you know when it's done.”

With a polite nod of her own, Hornette left the white-furred unicorn to her own devices and went to join the others. Sweetie-Belle, who had just finished sharing something amusing with Locomotion, greeted her with a friendly smile. “How's it going, Hornette?”

The young changeling returned the smile in kind as she sat down next to them. “Seems to be going okay,” she replied doubtfully, “but then I've never really sewn before, so I wouldn't know.”

“Well, you've sure done a better job of it than I ever could,” observed Sweetie-Belle. Despite her earlier apprehensions, she was really starting to like Hornette. “I'd hardly have guessed that was the work of a novice.”

“Yeah, she's nothing if not a fast learner is Hornette,” mused Locomotion. He turned his attention back to Opal, who was now dozing on Rarity's bed; “And you are a fluffy little animal,” he added in a babyish tone of affection, gently stroking her.

Opal purred softly as she stirred in her sleep. Normally she was very particular about being touched by anyone other than Rarity or Fluttershy; but Locomotion, being the cat person he was, was one of the few exceptions.

“I do feel kinda sorry for you, though,” went on Sweetie-Belle, her voice taking on a more sombre tone. “Living such a harsh life, being reviled just for having a's a miracle you still haven't let go of that.”

“Yeah, it wasn't easy growing up under Chrysalis,” sighed Hornette, her smile fading. “I wasn't even allowed a name until Loco found me...”

“Weren't you?” interrupted Spike, taken aback.

“No. The only identity I ever had was a number.”

Spike arched an incredulous eyebrow. “That's kinda weird,” he remarked. “Thorax never mentioned anything about not being allowed a name.”

“ know Thorax?” asked Hornette, her eyes widening in her bewilderment.

Twilight nodded solemnly, thinking back to the only other changeling she had ever befriended thus far. “Alas, poor Thorax – we knew him well, Hornette. A fellow of infinite conscience, of most excellent compassion...”

Locomotion looked up, perplexed. “Who the hay's Thorax?” he quizzed.

“He was another changeling whom we bumped into in the Frozen North, only a month after Flurry Heart's birth. He was kinda like Hornette in as much as he wanted actual friends rather than to steal love from other creatures,” explained Spike. “I kinda felt sorry for him once I'd gotten to know him a little, and tried to help him integrate with the Crystal Ponies. One thing led to another, I managed to convince them that Thorax wasn't so bad as they first thought, and eventually he was granted a permanent citizenship.”

“Yeah, but hold the coal train a minute there, Spike,” Locomotion cut in, “why would Cadance and Shining Armour be so lenient towards a changeling of all creatures?!”

“Well...Princess of Love, what more do you want?”

“That's not the point!” insisted Locomotion. “Those two had every reason to hold a grudge against them, however misguided – and now you're telling me they let this Thorax geezer off completely scot-free while Hornette has to wait a whole two months for the same privilege! How is this even fair?!”

“Well, hang on, Loco, that's not entirely true,” interjected Twilight. “None of us believed Spike's story at first, Shining Armour least of all, and we were even less convinced when Thorax broke his own cover. It wasn't until Spike defended his honour that we started to warm to him.”

Locomotion opened his mouth to reply; but quickly stopped himself when he realised what Twilight had just said. “Seriously?” he asked after a short pause.

“Yeah; and even then, we were legally obliged to put him on the same two-month parole. To be honest, I never expected my own brother and former foalsitter to go ahead with it either.”

“Wait – your brother is...Shining Armour?” exclaimed Hornette, aghast.

“And Cadance used to foalsit me when I was young,” affirmed Twilight gravely. “It was on the day of their wedding that Chrysalis chose to invade.”

The young changeling looked down at the floor, raising a hoof to her mouth as she choked back a gasp of dismay. “Oh, Twilight,” she faltered, “I'm so sorry. I never realised...”

“Hey,” soothed Locomotion, resting a reassuring hoof on her shoulder, “don't feel bad, Hornette. Sure, Twilight was actually there to witness it – heck, she even come face to face with that...that...that scorpion; but does she hold it against you just because of her?”

Cautiously, Hornette turned her attention back to the lavender-coated alicorn, who gave a soft smile and a solemn shake of her head in response. “If anything, I'm more upset with Chrysalis herself than I am with the other changelings. It wouldn't be fair to take it out on someone like you.”

“Exactly!” put in Locomotion. “You're both the same species, you both look...fairly similar,” choosing his words carefully, “but that's all there is to it. In all other respects so far, you're worlds apart from that autocrat.”

Once again, Hornette felt her heart fill with warmth at Locomotion's kindly words of encouragement. She gazed into his eyes with a grateful smile of her own, unable to formulate an intelligible reply she was so touched; a gesture which he unconsciously returned.

It was Sweetie-Belle who finally broke the spell; “Ooh, is this what I think it is?” she remarked slyly. “Loco's getting his first crush?”

Locomotion tore his gaze away from Hornette, visibly mortified. “What...j...I...shut up!” he spluttered indignantly.

“Who would have thought it?” went on Sweetie-Belle, cheekily ignoring him. “I'd always knew there was a filly out there for Loco, but a changeling?”

“Give over, Sweetie-Belle, we're just friends,” snorted Locomotion defensively. “And even if we were...'involved', I'd sooner be on the lookout for a changeling than subject material for a gossip column, eh – Gabby Gums?!”

Sweetie-Belle's smirk gave way to a look of appal as she let out a humiliated splutter of her own, causing Spike and Twilight to burst into laughter. “You had to bring that up, didn't you?” she groused, her face turning a deep shade of red.

Locomotion chuckled triumphantly. “Well, that's what you get for...”

“Oh my gosh!” interrupted Hornette, staring with fascination at Sweetie-Belle. “Oh, that's amazing! How do you turn your face so red so fast?! I thought only changelings could do that!”

Twilight shook her head in amusement. “It's called blushing, Hornette,” she answered plainly, “and it's not exclusive to changelings.”

“Isn't it?”

“Oh, no,” replied Twilight knowingly. "All creatures do that when they feel embarrassment or anger or...or even love...” Her voice faded thoughtfully as she uttered the last few words, her expression turning curious. Could such a bond really exist between a pony and a changeling, she wondered?

“Oh...right,” murmured Hornette sheepishly, shifting her mane to hide her own blush.

“But yeah,” remarked Locomotion, tactfully changing the subject, “from what you've been telling us, Spike, this Thorax guy sure sounds pretty decent. I'd quite like to meet him someday.”

Spike stared wistfully into space, a look of sadness apparent in his eyes. “I'm afraid you've already lost your chance, Loco,” he confessed in a sombre tone. “About five months after gaining citizenship, he decided to travel around Equestria to learn more about friendship. He left the Crystal Empire around mid-May under the pretence of being an exchange student.” A deep sigh followed. “That was the last anypony ever saw of him.”

“What happened?”

“No-one knows. Some say he might have died of exposure somewhere in the Frozen North, others think the Royal Guard might have gotten their hooves on him...there's even a few who think he double-crossed us and is back in the Badlands. Load of trash, if you ask me!” huffed Spike sceptically. “I can't believe Thorax would do anything so treacherous. Nope – for my money, he's probably still out there somewhere, still trying to find his way home.”

“Or maybe the queen has done something awful to him,” murmured Hornette.

“What sort of something?” ventured Sweetie-Belle.

The young changeling shuddered and bit her lip. “I dread to think.”

Twilight was just about to voice her agreement when Rarity finally spoke up; “Et voilà!” she announced triumphantly, stepping to one side and holding out a hoof towards her workbench. “Hornette, my darling, I hereby present to you – your new doll!”

Hornette gasped in amazement, her eyes glazing over and her right hoof covering her mouth as she beheld the result of all their hard work. As per her wishes, Rarity had designed the doll to resemble a one-third scale changeling, even going as far as adding the holes in its legs and a pair of silken blue wings on its back. Its downy plush carapace was a pleasant violet colour, its mane and tail were a pale shade of baby blue that matched her own, and its green sapphire eyes seemed to gaze back at her adoringly, almost as if it were alive.

“Well? What do you think?”

Only then did Hornette manage to find her voice. Her hoof migrated to her chest, revealing a warm, shaky smile on her lips. “She's beautiful,” she breathed softly.

“I had a feeling you'd, her.” Rarity beamed graciously, trying to cover up her near faux-pas. “She's all yours now, darling.”

“But...surely,” began Hornette, a sudden feeling of unworthiness chewing away at her, “there must be some way I can repay you for...”

“Oh, come now, darling,” giggled Rarity in kind dismissal, “you don't owe me a thing. It's been a real pleasure doing business with such a courteous young changeling as yourself.”

Hornette blushed modestly. “Well...if you're sure. But if there's anything I can do in return, then I'd be more than grateful to do so.” She returned her attention to her doll; “It was really kind of you to make her for me,” she added gratefully.

“Well, that's my sister all over,” observed Sweetie-Belle, as Hornette levitated the toy changeling into her arms and nuzzled her lovingly. Her knowing smile changed to a more inquisitive one when the young changeling began to purr again, in the same manner as when she had been fawning over Jade that morning. “Do you changelings always purr like that when contented?” she asked.

Hornette stopped. “Um...yeah, as far as I know. I'm not freaking you out with it, am I?”

“Oh, goodness, no,” Sweetie-Belle reassured her. “I was just kinda curious.”

“I think it's rather cute, personally,” murmured Locomotion, thinking back to when he had tucked Hornette into bed after her first bedtime story. An inexplicable sorrow washed over him as his enthusiastic narration echoed in his head, and he couldn't help but gaze wistfully down at his hooves.

“Something on your mind, Loco?” asked Twilight, concerned. “You seem a little downhearted.”

Locomotion responded with a weary shrug. “Just a little sad that I'm gonna be out of a job is all,” he admitted sullenly. “And I was really enjoying all that storytelling too.”

“What makes you think you have to stop?”

“Well...what's the point in reading some dumb old bedtime story when your audience has a doll to fulfil the same purpose?”

The red-furred unicorn's glum response was met with a sympathetic glance from Hornette. She felt the sorrow in his voice, but couldn't agree with what he had just said. “I don't think Rodney the Railway Engine is dumb,” she answered softly. “I may not know much about trains, but if you hadn't told me all those stories, I'd still be waking up to the same nightmares every night.”

“ still want me to...”

Hornette nodded in reply. “To be fair to Rarity, I really do love this doll,” she continued, briefly turning her attention back to the white-furred unicorn, “and I promise to treasure her for as long as I live...”

Rarity beamed appreciatively.

“...but Rodney and his friends will always have a special place in my heart,” the young changeling finished sincerely. “I owe them a great deal, Loco, and I'd be much happier if you did keep reading about them to me...if you still want to, of course.”

Locomotion was visibly touched by this revelation. Most of his friends knew and supported his love of Rodney the Railway Engine, but nopony outside his family had ever shared that interest to the same extent as him. That Hornette, still a virtual stranger to the mere concept of trains, was embracing his favourite fictional locomotive so quickly was so gratifying to him that it almost seemed too good to be true. “Aw, thanks, Hornette,” he said with a mild stammer. “That means a lot to me – really it does.”

Before Hornette could answer, she was interrupted by the sound of the store bells. Spike heard them too, and peered out into the hallway; “Uh...Rarity,” he asked anxiously, “were we expecting clients at this hour?”

“Oh, goodness, I'd completely forgotten!” muttered Rarity. “I guess I'd better go downstairs and stall them for a bit – somehow, I doubt they'll want to have an item of clothing fitted with a changeling at close quarters.”

“Is it one of our regulars?” interjected Sweetie-Belle helpfully. “Because maybe me or Spike could...”

“Morning, Rarity. I've come for that dress fitting.”

Spike, Rarity and Sweetie-Belle exchanged awkward glances, wondering how best to diffuse the situation; but Locomotion's eyes lit up with delight when he saw the young Pegasus mare who had just entered. “Hey there, sis!” he exclaimed cheerfully, trotting over to share a hug with her.

“Hello, Loco,” smiled the mare, nuzzling the red-furred teenager affectionately. “Not like you to be in Carousel Boutique. What are you doing here?”

“What, am I not allowed to go hang out with my friends every once in a while?!” snarked Locomotion cheekily, and the two ponies chuckled heartily.

Hornette stood to one side, timidly examining the mystery mare. Her Cutie Mark consisted of a wheel with a strange narrow object across it, almost like a stick with a blue flame spitting out from one end; and her freckled face bore the same kindly geniality as Locomotion. She looked a lot like him with her brilliant scarlet fur, but her eyes, mane and tail were more of a chestnut brown in colour, and her bright orange hooves matched the fiery pattern on the underside of her wings.

“Anyway, joking aside,” went on Locomotion, snapping her out of her reverie, “Hornette, this is my older sister Firelli Brazen – Elli for short.”

The mare's eyes widened, but not with the fear that the young insectoid had been expecting. “Oh, so you're Hornette, eh?” she remarked. “Yeah, Mum and Dad had been telling me about how Loco came to your rescue only a couple of weeks ago.” She smiled reassuringly as the changeling gazed ruefully down at her hooves. “Hey, no need to look so sheepish. Twilight told us all about your escape from the Badlands and your search for a new home.”

Hornette perked up slightly. “Did she?”

“Yeah. That was really noble of you,” added Firelli gently, “forsaking your kind like that just because of what savages most of them seem to be. Not that I'd want to tar them all with the same brush,” she finished with a wry chuckle. “I agree with my little brother – even the worst species have to have some good in them.”

“You would!” laughed Locomotion. “You were the one who put those crazy ideas into my head in the first place!”

“You're welcome, Loco,” teased Firelli, playfully ruffling his mane.

Hornette smiled softly as the two siblings continued to banter. At least now, she thought, she could see where Locomotion got his altruistic sense of justice from. “Are you familiar with this...Firelli Brazen?” she whispered to Sweetie-Belle.

“Oh, yeah,” the white-furred teenager replied. “She used to foalsit me sometimes when Rarity and my parents were busy or out of town or whatever. She's only, like...a couple of years older than Loco, but even when she was younger, she was wise beyond her years – and really talented as well. You should hear what she's like with the piano – I'm surprised she's not in an orchestra yet!”

Pianos? Orchestras? Hornette's mind was practically swimming with this influx of new words.

Firelli smiled modestly. “It's only a pastime, really,” she observed. “If I really wanted to play in an orchestra, I wouldn't have taken up that product design course at the Canterlot Academy for Design and Engineering.”

“Yeah, and only a month or so to go before you have to leave,” murmured Locomotion wistfully.

“Speaking of product design,” interjected Rarity, “you said you were here to have your dress fitted, Firelli?”

“When you've got a free moment,” answered Firelli. “I understand if you're busy.”

“That's quite alright, darling. I already finished Hornette's doll long before you arrived.”

“Oh, that's yours, is it?” Firelli gazed at the little plush changeling in Hornette's arms. “And there was I thinking Sweetie-Belle was expanding her collection again,” she remarked wryly.

Sweetie-Belle giggled. “Not this time. Loco says she's been having nightmares about being kidnapped by other changelings, so Rarity offered to make her one to call her own. You know what was really weird, though?”

“Go on?”

“He's been reading some of his Rodney the Railway Engine stories just to help her sleep!”

Locomotion looked away with an awkward blush; but much to his and Sweetie-Belle's surprise, Firelli smiled kindly and wrapped an arm around his withers. “Hey, no need to look so embarrassed,” she soothed. “I think it's really nice of you, sharing your fanfictions with her.”

“Eh?” Locomotion stared blankly for a second, and then emitted a quiet chuckle. “Nah, these aren't fanfictions – just the original stories.”

“Either way, I'm really proud of you for being so thoughtful,” said Firelli softly.

What had started as a mere half-hour visit ended up spanning over several hours as Hornette got to know Firelli and Sweetie-Belle better, and they were soon chatting away like old friends. Even when it was time to shut shop, the two mares were more than happy to accompany the young changeling and her confidante back home.

“Say, Hornette,” ventured Firelli as they reached halfway, “just out of interest, what are you thinking of calling your doll?”

Hornette pondered. “Hmm...I hadn't thought of that. A name would be pretty nice...what would you suggest, Sweetie-Belle?”

“Anything you like,” said Sweetie-Belle. “She's your doll, after all.”

Yeah...she really is, isn't she? Hornette's eyes glazed over with warm gratitude as she gazed back at the doll perched on her back. This had to be the first material gift she had ever received from anyone, let alone a pony – and yet Rarity didn't seem to want anything in return? Surely there must be something, she thought; but promptly set her resolution aside for the time being as she tried to think of a name. “I think I'll call her Prairie.”

Locomotion raised an eyebrow. “Prairie, eh? That' interesting choice of name.”

Firelli laughed heartily. “Wow,” she commented, “seems your love of trains is really rubbing off on her, Loco.”

“Eh? What have trains got to do my doll?” asked Hornette, confused.

“'Prairie' just so happens to be the nickname of the 2-6-2 wheel arrangement on locomotives,” explained Firelli. “Two wheels each front and back, and six driving wheels in between – and you can thank Loco for teaching me that,” winking broadly at the young changeling.

“Oh yeah? Well, maybe you shouldn't have let me touch your old toy trains when we were foals,” ribbed Locomotion cheekily. “Maybe then I wouldn't be such a big train nut!”

“Wait – you mean Elli's a train enthusiast too?” squeaked Hornette, visibly taken aback.

“Well, not exactly,” said Firelli. “Loco gets it more from Dad and Uncle Steamer than me. But yes, I did have my own train set which I used to share with the others,” she went on, fondly remembering how she and her siblings used to lay whole networks of wooden track across their living room. “Loco was always the best at that sort of thing – double-track main lines, big terminal stations...everything.”

“Yeah, but be honest,” chortled Locomotion, “there's an element of design and engineering in railways as well.”

Firelli rolled her eyes in amusement at Locomotion's playful quip, but pretended not to notice. “Joking aside,” she finished, “I think that's a really sweet name, Hornette. Suits your doll down to the ground.”

“Thanks,” smiled Hornette, shyly averting her gaze as she blushed with pride. No wonder Locomotion looked up to this mare, she thought; she sure had a way of making others feel good about themselves. Just a pity she would have to leave Ponyville so soon...

Steamer was out working an excursion by the time Locomotion and Hornette returned, and wasn't due back until just after midnight, so the two teenagers had the whole house to themselves. Fortunately, the young stallion was no stranger to cooking for himself; and Hornette had to concede that he made a wonderful stir-fry. After dinner, they spent an hour talking quietly and watching one of Locomotion's Rodney the Railway Engine videos until Twilight arrived to renew the suppression spell, and to confirm that Pinkie Pie would be returning on Tuesday evening.

Locomotion was a little worried at that point, because he knew that only left one member of the Friendship Council still to meet Hornette – and he certainly wasn't looking forward to it. He was most relieved, then, when Twilight explained that it wouldn't be happening until after the young changeling had made acquaintance with Pinkie Pie. At any rate, the young stallion soon forgot all about his concerns as he and Hornette reflected on the day's events.

“Your sister sure was nice,” murmured Hornette as she snuggled on the sofa with Prairie. “You're really lucky to have such a lovely pony in your life.”

Locomotion smiled and nodded. “She's everything I look for in an older sibling,” he agreed. “Smart, kind, patient, understanding...practically perfect in every way. I think we'd all love to have somepony like Elli for a big sibling.”

“Yeah,” sighed Hornette, her face taking on a mournful expression as she cast her mind back to their earlier conversation with Spike and Twilight. “I just wish I knew what had become of him.”

A worried frown crossed Locomotion's face. He didn't even need to question whom Hornette was referring to. “I'm guessing you and he were pretty good friends,” he remarked softly.

Hornette nodded wistfully. “Thorax was very much to me what Firelli still is to you. He always looked out for the younger changelings in our hive, and didn't approve of the queen's views any more than I did...” A sad chuckle escaped her lips. “...probably even less! The real irony is that he was of royal blood himself.”

“What? No way!”

“It's true,” affirmed Hornette gravely. “He told me his father used to be a Count, but was stripped of his title by Queen Chrysalis and sent to war. I don't know what happened after that, but it must have really angered Thorax, because he vowed to avenge his family honour. He even encouraged me and a good few others to join up with a secret freedom fighter movement alongside him.” She gazed down at Prairie, fighting back tears and running a hoof through her mane as she held the little doll close to her chest. “But that was years ago. Shortly before I turned ten, he too was forced to attend the queen's annual speech. He didn't turn bad or anything, but it was so heartbreaking to see what he was like when he came back – nothing but a timid, submissive shadow of his old self.”

“I know what you mean,” sighed Locomotion solemnly. “I'd feel the same way if it were Elli.” His expression turned thoughtful. “So...if you were ten at the time, and all that business in the Crystal Empire took place only six years ago...”

Hornette nodded again. “Only a month had passed before he was sent there on a spy mission. Shortly before he left, he confided in me that he would try and seek out the Promised Land. I never saw him again after that.” No sooner had she finished than her eyes widened with sudden realisation. “ old are you?”

“Sixteen as of last April,” said Locomotion, his own eyes lighting up. Both pony and changeling stared at each other in amazement for a few seconds, before blurting out the same sentence in unison; “We're the same age!”

“Wow!” gasped Hornette. “That's...what a coincidence!”

“Yeah,” muttered Locomotion. “You're telling me.” But secretly, his astonishment was tempered by a deep dread as he recalled what Hornette had said when he first met her. None of us were allowed out of our hives until we were sixteen years old, she had told him, and even then we had to attend some patriotic speech thingy. That alone made him realise just how frighteningly close she had come to suffering the same fate as Thorax and many others; if her date of birth had been just a few days earlier, she might never have escaped from the cruel and harsh regime of the dreaded Queen Chrysalis.

The dull chime of the clock tower bell echoed throughout Ponyville as Locomotion sat and gazed out of his bedroom window. After reading Hornette off to sleep, he had initially intended to work on his fanfiction for another hour before turning in himself; but a combination of writer's block and the memory of his earlier conversation prevented him from doing so, and in the end he resorted to sitting around until either some fresh inspiration came to him or his body decided it wanted to rest itself. It was now eleven o'clock, and still he couldn't seem to rid himself of the echoing words inside his head;

“...we knew him well, Hornette...”

“...even the worst species have to have some good in them...”

“...he was of royal blood himself...”

“...for my money, he's probably still out there somewhere...”

“...a fellow of infinite conscience, of most excellent compassion...”

“...maybe the queen has done something awful to him...”

“ knows...”

Locomotion slumped onto his desk with a heavy sigh, unanswered questions prodding at his mind and begging for solutions. Where in the wide, wide world could Thorax be? What had happened to him? Had he really been caught and reprised by Queen Chrysalis? Had the Royal Guard wrongly arrested him? Was he...was he still alive? He couldn't possibly know; but the way things seemed to be going, it was unlikely that Thorax and Hornette would ever cross paths again.

“Alas, poor Thorax,” he murmured sombrely. “It's a shame I never knew him...”

Chapter 11: Secrets and Lies

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The following Tuesday afternoon, Locomotion was shopping for groceries in Market Square. It was meant to be Steamer's turn, but he had been working late the previous night, so the red-furred teenager had had to go out in his place while he looked after Hornette.

Locomotion didn't mind, of course. At least it gave him a chance to stop and chat with his friends; something he hadn't had the time to do since he and Steamer had taken Hornette in. If there was one thing that bothered him, it was that almost every shopkeeper or stall owner he met seemed to have something to say about the young changeling – and very little he wanted to hear. Some were asking if he himself was alright, others were outright discrediting her, and one even wished him luck in a way that sounded as if she knew something suspicious.

Though he tried not to show it, Locomotion found it increasingly annoying, and was glad when he found he had only one more stall left to visit. Why could nopony else just sort their lives out and leave poor Hornette alone, he thought crossly? They didn't even know her, let alone whether she was up to anything malicious, so what right had they to smear her name like that?! But his internal gripe was quickly brought to a halt by three familiar voices from the vicinity of his final destination.

“At least somepony understands her,” he murmured thankfully.

Apple Bloom was in charge of the Apple Family stall that day, and Scootaloo and Sweetie-Belle had stopped by for a friendly chat. Scootaloo was the first to notice him approaching. “Oh, hullo, Loco,” she said cheerfully.

“Hey there, girls.”

“Howdy, Loco,” chimed in Apple Bloom. “Business or pleasure?”

Locomotion smirked wryly as he pulled out his shopping list. “Well, let's put it this way, Apple Bloom – it's always a pleasure doing business with you,” he replied, earning an amused chuckle from the yellow Earth mare. “I'd like a four-pack of apple juice and two dozen Red Delicious, please.”

“Comin' right up. By the way, did ya want some apple fritters?” offered Apple Bloom as she began bagging up his order.

“How much are they going for?”

“Eighty cents a fritter, or three fo' two bits.”

“Ah, well, in that case, I'll take six,” decided Locomotion. “Might as well, considering how much Hornette liked 'em when we were having lunch with you guys.”

“Actually, speaking of Hornette,” piped up Sweetie-Belle curiously, “how is she doing at the moment?”

Locomotion frowned and looked at his hooves. “Not bad,” he answered in an off-hoof tone. “At least Uncle Steamer's not as wary of her as some other ponies I could mention.”

“Such as?”

“Don't ask,” muttered Locomotion, his frustration beginning to bubble to the surface again. “It's always the same blinking story wherever I go – all I want is to get the shopping done and get back home, and all anypony seems to do is come up to me and go 'Oh, you wanna watch out with that changeling, Loco, she's gonna drain you of your love and leave you for dead one of these days'! Honestly, what in the hay happened to the friendly backwater that Ponyville used to be?! That would have been the perfect home for a conscientious changeling who never even deserved...”

“Hey, hey, cool it, Loco,” interrupted Scootaloo, a look of anxiety crossing her face, “you're ranting again.”

“And why not?” went on Locomotion, raising his voice. “Does nopony else even realise just how much they're hurting the poor girl's feelings?! Hornette may be a changeling, but that doesn't make her any less flesh and blood...”

“Loco, fo' ponies' sake, calm down!” bellowed Apple Bloom, cutting him off once again. “Yo' makin' an exhibition of yourself!”

Suddenly realising how edgy he had just been, the red-furred unicorn sighed heavily and began scuffing the ground with shame. “Sorry, Apple Bloom,” he mumbled ruefully. “I'm just so hacked off by all this idle gossip. It's as if I'm the only one who can see the real Hornette – who even wants to see it, for that matter.”

The three mares exchanged sympathetic glances as they took in his words. Locomotion had stood up for them several times in the past, especially with Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon; but at least he had other ponies to back him up in their case. With Hornette, it seemed he was quite right – aside from close family and the Friendship Council, the only thing anypony else seemed to see in her was yet another threat to Equestria.

“Well...I do, for a start,” said Scootaloo at last.

Locomotion rolled his eyes, unconvinced. “Yeah, right – you'd probably chew her out as soon as look at her.”

“No, really, Loco, I'm serious!” insisted Scootaloo. “I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm a little apprehensive about meeting this Hornette, but neither Sweetie-Belle nor Apple Bloom have had a bad thing to say about her, so why should I? That's more Dash's shtick than mine.”

“I'm guessing she's none too happy about the whole thing,” surmised Sweetie-Belle.

Scootaloo nodded gravely. “Yeah, she's been griping about it non-stop since Twilight told us two weeks ago. I guess she still hasn't gotten over the whole Canterlot invasion malarkey.”

“I'm surprised you have,” said Locomotion dubiously. “Honestly, what happened to the single-minded Rainbow Dash fangirl?”

The orange-coated filly chuckled almost derisively. “Aw, please!” she retorted with a smirk. “Just because I look up to Rainbow Dash doesn't mean I side with her all the time. Remember that Applewood Derby a few years back?”

“Uh...I think so. What, did you seriously fall out with her back then?”

“Yeah, sort'a. It was only meant to be us three with our sisters' help, but then they got all carried away and started taking full control over the whole thing.”

“You were probably away in Manehattan at the time,” put in Apple Bloom.

Locomotion could only nod wryly in response. “Yeah, 'cause Rail-Con fell on the same weekend,” he recalled. He turned back to Scootaloo with an almost plaintive expression; “But seriously, Scoot, you wouldn't joke about such a sensitive subject...would you?” he all but pleaded with her. “She's seen no end of trouble even before I took her in...”

Scootaloo chuckled again and held up a hoof, silencing the red-furred stallion before he got too carried away. “Loco, it's okay,” she soothed. “I give you my solemn word as a Cutie Mark Crusader that I'm more than willing to give her a shot. Let's just hope me and Soarin can convince Rainbow Dash to do the same.”

At any other time, Locomotion would have chortled lightly at her pledge, given how the three mares seemed to overuse their collective title; but after dealing with so much flak on Hornette's behalf, he found himself welcoming it more than ever. “Thanks, Scoot,” he said quietly. “I guess I kinda needed that.”

“No problem,” smiled Scootaloo. “At least Soarin seems to be warming to the idea, even if it did come as a shock when Twilight told us about her.”

“When are y'all gonna be meetin' up, anyways?” inquired Apple Bloom, who had just finished gathering his purchase.

“Not until the day after tomorrow, according to Twilight,” answered Locomotion, pulling out his wallet. “She said we were to make acquaintance with Pinkie Pie first.”

Sweetie-Belle nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, I can see the sense in that. Give both parties enough time to get used to the idea of meeting up, and gain her a few more allies in the process, right?”

“Yes, that's the whole idea – present Rainbow Dash with an unassailable majority within the Friendship Council, and hopefully, that'll lower her guard.”

“Well, let's just hope it works out.” Apple Bloom paused to count the change Locomotion had laid on the counter. “Yup, thirteen bits an' twenty cents, that's great. Y'all off home then, Loco?”

“Yep,” affirmed Locomotion, already feeling much happier as he packed his goods into his almost full saddlebag. “See you later, girls; and thanks for your reassurance.”

“That's okay, Loco,” said Sweetie-Belle. “Say hi to Hornette for us.”

Locomotion promised he would, and ambled away with a small, grateful smile on his face. So what if Rainbow Dash was going to be so difficult about the whole issue, he thought optimistically – at least Scootaloo and potentially Soarin would stand up for Hornette when they met her. But his good mood was all too soon cut short when he noticed something black up ahead.

“Oh, D-rat!” he growled with anguish. “You just had to pick the most convenient time, didn't you?!”

Sure enough, Diesel was at the end of the road, talking with an unfamiliar green Earth stallion. Neither pony seemed to be paying much attention to what was going on around them, but Locomotion was taking no chances; thinking quickly, he bolted towards a nearby alley as quietly and as swiftly as he could, trying not to arouse suspicion. Once he was hidden away between the buildings, he cautiously looked over his shoulder, only to find the alleyway almost empty. With a sigh of relief, he continued on his way – but no sooner had he left the alley than...

“Well, well, well, if it isn't the changeling tamer I met last week. And how are we this fine day?”

Locomotion cursed inwardly, but tried not to lose his patience as he walked right past the shady black Pegasus. “Not now, Diesel,” he said sternly. “I'm very busy right now, so if you'll excuse me, I'll be on my way.”

Diesel continued to shadow him. “Oh, but surely a gentlecolt like you would at least make a little bit of time for his friends?” he prodded innocently.

Not for you, at any rate, thought Locomotion, gruffly staring straight ahead and pretending not to notice. All he wanted was for this obnoxious pony to get off his case and leave him alone.

“Or is this to do with that little pet changeling of yours?”

Locomotion spun round sharply. “Excuse me?!” he snapped. “Hornette is not my 'pet', thank you so very blasted much! She is her own person, and she is entitled to make her own choices!”

“Ah, but do you think that's wise? We all know what changelings are really like,” went on Diesel cryptically. “Sure, she says she wants safe haven, but who's to say she won't get bored of living in this sedentary town? What's stopping her from moving out and leaving you behind for good?”

The red-furred unicorn frowned and looked away. As much as he hated to admit it, Diesel had a point – maybe Hornette wouldn't think of Ponyville as her true home. Maybe she would indeed pull up her sticks again, and set off in search of the Promised Land she had so often dreamed about in her youth. The mere notion almost brought a mournful frown to his face; but he only just managed to compose himself. “Oh yeah? And what's stopping you from finding a job here like you said you were?” he retorted.

“Oh, please, I have all the time in the world for all that rubbish,” said Diesel, as if he couldn't care less. “Besides, somepony has to look out for the likes of you, knowing what dangers these overgrown bug ponies can pose.”

The only response he elicited from Locomotion, however, was little more than a dramatic eye-roll and a mutter of, “I don't have time for this,” as he stomped huffily onwards. But Diesel wasn't finished yet – just as Locomotion had advanced a few yards, he uttered something that made the red-furred stallion's blood run so cold that he might as well have been an iceberg:

“Deary me, Locomotion, you're even more blasé than I thought.”

Locomotion stopped again, his heart skipping a beat. “How do you know my name?” he demanded, with more strength than he felt.

“Now, now,” goaded Diesel, “no need to look so surprised. I should think there are very few ponies who don't know about you, and your incredible achievements – oh, but where to begin?” he continued furtively. “How about...learning to drive an express train at the age of six? Or maybe giving a bigoted principal at a school in Manehattan a much-needed dressing down? Such marvellous feats on your part, I must say; and so good of that pony at the train depot to tell me all about you.”

“Which pony?”

Diesel smirked broadly. “Why, one of your relatives, I believe – such a polite old brick, and so full of praise for you too. I just wish I could remember his name,” he added, feigning dismay. “Something to do with things that come out of a train...Smokey, I think...or was it Vapour...Cardinal Puff, perhaps...?”

Locomotion's eyes narrowed as he listened to Diesel rambling on. Somehow, he had a nasty feeling who he was referring to...

“...he said what?!”

“That's right,” affirmed Locomotion grimly. It was late in the evening, and he, Hornette and Steamer had had their dinner ages ago. “For whatever reason, Diesel seems to know all there is to know about me – even some of my lesser known achievements. And apparently you were the one who told him about them.”

“I did nothing of the sort!!” spluttered Steamer indignantly. “I've never even met him before – and even if I had, do you seriously think he'd get anything out of me?”

“And you're absolutely certain you didn't mistake him for somepony else?”

“Of course I am! The only pony I spoke to last night was Max; and even then we were more focussed on the Special Train Notices than family and friends!” insisted Steamer defensively. “Get Twilight to probe my mind if you don't...”

“That won't be necessary, Steamer,” interrupted Twilight, who had arrived only a quarter of an hour ago to refresh Hornette's suppression spell. “I've already had a report from Flash – apparently, No. 2 Section of the 1st Pegasus Platoon sighted a pony in Sweet Apple Acres last night who matches Diesel's description.”

Steamer perked up. “When exactly?”

“About the same time you returned; and Superintendent Max Pressure confirms that no such pony was seen around the depot at any other time.”

Locomotion's eyebrows straightened. “So Diesel really was lying all along. I thought as much,” he muttered gruffly to himself.

“Yeah, but what I don't understand is how he learned so much about you in the first place,” said Steamer, too confused and anxious to feel relieved at his own exoneration. “I mean, Horse Junction was all over the papers, but mastering 'City of Cloudsdale' so young? Hardly anypony knows about that outside of close family and friends.”

“Yeah, and the whole business with me and the Crusaders taking Principal Cinch down a peg or twelve,” added Locomotion, staring at Twilight. “I thought you'd hushed it all up during the tribunal.”

Twilight nodded gravely. “All the accounts you gave me from that day were classified to protect your reputations and identities. And yet,” she observed, arching a dubious eyebrow, “somehow, that information – and much more besides – has found its way into the wrong hooves.”

“Well, I don't like it. Whatever this Diesel punk is up to, there's no way it can be anything good if he's prepared to filch info on me.” The red-furred unicorn gazed out of the window, trying to make sense of this disconcerting enigma. “I wouldn't be surprised if he turned out to have a criminal record or something.”

“That's just it, Loco,” went on Twilight. “I've already had a reply from City Hall, Whinneapolis, and they don't have so much as a scrap of information on an Electro Diesel – no criminal records, no medical insurance number...not even a close match in terms of appearance.”

“So what, you think he might be some kind of spy?”

“Quite possibly – but obviously not from Royal Intelligence, otherwise I'd have had it in writing from Princess Celestia ages ago.”

“Well, why not just raid his house and bring him back to the castle for interrogation?” asked Steamer, agitated.

“Easier said than done,” said Twilight, shaking her head. “We don't even have his address; and even when we try arresting him in public, he manages to evade us every time.”

“So we can't even issue a restraining order on him?”

“I'm afraid not, Loco. All we can do is consult with the main records office in Canterlot and see what they come up with; but frankly, I'm not holding my breath,” finished Twilight doubtfully.

Locomotion gazed at the floor with an uneasy frown. “Well...thanks, Twilight. I guess I'll see you tomorrow, then.” He watched unhappily as his uncle showed Twilight to the front door, the memory of his earlier clash with Diesel eating away at him like a woodlouse on a fence post. Only when Steamer returned to the dining room did he finally voice what was on his mind. “Cripes, Hornette's gonna find this very reassuring – I don't think,” he muttered glumly, his voice heavy with irony.

“Yeah, I'm really starting to hate that guy,” agreed Steamer. “I'll be glad when Twilight does manage to shed a bit of light on the whole thing.”

“You and me both, Uncle,” sighed Locomotion, turning his gaze towards the stairs. “Anyway, I'm gonna go see how Hornette's doing. She'll want to know what we've been discussing.”

Steamer nodded understandingly as his nephew trotted past. “Alright then, Loco. I'll take care of the washing up.”

“Thanks, Uncle Steamer.” The red-furred unicorn made his way upstairs, still brooding over how Hornette would take the news – but just as he was about to knock at her door, he became aware of a sombre melody coming from the other side. Puzzled, he surreptitiously undid the latch and, as the door quietly swung open, he peered curiously into the room; only to be awestruck by what he saw. Hornette was leaning against the window sill, singing quietly up at the moon. Her voice was soft and delicate, like the gentle touch of a mother's hoof, and the words she sang flowed with all the emotion of a Disney heroine longing to find her place in the world.

Locomotion looked on, transfixed. He had never heard anything so solemn and melodic since hearing Sweetie-Belle sing for the first time. Only when Hornette finally fell silent did he find his voice. “Wow,” he breathed admiringly. “That was beautiful.”

Realising that she was no longer alone, Hornette gazed over her shoulder with a humble half-smile. “An old friend sang it to me once,” she explained. “I was at a really low ebb, almost ready to give up my quest for the Promised Land; but she encouraged me never to lose faith, and to keep following my dreams.” She returned her gaze to the window with a distant look in her eyes. “Sometimes, when I'm feeling low, I like to sing that very same song to try and keep my spirits up,” she went on, “to remind myself that there's still hope for creatures like me.”

“And quite right too,” agreed Locomotion softly. “I'm kinda surprised I never heard you sing before, though.”

Hornette smiled ruefully. “I was usually alone when I did. Queen Chrysalis never allowed it back home. Do you really like it?” she ventured.

Locomotion nodded without hesitation. “I get a bit...irritated if anyone sings the slightest bit out of tune; but you sounded like a true professional,” he said. “Heck, you could probably put even the likes of Coloratura and Lavender Rhapsody to shame with that voice of yours!”

Despite having no idea who Coloratura or Lavender Rhapsody were, Hornette could only blush with pride; but her smile faded again as a disheartening thought occurred to her. “Loco,” she stammered, hanging her head and averting her gaze, “do I ever...intimidate you?”

“Eh? Of course not,” objected Locomotion. “Well...apart from that one time when I first laid eye on you, that is,” he added lamely, “but only because I didn't know what to expect. Why do you ask?”

“Because of what Diesel had been saying,” replied Hornette gloomily. “What if he's right about me being a danger to you ponies? What if I really am just a spy?”

Locomotion's perplexed gaze gave way to a look of gentle reproach. “Have you been eavesdropping on us?”

“I didn't mean to. I was just so worried when you said you bumped into him earlier.”

But far from the stern admonition she was expecting, Locomotion just smiled wryly. “That's okay, Hornette. Truth be told, I've been guilty of that sort of thing myself once or twice – particularly when I think others are talking about me behind my back. Besides, I'd have an easier time believing you'd been banished than sent up here as a spy,” he went on feelingly. “Diesel's just trying to muck us about, trying to make us question our trust in each other.” He allowed himself a small smirk as he stared out of the window, almost expecting to see the shady black Pegasus hovering outside. “At least we have a princess and some memory scans to back up our case.”

Hornette managed to smile weakly at this. “Yes, I'd forgotten all about that,” she remarked quietly. “Speaking of Twilight, what did she find out about him?”

Locomotion's smirk changed to a worried frown. “Well...only that my earlier hunch about him not being from Whinneapolis was correct – but other than that, nothing,” he confessed. “We don't even know if he's had any past convictions.”

“Is there any other way we can find out?”

“Only by searching through the Canterlot records office; and even that could take several weeks...or even months.” Seeing the look of uncertainty in Hornette's eyes, Locomotion leaned forward and patted her shoulder comfortingly. “Don't you worry, Hornette. Whatever Diesel's up to, we're sure to expose him yet – and if he thinks he can waltz up and start playing the fool with us one more time, I'll be more than happy to give him something to 'play the fool' with.”

The smile returned to Hornette's face as she took in his words of reassurance. “Yeah, I guess you're right,” she conceded. “I guess I should be grateful to have such friends as you and Twilight.”

Locomotion smiled back, but only briefly. “Just one thing, Hornette...” he added hesitantly, not wanting to strike a raw nerve, “...if you ever do decide to move on...”

“Eh? Why should I?”

“Because of your wish for this so-called Promised Land. I don't wanna stop you trying to find it, but if you won't forget me, will you?”

Hornette couldn't be certain, but she could have sworn she heard Locomotion's voice starting to crack as he spoke. Her instincts took over, and after quickly checking that nopony else was looking (she wasn't sure why), she took his front hooves in hers and gazed sincerely into his eyes. “After all you've done for me, Loco,” she whispered, “I don't think I ever could. I don't even know if I'll be leaving anytime soon – at least not as long as I pass my probation.”

“Won't you?” asked Locomotion, perplexed. “But I thought...”

The young changeling cut him off with a wistful nod. “I still do,” she affirmed, “but none of my kind really know where the Promised Land is. It could be anywhere in the world...” chuckling slightly as an unlikely thought occurred to her, “...goodness knows it might even be here in Equestria.”

I sure hope so, thought Locomotion, forcing a small chuckle of his own as he returned her gaze. Very rarely had he found himself parting ways with a close friend in the past, and the young changeling was growing to be the best he had ever had; indeed, the mere notion of Hornette settling down in Ponyville for good warmed his heart like fire in an engine's boiler. But at the same time, a small part of him was a little afraid that she might yet change her mind – and if so, what were the chances she would forget about him?

“Well, you could be right,” he mused, quietly shunting his woes into a lonely siding at the back of his mind. “ want your story? It's nearly nine o'clock.”

“Oh...yes please. Just let me use the bathroom, and I'll be right back.” With a cheerful smile of anticipation, Hornette went to clean her teeth and brush her mane while Locomotion trotted off to his own room, still deep in thought.

Despite his anxiety about Diesel, Locomotion at least managed to get a mediocre night's rest. He was still a little perturbed when morning came, but tried not to let it distract him as he began making breakfast; hopefully, he told himself, a hearty chat with Pinkie Pie might help them forget their troubles.

But when he and Hornette left for Sugarcube Corner, the red-furred teenager found himself on tenterhooks again. Due to an important audience, Twilight had been unable to escort them to the bakery that morning, so they had agreed to meet her there instead. Secretly, Locomotion wasn't the least bit comfortable with this arrangement – even with Twilight accompanying them, Hornette had been receiving more than her fair share of cold stares, but Celestia only knew what could happen now that they were on their own. Not wanting to worry Hornette as well, he attempted to make small talk with her in a bid to soothe his nerves.

“Hornette,” he ventured, “just out of curiosity...when you think of the Promised Land, what do you imagine it as?”

The young changeling giggled wryly. “What else?” she replied. “A land of peace and harmony, where all creatures can live their lives as equals – ponies, changelings, griffins...even the more vicious kinds like bears or dragons.”

“And the wildlife?”

“Lots of lovely meadows and woodlands, with all kinds of cute little animals.”

“Does it have railways?”

“Um...probably,” decided Hornette with a soft smile. “To be honest, no such thought had ever crossed my mind before I met you.”

Locomotion let out a light chuckle. “Yeah, 'cause you never had them out in the Badlands, did you? And no wonder,” he added, seeing Hornette shake her head in response; “from what I've been told, you'd be lucky to find enough water to keep the engines going, let alone coal or firewood.”

“It's a miracle we even had enough for ourselves,” agreed Hornette. “You're the lucky ones, Loco, having such a lush, cool climate and so much sustenance around you.”

“Yeah...very lucky indeed,” sighed Locomotion, gazing thoughtfully up at the sky. Hornette sure wasn't wrong, he thought – with the description she had given of her old homeland, he didn't fancy his chances of ever visiting that...dreadful place, especially not as long as Queen Chrysalis was in power. But what would happen when she finally passed away – if ever? Would the next king or queen rule with the same iron hoof as she was doing now? Or would they realise the effects of her tyranny and attempt a reform? And more to the point, who would succeed her? Thorax would have been an appealing candidate were he still around; but then again, given what Spike and Hornette had told him, he was probably out of the question already...just like a certain other pony he used to know...

“Loco? Is something wrong?”

“Eh?” Locomotion quickly snapped out of his reverie to notice Hornette gazing at him with deep concern. “Oh...nothing,” he murmured awkwardly. “Just kinda drifted off in thought, that's all.”

Hornette cocked her head with anxious curiosity. “What were you thinking about?” she asked.

Locomotion fell silent again. He didn't want to hide anything from her, but at the same time, he didn't feel too comfortable sharing these particular thoughts. If anything, he felt far too much pain in his heart to make them known to anyone, let alone a young changeling whom he had only...

“Hey, Loco,” a casual voice interrupted his mental quandary.

The red-furred stallion turned his head, perplexed – and was pleasantly surprised when he saw the source of the voice. “Oh, hullo, Surfie,” he remarked. “What are you doing here? I thought you were at summer camp.”

“'Surfie'?” Hornette followed Locomotion's gaze to notice a pink pre-teen unicorn filly trotting across the road towards them. She was smiling cheerfully as she approached, but this was replaced with a look of deep disappointment the moment Locomotion mentioned the words 'summer camp'.

“They had to cancel at the last minute because of a forest fire,” the filly explained unhappily. “I only found out when my train arrived at Trotley Ferrers.”

“Oh...I'm sorry to hear that,” answered Locomotion sympathetically. “But hey, at least now you get to meet Hornette in person,” he added, trying to lighten the mood.

“Oh, what, the changeling?” asked the filly, perking up.

“Yep, that's the one,” affirmed Locomotion, and cocked his head towards the young insectoid.

The filly smiled again, and held out a hoof for Hornette to shake. “Nice to meet you, Hornette,” she said politely. “I'm Surfing Star – call me Surfie.”

“Hi,” replied Hornette, shyly accepting.

“So how have things been with you, Loco?” went on Surfie.

“Not too bad, all things considered. It's all been a bit hectic, what with looking after Hornette, helping her to settle in – even introducing her to the Friendship Council as per the terms of her probation.”

“Oh right?” said Surfie, interested. “How come they wanted to introduce themselves so soon?”

Locomotion raised a hoof to his chin as he pondered the question. “Do you know, I never really thought to ask,” he observed. “Maybe I'd better bring it up with Twilight; she promised to meet us at Sugarcube Corner this morning.”

“Oh, well that's convenient,” mused Surfie. “I'm headed that way myself, to discuss my birthday party plans with Pinkie and the Cakes.”

“Oh, right...” but Locomotion quickly broke off as a sudden realisation struck him. “Aw, cinders and ashes,” he cursed himself in dismay, “I completely forgot!”

“Eh? What's the problem?” wondered Hornette, confused.

“Surfie's gonna be turning thirteen on the 28th of this month,” explained Locomotion. “I promised her I'd be attending her birthday party, but I'm not sure that's gonna happen now.”

“Why not?” quizzed Surfie. “Are you on duty that night?”

“No, I haven't been anywhere near the sheds for nearly three weeks now. It's just...I don't know if I dare leave Hornette in the house on her own,” not even bothering to explain why, “but I'm just as worried she might not be able to cope with so much company – if you follow my meaning.” He frowned and furrowed his brow, trying to think of a quick and easy solution. “Perhaps if I asked Fluttershy or Miss Cheerilee...”

“You don't need to, Loco,” soothed Surfie before Locomotion's anxiety could get any worse. “If it's any help to you, I'd actually quite like to see more of her at my party. And don't worry about the crowds; we'll make sure she feels safe and welcome.”

“You will?” asked Hornette tentatively.

“Of course we will,” smiled Surfie. “Twilight told us all about you. We'll try not to take you out of your comfort zone, I assure you.”

The only response Hornette could manage was a shaky smile of gratitude. Locomotion's family may not have known her, she realised, but they sure were being lenient towards her – maybe more so than she deserved. She wanted to say something, but before she could even think of a suitable verbal response...

“Aww, what a sweet sight – so sweet it's giving me toothache.”

Locomotion swung round sharply, only to let out an exasperated sigh when he saw who had just spoken. “Ugh, not you again,” he groused. “What do you want this time?”

Diesel cocked an eyebrow, feigning ignorance. “What?” he objected. “Can't a pony enjoy a morning stroll and a cup of coffee without being lambasted by random strangers?”

“Not if they've been hounding said 'random strangers' for a week,” retorted Locomotion, scowling bitterly at the strong stench radiating from Diesel's paper cup. He hated the smell of coffee; but espresso, in his mind, was the worst of all.

Surfie, who had been warily eyeing the oily black Pegasus, turned her attention back to Locomotion. “You know this pony?” she asked suspiciously.

“You bet your Cutie Mark I do – and I really wish I didn't...”

“Electro Diesel, a very good friend of Locomotion's,” interrupted the stallion, emphasising his defence through gritted teeth.

Locomotion scowled harder. “Yeah, you keep telling yourself that,” he muttered.

“And what might your name be?” asked Diesel, turning his attention to Surfie and ignoring Locomotion completely.

But Surfie refused to buy into his act. “None of your business,” she replied coldly. “In fact, allow me to answer your question with a question – just what do you have against my brother?”

Diesel looked hurt. “What, me, sink to the level of a common changeling? My dear little filly, I must confess I am dreadfully grieved. Let me see,” he continued, examining her carefully. “Pink fur...braided blonde mane...a flower and some waves for a Cutie Mark...”

“And you can cut out the descriptions as well!” snapped Surfie. “Uncle Steamer warned me about you, Diesel!”

“Ah, so you are related to Locomotion, are you?”

“Yes I am – and if you think you can just prowl around after him on my watch, then you've got another thing coming!” ordered Surfie.

“Yeah, why don't you go pick on somepony your own size?” chimed in Hornette, trying to assert herself for once.

“Like you, perchance?” smirked Diesel, seizing a chance to add fuel to the fire.

“Why me?” protested Hornette. “I'm not the one who's been...”

“We all know what you changelings are like. You say you want to be treated like equals in some Promised Land, but what you really mean is that you're trying to expand your empire and drain us of our love. For all we know, you could be manipulating these two ponies into complying with your villainous plans, trying to lull them into a false...”

“Look,” cut in Locomotion, losing his temper, “are you gonna leave us alone, or do I have to snitch on you with Twilight?!”

This had an immediate and deeply uncanny effect on Diesel. Instead of the obnoxious wisecrack he likely had lined up, he just stared at the two unicorns and their changeling friend with wide eyes full of disbelief. If Surfie and Locomotion didn't know better, they would have sworn his shady façade had begun to wane at this point – if anything, he seemed almost frightened. “As in...the Twilight Sparkle?” he stammered. “The Princess of Friendship? The leader of the Elements of Harmony?”

Locomotion quickly realised he had gained the upper hoof, and took full advantage of it. “And the very same pony who not only granted Hornette her probation, but also has evidence against your 'evil changeling' slander. But even more than that,” he ranted, refusing to allow Diesel to get a word in edgeways, “she has evidence to suggest that the real enemy is an alleged 'Whinneapolitan jobseeker' who has spent less time looking for work and more time stalking me and Hornette. Would it not stand to reason that your so-called 'intellect' on changelings was merely a ruse to distract attention from yourself?! And how come you know all about me when Twilight and the records offices don't even have a birth certificate to prove who you are?!” He narrowed his eyes menacingly before finishing his verbal barrage in a low, threatening tone. “We're onto you, buddy. I don't know what the hay you're up to, but you keep this up one minute longer, and pop goes the Diesel!”

The black Pegasus grinned nervously, trying in vain to maintain a suave demeanour. “Well, uh...circumstances alter cases...I suppose. I guess I'd better leave you to it then,” he replied in an unconvincingly blithe manner. “Good luck with your probation, Hornette – you'll need it,” and he scuttled away without another word.

Surfie shuddered in disgust as she watched him leave. “Ugh!” she spat. “What a nut-job!”

“Tell me about it,” agreed Locomotion darkly. “Diamond Tiara may have been a right creep in the past, but that Diesel is something else.”

“Yeah, but I still don't understand,” said Hornette uncertainly, “why he just backed off as soon as you mentioned Twilight. He didn't even make a fight of it. Don't you think that's a bit...suspicious?”

Locomotion just snorted impatiently. “So what?” he dismissed. “He should know Twilight and the Elements of Harmony are a force to be reckoned with. It was only a matter of time before someone told him that.”

But even as the two ponies led the young changeling onwards to Sugarcube Corner, none of them could realise that Diesel hadn't completely left them alone. He watched from behind a nearby building, scowling hard at Locomotion as he secretly poured his untouched coffee into the gutter.

“Yes,” he muttered sourly, crumpling his cup and throwing it into a nearby bin, “very good luck indeed. So our fugitive changeling friend not only has an insolent young train lover on her side, but a Princess of Equestria and an entire council – all of whom represent...” his scowl hardened still further, “...the Elements of Harmony! Very commendable, Locomotion – it seems I have underestimated you.” He paused, letting his scowl give way to a menacing smirk. “However,” he went on, “it makes little difference. That changeling will break your heart soon enough – and when she does, she will be severely punished.” He said no more, but chuckled quietly and fiendishly as he went on his way...

Chapter 12: Meeting the Elements - Pinkie Pie

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“ this is Sugarcube Corner, huh?”

“That's right,” affirmed Surfie. “Purveyor of some of the finest confections in this part of Equestria...”

“...and the home of Ponyville's premier pink party pony par excellence,” finished Locomotion.

Hornette's mouth watered slightly as she gazed upon the bakery with interest. “Gosh, this Pinkie Pie sure has done a good job with this place,” she mused. “It almost looks good enough to eat.”

Locomotion chuckled lightly. “Well, actually, it was the Cakes who designed it like that,” he said, “and I don't think they'd like that very much.”

“ can cakes design houses?” exclaimed Hornette, bewildered. “Does Pinkie bring them to life or something?”

“No, Hornette!” laughed Surfie. “Loco was referring to the owners – Carrot Cake, his wife Cup Cake née Chiffon Swirl, and their twin foals Pound and Pumpkin.”

“Oh...” Hornette looked away with embarrassment. “...but I thought Pinkie was the owner.”

“Nah, she just lives and works here when she's not hosting parties. In a way, she's kind of like a surrogate daughter to them – speaking of whom...” Surfie said no more as they entered the bakery, but simply gazed around in search of the pony in question.

What they did find was Mr and Mrs Cake busily going about their work, and Twilight waiting patiently at a nearby table. “Hello there,” she greeted cheerfully.

“Morning, Twilight,” replied Locomotion. “Morning, Mr and Mrs Cake.”

“Good morning, Loco,” said Mrs Cake, who had just finished arranging the display counter. “Who's your new friend?”

Locomotion could only chortle inwardly at how unfazed the rotund blue mare seemed – and after seeing a changeling up close to boot! “Oh, that's Hornette,” he answered. “I gather Twilight told you about her?”

“No, but Pinkie did. Something about a changeling fugitive that had been found in the Everfree Forest.”

“Well...I'd rather call her a refugee than a fugitive,” said Locomotion earnestly, “but yeah, that's about the size of it. Where is Pinkie, anyway?”

“She's out running errands for us,” explained Mr Cake, emerging from the kitchen with a batch of fresh cookies. He himself seemed a little uneasy with having a changeling in the bakery; but then, Locomotion quietly reassured himself, he always did have a slightly awkward disposition. “She should be back in a few minutes. Is there anything we can get you in the meantime?”

Locomotion turned to Surfie. “You wanna go first?”

“Oh, sure. I'd like a chocolate chip muffin and a banana milkshake, please – and, uh...when would be the best time to talk birthdays?”

“Whenever suits you, deary,” smiled Mrs Cake. “I discussed with Pinkie on her return, and she's happy to go over your party plans at a moment's notice. Now, Loco?”

“Hmm...” Locomotion let out a light snort of contemplation. “...I think I'll go for a butterfly cake and a carton of apple juice. How about you, Hornette?”

But Hornette could only stare at the vast array of confections on display, a troubled look on her face. “Gosh, so much choice...and they all look so good...” She shook her head in dismay. “...I just can't choose.”

Mrs Cake smiled kindly at the young changeling's indecision. “Tell you what, deary,” she offered, “why don't I choose something for you, and you can decide whether you like it or not?”

“Um...if it's okay with Loco,” murmured Hornette tentatively. “I mean, I don't have any money myself, and I don't want...”

“Oh, don't you worry about that, deary. Since you're new here, you can have yours for free.”

“Eh? You...don't want any kind of payment?”

“Not one cent,” affirmed Mrs Cake graciously.

Unable to come up with a verbal response, Hornette smiled and nodded gratefully as Locomotion and Surfie paid for their own orders. She felt undeserving of such generosity, but remembered how adamant Rarity was about Prairie, and decided not to make a fuss. Even if she did, she wouldn't have gotten very far before being startled by a loud droning noise from upstairs, followed by a sudden crash.

“MOMMA!!” shouted an agitated little filly's voice. “HE'S DOING IT AGAIN!!”

Mrs Cake groaned and clapped a hoof to her face in annoyance. “Pound,” she called sternly, “what did I tell you about dive-bombing indoors?”

Looking upstairs in confusion, Hornette noticed a cream-coloured Pegasus colt at the top of the staircase. He had a toy aeroplane held in one hoof, and was grinning sheepishly. “Sorry, Mom,” he apologised. “Just got a bit carried away, I guess.”

“Yeah, just a bit,” quipped the pale yellow unicorn filly standing behind him, rolling her eyes. “Remind me, Pound, how did I wind up getting a brother as hyperactive as you?”

“Aw, c'mon, Pumpkin, I was only playing Wonderbolts!” protested the colt. “No harm in that!”

“Oh yeah?” retorted his sister. “Then how come everypony look...oh, hey, Surfie,” she promptly interrupted herself, noticing the pre-teen filly and her older brother standing nearby.

“Hello, Pumpkin,” said Surfie, putting on a cheerful face in spite of her dismay at Pound's behaviour. “Been keeping well?”

But before Pumpkin could reply, Pound warily spoke up. “Wait just a minute,” he said, eyeing Hornette suspiciously, “what's that thing doing here?”

“Excuse me?” cut in Locomotion indignantly. “That 'thing' is our new changeling friend Hornette – emphasis on new, so you be nice to her.”

Pound didn't answer; he just continued to glower at the young insectoid, even as his mother shot him a scolding glance of her own. Pumpkin, on the other hoof, gazed upon the new arrival with great fascination. “Wow!” she gushed. “A real live changeling! I'd always wanted to meet one of them!”

“Pumpkin, are you nuts?!” burst out Pound, visibly mortified. “This is a changeling we're talking about, not an Applewood celebrity!”

“What's wrong with that?” quizzed Pumpkin, offended.

“Hello? Changelings feed on love! They're out to take over the world! They want to...”

“What?! No!” objected Hornette frantically. “I'm not here for any of that!”

“Sure you aren't, and we've got parasprites in our backyard(!) You can't fool...”

“That's enough, Pound!” Despite his own uncertainties about Hornette, even Mr Cake wasn't about to stand any nonsense from his son. “You heard what Loco said – be nice!”

“But Dad...”

Locomotion snorted crossly. Pound Cake could be a real handful at times, but this was ridiculous. “Pound,” he interrupted firmly, “would you care to answer me one very simple question?” and without the slightest change of expression, he pointed a stern hoof at the cream colt and began strutting towards him, chanting reproachfully;

Who are you a-shoving of?
Who d'you think you be?
Who are you a-shoving of?
Can't you leave her be...?

Pound backed away, cringing uncomfortably. Surfie only smiled and shook her head in amusement; but Hornette was so taken by surprise that she couldn't avoid bursting into laughter. “What...?!” she spluttered through her giggling fit.

“Alright, Loco,” cut in Mrs Cake, trying to keep a straight face herself, “I think Pound gets the message.”

“I should darn well hope so,” said Locomotion, ceasing his musical barrage, but still eyeing Pound pointedly, “'cause there's way more coming should I hear another bad word about Hornette.”

“Yeah, you tell him!” agreed Pumpkin cheekily.

“Ah, leave him alone, Loco,” soothed Twilight. “It's not worth having a go at him.”

With an awkward grin, but also a feeling of satisfaction that his point had been driven across, Locomotion turned and sat himself down next to the lavender-coated alicorn. “Sorry, Twilight. Guess I just couldn't help myself there.”

Surfie chuckled and winked at the still tittering Hornette. “Yeah, my big brother can be more than a little random sometimes. You get used to it,” she whispered as they took their own seats.

“So,” went on Twilight, “I see Hornette has already met Surfie?”

“Yeah, just as we were on our way down here,” explained Locomotion. “Only downside is,” he added darkly, “she also had the displeasure of bumping into Diesel.”

Twilight frowned. “You had another run-in with him?”

“Yes, about twenty minutes ago. He said he was just out for a stroll, but the way he was trying to get my goat – ugh, I can't believe that!” The red-furred unicorn shuddered in disgust.

“He was having a go at Hornette and getting on my nerves about Loco,” put in Surfie grimly. “If he hadn't mentioned that you were on his side, Diesel would probably still be in our hair even now.” Her brow furrowed; “Weird thing is, as soon as Loco said your name, he just...left. He didn't even try to challenge us.”

“Why worry?” insisted Locomotion. “He can't touch us as long as the Friendship Council are on his trail.”

“I wouldn't be too sure about that, Loco,” said Twilight gravely. “He seems to be buying into your alibi a little too easily for my liking.”

Locomotion opened his mouth to reply, but quickly shut it again as he realised what Twilight was implying. Suddenly, he didn't feel so reassured. “You think I might have told him a bit too much?”

“Quite possibly. I mean, just think – a mysterious Pegasus turns up in Ponyville. Nopony knows a thing about him, yet he knows practically everything about a simple young railway worker and his changeling companion. If he's already gone to such great lengths to filch information on you and Hornette, he'll probably stop at nothing.”

Locomotion nodded grimly in reply; but was soon distracted from his woes again as Mrs Cake came out with their orders, along with a cream horn and a strawberry milkshake for Hornette. Good thing she had been preoccupied the whole time, he thought thankfully, what with Pumpkin being so full of questions.

“Anyway,” finished Twilight, “we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. How have you been getting on, Surfie?”

The pink filly smiled sadly and cocked her head. “So-so,” she replied, “apart from that forest fire destroying the campsite. And I was so looking forward to Camp Everfree too.”

“Never mind,” counselled Twilight. “There's always next year.”

“Yeah...I suppose so. But oh well,” mused Surfie half-heartedly, trying to perk up, “at least that means I can get everything ready for my birthday with Pinkie...when she gets back.”

“You called?”

Almost on cue, a bright pink face seemed to jump out at them from the middle of the table, startling the three ponies and giving Hornette such a fright that she yelped in alarm and lurched back in her chair. Luckily, Locomotion only just managed to grab hold of her before she overbalanced. Still overtaken by shock, he glared at the space between her and Surfie. “What the flabberwocky?!?” he burst out indignantly.

“Pinkie, can you not?” chided Twilight sternly. Slowly gathering her awareness, Hornette followed her gaze to find the practical joker examining her with an innocent look of curiosity. Her bright blue eyes bore an energetic glint, almost mischievous, and her Cutie Mark consisted of three strange blue and yellow objects that looked to the young changeling like blobs at the end of a length of string.

The pink mare giggled in a squeaky voice. “Sorry, Twilight,” she apologised brightly. “Couldn't help myself just then – I heard somepony say my name, and BAM! Here I am!”

Locomotion sighed heavily and looked wearily at his hooves – only to lock up as he realised Hornette was still in his arms! Both pony and changeling promptly sat up again, blushing madly.

“And there's something else as well – I've been getting a new Pinkie Sense combo lately,” continued Pinkie Pie, raising a foreleg. “My knee's been getting all pinchy, but there's an itch round the back of my ear too. You know what that means?”


“It means there's a really scary-looking creature around here who's a lot friendlier than she looks.” Pinkie Pie swung around and assumed a wary, analytical glower; “I'm looking at you, Hornette!”

“No need to be so aggressive, Pinkie,” objected Surfie, taken by surprise. “She's not...”

“Now, now, Surfie,” interrupted Pinkie Pie in a deceptively calm yet slightly patronising tone, “you'll get your say in a minute.” She turned her attention back to Hornette, resuming her mask of apprehension and ignoring the sulky pout on Surfie's face. “So,” she demanded accusingly, “care to explain yourself?”

“I can answer for her character,” began Locomotion. “She's here because...”

“LET THE CHANGELING SPEAK FOR HERSELF!!” Pinkie Pie practically bellowed, almost deafening him.

Hornette winced in discomfort, silently wishing for the ground to open up and swallow her. “I didn't mean any harm, honest,” she whimpered. “I only came here to start a new life...somewhere...where I don't have to steal other beings' love.”

Pinkie Pie's eyes narrowed dubiously, and the young insectoid began to fear for her life – but only for a moment, for the pink mare's face suddenly broke out into a broad, bubbly grin as she announced gleefully, “Then welcome to Ponyville! You are so gonna love it here, Hornette – this is like one of the friendliest towns in Equestria ever...”

Flustered, Hornette turned and gave Locomotion a questioning look as the pink party pony continued to talk at a mile a minute. Locomotion only sighed and shook his head; “And there was I thinking she was on the offensive,” he muttered to Surfie. “I don't think I'll ever understand Pinkie Pie.”

“I don't think any of us will,” sympathised Surfie. “Never mind,” she went on, “at least she's taken to Hornette pretty well.”

An exaggerated gasp caught their attention as Pinkie Pie's face lit up. “I've just realised something, Hornette!” she chattered excitedly. “I've never seen you before; and if I've never seen you before, that means you're new to here; and if you're new to here, then you know what this calls for?”

“NO!!!” burst out Twilight and Locomotion abruptly.

“What do you mean 'no'?!” exclaimed Pinkie Pie, confused. “I was only gonna suggest that she have...”

“We know full well what you were about to suggest, Pinkie,” interrupted Twilight firmly, “and I'm sorry, but it'll have to wait a while. Just as you said, Hornette's still new to Ponyville; therefore, she still needs time to find her hooves here, and the last thing she needs is to be overcrowded.”

“WHAT?!” Pinkie Pie was mortified. “But...but I have to throw her a Welcome Party, Twilight! I HAVE to! It's the law!”

“Technically, Pinkie, I am the law, and I say no!”

“Yeah, but you're not Hornette, are you now?” retorted Pinkie. “How do you know she doesn't want one?”

But Locomotion could see that Hornette was becoming too freaked out to offer her own opinion, and was quick to defend her. “Pinkie,” he said with a severe tone of finality, “I speak for Hornette, and Hornette says 'maybe later'!”

Pinkie Pie opened her mouth to argue further, but was greeted by hard stares from Locomotion and Twilight, along with a more plaintive one from Hornette. “Oh, alright then,” she conceded huffily; “but you gotta Pinkie Promise that you'll take me up on that party offer!”

“No, Pinkie, she does not have to Pinkie Promise anything!” ordered Twilight, her patience wearing thin. “It's her Welcome Party, therefore it's her decision whether she has one or not!”

“And who is gonna plan it for her?!”

“Pinkie, we've all seen what you're like when someone breaks a Pinkie Promise, and Hornette doesn't need that kind of stress in her life right now!!”

Surfie and Locomotion exchanged weary glances of dismay as a noisy argument broke out between the two mares. “I don't know,” sighed Surfie.

Locomotion nodded gravely and turned to gaze at an imaginary camera, pointing towards Pinkie Pie and Twilight as he spoke; “Sad fact of the matter is, fillies and gentlecolts,” he announced to the world in general, “I have to work with these two.”

Almost at once, Pinkie Pie spun around and pressed her face right up against Locomotion's. “HEY! NO FOURTH WALL BREAKING! THAT'S MY JOB!”

“Oh, don't be so greedy, Pinkie!” reproached Locomotion with a slight smirk. “The universe doesn't just revolve around you, you know!”

“I don't care!” snapped Pinkie Pie. “I'm the only one who's allowed to break the fourth wall and do all sorts of cartoon gags and all that stuff! You're just a bumped-up fan character!”

“Oh yeah? Well, I'll be the best 'fan character' to hit the railfan community!” Locomotion shot back facetiously, causing Surfie to burst into laughter. Twilight allowed herself a weak chuckle of her own; but Hornette looked completely baffled.

“Fourth wall? What in the world are they talking about?!” she wondered.

“It's a theatrical term for an imaginary wall between the actors and the audience,” clarified Surfie, pulling herself together. “Pinkie likes to pretend we're some sort of cartoon a lot of the time, and it's kinda rubbed off on Loco a bit.”

“I wouldn't pay it any attention,” put in Twilight before Hornette could even begin to question her own existence. “It's just Pinkie being her usual random self. Even I don't fully understand her, and I've kinda learned to live with it.”

Hornette only nodded thoughtfully in reply.

“Tell you what, Pinkie,” offered Locomotion at last, “if you can Pinkie Promise to wait until Hornette feels ready for a Welcome Party – if she ever does – I'll get Vinyl to give you a spot on the Radio PON-3 Chat Show,” directing a coy wink to Twilight as he spoke. “Sound good?”

Pinkie Pie raised a hoof to her chin and fell silent for a moment. “Well...okay then,” she conceded reluctantly, “but only if I'm paid – in coconuts.”

A round of chuckles greeted this. “Sure, Pinkie,” muttered Locomotion, stifling his own scoff of amusement, “whatever you say.”

“Anyways,” finished Pinkie Pie, “if I can't throw her a party, I might as well do the next best thing...”

“If by that you mean the Welcome Wagon...” began Twilight.

“Not that, silly!” said Pinkie Pie smugly. “I was just gonna go do some baking.” Instantly changing her tune once again, this time to a much friendlier and more generous one, she turned back to Hornette; “Wanna help?”

Hornette blinked. “Who, me?”

“Yes, you!”

“But...but I don't know a thing about baking,” protested Hornette pathetically.

Pinkie Pie giggled. “That's the point, you silly filly – I'm offering to teach you!”

“Hmm...” Locomotion pondered for a moment. “...that's not such a bad idea. Any chance I could join in?” he ventured.

“And me,” chimed in Surfie. “We do need to talk about my birthday, after all.”

“Okey-dokey-lokey!” agreed Pinkie Pie, and bounded merrily away to ask if they could borrow the kitchen.

After some discussion, Mr and Mrs Cake agreed to her plan, and Pinkie Pie began gathering baking trays and ingredients for their baking session, while Twilight and the others stood to one side. Hornette, still full of self-doubt, could only watch in disbelief as the pink mare whizzed back and forth at unbelievable speeds.

“Gosh,” she murmured, almost in a daze, “that Pinkie Pie can fairly move. How on Earth does she do that?”

“Honestly, Hornette,” confided Locomotion quietly, “I don't think we'll ever know the answer to that one. Heck knows, Twilight had a hard enough time trying to work out the secret of her Pinkie Sense.”

“Better to just pretend you understand and leave it at that,” put in Surfie.

Before Hornette could reply, she was cut off by an exaggerated gasp as Pinkie Pie pulled her head out of one of the cupboards. Raising an eyebrow, Twilight piped up; “Something the matter, Pinkie?”

“It's terrible! TERRIBLE!!” wailed Pinkie Pie despairingly. “We were supposed to be making some more muffins, which is why Mrs Cake asked me to go get some fruit and chocolate chips with which to make them, but I was so worked up about seeing Hornette that I got the nuts, but not the other ingredient I needed for some of the muffins...and YES! WE HAVE NO BANANAS!” She collapsed into a sobbing heap on the floor. “We have no bananas today!”

“Well...that's okay,” answered Twilight awkwardly, trying to diffuse the situation. “Just stick to a different variety for now. At least you've got the chocolate chips.”

“Yeah, but I've still got a whole batch of nuts just sitting around doing 'nutting'!” complained Pinkie Pie hysterically. “What am I supposed to do with them if I can't use them in muffins?”

“What about that honey nut cupcake recipe you thought up?” suggested Surfie helpfully.

“I don't even have the honey for that! Nopony mentioned anything about honey!”

This gave Locomotion an idea. He whispered something to Hornette, whose eyes lit up as she nodded her consent. “Say, Twilight,” he remarked, “you know those lab tests you said you were doing?”

“Lab tests?” Twilight looked confused for a moment – but quickly realised; “Oh, those lab tests! Yes, I've given my jarful a thorough check; it should be more than fit for equine consumption. Why do you ask?”

“Because we're gonna need flowers – lots and lots of flowers.” Locomotion winked and cocked his head towards the planters on the window sill. Taking the hint, Hornette opened up the window, carefully drifted through it, touched down in front of the planters, and set to work.

Surfie raised a perplexed eyebrow. “I don't get it.”

“You will – soon enough,” smiled Locomotion knowingly. Already he could see the dull yellow sheen on Hornette's horn growing more and more noticeable with every flower until, after barely a few minutes, it was almost dripping with nectar. The young changeling set her horn glowing again, and both Surfie and Pinkie Pie watched in amazement as the nectar began to change in colour and consistency. As she was doing so, Locomotion found an empty jar and levitated it over to her, winking once again. “You don't need bees when you've got a Hornette,” he quipped to his sister.

It took a while for Surfie to realise what he was talking about; but when at last she did, her jaw dropped open with bewilderment. “Wait a minute – is that what I think it is?”

“Yep – that, sis, is genuine changeling honey in the making!” proclaimed Locomotion, and told her and Pinkie Pie all about Hornette's experiment on Steamer's daffodils.

“Wow!” admired Surfie. “That's well clever, Hornette. You ought to be proud of yourself.”

“Oh,” said Hornette bashfully, a heavy blush on her cheeks, “you're too kind.”

Pinkie Pie dipped a hoof into the jar and took a cautious lick. Her eyes goggled as the taste of the honey registered on the tip of her tongue, and without warning, she flung her arms around Hornette and hugged her tight. “Hornette, you clever little angel in disguise!” she screeched with delight. “I was hoping for a miracle, and now I find I'm getting something WAY BETTER!! THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!!”

“'re welcome, I'm sure,” interrupted Twilight wryly, “but I think you've traumatised Hornette enough, Pinkie. Could we maybe get started with the baking?”


“ trouble at all...I guess?” Hornette didn't know whether to feel proud, humble or flustered; but after helping somepony out of a bad situation, she couldn't stay freaked out for long. In fact, over the top though Pinkie Pie may have been, she was beginning to like this crazy party animal. “So where do I start then?”

Pinkie Pie's eyes lit up once again. She had been looking forward to this all morning, and jovially guided Hornette through the recipe;

All you have to do is take a cup of flour,
Add it to the mix;
Now just take a little something sweet, not sour;
A bit of salt – just a pinch.

Baking these treats is such a cinch!
Add a teaspoon of vanilla;
Add a little more, and you count to four,
And you never get your fill of...

Cupcakes! So sweet and tasty!
Cupcakes! Don't be too hasty!
Cupcakes! Cupcakes, cupcakes, CUPCAKES!"

Understandably for a beginner, Hornette didn't find her baking lessons quite as easy as Pinkie Pie had made them out to be, but she still enjoyed herself. The first batch turned out to be more like caramelised rock cakes than cupcakes, but Pinkie Pie just laughed and reassured her that the recipe was still far from perfect anyway. Not that it really mattered, of course – Hornette was so pleased to have done her a good turn that she couldn't possibly feel disappointed in herself.

Their baking session continued until early afternoon, by which time Surfie had also finalised her birthday party plans with Pinkie Pie and the Cakes. Hornette was starting to feel a little tired by then, so she and Locomotion decided to take their leave.

“Thank you for letting me help out around here,” she said to Pinkie Pie before they left.

“No problemo, Hornette!” beamed Pinkie Pie. “Always happy to make new friends – and I hope you settle in well.” She turned her attention to Twilight; “Do I get a coconut?” she asked innocently.

Twilight rolled her eyes, but humoured her nonetheless. “As long as you can keep your promise, Pinkie, I'll buy you all the coconuts you can eat.”


“Drink?” repeated Twilight, Hornette, Locomotion and Surfie, one after the other.

“Drink!” affirmed Pinkie Pie, and bounced away back to the kitchen before any of them could answer.

Hornette was so taken aback that she could only stare in her general direction. “ do you drink nuts?” she wondered aloud.

“Well...technically, coconuts are actually fruits,” explained Surfie. “Basically just a tough, hollow shell with water in them. It makes a really nice drink, and the 'meat' is really good for exotic cuisine and stuff.”

The young changeling shook her head in confusion, but said nothing. She was overloaded enough with Pinkie Pie's random behaviour, but coconuts?! Hollow shells full of meat and water – classified as fruits? That was just too much for her to take in. Fortunately, she didn't have to dwell on it for very long; seeing the befuddled expression on her face, Locomotion tactfully cut in. “Uh...probably best to move on before Hornette starts thinking crackers are animals,” he advised wryly.

Chapter 13: Meeting the Elements - Rainbow Dash

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Since Surfie didn't have much else to do that day, Locomotion invited her to hang out at Steamer's house for the rest of the afternoon. Surfie was only too happy to accept, and they spent a few leisurely hours relaxing in the living room while she told Hornette about her hobbies and interests in outdoor activities, including her namesake sport. Hornette couldn't fully understand the appeal of riding huge waves on what sounded like a really narrow raft, but still enjoyed hearing about it.

Surfie left shortly before dinnertime, and after a light meal of daffodil sandwiches, Locomotion and Hornette spent the rest of the day watching some of his favourite Rodney the Railway Engine videos until the young changeling decided to turn in. Privately, she wasn't looking forward to meeting Rainbow Dash; Locomotion had already warned her about how edgy and defensive the daredevil Pegasus could be, and even as she drifted off to sleep, Hornette couldn't help brooding over how she would react to seeing her up close. Her bedtime story, which by now had become something of an evening ritual, helped to hold back any unsettling dreams, but she was still feeling uneasy by the following afternoon. She paced back and forth in her room, murmuring anxiously as she brooded over the outcome;

“I sure hope she doesn't lash out at me like Angel did. Once was bad enough. And that Scootaloo pony – is she really gonna side with Sweetie-Belle and Apple Bloom, or......ugh, come on, Hornette, snap out of it!” she interrupted herself in an agitated tone. “What harm can any of them do with Twilight around?!”

“Something up, Hornette?”

Hornette stopped pacing and looked up to see an equally unsettled Locomotion standing in the doorway. “Nothing,” she replied quietly. “Just trying to soothe my nerves is all.”

“Why, because of Rainbow Dash?” Locomotion frowned sympathetically when the young insectoid nodded her reply. “Yeah, I've been kinda dreading it myself. From what Scoot had been telling me, that mare's really been blowing her safety valves over the past fortnight,” he confided. “It's a good thing Soarin's gonna be there to keep her in line.”

“Will he really, though?” asked Hornette doubtfully. “You did say it was part of the Wonderbolts' job to protect Equestria from creatures like me...didn't you?”

Locomotion smiled faintly. “Well...only in times of extreme danger,” he observed, thinking back to Spike's rampage. “That sort of thing is usually down to the various branches of the Equestrian Armed Forces. Besides, if I know Wing Commander Soarin Starr, he wouldn't hurt a fly without good reason.”

“And that Scootaloo you told me about...does she really mean what she says about...?”

“I should darn well hope so,” murmured Locomotion doubtfully; but his train of thought was shortly interrupted by a knock at the front door, followed by the sound of his uncle calling him downstairs. “Oh well...time to go face the music, I guess,” and he trotted briskly out of the room.

Quietly wondering what music had to do with meeting a belligerent Pegasus, Hornette timidly followed suit as far as the top of the staircase and peered into the hallway below, trying to listen in on the conversation without being noticed. A young, orange-coated Pegasus mare, only a year or so younger than Locomotion, greeted him cheerfully as she entered, followed closely by Twilight and a baby-blue stallion with a darker blue mane and tail.

“Hey, Scootaloo,” said Locomotion, trying to sound casual. “How's it going?”

“Pretty good, thanks,” replied the young mare with a smile. “Everything go okay with Pinkie yesterday?”

Locomotion chuckled lightly in spite of himself. “Better than I could have hoped for. She actually in...”

“Alright, enough chit-chat, let's get this over with. Where's this no-good bug-pony you want me to meet?” A third Pegasus, roughly the same age as Twilight, stepped into the house looking very surly. Hornette gulped and shied away; judging by the prismatic mane and tail, she didn't even need to guess who this pony was.

Locomotion's nonchalant facade gave way to a disapproving deadpan; “And a happy Hearts and Hooves Day to you too, Rainbow Dash,” he reproached.

“Come on, Dashie,” coaxed the stallion. “At least give her a chance.”

Rainbow Dash only scowled in reply. “I'm surprised with you, Soarin,” she groused sullenly. “Going all soft in the head over some changeling – have you forgotten they tried to invade us?!”

“No we haven't, Rainbow Dash,” interrupted Twilight sternly, “and there's no need to be so aggressive about the whole deal! I know you're...”

“Hello?! This is a changeling we're talking about, not some weakling butterfly!” Rainbow Dash shot back. “Besides, how do you know this Hornet isn't up to...”

“AHEM!!!” Locomotion noisily cleared his throat. “Her name is Hornette, thank you very much.”

“Kindly shut up and let the big ponies talk, will you, Loco!”

“Excuse me?! Just because I'm younger doesn't give you the right to treat me like an inferior being!”

Hornette suppressed an agitated groan as she listened to the two ponies arguing. Maybe now wasn't such a good time to show her face, she thought – but before she could even turn to head back, Twilight noticed her peering over the bannister and levitated her down to ground level. The young changeling, taken by surprise, wriggled and flailed in a bid to break free, but Twilight's grip was too strong.

“Alright, you two, that's enough,” she interrupted again, casting a particularly reproachful glance towards Rainbow Dash as she rested Hornette between them. “You don't want to make a bad impression on our newest resident, do you?”

Quietly gulping down the lump of fear that had been building up in her throat, Hornette nervously looked up towards the three Pegasi. “Uh...hello?” she stammered in her politest voice.

But her timid attempt to sound friendly had little effect on Rainbow Dash, who narrowed her eyes and stared her down in a deadly manner. “Alright, Horsefly...”

“Hornette!!” corrected Locomotion sharply; but Rainbow Dash took no notice.

“...I don't know who or what you think you are,” she continued threateningly, “but if you think, after what your kind have tried to do to us, that I'm gonna welcome you with open arms straight off the bat, then you can go kiss my tail!”

Twilight slapped a hoof to her face with exasperation. “Dash!” she snapped. “What did I just tell you about making a good impression?!”

“Stuff good impressions!” snarled Rainbow Dash. “I never wanted to meet that bug-eyed succubus anyway!”

“You've got some nerve,” retorted Locomotion indignantly, “calling her a 'bug-eyed succubus'! You're not exactly behaving like a lady yourself!”

Before Rainbow Dash could return his fire, Hornette suddenly noticed a much smaller pony hanging from a bassinet against her breast. It squeaked and fidgeted eagerly, trying to attract her attention. Immediately forgetting to be scared, she gazed in awe and reached out a hoof; “Oh, gosh,” she gasped. “You have your own foal?”

“Yes I do!” barked Rainbow Dash, swiping Hornette's hoof away and making her lock up again in shock. “And you can keep your dirty hooves off of him!”

Locomotion gritted his teeth, his right eye twitching as he battled to keep his temper in check, and Twilight glared harshly at the rainbow-maned Pegasus. But before either of them could say anything, she turned back towards the doorway saying, “Anyway, I've got better things to do than mess around with changelings.”

At last, Twilight found her voice; “Now just a minute, Rainbow!” she burst out crossly. “You haven't even got to know her yet!”

“So what?!” huffed Rainbow Dash rudely. “It's not as if that oversized beetle's gonna be any different to the others! Good and bye!” and she sprang into the air like a rocket.

Fuming with rage, Locomotion shook an angry hoof in her general direction. “ALWAYS A PLEASURE TALKING WITH YOU!!!!” he hollered at the top of his voice.

Hornette, on the other hoof, was so wounded by Rainbow Dash's hurtful approach that she couldn't bring herself to say anything. She hung her head with shame, almost ready to burst into tears.

Noticing the pain in her expression, Scootaloo sidled up to her and rested a gentle hoof on her shoulder. “Sorry about Rainbow Dash,” she whispered kindly. “She's just a bit freaked out because of the whole Canterlot invasion malarkey. You needn't take her seriously.” She paused for a few seconds in case Hornette wanted to speak up, but got no reply from the distraught changeling, so she added, “If it makes you feel any better, I actually kinda like you.”

Blinking away the few tears that had welled up in her eyes, Hornette cautiously looked up. “Really?”

“Well, Sweetie-Belle and Apple Bloom never had anything against you, so why should I?” said Scootaloo matter-of-factly. She removed her hoof and held it out for Hornette to shake; “I'm Scootaloo, by the way.”

“And I'm Soarin,” added the stallion. “You'll have to excuse Rainbow Dash; she's a bit temperamental at the best of times, especially when she's wary of someone. You'll get used to her eventually.”

His words of wisdom made Hornette feel a little better, and she accepted Scootaloo's hoof with a small, shaky smile. “ don't think ill of me?”

“Nope,” affirmed Soarin, “and neither did little Scram Jet, now you come to mention it. He actually seemed kinda keen to see you, as far as I could tell.”

“Scram Jet? Who's...”

“Mine and Dash's little colt – and Scootaloo's foster brother,” explained Soarin promptly. “Mind you, he's like that with every new face he meets, regardless of the species.”

Hornette smiled again, this time a lot more wistfully. “I just wish I could have met him properly,” she murmured.

“That's alright, Hornette,” soothed Locomotion, who by now had managed to cool off thanks to Soarin and Scootaloo's kindness. “I'm sure you will once Rainbow Dash starts warming to you.” He looked out of the doorway again, scowling slightly. “If only there was some way we could make her realise...”

Scootaloo looked thoughtfully at Soarin and Hornette. “Well...the weather patrol could do with a few extra hooves at the moment, what with all the clouds that need clearing,” she suggested. “Maybe Hornette could come up and help us?”

“Hmm...there's an idea,” agreed Soarin. “Have you ever worked on a weather team before, Hornette?”

“Um...not really. We never had any such things back home.”

Geez, that'd explain a lot, thought Soarin wryly. “Well then, how would you like me and Scoot to teach you a few tricks of the trade? It'd be a good chance to stretch your wings.”

Hornette's eyes lit up, and her wings started to buzz with anticipation. “Ooh, yes please,” she conceded without a second thought.
“That okay with you, Twilight?”

Twilight looked doubtful. “I don't have a problem with it, Soarin,” she said gravely, “but it's Loco I'm worried about. He won't want to let Hornette out of his sights for too long, and I'm not sure I dare risk traumatising him either.”

Soarin and Scootaloo frowned in understanding, and Locomotion furrowed his brow as he tried to make up his mind. He could see how eager Hornette was to take to the sky and exercise her wings, something she hadn't been able to do since her arrival; but at the same time, he didn't feel too comfortable leaving her in the charge of two relatively unfamiliar Pegasi, even under Twilight's supervision.

But after hearing what the lavender alicorn had to say and seeing the uncertainty in Locomotion's expression, Hornette had all but forgotten to feel excited. She looked down at her hooves again in disappointment; “Well...I don't have to if he doesn't want me to,” she mumbled sadly.

Locomotion sighed heavily. There was only one solution he could think of, but was it really worth the risk, he asked himself uncertainly? Judging by the sorrow in Hornette's eyes, the ache in his chest from seeing her so disheartened, and most of all her earlier delight at being invited to fly with Soarin and Scootaloo, the answer had to be... “Twilight,” he ventured, “do you still remember that wing spell you used on Rarity many years ago?”

“Yes, why?” asked Twilight, perplexed.

“Can you cast it on me?”

Hornette's head sprang up in awe and disbelief. Did Locomotion really just ask to join her up in the sky? Scootaloo, on the other hoof, was so taken aback that she almost laughed. “What?! You fly with us? You can't be serious!” she exclaimed.

“Oh, I'm dead serious, Scoot – for once.”

“What's wrong with all that?” quizzed Hornette.

“Hornette, it's Loco,” stated Scootaloo with a blunt smirk. “He suffers from vertigo – i.e., he's scared of heights.”

“Uh...correction, Scoot, it's acrophobia, not vertigo – and I don't!” retorted Locomotion firmly. “It's just the flying part that I'm afraid of.”

“And how is that not being afraid of heights?!” objected Scootaloo incredulously.

“Scoot, I've ridden trains along ridges high up in the mountains with really deep ravines below! As long as I'm on solid ground, I'm fine – but when I'm several thousand hooves up in the air without so much as a safety net to cushion my fall...that's a different story.”

“Says the stallion who refuses to even go on an aeroplane! Honestly, Loco, just because that one plane crashed with Flash and your...”

“SCOOT...” Quickly realising where Scootaloo was headed, Locomotion hastily interrupted, only lowering his voice again once she had stopped talking. “...can we please keep REA 759 out of this? I don't really want to be discussing it in Hornette's presence.”

Scootaloo was about to make another comeback, but quickly remembered how sensitive a topic this was for the red-furred railway enthusiast, and simply nodded her consent.

Twilight, meanwhile, was so stunned by Locomotion's decision that she had remained strangely silent throughout the argument. Only now did she manage to find her voice again. “You really want to go up there with us?” she asked.

Locomotion nodded resolutely. “I may not be too keen on flying, but I don't wanna get in the way of Hornette interacting with others,” he reasoned. “I'd rather be up there in the clouds than down here with a gloomy changeling.”

Hornette was so touched by Locomotion's resolve that she could feel her eyes glossing over. “'re really doing this for me?” she whispered.

“If that's okay with you, Hornette. I'd feel a lot easier knowing you were okay than just hanging around and fretting over your safety.”

Hornette smiled warmly. “Thank you, Loco. That means so much to me.”

“That's very noble of you, Loco,” agreed Twilight. “Luckily for you,” she added, “I actually managed to find a much better spell only a few weeks ago. It only lasts twelve hours, but your wings will be a lot stronger and sturdier than the ones I gave Rarity. Now, are you absolutely certain you want to go ahead with this?”

“As certain as I'll ever be,” affirmed Locomotion bravely.

“Alright then – here goes.”

Twilight stepped back a few yards to allow plenty of room between herself and Locomotion, and set her horn aglow. Sparks of magic began to dance around the hallway, and Locomotion watched as her brightening aura lifted him into the air, wrapping itself around his body like a blanket. His shoulders began to tingle, and the bubble of magic burst into a blinding flash of light – and finally, he felt himself drifting back down until his hooves made contact with the floor again.

“Did it work?” he asked, cautiously opening his eyes.

“Try flexing your shoulders,” said Soarin.

Locomotion did as he was told – and goggled in amazement when he felt something unfurl itself from his sides. Sure enough, when he looked back towards his shoulders, he could see a fine, strong pair of Pegasus wings affixed to them, spread out in all their feathery glory.

Scootaloo whistled in amazement. “That is one sexy wingspan you've got there, Loco,” she remarked.

“Chuffing Nora,” exclaimed Locomotion, “so I have!” He ran a hoof through the feathers, suppressing a chuckle of disbelief. “And they feel so real too!”

Hornette was even more mesmerised by the sight of Locomotion's new wings – almost entranced, in fact! Her mouth hung open as she gazed upon his figure through misty eyes. “So handsome,” she breathed, barely able to help herself she was so awestruck; but perhaps luckily for her, Locomotion didn't seem to hear.

“Well,” he mused, “this is gonna be pretty interesting – me, an alicorn for a day...without the same magic levels, anyhow.” He chuckled weakly at his own quip as a hint of unease slipped back into his expression. “I just hope I'm not filling in my own hospital bill.”

“You won't be,” soothed Soarin. “Me and Scoot have got your back, Loco, and I'm sure Twilight and Hortensia...”


“...sorry – Hornette...will be glad to cheer you on as well.”

Finally breaking out of her reverie, Hornette gave a wholehearted smile of agreement. “That goes double for me, Loco,” she whispered. “I know I'm not much at the...what do you call it...the 'mechanics' of Pegasus flight, but I'll be behind you all the way, I promise.”

Almost at once, Locomotion began to feel a bit better. “Alright then,” he said to himself, “let's give these wings a whirl.”

And so they did. Before setting off to begin their cloud clearing, Soarin and Scootaloo took Locomotion and Hornette to a nearby hillock for some crash flight training, with Twilight tagging along. Naturally, the young unicorn found it a daunting experience at first – his wing movements were jerky and erratic, and he did indeed crash a few times after making the fatal error of looking down. But Hornette was as good as her word, and with her encouragement and Soarin and Scootaloo's guidance (plus some extra Pegasus magic from Twilight), his flapping gradually became smoother and better synchronised until he was prancing and swooping gracefully, like a reindeer in the sky.

Only a few hooves above them, Rainbow Dash was grumbling bitterly to herself as she kicked some of the clouds to vapour – until she happened to see what was going on immediately below her patch. There she saw her husband and adopted daughter hovering nearby, along with Twilight and...Locomotion? Flying? Her jaw dropped open in disbelief, and she drifted down to land on her haunches on a nearby cloud, unable to comprehend the sight that met her eyes. She knew, just as well as Scootaloo and Twilight, that Locomotion absolutely dreaded the idea of flying; yet here he was, high up in the sky, sporting a new pair of wings – and of his own accord! But what really baffled her was that Hornette was willing him on for all her worth, and with a level of joy and faith that no cold-hearted tyrant would even dare to display. Scram Jet saw what was going on, and squealed enthusiastically; but Rainbow Dash was so overwhelmed that she didn't know what to think.

Before long, Locomotion managed to perfect his flying technique, and after a quick pep talk from Soarin, he and Hornette set off for their designated work area. The young changeling beamed with happiness as she danced among the clouds, occasionally stopping to break one up with a graceful pirouette. Locomotion allowed himself a warm smile of his own as he listened to the low hum of her wings – it was so gratifying, he thought, to see Hornette so light-hearted and free of care. How he wished that this moment could have lasted forever...

But all good things must come to an end, and today was no exception. The sun was just touching down upon the horizon by the time they had finished, and the two teenagers settled down for a breather on one of the few remaining clouds, shortly joined by Soarin, Scootaloo and Twilight.

“Wow,” murmured Locomotion, tired but pleased. “That was quite an experience. Never knew flying could be such fun.”

Soarin smiled appreciatively. “You did really well for a rookie,” he praised. “Anyone would think you were enjoying yourself, the way you were going.”

“Well, I've got you guys to thank for that,” said Locomotion humbly, “and especially Hornette.”

The young insectoid giggled shyly and looked away, trying to hide her blush. “Oh, Loco,” she murmured modestly, “you needn't thank me for anything. I'm just happy you were willing to share this with me.”

“No, really, Hornette,” insisted Locomotion softly, “I never would have had the courage if you hadn't cheered me on. You've been a great source of support, and I'm really grateful for it.”

Scootaloo smirked cheekily at his observation. “Well, maybe you wouldn't need one if you didn't keep tripping every time you tried to take off, you clumsy idiot!” she teased with a mock scold.

Locomotion only chuckled with her and brushed it off; but Hornette was mortified. “Hey!” she burst out defensively. “That's not fair! Loco can't help it if...”

“Hey, cool it, Hornette,” soothed Locomotion promptly. “Scootaloo's just joking – she didn't mean anything by that.”

“But...but she called you a...” spluttered Hornette, baffled.

“An idiot?” smirked Locomotion facetiously. “I know I am – I'm the dictionary definition of one.” His eyes took on a devilish glint as he turned his attention back to Scootaloo. “Besides, two can play at that game, can't they?”

Scootaloo's cheeky expression turned into an uneasy grin. “If you start up the chicken jokes, Loco,” she warned, “I am so gonna hurt you.”

“What, call you names? Now why in heck's name would I call you anything other than...” and before anyone realised what he was up to, Locomotion began crowing out Scootaloo's name in a mischievous yodel; “SCOOTALOO-OO-OO! SCOOTALOO-OO-OO! SCOOTALOO-OO-OO!”

Twilight and Soarin fell about laughing at Locomotion's comical melody, and though Scootaloo tried to keep a straight face, even she couldn't stifle her laugher as she raised her voice at him, “Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!!!”

“You walked right into that one, Scoot!” chortled Locomotion triumphantly.

Unable to formulate a response, Hornette turned to gaze at Twilight with a look of baffled disbelief. Twilight only chuckled; “Don't take them seriously, Hornette,” she soothed, directing her a broad wink. “They're just having a bit of harmless banter – nothing to worry about.”

Hornette gave a weak smile in reply; but secretly, she shook her head incredulously. Some jokes she could understand, but two ponies teasing each other just for the mutual enjoyment of it? That was just too crazy for her to grasp. “Ponies are so weird,” she murmured wryly to herself.

“In all seriousness, though,” went on Soarin kindly, “you and Loco did wonders with those clouds, and I should think we all appreciated your help.” He sighed wistfully and stared into space. “Just a shame Dashie couldn't join in on all the fun.”

“Wrong again, Soar!” All five of them looked up to see Rainbow Dash coming into land right next to them.

“And just where have you been?” demanded Twilight.

“Hello?” retorted Rainbow Dash. “Clearing clouds, just like I said I would be – and keeping an eye on that changeling while I was on the job!” Locomotion groaned and began muttering to himself, but the rainbow-maned Pegasus just smirked and said, “I know what you're thinking, Loco, and you'll be relieved to know that the answer is 'don't be ridiculous'. I saw what you lot were up to down there – never thought I'd see Loco taking flight, let alone with a changeling cheering him on – but hey, if she's being such a buddy, then why gripe about it?” She shuffled over to Hornette and wrapped a wing around her shoulders in a patronising reassurance, surreptitiously unfastening Scram Jet's bassinet as she addressed the young changeling. “You're okay, Hoverfly...”

Locomotion cut her off with a frustrated growl. “For the last time, Dash, it's Hornette!” he snapped crossly.

“What he said,” muttered Rainbow Dash, who wasn't really taking any notice. “Just make sure you behave yourself, and I won't have to lay a hoof on you, okay?”

“Um...okay,” stuttered Hornette, unsure whether to feel flattered or afraid.

“There's a good girl. Anyway, love to stay and chat, but I've got stuff that needs doing. Catch you later.”

Only then, as Rainbow Dash was taking off, did Soarin realise that their little colt had been left behind. He was still in his bassinet, but this had somehow slipped free from his mother's shoulders. “Wait a minute, Dash,” he exclaimed, “you've forgotten Scram Jet!”

“Thanks for looking after him, babe!” came the seemingly apathetic reply.

At first, Soarin was at a complete loss for words; but when he looked back towards Scram Jet, he quickly realised what Rainbow Dash was up to. “Well,” he remarked brightly as he lifted the eager, squirming colt out of the bassinet, “looks like you've got your wish, Hornette. Wanna hold him?”

“Oh, yes please, Mr Starr!” squeaked Hornette with delight.

Soarin smiled, and gently handed Scram Jet over to her. Hornette purred affectionately as she gave the three-year-old colt a friendly nuzzle; but Locomotion couldn't share in her contentment. Heaving a deep sigh, he hung his head wearily; “I don't know,” he mumbled. “That Rainbow Dash is just impossible.”

“Ah, buck up, Loco,” said Scootaloo. “If I know Dash, she's likely just apologising in her own way.”

“What, by patronising Hornette?” muttered Locomotion in a sarcastic deadpan. “Yeah, great form of apology.”

“I'm sure she'll get a real one eventually,” soothed Soarin. “Scootaloo's right, though; Dashie does seem to be warming to Hornette. She's just too proud to admit it, that's all.”

Locomotion could only nod thoughtfully in reply. This wasn't the first time Rainbow Dash had been so slow to forgive an old nemesis, but from what he had been told, she always came round in the end. Besides, he told himself optimistically, at least Hornette still had the support of the other five Friendship Councillors. The distant chime of the clock tower bell broke him out of his reverie, at which point Scootaloo perked up slightly. “Gosh, is that the time?” she remarked.

“What's up, Scoot?”

“Nothing much, Loco. It's just getting on a bit,” explained Scootaloo, “and I promised Rumble I'd meet him at half-six.”

Hornette arched a puzzled eyebrow as she looked up from Scram Jet. “Rumble?” she repeated.

“Yes, he's my coltfriend. We're gonna go see a movie together, and then he's taking me out for dinner; so yeah, I'm afraid I'm gonna have to make a move now.” But before she did so, Scootaloo gave Hornette a friendly smile before adding, “It sure was cool hanging out with you, though. Hope to see you again,” and she glided away towards home.

“Guess I'd better be on my way too,” decided Soarin, fastening Scram Jet's bassinet to his chest. “It's my turn to fill in the weather report tonight. Thanks again for your help, Loco and Hornette.”

“'re very welcome,” smiled Hornette as she passed his son back to him.

Locomotion shrugged modestly. “Ah, just glad we could make ourselves useful, I guess,” he observed. But as Soarin left for the weather office, bidding Hornette the best of luck as he did so, he couldn't help looking back at his wings with a strangely wistful expression in his eyes. “Never thought I'd be sorry to lose these wings, though.”

Hornette's humble smile turned into a more sympathetic one as she gave him a gentle pat on his shoulder. “I think you look just as good without them,” she whispered.


The young insectoid nodded. “Wings or no wings, you're still the same pony who's treated me so kindly these last three weeks. I couldn't possibly ask for more.”

This made Locomotion feel a lot happier with himself. “Thanks, Hornette. I guess you're right – even if today was...kinda fun, it's not like I really need these things.” He looked up to Twilight; “So, I guess we'll be seeing you later this evening then?”

“I should think so, once I've sent off that probation report to Princess Celestia,” affirmed Twilight. “Shouldn't take me too long.”

At the mention of Celestia, an idea suddenly flew into Hornette's head. “Um...actually, Twilight,” she ventured, “I, uh...I hope I'm not asking too much of you...I mean, you've done an awful lot for me already, you and Loco...” She paused, looking shyly down at her hooves.

“Go on,” prompted Twilight kindly.

“...can I send her a letter of my own? Just to thank her for letting me stay here?”

Locomotion's eyes lit up. “That's not such a bad idea!” he remarked. “In fact, better idea still – why don't we make a friendship report out of it, just like old times? I bet she'll find it kinda flattering, especially from a changeling.”

Twilight could only smile as a feeling of nostalgia flowed through her mind. Friendship reports used to be a frequent staple of her life before ascension as an alicorn princess, but neither she nor her friends had written one for years, and she had to admit she rather missed those days. “I don't see why not,” she mused. “Let's head over to my castle, and we can start drafting one out.”

“You bet!” said Locomotion, eagerly spreading his wings again and leaping into the air with Hornette close behind him. With a light chuckle, Twilight jumped off the cloud and glided after them. It had been a funny old day, she thought, but from the warm smile of unspoken gratitude on Hornette's face and the look of light-hearted glee on Locomotion's, at least it had been an enjoyable one. More importantly, at least one of the criteria of the young changeling's probation had been met, and she was clearly all the better for it. Though the road to Equestrian citizenship had been a little bumpy at best, it seemed that things were really starting to look up for her...

Bonus Chapter 1: A Changeling of Heart

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A clear, moonlit night sky hung over the grand city of Canterlot as Twilight glided towards her final destination. Though the soft glow of lamps lit up the quiet streets below, there were few other ponies to be found; most of the population were sound asleep, and the only sounds to be heard were of distant laughter and music from the local night clubs. Not too far away, the regal towers of Canterlot Castle stood tall and majestic against their mountain backdrop, illuminated by the milky white light of the moon. With one final glance at the saddlebag she was carrying, the lavender alicorn gently descended towards the gardens outside the castle, coming into land just a little way short of the entrance. The two sentries on duty that evening bowed respectfully at her approach, and Twilight gave an equally polite nod in return.

“Good evening, Spearhead,” she said to the one on her left. “Is Princess Celestia still up?”

“Sure is, Twilight,” replied Spearhead. He and many of the other royal guards had known her since she was just a filly; and even now that she had ascended as an alicorn princess, they still saw her more as a personal friend than a member of Equestrian royalty. “She and Princess Luna are awaiting you in the throne room.”

“Ah, good. Thanks, Spearhead.” Twilight trotted briskly into the foyer and began picking her way through the castle's numerous hallways. A hearty sigh escaped her lips as she recalled her years as Princess Celestia's personal student; how awestruck she had been on seeing inside this majestic structure for the first time, and all the long hours she had spent exploring the place when she wasn't studying in her ivory tower or the library. And how ironic, she thought with a smirk, that all those books had distracted her from what she now knew to be one of the most important lessons in life – friendship!

It hadn't mattered too much when she was younger – in her mind, Spike and Celestia were the only friends she really needed – but nowadays, she couldn't imagine how her life would have been if not for Pinkie Pie, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Rarity and Fluttershy. The only downside, she felt, was that she wouldn't get to be inside the castle as often as she used to, but it was well worth it for all those adventures with her friends; and the friendship reports they sent so religiously before her ascension provided many more happy memories. And how gratifying that, more than six years on from the last report, in which Rarity described her epiphany regarding Spike and love, the same torch was now being carried, however briefly, by one of only two changelings she knew who had the heart and conscience to embrace the same spirit...but now wasn't the time for nostalgia, she told herself as she looked up and saw the throne room doors ahead; that could wait until after she had delivered her documents.

Bowing graciously, the two guards pulled the doors open for Twilight to enter, whereupon she was greeted by the motherly smile of Princess Celestia herself. “Twilight,” she spoke up kindly, “how lovely to see you here at such short notice. All's well in Ponyville, I trust?”

“Pretty much,” replied Twilight. “Hornette's been settling in really well, and the rest of my council seem to be taking to her pretty well too – all except for Rainbow Dash. Anyway,” she went on, mentally grimacing at Rainbow Dash's belligerent behaviour towards the innocent young changeling, “I thought I'd come and deliver her latest probation report in person.” She reached inside her saddlebag with her magic and, to Celestia's mild surprise, pulled out not one, but two sealed envelopes. “She wanted me to give you this letter as well,” she explained simply.

Celestia arched a curious eyebrow. “From a changeling, eh? That does sound intriguing,” she remarked, carefully tearing open the smaller envelope. Luna, equally inquisitive, leaned in for a better look as her older sister pulled out the letter and read out its heartfelt content;

Dear Princess Celestia,

I can't even begin to tell you how grateful I am for your kind forgiveness. Your kind had every right to distrust mine, especially so since our attack on Canterlot, and that you were able to look past all that and allow me to stay here is far too moving to put into words. I only hope that I can repay you somehow.

When I first met Twilight and Locomotion, I feared that I would be spending the rest of my days in a cold, damp dungeon somewhere, confined to a life of misery and self-loathing until my time had come. The last thing I expected was for them to stand up for me, to try and bend the law just so that I could have a second chance. Since then, I have learned a great deal more about friendship than I could ever have imagined; I now know that there is always someone willing to accept you, no matter what species you are or how unspeakable their reputation, and that sometimes, your greatest allies can be found in the least likely of places. But most of all, I have learned that hiding away from my fears won't bring me any closer to those who might be willing to forgive the sins of my kind. I couldn't exactly run from Locomotion, but on reflection, I'm glad I couldn't – otherwise I wouldn't have gained such a kind and loyal friend.

Thank you so much for allowing me to learn those lessons, Your Highness. I am truly indebted to you, your sister and your subjects.

Yours Most Gratefully


P.S.: Locomotion would also like to extend his thanks for your lenience.

The two alicorns could only smile warmly by the time they had finished reading Hornette's meaningful message. Aside from Queen Chrysalis, neither of them had known a changeling personally, but to receive such a sincere letter from one was so touching that neither knew what to say at first. It was Luna who finally broke the silence; “Well, Tia,” she remarked softly, “it seems this Hornette really does have the conscience that Chrysalis never had. A 'changeling of heart', you might say.”

“Indeed,” agreed Celestia. “I'm glad I made the right choice by letting her stay in Ponyville.” Setting the letter and the probation report down for the moment, she turned her attention back to Twilight; “When you return, Twilight, do let her know how much I appreciate her courtesy.”

“Of course I will,” Twilight smiled back. “Would it be in order if I stayed the night, though? I promised Moondancer I'd pay her a visit, and tomorrow seems as good a time as any.”

“That's perfectly alright. I'll see to it that a suite is prepared for you. If you'd like to wait in the library for the time being?”

“Thanks.” But just as Twilight was turning to leave the room, she suddenly remembered something; “By the way, Celestia,” she added, “there's something Loco wants to know about Hornette's probation.”

“Oh? And what would that be?”

“While Hornette was writing her letter a couple of days ago, he asked me why you stipulated in your letter that she meet my fellow councillors as a legal requirement; and to be honest, I'm a little puzzled about it myself,” explained Twilight gravely. “I mean, I would have introduced her to them anyway, but it just seems a bit...I don't know, redundant.”

Celestia nodded, her expression becoming more serious. “I understand your feelings, Twilight,” she conceded, “and can appreciate that I might have been...more than a little mysterious about the whole affair. Truth be told, I...” She broke off, checking all around her as if a spy was lurking. Twilight gazed at Luna, perplexed, but the dark blue alicorn mouthed something to her and gave a coy wink. At last, Celestia beckoned both of them closer. “We'd better discuss this somewhere private,” she whispered when they were close enough to hear.

Twilight was still confused, but nodded her consent. With a flash of light from Celestia's horn, the marble columns and stained glass windows of the throne room vanished, and within a split second the three alicorns found themselves in the soft blue and purple surroundings of her private study.

“Good,” said Celestia quietly, “now we're alone.” Just to make sure of that, she magically sealed the keyhole and cast a bubble of silence around them. “What I'm about to tell you, Twilight, is to be kept strictly between the three of us – nopony outside of these four walls must know about this until the time is right. Is that understood?”

Twilight wasn't sure she did understand; but from the grave look on Celestia's face, it had to be of the utmost importance, so she said, “You have my word, Celestia,” and crossed her heart.

“Very well. You remember when I first sent you to Ponyville eight years ago?” Celestia began.

The wave of nostalgia that had washed over Twilight earlier came splashing back, prompting a wistful smile. “How could I forget? It was the turning point in my social life that I never knew I needed. But what's it got to do with Hornette anyway?” she quizzed.

“I'm just coming to that. I knew the day would eventually come when...Nightmare Moon...” Celestia frowned apologetically at her shame-faced sister before continuing, “...would return from her imprisonment, and a few days before you went in for your entry exam at my school, I had a vision – a premonition, if you like – that you would be the key to her defeat and Luna's restoration.”

Twilight's eyes widened. “ knew all along...?”

“I knew that you would find the five allies you needed to unleash the Powers of Harmony, but what I didn't know was who they were. It was down to you to find and befriend them, in the nearest settlement to the ruins of our old castle.”

“Then...Discord's reform...Tirek's actually saw them coming?”

“Both – and many more events besides.” A small smile crossed Celestia's face as she recalled how Twilight had accidentally created a brief paradox, sending her past self into a frenzy over what she assumed to be an impending disaster. As it turned out, however, the only things she had to worry about were a paper cut, a burnt mane, a bump on the head, a torn spy suit, a temporary blindness in one eye and the embarrassment of having wound herself up over nothing! But this, she reminded herself grimly, was a completely different story... “Only a month ago,” she went on, “I had a similar premonition, that the future of our relations with the Badlands would lie in the hooves of two creatures – one pony, one changeling. I confess I didn't think much of it at first, but when you wrote to me about Hornette three days later, I suddenly realised its significance.”

“You think she might be the changeling you foresaw?” asked Twilight.

“I couldn't swear to it, but the coincidence was too much to ignore,” affirmed Celestia, “and thus I opted to take the risk and let her stay in Ponyville.”

“I had taken the precaution of watching over her in her dreams,” Luna volunteered, “but it only took one night's sleep on her part for me to realise just how troubled she was. I did try to comfort her more than once, but she always shied away from me, even when I chased her nightmares away,” and she looked sheepishly down at her hooves.

Twilight heaved a deep sigh. “I can kind of understand that,” she observed solemnly, thinking back to that eventful Nightmare Night only a few months after Luna's return. “She's probably just not used to you. I never thought I'd see a changeling afraid of ponies, but if I were in her position and found that an alicorn princess had slipped into my dreams...I guess I'd be a little scared too. Speaking of which, Celestia, you said there was a pony in your premonition?”

Celestia nodded, but her expression remained uncertain. “Alas, Twilight, I was unable to identify them – or how they would resolve our stand-off with the changelings, for that matter. We can only wait until the answer comes to light; in the meantime, I advise you to keep this under your mane, and make sure Hornette lives her life to the fullest.”

“I'll do my best,” promised Twilight resolutely. Not that she needed to be reminded, of course; for while Locomotion was doing a good job of it himself, there was still the issue of the elusive stalker that was Electro Diesel. What was his real identity? Why wouldn't he leave Hornette alone? And how was it that no-one could find so much as a scrap of information on him?

Indeed, Celestia seemed to be on the same page at that very moment. “One thing's for sure,” she finished, her eyebrows straightening. “Hornette may have gained some new allies, but she still has her enemies – and not among our own species either. No, the greatest threat comes from her own collective; and I have a chilling suspicion that one of them is in Ponyville at this very moment...”

Chapter 14: Soft-Hearted Hornette

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The soft golden glow of the setting sun, reflected by the few wispy clouds still in the sky, provided a mellow, soothing backdrop as evening slowly descended over Ponyville. It had been a week since Twilight had delivered her probation report, and Hornette and Locomotion were on their way to attend Surfie's birthday party. Locomotion had already bought her a present earlier that day, and as they strolled through the almost empty streets, he explained to Hornette who else would be there and what their personalities were like.

“...then there's Zipporwhill – really energetic sort, she is, and really mad about animals. Lily Longsocks as well; bit timid, not unlike you, but she's a lot stronger than she looks!” he chuckled wryly. “And of course the Cutie Mark Crusaders will be there, so at least you'll have someone familiar to talk to.”

Hornette nodded thoughtfully. She was still nervous about meeting so many ponies all at once, but felt a little better knowing that Apple Bloom, Scootaloo and Sweetie-Belle would be present. “So who else is in their group?” she asked curiously. “And will they be coming too?”

“Oh, I should think so – some of them, anyway. I know Dinky's been invited,” observed Locomotion. “She's really smart for her age is Dinky – helped Surfie out with science-based homework and other stuff many times in the past, so as you can imagine...” He stopped mid-sentence, but Hornette understood what he was implying. “Same with Tootsie Flute, in some ways; she's only half a year older than me, but more than twice as mature. Mind you,” he added gravely, “she had to be, given all the flak she used to get just for having two mothers.”

“What's wrong with that?”

“Well...nothing really. As a matter of fact, most ponies are pretty accepting of same-sex couples like Lyra and Bonbon; heck, if I remember my Equestrian history correctly, I believe Princess Celestia was the first state leader to legalise that sort of far back as the 8th Century, I think. Even so, there's always the odd pony or other creature – particularly among the upper classes, so I'm told – who looks down their nose at that sort of thing, as if it's immoral or unhealthy or some such claptrap.”

Hornette frowned disapprovingly. “Well, I don't see anything 'immoral' or 'unhealthy' about those two,” she objected. She had only met Lyra and Bonbon once, and that was when Locomotion took her to their shop to buy a small sample of their sweets; but they had been so courteous in spite of her difference in species that she couldn't see them as anything other than friendly. “All I see is two ponies who care very deeply for each other and their daughter. In fact, I'm loathed to say this, but even our tyrant Queen Chrysalis wouldn't care if they were both mares – by the end of the day, love's love.”

“My thoughts precisely,” agreed Locomotion feelingly. “Heck, if Starlight were with us right now, she'd have had something to say about it.”

Hornette cocked her head, perplexed. “Starlight?”

“Yeah, Starlight Glimmer,” specified Locomotion. “She was the first student Twilight ever took on – although, to be brutally honest, it didn't start out that well.” His brow furrowed as he remembered what Starlight herself had told him about her past. “She had almost no friends whatsoever as a filly, and when her foalhood sweetheart Sunburst got his Cutie Mark before she did, she became even more isolated. It must have shaken something loose inside her, because she somehow got it into her head that Cutie Marks ruin friendships.”

This prompted another frown from his changeling companion, this time of sorrow and dismay. “Gosh,” she whispered, “that's terrible.”

Locomotion nodded solemnly. “And it got a lot worse before it got better,” he continued. “As soon as she was in her teens, she found a spell that enabled her to maul the Cutie Marks off a pony's flanks, and modified it to create this...this really creepy utopian cult. Dragged an entire village into it, she did, and made them go around with equals signs for Cutie Marks...and those broad, creepy grins on their faces...ugh!!!” He winced uncomfortably at the mental image, noting a similarly disturbed cringe on Hornette's face. “What she didn't know – and probably couldn't be bothered to learn at the time – was that Cutie Mark mutilation is a Class A criminal offence; should she be caught by the Royal Guard, she would have faced a life imprisonment without parole.”

“But why would Twilight take her on as a student if she had committed such an extreme crime?” wondered Hornette.

“Well, it's a complicated story, but the long and the short of it is that that was where the Friendship Council's first mission took place; Starlight tried to drag them into her cult too, but Fluttershy found out that she had just painted over her Cutie Mark instead of swapping it out. She exposed her treachery to the entire population the following morning, the villagers stormed the cave, reclaimed their old Cutie Marks, and the cult just...collapsed.”

“So what made Twilight and the others let her off the hook?”

“They didn't – not at first. She escaped the village and went into hiding while she plotted her revenge, and when she came back, I'm told she...literally tried to alter the timeline,” said Locomotion grimly. “You wouldn't believe the number of alternate histories Twilight had to correct; for example, there was one where Nightmare Moon had succeeded in bringing on Night Eternal, and another where Equestria was at war with King Sombra...and even one where our principals – even our entire personalities in some cases – were all muddled.”

“How muddled?” asked Hornette uneasily.

“Well, for starters, instead of hooking up with Fluttershy and taking it slow as you'd expect him to, Big Mac hits outrageously on some random mare named Sugar Belle, and somehow wins her over just by being a jerk and then building her something as meaningless as a shelf; and then there's the whole thing with Rumble having the same irrational hatred of Cutie Marks as Starlight – even starting up an entire rebellion, for crying out loud!” Locomotion paused for a moment, trying to calm himself down before he went off into an even bigger rant. Truth be told, he had already met Sugar Belle once, and she seemed nice enough – quite a bubbly sort, in fact – but the vision of her and Big Macintosh as an item (a sordid one at that) was too much for him to cope with.

Hornette only frowned gravely in reply. From what Locomotion had told her previously, she couldn't imagine this Rumble pony as a mean-spirited tearaway, let alone what Scootaloo would have seen in such a travesty of his true personality. Still, it could have been worse – a lot worse, she thought with a shudder. “Was Queen Chrysalis in one of those timelines?” she ventured.

“Yep – and it wasn't exactly a fairy tale ending. Luckily, Twilight managed to catch up with Starlight and show her the error of her ways,” finished Locomotion, hastily dodging the subject, “and in return, Starlight took them back to her past to explain why she had gone to such extremes in the first place. Twilight couldn't possibly let her spend the rest of her days behind bars after seeing that, so as soon as she had mended the timeline, she put in a good word for her with Princess Celestia, managed to get Starlight a royal pardon, took her on as a student, and the rest is...well, history!” He chortled lightly at his own wit. “She lives in the Crystal Empire now with Sunburst.”

Hornette remained silent for a while as she mulled over Locomotion's story. To hear him talk, this Starlight Glimmer almost sounded more like a wanted terrorist than a loyal student of Princess Twilight Sparkle, and she couldn't help wondering how the lavender alicorn could be so...blind to her misdeeds. But then she remembered what Locomotion had said about her lonesome foalhood, and how difficult her own life had been before she ran away; and she immediately felt ashamed of herself for thinking so harshly of Starlight in the first place. Maybe they had more in common than she realised... “...well,” she decided sincerely, “she sure was lucky to get a second chance. I just hope she made good of it.”

“Oh, she made good of it alright – a lot better than some of us had expected, in fact!” chuckled Locomotion. “See, not all of us were willing to let sleeping dogs lie, if you take my meaning...and I regret to say I was just one of those ponies; but we all warmed to her in the end, especially after she managed to fight off an angry full grown dragon single-hoofed. I think you and her would get along really well,” he added; “she's a great believer in racial equality just like you.”

“Is she really?” remarked Hornette, intrigued. Maybe she really had underestimated Starlight after all. “Gosh, I sure wouldn't mind meeting her someday if that's the case...” But her face fell again as she drifted back to reality. “...I just hope everypony else is okay with meeting me at this party.”

“Hmm...yeah...well, I'm sure they'll get used to you in time,” said Locomotion, trying not to look or sound as doubtful as he felt inside. “Heck, they'll have to once you pass your probation; and besides, at least we'll have Mum, Dad, Elli and Surfie to keep any insults at bay...hopefully.” He pointed towards a slate-roofed house not too far away; “That's the place, Hornette – No. 33 Mage Meadowbrook Road.”

Pushing her worries aside for the time being, Hornette looked up at the house in question. It was of roughly similar size to Steamer's, but its walls were of rich red brick instead of stone and timber, and its front door was set inside a small porch with a small flight of steps leading up to it. On either side of the porch was a bay window, with a further three windows above them on the upper storey – and judging by the throng of ponies in the front rooms, the party was clearly in full swing already. The young insectoid gazed at them uneasily, but her doubts were quickly swept aside when she saw Surfie waving to her and Locomotion through one of the bay windows.

Locomotion cheerfully waved back, his pace quickening as he approached the porch, and Hornette gave a friendly nod in response. They barely had to wait five seconds before Surfie opened the front door for them, beaming from ear to ear. “Hello, Loco!” she greeted her older brother.

“Hey, sis,” Locomotion smiled back, drawing her in for a hug. As he did so, he levitated her present out from behind him. “Happy birthday.”

“And from me as well.” Hornette was none too familiar with birthday etiquette, and neither did she know enough about Surfie to choose her a present of her own; but at least a friendly greeting would suffice, she told herself. After all, it was the thought that counted, wasn't it?

“Aw, thanks, Loco,” said Surfie warmly. “You two been okay since I last saw you?”

“So-so,” replied Locomotion with a grave shrug. “Still the usual hushed whispers whenever we're out and about, but other than that, we're okay.”

“Any more trouble know who?”

“Well...not directly – but I wouldn't be surprised if he's been spreading a few rumours behind our backs,” grunted Locomotion through gritted teeth, casting a wary glance over his shoulder as if someone had been following him. He couldn't see anypony else around, so he promptly changed the subject; “So, uh...has everypony arrived?”

Surfie pondered for a few seconds. “Everyone who can make it, I think – except Uncle Steamer. How come?”

“No special reason. I just thought it'd be more convenient to announce Hornette to the whole party rather than one pony at a time...” He turned to Hornette. “...if you're both okay with it.”

“Oh, I don't mind,” conceded Surfie. “That alright with you, Hornette?”
The young changeling hesitated. She didn't feel any less shy with all the lively chatter and the sound of music from one of the rooms, but she didn't want to let Surfie or Locomotion down, so she put on a brave face and nodded her approval. Surfie promptly trotted off to gather the other guests, while Hornette and Locomotion waited patiently in the hallway.

Before long, Surfie's party guests had all convened in the dining room, quietly chattering amongst each other until she tapped a glass to attract their attention; “Right,” she began, “first of all, I'd like to thank everypony who could make it to my party – and for all your presents.”

A series of courteous murmurs greeted this.

“Just last week, I happened to bump into Loco and his new friend on the way to Sugarcube Corner, and...well, after getting to know her, I thought it only fair to invite her here as well,” Surfie continued. “But anyway, without further ado, I believe Loco has one or two words to say.”

Locomotion, who by now was standing just outside the doorway, stepped forward with a succinct nod. “Yes, er...about a month ago, as I'm sure you know,” he stammered, for he had always been a little shy about making speeches, “I found this, uh...this creature who had been attacked by a small pack of timberwolves...really badly hurt, she was, and I couldn't just stand by and let her suffer, so...well, it took a fair bit of persuasion, but...I-I-I managed to get Twilight to overlook, species, and give her a fair trial.” His anxiety increased fourfold as he turned and gave another nod, seemingly into thin air. “So far, she's been doing really...I mean, really well; but I should warn that she's kinda sensitive, careful what you say, please. But yeah,” he finished as the young insectoid stepped out from behind him, “everypony, this is Hornette.”

The awkward silence that followed was so thick that one could have sliced it with a knife. Several guests stared uneasily at the new arrival, unsure how to react; and Hornette, equally unsure what to say, shuffled timidly in place and tried to shift her mane over her face. A few hushed whispers could be heard briefly, but it wasn't until Firelli, Sweetie-Belle, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom stepped forward and greeted Hornette warmly that the ice was finally broken.

“Sure is nice to see you again,” said Sweetie-Belle kindly.

“Surfie told me you'd be coming to her party,” added Firelli heartily. “I sure am pleased you could make it.”

Hornette, forgetting to be nervous, beamed appreciatively. “Aw, thanks, Elli,” she whispered. “It's good to see you too.”

Seeing the four young mares getting along so well with Hornette, many of the other guests began to feel more at ease with having her around, and tentatively began making acquaintance with her in turn. Surfie and Firelli introduced her to their parents, a silver-white Earth mare named Fair Isle, and a mottled red and yellow unicorn stallion named Optic Strand. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon also had a few friendly words for the young changeling. Hornette was a little suspicious of them at first, knowing from Locomotion what terrors they had been in the past; but they reassured her that they were nowhere near as bad now.

“Any friend of the Crusaders is a friend of ours,” they added earnestly.

But as the party went on, Hornette found herself feeling more and more overwhelmed. She could never have expected to be received so warmly, and neither had she realised how quickly the feeling of comfort and relief that came with it could wear off. Far from being happier in herself, she began to feel a deep sense of unworthiness, as if she didn't belong with all these beings that populated Equestria – the “master race” that paled her into insignificance. But it was a throwaway remark by Shady Daze, who happened to be nearby, that dealt the crippling blow to her self-esteem.

“It's kinda funny that...Hornet or whatever her name is hasn't gone down the same path as Chrysalis,” he was saying to his coltfriend First Base. “The way she behaves, you'd think all changelings were as bad as she is!”

“I'll say,” agreed First Base with a grave smile. “Good thing for her Loco doesn't buy into that. I'm just surprised she didn't lash out in fear as soon as look at him.”

“What, a big black softie like her? Forget it!” laughed Shady Daze dismissively. “If what Loco says is anything to go by, she wouldn't even hurt a housefly – heck, she might as well be one!”

Of course, Shady Daze was only joking; but Hornette overheard his cheeky words and was deeply hurt. Firelli, who was keeping an eye on her while Locomotion went to mingle with some of his other friends, was quick to intervene; “Alright, that's enough, Shady,” she said sternly. “You heard what Loco said earlier.”

“Eh?! What did I do?” objected Shady Daze defensively.

“Perhaps you would care for me to remind you?” asked Firelli pointedly. “He specifically asked that we avoid saying anything to upset Hornette, even if we didn't mean to; and that includes labelling her as a 'softie'.”

“So? What's the harm in that?”

“Well, forgive my choice of words, Shady, but how would you feel if someone called you a 'coltcuddler' behind your back?”

Shady Daze opened his mouth to retort, but quickly shut it again as he realised how right Firelli was. With an awkward grin and a mumbled apology to Hornette, he turned and slunk meekly away with First Base close behind, trying hard to preserve the remains of his dented pride – but not before Apple Bloom had heard the tail end of the conversation.

“Sorry about Shady Daze, Hornette,” she smiled ruefully. “He's a good sort really, but he can get a bit...blunt sometimes without meanin' ta be.”

Hornette shrugged gloomily, but didn't even look at the yellow-furred mare. “He kinda has a point...I guess,” she murmured, gazing despondently into the glass she was holding. Part of her was glad he hadn't called her a savage or an outcast, but what he had said still seemed to sting her a lot more than any malicious label she would otherwise have expected.

Sensing her misery, Apple Bloom laid a gentle hoof between her shoulders. “Are you okay, Hornette?” she asked, her voice so soft that it lacked its usual country twang.

“I'm fine,” answered Hornette, setting her glass down; but the mild strain in her voice and her repeated blinks told Apple Bloom all she needed to know. “I just need some air; it's getting kinda stuffy in here.”

“Do you want some company?” offered Firelli.

Hornette shook her head no, “I'd rather be alone,” and plodded glumly towards the front door. Firelli and Apple Bloom were so perplexed that they couldn't think how to react, and simply stared in dismay as the young changeling closed the door.

“Am Ah the only one who thinks otherwise?” asked Apple Bloom at last.

“By no means, Apple Bloom,” conceded Firelli gravely. “I can't think what's bitten her, but Shady's remarks can't have helped. I'd better go tell Loco,” and she hurried away without waiting for a reply.

As chance would have it, Locomotion was hanging out with Pipsqueak, Rumble and Vinyl Scratch in the living room. Vinyl was telling the three colts a funny story about a griffin who had mistaken one of her records for a coaster; but she hadn't even finished when Locomotion caught sight of a flash of baby blue just outside the house.

“Something up, Loco?” quizzed Pipsqueak, perplexed.

Locomotion frowned anxiously. “I thought I saw Hornette wandering through the front garden.”

“What, that changeling you brought with you?” asked Vinyl.

“Yeah,” said Locomotion, “but I thought she and Elli were gonna come and join us after they were done with Apple Bloom.” No sooner had he finished his sentence than a fresh wave of concern seemed to smother him – what if someone had ignored his earlier request? Might they have hurt Hornette's feelings on purpose? And what if she ran into some stranger out on the street? “Excuse me a minute,” he muttered, and dashed out into the hallway just as Firelli came up to him.

“Oh, there you are,” she said thankfully. “I was just looking for you.”

“Yeah, so was I!” remarked Locomotion. “What's going on with Hornette?”

“I only wish I knew,” admitted Firelli. “Shady accidentally offended her only a moment ago, but she seemed kinda low even before then. I was hoping you would be able to find out why.”

Locomotion paused for a moment before nodding his consent. “Right, well, thanks for tipping me off, sis. I'll go see if I can find her.” But just as he was about to turn towards the front door, another, much more worrying thought occurred to him; “Oh, and if we're not back in half an hour – and I'm not joking,” he added seriously, “if we're still not back by then, you'd better send out a search party. If Hornette really is as distressed as you make her out to be, she could be anywhere – and I don't even want to think what could happen if someone else finds her before I do.”

Firelli nodded back in understanding. Sure, she and the rest of Ponyville knew Hornette was on probation, but all they needed was for her to run into some stranger who came from another town or was willing to take advantage of her, and then she would really be in trouble. “I'll go let Mum, Dad and Surfie know,” she answered tersely.

“Thanks, Elli,” and Locomotion cantered swiftly down the hallway, through the front door and down towards the street. What an evening, he thought unhappily; Hornette in a tizzy, Shady Daze talking out of turn, and now Surfie's party was in danger of being ruined. He could only hope things couldn't get any worse.

But they did. Just as he was opening the gate, he froze over in anguish at what stood across his path. “My, my, we're in a bit of a rush, aren't we?” said Diesel in his oily voice. “Seems a bit rude to be deserting a family function without notice.”

“What are you doing here?!” demanded Locomotion sharply.

Diesel shook his head in mock dismay, “Tut tut tut, I was only passing by.”

“Yeah right!” scowled Locomotion suspiciously. “You'd have loved to crash this party, wouldn't you? Well, you needn't bother; I've got enough trouble on my hooves as it is, so if you'll excuse me...” and he firmly gestured for Diesel to move aside; but the greasy black Pegasus continued to bar his way.

“Why waste your energy? That changeling you call your friend has grown bored of you and your flimsy principles of...'friendship is magic',” he smirked. “She will have flown away – far away, to another 'Promised Land' where she can steal another innocent pony's love – and another, and another. Soon enough, she'll return to her real home and pass all that love onto her beloved queen, and even if she does come back...”

But Diesel had gone too far this time. The further his exaggerations continued, the angrier Locomotion became as he recalled the fear and contempt Hornette held for Chrysalis, and her reluctance to take anyone else's love without their consent – until finally he snapped. “Oh, don't be a freak!!!” he snarled furiously, and forcefully pushed Diesel to one side before stepping around him onto the side-walk.

In that very same instant, Diesel forgot to be sly and conniving, and scrambled to his hooves with a poisonous look of resentment. “Well, of all that the way to treat a friend?!” he blustered without thinking.

Locomotion spun around so sharply he thought his fetlocks would sprain. “SHUT UP!!” he thundered at the top of his lungs. “You're no friend of mine, Diesel,” practically spitting the name, “and neither do you have the right to call yourself one! Hornette does because she's earned that privilege, and she's done so by being kind, and courteous, and conscientious, and compassionate, and everything you refuse to see in her!” Already, he could see that Diesel was too shocked to interrupt; and even though his harsh rant was attracting the attention of other ponies in the street, he was too enraged to care. “But you have been an absolute thorn in my side from the very moment you first showed your ugly mug! You won't leave me alone, you play around with my head, and the way you've been treating poor Hornette is nothing short of despicable! If this is the way you're going to behave when you're in my presence,” he finished, raising his voice, “then you can take your feeble attempt at a friendship with me, and SHOVE IT DOWN YOUR SORRY THROAT UNTIL YOU CHOKE ON IT!!” and he stormed away.

Diesel growled contemptuously, rubbing away the soreness in his shoulder. “You impertinent youth!” he muttered. “Just you wait! I'll show you.”

“You'll show him what, exactly?”

Without the slightest jolt or change of expression, Diesel slowly turned round. Standing just behind him was a buff-coated Earth stallion with a brown mane, a look of distrust apparent in his eyes as he glared at him. “I take it you're a relative of that insolent young buck who just insulted me?”

“And you, I take it,” put in Steamer coldly, “are the very pony to whom I allegedly spoke of every little detail of his life, no matter how confidential. You wouldn't happen to know that pony, would you – Electro Diesel?”

The black Pegasus stallion's scowl hardened. “So he's a liar as well as a hooligan, eh? Well then, Steamer, perhaps you would care...”

“Don't play dumb with me, Diesel,” interrupted Steamer. “I've forgotten more about Loco since his family moved here than you could even hope to learn by rifling through his fact file – and I can tell you right here and now that he would never snitch on anyone without a good reason, such as being...oh, I don't know, stalked by someone he knew little about!” His eyes narrowed as he pressed his face firmly against Diesel's; “Now you listen here,” he went on ominously, “I'm only gonna play it nice this once – if I ever hear of you going anywhere near Loco ever again...”

“Oh, so that's what I get for trying to protect him from a bug-eyed monster, is it?!”

“I don't care if you're trying to protect him from the ends of Equestria!” growled Steamer darkly. “You had no business creeping after those two day in and day out – that job was for Twilight Sparkle and the Friendship Council, and no-one else. You'll kindly stay away from Hornette and my nephew, or I won't show any mercy towards you whatsoever. Do I make myself quite clear?”

“Oh, yes, Steamer, of course you do, Steamer,” replied Diesel mockingly; but he quickly changed his tune when the buff stallion glared harder at him. In a much more convincing tone, he added, “You have my word of honour that I'll leave them be.”

“Good!” snorted Steamer, and marched sternly up to the front door as Diesel continued to walk down the street.

But once he was out of earshot, Diesel glowered scornfully back in Steamer's general direction. Locomotion's furious words still echoed in his mind, making him grind his teeth in his own anger. “Except that you don't!” he muttered, his voice dripping with venom. “I don't care what you threaten to do to me; that disgusting nephew of yours has insulted me, and I'm not letting it slide. Mark my words, Locomotion – you'll pay...!”

Chapter 15: You Can Only Be You

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Locomotion didn't need to search very far for Hornette. She had only gone a little way beyond the northern outskirts, and was now sitting gloomily in the middle of a rope bridge over the treacherous Ghastly Gorge. A cool, gentle breeze funnelled its way through the canyon, brushing through her mane and trying its best to soothe her; but she barely noticed it as she gazed into space, tears still trickling down her face to land several hundred hooves below. To one side of the bridge, she could just about make out the Everfree Forest in the distance, and remembered how terrified she had been of Locomotion even though he had saved her life – and all because she was a changeling. A deep sigh escaped her lips as almost familiar words echoed softly in her head;

To be...or not to be? That is the question – whether it is nobler in my natural form to suffer the sting of antagonism from unwanted enemies, or to take on a new form and be freed of my troubles? Of course, that was already out of the question; for while such transformations were second nature to most changelings, her sense of morals had prevented her from even contemplating such magic, let alone mastering it. She choked back another sob and hung her head, silently lamenting her own plight. Why was I born a changeling? Why can't I have been a pony just like all the others? She could still feel the sting of Shady Daze's words, which seemed to taunt her with every tear that slipped out of her eyes, striking further shame into her already injured soul. I hate being different...

Indeed, Hornette was in such a state of self-pity that she barely noticed Locomotion sidling up to her. He bore a gentle, sympathetic expression of concern as he approached, but wisely refrained from speaking until she finally looked up to see that she was no longer alone. “You okay?” he asked softly.

Hornette nodded faintly. “I just needed some time alone,” she murmured, and returned her attention to the floor of the gorge.

There was a long silence.

“Um...bit for your thoughts?”

To her credit, Hornette managed to restrain her thoughts from bursting out in a huge rush, but Locomotion could still hear the pain in her voice as she explained, “I just feel so...out of place among you lot. All around me are ponies and...and more ponies; all of different shapes, colours and sizes, but all living in perfect harmony with each other.” She sniffled a little before adding, “And then there's me – just one solitary changeling, standing out like a sore hoof among a sea of equines.”

Locomotion smiled soothingly and placed a hoof on her shoulder. “You're as much an equine as all the rest of us, in my book,” he whispered. “And so what if you're an equine with insectoid features? We all have our differences – Derpy with her funny eyes, Pip with his blotchy coat colours, Tootsie Flute with two biological mothers...even me with my disability and my love of trains and so on.”

This threw Hornette for a loop, and she could only stare in confusion as if he was having a joke with her. “You? Disabled?” she exclaimed. “But how can you be when you look so...normal?”

Locomotion shook his head, his expression turning sombre and serious. “Wrong again, Hornette,” he confessed gravely. “Not all disabilities are physical, after all – plenty of them are actually...'all in your head', so to speak; and it's pretty much the same with me.” A deep sigh followed as he steeled himself for what he was about to say. “I don't normally like to dwell on it, even with close friends or family, but...when I was only a yearling, I was diagnosed with a condition called ASD – Autistic Spectrum Disorder, or 'autism' to give its more common name.”

“What does that mean?”

“It''s basically a sort of a birth defect that messes with your brain patterns in any of a number of different ways,” explained Locomotion. “Sometimes it affects your behaviour and the way you communicate; sometimes it takes the form of a learning's all pretty divisive, but it's usually a combo of the above. In my case, it kinda hampers my ability to deal with certain situations and changes of plan and so on.”

Hornette was left agape in her dismay. She had always seen Locomotion as the very image of perfection, the sort of kind and understanding personality she aspired to be; and here he was, confiding that he was...disabled! The mere thought of such a word made her heart bleed, and fresh tears, not of shame, but rather of deep sympathy, filled her eyes. “Oh, Loco,” she stammered, “I'm really sorry for you. How do you even cope with it?”

Locomotion smiled weakly. “I like to think of it as a blessing in disguise,” he observed. “Even disabilities have their perks, after all, and autism is no different; particularly when I come out with really funny remarks without realising it, or when I start getting all silly and 'breaking the fourth wall' like Pinkie. In fact, even she tells me I have a really good memory – almost photographic, in fact – and let's face it, I probably wouldn't be quite so passionate about railways if I were some boring 'neurotypical' pony.”

The young insectoid stared thoughtfully into space as she took in his words. “I never thought about it like that.”

“You needn't think about it all,” finished Locomotion. “It's just part of who I am by the end of the day – I'm a railway enthusiast first and disabled second, and that's all that matters. It's kinda the same with you; you're a really good friend who just happens to be a changeling.”

But Hornette failed to find the solace in his words, not least because Shady Daze's earlier remarks had begun to flow through her mind again. “More like a weakling in my case,” she murmured bitterly.

Locomotion was so appalled that his heart skipped a beat. “Don't ever put yourself down like that!” he protested with a faintly scolding tone.

“But it's true!” insisted Hornette pathetically. “All I've ever done since coming here was cry and cower every time I meet a new face.”

“No you haven't!” argued Locomotion firmly. He paused for a moment to calm himself down, and to let Hornette realise the truth in his words, before continuing in a much gentler tone; “You're a lot of things, Hornette, but you're not a savage, you're not an outcast – and you're certainly not a weakling. If anything, you're a lot braver than you give yourself credit for, running away from such a cruel and oppressive home like that. I dunno if I could ever have pulled that off myself,” he admitted with a soft smile of admiration. “And crying doesn't automatically make you a weakling or a coward or anything of the sort – it just shows that you're a kind, gentle being of flesh and blood, that you have a heart and a soul and everything that that idiot queen of yours refuses to embrace.”

Already, he could see from the shaky half-smile on Hornette's face that she was beginning to feel better for hearing that; but clearly she still had a long way to go. “Only Thorax has ever said that to me before,” she sighed longingly. “Any other changeling would have sided with that Shady Daze pony if they saw me like this.”

Locomotion's smile seemed to soften even further as he played his trump card, pulling her into a gentle hug. “You needn't listen to Shady,” he soothed. “He doesn't know what he's talking about – I do because I've seen it for myself. And the same goes for Chrysalis and all the other changelings; you don't live under their shadow anymore, and neither should you have to.” He drew back a little so that he could look Hornette in the eye; “You remember what I said when we went to meet Fluttershy?”

“I...sort of.”

“I said you didn't have to let anyone else dictate who you are just because that's what they see in you – or even want to see, for that matter. You are who you choose to be.” The red-furred unicorn's hooves slid away from Hornette's barrel to take hold of her own as, still gazing into her eyes, he began to further emphasise his point through song;

Some creatures just don't take a second glance,
And others may judge and deride;
But your species alone doesn't justify their stance.
What matters is who you are inside...

You can only be you,
Whatever else we believe to be true.
It doesn't even matter what you are;
Just be yourself, and you will go far.

You needn't pose as any other creature;
You needn't let your feelings tear you apart;
All you need to know is that, under those features,
You're still a gentle changeling at heart...

But Hornette still felt a little self-conscious, and gently prised her hooves away from Locomotion as she lamented;

Gentle, yes, but then still I'm a changeling;
A creature far from welcome in this land!
You might think I'm fine without any rearranging,
But nopony else would even understand...

She gazed sadly down into the gorge again.

...Why can't they see the real me?
Is this what I'm really meant to be;
A phoney pony who doesn't have a heart?
There has to be a better place to start.

Locomotion gently shook his head in response;

There is nothing that you need to hide,
No shame in where your ancestry extends.
You can't change who you are inside;
That's all that counts to me and your friends.

That at least brought the slightest hint of a smile back to Hornette's face. How could she have forgotten – not just Surfie and Firelli and other members of Locomotion's family, but Sweetie-Belle, Scootaloo, Apple Bloom...even the obstinate Rainbow Dash seemed to see some good in her. Maybe Locomotion was right – maybe she really was overthinking her flaws.

All I really want is trust and love,
Acceptance from the powers above...

Another tear slipped out of her eye, only to be brushed away by Locomotion as he softly cajoled her;

Come now, dry up those tears.
Someday for you,
Your dreams of peace will come true.

At last, Hornette began to feel the weight begin to lift from her shoulders, and her sorrow gave way to a fresh feeling of hope and resolve. So what if she was different from all the ponies around her, she thought bravely – at least she was different from the rest of her kind too, and if so many of her kind were so savage, then being different from them was no bad thing by any stretch of the imagination...

It's not easy being me...

You can only be you.

...but what else could I possibly be?

There's nothing else you can do.

I may not be happy with who or what I am,
But I'll be the best changeling that I can.

No need to take it hard; just be who you are,
And let your gentle spirit take you far.

Both pony and changeling fell silent for a while. Neither felt the need to say anything, but simply basked in each other's company until, eventually, Hornette softly spoke up. “Loco,” she whispered, a genuine smile on her lips for the first time in several hours, “how did I gain such a kind and loyal friend as you?”

“By being such a kind and loyal friend yourself, much?” chuckled Locomotion rhetorically. “Seriously, though,” he went on gently, “you didn't even need to do anything except to just be yourself. Don't ever feel you have to change who you are, Hornette, just because a measly bunch of hecklers think so ill of you – no creature alive should have to feel ashamed of their species or what they're like, and it's the same with you.”

“You always say that.”

“Yeah – and I mean it. You're a really gentle soul, Hornette, and I'm happy to have you in my life.” Locomotion sighed wistfully and looked up at the stars. “I wish all changelings were like you.”

Hornette was so touched that she couldn't think of a suitable response. Of all the things a pony could have said to her, even by Locomotion's standards this had to be the nicest compliment she had ever received. She could feel his words tugging at her heartstrings, feel the affection in his voice...almost as if, it couldn't possibly be true...could it? But her puzzlement was quickly diverted as she noted a glint of sorrow in his eyes, as if in subdued mourning. Was there something bothering him, she wondered? Perhaps she ought to ask him about it later...

“Anyway,” said Locomotion, changing the subject, “shall we get back to the party? Mum and Dad and the others will be wondering where we are.”

“Even me?” ventured Hornette.

Especially you. The open road's no place for a changeling, even if she is on probation.” Locomotion stepped to one side, bowing graciously and holding out a courteous hoof; “Ladies first.”

Again, Hornette felt a tug at her heartstrings as she politely stepped past him and began making her way back to firm ground. Any remaining woes she might have had seemed to vanish into oblivion, and she stared dreamily into space, sighing inwardly. He's such a gentlecolt...

But her blissful reverie couldn't last. She hadn't even gone ten yards when she heard a startled grunt from behind, causing her to stop in her tracks. “What's the matter, Loco?” she called, turning to face him.

“My hoof's caught in the slats,” said a mildly frustrated Locomotion. He was still on all fours, but his left hind hoof had somehow slipped between two of the wooden boards, and he was cautiously probing them with his right hoof in an attempt to prise it out.

“Oh you want any help?”

Locomotion was about to reply when he felt what he thought to be a wide enough gap for his hoof to slip out. “No thanks,” he answered. “I think I might have got this,” and he gently pushed down on one slat whilst wriggling his stuck hoof towards the opening. Hornette stood and watched cautiously, trying to make sure he didn't hurt himself; but in the confusion, neither of them noticed an ominous splintering noise...

If Locomotion thought it a surprise that he should enjoy flying, he would have been truly flabbergasted to find himself wishing he still had wings. But now, as one of the slats suddenly gave way beneath him, he realised with horrifying clarity how much he would need them more than ever. He yelped in alarm as he fell through the breach, but only just managed to grab hold of the slat immediately in front of him, and clung on for dear life.

“Loco!” shrieked Hornette in horror. In an instant, she lunged forward onto her barrel and reached out to him. “Loco, give me your hoof!” she urged frantically.

But Locomotion couldn't. For the first time since Hornette had known him, she could see a look of untold terror in his eyes, a look that clearly told her how close he was to eternity; if he dared to let a single hoof loose...well, she didn't dare think about it. She crawled slowly towards him, hoping to grab his hoof herself and pull him to safety – but just as she was within reach, the helpless unicorn lost his grip altogether and plunged into the ravine.


Without a moment's thought, Hornette jumped over the side of the bridge and dived bravely towards the flailing, screaming Locomotion. Flapping her wings as hard as she could, she caught up to him just inches from the bottom of the abyss, and grabbed him by his chest before pulling swiftly out of their death dive. With the added weight of a teenaged stallion, she could feel her wings begin to ache from the effort, but refused to give up until they were on high ground – and not a moment too soon either. They had only just cleared the edge of the cliff when, dizzy with exhaustion, her wings finally gave out, and she collapsed onto the soft grass, panting heavily.

It took a while for her head to stop spinning, but when at last she regained her senses... “Loco!” she gasped, still trying to catch her breath. The red-furred unicorn, now sitting slumped only a few inches away from her, was thankfully unhurt; but his breathing was shaky and shallow, and he appeared to be trembling all over. “Loco, are you okay?”

But Locomotion didn't respond. He didn't even seem to hear what Hornette was saying.

“Loco!! Answer me!” she shouted, shaking him vigorously. “Are you okay?!”

A dull, slight croak brought her shaking to a halt as Locomotion tried to speak; but paralysed with shock as he was, even this seemed to take all his willpower. “You......y-y-you...just...saved my life,” he managed to choke out.

With a huge sigh of relief, Hornette wrapped her arms tightly round the traumatised unicorn, who broke down into quiet sobbing as he feverishly returned the embrace. “Don't scare me like that, Loco, please,” she whispered. “I really thought I was going to lose you.”

“Loco? Is everything alright?” called a voice through the darkness. Hornette looked up, and sure enough, Steamer was just approaching them with an anxious look stamped on his face. This quickly turned to baffled shock when he noticed his nephew's trepid state. “Loco!” he burst out. “What happened to you?”

Hornette began to panic. “I-I-I can explain, Mr Steamer!” she blustered. “Loco got his hoof stuck, and somehow, he managed to break one of the slats and...”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!!” interrupted Steamer, flustered. “Start from the beginning, Hornette, and tell me clearly and slowly what happened.”

“You don't need to. I saw the whole thing.” Steamer and Hornette looked back to see Featherweight touching down behind them, brandishing his camera. “It's a good job you asked me to bring this along too,” he added; “at least now we have photographic evidence to prove it.”

“Prove what?”

“There was some kind of dark, shadowy...thing hiding in a blind spot beneath the bridge,” Featherweight explained. “I dunno what it was, I couldn't see it too clearly; but I did see it prising a couple of slats apart when Loco was passing over them. Whatever it was, it must have weakened one of them before he even got there, because next thing I knew...” and he told Steamer all about Hornette's rescue effort.

Steamer choked back a gasp, cupping one hoof around his mouth as the horrific information sank in. Locomotion, very near finished his life's journey – and on Surfie's birthday to boot! Why, if it hadn't been for Hornette...lowering his hoof again, he turned his attention back to his nephew. “ this true?” he stammered.

Gingerly, Locomotion lifted his head from Hornette's shoulder and nodded weakly in affirmation. Overcome with relief, Steamer sidled up to them and wrapped a grateful arm around the bemused changeling, letting loose a small tear for the first time she could ever remember. “Thank you, Hornette,” he whispered. “That was really brave of you.”

“Oh, please don't, Mr Steamer,” protested Hornette, feeling deeply self-conscious all of a sudden. “I don't even deserve...” but she quickly broke off as she remembered what Locomotion had said.

“Hornette, you saved my nephew's life,” objected Steamer with a soft, tearful smile. “I dunno how I'd have coped if I found out he'd been...well......or how I could break it to the rest of the family, for that matter. Only a true hero would have reacted the way you did.” He gently released her from his embrace, but kept his hoof on her shoulder. “For all that, you have my full trust from now on,” he finished sincerely.

“I...I do?” Hornette's heart skipped a beat. Even as the buff-coated stallion confirmed it with a hearty nod, she could hardly believe this was happening for real. No, this had to be some kind of dream...

“I should think the same goes for the rest of Ponyville when they hear about this,” added Featherweight. He paused for a moment, gazing thoughtfully at his camera. “You guys okay with me using these in a newspaper article?” he asked tentatively. “I know Hornette's been having problems with hecklers, and I was hoping...since I have the photos to vindicate her...”

“Say no more, Featherweight,” smiled Steamer, raising his hoof. “If Loco and Hornette are okay with it, then so am I.”

Locomotion was still too shaken to say much, but responded with little more than, “Sure...just this once,” while Hornette, finally realising how close she was to exoneration, merely nodded and smiled.

“Good,” declared Steamer, “that settles it. Come on you lot – let's get going before anything else happens.”

With Locomotion leaning against Hornette for physical and emotional support, all four of them began to make their way back to Surfie's party. Not a word was spoken between them for some time they were all so deep in thought; but eventually, Hornette broke the silence. “Um...Featherweight,” she ventured, “were you serious about wanting know...clear my name?”

Featherweight chuckled wryly. “I'd be pretty ungrateful if I didn't,” he observed. “Loco's a good friend of mine, Hornette; I may not be his uncle, but I'd still be gutted if he'd been lost. Besides,” giving her a knowing wink, “I still owe him one for helping me and the Crusaders out of the Gabby Gums scandal.”

Hornette smiled appreciatively. “That's really thoughtful of you, Featherweight. I'd do the same for you one day, I'm sure.”

“That's okay,” Featherweight smiled back. “Just doing my bit for my friends.” His smile faded, and he stared suspiciously back at the gorge. “I just wish I knew what it was that tried to murder him,” he wondered out loud...

Chapter 16: Home Alone

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Featherweight was as good as his word. It took him a lot of effort to compile a suitable article before the following morning, but he only just managed to complete it in time to be published in the Ponyville Express. Before long, his story of Hornette's act of heroism became the talk of the town; the frowning faces and hushed whispers whenever she was out and about gradually gave way to cheery smiles and friendly waves, and the young changeling soon found that she no longer felt shy and awkward about showing her face in public. Even Rainbow Dash, while she never said anything, would nod a respectful greeting should the young insectoid catch her eye.

This lifted a tremendous weight from Locomotion's shoulders too. At long last, he thought thankfully, the whole of Ponyville had begun to embrace Hornette as an equal; but more importantly, he himself was still alive and well, thanks to her bravery. Even without Featherweight's news article, he could never have been gladder of Hornette's presence than on that fateful night. The days went by, and the two teenagers grew so close that they seemed to spend nearly every waking hour in each other's presence.

A week later, Steamer was getting ready for a very important assignment. The summer fruit traffic from the other side of the Buckskin Mountains was unusually heavy that month, so “City of Cloudsdale” and three other express engines were being sent to Delamare to help with the extra trains. He finished packing his bags, and began to make his way downstairs just as Locomotion emerged from his room.

“Hey, Uncle Steamer,” he said casually. “You nearly ready to go?”

“Pretty much. Should be there in good time to grab some dinner before I set off,” said Steamer.

Locomotion chuckled as he checked his watch. “Yeah, I was gonna say it's a bit early to be taking charge of the Bridleway Limited,” he mused. He knew the express generally only needed the one engine, but he also knew it was common practice for railway superintendents to send extra engines as double-headers on regular service trains. This meant that fewer timetable “paths” were taken up by light engine movements, and allowed greater operational flexibility should another train be chartered without notice.

Steamer only rolled his eyes in mild amusement before changing the subject; “So how did you and Hornette get on this morning?”

“Not bad for her first shopping trip,” answered Locomotion. “I mean, yeah, we did run into Shady while we were out, but at least he had the heart to apologise for last week.” A wry smirk crossed his face as he added, “He's probably a bit embarrassed that his loose lips did me and Hornette a good turn!”

“Yeah...probably,” but privately, Steamer failed to see the humour in Locomotion's remark. Sure, he was as grateful as his nephew that Hornette had been there to save him, but part of him wished that Shady Daze hadn't spoken so tactlessly in the first place, no matter how much of a bearing it had on her reputation. “Will you two be okay here on your own? I won't be back until Sunday evening, you know.”

Locomotion raised an eyebrow. “What's there to worry you, Uncle Steamer?” he objected. “We haven't seen or heard from Diesel for ages – I dunno what you said or did to scare him off, but...”

“It's not Diesel that I'm worried about,” interrupted Steamer gravely. “It's Hornette.”

The red-furred young stallion rolled his eyes and shook his head in mock dismay. “I thought you said you trusted her!”

“I do, don't get me wrong,” replied Steamer. “I'm just a bit worried about whether she'll be able to take care of herself.” In the week following the incident, he and Locomotion had agreed to start easing the latter back into his old job, which meant leaving Hornette on her own for the first time. Locomotion didn't seem too troubled by this (and if he was, he did a good job of hiding it), but Steamer wasn't quite so reassured.

“She'll be fine, Uncle,” soothed Locomotion. “Hornette may not look like much, but she's...fairly independent – she had to be when she was on the run. Besides, Elli, Surfie and the Crusaders have all promised to look in on her, and I won't exactly be leaving Ponyville, according to my work schedule.”

“Why, what are you on?”

“Shunting at the yard,” explained Locomotion simply. “I'm working the 8am to 4pm shift on the 5118; so I should be within easy reach if Hornette gets into trouble.” His expression softened a little. “If I didn't know better, I'd say you're growing attached to her.”

“Says the pony who saved her in the first place,” murmured Steamer with a wry smile. “Seriously, though,” he went on, heaving a wistful sigh, “I know I haven't been the most welcoming of ponies at first, but...there's just something about her's like she's filling in for the family that left me behind.”

Locomotion's smile faded. “Yeah, I know what you mean. That must have been really painful, the way she just walked out on you – and not too long after cousins Megabyte and White Rose had flown the nest. Good thing me being around, eh?”

Steamer nodded and gave his nephew an appreciative nuzzle, a single tear slipping out of his eye as he remembered...but now wasn't the time to dwell on the past, he thought resolutely. Pulling himself together, he ambled briskly downstairs and into the living room, where Hornette was relaxing on the sofa.

“Hello, Mr Steamer,” she said, looking up from the book she was reading. “You all set?”

“Pretty much,” Steamer affirmed, gathering a few books of his own from the nearby shelf. “Just picking out a bit of reading material to keep me busy when I'm off duty.” He packed them into his saddlebag and turned round to face the young changeling; “Now, Hornette,” he asked, “are you absolutely certain you'll be okay to look after yourself while Loco's away?”

Hornette considered. She was still a little nervous about being left to her own devices, and part of her didn't want Locomotion to leave her alone; but she didn't want to disappoint them, especially at such short notice, so she said bravely, “Positive, Mr Steamer – as long as the others look in on me as promised.”

“Good girl,” said Steamer, patting her on the shoulder. “Now remember – if, Celestia forbid, you do run into trouble, the emergency contacts are taped to the side of the fridge; otherwise...well, I hope you two have a good time.”

“Thank you, Mr Steamer. Have a safe journey.”

“Yeah, take it easy, Uncle Steamer.”

“So long.” With that, Steamer slipped his saddlebag over his back and set off for the sheds. Locomotion held the front door open for him, waiting until his uncle was out of sight before closing it again.

“Well, Hornette,” he remarked as the young changeling put her book down and trotted up alongside him, “seems we've got the place to ourselves for the next two days.”

“Yeah,” murmured Hornette, “and there was I thinking he'd change his mind at the last minute. I've never known him to worry this much about a changeling like me.”

Locomotion nodded wistfully. “He wasn't joking with what he said about family just now,” he confided. “When I was just ticking over to thirteen, he was going through such a rough patch that his wife found him difficult to live with. Eventually, she decided she'd had enough, and just...left him. What made the timing even worse was that his son Megabyte and his daughter White Rose had just moved out to begin further education.”

“And she didn't even care for the family she was leaving behind?” asked Hornette, dismayed.

“Well...yes and no. She's still in touch with my cousins, but she hasn't spoken to Uncle Steamer for three years. With her gone, he went into an even deeper depression, and nearly gave up his job until Dad persuaded him to go get some help. I was pretty worried for him too, because I was often there to witness his downward spiral...” An ominous shiver coursed its way through Locomotion's body, and for a moment, Hornette thought she could detect a mild sense of fear in his eyes. It was almost as if he was recalling some terrible trauma from his past. “...but at the same time, I was seeking to further my independence, so I spoke with my parents and asked if I could move in with him. It wasn't hard to persuade them, considering he only lives a few blocks away – and the rest is history, pretty much.

“It kinda works in both our favours, really,” he went on. “Uncle Steamer gets a much-needed companion, I get to learn vital life skills; but most importantly, there's always someone around to keep things going if the other is tired or ill. See, driving and firing a steam engine is a rewarding job, but it can be pretty demanding too. There have been times when Uncle Steamer comes home absolutely shattered, and then I have to take care of the housework while he recovers.”

Hornette smiled softly. “That was really thoughtful of you, Loco. I can't even begin to imagine what had got him so down, but he sure is lucky to have a nephew like you.”

Almost at once, Locomotion seemed to retreat into his shell. “'s not something that he and I like to dwell on, to be honest,” he replied uneasily. “It was painful enough watching his morale decline, but the effect it had on mine...” He said no more, but dropped his gaze down to his hooves.

“How do you mean?” asked Hornette, her smile fading.

“'s not important,” mumbled Locomotion sheepishly. “Just a hint of the blues, that's all.”

But this wasn't enough to allay Hornette's concerns. Locomotion was clearly hiding something, she thought – and this was the same pony who had been helping her open up to her own feelings and confront her fears! So why was he being so cagey all of a sudden? What could possibly have affected him and Steamer so badly that he became closed off at the slightest mention of it?

“So...what do you want for dinner?” asked Locomotion.

“Hmm...” Hornette pushed her worries aside for a brief moment, and wrapped a thoughtful hoof around her mouth as she contemplated. “...I actually feel like something...exotic. Something from a place other than Equestria or the Badlands.”

“Oh, well that's convenient,” murmured Locomotion thankfully. “I was actually feeling a bit lazy to do any cooking.”

“Are you, though?” ventured Hornette anxiously. “You seem kinda shaky, especially round your legs.” And his eyes, she thought as she tentatively gazed into them. “Loco...are you alright?” she asked in her most caring tone.

“I'm fine,” Locomotion dismissed absent-mindedly; but deep down, he couldn't help cursing his unsteady legs. “Just a little bit tired. I'll be okay once I get some food in me.”

“Oh...” Privately, Hornette wasn't convinced, but still decided not to make a fuss. “...well, if you're sure,” she conceded doubtfully. “So what did you have in mind?”

“Well, as I said, I'm not really up to cooking tonight, so I thought maybe we could get ourselves a takeaway.”

“A what?” Hornette arched a perplexed eyebrow.

“It's basically like eating at a restaurant, but you literally take your meal away to eat at home or as a picnic,” Locomotion elaborated. “There are even specially dedicated outlets for that sort thing – mostly hot food, of course.”

“Oh, I see! So do you and Steamer have them quite often?”

“Every once in a while, yeah; particularly when we've both had a tiring day at work. We usually get a Chineighse from the Golden Dragon or an Elephandian from the Ranee Vishaal, but there are plenty of other places to choose from...if you want to, that is.”

“No, it's alright, Loco,” Hornette reassured him, “I'm happy to try one of those two places if that's what you want to do.”

Locomotion smiled appreciatively before weighing up his options. “ that case, I think we'll go Elephandian,” he decided, cantering into the dining room and levitating the Ranee Vishaal takeaway menu from the nearby shelf. “I quite fancy a bit of curry tonight. You wanna take a look through here, Hornette, and see what takes your fancy? I already know what mine's gonna be.”

“Well, what would you recommend?” asked Hornette, pulling up a chair next to him as she perused the menu. She could already see there was plenty to choose from – perhaps a bit too much for her liking.

“Nothing stronger than a Rogan Josh, that's for sure,” advised Locomotion sagely. “Uncle Steamer tends to go a bit spicier than me, but even he'd have to have an asbestos tongue to withstand the vindaloo and the madras and so on.”

“Yeah...I see your point,” mused Hornette, recalling a particularly embarrassing palaver from nearly a fortnight ago. During dinner, she had somehow managed to put Crystal Hot Sauce on her hayburger instead of ketchup, something she failed to notice until she took her first bite – at which point her mouth seemed to catch fire! Screaming in panic and agony, she bolted for the sink and began hosing her mouth down with cold water, only to send herself into a fierce coughing fit as some of it went down the wrong way. It took Locomotion a long time to calm her down and mop up the resultant spray, and only after a baffled Steamer took a tentative sniff of her burger did any of them realise her mistake. A few sips of milk soon eased her burns, but even then Hornette spent the next day laid up in bed with a sore mouth and the mother of all stomach aches. No way would she want to go through all that again, she thought wryly. “I think I'll just have what you're having...if that's okay with you.”

“Yeah, that's fine by me,” conceded Locomotion affably. “I'll just go phone it through.”

The takeaway arrived half an hour later, just as Twilight had finished scanning Hornette's memory and renewing the suppression spell. It consisted of Locomotion's regular order of broccoli korma, Bombray potatoes and pilau rice with a side of naan bread, and the young changeling quickly found it to be some of the most succulent food she had ever tasted. She especially loved the sweet and creamy almond flavour of the korma sauce; it was almost like taking a spoonful of heaven with a dash of nectar, she thought blissfully as she felt it massage the inside of her mouth. No wonder Locomotion enjoyed it so much.

Indeed, just as he had asserted earlier, Locomotion seemed a lot more at ease now that he had such a delectable meal on his plate, and Hornette soon forgot to be worried too. Having finished their dinner, the two teenagers spent the rest of the evening relaxing in front of the television before Hornette decided to turn in for the night; but when Locomotion came to read his usual bedtime story, it only seemed to rekindle her earlier anxiety. The story in question was about a tomboyish young diesel who had grown fed up of shunting in her home yard, and wanted to go further down the line. In trying to do so, she only succeeded in landing an elderly tram engine in grave danger when her trucks pushed him out of control – straight towards a weakened bridge across a raging torrent! Locomotion seemed to phase out at this point, and even when Hornette managed to snap him out of his reverie, his narration lacked its usual energy, becoming ever so slightly timid and tremulous.

Despite the story's happy ending, the young insectoid found it more unsettling than intriguing, particularly with how it seemed to be affecting his behaviour. She tried asking if everything was alright in his world, but Locomotion simply dodged the question and trotted off to his own room, muttering something about finishing his latest fanfiction as he left Hornette in suspense. Reluctantly, she wrapped a worried arm around Prairie and settled down to sleep...

Locomotion was making good time as he took his goods train through the Buckskin Mountains – not as the driver or the firepony, but as a large red tank engine with four small wheels in front, and eight driving wheels behind. Normally, one of the big Mustang Class freight engines would have taken the train, but the one which was meant to work it had broken down; and since Locomotion was the only engine available, Max Pressure had told him to take it instead.

“This sure beats the marshalling yard,” he puffed cheerfully. “I hardly ever get a chance to stretch my wheels with shunting.” He gazed thoughtfully along the line; “I wonder how Hornette's doing at Albaneigh Yard?”

But his trucks were nowhere near as jovial as he was. “That Diesel!” they grumbled to each other. “He's got some nerve, bumping us around like this – and now he's buzzed off to some other station just to get away from us! How are we supposed to get our own back?!”

“Doesn't matter,” said one. “We can always take it out on Loco instead. Who does he think he is anyway, hanging out with that changeling?! She doesn't even belong here!”

Locomotion overheard them, but didn't take much notice. “These trucks sure love their chatter,” he thought aloud, and bumped them sternly. “Alright, you lot, smarten up. I'd rather not have to deal with your nonsense today.”

“Ha! We'll give him nonsense!” whispered the trucks ominously.

They ran quietly and smoothly at first, and Locomotion thought he had them under complete control; but soon, they passed through the refuge sidings at Winsome Peak Summit and approached the top of the long downhill gradient towards Delamare, where they would have to set the wagon brakes before descending. Locomotion whistled to let the guard know they were going to stop, and his own brakes came on with a groan. This was the signal for the trucks.

“Hurrah! Hurrah!” they screeched, and surged forward.

“Whoa, what the...?!” exclaimed Locomotion in alarm as his wheels locked and slithered. He released his brakes and tried applying them again, but they were useless against the unwilling trucks, and before he knew it, they were hurtling down the hill at a tremendous rate. “Cut it out, you stupid trucks!” he yelled frantically. “We're gonna have an accident!”

But the trucks didn't care. “Go on! Go on!” they giggled in their silly way, as Locomotion desperately fought for control...

Further along the line, Hornette, herself now a little blue tank engine with six small wheels, was humming a little tune as she shunted the yard at Albaneigh. Her trucks were uneasy about being shunted by a “changeling engine” at first, but she had been so gentle with them that they began to warm to her. But just as she was about to buffer up to a cut of vans, she stopped and stared along the main line. Far away, but getting closer and closer, she could hear another engine whistling furiously.

“That's odd,” thought Hornette. “It sounds like Loco, but...surely he can't be travelling that fast.” But as she waited and watched, a flash of red appeared from around a distant curve, shouting and whistling urgently to clear the line. As the runaway reached the station throat, her eyes widened in horror, “It is Loco!”

Without a moment's thought, Hornette charged onto the main line and ran as hard and as fast as she could until Locomotion was almost alongside her. “Loco! What's going on?” she called above the pounding of their exhausts.

“Those stupid trucks are ganging up on me!” replied Locomotion. “I can't stop them!”

As if on cue, the trucks seemed to push even harder into his rear buffers, screaming and laughing manically. “Bump him! Scrag him! Throw him off the rails!” they hollered.

“Hang on, Loco!” shouted Hornette, shutting off steam. “I'm gonna try and slow you down from behind!”

“Hurry, Hornette!” begged Locomotion as the smaller tank engine dropped further and further back. But no sooner had he said this than a sudden realisation struck him like a wrecking ball against his boiler. “Oh, D-rat, the bridge! If I don't slow down, it'll tear itself to pieces under my weight! What am I gonna do?!”

But as it turned out, the speed limit was only half his problem. The bridge in question passed over a chasm almost as deep and treacherous as Ghastly Gorge; and to make matters worse, it was closed down for repair. In a blind panic, Locomotion swung his reverser hard over and turned on full steam against the trucks.

“I must stop them! I must!” he groaned through gritted teeth.

“ON! ON! ON!” bellowed the trucks fiercely; but their effort slackened the closer they came, until at last, Locomotion brought them to a shuddering halt – right in the middle of the bridge! Slowly, cautiously, he tried to reverse back to firm ground, but the trucks wouldn't let him. “Hold back! Hold back!” they yelled.

“Come on, you suicidal tubs!” urged Locomotion. “If this bridge gives...” but he suddenly let out a shriek of alarm as they felt it sag beneath their wheels. He looked back, praying that Hornette would be strong enough to help them, but was even more horrified to find she was no longer there. The only other engine in sight was a black diesel shunter, who stood smirking next to a pair of wrecking cranes.

The engine leered smugly at him as he watched him struggle helplessly. “So,” he remarked, “it seems that karma has finally caught up with our 'righteous' friend Locomotion.”

“Diesel!” cried Locomotion despairingly as he tried his hardest to grip the rails. “Diesel, help me!”

“After how you insulted me? I don't think so!” taunted Diesel. “Besides, who would want to associate themselves with an engine who wouldn't even dare to save his aunt?” He backed away, grinning ominously at the look of shock on the big red tank engine's face. “Goodbye, Locomotion.”

“No! Diesel, wait!” yelled Locomotion. “You can't leave me here! Come back! Please!”

But even if Diesel could hear him above the whining of jet engines rapidly approaching, he wouldn't have paid him any attention. Locomotion slowly turned his gaze towards the source of the noise, his face ashen with terror – for there, diving towards him at an alarming rate of knots, was a huge crippled airliner with smoke billowing from its engines. As it closed in on him, its rear fuselage suddenly broke away, revealing the registration code on its tailplane as E-BAZT.

Locomotion's boiler seemed to freeze as he watched the tail section plunge into the ravine. He hadn't seen those markings up close before, but he remembered the plane's registration all too well. His call for help caught in his blastpipe, and before he could even think of anything else, the nose of the aircraft tore off as well, revealing hundreds of terror-stricken ponies, one of whom he instantly recognised – but he had no time even to think of calling out her name before the plane crashed into the side of the bridge, creating a huge fireball and sending Locomotion, his trucks and the airliner passengers tumbling and screaming to their doom...

With a panicked yelp, Locomotion jolted himself awake in a cold sweat, hyperventilating like mad until at last he managed to regain his bearings. He was no longer a tank engine, but the same teenaged unicorn stallion he had been when he fell asleep more than an hour ago, now caught in a tangle of bedsheets near the edge of his raised cabin bed. His breathing became ragged with distress as he choked back a small sob, still shaken from what he now knew to be a dream – but what a nightmare! And how easily it could have come true but for the young changeling now sound asleep in the guest room. Hornette was right to worry about him, he thought glumly.

But what difference did it make? He was on his own now...or was he? No...he couldn't possibly intrude...not at such a ridiculous hour. If only his bed could have been closer to the floor for just one night, then maybe he wouldn't have so much trouble sleeping himself. Morosely, he heaved himself out of his bed and stepped quietly into the hallway, trying to clear his head; but even a round of stealthy pacing did little to calm him down. At last, he decided he couldn't take any more, and summoning one of his pillows with his magic, he knocked gently at Hornette's door.

“Hornette? Are you asleep?”

A groggy moan came from the other side. “Mm...not really. Why, what's up?”

“Can I...c-c-can I come in?” stuttered Locomotion timidly.

“Uh...sure.” In the darkness of her room, Hornette shifted herself round so that she could sit upright, blinking herself awake as the door swung open. She wasn't the least bit surprised to see Locomotion entering, but was overcome with a worrying sense of deja vu when she saw how vulnerable and distressed he looked. His eyes were sore and full of fear, with twin streaks trailing down from them. He was holding a pillow in his teeth, and looked like he had been struggling to fight back tears.

“Loco?” asked Hornette, her voice full of concern. “What's wrong? Why are you crying?”

“Nightmares,” faltered Locomotion, setting his pillow down by her bed. “I dreamed I was a tank engine taking a train across the Buckskin Mountains – you were in it too, and so was Diesel...”

It took a while for him to explain what had happened, but Hornette was already reeling with unspoken shock and dismay when he came to the part with the unsafe bridge. By the time he had finished, she was so flooded with sorrow that she was compelled to draw him into a comforting embrace. “Aw, Loco,” she whispered softly as he wept into her shoulder, “you poor stallion.”

“I'd have been a goner if not for you,” sobbed Locomotion. “I can't thank you enough for saving me that night...really I can't!” Gingerly, he tried in vain to wipe his eyes, only for them to water up again as his tears continued afresh. “Pinkie was right – you really are an angel.”

Hornette nodded, nuzzling him as she did so. “I couldn't possibly sit there and watch you die, not after you refused to do so with me,” she murmured, trying to suppress the flattered blush on her cheeks. “Besides, you're my best friend; I don't know how I would have coped without you.” But somehow, there was something about calling him a friend that seemed to sting her in the heart. Was he really just a friend, she wondered? Or was he......more to the point, did he even want to be...?


Breaking free from her train of thought, Hornette drew back a little so that she and Locomotion could see eye to eye. “Yes, Loco?”

“I know this is probably a bit...nah, I can't,” mumbled Locomotion uncertainly. “You'll only freak out if I asked you.”

“Eh? Asked me what?” Hornette cocked her head.

Locomotion hung his head guiltily. “It's stupid...”

“No, please tell me,” coaxed Hornette gently. “Did you want me to tell you a bedtime story?”

“No, it's a bit more...personal than that. What I'm trying to say is...” Plucking up what little courage he still had, Locomotion looked back up again with pleading puppy eyes. “...Hornette...can I sleep with you tonight?”

To her credit, Hornette didn't freak out in the slightest; but she was so taken aback that she didn't know how to respond. Sure, she was anxious to try and soothe Locomotion's rattled feelings, but for reasons she couldn't quite fathom, the prospect of sharing a bed with him seemed a little forward. She loosened her embrace and gazed bashfully down at her mattress, blushing profusely. “Oh, gosh, I...I don't know...” she stammered.

Locomotion grimaced with shame. Of course Hornette wouldn't agree to such a thing, he thought ruefully. “Never mind,” he mumbled. “Just...forget I asked, okay? I'll just go back to bed.” Dejectedly, he made to stand up and walk away, only for Hornette to press down gently on his shoulder.

“Wait, hang on, Loco,” she said in an almost guilty tone. “I never said I didn't want you to. You just caught me by surprise, that's all.” She paused for a moment to gather herself before adding, “To be honest, I had a worrying feeling about tonight, what with the shaking in your legs and your choice of story.” The hoof she had laid on his shoulder gently rose and began stroking his cheek. “You're really shaken, aren't you?” she whispered, her expression softening with the tone of her voice.

Locomotion nodded faintly, his own expression turning from regret to embarrassment. “I must look an absolute wreck right now,” he lamented under his breath.

“Hey, it's alright,” replied Hornette kindly. “You don't look too bad, considering what a terrible dream you'd just had.” She scooted to one side of the bed, patting the empty space next to her. “And if it's any comfort to you, then yes – you can share my bed.”



With an internal sigh of relief, Locomotion gingerly laid himself down next to her. “Thanks, Hornette,” he whispered gratefully. “I promise I won't get up to anything if I can help it.”

Hornette smiled and wrapped her arms around his barrel again, cooing and hushing him as she magically pulled the covers over them both. Already she could feel the tension in his muscles beginning to fade, see the unease in his eyes slowly peter out...even his breathing seemed slower and steadier now. She gently ran her left hoof up and down his back, letting out a soft sigh as she felt how warm he was; like being wrapped in a thick, fluffy blanket fresh out of a spin-dryer. How she wished she could have realised this sooner.

The same thought was flowing through Locomotion's mind as he snuggled up to the young insectoid. Even with the carapace of a regular insect, she still felt almost like an ordinary pony; not like the hard plastic surface of a foal's lunch box, but tender and malleable with a thin, fuzzy layer of hair on her flesh. And then there was her mane – only now, as he ran his hoof through it, did he truly appreciate how therapeutically soft it was. He could very nearly have been stroking a kitten it was so fine. At long last, he felt a sleepy smile cross his face, which only grew as Hornette began to hum a soothing lullaby...until eventually he found himself drifting back into the realms of Dreamland, with only a single query still remaining in the back of his mind;

Is this what it feels like to fall in love...?

Chapter 17: In Times Gone By

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The soft clanging of pots and pans downstairs registered in Locomotion's ears. He cracked a drowsy eye open, wondering who or what was making all that noise – only to blink himself awake when he noticed something odd about his surroundings. For starters, Hornette was nowhere to be seen; but what really perplexed him was that he wasn't in her room anymore.

“Strange,” he thought aloud, arching a confused eyebrow. “How did I end up back in my own bed? I'm pretty sure I...” His voice trailed away as he recalled how Hornette had reacted after he asked to sleep with her. It may not exactly have been frenetic, but she must have been really unnerved after sharing her bed with him...but then why had she consented to it in the first place? Had she done so out of mere pity? With an uncertain shrug of his shoulders, he climbed down from his bed and went to investigate the source of the clanging.

He didn't have to search very far. Upon leaving his room, he noticed Hornette's bedroom door had been left open; and when he peeked into the kitchen, there he saw the young changeling leafing through a cookbook with a puzzled expression on her face. Locomotion let out a quiet chuckle of relief – of course Hornette wouldn't leave him in cold blood, he chided himself. She was far too nice for that.

Hornette's ears pricked up at the sound of his voice, and she looked up from her book with an inquisitive hum. “Oh...morning, Loco. How are you feeling?”

“Much better, thanks, Hornette,” replied Locomotion with an appreciative smile. He paused, rubbing a self-conscious hoof against the back of his neck as he tried to find the right words. “Um...thanks for being so understanding last night,” he ventured. “I dunno how I woke up in my own room this morning, but...well...”

To his consternation, Hornette's brow furrowed as if she was trying to hide something. “What's so special about that?”

“You let me sleep with you after that nightmare, remember?”

“Did I?” stammered Hornette. “Are you sure you didn't just dream the whole thing?”

“Sure I'm sure,” persisted Locomotion. “I may have autism, but I'm pretty self-aware.”

“Then...maybe you'd been sleepwalking...right?” offered Hornette with a nervous chuckle. An awkward silence followed as Locomotion arched a sceptical eyebrow at her. “'s possible, isn't it?”

“Not with me it isn't,” replied Locomotion bluntly. “If I were a sleepwalker, I'd have heard all about it from Uncle Steamer and my parents years ago.” His expression softened slightly. “Come on, Hornette, why so cagey? I wasn't being too forward last night, was I?” he asked with an ever so slight tone of anxiety.

Hornette sighed ruefully and averted her gaze, a look of deep regret in her eyes. “I'm sorry, Loco. I didn't mean to make you feel rejected or anything...I just didn't want you to feel like I was taking advantage of you.”

Locomotion blinked unbelievingly. “Why the hay would you think that?” he objected.

“You were just so timid and insecure last night,” Hornette continued meekly, “and all I did was lure you into a situation where I could easily take all your love if I wanted to. But I don't – you've been a rock for me to cling onto, and I don't ever want to lose your friendship.” She hung her head with shame and sorrow, not even wanting to make eye contact with the young stallion. “That's why I moved you back to your bed – I was more afraid of myself than...well, you, and I didn't want you to be mad at me.”

It took a while for her words to sink in with Locomotion, and for a fleeting moment, she began to worry that she might well have lost his friendship after all. But her fears couldn't last; for after barely a minute, the red-furred unicorn sidled up to her and placed a gentle hoof between her shoulders. “Hornette,” he quipped soothingly, “the only thing you need to worry about is how hard you're being on yourself. Frankly I'd rather have been 'taken advantage of', as you put it, than lose sleep over that dream. Besides, if anything, I'm more to blame for being so intrusive.”

“Eh?” Hornette cautiously looked up, and was stunned to see not even the slightest hint of disapproval in Locomotion's expression – just the same caring, reassuring smile she had grown so fond of.

“I was the one who chose to wake you up,” explained Locomotion, “and, more to the point, it was me who asked to share your bed in the first place. It's as you said; I was properly shaken up, and I needed the comfort. I just...didn't want it to be at your expense, if you take my meaning.” He blushed slightly, unwilling to explain any further; but Hornette seemed to understand. “But yeah, it's me who should be apologising.”

Hornette gave him a rueful smile of her own. “You don't need to apologise for anything,” she reassured. “I'm just glad I could be of help...” She looked away bashfully, trying to hide her reddening cheeks. “...and to be felt kinda nice cuddling up to you all night.”

Locomotion chuckled lightly. “I know how you feel. I always enjoyed a good cuddle with Mum every so often, even as a teenager. Mind you, that was before I moved in with Uncle Steamer,” he observed wistfully. “I hardly ever get the chance nowadays, and it's not something I can ask of my uncle. I did consider it once or twice, but...well, I just feel a bit awkward about having to turn to another stallion for that kind of comfort, even within my own family.”

“Aww, that's a shame,” sympathised Hornette. She gazed into space, letting her thoughts wander for a moment. “Actually,” she went on shyly, “there was...kind of another reason why I moved you back to your bed this morning. Since you treated me to breakfast in bed about a month ago......I thought I'd try and do the same for you.”

Locomotion's eyes lit up as he returned his attention to the cookbook and all the breakfast foods laid out on the counter. So that was what all the clanging was all about. “Aw, that's really thoughtful of you, Hornette. You want some help?”

“Um...yeah, I could do with it, to be honest,” conceded Hornette. Despite her good resolution, she was a little unsure about trying to cook an entire fry-up on her own.

“Right, well, I'll see to the eggs and the bangers; you can make a start on the beans and the hay bacon.”

“Okay then,” and Hornette set about emptying a can of baked beans into the saucepan she had left on the stove, whilst Locomotion pulled out a frying pan from the cupboard.

“Oh, and by the way, Hornette...” added Locomotion, with a gentle seriousness about him.

“Yes, Loco?”

“ not to mention this to Uncle Steamer.”

Hornette could only agree. She didn't want to lose Steamer's trust so soon after earning it.

Given the rough night Locomotion had had, and how Hornette had left him to sleep in after taking him back to his room, it was almost eleven o'clock by the time breakfast was ready. Locomotion didn't mind; with such a varied work schedule, he and his uncle were used to waking up, taking their meals and going to bed at random hours. Besides, he always preferred to fry his eggs slowly and steadily, so that the edges didn't crisp up and the yolk stayed nice and runny for him to dip his bacon in. Hornette had to admit he had a natural talent at cooking them so perfectly.

Having finished their breakfast, and with little else to do around the house, the two teenagers decided to take a casual jaunt through the park, where several of Locomotion's friends and acquaintances were also out and about. Almost all of them gave a friendly greeting as they passed, and not for the first time, Hornette was deeply touched that none had anything bad to say about her. Even the one sullen scowl from a mint-green Earth mare with purple mane and tail did little to dampen her spirits.

“It sure is refreshing, isn't it?” she thought aloud. “Being able to go out and not have to worry about being judged all the time.”

Locomotion smiled in agreement. This had to be the first time he had ever heard Hornette so relaxed and contented. “Yeah, it is kinda relieving, after all the bullying and heckling we've had to fend off,” he mused. “To hear them talk, you'd think we ponies were the bad guys.”

Hornette stifled a wry giggle at his facetiousness; but then her face turned solemn as a mildly disturbing thought occurred to her. “Have you ever been bullied in the past?” she ventured.

“Aw, heck, yeah,” answered Locomotion gravely. “More for being a railway enthusiast than being disabled, mind; and it's become less of a problem as time goes by. But back when I was a baby, I had serious trouble fitting in, especially with how the local social services let me and my parents down. It's part of the reason we moved to Ponyville in the first place.”

“You...used to live somewhere else?” Hornette was most surprised.

Locomotion nodded sombrely. “Elli and I were born in Trottingham, same as Pipsqueak; but we actually lived a few miles beyond its outskirts in the village of Coltwick. And I can tell you now,” he confided, “I wouldn't recommend that place even for ten million bits.”

“Why not?”

“Because, back when we lived there, it wasn't exactly...renowned for its social care. Sure, they had a few so-called 'care workers',” continued Locomotion, scowling slightly, “but most of 'em didn't give a flying feather for their jobs – they were just in it for the money. It kinda showed with the younger generation in particular; the number of tearaways you got in our neighbourhood at the just wouldn't believe.” He sighed heavily and sat down on a nearby bench. Judging by the pained grimace on his face, Hornette could tell that an old wound was slowly bubbling to the surface with him. “First playschool I went to, I got pulled out after just one day because of it.”

“What happened?” asked Hornette breathlessly, her eyes wide with concern as she took a seat next to him.

“Well, I was kinda reclusive back then, and so I was content just to sit in a corner of the room and play with the train-set they had there. But there was one particularly rough-and-tumble Pegasus filly who was trying to rope me into a violent game of Pony vs Changeling – and she certainly didn't want me to play the pony.” Locomotion rolled his eyes in sullen indignation at the unpleasant memory. “Apparently they'd had trouble with her plenty of times before then, but they never did anything about it; even the nurse who should have been keeping an eye on us was too focussed on her crocheting. Either way, I was having none of it, so I just blanked her out and carried on building my railway, even when she started whining her head off at me and nicking some of the track pieces. In the end, she got so impatient that she just...kicked me right in the ribs!”

Hornette reeled with anguish. “Ouch!” she gasped. “That must have really hurt!”

“It did,” affirmed Locomotion grimly. “She sent me keeling over onto the bridge I'd just built. I was screaming in agony, and honest to Celestia, the nurse genuinely thought I'd broken a few bones. She immediately prised the filly away from me, and left her in another room while she sent for my Mum and an ambulance. It turned out I was just badly bruised; but Mum was absolutely furious with the staff for letting this happen to me, and as soon as she arrived, all heck broke loose. She claimed in no uncertain terms that the nurse hadn't been doing her job properly; but the nurse and her employers refused to accept responsibility, and even tried to shift some of the blame onto me. In the end, Mum issued them a harsh talking down and stormed out with me in tow. Spent the rest of the day comforting me while we watched my favourite Rodney the Railway Engine videos.” He sighed again and looked down at his barrel, almost as if his wound was still visible. “I never went back there again, and neither would I want to as long as I live.”

“I should think so too,” agreed Hornette feelingly. “How heartless can you get, leaving a poor, innocent foal to be beaten up like that?!”

Locomotion frowned in agreement. “None of the other places were much of an improvement,” he went on unhappily. “No matter where we went, most of the staff were either incompetent, uncaring or just plain bone-idle, and there was always some filly or colt who delighted in playing rough. Their parents weren't much better – some were absolute doormats to their young, others couldn't be bothered with them...there were even a few who encouraged their foals' bad behaviour!” He shuddered delicately at the mental images that sprang to mind – a scraggly stallion grooming his eldest son to become a gangster; three terrified foals being beaten by their parents just for spoiling breakfast; a lonely little filly shedding tears while her uncaring mother chatted with friends... “But attitudes to the disabled were even worse. If, say, you were blind or confined to a wheelchair or had what I've got, they just looked down their noses at you and referred you to the nearest nursing home. Mum and Dad found that extremely degrading, so you can imagine how heartbroken they were when I got my diagnosis.”

“Yes, I can,” sympathised Hornette. “So would I be, if one of my foals had something wrong with their brain.”

The faintest hint of a smile crept into Locomotion's expression. “We did get our happy ending, though,” he observed. “Shortly after I was diagnosed, Dad was offered a really well paid post in the Equestrian Fibre Optics research lab near here, which was kind of his dream job. Incidentally, Uncle Steamer had already been transferred here from Delamare MPD three years earlier, just after being promoted to driver, so we had ample opportunity to explore the place whenever we came to visit.”

“So how did you feel about moving house?” asked Hornette with tentative curiosity. Given what Locomotion had told her about autism, she suspected it must have been a real struggle for him.

“Kinda apprehensive at first, but when I learned we'd be moving to Ponyville for good, I was well over the moon. And not just because my favourite uncle lived here either,” chuckled Locomotion. “The only railway we had back at our old home was an abandoned tramway; here in Ponyville, you've got an engine shed, a four-platform station, a shunting yard, all manner of goods and passenger trains...anywhere would have been better than Coltwick, but I got so much enjoyment out of watching trains being marshalled here that I fell in love with this town. What really sold it for Mum and Dad was its outstanding record on social care. At the time, it was officially listed as having the tenth best services in Equestria,” he finished, “so it was pretty much the natural choice for us – and here we are now.”

Hornette smiled softly as she let Locomotion's story sink in, silently marvelling at how much they had in common. No wonder he had been so sympathetic right from the very beginning – he had been there himself, seen first-hoof what it was like to be an outcast, and even had his own proverbial Queen Chrysalis to contend with. Yet he had grown so much stronger from the experience; strong enough that even Diamond Tiara, in times gone by, seemingly hadn't been a patch on his chivalrous nature... “And all the better for it too,” she murmured. “I'm amazed you managed to win through.”

Locomotion smiled back, albeit a little more solemnly. “It wasn't the most enthralling chapter of my life by any means,” he admitted, “but I've had plenty of ponies to support me over the last fifteen years – not just Twilight and Uncle Steamer and my family, but Max Pressure who's helped me live my dreams, and given me plenty of work experience to boot; Cheerilee, who was still only a young carer when we first moved here, and was especially sympathetic to my case; Wise Words, the previous librarian before Twilight was sent here from Canterlot...and of course all my friends in school and around the sheds.” How I wish I didn't have to lose one of those ponies so cataclysmically, he thought sadly. “If there's one thing I've learned from all that, it's what a wise railway worker once said – 'there's always a light at the end of the tunnel'.” And goodness knew he needed one right now, given the painful memories that still simmered in the back of his mind – and not the ones he had just described either...

“Loco...” Hornette's gentle voice interrupted his train of thought, and he looked up again to see a warm expression of appreciation on her face. “...thank you for sharing that story with me,” she whispered.

The red-furred unicorn grinned self-consciously and rubbed the back of his head. “That's alright, Hornette. You're probably the first...well, creature...that I've ever spoken to about it outside of family,” he answered shyly. “I dunno what it is, just seem so easy to talk to – like I can tell you anything, and you won't think any less of me.”

“ don't think any less of me for being a changeling,” Hornette reasoned, suppressing a quiet giggle that sent a strange tingle down Locomotion's spine.

“Well...what more can I say? I...” Locomotion broke off as he suddenly realised what he was about to say next. Somewhere in the depths of his mind, inaccessible even to the most accomplished brain surgeons, he could hear an impatient voice shouting for him to blurt it all out; but the rest of his body seemed too frightened to obey. What good would it do anyway, even if he did? If she knew how he truly felt, she would likely distance herself not just from him, but from all ponykind. At last, he managed to get his mouth working again – but not in the way he intended. “...I really like your...mane,” he stammered.

Hornette cocked her head, taken aback. “Sorry?”

Idiot! You just had to go and blow it, didn't you?! Locomotion smiled awkwardly, trying to ignore the scolding voice in his head. After all, he technically wasn't lying... “Your mane, I really like it,” he reiterated. “It just...adds to your appearance, makes you look even less intimidating than you ever were in the first place. I, uh...I hope you don't mind, by the way, but...I did actually have a feel of it last night.”

“Oh, I don't mind,” Hornette replied earnestly. “I didn't even think much about it before now. Why, how did it feel?”

Locomotion's smile became more genuine as he remembered. “It was beautifully soft – and so therapeutic as well, almost like silk. You know, the stuff that spiders use to make their webs,” he went on. “Rarity uses it a lot in her line of work; it makes a really fine fabric.”

“Gosh,” remarked Hornette, visibly flattered. “You really like my hair that much?”

“Believe me, Hornette, even rabbit fur can't hold a candle to your mane.” Locomotion paused as he felt a deep yearning for the same warm, therapeutic softness that had soothed him to sleep the night before. Part of him couldn't help worrying about what some passer-by might think if they saw him doing so with a changeling; but his right hoof didn't seem to care so much. In the end, he decided that this desire was too much to ignore, and tentatively asked, “Can I have another feel of it? Please?”

He was pleasantly surprised, then, when the young insectoid didn't hesitate even for one second. “Sure,” she replied with a gracious nod, magically holding out a portion of her hair. With an equally gracious smile, Locomotion reached out and began stroking it delicately, trying not to ruffle it. His smile grew warmer as its delicate texture registered against his hoof, and even more so when his gentle ministrations elicited that same cute purr he had grown so fond of. He felt like he could just sit there all day, run his hoof through her mane again and again, and not have to worry about anything else in the world...

But like a vivid, blissful dream, it couldn't last. Fortunately for them both, it wasn't some disturbed onlooker breaking their affectionate moment, but the distant scream they heard was still enough to startle them back to reality.

“What the flabberwocky was that?” exclaimed Locomotion.

Hornette's brow furrowed. “It sounded like it was coming from the boutique,” she remarked anxiously. “Maybe we'd better go see what's wrong,” and she trotted briskly away before Locomotion could answer. The red-furred unicorn rolled his eyes and smirked in amusement – somehow, he had a rough idea what this was all about...

Locomotion was right. When he and Hornette arrived, they found Rarity curled up on the floor and bawling her eyes out, while Spike desperately tried to soothe her.

“Spike?” asked Hornette. “What's going on?”

Spike grimaced anxiously as he tried to diffuse the situation. “Uh...nothing much,” he replied awkwardly. “Just having a bit of a meltdown, that's all.”

A bit?!” burst out Rarity hysterically. “I have every reason to be melting down over this! Of all the worst things that can happen...”

Locomotion clapped a hoof to his face to cover his exasperation, but struggled to hold back a stifled chortle all the same. He knew what was coming next.

“...this is THE – WORST – POSSIBLE – THING!!”

Yep – totally saw that coming!

“Um...pardon my asking,” ventured Hornette, rather more considerately, “but what exactly is 'the – worst – possible – thing'?”

“Ah, don't go on, Hornette,” smirked Locomotion. “As far as Rarity's concerned, every single little mishap in the whole world is 'the – worst – possible – thing'.”

But his smirk promptly turned into a look of confusion as another, much more frustrated voice chimed in with, “Do you have to do that every time somepony goes on about 'the – worst – possible thing'?!”

“Do what?!” Locomotion spun around. He could have sworn the voice belonged to Discord; but when he looked back towards the source, he couldn't see anyone. With a dismissive shrug, he returned his attention to Rarity and Spike; “Seriously, though,” he went on, “what is this all about?”

“I'll tell you what this is all about!” answered Rarity dramatically, pointing to the snazzy new line of clothing on one side of the lobby. “I've been working myself to the bone with these new outfits that Sapphire Shores ordered, which I promised to deliver in time for her latest tour – AND NOW I FIND I'M FRESH OUT OF THE BABY BLUE SILK I NEED TO FINISH THEM!!!” and she collapsed into a fresh round of tears.

Locomotion shook his head wearily. This was getting beyond a joke now. “Well...just order some more in then, if you haven't got enough,” he said impatiently.

“And where are we supposed to get some at such short notice?!” objected Spike crossly. “Even if we went up to Royal Ribbon's place, it'd take three or four days to get there, buy it, come home, finish the dresses and send them off – and that's assuming she has any to begin with.”

Hornette heaved a subdued sigh as the two males argued. If only there was something she could do to help, she thought unhappily as she gazed at the outfits – and that was when it hit her. The fabric Rarity had been using, she noticed, was almost the exact same colour as her mane. Maybe...just maybe... “Uh, Spike,” she interjected curiously, “did you say it was silk you needed?”


“How much?”

“Um...only a few square yards should be alright...I guess?”

“And do you have something to make thread into fabric?”

“Well...yeah, there's that old loom Rarity bought at that auction sale four months ago...” Spike shook his head in confusion. “Why am I telling you this?!” he protested.

“Well, I've kinda had this weird idea,” explained Hornette patiently. “It might work, then again it might not – but if it does, you won't have to worry about your silk.”

Spike stared at her, completely baffled – and even more so when Hornette began running her front hooves through her mane, horn glowing as she did so. “What the hay?” he muttered in bewilderment, looking at Locomotion for an explanation.

But Locomotion was just as perplexed as Spike, and could only shrug in response. He looked back to Hornette, arching an eyebrow at the strange yet almost alluring spectacle; not only did she appear to be bundling the strands of her hair into a single yarn, but she was also coiling it up around her left hoof. Almost at once, his eyes widened with sudden realisation; “Wait a minute!” he exclaimed. “Is this what I think it is?”

“I sure hope it is,” mumbled Hornette without taking her eyes off what she was doing.

“Eh?! What are you talking about?” puzzled Spike.

Locomotion chuckled wryly. “Me and Hornette were out for a walk earlier,” he said, “and I compared the softness of her hair to the very material you were after. If I didn't know better, I'd say she's trying to spin it into actual silk.”

“Well...that's what it's supposed to be,” put in Hornette. “I don't know if it really is, but...what do you think?” She paused and unravelled some of the “silk” for Spike to feel for himself.

Spike shrugged doubtfully and took hold of the proffered thread, only to goggle in amazement as its texture registered on his fingers. “Holy guacamole!” he remarked. “It really does feel like silk and all!” He glanced over his shoulder, his eyes lighting up with fresh optimism; “Hey, Rarity, come and have a look at this!”

Rarity was still in a tizzy, and had hardly taken any notice of what had been going on. “WHYYYY?!?” she bawled out loud.

“Because we have the answer to our problems right before us!” announced Spike jubilantly. It came as little surprise to him when Rarity leaped back to her hooves and began looking around feverishly, whereupon he pointed to the synthetic silk thread trailing down from Hornette's mane.

“You don't mind, do you, Rarity?” the young changeling asked. “I know it probably isn't real silk, but it's close enough in colour at least – and Loco says it feels like it too, so...”

Gingerly, Rarity took hold of the synthetic silk thread still trailing from Hornette's mane – and gasped in amazement and delight as its soft, delicate texture registered against her hoof. “Oh my stars,” she burst out joyously, “this is perfect! How on Earth do you do it?!”

Hornette smiled modestly, trying to hide the proud blush she could feel spreading across her cheeks. “Oh...just a little growth spell and some transformation magic...that's all,” she murmured, only just managing to finish her sentence before Rarity pulled her into a grateful if somewhat sudden embrace.

“Thank you so, so much, Hornette you little lifesaver!” she cried. “How in Celestia's name could I have finished those outfits without your ingenuity?! Oh, I simply must repay you somehow!”

“You don't need to.”

Rarity pulled back in dismay. “What?! But surely a little something for your efforts...maybe a nice chapeau, or an elegant tea-gown, or...”

“Or maybe a doll you already made for me a month ago?” interrupted Hornette politely; holding back a mental giggle when Rarity stared blankly in response. “I know you didn't want anything for Prairie, but I did promise myself that I'd repay you somehow, and now I have. Say what you will, Rarity,” she added reasonably, “but I'd say this should more than make us quits.”

Rarity pondered for a moment before conceding her point with a thoughtful nod. “Well, yes, you do make a sound argument there,” she mused. “Alright then, Hornette, I'm fine to let it slide as long as you are.”

But secretly, she still wasn't satisfied. Surely Hornette deserved some form of recompense for her efforts, she thought as she watched her working her magic – after all, she had just saved Rarity from what could have been a serious predicament. She glanced towards Locomotion, whom she noticed was now watching the young insectoid with a dreamy expression, and smiled broadly. Maybe, she thought to herself, she could use her debt to his and Hornette's advantage as well as her own...

Chapter 18: Moonlit First Date

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Nearly an hour had passed by the time Hornette had spun enough silk for the required fabric. Only then did she start to realise how much it had taken out of her, as she was suddenly overcome by an inexplicable dizzy spell. “Is that okay, Rarity?” she asked, struggling to keep her eyes open.

“Thank you, Hornette,” smiled Rarity appreciatively, “that should be more than enough to be going on with.” Her smile faded as she picked up the slight slur in the young changeling's voice. “Are you alright, darling?”

“I...I do feel kinda drowsy,” mumbled Hornette groggily. “I just wish I knew why.”

Locomotion's brow furrowed with concern. “It's probably all that silk-spinning,” he remarked anxiously. “That hair growth spell must have sapped your energy somewhat. Maybe you'd better have a lie down.”

“Yeah, and some protein too,” added Spike kindly. “You'll have used a heck of a lot for growing your mane, Hornette. You just take it easy for a bit – I'll go get you something.” He turned to Rarity. “You okay to see to the silk?”

“Perfectly, Spike,” answered Rarity. Inwardly, she couldn't help smirking deviously as she saw her chance. “If you'd care to accompany me to my workroom, Loco?”

“Eh what?!” Locomotion was taken aback. “But Rarity,” he objected, “what about Hornette? I can't just...”

“Spike can take care of her,” interrupted Rarity curtly. “Besides, I have something extremely important that I need to discuss with you; and I'd rather not discuss it in front of Hornette.” Secretly, she winked broadly at Spike.

Locomotion shrugged. He wasn't sure he wanted to leave Hornette alone in her current condition, even with Spike; but the tone of Rarity's voice clearly left little room for any further protest. With an apologetic smile to the young changeling, he followed on upstairs.

To add to his confusion, however, Rarity remained worryingly silent even as she was preparing the loom, threading the silk yarn through the “heddles” and around the beams at each end. She barely seemed to take any notice of Locomotion.

At last, the red-furred stallion tactfully cleared his throat and asked, “So, wanted to speak with me about something?”

Rarity's right ear flicked briefly in his direction, but she didn't reply.

“If it's about how I brushed you off earlier, I'm really sorry,” went on Locomotion awkwardly. “It's's not the first time you've been so...well...” He broke off, not wanting to upset her; but was even more perturbed when she still didn't answer.

Locomotion sighed heavily. Whatever Rarity was playing at, the suspense of it was really getting to him now. Maybe he ought to come back later, he told himself...

“Yes, Loco – I do wish to speak to you about something.” Rarity paused in her threading and turned to face him with a serious expression. “Specifically, about how disappointed I am in you.”

“Me?!” exclaimed Locomotion in dismay. “Aw, come on, Rarity, I said I was sorry!”

“I'm not talking about your earlier behaviour,” interrupted Rarity stiffly. “I was merely referring to how Hornette saved your life last week. You think about it, Loco – in what way have you thanked her for it?”

Locomotion looked offended. “What the hay kind of question is that?!” he retorted. “I've already told her plenty of times how grateful I am to her! What more could you ask for?!”

Rarity shook her head and clicked her tongue disapprovingly. “Not good enough,” she stated pointedly. “Need I remind you, Locomotion, that I had to save Spike's life years ago – and did he leave it at a simple thank-you?”

“, but what's it...”

“Exactly – as soon as he had his strength back, the first thing he did was take me out for our very first date.”

The effect this had on Locomotion was immediate, but not what she had been expecting. “Whoa, whoa, hold on a minute, Rarity!” he exclaimed in horror. “Let's just get a few things straight – you're suggesting that I take Hornette of, creatures...out to some fancy restaurant somewhere?!”

“In an ideal world, yes.”

“Rarity, this is Hornette we're talking about!” protested Locomotion. “She'd lock up with self-consciousness as soon as look at one of those places, never mind the crowds!”

“Or,” finished Rarity knowingly, “you could just follow Spike and Big Mac's examples and take her out for a picnic; then you wouldn't have to worry about other ponies watching you.”

Locomotion fell silent for a moment. He was starting to feel self-conscious himself. “I...I don't understand, Rarity,” he muttered doubtfully. “Why are you getting involved in all this? It's not like there's anything going on between us.” Ah, but if only there was, lamented a voice in the back of his head, making his face droop with sorrow.

Upon seeing his longing expression, Rarity couldn't help feeling a little guilty. The poor colt couldn't seem to understand his own emotions, she realised, and her cryptic charade wasn't helping either. Maybe it was time to change her tactic. “I'm only doing this for your benefit, Loco,” she counselled, in a genuine tone of motherly sympathy now. “You and Hornette have a really strong bond...” Which could well become a lot more, she thought hopefully, “...and I just want to help you make the most of it.”

“But shouldn't that be mine and Hornette's lookout? Besides, it's not as if she's gonna walk out on me.”

“I know,” conceded Rarity softly, “but do give it a try at least. Hornette may not want a reward for all this,” indicating towards the silk, “but I don't feel right leaving my debt unpaid. Please? For my sake?”

Locomotion heaved a deep, weary sigh. Taking Hornette out for a date just to appease Rarity didn't seem right either, but he couldn't deny that part of him wanted oh so badly for something like that to happen; so he looked back up at her and said, “Well...if you really, really insist.”

“There's a good lad,” encouraged Rarity, ignoring the sullen, mildly patronised frown on his face. “Come along then – let's go downstairs, and you can ask her.”

“What?! Right now?”

“But of course, darling. No time like the present!” Without waiting for a response, Rarity sauntered past him and made for the lobby. Already, Locomotion could feel his anxiety coming back with a vengeance, so much so that his whole frame seemed to have gone stiff, and it took all his willpower just to move one step forward! How would Hornette react, he wondered fearfully, if she knew he was coming onto her – especially after last night? As understanding as she was, the idea of asking her out on a date right after sharing her bed seemed like a recipe for disaster; and if there was one thing that Locomotion dreaded as a stallion, it was driving away a potential fillyfriend should he decide to try and find one.

Maybe that was why he had been so afraid to enter the dating scene for himself – maybe he was just too terrified of rejection. It was far easier, he had maintained, to express his hidden desire for love through his fanfictions; and now here he was, about to live one of those stories for real. But would it work out? And if so, how would the rest of Ponyville take it? As his mind battled with his conscience, he didn't even notice he was back in the lobby until Rarity coughed lightly, startling him out of his reverie.

“Anyway, I think Locomotion had something he wanted to ask you.”

Locomotion gazed shyly at Hornette, trying to find the words; but when eventually he did, they weren't the ones he (or rather Rarity at this point) had been hoping for. “ are you feeling, Hornette?”

“Oh, I'm feeling a lot better, thank you,” answered Hornette with a pleasant smile. “Spike sure makes a good cup of tea, and those honey and almond bars were really nice too.”

Locomotion smiled back with relief – she did indeed look healthier and more awake, now she came to mention it. But the smile was quickly wiped off his face by Rarity shaking her head at him, and he hastily rethought what he was going to say; “Actually, Hornette...there's something else I wanna ask you. See, I'd been thinking about the whole bridge debacle...and how brave you were...and I was kinda wondering...” But he broke off as his nerves began to get the better of him again.

“Wondering what?”

“...well...about how I could repay you properly.” Locomotion looked at the floor, silently praying for it to open up and swallow him.

“Oh, Loco,” giggled Hornette, “you don't need to do that. Your thanks and friendship were enough.”

Locomotion looked to Rarity for support, but she just waved her hoof in a circle for him to continue. With a soft sigh, he did as he was bidden; “Well...I kinda want to,” he answered reasonably. “Like I said last night, you're the reason I'm still alive just like I was the reason you survived the timberwolf attack; and from what Rarity's been telling me,” he added, trying to ignore the white unicorn's warning glare that told him not to mention their earlier discussion, “there's gonna be a really nice moon tonight.”

Hornette nodded, silently wondering where he was going.

“What I'm trying to say would you like to go out for a picnic with me this evening?” Locomotion shot Rarity a quick glare of his own to say “There, I've said it! Are you happy now?!” and braced himself for the incoming storm. But mercifully, it didn't come; for even though Hornette was now blushing profusely and her jaw was hanging open, her overall expression was anything but freaked out. If anything, she almost looked delighted.

“You and me, go on a...what's the word...a 'date'?” she asked softly.

“Uh-huh,” Locomotion managed to choke out in reply; secretly praying that he hadn't read her wrong.

Hornette's lips curled into a small smile. “That sounds like a lovely idea,” she decided sincerely. “Maybe it would be worth a try.”

“ that a yes then?”

The changeling giggled at the almost pleading tone of his voice; the sound of a well-meaning little colt who sorely hoped he hadn't done anything wrong. “I think you've pretty much answered your own question,” she quipped heartily.

Locomotion breathed a sigh of relief. Behind their backs, Rarity smiled broadly upon him with unspoken praise; whether this would work out was up to them now, but for the time being, all that mattered to her was that the young stallion had managed to set the ball rolling, and she was truly proud of him for being so brave.

“So where were you thinking of going, anyway?”

Locomotion smiled thoughtfully. “I know just the spot...”

With Rarity's silk crisis resolved, Hornette and Locomotion headed back home for lunch, and after Locomotion had cleaned everything up and prepared their picnic, they spent the rest of the day hanging out in his bedroom. Little more was said about their date until Twilight came to refresh Hornette's suppression spell that evening; her memory scan spell easily picked up on their plans for the night, but she didn't seem to mind.

Dusk had already fallen by the time they left the house, and there was a light sprinkling of stars in the steadily darkening sky as the two teenagers ambled through the quiet, empty streets. It was the first time Hornette could truly appreciate the tranquil beauty of the night-time scenery; as a fugitive, she had never been able to stop and smell the roses, even after being taken in and given a new name. How uplifting, then, that the only thing she needed to care about tonight was having a good time. She still didn't know where they were headed (Locomotion had insisted on keeping it a surprise), but when at last they reached their destination, she was awestruck by what awaited them – a secluded hillock overlooking the valley in which Ponyville was situated. The view it afforded them was simply amazing, almost like something out of a picture postcard, and once Locomotion had laid out the blanket and served their food, it felt like the perfect romantic setting.

Hornette sighed softly as she admired her surroundings for the umpteenth time. “What a beautiful night,” she murmured blissfully.

“Yeah, it sure is peaceful out here,” agreed Locomotion, taking a sip of his apple juice. “You know,” he went on philosophically, “there's something really soothing about the sky at night – all those stars, like diamonds on a bed of velvet...the moon beaming down on us like an engine's headlamp...good thing I remembered this place, eh?”

“Why, have you been here before?”

Locomotion nodded. “I kinda stumbled on it after the Horse Junction accident. You know, when I had to go help Octavia and all those other passengers out of the Bridleway Limited?”

Hornette nodded back as she took a mouthful of lettuce. She had already heard all about it from him and Steamer a fortnight ago.

“Well, everyone was talking about it the following day, and I was feeling so low that I just needed to get away from it all,” continued Locomotion. “I didn't have anywhere particular in mind, just...wherever my legs took me. Eventually, I wound up right at the top of this very hill, where I could just sit and be alone with my thoughts – until Uncle Steamer and Max Pressure found me, that is.” He chuckled wryly at the solemn memory. “I still come up this way sometimes when I need time to think, or if I'm finding life difficult, or if I just want to be alone. It's kinda like my own personal 'thinking spot', if you like.”

“Yes, I can see why,” mused Hornette, noting the faint outline of a train hurtling along the main line towards the mountains. “I can just about make out the railway line from here. I really do feel for you, though,” she added sympathetically, “having to face so much grief so young.”

You've no idea... “ happens to the best of us,” said Locomotion, pushing the ominous thoughts out of his head. “You get used to it after a while.”

“I'd rather not,” grinned Hornette wryly. “I think I've had enough troubles to last me my whole life.” Secretly, she was surprised at how lightly she seemed to be taking it; a month ago, the mere thought of her own struggles would have been enough to drag her down, and Locomotion would invariably have to lift her spirits again, but now she seemed much better able to brush them off and enjoy the present. Her train of thought promptly halted as she finally registered the taste of the apple fritter she was eating. “Mmm,” she remarked. “These fritters are really lovely.”

Locomotion blushed with pride. “Thanks,” he smiled. “I made them myself only this afternoon, with some of the honey you made.”

Hornette gaped in amazement. “Wow – and there was I wondering how you managed to buy them in such a short timespan! How did you make them so good?”

“I'd taken lessons from Applejack. I've had a taste for apple fritters ever since I was a yearling, and one day, when I was about nine, Mum decided to see if we could make them at home,” Locomotion remembered. “I was far from satisfied at first, 'cause the fritters we made were nowhere near as good as the Apple Family could make them; so in the end, Mum and Dad asked Applejack if she could teach me personally. She did a lot better than that,” he chuckled; “within the space of a couple of months, she was teaching me how to make all sorts of stuff from fritters to fruit bread.”

“And taught you really well, if these are anything to go by,” admired Hornette. “I bet you'd have made a wonderful chef.”

Locomotion could only chuckle at Hornette's unintentional flirting. “Well, thanks, but I'd be much happier on the footplate of a steam engine than in front of a stove,” he answered modestly. “Besides, it's not like my Cutie Mark has anything to do with working in a restaurant.”

“Yeah, I suppose not. Although that reminds me,” added Hornette with a sheepish half-smile, “I don't think I ever asked how you got your Cutie Mark in the first place.”

“Ah well – better late than never, I guess,” quipped Locomotion. His expression softened as he dug into the deepest recesses of his memory, trying to picture the events of his foalhood. “I was kinda unique among my peers in...well, several ways, but the age at which I got my Cutie Mark was one of them,” he explained. “Most ponies get them anywhere between about...six or seven and their mid teens – apart from Caramel who got his as late as nineteen; but I got mine at eighteenmonths!”

“Only eighteen months old?” repeated Hornette incredulously.

“I know, it's incredible – and a bit farcical as well,” replied Locomotion wryly. “Me being young and autistic, as soon as I saw it, I just went into a meltdown because it was far too new for me. Took Mum a good few days to calm me down and help me come to terms with it.”

Hornette smiled awkwardly, trying not to laugh at the image of a baby Locomotion frenetically trying to lose his Cutie Mark. “So how did you get it?” she asked, pulling herself together.

“Well, we'd been in Ponyville for about a month and a half, and already my new playschool was proving way better than anywhere in Coltwick. That said, I still kept myself to myself most of the time; but there was one colt there, I can't remember who it was...I think it was either Snips or Snails, one or the other...he was having problems with the wooden railway set they had there.”

“What sort of problems?”

Locomotion smirked. “Well, it was the same brand as what Elli and I used to own, and there was about four or five times more of it – more track, more bridges, more points, greater variety of engines and rolling stock...and the best he could do was a simple circle! Mind you, neither of them had very good imaginations,” he went on, “and neither did they have the box lid artworks to steer them in the right direction. Eventually, I saw what was going on and thought, 'Right, step to one side, mate, and let me show you how it's really done' – and boy, did I show 'em! Even Cheerilee didn't expect me to do much more than a figure of eight; so you can imagine how blown away she was when instead I came up with a massive main line in miniature!” A broad, gleeful grin spread across his face as he listed the features of his fantasy railway; “It was laid out in a U-shape around the room, with a terminus at one end and a balloon loop at the other; it had engine sheds, signals, cranes, passing loops, marshalling yards, wagon tipplers, carriage sidings, turntables, several intermediate stations along the even had a branch line to a quarry!”

“Wow,” breathed Hornette. “I bet your parents were amazed too, when they saw what you'd built.”

“They sure were. When Mum came to pick me up at the end of the day, she had to sit down she was so overcome with emotion. It was around then that my Cutie Mark appeared,” finished Locomotion, “and yeah, I might have been a bit traumatised by it, but once I'd learned to accept it...” He sighed heartily, feeling a wave of wistful nostalgia as he gazed up at the stars. “...well...from then on, I knew that my life was with the railways.”

Hornette smiled softly as she paused to let the information sink in. “That was a beautiful story, Loco,” she whispered at last. “I really am honoured that you should share it with me – and for taking me to such a sacred spot of yours.”

Locomotion returned the smile in kind. “I could say the same about having you for a friend,” he murmured fondly.

There was a long pause, not an awkward silence with one struggling to think of what to say to the other, but the calm, blissful, intimate sort where no words were needed – just warm, gentle affection as blue eyes stared into green. For a fleeting moment, the whole world seemed to fade from existence, and even the soft chirping of crickets and the hooting of distant owls did little to break them out of their trance.

“Uh...Hornette...” stammered Locomotion after a while.

“Yes?” asked Hornette softly.

The red unicorn fell silent again. He couldn't remember what he was about to say he was so lost in her eyes – in fact, he wasn't even sure he knew what to say in the first place. His gaze briefly drifted down towards their plates before he managed to gently coax the words out of his mouth, “ you want that last fritter?” It wasn't quite what he wanted to say, but it was good enough, he thought as he nudged it over with his hoof.

Hornette looked down at the fritter, visibly touched and blushing deeply, and then back at Locomotion with a warm smile. “Aww, thank you, Loco,” she said gratefully. “That's really sweet of you.”

Locomotion smiled back shyly. Perhaps this date wasn't such a bad idea after all.

The rest of the evening went by like a dream for Locomotion and Hornette. After finishing their picnic and packing everything away, they left their basket under a nearby tree while they went for a quiet stroll. The milky white light of the moon seemed to smile down on them as they drifted through a field of flowers, which provided a good deal of bliss for Hornette as she admired their delicate beauty. In her distraction, she didn't even notice Locomotion pick a fair-sized daisy, and only when his soft blue magical aura drifted into view above her forehead did she see him thread it into her mane. She gazed up at it in surprise, and then at Locomotion who only smiled bashfully in response. Looking back up at the flower in her hair, the young changeling could only smile back fondly; it made her feel so much prettier than she ever thought she could be.

A little further on, their path took them alongside a brook some way up the hillside. Locomotion had rarely ever been up this way before, but he had heard tales from Fluttershy and Big Macintosh of what a romantic spot it could be after dark, and now he could see why – or at least he could if he wasn't lost in Hornette's eyes again. Not looking where he was going, his right hind hoof came a bit too close to the edge, causing part of the bank to collapse beneath his weight; yelping with shock, he keeled over and disappeared into the brook with a loud splash. Overcome with fear and concern, Hornette crouched down low and frantically scanned the waters, praying that Locomotion was alright, but soon let out a yelp of her own as a sodden red pair of arms reached around her withers and pulled her in as well! Her alarm quickly turned to mischievous mirth as she finally realised that Locomotion, having recovered quite quickly, had turned his misfortune into a game; and as soon as she resurfaced and found him struggling to keep a straight face, she began splashing him playfully. The red stallion cheekily splashed back, and both teenagers continued to attack each other until finally they came together in a soggy embrace, laughing so hard that tears came out of their eyes.

Their playful water fight over, they climbed back onto the bank to resume their walk. Surprisingly, Hornette's mane and tail seemed to dry out like ducks' feathers, even if they did come out a little bedraggled; whereas Locomotion was so drenched that he had to shake himself dry, much to the changeling's amusement. But the most memorable moment from that evening, the one they both knew would stay with them for the rest of their days, was when they paused for a rest at the top of the hill. As they sat and gazed up at the stars, Hornette chanced a sidelong glance at Locomotion, who bore a neutral, thoughtful expression as he seemed to ponder over something. An inexplicable feeling of boldness came over her, and she wrapped her left hoof around his right, causing him to look down at it in confusion. Lifting his gaze again, he noticed a soft, yearning gleam of affection in her eyes that filled him with a warm, fuzzy happiness, the likes of which he had never felt before. Finally, the two teenagers leaned in and nuzzled each other softly, purring and nickering as they shared breath.

It was nearly eleven o'clock when Locomotion and Hornette arrived home, tired but happy. They had enjoyed their evening a great deal, and even their unexpected dip in the brook had only added to the experience, despite necessitating a quick shower before they turned in.

Locomotion stepped out of the bathroom, suppressing a yawn. “Well,” he murmured, “that was some date, eh Hornette?”

“It sure was,” agreed Hornette. She had already been in the shower, and had spent the last few minutes sitting patiently outside while Locomotion had his. “Maybe...maybe we should do this more often.”

“Yeah, maybe,” conceded Locomotion with a broad smile. Secretly, he was a little unsure how his uncle would take it; but he wasn't about to let a tiny detail like that spoil his and Hornette's good moods. “Let's just hope I don't fall into another stream by mistake,” he added cheekily. “That could have easily put a literal 'damper' on the whole thing!”

Hornette giggled a little at his wit. “Don't be so silly, Loco,” she chided heartily. “It's not like you did it on purpose. Besides, you did look kinda funny when you shook all that water out of your fur.”

Locomotion smirked and rolled his eyes; but inwardly, he couldn't help laughing with her as the memory flashed through his mind. “Ah well,” he went on, sobering up as he remembered the time, “I suppose I'd better turn in now – don't wanna be late for work tomorrow. You sure you don't want a story tonight?”

“I don't think I'll need one, after all that.”

“Fair enough.” Locomotion was a little disappointed, but deep down he was so happy to see Hornette growing so resilient that he didn't mind too much. “I'll probably be out long before you wake up, but Sweetie-Belle should be here around ten o'clock to see how you're doing. If you get into trouble, just give Mum a ring. Is that alright?”

“That's fine,” answered Hornette.

“Good. I guess I'll see you tomorrow evening then.”

“You too – oh, and Loco...?”

“Yes, Hornette?”

There was a brief pause – and then, like a tidal wave over a desert island, Locomotion felt a huge flurry of emotions sweep over his heart, his fur standing on end as a small shiver coursed down his spine, causing him to freeze with startled pleasure. Hornette, herself overcome by affection, had planted a soft kiss on his cheek, and was now gazing at him with the softest, warmest smile he had ever seen. “Thank you,” she whispered in a loving tone. “That was the best night I've ever had in all my life. Just...thank you.”

Gingerly, Locomotion placed a hoof against his cheek where she had kissed him. If emotions translated into magic like they did with changelings, he thought, then this had to be far more powerful even than the Elements of Harmony. “Goodnight, Hornette,” he whispered back, a touched smile adorning his own expression.

“Goodnight, Loco.” Hornette watched as the red unicorn plodded slowly back to his room with a dreamy sigh, and let loose one of her own as she closed the door and slipped into her bed. She couldn't understand what she was feeling right now, but neither did she care – all she cared about was the deep happiness in her heart, like nothing could upset her ever again.

“Oh, Loco,” she thought aloud, hugging Prairie close to her chest and purring with bliss as sleep began to take hold of her. “You're so good to me.”

Bonus Chapter 2: Bombshell from the Badlands

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Twilight smiled warmly as she let her spell deactivate. After finding out about Locomotion and Hornette's picnic date, she had taken it upon herself to keep a watchful eye on them through astral projection, mostly to ensure they were left alone, but also to confirm a hunch that had been bugging her for well over a month now. The more she watched them, the more she could see that it wasn't a mere hunch – Hornette and Locomotion were incontrovertibly smitten with each other. “Aww, what a cute couple,” she murmured to Flash, who was standing and watching next to her. “Rarity was right – they really are perfect for one another.”

Flash smirked wryly. “I dunno if Loco's gonna be so cute when he finds out we were spying on him,” he quipped.

“Well, yeah, I may have been a little bit intrusive over the last few hours,” conceded Twilight ruefully.

“More than a bit, I'd say. Who was it scanning Hornette's memory every evening since she came here?”

“Oh, don't go on, Flash!” giggled Twilight, swatting him playfully. “It's not like I was out fishing for a gossip column scoop or anything – and a good thing too, otherwise the poor changeling would never live it down. Besides,” she observed gravely, “as heart-warming as it was, it probably wouldn't look good on her probation report.”

“Or on her probation officer's record,” put in Flash. “But no, you're quite right, Twily; if Hornette's to stay here, it's probably best we leave it alone for now.”

“Done,” declared Twilight, tracing a cross over her chest and placing her hoof over one eye. “Anyway, I think it's about time we hit the sack as well. Anything to report before I turn in?”

To her concern, Flash's expression turned serious. “As a matter of fact, yes there is,” he replied grimly. “No. 3 Unicorn Platoon have reported suspicious activity in the Everfree Forest.”

Twilight's brow furrowed. “What sort of activity?”

“We've no confirmation as yet, but we think there may be more changelings out there.”

“And when did you receive this information?” asked Twilight tersely.

“Lieutenant Claymore told me half an hour ago, while I was on my way to use the bathroom,” answered Flash. “Says his troops found this out at about half past eight or thereabouts.”

“What about Diesel?”

“What, that renegade Pegasus who keeps stalking Loco and Hornette? Well, apparently Private Pike says he saw somepony on the edge of the forest who matches his description; but other than that, nothing.”

Twilight grimaced as, not for the first time, an extensive list of worst-case scenarios began to flow through her mind. Could these alleged “changelings” have just been ordinary spies, out to gain love for their hive? Or was there something even more sinister going on? Either way, she didn't like the sound of it... “Right, then tell the unicorn units to investigate further, Flash,” she instructed. “If there are any further leads, I'm to be informed immediately, am I clear?”

“Perfectly,” said Flash, bowing slightly. “I'll pass on the word at once,” and he bustled away.

With an anxious frown on her lips, Twilight gazed out of the window on the far side of her chamber. First the discovery of the changeling whom they now knew as Hornette; then the unexplained arrival of a Pegasus named Electro Diesel, whom they still knew nothing about...and now a fresh swarm of rogue changelings in the Everfree Forest. Something about the whole affair didn't seem right – judging by her memory scans, Hornette clearly had no way of knowing about these new arrivals, but it still seemed far too convenient to be a mere coincidence.

Somehow, it seemed, she had become unwittingly tangled up in whatever scheme it was they were carrying out, but what was it? Did they have designs on the Bearers of Harmony, or was it Hornette herself they were after? And then there was the same old question about Diesel – who was he really? Why could nopony find so much as a scrap of information on him? How did he manage to keep evading them all the time? Deep down, Twilight had a nasty feeling she already knew the answer.

“Please don't let anything happen to Hornette,” she thought aloud.

Chapter 19: Heartfelt Hornette

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The following morning seemed perfectly normal as Locomotion set off for the engine sheds. It was still early, but there were already one or two ponies going about their daily business; Big Macintosh was setting up the Apple Family stall, Bonbon had just rolled up the shutters on her sweet shop, and Roseluck was tending to her flowers one last time before opening her stand. Even Vinyl, usually a late riser, was sauntering cheerfully towards the market with Octavia by her side.

The two musicians waved a friendly greeting as they went by, and Locomotion responded with a casual nod. He had been firm friends with them ever since the Horse Junction accident, particularly Octavia whose life he had saved; but today, there was something about those two that he couldn't help envying somehow. Then again, he tried to reassure himself, it was probably just tiredness – after all, he and Hornette had been out pretty late last night, and it was only seven o'clock when he had woken up. He gazed over his shoulder, beckoning for her to pick up her pace, only to cringe with embarrassment as he remembered she wasn't with him.

“Hey, Loco,” called a voice. “Practising for the theatre, are we?”

Locomotion groaned and slapped a hoof to his face, mildly annoyed with himself. “Nah, Surfie, just forgot Hornette was still at home,” he mumbled.

“Oh...” Surfie raised a concerned eyebrow as she trotted up alongside him. “...are you missing her?”

“Yeah, kinda,” answered Locomotion glumly; but deep down, he couldn't seem to fathom why.

Thankfully, Surfie seemed to understand. “It must be a bit strange, not having her around all the time,” she mused.

“Yeah, it is kinda weird. I mean, I've hardly ever left her side since she came here.”

Surfie hummed thoughtfully in reply. “Yeah, I can understand how hard it must be. Still, it must be good for you both to gain a bit more independence,” she observed wisely. “Time apart can be really healthy, you know.”

This seemed to strike a raw nerve with Locomotion. He stopped in his tracks and shot his sister a look of hurt. “What the hay are you talking about?!” he exclaimed defensively. “I'm perfectly independent!”

“Well, there must be a reason you're looking over your shoulder every few minutes.”

“That was just the once!” protested Locomotion, clearly agitated. “I didn't even...”

“I'm not trying to attack you, Loco,” interrupted Surfie calmly. “I'm just trying to look out for you.”

Locomotion looked away, trying to calm his racing brain. Perhaps he was being a bit harsh on Surfie, he thought ruefully; after all, she had his best interests at heart just like any good sibling. “Yeah, I suppose so,” he sighed. “I guess I'm just finding it kinda hard at the moment.” Again, why? Why am I getting so edgy so quickly?

“I know. It'll get easier, though,” soothed Surfie. “You'll see.”

“Yeah, probably,” answered Locomotion with a weak smile. “Thanks, Surfie.”

The younger unicorn smiled back modestly. “Anytime.”

“Anyway,” finished Locomotion, checking his watch, “I'd better get a move on. I'm due on shed in ten minutes.”

“Oh, well, I'd better not keep you any longer then. Take care.”

“You too, sis – and take care of Hornette as well.”

“Will do,” called Surfie as her brother cantered briskly away. Once he was out of sight, she went on her way too; she had promised to meet Lily Longsocks for breakfast at the Clover Café before going back to her house to hang out with her. The journey into town gave her ample time to reflect on the bond between Locomotion and Hornette, and particularly how it had impacted on his mood that morning. From their earlier conversation, it was clear to her that he was feeling something a lot stronger for the young changeling than mere concern, but she had avoided bringing it up in case she touched another nerve. It was probably best, she told herself, to let him broach the subject at his own discretion.

But her thoughts were soon interrupted by voices from a nearby alleyway, well out of sight. Puzzled, Surfie slowed her pace and pricked up her ears, trying to listen in on the conversation. Whoever the voices belonged to were hidden from view, but they seemed to be speaking with strange accents that she couldn't place.

“It's all arranged,” said one of the voices, one which sounded cold and sinister and made Surfie cringe with discomfort. “When the coast is clear, our volunteer will go and prepare himself – and the first pony who spots him, our captain will make sure he believes it was the work of our 'target'.”

“But...I still don't understand,” objected another, almost like the buzzing of a wasp it was so nasal. “Why couldn't we have just waited until she was alone and struck her unawares?”

Surfie frowned. Whatever they were up to, it didn't sound good...but who exactly was this “target” of theirs? What did they want with her? And all that business about a “volunteer” preparing himself – preparing for what, exactly? She had half a mind to report them to the police; but any such plans were quickly thrown out of the window as yet another voice made her freeze in horror.

“No,” said the smooth, oily voice, “that wouldn't do us any good. We're trying to eliminate her as a Crawler, not a martyr. If we're to carry out our orders, honour must be avenged.”

That voice! Surfie scuttled quietly over to the alley, hoping to get a good look at the group. There was only one character that voice could possibly belong to, she thought grimly – but just as she was edging towards the corner of the building behind which they were hidden, there was a coarse whisper from up above. Before she could even begin to work out what he was saying...

“AGH!” exclaimed Surfie, shielding her eyes as she was blinded by a sudden flash of magic. She could have sworn the aura was a sickly green colour, but it was so bright that she couldn't tell. Her vision still blurry, she peered cautiously round the corner, trying to avoid being spotted. She could see around a dozen ponies standing and talking casually amongst each other as if nothing had happened; but there was no sign of the one she thought she had heard just now.

Perplexed, Surfie peeked out even further from her hiding place, only to lock up again as she caught the attention of a tall blue unicorn with pale green mane and tail. “ there something the matter, little miss?” he asked innocently.

“,” answered Surfie warily. Somehow, that unicorn didn't sound all that dissimilar to the voice that had put her on the alert – but then again, it could just be coincidence. “Did any of you see a black Pegasus around here?”

None of them responded.

“Spiky red mane and tail? Medium-sized? Green eyes? Cutie Mark like a jerrycan?”

Still no response.

“Answers to the name of Electro Diesel?”

“I'm afraid we haven't. Sorry,” answered the blue unicorn.

Surfie shrugged. Perhaps she was just letting her imagination run away with her. “Well...thanks anyway,” she said apologetically, and went on her way with a puzzled frown. Unbeknownst to her, the group of ponies sighed with relief.

“That was a close one,” muttered a dark grey Pegasus. “Too close.”

“There, you see what I mean?” growled the deep green unicorn standing next to him. “If we'd bumped her off now, we'd still be in the clear!”

The blue one only smirked derisively. “We are, my comrade,” he retorted. “That insufferable brother of hers may be a perceptive colt, but that filly's so stupid she can't even see through our little game. One thing's for sure,” he added darkly; “we'll have to play it real cool from now on...”

It was well after nine o'clock when Hornette woke up, with last night's picnic and the warm feeling that came with it still fresh in her memory. It sure had been a night to remember, she mused; and though she felt a little sorry to have declined her usual bedtime story, she was elated at having made it through the night without a single nightmare regardless. With a silky yawn, she gingerly climbed out of bed and went downstairs to find some breakfast; but when she entered the kitchen, she was puzzled to find a note on the counter. She picked it up with her magic and read through it, wondering what was so important that Locomotion couldn't wait until he got home to tell her...

Dear Hornette,

Hope you slept well last night. I was up a bit earlier than I thought I would be, so I took the liberty of making breakfast for you before I left. You'll find it on the top shelf of the oven.

See you when I get home.



Hornette's heart skipped a beat. That one she craved just as much as the next changeling, even with her strong sense of morals......she knew Locomotion saw a firm friend in her, but love? How could anypony ever love a changeling? Surely she would have had to cast a really powerful spell on him in order for that to happen, and there was no way she would have done such a thing of her own accord. Then again, she tried to reassure herself, there was probably nothing to worry about; the “love” part was probably just a friendly pleasantry like Sweetie-Belle would put in a letter to Scootaloo or Apple Bloom, for instance.

With that in mind, the young changeling decided to ignore her concerns for the time being. Swiftly returning her attention to breakfast, she opened up the oven to find a tray full of freshly baked apple tartlets. Hornette beamed with grateful delight as she levitated a plate out of the nearby cupboard and began dishing out some of the pastries. Locomotion sure did pamper her, she thought happily.

But her good mood couldn't last. Once she had finished eating, she left the remaining tartlets in the fridge for later, and went to the living room to find something to do. But with nopony else around, she quickly found herself at a loose end – all the board games in the house called for two or more players, so there was little point in getting any of them out; and she couldn't put the television on because she had no idea which buttons did what on the remote control. Even when she tried reading, she was so distracted that she had to reread the page she was on three or four times before moving onto the next one.

“This is hopeless!” she burst out, slamming the book shut and tossing it onto the coffee table in frustration. “How am I supposed to get through this if my mind keeps drifting every five seconds?!” With a heavy sigh, she slumped her head over one arm of the sofa and gazed longingly out of the window. She felt lonely; rarely had she even allowed herself to acknowledge the need for company while on the run – indeed, constant solitude had been more of a priority than a curse – but now, stuck indoors with nothing to do and nopony to talk to, she could only wish for Steamer or Locomotion to come home sooner. “I'm bored,” she moaned glumly.

As if in answer to her prayers, she barely had to wait five seconds before a knock at the front door shook her out of her distress. With a relieved smile, but still feeling a little lethargic for reasons she couldn't explain, Hornette got up and went to answer. How silly of her, she chided herself, to forget that Surfie, Firelli and the Crusaders would be looking in on her that day. “Morning, Sweetie-Belle,” she said as she opened the door.

“Hey, Hornette,” answered Sweetie-Belle cheerfully. “How are you getting on?”

Hornette shrugged ruefully. “Not brilliant, if I'm honest. Things have just been so slow and...boring around here.”

“Oh well,” said Sweetie-Belle optimistically, “at least you've got me and the girls to keep you busy, eh? How about a game of Railroad Baron?”

“Sure,” answered Hornette without hesitation. “Do come in,” and she politely stepped to one side. Sweetie-Belle duly obliged, and trotted briskly into the living room to start setting up.

Railroad Baron was one of Steamer and Locomotion's favourite board games, almost like a cross between Monopoly and Connect the Dots. The object was very simple; each player had to build their own railway routes by pegging their respective “track pieces” into a perforated map of Equestria, and would earn money by transporting freight along those routes according to demand. Sweetie-Belle never played this game very often, even on the odd occasion when Locomotion invited her over, but she still found it fairly enjoyable. Besides, she reasoned, at least it helped to pass the time.

“So how have you been keeping then?” she asked after a while.

“Very well, thanks,” smiled Hornette as she rolled the dice for her next move. “Everyone just seems so much friendlier with me since I saved Loco's life.”

Sweetie-Belle nodded gravely. She could still remember how horrified Surfie had been when she heard about the accident. “Speaking of Loco,” she remarked, trying to force the grim memory out of her head, “Rarity tells me he took you out for a picnic yesterday evening.”

“He sure did,” affirmed Hornette. “We went to this hill about a mile out of Ponyville – you wouldn't believe what a lovely view we got from up there. And the sky that night...oh, it was so magical.” She sighed dreamily at the lingering memory. “I wish it could never have ended.”

A knowing smirk crept into Sweetie-Belle's expression. “Let me guess – you two went to his 'thinking spot'?”

Hornette gave her a surprised double-take. “How did you know?”

“Ah, it's no secret,” said Sweetie-Belle sagely. “Me and the girls used to go there for the odd Crusader activity, and as often as not, we would find him sitting alone with his thoughts at the top of the hill. He's never complained about us being there, but we still tend to leave him be whenever he's up that way – unless he really needs comforting or there's something important to tell him or whatever. It's kind of an unwritten rule.”

“Yeah, I see what you mean,” murmured Hornette thoughtfully. “I'd feel trapped too, if others intruded on my solitude for no good reason.” She paused for a moment to move her playing piece forward a few spaces. It was modelled on the Claud Hoofington, Locomotion's favourite class of steam locomotive, and she could tell by its care-worn appearance that this piece was always his first choice. Her mind wandered as she gazed upon its handsome lines, almost as if she expected a miniature likeness of the chivalrous red unicorn to lean out of its cab and blow a kiss to her...

Eh what?! Did I seriously just think that? Hornette shook her head vigorously, trying to rid her mind of that errant thought. What's wrong with me?!

“Something up, Hornette?” asked Sweetie-Belle, perplexed.

“Eh?, nothing,” stammered Hornette hastily. “Just a...bit of a funny turn...I guess?”

But Sweetie-Belle didn't seem convinced. “Are you sure? Because you looked like you were lost in thought just then.” She gently took Hornette's hoof in one of hers, “Is it something to do with Loco?”

Hornette sighed heavily in defeat. “Yeah...I guess. I just don't know what's coming over me – every time I so much as think about him, I just feel like...all warm and fuzzy on the inside, like I want to be with him all my life, to share his happiness, to take care of him like he takes care of me. Every time I see him sad or scared, really makes my chest hurt,” she confessed, not even daring to mention how Locomotion had come to her for comfort two nights earlier. “And now that he's out of the house, I feel there's something missing that I can't replace.” She sighed again and gazed down at the floor, almost ashamed. “I don't know why I'm feeling like this.”

Sweetie-Belle smiled kindly. “Well, I do – I've already been there myself, and so have Rarity, Scootaloo, Big get the idea.”

But the look of confusion on the young changeling's face spoke for itself.

“What I'm trying to say,” explained Sweetie-Belle simply, “is that you're in love with him.”

Again, that one word – no sooner had the young unicorn mare uttered it than Hornette's jaw dropped open in shock and disbelief, her face reddening as a tumultuous wave of emotions swept over her heart. She definitely felt something for Locomotion, but love?! Surely Sweetie-Belle must have read her all wrong! “ In love?!” she managed to choke out at last. “ can you be so sure?!”

“I know what love feels like, Hornette,” Sweetie-Belle assured her, “and the way you've described your feelings for Loco...well, what else could it be?”

“But...but how do you know it's not just changeling instinct? That I'm not just craving his own love so much that I've been...”

“Hornette...Hornette, listen to me!”

Hornette fell silent, but didn't look any less disturbed.

“Just because you're a changeling doesn't mean there's anything unnatural about you pining for his love,” soothed Sweetie-Belle, softening her tone again. “It's something all creatures experience, no matter what species they are; and I for one don't see why yours should be any different. And let's face it, the way you and he have been getting on, you might as well be an item already.”

“Well...maybe, but how could anypony love a changeling that way?” objected Hornette, still unconvinced. “It's not like I've got anything going for me.”

Sweetie-Belle smiled and shook her head. “Oh, I beg to differ. You're kind, thoughtful, well-meaning, talented, resourceful – Loco tells me you've got a really nice set of pipes...”


“Your singing voice. And think about it – what other creature can spin silk from her mane and make such tasty honey? Pinkie and Rarity could have ended up in a real jam if it hadn't been for you.” Sweetie-Belle gave Hornette's hoof a reassuring squeeze. “You're worth a lot more than you give yourself credit for, Hornette. I know that, Loco knows that...anyone with a dash of common sense should know that by now.”

Hornette stared into space, trying to come to terms with her emotions. Her mind wandered briefly – from the very moment she and Locomotion had first met, to her first bedtime story; to being startled by Pinkie Pie and falling into his arms; to the day he had spent flying with her; to last night's that affectionate peck she had given him at the end. She had never had the chance to experience the ups and downs of love, even as a teenager; but now she was becoming increasingly aware that that day had finally (and perhaps a little suddenly) come to pass. There was no denying it, she realised – she was definitely smitten with the red-furred stallion. “I can't believe I let myself get so close to him,” she murmured guiltily. “What do I do now?”

Privately, Sweetie-Belle was a little perplexed. The way Hornette had spoken just now, it sounded like she thought she had committed an act of high treason – but why? Why would falling in love be so criminal, even for a changeling? Regardless, the white mare didn't let on; “Well, it's obvious, isn't it?” she observed. “Just talk to him – tell him exactly how you feel and why.”

“But...supposing he doesn't feel the same way about me?” objected Hornette. “What if he rejects my feelings altogether? What if I can't even...”

“Well, what if the sky turns to fire and your horn falls off your forehead?” interrupted Sweetie-Belle rhetorically. “Life's full of risks, Hornette; sometimes you just have to be brave and take chances, otherwise you might live to regret it. Pinkie's twin sister Marble, for instance – she had a huge crush on Big Mac, but it took her years to pluck up the courage and tell him how she felt, and by then, he and Fluttershy were already a couple. I can't even begin to imagine how heartbroken she must have been.” She paused for a moment before continuing; “I don't think it'd come to that with Loco, though. He's never had a fillyfriend in all his life.”

Hornette blinked. “Not even you?”

“Well...I did have a brief fling with him once,” admitted Sweetie-Belle, blushing faintly from Hornette's unintentional flattery, “but only because I was in a crisis over my Cutie Mark and wasn't thinking straight. It caused a bit of a rift between me and my actual coltfriend, and I hoped Loco would be a suitable replacement.”

“Was he?”

“No – I'm not really his type, as it turns out; and on reflection, I didn't feel much of a chemistry with him either. Just as well Lickety-Split was so quick to kiss and make up,” quipped Sweetie-Belle. “Confidentially,” she went on quietly, “Loco does yearn for love just as much as the next pony, but the trouble is he's too shy. That's why he puts so many romantic pairings into his stories – it's a kind of creative outlet for him, a way of sharing his feelings with the world.”

Hornette fell silent again. She knew Locomotion was a romantic, but had never felt the need to understand why; and now that she did, she could feel her heart aching with sorrow. So many other ponies had already found love in one form or another – Scootaloo had Rumble, Shady Daze was with that orange stallion whose name she couldn't remember, and even Sweetie-Belle had somepony to call hers – but Locomotion? That gentle, mild-mannered, handsome red unicorn who had taken such good care of her? Sixteen years old, and still there didn't seem to be anypony out there who loved him that way. How, she asked herself, was this fair?

“Sweetie-Belle,” she ventured at last, “would it be okay if we finished this game later? I need some time to think.”

“That's fine,” smiled Sweetie-Belle, trotting over to the bookshelf to find something to read. “If you need anything, I'll be here until half eleven; then Scootaloo's taking over from me.”

“Thanks,” murmured Hornette, secretly frowning uncertainly as she slunk away to her room. Her head was still swimming, still echoing to the tune of Sweetie-Belle's wise words and her own emotional quandary. Sure, she felt sorry for Locomotion, but was it really right for her to love him? She was, after all, only a changeling...

Then again, was there really any point getting in a tizzy about a relationship that Sweetie-Belle seemed positive would work out? It wasn't as if Chrysalis was there to rule against it; and even if the rest of Ponyville had a problem with it, they were sure to come round eventually – at least she hoped they would. They certainly didn't seem to complain about Spike and Rarity being together; and from what she had been told, they were by no means the only interspecies couple in Equestria, let alone the first. Maybe there was a chance for her and Locomotion...if indeed he did share her feelings.

But even if he did, thought Hornette, how would he react if she confessed them to him? She still didn't know too much about autism, but this would probably come as far too much of a shock to him...although, thinking about it a different way, why should it be? He had been nothing short of understanding right from the off, and the worst-case scenario would probably be that he'd let her down gently or ask to take it slowly.

Still wrestling with her feelings, the young changeling sat down next to her bed and gazed listlessly at her doll. “I don't know, Prairie,” she sighed. “Loco's a really nice pony, but...does he even deserve someone like me? After all the rest of my kind terrorised his?”

Naturally, Prairie didn't reply. She just stared back with the same innocent, loving smile she had always worn.

“It's not that I don't want to be friends with him – I'm just not sure this whole relationship thing's gonna work out,” went on Hornette glumly. “Even if I did tell him, I...well, what's to stop him freaking out? I don't want him to think I've been lying to him the whole time.”

Prairie still didn't answer; but in Hornette's mind, she thought she could see the slightest hint of plaintive sorrow in the little doll's eyes. It was as if she was trying to say, “Why are you torturing yourself, mistress? Locomotion would never think so badly of you. It was his choice to save you – to take care of you – to help you become part of this nation. He must love you back if he's been so kind all this time.”

Hornette was about to protest further, but something on her bedside table promptly distracted her. Before submitting his newspaper article, Featherweight had posed her and Locomotion for one more photograph; and as a condition for using it as the cover, he sent them each a framed copy of the same picture. Just looking at hers, and in particular the way Locomotion was gazing at her with shy, shaken gratitude, the young changeling felt her worries begin to subside. “Maybe you're right, Prairie,” she murmured with a small smile. “Maybe I am overthinking all this. So what if Loco's a pony and I'm not – I shouldn't let it bother me.” She gazed back at the picture again, and then out of the window with a much deeper, more longing sigh. “You really have captured my heart, Loco. I don't know what I would have done without you.”

With that, the young insectoid let herself drift into a blissful reverie, singing softly to herself as she recalled some of the more memorable moments between her and her beloved unicorn...

Chapter 20: Loco in Love

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The soft clanging of buffers and the huffing and puffing of engines filled the air, but Locomotion barely noticed it. Leaning heavily against the cabside, he watched lethargically as Lignite, his firepony, filled up the tanks; they were only three hours into their shift, and already the red-furred unicorn was beginning to wish his engine would break down or derail as soon as they went back to work. It wasn't that he didn't enjoy his job any less – he just wanted to be with Hornette again.

“Right, we're all topped up, Loco. Wanna take her out again?”

Boy, do I ever, thought Locomotion sombrely – only to snap out of his daydream as he looked over his shoulder. “Eh?! Oh...yeah, I'll get right on it,” he stuttered, hastily releasing the brakes and opening the regulator. The engine responded with a will, lurching forward like a startled rat.

“Whoa! Take it easy, Loco!” exclaimed Lignite, grabbing hold of the handbrake to steady himself. “You don't wanna knock us outta the cab, do ya?”

Locomotion cringed and shut off steam. “Sorry, Lignite. Guess I just got distracted for a moment there.”

Lignite raised an eyebrow. “Not like you to get this distracted,” he remarked. “You had a rough night or something?”

“Nah, far from it,” answered Locomotion with a hint of indignation. “I was just up really late – it's probably just tiredness.”

Privately, Lignite wasn't convinced; but he thought better of arguing about it. “Well, if you're sure,” he said dubiously, and turned his attention back to the pressure gauges. “What's our next assignment?”

Locomotion quickly checked the clipboard in front of him, which contained their schedule for the day. “Uh...reefers to Track 6 for the No. 384 Express Freight.”

“Best get a move on then,” advised Lignite. “She'll be here in about five minutes.”

“What?! But I thought she was still...” Locomotion quickly stopped himself, but he wasn't nearly quick enough.

Lignite shot him a confused double-take. “What are you talking about?”

“N-nothing,” stammered Locomotion awkwardly as he gently braked the engine to a halt at the neck of the yard. “I just thought you meant someone else.” I just wish I could stop thinking about that someone and get on with my work, he thought unhappily.

The reefers were waiting for them on the far side of the yard. They had already been loaded with apples earlier that morning, and were now ready to be taken away on the express freight to Canterlot. Engine crews have to be extra careful when shunting them; but Locomotion was so preoccupied that he almost misjudged his stopping distance. It was only when Lignite shouted a sudden warning to him that he slammed the brakes hard on, stopping barely an inch away from the front van's buffers.

“Mind what you're doing!” he chided. “I know we're on a shunting turn, but not that kind!”

By now, Locomotion was growing increasingly irritated – not so much with Lignite or his engine, but with himself for his lapse in concentration. “Look, I don't need other ponies to tell me how to do my job!” he snapped crossly. “Now cut me some slack, will you?! I'm having a hard enough time as it is without being heckled!”

“I'm not trying to heckle you,” objected Lignite, “I'm just trying to help you along.” He paused for a few seconds before adding, “Are you sure you're okay? I don't think I've ever...”

Just drop it, will you?!” growled Locomotion through gritted teeth.

The older stallion frowned and rolled his eyes as he got out to couple up the vans. Locomotion sure was being edgy today, he thought unhappily; if this were to keep up, he would probably be hearing about it from Max Pressure.

For a while, though, it seemed that Lignite had no need to worry. Once the vans were coupled up, Locomotion eased them out of the siding so gently that one would never have believed he had been so distracted. Sadly, it couldn't last – in his effort to avoid jostling the vans, Locomotion forgot to watch his speed as he pushed them onto the other line.

“Loco! Slow down!” shouted Lignite above their engine's exhaust. “You're gonna hit those trucks up ahead!”


“The trucks – you're gonna hit 'em!!”

Locomotion looked ahead, and sure enough, he could see a line of flatbeds and open wagons in his path. But this time, he really did misjudge his stopping distance, and didn't apply the brakes hard enough – they had barely slowed down to walking pace when the reefers rammed into the parked trucks with an almighty thud, nearly knocking the two ponies off their hooves.

At last, Lignite lost patience. “Alright, Loco, what is wrong with you?!” he demanded. “Banging into trucks, handling our engine like a sack of conkers – this isn't like you at all!”

But Locomotion was too shaken and embarrassed to give a straight answer. “I...I'm really sorry, Lignite,” he faltered, taking a sudden interest in the trackbed.

“It's not me you should be apologising to,” said Lignite indignantly. “Max won't be pleased when he finds out about this, I'll tell you that for nothing. Now stay here and pull yourself together – I'm off to check for any damage.”

Locomotion grimaced with shame, not even daring to reply as Lignite climbed down and began examining the trucks. He wasn't looking forward to hearing what Max had to say...

Fortunately, Lignite and Locomotion hadn't been going fast enough to cause any real damage; no-one had been hurt, and all the trucks were still on the rails, so they could shunt the reefers straight onto the express freight as soon as it arrived. Nevertheless, the damage it dealt to Locomotion's pride was so severe that his handling of the shunting remained sluggish for the rest of the day, as he tried harder than ever to avoid another accident.

By the time the red unicorn came to the end of his shift, he was feeling stressed and exhausted. He brought his engine on shed, breathing a thankful sigh when he saw the relief crew waiting for him – but no sooner had he got down from the cab than the shed forestallion came over looking very serious. His message to Locomotion was short, but not sweet; “Max Pressure wants to see you in his office.”

Locomotion groaned wearily. This really wasn't his day, was it? “Alright,” he murmured resignedly, “just as soon as I've cleaned up.” He plodded away to the crew quarters, his head hanging and his tail between his legs as he brooded over the earful he thought he would receive.

Max was on the telephone when Locomotion entered a few minutes later. He had recently ordered some new engines from Hoofington, and was inquiring about their delivery. Looking up from his order form, he saw Locomotion peeking into the office and beckoned him inside. The young stallion obliged, but avoided looking at him. Eventually, Max finished his phone call and put down the receiver.

“You sent for me, sir?” asked Locomotion cautiously.

Max turned to face him. “Yes, Loco,” he said gravely. “I hear your shunting was kinda sloppy today; and on top of all that, I'm told you nearly wrecked a cut of reefers this morning.”

“I'm really sorry, Max,” began Locomotion without thinking. “I didn't mean to lose my concentration so easily – I dunno what came over me, honest I...”

“Hey, hey, hey...” interrupted Max, raising his right hoof. Locomotion ruefully subsided. “...I'm not angry with you, Loco,” he continued softly. “I'm just kinda worried about you. This must be the first time you've slipped up so badly on a shunting turn – you, my youngest and most dedicated employee – even as a passed firepony, you were never this bad.” He leaned forward, trying to meet Locomotion's downcast gaze. “You wanna tell me what's on your mind?”

Apart from a subdued sigh, Locomotion remained silent. He just wanted the floor to open up and let him drop out of sight.

“You got some trouble at home?”

At long last, Locomotion managed to speak up. “Well...not so much 'trouble' as...well, a sort of 'empty space',” he confessed. “It's been preying on my mind all day, and I don't know why.”

But Max seemed to know already. “Is it to do with the changeling?”

Locomotion looked a little put out. “I do wish you wouldn't call her that, Max,” he grunted indignantly. “Hornette has a name, you know; and before you ask, no – she hasn't been hypnotising or manipulating me in any way. In fact, I'm prepared to swear it to Princess Celestia herself!”

“Hey, take it easy, Loco,” soothed Max, “I'm not trying to get at you or anything.” He paused for a moment while he rethought what he was going to say. “Look, I can see I've touched a raw nerve, and I'm really sorry – but I don't actually have anything against Hornette. I will admit I was...a little uneasy about the whole thing, and I may have pleaded with Twilight to keep me in the loop regarding all those memory scans and such...” He smiled apologetically, sensing the injured resentment in Locomotion's expression at having his trust betrayed. “...but I've gradually come to realise just how...genuine she is, especially when she saved your life last week.”

Locomotion softened a little. “You know about that?” he asked, his memory failing him briefly as he forgot about Featherweight's newspaper story.

Max chuckled. “It was all over the papers, Loco – everypony knows about it.”

“Oh...yeah...” muttered Locomotion, frowning with embarrassment. “...but I still don't understand why you felt you had to be in on all this,” he added. “Even if Hornette was plotting against me, Celestia forbid, Twilight would have easily sorted it out on her own.”

“ have to understand, Loco, I'm not getting any younger,” said Max wisely, “so I'm bound to be set in my ways in some respects. Besides...I don't normally like to play favourites with my employees, but you've always been something special to me – almost as much a nephew to me as to your Uncle Steamer.” He sighed mournfully, gazing at the faded photograph on his desk. It depicted a young couple in full wedding dress, standing in front of an unusually pristine goods engine which itself was decked with wreaths and garlands. “We never had a foal to call our own,” he lamented. “You and all the other juniors on my kinda make me realise what I've been missing all these years.”

Locomotion frowned sympathetically. He had only been three years old and hadn't even met Max when he lost his wife to cancer, but he knew the pain of his superintendent's loss all too well. He also knew how much it had strengthened his relationship with his employees, especially the young and the inexperienced, the future drivers and fireponies he felt so duty-bound to look out for, to steer in the right direction; they were like a surrogate family to him, and Locomotion had always been his unspoken favourite. It was times like these that reminded the red-furred unicorn just how lucky he had been in life – any other superintendent would have turned a young foal away without a second thought, but not Max Pressure.

“Anyway, that's enough about me,” said Max after a while. “You obviously feel really strongly for her, don't you, Loco?”

“Well...yeah,” conceded Locomotion, his expression growing distant. “I dunno what it is about her – most ponies think of changelings as mere monsters,” sneering in disgust as he recalled some of the harsher comments with which the young insectoid had had to contend, “but all I can see in her is...well, someone really sensitive and...'vulnerable', so to speak. Kinda like a lamb stuck in a wolf's body. I just feel like I want to be the one to help the lamb to break take care of that help her forget she was ever a wolf to begin with.”

Max smiled warmly at Locomotion's heartfelt analogy. “Well, I can't say I'm an expert on this sort of thing,” he observed, “but if you do want my advice, I suggest you go straight home and tell her how you feel. The longer you bottle it up, the more it'll prey on your mind – and then you could end up causing a really serious accident.”

“Yeah...again, I'm sorry I was so clumsy...”

“Ah, never mind, Loco,” soothed Max. “At least you didn't hurt anypony. I'll put in a good word for you with Regional Control – but be sure and get it off your chest, or I might have to demote you to firepony while you sort yourself out. There's only so many times I can bail you out, I'm afraid.” He looked furtively around the room, as if he expected to find a spy lurking in the shadows. “And just between us,” he added quietly, “I hope it all goes well for you two.”

Locomotion furrowed his brow, perplexed. “Well...thanks...I guess?”

“That's alright, Loco,” smiled Max. “You run along now; I'll see you anon.”

With that, Locomotion bid him farewell and took his leave. Only when the door closed did Max allow himself an amused shake of the head. “Poor young fella,” he sympathised. “He really does have it bad, doesn't he?” He went back to his paperwork, still smiling thoughtfully...

While Max was busy filing receipts, writing out memoranda and reviewing maintenance reports, Locomotion handed in his time card and set off for home. But he was still puzzled as he passed through the main gate.

“What in the world does he mean?” he wondered. “'I hope it all goes well for you two,' he says – it's not like me and Hornette have fallen out or whatever. And that business about 'I can't say I'm an expert on that sort of thing'...that's all very well, Max, but what sort of thing?” He looked across the yard to where he had nearly derailed the reefers. “Still,” he went on thoughtfully, “at least he's been understanding about the whole thing and not given me the bullet.”

He continued to mutter under his breath as he often did when thinking up narratives and dialogue for his fanfictions, trying to take his mind off the issue. But it seemed his mind had other ideas; no matter what he said or how hard he tried, he couldn't shake what seemed like a thousand voices echoing inside his head...

This must be the first time you've slipped up so badly on a shunting turn...

Not like you to get this distracted...

Pinkie was right – you really are an angel.'ve been a rock for me to cling onto, and I don't ever want to lose your friendship...

I've gradually come to realise just how...genuine she is...

I just feel like I want to be the one to help the lamb to break free...

It must be a bit strange, not having her around all the time...

Says the pony who saved her in the first place... take care of that help her forget she was ever a wolf to begin with...

That was the best night I've ever had in all my life. Just...thank you...

And then, almost out of the blue, came the one thought which put everything into perspective...the one that had crept into his mind while seeking comfort from Hornette – “Is this what it feels like to be in love?” Locomotion's eyes widened in dismay, his heart skipping a beat as he raised his left hoof to where she had kissed him the night before. Suddenly, it all made sense – the picnic date, her display of affection, his distracted state of mind...even that warm, fuzzy feeling he got whenever he saw her smiling – he was already at that stage, and he hadn't even realised it! How could he have been so blind?!

The red-furred teen's brow furrowed as his brain seemed to race out of control. He was by no means averse to the idea of courting a female of a different species (indeed, he often fantasised about it in his dreams), but what about Hornette? How would she feel if she knew that he, a pony, had fallen for a changeling such as herself?! If he had been afraid of rejection in the past, it was now terrifying the living daylights out of him. Even Max and Rarity's wise words only seemed to make matters worse;

You and Hornette have a really strong bond...and I just want to help you make the most of it.

...I suggest you go straight home and tell her how you feel. The longer you bottle it in, the more it'll prey on your mind...

Locomotion's place slackened as his entire frame seemed to stiffen, until eventually it seized up altogether and left him standing with his teeth clenched and his eyes shut tight. All these echoing voices in his head, this vast maelstrom of was really starting to overwhelm him! Whether this was for real or he was just imagining it, he didn't know; but he almost thought he could hear Discord somewhere behind him, egging him on in a sly gangster voice;

Alright, Sparky, here's the deal – if you want the little lady, you gotta be a straight shooter, do ya got it?” And then, in his normal voice, the very words that finally pushed him over the edge; “Tell her – the TRU-U-UTH!!!!

STOP BOTHERING ME!!!!” Locomotion's frustrated yell seemed to echo all around Ponyville, startling several passers-by and making them stare in confusion. Feeling the thousand eyes gazing in his direction, the red-furred unicorn cautiously opened his own – and almost immediately, his anguish turned to profuse embarrassment as he realised what he had just done. “Oh, D-rat, I said that out loud, didn't I?” he muttered, already wishing he hadn't.

“Loco? Is everything alright?” Looking over his shoulder, Locomotion saw none other than his old friend Octavia sauntering towards him, a look of motherly concern in her eyes. In that very instant, all he wanted was to curl up and die of shame.

“Oh...hey, Octavia,” he mumbled awkwardly. “Sorry about the outburst – I was just going through possible fanfic dialogue.”

“By belting it out at the top of your lungs?” said Octavia, raising a dubious eyebrow. “Loco, I know you better than that – yes, you may talk to yourself at times, but never at full volume.” She rested a hoof on his shoulder, trying to look him in the eye. “Come now, darling,” she coaxed gently, “what's the matter?”

Locomotion sighed heavily. He wasn't too sure he wanted to talk about his issues a second time, especially out in public; but he couldn't possibly say no to a sympathetic ear from Octavia. “I just don't know what to do with myself,” he answered glumly. “I'm in a right muddle over my own feelings – almost got into a shunting accident because of it – and now I can't even seem to think straight.” Tentatively, he allowed his gaze to meet hers. “You'd probably understand how I feel...sort of...”

Octavia nodded patiently, “So how do you feel?”

“Well...I can't be absolutely certain as yet, so don't take my word for it, but...I...” The red-furred unicorn paused for what felt like an age. “...I think I'm in love,” he managed to say at last. His voice was low and meek as he forced out those crucial words, almost low enough to make Fluttershy's mice jealous; but it was just loud enough for Octavia to hear.

“Oh my word,” she gasped in awe, the hoof on his shoulder swiftly covering her mouth. “I was wondering how long it'd be before you found a potential suitor. So who's the lucky filly?”

“Well, it'” Locomotion tensed up again. “'s kinda complicated, really...”

“Oh? Why, does your shed door not swing that way after all?”

“Eh?! No, no, no, it does,” replied Locomotion, flustered. “It's just that...well, she's not exactly a...a pony, per se.”

Again, Octavia raised an eyebrow. “What's wrong with that?” she objected. “I thought you were an advocate for interspecies couples.”

Locomotion fell silent. His ears drooped, and his whole body locked up again as he felt the weight on his shoulders increase, threatening to crush him where he stood. So much for talking to Octavia about his problems, he lamented – family friend or not, there was no way she would understand, let alone be able to help. With a look of dismayed sorrow in her eyes, the grey Earth mare wrapped a comforting arm around his withers; but before she could say anything...

“Hey, Tavi, what's up?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Locomotion noticed Spike strolling casually towards them. He was carrying a giggling Jade on his shoulder, and a bag of groceries in one arm – by the looks of it, he must have been out shopping.

“Oh...good afternoon, Spike,” said Octavia absent-mindedly. “You'll have to excuse us; Loco's having a bit of a moment.”

Spike chuckled knowingly. “I can take a guess why.”

Locomotion looked up at him, eyes full of sudden realisation. “You knew,” he whispered. “You knew all along.”

“I'm surprised you didn't,” quipped Spike. “Me and Rarity, we could tell you two were attracted to each other right from the off.”

“And you never thought to tell me?”

“ never asked us,” said Spike reasonably. “Besides, we didn't want to meddle too much in your relationship. Better that you found out for yourselves.”

“Um...pardon my ignorance, Spike,” interjected Octavia, perplexed, “but I'm rather failing to understand what you're implying.”

Spike stared incredulously for a moment before breaking out into hearty laughter. “Oh, Tavi,” he spluttered, trying to pull himself together before Jade lost her balance, “it's obvious what's going on – the Red Knight finds the Damsel in Black from faraway lands, saves her from the hungry timberwolves, and now...” He said no more, but winked broadly.

“So...Hornette?” Octavia looked at Locomotion, who only nodded stiffly in reply. “And you thought I might ostracise you just because you felt that way about a changeling?” she asked, her confusion giving way to mild amusement.

Locomotion sighed again and looked at his hooves. “It's not that simple, Octavia,” he murmured pathetically. “I mean, let's face facts – she's a changeling. I'm a pony. Even if we did manage to start a relationship, how long would it be before she receives fresh criticism for stealing my love? I couldn't possibly do that to her.”

“What, make her happy that she's got someone to love in the first place?” objected Spike. “What's the harm in that?”

“You don't understand...”

“Of course I understand,” interrupted Spike, softening his tone again in sympathy. He knelt down slightly, taking one of Locomotion's hooves in his free hand. “You're scared because you're new to the dating scene, and even more so because you've fallen for someone of a different species to your own – but you're not alone, you know. Rarity and I have been there ourselves a fair few times; but we still managed to work it all out, me and her. I'm sure you and Hornette can do the same.”

Octavia nodded in solemn agreement. “As far as I'm aware, Loco, you must be the first pony who's ever felt this way for a changeling; but I for one am willing to accept that, regardless of how others might feel. As a wise pony once said, there's a first time for everything. But if you don't act on those feelings, then goodness knows how it might affect you in the long run.”

“But supposing I do tell her how I feel?” protested Locomotion. “What if she loses trust in herself and keeps her distance from me?”

“Or what if she feels the same way? Take it from me, Locomotion,” said Octavia wisely, “it's far better for you to take the risk than not know at all. Don't follow the same path Vinyl and I nearly did.”

Locomotion frowned. He knew all too well what Octavia was implying, and the mere thought of it made him tense up with sympathy and dread. “Well...what should I say?” he murmured timidly.

“Just speak from your heart,” Octavia counselled. “You'll find the right words, I'm sure.”

“Well...I'll try,” sighed Locomotion doubtfully. Deep down, he still wasn't convinced, but said no more as he left Spike and Octavia to talk amongst themselves.

Mercifully, his thoughts had already calmed down a little, but they still prodded him incessantly as he wandered through the park. With what felt like his umpteenth weary sigh that day, the red-furred unicorn sat himself down on a nearby bench and stared unhappily down at his hooves. This just wasn't going to work, he lamented – even if Hornette did return his feelings and wish to start a relationship with him, the consequences of the press finding out would be unthinkable.

He gazed morosely across the green, mentally pleading for some sort of sign. Not that he needed to ask for one; for as he examined his surroundings, he couldn't help noticing a few couples out and about. Lyra and Bonbon were fondly cuddling on their favourite bench, Twist was dozing with Snails under a nearby tree, and Dinky was watching the fish in the stream with Pipsqueak snuggled up next to her. They all looked so contented and in love; just like Spike and Rarity...just like he and Hornette could be if only he tried...

Locomotion stood up, steeling his resolve as best as he could. Spike was right, he told himself sternly – if this was how he felt about Hornette, that was his decision and his alone, and no amount of libel from some nosy tabloid was going to change that. If anypony didn't like it, they'd just have to get used to it like they'd gotten used to other interspecies pairings over the course of time.

“I just hope you do feel the same way, Hornette,” he murmured.

Chapter 21: Betrayed!

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Hornette was snoozing in the living room. Scootaloo, Surfie, Apple Bloom and Firelli had taken good care of her for most of the day, but half an hour before Locomotion was due home, an accident at the bottom of the road had led to Firelli being called away. With little else to do, the young changeling had grown bored and lonely again, and hoped a good doze would pass the time until one of them came back.

At last, the click of the front door latch caught her attention, and she could hear Locomotion's voice calling out, “Hornette? I'm home.”

“In here, Loco,” answered Hornette, stirring herself awake. Already, she was beginning to feel a pang of dread, relief and anticipation rolled into one; now, she would finally find out how her crush felt about her, and offload her own feelings into the bargain.

Locomotion peeked into the living room with a warm smile. “Hullo, Hornette,” he greeted. “Where's Elli then?”

Hornette smiled back, almost apologetically. “Someone came round earlier and said that a timber cart had fallen over,” she explained. “Elli had to go and help patch up the haulier and a few passers-by.”

“Oh well – can't be helped, I guess,” mused Locomotion. He knew Firelli was a trained first-aid pony, so as irritated as he was by the turn of events, he couldn't fault her for leaving Hornette alone in such an emergency. “Apart from that, how was your day?”

“Not brilliant, if I'm honest,” admitted Hornette, her smile fading as she shifted to one side to clear some space on the sofa for him. “Your sisters and the Crusaders were good company, but...well, it just felt kinda lonely without you around.”

Locomotion frowned sympathetically and sat down next to her with a weary sigh. “Yeah, mine hasn't been much better. I had a bit of a rough shunt this morning, and nearly derailed a few trucks. Turns out Max was kinda worried about me when he found out – he called me up to his office before I signed off and...”

“You haven't lost your job, have you?” interrupted Hornette anxiously.

“Nah, he just wanted to have a bit of a heart-to-heart with me is all.” Locomotion paused, trying to work out what to say next. He could see that Hornette was pondering over something herself – something that she seemed almost desperate to share with him, that had been plaguing her for ages now.

“Actually, there's something I...” she began timidly.

“Actually, there's another re...” began Locomotion at the same time.

Both pony and changeling abruptly fell silent, neither wanting to interrupt the other. After a few seconds, Locomotion tried again.

“I know this is gonna...”

“What I mean to...” Hornette broke off again, but Locomotion patiently gestured for her to continue. “I'd actually been talking with Sweetie-Belle about...a few things, and...well...I'm still struggling to get my head round all this, but...I...” She blushed profusely as words failed her, plunging them both into a silence so awkward that it seemed to smother them.

“'s like this, Hornette,” ventured Locomotion at last, taking her front hooves in his own; “I'd actually been...kinda distracted today, hence why my shunting was so sloppy. I...couldn't really understand why, but...well, after a bit of a chat with Spike and Octavia...I think...I might...” His own voice trailed away as he became lost in her gaze. Blue eyes stared into green, fear and unease slowly giving way to a deep desire far stronger than mere magic, their breathing slackening as they slowly leaned in towards each other. Even with barely an inch between them, he could almost feel her lips brushing lightly against his own. Any second now...

Suddenly, the spell was broken by a thunderous rap at the front door. The two teenagers sprang apart, startled.

“Who in the world could that be?” exclaimed Hornette.

Locomotion's eyes narrowed. “Dunno – but it sounds a bit too rough for Elli,” he answered grimly. “You sit tight, Hornette, while I go check it out.” Secretly, he couldn't help scowling as he stood up and made for the hallway. Whoever it was on his doorstep sure had some nerve, he thought crossly, intruding on him and Hornette at such an inconvenient time – and just when things were starting to warm up too! To irritate him still further, the knocking seemed to persist even as he approached the door. “Alright, alright, I'm coming!!” he shouted, slipping the chain across in case the intruder turned out to be less than friendly.

He turned out to be right on the money. As soon as he opened the door, the first thing he saw was a brown Pegasus stallion staring him down belligerently. The red-furred unicorn recalled seeing him once or twice on construction sites; but what really disturbed him was the mob of ponies gathered outside the front garden, all staring upon the house with equal measures of sullen anger.

“Um...can I help you?” inquired Locomotion, trying to sound polite.

But the brown Pegasus, whom he reckoned must be the ringleader of the group, was clearly in no mood for idle chat. “Alright, buddy, where's that changeling of yours?!” he demanded, trying to force the door open.

Locomotion instinctively pushed back, knowing the chain wouldn't be enough to bar his entrance. “Hey, hey, hey,” he burst out indignantly, “what do you mean by barging into my house like this?!”

“Don't start preaching sermons with us, kid!” snapped the stallion. “We're not letting that bug-eyed creep double-cross us and get away with it!”

“What the flabberwocky are you talking about?!”

“You wouldn't understand even if we told you!” growled the stallion rudely. “Now where is she?!”

Locomotion's glare hardened. “Well, you'd better tell me – unless you want me to tell the police!” he threatened.

“Oh, sure, and be charged as a quisling – I don't think so. Now step aside and let us in!”

“Not until one of you takes out a search warrant!”

The brown stallion bared his teeth and scraped a hoof against the ground. “STEP ASIDE!!” he bellowed.

“Loco? Is everything alright?”

Locomotion's blood ran cold. He didn't even need to look over his shoulder to see that Hornette, disturbed by the shouting match, had followed him into the hallway and was looking on from what she thought to be a safe distance.

“AHA! SO THERE YOU ARE!!” Without any further warning, a deep purple unicorn bolted forward, magically grabbed Hornette by the back of her neck and dragged her towards the door. “Okay, changeling,” he snarled, “what's your game?!”

If it weren't for the magical grip around her shoulders, Hornette would have dropped to the floor and curled up into a ball she was so terrified. “I...I didn't do anything!” she whimpered.

The brown stallion shot her a death-glare. “You're a liar!” he accused; only to reel in pain and shock as two bolts of magical energy hit him and the unicorn squarely in the forehead. He looked up again to see Locomotion's horn still glowing.

“Keep your hooves off of my changeling!” growled Locomotion, trembling with adrenaline and hyperventilating with rage. “I dunno who you guys think you are, but if you think you can hurt Hornette in front of me, then I'd like to see you try!”

“What in the hay is going on around here?!”

Everypony looked towards the source of the voice. Almost at once, Locomotion's breathing began to slow down; for there, pushing his way through the crowd and looking very surprised and annoyed, was Steamer. “I go away for a few days, leave the house in Loco and Hornette's capable hooves, come back, and this is what I find!” he ranted. “What's the meaning of all this?!”

A huge hubbub of voices erupted all around him, each shouting as loudly as they could to make themselves heard. Locomotion tried to interrupt, but his own voice was drowned out by the incessant hollering.

“ONE AT A TIME!!!” yelled Steamer, covering his ears. He trotted up to the front door, which Locomotion unchained without question. “You first, Loco; what's this all about?”

Locomotion shrugged. “I wish I knew, Uncle Steamer,” he confessed gravely. “Me and Hornette were just minding our own business, then somepony comes round and starts demanding answers from us. They wouldn't even tell me what their questions were.”

“Ask her!” spat the brown Pegasus, pointing at Hornette. “She was the one who did it!”

Steamer looked to Hornette, perplexed; but she didn't seem to know any more than he did. If anything, she seemed even more unnerved than before. She shook her head in utter confusion.

“Look, you're not making any sense here,” protested Steamer to the Pegasus stallion. “What exactly is it you think she did?”

Before the brown stallion could argue any further, they heard a familiar sly chuckle. Hornette gasped in horror, and Steamer and Locomotion's expressions soured – looking back towards the angry mob, they could see none other than Diesel making his way up the path. “So much for trusting a changeling, eh, Steamer?” he gloated. “I did try to warn you, you know.”

Steamer grimaced. “I might have known you'd be behind this, Diesel!” he snarled. “Did I not tell you to stay out of Loco and Hornette's lives?!”

Diesel only laughed derisively. “Oh, Steamer,” he taunted. “You and your nephew, you're both as bad as each other – standing up for some deceitful oversized insect, treating her like the ally she never was – or ever will be...”

“Listen, Diesel,” snapped Steamer, “if you're still trying to dispute Hornette's integrity, you're wasting your time! I don't know how you've fooled all these other ponies into believing all the trash you've been spouting...”

“And still you continue to make me the scapegoat,” interrupted Diesel smugly. “When will you ever learn?”

Steamer edged closer, his eyes burning ominously. “Get off my property!” he ordered ominously.

“Now then, Steamer...”

“Get moving before I set Twilight on you!!”

But to Locomotion's dismay, Steamer's threat didn't have the same effect on Diesel as last time. The black stallion simply rolled his eyes smugly and said, “I wouldn't bank on that, Steamer – not while she's out of town.”

“Since when?!” demanded Locomotion.

“ know what that map's like – always summoning your worthy Princess Twilight and her Friendship Council at strange times. From what I saw, she and her entourage had to leave in a tearing hurry; and goodness knows when they'll be back.”

Locomotion cursed inwardly and gritted his teeth. As much as he suspected this to be a mere ruse, he knew Diesel was right about the Cutie Map. Whichever way he looked at it, that greasy Pegasus had him, Steamer and Hornette licked. “Alright,” he said grimly, “what do you want with us?”

Diesel's sly grin morphed into a parody of sympathetic innocence. “Deary me, Locomotion, I wish I could spare you this,” he said, taking on a sombre tone. “Something...truly disagreeable has happened in the town square – something which I fear will...rock your world.”

“What are you implying?”

“Perhaps it's best that you come with us and take a look for yourselves – and that includes your precious changeling.”

Locomotion turned to Steamer. “Well, Uncle?” he whispered. “What do we do?”

“Well, whatever it is he's plotting, he obviously means business,” answered Steamer gravely, cocking his head towards the crowd still glaring at them. “We'd better do as he says – and hope we run into Twilight on the way. If we do, he's finished.”

His nephew frowned and nodded in reluctant agreement. “Alright then – but don't try anything clever,” he said sternly to Diesel.

Hornette gazed fearfully at Locomotion. Whatever Diesel had in store for her, she had a bad feeling she wasn't going to like it. “ don't think...” she whispered; but Locomotion wrapped a reassuring hoof around hers.

“Take it easy, Hornette,” he soothed. “I'm not letting that living barrel of crude oil turn me against you – or anypony else for that matter.” He certainly hoped so, at least...

Firelli watched with relief as the ambulance was rushed away back to Ponyville Hospital. Not only had the carter sprained his back and twisted his right hind fetlock, but five other ponies had been caught in an avalanche of timber as his cart toppled over, so she had had a lot of broken bones to deal with. At least Blossomforth had managed to avoid any such injury herself – good job she was so flexible and agile!

Her work done, the scarlet Pegasus made her way back to Steamer's house to see how Hornette was doing; but deep down, she couldn't shake an unsettling hunch about the accident. She had discovered a broken wheel to be the cause, possibly an overload fracture in the spokes – except that on closer inspection, she found that some of them had sheared far too cleanly. It was as if someone had purposely cut through them...but who, she wondered, would do such a thing? And why? Perhaps she ought to report this to the police...

At that moment, she heard a commotion further up the road. A large crowd had gathered outside Steamer and Locomotion's house, and both stallions were being directly confronted by two Pegasi while Hornette stood close behind, visibly frightened. Firelli's brow furrowed as she took in the tense scene, and even more so when she realised that the black one resembled the Electro Diesel pony her brother and uncle had described to her a while back. To irk her still further, he seemed to be grinning with evil satisfaction as he and the rest of the crowd marched Hornette, Steamer and Locomotion towards the town centre.

Fearing the worst, Firelli quickly took to the air and glided surreptitiously after them. As if the sly gloating from Diesel wasn't enough, she could see one or two of the mobsters pushing and shoving Hornette rudely; and whenever Locomotion tried to intervene, they just sneered contemptuously at him. She was abhorred by this, but reluctantly held back all the same – it wouldn't do to give the game away too soon, she told herself grimly, in case someone tried to silence her.

Unaware they were being shadowed, and with no way of knowing what they were in for, Hornette and Locomotion could only hope that, by some miracle, the Friendship Council would suddenly appear and send these hecklers on their way with their tails between their legs. After what felt like the tensest and most agonising ten minutes of their lives, they turned a corner and came to the entrance of an empty alleyway only a block or two away from Sugarcube Corner. The two teenagers braced themselves as Diesel stepped to one side, but nothing could prepare them for what they saw...

Hornette gasped in horror, and Locomotion's jaw dropped open with outrage. “Is this some kind of sick joke?!” he exclaimed.

On a nearby rooftop, well out of sight, Firelli choked back her own gasp of shock – for there, right before their very eyes, was a changeling cocoon with a unicorn stallion trapped inside it. He appeared to be thumping frantically against the walls of his glassy green prison, trying in vain to smash it open.

“It's no hoax,” asserted Diesel, his tone more sinister and malevolent than ever. “This stallion was found here nearly half an hour ago, and a changeling spotted flying away from the same area...” His eyes narrowed maliciously. “...sound familiar – Hornette?”

The young changeling went pale as all eyes turned on her.

“There is only one changeling here, after all,” continued Diesel, “and not a single pony knows how to spin one of their cocoons. Can anyone else think of a viable explanation for this?”

“But...but I never touched him!” wailed Hornette in protest. “I was back at Loco and Steamer's house the whole time! I don't even know who this pony is!”

“And I suppose you have witnesses to prove it?!”

Firelli winced. That brown stallion whom she assumed must be their ringleader was quite right; the one time Hornette needed someone with her, and she couldn't even be there, all because of some horrible cart accident. But surely Hornette couldn't have been responsible – not someone as sweet and altruistic as her. Why, if it hadn't been for the baying hecklers and Diesel's taunting, the young changeling would gladly have set the stallion free without a second thought.

And that was when it hit her – the broken cart, the first-aid emergency, the cocooned must all be connected somehow! The whole accident must have been planned from the very beginning, as a means of getting her out of the way and leaving Hornette unguarded. That way, there would be nopony around to provide the vital alibi to clear her name. There was no question about it, she realised; both she and Hornette had been set up.

“No, really,” insisted Hornette, “I'd never do something like this! I swear I wouldn't!” She looked desperately at Locomotion. “Y-y-you believe me, don't you?”

“Well, of course I believe you,” affirmed Locomotion. Though his mind was still battling with his conscience, neither were prepared to let the young changeling suffer for a crime she couldn't have committed. “And so does Uncle Steamer, for that matter – right?”

But to their mutual dismay, Steamer seemed even more baffled than Locomotion had been a moment ago. “I...I dunno what to believe,” he admitted. “I How could you do this to us?”

Hornette felt a cold, heavy lump of dread forming in the pit of her stomach, and could only stare in dismay, feeling as if her legs would suddenly give out. Even Steamer seemed to be against her now – and so soon after she had proven her heroics!

At last, Locomotion lost his temper. “What the flabberwocky is wrong with you all?!” he burst out, exasperated. “Am I the ONLY one who loves this girl enough to...” But before he could finish, he was interrupted by a collective gasp of shock and disgust. Too late, he realised what he had just said, and threw both his front hooves over his mouth in alarm.

“AHA!!” barked Diesel menacingly. “So you admit it – she's been stealing your love just like she did with this one!”

“What?! No...!” cried Locomotion in a blind panic; but his words fell on deaf ears.

“Just as I thought!” went on Diesel, drowning out the red-furred unicorn's protests. “First some little savage comes and fools Princess Twilight Sparkle into letting her stay where she doesn't belong; then she pulls the wool over our eyes and acts like the hero she clearly isn't; and now she betrays our trust by suckering the love from not one, but two unsuspecting ponies!” His eyes narrowed as he directed a calculating stare at Hornette; “Would I be right as well in presuming that you shared a bed with one of them?!”

The lump in Hornette's stomach instantly migrated to her throat, her entire frame locking up as she felt the dozens of eyes glowering at her. Far from being overjoyed at Locomotion's admittedly accidental confession, all she felt was a deep, crippling despair – stalker or not, there was no way she could dispute what Diesel had just revealed. It was all too much for the young changeling; with a stifled sob of anguish, she bolted off down the alley as fast as her legs could carry her. Even the sound of Locomotion's voice as he gave chase was lost to her as she ran further and further away from Ponyville – away from Steamer, away from Diesel and the hecklers, and away from the red-furred unicorn she had grown to love so dearly.

From her rooftop perch, Firelli could only look on grimly until her uncle trotted after them at a slower pace. She frowned at the jeering and shouting of the angry mob below. “I've seen enough!” she declared under her breath, and flew away in the direction of the castle, while Diesel smirked with triumph in the darkness.

Locomotion ran as hard and as fast as he could, frantically calling Hornette's name and pleading with her to come back – but gallop and shout as he might, the young changeling refused to heed him. She just kept on running, convinced that she was no longer welcome in Equestria, and by the time he was beyond the edge of town, she was almost out of sight.

An intense pain began to register in the young stallion's heart as he watched her disappear over a hillock. Caught in the cruel and excruciating grip in despair, his pace began to slacken involuntarily until at last he couldn't move a muscle, and he came to a halt at the bottom of the slope, yelling out her name one last time. Already, he could feel the tears starting to sting his eyes, the unsteady trembling in his legs...the familiar ominous ache in his chest that he had hoped he would never have to feel again. He collapsed onto his rump, unable to hold back his distress any longer, and sobbed bitterly as his body seemed to shut down altogether. The one creature he had ever truly loved above all else, and she was gone forever – all because he couldn't keep his mouth shut about how he felt about her. Right now, he could feel nothing but guilt and sorrow. He had failed her...failed to defend her honour…

“I'm sorry, Loco.”

The sound of Steamer's voice gently broke into Locomotion's train of thought as he placed a comforting hoof on his nephew's shoulder. The red-furred unicorn continued to stare at the ground, unwilling to acknowledge his presence.

“She was such a good girl too,” went on Steamer softly. “Believe you me, I'm just as shocked as you are...”

Unfortunately, his words failed to reassure Locomotion in any way. Instead, he just grimaced as all the negative words against Hornette echoed in his mind – the surly, sneering contempt from Rainbow Dash...the sly, obnoxious remarks from Diesel...the insensitive cheek from Pound Cake and Shady Daze...even his own uncle's apprehension during the first week of Hornette's probation. This was the very same stallion who had vowed to trust her with his life, and now he was going back on his word! All his guilt, sorrow and self-pity gave way to a growing feeling of betrayal, until it became the voice of anger. “The hell you are!” he snarled.

Steamer froze. This was the first time Locomotion had spoken so aggressively to him. “What...”

“You never liked Hornette! You never even wanted to like her!!” thundered Locomotion, turning to face the older stallion with a poisonous look of rage. “You just wanted rid of her like everypony else! Didn't know what to believe, my hind hoof – all you wanted to believe was that she was a savage just like the rest of them!”

“No, I never said anything of the sort!” protested Steamer, still trying to get over the shock.

“Didn't you?! Then why did you just stand by and let her take the rap for a cocooned stallion?! Why didn't you stand up for her like I did?! You said you trusted her!!”

“Well...I...” Steamer looked away, trying to find the right words.

“You were right all along, Uncle!” spat Locomotion, cutting him off once again. “Maybe I should have asked Twilight to let her live at the castle – then neither she nor I would have to put up with some heartless, unfeeling, uncaring racist who never even gave a flying flabberwocky for his own nephew's feelings!”

“Now just a minute!!” burst out Steamer indignantly. “That's going too far!”

But so had he. Unwilling to put up with his uncle any longer, Locomotion sprang to his hooves and galloped furiously away, intent on getting as far away from him as he could.

“Hey! Where are you going?!” shouted Steamer, bolting after him. “Loco, get back here! I'm not finished yet! Loco, stop!”

Locomotion only gathered his pace still further. He had had enough of Steamer and his so-called 'friends' in Ponyville – they had hurt Hornette once too often, and he had no intention of seeing them ever again. All he wanted was to track her down and join her quest for the Promised Land, no matter how hopeless nor how far away it might be. In his anger, he failed to notice his Cutie Marks flashing repeatedly, until a holographic likeness inexplicably materialised above him and zoomed away towards Twilight's castle...

Finally, after much yelling and hollering, Steamer was forced to stop for a breather. Huffing and puffing, he looked to where Locomotion was headed, and shuddered – of all the dreaded places he could have gone, it just had to be this one...and there was nothing he could do.

“How am I going to tell Fair Isle and Optic Strand about this?” he muttered anxiously.

Chapter 22: Innocent Until Proven Guilty

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Applejack stared in confusion. “Are y'all sure this is right, Twi?”

“Positive,” answered Twilight, clearly puzzled herself. With little to do all day, she had been hanging out at Sweet Apple Acres with the rest of her council when they all noticed their Cutie Marks flashing. They dashed back to the castle, but were perplexed when the Cutie Map kept on pulsating and wouldn't show them where they were needed. Anxious to find out why, Twilight used her magic to override the Map and make it show them anyway. “I've never known the Map to summon us to two places simultaneously, but there it is.”

“Yeah, but I still don't get it,” protested Rainbow Dash incredulously. “Why summon us to our own home town? Any friendship problem around here, we'd be onto it in a shot, Map or no Map.”

“Never mind that,” interjected Rarity, “have you seen where else it's calling us to?”

Twilight's brow furrowed. Sure enough, there was a duplicate of each Cutie Mark hologram right on the far south of the Map, in one of the most dangerous and dreaded places known to ponykind. “I sure have, Rarity,” she answered grimly. “The one place I hoped I'd never have to visit...something tells me this friendship mission is way more than even we can handle.”

“Not just us, Twilight,” announced Pinkie Pie, eyeing the two additional holograms in the same area. “If I didn't know better, I'd say it wants Loco out there as well – and someone else.” She pulled back a little, arching an eyebrow. Sure enough, one of the images was clearly Locomotion's wheel and chimney Cutie Mark; but the other, a blue peace sign inside a red heart, seemed a bit harder to place. “Big question is, who?”

Rarity shrugged. “Not the foggiest, Pinkie. I must confess, I've never seen a Cutie Mark like that before.”

“An' why would the Map send Loco out there?” put in Applejack. “He wouldn't last five seconds in the Badlands; it's way too dangerous.”

Fluttershy, who had remained silent throughout the discussion, looked thoughtfully at the mysterious hologram. “Could it be to do with Hornette?” she suggested. “I is changeling territory, after all.”

“Ah, don't go on, Fluttershy,” retorted Rainbow Dash, rolling her eyes. “You said Hornette was done with the Badlands.”

“I know...but maybe the Map knows how we can help.”

“Well, we're not gonna find the answer just sitting here,” decided Twilight. “First things first, we'd better see what's going on in Ponyville.” She stood up from her throne and was just turning towards the doorway when Flash entered with a worried look on his face, followed closely by an equally grim Firelli Brazen.

“Firelli needs to speak to you, Twily – very urgent,” he said.

“Go on.”

“Hornette's in trouble,” explained Firelli tersely. “Something really unsettling has happened in Market Square; some of the locals think she's responsible and have been trying to make her own up to it.”

Twilight paused, furrowing her brow again. “Market Square, you say? Around what time?”

“Something like...half-four or thereabouts.”

“Right...” Twilight looked back at the Map for a brief moment. Maybe this was one of the friendship problems it wanted them to resolve. “'d better tell me about it on the way. Flash,” she instructed, “order a full unicorn mobilisation – tell them we need a riot control team out there immediately.”

“Yes, Twily!” Flash saluted smartly and galloped off to the barracks, while Twilight and her councillors followed Firelli to the scene of the fiasco. As they went, the scarlet mare hurriedly told them all she knew, from the cart accident and the angry mob to Diesel's taunting and Hornette's exile.

When they arrived, they found the hecklers still gathered around the cocooned stallion, noisily debating how to set him free again. Diesel lurked nearby, still smirking. He felt invincible, and even the unicorn guards didn't intimidate him – with Hornette's reputation in ruins, he could make anyone believe him without question, regardless of whether he was telling the truth or not. Once he had done the same with this lot, his vendetta would be complete. As Twilight, her councillors and Firelli pushed their way through the crowd, he stepped forward; “Good evening to you, Your Highness,” he said in his most ingratiating tone. “I'm most grieved that this changeling should have betrayed...”

But Twilight knew better. She cut the black Pegasus off with a warning glare and murmured to him through clenched teeth, “I'll deal with you later, Diesel,” before turning her attention back to the matter at hoof.

Diesel's innocent smile faded. He hadn't forgotten Locomotion's earlier threat, but neither had he expected Twilight to fob him off in such a cold and wary manner; and deep down, he was starting to worry at the potentially fatal flaw in his plans. “But...Your Highness,” he objected, quickly forgetting himself as the lavender alicorn breezed past him, “surely this is proof of a changeling attack? No pony could ever spin such a tough cocoon in so short a time.”

Firelli shot him a stern glance of her own. “Maybe – but I'd leave Twilight to decide that if I were you,” she pointed out coolly. “From what she tells me, Mr Diesel, you're under suspicion yourself.”

“And who are you to boss your elders about?” retorted Diesel with a smarmy leer. “Might I suggest you...”

“No you might not, Gasoline. You're on thin enough ice as it is.”

Diesel turned and scowled at the orange Pegasus who had just touched down next to him. “Excuse me?!” he blustered indignantly. “That's Electro Diesel to you!”

“Your name can be mud for all I care,” continued Flash, glowering at him analytically. “And I happen to be the Captain of Twilight's Guards, Petrol, so don't even think of talking back to me like that.”

But Diesel had no intention of heeding Flash's orders. He was determined that Hornette would be the scapegoat no matter the cost, and watched through narrow, calculating eyes as Twilight examined the cocoon.

“So you say it was just after four when he was found like this?” she asked Firelli.

“From what I heard, yeah.”

Twilight cupped a thoughtful hoof around her chin. “And you've no idea who could've done this to him – or why?”

“Ask the changeling!” accused the group's ringleader. “She's the one who did this! She crept into this alleyway and sucked the love out of this guy!”

“Did she?” asked Twilight rhetorically

“Well, who else could it have been, Lord Tirek?! This is a changeling cocoon, there's only one changeling here – she is responsible, she means us malice!” insisted the ringleader.

Twilight's eyebrows straightened. “That's not the impression I got from last night's memory scan,” she remarked.

“Well, obviously it doesn't work on changelings then, does it?” jeered Diesel.

“And another thing,” went on Twilight, ignoring him completely, “this is the same changeling who risked her life to save one of our own – who held her own queen in contempt because of the way she and the other changelings treated us ponies. So why would a creature with such strong morals suddenly turn traitor? It just seems so out of character.”

Applejack turned to Firelli. “Did y'all say somethin' about a cart accident at the time o' the attack?” she asked curiously.

“Yes – a wheel had broken on a timber cart. I had to go and give first aid to the carter and five other ponies,” explained Firelli. “Funny thing is,” she added suspiciously, “when I checked the broken wheel, some of the spokes looked like they had been sawn through.”

Twilight paused. “You think it might have been sabotaged?”

“More than that – I've got a feeling that accident had been staged to get me out of the way.”

“I see...” Twilight pondered for a moment. “...yeah, I'm beginning to see your point, Elli – this does seem a little too...convenient to be a coincidence,” she remarked.

By now, Diesel was really losing his patience. “Why are you even listening to her?!” he burst out aggressively. “She's the one who's supposed to be guarding this monster – oh, you know the three of them were guarding her day and night, don't you, because she's so 'harmless'! And then she turns her back on that pet changeling of yours – how do you know she isn't complicit in all this?!”

“I've been scanning Hornette's memory for well over a month,” replied Twilight stolidly. “If she was up to anything, I'd know about it already; but you obviously know everything there is to know about her and Loco – a lot more than some innocent bystander.” Her eyes narrowed. “Maybe we're right to suspect you, Diesel – maybe you have been stalking them.”

“And what difference does that make?!” snarled Diesel. “It's the changeling you should...”

“Save your breath, Diesel!” snapped Rainbow Dash. She was still struggling to decide whether Hornette was really to blame or not, but she wasn't about to let this pushy black punk speak to one of her best friends like that. “We're not moving until we know for certain who did this – now shut up and let Twilight do her thing.”

Realising that any further argument would be futile, Diesel slunk back into the crowd, muttering under his breath. “Stupid ponies! They defend the indefensible, but they refuse to defend their own! Why can't they just accept she was responsible?!”

Flash overheard his grumbling, and was quick to retort; “Not until we've gathered all the evidence, Kerosene,” he cut in smartly. “I don't know how you do things in...wherever you came from, but here in a civilised society, we have a policy known as 'innocent until proven guilty'.”

Twilight turned her attention back to the cocoon, tapping it lightly as she considered the evidence. “Well, there's only one way to find out who the real culprit is,” she decided. “Stand back, everypony; I'm gonna see if I can break this open.” Setting her horn aglow, she screwed up her eyes in concentration as her aura surrounded the translucent green shell. A small crack began to form around one end, which gradually grew larger and larger until at last the cocoon split open – much to the bewilderment of the watching crowd. Firelli eventually broke the stunned silence with a whistle of amazement.

“Whoa!” exclaimed Rainbow Dash, awed. “How the hay did you do that, Twilight?!”

“Picked it up from Hornette while I was scanning her memory,” answered Twilight plainly as the stallion crawled out of the remains of the cocoon, gasping heavily as if he were short of breath. “Elli, Fluttershy, go check him over.”

Before Fluttershy and Firelli could oblige, they heard a shout from somewhere behind them. Hearing her name being called, Twilight turned around to find Steamer galloping towards her. “Twilight,” he panted, trying to catch his breath, “I need your help. Loco's gone after...”

“Sorry, Steamer,” interrupted Twilight, “I'm busy trying to sort things out here. Would you mind waiting a moment?”

“But Twilight, this can't wait!” insisted Steamer frantically.

“I'm afraid you'll have to,” said Twilight firmly. She could sense Steamer's concern, but she also knew she couldn't leave this current crisis to spiral out of control. “This dispute has to take priority – the sooner we resolve it, the sooner you can tell me what's going on.”

Steamer cringed with fear, but he knew it was no use arguing with a princess. Reluctantly, he stood to one side while Firelli and Fluttershy lay the stallion down in a recovery position and examined him for any injuries As they did so, Firelli, still a little dubious about the stallion, decided to try and get him to open up about what had happened. “How did you get this way?” she asked tentatively.

“I...I dunno,” said the stallion in a shaky voice. “I was just wandering down this alley, minding my own business, and all of a sudden, this changeling comes and beats me up, sucks up all my love and bundles me up in a cocoon.”

“What did the changeling look like?”

The stallion furrowed his brow. “What's the point?” he protested pathetically. “They all look the same apart from their queen; all I know is that it was muttering to itself about someone named Loco.”

“Hmm...I see,” mused Firelli. Secretly, she was growing more and more suspicious by the second; for someone who had just been attacked so brutally, this pony didn't seem to have so much as a scuff on his hide, let alone any cuts or bruises. What was more, she thought she could see something poking out of the leather jacket he was wearing – and whatever it was, it didn't look like a Pegasus wing. “Well, I'm not seeing any injury so far. Could I take a look at your back, please?”

But the stallion jerked back abruptly. “No! You can't!”

“Eh? Why not?” wondered Fluttershy, perplexed.

“That thing gashed me right between my shoulders. I'll bleed to death if I take this off!”

Fluttershy frowned anxiously. She didn't dare risk opening up such a serious wound again, but she still couldn't believe Hornette would do such a thing. Firelli quickly decided to take the initiative; “Right, I'll go ask Flash to send for an ambulance,” she said, and quickly trotted across to him with a grim frown of her own. Diesel, sensing trouble, scowled threateningly as she passed, but Firelli took no notice. “Flash?” she spoke up, tapping the orange Pegasus lightly on the shoulder.

Flash turned around to face her. “Yes, Elli?”

“Can I have a word with you in private?”

“Uh...yeah, sure. How come?”

But Firelli simply shook her head, raised a hoof to her lips and cocked her head towards another alleyway further down the street. Taking the hint, Flash nodded in understanding and followed her away from the crowd and into the alley. Once there, the scarlet mare quickly checked over her shoulder before whispering into his ear.

Flash's eyes widened in alarm. “Are you sure?!” he spluttered, struggling to keep his voice down.

“Certain,” answered Firelli quietly.

“Right! Thanks for telling me, Elli,” hissed Flash grimly. “I'll go set my guards, wait – he'll be expecting that. We've gotta sneak up on him somehow.” He paused for a moment as the outline of a plan began to form in his head. “You'd better keep him talking, Elli,” he instructed at last. “I'll do the rest.”

“What are you gonna do?”

Flash only winked in reply; “Just play along,” he whispered.

Firelli shrugged and followed him back to the crime scene, hoping to goodness that whatever scheme Flash had in mind would work. The stallion still appeared to be in a state of shock when they returned. “It's alright, sir,” the scarlet Pegasus told him calmly. “I've spoken to Flash; he says the ambulance should be on its way shortly.”

“I sure hope so,” murmured the stallion. “I dunno how much longer...”

“Hang on a minute, mister,” interrupted Flash, raising an eyebrow, “did those two check you over properly?”

Fluttershy paused. “Yes, but we can't check under his jacket,” she answered defensively. “We'll have to wait for the ambulance for that.”

That was when Firelli suddenly realised what Flash was up to. Locomotion had seen the same thing in a movie once, and must have told him about it – perhaps this was his plan. She looked on, poising herself for action as he shook his head. “I don't think we will, Fluttershy,” he said calmly. “You might wanna keep still a minute, mister.” Slowly, deliberately, he shuffled forwards and reached out towards him. “I think...there's something...wrong...with your...FACE!!” and he gave the stallion a sharp tap on the horn.

The stallion flinched, startled, and promptly vanished in a cloud of green flame. When it cleared, the whole crowd gasped in shock – for in his place lay a furious changeling, snarling viciously as he prepared to escape. But Flash was already several strides ahead; “SEIZE HIM!!!” he yelled at the top of his voice, and grabbed him in a stranglehold while the unicorn soldiers charged towards them, pinning the militant changeling down.

The changeling struggled and squirmed as manacles were clamped onto his hooves. “Let go of me, you vile horses!!” he bellowed.

“Nothing doing, pal!” Before the changeling could fight back, Flash slipped a magic inhibitor onto his horn. “In the name of Princess Twilight Sparkle of Ponyville, and with Miss Firelli Brazen as my witness, I'm placing you under arrest for perverting the course of justice, conspiracy to defamation of character – and, needless to add, violation of the Anti-Changeling Protection Act of 2009.”

Rainbow Dash gazed at Firelli, still reeling in shock. “ knew he was a fake!” she managed to choke out.

“I suspected it,” affirmed Firelli grimly.


“Well, for starters, he told me one changeling looked very much like another – except that changelings can look like anything they want. Hornette obviously can't; but if it'd been her, the difference in eye shape to other changelings, as shared only by Queen Chrysalis, would've easily given her away,” said Firelli pointedly. “Secondly, he said she had assaulted him, and yet somehow he seemed completely unharmed – except for the supposed 'back injury'.” She turned to face the crowd. “Finally, did anypony else notice a pair of insect wings under that leather jacket of his?” she finished.

A series of mutters drifted through the crowd, some praising Firelli's observance while others were in absolute disbelief. Only Diesel failed to pass comment; “I have a plane to catch,” he murmured hastily, and leaped into the air before anypony could catch him out.

“Well spotted, Firelli,” said Twilight, and turned to her consort; “Right, take him away, Flash – I'd quite like to have some serious words with him tonight.”

“That you shall, Twily!” assured Flash.

The changeling hissed fiercely at him. “You won't get anything out of me, equine scum!” he snarled defiantly. “I'll never tell you anything!”

Flash smirked at him through narrow eyes. “We'll see about that,” he murmured as he and his soldiers dragged him back to the castle. The crowd respectfully stood back, still flabbergasted by what they had just seen.

“So...this attack...Hornette feeding on Loco's love...the shared bed...” Steamer stared at Twilight, still barely able to comprehend the situation. “...that was all a lie?” he asked breathlessly.

Twilight shook her head gravely. “Not quite, Steamer. She and Loco did share a bed a couple of nights ago, but there was nothing untoward between them – he just came to her for comfort after a nightmare,” she elaborated. “And yes, he has been feeling love for her, but I can assure you it's completely genuine; and more to the point, mutual between the two of them. You can take my word for it.”

Only then did Steamer realise the full gravity of his actions – why Locomotion had been so torn apart when Hornette had fled Ponyville, and why he had disowned him in such a harsh and unforgiving manner. He had broken his nephew's heart, and all because he had fallen for Diesel's greasy ploy. He collapsed onto his haunches, trembling with guilt. “What have I done?” he faltered.

Instead of trying to answer him, Twilight turned sharply on the crowd of erstwhile hecklers; “As for all the rest of you,” she bellowed furiously, “I don't need to tell you how appalled I am at your behaviour! All the effort I'd gone through to verify and authenticate Hornette's character, and you go behind my back, take justice into your own hooves, and then you hang her out to dry! You lot have seriously disgraced yourselves...” She glared at the ringleader, “...and that goes double for you, Crafty Crate!! Your treatment of Hornette has been appalling!”

“What?! But Twilight, how was I to know...”

“But nothing!!” thundered Twilight. “You had no business passing judgement on her without consulting me first! As Princess of Friendship, I'm charging all of you with physical assault, verbal intimidation, gross insubordination, contempt of court, and incitement to racial hatred – and don't count on the Anti-Changeling Protection Act protecting you this time!”

Crafty Crate's defensive stance melted away, and he bowed his head with shame and disbelief. He genuinely believed he had been in the right, but as much as he distrusted Hornette, he couldn't hope to contest the damning truth, let alone Twilight's firm sense of justice. The silence that befell him and his lackeys was almost tangible.

At last, one of the other ponies tentatively spoke up; “Twilight,” she said meekly, “we're really sorry we treated Hornette so contemptuously.”

“I should think so too!” huffed Twilight severely. “I was hoping you lot could set an example for her just like the rest of us; but you have seriously let me down.”

“We were led astray, Your Highness,” added another stallion apologetically. “That guy...what's his name...Diesel – he claimed to have seen her out there.”

Twilight's eyes narrowed. “Well, I can tell you now,” she answered darkly, “Diesel had no more right to interfere than any of the rest of you. In fact, I have another question, if I may – who here would be willing to defend his actions were you to find that he too harboured a dark secret? That there were other changelings currently lurking nearby – with him as their informer?!”

The gasps and murmurs among the crowd told her all she needed to know. “That slimy skunk!!” yelled an angry voice. “Where is he?! I'll give him what-for, making such fools out of us!!!”

Twilight hastily scanned the crowd; and sure enough, Diesel was nowhere to be seen. “Shoot!” she cursed under her breath. “And just when we had him in our sights too!”

“What now?” asked Rarity anxiously.

“First things first, we've got to find Hornette before anything happens to her,” replied Twilight tersely. “As soon as she's safe, I'll issue an APB on Diesel. Any idea where she went, Steamer?”

The buff-coated stallion's brow furrowed with dread as he suddenly remembered. “That's what I came to tell you!” he burst out. “She's headed for the Everfree Forest – Loco too!”

“He's gone where?!” exclaimed Firelli in alarm.

But Twilight didn't stop for an explanation. “Right – come on, girls!” she said to the rest of her council. “There's not a moment to lose!” And with that, she galloped away towards the forest, the other five mares hot on her tail. Aware that they too hadn't heard the last of their actions, the guilt-ridden crowd wisely decided to make themselves scarce for the time being, and respectfully slunk away; but Steamer and Firelli could only watch anxiously as the Friendship Council raced to the rescue.

Steamer looked down at his hooves, tears beginning to well up in his eyes. “This is all my fault,” he mourned. “I never should've believed that Diesel.”

“He's fooled all of us, Uncle Steamer,” said Firelli gravely, nuzzling him in a bid to soothe his rattled feelings. Truth be told, she was just as terrified for Hornette and Locomotion as her uncle, but knew in her heart that she had to stay strong. “But there's nothing more we can do – except pray.”

Steamer nodded stiffly in reply. Locomotion was right, he thought sadly – he had grown attached to Hornette, and only now had he begun to realise just how much she meant to him. It almost felt as if he had forsaken one of his own children, and the extent of his nephew's feelings for her only worsened the feeling of shame and disgust at his own actions. Now, it seemed, his worst fears were about to come true – he was on his way to losing not one, but effectively two of his family, and he was powerless to do anything about it.

“If Diesel catches up to Hornette first, I'll never forgive myself,” he murmured tremulously.

Chapter 23: Everfree Showdown

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Dusk was slowly descending over the Everfree Forest, creating a fittingly bleak and scary atmosphere. The screeching of bats and cicadas and the distant howling of wolves only added to its unsettling nature; but even more unnerving might have been the sight of a changeling skulking in the midst of the forest...crying?

Hornette lay prone under the shelter of a large oak tree, her face buried in her front legs, her entire body trembling and convulsing as she sobbed feverishly. She couldn't believe this was happening to her, not after all she had done to prove her worth – surely there had been some kind of mistake. She could never bring herself to do something so cruel, even with the best will in the world; and yet almost the whole population of Ponyville seemed to be against her now. And all this for a crime she didn't commit...that she wouldn't commit...

“Where did I go wrong?” she mourned. “What did I do to deserve all this?” She sniffled loudly, trying in vain to wipe away her tears. “I just wanted...somewhere to call home...somewhere I could be safe, accepted...loved...”

That last word stung her heart with all the ferocity of an angry swordfish. Her mind drifted back to that outburst in which he had confessed his feelings for perhaps he had incriminated her beyond redemption, but was it really his fault? It was Diesel who had egged him on, made him speak out of turn...Locomotion was just trying to defend her like he always had, and not just out of pity either.

He loved me...

Or did he? As a changeling, there was every reason to imagine she might have been sucking that love out of him without realising it; but then again, having barely ever tasted love, the chances of her not recognising if she was feeding on it were very slim. Either way, she couldn't escape the cruel truth – she was no longer welcome in Ponyville, and no matter what he might think of her now, she would never get to see him again.

“Who am I fooling?” she wept despairingly. “I'll never find that Promised Land. I'm gonna be all alone for the rest of my life.” Choking back yet another sob, she briefly gazed back in the general direction of Ponyville before burying her face in her hooves again. “I don't want to be alone...”

But with no-one around to answer her subtle plea for company, the only reply she got was almost total silence. It was almost as if she were the only living organism for miles around, a lone creature lost in a dark, gloomy void...

“Poor Hornette – I'm sorry you couldn't make ends meet with those foolish ponies.”

Hornette's blood ran cold. “That voice...” Slowly, tremulously, she picked herself up and turned towards the source – only to freeze over in shock and disbelief. It wasn't the sly black Pegasus standing before her, but a purple-eyed changeling stallion with dark blue wings, a maroon tail and a pair of long, jagged fangs poking out of his mouth. His face bore an expression of mock sympathy, but with enough of a malevolent glint in his eyes for Hornette to realise he was anything but friendly.

“Such a shame they could never bring themselves to accept you,” he continued pityingly, “and after all the effort you went through to bring them round to your way of thinking. But you really should give up that fantasy of yours and accept the truth. There is no 'Promised Land'; just a time, a place and a duty. The time is now; the duty is to your people; the place – is the Changeling Empire.” He held out a hoof to her. “Come with us, CH001FD14726198305, and we will help you reconnect with your friends – your real friends.”

But his persuasive stance only scared Hornette even more. She remained stock still for what felt like an age, her breathing shallow and her frame trembling with intimidation – until... “No,” she stammered, trying to stay defiant. “I'm never going back to that life ever again!”

The other changeling's mask of reverence gave way to an angry scowl. “You will if you know what's good for you!” he threatened.

“I already know what's good for me,” insisted Hornette. “I'd rather take my chances than suffer under some power-hungry potentate.”

“Very well then,” sneered the changeling. “If that's the way you want it, you leave us no choice.”

Us? Hornette's eyes darted left and right with fear. Sure enough, eighteen other changelings were starting to emerge from all sides, many of them stalking towards her from behind the trees while some hovered directly above. They glowered menacingly at her as they closed in, poising themselves like hungry lions about to attack their prey. Her defiance turned to sheer terror at the full gravity of her situation as she felt her back press against the tree trunk – these other changeling had her surrounded, and unless someone stopped them... “Help! Help!” she wailed frantically, no longer caring who heard her or how they felt about her.

The lead changeling grabbed hold of her, his left hoof pressed firmly over her mouth. “Yell all you want, Crawler!!” he gloated. “No-one can save you now, even if they wanted to!”

“Wanna bet?!”

The leader turned towards the source of the voice, confused – but before he could react, he was hit squarely in the face by a broken branch, causing him to let go of Hornette as he staggered backwards in pain and shock. Hornette scrambled to her hooves just in time to see the same branch knock some of the other changelings aside. There, right on the other side of the clearing, was none other than...

“Loco!!” she cried, and bolted straight towards him, flinging her arms around his shoulders and sobbing heavily into his fur. “Oh, Loco, am I ever glad to see you!”

Locomotion, still trembling from his adrenaline rush, ran a gentle hoof through her mane, trying to soothe her. “I'm sorry, Hornette,” he apologised tremulously. “I've gone and messed everything up...somehow.” He looked back at the other changelings, his earlier fear and anger steadily building up again. A few seconds too late, and they could have slaughtered her – but not if he could help it.

By now, their leader had all but recovered his senses, and smirked maliciously at Locomotion. “Well, well, well,” he said greasily, his voice heavy with sarcasm, “so our valiant hero has turned up to save the day!”

“You bet I have, buster!” snarled Locomotion, breaking free from Hornette's embrace and standing tall and protective of her. “Now get away from my changeling, or you'll be sorry!”

“I suggest you step aside, foolish pony,” warned the leader as his comrades gathered around him. “Justice must be served, and this Crawler must be...”

“Don't you dare call Hornette a 'crawler', you creep!” thundered Locomotion, enraged. “And no, I am not letting you murder her in cold blood! You've hurt her enough by framing her – ELECTRO DIESEL!!!”

The changeling froze in disbelief. How did this pony know he and the black Pegasus were one and the same?! Surely this was just a lucky guess...wasn't it? But as he struggled to formulate a reply, it suddenly struck him – his red tail, the tone of his voice...even the colour of his carapace... “You're better than I thought, Locomotion!” he spat, his eyes narrowing again. “But you're too late – this changeling is to be eliminated, and there's nothing you can do about it.”

“Don't count on it, Diesel!” growled Locomotion, wishing he felt as brave as he sounded. “You want Hornette, you're gonna have to kill me too!”

Hornette bit her lip anxiously. Was Locomotion really about to sacrifice himself for her safety?

“That's if you can get through us first!!” Almost before Hornette or Locomotion realised what was happening, who should touch down in front of them but Twilight Sparkle. She was flanked by Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash, whilst Rarity, Pinkie Pie and Applejack brought up the rear down on the ground.

“The game's up, Electra Diseasel or whatever yo' name is!” barked Applejack, scraping a front hoof against the ground.

“Yeah, put 'em up, Diesel! We've got you licked!!” snapped Rainbow Dash, flaring her wings as she landed next to the two teenagers.

“I for one may be more of a lover than a fighter, but lay one hoof on Hornette, and I'll gladly thrash you to a jelly!!” bellowed Rarity, her horn glowing ominously as she prepared for battle.

“You hurt our friend, we'll put you to an end!” added Fluttershy, echoing a phrase that Iron Will had taught her with a powerful anger that belied her usually timid nature.

“I've got ten thousand coconuts at my disposal – don't make me use them!” threatened Pinkie Pie, her eyes bulging with unspoken rage.

Locomotion was so stunned by their sudden entrance that he nearly let his guard down. “But...I thought you were away on a friendship mission...” he stammered.

“Half-right, Loco,” affirmed Twilight. “Lucky for you it relates to Hornette.”

Diesel, equally taken aback, sneered in disgust at the lavender alicorn. “Oh, yippee,” he said rudely, “so you've called in the cavalry. What, have you Elements of Harmony come to say goodbye to your precious Crawler?!”

“Nothin' doin'!” retorted Applejack fiercely. “Hornette's one of us now, an' no other changeling's gonna bump her off on our watch!” She sidled up to Locomotion and whispered into his ear; “Y'all take Hornette back to the castle, fast as ya can – we'll hold these goons off fo' ya!”

But the other changelings weren't about to be caught out that easily. Before Locomotion or Hornette could even think of doing as they were told, some of them had already sneaked behind the two teenagers and cut off their escape. Only now, as they turned to run away, did they realise that fact.

“You're not going anywhere until we have our Crawler!” growled Diesel. “No pathetic little pony is going to stop us changelings from carrying out our orders!”

Twilight's eyes narrowed. “Alright then, Diesel,” she snarled, “you leave us no choice! Girls – let's get them!” and she leaped into the air, firing multiple bolts of magic at their attackers. Diesel barked out a word of command, and the remainder of his group lunged into action. Almost instantly, the air of unnerving stillness in the Everfree Forest turned to a hubbub of thumping, shouting and repeated magical explosions as a fearsome battle broke out between the two sides.

With Hornette and her defenders outnumbered by more than two to one, it seemed the belligerent changelings already had the upper hoof; but their strength in numbers turned out to be little match for the physical strength and agility of the Bearers of Harmony, and they were soon fighting for their own lives instead. Twilight and Rainbow Dash swooped up and down, left and right, punching and zapping any changelings who dared to get too close to Hornette, while Rarity and Applejack easily fended off any ground attacks with their impeccable martial arts skills. Even Fluttershy managed to take one or two out through seemingly evasive manoeuvres, luring them towards her, and then leaping out of their way at the last minute while the attackers crashed into each other and the trees.

But Fluttershy's tactics were nowhere near as surprising as Pinkie Pie's. She ducked and dodged among the changelings with all the dexterity of a parkour artist, occasionally pausing to return their attacks with a kick, a punch or a coconut. All the while, she chanted a tune so genial and carefree that it belied her furious glower and violent body language;

“I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts...” Punch! Kick!

“...Ready to defend me where I go...” Screw kick! Fling! Karate chop! Somersault!

“...Big ones, small ones, right on top of your HEAD!!!” Whack!

“That's what you get

For stalking Hornette

And trying to knock her dead!”

The changeling assailants were so baffled by her behaviour that they didn't know what to think. “Hey!” one of them burst out in anguish. “That mare's playing with us!”

“Oh, I'm not playing...I'M FIGHTING!!!” The changeling barely had time to look over his shoulder before Pinkie Pie, who had somehow magically appeared right behind him, slammed a coconut hard against the back of his head, knocking him out in an instant. The pink mare grinned menacingly as she pointed at the offending fruit; “And that's what ya get for touching that!!” she growled, and sprang after another changeling like a grasshopper.

As the six mares fought back, Locomotion was doing his best to keep the would-be executioners at bay. Every time one of them came too close, he would either fire an energy bolt or fling a loose tree branch at them with his magic; but with so many on the prowl, he and Hornette were unable to slip away before yet another caught them out.

“Fine party, this,” muttered Pinkie Pie grimly as she somersaulted past them and landed a powerful kick on a particularly fierce-looking changeling.

“Yeah, just a shame nopony's enjoying it,” agreed Locomotion, looking up at the sky. As he did so, he noticed another changeling trying to sneak up on Rainbow Dash, who was practically wrestling with one of his comrades. Even though she wasn't his favourite pony right now, the red-furred stallion couldn't let her take a hit just for trying to protect his beloved Hornette. “Dash, bandit on your tail!!” he yelled.

“Gotcha!” Rainbow Dash spun around in mid-air and gave the insectoid a swift uppercut, sending him crashing into the branches of the tree immediately below him. The other changeling tried to grab her, but Rainbow Dash was too quick, and bucked him hard in the chest – straight towards Twilight, who was almost knocked out of the air herself as the changeling collided with her.

Quickly regaining control of herself, Twilight began to take aim with her horn; but before she could even think of striking back, she suddenly noticed something familiar about this changeling. His ears, wings and tail were longer and fuller than those of his companions, and his eyes were a distinct turquoise in colour. Time seemed to slow down as the realisation dawned on her... “...Thorax?” she gasped.

The changeling hissed aggressively at her, his horn glowing ominously. He didn't seem to recognise her.

“Thorax, wait!” shouted Twilight, hastily dodging the sudden burst of magic. “It's me, Twilight Sparkle! I'm your friend – your ally...”

But her words fell on deaf ears. Thorax only hissed again, and continued his relentless barrage as Twilight tried desperately to reason with him to no avail.

Down on the ground, Locomotion saw what was going on, but didn't stop to wonder why the lavender alicorn wasn't fighting back; he had more important things to worry about. Through his peripheral vision, he spotted what had to be the umpteenth changeling thus far charging towards him and Hornette. Reaching out with his magic, he grabbed hold of a low-hanging branch, pulled it back as far as he dared, and released it straight into the face of their pursuer. The unfortunate insectoid shrieked in agony, clutching his eye as he staggered into a nearby bush.

Locomotion smirked grimly, his horn still glowing. “Try that on for size, you murderer!” he shouted; but quickly remembered himself when he heard a transfixed Hornette whispering his name as if in dismay, and turned to face her. “Hornette,” he urged quietly, “listen to me very carefully. I want you to run – run like the clappers, and don't stop till you get to the castle. I'll stay here and help hold back Diesel and his goons.”

“What?! But Loco...”

“Don't argue!” ordered Locomotion, raising his voice again. “Get out of here! Save yourself!”

“No, I won't leave you!” insisted Hornette frantically.

“Hornette, for ponies' sake...” But before Locomotion could finish, Hornette suddenly screamed in pain as she was struck by a stray bolt of magic, which drove her sideways for a few yards. With a horrified shriek of his own, the red-furred teenager galloped over to her. “Hornette!” he cried, his stomach churning with fear and his heart pounding out of control as he nudged her desperately. “Hornette, are you okay?! Please don't be dead! Get up, Hornette, please!”

Hornette's right arm twitched, and she let out a weak groan as she struggled to regain her senses. Locomotion looked up, silently praying for a miracle, but was instead greeted by the sight of Diesel hurtling towards her like a lion towards an antelope, his eyes livid with malice. For a split second, the red-furred stallion felt helpless – any moment now, the very changeling who had stolen his heart was about to be ripped to shreds before his very eyes, and there was nothing he could do about it...

But as that crippling thought registered in his mind, he was gripped by a blazing, venomous fury like nothing he had felt before. His vision went as red as his fur, and his teeth became so firmly gritted that he thought his jaw would break. “RIGHT!!!” he hollered at the top of his voice. “NO MORE MR NICE PONY!!!!!” Screaming and whinnying with rage, he lunged straight towards Diesel and began pummelling him with all his might. Diesel tried to fight back, but Locomotion's anger seemed to double his strength, and he easily managed to overwhelm the struggling changeling. With an almighty kick, he sent him flying across the clearing until his head struck the tree behind him.

By then, Hornette had managed to summon her strength and begun to push herself upright. Rubbing her scorched shoulder, she looked around anxiously, wondering why she was still alive – and that was when she saw Diesel lying in a heap at the base of the tree, and Locomotion stomping towards him. Before she could even begin to make sense of what was going on, the red-furred teen grabbed him by the neck and pinned him firmly against the trunk so that they were face to face.

“Alright, you,” growled Locomotion fiercely, “I wanna hear you apologise for trying to kill Hornette!”

Diesel scowled weakly, but Hornette could already tell how afraid he was becoming. “I...regret...nothing!” he groaned defiantly.

“Oh yeah?! Well, you're gonna regret THIS!!” and before Diesel could react, Locomotion punched him hard in the stomach.

Hornette gasped in horror, throwing both her front hooves over her mouth as the enraged stallion began thrashing Diesel's face with such force that the back of his head was thrust repeatedly into the tree trunk. If there was one thing she couldn't stand, it was extreme, unnecessary violence; and the sight of Locomotion, her very avatar of gentle compassion and unconditional kindness, attacking a helpless creature so brutally...even her worst nightmares about being captured (nightmares that had very nearly come true a few moments ago) couldn't compare with this harrowing display of ferocity.

What made it even worse was that Diesel, far from the sly, vindictive schemer she had previously seen in him, now had his hooves in front of his bloodstained face, feverishly trying to fend off Locomotion's relentless onslaught. If the red-furred teen hadn't been holding him upright against the tree, he would already be cowering before him and sobbing in sheer terror. “MERCY! MERCY!!” he bleated.

But Locomotion was taking no prisoners, and pressed his face firmly into Diesel's. “ARE YOU SORRY?!?!” he screamed.

“No...never...” wailed Diesel, his ears ringing from the shouting and his head throbbing with agony.

YOU WILL BE!!!!” Locomotion's merciless assault began again, even as Diesel cried out for his comrades to save him.

Hornette looked up towards Twilight, her breath caught in her throat, but was just as horrified to see her fighting for her life against a changeling she recognised all too well...a changeling who, just like Locomotion, had represented all the benign qualities she had been clinging onto all her life. Now she could see that, despite his best efforts to hang onto those qualities himself, he too had been reduced to a fearsome savage, intent on her and Twilight's destruction.

At last, the young insectoid couldn't take any more. With a concerted effort, she sprang to her hooves and yelled out at the top of her lungs, “STO-O-OP!!!!”

Inexplicably, no sooner had she belted out that one word than everyone else did indeed stop, as if frozen in time. Locomotion had only just pulled his arm back for his umpteenth strike when he felt his frame lock up completely, and could do nothing more than glare at his victim – but as he did so, something even more extraordinary began to happen. Diesel's body began to glow, dimly at first, and then brighter and brighter as Hornette continued her verbal barrage.

“Why are you all doing this to each other?!” she ranted, her eyes practically flooding. “You ponies are supposed to be striving for friendship and harmony, my kind for love and respect – and all we're getting is pain, bloodshed and tears! You're destroying each other just to try and achieve your aims! Why can't you understand that this is wrong?!” Only then, as she looked up at Twilight and her assailant, did she realise that her horn was glowing intensely, with the same aura surrounding both her defenders and her attackers. Her anguish turned to bafflement as she let go of whatever spell she was casting, and even more so when she saw what had just happened to the other changelings.

Twilight, equally baffled and taken completely unawares by the sudden cessation of Hornette's freezing magic, almost fell out of the sky; but only just managed to save herself and the changeling who had been attacking her. Now, as she looked around, she could see that they were no longer all the same colour and shape – some now had solid wings and legs, some had lost their fangs, a few had gained more reptilian eyes, and almost all had become a vast spectrum of brilliant, psychedelic hues. Even the one who had just tried to strike her down had transformed into a tall, green, deer-like creature with deep reddish purple eyes and a pair of orange antlers that resembled beetle pincers.

The changeling groaned dizzily, trying to regain his bearings as Twilight gaped in confusion, unable to make sense of what was going on. As his vision cleared, he noticed her hovering in front of him, and his eyes widened with a strange mix of shock and relief. “Twilight!” he exclaimed. “Aw, thank mercy it's you! How did you manage to break the spell?”

“Eh?! What spell? What are you talking about?!” spluttered Twilight, now completely unnerved.

“ know!” objected the changeling frantically. “You must know! Who else could have changed us back to normal?!”

“Wait, hang on a second – what do you mean, 'back to normal'?! You're not making any sense!”

“It wasn't even the real me attacking you! I was under...” But before the changeling could finish speaking, his ears pricked up to a weak groan of agony from nearby. “PHARYNX!! BROTHER!!!” he shrieked, and bolted towards the source of the noise before Twilight could reply.

Only now, as Diesel's body stopped glowing, was Locomotion's anger starting to fade. Staring at the wretched insectoid, all he could feel was a tremendous sense of shock as he noted how different this changeling had just become – the holes in his legs had vanished, his carapace had faded from black to a dark bluish grey, and a small pair of red antlers had sprouted from the top of his head. The only remaining evidence of his past form were the multiple cuts, grazes and bruises on his person, along with the pained, semi-conscious glaze over his eyes. Still trembling, Locomotion staggered backwards and collapsed onto his rump, clutching his temples in sullen horror and unspoken guilt.

The tall green changeling trotted over and nudged Diesel anxiously. “Pharynx! Are you alright?” he asked desperately.

Pharynx?!” repeated Locomotion, unable to restrain himself he was so taken aback. “Wha...what the flabberwocky's going on?!? What's this all about?!”

The grey changeling who had erstwhile been calling himself Electro Diesel gazed up at his brother, barely able to recognise him. “Th...Thor...” he groaned deliriously, “ me...”

“Pharynx, what happened?!” cried the green one. “Who did this to you?!” Getting no reply from his badly beaten sibling, he turned and grabbed Locomotion by his shoulders; “Little pony,” he asked anxiously, “how did my brother get this way?”

But Locomotion didn't reply either. Between the guilt of having lost control of himself so dangerously and the fear he now felt for how the green changeling would react if he found out that it was his doing, he was too afraid to own up.

“Please, speak to me!” pleaded the changeling. “Who was it that...AAHHH!!” Without warning, a flash of blue swept past Locomotion, taking his interrogator with it. When he gathered his awareness, he found the changeling lying on his back with Rainbow Dash pinning him down, one hoof held securely over his throat.

“Don't even try it, changeling!!” she snarled. “You and your goons have done enough for one day!”

“Wait!” protested the changeling, struggling for breath. “There must be some mistake! I don't mean any harm – I just wanted...”

“Shut up, creep! You're gonna pay for this as soon...”

“LEAVE HIM ALONE!!!” A pale green aura suddenly enveloped Rainbow Dash and flung her aside, allowing the changeling to stand up again and catch his breath. Puzzled, he looked towards whoever had just yelled at the belligerent blue Pegasus – just as a young changeling mare came galloping towards him. “Thorax!” she cried, flinging her arms around his neck and hugging him feverishly. “Oh, Thorax, I thought I'd never see you again!”

The larger changeling blinked in amazement. “'305?! What are you doing here?!” he gasped.

But Hornette didn't get to answer before Rainbow Dash, still in a daze, interrupted; “Hornette, are you crazy?!” she burst out incredulously as she scrambled to her hooves. “This guy just tried to kill you!”

“No, Rainbow Dash!” argued Hornette plaintively. “Thorax would never hurt me! He's been a confidante to me ever since I first met him – he'd rather be slain himself than see me dead!”

“ do you know he doesn't...”

“Alright, you lot, calm down!” Twilight came into land between them. “Now let's just back up the hay cart and start from the top – who are you?” she asked, addressing the larger of the two changelings.

“Well...who else?” he answered plainly. “It's me, Thorax – the real Thorax. This is my natural form, not the Desert Scarab breed you saw me as when I first came to the Crystal Empire.”

Rainbow Dash raised a wary eyebrow. “Yeah? And how do we know you're telling the truth?!”

“I'll do anything to prove it – anything you want!”

Twilight paused. “Well then, maybe you can tell me the very first thing you said to Spike?”

The changeling looked perplexed. “Is that all? You don't even want to probe my mind or anything?”

“Just answer the question,” ordered Twilight calmly.

“Alright...” The changeling paused for a brief second as he recalled that fateful moment. “...yeah, I remember now. After saving him from that chasm, I told him, 'The ice is pretty slippery. I wouldn't want you to get hurt because of me'.”

To his relief, Twilight turned back to Rainbow Dash with a look of satisfaction and said, “That's Thorax alright.”

“WHAT?! is that him?!” spluttered Rainbow Dash. “You said he was black with blue eyes! Without the memory scan...”

“Don't need it,” interrupted Twilight plainly. “Only two changelings know who Spike is; Hornette is one of them, and Thorax practically owes him for our friendship!”

The changeling cocked his head, visibly perplexed at the mention of “Hornette” – and then looked down at his foalhood friend in sudden realisation. “They actually...named you?” he asked.

“Yes, they did...well...he did, anyway,” murmured Hornette, awkwardly indicating towards a noticeably abashed Locomotion.

“As for this guy...Pharynx or whatever you call him...” continued Twilight, stepping grimly around the two changelings and making for the grey one still lying in a heap where Locomotion had left him.

“Don't hurt him, Twilight, please!” begged Thorax.

“I'm not going to hurt him, Thorax,” Twilight assured him, already setting her horn aglow and enveloping Pharynx's head with her aura. “I'm just going to pick his brains, that's all.”

Pharynx flinched in horror, trying to shuffle away. “No...wait!” he groaned desperately. “You must not touch my brain!”

But Twilight refused to take no for an answer. No matter how hard Pharynx struggled, he was too weak to resist, and perhaps it was lucky for him that he blacked out after a few seconds. Hornette, Thorax and Locomotion looked on anxiously, praying that his injuries weren't fatal – until, after what seemed like an age, Twilight's aura suddenly cut out. Her eyes widened, almost popping out of her skull she was so flabbergasted, and her jaw quivered like a landed fish. “I...I don't believe it!” she gasped. “I can't detect any intent to malice at all, past or present!”

“You what?!” exclaimed Rainbow Dash, stunned.

Locomotion blanched, fearing the worst. “Oh, D-rat, it's not brain damage, is it?!”

“No, Loco, nothing of the sort – nothing that won't heal, anyway!” blustered Twilight. “It's just...his brain patterns don't match his earlier actions! It's like some kind of divine force has been making him act against his will!”

“Eh?! But how?! That guy was bent on Hornette's destruction – he tried to slay her right before my eyes!”

“Oh no...” All eyes turned to Thorax, whose mouth was now slightly agape with damning realisation. “ must have been the Brainwashing that made him do that.”

“What brainwashing?” asked Locomotion, furrowing his brow.

Thorax paused, his gaze shifting from the red-furred unicorn to the bewildered expressions of the six mares now gathered around him, Twilight included. Clearly he had been wrong to assume they knew what had overcome him and his comrades. “I think we'd better have a good long talk about this,” he suggested gravely. “I can see I have a lot of explaining to do.”

“He's right, Twi,” put in Applejack. “Them other changelings are gonna need some serious medical attention anyways.”
Twilight nodded in agreement. “Alright,” she conceded, “then let's head back to my castle. Once you're all fixed up, you can tell us the whole story.”

“Thanks, Twilight.” Thorax levitated his unconscious brother onto his back, and he and Twilight led the whole group, pony and changeling alike, towards the safety of the Castle of Friendship. Relieved that their struggle was over (or so he thought), Locomotion reached out to Hornette, inviting her into a gentle hug to try and reassure her; but his dismay was quickly reignited when she shied away with a timid sidelong glance, almost as if he had smacked her around the ears for no reason.

Locomotion felt his blood run cold. His breath caught in his throat, and everything around him seemed to plunge into silence. Somehow, he thought with deep dread, his quest for her love was about to get very painful very quickly...

Chapter 24: The Tragedy of Nymphia

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Upon arrival back at the castle, Fluttershy wasted no time in tending to the changelings' wounds, while Twilight ordered a maximum security cordon around the palace just in case there were others still lurking nearby. Mercifully, despite his concussion, Pharynx wasn't too seriously injured, but it took a long time to patch him up.

At last, Fluttershy finished bandaging his head. “There you go, Pharynx,” she said softly. “How do you feel?”

“A little better, I guess,” murmured Pharynx groggily. “Thanks, Fluttershy.”

The yellow Pegasus mare smiled modestly in reply; and over on the next cot, Thorax gave a weak, thankful smile of his own. He had insisted on staying by his brother's side the whole time, and was most relieved to see he was on the road to recovery.

“Are you alright, Thorax?” asked Hornette tentatively.

“I'll survive,” Thorax reassured her. “Just a bit shaken and bruised, that's all. How's your shoulder?”

Hornette looked back at the gauze wrapped around her shoulder where she had been struck by the magic blast. “Still a little sore...but I think I'll be okay.” She fell silent again, staring down at her hooves as she struggled with her emotions. To say she was pleased to see Thorax again after all those long and lonely years would have had to be the understatement of the year; it almost seemed too good to be true. “I still can't believe this is happening,” she murmured after a while. “It''s almost like you're back from the dead.”

Thorax chuckled wryly under his breath. “I suppose I might as well be, under the circumstances,” he observed. “I know what you mean, though, '305...” He paused awkwardly. “...or whatever you wanna be called now.”

The younger changeling gave him a small half-smile. “I rather prefer Hornette,” she confessed simply.

Her elder nodded understandingly. After sixteen years of having little more than lowly identification numbers, he could only imagine how uplifting it was to have a proper name at long last. “But yeah, I have to admit, I'm just as staggered to find you all the way out here,” he went on. “How you managed to escape unnoticed...I”

“Just blind luck, I guess. Then again, I suppose my cloaking spell might have had something to do with it.” As impressed as Thorax was, he could see from the troubled frown on Hornette's face that being reminded of her past was the last thing she needed right now. A small tear trickled from her eye as she added, “There wasn't a single day where I didn't think about you, though. I really missed you, Thorax.”

“I missed you too...Hornette,” answered Thorax wistfully, drawing her into a fond, brotherly hug.

At that moment, Twilight arrived. “How are the casualties, Fluttershy?” she asked.

“They should be alright by now – even Pharynx isn't as far gone as I thought he might be, thank goodness. If anything, I'm more worried about Hornette and Loco,” confided Fluttershy, glancing anxiously across the room to where Locomotion was sitting.

Physically, Locomotion was none the worse for the attack; but in terms of emotional stress, it was a different story. He was hunched over on the edge of his seat, staring down at the floor with a look of deep, baffled shame. “Did you see the way she...looked at me?” he faltered under his breath, burying his face in his hooves.

Twilight frowned. “Maybe I'd better have a quiet chat with him later,” she decided quietly. “Anyway,” she continued, “I think we'd better head on down to the Map room and get down to business...if that's okay with you, Thorax?”

Without a moment's hesitation, Thorax stood up from his cot. “That's fine,” he conceded.

“You too, Hornette and Loco.”

Locomotion, still in a state of self-pity, looked up in confusion. “Eh? Why me?!” he protested.

“As Hornette's official caretaker, you have as much right to know what's going on as the rest of us,” answered Twilight firmly. “Come along now, we've a lot to discuss.”

With a weary sigh, Locomotion plodded slowly and reluctantly after the others, too upset to even think of looking at Hornette. He didn't even notice Thorax gazing at him as they walked down the hallway, a look of concern and dismay etched on his face.

They arrived at the Map room to find Rarity, Applejack, Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash already waiting for them. As Twilight and Fluttershy took their respective thrones, the lavender alicorn pulled over an extra three chairs with her magic and invited Locomotion and the two changelings to sit down. “Now then, Thorax,” she began, “first off, you mentioned something about a brainwashing spell. What exactly did you mean by that?”

Thorax remained silent for what felt like an age. “'s kinda complicated, Twilight,” he said gravely, “but to cut a long story short...our species is under threat from its own ruler.” His grim frown gave way to a bitter scowl of resentment. “Or at least she would be if she'd played it fair.”

Pinkie Pie's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. “Wait just a minute!” she exclaimed loudly. “Are you telling us that that lean, mean, unclean bean machine Queen Chrysalis is not an actual queen?!”

“Correct,” affirmed Thorax darkly. “She never behaved like one, never had a proper coronation – she wasn't even the first in line for the throne! She lied and cheated her way to the top, and now she's abusing her ill gotten power to exploit the rest of our kind!”

“Oh, gosh...” Twilight gazed in shock, the colour draining from her face as she began to realise the full gravity of the situation. “...Thorax, tell us everything you know,” she begged.

After another brief silence, Thorax nodded his consent. “Very well – but I'm going to give you the whole story from start to finish, the better for you to understand our plight. You the beginning, we changelings were nothing like the monsters of myth and legend for which you no doubt remember us. We were actually a gentle and peace-loving race; but also very timid and sheltered, and for good reason...”

“Why do I find that hard to believe?” muttered Rainbow Dash cynically.

I don't!” snapped Locomotion.

“Nor do I, since meeting Hornette,” added Fluttershy reasonably.

“Unfortunately, a lot of other creatures did,” went on Thorax unhappily. “Few of us ventured beyond our borders, but those of us who did were met with antagonism from all sides. Apart from our...alien appearance,” shuffling lightly as if he was having difficulty with his own, “there were many folk tales about us – tales of us terrorising other nations, stealing love from under their very noses...tales which I suspect might have stemmed from Zenobia's misfortune.”

All the ponies in the room exchanged puzzled glances – except for Twilight, who rubbed her chin as she gazed thoughtfully at the ceiling. “Yeah, I remember reading about it in a fairy tale at Magic Kindergarten,” she mused. “Zenobia was the changeling who stole all the love from a sick newborn filly, killed her and then took her place to try and steal the love of the filly's parents.” She turned to Thorax, frowning; “I suppose your version of the story is different?”

Very different – in fact, your Equestrian version of the story is all wrong. The fact is, Twilight, the poor filly's illness was beyond treatment. She died only a few seconds after Zenobia first laid eye on her,” explained Thorax. “Yes, Zenobia was seriously malnourished after straying so far from home, but she just felt so sorry for the dead filly and her parents. That's why she took her place; if she could give them someone to love, she could be fed, they could be happy – everyone would win.” He sighed heavily. “Sadly, that wasn't how it worked out. The parents misinterpreted her actions, and she was lucky to escape with her life.”

“What happened after that?”

“Well, Zenobia fled back to our homeland; but she was close to death by the time she returned, and it was a miracle we managed to revive her. She was too scared to leave the hive for almost a whole year after that, and certainly never ventured beyond our borders again.”

Twilight grimaced. In days gone by, she had never stopped to consider the story from Zenobia's point of view; but now, after hearing Thorax's retelling, she couldn't help feeling sorry for her.

“She got off quite lightly compared to many of our kind,” continued Thorax sombrely. “Most creatures only avoided us outright, but others would attack us mercilessly – and some of them even made a sport out of it.”

“You mean...trophy hunters?” gasped Rarity, her face turning green with repulse.

“I'm afraid so. We usually managed to evade them with ease, but there were still an unlucky few whose heads ended up on someone's wall somewhere.”

Applejack took off her hat and held it to her chest in sympathy. “An' we thought y'all were the savages,” she murmured.

“Was that why you started posing as other species?” ventured Locomotion quietly. “To avoid being attacked?”

“Oh yes,” affirmed Thorax sagely. “By changing our appearances, we could blend seamlessly into society and not have to worry about being brutalised.”

“Okay, now ya got me confused,” interjected Rainbow Dash, genuinely puzzled. “You get your love from other creatures – apparently – but how are you supposed...”

Thorax shook his head. “No, Rainbow Dash, that's a common misconception. Love for us is a good source of protein and vitamins, and an even better immune booster; something we normally consume by absorbing it into our horns, and sometimes even by...well, 'mouth to mouth', if you take my meaning. But we don't necessarily have to rob other races for it,” he elaborated. “The thing about us changelings is that we can actually produce love as well as feed on it – just not for personal consumption. Even if we can't get any, we can still get those nutrients from other sources.”

“Wow,” remarked Pinkie Pie, even as Rainbow Dash's jaw dropped open in disbelief. “So narcissism has no meaning with you guys, huh?”

In a lighter moment, Thorax could have chuckled at Pinkie Pie's observation; but instead, he just frowned and furrowed his brow. “If only that were true,” he sighed ruefully. “Unfortunately, even we changelings are susceptible to the poison of greed, corruption and malice. We've had our fair share of tyrants over the years; but none worse than...her.”


“Yes, Twilight. She was the younger of two daughters born to King Pupalis and Queen Vespa; her older sister – the true heir – was Crown Princess Nymphia.” A small, wistful tear crept into Thorax's eye. “She was everything we looked for in a future queen – wise, fair, patient, gentle, always thinking of her subjects...just a natural born leader in every way, just like her father. Her ambition was to make peaceful, diplomatic contact with the outside world; to forge new pacts with other species, and broaden our horizons for a brighter, more prosperous future. To many, it seemed like a dream too far; but Nymphia never let it slip away, and by the time she came of age, she had managed to win even the most hardened sceptic over.”

“Wow,” murmured Twilight. “She sounds a lot like our own Princess Celestia.”

Thorax smiled sadly. “Wouldn't surprise me. Our people practically showered her with love and respect, and were looking forward to when she ascended the throne – not that we thought any less of Pupalis, of course.” His smile faded, and his eyebrows straightened. “Chrysalis was pretty ambitious in her own right, but that was just about all she and Nymphia had in common, apart from their lineage,” he continued icily. “Beyond that, she was nothing more than a baleful, spiteful tearaway, always in trouble with her parents, never caring a jot for the proletariat, and notoriously jealous of her older sister. Unlike Nymphia, she was more for invading other nations by force, and there was one time she went behind her father's back and tried to infiltrate Equestria alone – just to prove she wasn't afraid of you ponies!

“As you can imagine, Chrysalis quickly became the proverbial 'black sheep' of the Royal Family. Nymphia herself tried time and again to reason with her, but to no avail – Chrysalis' envy gradually devolved into bitter resentment, and over time, she began studying dark magic in a covert plot against her older sister.”

Locomotion blinked in dismay. “How do you know all this?” he asked breathlessly.

“Because my father, Count Kano, was Chrysalis and Nymphia's cousin,” confided Thorax. “We all lived in the same hive, and Nymphia used to foalsit me a lot, so I was often there to witness Chrysalis' slow descent to insanity.”

“An' y'all never thought ta tell 'er father?!” exclaimed Applejack.

“I was scared for what Chrysalis might do to me if I did, never mind whether he believed me or not, so I...against my better judgement, I kept my silence.” Thorax hung his head guiltily. “Rather an unfortunate decision on my part, given what it led to. Only two months after Nymphia's twenty-seventh birthday, King Pupalis was taken away from us, and Queen Vespa, very much in love with him and heartbroken by his passing, followed suit the following March. The whole nation mourned for them, but began to rejoice with Nymphia's coronation a few months later. As was customary for all new monarchs, the ceremony was followed by a royal tour of all the hives in our nation, with Chrysalis, Kano, Pharynx and myself accompanying them.” He stared into space, shuddering at what he was about to reveal. “We barely made it through the first day, though, before it all went tragically wrong.”

“What happened?” whispered Fluttershy.

“No-one knows for sure – but I've got a hunch. See, shortly before the tour was about to begin, Chrysalis seemed weirdly calm and patient; and when we got to the first hive, I noticed that one of the soldiers lining our route was looking kinda vacant, almost as if he were in a trance,” answered Thorax. “My guess is that, while we were all asleep, Chrysalis crept out of the main hive, sneaked into the barracks and hypnotised him. We'll probably never know the answer. All we do know is that, up till then, he was one of the finest soldiers in the unit, and one of seven chosen to give a ceremonial 21-bolt salute.”

Locomotion cringed. He had a nasty feeling where this was going. Even Hornette, who herself had never heard the story before, could only stare anxiously as she awaited the inevitable outcome.

“The first two rounds went without a hitch; but on the third and final volley, the soldier suddenly turned and fired a lethal bolt of energy straight into Nymphia's chest. He then enveloped himself in his own magic, killing himself in an instant. Medics were called, but Nymphia was already dead by the time they reached her.” The terrible memory of Nymphia's murder nearly overwhelmed Thorax at this point, and he had to pause for a moment to compose himself. “It was a dreadful blow to us all, and once again, we went into deep mourning. Her funeral took place on the longest day of the year, and our militia planned to open up an official inquiry into her death the following week – but it never happened.

“Chrysalis officiated at the funeral, and as Nymphia's coffin was lowered into the ground, she began what seemed like a reverential speech regarding her sister's passing. But as she spoke, so her horn began to glow,” he said, raising his voice a little as the memories came flooding back with a vengeance, “and after announcing herself as the new queen, she unleashed a powerful spell, ensnaring the minds of all changelings above the age of sixteen. She then travelled from hive to hive, casting the same spell again and again, until eventually she had the whole nation firmly under her hoof!”

“The...the Brainwashing spell?”

Thorax nodded. “Not only that, but she stripped most of us of our rights. She restricted our freedom of movement, introduced curfews, and only allowed her closest supporters to keep their names, whilst the rest of us had to put up with identification numbers; but for some reason, her Brainwashing doesn't seem to have any effect on those of us under sixteen. Therefore, to make sure no-one can properly oppose her, she forces all changelings above that age to attend a yearly speech at the main hive on the longest day of the year. That's when she renews the spell on those already under its influence, and casts it fresh on whoever comes of age,” he said grimly. “We still retain our old personalities, even after the spell takes effect; but though we remain conscious of our actions, we have no control over them. Instead, we are forced to look on helplessly, trapped within our own bodies, as they carry out Chrysalis' bidding all by themselves. It's almost like having...what I believe you ponies call Multiple Personality Disorder.”

“How awful,” breathed Rarity solemnly; and Fluttershy nodded in silent agreement.

Locomotion shuddered. “To think...only a few days older, and Hornette could have been Brainwashed too! But if she wasn' come she still resembles how you guys looked back there?” he asked.

“Because she was born that way,” explained Thorax simply. “There are many subspecies among our kind; but Hornette, Chrysalis and Nymphia belong to what we call the Desert Scarab breed. For whatever reason, Chrysalis has got it into her head – vain, delusional psychopath she is...” He sneered briefly before continuing. “...that Desert Scarab changelings constitute a so-called 'master race'; and so she insists on total genetic conformity among our kind. Every changeling that comes of age, even if she doesn't Brainwash them, she still alters their physical forms accordingly.”

“Well...not all of us.”

All turned towards the doorway, startled. “Pharynx?!” exclaimed Thorax, his anxiety piqued as his brother hobbled over to him with a troubled frown. “Fluttershy ordered you to rest!”

Pharynx shook his head ruefully. “How can I, knowing my younger brother is under interrogation?” he countered, sitting down next to him. “Besides, I have a few confessions of my own to make.”

“Yes, but Pharynx...”

“Look, there's no way I'm letting this go, not for all the love in the world!” insisted Pharynx. “I sold you out once too often, and anything I can do to make up for it...” He said no more, but gave his brother a stern look that left little room for argument. Thorax looked across to Fluttershy for support; but the yellow Pegasus only shrugged gravely as if to say “It's up to you”.

“Let him stay, Thorax,” nudged Twilight gently. “He probably knows something you don't – if so, I'd like to find out what.”

At last, Thorax gave in. “Alright then,” he said to Pharynx. “But try not to strain yourself, okay?”

Pharynx nodded, and turned to the rest of the group. “It's true, what Thorax says about Chrysalis,” he affirmed. “I was one of the few real supporters of her regime, so she never bothered to Brainwash me...not at first, anyway. Even after her sister's murder, I saw no reason to believe Chrysalis could've been responsible. The rest of them...well, with so many dissidents, she had to be sure they couldn't harm her.”

“And you just stood by and let her mess around with their minds?” asked Rarity, visibly appalled.

Pharynx frowned guiltily. “I was foolish. Our kind had been treated like savages for the longest time, and it rather preyed on my mind – so much so that I felt just as bitter about the outside world as Chrysalis towards Nymphia. Both had promised to bring us the love and respect we deserved, but I felt Chrysalis' approach would be more effective,” he explained. “I guess I should've realised the truth when mine and Thorax's father lost his status.”

“Chrysalis never liked him,” put in Thorax sourly. “He was really devoted to Nymphia, so as soon as that worm of a sister of hers rose to power, she made him a lowly private soldier and sent him to Equestria to take part in our first campaign. He was killed in action only a few days into battle.”

“And by us ponies too,” murmured Locomotion sombrely.

“Well...that's okay. You were only trying to protect yourselves,” observed Thorax. “To tell you the truth, I blame Chrysalis for his death more than anything else. That's why I and a few others started up this secret resistance movement. Sadly, many of our comrades fell victim to the Brainwashing in due course, even me – but I was lucky,” he went on. “Having seen what Chrysalis had done to my friends, I tried to resist it; and to a degree, I succeeded. While I lost a lot of my confidence, I still retained my conscience, and after the Canterlot invasion...well, you already know that part of the story.”

Twilight nodded patiently. “And I'm guessing that tale you told Spike about your past...?”

“...was largely false,” Thorax confirmed. “I was different, yes, but not necessarily a target for bullying – nor was I the only one with a conscience, as Hornette has already proven. That was just what little influence Chrysalis had over me. Anyway, after I'd been away from the Crystal Empire for a couple of months or so, that influence wore off, and I reverted to my natural form. My first thought was to go and tell Princess Celestia what Chrysalis had been doing to us...but I never even got close to Canterlot before they caught up to me.”

“Correction – I did.” Again, all attention turned to Pharynx. “I was in charge of the Covert Retrieval Forces, and had been sent out after Thorax after he had been reported missing. We caught him in some woodlands north of Canterlot, but as soon as we got back to what you ponies aptly call the Badlands, I told Chrysalis a little white lie and said we found him not too far from the border, trying to make his way home,” he said.

“Wait – you lied? To yo' own queen?” Applejack raised an eyebrow. “But y'all said ya had faith in her.”

“I'm not saying I didn't. It's just that...” Pharynx sighed. “...Chrysalis had passed a law that any changeling who befriended another species so strongly as Thorax or Hornette was to be branded a Crawler – a high traitor to our kind – and sentenced to death with no chance of being pardoned or paroled. I couldn't let her do that to Thorax,” he protested emphatically. “He may have been a right goody four-hooves at times, but he's still my brother.”

“Hang on,” interrupted a mortified Locomotion, “you're not saying Chrysalis has declared a fatwa on Hornette?!”

“That's exactly what I'm saying. But there's more – Chrysalis more than bought my story, but then she immediately betrayed me,” finished Pharynx grimly. “She told me she knew how close Thorax and I were, and that she couldn't afford to take any further chances. Both of us were Brainwashed on the spot and assigned to the same CRF platoon – and even Thorax wasn't able to resist it this time.”

“So that's why Thorax was behaving so differently,” said Twilight. “Only question left did you manage to break out of it?”

Up to this point, Hornette had been very quiet. Only now, as the rest of them exchanged puzzled glances, did she speak up in a barely subdued tone of realisation; “I...I think that might have been me,” she murmured. “You all froze as soon as I began yelling at you; and when I looked up, I noticed my horn was glowing.”

“Of course!” exclaimed Twilight. “Your magic must have cancelled out the Brainwashing and changed the other changelings back to normal!” She looked down at the Cutie Map as the cogs began turning in her head. “It's all beginning to fall into place – Hornette's arrival in Ponyville, Celestia's prophecy, the unidentified Cutie Mark on the Map...and now this. Girls,” she announced, “pack your bags. It's time we put a stop to this once and for all!”

“You bet, Twilight!” answered Rainbow Dash gamely.

“I'm coming with you!” blurted out Locomotion without thinking.

Applejack turned on him, appalled. “No, Loco!” she snapped. “This ain't no trip fo' you!”

“Just a minute, Applejack,” interrupted Twilight, “I think he should.”

“Twi, it's way too dangerous!” insisted Applejack. “Them other changelings would eat 'im alive if...”

“Applejack, listen – when I was delivering my first probation report to Princess Celestia last month, she told me about a premonition she'd had some time before Hornette arrived,” explained Twilight reasonably. “She believed the key to resolving all this, and I quote, 'would lie in the hooves of two creatures – one pony, one changeling'. Hornette's already shown she can break the spell, and Loco's Cutie Mark was registering on the Map, therefore it must be them!” She turned to Pharynx and Thorax; “You two had better come as well – if we're to infiltrate the Badlands and restore order to the changelings, we'll need every bit of help we can get.”

Thorax didn't need to be asked twice. “I'm with you all the way, Twilight,” he promised.

But Pharynx was aghast. “The Badlands?!” he burst out in horror. “But...we can't go back there! They'll slay us!”

Twilight's eyes narrowed with righteous determination. “We can,” she said grimly, “and we must!”

Chapter 25: The Terrible Secret

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Arrangements took time, but by the following evening, Thorax, Pharynx, Locomotion, Hornette and the Friendship Council were all set for their dangerous mission. Twilight had already written to Princess Celestia, explaining in characteristically thorough detail about Thorax's story and requesting full cooperation; and it came as a relief when Celestia not only consented, but also agreed to reserve an entire sleeping car for them on the Friendship Express.

Steamer, on the other hoof, was horrified when Twilight insisted on Locomotion coming with them. He tried hard to talk them out of it, but to no avail; Twilight was adamant, and Locomotion was still too angry to listen to him. All the buff-coated stallion could do was pray for his nephew's safety as the raiding party set off for the station, and hope he could find it in his heart to forgive him when he returned – if indeed he did.

As the train set off, Locomotion sat on his bed and gazed out of his compartment window, looking upon his home town for what could very well be the last time. He had been through some serious risks in his time as a railway worker, but this, his first friendship mission, had to be the most perilous thing he had ever had to face.

“You're quite sure you want to do this, Loco?”

The red-furred stallion looked over to Thorax, who was sitting next to him. “I've got to,” he said gravely. “The Map specifically called for me and Hornette. Besides, it's in Celestia's prophecy – 'one pony, one changeling'. I can't ignore the possibility of it being us two, no matter what the dangers.”

Thorax smiled appreciatively. He could sense Locomotion's unease, but thought better of dwelling on it. “Thanks,” he said softly. “That's really brave of you.”

But to his dismay, it seemed to touch a sensitive nerve with Locomotion. His ears drooped as he looked down at his front hooves, muttering to himself in a quiet, hurt voice, “Try getting that from Hornette.”

“What's wrong?” asked Thorax anxiously.

“She hasn't been speaking to me since yesterday evening,” explained Locomotion gloomily. “And no wonder, after seeing me go ballistic back there.”

“Go...what now?” Thorax cocked his head, looking as if he had never heard such a word before.

“Thorax, I attacked your brother,” faltered Locomotion, raising his voice. “He was about to tear her to pieces, and I just...lost it – slammed him against a tree, yelled in his face...thrashed him within an inch of his life – and all because I wanted to see him suffer for his actions!”

Thorax fell silent for a moment. There was no doubt in his mind just how traumatised Locomotion was, but he could never have imagined the red-furred teen attacking Pharynx so viciously – heck, he still had trouble believing it even now! Either way, he couldn't be angry with him. “Hey, it's alright...” he began.

Alright?!” burst out Locomotion, appalled. “How the flabberwocky can you call it 'alright'?! I could've killed him!!”

“So?!” Thorax looked back towards the doorway, startled. Standing just outside was Rainbow Dash, a dismissive scowl on her face. “It was his own fault,” she retorted. “That guy got what he deserved, and so did the others.”

“Rainbow Dash! Such rudeness!” exclaimed Rarity's voice from further down the corridor.

“Well, what were we supposed to do, hold peace talks with them?!” shouted Rainbow Dash defensively. “They were trying to murder her, you know that!”

“She's got a good point, Loco,” agreed Thorax gravely. “If you hadn't fought back, '305 would...sorry – Hornette would be dead by now. You just did what you had to in order to protect her.”

Rainbow Dash crossed her arms in stubborn pride. “See, I'm right!”

But this didn't have quite the effect she was aiming for. Instead of conceding her point, Locomotion just looked down at his hooves again, gritting his teeth as his self-pity gave way to angry resentment. “Why?” he muttered sourly.

“Well, duh! She was in...”

But before Rainbow Dash could finish, Locomotion suddenly swung his head round to glare at her. “WHY?!?” he snapped fiercely. “WHY DID YOU TRY TO HELP ME AND HORNETTE?! SHE'S A CHANGELING! YOU HATE CHANGELINGS!!”

“I do not!” protested Rainbow Dash, taken aback.



That took Locomotion completely by surprise. Rarely did Rainbow Dash ever admit to being scared of something – but changelings?! Surely she had to be bluffing!

“Look, I'm sorry for being so mean to her,” continued Rainbow Dash, frowning with embarrassment. “Don't get me wrong, Loco, I wanted to believe she was on our side; just seemed way too good to be true. Even when I saw her save you, I...”

“You what?!” spluttered Locomotion.

“I was out for a night flight with Soarin, and saw you two hanging out on that bridge. I meant to dive in and save you myself, but Hornette got there before I could – and that's when I really began to see the light.” Rainbow Dash paused dramatically. “More than that – I actually saw who broke that...”

“You don't need to elaborate, Rainbow Dash.” Pharynx sidled meekly into the compartment. “I admit it – I was the one...or rather, 'Electro Diesel' was the one who damaged that bridge. I did try to resist him,” he confessed, “but the best I could do was influence his plan against Hornette. If it'd been up to him, he probably would've gone ahead and taken her life without warning.” He bowed his head with shame. “Either way, Locomotion, you've every right to be mad at me.”

Locomotion glowered hatefully at him; but neither changeling could help noticing something different in his expression. “Pharynx, I'm not gonna lie – ever since you first showed up, you've been nothing short of a thorn in mine and Hornette's sides!” he railed. “If I had my way, I'd have gladly kicked the daylights out of you and made you apologise in public...!” He broke off in mid-sentence as tears threatened to leak out of his eyes.

Pharynx waited anxiously. “...But?” he prompted after a while.

That did it for poor Locomotion. His eyes flooded, and he had to bury his face in his hooves in order to hide his distress. “I just can't!” he sobbed. “All those creatures who go on about you guys being monsters...they're wrong! They always have been wrong – and even more so right now!” Again, he broke off, trying to regain at least a modicum of composure. “I'm the monster,” he murmured.

The two brothers exchanged dismayed glances, and Rainbow Dash blinked incredulously.

“No, Loco,” objected Thorax softly, “anything but. You just weren't yourself back there – none of us were. If it hadn't...”

“Look, don't try and cheer me up,” interrupted Locomotion bitterly. “Just get out and leave me alone.”

“Loco, please...”


Thorax, Pharynx and Rainbow Dash flinched a little at Locomotion's distressed outburst. Rainbow Dash in particular looked like she had a lot more to say; but it was Thorax who finally broke the awkward silence. “Come on, you two,” he said quietly, “best give him some space,” and he gently ushered them out of the compartment without another word. As he did so, he glanced briefly back towards Locomotion, trying to reassure him; but the red-furred colt just sobbed again and turned away. With a weary sigh, Thorax shook his head solemnly and closed the door. “Poor guy,” he sympathised. “He's taking it way harder than I thought.”

Rainbow Dash only nodded in agreement before trotting away down the corridor, trying to preserve what remained of her wounded pride. At the same time, Applejack was just returning from further down the train. “Bit fo' yo' thoughts, Thorax?” she asked tentatively as she approached.

“Just a bit worried about Loco,” replied Thorax. “He's in a bit of a state right now because Hornette's been avoiding him.”

“Hmm...Ah see,” murmured Applejack, cupping a thoughtful hoof around her chin.

“I blame myself for all this,” lamented Pharynx. “I never should've trusted in that damned Chrysalis and her regime – hell, maybe Loco should have killed me.”

“Well, fair play, Pharynx,” countered Thorax reasonably. “Neither of us had any real control over the Brainwashing – and none at all over the traumas our new allies have been through in the past. Besides,” he added, “our clan was never in Chrysalis' good books to begin with. No matter how loyal you might have been to her, you were nothing more than a pawn in her chess game by the end of the day. Just count your blessings she didn't order us executed as well.”

“She might do that yet, given what we're about to do,” quipped Pharynx dryly.

“But all that aside, I've got a hunch there's something Loco's not telling us. Your strike against Hornette was...well, kinda traumatic in its own right,” mused Thorax gravely, “but supposing it reminded him of something...something really tragic...”

Pharynx arched an eyebrow. “What are you driving at?”

“You and I, we lost our father to circumstances well beyond our control. My guess is that he's been through something similar himself.”

“An' you'd be right,” affirmed Applejack, her expression equally grave as she gazed towards Hornette's compartment at the far end of the coach. “We'd better go look in on her. There's a few things Ah need ta tell her – things that Loco should have told her ages ago.” She said no more, but ambled away down the corridor, the two brothers following closely.

Hornette was lying prone and listless on her bed, almost completely closed off to the outside world as she stared into space. She heard a tentative knock as Applejack entered, but didn't acknowledge her presence; instead, she just heaved a deep, troubled sigh and looked down at her mattress.

“Howdy, Hornette,” whispered Applejack as she sidled up to her. “You okay?”

“Fine,” murmured Hornette; but straight away, the orange farm pony could tell that wasn't true. “Just...thinking about Loco, I guess.”

Applejack sat down next to her, resting a hoof on her shoulder with a sympathetic half-smile. “Yo' scared of 'im, ain't ya?” she asked softly.

Hornette sighed again. “I don't know what to think of him anymore,” she admitted plaintively. “I just can't believe he could be so...vicious – such a gentle and altruistic being as himself? I mean, I'm grateful for you and him and the others trying to save me, but in such a brutal's like he was a completely different pony.”

“Can you really blame him, though?” observed Thorax as he sidestepped Applejack and sat down next to the younger changeling. “I know how you feel about violence, Hornette, and believe me, I'm sorry we drove him to it; but try to see it from Loco's point of view. Supposing someone were about to take his life before your very eyes, and you didn't have much time to react – would you really have stopped to consider your actions?” He paused impressively. “I don't think you would, would you?”

Hornette considered for a few seconds, and eventually shook her head. “No, I...I guess not,” she admitted. “I did have to save him myself once, when he fell through a bridge at Ghastly Gorge; but then I never imagined I might be punished for it.”

“Exactly,” said Thorax wisely. “Both of you were doing what you had to – not out of aggression, nor merely for the sake of heroism; but out of fear.” He gave her hoof a gentle squeeze as he added, “It's not all black and white, Hornette. Loco knows he did the wrong thing, but what both of you need to understand is that he was doing it for all the right reasons.”

“Yeah, but...I'm not sure I can understand that,” replied Hornette uncertainly.

“Well, Ah can,” put in Applejack. “Ah've known Loco fo' a long, long time – ever since he an' his folks first rolled into Ponyville, in fact. He an' Apple Bloom were in the same playschool group, an' she was the first real friend he ever made.” She smiled faintly at the memory, and a little more as Hornette finally gave her undivided attention. “Ah take it he's told y'all about 'is, uh...'condition'?”

“You mean his autism?”

Applejack nodded and continued; “He was a sweet colt most o' the time, but he used ta be pretty wild when rubbed up the wrong way. Mind you, he kinda mellowed out as he aged, an' as far as Ah know, he was never so rough back then as he was yesterday.” Her smile faded as a much darker memory flowed through her mind. “Ah probably shouldn't be sayin' this,” she confided sombrely, “but when he was only twelve, he lost his favourite aunt in a plane crash.”

Hornette choked back a startled gasp. “Wha...what happened?” she asked breathlessly.

Thorax turned to stare in dismay at Applejack, unconsciously slackening his grip on Hornette's hoof. Even Pharynx fell silent as the orange mare's words settled in.

“Well...her name was Carnation Petal. She was Steamer an' Optic Strand's younger sister, an' worked as a preacher fo' the Celestial Faith,” explained Applejack. “It didn't stop 'er makin' time fo' family, though – she often rolled into Ponyville ta catch up with 'er brothers, an' was real sweet with Loco despite 'is disability. He was real fond of her too, an' kinda sorry when she began workin' as a missionary after his eleventh birthday. The job took her a' the way out to Saddle Arabia, so until such times as the Hearth's Warmin' season an' so on, she could only talk with them by letter. It was while returnin' from one such vacation, only two years into the job, that her plane was sabotaged.

“The plane was one o' the new Constellation airliners – the biggest passenger jets ever built. Twilight's consort Flash Sentry was on the same flight; but a rival company was out to destroy the planes, an' the roof had been weakened shortly before take-off. About half an hour into the journey, just off of the Bermuleda Islands...,” heaving a deep, mournful sigh and closing her eyes, “...the roof tore off, an' the whole plane just...blew itself to pieces.”

Thorax and Pharynx goggled in shock, and Hornette stifled another gasp as she felt her heart skip a beat.

“Flash was thrown clear by the explosion, an' a fisherpony caught 'im moments before he hit the water,” went on Applejack, “but Carnation Petal wasn't so lucky. From what Ah read, there were 829 passengers an' crew aboard that jet, an' apart from Flash, none o' them survived. Strand an' Steamer were real torn apart when they learned about the crash, but Loco took it way harder than they did. He'd never had ta deal with the death of a friend or relative afore, an' to 'ave lost Carnation Petal of all just made it a' the worse.”

“Just like me and Father,” murmured Thorax sympathetically. “That must've really crushed the poor guy.”

Applejack nodded again, the faintest hint of dread creeping into her expression. “Mo' than even 'is folks realised. That bridge over Ghastly Gorge where Hornette had ta save 'im a week or two ago...”

“...because of Electro Diesel,” put in Pharynx, pointing ruefully to himself.

“...yeah, granted,” conceded Applejack. “But it wasn't the firs' time this'd happened to him; an' even that was no accident. Only difference is...there weren't no sabotage involved.”

Hornette's blood ran cold. “You're not saying...he...” she stammered.

“Ah wish Ah could say he didn't. It was just a good thing Elli happened ta be nearby at the time, or Carnation Petal might've ended up sharin' a funeral with 'er nephew.” Applejack paused, a pained expression of sorrow printed firmly on her face. “It took him a lot o' therapy ta get 'is old spark back, but he's still kinda scarred by the whole tragedy,” she finished. “Seein' y'all nearly get burned alive must've brought back ol' memories – of pain, sadness, grief...of losin' someone really precious to 'im, an' never gettin' ta say goodbye.”

The silence that followed was deafening. Hornette, overwhelmed with shock, guilt and sadness, seemed to phase out completely as various memories of her own replayed in her head. Many times since she had first met him, Locomotion had been somewhat cagey and withdrawn when it came to discussing extended family – and now she knew why. Her chest ached intensely with sorrow, and she almost found it impossible to move a muscle, let alone speak. It seemed like an eternity before she eventually replied, in a quiet, tremulous voice, “...well...thank you.”

Thorax frowned anxiously. “Are you alright, Hornette?” he ventured.

“I...I'm fine,” stammered Hornette, clearly trying to suppress her emotions. “I just...I just need time to think.”

“You sure?”

Hornette nodded wordlessly.

“Well...if you feel you need any company later, you know where I am.” Privately, Thorax wasn't convinced, but thought better of pressing the matter any further. All the same, he secretly kept an anxious eye on Hornette as he and Applejack left the compartment.

Pharynx cocked his head, equally worried, but also a little puzzled. “Is it me,” he wondered, “or does she seem to be taking it a bit too well?”

“Not as well as you might think, Pharynx,” sighed Thorax morosely. “If I know the old '305, she'll be absolutely devastated.”

Cautiously, he pressed his ear to the door, only for his face to fall at the heart-wrenching sound of Hornette crying her eyes out. “See what I mean?” he whispered, his own eyes glossing over with sadness.

“She had ta know the truth sooner or later,” observed Applejack gravely. “Ah'm just sorry she had ta learn it from me an' not Loco. He's gonna be even mo' upset when Ah tell...” But before she could finish, they were startled by loud thumping and frustrated yelling from further down the coach. All three of them turned around just in time to see Twilight bolting into Locomotion's compartment.

“Loco! Loco, stop it!!” she barked severely.

The two brothers exchanged perplexed glances before gazing quizzically at Applejack, who only cringed in discomfort. “As if Ah din' have enough ta worry about,” she murmured. Peering into the room, the first thing she saw was Locomotion struggling to escape Twilight's magical grip, baying in distress as he did so; but the lavender alicorn refused to let him go.

“Loco, listen to me!” scolded Twilight. “I know you're upset, but banging your head against the wall isn't going to help anyone, least of all yourself!”

“What do I care?!” sobbed Locomotion bitterly. “I should've been given a life sentence for what I did – but no, you just brush it aside like it doesn't matter! No jail, no community service, no public shaming, no...NOTHING!”

“That still doesn't give you the right to hurt yourself!”

“Then what is my punishment?!” screamed Locomotion. “How am I meant to make up for nearly killing a guy?!”

“By forgiving yourself for a start.” Thorax, unable to take any more, stepped sternly into the compartment. “I know you asked us to leave you alone, Loco, but that's not going to happen until you stop beating yourself up about it.” And quite literally too, by the sound of things. “Like I already told you, the Brainwashing was more to blame for what happened than your red mist. You know that, I know that, Pharynx knows that, Hornette knows that – and yet you insist on self-harm just for trying to save her. Now,” he said, softening his tone, “is the time to stop – to talk – to try to understand each other.”

Locomotion grimaced. “What is there to understand? Hornette hates me – and so should you!”

“No she doesn't. She just failed to understand the motives, and the emotions, behind your actions – all she could see was an act of madness and rage, and not the pain, fear and loss you'd been bottling up since...the crash,” went on Thorax quietly. “I'm really sorry about your aunt, by the way.”

Locomotion went pale with dread. “ didn't...” he stammered; but before he could finish, the orange mare responded with an apologetic frown, removing her hat and bowing her head with mild guilt. Tears began to well up in his eyes again, this time with grief and betrayal. “ could you? You promised you wouldn't talk...”

“Ah know – ah know,” interrupted Applejack unhappily. “But if Ah din' tell Hornette the truth, who would? Y'all 'ave been keepin' it in way too long, Loco; it's startin' ta hurt her just as much as it's been hurtin' y'all. She had every right ta know about yo' past an' how it's affected y'all.”

“Even my suicide attempt in Ghastly Gorge?”

Applejack nodded gravely. “Ever' last detail.”

Locomotion choked back another sob. He felt violated, but he couldn't ignore the truth in Applejack's words – had he been more honest with Hornette about his family history, he wouldn't have traumatised her so. What really stung him was that without that emotional trauma, Pharynx and Thorax would still be Brainwashed.

“You know,” murmured Thorax gently, “until Applejack told us about your aunt, I never realised just how much you and I had in common. Both of us victims of our own guilt, of tragedies we could do nothing to mitigate, let alone prevent..and both driven to extreme behaviour by forces beyond our control; me by Chrysalis' machinations, and you by overwhelming negative emotions.” He settled down next to Locomotion, wrapping a comforting arm around his withers.

“Doesn't exactly justify my actions, though,” muttered Locomotion bitterly.

“Doesn't it?” put in Twilight reasonably. “We all had to fight back, or else...”

“Yeah, but you didn't have to cope with suddenly losing a loved one forever!” interrupted Locomotion angrily. “Flash came out alive – Carnation Petal didn't! You might have had your hubby back after a good few months of heartbreak, but I have to carry that same burden for the rest of my life! And what about the Horse Junction accident?! Were you even there?! Did you get to see for yourself what carnage had been wrought?! No – I was there, I had to sift through the wreckage for helpless passengers, and more importantly, I came out with PTSD while you were in bed, fast asleep – completely unaware that anything had happened! The only thing missing from that experience was the sight of a bloodstained, mutilated corpse!!”

Twilight's face fell in dismay. She could remember reading about the crash the following morning, but had completely forgotten about Locomotion's involvement – his attempt to warn the Bridleway Limited of the danger ahead, his gruesome task of helping injured passengers out of the wrecked front coaches, and most of all, the impact it had had on his morale. True, the death of his aunt had been far worse, but had it not been for Steamer, Max Pressure and his newfound friendship with Octavia, he might well have followed a similar path. She paused awkwardly, feeling as if anything she had to say would only dishearten him further.

“Twilight,” ventured Thorax at last, “would it be okay to leave me and Loco to ourselves for a bit? We've been lecturing him a bit too much; what he really needs now is comfort.”

“From someone he ain't familiar with?”

“Spike was none too familiar with me when I first met him; but he still found a good friend in me. Just trust me, Applejack.”

Twilight and Applejack exchanged doubtful glances; but eventually nodded to each other in consent. “Alright, Thorax,” replied Twilight, “but if you do need any input, we'll be right outside.”

“Thanks, Twilight.” Thorax watched until the two mares had closed the door, and turned back to Locomotion. “She was so precious to you, wasn't she?” he whispered sympathetically.

Locomotion nodded tearfully. He wasn't sure whether Thorax was referring to Hornette or Carnation Petal, let alone why he was even bothering with him after such a violent outburst; but by now, he was beyond caring. “More than you could ever imagine,” he sobbed.

Thorax smiled sadly. “I miss my father too. He was such a good role model – the very reason, in fact, why I was so in touch with the 'common' changeling, so to speak. Chrysalis saw them as inferior; but my father was never afraid to fraternise with them on a daily basis, and encouraged me to do the same. But more than that, he was the loving, caring parent that any creature would've wanted, and it staggers me that Pharynx didn't follow his example as closely as I did.” He allowed himself a quiet chuckle; “Mind you, he was always an independent sort.”

“He ought to be grateful,” murmured Locomotion unhappily. “Your parents genuinely cared for you as kids – Hornette never had that kind of love.”

“No...but she did at least have me and the resistance group,” put in Thorax. “It was for timid, hurt souls like her that we strove to make our kingdom a better place – and we can still do it, Loco. With your help, we can still overthrow Chrysalis and restore harmony to the Badlands.”

For a split second, he could almost make out the faintest hint of a smile on Locomotion's face. But that vanished just as quickly as it appeared, and the red-furred stallion gloomily went back to gazing out of the window. “Maybe,” he conceded half-heartedly. “It's just so hard to feel positive about something when you've got so many negatives weighing on your mind.”

Thorax said no more. He just sat and listened, his arm still draped over Locomotion's shoulders, as the young stallion drifted into a soft lament;

“Back in my early years before I came to Ponyville,
My disability made my life a struggle up the hill;
But Uncle Steamer saw in me some engine driving skill,
And helped me live the dream I'd always wanted to fulfil.

He stood by my side with every rise and fall,
Yet I don't feel I deserve his acts of kindness after all...

'Cause I'm nopony's hero!
Stops the speeding train;
Rescues helpless passengers...

Lands the crippled aeroplane,
Foils the massacre...

Not the famous actor
Who plays the hero's role...

Not the handsome colt
Who wins the filly's heart and soul.

Nopony's own salvation,
Nopony's hero!

For sixteen years Hornette had herself been through the mill,
Hence why I was compelled to help her settle into Ponyville;
But still I feel the guilt for letting my fears break my will,
And just to rub it in, it's nearly driven me to kill.

She stood by my side with every rise and fall,
Yet I don't feel that I deserve her affections after all...

'Cause I'm nopony's hero!
Saves the refugee,
Defends her in her time of need...

Sets the changelings free
From all their lust and greed...

Not the well-known face
Of genuine pacifist fame...

I'm truly a disgrace,
With only myself to blame!

Nopony's own salvation.
Nopony's hero!

They stood by my side with every rise and fall,
Yet I don't feel I deserve their love and friendship after all...

'Cause I'm nopony's hero!
Stops the speeding train;
Rescues helpless passengers...

Lands the crippled aeroplane,
Foils the massacre...

Not the famous actor
Who plays the hero's role...

Not the handsome colt
Who wins the filly's heart and soul.

Nopony's own salvation,
Nopony's hero!”

Bonus Chapter 3: The Madness of Queen Chrysalis

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Chrysalis' eyes bulged with rage. “What do you mean you've lost contact with them?!”

“I'm afraid it's true, Your Majesty,” affirmed the messenger standing before her throne. “Our telepathic link with CH001MD38964587233 and his platoon was fine when we last communicated with him, and now we can't reach him – or any of the rest of the platoon.”

“You imbeciles!” growled Chrysalis accusingly. “You're just not trying hard enough!”

“We've tried our very best, o' mighty one,” insisted the messenger, “and there's not a peep from any of them.”

Chrysalis scowled angrily as she gazed out at the darkening sky, trying to think of a solution. In the back of her mind, she had been fearing something like this might happen, even with her best attempts to assert her influence on her minions. But could it really be the Brainwashing spell wearing off – or had the accursed ponies caught them? “Right!” she announced. “I'm giving them three days to make contact – and if they don't get back to us by then, they're to be eliminated with the Crawler!”

“Understood. But if I might make a suggestion, Your Majesty, wouldn't it...”

“No you might not!!” thundered Chrysalis, causing the messenger to cower slightly. “I've already told you – I am the queen, and I make the decisions! Do I make myself clear?!”

The messenger looked down at his hooves. “I'm sorry, Your Majesty, I thought that...”


“Yes, Your Excellency, I'll certainly do that...” Rambling nervously, the messenger scurried out of the throne room.

With a frustrated growl, Chrysalis settled back down on her throne, grumbling under her breath. “Insolent worms! Contradicting meme, the all-powerful Queen Chrysalis! I need to refine that Brainwashing spell still further!”

“Refine it all you want,” said a mysterious voice from somewhere close by, “but if you really consider yourself 'all-powerful'...I'd love to see you prove it.”


Chrysalis sprang to her hooves and looked around, suddenly alert. The voice seemed to echo through the hive, yet none of the other changelings in the room seemed to react. It sounded so familiar, almost as if someone from her distant past had just returned – and yet, for who she thought it was, it sounded so uncharacteristically sinister and foreboding. “Where are you?!” she hissed.

“Close enough to see the fear and guilt in your eyes,” taunted the voice ominously. “But you alone among changelings, Chrysalis the Ruthless, are obviously too far away to see the pain you have been inflicting on my subjects.”

“What do I care about your precious subjects?! What do you even want with me?!”

“You should. We, the Royal Family, have as much of a responsibility to our kind as they unto us. As to what I want...well...I want to warn you, Chrysalis.” The voice was heavy with calculating irony. “I want to let you know that cold-blooded murder never goes unpunished, especially against your own blood.”

Before Chrysalis' very eyes, one of the many statues that had been erected in her honour seemed to glow menacingly. Its gnarled horn took on a much smoother appearance, the holes in its legs shifted about, and its mane became much straighter and neater. The glow intensified, and the statue seemed to distort as a shadowy figure stepped forth from within, whereupon the statue quickly reverted back to its old form.

The spectre wandered almost aimlessly up to the throne, its blue and green eyes distant and emotionless. Chrysalis stared in horrified disbelief. No...surely this couldn't be...her!

“It's no use trying to fight it, Chrysalis.” The ghost stared back with a small, knowing smirk. “You can kill your own sister, but you can't kill her spirit.”

Chrysalis snarled, but was ultimately unable to hide her fear. “You're wrong!!” she burst out. “I have no sister!”

“Not anymore,” replied the ghost. “I'm all that's left of Crown Princess Nymphia, the rightful Queen of the Changelings. I've seen what you did to my subjects, and it disgusts me to see that you have devolved our kind into a race of savages. Our ambition was to find allies among other nations, not to debase our own – nor to rob them of their love. Just look at them, Chrysalis, and all the wrongs you have wrought upon them. You starved them, you abused them, and when they disobeyed your commands like the sensible, good-natured creatures they were, you murdered them in cold blood. Hardly the work of a 'beloved' queen, don't you think?”

“Why should I take advice from someone who doesn't exist?!” demanded Chrysalis defiantly.

The smirk on the ghost's face faded, and her eyes narrowed analytically. “You took my existence away from me,” she retorted. “I know you far too well, Chrysalis, and your hatred of me. I tried to make you understand; to help you see the error of your ways. But no – you clung onto them like a limpet, and manipulated one of our guards into striking me down. But be warned, for I never was your worst enemy.”

“Then who is?!”

“None other than yourself,” continued the ghost, smirking again as if she was enjoying Chrysalis' terror. “You chose the path of tyranny, and for you, that can only lead to one destination. The hour is nigh, Chrysalis – justice will prevail, the resistance you have fought so hard to suppress will strike back, and any further attempt to crush them will only delay the inevitable!”

“Inevitable nothing!!” screamed Chrysalis. “No pathetic resistance movement will be enough to overthrow me! I – am – invincible!”

“That's what all the great tyrants of history like to believe,” jeered the ghost. “But be warned, Chrysalis – your hubris will be your ultimate undoing.”

“Never! Away with you, you spiteful spook!”

The apparition laughed coldly as she faded away. “As you wish, sister – but your arrogance and deceit will change only the manner of your dethroning, not the fact.”

“GET OUT! GET OUT!!!!” Chrysalis' voice echoed throughout the throne room as the last traces of Nymphia's ghost vanished into the shadows. Her eyes blazed with fear, fury and anguish, glowering into the void where the phantom had been standing, her fangs bared as if trying in vain to scare the ghost away. After what felt like an age of staring and hyperventilating, her nerves began to settle – and only then did she notice her guards begin to shuffle away. “Where do you think you're going?!” she snapped.

“You said 'get out',” answered one of the guards blankly. “We assumed you meant us.”

“Not you, you morons! I was talking to...” Chrysalis broke off. How these clueless ants she had for guards couldn't hear that treacherous intruder was beyond her, but somehow the notion of it being a ghost seemed too good to be true. None of them would believe her, she thought grudgingly, even if she told them. “...someone else,” she finished under her breath.

“What do you mean?” puzzled another guard. “There's no-one else in this room.”

Chrysalis leered at him. “Are you insinuating that I, your glorious queen, am unbalanced?!”

“No, Your Majesty, I...”

“Then get back to your posts before I have you eliminated!!” bellowed Chrysalis, sitting down again as the guards obediently lined up around the perimeter of the room. Truth be told, she didn't understand what was going on any more than they did. But one thing was for certain, she told herself grimly – she was not going crazy! That thing, whatever it was, was not just a figment of her imagination, and if it dared to intrude on her again...well, she'd be ready for it.

“Be warned, Chrysalis – I will be avenged!”

Or would she? Chrysalis glared into the void once again, trying to find the ghost of her long dead sister – but to no avail. Only the guards populated the otherwise empty throne room, silent and unwary, yet still her sister's voice continued to echo all around...

Chapter 26: United We Stand

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The journey south lasted a good two nights. Upon arrival in Canterlot's Canterbury West terminus, a detachment of the Royal Guard escorted the raiding party to the Cannon Street station further south, where they boarded another long-distance express, the Celestial Flyer. This would take them to the city of El Pinto, the most southerly part of the Equestrian railway network; from there, they would have to hike across the mountains in order to reach the Badlands.

It was late in the afternoon when the Flyer reached the end of the line. As it drifted through the El Pinto suburbs, Twilight gathered the group for a final pep talk before they set off.

“Right,” she announced, “now as soon as we arrive, we're gonna have to move fast – even a second's delay could reduce our chance of success. Thorax and Pharynx, you'll need to disguise yourselves so as not to arouse suspicion; but Hornette, as long as you stick with me, you should be fine. Once we're out of the city, it should be a clear run all the way to the Badlands. We will need to stop and set up camp for the night, but I calculate we should reach the border by around noon. Any questions?”

After a lengthy pause, Thorax spoke up; “I don't think so, Twilight. We're all set and raring to go.” He gazed grimly out of the carriage window. “We'll teach that phony queen Chrysalis to rob us of our freedom.”

“Either that or we'll get our heads blown off,” muttered Pharynx anxiously.

Rainbow Dash groaned with exasperation. “You're not still obsessing over the risk of failure, are you?!” she chided.

“I've got a right to worry,” insisted Pharynx firmly. “Her detractors didn't call her Chrysalis the Ruthless for nothing – I've seen how far she's willing to go to quash the opposition, and if she's not above killing someone for allying with you ponies...I'd have at least felt a little more comfortable if our platoon had come with us,” he finished uneasily.

“They'd only make us more conspicuous,” Twilight pointed out wisely. “The fewer of us there are, the better our chances. Besides, you said yourself that none of them had been trained to fight before they were Brainwashed – why do you think they volunteered themselves as our hostages?”

Pharynx shook his head, unconvinced. “Chrysalis won't buy that. She only formed the Covert Retrieval Forces to prevent us starting any coups with outside help. As far as she's concerned, any changeling hostages are pretty much expendable.”

Thorax gazed disapprovingly at his older brother. “You surprise me, Pharynx,” he said sternly. “I thought you wanted to try and make up for all this!”

“For selling you out to Chrysalis, yes,” objected Pharynx defensively, “but this? This is a huge risk we're taking, Thorax! You know that, I know that, Hornette knows that – and yet you insist on risking all our lives and those of a few ponies, just to try and avenge your resistance group!”

“Do you honestly think this is about the resistance? That I was only doing it for them?” Thorax shook his head defiantly. “No, brother, this is far more than just an act of retaliation – this is for all of us – for the whole world. We've let Chrysalis' reign of terror go on for far too long; but now we have the power, and more importantly the alliances, to help us fight back!” he continued, raising his voice. “And fight back we shall – for honour – for freedom – for our father – for the late Queen Nymphia – for all changelings everywhere!”

“Amen to that, Thorax,” said Applejack emphatically, and the others murmured their agreement.

Impressed by the determination in Thorax's motivational speech, the almighty gusto of a general encouraging his troops before a battle, Pharynx gazed out at the distant mountains, thinking of all the lives that had been taken over and even ended by Chrysalis' reign. He thought of all the unfortunate changelings he had sold out to her, and the horror he felt at her betrayal – and finally, he thought of that gentle, innocent, warm-hearted young soul named Hornette, the very creature who, despite nearly losing her life to him, was willing to help him atone for his mistakes. “You know what, Thorax,” he murmured with a brave smile, “you're right. We must risk it, if only to secure Hornette's future.”

Thorax smiled back. “There's the strong-willed brother I know and love!” he cajoled. “You're right too; it is gonna be dangerous – but we're not gonna let that stop us! We'll either die free changelings...or die trying!” By now, the train was just coming to a halt at the platform. “Ready, Pharynx?”

The older changeling nodded gamely. “Let's do this!”

With a flash of purple, the two brothers took on their pony forms as Crystal Hoof and Electro Diesel; and as soon as the train had stopped, the whole group galloped away out of the station, through the city and on towards the wilderness that lay ahead.

Given how late it was, the group managed to cover a good distance before the sun went down, and soon stopped to set up camp on a small plateau, more than halfway up the mountains. To keep the weight down on their backs, Twilight had cast a shrinking spell on their camping equipment and rations; but even then, Locomotion, who was more used to shovelling coal than running long distances, was so puffed out that he could hardly stand, so Thorax volunteered to pitch up his tent for him.

Despite his newfound resolve, Pharynx still hadn't fully recovered from his head trauma, and was feeling dizzy by the time he and Thorax had set up their own tent. Thorax realised this, and sent his brother to bed while he took the first watch; but secretly, he had ulterior motives. Hornette and Locomotion, he noticed, still weren't on speaking terms as yet, and he was really starting to worry about them – not least because of where Locomotion was sitting at that moment.

Inside her own tent, Hornette tossed and turned restlessly. She still hadn't found the courage to talk to Locomotion – not because she was frightened of him, but more of the remorse he was feeling, and how it was affecting him. That she had been partly responsible made her all the more distressed for him, and part of her even felt angry with herself for being so blind the whole time. She thought back to her earlier struggles, right up to the day she escaped the Badlands; and then she thought of Locomotion, equally troubled, but by far more personal issues. There was nothing else for it, she thought gravely – if they were to patch things over, she had to go and talk to him...

Outside, Thorax was scanning the rugged mountains slopes for any signs of trouble. So far, to his relief, there was no-one else around – no-one who could pose a threat, at any rate. The only sounds to be heard were distant crickets chirping in the darkness; and there wasn't a single cloud to block out the starry, moonlit sky. It was peaceful and calm...until a soft rustling sound caught his attention.

Thorax looked back over his shoulder. “Who's there?” he asked cautiously.

“It's only me.” Hornette slipped quietly out of her tent, her mane slightly ruffled.

“Hornette?” Thorax raised an eyebrow. “What are you doing still up? You should be asleep.”

“I can't sleep,” murmured Hornette gloomily. “I'm still feeling bad about Loco and his aunt.” She looked around, almost half-heartedly. “Is he still awake?”

“Well...yes, as a matter of fact. He's been sitting over on that ledge for quite some time, just staring up at the sky.” Thorax's brow furrowed with concern as he leaned down to whisper into her ear. “I think you'd better go see if he's okay.”

Hornette didn't need to be told twice. With little more than a thoughtful nod, she quietly walked over and sat herself down next to the red-furred stallion. Straight away, she could just about make out the bruising where he had been banging the back of his head, and wanted to fling her arms around his barrel to try and comfort him; but she didn't dare in case she startled him. Only after a minute or so did Locomotion finally acknowledge her presence with a soft “hey.”

The young changeling gave an equally soft half-smile in response. “Can't sleep either, huh?”

Locomotion shook his head unhappily, and went back to staring into space. Silence reigned once again as both sides tried to think what else to say.

Eventually, Hornette decided simply to follow her gut reaction; “Loco,” she whispered in a faintly pleading tone, “please don't hurt yourself.”

“I wasn't gonna jump,” murmured Locomotion, his tone as sincere as it was glum. “I just needed some time think...” He gazed over the precipice with an inaudible sigh; but true to his word, he didn't move.

“About what?” ventured Hornette after a while.

Locomotion sighed again. “About how foolish I was,” he replied, tears welling up in his eyes. “I scarred you for life just by losing control of myself – all because of a supposed 'psychopath' I didn't realise was under mind control the whole time.”

Hornette frowned sympathetically, blinking away a few tears of her own. It was one thing to see Locomotion in distress after a nightmare; but seeing him with a broken self-esteem, and after all the effort he had put into helping to mend hers, was so depressing in its own right that it made her sick to the stomach with sorrow. “'re a great many things, but foolish isn't one of them,” she soothed. “Truth be told, I've had time to think about it myself...and I realise now how naïve I've been.”

That finally got Locomotion's full attention. He gazed in confusion, the fur below his eyes matted from the moisture.

“I used to believe that violence and aggression could only be born out of pure malice; but Thorax and Applejack have helped me realise that it can arise from fear as well,” continued Hornette. “When I saw you lash out at Diesel, all I could see was blind rage. What I should've seen was that you were scared – haunted by your own past – by what could've become of me if you hadn't reacted the way you did.” She scuffed an awkward hoof against the ground. “The only thing I don't why you never told me about her.”

Locomotion grimaced mournfully. “You had your own burdens to worry about, Hornette. I just didn't want you brooding over mine as well.”

“'ve done a great deal for me already,” said Hornette, discretely trying to massage away the pain in her heart. “You went out of your way to help me integrate into make me feel wanted...appreciated...loved.” She paused for a second to regain her composure. “I just don't feel right that it should be at your own expense. I've shared my troubles with you; it's only right that you share yours.”

“But why are you being so forgiving?” objected Locomotion. “Whatever my motives, I still beaned Pharynx half to death – I don't deserve any sympathy for that.”

“Not even for saving my life for...what, the second time?”

Locomotion paused. “No...I suppose you've got a point.”

“And you'd never want to hurt me, would you?”

“Aw, grief no!” exclaimed Locomotion, visibly mortified. “I could never forgive myself if I did.”

“But if someone else was about to murder me in cold blood, heaven forbid...would you have done the same again?” The young changeling gazed searchingly into his eyes. “Be honest with yourself, Loco – you would have, wouldn't you?”

“I...well...” Locomotion pondered for what felt like an age before nodding in rueful agreement. “...I guess I would – but I'd still feel like a monster for it.”

“Did you choose to be a monster?”

“No, Hornette – anything but.”

“Then you don't need to feel like one,” comforted Hornette. “As a wise pony once said,” and specifically the one sitting next to me, she thought wryly, “'you are who you choose to be.'”

Locomotion let loose another shaky sigh. “I didn't choose to be scared, though – and yet somehow I am,” he wept, tears streaming down his face again as he poured his heart out to her. “I'm scared of losing myself a second time...of losing my life...but most of all, I'm scared of losing you, Hornette. When you ran off after being framed...I felt like I could never be happy ever again – heck, I even chewed Uncle Steamer out for not standing up for you! That's how torn apart I was.” After a brief pause, he continued in a soft, caring tone, “I wasn't lying with what I said of you back then. You mean a great deal to me – more than my work on the railway, more than all the steam engines of the world – even more than life itself. I don't know how I could live without you.” Overcome with emotion, he buried his face in his front hooves and sobbed feverishly.

Hornette was so touched and yet so heartbroken that she nearly let out a quiet sob herself. She could never have imagined that Locomotion, that calm and understanding young knight in shining red armour who had so loyally stood up for her, could be so fraught and vulnerable, with or without autism. And yet, after all the effort he had gone through to bring her out of her shell, he seemed to have forgotten his own philosophy and become the little lost colt in the middle of a forest, unable to find his way home, and yearning for the comfort of his mother's embrace. It was almost as if she were looking back on her early days in Ponyville through his eyes, at the timid recluse she had been before meeting him. Now, she realised sombrely, she knew how he must have felt seeing her the way he was now.

What really struck a chord with her, however, was his reasoning for being so scared, and how much she truly meant to him. It wasn't quite an admission of love, but she could still feel and even taste it in his words; a sweet and tender aroma that had long been denied to her...but not by Locomotion – never. Part of her had feared that he didn't actually feel that way, even after his accidental confession back in Ponyville; but after hearing the sincerity in his voice, and seeing it in his body language, there was no denying it any longer. The only question was...did she dare tell him yet? Should she go ahead and profess her feelings now – or should she wait a while? Somehow, she felt it would be best to wait, lest it weigh even more heavily on his mind and distract him from their dangerous mission. Instead, she gently nuzzled the side of his head in a bid to comfort him. “You know,” she murmured with a soft, shaky smile, “I'm scared too – for all the same reasons and many more.”

Locomotion lowered his front hooves and turned to gaze at her again, revealing the streaks where his tears had matted the fur below his eyes.

“I'm scared for all the others...I'm scared for what could happen to Equestria if we fail...I'm scared of what happens if I'm not allowed to live in Ponyville anymore...and I'm scared for what the future holds for me in general,” Hornette explained further. “But the strange thing is...for the first time in my life, I'm actually okay with it – because I have you lot to help me through it...and especially you.” She gave him an affectionate peck on the cheek. “So let's be scared together.”

Only then, at long last, was she rewarded with the one sight she could never get enough of – the sight of Locomotion, visibly touched by her words, smiling that fond, warm smile she had grown to love as much as the red-furred unicorn himself. He was still afraid, still a little upset with himself, but the look in his eyes was one of hope, love and gratitude. “Thank you,” he whispered, shedding tears again; though this time from happiness rather than sorrow as he drew her into a hug.

Not too far away, Thorax brushed away a small tear of his own as he looked on. He couldn't hear very well what the two young lovers were saying, but their body language said it all; the rift between them had begun to settle, and fear and guilt had finally given way to an understanding truce. It gave him a deep sense of hope, seeing them so close – hope that Nymphia's vision, with their help, might yet come to pass.

For a while, nothing more was said as the red-furred stallion and his changeling gazed up at the moonlit sky. Eventually, Hornette gently broke the silence; “What was your aunt like?” she ventured.

“She was rather like you,” remembered Locomotion wistfully. “Kind, thoughtful, pacifist...just a really nice pony all round. I reckon she'd have loved to meet you, had she not been reassigned to the great mission hall in the sky.”

“Even if she knew I was a changeling?”

Locomotion chuckled softly in spite of himself. “Even that wouldn't have put her off. Live and let live – that was Aunt Carnation Petal's way...” He sighed longingly and gazed up at the stars again, “...just like my Dad's late grandfather, Staunch Quaker. He was a pacifist in his own right – a conscientious objector. He'd been called up for military service when the Great Griffin War broke out, but refused to have any part in it because, to use Dad's words, he saw himself as a worker first and an Equestrian subject second; and the last thing he wanted was to kill someone who considered themselves a worker first and a Griffonian subject second.”

Hornette smiled wryly. “I should certainly hope not.”

“Princess Celestia respected that,” went on Locomotion, “but the militia didn't – they had no time for peace-loving 'citizens of the world' like him. Even when they tried drafting him into the Medical Corps, he flat-out rejected that role because he wasn't allowed to treat enemy soldiers; so they locked him away in a cold, damp cell in a prison camp, with only his uniform for company. He never wore it though,” he observed gravely. “If he did, that would've made him a soldier and therefore eligible for a firing squad. As matters stood, they were eventually forced to discharge him as unfit for service after he contracted a chest infection.”

“That was really brave of him,” whispered Hornette admiringly, “standing up to all those barbaric military ponies like that. I just hope he was okay in the end.”

Locomotion smiled again, a hint of smugness creeping into his expression. “He recovered in a Manehattan hospital, and went back to working in the cannery where he had previously been employed. Got more than a few white feathers for his supposed 'cowardice'...”

Hornette cocked her head, puzzled. “Why white feathers?”

“It was the army's way of shaming ponies who refused to fight for their country,” explained Locomotion. “But it was Great Granddad who got the last laugh, 'cause what they hadn't appreciated was that it had already been in use as a pacifist symbol for many centuries, not just here in Equestria, but in Griffonia as well. Probably explains why Princess Celestia detested its use as a bullying tactic – although the fact that she's made partly of white feathers might have had something to do with it too!”

“Again, I don't blame her. She must have had a lot to say to those insensitive army ponies.”

“Yeah – but she was really honoured by what Great Granddad did to spite them,” smirked Locomotion.

“What did he do?” asked Hornette, interested.

“Well, he knew about their traditional use far better than his commanding officers, and so he made those feathers into a sculpture of Celestia holding the international peace sign. This is what it looks like,” and with his right hoof, Locomotion traced a pattern that Hornette could only describe as a circle with a crow's foot inside it. “In return, and as a further token of retribution to those pig-headed patriots, she awarded him the Celestial Peace Medal after the war ended.” He stared into space again, his expression turning solemn and thoughtful. “I never got the chance to meet him myself, but he's been a role model to me ever since Dad first told me about him. Some nights, I look up at that sky and...I just imagine him looking down on me, willing me to follow his help realise his vision of world peace...” His face fell as he thought of his assault on Pharynx, and what his great grandfather might have had to say about it.

“Could we, with what we're doing?” asked Hornette softly.

Locomotion gazed over his shoulder in the general direction of the Badlands – and then back into Hornette's eyes with a look of fond, gentle resolve. “Maybe we can.”

“Then I reckon your aunt and great grandfather would be very proud of you.” Hornette nuzzled him once again as tiredness finally began to overtake them; but instead of returning to their tents, both pony and changeling settled down right there and then, and soon fell asleep in each other's embrace. They didn't even stir as Thorax magically picked them up and carried them both back to Locomotion's tent, as unwilling to separate them as he was to let any other changeling threaten them. With the two teenagers safely tucked away, he returned to his post and kept watch until Twilight came out to relieve him.

When morning came, the seven ponies and their changeling comrades packed up their camping equipment as quickly as they could, and set off again with renewed vigour. It was hard going, but after another two hours, they made it to the summit and paused for breath before picking their way down the other side.

Panting heavily, Locomotion wiped the sweat from his brow. “All this climbing...sure wears a guy out,” he gasped, setting himself down on a nearby rock. “I Surfie does it.”

“Good thing Twilight thought to shrink our rations,” agreed Hornette, reaching into his saddlebag and pulling out a tiny bottle of water, which expanded back to its original half-litre size as soon as it came out. “Means we can fit more into our bags without overloading ourselves. Here, have a drink,” and she passed the bottle over to him.

“Thanks,” murmured Locomotion as he took hold of it with his right hoof. Having unscrewed the lid, he raised it to his lips and gratefully gulped down its contents until it was empty. “That's just what I needed.”

“Yes, and goodness knows we all might, given the state of our homeland,” mused Pharynx, who had been gazing across the landscape ahead of them from a nearby promontory.

Locomotion, his breathing steady again, looked up at him. “How bad?” he asked, returning his empty bottle to his saddlebag.

“Come see for yourself.”

With a solemn nod, Locomotion tentatively stood up and walked over to the ridge, Hornette following closely. From there, he could see the whole nation spread out before him – and sure enough, it was a far cry indeed from the lush, fertile hills and valleys of Equestria. Most of it was little more than dry, barren desert wasteland, with here and there a dead tree whose water source had long since dried up. The sky was a dirty, murky yellow in colour, and the only real signs of life to be found were the few changeling hives dotted around the area, the biggest of which stood out like a giant black anthill. The red-furred stallion could only stare in dismay as he pictured a land of struggling, teary changelings going about their harsh, bleak existence with no clear sign of salvation...

Thorax quietly approached him. “Terrible, isn't it?” he asked softly.

“Yeah,” whispered Locomotion breathlessly. “I can see now why they call it the Badlands – it's like a graveyard out there.”

Hornette sighed inaudibly and gazed ruefully down the mountains. “To think I abandoned all my friends to this...” she mourned.

“It's a good thing ya did.” The four of them looked back to see Applejack and Twilight sidling up to them. “Ya wouldn't 'ave been able to set 'em free otherwise,” the farm mare continued, patting Hornette's shoulder. “An' ya won't 'ave ta go it alone – we'll be with ya all the way.”

“And especially me,” Locomotion reminded her resolutely.

The young changeling smiled warmly. “Thank you,” she murmured. “That means so much to me.” But deep down, as she, Locomotion and Thorax gazed out into the wilderness once more, they knew in their hearts that things could only get more dangerous the further they went...

Chapter 27: The Infiltration

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It was almost noon by the time the group were within striking distance of the Badlands. There wasn't a single enemy changeling to be seen, and the only landmark that separated them from the vast, sandy wastes ahead was a tall wire fence, behind which stood what looked like a perforated black rock formation.

Twilight furtively scanned their surroundings as they descended the final slope. “So far, so good,” she whispered. “No sign of the opposition as yet.”

“Yeah, but for how long?” wondered Locomotion.

“Well, we'll soon know,” replied Rainbow Dash, taking wing without a second thought. “I'm gonna go scout the area.”

“No!” Pharynx reached out with his magic and only just grabbed Rainbow Dash by the tail before she could fly away. “You'll only kill yourself if you just charge in like that!” he hissed. “That border is surrounded by a really potent forcefield, maintained twenty-four hours a day from the main hive. It only goes down as far as the fence, but it's powerful enough to repel anything that comes into contact with it at phenomenal speeds.”

“What, even if I break the sound barrier?!”

“Even a Sonic Rainboom won't be enough to penetrate that forcefield.”

“Oh yeah?! We'll see about that!” Pinkie Pie stepped forward, brandishing one of the coconuts she had brought along. The others wisely ducked down and shielded themselves as she flung it into the forcefield like a cricket googly – only for it to rocket straight back towards them at a breakneck speed, smashing itself to pieces as it hit the cliff face.

Applejack's jaw dropped open. “Whoa, Nelly!” she gasped.

“That could've been one of us!” remarked Locomotion, his face ashen with shock as he stared at the off-white stain that the coconut had created.

Pinkie Pie didn't seem half as shaken, but still bowed her head as if in solemn reverence. “A moment of silence for the Unknown Coconut, which gave its very...”

“Get serious, Pinkie!” growled Pharynx, agitated. “We're here to infiltrate the Badlands, not to waste our time with some pointless funeral for a fruit!” He glared at the forcefield, ignoring Pinkie Pie's awkward grin of apology. “Now let's just stop and think about it – obviously we can't fly over; and I doubt we'll be able to tunnel under the wire, even if Thorax and I change ourselves into moles...”

“Hang on a minute,” interjected Hornette. “I remember this very spot from when I ran away – there was a gap under that fence, just big enough for me to wriggle through.”


“About...” Hornette paused, trying to find the breach. “...there,” she finished awkwardly; for although the distortion of the fence showed where she had managed to slip out (though only very roughly at best), the hole in the ground that had aided in her escape had since been filled in with rocks.

“Oh...well that's no good,” sighed Pharynx, disappointed. “That was one of the few weak points under the fence – and goodness alone knows where we'll find another.”

“Why don't we just cut through it then?” suggested Pinkie Pie simply.

“Hmm...” Thorax pondered, trying to ignore the scolding tone in the back of his head for overlooking such a blindingly obvious plan. “...I suppose we could. The only problem there is how we do it without attracting unwanted attention.”

“You think there might be enemy changelings in that...thing over there?” asked Rarity, secretly cringing at its hideous shape.

“What, in that blockhouse? Yes, there's two of them in there – one for the day shift, and one for the night,” affirmed Thorax. “I'd say the night guard is probably fast asleep by now; but we'll still need to take out his colleague if we're to get by safely.” He pondered again; “The big question”

Twilight narrowed her eyes as the outline of a plan began to form in her mind – “Live bait!” she whispered grimly.

“Yeah, good idea...WHAT?!” burst out Pharynx, only just managing to keep his voice down. “You mean sacrifice one of our own, just so that...”

“I'm not sacrificing anyone, Pharynx!” interrupted Twilight firmly. “All we need is a decoy to lure him into the open – then Hornette can work her magic on him.”

“But what if it doesn't work this time round? She's only cast the spell once.”

“All the more reason to test it on a lone enemy. If we just wait until we reach the main hive and find she can't cast it of her own accord, we'll be as good as done for anyway. Now what do you say to that?”

Pharynx and Thorax gazed anxiously at each other. If anyone was best suited to playing the decoy, they thought, it was probably one of them in disguise...or was it...?

“I'll go.”

Thorax shot Locomotion a baffled double take. “...say what now?”

“Loco, no!” pleaded Hornette. “They'll torture you!”

“Look, I've gotta risk it, Hornette,” argued Locomotion calmly. “Thorax and Pharynx may be able to change their forms, but they're still royals by the end of the day – if neither of them are around to take the throne, who will? And I'm not about to let you take that chance either, not after what happened three nights ago.”

“Then maybe you should leave it to one of us...”

“No, Rarity,” insisted Locomotion. “I don't know what part the Map expects me to play, but I'm not about to sit on my laurels like a dead weight until I find the answer.”

There was a long silence before Twilight finally offered her opinion. “ make a pretty good case there,” she conceded gravely. “I shouldn't be encouraging you to take such risks, Loco...but if you really feel you have to, then I can respect that. Hornette, be ready to cast the spell as soon as I say.”

Hornette paused, her mouth half-open as she struggled to formulate a reply. She wanted to protest, but as much as she hated to admit it, Locomotion had a point – they couldn't afford to risk losing Thorax or Pharynx, and even if they only lost one of the Bearers of Harmony, their quest would almost certainly be a dead loss. “Alright,” she answered tremulously. “But do be careful, Loco.”

“I'll do my best,” promised Locomotion bravely.

“That's settled then,” declared Twilight. “Brace yourself, Loco – I'm gonna teleport you in. The rest is up to you.”

Locomotion barely had time to nod in reply before, with a bright flash, his surroundings suddenly changed, and he found himself standing on the opposite side of the fence. Having shaken the inevitable dizziness and regained his senses, he paused for a moment to consider his next move. The others watched him closely, Twilight and Hornette poised for their surprise attack.

Eventually, he settled on the first thing that came into his head, and yelled out at the top of his lungs; “GOOOOOOOD MORNING, BADLANDS!!!”

“That ought to do it,” murmured Pinkie Pie under her breath.

Sure enough, they heard a muffled thumping sound within the blockhouse, followed by the clomping of hooves as a lone changeling came charging out. As planned, Locomotion bolted towards the fence, stopping just a few inches short and turning slowly towards his assailant as if in terror.

“You!” yelled the changeling fiercely. “How did you get in...HEY!!” Suddenly, he was caught in a vice-like grip and thrown onto his back, writhing and struggling as Twilight teleported to stand with all four hooves pinning his legs down. “Get off of me, you disgusting pony!”

But Twilight wouldn't listen. Quickly, she teleported Hornette in after her before using her magic to block that of the changeling she had at her mercy. “Right, Hornette, now!” she ordered.

“Here goes,” murmured Hornette, lighting up her horn and surrounding the guard in her aura. But to her dismay, it didn't seem to have the desired effect; no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't erase the Brainwashing spell, and the older changeling continued to put up a fight.

Hornette looked to Twilight in a state of panic. “It's not working!”

“Try saying something!” barked Locomotion desperately.

“Well...what should I say?” asked Hornette.


Her horn still glowing, Hornette frantically cast her mind back to the first time she had broken the spell, trying to work out what she was doing wrong. Her anguished outburst echoed in her head, and that was when she hit upon a possible answer – all she needed to complete her own spell was to preach her views of conflict and vice. With that in mind, she took a deep breath to steady her nerves, and said, as much to herself as the changeling, “Calm yourself.”

Almost at once, the changeling stopped moving.

“The mare wishes no harm on you,” soothed Hornette, breathing a mental sigh of relief. “Our queen has been exploiting our entire species to satisfy her greed, and these ponies have come to help us regain our freedom. They want to help us restore order and peace to our kingdom – not just for themselves, but for all of us.” As she spoke, she noticed the anger in the older changeling's eyes fading rapidly. “But you must understand that trying to fight us will help no-one. Violence isn't the answer, no matter how big the problem. If we're to flourish, our only chance is to work together, even if it means working with an old enemy.”

She waited a few seconds more for good measure, until finally she allowed her magic to dissipate. As her aura faded, the changeling guard let out a groggy moan and gazed all around, wondering what had hit him. Instead of the same black and blue as Hornette, he was now a light brown in colour with silver eyes; and although he retained the holes in his legs, he no longer sported wings on his back. He flinched a little at the sight of Twilight standing over him, but was even more surprised when she smiled apologetically and backed away to let him stand up.

Locomotion came forward and eased the changeling into a sitting position. “You okay, mister?”

“Yeah...I think so,” muttered the changeling uneasily. “Who are you, anyway? What do you want with me?”

“We know the truth about you changelings,” explained Twilight gently. “Thorax told us everything – how peaceful your race was, how we were the real enemy...even how your queen has been Brainwashing you into doing her bidding.”

“Thorax?” The changeling blinked. “You know him?”

“Yes, Anton, they do.” Thorax had phased through the fence, and was now standing by Twilight's side. “They've been helping me organise a coup d'etat against Chrysalis; and Hornette here is our secret weapon,” he said, nodding towards the younger insectoid.

“You mean...”

“Yep – she was the one who brought you back to your old self. But if you want my advice,” finished Thorax gravely, “you'd best make yourself scarce for the time being – head across the border and pose as a pony until it's safe to return. If Chrysalis knows you helped us, she'll slay you.”

Anton nodded grimly in agreement. “How will I know when it's safe to come home?”

“We'll come and find you.”

“Alright, Thorax,” conceded Anton. “Good luck – and thanks.” Gingerly, he stood up and made his way to the fence, which he promptly cut through with his magic like a hot wire through butter. He said nothing to Pharynx and the remaining ponies, but simply smiled and nodded gratefully before galloping away up the mountain. With an appreciative nod of his own, Pharynx led the rest of the group through the breach.

Locomotion allowed himself a small smile as he watched Anton leave. “Wow,” he murmured, finally letting his awe bubble to the surface. “I can't believe that actually worked.” He turned to congratulate Hornette – but before he could say anything, the young changeling suddenly lunged at him, knocking him onto his side. “Whoa, hey...what the flabberwocky was that for?!” he spluttered. “I know I was being kinda reckless, but...”

Before he could finish, Hornette stood up again and interrupted in a frantic, muffled tone with something that sounded like, “Dirge a show-bin on yo' bag!”

“Um...come again?” Locomotion cocked his head, perplexed.

“There was a scorpion on your back,” Thorax clarified grimly. “It was about to sting you.”

“What?! Where's it gone now?” asked Locomotion, mildly spooked. Only then, as he looked to Hornette for an answer, did the realisation strike him... “YOU'VE EATEN IT?!” he shrieked in horror, trying to scramble to his hooves – only to let out another shriek as a shooting pain coursed through his left shoulder.

Hornette immediately swallowed her mouthful and scurried over to steady him. “Oh my gosh, Loco, you're hurt!” she cried as Twilight dashed over to see what was wrong.

“Never mind me, Hornette!” groaned Locomotion, clutching his shoulder. “Gag reflex – now!”


“You've just eaten a scorpion! They're poisonous!”

“Loco, for heaven's sakes, calm down!” interrupted Thorax. “We're immune to scorpion venom – it doesn't have any effect on us.”

“It...doesn't?” Locomotion stared in disbelief.

Thorax shrugged calmly. “Why do you think Hornette went straight ahead and gobbled it up? Sure, they're kinda sour, but that's all they are to us changelings – food.”

Locomotion rolled his eyes, relieved that Hornette was in no danger, but still a little annoyed. “Now he tells me,” he muttered, wincing in discomfort as he withdrew his hoof from his shoulder.

Twilight frowned anxiously as she examined his injury. “MEDIC! MEDIC!” she shouted to Fluttershy, who hastily glided over and began unpacking the first-aid kit she had brought along.

“How bad...” began Hornette, but promptly broke off when she saw the wound for herself. Locomotion was bleeding from a gash in his shoulder; it wasn't very deep, but judging by the amount of blood that had just come off on his hoof, it was still a nasty cut. Overcome with guilt and shock, the young changeling sat down and gripped her temples. “Oh, no! I can't believe I just did that!” she wailed hysterically.

“What's the matter, darling?” asked Rarity gently.

“This is my fault!” faltered Hornette. “I only meant to eat that scorpion before it stung Loco, and now look what's happened!”

Rarity wrapped an arm around Hornette's withers. “There, there, darling,” she counselled. “It's alright. You didn't mean any harm. Loco will live.”

“Yeah, look at it this way, Hornette,” added Locomotion wryly, grunting in pain as he lay himself down prone for Fluttershy to begin treating him, “if you hadn't gone and scratched me with your fangs, I might've been killed. least now I won't need any punishment for my assault on Pharynx.”

“Alright, Loco, that'll do,” chided Fluttershy with a small smile. “We've already told you, you don't need to beat yourself up about it – any more than you, Hornette, need to beat yourself up about hurting his shoulder.” She reached into her saddlebag and pulled out an antiseptic wipe. “Now you hold still, Loco – this might sting a little.”

Hornette only frowned self-consciously. “I'm really sorry, Loco.”

“Don't be,” soothed Locomotion. “Just be glad I'm still...ow...alive.” He winced again as Fluttershy began wiping his wound clean. “Aw, that smarts...”

It didn't take very long for Fluttershy to clean and dress the cut on Locomotion's shoulder, but the journey across the desert seemed to take ages; and because it was so hot, they had to stop several times to refresh themselves. By the time they were within reach of the main hive, darkness had begun to fall, and their water supplies were just over half-empty; but mercifully – and perhaps a little worryingly – they hadn't encountered a single enemy changeling since breaking through the border fence. Better still, the heat of the day was slowly subsiding with the setting of the sun.

From behind a nearby rock, Pharynx stared grimly at the jagged palace ahead. “Well, everyone,” he murmured, “this is it – the one place least known about, and yet most feared, by ponykind.”

“Yeah, and the one place I hoped I'd never see again,” added Hornette quietly.

Locomotion, his brow furrowed, nodded in agreement. “Well, you got out of there okay; but now we've gotta work out how we're gonna get in.”

“Well, what are their defences like?” said Rainbow Dash to Thorax. “If I could just storm the place and take out the guards...”

“...then you'd be caught in an instant,” interrupted Thorax firmly. “That place is absolutely swarming with changelings – even those not enlisted as soldiers won't let you run free. Our only chance is to give them the element of surprise.”

“Um...hate to burst your bubble, Thorax,” put in Pinkie Pie, “but the only Elements we have are Laughter, Kindness, Honesty...”

“Yes, funny!” grunted Pharynx sarcastically. “Getting back on topic...”

“Though, now you come to mention it, Dashie knows a mare named Surprise in the Wonderbolts!”

Pharynx sighed with exasperation. “Anything useful to contribute?!”

Twilight nudged his shoulder and whispered into his ear; “Pharynx, it's Pinkie. Just pretend you understand, and move on.”

Pharynx muttered something incoherent before resuming his train of thought. “Right, getting back on topic – obviously, Thorax, Hornette and myself are all changelings, so we'll be able to disguise ourselves...”

“I can't.”

“What do you mean you can't?” objected Pharynx, looking incredulously at Hornette.

“I never took it on myself to learn the art of metamorphosis,” confessed Hornette ruefully. “I can turn invisible, but I can't impersonate other species.”

“And you tell us now?!” exclaimed Pharynx in dismay.

“Well...hold on, Pharynx,” cut in Fluttershy, “maybe Twilight can do the transformation for her. She turned us all into breezies once to help some of them back to their home – maybe she can use the same spell to disguise us as changelings ourselves.”

Twilight frowned and shook her head. “Sorry, Fluttershy – I'm afraid the spell didn't include a formula for changelings.”

“Well...maybe you could just teleport us into there,” suggested Pinkie Pie helpfully.

“Again, no good. I can't teleport more than five ponies with me at a time; and I'm not sure I can make two trips without something bad happening while I'm gone.”

“Yeah, and I'm no good at teleportation either,” added Thorax gravely.

“Nor am I.” Pharynx sighed heavily, kicking a small mound of sand in his frustration. “So now we're back to square one. Anyone else got any ideas?” he asked wearily.

There was a long, tense silence as the group tried to think.

“No sensible ones,” admitted Rarity after a while.

“Well...what about stupid ones?” persisted Thorax. “We might be able to work something out from there – you never know.”

At last, Locomotion spoke up; “Well...I think I might have one. It's kinda primitive – crazy, even – but carefully orchestrated, it might just work.”

Thorax's ears perked up. “Go on.”

“First off, Thorax,” asked Locomotion, “how well do you and Pharynx know the hive?”

“I should think we'd be able to navigate every single corridor with our eyes closed,” replied Pharynx with a light shrug.

“Good – so can you map it out for me?”

“Sure.” Thorax turned around and started sketching out a diagram of the area with his hoof, while all the others gathered round. “So we're here, right – the hive is to the south of us, and the mountain range we just crossed encircles the whole of our territory.”


“We've got one each situated north, south, east, west and twelve other points of the compass around the hive.”

“And where would we be most likely to find Chrysalis at this hour?”

“Easy – throne room, right smack in the middle of the hive.” Thorax drew a cross in the middle of the circle he had drawn.
Locomotion nodded, his lips curling into a small smile as his plan began to take shape. “And the dungeons?”

“What?!” Pharynx shot him a horrified double-take. “Loco, you're not seriously...”

“Just hear me out!” insisted Locomotion firmly.

“Dungeons...hmm...” Thorax paused. “...I'd say about five to ten minutes east of the throne room.”

“Great! Okay, guys, now here's the plan – Twilight, if you can use a tracking spell on me, Thorax, Pharynx and Hornette, then you and the other Bearers of Harmony can keep tabs on us from back here, while we form a fifth column to take out the opposition,” explained Locomotion hurriedly. “As soon as we're within spitting distance of the throne room, or in the...quite likely event that we hit trouble, that's when we need you to teleport into the hive and back us up; but only when we've entered the throne room shall Hornette work her magic. It's not exactly foolproof, but I reckon it's our best bet.”

“So do I,” agreed Thorax.

“Sounds like a plan to me,” chipped in Rainbow Dash gamely.

Locomotion looked across to Twilight expectantly. “Well, Twilight? What do you reckon?”

Twilight paused for a while to mull over his plan. Eventually, she nodded gravely and said, “ could be right there, Loco. I just hope you know what you're doing.”

“Don't worry, Twilight,” said Locomotion bravely. “As long as we've got Thorax and Pharynx as our allies, hopefully – emphasis on 'hopefully' – we should be able to bluff our way in with ease...”

Chapter 28: The Power of Two

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The two guards standing outside the north entrance stared almost vacantly into the distance. They knew the importance of their posts, but were already growing bored and eager for action. As if on cue, the sounds of shouting and pathetic whimpering broke the monotony as two changelings approached, dragging another changeling and a young unicorn with them on a length of rope.

One of the guards stepped forth smartly and addressed the larger of the two captors. “CH001MD38964587233 – report,” he intoned.

“Two prisoners, Corporal,” came the reply. “We found them near the border – the pony was trying to escape, and the filly was trying to help him.”

“Please don't hurt him,” wailed Hornette plaintively. “He was just lost; he didn't mean...”

“BE QUIET, CRAWLER!!” snapped the larger changeling.

“Speak for yourself, you bug-eyed creep!” railed Locomotion.

“And you can shut up too, you filthy horse! You trespassed into our territory; therefore, you are now our slave!” The smaller of their captors turned his attention back to the guards. “We have space for them in the dungeons?”

“Plenty,” affirmed the one to his right. “Go right on in, Captain,” and he stepped deftly to one side, saluting as the two changelings dragged their struggling prey into the hive. Several other changelings hissed hungrily at them as they went by; but the captors paid little attention.

Eventually, they began to descend a flight of steps that led into an underground chamber. As soon as they reached halfway, the larger changeling checked over his shoulder to make sure they weren't being watched. “It's alright, you two,” he whispered to his “captives”, “you can drop the act now.”

Locomotion relaxed a little. “For the time being, at least,” he murmured. “You think we've fooled them?”

“Looks like it,” replied Thorax quietly. “Let's just hope we can keep this up until the exact second – one false move, and we'll really be in trouble.”

Hornette gazed down the steps, frowning anxiously. “I just hope they can forgive us for what we're about to do to them,” she added.

“Yeah, you and me both,” murmured Locomotion grimly. Deep down, he was feeling horribly nervous – all the occupational hazards of working on a steam engine were nothing to him, but he was now stepping a long way out of his comfort zone, surrounded by an entire race of savage succubi, and in constant danger of suffering a fate far worse than death. But there was no turning back now. Once they reached the dungeons, they would have to act swiftly, or all would be lost.

All too soon, they arrived at a labyrinth of dark, gloomy caves, each one sealed off from the main cavern by trellised iron doors. Despite being many in number, only two or three contained prisoners, all of them changelings; while another changeling, more jagged than the rest, stood outside with a bored look on his face. He looked up as Thorax and Pharynx approached, still in their disguises and dragging Hornette and Locomotion towards him. “The prisoners you promised me?” he asked bluntly.

“Correct,” replied Pharynx. “You might want to see to the changeling first – she was putting up more of a struggle than that pathetic little pony.”

The gaoler nodded, and began untying the rope from Hornette's barrel. Hornette sighed in a despairing manner and looked at Locomotion; “Well...I guess this is the end – for both of us,” she lamented. “I'm so sorry, Loco.”

“It was my own fault,” said Locomotion in an unhappy tone. “If I'd stayed on my side of the fence, neither of us would be in this mess.” He looked back at the gaoler, who had finished untying her and was now about to do the same with him. Any second now... “Still,” he added, “it was nice knowing you, Hornette.” He waited until the rope was almost undone, silently counting down as he did so. Three – two – ONE! With a sudden jerk, he raised his hind legs and gave a powerful kick, bucking the unsuspecting changeling squarely in the stomach. The gaoler, taken completely by surprise, doubled over in agony.

NOW!!” yelled Locomotion at the top of his voice. Pharynx responded with a will, slugging the gaoler round the back of his head and flinging him into the one cell currently open. An agitated shout caught their attention as two more gaolers came running down to see what was wrong – only to be caught in Thorax and Pharynx's auras and thrown into the same cell, knocking them out cold just as they had done with the first one. With a resounding clang, Locomotion slammed the door shut behind them, while the two brothers quickly reverted to their natural forms.

Hornette winced as she watched the whole scuffle. “Ouch,” she murmured delicately. “That's sure to leave a bruise.”

“Rather them than us,” observed Locomotion tersely.

“They'll recover,” put in Thorax. “Anyway, no time to bother with them – we've got to get out of here before the guards catch us!” and he galloped back towards the stairway with Locomotion, Pharynx and Hornette hot on his tail. He reached the top to find the hallways still empty, and still running as hard as he could, he turned sharply right while turning his attention back to his comrades. “This way, Loco!” he shouted. “It's the fastest way to the throne room!”

“Right behind you, Thorax!” called Locomotion gamely. But in his haste, he failed to notice a fourth changeling looking on in shock from another hallway...

Chrysalis watched with mounting frustration as the sun slowly dipped behind the mountains. The Covert Retrieval Forces platoon she had sent after the Crawler still hadn't made contact with the hive, and she was rapidly losing patience. At last, she turned around with an angry stomp of her right hoof; “That's it!” she growled. “They've had their chance – now their time is up!” She turned towards the throne room doors; but before she could call out for a messenger, the doors were suddenly flung open, and a guard came running up to her.

“Your Majesty,” he cried frantically, “there's been a jailbreak! Three dissidents and one pony have escaped the dungeons!”

“WHAT?!?” Chrysalis' eyes bulged with fury and alarm. “Well, don't just stand there! Send out every guard we've got! I want that pony captured and the Crawlers eliminated – and I want it done now!!!”

“Yes, Your Majesty!” The guard, still in a frenzy, galloped swiftly away to summon the troops.

Thorax and his raiders had barely made it halfway to the throne room when, further down the hallway, they heard the thumping of hooves and the buzzing of wings rapidly approaching.

“Oh, D-rat,” groaned Locomotion, “sounds like the guards are out to get us!”

But Thorax and Pharynx were more than ready for them. “Evasive action!” they both shouted, and turned towards what appeared to be a blank wall – which promptly morphed itself into an entrance to another thoroughfare! Locomotion was so taken aback that he almost ran straight past it, and it was lucky for him that Hornette had the presence of mind to pull him inside with her magic, sealing the portal behind him. She was only just in time; the next thing they knew, there was a loud rumbling sound from the other side as a whole company of changelings stampeded past.

“ the flabberwocky did you do that?!” exclaimed Locomotion, barely managing to keep his voice down.

“Changeling hive, remember?” answered Pharynx plainly. “It's got the same metamorphic qualities as its inhabitants.”

“And just as well,” added Thorax. “One second too late, and they'd be right on our tails whichever route we took. We'd better stick to these alleyways for now.”

“And if they should second-guess us...?” asked Hornette anxiously.

Thorax furrowed his brow. “Then we'll just have to fight for our lives and hope Twilight realises what's going on,” he replied.

With that, the four fifth columnists charged onwards along the narrow hidden passages. Mercifully, they didn't encounter a single enemy until they emerged into the main hallways again; but when they did, they found themselves surrounded by three changeling battalions, each coming at them from a different corridor.

Hornette went grey in the face with alarm. “They've got us cornered!” she cried. “What are we gonna do?!”

“We're out of options!” said Pharynx decisively. “Prepare to fight back!”

“But...what about the spell...?”

“No time!” shouted Locomotion, lighting up his horn at the ready. “It's either shoot or get shot – and I'm not about to let them kill us!”

“Neither am I!” agreed Thorax grimly, and began firing bolt after bolt of magic at their attackers. Pharynx and Locomotion did the same, knocking the front ranks off their hooves like bowling pins; but it wasn't enough to drive the soldiers back in whole units, and eventually they were forced to engage them in close combat. Even Hornette, knowing her cloaking spell would be useless with so many enemy changelings in plain sight, had no choice but to duck and dodge their every strike, magical or physical.

But even as they fought back with all their strength and ability, the raiders knew that, without the Bearers of Harmony to help them, they were fighting a losing battle. No matter how many changelings they took out, more always came, some trying to confuse their victims by impersonating them. Incredibly, this only seemed to work against them; for not only were Thorax and Pharynx ahead of the game, but with so little coordination, the imposters only succeeded in fooling some of their comrades, and barely had time to pounce before being struck down, no matter which side dealt the blow. Even so, they were slowly beginning to overwhelm their prey; and before Locomotion knew it, one of them had grabbed him by the throat and pinned him against the wall. The red-furred stallion thrashed helplessly as the changeling strangled him, his lungs burning like mad and screaming out for oxygen.

Hornette saw what was going on, and lunged desperately at Locomotion's assailant. “STOP IT! YOU'RE HURTING HIM!!” she screamed, and without thinking, she bit down hard on his arm. The changeling jerked back, howling in pain – only to let out another yell as Locomotion knocked him out with a powerful uppercut.

Still gasping for breath, the red unicorn leaned heavily against the wall to regain his strength. “Nice one, Hornette,” he panted.

Hornette only cringed in reply; but her shame was suddenly swept aside by a shriek of blue murder. Both she and Locomotion only just had time to jump aside as Pharynx was knocked back by an enemy blast. His chest was badly scorched, and his right eye was sporting an ugly shiner. “Loco...Hornette...” he groaned, barely conscious, “...I'm sorry...I did try...”

“Pharynx!” cried Locomotion despairingly. He looked up at the other changelings – and then at Thorax, who was slowly being driven back towards them. “Thorax, get us out of here!”

“I can't! We're too far away from the nearest passage!” By now, even Thorax was beginning to lose hope. With Locomotion flanking him, he stood protectively over Hornette and his brother and waited for the end. “We're doomed!” he muttered under his breath...

But just when it looked like it was all over, there was a sudden flash of magic as Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Rarity, Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy all materialised in front of them. All bore their respective Elements of Harmony, which Twilight had magically summoned from their tree, and all were aglow with the brilliant colours that made up their Rainbow Power forms. The militant changelings, briefly caught off-guard, were powerless to defend themselves as the six mares fought them back; and in the nick of time, all three battalions were lying scattered along the corridor, bruised and weakened.

Thorax heaved a huge sigh of relief. “Brilliant timing, Twilight,” he remarked. “I thought we were all for the chop then.”

“Don't mention it,” smiled Twilight wryly. “Everyone alright?”

“I'm okay, Twilight...but Pharynx...” Hornette gazed with angst at the badly beaten changeling stallion.

Pharynx groaned and looked up at Twilight. “G-go on without me,” he wheezed. “You're wasting time!”

“He'll be alright,” said Twilight thankfully; but cast a forcefield around him anyway so as to protect him against any further attacks. “Let's get going! We're almost there!” And with the other Bearers of Harmony by her side, and Locomotion, Thorax and Hornette close behind, she swooped through the hallway for the final charge towards the throne room.

As they were doing so, the one guard who had managed to escape unharmed was telling Chrysalis what had just happened. Chrysalis' eyes bulged with horror and outrage. Half her Royal Guard wiped out by a mere seven ponies and two changelings?! This couldn't be happening!

“IMBECILES!!” she thundered at the top of her lungs. “STOP THEM!!!”

But before the soldier could comply, the doors were flung wide open as the Bearers of Harmony burst into the throne room. “Too late, Chrysalis!” shouted Rainbow Dash aggressively.

Chrysalis leered contemptuously at the six mares, giving Twilight a particularly poisonous sneer. “You!!” she spat. “I might have known the despicable Elements of Harmony were behind this!”

“We sure are, Chrysalis,” affirmed Twilight coldly, her own hatred of the deceitful royal changeling rapidly rekindling itself as she stared her down. “You've threatened Equestria for far too long – and we're gonna make sure you never do so again!”

“We'll see about that! Guards, seize them!” Chrysalis went straight for Twilight, engaging her in a violent magical shoot-out while the guards took on the other five mares – but their combat skills were useless against the Powers of Harmony. Every magical laser beam only seemed to dissipate the moment it struck home; and even when they tried casting cocoons around the six ponies, their slime could never form into a hard shell, and broke apart with ease. Within minutes, only Chrysalis was left standing, and yell and curse as she might, none of the other changelings had the strength to fight back anymore.

Twilight glared grimly at her as her fellow Friendship Councillors returned to her side. “Alright, Chrysalis,” she snarled, “it's just you and me...and the Elements of Harmony!”

“You and what army?!” jeered Chrysalis. “I have you at my mercy, Sparkle! There's not a single creature who can save you now!”

“Better check your crystal ball again, Princess Chrysalis!” growled another voice.

Chrysalis looked around, enraged. “Who dares to belittle the Queen of the Changelings?!” she demanded – but froze when she saw a familiar and much-hated figure standing in the doorway.

“I do, Chrysalis!” Thorax snapped back. “After what you did to my father, I'd never respect you even if you were half the queen Nymphia was!”

“I'm TEN times the queen Nymphia was, you traitorous worm! And you – I should've eliminated you the moment you first came back!” Chrysalis' horn glowed ominously, but before she could do anything else...

“I'm afraid you can't do that, Chrysalis,” interrupted another voice, much higher in pitch. “We never had the chance to crown you; therefore – realistically – you have no power over us.” A younger changeling stepped into the room in a manner that seemed brave and tentative both at the same time. She glared disapprovingly at Chrysalis, like a little filly upon her badly behaved older sibling; and behind her, with his left shoulder wrapped in gauze, limped a teenaged red unicorn stallion.

Chrysalis' offended scowl changed to a broad, evil smirk. “So,” she gloated, “our fugitive friend finally returns – and with her precious little pet pony too! What's the case – come to plead for mercy?”

“No, Chrysalis,” replied Hornette with a firmness that almost seemed to flabbergast her. She had expected to be absolutely petrified by meeting her own queen face to face; but now, incredibly, all the fear she felt served only to reinforce her sense of justice and steel her resolve. Perhaps it was because she had so many allies at her side – perhaps it was to do with the revelation that her “queen” never actually was. “We're here to ask you to repent.”

“We know what you've been doing to all those other changelings under your rule,” added Locomotion sharply. “Deceiving them – exploiting them – Brainwashing them into carrying out your bidding! You had us believing that a gentle, peaceful race was actually a bunch of barbarians, yet the only real villain among this lot is their ruler – the very changeling who MURDERED HER SISTER AND WRESTED HER CROWN!!!”

Chrysalis hissed with rage. “LIES!!” she thundered.

“It's the truth, Chrysalis, and you know it!” snarled Thorax. “Don't think I didn't see what you were playing at with that dark magic of yours! You planned Nymphia's assassination; you sent my father out to a battle he couldn't possibly win – and on top of that, you make us steal other creatures' love just so you can hog it all for yourself! You've no right to treat us like this!”

“I don't take moral lectures from a Crawler! These are my subjects, and I decide...”

You're the only crawler around here, Chrysalis!” interrupted Locomotion fiercely. “And those other changelings are not your 'subjects'; they are your slaves! You don't even give them the choice to lead their own lives, you ungrateful savage! All you care about is manipulating them to satisfy your greed, your vanity and your lust for all the power and love on this planet! You're nothing but a menace to us all, even your own people!”

“SILENCE!!!” screamed Chrysalis aggressively.

“JUSTICE!!!” yelled Locomotion defiantly.

Chrysalis' eyes bulged with immeasurable rage. “RIGHT! I'VE HAD ENOUGH OF YOU!!! YOU'VE OFFENDED THE CROWN ONCE TOO OFTEN, YOU INSOLENT...”

“YOU'VE NO ROOM TO TALK!!” Thorax shot back with righteous anger. “THAT CROWN BELONGED TO NYMPHIA, NOT YOU!!!”

“NYMPHIA ISN'T HERE ANYMORE!!” hollered Chrysalis. “I AM YOUR QUEEN, AND I WILL DO WITH YOU AS I WISH!!” Her horn began to glow menacingly. “Any last words?!”

Hornette saw her chance. “Actually, Chrysalis – yes, I do have...more than a few things to say,” she said as calmly as she could. “If I could have about...ten minutes or so in which to say them?”

Five – that's all you have, CH001FD...”

“And you can shut up with that stupid ID number too!” snapped Locomotion, trembling with rage and adrenaline. “No-one puts Hornette down on my watch, not even the highest authority!”

“I'll deal with you later, foolish pony!” scowled Chrysalis rudely, and turned back to Hornette. “Speak now, 'Hornette', before I eliminate you myself.”

“As you wish.” Hornette took a deep breath, and setting her horn aglow, she began the speech she had been preparing in her mind. “Our kind have been the victims of many misunderstandings, ever since the dawn of time. Other species have viewed us as...savages – monsters – creatures to be feared rather than loved. They judged us by our appearances alone, and even attacked us because we were so...well, 'different'...and drove us into a life of isolation and subterfuge.”

As she spoke, her aura began to wrap itself around her and Locomotion, lifting them into the air like angels. The power of his love boosted the spell she was casting, and sent her magic radiating outwards like ripples on the surface of a pond, washing over all the other changelings in the hive and beyond. Chrysalis, suspicious of her motives, tried to block it; but some strange, unknown force seemed to be holding her back. All she could do was look on, mesmerised, as the Elements of Harmony empowered the spell still further.

All over the world, all changelings everywhere were swiftly overtaken by Hornette's magic. Brainwashed or otherwise, they found themselves drifting into a dreamlike state as her words echoed softly in their heads, instilling them with an almost forgotten sense of conscience, self-esteem...and compassion. As with Thorax, Pharynx and Anton before them, their bodies graduated into a huge variety of shapes and colour schemes as the spell took effect. Some lost the holes in their legs and wings; others regained a more reptilian eye pattern and a variety of other insect-like features; and while a few stayed in black, many of them evolved into a vast spectrum of hues.

“We led a harsh and precarious existence, entombed in our own homeland,” continued Hornette, “but that was no reason for us to go to war with the likes of Equestria and other nations. All that did for us was justify their misgivings against us, and solidify our reputation as nothing more than a breed of barbarians. When I first ran away, I didn't expect to be treated any differently, should I be caught...” She let out a soft sigh, her eyes glazing over at the heart-warming memory. “...and then I met Locomotion. Not only did he...unknowingly save my life, but he took pity on me. He looked after me, nursed me back to full health, and went out of his way to show that even we changelings can be kind, gentle, loving, warm-hearted creatures. But more than that – he helped me realise that there is good in every species, no matter what we may have been to each other.”

Time's up, Crawler, thought Chrysalis; but she couldn't say it out loud. Whatever magic Hornette was casting, it was far too strong even for her.

“Ever since I was born, I, like other young changelings, had dreamed of a Promised Land where all creatures could be treated as equals – where even changelings could roam free, and have all the love we need. Now, after spending time with Loco and his friends, and the Bearers of Harmony...I realise there is no one Promised Land. There are many nations out there where we can go to live, but only as long as we share the land instead of taking it over by force. Crown Princess Nymphia had vowed to do just that – to help us make friends rather than enemies; to help them understand us; to help our entire race live in harmony with others, all around the world. By following her philosophy...and mine...I've won myself a great many more friends and allies than I could possibly have dreamed of. We can all do the same, Chrysalis – but to do that, we should learn to coexist with our neighbours instead of dominating them, and share the love between ourselves. We don't have to be monsters like the Equestria of centuries past believe we were,” finished Hornette meaningfully. “As Loco very rightly said, 'we are who we choose to be'; and we can still choose to be good, peaceful and altruistic...just like we used to be.”

As she uttered those final words, her magic slowly began to fade, lowering her and Locomotion back to the floor. The Elements of Harmony, their purpose fulfilled for the time being, also dimmed down, allowing their bearers to revert to their natural colours. Thorax, for his part, was so moved by Hornette's speech that he forgot to be angry with Chrysalis; and as she touched down, he beamed softly upon the younger changeling. Beautifully phrased, Hornette, he thought warmly. I'm proud of you.

“Why, Hornette,” breathed Chrysalis, “that was, quite simply, the most scintillating, most incredible...”

Hornette and Locomotion blinked in disbelief at the cordial tone of her voice. Had Hornette's spell really been powerful enough to change Chrysalis' views as well, they wondered?


Evidently not! Their hearts squeezed with dread at Chrysalis' death-glare, and Locomotion's defensive scowl returned.

“There you go again!” bellowed Thorax, raising his voice for the whole hive to hear. “Trying to pass yourself off as our queen when you clearly CHEATED YOUR WAY INTO POWER!! WHAT KIND OF A QUEEN MURDERS HER ELDER SISTER, BRAINWASHES ALL HER SUBJECTS AND SENDS THEM OUT TO PLUNDER THE ENTIRE WORLD JUST BECAUSE SHE FEELS LIKE IT?!” He leered ominously at Chrysalis, his hatred for her returning with a vengeance. “Face it, Chrysalis,” he finished in a low, threatening tone, “your only choice is to either stop this madness and make peace with Equestria...or lose all the power you snatched from under your sister's nose!”

“HA!!” jeered Chrysalis. “I'll die before any of that happens – and so will you, you maggots! Guards – eliminate these Crawlers and be done with them!”

But although the guards had managed to regain their senses and get back on their hooves, none of them moved.
Chrysalis shot their commanding officer a death-glare. “I SAID, ELIMINATE THEM!!!” she roared.

She was even further infuriated when the guard immediately spoke back – and not in the submissive tone of the other changelings. “Your Highness,” he stated bluntly, “as much as I'd hate to appear anything other than faithful to our royalty, none of us would wish to condone capital punishment, no matter how serious the crime.”

“I don't care about your wishes!” growled Chrysalis. “You will obey my commands or suffer the consequences! IS THAT CLEAR?!”

“I'm sorry, Princess Chrysalis,” replied the guard firmly, “but I will not take an innocent changeling's life just because of her morals.”

“I'LL GIVE YOU MORALS!!! AND DON'T YOU DARE DENOUNCE YOUR QUEEN AS A MERE PRINCESS!!!” Chrysalis' horn glowed intensely as she recast her Brainwashing spell on the insolent guard. “NOW ELIMINATE THOSE CRAWLERS, OR I'LL HAVE YOU KILLED TOO!”

But to her chagrin, the guard didn't seem to have been affected. “Fine words, coming from someone who's just been found guilty of using mind magic!” he countered. “That in itself is an act of high treason!”

“WHAT?!” Chrysalis' eyes popped in utter shock. There was no way this could be happening. “YOU DARE TO TALK BACK TO ME?! WHY WON'T YOU OBEY YOUR QUEEN'S COMMANDS?!”

“It's no good, Chrysalis!” said Twilight triumphantly. “That spell of Hornette's didn't just wipe out your Brainwashing spell; it's preventing you from casting it on any of those changelings ever again!”

“And as long as they know the truth, they'll never obey a single one of your commands either, regardless of your standing in the hive!” Thorax's eyes narrowed. “It's over, Chrysalis – your reign and the fight!”

“Maybe,” snarled Chrysalis, her horn glowing so fiercely it almost looked ready to explode as she pointed it straight towards Hornette, “but if even if I have lost, your precious little Crawler will be the first to die!”

Chapter 29: The Point of No Return

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Neither Locomotion nor Thorax had time to think. With Hornette barely a fraction of a second from eternity, they only just had time to leap in front of her and cast a protective forcefield before Chrysalis fired a deadly burst of magic from her horn. Miraculously, the powerful death ray rebounded straight off their shield and exploded harmlessly against the back wall, just missing Chrysalis.

The guards, horrified by the actions of their self-proclaimed “queen”, charged straight towards the berserk changeling, trying to restrain her before she tried to attack again; but Chrysalis lashed out with a forcefield of her own and sent them flying in all directions. “YOU SPINELESS WORMS!!!” she screamed at the top of her voice. “THINKING YOU CAN DEFEAT ME, THE MOST POWERFUL CHANGELING ALIVE?!”

“Don't be a fool, Chrysalis!!” bellowed Twilight. “We've already defeated you – even your own followers have turned against you now! Give yourself up before we take you down by force!”


Thorax gritted his teeth with ever-increasing fury. That no-good Chrysalis had crossed him once too often by trying to kill Hornette in front of him, and he wasn't about to take it lying down. “You evil black widow!” he hissed fiercely. “Alright then – if you won't surrender, then it's time I did what I should have done – SIXTEEN YEARS AGO!!!!” With a blinding flash of magic, five times his own size, he morphed himself into a full-grown dragon, and lunged straight towards the mad queen.

Crazed with willpower, Chrysalis took on a similar form and began to fight back. The seven ponies, along with Hornette and all the other changelings in the room, could only watch on in fear as the two royals clawed and swiped at each other, their eyes blazing with anger and hatred for one another, and fire billowing from their mouths. It seemed to go on for eternity, and with no way of telling who would come out on top. Even Locomotion, for all the fury he felt for Chrysalis himself, was silently grateful not to have to take part in such a gruesome showdown. He was in enough pain as it was from being seized up with terror, his mind and body locked in a battle of their own; one trying to hold him back, while the other was trying to rush forward and prise that maniac away from Thorax.

He soon found himself wishing that someone would, for Thorax seemed to be taking even more damage than Chrysalis. With an almighty lash of her tail, she sent him crashing down to the floor, knocking the wind out of his lungs and causing him to morph back into his natural form. Wincing in agony and gasping for breath, he struggled to stand up again, his legs trembling weakly.

Chrysalis cackled with malevolent triumph as she too transformed back to normal. “HA HA!!” she bellowed. “NOW I'LL SHOW YOU, THORAX! DEATH TO ALL THOSE WHO OPPOSE ME!!” Her horn began to glow again, ready to fire another death ray at her helpless opponent.

NO!!!” screamed Hornette frantically. In desperation, she magically grabbed the nearest thing she could find and hurled it towards Chrysalis, no longer caring if she hurt her – she had to save Thorax somehow. The stone urn flew straight towards Chrysalis' face, leaving her no time to duck before it collided with her horn, shattering it on impact and causing her magic to explode all around the room. The ensuing shock wave was so powerful that it reverberated throughout the hive.

Chrysalis grimaced at her through the pain in what was left of her horn. “You little minx!” she growled. “I'll make you suffer for...” but before she could finish, a huge chunk of rock fell from the ceiling and landed with a thud in front of her.

Locomotion flinched in alarm. “What the flabberwocky was that?!” he yelped.

Applejack looked up, and was even more horrified by what she saw. “The roof!” she cried. “The whole hive's breakin' up! We gotta get outta here, fast!!”

“We're not going anywhere, pony!” spat Chrysalis. “I'll hold up the whole world if I have to – and when I...” but she never finished. As she spoke, she tried to light up her horn and hold the ceiling together with her magic – but was shocked to find that it wouldn't respond. It just fizzled like a faulty electrical cable. She glared furiously at Hornette, her eyes popping. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!!”

Thorax, still wondering why he wasn't dead yet, looked up at the ceiling. Sure enough, he could see several webs of cracks forming in the hive's structure as it began to crumble apart. Without a moment's hesitation, he heaved himself onto his hooves and began to bark orders; “Guards! Guards! Evacuate the hive! She's gonna collapse any moment!”

“Oh no you don't!” Chrysalis, somehow failing to realise the gravity of the situation, tried to reassert her authority as the guards sprang back into action. “Stay where you are in the name of the queen!”

“No way!” objected one of the guards anxiously. “I'm not staying here even in the name of my own mother!”



But Chrysalis was too far gone to listen. She remained standing on her throne, screaming and hollering in vain for the guards to obey her commands, even after the last of them had abandoned her to her fate. More rubble began to rain down from the ceiling, much of it crashing down on the statues of her likeness and crumbling them to shards.

Hornette, Thorax and Locomotion were the last to leave the throne room – but just as Locomotion had crossed the threshold, he suddenly heard Chrysalis scream again in pain and anguish. Looking back, he could see that the throne and its pedestal had been smashed, and Chrysalis herself was pinned down under a particularly large chunk of rock, unable to move. His first thought was to just run like he had never run before; but then he was inexplicably gripped by a feeling of injustice as he flashed back to his first meeting with Hornette – how battered, weakened and helpless she had been, and how it made his heart bleed seeing her flinch away from him. Now Chrysalis was in a similar situation, and he was about to abandon her in cold blood...but no! He couldn't do that. That insane potentate may have been his and Hornette's greatest enemy, but there was no way he was going to stoop to her level and leave her for dead. He just had to save her!

Without another moment's thought, he belted straight back towards her. “Chrysalis!” he shouted bravely. “Hang on!” and he began to scramble up the pile of debris that remained of the throne. He had barely climbed a few hooves, however, when he felt something grab his hind leg. “Hey, what the...?! Let go of me!!”

Chrysalis glowered at him, her right hoof gripping his leg like a vice, her teeth bared with unbridled resentment as she tried to drag him back down. “You meddlesome little brat!!” she snarled. “I'll tear you to pieces for this!”

“GET A GRIP OF YOURSELF, CHRYSALIS!!” yelled Locomotion, kicking her squarely in the face and making her lose grip. “You're in danger! That rubble could crush you to death! Now shut up and let me help you!!” With a concerted effort, he heaved his way up to the top of the heap and began using his forcefield spell to shield himself and Chrysalis against the falling rubble. The deluge seemed to go on for ages on end, hurling loose rock onto them like an avalanche, and the red unicorn soon found himself straining to keep his forcefield together. Chrysalis, still ignorant of the danger, continued to curse and swear at him in a blind rage, but Locomotion paid her little heed. One little lapse of concentration could spell disaster for them both.

But already, it seemed disaster was all but inevitable. The forcefield spell was taking its toll on Locomotion, and he soon began to feel a dizzy spinning sensation, as if a whirlpool had formed inside his head. His magic faltered, and his legs began to wobble with exertion. He shook his head violently; “No!!” he half-groaned, half-shouted, trying to will himself awake. “Can't...give!”

Gingerly, he turned his head up towards the ceiling. His vision was beginning to blur as well, but he could just make out a gaping hole above, and the night sky peeking through it. If he could only keep the spell up a little longer...

“Why do you fight it, Locomotion? There's nothing more you can do.” Was this for real? Or was this just a side effect of his delirium? He didn't know – all he did know was that a soft, regal voice seemed to be calling out to him. “You must save yourself,” said the voice. “Chrysalis is beyond hope – even if you do save her, which you won't, she will only continue to terrorise your kind and ours.”

“No...must...try!” wheezed Locomotion, panting with exertion. “Can't...let her...perish!”

“Your bravery is commendable,” continued the voice gravely, “but you're far too forgiving for your own good. There can be no salvation for Queen Chrysalis the Ruthless. As for you...I pray that you can find it in your heart to forgive me for this.”

Locomotion didn't have time to wonder what the voice meant before another shard of rock, bigger than the rest, came crashing down to bludgeon the back of his head. If it hadn't been for his forcefield, the rock could easily have killed him; but as it was, it sent an immense pain through his entire frame. With a grunt of agony, he lost his balance and tumbled down the mound, bumping his forehead on a particularly rough patch before coming to rest halfway down.

With his magic extinguished, there was nothing left to shield Chrysalis against the falling rocks. The offending chunk of wreckage landed with a thump in front of her face, making her screech in alarm as the full weight of her situation finally hit home – and hit hard. She was even more horrified by what she saw in the rock, one of several carved in the likeness of changeling rulers of old. This particular one had been shaped to resemble the very first queen of their species – but to Chrysalis, it looked very much like the face of Nymphia, smirking with malevolent glee at the deranged changeling's peril.

“I warned you this day would come, Chrysalis,” it seemed to say. “You have been guilty of hubris, greed, vanity and vice – but no more. You refused to repent, and now you will bear the judgement of the true Queen of the Changelings.”

“NO!!” screamed Chrysalis desperately.

“Yes! Your time has come, Chrysalis, and vengeance will finally be mine!”

Chrysalis looked around like a frightened rabbit, frantically searching for a sign of salvation. But all she could see were growing mountains of rubble, and Locomotion lying limply on one of them, struggling to stay conscious and recast his forcefield. Looking up, her blood ran cold as she realised with chilling clarity that he had no hope of succeeding in time; for several more rocks were rapidly bearing down on her from above. Her voice caught in her throat as Nymphia's words echoed in her head one last time;

Sic semper tyrannis, Queen Chrysalis the Ruthless!!!”

Locomotion saw the rocks too, but he was too weak and in too much pain to stop them hitting Chrysalis. He could feel blood soaking the fur around his left forehead, almost dripping into his eyes; and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't light up his horn again without sending a searing pain through his head. That voice was right, he realised – nothing could save Chrysalis now.

“I've...failed...” he gasped groggily, giving himself up for lost as he slumped onto the rocks. As his eyes fell shut, a brief but horrific splat registered in his ears, making him wince with dread...and then his world went blank.

Unaware that Locomotion had been left behind, Thorax, Hornette and the Friendship Councillors scurried through the long corridors, ushering the other changelings out of their chambers and stopping at intervals to see if any were already in trouble. Panic and confusion reigned throughout the hive, but Thorax at least managed to restore a modicum of order as he oversaw the evacuation, barking out orders left, right and centre and trying to calm the occupants as they streamed past him.

It took a while for Hornette to realise that Locomotion was missing; and when at last she did, she was so alarmed that she completely forgot about the evacuation. Throwing her own safety into the wind, she zipped frantically back and forth, calling out his name as she tried to seek him out among the stampede of escaping changelings. But there was no reply – just a noisy hubbub of screaming and shouting, none of which belonged to her stallion.

As the last few changelings took wing and flew out of the hive, Thorax took one final check in a nearby chamber. “Anyone in the servants' quarters?!” he shouted. No-one replied, so he turned to the three soldiers standing behind him. “Okay, troops, that's the lot. Now let's get the heck outta here!”

“Yes, sire!” The soldiers hastily saluted and charged down the corridor, while Thorax ran back to where Pharynx was still lying. Breaking Twilight's forcefield, he gently hefted his brother onto his back and made to follow the other changelings – only to find Hornette coming the other way.

“Come on, Hornette, let's go!!” he crowed.

“I can't find Loco!” cried Hornette desperately. “We've gotta go back; he could be in trouble!”

“It's too late!” yelled Thorax, grabbing her in his magic and levitating her along with him. “We stay here, we'll be buried!”

“But Loco...! Let me go!” Hornette kicked and thrashed hysterically, but as she looked back, she could see the corridors begin to cave in before her very eyes. The young changeling locked up in horror, watching helplessly as the red-furred pony's escape route was cut off...if indeed he was still in there. Only when they were safely out in the open did she manage to regain control of herself, flitting amongst the millions of gathered changelings and trying to spot his black and gold mane and red coat – but the only ponies she could find were the Bearers of Harmony.

By then, Twilight had also begun to realise that they were one pony down; but before she could even begin to wonder where he was, she looked up and saw the tall tower in the middle of the hive leaning dangerously to one side. “SHE'S COMING DOWN!!” she shouted urgently. “EVERYPONY, HIT THE DECK!!!

All the changelings and ponies flung themselves down onto the sand, many throwing their front legs protectively over their heads. As Thorax and Hornette looked back, they could see the tower pitching further and further to the east, until finally the stonework couldn't take any more. With a weary groan, the tall structure toppled over and crushed the rest of the hive, kicking up a huge dust cloud that swept over the Friendship Councillors and the changelings like a tidal wave.

As the dust settled, everyone climbed gingerly back to their hooves and surveyed the devastation. Where the hive had once stood, proud, tall and intimidating, all that remained was an immense heap of jagged rock and shattered cocoons that seemed to go on for miles on end. Without waiting to see if the others were alright, Hornette ran back to where the throne room had been and began sifting feverishly through the rubble for Locomotion, coughing as the dust irritated her lungs.

Twilight, Thorax and a few changeling soldiers followed on, taking in the harrowing scene of destruction. None of them could be sure that all the changelings had escaped in time, but they weren't about to wait around for answers. Thorax nodded to the senior officer by his side; “Search for survivors,” he ordered tersely.

The officer saluted wordlessly, and cantered away to rally his troops. But deep down, Thorax didn't fancy Locomotion's chances – after such a cataclysmic collapse, they would be lucky to find any survivors at all, let alone their missing unicorn comrade. Still, even a million-to-one chance was better than none at all, he thought gravely as he began retracing his steps.

In the midst of the wreckage, Hornette couldn't help shuddering at the gruesome scene that met her eyes. The throne, along with the pedestal on which it stood, had been completely destroyed; and at the foot of its remains lay the headless body of Queen Chrysalis. Her front legs rested in a growing pool of her own blood, and a massive shard of rubble lay where her head should have been. The young changeling gagged lightly, trying to force the sickening mental image out of her mind, and continued her search.

She didn't have to look much further, however; and even after the unpleasant sight of a decapitated changeling, nothing in the world could prepare her for the sight that met her eyes. Looking back towards the remains of the throne pedestal, she suddenly threw her front hooves over her mouth, gasping in horror – for there, lying prone and half-buried near Chrysalis' maimed corpse, was Locomotion! His eyes were closed, his forehead was bleeding heavily, and there was another small trail of blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. His right arm was bent at an odd angle, and he didn't seem to be breathing.

“TWILIGHT!” screamed Hornette at the top of her voice, frightened tears stinging her eyes. “THORAX!! ANYONE!! COME QUICK!!!”

Forgetting about his own search, Thorax darted straight over just as Twilight teleported onto the scene, followed very closely by the other Friendship Councillors.

“What is it, Hornette?” asked Fluttershy anxiously.

“It's Loco!” wailed Hornette. “He...I...” Unable to say any more she was in so much distress, she simply pointed to his motionless body.

Rainbow Dash and Applejack wasted no time. Working together, they carefully dislodged the smashed rocks from around Locomotion so that Twilight could levitate him bodily out of the rubble, while Rarity and Fluttershy laid out some of their blankets on which to examine him. But even before Twilight had set him down, they could tell that the deluge had taken its toll – with such a nasty bump on the back of his head and so many other serious injuries, it was a wonder he was still in one piece!

Hornette ran to his side, trying to nudge him awake. “Loco?” she asked desperately. “Loco, are you okay?”

“Don't try to move him,” advised Twilight, gently moving her back a little. “With physical traumas, you can never be too careful – for all we know, the slightest movement could finish him off.”

Thorax hung his head. “He can't have survived,” he murmured, gazing back towards Chrysalis' remains. “Even that scorpion couldn't have stood a chance.”

“We can't just give up on him!” protested Hornette. “He's got to survive! He's just got to!” She gazed up at the lavender alicorn pleadingly. “Please save him, Twilight.”

“Well...I'll do my best, but I can't promise anything.” Twilight set her horn aglow and began probing Locomotion's body for any signs of life. Thorax and the other ponies watched with bated breath, while several other changelings gathered around to see what was happening.

Without bothering to wait until Twilight had finished her scan, Hornette knelt down next to Locomotion's lifeless form. “It's alright, Loco,” she whispered feverishly, more to herself than to her beau. “You're gonna be okay – honest you will. We'll get Twilight to revive you, and then we'll take you home so you can get better. You'll soon be back to driving trains...back with your family and friends...” Her voice began to crack at that point, and she was forced to pause for a few seconds while she regained what little composure she could. “I was wrong to leave you behind like that...but I'll make it up to you somehow. You'll live, Loco – you've got to!” She looked up to Twilight for support; “Won't he?”

But Twilight's response was far from reassuring. She didn't say anything, but simply frowned and shook her head in sorrow.

Hornette felt her heart shatter as her world came crashing down. “No! Please!” she sobbed despairingly, wrapping her arms around Locomotion's barrel and crying heavily into his fur. “Please don't leave me!” She couldn't believe this was happening – the very pony who saved her life in more ways than one, the one creature more precious to her than the sacred Promised little more than a broken, lifeless carcass. She felt like she could never be happy again, no matter how much love her friends could feed her.

Rarity and Fluttershy each choked back a small sob of their own. Pinkie Pie, whose mane and tail had deflated in her own sadness, began wailing out loud as literal fountains of tears streamed out of her eyes, while Applejack simply bared her head in respect. Twilight, Rainbow Dash and the changelings all sombrely hung their heads, a few of the latter murmuring a quiet dirge as those three words slipped out of Hornette's mouth – words that should have cued the most memorable moment in all her life, but now brought pain, grief and sorrow to her heart as she uttered them...

“I love you.”

Bonus Chapter 4: To Where and Back Again

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Locomotion awoke to find himself standing in the midst of a strange deep blue void. It was as if he was high up in the night sky, so high up that he couldn't see the ground; and yet there seemed to be an invisible surface beneath his hooves, preventing him from falling out of the air. His body was riddled with ugly scars and countless other injuries, his right arm was all crooked, and several patches of fur were missing, yet he felt no pain. All he could feel was fear as he scanned his surroundings, trying to make sense of what had just happened to him.

“What is this place?” he wondered breathlessly. He had no recollection of how he ended up here – the last thing he remembered was being in the throne room of a collapsing changeling hive, struggling to shield himself – and his mortal enemy – against the falling rubble. “Hello?” he called out timidly. “Anyone around?”

“No need to be frightened, young friend. I'm right here.” A gentle, regal voice echoed through the void. As Locomotion gazed nervously into space, he saw a tall black changeling materialise in front of him, smiling softly at him in a way that seemed to soothe him in an instant. At first glance, she looked very similar to Chrysalis; but her turquoise mane was much neater, and her horn significantly shorter and smoother apart from a small barb underneath. Her eyes were softer and less angular, and bore a glint of kindly maternal wisdom and compassion. “The young stallion who helped to liberate my subjects,” she whispered solemnly as she sidled up to him. “It's indeed an honour to meet you, Locomotion – I'm only sorry it had to be under such tragic circumstances.”

Locomotion blinked. “Who are you?”

“I am Nymphia, former Queen of the Changelings. I have observed the bond you share with the one you so affectionately call Hornette, and how you selflessly assisted her in freeing my kingdom from Chrysalis' clutches. In return, I have come to resuscitate you, and return you to the land of the living.”

The red-furred unicorn paused, tentatively examining his disfigured body. “What's the point?” he lamented at last, pessimistically hanging his head and trying to hold back tears. “I've nothing left to live for. I mean, just look at me – all battered and mangled beyond recognition...Hornette would never want to be with an ugly wreck like me! I'll never even be able to drive trains again!”

Nymphia sighed deeply and rested a perforated hoof on his shoulder, trying to look into his eyes. “You would really give up on life? Just like that?”

“What would it matter? I wasn't strong enough to save Chrysalis, so why should I be strong enough to survive my own injuries?” sobbed Locomotion bitterly. “Besides, it's not like anyone would miss me.”

“You're wrong, Locomotion,” said Nymphia gently. “While I must commend you for your bravery – and your forgiveness towards my sister – alas, no amount of mercy would have rehabilitated her. Chrysalis will be missed by no-one; but even as we speak, the friends and family you left behind are fearing for your safety. Come – observe – witness the repercussions of your departure.”

Before Locomotion's eyes, a rectangular black portal opened up in front of them, flickering with white lines like static on a television screen before changing to a clear image of what he could only assume was somewhere in Ponyville. Puzzled, he wandered through the portal to find himself standing outside Sugarcube Corner. Steamer was there, along with Scootaloo, Dinky, Firelli and Surfie – and sure enough, all were in varying states of worry.

“...and you just...let him go?” asked Surfie in dismay.

Steamer shook his head sadly. “Couldn't stop him,” he mourned, his eyes full of tears and his voice heavy with guilt. “I did try to reason with him, but he wouldn't listen – he just chewed me out again over Hornette and stormed out of the room. Even Twilight refused to hear me out.”

“ wasn't Twilight's choice, Uncle Steamer.” Despite her best attempts to stay calm and rational, even Firelli was starting to show signs of distress. “It was the Map that called him out that desert wilderness...” She paused, discretely wiping away a tear of her own. “...I just hope he'll be alright.”

Locomotion, feeling a pang of despair, tried to call out to them, “Elli? I'm right here. Can you hear me?”

But none of the five ponies reacted. They just carried on talking as if he wasn't there.

“What, out in the middle of the Badlands? Don't count on it,” frowned Scootaloo doubtfully. “Loco's great when working with steam engines, but in hostile country...I don't fancy his chances.”

Surfie grimaced with dread. “Neither do I.”

Dinky, on the other hoof, remained silent. Though she looked like a small part of her was distracted by problems of her own, she was clearly just as anxious about Locomotion as the others.

Locomotion gazed back to Nymphia, who had just followed him through the portal. “What gives?” he wanted to know. “Why won't they speak to me?”

“Alas, these are merely the shadows of your friends and family,” replied Nymphia gravely. “They can neither see nor hear you – but what they say and do is for real. All these ponies, and many more besides, have been praying for your safe return since you left, even your uncle.”

“And if I don't come back?”

Nymphia didn't answer, but instead beckoned for him to follow her as she wandered down the street, which melted away to become a huge pile of black rocks in the middle of a desert. Locomotion blinked in disbelief, stepping forward almost on automatic – this had to be the remains of the changeling hive where he, Thorax, Hornette and the Bearers of Harmony had faced off against Chrysalis. Sure enough, the six mares were gathered around something in the heart of the ruins, along with Thorax and a small swarm of changelings. Hornette was there too, hovering over the lifeless body of a red-furred unicorn – one that he knew all too well...

“Cripes,” he gasped. “That...that's me!” He looked back to see an ashen Thorax shaking his head with a hopeless frown.

“He can't have survived. Even that scorpion couldn't have stood a chance.”

That was when Hornette turned to stare in horror at him and Twilight, tears streaming down her cheeks. “We can't just give up on him! He's got to survive! He's just got to! Please save him, Twilight!”

If Locomotion had been shocked by Firelli's minor breakdown, he was truly heartbroken from seeing his changeling so torn apart. He wanted to run forward and grab Hornette in a big bear hug, to soothe all her fears away and reassure her that he was tell her how much he loved her, and would never wish to leave her; but he knew that such an attempt would be futile in his ethereal state. All he could do was watch helplessly as she knelt down next to his body. “It's alright, Loco. You're gonna be okay – honest you will. We'll get Twilight to revive you, and then we'll take you home so you can get better. You'll soon be back to driving trains...back with your family and friends...”

Locomotion shed a small tear. “But...what if I can't?” he whispered to himself. “What if I don't survive my injuries?”

“Then you stand not only to lose your life, but to leave a hole in Hornette's heart which no other creature can fill,” answered Nymphia as she sidled up to him. “You're the only one she has ever truly loved. Were you to leave her, she would only deteriorate with the passing of time.”

The scene changed once again, this time to the middle of a graveyard outside Ponyville. The sky was dark and looked ready to pour down with rain, and the only living beings to be seen were none other than Surfie, Firelli and Hornette, all sitting mournfully in front of the same tombstone. The two sisters had their arms around Hornette, who was hanging her head with grief as she wept for the deceased pony. Her eyes were tired and swollen, her limbs were as frail and lanky as if she hadn't eaten anything for days, and her baby blue mane and tail had faded to a dull teal. All in all, she looked very messy and unhealthy.

“Why did he have to leave me?” she sobbed. “Just when we were so close, too.”

Firelli nuzzled her sympathetically. “He loved you just as you loved him,” she faltered. “If he had any way to stay...he would have fought to do so.”

“We all miss him, Hornette,” added Surfie tearfully. “We can only imagine how you must feel.”

Hornette nodded weakly. “He meant everything in the world to me...and he just...died. If only I could've saved him...if only I tried” But before she could finish, her strength finally gave out, and she collapsed onto the damp grass, trembling like a leaf. Firelli and Surfie gasped in shock as thunder rolled in the sky, and began shaking the young changeling vigorously in a desperate attempt to bring her round, even as rain came pouring down on them. It was then that Locomotion saw what was inscribed on the stone;



There were no words to describe the torrent of emotions now flowing through Locomotion's mind – not just from reading his own epitaph, but from seeing Hornette so broken, malnourished and inconsolable. His whole frame began to stiffen as he turned his attention back to her apparition, and finally locked up when he saw the glossy, half-dead look in her eyes. Part of him had been hoping that this was just speculation – nothing but a wild guess at what might be, but probably wouldn't happen – but now, seeing how little life Hornette had left in her, he was in too much of a state of grief to care.

“Do you still think she wouldn't want to be with you, should you survive?”

Locomotion felt tears flooding his eyes again. “No more,” he sobbed, barely able to speak. “Show me no more. Take me me...don't let this happen to her...”

Nymphia smiled softly and began rubbing his back, soothing away the pain in his soul. “It never long as you stay strong,” she consoled him. “I shall return you now to your body, and lessen the effect of your injuries – but after that, only you can decide your fate. If you wish to preserve your loved one, you must fight the call of death with every last smidgeon of your willpower.” Her horn glowed softly. “I have every bit of faith in you to survive, Locomotion. Stay strong.”

“I...I will,” replied Locomotion bravely. “But will I ever see you again?”

“Only when you are finally called,” said Nymphia solemnly. “Until then, I bid you farewell – and pray that you and Hornette lead a long and happy life together.” The intensity of her magic slowly increased as she spoke, and Locomotion began to feel drowsy. At the same time, his injuries began to flare up again – but not as badly as when he had sustained them. If anything, it felt more like the dull throb of bruised muscles, with here and there the mild sting of grazes; yet the wounds themselves still remained as they were. Drowsiness turned to dizziness, and dizziness turned to the strange, drunken feeling he associated with unconsciousness, until finally his world went blank again. Nymphia's voice echoed again and again in his mind, “Stay strong, Locomotion...stay strong...stay strong...” until at last another voice invaded his thoughts. It was a tearful, high-pitched voice, ever so slightly nasal in a way that made it sound gentle and that Locomotion recognised all too well. As he regained what little he could of his senses, the voice whispered something he had been yearning to hear for a long time...

“I love you.”

Chapter 30: Locomotion's Lazarus

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“How I've hear that...”

Hornette's feverish sobbing began to abate as she lifted her head, completely taken aback by the weak, breathy whisper. In her distress, she had completely failed to notice Locomotion's chest beginning to move again...only very slightly, but he was definitely breathing. Her surprise turned to the faintest glimmer of hope as she looked towards his face – and sure enough, the red-furred unicorn's eyes had flickered open and were fondly gazing back at her, while a weak but warm smile adorned his lips.

“Loco!” cried Hornette in joyous relief, embracing him once again. “You're alive!”

Thorax's eyes widened in astonishment. “'s this even possible?!” he exclaimed, staring at Twilight. “All his vital signs had stopped...hadn't they?”

Lazarus syndrome.” All eyes turned towards Fluttershy, herself in awe at what had just happened. “I read about it in a medical textbook once. It's what happens when a creature...'dies', but then comes back to life a while later for no apparent reason.”

“Well, it ain't important right now how he came back ta life,” Applejack interjected gravely. “If he dies a second time, it'll be permanent. We gotta get 'im to a hospital.”

Hornette gazed up at the orange farm pony, her grip around Locomotion's barrel slackening as joy quickly turned back to fear.

“Yeah,” began Thorax grimly, “if only our infirmary was still intact...”

“Even that wouldn't be good enough, Thorax,” said Twilight tersely. “Our only chance is to get him to a trauma centre with complete modern equipment – and that means flying him all the way back to El Pinto.” She paused, looking up at the sky. “How long will it take to deactivate the forcefield?”

“We shouldn't need to worry about that – the casters will have dropped the shield as soon as we broke the Brainwashing spell,” answered Thorax. “If so, we should have a clear run all the way to Equestria...but if not...”

“We'll have to risk it,” decided Twilight. “See to it, Rainbow Dash – and take Hornette with you.”

Rainbow Dash shot her an incredulous double-take. “Hornette?! But the law...”

“No time for that,” insisted Twilight firmly. “I don't know what it was that brought Loco back to life, but I can't ignore the possibility of it being to do with Hornette. Just try to explain to the hospital staff as best as you can – I'll catch you up a little later.”

After a brief hesitation, Rainbow Dash nodded her consent. “Alright, Hornette, climb on and hold tight – I'm gonna really go for it!” she cautioned as she scooped up Locomotion into her arms, bridal style.

“Okay,” stammered Hornette nervously as she settled down on Rainbow Dash's back, wrapping her arms firmly around her barrel. “You won't drop him...will you?”

“Not on your life, Hornette. Hang on!” and before Hornette could say “Sonic Rainboom”, the cyan mare shot off into the air like a bullet from a rifle.

They rocketed across the arid wasteland, the air whipping through their manes and Hornette clinging on for dear life as they bore down on the fence that marked the northern border. Fearing a possible recoil, the young changeling shut her eyes and braced herself for the end – but it never came. As Thorax had predicted, the forcefield no longer impeded their progress, and they soared over the mountains without mishap.

Daring to open her eyes again, Hornette gazed anxiously over Rainbow Dash's shoulder, at Locomotion's delirious form. His own eyes were glazed over, his breathing shaky and erratic; and every now and then, his front hooves would twitch as if trying to fend off his impeding death.

“Hornette...” he wheezed breathlessly, “ me...I...I'm scared...”

Gingerly, so as not to get tangled in Rainbow Dash's wings, Hornette reached over and ran a hoof through his mane. “Hold on, Loco,” she pleaded softly. “Just a little longer.”

But Locomotion barely seemed to hear her, and continued to mumble feverishly, “...don't...don't let me go...I need you...can'”

“You're gonna make it, Loco,” counselled Hornette. “Just stay with it...please...”

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the distant glow of lights up ahead heralded their final approach to El Pinto.

“We're almost there!” called Rainbow Dash through the rushing of the wind.

“Hurry, Rainbow!” wailed Hornette desperately. “I don't know how much longer he'll last!”

“Got it!” Rainbow Dash dived swiftly towards the city centre, keeping her eyes peeled for any signs of the local hospital. At last, after only a few seconds, she found it – a white, circular sign bearing the red cross and four pink hearts of the Equestrian Health Service. Carefully reorienting herself in mid-air, she swooped towards the reception doors and knocked them open with an almighty kick, landing on her hind hooves and yelling out at the top of her voice: “EMERGENCY!!! LOCO NEEDS HELP!!”

The receptionist took one look at Locomotion, and immediately turned to the microphone on her desk. “Emergency at front desk! Prepare the ER, stat!” She turned back to Rainbow Dash, who was gently setting Locomotion down on a nearby bench; “What happened to this guy?”

Rainbow Dash opened her mouth to explain, but Hornette hastily beat her to it. “He was caught in a collapsing building – almost got crushed to death!” she said frantically. “Please save him!”

“And what's a changeling doing here in Equestria?” demanded the receptionist, staring coldly at the young insectoid.

“I don't mean any harm!” bleated Hornette. “I just wanted to find a new home outside of the Badlands!”

“That's as maybe, but our law says that the only 'new home' for your kind is in prison,” stated the receptionist warily. “I'm calling the police...”

Locomotion groaned weakly in protest as the grey Earth mare reached for the telephone – only to flinch slightly as Rainbow Dash slammed her hoof down over the receiver. “You're not calling anyone of the sort, sister!” she retorted sharply. “Hornette has as much right to be here as us ponies!”

“Look, ma'am, the Anti-Changeling Protection Act...”

“Damn the Anti-Changeling Protection Act! Do you even know who I am?!”

“A Wonderbolt?” asked the receptionist in deadpan, trying to maintain a professional stance. Privately, she was struggling to understand why a fellow pony would stand up for a changeling, even if she did turn out to be a Wonderbolt. Of course, that was just a lucky guess, so she was even more taken aback when Rainbow Dash confirmed it.

“More than just a Wonderbolt – I am Wing Commander Rainbow Dash, third-in-command of the team behind Wing Commander Soarin Starr and Captain Spitfire; and I also represent Princess Twilight Sparkle and the Ponyville Council of Friendship. In that capacity, I can personally confirm that, by Royal Command, Hornette is exempt from the Anti-Changeling Act,” stated Rainbow Dash sternly. “You call in the cavalry against her, and I'll personally see that you – and this whole hospital – are done for contempt of court! What do you say to that?”

The receptionist frowned inwardly. That Princess Celestia herself should grant legal citizenship to a changeling was too crazy to believe, even at Twilight Sparkle's insistence – for all she knew, the mare who called herself Rainbow Dash could well be a changeling herself! But then again, Rainbow Dash did represent the Element of maybe...just maybe...she could be right about Hornette or whatever her name was. Either way, she didn't wish to risk incriminating the hospital and losing her job, so she tentatively answered, “All right – what do you want me to do?”

Thought you'd see it my way... “I wanna speak to your manager about letting her stay here,” said Rainbow Dash plainly. “As soon as Loco comes out of the ER, she's to stay by his side until he's back on his hooves.”

“I'm afraid we can't allow it without parental or guardian consent, ma'am. It violates our policy.”

“Look, Loco can't survive, let alone cope, if he doesn't have someone familiar with him at all times, and Hornette's practically family to him anyway! Now what would you rather do – break a few rules, or lose a patient?!”

At last, the receptionist relented, and turned back to her microphone; “Could the duty manager report to the main reception desk, please? Duty manager to main reception?”

Every minute felt like an age as Hornette sat and waited for news. She had tried to accompany Locomotion into the emergency room, but the hospital porters wouldn't let her, and Rainbow Dash and two nurses had to hold her back as they rushed him out of the reception lobby. Matters weren't helped when the manager arrived and immediately objected to having a changeling in the building; Rainbow Dash tried to be diplomatic with him, but the manager was so belligerent about the whole affair that their discussion soon descended into a heated argument. It wasn't until Twilight arrived and explained everything that he grudgingly agreed to let the young changeling stay.

That was over seven hours ago, and Hornette still hadn't heard back from the hospital staff. With no way of knowing what was going on with Locomotion, all she could do was sit and brood, occasionally getting up to pace anxiously around the waiting room. She had never felt so helpless in all her life – all she wanted was to be back in the warmth of Locomotion's tell him just how much she loved him and stay with him for as long as time itself would let see him alive and smiling that warm, fond smile of his......and yet, no matter how hard she tried to reassure herself, she couldn't ignore the possibility that she might never see him alive again. Even her escape from home couldn't compare to the crippling stress she was enduring right now.

“How are you holding up?” asked Rainbow Dash from behind her Daring Do novel, breaking Hornette's train of thought.

Hornette gave a trepid sigh and closed her eyes, trying in vain to hold back tears. “Badly,” she faltered.

Rainbow Dash frowned. She too had been doing everything she could think of to pass the time, mostly reading and snoozing; but no matter what she did, she couldn't ignore the tiredness and distress in Hornette's expression. It was as if the poor changeling hadn't slept in over a week. “Hey, take it easy,” she said in an unusually gentle tone. “Loco's gonna be okay, and so are...”

“How do you know he's gonna be okay?!” burst out Hornette hysterically. “You're not the one treating him – you don't know what's going on any more than I do! All we know is that he could be dying in there!” She buried her face in her hooves, trembling with despair as her mental dam gave way again. “Why won't they let me in?” she wept quietly. “What are they doing to him?”

“Look,” murmured Rainbow Dash gravely, setting her book down on her lap, “I know this is hard for you, Hornette, but those surgeons have a really tough job. They can't afford any kind of distraction, no matter how slight – even the teeniest slip-up could damage Loco for good...maybe even kill him...” She regretted those words the moment she uttered them; for Hornette seemed to curl up in discomfort. With an apologetic smile, the cyan mare placed a reassuring hoof over hers and added, “Hey, it's alright. They know what they're doing – they won't let him die.” Her expression turned solemn. “You really do love him, don't you?”

“I do,” sobbed Hornette. “He's been so good to me...ever since he saved me from the timberwolves. I don't even care about finding the Promised Land anymore...” Her voice cracked as she struggled to finish her sentence, “...I just want Loco back...”

Sensing her heartache, Rainbow Dash swallowed her pride and drew the distraught insectoid into a gentle, meaningful hug, letting her cry into her chest fur. She could never have imagined that she, a Bearer of Harmony and a wing commander in the Wonderbolts, could feel any kind of sympathy for a changeling of all creatures. In her mind, they had been nothing but cruel, heartless monsters, as savage and dangerous as their deceased queen – but now, seeing Hornette so inconsolable, she felt angry and ashamed with herself for thinking that way...for letting Chrysalis' savagery blind her to the fraught, injured soul and the warm-hearted nature of the one changeling who had managed to escape her regime. “Hornette...I'm sorry I treated you so badly,” she whispered sombrely. “Loco was right about you all along – you never were a monster, and we all owe it to you for helping us take out the real one.”

Hornette's sobbing abated slightly. “ really think so?”

“I know so,” replied Rainbow Dash, gingerly rubbing her back. “No savage alive would've had the guts...or even the stand up to that overgrown scorpion the way you did. You were awesome, Hornette.”

With a light sniffle, Hornette glumly turned her attention back to the doors through which Locomotion had been carted. “I just...don't understand,” she murmured. “He was running for his life...just like the rest of us...and we found him where the throne room used to be.” She paused for a moment, trying in vain to stem the flow of her tears. “But why? What was he even doing in there?”

Rainbow Dash sighed heavily. “There's only one pony who can answer that one – and that's assuming they can save him.” Blinking back a small tear of her own, she gave Hornette a gentle squeeze as the young changeling buried her face in her chest once again. “Let it all out, Hornette. I'm here for you. It's alright.”

Barely a few seconds later, the door opened to reveal a light brown unicorn mare with a silvery mane. She was holding a clipboard in her magic, and her golden eyes bore the sympathetic glint of a pony who had borne witness to some tragic losses in her time. “Commander Rainbow Dash?”

“Yeah, that's me.”

“I'm Dr Cavell, one of the trauma surgeons here,” said the mare in a soft tone. “It's about the casualty you brought here a few hours ago – Locomotion, I believe you said his name was?”

Hornette looked up at her anxiously. “Is he gonna be okay?” she whispered, almost dreading the answer.

Dr Cavell responded with a small smile. “He's currently resting in the intensive care unit,” she replied. “We've had to sedate him so as to let him recover properly, so he'll be in a coma for...I'd say a month at least. To be honest, it's a miracle he's alive at all.”

“How bad was he?” ventured Rainbow Dash.

“We found a number of bone fractures and other internal injuries, including cerebral contusions both front and rear,” explained Dr Cavell. “He'd lost a gallon or so of blood before he got here, so we had to transfuse him even as we were operating; and during the X-ray scan, we discovered signs of acute magical exhaustion.”

Rainbow Dash shuddered in discomfort. “Sheesh, no wonder! With all that rubble raining down on're right, Doc, he really is lucky.”

“But...he will recover...won't he?” stammered Hornette.

“Well...I can't make any guarantees yet,” answered Dr Cavell, “but as long as he stays on bed rest for the next two or three months, yes – I should think he'll be alright.”

Physically and mentally exhausted from her ordeal, Hornette slumped back in her seat and breathed a deep sigh of relief, her eyes moistening with tears for the umpteenth time that night. All that time she had been bracing herself for what could have been the biggest bombshell in all her life, and now it felt as if the weight of the whole world had been lifted from her shoulders. Only now did she realise just how much it had taken out of her, and how much sleep she had lost to boot.

“Hornette?” Rainbow Dash gazed into her eyes with mild concern. “Are you okay?”

“I...I'm fine,” mumbled Hornette, wearily rubbing her eyes. “Just a little tired.”

Rainbow Dash smiled sympathetically in reply. She didn't wish to say it in public, but if it had been Soarin or Scootaloo in intensive care...she would have felt the same way.

Blinking herself awake, Hornette looked up at Dr Cavell with a weak smile of her own; “Thank you,” she whispered with tearful gratitude. “I don't know what I would've done if he hadn't...” She broke off momentarily, trying to force the morbid thoughts out of her head. “...just...thank you.”

Dr Cavell smiled kindly. “That's quite alright, darling,” she replied. “All part of the service.”

“Can I......can I see him?”

“Of course you can,” and Dr Cavell led Hornette and Rainbow Dash down the corridor to the intensive care ward.

They found Locomotion in a private suite just outside the main ward area. His head, horn, chest and hind legs were wrapped in gauze and his right arm suspended above him in a plaster cast; while his left arm, miraculously undamaged, was festooned with cannulas. Numerous bags of medicine, blood plasma and nutritional solutions hung from a drip stand next to his bed. He had a mask strapped over his muzzle, with a long tube connecting him to a mechanical ventilator, and his chest was wired up to a heart monitor on his bedside table, which beeped softly in a slow, soothing rhythm.

A small tear trickled out of Hornette's eye as she gazed upon her stallion. Distressing though it may have been to see him so broken and fragile, she could see from the slow pulse on the monitor just how right Dr Cavell was – despite everything, Locomotion was still alive and his injuries steadily healing. She glanced tentatively at the brown unicorn; “May I?” she asked.

“By all means,” conceded Dr Cavell kindly. “Just try not to disturb him or the equipment.”

“Go right ahead, Hornette,” agreed Rainbow Dash. “Your lover needs you as much as you need him.”

With little more than a faint nod, Hornette stepped quietly into the room, placing her hooves as lightly as she could to avoid waking him up. Not that she could wake him up, she thought gravely; for even as she pulled up a chair and sat down next to him, Locomotion remained silent and inert. Glancing hesitantly at Dr Cavell one last time, she gingerly began stroking his left hoof.

“I know you probably can't hear me, Loco,” she whispered fondly, “but I'm still going to say it – I don't think I could ever be more grateful to you than I am now. You and Thorax...and the Elements of Harmony...even Pharynx, bless his soul...but especially you. It's all over now – all our kind are free, and Chrysalis can't terrorise us anymore.” She blinked away a few tears before continuing. “You really came through for me, Loco, and I'm truly sorry I ever doubted you. I could never have cancelled out that Brainwashing magic without your love – I may have been the one casting the spell...but you empowered my magic still further. I'm never gonna leave you again – when you wake up...I promise I'll be here for you.”

From the other side of the doorway, Rainbow Dash and Dr Cavell looked on with soft smiles, profoundly moved by the warmth and affection in Hornette's tone, especially when she began to sing a soft, wistful serenade to her beau. In that very instant, all memories of the ongoing stand-off between ponies and changelings seemed to fade away, until all that remained was an image of love and harmony across the divide, as touching and beautifully heartfelt as the young Romeo and Juliet who had made it happen.

Chapter 31: Return to the Promised Land

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A faint, rhythmic beeping sound invaded Locomotion's ears, gently stirring him from the dark, gloomy realms of a dreamless sleep. This one, however, felt like it had been dragging on for years on end; his head was aching dully, his right arm felt numb and heavy, and the rest of him felt as if he had just pulled every single muscle in his body. Slowly, groggily, he ever so slightly parted his eyelids, trying to remember what had hit him. The last thing he remembered before passing out was being laid out on a gurney and carted away, while a frantic female voice cried out his name and pleaded to go in with him...but where?

“Welcome back to the land of the living,” said a gentle voice next to him.

Locomotion blinked drowsily as a pink mare in a nurse's uniform came into his peripheral vision. “Where am I?” he tried to ask; but all he could manage was a squeaky wheezing sound.

“It's alright, Locomotion,” soothed the nurse. “You're in the intensive care unit at El Pinto Hospital.”

Gingerly, Locomotion scanned his surroundings. Now, as his blurred vision began to clear, he could see the bed on which he was lying, the white walls of the small room he was in, the turquoise blue curtains that matched the gown he was currently wearing, the cast around his right arm, the cannulas in his wonder he felt so battered! If this was what being hit by a steam engine was like, he thought wryly, then thank goodness he was so fastidious about track safety. If only his throat wasn't so dry...

Luckily for him, the nurse already seemed to know what he was thinking. “Do you want something to drink?” she asked kindly.

Locomotion nodded and rubbed his sore throat with his left hoof. At least that arm was still functioning, he told himself thankfully.

“Okay, dear, I'll go get you something.” The nurse trotted over to a nearby sink, and filled a small paper cup with water from the tap. That done, she eased Locomotion's broken arm into the sling draped over his shoulders, and helped him to sit upright so he could take his drink without choking. “Here you go,” she spoke, holding the cup to his lips.

Locomotion smiled weakly and began feverishly gulping down its contents, moaning with relief as the water soothed his throat. As awkward as it felt being fed like a toddler (and in his teens, no less!), he was feeling far too dopey to care; although at least his headache, and the emptiness in his stomach he hadn't noticed up till now, were beginning to subside. Only when the cup itself was empty did he allow himself to sit back and relax. “Thanks,” he murmured in a weary, scratchy tone.

“That's alright, dear,” the nurse smiled back as she returned the cup to the sink. “Your changeling friend should be out of the bathroom any minute. I'm sure you'll be glad to see her again.”

“Eh?” Locomotion blinked as the sound of a toilet flushing registered in his ears, his gaze drifting to one of two doors on the far side of the room. He hadn't even realised he was in a private suite, let alone one with a bathroom; but what really threw him for a loop was what the nurse had just said about a “changeling friend” – and without the faintest hint of disdain! Could it be... “Hornette?”

Sure enough, before he could even begin to wonder, the door opened to reveal none other than the love of his life herself. The look of anxiety on her face gave way to euphoric relief as she cantered over and wrapped her arms around his withers, taking care not to aggravate his injuries. “Oh, Loco,” she faltered, “I'm so glad you're awake.”

A small tear trickled down Locomotion's cheek as he hugged her back with his good arm. “You and me both, Hornette,” he whispered fondly. “How long have I been out?”

“Twenty-nine of the longest and most stressful days I've ever been through,” replied Hornette, brushing her own tears away as she pulled back to gaze into his eyes.

“Cripes, that long?” remarked Locomotion, stunned.

Hornette nodded. “You were in a terrible state, Loco. I was afraid you wouldn't make it,” she continued sombrely. “I even heard you went into...carry...cardio...what did you call it again?”

“Cardiac arrest,” explained the nurse helpfully. “It's when a patient's heart stops beating, and needs CPR or a defibrillator to get it going again. That's exactly what happened to you, Locomotion, about an hour into the operation.”

Locomotion frowned ruefully, raising his left hoof to his chest as if he expected to feel a gaping hole.

“No-one told me until after your operation was finished,” went on Hornette, “but they did have to put you to sleep just so your body could heal. That's how fragile you were.” She paused, choking back fresh tears. “You wouldn't believe how painful it was, just sitting here...waiting for you to wake up...”

“Wait – you mean...” Locomotion blinked in astonishment. “'ve been with me the whole time?”

Hornette nodded again. “I couldn't possibly leave you be, not while you were all frail and broken. Rainbow Dash even threatened to take the hospital to court if they didn't let me stay here.”

The bewilderment in Locomotion's expression was so tangible you could almost mould it like clay. “So...she does care about you after all,” he whispered.

“ it would seem,” replied Hornette with a shaky smile. “She actually apologised to me while we were in the waiting room – and gave me a shoulder to cry on as well.” She looked away, seemingly taking an interest in the floor. “But Loco...why didn't you save yourself? What were you trying to achieve, right in the middle of a collapsing throne room?” she ventured softly, a look of hurt in her eyes.

“How did you know I...” Locomotion broke off as yet another realisation struck him. “...did Twilight scan my memory while I was out?”

“More than that – she scanned your whole brain,” said Hornette matter-of-factly. “Mainly to check for any permanent brain damage...but also to find out what happened.”


“No head injuries to speak of, other than those...contusion thingies – but we learned you'd nearly thrown your life away just to shield Chrysalis when the roof came down.” Hornette's eyes were full of dismay as she spoke. “I just have to understand – why? Why did you do it?”

If Locomotion seemed ashamed earlier, he now looked absolutely crestfallen. He gazed sadly down at his front hooves, tears welling up in his eyes once more. “I'm sorry, Hornette,” he stammered. “I did try.”

“Try what?”

“I know Chrysalis was your worst enemy, but...I dunno...when I saw her pinned under that rock, I...I just flashed back to when we first met. It reminded me of how hurt and vulnerable you were...I couldn't just abandon her like that – not when she was in such grave peril,” sobbed Locomotion, his voice leaden with anguish and regret. “But I couldn't save her either...all because I was so feeble...and path...pathetic...” He buried his face in his left hoof, unable to say anything else as he began to cry feverishly.

It was enough to break Hornette's heart. Her darling Locomotion, only just woken up from a month-long coma, and the first thing he could think of was how useless he was at saving his mortal enemy and hers – and in a situation beyond his control too! Part of her wanted to go into an outburst about how wrong he was; but the rest of her knew that such a harsh approach would only damage his self-esteem still further. Instead, she did the only thing she could think of, and began stroking his dishevelled mane in an attempt to comfort him. “Loco,” she whispered in the softest and most disarming tone she could manage, “I don't want you to put yourself down like this. You're a great many things – brave, thoughtful, caring, understanding – but you're not feeble or pathetic. You actually did really well to protect yourself and Chrysalis...”

“...and yet somehow I let her get crushed to death!” wept Locomotion bitterly. “I should've tried harder...put more magic into my forcefield!”

“Would it have made any difference?” Hornette gently lifted his head so that she could look into his eyes again. “Chrysalis was beyond hope – even if you did manage to save her, she'd have either gone straight to jail or just gone on terrorising...well, both our species. And from what the nurse told me, you didn't have much more to give anyway,” she continued, visibly pained. “The amount of magic you were using on that spell...and all that loose practically killed you! I still don't know what brought you back to life, but...” She paused, trying in vain to wipe away a fresh build-up of tears. “...oh, it was so heart-wrenching, finding you all mauled and lifeless. I really thought I'd lost you for good.”

Locomotion's fervent sobbing abated into tiny sniffles. He still felt a little angry with himself, but was deeply touched to know Hornette didn't think less of him for his failure.

“I don't know what I'd do without you, Loco. You're far more than just a potential source of nourishment...not that I'd use you as such unless you were okay with it.” Hornette smiled wryly in spite of herself. “I'm loathed to say this, but...maybe Chrysalis was better off dead after all,” she finished. “I don't even care that you couldn't save her – I'm just happy to see you alive.”

Only then did the faintest hint of a smile return to Locomotion's face. Hornette was right, he told himself thoughtfully – he may have lost Chrysalis (and who in their right mind, in retrospect, would bother trying to save a malevolent, murdering maniac like her anyway?!), but the important thing was that he had...more or less survived. And looking into his lover's eyes, he couldn't be any happier for it...

“Oh...sorry, am I interrupting something?”

The nurse turned towards the doorway into the main ward area. “Not at all, Your Majesty. Do come in, by all means,” she replied, curtsying politely.

Your Majesty...? Locomotion blinked in surprise as a familiar face politely entered the room. “Thorax? What are you doing here?”

“Just thought I'd drop by and see how you and Hornette were doing,” smiled Thorax warmly. “Good to see you're awake, by the way.”

Locomotion shrugged and gave him a wry smile. “Meh...I've felt better,” he mused. “Although...what was with all the bowing and scraping just now?”

Thorax chuckled. “Well, there's been a lot going on since you were hospitalised. Our nation's in an absolute shambles at the moment; not a single census in the last sixteen years, several changelings either unnamed or unaccounted real government structure whatsoever. Turns out most of the old councillors and advisers were either fired or executed and their positions abolished,” he explained gravely. “I've managed to reinstate some of them, but it's been a real struggle so far.”

“So...does that mean you've had your title reinstated too?” asked Hornette.

“Not quite,” replied Thorax knowingly, “but I did get an even higher position than that.”

Locomotion gaped in shock and awe. “ mean...”

“Yes, Loco – this changeling count's son is now King Thorax of Metamorphia.” The big green changeling chuckled again, this time a little more humbly. “We decided a new name was in order for our kingdom – as accurate as it may have been in times gone by, we felt 'the Badlands' would be an inappropriate title going forward.”

“Yeah, but...why you? I mean, with all due respect, surely the eldest...” Locomotion suddenly broke off, the memory of their raid flashing through his mind. “...wait – is Pharynx dead?” he exclaimed.

“Heavens, no!” laughed Thorax reassuringly. “He was pretty badly injured, but he's fighting fit now. We did offer him the crown, but he declined – said he felt too unworthy after all the wrongs he'd wrought on Chrysalis' behalf.”

Hornette hummed thoughtfully. “Yeah...I know the feeling,” she sympathised. “I should think we all do by now.”

“ pretty much got the crown by default?”

“Well...more on the condition that Pharynx became my new Commander-in-Chief of the Army. It took a lot of persuasion,” admitted Thorax, “but I managed to talk him into it in the end.”

Locomotion smiled. “I reckon that's the least he deserves, after all he's done to help us,” he observed. “Remind me to thank him next time I see him.”

“Ah, no need,” promised Thorax. “I'll be sure to thank him on your behalf. Besides, it's you and Hornette we should be thanking,” he added meaningfully. “Not only did you topple that monster of a monarch of ours, a way, you've kinda helped us to begin realising Nymphia's ambitions. That's part of the reason why I'm here.”

“How come?” ventured Hornette, her eyes widening with hope and interest.

Thorax beamed broadly. “Princess Celestia has finally opened peace talks with our nation,” he said. “Turns out the news of Chrysalis' dethroning and the truth about what she's been doing to us has been spreading like wildfire, and attitudes to us changelings are starting to improve as a result. Not only has Equestria agreed to a foreign aid plan to help us back to our hooves, but other countries are starting to pitch in as well. And even better news for you particularly, Hornette,” he added, his eyes lighting up as if he had an exciting surprise in store, “you won't have to worry about your parole any longer.”

“I...I've passed?”

“Nope – way better than that...”

Hornette and Locomotion waited with bated breath.

“ the wake of our heroics and all the political and social reforms back home, Celestia has ruled that the Anti-Changeling Protection Act is to be scrapped, and new laws are being written to allow us to live among you ponies as equals.”

Locomotion's heart skipped a beat in delight. If he hadn't been so sore and tired, he would have gladly leaped out of bed and hugged Thorax he was so full of emotion right now. “So...Hornette...”

“ now a naturalised Equestrian subject – if she still wants to be, of course,” affirmed Thorax. “If not, I'd be more than happy to have you on my council – maybe as my heir to the throne, if you so choose,” he offered cordially.

Hornette smiled, visibly touched. “That...that's really generous of you, Thorax,” she stammered. “I'm honoured – really I am...”

The look of dismay on Locomotion's face spoke volumes for itself.

“...but if it's all the same to you...I'd much rather stay here with Loco,” finished Hornette earnestly.

Thorax smiled back and nodded understandingly. “And you have my full blessings, Hornette.” He turned his attention back to Locomotion, who was now paralysed with awe and affection; “Do take care of her, though, Loco,” he added softly. “She's the closest I've ever got to having a sister.”

“Uh...” Locomotion hastily snapped out of his trance. “...sorry, Thorax, I must have zoned out for a moment. But yes,” he replied resolutely, “I'll be sure to make her safe and happy...just like I've always striven to do,” and to show how much he meant it, he gazed lovingly back into Hornette's eyes, his left hoof combing gently through that soft, silky mane of hers. The young changeling smiled warmly in return, slowly and unconsciously moving her face closer to his.

All too soon, a tactful cough from the nurse broke the spell. “Um...pardon me, Your Majesty,” she said to Thorax, “but with all due respect, I believe Locomotion and Hornette could do with some time alone.”

“That's alright, nurse,” conceded Thorax. “I still have much to do – much to put right.” As he turned to leave, he gave Hornette a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Take it easy, you two. I'll try to pay you another visit whenever I get the chance,” and with that, he and the nurse took their leave.

A momentary silence fell over the two young lovers as they became lost in each other's eyes yet again. Eventually, Locomotion asked, “Do you really mean it, Hornette? About staying here in Equestria?”

“Yes, Loco. I meant every word of it – and that goes for what I said when I thought you'd died,” murmured Hornette emphatically. “I don't know how you did it, Loco, but you've captured my heart in ways that no changeling can ever match. All I need to know is...” She leaned in closer, placing her left hoof on his right shoulder. “ you really feel the same about me?”

Even before he had begun to answer, the warm smile and the twinkle in Locomotion's eyes told her all she needed to know. “Yes – with all my heart,” he whispered, closing the gap between them. In that very instant, a huge wave of giddiness swept over him like a powerful typhoon, and the beeping of the heart monitor increased as his heart seemed to explode out of his chest. All those times he had wondered what his first kiss would be like, and now, finally, it was actually happening! And with the very changeling he had rescued, befriended, looked after, and ultimately fallen in love with! He didn't even care how his friends would react to him and Hornette becoming an item – all he cared about right now was savouring the mutual moment of bliss between himself and his new fillyfriend.

Tears of joy spilt out of Hornette's clenched eyes as she kissed him back with deep passion, gulping down his love in huge mouthfuls and allowing her tongue to dance merrily with his. It was a moment of pure, unbridled happiness like nothing she had ever dreamed of – not only did she have a place to call home, as well as a loyal circle of friends, but she actually had a very special somepony to call her own...somepony to love and care hold onto for as long as she lived, and beyond. For the first time in her life, she felt complete; and all thanks to that warm-hearted, red-furred, ever-loving young stallion named Locomotion...

How unpredictable life could be sometimes. No matter where you looked, nor how hard you tried, fate never seemed to make up its mind as to whether it wanted you to be happy or miserable, weak or powerful, useless or helpful, popular or obscure. It could give you everything you ever wanted, and then just when you started to enjoy your quality of life, it could take it all away and leave you in ruins. Even when you made friends, Lady Luck never seemed to care how close you were or how much you had in common – if she decided to end that friendship, no matter how brutally, there was no way anything could dissuade her. And yet, somehow, it seemed there were times when she did care, times when she would pull out all stops to ensure that certain friendships would never be broken...and even help them blossom into something more...

Those were the thoughts that flowed through the mind of a red-furred unicorn teenager as one of the doctors examined him carefully. After waking up from his coma, Locomotion had spent another long and tedious month in intensive care, most of it on bed rest. He was glad of it at first; but with so little to do, he soon became dreadfully gloomy and homesick, and even cried a number of times. He missed being with his family and friends, and wanted nothing more than to be back home in Ponyville; but the doctors insisted that the severity of his injuries was too much to transfer him there. Within a week, his mood had declined so heavily that Hornette opted to secure some counselling for him. Locomotion readily consented to it, but on the condition that she received the same treatment herself – after all, he reasoned gravely, she had been through a lot worse than he had, and for far longer.

He almost regretted it on their first session, for although Hornette had agreed to give it a try, she quickly found herself regressing into the teary, timid young changeling she used to be before meeting him. Fortunately, the therapist was very patient and understanding. Instead of asking questions and trying to get the timid insectoid to open up, she simply sat and waited until Hornette felt brave enough to speak freely. When at last she did, she was so emotional that Locomotion found himself hugging her instinctively as she vented about her troubled past. Not that he had it much easier himself, of course; for if the love of his life learning about his aunt's death was like opening up an old wound, sharing all his worst memories with a complete stranger felt like having his heart ripped out of his chest and stomped to pulp before his very eyes. He spoke about it with bitter anguish and tearful guilt, even to the point of becoming abrasive; but the therapist remained calm and philosophical throughout, and reassured him that it was natural to be angry and upset about his losses. Eventually, Locomotion became too exhausted to continue, and the therapist left him and Hornette in peace.

The counselling sessions continued for an hour a day; but although the young couple gradually began to feel better in themselves, it didn't make Locomotion's stay much easier. He could hardly eat anything at first without feeling sick, so it took him a while before he could take solid foods again; and because he had been confined to bed for so long, he needed physical therapy in order to regain strength in his legs. Mercifully, by the second weekend in November, almost all his wounds had healed over, and he was able to walk freely for the first time in weeks. Not long now before he was discharged, he thought hopefully.

At last, the doctor set down his stethoscope and wrote something down on his clipboard. Hornette stood to one side, looking on with anticipation.

“Well?” asked Locomotion patiently.

“No complications to speak of,” replied the doctor. “No internal bleeding, no infections...brain's healed over nicely...your arm's still a little fragile, so you'll have to keep it in a brace for at least a fortnight. Other than that, I'd say you're in pretty good health.”

“Aw, good. Does this mean I'm free to go?”

The doctor smiled. “I don't see why not. We'll be arranging further counselling as soon as you return, and you'll need to stay off work until your arm's fully healed; but as long as you take it easy for the rest of the month, you should be fine.”
Hornette felt her heart somersault joyously inside her chest. “Oh, that's wonderful news,” she sighed with relief. “Gosh, will it be good to get back to Ponyville.”

“Too true, Hornette – too true,” murmured Locomotion. Deep down, he was absolutely jumping for joy – he hadn't had a single visit from friends or family since regaining consciousness, and was looking forward to seeing them again. Thank goodness they at least had the heart to send him cards and presents in the interim. “Only one problem left, I guess...”

“What's that?” ventured Hornette, her brow furrowing.

Locomotion shrugged. “ I'm gonna pay for our return journey,” he said simply.

“No need,” interjected the doctor. “We phoned the train station earlier today, and they've already made the arrangements. All you need to do is give your names as soon as you arrive, and all will be in order.”

“Ah, well that's something,” mused Locomotion thankfully. “Well, Hornette, I suppose we'd better go pack our bags. Sooner we check outta here, the better.” But just as he was standing up to leave, an appreciative smile crossed his face, and he turned humbly back to the doctor. “By the way, doc,” he added, “I'd just like to thank you and all the staff here for all you've done for me over the past two months.”

“Don't mention it,” chuckled the doctor. “It's what we're here for.”

“Yeah, well...thanks anyway. I really do appreciate it.”

“I should think we all do,” put in Hornette with warm sincerity. “Life just wouldn't be the same without good old Locomotion; and I can't thank you enough for saving him.”

The doctor chuckled again at the grateful gleam in her eyes. “You're most welcome,” he murmured, visibly flattered. “Just remember not to put too much weight on that arm, Locomotion.”

“I'll do my best,” said Locomotion; and with that, he and Hornette took their leave.

That afternoon, having checked out at the reception desk, Hornette and Locomotion began their long journey back to Ponyville. It was only a ten-minute walk from the hospital to the station, but Locomotion's fragile right arm made it hard for him to walk without limping, so they had to go there by ambulance instead. When they arrived, they headed straight for the ticket office, trying to ignore the tens of thousands of eyes they could feel gazing at them – but discomfort soon turned to amazement when they heard what some of the onlookers had to say. Far from being spooked or disgusted by the sight of a changeling, their subdued murmurs were largely of praise and admiration.

“Wow,” remarked Locomotion, visibly awestruck. “That sure wasn't the reaction I was expecting.”

“Me neither,” Hornette mused. “It's like they're...pleased to see us.”

Locomotion nodded, feeling a heart-warming sense of fulfilment and exoneration as he looked towards a nearby newspaper stand. One front page article in particular bore the headline “THORAX THAWS RELATIONS; PEACE TREATY BETWEEN EQUESTRIA AND METAMORPHIA RATIFIED LAST TUESDAY”, and included a whole paragraph about how he and Hornette had restored free will to her fellow changelings. “And no wonder,” he said. “Thorax was right – we really have turned their opinions around. Almost makes it worth being disfigured in that accident.”

Hornette smiled and nuzzled him affectionately, giving off that soft purr that Locomotion had grown so fond of. “No, Loco,” she reassured him. “You're still just as handsome as before – even with that cute scar on your forehead. It just...adds to your appearance somehow.”

“You really think so?” ventured Locomotion, self-consciously raising a hoof to the mark in question. When the nurses had removed the bandages from his head, he had been disheartened to find a permanent cloud-shaped scar where he had scraped his forehead against the rubble. He was very sensitive about it at first, but as nopony had a bad thing to say about it, least of all Hornette, he soon grew to like it.

“Even if it didn't, you'd still be the same stallion I fell in love with.”

Locomotion blushed; but quickly came to his senses as he realised that they were now at the front of the queue. He trotted briskly over to the ticket window, with Hornette close behind. “Good afternoon,” he said to the booking clerk. “Two singles to Ponyville, please – names of Locomotion and Hornette.”

For a moment, the clerk seemed a little surprised. He quickly checked his reservation book before turning to speak to another pony behind him, while the two teenagers exchanged puzzled glances. “Names of Locomotion and...Hornette, you say?” he asked, returning his attention to the young couple.

“Uh...yeah?” affirmed Locomotion, perplexed.

“Right, then if you'd care to follow our stationmaster, he'd be glad to show you to your train.”

If Locomotion was puzzled a moment ago, he was now absolutely baffled. “Eh?! But...we haven't got our tickets yet!”

“That's alright,” chuckled the clerk reassuringly, “you won't be needing them. You're the only passengers on this train!”

“Whatever does he mean?” wondered Hornette.

Locomotion didn't reply – he just hoped they weren't being set up. It came as an even greater surprise, then, when the stationmaster led them to a train consisting of just one solitary coach, and a very lavishly equipped one at that! Its interior resembled something out of a stately home, with two sleeping compartments, a kitchen and dining room at one end, and an opulent parlour that led to an observation balcony at the back of the vehicle; while upfront, a big, pristine express engine stood simmering patiently and waiting for the off.

“But...I...this is a private coach!” spluttered Locomotion, astounded. “I thought we'd be taking the Celestial Flyer!”

“Evidently not,” replied the stationmaster. “A relative of yours rang us up a few weeks ago, saying his nephew was in hospital, and asking us to reserve a special train for him and his, uh...'companion'...once he'd been discharged. His boss sent this coach down to us, and it's been waiting here ever since, ready to take you home at a moment's notice.”

Locomotion's eyes glossed over at this father of all revelations. He almost began to worry he would burst into tears he was so touched. “U...Uncle Steamer?” he stammered.

“That's what he said his name was, yes.”

“He...put this on for me and Hornette? And after all I said to him?” The red-furred stallion raised a hoof to his chest as tears finally began to leak out. “He...he really does care,” he whispered emotionally as Hornette wrapped a perforated arm around his shoulders, only just managing to maintain her own composure. She was relieved for her part not to have driven a permanent wedge between Locomotion and his uncle, and equally touched that the older stallion still saw some good in her.

“Yes, well...better get aboard,” said the stationmaster after a while. “Your path should be clear any minute now.”

“Oh...sure,” answered Locomotion, discretely pulling himself together. “Thanks a lot, sir – much appreciated.” He gave a soft smile to his beloved changeling as the stationmaster turned and walked away. “Hornette...”

“Yes, Loco?”

Locomotion leaned in closer and kissed Hornette on the bridge of her snout. “Let's go home,” he said fondly.

Home...just hearing that one word was enough to bring a small, joyful tear to Hornette's eye. All that time she had been striving for a Promised Land, and now, she was beginning to realise, it had been right under her nose the whole time – in that quaint but endearing Equestrian town called Ponyville, a place that she had come to love almost as much as the stallion who had brought her there. She had missed it oh so badly ever since being driven out more than two months ago, and to be going back there as a permanent be with Locomotion for as long as time itself would allow her...she just couldn't put it into words. With a warm smile of her own, she nuzzled him passionately as they boarded their train.

Chapter 32: Heroes' Welcome

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Steamer gazed wistfully out of a nearby window, almost oblivious to the pep talk his superintendent was giving. It had been a long and lonely two and a half months since the incident that had driven him and his nephew apart, and the memory of Locomotion's angry outburst still weighed heavily on his mind, along with the crushing news that he had nearly died alongside Chrysalis. That day, he decided, was by far and away the worst day of his life – losing Carnation Petal to a plane crash had been bad enough, but for Locomotion to suffer a similar would have been the finish of him!

Even the weather outside seemed to reflect the depression he was going through at that moment. The bright, warm colours of summer had long given way to the dullness of autumn, the Running of the Leaves had come and gone, and in its wake lay a gaunt, gloomy environment that seemed all too fitting for his state of sorrow...

“Don't make it hard on yourself, Steamer.” The sympathetic tone of Max's gravelly voice invaded his thoughts, and only then did he notice the gentle hoof on his shoulder. “You'll get your nephew back soon.”

“I know,” sighed Steamer wearily. “I just feel so responsible. Loco had every reason to defend Hornette the way he did – he knew she was innocent, and I just stood by and let that blackguard Electro Diesel string her out to dry!” He looked down at the floor, blinking a few tears away. “It's all my fault, Max. I should've been more understanding about the whole scam.”

“We're all to blame for it,” observed Max. “Heck, if Elli hadn't exposed the guy, we might never have learned the truth. But Steamer,” he went on firmly, “you mustn't blame yourself for circumstances beyond your control. That Map specifically called for Loco and Hornette to go out there and put things right with the changelings – like it or not, it was all preordained. Our interference would only have delayed the inevitable...or worse...”

“Yeah, but Loco's accident...”

“...was nopony's fault but that of the cruel hoof of fate; and even that took pity on him in the end,” interrupted Max calmly. “You should do the same to yourself, Steamer – whether or not Loco lets you off the hook is up to him, but if I know the guy, he'll be feeling just as bad about the whole thing as you are.”

Steamer sighed again, his eyes taking on a distant look. “He always was something special,” he murmured solemnly. “Life just wouldn't be the same without him – ever since Carnation Petal died and the wife walked out on me, I...he was all I had to preserve my sanity.”

Max smiled reassuringly and patted his shoulder. “You and he always had a great rapport,” he counselled. “I'm sure you'll make it up eventually.”

Only then did Steamer manage a small, weak smile. For a fleeting moment, he couldn't care less whether Locomotion forgave him – all that mattered, he told himself, was that his nephew was alive and well and would soon be home. His reverie, however, was short-lived, as the signal bell in the canteen rang once, and then in three rounds of four chimes.

Almost at once, Max seemed to take on an air of excitement as he jumped out of his seat. “That's him!” he cried jubilantly. “Places, everypony – he's nearly here!”

All the drivers and fireponies sprang into action with a will. They poured out of the canteen and scrambled eagerly into their engine's cabs, the shed forestallion barking out orders as they began shuffling their charges into place...

A few miles west, Locomotion and Hornette were snuggled up to each other in the parlour of their private coach, watching lazily as the scenery flashed by. It had been a long journey, but neither changeling nor unicorn would have wanted it any other way; to be on a train all to themselves, cuddling and nuzzling and trading kisses with no-one to disturb them (apart from the guard and attendant, but they could live with that), was everything they needed after a much longer and far more stressful hospital stay. All the same, they were looking forward to getting home.

As they passed through a station, a small, nostalgic smile crept onto Locomotion's face. “Ah, Portpaddock,” he sighed. “Boy, does this bring back memories.”

“Oh right?” said Hornette, interested. “How come?”

“That's where the old Ffilystiniog Railway begins,” explained Locomotion. “It brings slate down here from the mountains, to be taken on by rail or river barge. Uncle Steamer used to take me on that line a lot when I was a foal.”

Hornette smiled warmly. “Happy days, eh?”

“Yeah – happy days indeed.” A tinge of sadness registered in Locomotion's eyes at that point, and he seemed to take an interest in the carpet. “I just hope I haven't put an end to them for good.”

“Still feeling bad about your outburst?”

Locomotion shrugged. “Anypony would, after speaking to such a close relative like that.”

“I'm sure he understands,” soothed Hornette. “I mean, he did put on a special train for us, after all – and goodness knows how many favours he had to call in for all that.”

“Yeah, true,” smiled Locomotion wryly. “I just feel kinda stupid for how I chewed him off back then. It's not like he even knew the guy was faking...” but before he could finish, Hornette cut him off with a gentle peck on the snout.

“Hey,” she whispered, “what did I tell you about putting yourself down earlier? And so what if you gave him such a hard time – you were only trying to do what you thought was right – what you knew to be right. You stood up for me, even when all the signs pointed towards me being a traitor. You followed me, even though nopony else would. You tried to protect me despite being outnumbered nineteen to one!” She kissed him again, this time on the lips. “You're anything but stupid, Loco. I'm sure your uncle is still really proud to have a nephew as loyal and righteous as you.”

Locomotion's smile changed to a more touched one. “You always seem to know the right things to say to me...honeybee,” he murmured fondly.

His lover gave him a perplexed yet slightly amused look. “I thought you said you wanted to call me Hornette,” she remarked with a slight giggle.

“I still do,” said Locomotion, mildly embarrassed at his faux-pas. “It's just a...kind of a pet name I'd just thought up – you know, like how Applejack uses the word 'sugarcube', or Rarity calling every other pony 'darling' or whatever...” He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “ don't mind, do you?”

“Mind?” chuckled Hornette. “I think that's kinda cute. Just be sure to use my real name every once in a while,” she added cheekily; “I don't want to end up with an identity crisis any time soon...tender-heart.”

“I'll bear that in mind,” smirked Locomotion heartily. That nickname Hornette had just coined for him had to be one of the corniest he had ever corny, in fact, that he actually liked it! There was something about it, he felt, that seemed to suit him down to the ground – even the unintentional pun behind the word “tender” seemed more endearing than terrible.

Presently, the train rumbled through a tunnel and emerged into a familiar rolling landscape. In the distance, Locomotion could just make out the vast groves of Sweet Apple Acres, now denuded and waiting for winter to pass by; along with the treelike crystalline structure of the Castle of Friendship, standing proud and tall over the many other buildings that surrounded it, even the cloud mansion towards the edge of town. His heart leaped for joy – only a few more minutes...

Suddenly, Hornette's ears perked up. “Say,” she wondered out loud, “what's that noise?”

Locomotion listened. Far away, but getting closer and closer, he could make out a chorus of toots and shrieks, ranging from deep and booming to shrill and strident. “Whistles!” he exclaimed, and bolted out onto the balcony, almost in excitement. When he reached it, the first thing he noticed was a crowd of onlookers cheering and waving from the lineside, while engines large and small stood outside the sheds, all saluting with their whistles as the train passed them by. “Hornette, you've gotta come see this!” he crowed.

Puzzled, Hornette joined him – only to stare in amazement when she saw what was going on outside. To her further astonishment, the cheering and whistling seemed to grow louder as soon as she emerged. “Wha...what is all this?” she asked breathlessly.

“It's us, Hornette,” stammered Locomotion, moved to tears by the spectacle. “They're whistling for us. They're welcoming us home.”

“Even me?”

Especially you. They must think you a real hero now.”

As if to prove his point, the off-white blanket of clouds parted, allowing a shaft of light to beam down onto the young couple. Hornette's heart fluttered as Locomotion leaned in to nuzzle her, tears of her own glistening in her eyes. She had longed to be accepted as an equal, but to be worshipped as a hero was far more than she could ever have dreamed of. Her thoughts drifted to the other members of Locomotion's family, and how they must be yearning for his return – and then, as her gaze also drifted towards the station looming up ahead, she spotted some familiar faces among the waiting crowd. “Loco, look!” she squeaked. “Look who's on the platform!”

Locomotion peered around the side of the coach, and sure enough, he saw his whole family waiting expectantly for them – even Steamer and Firelli Brazen were present. Overwhelmed with emotion, he waved ecstatically and called out at the top of his voice; “MUM! DAD! UNCLE STEAMER! I'M HOME!!!”

His parents, sisters and uncle all waved back as the train drew alongside the platform, barely slowing to walking pace before Locomotion all but lunged out of the coach and into his parents' arms. Surfie, Steamer and Firelli all enclosed him in a loving group hug as he cried feverishly into his mother's chest, yet still managed to maintain an emotional smile. Hornette followed more slowly, watching on with deep joy until Firelli and Surfie invited her into the embrace.

It was Fair Isle who spoke first. “Welcome home, Loco,” she whispered through fond tears as her son pulled back for air.

“We're so glad to have you back again,” chimed in Firelli softly.

Locomotion beamed warmly and gave her an affectionate nuzzle. “It's great to be back,” he stammered. “All those long weeks stuck in a hospital bed...I've really missed you guys.”

“We've missed you too, Loco,” murmured Surfie. “Things just haven't been the same without you around.”

“We're only sorry we couldn't come and visit you in El Pinto,” added Optic Strand sympathetically. “Must have been really hard for you.” He directed a gentle smile of appreciation at Hornette; “Good thing you were around to keep him company.”

Hornette, deeply touched by Optic Strand's gratitude, could only return the smile in kind as she brushed a small tear away. Only then did Steamer, who up to that point had remained understandably quiet, allow himself to speak up. “Hornette...I'm sorry about my misunderstanding,” he ventured sheepishly. “I had no idea Diesel was a changeling himself – or that he'd brought allies with him...” He paused, looking down at his front hooves with shame.

“No, Uncle Steamer,” interjected Locomotion with a deep, rueful sigh. “I'm the one who should be apologising for how I treated you after that. You were the one who made me who I am today, and I just chewed your head right off and gave you the cold shoulder.”

“And you were right to do so.” Steamer, mildly taken aback by Locomotion's response, gently placed his front hooves on his nephew's withers and gazed into his eyes. “I never meant to hurt either of you the way I did,” he confessed sadly. “If I'd only known it was a hoax, I'd have stood up for Hornette in a heartbeat, just like you did. But no – I let that scoundrel pull the wool over my eyes, and it nearly cost me a new friend and a faithful nephew in one go.” He let loose a soft sigh of his own, wiping away a tear before adding, “We all owe you two a great debt of gratitude – and especially you, Hornette. I never should have questioned my trust in you.”

“And I shouldn't have left you alone at your most vulnerable,” put in Firelli gravely. “If there's any way we can make up for it...?”

But Hornette only smiled again and shook her head. “You don't need to, Elli. Twilight told me and Loco how you figured out the truth and cleared my name,” she observed, “and I can't thank you enough for it. Things might've been a great deal worse if you hadn't.”

“I'll say,” murmured Locomotion under his breath.

“Does that mean you forgive us?” asked Steamer tentatively.

The young changeling nodded. “I had no more idea Diesel and that unicorn were changelings than you did, Mr Steamer. Either way, and I can't believe I'm saying this...that whole ruse and your misunderstanding was a blessing in disguise,” she observed. “If those changelings hadn't tricked you into running me out of town, we would never have learned the truth about Chrysalis – or that magic I used to break her spell.” She wrapped an arm around Steamer's withers, taking him by surprise as she hugged him affectionately. “Of course I can forgive you.”

“So do I, Uncle Steamer,” added Locomotion softly. “After all you've done for me...I'd be really ungrateful to hold a grudge over that whole fiasco.”

That did it for Steamer. He couldn't remember the last time he had been so emotional, but to hear those words from his favourite nephew, and after he had almost ruined their friendship for good, touched him so deeply that he could hardly contain himself. With a barely audible sob of joy, he flung his arms around Locomotion and hugged him like he never wanted to let him go, tears pouring from his eyes as he felt the red-furred stallion return the embrace.

“Finally made up, I see?” Max walked up to them, smiling warmly.

With a mild twinge of reluctance, Steamer and Locomotion pulled away from each other and turned to face their superintendent. “So it would appear – and am I ever glad we have,” said Steamer wryly.

Max chuckled heartily. “Never doubted it for one moment,” he mused, and turned to Locomotion. “I don't think your uncle and I could ever be prouder of you than we are right now, Loco. Sanding up to that phoney queen Chrysalis, setting a whole kingdom free from her clutches...that has to be the bravest and most daring thing you've ever done. As for you, Hornette,” he added kindly, “I dunno if I can speak for all the rest of my staff, but I for one feel you've more than earned our respect.”

The two teenagers blushed with pride. “Aw, was nothing really,” stammered Locomotion. “I couldn't exactly leave Hornette to the a manner of speaking.”

“Nor could I let Chrysalis enslave my old comrades,” put in Hornette modestly.

“And a good thing you didn't, otherwise...well, heck, I'd hate to think what the consequences might've been,” remarked Max. “Anyway,” he went on, swiftly and unexpectedly changing the subject, “I believe we're all wanted at the Town Hall.”

Locomotion arched an eyebrow. “Eh? What for?”

But Max only tapped the side of his nose and said, “All in good time, kiddo,” before leading the way out of the station.

“Come on, Loco,” said Optic Strand. “They're waiting for you.”

They?” Locomotion gazed dubiously at his father. “ you know something I don't?”

“Yes, and we're not telling you yet. It's a surprise.”

Hornette frowned anxiously. “Nothing nasty, I hope,” she murmured. “I've had enough unpleasant surprises to last me a lifetime.”

“Believe you me, Hornette,” soothed Steamer, winking discretely at his older brother as they crossed the station forecourt, “this'll be the surprise of your life – and for all the right reasons, I can assure you.”

Seeing the questioning look on Locomotion's face, Surfie seized a chance to distract his attention; “Speaking of surprises, Loco,” she spoke up, “did Elli tell you her good news?”

“Eh? No,” replied Locomotion, perplexed, “I've only just got back.”

“Not even in her letters?”

Locomotion paused. “Um...not that I know of. Just the usual 'get well soon' and such.”

“Ah, well,” said Surfie with a broad smile, “she's got herself a boyfriend now. His name's Mistral; he's studying at CADE for an Atmospheric Chemistry degree,” and she cocked her head towards Firelli. Only now did Hornette and Locomotion see the young golden hippogriff walking next to her, his aqua blue eyes glistening with unmistakeable affection. The feathering around his black claws and hooves were of a silvery grey, along with his beak and wing-tips; he wore an obsidian arrowhead pendant on a simple black necklace, and his messy two-tone brown mane and tail displayed a definite energetic streak. “When Elli heard you were coming home, she invited him over to meet the rest of the family.”

“Wow,” remarked Locomotion under his breath. “Me with a changeling, Elli with a hippogriff...quite the coincidence, eh?”

“He sure seems a nice guy,” mused Hornette. “I'm rather looking forward to meeting him.”

Surfie smiled in agreement. “He was a bit taken aback when we told him about you, Hornette, but I'm sure he'll be pleased to meet you too,” she observed.

They continued to gossip all the way to the Town Hall, with Steamer, Firelli, Surfie, Fair Isle and Optic Strand filling in the young couple on what had been going on in their absence. Locomotion was relieved to learn that, as punishment for how they had treated Hornette, Crafty Crate and some of his cronies had been put on community service for the next few months; but his mood was dampened slightly by the news that Derpy had had to postpone her wedding, in part due to their friendship mission and his subsequent hospitalisation. But his disappointment was soon brought to a sudden halt as they arrived at the Town Hall and found a huge crowd awaiting them. All six Bearers of Harmony were present, and so, to Locomotion and Hornette's amazement, were Thorax and Pharynx. They all stood on either side of a wooden dais that had been set up in front of the building – and there, standing right between them, was none other than...

“Princess Celestia?!” gasped Locomotion, stunned.

Hornette, on the other hoof, didn't say anything. She just gazed in awe, feeling a mixture of fear, honour, intrigue and unworthiness all at the same time. So that's the ruler of Equestria...the one who gave me my parole...oh dear, she thought anxiously, I hope I've not done anything wrong. But she barely had any time to dwell on it before the crowd parted and Celestia beckoned them forward. Both changeling and unicorn hesitated for a moment, wondering what the alabaster alicorn had in store for them.

“Go on, you two,” coaxed Max at last. “You've earned it.”

Earned what? Locomotion still didn't understand what Max was talking about, but thought better of objecting. Instead, he and Hornette advanced tentatively down the aisle that had been cleared for them and climbed up onto the dais, stopping just short of Celestia and bowing respectfully. Celestia greeted them with a warm smile, and addressed the crowd;

“My little ponies,” she began, “when Luna and I first ascended the Equestrian throne several thousand years ago, we made it our prime objective to unite a divided world; to spread our message of friendship and harmony throughout our nation and amongst our neighbours. While some of them accepted without question, others were more hostile, and one civilisation in particular remained virtually undiscovered until around fifteen years ago...” A hint of regret crept into her expression. “...largely, and rather ironically, as a result of our own fear and ignorance.”

Locomotion frowned gravely, thinking back to Thorax's grim story.

“These creatures had frequently and very wrongfully been demonised as monsters of myth and legend, long before my time and Luna's,” continued Celestia. “Even our own kind feared them, and the many invasions attempted over the past fifteen years only served to reinforce their stereotype – and yet, behind the cloak of vice and aggression lay a race of timid, peace-loving beings. The only true menace among their number, as it turned out, was the one who wrested the crown from her older sister, magically indoctrinated her subjects, and went on to terrorise the world beyond – in one instance nearly conquering Equestria on my niece's wedding day.”

That was when Locomotion and Hornette notice a further four ponies standing just behind her. Three were alicorns, of whom they both immediately recognised the dark blue one as Princess Luna; but it took a while for Hornette to realise who the pink one was with the white unicorn stallion by her side. When at last she did, she initially felt a deep sense of shame; but the two ponies simply smiled kindly and gave her a friendly wink, while a smaller alicorn filly sitting on the stallion's back waved a genial greeting of her own.

“But whilst Chrysalis was able to control the minds of her minions, she was ultimately unable to control their morals. Two of her subjects in particular held dear to those morals, and proved to the world that not all of their kind were as malevolent as their self-proclaimed ruler; but it was only through the intervention of one Locomotion, and the events that followed, that we finally learned the truth about the changeling race. By showing mercy upon a previously unnamed changeling, who shall be known now and forever as Hornette, he provided Equestria with an invaluable ally in the struggle against Chrysalis and her regime. Together, and against all the odds, they, along with Thorax and the Elements of Harmony, freed an entire race from the clutches of their potentate, and put an end to the threat of attack that loomed over our nation for a full sixteen years.” Celestia nodded to Flash Sentry, who stepped forth bearing a cushion with four medals. Locomotion goggled at them in awe, barely able to believe what he was seeing – so that was what Max was referring to! His eyes almost watered as he turned his attention back to the alabaster mare, who smiled appreciatively as she levitated the medals over to him and Hornette. “Therefore,” she announced, “it is with deep gratitude and greatest pleasure that I award you the Celestial Peace Medal and the Star of Rockhoof for your gallantry.”

Overwhelmed with pride, Locomotion and Hornette bowed again as the ribbons were lowered around their necks to much applause from the watching crowd. In the background, Fair Isle was so choked up with joy that she could hardly hold back tears, and Optic Strand had to pass her a handkerchief so that she could wipe them away.

“In honour of the occasion,” Celestia went on, raising a hoof for silence, “and as a further token of our appreciation, the Bearers of Harmony, Princess Luna and I have another, more unique decoration we would like to bestow upon our newest citizen.”

“Oh, my,” stammered Hornette, blushing self-consciously. “Y-you needn't do that, Your Excellency...I's not like I...”

Celestia chuckled lightly, cutting her off. “You've no need to be quite so formal with me, Hornette. And as I understand it from Princess Twilight Sparkle, it was a lifelong dream of yours, was it not, to live as a true equal among other races; therefore, after all you've done for us, it would be most imprudent for us not to grant your wish...with a very special gift.” With that, she and Luna set their horns aglow, while Twilight, Rarity, Fluttershy, Applejack, Rainbow Dash and Rarity summoned the Elements of Harmony from their tree.

Hornette watched on, transfixed, wondering what sort of gift they had in mind. As she did so, the Bearers of Harmony beamed their powers in her direction, along with the two Royal Sisters' magic, lifting her into the air and surrounding her with a glow so bright that Locomotion had to shield his eyes. The rest of his family, however, saw what was happening to the young changeling, and could only gape in delight at an even brighter flash radiating from her flanks...

Eventually, the glow died down, and a dazed Hornette was gently lowered back to her hooves. At first, she could only stare questioningly at Twilight, wondering what they had just done to her; but the only response she got was a look of intrigue, as if she had only just realised something.

“Well, I'll be...!” Locomotion's delighted voice promptly snapped her back to reality. “Hornette, take a look at that!!”

“At what?” The young insectoid looked herself all over, and was beside herself with amazement at what she saw. Superficially, she was still the same Desert Scarab Changeling as before; but standing proud on each flank was an image of a red heart with a blue peace sign in the middle. “Oh that what I think it is?” she gasped.

At last, Twilight found her voice. “I knew it! That mystery Cutie Mark on the Map was Hornette's all along!”

“You mean...”

“Yes, Loco. We'd planned to give her a Cutie Mark as a reward, but it seems the Elements of Harmony already had this one earmarked for her the whole time.”

“ very own Cutie Mark...” Hornette looked back to Celestia, her eyes growing misty with awe. It was almost too good to be true.

Celestia nodded, beaming from ear to ear with a maternal warmth. “Welcome to Equestria, Hornette,” she whispered kindly.

Those words, coming from the most regal pony in all Equestria, touched Hornette's heart so deeply that she could no longer hold herself back. Overcome with emotion, she flung her arms around Celestia and hugged her tightly as tears of happiness spilled out of her eyes. Celestia, briefly taken aback, gently wrapped an arm around the changeling's barrel, while Locomotion choked back a small sob of his own. Hornette really had come a long way, he thought – from a timid and elusive nopony who didn't even have a name, this once wilted flower had blossomed to become a Heroine of the Realm, a peacemaker between two nations, and the very first changeling ever to gain a Cutie Mark. To the young stallion, it felt like a fairytale ending come true; and especially so for Hornette, who could only think of one thing as she basked in Celestia's embrace;

At last, I've found the Promised Land.


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The rest of the day seemed to pass by by like a dream for the young couple. Following the ceremony, Locomotion's sisters and some of his other friends carried them on their shoulders to Sweet Apple Acres, where Pinkie Pie had organised the long overdue Welcome Party she had sworn to throw for Hornette since they had first met. At Steamer and Fair Isle's request, she had dedicated it to Locomotion as well, and even invited Lavender Rhapsody to sing at the party, with Vinyl, Lyra and Octavia providing the music. Thorax, Twilight, Steamer, Fair Isle and Optic Strand all made speeches, and several other ponies came up to congratulate the two teens and admire Hornette's new Cutie Mark. Among them was the pink alicorn she had seen at the medal award ceremony, who introduced herself as Princess Cadance and thanked the young changeling for her part in ending the stand-off with the erstwhile Badlands. Her husband Shining Armour heartily agreed with her, and little Flurry Heart even asked if Hornette could come and visit the Crystal Empire one day, so that they could get to know one another. Hornette, of course, was only too happy to accept.

Locomotion was happy too – happy to have ended a war, happy with Steamer's announcement that Hornette would be living with them as a permanent resident – but most of all, he was happy to see his beloved changeling being embraced as a true Equestrian. Looking down at his medals, he couldn't help thinking back to that fateful night before Chrysalis' death, when he had shared the story of his late great grandfather with Hornette; from his refusal to kill, through his time at that dreadful prison camp, to being awarded a similar accolade to his own. That got him thinking – so perhaps he and Hornette were the centre of attention, but his great grandfather did at least deserve an obituary, however belated. Eventually, as the party was starting to wind down, he went over to speak with Vinyl before stepping up to the microphone with an impromptu speech of his own. “Can I have your attention please, everypony?” he announced tentatively, prompting all eyes to turn in his direction. “First and foremost, I'd like to thank each and every one of you for such a warm welcome home.”

There came a warm chorus of appreciative murmurs from Max, Steamer, Fair Isle and Optic Strand, all seated closest to him along with Surfie, Firelli, Mistral and Hornette.

“I'd also like to thank Princess Celestia, on behalf of Hornette and myself, for the decorations so graciously bestowed on us, and particularly for blessing Hornette with her very own Cutie Mark. I think I can safely speak for both of us when I...well, I can't even begin to emphasise how honoured we are; nor how touched I am that Hornette is finally being accepted as an equal,” went on Locomotion. “Even before I met her, I must admit, I'd long held onto the hope that there was at least one good changeling out there; but little did I realise that, in truth, there was little malice in them to begin with. I won't even repeat the name of the one savage among that lot,” fighting back a small scowl, “but what I would like to repeat to you all is a tale that Dad told me when I was a colt – the tale of a stallion who, just like Hornette, believed in world peace, was frequently reviled for it, but was ultimately rewarded in the same way as us two.”

Steamer and Optic Strand's eyes lit up, and Hornette gazed with quiet anticipation.

“I refer, of course, to my great grandfather Staunch Quaker. He too appreciated that one creature alone didn't represent an entire race, no matter how warlike; and although he knew the threat of Adolf Hawker's Griffonia during the Great Griffin War, he remained a conscientious objector throughout, placing morals before nationalism and refusing to take reluctant enemies' lives. The army tried hard to get him in uniform so they could shoot him for cowardice, but in the end, even they were forced to let him go – but not without trying to shame him in the aftermath. I'm sure Princess Celestia remembers what he did with all the white feathers they sent him, making them into a sculpture of her holding the peace sign.”

The warm smile of appreciation from Celestia spoke volumes for itself. Clearly, Locomotion deduced, she still felt sorry for all the hardships his great grandfather had had to go through – and all under her own army, no less.

“His display of stolid altruism served as an example to the whole family, and particularly to my late aunt Carnation Petal. As a Celestial Faith preacher, one of the greatest lessons she ever taught in life was what Great Granddad always used to tell her – 'live and let live'. It was that very moral, more than anything, that gave us the means to end the stalemate with what is now known as Metamorphia, and found me especially my one true love.” A mischievous smirk crossed Locomotion's face as he added, “Yes, Hornette and I are an item now, and to anyone who has a problem with that, all I have to say to you is – 'You sad hypocrites'!”

Most of his audience chuckled heartily, and the few who didn't looked ruefully down at their hooves.

“Joking aside,” continued Locomotion earnestly, “I would like us all to pay tribute to the memories of Aunt Carnation Petal, Great Granddad Staunch Quaker and Crown Princess Nymphia of Metamorphia. Long may they be remembered, and long may their legacy continue.” Looking wistfully up at the night sky, he almost thought he could see the faces of Nymphia, his aunt and great grandfather smiling warmly down upon him as if to say, “Well done, Locomotion.” With a shaky smile of his own, he added, “Thank you, Great Granddad...Aunt Carnation Petal...for showing me the way. Thank you so, so much; and to Nymphia...Your Gracious Majesty...would-be Queen of the Changelings...everything's alright now. Pony and changeling are now united as one, and thus we intend to remain forever more.”

The stars seemed to twinkle in reply as the crowd murmured their agreement. Optic Strand, Steamer, Fair Isle and Hornette in particular were moved to tears by Locomotion's speech, and even Rainbow Dash struggled to hold back her own.

“And now,” concluded Locomotion, levitating the microphone out of its holder, “I have a special request for DJ PON-3...or Vinyl Scratch, whichever you prefer. It's a song that...probably few of you know too well, unless you're familiar with the Marionette Magic TV shows – and one in particular that I really enjoyed watching as a colt.” He nodded to Vinyl, who winked broadly and levitated one of her tone-arms at the ready. “This song I'd like to dedicate to the very changeling who, without even trying, managed to capture my heart and change my life forever. Hornette – I love you.”

Barely a few seconds before he had finished, Vinyl started up the turntable and began playing a warm and melodic serenade, almost like a romantic maritime song of old. It was a song that Locomotion's parents, siblings and uncle instantly recognised; and even though Hornette and several others didn't, it still touched their hearts as Locomotion began to sing the lyrics, gazing fondly upon his beloved changeling. Both he and Hornette began to drift towards each other, meeting in each other's arms about halfway through the song and dancing a short, gentle waltz until the song was almost over, at which point they stopped to gaze into each other's eyes while Locomotion recited the last few lyrics. Finally, as the music reached its climax, both pony and changeling leaned into a deep, passionate kiss.

The rest of Locomotion's family could only look on, spellbound, at the heart-warming display. Firelli beamed with happiness for her little brother as she gave Mistral an affectionate nuzzle, while Fair Isle discretely wiped her eyes dry for the umpteenth time that evening, and Steamer and Optic Strand exchanged warm, proud glances. Whilst having Locomotion home again was wonderful in its own right, seeing him so happy and in love, especially with a changeling, was more than any of them could ever have dreamed of. It had been a rough journey for them both, an uphill struggle in the face of conflict, racism and a tyrant from whom there seemed no escape – and yet, against all the odds, the young couple had managed to win through and bring their respective nations together.

And so far as Princesses Celestia, Luna and Twilight were concerned, that newfound unity between Equestria and Metamorphia was to continue for many centuries to come.