Does she know—

by semillon

First published

Love is built up over time, and no one knows that more than Ocellus.

Love is built up over time, and no one knows that more than Ocellus.

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Ponyville. A picturesque small town near the Equestrian capital city of Canterlot. The townsponies are friendly, the houses are nicely maintained, and there’s a lot of beautiful land that offers the kind of respite from life’s troubles that one might expect from the country. Ponyville is wonderful, no doubt, but other than the occasional monster attack—a side-effect from being situated near the Everfree Forest—it wouldn’t be particularly newsworthy on its own. Fortunately, a town is more than its real estate.

Growing up in the Hive, we were taught that the strongest part of a community lies in its individuals. The special cases. The talented ponies. The local heroes. Ponyville is home to a lot of those.

In Ponyville resides two ponies and a dragon that my people consider to be the saviors of our race, besides Thorax, of course. The first and foremost is Spike the dragon. The First Friend. The miracle that Thorax came across in the tundra near the Crystal Empire. It’s thanks to him that ponies realized we were capable of friendship. Then there’s Starlight Glimmer. She led the team of heroes that overthrew Queen Chrysalis and ushered in an age of peace and rebuilding for our people.

And there’s Twilight Sparkle. What can I say about Twilight Sparkle? She’s wonderful? Amazing? It’s because of her that friendship has become so widespread not just through Equestria, but the countries beyond. It’s by her instructions that we’re now building new traditions, celebrating holidays, and well on our way to becoming one. Twilight Sparkle is quite possibly the most important pony in the entire world. One of the most beautiful, as well, but you didn’t hear that from me.

Oh, who am I kidding? She’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever laid eyes on. When I look at her, taste her emotions, think about her lessons and hear her’s like I’m floating in the ocean on a warm, sunny day. I’m perfectly content to drift wherever the tide takes me.

It’s on a Saturday when Thorax arrives at my housing unit. I quickly say goodbye to my parents and siblings (we spent all of last night crying, so there aren’t many tears this time around) and he escorts me to Ponyville.

When we first enter Ponyville’s borders, I marvel at all the grass and the ponies and the fact that they don’t shy away from us. They just give us curious looks, like we’re shiny new toys displayed on a storefront and they’re kids walking through the streets the week before Hearth’s Warming. We make our way through the streets until we come to a big, blue structure: the School of Friendship. We walk into the main lobby.

That’s when I see her for the first time. She stands at the front of the crowd and cheerfully announces herself. “Welcome to the School of Friendship! I’m your Headmare, Twilight Sparkle. Please follow guidance counselor Starlight to sign in and get your class assignments. Then we can show you your living quarters!”

I wander over to her, naturally, but I get lost in all the individuality. That’s not metaphorical speech, either. Back home, I’m not being bombarded by the pure, unabashed feelings of everyling running around. All changelings know how to scale back their emotions, to make it so that no-ling suffers from sensory overload. It’s not that we try and deaden ourselves, it’s that we simply turn down the intensity a bit while still feeling the full breadth of whatever we’re feeling. That description doesn’t help too much, but it’s a strange thing to try and explain out loud.

Here, though, there aren’t any changelings except for Thorax and I, and all of the creatures romping around are feeling the kinds of volatile emotions that come with the first day of school.

My legs get all wobbly, and before I know it, I’ve lost where Starlight Glimmer and Twilight Sparkle are, and I’m standing next to a dragon.

Her scales are the colors of persimmons, sand and the kind of garish dark pink that Saddle Arabian sheiks like their silk scarves to be. I’m completely terrified. I’ve never seen a dragon before, and this one’s radiating disgust like a smoldering meteor that’s freshly crashed into the ground.

Worse thing is that there’s another dragon across from her—Dragon Lord Ember. We all know what she looks like because Thorax won’t shut up about her. Beside her is Spike, who we know for the same reason.

I don’t even notice that I’ve transformed into one of her kind until Thorax angrily yells my name.

The meteor dragon turns around and backs away from me. I play with my new hair, trying to stay calm even though my every nerve is urging me to run. Thorax tells me to change back to my original form, because it’s the polite thing to do. I don’t see why I have to be polite when the three dragons start staring at me like I’ve grown another leg. I’ve still only got four.


Coincidentally, the dragon’s name is Smolder. We end up spending time together as the classes go by. Not just me and her, of course. There’s Yona, a yak; Silverstream, a hippogriff; Gallus the griffon and Sandbar, who’s just a plain old earth pony. I’ve done a lot of asking around and apparently friend groups just happen like this. No hard rhyme or reason. We all get along well enough.

It’s not perfect. Sometimes there’s a ton of friction that happens when Smolder and Gallus and Yona get really into their ribbing. Silverstream’s energy is a lot to deal with over a long amount of time. Her excitement’s similar to eating a batch of cupcakes: amazing at first, but too many and all of a sudden, you’re nursing a gigantic headache and regretting ever thinking that this was a good idea.

Sandbar, however, is just Sandbar. I had a bunch of questions for him at first. He has a wonderful knowledge of the professors’ adventures and of pony history in general, but when he starts talking about other things I tend to get a little lost. We’ve had some wonderful conversations about marine biology, though. He’s got a thing for turtles. I enjoy discussing sharks, and why they don’t deserve the fear mongering that pony media has instilled amongst the masses in recent years.

On our first Friends and Family Day, Gallus and Smolder decide to skip class. Me, Yona and Silverstream encounter them on their way out of the school, and we decide to go with them. Sandbar tags along as well.

Literal seconds after that, I lie to my professors for the first time. A flawless Rarity impression is easy. All you have to do is say “darling” a lot and tap into the little parts of yourself that have good self-esteem. Professor Fluttershy is easily fooled. Her rabbit, not so much, but that’s okay. It’s not like he can adequately describe my deceit to her anyway.

Adrenaline travels through each of us like lightning hitting a crowd of metal poles and we run out of school.

“I take back everything I ever said about you!” says Smolder. Her cheer is delectable. Tart in the best way, like a cold glass of lemonade, and extremely contagious. “That was cool!”

I thank her, and then I process what she just said. “Wait, what did you say about me?”


Smolder’s terrible in class. For the classes that she doesn’t like, and thus ruins for me, because I have to sit beside her and get whiffs of her displeasure for a whole hour, she sits there and sulks. And what do you know? She doesn’t like any of the classes that I like.

During History of Friendship she either sleeps or makes snarky remarks to Gallus and Sandbar the whole time. The one time I’ve asked her to be quiet, she went into a tirade about how I was a teacher’s pet. I turned into an orthus and slobbered—spat, really—some saliva onto her face.

Similarly, Applejack’s assorted stories about hard work and different Apple Family harvests have Smolder bored to tears. She doesn’t snark during those, because Professor Applejack would have her hauling carts of apples for weeks, but she does sulk. I’ve taken to having little private conversations with her when Applejack starts a story. I don’t get to hear a third of what happened, of course, but something that I discovered during my second week is that Silverstream is a fantastic note taker and she has wonderfully legible claw writing, so I just copy her notes after any Honesty class.

The conversations that I have with Smolder usually consist of me asking how her day was. She’ll say “fine” or “okay”. She’s lying, of course. She’s still unused to the fact that she can’t hide the truth from me—only obscure it. I press her a little more by talking about how great of a day I’ve had.

Smolder’s eyes twitch when she’s jealous. Draconic greed is a hot shower after an hour of cold and the last stretches of a marathon. Her resentment spawns the truth. We get to talking about how she doesn’t like the way that Headmare Twilight structures her quizzes and we laugh quietly about Professor Pinkie’s abstract baking instructions.

By the time I start having fun with our clandestine chats, we run out of things to say, and I get to pay attention to Professor Applejack once again. I think that maybe, just maybe, I’m getting a hang of applying friendship throughout my real life.


Study group is my favorite part of every week. We hold our sessions in the library, just before bed, in a quiet corner where we don’t have to be afraid of being loud. The Hive doesn’t have big, cushiony, massless chairs that you can sink into and read a book in. This place has eight, and we hog every single one.

We sit in a circle and go over our weeks collectively and decide on who needs help with what, and what tests we should all be studying for. The two extra pillows-slash-chairs-slash-blobs of comfort are normally used as footrests for Gallus and Smolder. They’ve threatened a few times not to show up if they don’t get them. I’ve been asked by Yona, Silverstream and Sandbar if they’re lying. The truth is that they are, but I say that they’re not. There’s something about Gallus and Smolder that make me want to keep them happy. I want all of my friends to be happy, yes, but those two bring out a special kind of guilt in me when I have to tell them off or disadvantage them.

Tonight, we’re studying for a quiz on the sixth volume of the professors’ adventures. Sandbar and I are in charge of doling out the questions. The rest of our friends have a wide, excited sharpness in their eyes.

Sandbar starts to sing. “Like a—”

“Racer at the starting line, you’re chomping at the bit,” Gallus sings, throwing Smolder a smug look before winking at Silverstream. “You are here to find your purpose and a place you really fit.”

“Very good!” I clap for him, as does Sandbar, Silverstream and Yona.

Smolder crosses her arms. “Why do we need to memorize all the songs again?”

“For fun?” Silverstream guesses. “Twilight’s only making us know the first few verses anyway!”

“Musical magic can galvanize dramatic action in others,” I explain. “It’s an important part of Pony society.”

Smolder groans and rolls her eyes. They’re such common actions for her that I feel like I need to come up with a word for when she acts them out. Smoldering would work if it weren’t a verb already. Dragon-ing? No, not catchy enough.

“Don’t worry, Smolder,” says Gallus. His tone is deceptively sweet—literally and figuratively. I reach for the water bottle I’ve placed beside my chair. “Not everycreature can be as smart as me.

Smolder’s claw gets to my water bottle first, swiping it before my hoof is even halfway there. She squirts Gallus with water, and he lets out a feminine squeal that throws all of us into hysterics.

“I hate you,” says Gallus.

Smolder blows a raspberry at him. The tone in the air is light, and the mood is fun, but there’s something that I get off of her that I don’t get from anyone else. She’s embarrassed, and under that first layer of embarrassment is hate. Pure, goopy, messy hate directed at nothing in particular and unsure of its own reason for existing. I’m not sure how to feel about it.


The next time that we have a study group, only Smolder and I show up. Everyone else has some sort of extracurricular activity to go to. It’s weird that we’re the only two who haven’t joined a club yet. Yona and Sandbar have gardening together, Gallus is still pretending that Professor Dash made him join half the sports teams, and Silverstream’s got her figure drawing class that she hosts every few weeks.

Everything’s fine. This is all okay. It’s fun! Study group is fun. Smolder’s on a chair reading and I’m reading too, and we’re reading, and no one’s said a word in about an hour. We’ve been reading for an hour. Silently. Now, Smolder probably thinks that I’m in heaven because she has me pegged for the kind of girl that wants peace and quiet.

I don’t like to admit this, but I hum to myself while I read, and not doing it now feels incredibly weird. It’s similar to paying close attention to the amount of breaths you take in a minute. Just as unnatural. My eyes scan the words in my Animal Anatomy textbook, but they don’t digest any of it in a meaningful way. It takes me fifteen minutes to read a paragraph that I would normally spend seconds on. I hate it. Are all creatures really so tied to habits that the moment one is forced to restrain herself, she loses all function?

In my frustration I end up staring at Smolder, and again, I don’t want to say this, but when I see her effortlessly glide over the pages of her textbook—her history textbook, the textbook for the class that she doesn’t even like—I get mad enough to spit. Now, I don’t actually spit, because depending on the glands that I choose to engage, I could either burn a hole in the floor or lay down the base for a cocoon, but either of things would be rude, and I don’t want to be rude. I just stare at Smolder and let my jealousy slowly build.

Smolder takes mere minutes to get through an entire chapter. Then she flips all the way back. I watch curiously as her eye twitches and she inches a little closer to the book, glaring at the words they’ve badmouthed her.

She hasn’t been reading. She—she can’t read. No, that’s not it. I’ve seen her read things out. What’s wrong, then? Maybe she’s been going blind? Or maybe…

Headmare Twilight teaches History of Friendship. I’ve always held the opinion that her writing style is as beautiful and structured, as elegant and poised as her own royal self. It’s something that I admire about her. She makes beautiful castles out of paragraphs and she decorates their interior with vivid stained glass.

But I’ve quickly realized that just about everyone else thinks that she’s simply too verbose. To some, maybe she even comes off as esoteric.

To Smolder, possibly, she’s incomprehensible.

“Need some help?” I ask, before I can question whether following my impulses is a good idea.

Smolder’s eyes widen. She sits up straighter, and her tail begins to wag slowly. “Whaddya mean?”

“I was just noticing that you’re having trouble with the material.”

“Am not.”

I raise an eyebrow.

She sneers in response. “You callin’ me stupid?”

“I never said that. What does ‘chronoscopic’ mean?”


“It’s the last word on the first paragraph of the chapter we’re on right now. What does it mean?”

Smolder glares at me. “Fine. You got me. Have a laugh, I don’t know what our fancy pony princess headmare’s talking about half the time. It’s like this thing’s in another language.” She holds the textbook up with contempt.

I frown. “I’m not making fun of you. I promise.” My voice grows quiet, and I roll lazily off of my cushion so I can get closer to her. “I want to say I’m sorry, Smolder. I should have noticed that you were having trouble with class and offered to help. No wonder you hate history so much.”

At first, she sends such a large splash of negative emotion towards me that I’m forced to physically stop to brace against it. But it’s not as bad as it seems to be. Not when I actually take the time to analyze it. It’s not hate that she’s directing towards me. It’s fear.

So I keep moving, watching each of her movements closely. Her tail gets straighter and her chest starts to seize. Her claws curl up and she can’t help showing her teeth off in a weightless sneer. She watches me just as close. I’m sure she can see me trying my hardest to smile, to fight my fear of her species, of her potential anger. She watches me and I watch her until I finally get to the cushion beside her and take a seat.

“I promise that I’m not making fun of you,” I say, “and if it makes you feel more comfortable I won’t tell the others that you’re having trouble with the prose.”

Smolder blinks. I watch her realize that she has nothing to be suspicious of.

Then she sighs. She turns her book towards me and scoots her cushion closer to mine. “I think I understand what Twilight means by remuneration, but can you tell me so I can make sure I’m right?”

I smile, and begin to explain.

that she smells?

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“Okay, everycreature!” Headmare Twilight calls just after the bell rings, stopping most of us from getting up and leaving. She’s looking especially beautiful today. The late afternoon light really suits her coat. She gives all of us a big smile—one that most of us return. “Don’t forget about your one-on-one slumber party assignment that I gave you at the beginning of class! They’re going to be due first thing on Monday, so make sure to take the weekend to have some fun with a friend for a night!”

We (the entire class) give a murmur that sounds positive and then we vacate the class. Once we’re (me, Gallus, Sandbar, Smolder, Silverstream and Yona) in the hall and walking back to our dorms, Gallus turns to me. “Have a partner for the thing yet?”

I shake my head. “Were we given time to choose partners in class? How would anyone have a partner already?”

Gallus gives me a wry smirk. “The moment that Twilight said the words ‘find a partner’, most of us looked up from the assignment sheets and found one with eye contact. You were probably busy examining the Headmare’s syntax to notice. I managed to steal Yona before anyone else could. Gonna have the comfiest sleep of my entire life and I cannot wait to rub it in all your faces the morning after.”

Ahead of us, Yona trails behind a bantering Smolder, Sandbar and Silverstream. Her coat is looking extra fluffy today. She must have taken that special shampoo Professor Rarity offered to lend her.

I push my jealousy aside to bat my eyes at Gallus. “You mean that you don’t want to cuddle with me. Gally? I have special changeling training. I’m extra good at it, you know. Bet you no one else in the school could do it like me.”

Gallus blushes, but only for the second before he laughs it off. “You know, I don’t get why I’m the one you show your confident side off to. The rest of the gang would get a kick out of you acting all griffon-y and sarcastic.”

“Being realistic here, I think Sandbar and Silverstream would just chew you out for being a bad influence on me.”

Ha! Maybe. You know that they’re having their slumber party with each other, right?”

I blink. “So I’m with Smolder.”

“Well, you could always go outside our group.”

“I like the rest of our class, but I think I want to be with someone I’m close to for this project. Seems like a good opportunity to get to know a friend I’ve already made a little better.”

“...but?” Gallus drones, knowing that there’s more on my mind.

“But Smolder still kind know. I don’t know how to handle her just yet. Whenever we’re alone I’m just so scared of boring her! She thinks I’m, I’m this cutesy little fragile flower. She probably feels like she’s got to have grub gloves on when she talks to me.”

“Y’know,” Gallus says, “there’s a reason why I brought up your sarcastic side just now.”

I sigh. “I don’t know.”

In the old days of the hive, we were taught that physical affection was a gateway into the deeper flavors of love. It was a sort of achievement you had to gain before truly consuming the good stuff. That’s why I hear a happy little chime in my head when Gallus touches my shoulder with a claw. He truly cares about me!

“Just relax,” he says, nodding his head to the scene in front of us—Smolder, Sandbar and Yona are now holding an impromptu wrestling match in the hallway, just before the door leading to the courtyard. Silverstream’s reffing. The sight of them brings a smile to my face, and all of my stress nearly washes away. Gallus continues to speak. “You two are already friends, aren’t you? What’s the worst that could happen?”

Smolder arrives at my room later, just before night falls. She’s drenched in sweat and—my hive she smells like someone dipped the entirety of an old oak tree into sulphur and then lit it on fire with the help of chili oil!

Somehow, she still greets me with an easy smile. “‘Sup?”

“Oh, you know, this and that.”

She breezes past me, taking in my room. I struggle to maintain composure under her, um, her scent.

“Your room’s so neat,” she says, looking my bookshelf up and down, wandering over to my desk, and turning around to examine the bed. When Headmare Twilight was designing the school, she had every dorm outfitted with a bunk bed, for sleepover emergencies and because it was fun. Both my bunks are impeccably made. Even though I don’t use the top one that often, I make it everyday anyway.

“Very nice,” says Smolder. “Which bunk do you want? Mind if I take the bottom one?”

I start to answer, but Smolder’s snuggling into bottom bunk—my bunk—before I can really protest. I walk over to her, trying to keep my voice energetic. “Did you...did you just have gym class or something?”

“Kinda!” Smolder chirps. She snorts a little bit of smoke into my pillow. “Rec dodgeball. I’m beat. Can’t wait to relax and hang out with one of my best pals at school, you know?”

She says it with such honesty that I’m taken aback. My wings flutter a little bit. No deceit is tainting her feelings. “You mean that?”

“Of course I do,” Smolder says. “I think this is gonna be fun. You’ve made a checklist of things to do already, haven’t you?”

I smile. “Headmare Twilight gave one out with our assignment papers.”

“But you’ve made your own ‘cause you wanted to plan better for tonight and for me specifically, right?”

That makes me blush. I step back from her a little, looking everywhere but my sweat-soiled bunk and the dragon lounging under the covers. “W-Well...yes. But we don’t have to do anything that I’ve mandated. It’s more of a guide—”

“I wanna do everything,” Smolder says. Her face and feelings are just as genuine and pleasantly excited as they have been for the whole conversation. “Seriously. You can overthink stuff sometimes and you like studying just a little too much, but as long as ‘do our homework’ isn’t an item on your checklist, I’m down for anything.”

My heart goes the way of cold butter on a hot pan. Smolder sees my mouth quivering and she sits up. “Whoah, don’t cry, dude. What’d I say? If you want to do homework that bad, then we can do homework.”

Even without the anxiousness I’m tasting on my tongue, I’d be able to tell that’s a blazing lie. I laugh and sniffle. “Sorry. I was just a little worried at how tonight would go, so hearing that you’re okay with anything’s a relief. I never expected you to be so open.”

“Why would you be worried?” Smolder raises a brow arch. “Are you scared of me?”

“No! I thought that you might not be looking forward to spending time with me because—”

“You still think I’m some big, stupid, scary, village-raiding dragon, don’t you?” Smolder interupts. “Well, I am. Deal with it.”

“Smolder! That’s—”

“Not what you were gonna say? Come on, Ocellus. You’ve been looking at me like I’m a walking bonfire ever since you answered the door.” Her teeth flash for an instant before her snarling muzzle settles into a frown. She gets off my bed, leaving it stained in sweat and stink and she makes for the door. “Look, I’m gonna go cool off or something. We can continue this later, if you’ve gotten over how scared—”

“I’m not scared!” I screech. My wings buzz and I block her path to the door. I’d be sweating if I were a mammal right now. I bare my fangs at her. “Stop drawing wrong conclusions and acting on them before I can explain myself!”

“Then explain,” Smolder says as she crosses her arms. Her tail wags slowly behind her, reminding me of a snake getting ready to strike.

“You smell awful,” I say.

Smolder blinks. “What?” She lifts one of her arms and sniffs herself. “No I don’t.”

“You do. You really do.”

“Why would I be—”

“You just came from gym class!”


“You’ve been sweating.”

“...So? I don’t smell anything.”

I narrow my eyes at her, buck my door with one of my hindlegs hard enough that it opens on its own, and turn around. Directly across the hall, muffled giggling can be heard behind Sandbar’s door. I put a hoof up to my mouth and yell, “Hey! Sandbar!”

Smolder tries to talk, but I whip my head 180 degrees and shush her. The horror on her face says she’ll be quiet.

Sandbar answers the door. “Hey Oce—whoah.” I crack my head back into place, watching as he turns a little green. Greener than he already is, I mean. “Could, uh, could you always do that?”

“Thorax says it’s not polite and it freaks involuntary vertebrates out,” I explain. “Now, come here. Hi Silverstream.”

Behind Sandbar, Silverstream, wearing a sombrero and holding a full poker hand, waves at me from her seat on the floor.

Sandbar walks until he’s a polite distance away from Smolder and I. I step aside, keeping my eyes on him. “Sniff Smolder.”

“What?” Sandbar asks, at the very same time Smolder does.

My eyes look from one to the other repeatedly. “Do it.”

Smolder and Sandbar turn to face each other, but don’t move.

“Do it,” I repeat.

“I...don’t have to,” Sandbar says, stepping back. His eyes are apologetic, and directed submissively to Smolder. “I can kinda already smell you, dude.”

“Okay, that’s all. Thanks!” I say. “Have fun with your sleepover!” And then I slam the door and point a vindicated glare to Smolder.

She glares back at me, and my bravado vanishes. The sheer impact of what I’ve done dawns on me as Smolder advances, her arms raised slightly.

Smolder stops just in front of me. I try not to cower, but both of my hindlegs are shaking.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asks.

“I don’t know.” I look down at the floor. “I don’t know what you think of me yet. Gallus is surprisingly smart, and he’s really fun to talk to. Sandbar, Silverstream and Yona are all sweethearts. But you’re the most different from me. I don’t want you to think we have nothing in common, but I don’t know if we have anything in common.”

“Do we have to?”

“I don’t want to bore you! I’m so…” I wave a hoof. “Not dragon.”

“That thing you did just now was pretty dragon.”

“What, waving my hoof?”

“No. Marching Sandbar out of his room to prove a point.” Smolder crouches, and suddenly it’s hard to stare at the floor. I reluctantly meet her gaze.

She smiles. “I wanna hang out with you. You’re my friend. And you can tell me about anything you want. If you think I’m being stupid, then say that. If I’m smelly, then tell me.”

“Okay,” I say.

“Cool. Sorry about your bed, by the way. I just realized I soaked it in sweat.”

“That was so gross.”


“It’s okay. You smell like garbage. Garbage dipped into kerosene.”

“What’s kerosene?”

“And you’re rude sometimes and I hate when you talk with your mouth full of gems.”

Smolder grins. “See? Is that so hard?”

“You could crunch into my chitin like it were made of toast.”

“But I won’t!” Smolder says. “Hey, seriously. Are we okay?”

I smile a little. “Yeah.”

“Great. I’m gonna go shower quick and then I’ll be back here for our slumber party, alright?”

And she does that, giving me enough time to make my bed again, light a few candles, and cross ‘do homework’ off the special slumber party list I made. When Smolder comes back to my room, I don’t feel any tension between us at all, and I don’t even bother feeling out her feelings for the rest of the night, because the fun is palpable.

We gossip about the others and the professors, Smolder tells me a couple of stories from her childhood in exchange for my detailed analysis of how terrible pony security is (a topic distanced enough from my old life to not be as painful as it could be) and we end the night with Truth or Dare. Neither of us picks dare. We just spend the entire night telling each other the truth. Smolder still feels insecure about her reading comprehension. I’m still worried that Sandbar is scared of me. Smolder likes it when Silverstream talks a million words a minute, because keeping up feels like a game. I admit that I’ve always wanted to wear one of Professor Rarity’s more risque pieces, to a long bout of chortling from Smolder.

After that, I don’t ever find it hard to talk to Smolder anymore. Whatever I say, she listens, and she doesn’t always agree, but something that I notice is that unless it’s something that feels like a personal attack on her, she rarely judges, and that makes talking easy.


Talking is easy now, but sometimes talking isn’t possible.

Dragons are greedy creatures. Every thread of their biology is geared towards guarding, admiring, and taking.

I have no qualms with Smolder when she’s protective over her textbooks or her food and gems. Recently, we’ve even been mutually gushing over certain fabrics that Professor Rarity has been bringing into class. What I hate, however, is when Smolder helps herself to my things without asking.

Back in the hive, we’re still getting used to owning things. We’ve never had possessions before. I remember the day after we redeemed ourselves en masse. It was hour and hour of scuffles involving whose bed of moss belonged to who. A complete nightmare for Thorax, I’m sure.

I wasn’t any of those changelings, of course. It would have been stupid for me to try and take on any adult drones. I’m still a couple of molts away from my final form. Being completely honest, it’s a total miracle that I somehow got away with my only possession from the old days: a pretty arrangement of colorful wild mushrooms that I made myself.

Since arriving I’ve come to own more things. Blankets. Books. Oh, the books. I have enough to qualify them for a draconic horde, and they’re all mine. Not to mention all the apple-related products that we keep getting for free during our Honesty lectures.

Which is where Smolder comes in. To be fair, she warned us about this. She even told me about it during our sleepover a few weeks ago. It’s supposed to be “gathering season” in the Dragonlands right now, which is when all the dragons in the Dragonlands have their sense of greed (which is a sense to them in the same way that touch or taste is) amplified ridiculously. Hearth’s Warming is coming up, meaning that Winter is as well, meaning that this is probably the dragon version of storing food for the winter.

Smolder’s been taking my stuff. Sandbar’s, too. She’s taken stuff from the rest of the gang as well, but they’re only missing trivial things. Toothbrushes, pillows, glasses of claw polish, in Silverstream’s case. What she’s stolen from Sandbar and I are exponentially more important. From Sandbar she’s snagged the only photo of his family that he bothered to bring with him when he moved. From me, she’s taken the first gift I’ve ever been given: a jar of Zap Apple jam.

The most rational thing for us to do would be to have a kind, mature talk with Smolder and ask for our stuff back. Except Smolder’s a ninja and in the few times that I’ve attempted to confront her, high decibels and all, dragon style, she looks at me like she can barely hear me. I’m convinced there’s a weird part of her brain that’s just making her scratch this itch that she has that wants her to take things, and that it’s completely incorrigible and unreasonable, and will continue to be until we take it back from her.

We choose take it back from her, obviously. At midnight, we don our catsuits from Professor Pinkie’s seminar on surprise parties last month and meet outside of Smolder’s room. Our hooves are muffled by the magic in the hallway carpet that activates past ten. This is a heist. The kind that you read about in stories.

There could be better partners to have when robbing a dragon. Gallus comes to mind as someone particularly light-footed and morally gray. I’m just glad that it’s not Yona or Silverstream that I cooked up this plan with. Sandbar smiles at me through the hood of his suit, and I smile back.

It’s go time. I go first—for the past eight hours I’ve been skimming a book detailing the specifics of picking locks. Sandbar hands me the kit that he went into town to buy and I get to work, sliding the tension wrench across the bottom and using the pick to trigger the pins.

Minutes pass. Sandbar waits patiently. I’m not sure what he’s doing, but he nearly lets out a cheer when I manage to crack the lock and push the door open slowly. I have to glare his excitement away, which doesn’t feel the best because I’m feeling peckish and I could use a snack.

Sandbar’s turn is next. He sneaks through the doorway, taking care not to make any noise, before he peeks at which bunk Smolder is sleeping in. He turns back to me and twirls a hoof, which means that she’s asleep on the top bunk and sleeping heavy. I’m really glad that we both paid such attention to Pinkie’s seminar. Who knew we’d be using the things we learned over the course of it so soon?

I transform into a butterfly and fly ahead of him, which is when I spot the sty.

Pillows are strewn about the floor. Some of them are ripped up. Some have odd stains on them that I’m going to guess are from cider.

On Smolder’s desk are the toothbrushes that she’s stolen from Gallus, Yona and Silverstream. They’re laid out in an odd pattern that reminds me of old changeling warrior sigils. But the toothbrushes aren’t important. What’s important is the jar of jam by Smolder’s nightstand, and the framed family photo beside it.

Smolder’s curled up on the top bunk, as Smolder said. She’s hugging her own tail, and in the middle of the little donut that she’s making with her body is a patch of blue velvet fabric that she nuzzles on occasion. The crown jewel of her horde, maybe? I know that makes no sense, but I don’t have much idea as to what does.

I flutter across the room and transform back when I’m close enough to the nightstand. The jam and the photo are easy enough to pick up. My running thoughts make it a little harder to simply take them. Smolder wanted these things. She needed them. Maybe I’m taking away my friend’s comfort for the sake of my own selfishness. Maybe the generous thing to do would be to leave them.

I put the jar of jam down, but take the framed photo. Sandbar probably needs it more than Smolder, but I don’t think I’m going to die without my gift. Smolder can have it. We’ll have words if she eats the contents of the jar, of course, but for now, she can have it.

I turn back to bring the photo to Sandbar, but he’s taken his hood off and he’s actively staring at something on the top bunk of Smolder’s bed.

What a surprise. It’s Smolder. Her eyes are feral and her teeth are bared. There’s an orange glow behind them, the fire building in the center of her throat. The heat in the room rises by about ten degrees. “What,” she growls, “are you doing?”

I back away, shrinking into myself. “S-Sandbar,” I stutter. I’m trying as hard as I can to talk to her like normal, but I can’t help my own whimpering. “Sandbar needs his photo back.”

“Well, he can’t have it!” Smolder roars, full volume.

I turn my head away and hold the photo up as a last second defense against her fire, but she doesn’t breathe any out.

More seconds pass without an inferno coming at me. I put the picture down. Smolder’s expression’s completely changed.

“Crap,” she says. There’s a sudden clarity to her eyes. “Sorry. This…” She gestures to the stolen things around her room. “This isn’t cool, is it? I’m being a total—”

“Dumb, stupid, rude idiot?” I say.

“I’ll return it in the morning,” Smolder says. “Sorry, Sandbar. You can have your picture back.”

I trot to Sandbar and hand his picture to him. He gives me a grateful smile before turning to Smolder. “It’s no prob, dude. Just ask me next time, ‘kay?”

Smolder gives him a thumbs up. Her gaze inevitably drifts to me. “I took something from you too, didn’t I?”

I look at the jar of Zap Apple jam on her nightstand. “...You can have it. It feels good for you to hoard, right?”

“Nothing better,” she says sheepishly. “But it’s still not okay, I guess. I don’t wanna sit here and be the ass of a dragon who obviously doesn’t belong at this school.”

“You’re not,” I say. “I’m serious. Keep the jar.”

“Uh, thanks.” Smolder blinks. A burst of affection and gratuity comes off of her, and it’s just what I needed to get back to sleep.

I still end up borrowing like, four books from the library the next day to make me feel better about losing the jar, but I take extra comfort in the fact that I’ve done something good for a friend of mine. And I’m glad that I did.

that I'm a changeling?

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My room is peaceful and free to hum in, despite the griffon currently studying on my carpet. He’s told me that he enjoys not only my voice, but all of our friends’ voices, and that I’m free to do whatever I need to do while studying.

I’m humming along to a Countess Coloratura song in my head when Gallus breaks me out of my musical reading bubble. “Ocellus?” he asks. “What does tasting feelings feel like?”

The subject of my diet has come up multiple times throughout my new life in Ponyville. I’ve whittled all the facts down to the four most important:

1) I passively “eat” emotion at all times. It doesn’t hurt the source, and I can’t turn it off. The process is similar to a plant gaining energy from sunlight, but less filling or necessary. The detected emotion sometimes isn’t as vivid as it could be, which leads into the next point.

2) I can actively “eat” emotions from a source—usually another changeling. Love is the only one that’s nourishing, but I can taste and feel other emotions as well. Siphoning love from one individual can lead to a complete drain on their energy, which is why I haven’t done it with any one of my friends. Instead, I take little bits of love from all of them, until I have a full meal, just like at home. I only do this after making sure they’re okay with it, of course.

3) I can eat pony food. Chocolate cake tastes great.

The fourth most important thing is the answer to Gallus’s question. I shrug at him with a smile on my lips. “They’re kind of like tasting anything else.”

“Obviously. I’m not stupid. What I meant was: does your mouth fill up with saliva? Do you have to chew?”

“That’s a good question...” I say, drawing out my words as I muse. How best to describe emotions? “It’s not like food. Not that tangible. It’s like, well, are you aware that your testicles have taste buds?”

Gallus grows silent. I watch as he eyes me carefully before he glances down at his crotch. “You’re pranking me.”

“I’m not. Want to test it?”

“No. I don’t.”

We both know he’s lying. I’m glad I keep a jug of Apple Family Soy Sauce stowed away in my dresser. After we pour a few milliliters into a bowl and Gallus squats over it, he gives me a glare and a pulse of threatening emotion that hardly fits the situation. I giggle despite the acrid taste in my mouth.

“You better not be joking,” he says.

“Do I look like a prankster to you?”

“You look like you’re more than that egg head and those cute bug eyes.”

“Thanks for the compliment,” I say, fluttering my eyes. “Want to continue our science experiment?”

He sighs and sinks his rear end lower. I hear the sound of something dipping into liquid, and wait with bated breath. To tell the truth, I don’t actually know if this is going to work. It seems more like pseudoscience than the legitimate kind.

Gallus’s face changes from unspeakably angry at the fact that he’s going with this to...surprise. His eyes widen. His beak opens slightly. “Holy shit.”

Surprise feels like fizzy soda and tastes like birthday cake. I lick my lips. “It worked?”

“I can taste it!”

“Yes!” I cheer, my wings fluttering as the word soars into a delighted laugh. “You know, I had no idea that was gonna work!”

“So that’s what tasting emotions feels like?” Gallus says as he takes his balls out of the bowl. “Just, like, tasting something!” He smacks his lips. “Okay. That’s cool. I’m not really salivating. You know, it’s a little like I just chewed soy sauce flavored gum and spit it out a few seconds ago.”

I nod happily. “Want a towel?”

“I’d love one, thanks.”

“Too bad. They’re all in the wash. I could use my tongue if you like.”

Gallus’s beak opens slightly. His wings flare.

He watches tensely as I stand up, eyes half-lidded, my wings fluttering a little as I finally make use of my ability to blush on command. “Now that,” I whisper, “was me pranking you.”

His shock is left behind in an instant, and we break out into laughter.

That’s when the door opens. Smolder takes a single step into the room. “Hey, Ocellus. I was wondering if you’d seen my—”

She stops cold. We all stay very, very quiet. Her eyes zip between my face and Gallus’s, and then they angle down at Gallus’s crotch. The moment I think I’m going to say something, there’s an audible dripdripdrip—drops of soy sauce splashing back into the bowl.

Smolder’s face slowly forms a grin. Gallus and I slowly approach her, repeating “no” so many times that it hardly sounds like a word after a few seconds.

She ignores us, however, and takes off, an excited story hiding behind her smarmy expression. She dashes to the end of our dorm wing, where Yona, Sandbar and Silverstream are playing marbles.

“I hate you,” says Gallus.

I look to his flank. “You’re getting soy sauce on the carpet.”

“You never told me where the towels were!”


When my friends try to lie to me, I have a hard time not being amused. Not when they lie for the wrong reasons, of course, but when they tell lies for things that don’t matter at all. The whole concept of “white lies” is something that’s completely new to me. Growing up Changeling, you learn to be either completely truthful (because there’s barely a point to doing the opposite with another changeling) or to make everything about yourself an utter lie. There used to be no in-betweens in my world, but then I moved to Ponyville, and suddenly lies are everywhere.

That sounds like the line out of a political intrigue novel, but the lies that pervade my life are much more toothless than the kind one finds in those stories.

I can’t sense a lie, per se. Lying isn’t a feeling. It’s more the blend of discomfort and anxiety that gives a lie away to me. It tastes awful. Sandbar regularly fibs about how much of his clover stash he has left. Yona knows that yaks aren’t the best at everything. Gallus is...well, he grew up in Griffonstone, and he catches me off guard sometimes. I have no doubt he’d be able to beat half the hive at poker. Pharynx would eat him alive, though.

Silverstream lies sometimes. She pretends that she’s not tired when she really is. She pretends some paintings that she makes fill her with joy when looking at them really fills her with the kind of frustration and heartache that makes me feel like my chitin’s cracking, falling apart with her attempts at acting happy. When this happens, she often glances towards me as the compliments on her work roll in from the rest of our friends. She’s perceptive. She knows that I can tell she’s not being completely truthful. Her gaze tells me not to say anything out loud, so I don’t. I just nod at her subtly. This is how she deals with the stress in her life, and sometimes that stress shows up on her canvas. I just have to trust her to come to one of us if painting her feelings is ever not enough.

On the other side of this spectrum is Smolder. She’s ridiculous. I wonder sometimes if she’s aware what kinds of abilities changelings possess, and then I remember that she very well knows, and that she just never puts two and two together whenever she attempts to lie to me.

Her lies are either harmless or fixable. Sometimes her greed sense flares up and she takes things. Smaller things. Never anything as big as my zap apple jam jar or Sandbar’s family photos, after last time. She’s made it clear that she’s doing the best she can, too, so when I see her sneaking a pencil or pen out of my saddlebags sometimes I try not to say anything. She usually does this during study group, when the rest of our friends are there, so I spare her the embarrassment.

When it’s just the two of us, I’m always a little eager to play with her a little bit. I’ve been helping her with certain subjects and textbooks for a while now, and so the times when she comes to my dorm with a specific passage she needs help deciphering present themselves as the perfect times to playfully tease her about her biologically propelled kleptomania.

“Smolder?” I’ll ask. She’ll usually be on my bed or on my floor, and I’ll be on my desk. She’ll grunt in response, and I’ll continue talking. If she’s taken my pencils in an earlier class, I’ll say something like, “Have you seen my pencils anywhere?”

And Smolder will freeze up like a windigo’s running laps around her. Her joints will cease to work. I can hear her neck creaking as she shakes her head and says “N-no.”

I want to gently remind her that I know what she’s feeling, but I’m afraid that she would be guarded around me as a result. I’m afraid that all of them will. So I sit by and I try not to talk about it, and sometimes I lie a little bit myself—pretending to not know all of my friends’ emotional states.

“Are you sure?” Sometimes I’ll press her. “Because I swear I just had them in my saddlebags and now they’ve completely disappeared.”

“They’re in mine!” Smolder will yell, blushing under her scales. Sometimes they’ll be stashed by the door. “I-I must have gotten confused or something!”

Likely story. But a sweet one. She knows what she’s doing is wrong, on a very small level, and she feels bad about it, and she wants to make up for it. She’s genuinely trying. I appreciate that.

I’ll smile as she passes my pencils, or whatever she’s taken, to me. “Thanks, Smolder.”


“What are those?” Smolder asks, leaning over my shoulder. When we’re studying in my room she likes to pace, and this time she’s paced right onto my bed. I shift to give her a better look at my book: it’s currently open to three pictures of the same dress. A beautiful black chiffon ball gown sashed with a red silk ribbon and paired with a white cape.

“They’re from the new Griffenchy haute couture season—he’s picking up a lot of traction in Prance as the premiere griffon couturier.” I smile at the bewildered expression on her face. “They’re pretty cute, aren’t they? Professor Rarity asked me to—”

“Cute?” Smolder repeats, then gags. She punctuates her disgust by leaping off my bed and strutting towards the door. “I gotta piss. Be right back.”

Her emotions taste like absolute garbage. Which is confusing, because she seems to like Professor Rarity’s classes. Maybe she just likes the craft of dressmaking as opposed to the actual dresses made?

I shrug it off and I flip to the next page.

It’s not long after that that I find myself crying in hysterics over being turned into Queen Chrysalis in the caverns underneath the school. It’s not long after that that Smolder finds me and tries to get me to change back.

The memory bubbles to the forefront of my mind as soon as Smolder blurts out “I like cute silly stuff!”

I process immediately: what I tasted back then wasn’t hate. It was a lie. A big, filthy lie and that means that Smolder likes cute things and just the image of her in a pretty dress, sipping tea with her pinky digit held to the sky and a pleasant smile on her face? It’s adorable enough to make me curse.


I burst out laughing before covering my mouth with my spindly, emaciated hooves.

Smolder proceeds to make her case, and by the end of it she helps me out of the trap that the Tree set out for us.

We have a tea party the next evening. Just the two of us, in the safe confines of Professor Rarity’s classroom. All the desks have been cleared out of the way for our dainty, lace-covered table and tiny chairs. If this were in the afternoon we could have had the full treatment, with a tiered tower of snacks and cutely folded napkins.

It’s two o’ clock in the morning on a Tuesday, so we simply opted for a nice tea set (we’re drinking chamomile).

We have class later. Later in the morning. But Smolder insisted, and I accepted, and now I’m in danger of passing out at any point in the next hour or two. That’s fine. Anything for a friend, right? Anything. Even...even risking falling asleep during class tomorrow. It’s just a lesson, right? A single lesson. It won’t kill me. I mean, it might, because what if I’m gonna need whatever’s being taught because it’ll save my life in the future and I don’t know what to do because—

“Ocellus!” Smolder snaps her digits at me.

I look at her in disdain. “Smolder! Etiquette!”

She looks like she’s going to bark a complaint at me, but instead she visibly calms herself down. I watch her shoulders relax and her posture perk up. She takes a cup of tea off of the table and holds it delicately in her claw, breathing slow.

Her voice lightens and spins, sounding like cotton candy. “I’m sorry, Ocellus. I forgot my manners for a moment.

“That’s okay,” I say, nodding slightly.

“What were you thinking about?” she asks.

I probably should have expected her to press the issue. I give her a polite smile. “If I’m being honest, I was thinking that you look really pretty in that dress.”

Sometimes I’m glad there isn’t another changeling in the room. I’d be caught every time I lied.

“Really?” Smolder asks, looking down at herself.

No, not really, but now that it’s on my mind, she does look very pretty tonight. I don’t know where she got it, but her gown is an absolutely stunning pink satin with puffy sleeves, the fabric manipulated slightly so that it looks like tilled fields flowing geometrically down her body and arms in straight lines. It puts my simple purple dress to shame.

“Did you sew it yourself?” I ask.

“Worked on this baby for a month straight after lights out,” she says, patting her dress fondly. “Where else would I have gotten it?”

“Professor Rarity, maybe?”

Smolder scoffs. “And trust her big mouth with my secret? Yeah, no.”

“You’ll trust me, though?” I take a sip of tea.

“Who are you gonna tell your secrets to?”


Smolder chuckles. “I guess that’s true. She’s not the best at keeping her cool under pressure.”

There’s a story there. I look at her with a raised brow.

“You didn’t hear?” she asks. “Maybe the big bird’s not as bad at shutting her mouth as I thought.”

“What didn’t I hear?”

Smolder takes a sip of her tea.


She gasps. “Ocellus! Etiquette.”

I huff and frown at her.

“Fine, fine. Just that she totally hooked up with Sweet Biscuit and November Rain.”

Oh...oh my. Smolder giggles as my eyes widen.

“At the same time?” I ask.

She laughs. “No idea.”


“Yeah, no kidding, huh?”

I look down at my tea, blushing.

“Don’t you wish you could have seen it?”

My neck makes an audible cracking sound as my head whips up to look at Smolder. When did the room get so hot all of a sudden? “S-Smolder!”

“What?” She shrugs, her cheeks slightly flushed as well. “I’m just saying. Three of the cutest creatures at school? Must have been gold.

I try to speak, but all that comes out of my mouth is an embarrassed whine. This is a topic we’ve never really talked about before.


This is a topic we’ve never really talked about before!

Smolder raises a brow. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Smolder…” I rasp, smirking at her. “You think Silverstream’s cute?”

“Yeah,” she says. “What, don’t you?”

“Do you like her?”

Smolder’s pupils dilate for a second before expanding back to normal. She throws her head back and laughs. “Hah! Not my type, Celly.”

“Celly?” I repeat.

She nods. “Cute, right?”

“It’s not bad, I guess.” I rub one of my legs. I’ve never really been given a nickname before. “So, uh, Silverstream.”

“Silverstream,” says Smolder. “Not my type. Did you know Sandbar thinks that she lays eggs?”

I squint. “What? Why would he think that?”

“No. Frickin. Idea.”

“Have you talked to him about it?”

“He’s mentioned it once or twice,” she says, waving a claw. “But I’ve never really corrected him. Honestly I don’t really know myself.”

“But—” My brain is struggling to compute. I gesture emphatically to her. “She doesn’t have a cloaca.”


“You kind of need those to lay eggs, Smolder.”

“Oh.” She takes a sip of tea and smacks her lips. “Weird.”

I shake my head. “We’ve gone off topic.”

“We’re going by a list of things to talk about, now?”

“No. I just wanted to talk to you about romance because we’ve never talked about it before! Not even amongst the entire group. Is that weird?” I rub my chin. “Do you remember if we’ve been taught about how friends deal with romance yet? Is that something that friends talk about?”

“If you don’t know, I don’t know.”

“Okay, but regardless. I—”

“Have a crush on Headmare Twilight?”

I choke on whatever I was going to say and I don’t even remember what I was going to say because—because!

“You’re not the most subtle bug on the block, Celly.”

“I—” I cough, struggling as hard as I can to regain composure. “I do not—”

“When you lie your ears twitch one after the other,” Smolder interrupts, taking a long, hard sip of her tea. She sighs contentedly when she pulls the cup away and looks at me, blinking one eye after the other like a lizard in the sun. “Your ears also twitch when you detect a lie.”

“Yeah?” I ask, baring my fangs. My voice is wobbly and flustered. “Well...w-well you have a crush on Sunburst!”

“I do.” She smirks.

That wasn’t the reaction I was expecting. My cheeks just grow warmer. Why am I twice as embarrassed? I hate it here!

I cross my forelegs and look away from her, painfully aware of the fact that I’m still blushing.

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” says Smolder. “We’ve got some hot teachers, dude.”

“But it was something that was mine,” I say. My words are growing softer. “Something...I don’t know. I didn’t choose to tell anyone but everyone knows anyway.”

“Well, not everyone,” she says.

I side-eye her. She’s giving me a patient smile.

“It’s like all the gossip we just talked about. It’s gonna stay with me. And you now, I guess. I have no one to tell this stuff to. Gallus doesn’t care, Silver’s heard it already, Sandbar and Yona don’t care…” She stands, and I turn to face her. My body’s suddenly tense.

Smolder picks her chair up and moves it beside mine.

“Etiquette,” I mumble.

“Screw that. C’mere.”

She sits and extends a wing outwards, and I let her wrap it around me.

“I guess gossip isn’t so fun after all,” I say.

Smolder scoffs. “Disagree. I do like talking to you though. That’s pretty fun.”

I can feel a smile wanting to burst out of me. It’s like what Professor Pinkie says. Smiles come when they’re needed. “We don’t have to stop.”

“So you wanna make this a regular thing?”

“No more gossip.”

“Not if you don’t want to,” she groans facetiously.

“You like talking to me?” I ask.

“Didn’t I say that already?”

“I guess you did,” I say.

And she was telling the truth.

how STUPID she is?

View Online

Yona and I are at the very back of the slender line that our group makes to travel through the Everfree. We’ve done a lot of extracurricular work for this class (a joint venture from Fluttershy, Zecora and Twilight to teach about Ponyville’s local flora) in the past, so we’ve the luxury of enjoying our time in the forest while the rest of the class has to embark on a scavenger hunt for local magic-infused plants. It’s about three o’ clock in the afternoon, evident from the slowly declining pace of our peers as they hit their biological slump in energy for the day.

Meanwhile, I’m attempting to not-so-subtly ask Yona about her love life. She’s not quite getting the hint.

“Yona would smash Gallus’s puny legs, for sure!”

“That’s not quite what I meant,” I say.

“Bugpony being weird.”

I blow a raspberry. Ever since Smolder and I shared certain views on our romantic interests we’ve grown a lot closer as friends. Our tea parties have become one of my favorite parts of the week. After class, of course.

For the past month or so I’ve been trying to get to the same point with the rest of the group, but Gallus and Sandbar can hardly say a word about their love lives without blushing hotter than the sun, and Silverstream is...a little too detailed. It seems that the language barrier between Yona and I is a little too much for this topic as well. That, or she’s intentionally being obtuse, which is the more likely possibility. And that’s fair enough. Some creatures need their privacy. Maybe she’s not ready to share yet.

That doesn’t stop me from trying just one more time.

“You look really pretty today!” I chirp.

Yona smiles. “Bugpony look second-best!”

“Has anycreature else told you that you look pretty lately?”

Yona takes a moment to think. Then her smile widens. “Everycreature!”

I laugh. “That doesn’t surprise me one bit.”


I stop my gait and look behind me. Yona’s stopped to admire something on the tree. Once I get closer, I see the lizard in question.

It’s the length of a paperback book, its scales are blue and it has these big, amber eyes that stare thoughtlessly at the beetle that it’s about to make a meal out of. We watch as it creeps forward, slowly making its way to the unassuming beetle just centimeters ahead of it…

It pounces. I look away before I hear the crunching of the beetle’s exoskeleton. Yona stays perfectly attentive.

“Is it over?” I ask.


I look back to see that the lizard is licking its lips. And then its back spontaneously combusts into purple flame.

Me and Yona give identical surprised gasps as we back away.

“Bugpony know if this is normal?”

“Um,” I cough. My memory’s a little fuzzy. It takes me a few seconds to remember the scientific name for it. “Yes. It’s an Azuralis Acanthurus. The spirit-fire monitor. They’re supposed to bring good luck.”

“Should yak catch it?” Yona asks as she turns to look at her saddlebags, which contain multiple vials and jars ready to be used for plant and animal samples.

“No. It’ll just melt the glass.”

Yona whines. “Friend and me catch up to group?”

I nod. Yona frowns, but her (literal) sour mood doesn’t last too long. It’s not very hard to catch up to the rest of our class, since everycreature’s stopping to draw or collect leaves and flowers.


“On this boat we have had a murder, and following that murder, two other murders in rapid succession. If I further give you the information that the weapon which killed Madame Flowerbloom was a revolver owned by Monsieur All’s Well Endswell, then perhaps you will realize that it is actually your duty to tell us all you can.”

“Jamjar was silent for some minutes. At last he said: “You have a rather odd way of going about things, Monsieur Cheval, but—”

“I’m bored,” rasps a voice above me. A flapping shadow has crept over my yard of sun.

I close my copy of Death on the Neighle and look up.

Smolder’s got her arms crossed. She’s staring down at me expectantly.

“What do you expect me to do about it?” I ask.

“Fix it,” she says, landing beside me and giving my sun back. The class has stopped in this flower field to recuperate and have lunch. Most of us have finished already and are enjoying the heat. Smolder was, too, until now.

I tut. “Are you finished all the work required for today?”

She fakes a gasp. “Can’t believe you’d doubt me.” And before I can retort she pulls out a book, flipping the pages while rattling off the names of the pictures of flowers I see before me. “Common lily. Poison Joke. Moonflower. Sunflower. Sleepweed. Bubble berry bush. Silver licorice. Now can you please hang out with me? Yona keeps playing with bugs and I like bugs and all, but sometimes too much is too much.”

“Where’s Gallus?”

“Where do you think? Cozying up to Zecora so she’ll give him a better grade.”

“He doesn’t need one,” I raise a brow.

“He doesn’t think it’ll hurt to try and be personable.”

“I don’t have anything left that we can do.”

She smiles. Her teeth are so sharp and so shiny. “One ear. Then the other. What is it? Is it dangerous? Teacher-supervision only kind of stuff?”

I sigh. “Maybe. But I really don’t want to—”

“Come on,” Smolder whines. She gets down on both knees and stares at me. Her expression is pure need—I’m reminded of an orthrus begging for treats.

How can I say no?


The cave is cold. We shouldn’t have come here alone.

Smolder’s eyes are so—no. No. She can’t be scared. If she’s scared, then what should I be?

No. Don’t think like that.

She breathes. Her fire illuminates the cave, and for a second I see it.

“There!” I shriek. “Smolder!”

Hospitals are terrifying. I don’t understand how someone can be so okay with their existence. So many ponies so close to death. So much life teetering back and forth between the line of it. I could hardly breathe the first time I stepped into one. So much sadness in one place. Do you know what that tastes like?

No. I can’t explain it because taste is the wrong word. There isn’t a taste for the kind of sadness that coagulates inside of the emergency room. There is only the physical feeling of it worming its way into my emotion receptors, and the only word that I can use to describe it is wrong.

I wake up with a scream halfway out of my muzzle, but I slap my hooves to it and muffle myself before it makes it out..

Smolder’s still in the hospital bed. It’s just the two of us, now. Like it was in the cave.

Scars and raw, scaleless skin mark her body like continents and rivers on a map. Her wing is broken, fully encased in a cast. Her leg is the same.

I am struck again by a realization that I’ve had a thousand times today. I’m an idiot.

I hate it here. Changelings don’t have hospitals. We’re extremely hardy beings. The only points of vulnerability that we really have are during our molts, and we always make sure to be somewhere safe for those.

Changelings don’t get sick. They stay alive, die of old age, or die when their exoskeletons are so badly cracked that there’s nothing that can be done for them. To be sick—even injured—is something alien. Something that I can hardly fathom. A plague on your body that you have to live with, to watch consume you until your body makes it leave or you die. It’s suffering. Long, slow suffering.

I shiver. The tears start coming shortly after.

This is my fault.

I’m an idiot.

We were supposed to go into a harmless cave. Somewhere where the worst thing we would find would maybe be a timberwolf. Glowing lavenders—scientific name Lux Lavandula—grow deep in the heart of moist, dark places. They’re theorized to have grown to provide light for small animals, but that’s more of an old mare’s tale than anything. We were supposed to find a nice bouquet of glowing lavenders and leave.

We weren’t supposed to have discovered the lair of a scorpius.

The scorpion looks like it’s made of stars. It’s a constellation. A celestial beast.

It skitters towards us. My eyes can barely keep up with it as it dashes across the cave ceiling.

It drops, pouncing at me. I’m frozen. Scared. We weren’t supposed to find anything.

Smolder yells my name. I hear her, but I still don’t move. How did I let this happen?

She pushes me out of the way. The next thing I hear sounds like something chewing on a mouthful of pennies, combined with the pained moans of my friend.

That’s when I remember that I’m a changeling.

The professors found me sobbing over Smolder’s body in my dragon form. We were covered in starry lymph.

I hear Ember’s words to me as I stare at Smolder’s sleeping form in the bed. I hear Pharynx too. Their voices sing about my failure, my recklessness, my idiocy…

How did I let this happen?

I hear my professors’ reassuring tones. I feel Thorax petting my back. I feel Silverstream and Gallus’s feathers over my back.

I close my eyes, and suddenly all I can see is Sandbar, and he looks so disappointed. I taste his emotions, and the lingering notes of forgiveness—an awareness within his emotional sphere that thinks I’m not to blame, but his unbridled frustration with the situation tastes much worse.

I hate myself. I am an idiot.


When I open my eyes next I feel like I’ve barely gotten any sort of sleep, even though it’s been at least a few hours. I look back to Smolder, who is still unconscious. She hasn’t moved at all. I’d be worrying about her life if there wasn’t a heartbeat monitor hooked up to her.

I look to the screen to her side and my eyes follow the jagged line her heartbeat creates. She’s alive. I should be thankful, shouldn’t I? Happy that the both of us survived?

Well, I’m not. Guilt is destroying me. Slowly nibbling holes into my heart like moths in a textiles factory.

Are there any words to describe how sorry I am? Next semester I’m in a speechwriting class run by both Headmare Twilight and Professor Rarity, but that’s not going to help me now. I don’t have anyone to write a speech for. The professors and my friends and me and Smolder’s authority figures already know the story. They’ve already made their judgments. A good speech might sway some negative opinions into positive ones, but frankly, that doesn’t matter to me right now. What matters is Smolder herself.

Smolder won’t care for a speech. She couldn’t give less of a shit about beautiful words or well-structured arguments. All she would care about is if I was sorry. If I was sorry, and I am sorry, she would forgive me in a heartbeat. And that’s the entire problem. I don’t want to be forgiven. Not this easily.

I start crying again. I’m so stupid.


This is all Smolder’s fault!

Who was it that convinced me to go into the caves because she just needed something to do? Who was it that made that dumb puppy dog face at me and persuaded me into making one of the worst decisions of my life? Who was it that landed me a private talk with Headmare Twilight, where she told me that there wasn’t even going to be detention because I’d been through enough? I don’t even get the one thing that I’d hate the most! How ridiculous is that? It’s like she was trying to tell me that I’m currently experiencing something worse than detention! How does that even cross her mind?

I start pacing. There aren’t any other patients in this ward. It’s just me and Smolder.


I hate her. I hate everything about her and I always have. She’s so unbelievably cocky about every single possible thing and she’s not even good at half of the things that she does! She does them with confidence and she shines like the freaking sun! She’s like Gallus but without any character flaws. She’s so…

I hate her. I hate her. She landed us here in this stupid hospital with its stupid beds and the way that it smells like new bandages. She steals and lies and she gossips like there’s no tomorrow at our tea parties. She also decided to be my friend, which is why the both of us are even in this situation. If she had just left me alone for all this time I wouldn’t even know her name and she wouldn’t be unconscious in a hospital after convincing me to sneak off to a cave we weren’t supposed to be sneaking off to. This is selfish of her. She’s selfish. She’s making me stay in this stupid smelly room and freak out because—

Because it’s my fault.

There aren’t any tears left for me to cry. I stop pacing and turn to Smolder.

It’s strange. When someone is sleeping or unconscious and you aren’t, it’s like you’re in two separate worlds. It’s the closest thing to being a ghost that I can think of.

I come closer to her, watching her breathe.

“I’m sorry,” I say. I drag myself back to the chair I’ve set beside her bed and I sit in it, and I close my eyes.


Confusion is sparkling water and too much lime juice. I smack my lips and open my eyes.

Smolder is awake. She’s looking at me, relaxed, like she isn’t in a hospital bed and it’s not my fault that she’s here. She’s looking at me like she just asked for a pen in class.

“Why are you crying? Where am I?”

I can’t speak. I can’t say anything. I’m trying but I can’t.

“I guess this is a hospital, huh?” she remarks, looking around at the room. She laughs softly. “Can’t believe I’m alive.”

“S-Smolder, I…” I sob.

“Hey,” she says. “C’mere.”

I shake my head.

“No? Why not?”

“It’s—it’s my fault,” I tell her, whipping a hoof against my chest.

That makes her laugh again, this time hard enough that she winces in pain halfway through. “I wish that was true, Celly. Then I could get you to do my homework for the rest of the semester. But the fault’s all mine here.”

“No!” I say.

“Yes,” she groans. “Now please, come here. I’m gonna hug you. Do you not want a hug?”

I do. I nearly pounce on her, but I remember her injuries at the last second. I move as fast as I can, given her state, and every second I’m without her embrace it’s like my muscles are on fire. Eventually I get close enough to hug her, and then I’m pressing my face against her warm, warm chest, making sure that I don’t get in the way of her wing or her leg. She wraps her arms around me and rubs my back, shushing me over and over until my crying calms down, and then while she’s saying something undoubtedly comforting and sweet I fall asleep.

that I didn't mean anything I just said?

View Online

“How does griffon romance work?” I ask.

The Annual Hearts and Hooves dance is in full swing all around us. Pink lights and students in red dresses swirl across the floor. Me and Gallus are sitting at a table off to the side. None of our other friends are around—they’ve gone to Hayburger to fetch food so we can all head to our wing of the dorms and play O&O.

Gallus blows a raspberry.

“Come on!” I prod him with a hoof. I wanted to wear a dress tonight, but we all agreed not to dress formally, so I didn’t. It turned out that Gallus thought that that agreement was a joke. He showed up in a baby blue suit and tie that nearly melt into his feathers.

He scratches his neck under his collar. “Why does it matter?”

“The exchange of cultural heritage can lead to stronger friendship,” I say. “According to—”

“Twilight’s textbook on interspecies friendships, yes, I’ve read it too, smartypants.” He boops me with a claw.

I respond by doing a perfect impression of an Ursa Major growling.

“Fine!” Gallus sighs, booping me again. “Just stop that.”

“Aye aye, Cap’n.” I wink and salute at him.

“Stop being cute and listen up, because I’m not going to explain this again,” he says. I sit a little straighter. The band up front changes from a slow love song into something more fitting for a fast-paced salsa. “Griffons aren’t very complicated creatures. I’m sure you’ve already figured that out. We look at romance as something stupid and pointless. The point of two creatures getting together for a reason other than money is sex. Every spring, we all end up shedding our fluffy winter coats—don’t even think about mine unless you want me to stop talking—and we end up looking pretty crisp and clean. That’s usually the best time to try and find someone to hook up with for the rest of the summer. Once that’s done and winter comes again, it’s everygriff for themselves until Blue Moon Fest.”

“That’s lame,” I tease.

“Tell me about it. I figure changelings are the same sorta deal, given the many years you spent under an evil queen who only looked at love and friendship as sources of food.”

“That’s a pretty logical conclusion,” I say, looking on at the crowd of couples dancing energetically. “And it used to be accurate. We used to be paired off by Chrysalis’s supervisors. Here’s your partner! And that’s it. That was your partner for life, and there wasn’t supposed to be any love involved whatsoever.

“When my mother and my father were paired, they truly found that they loved each other, but they concealed their feelings for so long, pretending that any passion that could be found in their relationship was just biology, and it was all just for the sake of adding more drones to serve the glory of the hive.

“But not anymore. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this with anyone but Smolder, but a few weeks after...after we all changed, we had about a month of weddings. Changelings like my mother and father finally found that they didn’t have to pretend anymore, that they could love each other and that it was a good thing. Others could finally confess their feelings; males to males and females to females, utility be damned; nursery drones talking protector drones for the first time and immediately finding their perfect matches where they would have been prevented by their jobs from ever meeting in the first place...when love became more than food, it became something so much more precious. It was a beautiful time for the hive. It still is.”

I sigh in delight, and Gallus chuckles beside me.

“What?” I ask. “Too gushy?”

“Nah.” He waves a claw my way. “I just think it’s funny when you talk about a new change in your hive that’s for the better. Your wings get all twitchy.”

I blush, and glance back at my elytra. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” he says, leaning back in his seat. “Man, I hope the others come back soon. I’m hungry.”

“I’m not,” I say. To punctuate that statement, I open up my empathic senses and get a good taste of the dance-goers. Strawberry ice cream and creme de cassis practically flood my mouth. I have to stop feeding within a few seconds.

“Lucky bug.” Gallus snorts.

We’re quiet for a moment. Then he speaks again: “I’ve seen Sandbar giving Yona looks.”

Pining. Tastes piney. I try not to make a face. “I’ve noticed, too.”

Another moment passes. This time, I feel a little strangled by the quiet.

“Do you ever feel lonely?” I ask.

“Not really,” he says. He’s not really lying, either, but that’s because he’s telling the truth about something I didn’t ask about. “I’ve got you guys, don’t I? If it were only me at this school I feel like I’d hate it.”

“I meant romantically.”

“I know.” He huffs. “I don’t understand why you’re so nosey about my love life, anyway.”

A textbook quote would be perfect in this situation! I scoot my chair closer to him, stealing his full attention away from the dance. “Sharing something that you’re going through alone with someone, even if they can’t really understand what it’s like, can help you feel less alone.”

Gallus leans forward. Only now do I smell his cologne. Bright, masculine freshness combines with sophistication and nonchalance to create a fresh, yet deep and mysterious scent with notes of cardamom, cedar, and coumarin. It’s very...attractive.

I don’t have time to notice anything else about him before his beak touches my lips and I close my eyes and we both sink into a kiss. It’s short and fleeting, and the noise that the parting of our mouths makes only spurs us into kissing again. I feel an arm wrap around me, stroking my elytra gently.

An anxious moan leaves me. My breath comes out of my nose ragged. I open my mouth slightly and our tongues meet and we kiss again. I hear wisps of yearning in his voice, muffled by me, and then we finally pull away from each other, panting.

His face is flushed. I know that mine is, as well. But there’s not a single thing that just happened that felt good to me. I feel as if beetles are crawling underneath my chitin, and I know that he feels the same because all I can taste right now is the ash of regret.

“Nothing about that was good,” he says.


“It was really weird.”

“I feel a little dirty.”

He nods in agreement. “We should probably shower before the others show up.”

“Like in separate stalls, right?”

“Yes. Obviously.”

Quiet passes over us. Then we start giggling. The tension that was wound has now released.

“I still, uh, love you,” he says, his emotional confusion still clear, despite the smile now on his face . “But like, like a sister.”

I nod. He’s not lying. Neither will I. “I think of you as a brother too.”

“Let’s not talk about this ever again.”

I nod again. “Yeah.”

The rest of the night goes fine. There’s nothing weird between me and Gallus. A simple mistake is all that happened. Not even that. It was an exploration into something new that we quickly decided wasn’t going to work.

But something builds in the back of my mind. I don’t know what, and I don’t know how I know it’s there, but when I go to sleep at the end of the night all I feel is...strange.


The next day, once classes are all done for the day, I do what I usually do: go back to my room to get started on my homework and hopefully I’ll have enough time to get something done before one of my friends shows up to drag me away from my studies.

When I open the door I find Smolder sitting cross legged on top of my desk, rolling a white rubber ball from side to side in front of her. Her eyes brighten up when she sees me, kind of like one of Professor Fluttershy’s animals seeing her after being crated for a while.

“Hey!” Smolder chirps, waving at me with a claw.

The word feels like an attack on my senses, but there’s nothing wrong with her emotions. I stiffen up. I feel sick all of a sudden.

“You okay?” Smolder asks, lowering her claw and fixing me with a look of concern.

“F-Fine,” I say automatically. Why did I lie? I walk to the rug in front of my bed, throw my saddlebags off and lie belly down on the floor, not facing towards her but not facing away, either. My body’s working on overdrive to not let her...not let her…

What am I doing?

“I waited for you after Honesty but you went dashing off,” Smolder says, now examining her ball. “Something wrong?”

“I just needed to use the washroom really badly.”

“Hmm.” She clicks her tongue. “Any plans for the rest of the day? I’ve really been craving a gem-crusted cupcake for the last few. I don’t think I have homework, and you probably don’t either, so do you wanna go to Sugarcube Corner with me?”

“No,” I say. After a moment, I realize that my tone of voice was hard. I clear my throat and look at her apologetically. “I mean, sorry. I just really want to get ahead of Professor Rainbow Dash’s new unit on epic feats of loyalty.”

Smolder squints at me for a second. “You never study for Professor RD’s classes.”

“I thought I’d switch it up a little.”

Smolder holds her suspicious look, but then backs off with a shrug. “Makes sense. I’m gonna go find Yona.”

I stare at the wall as she hops off of my desk and closes the door behind her.

What is wrong with me? I have zero reason to be acting weird about this and yet...I really have no idea. I even talked to Gallus completely normally earlier this morning! Is that what this is about? But why would this be about me and Gallus kissing? That had nothing to do with Smolder. What is this? Why am I being so weird?

It’s just—it’s just that looking at Smolder just now made me feel so filthy.

My bedroom door swings back open.

Smolder steps in and closes it behind her unceremoniously. She crosses her arms, which somehow spurs me into standing up to face her. My face is flushed. Hers is angry.

“You’re being weird,” she says. Her voice is terse.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Drop the act, Celly.” Her eyes soften. “What’s up?”

“Nothing’s up!” I assert. I wouldn’t even know what to tell her if I was being honest!

“Don’t lie to me,” Smolder growls. “It’s cool sometimes but it’s really getting on my nerves right now.”

“I’m not!”

“Did you forget I know your tell?”

I really don’t appreciate her tone of voice. Talking to me like an animal or something. “I don’t have a tell.” My voice lowers. “You think I do.”

“Well if you don’t want to tell me then fine,” Smolder says, baring her fangs at me with that last word. The anger coming off of her is building, boiling like water. If I do any more to make her angry then it won’t feel very good for either of us.

The problem is that, in this moment, I don’t care. “Fine,” I spit.

Her eyes widen slightly. “So there is something that you’re not telling me.”

“Yes! Why does that matter? I don’t have to tell you anything that I don’t want to, Smolder!”

Smolder scoffs. “Yeah, but—”

“But what?” I interrupt.

She rolls her eyes. “You tell me everything. If you have something that you’re not telling me then it must be something serious.”

My indignance is tangible. I feel it swirling in my chest. “Maybe I don’t tell you everything.”

A harsh, raspy laugh. “That’s not fair, is it, Celly? I tell you everything! That’s not exactly a fair trade, am I right?”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t realize that we were doing business at the market.”

“We’re not!” she retorts. “You’re being weird!”

“That’s my right!”

“Sure but why won’t you tell me?”

“Because I don’t want to and that’s the only reason that should matter!” I yell. Or maybe I’ve been yelling. We’re definitely a lot louder than when we started. I don’t remember when the volume became raised.

“No.” Smolder shakes her head. “No! I don’t buy it. You tell me literally everything that comes up.”

“I don’t. Maybe we’re not as close as you think we are.” I look away from her.

I nearly vomit as my mouth floods with a terrible, bitter taste.

“I don’t think we’re close!” Smolder screams.

I cough and gag, stepping away from her before I yell back. “Good!”

Smolder’s eyes narrow. “I don’t even fucking like you, dude. I only tolerate you because you’re in the group.”

And my heart shatters as my empathic senses pick up on something familiar, and something new all at once. I’d know the taste of hate anywhere. It’s not worth describing to anyone. I’ve never had it directed towards me—towards me specifically and not a vague, general hate towards my race, that is.

I don’t let it show. I jab a hoof at my door. “Get out.”

“Gladly,” Smolder says quietly. She turns and walks towards it, but once she’s under the frame she freezes. She turns back to me. I open my mouth—

Smolder breaths a loud, roaring stream of fire at the stone ceiling. The heat is unbearable. I know for sure that if I had skin it’d be melting. The light forces me to close my eyes and skitter away until I hit the wall, and then I hold myself close to it until the fire stops.

When the light fades from my eyes, Smolder is gone.


Gallus finds me sobbing on my floor not long after that. He doesn’t say a word. He just sits by me and he lays a wing over my back, and when the worst of it is done I find myself holding onto him, burying my face into his neck.

“Friendship is hard sometimes,” he says. I’m inclined to agree.

I don’t need to say a word for him to know that once I’ve calmed down enough, I’m going to need Sandbar and Silverstream. He fetches them once that exact thing happens, when I’m less sobbing and more staring at the floor in tears.

Sandbar and Silverstream and Gallus surround me a few minutes later. I revel in the warmth of them. I don’t remember their words, but they’re all sweet, and I’m eventually relaxed enough to fall asleep with Sandbar on one side, Silverstream on the other, and Gallus laying on his side in front of me, a wing outstretched that I use as a pillow.

When I wake next, it’s the early morning. Sometime around two o’ clock. No one has stayed with me. At first I’m hurt, but then I remember that the three of them are going on a fieldtrip with Professor Pinkie to her rock farm, and they didn’t have much choice in the matter. I find a letter on my desk, but I don’t open it. It probably explains exactly what I just theorized.

I can’t get back to sleep after half an hour of trying. I end up in front of my mirror, staring at myself, or at least what little I can see of myself in the dark. The only light covering me is the soft light of my desk lantern.

I change. Pony form. Yak. Griffon. Dragon, but only for a second. All of my faces are sad.

I try and smile, but I can’t hold it. A failure of a changeling, I am. I keep changing. Abyssinian. Diamond dog. Alicorn.

Wingbeats in the hall stop me as I’m about to turn into the saddest draconequus in the world. I see my face tighten with shock. I’d know the sound of Smolder flying anywhere. The way that she flies is urgent and full of stubborn passion. It’s something that I’ve never really realized until now.

The wingbeats crawl down the hall, moving quickly. They stop right in front of my door.

I hear her take a breath. Or maybe that’s me. Then I hear her land.

The door opens, and in the mirror I watch her step into my room.

Neither of us say a thing.

“I kinda kissed Silverstream last night in the Hayburger parking lot,” she says.

My elytra open up and my wings buzz angrily, but the calm sadness in my expression remains constant. I’m really, really bothered by that. I don’t know why. I don’t want to know why. I don’t want to think about that image for longer than I have to.

“I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” I tell her.

“It’s why I was acting weird,” she explains. “I don’t know why it was making me act weird. We didn’t do anything else! I—I don’t know why I’m telling this to you. We sort of just decided to be friends like, immediately after. I just...wanted to kiss someone last night.”

“It was Hearts and Hooves Day,” I offer.


My gaze strays from her reflection over to mine. “I kissed Gallus. The same kind of result happened.”

My peripherals see her eyes widen. “Oh.”

I taste her emotions—sad, sympathetic, relieved. And then I stop frowning, because now there’s something new in the air between us that I can’t quite explain or even talk about yet, but it doesn’t make me sad. The reasons for me to be sad are suddenly gone. A weight’s been lifted from me.

“I’m sorry,” she says. Her voice has gone from sharp rocks to honey.

I whine and close my eyes. “I’m sorry too.”

“Don’t cry,” Smolder whispers, flying to me, sitting at my side.

I feel her petting my head. I open my eyes to see it, and I see her smile as she looks at me. I taste our friendship and her affection and it’s breathtaking. I don’t say anything out of fear of ruining the moment.

When the moment passes she whispers again. “Can you change into Twilight?”

“Why?” I ask.

“Just wondering.”


“What about Spike?”

“Him, too.”

“And my brother? I have a really great idea for a prank.”

“I’ll need a picture.”

“I’ll be back with one!” she chirps, dashing away, but not before she stops just before my door and we meet each other’s gazes in the mirror again.

Smolder smiles. She looks beautiful. She always does.

By the time the door closes, I know something important.

that she drives me crazy?

View Online

I’m doing it. I’m skipping class.

Why? Because about a week ago, I figured out that I’m head over hooves in love with Smolder the Dragon (apparently that’s her legal surname). Many creatures might react to a realization like that with shock. They might need some time to process their feelings, to make sure that what they think is happening is real and true. The great thing about being a changeling is that I don’t.

I know true love. I’d know it anywhere and I know it especially when it’s coming from me, and this is the real thing and there’s nothing in the entire world that could be more exciting.

I find myself watching her in class often. I still pay attention to the lectures, of course, but I can’t help but look at her sometimes. The way that her mouth scrunches up before she tells a joke or says something snarky makes me feel like I’m in the middle of an earthquake, and the only thing in my vision that doesn’t make me sick, and the only thing that’s stable to look at, is her. It’s funny when you read that kind of thing in a romance novel. It sounds ridiculous to say out loud. But I’ve discovered that love is ridiculous. It turns everything about someone into a completely absurd, totally beautiful thing.

And it’s scary, because I don’t know if she feels the same way. Something that I’ve discovered about non-changelings is that the only emotion they’re truly good at hiding is love. I truly understand the reason why infiltration was such a valued aspect of the old hive. It’s not just the winning of love that’s difficult, but the detection and maintenance of it as well. Part of me thinks she simply doesn’t like me like that, but then she’ll offer to help carry my books, or smile at me or brush me with her tail when no one else is looking, and I have to wonder. Well, I’m tired of wondering.

I’m skipping class today to buy something that I need for a late-night picnic. One might ask: why would I need to skip class when classes end early enough in the afternoon that I could still go out and feasibly buy anything I wanted from the market before everything closed?

It’s because Professor Applejack still works the Sweet Apple Acres stall after classes end, and she’s specifically forbidden us from buying alcohol from her.

Big Macintosh raises an eyebrow when I hover down from the sky to the front of his stall.

“Hi!” I say.

He nods. I’ve always liked Big Mac. He’s very calming for me to be around. He most likely doesn’t do it on purpose, but he communicates very clearly with his emotions.

Right now, he’s happy, but also a little confused. He’s probably wondering what I’m doing outside of class.

“Can you not tell your sister about this?” I ask, laying a bag of 200 bits on the table. The only thing that’s worth exactly 200 bits is the thing that I came here to buy.

His mouth scrunches up. He looks from the money, to me, and back to the money again. His emotions flare: even more confusion emanates from him, though it’s mostly directed at himself. I taste sour figs.

“I’m of legal age, Big Mac, and I really need this. It’s for something special,” I explain. “Something for a friend.”

Big Macintosh sighs, and he backs up to look through his stock, keeping me waiting as the market rages around me. I turn and take it all in. There are so many ponies here. So much excitement, boredom and the occasional wave of anger from those getting too into their bartering. Once, I would have been overwhelmed by all the emotion, but I’m a little more used to it now. Actually, I really like it.

The clinking of glass on wood makes me turn back around. Big Macintosh smiles at me.

“Enjoy your night,” he says.

I admire the swirling colors of the rainbow in the bottle he pushes towards me. They’re so beautiful that for a moment I consider keeping this for another time and buying something more normal for tonight, but then I remember that tonight is supposed to be so much more than normal. A bottle of zap apple cider is the only beverage that could fit.

“Thank you, Mac.” I take the bottle and smile back at him. “I think I will.”


Sandbar is the first to ask: “Why did you call us here?”

I’m sitting on the top bunk of my bed, looking down on him, Gallus, Yona and Silverstream as they sit in a semi circle on my dorm floor. This is probably what Princess Celestia feels like, doesn’t it? They’re all looking to me for answers, inspired by my radiant beauty—

“Are you pretending to be Princess Celestia again?” Silverstream asks.

I sigh.

“Where’s Smolder?” Gallus asks. “Any of you seen her? It’s not like her to be—” He shakes his head. “It’s not like her to be this late.”

“She won’t be coming,” I say.

“Dragon sick?” Yona asks.

“I just saw her in class,” says Sandbar, who then looks to me. “And I didn’t see you.”

“Whoah,” Silverstream gasps. “Ocellus? Skipping class without us? Did you join a gang like I said you should?”

“Why did you tell her to join a gang?” Gallus asks her.

“Because that way she can turn them around from the inside and gain a whole bunch of friends with useful skills!”

Gallus considers the proposition, then shrugs. “Not the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

“I didn’t invite her,” I say, speaking a little louder than everyone else. Weirdly enough, that shuts them up. Just like with Big Mac, I taste confusion. A bit of worry. If I had to guess, they’re wondering if me and her had another fight. I smile at them to try and quell that notion. “I didn’t invite her because this is about her.”

“Is she stealing stuff again?” Sandbar asks.

I shake my head.

“Dragon need help studying for finals?”

I shake my head again.

“Then…” Gallus prompts me, spreading a wing towards me as a gesture to go on.

“I’m asking her out,” I announce, trying to keep myself from quivering. Suddenly it’s really hard to sit still. Suddenly I’m wondering if this wasn’t a good idea. “And I wanted your help in preparing a special picnic for her that I’m planning and now I’m kind of worried that you guys aren’t going to approve judging by the looks on your faces.”

Wide-eyed, jaws slightly opened. Surprised at the least. Flabbergasted at the worst.

Maybe they know something that I don’t. Smolder doesn’t even like me like that, does she? She doesn’t even like me period. I bet she rants to the others about how annoying I am when I’m not around. She definitely, without a doubt, hates me guts, doesn’t she? I knew it. This was an awful, terrible idea and I never should have had it.

Gallus snaps out of his daze first, then looks to the others. “Guys, stop being surprised. I think we’re freaking her out.”

“That’s so exciting ohmigosh—” Silverstream leaps from the floor up to my top bunk without even using her legs, and ends up hanging off of the edge of it with her big, smiling beak in my face. “I always knew you two were gonna end up together!”

I scoot backwards a tiny bit, blushing. “W-What?”

“It’s common sense,” says Sandbar. From just over the horizon of my mattress I can see his eyes from his spot on the floor, and he’s smiling too.

“How?” I ask again.

Silverstream, somehow, amps up her happiness. It’s nearly cloying to taste, but only nearly. “The way that you two somehow always end up doing things together, despite your differences! The way that you don’t even have differences, sometimes! And and and and—well, it’s pretty obvious that me, Gallus and Sandbar and Yona are doomed to a love square for the next three years that none of us want to talk about.”

“What?” Gallus asks.

“Why three?” Yona chimes in.

“You guys actually think me and her could work out?” I ask.

“Yes!” All of them speak at the same time, rattling off various phrases of support and excitement.

I squirm. This is almost as nerve-wracking as if they disapproved.

Silverstream falls off of my bed, landing on the floor hard. When I crawl to the edge of the mattress to see if she’s okay, I see Gallus and Sandbar already petting her gently on the head and neck while she looks like she’s having the time of her life. “So,” Gallus says. “What did you need?”

What do I need? “I need a basket to carry the food and drink, a warm blanket to spread over the grass, cushions to sit on, and a lamp.”

“Don’t you have all of those things?” Gallus tilts his head.

“I thought it’d be more special if I got them from you.” I blush. “Is that weird?”

“Not in least!” Yona exclaims. “Yak has basket from Yakyakistan for you!”

With that, she sends a little love my way. Delicious. I nod at her. “Thank you, Yona.”

“I guess I’ll take care of the blanket,” Sandbar says. He breaks out into a grin. “You’re always fiending after my favorite one during study group anyway.”

Wow. The blanket? His thick, soft gray one that we all take turns snuggling in because it’s just that good? “Sandbar, I…” I falter. “I’m not sure what to say. Thank you.”

“Eh.” He waves a hoof. “No biggie.”

“I’ll give you a lamp!” Silverstream says, flaring her wings and accidentally pushing Sandbar and Gallus away from her. “I have nine unused lamps in my room and I’d bet that one of them just wants to do its job.”

“That leaves me with the cushions, huh?” Gallus snarks. “Well, you’re in luck. Professor Rares made me make a few last semester that I’m actually kinda proud of.”

The amount of love in the room would be palpable to someone who doesn’t eat emotions. To someone who does, it’s like being surrounded by warm hugs on a cold night. And to think that it’s all coming from my friends. Creatures who like me for me, and who just want the best for me! It was unimaginable back when I first came to the school, but now it’s just reality. Life really is better than dreaming, sometimes.

“Can I call for a group hug?” I ask, starting to climb down from my bed. “I really need one.”

They’re happy to oblige.


Everything’s perfectly set up. The blanket’s out, I have gems and cider and the lamp is lighting everything quite nicely and the cushions are as comfy as Gallus said they’d be. It’s twilight; the sunset is blending into the early night and the air is getting just a tad chilly, which is perfect for snuggling. Of course something had to go wrong.

Smolder’s late. I check the pocket watch I brought with me. Ten minutes late.

I mean, on the bright side, at least there’s no food here to get cold. On the other side, well, what if she doesn’t show up at all? What if the cider’s bad?

What if the cider’s bad? I look to the basket, where the bottle of ever-changing rainbow liquid peeks out from a pile of rubies, sapphires and amethysts. I bought it because I was hoping that Smolder would recognize the presence of alcohol as something that coded this event as romantic, but if it’s bad and we can’t even drink, then…

I suppose I could take a tiny taste.

That’s what I tell myself at first. I pour my first glass, watching as the rainbow intensifies and even glows slightly when it swirls around, and then I take my first taste—

Beauty. That’s all I can say. It’s beautiful. It’s sweet, then it’s sour and then it’s even a tiny bit salty and it tastes like apples, sure, but it tastes like so much more and by the time I’ve finished my first glass I’ve realized that it tastes like love. Its flavor is always shifting but whatever form it takes is just pure perfection.

I pour another glass.

Smolder arrives fifteen minutes later in the same dress that she wore to our first tea party. A swaying glance to the bottle of cider tells me that I’ve somehow drunk it all while worrying my mind away. And it didn’t even work!

She lands by the picnic, looking flustered and so cute I can’t help but grin.

“Hey Celly,” she says. “Sorry I’m late. You wouldn’t believe—”

“S’okay,” I tell her, waving it all away with a hoof. “You’re here now and that’s all everything matters.”

“All…” she squints. “Are you okay?”

“I’m great!” I say, jabbing my hoof in her direction. “Come snuggle me. I want snuggles.”

“Someone’s needy.”

“Yes! Snuggle time! Now!” I gasp slightly, placing my hoof over my mouth. “Please?”

Smolder laughs breathily and sits beside me. I drape half of my body onto her lap and before I know it she’s petting my elytra in just the right way. She’s the comfiest dragon I’ve ever had the pleasure of cuddling. I lean my head against her chest, murmuring non-words as I take in the delectable taste of her love.

“You’re so warm,” I say.

She starts scratching my neck with one claw and I open my elytra so she can stroke my back underneath. It feels amazing. Like she’s petting my very soul. Opposable digits are truly something else.

“So waaaaaarm,” I say again. “So good at scritches.”

“Professor Fluttershy doesn’t have us pet dogs in class for no reason,” she says.

“Are you calling me a bitch?” I chortle.

Smolder laughs as well, but there’s confusion in her. “Did you just swear?”

“Biological term.”

“That you made a pun out of with a curse word,” she says. “Are you feeling alright, Celly?”

“I’m fine!” I groan, nestling further into the softness of her dress. “You know something, Smolder?”


“You’re really good at petting.”

“You said that.”

“No but...” I tap a hoof on her knee repeatedly until I finally find the words. “I really like your claws. They’re so dangerous but they can be so delicate sometimes. Graceful, too. And I like your arms and your arm muscles and sometimes I just want to kiss your shoulders because they’re so nice and pretty and I like it when you smell like ash. I know I told you I hated it back when we were first getting to know each other but as long as you’re not super sweaty or anything I like your dragon smell. Is that weird? I guess that’s weird. I also really like your teeth. Sorry if that’s also weird, but you have the beautiful-est smile in the world. I like you. I like you. You know what I mean? And that’s just the physical stuff about you. I like the way that you carry yourself.”

I roll over onto my back. One of her claws moves to support my neck as I look up at her. Her expression is something that I would describe as ‘quietly awed’. I think she’s blushing, but I don’t know. I know that I am.

“You’re so sure of everything,” I say, “and even with the whole cute stuff thing, you take on the things that you’re scared of with so much bravery. I like that you push me to think in different ways. I like how stubborn you can be. I like how safe you make me feel and...and I like that sometimes you drive me crazy in a thousand different ways. You drive me crazy. Do you know that? I think I’m gonna throw up.”

Smolder smiles at me, then blinks, and her smile drops. “Wait, what was that last part?”

I lose my lunch on her chest and all over her lap, quivering as I vomit rainbows onto her beautiful dress. Tears pool in my eyes, trailing hot down my cheeks. My throat stings like mad. I end up running a few yards out and falling down, dry heaving into the grass until I think I’m safe.

Then I realize that I just did.

I’m sober now. Completely. I just destroyed the moment. The entire night, too. Maybe my life.
I look over, horrified, to see Smolder standing a few feet away with a blank expression. The regurgitated contents of the zap apple cider bottle are still staining her dress.

She hates me. She has to. Oh my god. What was I thinking? How are we ever going to recover from this? Maybe we’ll never recover. But we have the same friend group. Are we going to have to divide them up? One day with the boys and one day with the girls? What if Silverstream wants to hang out with Sandbar and Gallus on a day where she’s supposed to be with me and Yona? I’ve ruined everything!

Smolder breaks out into a tiny laugh, and then that becomes a belly-rumbling chortle. Without any hesitation, she steps back (still on the grass and not Sandbar’s blanket, thankfully) and breathes a solid stream of fire onto her dress, angling her head so she incinerates the entire thing off of her. The air ends up smelling like sulphur and apples.

Then she walks to me and sits beside me, wrapping a wing over my back. She smells like—

“You said you like it when I smell like ash, right?”

“You don’t hate me?” I ask, looking at her. She’s smiling! Why is she smiling?

“Of course not, Celly,” she says quietly. “Are you okay? Still feeling sick?”

“I threw up on you!”

“I know. I was there. It was kinda hilarious.”

“I got drunk.

“Yeah. Why?”

“Because!” I cry, looking down at the grass. The picnic is ruined. The moment is no longer romantic. I’m a joke. “Because I was going to ask you out tonight and I didn’t want to lose my nerve.”

My eyes widen. My neck snaps as I look back at Smolder, who looks similarly shocked. I don’t think either of us can believe that I just put everything out there in the open like that. I had a whole speech planned, too.

But there’s no going back after hearing that. And because she still hasn’t said anything I think I know what her answer is.

More tears build up at the corner of my eyes. My mouth quivers. “Smolder…”

“Shh,” she says, and pulls me into a hug, squeezing me tight.

“This is a consolation hug,” I say. “You don’t feel the same way.”

“I don’t know what consolation means,” she says, and pries me away.

She’s smiling. She’s so beautiful. I never thought love could be something that I could see, but if it looks like anything it looks like her.

I start crying. At least I tried, right? “Consolation means that—”

Then she kisses me.

It’s clumsy and a little bit too rough, and I want to worry about how I taste to her but I can’t, because all I can sense in this moment is her love. It’s like listening to a rousing speech and feeling inspired, and like eating your favorite meal after years of being starved. It’s so exactly, completely Smolder. Our first kiss lasts for long, and when it ends we go in for a longer one. Our tongues meet for the first time, and every slight movement, each small noise that squeaks out of her sets me on fire inside. I taste cinnamon, and I taste everything that can possibly be good. And I feel right.

Smolder draws away from me, eyes half-lidded. “For such a smart bug, you’re really dense sometimes.”

“That’s such a corny thing to say.”

“I know,” she says. “I love you.”

My heart races. “I love you too.”

I fall forward, but she supports me enough that it’s just my face that moves. Our noses bump into each other. Smolder grunts from slight pain, but her beaming smile offsets any worry that I have.

“I smelled gems earlier,” she says. “Did I smell right?”

“You did. Do you want to go eat them?”

“Maybe later. This is better.”

“Okay,” I close my eyes. “I love you. You know that?”

“I do know that,” she whispers, “and I love you.”