It was a quiet evening in the Draft Horse, Ponyville's only bar. Perhaps too quiet. It had been a hot day, after all, and the warm evening air called out for a heightening beverage or two.
Two mares sat by the bar, one making broad, excited gestures with her forehooves as she spoke, the other sitting beside her and listening with the kind of patience that only a best friend could muster, and perhaps only at the best of times. But she had a smile on her face too, and not just because of the drink in front of her.
“… and now I barely even want to use my lyre cause all I can think about is that one. Oh, why can't bits just grow on trees?” Lyra said, dropping her hooves to the table with a dull thud. Her face fell slightly, and she levitated a mug of cider up to her lips.
“You know,” Bon Bon said, picking her words carefully. “You get paid a pretty good amount. If you saved up for stuff like this on a regular basis, you'd be able to afford it with plenty left over.”
Lyra rolled her eyes. “Eugh, you sound like my mom.”
Bon Bon opened her mouth to retort, but Lyra leaned over and silenced her with a quick kiss. Bon Bon arched an eyebrow.
“Good thing you're a lot cuter than my mom,” Lyra said, sticking out her tongue.
Bon Bon tried to fight a grin, shortly followed by a blush. She rolled her eyes at herself. It was absurd that Lyra could still make her blush so easily. “You're such a weirdo, Ly.”
It was comfortable being a couple in Ponyville, where the faces changed less often than the buildings, and where anyone or thing you needed was within a ten minute trot. The Draft Horse, for instance, was only three blocks away from Bon Bon's shop, and their seats at the bar were always empty. Depending on the time of year they would sometimes see Rainbow Dash and Applejack, or even more rarely Big Macintosh and Sugar Belle. A small crowd of regulars filled in the background. It was easy and predictable.
The door behind them opened, and two sets of hooves stepped inside.
Bon Bon lifted her head and turned slightly, watching the door from the corner of her eye.
Lyra, on the other hoof, spun around in her seat and stared directly at the new patrons with all the subtlety of a runaway wagon.
In the doorway stood two unexpected sights. A changeling, with a soft magenta carapace and bright green eyes. They had an easy going smile on their face as they appraised the room. Beside them stood a kirin with a chestnut brown coat. It would be wrong to say that the kirin was hiding behind the changeling, but that was certainly the impression they gave off. The changeling turned and whispered something to their kirin companion, and they both started for the bar.
The changeling hopped into the seat beside Lyra, and the kirin settled in beside them.
Berry Punch, Ponyville's dutiful bartender, looked the new patrons up and down. “I don't think I've seen you two before. First time in the Draft Horse?”
“First time in Ponyville,” the changeling replied. Their voice had that bit of changeling pitchiness to it, like a leaf fluttering in the breeze, but beyond that Bon Bon couldn't start to describe it other than 'friendly.' “You have a lovely bar.”
“Thanks. Built it myself,” Berry Punch replied sarcastically.
“You did?” The changeling's eyes went wide, and they surveyed the room with renewed intensity. “What kind of wood did you use? Is your special talent for carpentry or—”
Berry held up a hoof, a grin on her face. “Sorry, that was a joke. Didn't expect you to take it so seriously. I'm glad you like the place.” She cleared her throat. “Now, what can I get for the two of you?”
It seemed to take the changeling a second to understand the question. “Yes, alcohol! Such a fascinating pony invention.”
The kirin huffed quietly. “You mean a fascinating non-changeling invention. Almost every agricultural species in Equestria produces some kind of alcohol.”
As soon as the kirin opened her mouth, Lyra and Bon Bon turned to face one another. Silently, through mouthed words and raised eyebrows, they communicated a simple point. What a voice! It was somehow smooth and rough, high and throaty, sweet and salty. Lyra pouted. Why can't I sound like that, she mimed.
You sound fine, Bon Bon signaled in return.
“All right then,” said the changeling. “In that case, why don't you order for both of us, you dashing botanist, you.”
The kirin rolled her eyes and leaned over the bar. “Do you have something sweet? Maybe a rosé or a radler?” When Berry's nose wrinkled with distaste, she said, “I know, I know, but some of us have the palate of a honey bee and won't even eat toast without four different spreads on it.”
Berry nodded, still looking pained. “And for yourself?”
The kirin smiled a bit shyly. “The best of whatever's on tap. I trust your judgement.”
The bartender brightened at that. “You won't be disappointed,” she said, and then trotted to the far end of the bar where the kegs were kept.
Lyra barely waited a spare second. She extended a hoof and flashed her best smile. “Hiya! Name's Lyra! Welcome to Ponyville. And this is Bon Bon!”
The changeling stared at Lyra's offered hoof for a moment with crossed eyes, then blinked and gave it a bump. “Hello Lyra and Bon Bon! I'm Sternite, and this is Holly Glow!” Sternite turned to the kirin, Holly, and smiled. “See, we're already meeting new people. Isn't this exciting!”
Holly Glow shrugged, but she had a small smile on her face. “So far so good.”
Stars above, her voice!
“Do you two live here?” asked Sternite.
“Yes,” said Bon Bon.
“Mostly,” said Lyra. Bon Bon shot her a look. “I'm out of town a lot though,” she explained. “Less so now that we're engaged.”
Bon Bon sighed, but leaned in to give the unicorn a quick nuzzle. There it was. It had been months since they'd proposed to each other, but Lyra still brought it up at every opportunity.
Sternite tilted their head. “Engaged in what?” they asked.
Holly made a little choking sound and quickly leaned over to whisper in their ear.
“Oh, marriage! You're engaged in marriage!”
“No, Ess, they're going to get married. It's an idiom.”
Lyra chuckled. “I guess that's another cool non-changeling invention?”
“Yes,” said Sternite, “but I believe there have already been several changeling marriages in imitation of pony custom. It's a very sweet idea.” They leaned back against Holly and added, “Perhaps Holly Glow and I will be 'engaged' sometime.”
The kirin didn't respond, but her cheeks glowed ever so slightly and a little smile crossed her face. “Maybe one day.”
Bon Bon beamed. “You're a couple? I thought so, but I didn't want to assume.”
Sternite smiled back. “Yes, for some time now. A year or more?”
“Twenty months,” Holly stated a bit dryly. “Twenty very strange months.”
Berry Punch set down two drinks in front of the two tourists. “A blush for you, and for you, one of my favourites. An old craft from the Crystal Empire of all places,” she said to Sternite and Holly Glow respectively.
Sternite smiled, grabbed their glass, and took a big sip. They coughed and sputtered, then swallowed hard and smiled. There was a hint of mania in their eyes. “V-very… good!”
“You didn't like kirin alcohol, why would you expect pony alcohol to be any different?” Holly sipped at her drink and hummed in appreciation.
Lyra piped up, “I'll have it if you don't want it!”
The unicorn shrugged. “It's Berry's wine. Even if it's the worst drink in the bar, it's too good to throw away.”
Sternite very casually slid the drink toward her.
Bon Bon cleared her throat. “The kirin village is pretty remote, right? I don't think we've ever had any of you visit Ponyville before, at least not while I've been alive.”
Holly considered it a moment. “You're probably right. I've never heard of a kirin leaving the valley, let alone taking a train. Now that's a pony invention. And I wouldn't have left the village either without the corrupting influence of a certain shapeshifter.”
Lyra gulped down a mouthful of cider and said, “That sounds like a story!”
Holly Glow blinked, opened her mouth, then looked to Sternite.
“All right,” Sternite said. “I suppose the tale does start with me. Back when I was a drone, I was in charge of hive construction and maintenance. When King Thorax freed us from Chrysalis' control, I wanted to see what other kinds of materials were out there beyond boring old changeling wax. Stone, wood, clay, even paper is more fun to manipulate. At some point I learned about a special kind of stone in the Peaks of Peril. Of course, I had no idea that the kirin's hidden village lay just beyond.”
“It's not hidden,” Holly retorted. “Just because a place is on the other side of a mountain doesn't make it hidden.”
“Fine, fine. Anyway, I was exploring some caves when I accidentally, ah, fell.”
“The ceiling collapsed and you were nearly crushed to death by falling rocks.”
“But I wasn't! And thanks to a certain kirin, I made a full recovery.” Sternite and Holly shared an affectionate look.
“The rest of the story isn't as interesting,” Holly said.
“And perhaps not as appropriate for casual conversation,” Sternite added with a smirk.
Holly Glow lived up to her name and lit up brightly, a hoof covering her mouth.
Lyra grinned. “Wow, look at that blush! You know, she and Bon Bon have that in common,” she said to Sternite.
Holly also blinked, and her blush almost seemed to deepen and spread. She turned and grabbed her drink and took a long swig.
“Ahem,” said Sternite, sounding suddenly serious.
Holly swallowed and took a breath. “It's okay, Ess.”
“They're ponies, dearest. Of course they meant no harm, but they should be corrected.” The changeling looked Lyra square on. “Holly Glow is a stallion, and you shouldn't call him 'she'.”
Bon Bon's heart skipped a beat. “Oh gosh, we're—”
“Really sorry!” Lyra said before her fiance could get the word out. “I'm usually pretty good about that, but I guess I didn't realize that kirin are—well, obviously they would, but—” She gulped and turned to Bon Bon for help.
A look of rising horror painted Holly's face, while Sternite's eyes were starting to narrow.
“What Lyra's trying to say is that we're obviously pretty ignorant about kirin. All we really know is legends and rumours, including that all kirin are mares.” Bon Bon winced. “That does sound dumb coming out of my mouth.”
The kirin blinked. A moment ago he had seemed to be on the verge of a panic attack. Now he just looked confused. “All… mares…? That's strange. How could anyone know something like that?”
Sternite cleared their throat. “Kirin are single-sex. Perhaps that's what you were thinking of.”
“Oh!” Holly said, brightening immediately. “Yes, that must be a strange concept for you. I can't imagine how your legends confused that with gender, but we are pretty unique in that way. No sexual dimorphism, no fixed roles in reproduction. I've always been interested in biology, and it's a marvel how fundamentally different one species can be from another despite all their similarities.”
Lyra took a breath. “I guess that's magic for you,” she said flatly.
“Yes, sexual dimorphism,” Bon Bon said without much grace. “That must be what we were thinking of. So male and female kirins pretty much look the same?”
Holly frowned. “Well… obviously we're all unique in our own little ways, just like one unicorn might be blue while another is green, or one might be tall and another short.” He peered between Lyra and Bon Bon. “I'm sorry, you seem to be confused about something, but I don't understand what.”
Sternite sighed. “I should clear the air. Ponies, and most other sapient species, associate gender with, er, physical traits pretty tightly. Some believe that they're one and the same.” At Holly's tight lips and creased brow, Sternite added, “I know. Trust me, it's weird for changelings too, but we had to get used to it in order to infiltrate pony society in the old days.”
“Weird is one word for it.” Holly looked Bon Bon and Lyra up and down, then turned and scanned the sparse crowd around the bar. “So if you two are both mares, then… those three are stallions, I suppose, and the one sitting across from them is a mare?”
“Uh…” Lyra followed the kirin's gaze and licked her lips. “I mean, yes? Well, no, you can't know that. Some ponies, um, defy expectation? Like you just reminded us, appearances can be misleading. But generally, yeah, that's the assumption.”
Holly looked out at the crowd again, then down at his chest and forelegs. “And I look like a pony… 'mare' to you?”
“More than you look like a pony stallion,” Lyra said. Her voice was strained. “But you're not a pony, so not a problem, right?”
The kirin pinched his lips and nodded slowly. “Well, this has been very educational. Thanks for explaining that. I can tell it wasn't easy for you.”
“No problem,” said Bon Bon. She reached out and grabbed her drink.
A moment of awkward silence stretched over the four. Everyone minded their drinks, except for Sternite, who just stared into the middle distance.
“So… on a lighter note, what brings you to Ponyville?” asked Lyra. “I hope it's not Princess Twilight, because she's been living in Canterlot for a while now.”
Sternite smiled and said, “Holly promised me that he'd let me drag him out of that village once my chitin finished healing from the cave-in. It took less than a month, and he managed to find excuse after excuse for over a year to put off leaving.” They leaned and rubbed against the kirin. “But I finally got him onto a train, and now we're going to really explore Equestria and beyond. Ponyville's our first stop.”
“Ess wanted to start in Canterlot, but I managed to talk them down to Ponyville. I don't love crowds, so we compromised,” said Holly.
Them. Bon Bon had been trying not to focus on that question. Changelings could, well, change. She didn't really understand how that whole process worked. Them. Maybe changelings didn't have gender at all? Sternite had said that it was a strange concept for changelings too, so maybe they were like kirin, or maybe—
“Hello? Bon Bon?” Sternite said, waving a hoof in front of the mare's face. “Is everything all right? You seem quite distracted.”
Lyra tossed her a glance, noticed the unasked question on her face, and rolled her eyes. Lyra cleared her throat, licked her lips, and said, “Hey, Sternite. I know we kind of got off on the wrong hoof, but would you mind if we asked one more teensy question?” At Bon Bon's panicked expression, she quickly added, “It's okay if not. We can totally leave you to your drinks and vacation and all.”
The changeling arched an eyebrow and smiled. “You can ask.”
“And please, don't worry about the mix-up earlier,” said Holly. “I'm sure it would have happened sooner or later. You're just the first ponies we've had a proper conversation with since we got off the train. I'll be better prepared for next time thanks to you.”
Bon Bon sighed. “That's very gracious of you, Holly.” Then she turned. “I was wondering along those same lines about you, Sternite, and changelings in general, I suppose. Holly just said 'them.' Is that how most changelings like to be addressed?”
Sternite pursed their lips, considering. “I shouldn't claim to speak for all changelings, but yes, in general I believe that's still the most common. In Queen Chrysalis' hive, individuality and personal expression were not encouraged. If you encountered any number of us back before Thorax's reign, you would have noticed that we all looked almost exactly the same, save perhaps for some small differences in size. Chrysalis styled herself as female, and of course that was beyond question. For the rest of us, we were a collective. Addressing one drone was to address them all, hence the plural.”
“I see. I thought it was a gender neutrality thing, but it's because you were all drones?” Lyra asked.
“It is—was, both. We were not individual. We did not have possessions, we did not have desires, and we did not have identities. It's strange to think back on, now. None of us were happy, but almost none of us could see it. Thankfully there were a few, like Thorax, who could.”
Holly Glow reached over and wrapped a foreleg around one of Sternite's in a subtle show of support. The changeling nodded. “Anyway, to answer your question, now that we're allowed to be our own creatures, everyling is deciding for themselves who they are. Most are most comfortable as they were. Blending in, sticking with the group, making little choices and changes here and there.”
“Most?” Bon Bon prompted.
“Yes, only most. Thorax is an excellent example of the opposite. According to Pharynx, Thorax was calling himself 'he' even before he left the hive. That's not something you could just get away with back then. And now, plenty of changelings, especially the younger ones, are following his lead. I believe there's a female changeling attending the School of Friendship here in Ponyville.”
Lyra opened her mouth and took a breath, but Sternite grinned and cut her off.
“There are two kinds of changelings, technically. One with eggs to lay, one with, well, the other half of that equation. But we can change, as our name suggests, and those things rarely come up outside of, uh, relations with other creatures. I had a few short flings with ponies before I met Holly, and they had every uncomfortable question you're trying not to ask and more.”
“I can imagine,” said Bon Bon. “So you personally don't feel either male of female?”
Sternite shrugged. “Not particularly. Some times more one way than the other, but never to the point that 'they' feels wrong to me. I'm very used to it. Of course, I have nothing but respect for other changelings who feel differently.” And then they brightened. “Oh, this might interest you. Ponies like being able to tell a creature's gender from appearance alone, yes?”
“Well that's a can of worms,” said Lyra with an eye roll. “We're used to doing that.”
“Since more and more changelings have started to adopt genders, a kind of trend has emerged. Feminine changelings tend to choose cool colours, while masculine changelings like warmer colours. There are exceptions, of course. Pharynx is purple, but mostly because it reminds him of his old form. And I can't fault him. It is a nice colour.” Sternite extended a leg so the other three could admire their magenta carapace. “You should probably still ask someling their name and just use that until you know them better, but the colour trick might help you sort things out mentally.”
Lyra and Bon Bon nodded thoughtfully. It felt a bit strange to be talking frankly with another creature about their differences. That was the kind of thing that Twilight Sparkle or her friends would usually do, and now here they were, two normal ponies, breaking down the species barrier.
Maybe that was a little grandiose.
All of their drinks were empty now, even Sternite's (by way of Lyra). Berry Punch took advantage of the momentary lull in conversation to wander back to their side of the bar. “Another round?”
Bon Bon ordered a julep that Berry sighed dramatically at, muttering about cleaning her cocktail equipment. Lyra, surprisingly, just asked for water, as did Holly and Sternite.
“We just wanted to stop in and get a taste for Ponyville's atmosphere,” Sternite explained. “We'll probably do a quick tour around the town center before heading back to the train.”
Lyra scowled. “Really? You're taking a red-eye to Canterlot? Wouldn't you rather stay overnight? Golden Harvest runs a really cute bed and breakfast on her farm, so long as you don't mind an early morning.”
Holly shook his head apologetically. “We already have tickets for the last leg to Canterlot. Maybe we'll stop back in Ponyville sometime soon, though. It seems like lots of Canterlot connections run through here, so it probably wouldn't be out of our way.”
Bon Bon nodded and leaned back in her chair. Their bar nights were usually so quiet, so still. Boring, even despite the alcohol and the company of her favourite pony in Equestria. And yet, despite the tension, the uncertainty, the constant back and forth of intense conversation, she felt surprisingly satisfied.
“Then we won't keep you. It was a pleasure to meet you both, and I hope you enjoy the rest of your trip.”
“And that you don't run into any jerks,” Lyra said into the rim of her glass. She took a big gulp. “I hate to say it, but there are some pretty insensitive ponies out there.”
“We appreciate the warning, but we know what to expect,” replied Sternite. They reached into a pouch and dropped a few bits on the bar counter. “Don't forget, I've been spying on ponies for years.”
As one, the changeling and the kirin stood up and started toward the door. “It has likewise been a pleasure to meet you,” said Holly.
“Yes, hopefully we'll run into each other again soon,” said Sternite.
They reached the door, and it suddenly flew open, and another couple stepped inside.
“Oh awesome!” shouted Rainbow Dash, wings extended. “New creatures!”
“Don't crowd the door, Sugarcube,” Applejack said from behind her. “Seems like they were just on their way out.”
“But AJ, look at them! Another gay couple. It's exactly what this bar's been needing.”
Sternite and Holly looked at each other, silently deliberating the exuberant pegasus' word choice.
“Sure,” said Sternite. "I suppose we are."
Holly shrugged. “Why not? More fun than the alternative.”
“I don't follow at all, but I agree.”
After a few moments of shuffling, 'excuse me's, and a bit of gentle shoving on Applejack's part, Sternite and Holly managed to get past the Ponyvillian couple. With a final wave back at Lyra and Bon Bon, the changeling and the kirin walked out of the bar.
Rainbow took the seat next to Lyra, and Applejack the next one down.
“What was that all about?” asked Rainbow.
Lyra froze, staring at nothing. Then she sighed and said, “Order your drinks. This'll take a while.”