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The newest resident of the changeling hive feels out of place.  He can’t remember the last time he had wings, holes in his arms, or talking bugs for friends.  What is he?  Why is he here?  Will he find his way home?  Will he survive in a world without coffee?

A recounting of one human’s adventure in Equestria.

~ ~ ~

written by FrontSevens

This story is also available on

Critiques, suggestions, problems, or questions?  You can reach me at:

[email protected]

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - Bees

Chapter 2 - Vanhoover

Chapter 3 - Flour Sack

Chapter 4 - Hide and Seek

Chapter 5 - Red Potato Casserole

Chapter 6 - Bird Choir

Chapter 7 - Train

Chapter 8 - Some Pony

Chapter 9 - Keelhaul

Chapter 10 - Perennials

Chapter 11 - Bees, Part 2

Chapter 12 - Copper Flash

Chapter 13 - Focus

Chapter 14 - Fairflanks

Chapter 15 - Impersonations

Chapter 16 - Spilled Milk

Chapter 17 - Fishy

Chapter 18 - Sommelier

Chapter 19 - Fun Little Ride

Chapter 20 - Barreled

Chapter 21 - Stable

Dreams.  What is a dream?


I’ve always thought of a dream as that one minute of nonsense you remember in place of eight hours of sleep.  After waking up, I’d rack my brain trying to remember exactly what happened, whether to make my friends laugh when I tell them later, or to decipher it: to discover if it had any special meaning or relevance in my life.


The events within a dream cannot be monitored, audited, or replicated.  With modern technology, we can only detect the stage of sleep at which dreams occur.  Beyond that, retellings of dreams are only as reputable as the one doing the retelling.  And, retellings are the only way dreams last beyond the dreamer’s memory.


We’ve all had that one dream that lasted longer than we thought it would.  It kept going, and, at some point, you wondered when it would end.  Maybe it was a happy dream and you willed it to continue, or maybe it was frightening and you begged it to cease.  Or, maybe, it was so strange and surreal you were lost in confusion and let it take you with it until it decided to end.


The following story concerns a dream unlike any of these.  Please bear with me for the next… however long this takes to explain.


~ ~ ~


I woke up as I did most days.  Slowly, I peeked out behind my eyelids, noted the dark surrounding, and tried going back to sleep.  Sometimes, I have trouble sleeping.  It’s not insomnia; I just wake up several times during the night.  It isn’t annoying anymore…  Oh, never mind.  I’m starting to run off on a tangent here.  Anyways…


My bed was soft, but I didn’t remember it being this soft.  It was almost… squishy.  Yes, it was squishy.  I squirmed in it and found the other side to be slightly more comfortable.  I took a lazy breath in, and smelt a strange scent.  It was like… carrots, and… urine.  I tried to remember if I had drunk too much water last night.  It wouldn’t be the first time.


Okay, something was off.  Something was definitely off.  A sound like crickets was echoing around the room, but my bed was indoors.  I froze, and my wild, grog-induced imagination pictured the window broken in and crickets swarming everywhere.  There was also a faint buzzing.  I dearly hoped that their bee buddies hadn’t joined them.  I really hate bees.


Gingerly, I rolled to the left side of my bed and dangled a foot over the edge, praying it wouldn’t find a cricket underneath.  My foot, however, was having no luck finding solid ground.  I waved it around; I swear there was carpet around there somewhere.  I looked over the edge of…


…edge of…


Oh, shoot.


What I saw made me jump back and hug the wall behind me in terror!  I wasn’t in my bed.  No, no no no no no.  This wasn’t my bed.  I felt around and sensed I was in a small pocket, overlooking a big, dark empty.  A really big, dark empty.  I was trapped; walls in all directions but out and down.  Man, was that a long down.  Dowwwn down down.


I touched a hand to my be- the place where I had been sleeping.  It was definitely squishy.  It was also… oozy.  A million questions swarmed into my head.  Where was I?  How did I get here?  What was this stuff?  Where was the light switch?  Why…


…Where were my fingers?


I put my hand back down.  I tried to reach my fingers out and touch the ground, but it was as if they went past my palm and into the… squish… but I couldn’t feel them.  Were they numb?  Oh, no, I hated numbness.  I had surgery, once, where I watched a doctor work on my toe.  I couldn’t feel a thing, but oh, was it a weird and awful feeling!  Sometimes, when my arm falls asleep, I get scared that it’ll fall right off my elbow.  I had to find my fingers.


I put my hands together and wiggled my fingers around, but… nothing.  All I could feel were my palms pressing on one another.  Boy, would things be clearer if I could se-


Spoke too soon.  A bright light above pierced through the roof, straight into my eyes.  I winced, trying to protect my sight with my arm, to no avail.  It dimmed, though, as if the sun suddenly realized its potential to blind people and backed off apologetically.  No worries, I thought to the sun.


At last I had enough light to see my… stumps?  Where did my hands go?  And why were my arms full of holes?  I looked down at my feet, but they were gone too!  Instead, there was a pair of hole-filled stumps to go with my arms!  What was going on?


The heightening noise soon stole my attention.  Distracted from my new arms, I wanted to get a good look around at this place.  I was in a large spherical room which resembled the inside of a bee hive.  Childish fear rushed through me, and I fought to breathe as I strained my eyes to see the pockets opposite me.  Black creatures were moving about in their cells.  I looked around to score a closer look at one of these creatures, but was startled by a freakish head popping out from around the wall beside me.


His head was black and crusty, with big, shiny blue eyes and protrusions on his scalp.  He opened his fang-filled mouth and blurted in a scratchy yet slimy voice, “Morning, chump.”


My response matched my thoughts; I screamed.


This was a dream.  This was definitely a dream.  I clenched my eyes shut and tried to pinch my arm, but it only amounted to pathetically thumping one arm against the other.  “Wake up wake up wake up wake up,” I muttered and curled up on the ground.  I took a breath in, let it deliberately out, and slowly opened my eyes.


He was still there, with a suspecting look on his face.  “Sleep well, chump?” he asked dryly.


~ ~ ~


“Don’t know what’s gotten into you, chump,” my new, talking ‘friend’ said as he led me through the tunnels of this… hive… place.  He had helped me down from my little nest, rolling his eyes when I told him I couldn’t fly.  That is, I think he rolled his eyes; they were all one color anyway.  I was too busy to keep track of where we were going with inspecting my new body.


My skin was charcoal black, my forearms and forelegs were full of holes, I wore weird blue wings and a chewed up tail, and - strangely enough - I resembled a horse.  A horse in a beehive.  I hate bees.  I hate bees.  I hate bees.


This had to be the strangest dream yet.  Though, there was that one with the floating swimming pool hotel in the jungle…


Walking on my hands, although awkward at first, felt strangely natural.  It was like crawling on my hands and knees, but my legs were shorter than what I was used to.  I would have to put a little more effort into coordination; walking is hard without knowing which foot out of four goes first…


I heard my cynical clone grumble and say, “You know, chump, you’re starting to look real paranoid.”  He could talk, by the way.


It’s because I am. “Oh, am I?”  I was scrupulously extending my wings.  It was like another pair of arms on my back!


He sneered and turned his attention back to leading.  “I’d knock it off if I were you.  If Sergeant sees you out of line again today, you’ll be heading straight to the Jug.”


“Oh?” Not only did the Jug sound like a place I didn’t want to be, but he had mentioned a sergeant.  This didn’t sound like a nice place.


I looked ahead at my acquaintance and the mob around us, all moving down the gooey passage with the low ceiling.  If I was going to get out of here, I might as well play along.  Although trying not to sound stupid, I asked (in a scratchy voice of my own, which I was still getting used to), “What are we training for, again?”


He rolled his eyes and snarled, “Training?  Don’t you mean eating?  By the queen, did you fall and hit your head last night?”


“I, uh, I don’t remember, but I had a killer headache this morning,” I did my best to sound convincing.  Lying had never been my forte.


“Figures,” he snorted.  “Just don’t fall behind in the field, chump.”


“What’s, uh, what’s your name again?”


He leered at me.  “Is it really that hard to remember?  It’s one more than yours.”


One more… than… wait, what? “Um, forty-three?”


He swung his head forward in irritation.  “You really are the stupidest of the hive, chump.  It’s 6 F 26.  One more than yours.”


Names had numbers in them?  Ok… so I’m 6 F 25, or 5 F 26… This place was starting to sound like a military camp.  Communal sleeping quarters, sergeants, Jugs, names classified by number… Yep.  I definitely needed to leave.


The passage led into an enormous green atrium, very similar in shape to the sleeping area. The ceiling was glowing softly, probably from the sun outside.  Tunnel entryways adorned the walls, some too high to reach without flying.  One opening, noticeably larger than the others, seemed to lead outside.  I subconsciously began walking towards this when 6 F 26 yanked me to the right, as the mob began to form orderly rows.  He took his place and shoved me into mine on his left.


All these creatures, when lined up all nice and neat, looked the same.  It was like one creature had been copied and pasted hundreds of times.  The fellow to my left looked exactly the same as 6 F 26.  On that note, I asked him for his name.  He rasped something that sounded close to 6 F 24.


One creature hovered in front, impatiently awaiting all of us to fall in.  After the last straggler silently stepped in, he walked through the perfectly still rows, inspecting his army.


I tensed when he started through our row, hoping ‘Sergeant’ wouldn’t find me ‘out of line.’  He stopped just past me, slowly walked back, and whipped his head to millimeters in front of my face.  The terrifying thing was that he said nothing.  He just stared right into my eyes, and I did my best to forbid my body of any movement.


Seemingly satisfied, he flew back to the front of the room and hovered there.  His voice, although strained, bellowed across the chamber.


“Morning, maggots!” he roared.  “You know the drill.  You have exactly two hours.  We spread out and harvest individually.  Get only what you need, and report back here not a second late.  Failure to follow regulations results in two days minimum in the Detention Chamber.  Do I make myself clear?”


“Yes, Sergeant 6!” the crowd resounded.


“Good.  Assume formation!”


The entire floor seemed to lift as every pair of wings in the room lifted off the ground in an ear-splitting buzz.  I flailed my wings, but I could not seem to move them fast enough for flight.  6 F 26 rolled his eyes and hooked his forearms under my armpits.


“Everyling, move out!”


The entire brigade began flowing out of the narrow hole that led to the outside.  It was slow going, but we eventually zoomed through the door.


The air was fresh.  So, so very fresh.  I hadn’t realized how stuffy the air was inside the

catacombs of that hive until I had tasted the crisp morning air.  Tasting… I’m hungry, I thought.  And thirsty.  Maybe we’ll drop by a bubbler…


As we soared higher above the grass, the landscape stretched out before us.  We were above a pine forest, with grand mountains splashed with white beyond.  Clouds peeked over the crest of the mountains, but, besides that, it was a gorgeous day.   To our left, a mountain rose up, retaining snowy lands behind it.  A wide waterfall cascaded down the mountainside, tumbling down the rocks and right into a clear river that ran through the forest.  To our right, a vast blue ocean was contoured by a graceful coastline.


The scenery was not only beautiful, but clean.  It was uniform, smooth, almost… cartoony.  It was like someone had painted it, but, as we were flying above it, it moved with us and felt… real.  Even the waterfall, which should break up near the bottom, fell as one continuous (yet majestic) stream.  Something was familiar, too, and I rummaged through my brain, trying to put a finger on why…


Fingers, heh.  I raised my arm and was amused by the way the wind whistled through it.


We were steadily approaching a large city along a coast.  Unlike big city buildings as I remember them, these were no more than ten stories tall.  Additionally, they were relatively more sparse, with parks, marketplaces, houses, and cafes filling in between.  Most of the city’s size came from the activity happening at the street level.  Many people were walking about the streets, playing in parks, or swimming in the ocean.  I couldn’t see them too well from our altitude, but they seemed to dress very colorfully.


Our team had split up by now, and was flying much lower.  My foot kept grazing the tips of the evergreens, and a little branch got stuck in my leg.  We swerved around the edge of the city and dove into the woods below.  6 F 26 set me on the ground and motioned for me to follow him.  I obeyed after shaking out the twig.


We approached a bridge, and 6 F 26 pushed me behind a fallen tree.  He whispered hoarsely, “Here’s where we split, chump.  Wait about a minute – a whole minute – after I’ve crossed the stream, and then you can leave.  And I’m not flying you back this time, so good luck making curfew.”  He peeked his head over the log.


“But, what am I…” I trailed off as he leaped over the log and sprinted silently to the bridge.  He seemed to put much effort into moving stealthily.  Quietly, he waded through the water and ran along the main road, using adjacent houses for cover.


I probably waited there much more than a minute.  Sure, I was nervous, but I was also confused.  The way he was moving bothered me.  It was as if we were sneaking into the city rather than just walking in normally.


“Training?  Don’t you mean eating?”  Were we stealing… stealing food?  Was this our mission?  Why didn’t we just pay for it?  Granted, no grocery store I know would service customers as ugly as us.  A military camp of creatures that steal food to survive… it sounded so evil.


I’m not evil.  I’m not a thief, 6 F 26; not like you, I thought at him.  I’m a law-abiding citizen.  Get a respectable job.  And a name, while you’re at it.


This was my chance to escape.  Who said I was going back to that hive?  I wasn’t going back at all.


My stomach rumbled.  Maybe that should be task number one: food.  I could look for a quarter on the ground and get a grape or something.  Hopefully, there was at least one merchant in the city who would take pity on a talking bug horse.  Or, one who wouldn’t freak out at one…


I didn’t want to scare anyone, so I mimicked 6 F 26 (they definitely needed names.  Name names, not number names.) and dashed for the bridge when no one was about.  Okay, it might’ve been less of a dash and more of a quick walk – running was hard without tripping over myself.  Wading through the water, however, did not go as discreetly; I tried wading in on two legs, but lost my balance and fell in face first.  The water was actually a good temperature.  It was running across my face, so I opened my mouth and took some in to satisfy my thirst.


Hold on a sec.


This was a dream, wasn’t it?  Then, why was I thirsty?  Why could I taste the water so well?  Why did the water on my face feel so real?  Why was everything so… so… clear?




This wasn’t a dream.  This was real.  I lifted my head out of the water and stared at the blue-eyed freak staring back.  I was a cheese-legged, black-coated, bug-like horse from a green, squishy hive about to steal food from citizens of a cartoony city.  And this was real.  This was really happening.  So, why, and… how?


No, it was impossible.  Where could I possibly be?  This wasn’t real.  This was me going crazy.  A dream would have ended already.  I was hallucinating.  Everything was smooth because I was seeing everything without detail.  So, what happened?


I’d never smoked in my life, nor even taken one puff of a cigarette.  Was I drugged?  Who would drug me, and why?  Felicia?  No…  Carlos?  No, he wouldn’t…  Larry?  Eh, possibly…


Voices echoed from behind me.  I scrambled to the underside of the bridge and listened.  Boy, was my heart beating fast – that is, I think I still had a heart!  There wasn’t a hole there; I checked.


“…So, have you talked to Celery Stalks yet?” a female voice inquired.  Celery stalks?  Who talks to vegetables?


“No, no, I haven’t,” another female replied.  “I’ve just been so busy with tapping that I hadn’t had the chance.”  What sounded like wheels and horses rumbled over the bridge.


Well, she’s getting married soon, and she wanted to invite you to the wedding!”  She?


“It’s about time, hey?  He’s been dragging his hooves for years.  Must be exciting for Celery, though.”  Dragging his… hooves?


Curiosity overtook me, and I peeked around the corner.  Two horses were walking along, one pulling a cart with brown jugs in the back.  The cart-puller was brown, with darker brown hair and a picture of a maple leaf on its hip.  The other was green and light blue, with a watering can tattoo.  The odd color scheme was not the only peculiarity; they were talking.  They weren’t pulling a carriage with two humans talking in the cabin; they were talking.


Then, it hit me.


Why I didn’t see this before, I don’t know.  I knew what this was.  I knew what they were.  I already knew that they could talk, and why the world around me was so clean.  This was the world of that “My Little Pony” cartoon.  My cousins watched that show from time to time.


How could I imagine this up if I’d barely ever seen the show?  This must’ve been some real powerful drug.  But, I felt fine.  I felt like me, I felt normal…  My thoughts were clear, my hands weren’t shaking; I didn’t feel any adverse effects.


But, of course, this could be a government conspiracy…  No, that kind of stuff is fiction.  What kind of convoluted government project would involve forcibly running simulations of children’s cartoons?  I had to dismiss that idea before I really started going crazy.


Could this…?  No, no, there’s no way.  But, was there any other…


I sat down hard.  This was real.  I was stuck in a kids’ cartoon show.


Where could I go from here?  Was there a television screen out in the distance that I could jump through?  A portal, a wormhole, a magic door, what?  Was I stuck here forever?  Would I just live here like this?


What was I, for that matter?  I didn’t look anything like those ponies.  If anything, I was the opposite.  Was I… an anti-pony?  If that was the case, then… what would they think of me?  How could I walk around like this?


Too many questions…  I lowered my head back down into the water and let out a sigh, which sounded more like a bubbling hiss.  I had little hope.  What a mess I was in…


But, it was a start.  I’d figured some things out, in a way.  I still felt stupid for being that oblivious for the entire time, but I could plan from that moment on.  I needed to get back to my world, but I would have to get help.  To get help, I’d need to fit in.  To fit in…


Oh, this is going to be tricky.

It really was a beautiful day.  The morning sun was well on its way to delivering a comfortable afternoon.  All of the air was ripe with the scent of fresh pine and life.  Birds of many kinds cheerfully sung to each other, with squirrels chattering in friendly reply.  I could have sat down and drank in all the peacefulness of the forest…


…if I hadn’t been so apprehensive.


Sure, maybe creatures like me were part of the society.  It was possible that I had nothing to fear strolling down the street in broad daylight.


However, cartoons were usually more black and white (figuratively speaking).  There was a peaceful society of ponies here, and a militant society of anti-ponies there.  Such physical separation probably inferred civil separation, also.


Speaking of which, I was in a cartoon now.  If I wanted to get out, I’d have to blend in, play by the rules.  If I was playing the role of the enemy, I definitely shouldn’t show it.  I wanted to avoid being stuck out in public in anti-pony form.  So, step one was to find a disguise.  Some stray trash can or empty barrel to provide temporary cover.


I followed 6 F 26’s technique in using the homes along the road for cover.  Again, coordinated running proved to be difficult on four legs.  Boy, I missed bipedalism!


Fences made excellent vision obstructions, and each fenced backyard was a chance to catch my breath.  I stopped behind a lovely, lavender-painted picket fence.  Next to overwhelmed, I was feeling a little hungry.  That would have to wait.


I peeked through the planks in a short bout of curiosity.  A green cottage sat neatly in front of a greener lawn.  The owner of this house must’ve taken great pride in gardening.  The backyard garden’s colors were bright and healthy, and the layout balanced and pleasing.   There was even a little duck fountain.  A clothesline bridged two trees and was drying several garments, one of which was a blanket.  An adequate disguise…


This was good.  If no one could see me, I could pretend to be a normal horse.  It’d be so much more effective than simply hiding under a cardboard box.  Talking would be a more viable option.  Nothing too personally involved, though; that’d get messy.  Just “normal” stuff, like the weather or where the nearest portal was.


My conscience nagged at a problem, though; I was actually considering stealing!  I shied away from it.  I’m not a thief, I protested.  That was his gig.  Stealing was wrong, stealing was illegal.  But, I really needed something, anything… and when was I going to get another chance?  Free cloaks didn’t grow on trees, and I doubted ponies were handing them out on the streets.  Besides, I wouldn’t steal it; I’d borrow it!  When I could afford a proper costume, I’d give it back.  Lavender fence, it wasn’t hard to miss…


After checking for movement about the house, I swung myself over and crept up to the assortment of laundry.  Upon closer inspection, a pink and purple quilt might not have been worth it.  However, the selection was lacking in variety; my alternatives were summer blouses or a wool winter sweater.  Oh well, beggars couldn’t be choosers.  I unpinned the blanket and headed back for cover.  Gripping it with my fingerless forearms proved difficult, so I dragged it back in my mouth.  With the fence and surrounding trees as cover, I began to work.


I’d tied knots before.  But with rope.  And thumbs.  I tried to capitalize on the holes in my hands, but they were not as useful as I had speculated.  Every cloth-securing, finger-excluding technique I could think of was employed, but to no avail. Slumping on the ground in defeat, I struck the blanket dejectedly with an arm.  A stray clothespin tauntingly tumbled onto my leg.  Of course…


                ~ ~ ~


I’m so oblivious.  My nose could’ve been one big hole and I wouldn’t have noticed it (speaking of which… nope.  Ok, good).  I should’ve hired someone to point out for me all that is otherwise blatantly obvious.  At this rate, they’d be in the Fortune 500 within the week!


My disguise was somewhat passable.  The only loose end was my face.  I needed sunglasses or something to cover up my eyes.  Until then, I pulled the blanket over a little farther and hoped for the best.


Eventually, the backyards led to a dead end, and I was forced to travel the main road.  In the middle of an intersection, a group of young horses were playing, I assume, street hockey.  They wielded the hockey sticks in their mouths as they ran from goal to goal, yelling and laughing.  I spotted a pile of equipment, and, when the kids were circling the opposite goal, I picked up a goalie’s mask.  I slipped it on and continued down the road towards the inner city.


Stealing from children, too…  Nope, I was going to return this too.  I’d… leave it on the street corner, and some kid was bound to find it.  I sighed as I started into town.


Traffic was increasing a little as I passed a stout office building.  Several different horses passed by, going about their horse business.  All those horses at once…  It reminded me of my aunt’s ranch.  As a kid, I remember going horseback riding several times.  The only memorable thing about riding in particular was the smell.  The stable always smelled rancid.  It didn’t help, either, that I once fell off of a horse and landed in some… business.  My favorite shirt stank for weeks.  Suddenly worried, I began to search the ground for any surprises.


As long as my nose still worked, though, that didn’t seem to be the case.   The air was still fresh, and I hadn’t noticed anything on the roads before.  It makes sense that if the horses were intelligent, speaking creatures that built houses like us and played hockey like us, that they’d have proper facilities like us, too.  Speaking of which, I had the sudden urge to go…  That’d have to wait, though.


Well, I was all up and disguised, so I might as well head into town for…


Um… what exactly was I looking for?


At this point, I didn’t really have a clear idea of how to get back.  Interdimensional travel had not been invented in my universe.  Or, had it?  I had to have gotten here somehow, after all.  Maybe I accidentally stepped into a teleport or something.  In that case, beaming up must have wiped out my short-term memory – the last thing I remember was falling asleep in my bed.  Aliens are always a possibility, too… I couldn’t remember if those “abduction victims” on the Discovery channel mentioned ponies or not…


Something bumped into me.  “Oh, pardon me,” it- she said, distracted by a grocery bag float in front of her.  It was surrounded by a red aura, and the same red glow came from her horn…




Magic actually existed in this world, and so did unicorns.  I could find a unicorn to teleport me back to my world!  But, would any unicorn do?  If they all knew how to travel to my universe, we probably would have noticed.  So, there were probably only a couple that would know how to do something that powerful.  Where would I look for them, though?  The frigid peak of a mountain?  A secret military base?  The highest room in the tallest tower of a dragon-guarded castle?  The very center of –


Why was I feeling so claustrophobic?


The trickle of horses around me had grown to a wide river.  At this point, oncoming traffic had decreased greatly, and the downtown-bound herd was filling the entire road.


I did not feel comfortable in the slightest.  No other creatures like me…  There were no gaps around me to jump out, so I followed reluctantly.  My heartbeat increased, and I felt a cold sweat on my forehead.  I retracted my feet farther under the blanket, but I probably looked ridiculous anyway; most of these ponies weren’t wearing any clothes at all!  Just keep cool, I insisted.  Nobody’s going to know.  Nobody’s going to find out.


We reached a large town square, filled with hundreds of horses.  My eyes hurt from the sea of color.  Everybody was crowded around a small stage, complete with several rows of chairs and a megaphone-mounted podium.  Maybe it was a concert, or election day, or even let’s-fit-as-many-people-as-we-can-into-one-place day.  Surely, it couldn’t have been murder-anyone-who-isn’t-a-pony day.


Fairly soon, people began filing onto the stage.  A hush rippled across the crowd as one horse in particular approached the stand.  At my distance, I couldn’t see its face clearly, but I could at least tell that it was brown with graying hair.  It cleared its throat and started to address the crowd.


“Fillies and gentlecolts,” he began.  “As you may have heard, a nest full of creatures called changelings has appeared to our north.”


A nest of… changelings?  Wait, I could do math.  A nest near the city, and I came from a nest…  Creatures that weren’t ponies, and I wasn’t a pony…  So I was a changeling?  Now, hold on, he could be talking about something else.


He unveiled a large poster.  The picture looked exactly like me…


Alright, that would just be another hitch…


“These changelings are not friendly.  We have attempted negotiations with them, but they refuse diplomacy,” he declared.


I didn’t like where this was going.  My emotions overrode logic, and I became paranoid that someone would discover me.  I looked around for a way out, but this crowd was packed tight.  Anxiety induced my heartbeat to accelerate.  I was half hoping 6 F 26 would swoop in and get me out of here.


“…They could be among us this very moment, stealing our love…”


Panicking, I turned around and tried to wedge my way out of the dense mob.  “Excuse me, pardon me, excuse me, sorry, pardon me,” I muttered carefully, trying to hide my scratchy voice.  My throbbing heart started to slowly climb up my throat.


“…If you suspect one of your loved ones is a changeling, please contact the local authorities immediately…”


I picked the wrong day to visit…


The crowd was starting to thin out, and I sensed I was near the edge.  I broke into a jog and slalomed back and forth where I could.


I felt a tug, and pushed against it to resume running.  The clothespin freed me instead, and I flew forward, right into an unsuspecting and genuinely surprised horse.  I landed on top of it, my mask clattering forward on the cobblestone.


Uh oh.


I immediately stood up and backed away.  Every pair of eyes in the immediate vicinity was on me, and I could feel each one like burning lasers.  A rush of fear froze my limbs in place.  Fighting my choked and newly dry throat, I said, “Uh… it was an accident…”


Too late…


Before the word “was,” my tackled victim let out a scream, and was followed by her peers.  This was bad.  This was so bad…


I bolted down the street, only to be chased by some serious-looking ponies.  They were gaining on me way too easily; I really needed to learn how to run better.  I ducked into an alleyway and zigzagged between the buildings.


Among a pile of trash, an empty cardboard box was tipped on its side.  I dove towards it like it was a table in a rainstorm and pulled it over me.  My lungs tried to heave in air as much as my lightheaded brain would allow me.


As the sound of hooves approached, I froze and held my breath.  I could see their shadows pass by from under the box.  One stopped, and I closed my eyes.   Please don’t find me, please don’t find me, I willed.


A voice down the alley called out, “This way!” and the footsteps began to fade.


After I was sure that they were long gone, I cautiously peeked out from under my cover.  The coast was clear, and I released a rigid breath.  I was safe for-


“Hello, mister!”




I ducked quickly back under the box, shaking nervously.  A little purple stub reached under and pulled up the box a little, revealing a small child, not even half my size.  She had big, pink eyes that looked apologetic.  “I’m sorry, mister.  Did I scare you?”


At first, I didn’t say anything in response.  I was fearful that she’d run and tell her parents of seeing a monster.  After a moment, though, she had stayed where she was, and I realized how foolish I was for believing her to be a threat.  I swallowed and said, “Not really.  Okay, maybe a little.”


She beamed and giggled.  I tilted the box back as she straightened up and somersaulted to a little box next to mine.  She poked her head out and whispered, “I’m secret agent Taff.  I’m being hunted by super-secret gover-mint people that are trying to kill me!  Just like you!”  She checked down each backstreet to ensure the confidentiality of this discussion.  Her face lit up and she offered, “Wanna be a spy with me?”


This threw me off, and I paused, trying to think.  I didn’t have time for any distractions.  The police were on my tail… oh ha, ha. Tail.  I could’ve gotten caught and thrown in jail, and could’ve been stuck in there for days.  No, I could not afford any setbacks.  But…


She looked so… innocently expectant.  Whether or not Japan was responsible , her eyes were extremely disproportionate, to the point where they were downright adorable.  How could I turn those eyes down?  “Uh, sure.”


How long we played, I couldn’t be sure.  Ten minutes, a half hour?  Unfortunately, my watch had not teleported with me to this world.  All I remember was my pleasant surprise at how much fun I was having.


“We have to unravel the conspiracy!” Taff declared.  The way she fumbled in trying to use grown-up words was so sweet.


“Which conspiracy is that?” I offered.


 “The… um… we have to find all the moles!”


“Well, as it turns out…” I put my hand to my chest.  “I am one!”


“Um… What’s a mole, again?”


I gave her the short version.  “A bad guy.”


“Oh.”  Then, she reassumed her spy role, and her eyes widened in shock.  “How dare you!  I have no choice but to kill you!”  She took up a karate stance and delivered soft but determined blows.  “Hi yah!  Hieee yah!”


I allowed her several attacks, feigning hurt.  After our fierce hand-to-hand combat, I retorted, “Well, agent Taff… I have no choice but… to tickle you!”


I executed my dastardly plot and lunged at her.  After a bout of giggling and a cry of “uncle,” she vowed her vengeance.  I hastened back to base, thanking her sarcastically for all the intel.


“Just you wait, you double-crosser!  I’ll…”


I laughed menacingly.  “It’ll be too late, agent!  We’ll have initiated Operation Chupacabra, which begins… now!”


I popped out of the box.  Instead of Taff, though, two police officers greeted me.  One with a moustache squinted and informed me, “You’re coming with us.”  A pair of handcuffs floated out in front of me, grasping my arms.  Playtime was over.


My head sank with my heart.  Taff just sat and stared at me.  Not wanting to end on a sour note, I lowered my head down to her and whispered, “I see you brought reinforcements.  I’ll get you yet, agent Taff.  I’ll get you yet.”


To my relief, it brought a twinkle to her eyes.  However, as I was escorted away, her smile faded.  I felt bad for her, but I had no choice but to follow my captors.


On the way, a lot of feelings were swimming about my mind.  Frustration, for one; this was a waste of my time.  Humiliation, too; I was consistently aware of the stares I was getting from passersby.  Fear of where I was going and what would happen to me.  Oh, and shame, from the cloak and mask that I stole and probably couldn’t return.


But… at least I had made a little kid’s day.


How kind she was made me feel good inside.  I looked like a monster, but she hadn’t cared.  There was no prejudgement: only innocence.  If these ponies could have adopted her perspective, I think the welcome I received would have had a lot less distress.


The police station was small and colorful.  There was a little cutout of a winking cop pointing at the reader and ordering, “Be safe, colts and fillies!”  The interior was just as cheery, with a clean waiting room that had a large mural of colorful, frolicking horses.  I’d never visited a police station before, but I had expected it to be more… serious?


They took my footprints and some mug shots, and saw me to one of three jail cells.  It made sense that, this being a kids’ cartoon, criminals were uncommon.


The cell was bare, barring a bed folding down from the wall.  The paint was peeling, and a small toilet sat in the corner.  I had never been in prison, but National Geographic’s portrayal of it didn’t seem very enjoyable.  At least I wasn’t sharing a cell with anyone.  Prison fights on TV didn’t look very fun.


Maybe I could talk my way out with the guard on duty.  “Excuse me?” I asked as I approached the bars.


No response.  He was preoccupied with a magazine.  I could barely make out the title; it looked something like “Sports Illustrated,” but it had an “F” at the front.  What the heck was “Sports Fillustrated”?


I tried again.  “Excuse me?  How long do I have to be in here?”  Again, he completely ignored me.  This was getting frustrating.


Did I have to say something more attention-grabbing, perhaps?  I cleared my throat.  “If you don’t let me out of here, I’ll… I’ve got the whole place rigged up!  With bombs!  Set to explode, if I stay in here!  So, you should let me out of here.  Right… now!”


And… it didn’t work.  He flipped a page of the magazine, continuing to read.  I thought a bomb threat would at least earn a glance in my direction, but apparently not.  Maybe something more… feasible?


“I’ve called in the entire changeling army!  They’ll be here any minute… unless you let me out!  Don’t say I didn’t warn you!”


Still nothing.  Threats weren’t to be taken seriously, I guess.  I decided to take advantage of my one privilege as a criminal.


“Um, can I have my phone call?”


…Or not.  What to do…


The bed wasn’t as comfortable as I had hoped, but it was all I had.  I lay down on the thin mattress and took some time to think.


This didn’t feel right; I wasn’t a criminal.  I was a good person.  I cleaned my plate, did my homework, and paid my bills on time.  The law and I had never encountered one another: not even for a speeding ticket.  Heck, I’d return a dropped twenty-dollar bill to its owner.  I didn’t belong in prison.


Forget jail.  Why was I here in the first place?  And why, of all things, did I have to turn into a changeling?  Why couldn’t I have been a pony like everyone else?  A pony would have much less trouble walking down the street and asking for a wormhole – trouble nonetheless, but still less jail time than I.



Bored.  How long were they planning to keep me here?  Disturbing the peace probably wasn’t a high-profile crime.  Then again, I was a changeling…


I wasn’t really ready for any more excitement or adventure.  Maybe I could relax and take a quick nap.  I stretched out my neck and shut my eyes.


“How’re you feeling?”


“Tired,” I replied.  Wait…  Someone was talking to me?


I pulled my head up.  A pony was standing outside of my cell.  He looked like he was middle-aged or further, with fading blonde hair and tired, pink eyes.  Familiar pink eyes, at that, that seemed to laugh as he said, “I understand.  Double agents can get worn out now and again, I suppose.”


I grinned a little.  “You… you saw?”


“Why yes, I did.  I’m Taff’s grandfather, you know.”


~ ~ ~


I lucked out.


As poorly as some events have gone today, at least one thing went well; the grandpa of a kid I had the heart to play with had the heart himself to release me from prison.   They didn’t even post bail here!  They took his word that he’d make sure I would stay out of trouble and released me.  Ponies were more trusting than I thought.


I imagine it might’ve been hard for him.  Leading a changeling through town probably didn’t garner a good reputation.  On the other hand, maybe it did; maybe he looked like a hero, having subjugated the enemy.  Either way, I wanted to ensure he knew the extent of my gratitude.  I made no small endeavor of thanking him pretty much the entire way.


The path we took led right into the forest, and he led me further and further into the trees.  I had figured his place would have been closer to the alley.  “Do you live out here?” I inquired.  No other ponies were here as far as I could tell.


He looked at me and cocked his head.  “Have you really not figured it out yet?”


Figured what out?  “Um, no…?”


He sighed.  A swirling green vortex appeared and rose from his feet to his head in a flash.  What was left wasn’t Taff’s grandfather, but… me!


What…  How did he do that?!

“How did you do that?”


“What, are you stupid or something?”


“You changed… into me.  How did you do that?”


I had no idea what was going on.  Taff’s grandfather just turned into me out of nowhere.  I wanted to know how the heck that happened.


Taking a closer look at me, he asked, “Are you even a changeling?”


Wasn’t I?  I sure looked like one… “I’m pretty sure.  Now, what’s going on?”


He sat down.  “Dude, where have you been?  Did you miss out on life?  Do you not live at the hive?”


“Yeah, I did.  Live at the hive,” I amended.


“Are you for real?  I don’t want to have to spell it out for you, dude!”


Yes, please do.  That’d be nice.  I sat down, patiently awaiting an explanation.


He threw his arms in the air.  “I can’t even take you seriously right now.  I’m leaving.”  He turned around to take off, but not before adding, “You’re welcome for saving you, by the way.  Don’t get left behind.”  With that, he flew away to the north, muttering something indiscernible.  Still in need of answers, I yelled, “Wait, come back!”


Was he flying to the hive?  Why would he do that?  Could someone…  Oh…


I don’t think that was Taff’s grandpa.  That lived at the hive.  So, somehow, it had transformed to look like him.  Some sort of freaky magic that I couldn’t...


…Couldn’t I?  I was a changeling, after all…  Oh, now I get the name.  But, just being a changeling might not have granted me changeling powers, too.  It’d probably be something I’d have to learn, like a card trick.


I looked around and sighed.  I was abandoned, and didn’t know where to go.  Already back at square one.


Did I want to return to the hive?  I could learn that shape-shifting trick, but everyone probably knew it by then.  Maybe 6 F 26 could teach it to me, although it was unlikely he’d be willing; he didn’t seem like the altruistic type.


Did I want to test my luck again in the city?  I could pull together another disguise.  It had worked for the most part, although I hadn’t tested it in normal conversation.  That “changing” thing would be more useful…


I sat down and looked up, watching a wispy cloud roll by.  I had wings.  Maybe I could just fly back home.  Could birds talk too?  I could ask them for lessons…


…Did I just hear a sneeze?


I could’ve sworn I heard a sneeze.


Who followed me?  Were the police still after me?  Maybe Taff’s real grandfather, or Taff herself, followed me here…


A bush rustled nearby.  Should I take a chance and introduce myself, or get a running head start?  I was leaning towards the latter.


But, I didn’t have to decide.  A white horse darted out and ran back to the city.  Another frightened resident, I supposed.  One frightened resident…


A phrase I heard in a psychology class came to mind… “People are stupid; individuals, however, are smart.”  A crowd would’ve (and had) panicked, but maybe I could’ve convinced one…


Half running, half hobbling, I began my pursuit.  Knowing I couldn’t catch her, I called out, “Hey!  Wait up!”  It’d have been easier if she tripped or something…


She glanced behind herself, and collided with a low branch.  A wave of bliss was immediately followed by self-chastise.  I was terrible to wish for that; she could have hurt herself!  But, that was my chance…


“Are you alright?” I asked when I caught up to her.  Her pupils were reeling so much I was afraid that her eyeballs had come loose!


Her sight refocused, and, looking up at me, she squirmed to get away.  I held her down; the opportunity to convince someone that I wasn’t me couldn’t be passed up.


“Calm down!  I’m not like other changelings,” I assured her in my scratchy voice.  “I need your help.  Please, help me.”


At “please,” she relaxed a little, and her big, pink eyes settled on mine.


“I’m lost, and I need help getting back home.”  I was a little resentful of ponies, but becoming my normal, human self again was worth swallowing a little pride.  “Now, I’m going to let you up, so… please don’t run away.”


To prove my trustworthiness, I backed away slowly.  She carefully remounted her feet.  I expected her to start running again, but, to my delight, she didn’t.  She nodded towards the road and said quietly, “Let’s go.”


I did as instructed and walked with her along the forest path.


You know, if she turned out to be a changeling, too…


~ ~ ~




The whole trip must have been an hour long, and she only spoke eight words.  Well, ten, including “Let’s go.”  And eleven, if that sound she made when she hit the tree branch counted.


She didn’t answer my straightforward questions of what she had been doing there, or how much she had seen, or what she knew about changelings, or if she knew anything about portals.  I didn’t expect her to answer the last one, seeing that she wasn’t a unicorn, but it was worth a try.  Eventually, though, I had to resort to a normal conversation.


In general, conversations are not my proficiency.  It had been too long since I actually made casual chitchat with another human, let alone a pony.  I worked as a programmer.  If I wasn’t in front of my computer for seven hours a workday, I was enduring the mindless chatter of my coworkers.  It was kind of ironic how things turned out.


I tried everything I could think of, from the weather, to the birds, to the flowers, to the lack of clouds, to the birds...  The only reaction that could have almost been mistaken for a response was when she blinked when I complimented her gold-blond hair.  Barring that, she was impossibly hard to read the entire way.  Eyes straight ahead, mouth closed, and an expressionless face (maybe tired, if anything), if I was reading horse faces correctly.


My efforts were not unfruitful, though; I at least discovered her name, Wheat Flour.  …Really?  Changelings’ names have numbers, and ponies’ have food?  Surely, there had to have been humans around here somewhere…


Since she near refused talking, I didn’t have much to think about the rest of the way.  Instead, thinking practically, I studied how she walked.  It was hard to study, though, without looking like I was staring at her awkwardly.  She probably felt really uncomfortable, come to think of it.  Eventually, though, I had figured out the basic walking cycle.  Left foot, left hand – or, left other foot – right foot, right other foot.  It took a while, but I got the hang of it.


Also, it was hard not to notice the flour sack tattoo on her hip.  I understood that it was related to her name, and her job, but it seemed too… permanent, and limiting.  Oh, well.  It was her choice, I guess.


Our journey ended at a small farm.  A faded sign arching the entry deemed the land, “Buckwheat Range.” The buildings were small, humble, and, in my opinion, a bit dated.  They were a dull shade of sandy brown, and showed a few signs of wear.  Wheat Flour stopped me at the gate, and continued inside.


The property was bordered by a wooden fence.  It seemed that every square foot of land within that fence that wasn’t taken up by the barn, silos, or farmhouse was wheat.  Rows upon rows of wheat.  At least it matched the décor.


A little dog came out to meet me.  Scottish terrier, I think?  He yipped at me like I was a rabbit or something.  When I reached out a hand to scratch him with, he calmed down.  I had a couple of dogs when I was a kid, so I knew all the sweet spots.


“What do you want?”


I looked up to greet the voice’s owner.  She was slightly taller than Wheat Flour, with crimson hair and yellow skin.


“Wheat Flour led me here.  She said she could help me out,” I told her plainly.


She squinted at me.  “And what, exactly, would you need help with?”  I could practically smell her distrust, from the way she looked at and spoke to me.  Could’ve been the dog, though.


I looked down to see him panting happily at me.  “Getting home.”


Before she could ask any more skeptical questions, Wheat Flour returned with another horse.  It was violet, with wildly curly green hair and bright red glasses.  Upon its approach, it strained its eyes and exclaimed with a strong, southern belle accent, “So!  My little Flour tells me we have a visitor!”


Scarlet-hair rolled her eyes, and I replied, “Yes, ma’am.  I need to find some-“


“Say no more, darlin’!  I could always use another hoof on my ranch!  Besides, Wheat Flour here won’t mind havin’ a stallion around, won’t you, hon?”  At this, she nudged Wheat Flour with her elbow.  Her cheeks flushed, and she retreated to the house.


Red-specs chuckled.  “Oh, she’s always shy around the young bucks.  Can’t never find her voice amongst the city folk.”


She brought a hoof to her cheek.  “Goodness, where did my manners go?  I’m Millie – or Aunt Millie, if you so desire – and this is my neice, Whole Grain.  You already met her sister, Wheat Flour.  Pleasure’s all mine, mister…”


“S-”  Shoot.  I hadn’t thought of a better name than 6 F 25 yet.  “Uh… um…” I stalled.  What was a somewhat believable, food-related name?  I looked down at my feet.  “Swiss, ahem, Swiss Cheese.”


She licked her lips.  “Swiss Cheese?  Well, it’s mighty nice meetin’ ya, Swiss.  Stay as long as you like, hon!  Extra help’s always welcome on my farm!  Now, Grain darlin’ here’s gonna get you set right up with a little work.  Aren’t you, hon?”


The yellow pony seemed to have no such desire.  “Yes, Auntie, I am.”


“Fan-tastic!  I’ll see y’all at supper, Swissy!”  Aunt Millie waved me off before sauntering back to the residence, leaving me with a grumpy-looking Whole Grain.  For a couple of uncomfortable seconds, she glowered at me.


“Well, it’s nice to-”


“No talking.”  She said bluntly.




Sheesh.  I wasn’t sure if this was the best place to be, either.  But, nobody had screamed so far, so… might as well stick with it.


I followed her to the barn, which was larger than it had looked on the outside.  In the back, numerous bags were orderly stacked to the roof.  If there was a wall there, I couldn’t tell.  The rest of the area was taken up by various pieces of equipment.  I assumed it was all for working with grain, somehow.  That seemed to be the theme here.


Whole Grain directed me with her hoof to a large stone wheel.  It was hollow and turned on its side, like a life-sized hamster wheel.  “It’s real simple.  You stay in this wheel.  Walk when I tell you, and stop when I tell you.  Got it?”  From her terse tone, I had the feeling she didn’t like me.


“Ok.”  Even though I broke her law, I had to convey my understanding.


I jumped in and awaited instruction.  She positioned herself in front of the wheel, atop a small stool.  She adjusted an apparatus that looked ready to grind meat.  I hoped she wasn’t going to go all serial killer on me.  She seemed like the type that would, too.  “Go,” she ordered.


As I walked, I could hear various gears and rollers spin and squeak.  After I started walking, Whole Grain turned her attention to a little door in the barn wall, no bigger than her hoof.  She opened it a little, and seeds started pouring down a chute.  They fed into a funnel, and through a series of rollers.  At the bottom, beige powder flurried down into a container, which was sunk through the floor and into a basement.


Of course, we were making flour.  What did I expect?  Oh, that’s right, meat pies…


~ ~ ~


I really needed to find a wristwatch.


Seriously.  It wasn’t vital, but it would’ve been really nice to know the time.


It’s not that I didn’t mind the walking; all the more practice for four legs at a time.  It was just tedious.  I wouldn’t have kept going if I didn’t have the feeling I’d actually get something from it.  The grey panel constantly moving down and under me lulled me into a trance, at times.  There was a little black spot on the stone, and I began counting the number of times it went past.  I lost track at around 800.  Had it been one hour, or two?


This’ll all be worth it, I told myself.  Somehow… 


I had to find a way to break the monotony, even if it entailed breaking Rule #1.  I learned, though, that not much leeway is given past that rule.  Iron Fist seems to hate a friendly chat more than anything (except, probably, me).


“So, what’s the dog’s name?”


She focused a death stare at me.  “No talking, remember?”


No, of course not.  Why haven’t I talked for the past two hours?  Although tempted to nod and carry on, I was growing a little annoyed of her lack of cordiality.  “Your dog has a name, right?”


She merely frowned deeper.  I could sense the impending storm, but I didn’t care.  Bring it on.  I’m bored.  “There was this one dog I had; his name was Oliver.  He was a golden retriever.  Got into trouble sometimes, but boy, was he so much fun.  Loved to play with the Frisbee; we’d take him out to the park every other day in the summer and-“


Smack!  A yellow hoof hurtled past me, millimeters in front of my eyes, and planted itself firmly against the wheel.  I immediately halted, and turned to see a very stern-looking Whole Grain.  She spoke slowly and calmly, but firmly.


“It’s great that our Aunt is generous enough to offer you work here, isn’t it, Sissy?  However, if I hear one more word come out of that grotesque mouth of yours, I’ll buck you so hard in the face that your eyes will pop out the back of your head.”  She leaned in close, drilling her stare into my soul.  “Got it?”


I nodded silently, suppressing a cough to avoid that punch landing on my face.  After emphasizing her seriousness through several more seconds of glaring, she returned back to her post.  “Go.”


Despite my reluctance, I started rolling again.  I wasn’t in the mood for smashed-in teeth.  Three years of braces would have been wasted…


If only I had come into this world as a pony.  We’ve already been over this, I reminded myself.  Stop wishing and find a way home already!  Patience, brain.  Maybe the best plan of action was to earn this family’s trust…


And, boy, had I done a good job of that so far.  Why’d I have to be such a wise guy?  Shut up, I commanded.  Shut up now.  No more trouble from now on.


For the time span after that episode (I really needed a watch), I wanted to apologize to Whole Grain.  After her reinforcement of Rule #1, though, I wasn’t up for breaking it again.


Finally, supper came.  I was kind of hungry, not having eaten since… the previous day!  Aunt Millie had prepared a miniature feast, with green beans, corn, mashed sweet potatoes, and fresh bread.  She said tonight was special; they weren’t used to having guests over.


First thing; I’ve noticed that ponies grabbed things with their mouths.  Made sense, considering no one has fingers, but it seemed a little unsanitary to me.  I tried working a serving spoon for the corn into my arm and scooping some, but Whole Grain and Wheat Flour gave me odd looks.  However unhygienic, I, too, began gripping the spoons with my mouth.


Speaking of silverware, there wasn’t any.  Instead, they just ate directly off of their plate, kind of like… horses.  Oh, duh.  Oblivious, much?


The table was silent.  Whole Grain was busy loathing me, Wheat Flour was busy maintaining her ever-reserved face, and Aunt Millie was busy eating.  I was bearing Rule #1 in mind, but I wanted some sort of conversation going.  If I was going to get any help from these people, I’d need to earn their trust.  Although, considering Whole Grain’s attitude, maybe silence was the best option.


Aunt Millie brushed some green hair out of her face with a hoof and began, “So, Swissy, where again did you say y’all were from?”


“Oh, uh… far away.  Very far away,” I replied.


“Oh, really?  And what, if you don’t mind my askin’, brings you all the way out to Vanhoover?”


Van… hoover?  “Don’t you mean Vancouver?”


“No, I’m fairly certain I said Vanhoover!”  She adjusted her glasses.  “I trust your ears are still attached to your head since last I saw you?”


“Oh, uh, yes.”  Vanhoover?  Did they just put “hooves” into “Vancouver”?  Oh, how I hated puns…




Oh, right.  “Um…”  Think think think.  “…I just wanted to visit.  The coastline is so wonderful, and I really enjoy the weather here.”


She nodded slowly.  I glanced at Whole Grain, and could tell she wasn’t buying it.  Heck, she wouldn’t buy it if it was free.  Millie continued, “So, where you stayin’?”


“I, um, uh…”  Making up a story is much harder to do on the spot…  Eh, might as well tell the truth.  “I’m not staying anywhere, at the moment…”


“Oh, aren’t ya?  Well, I reckon we could fix up a spot for y’all in the barn!  Wheat Flour, dear, after supper, could you sit’iate a spot for our guest to lay his head for the night?”


“Oh, no, that’s totally fine-”


“Nonsense!”  She held her hoof to her chest.  “A Wheat family guest shall never spend a night w’thout a roof over their head!”


Well, was that actually a bad thing?  How much was there that I could do at night?  “Thank you.”


Wow, was she nice.  She reminded me of my own aunt, who was equally sweet.  I spent a lot of time at her ranch when I was a kid.  She was always so friendly, and seemed so happy.  In the winter, when it was too cold to go horseback riding, she’d make my sister and I hot chocolate, with little marshmallows on top.  That’s my best memory of the ranch, I think: how warm it felt whenever I was there.


After dinner, Millie sent Wheat Flour out to the barn to prepare me a bed.  I had offered to assist her, feeling a little guilty that I had caused her the trouble.  There were a few bales of hay in the barn, so she took some hay in her mouth and brought it up to a small platform.  It was gross, but I couldn’t see any other practical way of doing it.  I followed and, fairly quick, we formed a sizeable pile.  She then spread the hay out in a rectangular shape.


I wasn’t sure how well hay would do for a mattress.  Out of curiosity, I tested one of the flour sacks, but it was rock hard.  The hay was at least better than nothing.


Wheat Flour began to take her leave.  I felt like I had to say something: maybe to thank her, or to apologize, or to ask her why she had decided to aid me in the forest…


“Wheat Flour?”


She turned around, looked at me with her soft, pink eyes, and waited quietly.


“Uh, um… thanks.  And… good night.”


She nodded and left, closing the barn door behind her.


I thumped my stump against my head.  Someday, I would know what to say, and be able say it in an intellectual manner.  Maybe I could’ve hired a speechwriter.  Heck, I could’ve organized a cabinet for all the help I needed.


Cabinet-forming could wait.  I had had enough of this world for the day: too much walking and not enough portal-hopping.  It was time to hit the hay- ugh.  That one was my fault.


Although it could’ve used more hay, my bed wasn’t that bad.  It was somewhat soft, seemed to be the right length, and didn’t ooze.  It would do for the night.


I lay awake for a while, looking out at the night sky.  It was a deep, deep purple, with the stars twinkling happily.  It was beautiful, even for a cartoon.


Was there really a way to get back?  Was I stuck here, forever imprisoned in a children’s cartoon?  I certainly hoped not…


Maybe, when I’d wake up the next day, I’d wake up as a human again.  It was a silly thought, but, if it worked one way that morning, what was to stop it from happening in reverse?


Please let this be a dream…


Just a dream…



Nothing below me, and nothing above.  I was falling in a big, black empty.  Air was rushing past, tickling my fingers.


Far below, the ground came into view: a solid, mustard yellow floor.  A large, round hole opened up, though, and allowed me to pass through, into another empty space.


I continued falling, and another ground appeared, with another hole opening up.  This time, though, the hole was a little smaller, and less round.  I passed through this one as well.


This repeated, the holes getting smaller and more shaped.  One hole I passed was almost exactly outlined after me.  The floor after that, however, didn’t open up.  I kept falling, and the ground came closer.  I hoped that just one more hole would open up, but it didn’t.  I came closer and closer and closer, and, just before impact, I woke up.


Back to reality.  If it was reality…


I kept my eyes closed upon awakening.  When I opened my eyes, I would see my bedroom.  My fingers would exist, and my legs would be at their normal length.


Something tickled my nose, and I sneezed.  I opened my eyes to see a strand of hay poking up past my nose.


So much for that.


Groaning, I attempted to arise from my bed, but my back was stiff and sore.  The ground and I should have been separated by a little more hay.  Instead, I lay there, staring at what was left of my hooves.  I wanted a magical unicorn to poof me back home.  I wanted my soft, dry bed in my air-conditioned house.  I wanted…


…A cup of coffee.


After some difficult coordinated movements, I found my feet under me once again.  I was a little dizzy, and thirsty.  Breakfast was sure to wake me up.


~ ~ ~


Breakfast wasn’t quite what I expected.  Aunt Millie dished out a stack of green pancakes to each of us.  “What are these?” I asked.


“Why, grass pancakes, of course!” Millie declared.  “The famous family recipe, handed down from Grain to Grain for generations!”


Grass?  I could see a horse eating it, but me?  Well… come to think of it, I was kind of like a horse.  Through logic gifted by my early-morning brain, I concluded that my horse tongue would enjoy it.  I dipped down and sampled a small chunk.


Eh...  It tasted like grass and dough, although less like grass when I had tasted it at age four, and more like lettuce.  Still, grass in pancakes.   Spotting the maple syrup, I doused my meal in it.  The grass was successfully stifled, although I imagined that the Grain family thought my syrup usage a bit exorbitant.


“Do you have any coffee?” I asked, and then coughed.  My mind could’ve been so much clearer had I had a proper cup o’ joe.


“Coffee?  Come down with a sore throat?”  She laughed.  “Oh, I’m just teasin’, hon.  No, I don’t have coffee.  I don’t even know what that is!”


Coffee: successfully added to the list of things I missed.


After my sugar-dense meal, I assisted in cleaning the dishes.  I carried them with my mouth, however unsanitary.  As we worked, Millie informed me of the morning’s agenda.


“Now, Swissy, I’ll be takin’ Flour with me to the market.  We’ll be gone for… oh, ‘till noon, I’d say.  In the meantime, you can get better acquainted with Grain darlin’!  No need for workin’ on a Saturday!”


Whole Grain grimaced as she heard her name mentioned.  I had a feeling that not much “acquainting” would occur between us.


Once the dishes were washed, dried, and stored, Millie led us all out to the barn, delegating Wheat Flour to fetch a cart from the back.  It was a little chilly that day, with gray clouds covering most of the sky.


Whole Grain and I helped load the dingy wagon full of flour sacks in the barn.  Well, it was mostly her.  She already had a strategy for sack transportation:  She would hit the stack with her rear, and a bag from the top would fall.  She’d catch it on her back, and kick it towards the cart.  It seemed to land precisely where she wanted it to.


Seeing no other plausible way to move the flour without digits, I swung my hip at the stack.  Instead of one bag, though, several came tumbling down onto me.  She had made it look so easy, which made it more embarrassing when she had to dig me out.


Once the cart was adequately heaped, Wheat Flour hooked herself up to the harness.  She departed with her aunt, leaving the two of us behind.


Having thought of nothing else to do in the barn, I walked back to the farmhouse, Whole Grain in tow.  The living room seemed homely enough, so I situated myself upon a comfy-looking armchair.  She took a seat opposite me, and picked up a newspaper from one of the coffee tables.


What did I want to do...  Well, go home, for one thing.  A more practical start might be what I could do.  I could ask Whole Grain to take me somewhere…  Heck, maybe she knew where the nearest universe-hopping train station was.


“So, Whole Grain…”




“Just, hear me out-“




Wow.  She couldn’t have been any more stubborn.  I guessed I’d have better luck asking Aunt Millie later.  In the meantime, I surveyed the living room we were occupying, while petting the dog that was lying next to my chair.


Despite the antique furniture clashing with the some cheap rugs and tablecloths, the room was cozy.  There was a cabinet full of assorted china, with one shelf dedicated to multiple plaques that I was too far away from to read.  Pictures hung up on the wall of the family, posing with what I assumed to be more family members.  And, wouldn’t you know it, a little red cuckoo clock hung on the wall to my left.  That right there made it feel exactly like home.


I had a cuckoo clock, just like that one, hanging in my house.  My mother had insisted I left it up there.  Even though I had to remove the batteries after a while, I still kept it up there, just for her.


Speaking of which, that was the first clock I’d seen!  Why they weren’t more common here astounded me…


At around eleven o’clock, someone knocked on the front door.  Whole Grain got up to check it, motioning me to stay put.  Secretly, I hoped that it was a human rescue team that had come to take me back.  It was probably just the milkman, or something.


A couple seconds later, she returned with her annoyed face.  She held up her hoof, and I hopped up and offered my ear.  She whispered hoarsely, “You have to hide.  Upstairs.  Police are here.”


Thank you, police, for inconveniencing me yet again.


She walked back down the hall, somewhat loudly saying, “You can start with the basement; the cellar door’s around the back, I’ll show you…”  I heard the sound of hooves, and a door slamming.  That was my cue.


I hurriedly crawled upstairs and burst into the first room on my left.  It was either very well-kept or just bare; I expected knick-knacks and things to be on the furniture, but there was nothing, save a vase of carnations on the desk.  Just a bed, a desk, a wardrobe, a dresser…


A wardrobe?  Bingo.


When I opened it, I shoved all the clothes to one side and positioned myself in the other half.  The door closed, but only barely.  If only they had put handles on the inside of wardrobes, too…  Actually, that wouldn’t have made a difference.  I was fingerless anyway.


Fairly soon, I heard thumps coming up the stairs.  My throat went dry; if they found me, what would they do?  More jail time?  Oh, but they had taken my footprints…  I prayed that capital punishment was outlawed here.


The bedroom door opened, and I held my breath.  I wished I was somebody else – anybody else, really.  Just a pony, a normal pony…


Clop-clop, clop-clop, clop-clop.  My throat choked silently as the clop-clops approached my hideout.  The other side of the wardrobe groaned open.   Please please please don’t open my side…


Alas, my fears were realized, and I tumbled out at the feet of two familiar-looking policemen.  Recognizing their faces, I groaned, shut my eyes, and held my arms out in front of me.


One of them asked, “What were you doing in there, young lady?”


What do you th-


...“Young lady”?


I opened my eyes and spotted a full-length mirror across the room.  Staring back at me was Wheat Flour!  What…


“Is everything alright?” the other officer asked.


Whole Grain dashed next to me and gave me a side-hug.  “Oh, everything’s just fine!  My sister and I were playing a little game of hide and seek, that’s all.”


“Oh, um, yes…” said Wheat Flour as her mouth moved with mine.  “I’m a… really good hider… was in there for a while.”  I laughed nervously, and Whole Grain joined in.


The officers looked at each other, and the moustachioed one said, “Okay, then.  Care to show us the rest of the house?”


“Of course,” said Whole Grain.  She led the cops out and closed the door behind her.


Dumbfounded, I approached the mirror.  I raised my arm, and then bent it and swung it around.  I… had figured out how to transform into a pony!  Could I do it again…?  I closed my eyes and imagined I was my changeling self, and, abra cadabra, Swiss Cheese was back.  I tried it again with Whole Grain, and again with Aunt Millie.  I even had the glasses!  Boy, she had really bad eyesight, even with her glasses.


I changed back to my insect self.  Through the window, I could see the officers heading down the path.  I hid under the windowsill, suddenly self-aware that I was a changeling.  But, I didn’t have to be a changeling anymore, did I?  I could go into the city, find a random pony, and ask around for a portal from there!  I’d have to hope I’d never see that pony again, though…


Whole Grain barged in.  She sat next to the door and gestured towards the stairs.  “You have to go.  Now.”


“Fine.”  I didn’t need these people anymore anyway.  I went back down the stairs and out the front door, and Whole Grain followed to see me out.  She slammed the door behind me, so as to make clear that I wasn’t welcome back.


~ ~ ~


It was time to activate stealth mode.


On the outskirts of the city, I spotted a horse that looked like it might be a male: shorter hair, squarer face.  Plus, he was walking next to a female-looking horse, who had the same form as the grain family.  I studied him for a second, and took a mental snapshot: white skin, clean-cut red hair, amber eyes…  Then, concealed by a bush, I shut my eyes and thought about being him.  Sure enough, when I opened them, my arms were white, and could see red hair atop my head.  Man, these horses’ eyes were big!


I could then venture into the city with nothing to fear, theoretically.  However, I found it was a tad harder than I thought to keep up my disguise.  All it took was a thought and a blink to transform, which made it scary walking down the road.  I couldn’t think about it.  I just had to block it out of my mind.  I was normal; I had nothing to worry about.  I had to focus.


Focus on what?  I had no idea where I was going.  What should I be looking for...

Well, if I wanted to know anything about where I was, a map might’ve been a start.  Maybe I was on a magical island, and North America was just a magical, transatlantic flight away.  There was probably a government building, or a town hall, or an information kiosk of some sort in the city.


I came across the town square, empty this time.  Instead, most of the traffic seemed to originate from a marketplace.  The scent of assorted fresh pies drew me in; it must’ve been around lunchtime, and I hadn’t eaten yet.  I was so hungry, I could’ve eaten a… um…   I’d have to be more careful with my figures of speech.


It was less like a supermarket and more like a farmer’s market.  Vendors were everywhere, each with a different ware to sell.  There was a pie stand, a celery stand, a corn stand, an egg stand…  Tomatoes, cucumbers, hay, apples, cherries, candy, flour – oh, hey, flour!  Aunt Millie had her own stand.  I was tempted to say hi, but she probably wouldn’t have recognized me.


The market was… nice.  I liked it; it was much livelier than a grocery store.  Everyone was smiling, the prices seemed very reasonable (three tomatoes for two coins, however much that was, here…), someone was shouting, “Guoda!  Guoda!”…


I laughed.  It seemed like such a random thing to shout.  Curious, I searched for the owner of the voice among the crowd.  I spotted a brown horse with orange hair that, if I wasn’t mistaken, was looking at me.  I looked around to see if it was someone else he was talking to, but, when I looked at him again, he was waving at me and motioning me over.  Eh, might as well.  Might get free cheese from it.


The table in front of him advertised pictures of carrots.  He smiled wide.  “Hey, Gouda!  How’d you manage to get off work?”


Gouda?  That’s my name?  I checked my hip, and, lo and behold, there was a slice of cheese tattooed there.  Oh, come on.  What was it with cheese and I? I didn’t even like cheese!


Right, had to continue the conversation…  “Uh, It’s my lunch break.”


“Lunch break?”  He looked puzzled.  “I thought Squeaky Cheese never let you off work, even for lunch!”


“Oh, um…”  Think think think…  I started to get nervous.  Shoot!  Don’t blink, don’t blink…  “He sent me out… on an errand, today, to get… some milk.  You know, for cheese production?”


He shrugged.  “Sure, makes sense.”  Phew.  He bought it.  His eyes brightened, seemingly too excited to wait any longer.  “Say, did you hear?  Celery and I are engaged!”


“Oh, wow.  Well, congratulations!”


“Thank you.  We’re so excited!  The wedding’s tomorrow!”


Tomorrow?  If they just got engaged, then wow.  Weddings happened quickly here.


“Speaking of which, I was wondering: would you like to be one of my groomscolts?”


Oh, shoot.  Didn’t see that one coming.  Groom’s colts?  Probably like groomsmen.  I hesitated…


I didn’t have time for a wedding.  My number one goal was to find a way out of this place, back to the real world.  Heck, I might’ve been gone by tomorrow.  No, no setbacks!


But, I didn’t want to turn him down, even if I didn’t know him.  Weddings are a big deal.  The most recent one I’d been to was my aunt’s.  Already, this guy seemed just as nice as her, and I’d hate hurt his special day as much as I would’ve hated to ruin hers.  I could’ve stayed for one more day, showed up to the wedding, and then went home.  One more day wouldn’t be too much longer…


“So… can you make it?”


“Sure, I’ll be a grooms… colt for you.”


“Oh, thank you, Gouda!  You’ve always been a good friend.  The wedding is tomorrow at Sherhoof Park at noon, but I’ll need you to be there by eight for the recital and things.  See you there!”


“Oh yeah, sure, I’ll be there.  Have a good day!”


Noticing the patient customer behind me, I waved the carrot vendor goodbye and left.  I had a strange feeling that the more I did that, the deeper the hole I’d dig myself into.


What was I thinking?  This was a cartoon, wasn’t it?  It didn’t really matter what I did or what he thought or where I went.  This was all made up.  I didn’t have to stay here for anyone.  But, real or not, a small part of me would still have felt guilty if I didn’t show up.


Okay, that would be just one small addition to the plan.  I’d locate the wormhole and wait until tomorrow.  When the wedding was over, I’d jump through and be back home and not have to worry about where to sleep or attending cartoon weddings.


To the government place.  Asking others for directions, although nerve-racking at first, was much easier to do in pony form.  I inquired a couple of friendly residents as to where I might find “some government sort of building.”  They directed me to the town hall, a relatively tall building that looked more like a colorful stacked sandwich.  I was actually starting to like the architecture here; compared to boring, square, gray buildings of my world, it was refreshing.


Spoke too soon.  It might’ve looked pretty on the outside, but the inside was slightly dull.  It was like a regular office building, with grey walls and linoleum flooring.  To find something similar to my world was kind of… depressing.


I spotted a secretary horse at a desk, with a glowing feather jiggling away in front of her.  I walked up to her and said, “Excuse me.”


She looked up with tired and bored eyes, apparently inconvenienced by my presence.  “Yes?”


“Who may I speak to about interdimensional travel?”


She blinked.  “Come again?”


“Is there someone I can speak to about travelling to another dimension?”  It was a ridiculous question, both for my world and (probably) this world.  However, there was no other wording I could think of that would make me sound any less crazy.  “You know… like another universe, or something?”


She adjusted her glasses and continued her work.  She spoke as if reading off of a script.  “All queries concerning carriages, crossroads, travel, transit, and traffic may be directed to the office of the Vanhoover Chair of Transportation and Infrastructure.  Her office is number 412: down the hallway behind me, then up the staircase on your right.  Then, take a right, then another right at the end of that hallway, and, then, on the left…”


I wanted to write the instructions down, but was too polite to interrupt and ask for a pen and paper.  How would I have held the pen, anyway?  In my mouth?  Instead, I did my best to pay attention.


“...Then, on your left, you’ll see a water cooler.  Don’t confuse it with the water warmer.  Take a right there…”


How deep in the building was this office?


“..On your rightish left, then go up the staircase, and down the next staircase…”


Yeah, I was lost already.


“…And 412 will be on the right.  Have a nice day.”


“Thanks.”  Eventually, if I searched long enough, I'd find the Chair of Transportation and… something or other.


I wandered around, taking all sorts of staircases and hallways and rights and lefts...  I swear I had walked by that twisty potted plant four times.  It helped that the room numbers were visible.  Come to think of it, I was kind of glad that numbers and letters were all in English.  If they had a made-up pony language, I’d have been in so much trouble.  I’d never gotten past second-year French.  Tenses, man…


I found 412a.  And, next to it was 412b.  Darn it.  Which one was it…  Eeny, meeny, miney, moe…


I tapped my hand on 412b’s door, and was promptly invited in by a male voice.  I pushed open the door to a room full of paper.  Some on the wall, some on the floor, but most were piled on and falling off of the desk.  A brown horse was behind it, with slightly disheveled grey hair.  “Yes?”  He asked, sounding exasperated.  His arms were stretched across the desk, supporting his hunched shoulders.


Um, I hope you’re not too busy…”

“Are you the Chair of Transportation and… Transportation and…”


“Infrastructure?”  He shook his head and smirked.  “That happens all the time.  Her office is next door, but she’s not in at the moment.”


“Oh… okay.  Thanks!”  I shut the door, not wanting to waste any more of his time (and him mine).  The answers I was looking for were probably not here, at least today.  I turned around and descended the staircase in front of his office door.  This way would probably lead to the first floor, eventually.


What else was there…  Maybe I had to think outside of the box:  If magic really was a part of the society, maybe there was a teleporting station, or something along those lines, that was considered common transit.  Or, magic could be like a sport or a study.  There were probably schools for…


Wha…  How’d I…


I had reached the bottom of the stairs, as well as the secretary’s desk.  Behind me was a staircase, leading all the way up to the office I had just emerged from.  Seriously?


Glancing at the secretary, I shook my head.  The organization skills of this government were lacking.  Poor organization couldn’t be made up for, even if the building looked like a sandwich.


Well, the next thing to try would be magic university…


~ ~ ~


The Vanhoover Institute of Magic and Alchemy (what was it with all the long and proper nomenclature?) wasn’t too far away from the town hall.  From what I could see, the campus didn’t seem very impressive.  It looked like a regular-sized high school, but maybe it was just me.  It did seem that “cities” here were smaller than “cities” in my own world.


Okay, so dimensional travel wasn’t a normal thing, after all.  The secretary at the school also seemed to be confused by my question.  She directed me to someone named Professor Lucid, who was in the “Luna hall.”  I thanked her, and found the Lunar- Luna hall without much trouble.


The classroom could seat about a hundred; it was smaller than what I remembered about lecture halls.  Just like the city.  Everything about this place was… smaller.  I liked it.  More comfortable.


A blue horse was in the front, watching a chalkboard eraser whip back and forth across the wide board in the front.  Maybe I could’ve learned to use my horn like that, too.  It would’ve been kind of neat…


I walked down an aisle and helped myself to a desk in the front row, politely waiting for him to finish.  He was erasing a plethora of symbols, some of which seemed familiar.  I could spot a few derivative notations, limits, sigmas, and other reminders of the nightmare that was calculus.  Most of the symbols, however, were indistinguishable.  The closest thing I could think of was Egyptian hieroglyphics.  Yep, very reminiscent of calculus.


He set the eraser down, and took a curious look at me.  “I don’t seem to recognize you.”


I chuckled nervously.  “Oh, I’m not a student here.  I was wondering if you could help me, Professor, if you’re not too busy.”


He walked over to a pile of papers on his desk and shuffled them telekinetically.  Since he didn’t object, I assumed it was my cue to continue.  “Okay, now this might sound kinda ridiculous, but…  I need to… teleport somewhere.”


“Mmm?  Teleport where, exactly?”  He began sorting his papers and putting them into a satchel.


“To… to another world.”


He raised an eyebrow.  “Another world?  You mean, another planet, another world?”


“I think what I’m looking for is… another dimension.”


At this, he set his papers back on the desk, and looked at me, surprised.  “Dimension, hmm?”


I looked down at my white arms.  “Yeah, um…  I know it sounds kind of crazy, but… yes.  Do you know of anyone that can help me?”


He paused for a minute, looking at me in a curious manner.  Then, he blinked, and slid the papers into his satchel.  “Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you in that respect.  If I knew anypony who could conjure up a trans-dimensional spell, it’d be Celestia herself.”  He swung his bag over his back.  “Heh.  Good luck with that, with the recent security influx.”


Whoa.  Slow down.  “Wait, who’s Celestia?”


He fastened a buckle on the satchel and rolled his eyes.  “Celestia.  Princess Celestia.  Has a big palace in Canterlot.  Hard to miss.”  Canterlot…?


Seemingly uninterested in further inquiry, he strode past me and held open the door.  “I’m afraid you have to leave, now.  I’m required to lock the place up.  What was your name, again?”


Uh, Gouda.”


“I’ll see you out, then, Gouda.  Have a good day.”


~ ~ ~


On to Canterlot, then.  I remembered seeing the train station on the southern outskirts of the city.  It wasn’t too far off from the wheat family property, actually.  I was surprised I hadn’t heard the train during my visit.


The station looked… traditional.  Very much unlike a light rail station, and more like a station from the old west.  It was small (a common theme, here), and all wooden.  If there was one thing I admired here, it was the simplicity.  They were practical, at least.  Nothing was too exorbitant (especially so in the town hall).  I walked into the shack of a building that was there and approached the front desk…


…Wheat Flour?


What was she doing there?


Wheat Flour had planted her rump in front of a large map on the other side of the room, which highlighted the railroads across what I assumed to be the country.  Half of me wanted to ask where she was going, but the other half wanted to take a look at the map, find “Canterlot,” and depart without bothering her.


I sat down next to her, joining her in surveying the map.  It was a regional map, labeling the cities and forests and such.  Many different colored lines snaked among the map, contrasting the white parchment the map was on. There was a helpful key at the bottom to show which ones were roads and which ones were tracks.


I wasn’t sure of exactly what I wanted to say, but I had learned from the last time.  So, I started with the weather.  “Nice day today, isn’t it?”


“Mm,” she said, still focused on the map.  Come on, think of something…


“I’m heading to Canterlot tomorrow.  Uh… going to visit some family there.”


“That’s nice.”


I was making progress.  This was the first time she had spoken more than two words within a minute.  Although, she wasn’t really talking to me


“So, where are you planning to go?”


“Not sure.”


“Not sure?  Taking a vacation this weekend?”


She shook her head silently.




“Just a… change of scenery,” she said absently.


Change of scenery?  Maybe her sister had been on an ousting spree.  Oh, well.  The wheat family wasn’t my problem anymore.  I found Canterlot at the apex of the orange train tracks.  It didn’t seem too far away from Vanhoover.  I approached the counter and asked about the next departure.


“The next train to Canterlot will arrive in about an hour,” the ticket lady replied.  “It’s five bits a ticket.”


“Five… bits?”  What’s a bit?


 “Yeah, five bits.  It’s not that steep.  So, ticket or no ticket?”


Uh, never mind.”  “Bits” were probably the currency of this society.  Silly me.  I thought I could get by without money.  It was just like the real world.


I walked out of the train station and watched an eastbound tauntingly leave.  I could’ve devised a plan to sneak on board without a ticket and exit at Canterlot… but that would’ve taken too much cunning.  I wasn’t good at that kind of thing.


So, next on the agenda was to get some money.  Not by stealing; I’d hate to humour 6 F 26 like that.  I’d have to earn it, which meant finding an odd job to do somewhere around town.  Five bits wasn’t that much, anyway.  It was only worth, like, what?  Seven and a half tomatoes?


The first place to pop into my head was Buckwheat Range.  I could ask Aunt Millie to pay me in bits instead of food and shelter.  But, obviously, Whole Grain had kicked me off of the property.  I didn’t think I was allowed there again.


Well, it was time to look for a restaurant or something and offer to bus tables…


~ ~ ~


What.  An.  Afternoon.


Not a single place in Vanhoover was looking for extra help that day.  Dishwashers, cashiers, gardeners, construction workers, sweepers, deliverymen– horses, flower pickers: all positions seemed to be filled.  The unemployment rate must have been non-existent.  Well, save for one...


I checked as many places as I could find.  I even almost walked into a cheese shop, until I realized that the real Gouda was standing behind the counter.  Yeah, that would’ve been ugly.


Even better, it started to rain.  It seemed colder than usual, but that might’ve been amplified by my nakedness.  As I explored the city, I had to duck under any available awning.


There was only one place left.  I didn’t have much choice otherwise, and I already knew work there was happily accepted.  As for Whole Grain, well…  Aunt Millie would be back, and she seemed to overrule her nieces.


Eventually, after wandering in the general direction that I thought I had come from, the farm came into sight.  I closed my eyes and returned to my changeling self; it was the form they were used to, anyway.  Millie emerged from the barn with an umbrella over her head, and I caught up to her.


“Hey, Aunt Millie!”


She turned to me and squinted.  “Well, I’ll be!  Swissy did decide to come back!  Whole Grain told me you up and left, and weren’t comin’ back!”


Speaking of which, behind her appeared Whole Grain, who didn’t look as pleased to see me.  “Yes, Auntie, that’s what I recall him saying.”


Ignoring her, I turned to the violet pony and offered, “Miss Millie-”


“Oh, please!  Aunt Millie will do just fine, darlin’.”


“Aunt Millie, I’d like to work just one more day on your farm, in exchange for five bits.”  And then, remembering how guilty I had felt the other day, I added, “You don’t need to feed me, and you don’t ne-“


“Oh, you’re always spoutin’ nonsense, Swissy!  ‘Course you can stay another night, you’re always welcome in my household!”


Gosh, she was such a sweet soul.  The same couldn’t be said for the yellow one behind her.  She was fuming, and I couldn’t blame her.  I probably looked and acted like a mooching hobo.


I was grateful the milling took place inside, where it was dry.  We took up the same posts we assumed the other day.  More rolling, more tumbling, more grinding.  I told myself that it’d only be another couple of hours or so, and I’d be home, not having to deal with any more Whole Grains for the rest of my life.  I’d only see the tolerable kinds, like in Cheerios.


Time was moving too slowly.  Admittedly, I was holding a little grudge against Whole Grain.  She was rude, authoritarian, and a downright jerk.  Her face told me she was wishing for my demise, or something.  She was kind of like Carlos, my boss.  That’s what he’d do all day; sit in his office and glare at me.  He’d always have something to nitpick about at the end of the day, even if it was something stupid, like dot operators.  Though, he let me talk for more than two seconds at a time.


That was the problem I was having.  Who was so rude that they wouldn’t let another being talk to them?  I just wanted to tell her one thing, and that was all.


“I’m going to-”




Not this again.  “Please, I just-”




You know what?  No.  I shouted, “All I need is five flipping bits and I’ll be out of your life forever!  It’s all I want!  It’s all you want, darn it!  Okay?!”


“Well, why didn’t you say so?!” she shouted back.  She jumped down to a burgundy knapsack and shuffled her face around in it.  She emerged with a sack in her mouth and threw it at me.  “There.  Five bits.  Now, leave!”


“Fine,” I huffed as I stuffed the bag into one of my arm holes.  I headed out, refusing to look at her.  That whole trust thing already out the window, I remarked sarcastically, “it was fun- oof!”


A sledgehammer-like force rammed into my side, and I collapsed on the ground.  I writhed as my left side exploded in pain.  My lungs were fighting to regain air, jolting in short and wheezy breaths.  I could see Whole Grain, who was in a kicking stance.  She kicked me!


I limped out the door, Whole Grain seeing me out.  I was soaked from the downpour, and in a lot of pain.  What a jerk.  I hated her.  I hated this place-


“Swissy!  Just in time for supper!  We’d sure love it if you could join us!”  Aunt Millie waved from inside the front door.


Oh, great.


~ ~ ~


Red potato casserole was served.  I’d never heard of such a thing, but, I must say, it was delicious.  Usually, I’m not a fan of casseroles, but that dish was like heaven on a plate.  Aunt Millie was beaming, and going on about the great drought a couple of decades ago, and how the community came together, and shared recipes and fed each other, and so on and so forth.  I was more focused on the casserole.  That is, once I got past the throbbing pain in my side.


After a nostalgic sigh, Millie sat up and began eating the green beans she had been too busy talking about to eat.  She piped up, “So, Swissy, you almost gone up and run off on us!  What was the story, now?  Here I thought you liked Vanhoover!”


“Yes, I like it.  I’m just a little homesick, I guess.  Life here seems to… have a different dynamic.”


She nodded until her mouth was empty.  “Well, I can see that.  For a minute, I was afraid we were the reason you’d left!”


“Oh, no.  My welcome here was exceptionally warm.  You’ve all been so hospitable,” I said to Whole Grain.  She scowled in response.


“Oh, heavens, Swissy!,” Millie exclaimed.  “If you so like, you could be a part of the family!”


“No-” said Whole Grain and I collectively.  We paused, and I blurted, “It’s a wonderful sentiment, Aunt Millie, but I’ve got a family of my own.  Besides, wheat isn’t really my thing, no offense.   My calling lies in the cheese industry.”


“It’s your special talent, after all,” chimed in Whole Grain, somewhat sarcastically.


I swallowed a bite of green beans.  “I also need to see my doctor back home.  I’ve developed this nagging pain in my side.”


She shrugged.  “Hard work is something to get used to, I guess.”


We stared at each other, neither of us ready to back down.  Aunt Millie must not have noticed, for she continued in her inquiry.  “Family of your own, you say?  Next time y’all visit, you should introduce us!”


Heh, my family.  Um…


Whole Grain had me covered.  “I don’t think we’d have enough room, Auntie.”


Enough room?  What was that supposed to… oh.  Well, I couldn’t really take offense to that, but, by the way she said it, I did anyway.  “Good point.  Your prejudice does take up a hefty chunk.”


She leaned an elbow on the table to face me.  “I’d offer up more space, if only you had left your mooch at home.”


“Because, I’m totally not penniless.  Obviously, I have enough money anyway for a four star suite at the Hilton.”


“You probably had it better at the nest.”


“Ooh, somebody likes to make assumptions.”


“They’re not assumptions.  They’re facts.”


“I- I’m sorry, did I miss some-”


“He’s a changeling, Auntie!”  Whole Grain shouted.


An awkward silence.  Millie’s lighthearted expression disappeared, and her ears drooped.  “I’m sorry, darlin’, but I don’t quite-“


“Yes, Auntie!  He’s a freaking changeling.  He’s been taking advantage of you ever since he first came here!”


That wasn’t true!  “I haven’t been- ow!  Don’t do that!”


“How long’s it gonna take?  We all know why you’re here, doofus.  You’re not welcome here!  You never were!”


Millie’s lower lip quivered.  “Now, Grain dear, please show a little-”


“No,” I interjected.  “It’s okay.”  I looked over at Wheat Flour… or, rather, her seat.  Apparently, she had already excused herself.  “I don’t belong here.  I’ve known that from the beginning.  It’s not your fault, Aunt Millie.  You’ve been very generous to me.  So, thank you, and good night.”


“Good riddance,” Whole Grain muttered.


I excused myself from the table, carrying my plate over to the sink for Aunt Millie’s sake.  She looked shocked, and a little sad.  I felt terrible.  What if that had been my own aunt?  Ashamed, I excused myself out of the front door as Whole Grain watched.


It was still raining heavily, and the cold caused me to shiver.  I could’ve slept outside, of course.  Though, the barn was probably the better choice.  Besides, they wouldn’t have minded one person sleeping in the barn for one night, would they?  It wouldn’t cost them anything.  Aunt Millie had technically given me permission already…


The rain’s pattering echoed through the barn.  My bed hadn’t been cleaned up yet, so I lay down there.  I felt drips on my nose, and my legs, and my back, and realized that the roof was leaking in that spot.  I arose and found another – drier – place in the barn, albeit less comfortable.


I took out the bag that Whole Grain had given me, and emptied its contents.  One, I wanted to see what “bits” looked like.  Two, I wanted to ensure Whole Grain hadn’t gypped me.  One, two, three, four, five... six?  Huh.  One too many.  I resolved to spend it on a cherry or something for the next day’s breakfast.


I scooped up the bits back into the sack, and stuffed it into my arm-hole.  One more night, and that’d be it.  My head lowered to the planks of the floor.  One… more…




The bottom of the ocean.  A colorful fish was ahead of me, so I propelled myself towards it.   I wanted to touch it, to be its friend.  I reached out my hand…


But, as the fish turned around, there was no fish.  It vanished.  My eyes darted around, anxious to relocate that fish.  Instead, I was all alone, and, alarmingly, running out of breath.


Then, I thought to look up.  A single ray of light illuminated the surface.  I kicked towards it, that beam of light coming closer and closer.  I reached out to touch the surface, my lungs lurching for air.  Almost there, almost…


Awake.  I gasped upon awakening, drawing in a stray piece of hay.  I choked on it and lay there, sputtering for a few minutes, until it had worked its way out.  Groaning, I turned over on the hard ground- and rolled back over, because that side was still damaged.  It was still dark out, and dreams were no fun to have.  The rain had stopped, though.


Hmm…  Did I really need sleep, anyway?

I was bored.  And not tired.  Which was unusual for me.


Usually, it’d be one or the other.  When I was tired, I’d go to sleep.  When I was bored, I’d watch TV; video games didn’t really do it for me anymore.  Tonight, though, neither were options; I didn’t feel like sleeping, and the wheat family didn’t seem to own a TV.  There wasn’t much in the way of modern technology here.


The air was getting a little stuffy in the barn, and the ground wasn’t very comfortable.  So, I took up walking.  It had been a long time since I had gone for a walk.  I used to walk my dog, but saw no point in it after he died.  Walks were a way I’d relax, and sort of take a break from the world.  I think I felt like I needed to do that again, with what this world was throwing at me.


I didn’t bother to change; no one would see me, presumably.  The moon was a near sliver that night, and the roads were shaded by the trees, anyway.  It was just me, the forest, and the starry night sky.  That didn’t stop me, however, from checking behind me now and again.  That police pony was out to get me, I swear.


A lengthy walk from the farm, there was a nice little lake, at the edge of which I stopped.  The water shimmered slightly, but was nearly perfectly still.  The moon’s reflection glistened in the lake, with the stars’ reflections dancing around it.  A mountain range filled the space in between perfectly.  It was beautiful.


The world, at that moment, didn’t feel like a cartoon.  It felt more like a painting.  It was as if some artist had painted a beautiful night scene for me, all for free.  A real, moving, living painting.  Of course, it wasn’t real, as my head reminded me.  It still had to have been drawn by some animating artist, or something.  I wondered how such an amazing scene would’ve been used in a little girls’ cartoon.  Cartoons never seemed deep enough for those kinds of things.


Heck, what were ponies like Whole Grain doing in such a cartoon?  The only thing I could imagine any little girl seeing in her is a costume for Halloween.  What was there to like about her?  At the very least, her hair, maybe.  I could easily see her being a villain of some sort, though.  Come to think of it, she still reminded me of someone, but I just couldn’t put my finger on who…


Speaking of ponies, I spotted a pony sitting at another bank of the lake.  Slowly, I backed up to the trees, hoping he or she hadn’t seen me yet.  I turned to head back to the farm, but curiosity snagged me and pulled me in hard; I had to see who that was, even if I didn’t know them.


I crept along the edge of the forest, shielded by the trees and the black of night.  I couldn’t make out the pony’s face: not while I was behind it.  I found a bush about twenty feet away, and peeked through.


Their head was level with the lake.  They were sitting very still, not moving or twitching at all.  There wasn’t enough light for me to see much color; all I could perceive was a horse with long hair.  They were silent: I was hoping that it’d mutter something, or speak to the lake… that would have been interesting.  Instead, it remained there without uttering a word.


I was in a prone position, lying flat on my stomach.  I started to nod off, trying to catch myself before I missed anything.  My eyelids became heavy, though, and my chin slowly rested on my forearms…


My head jerked back up, and… the figure was gone.  I looked along the border of the lake, but there was no sign of anyone.  I got up, and meandered to the spot he/she had previously occupied.  Maybe, through magical magic, I could catch a whiff of what they were thinking.  I sat down and closed my eyes.


Nope.  All I could think about was how normal home was compared to here.  People were predictable.  Ponies were just difficult.  Being all mysterious, hating me for no reason…  Whoever made these characters up must have been trying to toy with me.


…And then, I had an idea.  It was crazy, sure, but I was willing to try anything…


“Excuse me?  Hello?!”  Oh, I guess I didn’t have to shout for the animators to hear me.  I lowered my voice.


“Look, I don’t know if you can hear me or not, but I’d really like to go home.  Beam me up, Scotty?”  I chuckled, hoping they had a sense of humor.  That chuckle wore off, though, as no beam appeared.


“In all seriousness, please send me back.  I don’t care if this is a prank, or an accident, or something, but I really don’t belong here.  I can’t live the rest of my life behind a television screen.  Please, help me get back.”


I waited there for about ten minutes, patiently waiting for some sort of response or sign.  However, the lake remained perfectly still and calm, and the only sound in the air was that of crickets.  Maybe the production team was off-duty or asleep.


Fatigue sinking in, I resolved to return back to the farm, and nab a little more sleep.  I also felt really hungry.  Like, a black hole had opened up in my stomach.  I tried to bite off some grass, but spat it out, after I realized it had taken mud with it.  I’d be back before breakfast.  Maybe, I’d even be allowed to join breakfast…


The sky had started to brighten by the time I had returned to the barn.  I was drowsy, and ready for just a little more sleep…  I huddled in a dry corner of the barn, shielded from the incoming morning light by the mill wheel.  An hour or so of rest would do me some good.



“…Swissy?  Swissy?”


I could hear Aunt Millie looking for me.  I stumbled to my feet and emerged from behind the millstone, rubbing my eyes.  “…Yes?  Right here.”


She looked a little distraught.  “Oh, mornin’ Swissy.  Wasn’t sure if you’d stayed the night.  I just wanted to let you know that we’ll be off to a weddin’ in half an hour’s time, and I left a stack o’ pancakes for you on the kitchen table, as well as the syrup.”


I walked up to her and gave her a one-armed hug.  She looked like she needed it.  “You’re a wonderful pony, Aunt Millie.  Thank you.”


She returned my hug.  “Oh, thank you, dearie.  Anytime, you hear?”  We backed away.  “And don’t you worry your pretty little head about Grain darlin’.  She’s just not used to havin’ strangers in the house.”


I smiled as she sauntered out of the barn.  Well, it was time to grab a bite of pancakes and hitch a-


Wait a second.  Wedding?




~ ~ ~


Running is hard.  Yes, it’s worth repeating.


Theoretically, it’s just a faster version of walking.  But, in practice, it’s more difficult than it seems.


I remembered a blurb on the horse run cycle on the discovery channel, where, at one point, all the horse’s hooves were off of the ground.  That’s all I had to go on, though, and so I tried to pick up a gallop.  Fear of leaving the ground overtook me, so that never came to fruition.  I tried to speed up the walk cycle into a jog, but found myself exerting too much force righting my balance.  Then, I figured alternating the walk cycle between feet might work.  That seemed to work the best, although not the fastest.


I arrived at Sherhoof Park, panting heavily.  The venue, however, looked empty.  There was a wide white stage in the front, outlined by white lattices.  Floral baskets hung all around, with one big one behind where I’d imagine the minister would stand.  No chairs, though: just grass.


On a hunch, I walked around to the reverse of the venue, where all the people happened to be.  Several tents were set up, and various horses were walking around, talking to each other.  I spotted a small refreshments table and gravitated towards it.  Boy, was I starving…


“Gouda!  There you are!”


A jumpy purple pony intervened between my sustenance and I.  “You’re late!  What happened?  Where’s your tux?”


Was there a better, less tacky excuse than “I forgot”?  “I, uh, dropped it… in a vat of cheese.”


Please buy it, please buy it, I don’t want to go to jail…  “Um, it happens, I guess.  Good thing we have a tailor here.  Come with me.” Whew.


I followed him, past the well-dressed crowd, into a tent near the back.  Purple Dude led me onto a short pedestal set up in front of a large, elliptical mirror.  A tailor pony was there, too, with a pin cushion strapped to her arm.  Immediately, she pulled out a measuring tape and held it up to me, as Purple Dude spoke.


“Well, since you missed the recital, I’ll go over the ceremony for you…”


~ ~ ~


I had to commend Purple Dude for his memory.


He thoroughly covered every single detail about the wedding, from the opening, to each individual entrance, to the vows.  He mentioned how the groom’s mother had tripped on her dress, and the tailor had to come out and shorten the hem.  He even mentioned how the bird choir’s song was too fast of a tempo for Celery Stalks’s taste, and had to be slowed down by two and a half beats per minute.  That guy had a picture perfect memory.


It was a little hard to follow, though.  He talked at a mile a minute, and I lost focus quite frequently, partly because I was ravenously hungry.  Also, the tailor was poking holes in my skin.  I wouldn’t have worried about it much, had my arms not been whole.


My tuxedo suitable enough for the tailor, I strode out of the tent and towards the food.  Just a small bite of food would be all I’d need…


The first plate to come into sight was the deviled egg platter.  Now, I didn’t like deviled eggs all that much.  But, at that point, I was willing to settle for anything.  They could’ve been plastic decorations, for all I cared.  Plastic tasted better than nothing.


“Wedding’s starting soon,” a black, tuxedoed horse with green wavy hair informed me.  “C’mon, let’s go.”


He put an arm over my back, and led me away from the food.  I grumbled along with my stomach.


~ ~ ~


The bird choir sounded fantastic.  I’m all for organs, but, if I was ever to get married, I’d ask to have a bird choir perform.  I’m serious.


A large audience was present at the wedding.  The wheat family was there, of course.  I found them near the back.  Whole Grain had at least put on a neutral face for the wedding.  I did a double take, not used to seeing her so cheerful.


So far, the ceremony was going well.  The weather was perfect; the sky was clear of clouds, the sun having already dried up all of the mud.


Some flower girls strode – make that skipped – up the aisle.  They were followed by whom I assumed to be the bride.  Not many other attendees of the wedding were wearing extravagant white dresses, with a veil over their face.


She took her place next to her fiancé, both smiling as much as ever.  To see two people – er, ponies –looking at each other like they did, as happy as they were…  It made me feel warm inside.  My hunger seemed to fade away.  I felt… so happy for them.  So happy that the day was as special as it was for them.  I was almost as happy as I was for my aunt.  The bird choir agreed; they could hardly stand still, and were chirping affectionately.


How bad would it have been if I had turned into a change… ling…


Oh…  Oh no…  That would be terrible…


I shifted and looked around nervously.  I hadn’t realized how much danger I was in.  My whole act could’ve been over with one slip of the mind.  I steadied myself.


It reminded me of “the game.”  If one thinks about “the game,” one “loses” “the game.”  It was just… annoying.  I was bad at those kinds of mind games, anyway: when I tried to not think about something, but only ended up thinking about, merely by trying not to.  It was a lose-lose situation.


And, thus, my predicament.  Since thoughts were hard to control, I just had to keep my eyes open.


Celery Stalks looked at me worriedly.  I tried to relax my gaze without relaxing my eyelids too much.  If I blinked, I’d have been done for.  Hopefully, they’d say their “I do’s,” kiss, wave, and walk out in the next sixty seconds…


I felt like I was leaking.  Not only was I beading with sweat, but my eyes began to tear up.  I heard Purple Dude whisper to me, “Hey, Gouda, you alright?”


“Yeah,” I whispered back.  “Just, uh… getting a little emotional.”


Not blinking.  Not blinking.  The minister was still talking.  My eyes were feeling very dry, and my vision was blurring in places.  I had to keep it up, just a little longer…


Wow, the minister was taking his time that day.  Things would have worked out so much better if Purple Dude had led the ceremony.


Eventually, I had to give in.  I’d only allow one blink, though, and a really quick one.  So I did.  It felt quite good.  Looking down at my arms, I realized I hadn’t changed.  One more couldn’t hurt…


So, I kept blinking, but, with every blink, my eyes couldn’t achieve full relief.  Maybe one long blink would fix it…  I shut my eyes and moved my pupils around, making sure to hydrate every square centimeter of my eyeballs.  Ah… That felt much, much better.


I opened them, still feeling happy for the couple, but a little nervous.  I think they were saying the vows at that point.  Then, Celery Stalks glanced at me, and her gaze didn’t return to her fiancé.  Instead, her mouth dropped open as she looked at me.  Uh oh…


I looked down, and my arms were no longer white.  Darn it.  I froze, realizing that the minister had fallen silent.  Everyone was looking at me.  This situation was too familiar…


“Please…” I said, as I held out my hand in plea.  “…Don’t scream.”


To my relief, they didn’t.  They sat there, stunned in silence.


Then, almost all at once, they began to yell.  Not in panic, but in anger.  They yelled at me to leave, to never return again.  Some words jumped out from the clamour: “beast, “shame,” “monster,” and some names I’d rather not repeat.  The bridesmaids looked afraid and uncomfortable (the bride especially), and the groomsme- colts began to shove me away.




One scream in particular stood out from the crowd.  The yelling died down, and all eyes were on the little purple flower girl in the front, whom I suddenly recognized.  Plus one to the inobservance tally.


“Please…” she blubbered, “…don’t take him away again!  He won’t hurt nobody…”  She latched herself onto my arm, sobbing all over it.  The world fell silent: no movement; no wind; not even a stray chirp from the bird choir.  Just Taff.


I didn’t feel comfortable causing a scene like that, especially in the middle of a wedding.  However, I couldn’t bear to break her heart twice.  I sat down and hugged her with my free arm.  “Shhh…” I tried to console her.  “It’s okay.  They’re not going to hurt me.”


I rubbed my hand across her back as she sobbed into me.  Green Curls stared at me, shocked.  I put my hand up to my lips as she started to calm down.  She choked out, “I just… I don’t want you to… to leave again.”


I’d never been especially good with kids, but this really must’ve meant the world to her.  I sighed, and held her by the shoulders, looking her right in the eyes.  “I have to go away, soon.  Very far away.  I can’t stay here forever,” I tried to say as gently as possible.


She sniffed and looked up at me.  “Will… will I ever see you again, mister?”


How much harder could she make it?  Those big, round, pink eyes glistened with cuteness.  It hurt too much to tell the truth, but I couldn’t lie… “…Maybe.  I can’t promise anything, but… if I can, I will.”


She wiped her nose and nodded.  Someone, I assume her mother, ran out and encouraged her to come with her, giving me a greatly confused look.  I smiled weakly, and turned to exit the stage.  To my surprise, the yelling didn’t continue.  Instead, the silence remained over the crowd.  Every single eye in the park seemed to watch me leave.


They led me around the back, to where I had my tux fitted.  Purple Dude stuck a tape measure through my arm and around a tent pole, tying a firm – and impressive – knot.  Watching him tie it made me wince. Even though they only had two fat digits, ponies seemed to be very adept with them.  


“We’ll hold you here until the police arrive,” he bluntly informed me.


“I’m sorry for-”


“You have a lot to be sorry about,” he snapped.


He exited the tent, leaving me with Green Curls silently sitting across from me.  Might as well give someone an apology.  I leaned my head back against the tent canvas and asked, “Well, are you willing to accept-”


“Shhh…” he hushed.  He walked over to the tent’s door flap and peeked his head out.  Then, he turned to the pole and started to undo the knot with his unicorn horn.


A striking memory flashed into my mind.  I whispered, “Who are you today, Taff’s father?”


He paused and looked at me, confused.  “No…  Today, I’m helping you escape.”


The sound of feet halted his progress, and he redid the knot using his magical aura.  He tiptoed back to his post, just as the tent flap was opened by… Wheat Flour.


She stopped when she saw me, and looked to my restraint.  She looked sad, with a hint of what looked something like apology.  The rest of her family joined her.


Whole Grain was the first to speak.  Actually, before she spoke, she slapped me in the face.  “How dare you ruin a wedding like that!  Do you have any sense of decency?”


“I wasn’t trying to ruin it!” I retorted.  “It’s more complicated than that, I can explain…”


“I don’t have to hear an explanation.  I know why you were there.  This is no less than you deserve,” she told me bluntly.  Gee, thanks.


“The police are coming, and they’re just going to throw me in jail-”


“-Yes, and the problem with that is…?”


“I have to go to Canterlot.  I need to go to Canterlot.”


She advanced, right up to my face.  “Why?  Why do you have to go so bad?”


“I’d explain, but…”  I waved an arm in the air.  “Heck, you probably already know why.”


“I don’t.  Please, enlighten me.  Enlighten all of us.”


I paused, unsure of what to tell them.  No, I couldn’t tell them; they wouldn’t believe me.  I hung my head in defeat.  “I can’t.  You… have to trust me.”


Just as Whole Grain had readied her retort, the police arrived.  Officer Mustache took one look at me, and lowered his sunglasses, as if he needed a better look.  “You again?  Well, you know the drill…”


I tilted my head toward the tape, and he untied me promptly.  He pulled out a pair of handcuffs, and I stuck out my arms.  Then, surprisingly, Wheat Flour spoke up.  “Sir, he’s with us.”

Preread by NotSoSubtle

“What do you think you’re doing?”


Wheat Flour didn’t answer.  We were walking, the four of us, to the train station.  I was being led like a dog on a leash by Wheat Flour.  It wasn’t personal; the cop had advised her to do that, to avoid panic from the general public.  That was a good enough reason for me, however humiliating it was.


Whole Grain was demanding answers from her sister.  “It’s not like we owe him anything!”


Again, no answer.  Whole Grain tossed her hair back.  “Okay, look.  If he wanted to go to Canterlot so bad, why didn’t he just fly there?”


Both of them looked to me, and I looked to my back.  My wings had been tightly secured by the cop with the measuring tape, despite my promise that I wouldn’t use them.  I shrugged.  “I can’t fly.”


“You have wings,” Captain Obv- Whole Grain pointed out.  “Why haven’t you used them before?”


“I didn’t – and still don’t – know how to use them,” I explained before peeking across my shoulder.  Maybe it was my imagination, but I had the feeling we were being followed.


Whole Grain rolled her eyes.  “Point is, sis, he’d be in Canterlot by now, if he was so set on going.”


“It won’t take long.  We’ll be to Canterlot and back before supper,” Wheat Flour assured.


Her sister gaped.  “You’re not going with him, are you?”


“Somepony has to,” she replied.


“Why not the police?  Isn’t it part of their job to escort criminals?”


“To jail, yes.  We can’t expect the police to go out of their way like this.”


We arrived at the train station, and Aunt Millie held the door open for us as we filed inside.  Whole Grain wouldn’t let up.  “Don’t you realize how far out of your way this is?  This isn’t your decision to make!”


Wheat Flour sighed.  “It isn’t yours, either.”


At that instant, Aunt Millie walked up between them to the counter, tossing the ticket lady a handful of bits.  “Three tickets, please.”


We all halted and looked at her in shock.  Whole Grain spoke up first.  “Auntie, you’re not going, are you?”


She shook her head and smiled.  “No, you are!  You bein’ all so up and worried about your sister, you might as well go with her!”


Whole Grain’s mouth hung open, as she watched the ticket lady hand her aunt three tickets.  “B- but… That’s not the point!  The point is-”


“That you see to it that Swissy gets to Canterlot,” Millie corrected.  “You and I both know how important family is.”


“But, his family isn’t…  He’s from a hive!”


I felt like I had to correct that.  “Again, Whole Grain, you’re going to have to-”


“I didn’t say you could speak, doofus,” she snapped.


“Grain, dear.”  Millie handed me a ticket.  “You can at least show a little respect.”


“Ugh, Auntie…”


Millie gave a ticket to Wheat Flour, and offered one to her sister.  “Are you going, or not?”


Whole Grain sighed, and accepted the ticket from Aunt Millie.  “Yes, but only for you two,” she said to her sister and aunt.


We stuck with a train car near the back, and Whole Grain picked a cabin with a north-facing window.  Aunt Millie spotted us, and waved us goodbye as the train pulled out.  We waved back, and watched her and the station as they became smaller in the distance.


I leaned back onto the plush bench in our compartment.  Directly across from me were Whole Grain and Wheat Flour.  The latter was looking out the window, and the former was looking at me with her arms crossed.  With that, and already somewhat knowing both of them, conversation probably wasn’t going to happen.


That’s when I realized who she was like: my roommate’s ex-girlfriend.  Every time she visited, she always had her arms crossed like that.  My roommate, Larry, in his constant complaining, would always talk about her being stubborn, cryptic, disagreeable…  Wow, the likeness is scary.  Anyway, I asked him why he didn’t just dump her.  He said…  Well, let’s just say he said she bakes a good batch of cookies.


It was typical for Larry.  He never took anything seriously.  I’d always be the one to clean up after us in our apartment.  He’d never vacuum, but he always had the time; he’d sit in the living room and watch TV all day instead.  Even worse, he’d pull pranks on me.  It wasn’t funny the first time or the times thereafter.  There’s a reason I moved to a house and lived on my own.


I looked out the window and watched Buckwheat Range pass by, with its giant field of wheat.  It felt kind of refreshing to be a little further along in my journey.  Soon, I’d be in my own bed.  My soft, dry, and - above all - insect-free bed.


At that point, I noticed how soft the chair was, and how tired I actually felt.  And, conveniently, I wasn’t sharing the bench seat with anyone.  I lay down, turning away from the pair, and got comfortable.  I could catch a quick nap, make up for a little lost sleep…


…And be awoken by a loud knocking.  I got up and looked around.  The seat across from me was empty.  It could’ve just been the wheat sisters coming back in, but I couldn’t trust my luck.  In case it might not have been them, I changed to my Gouda persona.  As long as he hadn’t boarded the train, I would be safe in his form.


I opened the door to see the conductor.  He must have been making the ticket-checking rounds.  “One second,” I told him, as I looked around for the place I had put my ticket.  Then, I realized I had put it in my arm.  This was definitely going to be awkward…


I turned to the conductor.  “Could you excuse me?


“What for?” he asked.


“Heh, um, my friend has my ticket.”


“Oh, your ticket… that won’t be necessary.”


He stepped to the side, making room for… Green Curls?  What was he doing there?  My heartbeat accelerated as they invited themselves in and closed the door behind them.  I backed into the window.  “What’s going on?”


A green flash engulfed the conductor, and a changeling appeared in his place.  Green Curls followed the conductor’s actions to appear as his clone.  They were both looking at me quite menacingly.


“6 F 25,” the former conductor stated.


Shoot. “Um, no, my name is Gouda.  What’s going on?”


“If you tell the truth now, your punishment will be less severe,” he said with a leer.


I returned his stare, feigning confidence.  “Like I said, I’m Gouda.  Now, what’s this all about?”


No response.  Instead, his horn lit up in an aura of green.  A laser beam shot out of it, right into my eyes.  Instinctively, I covered my face with my arms to shield myself from it.  A tingling sensation ran through me, and, when it stopped, I opened my eyes.  He was still looking at-


Oh.  I could see him.


He had turned me back into a changeling.  Well, if only I had known that they had known that trick.  I should’ve braved the hive a little longer.


Weaseling my way out of that situation would be tough, but I tried it anyway.  My eyes darted around – and landed on the ticket in my arm.  I bit it and offered it to him.  “I found my ticket,” I said.


He grinned.  “More severe it is, then.”


o o o


It was like any other night:  The streets were dark and empty, with cars going back and forth, either into the downtown area or out.  I was walking, alone, in the “out” direction.  I had just gotten off of work at around ten o’clock, and was on my way to my apartment.  Winter was approaching, and it was at that point in the fall when there wasn’t any snow on the ground, yet I could see my breath.


I turned down the street where the apartment complex was.  Just five more blocks, and I would’ve been back in my room and asleep soon thereafter.


As I was walking, I heard a shuffling noise and voices coming from down one of the alleyways.  When I looked down it, there was a group of people there.  Two men were standing over another man, who was covering his head with his hands.


I stopped and listened.  “Please,” the man on the ground pleaded.  “You have my money, just leave me alone.”


The man with a wallet in his hand looked around and spotted me.  Panicking, I bolted down the street, all five blocks, until I reached the apartment building.  I ran up the three flights of stairs and got inside as quickly as I could, locking the door behind me.  It was then I took a moment to catch my breath.


Larry, who had been sleeping, turned the light on and startled me.  “Hey, are you alright?  What happened?” he asked.


“I, uh…” I wasn’t sure what to say.  I just watched a guy get mugged and did nothing?  Larry would think I was a wimp.  “I don’t want to talk about it.”


He shrugged and went back to bed.


o o o


That day, I was scared for my life.  Not for his life, but my own.  Looking back on it, I could have at least called the police, but I was more concerned about my safety than his.  Now, I was in that man’s shoes, and no one was there to help me.  I was alone.


They had dragged me to a kitchen car, which was conveniently located only one car over.  To paraphrase, they had let me know what was what.  After a little bit, one of them held me down, while the other took a break.


I groaned from the pain.  This had to stop; I wasn’t sure how much more I could take.  “Please, stop.”


He snickered.  “But, why, when I’m enjoying myself so much?”


That’s when I got mad, on top of being scared. “You… you’re both monsters!  Barbaric, senseless monsters!”


“That’s not how you speak to Sergeant, chump!” the one holding me down scolded.


Oh, so that was the sergeant-

Did he-  Wow.  Out of all the…  “6 F 26?”


“Yeah, it’s me, genius.”  He shook his head.  “Trying to leave the hive was a bad idea.”


“I don’t belong there, though!” I insisted as I squirmed under 6 F 26’s grasp.  Besides, I really hated that hive.  They all reminded me of bees.


Sergeant disagreed.  “I don’t think you understand entirely, kid.  We stick with our own kind.  You got a taste of what they think of us at the wedding.  Heck, what was that tied around your wings?”  He motioned to the measuring tape, which he had untied and tossed to the side before our bonding session.


“And I don’t think you understand,” I insisted.  “I’m not your kind.  I’m not one of you!”


The sergeant walked over to the connecting door, peeking out of the window.  He chuckled.  “Kid, you had me fooled.  You sure look like it.”


I let my head back onto the ground, closing my eyes.  My right arm felt funny.  “Why?  Why waste your time with one changeling, out of the hundreds of the hive?”


“Who in the whole hive has ever tried escaping, chump?” 6 F 26 asked.  As I opened my mouth, he put his hand over it.  “Don’t answer.  That was rhetorical.”


“Your friend has a point,” added Sergeant.  “We’ve never had an incident like this.  Late for curfew, occasionally.  But never more than an hour or two.”  He leaned in close, squinting.  “You know how many hours you’re over?”


It wasn’t the best time for a math question.  “More than two?”


“Enough to procure months in the detention chamber.  You wouldn’t survive past two weeks in there, however, so the queen decided to reduce your sentence and make your penalty… more memorable.”


I ran my tongue around my teeth, checking for any absentees.  A couple were bent in a little, and one of my fangs felt shorter than usual.  After mourning the culmination of hard work by my braces, I gave some thought to the situation.  One big question in particular was nagging at the back of my mind.


 “But, again, why?  Why is my leaving so terrible for you?” I inquired.  “I’m sure you can afford one less changeling in your army.”


The sergeant was looking through the drawers of the kitchen.  “Can we, kid?”  He picked out a rolling pin and tossed it around in his hoof.


“Chew on this little scenario,” he continued sardonically.  “We let one deadbeat like you escape.  Your buddy 26 notices the empty spot next to him before morning runs.  He thinks to himself, ‘Gee, they let him off easy.’  He decides, that day, to screw the rules.  Takes off, just like you.  I imagine you realize where this is going.  Pretty soon, not one of you follows the rules: rules which were put in place to protect us.”


He put the rolling pin back, pulling out a frying pan.  “We don’t care about you, kid.  You were right; we might be better off without a reckless delinquent like you.  Instead, you’re going to be our poster boy.”  He grinned maliciously.  “We’ve already planned a special cell for you in the new hive, right in the atrium.  We’re even considering putting on a few… public demonstrations.  That news of you escaping without consequence will be hushed right quick, and we’ll all be motivated again for tomorrow.”


No, that was not the future I wanted.  Not one part of that sounded pleasant.


I looked at 6 F 26 and asked, “Surely, you’re not okay with this.”


He shrugged.  “Rules are rules, chump.”


“Rules are rules?” I repeated.  “Rules are rules?!”  I couldn’t believe it.  Some people…  I lashed around under his grip.  “Do you see what he’s doing to me?  What do you think could happen to you?”


“Nothing.  I’m not the one breaking rules,” he said.  “Sucks to be you.”


The sergeant walked over, brandishing his weapon of choice.  I wasn’t sure how much more I could take.  Tears welled up in my eyes.  “Please, 6 F 26, you can’t just stand back and watch.”  Not like I did.


“I have to.”  6 F 26 replied.  “I’ve got a life.  I’ve got protection.  I’ve got all the food I’ll ever need.  What do you have, chump?”


I winced, as the cast iron pan was raised into the air, eyeing its target.  A fire lit up in the sergeant’s eyes.  Maybe that was the reason I was here: karma.  After years, my inaction for only one night had come back to bite me.  This was what I deserved.


I had never felt so close to death as I did then.  My mind was fully aware of my breathing, and I felt a cold sweat.  I wasn’t ready to die.  I wanted to run, to lock the door behind me and be safe.  I didn’t want to be alone.  I closed my eyes and prepared for the worst.


Instead of a smack, however, I heard a door handle.  Carefully, I opened my eyes, and noticed the arrival of… the wheat sisters.


I had friends.


Whole Grain launched herself at the one holding the frying pan.  I struggled to free myself from 6 F 26’s grasp.  I blurted, “Wheat Flour!  There’s a rolling pin in the drawer!”


She didn’t sprint to it, like I half expected.  Instead, she stood back, looking nervously between me and her sister.  Speaking of which, Whole Grain was in the middle of a tussle with the sergeant.


“I’ve been waiting a long time for this!” she shouted gleefully.


I stopped struggling, interested in listening.  How could those two have known each other?


“That kick I gave you before,” she continued between blows, “was a just a taste of what I think of you!”


I looked at Wheat Flour, and she looked back.  At that moment, I think we both realized what was happening.


At every swing she dodged, she grinned.  “You have no idea… how good this feels!  It’s as if you went out of your way… to make my life harder!  And now…”  I could barely hear her whisper into his ear: “…it’s my turn.”


At that point, part of me was glad she was taking out her anger on someone else.  The other, bigger part was deathly afraid of what she’d do to me once she realized which one I actually was.


Sergeant either was unconscious or didn’t want to move, but seemingly defeated either way.  Whole Grain was standing over him, panting.  I had an idea.  “Um…  Ms. Pony?”


She whipped her head at us.  “What?!”


With my eyes, I indicated to the one pinning me down.  “This one’s your boyfriend.”


Her face lit up like a fire truck.


She dragged him off of me and began to work her magic.  I tried to stand up, but my right arm zinged with pain, and I collapsed on it.  Wheat Flour came over and helped me back to my feet.  I had to hold my arm in the air, like a limping dog.


Whole Grain had finished, and piled 6 F 26 on top of the sergeant.  Then, she noticed Wheat Flour helping me, and paused to think.  She thought aloud, “Are you kidding me?  It was you the whole time?”


 “Yeah,” I answered.  “Could you tie them up with that tape in the corner, please?”


She shook her head, notably furious.  “I’d punch you so hard if you weren’t standing next to my sister.”


“I don’t doubt it,” I said earnestly, wiping my face on my bony shoulder.  The punching bag in me was worn out.


She obeyed, though, and propped my clones up back-to-back.  With a pony’s dexterity that didn’t fail to impress me, she bound them with the tape.  “Friends of yours?” she asked me.


The sergeant grunted as he came to.  “I was about to ask the same thing.”


“‘Family,’” I replied, doing air quotes with my… hoof?  I guess I could call it a hoof, since I was basically a horse.  “We don’t get along well.”


“What do you expect us to do with these?” Whole Grain asked me.  One was squirming, but they were well constrained by the knot.


I shrugged.  “Police station.  There’s one in Canterlot, right?”


“Yeah.  Canterlot,” she grumbled.


Curious for an explanation, I looked to Wheat Flour.  In a quiet voice, she said, “We passed Canterlot already.”


“What?”  Why?  “The train didn’t stop while I was asleep, did it?”


“No, it kept going,” Whole Grain growled.  “We went up to talk to the conductor, but he said he got a ‘letter from the princess herself’ that the train couldn’t stop in Canterlot.”


“Why not?”


She advanced.  “You think I didn’t ask?  I told him to stop the train right now, but he said no, he had to keep going!  And now, we’re well on our way to Manehattan.  And the station closes after six, so we can’t go back home!  And this is all your fault!” she emphasized with forceful jabs to my chest.


I didn’t respond at first, not willing to waste energy arguing with her.  I hung my head.  “I’m sorry.”


Her scowl unrelaxed, she sat down and looked out of the window at the forest rushing by.  “Sorry doesn’t fix anything.”


I didn’t say anything for the rest of the way.  I used to think I had problems, but I was starting to believe that I was one.

Preread by NotSoSubtle

By the time we reached the train station, the sun was barely touching the horizon.  I got the feeling that everybody was tired and anxious for the day to end.  Even though I had taken a nap on the train, I was still physically worn out from recent events.  I didn’t want to ask just yet, but I was hoping the wheat sisters had a place in mind for us to rest.


As the train came to a stop, I changed into Gouda, with Wheat Flour still supporting me.  Whole Grain dragged our prisoners along like dogs on a leash, except the dogs weren’t walking, and one of them was still unconscious.  Thankfully, the police station wasn’t too hard to find; it was only a short distance into the city.


Whole Grain went inside to explain the situation to the police.  Wheat Flour suggested that she take a look at my arm, so I offered it to her, and she began to look it over.


“Hurt your leg, there, Gouda?” Sergeant asked, chuckling.


Someone was in the mood for snide remarks, so I returned one.  “You seem a little tied up, yourself.”


His smirk disappeared, and his voice took a more serious tone. “This is a high form of treason, kiddo.  When I get free, you have no idea what you’re in for.”


Now, I didn’t mind people explaining things to me in a world like this, but it made me feel like a little kid when he was the one doing it.  Holding back my anger, I answered, “I’m not going back to the hive, so… good luck with that.”


He tilted his head back to move the limp 6 F 26 off.  “You may have gotten off the hook this time, but remember this:  You mean nothing to us anymore.  You’ve made it clear whose side you’re on, and it’s not ours.  We take the capital tomorrow.  When you come running up to us and beg us to take you back, we’ll throw you in prison with everyone else.”  He smirked as he looked up at the police station.  “Oh, the irony.”


I felt a chill, and it was more than just the wind.  Something told me that those were more than just bitter ramblings.


“Did you feel any of that?” Wheat Flour asked.


“Any of what?”  Chills?  Then I looked down.  “Oh, I guess I didn’t.”  I extended my arm and, slowly, brought it down to the ground.  I put some weight on it, and I didn’t feel any pain.  “Did I get better?”


“Try your changeling leg.”


I pulled my arm back in the air and transformed.  Right away, I could feel it throbbing, and didn’t want to risk standing on it.  “It hurts now.”


Sergeant rolled his eyes and muttered, “This is like watching a hatchling.”


I changed back into Gouda, just as the door to the police station swung open.  Whole Grain stepped out.  “Somepony’ll be out in few minutes to take them in.”  She rubbed her face.  “Let’s go; we need a place to sleep for the night.”


Wheat Flour and I followed her as she turned the corner of the block.  I didn’t think 6 F 26 had woken up yet; his head was still hanging when we left him.  However, they weren’t going anywhere soon but jail, so that chapter was over for the time being.


Whole Grain looked back at us.  “I thought your leg was hurt.”


“My changeling leg, yes.”  It would’ve been nice to visit a hospital to have it looked at, but I didn’t want to hinder our progress for any longer.  I didn’t want to feel even more like a dead weight.  “As long as I’m a pony, though, I’m good.”


She nodded and looked forward.  “Fair enough.”


I was a tad bugged by some of the things I was hearing, so I felt like I had to ask.  “When you ponies say ‘some pony,’ do you mean it like ‘somepony’ as in ‘someone’?  Because that’s how you’re saying it.”


Wheat Flour nodded.  “That is how we say it, yes.”


I looked behind us.  That feeling of someone – er, somepony – following us hadn’t gone away.  “So, this applies to other words, too?  Like no pony, every pony…”


“…Anypony, yes.”  she finished.


Now, it was moving beyond puns.  There was some sort of dialect that I had to pick up on, like with “leg” instead of “arm”.  From then on, I’d keep an ear out for anything that sounded strange or pony-like.


The streets were less busy than I thought they’d be in the evening.  Since “Manehattan” was a play on “Manhattan”, I assumed that it’d be just as busy at all times.  However, night had almost settled in, and, even though the streets were well-lit, they were only moderately populated.  Maybe ponies actually got enough sleep at night.


Amongst the buildings, Whole Grain picked one, and I looked up at it.  It was very much like my old apartment building, but made of more colorful bricks.  The entrance had a nice, clean stairway leading up to it.  There were even little pony statues adorning the ends of the railing.  Either this was the highbrow neighborhood, or everybody was just rich.


“We’re lucky,” Wheat Flour said.  “The Seeds are our only relatives in Manehattan.  Otherwise, we would have nowhere else to go.”


“Why not?” I asked.


“We don’t have any bits,” replied Whole Grain, as we walked inside the building.  “All we have are our tickets, and, even if we could trade them in, the value of all of ours put together isn’t enough for a hotel.”


If fifteen bits wouldn’t cover it, then the six bits in my arm weren’t enough, either.  It’d be enough for an emergency.  We could ration nine tomatoes among us, and that might be enough for a full day.  Raw tomatoes are disgusting, though.


Whole Grain walked up to a door on the second floor and knocked.  Immediately after doing so, she groaned.  “You know, I’d prefer it if you were somepony else.”


“What?” I asked as I climbed up the stairs.  “Why?  What’s wrong with Gouda?”


“Just do it, quick,” she whispered.  “Think of somepony.  Anypony else, I don’t care.”


“I can’t just change now; Somepony will see me,” I insisted, looking around at the peepholes on the doors.


“Who cares?  It doesn’t-”  A click coming from the door interrupted her.  From behind it, a dark grey pony with beige hair emerged.


Whole Grain greeted her.  “Hey, Sunflower.”


“Hi, cuz.  Come on in.”  Sunflower stepped aside and allowed us entrance.  When she noticed me, she glanced at Whole Grain, confused.  Whole Grain looked at me with a scowl.  I wasn’t sure I understood, but, from the looks of it, I had a feeling this was going to be awkward.


I followed her, wiping all four of my feet on the welcome mat.  A voice came from upstairs, which sounded closer as somepony began down the staircase.  “Well, that sounds like Whole Grain!  What brings you to our home this fine evening?”


She smiled at him.  “We all ended up on the wrong train tonight.  I hate to impose, Uncle Flax, but do you think we could stay over for the night?”


“Oh, of course!” he said with a smile wider than hers.  “Make yourselves at home!  If you’re hungry, you can help yourselves to something from the pantry.  I’ve got some work to catch up on, so I’ll be upstairs if you need me.”


As Uncle Flax retreated, I followed the remaining three into the kitchen.  It was a quaint and simple kitchen, where everything seemed to be clean and lined up just so.  Sunflower pulled out a block of paper from the fridge, unwrapped it, and laid it on a cutting board on the counter.  “Could you slice this for us, please?” she asked me.


Ew, cheese.  I had to keep up the charade, so I answered, “Sure.”


As I approached the cutting board and eyed the knife on it, Sunflower began to talk to Whole Grain.  “You can sleep on the top bunk in our room.  Babs is away on a school sleepover thing.”


Cheese-cutting shouldn't be too hard, I figured.  I tried to pick up the knife with my hooves and succeeded.  It felt like my palms were pressing together on the handle of the knife.  The tricky part, now, was to simultaneously exert a downward force on the cheese while keeping the knife stable.


Whole Grain continued the conversation with her cousin.  “I thought she didn’t like sleepovers, or school, for that matter.  Where did they go?”


Okay, hooves wouldn’t work, so I put the knife handle in my mouth.  I had a strange feeling the force was going to hurt my teeth, but cheese wasn’t supposed to be hard to carve.  My forehead was beading in sweat, and I could feel drool running onto the handle.  I laid the blade on an edge and rocked it back and forth.


“The Manehattan City Museum.  I don’t know why Dad was so insistent on it; she hates field trips more than she hates sleepovers.  But, she did, so I guess you could borrow her bed for the night.  As for you guys…”


Sunflower stopped talking when she saw me.  I had barely gotten an eighth of the way into the block, and wasn’t making much progress.  And, unfortunately, saliva was dripping down the blade and onto the cheese.


“Are you alright, Gouda?” she asked me.


I nodded, carefully laying the knife onto the cutting board.  What a giveaway it was that a cheese pony couldn’t cut a block of cheese.  I was about to excuse myself by claiming fatigue, but Whole Grain did that for me.


“Yes, he’s fine,” Whole Grain answered, giving me a cautionary eye.  “He’s just worn out from the train ride.  I’ll tell you what happened later.”


Carefully, Sunflower wiped the cheese with a napkin and wrapped it back up.  As she brought it to the fridge, she continued where she had left off to Wheat Flour and me.  “You two can use the sofas in the living room for beds.  We have some blankets in the upstairs hall closet, so I’ll get those for you later.”


She handed me an apple, and we all ate our supper quietly.  It was uncomfortable.  Although I tried not to stare for too long, I glanced at Whole Grain and Wheat Flour, still searching for a clue of what was going on.  Really, what was wrong with Gouda?


Whatever.  They could keep secrets if they wanted to.  One more night here, and we’d be off again.  Even though I’m not much of a fan of drama, I can get through it and forget about it.


~ ~ ~


That couch was so, so very soft.  Sure, it was the older of the two, fraying in places, and moderately stiff.  But, it was the most comfortable thing I had lay on for days.  To go from sleeping on the ground to sleeping on a couch was like night and day.


Sunflower already upstairs, Whole Grain walked up to me before turning off the light.  She whispered into my ear, “If you so much as lay a hoof on her, you won’t live to see another day.  And, trust me,” she said with a squint, “I’ll know.”


After she was satisfied with my nod, she switched off the lights and headed upstairs.  Mostly comfortable, I turned away from Wheat Flour.  Whole Grain’s threats carried credibility, and I didn’t want to risk even accidentally looking too long at her sister.  However, after a few minutes or so, Wheat Flour spoke.


“I suggest that tomorrow, when we leave, you change into somepony other than Gouda.”


Yeah, I still didn’t get that.  “Why, though?  Is there something I missed?”


“Gouda is Whole Grain’s ex-boyfriend.”


Oh.  “Oh.”


“If you want to know more about it, you should ask her yourself.  All I can say is that he was not very nice, and she broke up with him,” she said.


I paused, and heard the swooshing sound of water running down pipes.  “How does your cousin know about him?”


“Sunflower Seed paid us a visit a month ago.  Gouda was friendly enough, but he said some… distasteful things about my sister.”


I decided not to press the issue, partly because I was shocked that she was talking with me this much.  Ready to seize the opportunity, I asked the difficult question that had bothered me since the first day I was there.  “Wheat Flour, why did you decide to help me?”


“When that little filly ran up and tried to defend you,” she said.  “I realized you were different.”


“No, I mean in the forest.  You could’ve just run away when I let you up.  Why did you choose to help me then?”


A long pause.  “Same reason.  You aren’t like other changelings.  When you say you’re sorry, I believe you.  When you say you need to go to Canterlot, something in me says that you’re telling the truth.  You have a lip, yes, but I’ve learned to see past that in ponies.”


“Like your sister?” I asked.


“Yes, like my sister,” she conceded.  “She may come off as harsh, but she’s just trying to protect me.”  I could hear her roll over on her couch.


“When we were fillies, we used to live in an orphanage.  I was small and weak, and the big colts would pick on me.  Whole Grain stood up for me, though.  She protected me all through our time at the orphanage.  Even when she had an offer of adoption, she demanded that I was adopted with her.”  Wheat Flour chuckled.  “We really are lucky that Aunt Millie is as generous as she is.”


The resent I had felt towards Whole Grain lessened, for her behaviour made more sense.  I turned my head to face her in the darkness.  “So, that’s why she doesn’t trust me.”


“Yes, I believe it is.”  She rolled over again.  “Good night, Swiss Cheese.”


“Good night.”  Whole Grain simply didn’t want to see anything bad happen to her sister.  But, why she had a distrust specifically of changelings was still beyond me.  I wanted to ask Wheat Flour about that, but, from the sound of it, she had already fallen asleep.


That was nice of her.  She opened up to me, and even if I didn’t have the trust of both sisters, I knew I had the trust of one.  As long as one pony was cool with me, the adventure we were on would be a little bit easier.


I squirmed into the couch, finding a very comfy spot.  Although today had been a depressing day, it ended on a good note.  I drifted off to sleep…


…and into the realm of dreams.  I was in a burning building, and the fire was spreading rapidly.  Smoke was getting in my eyes.  I had to find a way out.  I tried to move, but my legs wouldn’t go.  It was a strange feeling; I felt like I could go, but I didn’t.  I wanted to, but I couldn’t.


I sunk to the ground, the smoke choking me.  The fire was getting closer and closer, and my face felt like it was in a boiling pot of water.  My eyes, my eyes were burning.  I screamed, Someone, get me out of here!  Help me!  The flames got closer and closer, and the scorching heat was going to eat me alive.  Why didn’t I move?


“Wake up, everypony!”


The sound of Whole Grain’s voice ended the dream.  I rolled my head up as she continued, “We can cover more ground the earlier we start.  Hurry up and eat some breakfast.”


I didn’t get up just yet; I was struck by the dream, or, rather, dreams in general.  If this was still a dream, then how was I having a dream within a dream?  Was this like Inception, where I had to get myself out with a “kick”?  I’d have to try that later, when a chair and full bathtub were both readily available.


Eventually, I did have to get up.  In the kitchen, Whole Grain and Sunflower were chewing something, but the only thing on the kitchen table was a vase of flowers.  “What’s for breakfast?” I asked.


Whole Grain pointed at the flowers with a hoof.  “You’re looking at it.”


Oh, not this whole “horses eat plants” thing again.  Nope, I had to draw the line somewhere.  Hmm, maybe city folk actually had coffee. “Do you guys have any coffee?” I asked Sunflower.


She paused, and then offered, “We have some toffee, if that’s what you mean.”


I groaned.  “Never mind.”  I wasn’t terribly hungry, anyway.


Wheat Flour shuffled into the kitchen and looked at the clock, which read almost five minutes after six o’clock.  “Doesn’t the train station open at eight?” she inquired.  I could hear somepony else coming down the stairs.


Whole Grain nodded.  “Yes, but we’re not taking the train.”


Her sister was puzzled, as was I.  “Why not?” I asked.


“The train doesn’t stop in Canterlot, does it?” she asked as she rubbed some sleep out of her eye.  “We’re heading down to the docks to see if somepony’s willing to ferry us to Fillydelphia.”


Sunflower looked among the three of us.  “You guys are walking to Canterlot?”


“Walking to Canterlot?” Uncle Flax repeated, as he entered the kitchen and helped himself to a flower.  “That’s at least a two day journey!  You’ll need some money with you.”


Whole Grain bit on a petal and chewed with a disheartened expression.  She probably hated to “impose” as much as I did, so I spoke up.  “I’ve got some money, Mr. Flax.  You don’t need to give us any.”


“Well, if you’re sure,” he said, finishing his flower in one bite.  “If you need anything, though, don’t be afraid to ask.”


After everyone had eaten, Uncle Flax and his daughter led us outside and down the stairwell, into the fresh morning air.  Sunflower pointed us in the direction of the docks, and we were on our way.  However, I noticed something odd outside of the apartment building, and brought it to Uncle Flax’s attention.


There was a blue pony huddled in the corner, next to the stairwell.  It had covered itself with its backpack, and seemed to be asleep.  Their face was hidden, so I couldn’t tell what gender it was, but that pack looked somewhat familiar…


Uncle Flax walked up to the pony, and shoved his/her shoulder.  “Excuse me, but you do know there’s a homeless shelter three blocks down, right?”


It shifted about and raised its head, squinting to see him.  He pulled a pair of glasses out of his bag with magic and slipped them on, after rubbing his eyes.


It was the professor.


Immediately, I stepped forward.  “What are you doing here?”


He hesitated, licking his lips and looking at his bag for a moment.  Then, he faced me, smiling.  “Well, I meant to catch up with you after the wedding.”


Whole Grain looked at me, and I think we shared the same thought.  “You followed us all the way from Vanhoover?” I asked.


“Of course.  I couldn’t pass up the opportunity,” he said as he stood up, magically slinging his satchel around him, and stretched.  “I’m doing a study on changelings, you see, and was hoping you’d be willing to answer a few questions.”


Uncle Flax piped up.  “A study on what, now?”


 “I think he said a study on changing things,” Whole Grain said.


The professor adjusted his glasses.  “No, I’m fairly certain I said-”


“-Changing things,” Whole Grain said through her teeth.  “We’re happy to help somepony doing a study on changing things.”


He paused for a moment, then nodded.  “Yes, quite.  That’s what I intended to say.”


A study on changelings…  I was intrigued.  Maybe I could learn a magic trick in the process.  “Sure, I can help,” I said.  “What was your name, again?”


His eyelids lowered.  “Professor Lucid.”


“Well, come along with us, then.  I can answer questions along the way.”  And, maybe you can answer mine.


We waved the Seed family goodbye, and started walking down the street.  It was rush hour in Manehattan, but with horses instead of cars.  Well, there were some carriages, but they seemed to make more progress than the taxis in New York seem to.  Every picture of Times Square I’d seen looked utterly packed.  Why people rode in taxis in a city like that befuddled me.


Professor Lucid encouraged the wheat sisters to lead the way, and fell behind with me.  I began the conversation.  “So, changelings, huh?”


He smirked.  “Actually, I’m not doing a study on changelings.  I am, however, interested in something else.”  He looked at me through the top of his glasses.  “Your dimension.”


He… he knew?  “My dimension?”  I shook my head.  “If this is a joke-”


“No, it isn’t,” he insisted, getting a notebook and quill at the ready.  “I believe you, and I want to learn all about where you came from.”


I looked into his eyes, and they really did seem to be telling the truth.  It could be that he was doing a study on mental illnesses.  Eh, heck if I knew.  It was difficult enough trying to tell ponies about my predicament, so, if one claimed to believed me, what was the harm in telling him?  “Okay, Professor.  Where should I start?”


“Lucid is fine,” he replied, and thought for a moment.  “How is your dimension different than this one?”


Seriously, where should I start?  Humans, perhaps.  How could I explain “humans” to him?  There weren’t any in this world, from what I had seen.


I looked ahead at the wheat sisters, making sure we wouldn’t fall too far behind.  “First of all, we’re not ponies…  Imagine monkeys, but with most of their hair on their heads.”

Preread by NotSoSubtle

“Okay, let me get this straight.”


Lucid nodded, removing the quill from behind his ear and putting it back in his satchel.


“Your princess – your immortal princess – banished her own sister to the moon for one thousand years?  And after all that time, her sister came back, threatening to destroy the world, and just turns good again in less than twenty-four hours?”


He tilted his head and grinned.  “Less than two hours, actually.  And, you forgot the part where her sister now rules jointly with her.”


I shook my head.  “That’s just… unbelievable.”


“Welcome to my world,” he quipped with a smirk.


We were walking along the pier, on the south side of Manehattan.  We were halfway down the coast, but none of the captains so far seemed to want to take us across.  Whole Grain was confident that somepony would accept our request, mentioning that Manehattan captains were compensated by the city if they ferried ponies for free.  Either all the ships in the city really were “undergoing repairs”, or there was something that they weren’t telling us.


Lucid and I were hanging in the back, and he was in the middle of sharing the basics of his world after I had told him the basics of mine.  There must have been more to this world, however, because not much of what he was telling me was making sense.  “One thousand years on the moon, though?  How did she breathe?  What did she eat?”


“Moon rocks?  Who knows?  Some conspirators will tell you she was merely hidden away the whole time, and the entire thing was staged.  It’s actually likely that she really was up there.  With magic, anything is possible.”  He looked up at the next candidate for travel, as the wheat sisters talked with a captain.  “I’m right there with you, though.  A thousand years is a tremendously long time to ground your sister for.  And she was her bloody sister!” he emphasized with a hoof.  “You’d think they’d talk things out or something before resorting to banishment.”


Sure, if I had the power to ground my little sister when I was a kid, I’d take full advantage of it, and probably abuse it.  Not for a thousand years, though; that’s overdoing it in most situations.


“I still think it’s fascinating that your world is led by males,” the professor continued.  “Here, almost all positions of authority are filled by females.  Not just with the princesses, but mayors and even the police force, too.”


“Really?  Because Vanhoover had a male mayor.”


“He’s one of the few.  There’s Mayor Shipshape in Baltimare, and a sherrif in Appleloosa, but that’s about it.  Mostly mares everywhere else.”


What did he say?  “Mares?”


He bobbed his head.  “That’s a name for a female pony.  You’ve heard of the term before, correct?”


Mare?  Well, yes, in “nightmare”.  But I’d never thought of that as having to do with horses.  Oh, but they called their princess “Nightmare Moon”.  Even more puns.  Ugh.  “Yeah, but we don’t use it in everyday speech.”  Not like ponies do….  Noted for dialect.


The wheat sisters were ahead of us on a long, lonely dock, with only one ship attached to it.  There was a husky pony there, leaning on a barrel.  He was talking in a fairly loud voice, but we couldn’t hear what he was saying.


I suggested to Lucid that we catch up with them.  I wanted to feel like we were still part of the group.  Lucid had relayed that talk about my dimension should stay between us.  I didn’t object; I felt like I’d have a hard time explaining it to anypony who didn’t already have an explicit interest in it.


We approached them as they continued to converse with the pony.  He had a full black beard, and a hook on his left hoof (on, not instead of).  Under the bandana tied around his head was an eye patch slung over his right eye.  As we caught up to them, I heard him say, “O’ course, lass!  Ol’ Captain Keelhaul can take anypony ‘cross the bay!  ‘Sides, I’ve got cargo to deliver.”


Great.  He talked like a pirate, too.  He even slurred his words a bit, which gave me the impression that he was drunk.  Who would be drunk so early in the morning?


“Thank you, Mr. Keelhaul.  That is very kind of you,” Wheat Flour said.


He dismissed it with a hoof as he attempted to get up.  “Think nothin’ of it, lass!  This sea pony’s in need of a little morning excitement!”


I didn’t have a good feeling about “excitement”.  What excitement was there to be had on such a peaceful day?  But, if he was willing to take us for free, who was I to complain?


His sword hilt dragging on the pier, he led us onto the modest-looking boat.  There was one deck, and a raised area for the… helm.  I think that’s what they called it in those Disney movies.  On the deck were many barrels set up on their ends, tied together in bunches with rope.  Some of the barrels were coming loose, but not dangerously so.  The mast was proud and tall, and boasted a wide and patched-up sail.


We made ourselves comfortable on the main deck of the boat.  Wheat Flour and Whole Grain sat in an open space among the barrels.  I sat down behind the thick rail of the boat, looking out over the edge, and Lucid found a place near me.


“Are you sure you want to come with us?” I asked him.  “You must have other things to do.”


He leaned on a barrel and shook his head.  “I needed a holiday this week anyway.  I finished planning lectures for the fall last week.  Thanks for asking, though.”


When we were all on board, our captain untied the ship from the dock and raised the plank.  “Alright, ya landlubbers, ready yerselves!” he exclaimed as he walked up to the wheel.  Once there, he made a dramatic motion with his hoof.  “Anchors aweigh!  We set sail for Fillydelphia!”


Whole Grain rolled her eyes.  I didn’t mind, particularly.  I felt like I could handle an hour or so of a cheesy pirate if it meant we would make it across.


He steered the boat out of the harbour and caught the good side of the wind.  The sun was behind us, and it was early morning, so I think we were heading west.  I looked over the side of the boat, watching the dark blue water pass under us.  I’ve never been out on a boat before, and had to hold on to the rail to keep my balance.  The waters weren’t rough enough for me to feel seasick, at least.


Water looked much simpler here than in my world, but it probably had the same properties; it was deep, so I had to be careful not to fall off.  If walking was something to get used to, I’d rather have gotten used to swimming in a pond than the sea.


~ ~ ~


Seagull chirping can get repetitive.  It really can.


We had been out at sea for a while: less than two hours, if I had to guess.  I had been staring at the water, but in a sort of dazed state.  Maybe it was the inconsistency of my sleep cycle over the past couple of days, or just adventuring in general.


Why was I here?  I’ve already asked that question, but it resurfaced in my head.  I was in a world where ponies could talk, on my way to Canterlot (wherever that was from here), as a weird semi-pony creature.  And I was tired.  I didn’t want to be in that world.  Yet, as much as that was true… there I was.  And although I wanted something done about it, I didn’t feel like doing anything.


I didn’t even have the energy to talk.  Even if I did, I didn’t feel like I’d have much to talk about with the wheat sisters.  Wheat Flour wasn’t much of a talker to begin with.  And, whether Whole Grain liked to talk or not, it was clear that she didn’t want to talk to me.  I couldn’t blame her; they were wasting their time in coming with me.


I figured I might as well get somepony else to talk, so I’d have something else to think about.  Why not Lucid?  He had an interest in dimensions.  I wondered how that tied to changelings, or if it did at all.  I’d have to be careful about not revealing too much to the wheat sisters, sure, but a generic question shouldn’t hurt.


“Say, Lucid,” I began, “what’s your degree in?”


He got up and turned around, leaning against the other side of the barrel so he could face me.  “Believe it or not, my degree was in dreams.”


“Dreams, huh?”  What an uncanny coincidence. 


“If you have a degree in dreams, why are you doing a study on changelings?” Whole Grain asked.


Lucid chuckled.  “Believe me, there are plenty of ponies that I could study the dreams of.  Changelings, though, are something of a rarity.  I’ve never actually met one: only read about them in books.  When I found one, it was too good of a research opportunity to pass up.”


Speaking of opportunity…  “Well, I’ve been having some strange dreams lately.  Do you think you’d be able to interpret them?”


He shook his head.  “My apologies, but no.  I’m not up to speed with the psychological aspect of dreams; that was back in my undergraduate days – completely different from my current studies.  I could share what little I remember on dream theory, though.”  He scratched his cheek, looking down at the somewhat battered floorboards.  “It’s only theory, mind you.  General, theoretical stuff.”


I’d take what I could get.  “Sure, anything would help.”


He rubbed his chin.  “Well, there are the ancient legends and wives’ tales, of course, that hearken back to the first days of Nightmare Moon.  It is said that Luna, the night princess, created dreams before she left to haunt the ponies that shunned her night.  It was widely believed, actually, up until recently.”  Gears clicked in my mind, and he vocalized my suspicions.  “Nightmare Moon was vanquished, and the dreams, theoretically, would be vanquished with her.”


“But, ponies still have dreams, right?”  I couldn’t be sure.  Maybe a human-turned-pony was a special case.


“Exactly.  This has led to a little controversy.  Some say that Nightmare Night’s spell was permanent.  Others say that Luna simply forgot to undo the spell upon her return.  Both are unlikely; magic doesn’t work like that, and I doubt the princesses are that forgetful.


“This prompted further research into other theories by some colleagues of mine.  Dreams start in a pony’s brain; that part is widely agreed upon.”  He pushed up his glasses.  “What they do is what I try to get at in my studies, but dreams’ true meanings are up for debate.  Most believe that ancient magic – predating Celestia – is involved, in a way that dreams can predict the future.  Some say it’s the brain trying to tell you something in a symbolic fashion.  Still others say there’s simply no meaning at all, just random imaginings of your mind.”


“What do you think?” I asked.


He shrugged.  “Magic is involved; that I know for sure.  However, to what degree that has to do with what dreams mean, I don’t know.  I’ve never really delved into the history of dreams.  It’s something for a historian to discover, not somepony of the likes of me.”


Great, so there was some mystical magic fiddling with my mind at night.  Still, if Lucid wasn’t studying the meaning of dreams, what about dreams was there left to study?  I opened my mouth to ask, but was interrupted by a violent lurch in the ship that knocked me off my feet.


“Hold on to yer hooves, mates!” Captain Keelhaul bellowed.  “We’re in the rough waters, now!”


I looked across the surface of the water, but there weren’t any particularly tall waves around us.  It wasn’t even windy, much less stormy; there were barely any clouds in the sky.  Confused, I looked down into the deep blue water.  There, I saw a darker shadow pass under us, and another violent bump followed.


My escalating heartbeat dissolved my fatigue.  “What is going on?!” I shouted to the captain.


“Shocktopus migration!” he answered, with a roaring laugh.


If the possibility of danger hadn’t felt so great, I would’ve grumbled something more about puns.  I ran up to the front of the boat and looked ahead.  Between us and a distant shoreline, which I assumed to be Fillydelphia, were several dark spots in the ocean.  All of them were drifting in a perpendicular direction to the ship’s path.


One of those dark spots was directly in front of us.  Two arms rose up from the patch of water like snakes.  They were long, black, slick, spotted with yellow suction cups, and… sparking.  One arm came crashing down right next to me, opening up a gaping hole in the floorboards.  I moved away from it as it sputtered with electricity.


“Don’t go takin’ a swim, now!” The captain hollered.  “These monsters are a might dangerous!  One hoof in the drink’ll be the last thing ye remember!”


The moment my worried gaze met Wheat Flour’s, I felt my stomach drop.  No, I was not prepared as I thought I was for “morning excitement”.  No wonder he was the only captain willing to sail a ship today.


As he whirled the steering wheel, the boat swerved into the centre of the activity.  I dearly hoped that this captain knew what he was doing.  The boat lurched again as another shocktopi rammed the boat, and my face met the deck with a painful whack.


“Do you think we could pop below deck for the time being?” Lucid asked the captain as he realigned his glasses.


He responded with a laugh.  “There be no ‘below deck’, matey!  Ye get to stay above deck, where all the fun be!”


Yep, he was definitely drunk.  This was not fun in the slightest.


A giant shocktopus climbed onto the front corner of the ship, tilting it and causing water to flow in.  With a tentacle it wasn’t using to hold on, it reached out and touched Wheat Flour.  She yelped and toppled onto the deck.


I wanted to go and help her, but I couldn’t pull myself up over the barrels.  “Wheat Flour, are you alright?” I asked.


“Yes,” was her strained reply, but she didn’t open her eyes.  Whole Grain dragged her closer to the centre of the deck, shielding her from further injury.


The boat gave another lurch, as something ran into the shocktopus.  Its arms slid across the deck and over the edge of the boat, as the creature was dragged down into the water.  “That’s right!  Be gone with ye, ye salt-spittin’, overgrown jellyfish!” Captain Keelhaul yelled.


I tried to stand up, but my knees were shaking from nausea.  Lucid was faring better than me and helped me to my feet.  When the ship had steadied, we looked past the front and noticed a dark spot larger than the others.  It had some gaps in it, but it looked like a pretty big creature.  Several arms were coming up out of the water, as if they were inviting us in.  What twisted my stomach was that we were accepting that invitation dead-on.


“What in Celestia’s name are you doing?!” Whole Grain yelled at the captain.  “Turn this ship!  Get us out of here!”


Not acknowledging her, the captain remained focused on that same spot.  His grin was wide, such that I could see the glimmer of a gold tooth.  If he was planning on running into that thing…


No, that would be foolish.  The ship could crash or turn over.  And if one touch of the electricity-infested ocean could kill us, then… that couldn’t happen.


I wasn’t about to let somepony get us killed.  This world wasn’t going to drive me around wherever it wanted to.  I had to get to Canterlot, and then get back home.  To leave my fate up to somebody else would be too risky.  I had just been letting things happen to me, and I realized that I had to start taking things into my own hands and become responsible for my own fate.


I looked at Wheat Flour, being shielded by an apprehensive Whole Grain.  I wasn’t going to just stand back and watch again.


I am not dead weight.


I went up to the helm, trying to keep my balance as another shocktopus jostled the boat.  The captain was there, focused straight ahead on the creatures as we closed in on them.


I shoved him aside and grabbed the steering wheel.  As soon as I did, I heaved it to the right, trying to steer it as far as it would go.  The ship tilted as it went into a turn, and we barely skimmed the edge of that dark spot.


Thankfully, the captain didn’t fight back.  He drew his wooden sword.  “Ah!  Good thinkin’, me bucko!  Ye man the ship, and I’ll see to the beasts!”


If I had it my way, we wouldn’t be in the middle of these beasts in the first place.


Once we were past the big, ominous blob, I tried to weave around the incoming obstacles as best as I could.  The steering wheel had quite a bit of resistance on it, so every turn was either a hard right or a hard left, to the passengers’ dismay.  Some passengers were dismayed for different reasons than others.


“Aw, blast!” the captain exclaimed, as he waved his sword over the railing at a passing shocktopus.  “Ye need to come about, lad!  Yer hornswagglin’ me out of glory!”


Whatever “hornswaggling” was, I intended to keep doing it.


The wheel was starting to get the best of me, and every turn became more and more exhausting. I was aiming for any opening in the water, anything that wasn’t a blob.  Turn, turn, turn…  Soon, I was throwing my whole body weight into every turn.


Not only was I tired, but I also felt sick.  I was on the same boat that lurched at my every turn, which was making me feel lightheaded.  I had to press on, however, until we were at the shoreline.


Oh, the shoreline was right there.  We must have been going faster than I had thought.


This giant hunk of wood was approaching Fillydelphia fast, but I had no idea how to stop it.  There weren’t any brakes on a ship.  Or, were there?  I racked my dizzy mind for an answer…  Oh.  Anchors.  As I turned to the side to look for the anchor, I found the captain already attempting to lift it.


“Oy!  I’d appreciate some assistance,” he said.


I helped him lift it up and over the side, and it plummeted into the water.  The boat jerked forward and sent us sprawling onto the deck, but a strange crashing sound accompanied the sudden stop, and it didn’t sound like an anchor.


We looked ahead, and we saw that a dock had acted as a cushion for the boat.  Unfortunately, it was not a particularly sturdy cushion.  More unfortunately, we had hit the center of what appeared to be a rather large dock.  And, just to pile on to the misfortune, the center of the dock decided to collapse and bring the piers it was connected to with it.


And this was all when I had just decided to start accepting responsibility.


Broken pieces of wood were floating around us.  The ship was still in somewhat good condition – it wasn’t sinking – but the same couldn’t be said for the dock.  I looked to the captain, who was a little taken aback.  He walked down to one of the barrels, popped a cork out of it, and brought his mouth right next to the hole, taking large gulps.


“I thought you delivered those.  Why are you drinking from it?” Professor Lucid pondered aloud.


He removed his mouth and replaced the cork, releasing a belch.  “I’m the only pony that I deliver this cargo to, lad!”


Lucid asked what I was too disoriented to ask.  “If you don’t deliver this, why do you take it back and forth?”


“Ye have to understand,” he encouraged as he wiped his mouth and swayed a little.  “I live for two things; the open seas and good ol’-fashioned cider!”


Whole Grain closed her eyes and looked away, taking in a deep breath.  She took restrained steps towards the captain.  “If you love the open seas so much,” she said through clenched teeth.  I expected her to continue that, had she not been interrupted.


“Hey!  Hey you!”


A voice coming from the shore stole our attention.  A male pony with a scruffy face was calling out to us from the intact portion of the dock.  He was large – not quite as large as Captain Kill-all, but still large.  Maybe it was the life vest he was wearing.  Above all, he looked quite irritated, and the police mare next to him didn’t look too happy, either.


He was looking right at me.  “Look at what you did to my dock!  What do you have to say for yourself?” he demanded.


In reply, I leaned over the side of the boat and heaved up the contents of my stomach.

Preread by NotSoSubtle

I hate coincidences.


On the day I just happened to start assuming responsibility, I became responsible for the destruction of a city’s port.  The owner of the dock also happened to be good buddies with Fillydelphia’s chief of police, and was having a chat with her on the dock at the time we showed up.  The chief of police also insisted on leading me to court when I was so nauseous I wasn’t sure if I would be able to walk straight.


And if I couldn’t walk straight, what would stop them from accusing me of drinking and driving with all of that “cider” on board?  Oh, shoot….


Nevertheless, I was in hot water.  The police chief was right next to me and leading me into town.  The rest of our group was following us, along with the dock owner.  I didn’t have time for court, let alone what going to court implied.  I had already been in jail once and didn’t feel like going back there again.


Fighting delirium, I argued with the police chief.  “Look, it was an accident!  We were right in the middle of that swarm of shocktopi, and-”


“I know what happened,” she said, agitated.  “I was there.  I get it.  It was an accident.  I’m just doing my job, here.  We’ll settle this at the courthouse.”


They’d settle it, sure, by locking me in jail.  But there was bail for this sort of thing, right?  “But we could pay for it!” I exclaimed.  I turned to the wheat sisters, and then to Lucid, who bit his lip and shook his head.  Uh oh.


“Like I said, we can settle it there.  Just relax already,” she said without looking at me.


But we can settle this before!  I was pulling out whatever I could to get out of this.  “We could just rebuild the dock.  That wouldn’t take too long, right?”


Scruff Face shook his head.  Thankfully, his anger had abated when we had told him what had happened, but he was still somewhat bitter about it.  “I’d need the lumber first, and that might take up to a week to ship, plus a day to cut.  Then, it’d take two more days for you to rebuild the dock, even with the help of your friends,” he explained.  “I can get a team of pegasi and unicorns to rebuild it in two hours.”


Okay, we couldn’t build it.  Maybe… oh, if there was some supreme court, and Celestia was there, then that could kill two birds with one stone!  “We’re not residents of Fillydelphia, though, so does that mean we can take it up to-”


“You’re residents of Equestria, for Celestia’s sake!” the police chief snapped.  “Just shut up and we’ll settle this later.”


Okay, okay, fine.  I was just asking.  I stayed silent for a while as we headed into town and took in our surroundings.


Fillydelphia was a nice little port town.  It could’ve been like my universe’s Philadelphia, had the industrial revolution not happened.  No, it seemed more like New Orleans; its downtown area had character.  There were shops instead of open markets, and each one seemed itching to tell a story: a bait & tackle shop with large, plaster fish; a furniture store giving off a strong and pleasant floral aroma; a café with extravagant Middle East-type decorations.


It was pretty cool.  I mean, I’d never really travelled before, and to stop and take part in the culture would’ve been neat, but I knew that we were on a mission.  We weren’t there to sightsee.  We were to go straight to Canterlot, making the best use of everypony’s time.  No hiccups… if we could help it, that is.


Oh, and speaking of hiccups, I had almost completely forgotten about Wheat Flour.  I slowed down to meet the rest of the group.  Wheat Flour seemed to be alright.  She didn’t have any visible injuries, and was up and walking without a limp.  Just to be sure, I asked her, “How are you feeling?”


“She’s fine,” Whole Grain answered.  “We have to be much more careful from now on.”


Wheat Flour agreed with a silent nod, and I turned forward, watching the police officer and Scruff Face lead the way.


As we walked, Lucid said to me in a low voice, “See what I mean?”


“What do you see I… should… huh?”


“Policemares,” he said.  “They’re not uncommon here.”


Whole Grain glanced at him.  “What about policemares?”


“Oh, I was just pointing something out to Gouda, is all.”  Lucid said, looking straight ahead.


Whole Grain almost ran into somepony, a little distracted by Lucid.  “And what about policemares needs pointing out?”


The policemare’s ear twitched.  Whatever Lucid was getting at, I hoped it wouldn’t get us into more trouble….


He shrugged.  “Just the fact that she’s a mare.”


“And what’s wrong with mares?” Whole Grain asserted.


“Nothing inherently,” Lucid said.  “I simply believe that stallions happen to be underrepresented.”


Oh, he had a point.  It could’ve been the opposite of feminism here.  Was there even a name for that?  Manism?  Maleism?  Masculism?  Ooh, that one sounded legit.  Masculism.


“Nothing inherently?” Whole Grain repeated.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”


Lucid cleared his throat.  “Well, if you really want me to elaborate, some mares have a tendency towards stubbornness and pride.  It’s only an observation.  Princess Celestia, for instance: I could name a slew of her political decisions that reflect that.”


Whole Grain looked much too irked to hear them, and retorted with, “Well, if you ask me, I think some stallions have a tendency to be complete-”


“That’s enough.  Let’s just drop it for now,” I said, getting the feeling that it wasn’t going to end well.  All drama could do for our group was waste time and tire us out, and we needed neither of those at that moment, much less at any time during this ordeal.


Neither of them looked like they wanted to drop it, but they did anyway.  I sighed.  If we couldn’t get along, that might be a hiccup in itself.


~ ~ ~


Well, Judge Honeydew was polite.


Once she had understood what had happened, she gave me two options.  I could spend two weeks in jail.  Although it was an accident, the fact still stood that the dock had been damaged on my account and I couldn’t pay for repairs.  My second option was that I could work at the judge’s apiary for two days.  I didn’t know what that was, but two days is shorter than two weeks, so I chose that option.


We were walking into a more rural part of the city, with Honeydew leading the way.  She was a unicorn about as tall as I, with light green skin and yellow hair tied behind her head in a bun.  She was nice, too, and had been very understanding and friendly about the situation.


“I know you folks aren’t from around here,” the judge said, “but this won’t take long.  If you want, you and your friends could stay with me overnight.”


“Thank you very much, Ms. Honeydew,” Wheat Flour said.  “We appreciate it.”


“Oh, it’s nothing, really,” she said with a smile.  “You folks were from Manehattan, right?”


“Vanhoover,” Whole Grain answered.


“Vanhoover?  And where were you headed to?”


“Canterlot,” Whole Grain answered again, more flatly.


She looked confused for a moment, drawing something in the air with her hoof.  “Then, how did you…?”


“It’s a long story,” Whole Grain said.  “We ended up in Manehattan by accident.”


Honeydew paused for a moment and then let out a hearty laugh.  “Manehattan?”  She laughed some more, but I didn’t join her.  If I knew why it was funny, I might’ve also laughed, but I hadn’t had much to laugh about over the past few days.  She wiped her eye.  “I’m sorry, but oh, is that a hoot!  I’d love to hear all about it later.”


There was another pause as we continued up the road.  We approached a modest and well-kept cottage, with long flower beds lined up in front of it.  There were also a few warehouses on the side, and several trees planted in a neat line around the rest of the property.  She introduced it to us as her house.  “Once we’re inside, you can drop off your things.  Then, I can set Gouda up with some work.”


“Are you sure you’re not needed in court?” I inquired.  If we could sneak out without her knowing…


She shook her head.  “Oh, they could go a few days without me.  Not much happens in this city.  It can get so boring just sitting in my office.  I like it out here.”  She extended her hoof out to her property.  “I just have this love of nature.  Peaceful, serene – they should move the courthouse out here!” she added with a chuckle.


“I agree, it is a wonderful day today,” Wheat Flour added, looking up at the sky and then down at the flower beds near the road.  “And your perennials look lovely.  I like the way you arranged them.”


Honeydew cocked her head and smiled.  “Are you a fellow gardener, by any chance?”


Wheat Flour blushed and looked away.  “No, not a gardener, but I do like flowers.”


“Ah, so an enthusiast,” the green pony said as she looked over her front yard.  “Well, my flowers are my pride.  All my favourites are out here in the front, but there are some regional ones in my big garden out back, too.  That’s where Gouda will start today; I want to put in a new bed in the back.”  She addressed the rest of our group.  “You three aren’t bound here, however.  You can go out to the city, or stay and talk with me… whatever you wish.”


Lucid looked back in the direction we had come from.  “I might just head back into town.  I’ve got some colleagues here to catch up with.”


After a brief pause, Wheat Flour spoke up.  “I can stay and help Gouda tend to the flowers.”


“And I will, too,” Whole Grain said immediately after.


“You don’t have to stay here,” I said to them.  I was the one required to do community service, after all.  “Have some fun out in the city or something.  You could even go home, if you really want.”


Wheat Flour shook her head.  “It’s only a few days, Gouda.  It’s no trouble at all.”


“Alright, then,” Honeydew said.  “Well, you three can come with me to the shed.  With three more pairs of hooves, I can get some gardening done!”


~ ~ ~

What’s the point of gardening?


I had never done anything like it before.  My house easily had the least-maintained and ugliest lot on the block, with the exception of the old house a few doors down from mine, which hadn’t been lived in for three years.  That house’s lawn hadn’t been mowed in so long, the length of the grass rivaled that of a savannah.


Yes, I did mow my lawn from time to time; I think it’s required by law.  I’m lucky that it’s a small lot, and half an hour with a push mower is all it takes.  Some areas of the lawn were starting to wear away and thin out, but I didn’t mind.  The less there is that I need to mow, the happier I am.


But gardening?  What a waste of time, money, and energy.  Who cares about flowers, or making the little hills, or putting in bricks around trees?  Honeydew, sure, but not me.  All it does for a garden is make it look nice.  No practical application whatsoever: it just looks nice.


So that’s what we did for an hour or so.  I didn’t need a shovel for digging, apparently.  I had asked, but Honeydew said my hoof would work just fine.  And it did: its shape worked well in scooping dirt out of the ground.


Wheat Flour was there with me, and we hadn’t spoken in quite some time.  There wasn’t much of a need for communication, anyway; I’d dig a hole, and she’d fill it with a flower from a cart full of flowers that Honeydew had had ready for us.  Eventually, though, she spoke.  “What was the hive like?”


I figured I could start with what little I knew about it.  “It was big.  It reminded me of a beehive, except it was green, and squishy.”


“Oh, I should rephrase that,” she said, looking down at the flowerpot in her hooves.  “What was living in the hive like?”


Uh oh.  I wasn’t sure of how long it’d be until I’d have to start making things up.  “It… wasn’t great.  I don’t want to go back there, that’s for sure.”


I finished digging the hole.  Wheat Flour lifted a flower out of its pot and placed it in there.  “Did you have any friends?” she asked.


“No, no I didn’t,” I replied, thinking of 6 F 26.  “They weren’t really friends.  They were just people that were around me and that I talked to sometimes.”


She blinked.  “People?”


Oops.  “Changelings,” I corrected, swatting a fly away.  “That’s what I meant.”


She put the empty pot back in the cart and selected a blue flower.  We had been alternating between that and red flowers.  They had names, but I couldn’t remember them.  I didn’t have the time or interest to try remembering them, either.  I started digging again.


“How do you like ponies?” she asked.


I looked at her, unsure of where she was going with this.  From what little I could read off of a pony’s face – and with a pony as hard to read as Wheat Flour – she seemed only innocently curious.  I figured it was safe, and I wouldn’t experience a repeat of Lucid and Whole Grain’s conversation earlier that day.


“Ponies are nice,” I replied.  “Except when you’re a changeling; then, they’re not as nice.  They’re afraid.”  Remembering Taff, I amended, “Well, most are afraid.”


She nodded, and I continued to dig.  She stopped asking questions after that, probably realizing that she herself had been one of those afraid.  I felt bad for her.  She had only helped me because I hadn’t given her a choice.  I had pinned her to the ground.


But what about the wedding?  She made the choice to help me then.  And I was the one pinned down, not her.  So, why?  Was she still scared of me?  Did she pity me?  Or were ponies just nice?


I looked back at Honeydew’s house.  Even though it sounded too good to be true, there had been plenty of evidence so far for that case.


First of all, Honeydew.  Instead of sentencing me to two weeks in prison, Honeydew had offered me just two days of simple gardening.  Not only that, but she was treating us to lunch.  I probably couldn’t stomach it after that morning, but it was still a nice gesture.  Then, there was Uncle Flax.  He was willing to open his home up to his family and a stranger he probably hadn’t seen before.  He had even offered us money.


And, of course, Aunt Millie.  She had offered me food and shelter, much like Uncle Flax, but I suspect that she did it despite my species.  Even though she knew I wasn’t a pony, she was willing to accept me into her own family.  She had not only given me a place to sleep, but she had given me her trust.  And she had given it so freely, it seemed unnatural.  People being kind for the sake of being kind….  Maybe it wasn’t as rare of a thing among ponies.


“What were you two talking about?” Whole Grain said as she sat down next to me.


Wheat Flour reached over to put another flower in.  “Gouda was telling me about life in the hive.”


“Oh?  Is that what you talk about with Lucid, too?” Whole Grain asked.


I nodded, looking down at the flower’s little blue petals.  “Yes, it is.”


“Okay then, go on.”  She tipped the watering can in her hoof over the row of flowers we had just planted.  “Don’t mind me.  I’m just watering,” she said tersely.


So she continued watering and I continued digging.  I focused on my hoof as it scraped more dirt out of the hole.  My tail was starting to itch – oh, I had a tail.  How could I have forgotten about that?  I looked back and observed the short, red thing.  Maybe it was like fur or something – after a while, I just didn’t notice it.  Oh, speaking of fur, I hadn’t noticed that, either.  I stroked the soft fur on my back with my hoof.


Whole Grain, however, had noticed the silence.  “I said go on.  Talk about hive life.”


I turned around to dig, no longer distracted by my tail or my fur.  “I don’t feel like it right now, sorry.”


“Don’t you?” she said through gritted teeth.  “You can talk about it with my younger sister, and you can talk about who knows what with Lucid, but not with me, huh?”


Well, no.  Not really.  Wheat Flour came to the rescue, though.  “He is uncomfortable talking about it.”


“Yes, I know.”  The flowers were probably drowning with the amount of water Whole Grain was giving them.


“That is what he had been explaining to me,” Wheat Flour continued, ignoring her sister.  “He and Lucid have talked of many things about changelings, including some private subjects that he would prefer not to share with other ponies, especially those of our gender.”


Whole Grain almost retorted, but she decided against it.  With a toss of her red hair, she tipped up the watering can and moved to some flowers a bit further away from us.


Boy, was Wheat Flour a quick thinker.  I gave her a thankful smile, and she returned it.  It felt good to have Whole Grain off my back.


Just then, we heard a loud and far-off noise.  It sounded like a cannon or a bomb, and we looked around to see where it had come from.  When I looked up at the sky above the western fields, I noticed something strange.


There were a few black dots in the sky, slowly moving upwards.  One of those black dots became bigger and more distinct.  I blinked, in case it was something I had been imagining, but the dot was still there, and getting bigger.


Then, in a split second, the black dot turned into a black blur, and that blur collided with one of the trees surrounding Honeydew’s property with a loud thwack.  The tree bent back, so much so that the trunk gave way and snapped, letting the top half of the tree fall over.


The tree hadn’t burst into flames or anything, so I assumed it was safe.  I ran over to it, and I could hear the wheat sisters following behind me.


A black form rolled out of the tree.  I quickened my pace; that form looked awfully pony-like.  When I got close enough, I noticed it looked much more like a changeling than a pony.


In fact, that was exactly what it was.


I looked over the body.  It seemed to still be breathing, but I just kept looking it over, like an idiot.  I didn’t know what to do; I hadn’t been trained in any sort of first-aid.  So, I asked the first question that came to my mind.  “Are you okay?”


He replied with a muffled groan.  Wheat Flour also looked him over and looked around.  Again, not having a clue of what to do, I waited for her to say something.  Finally, she said, “We need to take him inside.”


Whole Grain began, “But-”


“He’s hurt.  He needs help,” Wheat Flour said.  She hooked her arms under the changeling’s shoulders and looked at her sister.  “Help me lift him onto your back.”


I’ll admit that I hesitated, too.  What if this was the general – or sergeant, whatever – or 6 F 26, or some other changeling that’d recognize me?


Whole Grain looked out into the distance where the changeling had flown from.  Without saying anything, she sort of crawled under the changeling as Wheat Flour laid him over her back.


As we hurried to the house, I looked back at the tree.  Sawdust was still hanging in the air, the trunk having been ripped apart from the force.  Not only did a normal-sized flying creature have enough force to snap a full-grown tree in half, but said creature was still alive.  Oh, and ponies can do magic and breathe on the moon.


…Did physics apply to this world at all?

Preread by NotSoSubtle

“What’s going on?”


Honeydew was in the kitchen when we came in with the changeling.  It was a moderately sized kitchen, with plaid curtains and a pot rack and decorative plates hanging on the wall and such.  There were more decorations than I was used to, but this is coming from the man who won’t give his kitchen any more decoration than a clock.


Wheat Flour answered with a question of her own.  “Ms. Honeydew, do you have a spare bedroom we could use?”


Honeydew nodded, looking at the changeling drooped across Whole Grain’s back.  “Uh, yes, I do.  Upstairs, second door on the right.”


We hurried up the stairs.  I led the way, finding the door and holding it open for Whole Grain.  It was a small guest bedroom with only a bed and a window.  Wheat Flour and she went to the side of the bed and carefully laid him onto it.  He squirmed, either in pain or for sympathy, but probably in pain.


“What is that?” Honeydew asked.  “What happened to it?”


Whole Grain pulled aside the curtains of the window and pointed to the fallen tree outside.  “He did that.”


Honeydew gaped at the sight.  “Oh…  Oh my.”


Everyone’s attention turned to the creature shifting on the bed.  His arms and legs were retracted, and his eyes were squeezed shut.  “What’s your name?” I asked.  Or number, whatever.


“Foreign…. Foreign…” he mumbled.


“Foreign what?” Whole Grain barked.  “Speak up!”  But he didn’t speak up.  He just kept moaning and groaning.


Wheat Flour looked over his body.  “Are you hurt?” she asked him.


I had an idea.  If he couldn’t tell us himself that he was hurt… “Maybe we could start touching things and see if he reacts in pain.”


“Nonsense, that’s dangerous!” Honeydew said.


He continued to grunt and twist on the bed.  I had a feeling that not a single one of us had had any medical training, as we all stood there and watched him squirm.  Then, Whole Grain reached out to touch him, but Honeydew smacked her hoof away.


“I said no!” she said.  “This is ridiculous.  We need to get a doctor in here.”


“Would a doctor know what to do with him?” Wheat Flour asked.


She did a double take.  “I don’t know.  I’m not even sure what it is,” Honeydew said.  “What’d you call it again, a…?”


“Changeling,” I replied.  “And it’s a he, I think.”  Actually, for all I knew, it could’ve been a she.  I hadn’t met a female changeling – unless male and female changelings both talked in the same low, scratchy voice.


“Well… I’ll stay here for now and see if he needs anything,” Honeydew said.  “Until then, you can go back out and finish planting.”


“We have to tie him here,” Whole Grain said.


Honeydew blinked.  “Um, why?”


“He’s going to run off.”


“And the problem with that is…?”


“Short answer: changelings are evil and they can’t be trusted.  If I were you, I’d read up on them.”  Whole Grain looked at the creature continuing to squirm.  “We need to keep him from escaping if we’re going to take him to the police later.  You got any kind of restraint around here?”


“Yes, I do.  One moment.”  Honeydew walked out of the room, returning shortly with a pair of hoof cuffs.  She walked to the bedpost near the changeling’s head and fastened part of the cuff there.


“Put the other one through one of the holes in his arm,” Whole Grain said.  “It’s more secure that way.”


I looked at her and cringed.  On one hand, I was in favour of this, for I wanted to interrogate him later.  On the other hand, it reinforced my wariness of Whole Grain.  She had no problem chaining up a changeling, much less leading one straight to jail.  She was like a time bomb.  At any time, she could turn on me when nopony else was looking.  I’d have to watch my tail.


We went back outside for about a half-hour, finishing up that flower bed.  Whole Grain watered near us again, I think to deter any talking behind her back.  As I dug, I couldn’t help but glance at the ruptured tree every once in a while.


What had made that changeling fly so fast?  Was he launched?  Was he flying away from a monster?  If so, were we in any danger?  I kept looking out to where he had come from, but there wasn’t anything else flying our way.  Maybe it went chasing after other changelings – I had seen more than one dot, after all.


But what would make more than one changeling fly away from one place?  Was there something I was missing here?  I thought back to any interactions with changelings I had had….


Hive, sergeant, out of line, punishment, public demonstrations, beating, off the hook, you mean nothing to us….  No, they were only things to do with me.  If there was something else going on with the changelings, I wasn’t aware of it.  And if it did concern me or how I got here, then I should’ve been aware.  That changeling and I would have to talk.  After lunch, of course.


Lunch was very good.  Honeydew served us steamed broccoli, honey-glazed carrots, and some daisies that I didn’t exactly care for.  I tried them, but they tasted too much like grass.  Plants are plants, I suppose.


Everypony else at the table was focused on eating their own meals, so I decided to start a conversation this time.  “How’s the changeling?”


“Okay, I think,” Honeydew said.  “He’s in less pain, from what I can tell.  If he can talk, he’s doing a good job of hiding it.”


Whole Grain huffed after swallowing a mouthful of food.  “He can talk, all right.  Like I said, you should read up on changelings.”


“I’ll definitely do that,” Honeydew said.  “I’m stopping by the library this afternoon and seeing what I can find.”  She stared down at her plate, tired.


“Something wrong?” Wheat Flour asked.


Honeydew scratched the back of her head, and then adjusted the bun back there.  “I honestly don’t know what to do.  I’ve never seen anything like it before.  I’ve never dealt with that kind of animal before.”


“Animal?” I asked.  That didn’t make me feel too comfortable at all.


“Well, not animal animal, but creature.  I doubt that it can talk, though all of you make it sound like it can.”  She sighed.  “Oh, don’t worry about me.  I’ll understand what it is in time.  But not knowing is just… scary.”


I looked down at my plate, too.  I decided that when she came back from the library, I’d have to ask to see that book and find out what exactly changelings were.  Until then, what our guest was up to would be enough.  After a long break from talking, I helped myself to another serving of each dish.  “I’ll go up and see how he’s doing,” I said.  “Have you given him anything to eat already?”


Honeydew shook her head.  “I tried, but he wouldn’t take anything.”


“Maybe he’s changed his mind.  I’ll be back down in a bit.  Save some work for me,” I added with a smile.  I excused myself and carried the plate with me.


He could talk, I knew that for certain.  I wanted to know what was going on.  If the changelings were hunting me down again, well, I wanted to know what exactly their plan was and how to avoid it.  If it involved explosions, then I wanted to avoid it twice as much.


I climbed up the stairs, trying to keep the plate level.  It was easier than I had expected; ponies’ jaws seemed to be built for that sort of thing.  When I entered the room, the changeling was lying on the bed and facing the window.  The bed’s blankets had been kicked to the side and the posts near the hoofcuff were somewhat scratched.  He had tried to escape, just as Whole Grain had predicted.


Now to get something out of him.  Maybe if I started as coming off nice, he might talk to me.  I talked around the plate in my mouth.  “Hey.  How’re you feeling?”


He turned on the bed and squinted at me.  I waited for him to speak, but he didn’t.


“I brought you some food.”  I set the plate next to him on the bed, within his reach.


Not taking his eyes off of me, he folded his free arm, seemingly irritated about something.


I shrugged.  “You can take it or leave it.  It’ll be right there.”


I turned to leave, but I stopped as he finally spoke.  He grumbled, and I didn’t quite hear what he had said, but he didn’t sound grateful.  I said, “Just so you know, you’re lucky to be alive and even luckier that we’re caring for you.”


He moved his hoof up, causing the hoofcuff through his arm to clink against the bedpost.  “You call this being cared for?”


Walking back towards the bed, I tapped my hoof on the plate of food.  “And you don’t call this being cared for?”


He turned to look out of the second-storey window and shook his head.  “I will never understand ponies.”


I was about to retort about how I’d never understand changelings, either, but I didn’t want him to think that I had been around changelings before, because that would lead him to believe that I was a changeling, and I didn’t want him to know that.  What if this was 6 F 26?  He’d run and tattle about my whereabouts.  I supposed that asking for his name wouldn’t hurt….  “What’s your name?”


He scoffed.  “What’s it to you?”


“We saved your life, so the least you could do is tell me your name.”


The changeling took a deep breath in and released it.  “4 N 7,” he replied.


Oh, he had said 4 N….  That made more sense.  Well, 4 N 7 didn’t seem remotely close to 6 F 25, so he probably didn’t know me.  Once I had felt safer, I went straight to business.  “So, 4 N 7, what happened?”


“I thought all you wanted was my name.”  He smirked.


“I said that was the least you could do, but saving your life is a pretty big deal.  We deserve to know what happened.”


He broke eye contact.  “I was flying a little too fast.  Ran into a tree.  Now I’m here.  Can I go now?”


“Not yet.”  Flying away from an explosion was suspicious.  Now, I’m not usually one for illusory correlations, but I didn’t trust changelings anyway.  “We heard a ‘boom’ coming from the same direction you flew from.  Did you set off a bomb?”


“A bomb?  What?”  His wings buzzed for a moment, but they calmed down.  “No, there was no bomb.”


“Well, what was it, then?”


“It was a cannon,” he said.  “I was shot out of it.”


“Shot out of a cannon?  Why?”


“How else do you test a changeling cannon?”  He sighed.  “Anyway, yeah.  Guess it was a little too powerful, and I ran into that tree.”


A changeling cannon sounded too ridiculous to be a real thing.  Then again, so were shocktopi and Vanhoover and talking horses…  Still, it was a hard story to buy.  “What would you need a changeling cannon for?”


“Duh, to shoot changelings,” he replied.  “I prefer the mare that was in here before.  She didn’t ask questions as stupid as yours.”


Yeah, ‘cause my questions were irrelevant to anything that had happened in the past hour.  I wrote it off as unfounded bitterness and exited the room.  Maybe he’d be in a better, more truth-telling mood later.


When I had come back down the stairs, Honeydew was handing out strange hats to the wheat sisters.  She offered one to me.  “Here, put this on,” she said.  “One size fits all.”


I took the hat from her and observed it.  It was large and round, and had a wide brim with a thin veil draped around it.  I turned it over.  What was this for?   The only thing that I had seen a hat like that was for… beekeeping.


“Ms. Honeydew,” I began.


“Yes, young colt?” she said with a smile.


Colt?  Oh, right.  Male horse.  Noting that for later, I held up the hat.  “What is this for?”


“Well, otherwise, what’s to stop you from sneezing all over the bees?”  She laughed at her joke.


Bees.  Bees.  How wonderful.  She wasn’t only Fillydelphia’s judge, but she just had to be a beekeeper.


I hate coincidences.


~ ~ ~


I can’t remember what was louder: the bees buzzing or my heart yelling in my ears.


She had led us to the other side of the warehouse, the side that was not visible from the road.  Inside the wide-open doors of the warehouse were several hives lined up, and hundreds of bees swarming aound them like, well, bees.


It seemed like such a simple task.  Turn the hive upside down, let the honey run down into the jar, and put the hive back.  My arms didn’t want to do that, though.  Nothing in me wanted to move.  The buzzing of bees had always seemed like an angry sound.  It made bees seem ticked off and ready to strike at the moment they disliked you even a little bit.


Honeydew was making an effort to help me, though.  She made a motion to the hive.  “Hives don’t sting, you know.  Just grab it like a bucket of honey.  As long as you’re careful with it, you’ll be fine.”


A bucket of honey?  It was a bucket of bees.  A bucket of buzzing, angry bees just waiting to attack.  For some people, it’s heights, or the dark, or spiders, or enclosed spaces.  My fear has been of bees ever since I was young.


“Talk to the bees,” she said.  “They’ll relax if you talk to them.  Say something friendly.”


How do I get me to relax first?  Well, I might as well give it a try if I was going to do this.  I wanted to wipe the sweat off of my forehead, but the veil was in the way.  That was all I had for protective clothing, too.  No full body suit, not even gloves – just that hat with the thin veil.


“H- Hi, um, bees…”  I sat down and brought my arms up around the hive, hesitating before actually touching it.  I felt like I was about to hurl again.


“That’s it,” Honeydew encouraged.  “It’s alright; they’re not going to hurt you.  Don’t be afraid.”


Slowly, I pressed my arms inward to get a good grip.  The challenge then was to tip it over far enough that honey would flow out of it.  I lifted the thing and rotated it as best as I could to meet the mason jar.  My arms were shaking it, so I had trouble keeping it steady over the mouth of the jar.


“Keep talking to ‘em,” she said softly.  “It’ll help you as much as it helps them.”


“It’s… nice to meet… you all.”  Honey was dripping out of the hive.  One hive per jar, she had said.  However, my shaking arms were not enough to encourage the honey to come out any faster.  Honeydew said something else, but between the sound of bees buzzing and my own focus on the jar, I didn’t quite catch what she said.


Then, I heard an even worse noise.  A cracking noise, followed by the feeling of my arms coming together and my heart turning over.


I broke the hive.


Mother of all hiccups….


That’s when I learned what an angry buzz really sounds like.  Granted, it was hard to hear over my own screaming, but I could still hear it.  They were mad, alright, as what felt like sharp needles plunged into my skin.  The pain was unbearable, so I did what any other level-headed person would do: I ran and continued to scream.


o o o


“Mom!  Mom!”


I ran into the house and slammed both the screen door and the front door.  My mother rushed to me.  “Don’t slam the door.  What is it?” she asked.


“I got stung by bees, Mom.  All over,” I sputtered.  Tears were streaming down my cheeks, with pain darting into me on my arms, my face, everywhere.


“Into the kitchen,” she said, removing her oven mitts.  She had two tones: level and firm.  This was firm.  “Wipe your feet first.”


I did as I was told and waited in the kitchen.  I was ashamed, and afraid that she was going to make me tell the truth.  I didn’t think I would get hurt that badly, but even though I knew how dares usually went, I did them anyway.  It was a pride thing, I think.  I wanted to impress the other kids on the street, but crying and running home to my mother hadn’t helped with that.


My mom entered, armed with a butter knife and ointment.  “What did you do, Sawyer?”


“I was…  I was….” I said, gasping for air from crying.


She crossed her arms.  “You were what?”


My skin were throbbing all over.  The sooner I told her the truth, the sooner she’d remove the stingers.  “I was in the park and Gabe told me to go touch the beehive up in the tree and-”


“That’s enough,” she said.  “You know better than that, Sawyer.  You don’t just do dangerous things because Gabe told you to.  You have to choose your friends more carefully.  Do you understand?”


Then I felt bad on the inside, too.  I wanted to argue about how Gabe didn’t mean any harm and it was all in good fun, but there wasn’t much use.  Her word was law, so I nodded.  “Yes, Mom.”


“Good,” she said.  “Now, hold still…”


o o o




“I did say to hold still,” Honeydew said.


When we had returned to her house, she had led me into the kitchen.  She was using her magic to pull out each of the stingers, one by one.  I won’t lie; I was blubbering.  Sure, it was a shot to the pride, but technically I can still keep my man card because I was a pony.  Actually, I wasn’t even a pony; I was a changeling.  They could revoke my changeling card if they wanted to.  I didn’t want it in the first place.


And just in time to catch me crying like a child, Lucid came in.  “What happened?” he asked, looking at me.


It was hard to think of a full, concise explanation while trying to swallow my sobs.  “Honeydew has bees.”  Between that and the red spots peppering my body, I figured that would be enough.


“Oh.”  He raised his eyebrows.  “How bad is it?”


“It could be worse,” Honeydew replied.  “He’s got several bee stings, but that’s all they are.  These will only take a couple of days to heal.”


Lucid looked at me, up and down.  “May I speak with you in private for a moment?” he asked Honeydew.


Honeydew nodded, handing Wheat Flour a tube of something.  “Here, can you apply this?  Just a pea-sized dab for each one.”


“Of course,” she said and accepted the tube.


Honeydew left the room with Lucid as Wheat Flour squeezed a bit of stuff out of the tube and onto her white hoof.  She walked over to me and began to apply it.  It smelled like… toothpaste, and looked like it, too.  “Try not to move,” she said, as if I hadn’t already.


Whole Grain sat and watched.  She didn’t have a mad face anymore, as I expected.  It was a neutral face.  I preferred that face over the demise-wishing face.  However, her sitting there with her arms folded and not saying anything still made me uneasy.


I looked past her at a pan hanging from the pot rack, and saw my reflection.  Oh, I was still Gouda…


I cleared my throat and said in a hushed voice, “Whole Grain, I’m sorry about yesterday.  I should’ve changed into somepony other than Gouda.  Should I do that now?”


Whole Grain shook her head.  “Not now.  Honeydew would notice.”


Wheat Flour put another dab of cream on one of the last sting on my leg.  One leg down, three to go.  I looked down at the ground.  “Still, now that I know who Gouda is, I’m sorry I didn’t even change today.”


Whole Grain shrugged.  “Whatever.  It doesn’t matter anymore.  We won’t meet any more ponies we know at this point.  Besides…”  She chuckled and turned away.  “…you do Gouda better justice than he does.”


“Oh?”  I was shocked and distracted by her smile.  That was the first time I’d seen it.


She nodded.  “Gouda was a jerk.  He’d make up excuses for everything, blaming it on work.  At first I believed him, but then I met his boss, and he was less ‘iron-hoofed’ than Gouda made him out to be.  I realized that Gouda was just rude, and especially when Sunflower Seed came to visit.”  She tried to shake the memory out of her head.  “That was a nightmare.”


I jumped as Wheat Flour touched a group of stings on my shoulder.  “Hold still,” Wheat Flour said gently.


“Sorry.”  I sat down, but stood back up after discovering more stings in that area, too.


Whole Grain’s arms remained folded as she watched us.  I looked down at the ground and away from Wheat Flour as she finished tending to the last of my wounds.  The pain had lessened somewhat.  It wasn’t as bad as after the train, but it was still more than noticeable.


And just as Wheat Flour was finishing up, Honeydew and Lucid came back into the room.  Honeydew closed the book in her hoof and laid it on the kitchen counter.  “Well, it seems that according to a sub-clause of Equestrian law, workplace hazards have been the cause of a mild-to-severe injury to you, and you’re no longer bound by law to continue your sentence.  You’re free to go,” she said.


The last part was the only thing I fully understood and needed to hear.  I smiled.  “Thank you, Honeydew.”


“What about the changeling?” Wheat Flour asked.


Honeydew half-smiled.  “Oh, I don’t know.  I’ll read up on changelings, like you said, and see what to do from there.”


And have him arrested.  That wouldn’t have been a bad thing at all, no.  It probably was for the best that a potential threat was locked up and far away from me.  He could’ve been a spy.  I didn’t trust him, and I didn’t have any reason to.


However, if we had one more changeling with us, that’d also be one more changeling that we knew was a changeling.  I wasn’t sure who I could trust; anypony could’ve been a changeling.  And if we took him with us, we’d keep him on a short leash and force him to remain a changeling, and he’d never have a chance to escape and impersonate somepony else while we weren’t looking.


Well, of course he’d have a chance to escape.  Who was I kidding?  And the longer we kept him, the more he’d hate us.  And the more he hated us, the greater the chances would be of him not only abandoning us but attacking or robbing us or telling on me, too.


I thought about him, chained to a bed upstairs.  I had been in a jail cell before.  I had wanted to get back home.  I had wanted someone to bail me out, and that’s exactly what had happened.  My own kind, in a way, was there to help me out, and I felt the need to return the favour.  Maybe 4 N 7 would see it that way, too.


I stepped forward, as hard as that was to do with bee stings all over.  “We’ll take him with us.”


Whole Grain nodded.  “We’ll bring him to the police station for you.”


“No, I think we can take-  Can someone take this off, please?” I asked, the veil starting to annoy me.


Honeydew reached out and took the hat off.  “Thank you,” I said, and tried to turn my head towards Whole Grain.  “I don’t think taking him to the police station is necessary.”


“There’s no question, Gouda.  He’s going there,” she said.


The only way to fight stubbornness was with more stubbornness.  “He’s coming with us.”


“No!  We’re not taking another… traveller.  That’s final,” Whole Grain asserted, stomping her yellow hoof.


I knew what she was about to say, had Honeydew been absent.  But she was not going to boss me around anymore.  This was something I wanted to do, and maybe something good would come out of it.


“For the love of Celestia, you two are making me work off duty,” Honeydew said, turning to me.  “Do you promise to take care of him?”


I nodded.  “Yes, I do.”


“Then that settles it.  I’ll go get him,” she said, leaving the room.


Whole Grain’s eyebrows sunk further.  “Fine.  Under one condition,” she said.


Whatever.  Anything to keep her happy and not kicking me in the side.  “What?” I said.


“We put him on a leash.”


Preread by NotSoSubtle, Somepony New, and Featherprop

“This is stupid,” 4 N 7 stated, looking down at the rope wrapped around Whole Grain’s hoof.


“It was this or prison,” I told him, and that was all I needed to say.  He grumbled and continued to walk, wriggling his wings under the other half of the rope.


After thanking Honeydew and faring her well, Lucid had taken the lead and led us away from the farm.  Ahead of us were miles of flatland.  Not very exciting at all, but no excitement had become a good thing.  Once we were a fair enough distance away from Honeydew’s sight – or anypony’s sight, for that matter – Lucid nodded and gave me the green light to change into another pony.


It was something Whole Grain had wanted, yes, but it was something I wanted as well.  The bee stings were aching all over, so I was more than ready for a change.  The problem arose when I realized I hadn’t given any thought as to whom to change into.


In my head, I put together a list of all of the male ponies I had met, which wasn’t very long.  Then, it was a matter of narrowing down that list.  Gouda and Lucid were off the list, of course.  I didn’t want to involve close relatives, so Uncle Flax was off as well.  That left… the mayor, Taff’s grandfather, that newlywed guy with the carrot stand, Purple Dude and Green Curls from the wedding, and Captain Keelhaul.  On second thought, scratch the captain.


Okay, down to five.  Not the mayor: too risky – recognizable political figure.  Not the newlywed guy: the wheat sisters probably wouldn’t like it.  I hadn’t had much luck with family friends.  Taff’s grandfather?  I didn’t want to be old.  Well, down to two; Purple Dude and Green Curls.  It didn’t matter to me either way, but I had an aversion to Purple Dude for being such a fast talker, so I picked Green Curls.


I closed my eyes, searching my brain for a mental snapshot of him: green, curly hair, of course; black fur; couldn’t remember his eye colour… blue, I think?  That probably wasn’t important anyway.  Mental image clear-ish, I opened my eyes and looked up.


Sure enough, I could see a wavy wisp of green bobbing above my eyes.  When I looked down at my hooves, they were covered in black fur, without holes this time.  And wow, did a healthy body feel good.  I could bend my knees without discomfort.  It was fantastic.


“Wait.  You’re a changeling, too?” 4 N 7 asked.


“Yes,” I replied.


The corners of his mouth rose in a smile.  “So, you’re all changelings?”


“No, just me,” I said.


“You’re kidding,” he said, his smile holding up.  “You’re kidding, right?”


Unfortunately for him, I was not.  I had had quite enough jokes.  Puns were tolerable now, sure, but there were more than enough stupid coincidences to cause me to lose a taste for jokes.  Jokes were sour things that I could only take or make in small and non-journey-obstructing amounts.


“No, you’re joking.  There’s no way,” he said, still unconvinced.


I shook my head, since he apparently needed another form of the same answer.  “I’m not joking.”


His smile faded at my refusal to respond.  After his eyes jumped amongst our group, he examined the rope running from around his waist to Whole Grain’s hoof.  His mouth hung open, searching for words until it found the one it wanted to ask.  “Why?”


His words would have to get more specific than that.  “Why what?”


“Why everything?”  he said.  “Why are you acting the way you are?  If they’re ponies, why are they cool with you being a changeling?  Why am I tied up like this?  Why weren’t you in Canterlot, for queen’s sakes?”


“Okay, okay, one at a time,” I said.  Yeesh.  “That’s where we’re going, is Canterlot.  And, could you repeat the other ones?”


He didn’t blink and his jaw remained wide open.  “I don’t believe you.  At all.  This is either a really drawn-out prank you guys are pulling on me or someling needs to spell this out… for….  You.”


He advanced. “You!  You’re the changeling I saved.  The one from hive 6 who didn’t return.”  He looked me up and down.  “So you can’t be a changeling; you must be a pony!  But you had a position in your hive, so… you’re a spy?  But that doesn’t make sense, because we’re nowhere near Canter-lmph!”


A white glow formed around 4 N 7’s mouth and hindered his speech.  “Save the questions, please,” Lucid said.  “I’m sure Gouda – er, Copper Flash – will be able to fully explain when the time is right.”


4 N 7 said nothing, even when Lucid released his magical grip.  Nopony else spoke for quite a while, either.  Maybe, unlike me, they were all waiting for the right time.  I was thinking about my odd new name, Copper Flash, and how Lucid could have known it.  They lived in the same city, so I guess it made sense, but I’d have to ask later, just in case he was a relative or family friend or something.


We continued to walk for a very long time.  We had left about an hour after lunch, and we were still walking right up until suppertime.  We took a few breaks for water when we passed a river or a lake once in a while.


It was getting later, as the sun was well past halfway to setting and was getting in my eyes.  I was unable to bring a hoof up to cover my eyes and continue walking normally, so I squinted and tried to look at the ground.  Stupid sun being bright and all….  Oh yeah, they had a pony for that, didn’t they?


“Celestia’s making the sun awfully bright this afternoon, isn’t she?” I commented to Lucid.


He chuckled.  “I don’t think she controls the brightness of the sun.  She only moves it.”


Moves it?  “You know, I always thought the Earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around.”  And it wasn’t just me, but the rest of my kind as well.


He pushed up his glasses.  “If that was the case, then why doesn’t it feel like we’re moving?”


“It’s just… relative motion,” I said, trying to remember the physics courses that I took.  “The Earth has been moving at the same speed for so long, we’re used to it.”


“Relative motion….”


I nodded.  “Yeah, relative motion.  You know, physics?”


“Physics, huh?” he said.  “I’m not sure if we have something like that.  I’ll look into it later.  Could you describe it?”


I was about to, but I had no idea where I’d have to start.  Eh, maybe they just had a different name for it.  “Maybe some other time.  It’s not that important, anyway.”


“What about physics?”


“Gah!”  I jumped, startled by the sudden intrusion, and looked around.  That voice wasn’t one of ours…


“Hiya!  Up here!”


I looked up, and was face to face with a pony whom I had never seen before.  I jumped again, backing away from the pony.  She was floating upside-down – it looked like a “she” – and had short green hair and lighter green skin.  Whoops, not floating – flying.


She was one of the ponies with wings.  I had seen a few before, but hadn’t given it much thought.  Flying would’ve gotten us to Canterlot so much faster than walking.  And while on the topic of flying, how was flying upside-down possible?


“Not many ponies come this way.  You’re not lost, are you?” she said, cracking an upside-down grin.


“Not if this is the way to Canterlot,” I replied.  “Say, do you mind flying us somewhere?”


She dipped and turned right-side-up.  “Fly you somewhere?”  She searched the ground, lifting up her feet.  “Do you see a chariot anywhere?  I don’t.”


“Well, let’s just say we had a chariot.  Would you fly us somewhere then?”


She grinned like a child and looked again, this time checking around us.  “You don’t seem to have one either, so…?”


Ugh, she was a smart aleck….  I groaned.  “Let’s say we came across one.  What then?”


“Who leaves chariots just lying around?”


“That’s not the point.  Would you or would you not-”


“Give it a rest.”  Lucid put a hoof on my shoulder.  “She’s not taking us seriously.  Let’s move on.”


We did, but the stranger followed.  She flew up beside me, looking at me, then at the farm to our right, then at the fields to our left, and then back at me.  “So you still haven’t answered my question,” she said.


Question….  “Oh, about physics?” I said.  “Again, it’s not that important.  You don’t seem to follow the laws of physics, anyway.”  I didn’t think birds could fly upside-down.


“I don’t?” she said innocently.  “Who is this ‘physics’?  He sounds like such a bore.  Not like you guys.  You guys are funny.”


I tried to ignore her as we continued to walk.  This pony really wasn’t taking anyone seriously.  She jumped up and landed beside Professor Lucid.  “My name’s Fairweather, thanks for asking.  Not a lot of ponies come this way, you know.”


“Yes, we do know,” Lucid mumbled.


She giggled.  “Oh, I’m sorry, did I already tell you?  I’ve got the memory of a pidgeon, I do.  I mean, the memory of an ant.  Or the memory of an elephant…?  The memory of the animal that can’t remember things for very long.”  She turned to Lucid.  “What’s your name, again?”


“Professor Lucid,” he stated flatly.


“That’s a weird name.  And yours?” she asked me, her green hair bouncing as she walked.


I ignored her.  If she wasn’t interested in helping us, then what point was there in humouring her?


“You guys are boring.”  She turned around and walked backwards so she could face us.  “Nothing a swig of cider can’t fix, of course!  We can stop by my inn.  It’s not far from here.”


“We’re not interested,” Whole Grain said.


Fairweather tilted her head.  “Well, I’m the owner of the only building around for miles and miles.  And the sun’s going down – you need a place to sleep, dontcha?  Breakfast is complementary, and it’s also free!”


And just as she had mentioned it, I noticed a building out in the distance, shielding us from the setting sun.  It was a shabby thing – far from the Hilton, but a step up from a shack.  It looked like it had been recently repainted in a rich, dark brown colour.  There was a sign above the front door, with three words painted neatly in white paint: “Come On Inn”.


“You get it?  Come On Inn?”  Fairweather beamed.  “I thought of that one myself.”


We all filed into the inn, first Lucid, then Fairweather, then Wheat Flour….  And, just as I was about to turn in, I noticed Whole Grain had stopped, her eyes wide and her limbs frozen in place.  Then, those limbs started to move her away from the entrance.  


“Oh no.  Ohhhh no.  I am not going in there,” Whole Grain said, shaking her head.


I looked around and peeked inside.  If there was something glaringly obvious, I didn’t see it.  “What?  What’s the matter?”


“Wheat Flour?” she called.  “Come outside, now.  Wheat Flour!”


“Yes, what is it?” Wheat Flour said as she emerged.


Lucid and Fairweather followed her out.  “Where’s the rattlesnake?” Fairweather joked, but Whole Grain didn’t find it funny.


“We’re leaving,” she said, her eyes darting back and forth among everyone.  She dropped 4 N 7’s leash.  “We’re leaving now.”


Fairweather flew up and landed in front of the sisters.  “Whoa whoa whoa,” she said.  “You can’t just walk away without trying my infamous Cloudsdale Catamar-”


Whole Grain violently shoved her aside, pulling Wheat Flour with her.  “Let’s go,” she said, starting to speed up her walk.


I almost stopped them, but I hesitated.


They had every right to leave.  They were dragged along with me for so long.  This is what they deserved; to go back to their own lives and not have to worry about me again.  And that’s what I wanted, too.  I had gotten them into this mess, and I wanted to involve only the ponies that I thought could help, like Lucid.  I had taken so much of their time, it was only right to give it back to them.


But there was something that compelled me to stop them.  I felt like I hadn’t given enough.  I didn’t have anything to give, but it still didn’t seem balanced.  I felt like I owed them.


“Whole Grain, wait!” I yelled, trying to jog after them.  I still didn’t know how to move faster than a quick walk, so I kept tripping over my feet.


I didn’t have to run far, though, for Wheat Flour was pulling back on her sister, trying to slow her down.  “Stop!  No!” she was saying.


When we caught up with them, Wheat Flour had firmly planted her rump on the ground.  Whole Grain stopped tugging on her as she saw us, and panted from her effort.  “No!  I know what’s going on.  You’re all changelings!” she said, swinging her hoof at us.


I was floored.  Did she see something I didn’t?  I looked at Lucid, but not one part of him looked like a changeling.  “What do you mean?” Lucid asked.


She thrust her hoof towards Lucid.  “You’re one of the changelings from the train.  You set this up!  You waited outside of Sunflower’s place for us.  And you said that you’re a professor ‘studying’ changelings as a cover-up.”


I took another look at Lucid.  Lucid?  A changeling?  No….  Could he…?


Whole Grain wasn’t done.  “You led us out here, in the middle of nowhere, where an inn just happens to be.”  Her lower lip quivered.  “You were going to kidnap us and take our places.  And we’d be so far from home that the real us would never be heard from again.  And you’ve been planning this with him the whole time!” she said, pointing at me.


It was possible that it was paranoia talking, but she had some reason to believe what she did.  I had to say something.  “That’s not true!” probably wouldn’t have been enough because I couldn’t prove it.  However, I said it anyway in my defense.


“Now, Whole Grain, let’s calm down,” Lucid said, making a “down” motion with his hoof.  “We can talk this out.”


Whole Grain shook her head.  “We’re leaving,” she said, her face contorted in anger.  “We’re leaving.”


She turned to leave, keeping her head up.  Wheat Flour didn’t follow, though.


“I said we’re leaving,” she said, louder.


Wheat Flour didn’t move an inch, though.  She looked right at me with those soft, pink eyes.  The same pink eyes that Taff had at the wedding.  Pleading.  She didn’t want to go.


I felt a strange churning in my stomach.  A churning that was weird and slightly unnerving and… good.  I felt a cold sweat all over and a warm taste in my mouth.  Then, after I had gotten over that strangely real feeling, a small thought popped up in the back of my mind.


It was a question that I hadn’t quite thought of until then.  There had been signs.  Signs that I hadn’t picked up on before, but they had still been there.  Maybe I was interpreting them wrong or maybe I was delusional, but that question came up and it didn’t go away.


Was Wheat Flour in love with me?


I looked down, away from those eyes, and clutched my churning stomach.  She was just being nice, wasn’t she?  Just helping out a friend in need.  Like Honeydew and Aunt Millie.


But what kind of friend was willing to travel far from home in order to help somepony out?  She had opportunities to back out, but she didn’t.  She brought me to her house, she volunteered to escort me to Canterlot, and she had been there almost every step of the way in this journey.  And she had been interested in me, too.  “How do you like ponies?”  Shoot.  I should’ve seen this coming.


“You… you…” Whole Grain began.  She was less difficult to look in the eyes at that moment, so I looked back up to see her glaring at me.  Tears were starting to form in her eyes.  “You made her love you.”


Then, as quick as lightning, she ran at me.  She tackled me to the ground and pinned me there with one hoof.  With the other, she punched me over and over and over.


And you know what?  I let her.


In a strange and roundabout way, maybe this was what I owed her.  It was inevitable that the inconveniences I had brought about would have to be paid for.  She had every right to be angry, so I felt I had no right to stop her.  Her sister falling in love with me was an odd snapping point, but I had expected her to snap eventually.


So after she pinned me, I just sprawled on my back and let her vent.  We made eye contact, so I think she might have known.  That didn't mean she held back any of her punches, though.  Maybe she was just too angry to notice I wasn't defending myself.  Maybe.  Possibly.


She would’ve kept going, had her sister not been there to grab her hoof and pull her back.


“Whole Grain!” Wheat Flour shouted as she tugged on her sister.  “Enough!”


I backed up.  Everything about Whole Grain was fierce.  Her breathing was angry, her legs were ready to lunge again, and her eyes were lit with rage.  Maybe it was best for them to leave, for all of our sakes.


“Please, go into the inn, everypony.  My sister and I need to talk.  Alone,” Wheat Flour said.


~ ~ ~


Minus the sisters, we all went inside the inn, which led right into an open bar.  I had never actually been to one; I was never much for socializing.


It was old, that’s for sure.  The whole place was made of wood, and it didn’t hesitate to creak under our feet.  There were a few two-pony and four-pony tables about and a larger, six-pony table in the middle.  From the scratches on the tables and some of the walls, as well as a broken table off to the side, the place needed some maintenance work done.  For what it’s worth, though, it was clean.


I took a seat at one of the least scratched cushions around the big table, and the rest followed suit.  Fairweather flew to the bar.


“Well, you’re quite the theatrical bunch,” she commented with a chuckle, filling up a wooden cup full of something that clinked, which I assumed to be ice cubes.


“That type of comment is inappropriate at the moment, Fairweather,” Lucid said, resting his head on his hoof.


She flew over and gave each of us a mug.  “Sorr-y.  I’ll try again.”  She cleared her throat.  “Well, you’re quite the depressing bunch.”


I peered into the mug.  There was no liquid, only cubes.  Cubes that looked sort of like sugar cubes.  Oh, right.  Horses.  Sugar cubes.  Straight up sugar didn’t seem healthy for humans, but maybe it was okay for horses.  I put the cup up to my mouth and let one of the cubes fall into my mouth.  I bit down….


Ugh, sick!  Gross!  I coughed out the revolting stuff.  Those weren’t sugar cubes; those were salt cubes!  Disgusting.  I set the cup back down and wiped off my tongue with my hoof.  Who eats salt?


“Heheh….  You alright, there?” Fairweather asked me.  “I figured you folks needed something strong, but if that’s too strong for ya…”


I pushed the mug back across the table to her.  “Can you get me something of the liquid variety, please?”


“Coming right up,” she replied.  Finally, alcohol.


“You’ve never had salt before?” Lucid said.


I shook my head.  “No, never.  Only as a seasoning on food, but not a whole cube of it.  Nobody does.”


“Well, I’d think even a changeling wouldn’t mind the taste of salt that much.  Are you sure no one in your world eats salt?”


“Never by itself.  It’s disgusting.”  I accepted the mug that Fairweather handed me, and looked before I drank.  Sure enough, there was beer this time, froth and all.


I was relieved.  Alcohol had been there to help me through many a study night in my college years.  And now, instead of worrying about remembering, all I was worried about was forgetting.


A pony was in love with me.  How was I supposed to deal with that?  We came from different worlds.  We were far from compatible.  And I didn’t even want to think about baking cookies.  No, this was too stressful.  I stuffed that thought in the back of my brain and took a sip of the drink.  One nice, long sip….


Wait a minute.  I brought the cup back down and inspected the golden liquid inside.


That wasn’t beer.  That was apple juice.


Freakin’ kids’ TV shows.


4 N 7 looked interested.  “Your world?  What’s that supposed to mean?”


I glanced at Lucid, who gave the okay.  It was about time everybody found out, anyways.  “I’m not a changeling.  Well, I am now, but I wasn’t always a changeling.  Not until a few days ago.”


He fell silent, ready for me to elaborate.  Fairweather raised her hoof and looked right at me.  I sighed.  “Yes, Fairweather?”


“I think I missed this, but what’s a changeling?”


Lucid and I simultaneously pointed at 4 N 7, who pointed at himself as he licked the cubes in his glass.


“Oh,” she replied.  “Carry on.”


I stretched out my back.  This was going to be fun.  “I don’t know how I got here.  I fell asleep in my world and woke up in the changeling hive as a changeling.”


“What were you before being a changeling?” 4 N 7 asked.


At that moment, the door to the tavern creaked open.  Wheat Flour walked in and found a seat at the table we were at.  I immediately looked down at my glass.  That was another can of worms I didn’t need to open at that moment.


Fairweather volunteered to speak first.  “I’ll catch you up.  He’s a changeling.”  She pointed at me.


Wheat Flour nodded.  “Yes, I am aware.”


“No, he’s not a changeling,” 4 N 7 said.  “He just said he wasn’t.”


Whear Flour raised her eyebrows at me.  “You aren’t a changeling?”


“He’s not a changeling,” Fairweather reiterated.  She flew back to the bar and prepared another handful- hoof-full of drinks.


“I’m a changeling now, yes,” I muttered, still avoiding eye contact.  “But I used to be something else.  I used to be a human.”


“A ‘human’?” Wheat Flour repeated.  “What’s that?”


“It’s a different kind of creature.  It’s kind of like a hairless monkey.  We live in a similar world to yours, except instead of ponies, we’re all… monkeys.”  Explaining it once was difficult enough.


“Monkeys…” Wheat Flour said, accepting the mug from Fairweather and peering into it.


“Yes.”  I poked at the metal handle on my mug.  “I don’t know how I got here, but if there’s anypony who does know how to send me back, it’s Celestia.  So, that’s why I need to go to Canterlot.”


Wheat Flour nodded and licked a salt cube.  She seemed… distant.  If she loved me, she probably wasn’t too enthusiastic with the idea of me leaving.


The door swung open once more, this time by Whole Grain.  Our table fell silent and watched her walk toward our table, every floorboard under her hooves creaking loudly.  After helping herself to a seat, she took a deep breath in and let it out slowly.  “What’s new?”


Fairweather was prepared, and slid an already-filled mug across the table to Whole Grain’s place.  As the mug was accepted, she pointed her hoof at me.  “He’s a changeling.”


“He’s not a changeling,” 4 N 7 droned.


“Pardon me.  He’s a changeling,” Fairweather said, pointing at 4 N 7.  Her other hoof extended in my direction.  “He’s a monkey.”


Whole Grain looked at me with raised eyebrows.  She took the mug in front of her, knocked it back, and chewed.  No one else said anything, or really had anything to say; we all just listened to her crunch.  


After she swallowed, she licked and smacked her lips and supported her head with a hoof.  She cleared her throat and said in a monotonous and clearly disinterested tone, “If it pleases everypony, I would appreciate a full explanation of what the hay is going on or I swear to Celestia I will beat all of your heads in until my hoof falls off.”


I definitely didn’t want more of that.  It was only fair to come clean at this point, anyway, seeing how far they’d come with me already.  The time was right.


I took a swig of apple juice and began.  “Well, I wasn’t always a changeling, not until a couple of days ago.  One day, I went to sleep as… a monkey, and the next day I woke up as a changeling.  I have no idea how.”


And so, for the rest of the night, I explained what had happened so far as best as I could, starting with the day that I woke up in the changeling hive and ending with the present, and pretty much everything in between.  I left out a couple of parts, like the bit at the lake and when Wheat Flour told me about her childhood and how Lucid had come along because he was interested in dimensions… somehow.  I let Lucid explain that bit.


“I study dreams, yes, but I also study dimensions.  As it turns out, they are closely related,” he said.


“How?” Wheat Flour asked.


He shifted in his seat.  “It’s complicated.  I don’t know how to explain it without getting too technical.”  He gave it several seconds of thought.  “You can line up the dreams of more than one pony, and… it opens up a window to another universe.  And sometimes, as what’s happened with Copper Flash, here, it opens up a door.”


“So you can send him back?” Whole Grain said.


“As I said, it’s… complicated.  Long story short, Celestia is his best chance of a safe return.”


Whole Grain leaned forward.  “Care to tell us why?”


“I’m sorry,” he said.  “That’s something I cannot do, and you’ll have to trust me on it.”


After a short pause, I finished off my drink.  “And that’s it.  We came to Fillydelphia, and here we are.”


Nopony spoke.  It was probably quite a lot of new information to absorb, if not to try and believe.  They must’ve had plenty of questions, but I was in no mood to answer any of them.  I rose and excused myself from the table.  “I’m going to bed.”


Whole Grain said, “Now, wait a minute-”


“No,” I said.  “I’ve had a long day.  I’m tired of drama and walking and throwing up and bees and beatings.  And talking.  You all do that without me if you want, but I’m leaving.”


I walked away, but before I left the room, Fairweather spoke up.  “Um, Cooper?”


Close enough.  I wasn’t used to my new name, either.  “What?”


Fairweather pointed in the opposite direction I was headed in.  “Rooms are thataway.”


Ugh.  Of course they were.

Preread by NotSoSubtle

It wasn’t terrible for an inn.


I had been in a hotel once or twice, and it was much nicer than the room I had chosen for the night.  This room was tattered like the bar, with a mirror; a simple, wrinkled, queen-sized bed with a nightstand; a tiny closet with a squeaky door; and a dresser with chipped legs and a sagging top. However, it would do for a place to sleep.


When I entered the room, I inspected my new self in the mirror.  Copper Flash was his name, apparently.  Just as I had remembered him, he had black fur, green hair, purple eyes….  Purple?  I had thought his eyes were blue.  Huh.


I stared at Copper as he watched me, his face weary and aloof.  It never got any less unnerving looking at anypony – or anybody, for that matter – that wasn’t the human me.  I looked down at my hooves and felt a sudden fear that I would forget how fingers worked when I returned to the human world.  Assuming I would revert to my human form upon returning, that is.  I shook the thought of that possibility out of my head; that was a worry that could wait until tomorrow.


Still looking over Copper, I noticed a tattoo on his hip.  It was a rectangle divided in the middle by a wavy line, with a brown colour on one side and a silver colour on the other.  All of these ponies had tattoos on their hips.  I’d have to ask somepony about that later.  Was getting inked a coming-of-age ritual or something?


”Yes, that’s Copper Flash,” I heard Lucid say, accompanied by the door slamming.


I rubbed an itch near my eye as I watched him unfasten his satchel and let it slide to the ground.  Before I could ask what he was doing in my room, he said, “I’m sharing with you tonight.”


“Why?”  I didn’t want a roommate.


“Only three rooms in this place, if you can believe it.  Whole Grain made it clear she wanted to share with her sister, and had no preference otherwise.”  He rubbed his back.  “I don’t want the pegasus or the changeling, so here I am.”


Well, okay.  I didn’t have much choice if I wanted a bed.  Now, to get to the bottom of this Copper Flash business.  “Did you know Copper Flash, by any chance?”  He wasn’t another ex-boyfriend of Whole Grain, was he?


“I did,” he said.  “Barely.  He’s something of a loner.”


“A loner?”


“Yes.  Was a student of mine, graduating soon with a degree in magic engineering.  Quiet fellow: never asked any questions, but never needed to, it seemed.  He aced any test I put in front of him,” he explained.


Wow, that… kind of sounded like me.  I wasn’t a half-bad student, getting straight ‘A’s in high school and respectable grades in college.  It wasn’t that hard – programming just came naturally to me.  But I still wasn’t very social.  Socializing was a waste of time; I wasn’t going to see any of my classmates again, so what was the point?  I kept to myself in school.


Lucid continued as he sat on the bed.  “He was one of the few students that ‘got it’.  He could relate concepts in one class and apply them to others, even concurrent classes.  Such a bright, young lad.  He’s even taking summer courses.”


I looked at his hip tattoo, which depicted a magical white blob with a square cut out of it.  I was about to ask about that, but that question was pushed aside for later by a more pressing question.  “Lucid, are you a changeling?”


He took off his glasses, setting them on the bedside table and rubbing the bridge of his nose.  “I’m going to say no, but that won’t be enough, will it?”

No, not really.  “No.  I need you to prove it to me.”  Somehow.


Hooking his legs to the foot of the bed, he lied back and reached up to the headboard, rolling side to side to stretch.  “Would it be enough if I told you how you got here?”


“You could be making it up,” I replied.  If 4 N 7 could do it, why couldn’t Lucid?


He sat up and ran his hooves through his white, unkempt hair, which seemed to have little effect in correcting it.  “How about if I show you how you got here?”


That… might do it.  Depends on how he would show me.  “Okay.”  I sat down.


He shifted on the bed.  “I guess I’ll begin with how dreams work.  When a pony goes to sleep, their mind attracts a certain kind of energy.  This energy comes from everywhere; it’s a sort of magic hanging in the air.  And as a pony sleeps, that magic collects in the mind and dreams occur.  Does that make sense so far?”


At any minute, I was expecting him to pull out a crystal ball.  This sounded like spiritual banter, but I humoured him anyway.  Magic was a real thing here, after all.  “Yeah, go on.”


“Well, I wondered, what would happen if I mimicked this kind of magic?  So, I performed a few studies on this, monitoring subjects’ brains as they slept, making observations, reverse engineering a collection of magic based on the observations, and doing trial and error until something worked.”


“Something worked?” I repeated.  “How did you know when ‘something worked’?”


He chuckled.  “Well, when something blows up and throws you clear to the other side of the room, that ‘doesn’t work’ in my book.  And I finally found something that does work after five years of study.  I created a spell that could summon a dream.”


“Okay… so you can summon a dream,” I said.  “What does this have to do with dimensions?”


“You like to get straight to the point, eh?”  He smirked.  “Well, I tried this spell, and I had a dream that I remember much more clearly than I have before.  Not a lot of it made sense – you probably know how dreams are – but I realized something.


“I realized that dreams can actually traverse dimensions, forwards and backwards.  Dreams are ‘what ifs’:  What if you fell off of a cliff?  What if the Olden Pony was real?  What if you had emerged from your bed on your right this morning instead of your left?  The thing is, though, is these aren’t just ‘what ifs’ – they are windows into other dimensions.”  He pointed at me.  “When you have a dream, you are observing another dimension, another universe where something different has happened or will happen.  And with strong enough magic, travel to these other universes is possible.”


Wait a minute.  Then….  “Then you lied to me before?  You said before that you didn’t know the meaning of dreams.”


He nodded and looked down.  “I don’t.  I’m a scientist, not a historian.  I’m… like a farmer.  Although I ponder it on occasion, I know not why the seed grows.  My concern is to learn what makes it grow.”


“Okay, sure.”  I shut my eyes and tried to remember where he left off.  “So, travel.  Universes.”


“Yes, quite.  A couple of weeks ago, I published the results of my research in VIMA’s journal – that’s the university where we first met.  Every university in Equestria shares their journals and such, and talk was about that I could be the discoverer of a new field of magic.  One day, I received a scroll from Princess Celestia herself, requesting an audience with me in Canterlot concerning my research.  I had little interest, initially, so I declined.  But then she sent another scroll, offering a rather… handsome reward.”


“Go on,” I said.


“Well, I packed up my things and went to see the princess.  She wanted to discuss my research with me, but only if I did not tell a soul the nature of our discussion.  And that discussion took place the night you came to this world.”


That was vague.  “Okay.  What did you discuss?”


He brought a hoof up to his chest.  “Like I said, I’m a pony of my word.  I cannot tell a soul.  I can, however, summon a dream spell for you, but if you somehow manage to find the event that occurred exactly four days ago in the Royal Palace in Canterlot-”  He shrugged.  “-it would be sheer coincidence.”


Wait, what was that?  “Four days ago, in the…?”


“Royal Palace in Canterlot – the throne room, more specifically.  Again, if you were to somehow find that event, it would be pure coincidence.”


Oh, I saw what he was doing.  Clever.  Coincidences could be a good thing after all.


“Now, I’ll cast the spell.”  He retrieved his glasses from the bedside table and slipped them on.


I glimpsed back in the mirror at my unicorn self.  Changelings had horns, too.  And if they could do magic, what would this prove?  “So how does this prove you’re not a changeling, again?”


“This is a complicated spell.  Not just anypony can do it, nor any changeling, for that matter.  The fact that it works will be enough.”


But wouldn’t a carbon copy of Lucid know the same spells he did?  “How do I know that the ‘you’ before is the same as the ‘you’ now?”


He glanced at me before returning to his spell-casting stance.  “What you see there would match my story.”


Not what I meant, but… okay.  Motioning for me to step back, he turned to the door and closed his eyes.  His horn began to sparkle and glow a faint white, which became a brighter white as he concentrated.  I stepped back a little further until I felt the soft curtains behind me and sat down.


Magical strands left his horn and spun around in a stout whirlwind.  The strands grew wider, until they touched each other and formed a milky white orb.  The orb filled in as more magic streamed into it.  Once the orb had become completely opaque, Lucid stepped back and it remained hanging midair, giving off a soft hum.


He looked back at me and smiled.  “Beautiful, isn’t it?”


I wouldn’t have used the word “beautiful”.  “Weird” perhaps, or “eerie”.  A floating, humming ball of magic light wasn’t something I’d keep in my house.  “Okay, now what?”


“All you have to do is walk into it, and stick your head in there.”  He stepped out of the way so that I had a clear path to the orb.


Walk into it.  Simple enough.  Uh, walk into it?  “Wait… what’s it going to do?”


He marveled at it, each lens of his glasses reflecting the orb.  “It’ll take you into a dream, essentially.  It’s a generic spell: not specific to any one pony, like with normal dreams.  It might get a tad overwhelming once you’re in there.  Just… focus.”


I swallowed and took small steps towards the orb.  As I approached it, my vision started to turn white.  Frightened, I backed up.  I looked at Lucid as he stood there, watching the orb.  “How do I know this isn’t a trick?”


“I promise you won’t be hurt,” he said.


I looked back into the bright orb of white.  If Lucid was a changeling, I could be walking into my death.  I stayed put.  “I can’t.  I can’t do it.”


He frowned.  “I understand it may be hard to believe me, but I don’t know how else to prove it to you.”


I took one more step, and then another.  My vision was still turning white.  “I d- don’t…”  I needed to clear my mind.  I backed up and considered my options.


Yes, it very well could’ve been an orb of death.  But there could’ve been answers in there.  How I arrived in this universe was still one big mystery to me, and it was at that moment that I realized that not knowing was bugging me.


I looked at Lucid and thought about him.  He had never come across as the type to lie.  And that whole explanation didn’t seem to be improvised.  It was a legitimate recollection with no pauses and barely any breaks to think.  So, maybe there was truth in this.  And if there was, there could’ve potentially been a lot of truth.  And although I still didn’t understand how all this hand-wavy magic stuff worked, there was enough potential for truth to risk it.  I could trust him before, so maybe I could trust him again.


I took small steps forward.  Even as my vision turned white, I kept walking.  Slowly.  When everything went completely white, I still kept walking.  I needed to get back home.


And then, I was everywhere and anywhere at once.  A park.  Everything, everybody.  A meadow.  I could see it all.  Lavender pony.  A cave.  It became a blur that was clear at times, but at other times blended with the images before it.  A backyard.  Time was moving at light speed.  A gorge.  Blue pony.


It was too much.  A forest.  I began to hyperventilate.  Black clouds.  Orange pony.  Was I even breathing?  Bridge.  Pony.  Air!  I needed air.  Fire.  Dragon.  I closed my eyes.  Black.  I needed to focus.  Focus.  Lucid had told me to focus… on the castle.  Focus!  Lucid.  Castle.  Focus.  Open.


I felt the unchanging soft ground beneath me and opened my eyes, taking in as much air as I could.  The air tasted sweet as it rushed back into my lungs, and I relaxed.  I checked my body to make sure I was still all… there….


I was… human again?

I was human again!


Oh, my wonderful hands and feet and legs and arms and face!  I was me again!  I wiggled the fingers on the ends of my arms, helping them remember how good they felt, and then used them to feel my stubby little nose.  Even my regular clothes were back on me: khakis and a polo shirt.  Formal enough that they still complied with the dress code at work, and comfortable enough that I didn’t have to change at the end of the day.


I looked up, expecting to see my house or Minnesota or Earth or at least a small amount of the detail that matched that of myself and my clothing.  But no, it was back to full and simple technicolours.  It looked like a throne room, though, so I had at least found the right place.


The first thing I noticed was the carpet – which felt exquisite and quite soft under my human fingers.  It was red, but a soft red.  I followed it up with my eyes to two grand doors, surrounded by large stained-glass windows.  Each one depicted a different image, some of them with clouds or sky or nature stuff, but some of them had ponies on them.  The room definitely looked like it belonged to a palace.


“Leave us and stand guard,” a voice commanded – no, it was gentler.  Requested, perhaps?


I turned around to the other end of the carpet.  Two ponies with uniforms were facing me, and Lucid was in between them, facing the opposite direction.  The soldier ponies walked towards me.  Towards me!  Uh oh.  I froze, hoping they wouldn’t nab me and lock me up, but they walked right past me, as if I didn’t exist.


The one who had spoken was huge, perhaps twice the size of Lucid.  She (I think) had a really long horn, flowing multicoloured hair, and a crown atop her head.  She must have been the ruler of something.  And she was – this was Princess Celestia, was it not?


When the doors behind me slammed shut, she nodded to Lucid.  “This way,” she said as she stood up from her throne.


I started to follow, but then realized that I was still on all fours.  Carefully, I straightened up onto my legs.  After being a four-legged creature for so long, I felt some dizziness going up.  But, I was able to regain my balance after a few seconds.


I followed them as she stepped down off of her throne.  She pulled back a curtain beside her throne, revealing a small door.  It was a simple door that matched the colours and shape of the double doors at the other end of the room, but was smaller and sort of tucked in the corner.  An iron ring ran through a latch next to the knob.  Using her yellow magic, the princess evaporated the iron ring and swung open the door.  Once Lucid and she were both inside, she closed the door behind her, and the ring magically reappeared.


Darn, I should’ve slipped in when I had had the chance.  There was, in fact, a keyhole for the ring, perhaps if she had forgotten the magic spell or something.  I looked around the door, in case she had left a spare set of keys or pair of bolt cutters lying around.  I knelt down to check under the carpet, but I couldn’t find an edge to lift.


I put my hands on my hips and sighed.  Where was that key?


I looked around the throne.  The flowerbed looked like a likely hiding spot.  I knelt down and ran my fingers into the dirt, but the dirt didn’t sift.  Hmm.


I brought my fingers out and examined them.  Not a spot of soil on them.  Did ponies invent clean dirt?  I reached down to touch one of the flowers…


…and my hand went right through!


It was if the flower didn’t exist.  Or… I didn’t exist.  Nopony had noticed me: the guards, the princess, none of them.  I was like a ghost – not there to interact, but observe.  And that’s exactly what I needed.


I stood up and walked to the door, curious to see if my ghost powers would work on it as well.  I brought my hand down to the iron ring and watched as it passed right through.  Now for the real test.


Slowly, I pushed my hand into the door and it disappeared, but I could still feel it.  I thrust my other hand through, and soon both my arms vanished into the door.  Holding my breath and closing my eyes, I pushed my face through.  I opened my eyes and saw my arms on the other side, still intact and functioning, so I pushed the rest of my body through.


I looked around the room I had just entered, which was dark and only dimly lit by candles.  It was a large study: much smaller compared to the enormous throne room, but still fit for royalty.  There was a desk towards the back of the room, with a pillow lying in front of it.  One bookshelf ran around the length of the room in a semicircle.  There was an empty space at the right end, waiting to collect more books.  And standing in the middle of it all were Lucid and the princess, facing each other.


“Nopony must know about this, not even my sister,” the princess was saying in a low voice.  “You understand why?”


“Yes,” Lucid said, nodding.  “I understand.”


“And you promise not to speak a word of this to anypony?”


He didn’t blink.  “I promise.”


She nodded.  “Then let us begin.”


He stepped back, summoning a white glow out of his horn.  As he went through the same process as he had before, I studied the princess.


With the light from the orb, I was able to see her face clearly.  She watched the orb intently as it formed.  Her expression was blank, except her eyes were a tad wider than normal.  Well, what was normal for other ponies.  She may have been an exception, being a princess and all.  She looked ready for something, that’s for sure.


“Done,” Lucid said.  The orb was complete, identical to the one he had made in the inn.  “Now, see if you can pour some magic into it.”


Celestia nodded.  She readied her horn and concentrated.  Yellow light flowed like a stream of water from her horn to the orb.  The floating sphere got bigger as more magic entered it.  She ended the flow of magic and looked past me to Lucid.  “Is that enough?” she asked.


“Should be,” he said.  “It’s ready.  Just touch your head to it.”


She took a moment to straighten her neck and glided toward it, like a princess.  Then, as soon as her head touched the orb, her legs gave out from under her, and she slumped to the ground.  The orb remained hanging in midair above her, casting a yellow glow on the princess’s face.


It was quiet for a few seconds.  Lucid floated a pocket watch out of his satchel and checked the time.  After looking around the room and past me, he set his glasses down on the ground and curled into a ball.  I wasn’t tired, so I explored the rest of the room.


I examined the books on the shelves, starting with the leftmost section.  I couldn’t touch them, but I thought it best not to, anyway.  Many were tattered and tearing at the edges, and some were threatening to fall apart at the smallest sneeze.  The titles were either worn away or non-existent, and it wasn’t until I reached the center of the shelves that I could read them.  Lots of books on magic and astronomy.  There were glossaries and encyclopedia on stars and planets and the sun and moon and magic and spells and whatnot.


Having a good idea of the types of books her library contained, I detoured to the thing I was most curious about: the desk.  It was antique, and dust was collecting on the back and sides, but not the top.  The top looked like it had recently been cleaned, and only a candle, a short stack of books, and a folded pair of reading glasses neatly rested in the corner.  I wanted to open the drawers out of pure curiosity, but I couldn’t touch them.  Plus, my thoughts were interrupted by groaning.


I turned around and noticed it was coming from Celestia as she lay on the floor.  Her brows furrowed, and she groaned louder.  Lucid got up and walked over to her.  “Princess?” he asked, looking worried.  I joined him, curious to see what was happening.


Her moaning turned into grunts and yells as her hooves started to kick.  Lucid, trying to avoid the pulsating orb above her, nudged her with a hoof.  “Princess?  Wake up!”


She didn’t, though.  The orb was almost flashing on and off, flickering wildly.  A slight breeze swirled through the room, seeming to originate from the orb.  Lucid grabbed her with another hoof and shook her.  “Wake up!  Wake up!” he shouted.


Then, all at the same moment, Celestia woke up, Lucid stopped shouting, and the orb stopped flickering and stabilized.  The room went dim and silent.  In that moment, I lost focus of everything else but the princess.  The look on her face when she had awoken….  Her mouth was a tad agape and her eyes were wide open.  I wasn’t sure if it was in surprise, awe, or fear.  It sent chills through me as I stared at it.


And that’s when I woke up.


Morning light was coming through the plain green curtains.  I was sprawled on the ground, in the same spot I had been in since the previous night.  And, like in the previous night, I was a pony again.  I flexed my invisible fingers and pouted as my hoof remained motionless.  I’ll be home, soon.  Eventually.


There was a body in the bed, whom I assumed to be Lucid.  This was the first place that had a real bed, and I had slept on the ground again.  Lovely.


I got up gingerly, both from lethargy and from not wanting to wake up Lucid.  However, he was already awake.  When he turned and saw me, he jumped out of bed and rushed over.  “I’ll lend you a hoof.  It puts you in the deepest sleep of your life, it does.”


He helped me to my feet.  My legs felt remarkably relaxed, which was odd.  I figured if I had kicked and screamed like the princess, I would’ve felt hot or woken up or something.  “Did I make any commotion during the night?”


“Commotion?  No.”  He paused to think.  “That only happens when you travel for a long distance.  You only travelled four days.  The farther back you try to go, the less stable it is.  My guess is that she… that if too much power is supplied, it can become too overwhelming.”


I licked my lips.  “What was she doing?”


He cocked his head.  “She explained it fairly well.  You were there, were you not?”


“Yes, I was,” I said, looking down as he put on his bag.  “I guess I missed it.”


“I’m sorry you did.  We can try again tonight, if you like.”  He levitated his glasses over from the nightstand and paused.  “Do you… believe me now?  That I’m not a changeling?”


I looked down at my hooves.  I was still intact after that ordeal in the dream, so he had kept his promise.  But there was still that one lingering possibility that he was a changeling.  I supposed a pony could never definitively prove that they aren’t; they could be a pony, or they could be a changeling that never reveals its true identity.  I shrugged.  “If you’re a changeling, you’re one of your word.”


He smirked.  “I suppose I can live with that.”  He turned and opened the door for me.  “Let’s be off.  I smell breakfast.”

Preread by NotSoSubtle and Somepony New

“Good morning, you two.  I made eggs!”


The aroma of eggs and the cheery, sing-song voice of Fairweather greeted us as we came into the main room.  Six plates were waiting for us on the same table we had used the other night.


And, true to her claim, Fairweather had indeed made eggs.  And only eggs.  Each plate accommodated two eggs, sunny side up.  There were even more eggs in the middle if those weren’t enough.  Not that I complained—I wasn’t picky when it came to food—but it was very simple.


Lucid and I sat down and began to eat.  The wheat sisters were already up and eating, and once Fairweather had finished cooking another batch, she joined us at the table.


Wheat Flour rubbed her eyes.  “Where’s 4 N 7?”


“The monkey?” Fairweather asked.  She did what she did best and pointed at me.  “He’s right there.”


“No, the other monkey,” Lucid said, then shook the confusion out of his head.  “Changeling.  The other changeling.”


“Oh, the other one?  Well, in the middle of the night, he woke me up and said he needed to use the colt’s room, so I led him here and waited for him, but when I did, I saw the glasses on this table and realized that I forgot to clean them, so I did that, and then, looking at the glasses, I realized that I hadn’t reorganized the glassware in forever, so I did that.  I thought I’d mix it up this time with cider glasses lined up in the back, and the glass glasses in front of those, followed by—”


“—and the changeling?” Lucid asked.


“Oh, well, he, uh…  I forgot about him,” she said, trying to make up for it with a grin.  Suddenly, she perked up.  “Do you think he’s done by now?”


“Don’t… ugh.”  Lucid leaned his head back and closed his eyes.  “You shared a room with him.  Did you see him return or get up this morning?”


Fairweather contemplated for a moment, then said, “Nope.”


“So… he left,” Wheat Flour said.


Whole Grain swallowed a mouthful of eggs.  “Good riddance.”


I looked down at my eggs and took a nibble.  They hadn’t been seasoned, but they were cooked well.  As I chewed, I thought of the train conductor.  Changelings could change into anypony they wanted to, after all.  “Or he’s still here, and he’s disguised himself as one of us,” I said.


Everyone looked at everyone else now that the thought had been entertained.  I regretted mentioning it, afraid we would start accusing and fighting each other.  Too tired for that, I rubbed my temples with the sides of my hooves and looked at Lucid.  “Please tell me there’s a magic trick that can show if a pony is a changeling.”


“No, there isn’t,” he said, frowning.


Whole Grain whispered something in Wheat Flour’s ear, and her sister whispered something back.  Whole Grain looked at everyone else.  “It’s not either of us,” she said.


Fairweather looked around and whispered something to the air beside her.  Then, her eyebrows furrowed and she rubbed her hoof under her chin.  “It could be me…”


Lucid didn’t say anything and continued to eat his eggs.  I think he knew that he could try all he wanted and Whole Grain still wouldn’t believe him.  One attempt at making his case took overnight, after all, and even then I wasn’t fully convinced.


The table fell silent again.  “Look,” Whole Grain said.  “I don’t care who here is a changeling, and frankly, I don’t care whom you change into, but if you ever disguise yourself as me or my sister… you better watch out.”


And that shut the rest of the table up.  Even just “you better watch out” was threatening enough after the previous day.  I ate my eggs slowly and quietly.  And as I wiped some sleep out of my eye, the thought crossed my mind: coffee.  And as quickly as it surfaced, it retreated back into its corner of my brain.  Out of all ponies, Fairweather was the wrong one to ask of anything, especially something that no normal pony knew about anyway.


Wheat Flour finished the first egg on her plate and stared down at the second, thinking.  She turned to her sister.  “Whole Grain,” she said.


Whole Grain picked up two eggs from the center of the table and dropped them on her plate.  “Yes?”


“Is there something you would like to say?” Wheat Flour asked.




“To Copper Flash.”


“Oh.”  Whole Grain rubbed the back of her neck and looked over the eggs in front of her.  “I’m sorry,” she mumbled.


I couldn’t quite believe what I had heard.  “Pardon?”


“You heard what I said.”  She raised her voice, but lowered it once she noticed her sister.  She looked down at her plate.  “I said I’m sorry,” she said, folding her arms.  “That I hit you and that you’re maybe not a changeling.”


I bobbed my head, and poked at the little yellow yolk on my plate.  I didn’t say “I forgive you” because that statement made me sound more important than I was.  Instead, I wanted to say that what had happened was behind me, so I replied with, “It’s okay.”  I took a small bite of my egg and chewed quietly.


Once breakfast was over, we gathered ourselves and left out the front door.  Fairweather followed, humming a little tune to herself.  I thought at first that she had just happened to be walking the same way, but it became obvious that she wanted to come with us, and I didn’t think I could put up with her.


“Fairweather,” I began.


She was skipping at that point.  “Yes?”


Lucid said, “Don’t you have anything else to do?  Wash the dishes, fix a table or two, re-rearrange the glasses…”  His eyes hopped up and down as they followed Fairweather.


“Not when I have friends to hang out with!”  She grinned.  “I wanna come with you guys.  You know what they say: two’s company, but six is a party!”


I remembered that phrase a bit differently, but I didn’t bother questioning it.  Whole Grain muttered, “Wonderful…”


“I know!”  Fairweather jumped into the air and performed a barrel roll.  She began to hum that tune again.


After about two minutes of what I believe was the same melody over and over again, Whole Grain put a stop to it.  “No humming.”


Fairweather’s smile faded, but she complied.  Silently, she swayed to and fro in the air as she continued the melody in her head.  I figured she would flip if she ever discovered iPods.


The sky was crystal clear that day, with not a cloud in the sky for miles.  The land was similarly bare; fields of grass stretched in every direction.  It was dull, but we were dry, I wasn’t hungry, and the temperature was comfortable.  I refrained from complaining.


I had no idea where we were going, but I assume it was in the general direction of Canterlot.  Whole Grain had taken the lead that day, so I was confident that we were on the right track.


And as we traveled, I noticed that Wheat Flour was up to something.  Through the first half-hour of walking, she had drifted from Whole Grain’s side to mine.  I tried to ignore her, but every once in a while, she would glance at me without turning her head.  Eventually, she spoke.


“You were a human, correct?”


I nodded.  “Yes.”


“Describe the human world for me.”  She stared at me.


I pursed my lips.  I had a hunch as to where this was going to lead.  I couldn’t lead her on that I loved her back.  On the other hand (or, hoof, I suppose), if I kept back any information about my world, then everypony might come to think that I was lying.  Unsure about which was more important, I decided to answer anyway, but not talk too much about it.  “It’s kinda similar to this one.”


She looked away for a moment, up at a small flock of birds flying overhead.  “What is similar?  What is different?”


“Um, a lot of things,” I said.  “Lots of things are different, and… almost as many similar.”


She paused, carefully stepping into her new role as driver of the conversation.  “Like…”


“Like, well…”  I looked around at our group.  “We all wear clothes.  You know, you take cloth and stitch it together and drape it around—”


“Yes, we know what clothes are,” Lucid said.


I nodded.  “Good.  Well, everybody wears them.  And it’s illegal not to, I think.”


Fairweather laughed at some unintended joke.  Whole Grain slowed her pace to walk next to me.  “What else?”


I shrank back a little, nervous now that I had Whole Grain’s attention.  “Um… oh.  We also all walk on two feet.”


“On two feet, like dragons?” Wheat Flour asked.


“Sure, like… what?  Dragons?  You guys have dragons here?”  I felt my stomach run cold as I remembered that we were in a cartoon.  It was entirely possible, and if there were dragons here…


Wheat Flour nodded in reply just before Fairweather jumped in between us.  She did a handstand on her front hooves and used her wings to balance as she walked.  “You guys walk like this?”


“No,” I said.  “Other feet.”


She did a front flip and landed on her back feet.  Letting her hooves dangle in the air, she sauntered forward.  “Like this.”


I tried, but I couldn’t hold back a broad smile and a laugh.  I envisioned a person walking down the street, chest puffed out, holding out their arms like a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and swaying a little as they took long steps.


As Fairweather touched back down and folded her wings, another difference came to mind.  “Oh, that reminds me.  No human—or pony, either—can fly on their own.”  I gestured towards Lucid.  “Or use magic.  No unicorn horns or anything.”


He scratched his head.  “Then how do humans use magic?”


“There’s no magic in my world.”


“There isn’t?” Lucid said.  “I was so certain you had told me there was.”


I thought back to when I had explained my world to Lucid in Manehattan, but I didn’t recall saying that.  “I never said there was.”


“Then what of the carriages that could move all on their own?”


Oh, right.  Cars.  “I said it would take too long to explain how they worked, but it isn’t magical.”


“Oh.  My mistake, then.  I assumed by that you meant they functioned through magic.”  His tail flicked.  “So you’re saying that magic doesn’t exist at all?”


“Yes,” I said.  “There’s no such thing where I come from.  It’s the kind of thing only kids believe in.”


“Huh.”  He shook his head in disbelief.  “A world without magic.  It’s unfathomable.”


I shrugged.  “A week ago, that was normal.  And then I came here, and there was magic.”  I waved a hoof up in his direction.  “Heck, that’s how I got here.  Magic.”


“If there’s no magic in your world, then who moves the sun?”  Whole Grain said, grinning as if she had seen right through my lies.  “Somepony’d burn their hooves trying to move it.  Oh, but nopony can fly on their own!  So is it daytime all the time there, or what?”


“No,” I said.  “The sun doesn’t move at all; the Earth moves instead.  It turns, so that half the day we face the sun, and the other half we don’t.”


She snorted.  “Yeah, sure.”


Whole Grain made me realize that I was a little disappointed in this world.  I figured that cartoons were ideal, in that good guys were always nice or understanding and the bad guys weren’t, and received their comeuppance accordingly.  However, in this cartoon, I found that for every character that was too good to be true and yet was true, there was another “good” character that was selfish and ignorant and frustrating.  And those characters were as much of a waste of time as any other human.


So I told her the truth as I knew it.  “You wanna know what’s the same in my world as it is here?  No matter how much you try to tell the truth, people will always doubt you.”  I looked ahead at the long path before us.  “The only one they’ll bother believing is themselves.”


Whole Grain’s expression hardened and she, too, looked forward to the path.  I didn’t care what she thought of me or if she was about to wallop me in the face.  I was simply glad that my thoughts were off my chest.


The flat farmland became hillier, and we saw some cows grazing along the side of the road.  I thought nothing of them, until one of them took a break from chewing and said, “Mornin’.”  I didn’t respond at first, surprised that a cow had just spoken to me, but I did eventually manage a reply, albeit thirty more feet down the road.


And then I thought about what other animals could talk besides ponies.  Could all animals talk, or were cows and ponies the only exceptions?  Maybe just the ones that had hooves?  Donkeys?  Zebras?  I resolved to test any other animals we came across, hooved or otherwise.


And then I noticed Wheat Flour beside me again.  I turned to look at her, our eyes met, and then I quickly turned away.  Not her again.


“So, Copper—”


“I don’t want to talk about it right now.”


Her pupils grew into stupidly cute puppy dog eyes.  “I only have two more questions.  That’s all.  Please?”


Two questions…  If that was enough to stop her from pestering me, then fine.  It depended on what those questions were, like if I was single or whatever.  Eh…  “Okay, fine, but I can choose not to answer them.”


“Agreed.”  She cleared her throat.  “What was your name?”


Well, just a name shouldn’t hurt.  She had given me her real name, after all.  “Sawyer.”


“Sawyer…”  She said the words as if she was tasting them.  I took back my notion that it wouldn’t hurt.


She at least didn’t question what the name meant, since it was a name and not a number or a food.  She skipped that and asked her second question.  “What was your special talent?”


“My what?”  Special… talent?


“You know, your special talent.  What you are destined to do for the rest of your life.”


By that, I assumed she meant my job.  That was a harmless question, too: standard and innocent enough.  Now, explaining computers to someone who had never seen or heard of computers before was going to be tricky.  “I… write.  In a certain language.”


“…What kind of language?”


“One that you can’t really speak.  It’s hard to explain,” I said, hoping she’d drop the subject before I had to start at the very beginning and explain binary or something.


Her gaze fell to the ground.  “Oh, okay.  As long as it makes you happy, I suppose.”


That made me pause.  I had never really associated what I was destined to do with the rest of my life and happiness.  Work was work.  Work wasn’t particularly “happy” – coming home from it was happier, if anything.  Writing code wasn’t something I did in my free time anymore.  It was something I did for pay.


As the sun reached the highest point in the sky, I think that for all of us, the need for shade became apparent.  I could see sweat beading on everyone’s backs and could feel mine, especially in my armpits.  We needed a tree, or something.  And water, if possible.  And while I was thinking about it, I figured a sergeant-free train ride and a piña colada wouldn’t hurt, either.


“What is that town in the distance, over there?” Wheat Flour asked, pointing to the speckle of buildings on the horizon.


“Fairflanks,” Fairweather stated proudly.  “One of the biggest cities this side of Canterlot, aside from Manehattan.  If you’re looking for somepony, especially a special somepony, they’re probably there.  They gotta big reputation for lovey-dovey stuff.  There’s a reason they call it ‘Fairbanks.’”


“Fairflanks,” Whole Grain said.


“That’s what I said!  Fairflanks.”  She rolled her eyes and giggled.  “I’m not stupid, you know.”


“We can stop there for a meal,” Lucid said.  “I’ve got nine bits left.”


Whole Grain gaped.  “Nine?  We’re not even halfway to Canterlot, not to mention Vanhoover.”  She looked up to Fairweather.  “You got anything to contribute, here?”


She rubbed her chin.  “I’ve been told before by ponies that I’m ‘spunky’, ‘amiable’, and ‘oblivious’.”  She beamed proudly.


Whole Grain groaned.  “No, money.”


“No money?”  Fairweather cocked her head.  “How are we going to pay for food?”


“Never mind.  Point is, we need to save our bits.  Maybe we can get a loaf of bread on the cheap, and take that with us.  That might last us overnight…”


Whole Grain continued to plot money allotment, when I realized I had money of my own.  The six bits from her, which I was sure she’d welcome at that point.


Before I changed into my changeling form, I held my right leg in the air to prepare for the injury.  I shut my eyes and transformed, and then looked in my right arm.  However, the little sack of bits was gone.  I turned my arm over and shook it, hoping it would fall out.  Oddly enough, there was a clinking of coins, but… no sack.


The group noticed I had stopped and all of their attention shifted to me.  “Something wrong?”  Wheat Flour asked.


Yes.  My arm healed over our reserve funds.  “No, just… checking my leg.”  I carefully set my hoof down to prove it.  And then got brave and put weight on it.  Nothing…  It was healthy again.  “I’m cured!  Let’s go.”


I changed back into Copper Flash before we got too close to the city.  It had seemed so small from so far away, but once we had closed in on the outskirts, it seemed much bigger than I had anticipated.  All the buildings were low-lying.  The streets were skinny, and they were clogged with ponies.  As we drew closer, I grew nervous.  “Is there a way around the city?”


Lucid stopped and looked.  A wide river ran from either side of the city and extended out to each horizon.  He shook his head.  “I don’t remember there being a bridge outside of the city.  Just stay close.”  Whole Grain nodded in agreement.


Staying somewhat tightly together, we walked into the city.  There was music playing faintly from further downtown, but most of the noise came from talking.  Lots of ponies were traveling in groups and talking excitedly to each other.  They were saying something about how fun it was or how great of a day it was or something.  I was focused on keeping up with our pack.


I barely squeezed between two yellow ponies as they laughed across me.  “Why is it so busy today?” I asked Fairweather.


She gave it some thought, her eyes wandering to a nearby banner that read “Summer Sun Celebration”.  She suddenly remembered.  “Oh!  It’s the summer sun celebration today!”  She did a backflip in glee and landed.  “How could I forget?  It’s my favourite day of the year!”


Whole Grain stumbled over somepony’s tail.  “Mine, too,” she said with a glower.


It became so crowded that we were forced to walk in single file.  I ended up last in the group, with Fairweather directly in front of me.  She was taking in all that the celebration had to offer – her ears followed the lively music, her nose followed the roasted vegetables, her eyes followed the carnival games.  Her green tail was swishing to and fro almost as much as her head was.  I kept my mouth closed to avoid tasting her tail.


We passed the town square and filed into a narrow road, bordered by several shops.  The ponies were thick here, many just standing outside and talking amongst themselves.  I noticed definitive evidence of a party: balloons, streamers, banners, and all sorts of party decorations.  These ponies must’ve liked the sun a lot.


Fairweather turned her head to gawk at the web of streamers over our heads and drifted sideways.  When I looked past her, I saw that the pony in front of her didn’t look like anypony I recognized.


“Fairweather, hey,” I said, trying to get her attention.  “Do you see Lucid anywhere?  Or the wheat sisters?”


She stopped and turned to me.  “Hmm?  Um…”  She glanced around, then looked at me and smiled weakly.  “No.”


Panic wiggled into my stomach and I started searching the crowd.  “Well, fly up and look for them,” I ordered her.


“Okey doke.”  She spread her wings and jumped.  She shielded her hoof from the sun and ducked under the streamers as she scanned the crowd.


On the ground, I craned my neck as far up as I could to look over everypony’s heads, but it was nigh impossible.  I tried to balance on my rear legs, but the anatomy of a pony was not conducive to standing upright.  I gave up on that and kpet all four legs on the ground.  However, I figured out how to hop.  Even though it was tiring, it was as good a method as any.


“See anything yet?” I asked Fairweather, panting.


She looked around, resting her hooves on her hips and wrinkling her nose.  “Nothing yet.”


I bit my lip as uncertainty sunk in.  If they had lost us, would they have stopped and gathered somewhere, or split off and looked for us?  I wondered if we, too, were to either go out and look for them or stay where we were.  As long as I stayed with Fairweather and she stayed in the air, we wouldn’t be hard to find, I supposed…




At the mention of that name, I stopped hopping, perked my ears, and looked around to see if it was any other member of our party.


“Copper,” a mare repeated, smiling as she looked intently into my eyes.  “It’s been a while.  How are you?”


I did not know this mare, nor the colt standing beside her.  What were the chances that they’d know who Copper was this far out from Vanhoover?  Nonetheless, I didn’t have time for that.  They had me cornered, so I looked around for a chance to flee as I replied, “Good.”


The colt tilted his head down, and his eyes locked on mine.  “Everything all right?  We haven’t heard from you since last summer.”


I nodded and looked beside him at a shop.  There was a possibility that the others had regrouped in a store.  “Yeah.  Busy,” I said, still catching my breath from hopping.


“Really, son.  Are you okay?”  The colt grasped my chin and turned my head to face him.  I avoided his eyes and tried to turn my head away.  The mare frowned.


Son?  If these were Copper’s parents, then there was no way I could talk with them.  They’d figure me out in ten seconds flat.  I finally found an opening, but before I could take it, Fairweather landed beside me and blocked my escape.


She gasped.  “Oh my gosh!  Cooper, I didn’t know your parents lived here!”


Thanks, Fairweather.  I didn’t either.


Preread by NotSoSubtle

“These are the best!” Fairweather declared as she reached down for another mouthful of biscuit.


“Mom” smiled, thin wrinkles appearing around her eyes.  “We’re glad you think so.”


Copper Flash’s house wasn’t very roomy, but that was understandable given this city’s population density.  The furniture was small and quaint, and seemed like it was trying its best to fit into the living room’s space.  It did fit, but barely.  Although there wasn’t much more stuff than I’d expect to see in any normal house, the cramped quarters brought everything closer together and made it feel full.  It made me feel claustrophobic in addition to anxious.


We were all seated in the living room, with Fairweather and I facing Copper’s parents.  His dad was a tall, slightly stocky unicorn with red fur and short yellow hair, and spoke with the smallest hint of worry.  His mom was a skinny blue horse with a wood bead necklace and caring violet eyes.  She apparently also liked to bake, for she had offered us all golden-brown biscuits.


I looked down at my biscuit.  I’m sure a lot of love went into it, but I wasn’t very hungry.  I pushed it towards Fairweather, who had just finished devouring hers and looked ready for another.


“Are you sure you don’t want another bite, dear?  They’re whole wheat biscuits with honey: your favourite,” Mom said, smiling.  She gently pushed up her shiny lime hair.


She must have been putting it politely; I hadn’t taken any bites.  But, to convince her that I was her son, I decided to return some of her love.  I bent down and bit into my biscuit, but didn’t move the plate from Fairweather’s reach.  She “mm-mm”ed in thanks and dove right in.  And I couldn’t blame her; the biscuit was actually pretty good.


“So, son,” “Dad” began.  “How’s Vanhoover?”


I shrugged and nodded.  “Good, I guess.”


“The weather there sounds to be lovely.  We’ve heard that a lot from Carrot Sticks, haven’t we, dear?” Mom said, looking to her husband.


“Yes.  Or, from his liaison, Aunt Patch, we have,” he said with a wink.  “Speaking of which, she’s been very excited ever since Carrot’s wedding.”


Mom laughed.  “Oh, yes.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen her more thrilled than your Uncle Soaker… ever.  You should’ve seen her at the reception.  When the band started playing the… the polka song…”  Her speaking was interrupted by fits of laughter.  “She started dancing around the chocolate fountain!  And then, when Uncle Soaker joined her, and she twirled him around…”


Dad joined in.  “She accidentally spun him right into the fountain!”


Fairweather burst into laughter along with my parents.  I chuckled so I wasn’t the only one in the room not laughing.  Even as the laughter subsided, I kept a small smile on my face to hide my uneasiness.


“That’s right,” Dad said, wiping one of his eyes.  “I don’t think we saw you at the reception, Copper.  Were you able to make it?”


“Um, no,” I said.


He scratched his head. “Oh.  Why not?”


“I was busy,” I said, squirming a little.  I dropped the only fact I knew about Copper.  “I’m taking summer classes.”


“And how are those going?”


“Okay,” I said, but didn’t elaborate; I didn’t know how to.  It was at that point that I realized this was a really, really bad idea.  I had almost no knowledge of this pony or his family, and it wouldn’t be long at all before they found out who I really was.  I began to check the clock, hoping I could use the excuse that I was running late for… something.


Mom nodded.  After a short pause, she bent down and took a bite of her biscuit.  Dad said, “Made any friends at the school?”


Fairweather wiped off her mouth and smiled.  “He’s made friends with me!  And Lucid and two other mares, too.  They came with us!”


“Oh, my.  That’s wonderful,” Mom said, smiling and twiddling her hooves as she looked at me.  “Glad to hear you’re making friends.”


Fairweather paused politely for a moment.  She nudged her plate a bit and said, “Um, may I have some more biscuits, please?  They’re delicious.”


Mom smiled warmly.  “Sure thing, dear.  One moment.”


Mom left for a minute and returned with a plate full of biscuits, which she set in the middle to be within reach of all of us.  Fairweather was really the only one who wanted to eat them, taking three with a swoop of her wing.  Dad put one on his plate, though he didn’t take more than one bite of it.


“Did you hear about Clove?  He moved to Manehattan,” Dad offered.


“No, I didn’t,” I said.  “Good for him.”


Mom agreed.  “Found a job at the harbour, but we don’t know much else.  Haven’t heard a lot from the Hitches, have we?”


“No, not recently,” Dad said.  He looked down at the carpet and rubbed his neck.


Mom nodded and looked at the carpet, too.  “Mhm.”


I looked away as well and browsed the room.  A group of pictures on a fireplace mantle caught my eye.  One depicted a young, happy couple with a small child, and another showed an older child smiling widely on a dock, and another showed an even older child with less of a smile.  Copper and his parents…  This was wrong.  I shouldn’t have humoured his parents in the first place.  I needed to leave.


“So, Copper, um…”  Mom shifted and scratched her arm, quickly glancing at Fairweather.  “By any chance, have you…  Have you happened to find a girlfriend?”


Nope, this wasn’t going to end well.  These two were starting to sound like my real parents.  I shifted as well, trying to make it clear that I was uncomfortable.  “I don’t want to talk about it.”


Dad coughed.  “Well, you know, Copper…  We care about you.”


Mom agreed.  “It’s just, you know…  Do you think you’re going to spend the rest of your life alone?”


“No, stop.  Please.”  I rose to leave.  The conversation had become too personal.  This was something for them to talk about with the real Copper Flash.


“Okay, okay,” Dad said.  “We’ll drop that and talk about something else.  Just… please sit back down.”


Fairweather looked at me like I had crashed a wedding or something.  I felt guilty and sat back down, staring at a random spot on the carpet to avoid everyone’s eyes.  I stroked the carpet with my fingerless hoof.  It was a little shaggy, and felt and smelled like it had been cleaned recently.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Fairweather looking between all of us, anticipating some sort of good outcome from our family reunion.


I couldn’t take any more awkward pauses.  I stood up to leave, this time turning without waiting for their approval.  “I really need to go.”


“Son, please wait,” Dad said, raising his voice a little. “We just… want to talk with you.  Just—look at your mother, for Luna’s sake.”


Mom looked tired and in the early stages of crying, but she was looking at her husband, not me.  She stood up.  “Dear, please…”


There was no point in this charade if I was going to make family matters worse.  Nobody was benefitting from that.  “Stop.  I’m not Copper Flash, okay?”


Mom frowned.  Dad got up and said, “Wait just a minute…”


But before he got the chance to argue with me, I closed my eyes tight and became my changeling self.  I stared at them, and they stared back, their mouths agape.  And the air in the room stiffened.


Copper’s parents were speechless, and his mom was jittery.  My heart beat like a train engine.  To show my impatience for an apology, I took a threatening step towards the door.  Eventually, in her mental search for words, Copper’s mom found one.  “Copper…”


“No,” I said, frustrated.  “I’m not Copper.  It’s a complete coincidence that you found me here.  I swear that on my life.”


But they kept standing there, saying nothing and looking at me up and down.  And I felt terrible.  My face was burning and I felt extraordinarily out of place.  I wasted no more time in leaving.  Without another word, I walked out the door and slammed it shut.


I took a deep breath out to cool off.  What’s done was done.  Oh, but I needed to change into a pony.  I quickly became Copper Flash.  I looked around at the busy street and picked a direction to walk in.  I needed to go as far away from this house as possible.


“Cooper!”  Fairweather’s voice called, followed by a door slamming.  “Wait up!”


“It’s Copper!”  I yelled, louder than I meant to.  The volume hushed a few ponies that were nearby, including Fairweather.  I didn’t apologize, but instead stared at Fairweather and waited for her to speak.


She took a step back.  “C- Copper, I just… I thought you’d like to see your parents.”


“Those weren’t my parents!” I said.  “I tried to tell you that.  Don’t you understand?”


She looked down at the ground and pawed at it with her hoof.  “I’m sorry.”


“Fairweather, please.”  Frustrated, I stomped the ground and turned away.  She had moved on from mere annoyance and had become a problem.  I didn’t want to deal with her anymore.  I wanted Lucid and Whole Grain and Wheat Flour.  Reliable ponies who could take me seriously.


She looked nervously at me.  “We can look for the others.  Let’s do that.”


“No,” I said.  “I’ll go alone.  You can go back to your inn.”


She perked up.  “But Copper, please-”


“No!” I said louder, in case she didn’t hear it the first time.  “You can’t come with us.  Go away and annoy someone else!”


She jumped a little in shock.  The normally cheerful features of her face disappeared, and she looked… hurt.  The wings on her back carried her slouching body away, and eventually out of my sight.


I glanced at the ponies around me looking on in silent judgement, but I turned and walked away. I felt guilty that I had hurt her feelings by telling her to leave, but it was something that needed to be done.  If not me, then Whole Grain would have done it.  And if not her, then Lucid.  It was inevitable; with her behaviour, she was asking for it.


I walked around town, still upset that my time had been wasted, that the others’ time had been wasted, that I had to yell at someone, that I had pretended to be someone’s son…  I was not in a good mood.  And it didn’t help that there was all this carnival stuff going on around me.  Games and food and chatter and laughter...  I felt miserable among it.  I just needed to find the others, and I’d be fine.  And soon enough I’d be back home, out of this mess.




And soon enough, Whole Grain found me.  I spotted her easily and walked over to her.  I figured I wouldn’t bother asking what had happened to her hair.  It was covered in a dark purple substance, matted, and sticking out to the side a little.  Scared of invoking violence with any sort of commentary on her hair, I stuck with, “Hi.”


“Hey, we found you.  Don’t mind this,” she said, referring to her new age ‘do.  She took a quick glance behind me, then above me.  “Where’s Featherbrain?”


“Feather… oh.  Fairweather.  I…  She left.”


“Just like that?”  Whole Grain smirked, but became serious as she saw my expression.  “You told her off, didn’t you?”


I nodded grimly, scanning the crowd around us.


“You did the right thing,” she said, using one hoof to push back a bit of the substance from her face.  “She’s not worth it.  She’s playing a game with us all the time.  Can’t give a straight answer, always wants to have her fun.”


“Yeah,” I said.  I ducked to avoid a wayward beach ball.  “She’s not worth the trouble.”


And she wouldn’t cause us any more trouble, either.  It lightened my mood a little, knowing I had lost a careless member of our group and found a responsible one.


She motioned for me to follow, so I let her lead me through the crowd.  It was easy not to lose track of her, for her hair was shining in the sunlight.  She didn’t lose track of me, either; she would glance back every once in a while and make sure I was still there.


“So, ahem.  Human,” Whole Grain began, still not in full understanding of the word.


“Yep,” I replied.


She continued to speak while searching the crowd.  “You have a family?”


“Yes, yes I do,” I said.


“So…  Mother?  Father?”


“Oh, yes.  Yes, a mother and father, and a sister.  That’s my immediate family.”


Whole Grain shook her head and continued to walk.




She squinted at me.  “You’re just saying that so you can pretend we have something in common.”




“You don’t actually have a sister.”


“No, I do have a sister,” I insisted.  “I haven’t seen her in a while, but yes, I do have one.”


She sighed.  “Why haven’t you seen her?”


Even though the reasons weren’t terrible, I didn’t feel comfortable elaborating.  “We’ve had some differences, so we just don’t speak to each other anymore.”


“You abandoned her?”


“No, not abandon,” I said.  Gosh, that sounded awful.  “No, we just… drifted away.”


Truth be told, I hadn’t seen my sister in years, ever since graduating high school.  I hadn’t gotten along with her for a long time, I guess because of our personalities.  She was fickle and naive, and I was more realistic.  It’s part of the reason I live alone; not many people get along with me.


“I grew up being thankful for the family I have,” Whole Grain said.  “We have our differences, too, but I’d never leave her for it.  Haven’t left her side since we were fillies in an orphanage.”  She bit her lip.  “Speaking of which, we were adopted.”


I nodded.  “Mm, yes.”


Her pace slowed slightly, and she looked me up and down.  “You knew?”


“Yeah.  Wheat Flour told me.”


A steady stream of ponies cut across our path and forced us to stop.  She looked at me as I stood beside her and waited.  “Did she tell you about the changelings, too?”


She hadn’t said anything about changelings.  “What do you mean, ‘the changelings’?”


“Oh,” she said, wiping off some of the purple substance trickling down her forehead.  She watched the ponies walk past us.  “We were attacked by changelings when we were fillies.”


“Oh, okay.”  Well, that would explain Whole Grain’s strong dislike for my kind.


She cleared her throat before continuing.  “It was a while ago, when we were at the orphanage.  Some changelings tried to drag Wheat Flour away.  And I tried to fend them off, but… I was too small back then.”  She let out an angry snort.  “I didn’t want that to happen ever again, so I prepared.  If Wheat Flour hadn’t been the one to lead you home, I wouldn’t have held back.”


The stream of ponies kept going by, but I stared past them at nothing in particular.  From the way she had spoken more than a single terse sentence at a time with me, I didn’t feel as intimidated by her as I had in the past.  I glanced at her, seeing her expression had become less hard.  Not soft by any means, but less “demise-wishing” and more into “mild dislike” territory.


She didn’t hate my company anymore.  And I felt like I had accomplished something, however small.  Back in the human world, this didn’t mean much.  Tick someone off, and that’s their problem.  But now that I was sort of relying on someone, and her problem was my problem, it was a good feeling to not be on her bad side.


“Shall we?” Whole Grain asked.


I snapped out of thinking and looked at her.  “Huh?”


She motioned to the path before us, clear of ponies.  Embarrassed, I nodded and walked forward.  She did the same.


Before long, we reunited with the other half of our group.  Lucid and Wheat Flour were standing at the base of a tall flagpole, and they waved at us as we approached.  Lucid was unusually cheerful when he saw us, smiling from ear to ear.


“There you are!” Lucid exclaimed.  “We finally found you.  Where’d Fairweather run off to?”  He gritted his teeth as he noticed Whole Grain’s new hairdo.  “And, ahem…”


“Got too close to the jam wrestling competition,” Whole Grain stated.  “And Fairweather’s not joining us anymore.”


I felt the need to justify that.  “She’s the reason I got separated from you guys.”


“Oh, well then.  If that’s so, then her leaving is fine.”  Lucid then turned to me, like he had been waiting to tell me the most exciting news in the entire pony world.  “Have you seen these?” he asked, pointing to one poster out of dozens tacked on the flagpole.


I walked up to the poster and perused it.  It was colourful and read “Fairflanks Annual Talent Show” across the top.  I shook my head.


“Read the line in the middle, right there.  ‘First prize: 50 bits’.  50 bits!”  He tapped his hoof below the line, which was underneath a picture of a silhouetted pony singing into a microphone.  “That’s enough to last us to Canterlot and back.  The show just started, but they may still let us in.”


Wheat Flour looked at me.  She was sweating noticeably more than the rest of us.  I guess Vanhooverites were more affected by heat.  “I told him it wasn’t a good idea.”


I snorted.  “I’m not a singer.”


“No, not a singing act,” Lucid said.  “Comedy!  All you need to do is change into Celestia—that’s the princess, you remember.  Then, stand up there and repeat everything I whisper to you.  That’s all.”


No.  I had not had good experiences on stage.  “That’s ridiculous.  I’m not gonna do it.”


“Oh, come on,” Lucid said, smiling and putting an arm around me.  “I’ll tell you everything you need to say.  All you have to do is stand up there and repeat it!  Convincingly, of course.”


I gave it one more second of thought, then shook my head.  “No.  I won’t.  There has to be another way to get money.”


“Sawyer’s right.  We could find other ways to earn bits here.”  Wheat Flour moved to my side.


Lucid’s smile faded as he tried to reason with me.  “You’ll only have to be on stage for five minutes at most, so—”


“No!  It’s stupid,” I said, pushing his hoof off of me.  “Can we leave already and quit wasting time?”


“We’re short on money, Copper,” he said with finality and a sigh.  “I don’t know if you realize that.  We need food and places to sleep, and although we’ve been lucky with that so far, we can’t take our chances.  We don’t have a multitude of options here.  This was all I could find, and you’re our best chance.”  He sighed again, probably to further convince me.  “So what do you say?”


I took another look at the picture of the singing pony and mulled it over.  Chores would’ve been one thing; I could handle walking in a wheel for a couple of hours.  But the only thing Lucid could come up with was performing on a stage in front of hundreds of ponies, with a one in umpteenth chance that I’d get first place, and that’s assuming that I’d survive the performance.  I closed my eyes, frustrated.


Whole Grain nudged me.  “Do it.  We need the bits.”  She turned and began walking towards a well nearby.  “I’ll be right back.”


I rubbed my temple with my hoof and turned to Lucid.  “If this really is all you could find, then…”


~ ~ ~




“Copper Flash,” I said with a sigh.


The silver pony behind the registration desk wrote it down, holding the clipboard in his hoof and the pencil in his mouth.  His dexterity astounded me, unless he was just scribbling incoherently.  “Where d’ya live?”


I hesitated, but Lucid spoke up for me.  “Right here in Fairflanks.”  I looked at him, momentarily confused, but he whispered to me, “Remember, you’re still Copper.”


“What’s his act?”


“Professional celebrity impersonations,” Lucid said.


“Ah, neat,” he said before jotting something down on his clipboard.  “Always a hoot to see one of those, ‘specially a good one.  Word of advice, though—if you’re aiming to win, don’t impersonate the mayor.  Historically, nopony who impersonates her has ever won.  Just lettin’ you know.”  He smiled.


I nodded.  “Thanks, but I have another pony in mind.”


“Good deal.”  He set his clipboard down next to a short stack of paper.  “The show is already underway.  They’re about halfway through the list now, I think, so you’ve still got some time to warm up.”  He removed one piece from the top of the paper stack and stuck it onto my hip.  “Number fifteen.  Backstage is thataway.  Good luck!”


“Thanks,” I said, as Lucid followed me to the backstage area.  We passed by the venue, which was much like a regular theatre, but entirely outdoors; everypony was sitting on the grass instead of in seats.  A broad, blue curtain served as the backdrop to the performance, which at that moment was a teal pony playing a large tuba thing.


We walked around the crowd of people that were soon to be watching my every move and silently judging me.  They were distracted by the pony on stage, so the watching and judging wasn’t happening to me just yet.


Whole Grain and Wheat Flour had decided to watch the show in the audience.  I waved to them as I passed by, and they waved back, smiling in support.  That made two faces in the whole audience that I recognized.  It was comforting, but only a little.  A crowd almost entirely made up of strangers is still a crowd almost entirely made up of strangers.


“This won’t take long, right?” I whispered to Lucid, careful not to distract anyone from the pony on stage.


He nodded.  “Right.  You’ll only be on stage for five minutes.  It’ll all be over soon.”


Oof.  That sounded like something said to a person about to die.


…And it was unsettlingly appropriate.

Preread by NotSoSubtle and Somepony New

The last time I had performed on a stage was back in second grade, I believe.  Everyone in Ms. Rutherford’s class had to take part in some educational play about the food pyramid, which featured cheap costumes, props, and scenery almost as good as the acting talent.


Production quality aside, the important part was that everyone was highly encouraged to participate, me included.  Now, this was my first time in any sort of acting role, so I didn’t know what to expect.  We went over a few lessons about the food pyramid and all that.  Then, the teacher gave us parts and lines, and later where to go on stage and when to recite them.  I went along with it; it didn’t seem so bad.


When I realized we were going to do this in front of a crowd of people, I began to get nervous.  I made sure to repeat my lines over and over again at home so I wouldn’t forget them.  I didn’t want to mess them up.


The night of the performance, I was terrified.  Ms. Rutherford kept telling us to smile and had a very positive attitude about the whole thing.  I ignored what she was saying, instead focused on getting out there and getting it over with.


We all shuffled out onto the stage.  I followed behind the apple, and I looked out over the crowd as I walked.  The stage lights in front of us made it difficult to see the audience, but I could see them.  I became fixated on the crowd, looking amongst each darkened pair of eyes.


This was different than standing up in front of the class.  These weren’t fellow students—these were parents, two of them mine.  They had expectations.  I felt every pair of eyes on me and my shabby, cardboard milk carton costume.  I had wished that they hadn’t cut a hole out for my face.  The light was on us, and only us, and I felt all sorts of pressure.  Mainly, pressure to not screw up.


I repeated my lines in my head.  The dairy food group includes milk, yogurt, and cheese. You should have three cups of dairy a day.  The dairy food group includes milk, yogurt, and—


Then I tripped.


The kid next to me in the cheese costume helped me stand back up.  To their credit, the parents did their best not to laugh.  However, a few snickers escaped, and that was all the excuse I needed.


As soon as I got up, I rushed off the stage.  I stopped before the door to the hallway and cried quietly.  Ms. Rutherford said some encouraging words, but I didn’t want to go back out there after that.  I was utterly embarrassed.


Throughout all of the next year, I was teased for being the kid who cried over spilled milk.  …I know.  It was too good of a joke for them to pass up.


As much as I could, I avoided any sort of stage performance, or even public speaking.  It was very difficult to do.  Needless to say, I wasn’t too excited to do it again.  But, I had no choice now, it seemed.  We needed food, and for that we needed money.  This seemed to be the easiest solution, at least for three of us.


Lucid and I arrived backstage.  Well, “backstage” was more of a roped-off area than an actual part of a stage.  It was rectangular, bordered by twine hanging on the tops of thin posts.  The curtain itself probably cost more than all of the money spent on this show combined, even including the prize money.


Lucid and I found an empty space among the other contestants.  Half of the contestants were warming up; two were juggling, one was doing vocal exercises, and another was taking deep breaths in a brown paper bag.  The other half were cooling down and waiting for the results of the show to be announced.


Now that we were backstage, it was more real than ever to me that we were going to do this.  My heart kept jumping up into my throat, and I had to swallow to push it back down.


“Okay, so,” I began.  “What’s our plan?”


“Half a minute.”  Lucid opened the flap of his bag with his magic and floated out a scroll, a feather, and one of those ink containers from the 1800s.  I had seen a couple of pencils in this world, so maybe the quill thing was traditional or something.  He dipped the quill in the ink.  “Ever been on a stage before?”


“Yes,” I said.  I felt like starting out with a joke to make me feel better.  “A couple of days ago.  I was booed off, though.”


He didn’t laugh.  “Er, yes.  The wedding.  Right.”  His eyes narrowed as he looked me over and rubbed his chin.  “But have you ever performed for an audience before?  Danced, read poetry, anything?”


“The last time was over fifteen years ago,” I said.


“How old were you then?”


“Number eleven, you’re up!” called a pony with a headset on.  I assumed she was some sort of stage manager.


Four contestants to go.  I tried to forget about that and continued talking to Lucid.  “Seven, just about.”


“Ah, okay then,” he said, still rubbing his chin.  “So no recent experience at all.”




“And I have no acting experience to share with you, so…  Hm.  This is going to be tricky.”  His eyebrows furrowed.  “With your skill level, simply repeating what I tell you will be awkward.  Half of comedy is delivery, so they say.  I’ll have to get creative.”


He sat down and squinted as he scratched the quill across the scroll in front of him.  By the sounds of the scratches, it seemed he was drawing lines in addition to words.  I waited for him to talk to me or give me some sort of instruction, but he didn’t.  I walked around him so I could look over his shoulder and watch, but he turned the backside of the scroll to me.


“Ah ah ah,” he said.  He pushed his glasses up.  “I need to focus.”


“But…”  I wouldn’t bother you, I’d just be looking over your shoulder.  I didn’t argue aloud, though.  If the guy needed to focus, then by all means, I’d let him.  My life was in his hooves.


I walked a short ways from him and sat down.  My jaw started to shiver a little as a result of my nerves.  Take it easy, I told myself.  Lucid knows what he’s doing.  He’s a professor who specializes in trans-dimensional travel.  Comedy is second nature to him.


My jaw shivered a little harder.


Lucid levitated out three more scrolls beside the first one, forming an aura-emitting rectangle.  The arrangement fully blocking his head, he scribbled furiously.  I walked up to it and peeked around the side of it.  “One just wasn’t enough, huh?”  I let out a worried laugh.


“No,” he muttered, his eyes watching the quill dart around the paper.  The scrolls moved in front of my face.  “I normally have more space to work with.  Less distractions, too.”


I teetered back and forth on my feet.  “Any luck so far?”


“Still thinking,” he said.  He let out a sigh.  “Give me time.  Maybe a minute or two.”


“Sure, sure.”  I backed away to give him (and me) a little space.


“Number twelve, let’s go!” the manager called.


I quickened my pace and accidentally ran into somepony.  I turned around and apologized.


The two ponies I had bumped into were complete opposites, judging by their colour schemes.  Where one pony had white, the other had green, and vice versa.  Both of them had the same eye colour, though: mint green.  Their short, decorative dresses also matched.  Each of them spoke excitedly, either from nerves or abnormal joy in meeting someone new.


“Hi!” the mostly white one said.  “I’m Gale.”


The mostly green one smiled.  “And I’m Kale.  Nice to meet ya.”  They both offered their hooves and gladly shook my own at the same time.  “We’re siblings,” Kale said.


“Twins, actually.”


“Fraternal twins.  I’m the prettier one.”  Kale fluttered her eyelashes at me.


“She’s got a mole.”  Gale pointed to her sister’s face.  “Riiight there.”


“Beauty mark!  You’re just jealous.”  She tipped her nose up in indignation.  Kale took the opportunity to press her nose with an accompanying “boop”, and they shared a laugh.


Even though these two were annoying, I had to bite.  I was curious about what these two did on stage.  “So, what’s your act?”


Kale beamed.  “We’re cloppers!”


“We clop,” Gale repeated.  “It’s a long-running family tradition.”


“We do it without shoes, too!”  Kale lifted her hoof to prove it.


“It’s a stepdance from Sireland.  Not many ponies have heard of it.”


“We’re Sirish and proud!  Well, we weren’t born there ourselves, but half of our great-great-great-grandparents were.”


Gale raised an eyebrow.  “I thought it was two-thirds.”


“Pretty sure it’s half.”


Okay, I had lost interest.  I stepped back, indicating I was ready to leave.  “Look, ladies, I have to go.”


“It’s closer to five-eighths, really,” Gale said to her sister.  “We’re counting Shires McFilligan, yes?”


“Yes, but not her grandfathers.  If anything, it’s closer to five-elevenths.”


I turned and walked away as they continued to argue.  Part of me was glad that the wheat sisters weren’t anything like that.  In fact, they didn’t speak to each other very much at all.  Not in trivial conversations, at least.


“Number thirteen?  Number thirteen!”  Oh, right.


I returned to Lucid.  I wasn’t sure if it had been two minutes or not, but I asked him anyway.  “Got something?”


“Almost,” he said.


I began to pace, unable to sit still.  Two contestants to go, and he still wasn’t ready.  That audience was going to eat me alive.  A dull ache developed in my right arm.  “Anything?”


“Almost,” he repeated, nearly through his teeth.


The jitters in my jaw were more pronounced now.  I turned on a dime and approached him.  “Can I at least see what you have so far?  Something?”


He rubbed his temple with his wrist.  “Copper, here’s the thing.  I think it’s best if I don’t tell you what I’m going to say.”


Uh, that was moving in the wrong direction.  “What are you talking about?”


“With what little time we have, I’m thinking I shouldn’t tell you,” he said.  “That way, I’ll be getting your gut response.”


In other words, improvising.  Contestant number fourteen was called.  Where was that paper bag…  “No no, we need a plan.  I can’t go on stage unprepared.”


“That’s the point,” Lucid insisted, his eyebrows creasing.  “Just react naturally.”


That entailed running off, so if he really wanted that…  “Lucid, tell me what you’re going to say, or I won’t do it.”


“Listen,” he said, taking off his glasses.  “I’ve got a plan, and that plan involves you not knowing about it.  I want us to win.  I’m on your side, here.”  He pressed a hoof on my shoulder, pushing as he emphasized words.  “Go up on stage, repeat what I tell you to, and react however you react.  I’ll keep up with you.”


My teeth were sore from clattering against each other.  “No, I’m not doing it.  This is… there’s gotta be something else.”


“Really, it’s not that hard, Copper.”  Lucid held out a hoof in despair.  “I’ve done all the work for you already!”


“But… ugh.”  I gave up.  He had at least told me something less vague.  Repeat what he says and react however I react.  At the very least, it gave me an excuse if things didn’t turn out well—I would react how I would react, and I wouldn’t be able to change that.


“Number fifteen?”


“Yes,” I said without thinking.  I was upset at Lucid for not being direct about this.  He’s responsible for this, I told myself.  Whatever happens, it’s his fault, not mine.


I closed my eyes, changing into the princess.  I almost fell over—she was tall, and her legs were long.  However, I’d gotten used to the body of a quadruped before.  I regained my balance shortly, and I carefully climbed the stairs onto the wing of the stage.  As soon as I saw the audience, I froze.


This is for money and food.  I have to suck it up.  I took a deep breath in and let it out.  This would be easy.  Just repeat everything Lucid said and act like a princess.  Nothing to it.


I took careful steps further up the stage.  As soon as I came into the audience’s view, ponies in the front bowed before me, and a wave of bows travelled back.  It scared the living daylights out of me.  They were all waiting, expecting, ready to laugh at the kid who cried over spilled milk.  I looked nervously among the audience, wanting to flee and hide behind the curtain.  However, I didn’t, and stood speechless instead.


I wanted to follow the age-old advice and pretend that everyone in the audience was naked, but they already were.  In fact, I was naked too, which didn’t help my nervousness at all.  I searched the audience for the wheat sisters, and eventually found them.  They were looking back at me, encouraging me to do something.


“Rise, subjects,” Lucid whispered.


Right.  We were doing something.  I echoed Lucid as he spoke to me.  “Rise, subjects…  That’s enough grass for now.”


As they straightened back up, a good half of the audience chuckled.  I cleared my throat and continued to repeat Lucid.  “Is everybody enjoying themselves?”


The crowd cheered in response.


“Good, good…  Glad to hear everypony enjoys my annual cute-suh…”  I paused as Lucid repeated it back to me, and I tried again.  “cute-seen-yera.”


A few laughs at that one, and some coughs.  I widened my smile and continued.  “Sorry…  After a thousand years… your memory goes out the window.  And sometimes, an insubordinate or two.”


More laughs this time.  I started to sweat from more than just the heat.  Lucid had to step something up.  Despite my dry throat, I continued.  “Just this morning, that happened.  I was displeased with my speechwriter.  As per termination protocol… I threw him out the window.  I was further displeased when I realized he was a pegasus.”  Good, hearty laughs from that one.


“Yes, that’s right, he survived.  And I needed a speech, so… I had no choice but to take him with me.  He didn’t have time to prepare a speech.  So, instead, I’m being fed this speech… from my speechwriter right now… who is very handsome… and very single as well.  For all the single mares out there… he’ll be backstage after the show.  Wink wink.”


Laughs and whoops came from the crowd.  Lucid had stopped feeding me lines, so I turned around.  His blue hoof ducked back behind the curtain, which made the crowd laugh harder.


Then, I started to catch on a little bit to what he was doing.  I summoned up a small amount of confidence and turned back to face the audience, clearing my throat.


“I’m lost without my speechwriter.  At this point… I’m just mindlessly repeating him.  I like bananas.  I also like butts.”  More laughter.  “I’m never sure which I like more.  Both are truly natural wonders of the world.  I’ve given each of them their own stained-glass windows.”


I didn’t get some of these jokes, but I went with them—the audience seemed to eat them up.  If it made them laugh, then I couldn’t complain.


“So, in conclusion, I’m—Oh, you’re here with the pizza.  Thanks a bunch, I’m starving—Hey, wait a second.  This isn’t what I ordered.  …What do you mean, ‘misread the order’?  How many Princess Celestias are there in this town?”


The audience laughed.  I feigned confusion as I said that line, trying to go along with it.  I’ll admit, I was actually having fun.  I did have to keep in mind that he was making fun of the princess, not me.


“Anyway, where was I…  Oh yes, ahem.  In conclusion, I would like to thank you all.  Fairflanks is a terribl—excuse me, terrific place.  I look forward to the day when Fairflanks… will once again be graced by my own fair flanks.”


Lucid whispered, “Now turn around and shake your rump.”


I whipped my head around and hissed, “What?”


“Turn around and shake your rump,” he repeated.  “They love that.”


My face flushed with embarrassment.  “I will not ‘shake my rump’.”


I heard some ponies in the first few rows burst out laughing.  Lucid nodded through the slit between the curtains.  “See?” he said.  “It’s hysterical.  Oh, and say, ‘Dear subjects, even on this day, let us not forget about the moon’.”


Now, shaking my butt was one thing.  Shaking it while I was already naked raised it to a whole new level of uncomfortable.  This was far beyond innocently tripping, this was lewd.  And degrading.


Regrettably, I complied as convincingly as I could.  Lucid was so dead after this.  I cleared my throat.  “Dear subjects…  On this day, let us not forget about the moon.”  And I turned around and “shook it”.


The crowd went wild.  I got laughs and cheers and applause, but I had lost too much dignity to stay any longer.  I smiled and stepped off-stage as quickly as I could, trying not to cry.  I almost lost a gold-plated shoe from scurrying down the makeshift stairs of the stage.


“We’re going now,” I said to Lucid when I reached the grass.  I felt a headache coming on.


“No, we’re not!” Lucid said, jumping down from the stage.  “We have to find out who won.  Otherwise, all this would have been for nothing.”


I grunted loudly, to make the point that I still wasn’t enjoying this.  “Fine,” I said.  I closed my eyes and changed back into Copper Flash.


“Oh, change back,” Lucid said after witnessing the change.  “They’ll recognize you better as Celestia than as Copper.”


I grumbled something I’d rather not repeat as I changed back to Celestia.  Lucid heard it.  “Pardon?” he said.


“I said thanks for making a complete fool out of me,” I said.  “You didn’t tell me I was going to shake my butt like that.”


“Well, they liked it, did they not?”


“Well, I didn’t.”


“Well, that’s a shame, then, isn’t it?  You’re not the only one who wants to return home alive, you know,” Lucid snapped.


I backed off slightly.  “There must have been something else we could’ve done.  An odd job around town, maybe.”


“Not likely.  You would know that from Vanhoover.  Given your changeling abilities, this was a wonderful opportunity.  And it’s over now, so you have nothing to complain about,” he said.


I sat down and folded my arms, but I reprocessed what he had just said.  Something had bothered me.  I said, “Wait, you knew I was looking for work in Vanhoover?  So, you followed me?”


He looked at me, waiting for me to say what he did wrong.  “Yes.  And?”


I shook my head a little bit to let it sink in.  “You followed me?  But, why?  I mean, I know you followed us on the train, but you followed me all around town?”  I was careful not to use the word “stalk”, but that’s what it felt like.


“Yes, yes I did,” he said nonchalantly.  “You would’ve done the same in my horseshoes.  The day after a dimensional spell goes awry, a stranger comes up to me asking about dimensions.  I couldn’t lose sight of you.”


“Then why didn’t you say something from the start?  I mean, I was right there, in that classroom.  You could’ve said something.”


“Had to think about what I was allowed to say before I said it.  That is, what with the princess…”  He trailed off as his attention turned to the stage.  “You hear that?” he asked.


“Hear what?”


“The crowd just hushed.  I’ll bet they’re announcing the winner.  Quick, we can’t miss it.”


Just like he said, the hubbub on the other side of the curtain had stopped.  Lucid and I moved to the wing, where we could see what was happening on stage.  A lemon-coloured pony in the middle of the stage extended his arm to his right and said, “Fillies and gentlecolts, the mayor!”


The mayor stepped onto the stage, and I could already tell why she was a prime candidate for imitation.  She was dressed up in frills and doilies and anything else from the eighteenth century that could fit on a dress.  Her gait was long and smooth, as if the whole world marveled at her grace.


“Good people of Fairflanks,” she said with a trill British accent.  It sounded too comical to be real, but no, that’s how she actually talked.  “The judging panel has evaluated all of the contestants, and a winner has been selected.  That winner is…”


A drumroll began as a stringy grey horse brought up an envelope in her mouth.  The mayor accepted it with her magic and opened the envelope.  “Number 15, the Celestia impersonator!”


An excited roar erupted from the audience.  I looked at Lucid and raised my eyebrows; he lowered his in reply, pushing me up to accept the reward.  As soon as I stepped on the stage, the roar grew higher and hooves waved in the air.  I heard some whistles from the back, too.


I smiled politely and shuffled to the centre of the stage.  I brushed my flowing hair aside, trying to keep it from waving in the mayor’s face.


She levitated a trophy in front of me, full of gold coins.  I thanked her and bit the handle of the trophy, about to drag it off stage.  It was surprisingly light.  Before I could, though, she motioned for me to stop and the crowd to quiet down.


“Just one moment, if you don’t mind,” she said.  “You’re the best impersonator I’ve seen in my entire life.  You’re almost an exact likeness,” she said as she pulled some of my hair closer to inspect it.  “Please, share with us: what is your secret?”


The surprise and horror on Celery Stalks’ face flashed in my memory.  It was best to leave the talent show on a positive note.  “No,” I said, the smile on my face still glued on tight.  “I really shouldn’t.”


“Oh, to the sun with the ‘magician and her secrets’ nonsense,” she said, putting a hoof to her chest.  “We positively must know how you did it.”


I swallowed, though it was hard to with a dry throat.  Every pair of eyes was on me, waiting, expecting.  I wanted to take the money and run, but everyone wanted it.  So badly, in fact, that they were cheering for it.


Fine.  I was done with the performance and I had my money.  If they wanted to know, then it was their fault.  I closed my eyes and turned into my changeling form.


There were lots of immediate “Oh”s, then silence.  No one moved, instead staring me and my black insect body over.  Ready for the imminent attack, I bit the trophy handle and dragged it away as quickly as I could.


Then someone, somewhere near the back of the crowd, shouted, “Cool!”  And everyone cheered.


I’m not sure why.  It’s possible they didn’t know what changelings were way out here.  Maybe they knew and they didn’t care.  For whatever reason they cheered, they did.  And it didn’t feel terrible.  In fact, it felt pretty good.


I smiled and waved, staying there for a second.  Actually doing well on stage was a high for me, so I let it last just a little bit.  Then, when I had had my fill of success, I dragged the trophy all the way to behind the left wing.  Lucid carried the trophy down with his magic, and lifted out the bits one by one to count them.


I breathed a sigh of relief.  “Well, I guess that didn’t turn out so badly,” I said.


“Oh, didn’t it?” Lucid said, distracted by counting, and I think still annoyed by me.


I changed back into Copper Flash.  As soon as I did, I got a little light-headed, and kneeled on the ground to keep from fainting.  I set my head on the soft grass and relaxed for a moment.  Within a few seconds, I had recovered, so I straightened back up.  I figured I must’ve been weak from not eating since breakfast.


“Good job!  That was entertaining,” Wheat Flour said, smiling.  She walked up to us, followed by her sister.  “Congratulations on winning.”


“Yeah, good work.”  Whole Grain smiled.  I thanked them both.


Lucid mumbled something.  I said, “Sorry, couldn’t quite hear that.”


He deadpanned.  “I’m leaving.”


“What?”  No, he couldn’t.  He was the expert on dreams, and possibly our ticket to see the princess.  If there was any pony that had to be with us, it was him.  “Why?”


“That’s fifty,” Lucid mumbled, pouring the bits back into the trophy cup.  “We’ll split it, fifty-fifty.”


Besides the money, I needed to keep him from leaving.  “Woah woah, hold on,” I said.


“Yeah.”  Whole Grain put her hoof on the trophy.  “Fifty-fifty isn’t fair.”


“Half the work, half the bits.”  He began to float out bits from the trophy one by one and put them in his bag.


“Hey!” I said, trying to stop the flow.  Whole Grain jumped in and helped me as I tried to reason with Lucid.  “That’s not fair at all.  There’s three of us, and only one of you.”


His upper lip raised a little, baring his teeth.  “Two of you did nothing.  You get two-thirds.  Take it or leave it.”


“Gentlecolts.”  Kale and Gale appeared between us.  Kale cleared her throat, tipping her nose up as she spoke.  “Please, let the experts handle this.”


Gale eyed all of us.  “You have fifty bits, and four ponies to split them amongst.”


“Fifty does not divide evenly into four.”


“It comes out to twelve point five, in fact.”


“The closest number to fifty such that four divides evenly into it is forty-eight.” Kale reached down and grabbed a bit with her mouth.


“The solution is simple.  Twelve bits per pony.”  Gale also bent down and grabbed a bit.  With her magic, she lifted all of the remaining bits into the air, split them into four even groups, and set them in neat little piles in front of each of us.


I stared at the pile of bits in front of me, then did a quick count.  There were indeed twelve.  “Thanks,” I said.


Kale smiled.  “Don’t mention it.  And way to go with that impression.”


“Top notch.  That was some impressive magic,” Gale added.  They both clopped hooves with me in a fist-bump fashion and walked away.


Lucid gathered his pile and stuffed it in his bag, avoiding eye contact with us.  “Good day,” he said with a scowl, turning and trotting away.  He ducked under the bordering twine and disappeared into the crowd beyond.


“Later,” Whole Grain said, waving her hoof in one circular motion.


“Wait a minute,” I said, running to catch up with him.  “Wait up!”


I went under the twine and stepped into the crowd.  I scanned the multitude of colour for a pony with blue fur, white hair, glasses... but I couldn’t find him.  “Lucid!”  I walked further into the crowd.  “Professor Lucid!”


I was flabbergasted.  One of the only two ponies who knew anything about how I got here, and seemingly one of the only two ponies who had any interest in—or even any knowledge of—trans-dimensional travel, and he just left.




I turned around at the mention of my name.  Whole Grain stood there, along with her sister.  She gave me a reassuring smirk.  “Don’t worry about him.  C’mon, let’s go.”


No.  He couldn’t just leave like that.  He was the first pony here that I had told the truth.  And he believed me, so easily.  He was… my friend.


The world suddenly expanded, and I felt so small, so… lost.  One little human in a world full of ponies, with no chance of going back home.  Stuck in this world forever.  I felt helpless, and alone.  I couldn’t let him leave.


“Lucid!” I shouted.  I ran to find something, anything to stand on.  A barrel next to me was lying on its side.  It would do.  I pushed it up on its end and climbed it, trying to balance on it.


White hair, blue fur, glasses.  Had to be somewhere.  White hair, red fur—nope.  White hair, blue fur, no glasses—nope.  Glasses were probably a better thing to look for.  Glasses, glasses, glasses.  Glasses!  No, too round.


The barrel under me wobbled.  I had to keep searching.  Glasses, glasses.  No, nowhere.  Glasses, white hair, glasses, blue fur…


The barrel gave out from under me.  I toppled and fell, landing upside-down in something soft.  I rolled upright to face Wheat Flour as she set me down.


She gave a small smile, tiny creases forming at the corners of her eyes.  “He wanted to go.  Just let him.”


“But we need him,” I said, panting a bit.


“He doesn’t want us.”  Wheat Flour put a hoof on my shoulder.  “He has his reasons, I’m certain.  It’s his choice.”


I sighed and took a glance at the surrounding ponies.  He was my connection to this world.  With him, I didn’t feel like this was some farfetched quest in a cartoon world.  He made abstract things like magic and dreams sound like science, something that could be explained without too many hand-wavy motions.  He was the reason this whole ordeal made any sense.


But, he had a choice, just as much as Whole Grain or Wheat Flour did.  Even though his absence made me feel a little more lost, I couldn’t do much but respect his freedom to choose.  And besides, I wasn’t entirely alone.


Down to three: the wheat sisters and I.  It was kind of disheartening how fast we were losing group members.  I was at least thankful our member count was more than one.


I followed Wheat Flour through the crowd and back to the backstage area.  Whole Grain had gathered our bit piles into one big heap.  It looked like a lot of money, however much it was worth.  Surely, it was enough to buy us a few days’ worth of meals.  Whole Grain must have thought so as well, for she was smiling.  “So?  Ready to grab some lunch?”


“That sounds like a lovely idea,” Wheat Flour said.  She flicked a stray bit into the pile.  “Though, I think we should find a way to carry these.”


They each looked at me, and it took me a couple of seconds to realize what they were thinking.  I wasn’t so sure it was a good idea.  If the small bag of six bits was now encased in my arm, what was to stop any more money from disappearing?


Maybe the one hole I had put the bag into was an anomaly.  Yeah, the other holes in my arm should stay open.  I nodded.


We scooped up all of the bits and stuffed them into my arms.  They weighed down my arms and made it a little hard to walk, but once I was Copper Flash again, the weight disappeared.  I changed back once more, just to make sure the money was still visible.  It was.


Wheat Flour picked up some bits from my arm hole, blushing as she did.  I shrugged in response.  Whole Grain said, “Okay, then.  Let’s get some food.”


I nodded as I became Copper Flash.  At that moment, I felt that while we had some choice in meals, I’d try for something that reminded me of home.  “I could go for a hamburger, I think.”


Wheat Flour giggled.  “A what?”


Well, they at least knew what sandwiches were, right?  “It’s like a sandwich with meat in the middle.”


“What kind of meat?” Whole Grain asked.


I began to answer, but stopped.  Cow meat.  Since cows were sentient beings here, I thought it best to withhold that information for the time being.  I went with a safer bet.  “Chicken.  Chicken meat.”


Whole Grain raised an eyebrow, but Wheat Flour nodded.  “Maybe we can get daisy sandwiches instead.  Chickens are not common pony food, really.”


Daisy sandwiches.  They put flowers in their sandwiches.  Wonderful.

Preread by NotSoSubtle and Somepony New

The daisy sandwich was tolerable.  As long as it had extra mayonnaise, and I held my nose while eating it, and I pretended I wasn’t eating raw plants, it was entirely edible.  Additionally, fries made of hay taste just fine with half a bottle of ketchup.


After I had finished the last of my three refills of water, the wheat sisters and I made our way through the crowd and out of Fairflanks.  The sun told us it was now past noon and the temperature was likely to drop.  I very much looked forward to it, seeing as we wouldn’t be in the shade of a city for much longer.


We left the outskirts of the city and got a glimpse of the path ahead of us.  More plains, even plainer than the last ones, lay almost perfectly flat for miles around.  I closed my eyes, remembering one last time what not-flat land looked like before I forgot and possibly developed a mental condition.


Just as we had left Fairflanks and prepared ourselves for the hours of journeying ahead, a voice called out from behind us.  “Wait!  Wait up!”


We turned around to see a white shock of hair bobbing up and down.  As it got closer, the pony became clearer: white hair, blue fur, glasses.  It was Lucid.


“Hi!  Sorry about that, I meant to catch up with you.”  Lucid paused for a moment to catch his breath.


I wanted to smile and welcome him back, but I didn’t.  Instead, I sat down and pursed my lips, looking down on him.  At this point, I was ticked that he had stormed off without saying why.  So, I reflected some of the pride he had shown me earlier.  “What is it?”


“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I didn’t mean to run off on you three like that.  I was angry at the time.  I’m sorry.”


That was quick of him to apologize.  It had only been, what, fifteen minutes?  Still, only an apology wasn’t going to cut it.  “That’s not enough,” I said.  “You had me scared, there.  We need you to see the princess.”


Lucid faltered, but Whole Grain spoke up.  “We wouldn’t need him to see the princess.  Anypony can see the princess.”


“That may be so, but he was there with the princess when… well, you know, when I got here.”


“Oh, of course I know,” Whole Grain mumbled.  “The hushy-hush ‘trust me’ thing.”


I ignored that, turning to Lucid.  “Still, you can’t do that again, you understand?  I need you with us.”


Lucid smiled, pulling up his glasses.  “Thank you.  And I do understand, I won’t do that again, I swear.”


“Copper, think twice about this.”  Whole Grain turned to fully face me.  She always had her doubts, and I was beginning to think it was because of paranoia.  “This guy almost ran off with half our bits.”


“He was just frustrated,” I said.  I understood—people could do crazy things when they were emotional.


Wheat Flour piped up.  “You almost left, too.”


“Yes, but—”  Whole Grain glowered at her sister.  “Wheat Flour…”


I looked in a different direction for a few seconds, letting Whole Grain think it over.  I stared at my hooves, twiddling them.  Well, doing something as close to twiddling with them as I could.  It was more of a simple up-and-down movement.


Before she was done thinking it over, I said, “Please, Whole Grain.  He’s come this far with us.  We can’t just leave him here.”


She closed her eyes and shook her head.  “Fine,” Whole Grain said.  “But he has to stay with us, all the way to Vanhoover.  If he leaves again, no more chances.”


Fair enough.  We’d just have to curtail squabbles pertaining to talent shows and/or money before they got out of hand.  I turned to Lucid.  “Next time, talk it out with us.  We have to stick together.  Promise?”


He nodded slowly.  “Sure thing.”


“Well, now that we’ve all made amends, let’s continue.”  Whole Grain took the lead and began walking down the trail.  We followed suit.


Not a minute later, we heard yet another call from behind us.  “Hey!  You guys!”


Without even looking behind her, Whole Grain covered her face with her hoof.  “You’ve got to be kidding me.”


Fairweather zoomed in from the city, flying right at us.  She slowed down before she got to us, landing softly on the ground.  Her expression changed from agitated to ashamed, and her wings drooped along with her ears.  “I just wanted to tell you guys I’m sorry.”


Whole Grain threw her hooves up in the air.  “You too, huh?  This is just a day of redemption, isn’t it?  Let’s just forgive everypony and bring them all along to Canterlot.  Let’s throw a party and group hug and pass out free rainbows and gallop off into the sunset.”


I had to admit, this was uncanny timing, both of these ponies catching up to us to apologize.  “Just hear her out,” I said.  “One minute.”


Whole Grain’s brows furrowed, then they relaxed in some sort of revelation.  She motioned me to walk with her, and we distanced ourselves from the group.


“Something’s up, Copper,” she said.  “Don’t you find anything suspicious about this?”


“No,” I said.  “Why?”


“Just… something feels off.  You didn’t invite any changelings with us, right?”


I gaped a little.  “Of course not.  Why would you think that?”


She glared at Lucid and Fairweather.  “Why would both of these two apologize so quickly?  Some changelings looking for cheap love?”  She shook her head.  “We can’t have them around.”


I looked at Fairweather and paused.  Could they be changelings?  But, where would they have come from?  The hive in Vanhoover, from what I understood, was much too far from here.  The chance that they were changelings was low.  This seemed like more evidence that Whole Grain was paranoid.  “The hive’s in Vanhoover, though.”


“Yeah, but what about 4 N 7?  He made it all the way out here somehow.”


“He’s… an anomaly,” I said.  “Vanhoover hadn’t heard of changelings before the whole hive thing, right?  And isn’t that true with the rest of this country?”  Honeydew hadn’t heard of them.


Whole Grain pursed her lips.  “Right, but who’s to say they hadn’t been discovered until then?”


I gave that some thought.  Undercover changelings were possible, but still didn’t make sense.  That changelings had never been discovered in this land meant that not even one changeling had slipped up and revealed his identity.  And if that was true, then this was a nationwide conspiracy, and if we attempted to unravel something that big, we’d only find trouble.


“It’s still so unlikely,” I said.  “But if I see something fishy, I’ll let you know.  Besides, wouldn’t it be easy to tell if Fairweather’s not the real Fairweather?”


Whole Grain smirked.  “If she’s not mind-numbingly annoying, something’s wrong.”


“Exactly.”  I smiled.  As I turned back to the main group, Whole Grain halted me for a moment.


“Anything fishy, okay?  Let me know.”  She looked at me, not sternly, but with concern.  “I take this stuff seriously.”


I nodded.  “Anything fishy.  You’ll be the first to know.”


“Thanks.”  We locked eyes briefly, and in that moment, I believed that she wasn’t the type of pony who would slug someone in the face multiple times.  I’d still have to be careful around her, but maybe I didn’t have to tread as lightly anymore.


On that note, we rejoined the group, and I bid Fairweather to continue.  “Go on.”


“Look, um.”  She drew circles in the ground, shy like a kid who had accidentally broken his neighbor’s window with a baseball.   “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry.  I didn’t know they weren’t your parents.  I got really excited, you know?  It’s because, well, I…  no, never mind.”


“Just tell us,” Whole Grain said, folding her arms.  “We’re right here.”


“Whole Grain…”  Wheat Flour put her hoof on her sister’s shoulder.  She turned to Fairweather and smiled.  “If you aren’t comfortable telling us, we will not make you.”


“No, it’s okay.”  Fairweather took a breath.  “I, you know, I used to have parents, but I don’t anymore.  And I thought you’d be happy if you talked with yours.  I just, I don’t know.”  She looked away.  “I didn’t mean for it to go like that.  I’m sorry.”


Oh, um.  Blowing up at her was one thing to be guilty of, but this…  She didn’t have parents, from death or abandonment or otherwise.  And I treated her like crap.  I mean, her heart was in the right place and everything.


I was lucky, in the sense that I had parents.  Yes, I no longer kept in touch with them, but they were still alive.  And if Fairweather was as young as she seemed, then she had had to deal with her parents’ departure before adulthood.  It was tragic.


“I like making new friends, you know?  Was really happy when you guys came.”  She chuckled and gave a flap of her wings.  “I like company, and… and I feel bad that I made you angry.”  She pawed at the ground again.  “I’m sorry.”


“It’s okay,” I said.  I reached out and lay a hoof on her shoulder.  “I forgive you.”


“Thanks,” she said, her smile returning to her face.  “And, well, if you guys really don’t mind, I’d like to stick around.  I promise I won’t be a hassle or anything.  I won’t even hum.”  Her smile widened to prove her resolve to us.


I looked to Whole Grain.  She was the only one who seemed to have any objection to this.  Though obviously hesitant to do so, she caved.  “Fine.  You can come with, too.”


“Thanks!”  Fairweather did a happy flip and trotted down the road.  Silently, I might add.  So, gratefully, we followed her.


We travelled well on into the afternoon.  Conversation was minimal in the first hour or so.  However, Fairweather tried to chat with us once or twice, and Lucid began to humour her.  By the time the sun was between its highest point and sunset, Fairweather was running her mouth longer than a triathlete.


She talked about all sorts of things, like her favourite music, or the one time she visited Las Pegasus, or everyday things like her routine, her thoughts about the current day, and so on.  She talked about everything and anything she could think of, it seemed.  Lucid was quite content in listening, but the rest of us had had enough for a while.  We hung back as Fairweather chatted away, occasionally flying up and around the clouds when she got excited.


As the afternoon progressed, Fairweather became tired, the plains got plainer, and the sun dropped lower in the sky.  It hung at about an hour from sunset when we came to the edge of a forest.  The trees had broad leaves here, as opposed to the coniferous Vanhoover woods.  It seemed peaceful and tranquil enough.  It was more variety than miles of plains in every direction, that was for sure.


Since no one had talked in a while, I felt like lightening the mood.  “Thank goodness,” I said.  “A break from plains.”


Whole Grain chuckled.  “Just be glad it’s not the Everfree.”


“The Everfree?” I asked.


“A patch of forest south of Canterlot,” Wheat Flour said.  “It is an odd place.”


“And dangerous,” Fairweather added.  “It’s only home to some of the most terrifying and deadly creatures in all of Equestria!”  She stood up on her hind legs and raised her arms menacingly.  “Manticores, timberwolves, cocka—mmph!”


Whole Grain’s hoof stopped Fairweather before she could list any more.  “For Celestia’s sake, Fairweather.  All things considered, it’s not that dangerous.”


“And it’s not this forest,” Lucid said with a roll of his eyes.  “Come on, let’s go.”


We carried on into the forest silently.  Ten minutes in, we spotted a stern-faced zebra ahead, guarding a fork in the road.  A silver piece of jewelry around his neck gleamed in the sunlight.


I wanted to see if this animal was able to talk, too.  If a cow could, why couldn’t a zebra?  I walked up to him first and extended my hoof.  “Hello, sir.  How are you—”


But this one didn’t talk.  Before I could finish speaking, he pressed his nose to my neck and sniffed.  Yes, sniffed.  Took a long breath in through his nose.  I froze, hoping this wasn’t a wild animal about to bite my head off.


After the zebra’s nose had its fill, he retracted his head.  His pupils narrowed, and I shivered under his gaze.  “You.  Come with me,” he said.


Oh, phew.  He was at least a talking head-hungry animal.


He led me down the leftward path in the fork, and the rest followed.  Curious, I glanced down the other path while I could.  All I was able to catch was the glint of a lake down between the trees.


“An odd greeting,” Lucid remarked in a low voice.  Whole Grain nodded, not taking her eyes off the zebra.


“I hear it’s common in Saddle Arabia,” Fairweather said, ducking so the zebra wouldn’t overhear her.


That would’ve been weird.  Smelling someone?  Though, these were animals, so it was possible…  “That’s not actually a way of greeting someone, is it?” I whispered.


Lucid shrugged.  “You never know.  Never been around these parts, myself.”


“You know, I was actually kidding,” Fairweather said, grinning.


“I wasn’t,” Lucid said.  He looked like he was about to say more, but stopped.  I wondered if it really was the way that zebras greeted other people.  Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’d have to learn to fit in.


He led us further down the road, which led into small village.  The foliage above opened up into a clearing, and the evening sun shone warmly onto the grass.


Several quaint huts were staggered about the area.  Some were built from wood, and some were built right into thick trees.  Jugs, cups, and other containers, all of them sealed in some way, were strung by rope over most of the doorways.  The faint sound of drums and a violin could be heard a little further into the village.  A pleasant smell seemed to be emanating from the same direction.


“Hi!” A pink pony said as she approached me.  She smiled and stuck out her hoof.


I looked at it and hesitated, but if this was the way to greet ponies, then this was the way.  I leaned in and took a quick sniff of her neck.  Her fur kind of smelled like strawberries.


Backing away immediately, she grimaced and tried to smile out of politeness at the same time.  The result was a mildly uncomfortable and awkward look.  She scurried away, and Fairweather snickered.  “I can’t believe you actually did that,” she said.


I felt my face flushing.  “I don’t either, and I don’t think I will again.”


Wheat Flour nodded.  “Good idea.”


A couple of ponies were milling about, though no one seemed too busy to say hi to us.  Some of them even walked up to the zebra leading us and greeted him.  There seemed to be a greeting ritual; they grabbed each other’s hoof and let go in one swift motion.  Much different from one thrusting their nose to the other’s neck and smelling.


The zebra led us to a hut not far into the village.  We filed inside, and it seemed in somewhat sorry shape.


A plain wooden table and two chairs made up the centerpiece of the room.  Books were piled in one corner, and assorted trinkets in another, even though both were underneath a set of empty shelves.  A few clocks and paintings were hanging on the walls, but most were slightly tilted and with a thin layer of dust on them.  This house had even less organization than mine.


A voice called out to us from another room in the hut.  “Hello?  Who’s there?”  It sounded a little gravelly, like an elderly person.  Not too advanced, but up there in years.


“Us,” I said intelligently.  “We were, uh, led here by a zebra.”


“Oh!  Yes, Fareeso.  He don’t seem it, but he’s got an honest heart.  Takes his job too seriously sometime.”  A clatter echoed from the doorway in the back.  “Whoops!”


“Need any help in there?” Wheat Flour asked.


“I think I’ll be all right,” came the reply.  “Thanks much, though.”


Whole Grain tapped her hoof on the ground, kicking up a small cloud of dirt.  “Is this important?  We have to get going soon.”


Fairweather smiled.  “It’s almost night-time.  I think we can stay the night.”


“Yes, you should,” the voice called out.  “Forest is a big place.  It’s easy to get lost, ‘specially at night.”


Whole Grain shrugged as we heard more shuffling.


“Sorry ‘bout that.  Now…”


The source of the voice stepped into view.  He was the same height and shape of a pony, but something was off.  His coat was light blue and had a sheen—something close to shiny, but not quite pearly.  His grey hair was a little webby, and stuck forward a little like a mohawk.  His pupils were light blue, but the whites of them were not quite white.  They had a subtle cyan tint to them.


“Any of you folk changelings?”  He coughed and cleared his throat.  “All?  Some?  One?”


A little nervous, I stepped forward and raised my hoof.  “Hi.”


“Just you, eh?”  He tilted his head a little, causing an earring in his left ear to dangle.


I looked around at the group as all eyes were on me.  “Yeah, I think so.”


“Well, then.”  He walked up to me and offered his hoof, smiling warmly.  I shook it, normally this time.  “I’m Zephyr.  Welcome to Hollow Shades!  I’ve got a great offer for you, my friend.  Come along with me and we can talk ‘bout it.”  He gestured to the door.


“We can come too, right?” Wheat Flour asked.


“Oh, yes, of course.”  He laughed heartily, collecting some plates from a shelf near the door.  “He needs to feed much as you folk do, right?”


Uh, sure, but… what did that have to do with them coming along?  I stood confused, and the others behind me didn’t laugh.


Zephyr looked between us.  His hoof froze before reaching for another plate, but he kept his smile.  “Joking, joking.  You know, the ‘changelings feed on love’ thing.”


…No, I didn’t know.  No one said anything for a good long moment.  What did he mean by “changelings feed on love”?  Was I supposed to know that?  Was it metaphorical or something?  How was that physically possible?


“It’s been a long day,” Lucid said.  “He still has the ‘changeling mindset’ and all.  So, what was that about an offer?”


Zephyr moved the stack of the plates from his hoof to his back.  “Er, right.  Well then, come along with me, and we’ll find us a spot to talk.”


He led us out of his hut and onto the dirt road, towards the sound of the music.  As we followed, I spoke to Lucid in a low voice.  “Changelings feed on love?”


“Yes,” Lucid said.  “We should’ve told you sooner.”


So he wasn’t joking.  It was still very hard to grasp, though.  How could anyone physically feed off of an emotion?  “But, how does that work?”


“We can explain later,” he said.  “Right now, I think we’re about to have supper.”


At the same time, we reached the village square, where several wooden tables had been lined up.  It seemed the whole village was there, ponies and zebras alike, talking excitedly amongst each other.  It was some sort of community potluck, and a rather busy one, at that.


Zephyr led us to an opening at one of the tables’ ends.  I found a seat on a short wooden bench next to the wheat sisters. We had to squeeze together to make room, though despite our efforts, I was left with only about half of a seat on the end of the bench.  However, that slight discomfort was easily overshadowed by the sight of the evening’s meal.


All along each row of tables were many dishes, colourful vegetables and fruits and fish and breads.  My mouth watered just watching it shine in the setting sun’s light, not to mention the aroma.  Zephyr added his own dish to the potluck: a bowl of boiled vegetables, seasoned and garnished to look absolutely heavenly.


“Gotta love the Summer Sun Celebration.  Highest time of the year, it is,” Zephyr began, grinning widely.  After passing empty cups and plates to each of us, he served himself some salmon.  “Help yourselves!”


After pausing politely, Fairweather was the first to jump in.  Whole Grain followed, and the rest of us served ourselves.  Afraid I hadn’t had enough protein over the last few days, I went for any sort of meat that they had, which turned out to be only fish.  Cod, salmon, trout… and some of Hasting’s boiled vegetables to balance it out.


“So,” Whole Grain began.  “Your offer.”


“Mm, yes.”  Zephyr swallowed before continuing.  “What’s your name, young colt?” he asked me.


I hesitated.  “I, um…  I go by a few.”


He laughed.  “Your changeling name.  Or, uh… classification.”


Oh, that was an easy enough question.  “6 F 25,” I said.  I accepted a jug from Wheat Flour and poured myself some wine.  Well, something that looked like wine.  It was probably grape juice.


Fairweather stopped chewing for a moment.  “Changelings don’t even get names?”


“Nope,” Zephyr said.  “Changelings are given a classification at birth.  Hive runs smoother that way.  I think it’s… your hive number, and the rest has to do with your sleeping compartment.  Details, details.  Age don’t do a brain any favours,” he said, smiling and tapping his hoof on his head.


Whole Grain’s face scrunched up.  “How do you know this?”


Zephyr chuckled and wiped his mouth with his shiny blue hoof.  “Because, young filly, I am one.”


Huh?  I almost choked on my mouthful of cod.


“What?” Lucid said, echoing my thoughts.  “But you.... you look so different.”


Zephyr nodded.  “Yep, I used to look like your friend 6 F 25 here.  Then something magical happened, something I never expected, but it makes sense thinking on it now.”  He leaned forward, using his elbows to support his shoulders.


“A while ago, I ran from the hive.  It was a terrible place, and still is from what I hear.  Escaping was… difficult, long story short.”  He took a sip of his juice and continued.  “Important part is that one day, I came here, lookin’ for a home.  The community here welcomed me with open arms, and I eventually set down here.


“Over the years, I found my body changing.  The holes in my arms filled in, my skin changed colour, and I came to look more similar to ponyfolk.  It puzzled me, so after a while, I saw the shaman about it.  She told me a tale of changelings a long time ago, long before Chrysalis.”


Wheat Flour stopped eating and supported her head with her hooves, ready for Zephyr to continue.  I wasn’t.  Why was his body changing, and why was that important right now?  And what did that have to do with… Chrysalis?  For the sake of not slowing things down, I remained quiet as Zephyr told his tale.


“Changelings are, and always have been, creatures that feed on love.  Way back when, they used to feed simply on pure love, one they had for each other.  They were good-natured folk, livin’ in harmony with ponies in a land far from Equestria.”


“What land, specifically?” Whole Grain asked.


“Uh… Neighpal, I think.”  He waved his hoof.  “Way out in the west.  Past, er… Saddle Arabia, but not as far as Prance.”


Instead of nodding, Whole Grain sat back and crossed her arms.  Zephyr took that as a cue to continue.  “Anyway, um…  Changelings, yes.  They used to look something like this.”  He gestured to himself.  “Colourful, just like ponies.  They could change their form—which is how they got their name—but most used it in good fun.  Teasing, playing pranks, and such.


“By and by, changelings realized something unusual.  Love they got as a changeling was one thing, but when they pretended to be a pony, the love they got had a different taste.  It was sweet, invigoratin’, and—most of all—addicting.  It was a love that they wanted to taste again, and again, and again.” He picked up a raw tomato.  “However, this type of love don’t sustain in any way, mind-wise… or even body-wise.  Both began to break down.”


He bit into the tomato with his fangs and sucked on it, shriveling up the vegetable.  When Zephyr removed his teeth, clear juice dripped out of the remaining holes.  “’Scuse me for the sorta jarrin’ analogy, but it proves the point.”  He set the tomato down and continued.


 “Changelings became bitter, bloodthirsty for this kind of love.  The ponies shied away from them, shunned them, and all but banished them from their land.


“The changelings formed their own colony.  And that’s how changelings are, nowadays.  They protect and look out for each other, even though they don’t so much love each other anymore.” Zephyr took a quick bite of a potato.  “They’re nomadic.  Travellin’ from place to place, sucking a people dry of love—or at least, trying to.  Sometime they’ll take ‘em over and sometime not.  Sometime, they’ll be happy stealing love on the sly, little by little, ‘till they’re caught.  Depends on how power-hungry the queen is.”


Fairweather’s brow crinkled in thought as she swallowed a mouthful of food.  “Wait a sec.  This is a neat history lesson and everything, but”—she pointed to me—“why tell him?  Wouldn’t he already know this stuff?”  Sigh.  Leave it to Fairweather to forget that I wasn’t a changeling.


“Well, wouldn’t ya know it, most don’t.  They’re myths by now, and nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find a changeling who gives a feather about things long, long past.”  He took a sip of his drink.


Lucid jumped in.  “Then how do you know this?”


“I’m on my way to being an old-timer, if you couldn’t tell.  Grey in my mane already—can you believe it?”  He ran his hoof through his slightly webby hair, which was almost entirely grey.  “But yes, old folks like me have been around a while.  Long enough to have visited Neighpal when I was young.  That’s where I picked it up.”


Fairweather rested her head on her hoof.  “What’s it like in Neighpal?”


“Lovely.”  Zephyr smiled.  “Cold country, warm folk.  And they brew the best tea you ever did drink.”


Whole Grain set down the uneaten roll in her hoof, the only item of food she had touched so far.  “Is this the changelings’ first time invading Equestria?”


“Yes, I do believe it is,” he said.  “Er, no…  They might’ve come here a long while ago, but they haven’t come back in ages.”


Whole Grain’s eyes narrowed.  “And how did you know about the invasion?”


“I…  Heh, they told me about it,” he replied.  “Didn’t go so well.  Canterlot fought back in full force, so I hear.  Some sorta explosion sent them flying all across Equestria.”


Explosion…  The noise that sounded like a bomb, at Honeydew’s place.  That must’ve been it.  And that’s where 4 N 7 must have come from, too.  It made sense.


“Still doesn’t answer the question of how you knew,” Whole Grain said, staring Zephyr down.


He took another sip of his juice and smirked.  “Well, aren’t you the thorough young filly?  They’re now without home, and a few have come by searching for one.  Without the Queen, they’re lost and panicky. You’ve hung around longer than most,” he said to me.  “Some I’ve convinced to stay, and those are the ones who told me ‘bout the attack.”


I looked around, and though I hadn’t noticed it before, there were a few changelings in this village.  One was further down our table, not paying us much mind.  A few were walking about.  One was sharing a laugh with an orange pony.


“Were there any changelings here before you?” Lucid asked.


“No, I was the first,” Zephyr said.  “That’s what I love about this place.  Wonderful community, here.  There’s a home waitin’ for you here, 6 F 25.  With your very own hut, if you like.”


I smiled.  “Thanks, but—”


“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Fairweather said.  “He’s already got a home.”


Zephyr’s eyebrows rose.  “Oh?  Where?”


“The monkey universe.”  She waved a dismissive hoof.  “It’s complicated, don’t bother trying to understand it.”  Ah, so she did remember that.


Zephyr faltered.  “Er…”


I jumped in.  “It’s a long story, but yes, Fairweather’s right… in that I do have a home.  Thanks for offering, though.”


Zephyr shrugged.  “Up to you.  Just know that you’re always welcome here.”


I smiled and took a sip of the juice.  It was a good grape juice, but there was an odd flavour to it.  A slight sourness, like…


…Like wine.  Oh gosh.  I took another sip.  It was too good to be true.  I drained the glass and sighed in content.  This city must not have been featured in the cartoon.  If I were stuck living in this world, this one would’ve been my first choice.


“You like the wine, eh?” Zephyr remarked.


“Yes, very much so.”


He beamed.  “Then you’ll love the Nightfall Festival.  Goes on the whole night long.  All you folks are most welcome to join us.”


“We’ll think about it,” Whole Grain said.  “Now, if you’ll excuse us for just a moment…”  She tilted her head towards her sister and I.


“Of course,” Zephyr said.


Fairweather and Lucid stood up, but Whole Grain discouraged them.  “We’ll be right back,” she said.


Whole Grain brought her sister and me away from the town square.  She found a small hut near the outside and had us hide behind it.  It was hard to see in the shade from sunlight and torchlight, but I could still make out the sisters and their faces.


Checking to make sure no one was within earshot, Whole Grain said, “This place isn’t safe.  There are changelings everywhere.”


Even more evidence for paranoia.  “Zephyr did say they were friendly,” I said.


“We can’t know that for sure,” she said.  “And since we’re stuck here tonight, we’ll have to be careful.  The three of us will stay together.”


“Just the three of us?” I asked.


“Yes.  Even if Fairweather and the professor aren’t changelings, they can take care of themselves.”


Wheat Flour had been staring at the dirt, biting her lip.  She slowly raised her head and looked up at her sister’s eyes.  “And we can’t?”


Whole Grain faltered.  She cocked her head and threw me a quick glance.  “We can watch out for each other in a group.  I want us to be safe.  Is that wrong?”


Her sister stood a little taller and swallowed.  “It means you can’t trust us to look out for ourselves.”


“Of course I know you can take care of yourself, Wheat Flour, it’s just—”


“Yet your suggestion implies I can’t.”  Wheat Flour’s cheeks began to burn.  “I am capable of handling myself, Whole Grain.  I’m no longer a filly.”


“Yes, I understand that,” Whole Grain said.  “I’m looking out for you.”


“You have been my whole life.  Is it so wrong to want to be independent?”


I backed away a little and let them sort this out.  Whole Grain’s jaw set.  “This isn’t the time for this, Wheat Flour.  Just listen to yourself—”


“I have no need to be scolded.”  Wheat Flour’s gaze tightened on her sister.  “There’s a celebration tonight.  I’d like to partake.  You may do the same, or you may not.  I trust you to decide for yourself.”


Whole Grain stamped a hoof and uttered a loud growl.  As Wheat Flour trotted away, she raised her voice.  “Fine!  Maybe I will.  Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow, or maybe I won’t!”  She turned on a dime and stomped away.


I sat there for a minute in the shadow of the hut, too uncomfortable to move or talk.  Witnessing a family conflict was not fun.  Feeling a slight headache coming on, I lowered myself to the ground and rested my head in my hooves.  I nestled into the soft fur of my arms and watched the firelight from the village dance on the trees.


The night was chilly, and the crickets’ chirping droned in my ears.  I wanted none of their stupid, inane, nonstop chatter.  I rolled onto my back and reached my arms up to cover my ears.


It had been another long day, and yet again, I probably wouldn’t be sleeping in a bed.  I needed something to take my mind off of this day.  I needed something to relax, something that would take the edge off, something like… a drink.


I smiled.  I needed a chance to feel human again.

Preread by NotSoSubtle and Somepony New

Hollow Shades knows how to party.


The tables had all been removed from the square to make room for everyone to stand and watch the sunset. Silence fell upon the village when half of the sun was below the horizon. The edges of it seemed to move closer together as the sun sank lower and lower, until just a sliver of bright yellow remained. As soon as that sliver disappeared, the entire village erupted in a cheer.


The ragtag band, made up of a violin, drums, marimba, and harmonica, swelled from the slow and pleasant music of before to a mix of western hoedown and tribal dance. Without a second thought, everyone jumped to their feet and started to dance. Some danced in circles around some fire pits, some danced with a partner, and some were just dancing on their own. I was content sitting off to the side, browsing the scene for the spirits I was promised.


Ponies danced in an odd way. Well, not so much odd as different. Of course, all four of their appendages were on the ground, which may seem restricting at first, but these ponies found a way. They seemed to have discovered every combination of extending or bending their arms, twirling, galloping in place, tapping their hooves… and that wasn’t counting what they could do in groups of two or more. It was so coordinated, I began to wonder if all the ponies here were required to undergo cheerleader training.


“Up there.”


“Huh!” Startled, my head whipped in the direction of the voice. It was Zephyr. I breathed out in relief. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”


He grinned, revealing his teeth. His fangs seemed smaller compared to mine. “Sorry. Figured you’d be lookin’ for wine. It’s up there.” He nodded up behind me.


I turned to look. A rope with several jugs hanging on it was strung over the doorway of a hut, like most of the huts I had seen that day. I thanked him and extended my hoof to it, but I couldn’t quite reach it. My hoof barely went past the top of my head.


“Here, I’ll take a crack at it,” Zephyr said. He stood up on his hind legs and plucked a jug off of the string. I’d been a pony for so long, I’d forgotten I used to do that.


Zephyr popped the top off with his teeth and handed it to me, smiling. I thanked him and took a sip, letting it run over my tongue to savour it. Just as good as I remembered.


I looked at the jugs. “Why are they hung over the doorways like that?” I asked.


“Tradition. Started by Ol’ Snozzberry, founder of Hollow Shades.” Zephyr grabbed another jug off the string for himself. “Hear tell he was such a hardflank that he wouldn’t let nopony drink during the village’s construction. He flew up and strung all the spirits ‘cross the two tallest trees, and as the only pegasus, nopony else could get at ‘em. Brought ‘em down only after the sun set. Was like that every day for ‘bout a year.”


He popped the cork on his jug. “Last day of work, which was also the Summer Sun Celebration, the last hut was done right around noontime. That night was the right happiest party they ever did have. Danced most the night away, hootin’ and hollerin’ and havin’ the time of their lives. So the tradition lives on, though nowadays a bit closer to the ground.”


I watched Fairweather hover over the lanterns strung across the square. She was helping some other flying ponies light them. “So they waited until sunset? Why didn’t they start the party at noon?”


He took a sip and swallowed. “Slowest trees, sweetest fruit, all that. Plus, it was always Snozzberry who brought the spirits down, always at sunset. It only felt right, so they were willin’ to wait for it.”


I nodded slowly and took a swig of my wine. “This place is full of stories, isn’t it?”


“You betcha.” He nudged me with an elbow. “Always room for another.”


I smiled without answering, turning my attention to the ponies dancing away in front of us.


“I’ll let you to your girlfriend,” he said, a twinkle in his eye as he walked away.


“Hey, I—” Before I could correct him, my ‘girlfriend’ surprised me from behind.


“Getting your party on, I see,” Whole Grain said, slapping me hard on the back and causing wine to go down the wrong pipe. I coughed and sputtered, which only made her grin wider. “Let me rephrase that—getting your party on for the first time.”


I wiped my mouth and set the jug down on the ground. With an air of dignity, I said, “I’ve drinken—drunken—had a drink before.” Even if I was sober, I couldn’t remember the right tense of that word.


This made her toss her head back in laughter. “Sure, sure.” She watched the ponies dancing in the circle. “Let’s dance, c’mon. You and me.”


“No thanks, Whole Grain, I’ll—” But before I could protest any further, she grasped my hoof and yanked me forward. I accidentally bumped into a few other ponies in the process—including Lucid, I believe—but they didn’t seem to notice or care. She led me to a spot near the middle, with ample room to move around in.


She turned to face me. I figured she might’ve been drunk, as her smiling mouth was hanging open a little. Not to mention that she wanted to dance with me. “Ever done the trot step before?” she asked.


“The what?” It was a little hard to hear over the merriment.


“The trot step. You jump between hooves, like this.” She did two hops, alternating holding her opposing feet in the air.


It seemed too coordinated for me, but after setting my wine down carefully, I gave it a try anyway. After stepping on my own feet a few times, I could only manage alternating my front hooves. “Like this?” I asked, knowing full well how clumsy it looked.


She smirked. “Close enough.”


She also tried to teach me a couple of other dance moves. Being the clunky four-legged creature I was, I stumbled in each dance, but she seemed to enjoy watching me fail regardless. And even though I felt like a blundering statue at times, I wasn’t having a bad time, either.


After some encouraging words and a few more sips of wine, Whole Grain and I attempted one of the group dances. We couldn’t keep up with the group at all, but they didn’t mind. They sort of danced around us as we did our own thing.


We turned and trot-stepped and cantered and junebugged the night away, laughing at each other (but mostly me) all the while. At one point, I was convinced to change into my changeling form, by Whole Grain or Fairweather or somebody. Whoever it was, either they were very persuasive or I was made very persuadable by the wine.


Eventually, Whole Grain took my hooves in her own and spun me around. She was wearing the biggest—and perhaps the only—earnest smile I’d ever seen on her.


The lights and the music and the laughter all blended and swirled together as I spun around. I let my head fall back and looked up into the night sky, past the soft glow of the lanterns. I felt the fullest feeling I’ve ever felt before, like I had eaten a hearty thanksgiving meal and didn’t get the bloating that came afterwards. I felt warm, like coming home on a frigid January evening to a fireplace and a cup of hot cocoa. I felt ecstatic, like I had just won the lottery and had millions of dollars waiting in the bank for me, any and all worries gone.


Screw wherever or whatever I was. I was having the time of my life. Whether it was the dancing, the alcohol, my new physical dependence on emotion, or all of the above, I felt the happiest I’d ever been.


We kept dancing for a while. I didn’t notice that time was passing until my steps got heavy and I was panting. I was tired, and needed a break. I pseudo-trot-stepped out of the dancing circle and to the sidelines, worn out and thirsty. I grabbed a stray wine jug and took a gulp. Even the smile glued to my face relaxed a little. I felt so good, I could’ve dropped down right there and slept.


However, casually looking around, I spotted Wheat Flour leaving Zephyr’s hut. She wasn’t headed to the town square, however—she was walking down the path we had taken earlier that day. I followed her, my curiosity fueled by wine. My feet were dragging, causing me to trip over the occasional tree root as I followed her. Despite the stealth that comes with inebriation, she probably knew I was there.


At the intersection we had passed before, she turned down the path to the lake. I wondered why. Was she thirsty? Was she meeting someone there? Maybe she wanted to be alone? Despite all these questions, my drunken self was not willing to waste energy in thinking or listening to petty reservations, so I continued to follow her.


The confining trees of the forest opened up to the atmosphere, taking my bated breath up into it. The moon presided over the clear night sky, slightly fuller than the last night. Crickets from all around the lake chattered over its gentle swishing. If there was one thing these animators knew how to do well, it was lakes.


Wheat Flour went down to the shore of the lake, onto a little natural jetty, and lay down. She didn’t make any sudden movements, not even an ear twitch. Her eyes rested upon the lake, and she smiled. The scene was familiar to me, though at the time, I couldn’t place why. I had stopped where I was, unsure of what to do at this point.


She turned around. “Hello,” she said.


“Hey,” I said, staring at her stupidly. She smiled, possibly aware of my drunken state. It was too early to tell if she was.


“The sky is clear tonight,” Wheat Flour said.


“Sure is,” I said, looking up to make sure I was correct. The stars were pretty, twinkling in the sky. “’S pretty, with all the stars and stuff.” I’m witty when I’m wasted, apparently.


Wheat Flour patted a spot on the grass next to her. “Please, sit.”


“All right,” I said, and sat down on the grass. Admittedly, I sat down a little too close to her than I should’ve, but she didn’t protest.


She smiled when I settled down, then looked up at the sky. “I used to wonder about the stars. I’d open up the window of my room and watch them every night. I still enjoy them now, watching them watching us, wondering…”


She set her elbows down on the ground, cradling her chin in her hooves. She went on about the stars and her childhood and things that were probably pretty important to her. However, being the clear thinker that I was, I didn’t realize that the shy pony who had said next to nothing to me the whole journey was talking about personal things. Instead, I was politely drifting in and out of paying attention, in addition to having trouble seeing straight.


“…Lucid says there are other universes right here on this planet. Can you imagine?” she was saying, realizing who she was talking to almost instantly. “Oh, I suppose you can.”


“Hm? Oh, yeah,” I said, not fully aware of what I was agreeing to.


She continued to stare at the stars, as if she wasn’t really talking to me anymore. “I have never had a real home, you know that? A place that I could proudly call my home, and not be ashamed, or embarrassed, or… fearful.”


Then she said something about how I had a home in my dimension. Her voice, low and soft, melted into the background. Crickets were chirping, and their chattering no longer annoyed me. It was sweet, like music, like a lullaby. The chattering, the sloshing of the lake, the humming of Wheat Flour’s voice in the distance. I lowered my head down slowly and closed my eyes, ready to drift off.


“…Something to tell you.”


I opened my eyes. That brought me back. My brain fought my body to wake me back up. Slowly, I raised my head again and looked at her eyes. “Mm, yes, tell me.”


She looked away at first, then returned to meet my eyes. Her mouth opened, but then closed again, as if she didn’t quite know how to word it. Her head tilted ever so slightly. “Do you love me, Sawyer?”


That was kind of an irrelevant question. Or, at least, it felt like one. “Mm, not really. Why?” I don’t know what I was expecting after that answer, but why I thought it would be anything but insensitive is beyond me.


She blinked, her expression unchanging. Her eyebrows rose and she looked as if she wanted to ask the question again, in case I didn’t hear it properly the first time. Instead, she stopped, looked away, and almost whispered, “Some other time.”


I was still focused on the thing she wanted to tell me. I moved my hoof closer to hers, barely touching her fur. “No, yeah, Wheat Flour, you can tell me,” I said, bobbing my head. At this point, I was really curious. “You can tell me, tell me anything. Go right ahead, tell me.”


Her eyebrows furrowed, and she drew her hooves in closer to her body. “Sawyer, you don’t truly want to know. Another time.”


Normally, at this point, I would stop and politely do exactly as she said—wait until another time. However, something about being drunk made me too focused on this secret, and it became more important to me than getting on her nerves. I scooted closer to her. “Wheat Flour, you can trust me. Just tell me, just…”


“Sawyer, no.” She stood up and huffed. “Another time, Sawyer, please.”


“Yeah, okay, just…” I stood up with her, and walked closer. I just couldn’t stop babbling on about this. “Just tell me, Wheat Flour, just—”


“No!” she yelled, whacking me in the face with the back of her hoof. I recoiled in surprise. My jaw hung open, and I froze in place.


Wheat Flour had frozen too, panting with her teeth slightly bared. She slowly put her hoof down away from her body, like it was unsanitary. Her breathing calmed, and she closed her eyes. “You are drunk, Sawyer. Good night.”


My jaw was clenched tight, holding my breath back. The most my vocal chords could manage was a faint “Uh”, barely audible over the crickets. Whether she heard it or not, she turned away from me and walked up the shore, back to the village.


My mind drew a blank. I felt like an idiot, but at the time, I had trouble pinpointing why. I certainly didn’t feel as good as I had before. Before I was full, and now, I was empty.


I tried to think, but it was hard to focus. All I could think about was how scared Wheat Flour was and that I was thirsty. I wobbled over to the lake’s edge, took a gulp, and settled back down in the grass.


I stared straight ahead across the lake, putting everypony else out of my mind. Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath, in and out. I let the crickets, the lake, and the alcohol left in my system lull me down into unconsciousness.


I began to dream, though this time, the dream was no longer as clear as the one I had in Lucid’s magical orb thing. This one was similar to the other dreams I had, in that my perception was hazy and time moved at an irregular pace. Being as drunk as I was, I barely noticed the transition.


I was at a very fancy party, an upper class event at its finest. The room was wide and circular, the lavish gold walls flowing upwards and converging at a large glass chandelier on the ceiling. Many well-dressed folks stood around elbow-high tables, each with its own petite bowl filled halfway with pistachios. Over the buzz of fervent conversation, I could hear the faint sound of a piano playing a light jazz song. It felt very much like a 1920s-era party. Maybe I was reminiscing about a time long past. I dunno. Someone like Freud or Jung might have a better clue than I.


I was dressed in a tight-fitting suit and holding a glass of wine, which I had no inclination to drink, surprisingly. Instead, I swirled it around like some kind of sommelier, because it seemed like one of the things that fancy people did at fancy parties like this. The party was packed, though not uncomfortably. I nodded my head at random people as if I knew them, because what the heck, if I’m going through one of these dreams, I might as well have some fun.


Hey, stranger. Evening, ma’am. Oh hey, a blue horse. I guess after spending so much time around them, seeing ponies in my dreams made sense. I nodded to her. She nodded back. And no, I have no idea what Jung would have to say about that.


I stopped at a table near the edge of the room and set my glass down. Two beautiful women with long, flowing gowns stood at the table and welcomed me with bright, smiling faces. I nodded to them and took one of the pistachios from the bowl on the table, studying it, turning it over in my fingers. This particular pistachio looked more like a chickpea.


Each of the women was fiddling with her own hair, twirling it when they weren’t pushing it up and pushing it up when they got tired of twirling it. Oh, isn’t it just a lovely party, the blonde one said. The red-haired one tossed her hair and agreed. Why, yes, isn’t it just?


Yes, I said, wondering why they both talked and acted so strangely. I set the pistachio down and picked my wine glass back up. I tried to emulate their way of speaking, not mockingly, but to blend in. I gestured to them with my glass, careful not to spill any wine. It is a wonderful party, I said. Very wonderful indeed.


Then they both stopped fiddling with their hair and looked hurt, like I had said something offensive. The red-haired woman turned up her chin and walked away. The blonde one took a fan out and waved it, pretending to be preoccupied and looking away.


I felt really bad, so I took out a twenty dollar bill from my pocket, laid it on the table, and walked away. It was an odd thing to do. No one gives money at a party like that, unless it’s a tip for a valet or something. Plus, I must’ve looked cheap as chips giving only twenty dollars. But I felt bad, so I was compelled to.


I weaved through the crowd again, but I was focused on the way out and not on nodding at the fellow partiers. I had had enough and was ready to leave. The people moved closer together, until I had to shuffle and squeeze between them to get past. I don’t know what made them decide to become so inconsiderate so suddenly.


Then the party, the people, the tables, the pistachios all faded away, but even as they did, I kept walking, no longer swirling the wine glass in my hand.


And then I woke—oh, my head. Ohhh my head.

Preread by NotSoSubtle and Somepony New

Cartoon hangovers were not any more pleasant than real life hangovers. In fact, they were worse, if anything.


Not that being in a cartoon had any added effect, though. I just don’t usually drink that much. Maybe three beers at most, but I’m normally good at setting a limit. Normally. Last night was not a normal night. By any means, really, considering the cartoon and horses and changelings and whatnot.


My brain throbbed painfully inside my skull, and that intensified when I opened my eyes. Sunlight was never my enemy, unless I woke up hungover midmorning. I shielded my eyes from his rays of death as best as I could.


I dragged myself to the lake and had some water. A lot of water, actually; I was parched. I stretched and pulled myself up to stand, and started down the path from the lake, trying to stay upright as I walked.


I moseyed my way over to the village. Squinting, I stayed in the shade of the trees as much as I could, but even looking at the sun’s shine on the path hurt my eyes.


The village was very awake at this point, which surprised me. It could’ve been a time zone thing, or they were used to drinking and they could hold their liquor better. Or, I drank more than anyone else did last night. I couldn’t rule out that possibility, however embarrassing it was.


“Mornin’,” Zephyr said with a smile. He was eating some bread, probably leftover from the feast the other day. He looked me up and down. “Had your fill of the bubbly last night, did ya?”


“Yeah,” I said, looking down. “Yeah, maybe more than my fill.”


“Eh, nothing to lose your mane over.” He tore off a piece of his bread and held it out to me. “I’d send you Arabica’s way for wake-up juice, but most new folks can’t stand the taste.”


“Thanks, but no,” I mumbled, accepting the bread. I’d seen how cartoon characters generally reacted to “wake-up juice”, and I preferred the more gradual way to recover.


Making some small talk about the weather, Zephyr and I sauntered towards the village square. The wheat sisters were there, already up and about, and picking something off of the ground. Bits, I realized. Whole Grain glanced at me and bent back down to continue collecting. “There you are.”


“Hey.” I rubbed my eyes, avoiding eye contact with Wheat Flour. I was too ashamed to talk to her at the moment. Instead, I turned to Whole Grain. “What are you doing?”


“Check your arms,” she said without looking up.


I did, holding them out in front of me. Black and holey as always, except… Oh. Um. The bits in my arms were gone. That was all of our money. Trying to hide my shameful look but doing a terrible job, I quickly finished my bread and helped them scan the ground for bits.


The shiny confetti strewn about didn’t help, either for the search for bits or for my headache. With some effort, I collected three before Whole Grain told me to stop.


“That’s it, I checked the rest of that area. We have enough,” she said, starting to jam bits into my arms. “A day’s worth of food and a train ride to Vanhoover is all we need. You seen Lucid? We have to—speak of the draconequus…”


I turned around to look. Lucid walked out of a hut, squinting when he came into the daylight. We exchanged morning greetings. He seemed almost as hungover as me. Almost. He had a better grasp on his balance, and he adjusted to the sunlight faster.


“Great, you’re up. Let’s go,” Whole Grain said. She started to trot across the village square. “Long day ahead of us. We’ll be at Canterlot by nightfall.”


I stood and caught up with Whole Grain as she started to lead us out of the village. Zephyr trailed me and piped up, “You folks don’t want to take the train?”


Here? Out in the middle of the woods? There was a train station?


~ ~ ~


There was a train station.


A small train station. Just a simple platform and a ticket stand. It’s a way station, Zephyr explained. The railway went through Hollow Shades from Canterlot to Baltimare, so they figured, let’s put a station here, why not.


When I understood why Hollow Shades had a train station, I needed to know if we could use it. “Is it running to Canterlot, though?” I asked Zephyr.


He nodded. “Should be now. Canterlot was under lock and key not too long ago, you know.”


I observed Whole Grain as she bickered with the conductor. Wheat Flour was standing by her side, watching the conductor, with a disinterested look on her face. I figured I should apologize to her at some point. Not at the moment, though.


“It was?” Lucid asked. Fairweather hovered next to him.


Zephyr chuckled. “Yeah. Put a shield up ‘round the whole city and choked up the train line to thru traffic only, ‘cept for approved trains. The royals take threats real serious.”


I looked off in the distance at the mountain, which was where Canterlot was, so Zephyr had said. I remembered seeing the pink bubble over the city from the train, and the explosion we heard the next day in Fillydelphia. They had good reason to be cautious.


Fairweather landed on the ground. “The changey things, right?”


“Er, the changelings, yes,” Zephyr said. “But that’s over, so it shouldn’t be a problem now.” He chuckled. “Shouldn’t, but your friend wants to be extra sure, looks like.”


I nodded. Whole Grain was probably the angriest among us when we couldn’t get there the first time. “Angry” may not be the right word… Annoyed. Very annoyed. I was glad I wasn’t on the receiving end of her annoyance anymore. Or her aggression, for that matter.


I turned to Zephyr and thanked him for letting us stay in Hollow Shades. He said we were welcome back anytime, and we left to meet up with the wheat sisters on the train platform.


“All set?” Lucid asked Whole Grain, doing up the clasp on his satchel.


Whole Grain smiled. “Yes. We’re going. And we are definitely stopping in Canterlot this time.” She turned to the conductor and glared at him. “Isn’t that right, bud?” The conductor’s head lowered to his feet and he tightly folded his wings as he stared up into Whole Grain’s angry eyes. He cowered under her like she was the Eye of Sauron. She spoke like it, too. “The train will stop in Canterlot.”


“Y-yes.” The conductor gulped. “I’m v-v-very sure it w-w-will.” He crawled backwards and took off, flying back to the engine. I felt bad for the guy.


We boarded the train and took our seats in an open car, instead of a compartment, at my request. It was also closer to the engine instead of the caboose. I wanted no opportunity for a repeat of the last time I was on a train.


We picked seats such that we were facing each other—I opposite Lucid and Fairweather opposite the wheat sisters. Each of us had our own window except for Whole Grain. With a lurch and loud whistle, the train pulled away from the station, and we were on our way to Canterlot, hopefully.


Nobody started a conversation for the first hour or so. I watched the landscape pass by my window. I had nothing to talk to the others about: My apology with Wheat Flour would have to wait until we had some privacy. Lucid had told me enough about how I got here. And I didn’t want to talk about last night to anyone. I didn’t feel good about it.


Fairweather, however, had no such inhibitions about conversing. She turned to us and smiled. “Quite a party last night, huh?”


No one responded for several seconds. I avoided looking at the wheat sisters and glanced at Lucid before looking out the window again.


Whole Grain said, “Well I, for one, had a good time.”


I did a double take at her. I thought she was referring to her time with me, and I became scared that she, too, had fallen in love with me. However, she was staring at her sister, smirking.


Fairweather, blissfully unaware, continued. “Did you see the desert buffet? There was chocolate fondue, and s’mores, of course, and this really good rhubarb pie, a la mode. I ate way more than I should’ve.” She rubbed her stomach and giggled. “I couldn’t help myself!”


“You weren’t the only one,” Wheat Flour mumbled.


I kept staring out the window. Whether she was referring to me or her sister, it made me uncomfortable.


Fairweather continued. “Huh. Well, I didn’t see any of you guys at the buffet table. You and Coop—Copper were jigging’ it up, Lucy just went all-out loony, and—well, I barely saw you at all.”


“Somepony had to play grown-up,” Wheat Flour said.


“More like grown-uptight,” her sister said.


Wheat Flour sighed. “Hilarious.”


Whole Grain leaned forward. “You wanna know what’s funny?” she asked. “You were the one who put us in danger last night.”


“I should go get some refreshments,” Lucid declared, suddenly standing up. “Let’s go, Fairweather.”


Fairweather chuckled. “Huh? Why me?”


“I might need help carrying them,” he said. “We should go.”


“I dunno, you’re the one with the fancy-schmancy unicorn magic. Surely you can handle it.”


However, Lucid didn’t wait for her consent. He tugged her arm and left with her. I didn’t join them. Even though I didn’t want to be involved in this discussion, I felt I already was. As of last night, when Whole Grain pulled her sister and I aside to express her doubts about Hollow Shades, she had trusted me almost as much as her sister. It’s like I was part of the family. No, that’s too cheesy… They trusted me now. That’s more accurate.


Once the door shut behind Lucid and Fairweather, the wheat sisters continued their argument. I sat by and waited for them to either accuse me, insult me, or tell me to leave. Whichever it was, I’d have something to say back.


Wheat Flour stood up from her seat and sat across from her sister, so they could talk face-to-face. “I put us in danger,” she repeated.




“Because I was the only sober one last night.”


“No, because you insisted on splitting up,” Whole Grain replied. “I said right from the start we should stick together.”


“Okay. But, we didn’t, and we are all fine.” Wheat Flour smiled. “It appears I was right. The only danger we faced last night was you two drinking yourselves senseless.”


Yep, I knew I’d have to defend myself at some point. “I’m sorry about that, all right? I got carried away, just wanted to have a little fun.”


“Don’t apologize,” Whole Grain told me. “You have nothing to be sorry for.”


“Don’t do that,” I said, standing up. “Don’t tell me what to do. I want to apologize. I’m apologizing.” I turned to Wheat Flour, softening my tone. “I’m sorry.” She looked down.


I looked down, too. We were silent for a moment. I wanted to say something else, but I couldn’t. I was mad at myself for what I did, I was mad at Whole Grain, I was mad that I was in this world, not at home, safe, with my safe job and my safe life.


“Least I didn’t lose all our money,” Whole Grain mumbled.


I hesitated, stomping my hoof on the floor. “That was not my fault, okay?”


She scoffed. “What, somepony forced you to turn into a changeling?”


Okay, that’s it. I’d had enough of Whole Grain’s nonsense. I advanced, anger running through my legs. “You think I asked for this? You think I wanted any of this?”


Whole Grain blinked. Taking a small step back, she raised her eyebrows and squinted at me. “Hold up, Copper. I don’t—”


“No, you don’t! You think I came here on purpose?” I felt my jaw shake, and Whole Grain started to look scared, but I pressed on. “I didn’t choose this, Whole Grain. I’m here because of some stupid magic experiment. I didn’t want any of this.”


They didn’t deserve for me to treat them like this, but I wasn’t ready to stop. I was angry. “I’d rather be home. I don’t want to live in Ponyland; I want Humanland, with my own human body and human feet and hands.” I thrust my hoof to my chest. “I want my life back. I want to go home. To sit down in my own recliner. To watch all the damn T.V. I want!”


And then… I was there. All the little details of home suddenly came back to me. My used brown recliner with the balding arms sitting in the middle of the living room. The microwave in the kitchen with the tray that squeaked like the dickens when heating up anything heavier than a frozen muffin. The cans of paint by the door—a self-imposed reminder that I needed to paint over the peeling grey coat on my house’s siding.


A pile of old T.V. schedules (the most recent one on top) was on a coffee table next to my recliner. It was the only reason I subscribed to the weekend paper. “Breaking Bad’s on Sunday,” I said, almost automatically. I didn’t even know what day of the week it was. I went stiff as a statue. I couldn’t breathe.


Home never felt so far away. Physically, yeah, it was far across time and space and whatever. However, the only piece of home that I had taken with me was my memory of it. Sure, I could live without television or microwaves or even having fingers at the end of my hands. But if there was one thing I was scared to lose, it was the knowledge of what it was like to be human.


I backed up, slowly, to my own seat. I felt cold, all of a sudden. Fur felt weird. I wanted clothes, clothing of any kind, like a shirt or pants or even socks. In all the time I spent in that place, I never felt so naked. I shivered as I sat down, pulling my arms in close to me.


Then I felt someone embrace me. Wheat Flour, I realized. Didn’t matter. I was grateful for any kind of support. She was warm, too. I pried away one of my arms from beneath the embrace and wrapped it around her. “Thanks,” I mumbled.


You’re almost there. I laughed softly at the thought. You’re almost there. Once the train stops, you’ll pretty much be home. With a normal life, in your normal world, and your normal, non-horse body.


I took my arm away, and wiped my face. “Thanks,” I said again. “I’m fine now.”


Wheat Flour stared at me for a second, looking between each of my eyes, to make sure I was being honest, I suppose. “If you say so,” she said. “We are here for you. Remember that.” I nodded. She smiled, rubbed my arm, and went back to her seat.


Whole Grain shifted and opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. After a quick glance at her sister, she decided to talk. “I meant last night,” she said.


“Hm?” I said.


She cleared her throat, and her eyes darted back to her sister once more before looking at me. “When I asked if somepony made you turn into a changeling, I meant last night. Not…” She waved her hoof around in an all-encompassing circle. “…the way you thought. But, uh, forget it.”


Oh, so that’s what she meant. Of course I’d mistake her comment for something so existential. Okay, great. I had gone on an angry rant over a stupid misunderstanding. What a genius I was for lashing out for no reason at my only two friends in this universe. Frustrated, I bored my wrist into my forehead.


Woah, starting to get angry again. No need to repeat the same mistake. Breaths. Slow, deep breaths. Straightening up, I rolled my shoulders and leaned my head from side to side, stretching my stiff neck.


None of this would matter, anyway; I’d be home soon. We were close, weren’t we? This train would stop in Canterlot. Then, I’d be one castle visit away from home. Nothing to it. I settled into my chair and had the courage to smile. Not of overconfidence, but simply from hope.


The door to the train car opened with a soft click, and a tray with a green aura floated in. It carried five cups, a teapot, and two dishes of sugar and cream. Lucid trotted in after it, closing the door behind him. “Who likes tea?” he said.


I stared at the tray, which was encased in a green glow. Green. I had seen that shade of green before. A shade of green unlike the white shade I had seen from Lucid’s horn before. No, I had seen that shade of green come from the Sergeant’s horn. And 4 N 7’s. And 6 F 26’s.


It was a changeling shade of green.


No way. No freaking way. I froze, and after peeling my eyes off of Lucid, I suddenly stared hard at Whole Grain. All I could do was stare at her. No signal or secret arm motion came to mind, something that wouldn’t get Lucid’s immediate attention… Yes, there was something.


As Whole Grain stared back, I almost whispered, “Fishy.”


Her eyes grew wide in realization.


She sprung into the air, her arms out in front of her and aimed at Lucid. The aura around the tray faded, the teacups falling, the cubes of sugar rising up from their container as they were released. The tray clattered to the ground, launching amber liquid into the air. The glow around Lucid’s horn didn’t fade, instead shooting a beam of green light in front of it. The light materialized into goo at Whole Grain’s back hooves, pinning her to the ground. She slammed into the floorboards, tea splashing onto her face.


I stared, my mouth hanging open. I turned to see Lucid’s angry green eyes, Wheat Flour’s fearful pink eyes… and the door. I ran, focusing on that door. I zeroed in on the knob and reached for it. Almost there…


But I didn’t get that chance. I felt a pull as my back legs were weighted down with ooze. He had me. I heaved with my arms, trying to free myself from the slime on my legs, to reach that door.


Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his blue hooves approaching, then his head. His green eyes were wild, and his mouth was wide in a sinister grin. He let out an exasperated laugh as he held the tray in his green magic. The tray suddenly grew in size, and my vision went dark. So much for Breaking Bad.


I felt very slow and sleepy, like I had just woken up. I couldn’t see, and I tried to move all of my legs. Only the lower legs were responding, so I kicked and flailed them as much as I could, trying to hit or latch on to something. I heard screeching and felt a rumble, and it felt like my back was being run over by a sanding belt.


My vision started to come back, but it was very blurry. I could only make out colours. I lashed my head from side to side, trying to bring my sight back faster. I could make out patches of light—windows, I realized.


Pain swelled in my forehead and behind my eyes. I squeezed them shut to supress it. That tray was not made of pillows and marshmallows, that’s for sure.


A door slammed. I heard someone yelling. My hands pressed into a wall above me, and something sticky covered them. More yelling, and some scuffling. I could’ve sworn I heard the stammering voice of the conductor. My vision started to sharpen. I looked up, and I saw green stuff around my wrists. I pulled my arms up, down, out, I jerked around, but I couldn’t free them. I was stuck.


I was in the engine cabin of the train. It was a small space, with only a door to a furnace, a shovel atop a pile of coal, and some controls for the train. Lucid, his glasses crooked, was standing in front of me, panting, smiling. We both stared at each other for a moment, and I found the courage to speak. “Who are you?”


A green wave of magic enveloped him, and he stood there in his changeling form. He licked his lips. “Take a guess, chump.”


What? All this time, him? He was Lucid? “No. I…”


“Yes! Yes, it’s me. And boy, am I glad to see you.” 6 F 26 laughed. He walked to the furnace grate and unfastened the latch. “We’re going to have a fun little ride, yes we are.”


I swallowed. As he swung open the furnace door, the heat of the fire surged into the cabin. I felt it almost immediately, my eyes hurting and my skin becoming uncomfortably warm. Instinctively, I tried to scoot away.


6 F 26 picked up the shovel on the coal pile and dug it into the coal. He heaved a scoop into the furnace, the fire roaring as he fed it. I winced as the flames brightened.


“Ah, fire. Fire is fun to watch,” he said. The flames reflected on his pale, pupil-less eyes. “Oh, I’ve been waiting for this for daaays. And now you’re here! This is perfect.” He walked up to me and looked at my restraint, smiling. “I’ve got you right where I want you.”


I shrunk back from him, scared of what that meant. He worked frantically with the shovel. He was excited, almost. There was a sort of spring in his step as he shoveled scoop after scoop of coal into the furnace. I didn’t like it at all. People scare me when they’re two eggs short of a complete breakfast, so to speak.


This had to be a misunderstanding. What had I done to him? I mean, yes, I had left him with the Sergeant outside of the Manehattan police station to be taken in. Was that really bad enough to justify him capturing or injuring or killing me or even… torturing me? I shuddered. Maybe we could talk this out.


He glanced at me as he worked, sporting a wide grin. I tilted my head down away from him, but I still watched him carefully. “Why are you doing this?”


“You want to know why? You want to know why?” He stomped toward me and threw down the shovel, letting it clatter on the stone floor. His right hoof wound up and socked me right up my jaw. That hurt.


“I can’t believe you’re that stupid!” He panted, keeping his eyes trained on me, and picked the shovel back up. “You beat me near to death and left me to rot in a dumpster. A dumpster.”


He was wrong about the dumpster part. I opened my mouth a little to stretch out my stinging jaw. “We didn’t put you in a dumpster.”


“Don’t lie to me!” He returned to his work, angrily heaping more coal into the furnace. “You left me to die there. Far away from the hive, my home…” He sunk the shovel into the coal pile and paused. Then, with renewed vigor, he heaved a scoop into the furnace.


“I was out for a whole day. After that, I knew had to find you. Find you, then kill you.” He laughed a little, but then sputtered into coughing from the furnace’s fumes. He cleared his throat. “I knew you were going to Canterlot, so I started to fly there. And, lucky for me, I stumbled upon your friends in Fairflanks. Couldn’t kill you there, out in public. Had to wait.”


Whole Grain was right. Lucid had apologized too quickly. “You became Lucid,” I said.


“I did. Watched your little sissy fight with him, and once he left, I jumped him. His body’s probably been found by now.”


His body? Good grief! “You killed him?”


“What? No. He was no use to me dead. I was starving.” He wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Knocked him out, put him in a pod, sucked the love out of him. Ran before anyone could find me.”


So Lucid was still alive. I was relieved, but only for a second. 6 F 26 was still threatening to kill me. I swallowed, paralyzed, as I looked at the bright yellow flames roaring in the furnace. I’d never been burned alive before, and I haven’t met anyone who had. I didn’t imagine it to be very pleasant at all.


I forced myself to speak. “You’re gonna throw me in there?”


“No,” he huffed.  “What I’m going to do, is I’m going to kill you and your dumb friends…” He smiled wickedly. “…all at once. That’s what makes this so perfect.”


I felt cold shivers run up my back. He slammed the grate on the furnace, which only slightly dulled the roar of the engine. He laughed, looking out of the train’s window. “Looks like a straight stretch for now. Turn’s gotta come soon, though. I’d hate to take it at this speed.”


I tried to calm my breathing. There had to be a way out of this. I looked up at my bond. I had to break free of it somehow. And then, refocusing on my horn, I realized: I had magic. There had to be something in that horn of mine that could cut through it.


6 F 26 was still looking out of the window. I had to act fast. I focused, imagining power rushing to my forehead. Then, I visualized a razor-thin blade surgically separating the goo from the wall—not fully breaking it, but just detaching me from the wall. As long as he didn’t look too closely, 6 F 26 wouldn’t notice.


My horn and its beam of magic obeyed, and I cut the goo from the wall. Just in time, too. 6 F 26 smiled, still looking out the window. “Aha! There it is, a turn.” He clapped, almost like a child, at the sight. He turned and bounded over to me. “Well, I guess we part ways now.”


I shifted a little, making sure that I was still disconnected from the wall. I swallowed as his face came close to mine. He grinned. “You know, it’s funny. You left me to die, chump. And now, I get to return the—oof!”


I threw my arms over his head and thrust my knee into his stomach. I had to move fast, couldn’t give him time to react. I pulled his neck sideways and rolled over on top of him. As he groaned, I pressed my elbows onto his shoulders and shifted my weight there to pin him to the ground.


His horn glowed and he shot a magic beam at my face. Instinctively, I recoiled and closed my eyes, but when I tried to open them again, I realized they were stuck shut. My hooves were still stuck together, so I couldn’t let up. I wanted to panic and almost did, but although I was blind, I could still hold him down. I pressed his shoulders harder to the ground.


I strained to open my eyes, but I still couldn’t. The wheels were screeching, the furnace was roaring, my heart was racing, and I prayed that someone, anyone, would come to the engine and help me.


Thankfully, someone did. The door to the cabin banged open. Never before had the sound of Whole Grain yelling been sweeter than music.


“Don’t move! Either of you!” she said, and I obliged, still holding 6 F 26 down. I felt him resist, but I pushed as hard as I could.


A few seconds later, I was pulled off of 6 F 26. After being gently laid against a wall, I felt something scrape away the goo from my eyes. Through my blurred vision, I saw Wheat Flour.


“You all right?” she asked.


“Ah,” I exhaled, then looked down at my body. All my limbs were still attached and nothing was bleeding, but my head was sore. Oh, and I was also alive. I’d call that fine. “I’m fine,” I said.


Whole Grain whaled away on 6 F 26, beating him to a pulp. Watching him take blow after blow to the face, I wondered how she knew that wasn’t me this time. I looked at Wheat Flour. “How did you…”


“I told Whole Grain. Your chipped tooth,” she said, tapping a hoof on one of my fangs. Right, that happened the last time I took a train.


Whole Grain continued to scuffle. She kicked 6 F 26 in the head, launching him backwards. He sprawled on the ground like a rag doll and lay there, motionless. He was unconscious or dead. Either way, phew.


I did a quick head count. The wheat sisters and Fairweather were there, and each had remnants of green goo on them. 6 F 26 had been busy. Regardless, time was running out. I was out of the fire, yes, but back in the frying pan. I cut the goo between my hooves with my magic. “We need to stop the train,” I told everyone. “There a brake somewhere?”


We all looked around. There was a lever next to the window of the cabin. That had to be it. Whole Grain was the first to jump for it, and she pulled back as hard as she could.


The squeal of metal shrieked and the train gave a small lurch, but the lever barely moved an inch. Instead of standing around doing nothing, I made myself useful and helped Whole Grain by pushing the lever with both of my arms. Wheat Flour joined me, and Fairweather pulled Whole Grain.


The lever went further and the train squealed louder, until we heard a snap and tumbled into a pile. The lever broke. But the wheels kept rumbling, the wind still whirring by—the train was still going. My skin went cold. No, we couldn’t die. There had to be another way. “Another brake,” I said, panting. “We have to find another.”


But there was no other brake. There was a pile of coal, a shovel, a furnace, a whistle, some gauges… no brake. I looked around the room again, in case I had missed something. Then a third time. “No,” I said. “No…”


I stomped my hoof on the ground. This had to be a dream. This is what happens in dreams. I’m skydiving or riding a crashing plane or whatever and just before I die, I wake up. I closed my eyes and wished for that. Wake up now. Wake up.


…But I knew that I wouldn’t. I opened my eyes and looked at Fairweather and Whole Grain and Wheat Flour. This was real. And I felt terrible. I was responsible for all of this. There were so many things I could’ve done better, like not losing our money or not crashing the ship in Fillydelphia or making sure 6 F 26 actually made it to jail in Manehattan or not dragging these good people with me in the first place. Tears welled up in my eyes. “I’m sorry,” I said. I had to look away.


The train barreled down the tracks, the furnace roared angrily, and the wind whisted through the cabin windows. I felt the rumble of the floor, the only thing I might feel for a long while. This was it.


Then, above all the noise, I heard Wheat Flour whisper into her sister’s ear. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a green flash. I looked.


She was… she was a changeling.


But this one was different from 6 F 26 or the Sergeant or any other changeling I had seen before. It was the same height and had the same black, hole-filled body, but it had hair. Long, blue hair, both on its head and its tail. The eyes also had whites and pupils, with irises that shone a deep navy blue. They were careful, innocent, like that of a child.


I didn’t know what to do, what to think. Who was that? Was it a changeling from the same hive as 6 F 26? Was it here to capture me, or to spy on me or Whole Grain? How long had it been posing as Wheat Flour? Since Fairflanks, like 6 F 26? Fillydelphia? Manehattan? Oh, no… Did 6 F 26 bring the Sergeant along with him?


Did Whole Grain know about this? Was she a changeling, too? I looked at her. Her eyes were wide open, focused right on the new changeling. The muscles in her neck tightened, and she said nothing. She was speechless, and I’d go as far to say she was surprised.


The changeling didn’t wait too long for us to react. It—she (by the long hair and shape of the face, I assumed it was female)—leaned her head out of the cabin window, and her horn lit up as it aimed a beam down to the ground.  The train reacted with a hard jerk, throwing us all off balance.


I scrambled to my feet and looked outside to see what she was doing. Her beam was aimed right at the train track. Green goo stuck to the rail below, and passed the engine to the rest of the cars. She was trying to stop the train. Better yet, it was working. The screeching of the wheels got less ear-splitting, and we were slowly losing speed. However, we were still going quite fast.


I ran to the other side of the cabin and poked my head out the window. Concentrating, I imagined the same green goo coming out of my horn and toward the train tracks, just like what Wheat Flour was doing. I felt my horn tingle as a green laser shot out of it. Goo materialized at the rail below, and I held the beam there.


Sweat trickled down my face. The longer I held the beam, the more my head hurt. I felt my horn burning, pain developing in my sinuses, my eyes throbbing. I couldn’t hold it for too much longer. I stopped, panting and holding my aching head.


I looked over at Wheat Flour, and she was still going. She was intensely focused on the rails, her forehead crinkled and her teeth gritted. Her legs were spread far apart to support her, but they seemed to be shaking a little. I admired her for how much longer she could hold the spell than me, though it’s likely because she’d had more than four days’ worth of experience as a changeling.


The train gave one last lurch as it came to a complete stop. I exhaled, wiping my tears away as my heartbeat slowed down. Everyone in the cabin stayed silent under the dull roar of the furnace. I felt lightheaded. I couldn’t believe we were alive.


The changeling (formerly Wheat Flour) hung her head, swayed, and collapsed. Everyone ran to her. She wasn’t moving. “Hey,” I said. “Hey, are you all right?” She didn’t respond. I didn’t know how to check if she was still alive. She needed medical attention, regardless, and fast.“Fairweather, you need to fly her to the nearest hospital. Do you know where that is?”


“Closest hospital would be Canterlot,” she said, staring at the changeling.


“Okay, fly her there. Now, please.”


Fairweather wasted no time. She hooked her arms under the changeling’s armpits and took off, flying out of the cabin and up the side of a mountain. I hoped she was all right, whoever she was. But hope was all I could do. That, and get to that hospital as soon as I could.


“Whole Grain, let’s go,” I said.


She didn’t respond, looking down at the ground with a stone-faced expression. Without saying a word, she pointed to the corner of the cabin. 6 F 26 lay there in a heap, and he was starting to come to.


“Right,” I said. “He’s coming, too.”

Preread by NotSoSubtle

Well, what a day.


We had discovered that (at least) two members of our group were changelings. We had also averted a serious train disaster and, consequently, certain death. Currently, we were more than halfway up a mountain to the final destination of our journey. And it wasn’t even lunchtime.


The trek up the mountain was not easy. I had gotten used to walking on flat terrain, sure, but once that terrain was sloped up at 45 degrees and rocks were thrown in, it became rather challenging. It was still doable, though I could only barely keep up with Whole Grain, who was towing a pony-sized load all on her own and showing no sign of slowing down. I’d never felt weaker.


She dragged 6 F 26 by a rope tied around her waist and around his hands and feet. Every time we heard stirring or moaning, she gave him a swift kick to the head. We couldn’t trust him tied up alone before, and we especially couldn’t trust him now. Though, I was a little worried about how much head trauma he was sustaining.


We reached a flat part of the mountain, and I got to take a small break. Ahead and above us was the city of Canterlot, so I presumed. It was basically a giant castle jutting out of the side of the mountain. That was it, our final destination. For a final destination, it was pretty. Pretty and structurally unstable, from the looks of it.


We had a short bout of flat path before one final scale to the city. I took that flat stretch to think. I had been thinking during the time I had scaled up the mountain, too, and things weren’t making any more sense.


Who was that I saw on the train? It was a changeling, certainly. A changeling from my hive, though? Perhaps. I had only seen the male-looking changelings in my hive, but it’s possible that there were females, too. Or maybe my hive was like a fraternity hive, and females lived in sorority hives.


If it was a changeling from the same hive as me, did that mean they were sending out more search parties for me? Was I really that important? I understood that I was a bad example for other changelings in that hive, but if they wanted to discourage everyone from that kind of behaviour, couldn’t they just exile me, or eternally shun me, or lie and claim I was dead? Why did they keep sending out changelings to capture me?


However, it didn’t seem like that changeling’s utmost priority was to take me prisoner. If that were the case, she would’ve grabbed me as soon as she could and taken off. Instead, she expended all of her energy in stopping the train. So she definitely needed me alive. Just like the Sergeant did. So they did have the same mission.


But if she needed only me alive, she could’ve grabbed me and let the train go. It was me she needed, right? Why bother about anypony else on the train? Did this changeling have a sense of morality? That would be a first, from what I’d seen. Or maybe she didn’t want to cause a scene. Train disasters tend to stay in the news cycle for a while. Would’ve drawn a lot of attention.


Bah, all speculation. I cleared all that from my mind and focused on what I knew. Wheat Flour had turned into a changeling. She had spent all of her energy trying to stop the train, and had succeeded, weakening herself possibly near to death. That’s all. It was probably best to leave it alone until we met up with the changeling and Fairweather and got some answers.


We started scaling another steep part. This one was rockier than before, and I had to watch my step so I didn’t slip. The going was slow, at least for me. Whole Grain seemed to have no trouble at all, even with the extra weight.


I looked at Whole Grain for a second and paused. How did she feel about all this?


She was Wheat Flour’s sister, after all. Really, I would’ve expected her to be much angrier about all of this. This changeling had been impersonating someone she had loved. And now she seemed to be withholding any sort of emotional reaction from me. She hadn’t said a word to me this entire climb.


Maybe she knew something I didn’t. I called out to her. “Whole Grain?”


She ignored me, continuing to climb up. Doing my best to catch up with her, I scrambled up the rocky hillside. “Whole Grain, I have a question.”


She stopped and looked at me with dead eyes. It was like she was tired, but I knew she wasn’t. She was a much faster climber than me, and she hadn’t even broken a sweat. Taking one long blink, she slowly opened her mouth. “Ask, then.” It was the first thing she had said to me since we had gotten off of the train.


It was clear that she didn’t want to talk. I got nervous, but I was curious. I clambered up to catch up with her and caught my breath. “Did you know?” I asked.


She didn’t take her eyes off of me. “Did you?”


I looked down. She made me feel ashamed for asking. “No,” I said.


“Good. Me neither.” She turned around and resumed climbing. I followed close behind. We were a few short yards from the top of the hill.


Well, that meant neither of us had seen it coming. I was relieved, almost, that there was no obvious hint that Wheat Flour was a changeling. Whole Grain had lived with Wheat Flour her whole life, so if she hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary, then I wouldn’t get blamed for not noticing, either.


We reached the crest of the hill, and there it was: Canterlot. We were but a hop, skip, and a jump away. I felt a surge of energy, my legs shaking and forgetting that we had just climbed a mountain. I was one pony princess away from going home.


As we came closer, I spotted a pink pony with light blue hair. Civilian life was a good sign. I waved at her as I approached. She waved back, slowly.


I bounded down to her and smiled. I admit, I may have been a little too excited when I said, “Excuse me, do you know where in Canterlot the hospital is?”


Her face contorted in fear, her front legs rearing up as I came closer. Her first instinct was not to help me, nor was it to even reply. It was, instead, to turn and run away, yelling, “Guards!”


Darn it, no. We couldn’t have that. “Wait!” I said, “Come back!”


But it was too late. I looked down at myself, and realized I was still a changeling. How could I be so stupid? I should’ve changed before I got here, before I came to a city that was just attacked by changelings not days ago. I should turn into a pony—Copper would be as good a choice as any.


Though, that wouldn’t do any good. That pink pony would come back with guards and point at us and say “He’s a changeling! Don’t let him fool you!” Maybe they would go easier on me if I surrendered and told the truth from the outset. Remaining a changeling would be best.


I glanced back at 6 F 26, crumpled on the ground with a rope tied around his legs. Maybe she wouldn’t come back with the guards. Maybe it’d be only guards. And then, if I was a pony, I could say, “Yes, we found the changeling. In fact, we’ve captured him for you!” And then we’d hand him off to the guards and be on our merry way to Canterlot. I liked the sound of that plan. I closed my eyes and changed into Copper.


But she did see more than one changeling. What if she told the guards she saw “changelings”, plural, and then the guards see only one, and they have to take both Whole Grain and I just to be sure they didn’t miss any, and then they find out I’m a changeling? Again, not lying sounded better. I changed back into a changeling.


Though, there was still hope for escape. If we turned back now and hightailed it to another town, and I remembered to remain a pony this time, we could get a new chance to hand over a changeling and stay innocent. Copper Flash.


But we couldn’t run. Not with a changeling to drag with us. Changeling.


Well, the changeling body was sore from all the mountain-scaling. Might as well be a pony for now. Copper.


Wait, I had wings, duh! Changeling.


…If only I knew how to use them. Copper.


Ow, Copper’s head hurt. Changeling.


Ow. The changeling’s head hurt, too. Wait a second…


I closed my eyes and changed back to Copper. Except, when I looked down at my arms, they were still my hole-filled changeling arms, not Copper’s smooth black arms. I tried again, squeezing my eyelids extra hard this time. No dice.


What was going on? Why couldn’t I change anymore? I tapped my horn a few times, like a stuck wristwatch. Then I tapped it harder, until it sent a sharp lightning bolt of pain into my forehead. Yelping, I recoiled, but the pain subsided in a few seconds.


“All right, there?” Whole Grain asked. I stood up and faced her. She sounded disinterested and spoke in monotone. I wasn’t sure if she said it to me, since she wasn’t even looking in my general direction.


“Yeah,” I said. I dusted myself off and inspected my horn. I couldn’t be out of changeling magic. I couldn’t. How does that happen? Magic couldn’t just run out like that. Could it?


It was then I realized how little I knew about the workings of magic. How long does it last? Is there a limit to how much I can use per hour? Did horns overheat? Where did magic come from, anyway?


I waved the questions away. I couldn’t waste my time concerning myself with the origins of magic. Right now, I was a changeling who couldn’t change, and I wouldn’t be able to fix that on my own.


I panicked. Not because I wanted to be a pony at that moment—I had already debated over that. The problem was that I liked having a Plan B. Something to fall back on, in case things got hairy. It’s saved me before, and now I didn’t have that option. I needed my magic back.


And there was somepony in particular who would know just what to do. But not somepony. Rather, some…changeling. Somechangeling. Somegeling. Some… A changeling. Who would know what to do.


I strode over to 6 F 26 and stood over his head. “Hey, wake up.”


“Mmm?” he said, his head tilting up. He smiled as he looked up at me, eyelids mostly closed. “Mmm, yeah, hey.”


I rattled his head with both of my hooves. “Hey, 26, buddy, wake up. I need you to tell me how to get my magic back. Can you do that for me? Huh?”


His mouth hung open in a smile, like a dog. He pawed at my face and touched his hoof to my nose. “Shhhh. Huh. Huhhuh huh.” His laughs were low, lazy guffaws.


He was currently two eggs, one orange, and a bowl of oatmeal short of a complete breakfast, but I couldn’t accept that right now. “6 F 26, listen,” I said, leaning down closer to his ear. “Tell me how to fix my magic. Right now. Please.”


“Hmm yeah? Huh huh huh.” He grew disinterested in me and looked up at the sky.


“6 F 26!” I shook him harder, glancing towards the city and at the guards standing in front of us. I turned back to him. “Tell me how I can change into a pony again! Or I’ll…”


Guards standing in front of us? I turned to look.


Yep, guards standing in front of us.


~ ~ ~


They chained all three of us together—Whole Grain, me, then 6 F 26—and led us in a line into the city. I had tried to talk our way out of it many times. This was a misunderstanding, I’m not like other changelings, she’s not even a changeling, but yeah, that guy is, you can take him, we’re just here to see the princess, we promise not to kidnap her, and so on. However, these guards were professionals. My pleas fell upon deaf ears. Well, not deaf, I’m sure: just really disinterested.


Canterlot was nice, though. It had a fairy tale, Disney-esque charm to it. Each building looked like a mini castle all on its own, what with towers and arched windows and canopies over the front. They took on purples, blues, greens, whites—very lax and rich colors. So did the ponies. All seemingly high society types. And all unicorns, I realized. Not a normal pony or winged pony in sight. This made me the only pony in the city who couldn’t use magic. Oh, except for Whole Grain.


The guards were unicorns, too. And I was surprised how guard-like they were. I was expecting security guards with police uniforms, like I’d seen in Vanhoover. These were legit guards, though. They wore golden armour, and Mohawk-helmets like Roman soldiers. They spoke very little to us, and when they did, it was usually an order barked in a curt, gruff voice.


Along the way to Canterlot’s prison, we were met with many jeers. Small crowds began to form at the sides of the streets as people stopped to watch and boo. Some threw stuff at us, like pebbles or food. Someone hit me in the face with a tomato. A waste of three perfectly good bits, I thought as I tried to lick it off of my cheek.


There was still a chance I could escape, right? I’d escaped from a prison before. Granted, a changeling had been there to bail me out. And now I was fresh out of changeling powers. And this city just faced an invasion of changelings, and had probably finished conducting a changeling inquisition… Which made me stop to think.


I was a terrorist. Changelings had invaded not days ago, putting Canterlot on high alert. If ponies reacted to such events in the same way humans reacted to events like Pearl Harbour or 9/11, they’d do more than confiscate a bottle of water at the airport. What were my chances of seeing the princess now? Asking the guards to take me to see the princess would be like an affiliate of a terrorist organization asking to see the president.


I sighed. Getting to the princess would be more difficult than I had thought. We were really done for, weren’t we?


Whole Grain might’ve felt the same way. Her head drooped, and her heavy footsteps dragged on the neatly-trimmed grass. She hadn’t seemed tired from climbing, so either she knew how futile our predicament was, she was putting on an act for whatever reason, or this was usually her naptime. Or none of the above. I’ve been wrong about her before.


Shortly, we reached our destination. We were funneled into a white, official-looking stone building. We entered into a small foyer, with a humble desk and a barred door. True to the castle theme, the walls were stone and all painted white. There were a few plaques and coats-of-arms hanging on the walls. Other than that, it was fairly plain.


They took all the bits out of my arms, which I had almost forgotten about. I was surprised they had survived this far open to the air, until I noticed how much work it was for the guards to remove them. Whole Grain had really jammed them in there.


The guard at the desk nodded to our captors and handed them a ring of keys, and used his own ring to unlock the barred door. We were led through there, into the main block.


The prison was nice-looking. Clean, well-maintained, and painted a uniform shade of white, much like a modern human prison. Also, unlike the jail in Vanhoover, this one was big. There were many cells, all packed tightly and efficiently together. Lots of light shone through a large window at one end of the prison, and each cell had its own little barred window.


But then they led us past those cells and brought us downstairs. Downstairs doesn’t look quite as nice as its upper brethren. The sunlight from above faded as we made the long descent. The rock walls, entirely without windows and cavernous in shape, were lined sparsely with torches. The walls were crumbling in places, and it smelled damp and dank down here, like… a rusty swamp. I’ve never come across a rusty swamp, but if I ever do, I wouldn’t be surprised if it smelled like that dungeon.


We weren’t alone down in the dungeon. In the stone-lined cells with rusty metal doors, there were several other changelings. Some of them were asleep when we got there, but more were awake and noticed our arrival. No one talked—just stared. They stared at us through the bars with their blue, eerie eyes. I could’ve sworn they were glowing a little. It was unnerving, so I gazed straight ahead and pretended I didn’t notice them.


One by one, the guard unlocked our chains. Whole Grain was first, and once free, the guard shoved her into the cell. She tumbled to the stone floor and lay still. That was rude. I got the same treatment, as did 6 F 26, who floundered into the cell and ran into the wall, laughing low as he sunk down to the ground. The door slammed behind us, echoing through the long, dark, empty hall. I shivered. Partly because I was anxious, and partly because it was chilly in there.


The clip-clop of the guards’ feet faded down the corridor, leaving us alone. Whole Grain was slumped on the ground, and had barely moved from the spot on the floor she was dumped in. “Whole Grain?” I whispered. “You all right?”


She didn’t respond. “Whole Grain?” I said, louder this time.


I heard her reply in a soft voice. I bent down to her to listen. She wasn’t talking, I realized. She was singing. Softly, and to herself, but I could hear her quite well in the silence of our cell.


“Sad little colt without a friend,

Lives up the hill and ‘round the bend,

Sad little colt, come on and play,

Down by the cove on Horseshoe Bay.”


“Whole Grain?” I said. She lifted her head, and she looked more tired than ever. Her eyelids drooped, her ears wilted, her mouth hung open and turned down in a frown. Slowly, she got to her feet and continued. She paid me no mind, gazing down at the stone floor, singing half to herself.


“Run, little colt, around the shore,

Run ‘till your happy little legs get sore,

Run, little colt, run around all day,

Down by the cove on Horseshoe Bay.”


6 F 26 started to join her at “happy little legs”. It was unintelligible, as it was obvious he didn’t know the words, but it was sort of a drunk following-along of the general tune. I didn’t feel any urge to sing along with them. I reached out a hoof to Whole Grain, in an attempt to console her.


She turned her face to me, and our eyes met. I retracted my hoof as a result. She was angry, now. The tears in her eyes were well past the point of welling and streamed down her face. Her brows were knotted in fury.


She turned to the door of the jail cell, slowly, like a massive rampaging rhino, straining to divert its momentum. With all of her might, she gripped the metal bars, heaved, and yelled at the top of her lungs:


“Come, little colt, and swim in the bay,

Where your new friends swim and laugh and neigh!

Come, little colt, we’ll splash and play,

Down by the cove on Horseshoe Bay!”


I watched it all unfold in silence and shock. She gasped for air, wild with rage… but the emotion started to drain from her face. She licked her lips and tried to start the next verse.


“Brave little colt…” She trailed off, choked up. Holding on to the bars, she collapsed onto the ground. She sobbed quietly, the only sound in the pin-drop silence of the prison.


Slowly, I approached her. I was afraid to touch her. From the looks of it, she was completely broken. I’d never seen Whole Grain like this before, and her sudden rage paired with her violent tendencies and her dislike of changelings could end up in catastrophe for me. But, on a whim, on the basis of recent events that she might not decide to kick me in the face, I approached her.


I reached out and gently lay a hoof on her shoulder. With each pained sob, my hoof jolted up and down. I rubbed it back and forth, trying to comfort her. I had no idea what she was going through, but I wanted her to be okay. For all she’d done for me this trip, I hoped that this wasn’t how I paid her back. I hung my head, ashamed.


But she turned to me and hugged me. Not to try to strangle me, thankfully, just an honest hug. It felt like strangling, though. She had powerful arms, and I swear she squeezed out one of my lungs. But I didn’t complain. I couldn’t, not after seeing what she had gone through. I returned her hug and patted her back. Maybe she needed what I needed when Wheat Flour hugged me: just the knowledge that someone who cared about her was there.


I didn’t want to say anything that might upset or hurt her. She was vulnerable, now, more vulnerable than I’d ever seen her before. She wasn’t crazy; she was in pain. I felt like I understood her better, at that moment. Not to say I understood what she was going through, but I understood her.


Her crying slowed, her gasping sobs getting softer, and she loosened her grip on me. I patted her back again. I felt the urge to say something. Couldn’t talk about her sister, not until she was comfortable with it and started it herself. A joke about the jail or train or something would be both irrelevant and possibly offensive. I went with something I thought would be safe. “What happens next, in the song?”


“He drowns,” she said finally, sniffling. “He drowns.”


She backed away from the hug and sat down across from me. I sat down, too. She wiped her eyes and fixed her hair, or at least attempted to. She sort of brushed it back, out of her face. It fell behind her in a tangled mess, but she didn’t notice. We sat there for a few minutes as I let Whole Grain compose herself. Then, she swallowed, wiped her eyes again, and spoke to me.


“When Whole Grain and I were fillies,” she said, “she’d get scared at night. Not the wailing kind of scared, like the other foals. She’d get all quiet, watching the window. She wouldn’t talk to me.”


She wrapped a hoof around her left elbow and looked out to the jail corridor. “I hated the silence. Hated it. So I sang to her at night. I thought it would make her feel better. ‘Brave Little Colt’ was the only one I knew all the words to.”


Yeah, a drowning colt would make her feel better, I thought. I didn’t dare say that out loud, not when Whole Grain was like this. I let her continue.


“I could never finish the song. Whenever I got to the part about drowning, I stopped. One day I changed the words. ‘Smart little colt went home that day, and ate lots of oats and apples and hay. Up the hill and around the bend, slept when the long and sunny day end.’” She grinned, rubbing her face with her hoof. “Heh. It was so stupid. And that took me forever to work out, too. But it did the job, and I was proud of it.”


I nodded politely. I didn’t know why she would tell me about some song from her childhood, but it was a healthier alternative to screaming and crying.


She lay down on the ground, and I followed suit. “When she started telling me about changelings, and how she was scared they’d come back and kidnap her and take her place, I had an idea. We’d whisper the last two lines of that made-up verse to each other. That’s how we knew we were still… you know, each other. It was something only the two of us would know.”


Ah, so that’s why this was relevant. I ventured a guess. “Is that what she whispered to you? On the train?”


She nodded, frowning. “But I never would’ve thought. Never, in all those years. But… she was.” She shifted, unfolding and refolding her arms.


“She was… a changeling? Always? You’re sure?” I said. I was careful not to sound condescending. And I really couldn’t do much about sounding obvious, but I wanted to make sure I understood correctly.


She nodded and shrugged. “Nopony else would know that song. Only us.” She nodded again. “Only us.”


She sat back, brushing her red hair behind her ears. For a moment, we sat in silence, except for the soft snoring coming from 6 F 26’s corner of the cell. It was calming, actually. That was the best sound we’d heard out of him all day.


Whole Grain was suggesting Wheat Flour had been a changeling her whole life. So what happened? Did Wheat Flour’s changeling parents drop her off at the orphanage? Were those changelings from a hive, or runaways? Or was Wheat Flour herself a runaway?


The devil’s advocate in me couldn’t help but suggest: Was Wheat Flour evil? There was a possibility that Wheat Flour didn’t have pure intentions. I mean, yes, she saved our lives, and she had lived in peace with her sister for many years, but there was still a chance.


I bet I wasn’t the first to consider that. What did Whole Grain think about that? She said she hadn’t had a clue that Wheat Flour was a changeling, but maybe looking back on her sister’s behaviour, she’d have some insight into Wheat Flour’s intentions or true nature.


I sat up. “You don’t think she’s evil, do you?”


She squinted at me, like she was expecting a punchline. “No, but…” Her shoulders sagged, and she stroked her hoof back and forth on the stone floor. “She lied to me. For years, she lied to me.”


She watched her hoof, letting out a small sputter like, well, a horse. Her ears relaxed and drooped to touch her hair. For a fleeting moment, I realized how weird it was that I was talking to a cartoon horse, but I suppressed that sensation. This was serious.


I thought back to how Whole Grain had treated me the first day she met me. The way she leered at me, accused me, threatened me, and even made good on those threats. I had been scared of her. Perhaps Wheat Flour had felt the same way. “What if she was scared of you?” I said. “Scared of what you’d think of her or do to her if you knew?”


“If I knew? If I knew, I would’ve helped her.” She sat up. “I saw how changelings treated her, I’ve seen how they treated you. I wouldn’t want that for her.”


“But would you help her now?” I asked.


This gave her little pause. “She’s my sister. Of course I would. Of course I will,” she corrected. Standing up, she started to search the cell. “Now, let’s figure a way out of this place.”


I smiled. That was the Whole Grain I remembered. “Good idea,” I said.


As we brainstormed possible escape methods, I experienced an unusual feeling. For once, Whole Grain made me feel like an equal. She no longer talked down to me, and I was no longer afraid to speak my mind. She treated my ideas respectfully, and when I offered a counterpoint to one of hers, she didn’t take it personally. It was almost like we were friends or something. It was odd. Pleasant, though, too.


It didn’t take us long to run out of ideas. There were no weak points in the cave walls or the iron bars, no stray tools we could use other than our shackles, and I couldn’t stick my head out of the door far enough to use my unbroken fang as a lock pick. We came to the consensus that our best option was to wait for a guard to come and negotiate the terms of our capture. If not a swift trial, I’d at least like my phone call. Or a telegram, or homing pidgeon. Whatever they have here.


We got our chance several minutes later. A noise echoed from down the hall. I strained through the bars to look and listened closely. A jingle of keys, a clanging of metal, and a swift clip-clop reverberated up the corridor. A guard, I presumed. He was also whistling a familiar tune, though I couldn’t place it.


As the clip-clops got louder, the guard came into view. He wore golden armour like the other guards, and his fur was pale green, probably made paler by the torchlight. As he came closer, I noticed he sported a broad, black moustache, and his armour was rattling around loosely on his shoulders.


“Good afternoon, folks,” the guard said. “Bit chilly down here, don’t you think?” His voice sounded very much like a girl deepening her voice to sound masculine. I looked closely at his face, and mentally slapped myself for not immediately recognizing Fairweather.


“Fairweather? Thank goodness you’re here.” I looked at the armour. Her arms were obviously too small for the chest piece, and it was a little crooked, almost like it was about to slide off. “You passed as a guard?”


“Yes. I’m a master of disguise. You changey things are all amateurs.” She removed a ring of keys from a hook on the back of her armour. She fumbled around with a couple dozen keys, the tips of her wings helping to sort through them.


“How did you know we were down here?” I asked.


“Saw you walk right through the middle of town. I tried to get your attention, y’know. I threw a tomato right at your face, moon sakes.” Darn it, I should’ve been paying more attention. She put a key in the lock, turning it until the lock clicked. “Hey! Did you see that? First try.”


As she returned the key ring to the hook, I noticed she also had a string of handcuffs on a chain. I asked her about them.


She beamed. “See, I did some thinking. Which is rare for me, I know. But I thought, hey, these guys think you’re prisoners, so I gotta walk you out like prisoners. So I picked these up on the way in.” She lifted the chain of handcuffs, similar to the ones we wore on our way here.


I understood. When in Rome, I suppose. “Where’d you get the armour?” I asked.


“Like I said,” she said, smirking and tapping her moustache. “Master of disguise. Now, c’mon, let’s go! My withers are getting cold.”


Whole Grain and I placed our hooves in the shackles, and once Fairweather secured them, she led us out of the cell and locked the door. 6 F 26 remained in the cell. It felt satisfying to see him locked up. He had no chance of escape, unlike when he was in Manehattan.


I watched him as he slept, his chest rising and falling quietly. I suddenly felt bad for the guy. He had no Fairweather, no friends to bail him out. Even the Sergeant, one of his own kind, left him behind and dropped him off in a dumpster. 6 F 26 must be real lonely. I almost suggested that he come with us.


But he was dangerous to us. He had made choices, bad choices, and he was too far gone now to save. That much revenge over a misunderstanding was unhealthy. As much as I regretted leaving him behind, I knew it was better for both of us.


Soon, we were starting up the stairs again. I felt giddy. It was surreal, how quickly we had been in and out of there. It was a miracle that Fairweather was able to get to us. In fact, maybe too much of a miracle. Really, how had Fairweather gotten that armour? And why was a moustache as effective of a disguise as she made it out to be? Maybe this wasn’t Fairweather at all. I resolved to keep my eye on her.


We entered the upstairs block again, squinting as we readjusted to the light. At the end of the block, Fairweather was halted by two tall, looming uniforms. Looking past them, I recognized the door to the outside. Almost there. Ten steps and we’ll be free.


“Identification, please,” a tall, particularly buff guard growled to Fairweather.


Fairweather’s moustache twitched. She answered him in her pretend gruff voice. “Always with the formalities, huh? Look, pal, it’s been a long morning. Just need to check these folks out for the afternoon.”


The buff guard grunted, unlocked the barred door, and let Fairweather past. She motioned for us to enter the foyer. We stood and waited as the guard at the desk rustled through papers in a drawer. The other two guards watched us intently, and I nervously looked around the room. I wasn’t interested in any of the old plaques or regalia, though; the only thing I could focus on was the door, which was difficult to keep my eyes off of.


The sound of the desk guard’s voice snapped me back to attention. I remembered that he was the only thing standing between us and that door. Turning to the desk, I listened respectfully to his exchange with Fairweather.


“What’re they leaving for?” the desk guard asked.


“Community service,” Fairweather replied.


He grunted. “Community service, eh? Celestia knows we need more of that this week.” Using his magic, he floated a clipboard to Fairweather. “Sign at the bottom, there.”


“Sure thing.” Fairweather bit the pen, scribbled something quick, and set the pen back down. “Beautiful day for community service, too, eh? Not a cloud in Celestia’s sky.”


The guard didn’t respond. I froze, staring at the pen. The pen now had a moustache stuck to the end of it. And Fairweather no longer had a moustache stuck to her face. She didn’t seem to notice, though, and nodded to the guard. “Thanks, pal. That’ll be all,” she said.


The guard set down a hoof on her shoulder. “Not so fast.”


Time to go. I glanced at Whole Grain and bolted to the door. She gave a start as the chain took her with me, but she dashed after me. The guards didn’t react fast enough, and we were able to reach the door in time. I winced in the sudden daylight, but I didn’t want to stop. I barreled out of the doors and turned to my left to avoid the square.


I ran as fast as I could. I heard shouts, screams, and galloping as hooves in the distance came after us. Whole Grain, the better runner between us, took the lead. I didn’t question it.


I followed the pull of the chain on my wrist, and I followed Whole Grain’s red tail as it whipped behind her. She took us this way and that, down a back alley, over a low fence, down a set of stone steps. By the time we stopped behind a stack of barrels and caught our breaths, we’d put a maze of a path between us and our pursuers.


I felt my heart rapidly pumping blood to my arms and legs, even when I lay down on the grass to rest. All I heard for the next few minutes was Whole Grain’s breathing, my own, and my heart in my ears.


When I felt I was finally able to speak more than one word at a time, I said two. “They’re gone.”


Whole Grain nodded, and her expression turned a shade darker. “So’s Fairweather.”


I felt a pang of guilt mixed with fear. Fairweather, the one who broke us out of prison in the first place, was gone. I hadn’t heard her footfalls behind us or seen her fly her overhead. The chase was a blur, but I wasn’t even sure she had made it out of the door with us.


I didn’t want to assume the worst, though. I speculated to Whole Grain. “Think she got lost?”


“Don’t think so,” she said. “I think they got her.”


The guilt came on stronger. I could’ve done something, couldn’t I? Planned out an escape in advance? Given her some sort of forewarning or signal? Let her try to talk us out of the situation before doing something so impulsive?


I felt my breaths accelerate again, my lungs jolting. My head felt like it was about to explode. Whole Grain must have noticed, because she grabbed my head and pulled my face up close to hers. “Hey! Hey, calm down. It’s not your fault.”


“Yes, it is,” I said. That made three ponies that I could never repay. Both of the wheat sisters, for going out of their way to guide me in a multi-day journey to Canterlot, which they had now succeeded in doing. Also, for inadvertently revealing Wheat Flour’s secret and causing Whole Grain to have a mental breakdown. And now Fairweather, for abandoning her at a prison she had just helped us escape. I felt lightheaded. Good thing I was already sitting down.


Whole Grain followed my eyes and forced me to look at hers. “It’s not your fault,” she repeated. “Fairweather’s cover was just about to be blown. If you hadn’t run, all of us would be back in there, not just Fairweather.”


I still wasn’t convinced. I made an effort to look away, and I gently pulled her hooves away from my head. “But how do you know that? We could’ve given Fairweather some warning, you know?”


“Forget about it. What’s done is done. Now, we can wallow in self-pity for the rest of the day over what we could’ve done, or we can do something about it.” She spoke with less of a sarcastic or belittling tone and more with assurance. Using a little exaggeration to show me that doing something was better than wasting time playing the “coulda, shoulda, woulda” game.


She was right. We had to do something. So I swallowed my guilt and got to my feet, motivated by duty. “Let’s get them back,” I said. “Fairweather. And Wheat Flour.”


Whole Grain tilted her head, giving me an odd look. “Uh, what about Humanland?”


Oh, right. That’s what we came here for. I stopped to think about it.


Getting to the princess would be hard, yes. I’d likely be facing security out the wazoo, with an equal measure of prejudice for my current appearance. But even though it’d be hard, it would still be doable. So even if rescuing Fairweather and Wheat Flour was just as hard as getting home, why would I bother?


Home seemed so tantalizing, so within reach that it was stupid for me not to say yes. This was what I’d wanted since the day I woke up in a gooey, green hive full of oppressive cartoon bug-horses. Plus, I’d built up such a debt to other people here that leaving this place behind would be a relief. I’d no longer be under any obligation to pay back anything to any pony ever again. Heck, I’d even be able to blame Whole Grain. She insisted, after all.


But I couldn’t. I could never live with the guilt. It’s true, I’d be under no obligation, but I couldn’t forgive myself for taking advantage of them like this. They’ve done me countless favours, and in no way could I shove off and leave them like this.


I no longer had to wonder when or how I was going to pay them back. This was it. I’d help rescue the ponies that rescued me. Then, after that, I could go back home.


“I want to rescue them,” I said. “This is something I want to do. For all you ponies have done for me. It’s only fair.”


Whole Grain paused, regarding me carefully, then nodded. “Okay. If that’s what you want.”


Then, it was time to plan Mission Impossible. May the Cruise be with us.

Preread by NotSoSubtle

Holed up in the alleyway, it didn’t take long for us to realize that we were at a slight disadvantage, here.


We couldn’t take off the chain that connected us at each of our front forearms. My magic had run out, so I couldn’t change into a pony, much less do anything else. We had no idea where we were, nor the hospital or the prison. We weren’t even sure if Wheat Flour was in the hospital or in the prison with Fairweather; we had neglected to check that while we were there. We were also fugitives on the run, and probably being hunted by every other available guard in the city. Not to mention any citizen would scream at the mere sight of me, giving away our position.


Okay, we were at more than just a slight disadvantage. We had a worse chance of rescuing our friends than a little league team had at winning the World Series.


But it didn’t stop us from about half an hour of working out what to do next. We started by deciding to go for Wheat Flour first, since she was more in need of rescue. Fairweather was only in jail and could wait for a trial, but Wheat Flour might’ve been dying, and we had to act as quickly as possible.


However, we couldn’t rescue Wheat Flour without knowing for certain where she was. She was taken to the hospital, yes, but she could’ve been moved to the prison, a dungeon below the prison, or somewhere else we hadn’t thought of. The worst possible scenario was that we picked the wrong place, broke into it, and wasted all that time and energy only to find out our princess was in another castle.


So that was step one: try to gather intel on Wheat Flour’s likeliest whereabouts.


To do this, we would need disguises. Whole Grain wouldn’t require much to change her look, but it was going to take more than a moustache to hide that I was a changeling. We’d need a full costume for me, as well as something to cover up the shackles that connected us.


“There’s gotta be a clothing store nearby,” I said. A city this big must’ve had a mall of some sort.


Whole Grain bit her lip. “Even if it’s across the street, you could still be spotted. We need something to cover you up until then.”


I looked around the immediate vicinity. We were in an empty alley, and the only things around us were barrels, grass, and walls. Whole Grain rubbed her chin for a moment, then said, “I think I have an idea.”


~ ~ ~


This was Whole Grain’s bright idea: find an empty barrel, stuff me inside, and roll me down the street. It was a fair idea at the time. We didn’t have much choice, and this way seemed to be the most inconspicuous. But in practice, it was the worst idea ever.


It hadn’t been fifteen minutes, and already I had felt like throwing up. I had, twice, but since I had emptied what little was in my stomach the first time, the second time was just convulsing and gagging. Not my idea of fun, exactly. It didn’t help that the barrel reeked of fish.


The world stopped spinning, but not my stomach. Whole Grain stepped into view and said, “You okay?”


I moaned in complaint. She shrugged and said, “Okay, two minutes.”


Whole Grain stood guard at the mouth of the barrel, ready to step out of the way if I had to throw up again. “We’re almost there,” she said. “There’s a shop up ahead.”


“Good,” I said between pants. “Let’s go. All the way. Rest later.”


She nodded and started to roll the barrel again. I braced myself as the green grass and the white shops spun like a washing machine. I had to hold my arm up so the cuff was free to rotate. We had learned fairly quickly that if I didn’t, the chain would get twisted from all the rotation.


Not half a minute later, we stopped again, and Whole Grain indicated we had arrived. “Don’t move,” she told me. I had no such ambition in the near future, so I stayed put.


I focused on breathing, and trying to stop my head from spinning. I closed my eyes and took slow, deep breaths until my brain no longer felt like it was twisting inside my skull.


Whole Grain’s head appeared at the mouth of the barrel. “I’m not sure about this.”


I held up my hoof to signal her to wait, needing just a little more resting. When I was able to speak, I rolled over onto my stomach and stretched my back. “What’s the matter?”


She frowned and straightened back up, turning the barrel a little more towards an alley. When she came back into view, she sat down and crossed her arms. “I hate all this scheming. We were about to steal. That’s not right. Why can’t we just ask if we can see her?”


“Because they’d notice right away that I’m a changeling,” I said.


“But why do you have to see her?” she said. “Why not just me? The point was to see if she was alive or not, right?”


I mulled this over. Yes, that was the point, wasn’t it? All we needed to know was if she was still alive. Imprisonment was one thing. If she was in jail, we could fight for her in court. But if that was the case, at least there’d be a defendant. If she was in the hospital, that could mean she was dying, or worse.


However, the fact still stood that Wheat Flour was a changeling. I was arrested just for being a changeling. If Whole Grain walked in asking to see one and claimed to be her sister, that might do more than raise some eyebrows.


I relayed this concern to Whole Grain, but she still wasn’t convinced. “I only want to see her,” she said. “It’s not like we need to rescue her.”


“Okay, well,” I said, “if you can figure out a way to unlock this chain, you can go ahead and ask for her.”


She lifted up the cuff on her hoof and frowned. “Right. We could ask a guard.”


“And get thrown right back in jail. There’s no way around this, Whole Grain.”


“So what if we’re thrown in jail? They can’t keep us in there for long. We’ll just ask to see her once we get out.”


“Then what?” I said. I hated to take the conversation in this direction, but it was inevitable. “We don’t know how Wheat Flour is doing. We don’t know how long she’s got. What if tomorrow comes, and she dies, and we’re sitting in jail, thinking, ‘If only we had gone to see her while she was still alive and—’”


“Okay, okay!” Whole Grain said. She closed her eyes, shook her head, and inhaled. “If only we could see the princess, she’d—” Her eyes got wide. “The princess, of course! She could fix everything!” She sprang to her feet and vanished.


“Wait a minute, Whole GraaAAAAaaaaAAAAaaaaAAAAaain!” The barrel rolled again, faster than before, and I braced myself for the impending nausea.


~ ~ ~


“We’re here!” Whole Grain said, I think.


I would’ve muttered something sarcastically, but I was beyond sick at this point. My body felt like it had simultaneously slammed two bottles of vodka and a bucket of sea urchins. The bright side is that everything that felt sore was starting to go numb.


Looking past the spots in my vision, I reached for the light at the end of the barrel and pulled myself forward. I lay on the ground and breathed. Breathed and hoped that Gandalf’s eagles would carry me all the way back home.


After a minute, my eyes adjusted halfway to normal, and I was able to make out the whitish-gold blurs bordering the sky. A group of guards had formed around me. They didn’t pull me up or anything. They just watched, expecting me to perform a magic trick or something.


With fresh, cool air in my lungs, I tried to say, “Could someone help me up, please?” Instead, I slurred and gurgled something like, “Cuh suwuh hemmph pnns.”


Again, no response. Thinking something more physical could work, I stuck out my hoof, accompanied by more slurring and gurgling when attempting to repeat what I had said before.


One guard reached out and shook it. That threw me off. There were friendly ponies among the guards, at least. Where was he when I was pleading and begging for mercy that morning?


I swung my chin down in an attempt to swing my body forward and up, but I slumped back down. I decided to say something much simpler, clearer, and easier to say: “Help.”


There we go. All the guards bent forward and supported me, lifting me back up to a standing position. My head swam a bit as it adjusted to the new orientation, but I got used to it. Two guards helped me stay standing, too.


There was more awkward silence as the six or seven of them stared at me. I hoped they weren’t thinking about locking me up again. Slowly, possible excuses shuffled through my head. I’m sick or injured. I didn’t get a fair trial, nor my phone call. I need a lawyer. I am a lawyer. I’m an ambassador for the changelings. I was enchanted to look like a changeling.


One guard cleared his throat and stepped forward. “State your business here.”


I picked one, carefully articulating my words, though some still sounded slurred. “I’m an ambassador. I’m a changeling ambassador.” I puffed up my chest, as if I was wearing a supplementary uniform. “I’d like to speak with the princess. To discuss...” I eyed the group as I thought of what to say next. “…Terms.”


The guard nodded and said, “Uh, right. Follow me, please.”


I looked at Whole Grain. She gave a disapproving frown, but I could only shrug. Whatever works, right?


The guards led us in procession to the castle. After passing through a gate and over an actual moat, we entered a grand courtyard that gave us a clear view of the castle. It was huge. It was kind of like a Kremlin meets a less symmetrical Taj Mahal. The whites, purples, and yellows were bright but still managed to be warm and inviting. The tall doors at the entrance swung open, and we walked in.


The inside was surprisingly warm, too. Usually, castles use dull or cold colours combined with cathedral-like ceilings that give off some sense of superiority, or even condescension. This one didn’t. The walls and tapestries were warmer and more colourful, with smooth purples and reds and yellows. Tacky, sure, but more welcoming and definitely more creative than the castle stereotype.


The tapestries stifled the echoes of chatter and the clip-clop of our hooves. The lead guard stopped us in the middle of a large rug in the foyer. “Wait here,” the guard said, and he beckoned two of his comrades to follow. We were left with the three remaining guards in the large atrium.


Occasionally, ponies would stare at us as they walked by. Well, not so much stare as steal a glance, then another, then another, and then it became awkward by the time we had made eye contact several times. I was scared. One sudden movement and I could throw everyone into a panic. Which, to be clear, would not be a desirable outcome.


“Say, um,” one of the guards said, rubbing his chest plate, but the guard next to him jabbed him in the shoulder.


Guards wanting to speak with us? Based on our experience earlier that morning, I had barely been able to get more than two words out of them despite my barrage of pleas. Now they wanted to talk to us?


Well, these guards had been unusually considerate towards us. I could humour him. “What was that?” I said.


“No, it’s nothing, never mind.”


He looked away, but I could tell he still wanted to ask. I was curious now. “Please, ask away.”


He turned around and coughed. “Well, uh, I heard a rumor that changelings see using sonar. Is it true?” He tapped his hooves together.


I can’t say I was expecting that. I glanced at the other guards, but they were also looking at me, awaiting an answer. “Uh, no.”


“How about that you can walk through walls? Or that you eat love? Or that you can read minds?”


“The love one’s true,” I was quick to point out. “Not the other ones.” Although walking through walls seemed to only be possible in the dream world, it definitely would’ve come in handy.


“Soldiers, enough.” The three other guards returned, and the leader motioned to me. “This way, please.”


Resuming our procession, we passed through what looked like an intermediate hallway, lined with doors on either side. In between each door was a small stained-glass window, depicting what looked like important or special ponies.


There was one with a group of six surrounding a heart-shaped campfire. Another one showed a white pony and a blue pony pointing horn-flashlights at a black unicorn. Another depicted a pony with a really, really big white beard. It took up half the window, not even kidding.


“Wheat Flour!” Whole Grain blurted.


Startled, I looked around. Sure enough, there was Wheat Flour, or the changeling that used to be her. She was lying down on a stretcher, sleeping. A guard was pushing her right past us.


Whole Grain bolted after her, yanking me on the cuffs that connected us. I stumbled after her as she ran up to the side of the stretcher. “Wheat Flour, is that you?”


The changeling stirred, opening her eyelids halfway and setting her deep blue eyes on Whole Grain. She looked hypnotized and weak. How long did she have left?


“Hey, stop!” a voice yelled behind me.


No. Not fair. I knew where this was going to go. If we went back to that dungeon, we’d be done for, no Fairweather to bail us out. I couldn’t let her saving us be for nothing. I would not let us get caught again.


I grabbed the stretcher away from the guard pushing her and ran down the hallway with it. Whole Grain caught up with me and helped push.


“That way,” I said, pointing to the nearest door. We heaved a hard left as ponies jumped out of our way. The stretcher clattered and squeaked in complaint, but with only a moderate bump on the door frame, we made it through.


We halted almost as soon as we entered. I was expecting another large room like the atrium, but this was small, with no doors or even windows. I turned around and slammed the door.


There was no lock on the door, so I looked around for something heavy to block it, and sure enough, an upright piano sat right next to the door. I tried to pull it, but I couldn’t. Then, using a stray flute on the ground, I did the next best thing and wedged it into the crack between the door and the door frame. Better than nothing.


I looked around the room. The grey walls were lined with assorted black instrument cases, either in racks or leaning against each other in rows. High up near the ceiling, a single square window let sunlight through, illuminating a small swirling flurry of dust particles.


“What were you thinking?” Whole Grain said between pants.


I blinked. “Uh, you helped me.”


She scoffed at me. “I followed your lead. I didn’t think you were gonna hole us up here.”


“I didn’t expect this.” It was a small room, cramped, stuffy, and most importantly, without exits. We had nowhere to run in here. I backed up against the piano, trying to dig myself out of this hole. “You ran to her, and you—”


“But I didn’t want to kidnap her!” She crossed her arms. “I just wanted to see her.”


I nodded to Wheat Flour. “Here we are.”


Whole Grain looked, unfolding her arms. There Wheat Flour was, in a hospital gurney. She was so neatly tucked into the pale green sheets, it was like looking into a coffin. Her hair was in slight disarray but still smooth and shiny, like little brooks of deep blue water running down the sides of her face. Her eyes were half open and her chest rose and fell silently.


I got a better look at her hair from here, too. Long and deep blue, and spotted with holes, just like the holes in her arms. I wondered how strands of hair could part that neatly to form circular holes like that. Then I remembered not to question cartoon physics.


Whole Grain’s eyes didn’t stray from the changeling on the bed. She moved forward, one hoof in front of the other, edging up to the side of the bed. She sat down and brought up her hoof, precariously.


I sat down, almost hypnotized, watching the scene unfold. Her hoof extended over, across the spotless bed sheets. I thought I noticed trembling in her hoof. Gently, she brushed back a few stray strands of the changeling’s hair, tucking them behind her ear. She stroked her sister’s hair, the quivering in her hoof fading with each brush.


She straightened the already-tidy sheets, tucking them further into the corners of the bed. Leaning down, she whispered something into her ear. I didn’t pay close attention to it, as it probably wasn’t my business. Whatever it was, Wheat Flour responded by wrapping her arms around her sister. I blushed and looked away. I felt embarrassed for watching, and let them have their moment.


To think that not days before, Whole Grain would’ve beaten the living daylights out of a changeling, me included. And now here was her sister, a changeling all along, the sole thing Whole Grain had set out to protect her from. I was glad they were making good like this, and proud of Whole Grain that she had sorted out her feelings that quickly, for the most part.


“Sawyer?” I barely heard it.


I turned back to Wheat Flour. She was looking at me now, smiling. She patted the side of the bed, barely moving her hoof, but perhaps because that was all she could manage. I came closer. If she was dying and she wanted to see me one last time, how could I deny that?


Her smile widened as I approached, her teeth showing. They were pearly white with tiny, barely noticeable fangs. Incisors, really, like a human’s. She gazed into my eyes. “Hello.”


“Hello,” I said. “You okay?”


“I’m fine,” she said. She stirred and sat up. Whole Grain tried to stop her, but Wheat Flour shook her head. “Tired. I was sleeping. And happy to see you both.” She stretched, yawning dramatically, I think to prove to us that she was indeed tired and not fatally ill.


“Well, we’re glad that you’re okay,” I said, rocking back and forth a little on my feet.


“Sawyer, come closer.” Wheat Flour raised her hoof, tipping it towards her. I glanced at Whole Grain, as if I needed permission to go any closer. She shrugged.


I came closer, and she brought her hoof up to my face. She gazed at me, her eyelids relaxed. She was happy, and I could feel it. I felt good. Warm all over. Pleasant. A fuzzy feeling, right at the centre of my heart. I relaxed, too, staring into her deep blue eyes.


She brought her hoof up to the top of my head, stroking my webby hair, then proceeded to scratch behind my ear like I was a dog. Normally I might feel offended or even disturbed that someone would think that way of me, but I felt so good, the thought just made me laugh.


“Woof,” I said, unable to stop a stupid grin from spreading across my face. Wheat Flour laughed too and took her hoof away, resting it back down on the sheets.


Our laughter subsided, and we looked at each other for a moment. She loved me; that’s why I felt so good. It felt like stealing, taking all of this good feeling she had for me and not giving it back.


“I know you don’t love me back,” she said, still smiling.


I faltered, a little confused. Was she reading my mind?


She shook her head. “No, I can’t read your mind.”


Um. “But see, the thing is, I was just thinking that.”


She waved it away. “I can read love. Love is but one word to describe it. Romance, affection, care, all different types of love. You do not love me the same way that I love you.” She shrugged. “Simple as that.”


I was shocked. She seemed so nonchalant about it. I thought she’d be more offended I didn’t love her. How was I supposed to respond? She was right; I didn’t love her, not in that way.


I fumbled to say something in response. “You seem so okay with it.”


“Because I am,” she said, relaxing her shoulders to show me that she was. “I’ve had time to think about it. We don’t belong with each other.”


I said nothing. It was true. I’d been thinking it all along, and I was somewhat relieved that she realized the same thing. Her maturity both impressed and pleasantly surprised me. I gained a refreshed respect for her.


She rubbed her eyes and continued. “Do you remember when you found me in the middle of the woods?”


I nodded. I remember tackling her, but “found” was apt enough.


She continued. “I knew you were different right then, different from any other changeling I have met.” She looked at me, almost in wonder. “You told me you wanted to go home. No changeling ever calls their hive ‘home’.”


I looked down at the grey floor. “You can’t say that not even one did.”


“No, I mean it. No changeling I have ever met in my own hive.” She shook her head. “It should not have surprised me that you weren’t of this world.”


I still didn’t quite understand, but I could only nod and take her at her word. “Thank you, for understanding,” I said.


I was impressed. I admit, I had thought she was hopelessly in love with me. However, she was mature enough to tell me that even though I didn’t love her back, she wouldn’t hold it against me. I was partly ashamed, but also in awe. I thanked her again, smiling as I did. Then Wheat Flour looked at her sister and they shared a hug.


I looked around at the dusty, cramped little room we were holed up in. There we were, on the run, being treated as criminals, when these ponies deserved so much better. Not only could they not do wrong, but they did so right. They treated me and each other with such care. I couldn’t let anything bad happen to them again.


Bang! The door rattled. Guards. My heart jumped. They were coming for us, here to take us all away, throw us back in prison.


No, not again. We had to find a way out. Now.


I turned to Whole Grain, standing guard at the bed. Wheat Flour looked worried. “Sawyer, are you all right?” she said.


I looked around for a back door. “We need to get out of here,” I said.


Whole Grain, confused for only a passing moment, stood her ground. “What are you doing?”


Bang, bang! For a moment, I imagined the door threatening to leap off of its hinges. Fixated on the door, I replied, “They’re gonna get us, Whole Grain. We have to run.”


“Why, Sawyer? We’ve seen Wheat Flour. She’s fine,” she was saying, but I stopped paying attention. We had to keep the guards out. The flute wouldn’t hold forever. I put all my faith into Plan B. It would have to work.


I summoned all the magic inside me. Though I physically felt nothing, I imagined reaching into the deepest parts of my body, gathering that energy, and focusing it all into my forehead. All I needed was for all the green goo in me to work its magic, literally.


And it did. Ooze shot from my horn, sticking to the door. I swung the beam around the frame of the door, sealing the gap between door and wall. If it had the strength of concrete or silly putty, I didn’t know, but it would be better than nothing. My head started to hurt again.


The banging continued, but the rattling did not. The goo held, and the door refused to budge despite the beating it was sustaining. I exhaled in relief.


“Sawyer, what are you doing?” Wheat Flour asked.


“Are you out of your mind?” Whole Grain yelled, pulling my face to confront hers. “You just sealed us in here. We’re trapped now!”


“No,” I said, panting a little. “No, escape. We can escape.” There was always another way out. I started looking behind some of the larger instrument cases. “Maybe there’s a trap door hidden somewhere.”


“What?” she said. “Are you serious?”


I looked up at the window, the small square thing. None of us would fit through there, even if we changed into children or something. I stared at that window, expecting it to tell me what to do.


My side panged for a split second. I remembered the sledgehammer of a kick that Whole Grain possessed. I pointed to an open spot of wall. “Kick the wall.”


Whole Grain followed my hoof, blinking. “Excuse me?”


“Kick the wall,” I said, sticking out my back leg to help demonstrate. “Make a hole. We can escape that way.”


Whole Grain’s eyes shot wider than a deer’s in headlights, and she sat down. Holding up a silencing hoof to me, she put her other hoof to her face, taking short breaths. Wheat Flour shifted. “Sawyer, are you all right?”


Bang, bang! “Whole Grain, we don’t have much time.”


“Stop!” she said, then advanced, her neck muscles sticking out. “What are you thinking? Where in Equestria would we go from here?”


Bang bang! “Sawyer, you’re not stable right now,” Wheat Flour said, an edge to her voice. “You need to calm down.”


I turned to the door, spraying it with more goo. I went back over the gaps around the door and crossed the middle. My minor headache quickly became a migraine. I could barely hear Whole Grain over the throbbing.


“This is insane!” Whole Grain yelled. “This is insane and you know it!”


Bang! Ow. Bang! Ow! Every loud impact on the door felt like a shot through my skull. “Do it, Whole Grain!” I said, panic growing in me like a fire, fuming up from the tinder to the kindling. Bang! “Do it!”


“Fine! Fine, Sawyer! Fine!” Whole Grain yelled.


She ran over to the wall, reared up, and sent a swift kick to the wall with a sharp crack. It sounded like the wall was made of stone. Nothing came of it, not even a pebble.


She wound up and kicked harder this time, grunting. Crack!


“Again,” I said. “You’ll get it!”


Bang! Mmm, ow. Sawdust and splinters misted onto me from behind. I turned around and sprayed more goo on the door.


“Please, Whole Grain, Sawyer, stop!” Wheat Flour yelled, but Whole Grain howled in reply as she let loose on the wall once again.


Crack! The noise was loud, now, and even more biting than the door. I winced as the high sound cut through my brain. To cover my ears with my front hooves, I had to kneel down. But Whole Grain was making progress. A small crack had appeared, some dust billowing from it. Bang!


“Keep going!” I yelled. Since my voice sounded muffled, I probably yelled louder than necessary.


Whole Grain screamed something. Crack! The pain increasing, I pressed my hooves harder into my ears. Bang! The sharp edge of my hoof was cutting in somewhere in a tender spot in my head, but I kept it there.


There I lay on the ground, head about to burst, tasting sawdust or rock dust or whatever dust was filling the air. Whole Grain’s crack and the door’s bang became distant and muffled as my hooves and my heartbeat clogged my hearing.


This is what it had come to. There Wheat Flour was, reduced to tears, helpless on the gourney. She was trying to get up but couldn’t. Sobbing, she was saying something to both of us, pleading maybe, but I couldn’t hear a word. Whole Grain was whaling away at the stone wall, making next to no headway. Her face was bent in anger, but mostly in fear, her eyes wide with it. She wiped her mouth and coughed from the dust. Raising her shivering right leg, she let yet another kick into the wall.




A yellow hoof hurtled past me, millimeters in front of my eyes, and planted itself firmly against the wheel. I immediately halted, and turned to see a very stern-looking Whole Grain. She spoke slowly and calmly, but firmly.


“It’s great that our Aunt is generous enough to offer you work here, isn’t it, Sissy? However, if I hear one more word come out of that grotesque mouth of yours, I’ll buck you so hard in the face that your eyes will pop out the back of your head.” She leaned in close, drilling her stare into my soul. “Got it?”


She was angry, yes, but afraid, too.


All those nights ago, I had hoped to break the monotony with small talk. That’s what I had told myself. In reality, I had meant to provoke her. That was when I was ignorant, before I understood her and why she was so insistent in protecting her sister. Before I had realized what changelings had really done to them.


What changelings were still doing to them.


I felt terrible. My head hurt like the dickens and my heart even more. Of all the ways to pay them back, this was the worst by far. This was so frustrating. Tears burned at the corners of my eyes. This had to stop.


I looked at Whole Grain, mouthing the word “Stop.” She was so concentrated on that wall that she didn’t see me. In went her knee, and out with another crack!


Taking my hooves out of my ears, I summoned the strength I needed to shout, “Stop!”


She was halfway to winding up again, but she halted. She looked at me, scared as ever. Slowly, she set the hoof down and waited, muscles still tense. She was ready to do whatever I said, as if I was a bank robber holding a gun to her head.


I blinked my tears away and writhed there on the ground. “I—gcch.” I tasted dust, sputtering to spit it out. Instead I let my mouth lay open, my throat scratchy and dry, but I didn’t care. I needed to speak.


“I’m sorry,” I said. I spoke shortly so I could breathe. I glanced at Wheat Flour but looked away almost immediately. “I’m so sorry. I tried to fix this. I can’t. You’ve done so much for me. But I did this to you both. Go home.” I felt choked, ashamed, frustrated that I had done this. “I’m sorry.”


Whole Grain stayed where she was, eyes still wide, muscles still tense. Wheat Flour wiped away her tears, but never took her eyes off of me.


My body relaxed a little. Breathing came a little easier. I tried to pull my body up, to turn around and face the door. I had to cut down all of the slime. I couldn’t stand being the bad guy.


What was left of the door was a mess. The door had been broken up into large wooden pieces, each held in place by the slime. Some of the slime had dropped out and fallen to the bottom, though, and a head-sized hole had formed in the middle.


A blue pony was watching us, and I couldn’t quite recognize the face. She stared at me for a moment with concern, then stepped out of view. “Clear the entryway,” she said.


I exhaled. Please, let it be over, I thought. I can’t do this anymore.


Within a minute, all the goo was pulled back from the door. Then, guards filed in, followed by a few medical personnel. I put up my hooves in surrender. A nurse slowly laid me down. I stared at the stone ceiling and answered her questions. Are you okay, what’s your name, what hurts, does it hurt when I touch this, how about this, and such. She flashed a bright light in my eyes. Then more poking.


I couldn’t bear to look at Whole Grain or Wheat Flour. I’d done so much damage. I had to stop pretending this was repaying them in any way. I had to get out of their lives. I needed to go home.


The blue pony then stood over me, little lights in her blue hair sparkling like stars in the night sky. “What do you have to say for yourself?” she asked.


This was it. I’d earned myself ten years in prison for harassment or disorderly conduct or false imprisonment or whatever they could pin on me. “It’s all me,” I said. “It’s my fault. Please let them go home. They didn’t do anything wrong.”


She glanced around and looked at me with her mint green eyes. “You were the one hurt most; your companions barely even have scratches. The total damage you’ve caused amounts to a broken door and a crack in the wall.” She narrowed her gaze at me. “What do you think you did?”


I shrugged. “I just wanted to protect them. Please let them go.”


Her jaw tightened a little, and I could see her brow furrow a bit in thought or in anger; it was hard to tell. She stepped back for a minute to speak with a guard. The nurse came back for more poking and questions. I think she poked every point on my head at least twice. She put something ice cold on my head, probably for the headache. It helped.


The blue pony came back, her hair perpetually flowing, like Celestia’s. “What’s your name?”


Might as well tell the truth this time. “Sawyer,” I said.


She relaxed at this, but also seemed a little sad. “Well, Sawyer, you came to see Celestia, so that is what we will grant you. If you would come with me, I will personally escort you and your companions to her.”


Finally. Please let this be over.


~ ~ ~


The nurse wrapped something around my head, slipping the ice pack under the wrapping so it stayed there. The wrapping made sounds more muffled, but I could still hear okay. A doctor there recommended that I rest for a bit, but I insisted that I could walk.


After the medical team released me, I followed the blue pony with the guards. Pushed by her sister, Wheat Flour sat in a wheel chair, at the insistence of the nurses. I kept glancing to my right to make sure the wheat sisters were still there.


The hall opened up to a room the size of a ballroom, the ceilings stretching as high as thirty feet. The stained-glass windows here were much larger than before, illuminated by plenty of natural light. If the ponies on the windows before were special, these must’ve been super special. I noted more groups of six. Must’ve been a lucky number here.


We were led inside the massive doors to the throne room, even larger than the previous room. I immediately recognized it from the dream Lucid had shown me. A simple red carpet led up to an ornate throne on the other end of the room. There sat the princess, exactly as I remembered her. The blue pony walked up to the princess and spoke with her for a few minutes out of earshot.


My hooves became clammy. I couldn’t think of what I was going to say. Should I tell her the truth? Should I stick with my lie about being a changeling ambassador? How firm of a ruler was she? What would appeal to her, and what would lead us right back into prison again?


The blue pony motioned for us to join them, and the guards let us forward. We stopped around twenty feet away from Celestia, where Lucid had been standing at the beginning of the dream. Celestia glanced at us, then spoke. “Guards, you may leave us.”


Somepony that looked like a higher-ranking officer stepped forward. “But, Your Highness, if I may—”


“I have been fully informed of the situation. I understand the risks.” She inclined her head slightly. “You may leave us.”


The guards turned around and filed out of the room, the doors creaking closed behind us. I tried to move past the nervous lump in my throat to speak, but the princess looked like she was about to say something, so I waited.


“Well, what a welcome to Canterlot, mm, Sawyer?” She laughed a little, not with contempt but in a subdued, almost nervous way. She stepped off the throne and walked towards me. “I sincerely apologize for the way you’ve been treated today. I chose not to inform all of my guards of your arrival. I see now that that was a mistake.”


What? “My arrival?”


“Indeed. I suppose you wouldn’t have known that, though.” She extended her hoof, capped with a sparkling golden shoe. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sawyer. I’m Princess Celestia. I rule this land alongside my sister here, Princess Luna.”


I reached out and shook their hooves automatically, one after the other. It still seemed surreal to me that they had been expecting me. “You knew I was here in this world?”


“Only since a few days ago,” she replied. With a magic poof, she made a scroll appear. She unrolled it and floated it over to me, placing it in front of me. “Professor Lucid and I have been keeping in touch. This was our last correspondence.”


Lucid? I said nothing and read the scroll.


Dear Princess Celestia,


I was ambushed here in Fairflanks by a changeling who claimed to be from the same hive as the human (who has now revealed his name to be Sawyer). After wrapping me into a cocoon, this changeling audibly vowed revenge on Sawyer before I lost consciousness. As soon as somepony found me and freed me, I wrote this letter to alert you.


Sawyer might now be travelling with a changeling disguised as myself. I will do my best to catch up with them, but as of now, he may be in danger. I must ask that action be taken for the sake of his protection. He is unfamiliar with this world, and although he seeks the castle in Canterlot, he only has a vague notion of where that is.


Below that paragraph were brief descriptions of me (my changeling form and my aliases, Gouda and Copper), Whole Grain, Wheat Flour, Fairweather, and even 6 F 26. At the bottom was his signature: “Regards, Dr. Lucid”


The blue pony, Luna, spoke up. “In response to this, we did take action. I visited your dream that night to see if all was well, and it was.”


Visited my dream? This was starting to become both overwhelming and creepy. “Whoa, slow down, please. You visited my dream?”


She nodded. “It is within my power to do so. I was able to find you last night by locating your dream.” Her eyes glistened a little in marvel. “I saw many unfamiliar creatures there. I assume those were the ‘humans’ your friend Lucid described, yes?”


“Yeah,” I said. “That’s us.” Strange creatures indeed, says the seven-foot-tall horse with wings and a horn.


I looked down at the scroll again. I skimmed the corners for a date or a day, but I couldn’t find one. I then realized that would be useless, since I had forgotten what day it was anyway. “How long have you and Lucid been sending letters about me?”


She poofed out four more scrolls and laid them out. “Since four days ago, when he met you in Vanhoover.”


So Lucid had been pen pals with the princess this whole time? Why didn’t he tell me? He could’ve written a much more concise letter saying, “Hey, the human’s here in Vanhoover or Manehattan or Fillydelphia or whatever the city of the day is, come get him. XOXO.”


I didn’t bother reading the rest of the scrolls. “Why didn’t you send somepony to get me then?”


“Lucid described you as a being from another dimension, and asked me what I wanted to be done,” she said, pointing to one of the scrolls I hadn’t read yet. “I wanted to determine whether your kind was friendly or not. Lucid followed you partly under my direction, mostly under his.” She smirked. “I could tell from the enthusiasm of his first letter that he was beyond curious about you.”


Hence the barrage of questions about my world. I could see why he’d follow me, then, but still not why Celestia didn’t send anyone at all. “You could’ve sent somepony, at least. For protection, maybe, like Lucid said in his letter.”


“We didn’t have an urgent reason to act until Professor Lucid sent that letter.” Celestia nodded to Luna to continue, who stepped forward.


“We arranged to have a group of guards greet you at the train station here and lead you to the castle. That is, until an emergency stop was reported at the base of the mountain. Eyewitnesses told us that you and Whole Grain here were heading up to Canterlot. The guards at the train station were then repositioned to the front of the castle, and here we are.”


This was all a little too much for me. I sat down, rubbing my eyes. “Yes, here we are.”


Whole Grain spoke up. “How did Wheat Flour end up here?”


“I wanted to test you, Sawyer,” Celestia said.


No, I couldn’t have heard that right. The bandage over my ears must’ve affected my hearing. “Excuse me? You wanted to test me?”


“Yes, I wanted to pass your friend by you and see what would happen. I had enough of a description of your world and your people from Lucid, but I wanted to see what your values were.”


Okay. Okay then. They made me go through that whole ordeal in the storage room, thinking all of us were in danger of incarceration or worse, holing up the wheat sisters and making them feel captive, and exhausting my magic and health to protect them from the guards, just to test my values? “My values? I could’ve died there!”


“Yes, you injured yourself saving your friend. An extreme reaction, and an irrational one at that, but an admirable one.”


Yeah, I injured myself and I could’ve died, all for some test. Was that something to be taken so lightly? I fumed, fighting the urge to punch something, namely the princess in the face.


A sullen look flashed over Celestia’s face. “I’m sorry, Sawyer, but I wanted to know,” she said. “That’s the only time I’ve ever tested you like that.”


I heard an apology in there, at least. Still, that was not a considerate thing to do. Normal people don’t test other people like that. I no longer wanted to punch her, but I was still mad. “Just tell me that the test is over.”


She nodded. “It’s over.”


That would be good enough for now. I exhaled and nodded, tired. I felt very much like sleeping, even more if it was in my own bed.


“Did he pass?” Wheat Flour asked.


“Well, it is apparent your kind values friendship as much as we do here in Equestria,” she said, smiling again. “Perhaps our worlds can meet and make peace one day.”


Oh, well, um. “Not anytime soon, but yeah, sure, in the distant future, maybe.” Colourful, talking ponies running around cities and humans not freaking out was hard to imagine. “The way distant future.”


~ ~ ~


Afterwards, the princess pardoned us of any crimes we were accused of that day. Soon enough, Fairweather was released, and we were all sent to a sitting room to rest, recover, and eat. Flowers never tasted better. Okay, not really, but there were fruits and vegetables too.


We waited there for another day. After multiple apologies on my part, the wheat sisters were eventually able to put the whole storage room incident behind us, and so was I after a time. We were safe now, at our destination, with all the amenities we could ever ask for. At least any and all “tests” were over with for now.


Wheat Flour was worried where she might go after revealing herself as a changeling. She didn’t want to be a pony anymore and was worried that others in Vanhoover wouldn’t accept it, but she didn’t want to offend her sister by not going back to the wheat farm. Whole Grain assured her that she understood.


Fairweather suggested Hollow Shades. Then, as soon as she came up with that idea, she immediately started to babble about how she could move there too and sell her inn because it was old and falling apart anyway and out in the middle of nowhere and she’d rather be living with good friends, etcetera. Wheat Flour stopped her there and said she’d definitely think about it, which merely set Fairweather off again. It was a pleasant kind of annoying.


Lucid came on the early morning train, satchel and all. Celestia had sent him a letter catching him up on everything. He was quick to apologize about our disagreement in Fairflanks, but I had long since disregarded it by then. He wished me luck going home, briefly suggesting that he wanted to come with me, but I was just as quick in dissuading it. I’d had enough adventure to last a lifetime.


Soon, Celestia invited all of us into her throne room, and through the secret passage to her hidden study. It was exactly as I had remembered it in the dream, with the semicircular row of bookshelves halfway filled with tomes of all types and ages, the cleared-off desk in the middle of the room, and the ominous yellow orb in the middle. There were many more candles this time, at least.


There the orb was, humming low, shining a soft luminescent yellow and spinning a little. My ticket home, finally. “There it is,” I said stupidly.


We all stared at it for a minute. “What is it?” Fairweather piped up.


“It’s how Sawyer came here,” Celestia replied.


I realized something that had been burning at the back of my mind since I’d seen it in the dream. I turned to her, almost afraid to be so blunt. “Why did you bring me here?”


She looked down, her voice dropping in volume. “I didn’t mean to. It was an accident.” She walked around the orb to the desk, and sat down beside it. “Long ago, my sister, Luna, was overcome with darkness and became Nightmare Moon. I had no choice but to banish her for a thousand years.”


Right, the thousand year thing. I remembered Lucid mentioning that. Still awfully long for a time-out.


“I searched for years for a way to bring her back to Equestria before then. At one point, I had considered time travel. If I could go back in time and convince my younger self to be more patient and understanding with my sister, maybe she wouldn’t have attracted the darkness in the first place. She was resentful because I was arrogant.”


She sighed, but a solemn Luna walked up to her and offered her a hug. Celestia gave a small smile and continued. “Time travel was not possible at the time, however. Not until recently, when Lucid published his research suggesting otherwise.”


Lucid stepped forward, glancing between the princesses and the orb. “I found a way to traverse dimensions through dreams, like I showed you, Sawyer. But while you only went back a few days or so, Princess Celestia wanted to go back over a thousand years. I’d never tried anything on that scale before. But, as we discovered, the farther away the dimension, the harder it is to pin down.”


Celestia nodded. “I saw many strange worlds, none of them my own. It was a very surreal experience, and I tried to focus on the time I wanted to go to, but I couldn’t. I imagine you got pulled through with me, somehow. That’s the most reasonable explanation we could come up with,” she said.


Lucid nodded at that. “When she added more magic to the spell, she could have more than a ghost-like presence and be able change the past, which was her aim. We figure that’s how she accidentally pulled you here with her.”


So it was indeed an accident, in a very roundabout and convoluted way. I honestly didn’t care a whole lot at that point, as long as the reason wasn’t “for the fun of it”, or “to test you” again.


I said my goodbyes. Celestia and Luna both wished me well. Lucid told me to take care of myself, and thanked me for playing along. I thanked him back. Fairweather hugged me and told me several times how much she’d miss me, each time punctuated with an extra squeeze.


Whole Grain shook my hoof. I thanked her for the twentieth time since yesterday. She waved it off and smiled. “You would’ve done the same for me. You’re a good pony, though a crazy one.”


“You too,” I said, and we chuckled at that.


Then it came to Wheat Flour. She had been out of the wheelchair since that morning. Standing at full height, she was tall, halfway between her sister and Celestia. I was almost intimidated, but her smile relaxed me.


I thought about everything she had done. In Vanhoover, she had invited me into her home and insisted she accompany me to Canterlot, and she had every step of the way. She blew her multi-year long cover as a changeling and almost died trying to save me on the train. Words couldn’t truly express my gratitude, but I tried anyway.


“Thank you,” I said. “So much.”


She smiled. “You have a good heart, Sawyer. We’ll miss you.” She glanced behind me. The reflection of the orb shimmered in her dark blue eyes. “Will we see you again?”


I looked down and shook my head. “I don’t think so.” I couldn’t leave on something negative like that, though. “But I’ll remember you.”


She pulled me into a hug. “Me too.” Her warm love surged through me one last time.


We backed away from the hug, smiling. I turned around to face the orb, the bright yellow glow almost blinding. Finally, after all this time, I could go back home. I gave everybody one last wave before walking forward, into the light. My head touched the orb and I entered the dream world.


So many worlds passed by me, but it was less chaotic than the last time I’d been in this state. I was calm, not having to worry about where I was going—the destination was set. I was going home. The erratic colours started to get darker, and my body felt heavier and heavier.


Then I woke up.


I opened my eyes slowly. The dull beige of my ceiling greeted me. I stared at it for a minute, wondering if I was still being transported through space and time. But I felt my hands, I knew they were there. I stretched out my fingers and felt the soft sheets of my bed. This was home.


I pulled back the sheets and got up. My hands were back, and my feet, and my clothes, and my human skin. After putting on a shirt, I continued through the rest of my house, stumbling a bit as I got used to bipedalism again.


This was my bedroom. This was my kitchen, my stove, my clock. My living room, my television, my recliner. I ran outside, this was my house, my lawn, my street.


No one else was outside. It was an hour or so after dawn, the sun peeking over the row of houses. I stood there, alone, in my bare feet, my shirt half tucked in to my boxers. It was chilly outside.


I checked the calendars on all my digital devices. They told me that yesterday, Thursday, September 20th, I had gone to sleep. It was as if nothing had happened.


I took the week off of work. Soon, I started to write it down. Unlike a regular dream, I remembered everything clearly, like it had all actually happened within the past week. I wrote for the next five weeks or so until it was all down on paper.


Now here I am, sitting in front of my desktop at one-thirty in the morning, in a sweater and boxers, having almost forgotten about how it felt like to have fingerless stubs for hands. I’m also drinking a cup of coffee. I’ve had two every day since I came back.


It took some getting used to, sitting at home and wondering whether or not it really was a dream, and occasionally, whether what I was experiencing right now was a dream. The more time went on, the more I doubted if it had all actually happened.


I miss it, though. Even though I hated the unfairness of it, all of the drawbacks along the way, I can’t say I didn’t like the adventure. As much as it was inconvenient, it was somewhat exciting. And now, thanks to the wheat sisters, I have a new appreciation for good friends.


Would I do it again? Well, maybe, now that I’m more familiar with the world, and that I know a few ponies there. And Hollow Shades is a hell of a place. But I’ll steer clear of trains, thank you. Walking suits me just fine.

Preread by NotSoSubtle.