Change of Life
By Bernard Doove © 2014

This story was first presented on

Foreword: The story begins just before the events of the TV episode: "A Canterlot Wedding", but while it does have appearances by Twilight Sparkle and Queen Chrysalis, the rest of the characters are original creations. The nature of the changelings was first explored by Blissey1 in his story - A Novel Tale.



“Equestria to Whirring Cogs! Come in, Cogs!” a loud voice shouted practically in his ear.

The grey pegasus with a blue-green mohawk-style mane and tail was startled by the familiar voice, and he banged his head on the hatch of the machine that had so totally occupied his attention. “Ow! Geez, Blue Arc, don’t sneak up on me like that!” Cogs complained as he rubbed his sore head.

“Sneak?” asked the incredulous white pegasus with a bright blue mane and a cutie mark of an electric arc between two spheres. “I’ve been trying to get your attention for a minute already,” Blue Arc said with a roll of his eyes. “Once you get engrossed in a mechanical job, the rest of the world ceases to exist! Anyone would think that you don’t want to quit work for the day.”

“It’s quitting time?” Cogs asked, looking around at the clock.

“It was quitting time a quarter hour ago, and you were supposed to be joining me for our usual Friday evening get-together.”

“Oops,” Cogs said with a sheepish grin. “Did it again, didn’t I?”

Blue Arc laughed. “Frankly I’d think there was something wrong with you if you didn’t. Now if you put that much effort into finding yourself a pretty mare, you’d have a whole herd by now.”

“And then I’d have several mares nagging me for being home late, instead of just my best friend,” Cogs retorted.

“You have a point,” Blue Arc admitted. “For now though, you’re single, the weekend is upon us, and it’s time to have some fun!”

“You got it! Give me a few minutes to pack up, and I’ll be with you.”

Cogs secured the hatch on his repair job and hung an ‘Out Of Order’ sign on the catch. It wasn’t a critical job and it could wait until Monday to finish. He then carefully packed his precious tool kit. He took great pride in his quality tools, some of which were very specialized for certain jobs. Between them and his talent for repairing machinery, he had earned an excellent reputation for his work. Not that he worried too much about the reputation – he just enjoyed his work a lot, even if it did make him forget about little things like keeping track of time. But even that was not enough to distract him from what was really important to him right now – his friend and their regular night out together.

Cogs put his tools away in his locker, and then took off his coveralls and threw them in with the tools. He quickly washed up and gave his signature mane a brush to tidy it up. “Ready!” he declared with a grin.

“About time! Come on, let’s go.”

The pair spread their wings and took off. They headed through the factory complex to one of the exit portals. Because Cogs was so tardy, at least they did not have to contend with a large crowd of pegasi all heading home at the end of their shift. They exited the weather factory where they had both been working for years – Cogs as a mechanic, and Arc as an lightning wrangler. They had started there at the same time, supporting each others as newbies, and building a great friendship from that point.

Cogs had one other reason to be grateful for Blue Arc’s friendship though that the other did not – the stallion had provided Cogs with emotional sustenance while he had been establishing himself in Cloudsdale. After all, a changeling could not survive on food alone. Now they were as close as brothers, although his true nature was the one thing that Cogs had never shared with Arc. By now however, Cogs felt that information was irrelevant to their relationship, even if it did help him achieve his true purpose for his presence in the cloud city.

“So where should we go tonight?” Blue Arc asked.

“Where else? Blue Haven is always a good choice.”

“We went there the last three Fridays.”

“So? We go there often because it has everything we like – great coffee, great live music, great company. What more could you want?” Cogs asked.

“A bit of variety, perhaps?”

“Ha! You do the same thing wherever we go. You end up going home with a pretty mare or two and leave me to fend for myself. If you want to do something different, stay for the evening.”

“Why ever would I want to do that? You’re the one who should be going home with a mare of your own instead.”

“I don’t need a mare complicating my life, thank you very much. I don’t know how you get away with leading on so many of them.”

“Who’s leading them on? We have similar desires that are satisfied to our mutual pleasure. No one goes home unhappy.”

“Well, I don’t have your talent for that, so I’m going to leave that well alone.” Not that he had ever intended to have any sort of relationship other than a platonic friendship. There was too much of a risk of being unmasked, and besides he simply could not be bothered. He did not have to have a relationship with a mare to get what he needed.

“Your loss,” Arc said with a shrug.

They soon came to the Blue Haven Café, a name that understated its true size and scope. It had several sections – a coffee lounge, a bar, a restaurant, and a small stage for the live music acts that played there Friday to Sunday. Neither of them were much interested in alcohol, so as always they started in the coffee lounge where they looked around and found the inevitable group of mares having a night out together. They stepped up to the group where Cogs started with his usual tactic for getting some company.

“Hello, ladies! Could I interest any or all of you in free coffee and cake?”

“What’s the catch?” asked one suspicious pink mare with a red and yellow mane.

“Only that you share an evening of conversation with me and my friend here. Anything else is up to you,” Cogs reassured them.

“What do you think, girls? Should we take a chance?”

A purple mare with a white mane and starry cutie mark replied, “It’s okay – they’re legit. I’ve been with them before.”

“Hi, Stargleam,” Cogs said with a grin. “You’re becoming almost as much a regular as we are.”

“Yeah, Cogs, although this time the girls brought me along.”

“Hey! It’s not as if we had to drag you here,” objected the pink mare with a knowing smirk.

“True enough; so are we going to take up their offer?”

“If you say they’re okay, then I’m all for free food and drink.”

There was a chorus of agreement from the other three mares, and the two stallions joined the group. Cogs attracted the attention of a waiter, and everypony placed their orders. Then the conversation began, and Cogs relaxed and took pleasure in the evening. However, while he enjoyed the chat, that was not the true source of his interest. While the others consumed their drinks and treats, he was consuming an entirely different sustenance. The love of friendship was tasty, and gave him a good steady flow of the desired emotion, but it was not the only nor best source. Blue Haven was a popular venue for young couples, and all around Cogs they were exuding their love for each other. He was getting quite a buzz from all the high-grade love that he was soaking up unbeknown to all the pegasi in the room. Yes, there was a very good reason why he kept returning here on Fridays, even if he could never explain that to Blue Arc.

As usually happened on these evening, the group suffered attrition as one mare after the other had to leave. They were down to two when Blue Arc said his goodbyes also and left in the company of the pink mare. That left only Stargleam and Cogs, and he turned to her with a more serious look than he’d had all evening.

“So tell me, Stargleam, why are you really here tonight? That makes it three Fridays in a row that you’ve turned up here without your coltfriend. What’s his excuse this time?”

“His best friend’s birthday, and tomorrow it’s going to be a stag party,” she confessed.

Cogs sighed as he tasted her unhappiness. “Are you sure that he’s the stallion for you? It seems to me that he’s more interested in his own wants and needs rather than yours.”

“I’m beginning to wonder. He was so attentive when we first started dating. Now he’s just taking me for granted.”

“I’m hardly the one to talk about relationships, but it seems to me that if he doesn’t make you happy, then you shouldn’t be trying to hold on to it.”

Stargleam slumped in her seat and nodded. “Yeah, I just needed someone to tell me that to my face. I’ll tell him it’s over tomorrow, or more likely the next day if he stays true to his current form.” She examined the empty coffee mug in front of her. “I could do with something a bit stronger than coffee right now, I think.”

“I’ll buy you one if you promise that it’ll be your only one,” Cogs offered. “Drowning your sorrows in alcohol isn’t the way to go either.”

Stargleam snorted in a mixture of amusement and resignation. “Deal. You’re about my age, Cogs – how did you get so much wiser than me?”

“Don’t ascribe too much wisdom to me, Starry. I do these coffee groups almost every Friday, and I have learned a thing or two. Sometimes I had to do it the hard way.”

“You make it sound so easy though. You’re always comfortable with the mares, and yet you never go home with one that I have ever seen.” Stargleam looked at him coyly. “Would you like to do so tonight?”

‘Oops! This is getting a bit too intimate for comfort,’ Cogs thought. “Don’t get me wrong, Stargleam, but that’s not my thing. I’m not looking to get into any sort of relationship. I’d recommend my friend, Blue Arc, if a one night stand is all you want. He always treats mares well, but he’s not interested in being tied down as yet. If you’re determined to find a stallion interested in a long-term relationship, you would find that I’m not the right kind of pony, but I’m sure that there’s one out there for you.”

“I can’t say I’m not disappointed, but I’m not surprised either. I’d like that drink now, please.”

Cogs flagged the waiter and ordered Stargleam’s drink, and one for himself. They continued to chat while sipping the drinks, neither of them in a hurry to bring the evening to a close. Eventually though, Stargleam decided that it was time to go home. She got up from her seat and leaned over and gave Cogs a kiss on the cheek.

“Thanks for being a friend. Goodnight, Cogs.”

“Goodnight, Starry.”

Cogs watched her leave with mixed feelings. A mare like her could provide him with a lot of love sustenance, but it would also complicate his life greatly. Sometimes he wondered if it might be worth the hassle though. He shrugged and looked about the room. It was getting close to closing time, and the number of pegasi left were few. Besides, he felt quite full with a night’s worth of love that he had imbibed. It was time for him to go home also.

The fresh evening air felt pleasant as it sifted through his feathers while he winged his way to the small apartment that he called home. Filled to capacity with love energy, he always felt exceptionally good coming home from these evenings. It was a pity that he could not retain it all for himself, but such was the lot of changeling emotion harvesters. Nevertheless he could not complain because it gave him the opportunity to pursue his passion in life, as well as always having a good meal of love whenever he wanted. Mostly it was the mechanical stuff though, he had to admit to himself.

One of the reasons that Cogs never invited mares home for anything intimacy was set up in his bedroom. The window to that room was always completely covered in heavy drapes as well as a blind so that nobody could ever witness what happened in that room. With a flare of magical green fire, Cogs resumed his natural shape of a changeling named Zevan. There was little to distinguish him from other members of his hive, possessing the same black carapace with the blue wing casing, crest, and tail as the others. Only the arrangement of the voids in his legs and ears were unique and recognizable to his fellow changelings. It was his mechanical aptitude that had set him truly apart and gained him this job as an emotion harvester, but to complete that job he needed the receptacles that so prominently took up one corner of his room.

They were ordinary-looking barrels, deliberately as common as could be found. It was the contents that made them extraordinary. Removing the lid of one revealed it to be filled with a green gel-like substance. Zevan stared at it for a long moment, taking this last opportunity to enjoy the feeling of repletion before his ebony horn started to glow with a greenish light. The stored-up emotion – mostly high-grade love, but a smattering of other emotions to give it spice – was transferred into the storage medium. Zevan kept up the flow until he reached his basic level, and then he replaced the lid. Without the extra energy that a full load of love had been giving him, Zevan felt a great wave of lethargy come over him. He stumbled over to his bed and practically threw himself on the sheets.

As he slid gently into slumber, Zevan thought once more about Stargleam and her offer of companionship. He wondered how she would feel if she could see him now.

* * *

Saturday mornings always meant a good long sleep-in for him, revitalizing him in body and spirit. The first thing that Zevan did was to resume his pegasus form. He rarely changed out of his Cogs persona, but charging up the emorphic gel had left him feeling too drained to change back last night. He actually preferred this form now after wearing it for so long and enjoying the company of ponies. He had chosen to be a pegasus because he also enjoyed flying a lot more than the average changeling, and today was the day he got to indulge that pleasure. After grooming his fur and brushing his mane into its familiar mohawk, he made himself a quick breakfast before heading out. He always made a point of firmly securing his door first – it would be a bit hard to explain the barrels of gel if he had any unwanted visitors. Then he took off up into the sky, striving for altitude before heading off in some random direction.

Cogs lived for just a few things – his job, his nights out with friends, and flying. Of the three, only flying was completely unstructured and commitment free, and he flew where he wanted, however he wanted, for as long as he wanted. Sometimes he was joined by fellow pegasi also reveling in the joy of flight, giving them both the opportunity to play or show off. While he was flying, nothing else in the world mattered. Nevertheless, all good things must come to an end, and on this day, he had an appointment to keep.

Cogs alighted next to the door of his apartment about mid afternoon. He only had to wait about twenty minutes before the expected visitors arrived. A pair of pegasi pulled up at his door with a sky-cart laden with barrels like those in his bedroom. One of them came up to his door and knocked while the other started unloading a barrel. Cogs waved the pegasus inside and led her to his bedroom. He indicated the barrel that he had filled the previous evening, and the changeling mare then lifted the lid to inspect the contents.

“I see that you barely made minimum quota once again,” she said.

Cogs shrugged. “As long as I make at least the minimum, I’ve done my duty.”

“That’s a poor attitude for a hive emotion harvester. That quota is the minimum needed to justify your placement here, not a goal. You should be able to produce far more than that, like other emotion harvesters do. Have you formed a relationship with a mare yet? That will always boost your output.”

“No, I haven’t, and like I said the last time that you suggested it, I’m not interested in any relationship.”

“Well, I’ve got bad news for you, smart-ass – your quota has just been raised 30%. You might want to reconsider your objections.”

“What?! You can’t do that!”

“As your supervisor, yes I can. However, this isn’t just from me. Every harvester’s quota has been increased by order of Queen Chrysalis.”

“But… but why?”

The supervisor frowned. “It is not your place to question the queen’s orders. You will fulfill the new quota or be replaced by someone who can. Got it?”

Cogs nodded with a sullen look on his face.

“Good. Now let’s get this barrel loaded.”

Barrels were exchanged, and the two fake pegasi departed. Cogs gloomily watched them fly off until a voice from his left spoke up.

“I see you’ve gotten another shipment of pickled herring. You sure must love them fish!”

Cogs plastered a smile on his muzzle and turned to his neighbor. “Can’t get enough of them, Mrs. Dewdrop. I’m thinking of placing an even bigger order next time.”

“Never seen a pegasus who loved their fish as much as you do, Mr. Cogs.”

Cogs sighed. ‘Maybe you will if I can’t meet the new quota,’ he lamented to himself.

* * *

Cogs’ nice tidy life was now in shambles. He’d had everything ticking over nicely with his regular job at the weather factory, his carefully planned social outings to gather love energy for his covert job, and time off to enjoy flying. Something was going to have to give, otherwise the new quota was not going to be met. That meant cutting down on flying and stepping up the socializing. He still could not get enthused about the prospect of starting a relationship with a mare, even though that would easily make up the bulk of the difference. He believed that Stargleam would probably jump at the chance of a stable relationship if he asked, but he could not do that to the poor mare. She deserved better than someone who mostly needed her for the love that he could harvest. You did not do something like that to a friend!

In the end, Cogs had to cut out most of his recreational flying and spend more time in clubs and bars. His normal tactic of buying food and drink for a group of mares was getting very expensive though; he still had to eat and pay the bills. He realized that he would have to reconsider his approach if this quota remained in place, and he mostly did so by relying on his gift for conversation. It was not easy, but nevertheless by the time the next collection came due, he had acquired the requisite amount. Not that it seemed to please the supervisor anyway.

“Barely made the new quota, I see,” she said.

“Oh, come on!” Cogs protested. “Thirty percent more than my past shipments isn’t good enough for you?”

“Not when the queen demands every emotion harvester’s best effort, it isn’t.”

“What could the hive need that much more for? We have fed love to the whole hive efficiently at the same level for longer than I’ve been alive. Why the sudden change?”

“The queen has her reasons, and you might just find them out soon. All you harvesters have been ordered back to the hive for a briefing.”

That took Cogs by surprise. Normally a visit once a year was all that was expected, and his last had been only four months ago. Something definitely was very odd. “I’ll have to arrange a couple of days off from the weather factory.”

“Whatever. The briefing is in three days. Be there or else.”

The supervisor did not bother waiting for a response from Cogs. He did not know what to say anyway. His queen had ordered him back to the hive and he would obey. It was unthinkable to do anything else.

* * *

Cogs carefully packed his tools into his sky-sled. He did not have a clue why Chrysalis wanted him back at the hive, but if she wanted to take advantage of his mechanical skills, he was not going to be caught unprepared. Some food and a jar of charged emorphic gel completed his preparations. He did not expect this trip to require anything more than that.

His journey started at first light – he had a long way to fly, and if he did not want to overdo things, he would need to pace himself. His destination lay roughly northwest of Cloudsdale, and he knew the route well. He waved to the occasional pegasus weather team that he passed along the way, but they grew fewer and fewer until he reached virtually untouched territory. He stopped only once to eat, drink, and recharge his energy with some of the emorphic gel, and then continued for a couple more hours before spotting a trading post located far from civilization. He landed beside the building, unloaded his tools, and headed inside.

The trading post was typical of its kind, supplying frontier ponies with goods and equipment not available anywhere else for many miles. The proprietor was a sturdy earth pony, brown of fur, black of mane, and sour of demeanor. He recognized Cogs and gave him a curt nod towards the back store room.

“About time you got here. Job’s out the back.”

“I’ll get on it right away,” Cogs promised.

Cogs entered the store room and closed the door behind him. The exchange of words had been solely for the benefit of the customer who had been perusing some of the goods. What awaited him though was not a repair job, but a hidden entrance. Firstly however, Cogs had to shed his pegasus form. With the usual flare of green magic, it was Zevan the changeling who stepped up to a hidden switch that caused one set of shelves to swing away from the wall, revealing a tunnel that dived into the side of the hill, leading down to the hive deep below. It also revealed the two guards stationed just inside the door. Recognizing that he was not only a changeling, but also one belonging to their hive, he was allowed to pass, and the concealed door swung closed behind him.

The passageway was broad, allowing for a large number of changelings to pass through at the same time if necessary. However, it was just him, and his hoofsteps echoed along the walls as he made his way down. The tunnel eventually opened up into a series of chambers, bringing with them the noise of hundreds of changelings going about their lives, completely unbeknown to the ponies who lived above. It was a familiar place to Zevan, of course, but he had no particular emotional attachment to it. His loyalty might still lay with the hive’s queen, but his life was now among the clouds, and the sooner that he could return to them, the better.

Zevan made his way to the chamber where the emotion harvester controller’s office was located. He was not too surprised to recognize a couple of other harvesters there already.

“Quertz, Karazen, have you any clue what’s going on?” Zevan asked.

Both shook their heads, and Karazen replied. “We are as much in the dark as you, Zevan. The controller says that he’ll only let us know when we’re all here.”

“If I’m only the third to arrive, that’s going to be a long wait.”

“There are a few others,” Quertz said. “They went to get something to eat and said that they’ll be back before the appointed time. You have the same choice – take a break or wait here with us.”

Zevan chose to stay and talk. It was not often that he had a chance to have a real conversation with fellow changelings. His grumpy supervisor was hardly worth the effort. They exchanged tales of their pony lives, and speculated on the nature of the recent developments and how they might affect those lives, but in the end they knew that they would have to wait to get the answers they wanted. Meanwhile other harvesters started arriving, first in a trickle, then in a rush as the appointed time grew near. The chamber was very crowded by that time; normally it did not have to accommodate all the harvesters simultaneously. The last harvester arrived with just ten minutes to spare, and it was evident that the drone had been rushing to get there in time. A sympathetic co-worker handed the drone a drink to help it recover in time for the briefing.

To the surprise of everyone in the chamber, it was not the controller who stepped up to give the harvesters their briefing, but the queen herself. The buzz of conversation that had been going on until then, rapidly dropped to zero as the changelings prostrated themselves before Queen Chrysalis.

“Arise my faithful children,” Chrysalis said imperiously. I bring great news and a new direction for the glory of our hive. You have recently been given larger quotas to fulfill, and naturally you have wondered why. This is just one part of our preparations for our glorious plan to wrest control of the surface world from the ponies. Soon we will go to war with them, and it is your task to supply our soldiers with the extra love energy that they will require to build up their strength for the coming battle.”

There were gasps of shock and dismay among the emotion harvesters. Some simply gaped in horror at their queen’s words.

Chrysalis continued, oblivious to her subjects’ dismay. “Beginning immediately, the quota is now raised to 50% above standard. Additionally, all harvesters will cooperate with my intelligence agents to provide details of defenses of their designated territories. While the attack will commence in Canterlot, from there we will spread out to each town and city in turn, at which time you will report to the area commander to forcefully extract emotional energy from prisoners of war. The emotion harvester controller will give you the details of your particular responsibilities.”

Zevan was horrified at the thought of ripping out the emotions of defenseless ponies. Harvesting ambient emotional energy did no one any harm, but the unwilling surrender of emotions could do untold damage to the psyche. Before he could stop himself, Zevan blurted out, “My Queen, this is wrong!”

Chrysalis’ expression hardened, and she glared in the direction of Zevan. “Who dares challenge my orders?”

With many of the harvesters looking directly at him, it was impossible to just shut up and pretend that he had said nothing, so Zevan decided to commit himself wholly. “Your majesty! Why must we do this to ponies who have never done our kind any harm in all our history? We need them, and we have co-existed with them peacefully to our mutual benefit. Revealing ourselves, stealing what is not ours, and harming ponies can only lead to disaster.”

Contempt laced Chrysalis’ voice when she replied. “We get by with what they have to spare, forever at their mercy even if they do not know it. They hold power in the land above by virtue of that fact, not because it rightfully belongs to them. Well, no more will I let that stand. I have in place a plan to wrest power from the high and mighty alicorns, and we will claim our rightful place on the throne. We will take from the ponies what we want rather than what they carelessly discard, and it is your duty and honor to provide our army with the means of accomplishing that.”

Zevan found himself trembling from his inner conflict. It was wrong to attack the ponies, but his loyalty to his queen told him that he must. Slowly, painfully, he replied. “Your majesty, I regret that in all good conscience… I cannot agree with your plans.”

“Then you are of little use to me,” Chrysalis said coldly. “Guards, take this treasonous drone to the barracks, strip him of all his possessions, and train him to fight. He will be of some minor use to the hive, whether he approves or not.”

“Your majesty, please!” another harvester spoke up. “Zevan has merely voiced what we are all thinking. Surely you can see that we are not the right kind of your subjects to do this job? We were chosen partly because we can empathize well with ponies. Attacking them is abhorrent to us.”

“Yes, we are gatherers, not hunters,” another agreed.

Chrysalis was furious. “So much disloyal talk! Very well, you two may join Zevan. Anyone else wishing to question my commands may join them. For the rest of you, your tasks begin immediately. Dismissed!” She then stalked out of the chamber, and her guards stepped forward to seize Zevan and the other two objectors.

Zevan was numb with shock, and allowed himself to be led away without resistance. His queen had seemingly gone insane, and now his life was in ruins. Why couldn’t he have just kept his mouth shut?

* * *

The Captain of the Guard was not interested in Zevan’s mechanical skills, and his precious tools were confiscated. All it seemed that he was good for now was as the lowest and most disposable of soldier. Basically he was now arrow-fodder. Nevertheless he and the other conscientious objectors were trained to the best of their ability. Over the following weeks, more disaffected drones joined their ranks as the queen’s demands took their toll on their principles. Zevan commiserated with his fellows, but none could see a way out of their fate. A mixture of rumors and facts percolated down to their level, and they learned how Chrysalis had stolen the identity of the youngest alicorn, Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, and was building up her power with love drained from the princess’ fiancé. They learned more as the date of the takeover approached, and were acquainted with the identities of some specific targets. Some drones were assigned to undercover sabotage, and Zevan hoped that he might get this duty instead, only to find out that the queen had specifically ordered that he and his fellow objectors were to be put on the front line of attack. He found himself hoping that Chrysalis’ mad plans would work out, because otherwise he probably had little chance of surviving the battle.

On the night preceding the planned wedding of Princess Cadenza and Shining Armor, the hive’s army flooded out under the cover of darkness and winged its way towards Canterlot, charged up as much as possible on a feast of emorphic gel. Zevan’s troop was in the vanguard, ordered to attack any unfortunate pegasus that they might encounter in the dead of night. To his relief, no insomniac ponies were seen during the entire journey, and the changeling army rendezvoused in the woods around Mount Canterhorn without incident. It had been risky for so many to gather there, despite the concealing darkness, but the softly glowing spherical shield that was Canterlot’s major defense against aerial attack was also a hindrance to observation, especially at night when it spoiled the Guard’s night vision. All that remained was to await the signal to attack.

It was late into the morning before the signal was given. By then it was obvious that the majority of Canterlot’s population had been distracted by the spectacle of the marriage ceremony, and they could approach virtually unnoticed. Their first task was to break through the shield. This should have been impossible, but they had been assured that it would be severely weakened by that time. As he had been taught, Zevan focused his energy to make his carapace rigid like armor, and dived into the shield. He connected with a painful jar, but of course it was scarcely affected. It would take many such hits by all the army to break through, but that’s what they had been ordered to do, and that’s what they would accomplish. Again and again, Zevan smashed into the barrier, and eventually he began to notice cracks developing. He slammed his aching body into the shield a couple more times before it finally failed and crumbled away, laying Canterlot open to invasion.

“What are you waiting for? Attack!” shouted their commander.

The moment of truth had arrived for Cogs. Up until this moment, he could obey orders without hesitation, but now he was expected to actively engage with Royal Guard. With a scream of self-loathing, he launched himself at a target. The dive-bombing technique sent a unicorn guard flying, saved from worse injury by a hastily thrown-up magic shield. Zevan did not know whether to be relieved or frustrated at his failure. He did not have time to think about it for long though as the attack turned into a chaotic mêlée.

It became obvious to even Zevan’s untrained eye that the changelings were winning. Too many of the Royal Guard had been tied up with the royal wedding, just as Chrysalis had planned. Whatever else she was doing inside the castle was delaying reinforcements for the unfortunates outside. Most telling was the failure of Princess Celestia to appear and lend her mighty power to Canterlot’s defense. There were still others to beware of though.

“The Element Bearers have been sighted!” came the cry from one spotters.

By bad luck, Zevan’s troop was the nearest, and their commander was quick to send them in pursuit.

“Under no circumstances are the Bearers are to be allowed to get their Elements of Harmony. Confuse, attack and capture them all. Queen Chrysalis wishes to feast on their emotions tonight!”

Zevan soon spied their quarry. All six ponies were making haste to the Elements repository, smashing aside all opposition as they went. He dived down along with the rest of his troop to confront them. Unlike the Guards, the queen had specifically required that they capture the Element Bearers alive, so safer attacks could not be used. Instead, they pulled out one of their best trump cards, and transformed their appearance to match those of the six ponies. Then when the drones attacked, the resulting confusion would cause the ponies to hesitate in case they were attacking their friends. Despite this, the six seemed unstoppable. Zevan was repulsed twice before he got into a position that would guarantee him capturing the white unicorn. Just before he could though, he caught a glimpse of an orange-colored hoof, and his world turned black.

* * *

Zevan did not know how long he had been unconscious, but the migraine he was enduring made him wish that he still was. He painfully got back onto his hooves and looked about. There were several changelings still laying where they fell – some unconscious, and some probably dead. He counted his blessings that he was not one of the latter. There were still some citizens being chased by changelings through the streets, but it seemed to Zevan that the fight was basically over and the changelings were in control of Canterlot. He hoped that meant that he would not have to fight any more, at least for now. If Queen Chrysalis’ plans had indeed worked out, then it would mean moving on to the next town and subjugating that, and then the next, and the next. He had gotten lucky and survived this attack, but how long before his luck ran out? Maybe it was for the best if it did. This attack was an abomination that sickened him, and he wanted no more part of it.

With a great deal of effort, he lifted himself into the sky, unsure of his next course of action. Perhaps he could disguise himself and sneak out of Canterlot? Probably not – too many changelings around who would recognize him for what he was, and question his actions. Rejoin the troop? Was there even anyone else in his troop still surviving? Maybe he should just fly around and assess the situation to better make a decision? That seemed like a good idea, so he did.

It depressed him to see what it was like in the streets of Canterlot. He shuddered when he saw a harvester ripping the emotions from a helpless unicorn mare. He started to fly away before disgust with himself made him turn back. Grabbing a flower pot from a nearby balcony, he dropped it on the changeling’s head, knocking him unconscious. Zevan changed into his Cogs persona and shouted at the mare, “Run! Run and hide before another one gets you!”

The unicorn looked up dazedly, and nodded. “Thank you!” she managed to say before stumbling away as fast as she could in her depleted condition.

Zevan reverted to his natural form. He was too big a target as Cogs, but he still wished that he could have remained that unassuming grey pegasus instead of a horrible changeling invader. With a sigh, he continued on his tour of the city.

Suddenly a bright flash caught his eye from the direction of the castle. Turning towards it, he gaped in surprise as a pink globe of energy burst forth from the castle. It was brighter and stronger than the shield had been, and it was growing! It seemed to him that every changeling that the sphere encountered was relentlessly swept before it, but before he could be sure, the sphere reached him, slamming into him and pushing him inexorably out of the city. He was helpless before its onslaught, unable to control his flight in the slightest, and sent tumbling through the air in a way that was making him rapidly dizzy. Through that chaos though, he recognized one startling fact – it was pure love energy, but of a level that was way beyond any he had ever encountered, or had heard of for that matter.

Zevan was still laughing bitterly over the irony when his flight was finally stopped by slamming at great speed into a tree, and for the second time that day, he lost his grip on consciousness.

* * *

Chapter 1: Encounters

Zevan woke to a world filled with pain. Without thinking, he tried to move to alleviate it, only to have agony rip through him and he blacked out again.

When he became aware again, he almost repeated his actions before the memory of it froze him where he was. Blinking rapidly to try to clear his blurry vision enabled him to finally take stock of his situation. He was jammed awkwardly in the vee of a tree trunk and a branch, with smaller branches poking into him or supporting his other limbs. He cautiously moved one foreleg. It ached and its movement was confined by the branches, but it wasn’t the cause of the excruciating pain. His other foreleg was trapped under him and it seemed to be numb, perhaps due to the circulation being cut off. He gently tried his left hind leg and screamed with pain. Twisting his head to try to see it better, he saw the cause. A dead branch had skewered through one of the gaps in his leg, and as it got wider nearer to the trunk, it had broken the chitin and ripped the flesh underneath. Any movement at all sent fresh stabs of pain through the tortured flesh.

The changeling knew that he was in real trouble then, but he was not defeated yet. He soon revised that opinion when he tried to lean in the direction of his trapped limb, only to feel fresh agony from his back, accompanied by the sickening grinding of a broken limb. Gritting his teeth in an effort to stave off the pain, he realized that his wing must be fractured or even smashed. How was he going to get out of this position if he could not move? How did he get into this position at all?

The last thing that Zevan could recall before he woke in the tree was being helplessly battered by an unyielding blast of love energy emanating from Canterlot castle. While his kind fed on that energy, it was like comparing drinking from a straw to trying the same with a fire hose. He and his hive-mates were flung inexorably and rapidly far from the mountain city, tumbling wildly, powerless to affect his flight. His view was a blur of sky and forest before eventually crashing through the tree canopy and his flight was abruptly terminated. Looking about, he had no clue exactly where he was, or even how far he had been flung. Worse yet, he had no idea where his hive-mates were, or if they were even in a position to help him. He would have to get out of this situation by himself, or else he ran the risk of dying right here, perhaps in hours, or worse in days.

The first thing that he had to do was to free his leg. With it stuck there, he could not move in any way except that which caused him to grind his damaged wing so agonizingly. The branch was too long to even consider sliding it out, so the only option was to break it off. Zevan knew that he could do it, but it was going to cost him. He took a few deep breaths, his battered and bruised chest protesting, and then he braced himself for the effort. As quickly as he could, he pulled and twisted his leg as hard as he could. The agony made his vision swim, almost making him black out again, and for a moment he thought that the branch was going to resist his efforts. However, with a painful snap, it finally broke and Zevan just lay there gasping for a while until the pain subsided. He contemplated that it had been a good thing that the branch was dead – a green branch might have simply bent without breaking. On the other hoof, if it had been alive and leafy, it might never had gone through the hole in his leg in the first place.

The job was only half done though because the broken branch was still jammed inside his limb. He considered leaving it there to provide some sort of seal to the wound, but it was too long and liable to interfere with his other efforts to free himself. After a few minutes of internal debate, he decided it had to come out. Now that it was free though, he could move his hind leg close enough to his foreleg so that he could grasp it with his hoof’s kinetic field. Once again he braced himself, and then hauled on the branch. At first it seemed that it was jammed there, but then with a sickening jerk, it pulled free. He threw the offending piece of wood away as green blood seeped from the wound.

With three of his limbs free, he could now turn his body and free his other foreleg in such a way as to not put undue pressure on his back and wing. It was not easy, and it was still painful, but at last he was freed from his entrapment. Now all that confronted him was trying to get down from the tree with one injured leg, another so numb that it would not support him, and a useless wing. The tree’s lack of suitable lower branches precluded climbing in his current condition. He pondered the drop – it wasn’t too excessive, or at least not so if he was in full health. It was a risk, and he again considered waiting for a while to see if help would be forthcoming. Only then did he think to check the position of the sun in the sky, and he realized how many hours had already passed since his forced exit from Canterlot. If that was any indication, it was unlikely that help was coming anytime soon. He did not really have a choice at all.

He assessed how best to make the jump, aware that he could not roll onto his already badly injured wing without exacerbating its condition. “You’ve pulled a branch out of your leg, Zevan; this isn’t going to be any worse,” he told himself. Sadly, he was unable to completely convince himself, so before he chickened out, he leaped. A thicker than expected pile of leaf litter helped break his fall, but it was still painful enough to make him black out again from the impact.

Zevan was not unconscious for too long though. He considered his position and decided to just rest for a while. He made his legs and body as comfortable as he could, and then tried to block out the throbbing pain from his legs and wing. Just lying there though made him aware of every other bruise and scrape that his body had endured as he crashed through the trees. He realized that he would not be able to get any decent rest, and he really needed medical help. He looked about himself and failed to recognize anything. The forest was of a different nature from the one surrounding his hive, and in his helpless flight from the city, he had been totally unable to get his bearings. He could have gone in any direction north, south, or west. Only east was out of the question as that would have smashed him into Mount Canterhorn. That certainly did not help narrow down the possibilities much though. Without a clue as to the best route to take, he was left with just one option, and that was to head in the same general direction as his hive was from Canterlot, with just glimpses of the sun through the canopy to give him any sense of orientation.

He eased himself onto his legs and painfully started hobbling as best as he could. His numb foreleg was slowly recovering but still weak, and he could now feel the severe bruising that it had gotten. His injured hind leg screamed with pain every time he put his weight on it. Undergrowth hindered his way while vines and roots tripped him. He knew that he was weakening fast, but he had to keep moving. He lost track of the time that he spent dragging himself onwards – there always seemed to be one more thicket to push through, one more gully to negotiate, one more boulder to get around. Abruptly he burst out into the open, stumbling to the ground for the hundredth time. He lay there panting and exhausted, wishing that he had encountered a stream to quench the thirst that was consuming him.

Looking about, he realized that he had encountered a road that had been cut through the forest. It was small but in good condition, which told him that it was likely to have travelers pass by fairly regularly even if not too frequently. He hoped that perhaps one of his airborne hive-mates might spot him there in the open, but realistically he knew that it was unlikely by now. His kind had always made it a habit to be inconspicuous, or at least they did until Queen Chrysalis had embarked on her quest for power. At this stage, he knew that he would have to accept any help that came by, and that was most likely going to be a pony.

With that decision made, he let himself rest to try to recoup some of his strength. It was about half an hour later that he heard the approach of hooves on the road, accompanied by the quiet rumble of a cart. Lifting his head enough to see past the tall grass on the roadside, he saw the traveler approaching from the westerly direction. It was time for him to disguise himself. In a flash of green fire enveloping him from horn to tail, Zevan assumed the form of a grey-coated pegasus pony with mane and tail a blend of blue and green, the same as his upper carapace, plus a cutie mark consisting of two inter-meshing gears. In other words, after far too long an absence, he was Cogs again. He then waited until the pony came within earshot.

“Help!” Cogs called weakly. He repeated his call when it seemed that the pony had not heard him the first time. The sound of trotting slowed to a stop.

“Hello? Who's there?” came the voice of a mare.

“Help me, please!” Cogs called out again.

The pony came over to the side of the road and gasped at the sight of the disheveled and bloody pegasus lying in the grass with one wing positioned at an awkward angle. “By Celestia! What happened to you?” she gasped.

Cogs could now clearly see the pony. She was a pale-green unicorn with a lavender mane striped with purple, a matching tail, and a cutie mark consisting of a trio of flowers. He was stunned to see though that her horn was broken off to about a third of its natural length. He had never seen that before and wondered what had happened to her. The answer would have to wait though. He had spent some time considering how he would explain his predicament, and he gasped out, “I was knocked out of the air by some flying object that crashed into me. I saw a flash of something coming from the direction of Canterlot, and then many things about my size flying through the air. One of them smashed into me and sent me hurtling into the forest, injuring me badly. I've spent hours trying to drag myself to safety.”

“Oh, you poor stallion! Let me try to help you,” she said as she started extricating herself from the harness that attached to the cart. Cogs could see the glow from her broken horn was very weak, and apparently so was the grip of her hoof, so it was not easy for her to accomplish what should have been a simple task.

“Please,” Cogs said, “I need a drink. Do you have any water?”

“Oh, of course! Let me get some for you.” She unhooked a canteen that was hanging from the front of the cart. Unscrewing the cap, she brought it to Cogs’ muzzle. He took the canteen and drank greedily, draining it rapidly. He would have liked to have more, but the canteen had been only about a third full to start with.

In the meantime, the unicorn had been looking him over, assessing his condition. “You're going to need a doctor. I’m heading home to my village right now, and I can get you medical help. Do you think you can get onto my cart?”

Normally an average unicorn would have no problem lifting up a pony onto a cart, but Cogs realized that her broken horn must be crippling her ability to do so. However, he had managed to drag himself here under his own power, and with the rest and some water, he reckoned that he should be able to get on by himself. He struggled to his feet, aided by some non-magical assistance from the unicorn. She guided him to the side of the cart which she dropped down on hinges. She first had to move some of the contents of the cart, consisting of a large variety of wildflowers and various herb plants. With an area cleared, he put his front hooves on the tray of the cart and tried to climb on. When she saw the difficulty that he was having, she put her shoulder behind his rear end and heaved. With physical strength surprising for a unicorn, she easily pushed him up fully onto the cart, and she then lifted the side back up and latched it into place once more.

“Make yourself as comfortable as possible,” she advised. “We’re still about twenty minutes before we reach my village.” She started getting back into the harness.

“What village is that?” Cogs asked, hoping to get an idea of where he was.

“Whitetail Meadows,” she replied.

“Whitetail? As in the Whitetail Woods?”

“Of course. Surely you knew what forest you were flying over?”

“Yeah, sorry, I'm rather muddled right now due to my accident.”

“Oh, right. We'd better get something done about that soon. I'll make good time; don't you worry.”

Cogs pondered that information. Whitetail Woods was fairly extensive, but all of it was far south of his hive. Excepting for the possibility of others of his kind who had been swept here by that irresistible magical surge, it was extremely unlikely that he would encounter anyone else from his hive. Of course there was always the possibility of encountering changelings from another hive, but he had no idea how they would treat one from a hive that had done the unthinkable. His future was far from certain, and that was apart from what he would do if a doctor examined him. He undeniably needed medical attention, but even an earth pony doctor would soon realize that there was something askew with Cogs, and a unicorn doctor would know instantly that he was no pegasus.

As they made their way down the road, the unicorn called back to him. “My name is Lavender Dreams, by the way. What's yours?”

“I'm Whirring Cogs,” he replied with the name of his alter ego. “You can call me just Cogs though.”

“Does that mean that you're good with machinery?” she guessed.

“Yes. I'm not very good with weather magic, but I'm great at maintaining the machines at the weather factory.” Because he was only an imitation pegasus, of course he did not possess their weather magic, but his proficiency with machinery allowed him to avoid that problem when he was with other pegasi by putting him in positions that did not require that magic. Weather ponies were common, but a good mechanic was always in demand. “What about you? Judging by your load and cutie mark, are you in the flower business?”

“I run a wildflower and herb shop in the village. I was just making one of my regular supply runs today. Only the best and freshest from me!” she proclaimed proudly.

“They smell really nice,” Cogs admitted. “Makes me feel a bit better too.”

“Yes, they can have that effect. You just rest until we get you to the village. Won’t be long now.”

Cogs did just that, and the gentle swaying of the cart was not unpleasant. They had been traveling for about ten minutes though when the cart hit a deep pothole. The cart bounced with a jarring crash, knocking Cogs into the side of the cart and knocking his injured wing. A lance of agony made him scream in pain and his disguise abruptly failed. Normally he could maintain his pegasus form even in his sleep, but the pain was enough to disrupt even that basic ability. He struggled through the pain to try to re-establish his disguise as fast as possible. The flare of green fire had to be a dead giveaway however.

“Oh no! I'm so sorry!” Lavender Dreams cried out. “I didn't notice the pothole until too late. Are you alright?”

The mare squinted back at him, and Cogs realized that the lowering sun behind them was dazzling her. She had apparently not noticed the bright flare of his transformation amid the greater glare of the sun. He sighed in relief. “I'm okay. I just knocked my wing. Just give me some warning for any more bumps, please.”

“Of course. I’ll be more careful, I promise.”

The rest of the journey went by without incident though, and soon the woods opened out into broad fields, the meadows after which the village was presumably named. He could see from the small rise of the road that it was a small township, pleasant but without any truly outstanding features. They made their way into the heart of the village, with Lavender occasionally exchanging greetings with others. He noticed a predominance of unicorns in the population, which meant that this place was likely established by them, just as Ponyville had been established by earth ponies. It also meant that any doctor was likely to be a unicorn also. Cogs’ hope for a small miracle practically died right there.

Lavender pulled up beside a shop, and Cogs could see the sign that proclaimed it to be ‘Wild Dreams’, with a display of flowers and herbs in the window. “I thought that we were going to the hospital?”

“Our village is too small to have a hospital” she explained as she got out of the harness. “We do have a healer though, and I'm going to see if I can fetch her as soon as I get you comfortable here. I think you need food and drink first.”

“I don't want to put you to any more inconvenience,” Cogs protested.

“Nonsense! I'm not going to simply dump you now. It's no trouble, really.”

She assisted Cogs in getting off the cart and supported him as he limped alongside her to the door of the shop. She guided him to a back room where she urged him to make himself comfortable on the sofa. She then fetched a selection of foods and a jug of chilled water. “I’ll let you eat and drink while I go find the healer. She’s usually making her rounds around this time, so I have to find her first. It shouldn’t be too long though.”

“Thank you, Lavender Dreams,” he replied with true gratitude. “I don't know what would have happened to me if you hadn't come along.”

She smiled widely. “Just Lavender will do, and you're very welcome, Cogs.”

Cogs took full advantage of the food that she had provided, not knowing what his situation would be like after she returned with the healer. Inevitably his secret would be revealed, and how would she react then? Had news of what had happened in Canterlot reached this village as yet? If so, he could be in even deeper trouble. He sighed in resignation. He had participated in the invasion of Canterlot and thus he was guilty of crimes against its citizens, but that did not mean that he had approved of it. His queen had ordered it though, and he was a loyal subject, and therefore he had not hesitated despite his misgivings. He would just have to deal with the consequences, whatever they may be.

It was nearly half an hour before Lavender returned in the company of another elderly unicorn mare with an orange-brown coat and grey-streaked blue mane and tail. “Sorry that it took me so long to find her, Cogs. This is Healing Hooves, our town healer.”

The unicorn started giving him a reassuring smile when a flash of recognition reached her eyes. Cogs returned the look in shock before she said, “Let's see what I can do for Mister Cogs. Lavender, dear, it looks like I will need to treat some rather gruesome injuries, and I would rather that you were not here to watch. Could you please give us privacy for a while?”

“Of course, Healer. I have to unload my cart anyway. If you need my help for anything though, just call.”

“I will certainly do that, dearie,” she replied with a beneficent smile.

Lavender left the room, firmly closing the door after her. As soon as she was sure that the unicorn was gone, Healing Hooves turned back to Cogs. There was a flash of blue fire which left another changeling standing in her place.

“What in the name of Tartarus happened to you, and what are you doing here?” she demanded.

* * *

Chapter 2: Wounds

Changelings feed on emotions, or more precisely the excess emotional radiation from others, ponies in particular. They could forcibly rip emotional energy from them too, but that was neither necessary nor desirable. Because they consume them, naturally they don’t radiate any of their own. Unlike Lavender and all the other village ponies, Healing Hooves was an emotional blank, which is how Cogs had immediately realized that she was a changeling also, and vice versa. She was not however one from his hive, as evidenced by her differently colored carapace.

“I was knocked out of the sky and crashed into a tree. I'm here because Lavender found me and insisted on bringing me here,” he explained briefly. “Are you going to help me or not?”

“Hmmph! Of course I'm going to help you. I'm a healer, aren't I? If you work out in the field, you should know that our alter egos aren't just for show.” She started taking out various equipment and medicines from her saddle pouches.

“I thought that because I'm from a different hive, you might not be keen on helping me.”

“I didn't spend years learning medicine just to knock back a non-pony patient, no matter where they’re from. Now are you going to resume your normal form so that I can see the true extent of your injuries?”

“Oh! Of course,” he replied in embarrassment. With a flare of green fire, Cogs resumed his changeling form.

Healing Hooves gasped. “What happened to do that to your leg?”

Zevan explained even as the healer began a more detailed examination of his injuries. He groaned in pain as she moved his wing.

“Sorry,” she said. “That wing looks in very bad shape. However, I’m going to have to deal with your leg first to prevent complications due to infection. We’d better get something waterproof under that leg before it stains the sofa with an inexplicable color.” Putting actions into words, Healing Hooves carefully put a sheet of material under the damaged leg. Then she took out two tablets from a small bottle with a red cap, and passed them to him along with a cup of water to help him swallow them. “That should help with the pain,” she explained.

Zevan looked at the pills dubiously. “Are you sure that these will work on changelings as well as ponies?”

“Have a little faith in my abilities, please.” She held up the bottle. “Red cap means medicines suitable for both. Even if I never had a changeling patient, there's always the chance that I might need them myself.”

Zevan nodded and took the pills. Healing Hooves went into the adjacent room and came back shortly with a bowl of water. Taking another bottle from her supplies, she added a judicious quantity to the water. She then took a cloth, dunked it into the solution and laved the wound.

Zevan gritted his teeth while she cleaned out the wound before stitching up some of the torn flesh. She liberally coated it with an antiseptic cream before packing the hole in his leg and finally bandaging it.

“You're lucky – I'm fairly sure that’s not going to need more sophisticated treatment at a hospital. Given time and rest, the flesh will heal, fresh chitin will grow over it, and that leg should be as good as new. Let’s have a look at the rest of your wounds now.”

One by one, she treated every cut and scrape, getting him to painfully reposition himself to get to the other side of his body.

While she was working, Zevan asked, “What's your real name, if I may ask?”

She grinned at him. “My changeling name is Hurax, but I've been Healing Hooves for so long that I prefer that.”

“You really like your job, don’t you?”

“I do, and it certainly fulfills my need for emotional energy. Don't you like yours?”

“Of course I do… or at least I did.”

“Sounds like you have a story to tell. Is it related to why you were knocked out of the sky?”

Zevan realized that he may have said too much. He did not know if she knew of the events at Canterlot as yet. Then again, inevitably she would, and he wasn't going to be able to leave anytime soon. “Yes. I haven't been able to do what I love to do for a while now.”

“Why not?”

“Because our queen had us doing… unusual things.”

“You said ‘us’; what was so important that it took a number of you away from your task of gathering emotional energy for the hive? That’s always a priority.”

“I… I'd rather not say.”

Healing Hooves shrugged. “It's your hive’s business, so I won't push.”

She finished treating the wounds and turned her attention to the wing. “Hopefully that pain medication has fully kicked in, because I'm afraid that this is going to hurt a lot in spite of it,” she warned.

Zevan braced himself as she lifted his wing, grimacing in pain as she manipulated it to feel the extent of the injuries. Thankfully the medicine brought the pain down to a bearable level, but it still was not pleasant to feel the breaks grinding.

Healing Hooves shook her head sadly. “This is bad. Very bad. It's broken completely in two places, and I sense several more fractures. You must have had your full weight impact on it when you hit the tree. I can straighten and splint it, but I can’t be sure how well it will heal. If you were really a pegasus, I wouldn't worry, but changeling wings are more fragile and liable to permanent impairment.”

“Are you saying that I won't be able to fly again?”

“I'm saying that it's a possibility, or at least some degree of restriction. We won't be able to tell for some time, but don't get your hopes up.”

“Damn! Even that will stop me from ever going back to my old job. I used to work in Cloudsdale in the weather factory. Can you imagine a pegasus who can't fly working there, let alone commuting between there and my hive?”

“No, I guess not, but that doesn't mean that you won’t be able to do your specialty elsewhere, surely?”

“I suppose not. I don't know because I've never had to try. Then again, a machine is a machine no matter where it is. First I have to find my way back to my hive, and I can't do that very well at the moment.”

“You can't do anything at all,” Healing Hooves said emphatically. “You are going to need to give yourself time to heal before attempting any journey. You certainly can't fly, and if your hive is anywhere near as isolated as mine, you're not going to be getting a ride on a cart there either.”

Zevan frowned. “What do you suggest? I didn't plan to come here, and I can't count on Lavender’s charity for too long. I'm amazed that she's done so much already.”

Healing Hooves gave Zevan a sly grin. “Don't be so sure about that. I've known Lavender for many years, and she's a lovely pony. She's given me a lot of emotional sustenance too, which is surprising for one who has suffered like she has.”

“So you know what happened to her horn then?”

“Yes I do.”

Zevan waited for her to say more, but when it became evident that she wasn't going to do so, he prompted, “And…?”

“And why don’t you ask her yourself? Seeing that you seem to be her guest for at least tonight, it will give you something to talk about. Compare broken limbs for example.”

“You have a strange sense of humor, Healer.”

“Perhaps,” she agreed with a grin, “but don't tip-hoof around the subject with her. She's a strong mare – she has needed to be. You might get more from her than just a place to recover for the night. What’s your hive’s emotional preference, by the way.”

“Love,” he blurted out before realizing that it might give a clue to which was his hive.

“A not uncommon taste, although I prefer gratitude and admiration. Makes my job all the more enjoyable. Anyway, I'm sure that you can get by on other emotions for a time, and I doubt that Miss Dreams will let you starve for food either.” Healing Hooves finished securing the last of the splints and bandages on Zevan’s wing. “There, that's all I can do for you right now. Assume your pegasus form again, please.”

Zevan did so, and Healing Hooves examined the result.

“You need to adjust your illusion; the bandages look wrong on a pegasus wing,” she advised.

Cogs looked at the wing and then morphed the image until it looked right. “How's that?” he asked.

“Much improved.” Healing Hooves resumed her unicorn form. “I'd better let Lavender know that we’re done. She's probably wondering why it's taking so long already.”

She stepped out to the shop and soon returned with Lavender Dreams. She gasped when she saw all of the bandages on him.

“Oh, I knew you had a lot of scrapes, but this makes it look much worse. You must be aching all over!”

Cogs gave her a lopsided grin. “Yeah, but the healer has given me some medicine that’s made me feel much better. Thank you so much for getting me her help.”

Lavender blushed a little. “You're welcome, Cogs, but I was happy to do it. Everypony should help others when they can, for you never know when you might need their help in return, right?”

“I suppose that’s true, although I can’t see how I’m ever going to be able to repay you in kind.”

“Then repay me in another way. Please give me the pleasure of your company for dinner tonight.”

That surprised Cogs. “So little that you ask in exchange for so much. It seems that I have already robbed you of your sofa, so how can I deny you such a simple request?”

“May I suggest that you make Mister Cogs your wonderful herb vegetable soup?” Healing Hooves said with a sly smile. “It's sure to fortify him.”

“That's a great suggestion, Healer. I'll even make an extra large batch to give you some also.”

“Why thank you, Lavender dear. That's very kind of you.”

Cogs tried not to smirk. The old changeling certainly seemed to know how to manipulate a situation to her advantage. It did speak well for the soup though, and he looked forward to trying it out.

Healing Hooves took the bottle of pain pills from her satchel and tipped out a few. “If the pain returns and gets too much for you, take one of these. I suggest that in any case that you take one before going to sleep. That should stop you from having your sleep interrupted and you will get a good night’s rest that way. I’ll be back tomorrow to check up on you and change a couple of those dressings. Until then, I bid you both a very good evening.”

“Thank you, Healer,” Cogs said.

“I'll show you out,” Lavender said. A minute later she returned. “Did you need anything right now before I start dinner?”

“Don't you have to tend to your shop?” Cogs asked curiously.

Lavender laughed. “I think you have lost track of the time.” She pointed out the window through which a red-tinged landscape could be seen. “Celestia is setting the sun, and business is very much closed for the day.”

“Oh. I should have realized,” Cogs replied in embarrassment.

“I don't think you can be faulted, considering what you've been through. So did you want anything?”

“More water, please. I can wait for dinner for food.”

“Easily done!” She trotted away to the kitchen, and shortly returned with a glass of water. She was obviously having to put a lot of effort into that simple task, her magical grip unsteady.

“Thanks. Umm… speaking of harrowing experiences, may I ask what happened to your horn?”

Lavender froze for a moment, then gave him a determined smile. “I lost it in an epic battle against a fearsome monster in the Everfree Forest, protecting my foolish baby brother who went exploring there.”

Cogs’ eyes widened in surprise. “Really?” he said incredulously.

She glared at him as if to challenge his disbelief, then giggled. “No, but I had you going for a moment, didn't I?”

Cogs didn't mention that he could taste the emotions of humor and deception after he got over the surprise of her words. “Yeah, you did. So what really happened. Please – I'd like to know.”

She sighed. “I had a stupid accident when I was a teenager. I got it into my head that rock climbing was fun. ‘You're no mountain goat!’ my mother kept telling me, but what did she know? I kept right on doing it until one day I pushed my limits too hard. I fell into a ravine which in itself was bad enough. The height wasn't too terrible, but it was nothing but boulders below. I certainly found out that I was no mountain goat alright because I fell very awkwardly and my horn got jammed into a crevice. My momentum kept the rest of my body going and my entire weight pulled on my horn and it snapped.” She pointed a forehoof at Cogs’ broken wing. “That hurt pretty bad, didn't it?”

Cogs nodded mutely.

“Imagine that pain through every fiber of your being. I screamed in agony and that was the last thing that I knew until I woke up in hospital. I had been in a coma for a week, although apparently I’d mostly escaped serious injury except for a broken leg and sundry cuts and bruises like yours. It had been the shattering of my horn that had done me the most harm though and rendered me comatose. After that, I practically had to re-learn how to do almost everything again.”

“I can see that it's difficult for you to lift and manipulate things.”

“Oh no, it was much worse than that. My entire magical matrix had been disrupted. In earth ponies, all their magic is in their legs and it gives them their connection with the soil and living things. If they break a leg, the rest still compensate until the leg heals. You pegasi have your magic mostly in your wings, and some in your hooves. It enables you to fly and manipulate weather. Again, injure part and the rest will adjust. But with we unicorns, it's all focused in the horn. It lets us do very sophisticated magic and versatility with spells, but it also makes us vulnerable because if our horn is damaged, there is nothing to compensate for it. When I awoke from the coma, I could not lift a feather with what remained of my horn, and my hooves could hold nothing except from sheer friction. I was magically crippled. I had to literally start from scratch to re-learn how to manipulate mana to do the simplest thing. However, because the structure of my horn is permanently destroyed, I will never be able to do much more than what you have seen me do. I'm still grateful that I can do that much, and I've learned to compensate in other ways.”

“How so?” Cogs asked curiously. She seemed to want to talk about it, and he was more than happy to give her an attentive ear.

“Well if you can’t do something magically, then you have to do it physically. You’re unlikely to find a stronger unicorn than yours truly because I've had to put my muscles to work. How many unicorns have you ever seen pulling carts as big as mine?”

“Can’t say that I've ever seen them pulling carts, let alone something like yours. That's earth pony work normally.”

“I might not be able to match an earth pony’s strength, but I'm no slouch either.” She gave him a grin. “And I've managed to win a few bets too from strangers who don’t know what I’m capable of doing.”

Cogs laughed. “I'll keep that in mind – no making bets with you.”

“And now that you know my sad sob-story, I had better get back to the kitchen if either of us are going to have anything to eat tonight.”

Cogs watched her admiringly as she trotted into the kitchen. Here was a mare who had been dealt a major blow and yet had managed to fight her way back and make the best of her circumstances. He could learn a thing or two from her. He had been fortunate to have her encounter him on that quiet road.

The soup was everything it had promised to be. It was a good thing that Lavender had made so much because Cogs found that he had a very large appetite.

“If you keep that up, Healing Hooves is going to be very disappointed,” Lavender commented in amusement.

Cogs looked a little guiltily at the third helping he’d just ladled out.

Lavender laughed. “Oh, don't worry – I have more in the kitchen. The healer likes it as much as you seem to, and I always make extra for her.”

“That's a relief. I'm a little dependent on her good will at the moment.”

“I don't think she would do anything to you if you ate her soup. Of course I may be wrong,” she added mischievously.

Cogs did his best to be a good dinner guest, talking about his work at the weather factory and listening to her own little tales of interest. It was something that his kind was good at doing though. Their need for emotional sustenance had made changelings adept at ingratiating themselves with their hosts, a practice refined over millennia in peaceful, secret coexistence with the ponies. At least up until now.

Lavender noticed Cogs’ grimace as he realized that this peaceful relationship was as good as ruined due to Queen Chrysalis. The future of the changeling race looked very murky right now.

“What’s wrong, Cogs?”

“I’m sorry, Lavender. I didn't mean to put a downer on this meal. I've been enjoying myself more than I've been able to do so for a while, but I can foresee that coming to an end all too soon.”

“Oh dear, how depressing. I'm not just going to kick you out the door tomorrow if that’s what’s worrying you.”

Cogs chuckled. “No it's not that, although I had wondered. There are some things that I can't tell you as yet that could have a profound effect on my future.”

“More than just your broken wing then?”

“Much more. The wing just complicates things.”

“Well, if my own experiences have taught me anything, there’s little that can't be overcome by persistence and positive thinking.”

“I suppose I'm being rather negative. The first step is to figure out exactly where I am so that I can plan my next move once I can travel again. I've never heard of this village before, and I only know vaguely that it's within the Whitetail Woods.”

“I'll find a map for you tomorrow. The only thing that you need to decide on tonight is whether you would like some dessert.”

Cogs smiled and shook his head in amazement. It was impossible to stay feeling down with this mare.

After dinner (and dessert of course!), Cogs limped back to the sofa and settled down with a comfortably full belly topped up with some emotional sustenance also. Maybe it was not his preferred emotion, but it was more than he had been able to feed on for a long while. He felt contented.

Lavender Dreams cleaned up in the kitchen, having refused all offers of help. When she was done, she fetched a blanket for Cogs. “It’s a warm evening, but if you’re feeling too cool later, you can use this blanket. And now I must head off to bed myself. After missing a day to procure more stock, I need to get an early start in the shop tomorrow. Help yourself to anything in the kitchen if you’re feeling hungry or thirsty again. Bathroom’s down there. Sleep well, Cogs.”

“Thanks, Lavender. I’m very grateful for all this.”

“You’re welcome, and I thank you too for one of the best evenings that I've had in a long time. I think I’ll have pleasant dreams tonight.” With a toss of her mane, Lavender trotted off to her bedroom with a happy air.

Now why would such a nice unicorn put so much stock in this evening?’ Cogs wondered. ‘I'm not that good as a guest, am I?

* * *

Cogs woke to the smell of pancakes and syrup, and he found a plate of them on the coffee table by the sofa. By the sounds coming from the shop, he guessed that Lavender was already busy getting ready to open for business. He must have slept more soundly than normal not to have been woken sooner. He tentatively tried his injured legs – the foreleg felt much better, but he quickly stopped testing the hind leg. That was not going to heal very quickly, apparently.

He made short work of the pancakes before making use of the bathroom. Lastly he checked his appearance in the mirror. Normally holding his pegasus form was instinctive, but after the battering he had received, he was not taking any chances with anything going wrong. However, everything looked perfectly normal, including the splinted and bandaged wing. It was time to greet his host.

With his foreleg in more usable condition, it was easier to favor his hind leg, and he limped into Lavender’s shop with little trouble. He spotted her arranging some of the wildflowers that she had harvested the previous day, their purple flowers blending well with her two-tone mane.

“Good morning! That’s a pretty bouquet,” Cogs remarked.

“Thank you,” Lavender replied, recognizing the compliment for what it was. “How are you feeling this morning?”

“Much better, thanks. Hind leg has a long way to go yet though.”

“Not really surprising. Give it time. Healing Hooves does great work.”

“I have no doubt. So this is your business?” He looked around at the neatly displayed flowers and the shelves of prepared and fresh herbs. Everything was clean and tidy, but Cogs realized that it also looked worn and in need of maintenance. His inner Mister Fix-it started to twitch.

“Yes, I've been running this business since I recovered from my accident. It was good therapy as well as a source of income.”

“So you run it all by yourself?”

“Yes I do. I can’t afford any employees – this is a small village with limited custom.” She ran a hoof over the rather ancient till on the counter. “Of course if it got any busier, my poor cash register might have a nervous breakdown,” she added with a grin.

Cogs admired her sense of humor about the situation, even as he wondered how long she could continue this way before things started breaking down in a costly manner. Maybe before he left, he might be able to do something about that. It would be a good way of repaying her for her kindness too.

“Anything I can do to help?” he asked.

“Not really at the moment. May I suggest that you take advantage of the bench outside and take in some of this lovely morning sun? You could always play huckster for the business if you’re feeling bored,” she added with a wink.

“Ha! Maybe I will do exactly that.” Cogs made his way outside and saw the bench that Lavender mentioned. He carefully made himself comfortable on it. She was right – this was nice. He watched the town ponies passing by on their business, occasionally exchanging greetings with some of them. His first impression that this was a unicorn predominant community was reinforced, although as usual there was the normal smattering of the other two pony types. He amused himself trying to figure out what their special talents were, judging only by their cutie marks. At some time, he nodded off into a light snooze.

He was woken up by the sound of someone speaking his name.

“Mr. Cogs!” Healing Hooves repeated. “Now that you’re awake, we need to talk.”

Cogs saw the expression on her face and winced. ‘Uh-oh! She knows!

* * *

Chapter 3: Decisions

“Good morning, Healer,” Lavender said with a touch of surprise. “I didn't expect to see you again until later this afternoon.”

“Circumstances called for a small change of plans, so I decided to call on my patient a little sooner,” Healing Hooves explained. “Could I trouble you for the private use of your living room once more, dear?”

“Of course – go right ahead.”

“Thank you. Come along, Mr. Cogs – we have much to do.”

Cogs reluctantly followed the mare inside. He sat down and waited for the inevitable. Once the door had been firmly closed behind them, Healing Hooves’ pleasant demeanor quickly dropped.

“Tell me that you had nothing to do with that altercation in Canterlot yesterday!” she angrily demanded in a low voice so that she would not be overheard by Lavender Dreams.

Cogs cringed before her righteous anger but could not deny it, but neither was he happy to have been part of it either, so he sulkily said nothing.

“Hmph! Knocked out of the sky, my shiny chitin! Blown all the way out of Canterlot is more like it.” She leaned in close to Cogs, practically muzzle to muzzle. “Are you totally insane? Do you know the damage that your hive has done to the reputation of changelings? Millennia of peaceful coexistence with ponies ruined in one fell swoop! What in Equestria were you thinking?!”

“I was thinking that I was doing my duty. I was thinking that no matter what my misgivings, I had been given orders by my queen, and I obeyed!” Cogs snarled back at her before subsiding. He then quietly added, “I was thinking that this was a potential disaster.”

“You got that last part right anyway. What possessed Chrysalis to do something so monumentally stupid?”

“Oh, it was far from stupid. My queen was ambitious, and she saw a way to wrest control from the Princesses, and she nearly pulled it off. I just don't know what went wrong. Last thing that I knew, we had the citizenry on the run, and then we were all blasted out of the city by an irresistible wave of love energy.”

“I felt it pass by even though this village is a huge distance from Canterlot – very impressive! It's a pity it didn't blow you further still. I want you out of my village!” Healing Hooves declared.

Cogs glared back at her. “First of all, since when has any changeling been able to claim a village exclusively, even one as small as this? Secondly, you of all people know that I'm in no condition to travel yet. I want to return to my hive. I want to learn what has happened to my hive-brethren and my queen. And I am concerned about the consequences of our actions also.”

“It's far too late for that now. You've made every changeling a potential target for Celestia’s Royal Guard. Rumors and misinformation will see ponies questioning whether their neighbor is a changeling. Fear and mistrust will spread. And all this because you had to follow that mad queen’s orders blindly.”

“Don’t you dare accuse me of being a blind fool, you damn hypocrite!” Cogs hissed furiously. “I challenge you to tell me that you would disobey your queen if she ordered you to do what we did. Come on – tell me! Tell me how you would take the moral high ground and tell your queen that she is wrong and you refuse to obey. Tell me how your hive-mates would stand behind you in solidarity because you are so much more superior to us and would never let your queen do such horrible things. I'm sure you must be gloating over how much better than us that you are.”

Healing Hooves seethed and glared venomously at Cogs. For a very long moment she was silent, then her eyes dropped and she exhaled in a calming breath. “You're right – I would obey. It's not in a changeling’s nature to refuse a queen’s orders. Question them, maybe, but not disobey. Did you even try though?”

“Remember that I told you that I haven't been able to do my field job for a long while? Well I approached Queen Chrysalis when I was informed about her plans upon my return to the hive, and I expressed my misgivings. I asked her not to go through with that course of action. For that she demoted me, banning me from returning to my job at the weather factory, and relegating me to a common soldier. Any of my hive-mates who also made an objection just swelled our ranks. Yes, we tried. She was too blinded by visions of power.”

Healing Hooves’ ire deflated. “I see. It seems that I must save my accusations for your monarch. Not that that's going to make things any easier for any of the other hives. How in Tartarus did she expect to get away with this though? How did she expect to overcome some of the most powerful entities in the world?”

“By using their strengths and our nature against them. How much have you heard so far?”

“Not too much as yet,” the Healer admitted. “Word was passed around that Chrysalis and her hive had attacked Canterlot and Princess Celestia herself, but was repelled by Princess Cadence. So far all that I've heard has been in the nature of an advance warning to changelings rather than a detailed report. I'd like you to fill in the blanks.”

Cogs was puzzled. “It makes sense that the Alicorn of Love was responsible for that massive love blast, but she was supposed to have been replaced by Queen Chrysalis and taken out of the picture. By doing so, Chrysalis could feed not only on Shining Armor’s great love for Cadence, but it would also put her in close proximity to Celestia over a period of weeks. That gave her the opportunity to feed on Celestia’s enormous love for her subjects, powering up Chrysalis to an unheard of degree while simultaneously subtly weakening Celestia. Overpowering the Princess was always going to be key to the success of Chrysalis’ plans, so both a great store of energy plus surprise were needed.”

“So it was a just brute force attack after Chrysalis got sufficient power to overcome Celestia?”

Zevan paused for a moment as he recalled some more details. “No, there were Canterlot’s defenses to deal with also, primarily the magical shield to take into account, but we used that against them. While Chrysalis stole the love energy, a rumor was spread regarding an imminent attack on Canterlot which necessitated extraordinary defensive measures, including Shining Armor’s magic shield. By keeping that constantly up for a very long time, it severely weakened him and put one of Canterlot’s greatest defenses out of action at the critical moment. Meanwhile the Royal Guard’s attention was focused outwards, but of course a large contingent of changelings was already within the shield. Their task was subversion, and at the appointed time, try to ensure that Princess Luna’s slumber was not disturbed, preventing her from taking part until it was too late.”

“So that’s what you were doing?”

“I wish! I was reduced to a basic soldier, responsible for little more than attacks on Canterlot citizens. While the wedding was causing the greatest distraction, we worked to shatter the weakened shield. With that down, Canterlot’s defenses were split, Chrysalis could make her move against Celestia, and we would take over. Some of us were even specifically ordered to watch out for the Element Bearers to prevent them from using the Elements of Harmony against us. By rights, the plan should have worked. It was working. I have no idea how Cadence got back into play, or exactly how Chrysalis was defeated.”

Healing Hooves looked thoughtful. “I can only guess that Chrysalis overlooked some significant detail or an unknown factor. Whatever the case, Cadence certainly was back and the wedding went ahead later with the real bride. In fact if it wasn't for that wedding ceremony, I'm guessing that we would have had a lot more action from the Royal Guard before this. I suppose that we’re going to have to wait for more news to find out the details. Meanwhile, what are your plans in light of this news?”

“I have asked Lavender for a map so that I can try planning the best route home taking my current condition in mind. Hopefully I can start traveling in a few days if this leg of mine heals sufficiently.”

“And what if you get back to your hive and it's under siege? Or worse yet, Chrysalis is planning another attack?”

Cogs looked at Healing Hooves bleakly. “Then in either case, I suppose I would have to fight.”

“Despite you knowing that this would be wrong and making things even worse for all other changelings?”

“I would still have to obey – you know this already.”

“I do, so don't go back. Take that moral high ground and refuse to participate. If you don't go back to your hive, you won't get any orders to disobey.”

Cogs was shocked. “You want me to abandon my hive?”

“I'm urging you to do so. No change happens without sacrifice, but a life spent in harmony with pony-kin will be worth it. Prove to me that your words are not meaningless, Cogs. Stay here and make a new life for yourself.”

Cogs gave a humorless laugh. “Moments ago you were ready to expel me from this village with extreme prejudice. Why the turnaround?”

She gave him a smirk in return. “I may be old, but I'm no fool. I'm not going to condemn you for the sins of your queen if you truly believe what you have told me. I'm giving you the opportunity to prove that to me and the ponies of Equestria.”

The more that Cogs thought about what she said, the more sense it made. He had hated how his life had been turned around by Chrysalis’ mad quest. Why would he be eager to go back to that? However, leaving his whole life and hive-mates behind was no simple ask. Could he even cope in the long term? “I… I will have to think about this. I honestly can't say if I can do it right now.”

“I would have been suspicious if you’d instantly agreed. I'll let you think it over tonight and see if you have come to a decision tomorrow. I'm warning you though that if you can't agree to this course, then I won't be able to trust you around here, and especially around Lavender. She has a hard enough life without you complicating it further.”

“I would never hurt her!” Cogs protested.

“Maybe not intentionally, but unless you know where you stand, she could be collateral damage, and that I won't tolerate,” Healing Hooves said fiercely.

Realization burst upon Cogs. “You care for her! You have feelings for Lavender!”

Healing Hooves nodded. “I've known her since she was a filly. I treated her after her accident and gave her physical therapy to try to regain as much magical ability as possible with her broken horn. She's become like the daughter whom I could never have, and I will protect her with my life. Now do you understand how serious I am about the potential threat that I regard you to be?”

“I do. I swear that I won't betray your trust,” Cogs replied earnestly.

“Good. Now let's have a look at that leg. I need to change the dressings.”

Healing Hooves pronounced satisfaction with the condition of the wound, and checked the rest of his dressings while she was there. She sighed over the wing, but that would not show signs of real improvement for days. She then packed her saddle bags and prepared to leave.

“I'll be back again tomorrow before lunch. Think hard and try to have an answer for me by then. Goodbye Cogs.”

Cogs nodded, and then realized that he might have to get used to being called just Whirring Cogs from now on if he chose the course that Healing Hooves offered. The changeling named Zevan would have to be forgotten – a casualty of Chrysalis’ war. Could he do it? Could he make such a fundamental change to his life? He honestly did not know yet. Cogs limped back out to the shop, intending to resume his position on the bench while he pondered the possibilities.

“So is the leg any better?” Lavender asked.

“The healer says that she’s satisfied with it so far. It's too soon to say much more yet.”

“If it's not getting worse, then it must be getting better,” she said with cheerful confidence.

Cogs returned her smile. “That's true.” He opened the shop door and the top hinge gave way. He caught the door with a small twinge of pain from his foreleg. “Oh, I'm sorry!”

“No, I'm the one who's sorry. It's not your fault that the door is broken. I've been meaning to fix it but I… have a bit of trouble holding the screwdriver.” Lavender came over and helped lean the door so that it would not twist off the lower hinge.

Cogs was not surprised that she could not handle such a simple repair. It required a strong grip with the hoof’s kinetic field, or a unicorn’s horn, to use a screwdriver, neither of which she could do for herself now. “If you fetch me a screwdriver, I can fix this. Have you got any new screws too?”

“I think so. Let me go look.” Lavender rummaged in her drawers, and after a moment, found a packet of screws and a screwdriver. “I bought these a while back, intending to do some maintenance. I… just haven't gotten around to it yet.”

More likely she could not afford a tradespony to do the work for her, Cogs realized. Probably too proud to ask for help also. “Well, rather than just sitting around all day like a useless lump, let's see what I can do that doesn't involve me needing to fly or put strain on my bad leg. It's the least that I can do to repay your kindness.”

“Thank you, Cogs, and it's been my pleasure to help a pony in need.”

Cogs quickly had the door repaired, and then he looked around for what else could do with some maintenance. Sadly there was no shortage of small fixes needing to be made, and they kept him busy for the next couple of hours. Only because he was tiring due to his debilitated state that he agreed to Lavender’s urging to put the rest off until the next day. He retired to the warm bench with much relief, but feeling much more satisfied with himself than he had for many weeks.

As he lay on the bench, once again he observed the citizens go by, but this time he considered what it would be like to treat them as his neighbors and friends. He was used to living in Cloudsdale, and that was so much different from this town. It was not just the airy and bright nature of a city in the clouds compared to the earthy nature of a village on the ground that made it so different, but also the attitude of its citizens. He simply was not as familiar with unicorns, or earth ponies for that matter, and he wondered if he would fit in with them. After all it was hardly a coincidence that he had chosen a pegasus form as his alter ego – he just seemed to fit in with them better. He was still trying to sort out his feelings when Lavender called him in for dinner.

Lavender served up the soup left over from the previous night, followed by a salad. To his plate, she added a fried fish with lemon. Cogs blinked in surprise at the latter. “Did you buy this fish just for me?”

“I hear that pegasi like fish, so I thought you might enjoy it,” she confirmed with a smile.

“I do, but you didn't have to go to the extra expense.”

“You've done a couple of hours of repair work for me – it's a small price to pay in exchange.”

Cogs realized that she would probably be insulted if he protested that it was he who was repaying her, so he simply said, “Thank you. I haven't had fish in quite a while.” He took a bite of it and found it to be succulent and flavorsome. “Mmm! That's good! Do you like fish too?”

“I tried it as a filly and I was ambivalent over it, but my tastes may have changed since then.”

“Care to try a bit?” He held up his fork with a piece of fish speared upon it.

Lavender looked a bit doubtful, then she grinned that irrepressible smile of hers. “Oh, why not?”

Cogs leaned over the table to let her delicately take the morsel off without her lips touching the fork. She chewed it thoughtfully and then smiled. “You know, you pegasi might have something going there. That's not bad; I could grow to really like it.”

“Good, but the rest of this fish is mine!” he said with a grin.

Lavender laughed. “I promise not to steal any more of it.”

They spent the rest of the meal lightly bantering. As Lavender started cleaning up, she said, “I haven't been able to lay my hoof on a map for you as yet.”

“That's okay,” Cogs replied. “There's no great rush. In fact I may end up not needing it at all due to something that Healing Hooves told me this morning.”

“Oh? Did it have something to do with why she turned up so early today?”

“Yes, and it may change my plans drastically. You see something happened in Canterlot yesterday that may have a profound effect on my future… umm… employment.” He hated to prevaricate like that to her, but such was the lot of a changeling.

“The wedding?” Lavender said in puzzlement. “How did that affect you?”

“Huh? Oh no, besides that. Anyway, I am now considering whether to stay on here in Whitetail Meadows Village, or at least for the immediate future until circumstances dictate otherwise.”

“We do have a few other pegasus residents, so you wouldn't be entirely lacking in contact with others like you,” she added helpfully.

“It's not just that. I need to know if I can fit into this township, or whether going back to my home town would be the better alternative.”

“What's your home town like?”

“What can I say? I grew up there with many brothers and sisters. It was comfortable and we knew our places in it. But things have changed recently and it's not the home that I remember any more.”

“You had lots of brothers? That's unusual for ponies,” Lavender noted.

Cogs kicked himself for that slip-up. He'd forgotten that there was a great predominance in the number of mares over stallions. Even for his kind, gender was more of a personal thing than an actuality for commoners like himself. “Yeah, our mother was rather unusual.”

“She'd have to be a bit of a celebrity then.”

Cogs laughed. “Yeah, you could say that.” He sobered up again. “But as I said, going home might not be a good option any more, especially as I would probably not be able to do the work that I love. On the flip side, I lost everything in the accident. I have no money and I have no tools. I would have to start again from scratch, and because of this busted wing, I won't be able to do so in any job that requires flying for the foreseeable future, if ever. Healing Hooves is a bit pessimistic about my chances there.”

“I'm sorry to hear that, but if anyone can fix it, she can.”

“You seem to have an enormous amount of confidence in her. How much do you know about her?”

“When I was just a little filly, a bad sickness infected our village, affecting half the population including myself. We were too small to have our own doctor at that time, and the worst affected had to be shipped over to Ponyville’s hospital for treatment. Healing Hooves answered our call for a doctor and worked tirelessly to help us. She was credited with saving the lives of many ponies, and she was petitioned to stay on as a citizen of Whitetail Meadows Village. We were very grateful that she decided to stay on as our town’s Healer.”

That sounded like standard changeling procedure to Cogs – find a need and fill it. There was never a chance that Healing Hooves would have rejected their petition. It did cement his opinion of her though. She was genuinely concerned about the welfare of her villagers, and especially of Lavender of course, and she was old and experienced enough to offer sound advice. It still remained up to him to consider whether it was the best advice for him, but it weighed heavily in her favor.

“Thanks, Lavender, that was a big help. Anyway, as I said, I don’t have anything to get a fresh start here, and that would make things very difficult.”

“You have a friend – that's always a good start.”

Cogs smiled at Lavender. “Good point. I'll chalk that up with Healing Hooves’ recommendation.”

“And if you decide that you are serious about staying, there's always work to be found here. The village is not as small as when I was a filly, and it's growing a lot more lately.”

“Okay, make that three points in favor of staying. I'll look into that tomorrow, and what I can do for accommodation if I do decide to stay. That will be a bit tricky without money up front though.”

“You could be my boarder until you do, as long as you don’t mind sleeping on the sofa each night. I don't have a spare bed to offer, I'm afraid.”

“I'd hate to take so much advantage of your generosity, but I'm not in a position to be picky. Besides, it's a very comfy sofa,” Cogs added with a grin. “You make a perfectly charming hostess, and I can't see why some stallion hasn't asked you to join his herd before now.”

Lavender’s smile faltered for once. “Stallions don't want broken mares,” she said quietly.

“What?! You can't be…” Cogs was about to say ‘serious’, but of course she was. He realized now what should have been obvious – Lavender’s broken horn made her a cripple in the eyes of other unicorns, and that was a very harsh problem for a mare looking for a very special somepony. She could not even handle things like a pegasus or earth pony, further decreasing her odds of finding a mate. It was a wonder that she could maintain such a cheerful demeanor normally, or maybe she did so because of her plight. A positive attitude to life was certainly better than self-pity.

“I'm sorry for upsetting you, Lavender. I can only say that there have to be many stallions out there who don't realize what they are missing out on.”

Lavender’s smile returned. “Thank you, Cogs. I do believe that's the nicest thing somepony has said to me in a long time.”

The emotional energy of Lavender’s gratitude and genuine liking for Cogs washed over him and he absorbed it reflexively. It made him think though – ‘Find a need and fill it’. Was this a sign? Lavender deserved a good stallion, but could he be the next best thing? He would have to think long and hard about that because his decision had the potential to hurt her even more. Perhaps he should walk away before any permanent harm could come about from his presence? At worst right now she would suffer some disappointment. After the events of Canterlot, he did not want to be the cause of anyone else’s suffering. He felt that he had much to atone for yet.

“You've given me much to think about. I'm going to sleep on it and talk with Healing Hooves again tomorrow. Hopefully I can make a decision then.”

“That seems sensible to me. Now would you like dessert, or perhaps coffee?”

Less serious small talk filled the remainder of the evening, but even that showed Cogs that the mare seemed hungry for more socializing and personal interaction. He settled down on the sofa that night with much weighing on his mind.

* * *

Cogs woke as soon as Lavender came out to start breakfast. He had evidently caught up on sleep and recovered his energy. Some time to heal more and he would be as good as new.

They shared a meal of oat cakes and fresh fruit. Cogs insisted on doing the cleaning up so that she could get a head start on readying her shop for the day’s business. After that chore was complete, he started looking into some more of the maintenance jobs that needed to be done. Some he realized could not be accomplished without buying some new materials, and he was not sure if Lavender could afford that. Others required the tools that he no longer possessed. Perhaps he could borrow them? Of course he would have to stay on to do that. Maybe Healing Hooves could suggest something.

Late morning, Lavender asked him to mind the shop while she made a delivery. He was pleased that she trusted him that much already. He was tempted to try to help her load her cart, but suspected that she took pride in her competency despite her disability, and just admired how she did it so well.

Healing Hooves turned up while Lavender was away, leading him to wonder about the timing. Then again, how would she have known that Lavender would trust him to mind the shop?

“So have you made a decision, Cogs?” she asked without preamble.

“Do you know that Lavender is starting to get feelings for me? As a stallion, I mean.”

“I suspected the possibility,” Healing Hooves admitted.

“Any decision that I make will affect her too either way.”

“And that's why I want you to decide quickly.”

“Do you think that I could find suitable work here?”

“As a matter of fact, I know a business that might have an opening for someone with your skills.”

“Looked into it already, did you?” Cogs said with a tinge of humor. “I don't suppose you found me a place to live while you were at it?”

“No, but I think that might already be taken care of,” she replied with a meaningful glance.

Cogs was in no doubt about what she meant. “Are you serious?”

“Do you really think I'd be otherwise?”

“No, not really, but I had to be sure. It's not often that someone turns their back on the hive, and I have to be sure that I’m doing the right thing for everyone, and not just me.”

“So you have decided then?”

“Yes I have.” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, mentally closing the book on his previous life. He then opened his eyes again, looked at Healing Hooves resolutely, and said, “Zevan the changeling is gone for good, and Cogs the pegasus is here to stay.”

Healing Hooves smiled warmly. “Welcome to Whitetail Meadows Village, Whirring Cogs!”

* * *

Chapter 4: Interviews

Cogs started swaying on his hooves, and Healing Hooves looked at him with some concern.

“Are you feeling okay?” she asked.

Cogs shook his head to try to clear it before replying, “I’ve just repudiated my hive and service to its queen; no, I’m not okay. It was more of a mental shock than I thought it would be, that’s all. I’ll... I'll be alright.”

“Go get yourself something to drink – I suggest juice. Rest for a bit until it passes,” Healing Hooves advised.

“No! Lavender left me in charge of the shop while she’s gone, and I won’t let her down.”

“Very commendable of you, but this is not the time to be stubborn. Go inside and get that drink. I’ll watch the shop until you feel better.”

Cogs was still inclined to argue, but one look into her eyes convinced him that he was not going to win this argument. He nodded and stumbled inside. He found a pitcher of apple juice and poured himself a glass. With rather shaky hooves, he lifted it up and drank most of it in a couple of gulps. He quickly finished the rest, then went to the sofa and collapsed on it.

Thoughts whirled around his head. Reasons that seemed so logical before now seemed shocking or crazy. Abandoning the hive – had any changeling ever done so before? Had any ever defied their queen so thoroughly as he was doing? Before now, such thoughts had been unthinkable. And yet he stood by his decision. He might pay a price for it, but it was the right course of action. He could not condone what he had been forced to do, and he would not be put in a position to have to do so again!

Gradually his thoughts calmed and his body stopped shaking. He breathed slowly and deeply to help stop his heart from racing, focusing on his promise to help Lavender Dreams as something positive for the future. Eventually he felt ready to return to the shop.

To his chagrin, Lavender had just returned. How long had he been trying to pull himself back together? “Hi, Lavender. Sorry to let you down.”

“Nonsense!” the mare declared emphatically. “The Healer told me that you weren’t feeling well due to your injuries, so of course you needed to rest. Didn’t I say that you should be taking it easy?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Cogs said contritely.

“And none of that ‘ma’am’ business either,” she added, pretending to be cross.

Cogs could feel the amusement behind the order though, and he replied, “Yes, boss.”

Lavender stared at him for a moment before giggling. “Okay, you win that one. Are you okay to look after the counter for a few minutes while I put the cart away?”

Cogs nodded. “I’m fine now.” He hoped though that he would remain that way.

Healing Hooves waited until Lavender was out of earshot before telekinetically taking a newspaper out of her saddle pack and putting it in front of Cogs. “I was going to show you this earlier, but I felt you needed a breather first. It’s last night’s edition of the village gazette, and it has details of the attack on Canterlot. Ponies are going to start wondering now, so don’t be caught unawares.”

“Great – just what I needed,” Cogs grumbled, although he knew that this had been inevitable.

“I’ve been a part of the village for so long that nobody will suspect me, so if things get too tight, get them to check with me. I’ll tell them that they’ve got the wrong pony. Try not to abuse that though, please. I recommend that you don’t leave the shop today.”

Cogs nodded. “I’ll keep a low profile.”

“Good. Now I’ve got to be going. Somepony has put me way behind schedule.”

* * *

“No! I didn’t mean it, my Queen! Please! I only wanted what was best for the hive!”

Chrysalis ignored Zevan’s pleas though as she towered above him in rage. “Traitor! Only I know what is best for my hive. You have defied me for the last time. I condemn you to death!” She reared up, and with a terrible scream, plunged her hooves at his head.

Zevan tried to get away from those murderous hooves, but invisible bonds held his limbs and he despaired…

With a thud, Cogs’ head hit the floor. Through the dizzying pain, he realized that he was still alive. Faint moonlight coming through the window revealed the blanket that had wrapped around his legs as he had thrashed around in his nightmare and tumbled off the sofa. His heart raced as he hyperventilated. “It was only a dream!” he gasped. “Get a grip on yourself!” Slowly he calmed down and disentangled himself from the blanket. He climbed back on the sofa, grateful that he had apparently failed to disturb Lavender’s sleep. He sincerely hoped he would not have another episode like that and succeed.

* * *

“You look like crap,” Healing Hooves declared.

“Is that your professional diagnosis, Healer?” Cogs asked sarcastically.

She ignored him and said, “Didn’t sleep well, I take it?”

“Worst nightmares ever,” Cogs admitted.

“Not too surprising, I suppose. You have inner conflicts that are manifesting as bad dreams, and they’ll probably only go away once you make peace with yourself.”

“Did you know this was going to happen?”

“No, although I suppose I might have guessed. Not exactly my specialty though. However I can prescribe something that might help you have a smooth night’s sleep until you get over it.”

Cogs looked at the healer gratefully. “I’ll take anything you have to offer. I don’t want to go through that night again.”

“I’ll have to fetch it from my clinic later. Right now though, you have to clean yourself up and make yourself presentable. You’re going for a job interview, and you need to make a good impression.”

Cogs blinked in surprise. “I am? What? Who?”

“Square Deal Renovations,” she answered as if that explained everything.


“I said get ready,” Healing Hooves interrupted. “You don’t want to be late and make yourself look bad.”

“Okay, okay! I’m going!” Cogs headed off to the bathroom to make himself presentable. “What a nag,” he mumbled sourly.

Having been practically dragged out of bed by Healing Hooves, he was hungry and disheveled. Cold water helped clear his head, and a quick brushing made him look acceptable. Lavender had made some pancakes for breakfast, and he wolfed a couple down hastily under the impatient glare of Healing Hooves.

“Okay, that’s enough. You aren’t going to starve.” She put a foreleg around his neck and pulled him in the direction of the door.

“What’s the hurry? Why so early?” Cogs protested.

“Because they’re going to interview you before they start their own work day, and we don’t want to hold them up. They’re very busy ponies.”

“Busy enough to need some help?” Cogs hazarded a guess.

“Now you’re getting it,” Healing Hooves said approvingly. “There’s hope for you yet.”

Healing Hooves took Cogs about a third of the way across the village. They came to a building that seemed to be a larger version of Lavender’s – a dwelling at back and a shopfront for doing business. A sign out front had upon it a thought bubble with a set square within it, and the name of the business – ‘Square Deal Renovations’. Healing Hooves had explained along the way.

“There’s this small herd-owned business that does home renovations, extensions, and other similar work that has been getting a bit snowed under lately. I suggested that they needed to take on an employee and I recommended you as a good prospect. You weren’t exaggerating about your qualifications, I hope?”

“No, I didn’t exaggerate. In fact I’m pretty damned good. I would have had a good job for life if it wasn’t for… you know.” Cogs was a bit cautious about saying some things out in public. You never knew what stray word might catch somepony’s ear.

Now that they were here though, Cogs started to get an attack of nerves. It had been years since he had done an interview or needed to prove himself. Now here he was – no references, no tools, not even a fixed address. And of course the needs of a unicorn village were sure to be hugely different from those of a pegasus weather factory. He almost panicked right then, but Healing Hooves chivied him inside and it was too late to turn back.

The healer tapped a desk bell on the counter. While they waited for a response, Cogs looked around at the displays of house extension designs, pergolas, and various other renovation projects. Despite himself, he began to be intrigued. That excitement soon shriveled up within him when the proprietors turned up.

First to enter the office was a stocky earth pony stallion with chocolate brown fur and a fiery mane, who projected an air of no-nonsense with a dash of irritability at having his morning routine disturbed. He was followed by unicorn mare with a deep blue coat and a white mane with pale blue streaks, and by contrast she was the picture of cool elegance. They greeted Healing Hooves cordially who then introduced Cogs.

“This is Whirring Cogs, the mechanic whom I mentioned to you yesterday. Cogs, these are Set Square and Moonlit Haze, good friends of mine who won’t admit to being overworked. Convince them that they need you.”

Moonlit Haze laughed. “Thanks, Healer. I think we can take it from here.”

Healing Hooves nodded. “I’ll drop by again this evening. Let me know how he turns out.” She then left Cogs to their mercy.

Set Square looked down at Cogs disdainfully. After taking full measure of him, the earth pony said, “You’re kind of scrawny and banged up, aren’t you? What makes you think that you can be of any use to us?”

Moonlit Haze gave Set Square a punch on the shoulder with her hoof. “Don’t be so rude, Set,” she admonished.

Cogs speculated that the punch that scarcely stirred the sturdy earth pony would have probably knocked him halfway across the room, so Set Square’s description wasn't too far off. Cogs gave him a nervous smile back. The stallion was not just giving him a hard time; he could feel his lack of enthusiasm. However, Cogs did not sense any active dislike either. He had to make a good impression. “Sir, my current injuries won’t affect my ability to do almost any job that you would care to give me, and my size has no bearing on my skills. I was an A-grade tradespony at the Cloudsdale weather factory, and my ability to fix almost anything kept me very much in demand.”

“If you’re that good, why did you leave that job? Seems to me that a mechanic of your supposed skills should be on the fast track to promotion,” Set Square said skeptically.

“Family business called me away,” Cogs replied in near total truthfulness. “An accident prevents me from returning to Cloudsdale now, and maybe for a very long time. I lost everything in the accident, and I’m now trying to re-establish my life and career. Healing Hooves said that you could give me work that suits my skills. That would be a huge help in getting my life back together.”

Moonlit Haze spoke up. “Why here though? This village must be completely different from everything that you have been familiar with up until now.”

“It certainly is different from Cloudsdale, but my family comes from a land-based town also. As to why start again here – my accident happened near here, and this is where I ended up. It seems to be a nice place to start again, and it doesn’t require me flying.”

“What happened to you?” Moonlit Haze asked curiously.

“I’m not entirely sure. I was struck mid air by something and I crashed into the forest and was severely injured. I was barely able to crawl through the forest until I found a road. I lay there until Lavender Dreams passed by and rescued me. She got the healer to patch me up, and I’ve been sleeping on her sofa ever since.”

At the mention of Lavender’s name, Set Square’s ears had pricked up. “Have you been imposing on poor Miss Dreams?” he asked sternly.

“A little, I suppose, but she insisted on me staying. I’ve been trying to repay her kindness by doing some maintenance work on her place. I’m not the kind of person who’s comfortable just laying around doing nothing when I can be working with my hooves.”

That seemed to impress the stallion, and the mare smiled. “We’ve been trying to convince her to let us do a few urgent repairs, but she’s so stubbornly independent. She always wants to prove to people that she can cope despite her disability. She also says that we have too much to do for our business to take the time to do charity work for her. But you – you’re in her debt, so you can do things for her without her losing face. I think we can finally help our friend through you.”

Cogs shuffled uncomfortably. “Er… I can’t do much more. I lost all my possessions including the tools that I need to do the work, and I have no money to buy more.” Cogs’ tools were actually back at the hive where they had lain unused since he had been demoted, but they were as good as lost to him there, so he was not stretching the truth too much.

“Can you fix a water pump?” Set Square asked abruptly.

“I worked at the weather factory – of course I know how to fix a water pump,” Cogs replied.

“We’ve got a job that includes repairing one. I suppose if you’re going to fix it for us, you’re going to need some new tools.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“And would any of those tools be needed for Lavender’s repairs also?” Moonlit Haze asked slyly.

A slow grin spread on Cog’s muzzle. “Indeed they would. How many tools do you think I will need to repair this pump?”

“Better be sure and stock up with everything you think you might need,” Set Square said grumpily. “Don’t want an unhappy client waiting on her water. Might need other things done too. Yes, can’t be too prepared. Better get to it – the day’s a-wasting.” He then turned and headed back inside.

Moonlit Haze smiled serenely. “I do believe he likes you.”

If Cogs had not been able to sense the stallions emotions, he would have severely doubted that. It seemed though that Cogs’ good deeds had reaped unexpected dividends.

“Come along with me,” Moonlit Haze told Cogs. “It’s time to meet the third member of our business.” She led him through a side door to a room that had an extensive collection of books in shelves lining three of the walls, with a window admitting light in the fourth. Seated behind a desk was a pegasus mare with golden fur, and a mane colored with broad streaks of yellow, white, and brown. Her green eyes were intently focused on the typewriter in front of her, both hooves firmly flat on the two circular keyboards as their kinetic fields quickly and accurately pushed the correct keys. Whereas Set Square could be described as stoic, and Moonlit Haze as elegant, there was only one word that immediately came to Cogs’ mind when looking at her, and that was ‘cute’. She looked about the same age as Moonlit Haze, but she seemed a lot daintier.

The pegasus continued to type, oblivious of the two other ponies. Moonlit Haze quietly walked over and put her right foreleg over the pegasus’ shoulder and pulled her into a kiss on the cheek. Her wings snapped up in surprise, and a startled but pleased semi-smile grew on her muzzle.

“Hazy! How can I work if you keep distracting me like that?” she protested unconvincingly.

“This is other work, Love. Let me introduce you to Whirring Cogs. We’re trying him out for that full-time position we’ve been discussing.” She turned to Cogs. “This is Golden Words, our herd-mate and third partner in the business.”

“Hi. Umm, pardon me for saying so, but you don’t seem like the tradespony type,” Cogs observed.

Golden Words giggled. “I would say not! I’m a writer by profession. Have you ever heard of the Flame Pond novels? Spies, political intrigue and thrilling adventure?”

Cogs gave her an apologetic smile. “Sorry, no. I’m not much of a reader actually.”

Golden Words looked a little disappointed, but shrugged it off. “Anyway, this is what I do for most of the day while my herd-mates are doing their thing.”

“But how does what you do relate to their business?” Cogs asked in puzzlement.

“Because fiction isn’t the only type of book that I work on. I also do the account books for the business, and handle the bureaucratic paperwork so that they can concentrate on doing the practical side of things.”

“Ah, that makes sense.”

Moonlit Haze said, “And that’s why I’m here right now, interrupting your Muse. I need some cash to purchase some tools for Mr. Cogs.”

“How much?” Golden Words asked as she opened a drawer in the desk.

“I’m not sure as yet, but let’s start with three hundred bits.”

“That much? You’re going to make quite a dint in the budget.”

“It’s for a really good reason, Goldie. I’ll tell you more about it later.”

“Okay by me.” Golden Words counted out three hundred bits from a cash box into a coin pouch and passed it to Moonlit Haze. She then meticulously entered the amount into a ledger, and then put it and the cash box back in the drawer. “Don’t forget the receipts,” she reminded them.

“Yes, dear,” Moonlit Haze said with a smile. “Come along, Mister Cogs, we have tools to purchase and a pump to fix.”

They found Set Square outside, hitched up to a cart laden with building materials and tools. He nodded when he saw them emerge and started off down the street, seemingly unfazed by the load that he was pulling. Cogs and Moonlit Haze trotted beside him until they reached a hardware shop that was only a few buildings away. The mare ushered Cogs into the store.

“Get what you need, but try not to take too long about it. Set gets grumpy if he thinks time is being wasted.”

Cogs already had a good idea of what he would need, both for fixing a pump and doing various other repairs. With the store owner’s help, he quickly put together a good basic kit, and a tool-saddle to carry them in. Moonlit Haze took out the coin pouch to pay the very pleased merchant.

“Are you sure you have everything that you need? There are still a few bits left.”

“Can’t be certain until I see the job,” Cogs answered, “but I’ve covered the foreseeable stuff. We can save those bits for the unexpected. Now that I know that I can do something about those other jobs we mentioned, I’ll look into what specific items might be needed.”

“Sounds like a good plan. Okay, let’s get going.”

The threesome set off again, but it seemed their destination was a great deal further than the shop had been, and Cogs’ injured leg started hurting from the exertion. Before long, he was limping badly and lagging behind.

Set Square stopped and said, “Hazy, help the gimp, will ya?”

Moonlit Haze replied, “What did I say about being rude?” Nevertheless her horn lit up, and Cogs squeaked in surprise as he felt himself being lifted and deposited on the cart.

Set Square resumed pulling the cart back at full speed, unaffected by the extra load.

Their destination was a farmhouse just outside of the town proper. A new extension was being added which was obviously the work of the Square Deal crew, but Cogs was shown inside the existing structure to the faulty pump. Upon inspection, he was much relieved that it was a model similar to those that he had previously worked on. Despite confidence in his abilities, he had been afraid that he would be confronted with something weird and difficult to deal with, and fail to make a good impression on his employers.

Cogs worked on the pump all morning, only asking one of the farming family to run an errand for him to get a replacement seal from the hardware store. They were sympathetic about his injured leg and had no hesitation about doing that favor for him. When the pump was reassembled and fully operational again, it was time to break for lunch.

The matriarch of the farm family, Green Hoof, put on quite a feast for all three of them, but then again she was used to feeding hard-working and hungry family members. As far as she was concerned, you didn’t get good work on anything less than a full stomach. Cogs was absolutely stuffed with dandelion and daisy sandwiches, vegetable pasties, and bran muffins, all washed down with fruit juice and tea.

After the meal, Moonlit Haze spoke to Cogs before she and Set Square went back to work. “We don’t currently have more work that we need you to do here, but I do believe that you have some other chores to take care of back at Lavender’s place. I suggest that you do what you can, and we’ll drop by on the way home to see how things are coming along. Can you make it back by yourself okay?”

“I’ll take my time and rest the leg on the way. After all, I won’t have to try to keep up with Set Square’s pace.”

“A valid point. Good luck, Cogs.”

The changeling nevertheless made as fast a pace as he could manage because he did not want to waste the afternoon. He did stop three times to give his leg a break though. “I wonder if Healing Hooves is going to get mad at me for using this leg so much,” he pondered aloud.

Lavender smiled happily when Cogs entered the shop. “How did it go? Did you get the job?” she asked excitedly.

Cogs related what had happened since Healing Hooves had dragged him away that morning, proudly showing off his collection of new tools. “And now I can do some more repairs for you too!”

“I told you that you don’t have to do anything for me. The pleasure of your company has been my reward,” she protested.

“And I told you that I won’t just lie around all day when I can be doing something useful,” Cogs insisted. “You get to have my company as a bonus.”

Lavender grinned. “In that case, could you fix the awning? The afternoon sun is a bit hard on my window stock.”

That particular repair had already been high on Cogs’ list of things to do, and now he had the means with which to do the job. With the proper tools, he was able to effect the repair in a less than an hour. Lavender was delighted.

“You’ve earned a special treat,” she declared. “I’m going to pick up something for tonight’s meal. Can you mind the counter for half an hour?”

“Sure! I want to rest my leg for a little while before I start the next job anyway.”

“Great! If you get a customer, prices are marked on most things. Anything special, tell them that I’ll be back soon, or take their details and I will get back to them.”

“No problem, Lavender,” he reassured her.

Cogs nearly ate his words about ten minutes later. The weather pegasi had scheduled a clear, sunny day, so it came as a bit of a surprise when lots of shadows suddenly started flickering through the window. Curiosity aroused, Cogs stepped out the door, but recoiled in shock. A contingent of Royal Guard pegasi were landing throughout the town as far as he could see. Before he ducked back into the shop, he even spotted a troop of unicorn Guards marching up the street also. There were no prizes for guessing why they were there. Cogs was in no position to run, so he knew that he would have to brazen it out.

It was only a few minutes before a unicorn Guardspony entered the shop. Cogs could taste the suspicion that the stallion was radiating, and he felt the tingle of a magic spell in use. Nevertheless he put on his most welcoming smile from behind the counter, and said, “Good afternoon, sir. Can I help you with anything today? We have a special on fresh wildflowers that your special somepony might enjoy.”

“I’m on royal duty, shopkeeper,” the unicorn replied. “I want to know if you have seen anything unusual, or any odd ponies about lately, particularly as of three days ago.”

Cogs made a show of thinking about it. “Umm… not that I can think of. What’s this all about anyway?”

The Guardpony telekinetically held up an illustration of a changeling. “You must have heard now changelings attacked Canterlot. We are searching for survivors and clues as to their origin.” He glanced at Cogs’ bandaged wing suspiciously. “What happened to your wing?”

Cogs indicated his tools. “I was doing repairs and slipped off the ladder, spraining my wing,” he extemporized.

“You should be more careful, citizen. Thank you for your time. If you find any information relevant to our search, please contact the Royal Guard as soon as possible.” The unicorn then turned and left the shop.

Cogs slumped to the floor in relief. “Thank Celestia he couldn’t see my leg also,” he muttered. “If I’d been taking it easy on the bench outside, I might have stood out a whole lot more and looked much more out of place.” He started shaking from frayed nerves, and he was grateful that no customer came by until he could pull himself back together again.

When Lavender returned, she was full of excitement. “I’ve never seen so many of the Royal Guard before! I wonder if they will find anything?”

“One of them came into the shop and asked me questions,” Cogs replied. “I don’t think even they know for sure what they’re looking for.”

“I suppose that it’s hard trying to find creatures that make themselves look like you.”

“Undoubtedly,” Cogs agreed. He was grateful that it apparently had not occurred to them yet that changelings might be able to take on the appearance of a completely unique pony rather than merely copying another pony.

Cogs spent the next few hours trying to distract himself from his worries by working on some more of the repairs. When Healing Hooves dropped by to do the usual changing of Cogs’ dressings, he described what had happened and asked, “Did any of the Guard talk to you today?”

“They tried to. I was in the middle of treating a patient when one barged into my clinic. I told him in no uncertain terms to stop interrupting my work. He huffily told me that he was on the Princesses’ business, and I replied that I would send them the bill for a consultation. He mumbled something about carrying on, and left hastily.”

Cogs had to laugh at that. Then he asked, “Weren’t you worried at all that they would spot you as a changeling though? I think that they had a disguise detecting spell running.”

Healing Hooves shrugged. “Yeah, I felt that. Won’t do them any good because we don’t use spells to disguise ourselves. Our ability is innate, so they would need a totally different spell; probably one that is more familiar with our biology.”

“So you don’t think we have anything to worry about?”

“I didn’t say that, although I think that these impressive raids are designed to panic changelings into betraying themselves. However it’ll probably only be effective at all on those with a guilty conscience, such as you and members from your hive. It was a good thing that you were playing shopkeeper at the time though. It made you look very normal.”

“Am I… are we going to be so lucky next time? Are they going to be better equipped?” Cogs asked worriedly.

Healing Hooves sighed. “I honestly don’t know, and it’s something that has been bothering me since I learned about the attack. A lot depends on whether they find any of your former hive-mates, I think. Heaven knows what would happen if they uncover a changeling from another innocent hive though.”

“So what do you advise I do?”

“Do? Carry on as you have been doing. Whirring Cogs the pegasus has nothing to do with those changelings. A positive mindset will go a long way towards making a good future for yourself, and even if the worst happens, I’m sure that Princess Celestia will be open-minded about what you have to say. She hasn’t reigned over a peaceful nation for centuries by being close-minded and acting impulsively.”

Healing Hooves left Cogs only slightly reassured, but he felt she was right – he had to get on with his life regardless of whether it might be turned upside down in the future.

Set Square and Moonlit Haze stopped by on the way home as they had said they would. Cogs saw them notice the repaired awning before they entered the shop, and their eyes noted the other fixes and improvements that had been made since their last visit. Lavender Dreams was pleased to see her friends, and they chatted briefly before they got around to talking to Cogs.

“Green Hoof was very pleased to have her pump working again,” Moonlit Haze said, “and we’re quite happy with the quality of your work today. We don’t have any similar jobs for you right now, but if you would be prepared to help us out with our work, then come to our place the same time tomorrow.”

“And be prepared to work all day,” Set Square added gruffly before heading out of the shop.

Moonlit Haze grinned. “Told you he likes you!” she said with a wink and a grin before following her partner out.

Lavender gave Cogs a surprise hug. “Looks like you got yourself a full-time job, Cogs. Congratulations!”

“Thanks. Umm… you’re their friend – can you tell me if Set Square is always like that?”

“What? Mister Life-of-the-Party?” Lavender laughed. “Yep. But if Hazy says he likes you, then it’s true. You must have shown him something that impressed him.”

“I can see working for him is going to be interesting.”

True to her word, Lavender had bought them a special treat from the bakery for dessert. Between that and the delightful company, Cogs managed to dismiss the concerns of the day and went to sleep on the sofa that night reasonably contented.

* * *

Cogs made sure to get up early and eat a hearty breakfast before heading off to Square Deal. He arrived promptly at the appointed time, entering the office just as Golden Words was heading into her den. She greeted him cheerily and called back into the house to let the others know that he had arrived. Set Square came out and observed the pegasus standing there, waiting eagerly.

“Not going to let that gimpy leg slow your work down today, I hope?” the stallion asked.

“No, boss!” Cogs reassured him.

The slightest hint of a smile curved Set Square’s lips. “You’ll do well, kid.”

* * *

Chapter 5: Relationships

Cogs had felt embarrassed by being carried on Set Square’s cart that morning, and all the way from their shopfront too! Neither he nor Moonlit Haze had asked before she had telekinetically lifted him up and firmly settled him among the materials. Evidently they did not want to be slowed down, but curious passers-by obviously had wondered why he could not walk himself. Now on their way home from the job, he was once again in the cart and feeling self-conscious. This time though he was glad for the respite. He had worked flat out that day, his employers getting him to do a huge variety of jobs as quickly as possible with scarcely a break. Although hampered occasionally by his injuries, he nevertheless accomplished just about everything that they set him to do, even though he felt exhausted by quitting time. It was a good tiredness though – a well-earned one, with the satisfaction of doing work that he enjoyed. After so much time recently spent among the lowly drones of the hive, it felt marvelous to be doing the kind of work that he loved once again.

Set Square stopped outside of Lavender Dreams’ shop, and Cogs jumped off the cart before Moonlit Haze could hoist him telekinetically. The rest had let him recover some of his energy by then, and he was not thrilled about her handling him with her magic. The earth stallion immediately continued on his way, but to his surprise, Moonlit Haze followed him inside.

Lavender greeted them both and asked, “How was your day?”

“My bosses tried to work me to death on the first day, but I fooled them and survived,” Cogs replied with a grin in Moonlit Haze’s direction.

Moonlit returned the smile and said, “I’ll let you into a little secret now – we don’t normally work at quite that frantic pace. We did all that today to see how you would cope and what your strengths are. Frankly we thought you would fumble somewhere along the way, but it seems your claim to be a Mister Fix-it weren’t all that exaggerated. I reckon that you could learn our trade pretty quickly if you wanted to, but of course you’re already a qualified mechanic and don’t have anything to prove.”

Cogs breathed a sigh of relief. “So it was a pressure test? Thank Celestia! I honestly don’t know if I could keep up that pace for several days in a row.” Then a thought occurred to him. “Wait! I know that I told you that I’m a qualified mechanic, but I didn’t have any proof of it. Are you just taking my word for that?”

Moonlit Haze laughed and shook her head. “We’re business ponies, Cogs – we contacted the Cloudsdale weather factory to check out your claims. Your bosses were glowing in their appraisal of your work, and about the only bad thing that they had to say about you was how abruptly you left their employ, leaving them short-staffed for a while.”

“Um, yeah. That family business that took me away was sprung on me completely by surprise. I didn’t have the luxury of time to wait until they had found a replacement.”

“We understand, Cogs. Family comes first.”

“So, same time tomorrow then?”

“No – it’s the weekend. Those are our family days, and of course we get some extra rest too. We’ll expect to see you Monday morning though. One more thing…” She took out a coin pouch and put it on the counter. “Consider this an advance on your wages. Now that we’ve assessed your abilities, we’ll be discussing your salary with Golden Words this evening, and we’ll formally sign you up when you come in next week. We know that you’re currently broke though, so we felt that this would tide you over until payday.”

Cogs smiled gratefully. “Thanks – I really appreciate this!”

“You’re welcome, Cogs.” She then turned to Lavender who had been listening with interest. “I see you have some lovely orchids in stock. Could I get that pink one there, please?”

“Of course,” Lavender replied, going over to the display shelf to fetch the indicated flower. “I didn’t know that you liked orchids.”

“Oh, it’s not for me. It’s a gift for Goldie. I know she likes them, and she’ll get a kick out of this.”

Lavender wrapped some pretty paper around the pot. “That’s right – her birthday is this weekend, isn’t it? Say hello to her from me, will you?”

“I’ll do that. How much is this?”

Lavender named the price and Moonlit payed her. “You two have a good evening,” she said and turned to leave.

Lavender looked at Cogs. “I suppose you’re hungry?”

“Starving!” he admitted.

Lavender laughed. “Somehow I’m not surprised. Go clean up while I lock up the shop. I have some more of my vegetable soup simmering on the stove, so we can have dinner immediately.”

After that hard day’s work, that meal was the best that Cogs could remember in a very long time.

* * *

Saturday may have been a day of rest for the Square Deal team, but Lavender opened her shop only a little later than normal. “I can’t afford to miss out on a day’s sales,” she explained to Cogs. “Besides, Saturdays are usually some of my best days for flower sales.”

Cogs had slept an extra hour, but after breakfast, he too went to work. First of all though, he made a visit to the hardware store. With the bits that Moonlit Haze had given him, he was able to purchase a few materials to effect some more of the repairs that needed to be done. That morning he unstuck a jammed window, replaced a pane of glass that had been broken when Lavender had tried to force the window open, and fixed a couple of sticky keys on the cash register. He then fixed lunch for them both, with a bowl of fresh wheatgrass as an added extra treat that he had also bought while on his shopping expedition.

After lunch, he repaired a rickety shelf, added a couple of new ones, replaced the worn-out and leaky fittings on the watering hose, and replaced a broken light fixture. He even washed the shop windows despite never having done that job before. At least when he slipped and spilled the bucket of soapy water on himself, he had given Lavender a good laugh, and only his dignity had been injured.

Cogs’ real injuries were checked again by Healing Hooves at her clinic later that day. It had been decided that it was too risky for him to continually resume his changeling form at Lavender’s place to have the dressings changed, and besides he was sufficiently ambulatory now to get there without difficulty. It was also a very good excuse to catch up with any news.

“I got word from my hive today,” Healing Hooves said as she removed the old bandages. “It seems that Twilight Sparkle, one of the Elements of Harmony, discovered a changeling a couple of days ago.”

“I certainly know who Twilight Sparkle is, and I suppose if anyone were to uncover a changeling, it would be her because she’s the Element of Magic,” Cogs said with a grimace. “Is the changeling from my hive? I kind of doubt it – we were all very thoroughly expelled from the region.”

“You’re right, he isn’t. He’s from Queen Polistae’s hive.”

“And what sort of trouble did that cause?” Cogs asked in dread.

“You’re not going to believe this,” Healing Hooves replied with a touch of incredulity in her voice. “The changeling took Twilight Sparkle to visit his hive.”

What?! You’re joking? No pony has ever visited a hive before, or at least none that I have ever heard about.”

“No, I’m perfectly serious.”

“But… why? Was he coerced? Surely he wouldn’t betray his hive that much?”

“Actually quite the opposite. Twilight Sparkle persuaded him that she wanted to learn more about us to prevent misinformation about changelings from harming others hidden in the population.”

“She was attacked by our swarm! Chrysalis injured Celestia! Why would she even consider doing that for us?”

“For a friend, apparently. The changeling goes by the name of Novel Tale, an author of popular fiction, and Twilight is a big fan. The bottom line is that she realized that Chrysalis was the exception rather than the rule, and her scholastic curiosity kicked into high gear. She stayed overnight in Polistae’s hive, doing an initial study.”

“I suppose we should be grateful for that,” Cogs said doubtfully. “Now that the ponies know we exist, any positive news from a respected source can only benefit us.”

“That’s possibly why we haven’t seen any more activity from the Royal Guard lately. Twilight Sparkle has Princess Celestia’s ear, and this recent event might have changed her attitude toward us.”

“Not that I’m going to relax. I doubt that she’d be quite so charitable in my case,” Cogs said sadly. “So what has your queen got to say about the situation?”

“Basically just carry on as normal while this plays out. She and the other queens will be watching the situation carefully. I can’t say that I am thrilled about the possibility of our kind coming out into the open, but that may be inevitable now.” She finished rewrapping Cogs’ leg. “You can change back now.”

Cogs resumed his pegasus form while the healer replaced the special ointment that she had been using on the leg back on the shelf among a large collection of potions and other ointments.

“Did you make all those medicines yourself?” Cogs asked idly.

“Some of them. The rest, like that ointment, I purchase from a zebra shaman who lives in the Everfree Forest.”

“What’s a zebra, and why would they be crazy enough to live there?”

“She’s an equine, but with black and white stripes. I’ll have to find a picture of one to show you later. As for her choice of habitat – I can’t really say, but it seems that she and the forest seem to understand each other.”

“She can keep it to herself, but I can’t fault her medicine. How much longer am I going to have to have these changes of dressings?”

“That should be the last application needed. The healing accelerator has done a fine job of regenerating your flesh and chitin. It will still be sore for a while, but you’ll soon be walking normally.”

“And what about my wing?” Cogs asked hopefully.

Healing Hooves hesitated. “It looks as if it’s healing okay, but that’s not the entire story. I told you that it was badly injured, and it remains to be seen if there are any long-term problems. You really need to see a specialist about it.”

“You know that I can’t do that. They’d realize that I’m not a real pegasus immediately.”

“Yes, so I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait a while longer until I’m sure that the healing magic has repaired the damage and we can test your wing.”

Cogs was disappointed. “Hopefully not much longer. There’s a reason why I chose a pegasus form, you know? I miss flying a lot.”

“If you were a real pegasus, you might be ready to fly again now. They’re extremely resilient and heal fast. But you’re not, so you’re going to have to be patient. If it wasn’t for the magic healing treatments that I’ve given you, natural healing might take months, not days, so be grateful for that.”

He sighed in resignation. “Yes, I know. Any further advice?”

“No, not at this time. Just continue what you’ve been doing for now, and I’ll see you again this time tomorrow.”

Cogs thanked the healer, and on the way home pondered the implications of the news. Changelings openly known? He could not imagine that ponies were quite ready for that yet, let alone his own kind. The future promised to be very strange for both of them.

* * *

Sunday was a day of rest for both of them. Lavender chose to spend a lot of it pottering around in her backyard vegetable garden and declined Cogs’ offer of help. “My garden is my hobby,” she told him. “While I might ask you to water something during the week, the rest of the time I want to be able to nurture my plants myself. The vegetables that I grow for our meals taste better to me because I know that I’ve raised them myself. Now shoo! You’ve earned a day off also. Do something else for a change.”

Cogs reluctantly allowed himself to be chivied off of her property, and he started wandering a little aimlessly around the village. Despite the small size of township, he had yet to see even half of it for various reasons, so he took the opportunity to do a little exploring. He discovered various shops, a smithy, a couple of restaurants, and a bar. He decided to leave paying a visit to the latter for a more appropriate time, although he had found other bars a useful source of emotions to feed upon. Maybe they weren’t the purest, but they were usually less inhibited. Right now though, he wasn’t feeling particularly hungry for them.

Eventually he came to an open parkland where he found couples strolling and foals playing, and he settled down on some soft grass just to watch them all living their seemingly carefree. He wished that he could be so relaxed, but so many recent changes and unknowns made his future so uncertain. The only thing that he knew for sure at the moment that he was growing to really like this place and its ponies. There were much worse alternatives than spending the rest of his life here as just another unimportant pegasus going about his daily business, and socializing with his friends. Friends… Lavender was getting to be a little more than a friend. He could feel her interest in him growing, but could he afford to respond to that? Changelings had formed relationships with ponies innumerable times over the centuries in order to get a reliable source of love upon which to feed or harvest for the hive, but often they just emulated feelings for the ponies. Cogs did not want to do that though. Lavender deserved far more than fake feelings for her. On the other hoof, he did not want his problems to become hers if he let his guard down and became more than just a friend.

Trying to resolve that dilemma was impossible, and Cogs sought a distraction. Looking up, he noticed a few pegasi cavorting in the sky. They did not seem to be doing anything in particular, merely enjoying the freedom and exhilaration of flying. He was so envious. As he had told Healing Hooves, there was a reason that he had chosen a pegasus as his permanent form, and when he had not been working at the weather factory, he had spent much time with other pegasi reveling in the joy of flight. Now here he was ground-bound for days.

Cogs recognized one of the pegasi. It was Golden Words, and it was plain that she was enjoying herself. He wondered what she was seeing up there. As he watched her, she seemed to notice him. Pegasus distance vision was excellent, and perhaps she picked up on the fact that he was looking a bit down. She abruptly changed course and headed towards him. With a well-timed back-wing, she landed gracefully on all four hooves right next to him.

“Good morning, Cogs. Are you enjoying this lovely day?”

He gave her a lopsided smile. “The sun is warm, the breeze is pleasant, and I’m stuck on the dirt.”

She looked at him sympathetically. “I know I’d hate to be unable to fly. I make at least two flights breaks a day while writing to clear my head and inspire my Muse. How long before your wing is healed enough for you to fly again?”

“Probably not for a couple of weeks, if the healer is correct. Maybe longer.”

“Ouch. That long? You must have been really messed up.”

“Yeah, it wasn’t pretty.”

“Well, I can’t make them heal any faster, but perhaps I can help you a little anyway.”

To Cogs’ surprise, Golden Words took off and hovered over him. Then she slipped her forelegs around his barrel and under his forelegs. With a few strong beats of her wings, she lifted him off the ground and started pulling him up into the sky. It was not very dignified for him, but he didn’t care – he was in the air again and feeling the wind in his face. The mare took him for a loop above the town, giving him his first aerial view of it. There was nothing exceptional about it, but he thrilled to be able to recognize so much of it now. After the tour was done, Golden Words headed towards a nice puffy white cloud, and Cogs realized that she intended to land upon it.

“Hey Goldie! Could you ease up please? My flight magic has been messed up by my smashed wing, and I need to be sure that my cloud-walking ability hasn’t been affected.”

“Okay, I’ll let you down carefully.”

Golden Words hovered slowly down, and Cogs extended his right hind leg to tentatively test the cloud. As hoof met the surface of the cloud, it met the usual soft resilience associated with cloud-walking. His other hind leg joined the first, and then she let him down on all four hooves. Cogs sighed in relief to know that at least one thing was still working properly. He sat down on the cloud, and Golden Words sat down beside him. They looked over the edge of the cloud to watch the village below them.

“Thank you, Goldie. I needed this,” Cogs said very sincerely.

“You’re very welcome, Cogs. It was the least that I could do for a friend.”

“We’ve scarcely known each other for a couple of days, but you’re already calling me your friend?”

“Of course you are, and for the best of reasons. You have done so much for our dear friend, Lavender, and we haven’t seen her so happy for ages. You’re a good pony, Cogs, and we’re happy that you have become a part of our lives.”

Cogs looked at the ponies on the ground going about their lives, for the most part blissfully unconcerned about their futures. Could he do the same? He had apparently made an impact on several lives just by being himself, so perhaps he really did belong here. Was there even a realistic alternative? He would not be accepted into any other hive, and it was risky resuming his place at Cloudsdale because of the possibility of his former hive-mates becoming aware of him. This little village in the middle of a forest was a near-perfect place to remain unrecognized and build a new life.

“You know, coming here was an accident, but I think a very fortuitous one. With friends like you and Lavender, I think I could be very happy here.”

“I’m very glad to hear it. By the way, Hazy wants to invite you and Lavender over to dinner one night this week. Would next Saturday be good for you?”

“Huh? I suppose so. I’d have to check with Lavender of course.”

“Great! It’ll give me more of a chance to get to know you better. Meanwhile though, I think my herd-mates might be wondering if I’ve run off with you, so I’d better take you back down now and rejoin them.”

Cogs took one more good look around. “Okay, I’m ready.”

Golden Words carried Cogs back down just as she had brought him up, setting him on the ground in the same parkland from which they had started. She gave him a quick peck on the cheek and then took off again with a cheery “Bye”!

Cogs snorted in amusement. The mare had ruined a perfectly good blue funk. It seemed that he had nothing better to do with the rest of the day than to enjoy himself. Perhaps it was time to check out that bar?

* * *

Into every life, a little rain must fall. Fortunately for Cogs, this rain had been scheduled by the weather ponies and was not unexpected. Lavender had loaned him an umbrella, and he remained perfectly dry as he rode the cart as usual. He would have been happier though if it had not been a bright pink one, drawing the attention of amused ponies everywhere they went. Still, it was hard to ruin his good mood. He had been offered a good salary as an employee of Square Deal Renovations, and he had been very happy to sign on. Not that there was any real chance that he would have knocked it back, of course, but it was good to have the security of a full-time job. It had come with a slightly surprising condition though – he had to spend a certain amount of time doing work for Lavender. Until then, Cogs had not fully realized just how deeply they were concerned about their friend. He had no hesitation in agreeing to that condition at all.

Lavender announced that she was going to make a supply run tomorrow when he came home that afternoon. “The wildflowers are at their best the day after rain,” she explained.

“What about the shop?” Cogs asked.

“It will be closed as usual, of course.”

“Don’t you miss out on some business that way?”

“Yes, but wildflowers are my specialty, so I have to make these runs.”

“What if I mind the shop for you while you’re gone? I know most of what needs to be done for selling by now, and I can always take orders for stuff that only you can handle. I can also do a bit more maintenance work in between customers.”

“But what about your new job?”

“I told them that my first priority is helping you,” Cogs fibbed. “They agreed to let me take time off for that if needed.” He wondered if they had realized that he might want the whole day off when they had asked him to look after her needs, but decided that they probably knew her better than he did.

“Well, I suppose so. If you really want to do it.”

Cogs could sense her pleasure at the offer despite the uncertainty in her response. “Yes, I really want to do this for you,” he reassured her. “I’ll just nip around to Square Deal and let them know I won’t be coming tomorrow.”

Set Square’s response was typically brief. “Sell lots of flowers,” he ordered.

Moonlit Haze added, “Don’t worry – the job that we had planned for you can wait until the next day.”

“Great! I’ll see you Wednesday morning then.” Cogs went back home feeling rather pleased with himself.

* * *

Cogs learned the next day that there was a big difference between minding the shop briefly, and being responsible for it all day. In fact, he began to wonder how Lavender had managed so long by herself. It was amazing how normally pleasant ponies became annoyingly picky and demanding when they became customers. And when he could not help them with a particular order, they would always make him feel bad by saying how Lavender would be able to help them so easily. He did not regret his offer to play shopkeeper, but he was very glad that it was not his real career. Nevertheless, by the time that Lavender returned that evening, he had done some respectable sales that the mare would otherwise have missed out on, and that made up for the day’s frustrations.

The rest of the week went well for Cogs. There was plenty of work for him that he enjoyed, and Set Square was definitely warming up to him. He was up to two consecutive sentences when talking to him now! Cogs marveled at how well Moonlit Haze and Set Square worked together, always seeming to know what the other was thinking. Of course they had been doing this kind of work together for quite a lot of years. Despite knowing that they were all about a decade older than him, he had not fully realized that fact before he had met their children for the first time. They had two fillies – one an earth pony, the other a unicorn – and a pegasus colt, but they had normally left for school before Cogs arrived, and he simply had not bumped into them until by coincidence on Thursday. Moonlit Haze had obviously been the mother of one of the fillies, while Golden Words was responsible for the other filly and the colt. It was only upon meeting them did he learn a bit more about the Square Deal family.

All three ponies had been of the same age and in their final year of school when they decided that they wanted to form a herd together after graduation. Moonlit Haze and Set Square wanted to go on to trade school though, while Golden Words wanted to begin work on a writing career. None of this was going to bring in any money though, so Golden Words decided to put her writing on hold and took a job to support them all while they learned their trade. During that time, both she and Moonlit came into foal, and after they were born, added to the burden of Golden Words. It had been a hard couple of years, but all three were dedicated to each other, and everypony did all that they could to make it all work out. When Set Square and Moonlit Haze finally started up their business, they told Golden Words in no uncertain terms that aside from the bookkeeping, her time was to be dedicated solely to her writing from then on.

Success rarely comes quickly in the fiction writing game, and it was no different for Golden Words. It took her a year and a half to sell her first story, and more time to become a recognized author. Nevertheless her herd-mates had supported her as unstintingly as she had them until she started earning real money from her novels. They had done all this while raising two foals also, the third not being born until a few years later. It served to demonstrate to Cogs the strength of their love and unity in their herd, and had made him a little bit envious too. After all, changelings didn’t have families; they only had their hive-mates. Didn’t they?

* * *

Cogs had bought some paint with his wages that week, and had spent much of Saturday painting the shop. He had started with the interior which desperately needed brightening with fresh paint. Lavender had helped him by moving plants and other goods out of the way in one section while he had worked on it. That made it a little cramped in the shop, but they were able to keep business going all day that way.

Cogs finished painting a section about an hour before Lavender was due to shut the shop for the day. He hastily cleaned up because he had an appointment to keep. Today was the day his wing splints were coming off, and he was dying to stretch his wing.

As he was about to step out the door to head over to Healing Hooves’ clinic, Lavender called out, “Don’t forget that we’re due over for dinner at Square Deal at six!”

“I haven’t forgotten,” he reassured her. How could you forget a dinner date with your employers? Cogs had been a bit surprised by Moonlit Haze’s dinner invitation, but he found out later that it was not the first time that Lavender had been a dinner guest. In fact it was a semi-regular thing for them to socialize, and this was obviously more for her benefit than for him. Still, it was not as if they couldn’t have just asked her as usual and left him out of it. He was rather looking forward to it actually, so he did not want to waste time.

Healing Hooves warned him not to try anything abrupt when she took off the splints and bandages. Her horn glowed as she gave the wing a deep examination before saying, “I’m not one hundred percent happy with the way it has healed. Externally it looks fine, but I feel something wrong internally. I want you to carefully extend your wing fully.”

Cogs did as he was instructed, and was dismayed that it trembled and sagged.

“Just in case it’s only a case of non-use, I want you to do a series of wing folds and extensions to try to loosen it up a bit. Gently! I’m not after speed or strength, just control at this stage.”

Again Cogs did as he was asked, and another problem became apparent. He could not completely fold his wing at all. It tended to sag, and if he stopped consciously trying to hold it in, it drooped even further. He opened and shut the wings several times, but it did not make any difference. He looked at Healing Hooves for answers.

The unicorn shook her head. “It may just need more time to recover. On the other hoof, there could be some nerve damage. My scans just aren’t capable of discerning any more accurately. At this stage, I can only advise you to gently exercise it every day for a few days, and we’ll see if it improves. Don’t try to fly. Your wing isn’t strong enough yet, and your flying magic may still be compromised. I’ll give you a healing spell booster too. It might not help, but it can’t hurt to try either.”

Cogs left the clinic feeling somewhat dejected. Even though he had not really been expected to be allowed to fly as yet, he at least thought that he would be close to that goal. Now he had to deal with the possibility that at best it might take several more days, and at worst he could be permanently grounded. He had worked up quite a funk by the time that he got back to Lavender’s place. That was very quickly blown away when he saw her there waiting for him.

Lavender had not wasted her time while Cogs was away. She had washed and groomed herself, and she was now wearing a simple but flattering formal lilac-colored dress that matched her mane nicely.

Cogs gaped and said, “Wow!”

Lavender spun around to show off the dress a bit more. “You like it?” she asked with a coy smile.

“Very much so,” he assured her. “You’re going to make me feel very under-dressed at dinner.”

“Silly stallion! Only the mares dress up. You just get to make me look good!” Her eyes twinkled with good humor. “Just go brush your mane and we’ll head over now.”

“Yes, boss!” he said with a grin.

They were welcomed cordially by the family including all three of the foals, and Cogs was amused to see that Lavender was right – all the mares and fillies were dressed up while the stallions and colt were not. Thankfully, dressing up for the occasion was as formal as the dinner got, and the evening was relaxed and enjoyable. It was also a novel occasion for Cogs. While he’d had his share of friends and a social circle at Cloudsdale, he had never experienced this family type atmosphere. He liked it! He was beginning to think that he had perhaps got himself into a comfortable rut while working at the weather factory. Sure, he had not been unhappy, but then again he had never experienced the exuberance for living that these people enjoyed. He was eager to learn from them how to do the same.

Regrettably the evening drew to a close, and he and Lavender reluctantly said their goodbyes. Luna’s moon was high and gave them sufficient light to see comfortably, with occasional splashes of light from the windows of the houses they passed as they strolled home together.

“The stars look particularly pretty tonight, don’t you think?” Lavender commented.

Cogs looked up at the twinkling points of light. “They do seem to be nicer than normal. Or perhaps it’s because we’re feeling so good from that dinner date that everything feels a bit better.”

“You like that kind of thing then?”

“I haven’t experienced anything like it before, but I would like to do it again sometime soon.”

“I don’t think Goldie and Hazy would mind having another in a few weeks, but Set isn’t the biggest fan of frequent dinner parties.”

“I’m just being a bit selfish, I suppose. I was feeling rather depressed after I saw Healing Hooves today, but you turned that all around. I just want that good feeling to last for longer.”

“You’re the least selfish person that I know, Cogs. You talk about how you were feeling depressed? Well, that was me before you fell into my life. I also wish the feeling to go on longer.”

“But you already have your friends and your own business. You are the strongest person that I know despite your disability. You have made a life for yourself that I have never known. I envy you, Lavender.”

The mare shook her head. “I’m tired of being strong, Cogs. I want to be able to let go occasionally and know that somepony is there by my side. Will you be that very special somepony?” She stepped in front of him, and before he realized what she was up to, she leaned in and kissed him.

Cogs’ wings popped out in shock, his eyes wide with surprise. He could sense the desire behind her actions, the need and the growing love that fueled them. His mind was in turmoil. She wanted him, and yet he wasn’t exactly what she thought he was. Or maybe he was? She did not care that he was a banged-up stranger she had met by the roadside. She cared about what that stranger had done while staying with her, and whatever his outer form, that was what Cogs really was like. She liked him for himself! He had made friends with many mares while working in Cloudsdale in order to feed on their emotions, but he had never felt any real connection to any of them outside of friendship. In fact he had actively avoided any deeper relationship until now. However it was different with Lavender. She stirred up feelings that he had never felt for anypony before. Celestia help him – maybe he was falling in love too!

Lavender drew back from the kiss, disappointed in the lack of response from Cogs. She looked away sadly. “I see. You don’t want a broken mare either.”

Cogs was shocked by that, and he found his voice. “If you’re broken, then so am I. Healing Hooves told me today that I could have nerve damage in my wing, and might never fly again. Do you pity me for that? I don’t pity you for your broken horn. I admire you. I’m astounded by you. And… I love you.” He startled himself with that admission, but that did not stop him from putting a foreleg around her and pulling her into another kiss. This time he gave as good as he had gotten, and some more besides.

Lavender was at first almost as startled as Cogs had been, but then she melted into his embrace and returned the kiss passionately. For several long moments, they were both oblivious to the rest of the world.

Eventually they broke apart, both panting a little for breath. They grinned at each other and she giggled.

“Oh my! I never thought that it was going to be like that,” Lavender said.

“What did you think it would be like?” Cogs asked curiously.

“I don’t know – I’ve never been in love before.”

“That makes two of us. I don’t even really know how to be a very special somepony.”

“Don’t worry – you’re doing just fine,” she reassured him.

Cogs looked around. “Umm… are we going to keep making out in the street?”

Lavender laughed. “I hope not. Let’s go home, dear.”

Upon arrival at Lavender’s place, Cogs became unsure again. She, however, headed for her bedroom.

“What do you want me to do, Lavender?” he asked.

She stopped in the doorway, and smiled coyly. “Very special someponies don’t sleep on the sofa, Cogs.” She then continued on into the bedroom.

Cogs realized that he was stepping into unknown territory here, and in more ways than one. He followed her unhesitatingly though. He found her standing by her bed waiting for him.

“Will you help me out of my dress, please? I don’t want to have it mussed up.” She didn’t need to say how it would get that way.

Cogs found it amazingly exciting to undress her, and despite the fact that she was just as nude as she was every other day, she was even more desirable to him right now.

“I’ve never done this before with anypony,” he confessed.

“That’s okay – neither have I,” she replied. “Shall we learn together?”

“I can’t think of anything that I would rather do right now.”

They spent the next hour learning what pleased each other and what didn’t work. Sometimes they made hilarious mistakes that left them both giggling like schoolfoals, but most of the time the sounds were of ecstasy. Eventually they finished making love and she snuggled into his embrace tiredly.

“Goodnight, my love,” she said softly.

“Goodnight, dear one,” he whispered in her ear.

She quickly fell asleep. Cogs however did not. Physically he was tired, but he was so supercharged with the love energy that he had been absorbing from her that he reckoned that he should be glowing from it. He felt that he would never have to consume love energy again, he was so full of it. And yet he knew he would again, because he had a mare who loved him unstintingly, and whom he loved in return. Life could not possibly get better than this. He stroked his sleeping lover’s mane, crooning her name. “Lavender, my beloved,” he said softly, “I may not have been born a pony, but I think I was destined to be one for you. As long as I live, I promise you that I will try my hardest never to fall short of your hopes and dreams for us.”

* * *

The next day they slept in very late. Rather than work in her garden, Cogs insisted that after breakfast, they go out and join the other ponies enjoying the day off. “I want to show off the most wonderful mare in the world who is my very special somepony. I want to see how jealous of us they’ll be when they see us together.”

Lavender laughed and agreed.

Perhaps the other ponies weren’t quite so jealous, but many were surprised at seeing her so obviously smitten with him. Some were happy for her, while others wondered what he saw in the disabled mare. They were pretty much oblivious to everyone though until they ran into Set Square and his wives also enjoying a Sunday stroll. Even the stoic stallion was surprised at what had so obviously changed between them. The mares were absolutely delighted though, and they gushed over Lavender, congratulating her and already making plans in their heads for the marriage ceremony.

Cogs looked at the bemused stallion and asked, “So, do you know a good place to buy a horn ring?”

For the very first time that Cogs had seen, Set Square broke into a broad grin. “Took you two weeks from lost soul to fiancé. I’m impressed. You’ve done well, kid.”

Three sentences and a smile from Set Square – miracles did happen!

* * *

Chapter 6: Relatives

Cogs had never felt this terrified in his life; even facing up to Queen Chrysalis was looking more preferable. Nothing in his life had prepared him for this moment, but the consequences of his decisions had inevitably caught up with him. His knees literally shook at the thought of what he had to do, but he could not put it off. It was time to meet his future in-laws.

Lavender had sprung the surprise on Cogs after he got home from work on Monday. As she hugged and kissed him, she announced, “We’re going to have dinner at my parents’ home tonight. I sent them a message today announcing our engagement, and they insisted on us coming over for dinner so that they can meet and get to know you.”

To say that Cogs was stunned would be an understatement. He had literally not given a moment’s thought about meeting her parents, but then again he was new to the concept of having a relationship with a pony too. He had grown up in a changeling hive, a totally different social environment, and the concepts of personal relationships and interactions with ponies had to be taught to him before he went out of the hive. Realizing that he had fallen in love was a surprising and novel experience, but one that he had only the slightest knowledge of the ramifications of it all. His unenlightened response to Lavender was, “Wha–?”

Lavender had to laugh at the expression on Cogs’ face. “Oh, come on! It won’t be that bad. Of course they want to learn more about the stallion who swept their daughter off her hooves.”

“They do? What kind of things? Is this some kind of test?”

Lavender burst out laughing while Cogs just stood their helplessly wondering what he had just said that was so amusing. When she got her giggles under control, Lavender replied, “I’ve never looked at it quite that way, but I suppose it can be. Don’t worry so much though – you’ve already done the most important part. And remember that this will be my first time bringing a stallion to meet my parents, so it’s new territory for me also.”

Nowhere near as new as for me!’ Cogs thought. “Could you give me some coaching?” he pleaded.

“To help impress my parents? Of course I will! Just have a little confidence in yourself though. It’s who and what you are that made me fall in love with you. Keep being that person and I’m sure that you’ll win them over.”

Cogs reflected that he had little choice than to be what he was because he did not know how to be someone else. He just was not that good creating alternative identities, which is one reason why he had always stuck to his pegasus form. However, even that did not have much depth to it. Living with Lavender for the past two weeks had broadened that immensely, but it was still pitifully meager in comparison to a real pony’s experiences. He really began to get nervous then.

Lavender closed up the shop and they both bathed and groomed their coats and manes. Cogs asked if she was going to dress up again, but she informed him that this was a family event, not a formal occasion, so no.

“Oh,” Cogs said, not sure if he was disappointed or not. “Would you at least like to wear this?” he asked, producing a little hinged box and passing it to her.

Lavender opened it to find a fine necklace with a silver pair of wings pendant, and she gasped in pleasure.

Cogs said, “I picked this up on the way home as a kind of engagement gift. I thought that you might like it.”

Lavender threw her forelegs around Cogs’ neck and pulled him into a big kiss. Then she drew back slightly and said, “And you are so worried about doing the right thing! You’re a natural, Love! Will you put this on for me, please?”

Cogs did not feel it necessary to tell her that he had sought Moonlit Haze’s opinion on what would be appropriate; the basic idea had been his though. He fumbled a little with the unfamiliar clasp, but it was soon proudly displayed just below Lavender’s throat.

They departed for Lavender’s parents’ home, and along the way she coached him on some of the things to expect. Instead of reassuring him though, the sheer breadth of the subjects was beginning to daunt him. By the time that they arrived at their destination, Cogs was just a bundle of nerves, and wondering if there was any way out of this situation. As Lavender rapped on the front door with her hoof, he steeled himself and put on his best smile. ‘They’re her parents, not my executioners,’ he reminded himself.

The door was opened by a blue unicorn stallion with a dark blue mane with silvery stripes and an artist’s palette cutie mark. He grinned broadly when he saw Lavender, and his expression only dimmed a little upon noticing Cogs. “Come on in, dear. Your mother is expecting you.”

Lavender gave him an affectionate hug. “Dad, this is Whirring Cogs, my fiancé. Cogs, this Cobalt Dreams, my father.”

Cogs and Cobalt shook hooves, and Cogs said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.” He was even more pleased that he managed to say that without his voice trembling.

“So you’re the one who won the heart of my little jewel? You should consider yourself to be a lucky stallion.”

“Oh, I most certainly do, sir.”

“Enough of the ‘sir’. If you’re going to be my son-in-law, you may as well start calling me Cobalt. And you prefer to be called Cogs?”

“Yes, s– Cobalt.”

“Excellent! May I ask what’s wrong with your wing? It seems to be sagging.”

“Nerve damage from my accident. I can’t hold it in properly.”

“My sympathy. You can tell us more about how that happened later. Right now, let’s introduce you to Lavender’s mother and my wife.”

Cobalt led them into the living room where a light purple unicorn mare with a dark purple mane with white stripes and a cutie mark consisting of a quill and ink bottle. There was also a unicorn colt seated beside her with the reverse of Lavender’s coloration, and with a baseball bat and ball cutie mark.

Cobalt said, “Cogs, this is my wife, Mauve Prose, and our son, Keen Eyes. Mauve, this is Whirring Cogs, our daughter’s beau.”

Mauve Prose was the picture of refinement. She smiled warmly but with elegant restraint. “I have heard good things about you, young stallion. I hope to hear many more this evening.”

So do I!’ Cogs immediately thought. “Lavender surprised me when she told me that we were to have dinner with you this evening. I haven’t had time to prepare any good stories to impress you,” he told her with a grin.

Despite what Mom looks like, she really appreciates humor,’ Lavender had advised him, and it seemed it was true. Mauve’s smile increased just a little, but enough for him to notice.

“Then perhaps we’ll see you at your most honest,” the mare replied.

A completely honest changeling? That was an impossibility, but he would have to try.

“Do you like sports?” interjected Keen Eyes.

“Only a little – pegasus hoofball mostly,” Cogs replied.

Keen Eyes looked disappointed. “No baseball?”

“Never held a bat or ball,” Cogs admitted. “Not that I’m unwilling to try sometime.”

Mauve said, “Our son is a keen sports player. I’m not sure where he gets it from. Same place as our daughter’s recklessness, I presume,” she said with an accusing look at her husband.

Cobalt shrugged and gave her an apologetic smile, but it seemed that there was no real bite in her words. In fact, Cogs could taste no rancor or ill will at all in the room. That calmed his nerves considerably. Knowing that he was not going to have to fight an uphill battle to please Lavender’s parents was reassuring.

Mauve got up and said, “Pardon me, Cogs, but dinner is almost ready. Cobalt, could you lend a hoof, please?”

When the two had left the room, Lavender said, “Mom likes you so far. Told you it wouldn’t be so bad.”

Keen Eyes snorted. “Are you kidding? Mom’s been so excited that you got yourself a coltfriend that she’s been fussing around ever since she got your message, getting ready for tonight.”

“I can’t blame her, I suppose. I have to admit that I was losing hope of getting one, let alone such a great one like Cogs,” she replied with a loving smile at her fiancé.

Cogs gave her a sheepish grin. “You make me sound more special than I am. I’m the lucky one. I never dreamed of falling in love so easily.”

“Okay, now you’re just getting mushy,” Keen Eyes complained.

“Keen! Help serve up dinner!” Cobalt called from the kitchen.

Lavender showed Cogs to the dining room table while her brother grumblingly complied with his father’s order. Apparently Mauve had not spared any effort for the occasion, and dinner was more like a sumptuous feast. It did not stop her or Cobalt from peppering Cogs with questions about him though. He answered as best as he could, and asked many questions of his own to help balance out the conversation. He learned that Cobalt was a modestly successful artist, while his wife had a job as town recorder and deputy mayor. When they pressed him for more details, he stuck with what he knew well, that mostly being the time that he spent in Cloudsdale. He embellished that as much as he could because he was on familiar ground there, but it made him sound more than a little overenthusiastic about his former career. By the time that they were finishing the meal with drinks, that brought up the subject of his injured wing again.

“Are you going to be able to fly again?” Cobalt asked.

“I really don’t know at this time. Healing Hooves says that there’s still a possibility that it will come good, so I hope so.”

Mauve asked, “If it does come good, then would you want to go back to work at Cloudsdale?”

Cogs realized that she was concerned about him leaving Lavender behind, or at the very least uprooting her. “Mrs. Prose, I loved my job there, but I have moved on and my life is here now. I already have work that I enjoy, and I have a mare that I love with all my heart. I have no particular desire to leave Whitetail Meadows.”

Mauve nodded. “That’s very reassuring. So when do you plan to give us grandfoals?” she asked and calmly took a sip of her coffee.

Cogs froze and his eyes went wide as the question hit home. Foals? He had not given the slightest thought to that, and for a very good reason – changelings were not inter-fertile with ponies! How was he going to get around this?

“Mom!” Lavender objected. “We aren’t even married yet! And I’m certainly not going to pressure Cogs into having foals so soon either.”

“While that may be true, dear, you really should plan for them. Sometimes the moment takes you, and that’s too late to start thinking about what you’re going to do afterwards.”

Cogs was not worried about unexpected pregnancies; it was the expected ones that concerned him. He did not think that Lavender would rush into wanting a foal, but what was going to happen when she decided that the time was right? How was she going to react when that time never came?

“Yes, Mom,” Lavender replied placatingly. “And now that you’ve traumatized Cogs, I think it’s time we head off home. We both have to start work early tomorrow.”

Cogs smiled gratefully at Lavender. They said their goodbyes, made vague promises to have dinner again soon, and started on their way home. They walked in thoughtful silence for a while before Lavender spoke up.

“Did my mother’s question really bother you, Cogs? I assure you that I’m not in any hurry to have a foal. I’m more interested in building a life together with you. Foals can wait for a long while yet.”

“I suppose her question did bother me,” Cogs admitted. “However maybe not the way that you’re thinking. Lavender, I literally hadn’t given a thought to having foals, and it bothers me that I did not consider how that would affect you.”

Lavender kissed him on the cheek. “You’re a dear for worrying about that, but don’t let it bother you. Even I hadn’t given that much thought yet. We’ll know when the time is right, and in the meantime we have each other. That’s more than enough for me right now.”

“And for me too,” Cogs said fervently. ‘But I’m not going to leave it until then to think what to do about it,’ he added in his mind.

“Aside from that, I think the evening went very well. Both Dad and Mom like you, and they definitely sympathize with your wing problem. By supporting me through my rehabilitation after I broke my horn, they have a good idea of how a disability affects a person.”

“I could tell that your parents liked me partially because your broken horn did not bother me. I still say that it’s sad that no other stallion would give you a chance for them to get to know you just because of that. On the other hoof, if they had, then I would not be engaged to the most wonderful mare in the village this evening.”

“Nor I to the best stallion in the village,” she replied while nuzzling his cheek.

Thoughts of foals quickly disappeared after that as the lovers lost themselves in their feelings for each other.

* * *

At his soonest opportunity, Cogs brought up the matter with Healing Hooves. She was less than impressed.

“You spent how many years as an emotion harvester, and you don’t know the answer to this? What kind of a field agent were you?”

“Not a great one,” Cogs admitted. “I was a lot more interested in my work at the weather factory than I ever was in love harvesting. I barely ever made more than minimum quota.”

Healing Hooves sighed and rubbed her forehead in exasperation. “So you’re telling me that you have never heard anything about this kind of thing?”

“Umm… maybe a little. Something about love in the seat?”

Healing Hooves groaned. “That’s Loving Deceit, you twit, and it’s a last resort. Many changelings who have a relationship with a pony of the opposite sex such as yours prefer to admit to being sterile and suggest adoption. However there are many times when their partner will only be truly happy to have their own child. In those cases, there are two alternatives – one each for male and female changelings. For females, it’s pretty simple. They emulate a pregnancy until it’s time to give birth. Then a changeling nymph is forced into a transformation into a foal of the appropriate species, and the ‘mother’ gives ‘birth’, usually with a changeling midwife so that the supposed sire never knows that it was faked. A changeling nymph that is forced into a transformation will never be able to change back, and will grow up exactly as any other unicorn, pegasus, or earth pony, except of course that they will still be biologically a changeling, and thus sterile. They may never know why if the ‘mother’ never tells them.”

“Did you ever do that?” Cogs asked.

“No, I never took a mate. My relationships have always been indirect, such as with Lavender. Now stop interrupting. The important bit is what males do, and it’s only possible because we aren’t actually male or female. In fact all drones are gender undifferentiated. Only nymphs who are fed a special substance may grow into fertile females or males to be breeders for the hive. However, the rest of us possess both male and female organs, which is why we can emulate either sex, but we’re sterile. With me so far?”

“I know that much,” Cogs replied sulkily. “That’s why we have to choose our gender when we leave the hive.”

“Thank Celestia for that much at least! Here’s why it’s important for you though. If you choose this course, Lavender can have a real foal. You will sire it, she will get pregnant, and both of you will be its parents.”

“But how? As you just said, I’m sterile.”

“That’s where your choice of gender comes in. You can change it at any time. You emulate a mare, find a willing stallion, have sex, and collect his semen inside of you. You then change back to male, have sex with Lavender, impregnating her with the semen. Choose a pegasus stallion as the donor and you will even have a chance that the foal will be a pegasus child also. Now would you be willing to do that for her?”

“Would Lavender really want a foal if she knew that it wasn’t really sired by me?” Cogs asked doubtfully.

“As I said, you will be the sire – you just won’t be the foal’s blood relation. That may be a pedantic distinction, but nonetheless a real one. If the day comes that Lavender wants a foal, she will want you to give it to her. That’s the loving part of the Loving Deceit.”

“And never telling her for the rest of her life that I wasn’t the foal’s true parent is the deceit part. I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with that idea.”

“I never said that it was perfect.” Healing Hooves’ attitude softened a bit then, and she got a far-off look on her face. “However, I have known several changeling-pony couples who have done this, and they have never been happier. A close friend of mine did it just a year before I came to Whitetail Meadows, and they now have three foals. They are a very normal and joy-filled family. Because of them, I almost decided to look for a stallion of my own. Never underestimate the joy of having a family, Cogs. You get just one chance at getting this right. Think long and hard before you commit yourself to a course of action.”

“I understand. You’ve given me much to ponder, Healer. Thank you.”

“I’m doing this for Lavender as much as I’m doing it for you. Think of what she would want.”

“Of course! I love her, and what makes her happy is what is most important to me.”

Healing Hooves nodded in satisfaction. “Good. Now run along! You’ve taken up enough of my time already.”

Cogs left her clinic with just one unanswered question – should or shouldn’t he practice the Loving Deceit? It did not matter to him that he would not be the foal’s true sire, because he did not have a pony’s biological imperative to pass on his traits to his descendants. Only Lavender’s feelings mattered, and he had to get that right. It would tear him apart if she was hurt by his actions. Healing Hooves would be happy to know that this was one lesson that he would take to heart and not screw up.

* * *

Chapter 7: Bonds

To the average pony, the next few weeks might have been considered a nerve-wracking, exhausting, and frustrating – in other words, a typical lead-up to a wedding. To Cogs, it was an exciting and novel experience, something that he had never dreamed of ever having. The myriad details were intriguing, even if most were handled by Lavender’s friends and parents. Although many changelings often made relationships with ponies, few went so far as he intended to do. As far as biologically possible, he was going to be a real pegasus, and live the life of any normal pony. Towards this end, each week he set aside some of his wages to pay for the wedding ring, some of it went towards preparation expenses, a bit went towards some more tools to add to his kit, and the rest of it was put into Lavender’s business.

The effects of Cogs’ efforts to renovate the shop were starting to show. The revitalized business was drawing more customers, especially as Lavender could afford to add to the range of products that she could offer for sale. He also continued to mind the shop when she went on one of her wildflower harvesting trips.

“You were right,” Lavender told Cogs after one of her trips. “Customers expect the shop to be open when they want something, and it was hurting the overall business when I wasn't there. There’s been a noticeable increase in trade all during the week from repeat clients. This village is too small to afford to lose custom to other merchants. You make a difference just being here, Love.”

Of course, not everything worked out quite so well, and as usual it came about from an innocent question. It was a work day not unlike several others that had passed since Cogs and Lavender had gotten engaged. However, their current job was completed early in the afternoon, so the threesome headed back to home base to make preparations for a new job starting the next day. Cogs encountered Golden Words heading out of her office for a break just as they arrived.

“Oh, Cogs! Just the stallion I've been wanting to talk to,” she told the surprised changeling. “Have you got a few minutes to spare?”?

“Sure! What’s it about?” he asked as he followed her outside.

“First, I just need to stretch my wings and get some fresh air. Want a lift?”

“I’d like that, yes.”

As she had done the previous time, Golden Words lifted Cogs up into the sky with strong beats of her wings. Flying up to the lowest clouds, she deposited him there before she did a couple of spins and barrel rolls, while he enjoyed the breeze in his mane. Before long, she rejoined him on the cloud.

“Phew! Much better! That always clears up the cobwebs in my brain after sitting at the typewriter for so long.”

“I know what you mean,” agreed Cogs. “Just having the wind in my face is exhilarating after so long without it.”

“So no improvement from the wing, I take it?”

“It’s a bit stronger now and it doesn't ache any more, but I still have trouble holding it steady. And of course the flight magic still isn't working. It’s looking more and more as if I’m ground-bound now except for little jaunts like this.”

Golden Words looked thoughtful. “Have you tried flying without flight magic?”

“What? Every pegasus knows that you need magic to fly. Our weight is too great and wings too small in proportion to even get off the ground.” And that was true for changelings too, he added mentally.

“I know that, but we’re not entirely dependent on magic. Have you tried free gliding?”

Cogs shook his head. “What’s that?”

Golden Words gave him an odd look before explaining, “You turn off your flight magic, open your wings to their fullest, and just let yourself feel the air currents to try to travel as far as possible just by gliding. We all did it as foals, and I’m surprised that you haven’t even heard of it.”

Cogs realized that he had been caught out in not knowing something that any real pegasus would know about it, and he thought fast. “Er… I have. We… umm… just called it something else. And no, I haven’t tried it since my accident.”

Golden Words grinned mischievously. “Then it’s time to find out. First – more altitude!” She grabbed him and started doing just that. Higher and higher they went, and although Cogs had flown at much greater altitudes in his life, the knowledge that he could no longer fly made that height more than a little frightening. Finally she put him down on a high altitude cirrus, the wispy cloud barely supporting him despite his cloud-walking magic.

“There, that should be plenty of altitude,” she said, breathing a little hard from carrying him so high. “Now let’s see how good I am at this still.”

Golden Words launched herself off the cloud, straightening out her wings as wide and flat as she could. Of course without magic, she started descending at quite a rapid rate, but as she picked up airspeed, she also gained more lift from her wings and the downward plunge began leveling off. Cogs watched as she found a thermal and circled about it, slowing down even more. It took far longer for her to get low to the ground than it had for them to work their way up to his current height, and it was obvious that she was quite good at free gliding. Abruptly she started gaining altitude again as she turned on her flight magic once more and sped above the village before beating her wings to rejoin him.

“Whoooo! That felt awesome! I wonder why I forgot how much fun that could be? So, how about you trying it, Cogs?”

He looked down a little doubtfully. “I don’t know, Goldie. What if my wing fails? That’s a long way to fall.”

“Don’t worry – I’m not going to let you do it alone. If something does go wrong, I’ll be right there to catch you. That’s one reason why I wanted to start so high; it will give me plenty of time and opportunity to rescue you. All you have to do is not panic, and the worst that will happen is some disappointment.”

Cogs saw that he was not going to be able to wriggle out of this, so he gritted his teeth, prayed to Celestia, and jumped off the cloud. He tried to emulate Golden Words and spread his wings wide, and for a moment it seemed to be working, but then a severe twinge in his bad wing caused him to lose hold of it and he tumbled in the air. He cursed and pulled the wing back into place. It trembled but held, and with the greater falling speed, he could now feel the lift effect starting to work. He was flying again! He shouted with joy and relished the roar of the wind as he sped through the air. It did not last long though because as he got faster and the lift effect grew stronger, it put more strain on his injured wing, and inevitably it failed again. This time he was going far too fast to be able to recover, and he started flailing in panic.

“Cogs!” Golden Words screamed over the wind noise. “Pull yourself together so that I can grab you!”

With an immense effort of will, Cogs stopped thrashing about and relaxed. Within moments, he felt the strong hooves of the mare wrap around his barrel and they rapidly slowed down. She carried him over to the nearest cloud and set down upon it.

“Well, that was quite an adventure,” she commented with a sigh of relief.

Cogs’ heart was still beating wildly from the close shave, and he looked at her incredulously. “Really? You think?”

They stared at each other for a few seconds before simultaneously bursting into laughter, the relief evident in both of them.

“So, do you want to try again?” Golden Words asked slyly.

Cogs nodded. “Yes, but not today. I think one heart-stopper is enough for one day, but it was great to feel like I could fly again. Thanks, Goldie.”

“You’re welcome, Cogs. Anything for a friend.”

“However, you didn't come up here just to get me to try suicidal stunts. What did you want to talk to me about?”

“Oh yeah, I almost forgot in the excitement. I’m just about ready to send out the wedding invitations, and I need to know who you are going to invite. Lavender tells me that you come from a large family, and we’re going to have to know how many to cater for.”

Cogs froze. For the second time that day, he was caught out, but this time it was far worse. He had no idea that when he was chatting with Lavender that first night that such a trivial detail would come back to haunt him. How was he going to explain this one? In retrospect he should have realized that he would be asked this question, but his inexperience had betrayed him.

“Is anything wrong, Cogs?” Golden Words asked as he sat there wordlessly staring out at nothing.

“I… I'm not inviting anyone.”

The mare looked shocked. “No one? Not even your mother? Why not?”

The mention of his mother gave Cogs an idea. “My mother is the reason why. We had a massive falling out, and she has disowned me.” ‘Not far from the truth if she knew what I was doing, although the queen is more likely to kill me for my actions,’ he added to himself. “Mother is a very strict matriarch, and she has forbidden my brothers and sisters from associating with me, so I can’t even invite them.”

“Oh you poor stallion! No wonder you looked so pained. I’m sorry that I dredged that up.”

“It’s not your fault, Goldie. When I was talking with Lavender, I only told her about the happy times. I saw no reason to burden her with my recent painful memories, so she didn't know not to tell you.”

“You miss your family, don’t you?” she replied sympathetically.

“I do,” Cogs replied honestly, “but I have gained so much here with good friends and the love of a beautiful mare. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to see my siblings, but not yet. It’s much too soon.”

“I understand. What about some friends from Cloudsdale?”

Cogs thought about the people that he used to hang around with in Cloudsdale, mostly work buddies from the weather factory. He realized now just how shallow most of those relationships were, and he almost dismissed them all until he remembered Blue Arc, an electrician at the weather factory. He had started there at about the same time that Cogs had, and they had worked together frequently. They had also supported each other while they had been newbies learning the ropes, and the stallion could be the one pony that Cogs could name as a true friend.

“I'd like to invite a stallion named Blue Arc,” he told Golden Words.

“Just one?” Cogs nodded in confirmation. “Looks like he’s going to be your Best Stallion too then.”

“Fine by me. I’ll give you his address when we’re back at the office. Just be sure to ask him not to spread around where I am living now. There are people I really don’t want back in my life now.”

“I understand, Cogs.”

No you don’t, and I hope you never do,’ Cogs thought to himself.

“Anyway, it’s about time for me to get back to work. These books don’t write themselves,” Golden Words said.

“How soon before we see your next book?” Cogs asked curiously, glad to be able to change the subject.

“Not long now. I’m just going through the editing process right at the moment. Then it has to go to the printers and publicity has to be done for the new release. It will be some time after your wedding – probably a couple of months later. You can come to the book-signing at the book store. I always release my new novels here in Whitetail Meadows first, and then do a little tour of the towns and cities.”

“Sounds great. I’ll be sure to do that.”

Golden Words carried Cogs back down, and she went back to work. Cogs, however, made his way to Healing Hooves’ clinic. He felt an urgent need to discuss the latest wrinkle in his plans.

“You should know better than talk about things that you won’t be able to back up later,” she admonished him.

“Hey! I was just making conversation with a mare who rescued me. I had no idea at the time that I would even stay in this village, let alone get into a relationship with her!”

Healing Hooves waved it off. “I know! I know! It’s not always possible to account for every possibility, but try not to be so loose-lipped in future.”

Cogs sighed and knew that she was not going to let him off without a scolding. Sometimes he could picture her as his mother if he had been a pony and not a changeling. “Look – the damage is done, so what do you suggest? I’ve implied that I might never see any of my family again, but I can see Lavender trying to reach out to them on my behalf. I can’t let that happen.”

“You’re right. So your sister had better pay you a visit and help smooth things out so it doesn't happen.”

“What sister? There’s no way that I’m even going to try to contact one of my hive-mates!” Cogs objected.

“There’s no need for you to do so. After all, she already knows you’re here.” In a flare of blue fire, Healing Hooves disappeared and was replaced by a pegasus mare with a pale blue coat and a pink mane, and with a cutie mark consisting of stylized sun with rain drops in front of it. “Aren't you going to give your big sister a hug, brother dear?” she asked in a different voice with a hint of amusement.

* * *

Cogs was ‘excited’ to introduce his ‘sister’, Sun Shower, to his fiancée the following evening. In truth, he was worried that Lavender would see through the ruse. However, Healing Hooves handled the occasion with ease. She explained to Lavender how she had risked her mother finding out about going to see Cogs after finally tracking him down after he had disappeared, and that it would be unwise to try to talk with the matriarch. She would be happy to pass on the good news to their siblings though.

Lavender had insisted that ‘Sunny’ come to Cogs’ wedding, and the mare allowed herself to persuaded. Healing Hooves knew that she would have to come up with an excuse not to attend Lavender’s wedding as her normal self, but at least she knew that she would still be there when she tied the knot.

The rest of the evening was spent with the mares doing a lot of talking and Cogs doing little but listening and nodding as Sun Shower regaled Lavender with tales of their childhood. He was quietly awed by the fabrications that so easily rolled off her tongue and made him almost feel like he had really experienced them. He made sure that he remembered them for future use, and for when Lavender inevitably brought the subjects back up again.

Eventually Sun Shower had to beg to be excused. “I have to start on my way home. My absence would be difficult to explain if it was noticed.”

Cogs genuinely regretted that their guest was leaving, and resolved to thank Healing Hooves the next day. Lavender gave the mare a warm hug before departure, and then looked at Cogs pointedly. He hugged his ersatz sister with genuine warmth also, trying to convey at lest part of his gratitude. Sun Shower looked a little surprised but not displeased.

“Farewell, little Brother. I’ll see you on your wedding day!” She then took off and they closed the door behind her.

“You have a wonderful sister,” Lavender told him.

“I know. A better one than I ever knew,” he admitted.

* * *

The rest of the preparations went fairly smoothly. At one point Set Square dragged him off to a tailor to be fitted for a tuxedo at the orders from the mares. Although he had never been one to indulge in unnecessary clothing, Cogs had to admit that he looked pretty snazzy in a tux. He also made the final payment on the horn ring a few days before the wedding. He admired the golden band engraved with the words – Lavender Cogs – in flowery script before putting it safely away in a small jewel box that he placed in his saddle bag. They checked with the weather patrol that the wedding day had sunny skies scheduled, and they double-checked that the catering was under control.

The day of the wedding arrived, and Cogs had a minor attack of pre-wedding jitters. Fortunately for him, Set Square fortified the groom with a some hard cider – not enough to make him tipsy, but it sure helped soothe his nerves. His boss also ensured that he turned up at the appointed hour at the rotunda in the village gardens where the wedding was being held. Just before they reached it, he was practically pounced upon by a white pegasus with a bright blue mane and a cutie mark of an electric arc between two spheres.

“Cogs! By Celestia it’s great to see you!” the stallion exclaimed as he pounded Cogs affectionately on the back. “What in Tartarus happened to you? One day I hear you've taken a couple of days off, but then you fail to return to your job and you've disappeared, and then months later I get invited to your wedding! You – the stallion who never went home with a mare!”

Cogs grinned and replied, “Short version – family problems, big accident, and gorgeous rescuer.”

“All that and a wedding in so short a time? I've got to hear the long version!”

“I’ll tell you all about it after the wedding, Arc. I hope you’re ready to be my Best Stallion?”

“What’s there to be ready for? Make sure the groom doesn't faint, and pass the wedding ring at the right time,” Blue Arc replied with a grin.

“Good to hear that I’ll be in the safe hooves of the best lightning wrangler in Cloudsdale. Or should I be shocked?”

“Ha, ha. Very funny. I hope your bride-to-be hears better lines than that from you.”

“She hasn't called off the wedding, has she?”

“Not yet anyway. Not that I've seen her as yet either. There’s still time for you to escape.”

“Now who’s being funny?” Nevertheless Cogs grinned at his old friend. “Damn, it’s good to have you here, Arc. At least I’ll have a little support on my side of the aisle. It’s going to be a little heavy on the bride’s side, I’m afraid.”

“What do you mean? What about those ponies?” Blue Arc swept a forehoof in their direction.

They had reached the rotunda, and there seated on the groom’s side of the aisle were a large number of the village’s citizens. Cogs was surprised to realize that he recognized them all. There was Green Hoof, the matriarch of the farming family from his very first job, and a couple of her family members. There were several of the regular customers whom he had served and eventually befriended while minding Lavender’s shop, and many of the clients he had helped with their mechanical problems. There were even a few drinking buddies from the bar - Top Coat, Brolly, and Gold Leaf, who grinned and cheered when they caught his eye.

“Seems to me that you've made quite an impression on the locals already,” Blue Arc concluded.

Cogs was stunned, and then felt ready to cry as so many ponies came up to pound him on the back, shake his hoof, and wish him and Lavender all the best for the future. He had not realized just how much he had become part of the local community already. That so many ponies had turned up in support of him on this day was nearly overwhelming. “I’m… stunned. I never knew.”

“It seems somepony did,” Blue Arc replied, his eyes finding a widely grinning golden pegasus mare. “They've been spreading the news about your wedding and encouraging everypony to come to show support for you because most of your family couldn't come.”

Blue Arc eventually drew him away from the crowd and started pulling him towards the rotunda. “Well, Mister Popularity, I can’t leave you here rooted to the ground like a statue. What kind of Best Stallion would I be if I couldn't get you to the ceremony on time?”

Cogs let himself be dragged along with a goofy grin on his face. He nodded and smiled at the rest of the guests, and they nodded and smiled back at him. In the front row, he spotted Healing Hooves in her guise as Sun Shower. She gave him a sisterly grin and called out, “Good luck, little brother!”

“Thanks, Sis!” he replied with a grin.

He had not been at his place at the rotunda long before Mauve Prose joined him.

“Are you ready to marry my daughter, Cogs?” she asked quietly.

“I've been ready to marry your daughter since she became my very special somepony, Mrs. Prose. This ceremony is only to make it official.”

“Good answer. Now if you can stop your wings from twitching, you might look less like you’re about to panic and fly off,” she replied with a small smirk.

Cogs blushed in embarrassment. “I assure you, I’m exactly where I want to be right now, and I won't be going anywhere.” He then sought to change the subject. “So who is going to perform the ceremony for us? Golden Words has been standing in during the rehearsals.”

“I am,” Mauve Prose replied. “Town Recorder and Deputy Mayor are but two of the many jobs that I do. Civil marriages are some of the more interesting ones though.”

“Uh-huh. No pressure, Mrs. Prose?”

“No pressure, Mr. Cogs. Just get the words right and you'll do fine.” She then turned her attention to an assistant and quietly gave her an instruction. The mare nodded and trotted off.

Blue Arc whispered to Cogs, “Your future mother-in-law is going to be your celebrant? You're so screwed if you botch this!”

“Don't I know it!” Cogs replied fervently.

Just then, Mauve’s assistant started calling for all the guests to take their place as the ceremony was about to start. A minute later and the wedding march tune began to play, and the two daughters of the Square Deal herd entered the aisle as flower-fillies. They were soon followed by Lavender’s father leading her to the rotunda where he ceremoniously hoofed her over to the groom. Cogs barely noticed any of this because his eyes were riveted on the bride. Lavender was dressed in an elegant satin gown, and her mane was coiffed to perfection. Below her throat hung the pendant that she had worn since he had gifted it to her, but the thing that caught his attention the most was the supremely happy smile on the face of his fiancée. He did not have to be a changeling to sense the pure joy that was radiating from her at that moment. He returned the smile in kind as he took her hoof in his.

The music stopped, and Mauve Prose spoke up. “Citizens of Whitetail Meadows, family and friends of the bride and groom, we are gathered here today to bear witness to the union of this mare and this stallion in the ties of matrimony. We celebrate the love that has brought them together here on this day to be united henceforth as one family. The bride will now make her vows.”

Lavender locked eyes with Cogs. “My love, you fell into my life when I most needed it. From the moment we met, it was like you were a long-lost friend, and we were so comfortable with each other. You never saw me as anything less than a capable independent mare despite my broken horn, but you knew how to help me in spite of that. You have brought me more happiness than I have ever known before, and I want to bring you the same joy as your wife. I pledge my love to you for as long as I may live.”

“The groom will now make his vows,” Mauve Prose declared.

Cogs’ gaze had never left Lavenders’. “My darling, you saved my life, you gave me hope, and you filled my life with joy. I never knew what it meant to want and need somepony so much until I met you. We have shared weeks of happiness and laughter, with the promise of so much more to come. I wish to make that promise come to pass as your husband, and as such I pledge my love to you for as long as I may live.”

Mauve Prose said, “May we have the ring.”

Blue Arc stepped up and held out the jewel box on his hoof. Cogs opened the box, took out the ring, and held it up before Lavender. “This ring is a symbol of my love and my promise to you. Will you accept it from me?”

Lavender replied, “I accept your pledge of love and your promise.”

Cogs carefully placed the ring over her horn and settled it into place against her scalp.

Mauve Prose declared, “We have all borne witness to the pledge of love of this mare and this stallion. By the authority invested in me, I now declare them husband and wife.”

Cogs and Lavender kissed each other fervently to the cheers of the crowd, momentarily oblivious to them. Then their lips parted and they turned to their friends and family with joyful smiles on their faces. Cameras flashed and the moment was preserved forever for posterity.

* * *

The signing of the marriage contract and the wedding reception were a bit of a blur to Cogs later, but he did remember the latter to be the most uninhibited celebration of joy that he’d ever experienced, and that every moment of it was spent side by side with his new wife. At some point, ‘Sun Shower’ had to excuse herself, pleading the need to get home before arousing suspicion due to her absence, and a suitable interval later, Healing Hooves ‘returned’ from her emergency job to congratulate Lavender and Cogs and join in the celebration.

The feast was lavish, the entertainment was delightful, and the dancing was energetic. In between, he enjoyed catching up with the news from Cloudsdale as recounted by Blue Arc, and in return, Cogs acquainted his best friend with some of the more interesting aspects and events in his new home town. Eventually they both realized that there was not enough time for them to more than scratch the surface of what they wanted to tell each other, and this was not the occasion to distract the groom from his bride any more. Cogs made Blue Arc promise to come back soon for a longer visit, and in return vowed to give him one of the best home-cooked meals that he had ever tasted.

Cogs avoided the excess consumption of alcohol, but he was a little bit drunk on all the positive emotions filling the hall. He wondered if it was possible for a changeling to absorb too much emotion and burn himself out. He began to think of ways for he and Lavender to excuse themselves from the party without hurting anypony’s feelings, but Lavender beat him to the punch.

“Mares and gentlestallions, may I have your attention?” she called above the hubbub. When the crowd had quieted down, she continued. “Thank you all for making this a day to remember for my husband and I. We will never forget this day as long as we live – or at least he had better remember the anniversaries!” she said with mock fierceness.

There was burst of laughter at that. Lavender waited until it finished before saying, “However, it’s time for us to call an end to the evening. We still have our wedding night before us, and I wish that we both have the energy left to enjoy it fully.”

There was some more laughter and not a few cheers, whistles, and hoof stamps.

“So my lovely family and dearest friends, on behalf of Cogs and myself, we thank you for coming and we wish you all a good night.”

Amid more cheers and stamping of hooves, the newlyweds exited the room. The reception hall was not too far from their home, so they were able to walk there at a leisurely pace, letting themselves unwind from the party. When they reached the back door which was the private entrance to their house, Lavender paused in the doorway.

“Cogs, my darling husband, what’s mine is now yours also. This is our home now, and I hope that we build many happy memories in it.”

“If you’re here to share it with me, every memory will be a happy one,” Cogs declared and kissed her for good measure.

They entered the house and made their way immediately to the bedroom. They were careful to take off their fine clothes and lay them safely aside before they began to make love for the first of many times that night.

* * *

Lavender went into season just over three weeks later, and Cogs was once more confronted by the final challenge to their relationship. To be fair, Lavender reiterated that she would not push Cogs into having foals immediately, and he knew that she genuinely meant it. However, she also made it plain that she would be happy to have one now if that was what he desired. He agonized over whether to use the Loving Deceit, but in the end decided that for this first time at least, he would not, and see what happened.

When it became obvious to Lavender that she was not pregnant, her disappointment was palpable to him. She never said a word or gave an outward sign that she was, but you could not hide emotions from a changeling. It seemed that next time he would have an even harder decision to make because the wait and see option was now well and truly gone.

* * *

Chapter 8: Discoveries

Cogs had not been sure what to expect of married life, so he did not have any false expectations to shatter. Instead each day started with the joy of waking up next to the one he loved, and ended it with that same loving pony. Although for very different reasons, neither he nor Lavender had expected to ever be in such a strong relationship, let alone married. If there was anything negative to say about being bonded like they were, it was the tiny little nagging fear that it was all too good to be true, but that only made them more determined to make sure that fear never came to pass. One way that Cogs thought might be good was to get more familiar with Lavender’s business outside of the shop, and simultaneously get to spend more time with her during the day.

“Honey, I've been thinking – how would you like it if I came along with you on one of your flower harvesting trips?” Cogs asked at breakfast one morning.

Lavender paused eating her oatmeal and looked thoughtful. After half a minute, she replied, “You realize that your being here to mind the shop while I’m gone is one of the reasons that business has picked up?”

“Of course. What I had in mind is that instead of your usual Sunday spent in the garden, we take that day instead. Then on Monday, or whatever day suits you best, you can do your gardening while I mind the shop.”

Lavender nodded as she considered the proposal. She had been doing the gardening on Sunday habitually for years, but that did not mean that it could not be postponed a day or two. Spending time with Cogs seemed like a very good reason to compromise, and it might also mean an extra large harvest. It seemed like a win-win situation to her. “Okay, let’s do it this Sunday.”

Cogs smiled happily. “Great! Just let me know what you want me to bring.”

Cogs equipped himself with some brand new tools especially for the trip. While Lavender loaded the cart with some extra boxes and buckets for their harvest, he prepared a picnic lunch for both of them. They departed at dawn and headed out on the south road. Lavender gently declined Cogs’ offer to help pull the cart. She knew that without his flight magic to help lighten the load, her husband would not be able to easily manage the cart and, unlike her, was not used to pulling loads through sheer strength. It was a point of pride with her that she had toughened up her unicorn body to near earth-pony endurance.

“You picked me up on the west road after one of your flower harvests, so why are we headed south?” Cogs asked.

“Different flowers bloom at different times of the years, and in different environments,” Lavender explained. “For example, Pegasus Lilies bloom in spring before the heat of summer, and they prefer semi-shaded conditions. Griffin Claws are hardy, dry-environment plants and won’t flower until it gets hot enough. Lunar Lavender, after which I was named, likes open fields and blooms for many months. Alicorn Breath is a delicate alpine flower that starts growing even before all the snow has melted. Today though, we are after Dawnfire Blooms. They are only available for a couple of weeks each year, and can only be found in the southern areas of the Whitetail Woods. They will fetch a good price for us.”

“I see I have a lot to learn,” Cogs observed.

Lavender smiled. “As long as you can follow instructions on how to best harvest and handle the flowers, I really don’t care if you forget. I’m happy that you’re a good mechanic – I don’t expect you to be a floral expert also.”

“It can’t hurt to try,” Cogs insisted.

Lavender gave him a wicked smile. “You asked for it!”

Cogs realized that he had probably bitten off way more than he could chew after a very short time, but he gamely tried to keep up with the flood of information that Lavender unleashed upon him.

They reached the harvest site after a little more than two hours of measured trotting. Cogs could not remember ever having traveled so far on hoof before, relying normally on his wings to travel great distances. However he was not given a chance to rest because as soon as the cart had been parked in a suitably shady spot, Lavender put him to work preparing the boxes, and fetching water from a nearby stream to fill the buckets. By then, she had started her harvest. The Dawnfire flowers belonged to a type of vine plant that climbed the trees, seeking the sun, and well out of the reach of non-pegasi. Lavender had brought along a specially improvised tool for harvesting the blooms. It consisted basically of a set of pruning snips attached to a pole with a rope to pull the handle of the snips. She would maneuver the pole to bring the snips against the stalk of the flower, pull the rope to cut it, and then catch the large-petaled flower as it spun lazily to the ground. She put the flower stalk into a bucket of water and then went to work on the next bloom.

Cogs got to try the remote snips a few times, but mostly he ferried the harvested blooms to the cart and brought more buckets of water back. While the process was simple enough, it was time-consuming because of the effort needed to work through the underbrush, and the awkwardness of getting at many of the flowers. There were also only a few on each vine, and the distance Cogs had to travel to the cart steadily grew longer. Eventually though, Lavender declared that she had a sufficient quantity, and it was time for lunch.

“So how are we doing?” Cogs asked as he started unpacking their picnic lunch.

“Excellently! Because you’re saving me from having to travel back and forth, I've reached my quota in half the time. We’ll have plenty of time to harvest some of the other things on my list.”

“Well that’s one part of my plan that’s worked perfectly so far,” Cogs said happily. “And now we get to have a lovely picnic lunch together also.”

“What can I say? My husband is clever; it’s one of the things that I like about him.”

“Your husband is also hungry; his wife has worked him hard!”

Lavender laughed. “We’d better do something about that right away. Would you like some chilled apple cider, Love?”

“Yes, please!”

They took their time and enjoyed a leisurely meal. Between the food, the beautiful day, and the company, they were very tempted just to take the rest of the afternoon off and enjoy themselves, but with an effort of will, they eventually got back to work. Lavender showed Cogs what a particular wild herb looked like, where to find it, and how to harvest it. She left him at that task while she went in pursuit of other flowers more easily harvested by a single pony. By the time it came to quit and start packing up, they had an impressive haul. Lavender showed him how to pack the flowers in the special boxes, how to use moistened cloths to keep them cool and fresh, and how to safely stow everything on the cart.

Lavender was glad to have Cogs’ help pushing the cart back up onto the road, but once there, she once again refused his help to pull the cart. It was probably the biggest haul that she had ever brought in, but at least this particular route was not hilly, so it was not excessively difficult.

The couple arrived home minutes after Celestia had set the sun, and there was a bit of a rush to unload the cart in the fading light. Once all the boxes and buckets had been safely stowed in the shop and the cart put away, they considered what they wanted to do for dinner.

“I vote that we go out to a restaurant,” Cogs suggested. “I think we've earned it, and I doubt either of us feels like cooking right now.”

“That sounds lovely,” Lavender agreed. “Give me a few minutes to freshen up, and we can leave. Which restaurant would you prefer?”

“How about The Wild Fig?”

“You like that one for the fish dishes that they serve, don’t you?” Lavender asked with a smile.

Cogs shrugged. “I have a weakness for fish,” he admitted. He did not mention that he needed a certain amount of animal protein in his diet for good health. Ponies normally got their protein requirements from plant sources, but that was not quite good enough for him. Fish just happened to be a very tasty food supplement for him.

Cogs’ day ended with a delicious meal, a romantic moonlight stroll home with his wife, and an evening of making love. Cogs could not imagine a more perfect day.

* * *

Cogs could not imagine a more busy day. On top of the normal trade, once word got around that the Dawnfire Blooms were available, customers started queuing up for them, keeping him busy packing them up. Apparently they were greatly favored as courting gifts, being both beautiful and deliciously edible. Their scarcity made them that much more desirable. Cogs briefly wondered if Lavender knew that this was going to happen, and then dismissed the thought. Of course she knew, and she must be smiling to herself as she leisurely pottered around in her garden. The joke was on him, but he would keep his promise to look after the shop while she had the day off. He had shake his head in chagrin though at being so thoroughly tricked. Of course, her wits were one of the things that he most liked about her. She was so going to get her comeuppance one day though!

* * *

Cogs and Lavender repeated their dual harvesting trips a couple more times over the following weeks. Cogs learned a lot more about flowers than he ever thought that he would, and he was building up strength in his legs also. Fortunately his injured leg had healed perfectly, so he was able to put maximum effort into tasks. However, his main job called for most of his attention, so he could not take too much time off.

Today was different though. Today was the debut of Golden Words’ new novel – Skyflame. Her herd-mates had scheduled most of the day off so that they could support her at the book-signing at the town’s book store. Despite the village being so small, she always had the first release in her home town as a tribute to the townponies who had supported her in her early years. However, that did not mean that the debuts were quiet affairs. Such was her reputation now that eager fans came from far and wide in order to snap up a first-day, signed copy of the books. They would come for the books, but stay to have a conversation with their favorite author. The book shop owner was happy because she sold more books in one day at one of these signings than she normally did in a month. Various other shop owners were also pleased because the visitors were hungry or thirsty, or seeking to make the most of their trip to do some extra shopping. And of course Golden Words was pleased to be able to spend a whole day with her most ardent supporters. It was the pay-off for months of hard work, and she always made the most of the occasions. She loved every minute of it.


Right this moment, she was staring at her latest fan much like a deer caught in a beam of bright lantern light. This highly excited fan was gushing with praise for Golden Words’ series of novels, elaborating on her analysis of the stories, and extolling their virtues. Goldie’s signing pen threatened to fall from her slack lips as she listened to her ardent admirer almost maniacally declare how much she was looking forward to reading this latest tale. Golden Words had heard similar things from her fans before, although seldom with such intensity, but what could you expect when said fan was no less than an alicorn princess?

Twilight Sparkle had no idea just how much she was disconcerting the poor pegasus mare as she enthused over one of her very favorite fiction authors. Apparently you could turn a unicorn bookworm into an alicorn, but she was still a bookworm, and her intensity showed. Golden Words had no idea how one was supposed to respond to an Equestrian princess who just dropped in completely unannounced and with no forewarning. Thankfully her long rambling praise and comment was all one-sided so far, and it was giving Golden Words a chance to try to get her thoughts together to be able to respond when Twilight finally stopped talking and expected a reply.

Golden Words never had to test that out though, because just then Cogs turned up at the store to pass on the word from Moonlit Haze that lunch was ready and it was time to take a break. At first he did not pay attention to the customer, but when he did look her way, his eyes bugged out and he gasped in shock.

Just then, an amulet that Twilight was wearing around one ankle pulsed, and the alicorn broke off what she was saying to glance at it. She then looked up and noticed Cogs, and she pointed at him and said, “You!”

If Twilight was going to say any more, Cogs never found out because he bolted for the door. His worst fears had been realized – he had been discovered! He panicked, completely unable to think of any course of action except to head for a place of security, even though he knew in his heart that there was no such thing for him. He tore out into the street and raced as fast as he could in the direction of home. He had not gone too far when with a rustle of feathers and a gust of wind, Twilight Sparkle landed in his path.

“Wait!” Twilight said. “I want…” But she was talking to thin air. Cogs had jinked immediately to the right and ducked down an alley, still travelling at top speed. “Wow! He’s fast!” she muttered and took off again. She flew over the shops and houses, and figured out a good place to intercept him again. This time though, without any convenient escape route. Again she landed in front of the fleeing pegasus.

“Stop!” she commanded. “I just want to…” Again she was left talking to herself. Cogs had dived through a hedge and left the alicorn blinking in surprise, frustration, and just a little bit of admiration. ‘But why hasn't he tried to fly away?’ she wondered to herself.

Cogs reached the back door to his house and managed to duck inside before Twilight Sparkle suddenly materialized in front of him after teleporting inside to give her an extra moment’s surprise. Abruptly he was frozen in mid leap as he tried to dodge once more. He struggled to escape, but none of his limbs would budge, mired in the glowing sphere of magical energy that surrounded him.

“As I was saying,” Twilight began calmly now that she had secured her quarry, “I just want to talk with you.” She looked around to ensure that there were no witnesses. In a low voice, she added, “I know that you're a changeling, but I'm aware that the majority of your kind had nothing to do with Queen Chrysalis and her attack on Canterlot. With the support of the various hive queens, I've been researching the various hives and the changelings living among ponies, and I really just want to learn more from you. You have nothing to fear from me.”

“Why should I believe that?” Cogs replied. “Your city and its citizens were attacked, Celestia injured, and your brother, friends, and you personally endured much from us. How could you not be angered by all that?”

“I was angered, but when I learned that Chrysalis was a rogue queen and the majority of changelings want nothing else but to live peacefully with ponies as they have done for millennia, I knew that I could not blame all of your kind for the sins of some of them. That's why I have been studying changelings and giving talks about them to dispel rumors and calm fears, for both ponies and changelings.”

“And what happens when you encounter one from Queen Chrysalis’ hive?”

“I've never met one yet. Aside from a few dead drones that were found in the forest days later, no sign of Chrysalis nor her changelings has ever been found.”

“Well now you have,” Cogs said with hopelessness in his voice. Why had he told her that? Why had he confessed to one of the most powerful entities in Equestria that he had been one of her enemies? All he'd had to do was pretend to be from Healing Hooves’ hive and he would have been okay, if he believed what Twilight Sparkle had said. And he did believe, and yet he still felt compelled to tell all.

Twilight was equally shocked, and she stared at Cogs in disbelief. How could someone confess to such a thing? She felt the rage that she had buried long ago starting to resurface. The hurt that had been done to those nearest and dearest to her was brought back to mind, and her eyes began to glow with the magical power that was building up inside of her. “You were one of those who attacked Canterlot?” she demanded.

“Not just Canterlot; I was one of squad that was specifically ordered to stop the Element Bearers.” Cogs seemed unable to stop himself from exacerbating the situation.

“You… you attacked me personally?”

“Well, actually I think it was Applejack who bucked me senseless, but yes, I was in that group.” There, that ought to seal my fate. Thanks, runaway mouth. Goodbye Lavender, my love. Our time was too short, but it was the best part of my life.

Twilight’s fury grew, but at last she had found someone upon whom she could vent it. So many ponies had been hurt – some physically, but many more psychologically as their emotions were ripped from them by the hungry changelings. So many who had never received justice for their suffering. But now she had one of the perpetrators, the evil blight on the face of Equestria and a traitor to the changeling race. Today justice would be done and…

… why was he crying?

Cogs’ face was not filled with fear nor hatred. It was instead one of the saddest faces that she had ever seen, with tears of remorse flooding from the eyes, and they quelled the rage within her. “Why? Why did you tell me all this when you know how I would feel about it? Why didn't you pretend to be from another hive? I almost certainly would have believed you.”

Suddenly Cogs had the answer to both her questions and his. “I want your forgiveness,” he said earnestly.

Twilight abruptly terminated the confining sphere, and Cogs dropped to the floor, still looking at her and tearfully praying for absolution.

“Forgiveness? Why?” Twilight was completely thrown by this request. Her anger was dying down and being replaced by confusion. Nothing about this meeting was going as she had expected.

“I never wanted to attack you, nor any other pony. I asked the queen not to do it, and was demoted to a common soldier. Nevertheless I obeyed the queen and thus I am guilty, but I still regret everything that I did. That guilt has preyed on my subconscious ever since then. I thought that I had managed to put it all behind me, but seeing you brought it all back. Attacking you and the other innocent ponies is the worst thing that I have ever done in my life, and I am truly sorry for it. I can’t ever be completely happy until I have closure.”

Twilight’s horn glowed, and Cogs thought that his time had come, but he felt only a tingle before she spoke again.

“How do I know that you aren't merely lying to me to save your hide?” Twilight asked sternly.

Cogs cast his eyes down and shook his head. “I can only give you my word, but I have been living my life since then away from the hive. I have renounced Queen Chrysalis and the hive, and have sworn to spend the spend the rest of my life as the pegasus that you see before you, loyal to the Princesses.”

Twilight was amazed. “I didn't think it was possible for a changeling to break away from their queen and hive.”

“Nor did I until I forced myself. It made me feel ill and gave me bad dreams for a while, but once it passed, I had an amazing sense of freedom. I could never go back again.”

“Even if Chrysalis herself stood in front of you and commanded your obedience?”

“The queen would kill me because she would know that I would not obey.”

“What about the other soldiers? Are you saying that they were all helpless pawns in Chrysalis’ plans?”

“No. The changelings who lived in the hive obeyed blindly and unhesitatingly. However, of those of us who worked out in the field as emotion harvesters, most knew that it was wrong and tried to persuade the queen to abandon her plans for power. They all suffered my fate – refused the right to return to our jobs and our lives outside of the hive, and forced to be the lowest of soldiers in her plans of attack.”

“Then Chrysalis remains a threat to Equestria?”

“I would agree.”

“Then prove your loyalty to the Princesses and tell us the location of her hive.”

Cogs hesitated, then said regretfully, “I can’t.”

Twilight frowned. “Why not?”

“If it was just Chrysalis, or even the hive workers, I would, but I would be betraying my fellow conscientious objectors if I did. If the Royal Guard attacked the hive, it would be them who would be thrown into the first line of defense, and their lives would most likely be forfeit.”

That had not been in any scenario that Twilight had envisaged, and it gave her pause for thought. She could not fault him for his stance – those changelings did not deserve that fate. It also spoke much for his character that he would risk himself for them. She came to a decision. “I believe you, and I accept your declaration of loyalty. Please get up and calm your fears. As I said at the beginning, I just want to talk with you to learn more about you and your kind. Today it seems I have learned something totally unexpected, which proves that I have much yet to learn.”

Cogs was weak with relief as he shakily got to his feet. “You believe me? You take my word?” he asked, hardly daring to believe his good fortune.

“Well, that and the lie-detecting spell that I cast upon you,” Twilight admitted with a small smirk.

“Oh.” Cogs was a tiny bit disappointed that it wasn't just his words that had persuaded the Princess. “I thank you anyway, your Highness.”

“Just Twilight, please. When I’m not on formal royal duty, I prefer my name, and right now I am just Twilight Sparkle the researcher… and what’s wrong with your right wing?”

Cogs still could not hold his injured wing properly furled most of the time, and in his shaky condition, it was now sagging badly. “When I was blasted out of Canterlot, I crashed into the forest and incurred several serious injuries. The wing has never healed properly. There is some nerve damage and my flight magic won’t work, so I can no longer fly.”

“So that’s why you didn't fly when you tried to escape from me.”

“Exactly. I have been ground-bound ever since except when a friend has carried me up to the clouds.”

“Let me examine it, please.”

Cogs extended it as best as he could and he felt the tingle of magic upon it, probing at the bones and nerves. Abruptly there was a huge shock. “YEE-OUCH! What… what was that?” He tried to shake off the painful jab.

“Oops. Sorry about that. I should have expected that there would be a mana surge when I reconnected the mana network in the wing. Try flying now.”

“You’re kidding me?” Cogs did as she instructed though and launched himself upwards and flapped. To his amazement, he hovered with ease. “I can fly!” he exulted.

“Of course. It was a simple fix. Any specialist unicorn doctor could have done that.”

“Any such doctor would have been able to tell that I was not a true pegasus also,” Cogs pointed out.

“Ah, yes. That would have been a problem if you were trying to hide.”

Cogs landed and furled his wings with no problem. “Why would you do this for me? I attacked you and your friends, and you reward me?”

“You have convinced me that it was against your will, so that means that you are not my enemy, and if you’re not my enemy, then I want to be your friend. Friendship is magic, and I am the Element of Magic. I could do no less for you.”

Tears threatened to flow again in Cogs’ eyes. “Thank you! Thank you so much! I know that I swore to myself that I would be loyal to the rulers of Equestria, but I declare right now with you as my witness that I pledge my life to the Princesses, and to you in particular.”

Twilight was still too new to her role as Equestrian royalty to be totally comfortable with his declaration of loyalty, but accepted it with as much grace as possible. “Thank you – what is your name anyway?”

“My name is Whirring Cogs, but just call me Cogs, please.”

“Like your cutie mark, I see. Mechanically inclined, are you?”

“That’s right. I have a job with a renovations company here.”

“And this is your home?”

“Yes – mine and my wife’s.”

“You’re married? To a pony? How many years?”

“Only weeks. Lavender Dreams found me in my injured state by the roadside out in the woods. She brought me home, arranged for my wounds to be tended, fed me and gave me shelter. We fell in love and were married just a few weeks ago. She is my best and most wonderful reason for living.”

“So you did not live and work here before the invasion of Canterlot?”

“I used to work in Cloudsdale. I had never set hoof in this village before.”

“Wow. You really fell for her fast, didn't you? And she for you. Did you use your changeling abilities to influence that?”

“What? NO! That wasn't how it happened. We just… clicked. It was as if we were destined for each other. I know you might think of us as emotion eaters, but we have feelings too. I love her truly, and she freely gave her love to me.”

“Calm down – I believe you. A very good friend of mine in Ponyville turned out to be a changeling, and she's been in a deeply committed relationship with another mare for years. Does Lavender know that you're a changeling?”

“No, I have never told her that. I can't risk our relationship over something that should not be part of my life any more.”

“My friend revealed her true self to her partner, and their relationship never faltered.”

“Can you guarantee that the same would be true for Lavender?” Cogs asked pointedly.

Twilight hesitated, then shook her head. “No, I admit that I can’t.”

“Then with all due respect to you, your Highness, I will not be telling her my secret.”

Twilight accepted the subtle rebuke. Meddling in a relationship was rarely a good thing. “May I at least meet your wife?”

“Of course – that's easily done. The front of our house is a shopfront, and Lavender sells flowers and herbs. She's there right now….” He stopped as something occurred to him. “Umm, you’re adept at healing spells, aren't you?”

“I’m not a specialist, but yes,” Twilight admitted, wondering where this was going.

Cogs grew excited. “My wife has a crippling injury that no one can fix. Perhaps you could do something?”

“Perhaps. What’s the problem?”

“Come with me and you'll see,” Cogs urged, leading the way through the house and through the door into the shop.

Lavender was surprised to see her husband. “Aren't you supposed to be at the book store at the moment?” she asked curiously. Then her eyes widened in shock as she saw who followed him through the door. She bowed low and said, “Your Highness! This is such an honor to have you visit our humble shop.”

“Please! There's no need to bow. This is an informal visit.” Then she noticed Lavender’s broken horn. “Oh my dear little pony – what happened to you?”

“An accident as a teenager, your Highness.” She then told her the details of her misadventure.

When Lavender had finished, Cogs spoke up. “Can you heal her horn, Twilight?”

Lavender put a hoof on Cogs’ shoulder and shook her head. “My love, don't you think that I haven't tried the best healers in Equestria? They all tell me the same thing – a unicorn’s horn cannot be repaired with healing spells.”

Twilight nodded. “She's right, you know. A unicorn’s magic is totally focused in her horn, and any attempt to impose a spell on it fails because the intense mana disrupts that spell. Cracked or damaged horns must heal by themselves with their own innate power.”

Cogs lowered his head dejectedly, his hopes for his wife dashed completely.

Twilight continued though. “At least that's usually the case.”

Both ponies looked at the alicorn in surprise. “Usually?” they chorused.

“Lavender’s horn is broken completely, and the mana channels thoroughly disrupted. I dare say that you can scarcely use any magic at all. Can you pick things up with your hooves?”

“Not really, no,” Lavender admitted

“Then the mana generation is very low, and someone with sufficient power, such as an alicorn perhaps...” Twilight said with a wink, “...may be able to work a healing spell after all.”

Lavender gaped at her in awe. “You can do that?” she asked, hardly daring to hope after all those years.

Twilight grinned. “Let's find out, shall we? But be warned – this is going to do more than sting a little.”

Twilight’s horn lit up, and a glow appeared around Lavender’s horn stump. The glow kept increasing as Twilight’s expression intensified and she poured more of her power into the effort. The glow became too intense for Cogs to watch, and he had to avert his eyes. The seconds dragged by, and then minutes, and he wondered if it was taking too long, and the effort was failing. Then abruptly the light ceased, and Cogs could now see that his wife had collapsed onto the floor.

“Lavender! Are you alright?” he cried.

Lavender groaned and lifted her head. “Ooh – who bucked me in the head? And what are you staring at?”

Cogs’ eyes were riveted on Lavender’s horn. It was small – no bigger than a young filly’s, but perfectly formed. “Your horn – it's healed! It’s tiny, but it's whole again.”

Twilight looked somewhat frazzled from her immense effort. “Yeah, I had to pare back the dead horn to repair the mana channels and heal it over. I can’t magically make it adult size again though. Despite what those advertisements for horn enlargement claim, that's not possible. However, it will grow normally from now on, and reach its adult size in the fullness of time. You won't be able to do much magic until it grows a bit more, but you should be able to handle things again right now though.”

Lavender touched her horn with one hoof and exclaimed, “I can feel it! I can feel everything again!” She tried to grab a pair of scissors from the counter in her right hoof, and a bunch of flowers in her left. She held them up in triumph. “I can hold things again!” She then dropped them back on the counter and flung her forelegs around the startled alicorn and hugged her fiercely. “Thank you! Thank you! I can never repay you for this wonderful gift!”

Twilight smiled benignly. “What’s the point of being an alicorn princess if I can't do this kind of thing for my ponies? You're very welcome, Lavender.”

Cogs said, “Why don’t you go show your parents what has happened, Love? I'm sure that they'll want to know about your good fortune. I'll watch the store for you while you’re gone.”

“Oh, yes! I'll do that right away. Thanks, Hon!” She gave him a big kiss on the cheek, and then trotted off with a huge smile on her face.

When she had left the shop, Cogs turned to Twilight and said, “For what you have done for my wife, I will do anything that you ask. I owe you a debt that can never be adequately repaid. I am yours to command, Princess Twilight Sparkle.”

“No one is keeping score, Cogs. I did it because she needed it, and I was the only one who could do it.”

“Nevertheless, if you want something, just ask. A friend can owe you a favor, yes?”

Twilight smiled. “Yes, I will accept a favor, and as a matter of fact I know something that would be right up your alley.”

* * *

Chapter 9: Fears

Zevan the changeling faced the sea of pony faces that had crowded into the Whitetail Meadows meeting hall. He nervously tasted the emotional out-pour from the audience – curiosity, fear, surprise, hate, and surprisingly, pleasure. It answered a lot of questions about how they would react to him if they knew Cogs was a changeling. Not that he’d had any intention of finding out that answer, but when you owe a huge favor to an Equestrian Princess, you could not say no.

Cogs had waited curiously to find out what Twilight’s favor was as she explained.

“My research into your kind has been a quest to demystify your species, and build up a knowledge base on all aspects of changelings from your society to your biology. However in doing so, I have come to realize that your secretiveness has worked very much against you after the unfortunate events of the Canterlot wedding. The public perception of changelings is of course that you’re a menace, and without any evidence to counter that perception, those changelings who live among ponies are at risk from an overreaction to a misconception. Therefore, I have been taking the time to visit various towns to give talks on the subject of changelings in an effort to give a more balanced view of them. What I have done on a couple of occasions when it was possible was to have an actual changeling with me to give a demonstration and a short speech of their own. I would like to do that here while I have this opportunity.”

“You want me to out myself in public?” Cogs asked fearfully. “I will do so if you command, as I have sworn to do, but I would rather not.”

“Oh no! I’m sorry if I gave you that impression. I will present you as a changeling who has been accompanying me for these lectures. You can take on another form for this purpose. I just need a changeling for demonstration purposes, not to tell everypony that you're one.”

Cogs heaved a sigh of relief. “Okay. So what exactly do you want me to do for you?”

“Do you know if the town’s meeting hall is being used tonight?”

“I don't believe so, although the library might be open to the public. Our town is so small that they are in the same building.”

“Good. I am going to requisition the use of the hall tonight to give my lecture. Because it’s an impromptu event, I will need it advertised as much as possible in a short time. I want as many ponies as you can get attending so that I can address their fears. Therefore your first task is to spread the word. Your second task is to compose a speech. While I will be doing most of the talking, it will be you who will make the greatest impression. I’ll go over it with you before the lecture, but I prefer to have it coming from your heart rather than from me.”

“I've never made a speech before,” Cogs admitted.

“And that could be to your advantage. An over-rehearsed speech might be less effective for you, while they might expect it from me. Now, on another matter – are there any other changelings in this community?”

Cogs hesitated before replying. “There is one. I'm pretty sure that they would not be happy if I told you who they are though.”

“Is this changeling from your hive too?”

“No, from a completely different one.”

“Then I don't need them to be identified. I would however like it if you were to ask this changeling to meet with me. I assure you that it's merely a part of my overall task of identifying the changelings in the various communities. This is partly for their benefit so that appropriate action can be taken if there is a problem involving one. For example, if one is suspected of being a changeling and feels threatened, they can seek discreet help from me or a member of the changeling task-force that has been established. That task-force’s members consist entirely of Royal Guards who are also changelings. There were a surprising number of them, and they were among the best also. They answer directly to the Princesses and the Captain of the Guard only.”

“That sounds doable. I'll let them know.”

“Excellent. Now let’s go over our plans.”

They had worked out the details, and Twilight had left to talk with the mayor of Whitetail Meadows. Cogs kept minding the shop and dealing with customers until Lavender returned. Meanwhile he told the customers about the lecture and asked them to spread the word. Most of them were more excited at the prospect of meeting Princess Twilight than the actual lecture, but Cogs did not care – whatever got them there was good enough.

Lavender was still giddy with excitement and happiness due to her healed horn. Mauve Prose had accompanied her daughter back to the shop in the hopes of meeting Twilight and giving her their thanks also. Cogs advised them that they could do so at the meeting tonight, and that the best thanks that they could give her was to promote the event. Knowing Mauve Prose like he did, Cogs suspected that she would achieve far more than his own efforts would. Nevertheless after he excused himself, he set to passing around the word as best as he could.

One of his earliest stops was the book shop. Golden Words was back doing her book signing. Apparently someone else had gotten the word to her that lunch was ready as she'd had her break. However her curiosity was unsatisfied.

“Thanks for saving me from Princess Twilight, but why did she point you out, and why did you take off like that?”

Cogs looked sheepish. “I've… met her before briefly,” he explained accurately but misleadingly. “I'm afraid that I can't tell you the reasons behind everything, but I can tell you that I brought her home where she met Lavender and healed her horn.”

Goldie gasped. “Her horn is healed? That's wonderful! Oh, I never knew that the Princess could do that.”

As Cogs had hoped, Golden Words had completely forgotten about his flight from the shop. “Her horn is as small as a young filly’s, but Twilight assures us that it will grow again to full adult size at its normal rate. Lavender can already hold things again though. And one more thing – ” Cogs held out his right wing fully and unwaveringly. “Twilight fixed my wing too. I can fly again!”

Golden Words got up to hug him. “I'm so happy for you both. I'm so ashamed that I felt so uncomfortable about the way she was obsessing over my books. She's just really enthusiastic about everything she does, isn't she? I mean, a Princess who just does that sort of thing for the common pony is so awesome!”

“I think you'll find that the Princess just wants to be like you and I outside of royal occasions. Anyway, you could do us both a favor and promote an event tonight for her.” Cogs explained the details and Goldie promised to tell all her customers for the rest of the afternoon.

Cogs’ next stop was Healing Hooves’ clinic, although he did stop to talk to a few familiar ponies along the way. He explained to the healer what had happened, and she was overjoyed to hear how Lavender’s had been healed. When he told her of Twilight’s request to meet her, she considered thoughtfully before replying.

“Please tell her Highness that if I like what I hear at tonight’s lecture, I will introduce myself to her later. And Cogs, be careful. I don't think things will get ugly, but if they do, I don’t want to have to try to explain to Lavender what happened to her husband.”

“Yes, sis,” he replied with a grin.

She gave him a semi-annoyed look. “Get going, you cheeky colt!” She shook her head in a mixture of disbelief and amusement as he left her office.

Cogs spent the rest of the afternoon going from business to business, and even speaking to people in the street. Fortunately because it was a small village, he was able to cover a large cross-section of the community, and word-of-mouth helped ensure that the majority of the population learned of the event.

When Cogs was satisfied that he had done enough to spread the word, he finally took the time to do something that he had been aching to do since his wing had been healed. He took off into the sky and flew for the sheer joy of flying. He climbed high into the sky, dived, did barrel rolls, loop-the-loops, and speed runs. Eventually he parked himself on a cloud, breathing hard from his exertions, but feeling absolutely great. After a couple of minutes, Golden Words surprised him by landing next to him.

“Looks like you don’t need my taxi service any more,” she observed.

“Nope, and although I am very grateful, I hope that I never will again. So, are you done for the day?”

She nodded. “Yes, the book shop has closed and the book-signing will continue in Canterlot for the major release. I'll be flying there in the morning to meet up with the publishers. Hazy will be following by train with our luggage, and she’ll be accompanying me for the remainder of the publicity tour. You and Set Square will be handling all the work for the next couple of weeks. That’s why we asked you not to schedule any days off with Lavender for that period.”

“Yeah, I realize that. Considering how well things were going right here, I suspect that your new book will do very well. I hope you enjoy the tour.”

“They're always a lot of work, but Hazy and I always find the time to enjoy ourselves at the same time.”

“Does Set ever go with you?”

“He did once, but it's not his thing. He’s happy to let us go while he stays and looks after business. We look forward to seeing him again when the tour is done, and we really enjoy our reunion, if you know what I mean?”

Cogs smirked. “I believe I do.”

“Anyway, I was just clearing the cobwebs as usual before dinner when I spotted you, so I had better get along before my herd starts wondering where I've disappeared. I'll see you later at the lecture.” Golden Words took off in the direction of her home.

Cogs remained however, enjoying the view of the setting sun from the peaceful high vantage point. It was the perfect place to consider what he would say in front of the crowd, and he mentally composed a speech before he too headed home for dinner.

* * *

Cogs had to excuse himself from accompanying Lavender to the lecture, explaining that Twilight had asked him to do other things as part of the favor he owed. He left early to rendezvous with the alicorn at the hotel room where she was staying. Although she had originally intended to fly home immediately after getting her book signed, she had decided to stay on rather than fly home at night. It also gave them the perfect place for Cogs to make the switch. He did not enter through the lobby, but rather through the open window of Twilight’s room.

“Ah, Cogs! Right on time, I see.”

Cogs noticed that she checked that off a list that she had made. He supposed that a very important and busy person like herself had to be very organised.

“Now, let’s hear what you came up with for your speech,” she prompted.

Cogs recited what he had composed, and Twilight wrote it down as he talked. When he was finished, she went over it with him and tweaked a few aspects of it before nodding in satisfaction.

“Yes, that will complement my lecture very nicely. I suggest that you rehearse it a couple of times so that you feel comfortable giving it in front of an audience. But first – let’s work out a new disguise for yourself.”

They settled on dark blue coat with a red mane, a pattern that did not seem to be similar to any pony that Cogs knew in the village. The cutie mark consisted of two masks, one happy and one sad. They also decided to make him a mare because for starters they were more common than stallions, but also to help disassociate the changeling from his usual stallion form. They debated changing his species also, but decided to leave ‘her’ as a pegasus because it helped explain how the changeling arrived without anyone noticing, and presumed to travel with Twilight.

Twilight had arranged to have a room adjoining the meeting hall made available for them to prepare, and they avoided the crowd by entering there instead of through the front door. This time though, it was not through an open window. Cogs was a little dazed by the abrupt transition as Twilight teleported them into the room directly from the nearby hotel.

“Wow! That’s really weird,” he commented in his mare voice.

“It’s a bit disconcerting at first, I know, but you’ll get used to it,” Twilight replied. “Besides, this way no pony will have any idea from which direction you came, so there won’t be any clue to your identity. Wait here while I check out how things are progressing out there.”

Twilight went out into hall outside where she surprised the mayor who had been waiting for her.

“Your Highness! How did you get inside?”

“My guest and I teleported in to avoid the crowds. Speaking of which, what is the turnout like?”

“The prospect of meeting you seems to have been a big drawcard; I've seldom seen such a crowd.”

“Then we should be ready to start on schedule?”

“Definitely. I can go out and make the introductions whenever you're ready.”

“Let's get started then. I'll bring out the guest and introduce you first.”

Twilight went back into the room and said to Cogs, “Are you ready?”

“As much as I will ever be.”

“Then it's show time. Let's go.”

Twilight led Cogs out into the hall. “Mayor Scrolls, this is my associate, Dual Face. She will be making a short presentation along with me.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Ms Dual Face,” the mayor replied, holding out a leg to shake hooves with Cogs.

“Likewise, Mayor Scrolls,” Cogs replied.

The mayor turned back to Twilight. “Your Highness, I had a thought. It would make a strong impression with the audience if you were to take the stage in the same manner as you arrived, and that's by teleporting in.”

“An excellent suggestion, Mayor. I've seen the stage, so I know where to go.”

“Wonderful! I'll start off the proceedings now.” The mayor trotted off to do exactly that.

“Must we?” Cogs whined, his stomach still a bit queasy from the last teleport.

“As the mayor said, it will make a strong impression, but there's also another good reason. There's going to be some ponies who would wonder if I'm a changeling impersonating Princess Twilight, but only an alicorn or a powerful unicorn can teleport. That ought to dispel most doubts.”

“Good point, except how many ponies know that changelings can't teleport?”

“Oh.” Twilight sighed. “I suppose I can't expect a perfect scenario. Come on, we had better get ready for our entrance.”

They stood outside the door to the entrance to the stage, and listened as the mayor quieted the crowd, and then made her preamble before announcing, “Now please welcome Princess Twilight Sparkle and her associate, Ms Dual Face.”

“And we're on!” Twilight announced before teleporting them onto the stage.

The crowd was indeed suitably impressed, and applauded their entry. Twilight waited for the cheers and hoof-stamping to die down before she started her speech.

“Mares and Gentlecolts, thank you for your warm welcome. I have asked you to come here tonight as part of my campaign to educate everypony about changelings and how they might affect you. First of all, I wish to assure you that aside from one rebel queen and her hive, it has been determined that changelings do not present a threat to Equestria or its citizens. In fact they have been coexisting with us peacefully for our entire history, and wish to continue doing so. To assure us of this fact, I have asked my associate to give you a short demonstration before I present you with my lecture on what we have learned about changelings. Dual Face, if you would be so kind?”

Cogs stepped forward, while Twilight remained to one side, smiling in reassurance. In a burst of green fire, Cogs reverted to his natural form. Gasps and shouts of amazement and concern came from the audience, and the audience burst out in loud comments to each other. He waited for them to calm and quiet down while he tested the emotional response, and was reassured that their curiosity had won over their concerns.

“Mares and Gentlecolts, my true name is Zevan, and when Princess Twilight asked me to show my true self and give a short speech to you, I must admit to being concerned. Up until recently, no pony had even heard of changelings except perhaps in vague legends, so when one changeling queen chose to betray our race and invade Canterlot, we were understandably concerned about the impression that was made. I have come here today to try to reassure you that the majority of changelings wish to continue living and working in peace beside and with ponies, just as they have done so for millennia. Our races have evolved side by side with each other, and because we need to feed on emotions, we have supported and even protected ponies over the centuries. We need you, so we do not wish harm to you. The madness of one power-hungry queen is an aberration that is not true of any other queen and her hive. I wish that I could reassure you that Chrysalis will never bother the citizens of Equestria again, but I cannot. However, it is extremely unlikely that you will ever encounter a changeling from her hive disguised as I just was because those of us who work outside of the hive know our true place in Equestrian society, and that's not as your enemies. Therefore I am pleading with all of you to believe me and don't let mistrust cause animosity between our species. If you suspect somepony you know to be a changeling, please give them the benefit of the doubt, or if you truly think that there is cause for genuine concern, please contact the Royal Guard who have a special task-force specifically trained to deal with changelings. Their Royal Highnesses, Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and Princess Twilight hope to maintain a cordial relationship between themselves and the hives so that we may all continue to live and work together in harmony. Thank you for giving me your attention.”

There was an outburst of conversation then, but one strong voice rose above it all to yell out, “You say you need us, but why would we need you. You sound like parasites to me.”

Zevan was surprised and stung by that question. “As I said, we need to feed on emotions to survive, but we vastly prefer strong positive emotions – love, admiration, respect and such. To get those in large amounts, we have always promoted situations that produce those strong positive emotions. A changeling may be a peacemaker, an orator, an entertainer, or simply your best friend. Changelings have moderated the more negative elements in not just pony society, but also griffins and other species. A good changeling contributes much to society in return for the emotional harvest, and we are both better off for it.”

“Thank you, Zevan,” Twilight said, heading off further comments. “I will now be presenting my lecture on what I have learned of changelings and their society. If after that you have any questions, both Zevan and I will try to answer them for you. Please bear in mind that this is still a work in progress though, and not everything can be answered at this time.”

Twilight was allowed to give her lecture without interruption, and Zevan was impressed by the depth of the knowledge that she had already acquired. He also noted that she was wise enough to not go into unnecessary detail so that she would not bore her audience. He watched the audience as she spoke, and monitored their mood. He was pleased to sense that it had shifted in favor of the positive, although he dared not hope for one hundred percent approval.

Suddenly as he scanned the crowd, his eyes locked with Lavender’s. The mare was surprised and a bit disconcerted for some reason that she could not fathom, and she tore her gaze from his. Zevan was upset by her reaction to him in his natural form, and sincerely hoped that it would never happen again.

The lecture concluded with a question and answer period that proved to be harmless in comparison to the earlier pointed question. Naturally most were concerned with Chrysalis and her hive, but they reassured the audience as best they could. As they pointed out, Equestria had other enemies and preparations were always in place to deal with them. Now that the changelings were discovered, similar preparations were being put into place. In other words, everything was normal, and for ponies, that was always for the best.

As soon as Twilight and Zevan had retreated to the preparation room, he resumed his Cogs form with a sigh of relief. “It's good to be me again,” he said emphatically.

“So your natural form is not you?” Twilight asked with amusement.

“It hasn't been for a very long time. I may have been born a changeling, but I am a pegasus at heart, and that’'s the way I am going to remain as much as possible.”

“I hoped that you might consider accompanying me to other towns so that we can give the same presentation as we did tonight. I thought that it went very well.”

“I suppose it did, but I don’t really want to spend that much time away from my wife and work. I will if you ask me to though.”

“Don’t worry – the engagements would be scattered, not a continuous tour.”

“Then it would be my humble duty to do as you ask.”

“Thanks, Cogs. I'll let you know when I will need you again. Now I suppose I had better get you back to Lavender.” She teleported them outside the meeting hall, but behind some trees so that the exiting ponies did not notice them. Cogs then made his way to the doorway and waited until Lavender came out.

“There you are!” he exclaimed and gave her a hug. “It was so crowded in there that I could hardly move, let alone find you. What did you think of the changeling?”

“Strangely fascinating, actually. Something about it both intrigued and bothered me, but I suppose that's why Princess Twilight is doing these talks. Changelings are obviously going to cause mixed emotions in ponies, so they need to be reassured.”

“I agree, and let your husband reassure you now that you will never need to worry about them.”

“What? You’re going to protect me from Chrysalis’ minions? I’m probably stronger than you after years of hard manual work.”

“Then you can protect me,” Cogs said with a grin.

Lavender laughed. “I'm certainly going to do something with my husband, now that my horn is healed,” she promised.

Cogs’ grin grew wider in anticipation.

* * *

Cogs was surprised to find Twilight waiting for him as he left for work the next morning. She walked with him on his way, gathering a few curious stares.

“I just wanted to thank you again for your help last night, and pass on to you this letter of introduction. If you need to contact me formally, this will cut through a lot of red tape.” She levitated an envelope to him, and he placed it in his tool saddle pouch. “Hopefully you won’t need it. Besides, most of the time I will still be living in my home in Ponyville, and there you won't have to do much besides knock on my door and ask my assistant Spike to see me.”

“I can't see myself needing it either, but thanks anyway.”

“I also thought that you might like to know that I got a visit from Healing Hooves last night.”

“Oh? Why was that?” Cogs answered noncommittally.

“I think you know already. She thanked me personally for healing Lavender. Apparently she has a strong emotional bond with her. Then she revealed that she too is a changeling.”

“Huh! How about that? I would have bet that she'd keep that secret.”

“She swore an oath of loyalty to Equestria in front of me, and then took her leave.”

“Short and to the point – that's Healing Hooves alright. That reminds me of something that I thought of last night that I wanted to ask you about.”

“Oh? What was that?”

“Well… Lavender wants a foal and… well – you know.”

Twilight stopped and looked at him intently. “You want to know if there's some kind of spell to make you fertile with her?”

“Yeah, that would be great. I know that they exist because of creatures like the hippogriffs who are the child of a griffin and a pony.”

“Yes, such spells do exist, but that doesn't mean that one does for you.”

Cogs was enormously disappointed. “Why not?”

“For starters, compatibility spells, as they are known, are exceedingly complex and difficult. Each has to be crafted specifically for each pairing of species. For example, a compatibility spell between a pony and a griffin is vastly different from that of say a pony and a dragon. However both do exist, but that is because the need came up long ago, and the research and testing of the spells has been completed. Here's the big problem though – your species wasn't even thought to be real until recently, and knowledge of your biology is sketchy at best so far, although much is currently being done to add to that knowledge. However, it will be years before sufficient is known to even begin crafting a compatibility spell.”

Cogs looked crestfallen. “So it could be ages before a spell would be available?”

“It's worse than that, Cogs. You changeling drones are naturally infertile. I'm not sure how that problem can be overcome. I'm not saying that it can't be – the fact that your nymphs can be fed a special food to make them develop into a new fertile queen or male indicates one possibility. It's just that it's going to be a long and difficult task, and not one with a terribly high priority either.”

“Then because Lavender really wants a foal of her own rather than adopting, I suppose it's either a stud service, or my last resort, and I don't think she's going to agree to the stud service either.”

“Your last resort is the Loving Deceit, I take it?”

“You know about that?”

“The subject came up one time when talking with my Ponyville changeling friend.”

“Then you think that I should do it?”

Twilight looked at him hard. “Would you do anything to make your wife happy?”

“Absolutely!” Cogs declared.

“It's not my business to tell you, but I think you have your answer right there. If you can't tell her why you can't have foals, then you must give her them one way or another. You can't sit on the fence for this one because you know she will be unhappy and confused.”

Cogs nodded. “You’re probably right. Hopefully I will see when the time is right.”

Twilight put a reassuring hoof on his shoulder. “Sometimes there aren't any perfect answers, Cogs. Sometimes you just have to go with the best option and try to make it work. I promise I will look into doing something for you though. You never know what surprises may pop up.”

“Thanks, Twilight. You really are a Princess, alicorn or not.”

Twilight blushed a little. “You're welcome, Cogs. It's good to have made another friend.”

“And friendship is magic, right?” Cogs replied.

“The best kind!” Twilight agreed. “Farewell, friend!”

With that, Twilight launched herself into the sky to start her journey home.

She still needs a few more flying lessons,’ he decided critically before resuming his trot to work.

* * *

Chapter 10: Foals

Twilight only called on Cogs twice more to perform his speech because as word got around about her efforts to alleviate fears about changelings, she readily got local volunteers. That suited everypony, so Twilight called that favor completed. Nevertheless those were two occasions when Cogs had to leave Whitetail Meadows and Lavender behind, both of which he hated to do. Worse yet was trying to explain to Lavender why he had to do so. In the end he decided he could not lie to her, but instead hid behind an excuse.

“The nature of my favor to the Princess is a secret. Please don't ask me what it is,” he had told her, the implication being that it was Twilight’s business that was secret rather than his.

“We both owe her very much. I suppose I can't begrudge her that,” Lavender had replied.

Lavender’s easy acceptance of that excuse was both a relief and a source of sadness to him. The misdirection was still a deception, and that was one more than he had ever intended to perpetrate on her. He resolved that he would never again do so. That resolve was sorely tested weeks later when Lavender came into season once more. If only she had not said those reassuring words…

“If you're not ready for a foal as yet, I'll understand.”

Indecision drove Cogs crazy. He knew that she wanted a foal. By Celestia, he wanted one too! But the Loving Deception was still a deception, and he could not convince himself that she would want a foal that way. In the end, he let the opportunity pass, and cursed himself for days afterwards as her obvious sadness tainted their relationship. He reminded himself of his marriage vow to make her happy, and he knew that he could not let the next opportunity pass.

Aside from the favor and the missed opportunity though, life progressed fairly normally. Cogs’ workload continued to grow, so he was spending less time helping Moonlit Haze and Set Square with theirs, but it earned him a raise for the more professional work. He put most of that into Lavender’s business, enabling her to import more merchandise from elsewhere. With the onset of winter, that became a very valuable boost to the trade that normally dipped at that time of year.

As Lavender unloaded a delivery of flowers from the Ponyville hothouses that had arrived on the train that morning, she said to Cogs, “Normally at this time of year, because Winter has stopped all the wildflowers from blooming, I could not replenish my normal stock, and buying it in stretched my finances very thin. That’s why I could never afford to pay for maintenance. Now we have a financial buffer, and we should make it through very comfortably. Hearth’s Warming is going to be especially wonderful this year!”

For once Cogs was not caught out with an unfamiliar event – after all, they had celebrated it in Cloudsdale also. Nevertheless, he suspected there might be differences. “What are your plans for Hearth’s Warming? I’m curious to know if they are different from the way pegasi celebrate it.”

“I doubt that it will be that different. There will be the village play, of course, but mostly it will be time spent with family… Oh. You won't be able to have family with you then, will you?”

“What are you saying, Love? I have you, your parents and siblings, and even the Square Deal herd are like family to me. Don't be sad for me, because I have most of my closest family right here every day.”

Lavender nuzzled Cogs. “That’s one reason that I love you – you've always looked on the positive side of things.”

“I learned from you that even the worst situations can be overcome, so what is there not to be positive about?”

“You're right. One day I’m sure you’ll be able to have your brothers and sisters visit you again.”

Cogs wished that was true.

* * *

As Cogs settled into bed with Lavender on the evening of Hearth’s Warming, he felt ready to burst with all the food that he had consumed that day. Combined with the plethora of joy and love that he had fed upon, he wondered if he was even going to need to eat for a week. He embraced his wife and nuzzled her, and she had giggled sleepily, having eaten almost as much as he had. Chrysalis was an idiot, he reflected. She could have had all this too, but gave it up in a quest for meaningless power. He was the far richer for his simpler life.

* * *

There was a sense of renewed life in the air. The weather pegasi had brought in warm fronts and the snow was melting. Ponyville had completed their winter wrap-up already, but Whitetail Meadows did not have the earth pony population to emulate that. Nevertheless Spring was definitely in the air, and with it came the first wildflower harvest.

“But there's still snow everywhere!” Cogs had protested.

“Frost Mare’s Tears push up their blooms through the snow,” Lavender explained. “They're always the first flowers to bloom, and only available for about a week. I've always made a point of harvesting some of those. If I time it right, I can get one or two other types of early blooming bulbs. They all fetch a good price.”

“And you go out in the snow and slush to harvest them? That can't be fun.”

Lavender grimaced. “No, it's not, but that's part of the job. And of course now that my magic is partially back, it won't be quite as hard as it has been in years past.”

“So, does that mean you don’t need my help?”

“Need you? Honey, I will always want you with me, you know that, but you also know that I've done this by myself several times before. If you don't want to go out in these conditions, I won't blame you.”

“I didn't say that! Of course I'll go with you. I think I might invest in some boots though.”

Lavender smiled. “That's my smart stallion!”

The next day, Cogs wondered just how smart he supposedly was as they struggled to get the cart unbogged from the softening ground. It was just as cold and slushy as he had feared.

“Is it always this bad?” he panted.

“Not usually. It seems much worse than previous occasions,” Lavender admitted.

“At least my hooves are still dry,” Cogs grumbled.

They were both quite tired by the time they reached the area where the Frost Mare’s Tears grew, and they decided to take a break. Cogs poured out some hot cocoa from a thermos flask for both of them. As they sipped the welcome warmth of the chocolate drink, Cogs looked around at the scenery more closely. He frowned as he realized something.

“Isn't that the Everfree Forest over there?”

“Yes it is,” Lavender confirmed.

“Aren't we awfully close to it?”

“I've never had a problem. We won't actually be going into the Everfree to do our harvesting.”

“I should hope not!” Cogs responded vehemently.

Lavender’s predictions on the flowers proved correct. They were kept busy for hours harvesting and packing three kinds of snow-blooming flowers, and Cogs had to grudgingly admit that it was going to be well worth the extra effort.

They had packed up for the day a little earlier than they normally would. Considering the trouble that they’d had getting there, they allowed themselves extra time to retrace their course. Lavender had just finished getting into her harness with Cogs’ help speeding up the process, when a couple of loud growls caused her to snap her head around to look at the source. Then she screamed in terror.

Cogs turned around and faced a fearful sight. Two timber wolves were advancing upon them! His first instinct was to take flight out of their reach, but he immediately realized that Lavender could not follow suit. Worse yet, the harness would prevent him from trying to carry her off to safety with him. Even as he looked around desperately for some kind of weapon to fend off the creatures, he knew it was hopeless. As Lavender started struggling with her harness, he knew that she would never get it off in time. There was just one alternative left.

Cogs leaped between Lavender and the timber wolves, and his form was briefly engulfed in green fire, startling the wolves. Moments later, they faced a huge manticore that advanced on them with great menace. They snarled and backed away, aware that not even two timber wolves were a match for an angry manticore. The beast made as if to lunge at them, and they turned tail, streaking off in the direction of the Everfree Forest. Cogs watched them carefully until they disappeared within its depths before turning back to face his wife.

Lavender watched him with wide eyes and gaping mouth as he resumed his normal pegasus form. Cogs tried to think of what to say, but struggled to come up with anything reassuring. “Are you okay?” he asked.

Lavender slowly nodded mutely.

Cogs went to put a reassuring foreleg around her, but she flinched back. He was devastated by that reaction. “Lavender, it’s still me. Your husband. The stallion who loves you.”

“You… you're…” she started trying to say.

“I'm a changeling,” he admitted. “I have always been a changeling. The pony with whom you fell in love is a deception that became a reality. But Lavender, I am now what you see before you – a pegasus in all but birth.”

“Why? Why didn't you ever tell me?!” she yelled at him.

“Because I was afraid. Because I never wanted to ever see what I am seeing right now – the love of my life fearful and angry because of what I am. Because... I don’t think I could possibly live without you any more.”

She stared at him as he began to weep uncontrollably. Tentatively she reached out and touched him on the shoulder. He felt the same as he always did, except he was trembling from anxiety. Then she realized something. “That changeling with Twilight – that was you, wasn't it?”

Cogs nodded.

“I thought that there was something very familiar about it. That has been puzzling me ever since, but now I understand why.”

“How could you have known anything?” Cogs asked, confused but glad that Lavender was not freaking out. She was clearly far more angry than frightened.

“The changeling’s crest was the same color as your mane, and it… you… were favoring your right wing despite it being recently healed. But it's when you gazed into my eyes that I realized that somehow I knew you. And of course you weren't there beside me either.”

“You already suspected me?” he asked wonderingly.

“Well, just a tiny bit. I thought I knew better,” she added angrily.

“Then you're not going to turn me away now that you know?” Cogs asked hopefully.

“My husband may be an utter idiot for not telling me the truth, but I know he loves me. And Celestia help me, I'm hopelessly in love with him too!”

With a cry of joy, Cogs flung his forelegs around Lavender and hugged her tightly, Their lips met and they kissed ardently for a lengthy time.

When they finally parted though, Lavender punched him hard on the shoulder and said, “I'm still angry with you though, and we have much to discuss.”

Cogs rubbed the severely abused shoulder. Lavender certainly had not pulled that punch. “I agree, but we have the entire trip home to get started on that conversation and tell me how many ways I've been a fool. However may I suggest that we start on our way before those timber wolves come back with friends?”

“Good idea,” she replied, putting words into action. “Although couldn't you just turn into something even bigger?”

“My love, it was all illusion. I was no bigger nor stronger than I normally am. If those wolves had attacked that manticore, they would have been able to defeat me easily. Also, the bigger the illusion, the harder it is to hold, and the shorter the time it lasts.”

“But you stay looking like a pegasus all the time?”

“That's because it’s a same-size transformation. It's more sophisticated and lasts until I choose to change, but it's limited to my real size and mass.”

“So, if this cart gets bogged again, you won’t be able to turn into an ox and haul it out?”

Cogs laughed. “Only the weakest ox in Equestria. Look down. See my boots?”

Lavender could see his boots over his hooves just as they had been all day. “Yes. So?”

“If I had really become as big as that manticore, I would have burst out of these boots. I'm afraid you’re stuck with little ol' me helping you.”

There were a few times that both of them wished that was not true before they got the cart back onto a firm road. Their exertions left little time for more conversation until they were headed westwards back to their home, and even then there was stony silence from the mare for a long time. Cogs wisely said nothing until eventually Lavender brought up her biggest sore point.

“I suppose that's why I've not become pregnant yet – changelings and ponies can’t have foals?”

“Twilight told me that there isn't a compatibility spell for us, so I'm afraid that's true, or at least mostly so,” Cogs admitted, relieved to have the subject out in the open.

“Mostly? How so?”

Cogs explained about the Loving Deception and what it would entail.

Lavender looked thoughtful. “So, although the semen would come from a donor, you would still be the one siring the foal in me?”

“Well, technically speaking, I suppose I'd still be the sire.”

“And you genuinely want to be father to a foal?”

“Foals, and yes.”

“So you would be sire and father, but not related by blood. Two out of three is good enough for me.” She stopped the cart and poked a hoof in Cogs chest. “But I get to pick the donor, understand? Not just any pegasus stallion is going to be good enough for our foal!”

Cogs happily agreed.

* * *

They began their research the next day. Because Whitetail Meadows was predominantly a unicorn village, that immediately whittled down the options considerably. They wanted a pegasus stallion to match Cogs’ apparent type, but only a few pegasus families called the village home, and of them, only a few of the stallions in those families were eligible. Fortunately Celestia smiled upon them and they found one perfect candidate. Silver Heartbreaker was young, healthy, attractive, intelligent and hard-working. He also thought he was Celestia’s gift to single mares and a devout bachelor. They would not be causing any potential rifts in any relationships, because there were none to be affected.

They were just days away from Lavender going into season again and putting their plans into action, when things took an unexpected turn in the form of a telegram. Lavender waved it about excitedly when Cogs got home from work. “This arrived early this morning,” she said as she passed it to Cogs.


Cogs was surprised. This was not like the times when she had called in her favor, although she signed it officially like previously. He could only surmise that it had to do with changeling business that she could not openly mention. He said as much to Lavender.

“If it isn't another speaking engagement, what else could it be? What other subjects did you discuss?” she asked.

“Only a couple. She asked about other changelings, and answered my questions about making us compatible.”

Lavender got excited. “I can't see her coming to give us exciting news about other changelings, but a way to have foals – that would be marvelous!”

“Please, darling, don't get your hopes up too much. She was quite emphatic about the difficulty of making a compatibility spell and how long it would take.”

“Then what else could it be?”

“I don't have an answer for that, but as she said that she’d be visiting this evening, I suppose we won't have too long to find out.”

They debated postponing dinner until Twilight arrived, but decided that she was more likely to time her arrival after their normal dinner time. This proved to be correct as a knock on their door came as they were finishing cleaning up after the meal. Cogs answered the door to find the alicorn dressed in a hooded cloak to disguise the nature of their visitor. He silently gestured for her to enter, and closed the door behind her.

Twilight pushed back her hood and smiled at them. “It's good to see you both again. How is your horn coming along, Lavender?”

“Very well, your Highness. I practice the lessons from my foalhood to strengthen it. I suspect that because I already have a teenager’s familiarity of its function, I will get more use out of it sooner than I did as a young filly.”

“That's excellent news, but please just call me Twilight. I'm not visiting you personally on royal business. That’s entirely with your husband, and I must beg to have a private discussion with him.”

Cogs interjected, “It's alright, Twilight – she knows everything.”

Twilight looked at him with surprised pleasure. “You told her…?”

“That I'm a changeling, yes. Or more precisely, I gave her a graphic demonstration.”

“And then I nearly bit his head off because I was so mad at him,” Lavender added.

Twilight shrugged. “Not quite the reaction that I imagined, but I did predict that it would not break you two apart. I had good vibes from both of you. Nevertheless this will make things a lot easier. Did he tell you about the Loving Deceit?”

“Yes, and in fact we are very close to using it. I will come into season again soon. I was hoping though that you had found a suitable compatibility spell though when you said that you had exciting news.”

“Oh, I'm sorry, Lavender, but no. I did not exaggerate the problems associated with that, nor how long it might take.”

Lavender looked a little crestfallen. “It's okay – Cogs did try to tell me not to get my hopes up.”

Twilight continued with a sly smile. “However, it occurred to me that I was looking at the problem the wrong way.”

“What do you mean?” Cogs asked in puzzlement.

“You're not looking for fertility – that's provided by the donor sperm. What you are after is a biological link – something that will make the foal a true child of you both. That is an entirely different problem, and one that could be far more easily solved.”

“How?” Cogs and Lavender chorused.

“Ironically it still involves a compatibility spell.”

“But you said that it had to be crafted to specifically match each species,” Cogs pointed out.

“If you want to make the couple totally and permanently inter-fertile, yes. However, all such compatibility spells have a common base, and that base is all that I need to make an aspect emulation spell. In the simplest terms, what it does is take some aspect of your biology and impress it on the donor sperm. It could be any compatible trait such as eye color or mane pattern, or simply increase the likelihood of being male. You may or may not ever know what it is, but I guarantee you that some aspect of Cogs will be part of any foal that he sires.”

Cogs looked at Lavender to see her reaction, but he need not have bothered.

“Yes!” Lavender cried out and started pronking about the room. “Yes, yes, yes!”

Cogs grinned and said, “I’d say that’s an acceptable alternative.”

“I do get that impression,” Twilight replied with a matching grin.

“So what does it involve?”

“It's a two-step process. Firstly, I need you to drink this potion.” Twilight levitated a small vial out of her saddle pouch. “I guarantee you'll hate the taste, but it's an essential part of the process.”

Cogs unstoppered the vial and swigged the contents as quickly as possible. He discovered that Twilight had not exaggerated about the taste, and nearly gagged on it. He managed to keep it all down though. “So what happens next?”

“Wait for it.”

“Wait for wha-omigods!” Cogs felt as if he was being zapped by a stray lightning bolt that kept going for several seconds. It did not exactly hurt, but it was not pleasant either, maybe something like an extreme case of pins and needles. Fortunately the sensation died away completely, although the memory of it lingered on.

“Please tell me that I won't have to do that again,” Cogs pleaded.

“Sorry about that, but the worst part is over. Now I just need a small amount of your blood and hair.” She brought out what looked like a bracelet. One section had a disc with a lid that hinged open, revealing a small cavity within. She then levitated a pair of scissors and snipped a tiny length of his mane which she then put into the cavity. Then she held up a thick needle. “I’m going to prick your ear for the blood, okay?”

“If you say so,” Cogs agreed.

He flinched as the needle jabbed him in the furless inner portion of his right ear, and Twilight guided a couple of drops of his blood into the cavity with the hair. She then closed the lid, and a spark from her horn sealed it permanently.

“That's step one complete. The potion infused with your every cell and now retains every aspect of your nature. Next, I need to activate the modified compatibility base spell to act as a vehicle to transfer some of that aspect to the donor sperm. Pardon me while I concentrate on the incantation.”

Both Cogs and Lavender were curious about what words were in the incantation, but they were very quickly confused. Although the words had some degree of familiarity, and it was obvious that there was some form of rhyme to it, they had no clue as to what exactly the alicorn was chanting. They did note though that as the incantation progressed, her horn grew brighter and brighter, and then suddenly she leaned forward to touch the tip to the bracelet. They expected to see some sort of dazzling effect, but it was as if the bracelet simply drank up all the magical energy, and the glow ceased.

“Phew!” Twilight said with relief. “That went well, but it's a lot of effort. Makes me wonder what a full compatibility spell would be like to cast. Anyway, the job's done, and this amulet is ready to do its work.”

“What in the world were you chanting though?” Cogs asked.

“I told you that the first compatibility spells go back a long way. We're talking millennia here, and that was back in the days when they spoke the ancient Equestrian language. The only way you can cast those spells is to know and use the original language.”

“So that’s why it sounded familiar but I couldn't understand it.”

“That’s right. It also prevents incompetent amateurs from trying it on their own. Nasty things can happen if you screw up those spells. Believe me, I tested them for weeks before I was confident that my variant was safe. Otherwise I would have contacted you much sooner.”

“And we're very grateful for that. So, what do I do with the amulet? Wear it on my hoof when we make love?”

“Around your dock, actually. Much closer to the scene of the action, if you know what I mean.”

“Um, yeah,” Cogs answered with a tinge of embarrassment. “Do I need to do anything to activate it?”

“No. Making love will activate the amulet by itself. At the moment of impregnating Lavender, the amulet will impress some aspect of you on the semen. Like natural fertilization, the combination is random, so you won’t be able to influence it in any way. Without the amulet, only the donor’s traits will be passed on.”

“Will we need to do all this again when we want another foal?”

“No, it should be good for several activations – a lot more than you'll ever likely need.”

“Then there's nothing more to say than that you have our deepest gratitude. Once again you have made our lives so much better, and we can never hope to repay you.”

Twilight waved a hoof airily. “Don’t worry about it, please. It was a fascinating research project, and it added a large chapter to the body of knowledge that I have been accumulating on changelings. Who knows? You may just be the first of many changeling-pony couples who want a foal like that.”

Lavender said, “Then if we can't thank you that way, how about a piece of hot cherry pie with whipped cream? I made one up as soon as I learned that you were coming.”

Twilight grinned widely. “Now that’s the kind of thanks that I'll readily accept!”

The three of them enjoyed generous helpings of cherry pie and pleasant conversation before Twilight announced that she had to go.

“Spike will start to worry if I don't get home soon,” she explained as they escorted her to the door.

“It's quite a long way to fly at night,” Cogs agreed as he allowed Twilight to exit and then followed her outside.

“Oh, I won't be flying all the way. Princess Celestia used to teleport to Ponyville from Canterlot occasionally, and since becoming an alicorn, I've been able to extend my range also. I'll be home in no time. Goodnight. Let me know when the foal is born!”

Twilight launched herself into the air, beating her wings powerfully until she was above the rooftops, and then with a flash of magic, she was gone.

“I hope nobody noticed that,” Cogs said. “She completely forgot about her cloak!”

* * *

“You’re having far too much fun with this,” Cogs griped.

Lavender giggled. “Oh, come on, darling! How often does a wife get to pretty up her husband like this?” she said as she brushed his/her long golden mane.

The day had arrived that Lavender was in season, and so their plans had swung into action. Lavender had insisted on having the final say in what Cogs’ female alter ego looked like, and the result was a pink-coated earth pony mare with an exceptionally long golden mane and tail which Lavender was currently brushing and braiding with ribbons to hold the braids artistically in place. Cogs was already wearing a frilly blue blouse that Lavender never wore, even though it had been a gift from her mother. He felt utterly ridiculous. He knew why she was going to such lengths though. Part of it was a subtle punishment for deceiving her about his true nature, but he knew that another significant part was because she was bothered about him going to have a liaison with another pony. True, it was with a stallion, and it was going to be an utterly meaningless one relationship-wise, but it still annoyed her, so she was dealing with it as best as she could through humor. She was getting a kick out of this!

Lavender stepped back to admire her handiwork. “There! Now you look irresistible!”

“That was never going to be a problem with Silver Heartbreaker,” Cogs pointed out.

“Nonsense! A mare should always look her best when she's on the prowl for a stallion,” she replied with cheerful certainty.

“I don't want to attract half the bar’s patrons though!”

“Don't worry, I'm sure that their marefriends will hold most of them back,” she replied mischievously. “Now come have a look at yourself in the mirror.”

Cogs stepped over to the mirror and looked at himself… or herself more accurately at the moment. Cogs had to admit that Lavender had done a better job than he could have by himself. “Damn, I look good!”

“Of course you do, and a lady doesn't say ‘damn’.”

“So good, I think I’ll have to elope with myself.”

“Ooh! You’re going to pay for that one, smartie!”

Cogs grinned, then he noticed the time. “Oops! I had better get going if I'm to get to the bar on time.”

Lavender stepped up to give him a kiss on the cheek. “Good luck, hon, but don't enjoy yourself too much!”

“Believe me, any enjoyment will be entirely feigned. I was never the kind of changeling who did this kind of thing to harvest emotions, and I'm only doing this for you.”

“For us,” she corrected.

“For us. Love you, darling!”

Lavender opened the back door to check to see if anypony was in sight, both on the ground and in the air. Spotting no ponies, she gave Cogs the go-ahead. He slipped out quietly and took a circuitous and inconspicuous route to the bar that was Silver Heartbreaker’s regular watering hole. The stallion was a creature of habit, stopping by every day after work at the same time. Cogs intended to be there when he arrived because smooth-talking Silver was likely to have a mare or two hanging off him within minutes otherwise, and Cogs did not intend to have any competition tonight. That was why he had tolerated Lavender prettying him up further. He wanted to seize the stallion’s full attention tonight, and no other mare was going to interfere with his mission. He had a wife to please!

They had settled on Cogs being an earth pony for a couple of reasons. Firstly, his cover story would be that ‘she’ was travelling to Canterlot by train and was stopping overnight at Whitetail Meadows’ only hotel. A pegasus would not need a train, so that was out. And because this was a unicorn predominant village, an earth pony was a little more unusual, and thus a bit more exotic than the regular crowd. Besides, Cogs was not terribly good at horn magic.

Cogs entered the bar, and judging by the reactions of the stallions there, ‘she’ was creating the intended impression. He made his way to the bar, deliberately leaving a large space between himself and the nearest pony, subtly signalling that attention was not desired. Of course his quarry was not the subtle sort, so the gap was an open invitation. Cogs ordered a drink and waited.

A minute later, right on time, Silver Heartbreaker entered the bar. He scanned the room and immediately latched onto the sight of the attractive female stranger. ‘Fresh blood!’ he exulted to himself, and made his move.

“Why, hello there, pretty filly. You’re new in town, I believe?” Silver began.

Cogs knew exactly what Silver wanted, and how he normally went about it. He had no intention of letting the self-centered pegasus spin his usual flattery and lies. He was there for just one reason, and he had no time for games. “Yes, I’m on my way to Canterlot, and find myself alone for the night while I'm here overnight. Do you know where a lonely mare can find a little… comfort… tonight?”

Silver Heartbreaker could hardly believe his luck. A fresh mare who was both gorgeous and horny, ready to practically leap into bed with him!

“I believe I can help you out with that, my dear. Silver Heartbreaker at your service. And what would your name be, may I ask?”

“Call me Mystery Mare,” Cogs replied.

Silver was intrigued. “A mare of mystery? I like that. Can I try to fathom your secrets?”

“I was hoping you would ask.”

Silver took Cogs to his home that was located not too far from the bar. Fortunately Cogs did not have to make too much clever small talk along the way because the pegasus practically dominated the conversation. The stallion had pretty much a one-track mind when it came to mares, and Cogs struggled not to roll his eyes or yawn with boredom. Silver had already decided that the mare was an easy lay, and did not bother with any subtlety. That suited Cogs completely. He was there for just one reason, and whatever it took to do the job and be done with it was fine with him. Although he had learned a lot about love-making from Lavender, there was no love involved in his time spent in bed with Silver, and lust was pretty much empty calories to a changeling. Silver got what he wanted, and Cogs what he needed – a fair exchange.

Cogs took his leave of Silver as soon as possible, but he did have some parting words for the stallion.

“Farewell, silver lover! Until next I pass through your world.” Cogs then kissed him on the cheek and left. There was no real feeling in it of course, but he would probably need the randy stallion again if Lavender wanted another foal, and it was best to leave the door ajar for the next occasion.

Cogs headed in the general direction of the hotel once he left Silver’s home, just in case he was observed. At the earliest opportunity though, he slipped into an alley shadowed from the moon, and reverted to his normal pegasus form. He took off the blouse and the ribbons in his tail. The ones in his long mane had fallen out once it had reverted to its normal shortness, so he didn't have to worry about those. He once again made an inconspicuous trip back home.

Lavender threw her forelegs around Cogs’ neck and embraced him the moment he stepped inside their home. Despite her upbeat mood earlier, she had still been concerned that the plan would somehow go wrong. She was hugely relieved when he smiled lovingly and said, “Mission accomplished”.

Lavender kissed him long and ardently before she said, “Shall we complete the Loving Deceit then?”

“No,” Cogs replied.

“No?” Lavender was perplexed by that answer.

“There's no deceit left, only love,” he explained as he gently led her to their bedroom.

“Only love,” she agreed and gave herself to him completely.

* * *

Life – such a precious thing, and a gift that Cogs had never dreamed of being able to give. He gazed wonderingly at his wife’s gravid form while gently massaging her swollen belly.

“Ooh! That feels so good,” Lavender murmured.

“So you don't want me to stop?” he asked, holding his hooves back teasingly.

Lavender put her hooves together and gave him her best puppy-dog eyes. “More belly rubs, please?”

Cogs grinned and complied, eager to please her, but to also feel the new life growing within her. A changeling was going to be a father – was there a more amazing sight in all of Equestria?

* * *

The new parents gazed adoringly at the tiny pegasus foal in her crib as she gurgled and waved her diminutive hooves.

“What are you going to name her?” Cogs asked.

“I was thinking of letting you name her,” Lavender replied.

“Me? I've never named anything besides myself in my whole life. Even Mystery Mare was your idea.”

“You've never been a father before either, but here's your daughter. So, any ideas?”

Cogs looked thoughtful. He considered the foal’s buttery yellow coat and her tiny mauve mane so much like her mother’s. “How about Dandelion Dreams?”

“That's pretty, but don't you want some part of her name to reflect her sire?”

“She's a pegasus and she has my green eyes – I think that's enough for me. I believe she needs a name that honors her mother.”

“Thank you, darling. Dandelion Dreams it is then.” Lavender stroked the foal’s mane lovingly. “Little one, you’re going to have an unusual father, but no more dedicated one will you find in the village. Welcome to the family.”

* * *

Chapter 11: Epilogues

To be totally honest, perhaps Cogs was not the best father the village had ever seen, but considering that he had been born a changeling and raised in a hive, thus having exactly zero prior experience with it and no natural instincts either, he managed very well. What he lacked there, he more than made up for with determination, dedication, and considerable love. Lavender patiently coached him in the finer points of pony parenting, and he was a fast learner. In fact he got perilously close to spoiling the child until Lavender reined him in. After a year and a half, she decided that he had learned enough, and it was time to have another foal.

Mystery Mare thus made a return, and Silver Heartbreaker was once again the unwitting donor, not having changed his ways in that time. In due course, they had another daughter, but a unicorn this time. She even had a coat color resembling her mother’s. However it was more than obvious what trait she had inherited from her father because her mane was an exact match for Cogs’ blue and green one. They had a much longer debate over what to name her than with Dandelion, but eventually they settled on calling her Sky Fern.

The birth of Sky Fern was slightly marred by an announcement from Healing Hooves. As with Dandelion, she had been the midwife for the birth. While Lavender was resting from her labor, the healer had taken Cogs aside for a private talk. She went straight to the point.

“Five nights ago, I woke up in my natural form,” she informed Cogs. “It happened again last night.”

Cogs looked startled. “You lost control of your shape-change overnight? But that only happens to the very elderly.”

Healing Hooves smiled crookedly. “I may have given you the impression that I am younger than I actually am. In fact I was fairly old before I even came to Whitetail Meadows. I chose this village because I wanted some place less hectic to spend my later years. Now it looks like my time has nearly come, and I will have to start making preparations for a successor.”

“Another changeling? Or a real pony this time?”

“A changeling. I've had an application for an internship with me by a recent graduate. I've received them before but I knocked them back. This time I will be accepting the applicant, and I want you to give them some help fitting in here.”

“Of course, but won't you be able to do most of that yourself?”

“I don't know how much more time I’ll have. Once automatic control of one’s alter-form starts happening, the loss of the ability to change can happen in as little as half a year, or several years. I need to plan for the worst.”

“I suppose you must. What are you going to tell Lavender though? When you return to the hive and never come back to the village, how do you think she will feel? In fact, how will you feel?”

Healing Hooves looked distant for a long moment before replying. “She has always been like a daughter to me, and it will tear me up to have to say goodbye with some of my last words being lies.”

“Then tell her the truth. You know that she was more angry with me than anything else for hiding my nature from her. She will be angry with you too for not having told her sooner, but she will also be more understanding of you having to leave. You know how smart she is, and the publicity that changelings have been getting over the past years has certainly skewed the perception of us a lot more in our favor lately.”

The healer turned her gaze towards the room where Lavender rested, considering his words. “I feel a strong resistance to the idea of revealing myself after all these years, but perhaps you are right. We are changelings, and it's in our nature to change, not stay static.”

Healing Hooves chose to wait until her new intern arrived before speaking to Lavender about the matter. She introduced Soothing Touch to Lavender and Cogs on a visit to their home to check up on the foal’s progress. The new healer had also taken a unicorn form, but that was very common for those who practiced medicine due to the number of healing spells that it facilitated. Then came the moment of truth.

“Lavender dear,” Healing Hooves began with an affectionate smile, “it’s time for me to tell you something that you deserved to know long ago. Your husband is not the only changeling in the village. I am also a changeling, and my real name is Hurax.” She stopped and waited for Lavender’s reaction to the news.

Lavender just smiled back. “Or perhaps I should call you Sun Shower?”

Healing Hooves merely arched her eyebrows in slight surprise. “When did you realize that?”

“Right after I learned that Cogs was a changeling, I started thinking about his ‘sister’ and how well we got along, and then I went back further and wondered how you could have missed that Cogs was not a real pegasus. Other little things started to add up, and I pretty much guessed that you might be a changeling. I figured though that you had the right to your secret. Who am I to question someone who has been like a second mother to me?”

“You flatter me, dear. A changeling’s alter ego is very difficult to discern for the average unicorn, and only if they're looking for it. Usually it takes a highly trained professional to notice any discrepancies, which is why Cogs never went to see one to get his wing fixed. Nevertheless I am proud of you once more. You continue to prove yourself an exceptionally perceptive mare, and I truly wish that I had been your real mother.”

Lavender stepped up to hug Healing Hooves. “I would be proud to have you as my mother, whether you are Hurax or Healing Hooves.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much, Lavender.” Tears glistened in the normally stoic healer’s eyes as she returned the hug fervently.

When they finally parted, Lavender said, “I presume Soothing Touch is a changeling also?”

Soothing Touch nodded. “My birth name is Xanis, but I've hardly used that name lately. Like Hurax, I have been devoted to a career in medicine and wish to spend my life with ponies. I am also very impressed with your relationship with Cogs, and I hope to talk to you about it sometime. I am attracted to the thought of having such a close relationship with a pony too, and I could use advice from both of you.”

“If you think we can help, I'd be delighted,” Lavender replied. “First piece of advice though – be truthful. Deception may be second nature to changelings, but it can be deadly for relationships.”

“Chrysalis’ actions have caused great changes in the past few years. I foresee a time when changelings become an accepted part of Equestrian society, and we won’t have to hide behind our alter egos if we do not wish to do so. It will be easier to be honest with a potential partner when that day comes.”

“It takes many small steps to make the big changes,” Lavender agreed. She then turned back to Healing Hooves. “So why have you finally decided to reveal your secret?”

“I am old, dear, and the signs are that my life is drawing to a close. Sometime in the not too distant future, I will be leaving for my hive and I won't be returning. As Cogs pointed out to me, I could not just leave you like that without you knowing why I could not come back.”

“My husband has learned some wisdom in the past years. So how long before you have to go?”

Healing Hooves shook her head. “Just as with ponies, it varies, so I can’t answer that accurately. It could be mere months, or some years. I did not wish to leave telling you until the last moment though.”

“Then we'll spend whatever time you have left together with us more. After all, you're both a second mother and a sister-in-law to me, so you’re doubly qualified as family.”

“Family – yes, I’d like that.”

Healing Hooves ended up spending at least one night a week as a guest of Cogs and Lavender. Thirteen months later, she said farewell for the last time. Cogs spent much of that evening consoling his wife.

* * *

The years passed and saw great changes, some personal, but others far-reaching. Lavender bore them a son they named Forest Breeze whom Cogs had sired with sperm from a surprising source. Whitetail Meadows grew from a quiet little village into a small town, and Soothing Touch was instrumental in establishing its first hospital. Work for Cogs grew to such a degree that Square Deal Renovations took him in as a business partner and appointed him as the manager of his own section. He needed help though, and got an apprentice – a young unicorn stallion named Steel Wrench. Set Square’s two oldest children had gone into the family business, so Cogs had not been needed there for a while.

Shock was felt throughout Equestria upon the appointment of the first undisguised changelings to the Royal Guard by Celestia and Luna, but the education programs that Twilight had set up had done their work, and soon the novelty and uncertainty both wore off, and changelings started appearing elsewhere in other roles throughout the towns and cities, emboldened by the actions of the Princesses who had shown such confidence in them.

Despite this, Cogs never revealed his true nature to any others. However, it was not because of fear any more, but because it was irrelevant. He was a pegasus, a husband, and a father, and that was all that mattered. He knew that he would have to tell his children some day, but he put that off for another time.

As his foals grew into teens, it became obvious that Dandelion not only loved her father a lot, but also very much liked doing the same kind of things as him, and so he decided that he would offer her the chance to be his next apprentice. He saved up that news for her fifteenth birthday party though. When that day came, they threw a party for her with the usual feast of fish that she loved, a cake, and lots of presents. Cogs left his offer until last.

“Dandelion, I've been very pleased with your school work, and also the aptitude that you've shown with mechanical stuff. If I'm not imagining things, I believe that you'd like to get into my line of work too. How would you like to be my new apprentice?”

Dandelion’s face lit up with joy. “Yes! I’d love that! I want to be just like you!”

Suddenly there was a flare of green fire, and Cogs was left facing a mirror image of himself.

Dandelion looked around at her now grey fur, screamed and fainted, reverting to her normal self when she did so.

Sky Fern excitedly exclaimed, “Can I do that too?!”

Cogs turned to Lavender who was just as stunned as him. She said, “Don't look at me – she’s obviously your daughter.”

“Oh boy,” was all Cogs could think of to say right then.

* * *

The story of Cogs and his family is continued in Growing Up Dandy. It picks up shortly after the birth of Dandelion, focusing on events in her life.


Twilight Sparkle, Equestria, and other My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic elements are © 2013 Hasbro.
Original characters and story copyright © 2013 Bernard Doove.
All art is © 2013 Kat Miller.

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