Conversations In A Canterlot Café
By Bernard Doove © 2014

This story was first presented on FiMFiction.net. It runs concurrently with the latter part of my "Change of Life" story, and the earlier part of my "Growing Up Dandy" story.



          Chapters


 

Chapter 1: Preconceptions

The True Brew Café might not be as big or as well-known as Donut Joe’s popular establishment, but as it was located on the opposite side of Canterlot City from its more famous competitor, the coffee and cake shop was still well patronised, and its barista, Frothy Brew, was more than a little proud of the family-owned business. His wife, Cherry Delight, baked all their cakes and pastries, and their daughter, Peach Delight, took care of all the other details while he created coffee concoctions that were second to none. It had taken a lot of years to build the business to its current success; made all the more difficult for having to raise a filly at the same time, but as she grew older, Peach learned how to run a business and more than made up for the time and effort. They were a well-oiled team now, and while the work was sometimes hard, it was nevertheless rewarding.

Right now though, business was quiet. The Monday lunchtime rush was well over, and the afternoon tea crowd was not due to start for a while. Frothy used this lull to catch up on the work that could not be done during the busy lunch period. Cups and mugs were washed and stacked for use, coffee beans were ground, and sugar, syrup, and whipped cream topped up. Peach had been sent out to replenish some supplies, so he had the shop to himself for the moment. He was stacking up another tray of cups when he heard the café’s door opening behind him.

“Can I get a coffee to go?” an unfamiliar voice asked.

“Certainly!” Frothy replied, turning to face the customer. “What can I-IEE!” He stumbled back, knocking over the tray, several cups falling to the floor and smashing on the tiles. He didn’t notice because his attention was riveted on the face of the changeling that stood on the other side of the counter; his eyes drawn to the long, vicious fangs and weird eyes staring back at him.

“Please, sir, stop panicking,” the changeling replied calmly. “I am not here to hurt you. I’m a member of the Royal Guard, Changeling Squad.”

Frothy’s heart was hammering in his chest, the words barely registering in his terrified mind. When nothing else happened though, he tore his eyes away from that frightening visage to take in the rest of his terrifying visitor. Standard Royal Guard armour adorning the changeling, plus a helmet held in the crook of one leg, reinforced the words that it had just said. Red insectile wings and crest distinguished it from the blue coloured ones that had invaded Canterlot years back. Then he recalled the announcement in the newspaper about Princess Celestia’s controversial appointment of a squad of undisguised changelings as official members of the Royal Guard. He had dismissed the idea as ludicrous – Canterlot’s populace still recalled that invasion all too clearly to be comfortable with them. True, they had been receiving a lot of support from many sectors after it had been revealed that only one hive had been responsible, but it was still too much for some ponies to accept.

“What… what do you want?” Frothy managed to ask, trying to force himself to calm down.

“As I said, sir, I would like some coffee – a large cappuccino to go, please.”

Frothy blinked in puzzlement. Coffee and changelings just did not seem to click together. Nevertheless he started making the brew, more by rote than anything else. “Sugar?”

“Three lumps, please.”

Frothy added the sugar to the espresso, dissolving it before steaming the milk and adding it to the coffee. His gaze kept nervously flicking in the direction of the waiting Guard, but the changeling did nothing more than patiently wait for his drink. He finished it off with a dusting of powdered chocolate and put it on the counter in front of his customer.

The changeling Guard hoofed over the money for the coffee and then picked it up telekinetically. “Thank you. Have a good day, citizen.”

Frothy silently nodded, and watched as the changeling exited the shop. He then sank to the floor, shaking from nerves. Peach found him still there when she came back with her shopping a short time later.

“Dad! What’s happened?” she asked with concern, putting a foreleg around him. She helped Frothy back onto his hooves, took him into the back room, and levitated a glass of cold water over from the sink.

“A changeling… a changeling came into the café,” he replied hoarsely.

“You mean that changeling Royal Guard that I saw walking away from the shop a minute ago? So he did have coffee. I wasn’t imagining it.”

“You saw it?” Frothy asked.

“More like glimpsed him. I was wondering when I’d see one. I’m sorry that he chose our café though – I know how you feel about them.”

“Don’t tell me you’re okay with them?” her father asked incredulously.

Peach sighed. “Dad, you have to let it go. I know it was a traumatic experience, but you can’t blame them all for the sins of one mad queen.”

“You would not be saying that if you had seen what I saw back then,” he accused.

“Maybe, but I like to think that I can consider them objectively because of that. And never forget that the Princess Celestia herself was injured by the changeling queen, and yet still regards changelings from other hives as being peaceful and law-abiding. Of all ponies, she could rightfully hold a grudge, but instead she’s embracing them as citizens of Equestria. You would do well to follow her example.”

“I’m not ready for that – not until I can forget that day completely.”

Peach sighed again. “That’s never going to work, Dad. Instead, why not try talking to them and finding out what they’re really like. You might be pleasantly surprised.”

Frothy Brew glared at his daughter. “You’ve been talking to them already, haven’t you?” he accused.

“Only one,” she admitted, “a violet changeling that I met in the marketplace. She was having trouble getting vendors to serve her, so I helped her out, and we chatted a bit.”

“You shouldn’t be helping them. If ponies don’t want them around, we should not be encouraging them.”

“It’s not a matter of wanting them; it’s a matter of fearing them unnecessarily. They could always use their shape-changing ability to blend in with the crowd, but instead they choose to interact with us in their natural form in the hopes of being accepted.”

“I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen,” Frothy said sceptically.

“Just talk to them, Dad. If that Guard comes back, try to stay calm and be the sociable pony that I know that you can be. Now, if you’re feeling better, I hear someone coming into the shop. Time for us to get back to business, no?”

Frothy was feeling better after drinking some of the water and steadying his nerves, so he did as his daughter urged, although not without one parting shot. “Just promise me that you’ll be careful. If changelings can disguise themselves as us, they probably can disguise themselves as changelings from another hive also.”

“Now you’re just being paranoid, but if it makes you happy, I promise,” Peach replied.

* * *

The next day was typical of most week days, right up until the afternoon lull. This time, Frothy saw the changeling Guard enter the shop. He had been hoping that it had been a one-off, and dreading that it was just the start of things to come. His pulse quickened, as did his breathing, but he sternly told himself to be calm.

The Guard took off his helmet just as he had the previous day, as many of the Royal Guard did when dealing with citizens in a non-duty manner. It was meant to be a more personal approach to the common citizen, but for Frothy, it just made it clearer that it was a changeling head inside that helmet, and not a familiar pony.

“Good afternoon, citizen,” the changeling said. “I would like a large cappuccino to go, please.”

This time, Frothy noticed what the changeling’s voice was like. It was fairly deep and mellow, and quite pleasant actually. It was a vast difference from the high-pitched chittering that he’d heard the blue changelings using between themselves, but of course that must have been their own normal speech. They obviously talked normal Equestrian when they disguised themselves as ponies, but had no problem doing so in their natural form.

“Yes, sir. Three sugars like before?” he grated back.

“That’s right, thanks.”

Frothy made the brew as he had before, but managed to refrain from the nervous glances this time. However, he just could not bring himself to chat with the Guard. The job was completed in silence, and the changeling paid up and started to leave.

Just as the Guard was opening the door, Frothy blurted out, “Why?”

The changeling paused and asked with a puzzled expression, “Why what, sir?”

“Why do you want the coffee?”

The changeling looked at the coffee still hovering in front of him, held within the red glow of magic. “I don’t understand the question. I just like the taste of coffee, that’s all.”

“I thought that you changelings ate love though?”

“Ah! I see now. Yes, we need to consume emotions for their vital energy, love in particular, but we also need to eat and drink normal food. In fact, except for our need for more animal protein, our diet is very similar to that of the average pony.”

“How can you go about just eating our emotions though?” Frothy demanded.

“It’s passive consumption, sir. We eat the excess emotional radiation that ponies give off naturally. It does no harm to anypony.”

“It still seems weird to me.”

“Sir, have you asked the cows that supply you milk for the coffee if it seems weird to them?”

Frothy had never thought of it that way before, and had no answer.

The Guard said, “I must be going. Have a good day, citizen.” He then departed, leaving behind a thoughtful barista.

* * *

Peach was bussing tables the next day when the changeling Guard arrived. She was able to get a much closer look this time, and had to admit that it was quite a lot more intimidating than she had initially thought.

‘No wonder Dad was freaked out the first time,’ she thought before giving the Guard a welcoming smile. “Hi, can I get you something?” she asked.

The changeling smiled. “Just my usual coffee, please.”

It’s the fangs – they set off our instinctive fears,’ she realised as she suppressed a shudder. ‘The red ones have much bigger fangs than the violet one that I talked to before.’ “Yes, sir. I’ll have my father make that for you right away.”

Peach went into the back room to fetch her father who had been taking a break. “Dad, a regular customer wants his usual coffee.”

“A regular? You need to be more specific, hon,” Frothy said as he got up from his chair.

“It’s the changeling, Dad. Please try to make him feel welcome.”

“I can try,” he said with a grimace, “but if he can really taste my emotions, he’ll know he’s not.”

“That’s no excuse for being rude though.”

Frothy gave her a glum smile. “And to think I once had to teach you that lesson. Alright, I’ll be good.”

Frothy went out to the counter and nodded to the Guard. “The same as previously, I presume?”

“Yes, thank you, sir,” the changeling replied politely.

Peach said, “Could I tempt you to try one of our cakes or pastries? My mother bakes these all herself fresh every day.”

The Guard looked at the indicated shelves with mild interest. “Perhaps I will. That Black Forest cake does look tempting.”

“I assure you, you won’t regret it. It’s one of my favourites also.” Peach cut a generous slice and put it on a paper plate. “First piece is free to new customers,” she said with a smile.

“That’s very generous of you,” the changeling said with a touch of surprise.

“The coffee you still have to pay for,” Frothy said as he put it down in front of the Guard.

“Of course.” This time there was a touch of sadness in the changeling’s voice as he paid Frothy the bits. He took the drink and cake in his magic grip and turned to leave.

“Wait!” Peach said. “I said the cake is free, but there’s still a price.”

The Guard turned back with a puzzled expression on his face. “Oh?”

“I want to know your name. If you’re going to be one of our regulars, we can’t just keep calling you ‘sir’, can we?”

The changeling actually grinned. “I am Sergeant Sterling Shield. Please feel free to call me just Sterling.”

“I’m Peach Delight, and my grumpy father is Frothy Brew.”

“What kind of name is that for a changeling?” Frothy asked with a frown.

“If it’s my birth name that you really want, it’s Kirrabek, but I am officially Sterling Shield of Their Highnesses’ Royal Guard. That is my real name for all intents and purposes.”

Peach interjected, “And a very good name it is. I hope you have a good day, Sterling.”

“Thank you, Miss Delight. I believe I will.” The Guard left then, a satisfied look on his strange features.

“Was it really necessary to give it free cake?” Frothy asked with a frown.

“We always give our new customers a free slice,” Peach pointed out. “It encourages them to return and recommend our café to others.”

“Who said I wanted it to return?” he said bluntly.

“Dad! You promised to be good,” she scolded.

“I was!” Frothy protested.

“I don’t need to be able to taste emotions like a changeling to know what you were feeling while he was here. You were about as rude as you could get away with, and he knows that too.”

“Some customers you just don’t need,” Frothy declared, and turned away from Peach, effectively declaring the conversation closed.

If Peach hadn’t known what troubled her father, she would not have let herself be dismissed so easily. As it was, she could only look in the direction of the departed changeling and murmur, “I think that this is one customer that you might need above all others.”

* * *

Thursday’s crowd cleared a little later than usual. The last customer hastened to leave though when the changeling arrived.

“I’ll be with you in a moment, Sterling,” Peach greeted the Guard with a welcoming smile.

“Thank you, Miss Delight.”

Frothy heard him, and automatically started making his coffee. Peach took her tray of dirty cups and plates and placed them on the sink before asking, “Would you like some cake again today?”

“That Black Forest cake was every bit as nice as you said it would be, so yes, I’d like something to go with my coffee. What would you recommend?”

“Do you like cherries?”

“I do. Are you suggesting the cherry pie then?”

“Yes, it’s my mother’s signature dessert. I can offer you whipped cream to go with it if you like?”

“That would be nice, thanks.”

Peach served up a large slice of pie with whipped cream, and a dessert spoon with which to eat it. After paying, the Guard picked them all up, but instead of taking them away as usual, he set them on one of the tables and sat down to eat the pie.

Frothy stared at the changeling and then angrily blurted out, “You’re not going to eat it here!”

“Dad!” Peach started objecting.

“No, Peach! The last changeling who ate here was forcefully dining on poor Miss Kettle’s emotions while the others were terrifying my other customers. It took her days to recover, and weeks before she would set hoof outside of her home again. I won’t have it!”

The changeling put down the spoon and turned towards Frothy with a grim look on his face. “Sir, may I remind you that those changelings, and their queen in particular, are regarded as criminals by not only ponies, but by the rest of the hives also? They not only wreaked havoc on Canterlot’s population, but ruined the reputation of our entire species! We were no less appalled by Queen Chrysalis’ actions than you were.”

“I bet you didn’t have to watch helplessly while a friend was tortured,” Frothy declared.

“You would be wrong,” Sterling replied sadly.

“Huh? What?” Frothy replied, caught off guard by that statement.

“I have been a member of the Royal Guard since long before the events of that invasion. Of course I was disguised as a normal unicorn back then, but I was no less a loyal Guard because of that. However, my squad and many others had been required to attend the royal wedding as an Affair of State, along with the prerequisite honour guard. All of us were trapped in the Great Hall when Chrysalis sprung her surprise invasion. If only I, or even another changeling Guard, had been close enough to the fake Princess Cadence, we would have detected that she was a changeling, and events might have been different, but instead we were caught unawares and were hopelessly outnumbered before we could mount a defence. Believe me, I was just as horrified when Chrysalis told her drones to start feeding on the ponies. I witnessed more than one being violated like your Miss Kettle, and it sickened me too.”

Frothy was disconcerted momentarily, but eventually he replied, “If it sickens you, just think how we ponies must feel about being your meals. How can you expect me to just accept a changeling sitting down here in my café, blithely ignoring my memories? How can I ever trust a changeling anymore?”

Sterling looked thoughtful for a while before replying, “Do you recall the recent case of the pegasus, Feather Touch?”

Frothy was thrown by the apparent non sequitur, and it took him a long moment to reply, “The mare who murdered two other ponies out of jealousy?”

“Yes, that’s the one. Nasty violent species, those pegasi. Can’t trust them not to stab you in the back if you even look at their mate crosswise. I reckon that we should evict every last one of them from Canterlot before we become victims too.”

“What?! That’s ridiculous! Just because one pegasus is crazy, doesn’t mean that they’re all… like… that.” Frothy trailed off as he realised the point that the Sterling was making.

Sterling said, “No, we can’t judge a species on the actions of just one, can we?” He got up from behind the table and put his helmet on. “I seem to have lost my appetite. Have a good day, Mister Brew, and you too, Miss Delight.”

The changeling left the café, and Frothy could only stare after him, his mind a riot of mixed emotions.

Peach put a foreleg around her father’s shoulders and silently comforted him.

* * *

Frothy did not know whether to expect to see the changeling Guard again the next day. The usual time came and went without Sterling Shield making an appearance, but eventually he turned up three quarters of an hour later than normal.

“You’re late,” Frothy said with a frown.

“An altercation that demanded my time delayed me. I do have a real job, you know?” Sterling replied.

Frothy completed making the cappuccino without saying anything further, and took the changeling’s bits. As Sterling turned to leave though, he said, “Wait, you’re forgetting something.”

Sterling gave him a puzzled look. “What are you talking about?”

Frothy took a dish out of the chill cabinet. It held a piece of cherry pie complete with whipped cream. “This is yours, I believe. I’m afraid that you’re going to have to eat it here though because I want the dish back.”

“Are you sure about this, Mister Brew?” Sterling asked doubtfully, but with a touch of hope.

“Sergeant Shield, I can’t say that I am overjoyed at the thought of a changeling dining at my café just as yet, but I consider myself to be a fair and just pony, and I cannot justify my recent treatment of you. Consider this my apology. I will try to work on the rest.”

“That’s more than enough for me now, Mister Brew. Canterlot wasn’t built in a day, as they say.”

“No, it wasn’t, but everything has to start somewhere.”

“I sincerely thank you, Mister Brew,” Sterling said as he took the dish in his magical grasp.

“My regulars call me Frothy. Don’t forget it, Sterling Shield!”

The changeling’s happy smile was both wonderful and intimidating.

As Sterling went to a table to eat his pie, Frothy grumbled, “Damn fangs!”

 

 


 

Chapter 2: Sacrifices

“We’re not staying here one moment longer while that thing is here,” the unicorn matriarch said loudly as she headed for the door. “And if you have any sense, you’ll not have it back again!”

“He’s not causing anypony any problems, Mrs Straightlace,” Frothy insisted, but the mare ignored him and left in a huff.

The café had been quiet as usual at that time of the day, but it did have one group of old mares gossiping around a table when Sterling Shield had arrived. The gossip had come to an abrupt halt then, but had resumed with low whispering while Frothy had served the changeling. It was only when Sterling had sat down at a table to eat the peach cobbler that he had bought that the mares had gotten up with noises of disgust and started to leave. Frothy was both annoyed and dismayed to have so many regulars leave en masse, even if he could not entirely blame them for their attitude. Who knew what they had experienced during the Canterlot invasion?

Sterling started getting up, saying, “I’m only causing you problems, Frothy. I’ll take my coffee and go....”

Frothy scowled at him. “Are you going to insult my wife’s cooking also? Sit back down and finish your peach cobbler!”

“Yes, sir,” the Guard said meekly, and immediately took a mouthful of the admittedly delicious dessert. With the barista mollified though, he dared to speak again. “I don’t get you, Frothy. You lose customers when I’m here, and you still fear me, but you insist that I stay.”

“They’d already spent all that they were going to today, so it’s not that big a loss, and who said I’m afraid of you?”

“Please, Frothy, you know I consume emotions, and that also means that I can taste your fear. I know that your previous experience with changelings has given you cause, but surely you realise by now that I won’t harm you?”

“It’s not that – or at least mostly not. It’s those blasted fangs of yours. Every time I see them, I’m reminded of how I saw them sunk into the neck of Miss Kettle, and her horrible keening as that changeling ripped out her love.”

“I see. Would this help?” With a flare of red magic around his muzzle, the changeling’s fangs disappeared, leaving just a friendly smile.

Frothy blinked in surprise. “If you can do that, why don’t you all do it all the time? It would make a heck of a difference to the ponies that you meet every day.”

“That would be missing the point, Frothy. Let me ask you something – why do you think that there is a special changeling squad in the Royal Guard?”

Frothy was caught off guard by the question, never having really thought about it before. After a moment’s thought, he replied, “To deal with changeling-specific problems?”

Sterling shook his head. “No, the regular squads can handle the average problem, and there are already specialists that were established soon after the Canterlot attack.”

Frothy tried again. “Maybe to take advantage of your shape-changing abilities?”

“That’s a pretty fair guess, but not the answer. Yes, the Royal Guard does take advantage of that ability, but it’s actually more useful to spread us throughout the squads rather than concentrate us all in one.”

“I give up then. Why?” Frothy asked with some irritation.

“It’s puts us in a high-profile position of authority, answerable only to the Captain of the Guard, and their Highnesses. It is demonstration of their faith and trust in our species, and it allows us to show ourselves while under their protection completely unmasked, not hiding anything about our nature. Our fangs are an integral part of us, Frothy. To hide them would be a lie, and rather self-defeating in the long run. We need the average pony to get used to seeing us as we truly are, and the Guard Changeling squad gives us that opportunity to show that we are a benefit to the pony community.”

“You’ve got your work cut out for you then if you are going that route,” Frothy opined.

“You’re right, and we expect that we’re going to have to work twice as hard, be twice as good, and prove ourselves again and again before we get accepted by the common pony. Even then, we expect it will take many years.”

Frothy frowned, and then sighed. “I suppose you had better put those damn fangs back then. Can’t be screwing around with the Princesses’ plans.”

“Thanks for understanding, Frothy.” Red fire flared and the fangs reappeared. “That’s much better. I feel weird without them when I’m in my natural form.”

“And I feel weird knowing that my emotions are like an open book to you. You must realise that I don’t like you then.”

“I know, but believe me, while I’d be very happy if you did like me, I am actually very pleased with your attitude anyway.”

Frothy gave the changeling a surprised look. “You’re pleased that I don’t like you?”

“No, I’m pleased that you don’t hate me. You have more than enough reason to dislike changelings, and yet you go out of your way to tolerate me here in your café. You give me respect, and that is much of what we’re trying to achieve.”

“Humph! I treat all my customers with respect. That’s part of running a successful business.”

“No one can force you to respect someone you fear and hate. You’re a good pony, Frothy, and I wish there were more like you.”

“Just finish your food and leave so I can get my other customers back, okay?” Frothy replied grumpily, a little embarrassed by the changeling’s words.

“Will do,” Sterling replied with a small smile. He quickly finished off the dessert, then got up and put his helmet back on. “I’ll see you again tomorrow, Frothy.”

Frothy just grunted in acknowledgement, busying himself with cleaning up after the departed mares.

* * *

Frothy parked himself across the table from Sterling. The changeling looked up from the deep-dish apple pie that he had been enjoying, surprised at the unicorn inviting himself to join him. “What’s up, Frothy?”

“Why? Why did those changelings rip out the love from ponies like Copper Kettle? You said that you eat the excess emotional energy we give off, so why steal more from us in such a violent manner if that’s enough for you?”

“Yes, that’s enough to sustain a single changeling, although emotion harvesters put themselves in positions where they can get far more so that they provide the hive with the excess. However, emotional energy can do more than just sustain us. The more that we have, the stronger that we get. It’s one reason why many emotion harvesters get into relationships with ponies, because they get a reliable source of strong emotional energy, especially love which is by far the most powerful. All of that can be done passively though. We can get even more if we forcefully take it from you, and that’s exactly why the invading changelings were doing it. They were building their strength and consolidating their invasion of Canterlot. The more they took, the harder it would be to defeat them. Their victims certainly would not be in a position to fight back.”

“So you’re saying that poor Miss Kettle was just a means of powering themselves up?”

“Mostly. We haven’t been able to find out for sure what Chrysalis’ full motives were, but that’s probably the primary reason. Perhaps they were being greedy too – I don’t know. What I do know is that by stealing Captain Shining Armor’s love for Princess Cadance, and surreptitiously siphoning off Princess Celestia’s love for her subjects, Chrysalis was able to power herself up to the point where she was able to overcome Celestia.”

“Didn’t it concern any of them that it could break the minds of some of their victims? Miss Kettle’s marriage broke down after the attack on her. She and her husband had been very happy together until then, but she felt unable to love him any more after that.”

“That’s why we regard them as war criminals, Frothy. It’s one of the worst offences that a changeling can commit. We still don’t understand why almost an entire hive would suddenly think nothing of doing just that.”

“Almost? You’re telling me that some of Chrysalis’ changelings didn’t want to attack us?” Frothy asked sceptically.

“As far as we can tell, many of their emotion harvesters, if not all, objected to their queen’s plans. That’s not surprising considering that they are selected for that task due to their compatibility with normal pony society.”

“How could you possibly know this?” Frothy asked with an incredulous expression on his face.

“With a bit of luck, actually. Princess Twilight discovered a blue changeling living in a small village, and learned a lot more about what Chrysalis did in the lead-up to the attack than we would have otherwise. He’s the only known survivor of their emotion harvesters. Now he’s living there as a normal pegasus, and happily married to a unicorn mare.”

Frothy did not know what to think of that. He had been perfectly happy to loathe every blue changeling for what they had done that one day, but now he had to adjust his thinking again. It did not sit well with him, so he changed the subject. “So eating extra love makes you stronger, you say?”

Sterling nodded. “Let me make a little comparison between us. We both have horns, but as a unicorn, your magic is stronger and more subtle than that of the average changeling. However, by absorbing extra love energy, a changeling can equal and even exceed your power level. Likewise, we have wings, but pegasi are faster and stronger fliers. A well-stoked changeling can match all but the best pegasi though. And of course it also bolsters our ability to fight.”

“So it can all come down to pure lust for power?” Frothy asked.

“Yes, it could. If in fact Queen Chrysalis became corrupt in some manner, her attitude probably infected the rest of the hive due to the bond that they have with her. The harvesters, being away from the hive most of the time, would have been spared that though, which accounts for why so many were able to defy her.”

“You make it sound as if you are bound to your queen’s will,” Frothy pointed out. “How much can you truly say is what you want, and what your queen wants?”

Sterling looked at him admiringly. “That’s very observant of you, and a very good question. Our queens act for the good of the hive, but only exert their will where strictly needed. Otherwise, we serve through loyalty no less than you serve the Princesses. Our skills and our desires are what shape us, much the same way as yours do. For example, when the changeling squad was being formed, Queen Carpacia asked for volunteers to fill its roster.”

“That doesn’t mean that she couldn’t have influenced you anyway,” Frothy said sceptically.

“To what point? The treaty that Carpacia has with the Equestrian diarchy requires that she cedes final authority to them outside of the hive. We cannot serve two masters, so our ultimate loyalty as members of the Royal Guard, is to the Princesses, even if it brings us into conflict with our own hive. That is a choice that we had to make on our own, and it was not an easy one, but we had our Queen’s blessing and gratitude because of our sacrifice.”

“Sacrifice?” queried Frothy, not comprehending.

“That bond that we were talking about – it unites us and gives us comfort. In order to eliminate the conflict of interest though, Carpacia withdrew that bond from us, and we cannot share it any more. We all had nightmares for a few nights after that before we adjusted,” Sterling replied with a touch of melancholy.

Frothy had never for a moment considered that the changeling Guard had to make a sacrifice to take up his current position. With ponies’ current attitude towards them, it was a pretty much thankless task. His respect for Sterling grew even more because of it, but that battled with his feelings about changelings in general, and it made him feel very uncomfortable. He stood up and growled, “Dammit! You’re making it hard for me to dislike you!” He then stomped off.

Sterling felt that he had said enough for one day, and finished off his pie. As he left, he said his usual farewell. He was surprised and not a little thrilled when Frothy responded.

“See you tomorrow,” Frothy replied.

* * *

“Hi Sterling,” Peach greeted the Guard as he entered the café.

“Good afternoon, Miss Delight. Where’s Frothy?”

“You can call me Peachy if you like. Dad’s out the back, having a break. Can I help you with something?”

Sterling shook his head. “I’ve brought along some new customers, and I thought that I had better give him some warning first.”

Peach looked out the window to see a small gathering waiting outside the door. “Oh! I see why. Let me fetch him for you.”

Peach found her father and said, “Sterling is here, and he’s brought some friends.”

“What kind of friends?” Frothy asked suspiciously.

“Looks like more of his squad members to me. He wanted me to warn you before he brought them in.”

“Nice of him to spare me a heart attack.” Frothy sighed. “Okay, invite them in.”

As Frothy took up his normal place behind the counter, Peach went to the door and gave the changelings waiting outside one of her best welcoming smiles.

“Welcome to the True Brew Café! If you would like to come inside, we would be happy to serve you the best food and drink in Canterlot.”

One of the Guards smiled at her and said, “If what Sterling has said about your place is even half true, then I expect that we’ll be happy to agree with you. We’re quite looking forward to seeing for ourselves.”

Six Guard changelings followed Peach inside, the magic of their armour doing the usual trick of making them all look the same, just as it did for the pony Guards. Only when they started taking off their helmets did the illusion break, and she could see subtle differences between them, mostly in the placement of the voids in their limbs and wings. She noticed though that only Sterling had the conspicuous notch in his horn, so he was still easy to tell apart.

Frothy was determinedly keeping a polite smile on his face as he asked Sterling, “So what’s with all your friends?”

“I thought that since I’m responsible for chasing away some of your customers, it would only be fair to bring you some more to replace them. So I convinced a few of my squad members to try out your coffee and cakes for themselves.”

“That was thoughtful of you, but not really necessary.”

Sterling smiled a little sadly. “I disagree. Besides, do you know how hard it is for us to get served at other shops sometimes? I’d really appreciate it if they could get the same consideration as you have been giving me.”

Frothy looked affronted. “I’ve told you that I always give my customers respect. You don’t need to ask it of me just because they’re changelings.”

“I know, but I also want you to realise that I understand that it won’t be easy on you anyway.”

“Okay, but let’s get this over with.” Frothy raised his voice. “Gentleponies… ‘lings… Guards, please give me your drink orders. My daughter will be happy to serve you anything that takes your fancy from our range of cakes and pastries.”

Orders for various coffees and one tea kept Frothy’s mind off the number of changelings in his café for a while at least. When he was done, he quietly observed them while he cleaned up. At least they all seemed to be genuinely enjoying their drinks and food, and he’d had rowdier groups in the café, but all those pointy teeth…. He shuddered involuntarily. “Not going to get used to those any time soon,” he muttered to himself.

Unlike her father, Peach enjoyed chatting with the changelings, and they in turn were quite pleased to be able to have a friendly conversation with her. Their break time was over fairly soon though, and they headed out again, but not before extending their compliments on the quality of the food and drink.

“I’d be unhappy if I had to put up with a bunch of changelings and get complaints about what we served,” Frothy grumbled to Peach.

“Oh, come on, Dad – Sterling has never been anything but a perfect gentlepony, and his friends all seem to be very nice too. You aren’t giving them a real chance!” Peach protested.

“I’m treating them as fairly as any other customer, Peachy. Nothing says I have to like them though.” Frothy went back to work, leaving his daughter sighing in frustration.

* * *

The next day, Frothy was not surprised to see that Sterling’s friends returned. His jaw dropped though as more and more changeling Guards kept following. To Frothy’s horror, he realised that the entire squad seemed to be joining him today.

“Sweet Celestia, what have I started?” Frothy lamented.

 

 


 

Chapter 3: Customer Relations

For three days now, Sterling’s entire squad had been making the True Brew Café its regular afternoon break place of choice. Frothy still had very mixed feelings about this. On the one hoof, he had witnessed potential customers turn about and leave upon seeing the crowd of changelings inside, and in fact an earth pony couple had just backed out of the café, their eyes wide in fear. On the other hoof, a pegasus family seated at a table to the right seemed to be fairly unconcerned. On the third hoof, twenty changelings more than made up for the lost business during the normal slack period. On the fourth hoof though, that meant twenty pairs of gleaming fangs everywhere Frothy looked. He was regretting telling Sterling not to hide his while in the shop.

Trying to keep his mind off the prominent teeth, he watched the pegasi, trying to gauge whether they were just being tolerant, or whether in fact they did not mind the changeling Guards. The children, a colt about ten years old and a filly maybe a year or so younger, seemed to be bugging their parents about something, and he noticed the mother nod. The foals grinned and trotted over to the Guards.

“’Scuse me, mistah, but our Dad and Mom say that you can make yourselves look like ponies. Is that true?” the colt asked politely of one of the changelings.

Frothy noticed that while the parents were keeping an eye on the foals, they did not seem unduly worried. He turned his attention back to the foals.

The changeling smiled at the colt and replied, “That’s completely true. Do you want to see how I do it?”

“Yes, please!” the colt said excitedly.

“Okay, let me just take off this armor first so that you can see better.” He levitated the armor aside and then warned them with a grin, “Watch for the magic fire.”

With a flare of red magic, the changeling transformed into a unicorn stallion. His fur was the same colour as his chitin, and his cropped mane and tail matched the red hue of his wings and waist band. His eyes were still red also, but looked like normal pony irises and pupils instead of the weird evenly glowing ones. He even had a cutie mark consisting of a bow and arrow. “There! How’s that?” he asked.

“That’s awesome!” the colt replied. “What’s your name?”

“My name is Red Archer; you can call me just Archer if you like. What are your names, if I may ask?”

The children looked towards the parents, silently seeking approval. They nodded and the colt replied, “I’m Thunderclap.”

The filly said, “I’m Zephyr. Can you do anything else?”

“Sure! Do you like griffins?” Archer asked.

“You can do griffins too?” When Archer nodded, she said with a huge smile, “Yes, please!”

Red magic flared again, and the unicorn was replaced by a griffin with a magnificent red hawk forequarters and black panther hindquarters.

Both foals gaped in awe. The filly tentatively reached out to touch the changeling and, after hearing no objection, stroked the feathers on his chest. She giggled and Archer smiled back.

When they deemed that the foals had troubled the changeling long enough, the parents got up from their table and the father herded them towards the door. The mother came over to the counter though to speak to Frothy.

“I just wanted to say how considerate it is of you to let these changelings eat here. We’ve been trying to teach our foals more about them, but it’s been hard finding places that tolerate them well yet. It’s good to see that they have some friends. We’ll be coming back again.”

Frothy felt a bit hypocritical for accepting the praise, but he wasn't about to disillusion a customer who would bring repeat business, and perhaps spread a good word. “Thank you, ma’am. We look forward to seeing you again soon.”

Frothy waved a hoof in farewell to the departing foals also, finding himself still feeling rather touched by their innocent interaction with Archer. He sincerely wished he could regain that same innocence.

* * *

The next day, the café saw its first non-Guard changeling customer. This one was violet in colouration, slightly smaller in stature to the red changelings, and with only medium-sized fangs. Frothy thought he detected a different kind of bearing to this one, but he did not have much chance to judge before Peach met the changeling to greet it.

“Welcome to the True Brew Café! Pardon me for having to ask, but have we met before?” Peach asked warmly.

“Hi Peachy,” the changeling replied. “It’s me, Zeena. I’m taking up your invitation to check out your café. And don’t fuss about not being sure who I was – I realise that we look very much alike to inexperienced eyes.”

“Zeena! I wasn’t sure that you’d come, but I’m really happy that you did. What convinced you to give us a try?”

“Word of mouth,” she answered with a grin that was no less friendly for being rather toothy. She indicated the Guards enjoying their usual afternoon break. “Some of these Guards you’ve been hosting have been talking about the great food and drink that you have here, so here I am to check them out for myself.”

“Excellent! So what can we tempt you with?” Peach asked.

“I’d love some apple pie, and could I have that warmed up?”

“Certainly, if you’re prepared to wait a few minutes. I’ll get that done right away and bring it out to you when it’s ready. Feel free to sit anywhere that suits you.”

“Thanks, Peachy.” Instead of sitting at a table though, when Peach went out the back of the shop, the changeling approached the counter where Frothy had been watching and listening. “Hi. Would you be Peach’s father, Frothy Brew?”

“Yeah, that’s me,” Frothy replied stiffly.

“You have a very lovely daughter. Frankly I was surprised at how readily she helped me in the market the first time we met.”

“I’m very proud of her. She’s always been a friendly and helpful person.”

“You just didn’t expect that to extend towards us changelings though, did you?” Zeena said with a wry smile. “It’s okay, I know about what happened to you during the invasion; I learned that from the Guards also. I realise that you aren’t comfortable with us, and yet you are drawing more and more interest from the changeling community because of your tolerance, and that’s one of the main reasons why I took up Peach’s offer. I just want to extend my thanks for that.”

Frothy felt a bit hypocritical accepting the changeling’s gratitude, so he felt compelled to reply, “Please don’t think I’m a saint just because I put up with this lot. I treat all my customers decently, even if I don’t like them.”

Zeena’s smile never wavered. “Well it’s obvious that you know that I know that you dislike me on principle, but can you tell me what it is about me – someone you’ve never met nor ever been hurt by – that you don’t like? I’m really curious.”

“You want an honest answer?” Frothy asked suspiciously.

“Yes, I do. If I wanted just a piece of apple pie and pleasant conversation, I would have disguised myself, but I came here for many more reasons than that. I want to know if we have a chance at making some real inroads here, or just have a place we can get coffee and cake without being harassed.”

“You say you already know how I witnessed a changeling ripping the love out of one of my customers?” Zeena nodded. “Then do you realise that it creeps me out that you are parasites on ponies?”

Zeena looked thoughtful. “Well, I didn’t know that, but what makes you think we’re parasites?”

“What else do you call something that feeds on us?”

“A parasite always takes without benefit to its host, and frequently to its detriment. That simply isn’t true of us though.”

“Convince me that you’re not,” Frothy demanded.

“Well, for starters, if we are so dependent on ponies to supply us with emotional energy, why would we harm them? Not counting Chrysalis’ attack, of course. I’m sure you can allow that we consider her actions to be insane for a changeling.”

Frothy nodded begrudgingly.

“Anyway, not only do we not harm ponies, it is to our benefit to help them, and make their lives better. It raises the general level of positive ambient emotions, and even more so with those we specifically interact with. Or to put it more simply, a happy pony feeds us more than an unhappy one. Changelings have been a force for social good since before recorded history. In fact we are likely to have evolved together in symbiosis, to our mutual advantage.”

“That sounds... even creepier. You reckon that you’ve always been living among us in secret?” Frothy asked with a discomforted look on his face.

“Yes. Is that so bad? Up until a few years ago, you never heard of someone being stripped of their love like your friend. That’s centuries of peaceful relationship with us.”

“Then why hide from us? If you’re as good for us as you say, why the need for deception?”

“Y’know, that’s not a bad question,” Zeena conceded. “I know some things can best be done anonymously, and we excel at that. But I think some of it has to do with the fact that we are different. While we have a lot in common, some ways we just think differently. Is that wrong of us? Do we need to conform exactly to the Pony Way for you to accept us?”

“For some ponies to accept you, yes,” Frothy replied firmly. “Besides, you say that you benefit us, but I really only have your word for that.”

“So I need to convince you before we can make any more progress?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

Zeena looked over her shoulder at the changeling Guards who were eavesdropping with some interest. “Well, take these guys for example – they are ready to put their lives on the line in defence of ponies. I know for a fact that a couple of them were killed fighting the invaders, although of course they were still disguised back then.”

“So are you an off-duty Guard too?” Frothy asked.

Zeena laughed. “Nah, the Red Changelings pretty much have that gig sewn up. We Violet Changelings specialise in aid services. Our hive has provided doctors, nurses, fireponies, and so forth. We have a taste for the emotions of hope and gratitude, unlike the Reds who are into loyalty and duty. I’m a search & rescue specialist. I was kept pretty busy cleaning up the aftermath of Chrysalis’ invasion.”

“Nobody said that you aren’t good at your jobs, but I want to see more of this social benefit that you were talking about.”

“Hmm… okay. How about the fact that I run a program for disadvantaged ponies in my spare time? I give free classes in courses that are needed for my line of work. They get a leg-up on a possible career and some hope for the future, while I get my favourite emotional energy in return. Everypony wins.”

Frothy was surprised at having his challenge met, but he still was not completely satisfied. “That’s… quite generous of you, but you’re only one changeling. We’re talking about affecting the social order of an entire nation, or even before the pony tribes were united.”

Zeena grimaced. “You’re a hard pony to please, Mr Brew, but I’ll keep on trying.”

“Why are you doing it anyway? I’m telling you how much your kind bother me, and you just stand there calmly smiling for the most part.”

“Funny you should ask - I got volunteered.”

“Huh? What do you mean?” Frothy asked with an eyebrow raised in puzzlement.

“As I said earlier, you’ve been attracting attention in the changeling community, and we want to know if you and your café might a step forward in pony-changeling relations. Someone was needed to feel you out, and I was basically chosen because I have a lot of patience and determination. Part of my job is giving hope and encouragement to disaster victims, so maintaining a calm and pleasant demeanour comes naturally to me. Besides, the others knew that I’d already had made friends with Peach.”

“So I’m your surrogate disaster victim?” Frothy asked wryly.

Zeena laughed. “You could put it that way.”

“Are you butting heads with our customers again, Dad?” came Peach’s reproving voice from behind Frothy.

“No more than usual, hon,” Frothy answered with a look of guilt flickering over his face.

“Considering the customer, that doesn’t mean much,” Peach replied, and then turned her attention to the changeling. “Your pie is ready – would you like whipped cream or ice cream with it?”

“Ice cream would be nice, thanks,” Zeena replied, and then turned back to Frothy. “I’m going to come back tomorrow to continue our discussion, if you don’t mind. I’ll try to bring along some more examples of how we benefit ponies in general.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Frothy answered with resignation.

Zeena smiled apologetically before taking her pie over to an empty table, and greeting a couple of mares that had been enjoying their afternoon tea. Aside from the Guards, they were the only other customers in the café at that quiet time of day. Frothy knew them both as long-time regular customers, and had been concerned that they would be frightened away by all the changelings. Instead, they were both surprisingly nonchalant, and returned the Violet Changeling’s greeting with smiles. Then after the two discussed something quietly between themselves, one of them got up from the table and made her way to the counter.

The unicorn mare was very pale blue, almost white, and her mane was light green streaked with the grey of age. Her features showed the burden of years, but there were plenty of smile lines to make hers a pleasant face, and the brightness of her eyes behind her spectacles showed that she still had a passion for life. Frothy knew her very well, and she always had that same attitude whenever she visited the café, or even when he saw her at work in the library.

“Can I help you with anything, Weighty Words?” Frothy asked with a smile.

Weighty returned his smile and said, “My wife and I were listening to you and Zeena discussing changelings.”

“I hope that they haven’t been bothering you at all,” Frothy asked a little anxiously.

“No, not at all, dear. In fact, I have something to add to your discussion. How long have we known each other, Frothy?”

Frothy did not know how that was relevant, but answered, “Since I was a student borrowing books from the library. You helped me find material for my business studies.”

“Yes, that’s right. I helped a lot of students, but I saw the determination that you had to succeed. And your hard work paid off when you opened up this café.”

“It wasn’t just that, and you know it,” Frothy said with a grin. “If you hadn’t introduced me to Cherry Delight, we may never have met and married, and built this business together.”

“I saw that you two could be good for each other, and just gave you the opportunity to realise that for yourselves. But that’s the kind of thing that I do, and have done throughout my career. It’s just in my nature.”

“So you’re saying that it’s the same with changelings?” Frothy asked, finally seeing the connection. “Forgive me, but that’s an opinion, not a fact.”

Weighty nodded. “Then perhaps, as my name suggests, I should add some weight to my words with a little proof. Here’s a little secret that very few ponies know, but I feel you deserve….” With that, her form was engulfed in light green fire, and in her place was another changeling, but this time with a green band around her waist and bright green wings. Her fangs were also the smallest of any changeling that Frothy had seen so far. Only her spectacles remained to indicate that it was the same person standing before the dumbfounded barista.

“Yes, Frothy, I’m a Green Changeling, and my life has been dedicated to fostering young minds like yours, and occasionally lending a guiding hoof. My hive has provided teachers, authors, and administrators. We’ve had representatives in several councils providing a moderating influence. We like the taste of respect and enthusiasm, so we do our best for you so that you can give us what we like in return.”

Frothy finally found his voice as he glanced over to where Weighty’s wife was watching with some concern. “Is Harmony also a changeling?”

Weighty looked over at Harmony and smiled reassuringly. “No, my wife is a normal unicorn.”

“Is marrying a pony part of what changelings do to get the emotions you want to eat?”

“Oh no, Frothy! That’s not it at all. I married Harmony because she and I fell in love, thanks be to Celestia for my good fortune.”

“Did she know that you were a changeling when you got married?” Frothy asked with a frown.

“No, she didn’t, but not because I didn’t trust her. It’s just the way we always did things before Chrysalis changed everything. I revealed my true nature to her shortly after the invasion to dispel misinformation about us, and reassure her that she was not threatened by us. Admittedly there was some acrimony, but she truly loved me still, and we were able to get over that hump.”

“I see.” Frothy said, and then paused, wondering what to say to someone whom he admired and had looked up to for so long, and who had revealed herself to be one of… them.

Weighty Words transformed back into her unicorn form, and then reached out to pat Frothy on the shoulder. “Don’t fret too much about me, dear. I know you need to think this through some more, and you still have a couple more changelings to meet before you have to make up your mind as to how you should feel about all this. It’s not how fast you get to the conclusion, but getting to the right one that counts. I’ll be seeing you again soon in any case. Goodbye for now, Frothy.”

Weighty turned and walked over to Harmony who rose to meet her. She kissed her wife before giving a farewell wave of her hoof and, with a nod to Zeena, they departed.

“Well… that was unexpected.”

Peach’s statement interrupted Frothy’s reverie, and he replied, “Honey, you’ve never said a truer word in your life!”

* * *

When Frothy related his experience to his wife that evening, Cherry Delight was almost as surprised.

“I would never have guessed that Weighty Words was a changeling, although in retrospect, it does explain how she was so empathetic, and why she felt we would make a good match. It makes me wonder how many other changelings have affected our lives.”

“I’m not sure I want to find out,” Frothy replied, then added jokingly, “Just don’t tell me that you’ve been a changeling all along also.”

Cherry giggled and hugged her stallion. “Too late to do anything about it if I am. You’re stuck with me, Frothy Brew!”

“Best thing that I’ve heard all day,” Frothy replied happily.

 

 


 

Chapter 4: Loss and Gain

Sterling took his usual cappuccino and said, “There’s something that I’ve been meaning to ask, Frothy. You and Peach have told us how your wife does the baking of your wonderful cakes and pastries, but we never see her. Why is that? The guys and I would love to give her our compliments directly.”

Frothy gave Sterling his trademark smirk. “You’ve never seen her because you always come in at the same time every day when she’s not here. Cherry needs to get up early every day to start baking so that you can have the freshest of goods. She’s been hard at work for hours before the café opens, so by the time the afternoon lull comes around, she takes the opportunity to have a nap for a couple of hours. That way we can share a full evening’s family time without her having to go to bed earlier than Peach and I.”

“Ah! That makes sense. Still, we’d love to meet her sometime.”

Frothy looked thoughtful for a moment. “I’ll let her know that. She’s admitted to being curious about you lot also, so this could be a good excuse for her to make an exception to her normal habit.”

“That’d be great, Frothy. I’ll let the others know.”

Before Sterling got the chance to do so though, a commotion outside drew their attention.

Frothy frowned and called out to Peach who had been chatting with the Guards as usual. “Peachy, could you go have a look at what’s causing that ruckus?”

“Sure, Dad,” she replied, and headed for the door. Just as she reached it, a violet changeling entered the café. “Zeena? Was that you causing the commotion outside?”

“Well, indirectly, I suppose. It has more to do with whom I brought with me. Go take a peek,” Zeena suggested.

Peach opened the door partially to peer through, and her eyes widened in surprise. “Is that who I think it is?”

“Yep. Could I ask a favour and get you to close the shop while she’s here? It’ll only be for a short period.”

“If it’s what I suspect it’s about, I think we can do that. I’ll have to check with Dad first though.”

Peach went back to the counter to tell Frothy what was happening. “Dad, there’s a celebrity out there, and there are ponies hounding her for autographs. I want to let her in and lock the door for a few minutes.”

“Why would we want to lock out potential customers just for a celebrity?” Frothy asked after brief consideration.

“Because Zeena brought her along,” Peach pointed out.

“Oh.” Frothy realised that could only mean one thing, and he was both curious about and dreading that. “Okay, do it.”

Peach went back to the door and went outside with Zeena accompanying her. Zeena caught the eye of someone who was obviously a minder for the celebrity, and he nodded. With calm, professional tact, he started disengaging the celebrity from her fans and guiding her to the door, followed by Zeena. Peach then blocked the doorway and reared up on her hind legs to get the attention of the crowd.

“Mares and gentlestallions, the café will be briefly closed to give our guest a moment to chat and get some refreshments. We will be reopening in just a few minutes though, so if you wish to wait, we would love to welcome you to our café also. Thank you.”

Peach then stepped inside as the crowd murmured in disappointment. Some stayed, but others moved on, unwilling to wait. Peach locked the door behind her and flipped the sign saying “Open” to “Closed”. The celebrity’s minder was standing there, and Peach asked, “You know what’s going to happen, don’t you?”

“I know. I’ll watch the door for you, and I’d like to close the blinds too, if you don’t mind? Some fans can be quite persistent.”

“Fine by me,” Peach replied, and turned her attention to the counter where the source of the commotion was approaching her father.

Frothy knew their famous visitor instantly upon looking at her. The small mare with purple fur and a mane of bright yellow curls was recognisable anywhere, and her cutie mark consisting of a mask of a laughing pony clinched it if you were unsure. She was Equestria’s foremost comedian, and she was in his shop! “Punchline! I’m such a big fan!” he blurted out, then was promptly embarrassed by his outburst.

Punchline smiled, amusement at his reaction plain on her face. “Thank you, Mr Brew. You’ve seen one of my shows, I take it?”

“My wife and I always go to your shows whenever you’re playing in Canterlot. You’re on our ‘must-see’ list of events.”

“That’s the kind of thing a performer likes to hear, and I hope you both continue to enjoy my future performances. However, that’s not what I’m here to talk to you about today.”

Frothy was suddenly brought down to earth when he remembered who had brought Punchline to the café. “You’re a changeling too?” he asked with some trepidation.

“Yes, I am, and you and your daughter are one of the very few who will ever know this.” Punchline turned to look at her minder, who nodded in confirmation that everything was secure. In a flare of yellow fire, she assumed her natural form.

Frothy looked at yet another variety of changeling, this time one with bright orange wings and burnt orange crest and tail. She also had tiny fangs and a rounded form. Frothy would never have said this before, but there was no other way to describe her – she was cute!

“My true name is Wakena, and I’m an Orange Changeling. My hive specialises in the creative fields such as music, writing, circus, theatre, and of course, comedy. I’ve been told how you have been sceptical of our contribution towards pony society in return for our taking emotional energy from you. I have filled halls night after night, entertaining ponies, brightening their lives with laughter. Others of my kind have lifted your spirits with music, or stirred your feelings with drama. We have been a major part of the Equestrian entertainment scene for centuries. Can you honestly tell me that we have not earned what we take in exchange?”

Frothy mutely shook his head. He had been willing to pay a premium price for tickets to Punchline’s shows, and he could hardly begrudge her a little emotional energy on top of that. Still he had to ask, “What proportion of our entertainers are changelings then?”

“Not as many as you might fear, but certainly a large number. Not even we are sure about that though. However, because there are so many of us in the field, and concerts are such an efficient way of gathering large amounts of emotional energy, we can sustain the largest hive in Equestria. If we don’t have at least one resident in a town, an Orange Changeling will surely pass through with a one-day-only show for even the smallest townships.” Punchline resumed her pony form. “And now, I only have one more thing that I’d really like to ask of you.”

“And that would be?” Frothy asked curiously.

“A large flat white coffee, please. I’m rather thirsty,” she said with a glint of humour in her eye.

Frothy blinked in surprised, and then guffawed. “Coming right up, and it’s on the house! Peachy, get Punchline whatever she likes in the way of cake or pastry.”

Punchline accepted the offer of carrot cake and sat down at a table to eat it after transforming back into her pony form. Frothy took her coffee to the table when it was ready, and asked her to sign one of the menus, which she did with a grin.

As he returned to the counter, Zeena stepped up to him once more and said, “I can taste your pleasure at meeting Punchline, but has it affected your views of changelings much?”

“Persistent, aren’t you?” Frothy grumbled. “Okay, you’re making a good case, and Punchline was a heck of surprise, but she’s so cute, funny, and familiar that it’s hard to associate her with something that disturbs me so greatly. Let’s be realistic here – you’re dealing with a traumatic experience that isn’t so easily swayed by logic. You can point out how you give for what you get, but I can’t forget that you can also get it painfully involuntarily. While I still remember that atrocity in my café as clear as it was yesterday that it happened, I am not going to be able to look at the average changeling and not think of that. Sorry if that disappoints you.”

“It’s okay, Frothy. While I thought someone of Punchline’s fame might have a big impact upon you, I didn’t count on it being the winning move. I have some other changeling in mind that might finally sway you though.”

“I’m getting a little tired of these games, Zeena. Are you prepared to deal with the possibility that I will never truly like your kind? I might be able to tolerate you, I might be able to have a decent conversation with you, and I can even be a fan of some individuals...” Frothy waved a hoof in the direction of Punchline who seemed to be watching them with some interest. “However, are you sure that I can ever really appreciate having changelings hang around?”

As always, Zeena’s smile never faltered, impressing Frothy with the changeling’s ability to remain calm and confident under pressure. “No, Frothy, I’m not sure, but I do think that it can be done, and it’s certainly worth the effort. After all, my kind never went into this attempt at integration with pony society with the notion that it would be either quick or easy. It’s not all one-sided either. Not all changelings want to be so openly associating with ponies, and it’s our nature to feel that way. We’ve had to make some mental adjustments also.”

“If those mental adjustments don’t include dealing with the trauma of ponies doing something hideous to you, I don’t think you can compare the difficulty,” Frothy said pointedly.

“As opposed to the witch-hunts immediately after the invasion, and long-term prejudice against us?” Zeena retorted.

Frothy did not reply to that. It had not escaped his attention that the undisguised changelings were rarely treated well, and he was hardly blameless in that matter. He had reached a compromise with himself with regards to his changeling customers, but that hardly excused him. “I told Sterling that I would work on that,” he mumbled, and busied himself with some work behind the counter.

Zeena recognised that this was the best that could be done for one day, and left Frothy to his thoughts.

Peach reopened the café and let the more patient fans inside. While some were taken aback by the sight of a whole squad of Red Changelings, to their great amusement, very few of ponies were discouraged from their attempt to get Punchline’s autograph or simply have a chat with her.

Much to Frothy’s pleasure, many did buy coffee and snacks. All in all, it was a good afternoon.

* * *

When Zeena turned up the next day, she was unaccompanied.

“Where’s your next champion of the changeling cause?” Frothy asked her sarcastically.

“Too busy to make it today, Frothy. Frankly I’m not surprised, considering what he does every day,” Zeena replied.

“So do I get a hint, or are you going to just be enigmatic?”

“No hints. You get to deal with what he has to tell and show you when he turns up.”

“Then why did you bother turning up today?” Frothy asked archly.

“This is still a café, isn’t it? I’d like a long black, please.”

Frothy made her drink, and the changeling went to sit with some of the Guards who had arrived just before her. Peach was still bringing out the last of the food that they had ordered, and stopped to chat with them. Frothy was shaking his head, wondering what she saw in them, when his wife’s voice came from the door to the back room.

“Frothy, love, could you take me to meet our changeling guests, please?”

Frothy immediately went over to her and asked, “Are you sure that you want to do this, Cherry?”

“Of course I am. You know I’ve been wanting to do so.”

“As you wish, dear.”

Sterling was used to keeping a watchful eye on his squad, and he was the first to notice Frothy approaching with his wife at his side. She was a unicorn, of course, but a particularly tall and graceful one, with fur that was a dark pink or perhaps a light red, and a two-tone tail and mane cut to shoulder lengths with bangs. He glimpsed her cutie mark which appeared to be of a cheesecake with cherries on top. Sterling got up to meet her, but only realised one other thing about her when they stopped in front of him. Her green eyes were filmy and unfocused, and he realised that she was blind.

By this time, the other Guards had noticed, and their attention was fully upon them when Frothy said, “May I introduce my beloved wife, partner in this business, and pastry chef extraordinaire, Cherry Delight. Dear, these are Sergeant Sterling Shield and his squad of Royal Guards, Changeling Division.”

“A pleasure to meet you at last, gentlestallions, if I may call you that,” Cherry said.

“It’s an honour to meet you, Mrs Delight,” Sterling replied. “If I had known what an inconvenience it would be for you, I would never have bothered Frothy to ask you to come meet us.”

“Nonsense, Sergeant Shield. I’m not a helpless mare, and I think that my baking backs that up.”

“I can’t argue with that, but I’m curious to know how you can cope so well.”

“Well, for starters, I haven’t always been blind. I contracted an illness when I was in my late teens that affected my eyesight. It continued to deteriorate to where I had lost about a third by the time that I first was introduced to Frothy. By the time we had graduated and started our business, I’d lost over half. However, we planned around this, and my kitchen was laid out in a way that is ergonomic and uncluttered. By the time that I could no longer use my sight, I had memorised the location of everything so that I could find them without a problem. Additionally, I have a particularly sensitive sense of magical touch. I can tell a lot from feeling it that way. On the odd occasion where I might need some help, my daughter, Peach, is always there. She’s quite a good pastry chef too, after all.”

“That’s still quite an accomplishment,” Sterling said admiringly. “I’ve enjoyed everything of yours that I’ve tried, and I can safely say that my squad members have also.”

There was a chorus of agreement from the others, and Cherry smiled gratefully.

“Thank you. It’s always nice to hear that my work is so appreciated. Now may I ask a favour of you?”

“Of course! What would you like me to do?” Sterling replied.

“I have never seen a changeling because I was completely blind by the time the invasion occurred, but I can use my horn-touch to get almost as good a picture of you. I’d like to use it on you, if I may?”

“I have no problem with that. Would you like me to take my armour off so that you feel me better?”

“That would be appreciated,” Cherry said with a smile.

Sterling quickly removed his armour and said, “I’m ready.”

Cherry’s horn lit up with a yellow glow, and emitted a ball of energy that drifted over to touch Sterling’s head. It then moved over his face. “Oh, my! You do have long fangs indeed,” she commented. The ball then drifted over the spiky ears, down his neck, lingered on the insect-like wings before travelling along his body and down a leg. Then when it seemed that she had gotten all the details, the glow spread to envelop him completely to give her an overall impression, and then faded out.

“Thank you, Sergeant. I now have good mental picture of what you look like. So you’re a Red Changeling? I take it that other changelings have different characteristics?”

Up until then, Zeena had been quietly observing, but now she spoke up. “That’s right, Mrs Delight. I’m Zeena, and I’m a Violet Changeling. You can check me out too if you like, although I’m not as different from a Red as other types of changelings can be.”

“Just your face, if I may?” Cherry replied.

Zeena stepped up and said, “Go ahead.”

Cherry’s magical touch explored Zeena’s face briefly. “Much smaller fangs, and no notch in your horn, I notice.”

“Yes, although a notched horn is indicative of a much more mature changeling. The older we get, the more contorted it becomes. The average changeling that you will meet will have a smooth horn like mine.”

“So, that would make you quite the veteran,” Cherry said to Sterling.

Sterling nodded before realising that she could not see the gesture. “That’s right. Although I don’t talk about it, I’ve been a Royal Guard for quite a few decades now.”

“It’s good to hear of such dedicated service to Equestria. Anyway, I have held you all up for long enough now. It has been a pleasure meeting you, and I hope you all have a good day.”

“The pleasure has been ours, Mrs Delight,” Sterling replied.

Frothy then guided his wife back. Sterling suspected that she did not need too much help though. It was more of a precaution in an ever-changing environment than a necessity. When Frothy returned, Sterling asked, “Why didn’t you tell us that your wife is blind?”

“Because it was none of your business until she chose to meet you. It must be nice not having to worry about things like that though,” Frothy said with a touch of bitterness.

“What do you mean? I don’t understand what you’re getting at.”

“I mean that if you are blinded, you could just shape-change and bingo – you’ve got your sight back.”

Sterling sighed. “You’ve got it wrong, Frothy. We can’t do that. Our ability to change is powered by magic, and magic always has its quirks. You could say that it sustains a memory of what our body is like, so if we incur an injury in one form, we retain it in another. If I broke my leg and changed into a unicorn, I would still have a broken leg. If I was in pegasus form and had a wing ripped off, I would still be missing a wing when I reverted to my natural form. So if you blind me, it too would be forever.”

“Oh. I didn’t realise that. I’ve been harbouring a bit of envy of changelings because I could not give my wife that ability to bring back her sight,” Frothy admitted.

“I’m sorry about that, but it’s actually a good thing for you that we can’t do what you thought we could.”

Frothy gave Sterling a quizzical look. “Why would you say that?”

“Think about it for a moment,” Sterling replied. “If we could heal any injury simply by doing a quick shape-change, an attacking army of changelings would virtually be invincible. You could only stop us by a killing stroke that left us no time to heal ourselves.”

Realisation dawned on Frothy. “Then the invasion of Canterlot might have succeeded because almost all our defensive efforts would have been useless.”

“You got it, although Shining Armour’s shield might still have won the day with the power of Princess Cadence’s love behind it. You can’t count on having that around all the time though.”

“Speaking of that shield, I know it expelled all the invaders from Canterlot. When it passed through the café, it threw most of the changelings in here out the windows, and I had to replace the glass. A couple missed the windows though, and were literally splattered against the wall.” Frothy pointed out the freshly painted wall that he had mentioned. “What I don’t get is why it didn’t affect you, or all the other disguised changelings in Canterlot.”

“Who said it didn’t?” Sterling replied. “Admittedly it only threw us around the room a bit, but it didn’t push us relentlessly like it did the Blue Changelings. We’ve guessed that it was unconsciously attuned to the Blues, so it only partially affected the rest of us, but we have no way of confirming that.”

“Didn’t ponies notice you being affected though? I mean, you told me that you were in the middle of a crowded hall for the wedding ceremony, so how could that not be noticed?”

“That’s much easier to explain than you think. There were so many Blue Changelings in there with us that they some crashed into ponies as they were thrust away. In the confusion, I and the other changeling Guards were assumed to have been knocked over too. In fact, very few disguised changelings throughout Canterlot had any difficulty explaining away what had happened to them. That’s why we remained concealed until Twilight Sparkle uncovered an Orange Changeling, and the truth about the other five hives became known.”

Frothy snorted, “Ha! I bet that came as a shock to you.”

“The hives were in disarray anyway because of Chrysalis’ actions. Letting the princesses know that they had allies amongst the changelings was probably the best course of action anyway once our existence was exposed.”

“So do you feel worse now that you have to serve undisguised, Sergeant Shield?”

Sterling looked offended. “I don’t have to serve in any manner. I choose to serve in the Royal Guard in any way that Equestria needs, or as the princesses see fit. I am a citizen of Equestria first, and a changeling second, and I will defend its citizens to the best of my ability, even smart-ass baristas with a chip on their shoulder.”

Frothy scowled back at Sterling and said, “I think we’re done talking for today.”

“Yes, I believe we are,” Sterling agreed and turned towards his squad members. “Break’s over! Everybody back to their respective duties!” Sterling proceeded to hustle his squad out of the café, to the mumbled complaints of some of them.

Frothy overheard a few of those complaints, and was a little startled at how familiar they sounded – just like a real pony would complain.

Peach came over to the counter and said to Frothy, “What did you do? I was having a nice conversation with Archer when Sterling suddenly ordered them out. He never does that!”

“Humph! He’s just getting touchy, is all,” Frothy replied.

“Tired of your constant niggling, more like it,” Peach said accusingly.

“He doesn’t have to come here if it bothers him.”

“So that’s a yes. When are you going to accept that they aren’t bad people?”

“When I’m convinced that the examples I’m given are the rule and not the exception. They’re not ponies, Peachy, and treating them as such is a mistake.”

“You’re wrong, Dad, although sometimes I don’t know why they keep trying with somepony as mule-headed as you.”

“Enough! You have tables to clear.”

“Yes, sir,” Peach replied sourly.

‘Now they’re making my own daughter disrespect me,’ Frothy grumbled to himself.

It may have dismayed him though that his wife shared her daughter’s opinion. From the back room where she had stayed to listen out of curiosity, she had overheard everything with her keen hearing. There would be some words spoken in private that night!

 

 


 

Chapter 5: A Father's Love

Except for the slightly humiliating apology that Frothy had extended to Sterling when he and his squad came in for their afternoon break, the day had been going pretty well. Frothy was still stinging from the tongue-lashing that Cherry had given him. Not that it was the first time he had suffered her ire – his grumpy nature had leaked past his professional front a few times in the past when confronted by irksome customers. However, as his wife had so cuttingly pointed out, Sterling had done nothing that had deserved Frothy’s attitude, and it was about time that he got over his prejudice of the changelings.

‘Easier said than done,’ he thought for the umpteenth time as he watched the last of his changeling customers file out the door.

The next hive member that was supposed to be visiting him was still a no-show, and not even Zeena had turned up that day. The afternoon tea rush was already tapering off, and it was not long before closing time before she made an appearance.

Zeena ignored the ponies giving her glares, and joined the short queue. The pony immediately in front of her started shuffling a bit nervously, but held his place. No pony left the café… this time at least.

“Running a bit late today?” Frothy asked when she stepped up to the counter. “And do you want your usual?”

“Yes, please, and actually I wasn’t going to come at all today after learning that your next visitor was still tied up. Looks like he won’t be here tomorrow either.”

“So why did you come?”

“Because I got word from another very important person that she had heard of what we’re trying to do, and she wanted to add her own contribution.”

As Frothy started steaming the milk, he asked, “So what’s so special about this person?”

“I can’t say it publicly, so lean over so I can whisper it, please.”

Curiosity aroused, Frothy leaned over Zeena put her mouth close to his ear. “Expect a royal visitor and her friend,” she whispered.

Frothy nearly spilled the milk with that revelation. “You’re kidding?”

“Nope. Perfectly true. She intends to come tomorrow around our usual time.”

“Then why the secrecy? What about the… normal arrangements for such things?” Frothy struggled to ask without giving away what he had just been told.

Zeena shrugged. “It’s how she wants to do things. Probably doesn’t want to make sideshow out of the visit.”

Frothy finished making the coffee and passed it on to Zeena. “Thanks. Now I’ll be sweating over this all night and half the day tomorrow.”

Zeena grinned. “You’re welcome. Seeya!” She then left, obviously pleased at getting a rise out of him.

Frothy stared after the changeling until the next customer in line coughed and said, “A little service, please!”

Frothy hastily brought his mind back to the job. “Sorry, ma’am. What can I get you?”

* * *

Frothy was about to lock up for the day when a red-maned unicorn entered the shop.

“I’m sorry, sir, but we’re closing for the day,” Frothy told him.

“It’s okay, Frothy, I’m actually here to see Peach. I’m taking her out to the theatre,” the unicorn replied.

Frothy frowned, still not recognising him, but getting a strong sense of familiarity. His efforts to recall were interrupted by his daughter’s voice.

“Hi, Archer! I’m just about finished here. Give me a few minutes to freshen up, and we can be on our way,” Peach said from behind the counter.

Frothy’s eyes widened in recognition. “Red Archer? The changeling guard? What are you doing taking out my daughter?” he said as he stepped up to Archer, challenge in his body language.

Archer took a nervous half-step back before replying, “We’ve been enjoying conversation for a while, so I thought it would be nice to ask her out….”

“You’re going on a date?! I don’t think so! No daughter of mine is going out with a changeling!”

“DAD! STOP IT!” Peach yelled, and came trotting over. She poked her father in the chest with a hoof and said, “First off, I’m twenty-one years old, a full-grown mare, and I can make my own decisions. Secondly, even if I was younger, you don’t get a say in who I date. Thirdly, and I want to make this perfectly clear – Archer is a very nice person, and does not deserve your attitude.” She kept thumping her hoof against him to make her point.

“But he’s not even your species!” he objected strenuously.

“Tell that to the hippogriffs, Dad. I’m sure that they’ll be impressed by your logic.”

“That’s different!” Frothy protested.

“No, it’s not, and I don’t want to hear another word about it. I’m going out with Archer, and that’s the end of the story.” Peach then trotted away, determination in her gait.

Frothy watched her go, silently fuming.

“I’m sorry to have caused you any trouble,” Archer said apologetically.

“I’m sorry you ever turned up in my shop,” Frothy snapped back. “And what’s with you turning up as a unicorn? I thought you were supposed to be promoting changelings by staying in your natural form?”

Archer’s resolve firmed up and he replied, “After dealing with attitudes like yours all day, it’s nice to take a break, so when I’m off-duty, I take my unicorn form to relax and socialise. Until the day I can go out in my natural form and have a pleasant evening without confrontations like these, I’ll keep on doing so.”

“Did it have to be with Peach though?”

“As opposed to somepony else’s daughter? It’s okay if it isn’t your daughter who is going out with a changeling?”

“If it’s okay with her parents, yes.”

“How much more bigoted can you get, Frothy? Changelings have been having relationships with ponies for millennia. What makes your daughter the exception?”

“Because she’s our only child!” Frothy snarled. “It would be too much of a burden on Cherry to have another. Between her growing blindness and her baking, she barely coped with Peach, and now that she’s totally blind, it would be unfair to Cherry to expect her to have another foal. So Peach is, and will remain, our solitary child, and I will do my utmost to protect her. Being associated with a changeling could be hazardous to Peach, and I can’t just ignore that.”

Archer could at last see some reason behind Frothy’s feelings, and his attitude softened. “Do you think that as a Royal Guard, I couldn’t protect her?”

“Can you guarantee that you can? Let me make this crystal clear – if she is hurt because of you, Royal Guard or not, I will break you!” With that, Frothy stalked off.

Archer watched him go, mixed feelings of admiration for Frothy’s devotion and frustration at his bigotry. In any case, he did not doubt Frothy’s threat in the slightest.

* * *

That evening had been somewhat of an anti-climax for Frothy. He had cooled down, especially with the help of his loving wife. Peach had come home at a reasonable hour, told them that they’d had a very nice evening, and then headed for bed. If that had not implied that there would be further dates though, Frothy would have been much happier.

* * *

Frothy kept making silly little mistakes all morning. Expecting an unknown and secretive royal visitor was constantly distracting him. It did not help that Sterling was amused by Frothy’s state of mind when he came by that afternoon.

“What’s got you in a tizzy today, Frothy?” Sterling asked.

“You mean you don’t know what’s going to happen soon?” Frothy replied.

“Not a clue, but now you’ve really got me really wondering if it’s stirring you up so much.”

Frothy smirked. “Good! I’m probably one up on you for once. Seems there’s a lot of secrecy about a visitor I’m expecting.”

Sterling went to his table, and Frothy finished making the various brews for the rest of his squad. When Archer came up, Frothy asked stiffly, “You enjoyed your date?”

Archer nodded. “We seem to have similar tastes in entertainment, so it worked out well.” There was a lull while his coffee was made before he added, “I intend to take Peach out again in a couple of days.”

Frothy managed to stifle his first reaction, and instead said, “I can’t stop you, so I’ll just say that what I said yesterday still applies.”

“Duly noted,” Archer replied, and took his drink to join his squad.

A couple of other non-changeling customers came for coffee and were served, and Frothy was beginning to wonder if his royal visitor was ever going to turn up. Sterling’s squad might have to leave before they turned up.

Just then, a flash of light coming from just outside, accompanied by soft bang, caught his attention. Immediately after that, the door of the café opened to admit what he first thought was a purple unicorn, but then he spotted the folded wings and suddenly realised that this was an alicorn – Princess Twilight Sparkle. Frothy gaped in shock. While he had been told to expect royalty, he had taken that with a grain of salt, and expected someone of slightly lesser stature than one of the four alicorn princesses of Equestria. He was so preoccupied with Twilight though, that he almost did not notice the grey-coated pegasus that followed her inside.

“Ugh! It’s been too long since I teleported with you, Twilight. I’m not used to that anymore,” the pegasus complained.

Frothy hastened to come around the counter to meet the princess, and the Royal Guard were scrambling to attention also. Because they were nearer, they caught her notice first.

Sterling Shield saluted and said, “Princess Sparkle, I was not aware of any official engagement.”

“At ease, Sergeant, this isn’t a formal….”

Before she could finish, Twilight was interrupted by one of the Guards suddenly shouting, “Watch out! That’s a Blue Changeling!”

The Guard started to dash forward, drawing his sword and charging up his horn at the same time. To their credit, the rest of the squad reacted without hesitation, and started converging on the grey pegasus, who dodged behind Twilight in fright.

“Stop!” commanded Twilight, emphasising her order with a hastily thrown up force field.

The nearer Guards bounced off the shield harmlessly, and the squad halted in confusion.

“But your Highness,” Sterling objected, “that pegasus is a Blue Changeling, one of Chrysalis’ minions, and an enemy of the State!”

“I know exactly what and who this pony is, and you probably do also. Let me introduce to you Whirring Cogs, former emotion harvester and now just a mechanic living peacefully in a small township. And most of all, my good friend.”

Recognition dawned on Sterling’s face. “He’s the one who renounced Chrysalis and supplied us information on her hive.”

“Exactly,” Twilight confirmed. “Umm, Cogs, you can stop hiding behind me now.”

Sterling said, “Our apologies, Mister Cogs. We did not realise it was you. We have a capture on sight policy for all Blues, and it didn’t occur to me that you were an ally.”

“No hard feelings,” Cogs replied a little shakily, “but I’d really appreciate it if you don’t scare the crap out of me like that again.”

“Perhaps we can get back to the purpose of our visit now,” Twilight said, turning towards Frothy. “Would you be Frothy Brew?”

“I am, your Highness, and with all due respect, get that thing out of my café!” Frothy said emphatically, pointing an accusing hoof at Cogs.

Twilight blinked in surprise for a few seconds, trying to digest his response, before replying, “Whirring Cogs is the reason for my visit, Mister Brew. I had heard that you have been welcoming changelings and learning more about them. As Princess of Friendship, I wish to help promote this positive social message on behalf of changelings.”

“I wouldn’t say that I exactly welcome changelings; it’s more like advanced tolerance. However, I have no time for any of his kind.”

“But you haven’t even learned anything about Cogs as yet,” Twilight protested.

“I know all that I need to know already. His kind attacked us, and hurt us in unspeakable ways. Several of his cohorts held us captive right here in my café, while one of them ripped the love out of a helpless mare. It’s bad enough that I’m reminded of that every time I see a changeling, but to have one from that actual hive – that’s intolerable, and I want it out of here!”

“Hey!” Cogs objected, “If you want to start insulting me, have the decency to tell me to my face, and stop yelling at Twilight.”

“That’s Princess Sparkle to you, bug,” Frothy snarled, “and you don’t deserve any respect. I have to live with the memory of that horror, but I don’t have to put up with something that would do that to a pony.”

“I never forcibly drained a pony in my life!” Cogs yelled back. “I even clobbered one soldier who started doing that to a mare. I wanted nothing to do with the invasion of Canterlot, but I was forced into complying.”

“A likely story,” Frothy scoffed. “I saw and heard with my own eyes and ears what you lot were doing. I haven’t forgotten it; I can’t forget it. I still have nightmares about it now after all these years.”

“You saw one pony being harmed? I saw dozens of my colleagues being felled by the Royal Guards. All of the emotion harvesters who wanted no part of that madness were stripped of their jobs and thrown into the front lines of the attack with barely any training – arrow fodder – amateurs against trained soldiers.” Tears welled in Cogs eyes as he recalled the events of that day. “I lost more than colleagues; I lost many good friends, some of whom I grew up with. I stood among their lifeless husks, smeared with their blood, and I was shattered. I almost died that day, and at the time I almost wished that I had died. I still remember the horrors that I saw done to both sides, and I still have nightmares about it too. How dare you condemn me for something that you know so little about?!”

“Know? Who cares about invaders who attack peaceful ponies? If you hadn’t attacked us, you would not have lost your so-called friends. If you hated it so much, why didn’t you just quit?” Frothy accused.

“Quit? You can’t just quit the hive” Cogs said scornfully. “Changelings are linked to their hive, and their queen especially. We may be able to make objections, but if our queen orders us to do something, we can’t help but to obey. While I was in the hive, or with the swarm, that link bound me and all the others. It wasn’t until I was cut off from the hive that I was finally able to break the link.”

“It’s true, Frothy,” Sterling interjected. “Remember what I told you about the hive bond and how our queen had to withdraw it from us? We’re actually amazed that Cogs managed to break it on his own.”

Frothy scowled at Sterling. “Nobody asked your opinion, Sterling, and that still doesn’t do anything about the nightmares that I have suffered because of his kind.”

Cogs laughed bitterly. “You want to talk about nightmares? I had terrible ones for days after I broke the link. Pain and death at the hooves of Chrysalis were my companions each night. The ghosts of slain ponies haunted my dreams. I still have nightmares occasionally, but the love of my wife soothes me and brings back peace to me.”

Frothy was getting aggravated by how the changeling was constantly countering his arguments, as if it was the wronged one, but the mention of a wife set him off on a touchy subject. “You’re stealing some poor mare’s love? How can you say that you’re innocent?!”

“Don’t you dare drag my wife into this!” Cogs snarled. “I told you I don’t steal love. She found me injured, gave me a place to recover and the strength to break my link to Chrysalis. She fell in love with me, and I with her, and I get all the sustenance I need passively. And even though that’s more than enough, I get still more from my children. I do not rip love from anypony!

“You… have children? But that’s impossible!” Frothy objected, distracted from his tirade by that revelation.

“No it’s not, as long as you have the right magical assistance,” Cogs said, indicating Twilight.

The alicorn had been waiting for an opportune moment to break into the argument. “I can verify that Cogs has two darling little fillies, and that they definitely have some of his traits, because I crafted the spell that enabled it. He is a devoted father and husband, and a person well worth knowing.”

Frothy cast a suspicious eye on Twilight for the first time. “How very touching. How do I know that you’re not a changeling too, and feeding me more lies?”

Sterling frowned and said, “Watch it, Frothy Brew – this is the genuine Princess Sparkle that you’re insulting.”

“Sure!” scoffed Frothy. “A changeling vouches for a changeling. How convenient.”

Twilight gave him an irritated glare. “You want proof? So be it!”

With that, her horn lit up with the glow of magic, but rather than something being done with it, the glow continued to grow. And grow. And GROW! It was not very long before the terrible pressure of the magical potential was pressing on all the occupants of the café, and still it kept increasing. Frothy realised that it already dwarfed by far anything any unicorn could do, let alone a changeling, and he began to fear what might happen if he let the demonstration continue any longer.

“Enough! I believe you!” Frothy shouted.

Twilight drew back her magic, but the room was still buzzing with the residue. Sparks jumped between metal objects, or arced to the floor to ground themselves out. Frothy was sweating from the realisation of what he had done in his fit of anger.

Frothy bowed low and said, “Forgive me for doubting you, your Highness.”

“One more demonstration, Mister Brew,” Twilight said sternly, and with a flash, she and he disappeared from the café.

Moments later, they reappeared on a balcony high on Canterlot castle. Frothy reeled a little from the disorientating (and slightly nauseating) teleport, but then gasped when he realised where they were.

“Your Highness, I already said that I believed you; why did you bring me here?”

Twilight gestured to indicate the room behind them. “These are my quarters when I visit Canterlot. I don’t use them much because my home is in Ponyville, but I do enjoy the view from here. Look down and around you, Mister Brew. What do you see?”

Frothy did as he was told, and saw the streets of the city clearly, with ponies of all kinds going about their affairs. Although the perspective was new, the scenes were not. “I see a normal day in Canterlot.”

“Exactly! It’s a typical peaceful day, with the normal, everyday happenings that have been going on for decades, or even centuries. And among all those ponies are many changelings who have also been going about their business in a normal, peaceful manner for the same amount of time. The invasion of Canterlot by the mad queen, Chrysalis, did more to harm those changelings in the long run than it did the other citizens of Canterlot. There were victims on both sides of that conflict, but most ponies have recovered and moved on with their lives. Others cling onto their hatred, and end up blaming the blameless. I thought that you were doing something positive about that with your tolerance of changelings in your café where many other businesses refuse to deal with them. Was I wrong about that? Have I erred in showing you that not even all the Blue Changelings are bad?”

Frothy struggled to answer, and for a long while he was silent. Eventually he replied, “Princess, while what you have said may be true, our trust has been violated by a race that has practiced deception for longer than anypony can say. How can that trust be restored?”

“You’re right – trust has to be restored, but it has to be done by both sides. The changelings are already reaching out to ponies by walking among them undisguised. It’s the turn of ponies like you to meet them halfway.”

In a flash, they were back in the café.

“And it starts right here,” Twilight finished.

Frothy looked around at the changelings who were observing him keenly, and then he looked at Cogs who seemed to have an air of expectancy about him.

“So,” Frothy began, “you have a wife and two foals?” he asked Cogs.

Cogs nodded. “A unicorn mare who means everything to me, and a pegasus and a unicorn foals who make me so proud to be a father.”

“Do your neighbours know that you’re a changeling?”

“No, but I’m not trying to do what Twilight is doing. I’m just trying to be a normal pegasus stallion living a normal, quiet life with my family.”

“I believe you because the Princess has convinced me that you’re telling the truth, but the hurt is still within me. Why did your queen invade us?” Frothy pleaded for an answer.

“Chrysalis is not my queen anymore, Mister Brew, but to answer you – I honestly can’t say for sure. It made no sense whatsoever to us emotion harvesters. How long she had her mad plans for power, I cannot even imagine. I guess that I was too much a part of the pony world to notice what was happening back at the hive.”

“Then as far as I can tell, it could happen again. How can I be expected to trust a Blue Changeling in the future?”

Cogs looked deeply sad. “Mister Brew, as far as we know, I am the only survivor of the emotion harvesters. Any other Blue Changelings that you might ever meet will be bound to Chrysalis’ will, and won’t be worth trusting.”

Frothy nodded. “Thank you for your honesty, Mister Cogs.” He hesitated for a moment before adding, “These other changelings have been telling me how their hives have benefitted Equestrian society. How did yours before things went sour?”

Cogs replied proudly, “Our specialty was discovering the hidden, whether it was information or a problem. We were researchers, advisors to businesses and governments, and trouble-shooters. I was a fix-it pony. Show me a mechanical problem and I could solve it. If it was fixable, I could fix it. That was the source of our pride before everything went wrong. You would probably be astounded at the number of discoveries and advances that are directly attributable to members of my former hive.”

“And now Equestria has lost all that potential?” Frothy asked.

“Both sides have lost this one, Mister Brew. It was always a two-way street,” Cogs replied.

“Call me Frothy, Cogs. For what it’s worth, you are at least as welcome to return as this lot,” Frothy said with a sweep of his hoof indicating the Guards.

“Thanks, Frothy, but with no disrespect intended, I don’t intend to come back to Canterlot anytime in the near future.”

Frothy’s trademark smirk returned briefly. “I can understand that.”

Cogs turned to Twilight and said, “I think we’re done here. Can we go home now? I feel the need for a hug from Lavender.”

“I’d say we’ve accomplished what we came here for. Goodbye, everypony!” Twilight said to all gathered there.

The Royal Guards saluted, and Frothy said, “Goodbye, Princess.”

In a flash, Twilight and Cogs were gone, leaving a bemused unicorn with the squad of changelings.

Frothy glared at the Guards. “Aren’t you overdue to get back to work? Show’s over! Get out of here before I report you to the Captain of the Guard for dereliction of duty!”

Sterling grinned and replied, “Yes, sir! Squad – double-time!”

The changeling Guards marched quickly out of the café, leaving Frothy to his thoughts. Belatedly he noticed Peach watching him from behind the counter. “How much did you see?” he asked.

“Most of it,” Peach replied and started coming around the counter to meet him. “I’m proud of you for putting aside your hate for Cogs, Dad.”

Frothy acknowledged that with a nod. “How could I not empathise with another father?” He drew Peach into his embrace. “We both have our families to love and care for.”

 

 


 

Chapter 6: True Brew

Frothy was still a little uncertain about his feelings about Cogs the next day. Logically, he understood that the pegasus was a helpless pawn in Queen Chrysalis’ plans, but it was still hard to accept that a Blue Changeling could be totally blameless. What he did know was that he would never have acquiesced to Princess Twilight’s viewpoint so quickly back when all this changeling nonsense had started. Were they really wearing down his resistance to them? If so, why couldn’t he warm up to them? Cherry had told him in no uncertain terms that she sensed no ill will in them, and although his wife was blind, he trusted her ability to judge these things far better than he could. His own daughter liked one of them enough to go out on a date with him! Still, every time Frothy tried to accept their viewpoints, the vision of Miss Kettle’s mind rape kept coming back to him and made him shudder in disgust.

Fortunately for Frothy, business soon picked up enough that he could not spare a thought for those unsettling matters, and they did not resurface until the afternoon lull, and the by now habitual arrival of the changeling Royal Guards. At least they spent up well every day, and his takings had improved since becoming regular customers. He had not finished serving them all before a new arrival caught his eye. Although it was obviously a changeling, it was significantly different from all the others he had seen so far. Whereas all five previous had crests, this one had a proper mane, white in colour and a matching bushy tail. Also, while its back carapace was coloured a strong yellow in the manner that the other changelings had distinctive colours, the body of this one was a light shade of yellow rather than the dark grey or brown of the others. Finally, although it had the holes in its limbs like other changelings, there were no voids in its wings, mane or tail. It was the most pony-like changeling that Frothy had ever seen, and it had a proud and wise bearing that was so different from the others too.

The newcomer took a place at the back of the remaining queue and patiently waited. The curiosity of the Reds was obvious, but it paled compared to Frothy’s. At last it was the Yellow’s turn and he waited to hear what it had to say.

“A vanilla latte in a cup, please,” the Yellow Changeling ordered.

The anticlimactic statement momentarily left Frothy nonplussed, but he quickly recovered and started making the coffee. “Is there anything else that I can do for you?” Frothy asked.

“Yes, actually, Mister Brew. If you can spare the time, I would appreciate it if you would come sit with me while we have a talk.”

“Then you are the changeling that I’ve been expecting to see for a few days?”

“I am, and I must apologise for my inability to come here sooner. As a busy pony yourself, you must be able to appreciate the difficulty there is sometimes to get a free moment in your schedule.”

Frothy was bemused by this changeling. Not only did it look different, but it certainly had very different mannerisms. “Unless another customer walks in the door, I’m free as soon as I have your drink ready.”

“Excellent,” the changeling said with a tight smile that betrayed no fangs.

Frothy passed the completed brew to the Yellow and asked, “Would you care to order a pastry with that?”

“No, thank you.”

The changeling paid for his drink and levitated it over to a nearby unoccupied table.

Frothy said to Peach, “If a customer comes in while we’re talking, please see to them.”

“Right, Dad,” Peach replied.

Frothy walked over to join the Yellow Changeling and sat down opposite the table from it. “You obviously know who I am, so who are you?”

The Yellow sipped some of his coffee first before replying, “Yes, I do know who you are, although it was first by your reputation for good coffee and pastries, and not this current interesting development in pony-changeling relations. It was quite fascinating to me to find out that your establishment has become the focal point of so much interest lately. Anyway, my hive name is Kallistum, but I’m not one of the changelings that have been presenting themselves in their natural form in public. Very few of us Yellow Changelings have chosen to do so, but that’s because our primary professions require a close and trusting relationship with ponies, and that is somewhat hard for us to achieve in the current circumstances without our pony alter egos.” Kallistum paused to take another sip of the coffee.

Frothy took the opportunity to ask, “What kind of things do you do then that requires such secrecy?”

“We are a very spiritual species, and we offer guidance in such matters, counselling for troubled ponies, and are involved in such things as foal-protection services, orphanages, and homeless shelters. In light of what Chrysalis did for the reputation of changelings, we can hardly afford to have our work undermined by fear and mistrust.”

“I find it hard to believe that you would be so deeply involved in those kinds of things,” Frothy said with a look of scepticism firmly on his face.

“I would ask you why, but it’s obvious that you have seen the worst of our kind, and find it hard to imagine the best. Therefore I’m not going to try to convince you of anything today.”

Frothy blinked in surprise. “You’re not? You certainly give up easily for somepony who professes to give counselling.”

“I said nothing about giving up,” Kallistum replied with a tolerant smile. “Instead, I am inviting you to see for yourself exactly what some of my kind does, and judge us on that.”

“And where and when exactly would that be?”

“The where is the Royal Canterlot Orphanage. The when is up to you because as I said earlier, we are both busy people, but I would suggest tomorrow afternoon during your usual afternoon lull. Your lovely daughter is quite capable of managing briefly without you, I believe?”

“You seem to know a lot about me and the café, Kallistum,” Frothy accused.

“I told you that I knew of your reputation before this. I have been a customer here on several occasions, although obviously in a pony alter ego. I confess a weakness for good coffee.” Kallistum held up his cup. “You never fail to please, Mister Brew.” He then drained the remaining coffee.

Frothy pondered the invitation for a while Kallistum patiently waited for an answer. In the end, it was sheer curiosity that won him over. “Okay, I’ll try to be there tomorrow, circumstances permitting.”

“Excellent. I will inform my secretary to expect you. Just ask for Director Guiding Hoof at the reception desk.”

“You’re the director of the orphanage?” Frothy asked, surprised once again.

“Yes, I am. Her Highness Princess Celestia was surprised to learn that also, but reaffirmed her royal patronage of the orphanage after her review of it.”

Frothy suddenly felt as if the princesses were ganging up on him. Two of them now had given their express approval of changelings, and that made him question his own feelings about them even more greatly. He had to learn more. “I’ll be there,” he affirmed.

“I look forward to seeing you then, Mister Brew. Until then, I wish you a pleasant day.” Kallistum got up from the table, gave the Red Changelings a nod, a smile to Peach, and then left.

Frothy wandered back behind the counter and said to Peach, “That has got to be the most… different person that I’ve met so far.”

“Interesting to hear you call him a person already,” Peach noted.

“Huh! How about that? I never anticipated anything quite like him. Curiosity is going to keep me on tenterhooks until tomorrow. Are you going to be okay coping for an hour or so by yourself?”

“I was thinking of asking Nimble Steps if she would like to do an extra shift tomorrow. That will let you take as much time as you need.”

Nimble Steps was their part-time help for the busy morning and lunch periods, and she usually was available for extra shifts for special occasions. While Frothy had not originally considered this to be a lengthy visit, he decided he might as well leave his options open. “Okay, let’s do that.”

* * *

Frothy had no difficulty finding the orphanage as he was already aware of its location. He paused for a long moment before entering however, considering how little he had thought of it before, never dreaming that changelings might have a significant part in running it. His world was being rocked all too frequently lately like that. The building was unexceptional, fitting in with the local architecture. It was a three-storey edifice with large fenced-off grounds adjacent to it. Frothy could see foals of various ages playing games, chatting with friends, or just sitting on the grass and enjoying the sunny day. There was laughter to be heard, and smiles to be seen, so the foals seemed to be happy there. The building and grounds looked well maintained too, so it seemed like a pleasant environment for those unfortunate children.

Frothy took a deep breath and then pushed open the front door to enter the reception area. There he found a middle-aged unicorn mare seated behind the receptionist’s desk.

“Can I help you, sir,” the mare asked with a pleasant smile.

“Yes – Frothy Brew to see Director Guiding Hoof, please,” Frothy replied.

“Ah, yes, Mister Brew. You are expected. Please wait for one moment while I check to see if the director is free at this moment.”

“Thanks.” Frothy would have been surprised if he had been able to just walk straight in to the director’s office, and he settled in to wait.

The receptionist returned quickly and said, “Director Hoof will be available in about ten minutes. Could I offer you a drink in the meantime?”

“A cup of water would be appreciated, thanks.”

It was nearer to twelve minutes before a unicorn stallion came out to the reception area to meet Frothy, and although he had never seen this stallion before, Frothy knew instantly that it was Kallistum. The colour of his coat was still the same pale yellow, his mane and tail virtually unchanged, and his pony eyes were yellow also. Aside from the lack of wings, there was not a whole lot of change from his natural form.

“Mister Brew! I am very happy to see you. Please forgive the delay, but without knowing exactly when, or even if you would come, I could not schedule my time better.”

“Not a problem, Director Hoof. I expected as much,” Frothy replied.

“Very good. Come with me to my office, please. We have a little to discuss before we take a little tour of the place. As you may have noticed, the children are playing outside at the moment during recess, and I’d like you to see them doing their normal daily activities inside.”

Frothy followed Guiding Hoof down a hallway to an office marked with a sign that proclaimed:

Dr. GUIDING HOOF Ph.D.
DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS

Doctor Guiding Hoof?” Frothy queried as they entered the office.

“Yes, I graduated with a degree in psychology from the University of Canterlot. Does that surprise you so much, Mister Brew?” Guiding Hoof replied as he closed the door behind them and went to sit behind his desk.

“Frankly, yes. I admit to never having considered that possibility,” Frothy admitted. “And please call me Frothy.”

“That is one of the things that you need to understand about us changelings, Frothy. We may be born and raised in the hive, but those of us that have shown aptitude will frequently be given further education in pony institutions. That enables us to get more familiar with the ponies with whom we’ll be living, and a better understanding of their needs.”

“Makes sense now that I think about it, although it does make me wonder about some of my own classmates now.”

Guiding Hoof chuckled. “I think you’ll find that some ponies are stranger in their behaviour than most changelings you have been ever likely to meet. We’re all thoroughly socialised before we’re allowed to venture out by ourselves from the hive.”

Frothy was embarrassed to realise that Guiding Hoof was probably right, so he changed the subject. “Speaking of familiarity, your pony alter-ego is very similar to your changeling appearance. Weren’t you afraid of ponies associating your two selves when you visited the café?”

“I’ll let you into a little secret, Frothy. I changed into my natural form in an inconspicuous laneway near your shop before I arrived, and changed back there later. Very few ponies actually saw me as a changeling, and none of those saw me as a unicorn. As I told you in the café, I need to keep my secret to maintain trust.”

“And yet you trusted me with that secret, despite knowing that I only tolerate changelings and don’t actually like your kind?”

“I did, and specifically because I want your trust also. How can I persuade you of our good intentions if I keep secrets from you? The changeling community is putting a lot of hope into this project, and we all have to do our part.”

“So I’m a project now?” Frothy asked with trademark smirk.

“Indeed you are. With every new encounter, you have learned a bit more about us, and you tolerate us in your own gruff manner. Tell me, if you had met that Blue Changeling before you ever met Sergeant Sterling Shield or the others, what would you have done?”

“Probably thrown him through a window and hoped the glass would give him a fatal cut,” Frothy admitted.

“But you parted with him on relatively amicable terms instead. Why is that?”

“I think you know already.”

“I’d like to hear it in your own words, please.”

“I have been learning a lot about changelings, and come to realise that they aren’t to blame for the invasion. Princess Twilight Sparkle convinced me that Whirring Cogs was an exception to the Blues, and he’s a family stallion like me, so I was forced to admit that he was no different from the rest of the changelings that I tolerate.”

Guiding Hoof nodded. “So with all that in mind, why do you merely tolerate us rather than actually like us? And I’m not speaking of individuals such as Weighty Words or Punchline.”

Frothy was a little startled. “You know those two revealed themselves to me?”

“As I said, Frothy, you’re a project, and both of them volunteered that information to us. However, you are avoiding the question.”

Frothy frowned. “If you must know, it’s because of how you eat our emotions, especially our love. If that wasn’t enough to creep me out, it’s the memory of seeing a mare being forcefully drained of her love that sickens me every time I see a changeling. How can I be friends with any creature that can do that to a pony?”

“So we can assume that the trauma of that event forms the basis of your problem. Can you tell me what help you have sought to deal with that?”

“Help? Why should I need help? I’ve moved on from the events of that day and got on with my life.”

“I’m sorry, Frothy, but it’s quite clear that you have not moved on. You have shoved it into a corner of your mind and let it fester for years. Other ponies who have had similar experiences have sought help with coping, and have far better mental health because of it.”

“I thought that I was here to see what good you Yellow Changelings do, not to analyse me?” Frothy queried with a scowl.

“Frothy, counselling is one of the things we do…” Guiding Hoof began before being interrupted by a ringing bell. “Ah! Recess is over. Come, Mister Brew. If you want to see more, then more you shall see.”

Frothy followed Guiding Hoof out of the office and into the hallway. Ahead of them on a cross-hall, there was a stampede of foals hastening to various destinations.

“Where are they going?” Frothy asked.

“It’s a week day, and they have school, just like any other foal their age. We not only feed and shelter the orphans, but also continue their education until such time as they are adopted. No foal in our care is ever disadvantaged by their circumstances. Come, take a walk with me.”

They headed up to the cross hall, turned right, and were almost run down by a pegasus colt.

“Sorry!” the colt said and picked up a book that he had dropped.

“Why aren’t you in class, Quick Wit?” Guiding Hoof asked.

“Forgot my textbook, Mister Guide. Gotta go!” With that, the colt dashed off.

Guiding Hoof chuckled. “One of our brightest students, but he’s so absentminded sometimes.”

“He called you ‘Guide’ – why’s that?” Frothy asked curiously.

Guiding Hoof smiled. “I am not their boss, nor their parent. I am simply their guide while they are in my care. That is what they call me, and I like that.” He led them up to one of the rooms along the hall and they peered in through the window.

Frothy did not know what to expect, but the utter normalcy of the scene was still a surprise. It was a classroom with foals seated at desks – some attentive, and some fidgeting, just like any other class. They moved onto another room where pre-schoolers were being supervised in play activities. Another room had a few slightly older foals doing more advanced classes. The next had just one teenage unicorn being tutored.

“What is he doing here?” Frothy asked, indicating the teenager.

Guiding Hoof looked a little sad. “He’s one of the true victims of the invasion. His parents were both killed, and he had no family to take him in, so he was sent to us. The problem with foals his age is that no pony wants to adopt an older child. They all want either a baby or young foal to raise. It’s very likely that he will be with us until he comes of age and can move out on his own.”

Frothy snorted, and said, “That’s ironic. Parents killed by changelings, then ends up being raised by changelings.”

“A bitter irony, yes, although I will point out that only about a quarter of the staff here are changelings. The rest of them are regular ponies.”

“Do the ponies know that some of you are changelings?”

“A few. The receptionist you met knows, and a few of the higher placed staff. Some of them knew long before the invasion and we started a policy of trying to integrate ourselves.”

That surprised Frothy. “You told some ponies about changelings?” he asked incredulously.

“We always have, Frothy. While we have operated under a cloak of secrecy for the most part, there have always been some ponies whom we’ve entrusted with the knowledge of our existence. That it remained a secret shows the trust that they had in us.”

“You’re revealing your secrets to me now. Are you saying that you trust me with them?”

“You have your reasons to mistrust my kind, so it’s up to us to give you reason not to. You have it within your power to do us great harm with what I am telling you, and what the others have told you. We’re asking you to see the good that we do, and trust us to be friends to ponies.”

“That’s a lot to ask for, considering that we were invaded by a whole hive of changelings,” Frothy pointed out.

Guiding Hoof nodded solemnly in agreement. “That is a valid point, but I can point out in return that ponies are hardly angels themselves. You have a long history of wars between yourselves, and with other races. It was not until the unification of the three tribes of ponies that peace was made and Equestria was born. Conflicts still occur occasionally too. Neither ponies nor changelings are perfect, Frothy – don’t let recent events cloud your perception of reality. I don’t think that you need to be told yet again that we will do our best to see that the likes of Chrysalis never do such damage again if it’s within our power to prevent it.”

Frothy mulled that over as they moved on and took stairs to the next level. They entered a room which turned out to be a crèche. One baby was crying softly in its crib while others slept. A mare was feeding two others – one from a bottle and the other naturally. She looked up when they entered and said, “Good afternoon, Doctor.”

“Good afternoon, Sweet Milk. How are the infants doing today?”

“They’re all doing fine, sir. No unusual problems to report.”

“Excellent. I hope you don’t get too attached to that one though,” Guiding Hoof said, indicating the one at her teats. “We have a prospective couple looking to adopt a pegasus colt.”

Sweet Milk looked fondly at the foal. “You know I can’t help but get attached to all of them, but I’ll be glad to see him get a good home.”

“Good. I’ll let you know how that progresses. Come along, Frothy.” Guiding Hoof headed out the door again with Frothy in tow.

As they walked down the hall, Guiding Hoof said, “Pop quiz, Frothy – was that a pony or a changeling looking after those infants?”

Frothy thought for a moment before replying, “I honestly couldn’t tell, but since you’re asking, I’m going to guess and say that she was a changeling.”

“A very good guess. Yes, Sweet Milk is our best wet nurse and also a changeling. She uses her ability to always keep herself in milk for our infants. She absolutely loves them all, and because she can taste their emotions, she is very responsive to their needs, and so they are usually very contented and loving in return. She is always full of energy because of that.”

“You’re saying that because she’s a changeling, she can do the job better than a pony, and both she and the foals get what they need.”

“Right again, Frothy. She is a very graphic example of our symbiotic relationship with ponies. We both have our needs, and we both can contribute in our own ways. That way we all benefit – a win-win situation as they like to say.”

Frothy found it impossible to think of a reason to disagree.

They continued on, and Guiding Hoof showed Frothy the other facilities including a small nurse’s station, a library, and an indoor sports room. On the top floor, they had a mess hall and a dormitory that consisted of lots of single-bed and two-bed rooms. They were kept clean, but not ridiculously so. They were obviously lived in by foals, but ones who took pride in their rooms.

“Some of the foals prefer to sleep with a roomie, hence the two-bed rooms. It makes them feel safer and more secure. Often it’s the new arrivals who use those rooms, only later getting a room of their own. We go to great lengths to ensure that our charges are comforted when they come to us, and they are counselled also if they’re traumatised by the events that orphaned them. When they are ready, they get their own room to decorate as they please, within reason. A happy, well-adjusted foal is much easier to place into a new family.”

“You make this place sound too perfect, Doctor Hoof,” Frothy said with a touch of scepticism.

“I suppose I have, Frothy, and I wish it was. There are always problem children though, and there are the unfortunates like Flapjack, the teenager you saw earlier, who may never leave the system. It’s an imperfect world, my friend, and we can only do our best for the ones that come under our care.”

“So what do you do with the problem foals?”

“We have counsellors including myself. We try to get to the root of their problems and resolve them. Sometimes they are too mentally scarred by their experiences to ever be truly whole though. Again, we are not perfect, but we have a lot of success. It’s one of the reasons that Princess Celestia is our patron. She was extremely impressed with our methods, and quite moved by how we took care of the foals orphaned in the invasion. I was quite flattered by her praise, I confess.”

Again Frothy was confronted by the approval of the Princess, and who was he to disagree? An ageless monarch with centuries of experience surely knew better than a middle-aged stallion running a café. So why couldn’t he shake the dislike of changelings?

“Come with me, Frothy. I have one more place to show you,” Guiding Hoof said.

He took them back down to the ground floor, and went into one of the offices along the first hallway where his own office was located. This one though opened up on one wall into a small walled garden with a fountain splashing in one corner. Various shrubs and flowers bloomed, filling the air with sweet scents.

Guiding Hoof said, “This is one of our counselling rooms. It’s designed to be soothing and private, so our charges can relax and tell us their problems.”

“It looks very nice,” agreed Frothy.

“While these facilities are primarily for the children here, it’s still used occasionally by adults. Sometimes the ponies who come seeking a child to adopt need a bit of counselling of their own. Some of them are adopting for the wrong reasons, and some need to understand what they are getting into better.”

Frothy nodded. “Makes sense, I suppose.”

“I would like to counsel you, Frothy,” Guiding Hoof said earnestly.

“What?! I don’t need counselling!” Frothy objected.

“Lots of ponies were traumatised by the invasion, Frothy. While some of them recovered on their own, many sought help to deal with the things that they witnessed; things such as what you saw. They were terrible things, and they linger in your mind and taint your perspective. I have tasted the fear, anger, and hatred within you, my friend.”

“I don’t hate changelings – I just don’t like your species,” Frothy insisted. “That’s not a crime, is it?”

“I never said that you hated us. It’s the abomination that you witnessed that you hate and fear.”

“And you think that by talking about it, I can magically be healed? I don’t think so!”

“Others have felt the same way, but have had their lives improved by counselling,” Guiding Hoof argued.

“I am not going to be counselled by a changeling!” Frothy said with finality.

“I see. If that’s the case, I cannot ever see us being in complete agreement, and making this project a complete success. Frothy, while we seek acceptance, we would much prefer friendship. As Princess Twilight Sparkle could tell you, it’s the most powerful form of magic in Equestria, and one that benefits everypony. Gaining your friendship would mean far more to us, but it can never be until you rid yourself of that fear and anger.”

“Then you’ll be waiting a long time, Doctor Hoof,” Frothy said defiantly.

Guiding Hoof sighed and was silent for a long moment. Then he said, “I have one last alternative to offer.”

“Oh? What’s that?” Frothy’s curiosity was piqued.

“It’s a uniquely changeling method. I can draw out those negative emotions. Just as your Miss Kettle had her love drained, so I can do that for your fear and hatred.”

“You want to rip emotions out of me? You want me to be unable to feel those things anymore ever again?” Frothy asked in disbelief. “Copper Kettle was so unable to love that she left her husband!”

“Frothy, draining a pony of her love does not destroy her ability to love. In fact, the lack would have instinctively drawn her to someone who loved her. That she left her husband indicates that she was in a loveless marriage, or he was mistreating her, or somepony else loved her far more whom she could love in return. Draining you of your fear and hatred would not stop you from fearing or hating again, but it would stop poisoning your mind and bring you peace. You would not have nightmares about that anymore either.”

“I just said no to counselling by you, so why should I say yes to this? It sounds even more frightening!”

“Counselling can be a long and drawn-out affair. It can be a bit traumatic too as you force yourself to confront your fears. The other method is quick, relatively simple, and not nearly as traumatic.”

“Then why didn’t you offer that first?”

“Everything has its price, Frothy.”

“It’s not one that I’m willing to pay, Doctor Hoof. Good day and goodbye!” Frothy spun around and trotted out the door.

“Wait, Frothy!” Guiding Hoof called out as he started to follow. “I didn’t say that it was you that had to pay that price.”

However, Frothy either did not hear, or chose not to hear, and quickly left the building.

* * *

“How did the meeting go?” Peach asked her father when he returned to the café.

“He showed me all the good things that Yellow Changelings do, and that was impressive,” Frothy admitted.

“I sense a ‘but’ in there,” Peach said with a little concern.

“Then he wanted to counsel me about my experience with the changeling draining Miss Kettle’s love.”

“That’s great… isn’t it? We know that it has been bothering you since it happened.”

“You think that I would trust a changeling? If I ever did seek counselling, it would be with a pony, only now I can’t ever be sure that the counsellor is a pony.”

“Dad, you’ve got to learn to trust them sometime,” Peach insisted.

“No, I don’t, and that’s the last I want to hear about it.”

* * *

Frothy was not to get his wish though. Peach told her mother what he had said, and that night, Cherry confronted him with it.

“Frothy Brew, I am very cross with you!” Cherry started.

Frothy knew he was in trouble the moment that he heard her use his full name. “Why are you cross, dear?”

“I hear that you have knocked back counselling.”

“From a changeling, yes,” he confirmed.

“So you’re quite prepared to continue to wake me up in the middle of the night with your screaming because of the nightmares that event has given you ever since?”

“You know I can’t help that, and I hate disturbing you,” Frothy argued.

“Apparently you don’t hate it enough to do something about it after all these years.”

“I won’t do it with a changeling!”

“You wouldn’t do it even before you knew that some counsellors were changelings. Well, I’ve had enough, and I’m putting my hoof down. Either you do something about this, or else you’ll be sleeping in a separate room from me until you do.”

Frothy’s jaw dropped in shock. “You’d do that? You’d force me to into counselling?”

Cherry’s tone softened. “No, my love, I won’t force you into anything. I’m asking that if you love me, please learn to trust them for once in your life.” She then turned and, despite her blindness, unerringly marched out of the room.

Frothy just stood there watching her leave, his mind full of confusion.

* * *

Cherry’s blind eyes turned to face Frothy as he entered their bedroom that evening. She waited expectantly.

Frothy said, “I’ll go see Guiding Hoof again tomorrow. May I come to bed now?”

Cherry pulled back the covers. “Please do, my love.”

Frothy got into bed and his wife snuggled up to him.

“Thank you,” she said. “I would have hated being alone in this bed.”

“Only for you would I do this, y’know?” he asked.

“That means a lot to me, dear. Let me show you how much.”

And then they made love with a passion undimmed by the years.

* * *

Frothy entered the Royal Canterlot Orphanage the next afternoon. Before he could say anything, the receptionist said, “Mister Brew! Welcome back. Doctor Hoof said that I was to send you to him immediately if you returned.”

“Oh. Well, I suppose that’s a good thing,” Frothy answered with a weak smile.

“Go right on in, sir. He’s available right now.”

“Thanks,” Frothy said, and headed for Guiding Hoof’s office. He raised a hoof to knock on the door, and hesitated. Once inside, he knew he would be committed, and that still frightened him. However, he firmed his resolve and knocked.

“Come in!” came Guiding Hoof’s voice from behind the door.

Frothy entered and meekly said, “Hello again, Doctor.”

Guiding Hoof’s face lit up with pleasure. “Frothy! I am so pleased that you chose to return. I was truly hoping that you would. What made you decide to come back? Last I tasted your emotions, you were full of fear and revulsion.”

“Thank my wife for the change of heart. She’s the one who showed me that my feelings were affecting our relationship also. She gave me an ultimatum to do something about it, and the mere fact that she had to do so proves that that she is right. I was finishing each day feeling aggravated by all the changelings visiting my shop, and transferring that to her without even realizing it. It’s even been affecting my relationship with my daughter. Up until recently, we have never had any serious disagreements, but now we’re butting heads every day just because she’s been dating a changeling.”

“It's good that you have realised this, and it's certainly a positive step towards dealing with your problems, but are you certain that you are doing this for the right reasons, and you're not just feeling pressured into this decision?” Guiding Hoof inquired. “If I treat this problem but not its underlying cause, it will likely just come back again.”

“Of course I’m being pressured! However it's a pressure that I chose to bear long ago. I accepted the burden of being a good husband and father, and right now I feel that I am doing a less than wonderful job of it, and that hurts.”

“So, you are content that this is entirely your choice?”

“It is,” Frothy affirmed.

“Good. So what course of action have you decided to take?”

“I’ll take the second option – take away those unwanted feelings.”

“Are you absolutely sure, Frothy? Yesterday you were appalled by the very idea,” Guiding Hoof pointed out.

Frothy snorted in disgust. “Don’t get me wrong – it still gives me the creeps just thinking about it, but Cherry asked me to trust you for once, and because I trust her, I will do as she asks. I gave her my word that I would, and besides, I’m tired of dealing with the pain of those memories. I want neither that nor my wife’s disapproval, so that seems to cover them both.”

“Very well, Frothy. Just so you understand exactly what you are in for, the process will not be pleasant. What comes out will not do so without experiencing it all over again.”

“You warned me that there would be a price to pay, so I’m ready for it,” Frothy reassured him.

“No, Frothy, the greater price will be mine to pay,” Guiding Hoof said solemnly.

“What do you mean?”

“Never mind. Just call Flora – the receptionist – when we’re finished. She will know what needs to be done.”

“Um… okay. What do I do now?”

“This is the part where you must really trust me, because there’s no other way to drain you of those negative emotions.”

Frothy suddenly realised what Guiding Hoof meant. He pointed towards his neck. “You have to…” His voice trailed off.

“Yes, exactly. Are you ready?”

“As ready as I can ever be to let somebody bite me,” Frothy replied before angling his head to expose his neck more.

There was a flare of white magic, and the changeling, Kallistum, stood there in Guiding Hoof’s place. His lips drew back to expose the short, normally-hidden fangs, and then he leaned forward to bite Frothy’s neck.

Frothy was surprised that it did not really hurt much. He felt the fangs puncture his skin, but they did not go deeper. Then he felt a strange and indescribable sensation as there was a connection made between the changeling and his brain. There was a swirl of all kinds of emotions until certain ones came to the fore. First he felt the horror of reliving the sight of Copper Kettle of being drained of her love, and the revulsion at the feeding process twisting his guts. The terrible keening of Miss Kettle as she lost the love of a lifetime stabbed him like a spear of ice through the heart. Then came the fear rolling over him like the deepest and blackest cloud, and he trembled in terror. The changelings would feed on all of them! Then it all faded away, only to be replaced by guilt. He had escaped being drained of his love by luck alone. He could not even protect his customers or his friends. He should have been the one to be first! He should have saved Miss Kettle from that fate. He collapsed to his knees under the weight of the crushing guilt until it too faded away. Anger filled the void and blossom into rage. How could any species do such an unspeakable act to another? Such a race did not disturb to exist! He screamed his fury at the atrocity, and then his ire was spent. Hate! His hatred of what had been done seemed boundless – a pool of ebon that was deep and deadly. Such a thing should never be allowed to happen again, and he would never cease to hate the cause of it. Only he did. The hate flowed out of him as had the other negative emotions, and at last he felt peace.

Frothy felt Kallistum disengage his bite, and he stood there in a fog of blessed relief. Until this moment, he had not realised the weight of the burden of his feelings because of that incident. Now he felt better than he had in years. He searched his feelings about the incident, and although he still recalled it clearly, his fears and hate were but a dim echo. Enough had been left for Frothy to know what it had been like, but it no longer had the power to torture him and distort his judgement. He turned to Kallistum to express his joy at being healed, only to gape in shock at the sight of the changeling sprawled in a heap on the floor.

“Doctor Hoof!” exclaimed Frothy.

“Call… Flora…” Kallistum barely whispered.

Frothy abruptly remembered what he had been asked to do, and he raced out of the office to the reception desk. “Flora! Come to Doctor Hoof’s office now! Emergency!”

Flora was on her hooves and racing to the office in a trice. She saw Kallistum on the floor and recognised the problem. “Stay with him!” she ordered. “Hold him and give him encouragement while I get help.” Then she raced off again.

Frothy was a bit confused as to what was expected of him, but did as he was told. “Hang on, Doctor. Help is on the way.”

“Thanks… Frothy…”

Frothy just held him and willed him to get better. It did not even occur to him the irony of the situation. Mere minutes passed before Flora returned with several of the foals in tow, including Flapjack and Quick Wit.

Flora said, “Guide needs your love, children. Show him how much you care so he can get better.”

Without hesitation, every foal came over to hug the stricken changeling.

Frothy did his best to get out of their way. He went to stand beside Flora and asked, “Those foals knew that Doctor Hoof is a changeling?”

Flora nodded. “Most of our charges learn that as soon as they are ready for that knowledge. It’s all a matter of trust, Mister Brew. He trusts them to keep his secret, and they trust him because he cares for each and every one of them.”

“Then the purpose of them hugging him is…” Frothy began.

“To give him their love; love that was earned and freely given. Love that each of them give him because they know he loves them in return. That’s the true power of the changelings, Mister Brew. They inspire love, joy, kindness, generosity and a loyalty that can never be bought.”

Frothy watched as Kallistum visibly gained strength. “How long has he been doing this kind of thing?” he wondered aloud.

Flora answered, “I’ve only been here for twenty-six years, and he was director back then, but I found out that he’s been here for over a century though. It’s the love and joy that sustains him.”

“That’s amazing.”

“Isn’t it though?” Flora said with a smile.

Just then, Kallistum started getting back on his hooves, and the foals backed off a bit to give him room. He tousled the manes of a couple of them. “Thank you, children. You have helped me greatly. I am sorry to have given you such a fright. I’ll find some special way to thank you all later. Right now, I must talk with Mister Brew in private.”

“Okay, Guide, but we want you to rest soon,” Flapjack replied.

“I will, I promise,” Kallistum reassured them.

The foals filed out, followed by Flora who closed the door behind them.

“What happened, Doctor?” Frothy asked with some concern.

“I was dying, Frothy,” Kallistum replied in a matter-of-fact manner.

“But why?”

“Just as positive emotions such as love, joy, or kindness can give us strength, negative emotions have the opposite effect and drain our strength. I was literally dying of starvation in a matter of minutes.”

“But I had no idea my fear and hate were that strong,” Frothy protested.

“They were not especially strong, but when they get drained in that manner, it gets concentrated into its pure essence, and seems far worse than it is. There was a bit more than I had anticipated though, especially the survivor’s guilt.”

“Survivor’s guilt? No pony died that day,” Frothy replied in puzzlement.

“You survived the experience without harm when another was ravaged. You hated that abuse, and the changeling who did it. You feared that it might happen again. All these I took from you except for enough to not lose the memory of it.”

“Why leave that?”

“We are the sum of our memories,” Kallistum explained. “To take that would be to diminish you. That would be to your detriment, and I promised that you would not be harmed.”

“Doctor, I… I’m ashamed at how I treated you and the others. You have proven yourself my better.”

“Don’t be ashamed, Frothy. Positive emotions, remember? Just do your best to help our cause, and I’ll call us even.”

“You have my promise, Doctor,” Frothy said sincerely.

“Thank you, my friend. And please, call me Guide.”

Frothy smiled and held out a hoof. “A pleasure to know you, Guide.”

The changeling returned the smile, and shook Frothy’s hoof.

Frothy started to leave, but paused in the doorway. “One last thing, Guide…”

“Yes, Frothy?”

“Free coffee for life, okay?”

Guide chuckled. “Deal!”

* * *

The first death threats had come a mere two days after Frothy had erected a sign in his café’s window that proudly proclaimed: ‘ALL CHANGELINGS WELCOME’. He was not worried – he had a whole Royal Guard squad looking after his welfare and that of his family too. While custom had initially dropped off, it had not only bounced back, but had grown considerably. Many new changelings became regular customers, and many new ponies too, although he strongly suspected that a large proportion of them were also changelings. He did not ask. If they wanted him to know, they would tell him.

There was no such thing as an afternoon lull anymore. In fact, he had to put on extra staff to cope with all the extra customers right throughout the day. They also had some part-time help from the newest addition to the family.

“Who gets this order of Devonshire tea, Frothy?” Flapjack asked.

“Table six, Miss Weighty Words and Miss Harmony Bow,” Frothy replied.

“Right,” Flapjack replied, and headed for the table.

Frothy smiled proudly at Flapjack. He had been eager to help out with the family business ever since Cherry and he had adopted the colt. Only after school, of course, and on Saturdays. He was a diligent and considerate foal, and Frothy looked forward to the day when Flapjack would call him ‘Dad’.

Peach came out from the back room with a tray assorted pastries. “The triple-layer chocolate cake will soon be ready also, Dad,” she said as she put the pastries in the display case. “Mom’s just icing it now.”

“Thanks, Peachy,” Frothy replied. His daughter had been spending a lot more time in the kitchen lately. Her mother’s pregnancy was not really slowing her down as yet, but they were starting to ease her workload, especially since the demand had increased so much lately. Cherry had been overjoyed to find out that she was pregnant after that night of making love just before Frothy had gone to visit Guiding Hoof for the second time. Frothy had been a bit more cautiously happy for her, but so far it seemed that his concerns for his wife were more than a little excessive. What mattered most was that his wife was happy, and that was enough for him.

Peach still found plenty of time to socialise though, and she and Archer were still going out regularly. Whether that would turn into something more serious, nobody knew for sure yet, but Frothy would not stand in their way if it did. It did not stop him from ritually threatening Archer with bodily harm if he did not bring her home safe, but the sting was gone from his words. Heck, Archer seemed almost disappointed when Frothy had forgotten the threat one evening!

“Frothy – I have an order for two cappuccinos, and a long black espresso for table nine.”

“Coming right up, Mixxy,” Frothy replied as he started up the bean grinder.

The young Violet Changeling had been a surprise applicant for the waitress position after Frothy’s previous one had quit in disgust at all the changelings that had started coming in at all times of the day. Mixitkl was proving to be a more than capable replacement though, and had quickly become the darling of the customers. Of course, a changeling with a taste for gratitude would always go the extra yard to totally satisfy her customers.

Mixitkl smiled and left to serve another table.

Frothy sighed. Yes, life would be near perfect, if only he could get used to those dratted fangs!

 

 


 

Chapter 7: Trouble Brewing

Frothy had been a little surprised to have so easily gotten to see Guiding Hoof despite turning up without an appointment. He had approached Flora with a little trepidation, but the receptionist had reassured him that Doctor Hoof would likely be able to spare him some time, and before long he had been told to go his office.

“Well, this is an unexpected pleasure, Frothy. How are things with you?” Guiding Hoof asked as he got up to shake Frothy’s hoof.

“Very good, Guide. Business is booming – I’m getting new changeling customers every day, and we’ve had to put on more staff to cope. Mixitkl is proving to be a favourite among the customers, both pony and changeling. Best of all, Flapjack seems to be settling in well with us. He never seems to stop smiling.”

“I’m very happy to hear that. I knew for a long time that he really longed to be part of a family again. It was so disappointing to me that so many prospective parents overlooked him in favour of a young foal.”

Frothy grinned. “Heh! Even Peach was happy to have a new younger sibling – she said that he’s past the bratty brother stage.”

Guiding Hoof chuckled. “I wonder how she will feel if Cherry’s new foal turns out to be a colt?”

Frothy laughed and replied, “I’m almost hoping that she gets to find out just for that reason.”

“You both might be surprised. Anyway, I’m sure that you didn’t come here just to chat a little. To what do I really owe this visit?” Guiding Hoof asked.

Frothy’s smile fell. “You’re right, Guide. I’ve been feeling… troubled.”

“How so?”

Frothy chewed his lip for a moment before replying, “I snapped at Mixitkl yesterday; it was a little thing and she didn’t deserve it.” For a moment, he looked as if he was going to say more, but balked.

Guiding Hoof put a foreleg gently around Frothy’s shoulder and said, “My friend, please come with me.”

He led them to the counselling room that Frothy had been shown weeks ago, its soothing atmosphere immediately having a comforting effect on Frothy.

“Now,” Guiding Hoof continued, “I’d like you to make yourself completely comfortable and tell me what led to this incident.”

Frothy got onto the couch as asked, while Guide sat in a chair nearby. For a long moment, Frothy gathered his thoughts before saying, “I’m not sure, but I think my bad feelings about changelings are returning. How permanent was your treatment?”

Guide ignored the question and instead asked one of his own. “So are you saying that you are resenting the new changeling customers, or all of them?”

“All of them. They don’t do anything wrong, or at least nothing that any normal pony wouldn’t do, but I still find myself being irked by them.”

“What about me? Do you feel the same way seeing me?”

“Oh, no!” Frothy protested. “I could never feel that way about you!”

“Are you sure of that? What irritates you about changelings that does not apply to me?”

“You’re my friend! You’ve helped me and my family. You brought Flapjack into our lives. How could I feel that way about you?” Frothy objected.

“Aren’t some of your customers your friends also?” Guide pointed out.

“Well, yes, I suppose so.”

“So they aren’t bothering you?”

“I… that’s different.”

“How so?”

Frothy tried to answer, but could not think of anything that did not sound like utter rubbish. “I don’t know,” he admitted.

“Okay. Let’s explore another direction. What have you been doing to reconcile your feelings about the attack on your customer – Ms Kettle, wasn’t it?”

“What do you mean? Didn’t you take away all the fear and anger about that?”

“I took away most of those feelings and others. However, as I told you, I could not take them all away without affecting your memories of that time.”

“Maybe you should have,” Frothy replied. “I don’t want to go back to the way I was.”

“What have you done to stop that from happening?”

“I don’t understand – what did I need to do?”

“Frothy, removing all your negative feelings would have destroyed your memories of that time because the emotions are inextricably part of those memories. This would have been just as big a crime as draining you of all your love. You would have felt their loss, even though you would not understand what you had lost, and that would cause you problems, just as it did for Ms Kettle. I had to leave something behind. However, that could easily coped with by a normal pony. So, what did you do to cope?”

“I… didn't do anything in particular, I think.”

Guide’s face creased in concern. “Didn’t you even talk about it with Cherry?”

“No, not really. Should I have?”

Guide sighed. “Forgive me, my friend. I foolishly assumed that you were conversing with your family about the event to reach closure. Your apparent lack of concern lulled me into a false conclusion. Frothy, you witnessed a terrible crime, and that would scar anypony who witnessed it. By the time I treated you, it had festered in your mind for a very long time. By alleviating you of the negative emotions, I gave you the chance to deal with those memories without the mental pressure of those emotions.”

“Then why didn’t you tell me at the time?” Frothy asked with a little exasperation.

“I wasn’t exactly at my best by then,” Guide gently reminded him.

“Oh yeah. Sorry.”

“The good news is that you’re nowhere near as bad as you were back then, and having identified what is bothering you, we can work towards fixing it. First though, I want to check something. You said that I’m not causing you any problems – were you trying to save my feelings?”

Frothy was puzzled. “No, but can’t you…umm… taste that for yourself?”

“You’re a mess of emotions at the moment, but I didn’t really think so. However, the fact that I don’t trigger your negative feelings is a clue towards your problems. Let me try something.” With a flare of white fire, Guide transformed into his natural form and smiled at Frothy. “What about now?”

Frothy shuddered at the sight of the changeling’s fangs. “I still don’t like those long teeth of yours.”

Guide nodded. “I guessed as much.” He changed back to unicorn form. “My initial conclusion is that the sight of changeling fangs triggers your memories of the Blue Changeling feeding on Ms Kettle. The influx of more changelings into your life has been adding pressure to your negative feelings of that incident.”

“What am I going to do about that then? I can’t just start turning away changelings from the café.”

“You start where you should have started weeks back – talk about the incident with your wife, your daughter, with Flapjack, with Mixitkl, with anyone whose life is intertwined with yours and is affected by your feelings. Be honest, and try to listen to what others have to say. Then come back to me for proper counselling sessions. I’m not saying that it will be an immediate cure, but I think we can quickly bring the closure that you need.”

Frothy grimaced with chagrin. “So draining my negative emotions wasn’t a miracle cure after all?”

Guide shook his head. “It was never expected to be. It’s extremely quick and effective, but it’s a means to an end and not an end in itself. That’s what I should have explained to you if I had more of my wits about me after I treated you. I’m truly sorry about that.”

Frothy got up from the couch and went over to Guide. He put a hoof on Guide’s shoulder and said, “You are my friend and my saviour; I’ll forgive you if you forgive me for being so foolish as to expect not to have to work at making the treatment effective.”

“You have a deal, Frothy. Now, I think you and I both need to get back to our jobs.”

Frothy chuckled. “My problems might be over after all if I don’t get back soon. If looks could kill….”

Guide laughed. “Yes, indeed. Farewell, my friend.”

* * *

Some weeks and several counselling sessions later, Frothy was on the verge of declaring himself cured. However, there were other problems rearing their heads. The growth in business of the True Brew Café was unexpectedly causing Frothy and his family some trouble. Simply put – they were outgrowing their current premises. One of its charms was the comfortable environment within, but the crowds that were now a daily occurrence were spoiling that atmosphere. Moving to larger premises was not a good option because of Cherry’s blindness, and the special facilities built into her kitchen. The situation was just starting to worry them when the solution presented itself in a bittersweet manner. The neighbouring store – a gift shop – had experienced a growing downturn in business which had been directly attributed to the increasing number of changelings frequenting the area. One evening when both shops were closing for business, the owner of the gift shop came over to talk.

“Frothy Brew, have you got a moment, please?” the earth pony mare asked.

“Sure, Small Treasures. What’s up?” Frothy replied.

“It’s all the changelings – my customers don’t like them and have started avoiding the area, and that’s been hurting my business a lot. My shop depends on people stopping to browse, but if they feel uncomfortable, they don’t do that. I’m losing money every day now.”

Frothy looked pained as he replied, “That’s terrible, but what can I do about it? The changelings have a right to go where they want, and I like to get their business. I can’t turn them away without hurting myself or going against the will of the Princesses, not that I want to anyway.”

“Believe me, Frothy, if there was a way, I would have demanded that something be done about it. However, I can see the writing on the wall, so I’m not here to harass you about them. Instead, I’d like to let you know that I’m thinking of selling this shop and moving to a new location. I know that you’ve been getting crowded lately, so I was wondering if you would be interested in buying me out?”

Frothy blinked in surprise. “That sounds like a marvellous idea! I’ll have to discuss this with Cherry, of course, but I think that if we can come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement, that would be great.”

“Good. I’ll make arrangements with my agent to discuss a price. I’ll be talking to you again soon. Goodnight, Frothy.”

“Goodnight, Treasures.” Frothy could hardly wait to tell Cherry and their children the news.

* * *

They ended up paying slightly more than they would have otherwise if it had not been for a slight sense of guilt at bringing the changelings into the district, but they nevertheless got a satisfactory deal. Of course the shop had not been suitable for immediate use, so after dealing with the usual bureaucratic details, plans had been drawn up to remodel the shop. The existing fixtures had to be removed, and parts of the walls between the shops were demolished and turned into double doors to connect the two, with the alley way between them turned into an outdoor seating area with sailcloth providing shade and shelter.

Frothy soon ran into another problem though. The first contractors hired to do the various works soon walked off the job, citing the presence of the changelings. Frothy was genuinely shocked that so many ponies were so hostile to the changelings that they would turn down lucrative work. While he had previously strongly disliked them also, it had not stopped him from taking their business. This had resulted in many days delay while alternatives were found.

Frothy had begun opening the shop earlier, not only to cater for the occasional early customer, but he also had started bringing coffee to the new workers to start their day off well. It also gave him an excuse to look over progress while they enjoyed their brews. Ostensibly the workers were a mixture of ponies of all three types, but Frothy knew that four out of five were actually changelings in their regular guises as ordinary citizens of Canterlot. The remainder really were actual ponies, but had no problems working alongside changelings. One of them was even an enthusiastic apprentice, quite happy to learn from a skilled professional irrespective of species.

Having a disguised changeling workforce helped ameliorate the feelings of the other local shopkeepers. It seemed to them that Frothy had hired ordinary ponies despite his obvious tolerance of the changelings, so they had little more to complain about. A couple still complained to the relevant authority about how he was attracting undesirables, but they were firmly turned away. Their objections were easily trumped by the royal degree of equality and tolerance for their kind. With business being so good, and progress going so well, it came as a big surprise to Frothy when Zeena came to him one afternoon to give him serious news.

“Frothy, we have a problem.”

“What problem would that be, Zeena? Seems to me that everything is going fine.”

“We’re not making any progress with our primary aim,” she replied.

Frothy looked about the shop at all his changeling customers, and the occasional pony whom he knew were also changelings in disguise. “I’ve never seen so many changelings in all my life, so how can you say that?”

“Frothy, just because you’re enjoying a great growth in custom, doesn’t mean that we’re making any progress with our goal of integrating changelings into pony society. In fact I reckon you have lost a lot of the ordinary pony customers because they don’t want to deal with us. You’ve had to hire changeling workers to do your remodelling too. Where are the ponies? I’ll tell you – not here mingling with us!”

Frothy abruptly realised that he had indeed lost sight of that goal. “Damn! You’re right. I’ve been too wrapped up in the business lately.”

Zeena patted Frothy consolingly. “We’re not blaming you. You’re an ordinary businesspony put into an extraordinary situation, and you’ve been doing what comes normally to you. However, if you’re going to help us, we need you to do more.”

“What exactly do you want me to do though?”

“We’ve called a meeting to discuss that. Can we hold it here tonight after you close up?”

Frothy considered that for a moment before nodding. “That shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll let the others know so that we can work around that.”

“Very good. I’ll see you again tonight then.” Zeena then left. A minute later she returned. “Forgot my coffee,” she sheepishly told him.

* * *

The changeling representatives started arriving shortly before the café was due to close. Frothy had Peach direct them to a reserved table near the front of the shop in order to keep them clear of the after-hours cleaning that she and Flapjack would be doing. Sterling had been the first to arrive, and he checked out the area to secure it for the others. Zeena had followed soon after, closely followed by Weighty Words and an unfamiliar earth pony mare.

Frothy had been concerned when he had seen the old librarian. “Weighty – are you sure you want to be so closely associated with this group? You still retain your pony guise, after all, and that might cause you problems.”

She had smiled benignly and replied, “Frothy, I may be retired from my profession, but I’m not retired from society. I’ll continue to do my share of that work. Besides, Zeena asked me so nicely to represent the Green Changelings.”

Frothy sighed. “I’m not going to win any argument with you, am I?”

“Not a chance, dear,” Weighty Words replied as she patted him on the shoulder consolingly. “Now let me introduce my companion.”

They turned to face the earth pony who had been patiently waiting. The mare had purple fur, and a violet mane streaked with bright yellow, as was her tail. A diamond shape on her forehead was matched in colour by a blotch on her rump that was partially covered by her cutie mark of a silhouette of a stylised cat. What startled Frothy was a black lump on her back which suddenly moved and opened two yellow eyes. It took him a moment to realise that it was an actual black cat riding on the mare’s back.

“This is Amethyst Dawn, a librarian like me, and a good friend,” Weighty said. “Don’t mind Soot back there – he goes everywhere with Amy.”

“Welcome to the True Brew Café, Ms Dawn,” Frothy said. “May I ask what kind of changeling you are?”

Amethyst Dawn smiled and said, “I’m afraid you are under a misapprehension, Mr Brew. I’m not a changeling. Thank you for the welcome though.”

Frothy abruptly realised that he had been blithely talking about Weighty Words’ alter ego in front of this new pony, and he turned to face Weighty and started to apologise.

Weighty Words quickly stopped him. “It’s okay, Frothy. Amy knows what I am. In fact she’s here specifically to represent earth ponies in these discussions. Canterlot being dominated by unicorns, and to a lesser degree by pegasi, earth ponies tend to be treated as second-class citizens sometimes also, so she might have some insights into our problem.”

“I see,” Frothy replied with some relief, glad that they were out of earshot of the remaining customers. He turned back to Amethyst Dawn and said, “Glad to have you with us, Ms Dawn. If you and Weighty would care to join the others at the table over there, I’ll have Peach come over and get you some refreshments.”

The last customer had left and the doors closed to the café before the final two changelings arrived. An Orange Changeling tapped at the door to be let in by Sterling who had been minding the door while awaiting the rest of the group. The changeling looked around the room and at the closed blinds before asking, “Are we completely private?”

Sterling nodded. “Only Frothy Brew’s family will be privy to our meeting, and no one can look in on us.”

“Good; I wouldn’t care for my identity to get out.” With that, the Orange Changeling assumed the form of a green hued pegasus mare with a wild mane of white, blue, and red, and with a cutie mark of a treble clef followed by a semiquaver imposed on the uppermost of five bars. She spotted Frothy and walked up to him.

“Hi, I’m High Note. I guess you’re Frothy Brew?”

“That’s me,” Frothy affirmed as he held out his hoof. He was surprised when she hoof-bumped him instead of shaking it.

“Glad to meetcha!” she declared. “You’ve heard of me, of course?”

“Um, no, not really.”

High Note looked disappointed until another joined the conversation.

“Dad might not have heard of you, but I have!” Peach said excitedly as she came around the counter to join them. “Archer and I saw your concert last week. It was awesome!”

High Note grinned. “Thanks! I had a blast, and I’m glad you did too.”

“So, what am I missing here, Peach?” Frothy asked.

Peach smiled widely and replied, “High Note is a very popular singer, Dad. She’s been playing concerts all over Equestria. I would never have known she was a changeling until Archer told me.”

“How did he know that?” High Note asked suspiciously.

“Archer is a Red Changeling. He didn’t know either until we got close to you, trying to get an autograph.”

High Note nodded. “And when he got close enough, he could tell. Fair enough. Did you get that autograph? I can’t remember everypony I sign for.”

“No, we didn’t.”

“Grab a pen and I’ll give you one before our meeting starts,” High Note replied with a grin and a wink.

“Yes!” Peach exclaimed before diving into her apron pocket for her ever-present notepad and pen.

As High Note signed the notepad, Frothy asked, “So you’re the representative for the Orange Changelings? I suppose it would have been odd for Punchline to be here considering that he’s in Manehatten at the moment.”

“Yep. Queen Polistae herself asked me to be part of your group.”

“Forgive me for saying so, but you seem rather young for the responsibility,” Frothy pointed out.

High Note grinned. “Maybe I’m older than I look. I’m a shape-changer, remember? However, if you’d heard my songs, you’d know why I was her choice.”

Peach said, “Dad, High Note sings songs about social change, love and peace. She’s been working towards changeling acceptance from another direction for a long time.”

“Ah, I see… I think. In any case, I’m glad to have you join us,” Frothy replied.

“Cool, dude. I’m going to chat with the others now. Get to know them a bit before things get heavy.” High Note wandered off in the direction of Zeena and Weighty Words.

“How… unusual,” Frothy murmured before turning his attention elsewhere.

About twelve minutes later, another tap on the door announced the arrival of a Yellow Changeling. Frothy hastened to meet him as Sterling let him inside and locked the door.

“Guide! I’m happy to see you again!” Frothy exclaimed. “You don’t come by often enough.”

Guide chuckled and said, “The foals are always my first priority. Good coffee must take second place.”

“What? Not even to time to say hello to a friend? Just kidding! Would you like that coffee now though? I haven’t turned off the espresso maker yet.”

“I’d like that, thanks.”

Frothy turned to the others. “While I’m at it, would any of you also like a drink?”

There was a chorus of replies, and Frothy was kept busy for a while. He was almost ready to take over the drinks when there was a loud rapping at the door.

“Are we expecting anyone else?” Frothy asked.

Zeena replied, “Yeah, a couple more.”

Frothy started going around the counter, and said to Mixitkl, “Could you serve up the drinks while I see who’s at the door.”

“No problem, Frothy,” Mixitkl replied, putting aside her cleaning cloth.

Frothy cautiously unlocked the door and opened it, only to be confronted by the sight of a raptor beak practically in his face. He took a half-step back before identifying that it belonged to a griffin with the body of a white lion and steel-blue feathers adorning his head and wings. He seemed to be watching him with some amusement. A griffin had never previously visited his café, although he had seen them on rare occasions, so he didn’t know what to think about this one that had so unexpectedly turned up on his doorstep.

“I… I’m sorry, but we’re closed for the day,” Frothy managed to stammer out.

“Are you Frothy Brew?” the griffin asked in a harsh voice.

“Yes, I am.”

“Then I’m in the right place,” the griffin said, pushing past the startled pony.

“Wait just a minute! You can’t just barge in here uninvited,” Frothy objected.

“Who said I wasn’t invited?” the griffin said with a smirk. “Hey, Zeena! Ashamed to tell this coffee-slinger that you invited me along?”

Zeena trotted up to them, obviously embarrassed. “Sorry, Frothy. I completely forgot to warn you that Arlin Steelfeather here was interested in participating in our discussions too.”

Steelfeather poked a claw in Frothy’s chest and said, “If you wanna talk about minorities, bub, you’re looking at one. There are even fewer griffins makin’ Canterlot their nest than these shape-changers.”

Frothy knocked away the claw irritably and said, “Point made, Steelfeather, but if you want us to listen to you, I suggest that you be a bit more polite about it.”

“And I suggest that you realise that I ain’t no hoofer, so don’t expect me to behave like one.”

“If you’re living in Canterlot, then you know this isn’t a griffin eyrie either,” Frothy shot back.

They glared at each other before Frothy finally said, “However, I am your host for the evening, so I welcome you. Can I offer you a drink?”

“Got somethin’ a bit stronger than coffee?” Steelfeather asked.

“This is a café, not a bar.”

Steelfeather snorted. “Okay, a mug of black coffee then.”

Frothy made up the requested brew and passed it over to the waiting griffin. Steelfeather pulled a flat flask that he had somehow stashed under his wing. Opening the top, he poured some of the contents into the coffee, and then replaced the cap. Noticing Frothy’s stare, he said, “What? Haven’t you ever heard of Eyrish coffee before?”

“No, but I feel a bit slighted that you feel my coffee needs improving before you even taste it.”

Steelfeather chuckled. “Even the best drinks are improved with a drop of Eyrish whisky, boyo.”

Frothy sighed and decided to quit while he was behind. He had far more important things to worry about. He looked about the room, noting that the others were chatting conversationally while enjoying their drinks. Short of adding a pegasus, the group pretty much represented every species. Hopefully this mixed lot could work out some strategies for dealing with their problem. Of course they were still expecting one more, judging by Zeena’s words.

“Hey, Zeena, we’re not expecting that Blue Changeling… what’s his name? Cogs, wasn’t it?”

“No. We invited Cogs, but not unexpectedly, he declined.”

Frothy was about to ask Zeena who else was due, when a small flash and bang filled the store, revealing Twilight Sparkle.

“Your Highness!” Frothy exclaimed. “If I had known you were coming, I would have prepared something appropriate for you, Princess.”

“Thanks, Frothy, but I like to keep things simple outside of formal royal occasions. Besides, I’m the Princess of Friendship, and it’s a lot friendlier to keep things informal, don’t you think? So please just call me Twilight Sparkle while we’re here, okay?”

“If you say so, your Hi… Twilight Sparkle. Everyone else is having a drink before we start, so can I offer you something?”

“Hot tea would be nice, please.”

“Coming right up!”

Twilight was allowed to enjoy her drink before the meeting was called to order. By unspoken consent, Twilight was deemed to be the moderator.

“I’ll start by summing things up,” Twilight said. “Members of the various changeling hives have lived and worked peacefully among ponies for centuries, or millennia actually. After having their existence revealed by Chrysalis’ attempted takeover of Canterlot, many of these changelings still wish to continue living and working among us, and some of those wish to do so undisguised. Unfortunately they have had to deal with the stigma incurred by the actions of the Blue Changelings and, despite royal decrees, they keep suffering from bigotry and discriminatory actions. The Changeling Squad of Royal Guards continues to set an excellent example, but can only do so much. The social experiment that was enacted at this café seems to have achieved little, or in fact had the opposite effect to what was intended. We need to understand why, and propose other courses of action.”

“Pardon me for saying so, Twilight,” Amethyst Dawn interjected, “but while this café is a lovely haven for changelings, it was always doomed to fail as a means of socialising them with ponies.”

“Why is that?” Twilight asked.

“Ponies are social creatures, as are changelings apparently. However, despite the unification of the three tribes centuries ago, like still tends to be attracted to like. In other words, unicorns tend to prefer grouping with other unicorns, pegasi with other pegasi, and changelings with changelings. Canterlot is primarily a unicorn city, with a secondary population of pegasi. Other races like myself are sparsely represented. Why? Because we prefer familiar company. Changelings have taken to this café so much because they can associate comfortably with their own kind, but while this isn’t wrong, it is still the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve. We need to come up with a program that is attractive to ponies and changelings alike, not to mention our griffin friends.”

Frothy said, “That’s not going to be easy. Take it from me – anypony who witnessed a changeling feeding on a victim is not going to quickly forget what they can do, despite assurances. Facts do very little to convince ponies because our emotions affect our thinking. Only after I had mine cleared up was I able to accept changelings completely.”

Guiding Hoof nodded and said, “Both of you are correct. At the orphanage, we deal with the foals’ emotional needs first. It can take a long time before we can introduce new concepts to them, especially one as new as making friends with changelings. It’s harder for them to relate because changelings never have orphans – we always have the hive. It’s a matter of getting them to see how much we are alike that makes the big difference, but that is a lot easier with young minds than it is with adults set in their ways. I think you will find that there are no quick fixes. You may be looking at a process that will take decades to bring about a satisfactory result. That is not to say that smaller short-term goals aren’t achievable.”

“Then I propose that we start by making a list of suggestions for both short and long-term projects,” Twilight said. “Also, while our immediate goal is to work on the population of Canterlot, we should have sub-lists for the variables incurred by the different dynamics of cities, towns, and small villages as we progress. Possible problems should be highlighted and addressed. From there we can….”

Twilight was interrupted by the sound of a window shattering as something came crashing through it, tearing through the blind, and striking Zeena on the side of the neck. Many of the others were showered with shards of glass, and although the changeling carapace was resistive to cuts, the ponies were not so lucky.

Sterling bolted for the door, wrenched it open, and rushed outside in an effort to catch the culprit. Meanwhile, the others took stock of their injuries. Despite blood trickling from her cuts, Peach was bent over Zeena, checking her out. She turned to look at Frothy.

“Dad, Zeena has a bad gash. She needs medical help quickly.”

Twilight ignored cuts of her own as she went over to where Zeena lay groaning on the floor. “Step back, please. I have a healing spell that can help her.”

Twilight’s horn began to glow, a lavender field of magic that reached out to flow around Zeena’s neck. The changeling stiffened as the magic began to take effect, but then she relaxed with a sigh of relief from the pain. Twilight continued her spell for a long moment more before letting the magic abate.

“There! That will do until you get to see a doctor for a thorough check-up. How are you feeling?” Twilight asked the changeling.

“Very sore, but otherwise okay,” Zeena replied as she shakily got to her hooves with Peach’s assistance. Then she noticed Twilight’s condition and gasped. “Twilight! You’re bleeding so much!”

“Huh? I am?” Twilight looked around to see a long cut on her side that was dripping blood profusely. “Yipe! I had better fix that quickly.” Once again her horn glowed and the cut pulled itself together, stemming the flow. “Okay, anyone else need help?”

Several others had lesser cuts that Twilight sealed in a similar manner. She was finishing with the last when Sterling returned, a thunderous expression on his face.

“I regret to report that the perpetrator of this act of assault on your royal personage has eluded detection, Your Highness,” Sterling said formally.

“On me?” Twilight replied. “How could anypony know that I was here? I teleported in, remember?”

“With all due respect, Princess Sparkle, that is irrelevant. Somepony deliberately threw some object through the window. As the café is still fully lit, that implies that ponies and/or changelings are inside, thus obviating the possibility of injury to some or all. That is an assault charge right there. Ignorance of the fact that one of the occupants is a Princess does not lessen the severity of the crime. I will be organising a full investigation into this crime, and if the criminal is found, they will be brought up on charges of aggravated assault on a Princess, and several more counts for every person in this room. That is the law, Your Highness.”

The ultra-formal statement made Twilight realise that she was stepping on the Royal Guard’s duty and he was well within his rights and obligations. Without some good reason to do so otherwise, she could not contradict him. “Very well. What did you see out there?”

“Nothing. No pony could be seen in the immediate vicinity. I flew up to look for any clues, but came up empty,” Sterling Shield reported.

Frothy looked startled. “No pony at all? Even at this late hour, there are almost always still several ponies heading home or in the area for some reason. To have no pony whatsoever is very strange.”

“I don’t like the implications of that,” Twilight said. “That could indicate that more than one pony was complicit in the act, and possibly warned others to keep away. We may have an even bigger problem than we first thought.”

“One that involves large blocks of masonry,” Flapjack said, his right forehoof resting on the object that had hurtled through the window.

Frothy immediately recognised it as being part of the materials being used to renovate the adjacent shopfront. It seemed that their assailant had a large choice of missiles at hoof, and little reluctance to use them. He looked a bit closer and noticed something. “Is that writing on it?”

“Yeah,” Flapjack confirmed. “It says the same thing on all its sides – ‘NO MORE CHANGELINGS!’. At least there’s no ambiguity as to the motivation.”

Guiding Hoof said, “My fellow committee members, I think we will need to revise our agenda. I believe we are facing a far bigger problem than mere bigotry. If this continues to escalate, Canterlot may be facing its first race riots.”

Frothy shuddered at that thought, wondering how this new development would affect his customers, his business and, most of all, his family. There was no turning back now; he had made his choice and sided with the changelings. For better or for worse, his course was set. Time would tell if this motley assortment of beings could help turn about the situation.

However, Frothy did not have to face it without support. Cherry, guided by Peach, came over to embrace her husband in reassurance, and Peach joined in. Then Flapjack joined the group hug. The latter especially made Frothy feel better. If his foster son felt the need to add his support, it showed how much he was truly becoming part of the family. Together they could face whatever came their way.

 

 


 

Chapter 8: Aftermath

Frothy did not usually buy a newspaper because the vast majority of news was readily spread by word of mouth of the multitude of customers that came through his doors every day. This morning he made an exception to that practice. After all, it was not often that you were part of the lead story. The Canterlot Chronicle’s banner headline read:

PRINCESS TWILIGHT SPARKLE ATTACKED!

It was a bit sensationalist, and Frothy had to shake his head over the slightly misleading headline, but he had been convinced by the others that a shock story had more impact. He continued to read the article that had a picture of a rather dishevelled Twilight accompanying it. The carefully posed photo highlighted the cuts she had received, the blood on her fur not yet cleaned off. The article read:

“Last night, Princess Twilight Sparkle and several citizens meeting with her at the True Brew Café, were the victims of an unprovoked attack by an unknown perpetrator(s). Injuries ranging from life-threatening to bloody gashes were inflicted on most of those present for informal discussion of changeling-pony relations and community awareness.”

Frothy had to admire the way the writer had implied that Twilight had been more seriously injured than she had been, while still sticking to the truth. Hopefully whoever had done the deed would be shocked by what he or she had actually done. At the very least, ponies would think twice about taking violent action against changelings and their supporters. When innocent bystanders such as their beloved princesses were victims, community outrage would be sure to turn against them. Or at least he hoped that would be the case. Frothy had to admit that he had been very pigheaded in his own prejudice until recently. He continued reading:

“Recent tensions in the Canterlot community came to a head when a sizeable piece of masonry from an adjacent construction site was hurled through the window of the café, sending shards of glass flying into the midst of the gathering. The stone had been inscribed with the words - ‘NO MORE CHANGELINGS’ - an obvious reference to the growing popularity of the café as a haven for Canterlot’s changeling citizens who have been facing much discrimination from many other merchants.”

“Hmm, the writer was quick to point out that as citizens, changelings have been getting short-changed lately,” Frothy mused aloud. “I wonder if that will prick any consciences?”

He was about to read more when a familiar voice spoke up behind him.

“My goodness, Frothy, what happened to your shop?”

Frothy turned to face Fancy Cuts, the local mane stylist. She had an odd expression on her face - somewhat concerned, but hardly as shocked as he thought she should be. “We had a nasty bit of vandalism by some racist pony last night, and there were several people injured.”

“Oh dear, I hope they weren’t hurt too badly?” Fancy Cuts said.

“Judge for yourself,” Frothy replied. “It’s front page news.”

Frothy held up the newspaper for her to see. Fancy’s eyes widened at seeing Twilight’s picture and she blanched after reading the headline and first paragraphs.

“Th-this is t-terrible!” she stuttered. “I… I have to go… um… t-tell the others. Th-the other shop k-keepers.”

Fancy Cuts hastened away, while Frothy cast a suspicious eye on her. Fancy Cuts’ stutter only manifested when she was nervous. A guilty conscience perhaps?

Frothy continued walking back to the café, but paused at the neighbouring shop to have a look at the progress of the renovations.

“Morning, Frothy!” boomed the voice of the forepony, a sturdy earth pony whom Frothy knew to actually be a Red Changeling. The strongly built Reds did not all choose to serve in the Guard, and a strong physique was useful in the building trade.

“Good morning, Sharp Angle. Have you heard the news?”

“If yer talkin’ about last night’s unscheduled remodelin’ of yer shopfront, yeah, we all have. Mighty bad stuff brewin’, I reckon. No pun intended.”

“You haven’t happened to overhear anything suspicious lately?” Frothy asked.

“Who, me? A simple earth pony like me don’t hear nothin,” he loudly replied, then he lowered his voice and added conspiratorially, “But my comrades have been hearing rumours of a campaign being organised against us.”

Frothy nodded and said, “Well, if you hear anything more definite, let Peach know, please.”

“Miss Peach? Why not you?” Sharp Angle replied with surprise on his face.

“I’m just a simple café owner, Sharp. Last night’s events made me realise that while I am sympathetic to the changeling cause, I’m not an activist. My daughter, on the other hoof, is very much the gung-ho type, ready to commit her heart and soul to whatever it takes to champion changeling rights. Despite the threat made last night though, I’ll continue to host any meetings they want to hold. I can’t see it making any difference at this point because I reckon I’ve been indelibly marked as a sympathiser, and I won’t be a hypocrite and start turning away changelings.”

“No worries, Frothy. We appreciate what ya do. The guys’ll have the damage fixed soon – no charge.”

“That’s generous of you. Thanks!”

“Don’t mention it. Gotta do somethin’ for all them free coffees ya give us,” the forepony replied with a broad wink.

Frothy grinned, taking the hint and heading off to the shop to start brewing.

* * *

Seeing Princess Twilight Sparkle again so soon came as a big surprise to Frothy, but there she was walking through the front door like any regular customer. She was sporting a lot of bandages, and she drew gasps of dismay from the various customers that were there at that time. Twilight ignored them all though, and she approached the counter, greeting Frothy with a smile.

“Good morning, Frothy. I’d like a cappuccino and an apple danish, please.”

“Coming right up, Your Highness!” Then in a much quieter voice, he asked, “What happened? I thought you weren’t that badly injured?”

Twilight gave him a surreptitious wink and replied softly, “I had the doctor bandage every trivial cut just to make things look worse than they are. It’s an extension of what we did for the newspaper.”

“So that’s why you’re out here in public – so everypony can get an eyeful?”

“Exactly! I want ponies to think twice about the consequences of violent action. Dealing with the prejudice and bigotry will be hard enough without adding that to the mixture.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Frothy replied, and then in his normal voice added, “I hope you enjoy your coffee, Your Highness.”

“Thank you, Mister Brew.”

Twilight took her cappuccino and danish to a free table, and started drinking. It was not long though before a customer came over and politely asked to talk to her. Then a second joined them, quickly followed by a third. Before long, the princess was basically holding court in her corner of the café. Frothy knew that before long, everything that was said there would soon be disseminating throughout the neighbourhood, and not long after that, through the rest of Canterlot. Gossip was certainly a powerful tool to fill in the gaps that newspapers could not reach, or did not satisfy.

Frothy mused that if Twilight continued to use the café like this, he might just have to ask for royal endorsement. He chuckled to himself as he pictured the words: “By Appointment to Their Highnesses” lettered over the café’s sign.

* * *

“I’ll be leaving as soon as Archer turns up, Dad,” Peach reminded him.

Frothy nodded. The aborted meeting was being continued tonight, but was being held at the palace instead. As Frothy had told Sharp Angle, he had no intention of being part of that meeting, but Peach was certainly fired up. “Ask him to see me before you go, please.”

“Okay,” she agreed.

Twenty minutes later, the Red Changeling arrived in his unicorn guise, and was promptly sent over to see Frothy.

“Did you want to talk to me, Frothy?” Archer asked.

“Yes, Archer. I’ve been giving you a hard time still about taking out my daughter, but you realise that I haven’t really been serious lately?”

“Yeah, I figured that out.”

“Well, let me be perfectly serious right now. Peach has chosen to get involved in championing changeling rights, but that has already proved to be potentially dangerous. You’re closest to her away from the family, and I’m relying on you to keep her safe.” Frothy poked Archer in the chest with one fore hoof. “So nothing better happen to her while she’s with you; got it?”

“Got it,” Archer replied with a nervous smile. He walked over to where Peach was waiting for him and said to her, “Your dad can be downright scary sometimes, y’know?”

Peach grinned. “What? The big, bad Royal Guard is scared of a café barista?” she teased.

“Tartarus, yeah! That’s one pony I don’t ever intend to cross. There’s nothing more dangerous than a loving parent with the courage of his convictions.”

“That’s one reason why I love him. Now come on! We don’t want to be late for the meeting.”

Frothy watched them leave, not without a twinge of concern, but convinced that they were the hope for a better future, with ponies and changelings living and working together in harmony. In a world of magic, there was none greater than that of Harmony, and those two exemplified it. He was sure that the future was in safe hooves with them.

Meanwhile though, he had a café to run, and customers to satisfy. Let his daughter fight the big battles if that was what she wished. He was content to make his small corner of the world better one latté or cappuccino at a time.

 

 


 

Chapter 9: The Blame Game

Mercifully, the next couple of days were quiet and without incident. Frothy enjoyed them while the peace lasted, but he knew that it could not last. When Efficacious Remedies, the local pharmacist, entered the café that afternoon, he had a feeling that something was up.

“Hi Effy,” Frothy greeted the unicorn mare. “Have you finally decided to try one of my brews?” He gave her one of his best friendly and hopeful looks.

Efficacious Remedies merely wrinkled up her nose. “You know I can’t stand the smell of coffee, Frothy, and I only come in here for your dear wife’s marvellous pastries.”

Frothy sighed. “And you don’t usually shop for those in the middle of your work day either, so why are you here now?”

“I’m here to represent the local traders’ group, and we would like to hold a meeting here tonight to discuss strategies for revitalising trade in the area.”

“Why haven’t I heard about this group, and why do you want to use my café?” Frothy asked bluntly.

“It’s quite obvious that your business is hardly suffering, but your business practices may be affecting ours. Nevertheless there are many in the group that feel that you should be included in our first formal full meeting. For that, we need a venue, and as it seems that you’re willing to host one for changelings, you might see fit to balance out your favours by helping us out a bit also. It would certainly save us the cost of hiring a hall.”

Frothy gave her his trademark smirk. “Remind me to thank everyone for their consideration,” he said with a heavy sarcastic tone.

Efficacious Remedies frowned. “You won’t make many allies with that kind of an attitude, Frothy. There are plenty of ponies who are happy to lay the blame on you for their current downturn in business.”

“Seems to me that they haven’t adjusted their businesses to suit the changing needs of the customers,” Frothy replied.

The mare started to retort, but stopped and shook her head. “We’re not debating this now. All I want to know is whether you will host the meeting?”

Frothy paused to consider the question for a moment before nodding. “Sure! Believe it or not, I do care about how my neighbours’ businesses are doing. Some of them are my friends too, y’know? Besides, none of our businesses stand alone. You don’t think the café would do half as well if there weren’t any other stores around to attract customers to the area?”

The mare’s expression softened. “No, of course not. So, when are you available?”

“Any night this week. We have no plans until Saturday.”

“Tomorrow night, then? That will give me enough time to notify everyone, and for them to make any arrangements to be here.”

“That’ll be fine. Tell them that they’re welcome to come before closing time if they’d like to enjoy refreshments, but otherwise we’ll be able to start the meeting soon after we close our doors to the public.”

“Thank you, Frothy.” Efficacious Remedies turned to leave, hesitated, and then turned back to Frothy and said, “Might as well sell me a couple of cakes while I’m here. You know that only the smell of coffee normally keeps me from totally ruining my diet.”

Frothy eyed the fairly rotund mare and decided that it was a good time to keep his mouth shut.

* * *

Frothy seldom needed to leave the premises during weekdays, so he usually did not pay much attention to the weather. Therefore it came as a surprise to him that rain had been scheduled for that evening. A few ponies who had also neglected to check the forecast and had been unprepared, elected to shelter at the café and fortify themselves with a hot brew before braving the cool showers. It took longer than normal to clear the shop of customers, so he, Peach, and Mixitkl had to rush to clean up before the meeting.

Because of the weather, only a couple of the shopkeepers had taken advantage of coming in for coffee and cake before closing time, but they were regulars anyway who normally closed a little earlier than the other shops did. Ocean Breeze was a pegasus fishmonger, supplying seafood to the resident griffin population, and not a few pegasi also. Although other ponies would try fish occasionally, their winged brethren were well known for their peculiar taste for such. The other was a unicorn named Stylish Stitches, tailor to the nobility… or anypony else who could afford his ultra-expensive formal wear. Despite his clientele though, Frothy knew the stallion to be a very down-to-earth pony who had made good through his skills rather than his status or connections. He and Frothy had spent many pleasant late afternoons chatting before they both called it a day.

As the various shopkeepers finished closing their businesses, they made their way to the café, most carrying umbrellas, and a small puddle was forming near the door where they were left to drip dry. One particularly skilful unicorn though used her magic to deflect the raindrops with an invisible shield instead. A body-pattern artist like Elegant Designs needed to be clever with her horn magic though.

Although it soon became obvious that not all of the local traders had elected to attend the meeting, Frothy realised that they had a fair representation of those nearest to his establishment, and thus were probably the most affected by the increase in changeling presence. He was curious to find out how many of them had seen a downturn in trade, or whether any in fact had gained more custom. Also attending were a newspaper and magazine vendor, a greengrocer, a milliner, an accountant, a linen and cloth seller, a music store owner, a dressmaker, a bookstore owner, a mane stylist, a representative from the local branch of Quills & Sofas, and a few other ponies that he did not recognise.

As he had done at the recent changeling meeting, Frothy served up refreshments before they got down to business. Because Cherry expressed interest in attending the meeting also, she helped him by serving up some of the pastries that had been unsold that day, earning her the gratitude and pleasure of several ponies who obviously normally headed off to dinner at that time.

Unlike the previous gathering, there were no obvious surprise inclusions. Efficacious Remedies seemed to be one in charge, although Frothy wondered if she was self-appointed or elected to that role. She called the group to order and began the meeting.

“As you all know, the past few weeks have seen a dramatic change in the number and type of customers frequenting this district. Already, one store owner, Small Treasures, has had to sell up due to the fall in sales, and we all know why.”

Frothy frowned and said, “Is this meeting going to be about doing something about attracting more customers to our businesses, Effy, or bitching about changelings?”

Efficacious Remedies gave him a stern look and replied, “Just because your café is doing so well with all your changeling customers, Frothy, doesn’t mean that they are not a major cause of our problems, and must be seriously discussed. Despite the decree of the Princesses, they are not a welcome sight to many ponies, and if that means going a little further out of their way to shop elsewhere just to avoid them, then that’s a problem for us.”

“Of course it’s a problem. I just don’t want to listen to ponies whining about what they can’t change,” Frothy retorted, uncomfortably aware that he may have jumped the gun a little.

“Let them air their grievances, Love,” Cherry said to Frothy, patting him reassuringly on the back. “It’s best we hear all sides of the problem first.”

“Thank you, Cherry,” Efficacious Remedies said, and then turned her attention back to the others. “Can I hear how your businesses have been doing, and what factors you believe may be affecting them. Dusty Tome, would you like to begin?”

The old stallion nodded, cleared his throat, and said, “Book sales have been very slow of late. Customers simply aren’t stopping by and browsing as much as they used to before the changelings started getting common around here.”

“You sure it ain’t because you haven’t stocked anything new in that gloomy store of yours since before the return of Princess Luna, Dusty?” asked the magazine vendor with a sneer in his voice.

Dusty Tome’s face hardened as he turned towards his detractor. “At least I stock books of value, Newsworthy, not trashy magazines or tabloid rags like you!”

The mare just grinned infuriatingly back at him. “My sales are fine though. Maybe you should get with the times and sell something ponies actually want to read?”

Dusty Tome looked as if he was about to blow his stack, but Efficacious Remedies interrupted the incipient argument. “Gentleponies! Please keep to the subject and just report, please. Newsworthy, I gather that you haven’t been affected by the recent general downturn?”

“Well, I didn’t say that. I’ve lost a few customers, but I’m still doing well enough. If things pick up again for you others, I’m sure that I’ll pick up more of the passing trade, just like I always have.”

“I see. But if things get worse for us, you could conceivably be hit harder?”

Newsworthy nodded slowly. “I suppose so. I don’t worry too much about what might be though. Give customers what they want now – that’s my motto.”

“Right. Let’s go on to the next then. Tender Greens, would you give us your view, please?”

The greengrocer cleared her throat and said, “Actually, while I had a dip in sales for a while, that seems to have bounced back up recently. I reckon I’ve been getting more changeling customers lately, and they’ve been making up the difference.”

“I thought changelings were meat eaters?” Red Ink, the accountant queried.

Mixitkl spoke up. “While we need to have animal protein in our diet, we can and do eat vegetables and fruit almost as much as ponies do.”

Efficacious Remedies scowled and said, “What do you think you’re doing at this meeting, changeling?”

The Violet Changeling glared back at her. “First, my name is Mixitkl, and I would appreciate that you use it. Second, I work here, and have every right to be here, especially as I will probably have to clean up after you lot leave. Thirdly, if you’re serious about dealing with your business problems and you feel that my kind have something to do with it, you could use some of my input.”

Efficacious Remedies’ face darkened, but she held her anger in check. “Nevertheless, this is a meeting of the local businessponies only, not interested parties.”

“I suppose that means I should leave then?” said a pink pegasus with purple mane. She was one of the ponies that Frothy did not recognise.

Efficacious Remedies was caught by surprise, evidently not knowing who the mare was either. “Umm… and you are…?”

“The name’s Airbrush, and I’m a cloud sculptor from Trottingham.”

“Then what are you doing here, may I ask?”

Airbrush pointed to the brown-furred earth pony with a gold mane seated to her left. “Low Note here invited me. I was visiting his music shop and we were commiserating about how things had been changing for the worse around here lately. He thought I might have something to contribute, and I was curious enough to tag along with my friend.”

Frothy’s curiosity was aroused. “How do changelings affect a cloud sculptor?” he asked.

Airbrush snorted and replied, “More than you’d think. I was scheduled to be part of the celebrations for the wedding of Princess Mi Amore Cadenza and Shining Armor. I was finalising my preparations, moving clouds into place when the changelings attacked. I was captured and herded together with other ponies to be feasted upon later. I escaped that fate, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to talk with any changelings since they started appearing undisguised.” She paused to look at Mixitkl. “Doesn’t mean that I don’t understand that only one hive was responsible, but I also know why customers are avoiding them.”

Efficacious Remedies nodded. “As you were invited by Low Note and have something to contribute, then you are welcome here.”

“Then the same can be said of Mixitkl,” Frothy added with his usual smirk.

Efficacious Remedies glared at Frothy, which did nothing to dim his expression. There were a few chuckles from some of the other ponies too. The mare conceded defeat and looked away. “Alright then, let’s move onto the next. Elegant Designs – you told me that business was slow lately?”

The mare nodded. “Only my steady customers have been coming lately. Some have moved to other body artists, new customers have been rare, and shape-changers sure don’t need my services.”

“Are you sure of that?” Mixitkl asked. “What exactly do you have to offer?”

“Huh? I paint body art – permanent and semi-permanent designs painted onto ponies who like to stand out in the crowd. Art that you changelings can imitate with no effort at all,” she added a touch bitterly.

Mixitkl replied, “Yeah, we can imitate, but innovate – that’s an entirely different thing. Not all of us are artistically inclined, but we do love the creativity of you ponies. While it’s not my thing, I know a couple of ‘lings who might be interested, if they knew about you. I think that what you need is not less changelings but more promotion.”

The mare looked surprised. “Advertise? But I’ve always relied on word-of-mouth, and done well enough until now.”

“That’s ponies talking to other ponies though, isn’t it? How many of them talk to changelings? How many potential customers never know about you and your talent? Try it – what have you got to lose?”

Elegant Designs looked uncertain. “Are you really sure that there’s a market there?”

Mixitkl shrugged. “It’s a changing world. Once upon a time, we would never have shown our true forms. Now we’re trying to fit in with pony society, and trying new things too. We tend to look alike to you ponies, so you might even set a trend selling designs to ‘lings who want to stand out among all the others.”

The body artist’s gaze was lost in the distance as the mare considered the possibilities. Efficacious Remedies took this as a cue to move onto another businesspony.

“Fascinating Flair, how’s the hat business?”

The pegasus mare scowled and snorted contemptuously. “What business? I’m dying, Effy! I’ve scarcely sold a hat or a fascinator all week. Last week wasn’t much better.” She glared in the direction of Mixitkl. “Where’s your changeling business there, hmm?”

Mixitkl looked apologetic. “I’m sorry, but I admit that my kind isn’t really all that interested in hats. Or at least, us Violet Changelings aren’t. I’m not one hundred percent sure about the other hives.”

“So, no words of wisdom for me?” Fascinating Flair asked sarcastically.

“How about shut up shop and move elsewhere?” interjected Ocean Breeze. “You’ve been moaning about poor sales for years. Every time you come by my shop, I get an earful. Seems to me that you’re just using the changelings as an excuse.”

Fascinating Flair looked outraged. “What would a smelly fish seller know about the hat market? The design and selling of hats and fascinators has been my lifelong career. If I say that those bugs are hurting my business, then they are!”

“And I say again – move! Maybe you’ll do better elsewhere, and I won’t have to listen to you whine about it anymore,” the fishmonger told her bluntly.

“Well I never! You’ve lost a customer, Breeze! I never liked going to your shop anyway.”

Ocean Breeze snorted in amusement. “Small loss. All those new changelings visiting the area have increased my sales a lot lately. Yours won’t be missed.”

Gentleponies!” Efficacious Remedies glared at the two arguers. “We are trying to have a civil discourse here. Please restrain yourselves.”

Ocean Breeze and Fascinating Flair backed down reluctantly, and the pharmacist continued.

“No need to ask how your business is doing, Breeze, so we’ll move onto the next. Silky Sheets – how are your linen and cloth sales doing?”

The orange earth pony looked glum. “Sales are way down, Effy. Ever since the changelings started coming around here, ponies have been shopping elsewhere. I’ve tried running sales and promotions, but nothing works lately.”

Efficacious Remedies looked at Mixitkl and said, “What have you to say about that? That’s about as clear an indication of how your kind has affected business as you can get.”

Mixitkl looked puzzled. “Frankly I don’t understand. We need sheets, towels and such just as much as any pony does. How come you haven’t gotten more business from us?”

Silky Sheets looked at her distastefully. “Oh, I don’t let your kind into my store. I refuse to deal with you bugs, no matter what the Princesses say.”

There was a moment of stunned silence about the table before Red Ink spoke up. “You do know that it’s illegal to refuse service on the basis of race?”

The mare looked a little uncertain but defiant. “I reserve the right to not serve anypony, and besides, bugs aren’t ponies anyway.”

“Silky, race covers griffins, minotaurs, and changelings, not just types of ponies. You can’t just refuse to serve any of them for no reason other than you don’t like them.”

Silky Sheets just crossed her forelegs and looked away defiantly. Red Ink sighed and gave up trying to talk sense to her.

Efficacious Remedies looked as she wanted to agree with Silky, but instead said, “I suppose we must ignore that statistic. Anypony else refusing service to changelings?”

There were no replies, so she addressed another pony. “Pen Point – you represent a company rather than a private business. What has it been like for you?”

“Firstly,” the unicorn stallion began officiously, “it is the policy of Quills & Sofas, Incorporated, that all customers be treated with the same courtesy and consideration irrespective of species.” He glanced meaningfully at Silky who studiously ignored him. Pen Point continued, “Sales and promotions are adjusted to suit the locale of each store, and despite the changing demographic here, our business has remained comfortably consistent.”

“In other words, changelings buy quills and sofas too,” Frothy added drily.

“I believe that’s what I just said,” Pen Point reproved him.

“I have a question, if I may?” Cherry spoke up.

“Certainly, Cherry,” Efficacious Remedies replied with a nod.

“Thank you, Effy. Pen Point – you say that sales have been fairly consistent despite the general downturn of business due to fewer ponies visiting the market. However, if the quantity of ponies were to return something like their previous number, wouldn’t you actually expect an increase over your previous average business?”

Pen Point considered that for a moment before replying, “I would say that would be a reasonable assumption.”

“Then the general problem is not a lack of custom from changelings, but the attitudes of ponies towards mingling with changelings.”

“Your point, Cherry?” Efficacious Remedies asked.

“So far, I’ve heard little that can’t be put down to ponies’ attitudes, and that goes for both customers and sellers. It’s not a problem that is going to go away anytime soon because we have long memories of the events of the invasion. It took a major change of perception on behalf of my husband to accept them, but that has been of great benefit to us in terms of both business and family. Eventually all ponies must learn to accept also, or else we may be harming ourselves, our families, and our businesses.”

“You make it sound so simple, but some of us need answers now, not some vague hypothetical time in the future when changelings and ponies live together in harmony.” Efficacious Remedies looked at one of the other ponies who had yet to make a comment. “Perfect Pleats – you’ve told me how your dressmaking business has been doing badly lately. Tell us about it.”

The unicorn mare looked a little flustered. “Well, it’s true that my sales have dropped a lot lately, but listening to Elegant Designs and the others, I’m wondering if I’m not doing enough to attract changeling custom also.” She turned to look at Mixitkl. “Do you even like to wear dresses? I don’t recall seeing you in anything but your apron, and other changelings in various work clothing.”

Mixitkl grinned. “Hon, you haven’t been looking. Those of us who have a feminine personality often love to dress up for occasions. First we need to be invited to those functions though before we go shopping for dresses, or for the more masculine types, for other formal wear such as Stylish Stitches makes.” She smiled at the stallion who acknowledged her with an inclination of his head. She continued, “Anyway, just like many ponies, we don’t wear much or any clothing under normal circumstances, but we harvesters are not much different from the average pony with our likes and dislikes. I think though that dresses that suit us might be a bit different from those that suit unicorns or pegasi. Do you think you would be up to the challenge of designing such if more changelings came your way?”

Perfect Pleats straightened up and her face took on a far more confident look. “My work is second to none! Come to my shop, and send me your friends; I will astound you all!”

“I second that,” Stylish Stitches added. “Although I’ve never turned away a potential customer, I could do with a few more, and I like the idea of designing something to suit changelings. We could start a new trend.”

Efficacious Remedies looked a little sourly at the enthusiastic pair. “That’s all very well for you, but there are others who don’t have such simple solutions. I don’t see changelings coming into my pharmacy. Do you even get sick?” she demanded of Mixitkl.

“Of course we do, but our ailments tend to differ from yours, so aside from things to treat injuries that are common to both of our kinds, we don’t need much of what you’re selling. We have our own healers and they have their own remedies for what ails us.”

“And where do they get those?”

Mixitkl shrugged. “Sorry, not my line of work. Maybe I can mention something to them though.”

“And what can they do about all the pony customers that I have lost?”

“I’m afraid that comes back to changing pony attitudes towards us,” Mixitkl admitted.

“Exactly! That’s what we’re trying to deal with. Ponies don’t want to mingle with your kind, so they go elsewhere. How do you propose to deal with that?”

Mixitkl gave her an annoyed look. “Why is it up to us to do everything? It’s always us who have to go the extra mile to make you ponies happy. Aside from the Blue Changelings who aren’t among the Canterlot population, we have never done you any harm, but we’re always treated as the ones in the wrong.”

Airbrush spoke up. “Like I said earlier, knowing that you’re not the bad guys doesn’t change our impressions of changelings. Attendances at my shows in Canterlot have dropped considerably since your kind started coming openly to them. For every one of you though, two or three ponies refuse to be seated anywhere near you, and often demand their money back. Even opening up a section of the arena just for changelings hasn’t done much to change that.”

Mixitkl genuinely looked angry now. “About that – do you really think segregating us from ponies is a solution? Has it come down to us versus them? We’re trying to integrate ourselves into your society, but you’re trying to push us out at every opportunity!”

“Who in Tartarus asked you to join our society?” Efficacious Remedies shouted back. “We were better off without your kind strolling through the streets as if you belonged.”

“You idiot! We’ve always been a part of Canterlot’s society, and the rest of Equestria too! You just didn’t know it until that mad queen ruined centuries of quiet coexistence. Better off? You have no idea of what you’re talking about! Changelings have…”

“Mixy – enough!” Frothy commanded loudly over the voices of the bickering pair.

Mixitkl stopped, and if her carapace could show it, she surely would have been blushing. “Sorry, I lost my temper there.”

Cherry said, “Arguing is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to achieve here today, and attitudes are undeniably the major problem. However, I don’t think it’s just us ponies who have to rethink our attitudes. Changelings have been doing things the same way for centuries, but times have changed. Maybe there’s something that both sides can do meet in the middle. There must be, because otherwise this society is going to tear itself apart, and we might even see race wars that haven’t existed in Equestria since before the unification of the three pony tribes.”

There was a long moment of silence as those gathered there contemplated Cherry’s words. Eventually Efficacious Remedies said stiffly, “I think that we’ve achieved all we can for tonight. I propose that we reconvene in a couple of weeks to discuss any changes we have put into effect. Mixitkl, I would appreciate it if you talk to your healers about my business.” The last sentence seemed to be almost choked out against her will.

Mixitkl nodded. “I will.”

“Thank you. I declare this meeting closed. Thank you Peach and Frothy for hosting it.”

There was a quiet murmur of agreement as the ponies got up from the table and started heading for the door.

Frothy said to Cherry, “Mixy and I will clean up and I’ll join you soon, Love.”

“I’ll have hot chocolate and cake waiting for you. And maybe something hotter also,” she added with a wink.

Frothy gave her a grin, and despite the fact that that his wife couldn’t see it, he knew she could sense it quite well indeed.

When the last pony had been ushered out, Frothy locked the café’s door and started helping Mixitkl cleaning up.

“You didn’t really have to stay after hours to clean up after the meeting, so why did you stay?” he asked quietly.

The changeling paused what she was doing before snorting and replying, “I couldn’t let those ponies sit around reinforcing their gripes and misconceptions with each other, so I had to be able to head them off. So I invited myself. Thankfully I didn’t get kicked out.”

“You can thank Airbrush for that. She’s obviously not your biggest fan, but they couldn’t kick you out without doing the same for her too.”

“You wouldn’t have stuck up for me?”

“Maybe. Mixy, you changelings may have a stake in all of this, but you don’t automatically have the right to stick your nose into everything we do. I’ve learned a lot about changelings lately, and you know that I am sympathetic to your cause, but there’s a limit to everything. As Cherry said, both sides need to compromise. Yes, you’re getting the short end of stick at the moment, but you can’t have the entire stick, no matter how much you might think so. Ponies might be better off with your kind, but we don’t necessarily need you.”

“But we do need ponies,” Mixitkl concluded. “You’re right, Frothy. We harvesters may have to adapt to changes we’ve never considered before. That going to be a lot harder than you realise, but in the end it’s for the greater good of our hives, and for Equestria overall.”

“At least you have some sympathetic ponies on your side. You might even start a changeling-led revival of sorts.”

Mixitkl grinned. “Wouldn’t that be something? By the way, I’ll let you into a little secret. One of those ponies was actually a changeling also.”

“Oh? Which one?”

“That’s up to them to tell if they wish. You can have fun speculating though.”

“I’m guessing it isn’t Effy or Silky,” Frothy said drolly.

Mixitkl chuckled. “No, it isn’t; I’ll pay you that one.”

They finished cleaning up and left everything ready for the start of business the next morning. Mixitkl took off her apron and hung it up before replacing it with a pouch of personal possessions that she hung around her neck.

“Well, goodnight, Frothy. I’ll see you at the beginning of my usual shift tomorrow.”

They went to the door so that he could let her out and lock up again. As she went, she stopped and said, “I probably don’t say this enough, but on behalf of the Violet Changelings, and in fact all changelings, I thank you for helping us so much.”

“You’re welcome, Mixy. Um, speaking of Violet Changelings, there’s one thing that I’ve been meaning to ask for a long time, but keep forgetting…”

“Yes…?”

“Why do you call yourselves such unimaginative hive names? Violet, Red, Green, and so on. Surely you could have come up with something more interesting than that?”

Mixitkl giggled. “Those are actually just common names, or nicknames if you prefer. My kind’s true name is–” She chittered something unpronounceable by pony throats.

Frothy looked blank for a moment before his trademark smirk returned. “Right. Violet Changelings it is.”

Mixitkl laughed. “Goodnight Frothy.”

Mixitkl stepped out into the rain and trotted off smartly. Frothy watched her for a bit as the lamplight glistened off her wet carapace. “Goodnight, my changeling friend,” he murmured before closing the door and turning off the shop’s light.

 

 


 

Chapter 10: A Civil Discourse

The True Brew Café used to employ two part-time waitresses, one each for the morning and afternoon shifts, overlapping for the lunchtime rush. One had quit in disgust at all the changelings, and she had been replaced by Mixitkl. However, Custard Tart had been happy to continue on in her morning shift position, especially since the growth in custom had also meant an increase in the hours worked, and therefore her take-home pay. Of late though, her pay was not the only thing increasing. The earth pony mare was quite gravid, and not long due to give birth. Actually, only her sturdy nature had kept her on this long.

This morning, Frothy was a little surprised when Custard walked into the shop in the company of an Orange Changeling. Typical of its kind, the changeling was small and almost cute-looking. The carapace was slightly darker than average, but the smile was just as bright as ever for those from that hive.

Custard called out a greeting as she trotted over to him.

“Good morning, Custard. Who’s your friend?” Frothy asked, unsure if he had seen this particular changeling before due to their similar looks.

“This is Parva, a friend of mine who’s looking for a job. I’m ready to go on maternity leave, and I suggested that he might like to take over from me.”

Frothy noted the use of ‘he’ in reference to Parva, but he also knew that despite the gender preference, there was essentially no difference between him and Mixitkl – both being essentially sexless. Personality-wise though – that remained for him to find out.

“So, Parva, what makes you think that you’re suited to the job?” Frothy asked.

“I’ve been here before and seen Custard at work, so I have a fair idea of what is involved, and I believe my skills are up to the job.”

“Have you worked at any similar jobs before?”

“Not as a waiter, although I’ve done some customer service jobs. I’ve only had some temporary employment so far because I’m fairly new to being a harvester in Canterlot.”

“How did you get to know Custard then?”

“She was a customer at the shop where I was working. We got to talking when she mentioned that she worked at a café that was popular with changelings. It was her suggestion that I try for the position here.”

“Why leave your old job though?”

“Primarily because the opportunity to fulfil my task as a harvester would be better here, but I also do not like that job.”

Custard interrupted, “He’s being too polite. The store owner has been taking advantage of him. She’s figured out that the new undisguised changelings are rather desperate for jobs, and she’s been overworking and underpaying them. Parva is hardly the first, and probably won’t be the last to be used this way.”

Frothy grimaced in distaste. “I can’t stand business ponies like that. How can they expect to get the best out of their employees if they treat them so badly? I can see that eventually laws will be enacted to prevent this kind of thing, especially if the princesses get involved.” He snorted in annoyance, and then smirked. “Of course I do seem to have a fairly direct line to one princess in particular. It might pay to drop a word in her ear.”

“That would be appreciated, Mr Brew.”

“Seeing as Custard is recommending you, I’ll give you a trial. If it looks like you’re suited to the job and you like the work, then I’ll take you on permanently.” Frothy turned to Custard and continued, “He’s your responsibility. You know how I like to run things, so get him up to speed as soon as possible. When do you want to go on leave?”

“I was thinking of finishing the week. That should be enough time for Parva to get a handle on things.”

Frothy thought about it for a moment, then nodded. “That works for me. Who knows – if he’s good enough, he might do you out of a job.”

Custard snorted in amusement. “Fat chance! When the new section opens, you’re going to need to hire more staff, not less!”

Frothy chuckled. “You got me there, Custard. So when will you be starting, Parva?”

“I’m ready to start right now, sir.”

“Oh? What about your old job?”

“I already quit that.”

“Were you that confident of getting this job?” Frothy asked with an arch of an eyebrow.

“Fairly confident, but mostly I hated working for that tightwad mare.”

“Fair enough. Go grab an apron from over there and get Custard to show you where to start.” As the changeling started to move in the direction that Frothy had pointed out, he added, “And the name is Frothy; not ‘sir’; not ‘Mister Brew’. Understood?”

“Yes sir, Mister Brew!” Parva replied with a cheeky salute.

Frothy smirked. He was going to work out fine.

* * *

Parva had indeed worked out. In fact the Orange Changeling’s hive specialty was a major asset as he entertained the customers as much as he served them. Frothy had noted that Parva did tend to put extra effort into serving ponies over changelings though, which was not surprising considering that he was also passively harvesting their emotional energy, whereas the changelings could give him none. It amused Frothy when he realised that he could use that to tell which of his pony customers were actually disguised changelings because Parva unconsciously favoured the real ones with his best efforts.

Despite the fact that they were from different hives, Parva and Mixitkl got along quite well when their shifts overlapped. Because the lunchtime period was so busy, there were always enough customers for both of them. Frothy did not realise how well they got along though until he found out that Mixitkl had shared her experiences with the traders’ meeting, and Parva requested to be part of the next.

Frothy looked at Parva in surprise. “Why do you want to come?” he asked bluntly.

“To give Mixitkl some support in dealing with them. Plus I might have something more to offer that hasn’t been suggested as yet.”

“You do realise that some of them are hostile to the presence of changelings, don’t you?”

Parva shrugged. “I have to play my part in this. It would be easier for us if we kept to the old ways, but our queens have decided that integration is the future of our kind, and so we all must do our best to bring it about. My feelings about this don’t matter.”

“Of course they matter!”

“That’s pony talk, Frothy. Despite our similarities, we still differ in some important respects, and my duty to the hive supersedes how I feel about it.”

Frothy scowled, but nodded reluctantly. “I suppose so, but I don’t have to like it. Anyway, you can come, but I can’t guarantee that you’ll be allowed to participate. Mixy managed to get involved from the beginning, but I can’t say that they’ll let you get away with it also.”

“That’s all I ask.”

* * *

Parva’s presence definitely was not appreciated by some of the traders, but when it was moved to have him excluded, they were outvoted. Parva elected to sit quietly with Mixitkl, occasionally whispering something to her, allowing her to speak for them both so as not to rock the boat too much. Unfortunately, that wasn’t completely effective when it came to Blue Steel, the local smith who had just joined the trader group. The trouble was that although his business should not have been unduly affected due to the fact that changeling citizens needed his goods just as much as ponies did, he just plain hated them with a passion, and refused to deal with them.

“An’ why should I?” he demanded. “Sneaky, deceivin’ bugs! Ya think they’re really yer friends? Ha! They’re liars, every one of 'em. They never woulda shown their faces if’n it weren’t fer that queen bitch tryin’ ta take over Canterlot. Now they’re makin’ nicey-nicey with us, pretendin’ ta be our friends after deceivin’ us for years. They’re still doin’ it! Ya know half of them are still pretendin’ ta be ponies. Fer all I know, some of yous are bugs too.”

Frothy had to admit that despite his bigoted rant, Blue Steel had one thing right – there was at least one disguised changeling in their midst. Mixitkl still refused to tell him who it was, and he had not figured it out for himself as yet. What disturbed him though was the point the smith had made about deceiving ponies. With all the good will in the world, he still had to concede that a changeling disguise was a deliberate attempt to deceive ponies in the long term. Even so, this would not have bothered him too much if it were not for how intimately changelings had gotten entwined with his family.

Efficacious Remedies sighed and said, “Please, Blue Steel, this group is supposed to be discussing business strategies in light of the changeling demographic, not an excuse to rant about them. Some of us have had modest success implementing suggestions put forth by Mixitkl, and regardless of other possible motives, that is why she is part of our group.”

Frothy’s opinion of Effy had gone up over the past few meetings. It was quite obvious that she still did not like changelings, and yet she did her best to be moderate and fair in dealing with them. This was good because she was a strong-willed pony, and she managed to push through otherwise unpopular ideas. Frankly, if she had not, Frothy would have stopped having these meetings at the café because they would not have been achieving anything.

Blue Steel just folded his forelegs over his chest, scowling but shutting up, and the meeting proceeded without further incident.

* * *

That evening as he prepared to go to bed, he abruptly asked, “Cherry, how do you feel about all those changelings who live here disguised as ponies?”

His wife gave him a quizzical look. “How should I feel about them? They’re a fact of life, and my opinion won’t change that.”

“It doesn’t bother you that there are probably hundreds of changelings in this city, deceiving us into thinking that they’re ponies?”

“You already know several like that; do they bother you?”

“All of those have proven themselves, but they’re only a hoofful in comparison to the number that must be out there. How do we know that they are all like that?”

Cherry sighed in exasperation. “What’s brought this on all of a sudden? I thought that you had gotten over your dislike of changelings once and for all?”

“It’s not a dislike,” Frothy replied in a defensive tone. “I mean, not all ponies are good, so why shouldn’t I suspect the motives of changelings when what they’re best known for is their ability to disguise themselves as ponies? They know we know now, so why do they continue deceiving us?”

“Yes, we know that now, and yet you haven’t thought about it in those terms until now. Why the change?”

“Cherry – our daughter goes out with one regularly, and usually he’s disguised as a unicorn. Aren’t you even a little bit concerned about that?”

“No, I’m not. I have faith in Peach’s judgement, and my impression of Red Archer backs that up.”

“But that’s the point – changelings are adept at disguising their true nature. Isn’t it possible that we’re only seeing what they want us to see?”

Cherry rolled her blind eyes. “I think that you’re being overprotective of Peach, and letting Blue Steel’s rants fuel your fears. So I suggest you get it out of your system and talk to Guiding Hoof about it at your next counselling session. Or better yet, have a heart to heart talk with Red Archer. Perhaps he can give you both answers and reassurances.”

Frothy thought about that for a moment before nodding. “I think I’ll do just that. It’s about time that he and I had a good talk anyway.” He climbed into bed with Cherry and kissed her on the cheek. “It’s time we found out how serious their relationship is also.”

Cherry snuggled up to him and said, “You’re a good father, dear, but a horribly nosey one. Don’t be too hard on the poor colt.”

‘That’s the problem,’ Frothy thought to himself. ‘He’s not a colt.’

* * *

The next afternoon when Sterling’s squad came in for their usual break, he pulled the sergeant aside.

“Could I ask you to have Red Archer stay behind for a few minutes? I need to have a talk with him.”

Sterling frowned a little. “Can’t it wait until after the patrol? He has duties to perform, and he comes here often enough in his own time to see Peach.”

“Peach is part of the reason that I want to talk to him, so I would rather not try to pull him aside when he comes over. It would be… awkward.”

Sterling considered it, then said, “As a favour to you, okay. However, try to keep it as brief as possible and have him re-join us immediately.”

“Thanks, Sterling. Your next coffee is on the house.”

“Corporal Archer, front and centre!” Sterling barked.

The surprised changeling jumped up from the table and came over to the pair. “Yes, sir?”

“Frothy wants to have a word with you. Re-join the squad when he’s done,” Sterling commanded, and then left them to finish his break.

“What’s up, Frothy?” Archer asked in puzzlement.

“Grab your coffee and come with me, please. Mixy, keep an eye on things. I’ll be with Archer next door for a while.”

“Okay, Frothy,” Mixitkl replied.

The bemused changeling followed Frothy next door into the partially renovated shop. While the major structural changes had been completed, it was still awaiting the fixtures to turn it into a functioning business, so for the moment it was mostly empty. Frothy gestured at one of the few tables that were there. “Have a seat, Archer.”

Red Archer put his coffee on the table and sat down, but then ignored the brew, preferring to wait for Frothy to tell him the reason for this oddly timed conversation.

Frothy sat opposite him and got straight to the point. “How many disguised changelings are there in Canterlot?”

The question surprised Archer, and he replied uneasily, “I… don’t think that I can answer that, Frothy.”

“Can’t, or won’t?”

“A bit of both, actually. I’m not privy to every bit of information, but even if I did, it might not be my place to tell you.”

“Then give me your guess,” Frothy insisted.

“In a city this size, with harvesters from five hives, a couple of hundred probably,” Archer replied uncertainly. “Why do you need to know?”

“Why do they remain disguised if you want to be open with us and be a part of the community?”

“I can’t explain the motives for all of them, but I assume that it’s because it’s their identities, and they’re reluctant to let them go.”

“But isn’t that deceiving us? You’re asking us to accept you, but basically hundreds of your kind are lying to us on a daily basis.”

Archer frowned, getting irritated at Frothy’s accusations. “You talk about it as if it’s malicious, but changelings have always done this to blend in harmoniously with ponies.”

“But it’s still a deception,” Frothy insisted.

“Of course it’s a deception, but one that is of mutual benefit. You know this already, so why are you getting so heated up about it now?”

“Because now I can’t be sure of your motives with regards to my daughter!”

“Ah, I see.” Archer thoughtfully took a sip of his coffee before going on. “Have you thought to question your daughter’s motives with regards to me?”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“What do you think she does when she goes with me?”

Frothy frowned. “I’ve been told that you go to concerts, dances, and other events. Are you telling me now that that this isn’t true?”

“Of course it’s true, but do you think we just do those things and never talk? Or we don’t stop by a restaurant and have dinner without leisurely conversation? Do you even realise why she agreed to go out with me in the first place? It wasn’t just my handsome good looks!”

Archer was still in his natural form, so his slightly smug smile made Frothy’s lips twitch with a hint of a smile before he said, “Okay, I’ll bite – what are her motives, and what do you talk about?”

“Anything and everything, just like most ponies do. However, the thing we most talk about is changelings. Peach has a nearly insatiable appetite for learning about us, and she uses our dates as opportunities to learn more. It just happens that we have many other interests in common, so we enjoy going out together. The point is though that she asks the questions that need answering instead of standing back and wailing about how little they know about us. Frothy, she wants to understand us better. How many other ponies can you say that of?”

Frothy mulled that over, and then said, “So you talk about yourself a lot, but that still doesn’t cover the ones who stay permanently disguised as ponies. You have put yourself out there in public, but those others specifically don’t. What have they to hide? Why can’t they show that they aren’t really ponies?”

“Aren’t they? These are changelings who have made complete lives for themselves in the pony community. They have taken the forms of pegasi, earth ponies, and unicorns, and immersed themselves in pony culture to effectively become one. In a way, they are deceiving themselves as much as real ponies, because to be a harvester, you have to empathise with ponies, to work with them, relax with them, share your lives with them. To ask them to reveal themselves as changelings to everyone is to strip them of their identity. How would you feel if I demanded that you bare yourself to the world without a shred of privacy? That’s what you’re asking of the disguised changelings.”

“I’m not asking them to tell everypony everything about themselves; I only think that they should be honest enough to admit that they are changelings.”

“Seriously? You don’t think that that one little admission wouldn’t totally change their lives? Now you’re being unreasonable.”

“Am I? We’re not the ones who have been hiding for centuries.”

“No, we’re the ones who have been peacefully coexisting with ponies for centuries. The fact that our existence has been revealed to everypony doesn’t change who and what we are. It’s your ignorance of that though that drives your fears. The difference is that some ponies choose to learn about us and dispel their misconceptions, while others embrace their ignorance and let their fear rule them.”

Frothy mulled that over while Archer took the opportunity to drink more of his coffee. The silence stretched on for a minute before Frothy said, “I suppose this is where I should start asking you to tell me more about changelings; specifically how it relates to Peach though. What should I know about a changeling going out with a unicorn? What is she to you? And more to the point, do you have feelings for her?”

Archer put down his cup before replying. “Going out? Not much different from two ponies, really. What she is to me? So far, just a very close friend. As for my feelings – we changelings feel the same gamut of emotions that ponies do, and for mostly the same reasons. Just because we feed on emotional energy doesn’t mean that we can’t feel the same emotions. However, there is one thing that we can’t do – while we can love, we’re incapable of falling in love with somepony before they fall in love with us. We are in some ways a mirror to the emotions of our companions, so if they have no interest in us, neither do we have any interest in them. However, I admit that I would not mind it if Peach did fall in love with me. She’s a beautiful person, and I would feel privileged to be the object of her affection.”

“You can’t fall in love? That sounds like a cop-out to me.”

“No, it’s a fact. Let me give you an example. Do you remember Whirring Cogs, the Blue Changeling that Princess Twilight brought around?”

“How could I forget?!”

“Well, because I was intrigued, I found out a lot more about him afterwards. Did you know that he used to work at the Cloudsdale weather factory before the invasion? He and his best friend used to spend most evenings socialising with mares, but he never formed a relationship with any of them. However, after the invasion he met his future wife in a small village. They formed a relationship and she fell in love with him, but only then could he return that love. It took less than two weeks for him to go from an independent changeling, to a committed partner. Why? Because being able to experience love is one of the most powerful things that can happen to a changeling. That’s why we harvest love energy as a high priority. It gives us the most energy, and feels so good when we consume it. However, eating it pales before actually experiencing it, and I would very much like to do so. Thus, if Peach ever does fall in love with me, I would do my utmost to ensure that she never has reason to stop loving me. In the meantime, I will continue to be her good friend. Have I answered your question sufficiently?”

Frothy found it a bit hard to wrap his head around the concept of being unable to fall in love without being loved first. “I... think so,” he admitted. “But now I’m wondering what else about changelings is so different from us.”

Archer smiled. “Now you’re thinking like Peach, instead of like a close-minded pony. So many of you tend to think of us as weird-looking ponies, but we’re not, and we’re very different in several ways. Yes, we enjoy most of the things that you do, we feel the same emotions as you do, eat much the same foods, but we aren’t ponies. Let me ask you something – you hear me referring to ourselves as harvesters, but doesn’t that imply that there must be other types of changelings?”

“I thought that just meant that it’s your job.”

“It is, but it’s also what we are. Although all drones are capable of shape-changing, only harvesters are capable of making a sophisticated alter-ego and blending in with the pony population. Others in our hives are soldiers, or tunnel builders, or nursery attendants, or gatherers, and so forth. What we are defines our primary job, unlike ponies who choose their career.”

“But our cutie marks define us in a similar manner,” Frothy objected.

“Do they? Instead of a owning a café, could you not have been a coffee importer? Or perhaps a grower? You could have been working just as a barista instead of owning your own shop. Your cutie marks are a very broad guide, but for us, we’re bred to a task.”

“So you never really had a choice then? That’s awful.”

“Not really. Being bred to a task means that we are also very good at that task, and enjoy doing it. However, how we accomplish that task is still up to us to choose. Like many others from my hive, I chose the Royal Guard because that best fit my personality, but there are Reds in many other occupations. So while we’re very different from you in one way, we do have something in common there also.”

“I see. So where are these other… breeds? How many do you think there are in Canterlot?”

“None,” Archer said with finality.

“None whatsoever? Are you sure of that?”

“Almost certainly. Most other breeds either never leave the hive, or keep close nearby. Soldiers guard it and look out for possible dangers to the hive. Gatherers get food such as fruit, roots, fish, and umm… various sources of meat,” Archer said as delicately as possible. Even so, Frothy looked a little queasy at the thought. “However, even gatherers won’t stray too far from the hive. If they meet any ponies, it will be by accident, and they won’t hang around. Interacting with ponies is the job of the emotion harvesters.”

“I’m pretty sure that I’ve met some of those soldiers,” Frothy said sourly.

“During the invasion? Yeah, probably, but that was an aberration. I know that there aren’t any Red Changeling soldier types here, and I’m virtually certain that’s true of the other four hives also.”

“Peach was fortunate that she was visiting an aunt out of town when the invasion happened, so she never had to see what they were like. Hopefully she will never meet any.”

“Oh, she met some when she visited my hive.”

“She WHAT?!” Frothy shouted, jumping up and staring accusingly at Archer.

The changeling swallowed nervously and said, “She… didn’t tell you about that, did she?” When all he got was a furious glare from Frothy, he continued, “I don’t think I was supposed to mention that.”

“And why shouldn’t her father know what crazy ideas get in her head?” Frothy demanded.

“Hey now! It’s not crazy at all. If there was any danger, I would never have conveyed her request for an interview with Queen Carpacia.”

Why did she do that?” Frothy asked incredulously.

“I told you – she wants to learn all about us. Our queen agreed to the interview because she has heard about all the work that Peach has done to try to improve pony-changeling relations. It’s quite an honour for Peach. Very few ponies have ever gotten to visit the hive. Princess Twilight Sparkle is the only one to have been more than once.”

Frothy sank back to the floor with a groan, laying his head on the table and covering his eyes with one foreleg as if he could make it all go away by doing so. He realised though that it was pointless blaming Archer; his strong-willed daughter would probably have found another way eventually.

“Look at it this way, Frothy – you were concerned about changelings hiding things from you, but your own daughter is uncovering those very things, and far from causing any problems, she’s earning a great deal of respect in the changeling community.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Frothy mumbled.

“Yes, it should. We changelings excel at some things, and one is looking after our own. Peach has earned that honour, and whenever there’s a changeling nearby, she will always have a protector. She was not the first though. A few others have been declared honorary members of the hive.”

“Oh? Do I know them?” Frothy asked dully.

Archer grinned. “You should know at least one. You’ve seen him every time you’ve looked in a mirror.”

Frothy’s head shot up from the table. “Me? But why?”

“Don’t downplay your role, Frothy. While perhaps not a total success, your acceptance of changelings as normal citizens made the community at the True Brew Café a big leap forward in our relations with the pony citizens. Certainly there’s a lot more work to be done, but it all had to start somewhere, and with someone. Some ordinary citizen rather than a Princess or ambassador, and that pony was you.”

“I only ever wanted to treat you with the same respect that I give all my customers,” Frothy protested.

“And that’s all we ever wanted from ponies – respect and acceptance for changelings, whether they be hidden or out in the open like myself. While we may differ in many ways, we are all citizens of Equestria, my friend, and proud to be so.” Archer finished the last of his coffee, and then got up and picked up his helmet telekinetically. “I really must get back to my squad now. If you wish to talk more about this later when I’m off-duty, let me know.”

Frothy wordlessly watched Archer leave, his mind awhirl with mixed emotions. He was still trying to sort out what he had learned and how he felt about it all when his wife came looking for him some time later.

Cherry’s horn glowed as it sent out magical feelers that touched on the various objects in the room, enabling her to unerringly navigate the room despite her blindness. She came to a stop by Frothy and asked, “Are you alright, dear? We were getting concerned when you didn’t return.”

Frothy snorted gently with wry humour and nuzzled Cherry reassuringly. “Darling, you’re never going to believe who is an honorary changeling…”

 

 


 

Chapter 11: A Little Enlightenment

Frothy was annoyed with himself when he got back to the café only to find it quite busy. He had counted on it being fairly quiet while he had his conversation with Red Archer, but apparently that had not happened, and poor Mixitkl had been left trying to cope by herself. Fortunately Peach had returned from her shopping trip and came to her aid. Still, there was a small queue to deal with, and Frothy immediately set to filling the orders for coffee.

When they finally caught up, Peach said, “Thanks, Dad. What took you so long?”

“I was having a little chat with Archer. He was answering a few questions for me.”

“Did you find out what you wanted to know?” Peach asked curiously as she started clearing up the backlog of cups and plates.

“Some, but he raised even more questions.”

“Oh? Like what?”

“Like what did you think of the hive you visited?” Frothy asked casually.

Peach nearly dropped a stack of plates from her telekinetic grasp, barely recovering before they crashed to the floor. “Oh, he told you about that?”

“Yes, he did. When were you?” Frothy gave her an accusatory glare.

Peach flushed a little as she replied, “I was going to when the time was right.”

“What made you think that it was a good idea to keep that from me?”

“Because you still have your concerns about changelings, and you worry too much about me. I’m a grown mare, Dad, and quite capable of making my own decisions and assessing risks.”

“Yes, you’re certainly a grown mare,” Frothy agreed as he turned back to his work. “Keep your secrets if you wish, but for Celestia’s sake, either don’t behave like a foal caught doing something naughty, or trust me to be reasonable about things like this. I may be concerned, but that’s my job as your father, and that job doesn’t end just because you’ve grown up.”

Peach was not fooled by his gruff words. She knew that he had turned away from her so that she would not see how much he was affected by the situation. She leaned forward and nuzzled her father. “Okay, Dad. Want to talk about it now?”

Frothy returned the nuzzle, feeling some relief from the stress that had been building since he had learned of her trip. “No, we have work to do and customers to attend. We’ll talk later when we can all chat in private as a family.”

“Sure thing, Dad.”

* * *

“You’re not the only pony that they’ve given that honour,” Peach told Frothy after dinner as the family relaxed in the lounge room.

The fire had been lit to ward off the cool night air as the season edged further into autumn. With full bellies and tired legs comfortably resting on sofas or lounge chairs, the atmosphere was conducive to quiet conversation. Even Flapjack was an eager participant despite frequently preferring to do stuff that colts enjoyed. His curiosity about the hive visit though had made him rush through clearing up after the meal so that they could all sit down to talk all the sooner.

“I suppose Princess Twilight was also,” Frothy guessed.

“Yes, and a couple of others,” Peach confirmed, “but you were the first non-official representative. All the others before you were part of the Princesses’ formal liaison teams. You got the honour because, although there have been quite a large number of ponies friendly towards the changelings, you were the first to go out of your way to make them welcome, and in spite of your fears! The changeling queens all respected the effort that you put into treating them decently.”

“It’s just a good work ethic,” Frothy demurred. “You treat your customers right, and they repay you through regular business.”

“Sure, just like all those other businessponies that meet here, extolling the virtues of changeling customers,” Peach said sarcastically. “Let’s face it, Dad – what should be done and what actually is done are two entirely different things. You did the right thing for the right reasons.”

“Okay! Enough about me!” Frothy said with a dismissive wave of his hoof, embarrassed by all this talk. “I want… we all want to hear about your visit to the hive. How did you even end up getting in there? I’ve heard that aside from the Princesses, no one has been told about where they’re located. They’re still a closely guarded secret.”

“While not strictly true, that’s close enough,” Peach admitted. “But all the work that I’ve been doing, combined with incessantly nagging Archer to petition Queen Capacia, scored me one of the rare invitations.”

“So where is the Red Changeling hive?” Flapjack asked eagerly.

“Sorry, 'Jack, but I’m not allowed to tell you. I’ll tell Dad in private if he wants to know, but otherwise it has to remain a secret. It’s one of the conditions of being granted the privilege.”

“Aw, nuts!” Flapjack griped.

“So, what can you tell us about the hive?” Cherry asked.

“First thing you’ve got to realise is that every preconception that you have about it is probably wrong. If you expected to find a dark, damp, winding maze of corridors, you’d be very disappointed. It’s like an underground city, although nothing like Canterlot. Maybe more like Manehattan. It’s very densely utilised, but there aren’t any chaotic crowds; it’s very busy but extremely organised. Aside from the strange lighting and of course the changelings themselves, you might think that you were in some busy, unfamiliar pony city.”

“And what about the changelings there? Were any disguised as ponies? What did they think of you?” Flapjack rattled off his questions.

“Whoa! You’re getting a bit carried away. I’ll answer everything in good time, although I will say that once inside the hive, all the changelings were in natural form. I would have had a very hard time trying to identify Archer if he hadn’t still been wearing his Guard uniform. There was one major difference between him and the other changelings that I soon started noticing though, and that brings me to the next important point – what you think the majority of changelings are like is probably mostly wrong.”

Frothy was startled by that revelation. “We’ve been spending months getting to know them, chatting with them, having them participate in meetings, even going out with them,” Frothy added, pointed looking at his daughter. “Now you’re saying that we don’t really know them well at all?”

“No, you know the Harvesters pretty well. In fact, you have never met anything but Harvesters with the single exception of the Blue invasion, and you didn’t exactly get to know those. What I learned about regular changelings has to do with the bond that they have with their queen. The reason that the hive is so organised is that the queen subtly controls all of them. While they still have a large degree of individuality, nevertheless they are all focused on working for the hive rather than themselves. The queen assigns them a task, and they pursue it with a degree of monomania. Every changeling knows its place and its task, and doing that is its goal in life.”

“That sounds something like crossing ants with ponies,” Frothy said dubiously. “Are you sure that’s an accurate assessment? None of the… Harvesters are anything like that.”

“That’s because to do their job, Harvesters need a great deal of individuality and self-reliance. While they still have their assigned task for the benefit of the hive, to harvest emotional energy, they need to be able to empathise with, and emulate ponies. To all intents and purposes, they are a very specialised sub-breed of changeling.”

“Are you saying that everything that these Harvesters do is all a facade?”

“Oh no! That is, except for what is needed to maintain their disguises. Their emotions, their friendships, and everything else – they’re all very real. They have to be, or else they simply would not be able to do their job. If there was anything false about them, ponies would sense something amiss, and would tend to avoid them. While an ordinary changeling could drain you of love or other positive emotions by force, they are not well-suited to subtlety. Only the Harvesters can fit in with us socially in order to passively feed on our emotional energy. So don’t worry – our changeling friends really are our friends.”

Frothy had to admit that he felt relieved. For a moment there, he had started to have his doubts about his changeling acquaintances. Of course, now that he thought about it, his in-depth counselling sessions with Guiding Hoof would not have been possible if the Yellow Changeling’s feelings and concerns had been anything but genuine. Still there were some odd points. “I’m guessing that this might explain something that Archer told me this afternoon.”

“Oh? What’s that?” Peach asked.

“He told me that a changeling can’t fall in love before a pony falls in love with them first. I found that to be very strange.”

“Actually, from what I’ve learned, that’s probably more to do with how they feed on love.”

“That seems counterintuitive to me. If they feed on love, wouldn’t that make them desire a pony more, and thus make it more likely that they could fall in love?”

“It’s because they feed on love that they can’t normally fall in love first. You know that they can feed on all positive emotions, right? And each hive has a preference in taste of different emotions? Well, despite their tastes, love energy is still the most potent, and it’s reflexively consumed by them before they can truly feel it strongly from anypony. However, if a pony falls in love with them, they are overwhelmed with the flood of emotion and literally can’t eat any more at that moment. Then they start feeling it rather than consuming it, and that’s when they can fall in love too.”

Frothy pondered that for a while before nodding. “I suppose that makes sense.”

Cherry said, “But dear, wouldn’t that be true of all their emotions? Wouldn’t they be unable to feel friendly until they’re overwhelmed with friendship? Might they not feel joy until surrounded with joy?”

Peach sighed. “I’m afraid that I’m explaining this badly. I think it’s because love is such a fundamental need that they use any ambient love energy before they can truly experience it. Above all, even though they are pony-shaped, and even though they do and enjoy most of the same things that we do, they are not ponies, and there are fundamental differences between us. The way they think sometimes is as different from us mentally as griffins are physically. And yet, as with those griffins, they are compatible with us to a high degree.”

“So compatible that they want to mate with us,” Frothy said slyly.

Peach gave him an odd look before replying, “Er, yeah, some of them do. Why did you bring that up?”

“Because Archer says that he’s hoping that you will fall in love with him. So, does he have a chance? Are we going to be looking at getting a changeling son-in-law?”

Peach blushed a little, squirming under Frothy’s gaze, and aware that her mother was keenly waiting for an answer too. “Well, not that it’s any of your business how I feel, but Archer is probably going to be disappointed. I know that because of his nature, he has to wait for me to make the first move, but I’m the kind of mare who wants the stallion to take the initiative.”

“So how do you feel about him?” Cherry asked gently.

Peach smiled fondly. “He’s a wonderful friend, and a pleasure to go out with to a concert, a party, or for dinner. But he lacks that romantic spark that would push him over from being a companion to a potential life-mate, and that’s what’s stopping us from getting any further in our relationship. If he could just go that one step further… well, maybe I’d like to be his wife. Until then though, if a pony stallion comes along that gets along with me as well as Archer does, then it’s more likely that I’d choose him instead.”

“Thank Celestia,” Frothy murmured. He did not want to admit it, but he was half glad that Archer was unlikely to be able to sway his daughter’s feelings sufficiently.

Unfortunately for Frothy, while his wife might have been blind, her hearing was quite keen.

“Frothy Brew! I’m ashamed of you! Archer may not be a pony, but neither has he been anything but a perfectly acceptable companion to Peach. If they ever do choose to become mates, I hope you will have learned to accept that fact.”

Frothy blushed with guilt, glad that Cherry could not see that, but guessing that she knew it anyway. “Sorry, dear, but I really haven’t come to grips with the thought of having a changeling son-in-law as yet.”

“Perhaps you should have a talk with somepony who has made that step?” Cherry suggested.

“What? like Weighty Words and her wife?”

“Yes, or better yet, you know another changeling who has a wife… and children,” Cherry added slyly.

Frothy was startled. “You don’t mean that Blue Changeling… what’s his name? … Whirling Cogs, wasn’t it?”

“Whirring Cogs, actually, and yes I do mean him. He might be able to give you a better perspective than Archer because he has achieved what Archer has not.”

“But he doesn’t even want to come back to Canterlot!” Frothy protested.

“Then we should visit him. In fact, I insist. I would love to meet the wife of a changeling. We could make an evening of it.”

“But… we don’t even know where he lives!”

“Princess Twilight Sparkle does though. We can make arrangements through her.”

“The princess isn’t a messenger mare!” Frothy objected.

“No, she’s the Princess of Friendship who is always looking for ways to bring changelings and ponies together. I’m betting that she would be happy to help us out.”

“But…” Frothy could not immediately think of another excuse not to seek out Cogs. They had parted on grudgingly good terms, but he was in no hurry to get reacquainted.

“But nothing,” Cherry said sternly, staring at him with an expression that brooked no contradiction, her blind eyes boring right into his head.

Frothy knew when to capitulate. “Okay, dear. I’ll ask Mixitkl to pass on the request tomorrow.”

Cherry patted him on the shoulder. “Thank you, darling. Now cheer up – I haven’t asked you to attend a funeral as the guest of honour.”

Frothy’s trademark smirk returned. “Not yet, anyway.”

“Oh, stop being such a grump. It will be fun! We’ve never travelled out of Canterlot since I lost my sight. It’s about time we remedied that.”

“You pick strange times to get the urge to travel,” Frothy grumbled.

Cherry chose to ignore her husband, and instead turned to Peach and said, “I’d like to hear more about your visit to Archer’s hive.”

“Sure! I got quite a tour, and met a lot of different changelings. Oh, and the babies – they’re cute in a strange sort of way. Let me start in the nursery….”

* * *

Frothy had half hoped that Twilight would knock back his request. Instead, he received a positive response far quicker than he believed possible. In fact, rather than send a messenger with a reply, Twilight herself turned up at the café.

“Frothy!” she said with an excited smile, “I hear that you and your wife want to visit Cogs and his family. I knew introducing you two was a good idea! And your timing couldn’t be better because I was planning to visit them this Sunday for my goddaughter’s birthday party. She’s turning two, you know? I can’t wait to show her to you! She’s a darling!”

“Your Highness,” Frothy managed to say while Twilight took a breath, “you didn’t have to come here yourself to let me know, and I certainly don’t want to butt into a private family affair.” Frankly he was hoping for a good excuse to put it off altogether.

“Nonsense! I was already here in Canterlot on business, and it was no trouble popping over here. I’m sure Lavender and Cogs will be happy to have you as guests. Besides, given my experience with young fillies, I’m sure that they’ll be glad to have a bit more adult company that day.”

Frothy’s hopes were quite thoroughly dashed. Whatever chance he had of not having to go was immediately neutralised at the mention of the wife. Even if Cogs was less than willing to meet him again, undoubtedly his wife would have just as much say in the final decision as Frothy’s had. In other words, it was good as done. “Okay, let me know when and where exactly to go so that we can make arrangements to travel.”

“I’ll handle the travel arrangements, and I’ll let you know when I’ll pick you up.”

“Er… you’re not going to teleport me again, are you?” Frothy asked uncertainly.

Twilight giggled. “No, I’ll arrange a pegasus carriage to take you to their place. It’s you, Cherry, and Peach going, right? Teleporting three other people is a bit difficult, especially over that distance. Anyway, this way you get to travel in style.”

Frothy shuddered at the thought of being in a carriage so far up in the air. No decent unicorn’s hooves should ever leave the ground! Still, what could he do? The princess had decided. “We’ll await confirmation of the time,” he said with resignation.

“Great! I’ll let you know as soon as possible. Gotta run now though. I need to get back to Ponyville soon.”

“Don’t you want some coffee while you’re here?” Frothy blurted out.

“No thanks. I’m trying to cut down on caffeine. Ponies have been saying that I’ve been getting a little hyper lately. Don’t know why.”

With that, she fired up her horn, and disappeared in a flash, leaving behind a bemused Frothy, and several ponies agog at having a princess pop in for a quick chat, invite a barista to a private event, and leave again as precipitously as she had arrived.

Frothy frowned at them and said, “Alright, who’s next? Only princesses get to hold up the line and not order anything!”

* * *

Because of the season, it was already dusk when Twilight arrived with the carriage for Frothy, Cherry, and Peach. It was then that he got another shock at the sight of the pegasi pulling it.

Twilight explained, “Princess Luna advised me that it would be best if we use some of her Night Guard instead of the normal Day Guards. Thestrals have better night vision, and besides, the Day Guard pegasi should normally be off-duty by now.”

Frothy thought that Twilight had a point, but the bat-winged pegasi with slitted eyes had always seemed weird to him. “I’m just not used to seeing them,” he feebly tried to explain.

Twilight gave him a puzzled look. “But they’re not much different from regular pegasi, and are actual ponies, unlike the changelings that you see every day, so why should it bother you?”

He had no answer for that, and elected to board the carriage before making more of a fool of himself. He assisted Cherry on board, followed by Peach.

Twilight boarded last, taking the driver’s seat. “We’re all set, Captain Wingstrike. You may depart when ready.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” the lead thestral replied. “Squad, on my mark, take off. Let’s give the Princess and her guests a smooth ride.”

“Yes, sir!” the other three replied.

“Mark!”

With practiced ease, their coordinated efforts lifted the carriage quickly and smoothly into the air. The ground dropped rapidly away, and Frothy clenched the side of the carriage in terror. Peach noticed, and put a reassuring hoof on his back.

“Calm down, Dad. I’ve ridden in one of these before, and it’s perfectly safe.”

“There’s nothing between us and a long fall to the ground except this thin, low wall,” he said with a strangled voice.

Twilight said, “There’s a strong enchantment on these carriages that prevents that from ever happening, Frothy. As your daughter told you, it is indeed perfectly safe.”

“Logic... not working… still terrified,” he squeaked.

“Maybe I can do something…” Twilight began.

Cherry interrupted her. “Allow me, Princess Twilight.” Her horn lit up, and tendrils of energy streamed out in a similar manner to the way she reached out to touch things to feel her way through unfamiliar territory. This time though, those feelers wrapped around Frothy, gently enveloping him in a mesh of unicorn magic.

Frothy felt the presence of his beloved wife suffusing him, calming his nerves, reassuring him. He tore his eyes away from the distant ground to gaze at Cherry, and although she could not see him, still their eyes met. His fears abated then, and he embraced his wife. “You were always my pillar of strength, darling,” he murmured.

After that, Frothy was able to cope with the means of travel, although he sincerely believed that he would not ever get used to it. He remained quiet for a while before something else became apparent when he felt Cherry shiver.

“Umm, Princess, is it supposed to be this cold?”

Twilight looked aghast. “Oh, I’m so sorry! Pegasi don’t feel the cold like unicorns and earth ponies, and as an alicorn, neither do I, so I forgot about setting up a magic weather shield on this lovely clear night.” She hastened to do so, and the cool, biting wind abated, to be replaced by gentle warmth radiating from a ball of magical energy that Twilight manifested in front of the unicorns. “There, that should keep things pleasant until we reach our destination,” she said with satisfaction.

“Thank you, Your Highness,” Frothy said.

“It’s Twilight Sparkle, please. Remember, I reserve titles for formal occasions only, and we’re going to a filly’s birthday party, so just Twilight, okay?”

“Okay, Twilight.”

Wherever they were going, they seemed to be making good time, but it was still probably going to take a while to get there, and he needed to keep his mind off from thoughts of how far up that they were. He needed to talk for the distraction value.

“So, Twilight, you haven’t said where we’re headed exactly.”

“Oh, right. It’s something that I don’t normally mention so as to protect Cogs’ privacy, but you’ll soon enough know anyway. I only ask that you keep it to yourself.”

“You have our word, Twilight,” Cherry answered for the three of them.

“Thank you, everypony. Our destination is Whitetail Meadows village, which is located roughly west of Ponyville. It’s near enough to my home to make it easy and convenient for me to teleport there directly to pay a visit.”

“So you go there often?”

“As much as my schedule permits. Any excuse to see my goddaughter actually.”

“How on Equestria did you end up as godmother to a changeling’s daughter? I can still hardly believe that you’re such great friends with a Blue Changeling, despite everything.”

Twilight giggled. “Would you believe I almost executed him the day we first met? I didn’t even know that he was a Blue then. I had fashioned a magic charm that identified changelings, but not their types, and I only wanted to talk with him to further my studies. He actually identified himself to me, fully expecting me to kill him for it.”

“Why in Tartarus would he do that?” Frothy exclaimed.

“Because he was so upset about the actions of his hive that he felt he didn’t deserve to live. Fortunately he looked so woebegone and remorseful that I gave him a reprieve, which gave him a chance to explain things more. I then decided that he wasn’t guilty of anything, and I took the opportunity to learn from him instead, and in doing so, I made a good friend in him and his wife. By enabling Cogs and Lavender to have a child, I became more emotionally invested in their family, and when they asked me to be the godmother of their newborn filly, I couldn’t say no.”

“I still find it hard to imagine a changeling and a pony having children,” Frothy said with a meaningful glance at Peach.

“You’re worried about your daughter’s relationship with a Red Changeling, aren’t you? Well, I hope you find reassurance tonight. At the very least you will see that they have a very wonderful, but also very normal pegasus foal.”

“All of this is part of an effort to convince me of how great changelings are, isn’t it? I thought you were done with that social experiment?”

“Oh, no! I mean, yes, we’re still working on their public image, and you and your café remain a good means of doing so, but we’re working on many other ideas now. Only a multi-pronged approach has much chance of succeeding. And besides, confidentially, it’s not just ponies who are learning about changelings, but changelings learning to adapt to the enormous changes that have happened. Ponies like you who keep asking questions, but are willing to listen to the answers, are not common enough. We need to get them thinking of ways to change their attitudes as much as their appearances.”

“That actually is one of my biggest concerns, Twilight. After all this time, so many of them still conceal their true identities, and I am uncomfortable with this deception. Why can’t they all be honest with us?”

Twilight sighed. “I wish it was that simple, Frothy, but you’re not just dealing with social traits, but also ingrained species traits. Their ability to shape-shift most likely evolved as a form of self-defence, and asking them to stop using it would make them feel very vulnerable, if it’s even possible. That’s a powerful thing to try to overcome. Additionally, you have to try to understand that sometimes, they simply think differently from ponies. It may prove that they are simply unable to comprehend why you find it disturbing.”

“Then are we wasting our time trying?”

“Good heavens, no! Nothing is ever achieved by giving up, and besides you need to find your answers also. I foresee a great many years of study before we have a good grasp on what they are, and their place in Equestria. Meanwhile, we trust in the magic of friendship to forge bonds between us, and tonight is just one more link in that chain.”

“You’re hopelessly optimistic, Twilight.”

The alicorn gave him a wink. “That’s my job, Frothy.”

He smirked back at her. “I suppose it is. Heck, I’m surprised that you don’t have changelings pulling this carriage instead of these thestrals.” He stopped and looked keenly at the bat-ponies. “Or are thestrals really changelings after all?”

“Ha! No, they’re really just a subspecies of pegasus with an interesting history of their own. Besides, although changelings have their own flight magic, it’s not in the same class as pegasi. They simply would not be able to support a carriage of this size with only four of them.”

“I see. Maybe you can tell me more about thestrals? Changelings can wait for a bit.”

“I’d love to! Let’s go back to the beginning and the origin of their species…” Twilight replied, going into full lecture mode.

The rest of the journey was filled with facts, figures, and historical notes on thestrals, and Frothy hardly noticed the time pass, not to mention taking his mind off his fear of heights. It was not until Captain Wingstrike announced that they were approaching Whitetail Meadows Village that his attention was brought back, but by then he had calmed down considerably.

Wingstrike said, “We need final directions to the destination, Your Highness.”

“I’ll be right with you, Captain,” Twilight said as she spread her wings and took off. She pulled in front of the thestrals and had them follow her to bring the carriage to a landing at the rear of an unassuming shop where the door to the living quarters was located.

The unicorns alighted from the carriage, and Frothy sighed with relief to feel the ground beneath his hooves once more.

Cherry addressed the thestral team in the meantime. “Thank you very much for a smooth flight.”

“You’re very welcome, ma’am,” Wingstrike replied on behalf of the squad.

“Captain, you and your squad may take the next couple of hours off-duty,” Twilight told them as she passed over a small amulet to the captain. “When I need you for the return trip, this amulet will summon you. Until then, enjoy whatever Whitetail Meadows Village has to offer.”

“Thank you, Your Highness. Squad – fall out!” The bat-ponies happily disengaged their harnesses and then walked off together.

Twilight went over to the door and rapped with her hoof.

“Twilight!” exclaimed the green unicorn mare who answered the door. She and Twilight exchanged hugs.

Frothy wondered about such familiarity with a princess, but decided that if she was virtually part of the family, it was to be expected.

Twilight turned around and indicated Frothy’s family. “Lavender, may I introduce your guests for tonight. This is Frothy Brew, his wife Cherry Delight, and their daughter, Peach Delight.”

Lavender smiled broadly. “Welcome to our home. Come on in – dinner is almost ready. I trust you have brought your appetites?”

Frothy guided Cherry inside, followed by Peach entering into a living room adjacent to a dining area where he saw Whirring Cogs setting the table. The two’s eyes met in awkward recognition, and he nodded a greeting. Cogs returned the nod and finished laying out the plates and cutlery.

“Cogs, come say hello to our guests,” Lavender insisted as she showed them to lounge chairs.

Cogs put a pleasant smile on his face as he came over, and his wife introduced them. He was startled to realise that Cherry was blind. “Pardon me for asking, but I was told that you do much of the baking for the café – how do you cope with that?”

“Familiarity and unicorn magic,” Cherry answered, sending out little tendrils of glowing magic to touch various objects around her. “I can identify most things by touch this way even in unfamiliar environments.”

“Very impressive,” Cogs said admiringly.

“Thank you,” Cherry replied. “There’s one thing that I have yet to hear or touch here though; I hear that you have two daughters…?”

Cogs’ face lit up. “Would you like to meet Dandelion? She’s playing in her room at the moment. Let me get her.”

He quickly returned with a creamy yellow pegasus foal riding on his back. She was giggling in delight at the ride, but stopped when she saw the strangers in the room. She gaped at them in rapt curiosity.

“This is Dandelion Dreams, our firstborn and our pride and joy. Say hi to the nice ponies, Dandy.”

“Hi, hi!” the little filly said as she enthusiastically waved a tiny hoof.

“I believe you have another foal?” Frothy asked as Cherry leaned closer to the foal to touch her with her magic. Dandelion started giggling again as the magic tendrils tickled her.

“Yes,” Lavender answered, “but she’s newborn and currently fast asleep in her cot. She’ll be ready for a feed when she wakes up.” She indicated her teats which were obviously quite full. “You can have a look at little Sky Fern then.”

“I think that it’s wonderful that you and Cogs have been able to have foals,” Cherry said. “Did it cause you much difficulty?”

“Well, I presume that you have heard that there isn’t a compatibility spell for changelings? Even with Twilight’s help, it wasn’t a simple process. In fact, if I hadn’t found out that my husband was a changeling, I might still be waiting to get pregnant.”

“You didn’t know he was a changeling before you were married?” Frothy asked with a frown.

“No, I didn’t,” she admitted.

“Didn’t it bother you that he had been deceiving you all that time? Would you have even married him if you’d known sooner?”

“Well, at first I was really angry with him for not telling me sooner, but despite his fears, I was never going to leave him. I was in love with the idiot, after all.” Lavender gave Cogs a coy smile with her eyes half-lidded. “Still am, too.”

Cogs’ troubled look melted into a warm smile as the two gazed lovingly at each other for a moment.

“But it doesn’t trouble you that he was, and is, living a lie, pretending to be a pegasus?” Frothy pressed.

“Now just a minute!” Cogs started objecting before Twilight interjected.

“Please, Cogs, I told you that Frothy had some legitimate questions that he wanted answers to, and I would appreciate it if you could clear things up for him. After all, that’s why they’re here tonight.”

“Not me,” Peach said. “Sure, I’m interested in hearing the answers, but I mostly just wanted to meet you all, especially this cutey.” Peach had been playing with Dandelion while the others had been distracted, and the little filly had been gurgling happily.

“And I’m here to socialise, and give my husband moral support,” Cherry added. “Frankly, Cogs, he’s had a lot to think about lately, and so have many other ponies. He’s only asking what many others are asking also, but unlike the average pony, Frothy has the ear of many, and has a lot of influence. You would do well to answer his questions and ease his mind.”

“I suppose so,” Cogs grumbled.

Lavender said, “To answer your question, no, it doesn’t bother me. Let me tell you how I learned what he is. We were out on a flower gathering trip together near the Everfree Forest when two timber wolves appeared. I was unable to escape, but Cogs transformed into a huge manticore and frightened them away, saving my life. After I got over being angry with him, I realised that if he hadn’t been able to change and deceive the Timberwolves, I would have died that day. That’s how they survive; that’s their way of life. It’s as natural to them as breathing. How can I resent that, especially as there never was any malicious intent behind the deception? The only thing that I considered him guilty of was not trusting me sooner with his secret.”

“So you loved him enough to forgive him, but could you be truly sure that he loved you in return, and wasn’t just using you?”

Cogs looked like he was going to protest again, but Lavender just gave him a serene smile and replied, “Frothy, may I ask if you love your wife?”

Frothy was a little startled at the turnabout, but considered it only fair. “Of course I do; very much so, in fact.”

“How sure are you that Cherry loves you in return? After all, she’s blind and could just be using you to compensate.”

Frothy started bristling at the accusation until he realised that she was doing to him exactly what he had been doing to her, and his ire deflated. “Point taken. I take back the bit about using you, but I still would like to know how certain you could be that he loved you then.”

“I get the impression that you and Cherry are soul-mates, and you have no doubts about your feelings for each other. The same is true for us. His love turned my lonely life around, and now I not only have a mate, but also a family.”

Frothy nodded, accepting that answer because it fitted so well with his own experience. “Thank you, Lavender. My apologies for any discomfort that I may have caused.” He turned to face Cogs, and continued, “However, I do have a couple more questions to ask of you.”

Cogs sighed. “Let’s get this over with. Ask away.”

Lavender said, “I’ll just go check on the dinner while you two chat. Don’t be too long, because I’ll be serving it up soon.”

Frothy said, “Okay. Umm… Cogs, a Red Changeling told me recently that changelings can’t fall in love unless their partner does first. I find that hard to believe, or understand.”

“Yeah, I know, which is why we don’t normally talk about it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ponies, especially mares, put a lot of weight behind their partner’s attitude towards them, so if we told them that we need them to fall in love with us first before we can return that feeling, um... let’s just say that it rarely goes down well.”

“So it’s true then?”

“Of course it’s true, but it’s something that we hope happens when we form a relationship with somepony that we feel would make a good life-partner. Otherwise we keep our job separate from our feelings.” Cogs paused for a moment and snorted in semi-amusement. “Our job… It hasn’t been my job for years, and I wouldn’t go back to it now for anything. Back before the invasion though, I used to work in Cloudsdale, and most evenings my best friend and I would go out and socialise with the mares. Of course I did it as part of my emotion-harvesting work, but that didn’t stop it from being enjoyable just for itself. I deliberately kept some emotional distance from the mares though; I never allowed myself to get too involved because I did not want to lead them into a one-sided relationship.”

“Then what changed?” Frothy pressed. “How could you possibly even get to the point where you know you want to be in a position to fall in love?”

“Life happens, Frothy. I fell into the embrace of the one pony who could feel my need and whose needs I could fulfil also. It’s not planned; it never is. It just doesn’t work that way for us. That’s why when the circumstances align, we are so keen for it to happen. I gather that the changeling who told you about this has somepony special in mind?”

Peach waved a forehoof. “That’d be me, although I haven’t exactly been encouraging him.”

“I think you may be deluding yourself a little, if you don’t mind me saying so,” Cogs said gently.

Peach was startled. “What makes you think that?”

“Just because we can’t fall in love first, doesn’t mean that we can’t feel and reciprocate other emotions. I sensed… tasted really… Lavender’s feelings from very early in our relationship. That’s the thing about us changelings – there’s no way we can ignore them. This time though, I was comfortable with them as I had never been with the mares back at Cloudsdale. We clicked together. Being with Lavender was what I wanted to do, but I could not feel that way if she hadn’t felt that way too.”

“So you’re saying that Archer is picking up on my feelings and reciprocating them because if they weren’t there, we wouldn’t be having this conversation?”

“Exactly. He’s waiting for you to make a final decision about which way your relationship is going to go, and hoping for the best. For me, until Lavender made her decision and kissed me that night we were walking back from dinner with friends, she had not fallen in love with me, and I could not with her. That kiss changed everything though. That overwhelming feeling of love is something indescribably wondrous, and it opened up something in me that I had never been capable of before.” Cogs turned his attention back to Frothy. “That’s the truth of the matter. It’s something that we desire but can never have unless we are loved first. And that’s why Chrysalis’ actions were a betrayal of our entire race, because now it’s harder than ever for our kind’s differences to be accepted, and some changelings might never know that joy because of it.”

“I think you may have partially answered my final question,” Frothy said thoughtfully.

“Oh? And what is that?” Cogs asked with one eyebrow raised in curiosity.

“Why do changelings feel the need to deceive and lie to us?”

“Who says we are?”

That response startled Frothy. “Are you trying to say that changing forms and pretending to be ponies is not a deception?”

“Not in the way you are thinking of anyway. Just look about you and tell me what you see.”

“I see a changeling pretending to be a pegasus, who has taken a pony as his wife…”

“Stop right there. I asked you to tell me what you see, not what you know. Forget for the moment that you know that I’m a changeling and everything else that you’ve learned about me. Now tell me what you see.”

Frothy did as he was asked. Dandelion was still happily playing with Peach, and seemed particularly fascinated with her horn. Cogs was laying at ease on his lounge chair while looking expectantly at Frothy and Cherry who were seated together on the sofa. Twilight was quietly observing both Cogs and Frothy with keen interest. The room was neat, clean, and tastefully decorated. Lavender came out from the kitchen bearing a steaming hot potato pie and set it on the table. The smells of the food were quite mouth-watering. Frothy reconsidered his words. “I see a pegasus and his wife and child having friends over for dinner.”

Cogs grinned widely. “Now you’ve got it! This is reality, not a deception. I’m not pretending to be a pegasus – I am being a pegasus. We harvesters don’t just go out and pretend to be ponies – we go out and create new permanent identities for ourselves. We become that identity. To ask us to give up that identity because you feel that we are deceiving you, is to ask us to give up being ourselves. I can guarantee you that very few of those changelings who go about undisguised had previously established pony identities. I could never go back to being Zevan the Blue Changeling harvester, because he isn’t me anymore. I am a pegasus, I am a husband, and I am a father, and that’s no lie!”

Frothy was a little taken aback by Cogs’ adamant declaration, but he could finally see the truth of it. “A deception stops being a lie when it becomes a reality. You are not hiding the truth, because you have become that truth. It’s not something that the average pony would ever have to consider because we are fixed. I was born a unicorn, and will be a unicorn until the day I die, but changelings can become something else, something even more than what you started from. To ask you to declare that you are secretly changelings would be a step backwards for you. That’s why you don’t usually reveal yourselves.”

“Pretty much,” Cogs agreed. “I’m not ashamed of having been born a changeling. If I wasn’t one, I would not have been able to save Lavender’s life a while back. However, otherwise it’s pretty much irrelevant to my life as I want it to be.”

Frothy gave him his trademark smirk. “You know that there are still going to be ponies who won’t accept that and still going to accuse you of being deceitful liars?”

“Of course, and it will always be that way. But we don’t need to convince everypony, just the majority. One day, hopefully the fact that some ponies might be changelings will become just as irrelevant to them as it is to us.”

Lavender spoke up then. “Well there’s one thing that is relevant to us all, and that is that we’ve probably all got a good appetite right now, and this food will get cold if you don’t stop yapping, so everyone to the table now, please!”

There was a chorus of agreement, and they all went to take seats at the table. And while there was much conversation during that meal, none of it was about changelings!

* * *

Twilight, Cherry and Peach exchanged farewell hugs with Lavender, while Frothy shook hooves with Cogs.

“I know that you said that you had no inclination to come back to Canterlot again, but if you ever do find yourself out our way, I want you to know that you’re welcome to come by our place for dinner,” Frothy told Cogs sincerely.

Cogs grinned. “Knowing my wife, that might happen sooner rather than later. In any case, thanks for invitation.”

They all boarded the sky carriage, and the thestrals took off to head back to Canterlot. The mares waved goodbye to Cogs and Lavender, while Frothy firmly kept his eyes off the rapidly disappearing ground. This time they made sure to keep his mind occupied while they were in flight, so everything went a lot smoother. Nevertheless, Frothy was very happy to see the lights of Canterlot city rapidly approaching, marking the imminent end of their journey.

Everyone was surprised to find that despite the late hour, there was quite a great deal of activity about the café. In fact the thestral team had a bit of difficulty finding enough room to land. Only the fact that the Guards on the ground recognised the carriage and its important passenger, and they made some room for them, were they able to put down in front of the café’s door.

Twilight alighted from the carriage and approached one of the Night Guards. “Who’s in charge here?”

The Guard pointed to a unicorn. “That would be Lieutenant Sable Mane, Your Highness.”

Sable Mane came over before Twilight had to ask him, and he crisply saluted. “Your Highness, I hadn’t been expecting you to turn up in response to this incident.”

“Whatever is happening, I wasn’t aware of it until now; my presence is coincidental. What is happening anyway?”

“The True Brew Café was subject to another attack. However, this time we have caught the perpetrator. They were unaware that the Royal Guard has been keeping a covert watch on the establishment since the previous event, and therefore they were caught in the act. We are currently investigating if there are any further connections to this individual with similar intentions.”

By this time, Captain Wingstrike had disengaged himself from his harness and joined the two. “Excellent work, Lieutenant. So, they took advantage of the absence of Frothy Brew and family as we surmised they might?”

“It would seem that way, Captain.”

“And exactly who was the culprit?” Twilight asked.

“Yeah, that’s what we want to know too,” Frothy demanded.

“His name is Wild Nights, and he owns a nightclub of the same name.”

“Isn’t that the slightly sleazy, back-street pick-up joint nearby?”

“That’s the one. Seems he’s been losing a lot of customers lately due to the increase of changelings in the area.”

“And he’s not been getting their custom instead, I suppose?”

“No, and here’s the kicker – Wild Nights is a changeling.”

“What?!” all three of the Brew family exclaimed.

“Why would he want to get rid of other changelings?” Peach asked.

“We’re still investigating that, and we were delayed in waiting for one of the Changeling Squad to attend, but we do have a preliminary outline of the case. It seems that Wild Nights operated what might loosely be called a dating service as part of his business. He would use his ability to taste emotions to help match up couples, but while legitimate dating services might be most interested in pairing up potential mates, his matches were of a more sordid nature. He brought ponies together and encouraged them to keep meeting at his club so that he could harvest their emotions, although this one had a taste for the, shall we say, less noble kind. With the increase in changelings in the area came a decline in ponies coming to his club, and a shrinking of his emotion harvest. He therefore decided to take things into his own hooves and try to discourage you from accepting changelings so readily.”

“I find it hard to believe that a changeling would act against his own kind so readily,” Peach said with a stunned look on her face.

“Remember what we learned tonight?” Frothy asked her. “Changelings who take on a permanent persona, become that persona. Wild Nights chose to become a sleazy club owner as a strategy for harvesting emotion, and ended up becoming a true sleaze. I’m a bit torn about this news. In one way we have vindicated the assertions of Co… of our friend, but in another, we have shown that changelings can be the bad guy in these disputes.”

Peach smiled sadly. “I suppose so. In a way though, it does make them a bit more pony, don’t you think? It seems they can be just as fallible as us.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing? Most ponies think that they’re just a little too perfect. Maybe this will take a bit of the shine off their image,” Frothy replied.

Twilight said, “Hopefully everypony can take away a valuable lesson from this incident.”

“I’m wondering what that changeling’s hive queen will have to say about this,” Cherry commented. “By the way, what hive was Wild Nights from?”

“He’s an Orange,” Sable Mane informed them.

“Ouch. Parva is not going to be happy when he hears that,” Frothy said. “So what did he actually try to do this time?”

“He tried to set fire to the café.” Sable held up a hoof to forestall the next question. “No, there was no real damage done. Our observer managed to deal with it before it had a chance to spread. It was a good thing that you weren’t home though if anything had gone wrong.”

“Not home? Our son, Flapjack, is home! He has school in the morning, and couldn’t come with us on this late night outing of ours. He’s old enough to be responsible for looking after himself for the evening though, so we left him home alone. He should be in bed right now, hopefully unaware that he could have been burned alive.”

“Wild Nights claimed that he was looking for a suitable opportunity, and when he saw you all leave, decided that this time he could act without anypony getting hurt. Now it seems that his careless overlooking of your son may get him charged with conduct endangering life on top of the charge of arson.”

Cherry said, “Well, I’m just very grateful that you have kept watching our house all this time.”

Captain Wingstrike said, “You can thank Her Highness here for that. She ordered the watch after the last incident.”

“Twilight?” Cherry said with some surprise.

“Yes, it’s true. While I like to think the best of ponies, I also plan for the worst. The chances were high that the responsible party would re-offend, so I ordered the watch. I didn’t want you to worry though, so I kept quiet about it.”

“Then you have our undying gratitude for your forethought and consideration.”

“It’s nothing that I wouldn’t do for any of my little ponies. Ooh, I’m sounding more like Celestia every day! Anyway, it was my pleasure. I hope this doesn’t spoil your evening. As for me though, I think I’ll have to be dealing with some of the aftermath of this incident. I suspect that I’m going to have to deal with one very unhappy hive queen soon.”

“You have our sympathy, Twilight,” Peach said.

“Thanks, Peach. And now I had better go. A princess’s work is never done. I hope that we can get together again soon though.”

“Do you require our services, Your Highness?” Wingstrike asked.

“No, thank you, Captain. I’ve got this one.” With that, she fired up her horn and, with a loud pop, she teleported away.

“That’s our cue to call it a night also,” Frothy said. “Did you need us for anything, Lieutenant?”

“Nothing that can’t wait until tomorrow, sir.”

“In that case, I bid you goodnight.”

Cherry and Peach echoed Frothy’s words, and they headed inside.

“I’m going to check on Flapjack,” Cherry said.

“Okay, dear. I’ll prepare a drink for us while you do that,” Frothy replied.

As Frothy locked the door behind them, Peach said, “I’ll be heading straight to bed. Mom and I have to start earlier than you.”

“I know. Before you go though, can I just say one thing?”

“What’s that, Dad?”

“This situation between you and Red Archer needs to be resolved. You have to decide whether he’s going to be just a friend, or whether he’s a potential mate. You can’t keep him hanging on too much longer.”

She nodded and said, “I know. The catch is that while he knows exactly what he wants, I don’t as yet. Would you even be comfortable with having a changeling son-in-law?”

“Maybe. Stranger things have happened. Tonight I made friends with a Blue Changeling after all.”

Peach giggled. “Yes, that’s true. I’ll sleep on it and see if I have a clearer answer in the morning. Goodnight, Dad.”

Frothy gave his daughter a hug. “Goodnight, Peach.”

He watched his daughter trot off, wondering what she would decide. ‘Strange times indeed,’ he thought to himself before heading to the kitchen to make some hot cocoa for Cherry and himself.

 

 


 

Chapter 12: Change Of Heart

Monday mornings were always extra busy, so Frothy did not get an opportunity to chat with Peach to find out if she had made any decision before they both took a break after the rush had died down. Nevertheless he did not wish to seem pushy on the subject, and so he waited to see if she brought the subject up herself.

“Y’know, I didn’t really get to sleep quickly last night,” Peach began. “You had me thinking too hard about me and Archer.”

“But did you reach any conclusions?” Frothy asked in his most tactful voice.

Peach sighed. “Yeah, I did. I realised eventually that if I had to think that hard about it, I wasn’t in love with him, but I really seriously do like him a lot, and I don’t want to spoil that.”

“Hmm, I see. I think you need a little perspective.”

Peach looked at her father intently, her curiosity aroused. “Oh? And what would that be?”

“What do you know about how your mother and I got together?”

“I know that Weighty Words introduced you two back when you were doing business studies. Then you started dating, and eventually got married.”

Frothy waved a hoof dismissively. “Accurate enough, but lacking in important details.”

“Care to elucidate then?” Peach said, resting her chin on her hoof and paying close attention.

“When Weighty introduced us, we of course had no idea that she was also matchmaking. Now I know that she’s a changeling, I have a better understanding of why and how she saw that we’d be compatible, but back then we were just study-buddies. We each had strengths in different areas, and helped each other in the weak areas. We were both so intent on our studies, and so comfortably familiar with each other, that it was weeks before it occurred to either of us to ask the other out on a date. In fact it was the end of the semester when we had more free time before we got around to it.”

“Gee, you really couldn’t keep your hooves off each other, could you?” Peach said drolly.

Frothy grinned. “Well, it’s not as if I was totally oblivious, but yeah, we were very focused on our studies to the exclusion of most everything else. I think that’s one reason that Weighty Words put us together though. She knew what both of us had to learn, and that is you can’t ignore living your life just to build a business. When we did start dating, we suddenly realised how much we had been missing out on, and when the next semester started, we continued dating. To our surprise, it really didn’t affect our studies much at all. We did take our time learning more about each other though, and the things that we liked. However, there was no one point where either of us could say that we had fallen in love. It was a gradual thing built up over time, and then one day after a particularly pleasant evening out, Cherry said that she would love to do that more often, and I said something totally unromantic like perhaps we could build a business together so that we’d always be able to have time off together also. She retorted that maybe a more personal partnership would be appropriate.”

Peach grinned. “I bet that knocked you for a loop.”

“Maybe not as much as you think. After all, it had been a very pleasant night. I asked her if she would care to start negotiations. She replied that she was open to the right offer.”

“I gather that the ‘negotiations’ were successful?” Peach’s grin grew wider.

“Well, you were born ten months later,” Frothy admitted.

“Woohoo! Conceived out of wedlock!” Peach crowed.

“Don’t be a smart-ass. You know very well when we got married and how old you are.” Frothy found it hard to stifle a grin of his own though. “Anyway, the point that I’m trying to make in my own long-winded and circuitous way is that falling in love isn’t necessarily going to happen out of the blue. Yes, our friends Lavender and Cogs did, but really that kind of thing doesn’t happen too often. Mostly it’s like your mother and me – gradually getting to know each other better and better, enjoying our times together, until one day you realise that this is something that you want to do for the rest of your lives.”

“Just like Archer and I have been doing? So you think we have a chance, given sufficient time?”

“Hon, I can’t guarantee anything, but yes I do. However, I don’t want you to rush into it with false expectations. This is something you have to get right, because it would kill me if you got hurt, no matter if it was unintended or not.”

“But surely if I do fall in love, Archer will know that for an irrefutable fact, and fall in love in return?”

“As I understand how changelings react, yes he would. But that doesn’t mean that your relationship will work out. Contrary to the popular quotation, love does not conquer all. Cherry and I found out that we worked well together before we fell in love. I strongly recommend that you be sure that you two will do the same before you do something that cannot be undone.”

“You seem awfully keen on emphasising the problems our relationship could cause, Dad.”

Frothy looked away with a guilty expression on his face. “Peach, despite everything that has happened lately, I’m still not keen on the idea of having you marry a changeling. I’d hoped one day that you’d bring home a nice stallion whom I could growl at but secretly like, and look forward to having grandfoals. Archer has changed everything though, and I don’t know what to think anymore, so I’m falling back on a father’s most basic instincts – I want to protect you. Perhaps one day Archer will prove himself to me and I will not feel this way anymore, but until then I will always advise caution.”

“But you won’t interfere?”

“I won’t discourage; I can’t promise non-interference though. In the end though, you’re an adult mare and the choice is yours to make. Please choose well.”

Peach leaned over the table to kiss Frothy on the cheek. “I promise, Dad.”

* * *

“Frothy, we have a complaint,” a green changeling told him in an irritated tone.

Frothy was surprised – this would be the first time that he’d gotten a real complaint from any of the changelings. “What’s the problem, Karrantha?”

“We’ve been waiting for our order for too long. This isn’t like you to let your customers wait like this.”

“That’s odd – I don’t have any outstanding orders right now. Hasn’t Parva taken your order yet?”

“Yes, he did, and then he went over to the other table to take the orders of those ponies. I don’t believe that he has stopped chatting with them since.” She stared accusingly at Parva.

Frothy looked at where Karrantha was staring. Just then the ponies that Parva was talking to, burst into laughter at something he said. The Orange Changeling seemed to be on a roll and in no hurry to move on.

Karrantha continued, “This isn’t the first time this has happened either. Parva is neglecting the changeling customers in favour of the ponies. I hope that this isn’t a change of policy on behalf of this café?”

Frothy frowned. “No; no it isn’t. Pardon me for a moment while I get someone to serve you immediately.” He went to the back room door and called out, “Peach! Could you come out and serve Karrantha and company, please?”

“No problem, Dad. Be there in a sec.”

Frothy went back to the counter and said, “Peach will serve you in a moment. Your drink will be complimentary for your inconvenience.”

“Thanks, Frothy.” Karrantha went back to her table just as Peach came out.

Frothy pointed out her customer, and then turned back towards Parva. “Parva! Come to the counter, please!” he called out loudly.

Parva looked over his shoulder and said, “I’ll be there in a minute, Frothy.”

Now, Parva!” Frothy said sternly.

The changeling was startled, but he hastily said, “Back in a moment, folks,” before he trotted over to Frothy. “What’s the problem, Frothy?”

“That’s what I want to find out. Come to my office with me.” As Parva started to object and hold up the order from the pony customers, he continued, “Leave it on the counter. Peach will attend to it.”

Parva did so and followed Frothy into his small office. He closed the door behind them.

“I can taste that something is really bothering you. Am I in trouble for something?” Parva asked.

“Yes, something is bothering me. Why are you neglecting our customers?”

“What? But I’m not! I’m still putting in extra effort to entertain the customers, just as I have since I started here.”

“Yes, the pony customers. The customers who can give you emotional sustenance. You have been giving them the bulk of your attention, to the detriment of the changeling customers. It shames me that I had to have it rubbed in my muzzle before I recognised what you’ve been doing. Now that I think back on it, I’ve seen other instances, and it should have been obvious. From early on, I was able to tell which ponies were actually changelings in disguise due to the way you reacted to them. Well I’m telling you now that that’s got to stop. This café earned its reputation for good coffee and good service before it became a hub of changeling activity, and that is not going to change now. From now on, I want to see all customers treated equally, and I don’t wish to be embarrassed by complaints of slow service. Do you understand?”

Parva hung his head and softly said, “Yes, Frothy.”

Frothy softened his tone. “Look, I know that you took this job in order to achieve your task as an emotion harvester, and I have no problem with that. You do a great job of entertaining the customers, and that helps our reputation. However, I hired you as a server, and that’s what I pay you to do, so that must be your priority. If you feel that you can’t achieve both tasks, then I will have to find a replacement for you, and I don’t want to have to do that because we all like you. But this is a business first, and my family’s means of making a living, and I can’t let anypony… or changeling… affect that.”

“I understand. I promise that it won’t happen again.”

“That’s good enough for me. Now let’s get back to work. We don’t want to let Peach get too overwhelmed.”

They left Frothy’s office just as a trio of changelings entered the café.

“I’ve got this!” Parva called out to Peach as he trotted over to them. “Welcome to the True Brew Café! Do you want anything to go, or would you prefer a table where I can serve you?”

* * *

When Archer visited the café that afternoon with his squad, Frothy pulled the changeling aside.

“You and I have a conversation to finish,” Frothy said, looking Archer in the eyes.

“Same place as before?” Archer asked.

Frothy nodded and started heading for the door. “Mixy, back in a few minutes!”

Archer noticed that the new shop had all the fittings in place now, and must surely be close to being ready to open. “The place is looking good, Frothy,” he commented as he took a seat at a table.

“Yes, we’ll be announcing the opening soon. However, we’re not here to talk about that.”

“It’s about Peach, isn’t it? You want me to stop seeing her?”

“Yes, it’s about Peach. No, I’m not going to do anything of the sort. From what you told me last time, you are eagerly waiting for her to fall in love with you. Well, I’m going to tell you what I told her this morning, and that is to take your time and get this right. Be patient! You don’t understand us ponies well enough yet, any more than I completely understand you changelings. She is still learning though, and so must you if you want to win her love.”

Archer looked at Frothy with a perplexed expression. “You must be right, because I certainly don’t understand you. One moment you’re trying to run me off, the next you’re friendly, then you’re discouraging me, and now you’re giving me tips on relationships!”

“There’s only one thing you really need to understand, Red Archer, and that is that my family means everything to me, and I will love, support, and protect my wife and children to the utmost of my ability. How I feel about your relationship with Peach doesn’t matter in the end though because that’s her choice to make. However, I'll do whatever I can to make that choice one that I’m happy with also. My experience with meeting Whirring Cogs and his wife and children has shown me that your approach to relationships is different, and sometimes your thinking is alien to us, but in the end the results are basically the same. So I repeat – be patient, learn from her, be good to her in the meantime, and perhaps you will have just as good a relationship.”

“Understood, Frothy.”

“Good.” Frothy got up to head back to the café, but looked back with his trademark smirk. “You may fill in the usual appropriate heartfelt threats, if it makes you happy.”

The changeling grinned back lopsidedly. “I’ll do that.”

* * *

Frothy returned to the café just as two ponies entered the main door – one familiar and the other decidedly not. Twilight Sparkle spotted Frothy and headed towards him, bringing along her companion. The white-coated unicorn mare was exceptionally tall, at least as tall as a large stallion, although much more gracefully built, and her white and pink mane and tail matched her well. Frothy had not often seen ponies from Prance before, but this mare had to be one. What she was doing in Twilight’s company, he assumed he was about to find out.

“Hello, Frothy Brew,” Twilight said with uncharacteristic formality. “I know you did not expect to see me again so soon, but I have a friend here who would like to meet you. This is Fleur De Lis, the Prench liaison, socialite, and supermodel in her spare time. Fleur, this is Frothy Brew, owner and proprietor of the True Brew Cafe, and a remarkable figure in changeling-pony relations.”

“Bonjour, Monsieur Brew. It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Fleur De Lis said in a thick Prench accent as she extended a forehoof.

Frothy shook her hoof carefully. “The honour is mine, Lady Fleur De Lis. The Princess is too generous in her assessment of my contribution though.”

Fleur smiled. “Nonetheless, I am here to talk to you if you have a moment to spare? And without any other ponies in the shop for the moment, if possible?”

Frothy looked at Twilight who nodded her head in encouragement. “Please?”

Frothy said, “Okay. Archer would you…” His voice trailed off as he noticed the changeling Guard gaping in shock at Fleur De Lis. “Archer?”

Archer tore his eyes from Fleur and replied, “Yes, Frothy?”

“Could you lock the front door and stand by for a moment?” Frothy asked the changeling even as he wondered what was bothering him.

“Sure. I’m on it.” The changeling went to do so with startling alacrity.

By now, Frothy was sure that there was something going on with this particular aristocrat that he was not yet aware of. He preferred to keep away from the bluebloods and other highborn ponies because they were snobbish and condescending to working class ponies such as himself. Twilight had proved to be a remarkable exception, so he hoped that any pony that she brought to meet him might be also.

“Would you care for a refreshment, Lady Fleur De Lis?” Frothy asked.

“Oui. Thé chaud, s’il vous plaît,” Fleur replied.

“Hot tea,” Twilight helpfully translated.

“Coming right up. Please make yourselves comfortable while you wait.” Frothy headed behind the counter and began preparing the tea. As he did so though, a bright yellow light lit up the room. He turned to look at the source, and was shocked to see magic yellow fire burning down Fleur’s body, leaving behind a crooked horn, slit orange eyes, burnt-orange carapace, and a bright orange mane and insectile wings. She was another changeling, but far larger and more imposing than any that he had ever seen before.

Twilight grinned at Frothy’s consternation. “Looks like re-introductions are in order. Frothy, may I present to you Queen Polistae of the Orange Hive.”

A queen? A changeling queen was visiting his shop? Frothy’s mouth opened, but no words came out.

“Forgive me, Mister Brew,” Polistae said in a completely unaccented voice. “I enjoy my little joke a bit too much, but I don’t have too many opportunities to surprise ponies.”

“So that’s why Archer was acting so weird – he recognised what you were,” Frothy said as he looked accusingly at the Red Changeling, only then noticing that he had drawn the blinds as well in anticipation of need for privacy.

“Sorry, Frothy,” he replied. “I’ve never known a queen to visit outside of the formal meetings at the castle. It wasn’t my place to say anything though.”

“Right. Okay, Your Majesty, do you still want that tea?”

“Yes, please, and that talk too,” she said as she settled down at a table.

Frothy completed the task, and brought two cups of steaming hot tea to the table for his guests. He then settled down opposite Polistae and said, “So, Fleur De Lis is just a disguise for you while you’re in Canterlot?”

“Oh, much more than that,” Polistae demurred as she stirred a lump of sugar into her tea. “She’s as real as any changeling’s permanent alter-ego.” She sipped the tea and sighed in contentment. “Very nice! Anyway, many years ago, I wanted to keep a closer watch on what was happening in the seat of power for Equestria, and I created Fleur for that purpose. It gave me the opportunity to meet up with important people, but not have to be present for too long. After all, I have a hive to run.”

“So you weren’t around when Chrysalis made her move?”

“Sadly, no. I would have caught out that bitch in a moment if I had, but then I probably would not be here talking to you today.”

“Which brings me to why you are here to talk to me?”

Polistae sighed again, sadly this time. She sipped a bit more of her tea before replying. “I understand that your business and your family were subject to attacks by one of my Harvesters going by the name of Wild Nights.”

Frothy’s expression hardened. “Yes, that’s correct.”

“I’m here to offer a formal apology on behalf of the Orange Changelings. There is no excuse for what he did. All our Harvesters are under orders not to bring harm to ponies, but this one rationalised that he was only trying to damage your property, without thinking of the consequences.”

“My daughter, Peach, has visited the Red Changeling hive, and she tells me that their queen keeps a subtle control of all her changelings. Isn’t it the same for you?”

“I believe that Peach would be referring to the hive workers. Harvesters are a special breed that requires a looser style of control in order to be able to effectively do their job. Unfortunately that means that exceptions like Wild Nights are possible. However, surely you have learned more about Harvesters by now, and should understand this?”

“Yes, I had heard something like that. I’ve also been told so much about how beneficial you changelings have been for pony civilisation, but along comes some somepony like Wild Nights to put a lie to that.”

“I wish that I could say that something like that could never happen again, but I can’t. Because of the negative impressions from the Blue invasion, we’ve talked up our positive traits as much as possible to counteract the horrible perception of our kind, but of course we do have our negative traits also. We are not perfect, and we have inevitably made mistakes and hurt ponies over the course of history, but the same is true of even the best of ponies. Just ask Celestia sometime about her regrets. The bottom line though is that we are doing our best to achieve exactly what we have said all along – to peacefully co-exist with ponies.”

“I have a Blue Changeling friend who has done more to convince me of that than any other person, changeling or pony.” Frothy got up and extended a forehoof to Polistae. “On behalf of my family, I accept your apology, Your Majesty. Thank you for taking time out to visit our humble business to do so.”

“My duty and my pleasure, Mister Brew.” Polistae shook his hoof, then transformed back into her Fleur De Lis guise, and continued with her affected Prench accent, “And it has been most interesting to visit this quaint little café of yours to see what the common people enjoy.”

Frothy grinned, recognising the act that she was putting on. “I bet Princess Celestia got a bit of a surprise when she found out who you truly are.”

Fleur laughed. “Not as much as Monsieur Fancy Pants did.”

“Fancy Pants?”

“One of the top echelon of the upper class, and Fleur’s frequent companion,” Twilight explained.

“I see. I’d call that more of a shock than a surprise. I don’t suppose you see him much nowadays though now that he knows who you are?”

Fleur smiled mischievously. “Oh, the shock did not last long. In fact we see as much of each other as we always did. After all, now he can brag that he’s consort to a queen, non?”

Frothy had not thought of it like that, but then again he was not one of the upper class constantly playing social games and politics. That might be his idea of fun! “Good luck to him. And to you, I suppose.”

Fleur’s smile softened and her eyes took on a slightly distant look. “Yes, good luck for me,” she agreed.

Frothy abruptly wondered if changeling queens could fall in love too. And what did the other queens do? The more he learned, the more questions were raised.

Fleur’s attention returned to Frothy. “Merci beaucoup for the most magnifique tea, Monsieur Brew, but we must be going. Work is never done for such as I, so I must bid you au revoir.”

“Farewell, Lady Fleur De Lis. I hope to have the pleasure of your company again someday.”

Archer had taken the cue, and had already opened up the shop again. Twilight said goodbye and headed out the door with Fleur. A unicorn stallion who was just approaching the café, stopped in surprise as he recognised the mare. Then he rushed up to her, telekinetically pulling out a quill and pad.

“Fleur De Lis! Could I get your autograph, please? I loved your winter fashion parade!”

“A fan? How cute! Mais oui, mon ami,” she replied in her thickest Prench accent, taking the quill and pad from the bedazzled pony.

Frothy who had been watching as she had left, just had to laugh. “Queen of the hive specialising in acting and entertaining – yeah, she’s in her element alright,” he murmured to himself.

* * *

Red Archer returned later that day in his unicorn guise as the café was closing up.

“Going out again tonight?” Frothy asked as he locked the door behind the changeling.

“Yes. We’re going to see the new production being put on by Witty Wordplay. It’s premiering tonight.”

“Never heard of them,” Frothy admitted.

“It probably not to your taste anyway, I’m guessing.”

Peach turned up just then, dressed in a simple gown for the occasion. “Hello, Archer. I’m glad that you’re a little bit early. I wanted to have a word with you before we went out.”

“Sure! What’s up, Peach?”

“I’ve been putting a lot of thought into our relationship, and while I know you want more, I don’t want to rush into this. I like being your friend too much to want to spoil things by making hasty decisions.”

Archer looked a little glum at that. “I understand, Peach.”

“However, I think that there’s one step that we need to make right now,” Peach continued. “Could you please change back into your changeling form?”

“Er, okay,” Archer said, putting words into action. “May I ask why?”

Peach grinned. “If I’m going to have a changeling for a coltfriend, I ought not to be ashamed of what he is, right? Tonight we go out without pretending that we’re something that we’re not.”

“Are you sure about this, Peach? If there’s any backlash, it’s going to be a lot harder on you than it will be on me.”

“I’m sure. I think it’s worth the risk.”

“Then do you think we really do have a good chance at making a go of this?” Archer asked hopefully.

Peach abruptly leant over and gave Archer a quick kiss on the cheek, and while the changeling was still stunned in pleased surprise, she said, “Yes, I think we do.” She picked up her purse from the counter and headed for the door. “Come on, we don’t want to be late for the show.”

“Yes, Peachy!” Archer replied as he followed her out with a goofy look on his face.

“G’night, Dad!” Peach called out as she closed the door behind her.

Cherry came out from the back room to join her husband who had been discreetly observing his daughter and Archer. He said, “Did you hear what just happened?”

Cherry nodded. “I heard everything. Did Peach kiss him?”

“Yep. I don’t know who was more surprised – him or me.”

“I think we have just witnessed the future of Equestrian society.”

“What? Ponies all taking on changeling coltfriends or fillyfriends?”

“No, silly! I mean ponies going out with changelings will eventually become as ordinary as a unicorn going out with a pegasus. Maybe it will take years, but with ponies like our daughter and changelings like Red Archer, I think that it will certainly come about.”

Frothy nuzzled his wife and said, “Y’know, after all that’s happened, I think that’s not such a bad thing to look forward to.”

 

 


 

Epilogue

The day of the grand opening of the café’s extension arrived. Frothy had hired some new staff just to work that section, the majority of which were changelings although a couple of them preferred to use their pony alter egos. He had not planned it that way, but it seemed that the café had become a much desired place of employment for the Harvesters. They did have one earth pony stallion named Tasty Tucker snap up the position as head cook for the range of light meals that the new section would serve, and a teen pegasus was a part-time server.

Frothy and Cherry invited Twilight Sparkle to the opening ceremony, although they did not seriously think that the Princess would have the time to spare for such a trivial event. Both were delighted when she accepted, if not a little surprised. That surprise turned to shock when it turned out that Twilight had in turn invited Princess Celestia and Princess Luna to the event.

Frothy was completely flustered. “I was going to ask you to perform the ribbon-cutting ceremony, but should I ask Princess Celestia or Luna instead?” he asked Twilight.

Twilight smiled. “You wanted me to cut the ribbon? I’d love to! Don’t worry about Celestia or Luna – they wanted to attend after hearing so much about your place from me, but have no intention of butting into the event. Well, not any more than their mere presence might cause, anyway. Celestia is interested in trying out some of Cherry’s cakes while she’s here. As for Luna, she still takes every opportunity to mingle with everypony socially. She’s still trying to make up for a thousand years of isolation and a bad reputation. She’s rather sympathetic to the changeling cause because of the latter especially.”

The surprises did not end there. Fleur De Lis also made an appearance, bringing along Fancy Pants. They had a few other upper class ponies accompany them, apparently just because Fancy Pants and the Princesses were going to be there, and nothing was going to stop them from being part of the latest social scene.

It was not for some weeks later that Frothy and family realised the princesses’ ulterior motive for turning up and attracting the upper class. By popularising the café for the in-crowd, they legitimised the relationship the changelings had with the establishment. Where laws and public education had failed, snobbery had worked. It became almost expected to have changelings as dedicated waiters and cooks. After all, they sought to please their customers as much as possible in order to reap the reward of positive emotions to harvest. It was not too long before fancier restaurants started taking notice and tried emulating what had been started in one small café.

There was just one thing bothering Frothy about that though, and he took it up with Twilight at one of her visits.

“Aren’t you afraid that you might be establishing changelings as just a servant class for the upper class ponies?”

“Very perceptive of you, Frothy, and yes, there is that possibility. It’s compounded by the fact that many of the harvesters are actually quite content with that because it achieves their aims. Many have higher goals though, especially the changelings that still maintain a secret alter ego. However, we had to make that first step, and getting the general Canterlot population to accept changelings in the community as being a normal thing was the highest priority. We’ll continue to work on elevating their status to absolute equivalence to ponies. It will just take a bit of time.”

“And what about the rest of Equestria?” Cherry asked.

“We have plans to introduce them to all the towns and villages. We think that will be easier than in Canterlot because they never experienced the invasion. We’ll be as careful as possible to assess the reaction of ponies before trying anything too big though. We've learned a lot from how things worked out here, so we have a lot to thank you for.”

* * *

Three and a half months, or more precisely, 104 days was all it took from the time Peach gave Archer that first kiss on the cheek. A very pleasant day out together and a perfect dinner to celebrate Peach’s birthday set the mood, but the extremely thoughtful present that he gave her tilted the balance. Peach fell in love. It hit Archer like a lightning bolt, such was the intensity of the surge in affection. While he had always known what it was supposed to be like, the reality still left Archer overwhelmed. From that moment, he was completely and irrevocably in love with Peach.

The couple started planning a life together. Archer decided to retire from the Royal Guard when his present enlistment expired. He instead signed up with the Royal Reserves which only required him for emergencies, and joined the family business. He trained under Frothy’s critical eye as a barista, taking off some of the growing workload from Frothy. Unspoken but still understood was that the changeling would not hesitate to use his old skills to protect his new family.

While Peach was happy and proud to be the mate of a changeling, nonetheless they both realised that his unicorn form was the more physically compatible for them both. They ended up compromising by having him retain his changeling eyes and fangs, with the addition of his insect-like wings. There was no mistaking him for a real unicorn any longer, but it was more comfortable for everyone that way. Frothy in particular approved because it showed that the changeling was not trying to deceive anypony. It never stopped him from ritually threatening Archer with mayhem if Peach came to harm, and frankly Archer would have been more disturbed if he didn’t!

The only thing that the couple knew that they would have to deal with one day was having foals. Neither was in a hurry for them as yet, but both knew that they would want them eventually. However, when and who would help them with that was a problem for another day.

The new restaurant section proved to be a great success, and Peach eventually became the full-time manager of it, requiring Cherry to take on an apprentice to help her with the baking. The young unicorn mare was named Angel Cake, and not only was she a fast learner, but she also got along very well with Cherry. As Cherry’s pregnancy progressed, Angel was able to relieve her as needed, and when the day of the birth arrived, she took over the kitchen for few days, with only a little occasional help from Peach.

Cherry gave birth to a chocolate-brown colt with a pale yellow mane and tail, whom they named Mocha. Despite her earlier comments about little brothers, Peach was absolutely thrilled to have another sibling, and was more than happy to give their mother a respite from looking after him whenever it was necessary.

Flapjack quit full-time school at the end of the year in order to concentrate on the family business, although he did take up night courses at Frothy’s insistence. Of course Flapjack’s specialty was in his name, and he served up some of the tastiest pancakes and crepes in Canterlot. Whether you wanted banana and walnut, apple cinnamon, strawberries and cream, or just smothered in maple syrup, they were always perfect.

Flapjack started dating Angel not long after she started working there. Cherry and Frothy not only approved, but also had high hopes for the two.

Flapjack called Frothy ‘Dad’ for the first time at Hearth’s Warming. Frothy would say for many years to come that it was the one of the best presents that he had ever gotten.

 


 

Equestria, and other My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic elements are © 2014 Hasbro.
Original characters and story copyright © 2014 Bernard Doove.
All art is © 2014 Kat Miller.

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