Conversations in a Canterlot Café

Frothy Brew is the barista in the Canterlot café owned by himself, his wife, and his daughter. Years of hard work had made the café a successful and modestly popular place to stop and get a drink or a snack. Nothing prepared him though for it to become a hub of interaction with the undisguised changelings that were being seen more often in the streets of Canterlot. Can he put aside his feelings for the species though after witnessing the most horrifying aspect of the invasion years ago?
This story runs concurrently with the latter part of my Change of Life story. While reading that and Prelude To Change is not necessary, they do give valuable background that is glossed over in "Conversations". Cover art and story illustrations are all done by Foxenawolf.

https://www.fimfiction.net/story/192085/conversations-in-a-canterlot-caf

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11. 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 honor,” 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 honor 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 Carpacia, 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 realize 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 utilized, 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 empathize with, and emulate ponies. To all intents and purposes, they are a very specialized 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 counter-intuitive 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 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 honor.”

Frothy’s trademark smirk returned. “Not yet, anyway.”

“Oh, stop being such a grump. It will be fun! We’ve never traveled 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 knewintroducing 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 neutralized 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 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 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-defense, 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 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 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 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 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 realize 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 believe 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 socialize, 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 realized that if he hadn’t been able to change and deceive the timber wolves, 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 turn about, 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 realized 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 socialize 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 fulfill 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 lying 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 the 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 recognized 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 business 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.

* * * * * * * *

 
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