A Different Perspective

Long Path, an earth pony living in Canterlot, and his best friend, a griffon named Free Agent, set out in the company of Twilight Sparkle to visit various places and species to look into what makes them different, and hopefully learn how to get along with them better. Things rarely go to plan though, and along the way, they discover things about themselves, and find love, drama, and laughter. Then Chrysalis changes everything, and the fate of the whole world might be at stake. Their lives will never be the same!
This story is set mostly after the events of Conversations in a Canterlot Cafe and builds on the fanon of the series, especially changelings, so you might want to read those stories first for background material.

https://www.fimfiction.net/story/246414/a-different-perspective

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9. Chapter 9: With Friends Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

As the Mane Six headed into the castle, Twilight updated them with tidbits of news from their trip, with Free adding the occasional detail. They were soon entering the throne room, and Twilight was a little surprised to find Luna there as well as Celestia.

It must be really serious if both princesses are involved,’ she thought. “It’s good to see you again, Celestia. You too, Luna. I hope that I returned quickly enough?”

“Welcome back, Twilight Sparkle,” Celestia replied. “I believe your return is timely enough, although the true situation is still somewhat unclear. There have been some developments since we talked on your device though.”

“The girls and I are ready to proceed whatever the case. So, the changeling threat is real then?”

“It would seem so. As I told you earlier, Blue Changelings were caught trying to sneak past the checkpoint at the shield portal in the Crystal Empire. It was a very good suggestion of yours to station some of our changeling Royal Guards there who could spot their hive affiliation.”

“I knew it would be inevitable that Chrysalis would learn of the Crystal Heart’s ability to power them up, so being able to spot her minions was vital.”

“Yes, and it seems that it was a wise move. Since then, there have been others detected at various points around the shield’s perimeter. They appear to be very determined to find ingress.”

“Have you been able to question any of them?”

“The few that we have managed to capture have suicided before we could get anything of use out of them.”

Twilight was shocked by that. “How were they allowed to suicide?”

“There was no way of preventing them. Apparently they can simply will themselves to death somehow. Our changeling allies suggest that they release all the emotion energy that they need to live, and their bodies just stop working.”

“That’s disturbing. Chrysalis seems quite willing to sacrifice her subjects if she’s ordering them to suicide rather than be captured.”

Celestia sadly hung her head a little. “Yes, but it’s vital that we learn what she’s planning, so we need to question any captives. It’s a vicious circle.”

“So that’s why we Harmony Bearers are needed – in the absence of useful information, we need to prepare for the worst and be available to defend the Crystal Heart if necessary.”

“Exactly. Luna has volunteered to lead a contingent of the Royal Army for that purpose, but they should hopefully only be support and protection for you six.”

“And what about you, Celestia?”

Luna spoke up. “As I pointed out to my sister, it is possible that the Crystal Empire might be a feint, and Canterlot’s defense must not be overlooked while we are focusing our attention up north. It is best that Celestia stay here while I command the army. Cadance, Shining Armor, and their soldiers shall form the final line of defense, of course. Whatever happens, Chrysalis must neither capture the Crystal Heart, nor Canterlot. We shall not be caught out again.”

“That seems sensible. Should we be making our way immediately to the Crystal Empire?”

“Almost immediately,” Celestia replied. “With the return of the Skylark, you six and a support group can be transported to the Empire more quickly than by train. The airship will need to be serviced and provisioned first though, so there will be a few hours delay. Also, Cadance and Shining Armor are due to arrive here very soon for planning the details of your course of action. They will be returning with you on the Skylark.”

Twilight was excited by the news. “That’s wonderful! It’s been too long since I’ve seen my brother and sister-in-law.”

Celestia smiled widely. “I thought that you would be pleased to hear that. I have ordered a full banquet to be prepared for you all to enjoy before you depart.”

“Aw, yeah!” Rainbow Dash declared. “Now you’re talking!”

Luna said, “Meanwhile, may I suggest that you take the opportunity to freshen up before they arrive? The next few days may be less pleasant, so enjoy yourselves while you can.”

“We can all meet up at the banquet hall in about an hour,” Celestia added. “If the train is on schedule, I believe Cadance and Shining Armor will be here by then.”

“Then I can tell them the news too,” Twilight said with a smile in Free’s direction.

Celestia cocked her head questioningly. “News?”

“Free Agent is now my coltfriend.”

Celestia looked nonplussed. “I had been wondering why he was here with you.” She looked at Free intently. “Tired of picking up guests at my parties?”

Free grinned back unabashedly. “Nope. Found somepony who means more to me, and hopefully I’m good for her too.”

Celestia turned away from the griffon, mumbling something that sounded suspiciously like, ‘You’d better!’

Luna just grinned, amused at this turn of events. “Thou must tell me all about it later, Twilight Sparkle.”

“I quite agree,” Rarity commented. “I need to understand what she sees in him.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “We’ll tell you all about it at dinner, okay? Now let’s freshen up as Luna suggested.” She walked away before any more questions or comments could be made, and Free hastened to join her.

“So, you have your own room at the palace?” Free asked.

“I have since I was a foal. It’s just that my current one is, well, more princess-worthy, I suppose. I’d be happy with a cot in the library, but there’s a certain amount of image that I need to live up to now. Besides, I like the balcony view. And it has a lovely shower! That’s the thing that I most missed while on the airship.”

“Wanna share one then?”

Twilight was about to laugh off the suggestion, but one look at Free’s grinning face made her change her mind. “Okay, but just a shower. No hanky-panky!”

“How about a back scrub?” He held up a front foot and wiggled his claws. “These digits can do magic, y’know?”

“Ooh, I haven’t had a good back scrub in ages.”

“That’s a yes, then. Don’t blame me if you want to go further.”

“I said no funny stuff!”

“Just kidding!” Twilight glared at Free. “Hey, don’t give me that look – you knew who you were hooking up with.”

Twilight sighed. “Yes, I did. I’m just not as certain with myself. It’s all new to me.”

Free toned down his grin. “I know, hon, and I promise that I will try to never go too far. Just promise me in return that you won’t pass up opportunities to enjoy having a coltfriend.”

“I promise. I think I might have a few lessons to learn though.”

“You have a willing teacher, Twi.”

“I’ve always been a good student, Firetail.”

Free’s smile lit up again.

# # #

Twilight enjoyed the shower so much that she and Free barely had time to dry and groom themselves before hastening to the banquet hall which was already laden with the feast to come. Needless to say, they were beaten there by the rest of the Harmony Bearers who were chatting with two newcomers.

“Shiny! Cadance!” Twilight called, rushing over to them.

Free was amused to watch Twilight and Cadance do their ‘Sunshine, Sunshine’ greeting again. It was the complete unselfconsciousness of it that appealed to his nature.

After Twilight gave her brother a hug, Cadance said, “I can tell that you’re really excited about something… or should I say someone?”

Twilight blushed a little, but gestured for Free to join them. “You remember Free Agent, don’t you? Well, I am very happy to say that Free is now my coltfriend.”

Shining Armor looked thunderstruck, and then it was replaced with boiling rage. “What have you done to Twily?!” he shouted, powering up his horn.

Abruptly, Free was surrounded by a force bubble and lifted off the ground.

“You’ve bewitched her like Chrysalis did to me! I won’t let any damn bug get away with that ever again!”

“You’re crazy!” Free shouted back. “I’ve done nothing to hurt Twilight. I care for her like no pony before except Path.”

“Put him down, Shining!” Twilight demanded.

Shining Armor did not even look at his sister as he wanted to keep a close watch on the changeling. “Don’t worry, Twily, I won’t let you down this time. I know what they can do.”

“Honey, he isn’t doing it,” Cadance tried to tell him, but he was too focused on Free.

“You think that I could get away with hurting Twilight in front of the princesses? You’re paranoid! You just haven’t gotten over that incident in the Crystal Empire, have you? That wasn’t my fault, and you know it!”

“You changelings can’t change your nature,” Shining replied stubbornly.

“Yeah? Well I can change this!” Free shape-shifted into a unicorn, still retaining his normal colors, just as he had with his pegasus form with Twilight.

Shining Armor sneered. “You think that a fake unicorn can break my force bubble? You haven’t got the Crystal Heart’s power to help you now.”

“Nope, but I can do this.” Free’s horn glowed green.

A banana-custard pie levitated from the banquet table and slammed into the side of Shining Armor’s face.

 

 

The surprise and shock of the pie attack caused the unicorn stallion to lose his concentration, and the force bubble popped. Free hit the ground running, dodging between the ponies watching the spectacle in confusion, just as Celestia and Luna walked into the banquet hall.

Shining sputtered and tried to wipe off the pie even as he shot bolts of magic after the fleeing changeling. “Help me!”

“Certainly, dear,” Cadance calmly replied, and planted another pie on the other side of his face.

“Gah! What’s got into you? Get him, not me!”

“I’ll get him!” Rainbow Dash shouted, streaking after Free, only to run headfirst into a pie that the changeling had been holding in reserve, and then blindly crashing into the chairs.

“What in heaven’s name is going on here?” Celestia asked in bewilderment.

“I’ve seen many a dream like this,” Luna replied with a grin.

“Pardon me, Your Highnesses!” Free shouted as he dodged around them.

Shining roared in rage as he tried to get pie filling out of his eyes. He decided to fight fire with fire and started hurling various foodstuffs in the direction of the infuriating changeling despite being half-blinded.

“Heads up!” Luna told her sister.

Celestia was still caught out though, and a salad impacted on her snout, with one tomato squishing directly between her eyes. Meanwhile a plate of sandwiches slid harmlessly off Luna’s shield.

“I knew he was going to be fun!” Pinkie declared as she picked up a chocolate cake and randomly threw it, collecting Applejack and sending splatters over the others.

“Oh, dear,” Rarity said as she telekinetically fended off the cake, “this can’t end well.”

Celestia’s mane started burning brightly with the power of the sun, and she opened her mouth, only to have it filled with bread roll. She spat it out, and with the Royal Canterlot Voice said, “Cease this foolishness at once!

“Oh, pooh!” Luna sulked. “Just as it was getting fun.”

All activity in the hall abruptly stopped except for Shining Armor desperately trying to clear his vision as it finally got through to him that something was amiss.

“Will somepony tell me what’s going on here?” Celestia demanded in her normal voice.

Free had decided that behind Luna’s shield was the safest spot for the moment, but now he crept out and sheepishly said, “Me and Shining Armor had a little disagreement.”

Celestia looked at him keenly before recognition lit her eyes. “Free Agent, is it not? Why are you a unicorn?”

“Oh… right.” Free shifted back to his griffon form. “I needed a bit of telekinetic help to get out of Heiny’s bubble trap.”

“And why did Prince Armor try to trap you?”

Shining Armor stepped up, his face still slick with custard and pie filling, making his attempt to look formal and dignified quite ludicrous. “Your Highnesses, I suspect this changeling of using his powers to bewitch my sister’s mind and make her fall in love with him.”

Twilight then stepped up next to him and added, “And I suspect my brother is an idiot.”

“But Twily…!” Shining objected.

Cadance joined them and asked, “Did you think to check with me first before jumping to conclusions? I could tell immediately that there is true affection between them. Alicorn of Love, remember?”

“But… well I… oh, horseapples!” Shining had the grace to look embarrassed.

Twilight was not finished with him yet though. She glared at her brother furiously. “Not only did you jump to conclusions without checking, but you gave away Free’s secret! You had no right to do that!”

“I’m sorry, sis. I was just worried about you, that’s all.”

“And that’s the only reason I’m still talking to you. But I want you to know that I’m serious about this relationship. It’s an enormous step for me, but it feels right, and I don’t need your prejudices ruining it for me. So behave yourself – got it?”

“Yes, Twily,” he replied meekly.

Celestia said, “When we gathered today to discuss changeling problems, I hardly thought it would be Free Agent that would be the first subject. If this has been sorted out, you will excuse me while I wash up.” A lettuce leaf that had been sticking to her cheek, chose that moment to fall off. “And that salad has too much dressing,” she added as she turned away to go to the washroom.

Luna giggled. “Methinks my sister protests too much. I recall a glorious food fight that we had when we were but fillies. Ah, good times.”

“Does this make anypony feel hungry?” Free asked with an innocent smile.

Twilight stared at him for a moment before bursting into laughter. When she could stop chortling, she asked, “What do you want to do now that my friends know about your secret?”

Free shrugged. “If they’re really your friends, then I suppose I can trust them.”

“As if we’d ever do anything to hurt you, darling,” Rarity declared.

Applejack nodded in agreement. “Personally I think yer nuts, Twi, but if this ’un makes you happy, then we’ll respect that.”

“It was a secret?” Pinkie asked brightly.

“I suppose we’d better let the staff clean up a bit before we have our meal,” Luna said. “I suggest that we all re-gather in a half hour.”

As they all started to leave, a plaintive voice came from a pile of chairs jammed under the table. “A little help here, please!” the entangled pegasus pled.

# # #

The second attempt at a banquet went well, although it pushed the castle staff to the utmost in order to clean up and replace the food in the limited time. Shining Armor even managed to be polite towards Free the entire time. Because they had lost some time, they discussed their plans during the meal.

“You had best remain here,” Twilight told Free.

“Not a chance, Twi. I’m coming with you.”

Shining Armor frowned a little, but tried to be reasonable. “We can’t let you inside the shield. You know what happened last time.”

“I could hardly forget! However, who said anything about going past the shield? Chrysalis is outside, and that’s where we’re going to have to concentrate our efforts. I can help there.”

“Free has a point,” Twilight said. “We have the other changeling Guards coming for the same reason.”

He’s not a Guard though.”

“Neither are we. Are you saying we shouldn’t go either?” Rainbow Dash challenged.

“Don’t be ridiculous! You’re the Harmony Bearers!”

Applejack grinned and said, “Darn tootin’! United in friendship; just like Twi’s new special somepony. Ah admit that he takes some warmin’ up to, but Ah trust Twi. So he’s in! Right girls?”

“Indeed,” Rarity affirmed.

“You got it, AJ!” Rainbow confirmed.

“I liked him from the beginning,” Fluttershy pointed out.

“And he’s fun besides!” Pinkie said excitedly.

Shining Armor waved his hooves in surrender. “Okay! I get it. He’s in.”

Celestia stood up from the table. “If that’s decided, then you had best begin your journey. The Skylark should certainly be ready now, considering the delay.”

“Just one other thing, Celestia,” Twilight said. “I need the Talkie-Trottie back so that I can talk to our friends back in Griffonia.”

“Certainly, Twilight. If you would accompany me, I will fetch it for you. I’m sorry that we haven’t had the chance to talk with you about that. I hope that it went well?”

“Better than I dared dream. So much has happened in so short a time that I can’t possibly sum it up in the time that I have, but let me say that you can expect much closer ties with Griffonia in the future.”

“It seems that Master Path’s ideas are already bearing fruit.”

“You have no idea how much!” Twilight said fervently.

# # #

Twilight and Free did not get a chance to talk with Path and Roseclaw until after they departed Canterlot. Although it was a little cramped, they shared a cabin this time, just as all the others had to double-up due to the scarcity of cabins.

“This is a lovely airship, but I think we’re going to need something with a bit more capacity in the future,” Free commented.

“And faster too,” Twilight added. “This will get us to the Crystal Empire a lot sooner than the train, but nowhere near as fast as might be needed.”

Free grinned. “If we didn’t spend as much time as we did travelling here from Griffonia, I don’t know if I could have had enough time to convince you to kiss me.”

“You had better keep convincing me,” Twilight said slyly.

“By your command, Princess of my Heart!” Free then put words into action.

Some minutes later, Twilight reluctantly brought that to an end. “Time for us to call and find out how the other half of the House of Path is doing.”

Twilight picked up the communicator and, holding it between them so that they both could hear, she made the call. Almost immediately, she got a response.

“Twilight! We were beginning to wonder if something had happened,” Path’s voice came clearly.

“Sorry, but it’s been a bit hectic since we got back to Canterlot. Our first priority had to be dealing with the reason I was called back. Free and I are now headed to the Crystal Empire along with Princess Luna and my friends.”

“So the threat is real then?”

“It’s not certain yet, but it looks likely.”

“You’re not leaving Canterlot undefended, are you?”

“Thought of that possibility, and Princess Celestia is staying behind. The Council of Mages will be supplying the defense. It helps that we know what we’re up against this time.”

“Don’t be too sure of that, Twilight. That Chrysalis is a mighty sneaky changeling.”

“Yeah. Let’s hope we don’t underestimate her again.”

“Anyway, is Free there?”

“I’m right here, Path. Wanna hear some good news?”

“I’ll trade you some. You first.”

“I kept my promise.”

“You mean…?”

Free looked at Twilight. “You wanna tell him, babe?”

Twilight smiled and nodded. “Free is now my very special somepony… or somegriff I suppose.”

“Excellent! I knew you had it in you, buddy! I can hardly wait to tell Rose. Congrats to both of you!”

“Thanks, Path,” Twilight replied.

“You said you had some good news to trade?” Free prompted.

“Heck, yeah! We were summoned to a meeting today with the king’s chamberlain. He had to finalize the details of the transfer of Ravenwing’s properties to me, especially his estate. You’re not going to believe this, but I now have a castle! House Path has got a home!”

# # #

The griffon was old but dignified, his sea eagle plumage blending nicely with his snow leopard hind quarters. His most prominent characteristic though was the keen gaze with which he regarded Long Path and Roseclaw from behind his desk laden with official papers.

“Thank you for joining me, Lord Path and Lady Roseclaw. I apologize for the time that it has taken to complete the necessary legalities, but I am sure that you must understand that it is no small matter to transfer all the properties and possessions of one of Ravenwing’s former status.”

“It’s not a problem, Lord Stormwind. Roseclaw has been filling me in on some of the things involved, so I was prepared to wait. Frankly, seeing as I went into the duel without expecting all this, it’s not as if I have been desperately seeking it.”

“Few engage in such duels without being desperate in one form or another. I believe I understand the nature of yours. I regret not witnessing your victory in person, but even so I am most impressed. It will be a long time, if ever, before Ravenwing has any influence due to the enormity of his loss. However, we are not here to discuss the duel, but the rewards you have reaped from your win. Foremost of course is Ravenwing’s estate consisting of his home, grounds, and a portion of adjacent forest. All furnishings of course, plus the entire staff.”

“Staff? I get staff also?”

“All employment contracts are transferred to your title. As with the rest of your property, you may do with them as you see fit.”

Path looked at Roseclaw. “Y’know, this is going to be a huge boost to our plans. The House of Path is getting to be less of a dream and more of a reality.”

Stormwind said, “It’s already a reality, Lord Path. Once you sign the royal deeds of bequeathal, your House will be as real as any other in Griffonia.”

Path grinned at the chamberlain. “On paper, yes, but you have no idea yet what I intend it to become.”

Stormwind regarded the pony for a long moment before giving him a slight smile. “Yes, I do believe you could be right, and I look forward to seeing what the future brings. Now let’s get this paperwork signed.”

# # #

Path and Roseclaw stood on a ledge on the outer rim of the crater which bounded the city. From there they overlooked the estate that was now legally Path’s. They could see the house which in fact was a small castle built into the side of the crater, and the attractive grounds that flowed down from it until they reached untouched forest a couple of hundred meters away. As Griffonian estates went, it was on the small side, but to Path, it was huge.

“Sweet Celestia! I can’t believe this, Rose. I mean, Stormwind may have described it, but this… this is overwhelming!”

“The fruits of victory well earned, my love. Shall we look it over?”

“Of course! Umm… how do we get down there?”

“The only service road to the estate is too far from here. It is meant to be accessed by air.” Roseclaw opened her wings to emphasize the normal mode of travel by the griffons.

“Oh… That’s a bit of a problem.”

“Let me carry you down there.”

Path looked at her with a nervous smile. “You know heights and me don’t exactly get along?”

“Do you trust me, Path?”

“Of course I do!”

“Then you have nothing to worry about.” With that, Roseclaw virtually pounced on Path, wrapped her limbs around him, took off into the air, and then dived rapidly towards the castle.

Path gritted his teeth and tried not to let any sounds of fear escape. ‘Am I going to have to get used to this?’ he wondered. Still, once his hooves were firmly on the ground once more, he realized that it was not quite as bad as his first experience had been. Then again, he doubted that anything could be worse than being thrown out of an airship without warning.

They walked up to the main entrance, and Path was surprised to have the door open just as they arrived. A griffon clad in servant’s livery stepped out and bowed.

“Welcome home, Lord and Lady Path.”

“You know who I am?” Path asked.

“The entire staff is aware of who you are, sir, and if I may be so frank, it was not hard to recognize you as the new master of this House.”

“No, I don’t suppose you have too many pony lords here.”

“Quite. Would you wish me to show you around your domain, sir?”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea, but first, what’s your name?”

“I am Goldenquill, head of staff, and your personal butler.”

“Butler? I don’t really think I’ll be needing that.”

Goldenquill smiled faintly with amusement. “I think that your lordship may feel otherwise soon enough. Please follow me and I will introduce you to the rest of the house staff and give you a tour of the premises.”

# # #

“I’m in my new study right now, Twilight. You’re going to love it – it’s got quite an interesting collection of books. But that room is only a fraction of the potential of this place! We have so many rooms that aren’t being used or pretty much wasted on the puffed-up nonsense that Ravenwing utilized them for. The grounds are both beautiful and useful for practical purposes. I’m already figuring out how we can use this to expand our goals of studying and understanding other cultures into something so much bigger!”

“Whoa! Getting a bit carried away there, aren’t you,” Free asked with a laugh in his voice.

“You’re seriously asking me if I’m overdoing it? That’s quite a switcheroo. Maybe I am, or maybe I can see just what I can achieve with the right resources. Free, this is a Royal House of Griffonia! As its lord, I have real power here, and the status that I achieved through the duel gives me the respect needed to make my voice heard. With you, Twilight, and Rose with me, we can start something amazing! Sure, it’s small right now, but if we can attract new members and spread our message of friendship through knowledge and understanding, we can make a real difference in this world.”

“And now you’re preaching again.”

“Oops. Sorry. I’m just too excited. It’s been a big day for Rose and me.”

“Where is she anyway? We haven’t heard a peep from her.”

“She’s resting out on the balcony.”

“I didn’t think checking out a castle would be that tiring,” Twilight said.

“Umm… no, that wasn’t what tired her out. It was the… er… celebrating that we did. It seems that there’s a bit of a tradition when a new lord and lady claim their domain.”

“Ooh! What kind of tradition,” she asked, curiosity fully aroused.

“Well, you see, the griffins have a rather earthy manner of demonstrating things…”

“I already realize that.”

“It involves the lord and his mate showing all in their domain their prowess…”

“Yes? And…?” Twilight prompted him when he hesitated again.

“We went out onto the balcony… and did it.”

“Did what?” Twilight asked with slight frustration.

Free caught on much more quickly though. “Ha! They banged! They banged right there on the balcony for all of Griffonia to see! Jeez, Path, I almost didn’t think you had it in you!”

Twilight blushed profusely as she realized exactly what she had been trying to drag out of the stallion.

Path replied, “Neither did I, but the moment was just right, and Rose was waiting for it. She had me, Free, and I didn’t want her to let me go.”

“How are you still standing, mate? Aren’t you still convalescing?”

“Who’s standing? I was lying on my couch in the study, resting just like Rose.”

“Why not rest alongside her?” Twilight asked curiously.

Path chuckled. “Because we couldn’t keep our hooves off each other, Twilight.”

Free said, “And there you’ve made her blush again, Path. I think it’s best that we let you rest and give her time to recover too.”

Twilight glared and poked her tongue out at him.

“Okay,” Path replied. “Give us a call again tomorrow if I don’t call you first.”

“Of course. Rest well, buddy!”

Twilight put down the communicator and looked at Free. “Now don’t you start getting any ideas, Firetail.”

“Aw, you wanna snuggle; I know you do!”

“Snuggle, maybe, but later. I have to update my friends on what’s been happening.”

“Gonna tell them about Path and Rose’s celebration?” Free asked slyly.

“Good reports are always edited for relevance,” Twilight replied primly, and headed out of the cabin.

Free grinned and followed her out. ‘But someone has to add the color,’ he added to himself.

# # #

The late start meant that their arrival at the changeling barrier was right at sunset. Luna did not even wait for the airship to land, instead taking off from the observation deck to be ready to raise the moon when Celestia lowered the sun.

A mooring tower had been erected near the railway siding since the last time that Free and Twilight had been there, and a base of operations had been hastily built. The sleepy little platform was now a bustling way-stop before the city itself. Before they lost the light, they could see pairs of Royal Guards patrolling a perimeter only defined by flags, but which Free presumed was where the invisible changeling barrier terminated. He noticed that one of the buildings intersected that perimeter.

Cadance pointed to the building. “This is now our official changeling portal. Any changeling who has received permission to enter must pass through here, and is scrutinized thoroughly before the portal is opened. We have both unicorn and changeling Royal Guards stationed there to detect any possible incursion by Blue Changelings.”

Twilight asked, “What if they simply charge the portal before they’re identified or can be stopped?”

“The portal is failsafe – it must be deliberately held open to allow passage by any changeling. The shield has been re-tuned so that it takes two gatekeepers acting in concert to open it. Either can close it, and knocking out one will result in the same. The building is designed such that there can be no easy direct access to the portal so that there can’t be an attack so sudden that it can’t be closed in time. And of course, the portal isn’t kept open – it’s only needed sparingly after all.”

“You seem to have covered all the bases. Which changelings have been allowed in so far?”

“We have had visits from the Green and Yellow Changeling queens who have been given a very cautious introduction to the Empire. Both have recommended that any possible changeling consulate be located well away from the city. While they felt that they could cope with something closer, it would be a foolish risk. We have also let some of the changeling Royal Guards inside, but they have been limited to patrolling the far outskirts of the area bounded by the shield. Their purpose is to try to detect any possible incursion that was overlooked, or present before the shield was erected. It’s a very remote possibility, but we cannot afford to overlook it. After reading Long Path’s report, I consider any uncontrolled presence to be a danger to the Crystal Empire, to Equestria, and to themselves.”

“What about me?” Free asked. “Now that I know what it’s like and I can be careful, will I be allowed inside the shield?”

Cadance hesitated, and Shining Armor spoke up for her. “No. Not unless there’s a very specific reason for doing so, and at the moment, there isn’t.”

Free shrugged. “What? Afraid that I'll kiss you again?”

Cadance gave her husband a strange look as his ears reddened.

Free walked off and let him try to explain that away.

After they disembarked, Twilight and her friends were shown to their quarters, and while they were Spartan, they were comfortable. After putting away their belongings, they re-gathered in a meeting room where they were introduced to a field-uniformed navy-blue Crystal Pony with a light blue mane and tail.

 

 

Shining Armor introduced the pony to the group. “This is Captain Diamondhard, and she is in charge of this unit. In the absence of either Cadance or myself, she is the ultimate authority here. Captain, let me introduce you to Princess Luna who is here to coordinate the Equestrian forces with ours.”

Diamondhard bowed her head momentarily and said, “An honor to meet you, Your Highness. I look forward to working with you.”

“And I with thee, good Captain.”

“And this is Twilight Sparkle, Princess of Friendship, Element of Magic, and my sister.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Princess Sparkle.”

“Thank you, Diamondhard, but from now on, please call me just Twilight outside of formalities.”

“Understood, Your Highness.”

Shining continued to introduce the rest of the Harmony Bearers, and then came to Free. “And lastly, this is Free Agent, Twilight’s… companion, and adviser on changeling matters. While he chooses to be a griffin, he is in fact a changeling too, and the one that precipitated our need to put extra precautions into place.”

Diamondhard regarded Free with a fierce stare before she said, “Do you know how many mares got pregnant as a result of your shenanigans, including my sister?”

Free gave her a nervous grin in return. “Ah… not really. I wasn’t exactly in my right mind then. Sorry about that.”

Diamondhard snorted. “My sister isn’t sorry. She had been trying to convince her husband that it was time that they had a foal for quite some time. Your intervention was quite the motivation for him. However, while most of the other mothers-to-be have accepted the unplanned pregnancies, a few were less than happy due to being unmated or such. Princess Cadance has promised support for them though, so it’s not as bad as it could be, but we don’t intend for this to occur again. I will not be authorizing passage for you through the shield.”

“Sheesh! Make one mistake that isn’t even your fault, and you get treated like a criminal,” Free grumbled.

“No, a threat, not a criminal,” the Captain corrected. “We learn from our mistakes.”

“You’re not the only one, Captain Hardcase.”

“Free, don’t provoke her,” Twilight chided. “She’s perfectly within her rights.”

“But not her attitude. If you need me, I’ll be outside, checking things out, and y’know, not being a threat.”

After Free exited, Twilight turned to Diamondhard and said, “While this is a military operation, may I remind you that many of Equestria’s greatest threats have been solved by the power of Harmony, and not by military might. You would do well to remember that before you provoke Free Agent again.”

“Understood, Your Highness,” the Captain replied stiffly.

But do you agree?’ Twilight wondered.

Luna decided to intervene in order to defuse the situation. “May I suggest that we be apprised of the current set-up and discuss our plans for the morrow? Then we may have our repast and turn in for the evening. We have a busy day ahead of us.”

“An excellent idea, Princess,” Diamondhard replied. “If you would turn your attention to the map, I will show you the disposition of our resources….”

# # #

Free did not return to the outpost until a few hours later. Entering his room, he found Twilight there already.

“Hi, Sparkles. Why’re you here?”

“Waiting for you, of course. You missed dinner.”

“Wasn’t hungry.”

Twilight smiled sympathetically. “Yeah, overly officious people spoil my appetite also, but I can’t afford to skip meals like you can.”

“It’s not just that, Twi. Never in my life have so many people known what I am, and I’m finding that I have to justify or prove myself all the time.”

Twilight sat on the bed and patted the spot next to her. Free sat down and she put her foreleg around him comfortingly. “You don’t have to prove yourself to the ones who count, and the others will come around eventually.”

“Ha! Not even all your best friends trust me yet.”

“Let me guess – Applejack and Rainbow Dash?”

“Yeah. You know your friends well.”

“It’s not too hard to figure out if you understand them. Applejack represents the Element of Honesty, and she has to be absolutely sure of her facts before she commits herself. Rainbow Dash’s loyalty is to me, and you are as yet a little known quantity who has gone into a relationship with me. Once you’ve earned her trust, she will be your staunchest ally also. Just give them both time and you’ll enjoy their friendship too.”

“Easy for you to say, Twi. You don’t have to taste their distrust, let alone Captain Hardhead’s hostility. Your brother isn’t exactly a fan either.”

“Let me see if I can take some of that bad taste out of your mouth. I promised you snuggles later, didn’t I?”

Free’s smile returned. “Yeah, I distinctly remember that.”

Twilight stretched out on the bed. “I keep my promises, Firetail.”

Free settled himself next to her and they wrapped a wing about each other. He could already taste her affection for him, and he consumed it greedily.

“Better?” she asked.

“Much,” he agreed.

She nuzzled him and giggled. “Promise me something?”

“Anything, hon.”

“Find an excuse to put a pie in my brother’s face again. That was hilarious.”

Free burst out laughing. “Thanks, Sparkles, I needed that.”

Twilight kissed him and said, “You’re welcome.”

Free shape-changed to pegasus form so that he could properly kiss her back, and the couple spent the next few minutes exploring each other with their lips, and occasionally nibbling with their teeth. They only stopped when Twilight yawned widely.

“Better get some sleep now, Twi,” Free advised her.

Twilight nodded. “Good idea. Sleep well, dear.”

“With you, I always will.”

 
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