Rise of the Elements: Journey to the Old World

by Radiant Dawn

Chapter 4: Deeper Underground

Chapter 4: Deeper Underground

Perspective Change -- Vinyl Scratch

While I’d like to say that sleeping all together was perfect, it wasn’t. Without fur to act as a buffer, human bodies were much more sensitive to touch, which meant a lot of fun to be had. The only problem was that without fur, there also wasn’t anything to catch the skin’s natural oils and sweat that would come out overnight. This all meant that, while the security and comfort of being with my herd felt the same, we all woke up sticky, sweaty, and in need of a shower. There were just too many hot bodies in one place, and even with air conditioning, it got hot quick. That’s not to say any of us were going to split up and sleep away from the others, but maybe we’d ask Frost to use some magic to make it more comfortable for us.

As it was, after waking everyone and getting cleaned up, we were feeling much better and ready to tackle the day.

Due to the fact we were going to be cruising this “Underground Atlanta” place, I opted to remove the disguise on my hair, letting its true color come through -- luckily, from what Frost told us, vibrant-colored hair wasn’t exactly rare among the younger population, and with most of us being in our twenties, we certainly qualified. I was the only one allowed at the moment however, due to the fact that too many “flamboyant” colors would draw too much attention, and with us already being watched by some sort of organization, we didn’t need to willingly turn all eyes our way. Nonetheless, I was going to have a little fun with my outfit, and opted to squeeze into some snug white tights under a vivid blue skirt, along with some comfortable sneakers, a short white tee that showed my abs, and of course, a modified set of shades made to fit a human head. All in all, I looked pretty darn hot, if I do say so myself.

“The idea is not to draw attention, Vinyl.”

I turned toward the grinning face of Night and stuck out my tongue. “Hey, every group is allowed to have a few weird people in it. Right now, that’s me, so I’m gonna enjoy this.” I then ran my fingers over my forearm and fluttered the skirt with a swish of my hips. “Besides...I kinda miss my fur and tail. This is about as close as I can get without going full-pony, so I’m gonna go with it.”

Having just gotten out of the shower, Night was still showing her natural, starry sky hair. She ran her hand through the twinkling violet locks and sighed toward me. “At least you can get away with showing your true color. Mine will draw unfavorable attention nearly anywhere, until we get to the event for ponies.”

“Bronycon.” I corrected automatically. I nodded sympathetically, patting her upper arm. “And yeah, I feel you. Still, we're meant to be in disguise here, so I made peace with the fact that I'm not gonna recognize myself for awhile. Frost and you girls still love me though, so I can deal.” I levitated a brush to my hand and began running it through my hair. “So, are you gonna hang with Twi and the others for some quiet time, or are you down for drinks and dancing with the rest of us?”

Night bobbed her head from side to side, her slitted, teal eyes focusing on nothing specific. “Well, Luna has always been the quiet reader type, but I must admit, I don't share that with her.” Her intense gaze focused on me as she clarified. “I admit that knowing you are a musician that thrives on the nightlife is a wonderful thing indeed, and while modern music has taken some getting used to, evening revelry is definitely something I wish to participate in.”

Wait… “R-really?”

Night simply smirked at my dumbfounded expression, poking my cheek teasingly. “Luna and I may be bound, but we are very different creatures. I know we haven’t been able to spend much time together due to the cleanup following the war, but I think you’ll find we have entirely different interests, save for the night and its wonders. I have no doubt that Luna would not mind a night out at a place of music and dance, but she is far more comfortable in a cozy nook with a mug of fragrant tea and a book.” She moved closer, and I was again struck with just how tall and statuesque her and the other alicorns were -- even Rainbow Dash. Night leaned her face in, a mere foot from mine, and purred, “For all intents and purposes, I am the living embodiment of the night and all it is. Parties and revelries take place in the night, great moments of inspiration and muses found under the cover of darkness.” She licked her lips almost predatorily. “Lovers share themselves with each other under the moon and stars. These are all a part of who I am, and I have no problem,” she moved closer, “personifying those characteristics.” Closer, again; we were inches away now, her breath splashing over my face in gentle puffs of warm air. The penetrating gaze of Night held my attention as she whispered, “It is my nature. I am all that and more.”

I was definitely blushing, and I hated it.

To my simultaneous relief and disappointment, she pulled away and stood up straight again, still smiling softly at me. “So, in conclusion, I would love to experience an activity that has become connected to the night. Although,” she frowned, looking over my outfit, “I may need some help selecting an ensemble that would fit the atmosphere. Modern fashion escapes me, nevermind the fact that humans must wear clothing at all times in public.”

It was totally not cool how easily she was able to make me flustered, but I forced myself to calm down as I went and fetched the clothing bag packed for her by Rarity herself. I started digging through it as I explained, “Well, I don’t have a problem helping. Only thing is, you need to decide what kind of look you want to go for. If you want to be classy eye candy -- which I don’t recommend for a club -- a simple black dress will do fine, along with a set of high heels or something similar. If you’re going for that look, the idea is to make your body look as good as possible, while still looking modest...or, at least that’s what Rarity would say. Now,” I turned around, having found what I was looking for, “if you are going to be dancing, you’re going to need more comfortable clothes, and something a little more suited to the environment we’ll be in.” I held up a dark violet thigh-length skirt, black fishnet stockings, and a black tee. “These will work much better, I think, and it’s gonna be hot in there, so they’ll be a lot more practical. These,” I wiggled the teal-accented trainers in my right hand, “will keep your feet from hurting too much. With this stuff, you can be both functional and fashionable.”

Night took the articles and looked them over, frowning slightly. “Fashion has surely changed since the last time I wore clothing as a pony.”

“To be fair,” I interjected, “this is human clothing. Equestrian fashion is a lot different, including the fact pony shoes are almost exclusively for fashion. We have hooves, so we don’t really need protection from the ground.”

She shrugged and dropped her towel, and began to get dressed...and for some reason, I found myself staring. Ponies were naked nearly all the time, but due to the shape of our bodies, it wasn’t really indecent. With humans though, everything was just...there.

“If you keep staring, your eyes will dry out.” Night’s voice commented, a grin in her tone.

I shook my head wildly, willing the flush away from my cheeks as I answered, “N-no, it’s just...I get why humans need to wear clothes. It would be like a mare walking around with her tail flagged all day long if we were built like them.”

Night looked down at herself, still lacking a shirt or brassiere. “Hmm...I suppose. It doesn’t make it any more comfortable to wear clothing.”

“Agreed.” I added, glad she wasn’t keen on teasing me again.

“...I never said you had to stop looking, Vinyl.”

Darn it…

Perspective Change -- Twilight

I wasn’t entirely convinced there wasn’t some sort of magic involved when it came to human technology, but since I couldn’t detect any magical energy, I could only assume it was indeed the case. My lack of complete belief was more due to the fact that I knew very little about how physics behaved without magic, and even Equestrian chemistry was rooted in magic. It was truly awe-inspiring to think that so many wonders and marvels were built with nothing more than raw materials and ingenuity.

“If you keep making that face, it’ll get stuck that way.”

I rolled my eyes and glanced to Frost, who was grinning at me. “You sound like my mother.”

“Great minds think alike.” he quipped, still grinning like a cat. “What’s on your mind, Twi?”

I let a slow breath out of my nose before turning back to the window overlooking the city. “I’m just still unable to completely believe that all of this -- from the towering skyscrapers to telephones -- was invented and produced without magic. It seems impossible.”

I felt his hand settle on my shoulder as he stood beside me. “That’s only because you don’t know how any of it works. To those unfamiliar with the technology, I’m sure it seems like magic. I’ll make sure we take plenty of books back home so we can advance Equestria’s technology accordingly. We’ll have to figure out an alternate power source, since fossil fuels cause significant pollution, but I have a feeling ponies can figure it out. I believe it’ll be a lot easier to understand than you think, though: the math is all the same, but the people back home just lack the equations and formulas needed to properly produce all this. Books will help with that, and you can be the one to show it to the world.”

I’ll readily admit I grinned like a fool and hopped excitedly at the thought.

“You guys ready?”

We both turned around to see Darkflight standing in the doorway to the room, along with Venn, Moonfang, and Fluttershy. I looked up at Frost, and he nodded to his brother. “Yeah, I think we’re set. I was just waiting for the others to get ready.” Seemingly waiting for the words, all our other friends entered the room, dressed for the day. It was still odd to be wearing clothes every day, but I’ll admit, the variety was starting to grow on me.

“Yeah, we’re ready.” Rainbow answered, stepping into view. She shifted a bit and adjusted her jean shorts, nodding to us. “So, where are we headed?”

Frost shrugged to her. “Well, it’s up to you all: we’re reasonably close by -- just a dozen blocks or so -- so we can walk, or we can take the bus. It’s near Five Points, so you’ll be familiar with the area.”

We watched as each person looked to another, and after a few seconds, Celestia answered for the group. “I think a walk through the city would be nice. Besides,” she bounced a bit from side to side as she looked down at her feet, “I still don’t feel entirely confident moving as a human, so more practice would be welcome.”

“Well,” Frost began, glancing at all our footwear, “you all appear to have opted for practicality, so I think that’ll be fine.” He shot a look at Rarity briefly, and the woman had the good sense to look embarrassed.

“I can’t help if these ‘high heels’ make my legs and rump look nice.” she pouted, shaking her head. “I do hope we’ll have more chances to dress up.”

Darkflight nodded this time. “We will, I promise. It’s just, that type of clothing and footwear isn’t made for doing things, so it gets uncomfortable, and you could end up with sore feet and blisters.”

Frost gave a grin at the words. “Agreed. Now, if no one else has anything, I think we should get going. There’s plenty to do, so the sooner we get moving, the more time we’ll have to explore.”

A collective agreement filtered throughout the group, so we all began filing out of the room toward the elevators (which, once again, were a wonder to see). With new things to learn about and more wonders to see and experience, we took to the streets, eager to enjoy the day.”

Perspective Change -- Frostbreaker

It took some walking to get there, but Underground Atlanta was still a bustling marketplace of many different shops, restaurants, and even a club or two. It was exactly how I remembered it, complete with the historic landmarks, like the Gas Lamp. The nostalgia was strong, and I couldn’t help but smile like an idiot at the good feelings it brought. Due to becoming the new Winter, I had at least a millennium of memories that the human, Drew, never experienced; because of this, it was nice to have a strong set of memories that were completely mine alone, short as they were in comparison.

Having already chosen a landmark to meet at (and placing a magical beacon on it for those who might get lost), we split into two groups and went about exploring the sprawling tunnels. My brother and his group immediately headed toward the area that had the arcade and other more action-oriented options, while I led mine toward the shops. Luckily for all involved, there was plenty to see and do, so I knew this would provide plenty of entertainment for hours.

“So, what is our first destination, darling?” Rarity intoned, unable to keep from darting her eyes to the many shops all around us.

I smiled in her direction, jerking my head to the first choice. “Well, this shop sells casual contemporary clothes for the average, middle-class person. I think this would be the perfect place to start for someone that wants to learn about modern fashion.” Rarity squealed excitedly before all but dashing inside the store, leaving the rest of us to catch up.

Twilight was staring up at the sign with confusion, as if trying to decipher its secrets. “What does the name mean?”

I shrugged. “I’m not really sure. Navy is self explanatory, but as for what it means, I don’t know; I never really took the time to look into it. Regardless, this store is pretty straightforward: it sells clothes and minor accessories. They’re nowhere near the quality Rarity makes, but I think it’ll be fun to look at some common human fashions. She’ll get inspiration, and the rest of you can get an idea for what the average human wears and looks like.” I gestured to the many people milling about inside the shop. “As you can see, humans come in a variety of colors, have many different accents and clothing styles, but they all share the same basic body type. There is only one species of ‘human’ currently living, as far as we know.” As we stepped forward to follow Rarity into the store, hot on the heels of Spike, I glanced to Twilight. “Anyhow, I know fashion isn’t as interesting for you as it is for Rarity, so later on, I’m thinking we could hit up the Fernbank Science Center or Museum of Natural History; I think those would be more your speed.”

The twinkle in Twilight’s eyes at the mention of the Science Center reinforced my belief that I’d made a wise choice, as was the adorable bouncing she did. Still, I knew that we were going to have to keep on our toes to keep pace with Rarity, so I settled myself in for a day of following around the excited clothing designer until she had gotten her fill.

I glanced back at Lyra, who had been rather silent so far. It didn’t take much thought to figure out why, though. “Not much to add, I take it?”

She glanced up at me, a subtle gleam of golden magic flitting across her amber irises. “Eh, not really. I was never all that into clothes, even though I can appreciate a good ‘Rarity original’, so this is interesting in the sense that it’s new, but not so much in the sense that clothing is cool.”

I raised my brow at her as we walked through the store, keeping near the others as they looked through the many different clothes available. “Why didn’t you head out with Vinyl and the others, then? They were going to some of the more action-oriented places.”

Lyra shrugged almost helplessly. “I love Vinyl and her music, but partying and doing crazy stuff still isn’t really my thing. I’d be more into a-”

“Concert hall, or something similar.” I answered for her with a smile. Her nod of approval at the idea prompted me to explain further. “There are many prestigious concert halls in the United States, but they’re either further north or on the west coast. We’ll get there though, so just be patient. I promise, I’ll make sure we do something that you’ll really enjoy.”

Lyra nodded to me with a smile, lacing her fingers in mine and giving my hand a reassuring squeeze. “I know, that’s why I’m not complaining. We’re going to be here for months, so I know we’ll get around to doing things that interest everyone.” She then giggled and pointed to Twilight, who was watching Rarity’s excited antics with a bemused grin. “Besides, this is fun. It might not normally be my cup of tea, but watching our friends enjoy themselves makes me smile, and that’s enough.”

I felt Luna come up beside me, and since we were in public, she offered only an affectionate rub of my back as she stood beside me. I had basically told the girls that, due to the taboo nature of the type of relationship we were in -- multiple partners and intersecting bonds -- we would have to be careful how we acted in public, and only one of them at a time could be seen as my girlfriend or wife. They didn’t like that we had to hide that from the public eye, but understood the reasoning behind it, which was why neither Twilight or Luna were getting too physically affectionate with me in public. Still, because of the magic flowing through us, a mere touch from Luna to the space between my shoulders gave a warmth that spread through my entire chest, and that was enough, for the moment.

I couldn’t help but laugh at Moonfang though; while he loved Fluttershy dearly, not all of their interests lined up, and at the moment, he looked like he’d rather be anywhere besides a clothing store. He was bored, to put it lightly, but he was willing to power through the day for his mate, who he loved more than anyone else in the world. That kind of love was something I was more than happy to see, and I knew it would carry the two of them through many trials in the future.

Even with my group being only slightly smaller than my brother’s, the veritable amazon goddess that was Celestia was going to draw eyes no matter where we went, as would the subtle allure of the mysterious night princess, Luna. It was with no surprise, then, that I noticed nearly everyone in the store glancing at the two tall women, wearing looks that said they thought the two were horribly out of place in such a common establishment. Though we were wearing casual street wear, for the most part, the two princesses carried themselves with a poise and elegance that the average person just didn’t have. Celestia’s steps were measured, unhurried, and precise, so much so that I imagine she would have no trouble balancing objects on her head if she needed to, without them falling. As for Luna, the slightly younger princess exuded an aura of non-magical power that could be felt by any and all that saw her; while sisters, because of Luna’s banishment, they had become two very different princesses, with Luna clinging to the old ways of traditional royal bearing in situations she found new or uncomfortable, while Celestia was as vibrant and warm as the sun she controlled. Both were ageless princesses who had different personalities, yet both of them drew others in by different means.

I had already made my peace with the fact that we were going to be watched no matter where we went, and no matter how casual we dressed. As much as we tried to blend in, the simple fact was that the people I spent time with were apparently simply more attractive than the average human. Hell, as a human, I was considered quite average, and yet I was walking around with two women who would fit in just fine on a pinup calendar, or in a magazine centerfold. Frankly, even with the knowledge that I knew they loved me, I still felt like I didn’t fit next to them, at least as a human; by the stares I was getting from the other store patrons, it appeared I wasn’t the only one that thought so.

“Stop that, Drew.” Celestia interjected, using my human name, since we were so close to others. I could only look at her in confusion, which prompted her to elaborate with, “I’ve lived long enough to know what it looks like when someone is being too hard on his or herself. I don’t read minds, but I know you’re beating yourself up over something.”

While I had memories that spanned several hundred lifetimes, the core of who I was -- the regular human from Earth -- was still insecure at times. I twirled my fingers in the air, an extremely faint shimmering aura covering us as I cast a spell to muffle our speech to anyone listening. Noticing that speech from the outside was muffled, I could confirm the spell was working, and turned my eyes to Celestia. “I know you all think I’m some completely confident guy that always knows what to say or do, but a lot of that is an act. Frankly, I just do or say things, and hope for the best, and so far it’s worked out for me quite well. But…” I sighed and shook my head, turning my gaze to the ground, “I don’t know, sometimes I feel like I don’t belong. Just looking around here, you girls are amazing, and beautiful, and so many other things that I am not.” I held up a hand at her attempt to interject once again, silencing her with a look as I turned my eyes to her once again. “I know you all love and care about me -- I don’t and never will doubt that -- but sometimes I wonder the ‘why’ about all of this. I know you told me that the high gods gave me to you all, but I’m not even sure what that means. I never asked because, frankly, I’m afraid of the answer.”

Celestia’s deep brown eyes seemed to be looking into my soul as she silently stared at me for a few moments. Seemingly making a decision, she leaned down ever so slightly and gave me a kiss, not caring who saw. As much as I would like to say otherwise, I needed it, and I took a few seconds to truly relish the feeling of her soft, warm lips on my own.

After the seconds passed, Celestia pulled away and looped her arm in mine as she began to speak in an almost reverent way. “The high gods are never so direct as to do or say anything overtly. Instead, Luna and I received dreams that led us to you. We were led to see you in your own world, and so we observed, trying to discern why we were shown this unassuming man from another dimension. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, dreams in Equestria are never ‘just’ dreams, so we became quite curious when mere dreams led to a real person that existed, instead of a dead end.” She walked with me through the store, keeping us within sight of the other girls. “As we watched you for a few weeks, the dreams continued, taking on a premonition-like quality, showing us what could be. With each night and each new dream, it became clear that you were important to us, though we knew not how, yet. When Luna met you that night in your room, all she knew was that you had to be brought to Equestria, by any means necessary. Luckily for all of us, you were quite willing, and your only stipulation was that your family must come too; all things considered, your condition was simple and easy to fulfill.”

Another question jumped to my mind, one that I had not asked because I hadn’t thought it was important at the time. “Did you know I would become an alicorn?”

Celestia immediately shook her head. “No, we did not. I cannot say that we weren’t pleased with that particular change, but we did not know for sure what species you would become. Because of the energy you possessed within, we had a good ‘hunch,’ I suppose you could call it, but no definitive confirmation before you were brought to Terra.”

“Would you have loved me if I were not an alicorn?” I blurted, halfway wincing at the question, but wanting to know anyway.

Again, Celestia just stared at me for a few moments. Slowly, a smile creased her full lips, and she nodded gently. “I believe so, yes. It would have been more difficult, since I could not legally make a non-alicorn a prince, but I would find a way.” Her smile dampened a bit as she elaborated. “I will admit, however, that it would have been more bittersweet, knowing that age would eventually take you from us. That is not to say Luna and I would not have given our hearts to you regardless -- I would like to believe it would still be the same, in that respect -- but we would have been pressured to make as many memories as often as we could, knowing that time would eventually take you. But,” she paused, shrugging helplessly, “that is a different path that need not be tread, for us. In the here and now, you are an alicorn prince that will one day be wedded to a number of mares that love you, including Luna and I, and I can only say what I would do in this instance, not another path. Be happy with the now and know that we love you; other possibilities don’t matter, because they aren’t paths you have to walk.” She allowed a few seconds for that to sink in before she spoke again. “I have a question of my own, if you would indulge me.”

“Shoot,” I responded, silently wondering why she would be essentially requesting permission to ask a question.

Even with my assent, Celestia seemed hesitant, which worried me. Finally, apparently deciding to just go with it, she asked, “Why did you say yes?”

I glanced to her briefly before going back to watching the other girls milling about the clothing store. “To what specifically?”

“To coming to Terra; to us; to fighting a war.” she replied, her voice gaining volume at the end. She seemed to be concerned in a way that said this wasn’t the first time she had thought about this, and I knew at that point that she had been thinking about this for quite some time. “When Luna asked to bring you to Terra, you could have said ‘no’, because we weren’t your responsibility. When more than one pony fell in love with you, you could have declined to share your heart with more than one -- coming from a monogamous culture, we would have understood. You have never been a soldier, so you could have shied away and chosen to deal with more domestic issues when the war came. So, my question is: why? Why say yes to any of that? Why accept things that are part of an unknowable future for you?”

Much as I wish I had something profound and proverb-like to say, I could only shrug somewhat helplessly. “Because why not?” At her unamused stare, I just chuckled and poked her in the ribs playfully, causing her to twitch with a giggle. I just shrugged again. “Humans have evolved to live a very chaotic life. While our mind wants patterns and habits, what makes humans powerful enough to dominate an entire planet is their ability to adapt and bend, rather than break. And, even when they break, they heal and build themselves stronger than before.” I looked to Twilight, who was currently chatting excitedly with Rarity as they held up bright tee-shirts to each other, sizing them up. “I haven’t had a bad life, Celestia -- in fact, my life has been pretty damn good by comparison to others in this world -- but I learned very early that life has a tendency to be very difficult, and soul-crushing. More than planning, we have to be able to flow through and around obstacles, like water; more than life-plans, we have to be able to adapt to the ever-changing state of the human condition. Nothing is set in stone, and change is the only constant in life.” Looking back to the rich, chocolate-brown eyes of Celestia, I smiled lovingly. “So, I would rather jump into every situation feet-first, ready to adapt, than hide myself away and hope that I stay safe. Doing that would deprive me of many of life’s wonders and great experiences, so I am ready to weather the trials, knowing that great things come to those who are willing to take risks. ‘A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.’”

Celestia looked thoughtful as she stayed silent for a long few minutes, just following me throughout the store. Finally, after a good time in silence, she spoke once again. “I am glad for how things have turned out, but sometimes I wonder if this is the best possible outcome. I would like to think it is, but I will never know for sure; I just wanted to be sure you were happy with how your life thus far has unfolded since coming to Terra.”

“In a lot of ways, I never felt like I really belonged here.” I said, gesturing generally around us. “I got on with other humans just fine, but there was always a subtle sense of unfulfillment within, like I wasn’t where I belonged. That feeling was sated when I came to Terra and befriended all of you, and I have never been happier. I have many great, loving friends, my family is happy and taken care of, and I have the love of wonderful mares. I don’t believe I could be happier.”

Celestia’s smile seemed to widen and the warmth increased as she commented, “One day, you know, you will have a love like you’ve never known before. We have taken every precaution to prevent it until we are all ready, but one day, you will be a father to a colt or filly -- or both, if we are that lucky.”

Much as I’d like to say it didn’t matter, being a father had always been a dream of mine, and the bright, almost manic smile on my face was proof enough of that. Seeing the teasing smirk on Celestia’s face, I coughed nervously into my hand and schooled my features into a more subdued smile. “Well, we had a scare when six of you went into heat at the same time over the winter. While I’m sure Pinkie wouldn’t have minded being the first, I just about fainted when I thought she had become pregnant.”

“Are you sure the fainting wouldn’t have been from the exhaustion?” Celestia commented with a sidelong teasing grin.

Remembering the rather intense events I had to field during the winter, I couldn’t help but blush a bit from the memories. “...might’ve been.”

Celestia giggled at my expression before leaning over and planting a chaste kiss on my cheek. “When both you and a mare are ready, the spells will be foregone, and the two of you will participate in the passionate act that creatures have been doing since the beginning of time: procreation. Just off of the top of my head, I know of four within the herd that would be quite happy to bear a foal. No matter who it is, I know that the new foal will be brought up in a large, loving herd with many different worldviews, lessons, and personalities.” She reached up and smoothed her hand over my cheek. “No matter who it happens with or when, I know it will be a wonderful experience, and all of us will be quite happy to welcome a new family member.”

“Are you one of those four?” I questioned, my curiosity piqued.

A gentle blush colored Celestia’s dark cheeks, and she smirked at me. “The ever-maternal princess wanting a foal of her own? Whatever would give you that idea?”

“While I'm happy I'm likely to be the one to give you a child one day,” I began with questioning tilt of my head, “what's stopped you from having a child before?”

“Dreading the loss of a mortal child.” Celestia immediately replied; it was clear she had thought of this very thing many times in her life with such a quick and firm answer. Her gaze became a bit distant as she glossed over the store. “While your loss was agony for all of us, your mother can attest to the fact that nothing hurts a mother more than the loss of her child. I saw it when I visited with her -- the resignation, helplessness, and a feeling of incomprehensible wrongness in the world. I have seen many others go through the same loss, and most never recover. With the power we wield, I cannot risk that magnitude of heartbreak.” Again, she turned her eyes back to me. “The union of two non-alicorns producing a true alicorn happens so rarely that it's only happened once in all of recorded history. However, there is a way to increase the chances to a certainty: two alicorns must breed. From the union of two alicorns, an alicorn foal will be born -- it was how Luna and I came to be.”

I nodded my head slowly, beginning to understand. “And an alicorn foal will never die from age.”

“Precisely.” she confirmed with a happy smile. “As creatures that are practically built to spread love, we ponies take loss quite hard, and none is so agonizing as the loss of a child. Besides,” she gave my arm a gentle squeeze, “I am trying to grow my family, not lose it. The less loss we have to endure, the better.”

Suddenly I locked up as a thought came to mind; all the talk of children and procreation brought up a very important difference between humans and ponies that I had neglected to take into account. “...um, Cel? Please tell me all the spells are still in effect on me.”

Quirking one of her eyebrows, she nodded to me. “Of course they are. Why?”

While the immediate worries were quieted, I sighed as I answered, “We’re going to have to go to a grocery store at some point and stock up on feminine products for all of you. Humans aren’t like ponies; they don’t have estrus, they have a menstrual cycle that happens every month, and I’d like to be prepared for all of that so-”

“Your mother already gave us ‘the run-down’, as you call it.” Celestia explained, assuaging my worry. “While yes, we need supplies, all of us are well aware of what is in store for us. I know you’ll take good care of us.”

I smiled at the taller woman, nudging her gently. “Always.”

Perspective Change -- Rainbow Dash

While Darkflight had told us we weren’t going to spend the day shopping, he did tell us we were going to stop by a few shops he thought we would enjoy. The first of them was a novelties shop that sold all sorts of cool things including graphic shirts, posters, candles, body jewelry, and cool little gadgets. There was also a part of the store near the back where everything glowed under what Darkflight called a “black light”, only for us to learn very quickly to stay away from said light for an odd reason: our magical aura glowed under a black light, in a very noticeable film covering the entire body. He told us it wouldn’t matter at a rave or something similar, but in normal public areas, it would stand out in the wrong way.

That being said, it was fun to see the cool things humans came up with to wow and entertain, and I was currently joining Vinyl in trying something new and different: getting my ears pierced.

“C’mon, don’t be a pansy; just do it.” Darkflight urged with a smirk. “You’ve had a lot worse, I promise.”

I grunted, disliking the smell of the disinfectant the person doing the piercing used to keep us from getting an infection. I growled at him, just barely keeping myself from slapping him upside the head. “Hey, don’t forget that I can kick your butt now, dude. Keep pushing, and see what happens.”

Vinyl got my attention by resting her hand on mine. I looked over to my herdmate, who had already gotten her piercing done, sporting two new shiny studs on the lobes of her ears. “C’mon Dash, he’s just trying to rile you up. You got this. Just hold your breath and do it; you’ll barely even feel it.”

Doing as she said, I nodded and took a breath, glancing to the person with the piercing “gun”. He nodded in response as he brought the device to my ear, and I tensed my neck to keep from moving. However...just like Vinyl said, I barely felt it. The sound was a bit jarring, but other than a pinch and some burning, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. With that out of the way, I offered my other ear with more confidence, and it was done just as easily. After he was done, I was given a little pamphlet that told us how to clean them and such to keep the piercings from getting infected, but I knew that with a simple spell, the healing would be done in seconds. I didn’t tell him that, of course.

Still, as I looked at the new body adornments that I had, I couldn’t help but think that this would easily catch on in Equestria once ponies saw mine and Vinyl’s. Besides that, though, it would be a good way to draw attention away from the damage to my ear, and instead have the focus be on the shiny metals in my ears.

“You know, there are other things to pierce, after you girls get used to those.” Darkflight mentioned from off to the side. At my glance and raised eyebrow, he continued. “Well, both Drew and I used to have our tongues pierced, I had my eyebrow pierced, and besides that, there are many other things you can get pierced. Including…” he subtly waved a hand below his belt, and I immediately flinched at that.

“Oh, no! Ouch! No way, no how am I ever piercing that!” I shouted, causing him to burst into laughter.

We made our way to the food court, where Night and the others were waiting on us, while Darkflight composed himself. When his laughter finally calmed down, he commented, “I wasn't suggesting, just saying there's options. Besides,” he leaned in close as he whispered, “even though he'll never admit it, my brother has a thing for tattoos and piercings.”

Since he also explained tattoos, I actually gave it some thought. Shrugging, I replied, “I don't see it happening anytime soon, but I'll keep it in mind.”

Luckily, the others were all just sitting at a table with individual paper bowls of what turned out to be ice cream. As I walked up, Pinkie caught my eye and pushed a blue bowl over to me, which had a generous helping of what looked like vanilla ice cream with strawberry drizzle on top. I took my seat next to her and took a bite, immediately identifying the treat as strawberry shortcake ice cream.

“Y’all got yer ears pierced?”

I glanced up from my treat to see Applejack staring at me with a slack jaw. I looked around the small group to see all the rest looking at me with similar expressions of surprise, so I just nodded. “Yeah. I figured, ‘Why the hay not,' so I did it. Figured I’d try something new, since we’re here -- might get a tattoo, too.” I pointed at her with my plastic spoon. “Maybe you should get one; it’d make a nice souvenir.”

Applejack’s face scrunched up like she’d sucked on a lemon. “A cutie mark ‘s enough f’r me, thanks.”

Following that, we ate in silence for the most part, just enjoying the atmosphere and taking in the many different people around us. It was clear this place was designed with the average human in mind, seeing as how most of the people I saw were middle-class based on the way they dressed and acted. Sure, there were one or two upper-class types that I could spot here and there, but for the most part, they were just regular people enjoying time out with their families. While there were a few key differences between humans and ponies, it seemed that for the most part, we behaved pretty much the same. I let a smile cross my face when I looked at the younger humans -- only a few years older than what ponies would call a foal -- noticing their wide-eyed looks of wonder that matched those of our own group, since we both were seeing many things for the first time.

From off in the distance, I caught sight of Rarity and the rest of her group walking past the food court, but not stopping to get anything. Spike was carrying a few bags of what could only be clothes and knick knacks, and I imagined he would be practically buried in the things by the end of the day. Celestia and Luna brought up the rear, right behind Frost, and I had the perfect seat to watch every person near them stop what they were doing to watch them pass; I wasn’t a vain pony by any means, but part of me (a tiny part, mind you) was a little, tiny bit jealous of the effortless beauty that Celestia possessed, which I did not; while Celestia would be the kind of pony to walk down a model runway, I was a stunt-flyer turned soldier, and my looks matched that.

Okay, fine, maybe I was more than just a little jealous, but I was going to make peace with that. From experience, I knew it would take some talking with Twilight, Celestia herself, and Frost, but I could get over it in time; much as we had all grown in the past few years, we had plenty more growing to do, especially the alicorns.

“You all right there, Dash?” Darkflight asked, raising an eyebrow my way.

I tore my eyes away from the others and nodded to him. “Yeah, I’m cool. So, where are we headed next?”

“Well,” he started, practically inhaling another spoonful of his own ice cream, “the clubs don’t open for hours yet, so I was thinking we could hit up the arcades to kill time, unless there’s any other stores that caught your fancy on the way over here.” Suddenly, he almost seemed to get a shock as he forcefully swallowed and added, “Wait, we have to hit up Hot Topic. Remember when I told you that you all were famous? Well, that store sells all kinds of merchandise for pop culture nowadays, and I’m pretty sure they’ll have all kinds of stuff that you girls will get a laugh out of.”

I glanced at the rest of our group, and seeing that they were all showing interest as well, I gave a firm nod. “Yeah, sounds cool. Let’s do it.”

We were in no particular hurry since, as Darkflight said, we had hours to kill yet, so we ate our treats at a relaxed pace until everyone was finished. As we stood to toss away our trash, I cast a healing spell on mine and Vinyl’s ears to instantly heal up the piercings, so that we could maybe get some other earrings besides the plain studs. From there, the group followed Darkflight and Applejack through the mall again, this time heading down one of the side tunnels we had avoided before because it held most of the clothing shops. This time though, we walked right into the area, passing a bunch of shops that I’m sure if Rarity hadn’t already visited, she would soon. Near the end of the tunnel was a dark-colored shop with red font that had the name at the top, so we entered to the sound of heavy rock music. There weren’t too many people in the shop -- and those that were there were mostly of our own age group or younger -- but the employees were dressed like they belonged there, and had their own array of piercings and tattoos to show off. The two of them -- man and woman -- just waved or smiled in our direction, allowing us to look at what the store offered at our leisure.

Immediately, Vinyl and I spotted the display case that held ear studs and earrings, some of them being too thick for the holes currently there; Darkflight had mentioned a procedure called “gauging” that slowly made the holes bigger in the ear, but warned that it was permanent, and it stretched out the ear in such a way that it looked “off” without anything in it. Vinyl and I had already agreed we were going to keep it small, so we looked over the studs and earrings.

“Y’know, I think I got something to match that.” commented the male employee, catching my attention, which caused me to notice he was pointing at my neck. For me, just above the collar of my shirt on the right side of my neck, my cutie mark could be seen, which was obviously what he was pointing to.

I unconsciously brought my hand to my mark and rubbed it a bit. “What’ve you got?”

He ducked behind the counter, rummaging around for a bit before he brought up a little case that contained two earrings. They were simple in design and featured a round, slightly convex head that had a cartoonish, stylized version of my cutie mark on it, against an electrified blue background. He opened the little case and held it out to me as he explained, “We had another set that featured a picture of Dashie’s face, but they sold out really fast.”

I couldn’t help the subtle wince at a stranger using the nickname my friends used for me, but hid it behind pretending to be a little let down. “Yeah, I can’t find those anywhere, but these’ll work.”

He nodded and took the case, looking to Vinyl next, motioning to her hair. “If you two are part of a set, I imagine you would want these, then.” He again reached under the counter, producing a similar set of earrings, but instead of a cutie mark, it was of Vinyl’s face. I can’t explain how weird it was to see a friend and fellow herdmate’s face in the form of a cartoon.

Vinyl just stared at the little studs, muttering a quiet, “I need them.”

The guy smiled and set the other case on the counter. “I figured. Anyhow, are you two together, or paying separately?”

I looked around the back of the store, spotting Darkflight looking over the giant wall that had shirts on it. I pointed to him and answered, “Actually, he’s the one with the money, so we’ll wait for him. Can you hold those up here for us until we’re ready?”

Setting the two cases aside near the register, he gave a smile. “Sure thing. They’ll be waiting for you whenever you all are ready.” We nodded to the guy and made our way to the rest of the group, checking out whatever they found.

Coming up next to Applejack and Pinkie, we noticed them staring at a wall of tee shirts. Similar to them, my mouth dropped open as I whispered out, “I-is that...us?”

My eyes were not lying: an entire wall of the store was dedicated to graphic tees, watches, backpacks, shoelaces, and just about everything else you could imagine, all designed with Equestria in mind...or, at least the television show it was known from. Already I could pick out me, Pinkie, Applejack, Night, Celestia, Luna, Twilight, Rarity, Fluttershy, and Spike. I mean, I didn’t doubt Frost when he said we were popular, but seeing merchandise dedicated to us was...well, it was kind of an ego boost.

As my eyes trailed over a particular blue shirt, I pointed and triumphantly blurted, “HAH! I told you! Read it and weep, Annabelle!”

Recognizing her human name, Applejack looked to where I was pointing as she read out, “Rainbow Dash is best- oh, that don’t count!”

“Well, this isn’t fair.” Ditzy sulked from the side. She pointed up to the wall and said, “They only have Derpy here.”

Glancing up and confirming what she said, I leaned over and whispered, “Here, you and her are the same pony, just with different names. They don’t know you are actually sisters, so don’t take it personal.”

“All right,” Darkflight announced, pointing to the wall, “grab a shirt you like and one other thing, and let’s get moving. We’ve got plenty more to see today, and I don’t want to spend all our time in just one store. Yes, there’s plenty here to get lost in, but it’s not the only place to see.”

We collectively nodded to him before turning back toward the wall. I grabbed the shirt that I spotted with me on it, and since I was already getting the earrings, I left it at that, with Vinyl doing the same. It took a few minutes, but after everyone had found a shirt and thing they wanted, we all meandered over to the counter and brought up our purchases.

“Christ,” the male employee said as he shook his head, “I knew the stuff was popular, but you all are really into it, huh?”

Taking the initiative, Darkflight grinned and shrugged. “Eh, it’s an acquired taste. No harm in enjoying a little pop culture from time to time. Besides, the fans are definitely interesting, which is always worth a laugh.”

Playing it off, the man at the register just chuckled and continued ringing everything up. Once everything was paid for, Vinyl and I took the earrings out and helped each other put them in.

As she finished fitting the back on mine, she twisted it a bit in the ear before putting the plain piercing studs back into the case. “Not bad, not bad. Now all you need is rainbow hair, and you’ll be the picture of a Rainbow Dash fanatic.”

I raised my eyebrow at her. “Really now?” Reaching in the bag that had her stuff, I pulled out the shirt she had chosen. It had an overly-cutesy, sparkly-eyed Vinyl on it complete with, “Wub me?”

A fierce blush began to grow on her pale cheeks, and she snatched the shirt out of my hand, stuffing it back into the bag. “...shut up. I thought it was cute.”

“Aww, c’mon Vanessa,” I took one of her cheeks between my thumb and forefinger, pinching it theatrically, “you know we all ‘wub’ you.”

She really was adorable when she got all flustered.

“All right squad, let’s move out!” Darkflight’s stern voice rose above our chatter. Whether he meant to or not, this plucked a chord within all of us that had served, and we immediately snapped to attention to follow the order before we even had time to think about it. While Darkflight might not have been the one to unite most of the races in the war, I knew his charisma and tone alone would have done it, if given enough time, and the reactions me and the others had to the order was proof of that.

We made our way out of the store and into the main hall again, only for us to have to stop as Ditzy rushed over to a bench to sit down. I was about to ask her what was going on, only to notice she was shaking violently with a distant, detached look in her eyes, as if she were reliving…

Oh...oh no.

“Mason, we need to stop.” I stated in an uncompromising tone.

He glanced over to us just as I took a seat beside Ditzy, extending my arm over her. To his credit, his face showed clear guilt and concern at what was happening, and I saw him do that awkward shuffle he did when he knew he’d screwed up. “Ah shit, I forgot. Danielle, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Mason, it’s fine.” I replied, hugging Ditzy close as Vinyl took up the other side and Pinkie kneeled in front of our mutual herdmate. I looked up to the disguised dragon and shook my head. “Not all of us have completely recovered yet, and that’s not your fault. Just give us a minute to calm her down, and we’ll be good.”

And so we waited patiently as Ditzy slowly, but surely, calmed down. I found it somewhat ironic that it was the career soldier that was having the most problem overcoming what had happened in the war, but said nothing. Instead, I just did the best I could to let her know, somewhere inside her currently-freaking-out head, that she was not alone.

After a long few minutes, the trembles had died down to almost nothing, and finally, Ditzy croaked out, “...’m fine. I-I’ll be okay.”

Venn, who was the other one of our group that had his own mild form of what Frost called PTSD, kneeled in front of Ditzy, next to Pinkie, and placed his hand on hers. “Do not feel guilty, Danielle. What happened was not your fault, and this isn’t either.”

Her hazel eyes locked onto the steely gaze of our wolf-friend, and she gave a wobbly smile. “I-I know. It’s just...when he said it like that, all of the sudden, I was back there, and…” she shuddered in my arms, shaking her head. “I know it’s over, but it’s like a part of me doesn’t know how to live any other way, now.”

Venn noded with deep understanding. “I know the feeling, believe me. We will overcome it together, I promise.”

Taking her hand, Venn pulled her to stand, and enveloped her in a strong embrace, taking our place. She seemed to struggle briefly before accepting it and relaxing completely. While she may not have known Venn as long as she’d known Frost, or was as close to him as she was the rest of us, the two of them shared an experience that, luckily, we couldn’t identify with. Nonetheless, I knew the mutual support they would have for each other would overcome this, and I was going to do my darndest to help in whatever way I could.

Seemingly deciding at the same time, the two separated, and Ditzy looked to me with a more honest smile. “All right, I’m okay now. Let’s keep moving and have some fun so I can forget about that. This is supposed to be a fun day, so let’s see what else this place has to offer.”

Darkflight walked up to her, looking into her eyes briefly before nodding. “Cool, let’s move. We’ll head to the arcade next, then. I think it should be a fun experience for all of you, but we’ll head to the club later for some food and drinks, when it opens.”

Hoisting my bag up and stepping next to Ditzy as the group began moving again, I looked to her with a concerned glance. She caught my eyes and smiled at me, silently letting me know she appreciated the concern, but that she would be okay (don’t ask me how I knew that). So, she grabbed her own bag and kept moving, and I followed close behind as we continued our little adventure in Underground Atlanta.