• Published 16th Nov 2011
  • 16,538 Views, 311 Comments

My(stara's) Little Ponies: Friendship is Adventuring - JohnBiles



The Mane Six. Typical D&D Adventurer Hijinx. As told by an adventurer rescued by them.

  • ...
11
 311
 16,538

Book Four: Trust is a Leap in the Dark

My(stara's) Little Ponies: Friendship is Adventuring
A D&D (Mystara) / My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic crossover

Book 4: Trust is a Leap in the Dark

By John Biles

***************

Twilight's balloon can be piloted by anyone who can cast spells (and any unicorn); I got to take a turn piloting it, which was fun, but also tiring; we had to take turns. Dinky seems to be a bit of an airhead, but she was a very good pilot, more precise than the rest of us who could pilot it (Twilight, Rarity, myself, Fluttershy, Pinkie, Sweetie Belle). Apparently her mother is a pegasus and her father is NOT TO BE TALKED ABOUT.

But must be a unicorn.

We could see Ponyville in the distance when a gray-coated pegasus rose out of the town and came zooming towards us. She had a blonde mane and googly eyes, but she looked VERY determined. "DINKY, YOU ARE IN SO MUCH TROUBLE!" she shouted.

You could hear rumblings from the saddlebag the kids were in.

Man, having a billion little dimensional pockets is very handy, I have to say.

We got Dinky out and Rarity told me, "That's Dinky's mother, Ditzy Doo."

"Hi, Mom, you look great," Dinky said cheerfully, though her body was shaking.

"Young lady, you are in SO MUCH TROUBLE," Ditzy said, eyes wandering all over. It was very distracting. She turned her head to point just one eye at Dinky. "And your friends who talked you into this! I am going to give them a piece of my MIND."

"You can chew them out tomorrow," Twilight said. "It's too crowded here to take them out."

Ditzy now noticed Ivan and I. "Humans?"

"Yes, we are," I said.

"This is Samus Marcus, a unicorn human," Rarity said. "And this is Ivan, who is an earth human."

Ditzy looked really intently at me, probably noticing the lack of a horn. She looked confused.

"A pleasure to meet you," I said, shaking one of her hooves.

Ditzy soon took Dinky and flew off with her; poor kid.

You know, we need to find out what caused them to have that dream. We never did find out.

*************

Soon, we landed in the middle of Ponyville; there was a huge mob of people and I noticed Lyra among the people; she was busy playing her harp and a bunch of ponies were singing.

"Lyra is our town bard," Rarity said, following our gaze. "She provides music for all festive occasions Ponyville has some other local musicians, but she's paid by the city government. She and Pinkie generally organize local festivities."

I'm surprised she hasn't gone wandering around more like I expected. But since I can't admit I was Erik, I can't ask her about it, more's the pity.

The tune now changed to one I knew.

o/~ Another day, another city,

o/~ Another horizon beckons to me.

o/~ Though home calls to me,

o/~ I must leave it behind.

What the hell???

Rarity's eyes widened as did Twilight.

o/~ Faithful wagon, carry me far

o/~ Faithful wagon, follow that star

o/~ You haul my goods and my fortune too

o/~ For I am a Far Seller

o/~ A traveler on the sea of fate

o/~ The needs of others beckon me
o/~ And I cannot be late.

Twilight licked her lips and began to sing along as we descended.

o/~ I've got twenty miles to go by twilight's gleaming.

o/~ Those distances can be deceiving.

o/~ The wheels go round and round,

o/~ Hauling me from town to town

Ivan to my surprise now began to sing as well, and Rarity joined in.

o/~ Faithful wagon, carry me far

o/~ Faithful wagon, follow that star

o/~ You haul my goods and my fortune too

o/~ For I am a Far Seller

o/~ A traveler on the sea of fate

o/~ The needs of others beckon me

o/~ And I cannot be late.

I surrendered and joined in, and then the other ponies with us all tried to sing along as well. Lyra looked VERY happy and I noticed a yellow earth pony with a blue and pink mane who had three candies as her Cutie Mark. Must be Bon-Bon.

By the time we finished the song, we had landed and tons of ponies flooded forward to say hello to everyone. Ivan and I were greeted by the Mayor of Ponyville. "Welcome to Ponyville," she said. "Celestia told us you were coming. She wishes for you all to come to Canterlot tomorrow, along with the Cutie Mark Crusaders."

"Oh dear," Rarity said. "They don't need that much punishment."

"I'm sure she'll be gentle," the Mayor said. "Should I arrange housing for our guests?"

"Marcus can stay with Sweetie and I, and I think Ivan will be staying with Applejack," Rarity said.

"Okay," the Mayor said. We shook hand-to-hoof. "Nice to meet you, Samus Marcus. Celestia told me about your human customs, so you can be sure you'll be left alone when bathing."

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.

She knows, she knows, I am going to DIE.

I kept my face blank. "Thank you. I hate to be an inconvenience."

"I understand," she said kindly. "We have a feast ready! Come and dine!"

It was quite good; they had some fish for Ivan and I, which was very nice and while some of the food was not edible for humans (like hay salad), a lot of it was (the tomato salad was very nice and I like cucumbers a lot.)

Eventually, I approached Lyra because I had to know. "Interesting choice of human music," I told her. "Why that song?"

"I needed something human that wasn't a love song," Lyra said. "Nothing wrong with love songs, of course, but I wanted something that evoked travel and wasn't a love song. Also, there's some nice choral things you can do with it."

"It was a good choice," I told her. "Ivan and I knew it, though neither of us is Darokinian."

"I heard something about my old professor being at White Plume Mountain?" she said.

"You studied with Keraptis?" I said, feigning confusion.

"No, Erik of Vestland. I dunno, apparently he's wanted for a bunch of crimes, but he was a good teacher and didn't do anything wrong while he was there," she said, frowning. "Was he there?"

"We heard he was there, but Keraptis said he didn't know when Spitfire asked him about it. They tried searching the dungeon but didn't see him anywhere," I told her. Thankfully, it was a visual search.

Damn that tattoo.

The feast finally wound down and I was utterly zonked, so I was glad when it was time to go home and SLEEP.

***********

I took a bath so I would not have to sleep filthy. It was just a shower but that was fine. Rarity quickly improvised me a nice robe to sleep in; it was simple but felt wonderfully soft. I left my feet barefoot; I wanted to stretch my toes.

Shut up.

Sweetie Belle stared at my toes. "What use are those?" she asked.

"Not much any more, though they can help when you climb," I told her. "Our distant ancestors had smaller feet and bigger toes to help them climb and grip things. Once we started walking upright all the time, they got less useful and shrank. The same way our claws turned into toenails and fingernails."

She touched one of my toes hesitantly with her hoof. I wiggled them and she smiled. I then showed off my hands to her; she sniffed them and then studied them. "That must make picking things up easy," she said.

"It's what they are for," I told her.

She nodded and touched them. "It's not so hard for us Unicorns when we grow up but I know Pegasi and Earth Ponies... well, they can kind of pick things up but they have a harder time of it."

"Still learning to use your magic?" I asked.

"I haven't found my cutie mark yet," she said mournfully.

"I'm sure you will soon," I told her. "I didn't have your kind of ambition when I was little. And humans never get a cutie mark."

"But you can do magic and everything I do always goes wrong," Sweetie said mournfully. "I can't even help out my sister. And Apple Bloom figured out the controls when the rest of us couldn't."

"Those cloaks you made were very nice," I told her. "I can tell your friends love them."

She smiled a little at that.

"Here, let me show you a trick you can show off to your friends," I told her, getting my cards.

I then carefully showed her one of my simple card tricks. She can't do much with her horn yet, but she can move cards, which is enough for this. We went over it again and again, until she learned how to do it.

Finally...

She spread the cards and I picked one. The Jack of Flames. Then I put it back in and she 'shuffled'. Knowing the trick, I could see how she manipulated it to the bottom of the deck, but it should fool other fillies and the uninitiated.

Then she faked shuffling while keeping it on the bottom, then turned it up. "Is this your card?" she asked nervously.

"Yes! Perfect!"

She smiled brightly and I smiled back, ruffling her hair.

Then she rushed off to find Rarity, who was busy making the bed. "Rarity, Rarity, I'm going to show you something cool!"

She began showing off the trick to Rarity, who looked suitably impressed when it worked. I tried not to nod off against the wall, where I was sitting.

It suddenly hit me. "Where am I sleeping?" I asked. I was so tired, I couldn't even remember how many rooms Rarity's boutique had or how I had gotten into her bedroom.

"Sweetie has a room at my sister's place, but when she stays here, she just sleeps with me. I have a very big bed, so there will be plenty of space for us as long as everyone sleeps on their back." Rarity paused, suddenly nervous. "If that's okay."

"It's fine," I said. "I'm close to falling asleep right here." My head lolled and I forced it back up.

"Why do humans wear clothing all the time?" Sweetie asked me.

Here we go again. I gave her my standard spiel.

"I guess you do laundry a lot," she said thoughtfully.

"Yes," I told her. When we can. I often end up living in filth, unfortunately.

I am so clean. I feel like I could do anything.

Right now, though, the main thing is SLEEP.

Bedtime was a demonstration of the ability of Ponies to be more flexible than ponies. I'm pretty sure non-sentient ones sleep on their sides, but Ponies can comfortably sleep on their backs. Sweetie was, as Ponies usually are, naked, while Rarity donned a fancy silken pink and crimson robe. (My own was sky blue, if you care.) Sweetie slept between us; it felt oddly like being a father sleeping with his child.

Or so I would imagine, as I have no kids to my knowledge.

"I need a bedtime story," Sweetie announced, just as we settled into bed.

Rarity made 'not again' noises. "Big ponies don't need a story before bed," she said.

"It's fine, I'll tell her one," I said. "You get the glass of water."

"Glass of water?" Rarity asked. "Oh, right."

Kids always want a glass of water before bed. Or a snack. Or to pet the dog or whatever.

Okay, story time.

**************

Once upon a time, there was a young pony who wanted to buy her mother a present. But she had no money, so she had to go get a job. Mr. Wall needed his house painted, so she took the job and started working hard, but it was taking FOREVER.

Then two of the town bullies showed up and started mocking her painting and this made her mad. So she said, "I'd like to see you do a better job of it!"

They each painted a swathe of the wall, and she had to admit, "You did a better job." It was really embarrassing BUT...

It meant she'd gotten them to do some of the work for her, so she didn't mind. She knew it didn't matter what other people thought about her, she liked herself. And if she could use their illusions about her to get stupid mean people to do what she wanted, EVEN BETTER.

{Rarity now interrupted storytime.}

**********

Rarity had returned with the glass of water. "Marcus darling, you shouldn't tell Sweetie a bedtime story about conning people."

"But it's better than using violence to deal with bullies," I told Rarity as Sweetie took the water and began drinking.

"But..." Rarity paused, standing by the bed, holding the cup up with her powers for Sweetie. "Okay, that is true, but you shouldn't encourage children to trick people."

"Not everyone," I said. "But some people don't deserve better treatment." Like the kids I have heard harass Sweetie and her friends. "Sweetie has to learn when to be cunning."

Sweetie said nothing, busy slurping down water.

"Sweetie is very charming and kind," Rarity said, smiling a little. Then she sighed. "But cunning isn't her style."

"Well, for humans, anyway, you have to decide what you want and work for it. No one starts out cunning, you become cunning. It's all about discipline and focus," I said. Let's see her protest discipline and focus!

Sweetie continued drinking and Rarity said, "Well, of course discipline and focus are a good thing. Dedication to my craft got me my cutie mark and it's continued to improve me. But ponies aren't supposed to trick each other. Even if the other pony is mean."

"It's better to trick your enemies than to hit them," I said.

Sweetie was now pretending to drink and looking nervously between us.

"I wasn't saying to hit them! You just have to ignore mean things bullies say," Rarity said, frowning. "Or throw a few zingers their way. But trying to trick them into doing your work is going too far. If someone pays you to do work and you get someone else to do it for you, you're ripping off the person who paid you." Her voice was VERY firm about this.

"But he's still getting his wall painted," I told her.

"The worker is worthy of his hire," Rarity said. "The person who *does* the work ought to get paid."

"Does that mean businesses that hire out workers are ripping off someone?" I asked. "The wages get paid to the boss, who only pays the employee who did the work part of the profit."

We now got into a long discussion of business ethics which Sweetie continued to pretend to be drinking the whole time and looking uncomfortable.

It made me wonder what exactly was the point of divergence of Rarity and Clarity. There was enough similarity to make the differences more stark. The clones seem to have full sets of memories, they know their own kin and the friends of said kin... what exactly makes them different?

I think we had reached discussing bonds and investment depreciation somehow when Sweetie made a huge yawn and said, "I'm finished and sleepy."

Rarity said, "I'll be right back."

She headed out with the glass.

"I'm sorry I made you fight," Sweetie said weakly to me.

"It's okay, no matter how close you are to someone, sometimes you're going to disagree," I told Sweetie. "You make up your own mind about how to deal with the bullies. But now you've heard a couple of ways to do it."

"You're a stallion, right?" Sweetie asked, yawning.

"Yes, I am," I told her. "I guess you don't see many humans here."

"Humans either come to the ports or border forts or ride the Canterlot-Manehattan line up to Canterlot," she said groggily. "We're kind of off the beaten track, unless you want to go up to Castle Neigh. Daddy sees humans a lot, though. He's in Grand Stalls."

"Sleep," I said softly to her. "You can tell me about him in the morning."

"He's the best Daddy ever and I miss him so much," Sweetie said groggily. "But he says Grand Stalls is no place for a filly. I wish he could stay here with me."

I felt jealous; I can't even remember my father's name clearly... there's a half dozen different names and faces are jumbled and I just know there were too many kids, so I had to seek my fortune. "I bet he's telling your mother how much he misses you right this minute."

"I miss Mommy too," she said softly, then her eyes closed and she fell asleep.

I heard Rarity climbing into bed as I passed out as well.

*****************

I dreamed of Canterlot and my days there. I lived in a sort of hotel/dorm for professors. About half the teachers lived off campus but each of us who did not had a nice suite of rooms. It was some of the plushest living of my life. So nice.

I awoke to the smell of fish and fried tomatoes Mmm, good. I also was being crushed by Sweetie Belle, who had grappled me in her sleep. "Sweetie, wake up," I said.

She mumbled into my shoulder.

I tried to rise and failed. "Sweetie!"

Mumble, mumble.

Ponies really shouldn't trust strangers so much as to hug them in their sleep. But...

Opalescence came in and jumped on my face.

I made an incoherent, strangled noise and Rarity ran in. "Opalescence, get off Marcus and Sweetie!"

Opalescence ran down my chest, then jumped off.

Sweetie stirred. "Mrwwwe?"

I rose from the bed now, disentangling myself. "I'm going to go shave," I said.

"I can shave you, I've seen how Mom does it for Dad," Sweetie said.

Rarity licked her lips nervously. "Sweetie, it's a dangerous job."

"It's okay," I said. Sweetie needs some self-confidence. "You can help me."

I was rather nervous. The part of me which is kind to children thought this a great idea. The part which is wary of a wobbly child-unicorn holding a blade to my throat was rather less enthused.

But she needs some confidence, I can tell. So we went to the bathroom and I lathered up. She had to stand on the privy to see well, which was a little amusing to me. Then I lathered up and she took the razor and very slowly, she moved it over to my face, looking nervous.

I used my own power to steady the blade and guide her. "Someone's helping me," she said, confused.

"It's me," I told her. "I am a unicorn human. We'll do it together."

I guided her; slowly, I felt her control get more steady and sure and so, bit by bit, I released my grip. By the end, it was all her doing it, while I just watched.

It was not the greatest shave ever but it was good enough. "Good job," she said, smiling.

"Why can't I see your horn?" she asked.

"It's invisible," I told her. I should not have said that but I couldn't help myself. "There was an accident."

"Oh," she said.

Too trusting for her own good.

But she was smiling. "You're a nice unicorn," she said.

"Thank you," I told her. "You're a very nice unicorn too."

She smiled even brighter.

I suddenly wondered if our evil twins still had the goatees. Hehe.

I now washed my face to get left over lather off.

We came out for breakfast, which we ate in the kitchen. Rarity's shop seems to basically have a storage room, a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen, and the front store. You can tell it's a single person's home, even with the box of toys in the bedroom.

Sweetie and I came out and dug into the food. Rarity looked a little nervous. "The fish is great," I told her and she relaxed. You know, she's probably never cooked fish before.

In fact, I suddenly wondered how she even had fish. But that wasn't worth worrying about.

"We will have to hurry," she said. "You two slept in."

"You should have woken me," I said. "I'm sorry."

"I would have, but you two looked so cute sleeping there and when I did try, you just mumbled about grades."

FUCK ME.

Rarity and Sweetie were having fried tomato and fruit slices on a mix of kinds of lettuce. I had some of that with fish. SO GOOD. "This is really good," I said. "Fresh food, home cooked, I am clean, I am wearing clean clothing, I feel alive again."

Rarity smiled brightly and Sweetie said, "Thanks, sis. I'll cook breakfast tomorrow."

"We'll be in the castle, dear," Rarity said. "They'll cook for us."

"I am SO EXCITED," Sweetie said urgently. "I've never been to Canterlot! Surely we'll discover our Cutie Marks there!"

"Luna wants us to see the Moon Raising tonight," Rarity said. "I have never seen it myself. Apparently, it will be something extra special tonight."

Only now did I think... "Wait, did I sleep through us cutting a deal with Vermicoritax? Because we had to get the treasure for him to be willing to talk, let alone negotiate."

"He is going to come meet with Celestia and Luna; he is rather cross over 'Princess Marjorie' trying to set him up for a war with Equestria," Rarity said.

Hah, your plan bit you back, Marjorie! Or Marquetta, or whoever you are.

I hope she doesn't invade my dreams again.

"I forgot to ask what my magical cape DOES," Sweetie suddenly said, then sighed.

"Show me," I told her. "I can try and figure it out."

I ate and studied her cloak when she brought it. "Very strong protection against cold," I told her. "And if you pull the hood up, it'll help you sneak around. Also, it has some mild help in avoiding getting hurt by magics and poisons and the like." Basic protection enchantments. "It won't make you invincible, but it ups the odds of avoiding being hurt."

"COOL," she said and put it on, then started sneaking around. Your vision glanced off it unless you really concentrated hard.

Rarity buried her face in her hooves.

"What's wrong?"

"They're hard enough to herd already," Rarity mumbled.

...

"I have to go tell everyone!" Sweetie said.

"Finish your breakfast, then pack for the trip, THEN you can go," Rarity said.

"But I might forget by then!" Sweetie said.

I touched her forehead and used a little magic. It didn't actually do anything but she would feel it. "There you go, a memory spell. You won't forget."

She just shoved her face in her food and grazed at high speed instead of eating delicately as Rarity did.

"Sweetie, show some manners! You don't see Marcus grazing!"

"Apple Bloom grazes and so does Scootaloo," Sweetie said stubbornly. "It's natural for ponies."

"We are ponies of refinement," Rarity said. "Civilized people do not just shove their face in the punch bowl or their plate."

Sweetie grumbled, looking frustrated.

"You should be glad you're not a non-sentient pony," I told Sweetie. "You'd be spending hours and hours a day eating, more if you just had grass to eat."

Sweetie stared at me. "Are they all hideously fat?"

"Small stomachs and grass isn't very nutritious, even for a herbivore. If they have things like oats and rye and apples, they don't have to eat as much. I'm guessing that probably you all have more efficient stomachs and may well be partly fed by magic." Then I held up a piece of fish. "One of the reasons humans eat meat is that it conveys a lot of energy in a small package."

I think there's some business with a second stomach or something but I don't know horse biology in that level of detail.

Sweetie ate as fast as she could with any pretension to dignity. It was a weak pretension; she then ran off to pack.

"I wish I had more time to make you some nice outfits," Rarity said.

I jingled my coin and gem pack. "If we stay in Canterlot long, I can buy an outfit or two," I told her. I suddenly wondered what happened to all the clothing I had when I was Erik; I abandoned most of it in my flight. "Though I'd rather have something nice made by you, fair Rarity."

"Flatterer," she said, but she smiled.

"Is Apple Bloom's necklace magic?" Sweetie shouted.

"I don't know," I shouted back.

"Don't shout between rooms," Rarity shouted, then laughed softly, shaking her head.

"Best not to give orders you violate by giving them," I said.

"Are human children difficult?" Rarity asked me.

"Oh yes. We have to tame our own children and guide them. It's a huge amount of work," I told her. "Also, human children get into ANYTHING very easily, thanks to hands."

She looked off towards the bedroom door, then at me, then ate some more of her breakfast. She started to speak, then fell silent.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"Later, when we can have privacy," she said. "We have to assume Sweetie can and will appear at any time while she's under our care."

I scratched my head, then nodded and worked on breakfast. She told me about Ponyville and her family and various friends.

Distantly, I now hear the sound of a pony laughing maniacally. And knocking at the back door, which goes straight into Rarity's bedroom.

"Look what I can do with my tail!" Apple Bloom shouted in the bedroom. "I bet I could even carry an axe and chop wood now!"

"Oh wow, that's great, Apple Bloom," Sweetie said. "Can you help me pack?"

"Sure... WITH MY TAIL!"

I couldn't help but laugh.

Rarity looked curious. "That's new."

"I noticed Applejack has a prehensile tail. Is that common with Earth Ponies?"

"Usually only for things relating to their Cutie Mark," Rarity said. "Which can be pretty broad. I'd be surprised if she somehow got her Cutie Mark after coming home, though."

"Here, let me get that... with my tail!" Apple Bloom crowed.

I laughed softly. Rarity smiled.

"Oh, one other thing from yesterday," I said. "What is an Oard?"

Rarity buried her face in her hooves. "Oards are imaginary creatures that Ditzy and Dinky both think are real. They're supposedly time travelers who are trying to change Mystara's history using super-technology. They feature in the kind of crazy conspiracy theories you find in the Hoofington Inquirer," she said. "Where they claim Duke Stefan's been replaced by a clone made of snow and that's why he doesn't move against the Black Eagle Baron or that the Thyatian Emperor is addicted to cheese and thus is controlled by cheese-makers from the Heldaan Freeholds, and so on."

"AHH," I said. It's probably for the best I haven't the resources to disguise myself as one or I would find myself unable to resist the impulse to go do it and freak them out. "I assume we are going to catch the afternoon train to Canterlot?"

"I think so," Rarity said.

If we leave by noon, we can be in Canterlot before dinnertime on the train. It'll be nice to relax on the train.

And less crowded than the balloon.

"Here, I'll get that down for you with... MY TAIL!" Apple Bloom crowed.

"We're all going to want to kill her by sunset, right?" I said.

"Oh yes," Rarity said, laughing a little. "But it's important to celebrate their learning new skills, so try to be patient and hold me back if I snap, darling." She took a drink of milk. "Marcus darling, about last night, I'm sorry."

La.. OH. "It's okay," I told her. "Everyone disagrees sometimes. I hope I didn't get too heated. I just didn't know any stories suitable for pony children, so I had to improvise."

I heard weird noises from the bedroom. Springing and shaking noises.

o/~ With my tail,

o/~ I will help you without fail!

o/~ I can even send mail,

o/~ With my tail!

...

"Don't jump on the bed," Rarity shouted.

I laughed softly.

"I can shave people now," Sweetie Belle said proudly now.

"Oooh, magically?" Apple Bloom said excitedly.

"Yes!"

"Maybe you'll get a grooming Cutie Mark soon!" Apple Bloom said excitedly.

"You need to PACK," Rarity shouted. "They're so easily distracted," she said to me.

I finished my food. "I can run herd on them while you clean up."

"Thanks," she said and I went to try to restore order.

Foolish me.

**************

I never, EVER should have told them about the sneaking thing. Foolish me. By the time it was time to go, Ditzy, Rarity, and myself were chasing all five crusaders around Rarity's house as they tried to hide from us and laughed like maniacs.

This might well have continued until we all died of old age, except that Applejack showed up with Ivan and her brother, Big Macintosh, and they helped us herd the kids. Pretty quickly, we trapped them all and stopped Apple Bloom trying to pick up Opalescence with her tail.

"Leave the poor cat alone," Applejack said sternly to Apple Bloom. "I know you're proud of yourself, but Opalescence is not a toy. And don't abuse your cloaks, or we'll have to take them away until you're older."

"I am older! I'm a BIG PONY," Apple Bloom insisted. "Look at my tail!"

"I can shave people now!" Sweetie protested.

Scootaloo looked kind of frustrated, possibly because Apple Bloom and Sweetie couldn't resist mentioning tails and shaving every five seconds, roughly.

"I'm proud of you," Applejack said. "But you don't have to mention it constantly." She sounded a little worn out of it already.

I laughed softly.

"Marcus, you got a minute?" Applejack asked me.

"Sure," I said.

"Big Mac, make sure they don't decide to go find another dungeon before we get back," Applejack said.

"I can shave you!" Sweetie said excitedly.

His eyes widened and I said to Big Mac, "It's fine. She shaved me this morning." As I passed him, I whispered to Big Mac, "As long as she believes she can do it, she'll be fine. Just reassure her and she'll do great."

He nodded and I went outside with Applejack. "Need something magicked?" I asked.

"Can you take a look, make sure Apple Bloom ain't got nothing magical in her head? Somethin' tricked her and her friends into comin', and I'm pretty sure it ain't Luna. I don't want to see her and her friends rush off on some other damn fool dangerous thing again in the future."

"Of course, though Twilight would do a better job."

"The more what look, the safer," Applejack said. "And check the amulet, make sure it's safe."

The amulet turned out to augment an Earth Pony's fine manipulation abilities; this was likely why she'd so quickly gotten so proficient with her tail. There were no signs of continuing enchantment, but I had to agree with Applejack that someone had played them. Why and to what end?

Ditzy was talking urgently to Rarity as I studied the kids, who had basically overborne Big Mac and were busy trying to pretty him up. "I totally have nothing to wear for this," Ditzy said. "And neither does Dinky and I am supposed to work today and they gave it off but I don't know how long I have to stay there and.." She was growing ever more frantic and her eyes ever more googly as she panicked.

"I don't have time to do a proper job, darling, but of course I'll see what I can throw together before we have to catch the train," Rarity said. "Sweetie, are you packed?"

"Sort of."

"Sweetie, get packed. Children, are you all packed? Do you have your bags?"

A chorus of yeses broke out.

"Do you have your permission slip, Twist, Scootaloo?"

"I have mine!" Scootaloo said.

"I..um... oh no, I left it at home!" Twist said in a panic.

Rarity magicked some bits over to Scootaloo. "Scootaloo, run Twist home, then go by the grocery store and get six boxes of raisins."

Raisins?

They took off.

"Sweetie, get your bags packed. Apple Bloom, you can come assist me with... your tail," she said with a dramatic flourish. Rarity is a bit of a ham. "Dinky, Ditzy, come, you will need to be fitted. Marcus darling, come, I'll see what I can do for you too. Applejack, Big Mac, I hate to ask, but I could trouble you to clean up my kitchen? I can't leave it like this but I am going to be very busy."

"Glad to help, Rarity," Applejack said.

With Apple Bloom and I assisting, Rarity threw together an extra outfit for me, Ditzy, and Dinky. She was extremely not happy with any of them, though they looked fine to me. "I'm so sorry, you all deserve better, but I simply don't have time to give these the care they deserve."

I had a nice green suit to go with my hat, and Dinky and Ditzy each got a golden dress with green trim. Apple Bloom looked as proud of herself as if she'd done all the work on her own, her tail swishing everywhere.

We all assembled at the train station, dressed up and fancy looking. "Nice tux," I told Spike.

"Thank you," he said curtly.

I don't know what to do at all. I'd like to be on good terms with Spike, but he's really unhappy with me, unfortunately.

The Wonderbolts had already flown to Canterlot, but to my surprise, we were joined by Lyra and Bon-Bon. "Hello, everyone," Lyra said cheerfully. "Celestia's summoned us."

I blinked. That's unusual. "Maybe she wants you to join her orchestra."

"She already has a really good harpist," Lyra said. Then her eyes widened and she started to sweat.

"I already know about Octavia, dear," Bon-Bon said, though there was just a touch of... cracking the whip to it.

"Who?" Applejack asked curiously.

"She's the double-bass player for Celestia's orchestra," Twilight said. "She used to be Lyra's girlfriend, but something happened." She looked meaningfully at Lyra.

"Ha. Ahaha. HAHAHAHA," Lyra laughed nervously.

I felt a mix of sympathy and amusement that someone OTHER than me was freaking out.

"She wouldn't come to Boasttown?" I said adding the appropriate lyrical lilt to it. It's an allusion to one of Lyra's favorite songs. Which can be roughly summed up as 'Man: Woman I love, please come to where I am now living and chasing my dreams. Woman: Stop faffing about and come home to me'. The song ends unresolved whether he's coming home or not.

I had meant to tease, but Lyra looked like I'd punched her in the face, and now I felt guilty. Bon-Bon glared hate at me and I stumbled back a step. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that to come off mean."

"No, you're right," Lyra said, and sighed. "I didn't quite realize how serious she was, and then when I did finally get off my ass and got moving... it was messy. She had a steady stall, and I was ready to travel and..." She studied the platform. "It was kind of ugly. I hope she's not still mad at me."

"She was very, very cross," Twilight said. "You might want to avoid her."

"I have a clever plan," Pinkie said, and got out several things. Lyra now had a blue wig on, glasses, a fake nose, and a mustache attached to the nose. "She will NEVER recognize you like this."

...

"I will NOT let her do anything," Bon-Bon said firmly. "Pinkie, please take that ludicrous thing off Lyra."

Pinkie looked disappointed, and now Apple Bloom removed them from Lyra and handed them to Pinkie. "There you go," she said proudly.

Bon-Bon blinked. "Nicely done, Apple Bloom."

"So you're a musician?" Lyra asked me curiously.

"I'm an envoy of Celestia," I told her. "I do a little of everything. Magic, history, music, swordsmanship, and so on."

I prayed this wouldn't remind her of Erik.

"Humans do seem to dabble in everything," Lyra said. "Twilight and I knew a guy like that."

LET'S NOT DISCUSS HIM.

"Erik of Vestland?" Applejack asked curiously. "Some people we encountered at White Plume Mountain thought there were two of him there."

"Marjorie must have cloned him," Twilight said, frowning. "I expect the evil clone is the one who committed all those crimes he's been accused of."

Lyra and Bon-Bon looked at each other with the 'Twilight is rationalizing' look. Lyra, however, softened. "He seemed like a good guy to me. You had to kind of trick him into having fun sometimes, but that did make him a better match for you, Twilight, as you're the same way."

"You don't have to trick me into having fun!" Twilight said. "I can be LOTS of fun!"

"We just DRAG you into having lots of fun," Spike said, grinning.

I did NOT have to be dragged into having fun! I am all about FUN.

"He loved to sing and dance but he'd pretend he didn't," Lyra said. "So you had to trick him into it or make him think it was educational."

...

"That song WAS educational!" Twilight protested.

"But you're the same way," Lyra said, clearly back on steady ground.

The train now pulled into the station, and we all boarded, and got ready to go.

**************

I ended up designated Sweetie and Twist wrangler. Twist wasn't hard to keep under control; all you had to do was talk to her. But Sweetie wanted to wander all over the train car, and so did the rest of her friends. It didn't help that Sweetie kept trying to go show her new card trick to everyone on the train car; some were amused but others were annoyed and I got a lot of confused stares every time I had to herd her back. And Apple Bloom had to show off, and Scootaloo was grumping and Dinky kept trying to explain to every adult in sight about what they had to do to keep their timeline from being changed.

We were halfway to Canterlot and I was already worn out and had apologized to what felt like hundreds of ponies. Fortunately, I am smooth and gracious, so we didn't have a riot.

One gentleman, old with grey coat and grey mane, studied me after I got Sweetie out of his face. "Who are you?" he asked.

"Samus Marcus, envoy of Celestia. We're on our way to report on a diplomatic mission."

"With children?" he said curiously.

"Sweetie is Rarity's sister," I said.

"And you are?" he said curiously, after glancing at Rarity.

Didn't I already say my name? "Samus Marcus, envoy of Celestia," I said, hoping he wasn't asking something else I didn't get.

He gave me an odd look. "I am Silver Lining," he said. "I was just visiting my son and his children in Ponyville."

"Are you related to Silver Fountain, by any chance?" I asked, remembering where Apple Blossom had gone.

He brightened. "Why yes, I am. My sister runs a school for young fillies and colts in Manehattan. A finishing school." He studied the rampaging children. "These kids could use such an education."

My brain now clicked. He's the grandfather of one of the brats who gives Sweetie and her friends trouble. Stay calm, show no anger. "I'm surprised your granddaughter doesn't attend there."

"She should," he said, frowning. "But my son doesn't want her to leave home. It would do her good to see a proper city."

I carefully plied him for information about his family. I don't know when or where I'll need it, but information is power and leverage.

Eventually, though, I had to go chase down Sweetie again when she tried to wander into the next train car.

I'm sorry, everyone else on this train, we're doing our best.

***************

Canterlot was as beautiful as I remembered, though I did not remember it smelling so much like cinnamon. Cinnamon typically comes from the Divinarchy of Yav, southwest of Sind, which is west of Equestria. It's not super-expensive, but it isn't super-common either, due to the transport costs.

Ditzy cocked her head. "Someone must have dropped an air shipment. It's filtering down from above."

It seemed to be boosting sales of cinnamon rolls. I bought some for all the kids when they asked, though Ditzy more or less forced me to take compensation from her for the one I bought for Dinky. This kept the kids quiet as we herded them through the streets.

Score!

I also got some for myself and Rarity; nice, warm, tasty. They love their treats in Equestria.

We were most of the way to the castle, when Scootaloo said irritably to Apple Bloom, "Looks like you've got icing and sugar... on your tail."

"Oh man," Apple Bloom said in frustration. "I'm gonna have to go to the castle with ICING ON."

"On your tail," the other kids chorused, laughing.

"Pinkie to the rescue!" Pinkie said, then licked it all off Apple Bloom's tail until it shined.

...

Umm... problem... solved.

Applejack's eyes crossed. I don't blame you. "Pinkie, that's kind of tacky."

"Sweet and cinnamony!" Pinkie said.

I slid over to Rainbow Dash. "Hey, Dash," I whispered. "I think Scootaloo could do with some cheering up and you're the one to do it."

She looked at Scootaloo, then nodded. "I've got just the idea."

She came over to Scootaloo. "Want to ride ahead to the castle with me? I'm gonna go make sure Soarin' is doing okay."

"SURE!" Scootaloo said excitedly; she clambered onto Rainbow Dash's back and they raced off at high speed.

A little while later, we heard alarms going off at the castle.

...

"Hurry!" Twilight said and everyone took off at high speed.

More precisely, the adult ponies left the rest of us behind while the fillies and Ivan and I tried and failed to keep up to ponies running full tilt. Apple Bloom and Twist pulled ahead of myself, Dinky, and Sweetie. Then Ditzy came back, grabbed Dinky, and flew ahead.

Sweetie looked quite frustrated and now I lost Apple Bloom and Twist in the crowd. Well, crap.

"I'm sorry," Sweetie said to me.

"Sorry for what?" I said.

"That I can't run faster, so you have to stay back and watch over me," she said.

"We can't run faster either," Ivan confessed and now Sweetie looked a little happier.

I could fly but I'd best save it.

Everyone was panicking due to the alarms, and finally, I picked up Sweetie and tucked her into her own saddlebags, then slung those over my shoulder. She stuck her head out which looked pretty amusing.

"Aaah, help!" I heard Apple Bloom shout.

Oh bloody hell. I ran like a madman, pressing myself in time to see a blue maned, green coated earth pony stallion wearing a hat rather like a thimble with a rim, trying to drag Apple Bloom and Twist along; he wore a copper medallion shaped like a star with a school inscribed on it.

"Time for you two to go to school!" the stallion insisted. But he couldn't grip both their tails with his teeth and he kept trying to talk, which turned them loose.

I flashed my diplomatic papers at him. "Queen Celestia has invited them to see her," I told him. "The rest of the delegation ran ahead."

He studied us suspiciously "On a school day?"

School was out for the summer in Ponyville, I think. I guess in the city you don't need a summer break. "Yes, sir. School is out in Ponyville."

"I TOLD YOU," Apple Bloom shouted.

"Be respectful to the officer," I told her. She blinked at me, then grimaced.

"We're sorry, sir, the Queen needs to see us," Twist said respectfully. "Have some licorice." She tossed him a length and he took it and ate it.

I herded them along. "Be respectful to your elders," I told Apple Bloom. "If you mouth off, it puts their back up and they will resist what you want. But if you push their buttons, they'll be more inclined to be merciful."

Apple Bloom looked thoughtful, and Twist said, "I tried to be respectful, but he wouldn't listen."

"Well, not every tactic works every time." I sighed. "Anyway, don't run ahead. We'll catch up to the others soon."

The alarms stopped and I relaxed. Probably the party took down the threat. Which is good as children shouldn't be herded into danger. But I couldn't leave them behind, either.

We soon arrived at the gates, where my diplomatic credentials got some stares but let me in. The royal orchestra was in the courtyard performing, while Moondancer led a group of ponies in a dance. No one was singing but I recognized the tune. It was a song about a man who abandoned the woman who loved him and DIED HORRIBLY as a result.

Ahahah.

Everyone else was here; Dash and Scootaloo looked rather embarrassed. I don't know why, given they haven't... Dammit, Celestia.

I let Sweetie out of the bag now and gave it back to her. I've taught most of the ponies who were dancing. They're all from the bardic program, of course.

Please, no one, recognize me!

Lyra had a smile on her face, but I could see her tension. Bon-Bon was studying Octavia and looking cranky. I prayed there would be no big explosion.

And now Luna came out when they finished. "Welcome to Canterlot, Elements of Harmony, Cutie Mark Crusaders, and other friends. I am happy to see you all and I welcome you here. Celestia and I want you to dine with us tonight, and then attend the Moon Raising Ceremony. But Moondancer will show you to your quarters first. We will all meet in private after the ceremony." Her voice was musical and cheerful and soft.

I bowed to her, as did Ivan and everyone else.

"Marcus, if you would come with me, I would be grateful," Luna said.

Oh FUCK ME.

"I attend you eagerly, Princess Luna. I live to serve." I gave my voice its best courtly flair.

The fact that Applejack looked amused by this undercut me a bit, but I tried to ignore that and prayed this was not DEATH TIME.

**************

We passed various offices in which ponies were hard at work, until we came to a large one with an actual secretary in front; we went to the back and she told the secretary not to let anyone else in.

If this is where I die, at least I have a HAT on.

Her secretary poured us each a glass of a silvery liquid and laid out a small plate of donuts with white icing. Then she darted out to wait in her office in front.

Luna sat down behind her desk and I plopped down in a nice comfy chair, then suddenly wondered why she had a chair for guests when most of her guests couldn't sit in a human style chair.

She pushed a large piece of square glass on her desk to one side. It was odd, like she'd erected a window on a crystal stand in the middle of her desk.

"It's a pleasure to meet you," she said. "Celly speaks very well of you, and I see she's put her mark on you."

AHAHAHAH.

"What exactly does that mean?" I said. "I sort of... begged her for help against Marquetta, but I didn't know I had a mark until Keraptis told me."

"Is he still as crazy as ever?" she asked.

"Yes, definitely. Maybe more," I said.

"Celly has placed you under her protection," Luna said. "To certain kinds of beings, it is a beacon to back off. For most creatures, it won't matter, they can't notice. Given my suspicions about 'Marquetta', I expect she can tell."

"Is she a Draconic Immortal?" I asked.

"She is probably a mortal identity of the Moon Dragon," Luna said, eyes flashing. "We have had several past clashes with her." She ate a donut fiercely and sipped her drink.

I tried mine; it was definitely alcoholic with a bit of a minty tang to it. And very smooth. "What is this?" I asked.

"Liquid moonlight, fermented into wine," Luna said.

...

"She is not the person I most hate, but I certainly hate her," Luna said, acid in her voice.

I shrank back in my chair and she looked embarrassed, her voice reverting to its usual gentleness. "I am very sorry. I have a bit of a temper, though usually I can control it."

"It's okay," I lied, trying to soothe my nerves. "You told me in the letter about your wrath."

"Oh, Luna is very kind and gentle, so don't worry," Celestia said, startling me. She had somehow snuck in and now she draped herself over me from behind. Absolute terror time, my whole body shaking and feeling strange.

"Hello, Celly," Luna said warmly. "Would you like a drink?"

"I would love to have some," Celestia said and Luna poured her a glass. She sipped it. "I have missed seeing you, Marcus," she said. "You left so hastily last time."

FUCK ME.

SO MUCH.

"This was while you were gone, dear," she said to Luna. "Which is why you hadn't met him."

Luna nodded and sipped her drink. "There is many a pony who would kill to be where you are, Marcus. Know that you are greatly honored by such intimacy." She was grinning, clearly amused by my embarrassment. I doubt she could sense my full terror.

"I am greatly honored," I squeaked out.

I felt like I was about to shapeshift but my body didn't actually change. I could feel magic inside me, though. CELESTIA!

Luna studied my forehead. "I... Celly, there is something on his forehead." Her voice was gently chiding.

...

"It's an invisible unicorn horn, he being a unicorn human," Celestia said. "I hid it so no one would know he was one of my agents."

This is what I get for lying to children.

CELESTIA!!!

"So how long have you been in the business?" Luna asked. "Of adventuring. I had never heard of you before."

I was afraid to confess, but I want to know.

Trust is a leap in the dark.

Celestia is benevolent but her enemies tend to end up ground to dust. And she's very protective of Twilight.

Urrrrgh.

Rarity, I hope you don't have to make me a winding cloth.

Pretty as it would be, like you.

"I don't know," I confessed. "I think I've been reincarnating for some reason, over and over. Ivan thinks I may have been a candidate for the Polymath path." I took my sword and put it on the desk. "This is an artifact." I turned it to its original falchion form. "Marquetta had it and wants it back."

Celestia looked quite surprised, while Luna looked intrigued. Surely Celestia knew about this at least somewhat. In fact, Celestia seemed lost for words, which really surprised me.

"I think I was Dmitri Ilyanovich when I got the sword but when everything really blew up," I told her. "And I was probably Odo the Quick."

Celestia now recovered. "I will make discreet inquiries," she said.

"Also, did Asterius help you two to found Equestria?," I asked. "Ivan is a candidate under him. Or maybe someone is rooking him," I said, frowning. "He was given a rather difficult task."

"Quests for immortality are never easy," Luna said. "Or the world would be overrun with Immortals."

"And he has achieved it, by means acceptable to his patron," Celestia said. "For he watches over trade, among his duties."

"Is Asterius literally or symbolically your uncle?" I asked curiously.

"It is complicated," Luna said.

Celestia sipped her drink, then left it floating in the air. "He freed our ancestors during the fall of Blackmoor," she said. "And he guided us in our youth." She studied me now. "So you do not know why you keep being reborn?"

"I'm not even sure how many times," I told her. "It's all a blur with flashes of terror and screaming."

I would be screaming right now if I wasn't too frozen with fear they'll figure out... no, Celestia KNOWS but for some reason hasn't told Luna. But if I get her mad, she'll tell Luna and then I will DIE.

I am your bitch, Celestia. I get it now.

Luna looked very sad. "It is a terrible thing to be burdened with memories which only give you pain." She came over and nuzzled me gently. It was comforting despite my absolute terror.

"I'm not some kind of construct, right?" I said hesitantly.

They both studied me intently, making me VERY nervous.

"Let's go to my lab," Luna said.

"I must attend to work," Celestia said. "Luna will take good care of you."

Ahahah.

*************

Luna, Twilight, and Moondancer loomed over me as I was strapped to a table with all sorts of machines, wands, crystal balls, flasks, piping, clockworks, and other things all around me, flashing lights and making words and grinding on ever forever and ever. Spike lurked nearby, assisting them.

"Ectoplasmic phase inducer," Luna said and Twilight passed her a crystal rod, which she waved over me as I sweated and tried not to panic.

"Don't worry, only one in ten mutate into a hideous beast and have to be killed," Luna said to me.

...

Twilight stared, mouth open wide. Spike looked hopeful.

"Princess, you shouldn't tease him when he's always so scared," Moondancer said, a little chidingly.

"I'm sorry, Marcus, I was only teasing," Luna said. "It was very foalish of me." She and Moondancer both laughed softly at the pun while Twilight tried to calm her breathing.

"Rarity would be very unhappy if you turned Marcus into a rampaging monster," Twilight finally managed to say.

"Don't worry," Luna said. "Hmm, yes, you've definitely been reincarnated a lot."

I laughed nervously. "How?"

"Your sword has been tampered with by an immortal other than it’s creator," she said. "Some sort of..." She frowned. "I'm not sure who did this or why, but if you live long enough between deaths, it will reincarnate you."

"Live long enough between deaths?"

"It takes time for it to regenerate its power. Several months. You've died recently, so you'd best avoid dying."

...

"Wait... I did?" I said in surprise.

"Yes," Luna said. She blinked. "You didn't notice?"

When the hell did I die?

"Do you have a day?" I asked weakly.

"I don't have a precise day," she said.

Going to have to talk to Ivan.

"I will be careful," I said, while Moondancer looked intrigued and I looked worried.

"Don't worry, we won't let you die again," Twilight said.

"Celestia and I will make inquiries. Something strange is going on," Luna said. "You should go rest before dinner. Moondancer, show him to where he is staying. Twilight, I have business to take care of, but I am looking forward to seeing you at dinner." She smiled shyly.

Twilight said, "I am very honored you let me assist you." She pony-bowed. "Moondancer, it's good to see you again."

"You've changed," Moondancer said flatly and Twilight cringed a little. "For the better." She smiled now.

"Thank you, Moondancer," Twilight said to her. "I had a lot to learn about Friendship." She turned to Luna. "Do you think Fluttershy could charge up his sword?" Twilight asked thoughtfully.

"An interesting idea. I will think on that," Luna said. "Marcus, it is nice to meet you. Don't worry, you are safe here."

Until Celestia tells you everything and I die.

We all bowed and headed out. "Where am I staying?" I asked.

"With Rarity and Sweetie, I think," Moondancer said as she walked along. "You are a nervous stallion," she said to me.

"Well, you can see why," I said.

She paused and looked sad. "Yes, I can."

"Don't worry, we won't let you die more," Twilight said to me.

I'm as worried about you all dying as me dying myself.

Stupid bonding instincts.

We heard odd noises and squealing as we reached Rarity's room. "My goodness," I said.

"Sounds like she's having a tumble in the hay with someone," Moondancer said, looking surprised.

Surely not.

Twilight's eyes got wide and she opened the door. "Rarity, what are you..."

The kids were rampaging and jumping on the bed and the chair and climbing on the furniture and Rarity and Ditzy were desperately trying to get them in check.

Moondancer said, "Oh."

Twilight looked relieved and so was I. The last thing in this universe I want is to walk in on pony-pony love-love, not that Rarity is the type to just randomly sleep with the help. "Children, stop rampaging!"

"I'm flying like Mom!" Dinky shouted as she bounced.

"Unicorns don't fly!" Ditzy said, trying to grab her and failing; Apple Bloom now landed on her, knocking her down on the bed. "Where did you come from?"

I put a little magic in my voice. "STOP!" I shouted. Teacher instincts now rose up inside me.

They all froze, and now Scootaloo landed, rolled over and trailed her legs in the air like a fainting goat.

"Students, fall in line," I said sternly.

They all lined up on the edge of the bed.

"In order, by name."

They shuffled quickly. Twilight, Rarity, and Moondancer stared at me.

"Scootaloo, why did you encourage everyone to jump on the bed?" I said.

She tried to feign death again.

"Scootaloo, that may get you out of chores by panicking your parents, but it won't work on me. Why?"

"I was bored," she mumbled. "And I want to fly like Rainbow Dash but my stupid body won't let me." She looked very frustrated.

"I hear you're very good on your scooter," I told her.

"I'm AWESOME," she said.

"You should show me later," I told her. "I've never ridden on a scooter before."

"You'll get a GREAT show," she said confidently.

"I'm sure I will," I said. "But right now, you all need to rest before dinner so you don't embarrass your family and friends by falling over and landing your face in your food, like I did one time in Alphatia."

I told them the whole embarrassing story; it was a victory party thrown by someone who hired us to recover some bits of undead he needed for a magic item. I was so drained of energy I fell asleep in the middle and ended up with fish stew on my face.

They were all laughing by the end of it. Rarity had straightened out and made the bed while I kept the kids busy; Ditzy was listening to the story, Twilight whispering to Rarity and Moondancer had bid us farewell and taken off. And Spike, he was listening and laughing too.

"Okay, kids, it's naptime," I said. "Before dinner."

"I'm too old for a nap! I can pick things up with my tail!" Apple Bloom said.

Don't make me use a sleep spell on you, kids. "I'm going to nap too," I told them. "Even big people need a nap sometimes."

Pretty soon, I had them all lying down on the bed with myself in the middle. "Wake us up in time to freshen up for dinner," I told Rarity.

She nodded and soon blessed sleep engulfed us all.

***************

Dinner was excellent; Canterlot entertains a lot of ambassadors and merchants from human countries, so it's a great place to get human styles of food; the food today was based on the Principality of Blackhill's food. In Blackhill, they like food which has a strong smell. So all the various human guests had mutton, anchovies, carrots, and peppers, in a garlic-blue cheese sauce on rice. The ponies had the same dish without the mutton and anchovies.

The smell could knock you out but it was very tasty. The Belcadizian guests looked a little wobbly, but the Aalbaneese quite enjoyed it. I saw Dona Carlotta but made myself not stare. That chapter of my life is over.

Sweetie kept her table manners up, with only a few reminders from Rarity and myself. Pinkie, on the other hand, was busy sucking down food like it might escape and Apple Bloom and Scootaloo were both in that category. Despite Rarity giving them the gaze of disapproval. I kept my mouth shut; they weren't under my care. Twist had good manners and Dinky was strongly supervised by her mother.

The kids and some of the adults at our table (we sat with both Princesses and Moondancer) got a lot of stares from other ponies present; the Glantrian ponies all had very formal manners.

"So you didn't send us a dream?" Sweetie Belle said to Princess Luna, confused.

"No, after the ceremony, I'm going to talk to all of you about that," Princess Luna said. "Someone tricked you."

"But they needed us to save them," Apple Bloom said, confused.

"We have to figure it out," Princess Luna said kindly. "You were very brave, but you should have told your parents."

"We thought you told us not to," Scootaloo said, frowning.

I hope they can figure this out; kids shouldn't be used as pawns.

"You should only do what *I* tell you to do in dreams," Pinkie said cheerfully.

Ahahaha.

"I should show you my magic trick," Sweetie Belle suddenly said.

"Finish your dinner," Rarity said.

"You can show her later when you meet with her in private," I told Sweetie.

"It's AMAZING," Twist said, clearly impressed by it.

Princess Celestia looked at me with an odd smile. I felt my forehead tingle. Invisible horn indeed. "Have you ever had any children, Marcus?" she asked, then took a sip of her tea.

Her phoenix now flew down and landed on her head, then looked over at me suspiciously. Given I wasn't wearing my hat (not socially acceptable at dinner, sadly), I don't know why.

The kids stared, wide-eyed, at the phoenix. "So pretty," Sweetie said softly.

Twilight, on the other hand, laughed nervously for some reason.

Fluttershy nervously waved at the phoenix which now flew over to perch on her head. She smiled more brightly now, clearly happy with her new hat.

Now that's cheating.

"I have not had any children, but I have been a child," I said. Then I felt ignorant for having said that.

"Well, everyone starts as a child," Twist said hesitantly.

"I am not a child," Apple Bloom insisted.

"You seem good with children, though, like a father or a teacher would be," Celestia said.

DAMMIT CELESTIA!!!!

I hid my terror and the urge to RUN RUN RUN. "Children are much easier to deal with than salamanders," I said.

"That's what I thought," Fluttershy said ruefully.

...

"I'd like to hope I'd be a good father," I told her. "But you can only find out by doing it. You've had children, right?"

"Many children," Celestia said. "Is that a proposition?"

...............................

Rarity stared, mouth wide, and Twilight... tiny tendrils of steam came out of her ears. She tried to speak but only incoherent noises happened. Fluttershy blinked, Applejack began laughing, Ivan laughed and laughed and laughed, and Pinkie giggled.

The kids all stared at me and Sweetie Belle looked oddly nervous.

Celestia began laughing and Luna said, "Don't tease people like that, Celly," though she was laughing herself.

"You'd make a fine stallion, I'm sure," Celestia said, smiling that tiny 'gotcha' smile.

"Ivan certainly did," Applejack said.

Everyone looked at her and now she looked a little flustered. Ivan quickly stuffed his face and I grinned a little.

"Why don't you tell us about it?" Celestia said, then ate some of her dinner.

"Sister, you can't just tease everyone," Luna said.

"I'll tell you about how *I* turned into a human and got to touch EVERYTHING." Pinkie said, then began a long rambling discourse on her brief sojourn on our side of the fence. Lyra, I noticed, listened with great interest.

I hoped other ponies could not hear the conversation at this table. Or anyone else. Or...

Scootaloo looked at me. "Are there humans who fly?"

"Yes," I told her. "In Alphatia." I gave her a little discourse on Floating Ar while Pinkie rambled on and everyone ate. "And my friend Helga can fly now." She's a better wizard than me, I must admit to my embarrassment. "She's married to another flying wizard in Glantri. They have a daughter, but I don't think she can fly yet. She has a unicorn pony best friend named Sugar Sparkle."

"Does she have a cutie mark?" Scootaloo asked, looking oddly thoughtful.

"None of the three of us have one," I said. "I'm pretty sure only ponies get cutie marks."

Scootaloo now looked very thoughtful which really was the scariest thing I'd seen all day and I'd been tied to a table with people joking about me mutating into a hideous monster.

People who will kill me if they find out who I actually am.

That being said, I was feeling... mellow by the Marcus scale, which would probably be a fair amount of fear by the measure of people with less panic-inducing lives.

Dinner was winding down; dessert was cinnamon rolls and a kind of fruit-jam pastry apparently popular in Aalban. I rather liked it. Dinky tried to eat one of each at once and had to be saved from choking; it didn't help that her mother had done the same thing and they were flailing in unison.

...

"Not as good as a muffin but pretty good," Ditzy said afterwards.

I heard Rarity whispering something about examples to Ditzy, who looked embarrassed.

"Is there anything a pony can do to get a cutie mark around here?" Apple Bloom asked Celestia.

"Well, I would like each of you to help with the Moon Raising Ceremony," Luna said kindly to them. "Dinky, I will need you to make sure the sky is clear. Scootaloo, you will do the ceremonial dance with Moondancer. She will show you what to do. Sweetie Belle, I will want you to sing with me." Sweetie gasped at that. "Twist, you will recite the sacred verses. And Apple Bloom, I will need you to pass me the sacred mirror at the right time."

"Of course!" Apple Bloom said proudly. "I can pick things up better now!" she said excitedly. "I bet I could juggle now!"

Okay, Luna, I salute you. You'll have them eating out of your... if you had hands, they would eat out of your hands after this.

"Do you need us to do anything?" Twilight asked hopefully.

"You are our honored guests. You need merely watch. It wouldn't hurt to keep an eye out for portents, though," Luna said smoothly.

If I am going to be Celestia and Luna's little bitch, at least I will get to study with two masters of maneuvering people around the board of life.

*****************

We got to be in a viewing stand; it was a bit tricky for Ivan and I because it was basically designed for ponies to sit sphinx-style. I scrunched up between Rarity and Twilight, with Ivan between Dash and Applejack. Then I realized I could sit cross-legged, with a hand on Rarity's back for balance. She looked like she was contemplating something, then decided not to, whatever it was, and just adjusted her hat, which was currently feigning being a tiara; she was in her fancy red dress and I wore my red suit. Different shades, though.

Lyra had been drafted up to play with the orchestra; she and Octavia were carefully NOT looking at each other, but you could feel the tension. Bon-Bon was watching them intently.

Applejack looked a little nervous, probably because Apple Bloom was waving the sacred mirror (platinum with a silver frame that resembled lunar surface) around like it was a toy. Twist looked very serious at the podium and Dinky was running around behind everything set up for the show, busy making her horn glow. Wisps of cloud were vanishing as she worked, clearing the sky.

I assume normally weather ponies would have cleared it by now, but Luna had them relent so as to give Dinky a job. She was good at it, though, and her mother looked VERY proud.

Dash was sitting by Soarin' (as well as Ivan), and they now intertwined two of their forelegs, which I assume is the pony equivalent of holding hands. I smiled and pointed it out to Rarity, who smiled at them as well.

Scootaloo now came out with her cape on; they all had their capes on, in fact, though the hoods were down. They WANTED to be seen. Moondancer had put on a cape herself, with the night sky and the moon and stars on it.

Twilight grumbled about stars and Spike laughed at her softly, making her embarrassed.

"Have you ever seen this?" I asked Rarity.

I've seen it, but not with Luna.

"I have not seen it with Luna," Twilight said. "I have seen it with Celestia."

"Never, darling," Rarity said. "Have you?"

"I've never seen it," I lied. Dammit, I hate having to lie to her. And Twilight. And everyone.

"Since time immemorial," Twist said solemnly, "Ponies have dwelt here atop, on the sides of, and below the great plateau we call home. But when first we came here, we were slaves to the Orcs."

And now the song began, a song of mourning for the time of the suffering of ponies at the hands of the Orcs. Sweetie Belle looked to be on the verge of crying as she sang and her voice had a power I did not expect. Soon, everyone was crying or at least sorrowful. I could see Dash struggling not to cry; Soarin' was the same way and I could feel Rarity vibrate and tears ran down her face.

There was a very faint cloppety-clop of hooves and a pony sat down at the far end of the viewing stand, getting in among the foreign guests. But I had seen him. Black coat and a silver mane with the full moon on his flank. Full Moon. What was HE doing here?

Ivan didn't notice, too busy trying to avoid crying. He looked kind of silly, really but I was too busy crying to care.

"And then they came from the north, as had we, our liberators, Celestia and Luna, who led us to freedom, aided by the Elements of Harmony," Twist said.

Lights shone around Luna and Celestia and Moondancer and Scootaloo, who now somehow was black and blue in color, danced together, and I realized they were representing Celestia and Luna. Scootaloo looked utterly ecstatic as she danced and Moondancer smiled brightly.

I glanced at Full Moon, who apparently didn't care about not being mentioned. Was it really him or just a coincidence?

Sweetie sang a rousing marching tune now, one suitable for leading ponies to war, and the dance matched them and I could see the ponies rouse from sorrow to strength around me.

"They had many adventures," Twist said, "But when all was done, they had grown into their power and it was time for ponies to rise up. And the signal was prepared. The Orcs lived in the dark, thrived in it. So they would change that. They would bring LIGHT."

And now Apple Bloom held up the sacred mirror and it began to shine. Luna mounted the platform in the middle of this, as Scootaloo and Moondancer continued to dance; lights now twined around the two of them and Sweetie continued to sing powerfully. She sang of the night, the moon and the stars, its comforting embrace and its joys. Sweetie was glowing as well and lights danced around Apple Bloom and the mirror, the stars forming and converging on the three youngsters.

I could see Dona Carlotta and her boyfriend holding hands. I told myself not to look; they both looked so happy, though, and her father was right by them, watching with rapt attention. Silver Fork sat by them as well, looking fascinated, and I suddenly wondered if he was related to the Silver I met or the Ponyville Silvers.

"The day came and the signal was the rising of the twin lights," Twist said excitedly. Dinky stood with her now, reading with her, their voices blending together. "The sun and the MOON."

And now Apple Bloom stepped onto the platform and threw the mirror into the air and it began to shine brighter and brighter and Luna rose into the air with it, and the horizon glowed and then the moon rose as the dancers danced and Sweetie sang and the orchestra played and now everyone broke into song, singing up the moon together as Luna rose and the mirror overlapped the moon and shone brightly, then vanished.

Even the guests were singing now; you could hardly not sing, and I heard Full Moon's baritone most powerfully of all.

Moondancer leaped skyward, holding Scootaloo, spinning together, leaving a trail of sparkling dust and they 'flew' over Luna as she descended. Luna blew and the dust flew onto everyone, settling on us and sparkling; you could feel the power coming from the moon, almost see its light shining across Equestria, bringing Luna's blessing. I stared; I'd never seen this before after an Equestrian moonrise. It was different. I could feel something. Something good.

No one else seemed to be having any kind of reaction to this except Ivan, who was staring wide-eyed at the moon. It wasn't a human thing; the other humans here were oblivious. Had Full Moon / Asterius done something?

But the fillies, they were staring at the moon too. They felt it. And Luna and Celestia were smiling at each other and the moon.

And Full Moon, he knew. And... Twilight. She could tell something, though it pleased her.

The other Elements, though, seemed oblivious. If cheerful.

Scootaloo, Twist, Apple Bloom, Sweetie, and Dinky glowed softly with moonlight, as did Moondancer and Luna, as the ceremony finished and everyone scattered. Sweetie ran over to us. "Look!" she said, twirling around.

"You were magnificent," Rarity said, rising and nuzzling her. "I am VERY proud of you."

I gave her a hug when they finished. "I won't be surprised if you get a cutie mark for singing."

She checked, but no, not yet, though if she's that good without a cutie mark... "You should consider bardic training," I said. "Lyra can tell you about it. Scootaloo too."

Scootaloo... I didn't think that even a pony could be that happy. She was bouncing up and down in front of Rainbow Dash, who was smiling at her brightly.

That's when I saw a pony I recognized from descriptions. Duke Blueblood. I felt the immediate urge to wipe the smirk off his stupid looking face. He was talking cheerfully with some Aalbanese fellow; they were enjoying their conversation but I wanted to make him cry for what he did to Rarity.

Bastard.

I am not the violent type, though, and pony society doesn't favor violence. But if I can get in a cheap shot or ten on him, I will.

He must have felt my hate-gaze, as he turned and looked at me and his eyes widened and then he grimaced and turned back.

Fuck you too, Blueblood.

I heard Rarity make a noise.

"That's him, right?" I said softly.

She sighed. "Yes, it's him. Just ignore him, Marcus darling. He's not worth our time."

Amen to that.

I pointed out Full Moon to Rarity; her eyes widened. "What is he doing here?"

"Hopefully just here to see Ivan," I told her.

When he went over to Ivan and Ivan went off with him, that was confirmed.

The two of them slipped out, followed by Luna; Celestia rounded up the rest of us and took us to a large hall which had been turned into a party zone. A private party, just our mob and Celestia, though I expected Luna, Full Moon, and Ivan would join us soon.

Celestia came around and congratulated everyone and we all wandered around, talking, eating, and relaxing. And trying to run herd on the CMC. Who were hyper as all get out and Luna, who was supposed to talk to them, was absent.

I ended up organizing a card game with Applejack, Apple Bloom, Twist, Sweetie, and Pinkie. (Dinky wanted to play but her mother said no.) I studied my hand. Five of Flames, Six of Flames, Eight of Flames, Eight of Stones, Ten of Winds. I felt ambitious, so after the first round of bidding, I threw in the Eight of Stones and the Ten of Winds. Applejack threw in two cards, Apple Bloom four, Twist three, Sweetie four, and Pinkie...

Pinkie turned her cards upside down, then sideways, then lectured them sternly and threw all but one in.

Then she dealt out new cards to everyone. I now had the Five of Flames, the Six of Flames, the Eight of Flames, the Two of Flames, and the Jack of Flames. Not bad, but not awesome either.

Applejack studied her cards, then bid three silver bits. We were playing with silver and copper because, well, half the players were kids. I suspect she underbid to be careful. Probably has three of a kind again.

Apple Bloom studied her cards, manipulating them with her tail as her sister did. "Hmmm. I bid four bits."

"Raise four or you bid one over your sister?" I asked.

"Oh, umm... Actually, I raise by six... four. Four silver bits," Apple Bloom said, pushing her money out with a hoof.

"I...," Twist hesitated. She looked at Apple Bloom. "Fold."

Sweetie looked at me, her cards, Apple Bloom, Pinkie, her cards, me, her cards, Applejack, Rarity, Celestia, her cards, her hooves, her stack of coins, and then her cards. She took a drink of apple juice, then said, "I... I raise by three." She pushed her coins out.

Should have folded, I thought. I suspect she has garbage.

"I raise twenty," Pinkie said confidently.

The problem with playing poker with Pinkie is that she may, in fact, have anything whatsoever. I do not at all understand how she thinks.

IF she thinks.

I studied my cards. Who the hell knows what Pinkie has? But I feel confident. "I see Pinkie."

Applejack grimaced. "Fold."

She'll regret that.

"I see but don't raise," Apple Bloom said.

"FOLD," Twist said urgently.

Sweetie studied everything on earth, including her cards eight times. She looked at Pinkie. Finally, she flipped a coin. Celestia side up. "I see the bet," she said.

"Okay, betting's over, then," Pinkie said. "Show your STUFF."

I laid down my Jack high Flush.

Applejack cursed, though having folded, she didn't have to show her cards. Then she put a hoof to her mouth. "Sorry, kids."

"Damn! Shit!" Apple Bloom said, giggling. "I'm a big GLOWING pony now!"

"Don't go cursing 'cause I slipped up," Applejack said, embarrassed.

Apple Bloom sighed, laying down her cards. Three of Flames, Three of Winds, Three of Stones, Jack of Shadows, Ace of Shadows. "I had a three of a kind, but you beat me, Marcus. Dammit!"

"Stop cursing," Applejack said urgently.

"Since big ponies swear," Apple Bloom began.

"We shouldn't swear either, right, Marcus?"

"I keep my language as clean as the fallen snow, as perfect as Celestia's shining coat," I said.

As Sweetie laid down her full house, I stared, wondering why exactly she'd been so worried. "I lose, right?"

"You beat both of us," I said, and then Celestia settled down over me, catching me by surprise.

"Oh wait, this isn't a flush!" Pinkie said, then threw her cards down. Four Shadows... and one Stone. "Here you go, Sweetie."

"I WON!" Sweetie said excitedly.

Having won the three previous hands, I shouldn't mope.

Also, Celestia.

"You are such a flirt, Marcus," she said cheerfully to me. "Of course, *I* know you say that to all the girls."

DAMMIT CELESTIA.

"I was just being metaphorical, not flirting," I said quickly to Celestia. The last thing I need is everyone thinking Celestia and I are having an affair or something.

"So my theoretical, allegorical coat is pure, but not the real thing?" she said sadly.

"Don't make the Princess sad," Apple Bloom said sternly to me.

Sweetie was panicking for some reason, as if her oxygen had been cut off. Pinkie began shaking her. "Breathe! Breathe! Push! Push!"

Push?

"You have a beautiful, pure white shining coat, but I am not saying that in some sort of effort of seduction!" I said to her frantically.

"Well, how am I supposed to tell?" she said to me cheerfully but pointedly.

I don't get it. It's not like I've been going around seducing pony women. Or men. Or whatever.

"I'm a human," I mumbled.

"Which doesn't matter to me any more than it did to Father and Mother," she said cheerfully.

I was about to ask something, then realized fillies present. In Elvish, I said to her, "Fillies are present and probably should not be encouraged to get ideas in their head which would lead to trouble. Or their parents wanting to kill us." I hope I got it right, I haven't spoken Elvish seriously since I fled Belcadiz.

" 'Us'," she said cheerfully in Elvish. "It has such a lovely ring to it."

DAMMIT CELESTIA.

"Sweetie, are you okay?" I said to Sweetie.

"Princess, people might get the wrong idea!" Sweetie said frantically.

"We're just friends," Celestia said. "This is perfectly normal between friends, right?" She looked at me with one eye.

CELESTIA, DAMMIT!

What is she getting at? I haven't been... Okay, Rarity and I do play the game of ladies and gentlemen, but I don't think she's serious about it. She's a pony, I'm a human and we're just good friends. Now if she was human...

Though with shapeshifting magic...

Even with that, I certainly can't date someone when I'm hiding things from them. Which I wish I didn't have to but once it comes out, I die.

Dammit.

It would help if Applejack looked less amused.

And if I wasn't worrying about Ivan.

I am being drawn into a trap and I don't even know HOW. Or what it is.

My body solved this with its usual solution: abject panic. However, with Celestia on me, I could not actually run, I just made incoherent noises as my brain spun in place.

I tried to think coherently but the feeling TRAP TRAP TRAP TRAP TRAP TRAP was inescapable. TRAP TRAP TRAP TRAP TRAP.

Want to run so much.

Can't run.

Can't BREATHE.

"Princess, you're embarrassin' him," Applejack said hesitantly. "Marcus, Princess Celestia is just very affectionate. She don't mean nothin' by it and she won't banish you to the moon or nothin' if you say no."

BREATHE.

Apple Bloom for some reason, decided the solution was to tickle my nose with her tail. This caused me to sneeze, which oddly restored breathing.

I mumbled something incoherent about something. Who knows, my brain was trying to right itself.

"I'm fine," I said in a way clearly not fine. "I expect many in your court would get the wrong idea, though," I said. "Or others."

Applejack's eyes flared slightly. "Well, that's true."

Sweetie made incoherent panicked noises, while Apple Bloom said, "What's got you all shook up, Sweetie?"

No one else seemed to be paying us any attention. "Do you know when Ivan is going to be back?"

"Soon," Celestia said. "I should probably be with them, but I couldn't leave you all on your own. And we need to discuss serious business, anyway."

Sweetie ran and stuck her head in the punch bowl for some reason.

...

"Sweetie!" I said, rising and running over. "Use a glass. Everyone has to share that."

"I'm sorry," she said in a panic.

I began wiping her head. "Also, if you do, don't stick your head in completely."

"Okay," she mumbled.

"Sweetie, what's wrong?" Twist said, clearly worried.

"I'm okay," Sweetie said weakly. "I just got thirsty."

Okay, I am just a teacher, not a parent, but even I know something's going on.

Rarity now came over. "Sweetie," she said, sounding frustrated. "Don't do that."

"I won't do it again," Sweetie said. "I wasn't thinking." She sounded a little evasive. "I'm sorry."

Was she trying to get me out of something that embarrassed me? I think so. You are very kind, Sweetie. I'll get you something nice later in thanks. "It's okay," I told her. "It's late and you should probably be in bed."

"I have to talk to Luna!" she said urgently.

I am starting to worry about that.

"Why don't you sit with me and we'll play some hands together?" I told her. "And you should apologize to Rarity too."

"No pooling your winnings!" Apple Bloom protested.

"I'm sorry, big sister," Sweetie said to Rarity, who nuzzled her.

"It's okay, you're tired," Rarity said, then poured her a glass of the punch. "Celestia, if Luna doesn't return soon, we're going to need to put the fillies to bed."

"I'm fine!" Dinky said, then yawned.

"I can put them to bed," Ditzy said.

"We'll help unless you need us, Celestia," Lyra said.

"You should stay," Celestia said, which made them both nervous. "Luna can talk to them in the morning. Ditzy Doo, if you would put them all to bed, I would be grateful." She whistled up two servants to assist and the three of them now tried to hustle the children.

Good luck there.

Hustling children is hard to do.

**************

Once they were gone, we went over everything that happened on the trip with Celestia. I continued to fret.

"She will likely strike at us," Twilight concluded. "Trying to get revenge and to get Marcus' sword. She can't find it, however, unless it's in falchion form, we think."

"Which means probably the best way to draw her out is for me to carry it around in falchion form," I said, wincing at the thought of painting 'EAT ME' on myself.

"We can't ask you to be bait," Twilight said, frowning.

"Unless we can find her lair and take this to her, finding a place we can turn into our own trap and luring her and the Elements of Power into it is probably the best plan," I said. "Much as I would rather not be bait. But she wants me and my sword." I remembered her words and I shivered. 'Fine, but this is not the end. Tell Celestia, she will regret this. And you, 'Samus Marcus', you will die your final death soon and I will have my sword BACK. There is no one who can protect you from me, Marcus. Your luck cannot protect you forever. I know you now and I will find you. Enjoy your final days, for soon, they will END!'

She's probably an immortal and she wants me dead and I want to just scream and run until I fall off the plateau. Even knowing I won't come back this time.

I have a patron, but she enjoys fucking with my mind and she knows everything and is probably going to keep pushing until I go stark raving mad and DIE. And I have to put myself in danger, anyway.

DAMMIT. I had mostly managed to shove aside what she said, but now... I wanted to scream.

"Marcus, you don't have to do this," Twilight said urgently.

"She told me she is going to see me dead," I told Twilight. "I could..." I shivered. "She will come for me anyway, so better I be bait with a chance to stop her than be bait anyway."

"I won't let her have you," Dash said hotly. That's how she is. She'd follow a friend into the five hells of the five fiends.

"Thanks, Dash," I said.

"You will not stand alone," Rarity said firmly. She sat by me, sphinx-style, but she now patted my leg. "We will protect you."

"Thank you," I told her.

"You can do it," Applejack said firmly to me.

Do what?

Not die horribly, I hope.

"I have an idea," Celestia said. "It is, however, dependent on us finding where she is lairing."

"Those lockpicks Ivan just got would be a huge benefit to a break-in," I said.

"I am thinking we could exploit your resemblance to her servants by dressing some of you up as your evil twins to infiltrate her base," Celestia said.

...

"Ooooh, sounds fun," Pinkie said. "I like costumes."

"It would, of course, require Marcus and Twilight to pretend to be in love and Rarity and Spike to do the same," Celestia said. "Which might be too much to ask."

DAMN YOU CELESTIA!!!!!!

"I'll do it! I can fake being Rarity's boyfriend totally," Spike said excitedly.

Spitfire looked at me and I contemplated self-immolation.

"I...ummm..." Twilight laughed nervously. "I'm not a very good actor... and I wouldn't want to... umm... ahahaha." She was completely ungluing.

Rarity said, "An interesting idea, but I don't know if we could pass muster with someone who knew them well." Her voice was smooth and calm, while my insides churned like the raging sea.

I envied her that.

"Well, we can think about it. We'd have to find their base, anyway," Pinkie said. "Is she really a dragon or an alicorn or what?"

"We have to figure that out," Celestia said. "I expect there is more to her anger with me than just all of you, though she may be that petty." She looked thoughtful. "If she is the Moon Dragon, we have had some past problems with her, though I think the office has actually changed holders since then."

"Office?" Applejack asked.

"Draconic ascension to Immortality is different from that of the other sentient races; there are certain 'offices' which convey Immortal status on the holder. The Moon Dragon watches over the Colored Dragons, who tend to be chaotic in nature. Luna and I had trouble with the previous holder of the office many, many years ago," Celestia said, frowning. "But several hundred years ago, it changed hands. I had understood that the new one was still getting used to her power and spent much of her time out in the planes. But if she is Marquetta, then she must have turned her attention finally to the Prime," Celestia said, frowning. The Prime is the plane of existence which is for mortals only; Immortals are forbidden to enter except in mortal form or when allowed by the Council of Intrusion. It is the plane we dwell on.

This doesn't stop them meddling, mind you.

"She has," Full Moon said. "I don't know exactly when, but she is still young and naive, powerful enough to take her office but not yet wise enough to know either how to serve it responsibly or to abuse it sensibly." He shook his head, then came over to Celestia and they nuzzled each other gently. "It is very good to see you, niece."

Lyra and Bon-Bon made noises; I'd forgotten they were here and I still don't know why Celestia summoned them.

"It is wonderful to see you, Uncle. Your follower was a great help to my dear friends, the Elements of Harmony and their friends," Celestia said warmly. There was an oddly shy look to her which I was stunned to see. "You saw the moon raising, right?"

"Yes," he said. "It was beautiful and working well now, I see. Good luck on that."

"Without my sister, I was much less than I could be," Celestia said simply. "And I owe it all to my dear friends and my dear student, Twilight."

The Elements all turned a little red and Twilight made a happy noise like a filly.

Wait, where's Ivan and Luna?

Luna answered this by surprise-nuzzling me. I was caught off-guard, but then relaxed; she was very gentle and I could tell... had she been crying? And I still didn't see Ivan, which worried me. "We must talk," she said softly.

"Where is Ivan?"

"In a practice room," she said. "He'll be back soon."

In a practice room?

"Luna, come over," Celestia said and she did and the three of them cuddled for a short time.

"I must go again," Full Moon said. "I will send you whatever I may find out."

"Thank you, uncle," Celestia said warmly. She glanced around. "Where is Ivan?"

"He went to a practice room to get a little exercise," Full Moon said.

At this hour?

I could tell the ponies knew something odd was up, but what?

"I could use some exercise," Dash said, rising and running off.

I should go check on him but I can't just run out of this meeting. Dammit.

Lyra finally said, "Your highness, umm... Why are we here? Bon-Bon and I?"

Celestia sighed. "Certain agents of Minrothad have been looking into you two. I do not know why but I prefer you to be here, and safe under my protection, then where you might fall into danger unexpected."

Lyra stared, eyes wide. "What?"

She looked at all of us. "I know agents of Minrothad showed up looking for Erik of Vestland at White Plume Mountain. This was not that group, I think, but do any of you know of any reason why Minrothad might have taken an interest in Lyra and Bon-Bon?"

Not because of me, I hope. I had a ton of students at Celestia's school. "Is it just them?" I asked.

"Apparently," Celestia said.

Bon-Bon certainly has no connection to me.

"But I'm just a candymaker," Bon-Bon said weakly.

"I want it to appear you just tagged along for fun," Celestia said. "I'm sure they won't try anything in the palace, but I do not wish them to know I know."

"I honestly can't imagine why they would care about me," Lyra said, baffled.

"Your harp isn't made in Minrothad, right?" I asked.

"It's fine Heldaan craftsmanship," she said. The Heldaan Freeholds are WAY in the back of beyond, north of the Northern Reaches, but south of Norwold. A crazy order of cleric-knights who serve Vanya (Immortal of War) rule it.

"While you are here, I'd be glad if you could play with our royal orchestra," Celestia continued.

Lyra twitched. "But... you already have a harpist."

"He is eager to work with you," Celestia said, smiling.

You poor bastard.

"Bon-Bon, you can stick with Twist and I and we'll make BEAUTIFUL candy together," Pinkie said to Bon-Bon.

"Thank you," Bon-Bon said. "Twist has been studying with me." She sounded proud. "She will be a great candy-maker one day."

"Oooh, this is a chance for one of my best candy ideas ever. We'll need Rainbow Dash to help, though," Pinkie said.

"She makes candy?" Bon-Bon said in surprise.

"We will need her if we're going to candify a RAINBOW," Pinkie said. "Ever since I tasted a rainbow, I wanted to make a candy out of rainbows."

...

"Interesting," Bon-Bon said.

We began discussing ideas for how to trap the Elements of Power and/or Marquetta/Marjorie. Ivan and Dash returned, very sweaty; Ivan looked fairly relaxed now.

It eventually got late enough that everyone was ready for bed. Luna, however, took me with her, back to her office. "If Celly sneaks into your bedroom tonight, just punch her lightly on the nose," Luna told me.

...

She laughed softly. "I'm joking. She won't take it that far, I think."

I sank down into the nice padded chair, yawning. "What happened?"

"Ivan tagged along with us, hidden, while we did some investigations," Luna said, then frowned. "She had forgotten. I knew Bastet was flighty, but..."

"Go on?" I said, frowning. Bastet was a Nithian immortal, but of late, she's been more concerned with the rakasta (cat-people). "Was I a Rakasta or something?"

"I am not sure. Bastet was not very cooperative. Also..." She grimaced. "Bastet saw you as an experiment and I get the impression, she engaged in... tampering." Luna frowned deeply. "She was rather uncooperative, but after you got killed when you were Dimitri, she lost interest in you. But her experimenting has something to do with the chaos which tends to surround you and you returning from the grave. Bastet has an interest in chaos, very unusual for a Matter Immortal," Luna continued, frowning more.

"Is this office secure?" I asked.

She blinked and nodded.

"Was she trying to create an uncorrupted Entropy immortal?" I asked softly.

Her eyes widened.

"Twilight has a gentle heart and a big mouth and trusts very easily," I told her. "That is not to say I am flawless. Too much trust is a better flaw than being easily scared shitless." I sighed and slumped in the chair. "So I was a cat's plaything."

"Tell me what you remember of the owlbear incident."

I told her what little I remember.

"I couldn't get the full story yet. Uncle is going to look into it," Luna said, frowning. "That sounds to me like you died protecting her."

"Yes," I said softly, staring at the floor.

"Good for you," Luna said. "If that counted as failing for Bastet, then she is a fool," Luna said hotly. She paused and took a sip of liquid moonlight from a half-empty glass which had been on her desk when we arrived. "I'm sorry, would you like some?"

"Just a little," I said and she poured it for me. "I don't remember her at all," I confessed. "So much of it is a blur."

"Typically, all memories are removed and only regained when you finish," Luna said. "But you never actually 'finished'. I believe Bastet tampered with the sword so it would do the work of reincarnating you and she could claim no connection to her experiment if she had to. Whatever exactly it was. You may well be right."

I licked my lips. "You know what we saw, right?" I said to her desk, nervous about looking right at her.

"That I was Nightmare Moon," she said.

"Yes," I told her. "But Twilight and her friends brought you back."

"I was young and foolish and proud," Luna said. "I made many mistakes and I will be atoning for a very long time. You have things you regret, don't you?" She clearly knew I did. I'm not sure if that means she knows about me being Erik, as I got the impression she'd kill me for that.

"Yes," I told her. "I do." Like running away from Twilight. Blowing everything in a moment of panic. I didn't even say goodbye. She's going to hate me for that when she finds out the truth.

"The two important things are to apologize and atone for what you've done," Luna said. "I will be doing that for a long time."

I nodded. "I tend to panic before I can even think of that," I confessed.

"I noticed," she said and I winced. "But with time, you will get over that. Now that you have less reason to fear."

"Beyond an Immortal determined to kill me," I told the floor.

She sipped her drink and I sipped mine. "She will not have you," Luna said. "May I mark you? I wish to place you under my protection as well."

"Yes," I said softly. I felt... a certain kindredness of spirit. Her passion on my behalf... it touched me.

NOT LIKE THAT.

She smiled and came over and kissed my forehead. I felt a tingle, then she sighed. "I can remove that, you know. The horn. Celly should have asked."

"She was covering my stupid flapping of my mouth and I need a reminder to *shut up* sometimes," I told her. "And she came to my aid when I was lost." For all that she wants me to repay her by going insane with fear.

"In the long term, we will have to clean up your messes, you know," she said to me. "In the short term, though, we will deal with Marjorie before we worry about any of that."

I rose and bowed to her, going to one knee. "As milady commands."

"And you are not allowed to set Duke Blueblood on fire," she said.

Damn.

"As milady commands."

"He considers her to have sinned against him, you know," she said, then sighed. "I know it was necessary but to see his line come to this..." She shook her head. "I knew his distant ancestor who founded the line. *He* was a man," Luna said.

"I know, I saw him," I told her. "What you did was very risky."

"I was young, foolish, invincible," she said to me. "I burned to avenge my people and buy their freedom. And I am glad I did. But now I am older and wiser and more cautious, like you. We have both passed through fire. A lot of fire." She sighed and finished her glass. "I know fear now," she said, and sighed. "As do you. I will do my best to guide and protect you," Luna said to me.

"You trust me much to tell me all this," I said softly.

"Trust is a leap in the dark," she said. "And I am the queen of the dark. But I have stars to light my way and I trust them." Her lips quirked into a smile. "And you know how I am when I get angry."

"Ahahaha," I laughed nervously.

"Let this begin a new era for you," she said. "As I have begun one myself." I yawned and she said, "I should let you sleep. Rarity and Sweetie are probably worried about you."

"Sweetie is, I pray, completely unconscious and blissfully unaware," I told Luna. "Rarity, on the other hand, may still be up."

"We will talk more tomorrow," Luna said.

"Wait," I said. "There is another thing." I yawned. "The Elements of Power. I think it possible we may be able to bring them around but they will need a patron or they will evaporate."

"Just what I was thinking," Luna said to me. "I am willing to take them under my wing."

I gave a sigh of relief. "They fought to protect the children. And it will make Pinkie very happy."

"Even more incentive," Luna said. "Let us get you to bed, then I have to go see my ministers."

We rose and headed out.

***************

I walked into our suite; Sweetie was asleep in the middle of the bed with a cloth over her eyes. Rarity was in the corner, sitting sphinx style, quietly sewing a cape and humming a little tune; she'd already dressed for bed. "Hello, Marcus darling," she said softly. "How did it go?"

I came over and sat down by her. "Close your eyes," I said softly.

She blinked and did so and I gently took her hoof and brought it up to my invisible horn. Her breath caught, and then I slowly lowered her hoof to the ground once more. "Celestia and Luna have marked me as theirs," I whispered to her. Best we not wake up Sweetie.

She licked her lips nervously. "Earlier..."

"That was Celestia just trying to make me die of embarrassment," I told her. I should ask her, but now I'm afraid to. I should tell her everything but I'm afraid to do that too. But I have to. Especially...

We are close, but... I don't even know how to tell with a pony, really. Or whether... AAAARGH.

Too many questions, no answers, can't go forward, can't retreat, can't run away.

"We should go to bed," she said.

"I'm going to get clean and change; I'll join you soon," I told her.

I now made a surprising discovery. I now had my tattoo on BOTH buttocks. What the hell? I'm pretty sure I just had it on one before.

Dammit, this will make it even HARDER to hide it.

"Is something wrong?" Rarity asked from outside the bathroom.

I'm externalizing my internal monologue again. Crap.

"I'm fine, I just dropped the soap," I told her.

I heard hoof shuffling noises and my eyes crossed.

Do not run screaming away, I told myself.

I grabbed a towel and wrapped it around myself, then opened the door a little. "Are you okay?" I asked. Towel, STAY UP.

She licked her lips nervously, looked back at the bed, where Sweetie was flailing. "Sweetie kept kicking me," she said and sighed.

"I'll be done in a minute," I told her. "We can... umm... something. I have no idea what to do about that."

"We'll figure out something, darling," she said, smiling. She seemed to have her footing back.

I closed the door and finished bathing, dried myself off, and then came back out. We ended up having to wake Sweetie... then get her back to sleep, which took FOREVER.

Sleep finally ate me alive and it was a BLESSING.

**************

Rarity shaved me in the morning; I like to be clean shaven. "Luna and Celestia have a busy morning but we will meet with Luna to make plans this afternoon, which means we have the morning to ourselves."

"Well, we could go see Canterlot," I told her. "I could do with more clothing and I have money."

"Since there isn't time or materials or all my tools here, yes," she said. "And I should check on new fashion."

"Sounds fun," I told her. "We should probably get Sweetie more formal clothing too. Or does she have plans?"

"Dash is going to take the kids hang-gliding," Rarity said. "So we can have a little time alone without child-wrangling."

Good. I like Sweetie, but those kids... you have to wrangle them all the time or they run riot. "I'd take your arm, but it would make it hard for you to walk," I said.

She laughed and then looked thoughtful. "It would be hard for you as well." She put on a purple dress and donned her magical hat. I donned mine and we headed out. Breakfast was at a pastry shop she recommended. The fruit tarts were VERY good, I have to say.

We then went walking around what I assume is the noble and wealthy merchant shopping district, with me doing a lot of commentary on how various outfits looked. Rarity also picked up some expensive fabrics for outfits and spent some time studying fashions for male stallions as well. Logical, given I'm sure half her customers are men.

I got a lot of odd looks, understandably. You have humans in Canterlot, but most stores here either cater to ponies or bipeds but not both. One exception was Five Horse Hitch, which actually had outfits for humanoids and ponies. Rarity wasn't too happy with their pony fashions, but I got to show off in several outfits. "I like this black one a lot," she told me, when I got to suit number four.

So I bought it. I love having a bag full of coins and gems. It's like having infinite potential. I just have to be careful not to blow it all.

I wore said black suit out and stowed my red suit in Rarity's saddlebags. You know, you could shoplift like crazy with those. Not that Rarity ever would.

Gives me ideas, but I'm not going to do anything to get Rarity in trouble.

We passed a jeweler and I saw something I had to get. Not for me; for Rarity. Earrings of the constellation the Archer with fine platinum chains holding little topazes in place to act as the stars. And each topaz glowed softly. Simple magic, but effective. "I have to run in here," I told her.

"So tempted," she mumbled, then shook her head. "I had best stay out here," she said, though her eyes clearly coveted most of what was on display.

"Be right back," I told her, then went in. The jeweler was a green coated, blue and red maned earth pony stallion wearing a jeweler's loop and one of those collars that ponies often wear to indicate formality, professionalism, or rank. "Good day, sir. I would like to sell you two jewels and buy something from your window."

I laid out two rubies. He studied them, then said, "Elvish style but human made. Nicely done. White Plume Mountain?"

I started. "How did you know?"

He showed me one of the facets. It had a tiny 'K' on it. "Keraptis has gnomes who dig up gems inside his volcano," he said. "Very high quality. What are you looking for?"

I pointed it out and he got it. He also looked outside at Rarity, who was very clearly staring down the street and NOT looking at the window AT ALL. I smiled a little and so did he.

He studied me assessingly and I made the earrings dance in the air. I could feel... I think I was sensing my own magic with the horn Celestia stuck on me. Very strange feeling. His eyes widened slightly, and he said, "Interesting. Well, this will definitely please her."

"I hope so. She has been very generous to me and I wish to repay her."

We haggled, set a price and I got some change back. Then I brought them out to her, in a small box. "For you, fair lady Rarity."

Her eyes widened. "For me?"

"Of course," I said. "A doubly apt gift, for the fair lady and archer."

She smiled brightly and put them on immediately. "Thank you, Marcus darling. I hope they're accurate or Twilight will complain."

I laughed. "She will no doubt try to fix them if they are not but they look right to me. She's the expert, though."

"I will have to buy you something, darling," she said thoughtfully.

"As you like, fair lady," I told her. I really can't tell if she fancies me or if she just plays the game well. Or decide what I want. Celestia could have been hinting about her or Twilight.

Dammit, she is going to kill me so much when I tell her. But I'm going to have to.

For a moment, the urge to run away was intense, but then Rarity asked, "What's wrong, Marcus?"

"Let's find a cafe. I could use a snack and a drink and I have to tell you something." Before I lose the guts to do so.

***********

We stopped at a nuts and coffee cafe. They had a bunch of kinds of nuts and nut-derived goods and they had coffee and tea. I got some Sindhi coffee, nice and black. Rarity got a coffee with so much fruit juice, milk, special blending, chocolate, etc, that it was hardly even coffee.

And I had a nice bowl of cashews. Rarity got mixed nuts. I would have gotten it but it had almonds in it, which I hate.

"It would appear I've been reincarnating for a century or so," I told Rarity. "I was seeking immortality on the path of the Polymath, which requires reincarnation and repeating the same quest over and over in a series of lives. But something went wrong when I got killed saving Yalla after we raided Marquetta's lair. My patron, Bastet, abandoned me and I kept reincarnating, due to my sword. But it only works every few months." I sipped my coffee. I need to talk to Fluttershy.

She sipped her drink and ate some nuts, frowning. "She abandoned you?" Her voice was taut.

"Yes," I told her. "Luna talked to her, but she wasn't very communicative." I sighed. "Anyway, much of my past is still a blur but Luna and Celestia have put their mark on me and I serve them now."

"And gave you a horn," she said softly.

I laughed nervously. "I can feel magic through it."

"Yes," she said. "I wonder if this means you can get a Cutie Mark now." She looked thoughtful as she raised her cup to her lips, drinking delicately.

"I can join the Cutie Mark Crusaders," I said, then we both laughed.

"I think they'd be thrilled," Rarity said. "Thank you for being so helpful with Sweetie."

"She's a good girl," I told her. "Kids are rambunctious but they can't help it."

"Anyway, I can teach you about using it," Rarity said. "Your horn. I wish I could see it."

"Hmm, Twilight probably has a spell for seeing invisible things she could teach you," I told her. "Or cast for you."

"So you've turned into many different kinds of creatures?" Rarity said thoughtfully, then worked on her nuts.

"Yes, but I'm not sure what, though I think definitely Elves, Humans, Dwarves, and Halflings." I told her. "Most of my recent memories are all human, I think."

"Ever been a Pony?" she asked lightly.

I sipped my coffee thoughtfully, waiting to see if I was going to flashback.

No flashback, but that could just mean I am no longer going senile due to a soul-patch from Celestia and Luna. Or that having twice the tattoo is warding my mind. Which would mean my mind is in my butt. Sadly, that wouldn't surprise me too much at this point.

"I don't remember being a pony but I hardly remember a lot of it," I told her.

"You should try it," she said.

Is that flirting or is it just her thinking being a pony is cool because she is pony the way I am wondering what human Rarity would look like. "I would need some proper pony clothing," I said. "Or I'd get embarrassed"

"That can be arranged," she said, making her scissors come out and fly around.

I couldn't say no now. "I will give it a try some time," I said, knowing I was setting my DEATH SENTENCE by doing so.

She smiled brightly. "If there is a costume party, we could each go as the other's species."

I laughed. "I fear it would be hard for me to pass as you, without the use of your hat, anyway."

"Tell me what you know about the reincarnation," she said and I told her what I knew as we snacked and drank.

"And Marquetta simply is angry over the sword and you taking it," Rarity said.

"Yes," I said.

I hope she can't attack us here, though Rarity fights well.

"Anyway, you and Luna and Celestia are the only ones who know the whole thing," I told her. "Twilight knows a fair amount; she helped to study me. I think I was starting to wear out by now, though." I frowned at the thought. "If I seem afraid, it's because I've seen too many friends and acquaintances get hurt or die."

"It's okay," Rarity said, patting my hand with a hoof. She took a sip of her 'coffee' and then said, "It makes you gentler than many humans and I like that."

"Thanks," I told her.

"I've met humans before, but I know you and Ivan the best," she said, then finished off her coffee. She studied the inside of her glass and ate more of her mixed nuts.

I munched on cashews and said, "I've met lots of ponies. I think even Odo knew ponies, as he came from Minrothad."

"I've noticed you seem quite comfortable with us."

"Is that unusual?" I said. "Ponies are quite easy to get along with as long as you have basic manners."

"A lot of humans have a hard time treating us as adults," Rarity said. "In my experience and the stories I've heard." She paused. "Those of us who ARE adults, that is."

"I'm a big pony!," I said, imitating Apple Bloom and Rarity laughed. "Look at my TAIL."

Rarity laughed even more. "Yes."

"Only a fool would not treat you as adults after what I've seen," I told her. "You are a magnificent archer, mighty in your wrath, and a brilliant fashion designer, insightful and generous."

She smiled. "You are such a flatterer Marcus, you are very gracious and charming and a pleasure to spend time with. And also quite intelligent."

I wish I was quite intelligent. "Thank you, fair lady." I finished my coffee. "Ready to go?"

She paused, looked nervous, looked around at the many ponies present, then said, "Let's go."

We then hit up a pair of fashion places which catered to bipeds. One of them was an extension of a Thyatian chain of boutiques, the other run by a mix of ponies and bipeds.

The first one made me rather nervous because there was a picture of Erik of Vestland with the offer of 50,000 Thyatian gold coins for my head, posted just inside the place. Rarity bought me a nice black and gold outfit as a thank you for the earrings. But I got out of there as quickly as I could, discreetly.

The second one, we browsed endlessly without buying anything. Or at least I didn't. Rarity was busy wandering around through the women's section, studying things while I lost myself in clothing.

Lots of things I would have liked to buy but I am trying to be cautious and not just blow everything in an orgy of purchases like I usually do. Having someone with me helped.

We were about to go get lunch when a letter fell on my head. It was from Twilight, inviting us to meet her and her parents for lunch at a cafe in town. I was a little nervous, though surely they won't recognize me, but I couldn't say no.

So we headed off to The Oak Nook, which was inside a huge oak tree. To my surprise, Fluttershy was with Twilight, though I soon saw it was because the place had a lot of animals who assisted the staff. There were platforms on some of the branches of the tree or you could eat in the main dining; we were out on a branch over the street. Twilight's mother, Night Shining and her father, Crescent Moon, were here, dressed for work (admittedly this meant a formal collar, a tie for him, a starry cloak for her, and semi-conical hats for both of them). Her father is an astronomer and her mother is a diviner. I suppose Crescent Moon probably answers to Princess Luna now.

Stay calm, no fear, they can't know who I am.

As we approached, down in the street, there was a thunder of hooves and some crazy dark haired Northman roared down the street in a black chariot pulled by black stallions.

Wait...

Oh great, that lunatic Magnus is here.

Magnus is from the Soderfjord Jarldoms, but acts as security officer for an estate of a wealthy Alphatian down in the Ierendi islands. This leaves him a lot of free time during which he gets in trouble. I had an encounter with him which ended with me throwing myself off a ship to get away from him because... okay, I DID do it.

But I wasn't going to let a crazy Northman take me captive.

I still don't understand why he rides around in a chariot but hopefully, I won't have to find out.

Twilight's parents watched him go, surprised. Fluttershy was too busy cuddling the squirrel who brought her menu to care. Twilight blinked.

"Hello, everyone," Rarity said. "I am Rarity Belle, a friend of Twilight's, and this is my dear friend, Samus Marcus of Thyatis, special agent of Celestia and Luna, a unicorn human."

"It's a pleasure to meet you," I said, bowing. "Your daughter is both intelligent and wise, a strong combination. You raised her well." Kissing parent ass, something I am good at as long as they don't hate me on sight.

I decided not to go for the formal hand... hoof kiss, given they're more academic than aristocratic. I would have pulled up a chair for Rarity... but no chairs. Which will make this tricky for me.

A badger now brought me a bean bag, which will have to do. Hopefully, there's some things edible for humans here.

"Thank you," Crescent Moon said, studying me and especially my sword.

Night Shining smiled, but said, "There are human unicorns?" She looked understandably confused.

The salt shaker, shaped like a cute bunny, now danced at my command. "My horn is invisible, so I can do covert operations," I told them.

Their eyes widened for a moment, then they relaxed. I then realized Twilight didn't know about the horn, but didn't seem surprised. I guess Celestia told her.

Fluttershy finally looked up from animal cuddling. "Hello, Rarity," she said, smiling. "Hello, Marcus."

"Marcus, this is my father, Crescent Moon, and my mother, Night Shining. Father works for the Star Ministry as an astronomer and Mother works for the Information Ministry as a Diviner," Twilight said.

"It's nice to meet you," Night Shining said. "Do you live here in Canterlot, then?"

"I live wherever the Princesses choose to send me," I told them. I wonder how much Twilight has told them about our mission.

"Some of it is classified," Twilight said apologetically.

"Are you involved in the Erik of Vestland case?" Night Shining asked.

STAY CALM. I'd likely break a leg if I jumped from this height, anyway.

"Which case?" I asked. "There are a lot of open ones, I think." TWITCH DO NOT SHOW TWITCH.

I studied the menu. It was a mix of pony-only items (like hay salads), human edible vegetarian (the bean soup looked pretty good, in fact), and several items that were expensive but had MEAT (STEAK TIME!!!!)

"Fluttershy, is this place run by druids?"

"Yes," she said. "One of the cooks is an Elf, so I recommended it."

"Thank you," I told her.

"Apparently he stole the harem of a Thyatian Ambassador and mocked your emperor, AND wore some sort of sacred hat," Crescent Moon said. "And a lot of other things, but that was the main incident I'm involved with."

"The Sacred Hat of Valerias," Night Shining said. "And something about a sandwich."

"A criminal sandwich?" I said, trying to sound amused.

"He was in White Plume Mountain along with a double of some kind," Fluttershy said.

DAMMIT FLUTTERSHY!!!!!

"I'm currently dealing with the aftermath of our trip to the Malpheggi," I told Night Shining. "Is the Information Bureau looking for him?"

"They were slaves," Twilight said. "Thyatian harems DESERVE to be free." Her voice was firm.

"I agree," I said. "How did a sacred hat and a sandwich come into it, though?" The sacred hat was, in fact, a much older incident.

I think.

Rarity studied the menu, listening quietly. Fluttershy was now busy talking to a raven.

"The list of accusations are rather long and confusing and some of them seem unsubstantiated," Night Shining said. "But some of them are clearly his fault." She sighed. "He seemed like such a nice boy but it's clear he needs to go to jail."

"He does NOT need to go to jail! I'm sure there's a good reason for all those FALSE accusations," Twilight said, clearly annoyed.

"Dear, I know you liked him but the evidence is pretty strong that he committed crimes, even if some of them would not be considered crimes in Equestria," Night Shining said. "And you will likely never see him again, so you really ought to move on."

"He was at White Plume Mountain, but we missed him," Fluttershy said.

The waitress now arrived, a chestnut pony with a green mane in pig-tails. She had glasses on and a silver torc. "Hello, everyone," she said. "Welcome to The Oak Nook." She put down glasses of black tea for Twilight's parents and apple juice for Fluttershy and coffee with cream and sugar for Twilight. "I can take your orders and the drink orders for the new guests."

"I'll have some apple juice," I said. Best not to have too much coffee.

"Orange juice for me, dear," Rarity said, still studying her menu.

Everyone began ordering; I ordered the bean soup and the steak. Elven steak is very good.

Once the waitress was gone, Twilight said, "I am NOT waiting for him! I have lots of things in my life and I do not mope about it! But I don't like people badmouthing him."

Hello, guilt. Hello knife in gut. Twist, twist that knife, guilt. Damn you, guilt.

"Rarity, I like your earrings," Fluttershy said, smiling. "They're very pretty."

Bless you, Fluttershy.

"Marcus bought them for me," Rarity said, turning to show them off to Twilight and her parents.

"Ooh, the Archer," Crescent Moon said. "An excellent choice. The archer is focused and insightful, striking to the heart of the matter," he said. "A good match for you, from what Twilight has told us."

"They're very lovely," Night Shining said, approvingly.

"I agree, they really suit you," Fluttershy said.

"Thank you," Rarity said, basking in the praise like a cat in the sun. "I bought Marcus the suit he's wearing as a token of my appreciation."

I rose and turned so they could see it all.

"The glows do not match their orders of magnitude," Twilight said.

I glared at her. TWILIGHT!

"But it's very pretty," she said hastily. "It looks wonderful, Rarity."

Now, though, Twilight's parents studied me assessingly. Urk. I hope I didn't just remind me... remind THEM of Erik.

"Thank you, Twilight," Rarity said.

"Anyway, there's a large price on his head now," Night Shining said. "Which means some lunatic bounty hunter will likely catch him and turn him over to the Thyatians."

ACK.

Rarity frowned. "We saw a posting. Fifty thousand gold is quite a lot."

RARITY!!!!

Twilight grimaced, clearly unhappy. You and me both!

Our food came now and we all began eating, while Twilight fumed and her mother continued to natter on about how Erik was being hunted and Twilight needed to forget he ever existed, while her father looked embarrassed but didn't DO anything about it.

My steak was perfect, the beans were okay but not awesome. Fluttershy's tomato salad looked much better, though I wouldn't have fed half of it to various small animals.

I could tell Rarity wasn't happy with listening to Twilight's mother beat her point to death with a hammer, but wasn't going to stick herself inbetween a mother and a daughter. I kept my mouth shut for fear of somehow giving myself away.

Magnus zoomed past the place again but now a dozen city watchponies were chasing him and I couldn't help but laugh. Twilight's father laughed as well. He now said, "I understand you do some wizardry, Marcus?"

"Of course," I said, tapping my invisible horn. Play to those prejudices! "Twilight has been helping me to work with electrical magic." I called up a single small lightning ball and tossed it to her. She spun it on the tip of her horn, then passed it back to me. We showed off while Fluttershy's head bobbed back and forth, following it.

I could feel the magical flows in a way that is hard to explain in words. I normally have to cast a spell to get more than a vague sense of magic in action but I could feel it, the way I hear or see or... like a new sense. I could feel Rarity using small amounts to work her spoon and cup, could feel Twilight working magical fields; this helped us work together even better than before.

Twilight's parents were smiling, clearly proud of their daughter.

Rarity said, "I think you're scaring the animals, Twilight, dear."

Fluttershy was trying to reassure some of the servitor animals and the manager was now coming our way. Ack.

We got a strong 'request' not to throw such things around, however good we are at controlling them, and now we both looked embarrassed.

"Hi, sis!" Sweetie shouted from above us.

"..." I boggled openly (most of the time I can hide my bogglement. Or so I think).

We looked up and saw the CMC and Dash in the air above us along with Ditzy Doo, flying around. I think Ditzy and Dash were generating updrafts to help keep the CMC in the air.

Sweetie tried to throw something down at us, but the updrafts caught it and now paper hearts went flying all over the neighborhood, raining down on confused ponies and a few bipeds.

I blinked. What on earth is she doing?

Rarity looked embarrassed, then began plucking hearts out of the air. "Let me help," Twilight said. They wove their abilities with Rarity guiding Twilight's power and sucked up all the falling hearts into a small pile by the table.

"What is Sweetie doing?" Twilight asked Rarity.

"I don't know," Rarity said. "I'll talk to her later."

Ditzy now flew down to us. "I'm sorry about that," she said. "I'll talk to Sweetie."

"It was very sweet of her," Fluttershy said; she was clearly amused.

"She's a good girl," Rarity said. "But children are hard to run herd on," she said to Twilight's parents.

"When Twilight was little, she read this really scary story, so she built a fortress out of most of the books in the house to hide inside," Night Shining said, grinning in that parent ratting out their child way.

"MOM!" Twilight said, embarrassed.

"I will have to tell Spike that story," I said.

"No, please!" Twilight said.

"If the monsters can't see me they can't eat me," her father said, and laughed. "But then she tried to read one of them and it fell on her."

"Daaaaad!"

The rest of the meal was eaten up by embarrassing childhood Twilight stories.

************

Rarity went to see Sweetie before the meeting; I went to see Ivan. He was in the practice room, with one of Celestia's warponies trying to show him how to fight with a hammer. Unfortunately, said warpony used his own hammer with his mouth, which is not the Ivan way.

I came and sparred with them a little, then stole Ivan to get him cleaned up before the meeting. "You feeling better now?" I asked him. "You looked pissed last night."

"I am pissed," he said. "Bastet is an ASS. I'm surprised you're not pissed off."

"Remember the Thyatian job?"

"WHICH one?" he said, then shook his head. "You're not really Thyatian, though." He paused. "I think."

"If I could even remember being abandoned, I'd be angrier," I said, then sighed. "You're a good friend, Ivan."

"Oh, Helga is going to chew furniture when she hears about this. You know how she is."

I smiled. Yes. "She's a good friend too. I wish she wasn't out of the business."

We reached his room, which I now realized he had to himself. "You going to bathe?" he asked.

"I'm fine, just going to wash my face," I told him. "I... Look, Ivan..."

"I won't say anything," he said. "But the longer you hide it, the more you will die when the truth outs."

"How did I get this face, Ivan?" I asked him urgently. "They think I died recently."

"That's how you got your current face," he said.

"I thought the people at Franich House arranged it as part of my payment," I said.

"You'd changed bodies when I found you drunk and bitter and dragged you off on my quest. I don't know exactly what happened," he said, frowning. "You thought Franich House did it?"

I slumped down by the wall. "Now I wonder how much of anything in my head is reliable." DAMMIT.

"I'm sorry, man," he said. "Do you remember anything?"

I thought hard. "Maybe... something about a woman... who turned into a monster..." Damn me.

Ivan laughed briefly, then sighed. "Anyway, I'm gonna bathe." He got up and finished stripping. "I've never seen you die but I never knew how you survived a few times, but I guess now I know."

"Could it have been Marquetta?," I speculated.

"She would have had no reason unless she knew it was you and then she would have taken the sword," Ivan said. He headed off to take a bath.

Dammit, unless...How much does Luna know? She never said 'I know you are Erik', but if anyone can fix these holes in my memories....

Well, we'll have to see. Dammit.

I went and washed my face, then once Ivan was clean, we went to join the others.

***********

"I'm sorry I made a mess," Sweetie said to me. She sounded embarrassed.

"It's fine," I told her.

We had reached the meeting room but Luna was delayed by a meeting. So everyone was snacking and waiting.

"I just wanted to help," she said to my knees.

By raining down hearts?

"We had a good time with Twilight's parents." Part of the time. "So thank you," I told her. Then I handed her a can of mixed nuts. "You can save these for when you're hungry. I know your sister favors them, so I hope you do too."

She smiled and took it, putting it in her saddlebags. "Thanks, Marcus." She paused. "That's the right thing to call you, right?"

"Yes," I told her. "If we have time, I'll teach you another card trick tonight."

"Cool!" she said. That finished perking her back up.

I noticed Luna watching me; she'd come in without me noticing, but she was smiling, so I relaxed as Sweetie bobbed off to huddle with her friends and plot... something.

Maybe she was trying to matchmake with Rarity and I. I wish I had a spell to tell what people are thinking.

But then, I'd get mad if someone did that to me, so I shouldn't want it.

WANT IT SO MUCH.

Surely she'd be more overt about it if she was romantically interested, though, right? Rarity strikes me as the type who goes for what she wants.

Celestia seems... or was she talking about Twilight and I? I know Twilight's mind well enough to know what she considers romantic, but not Rarity. I need to find out.

I don't know what I will do if she is interested. Beyond probably running screaming and jumping out a window or something.

I like her, and if we were both the same species, I think I could really go for her. But she's a pony and I'm human and... aaargh.

"What's wrong?" Luna said softly. Everyone else was getting ready now that Luna was here.

I whispered to her. "Apparently, I died, totally forgot about it, shortly before heading into the Malpheggi. I think some woman turned into a monster to kill me." I sighed. "But she didn't rob me, which is weird."

Luna frowned. "That is strange."

"I'll let you know if I remember more," I told her.

She nodded and then I went and sat down by Rarity.

Celestia now entered, to Luna's surprise. She came over and nuzzled Twilight. "Did your meeting with your parents go well?"

"About half well and about half them talking about how Erik is the most terrible person ever to walk the world," Twilight said, irritated. She quickly calmed down from Celestia's cuddling, though. "Someone's put a price on his head."

Celestia frowned. "That is most certainly not allowed in Equestria. I will see about ensuring no one advertises that price here."

Twilight looked greatly relieved.

Celestia now loomed over me and descended on me for a hug. "You're so cuddly, Marcus."

"..." Brain blowing out now.

Rarity blinked, then said, "No hug for me?" sadly.

"Of course," Celestia said and embraced her. "I just have to get Marcus adapted to pony-embraces. Since I'm sure he'll be getting lots of them."

CELESTIA!!!!!!

"Like this!" Pinkie said, jumping on me.

"PILE ON!" Rainbow Dash shouted.

I was soon buried and laughing but struggling to breathe. Even Twilight piled on, though Rarity was still being held by Celestia; she was smiling and laughing gently.

Sweetie stuck her head in. "Princess Celestia, are you free?"

"I have to go to a meeting dear, but we could talk as we walk," she said very seriously to Sweetie, as she let go of Rarity.

"The Princess is very busy," Rarity said to Sweetie. "I can probably take care of whatever the problem is."

"No, no, this is for her," Sweetie said urgently. "Okay, I'll walk with you."

Celestia said her goodbyes and went with Sweetie.

"Tonight, after the moon raising, I will attempt a scrying," Luna said. "Twilight, you and Marcus and Moondancer will assist me."

"Of course," Twilight said.

"And the orchestra will play, so you will need to be there, Lyra," Luna said. "The rest of you may come if you like."

Lyra laughed nervously. "Okay."

"I have a crazy idea," Rainbow Dash said.

"Go on?" Luna said curiously.

"See, one of us could pretend to be a bounty hunter who captured Marcus to bring him in to Marquetta, hoping for a reward, and that would enable one of us to infiltrate the base and maybe even lure her into a trap to make an 'exchange'," Rainbow Dash said.

"She knows what we look like, Dash," Applejack said.

"One swallow of Ivan's magic potion and we look like anypony we want," Dash said. "I could be... Shining Star. I always liked that name. You'd be my partner and we'd offer to trade Marcus for money, but she has to come to the Vale of Traps or whatever, and then when she comes, AMBUSH TIME."

"We have to find her first," Twilight said. "And it's a big risk for you too. How would you explain you know she wants him?"

"It's... umm... damn," Rainbow Dash said. "I don't know."

We discussed some more plans, but we have the problem that until we find her, we can only plan vaguely. So it was not the most productive of meetings. Twilight, Rarity, Spike and I went to the library to do some study of scrying magic, so we could make an effort ourselves in addition to tonight's scrying. If nothing else, it would be a good area to develop for the future.

Though Rarity hadn't been there then, it felt like the old days of my time in Canterlot. Rarity had her glasses on... I didn't even know she wore them. But at least for this she donned them and the two of us worked with her, as she wanted to help but she basically hasn't engaged in broad theoretical study of magic. Admittedly, I've only done it in a half-assed way, so Twilight had to teach me some things as well.

"Treat it like a loom," Spike said to Rarity at one point. "The cystillic lines are the weft and the daristic lines are the woof. Except this loom, you can pluck the threads like a harp, then you 'feel' the vibrations. The intersection of the two threads with the vibration you want is where your target is. I think."

Rarity's eyes widened and she smiled warmly at Spike. "Thank you. That's a very good metaphor and I see it now."

"That's great, Spike," I told him. I don't know which one is woof and which one is weft, but I know enough about weaving to see what he means.

"Thanks, Marcus," he said, forgetting to hate me, though he made sure to glare AFTER that.

Twilight gave a happy sigh. "Even studying is better with people you care about."

Spike looked embarrassed. "I like you too," he mumbled.

"Sometimes you need some solitude to really focus on something," Rarity said. "But I find company makes most burdens lighter."

"Exactly," Twilight said. "Remember the time we tried to analyze the gorgon blood, Spike?"

He groaned. "I TOLD you it had already been done."

"I know, I should have listened," she said ruefully. "It would have saved me a lot of work. But you were very patient with me."

"I was so hungry by the end," he mumbled.

That reminded me. "Rarity, why did you have Twist buy you those raisins?"

She looked embarrassed. "I forgot I had them; they were to be snacks for the kids on the train."

"You forgot to give us snacks?" a stack of books said nearby. "Oh man!"

"..."

"They weren't supposed to notice we're here, Scootaloo!" Apple Bloom said urgently.

Twilight and Rarity laughed. Rarity laughs like a babbling brook, Twilight like a gentle rain. Spike laughs like an avalanche. He marched over and plucked back cloaks. "Where's Sweetie?" he asked.

"Nowhere," Apple Bloom said.

"She's not doing anything at all," Scootaloo said. "Plan B!"

They both ran for the door.

Twilight plucked them off the ground. "Young ladies, what are you up to? You're supposed to be under Ditzy's supervision."

"She and Dinky are taking naptime but we all had things to do," Scootaloo said. She laughed nervously. "Not that we're doing anything at all and certainly no one left the castle or anything."

Well, crap.

"Where did they go?" I said sternly.

"Nowhere AT ALL," Scootaloo said.

"Perhaps we can use the scrying magic to find them," Rarity said. "It would be a good test, yes?"

"Great idea," Twilight said. "We'll have to go to the lab and borrow the ritual components."

The scrying ritual required various components; it wasn't something to use super-lightly. But being agents of the Princesses has its advantages.

And we needed a test. So Spike and I herded Apple Bloom and Scootaloo, following the ladies. "Why were you two spying on us?" I asked.

"We were not spying on you," Scootaloo said. "At all."

"We just wanted to read some books, that's all, perfectly innocent!" Apple Bloom protested.

"And you were hiding because?" I asked.

"We didn't want to disturb your important work!" Apple Bloom said.

Now, see, this is in the right direction; make the other person feel more important by praise. But it doesn't work if you're clearly GUILTY unless your target has a really easily pushable button.

"It is important but you could have just been quiet," Twilight said. Okay, Twilight has some button. "But you were watching us for some reason. Why?"

"Probably to keep watch because they're setting up a prank on us," Spike said.

"It's not a prank! It's very important!" Scootaloo said.

"What is?" I asked.

"NOTHING!"

We went round this mulberry bush all the way to the lab.

************

Rarity carefully mixed the chemicals as Twilight read off the formula to her; Spike and I kept the two fillies under control. I herded Apple Bloom, Spike handled Scootaloo.

Once they were mixed, Twilight took a brush and used them as ink on paper to inscribe a series of runes, then placed a mirror in the center and they both began chanting; I could feel the flows of power through my horn, though I didn't know how to interpret it. Scootaloo and Apple Bloom now watched, fascinated.

The mirror fogged over and then you could see Sweetie and Twist in a fashion store, studying men's fashions for some reason. With some effort, Twilight panned around to get the name of the place 'High Spirits For Him'. In fact, it was men's fashion for ponies only, so why were Sweetie and Twist there? I suppose Twist might have a brother, but why sneak out?

"Why this charade?" I asked Apple Bloom.

"Ponies aren't good at charades," she said.

I suppose not but that's not what I meant.

"Are Sweetie or Twist planning to dress as men for some reason?" I asked.

"That wouldn't work well at all," Scootaloo said. "They couldn't fool anyone."

We then went to wake up Ditzy so we could hand over our prisoners and head for the store.

************

'High Spirits For Him' was still standing on our arrival. A half dozen customers were busy checking out outfits or being fitted by the clerks, while one of the clerks was busy talking to Sweetie Belle and Twist, who thankfully didn't seem to be causing trouble except for sneaking off when they were supposed to be NAPPING.

But when they saw us, they took off running, crashing into a rack which fell into another rack, which set off two racks... You know how it goes.

I managed to reach out and stop part of the cascade with a spell and Rarity stemmed the tide by seizing several and once Twilight got over her shock, she saved about half the store, leaving the other half fallen down.

The chestnut maned clerk made unhappy noises and fainted at the mess.

"Sweetie!" I said.

"Twist, you know better than this," Twilight said, then sighed.

"It was fine before you scared us!" Twist protested.

We began helping the clerks to straighten everything up. How do parents not go insane before their children grow up?

I do not know.

Sweetie and Twist helped as well, though it was easier for Twist, who could use her tail as well as her mouth. They worked together, looking guilty.

"What are you two doing here, anyway?" Rarity asked, once we'd made apologies and herded them out the door.

"Umm...," Sweetie said, sweating.

"We were going to get something nice for Sweetie's dad," Twist said with a quick smoothness I both admired and suspected was a well-practiced lie.

"If you had told me, I would be happy to have taken you," Rarity said. "But you two need to lie down so you don't fall asleep tonight too early."

They seemed horrified by that prospect and I smiled a little. Find the lever and push, as they say.

"I thought you were busy studying," Sweetie grumbled.

"Studying how to see people at a distance," Twilight said.

"DOH," Twist said, slapping her face, which I would think would hurt with hooves.

"We saw through your spies with our Unicorn Vision," Twilight said. She had a quirky smile; I think she's teasing them.

"I don't have any Unicorn Vision," Sweetie grumbled.

"When you're older," Rarity said.

We really shouldn't tease them like this but it's too much fun. "You lie down and I'll teach you another card trick when your nap is done," I told Sweetie.

"Yaay!"

As we walked down the street, we saw some of Celestia's warponies tearing down the bounty notices. Good for them. They saluted Twilight, who saluted them back.

"Do you know who put out this bounty?" I asked them. I had been too nervous to look closely.

"The Thyatian Embassy," the warpony said.

Damn. Hmm, fifty thousand is probably about what the value of that guy's harem was.

I hope they're all okay. About the best I could do was get them on a caravan to Darokin while I went another way to draw off the pursuit.

"I wouldn't need fifty-thousand to turn that bastard in," Spike grumbled.

"SPIKE," Twilight said angrily. "I am sure he's innocent."

"What exactly did he do to the Thyatians?" Twist asked curiously.

"After what he did to you, he deserves anything that happens to him," Spike said hotly.

"It's okay," Twilight said. "I understand why he did it now. If we hadn't been drunk, I could have reassured him before he panicked." She sighed.

Knife, gut, conscience runs through my mind, laughing and stabbing.

Thanks, conscience.

Rarity licked her lips nervously, and Twist said to her, "Would you like some candy? You look hungry."

"Any chance of a fruit gummy?" Rarity asked.

A what?

Fruit gummies turned out to be a fruit-flavored candy with sugar on it that is... I don't know how to describe it unless you've had one. It's a little denser than gelatin but still much less crispy / chewy than a hard candy. And they're very tasty, I found out.

"I'm surprised they're advertising here when he's probably not in Canterlot," Twist said.

Unless they somehow know I am here due to scrying or something. But the picture on the posts shows me as Erik, so no one would recognize me.

Dammit.

Them finding me so fast worries me.

But I can't tell anyone, DAMMIT.

"He probably followed us back so he could make a bigger mess for me to clean up," Spike grumbled.

Sorry, Spike.

The urge to just confess was strong but I choked it down. Can't risk a giant explosion until this is all cleared up.

We herded the kids back to the castle and turned them over to Ditzy, who hopefully would stay awake and watch them this time.

Hope springs eternal.

***********

I got out my deck of cards and shuffled; the cards felt oddly good in my hands. I mean, it's always fun but there was something... I cast my telekinesis spell and tried shuffling them with that; it was easier than I would have thought. Sweetie watched, eyes wide. It was just the two of us before dinner; Rarity had gone to lay out in the sun with Twilight and some of the others. Ditzy, Lyra, and Bon-Bon were, in theory, running herd on the other kids.

"Magic shuffling," Sweetie said reverently. I fought not to laugh.

I was sitting on the bed; she was standing, watching.

I then passed her the cards and tried to guide her in working on her shuffling. It's actually trickier than you'd think because you're manipulating a lot of objects at once, though you can force them together to make them more manipulable.

"It's hard," Sweetie said as the cards went flying.

"Don't give up," I told her. "You can do it, just keep trying."

And trying and trying. She tried to give up three times but I wouldn't let her quit and gradually, she got more fluid at it. She's got to master both shuffling and rigging the shuffle, which we also worked on, though I made sure to tell her to NOT do the latter when playing with others. Unless they deserved it, of course.

She finally got to where all the cards stayed together, but her efforts at rigging the shuffle were REALLY obvious. But that's okay. It takes a LOT of practice. Just being able to smoothly shuffle and deal was a good start; the tricky bits will build on that.

She was kind of blown by the time it was time for dinner, so I had to carry her. Even fillies are HEAVY.

I encountered Celestia in the hallway on the way there. "Hello, your highness," Sweetie mumbled.

"I see you ran her ragged," Celestia said to me.

"Hello, Princess Celestia," I said to her. "She was practicing her telekinesis with me."

"Just like a good father," Celestia said with her 'teasing' voice.

"I don't know if I'd be a good father," I told her thoughtfully. "But thank you."

"I have a father already," Sweetie said weakly.

"Of course," I told her.

Celestia studied me curiously, then said, "So you're ready for us to make centaur babies together?"

"..."

"NO!" Sweetie said loudly, then hid her face.

"Let's not discuss baby-making in front of a child," I said firmly to Celestia.

"We have someone else for you to make babies with if you really need to!" Sweetie said urgently.

"......"

Celestia stared for a few seconds in total surprise. I will treasure the sight of her being floored forever and ever and ever.

"But we couldn't get the suit so it'll be a disaster and then Canterlot will catch fire somehow and everyone will have to run out in the rain!" Sweetie said in a panic, flailing.

She... no, she wouldn't try to set her father up with Celestia, he's married.

It must be someone she knows from Ponyville, but I don't know enough Ponyvillians to tell.

Celestia's face softened and she nuzzled Sweetie gently. "You are a kind pony. But your father is already married, you know."

"Not FATHER," Sweetie said.

"So you lied about who the suit was for," I said, frowning, though I had already been sure something was going on there.

She cringed. "It's a secret!"

"Well, I do like surprises," Celestia said kindly. "But you shouldn't sneak out of the castle without telling anyone. Ditzy feels very guilty she lost track of you."

"I'm sorry," Sweetie said sadly.

"Now tell me all about your big adventure," Celestia said, and Sweetie told us about it the rest of the way to dinner.

**********

I got a letter from Helga at dinner. It was a warning that all the Thyatian embassies seem to have put out the notice in the various capitals. That was both a worry (that's a big manhunt) and a relief (they do not know I am HERE.)

Dinner was quite nice; we didn't get to eat at the high table; a bunch of ambassadors were crammed around it. Dona Carlotta joined us, sitting by Twilight and chatting with everyone. The food was Sindhi tonight, which meant very spicy. Fine by me, but Applejack wasn't too happy with it, nor was Apple Bloom. Too 'frou-frou' for them, I guess.

Pinkie ate too much and got nauseous, most of us enjoyed it. Especially Spike. He wolfed it down like crazy.

The Sindhi Ambassador had a group of dancers come and perform as entertainment. Very well done, though scantily clad women were basically wasted on the ponies present. I tried not to stare too much.

I could hear some sort of argument at Celestia and Luna's table. I think Celestia was telling the Thyatian Ambassador not to do that again. He didn't look too happy.

Then I realized the Thyatian Ambassador from the Shires, Lord Caine, was there. I rubbed my forehead. It could be a coincidence, but... dammit.

Also, Duke Blueblood was smirking all night for some reason and the urge to punch his fat face was strong, very strong, but I fought it off.

"Marcus," Twilight said urgently.

I jumped, nearly dropping a forkful of curried rice and vegetables on myself. "I'm sorry, what?"

"Would you like to come stargaze with us after our appointment with Luna?" Twilight said. "I want to go get some things from my tower and I thought we could use my fancy telescope there. You too, Rarity."

"I'd love to; I'm curious to see your old place, Twilight," Rarity said.

"Sure," I said. It's seriously plush, really. I just have to remember to pretend I have NEVER seen it.

"This will be lots of fun," Twilight said happily.

As long as I don't give the game away and die.

***********

There is a large reflecting pool on the castle grounds in a nice garden; we met Luna there after moonrise. The orchestra came and began to play eerie music; Lyra played very well, but she and Octavia kept glancing uncomfortably at each other.

Moondancer now began to dance on the water and Luna joined her, both of them moving together to the beat, which made me tap my toes and everyone else to tap their feet or hooves.

We couldn't stop Scootaloo running out and joining them, and Luna smiled and welcomed her in.

I watched them work; I could feel them spinning threads of magical energy and working it into the water, which began to shine and to ripple. The water changed and now instead of showing the moon and stars, it showed a strange sight. You could see a swamp, through which trolls and various swamp creatures roamed, but it was not the Malpheggi. In the background, a cliff rose hundreds of feet and above that, mighty peaks soared high into the sky.

"I know that," I said. "That's in the Broken Lands, west of the west road. If you keep going west, maybe ten miles further was this ancient ruined tower that Ivan, Helga, and I tried to get into one time."

"What kept you out?" Pinkie asked.

"None of us were a good enough wizard to defeat the wards," I said. "But I happen to know a really good wizard now."

"Wh...oh, ME," Twilight said and everyone laughed.

"Humility is good for you," Ivan said, amused.

"What's in it?" Rarity asked.

"Gold, gems, jewels, ancient Blackmoorian devices, the works. It was built in Blackmoorian times," I said.

The view now zoomed in on the cliff face; you could see a huge crevice opening inwards with buildings inside it. A black dragon took flight down to the swamp as we watched.

We couldn't get closer, unfortunately, though the view moved around to establish its position clearly.

"Okay, this gives us something to work with, even if we can't be sure that the enemy forces are there," Twilight said. "Thank you very much, Princess Luna."

"How far away is this place?" Applejack asked.

"It's about two weeks ride from Fort Marny," I said. We can take the train as far as Fort Marny. Maybe longer if they've really extended it to Darokin City like I've heard rumors about.

"Urgh, that's a long trip," Applejack said.

"Most of it is pretty safe, though," I said. "If we took Twilight's balloon to Corunglain, it would be fairly safe and much faster, I'm sure. Then we'd just have to walk across the Broken Lands."

"I can't teleport that far," Twilight said, frowning. "But yes, we could balloon to Corunglain in a long day of travel, then rest a day and then head into the Broken Lands. It wouldn't be safe to balloon in the Broken Lands, but that would mean a shorter trip."

"Well, if we take the balloon, the kids can't risk themselves trying to follow us," Fluttershy pointed out.

"We saved you," Apple Bloom said. "We're ready for another adventure!"

"You're fillies and we have to protect you," Fluttershy said. "I am glad you want to help but we can't put you in danger."

"You're going into danger," Twist pointed out.

"Yes, but we're adults and chosen by destiny," Twilight said. "One day, you'll be old enough to go on adventures with us, but not yet."

"I can even use my tail now!" Apple Bloom protested.

I think Luna scried some other things but we all got distracted, arguing with the CMC.

Finally, Bon-Bon snapped, "Pay attention," at us and to our embarrassment, we all turned back.

Luna had zoomed in on a set of stairs which scaled the cliff face to the lair. And then there was sudden fuzzing and the water returned to showing the moon.

"I think she was about to notice," Luna said. "So I dropped it."

"Thank you very much," Twilight said. "I'm going to want to develop a defense against scrying so we can sneak up undetected, and then we'll be ready to go. This may take a day or two to study my options and learn one."

"Better to be ready than to go off half-ready," Luna said sagely. The three on the water were still dancing, though she now led them off the water.

The musicians now wrapped up and Luna went to thank the orchestra and let them go; Bon-Bon and Octavia were glaring at each other, but they just simmered instead of exploding, while Lyra looked guilty.

We spent some time planning our trip and trip preparations, then split up for the rest of the night.

***************

I accompanied Rarity, Spike, Twilight, Dona Carlotta, Sweetie, and Twist to Twilight's tower. The kids were very impressed by it; it is beautiful. I slept on the floor here many times.

Spike gave us a tour and was quite proud of showing everything off; the giant hourglass was still here, I noticed. I nearly asked if she ever figured out how it worked; it was a magic item she'd been studying. Then I remembered not to know that.

As we headed to the observation deck, I thought I saw something in the hourglass, but when I turned and looked, it wasn't there.

Probably just my nerves.

"What happens when it runs out of sand?" Sweetie Belle asked, pointing to it.

"It turns over and starts over," Twilight said. "I never did figure out the rest of its powers. It's magical."

"Oooh," Sweetie said, then started studying it. Then she suddenly jumped in the air.

"Do you see something?" I asked Sweetie.

"I thought I saw a red dragon looking at me," Sweetie said hesitantly.

"I thought so too for a second, but it vanished and I assumed it was my nerves," I said.

Twilight's eyes widened. "That can't bode well. Spike, send a letter to Celestia, just in case."

We all stared at it intently; I could feel flows of magic going all over the place from it, and I could feel Rarity and Twilight and even Sweetie's power. I felt (and saw) Dona Carlotta cast a spell and I could feel her reaching into it with magic.

Unicorns must feel this all the time.

"Is it just me, or is there... a sheath?" I said. Trying to feel inside it caused you to be repelled off the surface of it.

Not that I really know what I'm doing.

Sweetie got out her cards and began shuffling. I blinked in surprise.

Twilight said, "You are completely right, Marcus, and that's why I never solved this thing."

I'd taken a look at it before, but I hadn't even noticed the sheath then. "Rarity, maybe you can find a weak point?"

Rarity frowned and looked strained as she felt out the item. "Here, at the neck," she said, the point where it narrowed between the bells.

Sweetie now pulled a book out of her pack and did a lay out of seven cards and began studying it. Card divination. Not a bad idea if you have the magic to make it work.

Twilight said, "That's just superstition, Sweetie." She was clearly disapproving.

"But if it's backed by real magic, not just shuffling cards and hoping the universe gives you a clue, it might work, right?" I told Twilight.

"This book is all about card magic and it's REAL," Sweetie said stubbornly. "I don't tell you your stars are imaginary."

"I can look in the sky and see the stars," Twilight said, though now she looked curiously at the book. "Where did this come from?"

"Celestia's library," Sweetie said. "Apple Bloom found it for me."

"I hope she checked it out properly," Twilight said. "Celestia is our friend but her library is not just to be taken when you want to."

"I think we kind of interrupted them before they could," I told Twilight. "We can run by after this." I kneeled down by Sweetie. "I know about card divination, though I could never make it actually work except as... entertainment." I was about to say 'a con'. AHAHA.

"Look at how good I shuffle," Sweetie said proudly as the cards nimbly danced into new configurations.

"You are good," Twilight said. "But it should be 'how well I shuffle'."

Rarity had been about to speak but now she just smiled.

Dona Carlotta sat down by Sweetie to watch. "Erik loved card tricks," she said cheerfully. I'm glad she can remember me fondly and I REALLY WISH she had NOT SAID THAT.

"Well, he has one good trait at least," I said.

She frowned at me. "He was a good man. Not perfect, but a good man. You shouldn't speak ill of someone you've never met, Marcus."

Do not laugh. DO NOT LAUGH.

Twilight frowned. "Exactly. We knew him as he really was. Not these stupid lies."

My conscience broke a chair over my head. It sounded disturbingly like Celestia while doing so. AAAARRRRGGGHHH.

"Anyway, I don't care if he was good or bad," Sweetie said. "Okay, let's see. Spirit of the cards, spirit of fortune, show me the FUTURE!" She concentrated and the deck rose, wobbling, into the air. It spun in place and...

The hourglass suddenly drew a huge pile of power from all over. All of us except Spike and Sweetie wobbled and Spike said, "I really don't like what is going on!"

Sweetie's eyes now began to glow blue like the ocean. CRAP.

I instinctively grabbed onto her, trying to shield her with my own body, not that this was likely to do anything and I could just feel the magic flow around me and into the cards, which fluttered in a storm around us.

I could feel Celestia and Luna, they were coming.

Dona Carlotta shouted something and I could feel Twilight hurling power around and Rarity yelled something about time and Spike was making odd noises like he was on fire or something. And for some weird reason, I could feel power churning through my ass.

And then there was only blue and the Jack of Stones.

*************

WTF IS GOING ON VISION:

Everything had begun to go wrong when the Elements of Harmony never returned from the Broken Lands. Major Keen Eyes, father of Rarity and Sweetie, stood with his unit near Mareis, preparing for battle. His long pink mane was largely hidden under his helmet, but you could see his white coat despite his barding and quiver. His cutie mark, arrows overlapping to form a wall, was well hidden by his golden armor, enchanted with protection spells, thanks to his rank. Sind's attack had been aided by shapeshifters; long the bane of Sind, they had taken over covertly and then used their power to infiltrate and destroy Fort Overlook, Fort Mont-Mare and Fort Boatmurdered, though apparently the force which seized Boatmurdered had somehow unleashed an ancient evil on itself and been destroyed.

This still left two armies pushing into Equestria and he'd been called off the northeastern frontier to help fight against it. The initial strike of the shifters had killed most of the top command, which is how Duke Blueblood of all people had ended up in command of this army; from what little Major Keen Eyes knew of the man, this boded ill, as Blueblood was basically a stuck up, egotistical noble with no experience. But he'd raised a force of several thousand militia to add to the army, so at least he'd come bearing gifts.

Keen Eyes was surprised to be called to the tent of Duke Blueblood. Keen Eyes commanded an entire thousand pony strong regiment of warponies, not an inconsiderable force, having been promoted from being captain of a company due to the death of so much of the high command. The best of the lance (ten pony squad) commanders under him now had his old job. The Duke, though, was notoriously snobby and usually only spoke with the Colonels who commanded the brigades (three regiments strong) and the Generals who commanded the divisions (ten regiments strong).

He entered and saluted. Duke Blueblood looked exhausted and worn as he studied the map; ponies scurried about the command tent and to Major Keen Eyes's surprise, there was a human woman, tall with long blonde hair tied into a braid; she wore black Alphatian style robes with many white winds embroidered on them and she looked like she hated everyone for existing.

But her gaze softened a little on seeing him. Duke Blueblood didn't even notice, though he now stuck his head in a huge bowl of what Keen Eyes hoped was NOT alcohol. It smelled like apples, which could go either way.

Also, drinking with your head in the bowl was crude, especially as it had several bendy straws in it already.

They'd had a hard time getting Sweetie to stop doing that, but Blueblood was a grown Pony, for goodness' sake.

"He's here," the woman said softly.

Duke Blueblood looked up with haunted eyes. Then Keen Eyes felt a surge of magic and Blueblood's lips dried off. "Major Keen Eyes, I am very glad to see you," he said, though he actually sounded half-dead. But sober. More exhausted than anything else. "I have good news I want you to spread to your men. And a mission for you."

Given the rumors about the size of the Sindhi army, they could USE good news. "Yes, sir," he said.

"This is Lady Helga from Glantri. She has persuaded some of her kin to give us assistance at cost to herself. It's... a long story but in short, we have to buy two days for the elementals to be summoned and brought here. I don't know if even that will be enough, but it will certainly make things better." He was talking to the bottom of Keen Eyes' neck, unable to raise his head. "We will have two dozen Glantrian wind elementalists and several hundred air elementals. Given the great weakness of our foes' air force, I think this could be of great help."

"And you want me to lead an attack to slow them down," Keen Eyes said. He knew his daughter had had trouble at the Grand Galloping Gala but he hadn't thought the man would stoop to this depth for revenge, especially with her missing and presumed dead.

"No," Blueblood said. "I need you to take an important message to Celestia. We can't risk magical interception. If you take the train, you can be back before the big battle. And I can circulate that you asked me for a chance to see your wife before the big battle." She was in Canterlot with Sweetie. "That way the enemy won't expect you to be carrying a message."

"The other officers will not think well of me, running off on the brink of battle, family or not," Major Keen Eyes said, frowning. "That being said, if you order me, I will go, as is my duty."

"I told you," Helga said to Duke Blueblood, who now took a long draught of drink through a straw.

Duke Blueblood looked vaguely stunned. "You might never see them again if you don't go now, you know."

Major Keen Eyes shuffled a little nervously on his feet. He suddenly had a feeling there was more to this than he had expected. There was some intrigue afoot here. Given that he, a Major, was being given a corporal or maybe a sergeant's job here...

"What's going on?" he said softly.

"Someone who *resembles* your daughter is with the enemy army," Helga said.

"You weren't supposed to tell him that!" Blueblood protested. "How's he supposed to go on knowing his daughter is with the enemy?"

Major Keen Eyes stared, eyes wide. "What?"

"It's probably a shapeshifter, not your daughter," Helga said. "Or some kind of clone. Though she is good at archery."

"And was cackling about the plunder from Fort Mont-Mare," Blueblood said to the map.

"Anyway, there's no conclusive proof," Helga said, "That it is really her and not a fake. We have had reports from Celestia that the enemy may be able to make clones of anyone they capture, AND they have actual shapeshifters. So we can't be sure it's her for real."

"And you thought I could not do my duty in that situation," Major Keen Eyes said stiffly, though he felt horrified by the idea of even shooting at a person pretending to be Rarity, who he was very worried about but not the type to actually tell anyone that.

"How can I ask a father to shoot at his own child?" Blueblood said, clearly stunned and horrified by the idea.

Major Keen Eyes relaxed just a little. "It must be a shapeshifter or a double. Rarity would never betray Equestria. I can go if you really need me to take a message, but I would rather deal with this impostor myself."

Duke Blueblood licked his lips nervously. "So be it," he said softly. "I am very sorry."

"This is not your fault, sir," Major Keen Eyes told Blueblood. The thought of shooting at someone who resembled Rarity horrified him but he did not show it. Someone had to be strong if Blueblood would not. "I will ensure she is dealt with." Much as it would hurt.

Blueblood hung his head. "I cannot ask you to do it."

"I volunteer," he said. "Post us as necessary. We will ensure it is done." His gut wrenched, but he ignored it. He would do his duty, though the very thought of it ached. But a soldier could not show weakness and fear. He despised those who did. His daughter was strong, and she responded to adversity with strength. He was proud of her accomplishments. And he would deal with this evil clone, without letting it know it hurt him even to think about it.

A man does what a man has to do.

And the world turned blue.

************

There was shouting and screaming. I could hear Celestia now and something about hourglasses. Sweetie was crying and I held on tight to her, trying to cut the threads of magic which were flowing through us, but I just shoved them around and the blue changed and now the Jack of Flames flickered past us.

*************

WTF IS GOING ON VISION:

Five pale skinned female elves with unusually large ears looked around nervously. One of them wore a golden necklace with large gems strung on it; they glowed with an eerie ever changing blue fire; she carried a long staff in her hands with another such gem set into one end. Her hair was long and red. There was a second elf with curly red hair, one with pink and purple hair, a fourth with blonde hair and a fifth with pinkish-purple hair and darker skin. The first, second and the fifth wore suits of chainmail, the third and fourth, multi-colored robes.

"Okay, Sweetie, get us in," the first said.

The pink and purple haired female elf waved her hands over the huge complicated lock mechanisms. One by one, tumblers turned and bolts slid. Spells unwove and unraveled and the defenses shut down. "Hah, just like big sister," Sweetie-Elf said proudly.

And then the doors swung open. What stood before them was the holiest of holies in the City of the Stars, the great city of the Shadow Elves (who despite their names were albino, like the bodies which the Cutie Mark Crusaders had taken on, thanks to a potion). They were all technically upside down, for in some mysterious way, gravity was different in the great cavern and the city sat on the ceiling of the cavern.

You easily forgot, like right now, down under the main temple. Now before them stood a vast machine of crystal piping and adamantine and mithril and glass, full of glittering gems like the ones Apple Bloom wore.

"We are so dead if they catch us," Twist said, looking around.

"I'm not worried about them. We bluffed them easily," Scootaloo said. "I'm worried about dying of boredom watching you all work." Her powers were great... and in this body she couldn't fly and she didn't have the mechanical skills to do much even if she did have hands at the moment. But this was Apple Bloom's turn to shine.

YOU HAVE BIGGER WORRIES THAN DYING OF BOREDOM, the voice said, echoing through the room but coming from nowhere in particular.

"Oh shit," Scootaloo said.

A human hand the size of an elephant appeared. DID YOU THINK I WOULD LEAVE MY GRAND EXPERIMENT UNMONITORED? IT IS TIME FOR A LESSON IN STAYING OUT OF OTHER PEOPLE'S...

He did not finish because Twist produced two huge licorice whips, snagged two of his fingers and tossed him into the ceiling. "Apple Bloom, you shut it down, we'll keep him busy!"

GUARDS! THE INNER SANCTUM HAS BEEN VIOLATED!

"Yes, the more who come, the more beatings I get to dish out!" Scootaloo shouted and assumed Pony form. She was a full blown adult now with large, powerful wings and a muscular physique. "It's time to kick some flank!"

YOU ARE ALL CRAZY, the voice said in disbelief.

"IMMORTALITY MARK CRUSADERS FOREVER!" Dinky shouted and then mist filled the room.

And then there was blue light everywhere.

**************

More shouting, more chaos, lights flashing and cards flying. But the level had dimmed down as Sweetie had stopped crying and now actually looked intrigued. I guess I stuck around in that future. In fact, that felt like the kind of thing Ivan and Helga and I got into all the time.

"Sweetie, you have to take control of this, or it'll keep flipping us through possible futures," I told her.

"I don't know how, I'm just a filly, I can't control big magic!" she said, starting to panic.

"You started this, it has to be you," I told her. "I won't abandon you, but I can't control this." My previous poking showed me that.

"SWEETIE!" I heard Rarity's panicked voice. "Hold on!"

"I can't," she cried.

"You can do it," I told her. "I'll help you but it has to be you who takes control of what you set in motion," I said to her.

She reached out with her will and seized a card. It was the Jack of Waves and now the world turned blue again.

*************

WTF IS GOING ON VISION:

I was me this time, but I was along for the ride inside me, if you know what I mean.

I was riding on Rarity, who was (I don't know how) now big enough to carry me comfortably; she wore armor made of glittering crystal and I was wearing enchanted cloth armor (so it wouldn't get in the way of spell casting). The sky was black with dark clouds and dragons were battling other dragons and Pegasi overhead in a huge melee. I could see Rainbow Dash and the Wonderbolts charging a formation of green dragons.

We stood among a force of archer warponies, who were providing supporting fire for an army of humans, ill clad in hunting leathers and thick furs, armed with spear and shortbow and absolute determination. A handful of Unicorns, among them a similarly oversized Twilight, provided magical support fire. Ivan rode on a horse, hammer in his hand, devastating the ranks of the enemy and leading the peasants, and now I understood why Keraptis gave him Whelm of all things.

For our foes were just what Whelm was intended to fight: a handful of giants, several squads of ogres and hordes of orcs, goblins, bugbears, and humans in black armor with a golden shield with an eagle spreading his wings in black as their symbol. They were trained professionals and they hammered the peasant army hard.

We fell back down the valley between two wooded ridges, fighting hard and giving ground. Rarity shot down one of the giants with a series of precise shots and I hurled fire and lightning, though Twilight and her force did more damage than I.

That's when maniacal laughter rolled across the battlefield.

Distantly, I heard the Black Eagle Baron, the tyrant of western Karameikos, who had somehow escaped Stefan's justice for decades, shouting something, and there was a huge discharge of lightning from Bargle, his evil wizard vizier.

But a yellow pegasus appeared, clad in robes, and blocked it with her staff. She was laughing like a maniac. And then there was MORE laughter from the other ridge.

And then the trees stood up and charged down the ridges at the Black Eagle's forces as two nearly identical yellow Pegasi shouted about being loved forever.

A horde of Dogboyz from Manehattan and other ports now charged out of hiding and sealed the other end of the valley, with two carrying Apple Blossom on a litter. She held up a glass, sipped from it, then said, "Time to collect, boyz! Show them how we do it in Manehattan!"

OH YEAH.

And then there was blue light everywhere.

**************

I took Sweetie's hooves with my hands. "We can do it together," I told her. Or so I hope. She was crying but one by one, they started to settle. I twined my power with hers, let her use my strength. But some of them fluttered up. For moments, we saw other futures. Where Sweetie was a warpony. Where I was King of Karameikos. Where Rarity was a strange crystalline goddess made of gems. Where Celestia... was kissing Big Macintosh? He looked as stunned as I felt.

But card by card, she pushed them down and forced her will on them. "Sing," I told her, and she began to sing about cards. It was a rather better song than I would have expected to be improvised so hastily.

Another blue flash and now we went to dance with the Jack of Winds.

*************

HOURGLASS WEIRDNESS VISION:

Ivan clinked his glass with Applejack, Apple Blossom, Rarity, Clarity, Marcus, Spike, and Spikey. Pinkamena (in a human form) was up on the stage, parading with the other models to show off this fall's line of fashions, the MUST HAVE items without which every noble had to consider himself ill dressed. Dozens of nobles and those aspiring to such were all crowded into the room, studying everything intently and laying their plans to look better than their rivals for the next year.

"Thank you, everyone," Ivan said. "I couldn't have done it without you."

"I can't believe they're so crazy for clothing," Applejack said. She was the only person present not wearing a fancy outfit, though she did have a platinum pendant of an apple on, in addition to her saddlebags, boots, and hat.

"Nobles crave status. Status costs money. Intensify status competition and they will bankrupt themselves trying to one-up each other," Apple Blossom said. "Elegance is important, but you have to be sure you stay within your means. They'll all borrow money from Spike and Spikey to finance their purchases, so we get a cut that way too."

Spike and Spikey high-fived and Ivan laughed. "I have come to see why Asterius has both trade and theft in his portfolio," Ivan said, grinning.

"Well, it's been a ton of fun, darling. I can't think of a better way to stage a revolution than this," Rarity said, then sipped her orange martini. "I get to do what I love best, help a friend and work towards freeing a nation."

"Amen to that," Marcus said, patting Rarity's shoulder. She smiled brightly as Sweetie continued to sing in the background. "It doesn't get better than this."

And the world turned blue.

*************

Why had I been IVAN instead of ME in that???

I suddenly wondered if that future me was someone else. I suppose he could have been Sammy but Sammy is with Twilight.

Which if he could...aaargh, this is not the time to think about Twilight that way.

Now the cards danced to her tune. They settled into place and the hourglass now reversed and the sand began to pour and the world turned blue one last time. The Jack of Shadows flickered past.

*************

DEFINITELY IMPOSED BY THE HOURGLASS VISION:

We were in some sort of Northman style mead hall; a vast feast was spread out before us, but no one was here. It was odd, though; one side of the table was full of human foods, the other side laden with foods for ponies. Sweetie stood by my side, and stared, drooling, at the pony side.

"Don't, it's a trap," I told her. I was in control of me, though. Not along for the ride. What is going on now?

"But it..."

"TRAP," I said firmly. "Don't touch anything, eat anything, I'd tell you not to even look, but we'd probably walk into a pit if we went blind," I told her. I could feel everything was laden with magic.

A pony came out of the shadows. She was a unicorn mare, red coated with a multi-colored mane, just like Celestia's. Her cutie mark was a golden goblet filled with a bubbling red liquid. "Hello, my little ponies," she said with a kindly voice.

"Are you Marjorie in disguise?" Sweetie asked.

Good thinking. I don't think so, but wise of you to ask.

The pony laughed. "I am Cunning Thought, and I cannot claim Marjorie among my children, though I am proud of her for showing some wit for once. Normally, her solution to everything is either to bite it or to jump out from ambush and bite it by surprise. Why she was chosen for her office, I do not understand. But I guess everyone grows up eventually." She sounded vastly amused. Indeed, it reminded me of Celestia.

"Are you Celestia's mother?" Sweetie asked.

"Yes," Cunning Thought said.

FUCK, IT IS LOKI.

"Get behind me now," I told Sweetie, despite knowing it was hopeless and hoping the hourglass would yank us back quickly.

"Now, now, do you really think I would hurt a child?" Cunning Thought said mournfully.

"I know what Hule is like, Father of Lies," I said harshly.

"Now, now, 'Marcus', you hardly have any place to call someone Father of Lies. Especially when I am in a female body," Cunning Thought said, clearly amused rather than angry.

I do not think I have ever been more fucked than this or if I have, I don't know why I still exist or don't remember it.

FUCK ME.

"I can see why Celestia wants you, though. I give you two my blessing. Though I advise you to alternate taking each other's form. Centaur children have all the problems of foals AND of human children." Her voice was playful, and... I can't believe I was actually GLAD she got off the topic of my identity. She stepped closer and I backed up, gently pushing Sweetie back as she peeked around my legs.

"I'm not looking to create centaurs!" I said fervently.

"Well, Celestia can easily ensure either of you become whatever you like, pony, human, elf, Oard..."

Sweetie's eyes opened wide. "Wait, I thought Ditzy and Dinky just hallucinated those things!"

"He's...," I began.

"SHE," Cunning Thought said. "Don't make me call *you* 'she', 'Marcus'." Don't ask me how I could hear the quote marks. I KNEW they were there. It's all about the tone of gently mocking doubt.

"Don't turn Marcus into a woman! Rarity wouldn't be happy at all!" Sweetie said urgently.

"She is just messing with you, Sweetie," I said.

"There's one in Ponyville," Cunning Thought said.

Now Sweetie looked really worried. "Who?"

"Well, now, secrets aren't kept or revealed for free," Cunning Thought said. "I know quite a bit, but as they say, measure for measure. The worker is worthy of his hire."

Damn you, I thought. I am not so easily played, but Sweetie is like a violin.

"I have a little money," Sweetie said, looking in her saddlebags.

"Sweetie, you can't just trust every adult pony that comes along," I told her. "She's trying to trick you."

"But she's Celestia's mother," Sweetie said, confused. "She wouldn't lie to us."

"I love my daughter very much and I'm proud of what she's accomplished," Cunning Thought said warmly. "She loves all her little ponies and they love her, just like my people love me and the freedom I bring them."

That's one way of looking at it.

Not a very HONEST way, but a way.

"The people of Hule...," I began.

"Love me and worship me by their own choice. Chaos is in their souls," Cunning Thought said. "Like it is in yours. Don't you love the freedom of the open road with nothing to tie you down?"

"Yes, but I don't go causing trouble for other people," I said. This could be the most foolish thing I ever said.

Cunning Thought fell down laughing, rolled against the feast table and a chicken leg fell on her face.

"I don't get the joke," Sweetie said. "Does this mean you need a cutie mark to get it?"

"I don't like to hurt people and YOU DO," I told her. "I know how many people you've lied to and betrayed!"

Cunning Thought tried to stand, fell down again and now collapsed the entire table on herself, but she kept laughing.

Sweetie rushed forwards to help her and I, reluctantly, joined her. We pulled the table and the food off her; the food turned to spoiled food and rot as we tossed it aside and Sweetie stared.

"I have not had that good a laugh in a long time," Cunning Thought said. "You are so full of irony, I am surprised you are strong enough to move your own feet."

"I still don't get it," Sweetie said.

Good. "Whatever you have in mind, we will not fall for it," I said. "Sweetie, I don't know how Cunning Thought hijacked your spell, but you have to tell it to end."

"Now, now, Sweetie is not the only shaper of this spell," Cunning Thought said. "This is not the first time you've danced with the Jack of Shadows and I doubt it will be your last. Look me in the eye and tell me you don't prefer to defeat your foes with cunning and wit and sometimes deceptions." Her voice was very serious now. "To turn them against each other and pull the wool over their eyes."

"It's better than violence," I said softly. "But if you lie to everyone, then no one can trust you. Or at least they'd be wiser not to."

"Marcus never lies to me," Sweetie said firmly, flicking the last bit of gunk off Cunning Thought. "He trusts me and I trust him."

"Everyone lies, even the best of us, Sweetie, and that's no lie," Cunning Thought said sadly, rising.

Damn you. It's true, but it's not... she's just a child. Better to remove the blinders slowly so the light doesn't blind.

"You should visit your daughter some time," Sweetie said and pony-hugged her leg.

She blinked at Sweetie, then looked at me with a look of 'AHAHAHAHA'. Then she smiled sweetly at Sweetie. "Thank you for helping me, Sweetie. Hold on, I have a present for you." She cantered back into the shadows.

"Sweetie, we have to go," I said. "Her presents are dangerous!"

"But... she's Celestia's mother! She can't be evil!" Sweetie said.

Bloody hell, how do I explain all this to a child? "Please, trust me," I told her. "You have to end this."

She hesitated, then said, "Okay, Marcus." She sounded reluctant, and I gave a sigh of relief. She concentrated and the world turned blue

"I couldn't have brought you here if you hadn't already tied yourself to Chaos!," Cunning Thought shouted. "And say hello to Father Time for me!"

Then we saw the Jack of Waves. And we were gone.

**********

STILL NOT REALITY, DAMMIT:

Father Time was a grey-coated, white maned old stallion wearing a crown and sitting on a throne in a way most Ponies can't manage. He looked rather uncomfortable. He had a golden hourglass as his Cutie Mark, which made Sweetie gasp. "Are you Ditzy's boyfriend's father?"

He blinked. "Shouldn't you be dead?" he said to me.

Thanks, Father Time. Thanks A LOT. I bowed anyway. "I am Samus Marcus of Thyatis and this is my friend, Sweetie Belle. I believe we triggered something that belongs to you. My apologies. If you can tell us how to stop, we will happily leave you to your work."

There was another throne with another pony; this one sat more comfortably like a human, despite pony form. She was raven maned and chestnut coated with bright brown eyes. Laurel crowned her head and her cutie mark was a white egg with a crimson serpent twined around it. "There are no accidents in time, as my dear love would say. I am Mother Nature, who your friend Fluttershy serves."

Also known as Djaea, she is the patron of all druids. She can be both benevolent or malevolent, as the whim takes her, though she is Neutral, rather than Chaotic. There are patterns to her deeds if you have the wisdom to look for them.

"You must be really super-nice then," Sweetie said, bowing to her and Father Time. I did the same.

"You are a sweet child. This door was meant for another, but I am pleased you came through it," Mother Nature said.

Father Time studied me, then his eyes widened slightly. "What on Mystara ARE you?" Father Time said to me.

Thanks, Father Time. Thanks a lot.

"He's Samus Marcus and he's... very important to Rarity and me." She looked at me hesitantly.

"I am Celestia and Luna's special agent, marked by them and sworn to them," I said, flourishing my hat. "And Rarity and Sweetie are indeed important to me as well."

Sweetie looked relieved.

Father Time and Mother Nature studied each other, communing silently. "I see what happened," Father Time said now. "Tell Celestia..."

"Oh, and Cunning Thought said to say hi to you!" Sweetie said. "She's Celestia's mother! You probably don't know her."

His eyes flickered in a way that made me VERY nervous. But then he said, "I will remember that." His voice was grave. "You are human, yes?"

"In this life," I told him. "Apparently, I have reincarnated a lot, and I don't remember most of it." I frowned at that.

"Are you relatives of Princess Celestia?" Sweetie asked.

"We are Immortals; we were once mortal like you, but by long effort, we came to take our current place among them," Father Time said kindly to her. "Anyone might aspire to join us one day, though few, very few will do so."

"Ooooo," Sweetie said, a light in her eyes.

Oh bloody hell.

"Tell Fluttershy I am very proud of her," Mother Nature said. "And to keep up the good work."

"I will."

"And I ask her to save Dragonfly's life if she can," Mother Nature continued.

"I intend to ensure they all survive if I can," I told her. "They have been played for puppets and fools and I..." I grimaced. "Have been that too." I stared at the ground, frustrated. I don't even know for sure what all Bastet hoped to accomplish, whether she had any real interest in success or if I was just an experiment.

I felt a degree of anger over how Marjorie was using them that surprised me. I try to avoid passion. It only gets you in trouble. Unless its fear, and then it sometimes... sometimes gets you out. But I don't LIKE fear. I am so afraid and I hate it.

"I want to help my other sister even if I don't understand how there are two Rarities," Sweetie said.

"I cannot see how it will end," Father Time said, studying me and Sweetie.

"That just makes it more interesting, dear," Mother Nature said, laughing.

"Tell Celestia we will be here when the Hourglass is activated CORRECTLY," Father Time said. "And to please try to avoid more accidental activations."

"I'm really sorry!" Sweetie said urgently. "Can you tell us why we saw a red dragon in it?"

"That is the enemy you soon must face," Father Time said, getting off his throne and onto all fours. He raised a hoof. "She waits in the Broken Lands," he continued. "But you knew that already. And you have seen what will happen if you lose."

"Or if you win," Mother Nature said.

"I like that one MUCH better," Sweetie said.

Me too. Even if it looks like you were about to... what the hell was that giant hand???

I know little of the Shadowelves, but I have never heard they worship a giant hand with a huge echo-y voice.

This world is weird sometimes.

"Can you tell me what my Cutie Mark will be?" Sweetie asked.

"It depends on the future you choose," Father Time said.

"And the company you keep," Mother Nature said. "It will come sooner than you think."

Way to be totally vague, guys. Way.

Then Father Time waved his hoof and reality came back.

******************

The entire deck was spread out around us and I was still holding onto Sweetie protectively, when reality came back. Celestia and Luna were here now. EVERYONE was here now, including a lance of Warponies.

Ack.

"I am so sorry, please don't turn me into a duck!" Sweetie said desperately.

"That's Twilight's job, random transformations," Celestia said cheerfully, then nuzzled Sweetie, while Luna looked stern. "You should feel proud of yourself, you got this little device to work," Celestia said.

"Father Time told me not to play with it any more and that he's waiting for it to be activated right," Sweetie said. "I'm sorry, I just wanted to help."

"You did," I told her.

Even the CMC are here, along with Ditzy, Lyra, and Bon-Bon. How long were we... doing whatever that was exactly?

"We saw a bunch of futures, including what happens if we succeed and what if we fail." I licked my lips. "I don't know how, but if we fail, she takes over Sind somehow and they invade. Led by the Elements of Power."

"And if you succeed?" Luna asked.

"WE BECOME TOTALLY AWESOME," Sweetie said. "Beating up evil giant hands and breaking their machines!"

"We're good at breaking things!" Apple Bloom said.

"Evil giant hands?" Luna said, confused.

"LOOK!" Scootaloo said, pointing at me. No wait, not me, SWEETIE.

Sweetie had a spread of five cards on her flanks, but you couldn't see which cards. Instead, you saw the back of the cards. Each of which had a blue shield with a yellow pony rampant and in the upper right and lower left corner, a blue hourglass.

Sweetie looked at herself and her breath caught.

"YES!!!!!!" she shouted and hugged me and her friends and Celestia and basically started working on everyone in the universe, even the warponies.

"Dammit, I thought a library would be boring but she got a cool cutie mark!" Scootaloo said, aggravated.

"Don't worry," Apple Bloom said. "We'll get ours soon," she said. But she looked jealous.

"It was in the city of the Shadowelves, some sort of giant hand monster that could make echoey voices in your head," I said. "There were these sparkling blue gems with eerie light and a machine tapping them for something and..."

Celestia and Luna frowned in unison. "Oh really," Luna said. "We will go over this later."

When people not cleared for big secrets are not around.

"Did you see my friends?" Pinkie asked urgently.

"I saw Rarity's father and Prince Blueblood and Helga," I said. "I think I was sort of inside his head. And I saw a future where Pinkamena becomes a fashion model working for Rarity. Or maybe for Clarity. Or both."

"I was inside Helga," Sweetie said.

Ivan snickered. DAMMIT, IVAN.

Lyra had a hoof over her mouth. But she clearly wanted to laugh.

"Was he okay?" Rarity asked urgently.

"Your father was fine, but battle was immanent. We had all vanished, but Helga brought some of Blackhill's forces to Equestria's aid for reasons never explained," I said.

"She was angry that the bad people had... she thought they'd killed you," Sweetie said hesitantly.

I suddenly wondered how much she knew now. Aaaargh.

"And she knew you were a friend of Equestria, so she wanted to help save it, since you'd.... died fighting for it." Sweetie shivered. "You too, Ivan. You two were her best friends in the world besides her husband. She loves you both very much." Her voice was urgent.

"That's Helga," Ivan said, smiling. "She and Marcus and I were like the five of you, back in our younger days."

"Why'd she leave you?" Twist asked, worried.

"She fell in love and wanted to get married and Darien didn't want to wander the world. So she gave it up for him," I told Twist.

Lyra made mumbly noises.

He wouldn't go to Boasttown either, Lyra.

"I hope she's happy with that," Twist said. "I don't want to give up my friends ever."

Sooner or later, you do. Which sucks. "She's still a part of our lives," I told Twist. "Very few people are lucky enough to get to be with their friends forever. But it doesn't mean you stop being friends. But unless you all marry each other," I said, then regretted even beginning the sentence, "each of you will share at least some of your life with someone else." Unless they abandon you like Dinky's father did. Bastard. Or they're like me and all their love affairs end in FIRE.

Scootaloo stared at the floor and I wondered what she was thinking. "I'm NEVER getting married," she said.

"Oh, Dinky," Sweetie said urgently. "Celestia's mother said that Oards are real and there's one in Ponyville!"

FUCK ME.

Dinky and Ditzy both looked utterly panicked. "He's not... Tell me the Oard doesn't have an hourglass cutie mark," Ditzy squeaked out.

"She was trying to trick you to make trouble! It's how she IS," I told Sweetie. "Ditzy, Dinky, I am sure she was just trying to get you two in trouble," I said urgently.

"Mother was there?" Celestia said, frowning intensely.

"Does she have a cutie mark of a golden goblet with a bubbling red fluid in it?" I asked.

Ivan made a strangled noise. "That's her."

"You've met Celestia's mother?" I said in surprise.

"I know the signs of the Immortals. I can study seriously if it's IMPORTANT," Ivan said. "Sweetie, you can't trust anything that person said." His voice was urgent.

"My mother is not very nice, unfortunately," Celestia said sadly.

"Tell us everything she said," Luna said firmly.

I looked around and tried to subtly indicate the presence of people like the CMC and the warponies.

Luna let the warponies return to their stations and had Ditzy take the CMC, except for Sweetie, for a 'snack'. Then we told everyone what we'd seen. I was surprised they had Lyra and Bon-Bon stay but I left it to their judgment

"I don't understand what's wrong with your mother," Sweetie finally said.

"She is very mean and I am still trying to show her the error of her ways," Celestia said.

"It's a longterm project," Luna said.

"Well, maybe it's working," Sweetie said. "She was nice to me but Marcus said we had to run away so I made us run."

"Old Nervous Nellie time again," Applejack said, grinning a little.

"It was wise to flee," Luna said. Applejack blinked and I smiled a little. Thanks, boss.

Luna now nuzzled me gently as Celestia did the same with Sweetie. 'We have to ensure Father doesn't get his hooks into Sweetie and her friends.' Her voice echoed in my mind as she wove a spell to let us communicate privately.

'I know,' I told her, mind-to-mind. 'Just tell me what to do.'

'She trusts you very much,' Luna said thoughtfully.

'She is young and naive and trusts adults. And I am approved by her sister, who she idolizes. I just want to help her, but it would easy for someone to gain her trust and abuse it.' She's a nice kid. But like most kids... especially pony kids... she trusts too easily. 'Would Blueblood really get put in charge of an army like that?'

'Not as a first, second, or third choice, but if enough of the high command died, possibly yes. There are many who would follow his name still if the call for war came,' Luna said. 'It would be a sign of desperation, though.'

Seeing he has some decency sucks; it's hard to hate someone once you've seen their better side and for what he did to Rarity, I want to hate him without remorse.

Damn you, conscience.

'There is a light in every darkness and darkness in every light', Luna said to me. 'I did not understand that, once.' Her voice was freighted with sorrow. But then it lightened. 'I wish to be the one who finds that light and helps others to find it in themselves. That they may walk out of the darkness and into the light once more. There is darkness in all of us and sometimes it is a useful tool. But we must master it instead of it riding us. You and I, we have made mistakes. But we can fix them. You did well, my little human.' She smiled at that and I laughed softly.

'Thank you. I have a soft spot for children,' I told her. 'And Sweetie is very lovable' I paused. 'So you and Celestia hope to reform your fa... mother? Many have tried and failed, you know. It is dangerous even to try.'

'I know. But if Celestia had not believed in me, I would not be here now,' Luna said. 'Mother has fallen much farther, but we must try. For her good and ours. But that is a story for another day. For now, let's focus on Marjorie.'

I nodded to her. 'That's wise,' I told her. 'Are you going to stay for the star-gazing?'

'I think so, since I am here anyway,' Luna said and released me. "Well, we should call the kids back, so Twilight can teach them and us a lesson about the stars."

"I'm sure you know more than me," Twilight said modestly.

"I would like to hear it from you; I talk to myself all the time," Luna said. "Even if talking to yourself means you always have the best listener."

She and Pinkie laughed at that. The rest laughed a little. I'd heard the joke too many times.

The CMC soon returned and we headed to stargaze.

************

Sweetie and I got taken to Luna's office and she and Celestia went over what we'd seen in excruciating detail. Then Sweetie was sent to go to bed and I stayed.

"I think we may have to try to lure them out," I said. "Though I don't know how... those futures were contradictory, so I assume there is some way to get around us losing in the Broken Lands."

"We will spend time studying and preparing before rushing into anything," Celestia said. "Luna and I have agents who will gather more information."

"We can research things like more scrying magic and defenses to try and ensure we can get surprise on them," I said. "With my knowledge of dirty tricks and experience of this kind of evil maniac's fortresses, Twilight's knowledge of arcane theory and vast power, and Rarity's precision control of magic, I bet we could whip up some interesting spells of use for this."

"We had best not rush into things, though most of the futures, you did seem to succeed," Celestia said. "It would be better if we could set a trap of our own devising."

"I agree," Luna said.

I leaned back in my chair. "So what do you want me to do?"

"Work with Twilight and Rarity on magic," Luna said. "We will need to gather more intelligence, I think."

"Of course," I said. "They're fun to work with."

Celestia gave me the look which means I am about to be screwed with.

Dammit.

"Looking forward to a threesome?" she said cheerfully.

Luna buried her face in her hooves. "Celestia!"

"I don't think I'm enough of a stallion for you and Luna at the same time," I told her, trying to counter-strike.

Luna turned red. "Marcus!"

"Oh my, you do dream big," Celestia said. "I'm just teasing, dear," she said to Luna, then nuzzled her gently. "I'm sorry if I embarrassed you. You know I love you."

"I love you too, big sister," Luna said, now smiling brightly.

"Is there anything that needs to be done for Sweetie?" I asked. "I know sort of how cutie marks work, but I don't know if this means she's going to... well, humans have all sorts of issues during puberty."

"Yes," Celestia said. "There are health issues but Rarity will handle that. The biggest concern is to avoid too much friction between her and her two dear friends. They are likely to feel frustrated she got it before they did. So please help them to deal with it. And help Sweetie with her magical studies."

"Of course," I said. I was now reminded. "Did you turn my tattoo into a Cutie Mark?" I asked. "Or what?"

"You don't remember how you got it, right?" Luna said softly.

"I dimly remember winning a huge pile of money from dwarves who tried to cheat me. Then I blew it all on my friends and women and the usual idiocy. I think I got the tattoo but I don't remember being tattooed."

"Bastet put it on you, I think," Luna said. "It anchored you to the sword and the reincarnation. It also was, I think, an effort by her to produce something like a Cutie Mark, but it didn't work right."

"Producing chaos," I said. "Loki... said I was tied to Chaos."

"Yes," Luna said. "You still are. With time, though, you should gain control of it. I did my best to fix what she did."

"Am I... going to turn into a pony?" I asked. I would rather be human.

"No," Luna said. "Should you choose to take on a pony form temporarily, you will now be very hard to tell apart from one of us, but I know you prefer being human, and I will not force any sort of permanent change on you. That being said, you will likely sometimes find it advantageous or useful to take on a pony form, working for us. Also, if you end up having to reincarnate by the sword, we cannot control what happens. That is in the hands of Mother Nature. If you want, we can talk to Fluttershy tomorrow about recharging it, if she is willing. Celestia and I cannot do it."

"Because the Sphere of Matter handles reincarnation?" I asked.

"Yes," Luna said. "I leave the choice in your hands."

Celestia opened her mouth.

"The sword will eventually recharge. On the other hand, I know you are tired of turning into different people. But it could be very useful for an emergency," Luna said. "The choice is in your hands. You work for us, but you are a friend, not a slave. I want to leave you as much control over your life and destiny as I can within the limits of being our sworn man. Freedom is important to me," she said, her voice turning urgent on the last sentence.

"We prefer to guide more than command," Celestia said.

"I know, it's why I was willing to swear to you," I said softly. "And why Ivan likes you. But you know how it is with him."

"A little," Luna said. "Tell us more."

So I told them about Ivan and his hopes. Things I hadn't even known until this trip. I have to tell him about that one vision.

"I approve," Luna said, smiling. "Passion for the freedom of your people is a good thing. One day, I hope, all of Mystara will be free."

It's hard for me to dream like that. All my dreams end in fire. But I hope Ivan's dream comes true.

And that I haven't been killed yet when it happens.

************

Afterwards, I was going to head to bed, but Rainbow Dash found me and we ended up wandering into the gardens. "What's up, Dash?"

"Hey, you've, umm... dated a lot of people since, you're... really old, right?"

Ahahah.

"Yes," I told her. "I'm not so sure a lot of my past experience is a good guide except for 'things not to do'," I told her as we walked along.

"You and me both," she mumbled and I patted her head.

"Anyway, what's up?" I asked.

"I... umm... ahaha..." She started to become more agitated.

I blinked. "What?"

"I... see... umm... Is it... ahahah..." Rainbow Dash was practically vibrating.

"You having some kind of problem with Soarin'?" I asked.

"Not a problem. Just wondering...umm... I mean, I know you two... umm... aahahahahaha!" Rainbow Dash suddenly bolted. "I hear my mother calling!" she shouted and flew off.

....

I wonder if I look like that sometimes.

It would explain a lot.

***********

"I never used to encounter Immortals like this," I mumbled, then said more clearly to Fluttershy, "Anyway, so she wants you to save Dragonfly if you can."

"She means well, she's just crazy," Pinkie said.

I was in their room, leaning on the wall, while they were camped out on their bed. They were sharing a room.

"I will do my very best," Fluttershy said very seriously. "She is my sister, and I will save her."

"I have a lot of people to save," Pinkie said, studying herself in the mirror hung on the wall. "Celestia said she will help me."

"Good. Celestia likes to drive me crazy but she's a good person and she always tries to protect ponies," I said.

"I'm a little jealous you got to see her and I didn't," Fluttershy said, then put a hoof over her mouth.

"Well, it was an accident and they said to stop monkeying around without knowing what we were doing," I told her. "So you might have gotten in trouble."

I yawned. "I had best go to bed. Just wanted to tell you that, since she told me to."

"Thank you," Fluttershy said. "Sleep well and let the bed bugs bite, they need to eat too."

Druids are weird.

***********

"You might try talking to Dash," I told Rarity. "She seems to have some kind of relationship issue that she tried to talk to me about but she totally came unglued and tried to claim her mother was calling her." I hung up my coat. Rarity had already changed into her nightrobe. Sweetie was busy shuffling cards, dealing, then gathering and reshuffling.

"I would be glad to," Rarity said. "I had some coltfriends in school, so I know of such matters. Dash tends to either be very confident or very panicked, I've noticed."

I know that feeling. "I'm going to bathe," I said, heading for the bathroom.

"I can help!" Sweetie said, then sagged. "Oh, right."

I ruffled her mane. "Thanks, Sweetie. I'll be fine." I touched my back. "Being human does have its advantages."

"Bathing alone sounds boring," Sweetie said.

"Ever made a house of cards?" I told her.

"A what?"

I showed her the basics. "Work on that while I bathe," I told her and she got to work.

Rarity smiled at me and I smiled back. Sweetie's a good kid. A kid, but a good kid.

I felt a burst of magic in there while I was busy doing my hair. "Is everything okay?" I shouted.

"It's a letter!" Rarity shouted.

Okay. Ahh, bathing, one of the most wonderful of things. Soon, I was clean and happy, despite being reminded I now have DOUBLE tattoo action. I could feel the magic in it.

For one paranoid moment, I thought someone was in the room with me, but instead I heard Sweetie shout, "Dumb cards!"

"Just build it up again!" I shouted. "It's in the nature of cards to fall, but you can just pick them up and try again! It's persistence which leads to success!"

Or sometimes, blind luck, but you can't count on that.

'I couldn't have brought you here if you hadn't already tied yourself to Chaos!' Loki's voice echoed in my head. Ugh. I know why, but...

"Marcus, are you okay?" Rarity asked, sounding worried.

Great, I'm making noises and not realizing it.

"I'm fine," I said. "Just thinking about all the weird things we saw on our little journey."

I finished bathing, clad in my nice nightrobe, and came out. "Being clean is a wonderful thing."

"It certainly is," Rarity said.

I sat down on the bed, studying Sweetie's house of cards. "Nicely done," I said.

A few seconds later, it collapsed.

'bring Chaos'. Fuck you, Loki.

"Dammit!" Sweetie said.

"You shouldn't curse," I told her. "Who did you get a letter from, Rarity?"

"Your friend Helga."

FUCK.

"What about?"

"Girl talk," she said playfully.

Double FUCK.

Please, Helga, you had better be discreet.

"Now, lie down," Rarity said. "I'm going to give you a massage."

I was soon making happy noises.

Sweetie now leaned on the side of the bed. "Marcus told Mother Time and Father Nature... I mean Father Time and Mother Nature that we're very important to him." She smiled brightly.

I turned a little red. "Yes, I did," I said into my pillow.

I could FEEL Rarity's smile. "You're both very important to me too," she said.

I tried to read her mind. That could mean 'good buddy'... Helga would say that, after all. Or it could mean 'turn into a pony and TAKE ME NOW' or perhaps a more child-safe version of that sentiment. I don't even know if... I don't really want to know.

"I'm sure Father is going to like you very much," Sweetie said.

"He's going to hate me. I saw the inside of his mind and he is going to hate me," I said, then sighed into the pillow.

Rarity frowned. "Why?"

"He's the stern, tough type who doesn't like anyone who shows fear, like me."

Rarity sighed. "Yes, but you are not a coward. You may be scared, but you stood up for me and for everyone. He may have to be won over, but we WILL win him over." There was a steel in her voice which would brook no denial.

"You helped me get my Cutie Mark!" Sweetie said. "I'm sure he'll be grateful!"

"Just be careful you don't rub it in your friends' faces," I told her. "You might point out that they're part of it, since your group's mark is part of yours."

"Oooh, maybe they should try what I did," Sweetie said.

Rarity said, "They have to find their own but I think it's a sign you all are linked by destiny."

"I hope we'll be friends forever," she told us fervently.

Rarity and I glanced at each other, then Rarity said, "We hope so too." Her voice was kind, but I knew she understands.

"Oooh, now you can tell me all the secrets Cutie mark holders get to know!" Sweetie said.

"Once your friends get theirs, we'll tell you all at once, so none of you feel left out," I said quickly.

Ideally, Marjorie will eat me before then.

We soon went to bed and slept well.

****************

The next two days was a combination of studying how to use the horn Celestia had given me and working on various kinds of spell research with Rarity and Twilight. Twilight's a good teacher, and I could tell she enjoyed the hell out of it.

We also spent some time with Dona Carlotta, when she wasn't busy on the trade negotiations. It was nice to see her but it also made me nervous. Her boyfriend, Herr Otto, seems like a decent guy; he came around as well. He kept giving me funny looks for some reason, though.

Not 'I think you're Erik and I want 50,000 gold' looks but definitely he thought something odd about me. I don't know why.

The CMC were plotting something. I know the signs of sneaky plans and they were sneaky ALL OVER. They spent a lot of time making candy with Pinkie and Bon-Bon, and the four of us (myself, Rarity, Spike, and Twilight) kept getting called on to test various flavors. Some of it was a disaster (who thought horseradish was a good candy flavor?) and some was quite good (a lemon candy that Apple Bloom dreamed up).

The others were busy training, getting supplies and in the case of Applejack, fretting about her farm and constantly bugging Spike to mail Big Macintosh about things. We were busy preparing and studying and finding spells which would be useful. Especially we worked on anti-scrying magic. Without it, we couldn't achieve surprise.

Rarity and I took a walk in the gardens one afternoon to stretch our legs. Twilight was attending some ministry meeting at Celestia's invitation. Probably getting them used to the day when Twilight becomes one of the Princesses.

Spike had said he was going to his favorite donut shop, but in fact, he'd dressed up in his top hat and cloak and fake mustache and was stalking us. It was cute, really.

I was about to pluck a flower and place it over Rarity's ear when I realized I might get in trouble for that. The temptation was strong but the last thing I need is to give Spike an excuse to get me in trouble.

I could buy a flower, though; I have money. What an odd and wonderful feeling.

"Is it okay to pluck the flowers?" I asked Rarity.

"Probably best not to disturb them," Rarity said. "I'm not sure."

Fluttershy came into sight; she was busy playing with several bunnies and looking happy. Rarity stared, then looked relieved.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"Nothing," she said. "I guess they're used to her now."

We dodged another way and came to the castle hedge maze. It's huge. "Oooh, a maze," I said. "I like mazes."

"Then let's venture in," she said and we began to wander its highways and byways; at one point, we walked in on two ponies kissing, leading us to run off down another hallway.

"I don't think they noticed," Rarity said, looking a little flustered.

"They likely won't notice anything for a while," I said.

"EEEE!!!" Spike shouted behind us.

"Or maybe not," I said and we both laughed. There were sounds of shouting and running ponies.

That's one less pursuer.

There were various statues of famous ponies; some of them Rarity knew to tell me about, some not. But we whiled away our time pleasantly, chatting and looking at all the art which decorated it.

Then we came upon a strange thing, a large 'room' in the maze. There was a small building here, made of mud and straw bricks, with an enchantment upon it, protecting it from wind and weather. There were statues inside it and outside it, humans engaged in mundane tasks: a middle aged woman and her daughter were grinding corn down into cornmeal, a man was brewing some sort of alcohol, another woman was busy baking bread inside, a man was busy tanning a deerhide and yet another man was forging copper. Several children were weaving baskets.

It was like a miniature museum for a long gone lifestyle; the women all had their hair coiled up in fancy buns; the men all had their hair cut short and some of it in the back which was longer was somehow forced upward, kind of like a peacock's tail. Each of the men had one or more feathers in their hair; each of the women one or more flowers.

There were signs, which explained this was the 'Memorial of the Fallen', a tribute to the humans who had once dwelt in and around the plateau but who had been wiped out by the Orcs who had brought the Ponies here as slaves.

"Shouldn't this be in a more public place?" I asked.

"There's a museum down in the city," a voice said from behind the building.

We both jumped and the old pony came around; he was clearly a gardener. "The Princesses come here about once a week for a while," he said. He looked us up and down. "Lady Rarity," he said, bowing. "And who are you, young man?"

"I'm Samus Marcus, a unicorn human, sworn man of the Princesses."

"Oh, THAT human," he said knowingly.

Fuck.

"What does that mean?"

"I heard Princess Celestia fancied a human by that name. Very strange, but she bears so much weight, she has the right to indulge herself a little." He looked me up and down assessingly.

"She is just teasing," Rarity said firmly.

He looked at Rarity, then at me.

"I am sure she is not serious about it," I told him. "It's just friendly flirtation."

Now Rarity frowned. Aaargh, a million ways to interpret that, dammit.

"Well, enjoy your visit," he said. "I'm just washing the statues. They tend to collect a lot of dirt."

"We'll leave you to your work," I said to him.

We walked on, but I felt a little melancholy for the fallen. At least someone remembers them.

**************

The center had a gazebo with several swinging benches. Study showed they were the right size for two ponies to sit sphinx-style, facing each other. We sat down on one of them.

"Did you ever find out what Dash was so agitated about?" I asked.

"Overly jumpy relationship stuff. Soarin' has duties and practice and can't spend as much time with her as he could on the mission and she was feeling jumpy over whether this meant they were through or doomed and so on," Rarity said. "I was able to help her calm down and think it through."

"Cool," I said.

"So we're going dancing with them tonight," Rarity said.

"Okay," I said. May be a bit awkward for me as I'll likely be the only human there unless Ivan comes.

"Lyra says the place is VERY good. She and Bon-Bon are coming. In fact, we'll probably have quite the herd," Rarity said.

"That's fine," I said, staring off at the walls of the labyrinth, huge green hedges with little white and blue flowers.

"What's on your mind?" she said softly.

Wondering what's on YOURS, I thought. Could we have a relationship? I like her, but, you know, pony. Of course shapeshifting but then she'd want me to be a pony sometimes too. She'd have the right. I don't know... The idea boggles me.

But I like Rarity a lot.

"Every time I have something good, it blows up, or I blow it," I told her. "I'm just worrying in a circle." I sighed.

She patted my knee. "Don't be afraid. You are safe here. I know you've seen a lot of death." She sounded saddened by that. "But you're safe here and with us. And you know Celestia and Luna will protect you."

I'm carrying one of them on each hip.

Figuratively.

The problem, really, is that I can totally see hanging out with Helga like this. It was never romantic with us; I wasn't her type. But we did a lot of stuff together, even slept in the same bed; when you're an adventurer, you don't even split the party for sleeping.

I'm not brave enough to ask and I don't know what answer I want.

I put my hand on her hoof on my knee. "Thank you," I said to her.

If she was human...

But I could wish that until the cows come home.

I am going to have to come clean eventually.

We sat like that for a little while.

Sudden Celestia. "Hello, Marcus. I'm done stealing Twilight from you." She draped herself over me. "Now I will steal you for myself."

Twilight now came up cheerfully. "Hello, Rarity, Marcus." She looked at our hand and hoof on my knee and she smiled. "Sorry to interrupt you, but we need to get back to work."

Celestia was studying that herself thoughtfully and I said, "Are we going to go make magical hybrid babies now?" I said cheerfully. Best to get it over with.

Twilight and Rarity both froze, and Celestia said, "My, my, how forward you are," teasingly. "Do you say that to all the girls?"

"Only the best," I teased her back. Don't panic. She'll stop once I stop freaking out. "So how many babies are we talking?"

Twilight looked panicked. "I'm sorry, Celestia, I need them RIGHT NOW."

"Oh my, you are so passionate in your desire," Celestia said and Twilight turned red.

"Not like THAT," Twilight said, tugging on both Rarity and I. "We really have a lot of work to do before we go dancing tonight."

"So do I, since I am coming," Celestia said.

...

"Really?" Twilight said.

"I will have to disguise myself, but the Crusaders have told me I MUST come. And as a good princess, I must help my subjects."

Okay, now I am curious.

"Rarity, I will need you before we go to dress me up to look nice but not so regal it gives me away," Celestia said. "Once you dress Marcus and Twilight up."

"I can dress myself," Twilight said, sounding embarrassed.

"Yes, but Rarity will improve on that," Celestia said. "You should look your best for all the handsome young stallions who will no doubt flock to you." She gave me a look out of one eye.

What? I want Twilight to be happy and she's better off without someone who has lied to her. Even if...

Don't think such things. I deserve to have her get angry with me. It would be too easy if she forgave me just like that.

But I have to tell her anyway. Somehow. Without killing myself in terror.

"They'll be flocking to Rarity," Twilight told my feet.

"Darling, you will have all the men you could ever want when I'm done with you," Rarity said, grinning.

Twilight smiled nervously, and Celestia and Rarity had this eerily similar smile. I think I might have had it too. It's for her own good, really. It's best she forget about me.

Except I have to tell her eventually and she's going to be so hurt.

DAMMIT.

"We'd better go work," Twilight said, grabbing us and we let ourselves be taken.

*************

That evening, after I got suited up, I got dragged off by the CMC to a room. Ivan's, I think. I now realized he had it to himself.

Big Macintosh was here, looking a little overwhelmed as the fillies bounced around trying to suit him up.

They're trying to set up Celestia with BIG MACINTOSH?

Okay, he seems an okay guy but... Okay, I have no clue what Celestia goes for when not teasing me.

"Hey, Big Macintosh," I said. "So you're the mystery date for Celestia?"

"For Princess CELESTIA?" he said in shock.

The fillies laughed nervously.

"What, you didn't tell him?" I said, hands on my hips.

"We were going to!" Apple Bloom protested.

I buried my face in my hands. "I am so sorry," I told him. "I assumed they'd gotten a willing volunteer."

"It's okay," he said. "I just... does Princess Celestia know?" He sounded just a touch nervous.

The CMC tried to look as cute and innocent as possible.

I breathed in and out. "Celestia will be very happy to see you," I told him. If I have to kick her in the ass to get her to be happy. "She likes big, strong ponies." She does NOW.

If she can embarrass me all the time, she owes me. I am going to make this a good date for them for his hopeful sake if it kills me.

Even if, and probably nothing will come of it long term.

"Oh no!" Twist suddenly said.

"What?" I said.

"We forgot to get Luna a date too!" Twist said.

"She's coming too?"

"Yes," Twist said. "I think."

"Umm... it's such short notice..."

"I will find her a date," I told them. "Find a male pony to help you; I don't know how any of this goes on a pony. I'm sure one of the butlers can help you."

Ivan, you dragged me into this whole giant chain of events. Time for you to be an escort.

Where am I going to find anything decent for him to wear at this hour?

Dammit.

************

"Don Diego, you are a kind man," I told him. Even better, Silver Fork, Diego's butler, was off sprucing up Big Macintosh.

He had supplied Ivan with a nice suit and we were getting him all dressed up. He'll look Belcadizian, but since Belcadizians are hot, that's a good thing.

Ivan looked thoughtfully at Don Diego, who blinked. "Yes?"

"Hell, why not," Ivan said. "I should look the part." He got his potion of Polymorphing and took a long swallow. To my confusion, he seemed to have more potion than he'd had at the end of the mission even after drinking. His skin darkened and his features subtly shifted and his ears turned pointed and he now looked like a Belcadizian.

Don Diego stared, then laughed. "Many of my kin would beat you for that, but I think you look just fine. You and Princess Luna will have a fine time tonight."

I am torn between knowing Lyra will want to try that and knowing that Bon-Bon probably will not. Best not to make any more trouble for them.

"I hope so," Ivan said. "I haven't been to a dance in forever. If you count ones that didn't end in a riot, even longer."

Ahaha.

If we had a riot... Celestia would EGG IT ON.

AHAHAHAH.

"I wish I had brought my dear wife," Don Diego said sadly. "Unfortunately, she is deep in her research and probably is sleeping at her lab table as we speak."

"Oh god, who is in charge of keeping the CMC under control while we are at the dance?" I said. "Is Ditzy coming?" And will she actually keep them in check or fall asleep?

"I have heard alternating rumors that she does or does not have a boyfriend and he is or is not coming," Ivan said. "And I have no idea who is going to keep the kids from leveling the place."

"Well, I could take care of them," Don Diego said.

Oh bloody hell.

"That would be great," Ivan said.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.

This is how the world ends. Don Diego and five young, impressionable minds who have an appetite for adventure.

I don't know how I know this, but either Celestia planned this or somewhere she is laughing RIGHT THIS MINUTE.

Oh boy.

Then Rarity charged in, grabbed me, and pulled me off.

***************

"Marcus, we have a grave responsibility tonight," Rarity said to me urgently. She was dressed up in a nice purple dress I don't think I've seen before. "Very grave. And some crises to resolve before we go."

"Go on?" I said.

"Fluttershy has locked herself in a closet and won't come out ever," Rarity said. "She's naturally shy and doesn't have a date and if we aren't careful, even if she goes, she'll lurk and wish she was cuddling animals or hugging trees."

I nodded. "Right."

"Big Macintosh is apparently here and my sister and her friends are setting him up with Celestia and I cannot see how this cannot end in disaster. I don't wish to see him embarrassed," Rarity said, frowning.

"Silver Star is helping him right now. I'll talk to him once I get a chance," I told her. "I found Luna a date too."

"Twilight is reading books about meeting boys; if we do not take action, she will STILL be reading when she could be actually MEETING said boys," Rarity continued. She consulted her floating checklist. "Someone has to run herd on my sister and her friends but basically, it seems EVERYONE in our group is going."

"Don Diego has volunteered to take care of them," I said. I'm sorry, Canterlot. I am SO sorry.

She looked relieved. "I forgot, we have met some of the Glantrians. Dona Carlotta and her boyfriend are coming with us, at Twilight's invitation. They should ideally not be any trouble as long as you stop looking at him funny."

"He looks at ME funny," I protested.

Rarity adjusted her glasses, which she was wearing for some reason. "Darling, you keep looking at him as if you think Dona Carlotta would be better off dating a box of donuts. Is there some reason you don't like him?"

"He's fine," I told her.

Rarity sighed. "Fine. Just mute the glares, okay?"

"I'm not glaring," I grumbled.

He just isn't very impressive compared to her.

That's ALL.

"Now Sweetie glares at him too," Rarity said, sighing. "And doesn't even know why. Just that you glare."

I buried my face in my hands. "Okay, okay, no glaring."

She sighed. "I'm sorry to badger you, dear, but this *has* to be better than our last group outing. Which was a disaster. Now, next on the agenda," she said, ticking off the list. "Applejack has to be convinced to dress up at least a little. Pinkie is actually totally fine, except she's fretting over her... you know what I mean. I can't really call them 'imaginary' now. Ivan... does he have something nice to wear?"

"Suited up by Don Diego," I said.

"What a dashing fellow he is, and a true gentleman," Rarity said, smiling. Check mark made. "Spike is suited up, thankfully. Spike understands the importance of looking stylish." She sounded very approving. "Can you talk to Twilight? I will handle Fluttershy and TRY to get Applejack to fancy up a little."

"Is Ditzy okay?"

"Oh my, I nearly forgot," Rarity said. "I need to find out if her 'boyfriend' is actually real and her boyfriend and coming or if he is as imaginary as the 'Oards'." She said the latter word with clear disbelief in their existence

Which may not be imaginary. "I will check in with Ditzy if you are handling two people."

"Thank you, darling," Rarity said. "There's another thing, but... meet with me once we get everyone else in motion."

"Okay," I said, wondering what it was as I ran off.

*************

"Twilight, all you need is to show up," Spike said to Twilight, who had six books out and was frantically making a list. "And talk to people. It will be fine. You certainly can't learn all this in twenty minutes."

"If I screw this up, Rarity won't be happy at all, she keeps telling me I need to meet some guys and I don't even know what to say, I mean they aren't likely to want to talk about the problem of dating Pharaoh Thutmose V!" Twilight said frantically.

I stood in the doorway, then said, "Just be your lovable self," I told her. "They'll be there because they WANT to meet beautiful, intelligent ponies like you."

Twilight turned a little red and Spike said, "EXACTLY. You're dressed well, and you will rock the house."

It was a blue dress with white stars and I thought it looked very nice. "And dancing's not hard," I told her, coming over. I took her by the hooves and spun her around, circling the room in a pretty standard three-step move-set. "Don't you have dances in Ponyville?"

"Half the time I have to DRAG her," Spike said, shaking his head. "It's gonna be just fine, Twilight."

A white coated earth pony, wearing sunglasses, with a multi-colored mane, stuck her head into the room. "You two look marvelous together," she said warmly. I didn't know her voice or her face, though she was the size of a male pony. Her cutie mark was a pony getting a pie to the face. She wore a sky blue blouse with a pink pie on it and a long dark blue cloak.

See, how do you get anyone to NOT see it coming with that cutie mark?

"Hi, I'm afraid I don't know you," Twilight said. "I'm Twilight Sparkle and these are my friends Spike and Samus Marcus."

I twirled Twilight around and dipped her, then bowed. "A pleasure to meet you, ma'am. Please, no pies, we're about to go out."

"Awww," she said. "Not even a cupcake?"

"You can throw one at me," Spike said.

Nimbly, she extracted a cupcake with her tail and flung it at Spike, who caught it and ate it. "Thanks!"

She blinked, then laughed. "I am Vanilla Surprise," the pony said, bowing to us. "Where is my secret date?"

"We wou... OH," I said. It's CELESTIA. Nice disguise. "He's suiting up in Ivan's room." I gave her directions, not sure if she knew where to find it.

"Thanks!" she said and ran off.

"Wait, whose date is she?" Twilight asked.

...

"That was Celestia," I said.

"It was not Celestia at all," Spike said.

NOT AGAIN!!!!

"She didn't look like Celestia," Twilight said.

THAT IS THE IDEA.

I gave up. "Well, she's stealing Celestia's date if she's not Celestia," I said.

"We have to stop her!" Twilight said and charged off.

Tiny, petty revenge... is still revenge.

**********

Ditzy and Dinky had, in some way, become tangled up together in a huge grey sweater and were rolling around the floor of their room trying to get out.

I stared mindlessly.

"Help, it has us!" Dinky shouted.

I finally got it off them. "Thank you," Ditzy said. "I'll be suited up properly in just a minute."

"Is it true you have a boyfriend and he is coming?" I asked.

"He's just a friend but he will meet us there," Ditzy said. "Unless he has to go fight the Oards or the Blackballs or the Space Hippos again." She sounded quite worried this might be the case.

IE, he may or may not even exist.

Ditzy began putting on a pink and white dress which Dinky seemed to love but which I thought was too bright. "You look very nice," she said.

"Thanks," I said.

"You're going to have lovely children one day," Ditzy continued as Dinky helped pull the dress into place.

"I am? Do you do prophecies or something?" I have the impression that Ditzy does sphere and bubble magic with her cutie mark.

"I... no reason. Forget I said that," Ditzy said evasively, then began trying to get her cloak on.

I raised an eyebrow. "Ditzy, what's going on?"

"Nothing at all," she said. "Nothing to see here!" She rolled around for no reason. "MUFFIN!" she shouted. Her eyes went extra googly. But I could tell she was pretending.

"You can't fake insanity to me," I said, hands on my hips. "I used to wiggle out of chores by faking possession." I think.

"Oh no, it's the fog monster!" Dinky shouted and now fog rolled over everything; I heard the sound of ponies running away through the fog.

"..."

Then I heard the sound of collisions and someone shouting about pianos and a terrible noise like a pony hit half the keys on such with her body at once.

Time to go the OTHER way.

************

I was on my way to find Rarity when I realized someone was watching me. But I couldn't SEE anyone. This could be trouble or it could mean some of the CMC are stalking me.

"Man, Scootaloo looks like a chicken," I said loudly.

"DO NOT!" Scootaloo said.

BUSTED.

I grabbed her and pulled the cloak back. "Why are you following me?"

"It's just a coincidence we're sneaking this way," Apple Bloom said, now giving away HER position.

"Don Diego is going to take care of you all tonight," I told them.

"We want to go to the dance, because we know something cool will happen and maybe we'll get a Cutie Mark!" Scootaloo said.

"Yeah, it's OUR TURN," Apple Bloom said firmly.

"It's going to be adults dancing and holding hands and kissing, and you'd be bored out of your skull," I told them. "Holding hooves... whatever the pony equivalent is."

Scootaloo looked at her hoof. "Why would you hold a hoof? Are my horseshoes slipping?"

"This is why you'd be bored. Don Diego will entertain you a lot more."

"But you get into cool adventures! Orcs will attack or something and then we STILL won't have Cutie Marks," Apple Bloom said.

I began herding them along. "Nothing exciting is going to happen," I told them. Thus foolishly DOOMING myself.

***************

Rarity was flopped out on the bed. "I am tired before we even start," she said dramatically.

I helped her up. "You'll be fine once the music hits you," I told her. "Anyway, what's the thing you wanted to ask me about?"

Rarity shuffled on her feet, then studied herself in the mirror. "Does this dress suit me? Maybe it needs to match my hair more precisely."

"It looks fine," I told her. "You will knock them dead tonight."

"You always say the sweetest things," she said, smiling, then looked nervous anyway.

"Which makes you worry that I'm just saying it to be nice?" I said.

She froze.

"There are times where I butter people up, but when I compliment you, I mean it," I told her, patting her shoulder. "I try to be nice to everyone," I continued.

"Except Herr Otto," she said, a little sharply.

"You know she could do better," I told Rarity. "But I keep my mouth shut because I have no right to say anything."

"It's pretty noticeable how you sprinkle sugar on everyone but him, dear," Rarity said, looking at both of us in the mirror.

Not as subtle as I thought.

I studied myself in the mirror. Not bad looking but Erik had been substantially more handsome. As I measure it, anyway. That had been a nice body.

"Don't pout," Rarity said firmly to me, sounding aggravated. "I'm just telling the truth."

I sighed. "Thinking about past bodies I've had," I said softly.

Now she looked worried. "I only care about this one," she said, then put a hoof to her face. "That totally came out wrong."

"It's okay," I told her. "I'm trying to face forwards too. I don't want to lie around angsting over past lives." Too many reasons to fear THIS life.

I have to tell her everything, tell Twilight, and I can't do it.

"Exactly," she said. "I don't want to wallow in my past either." She licked her lips nervously, then floated a small jar out of her carrybag; it had four lemon gummies in it. "Marcus," she said, then hesitated.

"I do like those gummy candies," I told her. Had she made them as a present?

"I... have a proposal," she said hesitantly.

"Okay," I told her. A proposal which involves four gummy candies?

"Don't say okay until you hear it," she said. "You might not want to, and you have the right to say no." Her voice was hesitant. "I just think it would be a good idea to try this tonight, when it... will just be for fun."

I studied them... MAGIC. Shapeshifting magic. My eyes widened.

"This candy has been tested by Pinkie and Twist, who made it with input from Twilight," Rarity said carefully. "It will transform you AND your clothing for up to two hours each. So I will spend half the night as a human and you will spend half of it as a pony." She licked her lips very nervously.

I remembered Luna's words. 'That being said, you will likely sometimes find it advantageous or useful to take on a pony form, working for us.' And this would protect my clothing. "So it changes the clothing to suit?"

"Yes," she said. "I know you'd be too embarrassed going around naked, and we're trying to dress up anyway. It would look gauche if Big Macintosh wore a nice suit and you did not."

I closed my eyes for a few seconds to steady my nerves. If this goes wrong, I lose this suit AND get exposed and everything goes to hell and Twilight will blow me up, then cry and neither will make me happy. And Rarity won't be happy either.

I'm afraid and so sick of being afraid.

It's not the fear, it's whether you surrender to fear, a tiny Celestia in my head told me.

I do NOT want my conscience or whatever this is talking to me with her voice in my head!

"I'm nervous, but let's do it," I said.

"I'm nervous too," Rarity said softly. "What does it feel like?"

"It will feel strange. I remember the time I was a cat," I told her. "My senses changed, my balance... good shapeshifting magic compensates with the physical instincts, but you still have all sorts of things going on you're not used to." I licked my lips nervously. "Flip to see who goes first?"

"Okay," she said.

I got out an Equestrian Silver Bit; one side showed Luna and the other side the Moon. I flipped it nervously and it tumbled, then I missed it and it landed on the floor. "Oh wait, we forgot to call heads or tails," I mumbled.

She laughed. "Heads, you go first, tails, I go first."

I flipped it again. Tails. The Moon. Which I think would be tails here. "Tails, you win."

She opened the jar and pulled out and unwrapped a gummy, then devoured it. For a few seconds, nothing happened, but then, she gave a pained cry and I winced. She began to glow and her body to change, limbs shifting configuration, face changing, clothing shifting to fit a human figure.

She still had long flowing purple hair and blue eyes, but now she had pale skin, reminiscent of a 'pureblood' Alphatian (a type rarely found in Alphatia any more). Her dress had reconfigured to fit her feminine frame, which I found quite pleasing. In fact, within a few seconds, I felt a surge of hormones which I tried not to show. She was wearing the earrings I had bought her, which made me smile. She was slightly shorter than me, but not hugely so. And she still had a horn.

She looked at herself, smiled, then nearly fell down. Her dress swished about her legs, nearly trapping them several times. "How do I look?" she asked.

"Simply smashing," I told her warmly. She was so beautiful and I wanted... but we're not... But she may want...

SHUT UP BRAIN. "When you wear off, I will take one," I told her. "It doesn't hurt, I hope."

"The change itself is not pleasant, it's like trying to walk with a leg gone to sleep," she said.

I took her hand and kissed it, then took her arm with mine. "My dear little human," I said. "It is time for us to have some fun."

"You will have to show me the human dances," she said, oddly shyly.

"And you will have to show me the pony ones," I told her. This is going to be wonderful.

Or I will die.

Or both.

**************

Luna had taken on a human form as well. Or more precisely, she also was a Belcadizian elf, rather than human, wearing a red dress, lower cut than I would have expected (Rarity's dress dipped only a tiny bit at the neck). Only her blue hair marked her as not a normal Belcadizian; even her dress was in a Belcadizian style and she had a red rose tucked over one ear.

'Vanilla Surprise', AKA Celestia, had put on a somewhat fancier outfit, devoid of pies, to match Big Macintosh's nice suit. He seemed much more relaxed now, though at times, he shuffled a little uncomfortably, not used to so much clothing.

We'd all assembled and were ready to go. Ditzy looked at me nervously, but I just waved. Best to let it go for now. I don't think the future is fixed, anyway.

"Hey, alright," Ivan said, looking at Rarity far more than he had to. She twirled about, her skirts flaring; you could tell she had on three layers worth now. Somehow, as I didn't notice that many layers when she was a pony.

Don't stare, Ivan, I thought.

Twilight smiled brightly. "Your dress looks wonderful, Rarity."

"She is quite beautiful," I said firmly and Rarity smiled brightly.

Ditzy said, "Let's go. My friend is going to meet us there."

"Oh, Dr. Smith?" Twilight said.

"Yes," Ditzy said, smiling.

"Dr. Smith?" I asked.

"He's a history professor; he visits Ponyville a lot," Twilight said.

Ditzy had that 'AHAHAHAHAHA, I know a secret' smile that made me suspect there was more to 'Dr. Smith'.

Hopefully not the kind of 'more' which ends this party in fire.

**************

We rode in carriages to the dancehall, though Luna put a simple illusion on them to avoid giving away that they were royal carriages. We all got out and I found, to my utter surprise... someone had set up a sausage in a bun stand in front of Club DanceMoor. The teenage human girl in black running it looked exactly as bored and frustrated as one would expect. There was a green umbrella over the stand with the words 'DJ BIG D'S SAUSAGES' painted on it in black. "Big D saus..." Then the girl blinked at Luna, Ivan, myself, and Rarity.

"You friends of Dad?" she asked in surprise.

"Are you Aalbanese?" I asked curiously.

"Yeah, I dunno how Dad talked his brother into sending him along on the trade mission but he's here guest-DJing," the girl said. "We're from the Tri-Principality area." Krondahar, New Klantyre, and Bergdhovern basically clump together in north-central Glantri. Aalban is sometimes included, though it would make it the 'Quad-Principality area' which just doesn't sound as good. "Anyway, I got stuck here trying to sell sausages to Ponies. This was probably one of Dad's better ideas, really." She sighed. "By the way, don't notice he's an alchemist. It's supposed to be a secret, but he's terrible at keeping it."

"I'll try not to notice," I told her.

"Man, those smell good, but we can't really take food in," Ivan said, frowning.

"That's the other problem," the young lady grumbled.

Rarity sniffed the food and her eyes widened. "I feel strange," she said.

Was this a hint? Probably. "Would you like to try one?" I asked Rarity. "Or is that a 'prelude to illness' strange?"

"Not on the food," the girl said desperately.

"I..." Rarity hesitated, staring at the sausages. "Yes, I will," she said determinedly, though her hands shook a little.

"Would you like one, Lunette?" Ivan asked her.

"Yes, I would," she said. "I think it's a good idea to support enterprising young ladies."

I bought one for myself with just tomato sauce and white sauce. Rarity went hogwild, having hers slathered with everything.

"We're going to go ahead inside," Dash said to us. "While you all pig out."

I jumped; I'd managed to briefly forget everyone else was here. Sorry, guys.

"See you soon," Ivan said as the rest headed inside.

Rarity studied hers, then closed her eyes and took a bite. She ate delicately, but ended up with a big mess around her lips. I also ate carefully, and had minimal mess. Ivan and 'Lunette' apparently had a competition to see who could eat the fastest, then got ANOTHER one, to my surprise. Didn't they eat dinner?

"That was very good," Rarity said, surprised. "I would have another if I wasn't so full."

"Me too," I said.

"Dad will be ecstatic. Anyway, go have fun while I slowly go mad out here," the lady running the stand said.

I wiped Rarity's mouth and she wiped mine and we both laughed and headed inside.

************

o/~ There's a thought eater controlling me

o/~ And it's underneath the table.

"..."

The music had a pretty strong beat to it, but the lyrics, sung in a hideous voice, were terrible. A blue haired pony wearing sunglasses was up on a dais behind a pile of weird techno-magical equipment with a bunch of Blackmoorian style sound discs; there was also a tall, skinny, ugly human doing the singing and operating the equipment, while his pony companion looked very amused. He wore a battered white longcoat, covered with chemical stains; I would guess he must be the not-very-secret alchemist.

There are seven 'secret crafts' of magic in Glantri. In practice, most people can guess if you can belong to one of them, *especially* the alchemists, for obvious reasons.

Club DanceMoor had a Blackmoorian theme to it, full of techno-magical things which probably were entirely magic or just art. But it looked authentic to my casual knowledge. I didn't see Twilight...

Twilight was reading off a list to a green coated, black maned stallion who seemed a little overwhelmed, while Spike tugged on her leg. That's our Twilight.

I laughed softly. "Shall we dance?"

We moved out onto the floor, which was full of ponies; some were doing line dances, some in couples, some in coupled lines; Pegasi were dancing in the air above us. There were a handful of humans and elves here, Aalbanese and Belcadizians, and a larger group of Glantrian ponies.

The Belcadizian waltz is an easy dance if you can follow a beat. Or at least, I got enough practice it's easy for me. Dona Carlotta and Herr Otto saw us and joined us, two couples flowing in unison; I don't know if Rarity learned this dance somewhere or is a quick learner. Either way, we flowed together fluidly and it was wonderful. I could feel magic everywhere and the music pounded out a beat and I was swept away. We were dancing more formally than most of the couples, but I like formal dancing. Also, not having four legs, I couldn't copy the others anyway.

Though I will soon. It made me nervous something would go wrong and expose me. But I tried to shove that aside; it was easy with Rarity here.

I saw Ditzy dancing with a sepia-coated, brown maned pony with a golden hourglass cutie mark. Okay, THAT made me nervous.

"Are hourglass cutie marks common?" I asked Rarity as we swung ninety degrees and she spun. She stumbled, but quickly recovered. The potion provides fundamental instincts but not huge amounts of skill. I'm surprised she's done this well.

"Moderately," Rarity said. "Usually it means the person works as a clock or watchmaker or a historian."

Well, maybe I need not worry.

Dona Carlotta and Herr Otto now moved in and switched partners with us and we moved into a really fancy dance; Dona Carlotta and I had to take the lead, as it was clear Otto and Rarity didn't have our depth of experience (though not surprising at all in Rarity's case; I was quite impressed she was doing so well.) We circled the floor, switching back and forth in a series of elaborate moves, culminating in a rush straight forward to our original starting point and flickering out to where we stood side by side, free arms extended, the Butterfly.

Lunette and Ivan applauded us and we then had to show them how to do the dance; this took a while but was lots of fun; we soon had all the humans and elves in the place doing it; some of the ponies joined us, like Lyra and Bon-Bon.

I could see 'Vanilla Surprise' teaching Big Mac how to do some kind of pony dance that involved a lot of mirroring; it reminded me a little of the cha-cha. He was strong but not agile, so he struggled with it, but he had a very determined look and she smiled kindly at him the whole time.

I suspect I will not look any better but if Rarity is willing to do this for me, I have to reciprocate, nervous as I am.

We took a short break to get a drink; I was rather hot in my suit now and she in her dress. "It's strange," she said. "I can't smell you." She sounded disappointed.

"Given I apparently smell like bacon, maybe that's for the best," I mumbled into my cider. I didn't want to drink too much but Ponies make some good mixed drinks and other beverages.

Rarity had something that looked orange and had a tiny umbrella in it for no reason. She sipped it and smiled. "Interesting, it tastes different!" She took another sip. "I *like* your smell. It lets me know you are near or were there recently. How do humans tell each other are near?"

"Eyes, hearing," I said. I put a hand on her shoulder. "Touch. The usual."

"I miss being able to smell everyone," she said softly. "All I can smell here are the... bad smells." She wrinkled her nose.

"Your field of sight is more limited too." Oh man, I hope she doesn't walk into anything.

She blinked. "You're right." She took another sip and studied her hands. "On the other hand, these are nice." She took my hand and ran her fingers along the surface; her hands were smooth and soft and unscarred; mine were somewhat battered and worn. "How long have you been Marcus?" she asked softly.

"A few days before you met me," I told her.

Her eyes widened.

"I'm not even sure how exactly I died," I confessed.

Her eyes tried to widen more but ran out of room. She clasped my hand. "Marcus," she said warmly and sadly at once.

"Without Applejack, I would have been Marcus less than two weeks," I told her.

She shivered. "You would have stayed dead. Because your charge was up."

"Yes," I said sadly. Then I shook my head. "Let's not think of that. I can lie around and moan any time, but this time here together is fleeting." I downed my glass. "Let's make this a night to remember!"

We clinked glasses, then joined hands and went out to dance some more.

************

"Ask her to dance," I told the yellow coated, white maned earth pony who had been watching Twilight for the last fifteen minutes.

"She's so pretty," he mumbled.

"She is a beautiful unicorn and she's very friendly, but too many people are staring instead of asking her to dance," I told him, wondering what was wrong with these people. "You only live once."

Rarity was dancing with one of Herr Otto's friends, so I was on my own for the moment.

"Okay," I'll do it," he said. He had a cutie mark of a book, so hopefully, they'd get on well. Well enough to dance at least.

I flitted off and soon ended up dancing with Lunette. I spun her around and she laughed. "This is so much fun," she said. "We almost never get to just cut loose."

I could see Vanilla Surprise in a huge line dance now, with Big Mac in the men's line; they were having fun. "Ce... your sister is having fun too," I said, smiling.

"And so is he," Lunette said, smiling. She spun me around now and I gave a happy sigh. "I'm surprised to see you setting Twilight up with someone."

I laughed nervously. "I'll dance with her later when I'm a pony but since she seems to be lurking more than taking the initiative, I've kicked a few ponies her way." And stopped her consulting some book THREE TIMES. She must really be nervous.

Lunette studied me, making *me* nervous, and I swung her low, then brought her back up. "You want her to be happy," she said softly.

"Yes," I said. "She deserves happiness." Why wouldn't I want her to be happy?

I could see Ivan pontificating to some elven woman he was dancing with; she looked a little overwhelmed and I laughed softly. "Umm..." I didn't know if I should ask.

"Applejack tells me he makes a rather handsome pony," Lunette said with an impish smile.

"Is she..."

"I think Applejack is married to her farm, though I could be wrong," Lunette said. "I am curious, but I won't push him."

"I...Rarity got Pinkie and company to make a shapeshifting candy. I'm going to try... being a pony for a little bit... since Rarity did this for me," I said nervously.

I dipped her again, then we spun around each other, then darted forward in a charge, side by side. "Good," she said. "You've been animals before, right?"

"I've been a cat," I told her. I glanced at Rarity and felt my body suddenly pound. This is rather disorienting.

"You'll be fine," Luna said. "I'm proud of you for being willing to do it for her."

I feel like a kid being praised by Mommy. Don't be nervous. The spell will protect my identity.

I hope.

***********

I heard a distant Rarity yelp; she'd backed up to avoid someone who ran in front of her, but she'd stumbled into a pony, leading to a several pony and Rarity pileup. I ran to her aid and picked her up, then helped the ponies up and we both apologized to them. Rarity's usual charm soon had them disarmed.

We made one last dance and then she felt the candy starting to wear off. She yelped again, drawing stares and now dwindled down into her usual white pony self. My body now felt extremely confused as my hormones didn't know where to go or what to do.

"Marcus, darling, are you alright?" Rarity said, worried.

"Let me sit down and have a drink, and then I can take my turn," I told her. "I must need fresh air."

We went and got another drink; I just got apple juice. I could see Twilight dancing with a pegasus I didn't know. Good for her. Even if... Good for her.

If I... no, no, no. I...

"Marcus, are you sure you're okay?" Rarity asked, worried.

"I am thinking too much," I told her, drinking more of my drink. It was soothing. "I hope you enjoyed it," I told her.

She had something that smelled of pineapple. "I had a good time, but it was often disorienting. I felt like things were sneaking up behind me because I could hear but not see them." She sniffed my hand. "You feel more like Marcus now that I can smell you again. Not being able to smell you made you feel like you were someone else."

"Well, I normally can't smell you at all," I told her. I wondered what Rarity would smell like.

I'll find out soon. I licked my lips nervously and drank more of my drink.

My body feels so strange. Dammit, body, calm down.

The urge to just RUN was strong, but I fought it down. She could tell my agitation. She wasn't this nervous, so I shouldn't be, except I just spent two hours with a beautiful woman and now my body is all worked up.

Dammit.

I finished my drink. "Okay, before I worry myself to death," I said. "Hit me."

She blinked, then nodded. Out came the candy; the bartender studied us curiously and I got the candy and she put the jar away.

BREATHE.

I breathed in, and out and ate the candy. DAMN this is tasty as hell! "Wow, these taste GREAT."

I could see Vanilla Surprise looking at me. She looked VERY amused.

BITE ME.

The enchantment hovered in my mind.

Pony, I thought. Pony pony pony.

Point of no return.

Until it wears off, anyway.

************

FUCK it hurt, though not for long. It was totally like having a limb fallen asleep. ALL of them.

And then everything changed. The world got... bigger. I could see people nearly behind me, which was extremely surreal. And the smells. They hit me like a wall and I stumbled. Tons of smells I didn't know, couldn't recognize. Sounds, I could hear everyone talking at once, couldn't focus myself to stop hearing. Rarity tried to say something but it was hard to make myself hear the words. And all these dangerous smells.

Did I smell wolf? Something dangerous. People staring, smells I don't know, all these creatures, are they all really ponies? Why do they smell strange? Why do I smell all these things I DO NOT KNOW AND ANY OF THEM COULD BE DANGEROUS!

Other ponies nearby shifted nervously, responding to my growing panic and now Rarity looked very worried. The bartender said, "This is why I stick to this body."

I could see him and Rarity and some couple kissing behind me all at once, which was impossible and disorienting and all these smells, and the alcohol... how can anyone drink something which smells that much?

I have to get out of here. All these smells, all these people, I don't know these smells, something could hurt me!

I got too distracted by Twilight and Rarity to remember to see about recharging my sword and I could DIE.

"Marcus, what's wrong?" Rarity said, coming over to me as I braced myself to run for the exit and not to stop until all the danger went away. I could smell her, the scent of lilacs. She was so utterly beautiful that all I could do was stare and feel my hormones surge. ACK. At least I have pants on still.

Which probably looks weird on a pony.

"You're so beautiful," I said, though I suspect no one has ever sounded so utterly scared when they said that, before me.

That's me, an innovator.

She smiled brightly. "You are a very handsome stallion." She studied me. "You know, you look a fair amount like Twilight."

WHAT?

Did I smell wolf? I smell something dangerous! All these smells, I have to get out of here! "We have to run," I told her. "Before it gets us!"

"What gets us?" she said, looking around.

"I don't know, but I can't think and there's all this movement and smells and I don't know and it's dangerous!" I said frantically. "Come on, RUN!"

So we ran through the mob; having really wide vision helped me navigate through the crowd but the press of ponies slowed me down and that fueled my panic as Rarity ran with me; I could smell her worry. "Marcus, stop, it's safe here! You're okay!" she said, sounding guilty and worried.

"Everywhere I go, there's all these things I don't know," I said frantically. Running through the mob of dancers made it WORSE, in fact, and I stopped, feeling trapped as people danced around us. Also, wanting to... she... aaaaaaa!!!

My one comfort was that I could smell and see and hear Rarity; I knew her. I felt so weirdly alone in a sea of bodies, but I had a lifeline.

"Marcus, stop!" she said and got ahead of me. "You're fine, you're fine," she said urgently. "What is wrong?"

"I can't... there's all these smells and my brain is trying to sort them and it doesn't know them and it's like something is jabbing my panic center with a hammer," I said to her, fighting the strong urge to flee these dangerous, unknown smells. They could be ANYTHING.

Did I smell wolf? Or did I imagine it? It was dangerous, whatever it was.

Rarity blinked, then her eyes widened and she nodded. "Nuzzle me," she said.

More physical contact is going to make my other set of instincts go more crazy. But I did as she said. Pressed close to her, my face swaddled in the fabric of her dress, the other smells retreated. From her purse, five thimbles flew out and comforting scratched behind my ears and on my back and slowly I relaxed. "You like that, right?" she said softly.

"It feels wonderful," I said, feeling my panic dying down some.

"Better?" she said softly after a bit.

Fluttershy had somehow appeared or something. Maybe she teleported. She was wearing sunglasses and a big floppy hat and looked slightly hunted. But when she saw me, she somehow... grew more confident? Her fear melted, replaced by compassion. She smelled like butter. I felt like something clicked in my mind as I realized that. Panic levels down by half a percent. She now said softly, "It's okay, Marcus. Shapeshifting is very disorienting, especially a big jump like this."

"I thought cats had good noses but I didn't have this much trouble," I mumbled into Rarity's dress.

Fluttershy gently stroked me with her hoof. I could feel... something. My panic died down a little with each stroke. "This place is especially stinky," she said, then giggled a little. "If I had known you two planned this, I would have taken you somewhere to practice where you could adjust without so much to adjust to."

"Thanks," I said.

"It wasn't so bad for me," Rarity said, frowning. "Except everything seemed a little wrong because I couldn't smell everyone. Marcus didn't seem like Marcus without his scent." That clearly displeased her.

"You smell wonderful," I told Rarity. "And I like Fluttershy's smell, but everyone likes butter."

Fluttershy guided us over by one wall, out of the press of ponies. "Brush his mane," she said and Rarity began grooming my rather tangled, messy mane. As she worked on me, I felt soothed by it.

"Why the disguise?" I asked Fluttershy.

"If anyone recognizes me, everyone will want to dance with me," she said urgently.

"But you're a lovely pony, kind and gentle. It's only natural," I told her and she blushed a little.

Rarity looked embarrassed. "Fluttershy is a bit of a celebrity but doesn't like it."

"They don't like me, just the idea of me," Fluttershy said softly.

Soarin' made a noise and I jumped, ready to bolt. Then I smelled him and Dash. She smelled minty and he smelled... dammit, I know this herb... This herb I know but can't name. Soarin' said, "Hey, Fluttershy, I know how you feel."

Fluttershy started. "What? Oh, hi," she said. She hadn't noticed them either.

"Being a Wonderbolt is pretty awesome, but, well... it means most people don't see me, they just see this outfit." He touched his uniform, then sighed.

Dash now looked kind of nervous. She put an arm... leg... foreleg... around him and he did the same and she relaxed. "Well, I know the real you," she said, hesitantly.

"I'm going to teach you to play chess," he said to her.

She blinked. "Okay."

"And you can teach me something you love," he said.

She mumbled about love; even my keen ears couldn't follow it.

Rarity continued to brush my hair and I continued to cuddle up to her as much as a pony could. My nerves continued to slowly untangle.

"Can you get everyone?" Fluttershy said to Dash. "Just one or two at a time, so he can get everyone's scents and know us."

"What's wrong?" Dash asked frowning.

"Marcus is used to barely smelling anything and now he can smell everypony, the spilled drinks, the tobacco in the air from smokers, everything," Rarity said sympathetically. "He doesn't know what is dangerous and what is not and his brain tends to think everything he doesn't know is dangerous." She continued to groom me, and I drew comfort from her presence. Without it, I would have just run and run until I couldn't smell anything.

"That's our Marcus," Dash said, laughing.

Thanks Dash. THANKS FOR NOTHING.

"Damn, Marcus, you can't even go naked as a pony," Applejack said. She smelled, of course, of apples. Fermented apples. Mmm, damn, she smells good.

"I don't make you wear clothing, you can let me wear clothing," I said, fighting the urge to whimper. "This is hard enough without adding to my urge to panic." My voice wobbled. Ugh.

"You sound different," Applejack said thoughtfully. She circled me, sniffing. "Damn, nice smell, though."

I sniffed. "I can't seem to smell myself," I said.

"You smell musky, like a nice cologne," Rarity said to me. "I like it, though it is a little confusing."

"Yeah," Soarin' said. "My brain keeps trying to tell me you have to be someone else."

"I like the bacon smell better," Pinkie said. "How about a cookie?"

"Yes," I said and let her feed it to me. I felt a little better and now my legs weren't shaking and Rarity continued to groom my mane. It looked nicer now; it's still brown and I can see I am a kind of light purple, as if... you know, it's kind of like Rarity and Twilight had a child or something.

Pinkie then reached inside my shirt. "Umm, Pinkie, what are you doing?" I asked. She smells of sugar as I'm sure you knew without me telling you.

"Don't you need to strip?" she said.

"I'm staying like this," I said firmly.

Pinkie got a weird look, then backed up slightly. "Sorry, Rarity."

"It's fine, dear. If Marcus *was* going to strip, though, I would help him," she said, then smiled impishly.

DAMN YOU HORMONES.

"Thank you," I said, a little embarrassed.

One by one, everypony came up to me and talked to me quietly, let me smell them, and then milled about. My nerves finished relaxing, thankfully.

Ditzy smelled of cotton candy and Dr. Smith... he smelled old, like an ancient library of dusty tomes. "You didn't have a horn before," he said to me curiously.

I blinked. "Wait, is it visible now?" I tried to look at my forehead, but I can't see it.

He blinked back, turning his head to regard me with his right eye. "It was invisible?"

"Yes," I said.

Vanilla Surprise smelled of Vanilla, but VERY strongly, like it covered something else. Big Macintosh and Applejack had subtly different apple scents. I could smell their relationship, though.

My nerves were still jangling, though not as badly. Rarity's scent and presence were comforting, and Fluttershy's as well. Something about her was just an anchor, a rock in the emotional storm.

"Being a human wasn't this disorienting," Twilight said, frowning. Everyone was clustered around me now; their scents, their sounds, drove out others, reassuring me. I was in the herd and they would protect me. It's like this for them all the time, I realized, and I envied them that. I feel safer with them at my side, with Ivan accompanying me, when I'm human. But it's not like this.

"Oh, you've been experimenting?" Vanilla Surprise said cheerfully.

Twilight turned a little red. "I... umm..."

"She managed to plant her face in her bed and walk into a doorframe," Spike said gleefully.

"Planning to seduce Ivan? Or Marcus?" Vanilla Surprise teased her. "Or someone else? Don Diego, maybe? He is handsome."

She turned more red, and Big Macintosh said, "Enough," to Vanilla Surprise firmly.

She blinked, then got an odd smile. "As m'lord commands," she said teasingly.

Now he blinked.

"I just wanted... I was just curious... I mean..." Twilight became more frantic. I could see it, hear it, SMELL it. Fear does not smell very good, I will note; just smelling it made me nervous like I ought to be afraid too.

This was not an encouragement I needed.

"It's a natural curiosity," I said firmly to her. "I can show you the ropes some time, if you're still curious."

"Thank you," she said, still red.

I breathed in the scent of everyone, and out. It was reassuring.

I still felt kind of jumpy, especially if I thought about Rarity but I could function now. "Thank you everyone," I said softly. "I think I can try and dance now."

"Yeah," Applejack said approvingly. "You ain't got to be afraid of us."

"I know you now," I said softly. My brain could track their movements, by scent, smell, sound. Amazing.

There were still a lot of smells I didn't know. Though one of them, a very odd one, I thought was the pony DJ, who was now running the show and...

Octavia was up there with several other musicians, laying down something... not the usual music of the castle, though not entirely dissimilar; there was a pony with a trumpet, another with a clarinet, a piano player (who I think is also in the royal orchestra), and a drummer. The pony DJ was busy mixing their music with some recordings; it was eerie and powerful and... very danceable.

I relaxed a little more once we started dancing. A lot of pony dancing involves moving in sync with others, line dances or paired line dances. This was easier than it would have been for me as a human because I could see people to my left and right without needing to turn my head.

I was soon enjoying myself. While I was not as nimble as I am normally, the potion covered me well enough to let me do some fancy things with a little practice. As we were line dancing, with me next to Big Macintosh and Dr. Smith, and Vanilla Surprise, Rarity, and Ditzy opposite us, I wondered why Celestia had chosen to be an Earth Pony for the night. Maybe just not to be noticed, or to put Big Macintosh at ease.

I kicked forward with my right foreleg, then we all retreated four steps and kicked back, then strutted sideways twice, then kicked back again, forward, and raise hooves to touch, then start over again.

Rarity is a very beautiful pony; this was a fact of which I was keenly aware, whereas I normally only know this in an abstract way, the way you'd appreciate, say, a cat's beauty. I'd felt the same way when we were both humans, this same pounding in my veins and just loving to look at her.

To smell her.

Okay, that sounds freaky. But it's as natural for this body as looking is for me normally.

We switched into another dance in which the line of guys rotated, more or less, so you spent a short time with each of the women in the line. It was at this point, though, that I noticed Lyra was in the guy line. Then again, that way she and Bon-Bon get to dance together. When Bon-Bon and I came face to face, we reared and held each other up. Ponies can handle this better than a real pony could, but it's not easy. Unless you're Lyra or Pinkie, who seem quite nimble this way. Bon-Bon and I each had a foreleg around each other as we moved together.

She clearly wanted to ask me something, and I said softly to her, "It's very strange. You should ask Rarity about it."

She turned red. "Lyra really wants to try it some time," she mumbled.

"Lyra's always been fascinated by humans, though she never told me why," I said to Bon-Bon, then realized... I SHOULD NOT KNOW THAT. Dammit!

She looked at me curiously. "Is it that obvious?" she said, still embarrassed.

"Yes," I said softly. "Rarity does have two more candies."

Now she looked really nervous. We spun around now, nearly falling down. Without each other, we both would DEFINITELY fall down.

I could see Octavia; she was focused on her music, not us or Lyra. Good. I ought to do something but I don't have the leverage that Erik would have had.

The dance finished and I went to get some orange juice; my throat was dry and I am trying to avoid alcohol because if I get very drunk at all, I will likely start the apocalypse or try to... aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.

Do not panic, do not panic! I focused on scarfing down orange juice through a straw. So tasty, and it smells so good.

Herr Otto said, "So why do you always glare at me?"

I half jumped out of my skin and then I somehow sucked the straw up my nose and fell down.

Where did he come from?

He had a brandy and he looked annoyed with me.

Had I been glaring? I tried not to glare.

"Wow, you are drunk," he said, then sipped more brandy. "Unlike myself."

I pulled the straw out and got a fresh one. "You just startled me," I told him. "And I do not glare at you all the time." I tried to avoid looking at him but I can't help it! I see anyone who isn't RIGHT behind me and I think turning my butt to him would likely come off as a duel challenge or something.

"I get enough of that crap from her relatives without getting it from some random... what the hell are you, anyway?" he said, frowning and sipping his drink.

"I am Samus Marcus, special agent of Celestia," I told him. "So her relatives know all about you?" I said.

"Our relationship is a secret, but I am around her enough for them to give me 'ugh, human' looks anyway."

I suspect it's not so secret as you think. "You're a brave man to risk Carnelia's wrath," I told him. "I heard her last boyfriend ran for the hills because Carnelia was planning to turn him into a turnip or something." I sipped my drink.

Otto's hand clenched around his glass. "If Erik of Vestland ever comes within sight of me, he will WISH I gave him to the Thyatians for 50,000 gold. Oh, he will PAY for running like a little coward."

I winced. Another person who wants me dead. "I heard they agreed it was best he go," I told Otto.

Otto got another drink and sipped it. "If he was a REAL MAN, he would have stayed and fought Carnelia. I've been trying to convince Carlotta to come to Aalban Prince Jagger has already agreed to protect her if Carnelia gets cranky. And Don Diego has agreed to help."

"He's a good father," I said somberly, then drank more orange juice.

"Yes, he is," Otto said to his glass. "So what's your beef with me? And are you a pony or a human?"

"I'm a crazy man in love," I said softly. "In way too deep. I can't believe it myself."

His glare softened. "If you're doing this for love, then I have to say you're head over heels." He looked across the room; Carlotta was dancing with some stallion. An Earth Pony. No one I know. "She still talks about him sometimes," he said in frustration and drank a little more brandy.

"That will pass. Old loves never fade entirely from the heart, especially not if you're parted by outside forces," I told him seriously. "But time will pass, her heart will heal and he'll only come up if someone else raises the topic."

"I hope so. I am sick of his ghost," Herr Otto said.

"Still learning Belcadizian dances?" I asked.

"Yes," he said, then sighed. "Our dances are rather different in Aalban"

I put my glass down. "Come on, I'll show you some of them."

"You are a pony," he said. "A *male* pony."

"Yes, everyone will stare at me and not notice you," I said, then dragged him onto the dance floor and began showing him some moves. It's the least I can do. Good luck, Otto. You're a braver man than me.

We did get a lot of stares. My telling him loudly how handsome he is probably didn't help but I couldn't help myself. I had to tease him a little, he's so SERIOUS all the time. Once I had him trained up some, I went to dance with Rarity for a while.

"Was that Herr Otto?" she asked curiously.

"I had to show him some Belcadizian dances," I told her, then swept her into a waltz. It was much harder with us as ponies, but I didn't care. Dancing with her was a delight.

I now went to dance with Twilight; she was smiling so brightly; it made me feel very happy. I could smell her happiness. And her personal scent, that kind of freshness after a storm. When the air is just so clean and purified.

Rarity smells like lilacs; I could smell her just a touch, knowing she'd passed through this space recently; I could feel people's past movements. Amazing.

"Having a good time?" she said hopefully.

"Much better than at the start," I told her. Twilight is quite lovely too. If we hadn't been drunk, if I hadn't panicked... would we be lovers?

But we're... I don't want to be a pony all the time and I'm sure neither of them would want to be human most of the time and people would think us very strange, and what would it even...

I shoved all that aside. Just enjoy the moment, dammit! No fear!

"So who was the pegasus?" I asked.

"West Wind. He's a courier," she told me. "He actually works for Franich House, of Darokin. They do a little of everything, especially banking. He runs back and forth between Canterlot and Darokin City with sensitive messages. He's had a few clashes with Toney House, which..."

"Which is their main rival for Darokin-Equestrian trade. Based in Akorros, they're well positioned to run goods through Stalliongrad or Fort Neigh into Equestria. There is in fact a Toney's Inn here in Canterlot." I went to a party there once as Erik.

She laughed softly. "So you know all about that."

From teaching Humanics, which needs a less stupid sounding name BADLY. "Yes," I told her. "We can discuss you dating Thutmose V, too, though I think you'd have to wear gloves on your date or he might give you mummy rot."

She laughed loudly; people stared but I didn't care as we spun around. "I have to remember that one. Spike, make a...Oh, no Spike," she said, embarrassed.

Spike was talking excitedly to the pony and human DJs, who looked intrigued. Okay, now I'm curious.

"Is there anything to date Thutmose with beyond that reference in... whatever that monument was... In Alphatia," I said, suddenly blanking.

"Coriolis III's comparison of himself to the glories of Thutmose V, who he said had lived a century earlier, on the Tepesti Monument, after his defeat of the Tepesti in 675 BC. There are three other references in Alphatian monuments to him, each of which is cryptic," Twilight said as we advanced, kicking with alternate legs.

Thutmose V was a great warrior Pharaoh of Nithia, who defeated the Grand Horde, a huge wave of humanoids that invaded during his hard to pin down reign. Apparently his grandson destroyed most of the record of him, THEN most of the knowledge of Nithia was lost when the Immortals destroyed it.

Then the music changed, and now Spike began to sing, backed by Octavia's band and some tracks laid down by the pony DJ, with the alchemist as his backup singer, along with some elf I hadn't seen before.

o/~ I never thought I could fall in love

o/~ Until I met the girl from the heavens above

o/~ I love the way she walks

o/~ I love the way she talks

o/~ Whenever she swishes her tail

o/~ I come running without fail.

Up to the last two lines, the alchemist, DJ Big D, had been singing along enthusiastically; he then realized Spike was singing about a pony. This caused him to falter. I know, I know, sir.

Spike is a good singer; the song was clearly improvised, but the band played well and Rarity now turned a little red. We all started dancing again and now I ended up paired with Dash. "You sing, right?" she said to me.

"People want me to sing more than I want to sing," I told Dash. "Sweetie's a better singer than I am."

"You totally have to sing Rarity a song," Dash said. "I'd... I'm no great singer, or I'd sing for Soarin'."

I can't do some big romantic gesture when I don't know whether we have a future or what I want or whether I am going to be killed if I tell her the things I have to tell her to even have any right to be her man.

"We can do it together," I said to her. "I'll panic and run otherwise." What? Damn you, mouth! What the hell are you doing without consulting the rest of my body and mind?

"Okay," she said. "Let's go get in line."

The pony turned out to be named DJ Pon3. She was happy to accommodate, so Dash and I huddled and laid our plan to go down in flames together.

I mean, sing.

************

I had just a little rum and... some sort of fruit thing. Just a single shot, which with my current mass, surely couldn't get me drunk but would hopefully melt my brain just that touch I need to avoid fleeing out the back door and just running until I fall off the cliff.

Then Dash and I got up with our hastily improvised song. I will note that Spike got a huge round of applause for his song; Twilight gave him a big pony hug, which he needed.

Just as we were about to start, Lyra came up with her harp and said to Octavia, "Please let me help my friends."

Octavia's glare softened. "Okay. This time."

Thanks, Octavia.

Who may, admittedly, just want a laugh at our expense.

I can't actually blame her for that.

So, here we go to sing. Of course we didn't bother to consult EITHER of the bards we know.

Dash went first.

o/~ I walked alone, needing no one

o/~ The sky was mine and that was all

o/~ Every day spent basking in the sun

o/~ I lived for me, until I heard your call.

I went second.

o/~ Always look forward; never look back

o/~ Everything broke, every time... I had to run

o/~ But for all my flight, I ran a well-beaten track.

o/~ Wrapped in shadow, no sight of the sun

Lyra to my surprise went third; Bon-Bon started at that, though she'd been watching us.

o/~ Keeping it light, keeping it breezy.

o/~ A wink, a smile, a kiss, a tumble in the hay

o/~ I would always take it easy.

o/~ And when it went wrong, I would always say...

The three of us now sang our chorus with Dash on the lead lines and Lyra and I following up.

o/~ When the going got tough,

o/~ We got going!

o/~ Someone else reaped the harvest

o/~ That we were sowing!

o/~ But that all changed when I saw you,

o/~ Now what the hell am I going to do?

And now we sang, parts changing, following some strange instinct, as if the song sang us and not the other way around.

o/~ I looked up to the sky (Dash)

o/~ And you crossed my horizon (Me, Lyra)

o/~ I looked down to the waters (Me)

o/~ And you rose from the deeps (Dash, Lyra)

o/~ I looked forward across the land (Lyra)

o/~ And you were looking back at me (Me,Dash)

o/~ And now when I look inside my mind (All)

o/~ It's your face I find (All)

Soarin' and Rarity were grinning like the cats who ate the canaries, while Bon-Bon was beet red; lots of people were staring at her in her rather simple green dress; she doesn't have big adventuring loot to spend on clothing. Rarity was busy showing off her dress to everyone who stared and Soarin' just hovered, looking pleased.

We now sang together, all three

o/~ I'm in deep

o/~ Way over my head

o/~ I can't run away

o/~ And I don't know how to stay

o/~ For whenever I yielded to desire,

o/~ It ended always in fire!

"In fire?" Rainbow Dash squeaked to me.

Lyra studied me curiously for a moment as she played.

I think that part came from me, yes, though we all sang it.

"Now you know why I'm so nervous," I whispered as Octavia and her band played a solo. Well, you can't call it a solo when it's the WHOLE BAND but they improvised a bridge while the three of us took a moment to breathe and drink something.

In retrospect, I am not actually sure where my drink came from but it was tasty and my throat needed some liquid refreshment.

Right as we were about to resume, Soarin' stepped up. DJ Pon3 manipulated her board and now a light shone brightly on him. He sang with a deeper voice than he speaks.

o~ Everyone loves the idea of me

o~ Everyone loves the ideal of me

o~ The dashing Wonderbolt above

o~ Who saves everyone.

o~ But they loved an idea, not a reality

o~ They didn't love *me*!

Dash stared with eyes wide; I get the feeling Soarin' doesn't talk too much about this frustration of his. She probably just learned tonight.

But now everyone knew. And he continued.

o~ You came into my life

o~ Like a bolt from the blue!

o~ You looked past my mask

o~ And saw my real face.

o~ And now there's nothing I won't do

o~ For a chance to be with you!

Rarity was next, stepping up beside him.

o~ I dreamed of a prince

o~ And a fairytale love.

o~ But my dreams were shattered

o~ When push came to shove.

o~ All my dreams and hopes

o~ Lay in ruins around me.

Damn you, Blueblood, I thought, as I watched, mesmerized. Rarity, it has to be said, knows how to work a crowd, her pose, her voice, her features perfect to convey her frustration. And then they turned to joy.

o~ It was the purest of chances

o~ Which brought us to these dances.

o~ In a land wilder than even the Everfree

o~ Covered in muck, you came to me

o~ I cleaned your face, you cleaned my heart

o~ And now I do hope, we never will part.

Twilight was smiling at us; I was in heaven and hell at once, in heaven from joy and in hell from guilt. But for now, I could shove hell to one side for a few minutes and enjoy the pounding in my chest, the thrill in my flesh, the song in my heart. Twilight was dancing with a unicorn now, his horn glowing though I wasn't sure what he was doing. But they were happy and that made me happy.

Celestia, I'm in love, and I don't know what to do. I can't go forward and I can't go back. I wanted to run to her and flee screaming into the night at once.

For now, I split the difference and stood still.

Vanilla Surprise was dancing with Big Macintosh, him lifting her up and spinning her; how he held on, I don't know. She was laughing and looked so happy, and I understood, this is the her she wishes she could be.

Heavy hangs the head which bears the crown.

I hope she can find some joy to live on, while this night lasts. But I think she will.

Ditzy was... dancing upside down, flying and hovering in reverse, as she danced with Dr. Smith. They were both laughing and enjoying themselves, though at times, I could see age in his eyes. Like me, I think he's seen too much death and it always haunts him a little.

Also, I wasn't COVERED in muck, I was just... okay, I was covered in muck.

Totally covered in muck.

Bon-Bon stepped up now and began to sing. She's got a good voice, but clearly not a lot of experience.

o~ My daily routine was a well trod rut;

o~ Get up in the morning and go to work,

o~ Go home in the evening and dream of the stars,

o~ Spend the weekend with Berry in bars.

o~ My life was quiet; in the shadows I would lurk

o~ For every door I wished to open remained shut.

In BARS??? Bon-Bon doesn't seem the type. I could only stare.

Twilight boggled too, which made me feel better.

o~ You sang to me as I always dreamed

o~ And swept me off my hooves

o~ I anchor you; you set me free

o~ Together, I hope we'll aways be

o~ Teach me to roam; I will teach you to stay

o~ And shoulder to shoulder, we'll say...

And now the three of them moved shoulder to shoulder... more or less,since Soarin' still hovered.

And now the entire club burst into song as the band played on.

o~ If I fly to the sky (mostly men)

o~ I will be your sun (mostly women)

o~ When I plunge to the depths (mostly men)

o~ I will be your moon (mostly women)

o~ When I run to far horizons (mostly men)

o~ I will run by your side (mostly women)

DJ Big D was crying for some reason as he listened to us all sing. I'm not sure why, given this was a HAPPY song. Even the humans and elves were singing now and dancing. DJ Pon3 now rose up and grabbed DJ Big D and forced him to dance, and I couldn't help but laugh at the sight.

o~ Across the sky (Dash)

o~ We'll fly together (Soarin')

o~ In deepest dungeon (Me)

o~ We'll explore together (Rarity)

o/~ In all the tides of normal life (Lyra)

o~ We'll stand together (Bon-Bon)

o~ Adventure we will seek together, (all)

o~ Together we will make a home (all)

o~ For you are the one I love. (All)

The note hung high and clear, and then one by one the instruments went silent until only Lyra's lute and Octavia's double-bass remained, playing on, a voiceless duet, playing through verse and chorus until it faded.

Then Lyra bowed before Octavia. "I am sorry," Lyra said to Octavia. "You can beat me unconscious with your double-bass if you want. You told me you loved me and I fled in a panic because I couldn't stay and I couldn't go but I *could* run screaming and never come back. So I did."

Eeeeeeee.

I heard Twilight's breath catch. Obviously enough.

I didn't know what to do either, but I DID know how to run, screaming. So I did too. (Back then, I mean.)

"I'm not going to beat you unconscious with my double-bass," Octavia said.

Lyra gave a deep sigh of relief.

"It's too expensive to break when I can just use this table!," Octavia said angrily, hefting a nearby table over her head and rearing back on her hind legs. DJ Pon3's music collection took to the air now and she ran around catching it with her magic; some of it fell on DJ Big D's head, knocking him down.

Twilight strode up and wrestled with Octavia for control of the table. "That's enough! She just panicked and ran away! People get scared sometimes when it comes to love!" Her voice was half angry and half pleading. "You have the right to be angry, but you shouldn't just hit her!"

I understand how Lyra feels. She wants to make it up to Octavia, to the extent she can. She screwed up and she regrets it and she wants to atone.

I could see Vanilla Surprise and Lunette both watching this intently. Dash and Soarin' were kissing; they'd flown to each other the second the song ended and probably hadn't even NOTICED all this.

And Rarity was now at my side as I watched this drama, nuzzling me and I nuzzled back and wished that we had, in fact, proper arms.

"She deserves punishment!" Octavia said. "I opened my heart to her and she stomped on it!" She was quite angry. The table wobbled. Earth Ponies are STRONG, or she could never have fought Twilight like that.

"Put that table down!" Bon-Bon said angrily, charging up. Seeing her pawing the ground was just... it was like... I don't know. Seeing Twist prepare to rage, maybe.

"A table is too far," Rarity said softly to me. "But she deserves some kind of punishment."

I nodded, damning myself. But I just... I am dreading atonement but I really... I don't want to walk scott free.

I fear Twilight will just... I don't even know what she'll do. But it's clear it won't involve demanding I die.

Which would be easier than too much forgiveness.

Pinkie now strode up into the confrontation. "Stop! Ponies shouldn't fight each other! I have a better solution, an equitable punishment!"

Octavia studied her curiously. "Who are you?"

"I am Pinkie Pie, the Element of Laughter! But today, I am... THE ELEMENT OF JUSTICE!" She reared up on her hind legs and stretched her forelegs, then spun on one hoof and fell down. This sparked widespread laughter. "By the power invested in me by Celestia herself, I do hereby sentence Lyra to be Octavia's roadie for the next two weeks! To clean her instruments and those of her band, to set up their equipment and to generally do scutwork until she needs a ponicure AND CANNOT GET ONE."

"It's a fair cop," Lyra said. She looked at Octavia.

"I'll accept that," Octavia said, putting the table down. "You can start by cleaning up my mess."

"I don't want my girlfriend spending all her time with her ex," Bon-Bon said, frowning at all and sundry.

"She has to atone for her past errors," Pinkie said. "Don't worry, Bon-Bon, I'll keep you busy. And it won't take ALL her time. But it has to be enough so they can make up and move on. You don't want Lyra to still be worrying about Octavia when she's with you, right?"

Bon-Bon had the look of someone defeated by logic but not persuaded in the heart. "Fine." She sagged.

Octavia just sniffed at her and now talked quietly to her band to get the party started again.

Sorry, Bon-Bon. But I think things will go better for you once Lyra no longer has that shadow of past failure hanging over her. Pinkie, I'd give you a thumbs up if I actually had any thumbs right now.

I wished again I had a proper arm to put around Rarity, though standing next to her is nice. "Let's dance," I told her, once the music started and we smiled at each other and began to dance.

Is this love? It certainly feels different when we're both the same species. I greatly enjoy her company when we're together, but like this.. when she was human... Can we really do this?

I have to tell her before we get too deep.

Later, when we have privacy.

Everyone's smiling at us. I feel so good. I wish I could feel this good forever.

For a little while, at least, I did.

**************

My joy lasted until I noticed Spike busy stuffing donuts in his mouth in frustration and swilling... something. Coffee, I think. Sweet mother of Valerias, he is going to bounce off the walls for hours. Then he will crash and then he will hate everything for days.

Rarity was dancing with Big Macintosh, so I went to talk to Twilight, who had just finished dancing with a unicorn. "I have extremely horribly bad news for you," I told her.

"What's wrong?" she asked, eyes wide.

I pointed at Spike and she vibrated. "You'd better lock your doors tight tonight."

"I know," I told her. "And you'd better borrow a sleeping potion because he is not going to sleep until maybe noon tomorrow."

She sighed. "Thanks for the warning. So..." She licked her lips nervously. "So this means you and Rarity are... a couple, right?" she said hesitantly.

Aaargh, I need to talk to Rarity. I want her so much like this, it's so... I haven't felt like this since Dona Carlotta and I were together. But we won't both be the same most of the time. There's magic and things but... I don't know what to do, what to say.

I just know I'm in love with her and it terrifies me.

"I am in love with her and scared out of my mind," I confessed, then cursed my lips for giving away secrets.

"I know, I totally know," Twilight said sympathetically, patting my back. I dipped her low and we nearly fell down. I should stop trying to do that in a pony body but my human dancing instincts are still there. "Man, this is fun but tiring."

"A Pony burns four times as much energy when bipedal as quadrupedal," Twilight told me as we danced like humans, leaning on each other, forehooves around each other, trying to waltz. "Humanoids don't suffer this because they're designed to move more efficiently. And we Ponies can only do this thanks to the Blackmoorians."

"So do Ponies who want to lose weight go around bipedal as much as possible?" I asked.

"It helps to explain why Pinkie can eat so much sugar and remain healthy," Twilight said.

I wonder if... Lyra is dating a candy maker.

That explains a lot.

"Anyway, I... well, I had this problem too. When I had my big crush on Erik." She sighed. "I don't even... I mean, I think he would have been willing to do what you're doing, and I was busy practicing to surprise him with turning human when I ended up confessing to him before I was even ready." She laughed nervously. "Rarity and I have been discussing this some."

"I don't know what we'll do long term," I told Twilight. "I like being human, she likes being a pony. Though being a unicorn helps. I think I would be pretty frustrated if I had to do it all earth pony style without any magic. There's a ton of issues and people will freak and I don't even... have you met her parents?"

"Silver Belle is very nice but somewhat... you know how Rarity is with gems?" Twilight asked.

"Yes," I said.

"She's that way with cloth and sewing. She was hugging a bolt of expensive cloth when I met her," Twilight said, laughing.

I now tried spinning her around. We crashed into another couple and I had to apologize.

"Captain Keen Eyes is brave and strong, but kind of stern and stubborn and unyielding," Twilight said. "And he really dislikes Fluttershy because she's not as brave as him."

I grimaced; I'd hoped that might have been just... something not true. "So I'm toast."

"You're not..." She winced. "Maybe."

Where maybe = hell yeah.

Dammit. I want to ask what her long term plans were, but really, I ought to just confess everything to her right now.

But I just can't do it.

I WILL do it with Rarity if it kills me.

It will.

"I will tell him all about how you got hurt protecting Rarity and how much you love her and how much you did to help us and I'm sure he'll come around." Twilight looked very worried. This added to my guilt-mountain.

I'm not so sure, he's a hardass.

We finished the dance and now Lunette stole me. "So she's the one," Lunette said softly.

"I have no clue what... how... I mean, I have no experience at this," I said, half babbling as we danced. Spinning her was MUCH safer than trying to spin Twilight.

"Good luck," Lunette said. "As an Immortal, with time, such body issues are less worrisome. But I still remember when I was a... well a sort of normal pony." She smiled. "Being the child of an Immortal, I was never entirely normal." We swung into a box step, making a series of three-steps and turning a quarter turn by the end of each, eventually returning to our start. "And one day, both of you may join our ranks."

My eyes widened a little. "So I was right. You hope for all of them to Ascend."

She touched my mind as I dipped her low. Somehow, I was much more agile while holding her than I had been with Twilight. 'Yes. We have huge plans, much of which I cannot yet tell you.'

'Until I show I can be trusted,' I told her. 'I understand.' I had a weird feeling and I was not sure what it was. We swung out beside each other and strutted forward, then came back together and reversed on the quick-step. With her, I could dance as nimbly as my human body, though it still tired me more.

'We are still trying to figure out if you will need to start over or if we can move you forward from where you are,' Lunette said. 'Come to my lab after lunch tomorrow, so I can study you, please.'

We darted nimbly through the crowd; some people were staring now, swinging around people and moving with more grace than even my human body normally has. It felt like anything was possible. 'Of course,' I told her. 'I don't even remember now why I wanted it.'

'Do you wish it still?' she asked. 'It is a burden as well as a blessing.'

'If Ivan is going to do it, and Rarity as well, then most definitely.' Assuming we all can; it is, after all, a rare and difficult thing. 'I'd jump into the Hell of the Five Fiends for Ivan and Helga,' I told her. 'And now... if Rarity and I can make it work, I will want to be by her side. And I owe Twilight.' And the others, but I owe Twilight the most. 'Also, do you know anything about making magical items? I want to make Applejack the best lasso ever, since she saved my life.'

She spun me now and I laughed and then she pulled me back in close. 'I would be glad to help you; Twilight and Rarity can help you as well. Applejack could, but I assume it needs to be a surprise.'

I nodded to her.

We dipped low and then the music finished. 'Good luck. We can talk more about shifting in my lab and the issues of bodies,' Luna said to me.

"Thank you for the dance, fair elven lady," I said bowing.

She smiled impishly. "Thank you, good sir. I believe your lady fair awaits you."

"Oh yes," I said and ran to her eagerly to dance again.

************

We danced a while, then took a break to drink some orange juice. I tried to avoid alcohol. So I can't do anything TOO foolish.

And then we kissed. I had not planned it... it just kind of happened. We were smiling and then we were closer and then... smooch. And my body went 'NOW NOW NOW' and I had to tell it to SHUT UP.

And then we heard a kind of strangled cry nearby. We both froze and looked but while we saw the bartender and three other ponies all looking around, we saw nothing.

When it didn't repeat, I said, "We have to talk tonight, once we're home and safe."

She nodded. "Agreed. We should..." And then, suddenly, Scootaloo came from nowhere, wearing a black hat, eye mask, her CMC cloak, a black coat, black trousers, the whole Manuel of the Plains imitator kit. She grabbed Rarity and dragged her off.

"Come and dance with me fair lady!"

Rarity flailed and got pushed along by the sheer force of Scootaloo's will. "Who are you!" she said.

DO NOT TELL ME YOU CANNOT TELL!!!!

Then Apple Bloom and Sweetie manhandled me along; Apple Bloom's prehensile tail was a huge help to her. "You filthy girlfriend stealer! The Plains Crusaders will not allow this!" They too had the full Manuel monte.

WHAT ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT?

I ended up in some sort of side room with them. Dinky was sitting on a table and Don Diego sat next to her, legs over the edge. Oh, I mean 'Manuel' sat there.

"Good sir, I apologize for the roughness of my apprentices, but they and I cannot allow you to muscle in on someone already pledged to someone else!" he said. "For I am Manuel of the Plains, defender of justice AND love!"

DON DIEGO!

Why don't they recogn.. OH!

I felt the stupidest of all men. Of all POSSIBLE men.

"You had better RUN," Sweetie said, poking my right foreleg with a deck of cards. She shuffled the deck. "Draw a card!"

I drew the card. The Jack of Shadows. "Okay," I said.

"It's the JACK OF SHADOWS, right?" she said angrily.

"Yes," I said, showing the card.

"That means if you don't STAY AWAY FROM MY SISTER, her boyfriend will EAT YOUR SOUL," Sweetie said.

"He'll boil you in a pot!" Apple Bloom said, jumping up and down and making kung-fu moves.

"He will make you do all his homework!" Dinky said mournfully.

Twist stuck her head in. "I can't find him anywhere! But he might be in the men's room, where I can't go." She frowned. "I sold a lot of candy, but that's just a cover."

"Did my lemon candy sell?" Apple Bloom asked.

"They LOVED it," Twist said.

"Tell me you were not selling shapeshifting candies," I said.

"No, no, I did make a big batch for emergencies, but I know better than to sell it to people who don't know what it is," Twist said.

I HOPE SO.

"Why do you have a bunch of shapeshifting candies?" I asked.

"That's not your business, you GIRLFRIEND STEALER," Sweetie said, jabbing my leg with the Jack of Shadows. "Go back to the Abyss!"

"I will check the men's room," Don Diego said and headed out. I mean 'Manuel' headed out.

"I wonder if I can get a Cutie Mark by beating down a GIRLFRIEND STEALER," Apple Bloom said thoughtfully.

"I am not a girlfriend stealer," I told them. "I guess you do have some excuse for not recognizing me."

"You're not my brother, right?" Apple Bloom said weakly. "You don't look right but I know he's in a suit."

"Sweetie, I'm disappointed you don't know me," I told her, trying to sound VERY sad.

She froze. "I... ummm..."

"Did you bring those to turn Rarity's boyfriend into a pony without asking him?" I said sternly.

"I... no... maybe... YES," Sweetie said. "I'm sure... I mean... It was Scootaloo's idea!" She sounded guilty.

"You totally wanted him to be a pony," Twist said, waggling a hoof at her. "I was the one who thought this was a bad idea."

"But you went along anyway," Apple Bloom said, pointing at her, looking aggravated.

"I just want to ensure he and Rarity are happy together and that he doesn't... I want him to stay," Sweetie said weakly to the floor. "He's very kind to me and I like my big brother very much."

"Sweetie, it's me, Marcus. Rarity got some of the candy and we each are trying it tonight. She was human earlier, and now I'm a pony."

They all stared, eyes wide at me.

Distantly, I heard Rarity chewing out Scootaloo and so was Applejack. I smiled at that a little.

"You should NEVER EVER shapeshift someone against their will unless they're trying to hurt you," I told them.

Sweetie began crying and crumpled in a ball. "I'm so sorry, I just wanted you and Rarity and I to be happy forever!"

"Nothing lasts forever, my little pony," I told her kindly. "I know you meant well." I lowered myself gingerly and nuzzled her gently. I am aware that horse legs are not as tough as they may look.

"I'm sorry."

"Sorry isn't enough. If you're really sorry, you'll do something to make up for what you did." I looked at all of them. "If you want to be treated like big ponies, you have to act like big ponies."

And yes, I know, I am the pot, blah blah. I'm going to have to make amends too. But Lyra did it and I can too.

"We just wanted to help and get our matchmaking cutie marks," Apple Bloom grumbled.

Rarity and Applejack herded Scootaloo in. "Marcus, what's going on?" Rarity asked.

"It's the Cutie Mark Crusaders in disguise. They wanted to 'help' us."

Sweetie cringed.

Applejack laughed. "Didn't recognize him, kids?"

"Wait, these are Sweetie's friends?" Rarity said.

Applejack looked at me and we just shook our heads. Applejack pulled off Sweetie's mask.

"Sweetie!" Rarity said in shock.

There must be something wrong with pony vision. Or something.

I can still tell though things are kind of weirdly flatter than I would expect.

"I'm so sorry, I just wanted to help!"

"It's okay," Rarity said. "Nothing got messed up, did it?"

"They were going to turn me into a pony with the candy," I told Rarity.

"I guess Pinkie kept her promise to tell no one," Rarity said.

"I'm sorry, I'll make it up to you!" Sweetie said urgently.

"Don Diego is supposed to be watching over you all," Rarity said sternly. "Where is he?"

"Bathroom," Apple Bloom said.

"We'll discuss a penance for you later," I said, then paused. "If that's okay," I said to Rarity.

"Yes, it will wait. Just be careful with that candy," Rarity said.

Applejack looked thoughtful. "I reckon maybe I ought to give it a try some time. I'm a mite curious."

"Some time when we have clothing for you to wear," Rarity said.

"I guess everything you've got on you would be kinda frou-frou," Applejack said.

"Give us a candy," Rarity said to Twist. "Applejack, we'll see if we can work you out an outfit you can accept. Marcus, darling, can you take the kids?"

"Yes," I said. "Everyone stay close to me." I paused, then walked over to Rarity. "Close your eyes."

She closed her eyes and I kissed her. Applejack was grinning and Sweetie cheered.

SHUT UP BODY.

KIDS PRESENT!!!!!!

Rarity smiled brightly. "Thank you, darling. Close the door on the way out, so no one sees us." She turned to Applejack. "Let's see, gold coat, so something purple, maybe."

"Everyone in this place has already seen me NAKED," Applejack said as we went out, closing the door behind us.

"Now what?" Scootaloo asked, frowning.

"We turn you into a giant chicken as your punishment," I said cheerfully.

She stared in absolute horror.

Don Diego, you SUCK as a babysitter. But I knew you would and didn't stop it.

Damn me.

"Oh man, that's awful," Apple Bloom said.

I found Fluttershy and Pinkie, about to sing a song about animals. Fluttershy looked very nervous. "Hey, look, the kids snuck here to try to help us."

"We were hoping for our way overdue Cutie Marks!" Scootaloo said.

"They were going to shapeshift me into a pony," I told them.

"But you are a pony," Pinkie said, rubbing her eyes.

"You can turn me into a pony," Fluttershy said kindly.

"Are you mocking me?" Scootaloo said, clearly frustrated.

"Yeah, Fluttersarcasm!," Pinkie said, hugging her. "A good start!"

"I was hoping I'd look different, so no one would recognize me," Fluttershy said weakly.

Twist offered her a candy. She ate it eagerly and suddenly changed shape, looking just like Twilight.

"Isn't she famous?" I asked.

"I... not like I was," Fluttershy said nervously. "I could just read a book quietly for the rest of the night if I'm Twilight."

"You are going to have FUN," Pinkie said. "Crusaders! Your new mission is FLUTTERFUN!"

"FLUTTERFUN! YAY!" they all shouted, then ran around us in a circle, singing and dancing about how much fun Fluttershy would have tonight.

She smiled brightly, though she looked a little embarrassed. "Thank you, fillies," she said.

That's when suddenly there was a huge puff of smoke and the sound of Fluttershy shrieking and then when it cleared, a man in dark green robes was flying towards the door on a purple disk with a squirming sack over one shoulder. "This should be enough bait!" he said proudly.

"Fillies, go stay by Lyra and do NOT come outside," I said sternly, knowing they would not obey.

Dammit.

Pinkie was already after the man and I could see the rest of our friends starting to move. "Sweetie, go make sure your sister and Applejack know they're needed."

"You can trust in me!" she said and ran. The others ran over to Lyra and I ran for the door.

**************

The first sign this was going to be bad was that the sausage-seller had turned to stone. The second sign was that there were ponies running amok in the streets, singing, babbling, kicking things down, kicking each other, chasing humans and so on. The third sign was the giant floating armored eyeball with a dozen eyestalks floating in the street with a cackling wizard in dark green robes, floating on a purple disk above the beholder and brandishing a staff. He had red hair and dusky skin and his eyes were made of flame. Clearly Flaemish, from Bergdhovern in Glantri. The Flaems and Alphatians used to live on a planet on another plane, but they kind of blew it up when an intellectual debate got out of hand.

I wish that was a joke.

This sort of thing is why wizards are usually not invited to rule your country.

Pinkie shouted, "Give us back Twilight, or I won't make you laugh AT ALL!"

Thanks, Pinkie, that will make them fear us.

"I told you she would be here, and where SHE is, we'll find him too!" the wizard cackled.

I now recognized the beholder. He's the bastard who nailed me with a fear ray, so I fell out a window, down a slope, then off a small cliff. Thank the Immortals for Clerics, or I'd still be in a hospital bed.

For reasons STILL inadequately explained, he was cruising around high up in the sky, making us think we'd found a new planet. Thanks to the Grand Galloping Gala, no one noticed him but us. Then Twilight's effort to boost the power of the telescope drew his attention and we had a running battle that ended with Twilight having a freakout and sending him to another plane.

I don't even know this bastard's name but I can still remember how I screamed as I fell.

"Who the hell are you?" I shouted.

"I am Cortland Van Der Bijl," the wizard said proudly. "A graduate with GD from the Great School of Magic, well versed in all things elemental, with minors in aberrations and flight magics! I'm here for the bounty on Erik of Vestland's head!"

"I am Extaferous the All-Powerful," the beholder said solemnly. "I have come to DESTROY Twilight Sparkle and Erik of Vestland! But especially Twilight Sparkle!"

"Twilight Sparkle. HAH, she went in my magic bag like a helpless ferret! And I'm here for the bounty on Erik's head!" Cortland said, cackling. "Better run, you stupid stallion, or you're going to become a snack for Extaferous!"

I heard FlutterLight (polymorphed Fluttershy) say something about ferrets but it was muffled.

Shouldn't the royal...

I now spotted a lance of stoned warponies. (Namely, ten of them.) Okay, so much for the first guard response.

But if we keep them busy long enough for the others to arrive...

Especially given Twilight, Luna and Celestia are inside... BWAHAHAH! They won't know what hit them.

Pinkie and I just have to hold off a mad wizard mercenary and a beholder.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.

"Marcus, I have a plan," Pinkie whispered. "But it involves a pie too big for me to pick up, so I haven't quite figured out how to make it work."

How does she have it if she can't pick it up?

"Go on," I said, since I really have no better idea.

"ERIK OF VESTLAND! COME OUT OR TWILIGHT SPARKLE GETS IT! WE KNOW SHE'S YOUR GIRLFRIEND!" Cortland shouted.

"..." I stared.

Flutterlight said something incoherent and weakly pushed at the bag. This is not the time for you to be doing your usual feigning weakness, Fluttershy!

"You use your magic, I use muscle and together we heft and fling it," she said.

It beats nothing; apparently he fears us so little, the beholder can't even be bothered to zap us.

We managed to get the pie out and hit the beholder in its central giant eye.

For a moment, there was a terrible silence.

Then the beholder shot me with the fear ray. Nothing happened. If anything, I felt a little less terrified.

"..." Damn you, universe, for being ironic.

Damn you.

It tried to zap us with its anti-magic ray but the pie smeared on its eye blocked it. It began trying to set us on fire and suck out our life force and we began dodging wildly while I tried to get the peace I needed for a few seconds to cast a spell.

No dice. The beholder now focused on Pinkie while the wizard hurled wind blasts and fire at me. Pinkie hurled pastries, blocking each shot, while performing an impromptu rap about how she is the Queen of Pastries and you must respect her attitude or something.

So it rotated to fire ALL of its eyestalks at once at her.

Pinkie froze in panic, but then....

DASH!

SWOOSH, she was zoomed up into the air and a large chunk of street blew up, froze, got hypnotized, had its life sucked, turned to stone, etc.

Further, an arrow now shot through the drawstrings of the bag; it fell off the disk and open and FlutterLight flew out of it. Then lightning balls engulfed the wizard, knocking him for a loop into the building. Twilight and Rarity were on the scene.

Then Big Mac and Applejack (now wearing a fancy dress, her hair piled up in a bun... with her hat on it... ) ran out and leaped up ONTO the beholder and began tying up its eyestalks, kicking them out of the way when it began to try to zap them.

Lunette, Vanilla Surprise, and Ivan now came out the door and studied the scene. Soarin' charged out behind them to assess the situation, and then Dr. Smith and Ditzy ran out as well.

"Boyz! Strike! Elemental Boyz! STRIKE!" Cortland shouted.

Four elementals shimmered into existence. A humanoid giant made of fire, a whirling vortex of water, a huge floating cloud with lightning, and a rocky giant. Further, eight Diamond Dogs now charged out, wearing armor and carrying spears to move against us.

Oh boy.

Cortland now stared at Flutterlight and Twilight. He blinked. "What on earth?"

Flutterlight began speaking in some unearthly, echoing tongue. I stared at her. The floating cloud began thundering at her and the other elementals made weird noises. This led Cortland to make the same kind of noises. Oh hoh, don't mess with the DRUID.

Dr. Smith said, "Ditzy, we need a good fog."

"Ditzy is on it!" she said proudly then flew at the Diamond Dogs and fog spread from her wings, rolling over them and they now ran around lost in it. I could feel her Cutie Mark pulsing with power.

Now I could see something coming, a kind of huge iron bird coming down from high above. That doesn't bode well; I could see Pegasi guards rising from the castle to approach it.

"Dash, Soarin', bring me Pinkie and check out the bird!" Twilight shouted. "Marcus, rally to me. Ivan, conceal yourself. Lunette, go with Ivan. Vanilla Surprise, work with Pinkie. Rarity, let me enchant one of your arrows, then ready it." I wondered idly if she thought about how she was ORDERING THE PRINCESSES AROUND.

Probably not, and they did what she said.

Ivan and Lunette seemed to turn into shadows and vanish into the darkness of the night. "..." I stared at that. Ivan couldn't ALWAYS do that, right?

Dash deposited Pinkie by Vanilla Surprise; they began conferring and trading pastries as Dash rose skywards with Soarin'.

Dr. Smith ambled over to FlutterLight and joined in the conversation, gesticulating with one hoof and speaking the strange, unearthly mix of crackles and thunders and echoes and breezes and scents that FlutterLight and Cortland spoke fluently.

Damn, I really need to study more.

A lot more.

I could see the Pegasi circling the iron bird; Blue Angel was up there, busy talking to them.

Ditzy continued to circle, keeping the fog going, her victims trapped inside it as she said to them, "Don't worry, this is perfectly safe, as long as you wore nice warm clothing and that armor looks warm! But now you can't hurt anyone! So just lie down and take a nice nap!" She sounded very cheerful.

The beholder was now hog-tied in terms of its eyestalks but it now began trying to scrape the pie off using the road without hitting its eye's... surface, I guess is the right word. However, Applejack and Big Macintosh now leaped off and began running down the road, dragging it behind them, bouncing up and down as it howled.

Twilight worked on enchanting Rarity's arrows with some tricks while I helped her. Pinkie and Vanilla Surprise began a song and dance routine, cheering FlutterLight on, which seemed to make her more confident as she argued. Dr. Smith's right hoof kept tapping the tune, I noticed and smiled.

And then there was a flash of light and sixteen Giff appeared. They're basically Hippo-men who live in outer space, flying around in techno-magical ships like... the iron bird. "We represent the Interdimensional Police," the commander said. "I'm Commander Wild Assault." He wore a blue uniform and had a monocle. They all had these odd curved wands at their hips.

His second in command, who wore a pith helmet with a green uniform, read off a list. "We're here to arrest Interdimensional Criminals Twilight Sparkle and Erik of Vestland for dumping a beholder, hight Extaferous the All-Powerful, on Dimension X-53-AR, known also as 'Karinth'. Erik of Vestland is also charged with being a 'candy-ass bastard, Class IV' and Twilight Sparkle with 'Unregistered Cosmic Power, Class II'."

"I am registered in Equestria!" Twilight said, pulling out her paperwork.

"Okay, we'll dismiss the lesser charge," Commander Wild Assault said, gesturing to his flunky, who scratched it out. "Where is your partner in..." He paused and saw FlutterLight. "What the hell is this?"

"One Twilight was not enough," I said. "We had to have as many as possible." I could not help but grin.

"Now she can read THREE books at the same time!" Pinkie said, then laughed.

"There are no Interdimensional Police," Vanilla Surprise said. "Just be honest and admit you're here for the bounty."

"We would not stoop to simple bounty hunting, whatever our financial crisis!" Commander Wild Assault insisted. "That, madam, is LIBEL, which is a crime! Take her in too!"

I looked at Vanilla Surprise, who mouthed 'go hog wild' at me.

That's a royal command I can live with.

Then the second in command pointed at Ditzy. "Sir, it's Derpy Hooves."

Who?

He froze. "There's a five million gold bounty on her."

WHAT? Why the hell would anyone in their right mind put that much money on ANYONE?

"She may have her sidekick; he's worth five hundred thousand gold," the second in command continued.

Dr. Smith paused in the negotiations. "Sidekick?" he said, sounding hurt and offended. "I think you are confused."

"Nope, you're the sidekick," the second in command Giff said, ticking off a box.

"Hell, let's take them all; I'm sure they're all worth something," the commander said.

"Ditzy," Dr. Smith said to her. "You're going to have to use the explosives I told you not to bring."

"But you said not to bring them, so I didn't," Derpy said.

He blinked. "But you always forget when I tell you not to bring them!"

"So I made a DOZEN notes and Dinky made ten and I got the staff to paint it on the wall of my room, so I remembered!" Ditzy said proudly. "I'm buying paint when I get home!"

Dr. Smith made a strangled noise.

Ditzy flew around, looking proud, even as the Giff started to surge forwards; she was still keeping the now groggy and confused and cold Diamond Dogs trapped.

"I've got explosives!" Twist said, appearing next to Dr. Smith.

Oh bloody hell.

Wait, SHE HAS EXPLOSIVES?

"I brought my SUPER red-hots! They detonate in your mouth in a FLAVOR EXPLOSION," Twist said proudly.

"It will have to do; pass them to Ditzy," Dr. Smith said wearily. "Muffin Bomber time with candy, Ditzy."

"..." I stared, then turned my attention to the Giff.

"If there are any more hidden children, they'd best get BACK INSIDE!" Twilight shouted.

"I came to tell you there are trolls inside trying to kidnap Lyra!" Twist said.

Oh bloody hell.

How did TROLLS get into the middle of Canterlot???

Dr. Smith twitched. "Do they have metal body parts?"

"Yep!"

Not good at all, even if I don't know WHY. But I had other things on my mind.

Team Equestria had Vanilla Surprise, Lunette, Twilight, Pinkie, myself, and Rarity. And you could count Twist, I suppose. And Ditzy, who may actually be 'Derpy Hooves', whatever that is about. Dr. Smith and FlutterLight were busy negotiating with elementals, though that seemed headed for a close. They were also keeping Cortland out of this and Dinky had the Diamond Dogs pinned.

So we had two God-Ponies in disguise and possibly not at full power, three ponies, and me. And Twist. Our foes: sixteen Giff. Bloody hell.

Our four best fighters are either up in the air, now fighting the iron bird, or dragging a Beholder.

Twilight now cast Mass Enlargement. This made us all bigger than Celestia's normal form, which is BIG. I then cast the fly spell from my feather, on Twilight; the wings produced, to my surprise and apparently to HER surprise, were huge wings of purple flame. The Giff now hesitated, staring at her.

"Beware, the true form of Princess Twilight Sparkle, Defender of Equestria, IS NOW REVEALED!" Vanilla Surprise shouted. Pinkie, Rarity, and Twist's breath caught. Twilight turned a little red.

"Run with it, it'll give us the edge," I whispered to them.

Twilight's eyes turned firey now; I felt the spell. Her voice echoed. "I AM TWILIGHT SPARKLE, MISTRESS OF THE STARS ABOVE! WHO ARE YOU WHO INVADES MY LAND OF EQUESTRIA???"

Ponies everywhere who had been staring or running amok in a panic now stopped and stared at her.

"Beam us up," the Giff leader said to a box in his hand.

High above I heard a noise like a pony going through a metal wing at high speed. No escape for you, Commander Wild Assault.

"Blast them!" Commander Wild Assault shouted. His men pulled their wands. Lightning wands! We all dodged wildly as they began blasting around.

As they did this, Dr. Smith jumped up onto the head of the Earth Elemental. The Fire and Water Elementals moved over by Cortland and the Air Elemental now let Fluttershy hop onto it. Then the four elementals started fighting with encouragement and orders from the three mortals.

"Do we really have to do this?" Dr. Smith said sadly to Cortland.

"You idiots are in the way of MY MONEY," Cortland said. "Plus, if you two are worth millions of gold in bounties, then this is EVEN BETTER."

Fluttershy threw seeds on the ground, then gently bounced up and down; her elemental began to rain down on the seeds.

Cortland stared. "You can't get RAIN from an air elemental!" Then he gestured and the water elemental rushed at her, forcing her back; it thoroughly soaked the seeds as it did so. The fire elemental came at Dr. Smith and the Earth Elemental; he fumbled at his saddlebags as the two elementals fought.

Meanwhile Derpy and Twist were...loading the candy into bubbles. Soon a swarm of bubbles floated around Derpy, each holding a candy, as four Giff shot at her. She and her bubbles dodged, then she flew down, dropping candy into the mouths of two; it detonated and they stumbled, then she swooped up with her bubbles.

Remind me NOT to try that flavor. The fact that Twist was laughing with excitement did not help.

Twelve Giff rushed at myself, Vanilla Surprise, Twilight, Pinkie, and Rarity. All of us were now HUGE. Four of them (including Commander Wild Assault) shot at Twilight; she fired lightning balls and blocked every shot with ease. Two more attacked Rarity who shot their weapons out of their hands, while dodging the lightning. Two came at Vanilla Surprise; she hit one in the face with a pie, then kicked the other one down. Then she got zapped with lightning and went flying to my TOTAL SHOCK. I guess this is NOT one of Celestia's more potent forms. Pinkie on the other hand, now dodged lightning and sang about how lightning never strikes the same place twice. Then she ran between her foes and they shot each other.

Two of them began chasing me around; I couldn't dodge well enough to make a counter attack to my frustration. Then Ivan and Lunette formed out of shadow, each armed with a hammer. Whelm sent Ivan's foe tumbling down the street and Lunette grabbed said foe's lightning wand as she knocked down her own foe and then she blasted them.

The Diamond Dogs stumbled, tired and cold, out of the mist, then began looking around. Dammit!

And then I heard the sound of MANY clattering hooves coming our way. Distantly, I could see Magnus being chased by a force of City Watch Ponies. He was headed our way full tilt.

Twilight saw Vanilla Surprise go flying and her eyes widened and then she shouted angrily. A huge wave of water rushed at the two Giff who had blasted Vanilla Surprise; they tried to shoot at her but the water caught their lightning and now they were trapped in it, tumbling along, being zapped.

High above, I could see Celestia's Pegasi forces forcing the iron bird towards a landing at the royal airfield, one of its wings crippled. One less worry.

Ivan and I charged the two who Rarity was dueling and drove them off her. This freed her up to fire an arrow at Commander Wild Assault; the arrow now exploded in a cloud of gas; he inhaled it and fell down. Lunette then slipped behind the two we were fighting and knocked their heads together.

Wham, they were down.

Derpy and Twist's foes were now rolling around on the ground, fire coming out of their mouths, gasping at repeated bubble-delivered 'flavor explosions'. Ack.

Never messing with Twist or Bon-Bon.

Pinkie now rose up, kissed one of her foes, who stumbled in shock, then slammed a pie into the face of the other, who she dragged over. Then she somehow tied their shoelaces together, and watched them stumble around.

The water elemental suddenly found plants growing up through it, DRINKING it with their roots. It began to shrink and got battered with lightning by the Air Elemental. However, Cortland now burned FlutterLight's plants.

"You just killed them!" FlutterLight said in horror.

"They're just VINES," he said. "Vines are for BURNING."

And then her eyes blazed and she stared into his eyes and they were locked in a battle of wills.

Vanilla Surprise rose and ran over to Twilight. "I'm okay," she said. "Just shaken up."

Twilight was busy flinging around Giff like straw in a hurricane, while Rarity was busy sniping them and knocking them out.

And then eight trolls with mechanical parts came stomping out, even as Dr. Smith's Earth Elemental continued to fight the Fire Elemental. He now pulled out a wand and pointed it at the Fire Elemental; it wobbled but nothing else. He began fiddling with the wand as he held it in his mouth.

"Twilight Sparkle, you will surrender or they get it," they announced; one of them had Lyra in a bag; another had Bon-Bon. I could still hear fighting inside the place. There was a really high note and someone screamed and fell down.

"Oa... wait, those are FAKE Oards!" Dr. Smith said.

"We are UPGRADED," the lead troll-mech-thing insisted.

"Fake," he said. "Oards look like modified green HUMANS."

"The picture was low quality," another 'Oard' said.

"Dammit," a third said.

"Shut up you idiots," the first one hissed. "We demand Erik of Vestland and Twilight Sparkle surrender to us or they die; we will soon have your children as well. Also, shrink your companions."

FUCK.

The elementals, Flutterlight, Dr. Smith, and Cortland kept fighting; Derpy now flew down and offered some candy to the Diamond Dogs who ate it eagerly; their mouths caught fire and they fell down. And Magnus went by, crashing through fleeing Giff; the watchponies began chasing the Giff as well.

"I'm so sorry!" Lyra said. "I took out two of these idiots but there's a TON of them."

"OARDS!" Ditzy said in a sudden panic, now noticing them.

"Mom, it's OARDS!" Dinky shouted from inside.

"They are FAKE," Dr. Smith said.

Ditzy now began to hiss like a cat, spreading her wings to look bigger. She looked very angry. As much as anyone with wandering eyes can.

"Surrender to us or they die," the first one said, holding a blade ready. UGH.

Whether they work for Marjorie or the Thyatians or what, whoever surrenders to them is screwed. So screwed.

Of course, they don't know I'm Erik, but...

Twilight grimaced and everyone returned to normal size and she stepped forwards. "Look, I don't know where Erik is, even though all these terrible people want to hurt him. But I know he wouldn't let his friends get hurt if he was here." She stepped forward a little more. "Let them and the kids go. You can take me. But he's not here."

"We can use you as leverage to flush him out," the first one said. "I don't see him around here, and scrying for him isn't working."

Vanilla Surprise whistled cheerfully.

Thanks, Celestia, I owe you one.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, I cannot let them take Twilight. Who knows what they'll do to her.

I could think of many things and they all made me sick.

"Marcus," Rarity said softly. "If you can distract them, I will free our friends. I am pretty sure I can make them drop the bags."

I nodded to her.

"Twist," I said softly to her. "I need a shifting candy."

She tossed it into my mouth.

Urk.

I ate it quickly, even as Twilight came forward. Pinkie said, "You had BETTER keep your promises or I will make you pay!" She pointed angrily at the 'Oards'.

Ditzy was rocking back and forth on her feet; she would have done something crazy if not for the hostages. And if they took Dinky...

"Hah! Take THAT! AND THAT!" I could hear Apple Bloom shouting.

"I foresee a BAD FUTURE FOR YOU!" Sweetie shouted.

Loud music was playing inside and there was another thump.

"Do you work for Marquetta?" I asked them as I felt the power of the candy churn inside me.

"Depends on if she or the Thyatians bids higher," the lead 'Oard' said.

Rarity carefully readied her arrows.

One of the Oards got a bag ready as Twilight slowly moved forward.

"Twilight, you can't... I'm not..." Bon-Bon said, looking horrified.

Lyra said, "Dammit, this sucks. I haven't even seen the Prof in over a year! I... thanks, Twilight," she said softly.

"It doesn't matter. I won't leave any pony in need. They won't want you once they have me, Lyra." She looked determined. "Celestia would do this for any pony. And so will I."

Why do you have to be so NOBLE, Twilight? DAMMIT!

I am NOT letting them take you. Period.

I gave the candy its marching orders. Make me Erik of Vestland. NOW.

***************

The change came over me with the usual pain, though as always, brief lived.

"You want Erik of Vestland?" I said, my sword now in the axe form it had when I was Erik. "Here I am."

Twilight stared, mouth wide. Then she saw my clothing and her mouth quirked into a smile just for a moment. Also, I was wearing the hat Rarity made for me, which is very distinctive AND beautiful. "Oh Erik my love," she gushed. "I knew you'd come for me!" I could tell she was faking and I could not help but grin. Playing up to the mistaken ideas of our enemies together; that's the life.

She's going to whip my ass so hard after this but... dammit, no more lies. Once this fight is over.

"I am the great Erik of Vestland. I trample all things under my feet," I said, looking intently at the 'Oards' as if I could kill them with my eyes. "And I will die before I let you carry off Twilight and Lyra and Bon-Bon to GET TO ME. You want me? Let them go and you can have me."

Twilight looked worried and I locked gazes with her. 'We have to give Rarity an opening.'

Horns, they have advantages.

'Right,' she said. "Noooooo! Erik, I can't let you sacrifice yourself!" she said, then threw herself at me.

I caught her, holding her up. "I can't let them kill our friends, you know," I told her. She still had the flaming wings. 'I'll go for Lyra, you for Bon-Bon, when Rarity fires,' I told her and she nodded mentally.

"Enough disgusting romance," the first 'Oard' said. "Come surrender yourself or your pony friends die." He was getting impatient.

I will tell her EVERYTHING once we take these bastards down, I thought.

Wait, Twilight can TELEPORT. I am NEVER FUCKING FORGETTING THAT AGAIN.

'If they tie you, unless it negates magic, you can teleport out of it right?' I asked her.

'Surely they'd think to block that,' she said.

They screwed up their disguise; I won't count on that. 'Maybe. Best not to risk it.'

We came over together slowly and I wondered what on earth was delaying Rarity.

I put my hands out; I have a clever plan, though it will likely hurt. But that's life. "Release one of my friends," I said.

They dropped Bon-Bon, who hovered, not wanting to leave Lyra. "Go," I told her. "To safety."

She looked guilty, then scampered over to the rest of our group.

He started to tie me up, and one of them took my axe, while Twilight started to get nervous again. 'Go, you can teleport back and surprise them,' I told her.

"I can't leave you!" she said, agonized.

"Go. It's me they want," I told her very seriously. Seriously... okay, I wasn't actually lying, but I WAS acting.

She scampered back, and I said, "You can free Lyra now that you're starting to tie me up."

"We need someone to ensure your good behavior," the leader said.

Ditzy was watching them very, very intently as if she could destroy them with a gaze. I wondered again about the whole 'Derpy Hooves' thing. What on Mystara had she done worth that much of a bounty?

And who the hell pays that kind of bounty?

And then Herr Otto and Dona Carlotta came running out. He was dragging her along. "We've got to..." He paused and STARED at me. "Erik?" she said, stunned.

"Hi, Carlotta," I said. FUCK ME I TOTALLY FORGOT SHE WAS HERE. "Please don't try anything, they're holding Lyra hostage." I nodded towards Lyra.

I'm sorry, Lyra. I'm so sorry.

Her eyes flashed, making me KEENLY aware that she is Dona Carnelia's little niece "I can't just do nothing!"

"He abandoned you," Herr Otto said, frowning. "Frankly, given all the trouble he causes, he deserves this."

Dona Carlotta glared at him. "We both agreed that it was best we part. He didn't just run away from me."

I grimaced and so did Twilight.

"I care nothing for your drama," the 'Oard' leader said. "But if you stick your head in, I'm sure there's someone who will take good money for a pretty elf woman."

"I am not just a pretty face," Dona Carlotta hissed.

"Shut your fat face," I snapped at the boss. "You're frankly not even worthy to SPEAK to her." I was really angry. "Or to Twilight. Or to that puddle of vomit over there. You're no better than a damn slaver."

"You're in no position to talk; you've been a mercenary and a wrecker of havoc all your life. Do you know how big the messes you've left in your wake? You ever stop for ONE MINUTE to think about that?" the 'Oard' leader said angrily.

Yes, I have and I feel pretty shitty about it now that I can think clearly enough to even entirely realize it. I'm going to do my best to clean up some of my messes, assuming I don't die here.

"Erik is a GOOD MAN," Twilight said. "I refuse to believe these stupid lies people keep telling!" Suddenly I wasn't sure if she actually remembered I was Marcus or not.

Twilight, you're a better friend than I deserve. "I have made some messes, Twilight," I said as the man finished tying my hands. Rarity, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? "I ran away from you in a panic, and I'm sorry. I hurt you and I never even came back to apologize. I have a lot of messes to clean up."

Twilight blinked; okay, she was acting... or instincts and now she's acting... dammit, I can't tell if she thinks I am Erik or Marcus pretending to be Erik. Who actually is Erik. But you know that.

"Oh please, you used her for your own benefit, then you got bored and threw her away," the Oard leader said. "Like you've done a million times, like with the elf over there."

"We agreed!" Dona Carlotta said. She clearly was trying to come up with a plan while Herr Otto tried to hold her back. He's only doing it because he hates me but if it keeps her safe, okay. The hatred of people can be valuable if it gets you what you want and what I want is for her to NOT get hurt trying to save me.

Then I saw it, one of Rarity's arrow heads; it was slowly, methodically weakening the drawstring on the bag Lyra was held in. With all the conversation, our foes were not paying attention and now Rarity was setting up Lyra to escape. Only someone with her precision and attention to detail could have done this so well; they would notice nothing until it was too late.

Fortunately, no one noticed me noticing that. "If I was really pathetic, I'd dress up incompetently as an Oard, thinking I'd somehow fool a real expert like Ditzy. Perhaps you ought to ask yourself 'why is someone willing to pay millions of gold pieces for this mare and can I survive her getting angry'," I said. "I don't think you'd like her when she's angry." Now it's my job to talk like a maniac.

They forced me down to tie my legs and I flailed a little, trying to delay them but not so much they stab Lyra or notice Rarity in action.

I heard a distant thumping noise; glancing, I distantly saw Applejack and Big Macintosh coming our way, dragging the now unconscious beholder behind them. Excellent.

"Also, how exactly do you expect to get out of Canterlot alive with me?" I said.

"We only have to get as far as the Thyatian Embassy," he said.

Dammit, stop being smart!

Several of his men now looked nervously at Ditzy, who did her best to look menacing.. she is really not good at that, as the googly eyes ruin her serious face. She reared up and spread her wings to look as big as possible. "I destroyed the entire Entelchan Confederacy! Surrender now and Ditzy will be MERCIFUL!"

I have no idea what that even is, but Twilight's eyes widened. "That was YOU?" she said, stunned.

"Oh, Dr. Smith did most of the work. I just told their bound demons that if they didn't kill their targets, they didn't have to go back into the bottles," Ditzy said. "Really, it proves what Dad always said. If you hire someone, ALWAYS set a deadline for them to finish working. Vague instructions like 'Kill Baron Garcha' without a timeline? You are going to get SO RIPPED OFF. Fortunately, Carrot Top never forgets that. She's a good friend."

"..." I stared.

I begin to see why there is such a high price on her head.

'Now', Rarity told me. I saw Twilight start, then smile. Our eyes caught.

Dammit, I wish so much that I didn't have this whole damn bomb sitting over my head about me lying to her because this just... feels so right.

Twilight is an awesome friend to have adventures with and I feel much better having her here with me.

She just has the right to beat my ass like a drum.

I reached with my horn and my hat flew off my head onto the face of the fake Oard holding the bag Lyra was in. He dropped the bag instinctively and tried to get it off his face. Lyra now burst out of the bag and kicked him, knocking him down. "I'm free! Faster, Twilight, Kill Kill!"

Bon-Bon tossed Lyra's harp to her and now charged towards the fake Oards. I could see Applejack and Big Macintosh were coming; they were running at high speed. Poor Beholder; it was too knocked out to even scream; that can't feel good.

I can't believe I feel sorry for a BEHOLDER.

Ditzy launched, crashing into one of the Oards and knocking him for a loop. Pinkie and Vanilla Surprise hurled pies into the faces of two more of the Oards. Ivan and Lunette slipped out of the shadows and smacked two of the fake Oards in the back of the head; they went down, then Ivan grinned. "I wish I'd met you a long time ago," he said to Lunette.

"You wouldn't have enjoyed it at the time," she said ruefully.

Given her past, yeah, I can see that.

I held my hands up and Rarity shot the ropes off. Precision shooting girlfriend, best possible girlfriend. I called my blade to me with the magic of my horn and it cut off the leg ropes. The Oard leader hit me with an electrified rod and I fell down, but then Twilight slammed him into the wall of the club, hard.

I rose, stumbling, blade in hand, then charged him. "I AM SICK OF PEOPLE TRYING TO HURT MY FRIENDS TO HURT ME!" I shouted and he brought his rod around. CLANG. We both stumbled back, then started going at it.

The elementals continued to go at it; our team had the upper hand and FlutterLight was now forcing Cortland back up against a wall, the air between them crackling. Dr. Smith waved his wand and... a piercing wail made everyone stumble and he dropped it. "Blast it," he said. "That wasn't right either."

Another fake Oard rushed at me from behind but Rarity shot his weapon out of his hands, then forced him to flee with another arrow that chased him.

Twilight enlarged herself again, then unleashed a barrage of lighting balls, sending various fake Oards running for cover; Twist ran under the feet of one of them, tripping him, then shoved candy in his mouth.

BOOM, firey breath and stunned.

Lyra began playing her harp and now the fake Oards fell under her enchantment and began doing things like singing show tunes and running around in circles. Or even hitting each other. Confusion spell, very nice, I kind of... had a bad experience when I tried to learn it. Long story.

Then Applejack and Big Macintosh turned the beholder loose; it rolled like a giant stone ball right over the fake Oards, knocking many of them down, then got stuck in an alleyway opening.

Dona Carlotta now cast a spell and two of the fake Oards turned on each other, beating each other unconscious. Herr Otto grumbled, but cast a spell and acid rained down on the mechanical parts of several of them, wrecking them and sending them fleeing.

Seeing things well in hand, Lunette and Ivan ran inside.

"Who are you, really?" I demanded as I drove the fake Oard leader back in an angry frenzy. "Who put you up to this?"

"I'm just in it for the money!" he said. "I'm from Glantri! And as for my name, you will never know!" He now pulled out a metal egg and tried to shove it down my shirt but I pushed him back and wrenched it out of his hands with my magic. Oh yeah. I flung it down the street. BOOM!

I pray Celestia is going to pay for these repairs. Cobblestones flew everywhere, but thankfully, by now the previously rioting mobs of ponies had scattered and I made sure to keep it away from my friends.

Applejack and Big Macintosh now charged into the club. "Apple Bloom, are you okay?" Applejack shouted.

"We're fine!" she shouted. "Princess Luna and Ivan are helping us!"

Good for them, I thought.

"Manuel of the Plains is here to defend the innocent!" Don Diego shouted.

"What?" Big Macintosh said, confused.

You and me both, Big Macintosh.

You and me both.

Bon-Bon now kicked the Oard leader from behind. I whacked him with the flat back end of my axe, which I now turned into... basically a shiny metal club. We began battering him back and forth between us, shouting about kidnapping, until he passed out.

Fucker. NO ONE DOES THAT TO MY FRIENDS.

I held a hand out to Bon-Bon. "You are a magnificent woman and I am proud to have kicked that bastard's ass with you."

We shook hand-to-hoof, but then she said, "The children!"

The kids! AND Don Diego! The whole place is probably leveled by now. I'm sorry, club owner, whoever you are, you really deserved better than this.

We rushed inside.

************

A lot of ponies were hiding by the walls as the center of the room was occupied by a riot. They hadn't been able to leave because of our riot out front. The bartender was yelling, "NOOO!!!!!" because Apple Bloom was standing on the bar, grabbing bottles of alcohol and other drinks and hurling them at the enemy; Don Diego would then set them on fire, sending enemies scattering. Setting the alcohol on fire, that is; Belcadizians love burning alcohol tricks. There's even several dishes you basically cook by burning alcohol on it.

About half of the fake Oards were wandering around in a daze. Octavia, her band, and DJ Pon3 were laying down magical music, keeping them in a state of confusion. The rest were chasing Scootaloo and Sweetie and Dinky around; clouds of mist floated through the room, giving them places to hide. Ivan and Lunette darted in and out of the mist, ambush-bashing them.

Rarity immediately took shots at the ones chasing Sweetie, disarming them and sending them running. I then ran over to her. Ditzy charged through, grabbed Dinky, then rose to the ceiling leaving a wave of bubbles in her wake. Applejack charged through and kicked down the fake Oards threatening Apple Bloom, backed by Big Macintosh.

With all of us here, pretty quickly we mopped up the ones here, then Spike, who had been lost in the fog, sent a message to the City Watch, who would need to take all these damn fake Oards and everything else into custody.

"Are you okay?" Rarity asked Sweetie.

"I'm not Sweetie, I'm one of the Plains Crusaders!" Sweetie insisted.

Rarity laughed. "So you're fine?"

"I'm fine, not my big sister at all." Sweetie looked at me. "Who are you?"

"It's Marcus in disguise," Rarity said. "He used some of the candy to turn into Erik of Vestland."

Dammit, I really, really need to tell everyone about this but there's a billion people here.

But before I get myself in any deeper, I have to do it.

*************

Eventually, we finished helping to tow away the fallen and cleaning up the mess as best we could. I was pretty worn out from moving things with muscle and magic. None of us relished the prospect of the walk back to the castle. Except the Earth Ponies, none of whom were really tired.

Dammit.

Don Diego had run off, but the CMC stayed with us, now divested of their costumes, each having run off and changed out of the outfits out of sight, so they could maintain their implausible deniability.

And I have to talk to Rarity and then... I have to talk to Twilight.

Dammit.

And really, I need to make it up to everyone.

Rarity first, though, as she's... my girlfriend.

I ran my hand along her back as we walked. She smiled and gave me a little telekinetic backscratching with her ever so handy thimbles. "We have to talk once we get back," I told her softly.

She studied me, with clearly unasked questions, but then she nodded. "You smell different," she said.

"What do I smell like?"

"Salt water," Rarity said. "You have the smell of the sea."

"Really? He smells like books to me," Twilight said.

What???

"He smells like the morning I left the rock farm," Pinkie said thoughtfully.

"It must be something to do with the polymorph magic," Vanilla Surprise said. "Because he smells to me like a dirt road."

Sweetie now sniffed me. "You smell like playing cards to me."

Clearly something odd with this spell. But I'd worry about that later.

I have a bunch of confessions to make.

***************

Most of the group went to the bathhouse, but Rarity and I went to our room. "I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if we were just flirting at each other because we enjoyed it or if you were serious. If *I* was serious," I told her once we were in our chambers; she shed her fancy dress and I got out of my suit. "I've never... I've dated all sorts of humanoids, but unless... well, it's entirely possible I've done this before, but if I have, I've forgotten." I sat down on the bed and she hopped up to sit next to me. "I spent a lot of time dithering because it just... I don't even know the right questions, really."

"I know," she said, resting her head on my leg. "I prefer being a pony, I know you prefer being a human. But when we're the same thing, it's so... intense." She blushed a little. "I spent a fair amount of time thinking about this and wondering. I knew my own feelings, I thought I knew yours, but I wasn't sure. And I wasn't sure of our future." She licked her lips nervously. "I don't know how father will take it."

"I've been inside his head. Or a simulation of it. He's going to hate me." I sighed and ruffled her hair. "I have to tell you a secret."

"About one of your past lives, right?" she said.

"The previous one. Before I was Marcus. I only became Marcus a few days before I met you, when some woman who turned into a monster found me and killed me. I'm not even sure why, since she didn't bother to rob me."

Rarity looked thoughtful. "Marquett... no, she would have robbed you."

"I was Erik of Vestland," I told her.

She winced. This made me wince. "I thought it possible, but I was not sure enough to ask. It explains how you knew his face to take it and why you dislike Herr Otto." She frowned at me. "You have to forget about her, you know."

"I have to tell her and he's going to kill me, but she ought to know," I said, sighing. "I know, I know, I have no right to complain. She loves him, that's enough."

"You had no trouble fixing Twilight up with others," Rarity said.

"I didn't love Twilight," I told her. "She was a good friend and I like her, but..."

"You were willing to risk dying for her," Rarity said, studying my face and sniffing me.

"I was trusting in you to save us both," I told her and she smiled a little. "But yes, I am willing to risk that. I do care about her. But it's not the same. I want her to find someone and be happy with them." Though I suspect Celestia does hope I'll end up with Twilight. "You can trust me to be around her."

I could feel her tension; it's a valid worry. "I trust you, darling," she said. "I wish you'd told me this earlier, though." She was clearly not happy about that.

"I was too afraid. But I am trying not to be afraid," I told her.

"By being suicidal. You just needed to distract him," she said with some reproach.

"Guilt," I said, sighing. "And impulse. It worked, though. But now I have to tell her, tell everyone. Or at minimum, her. But MY mess put her in danger. So she ought to know. Everyone should. And she deserves the truth."

"You can tell her tomorrow," Rarity said. "I want to have fun tonight without a disaster or Twilight being sad."

"So do I," I told her.

"You can make this up to me by spending a day a week as a pony," she said. "We will need to get comfortable with each other's forms. So I will spend a human day and you can spend a day as a pony. And in the future, we share everything, unless someone asks us to hold a confidence."

"Okay," I told her. "No more secrets. I want to be free of hiding things. If we're both doing it, though, I should do something else for you too."

"I will find something," Rarity said. "You can owe me a favor."

"Fair enough," I said.

"We..." She paused and looked thoughtful, then went and put her robe on. Then she got another one of the candies. "Since we already kissed as ponies... "

"I agree," I told her, grinning.

She laughed softly. "Tomorrow, you have to tell Twilight."

"I will," I told her. "I really should do it tonight."

"Not tonight," she said. "I just want to have some fun before any explosions."

Then she popped the candy and turned into her human form; we are going to have to get her some underwear. Her eyes widened and she said, "Do humans always feel like this?"

"We'd never get out of bed," I told her. Then I kissed her for a long time. I wanted to do more, but best not to rush things, given the body issues. "Oh! I nearly forgot!"

She blinked. "Yes?"

"I have... well, it's more or less a cutie mark," I told her. "Celestia and Luna modified this... Okay, here's the story."

I told her the whole story as we cuddled.

"If Twilight sees it, she'll know everything," I told her. "So I can't get totally naked until I tell everyone."

"OH," she said.

"Mind you, the stuff I said about nudity is true, but mainly I was trying to hide that. As Twilight saw Erik with it when it was just one."

We ended up making her some underwear to wear also, so we'd match and I'd have my excuse to avoid total nudity, yet.

Then we took our robes and went to meet the others.

*************

Vanilla Surprise met us at the door. "Marcus, time for you to go to work, since you have HANDS."

"..."


I was probably born to be a cabana boy, anyway. I circulated, pouring drinks and helping to clean people; Celestia has her own nice bathhouse, normally just for her and Luna and special guests. We relaxed and I tended bar and attended to everyone.

Dash and Soarin' were busy snuggling in the hot tub, both half asleep. I smiled at them. I hope Dash... she's probably going to be mad I didn't tell her everything. Dammit.

"Back rub now," Vanilla Surprise said, sprawling out.

"I'll do it," Big Mac said. "He can't serve everyone if he's serving you."

"Mmm, be gentle," Vanilla Surprise said into her pillow.

He was; he's a very gentle man, I could tell.

I brought the CMC some apple juice. They all stared at my underwear. "Why wear just that?" Apple Bloom asked.

"You're not old enough for me to explain," I told her, handing out glasses to everyone.

Twist and Dinky and Sweetie all looked at each other, smiled, and started drinking.

Surely someone has NOT told them all that already.

Apple Bloom grimaced. "I'm a big pony now!" She held her glass with her tail and sipped from her straw.

"Hey, Apple Bloom," Ivan said.

I nearly fell down; sudden Ivan attack! Or arrival, anyway. He was dressed like me.

"Yes, Ivan?" she said.

"I hear you're good with machines and things," Ivan said. "And building."

"Yes," she said. "Uncle K thinks I have potential!" she said proudly.

I grimaced 'Uncle K'.

Ivan looked hornswoggled for a moment, then said, "How would you like to learn to pick locks and disarm traps? Rarity's going to study with me to improve her skills." He looked at me. "Marcus can help teach you."

"Cool! Daring Thief Crusaders!" Scootaloo said.

I hope she has thick skin and a high pain threshold.

"Oooh, I want to try!" Sweetie said.

"And me!" Dinky said.

I penciled in a disaster to my mental calendar.

"MORE WINE!" Applejack shouted.

I brought her the apple brandy. "Try this," I said.

"WOO!" She was somewhat drunk and flying high.

"Cabana Boy! I require HARD LIQUOR," Vanilla Surprise shouted.

Urgle.

"She is not allowed to ever have hard liquor again!" Lunette shouted. She was in human form, down to basically underwear.

"I am QUEEN OF HARD LIQUOR!" Giggle.

Bloody hell, Celestia's drunk.

"No hard liquor, then," Big Macintosh said. "By royal command."

"SOFT LIQUOR!"

Heh. I got her some wine. That would have to do.

Rarity was busy taking measurements on Lunette. "I will design you some outfits for this form. I will need some as well." Her measuring devices whirred about her.

"Don't forget you have hands and can pick things up," Lunette pointed out to her, smiling.

"..."

I laughed and brought her a glass of orange brandy mixed with some fruit juice and cinnamon. "Here you go, dear," I told her. "You can relax, you know."

"Darling, when I see a friend in need, I MUST act," Rarity said.

"I really don't use this form a lot," Lunette said.

"Nonsense, it's beautiful and should not be wasted," Rarity said. She looked at me and winked and I winked back.

Why are we winking?

But if your girlfriend winks at you, you WINK BACK.

"Ivan, I require your body!" Rarity said loudly, then sipped her drink.

For a moment, I wondered if Celestia had possessed her. I could hear Vanilla Surprise laughing.

Ivan nervously came over. "What?"

"I must measure you. Do you really think you can wear THAT to the company of the Immortals?" Rarity said.

"I would wear more than underwear!" he protested.

"Also, your underwear is very, very drab. White is simply not your color."

Mine is dark blue, if you care. Rarity was wearing a kind of shimmering fabric; I rather liked it.

"You're heading back tomorrow, right?" Vanilla Surprise said to Big Macintosh.

"I fear so," he said. "There's a lot of work to be done."

"Thank you for escorting me," she said. "I had a good time. It was nice to put my crown aside for a little while."

"I had fun too," he said. "But a farmer's work is never done," he said stolidly, neither celebrating nor denying it.

"Nor a Queen's," she said. "But even a Queen needs a moment to relax."

"And a farmer too," he said comfortably.

Ivan continued to be worked over... measured by Rarity. I could tell he was trying very hard not to look at her chest, even if they were covered. Don't even think it, Ivan.

"BEER!" Soarin' shouted.

Beer it is.

Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!