• Published 20th Dec 2012
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Cultural Artifacts - Dan_s Comments

A little piece of Earth arrives in Equestria, a human and it's home. The citizens of Ponyville and Princess Luna struggle with this newcomer, as it struggles with them.

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33) And For My Encore

Cultural Artifacts - And For My Encore
Dan's Comments

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.

Day 59

Derpy woke and then remembered she was on vacation and snuggled against the warmth surrounding her. She felt his slow breathing and steady heartbeat, and was content to stay like this forever.

Something is going to intrude, it always does, but I am going to enjoy this, she thought, We saved the princesses and the capital, we've done our duty.

She snuggled close and was rewarded by a slight tightening of his grip on her.

Luna was deeply regretting the length of the party, and her enthusiastic participation in it. When Celestia excused herself to raise the sun, it was the first clue that the event had been going on as long as it had. She was trudging back to her apartment. When the Diarchs had returned from their twice-daily task, they'd found most of the revelers had departed. 'Tia had canceled court, and was returning to her chambers. Luna had decided to do the same.

She was quite surprised to find herself already there.

"Selene let me in," Woona said as she played with the filly.

"I'm surprised anyone is even awake, even Pinkamena and Cadence took to their heels when 'Tia and I left," Luna said.

"I was 'discussing' things with my sister," Woona said, "A discussion I believe you need to have as well."

"About?" Luna asked, feeling mainly the call of her bed, and rest, rather than curiosity.

"I'm you, at least partly. I mean about your relationships outside of your sister, about someone who knew how desperately you wanted a child, and how your crippling fear of overshadowing your sister is making you stupid," Woona said, using phrasing that didn't send Luna spiraling off into fury, but hit those sore spots very hard.

"And you lack such problems?" Luna asked.

"I am not that interested, he didn't give me a child, and we both know, our sister needs a partner and a friend. A tagalong kid sister is a placeholder for something that may never come," Woona said, "She wanted us for a thousand years, every day, desperately, she stopped needing us, in about a week."

Luna frowned at that, but such accusations had already stung her to numbness when the changelings had kept her sidelined by using them. Another embarrassing failure, Luna thought, They are piling up.

"So what, we just swap places? Someone is going to notice that Selene is no longer with the Lunar Diarch, and she is with Celly," Luna said.

"As cruel as it is to say, the ponies will accept anything Celestia tells them," Woona sighed, "And to be honest, do you really want to live in your sister's shadow, forever?"

"No," Luna said, "What's your plan, besides swapping places, you know what the biggest hurdle is going to be."

"Actually, the biggest hurdle is the name change, but that's got a plan in place as well."

"I'll sleep on it," Luna said, "I'm really in no condition to agree to anything in my current state."

"I'll be around, after lunch. Captain Blueblood has a plan, and frankly, him acting competently makes me think Discord has conquered the world."

Angel Bunny glared at Discord, Discord glared right back. Fluttershy and Tom continued to busy themselves, seeing to Fluttershy's animal friends.

"Thank you for the ride," Fluttershy said as she prepared food, and checked on a few, injured animal, "We left in such a hurry, I didn't get a chance to do anything."

Discord was about to tell her 'not a problem', when he caught Tom glaring at him. A very good trick for a featureless, monochrome sphere. "You're welcome." And the glare faded.

Cadence was shocked to awaken in her own bed. Clean sheets, clean coat, brushed out mane and tail, it was as if her captivity were merely a nightmare she had just awakened from. But she saw the calendar and realized that a new nightmare had taken the place of her captivity.

Then she saw the two changelings in her room. Both had the aura of wolves waiting for a kill.

"What are you doing here?" she asked. Her fear made her heart race and full wakefulness came to her.

"Guarding," one changeling said, "We had orders you were not to be disturbed."

"There is a tea tray and a selection of pastries waiting for you," the other said.

Cadence stared at them for a bit. Neither moved from their location where one would always have line-of-sight on the windows, the door, and Cadence. Neither reacted as she slipped out of her bed. When she approached the bathroom, one of them moved up to jump anything that might have been waiting from her in there. They're doing a better, although more intrusive job of protecting me than the Guards ever did, she thought, I'm not sure I like this. But to get me and Shining safely to the wedding, I'll endure. The thought made her turn to face one of the guards.

"Shining Armor is still recovering, he's under guard and medical observation," the changeling said as he held the door open for her after scanning the room, "He'll need rest, but the doctors have reported he'll make a full recovery. We can also see love passing between people."

"Thank you," she said, and meant it.

"We also were here so Twilight wouldn't pester you with questions about the wedding," the changeling said and seemed to grin, "Like why she wasn't invited."

"The invitations haven't gone out yet?!" Cadence asked and shook her head, thinking of evil things she was going to do to Chrysalis, or maybe asking the Big Guy and Discord for some pointers, while Chrysalis listened.

Trixie felt simply awful. Sore everywhere, weak and disoriented, she barely noticed that the bed was far wider than it should have been, that the noises of either the great outdoors or a working theater were missing, and that the sunlight was streaming in a huge window. I should be in little squashed pieces, she thought as she woke slowly to the realization she wasn't the Great and Powerful Rug Stain. How am I still alive? She felt for the amulet, and found it missing. I don't think that I'd've woken up if Chrysalis got it, although supposedly you can't remove it if the owner is still alive.

She woke, looked around, and recognized the medical wing of the palace. I have got to get out of here, she thought and looked around for her hat and cape, then shook her head, a mistake, Ow, ow, ow, even if you're alive, you aren't in one solid piece, and they would be so bloodstained that they'd be unrecoverable. She slipped out of her room, checking for guards or snoopy medical-types, and headed down the corridor. She spotted the teams of workers and ordinary ponies heading for the entrance, or in this case, the exit. She infiltrated among them. Security was tight for anyone going in, but they were mainly concerned you didn't take anything with you on the way out. Trixie didn't even have what she'd arrived with.

Not that I'll tell the guard that, she thought as the young stallion looked her over and waved her through.

Once she was out of the palace, she headed back towards the entrance to the cavern containing the Big Guy's house. Through there, I can get to Ponyville, then to my wagon, and gone. I have had quite enough of Canterlot, the Bearers, and the insanity surrounding them.

She glanced up at the huge sky machine hovering over the capital like a thunderhead. There is nothing good going to come of this, she thought as she headed towards freedom, I'll link up with the Big Guy when the insanity dies down a bit. A strolling player, thrilling audiences with my magic, that's what I want, that's all I ever wanted.

She looked at the ship again and sighed. I need to thank him, and tell him to escape this insanity, she thought, I wonder what I'll have to do to convince him. I'm afraid 'Igor' isn't going to be part of the act anymore, but I might find another assistant. No, I'll never find someone to replace him. She headed to the airship and considered how to get on board.

The pink explosion into their midst woke every Bearer and the few family members who'd remained behind, instead of returning to Ponyville. Many sets of eyes tracked the frantic pink, alicorn, but the stream of words seemed to defy comprehension.

"Of course we'll help with your wedding preparations," Fluttershy said.

Cadence sighed and seemed to calm down.

Fluttershy glanced at her stunned friends. "Of course I speak chipmunk," she told them.

"Sorry, the wedding is in a few days, and I just found out nothing has been done," Cadence said. She seemed on the verge of continuing her freak out. Instead, she took a deep breath, and fell into a Celestiaesque serenity. "I need your help. We'll need dresses, Rarity. Catering, Pinkie Pie. Can you do a Sonic Rainboom after the vows are exchanged, Rainbow?"

The pegasus nodded.

"Fluttershy, music. Applejack, I'd like you and Pinkie Pie to coordinate the party." She looked at the stunned party mare. "Pinkie, this is going to be one of 'those' parties. Like the Grand Galloping Gala, a social event, rather than a party lovers' evening." She winked at Applejack, besides, it's my party and I'll serve the food I like."

Pinkie saluted. Cadence and Applejack chuckled at that.

"Twilight, I'll generate a list. I'll trust you and Spike to keep all the details organized."

"Not to be a cynic, but where do we get all the spare pony power for all of this?" Rarity asked.

Cadence grinned and looked back to her guards. "Well, they said they wanted to be our friends." She grinned wider at the shock on all their faces.

Fragrance sighed as she completed her analysis of the fragments from each of the dead dragons, and she came to a simple conclusion. "They're my mother's work," she told Blueblood, the Empress, and Sapphire, "I don't know who is this 'Nistag' the locals are chattering about, but either it's an alias, or he/she/it stole my mother's work."

Blueblood nodded. "I was afraid of that," he said, "The ancient villains seemed capable of feats no other unicorn could dream of, it makes sense that they were trained to the ancient standard."

"So when do you want to start your lessons?" Fragrance asked and smiled.

"As soon as I can get the Big Guy's shotgun so Discord can have a 'talk' with me," Blueblood said.

Fragrance tried to piece together the meaning, then gave up and just smiled.

"So Molybdenum Blossom is still out there, or are her followers? And why did Chrysalis team up with her?" Sapphire asked.

"Because it let her strike from the shadows and still hit the princesses," Blueblood explained. Now it was his turn to look sheepish and smile, "You didn't think Canterlot society was all smiles and rainbows did you? The weapon of choice now is not inviting someone to a party, or making them look ridiculous in front of the court and the princesses, but the politics are still pretty cutthroat."

"First, I think you answered the question backwards, you're saying why 'Moly-be-damned' signed up with Chrysalis," the Empress said, "Not the other way around. Second, who is on the Princesses' side?"

"Actually," Blueblood replied, "It works for both of them. And the general public sides with Celestia. Anyone who isn't a courtier."

"Why didn't you simply throw the princesses off the throne and take over?" Sapphire asked.

"With seventy-three, feuding houses, all of them willing to backstab the other and constantly change sides? And then there's the general public who outnumber the houses and their troops a thousand to one. The houses are too busy fighting each other to try, and Celestia has five houses and all the nonnobles who actually are loyal to her. You don't think that her captain of the guard and her prized student being brother and sister is an accident, do you? They may be a minor noble house, but they're still a noble house. And power is measured by proximity, elevating Shining Armor and tutoring Twilight gave their house a tremendous boost."

"Well, I'm not playing. With all due respect to the princesses, this place isn't home and I'm not going to bow and do homage to the local shaman-queens. There's a whole world out there, and frankly, this ship is a big enough 'world' for me right now," Fragrance said.

"Besides, if Molybdenum Blossom is still out there," Blueblood said, "She's a greater threat to Equus than even Tirek."

"Agreed," Sapphire said, "The question as always is: 'what are we going to do about it?', and the fact that while the locals are happy to see us, the nobles are already mounting a slur campaign."

"Frankly, it s a question that's never asked, the question asked is 'What is Celestia going to do about it? What we do is we leave," Blueblood said, "But I want all of us together when I lay out my plan. We can't do that with Tom and Discord not speaking, and the Big Guy unconscious."

"Don't worry about Tom and Discord, a shiny new problem, and all will be forgiven," the Empress said.

Derpy looked at the plan. "You can't 'expedite' the Royal Mail Service. 'The same service for every pony' is a matter of pride," Derpy explained to Cadence, "That said, if you bundle the invitations the way I tell you, and I fly them to the Baltimare Distribution Center, that'll shave a day-and-a-half to two days off the delivery time."

Twilight looked up from her list. "How is that not expediting?"

"Because it's allowed by the rules," Derpy said.

Rainbow shook her head. "That makes no sense."

"Of course it does," Derpy replied angrily, "You were asking me to go around the rules." Derpy waved a hoof at Cadence. "She was asking me if there was a way to do it quicker. That's completely different."

"That is so slow!" Rainbow said.

"You could always hand deliver them yourself," Derpy offered.

Suddenly, they were down one pegasus.

"Thought so," Derpy said, "I'll head back to Ponyville and get my manual and my stamp, so I can make it official. They'll be in the distribution center by nightfall. They work at night so that's okay."

"Told you," Twilight said and grinned at Cadence, then checked off one of the red items off the checklist that trailed behind her.

Derpy felt her thoughts racing out of control. She did what her friends at the post office always told her, which ponies outside rarely let her do, she stopped, took a deep breath and thought about the problem. As panic subsided, she came to a simple conclusion. "Rarity."

Back in control of her emotions, she trotted to where the Element Bearers were housed. Cadence decided since they were still there, she'd use them to help with the wedding planning that Chrysalis had let slip, Derpy thought, I can use them for the same purpose. Fluttershy for some other advice, but start with Rarity. She looked out at the courtyard where the Crusaders, Dinky and Selene were practicing high-wire walking. Thanks to Discord, they were doing it the way real high-wire walkers practiced, on a wire less than a pony height off the ground. Discord had been having a field day suggesting horrifically dangerous sounding ideas, then implementing safety procedures that would have done the Big Guy proud. The fireworks test had been conducted with then in a bunker half a hoofball field away from the actual fireworks. When it had exploded a few seconds after take off, only a few ponies' dignity had been harmed.

Then Discord explained to the terrified nobles, and freaked them out completely. Keeping things utterly safe, but still loud and disruptive seemed to have struck a balance between him and the Diarchs.

They seemed very concerned about his 'Apollo Program', although Dinky seems very enthused, Derpy thought as she arrived at Rarity's room. It looked like someone had moved the work rooms of her boutique to the apartments of Canterlot. Cloth and ribbons and tools were everywhere. She was glad to see the Changeling Empress there, as well as several other changelings working under Rarity's direction. The Empress was paging through the book Rarity had gotten from the Big Guy weeks ago.

She approached them. "Have you got a minute?"

"Of course," Rarity said, "How is he?"

Rarity didn't need to explain who 'he' was for Derpy. "He's recovering," she said, "After the injuries, he's healing up a lot faster than expected."

"All that high-quality love you and Dinky keep him cocooned in. He may not be conscious, but you've made it very clear that you're there," the empress said.

"That's kind of what I wanted to talk about." Derpy felt a stab of fear, and she bowed her head. "I've been hearing some things, Things about him, and about me, and . . . us not being an us. I'm not really that smart, or pretty, or -"

The empress' laughter interrupted Derpy. "Forgive me, but for someone who can see love passing between people, you have nothing to fear. Even in your own circle, you and Dinky are number one by a wide margin. So stop all this silly talk, I could give you lots of head-spinning explanations, but it comes down to he loves you. Not the passionate ardor and lust of young lovers, but the old, comfortable love of longtime married couples. He likes you, he trusts you, and he's devoted to you. That's not a guess, that's what an old-time infiltrator can see."

Derpy sighed with relief. "I guess the rest of my plan is silly too."

"Nothing silly about being in love," the empress said, "The love you lot have for Sapphire is enough to feed half the changelings in the field."

"Besides, if you came to me, you want something special," Rarity said and winked, "For him or for you?"

Derpy's answer was inaudible even to her.

"Pardon," Rarity said and she bent close.

Derpy blushed hard. "I want to seduce him!" She turned away and buried her face in her hooves. At Rarity's signal or the empress', all the changeling workers filed out.

"A lot of the noblewomen, some of the guards, and . . . are making eyes at him, some of them are presenting, and I want to let him know how I feel in human form. They've always done that, teasing him, but even when he's in the hospital, they've been passing by to peek. I'm not sure if he was ignoring them because he's got manners, or if he just doesn't know, or if he just doesn't care," Derpy said, "But if he's only interested in his own people's shape, then I want to be one of them enough to know how he feels, and show him the ins and outs of a pony." She looked at the others who seemed about to laugh at her. She bowed her head again. "Sorry."

"No," Rarity said, "It's very sweet. It's probably exactly why he cares so much for you. You seem to be the only pony who doesn't think of him as a pony on two legs. I honestly thought the rather scandalous behavior of so many 'ladies of the court' was patently obvious to everypony."

"It is obvious to everypony, and to everyling, but as Derpy surmised, not to everybody. And some seemingly innocent request might be not so innocently solicited, but completely innocently performed," the empress said, "There is one big thing you may have left out."

"What?" Derpy asked, her ears flattened with worry.

"If you're a human and he's a pony, he may try to teach you what is and isn't acceptable," the empress said, "And what feels good."

"I know he will," Derpy said, "That's why the clothes have to be easy to take off." She snorted at their stunned expressions. "He's alive, and he does like girls of his own species. And he likes to touch. And he likes to teach. If I start teaching him, he'll automatically start teaching me. I don't understand why nopony gets that."

Derpy was surprised when Rarity hugged her.

"Don't ever change, your straightforwardness is probably what he loves about you. No games." Rarity sighed angrily. "That does also limit the choices of what to wear. I could make the perfect dress, and make it work wonderfully. But to be Derpy, is a whole other way of thinking."

"You have this book. These all seem like glamor shots. The monster-mares all posing to look adorable and inviting," the empress said, "In fact, how about this?"

The collage of the pictures showed one of the monster-mares cooking, cleaning, and looking fierce in a very practical, fighting costume, unlike the bows and ribbons of their uniforms. "That's perfect!" Derpy said. She looked at the figure in shorts and a plain, white shirt that clung to her curves. "That's exactly it."

"Derpy, to, ah, fit that properly, you'll have to come in as the human, you said, to fit everything properly. It would be easiest if I could sew you into the costume, but that would make it harder to take off."

"Thank you," Derpy said, "And thank you for not laughing at me."

"Derpy, you're in love with a wonderful male. He was willing to accept you and your daughter without question," Rarity said, "I can completely understand you wanting to keep his interest, and arouse his more intimate side. He's very lucky to have you."

Derpy blushed at the compliment.

"And don't forget," the Empress added, "While he accepted you and Dinky without question, you accepted him without question. For someone lost and alone, that's quite an inducement, and a pretty tail isn't going to overcome an old fox who's gotten more than a little trap-shy where mares are concerned."

Derpy blushed at that, but laughed along with the empress and Rarity.

Dinner was interesting, not the least of which were the ponies invited who hadn't made their presence felt. She looked up and down the long table in the banquet hall at the gaps. Celestia had urged the others to go ahead, but the missing guests both looked and felt like missing teeth in a jaw line. Celestia couldn't ignore them, like continually tonguing the hole to assure yourself it was there.

Blueblood I can understand, the 'Mother of All Changelings' is a bit worrisome, but Trixie? Derpy is delivering mail for Cadence, but Dinky was told she could come. Celly and Woona being no-shows are also worrying. Here I have always complained about being worshiped, but I'm not sure I like it being taken all the way to being ignored.

She had the feeling a chambermaid had explained once, the certain knowledge that someone was having a great time, while you were sitting there bored, but too afraid to seek them out.

I don't like the feeling of being completely on the outside . . . the changelings, that's what this is about. I didn't invite them, so their guests and allies were 'uninvited' as well. She realized it was too late to correct the oversight. The counter to the 'not invite someone' is to simply quit showing up to parties as well.

The group stood around the 'purloined' hospital bed. While the Equestrians had few if any powerful healing spells, the ancients had them, as did the changelings. So while Fragrance, the Empress, Sapphire and a dozen other queens wove their magics, unicorns like Lyra, Dinky, and Trixie added their power to the general aura. Discord, Hotaru and Tom carefully wove chaos magic through the weave to strengthen the Big Guy's general health and reduce his resistance to the healing magic.

Blueblood, Celly and Woona and several queens watched and managed the 'warp and the woof' of the mixed magic. Nonspellcasters like Bonbon, Derpy and the Sphinx stood by, since the initial treatment had been with changeling nectar, their love for him would strengthen its healing powers.

No chanting or candles, those involved believed in this spell with all their hearts and souls. Power wasn't needed, precision was. The deftest casters adjusted, while power poured in from all sides.

They'd quickly realized that while Discord had done a masterful job on Trixie, restoring her to full health after what Chrysalis had done, the Big Guy was languishing. Discord's efforts had saved his life, but had not restored him. The silent casters scanned for a reason, and had found it. The Big Guy wasn't resistant as a stone was, he was resistant the way water was. He seemed to 'get out of the way' of spells. So for subtle healing it took a different approach. Lyra, Trixie, Dinky and his admirers held him, while the others worked ever so gently.

The casting had begun as soon as Celly had teleported back from Baltimare with Derpy, and would continue as long as it took. But they'd made tremendous progress, and were nearly done.

Finally, checking, double checking, then triple checking that they'd not only cured the problems, but not induced new ones, the casters sighed and slumped.

"Good job everyone," Celly said.

"You're such a pollyanna," Discord groused.

"I love you too, Grouchy," Celly replied as she stretched out her wing, mane and tail, then shook out her legs one at a time, "I thought that was fun."

"Fun, fun, zee mozt intrikat zpell caztink in ze world, und you call it 'fun'?" Woona squealed, her mane across her nose like a huge moustache.

"It was glorious!" they said together and began laughing.

The others decide to leave them to their obscure joke.

The Sphinx lifted Dinky onto the bed. While Derpy landed on the opposite side. They snuggled against him and felt him react to their presence.

"He'll wake up soon?" Dinky asked.

"He's still very tired, but he'll be fine," Discord said.

"You just keep him all warm and fuzzy, and he'll wake up right as rain," Woona told them. "Do we have to go to that party?"

"Is Cadence there?" Celly asked.

"No, she's passed out in her bedroom," the empress said, "Under heavy guard. Nopony is going to say the changelings didn't do all in their power to see this thing through."

The others nodded and headed to their quarters in the ship. Fragrance caught up with Blueblood. "I need to talk to you," she said, and glanced at Discord, "I need to talk to you too."

"Why do I feel I should be cleaning a shotgun during this discussion?" Discord asked.

Fragrance closed her eyes and shook her head.

"I was wondering the same thing," Blueblood admitted and grinned.
Day 60

Lyra left the Ponyville hospital and held the door for Bonbon. The normally stoic mare was staring straight ahead as if a Timberwolf was standing behind Lyra ready to gobble both of them. Lyra could see from the reflection in the door that nothing was lurking behind her.

"Do I look different?" Bonbon whispered, "I don't feel different. Do I look different?"

"You look like Twilight facing a wall of boxes," Lyra said.

That seemed to shock Bonbon back into reality. She bowed her head. "Sorry, it's just been, since I met you. I wanted . . . and now thanks to your crazy idea being right, I have it." Bonbon started crying. "I don't deserve you, or any of your friends."

Lyra hugged her tight. "They, he, is your friend to, and you're his. You were one of the only ones who stood up for him. Friends do things for each other. Because a friend's happiness is important."

Bonbon nodded. "Do we head to Canterlot, and lend a hoof to whatever's going on?"

"Yes," Lyra said, she ruffled Bonbon's mane, "Some ponies with common sense just might be needed."


The pair headed for the Big Guy's house and the path to Canterlot.

Cadence woke suddenly, a slight panic attack as she saw the changelings, then saw the breakfast tray. "How's Shining Armor?" she asked.

"He'll be joining you for breakfast," a welcome voice entered a moment before the even more welcome presence.

"Shiny," she said as she practically threw herself at him. She didn't tackle him, but she did kiss him, long and hungrily.

"Hello to you too," he replied as he came up for air.

She smiled, blushed, then led him to the table where breakfast was laid out.

"Twilight has a list, so that's normal. Celestia and Luna are raising the sun and lowering the moon, which is normal. Blueblood led an army to the capital to save the country from dominion, which considering Discord is out and about probably counts as so rational it hurts."

Cadence snorted. "And the wedding is the day after tomorrow," she said, and grinned, "Then the honeymoon."

"So, where do you want to go?" Shining asked, "It seems that little piece of planning was also set aside by Chrysalis."

She rolled her eyes. "Figures," Cadence said, "Not the palace. With all the whisper galleries all over the place, that's one time I want privacy, and no interruptions. No servants watching constantly, and waiting for our every word to become reality."

"Agreed. I happen to know of a place where no one will come find us, and I have some pull with the captain," Shining said.

"He wouldn't!" Cadence gasped.

"He already did," Shining replied, "I think it was the novelty of having someone come out and just ask was what did it. The only question is, where do you want to go, and when do you want the lifeboat drill scheduled?"

"Lifeboats?" Cadence asked.

"Yes oh my sweet, the love of my life," Shining teased, "You may not know this, but I can't fly."

"Oh dear, then I suppose I'll have to carry you," she replied and they both laughed.

The flower arrangements were marble, colorful, but still marble.

"Discord!" Cadence squealed as she looked around the chapel. All the decorations were stone. The same shape and color, but stone.

"Oh relax, I just did this to frame the argument," the draconequus said, "You have a serious problem, and I have an answer, but as I said, I wanted to set the stage."

"Other than bunting that could break off and give some foreign noble a concussion, what problem do I have?" Cadence asked as she looked around.

"Simple." Then they stood in the middle of the Wonderbolts' practice field. "The guest started arriving last night, since the Grounds keepers were hanging bunting from the many bleachers that were usually filled during an exhibition. Assigned seating." Discord gestured as a huge number of chairs briefly materialized. "Anyone can enter the area, but the ushers know who sits where, so if someone really isn't supposed to be here, they sit with the common folk who're going to be in the bleachers, or on one of the hills overlooking the field. If they had an invitation, they get escorted to their seat." Then they were back in the restored chapel.

"That is brilliant," Cadence said, "Thank you."

"Glad to help, and as for the palace functionaries who'll bleat about 'tradition', I'll handle them too," Discord said and cracked his knuckles.

"You can't kill them." Cadence smirked.

"Yes, but I can see to it their boss, and especially the boss' spouse doesn't get a seat. They can sit with the run-of-the-mill Canterlot crowd in the cheap seats on the hills," Discord said, "What I do is temporary, what the social-climbing wives will do will last a lifetime!"

"That's positively diabolical," Cadence said, "I will leave you to it, but we'll need a canopy to keep the sun off them."

"Already handled. I'll work it out with Sparkles later," Discord said, and they looked around the chapel with the marble and stained-glass. It felt more like a museum than a living place. Even all the colors and flowers couldn't make it alive.

"You do know I originally wanted an open-air wedding." Cadence smiled at Discord.

"Don't worry, the battleship has a clear line-of-fire on most of the bureau offices," Discord said and saluted, "We'll hold this position."

"Thank you," Cadence said, and wondered if Discord had done this out of his new friendships, or to sow chaos.

Why not both? Cadence wondered as she went to give the princesses and Twilight the news.

The smell of chilli touched his nose, sending it twitching. He felt and scented the Sphinx curled against him. "Good morning, or is it afternoon?" he asked, "This isn't the palace hospital." He couldn't see the walls or ceiling in the dim glow of a light the Sphinx lit. There were no echos, as there would be if the walls were flat. A huge room with 'complicated walls'.

"It isn't," the Sphinx said, and she hugged him, "It's late morning. Lunch will be ready soon."

He ran a hand over himself. "I don't think I missed that wrought iron fence. In fact when it was coming at me, the last thing that went through my mind -"

"Don't you dare," the Sphinx said, repositioning him so he lay with his head on her barrel.

"I was going to say 'this is it'." He looked at her so innocently.

She frowned. "Oh, of course, whatever could I have been thinking?" she said, "I do have a question for you to think about. Trixie is losing her partner, Blueblood. Would, would you mind if I went with her? I've always been used to the wilderness. All these cities are a little wearing."

"She travels from city to city," he said.

"Yes, but she also gets into the wilderness, and I don't like the idea of her being alone," she said, "And I figure that a traveling performer is a good place to hide. And I want to learn about this world I've found myself in."

"I'll miss you."

"I think you're going to find that Trixie will visit fairly often. And I'll come with her," the Sphinx said, "You've got a plan for what's going to happen around you, and while I want to help. I also think I need to look around my new homeland."

"Okay," he said, "I'm not going to chain you up in any case. If I demand freedom for myself, I have to give it to you."

She hugged him. "Thank you. Trixie didn't even want to discuss it, until I had cleared it with you."

"I suspect that after lunch, I should put in an appearance. Somebody said something about a wedding, what's the story on that?" he asked.

"Cadence, Celestia's niece, and Shining Armor, Twilight Sparkle's brother, day after tomorrow. It's got everybody hopping."

"Oh dear," he replied, "I didn't get them a wedding gift."

"I think the changeling army and Blueblood offering to shelter them aboard this ship for their honeymoon is both of you giving them what they really want," the Sphinx said.

"What, no diamond encrusted can opener?" he replied.

"Rubies and sapphires the color of their eyes, and Discord's already planning on giving them that," the Sphinx said.

"How's he doing?" he asked.

"Behaving himself, while bedeviling everypony, note, he's leaving the other races alone," the Sphinx said.

The Big Guy nodded.

Rarity was careful not to stab Blueblood as she worked. Blueblood was no longer an exile, and the place of being one of the groomsmen. He'd refused, politely, as his captain had done all the work, she'd be given a uniform, when she woke up. Rarity felt a fitting was needed. So she was in Blueblood's cabin aboard the ship. She already had ideas for the uniforms for the ship's company. "You seem, calmer than the other times I've met you," she said.

"Oh, sorry." He curled up in a ball. "Please don't hurt me! I apologize, I'll never do it again! I promise I'll never go to another Grand Galloping Gala again!" He uncurled from the floor and looked at a horrified rarity. "Better?"

"Let's go back to calm," she said, "I do want to know, why you did it."

"What, walked into the view of all the social climbers and let one latch onto me?" Blueblood said, "Then treated her like dirt? Part of the role I'm afraid. Her Lunar Highness had a particularly bad week, you would have loved the tongue-lashing I got for how I treated you. Then she was calm enough to be rational."

"No, why the whole act?" Rarity asked as she worked, being especially careful not to stick him by a real accident.

"Goes with the role, and the name, and the position in court. Prince Blueblood is always the closest thing to being the court jester that Celestia has. I'm just smart enough to remember that the jester's other job is to remind the sovereign of things they'd rather ignore or are unaware of."

"Seems, empty," Rarity said.

"It is, and before you get any ideas, don't," he said, and took her hoof with one of his, "Let me remind you. This isn't a city, this is a zoo. Be the talk of Canterlot, but from outside. Society is about doing nothing, except being seen. Even then, they don't see below the surface. Do you know what my first name is Rarity Belle?"

"That's not fair," Rarity said and pulled her hoof from his.

"Really?" Blueblood teased, "I haven't heard it in so long, I can barely remember it. That's my point, you come here, you give up a big part of what makes you yourself. A true artist shouldn't have to do that. Ponyville may be dirt under most nobles' hooves, but being there lets you be free."

"We have had this conversation before," Rarity said.

"Yes, and you are in danger of forgetting it. I thought I should steer you away from the rocks and shoals, as it were. Isn't that what friends do?"

Rarity paused then nodded. "Yes, that is what friends do."

"COMMANDER!" a changeling shouted as she entered the room.

"Ouch, it's all right," he told Rarity, "What's the hubbub?"

"He's awake and going to pay a visit to the princesses, and Twilight has been informed as well," the panicky changeling said.

"Oh, dear," Rarity said, one eyebrow arched elegantly.

"Charge all weapons, set them for stun, turn out the guard and have my air chariot made ready," Blueblood ordered, then turned to Rarity, "This I have to see."

"Agreed," Rarity said, and both of them giggled as the trotted to the ship's hanger bay.

The ponies had been assembling the moment he'd approached the royal sector, and they'd been getting thicker as he'd approached. "What is this, the Super Bowl?" he asked the Sphinx.

Or I'm the toreador, he thought as he looked on the faces of the expectant ponies, Why do I think I should just run back to the ship?

When he spotted Blueblood, standing with Rarity and Applejack, he knew the jig was up and he was the main event for the afternoon's entertainment. Blue blood was apologizing to Applejack for the fritter incident at the Grand Galloping Gala. Applejack seemed surprised, and accepted the apology graciously. But all three of them looked at him expectantly.

He stared at them. Rarity giggled and made shooing motions with her hoof.

Oh terrific, I guess this is a test, he thought and sent the sphinx to stand with them, Now that I can talk, they want to see what I'll say. What did Dinky say, focus what you want through something you have faith in and the magic will follow. Dangerous, but doable. What do I have faith in, that won't kill somebody?

Twilight charged up to him, muscling her way through the crowd. The brief resentment at a displacement vanished as the offended pony realized the main event was happening.

Or was it threw, the crowd around me? he wondered, Gently, gently. She's still the hero of the empire.

"Well, now that you're back," Twilight told him, "You can clear up the problem you left, and take back your library."

He blinked at her indignant fury at this non sequitur. Did Celestial foist this off on her? The Writ said 'The Crown', she should be well out of it, he thought, I should know, I wrote it specifically so she was out of the loop, like Celestia's original plan.

"Why?" he asked, and watched Twilight's utterly stunned expression. The crowd seemed to be content to let this come to a head. Similar to them being useless when the Changelings attacked.

"It's your responsibility," she replied.

"It is the Crown's responsibility. When did it become yours?" he asked, and noted her friends wandering over. Rainbow looked combative, the others ran the gambit of reactions, welcoming to terrified. As a reverse, Fluttershy wore the former, and Applejack the latter.

"They are in your house," Twilight insisted.

"Do you remember I was banished?" he asked, "That party that went on for days? The Writ said it was the Crown's responsibility."

Applejack looked down at Twilight. "See Sugarcube, all taken care of." Twilight stared in horror at Applejack, making her friend shy back, her hooves scratching at the floor.

Rainbow got in his face. "You're taking back that mess and dealing with it," she said, she shadow boxed in the air, "Or else."

He raised an eyebrow and frowned. "Do you bully everyone?" he asked, "Or just the ones you can get away with?" he asked.

"I'm no bully, you take that back!" Rainbow said.

"Or you'll beat me up?" he asked, "You do remember, I have an army, a warship, and the Elements of Harmony don't work on me? I am outside Equestrian authority. You can make all the threats you want. If you want me to treat your threats as real, I will react to them appropriately. Exactly like I've deal with every other bully I have in my life, from Nightmare Moon to Tirek, to Twilight Sparkle."

"Now, now, Rainbow didn't mean anything," Rarity said, dragging the pegasus away. "Just high spirits. We can all be friends," she said, pointedly to Rainbow.

"Rarity, always gracious, and wiser." He nodded to her while Rainbow and Twilight fumed.

"Then why don't we get back to the library," Twilight interjected.

"Not my problem or yours," he told her.

Twilight ground her teeth. "They're your buckin' books," she shouted.

I guess I am going to have to spell this out, he thought and took a deep breath.

"Writ of Banishment, all my possessions and chattels to the crown, remember? Not my problem. Not your problem. Celestia's problem," he replied.

"Fine, then we go talk to the Princess." Twilight turned and marched away.

He shrugged. "Don't need me for that." He turned and squatted down so he was eye to eye with the ponies. "So, Rarity, are you getting all the dresses put in place? Or could you use an extra set of hands?" The Big Guy asked.

Rarity put her hoof to her chin. "Actually, I am having trouble with a material that will follow curves without being draped."

"Fashion is one of the areas I know next to nothing about. But a fine-threaded cotton will often stretch," he said, "There are other synthetics, but I'd have to get the whole thing manufactured to be able to use it."

"Thank you," Rarity said.

When she realized he wasn't following, Twilight came back and demanded, "Are you coming?"

"Not your problem, not my problem," he told her as he stood up and loomed over her. She backed up suddenly, "If you really want to take command, why don't you just solve the problem the way your ancestors did. It's a very simple, and very unicorn solution. Considering your behavior to this point would do those ancient unicorns proud, why don't you take the last step and really fit in?"

"What's that?" she asked as she scrambled backward, until Rarity 'happened' to block his way.

"Get a couple of cans of lamp oil, or alcohol, and torch the place," he replied.

That horrified all of them.

He scanned the faces of the ponies around him. "Burn it to the ground. It's a unicorn tradition, any library that isn't a unicorn's library, destroy it. 'It has been accomplish, the beginning of teaching those foul mud-grubbers they need not read, they need only do as their betters command. From the speech to the assembly by Nightsoft the Mighty on the burning of the library of Equipolis'," he told them, "Read right off the obelisk commemorating it. Star-Swirl the Bearded's mother or grandmother I believe, burned the greatest library in the history of your civilization, just to remind the earth ponies that nothing they had was beyond a unicorn's reach. You've followed her example so splendidly, hounding me to surrender my knowledge to you while I still didn't even understand your language, so you and you alone can parse it out only to the worthy, that now that it's a burden, you should finish the job by burning it to the ground, like your hero's mommy did."

With Rarity and Trixie blocking his advance, Twilight scuttled back out of range as he glared at her. It was clear that the idea of burning books horrified her more than anything else she'd encountered.

"Slow down Big Guy," Rarity said, "We can all be friends here. Besides, it would be Princess Celestia's and Princess Luna's decision, not Twilight's." She threw a glare at Twilight, then grinned at the Big Guy, but with Trixie kept him from advancing on their fellow unicorn. "You seem a good deal more techy that usual, and I'm afraid all of us have had some rather rude shocks over the last few days. I apologize and ask that you remember we've all got a great deal under pressure."

Okay, message received, he thought, Everyone's out here to watch two people lose it so they can laugh about it. Frankly, I think laughter and tears would help. What to do, what to do?

"Message received, I can only say that falling a 150 feet onto a wrought iron fence hasn't improved my disposition any. Like a mink, after I've been skinned, I lose my good disposition."

Rarity gulped and nodded. The purple bubble that formed around him shocked her, and most of the ponies around them.

The Big Guy tapped the bubble. "Twilight, now you have made me angry, and I am going to make all of you suffer."

"You can't affect us from inside that shield," Twilight said, as she trotted towards the gates to the palace with the bubble in tow.

"How little you know," the Big Guy said and began singing You're Only Second Rate from Return of Jafar. Someone, Rarity, Trixie or Lyra canceled the silencing spells Twilight tried to use as her anger at the insults in the song grew. The magic made him feel odd, detached from himself as if he were the crowd, and especially the singers looking at him.

Twilight turned to angrily face him as he transitioned to Friends on the Other Side from Princess and the Frog. Her anger became concern as the surrounding ponies began approaching to sing the choral responses. That worried her more than the subject and implications of the song. As the ponies closed in and sang their part around her, she began acting as if she were the prisoner, and he her captor.

When the song ended, she shook off her worries, squared her shoulders and began taking things more seriously. When he began reciting the list of gods in Playing with Big Boys from The Prince of Egypt she began casting counterspells as if each deity's name were a spell. Although Twilight jumped in shock, nobody was more shocked than the Big Guy when Rarity and Pinkie Pie caressed Twilight's face with their tails and took up the priests' lines, relegating the Big Guy to leading the chorus of ponies. The pair changed 'big boys' to 'big girls' but still menaced Twilight, forcing her back as they sang. She looked on in terror, the magic of the song having seemingly taken them over completely. Her counterspells and even the shield surrounding the Big Guy failed and he dropped to the ground. Twilight's two friends used their powers to their full extent, awing Twilight and the others. Trixie seemed to be taking notes. Despite not even touching her, the pair clearly showed that Twilight was not the only major power on the team.

After the climax and covered by the applause of the crowd, Rarity and Pinkie Pie grinned at him, then each other and gave each other a hoof bump. They watched eagerly for the next song.

Realizing the fix was in, the Big Guy began Where There's a Whip, There's a Way from Rankin-Bass's Return of the King as the soldiers began moving the entire crowd towards the throne room. The others took up the song happily as they marched. Twilight looked at the ponies around her, then the power of the song consumed her and she was happily singing along with the other. When the song ended, the Big Guy began playing the intro to the next, as the ponies eagerly awaited it.

At the doors to the throne room proper, Twilight stopped the column and began singing Hellfire from The Hunchback of Notre Dame to the doors. The assembled ponies sang the chorus. On concluding, she collapsed outside the throne room as the column pressed the Big Guy and the other Bearers inside. Within, Celestia, Luna, Cadence stood together facing a secured nymphal Chrysalis. Discord stood off a short distance seemingly bored at the procedure. The princesses looked at the intrusion with concern, and Discord with a vain hope.

The Big Guy began whistling the opening of In the Dark of the Night from Anastasia. Twilight suddenly threw open the doors and took up Rasputin's part of the song while the ponies of the court added their voices to the chorus. Twilight menaced the Big Guy continuously as she stalked around him and sang the lines, although he seemed little concerned with 'the most mystical mare in all Equus'. Although the alicorns seemed alarmed by her assertion 'when the royals betrayed me.' She was gloriously chewing the scenery as the song came to its climax.

Once it was over, she came to her senses and looked at the sea of horrified faces, including both Celestia and Discord. The unveiled anxiety of her 'minions' one and all convinced her having fire consume her and banish her eternally from Equestria started to appear more attractive. She couldn't bring herself to look at any of her friends, or her mentor. Wrapping her tail around herself, she curled up on the floor.

The strains of a violin heralded Voltaire's When You're Evil. Even Discord looked appalled as Fluttershy lifted above the crowd and took up the song. She proceeded to swoop down and menace whichever pony would be most terrified by each line of the song. All the bearers and all four princesses/rulers received the treatment. Even Discord was unsettled by repeatedly being told 'Your tears are all the pay I'll ever need.' But the rest of the court stamped the tambourine counterpoint. Her maniacal laughter in the quiet passages thoroughly chilled all the ponies watching. Utter and gleeful malevolence had never been so adorable. Celestia and Discord glanced at each other for reassurance they could both deal with Fluttershy. They only relaxed as she landed among her friends and let out a more typical chuckle.

Chrysalis sat curled up in a ball, and the alicorns looked at everything warily as they expected the next song. The Big Guy looked away from them all and began singing God Help the Outcasts from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The ponies again sang the counterpoint, and most ponies of the court felt sickened by their 'prayers' compared to The Big Guy's. When he finished, no one in the court could meet another's eye. Some were crying.

He approached Chrysalis, who glanced at him in contempt, before looking away. He began The Bearer of the Ring, the Wearer of the Ring from the Rankin-Bass version of Return of the King. Even the alicorns drew away from him as he sang, with the entire court in chorus, even the alicorns. Discord finally joined in.

The ponies were lured out of their horrified torpor by the opening strains of Phil Och's The Crucifixion they sang it in duet as Jim and Jean had. Celestia caught the tenor of the song first and looked imploringly at the Big Guy, even she couldn't break the spell the music had cast on all of them. He stopped, Shining Armor and other stallions immediately took up the deeper parts. The ponies growing realization of the real meaning of the song shook them, but could not shake them loose from the grip of the music. As the song ended, many of them simply laid down on the throne room floor and wept. Luna and Cadence were among them. Even Discord seemed shaken.

The Big Guy stepped over the prone, whimpering ponies to stand over Twilight. He looked at Celestia to include her in what he was about to tell Twilight. "Do not challenge me again. You will not like what I can do if I take your challenge seriously. This was the merest breath to send you tumbling away, just a handful of childrens' songs, you'll find yourself humming and singing them for the rest of your lives. But they revealed a piece of your souls. Some had the humility to treat it as a game and enjoy themselves, gaining an excuse to laugh or cry, whichever they needed after all they've gone through. But neither you nor your mentor would bend, so you were broken. By little more than an entertainment meant for children. Had I wanted, the cost of you loosing your challenge only to lose so badly could have been far worse than a painful eye-opening into who you really are."

As he stepped away, he found himself facing a teary-eyed Cadence and Shingling Armor. "Thank you," Cadence said, "I, I couldn't cry." She paused to sniffle. "After all that happened, I couldn't cry." She sniffled again. "Now it seems I can't stop."

"Well," he said as he knelt so they were face to face, "I've got a song for that too."

"I'll bet you do," Shining said and wiped his eyes, "Not just yet." He extended a foreleg, as did Cadence.

He nodded, and carefully gathered them both in. Both ponies broke into heart wrenching sobs. Releasing the pain over their travails during the invasion. He held them both as they cried themselves out.

The court was quiet, broken only by sporadic sniffles, and an occasional wail of despair. Finally Cadence and Armor broke their hug. "Thank you," Cadence said.

"Rarity's wedding present, it was her suggestion," he said, "Seems we all needed that. But, time for one last one to put everyone in the right frame of mind."

"Could you always do this?" Armor asked.

"No, but we'll discuss it later," he said, and began singing You'll Be In My Heart, from Disney's Tarzan. Everyone, even the Diarchs and Discord eagerly took up the song, singing as a triumphal march.

As the ponies dispersed, Rarity trotted up with Trixie. "Are you feeling better?" she asked.

"Yes, strangely enough," he replied.

"You don't think this is Tartarus and you're dead?" she asked.

Trixie blushed and began shaking her head.

"I heard from Tom," Rarity said.

"Yes, but maybe I can fix things," he replied.

Rarity blew her mane out of her face. "You're impossible."

"You just figured that out?" Pinkie asked as she pronked past humming In the Dark of the Night, and giggling.

Tom and Discord hovered over Twilight as she skulked at the rear of the pack. "Aren't you going to go racing up there and demand to know how he accomplished that magic?" Discord asked.

For a moment, her spirit flared, then the blaze faded to embers. "No," she said quietly.

"Full marks," Tom said, "I think you'll find Prince Blueblood a good conduit for communications. And, you might want to pick out a selection of 'how to' magic books for teaching foals, as well as a selection of very in-depth scientific ones on magic theory."

"Why? He hates me," Twilight said.

"Strange, how your enemy calmed down the entire court over the wedding and the invasion, and BOXES," Discord said.

Twilight frowned at him.

"Hey, I'm your enemy too, but I'll help, cause I'm such a wonderful guy," Discord said.

"Why didn't you tell her that while standing in the Apples' orchard, they could have used the fertilizer?" Tom said.

"Are you saying I'm insincere?" Discord asked.

"No, I'm saying your sincerity is -"

"I should have eaten you when I had the chance," Discord replied.

"An eternity of tummy rumbles," Tom said as he floated after the crowd, "I think not."

"Careful, you heard what happened to Descartes," Discord warned.

"He got in front of a horse?" Tom asked. Discord face palmed.

Twilight, despite herself, began smiling. She still felt anxious, but it was controllable. She noted down the list of books that would fill Discord's suggestion, and she felt better still. She sighed and followed the court/wedding party.

I don't know what it says about me that I get shuffled off to the bachelorette party, rather than the bachelor party, the Big Guy thought as he looked around the room. He looked at the phalanx of mares around him. That's not a harem, that's a battle station, he thought, Celly, Woona, Lyra, Derpy and Trixie I can understand, but why are Applejack and Rarity anchoring the ends of the line? Not that I mind.

The gifts from many of the 'nice, old ladies' would have made a sailor blush. Twilight, of course, gave a package of books.

He watched the furiously blushing unicorns as Cadence read the titles. "I don't think Twilight bought those books," he told Lyra, who was also blushing, although Bonbon had cadged a scrap of paper and was writing.

"How do you know?" Lyra said.

"A Thousand Rubs, thank you Twilight," Cadence said as Twilight shaded to crimson.

"I don't think that's a cook book," he told her.

"Depends on what yer cookin'," Granny Smith said, and Applejack became burnt umber.

"Well thank you all, those were some interesting gifts," Cadence said, at the moment, the pinkest of five pinkish alicorns. And most mischievous. "I'd like a little speech from our guest, if he wouldn't mind," Cadence said.

With the interest firmly directed at me, while Cadence helped herself to some ice cream cam and cake, my bulwark bristled at some of the ladies of the court. Something I'm missing and will have to investigate later, he thought as he stood.

"I would like to offer my sincerest and humblest apologies. As I was standing in the abandoned ruins of the unicorn capital, looking above me at what amounted to two miles of solidified pony against pony hatred, I realized just how much I had misjudged your entire race and your sovereigns especially.

"When I first arrived, in this alien world, I met some ponies who needed, wanted and were grateful for my help. I met a mother pegasus who firmly believed that since I had proven my good will once, it could be counted on again. As time went by, I encountered other ponies who were fascinated with my alienness and welcomed me despite and because of it. Thank you Rarity, Lyra, and Fluttershy, you were and are a welcome sight to a frightened and worried man. There were even those who welcomed me despite their fear, like Applejack, and not particularly liking me, like Bonbon. Despite their concerns, they still treated me decently, and even demanded that others do the same.

"I must offer my most abject apologies, especially to their August Majesties, that I assumed that these splendid representatives of Equestria, were actually representative of Equestria."

The crowd was quickly divided into the confused, the elated, the offended and the laughing. Cadence was practically rolling on the floor. Luna was trying hard not to give in, while many of the upper crust by birth rather than effort were trying to figure out the joke.

"Spike," Shining Armor said as the little dragon led him ahead. The bag on his head prevented him from seeing where he was or where he was going.

"Almost there. I didn't have a real good idea what went into a bachelor party, so I kind of improvised," Spike admitted.

"Wait, you planned my bachelor party?" Armor said, "I may get out of this alive."

"I certainly hope so," another voice said, and Blueblood removed the bag from Shining's head.

Armor stared at the striped uniform Blueblood wore, then saw the huge number of his old friends assembled on a hoofball pitch. Then Armor looked around. "This is Canterlot Stadium!"

"Where else would we all be?" Pone, the most famous kicker in all of Hoofball asked as the crowd of friends parted, revealing every one of Armor's hoofball heroes.

"I hope I got everybody," Spike apologized, "I only found out about this the day before yesterday."

Armor stared at Spike in stunned amazement. "How?" Armor gasped.

"Because dragons always collect what is valuable, and the most valuable thing to ponies is connections to others," Blueblood said, "So he was driven to connect, and did a very good job. If Chrysalis had brought in another changeling disguised as Spike, she would have had the city by the throat. But everypony ignores him. To their detriment."

Spike grinned at the unexpected praise.

"He had a little help," Discord said as he appeared.

Armor lowered his horn.

"Now wait," Discord said as he held up his hands, leaving them attached to their wrists for the moment, "I'm here to give you a gift, one you want, but would never ask for. Those are the best anyway."

After what he did to Twilie, Armor thought as he glared at the draconequus, What could he possibly offer? What would I trust enough to accept?

Discord transformed into a hoofball and dropped right in front of Shining Armor.

An atavistic sense warning of danger had everypony between the guest of honor and the goal diving out of the way. Shining fired a shot from the penalty spot straight into the opposite goal. "I'm gonna like this game!" he said as he chased down the ball.

"Okay let's form up teams and have fun," Blueblood said and blew his whistle.

"You're playing?" Big Mac asked.

"Officiating," Blueblood said, and gestured a hoof, "And I have help." A dozen, identical, striped-jerseyed Bluebloods charged onto the field.

"That's weird," Big Mac said.

"Compared to my life, not so much," Blueblood replied.
Day 61

The crowd that meandered back to the living quarters was a good deal more disorganized than was perhaps their wont. The amount of cider that had been consumed could have sozzled an elephant.

The Big Guy watched the happy cluster of ponies surrounding him, Derpy rested her head on one hip, and Celly rested her head on the opposite shoulder, the combination and the force they applied was nearly enough to topple him over, and the positively obscene giggles that bubbled up among the others told him that a lot more was going on that met the eye, or matched the experience he'd had on his uncle's farm before the war. Bonbon slipped in under Celly and parked her head on his hip, partially balancing the force from the others.

Shining Armor and a group of laughing ponies shambled towards them. "What hit you?" the Big Guy asked, "You look like someone tried to beat you to death, and succeeded."

Armor and the others kept laughing.

"Only the most EPIC hoofball game in the history of Equestria," Armor announced as he wobbled in place.

"In the universe," Tom added as he floated above them. Somehow the featureless, gray softball managed to look smug.

The groups intermixed and the pairs broke off. Tom followed along with the group surrounding the Big Guy as Blueblood joined them.

They dropped the Element Bearers off at their apartments before they returned to the ship. The odd behavior of the mares bothered him. Bonbon rescued me from the rapists, but I didn't see anything that would make even Cadence hostile to some of the nobles. And she's supposed to be all about love and tolerance and making connections.

Their bedroom was similar to the room in his house, a floor with mattresses on it. The huge difference came when he laid down, Derpy immediately put her forelegs around his waist, draped a wing and a leg over him, and thrust her tail between his legs. While it was endearing, it was also slightly creepy. Then Bonbon of all ponies hooked her forelegs on his shoulders and pressed herself tight against his back. As the others pressed in like a suit of form-fitting armor, he began to get worried.

"Did I miss something?" he asked.

"Yes, but in the morning," Bonbon tried to tell him forcefully, but there was a quaver in her voice.

He lay there and decided to try to concentrate on them protecting him. There's little anyone but the Princesses could do overtly. This ship is foreign territory, so that gives Royal commands a no-go. I think Discord and Tom might have a say in whatever happens, and the Elements haven't just zorched him, and they'd have to get Woona, Celly and Tom with the same shot. I hate waiting for the attack in the morning. Makes me want to slip out at night with a knife in my teeth and give the enemy something to be terrified about.

Luna was not expecting to find Selene, and Dinky, and the Crusaders all in her room. The floor was covered with books, scattered pieces of paper, and several, nearly exhausted fillies.

"What manner of invasion is this?" Luna asked.

Selene tried to jump to her feet, but staggered and sank almost immediately. Despite their sudden jolt to wakefulness, all the fillies were too exhausted for it to stick.

"Looking up the best way to teach magic," Selene said.

"Yeah, I mean yer Highness," Dinky said, "The Big Guy can do magic now, but he's not very good."

Luna suddenly realized that the raw power of the songs he'd 'inflicted' on the court had magic behind them. Magic I didn't detect, she realized, Because it wasn't strong enough to pick out of the background, or was so subtly woven that I couldn't, or because I deluded myself into thinking it wasn't there?

"Well, I think you've done enough for now, get some sleep," Luna told them.

"But we -" Dinky began.

"Dinky," Selene said, "We've got a Royal Order, zip it."

That's not what I meant, Luna thought as she watched the fillies trudge to Selene's room.

Dinky rounded on Selene the moment the door was closed. "We could have told her."

"And done what?" Selene asked, "The wedding's tomorrow. We can wait for the day after that."

"I guess," Dinky said and yawned, "Why are we the ones who have to do this?"

"Because we're here," Sweetie Belle said, "Nobody else."

Dinky shook her head and climbed into the bed with the other fillies. She yawned once, which set off a chorus of yawns, and then fell asleep.

"You look like a pile of puppies," she heard and opened her eyes. Dinky shied from the brightness filling the room and looked around. The others were reacting to the light streaming in the windows.

"What time is it?" Sweetie Belle squeaked in panic.

"You have 87 minutes to get washed, dressed, bathroom stop, breakfast and get out to the rehearsal," the Big Guy said. He grinned. The fillies shied. "And I'm the guy to do it. Discord volunteered and ran out sobbing 'they're too cute I just can't do it!' But me, I'm so evil, I'm immune to cute."

Five sets of the most adorable, sad faces were aimed at him.

"I thought you wanted to be in the wedding," he replied.

"That's dirty pool," Scootaloo complained.

"That's my job," he replied.

Dinky walked beside the Big Guy as he toured the castle. With all the important people at the rehearsal, he was free to wander. Mom was with them, and seemed to be glad that the place was practically empty. All the nobles being out watching the rehearsal. None of them were invited either, so they'd have tomorrow as well.

"Impressive," he commented on the architecture, "But it seems to be imposing for the sake of being imposing. I wonder if the nobles did that, or that was the only designs they got."

"I don't know," Derpy admitted.

"I can always ask Prince Blueblood or Spike," the Big Guy said. He glanced down at Derpy. "Can you explain why you and the others were reacting that way?"

Derpy glanced at Dinky. "Tomorrow night," she said.

He frowned, but Derpy wasn't going to discuss it. "Can you tell me if I should be on guard?"

"Just stay with one of your mares," Derpy said as she kept glancing at Dinky, "It's complicated."

She looked back at her mom. "Is this about what they've been saying about him and you?"

Derpy gasped. "How do you know about that?"

"Because it can't be that much different than what Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon said," Dinky said, "No, I didn't beat her up for it." She looked up at him. "If it is, then mom, or Bonbon, or Applejack are your best choices."

"Thank you," he said, and looked worried, "Oh boy. I wonder what Blueblood wants."

The assembly of people was not what Woona had expected. The Inner Circle she could understand, Selene was confusing, the changelings were a believable addition, but the upper officers of Blueblood's regiment confused her as much as the unicorn Glory and the griffon Svetlana. Whatever we do, they'll still have their jobs, she thought, then looked at the very old ponies who'd donned their uniforms for this occasion, What are they here for?

"Gentles all," Blueblood said, "Since there has been a marked increase in old villains showing up at various places this year, I propose we force the issue." He carefully unfolded a map that was printed on metal plates 'hinged' with bits of cloth. The old soldiers looked nervously at those not in the regiment, but withheld their protest. "I know, it's our ancient lore, but it's going to be modern lore soon enough." Blueblood looked around. "The Crystal Empire, Sombra's realm. Since Luna tapdanced him to death several weeks ago, pardon Trixie."

"You left room for me to call my own fate something far more poetic," Trixie said.

"Thank you. I suggest, we break the spell over this land. It is mostly of Earth ponies, and was enslaved by Sombra. The records are very sparse, but it seems he was a popular figure once. Why the Diarchs were forced to intervene when he became a mad tyrant I don't know."

"Well first, he was a unicorn, not an Earth Pony," the Big Guy said, "With a scimitar-shaped horn without the spiral grooves most unicorns have. I think we'll have more than enough power to break his spell. But, there's something you have to see, that may shed a lot of light on Sombra's rise in magic and fall in madness. And it's right about there." He pointed to a spot on the map.

The group stumbled out of the front door of the Big Guy's house. He and Dinky had provided the translation for the movie they'd watched, but the events had depressed them all.

"I must thank you," Svetlana said, "I always wondered how my nightmares could become more vivid and terrifying. And is started with such a cheerful song."

"So that Rainbow, was their Elements?" Dinky asked.

"Yes," the Big Guy said.

"But we have Discord and Tom!" Dinky insisted.

"I think even we'd be hard pressed to deal with that. Assuming it was strong enough to shrug off the Elements," Discord said, deep in thought.

"As I see it," Blueblood said, and shivered, "We'll have to hit it with everything we've got."

"Except we'll also have to ask all of you to keep this to yourselves," Fragrance said, "I know Blueblood wanted to disseminate this information, but my investigation into the dragons and the invasion shows that Chrysalis was given a huge amount of inside information before she set herself into the attack. Which means that the Equestrian or an allied government is infiltrated by the same ones who gave Chrysalis the activation control of those dragons."

"How long had they been here?" Glory asked.

"The dragons? They were planted as seeds originally," Fragrance said, "You guess how long a tree would take to get that big. You can guess how long the spies were there."

"So what do we do?" Discord asked, "If the Elements aren't enough, what?"

"Everything," the Big Guy said, "That's what it took in the movie, that's what it'll take this time."

"You act like what was in that movie has anything to do with the real world," Celly said, "I never heard of such a thing on our Equestria."

"Well, Sombra went nuts on yours, so he probably knew about it, and with Nightmare Moon's assistance, he won. That's my guess," the Big Guy said, "And Derpy, Dinky and I saw that thing. It was immobilized, but it was awake."

"How do we get 'everything' without tipping our hand?" Svetlana asked.

"That'll take some doing," the Big Guy said, "But I have a plan."

"When do you not?" Trixie asked, "Wait, I see, hours of us, even Discord, thinking you're insane. And you patiently explaining the hows and why, so when your plan falls apart, we can carry onto the objective."

"Trixie says sooth," Derpy said, "Isn't that what soothsayers do?"
Day 62

The day had dawned bright and clear. The sun was shining particularly brightly, the birds singing particularly sweetly, and Hotaru felt the glurge rising with every passing second. She didn't have an invitation for The Occasion as the Canterlot elites were now calling it, renaming it so there could automatically be an 'in-group' who knew the name, and the peons who didn't. Her lack of attendance was the only thing that was allowing her to maintain her will to live.

"I've got nothing against Cadence, or Shining Armor," Hotaru explained as she, the wolf, the Big Guy and Dinky trotted through the statue garden, "They're nonentities as far as I'm concerned."

"Well, I'm glad momma got to go, and sit up near the front," Dinky said, "But am I glad I didn't have'ta."

"Discord's putting the whole thing on DVD, so it should be something to watch. But I'd rather have some rest," the Big Guy said and stopped where Hotaru indicated. It was a shady spot, but gave a good view in all directions. It was also well away from any of the statues, but close enough to one that they'd be able to watch it. While Dinky laid down the picnic blanket, the Big Guy set out the food and equipment from the baskets he'd carried out here.

At least I'll be able to watch, Hotaru said, If a wedding to an alicorn doesn't break her out of stone, nothing will.

"Concentrate your power through your, eh, horn," Dinky said and stared at the large bone the Big Guy held, "Animals can't talk in your world, right?"

"I've never had one speak to me in words," the Big Guy said of the steak bone he was using as a horn, "I can use something else."

"No, I don't know what wood would do to a spell," Dinky said and tried to ignore the piece.

"Lucky we aren't practicing tree prognostications, then it would be what wood would do to a would wood spell," the Big Guy said.

Dinky rolled her eyes. "Or your jokes, they're wooden enough," she replied, "Focus, just on the flow, nothing else."

The chunk of bone began glowing softly.

"It's not fair, it took me weeks to learn how to do that," Dinky said.

The glow vanished.

"And that too," she added.

"I have a better teacher," he said as he set down the bone and began tickling Dinky, causing the little unicorn to squeal with delight. In the background, the triumphal entry sounded. The Big Guy seemed more taken with the happy cacophony from his teacher. When he thought she'd had enough, he lifted her up and hugged her, and she hugged him back.

Hotaru was about to comment on the saccharine display, when the wolf snuggled against her and gave her puppy-dog eyes. "I'm surrounded by nincompoops," the former Nightmare Moon said.

The Big Guy set down Dinky and picked up the bone again. "So that's lighting a horn. What about projecting that light?"

"Ah," Dinky said as she leafed through the notes with her, Sweetie Belle's and Selene's writing. "Here, it's, ah, hmm." She shrugged and looked over the top of the paper. "It's just pushing the glow out, to rest in the ground. Or is that on the ground. Sweetie Belle's penhornship is awful." She frowned as he did exactly that. "You already know this stuff."

"No, you, Selene and the Crusaders distilled it down very well," he said while waggling his faux-horn.

Hotaru and Dinky were about to ask what he was doing, when the wolf took off to chase the patch of light. He had both of them giggling as the wolf tore around the garden trying to catch the glowing area. After a few minutes, he extinguished the spell and lay back to rest, while the wolf searched for his vanished quarry. Dinky snuggled up across his neck, not so incidently protecting his throat.

Hotaru barked at the wolf to come back. He did so, wearing a doggy grin and lay down against her. He rolled on his back, his tongue lolling out and gave a happy yip. Hotaru stifled the urge to chew him into bits.

"Teenagers are like that when they meet a pretty girl," the Big Guy volunteered to be number two on her list.

Hotaru ignored them and listened to the celebratory music. A throwback to ancient beliefs about propitiating unseen beings. With Discord in the stands, there's hardly anything in Equestria that would interfere, she thought and watched a changeling patrol fly over. They'd be unseen at the wedding site proper, but over 10,000 stood ready and in battle array to answer any interruption of the ceremony. A few flew directly over in camouflage patterns to unobtrusively, but completely enclose the festivities in a security blanket. The real danger will be here, and I've got that covered, Hotaru thought as the music and the crowd fell silent. She knew from spying on the rehearsal, it would be at least 90 minutes of speeches.

"Okay," Dinky said and stood up, "Telekinesis, moving things with your horn." From the basket, she set out a couple of feathers, a rock, some leaves, several wood chips and a bit coin. "Some ponies have an affinity for some materials over others." She looked up. "I'll try and get the words right, thinking hands instead of hooves takes a bit of work."

"Do your best," he said and scratched her behind the ears.

The little unicorn leaned into the scratching then settled back and scowled at the papers as she went through them. "Okay, some ponies lift things by slipping a hand under it, and some by enclosing it in a hand and lifting it." She looked up. "Try it."

"Strangest use I ever put a T-bone to," he said as he concentrated, causing the bone to glow. He held it over each item, all to no effect. "That's under, let's do enclose." The feather just crumbled. He switched and the bit lifted off the ground.

He set it down as Dinky squealed delightedly. He pulled her to him as he laid back, exhausted at the effort. Dinky was talking a mile a minute as he lay back.

Even Hotaru smiled at that.

The silence warned Hotaru that the vows were being exchanged. She tuned out the ongoing lessons, and concentrated on the statue.

The explosion of stone chips and the cry of animal relief at freedom and animal rage at a wedding, was immediately answered with two huge, green fireballs and two sets of very sharp teeth. The triumphal march had covered the noise, and the last thing the just-freed unicorn mare saw was a section of capped steel pipe at close range and a positively feral expression a short distance away.

As the guards raced in, the Big Guy waved them forward. He set the special club aside as the guard bound the wounded mare and carried her away. Then the Big Guy turned to face Hotaru.

"You knew this would happen," he accused.

"I suspected," she answered.

"And you didn't tell anyone?" Dinky added to the accusation.

"I led you two out here, with your pistol, and us," she told them as she yawned, "More than enough to deal with the would-be wedding wrecker."

"You know her?" the Big Guy asked.

"Sort of, haven't you ever wondered why her Princessship hates Blueblood's family so much, and they have such a reputation for inbred stupidity?" she asked.

"Wha?!" the High Guy said and pointed at the unicorn's pedestal, "Her son, and Celestia? Please tell me this is going the route of the Hapsburg dynasty, not all the way to Oedipus Rex."

"Officially, the children were her Highhness'. No, even ponies aren't that stupid. But, he and his mother were . . . very close," Hotaru said and glanced at Dinky.

The Big Guy covered his face. "I can see why she'd be encased in stone here," the Big Guy said, "Do you know any of the others around here?"

"All of them," Hotaru said, "Nothing like what you went through, but it would still make interesting reading."

"And Luna never figured out all the crap Celestia was being put through?" the Big Guy asked.

"No one ever really noticed," Hotaru said.

"Oh, brother," the Big Guy said and sank back down on the grass.

"Who's Oedipus Rex?" Dinky asked.

Hotaru chuckled at the Big Guy's expression.

Celestia was watching, Twilight having fun on the dance floor. What she was doing could hardly be called dancing, but she and everyone else seemed to be enjoying themselves. She noted that Discord hadn't attended the party, and that Blueblood had departed after making quite a heartfelt tribute speech to and about the wedded couple. She herself wanted, ached to go down to the dance floor and show them how it was done. Considering that Celly and Woona did just that, I guess I'm jealous. If I took Blueblood's words to heart, could I be down there having fun, rather than sitting up here, alone, and radiating my approval on everything?

The arrival of Sir Eagle Bell broke her out of her funk. Are we friends? she wondered, You've served the state since you graduated. You have always fought for the stability of the realm. But are we friends? Are we even cordial enemies? Or am I just a warm, white object, an oracular, mobile rock that must be appeased and consulted? she put those thoughts away before he arrived, so all he saw was her serenity.

"It seems Nightmare Moondog prognosticated that current events and alignments made excellent grounds for Princess Silver Blood's return," the old bureaucrat said, and blanched at his sovereign's horror, "Indeed. She had the foresight to place herself, her wolf-friend, one Dinky Hooves of Ponyville, and the Big Guy at a location overlooking her likely, and fortunately all to ineffectual advent."

"Oh dear," Celestia said in horror, "No other ponies in the area?"

"Unfortunately, no, your Highness. The Big Guy had equipped himself with a section of steel pipe, capped at both ends and containing a measure of lead shot. He apparently assumed that a pony in the statue garden would require such ministrations, since they were swiftly and skillfully employed. One, rather savage stroke, before summoning the guards."

"Oh dear, no ponies around to advise him to indulge himself?" Celestia asked, "That is a lamentable oversight."

"Indeed, although I suspect with young Dinky there, he still would have restrained himself."

Celestia nodded.

"However, he did provide Discord a large amount of music, and that worthy has been serenading the Princess in her cell. Warrant Officer Milestone arranged for additional, appropriate sheet music."

"There was blood upon the risers, there were brains upon the chute. Intestines were a dangling -" Discord sang in four-part harmony to the mare in the cell who was trying to shove both forelegs in her ears.

" 'Warrant Officer'?" Celestia asked the old bureaucrat as the pair kept their voices down to avoid disturbing the other guests at the wedding reception.

"When he took up the mission without prompting and with a positive dearth of resources succeeded, I thought it reasonable. At the moment, only a brevet, but . . ."

The proffered paper was studied then signed. The old bureaucrat put it away.

"Blueblood approved the brevet?" Celestia asked.

"He was most accommodating, once he found out who was the recipient. As I understand, he and the Big Guy are searching the city for, bagpipers and steel drummers. I suspect they are preparing a choral recital using the other inmates."

"Other inmates?" Celestia asked worriedly.

"Ponies who are celebrating the wedding as enthusiastically as Miss Sparkle, but have imbibed a bit much while doing so."

The thought of bag pipes, steel drums, and a choir of drunk and disorderly ponies, or others, brought a smile to Celestia's face. "I hope someone told them to definitely indulge themselves."

"Indeed," Sir Eagle Bell said, "I actually may nip down there with a few suggestions of my own from my army days. Some of the marching cadences performed away from prying eyes seem perfect for the occasion. Especially considering her legendarily 'delicate' temperment."

"Have fuun," Celestia waved to the departing bureaucrat. "I wonder if they would take requests."

He had a room in the palace tonight. Shining Armor and Cadence had a room in the ship and Fragrance and the Changelings announced they were going to see that they had no interruptions. Then Sapphire and the Changeling Queens had kicked Fragrance off the ship. Other than Cadence and Shining, there was nothing but Changelings aboard, and flying very heavy combat air patrols. Nothing was getting near them. Period.

So the entire group had rooms in the palace. The Big Guy couldn't shake the feeling that his every move was being observed. " 'As men busied themselves among their various concerns, they were scrutinized and studied. Intellects vast, and cool, and unsympathetic, regarded our human with envious eyes,'" he said as he walked, pausing to glance around. His instincts on such things had kept him alive on a dozen battle fields. Now they were prickling at him again, like a cold breath across the back of the neck that raised the hairs.

As he entered his room, he realized why he hadn't felt the sense of danger that generally accompanied the feeling. He raised a hoof, then looked at an outstretched wing, and glanced up at the horn jutting out of his forehead. "Discord, not funny," he said and looked over his alicorn form.

"Uhm," Derpy said as she stepped out of the shadows, "I asked him to."

He stared at her as she stood somewhat self-conscious of her human form, and the T-shirt and short shorts that seemed to be practically painted on.

Derpy had to hold on to her courage with both hooves. She smiled carefully as he looked her over, clearly stunned. She almost laughed as his expression and gaze remained correct and gentlemanly, while his ears gave away the game, like a teenage stallion who'd spotted a pretty mare. If they pointed any harder in her direction, they'd tear right off his head. She felt her tail swaying as she walked, and hoped she could control herself. Her small wings were extending, but she couldn't help that. And she suspected he knew what that meant.

Buoyed by that, she approached. "You asked about why I and the other mares, your friends, were getting so angry. And considering us going forward, we need to get some things straight, especially with Lyra and Bonbon."

"Derpy, I -"

She closed her hand on his muzzle. She stroked his nose, enjoying the feel of soft fur on her skin. She was beginning to understand his attitude to ponies, and being touched by them. It felt better than ponies nuzzling each other and she realized that the soft touch was in some ways better than the hard rub a pony might give another. "Shh," she told him, "For once, you don't know where this is going. I do, just trust me."

His ears which had been flicking uncertainly, now focused back on her.

I will have to tell him how much he's giving away, but later, she thought.

"What was making us so mad, was all the little comments by the noblemares, and the body language," she said, and turned her back on him. Then she pulled her shorts down to her thighs, and bent at the waist to touch her toes. She flicked her tail side to side, then straightened up. "It's called presenting, and it pretty much means what it says." She turned back and saw him blushing and looking away. "Doing it to a stallion without any marefriends is an invitation. Doing it to a stallion with, is saying either they can't hold his interest, or saying she knows he's unfaithful."

"Aren't they the same?" he asked softly.

"No, one is aimed at the mare or mares, the other is aimed at the stallion, and both insult the bond between them," Derpy said and approached, and stroked his ears softly, intentionally going against the natural lay of the fur. He snorted softly and stepped back, flicking his ears slightly. "You promised Bonbon, and Lyra, and you fulfilled your promise. But some of your words and gestures have a different meaning." She rubbed her cheek against his, very gently. "That was for parent and child, or lovers." She pressed a good deal harder. "That's between friends. When you stroke somepony gently, it means a lot more than you think it means."

"I didn't know," he admitted.

"Let's not even start about what scratching behind the ears means," she said and giggled at his horrified expression. "Not that, ponies don't have fingers, so everyone is guessing. Some of those guesses I will not repeat in front of Dinky until she's had her first foal. But it feels wonderful, so don't stop. Just understand that some ponies around here think it's ah, having sex in public."

"I didn't mean that!" he stammered.

"Also, when you rub or touch Bonbon, press a lot harder. And a lot softer on Lyra. Unless you mean what you were saying," she said.

"I think I'll take your advice with Lyra, and keep doing what I am with Bonbon. It does explain why she was so hostile," he said.

Derpy nodded. "So, wings, they are very sensitive. You have to feel every air current, and you running your fingers through my feathers drives me completely crazy. I like it, but I have to keep from jumping you. Let me show you."

Celly wasn't sure if she'd hit somepony in the face when her wings 'poofed'. The collection of ponies in the 'whisper gallery' where servants watched over the nobles in these suites to ensure they knew what the noble needed immediately, all were showing the strain.

"Fingers can do that to feathers?" Rainbow whined, her own wings painfully extended making any flight a distant dream, unless someone fired her from a catapult and she fluttered down. She glanced over at Twilight, who stood immobile, the quill and parchment in her magic forgotten as she stared open-mouthed at the pair below.

"So much for eggheads," Rainbow said.

Derpy's very innocent, but voluminous questions to Fluttershy and Rarity had led the pair of them to one conclusion. And their friends had come along, attracting Celly's attention due to the recent turbulent history between them and the Big Guy. She wanted Derpy to do this, without distractions.

"It's beautiful," Rarity said as she watched, sounding almost like Sweetie Belle, "So playful, yet so mature."

"That's more ta the playful end," Applejack said. Watching Derpy squeal and squirm as the Big Guy put his equine muzzle on her stomach and blew. The odd sound was drowned out by Derpy's happy squeals and pleas for mercy.

"I guess bare skin would be more sensitive," Fluttershy said, entranced as Rarity was. But she was watching two dear friends become better friends, so her wings hadn't poofed.

"Horns do that?" Applejack asked.

Rarity blushed slightly. "Yes Applejack, they do."

"Didn't mean anything by it," she said.

"He makes a nice stallion," Fluttershy said, "But he's a nice person inside."

"You've had a crush on him since the first day," Rainbow accused, and looked at her wings. She rolled her eyes and moved a little ways down the gallery so she wouldn't bump her wings into someone.

"I thought he was cute!" Fluttershy insisted, then hid behind her wing. "Sorry."

"Quite understandable," Rarity consoled, "I must admit, I'd never considered the skin sensitivity/clothes issue before."

"He told Diamond Tiara and the whole class," Applejack said.

"Sweetie Belle only mentioned the Diamond Dog incident," Rarity replied, "Although Applebloom let slip you wrasslin' with him."

Now Applejack blushed.

Rarity giggled. "Oh don't make too much of it," Rarity said and giggled, "It was very coquettish of you, but I understand. When he walked into my shop, I got the most electric thrill. Perfectly reasonable to assume it was romantic."

Applejack blushed harder. Rarity returned her gaze to the pair in the room.

"It is nice Derpy found a good stallion for herself and Dinky," Fluttershy said, "Oh good, they padded the table."

"How is that supposed to work?" Rainbow asked turning her head this way and that.

Applejack raised an ear. "Seems Derpy thinks it works jist fine." She grinned at Rainbow. "Least ways we know she's a quiet one, not like some other pegasi."

Fluttershy eeped and hid under her wing.

That had Rarity's mouth hanging open. "Fluttershy? You?"

Fluttershy looked around and tried to grin. "Um, where's Pinkie Pie."

"She said she'd seen it and went to bed," Applejack said, "Fluttershy?"

The lemon pegasus became the orange pegasus. "Uhm, yes."

"Who?" Rarity, Applejack and Rainbow all demanded.

"Uhm, I sometimes fly down to Appleloosa," Fluttershy admitted.

"Braeburn?" Applejack asked.

Fluttershy shook her head.

"The sheriff?" Rainbow asked.

"Bloomberg?" Rarity asked.

"Chief Thunderhooves?"

The knock on her door drew Celestia's attention from the mound of paperwork on her desk. The information that the Big Guy could talk, and that his library was the responsibility of 'the crown' had made the international and local scene vastly more complicated.

"Enter," she said, dreading whatever functionary needed to talk to her, instead of Luna who was holding night court.

"Your Highness," Discord said as he entered. He glanced around, acting more like a polite guest than his typical 'I own the place you're just occupying it as long as it amuses me' attitude. He glanced at the lack of decorations, the bed, and seemed to fix on the writing desk.

She felt her temper rise as it always had with him. But there was a coldness to him this time. Dangerous, she thought, He's learned that the maul can be fun, but the epee wounds just as deeply.

"Yes?" she asked when she realized he seemed to be willing to stand there all night awaiting her permission.

"Something that's been bothering me all evening," he admitted, "Why didn't you dance? You used to be an excellent dancer, and at a wedding and the reception, the bride out ranks even the princess of the realm."

She braced for more, and was shocked that Discord was content to stand politely, quietly, and wait for an answer. He is more dangerous, she thought, He's learned patience.

"I chose not to," she replied.

"Do you, or did you assume that everyone else had chosen for you?" he asked, again, without sarcasm, almost with concern.

"What is your game?" she asked.

"Survival. Maybe extending my circle of friends." Discord turned around looking at the room. "I just had a very educational few weeks. I saw things that broke Nightmare Moon. I did things that even I'd never considered, not because they were beyond me, but because I was stuck thinking the same old way. I daily fenced with two minds that were as creative as mine. One was an alien who could make Sombra look like Fluttershy one moment, and make Fluttershy look like Blueblood's mother the next. One ruled not by rules, and what is expected, but what one choses to do. There's even a whole philosophy about it. That one goes from a rules-fearing under, to a self-ruling over. One who ignores outside rules and lives only by one's internal rules. It was educational."

"And what have you learned?" Celestia asked wavering between genuinely interested and deeply disturbed.

"That if my beloved niece invites me to dance at her wedding, I should," Discord said, "And to Tartarus with the pecksniffs who would have a problem with it. One who does not live, is either afraid to, or has forgotten how. I was afraid. Which are you?"

Celestia was horrified that she didn't have an answer.
Day 64

Cadence and Shining Armor came down for an informal brunch. The invitation had included the changelings this time. The pair walked side-by-side leaning against one another, nuzzling as they walked and grinning. They spotted Derpy and Celly with the Big Guy sandwiched between them. Derpy rested her head on his hip, Celly rested hers on his shoulder. Their dreamy expressions had a little to do with the Big Guy scratching them behind the ears.

As the group glanced at each other, Cadence raised an eyebrow. Derpy blushed furiously, while Celly shaded a delicate pink at the cheeks. Both raised an eyebrow.

Cadence started giggling as Armor ambled over and watched the finger scratching, curiosity satisfied, he returned to Cadence's side and rubbed the edge of his horn behind Cadence's ear.

While Cadence was nearly melting, Celestia and Discord came down a side corridor. Discord seemed remarkably quiet and thoughtful, and Celestia's usual placid mask seemed to have an aura of imminence behind it. Cadence and Celly raised an eyebrow at her. Discord took off his and hers, and held them firmly behind his back. While Celestia glared at him, he rocked back and forth on his heels and whistled 'The Anvil Chorus'.

Rarity and Tom's arrival prevented any speculation about the previous pair, and they received a hail of raised eyebrows. Rarity sniffed disdainfully and tossed her mane. Then discretely raised an elegantly arched eyebrow, then raised the other practically into her mane, then she waggled them.

Discord sniffled. "They grow up so fast."

Blueblood and Fragrance arrived, laughing and chatting, and froze at the fusillade of raised eyebrows. Fragrance bowed her head and pawed the ground.

"Not quite that fast," Blueblood said. He was quite surprised by the kiss on the cheek from Rarity.

The arrival of Luna, Woona, Big Mac, Cherilee, the Crusaders, Selene and Dinky caused all kinds of raised eyebrows.

"NOPE!" Big Mac said firmly as the kids glanced around in confusion, and all the adults let out a sigh of relief.

Bonbon and Lyra arrived as the group began chuckling. The wave of raised eyebrows made both blush and look away, but Bonbon raised an eyebrow as she nuzzled Lyra.

Rainbow Dash arrived with Twilight, the unicorn was hovering a book in front of them and explaining to Dash how to do basic research. The wall of raised eyebrows at them forced them back.

"Naw," everyone agreed.

Rainbow turned purple. Twilight turned even purpler.

"Say, where are Fluttershy and Applejack?" Twilight asked. And everyone started looking around.

Down the hall, hidden behind a potted plant, Applejack turned to Fluttershy. "Should we go out there?"

"Absolutely not!" Fluttershy whispered back.

Fancypants with Trixie, Fleur Dis Lee, and Sapphire arrived in the area. Everyone raised an eyebrow at them. Some raised two.

He looked at the crowd. "She was giving us a private performance."

When everyone started snickering, Fleur added, "With seven curtain calls." Jaws dropped.

"Dear me, I only remember five," Fancypants admitted, "It seems I let down the side."

"No, you didn't," Sapphire and Trixie said.

"What the hay are you ponies talking about?" Rainbow shouted in frustration.

Even Twilight face hoofed at that. "Well, big question."

They all raised an eyebrow at Cadence and Shining Armor. The entire cavalcade stared at the newlyweds. Cadence took on an air of studied indifference beyond what even Blueblood could manage.

"Do you think the rain with hurt the rhubarb?" Cadence asked Shining Armor in a supercilious tone. He seemed to ponder the question deeply, then frowned and shook his head.

A finger snap, and pile of pillows appeared in front of everyone present. "Get'em," growled Discord.

The battle raged through the hallways and grand spaces of Canterlot, but seemed to avoid the art galleries and statued halls. Princess Cadence and Prince Shining Armor manage to hold their own despite cunning ambushes led by the princesses, mad banzai charges usually led by Twilight Sparkle, and the horrified expressions of guards and courtiers. Discord's presence answered most questions before they were asked. The pair held all comers. Until Cadence, seeing Shining Armor just perfectly vulnerable, bopped him upside the head.

Then the battle became general. Alliances were formed, and as quickly sizzled away in the heat of battle. Celestia and Discord became a particular target, not only because they were the biggest, but for some reason Discord never betrayed her, despite an occasional errant pillow that came his way, and her always very sincere denial of responsibility.

"For the New Lunar Republic!" Luna shouted as she led the combined force against the pair.

"Oh Twilight, how could you betray me so?" Celestia cried, then unleashed a fusillade.

Behind her own barrage, Twilight replied, "She offered more money. Growing dragon you see."

The approach of a phalanx of Day Guards and the Wonderbolts appeared to be the end of it for the rebels. Suddenly, they all reverted to changeling form and hurled waves of pillows raided from the maids' cupboards.

Mile Stone and a large contingent of Nightguards and evening maids approached from the other side.

"Changelings?" Luna asked.

"No Highness," Mile Stone said. Then the potato sacks tied to broomsticks went up. "For the Ochlocracy of Potatoes!" the bull warrant officer shouted, and their barrage covered both factions.

"Told you!" the Big Guy shouted over the din, and became the target of every combatant on the field. Several of the pillows were anvil shaped, and one looked like a piano.

Some of the more foolish arrived and announced their disgust at the childish behavior, only to receive the undivided attention of every 'soldier' in the field.

A few senior bureaucrats led by Sir Eagle Bell arrived on the field, took one look, and silently retreated to their offices.

Eventually the battle wound down, and the warriors headed off towards the brunch buffet, the occasional feather drifting in the breeze behind them.

"So, you heard of us, " Soarin' said between bites of the brunch as he looked over to the Big Guy, "What can you do?"

He shrugged. "I'm human, I don't know if it is the same as the creatures Lyra was so amazed by, but I am. That means I naturally breathe one of the most corrosive elements known. Our favorite beverages are also our two, most widely used industrial solvents, for adults often a combination of the two. For children, one and a small amount of acid added. When the gods found they did not approve of us anymore, they tried to drown our entire race like kittens in a sack. Many of us survived in scattered bands. Only because we chose to save them, did the ponies and horses survive. After the flood, dragon, unicorns, pegasi, and alicorns were figures of legend. Some of the gods pledged to never try that again. Those who didn't we dragged from their thrones, tore out their throats with our teeth, tore down their temples around their dying corpses, and reduced them to object lessons and toys for our children."

"I'm also an engineer. To give you an example, the most ferocious and merciless soldiers fighting in the last world war faced the engineers. Sure they pushed us back, time and time again. But we were buying time, often all they could do was look upon our delaying tactics and shed furious tears of impotent frustration as we destroyed the bridges, fuel stocks and hope they desperately needed, often while portions of their armies were amid the destruction."

"Although born Canadian, I'm an American, one of one-seventy plus countries on our world. Our leader called upon us to develop a way to send people to the moon, and return them safely. Within a decade, our first pair were there, and safely back. We did it six more times, and only had one failure. The ship suffered a catastrophic failure halfway between our home and the moon. Through the diligence of the people who'd built the craft, the knowledge of those on the ground, and the courage of those marooned between worlds, we returned them safely."

The Big Guy stared at the sea of horrified faces. "So, I'm just kind of ordinary."

"But, what about Discord, Nightmare, Tirek, Nistag, and all those others?" Soarin' asked.

He shrugged. "I'm not that different from others of those groups. A lot of them could have done it. It's just I was here, so I did."

"Well, what about extraordinary members of your race?" Spitfire asked.

"There's one that lots of people talk about how awesome he is, Chuck Norris. Problem is, there was another guy, Bruce Lee, who could kick Chuck Norris around the block daily and twice on Sunday, without breaking a sweat. But Bruce Lee died as a young adult, and Chuck Norris survived to become a tough, old man. So I guess there's proof that it is possible to be so awesome that you literally can't survive it."

"You're saying this Bruce Lee died of awesomeness poisoning!?" Rainbow Dash asked worriedly.

"Essentially, yes," he replied, "But don't worry Dash, you're not even as awesome as Chuck Norris, so you should survive."

Rainbow looked relieved, then thought about it. "Hey, wait a feather-pickin' minute!"

The laughter from the Wonderbolts and the other guests drowned out the rest.

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