Oncoming Storm: Through a Mirror Darkly

by Chengar Qordath

First published

When Cloud Kicker's new magical powers malfunction and result in a dangerous situation for herself and others, she must go to Equestria to find a solution.

Cloud Kicker's slowly been figuring out how to use the new magical powers she acquired from her girlfriend Rainbow Dash. Even if it was a bit of a shock at first, it's magic! Who wouldn't be excited to have it? It certainly makes life at CHS more interesting.

However, just because she has magic powers doesn't mean she can control them, and when Cloud's magic goes haywire it quickly becomes apparent that she needs more help than what Sunset can offer on her own. Finding a solution means taking a trip to the magical land of Equestria, but Cloud might not like what she finds when she goes through the looking glass.

The Girl With the Magic Gun

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“I really don’t get it, Cloud,” Rainbow grumbled as she loaded her weapon. “You get to play with real guns all the time as an army brat. Why would you wanna use the ones that shoot foam darts?”

“It’s pretty simple,” I answered. Then I shot her in the face.

The foam dart harmlessly plinked off Rainbow’s forehead, and she answered with a mostly playful glare. “Shooting your girlfriend. Great move, that shows you’re a real class act.” She gave that half a second to sink in, then promptly hit me with every single dart she had.

I giggled and held up my hands in a vain attempt to stave off the barrage. “So why is me shooting you once terrible, but this is okay?”

Rainbow paused for a second to think it over. Or maybe she was just reloading. Then she shrugged and started shooting again. “Well, you fired first. That means I can do anything I want to you and it’s totally legal.”

If not for the fact that we had an audience, I would’ve been tempted to make a few jokes about Rainbow doing anything she wanted to with me. However, since Twilight and Sunset had caught a ride out with us that wasn’t an option.

Twilight frowned uncertainly at us, adjusting her glasses. “I don't think it works that way, Rainbow. It’s true that within the laws of war the principle of reciprocity would allow you to retaliate against Cloud for any rules she breaks, but you’re still expected to respond in a somewhat proportionate way. Shooting her once is entirely reasonable, but some authorities might consider that many shots excessive.”

Rainbow thought it over for a moment, then snorted. “You would say that.” She cocked her gun and shot me again.

I knew there was only one way to end this, and threw up my hands. “Okay, okay, I surrender.”

Rainbow smirked triumphantly, twirling her gun. “I’ll accept your surrender on condition that you pay for pizza after the battle.”

I grinned and shook my head. “Nah, losing team pays. It’s a universal rule.”

Sunset answered with a skeptical frown. “Since when? I don’t remember agreeing to that rule.”

“Since forever.” Rainbow crossed her arms under her chest. “That's why it’s called losing.”

“I don’t think that’s anywhere in the definition of losing,” Twilight countered. “It is often part of a social contract agreed upon by all participants that the winner receives some reward or the loser faces some punishment, but I don’t recall agreeing to anything like that.”

Sunset smirked at us. “I’ve got a feeling that how picky Rainbow is about enforcing that rule varies depending on whether or not she wins.”

Twilight grinned. “See, that I believe.”

Rainbow scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Hard to say for sure when I never really lose.”

Sunset shot her an unimpressed look. “Funny, I seem to recall Applejack beating you at that video game you two played at the last sleepover at Pinkie’s.”

“She didn’t beat me,” Rainbow grumbled. “She was just a little bit ahead.”

“Yes, she technically didn’t beat you,” Sunset answered dryly. “Because somehow the console mysteriously turned itself off when Applejack was one point away from winning. Almost as if someone with super-speed hit the reset button.”

Rainbow shrugged shamelessly. “I don’t know how those things work, all kinds of things could’ve happened to it. I mean, it was Pinkie’s game console—it’s probably got tons of confetti stuck in it after being accidentally blown up a couple times.”

“Yeah, I’m sure that’s what it was.” I knew my girlfriend well enough to realize she wasn’t always the most graceful loser, so I decided to change the subject. “But there’s another reason we’ve got this one in the bag. Rainbow and I are gonna be on the same team.”

Rainbow grinned and put an arm around my waist. “Of course we are. We will righteously kick butt and carry our team to victory.”

Sunset shrugged. “Normally I’d say you’re getting a big head, but considering Cloud’s an army brat and you’re the biggest athlete in the group, you’re probably right. I don’t really care about whether or not I win, though. I just want to have fun.”

“Exactly,” I agreed. “It’s not a competition. Or at least, it wouldn’t be if my sisters weren’t coming, but since they are I must destroy them.” Sunset shot me a befuddled look, and I shrugged. “It’s a sibling thing.”

“Nah,” Rainbow cut in. “It’s more of ‘knowing Sparkler’ thing. She’s a huge brat.”

Twilight cleared her throat, slowly raising her hand.

Rainbow blinked at her. “Twi, this isn’t school. You don't have to raise your hand to ask a question.” She paused a moment, then added, “Or go to the bathroom. Do you have to go to the bathroom? Cuz you look like you have to go to the bathroom.

Twilight blushed. “Right, sorry, force of habit. Um...” She held up her own weapon, a rifle which looked entirely too advanced for a beginner. Knowing Twilight, she’d probably gotten it by doing extensive research on which gun was the best. “Any tips on the best way to use this thing? I didn’t exactly grow up with one. I’ve read that pulling the stock to your shoulder is the best way to do it, but this one doesn’t have a stock.”

“I’ll handle it.” I got up and took the rifle from her. “You want to hold it like this, and aim straight down the barrel.” I demonstrated for her, then passed it back.

“Like this?” Twilight asked, demonstrating a stance that only vaguely resembled what I’d shown her. If she were shooting something with the slightest bit of actual recoil, it would probably knock her off her feet.

“No, turn your hip to the left a bit more.” I sighed as she did the exact opposite. “No, your other left.” Her second effort was a bit better, but there was still a long way to go, and I didn’t want to spend five minutes trying to explain it to her. I reached over and gently pushed her into the right position.

Twilight squeaked nervously when I touched her, her cheeks lighting up as her eyes shifted over to Rainbow. “S-sorry.”

Rainbow scoffed and rolled her eyes. “I’m pretty sure you weren’t trying to seduce my girlfriend with your awful gun-holding stance, Twilight.” She smirked at me. “Besides, Cloud and I had way more fun when she was showing me how to do it.”

Twilight’s blush got even worse, and her finger almost reflexively tightened on the trigger. The foam dart shot out and bounced off RD’s chest.

Rainbow blinked in shock at the hit, but quickly recovered from it. “Gah!” She clutched at her imaginary wound, swooning dramatically. “Twilight, how could you? First you try to steal my girlfriend with your terrible aiming, and now you shoot me to get me out of the way!” She melodramatically flopped against me “I—I see a bright light.”

“That’s the sun,” Sunset cut in dryly.

Rainbow kept up her dramatics, weakly clutching me. “Hold me, Cloud ... tell my family I—urk!” She flopped back, her eyes closed and her tongue hanging out to sell the image of a very dead Dash.

I decided to play along, for the moment. “Oh woe! Woe is me! Rainbow is dead. The only thing that can save her now is true love’s kiss!” Rainbow’s lips pursed in preparation, and a particularly wicked idea sprang to mind. I started to lean in, then grabbed a water bottle and upended it over her face.

Rainbow sputtered with indignant shock, bolting upright! “Dammit, Kicker!” She snatched the bottle out of my hand and immediately dumped the rest of it onto my head. “Why’d you have to ruin the moment?! I was being nice, you big stupid butthead!”

Twilight and Sunset were both snickering at us, only making a token effort to hide their laughter behind their hands. I grinned and bowed to both of them. “And this concludes the afternoon’s entertainment. Feel free to join us for an encore performance every time Rainbow and I hang out with each other.”

“Jerk.” Rainbow slugged me in the shoulder, not quite hard enough to actually hurt, but enough to make her point.

“Love you too, Dash.” I planted a quick kiss on the top of her sodden head. She made a token effort to pretend she was still grumpy with me, but I caught the hint of a smile tugging at her lips.

Our back-and-forth was interrupted by the loud bang of a car backfiring. A vehicle that rolled into the parking lot qualified as a car only in the loosest sense of the word—it looked like it had been cobbled together from a bunch of spare parts, mostly because that’s exactly what it was. Blossom had gotten it as a semi-present from her after-school job as a mechanic. Her frankencar might have been an ugly collection of mismatched parts that needed constant maintenance, but it worked. Most of the time.

Still, it was hard not to feel a bit self-conscious when Blossom’s half-junk car pulled up alongside my shiny new one. Mom and Dad had promised me a car for my birthday as long as I got good enough grades to get into one of the military academies. I’d kept my side of the bargain, and so had they. Sparkler had been even more of an annoying brat than usual since then, mostly because her grades weren’t good enough to get that same deal. She had the brains for it, but she’d nearly flunked Algebra just because she thought it was stupid, and had a lot of trouble in English because she didn’t like the teacher.

The car’s engine died with a pained wheeze when Blossom turned it off, and she climbed out of the driver’s side. A moment later Sparkler got out of the passenger seat. Rainbow grinned and waved to both of them. “Hey Blossom. Nice ride.” While everyone else was distracted, she grinned and smacked my butt with the empty water bottle, prompting a startled yelp from yours truly. She smirked, then pointed to my soaked shirt. “Cloud wet herself.”

I rolled my eyes and smacked her shoulder, making us even for the one she’d gotten on me earlier. “I did not. Rainbow’s the one who got me wet.”

I realized a second too late exactly what I’d said, but it was too late to take it back. A most evil grin twisted Sparkler’s lips. “Oh myyyyyyyy. Get a room, you two.”

Blossom, Rainbow, and I just rolled our eyes, quite used to Sparkler’s unrepentant brattiness. Poor Twilight didn’t have our thick skin, and a huge blush lit up her cheeks. She focused on reloading her gun, doing her best to avoid eye contact with anyone else. Sunset snorted, then turned to Rainbow. “Okay, I think I see what you were talking about earlier.”

Sparkler grinned and bowed, clearly eating up all the attention. “Thank you, thank you—I’m here all day.”

“Just ignore her,” I advised. “She only acts like a completely insufferable brat so everyone will pay attention to her.”

Rainbow smirked. “Look on the bright side, at least we’ll get to shoot her soon.”

“But how can you shoot me if you’re all ignoring me?” Sparkler pulled out her own weapon. “I will be like an invisible ninja, unseen and unheard until I strike! And since Alula loves ninjas, that’ll make me her favorite big sis.”

“Just goes to show, you can’t keep a good brat down.” Blossom walked to the back of her car, undoing the coat-hanger holding her trunk shut. Much like her car, Blossom’s gun had clearly been tinkered with. Unlike the car, her gun had been substantially upgraded from the baseline rather than a cobbled-together collection of spare parts. “Sparkler talked me into joining her up with her on the ride over. Go Team Orphan.”

Sparkler sighed and patted her shoulder. “C’mon, we talked about this on the way over: we’re the Mighty Orphan Power Rangers.”

Rainbow stared at her for several seconds. “Sparky, I can’t tell it that’s awful or awesome.” She turned to the rest of us. “Judges, can I get a ruling?”

I didn’t even need to think about it. “Sparkler said it. It’s awful.”

Twilight was a bit more forgiving. “I have a fondness for wordplay, so I give it a pass.”

“I like clever wordplay,” Sunset agreed, “but I’m not sure that what Sparkler said qualifies as clever. Think I have to go against it.”

“I question the validity of this vote,” Sparkler grumbled. A second later she nudged Blossom. “On the bright side, oh fellow orphan teammate, if they’re all shooting at me that means they’re not shooting at you. I will be the ultimate distraction.”

“As long as you don’t annoy your own team so much they decide to frag you,” Rainbow pointed out. “I mean, Blossom and Star are pretty much the only ones who can stand you, so that’s three other people who could turn on you at any moment.”

“I’m not that bad.” Sparkler hesitated for a moment, then added a bit less certainly, “Right?”

Blossom shrugged. “Nah, I like you just fine. You’re an acquired taste. Like coffee.”

Sparkler grinned and hugged her. “Aww, thanks, Blossom. Guess I should’ve known, you were my sorta-sister before I ever met Cloud or any of the others.”

“It’s true.” She patted Sparkler’s back. “Of course, one of the tricks I’ve learned to help get along with Sparkler is to give her other targets. It’s inevitable that she will be a massive brat, so just make sure she’s doing it to someone else.” She shrugged. “And speaking of giving Sparkler lots of targets, when’s everyone else going to get here? I was promised, to quote Sparkler, ‘a massive epic six-on-six deathmatch battle.’”

“For once, Sparkler wasn’t lying.” I grinned. “We’ve got a full house. Star just texted that she’s almost here. Storm’s bringing her and Alula.”

Sunset nodded. “Applejack said Mac’s driving her and Fluttershy over. He had to run a couple errands on the way, but they should be here soon. Pinkie’s getting a ride from her big sister, and they’re bringing Rarity. Everyone’s game for it except Fluttershy, and she wanted to watch and hang out even if she’s not going to be joining us for the match.”

No surprise Fluttershy was sitting this one out. I felt a bit bad about not including half of my old middle school friends, but Fluttershy just didn’t have the temperament to enjoy a nerf war, and we had to stop inviting Derpy after the Eyepatch Incident. Still, it was a pretty good-sized crew. “Think we could talk Maud or Big Mac into joining?”

Rainbow shrugged. “It’s worth a shot, but they probably have work stuff to do.”

“No harm in asking them.” I might’ve said something more, but my phone vibrating caught my attention. I had a new text from Star. 3 minutes out. Btw, spill a drink?

Rainbow looked over my shoulder, frowning down at my phone. “Do I even want to know how she knows?”

I looked up and quickly scanned the skyline. It didn’t take long to spot a small drone hovering close to the treeline. I pointed it out to everyone else, and Sparkler grinned. “Smile, everyone. You’re on camera.”

Rainbow scowled and took a couple potshots at it, but her weapon didn’t have the range to actually do anything. I sighed and rolled my eyes. “Yeah, that's Star’s newest toy. Reminds me, everyone turn off your phones once we get started. She can track them.”

Twilight blinked. “How does she do that? Does she use the GPS locator, or does she triangulate the position based off signal strength from cell towers and WiFi hotspots? Or I guess she could try ... no, that would be illegal.”

I had no idea, but I knew my cousin well enough that I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that she was doing something just a bit shady. The quadricopter drone bobbled in the air, then passed over us to start hovering over the parking lot. “If she’s bringing it around for pickup, I guess that means she’s nearly here.”

Sure enough, a couple minutes later another vehicle pulled into the parking lot. Storm had followed my example when it came to getting good grades, and had thus earned her own vehicle just a couple weeks ago. Storm hadn’t technically gotten a new car, but what she had was still pretty cool. One of Aunt Wind’s patients had helped her get first crack at an army surplus auction, and now Storm had an ex-Army jeep. It had needed a few tweaks to be street-legal, but it still wound up cheaper than my new car and was way more suited to outdoors-y stuff than my compact.

As the jeep pulled into a parked spot, everyone’s phones buzzed. A quick glance down confirmed that we’d all gotten a text from Star. Rainbow scoffed and rolled her eyes. “She’s right here. Can’t she stop texting to say hi herself?”

Sparkler grinned and shook her head. “She could, but that would require meatspace interaction.”

“She’s not kidding,” Blossom grumbled good-naturedly. “When Sparks introduced me to her and said she wanted us to be friends, my phone started buzzing before I could even say anything because she’d added me as a friend on all her social media.”

“Wow,” Rainbow muttered. “You really know how to pick out the crazy ones, Blossom.”

Sparkler shrugged. “Star has her own way of doing things. It’s not like it’s that much weirder than Pinkie’s ... everything.”

She had a point. In a world where Pinkie Pie exists, it’s pretty hard to call anything too weird.

The doors opened up, and my cousins stepped out, still in their Crystal Prep uniforms. Storm smiled politely and waved to everyone. “Hello. It is a pleasure to meet you all. Well, those of you I have not already met.”

Star followed her out, her uniform blazer already replaced with one of her flannel shirts. She gave us all a halfhearted wave, barely looking up from her phone. Finally my baby little sister clambered out of the backseat, grinning and waving to everyone as she scampered over to us.

We went through the usual round of introductions as I inflicted my extended family on Rainbow’s circle of friends. Things got a little awkward when we got to Twilight, who had been staring at Storm’s uniform. She coughed and shuffled in place. “Uh, right, Cloud mentioned you two go to my old school. Sorry, still weird to meet people from there. I mean, because we didn’t really meet before. Or maybe we did, and I just don’t remember you. N-not that I meant to say you’re unmemorable or anything, it’s just that you’re a year below me, and your sister’s even younger, and I was doing a lot of independent study so I never really knew most of the other students in my own year, let alone the other ones. So really, it would be just as odd if I did know you. Anyway, um ... hi. Nice to meet you too.”

Storm shook her hand, taking the awkward stream-of-consciousness babble in stride. “I do recall seeing you in the halls a few times, though we were never introduced properly.”

Star looked up from her phone long enough to smile, then looked back down and sent her fingers flying. Judging by the way Twilight’s phone started buzzing a bit later, Star had just bombarded her social media with several friend requests.

Alula went for the more direct route. “Hi! I’m Alula Kicker. I’m gonna be a special forces ninja when I grow up.”

“I don’t think they have special forces ninjas.” Rainbow grinned, then turned to Twilight. “Anyway, welcome to Kicker Central.”

“You're not kidding.” Twilight hesitated, biting her lip. “Wish I’d met you two sooner. You seem ... nice. I didn’t really meet many nice students at Crystal Prep. Granted, we never tried simulated warfare as a bonding exercise.”

I grinned and shrugged. “We’re army brats. Shooting each other comes naturally.” My grin widened when I spotted a bright red farm truck pulling in. Applejack hopped out of the front seat, her nerf weapon of choice showing us all that she’d quite literally been riding shotgun. Fluttershy climbed out of the back a moment later, Winona whining and trying to follow her out. Judging by how fast the dog’s tail was wagging, she’d been getting bellyrubs. Big Mac casually waved to the rest of us, then pulled out and started heading back to the farm once his passengers had unloaded. “Looks like almost everyone’s here. Want to start getting ready?”

Applejack hopped out of the back of her brother’s truck. “Howdy everyone! Hooboy, we got a full group. Y’all looking forward to this as much as Ah am?”

“I just hope everyone has fun,” Fluttershy murmured as she paced about, stretching her legs. “You don’t mind if I just watch, do you?”

“S’cool,” Rainbow assured her. She looked between myself and Applejack. “Now that I think about it, you two have the biggest extended families. I kinda want to see an Apple vs. Kicker family reunion battle.”

I shrugged. “Pretty sure the army family wins a gun battle, even if it’s with nerf.”

“Eeyup,” Applejack agreed without a moment’s hesitation. “Granny taught me enough to be safe and shoot tin cans and varmints, but we ain’t got nothing on soldiers.”

“Don’t have anything,” Twilight mumbled under her breath. “Double negative.”

“We ain’t in school until Monday, Ah can talk normal,” Applejack groused, then held up a hand to cut her off. “Yes, ‘normal’, not ‘nor-muh-lee’. Don’t you start with me, missy.” She cleared her throat and turned back to me. “Anyway, Ah ain’t too proud to admit we’d lose out to the soldiers at wargames, just like y’all would lose to us at farmin’. You want an even match, it’d have to be somethin’ like a pie-eatin' contest.”

Sparkler smirked and deadpanned. “We’d still win. Rainbow and Cloud are here.”

Twilight and Fluttershy let out almost simultaneous squeaks and started blushing. Everyone else did some combination of groaning and facepalming.

Meanwhile, I calmly turned around and shot my bratty little sister in the face.

“Good idea.” Rainbow followed my lead.

“I regret nothing!” Sparkler howled in triumph.

“That is precisely the problem,” Storm declared right before shooting her.

The rest of them looked at each other, shrugged, and joined in on blasting her. Sparkler staggered dramatically as dozens of foam darts bounced off of her, clutching her imaginary wounds. When even Blossom and Star joined in, she gasped in mock horror. “Et tu, guys?”

“You were asking for it,” Blossom pointed out quite reasonably.

Star thought for a moment, shrugged, and for once actually communicated with her mouth instead of her phone. “Peer pressure.”

Storm and I had taken cover within a natural depression in the ground, using the trees and underbrush to give ourselves a strong defensive position with overlapping fields of fire. While Sunset and Twilight didn’t have our experience, they were both smart enough to grasp the basic tactical principles and follow them once we’d explained what we were doing. Good tactics did a lot to make up for mediocre marksmanship. Rainbow Dash was the only one not sticking to the gameplan. After all, she was far too busy being awesome to worry about little things like staying in cover. And, to be fair, her staying mobile made it a lot harder for anyone to flank us.

I couldn’t help grinning as I took Blossom down with a single perfectly aimed dart.. “I think we’re winning.”

“We are,” Storm confirmed. “Mostly.”

I was about to ask her what she meant when Twilight let out a sound halfway between a groan and frustrated scream. My baby sister’s gleeful cackling made it pretty easy to guess what was going on. “Is Alula still singling her out?”

“Just about exclusively,” Storm confirmed. She diplomatically dropped her voice to murmur. “I think she is just targeting our weakest player to build up her score.”

Rainbow grimaced. “Dangit, someone needs to go back Twi up. You wanna do it, or should I?

Applejack burst from the trees and popped a couple shots off at Rainbow. “You oughta worry more about yourself, sugarcube!” Star and Sparkler came out behind her, doing their best to provide cover fire.

“Nice try, Applebutt!” Rainbow shot out to meet her, zipping in between cover and staying in almost constant motion to make it hard for anyone to get a bead on her. Meanwhile, Storm and I met our bratty little sisters with overlapping counter-fire, forcing them back into cover before they could achieve much.

Without any support Applejack was wide open. I threw a potshot her way that stood no chance of hitting, but it achieved its main goal of grabbing her attention for a critical fraction of a second. Rainbow took the opening to zip up behind her and placing a shot square on her rump. Applejack yelped and threw up her hands. “I’m hit, I’m hit!” She whirled about to scowl at Rainbow. “Any particular reason you had to hit me there?”

Rainbow smirked. “It’s a big target. Maybe next time I’ll try a challenge, like trying to hit your brain instead. That’s about the smallest target there is.” Applejack’s response was a particularly rude gesture as she fell back to her base to respawn.

While my girlfriend gloated over her victory, Storm and I closed the jaws of our own trap on the brats. I was the bait, poking up out of cover just far enough to look vulnerable and firing until my gun ran empty. Sparkler and Star fell for it, poking out to try and take me down. That’s when Storm opened up from her flanking position, taking down her sister. Sunset opened up from the other side, managing a lucky shot against Sparkler.

Rainbow grinned and sauntered over, passing out high-fives to the rest of the group. “Are we awesome, or are we awesome?!”

“We’re awesome.” I agreed, slapping her back.

Any further celebrations suffered an abrupt end as several nerf darts shot out of the underbrush, accompanied by manic giggling. Twilight and Sunset groaned and threw up their hands, signalling their defeat as they fell back to our respawn point.

Rainbow yelped and dived into cover, just barely avoiding a similar fate. “Gah, Pinkie’s back! When did she get so scarily good at nerfing?”

Storm grimaced and did her best to put some suppressing fire on Pinkie, but it seemed to have no effect. “I have been trying to pin her down, but she does not follow any predictable patterns or seem to care about how likely she is to get hit.”

I joined in, doing my best to try and help my cousin out. It didn’t seem to have any effect on Pinkie, who kept on giggling as she bounced and dodged through our combined firepower. At one point she even did a cartwheel, firing the whole time.

Pinkie gave the rest of her team the opening they needed, and the rest of Team Brat came charging back up the hill. Applejack was at the front, with her eyes fixed on my girlfriend. “Awright, it’s on now! Payback time!”

Rainbow grinned and made sure her guns were fully loaded. “Bring it on, Applejack! I’ll take you and all your friends out in ten seconds flat!”

Applejack and Rainbow charged straight at each other, firing a lot of shots that went wide of the mark. I wanted to support her, but Pinkie pretty much demanded my full attention.

Then things turned real bad as Sparkler burst out of the underbrush in a perfect ambush position to hit Rainbow. “C’mon Applejack, we got her!” Both of them opened up on Rainbow from almost perfect firing positions.

Almost perfect. Rainbow Dash dropped down into a roll that barely dodged every single shot fired her way, always seeming to be just a hair's breadth away from getting hit. Once she was out of the trap she fired off a couple shots at each of her attackers, buying herself some breathing room for a counterattack.

That’s when we deployed our secret weapon. Rarity burst out of cover, dressed in a set of absolutely fabulous camouflage that somehow managed to blend almost perfectly into the fall colors despite how bright it was. She pulled out a heavily bedazzled nerf gun and shot Pinkie in the back.

Pinkie dropped her gun and fell to her knees, raising her fists to the heavens. “NOOOOO!!!” A second later she hopped back up, all smiles again. “Nice gun, Rarity!”

Rarity grinned down at it, admiring her own handiwork. “Thank you, darling.”

Meanwhile, Rainbow was still fighting her two-on-one battle against Applejack and Sparkler. Having escaped their trap, she shot off into the woods to spoil their aim. They did their best, but neither of them managed to score a hit. Then Rainbow closed the gap on Sparkler, avoiding several shots before scoring a hit on my bratty little sister from almost point-blank.

Sparkler scowled at her. “How did you even ... there’s no way I could miss that many times when you were that close!”

“Apparently there is,” Rainbow shot back with a smirk. “’Cause you just did.”

Applejack saw her chance and opened up on Rainbow while she was distracted, trying to score a hit. Rainbow dropped to the ground so fast it took me a second to realize what she’d done. Another quick roll brought her up on Applejack’s flank faster than the farmer could track her, and in the blink of an eye she scored her killshot against Applejack.

Applejack blinked in surprise, then glowered balefully at her. “Now hold the phone just a goldurn minute! There ain’t no way you’re moving that fast without using some of that there magic of yours!”

Rainbow scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Uh, yeah there is. It’s called being athletic! Stop being such a sour apple.”

Applejack stomped over to her, crossing her arms under her breasts. “There ain’t nothin’ athletic about cheatin’! We all agreed, no powers!”

“I’m not cheating!” Rainbow snapped back at her. “You’re just being a sore loser.”

I moved over to the two of them, ignoring what was left of the nerf battle to focus on what really mattered. “She’s right, she wasn’t cheating. Did anyone actually see her use magic?”

“That just means she was smart enough to not get caught,” Applejack groused before shifting her attention back to my girlfriend. “How many times’ve you been hit since we started, exactly?”

“It’s called being good!” Rainbow shot back. “Try it sometime!”

“Nobody’s that good!” Applejack shot back. “Ain’t no way you’ve gone this long without taking a hit unless you’re using magic. Either you’re cheating with that, or you’re cheating by not calling your hits!”

“Or I’m just better at this than you are!” Rainbow growled. “Maybe the whole reason nobody’s hit me yet is ‘cause you’re the one who keeps shooting at me. Not my fault you suck!”

“You always do this!” Applejack snarled. “If you can’t win fair and square, you break the rules so you won’t lose.”

I’d had just about enough of that. “Applejack, back off. Unless you can prove she was breaking the rules you’re just ruining the game for everyone else who was having a good time.”

“Don’t you start with me!” she snapped. “Ain’t like Ah could expect her girlfriend to be fair. We could get it on camera and all you'd care about is catchin’ a good shot of her butt.”

“Oh, go to hell!” I pulled my gun on her and fired.

Things happened very fast after that. A lance of pure agony shot up my arm, and my hand snapped open, letting the gun fall from my grip. When it hit the ground, I noticed that it looked almost ... melted. The pain in my arm focused down to my hand, turning from sharp pain to a dull, burning throb.

Then I looked up and saw Applejack lying flat on the ground.

For a brief panicked moment I was afraid she wasn’t moving, then she let out a loud pained gasp. “Ho ... ho ... nn ... ow...”

“Cloud!” Rainbow bolted to my side, taking hold of my hand. “What happened? Are you okay?! Oh geeze, look at your hand...”

“Is…” Applejack wheezed. “Is ... is she okay?!”

“If you can complain, you can’t be that bad off!” Rainbow snapped at her, gingerly moving my hand so she could get a better look at it. “Someone get some water!”

Star came over to us, her fingers already flying over her phone. She took a look at my hand, then tapped a few phone a few more times. Then she actually opened her mouth to present her conclusion. “Hospital.”

Sunset nodded sharply. “She’s right. We better check get them checked out just to be safe.”

Oh great. If we had to go to the hospital, they’d call my parents. Which meant... “Mom’s gonna kill me.”

The trip to the emergency room wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I’d feared. Not that I’d enjoyed spending fifteen minutes having a doctor poking at my hand and carefully getting out any bits of plastic left behind by my gun, but it could’ve been a lot worse. The worst part had been how long it took for the pain meds to kick in, though apparently the fact that my hand hurt like hell was a good sign. After all, if it hurt that meant the nerves were okay.

Rainbow stayed by my side the whole time, holding onto my uninjured hand. One of the nurses had made one token effort to bring up the hospital’s policy about non-family members in the emergency room, but Dash hadn’t budged. They’d backed off once it was clear that they’d have to drag her out kicking and screaming.

Once they’d finished cleaning my hand up, there wasn’t much to do but sit and wait. I’d never really expected that to be part of the emergency room experience. TV shows and movies always showed it as some sort of frantic scramble to save lives as fast as possible. Instead, there’d been a lot of waiting. A doctor had spent a bit looking over my hand and asking a few questions when they brought me in, then about fifteen minutes later a nurse had come in and given me some pills for the pain, then checked my hand over again. So far all I’d gotten for treatment was them rinsing it with room temperature water for a few minutes, and then a bit of a tweezer work to get the plastic out. Then they just covered it up and let me wait.

I could feel Rainbow starting to tense up, and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. If I had to guess, I would say she was on the verge of running one of the doctors down and demanding they do more to help me out. Which was really sweet, but would probably get her kicked out if she did it. The docs were probably just waiting and observing for a bit before they did anything. Or maybe they were waiting for...

The clomp of steel-toed combat boots on a hospital floor provided ample forewarning of my impending doom. I’d hoped they would’ve called Dad here instead. Sure, it was only delaying the inevitable, but I could live with that when the alternative was—

Mom stomped into the room, still wearing her ACU and looking like she would’ve been seconds away from pulling her sidearm if not for her empty holster. She strode over to my bedside, and carefully took the cover off my wounded hand. I hissed in pain when the air hit it, and she carefully re-covered it, murmuring something under her breath.

Then she turned to face me directly, hitting me with the full force of her ... Mom-ness. “Cloud.” I flinched instinctively at her tone, and Rainbow gave my uninjured hand a supportive squeeze. “What the hell happened, and why is your hand burned? You told me you were just going to be shooting nerf guns with Rainbow and your friends. Then I get a call from the hospital saying you’ve been admitted with second degree burns.”

“Most of it’s just first degree,” I answered lamely. Mom scowled and crossed her arms, hitting me with her best disapproving glower. I made sure we weren’t in danger of being overheard by any of the doctors, then did my best to explain it. “Somehow, my magic messed with the gun and made it go nuts. The plastic half-melted in my hand, and Applejack’s got a bruised rib where I shot her.”

“‘Somehow’?” Mom repeated skeptically. “I don’t want to hear that your magic somehow injured you and one of your friends. That is unacceptable.”

I shrugged as best as I could with one hand injured and the other firmly claimed by Rainbow. “Sorry, you’d have to ask Sunset. I still barely understand how any of this works.”

Mom grunted, then turned her attention to Rainbow. “I believe I saw her waiting in the lobby. Go get her. I’ll make sure the staff don’t give you any trouble.”

Rainbow hesitated, her eyes darting between the door and me as she squeezed my hand again. It wasn’t hard to guess what was going through her head. She didn’t want to leave me, but she also didn’t want to risk pissing off Mom. Eventually she settled on the middle ground and went with Star’s preferred method of social contact and texted Sunset.

A few minutes later Sunset knocked on the open door. “Hey. You said you needed me?”

Mom tromped over to her, looming ominously and doing her best to seem as big and scary as possible. I was impressed when Sunset actually stood her ground. After a couple more seconds of silent intimidation, Mom spoke. “Young lady, you said that training my daughter to use her new ... abilities was the safest course of action. At the time I was dubious, but deferred to your greater understanding of the situation. What do you have to say now?”

Sunset did her best to stay cool under pressure, but I was pretty sure I saw her take an instinctive half-step back when Mom brought down the hammer. Still, she didn’t crack, and after taking a couple seconds to gather her thoughts she answered. “This happened because she still doesn’t have complete control. Without the partial control she’s already learned, it probably would’ve been even worse. As for why she’s having trouble ... I’ve got a theory, but I’ll need to take Cloud for a couple tests to make sure.”

“What sort of tests?” Mom demanded.

Sunset took a deep breath. “The kind I can’t do here. Every time I’ve tried to study magic from this world I haven’t learned anything useful. No offense, but humanity’s understanding of magical science is woefully lacking, and you really don’t have any of the equipment or infrastructure I need. I could maybe figure something out with a few research trips, but I could get results a lot faster if I could take Cloud with me.”

Rainbow blinked. “Take her with you? What, to Ponyland?”

Mom immediately shook her head. “No.”

Sunset stood her ground. “Mrs. Kicker, Cloud’s magic is unstable. She doesn’t have the control the rest of us do, and I can’t figure out why without the proper tools. As far as I know, those tools only exist in Equestria. If you can tell me where to find an aetheric oculus to analyze her magical inflow and outflow, an auranic substantiator to run a few basic tests on her internal leylines, and refer me to the nearest library that contains advanced divination and biomantic analysis spells, I’d be happy to do everything here.”

Mom glowered down at her for a couple seconds, then grunted. “I want to know what types of tests, how long they'll take, how invasive they might get—everything.”

Sunset shrugged helplessly. “It really depends on the results I get. I won’t do anything crazy, but until I know more about what’s going on I can’t give any firm answers. I still barely understand anything about how the magic in this world works. I might have a solution within five minutes with a basic analysis spell, or it could take months of going over the data before I have any firm conclusions about what’s going on.”

“Months?” Mom demanded. “If Cloud misses that much school it will cause problems.”

Sunset shook her head. “I’ll do my best to avoid causing problems with her education. Most of what I’m doing would involve just a few minutes of casting spells, and then a lot of time interpreting the results. Besides, I need to stay in school too—my degree in advanced evocation theory and applications from Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns doesn’t really count for much over here.”

Mom crossed her arms and grunted again. “When do you plan to get started?”

“I’d say we need to do it as soon as possible.” Sunset’s eyes drifted to my injured hand, and she very carefully said, “No offense Cloud, but I’d say this incident pretty clearly demonstrates that right now your magic is so unstable that it represents a threat to the safety of everyone around you, including yourself. I don’t want to risk anything else happening.”

Rainbow frowned, her grip tightening on my hand. “Cloud’s not dangerous. Couldn’t she just not touch anything remotely gun-like?”

“Probably,” Sunset conceded. “But until today we didn’t even know her powers would work with nerf guns. I’d rather not risk any more nasty surprises. Not to mention she’s going to have a hard time joining the army if she can’t ever touch a gun.”

“Mmm.” Mom looked between the three of us, then slowly nodded. “Right then, do what you need to do. I would come with you, but Tor and I are ... we can’t get away from work. Just getting a few hours off to come to the hospital was difficult.”

Rainbow blinked, her eyes widening. “Is this about that thing on the news? I heard they were gonna send the special forces in to kick—”

Mom held up a hand to cut her off. “I can neither confirm nor deny anything you may or may not have heard.” Her eyes narrowed, and she practically growled, “And you should know better than to ask those sorts of questions.”

Rainbow gulped and nodded meekly. “Yes, ma’am.”

“The point,” Mom continued, “is that Tor and I can’t take a few days off to jump through a magical portal into a pony dimension, and it doesn’t sound like this can afford to wait until we have time to spare.” She turned to Rainbow. “You’re going with her.”

Rainbow blinked and jumped just a bit. “I—uh—what?”

Mom stared at her levelly. “You were going to anyway, right?”

Rainbow blinked a couple more times, then seemed to get her bearings “Yeah! Of course I was! No way I’m gonna leave Cloud when she needs me.”

Sunset sighed and nodded. “I’d really rather not bring too many people through the portal, but considering my current theory is that Cloud’s magic came from Rainbow we might need her there. Besides, Rainbow would probably just sneak in behind my back if I tried to keep her out.”

Mom nodded, then put her full attention on Rainbow, crossing her arms and unleashing her best disapproving glower. “I’m trusting you with my daughter's safety and wellbeing. I’m sure I don’t need to say anything more to make the situation clear.”

Rainbow let a remarkably Fluttershy-esque nervous squeak. “No, ma’am.”

“Good.” She stepped around Rainbow and grabbed my shoulder, giving it a quick squeeze. “I would stay longer, but they need me back at base. Stay safe.”

“Will do.”

Mom marched out the door, and awkward silence settled in. Mom tended to produce that effect. Once it had gone on for a while, I said something just to break the ice. “So I guess we’re going to ponyland.”

“Looks like,” Rainbow agreed.

Sunset sighed softly. “Equestria. Its name is Equestria.” She reached into her backpack and pulled out a book. “Anyway, I better let Princess Twilight know to expect us, and give her some advance notice on the equipment we’ll need. I’d suggest you two go home and get packed, but I’d rather not bring too many things through the portal. I’m not even sure how that would work, considering our clothes don’t make it through the portal transition. If we need anything, Princess Twilight should be able to handle it.”

Rainbow nodded. “Yeah, I guess. Will be cool to see the pony Twilight again. I mean, our Twilight is pretty cool too, but...”

“Yeah.” I took a deep breath, looking between the two of them. “So ... I know you’re a unicorn, and Rainbow's going to be a pegasus, but what’ll I be?”

Sunset shrugged helplessly. “I never met the pony version of you, and I haven’t seen any obvious signs one way or the other from your magic. If I had to guess ... well, the fact that you’re childhood friends with Rainbow and Fluttershy makes me think pegasus.”

“I know exactly what she’ll be.” Rainbow grinned and gave my uninjured hand a quick pat. “The same thing she is in every universe: a butt-head.”

“Jerk.” I punched her in the shoulder, but couldn’t keep a grin off my face.

New Universe, New Problems

View Online

My first impression of Equestria wasn’t all that great. That’s probably because the first thing I did after walking through the portal was fall flat on my face.

Sunset winced sympathetically and helped me back up. I was a bit annoyed that she’d adapted so easily, though it probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. She had been born here, after all. “Sorry. I did warn you about how tricky it is to adjust, but I guess it’s one of those things you can’t really explain. Going from biped to quadruped isn’t easy.”

“Not your fault.” I grunted as I tried to work out how to stand on twice as many legs. “Let’s just clear the portal before—”

Rainbow stepped through behind me, slamming face-first into my rump. I immediately went sprawling again, and the impact toppled Rainbow as well. “Gah! Dangit, Cloud! Get your huge pony butt out of my face!”

“You’re the one who shoved her face into my butt!” I shot right back.

“Only because you didn’t move it out of my way!” she groused, struggling to figure out how to pick herself up off the ground and walk on four limbs. Watching her stagger about awkwardly with all four legs trembling with every step might’ve been cute if she wasn’t a weird horse thing. Okay, it still probably would’ve been cute under most circumstances, but my brain hadn’t quite adjusted to the fact that my girlfriend was a pony.

A purple pegasus/unicorn combo trotted over to us—since she shared Twilight’s colors, I was pretty sure this was the famous pony princess herself. “Are you two alright? Sorry about that. I should probably put some cushioning on this side of the portal whenever I’m expecting visitors.” Her horn lit up, and she did some sort of magic thing. “Just concentrate on standing for now. We’ll work from there once you get that down. Rainbow, you’re not hurt, but something’s wrong with one of Cloud’s hooves.”

“Huh?” I picked up my right forward leg and saw that the bandage from the hospital had come off. No surprise, considering it had been made for human anatomy. “That’s going to make walking even harder than it was already going to be.”

Sunset winced and nodded. “Well that answers one question—injuries do carry over. I would’ve waited until you healed up, but...”

I sighed. “Yeah, I might accidently blow up the hospital or something while I’m healing.” I don’t think either of us thought that scenario particularly likely, but we both agreed it was better to play it safe.

Princess Twilight frowned uncertainly. “I guess we better get a bandage for that. Normally I’d go get the nurse or something, but then I’d have to explain why she’s treating a younger-looking Cloud Kicker, and our version of her won’t know anything about this.” She grimaced. “I’ve got a pretty well-stocked first aid kit, so I’m sure we’ve got enough supplies to take care of you.”

“I can probably manage as long as there’s some padding.” I’d survived having an injured foot after we fought that bug-monster in the sewers, and now I had two extra feet.

“Or you could just not walk at all.” Rainbow shakily poked my side, and it felt ... weird.

I craned my neck around, which added another layer of strange considering I had a long horse neck. However, that was nothing compared to what was waiting when I got a look at my sides, and the pair a bright purple feathery wings I’d picked up.

Sunset grinned and nodded. “Looks like I was right about Cloud being a pegasus too.”

Rainbow blinked and looked at her sides. “Oh yeah, I’ve got ‘em too! Awesome!” She tried to spread them out and take off, but they flapped weakly and out of sync. “Gah, dangit! I never had any trouble using my wings when I ponied up! Why can’t I wings now?!”

Sunset frowned and tapped her chin. “I think it’s because those wings were purely magical while these are biological. Most magically granted wings include engrams in the spell matrix that allow you to fly without needing years of training first.”

I’d expected Rainbow to get glassy eyed at the technical talk, but instead she nodded along. “So when my wings are magic I get all the muscle memory of how to use ‘em, right?”

Sunset blinked in shock. “That’s—that’s right. How did you...?”

Rainbow smirked. “My parents always said video games would rot my brain. Shows them.”

Sunset sighed and shook her head. “It still seems weird that Rainbow’s probably one of the most knowledgeable members of our group when it comes to magic thanks to movies, video games, and comic books.”

Princess Twilight paused in the middle of bandaging my hoof, and her face did a weird sort of twitch I recognized all too well from her human counterpart. “But—that ... comic books aren’t valid study material! They’re poorly researched, don’t cite any of their sources, and frequently change or ignore the fundamental rules of magic just to further their own plots!”

Rainbow shrugged away the criticism. “You heard Sunset. Even if I don’t use egghead-approved sources I still know stuff.”

“We do get a lot of misinformation mixed in with the good stuff,” I pointed out.

Rainbow tossed her head. “But not all of it’s wrong. The point is, I’m awesome and I know stuff.” She did her best to strike a pose, but her quadruped anatomy worked against her. She tumbled to the ground, and one of her wings snapped open and smacked me in the face.

“Gah!” I tried to get the mass of feathers out of my face, but it was pretty hard to do while Twilight was still bandaging up one of my hooves. “Put those things away, Dash!”

“I don’t know how!” Rainbow grumbled.

Twilight chuckled and spread her own wings. “It takes a while to get use to them. Just try to relax and clear your mind. The more you think about your wings, the more of a problem they’re going to be.” She grinned sheepishly, and confessed. “I had a really hard time with that.”

“You had trouble not overthinking something?” I asked, smirking. “Imagine that.”

Twilight shot me a flat look as she finished bandaging my hoof. “You sure you want to provoke the mare who might decide your wound would heal better with some iodine?”

I knew when to pick my battles. “I’ll be good.”

Twilight smiled and secured the dressing with a little tape. “Okay, that should get you taken care of. Try walking on it and let me know how you feel.”

I took a few tentative steps to try it out. It still twinged a bit, but I’d dealt with worse. “I’ll manage. You okay Dash?”

“Yeah, I think so.” She tried a few more steps. “I feel like my back is about to start hurting and I want to straighten up, but it isn’t actually hurting and when I tried to walk on just two hooves it felt even more weird. Does that make any sense?”

“I think so.” I tried a couple more steps. “It’s tricky at first, but the more I try to walk the easier it gets. I guess it’s like Twilight said, it gets easier the less you think about it.”

Both the natural-born ponies nodded. “If it’s any consolation, it’s just as weird for us on your side of the portal.” Sunset chuckled and shook her head. “You do not want to know how many weird looks I got the first time I tried signing something with my mouth.”

That mental image was almost enough to crack me up. Almost. It probably would’ve done the job if I wasn’t so preoccupied with my new body. “Okay, I think I’ve got the legs down. Now there’s just...”

Thinking about my wings made them pop open. Twilight ducked one, but the other smacked Rainbow right in her big pony butt. Rainbow yelped and jumped at the slap. “Gyah! Dammit, Cloud! Watch the wings!”

“Sorry!” I groaned. A second later I remembered something rather important. “You smacked me with your wings first, Dash. Really, if anything it’s payback.”

“Yeah but...” Her cheeks lit up as she glared at me. “I didn’t smack you there!”

I rolled my eyes. “You ran head-first into my butt when you came out the portal. That’s way more gross and perverted than what I did with my wing. Not to mention you do that kind of thing on purpose back home.”

“That’s different,” Rainbow growled. “I don’t do it where everyone can see, and we’re not weird pony things that...” She slowly trailed off, her eyes widening and her jaw dropping in horror. “Oh my gosh, we aren’t wearing clothes!”

I yelped in horror as the truth dawned on me, then fell flat on my face as I tried to cover myself. A second later, I realized what I was trying to do didn’t even work, since there was nothing on my chest to even cover anymore and my forelegs couldn’t really reach the other parts.

“I did warn you about that...” Sunset murmured, nodding to Twilight. “You got that note about having clothes ready for them, right?”

Twilight’s horn lit up, and a dressing rack slid into the room. “I wasn’t sure about sizes or styles, so I got a bit of everything. I know what my world’s Cloud and Rainbow like, but fashion’s very different on the other side of the portal.” She cleared her throat. “If you need any help getting dressed Sunset and I could use our magic, or I could let you two take care of that in private. Whatever you’re more comfortable with. Though don’t worry, not wearing clothes is perfectly natural in Equestria.”

“Are you kidding?!” Rainbow whined, trying to cover herself with as much success as I was. “We’re naked!”

“You’re also ponies,” Sunset pointed out calmly. “That makes a pretty big difference. Nudity isn’t quite so ... naked over here.” She levitated over a couple dresses for us.

I pulled mine on as fast as possible, but Rainbow frowned at her. “A dress? Really? Don’t you have any pants?”

“Pants never really caught on in Equestria,” Sunset shrugged. “They don’t exactly make sense for pony anatomy.”

Twilight pulled out a couple lighter dresses. “I made sure we had a few outfits that wouldn’t be too restrictive. Interdimensional and trans-species issues aside, I don’t think there’s any version of Rainbow Dash who wants clothing that would stop her from running and flying all over the place.”

Rainbow looked it over, then reluctantly pulled it on. “I guess it’s alright.”

“Great.” Twilight smiled at both of us. “Your dresses look very nice. Anyway...” Her horn lit up, and two massive scrolls floated into the air. “I’ve put everything you need to know about adapting to Equestria in these handy-dandy scrolls for you to read.”

“Really?” Rainbow tried to pick one up, but couldn’t manage much more than awkwardly poking it with a hoof. “Scrolls? It’s like I’m in the dark ages.”

I rolled my eyes. “Sunset told us this place has more magic than technology. It’s not like we could pull out our phones and look everything up on the internet.”

“Right ... the internet.” Twilight pulled out a chalkboard. “I suppose that’s something I should really find a way to recreate with Equestrian magic. Anyway! I thought that I could let you read over the rest of the material on your own time and just give you a quick lecture on the most important things you’ll need to know while you’re here. We should be able to cover most of the basics in a couple hours, though I’d love to answer some questions and have a few discussions. I’m sure there are so many topics we could cover if we made it an open forum.”

Rainbow groaned. “Seriously? I came all the way to magical pony land, and now I have to sit in front of a blackboard and listen to a lecture? And you gave us extra stuff to read for homework. What’s next, is there gonna be a test?”

Twilight bit her lower lip. “Well, I did prepare an end-of-lecture evaluation to see how well you retained the material, but it’s a strictly non-judgmental analysis. Really, I’m going to be grading my own teaching style as much as your performance.”

“I was being sarcastic,” Rainbow groaned under her breath, too quietly for Twilight to hear. She turned to Sunset, her look pleading for help.

Sunset shrugged. “I’m sure Twilight has plenty of useful information, and I’ll need a bit to look all the equipment over and get everything ready to run the tests on Cloud. You might as well let her give you an orientation seminar while I do that.”

Twilight’s smile widened, while Rainbow groaned and sank onto her haunches. Twilight’s horn lit up, and two desks floated into the room and settled down in front of us. Rainbow promptly slammed her head down on the desk, while I at least made a token effort to look like a good student. I might not be as wild about getting a classroom lesson, but if I was going to spend a couple days here it only made sense to find out what I was dealing with.

Sunset shrugged and smiled a bit sheepishly. “Might as well let her get started.” She started to head for the door, then paused and looked back at the princess. “By the way, you did make sure that this place’s Rainbow and Cloud Kicker won’t show up, right?”

Twilight nodded at once. “Of course. I’d rather not have any complications. Rainbow or Cloud would probably assume an evil changeling took her place if they saw another version of themselves running around. I’ve got Starlight keeping both of them busy.”

That got my attention, and I felt my weird pony ears perk up. “Wait, you know a pony version of me? Is she some sort of badass army pony?”

Rainbow grinned, shaking the off the lethargic doldrums she’d begun settling into at the prospect of a lecture. “Oh yeah! What about pony me? I bet she’s some sort of totally awesome flying sports star or something!”

Twilight hesitated and bit her lip, looking to Sunset. The ex-pony turned pony again chuckled and shook her head. “Just focus on what we're here for, you two. We’ve got a lot of research to do, and not much time to work with before your parents want you back. If you spend all day seeing the sights and meeting the pony versions of yourselves and everyone you know...”

I sighed and reluctantly nodded. I guess in all the excitement of arriving in ponyland I’d lost sight of why we’d come in the first place. I wasn’t here to play tourist, I was getting help with my magic before it went crazy and hurt someone again.

Rainbow didn’t take the news as well, grumpily folding her forelegs over her chest. Thankfully, since we were both sitting down I was able to reach over and gave her a quick pat on the shoulder with my uninjured hoof. “Maybe we’ll have time for that after all the tests get wrapped up.”

“Maybe.” She frowned for a minute, then shook her head. “But don’t try to rush through all of that just so we can hang out with the pony versions of ourselves. I’ll kick your butt if you screw up all the magic stuff and get hurt .”

Twilight smiled at both of us. “Don’t worry Rainbow, we won’t let her.” She turned to Sunset, her smile growing. “The good news is that I got most of the equipment you asked about. The only thing I missed was the anima/anti-anima differential analyzer. The closest one is in Canterlot, and I couldn’t get it here on such short notice.”

Sunset shrugged. “I figured getting my hands on one of those was a long shot anyway. If we really need one we’ll just have to make a second trip. I don’t think anyone here would hate that too much. Maybe we could even take a trip to Canterlot.” She hesitated a moment, her eyes dropping down to the floor.. “Actually, there’s ... I should probably go see a couple ponies there.”

Everything got awkward and uncomfortably silent. I guess I should’ve guessed Sunset had some unfinished business here. Even if she’d left ponyland a long time ago, she had grown up here. She’d probably left friends and family behind. Come to think of it, now that there was a stable portal between here and Equestria, it was kind of surprising Sunset hadn’t done more with it. After all those years away, you’d think she would be feeling pretty nostalgic for her old home.

I cleared my throat and did my best to break the silence. “Right. What do I need to do?”

“Not much for now,” Sunset assured me. “I’m sure Twilight’s already thoroughly checked all the equipment.”

“Triple-checked,” Twilight confirmed, grinning and pulling out the checklist to prove it.

“Right.” Sunset cleared her throat. “Anyway, I should still look it all over too, if only to make sure I still know what I’m doing. That’ll give Twilight plenty of time to go over her basics of Equestria lessons.”

“Sounds good to me!” Twilight’s bright, joyful smile made an almost perfect contrast to Rainbow’s pained groan, though she did at least try to keep a polite smile on her face. Too bad I knew her well enough to spot how her eyes were desperately searching for an exit.

Twilight launched into a full-blown lecture, jotting down pointers and important facts on her chalkboard as she worked. I did my best to follow along, but my first effort taking notes ended badly. Quills and inkpots were ridiculously hard to use for a species with hands and opposable thumbs, let alone one that had to rely on hooves or their mouths to write.

Rainbow tried to stay engaged, but it wasn’t long before her eyes began drifting shut and she started yawning. By the fifteen minute mark, her head was resting on my shoulder pretending she was just being affectionate instead of napping. It was a pity the lessons we were getting were probably too important to miss, or I would’ve taken the opportunity to mess with her a bit. Or just kiss her, but that would’ve been extra-weird while we both had pony faces and pony mouths. I mean, she was still my Rainbow and everything, but ... yeah, weird.

I did my best to follow along as Twilight continued. “... and those were the three most important consequences of section 20 paragraph 437 clause 22 or Sunbeam’s Act of Consolidation. Well, I think that covers the most basic things you’ll need to know about Equestria. Did either of you have any questions, or anything you wanted to discuss in greater detail?” Her smile was huge and hopeful, all but begging for a follow-up.

The only answer she got was Rainbow snoring faintly, her head nuzzling into the crook of my shoulder. At some point during her nap she’d snuggled up with me, which I probably should’ve complained about considering it had utterly ruined my ability to take notes. But ... well, notes weren’t going to happen anyway, and it was cute.

A flicker of annoyance shot across Twilight’s face when she saw Rainbow fast asleep, but it didn’t last. Soon she was smiling at both of us. “I should be mad at her for falling asleep, but I’m used to my Rainbow doing that and ... that is pretty cute. Sunset said you two were fillyfriends, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so ... adorable.”

I smiled and rubbed Rainbow’s back, earning a sleep murmur as she tightened her hold on me. “She is pretty cute when she sleeps.”

Then Rainbow farted. Not a cute little fart, a huge one. And it stank.

“Most of the time,” I amended. I noticed that my shoulder had a damp spot where she’d been drooling in her sleep, and decided I’d had enough of her. I shifted away, and she nearly fell flat on her face before she woke up.

Rainbow blinked and hastily blurted out, “Constantinople, 751!”

“What?” Twilight asked.

Rainbow blinked a couple times, looking back and forth between us as her brain rebooted. “Oh. That wasn’t the right answer, was it?”

“Nope.” I grinned and poked her. “Though I think that was the right answer to the question Ms. Harshwhinny used to wake you up from your last nap in History class.”

“So it was the right answer,” Rainbow shot back gamely. “You just asked the wrong question.”

“Riiight.” Twilight rolled her eyes. “Anyway, I was just saying you two make a really cute couple, even if it is a bit odd seeing you as fillyfriends.”

Rainbow frowned and cocked her head to the side. “Um, we’re girlfriends. ‘Fillyfriends’ just sounds weird.”

Twilight sighed patiently and tapped her blackboard. “Remember talking point 17, where we covered the equinization of speech?

Rainbow groaned and slammed her head on the long-suffering desk. “How could I forget? More puns than Sparkler in full brat mode.”

Twilight shrugged. “Trust me, you humans talk just as weirdly to us. In any case, you’re pretty cute together. I mean, you two do look a bit younger than our Rainbow and Cloud, not to mention...” She coughed and shook her head. “Anyway, I’m really glad you came here to support your filly—girlfriend while she’s going through all this. So, let’s move on to what exactly we’ll be doing to help Cloud with her issues...”

The next couple hours passed with dreadfully slow monotony. I’m not sure what exactly I’d been expecting, but it was certainly something more dramatic than what we got. Really, it reminded me a lot of the trip I’d taken to the hospital, except that with magic instead of medicine. Every couple minutes Twilight or Sunset would cast a couple spells, then they’d quietly talk about whatever results they’d gotten out of it.

Sunset had half a dozen scrolls hovering around herself and three different quills jotting down notes. For a brief moment, I wished my pony version was a unicorn instead of a pegasus. That way I could do magic and cast spells instead of having a set of wings I could barely even control and would never be able to fly with. A second later, I realized the obvious flaw in that reasoning: learning to cast spells probably involved years of training and education too. Hell, Sunset said she had a degree in magic.

At least magical school would be a lot more interesting than normal school. Or at least, you’d think so. It probably wasn’t. Homework was still homework, and cranking out a standard five-paragraph essay is just as boring if it’s on classic literature, historical battles, or how to cast a fireball spell. After all, school could already make epic wars and battles mind-numbingly boring. It could probably do the same for magic.

Rainbow had stayed by my side through the whole thing, though she’d been enjoying the whole process about as much as I had. As Sunset and Twilight went over their notes some more, she groaned and lay her head next to me on the exam table. “This is so booooring.”

I was in complete agreement with her, but tried to keep up a brave face. “I’m sure they’re almost done.” I tried to give her a pat on hand—hoof—whatever, but my own hooves made that pretty hard to manage.

“Do they even need you here for this?” Rainbow groused. “Can’t we take a walk or something while they go over everything?”

I sighed and shrugged. “Pretty sure they’ll still need me here for whatever spell they’ll do next. We just have to be patient.”

Rainbow scowled and shook her head. “But the last one was like, half an hour ago!”

I was pretty sure she was exaggerating a little, but there wasn’t a clock in the room so I couldn’t call her on it. Instead, I did my best to reassure her. “If it’s been that long, then maybe they’re almost done.”

“Or maybe they’re just figuring out which spells to cast for the next four hours,” Rainbow grumbled under her breath.

A blind person could tell Rainbow was bored out of her mind, and was only here because she felt obligated. I wasn’t going to make her stay around when she was miserable. “You can head back if you want. I’m sure Sunset and Twilight can keep an eye on me.”

Rainbow scoffed and shook her head. “I’m not leaving you here all by yourself, you butthead. We’re in this together.” She grimaced, shifting uncomfortably on her pony butt. “I just wish we could do something. We’re in another dimension for crying out loud! I expected things to be a little bit weird, a little bit wild! Instead it’s just lame and boring.”

I sighed, slumping down on the table. “Ponyland is a lot more normal than I expected.”

Rainbow groaned and nodded, resting her head next to me on the table. By the time Sunset and Twilight were done going over their results she’d already drifted off into napland again, snoring softly and mumbling in her sleep.

Twilight trotted over to both of us, humming under her breath as she looked over a scroll. “So I think we’ve gotten some very promising results from that last round of tests. We’re not quite there yet, but we’ve at least ruled a few things out. What’s next?”

“Perhaps we could try an anima flow scan?” Sunset suggested before lowering her scroll enough to actually get a look at myself and Rainbow. She frowned, then shifted course. “Or maybe we should take a break?”

Twilight blinked, then nodded. “Um, maybe it’s about time for lunch? Spike and my guards get a bit fidgety if I start skipping meals, even if I’ve been getting all sorts of good results from my studying and I have a lot of momentum going.”

That got my attention, and my ears perked up “A food break sounds good.” I glanced down to Rainbow, who was still fast asleep. I briefly considered doing something cute and romantic to wake her up, but I was just too tired and bored after hours of magical examined. I poked her in the side. “Wake up, lazypants.”

Rainbow let out a startled snort and shot bolt upright. “I wasn’t sleeping! Just concentrating really hard!”

Twilight snickered. “Good thing she isn’t in class this time. Right, Sunset?”

Sunset grinned and rolled her eyes. “Judging by what happened two weeks ago in math class, Cloud would try to feed her the right answers if she was.”

That would’ve worked if I’d been a bit better at getting my whisper volume exactly right. However, I knew she didn’t want to be reminded of that, so I focused on what was really important. “Food time.”

“Finally!” Rainbow got up and stretched out with a groan, almost falling over when her half-awake brain tried to walk like a human. “So how’d it go? Do you guys know what you’re gonna do to help Cloud out?”

“We’ve got a few ideas,” Twilight answered with a smile. “It’ll be a while before we know which one to go with. We have a lot of data to sift through.”

Rainbow groaned and buried her face in her hooves. “Seriously? That’s the same thing Sunset said before we even started any of this. When’re you two gonna go from looking at data and considering your options to actually helping Cloud?”

I put a hoof on her shoulder and tried to keep my voice gentle even as I chided her. “Be nice, Rainbow. They’re going to a lot of trouble to help me, and you can’t rush this kind of thing. I’d rather have them take the time to get it right. If they rush something out and get it wrong, it could just make things even worse.”

Rainbow scowled and reluctantly nodded. “I guess, yeah. It’s just...” She took a deep breath, then rubbed her one of eyes. “I just want you to be okay, you dummy.”

“I know.” After a couple failed attempts, I managed to pull off a passable hug.

Sunset gave us our moment, then cleared her throat. “Sorry it’s taking so long. Like Cloud said, we have to be thorough. I’ll try to work in a few more breaks so you don’t get too stir-crazy.”

Twilight smiled sheepishly. “I guess sometimes I forget that not everypony—er, everyone likes science and magic as much as I do. Anyway, I’ll sent Spike a message to make something real quick for us, and we can go over what we’ve learned so far while we eat.”

“Spike?” I frowned at her. “Your dog can cook?”

“Actually, he’s a dragon over here,” she explained.

“He went from being a dragon to a dog?” Rainbow chuckle-snorted. “Talk about a downgrade.”

“He’s only a baby dragon.” Twilight turned to Rainbow with a grin. “If you were hoping he was a giant awesome one, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.”

“I don’t care what size he is as long as he’s a good cook.” Sunset grinned at us. “It’s been such a long time since I had proper Equestrian cooking...”

All this talk about food brought a natural question to mind. “So what do ponies eat anyway?”

“Just don’t tell me it’s just gonna be uncooked grass,” Rainbow teased.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “We don’t live in the dark ages anymore. As for what we have, how about I show you?” She opened up a huge crystal door, revealing a very nice dining room. Just as she’d promised, a baby dragon was busy setting up food. I was quite surprised to see how familiar the meal looked.

Rainbow’s weird pony ears perked up. “Is that a burger and fries? Cool!” She quickly trotted up to it, only to pause and frown down at her meal. “Wait. This burger looks weird.”

Twilight smiled at her. “That’s a hayburger. It’s ... a bit different than what you’re used to.”

“A hayburger?” Rainbow frowned at her alleged food, giving it a skeptical poke.

I shared her doubts, taking a seat next to her. “If my cousin were here, she’d say something like ‘This isn’t food, this is what my food eats.’”

Sunset shrugged. “Meat’s not really on the menu in Equestria.”

Twilight nodded along. “We’re vegetarians. There are a couple ponies who try meat, but that’s really not something we have any dietary need for.” She paused, frowning down thoughtfully at her food. “Though I suppose I hadn’t considered all the dietary differences between our species. I can’t imagine it would cause too many issues when I never had any problems with human food, but there’s no accounting for taste.”

Sunset shrugged and nodded. “I’ll admit, it took me a few months to get used to having meat as a regular part of my diet. As far as I’ve been able to tell, I’m pretty much biologically identical to a real human. I imagine the same applies in reverse, so pony food should be fine.”

“I suppose.” Rainbow poked at her burger again. “As in, this might be technically edible for us. Eating it probably won’t kill us or give us food poisoning. As far as taste goes...”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Maybe you should actually try it first? Who knows, you might actually like it.” She took a demonstrative bite out of her own hay burger. After chewing for a second or two she slowed, frowning down at it.

Rainbow smirked, plainly feeling vindicated. “There we have it. Our food is better. We seriously need to hook you ponies up with some of the good stuff.”

I sighed and shook my head. “Rainbow...”


I frowned at her and crossed by forelegs over my chest. “You know exactly what.” I caught a look at myself in the reflection of Twilight’s crystal walls, and for a single horrible moment I could’ve sworn I was giving Rainbow almost exactly the same glare Mom used on me whenever she wasn’t happy with me. I immediately cut it out.

Rainbow flinched and made a sound halfway between a sigh and a grumble. “I wasn’t trying to ... I was just ... never mind. Could I just get a hot dog or something?”

Sunset sighed and shook her head. “Hot dogs are still meat. In Equestria, we usually have carrot dogs instead.”

I’d been trying to go with the flow and be a good guest, but I still had my limits. “Carrot dogs? You can’t be serious?”

“How does that even work?” Rainbow followed up. “I mean, carrots are totally different. Plus you guys would miss out on putting chili on them. That’s not a replacement for a hot dog, it’s just a vegetable with roughly the same shape stuck in a bun!”

Sunset shrugged. “For what it’s worth, when I first moved to your dimension I wondered why you put some weird tube of meat in the bun instead of a perfectly good carrot.”

“Because it’s awesome!” Rainbow answered quite reasonably. “Carrots ... what does cooking them even do? It makes ‘em soft and mushy, but they still taste like carrots. I just don’t get it, pony food is so weird.”

“You have heard of seasoning, right?” Twilight grumbled as several pony cookbooks floated into the room. “There are actually quite a few recipes for carrot dogs and hayburgers in here.”

Rainbow groaned and buried her face in her hooves. “I don’t want to know more about how you cook your pony food or whatever. I just want something to eat. Something that’s actually food. Don’t you have any beef?”

“What’s beef?” Twilight asked innocently.

I spotted Sunset’s wide eyes and frantic gestures, and then vaguely recalled cows coming up in Twilight’s hours-long lecture about Equestria. I quickly cut Rainbow off before she could say something that would cause an incident. “It’s just a type of meat we really like. Which you obviously don’t have, since you’ve already told us you’re vegetarians.”

Rainbow frowned at me for a second, but thankfully had enough sense to follow my lead. “Yeah, I guess. Look, sorry if I’m being a pain about the food. It’s just ... I’m so bored! We’ve been sitting around for hours waiting for Twilight and Sunset to figure out what’s going on, and all I can do is just ... nothing! You’re in trouble, and I can’t do anything to help.”

“Rainbow...” Normally I would’ve taken one of her hands in my own, but neither one of us had hands. “Just being here helps.”

“Not enough.” She sighed and shook her head. “I just ... can we go outside for a bit? I need to stretch my legs or something.”

Sunset frowned thoughtfully. “I know there’s not a lot you can do while we go over the data. It would be nice to have Cloud available if we need to do any more tests, but if you want you two can go back through the portal while Twilight and I go over the data. It might be better to go over all the data and plan out the next round of tests, and that way you two wouldn’t be stuck around waiting while we work.”

Twilight nodded. “That wouldn’t be a problem. I’m sure Sunset could go back through the portal and use her ... um her phone thing to get in touch with you once we’re done.”

“I guess...” Rainbow paused, glancing down at her wings. “Much better idea. We’ve got wings, why not try them out? Even if we can’t do anything really cool with flying, I wouldn’t mind just a bit of gliding or something.”

Twilight frowned and shook her head. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Most pegasi go through months of training before they’re ready to fly. Trust me, it’s not as easy as it looks. I don't want either of you getting hurt.”

I felt obligated to back Rainbow up, especially since I agreed with her anyway. “Don’t worry, we won’t. Rainbow and I wouldn’t do anything too crazy, and just getting an introductory course would be pretty cool.” A treacherous little voice in the back of my head warned that Rainbow might be tempted to do something reckless once she got the hang of the basics, but I was pretty sure I could rein in those impulses.

Twilight didn’t budge. “Sorry, but I think I’m going to have to veto that idea for now. You both came here to make sure Cloud doesn’t hurt herself with her magic again. Letting you two crash into something while trying to do a flight lesson is the exact opposite of that. You’re my guests, so I’m responsible for your safety while you’re both here. Besides, I’m not the best choice for a flight instructor.”

Rainbow scowled and crossed her forelegs over her chest, pouting. “Oh whatever. Fine, we’ll just sit here and do nothing then.”

I tried to play peacemaker before things got even worse. “If flying is out, maybe you could show us around town?”

Rainbow stopped pouting, her weird pony ears perking up. “Yeah, that could work. What’s the point of going to another dimension if we never get to see any of it?”

Sunset frowned and turned to Twilight. “You said their pony versions were around, right? That could really complicate things. I don’t suppose there’s any way you could, I don’t know, send them off on a royal mission somewhere else?”

She sighed and reluctantly nodded. “It’d be tricky to set something up on such short notice. Not to mention that since they both live here, most of the ponies in town would recognize them. What if one of our friends comes up to talk to Rainbow? Or one of Cloud’s ... erm...”

Rainbow shrugged her concerns away. “What’s the worst that could happen? It gets a little awkward for a bit until we explain what’s going on?”

Twilight refused to budge an inch. “I’d rather not start rumors of doppelgangers or changelings running around town. Even if Thorax has gotten most of them settled down compared to how they used to be, a lot of ponies still remember the bad times. The last thing I want to do is start a panic. Some of the ponies here can be a bit ... excitable.”

“Right.” I was starting to get just as grumpy as Rainbow by this point. “So what can we do other than just sit around and wait? You’ve practically got us locked up in here.”

Twilight smiled apologetically. “Sorry, but there’s really not a lot we can do as far as going out. Even if I could explain it to everypony, I really don’t want to advertise the fact that I have a dimensional portal in my castle. Who knows what kind of problems that could cause?”

Rainbow tapped her chin thoughtfully. “So we’re like a black-ops secret?”

“Looks like it,” I agreed.

Rainbow grinned. “Cool. Still kinda boring though.”

Twilight smiled eagerly. “Well, I do have a pretty big library...”

Rainbow whimpered.

Sunset swooped in to the rescue. “Maybe there’s one thing we can show them that wouldn’t involve leaving the castle. It’s been a long time since I could really use my horn, and I’d love the chance to show off a bit.”

“So we get a magic show, except with real magic?” I needed maybe half a second to decide on that. “Way better than anything Trixie ever did.”

Rainbow seemed to agree. “Oooh! Can you throw fireballs around, or stop time, or teleport all over the place? Or make multiple copies of yourself? What about changing the weather?”

“Yes, no, yes, no, and pegasi already do that.” Twilight huffed. “You didn’t pay any attention to my lesson on Equestria, did you? And before you ask any other questions, how about we show you what we can do?”

“Works for me.” Sunset grinned and conjured up a fireball, casually bouncing it between her hooves. “It’s been way too long since I could do this.”

Rainbow watched raptly, her head bobbing in sync with the fireball’s movements. “Okay, that is pretty cool.”

Twilight smirked. “Close.” She conjured up a ball of ice. “This is cool.”

Rainbow rolled her eyes. “Really, Twilight?” She sighed patiently. “Lemme explain a few things. First, trying so hard to be cool isn’t cool. Second, ice isn’t as impressive as bouncing a fireball around because it’s ice. I can go to a freezer and do that for myself. Third ... that pun wipes away all the coolness points you were trying to go for in the first place. You’re actually less cool now then when you started. You’d have been better off standing there and not doing anything.”

Twilight answered with a grumpy glare, dispelling her ice ball. “I didn’t think the pun was that bad. Besides, ponies love puns and alliteration.”

“They are one of the building blocks of Equestrian humor,” Sunset agreed. Her smile widened as our plates levitated into the air, along with our food. Rainbow’s untouched hayburger floated over, the buns flapping like a pair of lips. “Come on Rainbow, why don’t you eat me? You’ve never had a hayburger before. Maybe you’d like it? You’re not scared of me, are you?”

Rainbow scoffed. “I’m not scared, I just think it’d taste bad. Besides, you only ate one bite out of your hayburger, so you’ve got no room to talk. Once you’ve had real food, all the weird stuff the ponies eat just won’t cut it.”

Sunset froze, and all the magically levitated objects slowly sank back down to the table. Her hayburger slowly levitated back up, and she very deliberately took a big bite out of it. She kept going, her face scrunched up as if the food was making her mad.

Rainbow had the sense to realize something was wrong. “Hey Sunset, you okay? You look like you found out someone just spat in your food.”

“Fine,” she grunted, forcing down another bite.

I nudged Rainbow in the ribs and muttered. “I think you touched a nerve.”

“Yeah,” she mumbled back. “Not quite sure why.”

I was no psychologist, but my aunt was. I liked to think I’d picked up a thing or two by osmosis. “Maybe she’s worried she’s going native?”

Rainbow frowned thoughtfully. “I guess, yeah. I mean, she’s been mostly human, hanging out with other humans and doing human things. Then she comes back here, and finds out she’s not a complete and total pony anymore.”

Twilight cleared her throat and forced a smile for Sunset. “You know you’re allowed to visit anytime you’d like, right? It’s nice having you around now and again, and I’m sure Celestia would love to catch up with you.”

Sunset grunted and nodded again. “Yeah, I know.” She scowled and worked her way through the rest of the hayburger. “Anyway, food’s done. What now?”

Twilight let her concerned look linger on Sunset for a few seconds, but opted to move on. “Maybe we could give Cloud and Rainbow some board games while we go over the data? Or they could borrow a couple books from my personal library.” Her smile became much more genuine. “I’ve actually got one of the largest private collections in Equestria. Well, assuming it still counts as private, given that I’m a princess and thus technically part of the Equestrian state. Anyway, it’s all organized under the same system the Royal Canterlot Library uses, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding anything.”

Rainbow sighed. “Um, no thank you. Books really aren't my thing. I mean, the Daring Do books are awesome and all, but I’ve already read those. Also, the video game was even cooler.”

“I think Rainbow just liked the Daring Do video games more than the books because they involved a whole lot more awesome battles and beating up bad guys than the books usually did.” That, and the fact that they gave video game Daring a huge rack with jiggle physics, but mentioning that probably would’ve gotten me a punch in the shoulder and grumbled complaints about what a jerk I was.

Twilight grinned. “Really, you have Daring Do in your dimension too? That’s great! We have our own Daring Do books, so you probably haven’t read them yet.”

Rainbow poked at her hayburger again. “Let me guess: the books’ve been ponified just like the food is?”

Twilight nodded. “I suppose you could technically say that. Daring Do is a pony in the books written here, after all.”

Rainbow groaned and threw up her hooves. “Of course. Everything here’s got ponies in it. Still, better than waiting around doing nothing...”

“Yeah.” Sunset frowned thoughtfully. “We’ll try to make it quick, and if you have to come back, we’ll have something better set up for you as far as food and entertainment go.”

“Right,” Twilight’s ears drooped guiltily. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to give you bad food and nothing to do. It’s just ... well, I guess I couldn’t get everything ready on such short notice, and I was prioritizing helping Cloud over being the greatest host in Equestria. This is what happens when I don’t have time to triple-check all my checklists.” She levitated over a couple Daring Do books. “If there anything I can do, just let me know.”

“Thanks.” I tried to smooth over any wounded feelings. “You’ve been doing a great job so far, considering the circumstances. It’s hard to get everything perfect the first time. At least you’ve been doing your best to make us feel welcome.”

Twilight perked back up. “Alright then. Sunset and I will do our best to wrap things up pretty quick, and I think you really will like our version of the Daring Do books. Especially since ... well, maybe I can tell you later.”

“See you in bit,” Sunset said as she headed for the door. Princess Twilight followed her out.

Rainbow waited until they were both safely away, then grinned and trotted over to one of the bookshelves. “Twilight was right. We can definitely have some fun with these.” She looked over the titles, eventually grabbing a huge tome titled Lock-Picking for Beginners. “Bingo!”

She hefted the tome over her head, then tossed it through the nearest window. “Come on Cloud! We’re free!”

I knew I should probably be trying to convince her to stay here instead of smashing one of the princesses’ windows to escape, especially when we were both being kept in the palace for our own safety, and to avoid causing confusion or panic amongst the general populace. But ... to hell with it. “Let’s go check out ponyland!”

“Heck yeah!” Rainbow hopped out the window, then helped me through it. “Careful, Kicker. Broken glass. Anyway, what should we go see first?”

I shrugged. Twilight’s comprehensive lecture on Equestria had a lot of information, but she hadn’t mentioned the local tourist attractions. “I dunno. Let’s just look around town and see what’s going on.”

Rainbow and I trotted out to get our first proper look at ponyland. It looked nice, kinda old-fashioned and medievalish, like something out of Tolkien. It was a bit weird how so many of the buildings looked like something a human would make, just with that fantasy spin. Though I guess that made sense: when it came to home-building, ponies and humans both wanted solid walls and a roof over their heads.

The ponies were a lot more interesting than the architecture. It wasn’t long before I spotted a pair of familiar-ish faces. “Huh. Is that a pony version of Lyra and Bon Bon?”

Rainbow cocked her head to the side. “I think it is. Whoa.”

We both waved to them, and grinned when they waved back. I’d always gotten along reasonably well with both of them, and I’d been vaguely tempted to suggest we do a double date or something. After all, as far as I knew they were the only other lesbian couple at CHS.

I didn’t have too much time to ponder on that before more familiar faces showed up. “Oh, and pony Raindrops. Pony Flitter and Cloudchaser. Wow, this is kinda...”

“It’s weird,” Rainbow agreed. “Like, why are there so many alternate pony versions of people we know? It’s like this is some weird parallel horse dimension.” She paused and frowned. “It also makes me wonder what ever happened to the human version of Sunset.”

As the two of us trotted through Ponyville, it was hard not to notice just how many ponies were smiling and waving as we passed by. “I guess pony-me must be popular.”

Rainbow snorted and bumped my shoulder, grinning. “What makes you think they’re all waving at you?”

I smiled back and decided to play along. “Point. You’re probably some ultra-famous superstar athlete with millions of fans or something.”

“You bet I am!” Rainbow bumped her hip against mine. “And you’re some super-soldier who goes around beating up all the crazy monsters Sunset told us about. I bet you and me are like, a power-couple or something. You know, the kind who get on magazine covers and stuff. I bet we're two of the most famous and awesome ponies around.”

Rainbow might’ve been dreaming a little too hard, but I certainly wasn’t going to stop her. The idea of my pony self being some utterly amazing badass monster slayer suited me just fine. “So where do we go first?”

Rainbow thought it over, then grinned. “Looks like there’s a bakery over there. I bet they’ve got some stuff that’s not made out of hay. And if we’re super-famous heroes, they probably won’t even ask us to pay for anything.”

We were about halfway there when a multicolored blur of light rushed towards us. “HEY!” an oddly familiar voice shouted out at us. “What are you trying to pull?!”

“Whoa!” Rainbow reared up in shock and stumbled into me. I tried to help her keep her balance, but instead of helping that just wound up dragging me down along with her. We both hit the ground with a heavy thump, getting thoroughly tangled up with each other in the process. Rainbow handled it about as gracefully as you’d expect. “Get your fat butt offa my leg, Kicker!”

“You’re in no position to talk, Rainbow,” I groused. “I can’t get your tail out of my face!”

“Can it!” the newcomer snapped. “She’s obviously not Rainbow Dash, and I’m ninety-nine percent sure you’re not Cloud Kicker. Who are you fakers? Start talking!”

“We’re not fakers!” I started to snap back, but the words died in my throat when I got a good look at the pony in front of me. Rainbow Dash. Not my Rainbow Dash, the other Rainbow Dash.



This was pretty much exactly what Twilight had warned us about when she said going out on the town would be a bad idea.

My Rainbow got to her hooves and glowered up at her pony counterpart. “Back off! We’re not fakes, we’re visitors!”

Pony Rainbow glared down at her. “Visitors from where?”

“Um...” I tried to remember if Twilight had mentioned any specific name the ponies used for our dimension, but none came to mind. “Humanland?

Pony Rainbow frowned and thought it over for a minute. “Oooooh, right. That weird naked-ape place Twilight has a portal to.” She looked both myself and my Rainbow over, frowning as she inspected us. “This is so weird…”

“Yeah, my Rainbow agreed, then smirked. “Wow, you look old compared to me.”

“HEY!” the pony snapped, glaring at her.

“It’s true,” I backed my girlfriend up. “Not ancient or anything, but you definitely look older.”

My Rainbow smirked at her counterpart. “Guess I’m the new and improved model.”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” the pony one grumbled under her breath. “Come on you two, back to the palace. If you are who you say you are, then Twilight will confirm it. If not...” She stomped on the ground and snorted menacingly.

“Yeah, sure.” Rainbow reached down and helped me up. As I got to my hooves I gave her quick peck on the cheek as thanks.

Pony Rainbow snorted. “Looks like no matter dimension Cloud’s from, she’s still a perv with no respect for anypony’s personal space.”

My Rainbow’s head snapped up and her wings flared out, her teeth clenched in a snarl. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?! Do you want me to kick your stupid pony ass?! ‘Cause it sure as hell sounds like you do!”

“Whoa!” Pony Rainbow held up her hooves. “Sheesh, chill. It was just a joke about her kissing you. No big deal.”

“Well of course she kissed me.” My Rainbow snorted. “That’s what girlfriends do.”

“Girlfriend?” Pony Rainbow blinked and stared at both of us. “Is that ... that’s some sort of weird human talk, right? Like, she’s a girl, and also your friend. Right? ‘Cause here in Equestria that would mean you two are dating, and...”

“Uh, yeah?” My Rainbow leaned over and pointedly kissed me back. “She’s my girlfriend. What’s the big deal?”

Pony Rainbow’s jaw dropped, and then her head quickly darted back and forth. “Oh gosh ... no. This is ... no! We’ve gotta get you back to the palace right now! If Kicker ever finds out about this, I will never hear the end of it! She’ll still be teasing me when we’re both ancient grannies with white hair.” She planted her hooves on our backsides and started pushing. “Hurry! Fast! Kicker’s not here right now, but if any of her friends see you two...”

As Pony Rainbow hustled us back to the palace, I had to wonder what the big deal was. Why would she be so scared of her girlfriend finding out about us?

Constants and Variables

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Pony Rainbow frantically paced back in forth in front of both of us, ignoring the strange looks she was getting from as well as Twilight and Sunset. The pony princess had been quick to confirm our story, though judging by the annoyed glare she shot our way while doing so my Rainbow and I were going to be on the receiving end of a rather sharp lecture. I wasn’t too worried about that. Pony princess Twilight had nothing on Mom.

My Rainbow looked over her counterpart and snorted. “Sheesh, what’s wrong with you? Not enough bran in your diet? Or do you just really need to go, but you’re too embarrassed to ask where the bathroom is?”

Pony Rainbow shot her counterpart a dirty look. “There’s no way I was ever that much of an annoying brat. Not to mention I would never...” Her eyes darted between the two of us. “We gotta get you outta here and back where you belong right away. Cloud—the real Cloud—can never find out about this!”

Another strangely familiar voice called out from the palace entrance. “What is it I’m not supposed to find out about, and how do I find out about it?”

Pony Rainbow groaned and buried her face in her hooves as the new pony trotted in. As soon as I got a good look at her, I realized exactly why she sounded so familiar. I frowned and whispered to my Rainbow. “Does my voice really sound like that? I didn’t think I had an accent.”

“You do.” Rainbow murmured back as she grinned and nudged me. “I think you picked up a bit of an accent when your parents were stationed across the pond for a year. Not a lot, especially not compared to Rarity. Just a tiny little bit of one. S’cute.”

My pony doppleganger grinned at us. “What are you two whispering about? Is it whatever deep dark secret Rainbow’s trying to hide from me?”

“No!” Pony Rainbow snapped out just a bit too quickly to seem believable. “Why are you even here?! And why aren’t you freaking out about seeing them?”

Pony Me shrugged. “Lyra said she saw you hustling a copy of yourself and me off towards Twilight’s palace. Of course I wanted to come check it out.” She turned to face me directly. “You’re the version of me from that weird other dimension Twilight has a portal to, right?”

“Yeah.” I looked back at Twilight. “I thought that was secret.”

Other Me shrugged. “Fluttershy told me about it, and I figured you weren’t changelings since nobody was freaking out. Plus Twilight would’ve insisted you drop your disguises by now, and she sent Starlight to try and keep us busy.”

“Speaking of which, she didn’t do a very good job,” Twilight grumbled. “Why are you here instead of being distracted by her?”

Pony Rainbow smirked. “She took us to go see one of Trixie’s magic shows, and when ‘The Great and Powerful Trixie’ asked for a volunteer from the audience, she jumped up. Cloud and I bailed while they were about halfway through tying each other up for whatever trick she was gonna do next.”

“I never knew they were into bondage,” Pony-me commented with shocking idleness.

“Kicker!” Pony Rainbow groaned. Twilight meanwhile buried her face in her hooves, while Sunset just rolled her eyes. I traded a look with my Rainbow, and both our faces started heating up. I couldn’t believe Pony Me had just ... just said that. Like it was a totally normal and not at all weird or gross thing to drop into the middle of a conversation.

“You see what I have to deal with?!” Pony Rainbow blurted, pointing to my pony doppleganger. “Now do you understand why it’s so important that, whatever you do, you don’t tell her about ... you know what.”

“You ponies are so weird,” my Rainbow grumbled. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about anymore.”

“Tell me about it.” I settled in next to my Rainbow, getting cozy with her. Even if we were both still in our strange new bodies, she was still Rainbow.

Meanwhile, the pony version of me was grinning like a shark who’d spotted a free buffet. “Oooh, Rainbow’s really worried. This must be good.”

Pony Rainbow glowered back at her. “Yeah, but you’ll never—”

“The other universe’s versions of Cloud and Rainbow are dating,” Twilight cut in.

Pony Rainbow’s jaw hit the floor. “Twiliiight! How could you?!”

“You really have to ask me that after all the times you’ve pranked me?” Twilight shot back.

“If you thought I was pranking you before...” Pony Rainbow grumbled ominously.

Meanwhile, my pony counterpart turned on her, mischief dancing in her eyes. “Oh, I am gonna have so much fun with this!”

Rainbow groaned melodramatically and buried her face in her hooves. “My life is ruined. Utterly and completely ruined. How could you do this to me, Twilight?”

“Do you want to borrow Rarity’s fainting couch?” Twilight shot back dryly.

“What’s the big deal?” I asked, baffled by all the crazy pony reactions. I could only think of one explanation, and I didn’t like it. “Are ... are you two not a couple?”

“Seriously?” My Rainbow frowned at both of them. “Laaaame.”

“Yeah, sure, I’m the lame one,” Pony Rainbow groused, glowering at her counterpart. “Do you have any idea how much trouble you’ve gotten me into? I’m gonna get so much grief just because you weren’t strong enough.”

“‘Not strong enough’?” My Rainbow repeated incredulously. “What the hell is that supposed to mean? I’m plenty strong! I bet I’m stronger than you, you big stupid jerk.”

“No you’re not,” the pony shot back. “Look at you. You couldn’t hold off Cloud Kicker.”

“Hold her off?” Rainbow’s jaw hit the floor. She pointedly wrapped an arm around my shoulders. “What’s that supposed to mean? I’m the one who hooked up with her!”

That stunned Pony Dash into silence. Pony Me took advantage of the opening and trotted over to Pony Rainbow, grinning and bumping hips with her. “So it takes a lot of strength for you to resist my charms, does it? It’s a constant struggle, day in and day out? I knew you liked me.”

“Shuddup, Kicker,” Pony Rainbow grumbled. “I do not.”

My jaw dropped. Bad enough they weren’t together, but now... “You don’t even like each other?”

“No!” Pony Rainbow blurted out. A second later she quickly corrected. “I mean, yes! But not like that! It’s just ... argh!”

Pony Me snorted and gave her a pat on the back. “It’s okay Rainbow, I love you too.” She turned back to us, the teasing grin dropping off her face. “As a friend. Rainbow’s a great pony and I love her to bits, but we’re just friends. We hang out as friends and do lots of fun stuff together as friends.” She smirked and poked Pony Dash in the ribs. “And then we have sex as friends.”

Pony Dash scowled swatted her upside the head with a wing. “Gyah! Shuddup you stupid lying jerk! They don’t know any better, they might believe you!”

Twilight shot her a flat look. “I’m pretty sure they’re familiar with sarcasm and teasing in the other dimension, Rainbow.”

“We have plenty of that,” Sunset confirmed. She frowned, and a moment later corrected. “Um, that is there’s plenty of that over there.”

It was hard not to notice Sunset’s quick verbal backpedal. Between that and what happened with the hayburger earlier, I was pretty sure my aunt would just love to get Sunset to lie down on her couch and talk about her problems for a bit. Part of me wanted to help her out with that, but I had problems of my own right now.

My Rainbow looked our counterparts over, frowning at them. “Okay, so we’ve established that you’re not quite as cool as we are already. So what do you do for work? Please don’t tell me you’re a janitor or something, because you’re already severely uncool for a Rainbow Dash.”

Pony Dash scowled at her. “I’m a Wonderbolt. We’re the most elite aerial team in Equestria! That awesome enough for you?”

“I guess that is pretty awesome,” my Rainbow responded. “But it doesn’t do too much to shore up your coolness score.”

“Those are still the same thing,” Twilight grumbled, her horn lighting up and pulling down a huge tome. “See, look right here in the thesaurus. ‘Awesome’ has ‘cool’ and ‘radical’ listed as valid synonyms for it.”

Both Rainbows sighed in near perfect unison. “Just because it’s not in one of your books doesn’t mean it’s not real, Twilight.”

I jumped in to help her out. “Coolness is more about how your attitude and how you present yourself to the world, awesomeness is about going out and doing amazing things, and radicalness is all about testing and eventually breaking your own limits, doing the things nobody else would ever dare to even try.”

My Rainbow grinned and hugged me. “You see why I love this girl?! She gets me!”

Pony Me grinned and nudged Pony Dash. “C’mon, you gotta admit they make a cute couple.”

Pony Dash rolled her eyes. “If I do that, you’ll just use it to tease me more.”

Pony Me chuckled and smirked. “Dash, sweetheart, do you really think there’s anything you could say about this situation that would make me tease you more than I’m already planning to?”

Pony Dash answered by crossing her forelegs over her chest and grumbling several less-than-complimentary things about my equine counterpart.

I took advantage of her sulky silence to toss a few questions at my own pony version. “So what kind of work do you do?”

“Nothing nearly as exciting as Rainbow, most days,” Pony Me answered with a shrug. “Most of the time it’s just filling out a ton of paperwork.

Not exactly a surprise. “Mom and Dad did always say they spent way more time doing army paperwork than actually doing any of the exciting combat stuff.” Though Dad got the worst of that—he was quite fond of jokes about his job in the Chair Force.

“Army?” Pony Me repeated. “Oh, I’m not in the Guard.”


“The military,” Pony Cloud answered. “We call it the Guard over here. I’m not part of it. I went through West Hoof, but I didn’t join up.”

I could scarcely believe my own ears. “You're not in the army, or the air force, or anything?! I’d even take the Navy or the Marines.” Sure, a squid or jarhead wouldn’t be as good, but I could live with it. “Coast Guard?”

“Completely one hundred percent civilian,” Pony Cloud confirmed.

My Rainbow seemed just as stunned by the revelation. “How can you not be in the army? Did you pull off some sort of crazy heroic thing and got discharged because you got hurt?”

Pony Cloud shrugged. “I just didn’t join. It’s a long story.”

“You just didn’t join?” Rainbow repeated incredulously. “How could you just not go into the army? Cloud does all kinds of stuff to get ready for going to some fancy military school. She busts her butt to get good grades, and does all that after school training. She’s even good enough to make her hardass of a mom happy.”

Pony Cloud snorted and muttered under her breath, “Enjoy that while it lasts.”

I snarled when I heard that, and if not for Rainbow’s restraining hoof on my shoulder I probably would’ve stomped over to her and done my best to kick her stupid pony ass. “Oh, bite me!” I glared at her. “I thought meeting a pony version of me would be really cool, but it turns out she’s just a loser who couldn’t hack it.”

Pony Cloud flinched, but Pony Dash stepped in to fill the gap, glowering at me. “You watch your mouth, brat! You don’t know the first thing about our Cloud!”

“She’s not half the brat you are!” My Rainbow snapped back. “And if your version of Cloud is so great, how come you’re not with her?!”

“None of your business!” Pony Dash snapped back.

Things probably would’ve gotten a lot more heated if not for the purplish-pink wall of solid energy that suddenly sprang up between us and our pony counterparts. Princess Twilight followed her spell forward a moment later. “That’s enough of that! All four of you go cool off before you say something you’ll regret later.”

Rainbow opened her mouth, but Twilight’s horn flashed again and when my girlfriend tried to speak no words came out. Sunset stepped forward, speaking firmly. “Ponies, go to the foyer. Humans, go to the dining room. We’ll try this again once you’ve all calmed down.”

I paced back and forth across the dining room, growling under my breath. I still couldn’t believe how badly everything had gone. I’d been so excited about meeting the pony version of myself, and it wound up being a huge disappointment. No, even worse than that. I hated seeing myself like that. It was like seeing every single nightmare I’d ever had about my future all coming true at the same time.

Rainbow walked over and gave me a quick pat on the shoulder. “Hey, don’t get so worked up worrying about yourself. You’re not worth it.” She hesitated awkwardly, then sighed. “That sounded way better in my head.”

I had bigger issues than whether my girlfriend was having trouble figuring out the right pronoun to use with our alternate selves. “You were plenty mad at pony-you too.”

Rainbow shrugged. “Yeah, well, I’m a jerk.” She groaned and buried her face in her hooves. “I’m mean, she’s a ... but I am she ... gyah! This is so annoying!”

“Tell me about it.” I sighed and flopped into the one of the chairs, doing my best to sit like a normal person. “At least pony-you still has a cool job.”

Rainbow shuffled on her hooves, not quite meeting my eyes. “Yeah, well ... yours is ... nice.”

“I don’t see how,” I grumbled.

“Well, she...” Rainbow trailed off, searching for something to say.

I bit my lip and slumped down across the dining room table. The untouched hayburgers Rainbow and I had left behind had been cleared away at some point, leaving it completely empty. “What ... what if that’s me in ten years?”

“It’s not,” Rainbow answered without a moment’s hesitation. “You kidding me? There’s no way you’re gonna chicken out of the military!”

“Bet she didn’t think she would either,” I grumbled. “Mom and Dad warned me about that kind of thing. How you could go through years of training and preparation, then when you go out and have to do it for real, you choke. Hell, we’ve seen that with the soccer team. The army’s gotta be twenty times worse.”

“You never choke,” Rainbow countered. “If I wasn’t so awesome, you’d be team captain for sure.” She leaned in a little bit and whispered, “There’s a reason I run all my gameplans past you to make sure they’re good. I might be awesome, but you’re better at tactics and planning. S’why we make such an awesome team.”

“Yeah, we do.” Of course, that brought up a whole other can of issues. “But ... well, hard not to look at that side of it either. What about us?”

“What about us?” Rainbow shot right back.

I shrugged listlessly. “Well, they didn’t make it work.”

Rainbow scoffed. “They never had it in the first place, so there was nothing to make work. We’re already different from them. Doesn’t matter what some weird pony thing that looks and acts kinda like me does, I’m still me.”

“Well yeah, but...” I slumped down even further, like a puppet with its strings cut. “You know, it’s not like the movies or the TV shows. Most high school sweethearts move on to other things and don’t stay together. What happens when I got to military school and you head to some awesome sports college?”

“We stay awesome together,” Rainbow answered firmly. “I figure those couples that broke up outta high school were never all that tight to begin with. If they’d wanted to make it work bad enough, they would’ve. No way I’m letting you go, Kicker.”

“What happens after college?” I shot back. “I mean, can you really be an army wife, sitting around knitting while I’m out in the field? That doesn’t sound like you.”

“I’m pretty sure your Dad’s not sitting around knitting socks while your Mom goes out to kick bad guy butt,” Rainbow countered. “And if you think I’m not tough enough to handle it, I’ll kick your butt. Besides, aren't you thinking way too far ahead about all this? We’re not even outta high school yet, and you’re worrying about what happens after college. Not even Twilight is that neurotic with her plans, and she has a checklist for checklist-making.”

I groaned and rested my chin on my folded forelegs. “It’s hard not to think about what’s coming when I just got a good look at my future.”

“It’s not your future!” Rainbow snapped. “Just some other Cloud's future. This is the same as you feeling guilty because you went to some crazy mirror universe where there was an evil version of you with a goatee that went around being a total jerk. You’re being really stupid about this, and the more you do it the more it hurts. And I hate seeing you get hurt.”

I felt something stinging my eyes, and a second later the tears started. “But what if I turn into a loser who can’t even get in the army, and I lose you?”

“Not gonna happen.” Rainbow did her best to grab my shoulders, fumbling a bit on account of her hooves. “You’re stuck with me. You hear me?”

“And the army?” I whimpered, turning away from her. “You’d go nuts whenever I had to go on deployment. You can’t stand being stuck on the sidelines.”

“Yeah, I would.” She bumped shoulders with me. “Sorta like how you hated being literally stuck on the sidelines after you got your foot hurt fighting that bug monster under the school. But you still showed up for every game, right?”

“Of course I did.”

“Because we’re a team,” Rainbow concluded. “S’why I’m gonna stick with you, even if it means that sometimes I’m stuck on the sidelines and hating every minute of it. I have magical loyalty powers, there’s no way I’d ever leave you hanging.” She grinned and punched my shoulder. “You’re stuck with me, Kicker. It’s gonna take a lot more than you traveling halfway across the world and getting shot at to get outta this.”

I wanted to keep moping and feeling miserable, but it was hard to keep that up when Rainbow was just being so ... Rainbow. I wiped my eyes and put on a smile for her. “Sap.”

She grinned and bumped my shoulder. “Maybe a little, but so’re you. I mean, look at how well that sappy line worked on you.”

“I guess you bring out my inner sap.” I sighed, resting my head on her shoulder. “Sorry if I’m being a huge pain in the ass, I just...” I trailed off with a sigh.

Rainbow gave my head a gently prompting jostle with her shoulder. “Just what?”

I took a moment to think it over, then confessed. “I’m scared. I guess I just always took all that stuff for granted. Me going into the army. Me and you. It’s like ... like I never even thought about what my life would be like without that. Now I’m seeing it right in front of my face, and it scares me way more than some evil version of me would.” I scooted a bit closer, burying my face in her shoulder. “I mean, if I saw some a version of me in a different universe who was a total looney monster, I could just say ‘that’s not me,’ and I’d be okay. But her ... I could end up like that. I mean, it was just totally random luck we even wound up together.”

“Bullshit,” Rainbow answered without a moment’s hesitation.

“Dash...” I pressed up closer against her. “I’m gonna be honest. Up until that day in the locker rooms, I never really ... well it’s not like I was in love with you before then. We were just friends, same as the pony versions of us are. Us hooking up was a total accident.”

Rainbow frowned, then slowly nodded. “Yeah, I guess. I mean, it’s not like I was massively in love with you before we hooked up. But ... well, lemme put it this way. We share a locker room with the rest of the team. I’ve bumped into other girls before. Usually we just kinda mumble an apology and forget about it. I don’t think we woulda gone from me accidently touching a boob to doin’ it and having a serious relationship after if there was nothing there.”

“You’ve got a point.” I glanced down at my flat, featureless pony chest. “I miss my boobs.”

Rainbow grinned lecherously. “I miss your boobs too.”

I lightly slugged her shoulder as token punishment for her perviness. “I bet that’s why those two never hooked up. No boobs.” I chuckled and kissed her cheek. “Well, that and not being as awesome as us.”

“Can’t hold that against them,” Rainbow answered with a grin. “I mean, as awesome as both of us put together? That’s a pretty ridiculously high standard.”

“Yeah.” I sighed softly. “So ... what do we do now?”

Rainbow shrugged. “I don’t think we need to do anything about them. We just need to fix your magical whatsit and go home. They can have their lives and we can have our own.”

I frowned uncertainly. “So we just forget all about what happened with meeting our pony versions and go on with our lives?”

“Why not?” Rainbow asked. “It’s not like we need to completely reevaluate our entire lives just because of this. I mean, what’re you gonna change? You wanted to be in the army and you wanted to stick with me before, and that’s what you still want. Right?”

“Yeah,” I answered without a moment’s hesitation.

“So what’s the problem?”

“I guess I just got a little freaked out,” I admitted. “Didn’t really think it through.”

“You got so scared it turned your brain off,” Rainbow agreed. “Which is pretty bad, considering how little brain you have to start with.”

I scowled and slugged her shoulder again. “Which one of us is barely keeping her grades good enough to stay on the soccer team, and which one of us is an A-student?”

Rainbow scoffed. “If grades had anything to do with how smart someone was, maybe you’d have a point. Anyway, you doing better now?”

“Yeah, I am. Thanks.” I looked up at her, and somehow managed to work my neck around to line our lips up and kiss her. “Love you.”

“You too.” Rainbow grimaced, rubbing her muzzle. “These pony faces are weird. We can barely even kiss like normal.”

“Yeah,” I pulled away from her and got back onto my hooves. “Being a magical horse was pretty cool at first, but I’m ready to get back to being human.”

“I can get behind that,” Rainbow agreed. “Let’s get outta this crazy pony dimension and go back to our high school full of monsters and magical powers. You know, somewhere normal.”

“Our definition of normal has gotten very weird lately,” I couldn’t help but observe.

“Beats ‘normal’ just being another word for ‘boring,’” Rainbow countered.

“Good point.”

About an hour later, I had to face myself again. It made me strangely grateful we were stuck in this weird pony dimension. It was a lot easier to see her as someone different from me when she didn’t look anything like I saw myself. Sure, I might look like her right now, but I still thought of myself as a human, not a weird horse thing. So that made things slightly less weird. Slightly. Not much, but I’d take what I could get.

Pony Cloud was pacing back and forth, waiting for me. After a little hesitation, I’d left Rainbow behind. Not that I didn’t appreciate her support, but this was one of those things I needed to handle on my own. Not to mention it was a bit of a delicate situation, and while I love her to bits, Rainbow’s not the world’s most sensitive person.

Pony Cloud spotted me and smiled uncertainly. “Hey.”

“Hey,” I responded in kind.

Both of us stood, awkwardly shuffling and waiting for the other to make the first move. She broke the silence. “So, did you have cooldown sex with your Rainbow? 'Cause me and mine...”

“Oh my god,” I groaned. “Was that the best icebreaker you could think of?”

Pony Cloud shrugged sheepishly. “Sorry I was trying for a joke, and I guess I forgot to actually be funny. Well, that or maybe you’re not used to my sense of humor.”

“It’s not completely new,” I grumbled. “My sister’s a massive brat, but between me, Mom and Rainbow, we keep her in line. You know how it is—middle child syndrome, so she tries to be as loud, shocking, and outrageous as possible so she’ll get extra attention.”

Pony Cloud cocked her head to the side. “Middle child?”

“Yeah, Sparkler.” I sighed and shook my head. “The worst thing is she's starting to have an influence on Alula too.” I shivered and shook my head. “Little sisters ... this is why even though I love them, I must utterly destroy them. ‘Course, I probably don’t need to tell you that, huh?”

Pony Cloud frowned at me. “Okay, guess there are more differences than just our species and you hooking up with Dash. I never really had any sibling rivalries on my end. Sparkler’s not my sister, and Alula’s just a kid. She wasn’t even born until after I moved out. Granted, I did still have to witness the eternal war between Star and Storm, but I try to stay out of that.”

I blinked, and tried to process what she’d just said. “Sparks isn’t ... and Alula’s just a ... damn.”

Sure, I might complain about my little sisters all the time, and with good reason, but they were still family. Thinking about what it would be like without them was every bit as terrifying as the idea of me not winding up in the army or not being with Rainbow. Growing up with no sisters ... Rainbow had been right, this pony version of me really was a completely different person.

Pony Cloud smiled and gave me a quick pat on the shoulder. “Still got ‘em around. They’re just different. Alula’s still a cute little kid who wants to grow up to be a ninja, and Sparkler ... Derpy adopted her.”

“Derpy adopted her?” I repeated incredulously. “And—and Derpy’s your age?”

“Sure is,” Pony Cloud confirmed.

I stared at for several seconds, trying to wrap my head around all the implications of that. “Oh my god, you’re old.”

Pony me answered with a flat, unamused look. “You’ve definitely been spending too much time with Rainbow. You picked up her knack for diplomacy.”

“She was pretty much the first friend I ever made at school.” Hell, I’d known her for longer than Sparkler, and Sparks was family. Thinking about Sparks just reminded me that apparently pony me was old enough to adopt her ... yet Alula was apparently still young enough to qualify as a cute little kid. It was starting to look like this place was less a parallel universe and more some twisted bizarro horse world where the timeline made no sense and everything was just a twisted equine parody of reality.

A new thought sprang to mind. “Oh god, Mom and Dad’ve gotta be ancient. I bet they’ve started bugging you for grandkids.” Bringing that up immediately reminded me of another possible landmine. “Oh please tell me you’re still gay. I mean, you joked about having sex with Rainbow, but ... yeah, this is weird enough that you being straight would barely even register.”

“I believe in loving ponies regardless of what’s in between their legs,” Pony Cloud answered before frowning and adding, “And I’m not that old.”

“Way older than me,” I mumbled. Another question sprang to mind, but I wasn’t quite sure if I really wanted to know the answer. “So, um ... if you’re not in the army, what do you do?”

Pony Cloud shrugged. “Mostly, I’ve been working with the weather service. Lately, Princess Twilight’s had a few other things in mind for me.”

“Weather service?” My Rainbow frowned at her as she tried to figure out what my pony version was talking about. “What, like you fly around and let everyone know what kind of weather’s coming up?”

Pony Cloud grinned and shook her head. “Nah, nothing like that. We don’t predict the weather. We make the weather.”

“Huh.” I thought that over for a bit. “Okay, not gonna lie, that is pretty legitimately cool. Weather control is an awesome power. So how do you do it? I mean, Twilight talked about it a little bit during her whole ‘everything about Equestria’ lecture, but she didn’t go into too much detail about it. It can’t be magic, since you don’t have horns.” I’d been a bit curious about how pegasi changed the weather, but I refrained from asking Twilight any follow-up questions for obvious reasons. Namely, I didn’t want to find out whether Twilight could educate Rainbow to death before she snapped and strangled me.

“Actually, we do have a few bits of pegasus magic.” Pony Cloud answered with a grin. “Unicorns are the only ones with natural spellcasting ability, but we can manipulate clouds, walk on them, and even do a couple things with lightning.” She zipped out a window, coming back a minute later carrying a cloud. Her hooves blurred over it, and within a few moments she’d produced a passable cloud duplicates of Pony Rainbow and Twilight. “Would’ve done somepony else, but they’re the only ponies you know.”

I reached out to touch the cloud, but my hoof went right through it. The resemblance really was uncanny. “Okay, that is really cool.”

Pony Cloud grinned and bowed. “Thank you, thank you, I’m here all week. But enough about me, let’s talk about ... me. Twilight said you have some sort of magic powers too.”

It took me a minute to remember the reason I’d come here in the first place. “Yeah, I picked up a little something from Rainbow. It’s some kinda gun-magic that supercharges any firearm I use.”

“Firearm...” Pony Cloud frowned and tapped her chin. “I think I heard about those back at West Hoof. The zebras use them. Some kind alchemical weapon that launches bullets with explosions. Like a sling, except way more complicated.”

West Hoof? Was she actually serious with that name? These ponies and their puns. Still, at least she had some idea what I was talking about. “Kinda like that, yeah. Anyway, the problem with my magic is that it's so new to me I haven’t figured it out yet. So a toy version of a gun melted in my hand and wound up really hurting Applejack. Since my world doesn’t have magic, Sunset figured we should come here for help.

Pony Cloud nodded along. “Anything I can do to help?”

“I don’t know, honestly.” I shrugged, but it felt weird. A second later, I realized why: my wings had moved along with my shoulders. “Gah, I’m never going to get used to these things.”

Pony Cloud grinned. “I bet Twilight said the same thing when she first got them, and now she seems just fine. Though I doubt you’ll be staying long enough for that to happen.” She hesitated for a moment, then offered me her hoof. “Sorry about the bad first impression. I’ve got enough issues without literally getting into a fight with myself.”

I frowned and tried to replicate the gesture. Standing on just three legs was hard, but I eventually pulled it off. “Yeah, same.”

Pony Cloud grimaced and sighed. “I have some regrets in my past. Things I don’t love being reminded of. Running into younger me kinda poked at some old wounds.”

“I picked up on that, yeah.” I sighed and took a deep breath. “So ... not trying to rip off the bandage or anything, but why didn’t you join the army? It’s just that I’ve never not thought about it. Hell, I only got my car ‘cause I kept my grades good enough to get into all the best military academies. I do all my military training while everyone else is off doing their summer or after school jobs. Hell, once break starts, Mom’s been talking running me through the same courses she puts her soldiers through, and they’re special forces.” I was already doing a hundred sit-ups, push-ups, and squats every day, plus a 10k run every other day.

“Sounds like her,” Pony Cloud agreed with a grunt. “As for your question ... I guess I just freaked out because I always assumed I would join the Guard. I had a big ‘is this really what I want to do with the rest of my life?’ moment at the worst possible time.” She took a deep breath, then carefully said, “I know you probably don’t want advice from me, and I’m probably the last pony who should be telling anyone how to avoid making horrible life-altering mistakes, but ... make sure before you do anything about the military.”

I took a deep breath. “I’m sure. Mom and Dad brought it up a few times, and Rainbow brought it up a couple times when she saw how hard Mom pushes me for training. I’m as sure about it as I am about her, and that’s pretty damn sure.”

Pony Cloud nodded along, then very quietly said. “You two are good together.”

That raised a few rather obvious questions about Pony Cloud and Pony Rainbow. After a couple seconds of hesitation, I took the plunge. “So you and your Rainbow...”

“Best friends,” she answered firmly. “No real romance though. We very briefly toyed with the idea after she hit on me once while drunk, but that was more about her feeling like I didn’t value her friendship enough filtered through drunk logic. We’re tight, just not in the love and romance way. More the the lifelong friend way.”

I frowned and slowly nodded. “I guess I can see that. I mean, that’s how Rainbow and I were before everything changed. Hell, aside from the fact that we kiss and do the other stuff, not much really changed after we hooked up. She went from being my awesome and supportive friend who I can always count on to my awesome and supportive girlfriend who I can always count on. Not exactly world-shaking.” I sighed and turned away, pacing. “Except at the same time, it’s also totally different. I mean, nowadays we’re not just hanging out together and having fun, it’s all a lot more serious. Hell, we just talked about what might happen if we’re still together by the time I join the army and have to deploy.”

“That’s kind of a big deal,” Pony Cloud agreed. “And not one I can help you with, or one you want my help with, I’d bet. So ... anything I can do?”

I thought it over for a second. I didn’t really need much, but... “Actually Rainbow did want to try out flying while we were here. The whole reason we broke out of the palace and went exploring in the first place was that we were both bored to tears. A few flying lessons would give us something to do with all that extra energy, even if we don’t really learn much from it.”

Pony Cloud nodded. “I’m sure Rainbow and I could show ... er, you and Rainbow a few things. Probably nothing more than the basics of the basics, but even a few little things would be pretty cool, right?” She smirked, not quite managing a deadpan. “And speaking of basics, if you two are going to bang while you’re here, you need to know how to manage with four legs.”

I groaned and slammed my head on the table. “Now you’re just going out of your way to embarrass me.”

Her grin widened. “It’s part of my charm.”

I grinned and looked down at the floor, carefully pumping my wings. I was only a couple centimeters off the ground, but that’s still enough to qualify as airborne. I turned to Pony Cloud. “I think I might be getting the hang of hoveri—”

The distraction of talking made me stop focusing on flying for half a second, and promptly slam face first into the floor. Thankfully, there were plenty of soft pillows to cushion my fall.

Pony Cloud sighed and shook her head. “You had to jinx yourself...”

My Rainbow quickly trotted over to check on me, abandoning her own lessons from her pony counterpart. “You alright, Cloud?”

I groaned and got back up, taking a quick mental inventory. “I’m okay, I only hurt my pride. And my face. And my neck.”

“Mostly your pride though, right?” Rainbow asked, checking me over. “Just saying your mom has so many ways of kicking my ass if you actually got hurt.”

“I’m fine,” I gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Relax, worrywart.”

“Right, right.” She paused a moment, then punched my shoulder. “Don't spook me like that.”

I grinned and rolled my eyes. “Yeah yeah. You’re a big tough gal, and I love you too.”

Pony Cloud grinned and nudged Pony Dash, whispering just loud enough for me to hear. “They really are cute together.”

Pony Rainbow groaned and rubbed her face. “If I say they are, you’ll tease me about it. If I say they aren’t, you’ll tease me about that. There’s no way to win. You’re never going to let me live this down, are you?”

Pony Cloud grinned shamelessly. “Nope.”

Pony Dash buried her face in her hooves. “I really don’t understand why I hang out with you sometimes.”

“Because she’s a lot of fun and one of your oldest friends,” Twilight answered as she trotted in. “How’re the flying lessons going, girls?”

“We’re having fun,” I answered. “And I think we’re even learning a few things.”

“Good to hear,” Sunset grinned at us. “Not too many accidents, I hope.”

“Nothing worth mentioning,” I confirmed. “There’s more than enough padding all over the room, and other-Cloud won’t let us do anything too crazy.”

“I could do more than just barely hover off the floor if she’d let me,” my Rainbow grumbled.

“I’m sure you could.” Pony Cloud conceded. “But we didn’t have enough time to add padding to all the ceilings, or replace all the windows with shatter-proof glass.”

“Cloud,” Rainbow grumbled and nudged me. “Get in there and defend my honor from yourself.”

I rolled my eyes. “Rainbow, I’m starting to think you enjoy making your pronouns as confusing as possible.” I decided to move past any mild bruising to Rainbow’s ego and focus on the reason we’d actually come to ponyland in the first place. “Any news on the magical front?”

Twilight grinned and nodded. “Actually, yes, we’ve got some very good news. Now, everything is tentative and needs additional testing to verify the results, but we think we’ve found a way to help Cloud stabilize her magic.” She pulled out several preposterously long scrolls, opening one of them up to consult her notes. “After going over the data from her internal ley line scan, we think that the problem comes from the Cloud's aetheric stabilization—”

Sunset pointedly cleared her throat and set a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “No need to give them all the details that are going to fly over their heads. The bottom line is, we have a pretty good idea of how to fix Cloud’s magic. It’s just a matter of testing it out to make sure.” Her horn lit up, and a small case floated over to me.

I opened it up and had a look. It was a tiny gemstone, almost exactly like the one Rainbow used to make her own magical powers work. I guess it should’ve been obvious in hindsight. The only reason it hadn’t occurred to me was that I didn’t even know they could make a magical gem.

Pony Cloud took a much simpler view on the matter. “Oooh, Sunset’s giving your girlfriend jewelry. Better look out, Dash.”

For once, Pony and Human Rainbow were in completely agreement. “Oh shuddup, Kicker.”

Sunset rolled her eyes and didn’t dignify my doppleganger’s remark with a response. “Obviously we’re going to need to spend a while testing it out first. That’s going to require some back and forth, given all the reasons why bringing guns into Equestria would be a bad idea. For all I know they wouldn’t even be able to pass through the portal.”

“Testing?” My Rainbow grinned. “Does that mean we get to shoot Sparkler again? ‘Cause I’m totally down for that.”

I sighed and shook my head. Not that I wouldn’t have been all for shooting my bratty little sister most of the time, but... “Until I’m one hundred percent sure this gem is working, I’m going to treat even a toy nerf gun like the real thing.”

My Rainbow grimaced and nodded sheepishly. “Right, yeah, that’s probably a good idea. I mean, she’s a massive brat and all, but...”

“Exactly.” I turned to the pony dopplegangers of myself and Rainbow. “Well, I guess we need to go back home and test it out. So, uh, cool meeting you, I guess.”

“It definitely wasn’t boring.” Pony Cloud agreed.

My Rainbow sighed. “I was just starting to get the hang of these wings.” She turned to Sunset. “Any chance we can come back?”

Sunset frowned. “I really don’t want to use the portal for casual interdimensional tourism ... but we will probably need to make a few followup visits to refine Cloud’s gem, and there are probably a few other things I should research as long as I’m making trips back and forth.”

“I wouldn’t mind seeing you again,” Twilight agreed. “I should be a bit better prepared for your next visit, and I won’t need to worry about finding some way to distract our version of Rainbow and Cloud.”

“Sounds like a plan.” I waved goodbye and started walking towards the portal. I was about halfway there when the mirror suddenly lit up and started swirling like a pool of water. I blinked and quickly stepped back. “Uh, is it supposed to do that?”

“Someone’s coming through,” Sunset explained, frowning at it. “As far as I know, nobody’s supposed to be following us. Twilight, did you expect anyone?”

Twilight frowned and shook her head. “No, I’m surprised as you are.”

The portal flashed again, and a pegasus stepped out. The full plate armor was new, but between the colors and her faintly annoyed scowl it was easy enough to recognize her. “Mom, what are you doing here?”

Mom staggered and slowly got her hooves under her, managing much better than I had. For some reason, Twilight and Rainbow both looked back at my pony version, who’d gone pale and was staring at Mom. I had to wonder what the hell was up with that, but part of me suspected I was probably happier not knowing.

Mom looked herself over, taking in her new body. Then she grunted. “Huh.” She fixed her eyes on me. “How did it go, Cloud?”

I needed a moment to get over my surprise at seeing Mom at all, let alone in pony form. “Um, it went alright. They’re pretty sure they’ve got some idea of how to fix my magic issues. We’re going to do some testing to make sure, of course.” I coughed, and lowered my voice a bit. “What are you doing here, Mom? Sunset doesn’t want too many people crossing over. Besides, I thought you had an army thing.”

Mom grunted and nodded. “Why I’m here. We had to move up the timetable. I’m deploying first thing in the morning.”

“Oh.” It was hard not to flinch. It was a long way from the first time Mom had gone off on one of those missions I wasn’t allowed to ask about, and she’d come back just fine every single time. That didn’t make it any less scary.

“Tor’s picking up Sparkler and Alula, and we’re meeting up for pizza before I have to head back to base,” Mom continued. She turned to Rainbow, then paused and frowned when she realized there were two of them. Then she spotted my own pony double. “Hmm.”

“Um...” Pony Cloud waved awkwardly, staring at her as if she’d grown an extra head.

“Yeah, apparently this is some sort of parallel dimension where there’s pony versions of everyone,” I explained. “Kinda weird, but kinda cool too.”

“Hmm,” Mom grunted again. “Tor and your sisters are waiting.” She glanced over at the two Rainbows. “Did you have dinner plans?”

“Um...” My Rainbow shuffled uncertainly. “Not really? I mean, I didn’t really get much in the way of lunch, so...”

“I’ll let your parents know you’ll be eating with us,” Mom grunted, turning around and heading back to the portal. She paused at the entrance. “Is there anything else my daughter needs to take care of right away, or can it wait?”

“Nothing that can’t wait,” Pony Cloud answered at once. “Just need to say something real quick to your daughter before she goes.”

“Right,” Mom grunted. “Five minutes. Coming, Rainbow?” Without another word, she stepped through the portal, my girlfriend in tow. I noticed the actual ponies also clearing out pretty quickly, leaving the two of us alone.

“Same old Mom, no matter the dimension.” Pony Cloud grumbled under her breath. “She must really like Rainbow. None of my partners ever got invited to a pre-deployment dinner.”

“That wasn’t so much an invitation as an order,” I pointed out.

“That’s ... kinda how she rolls,” Cloud murmured. “It’s ... look, I know Mom’s a hardass who doesn’t know how to say please or thank you or ‘Good work Cloud, I’m so proud of you,’ but...” She bit her lip, looking down at her hooves. “Just ... be good to her, okay? She’s just trying to be a good mom, even she’s not perfect at it. And Guard stuff’s...”

A rather terrible suspicion began leaking into my mind. Something that would nicely explain exactly why all the ponies got so awkward when Mom showed up, why Pony Cloud looked like she’d seen a ghost, and why now she was telling me to be extra-tolerant of all Mom’s mom-ness before she deployed.

The last thing I wanted to do was actually acknowledge that. After all, if it could happen to her mom... “Yeah, got it.”

She nodded slowly, then patted my shoulder. “See you around, Cloud.”

“You too, Cloud.”