“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.”
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.