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Forgiveness Pending

by Kiroberos

First published

Moon Mender's adventure continues right where left off. He jumps at the chance for a new life, but will his old one truly leave him in peace? Some things are better off forgotten.

The story of Moon Mender continues after his dream of an ending ceases. He continues his struggle to belong in a world so far divorced from the only other experience he can remember, but as an outsider of truly alien mindset, will he ever be able to find a place in Equestria? More importantly, will the life he left behind give up on its death grip so easily? The most important thing to remember is that things are rarely as they seem and sometimes, some things are better off forgotten.


This story is a direct sequel to Memory Pending. Without having read that, this story might be a little strange to most, which is frightening considering how strange it is already. It can be read as a standalone story of course, but you won't get the most out of it.

Further, I’m fully aware that not everypony enjoys more mature themes, so any scenes containing things of an M rated nature shall only be released in a separate story when the time comes. This story deals with more mature themes on a whole, as a warning. This version will do its best to censor the really sensual or graphic content out, of course.

Last but not least, this story has reached this final format through combined efforts of not just myself, but many a helpful pony along the way! Here’s an abbreviated list of those involved and the rolls they played:
Kiroberos – Author (Obviously)
Julia – Editor (Corrections, Grammar, and Flow)
Azu – Beta Reader (Corrections, Flow) (Until Chapter 35)
ExplosiveBrohoof – Beta Reader (Grammar) (Until Chapter 22)
Muffinking – Beta Reader (Corrections, Grammar) (Until Chapter 22)
All of my readers for being amazing, supportive, and best of all, enjoying the world we read and write about.

Chapter 01

Consciousness stirred. That fundamental spark of awareness. With it came a sensation of waking up from a long nap. I felt old and dried out, immediately aware of how stiff my muscles were. But there was a new feeling, wasn't there? Or more accurately, there was a lack of something. That urgent sensation. It took me a moment to realize it, but it was gone.

Smiling, regardless that my body felt like one big, bandaged bruise, I opened my eyes. I felt the pupils in each eye contract sharply at the light and winced. Several seconds of adjustment later and the sunlight from a brand new morning greeted me through the window. I appeared to be alone in a very familiar looking clinic room.

Equestria. I was still alive? For once in my rather short life so far, I just took the moment to relax and let in the light.

It took a good five minutes or so of daydreaming before I got down to the business of testing muscles. Oddly enough, despite the massive levels of bandages, I seemed to be reasonably intact. My muscles were stiff and cold but oddly lacked the soreness I was anticipating. Even my forelegs could be moved properly again.

A little perturbed, I wondered why I was so heavily bandaged. Did I have bad burns? Was my skin missing? I decided confidently against taking said wrappings off. Unlike unwrapping a gift that’s contents were to be celebrated, I preferred my squishy insides to stay well, inside. Instead, priority quickly dictated that I needed to pee and I rolled to get out of bed.

Oh for the love of all that is right and just in the world! That redefined bad idea! Rolling over caused the series of IVs to be pulled from my neck and forelegs, and not in the gentle and happy manner in which a cute nurse would remove them. Wincing, I couldn't halt damnable gravity in time and tried to make my dead drop off the side of the bed as graceful as possible.

And it's a stone-filled stomach flop with half rotation! The crowd goes wild! I decided I must still be significantly underweight as the noise of me planting my face into the wooden floor was still rather quiet; not unlike dropping a wet sack of potatoes onto cement. I winced and shook my head. Well, I was off to a great yet predictable start and it had only been my first meter or so of spatial movement.

Groaning lightly, I shakily stood up off the ground and tested my leg muscles. They held, thankfully. It would be kind of embarrassing to die two feet from a hospital bed via starvation. Things were looking up! I took a tentative first step and felt a light tugging in strange areas. Huh. Muscle atrophy, maybe? I wasn’t a medical expert so I had no idea what could cause tugging like that.

Step two had me writhing on the ground in agony. Again. Son of a bitch! Next time, check for catheter in sensitive bodily orifices prior to accidentally stepping on the connected tube while walking! Burning sensations in awkward places came forth and I groaned again. Okay, so if I had one of those things in me, I must have been here quite a while then.

After checking myself for bleeding, I discovered that the catheter was one of the 'soft' variants. Okay, so it mainly hurt because I twisted it sideways before yanking it out. That made a little more sense and I felt considerably better. No blood was usually a good thing in my experience.

I resumed my walking, now at a hobbling pace with the newly acquired stinging sensation between my back legs. The bandages were stiff as well so I took things slow and careful as I headed towards the door. That's when I heard voices.

"But how am I supposed to plan a party if I don't know where it is?" whined a very distinct Pinkie voice. And the voices were familiar. That was even better.

"Jus' hold yer horses, Sugar Cube! Doesn't he have ta wake up first?" replied the unmistakable Applejack. My heart soared. I was actually alive! And in Equestria still!

"But, but, but, decorations!" Pinkie continued.

A light snickering came next. Wait, that snicker sounded distinctly unlike the other two voices. "Can't ya just load it into your cannon, Pinkie? That would be way cooler anyway," the voice suggested. Rainbow Dash! Wait, she was talking about me and it wasn't vindictive or cursing my very name? I had expected her to be angry after my forced teleportation of her. I sighed weakly. Even if she was, I still couldn't apologize. I don't regret making sure she got out safely. She had a dream here and somepony to share it with. I didn't have much of anything, only having been here a week prior. Oh wait, I still didn't really have anything. My few friends were probably mad at me for the ‘almost dying’ and ‘lying to them’ things. Hopefully in that order, anyway.

"Oh, yeah! I forgot about that. It's portable, too!" Pinkie exclaimed, lightening up instantly and throwing a sizable wrench into my moping.

"Ah've been meanin' ta ask ya how yeh go about doin' that, by tha way," Applejack mentioned suddenly, sounding curious.

Rainbow Dash snorted. "She's Pinkie. Seriously, 'nough said," she replied simply. Sadly, having spoken to the pink mare myself, I had to agree.

"Aww! Dashie knows me so well," Pinkie cooed, sounding almost flirty.

Applejack laughed and made a clicking noise. "Ah think it's one o' those things ah shouldn't ask 'bout, ah guess," she finally admitted.

"Didn't Twilight try that once?" Rainbow asked.

"Oh! Yuppers. Then the bees and Derpy happened. Oooh, and the hydra!" Pinkie shot back, sounding excited.

Well, that sounded exceedingly unpleasant. The universe is protective of its secrets, I suppose. Either that, or Pinkie Pie is some sort of reality warper with a sense of humor. "Yeah. Let's just hope she wants to come to the party. She still sounded kinda upset the last I talked to her," Rainbow commented. What? Twilight was upset with me? My heart sank a little. Oh yeah, I did kind of lie about coming back and she had to haul me to safety using her magic. She was probably more than 'kinda' upset.

"Still? Fer cryin' out loud. It's Princess Celestia. She's not gonna do anything rash," Applejack grumbled. P-Princess Celestia?! My eyes widened. I had upset her and she sold me out to the Princess? Oh no. Images of slave labor camps on the moon came to mind as I started to panic. Surely, I could still apologize?

"Oooh, but the Princess said she'd come to the party! Doesn't that mean Twi will probably come anyway?" Pinkie theorized. Everything started to add together. I felt my pupils contract as panic set in. I'd never seen anything to do with these princesses yet. If they were some form of shadow op government and I just offended a prime operative, what was my punishment going to be? Wait, didn't that make all of the Elements of Harmony agents of the princesses? My eyes widened as I realized Pinkie never said what kind of party it was. If party was a code word for execution, I was in serious trouble.

It was time for action, then. Looking around the room, I rapidly noticed that there were only two exits. The door obviously led into the hallway, where the agents of death were waiting. That left just the window. All right then, here we go! Hopping up on my bed, I slid the window open and peeked outside. Crap. It was a side window, which meant it opened onto the street. Far too late to withdraw my action now, I ignored the confused glances tossed my way and tried to kick off the bed to hurl myself out the window.

Alas, this was only partially successful. The bandages around my legs were way too stiff to get a proper thrust going. The bed went one direction and I went the other at greatly reduced speeds. This managed to get, well, most of me out the window. Oh, and cause those aforementioned sensitive areas to smash into the window frame, making an explosion of agony to dance up my spine as I smacked against the outside of the building with my chest. I heard a rolling sound and a crash from inside as well. Oh, the bed was on wheels. Go figure. I contemplated the errors of my escape attempt while hanging upside down by my back legs. That could have gone so much better.

"Moon Mender?" I heard a soft, yet innocent sounding voice from somewhere in front of me. Twisting my head, I managed to see a very familiar white unicorn filly running up to me, purple and pink mane bobbing rapidly.

"Oh uh, hey, Sweetie Belle. Nice day, huh?" I tried to distract, voice cracking towards the end due to disuse.

She stopped a meter or so in front of me and tilted her head. "Um, yeah. Do you need help or something?" she asked quietly, looking perplexed. I was probably an amusing sight, wrapped up like a mummy and hanging from a window.

"What tha hay's goin' on in 'ere?!" I heard a very distinct Applejack shout from behind me. Oh crap!

Kicking with my forelegs against the side of the building, I managed to vault myself off the window frame, flip once, and land gracefully on my butt outside. Sweetie Belle dove aside to avoid my descent and winced as I smashed into the ground.

"Ow! Sorry, Sweetie Belle! Gotta go," I apologized rapidly, before getting up and hobbling around the back of the building, wincing the entire way. Damn these bandages!

She looked surprised but stood up again and followed after me. "Wait, where are ya going?" she asked as I took off across the street. Aside from being a tad stiff and now sore in uncomfortable places, I found that I could move as if uninjured, oddly. Why was I wrapped up, then? Stupid bandages! They were more of a hinder than a help at this point.

"Wha?! Horse apples! Where'd he go?" I heard Rainbow Dash exclaim loudly back at the clinic.

I dove into an alley between two houses and into a large pile of leaves I found, making sure to bury myself as best I could. There was no time to get away. Much to my surprise, I felt someone messing with my tail a few seconds later. Oh no! It was outside of the pile still.

Even more surprising, they tucked it inside and covered it up. I saw a single leaf moved from my right eye, and Sweetie Belle smiled down at my panting form. "You must be hiding from AJ and Rainbow, right? I'll help!" she declared, looking like she was enjoying herself. This wasn't hide-n-seek! My life was on the line, here.

"Shhh. I need to get away from them. I need time to think," I whispered. She smiled and nodded, resuming covering me up with leaves. A short ten seconds later, I felt something tiny and warm push up against my chest as she slid in and covered herself as well, going dead silent.

Both of us held our breath as hoofsteps could be heard suddenly outside, walking across the harder dirt. Oh crap! How close were they? The hoofsteps stopped out on the street, three meters away or so. I felt Sweetie Belle go rigid and I swallowed, trying to control my breathing.

"Wha? Tha hoof prints stop on tha edge o' the grass 'ere. He musta gone off between tha houses, an' towards tha woods?" I heard Applejack reason, thankfully incorrectly.

"How'd he get so fast? Dang. I'll take to the air and see where he is," Rainbow returned, before I felt a light breeze. Thank goodness she wasn't closer or she might have blown away my hiding spot!

A merry giggling followed, with, "Maybe he's playing a game? Like tag or hide-n-seek? That would be really fun after being cooped up in that room for so long!"

"Who knows with that crazy stallion. Why'd he go an' run away, anyway? Ain't it custom ta say yer playin' one o' those games before jus' bookin' it outta there?" Applejack asked, sounding skeptical.

Pinkie snickered in amusement. "It's fun either way. Maybe he just wants some alone time?" Pinkie offered in a surprisingly lucid observation. The distinct sensation of her staring right at me suddenly came into being. Uh oh.

"But why run away? He could'a jus' said somethin', right?" Applejack questioned.

"I dunno. Let's go peek in the forest! We can't turn him down if it's hide-n-seek!" Pinkie declared as if it were a universal law.

There was a light, accented groan followed by, "Ya really are kinda random sometimes, ya know that, right?"

My blood turned to ice and it felt like my heart stopped as Applejack walked towards our hiding spot slowly, hoofsteps getting closer and closer albeit muffled by the grass. Time seemed to drag forever at that singular moment. It felt like an eternity but she finally passed us by. I watched the tip of her tail stir some leaves at the edge of our pile as she went.

Thankfully, my eyes were amber instead of blue like the rest of my color scheme! Blending in might be a little harder otherwise. I turned my visible eye forwards again. Then I froze as I saw Pinkie Pie looking directly at me. She wore a fascinated smile and surprised me by winking rather than sounding the alarm. Instead, she returned to her prior closed-eyed smirk and pounced past, following Applejack.

"Do you think we can find him before Rainbow?" she asked in a gleeful manner as she disappeared from vision. What happened? Whose side was she on?

"Oh, yer on! Ah'll hound him down in no time," Applejack agreed, suddenly sounding excessively competitive. Whoa! Was she always like that, or was it Rainbow bringing it out in her?

"But you're a pony, Silly! You’d need to bark more if you were a hound," was the last thing I heard before the voices disappeared at a surprisingly fast pace. Sweetie Belle and I didn't dare move for a good ten minutes, however.

* * * * *

The forest along the outskirts was peaceful, anyway. It was a chilly, Fall day and the leaves were beginning to drift off the trees. I vaguely recalled them changing colors before the incident, and I tried to gauge how long I'd been asleep. Now the sun slowly drifted towards the horizon, nightfall coming. I estimated it had been about four or so in the afternoon when I woke up. On further estimate, that made it now close to six o'clock.

"So you're worried about Twilight being mad at you?" Sweetie Belle asked, still tucked against my chest and emitting a diabetes-inducing level of cuteness. Both of us were packed into a small pocket we found under a few roots of a large tree. You'd have to be practically on top of us to see us from the air and we were only visible from a meter long segment on one side at ground level. However, it was rather nippy outside. I was kind of glad the little filly had followed me, as she was considerably warmer than I was. Maybe I had lost a lot of blood? Oh, and the company was nice, too. I made a mental note to not refer to friends as space heaters in the future.

I whispered back, "Yeah. I overheard them talking about how upset she is."

Sweetie giggled. "I don't think they meant mad. She visited you, like, almost every day. You probably just worried her. Fluttershy, too," she explained.

"I'm just worried after they mentioned Celestia," I muttered quietly.

"Ooh! Princess Celestia? Does she want to see you or something? She was here the day of your incident, but didn't get a chance to talk to you then. Uh, well, obviously," she enlightened, almost managing to confuse herself towards the end.

My mind skipped a few gears. "Wait, she was here?" I asked, feeling like the blood drained from my face.

Sweetie Belle giggled whimsically. "Yeah, she helped Twilight pull you back. Twilight is a little, well, sad because of that, I think," she explained, frowning a little in concern.

"Er, why? She didn't want me back?" I asked, swallowing a tad painfully.

It earned me a gentle shove to the chest. "No! She was just sad that she might not have been able to with just herself, I think. She never said directly. I just saw it in her eyes, really," Sweetie corrected, looking a little distracted in memories.

It dawned on me that there were indeed multiple definitions of 'upset'. I frowned and considered it. Well, ultimately, I probably just made an idiot of myself again. The best thing to do would be to simply slink over to the library and apologize directly to Twilight. If she says I'm clear with Princess Celestia, then I go and apologize to Fluttershy, who was the next most bothered by my attempted martyrdom. And then everypony else. That was a lot of apologies!

"I think you were really nice, though. Sis says you're a dying breed, or something like that, but I think you're honest and kind. I don't really understand but you saved Equestria even if it meant almost dying, didn't you?" Sweetie Belle interrupted, knocking me out of my planning and earning a choked back gag of surprise.

"Oh, no, no! I'm no hero, Sweetie Belle. We, well, we don't know how much danger Equestria was ever in, but I didn't want to take the chance. I'm," I muttered, trailing off and realizing the base facts.

Sweetie tilted her head and looked back up at me from her curled up position. I sighed and shook my head. "I'm just me. I'm not important enough. I mean, risking all of Equestria just for me? If I did that, even if the threat came to nothing, I doubt I could ever live with how selfish that would be," I continued, wondering if anypony was that important.

My friend and tree hiding companion smiled and nodded gently. "You're still important to your friends. But I think I see why Sis likes you. Although it makes her say more and more mean words about Prince Blueblood," she muttered, suddenly looking a tad annoyed.

I frowned, still attempting to process my own feelings alongside the dribble of new information the little filly constantly surprised me with. "Prince Blueblood?" I asked hesitantly. I hadn't realized there were any male rulers.

"He's a jerk. He made Rarity really upset at the Gala a while back after she was all set to, oh, what did she call it? Court him? I have no idea what that means, but oh was she mad!" Sweetie explained, shuddering.

"Are there two princes, as well? Sorry, I don't know much about your lifestyle here and didn't read anything about him in the book Twilight gave me," I asked, trying not to sound stupid.

She giggled however and nodded. "That was the first I'd heard of him, too, don't worry. He doesn't have wings like the princesses, so I doubt he's as powerful," she muttered, smiling up at me innocently.

"The princesses are pegasi?" I questioned, tilting my head. So much for equal representation.

"They have horns too. They're really pretty, with their flowing manes and beautiful jewels. I really, really like their manes," she cooed, swaying happily.

Both horns and wings? I hadn't heard of such a being, but it certainly sounded convenient. "So they can fly and cast spells as well? Wow," I muttered, impressed.

Sweetie Belle nodded happily. "Yeah. They're so amazing! I mean, Princess Celestia raises the sun each day! Her magic is so strong," she agreed, sounding a tad jealous as she looked up at her tiny horn.

"Oh don't worry, Sweetie Belle. I'm sure one day you'll be able to um, wait..." I muttered, trailing off as my brain slowly tried to shift from first gear to cheese. "T-The sun?!" I almost screamed, blood feeling like ice cubes.

Sweetie Belle looked surprised but nodded rapidly. "Yeah, she raises the sun each day. Princess Luna raises the moon each night. Why?" she asked, as if it were natural.

"B-But it's a massive... How?! Does she rotate the planet or? Even that, it-it's insane!" I muttered, my fragile mind starting to twist in upon itself. I'd heard of powerful magic back on my own world but this was just madness!

Sweetie Belle giggled and shook her head. "She raises the sun as her sacred duty. She's Equestria's ruler, alongside her sister. What's so strange?" she asked innocently.

My head gave a throb of protest and I suddenly felt exceedingly sore all over. Of course, I had just gotten a lot of exercise. "I-I guess. Um, do you think you could h-help me get to Twilight's library?" I asked her weakly, deciding it was best for my sanity to just not think about it.

She smiled and nodded. "Sure. I didn't really wanna do the dumb errand I was on anyway and Rarity will understand if it's to help you out," she reasoned, a light scheming expression dancing across her face.

I smirked as I saw her grin. "Naughty little filly. Does Rarity know you're this devious?" I asked her in amusement.

"Devi-wha?" she questioned, tilting her head towards me.

"Oh, sorry. It means sly, or tricky," I relayed. Sometimes I forgot she was a young filly. She was very patient and mature for her age, it seemed. She was probably more of a mediator for Scootaloo and Applebloom.

She perked and giggled, shaking her head. "Nah. She thinks I'm a paperweight most of the time. But she's a nice big sister, don't get me wrong. Just, well, frustrating," she muttered, sitting up and looking a tad exasperated.

I nodded and smiled, trying to sit up, too. I immediately smashed my skull into the underside of our tree nook, and winced. Sweetie snickered in amusement before shaking her head at me. She was probably used to me bashing my skull into things by now.

"Do you have any siblings?" she asked curiously after a few moments.

Frowning as I struggled to squeeze out from under the tree, I rapidly realized I had no idea. "Um, I can't remember. It, well," I muttered before lowering my eyes. Her curious smile shifted to a concerned frown, but I shook my head. "There's a lot I don't remember still, is all. I might have, but I dunno."

"Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot about what happened," she apologized, looking down slightly. Did she really know to begin with? Part of me was glad she was so young. The concept of genocide was probably blunted on a lack of understanding. This world didn't need such concepts and I wasn't about to introduce them.

I placed a bandaged hoof on her cheek and gave her a gentle brush, lifting her head up again. She gave me a questioning look until I smiled and shook my head. "I'm glad I can stay in Equestria and not have to leave anywhere. You ponies are wonderful, without a doubt. Anything beyond that... It's all right," I assured her softly.

She smiled, eyes softening before nodding and reminding, "We'd best get to the library. I'll keep watch ahead of you until we get there."

Wise. Rainbow was probably still in the sky and who knew about Applejack. I didn't know where Pinkie stood still, so that was kind of like rolling a die. Of course, Sweetie Belle was probably right. This was all a misunderstanding, more than likely. I guess I'd find out once getting back to Twilight.

Slowly, as I was quite tired and sore at this point, I headed after the little unicorn filly as she rolled across the ground ‘stealthily’. She tumbled from tree to tree ahead of me, peeking out around the sides cautiously. I didn't have the heart to interrupt her playtime with the fact that her jolting motions were probably far easier to spot from the air. Thankfully my bandages were now far from white after all the dirt and grass got involved and were fairly good camouflage.

Regardless, town was actually only a quarter of a mile away and we made it back within ten minutes or so, at my current stunted pace. Sweetie Belle slunk along between a natural alley leading up to a side street. We'd have to slip between the two houses and across the street in order to reach the library. She 'scouted' ahead, striking me as a little obvious with her ninja poses, but she was way too cute to tell off.

I slipped behind a dilapidated, retired rain barrel while she slipped closer to the street to peek around. That was a fairly obvious choice as she was far less suspicious looking than a walking lump of dirty bandages. Still, I felt a little bad that she was putting her own neck out for me.

Sadly, she didn't quite make it to the street before freezing. My eyes widened and I dove into the overturned barrel instead, peeking through a crack in the bottom of it. It was probably the crack that earned its retirement.

Sweetie Belle slowly started to back up into the alley but it was too late. The orange earth mare with the blonde mane had already spotted her and trotted over. Crap!

"Oh, hay there, Sweetie Belle! Yer lookin' mighty dirty, ha ha! Can ah talk ta ya fer a minute or two?" Applejack asked, sounding friendly enough. I started running escape plans through my head just in case.

Sweetie laughed nervously alongside her, and nodded. "Well yeah uh, I mean no, wait, I don't mind of course!" she hastily returned. I made a mental note that the filly was terrible under pressure, for future reference.

"Hmm. Are ya all right? Come ta think of it, yer Sis mentioned that ya were missin' a few minutes ago. Hour's late fer ah shoppin' trip, she reckon'. Where have ya been?" Applejack asked, getting a concerned look on her face. Oh no. Sweetie Belle was getting in trouble because of me!

"Oh, well... I saw a frog that was lost. So I had to g-get it back to its stream, of course!" she rapidly lied. Ug. It had to be a frog?

Applejack momentarily looked confused, but it didn't last long. Her eyes narrowed as she lowered her face to the little filly. "Yer actin' awfully suspicious, Sweetie Belle. Ya haven't happen'd ta see Moon Mender around, have ya?" she questioned, eyes scrutinizing the unicorn filly's every movement.

I couldn't let Sweetie Belle get in trouble over me. My mind rapidly tried to think of a way out when I felt the light pulse in my left, front hoof. What was that? Extending my awareness to it, I lifted the bandaged hoof up to my face inside the barrel. It was only lightly wrapped, with tufts of light blue coat coming out from around the edges of the bandage. Did that mean it was in better shape? I felt out what that pulse was and was surprised at the ease of scanning my system. The magic flowed through me gentler now, as if water going through carved grooves, rather than trying to splash around rocky crags. To my curiosity, it drew easily into my left hoof; far easier than anyplace else in my body. A memory stirred in me. This hoof?

Sweetie Belle backed up, bumping against the front of the barrel. "I, well, I haven't seen him. W-Why?" she asked weakly, averting her eyes.

"Ya don't seem surprised he's up an' about. Yer not fibbin', are ya Sweetie?" Applejack asked, advancing again.

No! I had to do something. This hoof! A flash of pained memory slipped through my skull as images of it splitting into the shape of the creation symbol and igniting came forth. Ignoring them, my mind pushed the magic forwards as if muscle memory. Alteration. It was basic magic that focused on changing things. As an engineer I'd been really good at it. Still, I didn't have much to work with. A master blacksmith can only do so much with crude iron. The hoof began to glow as the symbol carved into it lit up with my magic. The bandages unwound themselves and drifted away from each side in midair, causing me to smile. They had been touching the symbol, so I could use magic on them! I could use magic on things that touched the symbol.

"Um, well he, uh," Sweetie continued to stutter.

"Ya have seen him then! Where is he? Ya know what bad, lyin' fillies get," Applejack warned.

I pushed the symbol into the old wood of the barrel. The magic was there. Not the same as a unicorn's and nowhere near as strong as Twilight's in any sense, but it was uniquely mine. My mind touched upon the symbol on my hoof and flooded out into the wood and iron of the barrel alongside lines of magic. Gravity, inertia, thrust, motion... All of these things needed to be modified.

"Ah! B-But Applejack, I just wanted to," Sweetie Belle muttered weakly.

Applejack just started to step forwards and lean closer when the barrel I was in exploded into movement. I popped out of the top of it as it split in half, the tightly woven boards that made up the sides coming undone and expanding rapidly into a platform and six crude legs. The orange mare looked more than a little startled as I changed the barrel. Taking advantage of her surprise, I sprung forwards using the walking platform and scooped Sweetie Belle up off the ground just as she was starting to turn to look. She yelped, but I nudged her behind me as the top of the barrel folded partially back around us, forming a protective shell.

"No! I can't let you punish Sweetie Belle. She was only trying to help me," I warned, scowling at the gawking Applejack.

Not giving her time to recover, I folded the top back around us and ordered the platform down the street at full speed. Six ‘legs’ made of iron and wood carried us like a giant beetle towards the library. "Whoa! Cool!" Sweetie muttered as she looked closer at my glowing hoof pressed against the boards. I kept my breathing under control and slowly focused on dodging surprised ponies as I headed for the library.

"Sorry! Excuse me! Coming through!" I called out as I swerved and trotted around the clusters in the street. They seemed largely surprised at my makeshift transportation, but were oddly not that panicked. Of course, I was going out of my way to miss them and apologize so they probably assumed there was little danger. Or they were so jaded by the normal happenings in town that they really didn't care about a reasonably non-violent one.

"Mender! Hold up ah bit, would ya! Ah just wanna talk ta ya!" Applejack shouted, as I heard a galloping noise from behind me.

Damn she was fast! Our platform angled itself down as it sped up, leaping up a hill and making a break along the final stretch for the library. "Will ya wait up?!" I heard her shout, more irritated now. An impossibly powerful impact hit the right back leg a second later, splintering the wood as if it were twigs and causing us to spin violently. Sweetie yelped but I caught and steadied her with my right hoof, forcing more energy through my left. We leapt after one full rotation, using the energy of her kick to propel us at the door. Two tiny shields formed in the platform's outstretched right 'leg' and I spun them as they contacted the door handle.

The door popped open in the same instant we crashed into it. I kept a firm grip on the door as we slid across the now familiar wooden flooring. Pivoting, we rotated as the door reached maximum angle and I used our backwards rotation to slam the door shut. Focusing, I rapidly started engaging every lock I could find on the door.

"Alright, alright! You don't need to slam the door. I'm coming!" I heard a rather annoyed sounding Twilight call out from upstairs. Oops. I rotated the platform around while peeking through the crack in the front, just in time to see Twilight come down the stairs. She gave us a look of shocked horror shortly before her horn started glowing. Uh oh…

Author's Notes:

Doom Pie's Audiobook Chapter:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cr_5Qy5aclQ

Chapter 02

I realized we were trapped. Sweetie Belle lowered herself nervously to the floor of the platform, slipping in behind my right foreleg as I watched Twilight through the crack. Applejack was behind the only exit to this now very horrifying building. To make matters worse, I saw Rainbow Dash flutter down and slowly start to attempt to work the window open outside to the left.

A rapid pounding came from the door behind me. "What in blazes do ya think yer doin', Mender?!" I heard shortly thereafter, barely audible through the heavy wooden door.

"B-Back, monster," Twilight warned nervously, her horn still glowing angrily as she lowered herself to the stairs. She was scared of me? I started to open my mouth to say something when she opened fire, unfortunately. I let out an exceedingly high-pitched scream, rather embarrassing of my gender, and rapidly raised a shield up using a front leg. The barrier barely deflected the bolt, causing it to tear through the side of my platform instead and knock us back into the door. From my cowering position, I stared in shock at the new hole in my vehicle.

Sweetie Belle peeked out from around the busted section, earning another gasp from Twilight. "Sweetie Belle? Are you okay? Let her go!" the lavender unicorn demanded.

"I-I will! Please, j-just listen," I begged, peeking around the side of the opening, just above the little filly.

Twilight widened her eyes. "M-Moon Mender? What are you, but you were..." she muttered rapidly.

"Just please. Sweetie Belle didn't do anything wrong, so please don't punish her. She only wanted to help me," I begged, lowering the platform to the floor shakily and opening the front so she could get down.

She surprised me by turning around and looking up at me instead. Huh? "You rescued me and stuck up for me?" she asked quietly, suddenly wearing a warm smile.

My mind idled into reverse. Sweetie Belle hugged my left foreleg before I could reply. My magic faltered as I suddenly realized how tired I was. The platform, or what was left of it, anyway, slowly lowered us to the floor. "Oh fer cryin' out loud! Ah wasn't gonna hurt 'er in tha first place," Applejack muttered from the other side of the door.

Twilight recovered rapidly and bounded the remaining two meters towards me. I almost panicked, but Sweetie Belle had a hold of me so there wasn't much I could do! There was no impact or subduing blast though. All I felt was Twilight's warm coat as she latched onto my other foreleg, pushing both Sweetie and I gently into the wall next to the door. I was momentarily bewildered, then turned a deep crimson as she pulled me into a tight hug, Sweetie Belle incidentally getting sandwiched between us. I tried to avert my eyes, shifting them just in time to see a cyan and rainbow pegasus flutter through the now open window wearing a smirk. She landed next to me on my right and unlocked the front door, sticking her tongue out as my eyes widened towards her. I fidgeted, trying to shift from her but Twilight wouldn't budge.

"I'm so, so sorry for everything, Mender! I'm glad you're awake," Twilight muttered into my neck as she squeezed me. Oops, back to blushing. Threat of imminent death can only hold back the feelings of an amazing girl pressed against you for so long, I guess.

"Twi, it's all right. I'm sorry, too," I reminded, realizing Sweetie was right all along. I'm glad I listened to her this time.

Rainbow snickered. "Aww. You two are so cu-," she started taunting with a grin, just as she slid the last lock.

Wham! The door slammed open, taking the cyan mare with it and flattening her against the wall on the other side. "Woo! Totally party time, right here! I brought the cannon," Pinkie assured whimsically as she bounced through the doorway. I saw Applejack flattened on the step, glaring up at the pink tush bouncing away from her. I just assumed she got bowled over as well. Wait, cannon?

"Pinkie! I'm trying to apologize here!" Twilight growled, switching from adoring to irate in a second. Whoa! I was suddenly worried as I was still attached to her.

Pinkie giggled and nodded merrily, seeming unfazed as she spun and cart-wheeled. I got even more tired just from watching her.

"He already knows about Celestia. I'm sorry, Twilight," Sweetie Belle apologized from in-between us, looking up at the lavender mare.

Twilight swallowed and nodded as well, looking back at me instead. "It's all right, Sweetie. Mender, I wrote a letter to the Princess the night I got so worked up. I panicked and didn't know what to do so I kinda ended up telling her everything," she explained quietly, looking more than a little nervous but still clenching me as if I'd fade away should she let go. It wasn't a hug anymore, but instead felt like a strange form of assurance.

"Ya were right ta be honest with tha Princess, Twi," Applejack assured slowly, getting up again and walking inside at a far more relaxed gait than her pink friend.

Pinkie nodded agreement enthusiastically, then tilted her head as a light groan came from behind the door. Rainbow Dash slowly stumbled out, holding her forehead with a hoof. Applejack held a hoof up however, preemptively halting a Pinkie outburst. "But ta do that, ya had ta betray Mender's trust instead. Ah'm not sayin' ya made the wrong choice. It's just somethin' ta think about," she added slowly, as if carefully picking her words.

I swallowed heavily, remembering my nightmare. If Sweetie was right and the Princess helped pull me back then this was definitely the right choice, wasn't it? My memory shifted back to those frigid moments I spent all alone on that ship, in the middle of a massive void and the only other living thing vaguely nearby being a complete monster. I'd wanted so desperately to just let someone else deal with it. I hadn't been brave and strong. I'd just felt tiny and weak, dealing the only hand I had left and hoping it was enough. Truthfully, these ponies meant more to me than I did now. This way of life and everypony in this wonderful world; it was all so pure and beautiful.

I hated myself for risking it. Maybe I should have died with the rest of my race? I tried so hard but did I deserve this outcome? I was all that was left. My old race was gone and everyone I knew and loved, dead. And I couldn't even remember them. Did I deserve to be happy when millions of my race lost everything? It was overwhelming. Screams of pain and despair echoed through my head as I remembered. There was nothing but memories of misery from my past life. I wondered if I had seen anything apart from that.

"Mender..." Twilight whispered gently.

I snapped out of it in time to realize my cheeks felt warm and wet. A sense of disgust came over me as I used my now freed right hoof to wipe my eyes. "Ah, sorry," I muttered, embarrassed.

Whack! I reeled sideways from a moderate blow to the side of my head. Stars exploded nonetheless and I felt a sharp sting tear through my left cheek as I hit the wooden floor and slid. "Applejack! What are you doing?!" Twilight demanded, moving in-between her and I while Sweetie Belle sprung over to check me for damage.

"That there's fer worryin' everypony with yer shenanigans. Ah imagine Rainbow, Twi, an Fluttershy'll have their own two bits ta add later, but consider yerself paid in full with tha rest o' us," she explained, expression neutral and stoic.

All things considered, she probably could have snapped my head off with that hoof hit. She pulled her punch and let me off gently, then. I had expected worse. Slowly sitting up, I rubbed my left cheek and drew back blood on my hoof. Yup. I was definitely going to get a black eye from that one.

"T-Thank you, Applejack," I spoke gently, eyes softening towards her. That oddly made me feel better. Well, mentally.

Her stoicism slipped and she nodded, acquiring a gentler smile. "Then consider yerself forgiven. Pinks an Rare wouldn't'ah voiced as much, so ah knew ah had ta be the one," Applejack added, averting her gaze slightly from the still angry looking Twilight.

"Applejack, I wasn't upset with him at all. Well, maybe a little sad that he almost died. And that he was gonna miss the awesome party I planned, but," Pinkie protested with a little less energy than usual.

Applejack shook her head gently, glancing over at the pink mare. "Ah know yer a forgivin' mare, but he made ya sad still and Ah'm sure he didn't mean ta," she explained in a quiet but sturdy voice. Rainbow Dash still looked shocked and remained quiet.

"Then why did you do that? He's barely out of the clinic an afternoon and you decide to hit him?!" Twilight asked crossly.

Rainbow Dash finally snapped out of it and let out a snicker, raising a hoof between Twilight and her pony of affection. "Relax, Twi. That was barely a swat for AJ here. Plus he seems to have accepted it," she pointed out, now wearing a smirk. Did that mean I did something right in her eyes?

I smiled weakly and nodded, trying not to wince and risk damaging my ego further as I felt my cheek swelling. "She let me off easy for what I did to you ponies. I still feel like I owe you more," I muttered. Sweetie Belle quietly shook her head as she reached up with a piece of tissue in her mouth to dab at my cheek. Whispering thanks, I bent lower to make it easier for her. The tissue felt really soft and I wondered where she'd gotten it.

"I'm not mad at you at all, Mender. You were amazingly noble and if anything, I should be the one to apologize. I gave out confidential information about you without consent or even informing you," Twilight replied, turning around to focus on me instead, albeit with a far more positive expression.

"Is Princess Celestia mad at me?" I asked carefully. I decided to keep the banishment, black ops, and execution ideas to myself for now.

All four mares looked bewildered, but Twilight laughed nervously a second later. "You have quite the imagination, Mender. No, she's happy she helped save you," she assured, trying to smile.

"But?" I questioned, noting her hesitation.

She sighed and noticeably sagged. "She just asked me if it was all right to get an account of the event so she could estimate the level of danger to Equestria," she muttered.

"Er, ah might be missin' somethin', but that doesn't sound so bad," Applejack pondered out loud. Pinkie went back to smiling and enthusiastically nodded her agreement.

"Yeah. Are ya worried that she'll do something to Mender?" Rainbow asked curiously.

Twilight shook her head, to my relief. "No, she reported herself that the link faded after the explosion of the Grosh ship. Mender's not dangerous to Equestria," she assured, making me feel even better. I had planned on asking her if the explosion had worked. But if it wasn't that, I could only think of one other reason for her distress.

"She wants a personal account. From me directly?" I asked gently, masking my nervousness.

Twilight nodded softly. "Sort of. She wants the direct images from your memories, if at all possible," Twilight informed weakly, looking down.

I reeled back in surprise. Oh crap! If Twilight was forceful I could only imagine the level of violation being mind raped by a goddess would bring. She must have seen my reaction, as she rapidly shook both front hooves towards me.

"W-Wait! She said when you're healthy enough to. And she wants me to perform the spell, not her," Twilight rapidly over-corrected, although scarily accurate with the second half.

"Healthy? Is the ritual painful or something?" Rainbow asked from behind her, sounding a little uncomfortable with the concept.

Twilight shook her head, peeking back over her shoulder. "No. It just takes a lot of energy from him. He essentially won't get any natural REM sleep for the night we choose to do it, which might be detrimental to his health at the moment," she reasoned. Oh, I had to be pseudo sleeping?

Rainbow started snickering mirthfully, however. She held a forehoof up to her muzzle as she restrained it. "Better eat some Silphium beforehand," she warned, barely holding back the laughter. Huh? What was Silphium?

"Er, huh?" Twilight muttered, apparently as confused as I was. Pinkie Pie burst into laughter almost instantly.

Applejack chuckled as well and shook her head, though. "It did sound ah tad awkward, but ah think ah get it. He has ta be sleepin' but he won't be rested up after, right?" she asked, smirking still. Awkward? I was seriously missing something.

Twilight slipped back into scientific mode rapidly and nodded. "Yes. I'll be peeking through his mind as he sleeps, which means he can't slip into REM and replenish his natural energies. My mind sort of, well, keeps his awake?" she attempted to explain.

They stared at each other for a few seconds. Applejack looked truly thoughtful but Twilight suddenly looked perplexed. A single beat later, she suddenly went scarlet in the cheeks and glared intensely at Rainbow. "Hey!" she protested. The cyan mare burst into laughter of course. She joined Pinkie Pie in rolling on the floor.

"That is disgusting! You are so horrible, Dash!" she growled, sounding oddly embarrassed.

I was just deeply confused. I'd assumed as Dash was laughing, it was because of what she said earlier but I had no idea what Silphium was. Sweetie Belle looked equally confused so I didn't feel as badly.

Applejack must have noticed my quiet confusion, as she explained a second later, "Silphium, when ingested by ah mare, works as ah potent contraceptive."

"Contra-what?" Sweetie Belle asked curiously.

Pinkie winked at me while upside down, ignoring the filly. My cheeks went scarlet, oddly similar to Twilight. "Yeah, wouldn't want Mender to become a daddy!" the pink mare squealed, sounding deeply amused. What the hell?! Where did they get, oh. 'The night we do it.' I mentally groaned.

"What? Mender's going to be a daddy?!" Sweetie Belle asked in sudden shock. Oh for the love of all that was just and fair! That's it. Twilight was never going to speak to me again.

"Argh! That's it! Mender needs rest so out!" Twilight growled, horn starting to glow menacingly. Dash made a yelping noise, zipping out the window behind her as if trying to escape incoming mortar fire. Of course, Twilight was scary like that.

Pinkie giggled and made a light, excited snorting noise before rolling to her feet. "Aww! We were just playing. But Mender does need his rest! Sleep well, cuz it's totally party time tomorrow!" she assured me, giving a wink before hopping out the door like a rabbit with a sugar high.

"Ug, fine. Tomorrow evening, though!" Twilight called after her, sounding a little tired herself suddenly. Regardless, she followed Pinkie out the door with the warning just to be sure.

"Ah reckon Ah'd best let tha nurse know yer checkin' out an' not in some tree somewhere, rah-ight?" Applejack offered calmly after Twilight wandered back inside, head hung slightly.

I sighed and nodded to her wearily. The aftereffects of using my magic again were definitely felt, even though I hadn't done much. It was like any other muscle, however. I was just heavily out of practice.

"Yeah. I'm sorry about the whole running away thing earlier," I apologized. Sweetie Belle giggled as she finally took the tissue back, rotating it using her tongue. I saw little dots of blood on it.

"Buh iht waas phumn!" she protested, tissue still in her mouth.

Applejack chuckled and patted her lightly on the head, having moved up next to me to get out of the way when Twilight went after Pinkie. "Fun is all fine an' dandy but it's only common courtesy ta let tha nurse know he's all right," she explained, smiling at the little white filly.

I suddenly thought of something horrifying but decided to be as polite about it as possible. "Thank you, Applejack. Um, where am I gonna stay tonight if not the clinic, though?" I inquired as nicely as I could muster.

"Here of course," Twilight answered instead, coming back inside slowly and closing the door.

I was momentarily taken aback, memories of almost getting run over with a mattress coming fresh to mind. I must have looked surprised because she suddenly blushed while Applejack started snickering merrily.

"Ya have'ta admit, you two last part'd on some rocky relations," she reminded, absently waving her hoof in the air.

"Oh yeah. Twilight kicked him out!" Sweetie Belle suddenly seemed to recall, leaning back against my right foreleg. Wait, why was she still here?

Twilight winced and nodded. "I know. We have a few things to discuss but please give me another chance?" she requested quietly.

Smiling, I nodded gently to her. I was just happy she was giving me another chance instead. The day's events rapidly caught up to me an instant later, surprising me. I wobbled suddenly, feeling the slow throb of my headache spike from the magic and a light, warm trickle go down the front of my muzzle from my nose. Too much magic, too quickly.

"Whoa nelly! Ya had best be makin' yer way upstairs an' ta bed. Ya look mighty unstable on yer hooves, so let me help ya," Applejack offered, moving a little closer.

I flinched slightly and shifted away from her. She froze for a moment and her eyes softened, her nod assuring me followed by a gentle smile. I relaxed and gave in, letting her hook my left foreleg over her shoulders and slowly leading me to the stairs. She meant what she said earlier. That punch really was my payment, then.

"Oh, Sis's nose sometimes does that if she works on dresses for too long," Sweetie Belle pointed out, trotting after Twilight as she went up the stairs following us.

"Yes. He overused his magic back there. He'll be fine. He'll just sleep well tonight," she assured.

I heard a weak sigh behind us, regardless. "But he did it to save me. To get me out of trouble," she muttered.

"Oh, fer crying out loud. Ah wasn't gonna hurt ya, Sweetie!" Applejack protested. Again.

I chuckled tiredly and added, "Yeah, and technically I was the reason you were in that position in the first place. I couldn't let anything happen to you."

There was light scratching as we reached the top of the stairs, I noted. Spike was writing gently on a long, unrolled parchment that was spread a good ten feet across the floor.

"Hey, Twilight! I almost finished the first alphabetized segment of," he started to greet before turning around and giving a surprised start. "Whoa! Applejack? Moon Mender?" he added questioningly.

"Hey, Spike. Mender woke up and is going to be staying with us tonight. Can you help Applejack get him into bed?" Twilight requested, coming to the top of the stairs after the three of us cleared it.

Spike tilted his head. "Bed? Is he sleeping with you?" he questioned. Even half asleep I still managed to blush.

"Ug! Spike! Mattress, then. Sheesh," Twilight groaned behind me, a matching blush almost apparent in her voice.

Spike didn't seem to understand his faux pas, but shrugged and guided Applejack and I towards the other corner. I was surprised to see the folding mattress set up there again.

Applejack wordlessly picked up my surprise. "We brought it back 'ere after ya went in the clinic. Twi said she wanted ta have ya close ta run some tests fer ah little while," she explained gently, helping me lie down.

Sweetie Belle helped adjust my pillow as Applejack actually pulled my blankets back up for me. "Um, thank you, you two," I muttered, somewhat unsure of how to gracefully handle their kindness.

"Considering she belted you not even ten minutes ago, that's the least she can do," Twilight muttered, rolling her eyes as I watched her walk around Applejack to examine me.

"Whoa, she what?" Spike asked, sounding a mixture of surprised and amused.

Applejack looked less entertained. "Ah told ya why. Ah let him off easy fer the amount o' needless worry he gave us," she professed.

Twilight narrowed her eyes slightly. "I guess we have different definitions of needless, then. He was brave and honorable, actually ready to give his life to save us," she defended. Er. Brave and honorable? I almost wet myself. If there had been any other option, I would have run screaming. But the only other options I know I couldn't have lived with. You can't outrun yourself.

"He coulda let Dash stay an fly 'em through yer magic even faster. Or held off on tha reckless explosions until yer spell was done. Poor Rainbow almost tore herself apart over all this," Applejack growled, tone of voice rising. Sweetie Belle swallowed nervously and backed away from the two mares, bumping into the edge of my mattress.

"It doesn't work like that. Twice the mass, twice as slow to move! Would you prefer they both almost died? He did that for her," Twilight explained, blush now gone and looking irritated instead. Sweetie Belle climbed onto the mattress, over me, and hid on my other side. Rainbow must have taken this really badly. I wish I could apologize to her right now.

Applejack stomped a hoof down. "He didn't have'ta blow up so soon. It wouldn't'ah been an issue iffin he just delayed ah minute or so!" she argued, gesturing angrily in my direction. I swallowed weakly. She was right, of course. It all boiled down to me being too weak. After I'd gotten hit by that blast in the back, my body just kinda gave out. I should have been stronger. Rainbow could have stayed to the last moment and nobody's feelings would have gotten hurt.

The sick feeling came back and I held in the urge to throw up. "Why are you attacking him?! I screwed up in the first place. If it weren't for my scanning spell, they wouldn't have gotten into trouble at all," Twilight growled, not quite as loud as Applejack. No, it wasn't her fault. It wasn't.

"Why are ya protectin' him so hard, Twilight? Can't ya just let 'er go at tha one punch an' be done?!" Applejack redirected. She growled low and her snarling face burned into my mind. I winced as a low static audio bled through my hearing.

"He's a worthless pile of shit after all! Why protect him in the first place?" Applejack demanded. I reeled in agony as her words tore at my heart. The room started to spin as I fought to close my eyes. Still, she continued, "He's a runt! He failed the breeding examinations and is barely fit to be a janitor, let alone a... Why do you support him?!"

I choked back the vomit and sobbing, eyes opening to a darkened room full of glowing red eyes. My vision warped and distorted, spinning as if I had a massive fever. Maybe I did? I felt like I was burning up. The eyes stared wickedly at me, curved mouths twisted in laughter as I tried to spin away from them. They had me completely surrounded, however, and I cried out, trying to get someone, anyone to come help me. I clutched tightly at the only thing that gave me comfort. A memento. Some called it silly or childish but it was all I had. I...

Everything was washed away in lavender and it felt like I stopped breathing, if but for a moment. A lovely smell and soft feeling drifted over me, even as my beloved memento faded from my memories. My mind felt sleepy suddenly, and I gave way to the soft light as reality bled back into being. W-What happened? The soft sensation solidified into a warm coat and gentle heartbeat pressed tightly into my chest and a harder push against my forehead.

My eyes re-focused just in time to see Twilight's open from an inch away, her horn pressed against my forehead again. She pulled me out of the nightmare?

"Ah can't keep him down fer long with that blasted hoof gettin' in tha way. Could ya hurry it up ah tad?" Applejack asked, sounding a bit irritated. Uh oh.

All of my muscles relaxed instantly as I forced the tension away. The magic focus went with it and I felt the elongated ribbons connected to my left foreleg go limp. The ends drifted away from Applejack's face and hooves as she continued putting her full weight on my waist and back legs, holding me down. My death grip on Twilight's back also lessened, but I saw her blush lightly as my hooves slid off her back.

"Mender, are you here now?" Twilight asked gently, smiling.

I swallowed and nodded quietly, unsure of how to respond or even what happened. "Thank Celestia fer that! Those bandages were darn annoyin' when they kept tryin' ta tangle me up or crawl up mah nose," Applejack muttered, shaking her head rapidly and blowing air out her nostrils a couple times.

Spike, whom I just noticed, let go of Sweetie Belle, who bounded back up onto the bed again. "Are you all right, Mender?" she asked rapidly, sliding to a stop at my left side.

I nodded tiredly as Twilight moved her horn out of the way. "Um, yeah. I just don't know what happened," I muttered.

"Ya started freakin' out an squeezin' Sweetie Belle like ah stuffed animal er somethin'," Applejack informed, causing me to swallow.

"I'm okay. They got me free of the bandages. But are you all right?" Sweetie asked, still sounding concerned.

Twilight frowned, shaking her head as she brushed her horn along my temples instead. Her warm breath drifted down my neck and I tried hard not to blush. "I'm sensing his magic settling down again. It was a panic attack. But your magic activated too, so this could be dangerous if unchecked," she explained. Her tail swished impatiently as her lower half stuck off the side of the bed.

"Is that why his eyes glowed?" Spike asked, approaching on the other side of Twilight and sitting down lazily.

"Ah reckon it's ah good idea ta keep him 'ere with tha magic expert, then," Applejack admitted, finally releasing my stiff waist. "Ya back then, Mender?" she followed up quietly.

Staring at her again, I tried not to shiver while nodding. She hadn't really said that, Mender. Calm down. She doesn't think you're a useless runt. Right?

There was a moment’s hesitation. Something silently noticed or maybe a rogue thought in her mind. I saw her eyes flicker for less than a second, averting her gaze from mine. Then she snapped them back onto me and covered the building frown with a warmer smile. "That's good. Ah guess ya should take 'er easy fer ah few more days," she added, nodding solemnly.

"Maybe you should leave for the night?" Twilight returned instead, glaring at the orange earth mare over her right shoulder.

Applejack sighed and nodded more tentatively this time. "Ah'll get outta yer hair. Ah only seem ta be makin' it worse fer now. Come on, Sweets. Ah'll take ya back to Rarity, too," she finally relented, motioning to the white filly on my cot.

"Aww! Do I have to? Sis is gonna kill me," she whined in protest.

Twilight hesitated for a second before sighing. "Look, I'm sorry, AJ. I'm just a little stressed right now, is all," she interrupted, apologizing.

Applejack stopped at the top of the stairs and looked back in surprise. After a second or two, the soft smile returned and she shook her head. "Ah understand, Sugar. Rainbow's been talkin' with me almost every day 'bout it, an' ah'm ah tad stressed too. Ah..." she started to explain before frowning at me.

Jittery, I looked away rapidly, directing attention to Sweetie instead. She was frowning and looking down at the fabric she'd given me earlier. Wait. Fabric? I suddenly noticed the tiny saddlebags on her sides. Oh.

"That was for Rarity, wasn't it?" I whispered, getting a closer look at the now bloody piece of fabric.

Sweetie Belle looked up at me in surprise, but then smiled. "It's okay. It was for a good cause," she assured hesitantly, absently brushing a hoof over the piece.

"Will Rarity understand that?" Spike asked, sitting on my other side now and looking concerned at Sweetie Belle.

Twilight migrated over to Applejack while we whispered, tilting her head. Applejack seemed to draw assurance from her and nodded to herself. "That's not entirely true, ah 'spose. Ah've been ah bit worried mahself, too. Ah pony grows on ya after ah while, ya know?" she finally offered up. I grew on her? My heart wanted to believe her but my mind was ever the skeptic. I pretended not to be listening.

"Yeah, I know. He's important to me. I just wish I hadn't screwed up so much. It's stressed me out," Twilight returned. I frowned. Important? As a pony or guinea pig?

Sweetie distracted my stalker tendencies by sighing, seemingly paying no attention to the mares. "If she gives me time to explain, it might not be as bad. Does blood wash out?" she asked innocently.

"Way too easily," I assured before I really realized I was talking. I'd had that impression before, I was suddenly distinctly aware of.

"Whew! She might not be as mad at me, then," Sweetie Belle muttered, looking relieved. My darker thoughts lightened a little and I smiled at her.

She perked and returned my expression a moment later, nodding. I assured her, "Don't worry. Rarity will understand. I'll even come by the boutique tomorrow and explain."

Her eyes got as wide as saucers and she grinned, hugging my chest gently. I chuckled and patted her lightly on the head.

"Besides, Princess Celestia left it up to you, right? She still has faith in you," Applejack continued, snapping my attention back to their conversation with that name.

Twilight sighed and shook her head wearily. "It's not her I'm worried about. Still, thank you," she returned quietly. I tilted my head and Applejack smirked suddenly, looking past her lavender friend and right at me.

"Well shucks. Iffin' that's all yer worried about, he's right 'ere ta ask, after all. Hey, Mender?!" she called out, surprising me.

Twilight looked momentarily shocked before glaring at the orange earth mare. "Don't you dare!" she warned. What were they talking about that was so dire?

"Do ta think Twi 'ere is a horrible pony deservin' some punishment?" she asked, totally ignoring the unicorn's sputtering protests.

I blushed lightly, more than a little confused. Sure, I was apprehensive about meeting the Princess, but I trusted Twilight's judgment most of all. I shook my head as Sweetie let go of me and gave a questioning look back at the mares.

Twilight stopped and stared at me in surprise, tilting her head. "You aren't angry that I told the Princess? That I almost got you killed?" she questioned incredulously.

I smiled softly and shook my head. "I was in good hooves. Rainbow's a goddess of flight. I don't think we were ever really in danger after you cast it. It was a simple mistake made during a stressful moment," I reasoned. Technically true. I'd gotten most of the damage due to the communication dish skirmish, not on the first approach to the Aegis.

Twilight exhaled lightly while Applejack laughed. "Careful ya don't let Rainbow hear ya say that. She might try ta court ya next," she warned, wearing a smirk.

I chuckled and shook my head. That I didn't have to worry about, at least. "I don't think she's interested," I observed, brushing the faux warning off easily.

Applejack just snickered and nodded. "Ah didn't think she'd be. Anyways, ah should be headin' home. Ah'll see ya at tomorrow evenin's get tagether," she assured, maintaining the friendly smile through her slow drawl.

Twilight nodded and answered for me, "Of course! Could you also clear Sweetie Belle with Rarity? It'll save Mender having to tomorrow."

"Aww! But I wanted him to visit!" Sweetie Belle complained, frowning sadly. I chuckled, feeling a little more useless than before, but I suppose it's for the best.

"He still can visit if he wants. Plus you'll see him at the party, right?" Twilight reasoned to the little filly, not missing a beat or losing her smile.

Spike snickered and nodded as well. "I bet you could get Rarity to let you come over early and help decorate, too. I'll... help her with your duties in your absence, of course!" he offered, smirking towards Sweetie Belle.

Twilight gave the little purple lizard thing a knowing skeptical look, but Sweetie beamed. "Really? You'd do that?" she asked, sounding absurdly excited. I resisted snorting at his ulterior motives.

"Of course! No sweat," he assured, grinning now. I noticed his teeth for the first time and was surprised to note their razor points. Those kinds of teeth weren't meant for a veggie diet. I found myself debating what he actually ate. Somehow, I doubt he'd be Twilight's assistant if it were too gruesome, though.

Sweetie gave him a gentle hug before squealing, "Oh thank you, thank you, thank you, Spike! I can't wait to help Pinkie tomorrow."

Applejack gave a soft chortle and nodded. "We best be off then, squirt. Ya have ah long day tomorrow, an' ya need ta get some rest, ah reckon," she pointed out, motioning towards the stairs.

Sweetie Belle nodded, hopping off the cot and excitedly bounding down the stairs. "So much energy," Twilight muttered, shaking her head.

"Youngin's. Ah'll see ya'll tomorrow, okay?" Applejack affirmed as she headed back down the stairs. Twilight giggled and nodded, following after her.

"Yeah. I'll see you two out," she offered before disappearing from sight.

I watched her tail disappear down the stairs before softly exhaling. That had gone better than anticipated, minus the whole 'panic attack and lose control of my magic' bit. Still, if it was going to be a problem, here was admittedly the best place I could be. My attention was drawn to the shivering Spike a moment later, however, who was still sitting next to me. There was a momentary lapse of concern before I noticed his almost predatory grin. Excited jitters?

"Score!" he finally shouted, quiet enough to not carry down the stairs. I couldn't help but laugh at his exuberance. He smirked at me and raised a claw expectantly. Figures. Some things were universal I guess. Rolling my eyes, I gave in and bumped a forehoof into his clawed hand, earning a widening of his grin.

I sat back and watched his tiny celebratory dance while waiting for Twilight to come back...

Author's Notes:

Doom Pie's Audiobook Chapter:
http://youtu.be/ljK1DYczRA4

Chapter 03

It was there for but a moment. Like a dying echo as it bounded off a cliff. My conscious awareness flickered, momentarily focusing on where it used to be. I felt a certain sense of distress at finding nothing. No. Nothing wasn't what I was afraid of. A stirring of awareness, as if I slowly opened my eyes to a new day.

That nagging sensation. I frowned, right ear giving a twitch of annoyance before I flattened them both back against my head. Before me spread the infinity of stars, winking and shifting innumerable. It wasn't exactly cold, yet the absence of heat. There was nothing around me but the gently drifting chunks of rock. Nothing at all, air included. That wasn't a problem, though. I wasn't breathing so I didn't require air. I wasn't breathing because I wasn't here. This was a dream, right? The cooling remains of a broken planet as it drifted slowly away from our star. The same star that had brought forth a thousand generations of my old people. Now I saw the telling rings being extended around it as it was milked for gas and energy. A certain emptiness filled my chest and seeped from my eyes as I watched. Why bring me back here?

That stirring again. No, the link was gone, right? Of course it was. My old body was reduced to the consistency of fine dust and scattered to the solar winds by now. You don't get much deader than that. So why show me this? My mind either felt sentimental or masochistic, I suppose. Still, there was no denying that sensation, even if it was barely a second.

An echo. I frowned, letting my idly swaying legs still, for all the good they were doing at the moment. Besides, it's not like I was actually here anyway. "Madness. This is... They're gone, all right? We need... They might find us here. We need to..."

It was a whisper in my mind and I frowned. A male voice. Like a radio signal but for my skull. Pleasant. Mentally, I went over potential causes. Skull fracture perfectly aligned to form some sort of audio spell? Highly unlikely. Whispers of an elder being urging me to perform his unknowable designs? I doubt I'd get off that easily.

"They can't be all... ...parts of the Grosh ship is... ...think there was a counter..." followed. A droning sensation kept cutting out the words. It wasn't unlike the static sound of an empty television broadcast. Different voice this time and mention of that hellish name. Damn. Why couldn't it have been the skull fracture? So much easier.

I grew desperate. Creeping whispers of madness as the mental isolation slowly drives me insane? Probably not. It wasn't Tuesday yet. Radiation from Rainbow Dash causing a brain tumor to form, brandishing vivid hallucinations? Nah. Scan would have picked that up. I rapidly ran out of ideas.

Another voice rudely interrupted my bout of adamant denial with, "No! There has to... another explanation. They're... ...near the moons. Hiding, yes! They're not all..."

It was much clearer than the others and distinctly female. I also was surprised by the accent. Heavy rolling of the tongue with sharp uptakes on the 'ta' sounds. Where had I heard that accent before? Images of a cat purring came to mind, earning a frown. That sensation reared back rapidly. It was like I was almost remembering something, balanced carefully on the apex of my mind, but I didn't know how to move to get it to fall towards me and was deathly afraid the wrong shift would cause it to tumble away forever.

My eyes widened as I rotated in place, suddenly aware of it. A ship drifted into sight from behind the moon! It was a ship. The design looked Kel... Wait, what?

My mind jerked awake as Pinkie Pie landed on my chest.

* * * * *

My world spun as I hacked and coughed, flailing about as the pink monster sat unforgiving on my chest. She giggled in delight at my reaction, as if a devil slowly sampling my soul like a fine wine. My mind was lost somewhere in the metaphor before Pinkie was finally hoisted off of me with a purple glow.

"Pinkie! I told you to stay downstairs with the decorations!" a familiar, 'Twilight Sparkle' sounding voice lectured. It was hard to tell with my mind spinning from the lack of air and sudden awakening.

"Aww! But he's totally awake now. Does that mean I can decorate up here, too?!" she requested. My eyes widened as it looked like she suddenly drew a cannon out from behind her. Somehow. I filed it under system shock.

Twilight growled, ignoring the cannon completely and tossing the pink pony backwards onto her bed. Pinkie let out a giggle and 'Wheee!' as she bounced off what used to be the well-made bed.

"Are you all right, Mender?" Twilight asked, smiling upon reaching me.

Rolling over onto my side, I winced as I looked up at her but managed a tiny nod. "I'm fine. A little tired and sore today, but all right," I assured.

She exhaled softly and nodded before resting her horn on my exposed left forehoof. "I'm glad. Part of me was afraid you wouldn't wake up again," she admitted, eyes tracing the grooves cut into the hoof. It was a desperate measure and last resort but was now promising new potential, I noticed. Her concern made me warm up a little though. Wait, how long was I out for if she was worried? Glancing towards the window, I was greeted by a warm afternoon light. Oops.

I blushed and finally managed a smile. "I'm fine, Twi. Although we probably have a lot to discuss," I pointed out. Pinkie Pie got off the bed behind Twilight and disappeared from my point of view with a grin. Now what was she up to?

Twilight lifted her horn off my hoof and smirked knowingly. "Indeed. If I saw correctly, that little show last night was magic. The hoof, right?" she reasoned, dead on as usual.

"Don't let anyone ever tell you that you're not one heck of a smart mare," I complimented, snickering at her smirk.

Her cheeks flushed at the same time that her eyes softened as she smiled at me. "Needs more smooches!" Pinkie suddenly declared from somewhere behind Twilight. Wait, what?

Twilight's eyes widened in surprise as her expression took on something similar to my train of thought. I wasn't left any time to react, however. A pink burst of mane collided with Twilight's rump, moving at ramming speed. The lavender unicorn gasped sharply in surprise momentarily as she lost her balance and stumbled forwards. Her still open mouth pushed into mine as her right foreleg outstretched to catch herself.

Time lagged hard and my mind joined along as my heart hung up the 'Out To Lunch' sign. A jolt of electricity sparked through me from the contact and I was oddly aware of the warmth and texture of her lips against mine. Her weight continued, pushing her chest into mine as she fell forwards. I was oddly aware of her warm coat mingling with my own as I was pushed backwards into the pillow. Her mane billowed out in slow motion, drifting to each side of my head.

A single heartbeat came and went as my eyes widened drastically. Hers infinitely surprised me by lowering, if only slightly. My mind couldn't process anything, and I screamed at my body to not move an inch. Every fiber in my forelegs wanted to reach up and pull her closer. No!

Another thud of our hearts. Her eyes widened again, realization dawning behind them. A sharp intake of breath through her nostrils, our muzzles still sealed together. She suddenly retreated off me as if burned; as if I were actively on fire. Her face was aglow with flush as I no doubt mimicked. Instead of facing me, however, she shifted to a glare and swung around at the now ecstatic Pinkie Pie behind her.

"Oh, so cool! It actually worked! You two are so sweet together. Of course, I'll have to get Fluttershy to sample, too, so you three can figure out which," the pink one started to gush out.

"Pinkie! Why the hay did you do that?! That was... That was my first kiss!" Twilight screamed with surprising intensity. To my surprise, Pinkie actually stopped talking and looked up at Twilight instead.

"Really? You've never kissed anypony before?" Pinkie asked, sounding playful yet surprised. Everything dawned on me in a single instant. I stole Twilight's first kiss. Oh crap. I was dead. I was going to go down the stairs this time with my cot on top of me for added measure!

Twilight let out a strange mixture between a snarl and snort. "Of course not! I well, I was always too busy with my studies as Princess Celestia's student to worry about stupid, pointless things like that!" she spit out. The dagger of ice slicing my tiny heart open was oddly comforting. Maybe it would numb the physical pain of the multiple series of blunt force trauma I was probably about to receive.

"Aww! It's not stupid, or even pointless, Twi. Didn't it make you feel warm and happy?" Pinkie asked, eyes starting to water slightly. Uh no. Everything was falling apart. It wasn't supposed to be like this!

Twilight looked taken aback by her expression before hardening hers again and scowling. It didn't last, however, and I watched her eyes shift back over to me for a split second's hesitation.

The scowl shifted to a look of frustration as she reached up with her left forehoof and gently held her forehead. "I... I don't know. I've never felt this way before. I don't know what to think anymore," she muttered, causing me to swallow weakly. Admittedly, my mind was still reeling from finding out I was still alive. This was a bit difficult to process and I wasn't sure what to think.

Pinkie looked miserable still, however. "But did I do bad, then?" she asked gently, eyes large and watery. Twilight swallowed, looking uncomfortable before shaking her head.

"Uh, no, no you didn't. It was just, um, something I wasn't ready for. Do you think you could decorate downstairs for a few more minutes, Pinkie?" she hesitantly asked.

Pinkie glanced between us before I watched her expression shift from miserable to positively ecstatic within seconds. I added it to the growing Pinkie Memory Reel of things that would scar me for the rest of my life.

"Sure thing, Twi! And I'll keep everypony else away, too!" she assured, throwing a salute and bounding down the stairs before Twilight could get a word in otherwise.

The lavender unicorn sighed before turning and facing me again. I tried to remain neutral as she blushed lightly and snickered. "Rarity wanted us to wait until you were up and about before broaching sensitive subjects, but I guess Pinkie got a little exuberant. Ug," she explained, suddenly looking really tired.

"It's fine. I'm just a little overwhelmed right now. It's like my mind keeps thinking I should be dead, not kissing cute mares," I reasoned sarcastically.

Twilight blushed but smiled and nodded up at me. "I understand. How are you feeling this morning, aside from that?" she asked, sounding a little concerned and walking closer again.

I watched her sit down on her haunches a foot from the cot before returning, "A little tired. Um, dreams again. Not as bad as before, but..."

Her eyes widened a little. "Memories or…?" she led along.

I shook my head. "Images of the remains of the ship and star we orbited. And a tiny scout ship going along the remains. Not Grosh," I elaborated, swallowing.

"Ship as in space vehicle, right?" she requested in confirmation.

I chuckled and nodded. "Yeah. As cool as it would be to have boats in space, I doubt it would be as effective," I admitted wistfully.

Twilight laughed, tension lifting a little. "Yeah. Kind of like pirates but for space. Space Pirates?" she guessed, assumingly not realizing how accurate she had been.

"Careful. Those actually existed," I warned, winking at her.

"Oh, you're kidding. Ug. They're probably a lot scarier and meaner than our versions too, right?" she asked, rolling her eyes.

"It wasn't a pleasant world," I reminded, before adding, "Regardless, I'm very happy to be here instead."

She smiled again and nodded before standing up off the floor. "Agreed. So let's keep you here. It's probably nothing, but I want to do a dream study on you tonight, just in case. Is that okay?" she asked, tilting her head a little. It was easier to manage looking at her after she shifted back to her professional tone again, I noticed.

I nodded, of course. "If it means anything, it didn't feel as hostile this time. I was detached. Bodiless, I think," I added, frowning.

She nodded and smiled before climbing up onto my cot with me. My eyes widened and I couldn't stop the blush as I suddenly remembered the feel of her lips. Oh crap. Stupid body!

She surprised me again by grabbing my forehoof instead. Huh? Oh. She examined the lines and grooves that were cleanly sliced into its form, frowning.

"Is this some sort of focusing symbol?" she asked after a few seconds of examination. I nodded softly.

"Yeah. It just helps me focus on an effect I want. It was made to help make fire, but it's just a general concentration symbol," I replied.

She nodded absently, seeming deep in thought. Her examination continued and I felt a tingling sensation as telekinesis slipped down into the cracks.

"Structural integrity loss. The nurse was worried about that. She said it can support you, but you should wear a covering over it to prevent things from getting wedged inside," Twilight enlightened as she continued prodding with her magic.

I sighed. I'd figured as much. Still, as a price to be paid, that was getting off cheap. I wondered about my lower back, however. It was still bandaged, so I couldn't tell if I had a scar or anything. Well, what used to be my lower back before I became a quadruped. Back back? No, that sounded stupid. I should really find an anatomy book at some point

Twilight's magic prodded yet again a second later, but this time slipped inside my hoof completely! I gasped, momentarily wondering if she'd sliced into my hoof accidentally or something. Calming down, I felt her warm energy sliding up my left foreleg. Oh, she used the hole to inverse the thing I did last night.

Her energy pooled into my chest and I closed my eyes, simply letting her past. It felt distinctly like her as it coiled around my energy inside of me. I felt her testing internal organs, making sure the energy was recovering correctly, and checking along the surface of my skin under the bandages. She was doing a medical checkup. I couldn't help it, though. The energy felt so much like hers, the massive amount of strength behind it, yet it was so graceful. Beautiful, yet a little intoxicating. I felt my face heat up as my energy started to feel out hers. That familiar light-headed sensation drifted through me, similar to the last time she had connected her magic with mine.

"M-Mender, that's distracting. Cool yourself off and l-let me focus," Twilight requested, a light blush appearing on her cheeks.

"Ah, um, s-sorry!" I muttered, rapidly pulling back all my energy towards my core.

Twilight made a light gasping noise in surprise as I did so. I was momentarily confused until I felt her energy slip and rush in to fill the sudden void. Her body fell against mine as it felt like I was suddenly dropped into warm, blasting air currents. The billowing heat surrounded me on all sides as I retreated inside my own mind momentarily, unable to process anything but lavender light. Her level of magic was... It was beyond anything I'd seen before. Her, a small pony, contained more energy than the prior arch-magi of the university!

Two violet pools of light opened up in my mind, before a light giggle resounded through me. "Mender, don't retreat like that. This form needs your magic as much as it needs warmth. You create a void by retreating quickly. Um, I need you to come out now," she requested softly.

Wait, this form was dependent on magic? Interesting. I gave her an inquisitive 'look' as best I could with no physical body. She caught it regardless, it seemed, and an image formed in my mind. I saw myself and her from outside of our bodies, suddenly. An aura of light burned off her before getting sucked into my hoof?

"You partially pulled my psyche into you when you retreated. This, um, it would be bad to stay like this for too long. Could you push me out, please?" she muttered, softer than before.

I felt the connection easily enough. There was an odd sensation as I grew curious and felt along the lines leading back down my foreleg. It went both ways, didn't it? If I shifted into her at the same time, that would make it even more of a link, wouldn't it?

Suddenly her eyes widened and she 'felt' scared. "N-No Mender! I'm not r-ready for this. I need to... I need to think things over," she pleaded. Ready? What wasn't she ready for? I tried to push a questioning sensation towards her as my progress down the link halted.

She sighed weakly. "We all have magic in us. You know that, right? Well, we unicorns can manipulate that, not just in ourselves, but in others too. By melding two magic pools together, we can cause various effects between ponies. Please, let me go?" she requested gently.

Various effects? While vague, based off her reaction, I could guess at a few of them. Temptation struck once more, and I realized that she really couldn't stop me if I just kept going. We might be linked, able to remain together forever, even!

The pang of guilt hit a second later and I remembered. All those feelings and thoughts when faced with the same choice on the Grosh ship. Was anything different? Not really. As much as I wanted to be accepted and stay here forever, there were some things that just couldn't be sacrificed. I couldn't live with the thought of hurting these ponies.

It was decided in an instant. I expanded out again and shoved. Twilight was ejected a moment later and shuddered as her body sat back up on me, psyche full back inside of her. She looked down at me softly and I winced, looking away in no small amount of shame.

"What did the Grosh offer you in return for Equestria?" she suddenly asked, voice quiet but solemn. I swallowed, wondering how much Twilight and Fluttershy had seen in my memories while trying to pull me out of that, well, whatever that was that I fell into.

I sighed. "You six. And a research position with immortality benefits," I returned, closing my eyes gently. Maybe if I didn't look at her, she wouldn't see what a monster I was for even thinking about it.

There was silence in return and I feared the worst. Why was this so hard? What was my problem with this? All I had ever known was myself. To encompass others in that reality was both exciting and terrifying. Sure there had been other soldiers. At least I think there had been. I can't remember anything specific, but a more general feeling of companionship was there. That wasn't like this at all. We weren't friends. Just individuals mutually working towards a common cause. They were allies, just like our nation's allies. This... These ponies were my first friends. At least, I think that's how friendship works. It's been a bit rocky, sure, but I think they were my friends. Now, I valued this world more than my old one.

Of course, when all was said and done, my body was out-pacing my heart. Things were happening too fast. Battle was easy in comparison. I knew my targets and exactly what needed to be done to approach the goals given to me. I don't remember much and certainly never a time where I wasn't fighting. This was so different. I just wanted to step back and flee. I wanted to hide somewhere and scream until I felt my head clear and my blood cool off. Yet here I was in the middle of a party getting put together with a cute unicorn sitting in my lap. No, not cute. Twilight Sparkle was gorgeous. She held a more level feeling of maturity and self-assuredness. Fluttershy was beautiful, too, but hers more stemmed from an innocence she seemed to almost drip.

After never having dealt with females before to my knowledge, it was overwhelming on my body. I didn't fault it for getting flooded with hormones. Just because it was justified, however, didn't mean I had to put up with it. I needed to fix this somehow.

Twilight surprised me out of my self-examination by giggling suddenly. "You're so different. You're a lot like me in some ways. We both worry and overthink things from time to time. Still, I'm not angry. The answer you gave him was quite obvious," she reasoned. I glanced back up at her in time to see her nose press lightly into mine. She sighed and rested her horn against my forehead again. I braced for magic, but none came.

A moment passed and I smiled lightly. "I guess blowing him up was as obvious an answer as any," I agreed, hoping that much was a given. Nothing says 'I hate you and want you to drop dead' quite like reducing a few dozen kilometers of space into fine dust.

She giggled again and nodded. "I missed you," she suddenly confessed, her hoof running along the fur on my chest.

"Why?" I asked, quieter while trying to not blush again. She was just resting against me. No test or examination. Just for comfort. My mind didn't know what to do, so I simply slid my hoof up and down her foreleg.

"You make me laugh. You're smart and can hold a conversation about advanced things. You're also full of fascinating things! I like you," she explained, taking my hoof up again and examining it.

It never came, as anticipated. I'd been listening for anything actually intimate to be added to the list, but it wasn't there. See, body? There's all the proof that was needed. She could get everything on that list by just being my friend. What was it that I wanted from her, anyway?

I stared emptily at the hoof she was holding. That pervasive sense of being lost came back to me. Everybody from my past existence was dead. Why was I still alive? Did I honestly deserve a second chance to find my purpose? There were no readily apparent answers and I somehow doubted there ever would be.

"Mender, what's wrong?" Twilight asked hesitantly a moment later. A glance back up at her told me she had switched her attention back to me rather than the gashed up hoof.

I shook my head, however. "I'm all right, Twi. Just tired. Pinkie takes a lot of energy to keep up with," I politely lied. No sense in worrying anypony needlessly. There was nothing she could do about it anyway.

"Well, if you're sure. You can wander a bit if you feel like it, but be back by six for the party. I also want to discuss your dreams and magic after," she informed, standing slowly and stretching before getting back onto the floor.

I nodded and tried my best self-assured smile. I probably looked like Fluttershy at a heavy metal concert, sadly. Although that's pretty accurate for how outpaced my mind felt.

"Oh! I almost forgot. Rarity was by earlier and asked for you, but you were still sleeping then. She requested you either drop by later or somepony let her know when you woke up," she relayed.

I tilted my head and questioned, "Er, why does she want to see me?"

Twilight shrugged absently as she trotted over to her personal bookshelf. "She didn't say. The only thing she mentioned was something about saddlebags," she tacked on idly as she focused on searching through the titles of her books.

Rarity made me a saddlebag? I frowned and wondered what the occasion was. I hoped it was an occasion, anyway. I certainly didn't have the bits to pay for it, obviously. Well, I'm sure that should she want me to pay for it, she'd offer some sort of payment plan. She knew of my lack of funding.

"I think I might go for that walk after all," I muttered before tacking on, "Maybe I'll go see what she wants before the party gets started."

Twilight smiled at me as she turned around, a book seemingly on potion making floating next to her. "That's probably a good idea, Mender. You could do with some fresh air after being cooped up in the hospital for so long. Just please let me know if there's anything else I can do to help you out," she offered quietly. There was a distinct moment of hesitation as she looked at me. It was as if she wanted me to say something but was afraid to ask directly.

I nodded and tried to give my best assuring smile. She confused me something terrible but ultimately I'd just prefer to have a little time to myself to think. Plus, I really was interested in what Rarity wanted. Up to this point, she was the one who'd given me the least amount of problems. If she really did have a saddle bag, it would be worth it just for that! From what I'd seen of her work, I knew it would be top quality. Still, the why of the situation concerned me. It wasn't my birthday, at least that I knew of. Maybe it was to celebrate me NOT being blown to tiny little bits? Deciding to just go with that, I nodded gently to Twilight and slowly got out of bed.

Thankfully, she was there to brace against me as I stumbled. My left foreleg was surprisingly weak and caught me off guard. "Careful, Mender. I think the magic put quite a strain on that leg. Take it easy for a few days, all right? You're also not fully recovered from the incident," she warned.

A lapse of lethargy passed through me suddenly and I slumped against her warm coat. It made sense. My body wasn't fully recovered from the massive level of damage it had received. Plus, it had just spent almost two weeks cooped up in a bed, being fed intravenously through a tube. I took several deep breaths and steadied myself on my hooves.

"Mender, you need to take it easy, okay? Your body took quite a shock," Twilight warned gently. Her eyes softened as I managed to shakily stand on my own.

I nodded and flushed lightly, fighting back my own thoughts. It really would be nice to stay here with her. A pity it was so hard to think coherently around her. My not thinking properly wasn't fair to either Fluttershy or Twilight. I needed to figure out a way to clear my head.

"I'll be careful, Twilight. I just need to clear my head a bit," I assured.

She smiled uneasily but nodded after a second or so. "All right. Just be back in time for the party," she reminded.

Nodding, I slowly and carefully made my way downstairs.

* * * * *

The day was a reasonable one. Light cloud cover kept the temperatures down well enough. I felt a light breeze also drifting over my coat, making for a rather pleasant experience. It was Fall now and I figured things would be getting chilly soon. It amused me when I read that they even had snow. Most species capable of controlling their climate wouldn't let their planet's rotation around the star interfere that much. Of course, I had no idea if the planet really rotated around a star. Or if the planet was actually rotating. Hell, I didn't know if I was even on a planet at all!

Regardless, I took my time as I walked down the path. The day was almost too bright and I found my eyes starting to ache if I took them off the ground for more than a minute or so. I guess I simply prefer the night in this instance. I'm named after an aspect of it, after all. A bit of noise came from my right as I rounded the street on my way to the Carousel Boutique. I saw a group of young foals playing in the grass just off the street. What day was today? If I recalled, the town had its own school for the young foals. It wasn't late enough for them to be out yet, so it was either a day off or they were playing hooky.

Sadly, my thoughts were halted once again by my poor skull smashing into something. There was no give to the harsh metal wall at all as my momentum carried me forward. I squished momentarily into the surface before gravity took over again and I fell over backwards. My landing was surprisingly gentle as I landed on my haunches. After shaking the dizziness out of my head, I looked up at the source of my newly discovered headache.

An imposing looking Stallion stood in front of me. He was nowhere near as big as Big Mac, but wore an impressive looking set of armor. It was a shiny golden chest plate and helm set with some sort of plated hoof guards. Wait, was this some sort of law enforcement pony? I hadn't seen any prior to this and frankly didn't think that they were needed here. He gave me a cold, stoic stare that hinted at a detached level of calculated efficiency, and I shuddered.

"Oh my! Are you all right?" came a soft-spoken inquiry from behind the guard. I shifted my attention past him to note an almost regal looking mare approaching from his left, my right.

My eyes widened drastically as I drew in her looks! She was the purest white that I'd ever seen. Her hair was alive with softly cascading rainbow colors. It was vastly longer than Dash's, but provided a much softer color variation. The colors complimented magenta eyes. To my shock, she had both regal wings and an elongated horn extending from her forehead. Both? What was the name of those? I racked my brain trying to remember what that book had said about them. There was something important that I was forgetting.

Answering her would be a good start, I decided, finally replying, "I'm all right. Um, I'm sorry I bumped into your friend."

She giggled gently, her eyes softening to match her tone. I was suddenly shocked at the weight of knowledge she seemed to contain behind those eyes. "Oh, I do recognize you. You're Moon Mender, Twilight Sparkle's friend. Worry not. I'm certain my guard is undamaged," she assured, smiling again.

"You have me at a disadvantage," I pointed out, deciding to ignore the slight rib from the obviously well off mare. Her own guard? She's probably upper class, at least.

She surprised me with an odd smirk that came out of nowhere, before returning, "You can just call me 'Tia' if you want. I'm a friend of Twilight's. She talks a lot about you."

I averted my gaze from her rapidly as I blushed. She talked about me? "I didn't know that. Well, a friend of Twilight's is a friend of mine," I assured, trying to will the blush away.

Tia nodded politely to me, still wearing that understanding smile. "Friends are very important. I'm glad Twilight has opened her heart to them. I was actually on my way over to the library right now. Do you know if she's busy?" she asked.

"Well, Pinkie Pie is over there right now to do the decorations for the party tonight, but Twi probably wouldn't mind company," I cautioned. If she was friends with Twilight, she probably knew Pinkie. That warning should be self-evident if so.

"Oh my. Well I don't want to get in the way of anything. Wait, do you know of any good places to eat here?" she suddenly asked, seemingly out of nowhere. Well, probably not out of nowhere. I knew firsthoof how fast hunger could sneak up on you.

I frowned but nodded slowly, suggesting, "Well, Twi eats at a cafe near here. But she only ever gets dandelion sandwiches anyways, so that might not be the best recommendation."

Tia laughed warmly and nodded. "She is a bit stubborn sometimes. Shall we go and see if the food is good there, ourselves?" she asked a moment latter.

I swallowed uncomfortably and probably paled a little. How much had Twilight told her? "Ah, you seem really nice but I kind of don't have any bits," I admitted, blushing as I felt a tad pathetic.

Tia shook her head softly, smile widening. "Nonsense. I'd just like some company, you know. Besides, I'd like to talk to you more, if you don't mind," she insisted.

Well, I suppose there's no harm in that. Rarity didn't know I was coming, anyway, so no loss there. "I suppose I could," I finally agreed.

Tia nodded sharply and smiled. Her two rather stoic guards moved back into position near her at the same time. I swallowed my nervousness and followed after her. She waited politely for me to catch up, and a guard fell in to either side of us. Swallowing, I couldn't decide which way to shuffle or who to distance myself from more. With nothing else for it, I headed towards the cafe, leading the way. I should have stayed in bed...

Author's Notes:

Doom Pie's Audiobook Chapter:
http://youtu.be/_njN1VnKzfw

Chapter 04

A few minutes later had us arriving at the cafe in due time. Tia made quite a stir, to my surprise. She must be quite a bit more famous than I had originally thought. The waiter looked like he was going to pass out when we walked up. He was so flustered that he tried to bow to Tia when she approached! She introduced me respectfully and nodded towards him to have us seated. Admittedly, I was more than a little impressed by her good graces. I had a sneaking suspicion that Rarity probably liked her. I was unaccustomed to them taking our orders then and there, but the white mare took it in stride.

"So how has Twilight been as of late? She writes to me frequently but it's always nice to hear about it from a third pony perspective," Tia inquired after we got comfortable at our table, the flock of attendees dispersing a little.

I nodded quietly. "She seems a little stressed but that could just be Pinkie Pie affecting her. I was worried she would be mad at me after what happened but she didn't appear to be at all. It's a little confusing, honestly," I admitted sheepishly.

Tia laughed lightly and shook her head. "Far from it, Mender. She likes you quite a bit," she assured as those strange bodyguards settled in close to the table.

"I just wonder how much of it is my being an interesting test subject," I wondered out loud.

"Admittedly, it probably had a lot to do with it at first, knowing Twilight. These things have a tendency to grow out of simpler things. If only you read some of her letters to me recently!" she tantalized. My cheeks flared up, predictably. Oh my. Twilight shared a lot with this mare! I guess that did leave certain topics open, however.

"Well, an Earth Pony that does magic is pretty rare, I guess," I returned, attempting to change the topic. I didn't particularly feel comfortable with somepony else giving away Twilight's secrets to me. Plus, it would tell me how much Twilight had told her. If she acted confused, I could just play the idiot.

"Rare is an understatement. What types of magic were you trained in on your world?" she asked curiously.

My blood chilled a little. "M-My world?" I asked hesitantly. Or it went the other direction! Twilight had told her pretty much everything, then. Who was she that Twilight hadn't talked about her yet?

Tia nodded politely, still maintaining the warm smile before informing, "Twilight tells me many things. I'm her confidant, worry not. I haven't told another soul."

I swallowed uncomfortably and nodded. She was a closer friend of Twilight's than I thought. "Ah, I'm just surprised is all," I muttered, looking around to make sure that nopony was listening. To my surprise, I saw that there was a three-table radius where nopony sat. It looked highly intentional to me.

"I apologize for startling you. Perhaps I should have been more open from the start," she apologized.

I smiled again and shook my head, feeling a bit better now that I saw nopony had heard. "It's all right. I just wanted to keep it a secret. Ponies tend to underrate my sanity when they hear the story," I explained.

Tia nodded politely again. "I understand, of course. I don't doubt your sanity in the least, worry not."

I had to laugh at that one. "I wouldn't go that far. I doubt I'm holding a full deck of cards," I corrected between snickers.

She gave me cold deadpan stare for several seconds before seemingly realizing my playfulness and joining in the laughter.

"Ooh, I think I might like you. You have no idea how nice it is to get away from responsibilities from time to time. You're good at getting somepony to let go," she complimented, smile shifting from polite to warm again.

"It's not always a good thing. I'm not the best at motivating myself, either. At least not without probable cause," I admitted. Sure, my lackluster approach stemmed from the utterly hopeless war I had been a part of, but this place was infinitely better. Even if it did feel like I had jumped from one event to another so far.

"Living with Twilight will help balance you out, don't worry. You never answered my prior question, though," she reminded.

Prior...? Oh! "Oh, I'm sorry. I was an Engineer, I believe. My magic revolves around barriers, physical trait manipulation, and repair. I was a more supplemental role, it would seem," I explained to the best of my abilities.

"Oh? For such a grim place, you weren't trained in any attack magic?" Tia inquired curiously.

Why was she interested in that? I hesitated but nodded a moment later, answering with, "Yes. Just one technique. An energy blade. Rainbow Dash's fly by attack was the first I'd used it in actual combat."

"Huh. I was expecting something a little bit scarier. You aren't going to use it anymore, are you?" she asked, sounding a little concerned.

I chuckled at that. "Maybe as a glorified letter opener. There's no need for it in this dimension. The less these ponies know of my old world, the better," I muttered, feeling a little bit down again. These ponies didn't need to know about that hellish place.

"A noble stance. What if you needed to defend yourself, however? Or defend Twilight and Fluttershy?" she asked next, watching me in an oddly focused manner.

That was an extremely specific question. She knew I liked both of them, without a doubt. Why she was so adamant on this was beyond my guessing, however. I frowned and considered it. I didn't know what she was looking for in my answer, so I simply went with the truth and quietly explained, "If we couldn't escape and the only other option was them dying, then yes. I would use it without hesitation. But I don't think it will ever happen. Twilight is amazingly powerful and I have suspicion that Fluttershy is far from defenseless herself."

Tia stared at me carefully for a surprisingly long time. I started to fidget nervously after almost thirty seconds of her rather intense stare. Finally she smiled again, however, and I exhaled sharply.

"Twilight vouched for you already but I still wanted to ask. I see she's right. I don't believe you'd willingly hurt anypony," she explained.

I slowly shook my head. "I love it here, even with the horrible luck and multiple blunt force traumas to my skull. I'd never hurt these wonderful ponies intentionally," I added, looking to the side at the filled tables. I oddly notice that a bit of a crowd was forming towards the cafe entry with quite a few ponies whispering and gesturing towards us. Wow, Tia was popular! I started to feel a little self-conscious.

She must have noticed. "Don't worry about them. You're my friend so just treat me like normal. Trust me, it's refreshing. Can you show me your magic?" she requested.

I tilted my head and gave her a skeptical glance. Did she mean right here, in the middle of the cafe? She gave an encouraging nod and smile. Sighing, I lifted my left hoof up, staring blankly at it for a moment before nudging my inner pool of energy into movement. Not sure what she actually wanted me to do, I simply activated the channeling and watched the symbol under the bandages start to glow. A few seconds later, the wrappings drifted free from my hoof and into the air. All I did was temporarily turn off gravity for them. The current from my hoof pushed them away gently as a natural result of the energy emission.

Tia's smile broadened as she watched. There was that feeling in her eyes again! It was as if a great deal of time resided behind those twin pools of magenta. She suddenly struck me as far older than I had originally thought.

"You're not levitating them. You told them to ignore gravity, right? Twilight is right. It's a far more physical magic than a unicorn's. Can you levitate something?" she asked curiously.

I shook my head. "No. I can only manipulate what the rune on my hoof touches. Basic manipulation as well. It doesn't feel like I have enough energy in me yet to manage anything complex or permanent," I elaborated.

Tia seemed to think for a moment before asking, "So like most unicorns, you need mental exercise before you can manage more?"

A wave of gloom washed over me and I put my head down. I'd been so proud of my magic. Now it, like me, was starting over. Worse yet, I was surrounded by magic users of phenomenal skill. Heck, the partial unicorn sitting across from me was probably stronger than me, too!

Tia gave me a soft smile, sympathy showing rather plainly before seemingly thinking of something. "I understand your frustration of course. But might I make a suggestion?" she asked softly. I nodded while patiently listening. She continued a moment later with, "Your body is that of an Earth Pony, so it's geared towards directing its magic through constitution. My suggestion would be to train your body alongside your mind. Healthy diet and exercise would do a good job of jump starting your magic as well, I'd assume, based on your body.

I blinked slowly, considering what she had said. Wow. That actually was really intelligent. Twilight being friends with her suddenly made a lot more sense. "Wow. Thank you, Tia. You just might be onto something there," I admitted, running the concept through my head again. In all likelihood, it would help to greatly expand my magic pool. If I could do that by doing what I had intended to do anyway, I could use the time saved for training my control capabilities. That would speed the process up significantly!

Tia giggled lightly and nodded. "Be sure to run it past Twilight as well. She deals more with experimentation and advanced theory than I do. She might be able to help you out even more," she pointed out.

"Still, thank you for your help. Things haven't been going well since I arrived. It's nice that something might be working in my favor this time," I thanked again.

She smiled and sat back in her chair as the waiter brought out our drinks. Tia had a tasty looking shake of some sorts and I had ordered tea. Fell in love with it ever since Rarity had served it to me. Sadly, my first sip told me she had spoiled me. It wasn't nearly as good as the stuff she had made.

"Admittedly, I didn't know what to expect before I had met you. I was a bit apprehensive after the first letter Twilight sent," Tia returned. Had my delicious, delicious tea not been in the way, I might have slammed my face into the table out of frustration. Was I never going to live that down? She giggled and continued with, "Relax. Then I was deeply puzzled by her sudden change of tone in the letters after that. I was worried she was being manipulated. She's very intelligent but quite young still. Most ponies have good intentions but you should always be careful. It didn't help that you weren't from here."

I nodded this time. That much was just playing it safe. I could accept that easily enough. She continued before I could say anything, with, "But now I see that you're just a normal pony with his own fears and troubles. Twilight was right and for that, I'm glad. You have my blessings."

As happy as I was to hear that, I was a little confused. "I'm glad, but your blessings in what, might I ask?" I inquired.

Tia giggled lightly. "Why in the pursuit of happiness, of course," she furthered simply. Smiling, I nodded and took another sip of my tea. I should have known something was wrong by the way she eyed me eagerly as I sipped. "And Twilight, obviously," she tossed on after I had a good mouthful of tea.

It momentarily went into my lungs as I attempted to inhale at the same time. Seconds later, I was reduced to a coughing and sputtering lump on the table. Tia promptly added a "Gotcha!" before bursting into laughter.

It felt like an eternity passed before I could breathe properly again. Gasping, I tilted my head up to glare at her. She was still giggling merrily, however. I politely waited for her to finish. "Oh, this is just too much fun! I don't do this nearly often enough," she finally spoke up in a wistful manner.

Sighing, I decided that her life was probably pretty boring if that was the case. My irritation faded rather rapidly after that. "Well, try to warn me ahead of time when you decide to choke me half to death," I muttered wearily.

To my surprise, she grinned and nodded. "But of course. We shall have to do this more often. You're quite good at relieving the stress of a day," she complimented. At least I think it was a compliment.

"Your life doesn't feel so bad after watching my daily maiming, concussions, and almost asphyxiations, I take it?" I asked, using the napkins she floated my way to dab the tea out of my coat.

"Well, tragedy is popular for a reason," she pointed out, earning another eye twitch and glare before she snickered and continued, "Oh relax. I tease. As much as you probably don't believe me, I have to say that you really are a good pony. Your luck will turn around soon. You have two cute mares after your attention as well."

My mood shifted in a morose direction and I sighed before placing my head down on the table. "I just wonder if it's not karma or something. I lived when my entire species died. Why was I the lucky one? Maybe it's just paying me back?" I reasoned quietly.

Tia shook her head softly. "One can never know the future. Not even the strongest magic can accurately predict it. Asking yourself if you deserve the place in life where you find yourself is equally futile. If you can't find a reason to be here, even though I see several, make your own reason instead," she suggested.

I frowned and considered it. "A... A reason to be here?" I asked, not sure what she meant.

Tia nodded politely and continued, "Of course. You're incorrectly worried that the sacrifice involved in your arrival was too great, right? Even if they actually intended to save only you, you can still choose to give a reason for it all. You don't need to wait for something else to give you that reason."

She surprised me considerably. She definitely gave me another point of view, and a wise one at that, but there was something off about her reply that made me uncomfortable. Something she knew and wasn't revealing.

Still, she had a good point. They hadn't sacrificed themselves for me specifically. Even though I lived when they died, it didn't exactly make me special in any regard. She raised an eye to me, so I snapped myself out of it and spoke up with, "You're right of course. I'm not that special just because I didn't die."

Tia snickered and shook her head. "Of course you're not special because you lived. You're special because you're kind and many a ponies' friend. You're special to them," she corrected.

Frowning, I considered her words. They matched well with what I had been told a while ago. Ponies took more away from interactions with others than I noticed or gave credit for. It applied to me as well, I supposed.

"You're really wise. Twilight's lucky to have a friend like you," I complimented. This was a good friend of Twilight's, I reminded myself. She wasn't going to have bad intentions. I really needed to do something about the paranoid tendencies. Oh, and the hormones.

Tia smiled warmly, but looked away from me. "You're quite a lot of fun as well. Surely you can be my friend as well?" she asked.

My eyes softened and I smiled. "Of course, Tia. Are you going to be at the party later tonight?"

"That's the whole reason I'm in town. Of course I'm coming. I think Twilight wanted me to meet you," she reasoned, a hint of playful sarcasm in her voice.

I averted my gaze. "A little late for that. I guess she didn't anticipated me literally running into you in town," I muttered, face giving a tiny jolt of pain in protest of the memory.

Tia leaned back as her salad and my sandwich arrived. "I doubt she'll mind. She's very patient and understanding," she assured as the waiter bowed politely to us.

It took her a moment to glance back at me, but she finally noticed my incredulous expression. She hesitated, then giggled. "Okay, she's patient and understanding when scary feelings aren't clouding her judgment," she appended.

Chuckling, I brushed the surface of my conveniently still unwrapped hoof against my sandwich. A quick tweak in magnetic properties later, and it was stuck to my hoof as I picked it up. Tia watched me curiously throughout, a mixture of amusement and possibly considering me the laziest stallion she'd ever seen. That last part could have been just me reading into it, though.

Shrugging, I took a small bite of the sandwich, not wanting to rush anything. My body was used to an IV supplying its nourishment still. I could potentially get one hell of a stomach cramp should I rush eating. Tia simply nibbled gently at her salad. A small fork drift in front of her effortlessly and fed her bite by bite. Levitation magic must be so useful. Still, things were looking up for me now. All that was left to do was get Twilight to check out this new dream issue, and convince this Princess Celestia pony that I wasn't totally insane. Oh, and apologize to everypony for worrying them. Especially Fluttershy. It worried me that I hadn't heard from her yet, nor heard anything about her. Was she mad at me or something? Maybe Twilight would know.

"Hey, this is pretty good after all. I'm going to have to thank Twilight for the recommendation, through you of course," Tia spoke up.

Snapping out of my usual spacing out mode, I smiled back up at her. "That's something to be said about somepony who eats the same thing often enough. They get really good at quality testing the dish," I reasoned, gesturing idly in the air with my other hoof.

Tia simply smiled and nodded, oddly seeming to actually enjoy my company. I hadn't known her for long, but she seemed to be really tense. It was like she didn't get the chance to unwind all that often.

The rest of the lunch period went uneventfully, although the crowd gathered and continuously whispering near the entry to the cafe was a little awkward. I knew they were here for Tia, but it still felt like more than a few directed attention at me. The giggles that sporadically drifted from the mares in the crowd were particularly distracting. That's something I'd noticed almost immediately. I'd not been around females prior to arriving here, as far as I knew. But their laughter! There was just something about it. I couldn't really explain why it was so appealing. It was like something deep inside of me stirred and cheered every time I heard it.

It was about forty minutes or so before we were done eating, if one included the conversation and waiting prior. As anticipated, Tia easily managed the bill, floating some gold looking coins out of a small pouch tucked away in her large chest jewelry. The owner of the restaurant almost fell all over himself trying to make sure that we had a pleasurable experience. I was a tad perplexed but Tia seemed to be used to that sort of thing.

"But I insist! Surely if there's anything we can send with you, I can get it packed up immediately," he continued to assure.

Tia smiled gently and shook her head as I wrapped my hoof up again. She watched me finish the final rotation as the owner deposited the bits. I hadn't paid that much attention to the final tab between the giggling mares and trying to focus my magic long enough to wrap the bandages again. Hopefully it wasn't too much. Even with her being obviously well off, it didn't feel right to leech off of her like this. The first bodyguard went ahead of us and stomped his hoof down once in front of the crowd. As if on cue, they parted in a line to allow us through. Tia went on ahead and I trailed slightly behind her. Awkwardly, a couple of the mares brushed lightly against me as we passed. I stumbled while trying to avoid one, and another managed to catch me and support my balance until I could get back on my hooves.

"Don't mind these kinds of mares. Are you okay?" the mare next to the one who caught me asked. The questioning mare had a cream colored coat and a rather poofy, dark blue and pink mane. It was definitely unique. Her friend who caught me hurt my eyes, however. She was a bright mint color with a messy cyan and white mane. She gave me a friendly enough smile as she helped me to get my balance again. The second guard motioned the crowd back as Tia stopped and looked back at me.

"Yes, I'm all right. Thank you, um..." I started before hitting a snag.

The one still grabbing my left leg smiled warmly and nodded. "I'm Lyra. This is my fillyfriend, Bon Bon. How did you pick up that sandwich with just one hoof?" the minty mare asked.

Er, oops. Um... Tia started back towards me again, frowning. Before she got too close, however, Lyra frowned and examined me. Huh? Was there something on my face? Before I could ask, she suddenly flailed and gasped. "It-It's you!" she declared at the top of her lungs.

"Lyra?" Bon Bon questioned, tilting her head towards the other mare. I shrank visibly however, doing my best impression of a shivering dough ball.

Lyra growled as Tia made it to me. "I stepped in your pee like, three weeks ago! You ran away from me!" Lyra reminded at the top of her lungs to the entire crowd. Oh crap! It was her. I thought she looked familiar...

"Lyra! Is this the best time?" Bon Bon asked her quietly.

Tia stopped in front of us instead. From my new position I realized how tall she was. "He's had a rather rough last few weeks. I know that much personally. Are you all right, Mender?" she asked gently.

Lyra gasped and oddly fell into a bow. That was the second pony to bow to Tia. Warning bells went off in my mind. "I'm s-sorry, Princess Celestia!" Lyra apologized rapidly.

A pause. Oh. Tia? Celestia? Celes... Oh crap. Decidedly, my body chose that moment to gargle with my yet beating heart. The newly revealed Princess Celestia sighed and made a motion with her head. "Shall we take a walk, ponies?" she suggested.

I don't quite remember moving. I think one of the guards came up and pushed me along from behind.

* * * * *

The sun slowly sank towards the horizon as I sat quietly in the grass, watching the iridescent sky. The oranges, purples, and blues mixed together so nicely that I really didn't want to leave.

Tia, or more appropriately, Princess Celestia, sat a meter or so to my right. Her eyes absorbed the colors of the sky as she watched her sun go down. It was beyond strange to realize that her sister was out there somewhere, directing the moon into the sky at the same time. She caught me looking a moment later, and I rapidly turned my head away, feeling insecure again. At least the mint pony had forgiven me for earlier transgressions before leaving. Lyra was it? She seemed nice enough once she stopped trying to murder me. Honestly, I hadn't realized "stallion smells" were so hard to wash off. Unhealthy obsession with how I picked up my sandwich, though! That was a little creepy. She went on to explain how awesome fingers were and how she wished she had some, like a dragon or something. Bon Bon looked like she wanted to die, though.

"Still feeling awkward, Mender?" Celestia asked a moment later.

Sighing, I shifted uneasily. "A little. You got me good, that's for sure," I pseudo-complimented.

She giggled lightly again. "I only did so to keep you honest. And technically I never lied. Twilight Sparkle is indeed my friend." True enough, I suppose.

"So you were asking about my magic to make sure I wasn't a threat, right?" I deduced, absently motioning with my right forehoof.

The princess smiled and looked back out at the sky. She was quiet again for a moment before nodding and asking, "You understand why I had to do as such, right?"

"Of course. You're the ruler of Equestria. I'm a potential risk to your nation."

She frowned but nodded again. "Twilight ultimately can take more risks than I. Normally I don't ask her to, of course," she started to explain. It had been a nagging thought before I went to bed last night. I don't quite know why, but I think it was the way she said it.

"She told you about me almost right away, didn't she?" I interrupted, trying to keep my voice as steady as possible.

Celestia smiled again at that. "You're clever. You two really would make a good pair," she complimented.

Of course. She told her probably right after finding the memories of another world and form in my mind. It was dangerous not to. I just didn't understand why she didn't tell me. "It was the right call. I could potentially have caused a lot of damage, and not much was known about me," I agreed quietly.

"She was right, however. Twilight's gotten to be a good judge of character since becoming a Bearer. She said you yourself were harmless, and that the real danger was what you represented." I could tell she was directing the topic away from Twilight being at fault. That probably meant something.

"But you're the ruler of Equestria. You can't just trust Twilight, no matter how faithful she was. Too much was at risk," I concluded for her.

Celestia remained quiet for a moment and glanced back out at the sky. She hesitated before finally nodding. "Yes, this country is my responsibility. I need to be thinking about its welfare. I asked Twilight to keep an eye on you until I could make it to Ponyville myself that weekend. A potential hostile invasion is extremely serious, you must realize," she agreed.

It rapidly snapped together. She had been flustered because of us jumping ahead of schedule. Twilight had wanted to wait for the Princess. Instead of her feelings becoming clear, however, I simply became more confused. How did she feel personally if she was simply told to look after me?

My mind shifted back to her eyes slowly closing as I felt her lips push harder into mine. I pushed back the heat that was threatening to drift into my cheeks. No, I shouldn't jump to conclusions. There was definitely something there. Now what about me? I tried my hardest to feel out what I thought of her, but things kept getting mixed up in my head.

"You're quiet, Mender. Are you okay?" Princess Celestia suddenly spoke up. As my thoughts had stolen my concentration, I couldn't help but jump when the silence was suddenly broken.

"Oh! Sorry, Your Highness. I was just trying to sort out my feelings. And everypony else's," I apologized.

She shook her head, however. "Please, either Celestia or Tia. I meant it when I said it was a comfort to just pretend I'm a normal pony for a while," she requested. It felt awkward, regardless. I seemed to be stuck thinking of her as Tia. Maybe that's what she wanted? She continued, " And if you're worried about Twilight, don't be. I was a little concerned when she started getting attached to you, but now that I can see for myself what you're like, I'm happy she trusts you."

I had a sneaking suspicion she could see a lot more than she let on. I decided to just be open rather than risk her ire. "Why didn't she just tell me that she was in contact with you, then?"

"I told her not to. You'd hardly have acted natural had you known you were being watched. You have my word that she isn't under any orders now," she assured, somehow guessing at my insecurity before I myself did. I was a bit impressed, and just a little frightened.

Still, all Princess Celestia would need to do was say the word. Twilight practically worshipped her, from what I'd seen and heard.

Celestia smiled gently after a moment, my inner turmoil halting the conversation reasonably well. I stared once again out at the colors of the sky as they slowly shifted towards the horizon. It couldn't be that late yet. Maybe this place followed a more natural seasonal daylight cycle. That would mean that the day would be getting shorter and shorter. Winter was coming. Really, I just wanted somepony I could trust. Failing that, maybe a good, sturdy tree I could kick until I felt better.

Rainbow Dash? No. She was loyal, but not exactly to me. Plus she might be mad over the teleport incident still. Applejack? Heh. And get punched again? Pinkie? It worked surprisingly well last time, but this seemed a little sensitive for her level of energy and violation. Fluttershy? I didn't know what she was doing or where she stood on what had happened still. I didn't want to offend her. That left Rarity. The only thing she had done that was necessarily bad was eavesdrop and work me a little harder than I would have liked. She also took things reasonably seriously it seemed. Maybe she'll have some advice?

Gently, I stood up and stretched out my back legs, earning Celestia's attention again. "Miss Rarity said she wanted to give me something today, so I should stop by there before the party, I think.”

"I'll be at the party as well. May I speak with you more there? You probably have a lot of questions," she requested.

I sighed but nodded slowly. She was insistent on clearing Twilight's name. Idly, I wondered why. She continued before I could ask, though, with, "Good! You have about an hour before the party. Best not be late. I don't believe even I can stop Pinkie Pie from going to find you if so."

That I laughed at. "Oh, I know her a little bit. I won't be late."

She smiled and nodded towards me as I turned and headed back into town, directing my legs towards the Carousel Boutique.

Author's Notes:

Doom Pie's Audiobook Chapter:
http://youtu.be/VkeqBh2WzJk

Chapter 05

Yawning quietly, I peeked about the town as I strolled, being more than a little happy at my ability to walk properly. It was hard for me to believe that it was less than three weeks ago that I could barely walk on four hooves. Now I could at least manage to look around a bit without risk of cracking my skull on the ground.

As per the usual, there were a few stares as I headed towards the Boutique. Oddly, there were more whispers than usual. Surely they were used to me wandering about while looking half dead, right? They should just be thankful that I wasn’t in a mechanical walking barrel this time. They picked up the deeper into town I went, growing in participants and volume. I grew uneasy as I started to pick up Princess Celestia's name, and picked up the pace a bit.

Sadly, three mares intercepted me no more than a dozen meters from the Carousel Boutique. "I'm, sorry to interrupt, but you're the stallion that was with Princess Celestia earlier, weren't you?" the cream-colored mare with the rose red hair asked. I swallowed nervously but managed a weak nod.

"Ooh! What's your name?" her friend asked almost immediately. The sudden half prance forward caused her blonde mane to bounce excitedly. Oddly, her coat color reminded me of Pinkie. With her level of energy, I wondered if they were related.

Regardless, I took a step back from the display of excitement. "I'm, my name is Moon Mender. Uh, why do you ask?"

"Oh, I'm Rose," the cream and fittingly rose-colored mare spoke up.

"Lily!" the slightly more energetic, blonde and pink one added.

The only one to not speak yet nodded along and smiled, adding, "And I'm Daisy. Lily and I run the herb shop in Ponyville, and Rose handles the flower stand." Her lime colored mane shifted gently as she nodded. It looked a little strange with her light purple coat.

"Ah. Well, that's nice," I returned, admittedly unsure of exactly why they were talking to me.

All three smiled, however, seemingly oblivious. "You were that stallion that Pinkie Pie threw a party for a few weeks ago, weren't you?" Lily asked a moment later.

I started to nod in agreement, but Rose interrupted before I could even open my mouth. "Huh? Oh, that party. I never actually saw the pony it was for."

Daisy giggled, however, correcting, "Yes you did. He was the bandaged lump that slept on the sofa for most of the night." My eyes drooped as I gave an irritable glare towards her.

"What?! No way. I could have sworn that was a throw pillow," Rose muttered, her brow becoming scrunched up.

"Is that why you almost sat on him and Sweetie Belle?" Daisy asked skeptically.

Lily added at the same time, "Are you sure you weren't drunk?"

My ears drooped a bit and I sighed. You know it's a bad day when somepony mistakes you for an inanimate object.

"No, I wasn't drunk! And I stopped when I saw her," Rose defended sharply.

Sadly, a few more approached while they went back and forth.

"Oh, you're the stallion that's been staying with Twilight, aren't you?" a yellow colored mare with a golden mane spoke up.

Blinking, I swallowed again and started to open my mouth. A chorus of "Ooh"s interrupted, however, from the trio in front of me. A blush drifted into my cheeks and I stuttered out, "It's not like that. She's my friend!"

"You're friends with all six Element Bearers, aren't you?" Lily asked in amusement a moment later.

I didn't like her tone or implications, but I nodded anyway. "Uh, yeah. It's kind of a long story. I was trying to get to..." I started to excuse myself.

"And friends with Princess Celestia! Are you some sort of secret agent or something?" Rose asked excitedly, halfway through my attempt to excuse myself from the conversation.

"Would he honestly tell you if he was a secret agent?" Daisy reasoned, giving Rose a gentle nudge with her left forehoof.

That was a very good point. All three were interrupted by a loud voice from above, shouting out, "Whoa! Nice crowd you got going, Mender!”

Oh crap. That sounded like... Rainbow Dash swooped in an instant later, blasting all three mares in front of me with a rather sizable gust, earning a trio of yelps. The rest of the crowd seemingly decided that now would be a good time to back up and give the high-speed bolt of cyan fur a bit of landing room.

After standing back up fully from her landing, Dash smirked over her right shoulder at me before rotating around fully. "Oh, hey Dash. What are you doing here?" I asked, carefully bracing against the wind she indirectly caused. Scratch that. I still wasn't all that stable on my legs.

Dash glanced about at the crowd before puffing a little and snickering. "I was looking for you, duh. Twi said you seemed a little upset when you left and asked me to give you a little company. I guess you found some company on your own, though," she commented, gesturing to the crowd.

I glanced about at them, uncertain. Some looked surprised, others more curious, and all were watching me. "Ah, yeah. Um, I don't know?" I offered, which was to say, told her nothing.

"He was eating lunch with Princess Celestia!" Rose spoke up.

Rainbow gave me a speculative glance, to which I shrugged and elaborated, "I bumped into her shortly after leaving Twilight's. Kinda maybe literally. She invited me to lunch and said she wanted to talk to me." I didn't think it was that big of a deal.

"Whoa. Got asked out by a Princess. Nice going, hot stuff," Rainbow cooed, tossing me a wink.

Obviously, I whipped out my trademark blush. "Dash! You know it's not like that!" I protested. It didn't help much as I heard the whispers and gasps start up around me. Great.

Rainbow took it in stride, of course. "Hey, no need to be modest, Mender. You've got both Twi and Fluttershy hot after you, and you're friends with the coolest, bravest pegasus in Equestria!" she declared, puffing her chest out even further and widening her stance.

Her cocky grin met my irked glare blow for blow. "You forgot fastest," I reminded sarcastically.

She gave a pert nod and wink. "That's just a given with how awesome I am!" she assured, sounding amused. Okay, she was just screwing with me now.

The door to the Carousel Boutique slowly opened behind the crowd, however. To my surprise, I saw both Rarity and Fluttershy peeking out through the doorway. The latter's eyes widened upon seeing me, and mine followed suit. Fluttershy! Mine widened even further when she lowered herself slightly and looked past Rarity and back inside. She was scared of me?

Dash had turned around and peeked at point. "Oh, Rarity's? Is that where you were headed?" Rainbow asked a moment later, looking back over her shoulder with a smile. I buried the emotions as fast as I could and smiled back, nodding.

Rarity smiled softly at me and strolled out of the shop. Fluttershy took that moment to dive back inside and out of view, of course. “Moon Mender! What a pleasure. I was looking forward to seeing you at the party tonight. I hadn’t expected an early visit,” Rarity spoke politely, drawing out her sentence spacing smoothly as she walked towards us with certain elegance. Wow, she was certainly laying it on thick. It must be the audience that brought it out in her.

“I would have been here earlier, but Princess Celestia wanted to speak with me. Ah, I’m sorry,” I excused, nodding courteously to her.

She giggled softly as she stopped maybe a meter away from us. Dash had backed up as she approached and now stood to my right side. “Oh I would never forbid a meeting with the princess. What was it she wanted to speak to you about?” the white unicorn asked, pleasant smile dancing onto her features.

Rainbow snorted derisively. Uh oh. “What else could it be about, Rarity? She probably wanted to know more about his magi…” she started. Damn my reaction speed! Still, my shoulder jabbed into her side as fast as I could manage. “Ow! What the hay did you do that for?” she asked, glaring at me after recovering from her stumble.

“Oh. Oh! Perhaps we should take this inside, dear?” Rarity offered, suddenly seeming to realize what the topic was and looking a little more flustered.

Rainbow frowned over at her but lost some of the edge on her expression. Oh sure. Believe Rarity. There couldn’t be a logical reason for me to nudge a pony. I obviously go around all day assaulting random ponies in the side. “Oh. Well fine,” Rainbow acquiesced in an irritably nonchalant manner.

It was too late at that point. Due to my lack of reflexes, almost everypony present with more than a dozen brain cells to rub together had figured out what she had been on the verge of saying. More whispers from the crowd could be heard. There were over two dozen ponies at this point, and it was getting hard to hear individual voices.

“Wait, was that what you were doing at the café?” Rose suddenly spoke up, separating from the front of the crowd again and stopping just in front of me, looking a little eager.

I swallowed nervously and took a step back away from her. “Uh, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I answered, trying to shrug off the suspicion.

“That’s good. Neither do we,” Lily muttered, giving a suspicious looking glance at her friend.

Rose seemed to pay no heed though and bounced back and forth on her hooves in a rather exciting and oddly mesmerizing fashion. “I thought it was just a rumor but Lyra was going crazy over it earlier, saying he could hold up a cup of tea with just one hoof! Magic!” she exclaimed, eyes widening and dancing with energy as she stepped closer to me again.

“That is simply preposterous, ponies! He is clearly lacking a horn, so Lyra simply must have gotten confused,” Rarity tried to redirect. Oh, thank you!

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow to her, however. “What are you talking about, Rare? You know he,” she started before pausing for a moment. A look of dawning graced her face with the punctuated, “Oh.”

“Are you serious, Rose?” Daisy asked, looking at me instead of her friend.

“Yes! And hey, he’s cuter than Lyra described!” she returned, suddenly looking up and down me. Oh crap.

She was suddenly way too close for comfort, my privacy zone expanding by several meters along with my nervousness. I edged away from her as I shifted my gaze back to Rarity, begging for a way out. Rarity sighed and held a hoof to her forehead, just below her horn. She suddenly looked like she really could use a full spa treatment. Oddly, I had no idea where that thought came from.

My concentration was cut short in surprise, however, as I heard a light and faintly echoing squeak, shortly after the comment on my appearance. Huh? My mind reeled with a dip of vertigo momentarily, but I shook it off easily enough and glanced back at the Carousel Boutique. That squeak, which was oddly a mixture between a whimper and yelp, was excessively cute enough to be a certain yellow pegasus I knew. Had she heard the comment? More importantly, how had I heard her in return? A strange compulsion bounced into my mind.

Both Dash and Rarity gave me a questioning glance as I suddenly ignored the crowd entirely and trotted past the unicorn mare, going inside the Boutique instead. I heard murmurs following me, and the distinct sound of two other sets of hoof steps on the entry step behind me after I entered. It didn’t take me long to find the shivering pink tail that hid behind a rather large supply chest. At least I assumed it was supplies. I guess Rarity might have some other reason for keeping large chests of various gemstones, textile tubes, and spools of thread. Regardless, the soft pink tail shivering behind the chest clearly didn’t belong.

“Fluttershy,” I murmured quietly.

The tail went rigid, followed by an audible gasp. With glacial movements, I saw her pink mane, and then finally her left eye peek out from around the chest. The eye widened and I watched her visibly shrink under my gaze.

There was a long pause where we simply looked at each other again. I slowly sat down in front of her, eyes softening. Why was she suddenly avoiding me? Not making any sudden movements, I simply sat in front of her, breathing slowly. After several more rather awkward moments, she must have realized that I wasn’t going anywhere and slowly peeked out further from around the chest. Her eyes softened a little as she simply watched me, those twin pools of teal shivering lightly as I saw moisture start to build up along the bottoms of them.

“Fluttershy...” I heard Rarity muttered from behind me and to the right. The main door gently closed as well, due to what I assumed were Rainbow’s manipulations.

The pretty yellow pegasus winced, tears finally coming as she lowered her head and buried her face in her hooves. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, shivering again. Deciding it was for the best, I lowered myself further down into a laying position, leveled out eye to eye with her.

“For what, Fluttershy? What’s bothering you?” I asked carefully, trying hard to corral my mind’s natural tendency to start guessing.

She stayed frozen like that for a long moment. Rainbow appeared on my right side and sat down next to me, looking down at the shivering yellow pegasus with a frown. Rarity’s hoof steps could be heard getting closer behind me as well. Fluttershy sighed and continued staring at her hooves.

“I… should have visited you sooner. I just don’t know what to do. I mean, what to feel around,” she tried to mutter, already quiet and fading to nothing towards the end.

That much I could work with. I swallowed weakly and nodded. “I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable with my feelings. They’re there, but I’m trying really hard to keep them under control and figure them out,” I tried to assure, voice jittering a little.

She surprised me by shaking her head rapidly, however, mane fluttering back and forth. “No. It’s not… that. Twilight had me, um, help her pull you back from your bad spot. But I accidentally saw some other things, too. In your memories,” she squeaked out, hiding her face again in her hooves as if she was afraid I’d hit her or something.

Oh. Oh crap. She knew about when I first arrived! “Oh! Uh… I can explain! Um, I’m really, really sorry! Honestly, I didn’t mean to look!” I exclaimed rapidly, feeling my blood drain from my face and shivering. Unconsciously, I lowered myself further down to the floor.

Fluttershy stopped shivering for a moment and looked back up at me, looking slightly confused instead this time. “Um, what?” she asked hesitantly.

Oh. Uh, oops. “Oh my. Who else did you look at aside from Twilight?” Rarity asked behind me, sounding surprised. Crap!

She was right on cue. “You checked out Fluttershy’s flank too?” Rainbow asked, starting to laugh.

Fluttershy’s cheeks went crimson as her eyes widened. I only saw it for a moment, however, before she buried her face in her hooves again, releasing a timid, “Oh my.”

I could appreciate the feeling, and joined her in hiding my face. Mine was out of shame, however. “Oh relax, girls. Let’s not let this get out of hoof again. It’s a natural reaction. It simply wouldn’t be feasible for such a pretty mare to go unnoticed, right? I’m sure he meant no harm by it, right Mender?” Rarity requested, resting what I figured was her right forehoof on my back and patting.

“Of course not. There’s just so many… feelings whirling around in my head. I need to sort them out. Then do something about these stupid hormones,” I groaned, whacking my forehead on the wooden floor.

Fluttershy let out a weak sigh and shook her head, still blushing lightly as I peeked up at the noise. “It is, well, natural. You’re a very, um, kind stallion. It’s just…” she started to explain before frowning and hesitating. After a moment of staring off into space, she shuddered and rapidly shook her head. “No, no, no! I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. It’s not you. It’s me.”

“Flutters, you need to relax. Nobody’s blaming you. Mender’s just a stallion. They look a lot. Take it as a compliment!” Rainbow pointed out, smirking down at me instead. I returned a rather annoyed stare.

The yellow pegasus didn’t seem assured, though. “I know. It’s not what I saw. But I can’t get it out of my head. So much. How do you even stand it? There was… It was all around you,” she whimpered, curling up on her side instead.

Oh. It snapped back into place and I felt my blush drop away, sitting up again. The cyan pegasus next to me gave a questioning look, but I stared past Fluttershy instead. Honestly, I’m surprised Twilight was alright with it. No. In all honesty, I didn’t know why I was still alright with it. Maybe I wasn’t? I don’t think anypony, or anybody in this case, ever got adjusted to such a thing. Rarity approached and peeked at me from my left.

“The war. All of the death. I know,” I muttered, eyes drooping a little. My memories were still a mess. There were no coherent events in them, but many images were still present. Like the photographer went out on a drinking binge and got shots at random before falling down a cliff and trying his best to recover the camera. Regardless, the pictures weren’t pleasant.

Dash frowned, this time at Fluttershy. “Fluttershy, you know that’s not his fault,” she tried to defend.

Rarity interrupted with a sharp clicking noise from her tongue as Fluttershy winced and curled up tighter, as if physically hit by Dash’s words. “Of course she knows that. But when she thinks about him, those memories come with,” she explained. Explained. She knew already, I suddenly realized.

Fluttershy nodded weakly, tears now coming down her cheeks. “You’re really nice. For all that to happen, to you and your race; it’s terrible. It’s horrifying. I can’t…” she muttered again, shivering visibly now while barely producing more than a whisper.

“Um, should I leave? I don’t want to stir up uncomfortable memories for you,” I offered, quietly looking down at her. The last thing I wanted to do was make the shy pegasus more uncomfortable than I was already making her. She had probably been talking to Rarity about it when I rudely interrupted.

Wait, why had I interrupted? I suddenly couldn’t recall why I had wandered in here in the first place. She was scared and needed help. But I don’t know why I thought that. Of course, I was no stranger to having large gaps of memory missing, between already being diagnosed with amnesia and spending an uncomfortable amount of time unconscious through blunt head trauma prior to the coma. I guess I should just be thankful it only lasted a couple of weeks. And from what I heard, I had Twilight and Fluttershy to thank for that. It made what she saw even harsher, though. She had done it for me.

I digress, however. I’d never had gaps of memory while awake. This was a little troubling. Perhaps I’d talk to Twilight about it again. Although it probably was nothing, like she’d already tried to convince me. Maybe she was right and I really didn’t have anything to worry about?

Fluttershy interrupted my thoughts by sitting up in front of me. Her eyes looked a little bloodshot, now that I was close enough and she had them fully open. Were the images giving her nightmares? “Please. No. I want to… Well, I want to get used to you again,” she murmured, voice a little stronger this time.

Rarity smiled and nodded politely off to my left. “Yes. Replace the memories with happy ones instead. Both of you should let those images go, honestly. Surely it isn’t doing Mender any good either, right?” she suggested, motioning towards me with her right forehoof.

Letting out a puff of air, I nodded weakly and glanced away from the yellow pegasus. I felt really tired, in truth. It felt like I was going full-bore for so long that I don't remember the last time I really relaxed. Not that lack of memory should really surprise me at this point. Not including the coma, I think the last time I rested was after helping Applejack fix her wagon.

“I could definitely do with a little more forgetting, honestly. My dreams still aren’t exactly pleasant,” I admitted finally with a shake of my head.

Fluttershy sat up again, shifting to a light smile instead. It still felt a little timid, though. “I’m sorry for, um, avoiding you. I want to get used to you again,” she apologized quietly. Again.

I looked away from her slightly. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, Fluttershy,” I expounded, feeling a little better that she was at least being open with me again. I hesitated, but finally got up the courage to add, “It’s true. I like you. You make me feel, well, safe. You calm me down and have already stopped me from panicking on multiple occasions. Plus you’re… Well, you’re beautiful. I’m trying to fix the other things, don’t worry.” I ignored the light gagging noise coming from my right, of course.

Predictably, she resumed a light blush, but her smile didn’t go away this time. “I’m not that special,” she whispered, losing her force of voice and looking down again.

“Oh, that I agree with him over. You’re very special indeed, my dear,” Rarity reinforced, giving a wide smile to her friend.

The blush expanded by several magnitudes and she started fidgeting with her front hooves. “I, um, thank you. I really do want to be your friend, Mender. I’m not sure if I want more than that, but…” she finally managed to get out, sounding as if she were straining to actually push the words out of her mouth.

Smiling, I nodded gently. That was the best I could have wished for heading into this situation, really. “Thank you, Fluttershy. I want to be your friend too. Are you coming to the party?” I inquired, curious about her standing.

She let out a surprised gasp. My eyes widened a little, but she rapidly stepped forward half a leg length. “Oh, of course! Um, why would I miss it?” she defended, looking surprised that I’d even had to ask.

“She has a point ya know. Of course we’re all going to be there. You’re already our friend,” Dash insisted, giving me a light shove on the shoulder with a hoof. Sadly, I tipped and wobbled a bit before Rarity snickered and gave me a push back in the other direction.

I nodded, really unsure of what I could say to something like this. Thankfully, I really didn’t have to say anything. Rainbow’s gasp beat me to the punch. “Oh horseapples! The party!” she exclaimed suddenly, eyes widening.

Huh? Oh! Looking around, I finally managed to spot a clock on Rarity’s wall. Seventeen fifty-five? Uh oh. That left five minutes before the party started. “Uh, I’d better get going! Pinkie will hunt me down if I’m late for the party,” I whimpered. Dash nodded, looking a tad apprehensive herself.

“Run and you can make it. I’ll stall them!” she exclaimed before turning and galloping towards the door. She flicked the knob with her muzzle as she hopped, weight pushing the door open before a single flap of her wings sent her hurtling into the sky in a blur. Damn that mare was fast!

Turning around and trying to start into a sprint at the same time was probably a really stupid idea, however. As it turns out, even two weeks in a coma does horrible things to your body. Not that I needed the coma excuse with my general lack of finesse in this body, anyway. Regardless, I tipped and promptly ran my face into the wooden floor instead, skidding along a good foot and a half on my nose.

I heard a light squeak behind me, indubitably from a very surprised Fluttershy. Her noises were very distinctive, I decided. Well, as much as I could decide as the nerve endings in my face screamed out for mercy. Attempting to recover what little there was left of my dignity, I simply rolled with it. For a moment, I balanced perfectly on my forehead before falling in the other direction onto my back. With all the grace of a drunken hippo, I flopped backwards and rolled sideways, spinning myself as I went. With my momentum somehow still intact, I came out of the spin on my legs again and booked it towards the door at top speed, utterly afraid to look back at the two mares in my shame…

* * * * *

In an ideal world, I would have slid through the door totally on time a few minutes later, with everypony there happy to see me and congratulating me on my physical prowess. I’d then be the guest of honor of the party, and have a grand old time. The night would then end on a high note with a swooning purple unicorn and yellow pegasus, and gentle kisses to welcome the coming sleep.

Instead, I lay spread eagle on my stomach a dozen meters from the entry to the library, with a bruised face and dignity, puffing like some makeshift steam device. Damn. “Okay, this ‘ere is mighty sad, Mender,” came a familiar accented voice from the direction of the door. I didn’t have the energy, nor heart to look up at Applejack as I heard her hoof steps coming closer.

“Haa…” I managed to murmur airily as I exhaled, world still spinning. As to not throw up, I kept my eyes closed. That was as close to “Hi” that she was going to get from me at the moment.

“Ya know, it was only ah couple blocks from Rare’s, right? Ya really need ta get yerself back into shape,” she added after a few more seconds. I heard the light puffing noise of a bit of dust in front of me, and assumed she’d sat down.

I managed a miniscule nod into the ground, wincing at my aching legs. “Yeah… Ugh. Can’t move,” I finally got out. They wouldn’t mind if I took a little nap here, right?

There was an exasperated sigh, followed by, “Ah figured as much. ‘ere.”

My surprise doubled when something rough and grainy wrapped itself around my upper body with no little amount of nudging and shoving. My eyes opened a moment later just in time to see her tighten the rope and pick up the other end in her teeth, shrugging as she started dragging me in the direction of the library. Well, this was awkward. It was kind of comfy, though, in a dust up my nose kind of way. Silently, I hoped Ponyville would get some rain soon.

Raising my head feebly as we reached the steps, I managed to angle the slope off my collarbone. Applejack took note and pulled me up the forty-five degree angle before continuing into the library.

The explosion of light and sound was magnified by my spinning head. Cheering exploded all around the room as the lights flicked on. "Surprise!" several of the ponies shouted, Pinkie at the forefront and very much the loudest.

Pause. Most lost their grins and I got dozens of confused looks. Suddenly, I noticed a visible twitch and picked Twilight out of the crowd near the front. "Oh come on! Four hours. I leave you alone for four hours! How do you do this, Mender?" she shouted, looking a little exasperated.

Dash predictably burst into laughter, this time drawing many others along with her. My irritation spiked, but once I thought about it, she had technically done her job. Twilight was mad because I bashed my face off Rarity's floor, not because I was late.

"Oh who cares! He's here now, so it's time to party!" Pinkie declared, doing a lazy series of somersaults towards my position on the floor. She, and the sensation of horror in me as she approached, were both cut short by a sudden flash of light, however! Twilight was suddenly standing between us with no visual spatial movement whatsoever. What?! She could teleport without charging? What I could recall of my lessons labeled that as a 'Blink' technique. Appropriate, honestly. It allowed the caster to move from one spot to another, usually a short distance away, in the space of an eye blink. To do so impulsively with no charge time was masterful, though!

"Oooh no! No, no! He's already injured. He takes it easy tonight," she prescribed, stomping her right front hoof on the floor. Pinkie giggled and started to turn around her, but was easily snatched out of the air in a lavender aura.

She took it in stride, of course. "Wheee!" she squealed as she spun about defying gravity. Twilight tossed her into the pillow cluster next to the couch before lifting me up with a similar aura. Absently, I noted that the pillows used to be on the couch. I had slept against them at the last party. The unfazed Applejack nodded to Twilight and undid the rope as I dangled in the air in front of her. This really wasn't helping the dizziness.

After Applejack untied me, Twilight walked over to the couch with me floating lazily in the air behind her. She hopped up onto the end cushion and smiled warmly at me before gently setting me down next to her. “There! Now you’re safe and sound for the rest of the night,” she concluded, nodding sharply. Was that on her checklists somewhere? Or was she ordered to watch me again? I nudged my thoughts back into check. Celestia had been very insistent that it wasn’t Twilight’s idea. That either meant that Twilight had expressed discomfort in spying on me and honestly wanted to just be my friend, or that Celestia wanted to keep Twilight in my good graces so I’d be less suspicious. But what was that old adage? Innocent until proven guilty?

Twilight’s look shifted to puzzled instead when I took so long to answer, but I slowly got into a vague sitting position instead, leaning against the back of the couch. “Thanks, Twi,” I finally managed.

The impact with the couch directly above my head jarred me. I glanced up and saw Rainbow Dash, perched precariously on the top of the couch’s back. "Ooh, guarding him all night?" she asked, smirking. There was a light whispering from various locations around us, and I quickly realized that the crowd was still at full attention.

Twilight scowled up at her before defending with, "You know it's not like that, Rainbow!"

"Oh! Can we have you, then, Mender?" was suddenly shouted out from the left. I glanced over and blushed as Rose waved from the front of the crowd. Wait, we? I saw the other two flower themed mares standing next to her a moment later. To my discomfort, both were smirking.

Rainbow Dash started snickering again, but Twilight looked utterly shocked. She glanced over in the direction of the three flower mares as well. "Wait, what?!" she muttered in disbelief.

"Well, he's personal friends with the Element Bearers and Princess Celestia. Plus, he's cute and an Earth Stallion who can use magic!" Lily explained simply.

"He can what?" Twilight asked, visually shifting from surprised to annoyed in seconds before turning and glaring back at me. I saw Rainbow avert her gaze in the corner of my eye. Tempting as it was to rat her out, I didn't think it would impress the Element of Loyalty all that much.

"Sorry, Twilight. I got caught using it," I apologized softly.

She sighed weakly and nodded, turning back towards the group to our left. A frustrated murmur interrupted anything she was going to say, though. "Okay, yeah. I can't let you do that. I let the secret out! I totally didn't think it was a secret in the first place. Sorry, Twi," Rainbow muttered. Sorry, Twilight?

Twilight nodded once, a light smile playing at her features. She had probably guessed it had something to do with Dash, I'd imagine. She opened her mouth again to speak. Once again, both her words and my sulking were interrupted by a third party.

"I offer my apologies for being late, Everypony. The moon rising here is beautiful without the Canterlot lights to wash it out," spoke the elegant voice of the Princess of the Sun, from the direction of the library's entry.

The crowd was like a gentle retreating wave as the collective bowing commenced. The prior whispering tapered into nothingness at the same time, a seemingly mutual respect for the Princess telling everypony to allow her to speak.

Everypony minus Twilight of course, who instead released a quiet gasp.

"Princess Celestia! You made it!" Twilight exclaimed a moment later, hopping over the back of the couch like a little filly before scampering over to her teacher. I saw that Rarity and Fluttershy were both with the Princess as well.

I smiled softly as I watched, finding it more than a little cute to watch the usually reserved unicorn get so excited. Well, I watched until I heard the barely audible coo to my right. Instinctively, I glanced in that direction, just in time to see Pinkie Pie balancing carefully on the other armrest. Uh oh... She wiggled her butt like a cat, giving me a predatory grin before pouncing.

I managed to inhale sharply but couldn't quite get the scream for help out before she collided with my chest. My stored air supply left as rapidly as I had acquired it, and not nearly as noisily as I would have liked.

It was kind of like being molested by energetic chipmunks wielding cotton candy. I couldn't catch my breath as she tickled me mercilessly, her mane blocking my vision at every turn. She purposefully ruffled my own mane up as I squirmed, trying to get away from her. Dash must have heard my squeaks and gasps, as I heard her start to snicker from somewhere reasonably close above me.

"Whoa! Harsh, Pinkie. Flutters, you should see this!" she tacked on in a break between the laughter.

I finally managed to get a hold on Pinkie's head and pushed her out of my viewpoint. Just as I got the pink curls out of my eyes, Fluttershy popped into view next to Dash on the back of the couch. "Oh! Oh my. You're not hurting him, are you, Pinkie?" she asked timidly, actually looking a little worried.

Pinkie sat up on me and laughed, shaking her head until her mane flailed everywhere wildly. "Of course not! I'd never hurt such a good friend," she assured promptly. She seemed to know how to deal with the yellow pegasus, anyway.

"Just tickle me until I can't breathe. Got it," I groaned wearily, glaring up at the pink lump of energy masquerading as a pony.

She giggled merrily, of course. "Oh you know you like it!" she defended, giving me a surprisingly flirty wink. Wait, no. She had acted like that with one of the girls, too, if I recalled. It was probably just her way of playing.

"Two can play at that game you know," I reminded, grinning back. Her eyes widened as she grinned, making to dive off me. Far too late, my pink friend.

My left foreleg exploded into a mess of bandages, snagging her and mercilessly returning the tickle treatment at every conceivable angle. She burst into spastic squealing as she squirmed and laughed, trying to climb up the back of the couch. Hey, at least they were all clean and new. What the pink monster really deserved were the gross and messy ones I had on earlier!

"Whoa! Awesome, Mender," Rainbow complimented, laughing as she kept blocking Pinkie's climbing path.

I made a clicking noise with my tongue as I sat up again. Less than half were tickling. Heh. Sorry Rainbow. "I'm not letting you off the hook either, Dashie," I warned, winking at the cyan mare.

All she had time for was a questioning glance before I snagged her too. She started squealing before I even proceeded with the tickling.

"No! No, no! Please?" I cut short her pleading as I pulled her out of her weak attempt to fly away while hysterically laughing. Pinkie's giggles only escalated as her friend got pulled in too. Even Fluttershy giggled lightly as she balanced on the back of the couch.

"What the hay is going on over there?" I heard Twilight ask, seemingly finally noticing her friends' plight.

Pinkie immediately tried to climb over Dash after she crashed into the couch cushion, and used her as a step to get towards the top of the couch. Guess it was every mare for herself! Fluttershy wobbled and clutched to the cushion as Pinkie giggled and clung next to her. I should have seen it coming.

All four of us gave out a yelp as the couch spilled over backwards.

Author's Notes:

Doom Pie's Audiobook Chapter:
http://youtu.be/DVtqPDLWZmY

Chapter 06

Curling into a tighter ball, I remained as solid as I could manage against the back of the couch. My mind reeled with disastrous memories as I decided that they might not find me if I simply didn't move.

"Mender, relax. It was an accident," Twilight assured, still sitting on the cushion to my right. Instead of answering, I buried my muzzle further into the couch. It was a disastrous accident, though!

Fluttershy's hoof movements became almost hypnotic as she kneaded the muscles along my back, giggling lightly as she worked another knot out. How had she convinced me to let her do this again? I winced as the memory reared its ugly head.

The couch tipped, me being flung up the back of it. Fluttershy had been balancing on the top and gasped as she went over backwards. There was no other choice. I released the tendrils from Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash, and kicked off the couch with a light twist. I had next to no momentum and was far out of shape but I managed to barely snag the flailing, panicked pegasus and spin.

My back gave another throb of protest as I remembered the feeling of contact with the floor. The little yellow pegasus also wasn't as light as I anticipated. Not as heavy as Pinkie, but she definitely didn't have hollow bones! The mare in question let out a timid coo as she worked another knot out, earning a groan of appreciation from my mouth.

"Are you three about done yet? You've missed a dozen spins already!" Rainbow barked from somewhere behind me.

Twilight shifted sharply. "Relax! We're just looking after Mender. We'll join in a bit," Twilight retorted sharply. I didn't have to see her to hear the irritation in her voice.

"It's all right. This is quite a lot of fun!" Princess Celestia assured. I couldn't blame Dash for being grouchy. The princess had trounced her attempts at mischief so far, and even got her once earlier. Apparently the Sun Princess was extremely empathic and perceptive, able to hit upon just the right questions or dares to almost assure the target bowed out. From what I understood of the game, the target then had to do a universally assumed bad act, which changed every time somepony did so. Regardless, Celestia was unscathed and Rainbow Dash had already drank a mixture of orange juice and milk, and been forced to sample leftovers found at the back of Twilight's fridge. Needless to say, she was a little grouchy now. Regardless, I had already decided that playing that game would be bad for my health.

"Aww, come on, Mender. I planned this juuust for you! You can really get to know us and have fun at the same time!" Pinkie pleaded.

I sighed, enjoying the gentle massage from Fluttershy, alongside her newfound comfort level with me. Twilight was tucked pleasantly into my other side as well. Honesty, I could have easily fallen asleep right here. Twilight spoke up first, however, pointing out, "She has a point there. You could learn a lot about us. How about a few rounds, then we go back to this?"

That nagging sensation returned. I was holding them back again. "You two can keep playing, don't worry. I'm just tired and a bit sore," I excused weakly. I really needed to jump up the exercise regimen.

Fluttershy timidly sat on the cushion to my right, a little ways away from me on the couch while uneasily watching the game. "I'd really rather stay here. Um, spin the bottle truth or dares isn't exactly my favorite game," she muttered. Oh, well true.

Twilight giggled but nodded. "You two can stop after a couple of rounds. Just try to relax and have some fun, Mender," she added with a light pat to my other side.

"Yeah, don't be so scared. Sheesh. You can handle a little bump," Rainbow reminded. It wasn't so much the bump as Fluttershy landing on me. Plus that look from Twilight when she saw me skid to a halt holding Fluttershy. Now I can't shake the feeling that they're both sticking close to me to spite the other. This wasn't what I had intended at all.

Rarity sighed tiredly as she rested a hoof on the bottle in the center of the group. "Please, girls. Twilight and Fluttershy can share Mender easily enough. Can we please get back to the game?" she requested politely. Sweetie Belle snickered from the other side of her, but her eyes remained glued on the bottle. Apple Bloom sat next to her as well, looking towards me instead. Scootaloo seemed very much uninterested in the game and remained behind her two friends, staring at the ceiling. It was interesting to see all of the Element Bearers together again. They all had their own lives, really. I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting.

Fluttershy released a light burst of air to my left, startling me. A quick glance told me she was no longer there. Rotating on the cushion, I watched her gracefully land next to Rarity, who shifted over to make room. For a moment, the yellow pegasus glanced backwards; not at me, but Twilight instead. She smiled with just the corner of her mouth. Twilight frowned for a split second, hesitated, then returned the smile. The entire exchange took all of a second or so, and I'm pretty sure I missed something in the space of time it took me to look between the two of them.

Twilight stepped down off the couch and sat down next to Fluttershy. Both scooted apart, however, then looked back at me. Seriously?

I felt more than a little confused as I shakily stood and chambered off the couch. Why couldn't I just be given time to think? Careful of my left forehoof, I took the three steps to get to the group before popping down again.

"Woo! Hey, Mender! Are we ready to start again, everypony?" Pinkie wasted no time in asking. She sat off to my right, on the other side of Twilight. Oddly enough, Spike sat to her left, and shifted closer to Twilight when she sat down. Was he playing too? I momentarily wondered why he wasn't sitting next to Rarity. A glance back in her direction reminded me that she was surrounded by the three Cutie Mark Crusaders. That meant all six friends were playing, potentially Spike, myself, and even Princess Celestia directly across from me!

Applejack nodded sharply and smirked. "Darn tootin'! Ah'm up next," she answered confidently. Before anypony could react, she flicked the bottle with her hoof while glaring playfully at Rainbow. The colorful pegasus grinned back, and the tension between the two could almost be seen in the air.

The bottle started to slow, and all focus shifted to that a moment later, minus Scootaloo of course. I could have sworn I heard a light snoring coming from her. Regardless, the bottle slid slowly past me and pointed at Fluttershy instead. The timid mare gasped and widened her eyes at the bottle.

Applejack let out a puff of air and shook her head, obviously having been hoping for the multicolor-maned mare instead. "Well, shucks. Truth er Dare, Fluttershy?" she asked, shifting to a warm and friendly smile instead.

Fluttershy still froze up, eyes locked onto the bottle and starting to shiver. "Ah! Um, well," she muttered, visibly panicking. I realized suddenly why she didn't like the game.

Smiling, I extended a hoof and rubbed the small of her back, right under the wing bases. She started momentarily before glancing over at me while frozen in place. Her uncertainty shifted to a timid smile and I felt her muscles relax a little under my hoof. She nodded, oddly to me, before answering, "Um, truth please."

Applejack smiled at her and settled back down to the floor again. "Alrighty then. Truth. How did ya know about the trouble goin' down two weeks ago, before Dash went ta get ya? It's been botherin' me," she asked, seemingly out of nowhere. That wasn't like the questions already asked.

The topic promptly fell out of my realm of knowledge. Fluttershy looked as surprised as I felt, so I at least decided that it wasn't some bit of memory I just blanked on. "Oh? Um, when was that?" she asked hesitantly a moment later. A nagging sensation drifted through my thoughts. Something was bothering her.

"Oh, yeah! You met us halfway to your house and acted like you already knew something was wrong," Rainbow suddenly let out.

Applejack gave her a questioning glance. "Weren't ya tha one who told me in tha first place?" she reminded, raising an eyebrow.

Dash sighed. "A pegasus like me has a lot on her mind. My memory slips sometimes. So what?" she defended awkwardly.

"It was just a bad dream. I dreamed of Mender being sick," Fluttershy almost whispered. I noticed once more that everypony suddenly went instinctively silent as soon as she started to talk.

Twilight nodded and smiled. "Probably apprehension from the previous day. It was probably coincidence and Fluttershy's instinctive desire to check up on him again," Twilight reasoned, smiling pleasantly at the yellow pegasus. Fluttershy looked less than convinced.

I simply frowned. That was the day of the incident that they were talking about. It didn't fit. If Fluttershy had met them halfway, how had she known I was at the farm? I hadn't told anypony, and logically it would have been closer to go to Rarity's. She would have known that I had left Twilight's library. Maybe she checked around for me after leaving Twilight's? But she didn't check the farm because I would have seen her. Nopony except those who were there all along knew that I was there! She didn't seem to be the type to call of a search based on an assumption. So she probably didn't search. So how had she known I was at the farm?!

It all suddenly snapped into place. "Please, wake up now, Mender. You need to wake up," suddenly echoed in my mind. My eyes widened and my mouth went dry as I stared at Fluttershy. It was her! She looked largely unsure, and seemed to be intentionally looking away from me. But, what did that mean?

My mouth opened but I curbed the thought before it exited. What was I supposed to say? Pointing out that her dream might have been some sort of psychic communication technique seemed like it would only get me laughed at. Still, she looked unsure of their attempts to assure otherwise.

"Are ya all right there, Fluttershy? Ah'm sorry 'bout askin' somethin' so personal," Applejack suddenly apologized, startling me out of my personal monologue. She jumped a little as well, but shook her head.

"No, it's fine. I was just thinking about it again," she explained, shifting from her more timid voice to a tired sounding one instead.

Rarity smiled affectionately and encouraged, "Why don't you spin, and then rest a bit. You look a little listless."

Fluttershy gave a half-hearted smile and tentatively spun the glass bottle again. It moved maybe three inches. "Oh dear," she muttered quietly, looking momentarily intimidated by the bottle.

"Ya need ta get at least three rotations, Fluttershy. Spin er again?" Applejack encouraged warmly, still smiling. As disturbed as I was at the discovery, it was defused a little bit with the yellow mare's incredible levels of cuteness. She let out a weak whine and batted at the bottle some more with her right forehoof.

Subtly, the bandages on my hoof slipped apart at the bottom, and my rune contacted the wood floor. Feeling along the hard material was simple. I felt the bottle out with my mind and took note of the light impacts from her hoof. The kinetic magnifier was simple after that.

The yellow pegasus squeaked as her next hit rocketed the bottle into a tight corkscrew, and she rapidly retreated backwards, hiding partially behind me. Instinctively, I shifted my left foreleg out to cover more of the startled mare. Apparently, momentarily, the bottle had become scarier than I was?

"Whoa there! That was ah darn good spin, Fluttershy!" Applejack complimented, giving a proud nod and smirk. Twilight frowned as she watched the bottle carefully. I retreated out fully to further avoid suspicion.

"Um, really?" Fluttershy asked carefully, peeking her head out from over my foreleg.

Rainbow Dash nodded instead. "That was an awesome spin!"

The mare behind me blushed softly before smiling and looking less nervous. She shifted forward a bit to move back into place, but bumped my leg. In surprise, she froze and glanced down at it before shifting her attention back to me. There was surprise in her eyes when they met mine. A moment of hesitation followed by a gentle smile from her later, I pulled my leg back to me. I'd not meant for her to get scared. Slowly, I returned her smile and gave an assuring nod. To my surprise, she didn't move forward even after my leg was no longer present. Instead, she slipped back into a sitting position rooting to where she was instead. Well Twilight did say that she only really had to play for one turn. Mentally chuckling, I turned my attention back to the bottle which was finally slowing down.

Everyone glued their attention back to the spinning bottle, of course. Eager eyes widened as it slowly rotated and pointed directly at the rainbow-maned mare herself. At first, Dash looked surprised. Then she smirked and glanced back up at Fluttershy expectantly. “Totally going dare. What’cha got, Fluttershy?” she asked cockily. Heh, of course she’d pick dare. Truth was really potentially dangerous, especially from Fluttershy who knew her secret.

“Oh um, I guess…” Fluttershy started, and then frowned. She hadn’t planned this out. Smirking, I leaned over and whispered suggestions of sky spelling to her. She gasped and blushed furiously before looking at me in surprise. “Oh! Oh. That would be bad, Mender…” she muttered timidly.

Rainbow glared at me instead. “Hey, no giving her ideas,” she warned, almost as if she knew what I had suggested.

“Oooh, now I’m curious, though!” Pinkie exclaimed from the other side of Twilight. She swayed happily back and forth on her rump, seemingly unable to hold still for more than a few seconds at a time.

"Ooh, me too!" Sweetie Belle chimed in almost instantly.

Twilight shook her head next to me. “No, no, we must adhere to the rules. No suggestions from anypony else,” she rejected, even though she was smirking widely. She must have heard my suggestion. I tried really hard not to laugh.

“Oh, I know. Um, Dash, I dare you to um, go bird watching with me tomorrow,” Fluttershy finally spoke up. Wait, was that even allowed as a dare?

Rainbow Dash blinked and tilted her head, while Applejack started snickering. “Are ya sure that’s allowed, hun?” she asked between breaths.

“There’s nothing saying the dare can’t be delayed,” Celestia sagely chimed in, smiling politely at Fluttershy, who seemed to relax at the ruler’s words.

Rainbow took the ruling as a cue, of course. “Ha! No sweat then!” she exclaimed, sitting up fully and bounding her right forehoof off her chest. A second later she winced, and a loud rumble could be heard. She clutched both hooves to her stomach and fell forward again, tucking up. “Oh, dang.”

“Feelin’ ah little under tha weather there, Dash?” Applejack reminded mirthfully, smirking at the sick mare. Wow, their rivalry was indeed rather intense.

Dash snorted and glared back up at her. “Oh shush. It feels like a swarm of parasprites got loose in my stomach. I don’t even know what those leftovers were!” she complained, massaging her stomach with both hooves.

Twilight blushed lightly and coughed, looking away from the display. I snickered and lay down, careful to keep my left forehoof tucked under me and still in contact with the floor, just in case. Note to self, never eat Twilight's leftovers.

Regardless, much to my amazement, the cyan and rainbow pegasus managed to extend her muzzle forward and whack the side of the bottle. It spun erratically, shifting from the center of our loose circle. Twilight had to shift back a little in order to not interfere with the spin.

The bottle started to slow and Rainbow sat up and eagerly watched as its rotation headed for me. Oh crap! She would doubtlessly want retribution, and either truth or dare would prove disastrous. My magic flickered out and lessened the friction on the bottle. As anticipated, its speed drop lessened and the nozzle slipped past me, slowed for Fluttershy, and finally settled on Rarity.

"Aww! Horseapples! You got off lucky, Mender," Dash warned, smirking at me. I gave a sheepish grin in return.

Rarity smiled and looked to Rainbow Dash. "I do suppose I'll have to pick truth, then," she requested. Dash smirked knowingly at the white unicorn and nodded.

"That's fine. Something good, then! So, since the disastrous Gala, have you seen anypony else you'd be interested in?" Dash asked, eyes narrowing and grin predatory. Wait, that sounded more like gossip than anything. Why would Rainbow care? Oh. She was tailoring her questions and dares to try to get under ponies' skin. She really did play to 'win,' didn’t she?

Rarity's eyes widened, but she remained in surprising control of her features, if she were truly nervous. "Oh, well, um, why would you like to know?" she asked carefully. To my surprise, the bottle pulsed with a neutral looking gray light. It was enchanted?

Pinkie slipped fully upright and pointed a hoof towards Rarity before accusing, "Oh no! You're avoiding the question!"

The fashionista scoffed indignantly. "Of course I'm not! I was simply curious," she excused. The bottle flared up with a vibrant red color almost instantly. Oh! It was a lie detector! She scowled at the bottle a second later, huffing.

“Ha! See? Ya really need ta answer now,” Apple Bloom added, nudging Rarity in the side.

“Ah, yes, well…” Rarity muttered, looking flustered. Yeah, that was enough. My conscience couldn’t take it anymore.

Glancing over at Twilight, I saw that she was giving me a rather brutal glare, so I figured she’d have caught on by now. Yeah. There was nothing else for it. “Actually, she doesn’t have to answer, because it’s technically not her turn,” I defended, looking back up at Rarity and Rainbow Dash.

“Beg pardon?” Rarity asked, looking quite a bit surprised. Rainbow tilted her head towards me instead.

“I cheated. I manipulated the bottle so it wouldn’t land on me,” I explained, pulling my left hoof off the floor and showing the line of energy still connected to the floorboards.

Rainbow Dash scowled instantly and stamped her right hoof down. “What?! Then I want a turn against you instead!” she declared, sounding more than a little irritated. Rarity exhaled and visibly seemed to deflate a bit, however. That made me happy.

Applejack chuckled and shook her head as I looked down at the floor. “Why’d ya cheat? And why say anythin’ ‘bout it?” she asked, voice sounding curious.

“I didn’t think it was fair for Rarity to be asked an uncomfortable question, so my conscience got the best of me. And as to why I did it at first, well, I was scared of what Rainbow would ask me or tell me to do,” I spoke truthfully, as Dash smirked and rotated the bottle to point at me instead. As expected, it glowed a soft green color as she finished.

Dash raised an eyebrow at me, but rapidly shook her head. "No avoiding it now. Truth or dare?" she asked, slipping back into her amused expression. Interestingly enough, I saw Rarity mouth something, but being neither particularly gifted at lip reading, nor adjusted to how the ponies' lips move in the first place, I had no idea what she was saying.

Regardless, it would seem that I had to pick my poison now. I weighed the options in my mind. Truth would be disastrous. I had a lot of hidden memories that I'd really rather stay hidden. Alienation and embarrassment were likely. Dare would potentially get me injured, and probably be humiliating, given Rainbow Dash's pattern so far. Still, that was mildly better.

"Well?" the rainbow mare asked impatiently.

I nodded and braced myself, answering with, "Dare."

She giggled. "Quite a few secrets, huh? All right. Dare!" she exclaimed a few seconds later. I shifted uneasily as she thought for a moment, before ordering, "You already smooched Twilight, so that wouldn't be as effective. So I dare you to kiss Fluttershy!"

The squeak behind me fired off before my mind even processed the dare. Turning, I glanced back at Fluttershy, who was now rapidly shifting away from me. Her eyes quivered timidly and she looked terrified. No, this wasn't how I had planned this evening to go.

"Hold on ah minute, Rainbow. We're not supposed ta include anypony else in the dares and ya know that," Applejack reminded.

"Hey, he deserves the full rules because he cheated! It's only fair," Rainbow defended, glaring over at Applejack.

Pinkie waved both forehooves energetically. "But why Fluttershy?! We shouldn't make her do that," she pointed out, motioning towards the yellow pegasus and myself. That stung a bit, but I actually agreed. I sank a little bit regardless.

Rarity huffed, however, defending me by pointing out, "Surely he's not a punishment to kiss. You two are being insensitive."

Applejack sighed wearily. "Look, he has ta do it no matter what, so jus' let Fluttershy decide. If she says no, then he has ta do whatever tha next thing is that Pinkie has."

Twilight slapped her forehead with a hoof and asked, "And how is that fair to Mender?"

"It's not! He cheated, remember?" Rainbow growled.

"I'm starting to think that he had a good reason to," the purple unicorn muttered in return, rolling her eyes.

I finally sighed. "We shouldn't fight. I'll do it, as promised," I interrupted. Fighting over a recreational activity was rather stupid.

Everypony looked back at Fluttershy at the same time. She let out a shy squeak and shifted further behind me and away from sight. Wait, she was using me to hide from myself? Trying not to laugh at that thought and potential deeper meanings, I shifted so I could see her fully, ignoring the almost giddy squeak from what sounded to be Rainbow Dash.

Fluttershy shrank under my gaze, shaking a little bit but kept looking between Rainbow and me. "I um, I don't know. This is a little fast. I'm not like Twilight and..." she started to whisper. It was difficult to hear above the party music and talking.

"I told you, Pinkie made me!" Twilight interrupted in a harsh tone. The yellow mare visibly winced, while I mentally mimicked.

"Twilight! That was insensitive as well. You should consider the effects of your words before speaking. And relax, Fluttershy. Nopony is making you agree," I heard Rarity speak gently. I smiled as I listened. She certainly had good intentions, anyway.

Fluttershy looked less than certain. "But if I don't, he's going to have to..." she started to explain. That. That right there was all I needed to hear. Her desire was the important thing.

Smiling, I turned back to Rainbow and shook my head. "I refuse the dare, Rainbow," I interrupted, earning an extremely surprised expression.

"Wait, what?" Rainbow asked, seemingly shifting from surprise to confusion. Rarity's smile grew larger, however.

I ignored the surprised gasp behind me and looked over at Pinkie instead, inquiring, "What do I have to do now?" Her grin was massive as she giggled gleefully. I swallowed, wondering if her reaction was from my going along with her desire to guard Fluttershy, or if I had just requested my own death sentence.

The excessively pink mare immediately dug into a bag I hadn't noticed nearby. She must have gotten all of the punishments herself. "This is my last one! That means we'll have to stop after this," she informed, voice muffled from her head being inside the bag.

"Ooh, that means Mender gets the honorary last turn after this. Tradition!" Celestia surprised me by informing. Wait, honorary last turn?

Rainbow immediately scoffed at the idea. "He cheated! We should just stop the game after this," she argued.

Celestia simply smiled, however, gently revealing, "Twice, actually. But the first time was simply to help Fluttershy spin. He also came clean shortly after."

Rainbow’s rose-colored eyes softened a little, but I shook my head. "I still cheated," I reminded.

"Here it is! My super-duper grand finale punishment!" Pinkie suddenly blurted out, causing me to jump. A little warning next time?! She pulled a glass bottle out of her bag with both hooves and set it down in front of herself. It was a pretty looking silvery tint, and was filled with a light purple liquid, probably lightened by the glass. A large cork resided in the bottleneck. It wasn't very big. Maybe about eight ounces of liquid?

"What is that?" Twilight asked suspiciously a moment later.

Pinkie giggled. "The punishment! Drink up," she ordered, giving the bottle a healthy slide in my direction. My eyes shot open and I barely managed to catch it before it bashed into Sweetie Belle's nose.

"Are you sure that's safe?" the young filly asked, shifting back a little.

"It's Pinkie Pie. She's not gonna give ah pony somethin' dangerous ta drink, don't ya worry," Applejack assured, giving a confident nod in her direction. I swallowed, but slipped the cork out of the bottle.

A light flowery smell wafted into the air. Well, that was unexpected. I thought it would smell terrible. Of course, that said nothing yet for its taste. I prepared my stomach for internal violation. "How much?" I asked wearily, taking a couple more sniffs. The smell was disarming in nature.

"All of it!" Pinkie cheerfully replied.

Figures. Wincing again, I braced myself before bending down and snatching the top of the bottle in my mouth. Well, if it was anything like medicine, faster was better. I bit the bullet, or bottle in this case, and whipped my head back. My mouth was instantly flooded with a chalky, powdery syrup which threatened to overwhelm my tactile sense. I tried not to cough, but was surprised by the strawberry taste. Opening my eyes again, I took a tentative swallow and was greeted by a sweet taste flooding over my tongue and down my throat. This wasn't bad at all! Which concerned me a little. This was supposed to be traumatizing. Did I have different taste buds then the average pony?

Several seconds passed as I drank down the rest of the liquid. It was actually kind of delicious. After I set the bottle down, I noticed that all eyes seemed to be locked on me. I gave a sheepish shrug and informed, "It was actually kind of tasty."

"What?! I was sure that it was gonna be something horrible," Pinkie groaned, looking a tad disappointed. Well, comparatively, for Pinkie Pie.

"Then what's the point of it being a punishment?" Scootaloo finally spoke up, apparently having started paying attention when I wasn't looking.

A tingling sensation suddenly went through my stomach and I felt a burst of gas go up my esophagus. In the most degrading way possible, I let out a rather large belch. To my surprise, it was accompanied by a blast of purple and pink smoke, directly from the pits of my stomach. Uh oh. I somehow doubted that was a healthy omen for me. Twilight looked on in surprise, widened eyes following the moderate cloud of smoke as it hit the ceiling.

"What in tha hay is that stuff?" Applejack asked suspiciously, watching it slowly disperse on the ceiling.

Twilight's eyes narrowed, however. "Where did you get that liquid, Pinkie?" she inquired, shifting her gaze back down to me. That tingling in my stomach continued, rapidly becoming a dull ache. It felt like my insides were expanding rapidly and I winced.

Pinkie didn't miss a beat, nor lose her smile. "Oh, I got it this morning from Zecora ," she explained simply. Who?

Twilight let out a low groan, however. "Pinkie, that was a potion you just gave him. Did she give you any instructions?" she asked, a hint of irritation in her voice.

A light bulb seemed to come on in Pinkie's head. She dug into her bag for a few more seconds before pulling out a piece of paper with her mouth. In one fluid motion, she spewed it towards Twilight. It stretched through the air, a long tail of iridescent colors oozing along before Twilight caught it with her magic.

Things quieted, except for my suffering stomach. Twilight read the note over carefully with all three eyes, frowning the entire time. My head swam with colors as I tried to shake it off as best I could. Potion. What was that again? A liquid that did something magical. Yeah.

"Pinkie! This is concentrated! Zecora say to mix it with water or juice at a three to one ratio. This is an eight ounce bottle, so that means," Twilight muttered, falling into calculation towards the end.

"Is that bad?" Fluttershy asked quietly, looking a little gray. Wait, that wasn't right. Things bled together as I turned my head and a wave of dizziness came over me. What was the potion's effect?

I heard Princess Celestia warn, "He might need medical attention. Potions can be very bad for you if you overdose."

"Uh oh. This potion was supposed to make thirty-two ounces. You only need three to get the full effect! You gave him enough for almost eleven ponies," Twilight interrupted, groaning. Prismatic and monotone hues were starting to mix as a rush of bile flooded up my throat. I gagged, not expecting the sensation.

"Oopsies..." Pinkie spoke up, swallowing quietly. Her voice hit a nerve that caused tingles to dance up and down my spine. I couldn't stop myself anymore. The rush came up my throat and I promptly threw up all over the hardwood floor.

Scootaloo burst into laughter almost instantly, while Sweetie Belle voiced an, "Ew!" Part of me had to agree with her. The mixture pooled in a congealed manner, consisting of a purple and blue frothing slime. Of course, the colors might not have been accurate because the wooden floor was currently pink and green.

"Oh dear. Well that should make him feel a little better, anyway," I heard Celestia mutter. My eyes remained fixed on the floor between my feet, however. The room was still spinning wildly.

Rainbow Dash groaned wearily. "Is that all it does? I really think that's enough punishment," she admitted uneasily a moment later.

"Zecora's note says it's a mild hallucinogenic, but also that it has a bonus effect that 'punishes' those that lie," Twilight furthered. Her emphasis scared me a little.

"Zecora really don't like ponies who lie, ah have a feelin'," Apple Bloom deduced. It was a bit difficult for me to think, but it sounded like she spoke of prior experiences with the aforementioned individual. My eyes widened slightly as the pool of liquid in front of me started to bubble and churn. That was weird. What would cause that? My vision shifted and dripped as the pool took shape, slowly bubbling and rising upright.

Oh sweet merciful goodness... The shape of a frog rapidly formed out of the ooze. It had to be a frog?! It blinked twice, in an extremely slow fashion. I idly wondered how alive it was. Not that I really felt like moving much to find out. I was suddenly aware of how tired I truly felt. It was as if I hadn't really had any time to myself for weeks. My very soul, if I truly had one of whatever type, felt downright exhausted. Maybe I was being melodramatic, but the lethargy was there regardless. I was vaguely aware of talking going on around me, but it was echoing and sounded really far away. Wait, where was I again? There was something important...

The frog stood up slowly and grinned ear to ear at me. It felt familiar. Maybe I'd seen it in a book somewhere. It didn't seem all that menacing, but then it opened its mouth to talk.

"Hello! I'm an alien from another dimension," it informed, bowing politely.

Oh, okay. That made more sense than it being a living puddle of puke. I welcomed it to our library as humbly as I could. Which was to say, rather informally as it wasn't actually my library. Still, I should at least try to make guests comfortable.

"Jolly good! Did you know that I happened to have a rather conflicting admiration for two mares? One thinks I'm a pet animal, though, and the other is only interested in me because I'm an oddity, I worry," the frog informed.

No, I indeed hadn't known that. Although a talking vomit frog was indeed an oddity. It was strange, but I almost thought that the little guy might have been asking for advice. I sat down on a nearby mushroom and shook my head at him. I tried to explain that he needed to trust in what they tell him, otherwise the friendship might be compromised.

He looked disheartened still, however, adding, "It's all so confusing because I've never felt this way before. Plus, my instincts make me focus on more, well, intimate details. I'm new to this dimension and I don't even know how I'm going to support myself without leeching off these wonderful ponies!" To his credit, he did look a mess. Maybe frogs weren't so bad after all?

I tried to assure him that the ponies were indeed nice and wouldn't mind helping a kind fellow out until he could get on his feet. Er, flippers? I had no idea what frog anatomy was labeled as. The colored lights on my mushroom shifted and shimmered in the moonlight. It was pretty, really. He sat upon his lily pad, drifting to and fro with the ripples.

"It's a bad situation. Plus, I kissed one already! Sure it was an accident but that didn't stop me from really liking it," he added after another moments though. He pulled a pipe out of the water and took a few nervous puffs, blowing a large cloud of bubbles into the air.

I tried to convince him that it was a good thing. He really did need to calm down a bit.

"I can't stay calm! She's cute. No, she's gorgeous! Plus the other makes me feel so warm and safe. It doesn't help that Rainbow Dash entrusted me with the true identity of her secret crush, either. I want her to confess, but it really does serve as a reminder. If I could just tell..." he tried to explain. Unfortunately my world veered sideways as the earth shook. The piercing scream, sounding like hell itself, tore through the heavens above, instantly giving me a headache.

When I looked up again, the frog was gone. Oh wait, everything was gone.

Author's Notes:

Doom Pie's Audiobook Chapter:
http://youtu.be/YKf_K5VKOVc

Chapter 07

Maybe it was the potion-induced unconsciousness. Maybe I had a weekly quota. Maybe I was just incredibly unlucky. Regardless of the reasons behind it, I found myself in the other reality. Well in all honesty, I had no idea if this place was actually real or if it was some kind of delusion put together by my brain to further torture me during my lack of consciousness. Twilight seemed to believe that the link was gone, and maybe she was right? This could just be a sign of my slowly decaying sanity, of course.

The only reason I knew that I was in space this time was due to the view out the window. My subconscious had taken me to the inside of a spaceship cabin, it would seem. The disembodied projection feeling remained as I peered around the interior. In a way, I was grateful that at least my technical training had carried over to my pony body, no matter how awkward it was. It was kind of like knowing how to do complex math without any memories of ever learning it. The skills and knowledge was simply there. In this case, I must have paid attention in some divination class somewhere, because I knew how to manipulate my mind outside of the context of my body.

The cabin was comfy. Not military, that much was certain. It still felt a little cramped, but had personal touches. A couple fanciful pillows, colorful bedspreads, and an array of pictures on the walls brightened the room up quite a bit. Functionally, a bunk bed for two and single lavatory was rather luxurious by itself, though. It cost serious funds to push extra mass through space, after all.

In short, I had no idea why I would be here. If this were an elaborate setup on my mind's part, I don't even know where it could have gotten the information to use as a backdrop. Failing that, the only other option was that something was linking me back to that hellish place, even though Princess Celestia herself said the link was gone. Unlikely, but go ahead and call me paranoid if you want. I made further note to stop talking to myself again, as to not further fuel my own insanity.

Looking to my own 'body' did nothing, of course. There was nobody there for me to see. The surrounding area gave me little to go off, as well. Given no choice, I closed my vision and opened my Mind's Eye instead. A glorified meditation technique in most cases, the Mind's Eye did have a practical purpose in this situation.

Being not in my actual body, be this either dream or some sort of projection, the Eye activated almost immediately. The world shifted into shades of gray and I glanced about, looking for anything that stood out for me. If this were a dream, I'd probably get nothing. I really hoped I'd get nothing.

Unfortunately, that wasn't going to be the case. Half a second passed and I picked up a light blue glow coming from the lower bunk bed, barely a meter away from me. Damn it. So this was either a dream that was exceedingly convincing or I was really here, being pulled while my body slept. Or maybe I was rendered unconscious, as my last memory served? Of course, I could have just died from a potion overdose.

Snapping out of my distraction, I looked into the sheets. It wasn't very hard to find. The blue glow made it easy to locate, but I almost wish I hadn't. My mind ached in a dull, frozen manner as I looked at the small book lying on the mattress. Its worn wrinkles graced the simple blue dyed leather cover in dignity. The simple lock adorned one side, metal showing a gentle rusting that mirrored the spine decorations. The key lay barely three inches from the book, somewhat defeating its purpose, but telling me something important. It had to be important. If only I knew what it meant.

The door slid open with an audible mechanical hum before I could ponder it further. I froze, wondering exactly how visible I was to the natives of this place. With no other option, I watched helplessly as two individuals entered the room. Then the helplessness shifted rapidly to shock instead.

Both of them walked upright on two legs. Further, they both wore clothing; space contact suits to be precise. They had no helmets on, however. The true surprise came from the blue fur covering their faces, long ears extending back almost a foot, short muzzles, whiskers, and slit pupils. They were my old race! They looked like I had. Well, prior to the explosion, death magic, and massive bodily trauma.

Further, they possessed a curved build, both major and minor mammary gland sets, and a distinct lack of extended upper canines. They were females! The one in the lead was a little taller and had her hair tied back into a ponytail. Her eyes were a pretty teal color and looked right through me. The smaller trailed behind her a little, sporting a relaxed cascading hairstyle and brilliant blue eyes. She lingered in the doorway and glanced about the room wearing a frown. The taller one walked right through me, giving me the rather discerning view of the inside of her stomach before I killed my perception. That was something I could have lived my whole life without seeing! Well, technically I had. I considered this existence my second life regardless.

The tall one stopped at the other end of the room by the time I'd pulled my perception back into place. "What's bothering you, Keela?" she asked quietly, upon observing for a moment.

The one called Keela jumped slightly, as if spooked. "What? Oh, sorry, Sis. I guess I'm just a little unnerved still," she excused quietly. So they were sisters? Or really close. It made me wonder what family structure was like in my old race. There were no memories of that sort of thing at all. Did I have family too? If these girls were real and not extremely strange dream figments, then maybe I had family left too?

"For one as sensitive as you, visiting the remains of our home planet can't be comfortable. How are you holding up?" the yet unnamed female questioned in seeming concern.

The younger looking one shook her head tiredly before walking into the room further. Oddly, she drifted a little in her trajectory and walked around me. A subconscious thing? It didn’t seem to be that big of a stretch to think that there were other specializations too. My magic focused on three distinct subjects. Maybe she focused on detection or divination of some sort?

My mild distraction abruptly ended with a wave of vertigo. My vision spun to the right rapidly, just in time to see the older girl pick up the small book. "I'm all right, Nirru. Just tired. You've been quiet too, though," Keela pointed out, sitting down on the bed next to the newly named Nirru.

Nirru sighed, setting the book down again and dropping my nonexistent stomach out from under me. Ug! "I'm just frustrated. So far, we've only found this book. We need to find survivors," she muttered quietly, looking down at the cover.

Keela exhaled gently and smiled, replying with, "This is a survivor. It's perfectly intact. Its magic is strong, but very strange. It's not just an Aegis Artifact."

An Aegis... Artifact? That was totally new to me, unfortunately. It must have something to do with the Aegis Barrier, but there weren’t even the faintest of chimes in my memories at the name. That's how it had worked before. Some sort of external stimulus would occur, and the memories involved would slowly start to drift to the surface. It was sort of like blowing up submersibles with depth charges. This topic seemed to be firing blanks, however.

"What feels so weird about it? Furthermore, what does it do?" Nirru asked abruptly, snapping me out of my contemplation. Ah well. This sounded more interesting anyway.

Keela frowned and slid her small hand along the surface of the book. It momentarily felt like my mind was being brushed against. Instinctively, I held rigid and gave out no signs of life. Crap! That book! "It feels like the owner is still alive. I have no idea what it does, though. Being a book type, it will need to be opened to find out.

“That’s not possible, though. At least, if it really is an Aegis Artifact. The very definition requires that the creator be dead,” Nirru pointed out skeptically, frowning down at the book as well, but making no motion to touch it like her sister.

Keela didn’t respond immediately. I felt her energy dancing along the book, and in turn, myself. I made no motions and withdrew my energy the best I could as to not be detected, but she was extremely insistent. “It feels like there’s consciousness in this life-force. It’s unlike the other artifacts I’ve handled. It’s alive. The owner is alive. I can almost guarantee it!” she proclaimed, sounding confident.

“Can you find anything else out about its owner?” Nirru inquired curiously, surprising me a little. Her uncertainty was slipping fast. She really trusted Keela, it seemed.

“He’s very far away, but feels very close at the same time. I’m not sure what to make of the feeling,” Keela muttered, still frowning as she slipped a claw into the lock. There was a ripple and distortion once she was barely a millimeter in, and some sort of invisible field held her at bay completely.

It was irritating. I glared at the book, trying to make my mind remember more about it. All I truly accomplished was giving myself a headache, of course. It was important from somewhere! That much I could be sure of. The headache got worse and reality started to bleed, images melting through my perspective. Uh oh.

"He?" Nirru asked suddenly, eyes widening and little. It was almost impossible to hear her as her voice echoed and dropped off.

Keela said something in return, but I couldn't quite hear it as the backdrop of the world fell out from under me. For a moment, everything was deconstructed into base energy dancing wildly. Then it all went black.

* * * * *

It was the oddest sensation. Kind of like you just popped out of a blender backwards, only to realize that nothing was moving in the first place. My mind snapped back into its normal spot with a crashing wave of dizziness and nausea. A headache mixed with a dull beating sensation along my left eye followed. What the heck happened?! Was I having seizures while talking to the magic, dimension-traveling frog? Wait. It suddenly occurred to me that the frog might have been a bit nonsensical.

My eyes opened slowly, taking in the sight of the gently spinning room with mild disdain. After a moment to adjust, I realized with no small surprise that I wasn't in the clinic bed. Huh. Normally when I wake up from a 'nap' of unspecified duration with a splitting headache, I'm greeted with the sight of the emergency medical facilities. Managing to catch some features as they slid by, I rapidly noticed a couple large bookshelves, another bed, a desk, and a lavender blur. Huh.

"Ah! I was wondering when you'd be up! I was just coming to check your temperature again. How do you feel?" the fuzzy blob that spoke like Twilight asked, sounding happy.

I tried blinking. It didn't help much. "What happened and why does my face hurt?" I asked wearily.

"Hey, you're awake! Finally," a new, blue blob announced, floating up in front of my vision as well. Okay, that sounded like Rainbow Dash. I must be back in Equestria at this point.

The blob Twilight sighed weakly and relayed, "You got a massive overdose of truth serum mixed with a powerful hallucinogenic. You then proceeded to shout out some rather, um, interesting things at the top of your lungs in-between throwing up. Rainbow Dash, uh, kicked you in the head and knocked you out at that point."

I blinked slowly, head giving another throb of protest. "Hey, he started to blab about sensitive information! I didn't have any choice," Dash defended, crossing her forelegs. I momentarily got distracted by some square looking object tucked under her foreleg. Wait, the frog wasn't real? Damn frogs!

"Dash..." Twilight warned, looking over at her floating friend. My vision slowly started to focus again, and my memory caught up alongside it. Oh, oh crap.

"How much did I say?" I suddenly asked, apprehensive.

Twilight had shifted into focus enough for me to pick up a noticeable pink tint to her cheeks. She gave a sheepish grin regardless. "Well, mostly about Fluttershy and me. Um, just confirming what you thought about us," she elaborated. Yup. Everything the frog had said was actually me.

"And I'm sorry for hitting you," Rainbow muttered a moment later, rubbing the side of her neck with a forehoof while drifting further into my field of vision. I glanced back at her, but she continued with, "But hey, you're awesome enough to survive a space battle against a powerful alien boat thingy, so I doubt a little bonk to the head is going to even slow you down!"

My eyes widened a little at her sudden bragging. Wait, she actually said I was awesome? Wait, she hit me in the head?! She took it in stride, of course, returning a wink and playful smirk. Twilight laughed before climbing up onto the bed and pressing a forehoof to my forehead.

"How are you feeling, anyway?" she inquired curiously, frowning a bit before pulling her hoof back and adding, "You're actually a little on the cold side."

“I feel… a little bit sick,” I agreed, shifting onto my side and looking at the mare sitting next to me. She held a look of concern that was much clearer now that she was close enough that my fuzzy vision didn’t matter.

Rainbow zipped down and landed next to the bed as well, taking a curious peek at me. I now realized the object she was holding was a book. Dash liked to read? That was a little surprising, but I guess I didn’t doubt it all that much. Everypony had facets of themselves that were a lot deeper than appearance. She caught me looking and grinned, pulling the book out and flipping it face forward in both hooves. Daring Do and the Three Heads of Cerberus? Oh, it was an adventure novel, by the sounds of the title and picture on the cover. She liked fiction, then? I smiled gently while looking at the cover.

“Daring Do is awesome! Don’t knock reading until you try it!” Rainbow exclaimed, rocking back and forth on her back legs in an almost giddy sway.

Twilight giggled at her display and nodded. “Indeed. Although I believe he’s already a fan of reading, Dash,” she pointed out, looking amused.

The rainbow pegasus puffed up, looking proud, if not a bit relieved. What, was she afraid I was going to rag on her for reading or something? “Yup. I love reading. The books Twi gave me when I got here saved me quite a bit of face and social faux pas,” I muttered, blushing a little. Not all of them, sadly.

“Foe wha?” Rainbow asked, tilting her head at me questioningly.

“Faux Pas. A slip or blunder in etiquette, manners, or conduct, usually done in a social context,” Twilight explained as if on cue with no hesitation whatsoever.

Without missing a beat, Dash snorted and started laughing. “So making an idiot of himself? I kind of wish I’d seen you when you weren’t prepared then! Oh, that would have been even more hilarious!” she exclaimed in-between snickers. My ears flattened back. Of course she’d bring up that. I knew I hadn’t been the most socially suave pony to grace the lands, but she didn’t need to remind me of that fact.

“Dash! Be nice. He’s truly new to Equestria, so a few social blunders are actually totally expected. You shouldn’t tease him for it,” Twilight scolded, outright frowning at the pegasus now.

Her laughter died down to a light snickering and she bobbed her head in agreement, assuring, “Don’t worry. I’m just teasing a little. Mender has a ton of guts and I can totally respect that. We made an awesome team, after all!” She smirked back at me and raised a hoof expectantly.

I barked out a short laugh, and then extended my hoof as well, earning a firm, but still gentle bump from hers. Twilight rolled her eyes again, but now wore a smile instead. Heh. If she thought this sort of thing was awkward, I doubt she’d appreciate the camaraderie of a barracks, if I recall correctly.

“Anyway! I’ve got to get going. I have to meet with Fluttershy to, uh, bird watch, I guess. A dare is a dare. Oh, um,” Rainbow started slowly looking down at the book she had tucked back under her foreleg.

“Yes, you can obviously borrow it. This is a library, Dash. And even if it wasn’t, you know I’d let you,” Twilight reminded, smirking at her friend.

The cyan coat complimented Dash’s blush well, and she nodded with a suddenly sheepish looking grin. “Thanks, Twi. You’re the best. I’ll talk to you two later, then?” she offered, fluttering into the air again without effort. I momentarily admired her flight capabilities. Having wings would be so cool.

“Of course. I’m dropping by Applejack’s later today to help her with the barn if you want to visit,” Twilight agreed. I almost saw a knowing glimmer in her eyes, and shuddered. Whoa. I hadn’t realized Twi had a playful side to her like that. Oddly, the revelation wasn’t exactly a bad thing.

Rainbow blushed outright now, but smirked still and nodded. “Ha, you got me there. Sold! I’ll try to drag Fluttershy there too,” she admitted, giving a mock salute with her free foreleg.

"That would be a good thing, I think. See you there!" Twilight replied cheerfully, a rather warm smile on her face. I was a little suspicious of why it would be good. Silent dread slipped into my mind again. I smelled plotting.

Dash threw up another salute before twirling once in the air and bursting off through the open window on the other side of the room. I watched her go, still amazed at the level of speed the mare seemed to exhibit with such ease. Everypony here was so amazing, but admittedly, the Element Bearers were extremely skilled ponies in their own way.

"She really does love the Daring Do saga. Don't let her fool you, though. She was hanging around here extra-long so she could apologize," Twilight suddenly explained, tacking a giggle onto the end.

I snickered and rotated to view Twilight fully again. "She's a sweetheart once you get past the exterior, it seems," I agreed, maintaining a soft smile up at her.

It earned me a nod in return, followed by, "Just like you, it seems." Her playful mimicking was cute, but her tone caused me to blush furiously as her eyelids lowered a little. I swallowed.

"Uh, what do you mean?" I asked uneasily.

She smirked as she crawled a little closer, her hip now pushing up against my leg. "You're a gentlecolt, of course. Fluttershy knows you refused the bet for her sake. I also happen to know you find me attractive," she pointed out. Less than half a meter of air separated us. I felt my heart start to beat faster, a light sweat starting at my forehead.

"I'm, um, I didn't mean to offend you!" I exclaimed, hopefully derailing any awkwardness at my apparent reveal last night. Why hadn't I realized that she was one of the mares I'd talked about last night?! For some reason, the Twilight Sparkle I associated with my crush didn't always sync with the one that was probably my best and first friend. The heat in my cheeks was probably visible and didn’t help much, though. I only hoped that she'd forgive me if she were mad.

Twilight closed her eyes but continued smiling softly. A moment passed and I watched her eyes flicker slightly under their lids. She seemed to be hesitant about something. They flicked open partially a moment later, but remained at half-mast. “You definitely didn’t. It was shocking to realize that a stallion liked me in that regard, but it was far from offensive. It was just something I’ve never had happen to me before,” she assured.

My system went fully into shock as she slipped back up onto all fours, leaned over, and dropped herself on top of my blanketed form. Her head rested against my chest lightly as, for a moment, she hugged my torso. The heat magnified significantly in my cheeks but I fought it back as best I could. She was hugging me! No, wait, that wasn't accurate. She was resting on top of me. Cuddling!

“A-Ah. You did say you were, um, studying a lot during your time in Canterlot,” I muttered, attempting to simply keep talking to stop myself from locking up.

She giggled and nodded against me. “Yeah. Not much time for boys when you’re Princess Celestia’s personal student. Which is why I was, well, hoping to ask you for a favor,” she requested, looking back up at me.

Her eyes were warm and held a certain amount of pleading, it felt like. Locking mine to them, I knew there was no way I could say no, even if I had wanted to in the first place. She was gorgeous, and whether she knew it or not, she could definitely dump on the female charm to influence my thinking. Just the way her mane was splayed out, intermingling with the fur of my coat. Her warm cheek against my chest mixed with that soft smile. No! That kind of thinking was definitely not helping me just answer her!

“Well, you can ask me for anything, you know. Besides, I do owe you quite a bit,” I finally managed to spit out, blushing furiously still. Yes! Just focus on how much you owe her, Mender! No need to think about how warm she felt, how gorgeous her eyes were, the soft fur against my chest, or the amazing mind and soul sealing it all together. Er, crap.

She laughed. It was melodious and quite pleasant on the ears. “Relax. I want the request to be mutual with no strings pulling it one way or another. I, um, haven’t exactly been very good at sorting intangible things like my feelings. So a bit of experimentation is in order, I think!” she explained, a certain level of determination flickering into her eyes.

Okay, that was adorable. I smiled at her and nodded. Wait a second. “Er, experimentation with what?” I questioned, suddenly realizing where this might be going.

“Hee! You like me. I think I might like you back. How else am I going to decide if I don’t have any experience otherwise? The empirical method has never failed me yet! Well, not too much, anyway. So I want to try kissing for real now,” she explained, sitting up and leveling her face with mine.

I’m pretty sure my heart stopped. Or at least if it didn’t, my chest went numb and I couldn’t feel it beating. I opened my mouth to say something, anything, but no sound came out. My brain stumbled over itself. She started giggling again. “That’s an ambitious start, but we should try normal kissing first,” she warned playfully, leaning closer. I could almost feel her breath on my muzzle, she was so close. She added, “Last chance to say you don’t want to.”

She leaned closer and closer while waiting. I started shaking a little but couldn’t make my brain form proper thoughts correctly. Did I want this? She was gorgeous. Her personality was amazing. So essentially, hell yes! But was this too fast? She’d only known me for three weeks now. Did she really know what she wanted?

No, that was a moot point. She had decided to experiment just for that reason; to figure out what she wanted. Who was I to deny her that desire? I closed my mouth again and smiled at her instead, only managing a nod. That was all it took. Her smile turned into a grin and she leaned forward all at once. For the second time, our muzzles locked together; this time of her own volition.

My sense of time ground to a halt again. Her eyes softened and slowly closed as I relaxed backwards, pulling her with me. A light hum escaped against my lips from her, and both of her forelegs slipped over my shoulders. A deep floral scent drifted into my nose as I breathed in her scents. The sensations were enough to make me light headed. She was fully willing this time, which made the sensation of her lips against mine seem so much better. Jolts of heat and tingling sensations danced up and down my whole body. I didn't deny my instincts this time, and wrapped my forelegs tightly around her back, pulling her as close as possible.

The noises she made when I squeezed her closer to me were delightful. Her smells surrounded me on all sides. I couldn't escape them even if I wanted. Even though it felt like I was starving for the touch, our movements were deliberate and slow. She sampled different movements, one at a time, as if savoring my flavors. I let out a light hum, refusing to have it any other way. The heat in my cheeks expanded through my face and down my neck. My right foreleg slowly massaged up and down her back, kneading the muscles gently. My unoccupied hoof extended up and held her cheek softly, cradling her as I tilted a little bit to give her more room.

She started shivering almost uncontrollably. I wasn't sure if it was a good or bad sign. She finally pulled away slightly, splitting our lips apart enough to draw in several panting, ragged breaths. My eyes opened rapidly and sought out hers, looking for any sign that she enjoyed it. Her eyes were still closed, but a deep flush extended along her cheeks.

Her eyes quivered slightly before cracking open and looking into mine. They never opened fully, giving her a warm, sleepy look. "Oh wow. Why did I wait so long to do this?" she whispered weakly, nose and muzzle still pressed against mine.

Did that mean she liked it? "Was it, um, good?" I asked hesitantly. It sounded good and I remained hopeful.

She smirked instead of answering directly. Several small pecks a moment later told me much more specifically. "I think I might need more, hmm, experimentation to figure it out," she cooed lightly after the third or fourth small kiss.

I exhaled weakly, relief flooding my system. She must have noticed it, as she giggled merrily before capturing my lips once more, this time with a hungry groan. Her kiss was a little stronger now, but I just let her move at the pace she wanted. My heartbeat quickened as she arched up, pushing me back into my pillow as she tried to almost drink me in. Jolts of pleasure and happiness drifted through my mind and it was difficult to form full thoughts. She practically purred as I pulled her down tighter into the kiss, wishing I could feel her more through this blanket! She started to shiver again as her forelegs extended to each side of my head. Was this good? Did she like it? I had no idea what to do with my forelegs, so I simply went with instinct and tried to pull her as tight against me as possible.

A loud impact sounded out off to my right a moment later, followed by, "Hey, Mender! I forgot to ask. Can you help me later with, um, whoa!" Rainbow Dash's voice trailed off and died. Oh. Oh crap!

Twilight shot up into a sitting position instantly, flush extremely obvious on her cheeks. "Ah, I can explain!" she declared rapidly. Wait, what? What was going on?!

Rainbow Dash recovered fast, however, and had acquired a smirk by the time I looked over at her. "There's not much to explain from this angle. So, how long have you two been an item?" she asked coyly, getting it entirely wrong. My heart skipped a beat.

"What?! No, we're still just friends! I was just trying to figure out how I felt and well, experimenting a little bit," Twilight tried to explain, looking as pink as I'd ever seen her. I frowned up at her instead, that leaving me with conflicting feelings. Still friends? Did she mean that, or simply want to keep her feelings a secret? I tried to assume the latter, but it was still a little painful to consider.

Dash chuckled, before pointing out, "It looked like you were enjoying it plenty from your end, Twi. You don't need to hide it." Wonderful. She just had to push the lavender unicorn; the only one in the room capable of shattering every bone in our frail, squishy bodies with her mind! I was dead. Rainbow was dead too.

Twilight frowned and rapidly shook her head. "I, well, I'm telling the truth. It was an experiment!" she defended adamantly, stomping her right forehoof for emphasis. I winced but didn't dare say anything as it smacked into my chest.

"Twilight, stop it. How do you think that makes Mender feel?" the cyan pegasus asked, losing her smirk and actually frowning. Which part? The wanting to not admit her feelings, or the blunt force trauma to my chest? Not that it mattered if Twilight got mad again and threw me instead of the bed this time.

Shivering, I tried to keep the situation, and my voice, under control. "N-No! It's all right! She has every right to experiment. It's, um, okay," I assured weakly, not entirely sure where I was going with it. Rainbow gave me a skeptical, unamused looking stare, and I swallowed nervously. Twilight let out a quiet whining noise, however, surprising me. Glancing back up at her, I saw that she was looking down at her own hoof instead as it rested on my chest.

"I'm sorry. You're right, Dash. I need to be honest, especially to myself," she muttered to herself. Wait, what? Was she, uh, maybe that was sarcasm and she was actually pissed? Scenarios of her snapping and painting the library floor with my blood came to mind. Something about having a pony you know could rip you apart with her mind sitting on your stomach made it really hard to relax. In substantially different ways than a less powerful mare. I think.

I shivered nervously, the image of the full size bed smashing down the flight of stairs clearly present in my mind. That level of force exerted on me, via accident or murderous intent, would result in an extremely quick death. She was stronger than the archmages in my memories, and considering what I could remember them doing to recruits like me, that was terrifying.

Rainbow shook her head in my peripheral vision. "You two need to just talk to each other about it. Besides, we could all stand to be a little nicer to him," she reasoned, catching me off guard.

"Ah! That's really not necessary! You all have been really nice to me so far. Probably a lot more than I deserve for putting everything you know and love in danger. Really," I repeated, not wanting to be a further drain on these amazing ponies. Oh, or be crushed violently by psychokinetic powers. Living was high up on my list of priorities, ironically.

Dash shook her head and walked closer, giving me a stern glance as I looked over at her. "Mender, relax. Again. You need to stick up for yourself a bit more," she groaned, looking a bit exasperated.

Frowning, I shook my head. "There's no need to. Twilight hasn't done anything wrong," I insisted.

"Mender, I did!" Twilight groaned out, pushing lightly down at me with both forehooves.

It happened without a conscious decision on my part. Unfortunately, I wasn't looking at her when I was suddenly jolted down, and panicked. Wincing, I rapidly closed my eyes and cowered, flattening my ears down.

There was a pause, and then I heard her gasp. Risking a glance up at her, I saw that she had both hooves covering her mouth. "Oh no. No, no, no! You're... You're scared of me?" she muttered, looking visibly horrified.

My eyes widened and I tried to shake my head to assure her to the contrary. Then I realized that I'd be lying. I kind of was afraid of her. She was ungodly powerful.

Dash sighed, now a few feet from our bed. "Well, you kinda threw a bed at him. What did you expect?" she questioned in a surprisingly irritated manner.

Twilight winced as if burned and looked away from the cyan mare, eyes starting to get wet. Did she truly regret that? Swallowing nervously, I started to shuffle out from under her using my forelegs. Rainbow was right. We really did need to talk this out more. Talking involved thinking about what I wanted to say. Thinking was a lot harder when a gorgeous girl was on my lap. Well, sort of. Did it count if there was a blanket between us?

Twilight's eyes shot fully open again as she must have felt me moving under her. Before I fully realized what was going on, she collided fully with my chest again and pressed her now wet face into my fur. "No! Please don't go anywhere. I'm sorry. Having somepony scared of me feels horrible," she pleaded, voice muffled by my coat.

Rainbow chuckled and finally smiled. "Mender's afraid of everypony at first. Just be nice to him," she suggested in an exceedingly amused sounding voice, giving Twilight's side a pat.

I glared at her while giving the significantly less threatening lavender mare an assuring hug. "You blew me up, dropped several things on my head from absurd distances, and got me in trouble with others on many occasions," I reminded in annoyance.

She promptly laughed, of course, returning nonchalantly, "Details, details! I think we're a pretty good team now, right?”

That much I had to agree with, and had to nod. Twilight slid her left forehoof gently down my chest, however. When I looked back down at her, my eyes locked with hers. Tears slid down the fur on her cheeks. I swallowed again, urges stirring inside of me. Crying was hardly fair, although it definitely did a good job of almost making me forget that she could pull me apart with her mind.

"Mender, please. Tell me what I can do to make you feel safe around me," she requested quietly. She really did look traumatized. Plus, Twilight was never known for her social skills, so pure probability dictated that she truly felt bad. But how could I be sure that sort of situation wouldn't crop up again?

"Don't throw beds at him?" Dash suggested, stretching out and flapping her wings gently. After a moment, they sped up and she lifted into the air again.

Twilight's ears drooped as she glared at her flying friend. Dash just grinned and winked at her, earning an eye roll. Twilight smirked, however, and I exhaled in relief. Rainbow did know how to defuse a situation, that was for sure. Almost as well as she created them!

I sighed. That, of course, just left me. It was true; I was terrified of the lavender unicorn at times, as surprising as it was. It partly had to do with her massive level of power and skill, obviously. But part of me was afraid of her purely because she was female, I realized. Kissing wasn't unheard of in my memories, from a technical standpoint. I doubt that I had personal experience in it before Twilight, but I knew what it represented. Still, the aspect of the female was what scared me. On some subconscious level, I think it had been influencing my actions since I came to Equestria. She felt like she was more important than me. Well, Twilight obviously was, along with the rest of the Element Bearers, but even normal ponies like Lyra or Bon Bon felt 'better', for lack of a better word. Well, if you could consider Lyra normal.

Extending my right forehoof back up, I gently wiped the few fallen tears away from Twilight's cheek. It didn't look like she was a pony who cried in front of others very often. It felt so contradictory. Part of me wanted to hug her and kiss her again until she stopped crying, but another part of me was afraid she'd rip off the arms I used to do so. No screaming sensation of agony came, however. Twilight simply stared into my eyes from a few inches away, both pools of lavender shivering periodically. I felt myself warming up again and wasn't entirely sure what to do.

Rainbow interrupted before I could decide on anything. "Well, you two seem to be a little bit better, so I'm going to go find Fluttershy. Do you need anything else before I go?" she asked politely, grin shifting back to a soft smile.

Twilight blinked twice, then smiled weakly and looked over at her. "No. Um, thank you for bucking some sense into me, Dash," she thanked quietly after a moment's hesitation.

Rainbow waved a hoof nonchalantly towards us before dismissing it with, "Oh relax. I just want to see you two be happy. That's what best friends are for!”

Twilight smiled fully, finally, and nodded. I couldn't help but join in as well. She really was a good mare, when she wasn't dropping things on my head. Before either of us could reply, however, she started lightly blushing. "Speaking of seeing, think you two could let me watch later when you're more comfortable with each other?" she suddenly asked, tossing in a wink after.

Twilight blushed furiously at the same time my mind spun, trying to fully understand what she had just said. She reacted much faster, however, and blushing shock switched to blushing irritation. My eyes widened as several pillows and a few books drifted into the air around us. Rainbow took her cue and launched herself backwards. She stuck out her tongue as she went, barely managed to dodge two high velocity pillows, then burst back out and off the balcony a heartbeat later, laughing hysterically.

I sighed quietly a moment later, blushing still. Twi nodded and slowly hauled the pillows back onto the bed. She turned back to me a moment later, smiling shyly again. I started to smile back when she ducked in and put a far more timid kiss on my mouth. My mind spun but that soft, warm sensation filled me again. This one was kept short, however. She slipped back an inch and smiled again.

"Please, don't be scared of me. I, um, regret what I did in the past. I overreacted to a rather simple thing, and will never hurt you again. Can you forgive me?" she asked softly from all of an inch away.

For a moment, I hesitated. She seemed honest. Taking a risk, I leaned forward, pecking her lips timidly. For a brief moment, I caught myself flinching as I did so. She smiled against my lips however, and I managed to relax. We broke apart again a moment later and she nodded approvingly. "That was much better. Thank you," she added softly, seemingly in no hurry to get off my chest.

A moment passed and she faltered slightly. "Still, I've never had a coltfriend before. I, um, admit to liking you quite a bit. There! I said it. What do we do now?" she questioned hesitantly.

I blinked once in surprise, then frowned. "Uh, I've never had a fillyfriend either, if that's the term. We're both kind of new to this. And what about Fluttershy?" That last part I barely managed to add.

The lavender unicorn blushed and shook her head gently. "Oh, uh, didn't she talk to you before the party? She came by not more than an hour after you left, asking for you," she revealed, seemingly a little hesitant about something. Uh oh.

"She was hiding from me at the Carousel Boutique when I saw her. We didn't have very long to talk," I explained uneasily. At least not between her hiding behind furniture. But she wouldn't like it if I said as much.

Twilight frowned and exhaled abruptly, angling her lips so her bangs puffed into the air, momentarily. "She lost her nerve, then. What to do..." she muttered, a bit of frustration sounding through in her voice. I swallowed. That didn't sound good.

"Is it to do with the memories she saw when you two helped me?" I lead, trying to get anything that would be helpful. Twi obviously knew about her issues already.

She surprised me by wincing instead. "Yeah. Another thing I goofed up. It hurt both of you by me asking for her help. I should have just taken more time and not hauled anyone else in," she groaned out tiredly, looking down again.

I frowned and started to move closer to her again to comfort, but she shifted back a little. "No. I thought you already knew her feelings. If I'd known she hadn't told you and your mind wasn't made up, I wouldn't have tried to experiment. I'm sorry for," she started to apologize, before my hoof gently pressed onto her lips.

"Please, Twilight. Don't be so hard on yourself. You helped me by asking her for help. If she doesn't like me anymore because of things she saw, then that's between her and me. You didn’t have-" I assured softly. It was my turn to be interrupted, though.

Twilight gasped and shook her head rapidly. "No! She doesn't dislike you. She knows you only wanted to protect what you loved. She's proud of that and happy. The images are what hurt her. She thinks about it every time she sees you still, and says, well..."

I frowned as she trailed off. This is where Fluttershy had technically stopped, too. "She doesn't want to get in a relationship with me, right?" I finished, pretty sure that it was just in need of verification at this point.

The unicorn sighed and nodded, exactly as I figured. "She doesn't think she can give it her all anymore, which wouldn't be fair to you. She was very insistent that she didn't think of you as a wounded animal, though," she explained, seemingly tacking things on as she remembered. Her expression looked stressed, and I realized she was winging the conversation on the fly. Lack of planning made for a very stressed out Twilight, it would appear. It wasn't the reason I had expected, but the outcome was the same. I'd prepared myself for it a hundred times over, so why was it still painful? I swallowed the lump in my throat.

"I'm sorry. She still needs to tell you herself. I insist. And I apologize for kissing you. I thought you had already picked me," she admitted uneasily. Uh oh.

The distinct feeling of screwing up came to mind. So I liked Fluttershy and Twilight, but Fluttershy didn't return my feelings because of my memories from my past 'life'. But not knowing that, I just shared a rather intimate moment with Twilight, who was now rapidly regretting it due to the feelings she saw me having for the other mare. She now refused to acknowledge otherwise until I'd talked to Fluttershy about it, who was currently probably off avoiding me with Rainbow Dash.

My head start to spin and I sighed weakly. If Nurse Redheart wouldn’t have a stress attack upon seeing me again, I’d seriously consider jumping out the window while screaming. Instead, I settled with a heady sigh and shook my head. “I figured as much already. Really, Twi. I accept what she thinks of me. I just need to get my head straightened out and figure out what I think about you. Although I’m really pretty sure I already know the answer to that one,” I explained, blushing lightly after.

Twilight smiled but also shook her head as well. "I know you like me. I'm glad for that, but I would have believed you without the truth serum issue. But I know that you also like Fluttershy. I just want to have you settle your feelings for her first," she explained, gently warding off my hoof away from its attempts to brush against her shoulder.

I was surprised at the brief spike of irritation that went through me. I frowned. With a bit of focus, I calmed myself. I had wanted more. That distinct urge was identified again. Hormones? Not entirely, it would seem. The noticeably cute mare practically sitting on me frowned, looking unsure for a moment. I hesitated. Had I gone too far? I reined in my feelings as best I could. She hadn't intentionally teased me.

"Uh, are you okay? Um, did I say something wrong?" she asked cautiously.

I shook my head rapidly, hoping she wasn't upset. "No! Of course not."

She frowned further and I shrank a little under her gaze, earning a groan as well. "You don't need to be afraid of me, Mender! What can I do to make you more comfortable around me?" she asked, moving her face close to mine again, following as I backed into the pillow.

"Um!" I managed to squeak out in a weak voice. Uh oh! She was getting irritated now.

She suddenly smirked, however. It was a knowing and predatory grin. Quite familiar, considering I'd seen it all of fifteen minutes prior. "Of course, a little positive reinforcement might help," she whispered, brushing her nose against mine. I couldn't help but blush again, a gentle smile sneaking onto my face.

It was accompanied by the soft rumbling of my belly. Twilight looked confused for a moment and I peeked down at my tummy, now blushing even harder. She followed my gaze before giggling merrily. "Or some breakfast first. That works too," she agreed a moment later. I hadn't realized that my body could ask questions for me.

"Ah! Uh, I'm sorry?" I offered, unsure of what to do in this situation.

Twilight giggled again and shook her head. "I won't hurt you. Stop apologizing for every little thing. Let's go get some breakfast, then!" she assured, sounding surprisingly chipper. She stood up again in one fluid motion, sliding backwards and off the bed. My back legs immediately started tingling as the blood rushed back into them. I smiled at the tickling sensation while sitting up finally, attempting to pull the blankets off of me.

Sadly, I wasn't anticipating the wave of dizziness accompanying the simple movement. Twilight started laughing hysterically as I became a confused, tangled ball of blankets at the foot of the bed. I glared up at her as best I could while upside down and prone.

"You'll never change," she muttered warmly, giving her head a final shake before her horn lit up. I felt her slowly start to undo the blankets and sighed. This was going to be a long day.

Author's Notes:

Doom Pie's Audiobook Chapter:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A5Ux9lO1MYM

Chapter 08

My stiff muscles released sparks of happiness up my spine as I slowly stretched out. Combined with the warm feeling of the Sun beating down from above and the gentle breezes around me, I was finally feeling pretty good. Heck, I should have gotten outside long before this! That thought jolted me into paranoia and I rapidly looked all around me. Several uneventful moments later, I decided that maybe, just maybe, I was going to have a good day. Maybe even one without blunt force head trauma, full body burns, or multiple lacerations.

Twilight lagged behind a little, looking at some sort of flower alongside the path we were on. She was still smiling pleasantly, which was oddly contagious. Still, it was nice to see her in a good mood. Less painful, too. Although admittedly, the only time she had almost hurt me since I woke up was when I broke into her home in a mechanical monstrosity of nightmare, seemingly taking a young filly 'hostage' at the same time. Maybe it was about time to start giving her the benefit of the doubt?

She smiled up at me upon noticing my attention, and trotted to catch back up. It was a delightful treat to watch her mane sway gently in the sun as she moved, the pretty purples and violets being illuminated softly. Her eyes carefully roamed along my bandages as I concluded my stretch and straightened into a sitting position. She'd taken some of the bandages off this morning, but for precautionary measures, the main one stayed on for now. That left my lower back, hips, and navel with light wrappings. It had been the worst where the flak lasers had hit me, I assumed.

Twilight, concluding her seemingly seventh or eighth assessment of my condition for the day, brought her gaze back to my face instead. "How are you feeling, Mender? The walk isn't too much for you, is it?" she asked politely, a timid and somewhat concerned looking expression gracing her features.

The way she was moving, I probably could have taken a nap and still kept up. Still, I was thankful for her concern. "I'm holding up well enough. A little stiff and drowsy still, but feeling pretty good, all things considered," I muttered back, stifling a yawn. Getting poisoned via potion and spilling a few secrets here and there was a little depressing, but at least I was alive still. Mostly. Keep thinking on the bright side, Mender! Twilight hadn't been the one responsible for that little incident, though, so I shouldn't be irritated at her.

Twilight snickered in an oblivious manner, adding a nod a moment later. "Admittedly, your recovery has been amazing. Not only from the wounds you received in closing the link, but in resisting the potion effects yesterday," she complimented. It was a little weird now that I considered it. With my current constitution, I should have practically keeled over from that much potion, and slipped into some sort of alchemical coma or something.

"Just chalk it up to the universe having a weird sense of humor?" I offered idly, standing fully now and gesturing towards the path again.

Grinning, she picked up the subtle motion easily and fell in right next to me as I continued towards the farm. We walked in relative silence for the rest of the way. It wasn't very far of a walk, from the center of Ponyville to Sweet Apple Acres, but admittedly, I was getting a little tired. As much as it felt good to be moving again, my full recovery was a ways off, it felt like. It took us a solid half an hour and I was shaking a little bit by the time we got there. Unsurprisingly, Twilight was giving me concerned looks by then.

Sitting down, I took a tactical pause in order to regain my breath. My legs felt a little shaky still, the tension from use already creeping up my muscles. Damn. Even for my runt physique, I was out of shape. I figured I'd have lost a little strength during my two weeks of coma, but this was ridiculous. I guess almost dying really takes a lot out of you.

"Maybe this was a bad idea? Are you sure you're okay?" the concerned sounding lavender unicorn asked, tilting her head down to peek under my bangs and into my face.

I smiled and nodded softly towards her, not quite trusting my voice to not crack yet. Twilight shook her head but grinned, probably thinking I was stubborn. I hoped she understood, though. I needed to fix everything that was off with my body. More strength and endurance, less hormones, a larger magic pool... Everything would help me fit in better. Maybe eventually, I wouldn't have to mooch off these wonderful mares anymore.

She didn't look entirely convinced, however, and opened her mouth to say something further. Thankfully, she was interrupted by a sweet drawl coming from the direction of the nearby barn.

"Howdy there, Twi! An' Mender came with too?" Applejack smiled warmly as she rounded the barn. I honestly don't think that I had ever been so happy to see the rough and tumble mare. Of course, we hadn't gotten the best start, with her being practical and down to earth, and me being, well, an idiot.

Twilight smiled again in an instant while turning, giving a small wave. "Hiya, Applejack!" she shouted back to clear the distance. It was a little sharp to my poor, potion-addled eardrums, being right next to her and all, but I restrained my reaction to a wince.

"Mender said he needed the exercise, plus I figured that he could put his skills to good use," Twilight continued, once the orange mare was within civil talking distance. It wasn't hard to pick out the light blush on her cheeks as she said it. She had asked me to come, in reality. Fluttershy might drop by later today and she had been hoping to talk to the elusive yellow pegasus. Plus, I saw it in her eyes when she had asked. She had wanted company.

"Oh! Ah think ya might be on ta somethin'. He's pretty handy with the engineerin' if Ah recall," Applejack agreed, snapping me out of my daze. I suddenly realized that I actually had no idea what she needed help with. Well, not that me having no clue what’s going on was actually all that different from normal.

I nodded regardless. “I need to get myself back in shape, but I think you knew that already. Um, I also didn’t exactly catch what you wanted help with in the first place,” I elaborated, tilting my head to the side.

Her warm smile shifted into a slightly knowing one, but she nodded. Instead of answering immediately, she motioned behind her with a flick of her head before turning. Twilight and I caught the intent and followed after her as she headed back around the side of the barn.

“As ya’ll know, tha last harvest of tha season’ll be ‘ere soon. It gits ah might busy ‘round ‘ere before then, an’ Big Mac an’ Ah usually have ta call in tha relatives from all around ta help,” she started to explain. We rounded the side of the barn and crossed into the opening. My eyes widened as I saw the mess that covered the ground. Several large crates were strewn about the floor of the barn, most opened with their contents spilled out. Gears, cogs, wooden planks, chains, and some sort of rail system appeared to have been packed in them, as far as I could tell.

Twilight looked amused instead of surprised, but simply nodded. “She took my advice and is going to partially automate the packing process,” she tacked on, stopping next to AJ, who stayed in the barn doorway. I took a few steps further into the barn, and scanned over the piles of parts. Automation huh?

My mind instantly shifted to that of an assembly line. I suddenly realized what the rails and chains were for. Each piece started fitting itself together in my head. There would be the wooden conveyor belt itself that would probably line up with the lift. The curved rail pieces indicated that they wanted to turn the boxes as they approached, so if convenience dictated...

A glance at the wall behind me and to the right showed a lightly traced square on the wall. Bingo! A chute system to the outside, for pouring in the apples. They'd then travel along the line and be inspected before being dropped into the crates. I walked slowly alongside the wall, mentally structuring the raised platform the inspectors would stand on. After loading, the crate should be sealed. Nails were probably impractical for ponies. Glancing up, I saw another lightly traced square on the ceiling. Well, the floor of the loft, technically. So they were going to drop the crate lid on from the ceiling? Made sense. Then it would be latched and sent around the bend to the lift, either to go past and be stored on the ground floor, or hauled up to the loft. Storage was reasonable in this scenario, but the real perk was that it would only take a few ponies to operate the thing. I halted my self-tour in front of the lift. It would need a foundation for stability, but that wouldn't be too hard to...

"Uh, Mender?" Applejack suddenly asked, sending a jolt through my system! I jumped in surprise before whipping my head over to look at her. Was I not supposed to have walked here?!

Wham! My muzzle cracked off the side of the support beam to my left. I reeled, gasping as I stumbled sideways away from it. Son of a! My right side hit the nearest rope holding the lift up. I fell over sideways and landed on the lift platform frame. Huh. Guess they still haven't put the actual platform in. The force of my collision with the rope caused the entire frame to spin around with me still on it! I let out a dizzy wail as I went around in circles several times, the support ropes wrapping me up in an instant. In the space of a second later, the room finally stopped spinning and I let my head droop over the side of the frame. A painful stinging sensation beat with the rhythm of my heart against the side of my muzzle. Ow. Thank you, reality. I knew I hadn’t gotten my quota of pain yet today.

"Oh fer cryin' out loud! Yer never gonna change, are ya, Mender?" Applejack asked, starting to chuckle as she walked back to where I was hanging.

Twilight followed, looking slightly less amused. "Seeing you in action on a regular day, I'm suddenly not surprised that you managed a few bruises in the space of four hours," she tacked on.

I sighed, trying to yank my back leg free from its midair suspension. "Thanks for rubbing it in. Uh, a little help here?" I begged, only managing to rotate myself a bit.

"Whoa! Tha way yer displayin' yerself, Ah ain't rubbin' nothin'! Manners, Mender!" Applejack suddenly scolded, sending a deep spike of panic and embarrassment through my system.

"Oh, sweet Celestia's Sun! Ah!" Twilight squealed instantly after Applejack seemingly brought it to her attention. I didn't react quickly enough to stop her from getting a healthy glimpse, but managed to roll up with my other leg and properly cover myself.

"S-Sorry!" I apologized, wincing as I tried to pull myself up onto the frame.

I saw Twilight go scarlet, seemingly unable to close her jaw again. Her reaction reflex had brought both hooves to her eyes, but I saw a little crack between them. Applejack just burst into a copious laughter. "Ah'm just teasin' ya. Ya didn't intend ta flash us tha goods, obviously. 'sides, it's not tha first time Ah saw that sorta thing. We don't exactly wear clothes ya know?" she pointed out, stopping in front of the lift.

"Applejack! He... You shouldn't have looked!" Twilight whimpered, shrinking visibly as she gawked at her friend. She honestly looked traumatized.

Applejack smirked and raised an eyebrow to her. "Ya caught ah big 'nough gander yerself, Ah think. Yer actin' ah tad strange there, Twi," the observant country mare pointed out, causing an even deeper blush. Admittedly, I was feeling a little warm as well.

"Ah! Nothing! Rainbow accused us of that too, but nothing is going on between us!" the lavender unicorn defended, stomping her hoof against the ground. Her blush was still readily visible, of course. Ouch. As much as I enjoyed being reminded of how she viewed me, technically that was a suspiciously specific defense.

As predicted, Applejack never lost the warm smile. "Ah never said ya were, but that explains ah whole lot."

Twilight winced and shook her head rapidly. "No, no, no! I don't know what to feel yet, and until I do, no!" she adamantly declared. I couldn't help but think that it was a bad idea for Rainbow and Pinkie to be pushing her like this. She didn't cope with stress very well, and I didn't particularly feel like getting caught up in any bursts of rage she might fall into. Again.

"Getting a little dizzy here," I reminded, hoping to derail the potential homicide. And maybe get somepony to help me down.

Applejack laughed and turned back to me. "Impatient, ain't ya? Ah'll have ya down in ah sec," she assured, looking over the mess of ropes wrapped around me.

Twilight remained anchored to where she was, staring down at her hooves with a faint blush still. I watched her quietly as the other mare tugged at various ropes, trying to loosen them up a bit. Twilight was so confusing. Well, she was a lot of things. Cute, adorable, intelligent, innocent, good natured, loyal, drop dead gorgeous... I stopped for a moment, realizing where this particular train of thought was going. Calm down! She was also indecisive, overly analytical, a perfectionist, stubborn, and somewhat insensitive. Switching back to my previous adjective, I simply went with 'confusing'. She seemed halfway between thinking of me as a friend or experiment, and as something more.

My hormones weren't helping, of course. Had I thought it through properly, I probably shouldn't have let her kiss me. Thinking was what I definitely hadn't done, though. I should have considered Fluttershy first. Of course, all this was against my instincts anyway. Two mares held my interest. If anything, that should have set off enough warning flags to send me screaming into the forest as fast as possible. Probably involving a makeshift rocket.

My thoughts were interrupted by ropes being garroted into my neck. I gasped and thrashed, causing Applejack to immediately release the vile things.

"Whoops! Sorry. They're ah might bit tight," she apologized, stating the obvious. That snapped Twilight out of her daze, causing her to glance up again. A moment later, I finally managed to get the rope off my neck.

Any and all proceedings were then interrupted by a knocking sound coming from the front of the barn. "Hello, anypony? I was told that I could find Applejack here," sounded out in a distinctive Rarity tone.

"Oh, ya need somethin', Rare? Was tryin' ta untie Mender back 'ere," she explained, turning and walking towards the newest arrival.

I could barely make out the white unicorn from between two of the large crates. Applejack headed through the gap between them, squeezing as needed.

The lavender unicorn wasted no time at all in surprising me. Her lips pressed into mine rapidly, ignoring the awkward sideways angle we were at. I started in surprise, followed rapidly by blushing. I didn't even have time to close my eyes before she backed up an inch or two again, however.

"Thank you, Mender. You could have caused me some serious stress by revealing too much, but you didn't. So thank you," she added to her oh so warm smile after the kiss.

I blinked slowly, totally unsure of what I was being thanked for. "But, um, why would I intentionally add more stress to your life?" I asked. The idea was totally foreign to me. Why would somepony waste the effort in doing something unnecessarily cruel to somepony else? I understood that there were some extremely mean individuals in existence, but they didn't exactly get anything from the exchange.

My confusion oddly seemed to make her more content. She smiled softly at me and shook her head. “Asking that must mean you’re being honest. I’m glad you’re taking my desires to wait well. I really do want to talk to Fluttershy about things first,” she assured weakly, frowning and seeming a little unsure.

“You thought I wouldn’t understand, didn’t you?” I asked quietly, managing a smirk. It was a shot in the dark, but something told me that she was the cautious type. Just a hunch.

She averted her eyes. I was right! “Well, you do have a tendency to jump to conclusions and come up with some fairly convoluted ideas. I was a little concerned as this is fairly important to me. I don’t want to screw it up by offending you.”

Ouch. Well, she was still accurate. At least she was being straightforward and to the point. "I'm glad it's important to you. I admit that I'm a little concerned about what you think of me," I admitted.

Twilight looked slightly confused before asking, "What do you mean? If I like you as more than a friend?"

That seemed safe enough, so I simply nodded. She smiled and I felt relieved. "I think that much is safe to assume. Now the only question is if I'm ready for a relationship." She sounded nervous after she said it and I swallowed. If she decided that she didn’t want a relationship either...

My thoughts derailed suddenly, plowing off the three hundred foot cliff and into the rocky ridges below. What the hell was I doing?! Twilight wasn't supposed to be treated as a last resort. Was I screwing up what it meant to like a mare? Fluttershy. She made me feel safe and calm. Twilight made me feel warm and wanted. I liked both of them quite a bit, but I needed to figure out my own feelings first.

That was the truth. I was frustrated and let it direct itself at them. My feelings weren't their problem! It wasn't fair of me to take any action in regards to a relationship without properly thinking it through first. I'd been doing the opposite. I liked both of them, so I was just waiting for whichever made the first move, then? I berated myself for being so selfish. This would require quite a bit of thought. Feelings for Twilight felt murky and heated, gravitating towards thoughts of kissing her. That felt dangerous to think about, so I decided to consider Fluttershy first.

"Equestria to Mender?! You still awake?" the now irritated sounding unicorn asked from right in front of me. I started abruptly and looked back up at her. Shock hit me hard as I realized that her eyes were starting to water.

"Did that bother you? You went all quiet and sad looking and I didn't know what to do," she asked before I could say anything.

Frowning, I managed to somehow shake my head through the ropes. "No, I just zoned out. I realized that you were right. It's not fair for me to jump into this without thinking it through. So I have a lot of thinking to do," I explained. Well, to the best of my abilities. Admittedly, I wasn't the best at getting my feelings across.

Twilight surprised me by looking shocked, herself, before responding with, "Oh. But does that mean that you don't...? Ah! Sorry; you're right of course. If I can take time to think about it, you obviously have the right as well."

"What's wrong, Twilight? Is there something bothering you?" I asked, more than a little concerned about her reaction. She had spent at least half of the reply backtracking.

She swallowed timidly, but looked away. "Just, um, talk to Fluttershy soon, okay? I really would like to get back to my usual routine," she requested, confusing me even more. Somehow.

Before I could ask for clarification, however, she simply extended her foreleg up and gave the bottom of the lift frame a solid shove. My eyes widened as I was spun around rapidly in the other direction as before. The ropes lost their tightness in an instant, letting centripetal force take over. With an embarrassingly high-pitched yelp, I was flung free of the frame and hurled towards the pile of nails, bolts, and gears next to us. Damn it. Putting my forelegs up to shield sensitive areas, I braced for impact.

Gravity decided to take a coffee break instead, however. My body stopped a mere half a meter from the pile of sharp and pointy things. Thankfully I had an absurdly powerful unicorn on my side! She pulled me back over to herself, giving me a light smirk and pointing out, "The more I see of it, the more I think your level of bad luck is about on par with Pinkie's Pinkie Sense. I should run some tests."

I rolled my eyes, getting a little tired of being upside down. "Fine. I really would like to get my dreams scanned again as well, speaking of tests," I reminded, closing my eyes to reduce the dizziness.

Mercifully, she flipped me back over, before assuring, "I'll do the scan if you want me to, but I really don't think that you have anything to worry about. Princess Celestia said..."

"I know what she said. I'd just feel safer if you took a peek at it yourself," I interrupted gently, looking down a bit. It wasn't that I didn't trust Celestia. She was a wise ruler. From what I'd seen of her, however, she was fallible. That wasn't a bad thing, but I trusted Twilight more.

Twilight seemed truly surprised instead of mad, however. I suddenly hoped that I wouldn't have to explain all of that. She gave a warm smile a second later, though, and nodded in understanding.

"I'm glad you trust me that much, Mender. You're a really good friend and, well, I'm glad," she muttered, suddenly seeming to mentally stumble over something. The light pink tint gracing her cheeks confused me, though.

"What was all tha screamin' 'bout? Oh, ya got Mender free?" Applejack suddenly asked, walking up from the side of my vision.

Twilight squealed in surprise and spun to face her two approaching friends, looking extremely guilty. I didn't have time to analyze further as the magic holding me up flickered away alongside her concentration. I landed unceremoniously on my butt, along with other sensitive things. Daggers of pain lanced through my navel and I winced, screaming out in an airy, soundless wail before falling forward and dropping flat like a bag of wet sand. Son of a bitch!

Applejack chuckled somewhere above me. Mentally, I imagined stabbing her a few times to make myself feel better. "Oh dear!" Rarity added, sounding further behind me somewhere.

"Uh, hi girls! Um, what brings you here, Rarity?" Twilight asked, oblivious.

Instead of giving in to the pain and homicidal urges, I slowly and tenderly pulled my back legs up into a tucked position, gritting my teeth the whole time. Oh for the love of all things just and righteous, somepony please kill me now! Why did they have to be external?!

"Uh, Rare here wanted ta’ try an' proposition me fer her fancy party comin' up," the only mare with a heavy accent explained, also ignoring me now.

My entire body shivered and jolted as I felt two hooves slowly push into my back. They kneaded my lower muscles carefully, not applying too much pressure, but slowly massaging along my spine, relaxing me a bit.

"Are you all right, dear?" Rarity asked softly, from barely a foot above me.

I groaned miserably, trying my best to form a coherent thank you for her. "Er, he only dropped from half a meter or so," Twilight pointed out. I wished I could have glared up at her. Pity the raw ache prevented the rotation of my stomach.

"An' right onta tha stallion parts! Ah've seen it happen ta Big Mac ah few times. Looks mighty painful, Ah'm guessin'," Applejack explained, earning a new level of respect in my mind.

Twilight let out a sharp squeaking noise and I felt her move closer to me. "Oh no! I didn't mean to, Mender!" she assured. Thankfully that much was obvious. Had she intended to, it probably would have hurt quite a bit more.

Slowly sitting up, I shook my head while keeping my eyes closed. “Ow. I’ll be okay,” I managed to get out, in between my voice cracking and the reverberations of agony as I moved.

Twilight gently helped me up, supporting me with a foreleg. Rarity stopped her massage and lifted from the other side of my body by the shoulder, until I was sitting up again. I nodded and smiled at her as she brushed along my side, frowning. I glanced down and noticed I had collected a bit of dust from the floor in my coat. Mentally shrugging, I just let her go crazy and dust my coat off. Instead, I glanced back at Twilight instead.

The lavender unicorn looked incredibly guilty, but didn’t say anything. Applejack interrupted before I could speak, regardless. “What were ya doin’, anyway? Ya almost looked like ya were in some sorta trance or somethin’,” she questioned, walking around to sit next to Twilight and be fully in my sight.

I shook my head at her, still not feeling all that great in the lower stomach. “It wasn’t a trance. I was just figuring out the system for the conveyor you wanted to build to package up the apples,” I corrected quietly, looking back to my right at the front wall and the square traced on it.

Applejack gave a start and tilted her head. “Wait ah minute. Ah never told ya that we were makin’ ah conveyor.”

“I know. These parts are pieces of one, so it was fairly obvious. Then I saw the tracings you made in the wall and ceiling and figured out the direction you wanted it going. You want a system to drop the covers on the crates after sorting the apples, and then deliver them for easy storage, right?” I asked, mostly for clarification purposes.

Twilight shifted to an amused smirk and looked over at the still surprised Applejack. “See? I told you there’s a good reason to have him help. Now we don’t need to try to buy the plans for the conveyor,” she rubbed in, me obviously missing a lot of information.

I frowned but shook my head, asking, “Wait, there were plans to go off of?”

Applejack sighed and lowered her head, looking exceedingly dejected. “Well there would’a been if Ah had bought ‘em. Twi ‘ere convinced me not ta spend tha extra bits an’ have ya look at it first ta see if ya could figure it out,” she explained.

Twilight vouched for me? Wait, if I could pull this off, I could save Applejack bits! I could start paying her back for all of the hospitality so far! My delight couldn’t be contained and a warm smile crept up out of nowhere. I found I couldn’t nod my head fast enough. “Of course I’ll try to put it together. Anything to help you out,” I agreed.

The farm pony gave me a warm smile, but Twilight displayed a knowing one instead. "You don't owe us anything, Mender. You do realize that she's going to pay you for this, right?" she asked coyly.

My heart sank as I glanced back at Applejack and earned a still smiling nod. "Iffen ya can get tha thing workin', it would only be right ta pay ya fer yer work. Ah would've had ta bring in ah professional and Ah can't afford that an' keep tha project worth it," she explained gently.

I frowned, this not sitting well with me at all. Then an idea struck me. I turned to Rarity instead, assuming she'd be closer to the heartbeat of the town. "Hey Rarity? Do you happen to know what the rate is for a hotel room in Ponyville?" I asked.

She surprised me by gasping, and vehemently denying, "I'm not that type of mare!" This was accompanied by a rather pronounced blush.

I blinked slowly, a little confused. "Uh, what? I just figured you'd have more out of town visitors than Applejack or Twilight. Nopony has mentioned prices to you?" I elaborated, unsure of what I had said wrong prior.

She stared at me for a moment with a blatant expression. I tilted my head, and she exhaled softly, as if relieved. Twilight looked as weirded out as I felt, but Applejack started snickering.

Rarity shot her an icy glare before looking back at me and continuing with, "That is true enough, I suppose. Last I'd heard, several weeks ago, mind you, the hotel prices were about thirty-five bits a night."

My mind jumped on the math like a rabid ferret. "Okay, so at a twenty percent markdown, that would be twenty-eight bits. That is probably close to what rent would be. Applejack supplies the bed, and Twilight supplies the room it's in. Cutting that in half, that meant that I owed each of you fourteen bits a night for room and board," I reasoned, looking back and forth between the two of them.

Applejack frowned, glaring at me suddenly. I'd never seen an expression shift so rapidly. Oh crap! Was that figure too low? I knew I should have researched pricing a little more before suggesting something like this. Wait, the way Rarity reacted led me to believe that I might have been wrong about the hotel thing. From what little I could remember, which thankfully included basic vocabulary from my old dimension, a hotel was a place of temporary lodging for those displaced from a more permanent living arrangement. What if it was a little different here, though? The way she reacted indicated some sort of ill reputation establishment. Had I just compared Applejack and Twilight to that?!

"No, Mender! We're not going to...!" Twilight started to berate before stopping and giving a questioning look. At her yelling, I had dropped my belly to the floor and tucked my ears down as hard as I could. Oh no. No, no, no! I should have researched this way more.

"I'm sorry! I didn't mean to compare you two to anything! You're reputable mares, and I wasn't insinuating that you perform mating requests for monetary reimbursement. Please! I'm sorry..." I apologized as rapidly as I could, hopefully heading off any bouts of rage or homicidal thoughts.

"Wait, what?!" Applejack suddenly exploded, expression shifting to shock even quicker.

Twilight's cheeks went pink and she looked away rapidly. Rarity reacted the best and simply coughed lightly, however, admitting, "I do believe that little misunderstanding was my fault. But you really shouldn't jump to conclusions like that, Mender."

Applejack rested a hoof on her forehead and shook her head weakly. "Again. Ah shouldn't be surprised by now, Ah guess. Ya didn't offend. Ah jus wanna pay ya somethin' fer yer work," she muttered, looking down at me after finishing explaining. Oh.

"And I said I wasn't going to hurt you again!" Twilight yelled suddenly. I let out a yelp and dove sideways and away from her in surprise. Of course, I rolled right into the pile of sharp and pointy things that I had saw prior. Stupid nails.

* * * * *

Things always seemed to go in patterns for me. The unfortunate thing is that there always seems to be a quota for the amount of pain I'm required to go through. I gritted my teeth and winced as Applejack pulled out the twelfth and final nail. Speaking of that quota.

"Disinfecting," Twilight reported instantly. A sizzling sensation hit the spot where the nail used to be embedded in my back. I gasped, but thankfully the merciful unicorn continued with, "... And healing." The pain faded instantly and I was finally able to slump forward to the ground. Rarity, who was at my side, patted my shoulder as I tried not to get grass up my nose. Wait, I was supposed to be trying to think positively. Well, at least I'm not allergic to the grass. Or iron. Or blood loss.

I heard Applejack spit out the nail behind me. "That's some handy magic, Twi. How come ya never used that before?" she asked a moment later.

There was an exasperated sigh before the unicorn returned, "That's because I learned it only a few days ago. At the rate he gets injured, it was all I could do to lessen the hospital fees." I let out a frustrated groan and looked back at her, just in time to see a wall of lavender descending towards my face. I winced as she lightly batted me on the end of my muzzle. "No. You're not going to pay for those either," she preemptively declared.

Sighing, I turned back around and glared straight ahead again. They just didn't seem to get it. "You're a Gentlecolt for trying to make it up to us, don't worry. But you can't be expected to without any source of income and while injured still," Rarity soothed, bending down and trying to smile at me, eye level.

I sighed weakly, staring at the root of the tree we were under. Applejack hadn't wanted to get blood in the barn, which was understandable. In frustration, I whacked the front of the root I'd been glaring at. It barely shook, which only served to irritate me further. A moment later, something reasonably solid skipped off of my head. I let out a stifled yelp, and then glared at the infuriating red object rolling away from me on the ground.

Twilight sighed weakly and walked up next to me, lifting the apple up with her magic. "I'm definitely going to have to run a few tests on you at some point in the future. You have the absolute worst luck I've ever seen," she admitted, tossing the apple backwards.

"Yer just noticin' this now? He only has good luck when it counts, ya know? Like givin' ah giant alien battleship tha ol' what fer!" she exclaimed. I blushed a little but didn't look up again. It was mostly because my head hurt, but I also wasn't sure if I was supposed to be honored or depressed by her viewpoint. Still, Twilight had a point.

The white unicorn next to me sat up fully again, shaking her head slightly. "I personally don't feel his luck is too entirely bad. Sure, he's a bit clumsy from time to time, but he's only been in the physical form of a pony for all of three and a half weeks. Surely, he deserves a bit of a break due to that, no?" she suggested reasonably. Well, I thought it was reasonable, anyway.

"She has a point. Honestly, his progress is astounding if you take into consideration the age of his body. He's technically been alive for less than a month," Twilight concurred, nodding. I glanced back and caught her smiling down at me. She blushed and looked away rapidly upon noticing my attention. Had she said that purely to make a case for me? She had to have realized it was different due to me being alive for much longer prior.

"Indeed! To project an air of such sophistication while being so young! You're truly talented. It makes me wish Applejack was such as well," Rarity praised before glancing over at the now glaring farm mare.

"Yer still pushin' fer that? Ah already told ya, Ah can't make it. The last harvest is comin' an' there’s no time ta be off prancin' about in fancy clothes," Applejack repeated. Well, technically it was the first time I had heard it, but I assume that they had been discussing it while Twilight and I had been talking.

A light blush distracted me momentarily. Yeah, talking. Mostly. "It would just be for a few days, Applejack. Please?!" Rarity practically begged, edging a little closer to her friend.

"Ah'm really sorry, Rare. Ah know yer desperate if yer askin' meh. Ah really wish I could help ya," she apologized, subtly putting herself down.

Rarity sighed and nodded, to my surprise. Was there some sort of context that I wasn't aware of? "Yes. I didn't believe that you'd want to go. I'm just running out of options. Twilight's already going on behalf of the Princess. Fluttershy practically passed out when she realized how crowded it would be. You know she only accepts crowds when all of us are there to back her up," Rarity replied weakly. I'd guessed as much about Fluttershy, but Applejack and Rarity seemed to have a deeper understanding than I realized. They knew each other's tastes.

Twilight nodded as well. "What about Rainbow and Pinkie? Surely they're not busy," she suggested, gesturing with a hoof towards Rarity.

"No such luck, I'm afraid. Rainbow Dash unsurprisingly has the entire public appearance schedule of the Wonderbolts memorized. She was a little miffed at my attempt at trickery in trying to let her think they were attending. And Pinkie Pie is still banned, remember?" Rarity returned, looking a little stressed. Banned? I swallowed nervously, not entirely wanting to know how the friendly enough seeming pink party pony got banned from somewhere.

"Oh yeah. Ah forgot they got real upset after tha Gala incident. Ah would've thought they'd be over that by now," Applejack muttered. Yup, definitely didn't want to know.

Rarity sighed and nodded, brushing her mane back gently before noticing me watching her again. She gave a soft smile down towards me before shifting her attention back to Applejack. "What of Big Mac? I suppose he's needed for the harvest as well?" she asked after a moment's apparent thought.

Applejack sighed as well, but nodded. "He does tha figures an' fancy mathematics. Ah don't think we'd have ah smooth time without him 'ere," she explained. Silent but smart, huh? I could definitely appreciate that.

Rarity looked downright depressed for a moment and shook her head. "If I hadn't been asked to provide the dresses for the fashion show there, I wouldn't be nearly as upset. This could really make my career! If I were to show up without the guest attached to my invitation, why, it would be shameful! Outrageous! I'd be laughed out of the party," she lamented. Whoa. Rarity dealt with an entirely higher level of social performance than what I was used to! I can see why Fluttershy didn't want that kind of pressure.

There was a quiet moment, followed by an awkwardly uncomfortable feeling. I glanced up at the white unicorn again, only to discover that she was staring intently at me. Er, did I have something in my mane?

"Wait a moment. I suddenly recall that you are a personal friend of Princess Celestia herself! Everypony saw you having lunch with her," she reminded, for as of yet unknown reasons. I still didn't like where this was going.

Twilight predictably blanched. "Wait, what? Just because he eats lunch with her once, doesn't mean that they're best friends. Is that why that rumor is spreading like wildfire?" she questioned, sounding more than a little irritated suddenly. What did I do?!

"Um, not to interrupt, but what rumor are we talking about?" I interjected cautiously. If it was about me, I at least deserve to know what it is, right?

"Ah heard it too, down in tha market this mornin'. It's mixed up more than Pinkie on fermented cider. Somewhere between ya bein' ah clandestine lover, an' ah secret agent," Applejack explained, looking back down at me.

Damn it! This was all Rainbow Dash's fault. She had to go screaming at the top of her lungs that I had a date with the Princess. Twilight slapped a hoof to her forehead, sighing miserably.

"Wonderful. Well at least there's no real harm in any of it, I suppose. If they want to be silly, then so be it," the lavender unicorn acquiesced weakly. She didn't sound convinced. Of course, saying "No real harm" and referencing me in the same sentence would probably make a lot of ponies uncomfortable.

"Oh, but I intend to use it to my advantage, with Mender's support, of course," Rarity corrected, looking remarkably devious for such a refined mare. I swallowed timidly. Regardless, she continued before I could voice any opinions, further enlightening with, "Seeing that everypony seems to be busy, I'm tentatively considering asking Mender to go with me to the party instead, purely for appearances, of course. If they want to perpetuate the rumors, so be it. That assumed, Mender should be a very eligible 'date' for the evening."

"Excuse me?" Twilight asked instantly, devoid of any tone fluctuation at all, expression deadpan. Uh oh. Wait, what?!

Applejack nodded skeptically as well. "Admittedly, Ah get the point behind it. Yer usin' tha rumors ta puff up Mender's reputation an' make yerself look good fer yer designin' show. Ah just question how, well, wise that is. Mender's ain't exactly known fer his social graces," she pointed out.

Ouch. My ego suddenly hurt a little. Although I sadly had to agree for the most part. "Oh relax, you two. It's not an actual date. He's coming as a friend, of course. I simply want to avoid any potential social stigma," Rarity explained carefully before sitting down again next to me. Giving a test shift of my muscles, I decided that they weren't quite ready to move yet and did absolutely nothing. It was surprisingly effective at making me feel better as well.

Twilight's glare didn't relent, however, and I had to mentally stop myself from fidgeting. It wasn't even directed at me, yet I found myself trying not to shake. Still, what could I honestly say in her defense without giving away exactly what she told me not to? She seemed to realize this too, and kept it to a silent glare instead.

Rarity looked a little flustered, however. "Twilight dear, what's wrong? You seem awfully upset at me. May I ask?" she requested politely. I'd never seen the white unicorn actually look unsure, admittedly. Twilight must mean a great deal to her.

Finally, Twilight let out a huff and relaxed a little. "It's nothing. Just, well, don't let him wander off and maim himself or something," she warned pointedly. I suddenly got the impression that my choice had been made for me already.

"Splendid! Then it's a date. This is in Canterlot, Mender, so pack warm! Oh, and we shall have to spend a night there, of course. It will simply be far too late by the time the event is over to catch a train back. I'll pay for the room, of course. Oh, and we absolutely must size you and get a wonderful suit made before the party! Oh, there's just so much to do," Rarity started rapidly explaining. Well, more suggesting. Wait, I didn't own any clothes, let alone warm things. Wait, I had to spend the night in a hotel room with Rarity?!

Twilight started growling again, predictably this time. "Then you'd best go do it. And I'm sure I can work him into my old quarters at the palace, so you don't need to worry about a hotel!" she berated, tone sounding irritable.

Rarity looked taken aback, but Applejack just chuckled. "No need ta get so defensive, Twi. She said it was just ah friendly thing. But we do have ah lot of work ta do, Rare," she excused politely, giving the white unicorn a gentle nod.

Rarity coughed lightly, but nodded. "Of course. Do come by in a couple days to get measurements, Mender," she requested, doing a polite bow and recovering her smile as she looked over at me instead.

The best I could come up with was returning an uncertain nod, trying my hardest to smile back. She departed slowly, with the elegant and drawn out gait of a true noble, of course. I exhaled weakly as she left, avoiding the burning sensation of Twilight's gaze on the back of my head. Applejack just gave another laugh and gestured towards the barn again, starting a pace towards it herself. Shaking my head, I sighed wearily. The day had already felt long enough, and I had a sneaking suspicion that it was far from over.

Author's Notes:

Doom Pie's Audiobook Chapter:
http://youtu.be/DUBVQA2mr0Y

Chapter 09

Okay, so this was a mess. Carefully weaving between the piles, I moved another group of planks in with the rest. We were finally wrapping up the sorting of the parts into the various piles on the floor of the barn. Applejack had taken off already, leaving the finer points of the sorting to the ponies that could use magic, it would seem. Although she did have the harvest to take care of, so I didn't exactly blame her there.

Smiling down at the last of the planks, I glanced back up at Twilight. At this point, I was growing a little concerned for the unicorn in question. She only got half as much done as me, mostly because she insisted that all of the nails and screws be aligned in the same direction. She was now smiling proudly down at her very exact, orderly piles. It was oddly kind of endearing, and I caught myself smiling softly at her. It was strange. The more I sorted out the feelings, the weirder I felt over the whole situation. Fluttershy had obviously distanced herself, which might have led to some of it, but surely not all. Spending so much time with Twilight had given me greater appreciation for the mare. She seemed honest in her desire to not hurt me anymore.

Okay, that was a total lie. I blushed as I realized it. As much as I was trying to stay distant, I couldn't help but get giddy little butterflies in my stomach when I watched her. She was a scary individual when upset, sure, but that's just because I knew what she could do to me. When she was happy, such as now, staring at her gave an entirely different feeling. I wasn't naive. That warm feeling was new to me, but I realized what I wanted. It was maddening some days. How would males on my home dimension stand it?

My eyes started to roam a little. All right, so it was really maddening. Her coat was well maintained, looking so soft in the barn light. Her form was sleek and streamlined. She lacked the muscle tone of Applejack, and the corded muscles of Rainbow Dash, but she was far from unhealthy looking. I blushed lightly as I traced gentle curves with my eyes. Her hips were particularly pleasant to take note of, and I saw her tail was well maintained, similar to her mane. My eyes drifted back that way, tracing along her mane that almost seemed to glow in the warm light of the Sun seeping through the barn's front door. It complimented the gorgeous shade of her eyes as they almost sparkled with energy when she was excited. It always made her look so cute. The light flush of her cheeks didn't help either, of course. Wait a second...

Twilight was staring right at me at this point, blushing softly and fidgeting with her right front leg. My blush expanded significantly and I politely looked away, coughing. I hope she hadn't noticed too long ago and saw me ogling her flank. Again. Well in her mind, anyway. The first time had indeed been an accident.

A light giggle. Her voice always caused me to melt a little, but I kept my hormones under control. No sense in getting her mad at me again. "Um, you don't need to look away, Mender. I don't mind you looking at me. It's just surprising, is all. I'm rather plain looking, honestly," she excused, looking down towards the floor of the barn instead.

I blatantly recoiled, shocked. "Twilight! You're far from plain. You're... You're gorgeous. I mean, I do find a lot of mares cute or pretty, but you're by far the only one I'd say was truly beautiful," I corrected softly, frowning now.

Twilight's eyes hit saucer size almost instantly. She looked shocked for a moment before her eyes softened and the blush in her cheeks magnified sharply. "M-Mender! I, well, I thank you, but I just don't know. I've never had a stallion think I was pretty." While she had barely choked out the first part of her statement, she calmed down a little and now looked reserved. Or was that a shy expression as she nervously looked at me.

Smiling, I shook my head. "I'm not going to do anything you don't want me to, Twilight. It's not just because you'd rip me limb from limb either if I tried," I assured her, nodding.

Her ears visibly drooped and she shook her head. "I told you that I'm not going to hurt you, Mender. I don't want you scared of me, okay?" she asked softly, walking towards me again. I hesitated and took a half step back, unsure of her intent. Was she mad at me for staring and only acting this way to get me to lower my guard? Her eyes softened, but she didn't stop walking. "What can I do to show you that I won't hurt you?" she asked a moment later, stopping a half-meter in front of me.

I swallowed but stood my ground. She was serious. "I, uh, have no idea, Twilight," I answered, as truthfully as I could manage.

Her eyes searched mine for a few seconds before she nodded. To my surprise, she started smiling. "It's a well-documented issue. Your situation is unique, but I bet I could figure out a way to let you have more confidence in dealing with me. Wanna give it a shot later?" she asked warmly, looking oddly excited.

Oh well. I couldn't see any particular harm in it and agreed with, "Sure. I don't see why not."

The lavender pony grinned instantly, instilling a sudden paranoia in me. Had that been the wrong choice? "Excellent! I'll study up on some of the techniques. Research and experimentation have never failed me in the past, so it will undoubtedly work here too!" she exclaimed excitedly.

More experiments? Smiling, I agreed with, "Well, your last 'experimentation' was a lot of fun. I'm sure I'll like these too, right?" Her happy expression shifted to that of a shocked blush in a heartbeat, earning a grin from me.

"Cool your jets, Lover Boy. We need to talk to Fluttershy first, don't forget," she reminded, playfully sticking her tongue out at me. I laughed, but nodded gently. She had already been more than adamant on me talking to Fluttershy about things. She didn't need to remind me any further. She continued before I could say anything else, however. "But I am serious. I'm, well, even if you don't end up picking me, you need to move slowly in the relationship. I'm a little worried that maybe kissing like that was too fast. It would be way too fast for Fluttershy," she voiced, an odd mixture of nervous yet sad sounding. Wait, slow? I'd never heard of that adjective being applied to mates before.

Swallowing my pride, and possibly sense of self-preservation, I decided to throw caution to the wind and ask Twilight what she meant. "How does slow apply to a relationship?"

She had started to turn around, but froze when I asked. Her initial expression seemed to be of surprise and curiosity, but she nodded quietly. "Well, to take your time dating and getting to know a pony before moving on to the more, uh, physical aspects of a relationship," she explained, causing even more confusion. Dating? This was another word that I'd not encountered before. Well, not in this context. To be 'dated' was to be old or out of place in your time period, if I recall correctly.

"Uh, what's 'dating' mean in this context?" I inquired, deciding that if she answered the first without hesitation, she shouldn't have any problem with the second. I hoped.

A large blush exploded over her cheeks almost instantly. Oops. Guess I was wrong, there. "What, um, what do you mean, Mender? Surely you've heard of dating before. What did your society do to pair up males and females for mating?" she questioned, sounding gravely embarrassed.

Uh oh. It had something to do with mating rituals. Please don’t kill me, Twilight. Guessing that I had just made an idiot of myself again, I lowered my head and drooped my ears. "Sorry, Twilight. Honestly, I don't think I've heard that word in that context before. From what I've pieced together and remember, there were no direct mating rituals. Sure, sometimes females took in a male specifically for such in the higher circles, but most of our breeding was done through clinics," I explained quietly, formulating it at the same time. It wasn't as if I had anticipated having to explain this to anypony. Dreams and vague memories showed me the clinics and I knew the male concubine facts. Everything else was purely speculation on my part, of course.

The lavender mare didn't look all that surprised. She did lose her smile and look away, however. "I expected as much. Dating is when a couple goes out and has fun together, with the purpose of testing compatibility and feelings for each other before anything more, um, intimate. Well, that's usually the case, anyway. There are exceptions, of course," she expanded upon, shifting back into analytical mode. That probably meant she was uncomfortable talking about this topic.

"So that's what you wish to start with, right? Dating? It makes sense if you aren't sure of your feelings, although admittedly, I have no idea what's expected of me," I confessed, blushing again but managing a smile this time. For once, I wasn't irritated at making an idiot of myself, especially if it made her more comfortable.

Both of us were interrupted by a sudden light fluttering sound above us. I glanced up for a moment until an impact sounded, and a light ruffling. What was that?!

Twilight must have seen me glance up and giggled lightly. "Oh, don't worry about that. Uh, Applejack has a slight issue with, um, birds in the loft. I told her I'd look into it later after this," she explained, fidgeting a little. She seemed nervous for some reason. Uh oh.

It dawned on me. Traumatic experiences in an individual's past could lead to painful phobias. Twilight must have had something happen to her involving birds and was too embarrassed to say anything to anypony! Applejack probably asked her to take care of the issue without even considering her feelings. How rude. Hmm. Well birds didn't sound too dangerous, so maybe I could help her with them? I wasn't as likely to get in the way or make her use more healing magic on me again.

"Oh, I understand, Twilight! I'll help you take care of them after this, then," I assured, nodding and smiling warmly at her.

She paled considerably. "You, um, you do? You don't need to do that!" she assured rapidly, shaking a little. Whoa! It was a nastier case than I had thought. But she was being so brave and trying to hide it. I wondered how long she had kept this pain inside.

Blushing, I shook my head again and opened my mouth to insist that I could easily help her on the issue. She interrupted before I could, however. "What do you think of me, Mender?" she suddenly asked out of nowhere.

My brain did a flip inside of my skull and I totally forgot what I had been about to say. "Er, wait, what?" Complete sentences eluded me as my brain shifted from sixth to reverse.

"About me. I mean, I know you think I'm pretty. Somehow. And fun to be around despite our conflicts in the past. I wanted to know what you think we could be to each other, though," she elaborated carefully, intensely locking eyes with me.

Swallowing, I shifted nervously off my left side. This wasn't expected at all. How did the conversation shift from birds to our future?! Although if she was insecure about things concerning her phobias and personality, that might have prompted this. She might have suddenly worried that I looked down upon her for having a phobia. Still, fear of birds wasn't that out of the normal range of things. Heck, I once met an Artificial Intelligence who was afraid of them. Well, she had a lot of problems other than that, but it still fit!

"Well, I really do like you a lot. You feel very mature and stable to me, honestly. You're extremely intelligent and I look up to that. You're also scarily powerful, which admittedly terrifies me on occasion. I would like to..." I started before trailing off and frowning to myself. I'd gone over this a hundred times in my head, but always managed to hit a snag here. She felt almost untouchable. Like she existed in a reality apart from my own. Above me and impossibly real. It was hard for me to imagine myself 'with' her in any romantic regard. I didn't know why. Technically, her kissing me should have made it easier, but it didn't. Funny thing, that.

She made an impossibly quiet sound a moment later, and I closed my eyes. Surely, if I couldn't see her, she couldn't see me, right? That somehow made the confession easier, and I started with, "I would like to be important to you like that, and have you let me care for you. I just have my doubts that I'd be able to, well, reach you. You're one of a kind in this world, and it feels like I, as an intruder here, shouldn't be considered for such good fortune." Every word was extremely carefully chosen, of course. I decided to leave out the extreme paranoia about her relationship with Celestia.

Twilight predictably blushed. "Mender, I want to be important to you, too. Just trust that instead of worrying about if you're worthy or not," she returned, calling me out on my polite wording. I guess I did kind of consider myself unworthy of her, didn't I?

"But thank you. That helps me quite a bit. How do you feel about Fluttershy, then?' she asked less than a second later. This one I'd seen coming, however.

Sadly, that didn't make the answer any less complicated. "I'm not entirely sure. She makes me feel comfortable, which is amazing considering I'm an alien dumped into the middle of a new land with nothing to his name and who started off thinking that all of the natives wanted to kill and consume him," I groaned out, rubbing a hoof to my temple. At least I'd progressed a long way since then. Kind of. Oh fine; at least I knew they were vegetarians.

Twilight giggled pleasantly and shook her head. "Fluttershy is really good at making ponies feel comfortable when she doesn't feel threatened herself. Although from what I've read, you need more than comfort in order to love somepony," she pointed out, sitting down in front of me. I thought about it a little more. Technically she was right. Fluttershy was adorable, very cute, and made me feel safe. Was that enough to base a relationship off, though? Was it fair, to her, for me to try to base a relationship off that only? Everything was new to me, and it was frustrating having no idea what I was doing.

"I think you might be right. Now that I consider it, I'm not entirely sure my feelings for her were like that in the first place. I mean, she's cute and very, very kind, but I never intentionally looked at her in that way before." It was more pondering out loud than any direct statement. A light scraping came from above afterwards, along with more of the flapping noises, however. I raised an eyebrow and looked up again. Those sounded like destructive birds. Maybe we shouldn't be waiting to chase them away?

Twilight interrupted with, "You mean when you accidentally looked at her flank, right?" My gaze burned back down to her instantly, cheeks flaring up again. Of course she wore a smirk. For a moment, I thought I heard Fluttershy gasp. Then I realized it had just echoed through my head and chuckled mentally. True, that's exactly what she would do had she been here.

"Of course, given your wording, that would also indicate that you intentionally looked at mine," the mirthful lavender unicorn continued, giving a more playful smirk. Damn, she was a brat when she wanted to be! This was a whole new side of Twilight that I hadn't seen before, and I didn't particularly know how to deal with it. Well, what was that song? Fortune favors the bold.

I nodded in return, smirking. "Of course I did. You're definitely not hard on the eyes," I managed to get out, suppressing the urge to wince and hide behind the crate next to me.

Twilight's eyes widened drastically and her blush magnified tenfold. Her smile remained, however, and I eased up on my tense muscles. "You're a charmer when not cowering from me," she teased, slowly swaying closer to me. My pride made me hold my ground as she approached. If she was going to murder me, I could at least die with dignity. She leaned past me however, whispering into my ear, "I like it. Relax."

My turn to blush. Had it been that obvious that I was tense? I let out a little sigh and did just as she had suggested. She smiled gently at me from inches away. A sudden urge came over me, and I slowly leaned forwards.

Twilight turned away however at the last second and picked up a bunch of the wooden planks for the support structure. They drifted easily into the air around her so easily. I almost fell on my face, wobbling for a moment to recover my balance. "What about Applejack? She might be employing you," she asked instead, hauling the woodpile over to the corner of the barn.

My mind whirled with the sudden topic change and I had to do an about face to catch up. "Wait, what?" I asked a moment later. Okay, try to catch up, anyway.

She snickered, causing me to scowl but sigh. Was she intentionally throwing me off guard? "I've never really thought about it. Mostly I'm too preoccupied trying to make up for my terrible first impression. She's very kind though, and has been extremely hospitable since." I followed her over to where she was lining up the boards as I replied.

She smiled, agreeing with, "Applejack would like that description. You don't think she's pretty?"

I laughed, pointing a hoof over to the nails pile. "Nails. And don't get me wrong. Applejack is very pretty in her own unique way. She's not adorably cute like Fluttershy or subtly gorgeous like you; she holds a practical charm, in a down to earth kind of way," I tried to explain. Twilight didn't miss a beat and yanked a pile of nails over to where we were as I positioned two of the interlocking planks into a cross brace.

"You always seem to compliment me the most," she groaned as we instinctively swapped roles. She snagged both planks in her telekinesis and I magnetically picked up three of the sturdy nails with my left, glowing hoof.

"You're the one I like the most in that way, so isn't that normal?" I questioned, giving the nails a light kinetic burst of energy. They drove themselves into the board all at once an instant later.

Twilight smiled at me for a moment before starting at the sound of the nails. She looked momentarily amused when she glanced down at my work. "Well, admittedly, that makes me more than a little happy. Maybe I've been, I dunno, over-thinking things?" she muttered, turning back to the board pile and lighting her horn with magic.

Twilight, over-think things? I tried not to laugh as I realized I tended towards doing the same thing. I instinctively ducked as two more boards flew in over me and lined themselves up in a light magical aura. "I'm probably as nervous about things as you. Everything is going a little faster for me, and admittedly, it's a tad hard to keep up with mentally," I tried to assure.

She smiled pleasantly and nodded, expression relaxing a little. "Then I guess it will be new to both of us. Uh, well, if you pick me, of course," she backtracked, eyes widening at the last part.

This again? I sighed as I grabbed the next set of nails. "Twilight, we're pretty much assured that she's..." I stopped and frowned. Fluttershy didn't like me like that. I'd already figured that much out. Whether she did before she saw my memories, I'd probably never find out. For such a gentle soul, the prospect of war and death was probably grim indeed. I felt bad enough that she had to see what she did. "She just wants to be friends, Twilight. I don't blame her for that and frankly, I'm sad that she had to see what she did in the first place, regardless of it being the reason she changed her mind. I just want to be absolutely sure that's what she wants so I don't hurt her feelings, is all," I furthered after straightening out my mindset.

There was a light, contented sigh that echoed out of nowhere and everywhere at once. Frowning, I glanced around again. Okay, that time I swore I heard the timid yellow mare in question. Was it just my imagination? Twilight smiled and nodded at me as if she'd heard nothing, so I decided to keep it to myself lest I sound even less sane than she already thought I was.

"I understand. I'm sure she would as well if she heard that. Relax, Mender. I'm glad you like me like that. I think, um, I think I really do want to give it a try. Oh dear, I think I'll need to do some more reading on the topic," she groaned, shifting back and forth on her hooves. I lowered the hoof that had the nails and ducked again as her magic followed her swaying, whipping the boards back and forth in front of me, predictably.

I just shook my head and chuckled. At least I didn't try to figure out everything by reading about it. Well, not that it was a bad way to do things, but she might be content with just experimenting more, too. I grinned to myself as I remembered her last one. "Twilight, relax. You have all the time in the world," I assured regardless.

Well, it wasn't just assurance, I guess. Something still felt off about the whole situation. My instincts told me that she was more important than me, and I shouldn't be so lax and loose tongued around her, to be respectful and subservient instead. Not just because she was an Element of Harmony, one of the most important mares in Equestria, or could single-handedly tear the fabric of my being apart with her mind, but because she was female. The frustrating thing was not knowing where the instinct came from. What was my old culture like to instill such a nigh panic over the issue?

"...but I should be fine as long as I experiment slowly. Oh, and get lots of research and notes taken!" she continued from a statement I was apparently missing the first part of. Oops. It was easy enough to gather what she had been saying, however. Not that I knew how to respond anyway.

Further, not that it mattered, as she apparently wasn't looking for a response in the first place, and simply continued with, "Anyway, what about Rainbow Dash?"

After Applejack, I had been anticipating being grilled on Dash as well, so it wasn't as much of a surprise. Thankfully, the boards stopped flailing and I was able to sit up again, proceeding with driving the next set of nails into them. "I trust her with my life after what we went through. She really pulled her own back in my dimension, and showed me how truly loyal she can be. She's amazing." Twilight smirked at my explanation, and I saw it coming.

"Sounds like you like her too," she cooed a second later.

I rolled my eyes. "Twilight, I came from a world with no females in day to day activities. Every mare here is going to be at least a little cute to me. So yes, Rainbow is very cute. But you know her heart is also taken, and so is mine," I reminded, giving her a skeptical glance.

She nodded promptly, seemingly unfazed by my admission. "Rarity?" she asked without delay as we swapped plank sets again and moved further down the line.

"Very elegant and beautiful in her own way. She really maintains herself. Maybe a little too much. She's really nice, however, and her heart is in the right spot. I'm glad she's my friend," I returned, drawing forth more nails. This was going faster than I thought it would. Although I should have known better, as Twilight was an extremely intelligent mare and learned fast.

The mare in question snickered at the over-maintaining portion of my answer, but nodded. "Okay, a hard one. Pinkie Pie!" she launched, sounding a little amused.

Okay, that was a hard one. I drove the nails into the board before frowning and thinking about it a bit. I barely remembered to duck as more planks flew in via her magic. "She's a really nice mare and super friendly. Way too much energy for me, however. I get tired just watching her. Still, I've seen her when she's not wound up like a spastic ferret on sugar, and know she has other gears. I like her, overall," I reasoned simply.

Twilight started laughing by the time I was done. "Well, that's fairly accurate. Ha! Still, I think she'd be happy with that reply were she here," she agreed, nodding to me between snickers.

There was another light thump from above us, and more flapping sounds. For crying out loud, what were those birds doing up there? I saw the ropes for the lift shiver back and forth slightly and widened my eyes. Uh oh! We're they pecking at the lift ropes? That wouldn't do at all.

Twilight frowned as I stood up and trotted over to the lift. "I think those birds are on the lift ropes. I'm going to scare them off," I explained, smiling back at her.

Oddly, a look of shock and terror suddenly spread across her face. "No, Mender! It's okay, I'll get them after we're done!" she shouted.

I smiled further and shook my head. "It's okay, Twilight. You don't need to be brave. It's perfectly all right to be afraid of birds. I'll get rid of them," I assured.

"Wait, what?" she asked suddenly, getting an odd look on her face. Shaking my head at the stubborn mare, I reached over with my left hoof and touched the rope, swinging it into the edge of the loft above.

The shockwave shook the entire building, rippling and distorting across the loft floor. Nothing too strong, but that should be enough to scare the birds out of there. A trio of screams sounded through the air instantly, and my eyes widened a moment later. Applejack fell first, going sideways out of the lift hole. Rainbow Dash came next, looking more intentional as she dove after Applejack, her wings extended. What the hell?! A light squeak came from above a moment later, causing me to look up just in time to be greeted by a face full of yellow fur. Fluttershy landed on me with a force that was astounding for what I anticipated she weighed, and we became a pony pile on the floor in front of the lift. She gave another timid squeak upon landing on me, then rolled until she hit solid ground again.

Dash caught Applejack out of the air and spun, skipping and sliding along the ground on her back while cushioning the mare she held. Both of them slid to a stop right into one of the larger boxes still in the room. The side snapped on the box and the entire top collapsed in on them. My eyes widened and I slammed my left hoof into the ground as it fell. The energy shot along the ground and up the side of the box as it broke, killing the inertia and gravity and letting the broken top float free instead, drifting a ways off to the side of them before running out of energy and falling.

Everything slowly came to a stop. Fluttershy let out a pained "Ow" next to me, and Applejack slowly sat up on Rainbow. The cyan mare was blushing furiously as she looked up at the orange mare, who smirked down at her.

Rainbow scoffed a second later, looking away before asking, "Comfy there?"

The country mare let out a throaty clicking that sounded remarkably like laughter. "What if ah am?" she pointedly questioned, nudging a hoof into Dash's chest. Whoa! Well that sounded promising for her.

If she caught it, she was obvious. "Just... I don't care. We didn't crash and die so it's all good," she muttered, scarlet color in her cheeks standing out heavily against the blue of her fur. She was kind of cute when embarrassed.

Fluttershy sat up slowly next to me and looked around. Groaning, I decided she probably had the right idea, and sat up too. My neck hurt from being squashed into my shoulders when she landed on me, but at least it wasn't a direct blow to my head. I don't think I needed another concussion at this point to add to my collection. Then the situation dawned on me.

Slowly turning, I shot an extremely irked glare back at Twilight. She swallowed and edged away from me, shifting nervously on her front hooves. That's why she was asking me about all of them. She knew that the three of them were eavesdropping! That meant the entire conversation was a set up to get me to admit things not to her, but to the three of them listening above.

The unicorn shook her head rapidly, almost hearing my train of thought as I turned fully towards her. "Please let me explain, Mender. I can explain," she rapidly assured, shifting a little closer with her hoof reaching towards me.

Backing away slowly, I frowned further at her. "You let them listen intentionally. Why?" I asked carefully. I'd just started giving her the benefit of the doubt again, and now this. For not spying on me for her mentor, she used some awfully underhanded tricks. Underhanded? Underhoofed? It didn't matter!

"It was mah idea, actually. Ya don't be mad at her now," Applejack interrupted, turning around and climbing to her hooves again. Rainbow Dash looked momentarily stunned, but shook her head rapidly where the orange mare couldn't see.

My ears went back and I glared over at her instead. "Why? Why did you... Why didn't you just ask me?" I growled, stamping my hoof to the ground.

Applejack sighed wearily and nodded over towards the now shivering yellow ball of wings and fur on the floor. "Ah figured it would help Fluttershy ta hear yer thoughts indirectly first, ya know?" she explained slowly.

The murky heat I hadn't realized was there to begin with slowly withdrew back down my neck, and I could suddenly hear quiet whispers coming from the yellow mare.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," was being released from her shivering form, seemingly ad infinitum.

Sighing, I lowered my eyes. This wasn't a pleasant situation in the least. It made me feel unclean, I decided. But I couldn't stay angry at Fluttershy, anyway. She hadn't done anything wrong. It wasn't her idea, nor had she tricked me and steered the conversation in ways to benefit herself. If anypony was innocent here, it would be her.

Leaning down, I spoke directly to her instead, assuring, "Fluttershy, it's not your fault so don't worry. You most certainly didn't do anything wrong." The 'you' came out with particular venom. I didn't recall ever being truly mad at anypony before. Irritated, sure. Like when I was forced to dig for twenty minutes longer than what was needed. Or when a bag of apples descended onto my skull at high velocity. This felt different. I was angry. I'd just started to let go of the incident with Celestia and trust Twilight again. Then she did this!

Fluttershy looked up at me, eyes softly wavering and mouth partially open.

"Mender, we're sorry. I was just trying to help Fluttershy. You can see that, right?" Twilight tried to assure, taking a few steps closer again.

My eyes narrowed and I backed up yet again, away from Fluttershy. "That's why you asked about everypony else too, right?"

The lavender mare's eyes drastically widened and she shrank a little. Applejack let out an annoyed sounding snort before stamping her right hoof down with a dull thud.

"Now wait just ah minute, you! Twilight 'ere wouldn't go an' lead ya on without good reason. Can't ya understand why we did it?!" she growled, eyes narrowing at me.

Twilight finally shook her head and spoke up with, "No, Applejack. It was a bad idea. We should have just asked him." the orange mare turned and glared at her as well for a moment before rapidly shaking her head.

My flank brushed past the forward ropes to the lift, and I frowned. I honestly just wanted to get away and clear my head for a while, but the door was past the two mares. I momentarily contemplated fleeing using the lift and my magic, then diving out one of the second story windows, but decided I'd probably just land on my head and wake up in the hospital. Besides, I was oddly getting a little tired of just running away.

"It was not ah bad idea! Fluttershy 'ere benefited greatly from it," Applejack defended stubbornly, directing her irritation towards Twilight now instead, who was strangely shifting more towards me. Rainbow finally managed to recover enough to stand up again behind the country mare. Her gaze shifted past her however and at me instead. Ignoring all of them, I just walked forwards directly in-between Twilight and Applejack. Potentially lethal if either of them attacked me as I was setting up my own flanking position, but I was screwed if they did so anyway. The barn fell oddly quiet as I walked past both, keeping my eyes locked firmly on the exit.

"Uh, where are you, um, going, Mender? Oh, if you don't mind me asking," Fluttershy requested politely, tilting her head at an angle that encouraged her mane to drift absently along her cheek.

I stopped for a moment. Where was I going? "I'm taking a walk. I need to clear my head," I returned quietly, without looking back towards her. Twilight's ears drooped in my peripheral vision to the left, while Applejack's expression hardened on my other side.

"What about mah barn?" she questioned, a bit of sharpness to her tone. Looking back over at her, I frowned. Why was she suddenly in such a bad mood? She was the one who'd decided to spy on me.

"Build it yourself, then. At least there will be no need for spying without me here," I pointed out, admittedly a little on the bitter side.

As expected, she looked significantly taken aback, eyes widening as she leaned her head away from me as if I burned her muzzle. Not waiting for a retort, I turned back and proceeded out of the barn, happy for the fresh air.

* * * * *

To their credit, they didn't give chase. Slowly, I trotted along at a moderate pace, much faster than my normal speeds but nowhere near hurrying. The sun was still high above, spreading its soft warmth over the fields of grass and apple trees. There was a certain amount of peace I felt as I watched the leaves sway to and fro around me. I could definitely appreciate the draw of a farmer's life. Compared to my old life, where it seemed like I only stopped moving after I was blown into three parts, this place was heaven.

Slowly, I shifted from the path and walked down to the base of a small creek. The water ran clear and was chilled to the touch as I lightly dipped a forehoof into it. Maybe this really was heaven? My thoughts strayed back to the book, causing a slow sigh. They were trying to find me. It couldn't be just my imagination. Asking 'her' about it seemed pointless, however. She'd probably just say that it was all in my head again. Heh. That would give 'Tia' a real reason to spy on me again. Hell, Twilight would no doubt jump at the chance! Her mindset was practically geared towards clandestine operations.

The bitterness flared up again as I splashed the water about in front of me with a hoof, realizing that I must have sat down at some point. This was kind of pathetic, really. Get upset at the cute ponies displaying interest in you, so you run away and sulk? Real mature, Mender. Angrily, I whipped my hoof out and hit the water, sending a somewhat satisfying spray away from me.

Why didn't I trust them? Why was I so upset? I've been here for barely three weeks and have caused considerable problems in that time, not limited to accidentally dragging one of them to what could be considered hell in comparison. Rainbow Dash almost died with me in that desolate place. Of course they're not going to hold me in high regard.

It snapped into place. Of course Fluttershy was going to lose interest after she saw the hell I came from. Such a view surely scarred a gentle and innocent soul such as hers. Of course Twilight would pick her teacher, mentor, longtime friend, and ruler of the entire country over me, the whelp that had barely even touched upon her life. It was logical.

I wasn't important considering who I was trying to impress. Flicking a tiny rock along the creek, I wiped weakly at my eyes with the other hoof. This was so stupid. I gave a light groan and leaned down instead, pushing my muzzle and forehead into the modest flow of water. The gentle coolness shifting pleasantly over my fur and skin underneath felt amazing, and I relaxed my shoulders, letting my neck gently support my body. This was the first time I'd been alone in a while, and it was kind of nice. I just let the cool water drift past my coat for a moment, feeling the tension exit my body slowly.

Sighing, I sat back up, eyes yet closed as the water dripped down off my face and forehead. Maybe I needed more time to myself like this? Shaking back and forth, I let the water spray off me before giving a faint smile and opening my eyes once more. I was greeted to the sight of a magenta pair of eyes staring back from all of a half meter away.

Giving a rather embarrassing yelp, I hopped backwards to make some distance from the two pools of amused looking color. Given my natural levels of grace and foresight, I promptly tripped while going backwards and rolled. With all the finesse of a beached whale, I crashed into the loose dirt and mud to my right and slid a few inches before coming to a stop, dignity a long lost cause. Rainbow burst into laughter almost instantly, of course.

"You're just too awesome, Mender! I've never seen anypony with such bad luck or total lack of dexterity. I don't even have to prank you to get a good laugh!" she praised, voice mirthful and energetic in between gasping for air from the hysterical laughter. Well, praised was probably the wrong word, even though she made it sound like they were stellar attributes of mine.

I sat up again, glare returning and being blatantly aimed at the spunky cyan mare. "You could have said something. What do you want, Dash?" I asked, normal politeness decaying a little in my foul mood. Not that she normally cared about etiquette, of course.

She returned without hesitation, "Relax. I'm here to make sure you're all right. Ya know, battle partners checking up on each other, right?" I couldn't help but blush a little. Looking away from her, I sighed wearily.

"You don't need to remind me of how I put you in danger, Dash. But thank you," I muttered. It was ironic how I had just been thinking about that.

Her expression shifted to a glare almost instantly, fast enough for me to do a double take. "I told you that I had wanted to stay even longer. Don't you get it? You're our friend, and constantly thinking otherwise is really hurting a few ponies. So knock it off already!" she requested. Well, more demanded.

I'm not sure how prevalent radio was here, or if it even existed, but the effect was reasonably similar. If one rotates the dial through dead air long enough, and then finds a station that's barely managing to transmit to the area where the radio is, there's a light fade in of the sound mixed with the dead static. If one wasn't anticipating such a find, it was quite possible to zip right past the faint channel without quick enough mental reflexes. It was exactly like that, except the sound mixed in with the dead air was a very familiar voice, rather than any music or such. "...such is the nature... ...link faint, yet decidedly real... ...book leads to..." echoed through my skull.

Oh hell. The mention of the book put my nerves on edge, and I glanced around while feeling the blood drain from my face. Sadly, as soon as it had appeared, it was gone again. I now found myself distinctly aware of the sense of static left behind by the 'station,' now nothing more than dead air. Damn it. They didn't even give me the courtesy of being asleep this time.

"Hello? You awake there? As I said, your fillyfriend is going crazy thinking she screwed up, and Fluttershy won't stop apologizing to the dirt floor. Suck it up and go back and at least let them know you don't hate them," Dash continued, apparently repeating a large section of a conversation I zoned out again.

Shaking off the panic, I glanced back at her and frowned. She wasn't going to leave me alone until I did, probably. Wait, fillyfriend?! My cheeks went scarlet this time, instead of settling for just a mediocre blush, and I voiced my surprise with, "Wait, fillyfriend?! We haven't really, uh, decided that we'd make it official or anything."

The rainbow-maned mare smirked, and I knew that she knew that she'd gotten to me. Ug. Today just wasn't my day. Except for that kissing part. That was nice. "Mender, she's totally all for it. Which means, given Twi, she's probably thought about it and researched it until almost going crazy, so I'd take it as a compliment. Although you really wouldn't want to see her when she 'actually' goes crazy, so we should probably get back there," she warned a moment later, glancing back towards the barn. Uh oh. That was the distinct phrasing involved with past experience, I noticed. Which probably meant that I should listen to her advice.

Then I considered it more. An impossibly strong magic user with an extremely orderly and focused personality totally going off the deep end and acting irrational or otherwise, as Rainbow indicated, crazy. It all suddenly clicked into place, violently disturbing my thought processes long enough to at least drive the annoying dead air sound out of my skull. Well then, prior worry about interstellar invaders coming to destroy all of Equestria and everypony I had come to know and love put behind me, I decided my colorful friend and battle partner was probably right. It was pointless to worry about future invasions if a certain, extremely powerful lavender unicorn made Equestria go away before they even got here.

"Right indeed. I don't think I really want to see Twilight when she's crazy, given how she's acted before. Shall we go?" I offered, gesturing back towards the barn with a hesitant hoof.

Rainbow snickered and nodded, taking to the air again and drifting over from the other side of the creek. "Exactly! And don't forget, she's totally your special somepony now," she reminded. Again.

A spike of annoyance struck me. But her smirk indicated that's what she wanted, which oddly made it hard to stay angry at the exact same time. Paradoxical thoughts aside, I glared anyway, putting on a good show before pushing my hoof into the ground on my left side. This time she saw it and laughed, dodging out of the way as little orbs of water started shooting out of the creek at her. She flipped and swirled through the air, laughing as she avoided most of my barrages while dancing towards the barn again. Finally laughing, I ran after at my typical clutzy pace, firing more every time my left hoof touched down while managing to squeeze the happiness out of the few I managed to clip her with. She took it in playful jest as we headed towards our destination. Decidedly, I distracted myself wondering why I could never manage to stay mad at her. It was funny now that I thought about it. If she had gone there wanting to cheer me up and calm me down instead of just check up on me, she was an extremely clever filly. Suddenly, I had a lot more respect for the rainbow-maned mare that was frolicking through the air in front of me.

'Battle Partner’, huh? Smiling gently up at her, I stopped firing and just ran after as we rounded the barn.

Author's Notes:

Doom Pie's Audiobook Chapter:
TBA

Chapter 10

"Uh, Twi?" Applejack asked cautiously, giving the shivering lavender lump a nudge with her right forehoof.

It had been slightly awkward, but that was pretty much my modus operandi since coming here. Rainbow Dash and I had gotten back into the barn without issue or serious maiming, which is a positive mark on my part. Twilight was pacing around Fluttershy spouting worried statement after increasingly worried statement while practically wearing a groove in the dirt with her hooves. Her expression was a little scary, but snapped back to normal, if not slightly shocked, when I spoke her name. No, that wasn't the awkward part. The awkward part came as Twilight ceased to exist in her current location and then, for all intents and purposes, landed on me in a teleportation pounce technique. I would have been impressed had I not been rendered upside down and sideways. I never thought well when at other gravitational inclines.

Rainbow continued laughing while Fluttershy approached from Applejack's other side, smiling softly down at me. I swallowed nervously and did my best to gently squeeze the ball of lavender fur embedded onto my chest. "I'm sorry! I knew it was a bad idea and that I never should have gone along with it, especially after reading pointers indicating exactly the opposite in 'A Mare's Guide to the Modern Stallion' in chapter eleven! Sabotaging trust in a relationship is a fatal mistake!" she quoted, probably perfectly.

Averting my eyes, I tried really hard not to mention the whole spying on me for Celestia thing. Not that I had time to. "Wait now just ah sec. Relationship? Twi, are ya really datin' Mender?" Applejack asked suddenly, sounding surprised. Okay, I wasn't sure how to think about that reaction. Her surprise was probably justified, but her tone indicated it was because of me, not Twilight.

Rainbow let out a mirthful snort instantly, causing Twilight to lock up on top of me. Of course, anypony who knew Rainbow and had more than five brain cells to rub together at the moment probably could see what was coming. "Ha! Dating? More like making kissy faces with each other in Mender's bed!" she corrected, proceeding to laugh even harder afterwards.

To her credit, the orange farm mare didn't let her expression shift much past the surprise she held prior. Twilight was a different case, however. Her head whipped around and glared at Dash before I could even fully process the comment and formulate a blush in response. "Rainbow! You said you'd keep that a secret!" she reminded angrily, her left hoof jabbing painfully into my side. Suddenly I was a little bit concerned for my relative safety, being this close to a font of rage and magic.

"Twi! That's not tha point. Ya shouldn't have tried ta keep it ah secret in tha first place! Think of poor Fluttershy's feelin's," Applejack lectured instead, interrupting the bout of anger while gesturing towards the now surprised yellow pegasus.

"Oh! Oh, no, Applejack. I'm happy for them. I would, um, rather not be Mender's special somepony right now. I... Well..." Fluttershy started to deny rapidly, pink mane flailing as she rapidly shook her head back and forth. A light blush drifted into her cheeks, as timidly as she typically acted.

It hurt, but at this point, it was a dull pain. Falling asleep with the thoughts since waking up a few days ago had taken the edge off it. "The images in my memories hurt you, and I'm really sorry for that, Fluttershy. I know you only want to be friends, so don't worry about that. If I could at least take away the images, I would in a heartbeat," I interrupted after I saw her explanation start to dwindle.

Applejack closed her mouth slowly while watching me carefully, but the yellow mare just blushed even more before shaking her head. "No, it's not just that. Um, thank you though. I don't think I'm ready to be a special somepony yet as well," she whispered weakly, barely audible from my position, before adding, "Maybe, maybe one day I'll be ready. The images aren't you and won't bother me forever. Maybe then..."

I smiled and nodded, but Rainbow let out what could only be described as a gleeful and diabolical squeaking noise as she suddenly grinned out of the corner of my eye. "Oooh, are you gonna share him then, Twi?" she asked, fluttering a little closer.

The timid yellow pegasus let out a surprised squeaking sound, wings suddenly fluttering rapidly. Twilight groaned, right on time, but Applejack surprised me by giving a warm chuckle. "That sorta thing ain't done too often, RD. Let 'em git used to each other before Fluttershy joins in," she pointed out. Wait, polygamy actually happened here?! Well admittedly, I had a sneaking suspicion that it happened in the inverse in my past dimension too. Anywhere where there was a significant difference in gender ratios probably did similar. Still, something seemed different when it came in the context of myself.

"Uh, hold on a second! I want some time with him myself before I even consider that, okay?!" Twilight warned, pushing me back a little bit and giving Fluttershy a skeptical glance. Wait, what happened to not being sure of her feelings? I winced as I was further squished up against the barn's main doorframe. Further, didn't I get a say in any of this?

Fluttershy shook her head as fast as she could, eyes widening and assuring, "Oh my! No, it would be a very long time before, well, I was ready, I think." Her voice dwindled halfway through and I had to strain to hear the rest through the wheezing of my lungs struggling for air.

Twilight's skeptical expression shifted to that of a soft smile instead, and she nodded to the now red and yellow pegasus. I would have smiled had my neck not been squished at an odd angle. Gasping in again, I tried to shift out from under the lavender mare on top of me. "Hoo boy! Well 'ere RD an' Ah were jus' teasin' ya'all, but it looks like ya had somethin' else in mind," Applejack suddenly spoke up, trailing it with a whistle and smirk.

Twilight went from smiling to glaring in record time, tensing on top of me again. "Applejack! It's just, but..." she fussed, words suddenly failing her. They failed me as well, as she shifted to look fully at the country mare and squashed me further against the wall.

Rainbow managed to keep it to a controlled snicker this time before pointing out, "I think AJ is supporting ya. Although neither of you are going to get him if Twi kills him." She accompanied it with a hoof gesture in my direction.

The lavender mare in question gave a sharp start and whirled around to look at me again. I did my best assuring smile as my eyes watered and I tried to look relaxed rather than attempting to remain conscious. She let out a stifled squeaking noise regardless. The flash was rather on the blinding side, and I was left seeing a rather accurate after image of where she had been before. Twilight materialized back into existence several feet away in the same instant, right next to Applejack. She then proceeded to give me an exceedingly mortified stare.

"Oh no! I'm sorry, Mender! I was just so excited to see you come back. Admittedly, I didn't expect that Rainbow would actually succeed in convincing you," she spewed out at an accelerated rate. Nowhere near the speeds that Pinkie Pie could achieve, but at this point, I couldn't expect the unicorn to keep up with a hole in physics. That was a bit unreasonable, even for one so powerful.

"Hey!" Rainbow squawked, glaring at Twilight's new position as I flopped over on my side, both gasping for air and rubbing my eyes now. Dash reacted so easily to the teleportation. Would I ever get used to Twilight doing that? I doubted it; although it also made me significantly curious. There were so many properties that were interesting in it. How did it compare to 'blinking' from my dimension?

Twilight flinched, catching my attention again as my breathing slowly returned to normal. Damn, I was out of shape. "Sorry, Dash. It was Mender being offended that I was worried about, not the fact that you were going to get him," she quickly amended, giving her cyan friend a sheepish grin.

Rainbow straightened a little and almost visibly puffed up before bumping her right hoof into her chest. "Relax. I had it covered. Besides, Mender and I are Battle Partners, so we understand each other," she assured cockily.

Twilight gave her an annoyed look while Applejack chuckled and Fluttershy gave her a soft smile and nod. I decided to finally speak up with, "If it makes you feel better, Dash, I really do trust you. With my life, actually. You really pulled your own when it mattered the most, and I'm never going to forget that."

A warm blush drifted into Rainbow's cheeks and she smiled at me in an instant, posture relaxing a little. "Careful. Yer gonna swell her head even bigger with that kinda talk," Applejack warned a moment later with a smirk, tilting her surprisingly clean Stetson down a little. Hadn't she just finished falling off a loft and crashing into a large crate?

"Well I think it's nice. That you, uh, trust her. I mean, we do kind of deserve..." Fluttershy timidly whispered, barely audible as usual and getting worse as the sentence neared its conclusion.

Twilight interrupted, shaking her head rapidly to the yellow mare and correcting, "No, Fluttershy. You didn't do anything wrong. It was Applejack and I, well, mostly just me, who are in the wrong. I really screwed up, so if there's anything I can do." The second half of the sentence shifted not so subtly over to me, along with the unicorn's nervous gaze.

I really didn't like situations like this. A faint blush shifted into my cheeks. Shaking my head again, I looked away from her. "I'll be fine. I just would rather you ask me up front next time."

Applejack stomping her hoof down further scared me and I jumped, looking back up at her instead. “Now hold on just ah minute! Twi is right. Ah apologize too, fer bein’ downright stubborn on tha issue. Ah don’t think it was that great of ah’n idea after all,” she cut in, eyes softening. Wait, huh? Oh. That’s why she’d been defending it before.

Fluttershy joined the team against me and nodded, adding a soft smile before amending, “Yes, we shouldn’t have, well, tricked you like that. I promise that I’ll be braver, um, if this happens again in the future. Really! So, I’m sorry.” She acquired a faint blush halfway through, and bowed her head towards the end, wings fluttering ever so slightly on her back. Admittedly, she was adorable. But what did I really feel towards her? It didn’t feel the same as Twilight, whom I just enjoyed being with. I wanted to protect Fluttershy, helping her when she needed it. She obviously didn’t really need my help, but it was a secret little selfish wish inside of me.

I’d learned a lot more about myself today, in all honesty. I disliked dishonesty and tricking individuals when there was no obvious point besides greed. Forgiving the girls was reasonably easy to do, because there was a reason they did it that wasn’t for their own gain. They were trying to help Fluttershy, after all. It irritated me, but I realized that I could forgive it well enough. But it did get me thinking. It had been happening without me noticing it in the first place. Over the course of my stay here, I’d been reacting to external stimuli in ways that felt natural to me. Of course, I had started with nothing except for a large amount of technical knowledge and an indescribable panic at being lost in a new, unknown place. But now that I had been more accepted into their culture and adapted, I found myself seeing facets of myself that I wasn’t quite consciously aware of.

What did I know about myself so far? I disliked dishonesty, but didn’t shy away from it when it would benefit someone’s feelings. Rainbow Dash, I noticed, was a good example. Further, I wasn’t very confident in my own capabilities. Possibly because of this, I tended to try to figure things out as fast as possible and might have a small tendency to jump to the incorrect conclusion a couple of times. Or a lot. I was further loathed to mentally admit that I might have a little bit of trust issues. Although that was at least partially justified on my part, as I had been spied on for the first week of my stay. Still, I couldn’t fault Celestia for wanting to keep her kingdom safe. If it was so easy for me to accept that, though, why the hell did it make me so irritated?!

Then I realized I had been zoning out again. Snapping back to attention, fully expecting everyone’s attention to be directed angrily at me, I was pleasantly surprised to find them all staring at Rainbow Dash instead. She shifted back and forth between the stares, expression getting more and more negative with each switch. “What?! Hey, I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m so not apologizing!” she defended, crossing her forelegs and looking away from them with closed eyes.

"None of you had to in the first place," I muttered, ears drooping and trying my hardest to diminish the light blush I felt in my cheeks. If anything about my ideals and personality was certain, I wasn't cut out for this kind of attention.

Twilight smacked her hoof lightly into her forehead before glaring over at me again, returning, "Mender! You need to stand up for yourself a little more. Right now. Tell all four of us what you want to make up for this."

I blanched and backed up a little as all four mares shifted their attention to me instead. "Are ya sure this is ah good idea, Twi?" Applejack asked, sounding uncertain suddenly. Didn't I get a say in any of this?! Oh wait, technically that was the point of the 'exercise', I suddenly realized.

"Scared he'll ask for a bit of loving, AJ?" Rainbow teased, bumping her flank up against her orange friend, jarring her a little.

Fluttershy visibly wilted, cheeks going pink immediately. Oddly, I was close to mirroring her in posture, dropping to my haunches and staring in shock at Dash, a familiar heat sinking into my cheeks. Applejack smiled gently at my display and shook her head in reply.

"Of course not. Ah should'a known better in regards ta Mender. In this case, Ah think Twi's idea was ah good one, then. Give us somethin' ta do fer ya. All four of us," Applejack requested politely, recovering her warm smile.

Being around her was like walking on eggshells. She didn't fully trust me still, which admittedly was my own fault for making such a bad first impression. The 'almost eating her with extra-dimensional tentacles' thing probably didn't improve her opinion of me either. Oh, or almost getting her best friend killed in a space battle in an impossibly far away place. Honestly, I should be thankful she hasn't skinned and garroted me yet.

Although this was also getting a bit frustrating. They probably expected me to make some deeply personal and selfish request for them all to fulfill, which I obviously wasn't at all comfortable with doing. I had already forgiven them and definitely didn't want any pity, so it was a little confusing as to why they sought punishment in the first place.

My right hoof nervously scraped along the dirt floor as I rapidly tried to think of a way out of the situation, avoiding the gaze of all four intently watching mares. I was about to vote for panicking and fleeing into the forest when my hoof bumped into one of the screws on the floor. I stared at it for a second before a potential escape occurred to me. Smiling, I raised my head back up to them, earning a mixed response. I saw Applejack fidget minutely, but maintain her smile. Rainbow's smirk widened as she puffed up, awaiting my request. Fluttershy shrank down a little more, but maintained a standing position, barely. Twilight had the most amusing reaction of all, being no reaction whatsoever. A light blush adorned her cheeks and she almost looked as if she was staring past me, not really listening in the first place.

Finally, I announced, "I got it! All four of you," I started, pausing momentarily for dramatic effect. Three of the four leaned closer, with the lavender mare still staring blankly at the floor to my right. "Help Twilight and I finish upgrading the barn!" I finished rapidly, nodding twice in confirmation.

Applejack and Rainbow Dash shifted from anticipation and excitement to confusion a beat later. Fluttershy actually perked up a bit and recovered her smile, nodding to me. Twilight, hearing her name, snapped out of it and looked around rapidly, looking even more confused than her orange and cyan friends.

"Uh, Mender... Isn't that more helping AJ than you?" Dash reasoned, perfectly logically, of course.

Chuckling, I shook my head and walked past the four, the lavender unicorn now looking exceedingly flustered. "It might, but I just asked if of you four, so if you truly want to repay me, you'd better get to it," I reminded, not turning back as I headed gleefully towards the beginnings of the quality control platform.

"What are we supposed to do again?" I heard Twilight ask in a whisper behind me.

* * * * *

The sun slowly drifted below the window of the barn, casting an orange tint along the dirt and wood. It was pleasantly warm today, and the soft glow simply added to the ambiance. It was getting late at this point, causing a soft tiredness to drift through my muscles. It felt so different from the overworked sensation in my memories. I guess fighting for your life in a hopeless war and upgrading a friend's barn weren't really all that comparable.

Regardless of ducking another set of boards as they zipped in via telekinesis, I felt reasonably relaxed. Twilight's magic fit the wood softly along the frame we'd already made, setting up the outside of the conveyor belt. After she lined it up oh so expertly, I placed more nails against the pieces and sealed them together an instant later. I shook the wood once and smiled in satisfaction when it didn't budge. The lavender unicorn lagged in her next set of beams, however, and I glanced up and to the left automatically. Sure enough, Fluttershy drifted in with her apron held lightly, carrying a new supply of screws and nails in the cupped fabric. She gave me a warm smile as she lit softly upon the frame we'd just put together, and started pouring the tiny objects into Twilight's newly formed telekinetic tunnel. Working together, the girls made a neat pile of nails and screws directly to my left, earning a nod of approval from me. They were so adorable when they worked together like that. I felt myself blushing as I watched them nod to each other happily.

Unsurprisingly, Dash zipped in a moment later from behind the two, nodding to me and throwing an over the top salute. "Rainbow Dash reporting, Boss! The hole is cut in the loft floor perfectly, and lines up with the conveyor frame underneath for the lid lowering!" she reported, hamming her voice up as much as possible.

Predictably, I blushed at the performance, causing all three mares near me to grin. "Dash, you know you don't need to call me that. I'm just the engineer," I reminded, doubtlessly as futile as it was last time.

Further predictably, her grin widened and she shook her head, returning instantly, "The only engineer here. We don't have any instructions, so we need ya to work your magic." Well, that was true, I suppose. I'd forgotten that they didn't technically have any instructions. Although something seriously struck a bad chord in me when I considered someone asking for more bits for the instructions, too. That didn't seem very fair to me.

Of course, my gap in retort gave way to a stronger defense on their part. "Ah think it's an excellent idea. Yer savin' me a hefty 'mount o' bits already, Mender. Ah might be payin' ya fer the work, but in tha long run, it's ah lot cheaper than ah professional," Applejack chimed in as she dragged another pile of wooden beams into the barn, tied to her with a thick rope harness.

Fluttershy and Rainbow nodded along in agreement, but Twilight flattened her ears back and glared at her orange friend. I tilted my head to her, confused. I didn't even know where to start guessing as to what was wrong.

"Isn't he a professional anyway, Applejack? I didn't think about that before, but what is the going rate for a full-blown engineer?" she suddenly questioned, with a certain level of accusation to her voice. Oh crap. No longer needing to guess as to what was wrong, I started debating how to head off the argument.

Much to my extreme surprise, however, there was no argument in the first place. Applejack stopped pulling the boards, her muscles gently going slack as she sat back on her haunches, ears lowering a little. "Ah know, Twi. Trust me, Ah know. Ah could barely afford ta hire a construction team fer the job. An engineer, which is what's needed fer this, is totally out ah the budget. Ah wish I could pay ya the full price fer the work but..." she started to slowly admit, turning and looking at me instead of Twilight.

The unicorn's features softened as she absorbed what Applejack said. I looked away from her and over to the orange mare as well, smiling and shaking my head. "I already told you, I'm not accepting any bits for this. You're my friend, plus you've done a ton for me. Save the bits," I requested. I knew she was tight on funding before, so taking her bits had never sat well since she mentioned it. After this admission, I really couldn't accept anything from her, however. She had legitimate need for my skills, and I wasn't about to disappoint.

"Mender," she groaned, her right hoof digging into the dirt in front of her as her eyes closed. I tensed, remembering what it felt like for those powerhouses to collide with my skull. She continued before I could react, though, eyes opening softly with a warmer smile on her face. "Yer ah mighty good stallion, ya know that? Why, ifin' Twi hadn't caught hold o' ya first, Ah might have tried my luck ta swoon ya."

My expression froze in that of shock. In my peripheral vision, Rainbow locked up in midair and crashed into Fluttershy behind me, causing a loud thud and a squeak from the surprised yellow pegasus. Twilight also went rigid against my side, whipping her head up to look at her now grinning friend. Grinning?

Applejack burst into a hearty laughter, stomping the dirt floor with her hoofs alternately. "Ha! Ya should see yer faces!" she squealed in-between gasps of air and laughing.

"Oh thank Celestia, it was a joke," Twilight groaned out next to me, slumping visibly forwards as she exhaled.

The mass of pegasi slowly untangled themselves and stood again, Fluttershy blushing but Rainbow looking significantly bewildered. "Haha. Good one, AJ," the cyan pegasus muttered, shaking her head back and forth with her eyes unfocused. Either the fall knocked her for a loop, or the joke did. She had probably geared up mentally to murder me the second the others weren't looking, I predicted.

"Ya need ta be more careful there, RD. Yer gonna hurt somethin' if ya keep crashin' like that," Applejack lectured suddenly, eyes locked on Dash instead of me suddenly.

"Yeah, Fluttershy," Twilight quipped instantly, rolling her eyes as she rotated to look at the two. Seeing as the crisis was averted and I wasn't going to imminently die or be hospitalized, I decided to get back to the task at hand while they were distracted. Carefully, I started counting out the wooden plates that would comprise of the conveyor belt surface as they lay there in stacks. Something seemed off.

Rainbow huffed, shaking her head repeatedly. "I'd never hurt Fluttershy. We've been best buds for, like, forever," she assured, giving the yellow mare a light shake back and forth with her foreleg. Fluttershy smiled softly back at Rainbow, looking oddly appreciative for having just been flattened by her. I wasn't so distracted by the counting that I missed the odd look Applejack was giving them, either. I didn't know much about pony body language, however, and didn't have a clue as to what it indicated.

Not that it immediately mattered, of course. There were larger issues at the moment, I decided. "I don't mean to interrupt and I apologize, but I just noticed your stacks of wooden planks to be used for the conveyor," I spoke up, causing all four of them to glance back at me instead.

"Ah, yeah? It's no problem, Mender. Somethin' wrong with 'em?" Applejack inquired cautiously, looking a bit apprehensive instead.

Although that was the right way to react, in this case. "Well, I did a rough estimate of the surface area of both the treadmill surface and that of the conveyor. By my calculations, you have just under half of the required wooden plates to put this together. Are there others you haven't unpacked yet?" I asked, fidgeting with my hooves a little. If she didn't have any more of them, this was very bad.

Her expression deflated immediately. Damn it. She didn't have any more. I started trying to consider alternatives before she even replied with, "Dang it. That scoundrel said these would be plenty enough ta span tha distance ah needed!"

Twilight looked back at the conveyor and frowned. "A little under half what's needed? Oh, it was wordplay. You do have enough to span the distance you wanted, but a conveyor belt requires extra for the sides and underneath to function," she deduced, shaking her head in what looked like annoyance.

"That sneaky little jerk! I outta pound him into the ground!" Rainbow growled almost instantly, wings flaring up as she fluttered lightly off the ground, looking just about as pissed as I had ever seen her. Maybe more so.

Applejack motioned her back, however, smiling softly. "Ah was dun tricked completely fer this whole project, Rainbow. Still, ya don't need ta hurt anypony fer it. But thank ya. Fer everythin'. Yer ah good mare," she thanked. Rainbow plopped back down on the floor, now blushing profusely and looking awkward. I tried really hard not to laugh. She was just so adorable when embarrassed!

My mind snap-kicked me in the head, though, and I looked back at the wooden planks. Wood! "Applejack, do you happen to have any large logs of wood on hand? Or know where you can pick some up for cheap?" I asked quietly, trying not to interrupt abruptly. If I could still pull off that technique, I might be able to work with this still.

"Mender, the planks need to be exact. Sure it would be way cheaper to make our own, but it would take forever to carve them out, and if they were off in measurements by even half an inch," Twilight warned, looking back up at me, eyes softening as her brow furrowed.

Applejack looked intrigued, however, and smiled. "Ya think it's possible ta make more of 'em, Mender?"

Returning her smile, I nodded quietly. That's all that was needed, though. "Well ah think it's about time ah gave ya ah lil' trust too. Rainbow, can ya zip up ta tha loft an' drag one o' those big logs off that side?" she requested, shifting her gaze to Dash.

The pegasus perked up instantly and threw a sharp salute before zipping up and over the side of the loft in the space of a blink. I took a moment to admire her absurd speed before slipping over to the nearest pile of planks, taking one off the top with a slide of my hoof.

It was an old technique, having been in use since my race had learned basic abjuration and compression magic. Still, for what I remember of our largely scavenger engineering style towards the end, it was invaluable still. My engraved hoof brushed against the surface of the plank. The energy spread, forming an impossibly thin layer over the entire surface of the piece of wood. It was a skilled work of craftsmanship. The way it was cut indicated that it was created using some sort of form press, which made sense. Replaceable parts were fundamental for widespread use of key technologies. My magic traced each curve: the subtle tension lines cut into the surface to allow flexibility, the holes along the ends to anchor it, and even the roughness of each edge. It was easy to feel the exact dimensions and shape using the magic, and I embedded the template in my mind.

The room was dead silent as I focused, breaking the unspoken vigil only as the large log hit the dirt some four meters from me. Dash zipped down after it as I looked up again, propelling it slowly my direction by shoving it from one end. I laughed gently as she approached, holding my left hoof out and stopping the log as she came in. A wide smile adorned her face and she flopped over next to Applejack, both watching me carefully. Of course, I could almost feel Fluttershy and Twilight also staring. It was a little bit intimidating, but I pushed it out of my head and just focused on the technique.

I'd done it a thousand times before. The magic seeped into the wood, taking the precise shape of the template in my mind from the tip of the log. Each edge took focus and an exercise of will, but the results were amazing. With one plank of wood lined up with faint magic in the log, I started to duplicate it right next to the other one, the top surface of the first forming the bottom of the next. It had gone unsaid that I wasn't to waste any space inside of the log. That just wouldn't do. After the second duplicate was completed, the third was started. Then the fourth. Finally, I managed to get six copies of the plank to line up back to back inside of the log, and smiled.

Applejack and Rainbow wore an unsure look by then. Nothing was visually happening, so they were probably wondering what was going on. Twilight's eyes were glued to the log, however, her horn glowing softly as she no doubt watched the magic curiously. Fluttershy instead stared at me, which I found to be more than a little unnerving. I pushed down the blush and shifted all of the lines inside of the log into a barrier, not unlike the type I used to make my blade. This was my specialization, after all. Sure, I might be skilled at spatial manipulation and abjuration, but barriers were my true talent.

The top of the board that I was in contact with made a sharp hissing noise, no doubt the result of the sudden burst of friction caused by the shield slicing through it effortlessly. A burst of smoke raised up as the log jerked lightly, causing all four mares to jump back. I smiled, however, watching bits of wood fall away from the end I was holding. Shifting the shields, I slid out six pristinely carved wooden plates, exactly like the one I had scanned. I doubted I could make any more of them out of what was left of the log; at least not without some serious structural integrity loss.

Twilight made a squeaking noise, eyes widening as she watched me pull the plates out. Applejack seemed less surprised and just smiled warmly, nodding to me. The backlash hit a moment later, causing me to exhale quietly. That wasn’t too big of a job, but I was well out of shape, magic-wise. It reminded me that I had a long way to go before I was back to my old self, which was more than a little annoying. The wave of fatigue draped over me like a shawl.

“Well, ah’ll be! That’s mighty useful there, Mender. If ah can get ya more pieces o’ tree like that, ya can make me tha rest o’ tha parts?” she questioned, visibly relaxing and looking like a sudden great weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

Smiling contently, I nodded to her, trying my best to ignore the light headache forming at the thought of more of the same. This was going to be a long day, I had a sneaking suspicion.

“That’s amazing, Mender. Doesn’t it take a tremendous amount of focus to do that, though? Aren’t you tired?” Twilight asked, sounding a little shocked still.

I swallowed weakly and purposefully avoided the lavender unicorn’s gaze. “Ah, well it does require quite a bit of focus, but I should be fine. Barrier magic is my specialty,” I tried to assure, hoping to not let show my own apprehension of the task. Applejack stared hard at me for several seconds, emerald eyes dragging over my features and seemingly staring into my very soul. I resisted shuddering. "Ah have ah sneakin' suspicion that yer lyin' ta us. But ah need them parts fer the machinery. Yer not gonna be able ta get away with not gettin' paid fer this anymore if'in it's that much work," she warned, eyes narrowing towards me.

"Just don't push yourself, Mender. I'll keep following the directions you gave us while you work on making the parts," Twilight assured, nodding to me before turning to the elevated platform we had finished.

"Why don't you do it, Twi? You're, like, crazy powerful with your magic, aren't you?" Rainbow asked curiously, bobbing through the air after the lavender unicorn as she walked.

I bit my tongue, trying not to let the frustration that question caused get to me. I wanted to be able to help them somehow! "I can't make precise copies like he can. Honestly, I didn't think it was possible until he actually did it. I could cut out the pieces a lot faster and not get tired, but they wouldn't be all that detailed and we probably couldn't use most of them," she explained in a rather neutral manner. It bugged me when I couldn't even guess what she was thinking. Was she upset about it?

Deciding not to take any risks, I offered, "I could probably show you the techniques needed. You could do it a lot better than me, and Applejack needs these parts."

"Mender, yer goin' awfully far fer mah sake," Applejack muttered softly behind me. I swallowed quietly, but didn't turn around. Twilight didn't either and I watched her head slowly lower, her gaze shifting to the floor instead. I still couldn't see her face, and had no idea what she was feeling.

Fluttershy walked past me slowly and placed a hoof gently on Twilight's shoulder upon coming up beside her. "You don't have to tell us, but, um, are you okay?" she asked quietly.

"It's nothing, Fluttershy. Let's just focus on getting as much of this project done as possible before tonight," she spoke gently, finally looking over at her yellow and pink friend. Her eyes looked dull, giving a distinct sense of being sad. Frowning, I watched her turn back around and walk the rest of the way to the platform.

A glance back at Applejack and Rainbow showed that they looked as confused as I felt. Dash gave me a weak shrug a moment later, and I sighed. I guess I'll just have to talk to her about it later. In no small amount of frustration, I swatted the pile of planks I had just made. The top one whipped up from the force of the blow, lightly skipping off the side of my head...

Chapter 11

My focus waned as I pulled yet another set of six planks out of a log. I'd long since lost count, but estimated that this was probably my fifteenth or sixteenth piece. It was getting harder and harder to maintain my concentration with my head feeling like someone had taken a splitting axe to it, however. Suddenly, that light tingling sensation danced along the edge of my nostrils, heading towards the bridge of my nose. Not again!

Regardless of my desires, the sneeze exploded out of my nose: releasing a wet, gooey sensation across my mouth and extended left foreleg, and sprinkling the log with little dots of red. Damn it. The timid yellow pegasus sitting next to me jumped a little in surprise at my sudden outburst, but promptly extended the third towel up again to wipe at my muzzle. It was tinted red as she withdrew it, looking like it was dipped in paint. Obviously it was blood, but it was still nice to pretend. It made me at least able to blissfully remain inattentive to the large amounts of the red liquid I'd been losing out my nose and tear ducts in the last hour. It was such a pleasant sensation, honestly, to have that delightful metallic taste in your mouth as it crusted over on your cheeks and muzzle.

There was a light twitch in my peripheral vision, but not from the source I was expecting. I looked up in time to see Applejack turn sharply from her position near the lift and glared at me.

"Oh, that is so it! Yer done workin' fer tha day, Mister! Ah don't need this thingy done tonight, so we're callin' it quits right now," she announced abruptly.

I frowned, wanting to just be done with it, but Fluttershy exhaled quietly to my right, adding, "Oh good. You need to rest after losing all this blood, Mender. At least take tomorrow off, if that's not too much trouble, of course." She looked at me with those brutal, pleading eyes that could melt a Grosh's heart, and I was forced to look away, blushing.

Twilight stood up from her position of putting the actual belt together and walked back over to me, still looking dejected. Swallowing, I watched her carefully, trying my hardest to look past Fluttershy without catching her devastating gaze. The lavender mare looked extremely tired and a little on the sad side. It still bugged me that I couldn't figure out why she was sad, so a part of me was glad for the break. It meant that I could get her alone soon for questioning.

Applejack walked up, looking a little surprised at my lack of protest at her decision, but traced my worried glance to Twilight and smiled, nodding to me. "Ya get ah good night's rest tonight, Mender. More mental exercisin' tomorrow would probably be healthy fer ya too, but don't push yerself. Ah'll get tha extra metal parts ordered fer delivery as well, don't worry," she spoke up, thankfully not saying anything about the focus of my attention she had caught me with.

I nodded, of course, returning her warm smile. Actually, it probably just looked creepy with the stained orange tear streaks and muzzle. "I'm all right. I'll finish the rest of the planks tomorrow for sure, then we can finish the project as soon as possible. We'll get it done in time no problem, this way," I assured softly, feeling more than a little tired.

"Thank ya kindly, Mender. Tha rest o' ya come back after yer daily routines are done ta give us ah hoof in finishin', okay?" she requested further, looking at Fluttershy beside me and the now landing cyan mare on my other side.

"I'll be over after I finish my weather duties, no problem!" Dash assured, giving an abrupt and absolute nod. It felt like that might as well have been a blood oath of some sort.

"I can come over after I feed all of the animals their breakfasts, well, if I'm really that much help, of course," Fluttershy added as well, bowing politely towards the orange country mare.

Twilight brushed her left forehoof into Fluttershy's shoulder and rubbed softly, shaking her head before refuting, "Of course you're helpful, Fluttershy. Having another pony with wings is a huge help, plus you lined up a lot of the boards so perfectly. It really helps to have a gentle touch sometimes, Fluttershy." The shy yellow mare blushed but smiled at Twilight's kind words. The bookish unicorn continued before anypony could comment, however, with, "Even then, as an added bonus, you can help me put Mender back together again after he inevitably injures himself three or four times a day."

My glare was matched only by Rainbow's laughter. Fluttershy seemed flustered, glancing between myself and the now smirking Twilight, while Applejack just chuckled and shook her head, wearing a smile. After a few moments' denial, I decided that technically she had a point. Plus it was nice to hear her joking again, even if it was at my expense.

"True enough, I suppose. It really is a big help to have somepony who’s capable of lining," I started to agree with, before trailing off abruptly. The static came back, quietly and almost imperceptibly in the background. I glanced around again, just to make sure that I hadn't missed any speaker systems or something.

"...ook testing number twenty-nine; commence," was suddenly spoken, much clearer than last time and in an oddly familiar voice. Uh oh.

The girls were giving me odd looks by then. "Uh, are you okay, Mender?" Twilight asked curiously, angling her head while looking at me. I was about to answer when a tiny orb of light drifted out of my left shoulder, causing me to jump and stare at it. What the hell was that thing?!

"Probe activated. Getting vague yet conscious energy readings," the voice noted, sounding very interested. It was that girl from my dream! Okay then; there were three possible reasons for this. One, I was high on truth serum again and having a seriously messed up dream. Two, I had used up too much magical energy and was having some vivid yet creative flashbacks from aforementioned dream. Three, it was real and we had some serious problems! Given priorities and threat levels, I was more inclined to believe the third option purely as a precaution. Given that decision, I reacted in the best way possible that I could think of.

Giving out a yelp, I hopped backwards while lashing out with my left forehoof, smashing into the orb with my fully shielded magical limb. It shattered like my frail skull would have against Applejack's hoof, and a piercing yelp echoed through my skull. Ha! Eat that, girl whose name I couldn't remember!

Rainbow hopped backwards as well to clear the sudden blow. Twilight looked momentarily surprised, as did Applejack who yelled, "Whoa nelly! What's goin' on, Mender?"

"A ball of light! I think it might be some sort of probe from the other dimension. I... think it’s dead,” I declared, gleefully watching the shards drift down through the air. It was worth it to know I disrupted whatever she was doing.

Twilight smacked her forehead with a hoof, sighing. "Mender, there was no source of magic or energy there. Plus, for the last time, Princess Celestia Herself said that the link was gone. You just used up too much energy and need to lie down, okay?" she offered, sounding a little exasperated.

Shaking my head rapidly, I pointed down to the shards of the probe lying on the ground. "The pieces are right there! There has to be something you can pick up," I defended, wishing she'd just believe me for once.

Fluttershy peeked out from behind Applejack, looking timidly at where I was pointing. The orange farmer herself seemed slightly more skeptical, raising an eyebrow to what she probably saw as empty dirt.

Twilight muttered something sounding vaguely like "empirical doubt" before looking down at the spot I directed her to, horn lighting up. I held my breath as a wave of lavender light washed over the dirt gently. My eyes widened as I watched the energy pass right through the shards as if they weren't there. What the hell?

"Mender, there's nothing there aside from dirt, a thin paint residue, and some ancient looking clay jar with heavily fermenting cider of some sorts buried about a foot and a half down," she reported dryly, glaring back up at me. So she couldn't scan it after all. Wait, what?

Applejack coughed lightly and shook her head. "Just ignore that," she requested, blushing lightly and looking away from us. Rainbow shot her a knowing grin, and I just sighed.

"Maybe there's something there you can't detect? Maybe it's only partially merged with this dimension?" I deduced, fishing for possibilities as best I could. That's really the only explanation for why Twilight couldn't pick it up, given her level of skill and sheer strength of magic.

"Or maybe you're hallucinating from blood and magic loss and need to go lie down? Why can't you just trust Princess Celestia?" Twilight asked sharply, glaring at me instead.

Maybe because she was fallible? Or maybe because I wanted to be cautious rather than regret it later? Why couldn't she just trust me?! I opened my mouth to retort just that, but the only answer feasible popped into my head before I could say anything. Why did I keep forgetting her relationship with Celestia? Of course she's going to think the Sun Princess was infallible. Who was I, a mere imperfect mortal, to challenge her perfect teacher's assurance? My mouth snapped shut a second later and I just closed my eyes. It was pointless trying to convince her otherwise, as she was never going to believe me. As bitter as that felt, I knew that there was nothing I could do to change it. I wasn't as important to her as Celestia was, and I'd just have to deal with that.

My irritation dropped, and I exhaled wearily before opening my eyes once more, much softer this time. Twilight was still glaring, but Rainbow Dash looked at me with uncertainty over her right shoulder. No, causing more conflict didn't solve anything. It only served to make Twilight angry with me, which led to almost being squished by a bed last time. Not wanting to risk her aim being better this time around, I simply turned away from the lavender unicorn and walked out through the main barn door.

Okay, so today had a few good points, but overall, I'd have to say that it was largely terrible. The kissing was nice, but mostly overshadowed by the discussion afterwards and what her intent seemed to be. I was an experiment; I had no idea if she liked me, or just liked the kissing and wanted to fool around. She'd said she was interested in me and I really did want to believe her, but she'd lied to me before, and certainly didn't trust me now, so it was extremely difficult.

"Mender," I heard Fluttershy whisper, almost directly into my head it felt like.

"Just let him go, Fluttershy," Twilight added a moment later. A spike of irritation shot through me, but I turned past the side of the barn and got out of sight as best I could. Frustration was an understatement in light of my current outlook. The second I got out of the light from the barn, I swallowed hard and burst into a run. Well, as fast as this body could manage, anyway. There was no destination in mind as I ran as hard as I could, the lump in my throat shifting painfully with each gallop. I just pretended the warmth running down my cheeks was blood again, and headed off into the rapidly darkening night.

* * * * *

The moon rose into the night's sky steadily, giving an ethereal glow to the world. It was quite beautiful, and I tried my hardest to relax to the sounds of the forest around me. The light gurgling of the stream meshed well with the chirping of unknown insects all around me. I didn't even know what forest it was, honestly. My head gave a sickening throb as the background static magnified again, twisting through my skull like a rusty screw. Damn it!

"Test failed. Again. The book is somehow lashing out at my probes, as if it had a conscious awareness. In light of that information, I'm going out on a limb and trying to communicate with it," the annoying voice continued rambling on, as if talking into a recorder. Hell, she probably was. Keela. I'd like to say I had remembered her finally, but she simply mentioned her name about an hour ago. I had no idea how long I'd been here.

"Just shut up," I groaned wearily, smacking my forehead into the rock in front of me again. I'd followed the stream here, it running quietly behind where I currently resided. I was tucked up safely against a rock ledge, between the solid material and the deeper flowing water.

The static didn't cease, however, and yet another orb popped out of my body; this time out of my heavily bandaged flank. Not even hesitating, my magic danced out of my hoof, along my skin, and then lashed out with a barrier blade, neatly severing the probe in half. If it was even there, of course. Maybe Twilight was right and I was just hallucinating? Or maybe I was just finally slipping into a higher level of insanity and actually tied up in a mental institute somewhere?

"Okay, I can safely assume verbal isn't working. Seeing as it's a book, I'll try writing," the voice continued, oblivious to my wishes of silence. Didn't she sleep?

I really shouldn't have been surprised when the glowing sheet of paper and a single pen was spewed from my forehead. Rolling my eyes, I glared at the paper, doing my best 'burn and die' expression. Couldn't she at least have the common courtesy to be consistent with where she ejected foreign magical objects from my body? If I was going to be forced into the position of random portal device again, it would at least make things less awkward.

"Are you sentient?" was written at the top of the page in a very neat, concise handwriting. Oh crap. She wrote like Twilight. If she were even half as persistent as the bookish unicorn, I might as well just give up now. That was a rather stupid question regardless.

Picking up the 'pen' with my left hoof, I wrote, "No. Go away. Better yet, launch me into a star and forget I ever existed," right below the initial question. Okay, maybe that was a little on the sarcastic side. Still, it would be so much easier if she actually listened.

There was a long pause at that. I almost started hoping that the shock of getting a reply had given her a heart attack. Alas, I was destined to be disappointed. "You're sentient then?! This is wonderful. But why do you seek self-destruction?" soon appeared questioningly directly under what I had written. She must have a similar page on her side.

"I just want to be left alone. Please forget I ever existed," I requested again, in a steadier handwriting than last time, exhaling quietly. I used my other hoof to wipe the tears from my cheeks and silently shook my head. I'd had enough crap today without needing to be harassed by entities and energies from my old dimension. Or my own mind's avid hallucinations, I suppose was another theory. Of course, given that it was the only reality I knew, did it really matter if it was real or not?

Of course, my bitterness just made me feel even more childish. All I was doing was whining. It was frustrating not fitting in anywhere. Still, what was I honestly expecting? I'd only been in this plane of existence for the grand total of three weeks. Not to mention having spent a good portion of that time unconscious through various machinations against my well-being. The ponies here didn't really know me all that well. Honestly, for Twilight to decide that she liked me after such a short time period was probably way out of the normal trend of things!

"Who are you?" appeared on the page, interrupting my thoughts. Ah, she was changing the topic.

Well, that much was easily answered. "Mender," I wrote vaguely, with no lead in or punctuation. Of course, now that I thought about it, this girl wasn't entitled to get any information out of me in the first place. If she could be appealed to, though, perhaps she'd just dispose of the book? I guess it wouldn't hurt to be civil.

"A strange name. Or is that your species? Are you a construct in the book?" she asked next, elegant writing starting to slip a little. I imagined she was getting more and more excited.

"It's my name. Can you please just destroy the book?" I requested again, noticing we'd slipped off track.

There was a delay again, and I heard an airy sigh coming from around me. Or maybe it was coming from inside of my head. "The book is an Aegis Artifact. The amount of energy required to destroy a normal one is phenomenal, and this one appears to be geared towards defense," she explained carefully. Her writing was structured and slow this time, as if she was holding back bursting into scientific babbling. I caught myself finding it cute and mentally lectured myself. The last thing I needed at the moment was to think about Twilight. Why did that even remind me of her in the first place? Well, obviously it was something she would do, but why did my mind even insist on going through the exercises of making the comparison?

"Regardless, why are you seeking self-destruction if you're still sentient? Although I can't help but notice that you said 'the book' as well." Her writing sped up after she passed the magic babble part. Oops.

I hastily added, "I'm technically not the book. I'm just connected to it. Please, just get rid of it or sever the connection between us or something." She seemed nice enough. Although granted, I didn't know how important an Aegis Artifact was. Convincing her to destroy it might be a long shot, but it was worth a try.

There was another hesitation. A lot was probably going through her mind, of course. More scribbling sounds came from the audio connection she didn't know we had, more writing appearing on the page. "Where are you? What are you? Are you a Keldarian?"

That word. It sent a bolt of agony through my skull, but I couldn't seem to look away. More memories flashed through my mind. Needles and scalpels extending on robotic arms, a splash of blood on smooth metal, and even the sounds of someone screaming over and over again. The waiting. Mud and gore we had to wade through on our occupied worlds. Hatred that was so old that I couldn't remember a time when I didn't have it. Most of all, I remembered the rain. Why was that moment so important?

* * * * *

We stood around a partially collapsed convoy. The surrounding area was a scene from what I assumed hell would look like. There were various burning craters, plus the burnt, skeletal remains of what used to be the facility we had taken shelter in looked extremely foreboding. We knew that the Grosh wanted the planet for the resources on it, so we set up evacuation right on top of the reactor coils for the planetary shield. They were busted and the shield wasn't on anyway, but they didn't dare fire their big guns on us from orbit under risk of hitting the reactors instead and cracking the plate of the planet with the explosion. They hit us with invasion waves instead, but those could be fought back for a time.

The weather controls busted too, of course. At this point, I was getting a little tired of the constant rain. Of course, the stupid thing would misread the flames and explosions as 'too high' of a temperature and cause constant rainfall. Although at this point, it didn't really matter all that much.

Three squads guarded the West landing zone, trying their hardest not to die as they listened bleakly to the radio. It was that very same radio that gave us news of other squads failing at exactly that. The amount of Keldarians we were rescuing was almost exponentially proportional to those who didn't make it. So many lives were simply vanishing, being washed away in the rain. Why were we even here?

The radio answered me by crackling to life again, exporting on the status of the covert op to recover the second branch of the research division. Oh yeah, that's why. We were here to rescue a group of four bitches that were so far beyond our station that we weren't permitted to glance upon their bare skin. Heavens forbid their uniforms get damaged in, I don't know, the war across the surface of the planet. The radio reminded us again that our eyes would be gouged out following the mission if we were to catch a glimpse. We weren't part of the special operatives division, so I guess we didn't need our eyes to delay the enemy while dying like Croesians in the rain.

Anger and rage were natural reactions to events around us. An emotional effect paired with an unfettered form of applied, conditional insanity in most cases. The truly unhealthy aspect was to maintain this state for too long. Eventually the screaming rush of blood in your ears died down. The blood would cool again and tempers would settle. But the sanity never fully came back. Once you step outside of that comfortable zone of innocence and into hatred, there is no recovery. I fully believe that it's not within our natural state of mind to want to purposefully end the existence of another being. To destroy all that they are, could have been, and were prior is an atrocity. To wish that so fervently that you would give up your own life to end as many of theirs as possible has to be unnatural for us. It must be an insanity, or we're doomed from the start of our evolutionary track. How could any species that justified such insanity be considered a 'success,' after all?

Yet here I was, with several dozen of my fellow soldiers, all huddled in the broken remains of a bunker near the landing pad in the rain. We listened to the radio repeatedly tell us how others have failed this morning, and how we were not allowed to. Meanwhile, the sounds of particle shots and explosions got ever closer and I double checked the state of the generator I'd just finished repairing, if only to avoid looking out the window.

Yup. It wasn't quite the end of the world yet, but you could definitely see it from here...

* * * * *

Ow. If there were ever more distinctive and accurate thoughts to wake up to, I wasn't aware of them. Of course, there wasn't a whole lot that I was aware of at the moment anyway, apart from the demolition project at the base of my skull.

My eyes slowly opened up, greeting the soft morning light with disdain. It only served to further confuse me as I watched water drift by in the strangely brown and gray sky, teasing my mane playfully. Well, falling asleep outside had distinctly different effects than I last remembered. When was that? Oh yeah. Falling asleep under a tree and getting blown up by an overly excited Rainbow Dash. Fun times. Under?

Suddenly solving my strange physics issue, I inwardly blushed and rotated around until I was right side up again. In the process, my body slid off the rock I was unceremoniously splayed on top of and promptly fell right into the muddy creek. Yup, physics still worked! Or at least the heartless bitch known as gravity.

My mind finally took stock of the situation more fully upon seeing the muddy piece of paper a few feet from me. There was no voice in my head, and the paper had lost its ethereal glow from last night as well. I could only surmise that she had 'hung up' after the connection was lost alongside my consciousness. My head hurt even more as I pulled myself up to the piece of paper and stared at it.

The word 'Keldarian' stood out plainly, now being underlined several times in a dirty red and brown color. The same 'ink' had been used to scribble all over the remaining page with various faces, a small yet badly rendered doodle of a bunny, several alien-looking symbols, and the word 'Twilight' written a few dozen times in the spaces between. The throb in my head got worse, followed by the distinct sensation of a light tickle under my eyes and the lovely smell of peroxide and blood. I threw the paper sideways away from me, wincing momentarily at the dancing sensation of scalpels digging into my stomach.

Panicking, I spastically leapt backwards, feeling my stomach instinctively. There was nothing to speak of involving sharp things embedded into me, of course. I took a moment to catch my breath, intentionally not looking at the blasted piece of paper. Well there goes showing it to Twilight as evidence. I don't think it would prove the exact thing I wanted it to. The words spewed all over the page in a psychotic manner were also too choice to assume coincidence. Okay, so maybe I had a thing for the lavender unicorn, even if she did scare me witless on occasion. Nopony was perfect, after all. I doubted this whole relationship thing was that inflexible.

Then it dawned on me, so to speak. It was dawn, or at least early morning. The last thing I had recalled was fleeing from aforementioned lavender unicorn in the evening. Considering the time lapse, that meant that I had been out in the middle of the forest all night. I might not have a relationship with her depending on how pissed off she is at me now. Considering my options, I tried not to panic. Okay, first, I needed to assess where I was. Without panicking.

Glancing about, I listened to the creek next to me, attempting to absorb some of the gentle flow. It was a bit disheartening to realize that it wasn't the same one that I lost sanity and consciousness next to last night. Okay, that meant that I either fell in at some point while raving mad and was carried away by the pitiful flow of water somehow, or more likely, I wandered quite far afield in my lunacy. Chances are high, though, that I lacked the finesse required to navigate the forest in the dark, especially when in the middle of a mental breakdown. So if I had any luck at all, a risky hope, I followed the stream in one direction or another.

It wasn't really a clearing that I was in. In all honesty, I was probably lucky that I hadn't been eaten by some random forest creature that happened to stumble upon me. Maybe they didn't mess with the crazy ones either? The stream was clearly flowing to my right, and was much smaller than the one I had been by last night, so naturally I assumed that by following it to the left, I might happen across where I started. It was worth a shot.

With nothing left to really think about apart from my own delusional paranoia, I started following the stream to the left. With no decisions left to make, naturally I then started to mentally panic while walking.

The forest was peaceful around me, anyway, if not a bit on the gloomy side. It felt chilly and a cool wind blew through, signaling the upcoming season change, I was guessing. Thankfully it wasn't snowing yet, so at least I planned a good time to get lost. I chuckled in amusement at the oxymoron as I wobbled along, my legs feeling like lumps of wet noodles. It didn't help the comparison that I was actually wet and covered in mud, of course. I also noticed that I had various scratches and bruises covering myself. Wonderful. Maybe I had wandered through the forest for a ways? Still, thinking that wouldn't help me, really. I could only hope that this creek rejoined the larger stream or river that I was next to prior. Chances are, however, that I was now hopelessly lost and doomed to an either violent, bloody demise, or to starve to death under a rock somewhere.

Several minutes passed reasonably uneventful, and I simply wandered, taking in the sounds, smells, and sights of nature around me. If I didn't feel and probably look like a drown rat, this would be a really nice place to relax. Sure it was a little dark, but I didn't necessarily mind that so much. Besides, relaxation was probably what I needed a lot more of. I felt like I was a thousand years old, both in body and mind. A rather loud squawking distracted me a moment later and I stopped, looking around for the source.

It took me a couple of minutes, but I finally spotted the small, golden-yellow bird that was lying next to the base of a tree. It was looking around as if in a daze, and had probably fallen from a nest. Upon further examination, I spotted the little brown nest at the lower branches of the tree. Well, trees and I didn't particularly get along well, but the fellow was obviously in distress, so I decided to investigate further.

Walking over slowly, I frowned and peeked at the little guy. It looked back at me, utterly unafraid in the slightest, and made an annoyed squawk towards me. Well, proportionally, if I had just fallen out of a four story building or so, I'd probably be a bit annoyed as well. Sympathetically nodding, I extended my hoof out cautiously to him and cupped him with a tiny force field.

How should I go about this? I could connect it to the tree trunk but I couldn't see into the nest and didn't want to drop the little guy again. Well, there was nothing else for it. I touched him against the tree. The shield extended under me as well and I slowly lifted both of us upwards into the tree again. I was surprised at how complacent the little guy was, but he simply sat there watching me curiously as I lifted us upwards. We cleared the branches easily enough and I nodded to myself. Interestingly enough, there were two other little ones in the nest that chipped up at me when I popped my head up next to them. Leaving the shield detached under me, I raised the little guy up on my hoof and gently made to place him back in the nest.

That's when the unholy scream from hell sounded out from in front of me. Uh oh. Looking up, my heart skipped a beat as a small blur of fury and hatred zipped in with wings extended. I barely managed to duck out of the way before the thing took my head off! The little guy in my hoof started chirping madly and I decided that I'd better get him back into the nest so he didn't fall again. After the winged death passed, I popped my head back up and quickly deposited the little guy back into the nest. Another furious screech sounded from behind me this time, and I quickly tried to duck out of the way. This time they weren't aiming for my head, however, and I ended up getting clipped across the side instead.

I let out a yelp and winced sideways, dropping my hoof against the shield I was standing on in attempts to lower myself back to the safety of the ground. That's when the blur of feathers smashed into my face. There was a sharp, stabbing pain and I fell backwards, everything going black.

* * * * *

Ouch. This was the second time I woke up distinctly aware of how much agony my body was in. Groaning, I opened my eyes slowly, only to realize the left was caked with blood. Slowly and tenderly feeling my forehead with my left forehoof, I noted a rather nasty gash just above the eye. Damn it. I struggled to tuck my legs up, and then noticed I was on my left side. My right rear leg gave a flare of pain, and I was suddenly glad that I hadn't been conscious for the landing.

Okay, assessment time. Expending a little bit of my own magic, I felt along my insides to attempt to figure out exactly how badly I was screwed. Now I was lost and badly injured, in the middle of a dark and dank forest with who knows what kind of creatures in it. The scan was rapid, giving rather vague results that I didn't fully know what to do with. Once again I found myself wishing that I had studied the healing arts. Damn it. The bone in my rear right leg was intact, but the muscles appeared to be badly strained. There were no rips in them, but a contusion covered the thigh and the muscles under and along the knee were stressed to their limit. Walking probably wasn't going to be pleasant.

A light chirping noise sounded out and I froze immediately, trying my hardest not to panic and do anything potentially embarrassing. Those demons were still here?! I cursed myself silently for forgetting to check for hostiles before moving! A rather large bird, looking distinctly similar to the little one I put back in the nest, took that exact moment to land in front of me. My skeleton almost jumped backwards out of my skin. Thankfully, my fleshy parts are more durable than that, and it instead only had the effect of me going rigid while staring at it. Oddly, it made another chirping noise and fluttered in place, as if somewhat distressed. Being unable to speak Bird, I had no idea what it was attempting to communicate. I decided to count my blessings that it hadn't gouged out my eyes yet, however.

"Um, please don't attack me?" I requested timidly, hoping for mercy. It seemed unlikely that the tiny bird could outright kill me, but I did have lots of sensitive squishy bits it could puncture repeatedly and bring about agony with. Actually, rather than take a chance, I just assumed that it could somehow distend its jaw like a snake and possibly eat me whole.

If I didn't know better, I'd say it almost looked sad. Much to my further surprise, it actually shook its head. Wait, it could understand me?! Maybe I didn't know better. Tilting my head, I simply asked, "Do you understand what I'm saying?"

I definitely didn't know better. The sad part was, in all honesty, I should have realized that the intelligence level of all of the creatures would be significantly greater than what I was used to dealing with. The bird finalized my guess by nodding its head up and down in the almost universal gesture of affirmation.

"Oh! I'm terribly sorry for the incident earlier. I was trying to put him back in the nest, I swear!" I apologized, hoping to not offend the newly discovered intelligent creatures. Actually, they were probably more intelligent than me, seeing as I'm the one who just fell out of a tree.

As if reading my mind, the bird gave me its best dumbfounded and exasperated gaze, as if specifically stating that I was an idiot in no few words. It shook its head again and made several more squawks, gesturing back towards the nest.

Not entirely sure what it was attempting to convey, I looked back towards the nest regardless. A tiny little bird was sticking half of its body into view above the nest, and actually waved a wing at me. Further surprised, all I could manage to do was wave back with my left foreleg.

Then what the bird was trying to say became clear. "You already knew that I was only putting him back because he told you, didn't he?" I questioned, glancing back at my new feathered friend.

It gave another nod, before hopping over my two front legs and gently brushing a wing along my injured knee. I gave a wince and shuffled it a little, only to note that it was stiff and shaky. This wouldn't do at all for walking on. About the best thing I could do is make a makeshift brace, then hobble. Not that hobbling would impact my normal speeds all that much.

The bird looked sad again and shook its head, looking back at me. Did it feel badly for attacking me? "It's all right. You were only protecting your young. I'd have done the same thing," I assured, trying to smile through the misery from my leg. Well, assuming that I'm ever going to have kids. Highly unlikely, I'm guessing. It's tricky to reproduce when dead. Not impossible, but I doubt this dimension had that sort of technology. Maybe there was magic for it instead? Doubtful, but I didn't want to assume.

The bird shook its head even more rapidly, but I didn't know what that implied. It could mean quite a few different things, and I just tilted my head towards the small avian creature.

"I'm not entirely sure what you mean. I'm terribly lost, however, and unfortunately need to get to work making a splint for my leg so I may attempt to find my way back to Ponyville before starving to death," I excused to the little one, attempting to shift myself to a standing position again. My back, right leg refused to support my weight, so I was forced to form a barrier along the outside of it to push it directly into the correct place.

Okay, wasn't expecting that. The raw agony of moving the knee caused my breath to catch and ice water to shift up my veins, feeling like all of the blood drained out of my head at once. I made a silent wincing and gasp, shivering but managing to not scream like a little baby. While mostly for preserving my dignified appearance, it also had the side benefit of not alerting every predator within three miles to my location.

My eyes had slammed shut during the process, but after several minutes that felt like an eternity, I slowly opened them as the pain ebbed back down. I held the shields rigid against my leg and locked them together before putting them into power saver mode and letting them be. Okay, that was probably the hard part. Now all I had to do was hobble along my merry way. Oh, and find which way that's supposed to be. Oh, and not get eaten in the process. At this point, I might as well tack on not starving to death to the end of that list, as a last resort.

My friendly bird squawked again in protest as I wobbled and started trying to half walk, half hop along as I progressed back to the creek. I gave it a wary glance, but it just looked vaguely depressed again. Come to think of it, weren't there two of them earlier? I distinctly remembered being blitzed from two directions at once on that last attack. Either the one here was hellishly fast and being taught by Rainbow Dash, or there were two of them. Given that Rainbow didn't seem much like an 'Animal Pony', and the fact that there was a nest back there, I assumed the latter. At least if birds still reproduced sexually here.

There has to be a law for serendipity somewhere. No sooner had I finished thinking it, I heard a faint but definitely chirping noise in the distance. Huh? My avian friend looked up towards the sky in an instant, and I watched him curiously as I hobbled along the river. Oddly, at this point I thought nothing of him stalking me. Wait, is it stalking if I know he's there? Further, is it stalking when the target is pitifully slow and wounded, barely able to hold their own in a fight against a chipmunk?

Almost a minute passed before another barrage of chirps sounded off, much closer this time. My friend flitted a little higher into the air and started releasing an oddly loud counter salvo. Okay, the situation was getting a little strange now. He was obviously communicating with the other bird, but why? Taking the volume levels and distance into consideration, it suddenly dawned on me. The little bastard was giving away where I was located to the other bird! Why else would he follow me? Well, apart from an easy meal after I inevitably passed out. I further noticed that I seemed to consider him male for some reason.

Seconds later, I almost had to duck again as a smaller but similarly colored bird dove in alongside the river. So there were two of them, then. I smiled politely at the newcomer, before literally having to not only duck, but also fall sideways into the creek to avoid a fur-covered bolt of cyan lightning.

Sputtering, I slowly wobbled and got back up from the now extremely familiar source of water. Thank goodness for barrier magic. It was significantly more resilient, and waterproof, than normal stints. Upon regaining my footing, I rotated with tiny hops and glared at Rainbow Dash, mildly annoyed, even though I was technically saved now.

She paid little heed to me, seemingly more interested in rapidly looking around the forest in a paranoid vigil. "What have you attracted so far? Wolves or bears? Both? Something more exotic like a manticore or cockatrice?" she asked rapidly, still not fully looking at me.

I scowled at her before returning, "A couple of birds and a deadly blue comet."

"Deadly blue," she started to ask, fully turning to me now, before shifting to that of a glare instead and finishing with a, "Hey!"

I couldn't help but smirk, which caused her to grin in amusement as well. "Okay, okay. So your bad luck hasn't hit the situation yet. Let's get you out of here before it does. It's safe, Fluttershy!" Rainbow called out, looking up again.

"Fluttershy?" I questioned, following her gaze up and to the small yellow mare that drifted into view a few dozen meters away.

Rainbow snorted but nodded. "Well duh. I'm not gonna think to follow a random bird into the Everfree forest without a little initiative. Besides, it came to her first and she got me to help afterwards," she explained in a dismissive manner. Well it's not like it's every day that I get lost in the forest and they need to organize a search party for me. Thankfully.

"Actually, Mrs. Bird is to thank. She was the one who thought of coming and getting me after the terrible misunderstanding and accident earlier," Fluttershy explained quietly as she hovered for a moment before gently touching down on the grass next to me.

I blinked, then realized that she was talking about when I fell out of the tree. The birds had a much stronger grasp on reality than I realized. Hell, possibly more than I did. "They've been on, well, edge since last night," the gentle yellow mare continued in a soft, yet stable voice, giving me a warm smile. She looked happy for some reason. Wait, last night? I suddenly had a sneaking suspicion that I was extremely lucky to have spent most of the night unconscious.

"Oh, all those creepy noises that came from the forest? Yeah, that put me on edge too, and I don't even live here. Thankfully," Rainbow muttered in agreement, shivering and sitting down next to me. I couldn't help but notice that she was fully equipped with strapped on saddlebags.

Fluttershy swallowed wearily but nodded. "Yeah. It's worse than that, even. Those poor creatures. Tons of trees were damaged or destroyed in a long path through the forest. With all of the roaring heard, Twilight suspects that one of the nearby Ursa's are acting up for some reason," she furthered, keeping herself busy by unpacking some medical supplies from her own saddlebags. I found it amusing for some reason that she didn't even question the fact that I was covered in lacerations and contusions.

"What exactly is an Ursa?" I asked wearily, trying to ease out my muscles as Fluttershy approached with bandages.

Rainbow sighed and shuddered again. "It's a massive bear that's all glowing and partially see through. Hugely strong; it could probably split a pony in half with one swing," she explained, fidgeting and looking around again. Yikes! If one of those was on the loose, I'm really glad they found me when they did. Given my spectacular luck, I was likely to blunder right into the thing. Then somehow subtly insult its mother without realizing it.

"Oh dear. These bandages are filthy. How are you so clean, though? Um, if you don't mind me asking, of course," Fluttershy suddenly observed, giving me a once over before shaking her head.

I sighed miserably before replying, "I actually spent a lot of time in the creek, sadly. I think I'm going to be wrinkly for quite a while."

Rainbow grinned, but then tilted her head as Fluttershy started slowly peeling the bandages off me. I assumed she knew what she was doing and that there was skin under there. Gritting my teeth against the constant fur pulling sensation, I decided that was a good indication that she was right. Rainbow's confusion slowly shifted to amusement, then to holding back the laughter with her hooves as Fluttershy unwrapped me.

Annoyed, I looked back behind me in order to figure out what was so funny. It only took me a couple seconds to notice that there was very little of my coat grown back under the bandages. It looked like I got in a fight with a razor and lost. Badly. I rolled my eyes and fought back the heat drifting into my cheeks as I just sat through it.

Oddly enough, Dash stopped laughing shortly thereafter. Finding that even more odd, I looked back over at her curiously. Her expression held a frown instead and her eyes were locked firmly on my side. Uh oh. Was my skin missing there?! I whipped my head around to look, only to find nothing technically wrong with me. Fluttershy paused momentarily and looked up at me from her intense concentration and focus. She looked really adorable with the questioning expression and her mouth full of bandage roll. She then peeked at Rainbow, and traced her eyes back to me.

"Dude, what happened to you? I've never seen so many scars," the cyan pegasus inquired quietly, still wearing the frown.

Oh. "The scars are usually hidden by my fur. I'm guessing they transferred over from my old dimension when I came here. I was a soldier, sadly," I reminded, suddenly deciding against looking at Fluttershy.

Unfortunately, she caught my intention before I even fully turned away. The shy yellow mare snatched my right foreleg, softly shaking her head. There was no force behind it at all, and I could have easily pulled away, but something about the way she was staring at me almost forced me not to.

"Please. If it's okay with you, don't treat me any differently. Please? I want to see, um, all of you," she requested, almost a whisper. I felt something inside of me skip. Smiling again, I nodded silently to her. Rainbow made a gagging motion next to us, of course.

"Ya don't have to get all sappy on me. I'm just glad we found you before a bear ate you or something. Then Twilight would really have freaked out," the rainbow-maned mare complained idly.

"Why is Twilight freaking out?" I asked carefully, wincing again as Fluttershy got back to work, removing the last of the bandage around my hips and back, finally.

I was surprised when Dash snorted and whacked me on the snout with her left hoof. Wincing, I looked back up at her questioningly, holding my muzzle with both of my hooves. "Don't be silly, Mender. She's totally into you whether you believe it or not. She's all worried that she went too far with the Princess thing and drove you away forever to be eaten by a bear in the woods or something. You two really do match pretty well, but I think she's a little more grounded in reality," Dash pointed out, snickering immediately after.

I rolled my eyes and sighed. First she's pissed off at me, and now she's regretting it and freaking out over my well-being. I swear, I'm never going to understand that mare. "Well, it did hurt last night. I guess I just want to be taken seriously in her eyes," I confessed, sighing and letting my upper body deflate naturally as I exhaled. The tension was slowly leaving my system as Fluttershy expertly removed the bandages and gently massaged the growing fur down afterwards.

My cyan battle partner smirked again, but nodded in seemingly understanding. "I hear ya there. She can get a tad unreasonable sometimes. You should have seen her the last time she was tardy with a letter to the Princess. Ponyville almost didn't survive," she groaned, resting her forehead on her hoof. She was joking, right? Right?! There was no smile, however, and she truly looked exasperated. I was suddenly more than a little frightened of the lavender unicorn again.

"It was, um, really bad," Fluttershy suddenly spoke up in agreement, nodding her head twice. I was momentarily distracted by the bobbing of her mane as she did so, but rapidly snapped out of it and swallowed.

"Admittedly, I'm a little scared of her. I really don't want to get on her bad side and end up magically turned into a coat rack or something. Or be squished by a flying bed," I admitted wearily, tensing as Fluttershy pulled the last of the bandages free.

Rainbow snickered and shook her head at me. "Relax, Mender. She'd never outright hurt a pony if she didn't have to. Especially you, I have a feeling. Like I said, she's totally into you," she assured, holding up a hoof in almost congratulations.

I rolled my eyes but smirked again and extended mine to lightly bounce it off hers.

Both of us were interrupted by Fluttershy's sudden gasp of, "Oh my!" Rainbow looked past me to where her friend was looking, then widened her eyes drastically. Huh? Uh oh. Was my skin missing there instead?!

My head spun around to assess the damage to my hips and butt. I wasn't at all prepared for what I saw, however. It was even worse than missing all of my flesh back there. Someone had tattooed my butt!

Chapter 12

I sighed wearily as Rainbow Dash got the leather harness on again with the help of Fluttershy. "So what exactly does it indicate that my special talent is?" I asked once again.

Rainbow snickered as she raised her left wing to get the strap hooked under it. "Sometimes cutie marks are kind of vague. Guess I got lucky with mine," she admitted. I stared at the rainbow lightning bolt on her flank for a moment before nodding in agreement.

"You're certainly the fastest pony I've ever seen," I agreed, smirking. As anticipated, she puffed up with pride and grinned at me.

"Of course I am. Goddess of Flight, right?" she reminded, winking at me playfully. I felt a little bit of heat dance into my cheeks again but maintained my smile, adding a nod as she glanced back at me. Admittedly, she was cute when cocky. I had no idea as to why she was so attractive, but I certainly wasn't going to act on it. Fluttershy and Twilight would murder me, principles aside.

Snapping out of my distraction, I looked back at my flank again. It was still there of course. The silver gear with eight, evenly spaced teeth took up a good portion of my flank, and oddly had a heart-shaped axis hole. Honestly, I didn't know what it meant. The gear was easy enough to figure out, but was the heart just for stylized effect? The concept of getting my own Cutie Mark had always been there in the back of my head, but I never truly thought I'd get it, being so different from a normal pony. Now that I suddenly had one, I was a little overwhelmed as to what it meant. I thought you were supposed to magically know or something.

"Is it almost on, Fluttershy? We need to hurry up," Rainbow asked, having resumed her cautious vigil of the forest.

My gut told me that there was something I was missing still. "Is there a reason we're in a hurry apart from getting proper medical attention?" I questioned carefully, glancing over at the yellow mare that was just securing the last side buckle.

"Oh, um, yes. The mayor has declared a state of emergency. It's a little scary," she muttered, swallowing timidly while nodding to Rainbow.

The aptly named rainbow pegasus sighed and nodded. "Something really freaked out the animals of the forest last night. Lots of roars, growls, and snarls. Wolves were spotted near the forest's edge and one pony even reported seeing a manticore. Until things settle down again, we really need to stay away from here," she added, far more calmly than her shivering friend.

It was a compulsion, really. Almost everything the yellow and pink pegasus did gave me urges to guard and protect her. Shifting a little, I leaned up and gently extended my left forehoof. She watched me curiously, stopping in her shaking long enough to at least be interested in what I was doing. Her eyes widened further as I made contact with her back and gently rubbed the spot directly between her two wings. The effect was instantaneous, and more than a little surprising. She let out a soft gasp as I massaged along her coat, going in gentle, hopefully soothing circles. Her eyes lidded slightly, and she rested more heavily against her cyan friend as I worked. She was so adorable that I couldn't help but smile.

Rainbow started momentarily as she felt the contact, then glanced back at me and her. Her surprise shifted to that of a warm grin as she saw me gently stroking the other mare. "Between the wings, and the wings themselves are sensitive for most pegasi. Especially the mares. A little on the nervous side, Fluttershy?" she pointed out knowingly. Wait, why were mares more sensitive?

Fluttershy's cheeks tinted a light pink color, but she nodded subtly. Her eyes then shifted back to me, and a smile lit along her expression again. She surprised me further by turning and actually hugging me gently.

"You're a good stallion. I promise that I'm going to get over this. You're never going to hurt me; I know that now," she muttered, almost as if hoping her cyan friend wouldn't hear.

Obviously, she did. "Of course he's not going to hurt you. If anything, he'd rather let himself be hurt than let you come to harm. Remember the rock thingy? And even more recently, the couch?" Rainbow pointed out in a surprisingly gentle fashion. The more I saw them interact, the more I realized she had a special soft spot for Fluttershy. Not to say she wasn't spot on, of course. If I was protective of any of the mares, it was Fluttershy.

The yellow mare retained her pink tinting to her cheeks, which magnified a little before she nodded. Regardless, she seemed content enough where she was, and just looked back over at me with surprisingly curious eyes.

"I'm still glad Twilight is going to attempt to date you first, but maybe one day I'll work up the, well, courage to try as well. If you two allow it, of course! I mean, I don't want to offend either of you. That would be bad. Oh dear, I'm sorry if I just did," she suddenly started to ramble, looking more and more flustered.

I placed a hoof gently to her muzzle to stop her before shaking my head. "It's a strange concept because it's reversed for me. In my culture, I believe that it was the females that used to take multiple male mates, but if it's sometimes done in reverse here, then I might be able to get adjusted to it. You don't need to apologize," I assured, keeping the evil glares and ear twitches restricted as much as I could when she mentioned Twilight.

Rainbow shook her head wearily, turning around to fully face us before muttering, "That is so weird. You must have a lot of guys on your world."

"Well, we did. If my dreams are of any indication, the situation is reversed now. I'm not sure why, but one of them mentioned they were looking for males and-" I started explaining before I suddenly realized what I was doing. Giving a sudden blank, dumbfounded look, I shut up and looked away from both of them. I forgot, they probably think I'm just insane too.

Rainbow stared surprisingly intensely at me. Her expression neither shifted to amusement or scorn. Fluttershy surprised me a little more, however, by smiling fully and shaking her head. "Twilight has, um, trouble believing things that she can't see. It's a little scary, but if you think there's something truly wrong, then I believe you," she whispered softly, timid voice shivering a little towards the end. I'm not sure if it was the thought behind it, or her being literally right against me, but I felt myself soften and relax. I finally let myself genuinely smile towards her.

Dash finally smiled as well, tossing in a nod for good measure. "If it's bothering ya that much, we'll try to talk to her about it. It's a little crazy, admittedly, but I don't think Princess Celestia is totally without error. She'd probably be the first to admit it, actually," my cyan friend offered, gesturing with her hoof lightly towards me.

I nodded in agreement and stood up as gently as I could manage. Fluttershy broke off her hug and helped support me fully as I rose to my hooves again. I wobbled lightly, but slowly limped my way towards Dash, who turned around and lowered herself to the ground as best she could.

"Thank you for not automatically assuming I was crazy. We should probably get out of here, however, before anything happens across us," I advised cautiously before stepping over the prismatic tail and gently making my way onto her back.

"Oh, oh yes. The faster we can get out of this forest," Fluttershy murmured wearily as she took to the air again.

Rainbow smirked as she stood up again, adding, "Don't let her fool you. The only reason she entered the forest in the first place was because she knew that you needed help."

My eyes widened significantly. Fluttershy let out a tiny squeak, blush forming once more as she almost lost control of her hover. "Dash!" she reprimanded in a wavering voice.

"Oh relax, Flutters. He already knows you technically like him like that. Now we just need to get you back to Twi before she turns Ponyville upside down with her freak out session," Rainbow followed up, shaking her head slightly. She abruptly halted and looked back at me, probably feeling me go rigid.

"Do we absolutely have to go back to her? I kind of, well," I started trying to explain. Was there really any other choice, though? I didn't exactly have anywhere else to go.

Dash looked surprised at first, apparently realizing that I wasn't joking. "Wait, seriously? We don't have to, I guess. But she's really worried about you," she professed in an uncharacteristically serious tone.

I stared skeptically at her, unsure if she was joking this time. "So she not only thinks I'm crazy, but has decided that I can't survive a single night without her keeping an eye on me?" I asked sharply, sorting it in my head still.

"Well you did kinda already hurt yourself," Dash pointed out, earning a burning glare. If she felt the same way, why was she here? Shouldn't she have just assumed that I was rocking back and forth in a corner somewhere, deranged yet fine?

"Oh dear. No, Mender! She feels really bad for not going after you. She's really, really worried," Fluttershy tried to convince. I softened my features a little as my gaze shifted to her instead. Her eyes looked into mine with pleading gentleness, and I soon had to look away again. This yellow mare would always hold a soft spot with me, no matter how she considered me, I suppose.

Rainbow shook her head, walking forward slightly and then turning around. "Maybe he's right. This is new to both of them, and until they get adjusted to it a bit, maybe they should spend some time apart," Rainbow suggested, looking back over her shoulder at me.

I met her gaze for a moment before sighing and nodding. "I know she's new to this, and I don't have a clue how to act. Maybe I just want to be taken seriously by her? I'll never be as important to her as Celestia, but maybe one day she'll at least listen," I reasoned. Sometimes seeing her as a 'veteran' of this world made me forget that she wasn't of the same experience level with relationships.

Fluttershy let out a tired sigh and lowered her head, looking reasonably glum as I turned back towards her. After a moment's consideration, she frowned and looked back up, assuring, "Princess Celestia is indeed important to her, but I think that once she realizes how much you mean to her, she'll open up quite a bit more. You two have so much in common. She's never had anypony that she was able to really talk to on her level here. That has to be valuable to her." Her voice was strong and stable, even if a little quiet, and her level of insight surprised me. She knew quite a bit about her friends, it would seem. At first I thought it was just a special connection with Rainbow, but now I noticed she was extremely empathic with others as well. It made me wonder what her thoughts on myself were. Maybe I didn't want to know?

"You two have a lot in common too, don't forget. I can totally vouch for his loyalty and caring. Sure, he's not as brave and steadfast as me, but he'll stick with you through pretty much anything and has a really gentle touch!" Rainbow spoke up, vouching for me. Kind of. I blushed at her words, looking away from both of them this time.

Fluttershy was tinted pink as well, but smiled shyly. "Oh, I know he can be really gentle. Plus, he's so good with foals; I really look up to that sort of thing. Eventually I'd love to have a family of my own, of course. Seeing him be so gentle with everypony, alongside how protective he can be to those he cares about, just makes me feel so, um, well..." She trailed off, eyes widening as the pink shifted past the shade of her hair and well into the red tints.

Rainbow's jaw dropped down a little as she let out a quiet, "Whoa." My eyes felt like saucers before I rapidly looked away again, feeling the dull thud of my heartbeat in my ears as the blood firmly flooded into my head. Did she just insinuate what I thought she did?!

"Does that mean, uh, you're looking at Mender for, well, that in the future?" Rainbow asked, probably without even thinking about what she was saying.

Fluttershy looked beyond flustered, rocking back and forth between her left and right side rapidly. "Well, um, of course he'd make a good father! He's a very gentle and kind stallion and I um, really respect that. So uh, maybe?" she admitted finally, slamming her eyes shut afterwards and looking faint. She seemed to shrink down slightly as her legs buckled a little. My blush magnified and I suddenly felt light headed. I hadn't realized how serious she was, or how much she'd been thinking about it!

Dash was momentarily speechless. After several exceedingly awkward moments passed, she shook her head to clear it before recovering her trademark smirk. "Well, you surprised me, but I can't say that I wouldn't support the decision. I told you that I vouch for Mender," she reiterated.

"I am still here you know," I reminded, letting out a groan afterwards. Did she have to say all of these embarrassing things in my presence? I wasn't a hero by any means. All I did was react to what was thrown at me in the only way I could. I didn't want to, and certainly wish that somepony else would take care of it all, but if it had to be me, I wasn't about to let anypony I cared for get hurt because I abandoned my duties.

"Of course. It's all true, though! Hehehe!" she defended in an extremely mirthful tone, letting out a giggle after.

Fluttershy recovered slowly and smiled back at her friend, then up at me on Rainbow's back. "Well, what I said was true, too. I don't know what I'd do without either of you," she muttered, smile shifting from shy to warm slowly. Her soft blush remained, however.

Dash took it in stride, giving the pink-maned pegasus a soft hug with her left foreleg. "We love you, too, Fluttershy. We'll always be there for you, don't worry," she promised needlessly. That much was second nature for me. I smiled again and nodded in agreement. Rainbow suddenly froze for a moment while Fluttershy blushed and smiled widely. "Wait, I never did get to ask you for my favor that time I walked in on you and Twi making out!" the cyan mare suddenly remembered out loud, in a voice that Twilight herself back in Ponyville might have been able to hear.

Fluttershy let out a surprised yet embarrassed squeak, mane giving a little shiver as she almost lost control of her flight again. I would have slapped my forehead had it not required me to either punch or garrote the mare I was riding on.

"What?! It surprised me so much that I forgot. Can I ask you now?" she requested, looking a little miffed at our reactions.

"Yeah, you can ask. You didn't need to mention the making out thing, though. We were just kissing!" I defended profusely.

Fluttershy seemed to almost shrink more, pink shifting to a solid red color across her cheeks. "Oh. Oh my," she muttered quietly into her hooves covering her mouth.

"I could have sworn I saw tongue. Oh well," Dash debated to herself, smirking at me before continuing with, "Anyway, there's a race coming up soon to celebrate the end of fall, pegasus style. I really, really want your help for it!"

I tilted my head against her shoulder, unsure of exactly what assistance I could be in preparation for a race. Fluttershy peeked over her hooves at her friend, however, looking a little surprised. Still embarrassed, but it looked like she was getting distracted now, anyway.

"It's just the three of us. Is this about, um, Applejack?" she asked. No, it was more of a deduction than anything.

Rainbow smirked wider and nodded. "I totally want you to give me those nifty wings again!" she revealed excitedly, hopping back and forth on her hooves.

My surprise was impossible to contain, and I stared at her in shock before asking, "Wait, you want me to help you cheat?!"

Rainbow lost the smirk instantly, looking both shocked and offended without missing a beat. "What?! No way! I could win the race flying backwards with my wings tied. I need your super wings for a trick I want to pull off on the winner's circle," she rapidly corrected.

Fluttershy's comment suddenly hit home, and everything snapped together. "Your sky writing. You want to use the wings to pull off your message to Applejack after you win the race, because she'll be watching it," I suddenly realized out loud.

"Ha! Exactly! That's my egghead partner!" Dash acknowledged, grinning back at me over her shoulder as I glared.

Fluttershy gasped, however, gaining both our attentions at once. "Oh dear! But there are a lot of ponies there. Everypony at the race will see the message," she warned, sounding absolutely traumatized. Wow, she wasn't even involved and it freaked her out. Still, I couldn't help but find it adorable for some reason.

"Oh, please. I'm not afraid of them seeing it. I'm proud to be going after Applejack! She's totally worthy of being with the most awesome pegasus in Equestria," the boisterous cyan mare declared, slapping her right hoof off her chest and nodding as if punctuating the declaration with her chin.

The shy yellow pegasus shrank back a little, but shook her head. "I, um, meant Applejack. Do you think she'd want everypony knowing she might like other mares?" she asked quietly. Uh oh. I hadn't thought of that.

Rainbow looked momentarily taken aback. She hesitated, and then shook her head rapidly. "Well, of course not. Applejack's the strongest mare I know. She's not going to care if other ponies know about us or not!" she assured, sounding almost as if she herself was her target.

Red flags went off in my head. This seemed familiar. Oh yeah, it was something I'd probably assume; which meant it was probably an absolutely terrible idea! I opened my mouth to point this out when all three of us were interrupted by a rather sizable roar to our right, deeper off in the forest.

Fluttershy whipped around in the air, looking fearfully in that direction while my airlift jumped a good foot and a half in surprise.

"Oh, horseapples! I think that's our signal to get out of here!" Dash pointed out rapidly, taking to the air with a hard kick-start. Fluttershy nodded rapidly in agreement and started rising into the air, considerably faster than I had ever seen her move before. Well, there was something to be said about a healthy amount of motivation. Or was that unhealthy? Yeah, getting mauled and eaten by something rather large was definitely unhealthy.

Rainbow shot into the air faster still, managing to snag hold of her yellow and pink friend as she went. I was amazed at the sheer strength to the cyan pegasus' flying as she managed to not only lift me entirely off the ground without effort, but haul her friend through the air even higher without any noticeable strain.

Obviously not sticking around for ceremony, Rainbow got all three of us well into the clouds before I could even look back.

* * * * *

Peeking through the window yet again, I watched the spastic lavender mare pacing rapidly back and forth. Books were strewn here and there, most of them open and discarded where she finished with them. To my surprise, three larger log sections were displayed on stands around her work area; various stages of damage on each one. She seemed to be paying very little attention to them, however.

Normally, I'd contribute that to the other guest of the room; a certain pearly unicorn with curled purple mane and tail, but due to how animate Twilight was, I had a sneaking suspicion that Rarity was only trying to calm her down.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" I asked yet again, dropping down and turning to look at the two mares.

Rainbow was already to the door, but Fluttershy stopped and nodded back at me. "I think it's for the best. Um, if it's okay with you, of course, Dash and I will go in first to try to, well, calm her down a little," she offered quietly.

Why the hell would I say no to that?! Rarity hardly seemed to be having much luck, so let them go in and defuse the situation a little, or blunder in ahead of them and potentially be torn apart by telekinesis? Honestly, it wasn't much of a decision, barring any masochistic tendencies or suicidal urges I might be subconsciously hiding. I nodded rapidly and gestured them in, earning a giggle from the yellow mare.

Rainbow took the cue and opened the door gently, letting herself and Fluttershy inside the excessively large tree-building. I propped up against the wall again and peeked in the window, feeling incredibly similar to a stalker.

Twilight snapped to attention instantly, observing her friends with an almost calculated glare. I could have sworn I saw her eye twitch slightly, too. "You're back! Did you find him yet, Rainbow?! It's not easy to work like this. Not easy at all!" she asked instantly upon concluding her analytical observations. Actually, she sounded a little on the hysterical side. Rarity shook her head wearily and muttered something that was well outside of my ability to hear.

"Whoa, calm down, Twi! I just wanted to know if you made any progress on the identification thing? I also have to tell the pegasus teams what to look out for, if you remember," Dash interrupted, pointedly derailing the outburst.

Twilight stared at her with a rather anxious look for a few seconds before sighing and visibly exhaling slowly. "I'm worried like crazy, so it's kind of hard to focus. I finished the reconstruction of the print, though, but I hit a snag," she slowly replied, almost as if she had to keep a tight leash on her own thoughts.

"Oh? Uh, what is it, then? If I can ask, of course," Fluttershy requested politely, recovering from her stiff shock at her friend's first outburst.

"That's the snag. I've looked through every book I can think of and I can't find anything quite like this print. So I can only assume that I reconstructed it wrong and have been trying to correct and double check my results," the unicorn explained in a rather listless manner, suddenly looking extremely tired.

"Spending a large amount of time worrying over Mender certainly hasn't helped in that regard. Truly, I kept telling her that he's fully capable of taking care of himself," Rarity assured pleasantly, shifting her bangs out of her face with a soft gesture of her head.

Rainbow nodded grimly, but smiled a heartbeat later. "Well, if it will help your investigation, I suggest you relax a little bit more. Don't freak out on him or anything. We found Mender," she slowly revealed.

Here we go. I dropped down from the window and walked around the side of the building towards the door. Might as well get in place for when they called me in and Twilight undoubtedly blasted me to smithereens. I could still hear them surprisingly well, so it didn't matter too much. Twilight should really do something about soundproofing these walls.

There was a hesitation, and I could only imagine Twilight's face. Literally. "Wait, what?! Why didn't you say so sooner?" she demanded moments later.

"Um, we didn't want you getting worked up. We're really sorry. He's a little hurt, but mostly okay. Please don't be mad," I heard Fluttershy report in response. My ears picked up a light whistling noise, but I ignored it. Fluttershy was always so polite. I definitely liked that about her.

"But I've been so worried! Especially with the state of emergency being called by," she started protesting. The rest was washed out by that whistling noise from before. What the hell? Did somepony want my attention or something?

Looking to the right afforded me several realizations. It wasn't a whistle, but a squeal. Further, Pinkie Pie was arcing through the air at high velocity towards me and was now a meter or so from my exceedingly squishy body. Given just enough time to react, I did the most logical thing.

Letting out my best whimper, I cowered as the ball of pink energy that defied physics itself plowed me off the side of the steps. At this point, I was starting to rather enjoy that weightless sensation of drifting upside down after a large impact. It was a peaceful lull before the inevitable end. Oddly, that kind of fit my life, if I thought about it. Although it could be worse, I suppose. She could be a tiger: sharp pointy ends and all.

"I finally found you! I've been looking absolutely everywhere all day. Nopony told me that you had woken up and I really, really needed to find you. But then I was all walking back home from Sweet Apple Acres and saw you hiding in the bushes outside of Twilight's window. At first I thought that it was totally weird, but then I realized that it was you and I was looking for you. Then I sprinted over here and pounced you before you could get away again! But you already knew that. I'm going to invite you to a party! I have to!" the pink blur of fuzziness and distortion said while standing over my limp, newly broken form.

It all bled together and pooled into one long stream of something I couldn't exactly hear correctly, very similar to how the blood was probably pooling in my undoubtedly fractured skull now. Groaning, I shook my head rapidly in attempts to clear it and make sure she too wasn't a figment of my imagination, lest I be accused of insanity again.

There was a sharp intake of breath almost instantly upon me doing so. "No, no, no! You absolutely have to come. I cannot accept 'no' as an answer! It's a party just for you, any way you want it," she protested, seemingly taking my head shaking as a negative answer.

"W-What?" I managed to stutter out between the throbs my head was giving off, tacking on slowly, "I um, don't even know what you're talking about. Pinkie?" I winced momentarily as I shifted a rather sizable rock out from under my head. This was proving to be a fun day already, and I'd only been awake for a few hours! Well, at least the pain wasn't my fault this time. I was seriously starting to consider admitting myself permanently to a medical facility for the remainder of my undoubtedly short life.

"Of course it's me, Silly! That's my name! I absolutely must throw you an 'I'm really sorry for accidentally poisoning you and almost killing you, but thankfully you're better now' party! I feel super duper bad and really, really need to make it up to you!" she announced in another burst of hyper, almost hysterical ranting. Her eyes got bigger and bigger the longer she talked, her face getting closer and closer to mine until she was glaring directly into my eyes. If I'd been lucid and not likely internally bleeding, I might have been considerably more freaked out and frightened than I currently was.

"Pinkie? What are you doing?" I suddenly heard Rainbow ask. She must have come to investigate either the loud noise of my squishy impact, or my seeming absence from the doorstep. Salvation!

Pinkie squeaked and hopped off me, bouncing around my fallen form like some violent, pre-culturally revolutionized tribal member would around their fallen prey as I cooked over a fire. "I found him out here and really had to invite him to my 'I'm really sorry for accidentally poisoning you and almost killing you, but thankfully you're better now' party! It's urgent!" she explained rapidly, skidding to a halt somewhere near my fallen tail.

I heard hoofsteps and managed to glance over dizzily at the cyan pegasus as she approached. "Um, it kind of looks like you squished him a little. Are you sure he's okay?" she questioned wearily, giving me a visual once-over.

"Of course! He's Mender; practically impossible to keep down!" the pink one assured, giving my back, right leg a solid whack with her hoof.

Oh hell! I still felt things! Giving a yelp of intense agony, I curled over and tucked my poor, mangled leg up, intensifying the shield around it to try to protect it from any further torture. "Pinkie! That was the exact leg he injured..." Dash chewed out, honestly sounding slightly impressed. Either she was surprised I was still conscious, or shocked that Pinkie had managed to select exactly the right leg to hit to get the most reaction out of me.

"Whoopsy! I'll add '... and hurting your leg' onto the party title!" Pinkie assured in a way only she could.

Rainbow rolled her eyes before sarcastically asking, "Sure it will all fit?"

"Better than trying to fit all the injuries you've given him on a banner," Twilight reminded as she walked up next to the now glaring cyan mare. My breathing snagged in a flurry of emotions and I forced myself to look away from the lavender mare. I momentarily saw a look of surprise drift into her expression before doing so.

"Oh dear. Is he okay?" Fluttershy practically whispered as she drifted over and landed next to me, between the now guilty looking Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash. Glancing over towards her, I managed a gentle smile. She returned it instantly and fluttered closer, carefully drawing my leg back out from under me with a soft hoof motion. I had a fair amount of trust in her and allowed her to pull the leg out and examine it, which gave her an odd, dancing energy in her eyes, almost. I had no idea what the mare was thinking.

Of course, during the whole time I spent gawking at Fluttershy, I totally failed to notice Rarity slip up next to Dash. When I glanced back at the prismatic pony, I started a little when I finally noticed the newcomer. There was a long moment where I stared at her, and she stared back at me with increasingly widening eyes. It was more than a little creepy, and I started edging backwards from her timidly.

"Uh, is there, um, something wrong?" I inquired, doing my best Fluttershy impression.

To my surprise, Pinkie let out a sharp yet excited gasp instead. "Oh my gosh! You have a Cutie Mark!" she squealed instantly thereafter.

"Wait, what?!" Twilight asked, snapping out of her seeming stupor just in time to notice as well.

Rarity interrupted all of us before I could be fatally molested by the pink one, regardless. She rapidly stomped her front hooves back and forth on the dirt in front of me, momentarily freaking out as she glared in what could only be described as unadulterated horror. "Forget the Cutie Mark for now! This is an absolute fashion disaster! This simply must be fixed, stat!" she declared zealously, glaring at my flank.

Glancing backwards, I noticed that my fur was indeed still missing in large stripes along my back, flanks, and butt. Oh. Well it did indeed look kind of strange, but I'd hardly call it...

I was enveloped in a blue aura before I even finished the thought and violently hauled into the air, a flustered and fussing Fluttershy following, wings flapping rapidly. "Rarity! He needs medical attention first," she tried to protest.

"Nonsense! It will not do to have him be treated for such a superficial injury while looking like that. Inexcusable. Thankfully, I have just the thing at home to fix this terrible, terrible catastrophe," she assured vehemently, making me dizzy as she punctuated each point of her reply with a dip in her telekinesis. Oh crap. This day was about to get a lot worse, I had a sneaking suspicion.

"I'll heal him once we get there," Twilight interrupted gently, glancing up at Fluttershy as she trotted after the quickly moving white unicorn.

Rainbow let out a low snickering, a large grin adorning her face as she muttered, "Oh, this I gotta see. You coming, Pinks?"

Pinkie gave an enthusiastic nod, seemingly recovering her spunky, happy go lucky demeanor before bouncing after the small group of ponies now violently escorting me to my probable doom. At least it wasn't apples or frogs...

Chapter 13

Well, I was definitely right about one thing. The day seemed to be destined to get worse and worse. Still, I tried to stay positive about things. I was in desperate need of a bath, so being forced into one was at least covering that aspect. The smells assaulted my poor nose from every conceivable angle, of course. They were deeply root smelling, but with a sharp, acidic after smell. Was that the proper term for that light stinging sensation that one frequently got after sniffing something? Well, I digress.

The nature of the smell did absolutely nothing for the color and texture of the probable gallons of stuff Rarity dumped into the hot water in the middle of her seeming mental breakdown. A thick lather, pink bubbles and all, was drifting well up to my jaw at this point. Due to how slippery it was making my coat, I was having difficulty keeping my head above water at this angle. She was still fidgeting sporadically while zipping here and there in her bathroom around me, looking at labels and various other bottles of all shapes and sizes. I wasn't sure of the norms of society, but this seemed a little on the psychotic side. Still, she was generous enough to attempt to make me look nice at no charge whatsoever, so I really didn't have room to complain. Much. It still seemed like she was more doing this for herself than me.

"I know that the stuff is here somewhere! I'd just gotten an extra-large supply from Zecora. It simply must be found! This is an emergency," Rarity declared as she sped around the bathroom.

The gentle tugging at my back, right leg continued as she talked. I was positioned in a very unnatural manner, almost on my side with my leg sticking out over the side of the tub. This was all to give Twilight as easy access as possible, of course. Fluttershy at least was sympathetic and rested at the head of the tub with her forelegs wrapped around my chest, gently supporting my head and neck above the soap bubbles. I gave her another warm, thankful smile while further hoping that this stuff didn't dye me pink. Thinking about it more, I decided it would also be bad if it made the fur along my butt grow back pink as well.

"So this is a potion? Are you sure it's safe, Rarity?" Twilight questioned somewhere near my injured leg. The gentle massage of heated, magical warmth didn't miss a beat, even though she wasn't exactly concentrating. I was more than a little impressed, honestly. Sure, I could do more precise maneuvers, but she was way more practiced than I was. Oh, and obviously considerably more powerful. Was I allowed to be impressed and irritated at somepony at the same time?

Rarity waived her concerns with a gentle, nonchalant hoof motion. "It's more of a, how do we say, tonic than a crude potion. It simply stimulates hair re-growth in the most natural way possible. There's truly nothing to concern yourself with," the pearly white unicorn assured confidently. I idly wondered how many last words included that last part in the history of, well, everything. I started mentally preparing myself for a horrible, hair-induced demise.

"I dunno. Pink really suits you, Mender. Are you sure we can't make it grow back pink?" Rainbow asked once more, snickering from her position near the end of the tub, across from Twilight.

Sneezing lightly after inhaling an offensive soap bubble, I finally cleared enough of the froth to speak. "For the last time, no! I don't need pink stripes on my butt," I groaned out. This was exactly why I was concerned.

Rainbow started snickering even harder, but Pinkie let out a sharp gasp. "Hey! Is there something wrong with pink?! I know it might be kind of hard to tell, but I happen to really like pink and take offense to that! Think of its feelings!" Pinkie berated loudly from my right, leaning over the side of the shiny, white tub and giving me her standard, bulging glare. Wait, was she being sarcastic about the pink thing? Deciding I couldn't tell, I figured that considering the color having feelings was probably even more absurd, making the whole thought process a moot point. Damn it. I hate it when I do that.

"Weren't you supposed to be apologetic and supportive of him, Pinkie? We needn't add potential drowning and, even worse, fashion crime to your party banner," Rarity reminded gently, calming down visibly upon pulling a rather large keg of something out from under her sink with her magic. Uh, what was that? Wait, bad fashion was worse than death?

Pinkie's eyes went from buggy to nervous as she blinked a few times before releasing an airy giggle. She then tactically retreated out of my field of vision, leaving me even further confused. Of course, it could just be lasting effects from the fresh head trauma.

Rarity distracted me by hauling the keg over to the side of the tub. She then distracted herself by frowning and looking down at me, barely sticking out of the pink bubble ocean. "Although she does have a point. Pink goes very well with blue, and compliments you well. Perhaps you should consider it?" the seamstress reasoned, smiling at me.

I gave her a rather deadpan stare, and she giggled merrily. "Really now. You males shouldn't be nearly so concerned about colors. I mean, really. Pink is a perfectly acceptable color and compliments many things. I see no reason to rule it out because of some brash stereotype that it adversely affects your masculinity. Haven't we progressed past that as a," she started lecturing, causing me to sink into the water a little. It wasn't that I myself didn't like the color. It was more a matter of what other ponies might do to me if I did add it to my wardrobe. I was runty enough already. Of course, there weren't a whole lot of males in town to mock the choice anyway.

"Um, I don't mean to interrupt. Please don't be mad! The bath water is getting a little cool. May it be reheated?" Fluttershy asked carefully in her typical timid fashion.

Rarity hardly looked offended, not that I thought she would be. She gave her timid friend a warm smile, but shook her head. "It shouldn't be necessary, although you're a very kind to be looking over him so well. He should be thoroughly clean now and ready for the application of the tonic," she explained, giving the intimidating looking keg next to her a soft pat.

"I'm pretty much done with his leg, so it should be perfectly fine for him to stand now," Twilight reported, backing off my leg and sitting up again, suddenly reentering my view.

She glanced over at me at the same time I turned to her. We locked eyes and I couldn't turn away suddenly. She seemed conflicted, then seemed to have the same problem as her eyes softened further while watching me. She was acting nice now to me, but I was still a little irritated over her not even considering my proposal. If there really was danger, wasn't it better to be cautious? Still...

"Thank you for healing my leg, Twilight," I finally managed to get out. Her eyes widened almost imperceptibly for a moment, but then softened with an accompanied smile.

Rarity, of course, took that moment to distract me. "Okay then, Mender. Stand up and I'll start gently pouring this stuff on and applying it to the, um, disaster zones with my magic. Hold still while I do, Mender," she instructed politely, giving me a warm nod.

I nodded in understanding as I struggled back onto my stomach. A light test of my leg told me that the lavender unicorn indeed knew exactly what she was doing, and had restored my limb to full working condition. I breathed a sigh of relief and shakily stood up in the bath, letting the pink foam drain off my back as I did so.

"Perfect! Okay, I'm going to start applying it now. Do hold still," the white unicorn instructed, lifting the keg into the air above me. Slight apprehension drifted into my system, but I held it at bay. Just because the last potion, er, tonic from Zecora had ended in utter disaster, didn't mean this one was going to. Right?

Fluttershy gave me an assuring nod, but I heard more giggles from behind me. "You look like a wet rat. I wish I could get a picture," Dash pointed out in an oh so loving fashion. Pinkie clamped both hooves over her muzzle, but I could see the barely restrained grin under them as I glared back at her cyan friend.

All thoughts were interrupted as the cold slime hit my back. "Ah! That stuff is really cold!" I whined, shivering slightly despite my attempts to stay still.

"Oh, you poor thing. You just got out of the warm water, too! I'm sorry," Fluttershy cooed softly, looking extremely sympathetic as she sat up in front of me. "Here, this might warm you up a little."

Before I could even react, she leaned forward and buried my entire face in the crook of her neck, against her left shoulder. Warm, buttercup yellow fur flooded my vision, accompanied by a gentle flowery smell that was absolutely delightful. She herself pushed her muzzle into the mirrored location on me, folding her left wing over my head and ears. Well, she was right about it warming me up. I rapidly felt the blood flood into my cheeks as her mane shadowed out the ceiling light as well.

"Is, um, is it helping?" she asked timidly, a few seconds later. Being pretty much rendered mute and paralyzed, I barely managed a nod of affirmation. Suddenly I was really happy I was facing away from Twilight. She was probably giving my flanks a death glare now. A bit paradoxical, but I'd given up trying to figure the mare out. Females were confusing.

Thankfully the gel stuff started to rapidly warm up. Was there some sort of heating agent in it? "Oh, actually, it's getting nice and warm now. That feels kind of good," I informed quietly. It was a fully welcome, yet very much new sensation to feel Fluttershy smile against my neck. Although I was starting to feel a little guilty. I definitely didn't want to hurt Twilight's feelings.

"Is it supposed to get warm, Rarity?" the aforementioned lavender unicorn asked, sounding intrigued. Well, curious meant Twilight wasn't angry. I'd never seen her both angry and curious at the same time!

"I'm actually not sure. I've never had to use this new formula yet," Rarity returned, sounding interested. The gel got even warmer, and I wondered if it was supposed to compliment some sort of massage technique or similar. Rarity seemed to like that sort of thing, so she probably was interested in using it on herself later, I guessed.

The only problem was that it didn't stop heating up. I frowned as it started to get a little on the uncomfortable side, and questioned, "Uh, is it supposed to stop heating up at some point?"

"What do you mean?" Twilight questioned with a slightly confused sounding inflection behind me.

"Well, uh," I started to voice, when my nose picked up an odd smell. Something was burning. The heat along my back magnified, and I finally risked a glance backwards, apparently just in time to see a light smoke start to come up off my fur. Oh. I was burning.

My voice devolved into panicked whimpering as I locked up, completely unsure of what to do. "Water! Wash it off!" I managed to yelp, not wanting to leap out of the tub and spray the stuff all over my friends. Oh, and Rarity's floor. She'd probably murder me out of principle.

Twilight looked surprised and started to open her mouth, horn lighting up. Pinkie beat everypony to the punch, however, yelling out "I know!" before violently kicking the side of the tub with both of her back hooves. Oh crap.

Rarity barely managed to leap out of the way, and Fluttershy made a panicked squeak as I was torn sideways with the tipping of the tub. I hit the bathroom floor first, and was washed over momentarily by the soapy water before the tub flipped completely and landed on top of me. Unfortunately, Pinkie's violent kick had ensured that a great deal of water was still in the tub, and the slow leak around the edges of the tub and floor didn't prevent me from suddenly finding myself submerged in the water.

The soap burned into my eyes instantly, causing a garbled scream as I slammed them shut in pain. Screaming underwater isn't the most effective. That's when I realized that the soap in the water was what was reacting to the tonic Rarity had put on me. The water started to heat up as well, bringing back a familiar sizzling sensation along all of my skin this time. Damn it.

"Pinkie!" I heard both Rainbow and Rarity scream in an echoed fashion outside of my prison of agony. Rainbow?

The tub was kicked off me a second later, allowing the water to release instantly across the entirety of the bathroom floor. I gasped for air, unable to see anything at all. The smells of burning fur and now identified acid hit my nose along with the sizzling sound. I heard somepony slam the bathroom window open a second later. My guesses were on Twilight, who probably realized the fumes were potentially poisonous.

"Horse apples! Hang on, Mender!" Dash shouted from practically on top of me, it sounded like. Two hooves latched onto my sides and I was yanked backwards, giving a yelp. We hit open air suddenly, and I felt the breeze of outside along my burning skin.

Then both of us landed in water, somehow.

* * * * *

That was how I became furless. At least I'm told that I have no fur. Rarity sounded hysterical when she had told me, so it was probably true. Although she could also be upset over her probably badly burned, stained bathroom floor. Both probably caused that reaction, I decided.

"Ugh, hold still, Mender. I'm trying to fix your skin," Twilight reminded nonchalantly. Considering it was my skin and I very much felt it, I didn't think the reminder was needed. Still, her regenerative magic didn't exactly feel like a massage this time around.

"I'm so going to need a bigger banner," Pinkie groaned from somewhere to my left.

Rarity gave a weary sigh in front of me, but a few meters away. I think we were in her living room, although I only had their word for it. "I'm going to need a new bathroom floor after this. Zecora could have warned me that the new formula doesn't get along with conditioner well," the white unicorn complained.

"Relax. I'm going to need new hooves after this! They're still orange," Dash griped from behind me, sounding closer than she was in the bathroom.

A sting of sympathy went through me in that regard. "Thank you again, Rainbow," I muttered quietly, not bothering to move my head. It wasn't like I knew exactly where she was anyway. Looking in the wrong direction was liable to be embarrassing.

There was a definite pause before a light sigh sounded out. "I wasn't gonna let you just lie there, burning. We're both lucky the rain barrel was right outside," she returned, sounding somber.

"I thank you as well, Rainbow. That was very brave. You could have been hurt by the acid as well," Twilight chimed in, seemingly finishing my lower back and moving on to my flanks. At least I assumed she had finished it, as I could feel something apart from agony from the area, now.

"Aww, stop it. No need to get all mushy on me," the cyan mare groaned, sounding embarrassed. I smirked lightly as I could almost feel her blush from here. Then I realized that Twilight thanked her for saving me. Twilight was slowly getting past what happened, it felt like.

Pinkie let out another whine again, adding, "I'm going to throw both of you a really awesome party after this! I really don't like hurting my friends."

"You had the best of intentions, dear. You simply didn't know the soap was what was causing it. You shouldn't be so hard on yourself," Rarity assured warmly.

As much as I wished it hadn't happened in the first place, I had to nod in agreement. "She's right, Pinkie. You didn't know," I tacked on, ignoring the subtle stinging sensation.

Something warm and with actual fur hugged me around the neck as I rested on my stomach. "You're just too nice, Mender! I promise that I'm going to really make this up to you," Pinkie insisted from a few inches away. I was cold without fur, so I wasn't about to protest her hugging me. That and I was more than a little fond of the pink mare. She really grew on me after awhile, even if she was a little on the hyper and clumsy side.

"Mmm, you're warm," I muttered quietly and in a raspy tone, having not realized exactly how nice it was to have fur. My throat gave its complaints at my use, but I hardly cared. There was a momentary pause and I felt the pony hugging me tense slightly. I let out a tiny shiver as she withdrew slightly, the cold air silently assaulting my now hyper-sensitive skin.

A light giggle, starting to sound like Pinkie as she got back to normal again. "Oh, without your fur, you're cold! Poor little guy," she swooned playfully. I couldn't argue with her, despite how the adjectives were vaguely undesirable. It must be hardwired into the male brain to dislike the word 'little', I realized.

"Rainbow! We need to warm Mender up. Wanna help with your big, soft wings?" the mare asked a second later, leaning back down and holding my head again.

"Aww, why can't Fluttershy-" Rainbow started, before hesitating and grinding to a halt before continuing, "Oh yeah, she left. Ugh. I guess I can, but it's kinda mushy."

A soft, familiar feeling body rested into my back hesitantly a moment late. That was far faster than it should have taken Rainbow to get over to me, however. There was an almost tactile silence as the soft, warm fur slipped up my back and ended in two legs gently wrapping around my chest. The sensation felt familiar, somehow.

"Whoa, Twilight?" Pinkie asked hesitantly after several awkward moments passed. Twilight?! I tensed up and tried to look behind me, before realizing how stupid that was.

A pause. "Yes, Pinkie?" the lavender unicorn in question asked from directly next to my ear. Oh dear. It was indeed Twilight who was residing on my back. Mixed emotions assaulted me, but she was oh so warm and soft.

"Weren't you two mad at each other? But now you're holding him!" the pink one pointed out in an extremely obvious yet self-aware manner. How she said it so we knew she was aware that it was obvious, I have no idea.

A gentle cough sounded from behind Pinkie, followed by, "That is an extremely blunt question, Pinkie. Perhaps we shouldn't pry? Although certainly, if you require our aid to talk things out, we'll obviously be here for you." Rarity sounded thoughtful, but more than a little curious as well. I recalled that she did love to gossip, but doubted she'd let it overwhelm her sense of propriety.

"I'm surprised she doesn't mind that he's all furless and diced up. With all of those scars, it looks like he got stuck in a blender," Rainbow chipped in, adding a light snicker after.

"Rainbow! That's a little rude. I don't mind what he looks like. He'll always be Mender to me," Twilight defended, and I felt her hooves hook together under my chest, letting her squeeze me lightly from above.

A light warmth shot through me, and I felt the telltale heat drifting into my cheeks. Pinkie started giggling merrily, and I realized that my blush was probably quite a bit more pronounced without any fur to hide it.

"Oh, that's very noble of you, Twilight. I happen to agree as well. It doesn't hurt that scars are somewhat appealing to me, though. Each one says something about the pony they belong to, telling a strong history," Rarity agreed in her usual sophistication, but sounding a little strange. There was something to her tone that I couldn't place.

"Yeah! Scars mean you're super tough and have lived through lots. They're kinda sexy, right Dashie?" Pinkie asked, causing me to blush even more.

This conversation, regardless of my taking part in it in the first place, was getting more than a little embarrassing. Rainbow let out an awkward sounding, "Mmph" noise, and then remained silent.

"Oooh, she thinks so too!" Pinkie cooed, sounding a little more pleased than she should, probably.

"Pinkie!" Dash berated, sounding a little annoyed this time.

It didn't matter as the conversation was thankfully interrupted before it could spiral out of control. A light squeaking noise, sounding remarkably like a certain timid pegasus I knew, sounded throughout my head as I heard a door open up. "I'm back. I have the two ointments, Twilight," Fluttershy announced from somewhere far behind me, sounding a little flustered. Probably the main entrance, if I remembered what the inside of the building looked like still. There was that strange sensation again. Focusing a little harder this time, I suddenly saw the faint image of an almost spilt bag of supplies and a buttercup yellow hoof extending out quickly to catch them, just in time. What was that?!

"I, um, think I got everything. Hard and soft tissue treatment for both hooves and eyes, skin salve, throat syrup, and stain cleaner. Uh, for Rarity's bathroom of course. I hope it helps," the timid yellow pegasus informed, landing somewhere near me. I decided that yet again, this wasn't the best place to ask her about the effect.

"Oh, you're a lifesaver, dear! I'll save the bathroom for later. Mender and Rainbow are the highest priority right now," Rarity decreed.

Twilight nodded against me, gently explaining, “It would be a good idea to let the fumes clear out up there anyway. I’m not sure what they’d do to a pony if breathed in.” Oh, acid. I forgot about that. Actually, I was kind of lucky it wasn’t any more potent than it turned out to be.

"It's just my hooves. Take care of Mender first. He hurts, can barely talk, and is blind as a bat," Rainbow requested gently as I heard Fluttershy start to unpack things next to my head.

Fluttershy let out a soft giggle next to me that was extremely pleasing to the ears before commenting, "That's very kind of you, Rainbow. Still, getting yours set up while Mender's eyes heal won't be any trouble at all. You just need to soak your hooves in this stuff."

Fluttershy always had everypony’s best interest in mind. She was so sweet like that. Although my anger was fading now and I was starting to also remember why I liked Twilight as well. Even though she could freak out big time and be a little unreasonable, she still cared deeply for her friends.

"Mmm, take your time. He makes a decent pillow," Twilight murmured lazily right into my ear. I smirked. Of course, her caustic wit at this point was something of an endearment. She's grown on me, and we really do share a lot in common.

"Is that what they call it now?" Rainbow teased, confusing me a little. Call what now?

Twilight groaned and, in lieu of answering, buried her face into the nape of my neck. I blushed lightly but didn't move, simply letting her rest there. I heard movement in front of me at the same time. Pinkie's skin contact left and was replaced by nothing but the chilly air. I didn't have to wait long however, before somepony started gently removing the wrap around my eyes. A soft, flowery scent wafted into my nose and I smiled. "Fluttershy," I whispered, voice unable to go much higher due to increased pain.

"Oh!" she spoke, sounding startled before asking, "How did you know it was me?"

Pinkie gasped almost instantly before I could so much as think, questioning, "Did you get your sight back? Can you see what I'm doing?!" I then heard the distinct sound of her tongue sticking out, as if she were at the doctor's office or something.

"Pinkie, his eyes are closed," Fluttershy pointed out weakly, probably not being heard over Pinkie's ridiculous 'Ah!' sound.

"She's sticking her tongue out. Oh, and you're the only one who smells like fresh cut flowers," I explained simply, still smiling.

"Oh, um, I see," Fluttershy whispered quietly, pausing again in the removal of my bandages. I didn't need to see to guess fairly accurately that she was blushing. Even just in my imagination, it was adorable! I smiled wider as she stopped.

"You're such a sweet talker. The most charming part is, I don't suspect that you're aware of it," Twilight mumbled into my ear, earning a giggle from Fluttershy. Wait, sweet talker? Wasn't that somepony who uses false praise to get something? But Fluttershy really did smell like flowers! It wasn't like I was lying.

"He's just honest, dear. Possibly too honest for his own good, in some cases. I'm honestly surprised Applejack hit it off the worst with him," Rarity continued as Fluttershy took my eye wrappings off. Blotches of light greeted me through my yet closed eyelids. I knew that it was significantly less than what it should be given Rarity's well-lit rooms.

A quiet, yet sharp intake sounded from the mare right in front of me. I swallowed wearily. There was no feeling coming from my eyes, and I felt them almost glued shut by something. They probably didn't look all that healthy. I felt for Fluttershy. She was such a gentle soul, but she had to see some truly terrible injuries. The only reason I could see for her having the medicine in the first place is that she's had to deal with this in her animals before.

"It's not good. The medicine will numb them and help heal, but without magic..." Fluttershy assessed softly. I felt a warm hoof brush along my left temple, probably cleaning the skin a little.

Twilight leaned forwards on me and let out a giggle. "That's what I'm here for, Fluttershy. It's okay. I'm sure he'll recover fully," she assured gently. More for Fluttershy than myself, it sounded. There was no direct reply. She probably nodded or something. Regardless, I felt her tilt my head up and simply let her do whatever.

"This might hurt, but I need you to open your eyes to get the medicine in them. The liquid will make them feel better, so it will only hurt for a couple seconds. I'm sorry..." Fluttershy requested timidly.

"I understand," I managed to rasp out before gathering my legs under me. I didn't want to accidentally hit anypony if I jerked. Not that I was looking forward to the pain, but some things are just unavoidable.

Gritting my teeth together as firmly as I could, I yanked open my eyes with as much speed as I could muster. The blotches of light immediately shifted to blotches of color. After that, all I saw was agony. I didn't even know one could see agony! My breathing snagged on the intake, making me dizzy when combined with the twin spears of pain that just smashed into my skull. The distinctive metallic taste drifted at the corners of my tongue at the same time that all the blood seemingly drained out of my head.

Then Fluttershy hit me with the medicine. At first, all it did was make me give a raspy yelp and flinch away. Mere seconds later, however, it just stopped. The pain vanished possibly faster than it arrived. Then I realized that I actually couldn't feel my eyes at all. It was an exceedingly strange sensation, beaten only by the fact that I still could only see splotches of color, even though I knew my eyes were open.

"Does it hurt now? I can put more in if you need it!" Fluttershy quickly offered, gently shifting me back into a lying position. After a momentary assessment, I decided that I actually couldn't feel a majority of my face, and shook my head softly to decline her offer.

"I'll take over then, Fluttershy. Give him a little of the throat medicine, then help Rainbow?" Twilight suggested gently, probably more to assure her that I didn't need any more of the eye stuff. Twilight shifted in front of me then and switched with Fluttershy, from what I could feel.

I was distracted shortly thereafter by a warm cup being pressed to my lip. A thermos? “I mixed it up while I was there. It’s best when mixed in tea, I discovered. Oh, um, if you don’t like tea, I can go back home and mix it into something else, of course! It’s just what I use for sore throats when I’m not feeling well and, um…” the shy pegasus started to explain before trailing off.

I gave her my best warm smile before shaking my head and accepting the cup. It was surprisingly good, I decided after a few sips. I'd never had much tea before, but she could definitely give Rarity's a run for her bits. It was smooth and had a light minty aftertaste that covered up the normally bitter tang. If there was medicine in it, I certainly couldn't taste it. Moments later, I realized further that there was indeed medicine in it, as my throat went pleasantly numb.

My expression must have been that of happiness, as Fluttershy let out a pleased squeak a moment later. I smiled again and nodded to the yellow mare. "That will help numb your throat, and contains a healing mixture to repair. Zecora is really good at making potions, despite, um, your bad experiences. Please don't be upset with her," she timidly requested.

"Yeah! It was totally my fault that you got too much truth serum. Oh, and got coated in acid. Oh yeah, and the kicking your leg thing. I'm gonna need a bigger banner!" the energetic pink one suddenly declared, sounding as if making a mental note to herself. Oddly, even when sounding guilty, she didn't lose a drop of her normal energy. It kind of made me wonder when and how she actually recovered it all. Did she go home at night and crash in the most epic fashion I could ever witness? There was indeed something to be said about giving your all to everything, if so. It was a little depressing if you thought too hard about it. Kind of like my battalion's motto that I vaguely remembered. Translated, it was something akin to 'Live Free, Die Hard', if I recalled correctly. Although fairly accurate, as we were dumped on the front lines most of the time, if my most recent flashback was to be believed.

The sudden magical current running through the front of my face snapped me out of my dour mental monologue almost instantly, thankfully. I blinked with neither sight nor feeling, a little concerned for what was happening. I assumed Twilight was the cause of the sudden, strange sensation, but then I remembered what usually happened when I assumed something. Thankfully, she explained it shortly after beginning.

"I've never healed something as fragile or complex as eyes before, so I don't trust myself to do it properly the first time. Instead, I'm relying on the slow regeneration the potion Fluttershy gave you bestows, and then accelerating the process," the amazingly brilliant unicorn explained. Well, she'd deny that herself, probably, but I certainly thought so. It really meant something that she wasn't willing to reduce me to an experiment when it really mattered. What Dash had said earlier came to mind again. She really did seem to honestly care for me, even if both of us sometimes forget that. I suppose fights are inevitable, even in the best of relationships. Which means we should expect a lot of them.

Rainbow snickered immediately. "Wow. You just said something that I actually could follow this time," she praised, with no small hinting of sarcasm.

Pinkie giggled at the undertones before asking, "But he'll be super duper fine after this, right? He'll get his sight back? Seeing things is important!" There was the slightest hinting of hysteria at the back of her voice, which was actually kind of disturbing the longer I thought about it. I couldn't imagine Pinkie being serious to any degree without involving the destruction of the world, or something of similar effect.

"Well, in theory. Restoration of chemical burns to tender skin has been done before, but I don't recall any cases where the eyes were involved. So far, the only notable cases involved horns, noses, a few examples of wing tissue, and in one unfortunate event, male genitalia." Twilight paused there, and I felt a shudder in her magical current that oddly matched the one going down my spine. I didn't even want to know how that happened.

Pinkie continued, oblivious of course. "So it will work on his eyes?!" she asked again, a little more frantically this time.

Twilight sighed and focused more energy into my skull. I hope I didn't get some sort of magical brain tumor or something. "I don't know, Pinkie. It should and has a high probability of working, but it's never been done before," she reiterated.

"Relax, Pinks. Mender's one tough stallion. He'll be fine," Rainbow assured calmly, expressing a great deal of faith in me yet again. Well, she was definitely living up to her reputation. I'd never had somepony show such loyalty and faith in me. Well, to my knowledge anyway. I couldn't help but blush a little, somewhat unsure of how to handle such an expression.

"Okay, Rainbow, here you go," Fluttershy suddenly whispered from a little ways behind me and to the left. Whoa! I hadn't even realized that she left. I guess there were perks to being quiet all the time. She'd make a wicked assassin. A heartbeat went by, then I reconsidered. No, she'd probably be the worst assassin in the universe. Followed very closely by myself. She'd decide to rehabilitate the target until they were a functioning member of society again, and I'd trip and fall on my weapon during my first mission.

"Uh, and all I have to do is put my hooves in this? I really don't like my hooves touched!" Rainbow inquired, sounding a bit flustered. I was intrigued, but decided against saying anything. As defenseless as I was at the moment, tempting fate just seemed extra stupid in this case. I can't make it too easy.

"I'm sure, Rainbow. This will heal the outer layer of your hooves that got burned, turning them the odd color," Fluttershy explained. It suddenly dawned on me that the timid yellow pegasus actually knew quite a bit about medicine and treating injuries. She explained things simply, however, so far showing no need to boast about the knowledge. I made a mental note to hopefully remember to ask her about her knowledge later.

Idly, I wondered what Rarity and Pinkie were doing while I waited. I picked up snickering and a few whispers, but it seemingly moved to the other room. Her kitchen, if I recall? Knowing Rarity, they were gossiping or something. Ah well. The constant current of magic running through my face and head was starting to actually get a little relaxing, and I felt myself slowly getting sleepier and sleepier. It had been a long day, seeming as if the day before just bled into it in one long jumble. I doubted that the sleep I got last night was all that restful, if I was truly asleep in the first place. Coma, came to mind instead.

A light humming noise from Twilight snapped me out of it. Instinctively, I looked up at her before remembering that I couldn’t see. Then I surprised the hell out of myself by seeing a fuzzy, lavender blur instead of almost nothing. “This is strange. It was supposed to speed up the recovery, but this is almost too fast. Plus the effected zones of the tonic are far too spread out to be standard deviation,” the unicorn muttered, almost to herself as I saw her lean in for closer examination, the purple, fuzzy glow from her horn flaring up.

“That wasn’t in the other cases?” I asked quietly, voice already feeling better from the medicine. Of course, the other cases probably didn’t involve an extradimensional traveler. I really don’t like to consider it, but I’m probably a fairly unique case in Equestria. I think.

She smiled, but shook her head. “Not exactly. I mean, the magical healing mixes well with the potion effects, but this is almost as if your eyes are taking advantage of the potion effects themselves and forcing the recovery even faster. They’re reacting very strangely.”

“Maybe because I’m not originally from Equestria?” I suggested, delighted in the fact that I could see her now when I looked up.

“It could be that your genetic makeup is different from ours, although this seems almost intentional on your body’s part. I take it you can see me again, as your pupils are tracking my motions?” she observed, peeking down at me again.

I smiled wider and nodded. Hers became a grin, and then she surprised me by looking around carefully, to each side of herself. I glanced about too, wondering what she was looking for. Fluttershy was to my right now, smiling gently at me as well. Dash was close to her, looking back and forth between myself and her hooves that were stuck in a small, purple tub in front of her. That was undoubtedly the mixture Fluttershy brought. Seemingly nothing out of the ordinary in the situation that Twilight would be interested in, I decided. Well, nothing out of the ordinary apart from the various injuries we all had.

Then I realized what Twilight was looking for when she nodded to herself and leaned down further. Oh, she was looking for observers. Specific observers it would seem. There was no further time for realizations before she lightly kissed me directly on the muzzle, pushing against me warmly but not forcefully. What had I done to deserve this?!

“I’m glad you’re back as well,” she whispered, a few seconds later upon breaking the kiss. “Please don’t run away again?” Fluttershy now sported a light blush, and Dash was grinning at us. I smiled softly up at her, noticing a warm blush similar to the one I felt on my own cheeks.

“Are Mender’s eyes about done, if I may ask?” Rarity inquired, sounding as if she was a mere few feet behind Twilight. Twilight leapt back and away as if burned, blush magnifying a few fold.

It took her a few tries, but she nodded rapidly. “He’s definitely healing up. Uh, yeah, totally healing up nicely!” she assured, a little too abruptly for her own good.

The white unicorn gave her a slightly skeptical glance, but nodded politely, seemingly deciding not to ask about it. “Well, regardless, I have retrieved the hair regrowth tonic from upstairs. The bathroom isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be, but I’d like to treat Mender’s condition first. He simply can’t go outside like he is!” Rarity declared, looking a little frightening again. I shrank down slightly, but reminded myself that Twilight would stop her short of killing me. I hoped.

“Relax, Mender. You’re thoroughly cleansed of the soap that caused it before. It should work perfectly fine this time," Twilight assured, blush finally fading a little bit.

Looking back over at Rarity, I saw that she was already putting away the vile jug again. Even though it was a little fuzzy still, I could tell that smell from anywhere now that it was thoroughly engrained in my memory. Sighing, I realized that I wasn't going to be given a choice in the matter.

Rainbow's snickering sent a pulse of irritation down my back. "Come on, Mender. Worst case scenario, I have to dump you back into a rain barrel. Ya don't want to look all pink and fleshy until your fur grows back, do ya?" she reasoned bluntly.

Shaking my head wearily, I finally gave in and sighed. "Fine. Just try to hurry, because that stuff is cold," I whined. I might as well get this over with. Rarity gave a somewhat overzealous grin before bringing the jug over my back.

* * * * *

That was how I became a four foot wide furball. With a deadpan, mildly annoyed expression, I sat there on my haunches as Rarity did her best to fend the fur away from my face and eyes with deft use of three pairs of scissors at once. I was a little apprehensive with that many sharp, moving objects drifting around my head, but I suppose it was better than suffocating.

"The more I consider it, the more I think that I might have used slightly too much tonic," Rarity deduced dryly, giving the top of my head a shave again, only to have the bottom start to regrow into the spot she just cleared.

"You don't say?" Twilight questioned sarcastically, watching the white unicorn work from a good two meters away, as if concerned the fur would lash out at any moment and attack her.

Rainbow, of course, was still laughing. She had rolled off the couch a couple of minutes ago, but it didn't really faze her much. She continued laughing hysterically and occasionally getting another look at me.

Pinkie was still on the couch, smiling warmly towards me. I was honestly surprised she hadn't had the same enthusiasm as her cyan friend. She'd laughed a little when I started rapidly becoming the world's largest duster, but simply seemed happy at this point. I kept occasionally glancing at her to make sure there were no surprises coming my way, but she only perked and gave me a nod each time I did so. Which meant she was continuously staring at me the entire time. I found that to be a little more unnerving than if she were laughing.

Fluttershy was drifting around in the air above me still. She wielded the largest comb Rarity owned, and was continuously attempting to ensure that my newly acquired fur didn't become one massive knot. I was extremely thankful for that, as Rarity might be encouraged to attack it with extreme prejudice.

Twilight shook her head again, giving me a light smile before going back to her strange construction project in front of her. I actually didn't know why she was still hanging around, having occasionally complained that she really should be working on the Everfree Forest Analysis job. She seemed absorbed in her current project, however. She'd taken two of the cardboard cores from Rarity's fabric rolls and merged them together using magic. They now formed a crude, upside down 'Y' shape. I had honestly no idea what she was planning on doing with it.

"Oh thank Celestia. I think it's finally slowing down some. Now all we need to do is trim and style it, and you'll be right back to normal!" she assured, suddenly looking proud of herself. I remained healthily skeptical with an expression of stoic irritation. Technically, this was all her fault to begin with, for the most part. She was the one who went compulsive on my fur. I could hardly hold it against Pinkie, who was only trying to save me.

"Oh, we're going to style it, too? Isn't that strange for a stallion?" Fluttershy asked timidly, halting momentarily over my head. It was? Wait, what were they going to 'style' it as?!

Rarity gently scoffed at the idea, waving her hoof in the air as if to dismiss it. "Nonsense, my dear. There are many styles that a stallion may apply that can make them look simply dashing! Have you seen that kind Dr. Whooves walking about town? Such a sophisticated look could really help Mender impress the mares!"

I gave her another glare before asking, "What if I don't want to impress the mares, Rarity?" Twilight would probably kill me if I even looked like I was vaguely considering it, after all.

Rarity gave a blank look before smiling politely back at me. "Well, I'm sure the stallions would also appreciate an air of sophistication," she returned with no hesitation whatsoever. Rainbow laughed even harder.

I sighed wearily and slapped my forehead with a hoof. Or tried too, until I realized I couldn't lift my foreleg up that far with all of the fur in the way. "Look, I already feel badly enough for all of your generosity. All of you have been treating me really well, and I don't have a single thing I can repay you with!" I protested, settling for stomping my hoof on the ground instead.

"Really nice except for that whole acid thing, the potion poisoning, the leg kicking, the multiple concussions, lacerations, and general injuries..." Twilight started listing. I was about to protest further when I noticed she'd lined one end of the tube she made up with my face. My eyes widened instead.

"Don't forget the mental trauma, dear," Rarity amended, a hinting of irritation in her voice before shaking her head. Twilight shot her a rather caustic glare. "Besides, Mender, I don't believe you fully understand exactly how much you're saving my career by agreeing to this little soiree. Potentially importing my designs to Canterlot via multiple important and wealthy ponies? For the price of one suit? I'm not even considering that I'm taking up your time for a day and a half to two days! Truly, I should be paying you, Mender!" she further explained, sounding just a little hysterical towards the end. I found it a little hard to believe that not arriving with the guest requested on her invitation would honestly make her look that bad, but she was the expert, not I.

I suddenly tried not to chuckle. Yeah, Mender, you definitely aren't an expert at social situations! Whap! A small, rubber ball skipped off my muzzle and bounced across the floor. I was momentarily stunned before skeptically glancing back over at Twilight. She was oddly taking notes in a notepad that I hadn't seen her carrying prior. The tiny bouncy ball was caught out of the air with her magic as she lined it up in her slanted tube again. Wait, why was she doing this? I glanced at the 'Y' fork and raised an eyebrow. Okay, so it had a fifty-fifty chance of hitting me.

"Oooh, it's long enough to braid, Rarity! He looks so cute," Fluttershy suddenly announced, snapping me out of my curiosity with a replaced sensation of dread.

Glancing back as best as I could, I saw that she had stopped combing me now and was unfortunately braiding my fur along the side of my head. My ears drooped as I felt what little there was left of my dignity slipping away.

"Oh, he looks simply darling! Maybe I won't trim his mane as much if you're going to do that instead," Rarity agreed in a whimsical tone. She totally ignored my death glare, of course. Fluttershy may have been off limits for my irritation, but I held nothing back for the others.

Rarity gave me a knowing smile as Fluttershy squeaked and went to work braiding with a slightly surprising level of enthusiasm. Crap. Well, she seemed to really want to do it, so how was I supposed to say no? The adorable yellow mare hummed pleasingly as she flitted about above.

Thankfully, the pearly white unicorn started to make headway as the tonic undoubtedly wore off. Another ball skipped off my face followed by more furious scribbling sounds, but I simply ignored it this time. Twilight seemed interested in the results as she peered at her notepad. Changing things up a bit, she shifted the contraption to the right so that the other end lined up with me instead.

Whap. So far she was scoring a hundred percent, as the ball took the other path and managed to hit me yet again. She frowned and recorded the results before trying once again. Seeing a pattern forming, I was a little amused when she got frustrated and flipped it over to the other side. What, was she worried about defects in the cardboard? After six more tests with both ends, and twelve more collisions with my head, I saw her start to get a slightly crazed look in her eyes. "I don't understand! Why is this happening?!" she asked in obvious frustration. What part of the universe hating me did she not get?

Rainbow, who had been watching the entire time, started to snicker before asking, "What are you doing, trying to find a measurement of how much gravity hates him?" I rolled my eyes, blaming her for secretly stealing my thought, no matter how true it might have been.

Twilight didn't respond the way I thought she would, though. In fact, she didn't respond at all for a good ten seconds or so. Even Rainbow went from smirking to curious, to looking slightly worried. "Wait, gravity? You might just have something there, Rainbow!" she suddenly exclaimed, whipping back around to face me and launching the cardboard construction halfway through the spin.

I gave her an uneasy grimace. "What do you mean, gravity? You're not going to throw me off a building or something, are you?" I questioned. It might have been a mildly paranoid guesstimate, but sometimes having a healthy air of caution was useful!

She momentarily scowled before playfully batting me on the nose. "Relax, Mender. I told you that I wasn't going to hurt you anymore, and I meant it. Gravity isn't something I had considered, though. It's unlikely, as in order to have the required gravitational pull to manipulate something already containing inertia, you'd require a huge amount of mass, but it's worth a few tests, right?" she reasoned. Wait, was she seriously suggesting that I had a gravitational field strong enough to draw things towards me, to effect things that were not only inside of an atmosphere but already acting under its own inertia? The pure calculation escaped me at the moment, but even with some generous rounding, I doubted that was possible. Unless she was considering magical means, of course.

Eh, what the heck? If the experiments were as mundane as bouncing a rubber ball off my head, I wasn't all that concerned. Yeah, I'd probably live to regret that thought. Maybe. I nodded nervously, and Twilight let out a squeal of delight.

"Yes! I've been wanting to test the source of your seemingly insurmountable bad luck since meeting you! This is gonna be great! Hurry up, Rarity. Mender and I need to get back to the library for some experiments." She hopped lightly on her hooves while going on about it, and I sighed. Her version of 'great' seemed to significantly differ from mine. Sure, it would be nice to quantify so I knew what to avoid, but the process of getting there was liable to be painful, knowing the aspect of what we were testing. How else would one test 'bad luck' without subjecting the participant to events which could go horribly, horribly wrong?

"Twilight dear, weren't you supposed to examine those things brought back from the forest? I hate to spoil your fun, of course, but you mustn't keep the Princesses waiting," Rarity reminded in a rather profoundly proper tone. It was probably to my benefit that she had.

Twilight stopped bouncing and sighed wearily. "Yeah, I know. I'm just frustrated that I can't seem to properly identify the creature," she explained, energy seemingly leaking out of her at an alarming rate.

"It might be a mutation. You should take potential variances into consideration," I suggested after a few seconds' consideration. My voice sounded strange to me for a moment, in a detached sort of way. There was the brief flickering of bodies strewn out before me, gaping burn holes seared into their flesh and horrible disfigurations present across their entire forms. The image was gone and instant later, and I realized once again that it was a memory. We had been familiar with mutations as well, it would seem. But the situation itself with no context didn't say much. Who was responsible for the mutations; us or the Grosh? Hopefully I would never find out.

"I never thought two ponies could say so much, yet so little at the same time," Dash muttered, smirking again at the two of us.

Twilight rolled her eyes again, but wore a smile this time. "Oh hush. You're probably right. I shouldn't doubt that I did the calculations wrong after I re-checked them all night. It could be a significant mutation to a manticore. The claws are very wrong, though," Twilight explained, agreeing with me for the first time in a while now.

Rarity, who was down to my shoulders now with her trimming, smiled and nodded to her in assurance. "Of course, I have no doubt that you'll reach the right conclusion, Twilight. I have the utmost faith in you, and it's obvious that the town, and even the Princesses do as well. Even if you can't identify it exactly, giving a detailed explanation of what you have discovered would be invaluable, no?" Rarity reasoned calmly, which was a little surprising given the topic. One would think a resident in the town threatened would want a more definite solution to the state of emergency. Yet the white unicorn seemed the epitome of calmness and tranquility. Ironically, she threw more of a fuss over my traumatized fur than potential mortal danger in the forest.

Twilight smiled pleasantly at her friend, giving a gentle nod in return. At this point, however, I really had to ask. "You seem really calm, Rarity. Shouldn't you be more concerned with the danger in the forest? That there might be danger to yourself or those you love? That, uh, I haven't seen Pinkie Pie for a good fifteen minutes?" I questioned, changing my flow halfway through as I looked around in realization. Wasn't the pink pony just on the couch next to me?! Glancing about, I confirmed my fears in that she was now entirely absent.

Rarity banished all doubts with an amazingly feminine giggle. "Truly, you are a Gentlecolt to be concerned for my feelings, but a Lady simply must remain composed and dignified at all times. Sure, I'm concerned about the forest, but I must remain calm to deal with it. Oh, and Pinkie wandered back into the kitchen to say something, but left through the kitchen window a few seconds before I returned, parting not but with a sudden gasp," Rarity spoke softly, brushing her mane smoothly out of her eyes. Why the window?!

Rainbow perked up from her hoof bath, both ears twitching slightly. "Ooh, something tells me another party is coming up, then. Finally! All this stress and work makes me really want to kick back and relax," she lazily exclaimed, drooping her head in a tired looking manner.

"Regardless, I don't think anypony needs to worry about it. No matter what I can identify it as, it will only go as far as to let everypony know what to look for. The Princess will probably decide to send a group of hunters to try to capture the creature," Twilight furthered, nodding softly to herself while looking just as tired as before.

Rarity nodded sympathetically before suggesting, "All the better to get it out of your mind sooner rather than later, Dear. We can make sure Mender gets returned to you after he's properly maintained." The whimsical, nonchalant manner in which she referenced me as an item was both shocking and depressing at the same time. Didn't I get a say in this? I distinctly remembered Rainbow's advice this morning about possibly not staying with Twilight anymore.

"Yeah, you're probably right. I'll see you later today, Mender. Try to arrive intact, this time," the lavender mare requested as she slowly stood up again and shook herself while stretching. Exhaling quietly after I realized I wasn't going to be spared from the braiding or humiliation, I slowly lowered myself into a lying position. Might as well be as comfortable as possible while being psychologically tormented.

"Worry not. We'll make sure nothing happens to the dear," Rarity assured merrily, lightly trimming along my back now.

Twilight gave a nod, then a final smile towards me before heading towards the door.

Chapter 14

In all honesty, I really didn't like daytime. There were numerous reasons, but a select few came to mind right away. Squinting from the glare, I slowly made my way towards the giant tree near the center of town. The Sun hadn't set yet and was at that frustratingly annoying angle where it partially blinded you when looking a certain direction. I certainly didn't need any help being blinded right now! The heat was stifling at the moment as well, given my longer than average coat. Rarity wasn't able to fully complete her trimming after Sweetie Belle and crew stormed into the place chirping about a slumber party. It had been a nightmare.

"Why are you so fluffy?" "Aww, you're adorable!" "Yer lookin' ah little haggard there." All three fillies seemed to think something different about my look. Well, actually I think Apple Bloom was more commenting on my expression than anything. That didn't stop Sweetie Belle from pouncing on me and using me as a makeshift teddy bear.

Apparently it was hard to cut my fur with her clinging to me, so now I was a little more, well, fuzzy than usual. Fluffy, if you would. Oh, and the part of my mane consisting of my bangs was braided, much to my dismay. Given my lack of a masculine build, I sincerely believed I could pass for a female at the moment, now. Not that current company seemed to mind.

The timid yellow mare walked quietly to my right, in as much of a hurry to reach my destination as I was, which was to say, not at all. Fluttershy seemed withdrawn and distracted, but still maintained a smile on her face. She was quite pretty to look at, and I caught myself peeking over at her more than once. She'd insisted she had nothing further to do today until nighttime. I hadn't questioned her motives further than that. Our eyes met once again and we both blushed, looking away from each other.

I suppose it was still a nice enough day, all things considered. I'd gotten my leg healed and my fur returned to some semblance of normalcy. I'd discovered I had my Cutie Mark, much to the disappointment of the three fillies. I hadn't escaped their wrath flawlessly, and had been forced to promise my time in helping them to acquire theirs as well. It wasn't a pretty memory, and I'd probably suppress it later today. Still, in comparison to my usual days, it was looking up. I hadn't been almost killed or suffered any blunt head trauma yet. The bouncy ball didn't count. I decided to only give credit if the impact was above a certain velocity. Honestly, it was the only way to keep a track record at all.

Fluttershy shifted ever so slightly closer to me as she lowered her head again. I looked back at her hesitantly but she simply looked deep in thought. I kept walking alongside of her for a while longer before the concern finally got the better of me. If she was upset about something, I simply had to do something about it! To get her attention, I closed the half an inch distance between our shoulders and lightly brushed against her.

She started slightly but looked over at me regardless, a light blush forming when she saw me looking back with lightly furrowed brows. "Are you all right, Fluttershy? You seem down," I asked softly.

She momentarily looked surprised, but recovered quickly with a warm smile. "Oh, yes. Thank you for your concern, but I was just thinking," she returned softly after a moment's consideration. While I doubted this was anything out of the ordinary, I was still a little concerned for the already quiet and reserved pegasus.

"About what, if I might ask? I don't like seeing you upset," I inquired as politely as I could manage.

She blushed even further but kept her smile, adding a nod before furthering with, "I don't know why I'm so silly, but I keep thinking about what Twilight and I saw in your memories. It bothers me when I, um, think too much about it." Her revealed thoughts didn't surprise me all that much. I'd suspected that was what she was thinking about.

"You don't have to deal with it all by yourself, you know. Don't be afraid to talk to me about it," I offered, slightly before my brain fully considered the implications of the statement, and I followed up with, "Or any of the girls of course. I'm sure any of them would gladly listen." The last thing I wanted was to have her think I was taking advantage of her or something! Was it too late already?!

Fluttershy watched me carefully, neither suspicion nor true understanding in her eyes. It was unnerving after a second, and panicking after several. I fidgeted, wondering if she thought I was some sort of abuser or something. "Ah, I'm sorry, Fluttershy! I didn't mean for it to sound like that, honest! All I want to do is help you. I'm not trying to take advantage of you or anything and I understand if you're not comfortable," I rapidly backpedaled, hoping it got to her before she jumped to conclusions and panicked.

The buttermilk yellow pegasus momentarily looked surprised before, much to my shock, she started giggling merrily. It was an uncontrolled, pleasant sound to listen to as she shifted to snickering and swaying. "Oh Mender. You'll never change. That's a good thing of course! I wasn't mad at you and I wouldn't dare to consider you taking advantage of me. You're a very kind stallion, which is why I like you," she explained before leaning in and giving me a soft hug.

As surprising as her trust in me was, I still felt relieved that she wasn't mad at me. Exhaling quietly, I rested my forehead against her shoulder. "Thank you again for worrying about me. I'm okay, though. It's just a bit hard to not think about what I saw when around you, still. You're so gentle, it's hard for me to understand how you could come from such a terrible place," she explained, voice rapidly losing confidence the longer she spoke. She shifted and looked down towards the dirt by the end, but still didn't make any attempt to move.

"Just because I was there, didn't mean I agreed with the violence. A lot of soldiers justify the war like that, but others just want to protect those they care about, and the very place they call home," I justified, secretly calling upon the reasons I told myself that I had participated.

She seemed confused and looked back up at me with a slightly tilted head. Her expression shifted to thoughtful a moment later when she asked, "So you joined the war to protect, right? I think I knew that already. What were you trying to protect?"

That was, well, a very good question. I frowned and looked up at the radiant blue sky above us for a moment. Yeah, that was probably it. My eyes got lost in the azure shades and I relaxed, giving the yellow mare a gentle squeeze. "At first I thought it was for family, but I'm not sure I had any. Ultimately, it was the same reason I had when fighting the Grosh most recently. I wanted to protect those I cared for, and all the wonderful ponies that make this place special. The Equestrian way of life, I guess?" I reasoned, surprisingly enough for the first time. I'd not spent much time thinking about that day. Of course, it was kind of a miserable experience. I didn't know anything about this 'hero' thing, but if that was what it took, I'd rather leave the horrible pain and miserable death to somepony else. Of course, it was asked of me at the time so I didn't have a whole lot of choice.

Fluttershy smiled in my silence and nodded, mirroring my earlier pose against my shoulder this time. "That makes me feel better. Even if you, um, hurt things, you did it for a reason you couldn't control, and to protect your way of life from the evil creatures. I just don't know. How did you make it through that and remain so nice?" she questioned again, pushing harder against me and shivering a little.

I frowned, never liking to see her like this, and gave her another reassuring squeeze. "That level of... Well, let's just call it hatred, is definitely not normal. The emotions required to willingly end the life of something else doesn't sit well with me. It never has, I don't think. It's like it's a form of insanity, and I avoid it with all my might. Even on that ship when I was all alone, I still remembered why I was doing everything. It wasn't ever for me. I could only focus on what would happen if I let them figure out how to make a portal here. That was all that justified blowing up the ship. Stopping an evil and selfish creature from hurting everypony I loved. If there were any other way, Fluttershy, I would have taken it. I'm not a hero, and didn't even want to be there, but considering the alternatives..." My rambling died out slowly the tighter her hugging got. At some point, we'd switched places again, and she was back to hugging me.

"Thank you. Just, thank you, Mender. That's what I'd been hoping all along. You aren't what those images hinted at, and that's all that matters. You, well, I'm just glad that you care so much about us. Thank you," she gushed, in her own soft and quiet way. A warm smile decorated her expression, and her gorgeous blue eyes shimmered in the sunlight. I couldn't help but smile as I gazed at her and gave a gentle nod. She was one of the mares I'd give my life to protect, hooves down. Hooves? I was suddenly amused by how I had started to adapt the vocabulary into my very thoughts.

All amusement slipped and fell off the proverbial cliff as she leaned up suddenly and gave me a timid peck on my cheek. My eyes widened and I felt the fiery magma sensation explode into my face as I tried to suddenly process what she had just done. I must have looked silly, because she suddenly giggled and backed away a little, still smiling warmly but now mirroring my blush slightly. After several seconds, she lightly reached up again and closed the mouth I hadn't realized I'd let drop open.

"That was for protecting us and being such a nice guy. Um, thank you. For putting up with me as well. I, uh, know I can be a bit, um, nervous sometimes and..." she started, looking back down at my hooves again.

That fired up the thought processes once more! "Fluttershy!" I scolded lightly.

She jumped with a start, eyes snapping open as she shuddered. "Oh! Uh, yes? I'm sorry!" she rapidly apologized, shrinking a little closer towards the ground.

"No no. I just don't want you to think you're a burden. I like you, Fluttershy. You're a wonderful mare, and I'd say that even if I didn't think you were adorable, cute, beautiful, and have a massive crush on you. You're intelligent, interesting, kind, gentle, and care so much about everypony else. Honestly, I don't know how anypony could not like you," I pointed out, driving it as hard as I could towards her so she knew exactly how I felt.

Predictably, her surprise and fear rapidly shifted to that of embarrassment and awkwardness. The color in her cheeks flared up even more, and oddly, I felt a little proud to have been the cause of her being absolutely adorable. She pawed at me with her right forehoof as if motioning that I had said too much and ponies might hear.

"Oh you! I'm not, but... Thank you, but I just, well, oh my goodness, I can't even talk straight," she whispered, mostly to herself it seemed. She shook her head rapidly, causing her mane to shift side to side with a sway before rubbing her cheeks slowly.

I smirked and took a bit of a chance. Leaning forward, I gently pecked her forehead before pulling back again. She was just too cute to resist! Besides, it was a show of affection more so than interest in anything else.

The timid yellow mare locked up instantly, going absolutely rigid in surprise. Slowly, she lifted her head again to look back up at me, eyes widened to almost maximum size and shivering slightly as she stared. The blush in her cheeks held a shocking contrast to her blue eyes, and she was suddenly even more adorable than before. Her mouth was still open, having been in mid self-berating when I'd done it. Expanding my smirk, I reached up and gently closed her mouth with an odd sense of déjà vu.

Her muzzle shifted to a smile instead, eyes softening as she watched me with her renewed blush still not lessening. The emotions behind it felt like they had changed, however. She gave me a quick, almost unnoticeable nod and stood up again, brushing against me with her shoulder before nudging her head towards the tree house library a few blocks in front of us.

There was a definite feeling of elation as I returned her smile and nod. I'd made her feel better about something, and that felt even more awesome than figuring out an invention or equation, I suddenly realized. She was happy, and I had helped her get there. With a sudden burst of realization, I looked back at the silver gear adorning each of my flanks as Fluttershy moved ahead. At first I was irritated at it, but now that I think about it, the heart in the center made a little more sense.

"Are you coming?" my gentle friend asked from a few meters ahead, her voice a little louder than usual, if not to only get the questioning over to me.

Smiling more honestly this time, I turned back to her and nodded before trotting to catch up. This time I managed it with only a slight stumble...

* * * * *

Having armed guards posted outside of the door was concerning, I decided. At least I assumed they were guards, as they were dressed similarly to the ones I had seen with Celestia in my first encounter with the Princess. They were decked out in a quite different purple and blue color scheme; their chest plate held together by a large, impressive looking gemstone. Most striking, however, were their yellow eyes and bat-like wings instead of feathers. Wait, what in Equestria were they? I'd never heard of a pegasi with membrane wings instead! Of course, they were a little distorted and fuzzy, compliment of my less than stellar eyesight. Maybe they weren't ponies at all? Both guards to either side of the door gave me specifically a stern glare upon our approach. My usually timid companion seemed entirely undaunted, however.

"Halt. We are to let nopony into the building without specific invitation. Exception is granted for you of course, Miss Fluttershy," the intimidating guard on the left hissed out upon my breaching spitting distance.

I blinked but frowned, a little confused. "Uh, but I live here," I reasoned, unsure of what was going on.

Both guards glared harder at me, but said absolutely nothing. "Oh dear. He really is telling the truth. Could you let him in, please?" Fluttershy asked quietly, looking back and forth between the guards and I.

"I'm sorry, Miss Fluttershy. We have our orders. You may enter if you wish," the same guard reiterated, tone slightly less hostile this time. They had both visibly relaxed upon her vouching for me, I suddenly realized. Of course, Fluttershy was an Element of Harmony. That meant she was practically a living legend. For a moment, I was put back into perspective. How exactly had I met such wonderful ponies? Surely the odds were astronomically against me.

"I'll go inside and talk to Twilight. Perhaps I can get permission for him to enter?" she suggested politely, oddly almost looking comfortable with the guard. I wondered what made her so relaxed. There was something I was definitely missing. Of course, I didn't have a clue as to why there were guards standing out here in the middle of the evening, or why the library would suddenly require armed security in the first place.

Both guards nodded curtly and Fluttershy turned back to me, assuring, "I'll only be gone a moment. If you can't enter for some reason, I'll keep you company out here, okay?"

I blushed but shook my head. "I can find something to do until I can enter. You don't have to keep me company."

Fluttershy's eyes softened, her quiet exhale causing her mane to sway softly. That small smile flashed across her muzzle again and she shook her head. "Oh, you're just so cute and nice! I'll come back out and steal you away to my cottage if you can't enter for some reason," she added, eyes closing momentarily as she gave a cute little nod. Oh crap. Think innocent thoughts, Mender! She's Fluttershy, so she surely meant nothing by it. "We can have a perfectly good time without them if they want to be mean," she tacked on after I didn’t respond due to fighting back a blush.

Damn it! The heat flooded into my cheeks and I coughed lightly, trying to dispel both the obviously inaccurate innuendos drifting into my head, and the urge to simply take her up on the offer right then and there. She'd been a lot nicer than Twilight had to me so far. I doubted staying in the same house with the stressed out unicorn was all that healthy for our relationship anyway. "I think I'd like that. Thank you, Fluttershy," I returned in an appreciative manner, trying my hardest not to sound creepy. Or let her figure out the thoughts I was trying to banish.

If the timid pegasus was bothered, she was being amazingly stoic about it. Instead, she let out a little giggle and nodded. She surprised me yet again with a light nuzzle to my shoulder before fluttering backwards and rotating to land in front of the door. I watched her graceful movements compulsively, as if she had some sort of mesmerizing effect on me. Yeah, I definitely liked the cute yellow mare. Of course, I also liked the beautiful lavender unicorn who was somewhere inside. As much as she scared the crap out of me and was more than a little high strung, she gave me excited little butterflies in my stomach whenever she got too close. I got along the best with both of them, and each shared compatible yet varying traits with me. I frowned, realizing how badly I didn't want to choose between them. Well, for now, I wouldn't have to.

I snapped out of it just in time to see the guard on the right give me a knowing, rather suggestive wink before gesturing towards the mare opening the door. The less than subtle reference was followed by an even more obvious double eyebrow flick, and I sighed.

"I'll be right back, Mender," the mare in question assured, glancing back at me before giving a nod and walking inside. I watched the light dwindle to a mere crack before fading completely as she shut the door again.

They wasted next to no time after the door shut. "Wow, what a mare! This guy is so lucky to have none other than the Element of Kindness hot for him!" the guard on the right exclaimed wistfully.

What the...? "I am still here, you know?" I reminded irritably. If they heard me, they certainly didn't acknowledge it.

"Ho! You don't know the half of it. I overheard the Princesses discussing the fact that he's already dating none other than Twilight Sparkle, Element of Magic!" the left one shot back. The princesses shared gossip like that? Wait a minute.

"You knew who I was all along!" I deduced out loud.

For all the reaction I got, I might as well have been a ghost. "Whoa, Fluttershy would never help the jerk cheat on one of her best friends!" the right one denied, sounding appalled. I'm the jerk?!

"That's just it, don't you see? They're cooperating, if ya get my drift," the other, hear by classified as Jerk One, pointed out.

By reduction, the newly labeled Jerk Two suddenly got a look of dawning comprehension.

"The lucky stud! A herd is kinda rare by itself, but one with two of the Elements of Harmony?!" Jerk Two exclaimed in shock.

"I'm still here! And you knew who I was all along?!" I finally growled out in an irritated tone, stamping both hooves to the ground as emphasis.

Jerk One snorted and looked back at me. "Of course we did," he confirmed, speaking as if I should already know that.

Jerk Two, of course, nodded in agreement. "Think about it. We get to play the 'Just Following Orders' routine and watch you squirm. Then you get both mares inside to pity you and lay on the good stuff!" he explained, causing heat to shoot into my cheeks as I realized what he was insinuating.

"What if I didn't want their pity? That seems kind of pathetic to me," I groaned out, shaking my head rapidly. It was mostly in disagreement, but it also helped clear it of that annoying heat.

Jerk Two shook his head as well but in a slower, more disappointed looking fashion. "Clearly you've never tried it. Pity Sex is the best sex," he pointed out, gesturing empathically towards me with a hoof.

My ears flattened back and I glared, a little irked at this point. "Uh, isn't that disrespectful to the mares? I care for them. Besides, there are more important things than just sex, you know. Both are truly amazing mares and frankly, I should be lucky that they like me back," I tried to explain. Both guards stared at me like I had sprouted mutant tentacles out my back or something. I blinked a couple times and resisted the urge to turn around and check.

"That's single-handedly the most pansy thing I've ever heard. Let me guess, you haven't gotten any since you got here, right?" he inquired in a snide sort of curiosity. Oops, back to being mad.

I grimaced before glaring at him again. What was wrong with these stallions?! Was that truly all they thought about? Sure, I admit to entertaining the idea a couple of times, too, but they seemed downright obsessed with it! "I've been a little too busy trying to stay alive, sorry! There are more important things, you know!" I shot back, suddenly finding myself oddly on the defensive. It wasn't that big of a deal!

"Ha! Called it. See how far 'respecting' them has got you? Mares don't want to be respected. They want to be teased and toyed with! Be bad and daring, and they'll crawl all over you," Jerk One exclaimed, rearing slightly and 'punching' the air a bit with his hooves. My opinion of him plummeted.

Jerk Two shook his head and raised an eyebrow over at his friend. "I was the one who called it, stupid. But he has a point," he concurred, looking back to me before continuing with, "Even the shy, reserved Fluttershy would probably put out if you pressured her a little bit and acted a little spunky. Heck, act masculine in general. You do kind of look like a mare."

Now I didn't know which to be angrier with him for. He insulted both myself and Fluttershy in that statement. The heat got stuck in my cheeks, but for different reasons this time. "Don't talk that way about Fluttershy! She's not like that and deserves your respect," I admonished, voice low and struggling to keep it under control. It wasn't often that I got mad, I realized. I didn't know what to do with all of the anger. It wasn't exactly a feeling I was comfortable with. Still, these bastards deserved it if I just so happened to form a few barriers and knock their skulls around a bit, right?

Jerk Two's vague image smirked. It was hard to see details when everything was fuzzy and out of focus, but I'm pretty sure he smirked. At least, that's what would have fit in context. "Or you'll what? Braid my mane?" he challenged. As funny as that would be, turning off his gravity for a few hours sounded infinitely more promising.

"Teach you some proper manners, of course. Aren't you guards supposed to be stoic and polite?" I suddenly remembered, surprised at the noticeable difference. It was like night and… day?

"Does it look like we're wearing gold to you?"

Jerk One coughed lightly, drawing both of our attention to him before suggesting, "Uh, I really don't think that attacking him is such a good idea." My opinion of him increased a few notches. A guard attacking a pony in the street with little to no provocation didn't sound too legal.

"Don't join him in Pansy-land. I'll just show him why we're guards real fast. Don't worry," the second guard assured, stomping the steps they were on with his front hooves as he slammed back down and glared at me. My eyes narrowed as I focused on him instantly.

At least I would have, had a low but loud creaking noise not sounded from the wall behind him, expanding up the side of the tree. What the hell?! That didn't sound too good. Glancing up the tree, I tried to spot any noticeable structural integrity damage. Movement below my vision flickered forwards at that exact moment. Instinctively, I threw up my barrier across my chest, neck, and face at skin level just as he smashed into me as hard as he could. Sparks flew as his armor scraped harshly off my barrier and I slid backwards from the force of the impact, wincing a little. Well, that hadn't hurt nearly as much as I thought it would.

"Ow, ponyfeathers! That felt like hitting a brick wall," the idiot exclaimed, sounding irritated as he glared back up at me. I started to get ready to rear, deciding that bucking him in the face with a shield-reinforced hoof wasn’t such a bad idea. Movement caught my eye first, however.

My eyes widened and I maximized my shield as a full tree branch, a few dozen pounds of leaves, assorted bark, a few shingles, and a very pissed off squirrel landed on him an instant later. He let out a high-pitched scream at the top of his lungs as the seriously offended furry attacker seemingly latched onto his nose with an inspiring level of bloodlust. Hey, that would have landed on me had he not knocked me out of the way! Suddenly I was happy about his sudden attack.

Jerk One sighed and shook his head. “Yeah, that’s what I was talking about. He’s supposed to be, like, cursed with abysmal luck or something, which would probably rub off on you if you attacked him,” he explained. Well, there went all my respect for him.

Anything further he was going to say was interrupted by the library’s door slamming open, assumingly flattening him into the side of the building. "Oh for crying out loud! First you guys decide to have a perverse shouting match out here, and then you destroy a section of my house in a fight?!" I suddenly heard Twilight yell from the doorway. Oh crap. Never mind; we were all dead. Well, more dead in the flattened guard's case.

"I'm sorry!" I preemptively apologized, shrinking down as far as I could manage; mostly to show respect, but also to hide the sensitive bits that were in the back. More likely that she'd totally forget they were there than willingly attack them, but that was still probably just as bad.

Twilight momentarily gave me a deadpan look before shaking her head and revealing, "Mender, I heard most of the conversation. You didn't do anything wrong." Oh. Wait, she heard that?!

"I'm sorry!" I repeated a heartbeat later for the new reason this time, causing her to slap her hoof to her forehead, right under her horn.

"Um, I'm sorry, too. We shouldn't have eavesdropped," Fluttershy spoke up a moment later, causing me to blush and start to smile at her as she peeked out from around the doorframe.

Twilight sighed again and turned around to Fluttershy. "Oh for Celestia's sake! It's not eavesdropping if we can hear it through three walls, Fluttershy," she pointed out, making a very solid point. Were we really being that loud?

"What does our sibling have to do with this situation?" I heard asked from somewhere inside suddenly. Was that Princess Luna? She had a very good question, however.

For a moment, I could have sworn I saw Twilight twitch sporadically. "Okay, inside! Now!" she growled out. Suddenly, I found myself yanked off the ground in a light purple aura. Uh oh. My 'inescapable pain' alarm started going off like crazy. Jerk Two yelled as the furry avenger was torn from his face, taking a tiny bit of his nose with him, and he himself was similarly lifted into the air. I braced for impact and Fluttershy dove out of the way as the guard and I were tossed through the door of the library at high velocity...

* * * * *

Pleasantly, the couch broke my fall. I suddenly had a deep respect and love for this piece of furniture. Not only was it a nice bed, party instrument, and looked fashionable, but it was also an amazing landing pad. Truly a universally appreciated device! The guard wasn't quite so lucky, having the bookcase, end table, and shame to block his fall. Further, I was righted by an invisible force almost instantly and promptly had a pillow adjusted next to me. I blinked as I was gently set down on the cushion and pillow. Twilight walked up with a smile this time. Oddly, the gentle treatment kind of scared me, too. Was she just trying to lull me into a false sense of security?

Regardless, I still managed to glance about the room, having gotten a less than satisfactory examination while flying through the air upside down. The tree samples were still organized in a vague half circle, with pieces of paper, notes, and tracing strewn about. Aside from the crackling fire, the room was devoid of lights and looked very soft, almost homely. It gave a warm sensation, which was welcome, as it was indeed getting a little nippy outside. Maybe I'd ask Rarity for a scarf or hat alongside the suit she was going to be forcing me to wear. I could ask for something in return for being hauled to a foreign city to be paraded about as a social accessory, right? I hoped a simple knit hat and scarf weren't too expensive. Movement caught my eye, however, and I glanced back to the fallen pile of books.

The guard groaned as he crawled out from under it a moment later. Suddenly, the entire collection drifted into the air and sorted themselves neatly before returning to the shelf they came from. They were coated in a magical aura that was distinctly unfamiliar, I noticed. Seconds later, the guard himself was grabbed and hauled into the air as well. "SO, WHAT HAS THOU TO SAY IN THY DEFENSE?! THOUST MADE A MOCKERY OF THINE TRAINING ON THE FIRST MISSION OUTSIDE OF THE CASTLE! WE ARE VERY DISAPPOINTED!” was suddenly screamed out on a deafening level, causing me to wince and slam my face into the pillow to drown out the noise. What the hell was that?!

The noise stopped, apparently waiting for a response. I took a risk and peeked out over my comfortable hiding spot at the now rigid and trembling guard drifting in the air. He'd slammed his eyes shut and was curled into a little defensive ball, looking remarkably like I probably have on occasion. My eyes shifted to the left to see an exceedingly large and imposing figure standing at the base of the stairs. Her wings were expanded fully and a radiating flow of what almost appeared to be space itself came from her mane. Unfortunately, the details were lost to me as she was still a rather fuzzy blob. A very imposing, scary blob, but still a fuzzy blob. Her size was a little less than that of Celestia, I noticed. Was she younger?

Twilight coughed lightly. "Princess Luna, you're slipping," she suddenly reminded; of what I didn't know.

The figure gave a gentle start and glanced at Twilight momentarily before coughing lightly as well. "Ah, I apologize. We, uh, I tend to get excited and forget," she apologized, voice dropping down to a much more manageable level.

"I-I'm sorry, your highness! I shouldn't have attacked an unarmed, unprovoked target," the guard practically pleaded through his own trembling hooves he was using to cover his face now.

Twilight went from smiling to glaring at him with frightening speed. "That's it? Don't forget we heard the entire conversation prior to that," she pointed out.

"Indeed! You have insulted both our dear Fluttershy, and this kind mare with your words! Apologize to them as well," Princess Luna instructed. Mare? My cheeks lit up again and I looked over at the darkened, midnight blue blob. Was she referring to me?

Fluttershy had closed the door and caught up with us by then. Idly, I wondered if she'd also scraped the other guard from the side of the building. "Oh, it's all right, Princess Luna. I don't need an, um, apology," she declined politely.

"Nonsense. As a guard, no, as a proper stallion, he should learn to not speak to mares that way!" Luna vehemently declared with a surprising amount of passion. Of course, given her first outburst, I suppose I should just count myself lucky that I wasn't blown through the wall. As a further enlightenment, I realized she was indeed talking about me.

Twilight looked over at me again before letting out a biting, knowing giggle and trying to correct, "Uh, Princess Luna? I don't think that you..."

The Princess waived the statement with a hoof gesture, shaking the quivering ball of fur and armor with her magic. "Well?! Thou must apologize!" she ordered again, slipping back into that extremely archaic form of speech. It was hard to understand what she was saying, but I managed to grasp the context well enough. Kind of reminded me of something I had read a long time ago. Even if the words were a fabrication, one could still understand what was being said by their place in the sentence and the context involved. It was quite fascinating. A pity I couldn't remember the name of the book.

"But, um, but that's a-" the guard started to mumble before another violent shake cut him off. Princess Luna gave him another stern glare, causing him to curl up again. "I'm sorry, Miss! I didn't mean to insult you and Fluttershy," he finally just gave in and apologized. As much as I disliked being called a female, how exactly did one correct what was considered essentially a physical Goddess?

"Good. For now, go back to thy duties. We'll be having another chat in time for debriefing," the Princess assured before sliding him in the general direction of the door. He rolled once before scrambling to his hooves and moving almost as fast as I did when being chased by 'carnivorous' ponies.

Once the door finally slammed shut, Twilight burst into copious amounts of giggling. Sighing, I glanced back at her, already knowing she was looking right at me. Princess Luna gave us a curious look, and the lavender unicorn burst into laughter, unable to contain it any further.

"Pray tell, what is so funny?" the Princess of the night asked curiously, interestingly enough, not seeming mad in the slightest. At least, I think I vaguely recalled that was one of her formal titles from that book Twilight had given me back in the hospital. Twilight must be on really good terms with her, too. Wait, I think I read about this somewhere before.

"Oh my. Well, this is Moon Mender, Princess. He, um, is kind of a stallion," Fluttershy chimed in with her usual quiet, soft voice. She slowly got up on the couch next to me and relaxed against the back of it, shifting her mane out of the way of her eyes as she got situated.

Princess Luna stared quietly at me for a few seconds before leaning closer, apparently to get a better look. I was proven uncomfortably incorrect when she sniffed a few times, then leaned back. "Subtle, but yes. Oh dear. I seem to have committed a faux pas in front of a dear friend. Would you accept my apologies, thou with such a pleasing name?" the Princess requested, gently extending a forehoof towards me. Pleasing name? Oh yes, she was the Princess of the Moon as well.

Gently tapping my hoof against hers, we cordially shook them up and down for a moment.

"It's perfectly fine, Princess Luna. It's a pleasure to meet you," I spoke, mentally grinding through the list of possible polite and proper things I should be doing in this situation. The books I'd read a while ago had some, but my memory wasn't the greatest.

The moon princess smiled warmly and nodded at my gesture, so I must have done well enough. Twilight snorted lightly, however, pointing out, "You seem perfectly content to give her formal titles." Oh, this was about Celestia again.

I was about to glare at her once more when Princess Luna giggled lightly instead, cutting off hostilities. "Oh, if my memory serves and this is the correct Moon Mender, my sister gave him full permission to refer to her as either Celestia or Tia. She requested it, in fact," she pointed out a second later.

Twilight visibly deflated, going from glaring at me to staring in surprise and horror at Princess Luna. I coughed lightly before the situation could be derailed further and corrected, "Technically, she was pretending to be a normal friend of Twilight at the time to get me to drop my guard, so I don't want to assume the offer still stands." Sure, I might assume that ponies were carnivorous or that they had selective breeding rituals and enslaved half their species, but calling a princess the wrong thing was just plain silly.

"She, uh, she did what?" the now flustered lavender unicorn asked, surprisingly enough, directed at me instead.

"He speaks the truth. Tia felt she had to catch him acting as his true self so she could be absolutely sure that he was no danger to her, well, our subjects. She has properly apologized and even enjoyed their lunch date, however. She doesn't get many opportunities to just be herself, you understand, and I believe she wished to preserve that relationship as real instead of acting," Princess Luna explained, bringing a shocking level of insight into play about her sister.

Twilight gave one elongated, slow blink, before looking back at Princess Luna. "So she wants to be his friend?" she questioned with a light edge of skepticism that was slightly offending. I swallowed my irritation, not wanting to fight with the mare again. Well, not that it was really fighting. I seemed to do more running away than anything. That was kind of depressing, now that I thought about it further. The worst part was that I had nopony to blame except for myself.

"Is that so hard to understand? My sister is an excellent judge of character, and has openly admitted that she trusts him and finds no direct danger in him whatsoever. If you recall, she should have explained that the reason she had you watching him was due to his link to danger, not what he directly represented himself," she reminded, unknowingly hitting a raging nerve in both of us.

Exhaling quietly, I looked away from the Princess and down at the couch cushion again. This was exactly what I didn't want to think about right now. I already knew that Twilight had essentially been told to spy on me, but now I realized that a large extent of that had been from Twilight herself rather than Celestia. Twilight was the one who didn't necessarily trust me. After a moment's consideration, I decided that I technically had already known that. A lot of the anger slowly dissolved after that.

Fluttershy coughed after almost five solid seconds of utter silence. "You know she's very sorry for that, Mender. She apologized already," she whispered softly into the back of my ear. I felt her gentle hooves massaging lightly into my back and sighed, shifting a little closer to her. She always managed to find a way to comfort ponies that were in distress, I noticed. The kindness she represented was one of the reasons I liked her so much.

Risking a glance back up at Twilight, I saw her staring softly back at me. There were strange emotions in her eyes. A mixture of anger to some degree, but what almost looked like regret as well. I didn't want to jump to conclusions again, however. She gave a soft nod upon catching my eye and added, "I am sorry for spying on you, Mender. I know you'd never hurt us intentionally, and I guess I should focus on my own advice. If Princess Celestia says you're not a threat, I should really believe her." It was more than a little surprising to hear the stubborn unicorn say as much, but it made the butterflies come back as well. She smiled when I did and leaned in, giving me a light nuzzle along the side of my jaw. It was an extremely affectionate gesture, and I blushed lightly as she backed up a little again.

"Oh, that's right. I forgot that Tia had said he was your mate now. I must compliment your choice. He's a kind soul," Princess Luna suddenly complimented politely. Twilight went from smiling to blindly lurching sideways in an instant. I caught her by the shoulder before she fell off the couch, thankfully! Fluttershy let out a timid squeak behind me; from either Twilight's almost falling or the word itself, I wasn't sure.

"M-My what?!" Twilight demanded, suddenly acquiring an embarrassed stutter. I blushed deeper as well, but took it in stride considering the Princess thought I was a mare less than three minutes ago. At least that meant she had cemented my gender in her head, which I was thankful for.

"Your mate? Did I misspeak? It has been a while and I'm unfortunately out of touch with more modern language," she admitted awkwardly. Oh yeah! She was locked away on the moon for a thousand years and just recently came back, saved by the Elements of Harmony themselves. That's why she was so friendly with them.

Fluttershy shrank against my back, burying her face in my fur. Twilight groaned lightly, red furiously attempting to take over her cheeks, but managed to explain, "That title is usually reserved for a couple who have, um, actually been intimate with each other. Uh, Mender and I haven't gone that far." Her words were meticulously chosen as she seemingly struggled to maintain her voice.

The blank stare she received from the Princess in return was less than helpful. "We've only been, um, dating for a couple days, technically," I tried to chip in, hoping that I had the terminology right. I was probably worse off than Princess Luna.

Twilight squeaked in surprise and looked back at me in shock, face flaring up with a pink tint. "You technically never asked me out! We're kind of just experimenting, right?" she rapidly questioned, voice edged with a trace of hysteria. My smile dropped as fast as my thoughts. What did asking her to go somewhere have to do with dating? Did she actually like me or was it just one big experiment to her?

"Well, that hardly seems proper. From the letters you wrote to my sister, I almost thought-" Princess Luna stated behind me, before being interrupted by a now flustered Twilight.

"No! Those letters were personal. Um, please don't talk about them in front of everypony," she requested quickly. It was too suspicious to ignore, of course. She doubtlessly wanted to prevent me from hearing them. What had she sent to Celestia? Did she know something about the link between worlds that she hadn't told me? I was suddenly extremely suspicious, but didn't have much to go on.

The timid yellow pegasus behind me spoke up instead. "Um, if it's not too impolite to say, I think you're letting yourself get too flustered. Mender surely isn't pushing you into anything, right?" she cautioned, sounding a little on the ironic side. Advice about staying calm coming from Fluttershy was interesting indeed. Although she probably did have more insight into it than most.

Twilight frowned as she looked past me at her friend. Twice, she opened her mouth to speak, but hesitated. Normally she wasn't one to mince words. I waited patiently, but Princess Luna seemingly lacked the virtue in this regard. "Don't be afraid to admit what you're actually feeling, Twilight Sparkle. It doesn't do either of you justice. You taught me to be true to myself," she suggested softly, looking solemn but maintaining a little smile. It made me wonder what it was like to be locked away for a thousand years. Surely she was a definition of stoic as she wasn't stark-raving mad as I'd probably be after that. I was both impressed and nervous as I caught the same weight of time behind her eyes that her sister possessed. To be that immensely old and have no risk of mortality with age was absolutely foreign.

Twilight snapped me out of my thoughts by sighing suddenly. Actually, it probably wasn't suddenly as I hadn't been paying attention again. "You two are right, of course. I haven't been pushed into anything by Mender. Honestly, it's kind of been the opposite," she admitted quietly.

Fluttershy let out a low gasp, but I headed her potential worry with a chuckle. The last thing I wanted was Fluttershy being mad at Twilight, so I decided to disrupt that chain of thoughts before it got anywhere. "We have a lot in common and I enjoy being around you. I get excited, flustered, and happy all at once when I'm with you, and honestly, it's a little scary. I definitely like it, though, and hope you feel the same," I explained slowly, feeling more and more awkward the longer I went on. I knew I was blushing, but it made me feel oddly better as I saw the lavender unicorn following suit.

She nodded slowly before admitting, "At first, you were interesting: a mystery to be tested and solved. Then the mystery shifted as I learned more about you. It went from trying to figure out your past and magic, to trying to figure out why you were fun to be around and such. Then I started getting scared the longer I thought about it and the more I couldn't scientifically justify it. It got worse when I realized I couldn't stop thinking about it, either. I tried to say that you were just like my wonderful friends and that I liked hanging out with them, too, but I don't really want to kiss Rainbow Dash or cuddle with Rarity. It's not that they're female; you went from a mystery I wanted to solve to a truly interesting, kind, friendly odd ball that I just want to pounce on playfully and hug. It's compulsive! It's addictive! It's..." Her admission turned more into a rant the longer she went on. This was the first time she was actually explaining things from her perspective, however. It was as insightful as it was embarrassing, and I could hardly believe that I had caused such a reaction in her! Was this normal or had I done something wrong? Curiously, Princess Luna smiled instead.

"...love? You like him, my friend. It may be scary, but there's nothing wrong with how you feel. Given the chance, your feelings could blossom into something truly beautiful. Take it slow and relax," the extremely wise Princess of the Moon suggested.

Fluttershy's mood shifted completely as she murmured, "It's so cute. You two are really good for each other. Even without considering my place in things, I think you really have something special." The lavender unicorn finally smiled and looked back up fully with that said.

There was a long pause as her bright, violet eyes seemed to almost bore into my very soul. A wave of apprehension spilled through me as I saw her slowly tense up the longer she stared. Her right hoof fidgeted visibly, and I could practically see the gears spinning madly in her mind. This was either going to be really good, or I would wake up a few days from now in the hospital. Well, it had been a little while since I'd seen Nurse Redheart, so it would be nice to catch up.

The nervous unicorn looked down for a fraction of a second before nodding to nopony in particular and asking, "Moon Mender, will you be my coltfriend? Officially?"

There was a long pause where I was all but certain that my heart had stopped. Was I dreaming? Did I die at some point and not notice? If this was the afterlife, it was off to a very nice start. "I, uh, yes, of course!" I assured, suddenly having trouble ordering my thoughts.

The cute unicorn, my now fillyfriend, leaned forward and gently kissed me on the lips, a soft smile decorating her features. It was brief, her pulling back a moment later, but warmth spread through me uncontrollably regardless. "I thought you'd say yes, but I wanted to be sure this time. Now it's official," Twilight acknowledged after I opened my eyes again.

"Aww!" Fluttershy squeaked from next to us now. I glanced over and saw her eyes were soft and watery, a large smile adorning her face.

"More like gross," suddenly sounded from the back of the sofa, on my right. I started and turned to face the familiar, male voice. Spike sat on the top of the sofa, holding a large roll of paper in his arms.

Twilight herself did an about-face, staring at her assistant in shock before turning sheepish, blush rising. "Spike! When did you get back?" she asked quickly, obviously attempting to change the subject.

Spike rolled his eyes but held up the paper in his hands. "I got back, like, five minutes ago. This is the map you wanted from the mayor's office. She wasn't very pleased at being woken up until she found out that Princess Luna had requested the map," the tiny dragon expounded irritably. I was surprised at how easily he accepted the subject change, then decided he probably was too young to care. Princess Luna’s ears perked up.

"Oh, thank you, dear Spike! These are the maps the scouts made of the discovery sites in the forest," Princess Luna enlightened, looking exceedingly pleased as she lifted the roll of paper out of his hands with her magic. I was suddenly extremely curious as she unrolled it. Now that I was back among the living and seemed to be staying that way for a reasonable amount of time, I figured it might be interesting to discover just how close to death I had come. If a massive, carnivorous beast had wandered through the forest the night before, I'd have to say I'm probably lucky this time.

Twilight grinned as she noticed my sudden interest in the scroll. I tuned back towards her just in time to catch her pleased nod. "That's what we were doing before you got here. Princess Luna is here to take a look at what I've found so far, and figure out the best course of action in dealing with the situation," she explained, nodding towards the roll of paper.

I glanced as the Princess rotated it, and saw a surprisingly detailed map. It showed elevations and terrain, and had three areas circled with several smaller marks inside of them. It looked almost like a tactics map, but I knew they were probably marking evidence.

"What exactly do you think it is?" I asked, swallowing softly. I'd seen pictures of a manticore in the books I'd read so far, and it wasn't exactly pleasant. Those I knew to be in the forest, after all.

Twilight frowned and shook her head, looking a little frustrated, I'd guess. "That's the problem. I don't know exactly what it is. From the claw markings, it's like nothing I've seen before. The impact angle makes the shape of the claws all wrong. They're formed into too harsh of a curve and far too honed to be a manticore, which has much smaller claws. Further, from the point of impact and depth of the cuts, the amount of force applied should have broken the claws. That indicates something tougher than what we're used to dealing with on, what I think, is a significantly larger body to generate that much strength," she deduced carefully.

Fluttershy grew smaller the longer Twilight spoke, shrinking herself against my back until she was hiding fully behind me. Smiling to myself, my protective urges kicked in again and I pulled the blanket off the top of the sofa in as visible a manner as I could. The timid yellow mare watched me curiously, then blushed as I wrapped her up in the blanket and tucked her against my side. "Um, thank you, Mender," she whispered before burying her face in the blanket further.

Twilight momentarily smiled at the scene, but Princess Luna interrupted with, "It's all right that you can't identify it completely. It might be something entirely new." She was examining the map instead of looking at us, however, and wore a contemplative expression.

I frowned. Maybe not new, but a little bit different? "I'm not sure if it's applicable, but it might be a mutation. Manticore, maybe? It might be more helpful if you just say what's absolutely definite," I reasoned, bringing up my earlier thought.

Twilight gave me a blank look before nodding. "A mutation would also make sense, although it's strange we've not seen the signs of genetic change sooner," she agreed, looking over at her diagrams that were near the log sections strewn about the main room. The sheets lifted into the air with her familiar aura, and shot over to where we were on the couch a moment later.

Twilight cleared her throat lightly as she examined the notes again. "There's not a huge amount of data that could be gleaned from the samples, but here's what I have so far. With shape and size comparisons between all three, I concluded that the claws were over half a foot in length and curved at an almost thirty degree rotation. Further, the depth of the blow along with the fragmenting of the wood further down indicates at least five hundred pounds of pressure applied over an unknown, but assumed instant duration. That's over seventy-five percent more than what the strongest recorded manticore was capable of," she read quietly, scanning further along after she finished.

Princess Luna sighed and put the map down. "While interesting and not really good news, that doesn't give us a lot of data," she returned, shaking her head slowly.

"Without bite marks, too, any further information about sociology or diet would be only hypothetical," Twilight defended, looking displeased.

I smiled to her and shook my head. "You've figured out a lot, Twilight. From what you explained, those don't sound like utility-based claws. It's just a hypothesis, but there's a very good chance that it's a hunter. That means it's either omnivorous or carnivorous," I reasoned, trying to further defend her work. I doubted I had to, but I truly wanted to, I discovered.

Twilight furrowed her brow, but nodded. "That's true. It's more than likely," she agreed, before smiling again and gazing softly at me.

"Wouldn't there be, uh, evidence of it being around other than just the claw marks? I mean, you know," Spike spoke up, sounding a little unnerved.

Princess Luna sighed and shook her head in return. "Alas, it is not so. Aside from the destruction to the woodlands itself, there was no other evidence of its existence. Further, the path becomes extremely hard to track the further into the forest it goes. The hunters think it might have turned as it moved, but they were unable to track it due to the forest becoming extremely difficult to navigate," she answered, shooting down yet another lead.

"What caused it to, um, be so angry at the trees though? Trees don't go out of their way to hurt anypony," Fluttershy questioned, sounding oddly like she was sympathetic to the trees' plight rather than simply curious. Although that wouldn't necessarily surprise me.

Nopony said anything. Well, it was more because I didn't think there was a knowable answer at this point. Twilight finally shook her head a good ten seconds later. "I honestly don't know, Fluttershy. It might have been scared and panicking, or in a rage about something. There were no known casualties of animal life," she finally admitted, looking as bewildered as I felt. It sounded like a predator, but didn't do anything akin to such. It was weird to say the least.

We were interrupted by Spike letting forth an inspiring yawn, however. "Is that all you need, Twilight? I'm getting kind of tired," he groaned quietly, eyes suddenly drooping.

The lavender mare smiled and nodded gently to him before giving a light nuzzle to the small dragon. "Of course, Spike. You've been an amazing help and it's way past your bedtime. Go get some rest. You've earned it," she agreed, maintaining her warm smile towards him.

He mirrored it a second later and nodded before hopping off the couch and wandering towards the stairs with a slight sway to his path. I watched him with certain envy, suddenly realizing how close he and Twilight were. He wasn't just her assistant, that was for sure. She treated him almost like a son or little brother, and it was very cute to watch.

"The young one has a point. I have more than enough information to give the hunters. Hopefully, we'll at least be able to catch a glimpse of this thing soon. I should retire back to the forest, however. They're expecting my return soon," Princess Luna excused politely, standing up fully again. Even if she wasn't as large as Celestia, I still found myself a little intimidated as she became much larger upon righting herself.

"Oh, of course, your highness. Thank you for stopping by. I'll certainly continue to look into this matter," Twilight assured, suddenly looking a little flustered by the sudden departure.

Fluttershy was much more reserved and peeked out of her blankets at the Princess of the Moon. "It was nice seeing you again, Princess Luna. I hope you travel safely." I smiled down at the peeking mare, deciding that she was overwhelmingly adorable no matter what she did. Where Twilight inspired nervous butterflies and a certain level of similar tastes, Fluttershy instead made a heat wrap around my chest and gave me a huge urge to just hold her until she was afraid of nothing else ever again.

Twilight's flank almost knocked me sideways off the couch as she bumped it against me. "Careful there, Casanova. She wants to wait, and I'm your only fillyfriend at the moment, remember?" she belted out, twinge of playfulness injected into her voice as she smirked at me.

I blushed and coughed lightly as Fluttershy looked back at me, air of confusion present. Princess Luna just laughed, however, a true and hearty one that she seemed pleased with when it was done. "It was truly a pleasure, Moon Mender. Thou are very much to our tastes, and we hope to visit again soon. We are happy for Twilight in her, how do you young ponies say, 'catch'?" she asked, her request for assurance feeling extremely humorous. Laughing would have been bad, however, so I resisted to the best of my capabilities.

Twilight snickered, having obviously more free reign then I did with the Princess. "Thank you, Princess Luna. He is indeed quite a catch, you're right," she surprisingly agreed, causing another burst of heat to enter my cheeks. She gave a gleeful grin, and I suddenly realized she was enjoying embarrassing me.

"You're a horrible mare," I muttered, glancing away from her excessively mirthful expression and further earning a laugh from the lavender unicorn.

"We shall return later, possibly tomorrow night! Try not to murder each other in the meantime," the Princess requested as she headed for the door, interrupting our charade. Fluttershy ducked back under the blanket as she left, and I idly wondered if she was going to come out long enough to go home tonight. Twilight waved goodbye politely until the door fully closed. She abruptly stopped at the same time I raised my eyebrow towards the sudden screaming outside.

"THOU MIGHT YET GO BACK TO BASIC TRAINING IF A REPEAT OF THIS HAPPENS! WE WILL FULLY DEBRIEF THYSELF UPON ARRIVAL BACK TO THE CASTLE, AND PUNISHMENT SHALL BE DEALT OUT! DOES THOU UNDERSTAND?!" was screamed by a very pissed off Princess Luna the second the door closed.

Twilight swallowed wearily, eyes still wide as she watched the door. Fluttershy burrowed deeper into the blankets and further against me instead, almost as if she was trying to slip under the cushion I sat on and hide completely. Oh dear. I kind of felt bad for the guy now. Kind of.

"Um, Twilight? Can I, uh, maybe ask you a question, if it's not too much trouble?" Fluttershy whimpered from her hiding spot.

Twilight snapped out of her horrified expression long enough to glance down at the shifting blanket that now resided partially under me. "Oh, of course, Fluttershy. I do have a request for you, though, as well," she returned, smiling finally.

Curiosity must have gotten the better of her. Either that, or she truly trusted her friend, as the timid yellow mare soon poked her head out of the blankets and looked up at Twilight. "Oh?" she practically whispered. Ah, still not totally comfortable, I noticed.

"With the state of emergency in effect, I don't really want you to fly home at eleven o'clock at night by yourself. Would you mind staying here for tonight?" she requested politely. A very good idea! Now that I thought about it, I really didn't want her flying back home either if there was something that nasty in the forest. If it came down to it, I'd walk her home myself, but this was a much better idea.

"Oh thank goodness. I was going to ask to stay," Fluttershy admitted, slumping slightly and letting out a long exhale.

"You can use my mattress if you want. I can take the couch for tonight," I offered, smiling reassuringly at her. I'd fallen asleep on this couch before, and almost considered it an old friend at this point.

Fluttershy gasped as if burned and sat up, zipping around me with surprising speed and putting on a pleading gaze. "Oh no, Mender. I couldn't possibly do that! Please, uh, let me take the couch?" she requested, surprisingly adamant sounding. Twilight smiled softly at both of us before shaking her head in the background now.

"Both of you are adorable, but I don't really want either of you sleeping down here separate from the others. Fluttershy can sleep with me in my bed. It's not a big deal," she reasoned. Oh! True. I'm guessing it was socially acceptable as they were both the same gender.

Fluttershy froze, eyes shifting from warm and pleading to shocked and terrified. Despite the decidedly negative emotions displayed in them, her cheeks shifted to a rosy pink color as she swallowed lightly. Okay, so maybe not so socially acceptable? Had I missed something?

"Are you sure, Twilight?" I inquired, attempting to ask for the now rigid mare between us.

Twilight smiled and nodded earnestly, not seeming fazed in the slightest. "Of course. It's no big deal. My bed is plenty big enough." Well that indicated that it might just be Fluttershy. Somehow, that didn't really surprise me, but I couldn't fault her for it.

Twilight got up off the couch and walked past us, heading for the stairs. I gave the shivering mare a light nudge, earning a squeak and sudden lap full of shaking Fluttershy. I frowned and tried to pat her gently on the shoulders before lifting her up again. "Oh no. What do I do? Twilight wants me to sleep with her! In the same bed!" she whispered shakily to me.

"Um, I'm not really grasping the problem. Twilight's acting like there's no social stigma attached to it, but you're acting like there is," I complained, exceedingly confused at this point. Somepony was wrong in this case, or I was missing important information. Again. I was kinda getting adjusted to it at this point.

Fluttershy looked down slowly, upper teeth nibbling on her lower lip before wearily explaining, "I, well, admire Twilight. Apart from concerning you, she always seems to know what she's doing and what she wants. She's amazing, confident, polite, gentle..." I grew more confused the longer she went on. If she respected Twilight so much, shouldn't she be happy Twilight trusts her? This didn’t make a lot of sense to me.

"...athletic, brave, graceful, well-kept, beautiful," she continued, oblivious to my inner monologue. Oh. That actually explained a lot.

I interrupted, if only to clarify. "You like Twilight as a little more than friends, don't you?"

She stopped and slowly stared at me for several long seconds before releasing a gentle sigh and sinking back onto the couch cushion in front of me. "I've had a small crush on her for a while. I was hoping that, because she liked you as well, that you'd help me get closer to Twilight too, if we were together," she admitted.

It was a sensation I wasn't entirely used to. Kind of like a sudden impact to the inside of my chest as it recoiled and tightened. The hoof I had been using to comfort her on the shoulder dropped in surprise. Had I misheard her? Did she really say what I thought she did? Was she really using me to get to Twilight? Every rational thought screamed no, but the sudden pain shooting through my chest was almost blinding. It was cold, as if a dagger made of ice had just stabbed through me.

I noticed her questioning expression as I realized I was still staring at her. That confused me, but some part of me clung to the fact that she didn't realize what she'd said. That meant she hadn't meant it like that! That had to be the case. Innocent little Fluttershy wasn't capable of using somepony for her own gain.

Her eyes suddenly shot open with realization and she rapidly shook her head. "No! No, no. I didn't mean that I only liked her. I, um, like you too like that. I like both of you. Uh, I'm sorry! I didn't mean for it to, um, sound like that," she rapidly corrected, causing me to let out the breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding.

"I'm sorry. I tried to not jump to conclusions. I'm... glad you don't just like her," I muttered, completely unsure of what to say. Damn it. Even my heart jumped to conclusions on its own. My chest warmed a little, but I couldn’t shake the feeling from before.

She shook her head weakly back and forth, mane dancing in the dim light. "No, I want to make sure you, um, believe me. That was a bad thing to say and I've never, well, done this before. I don't know what I'm doing," she murmured uneasily, looking down at the couch cushion again.

I raised a hoof back up and gently ran it along her jaw, in an assuring motion. "That makes three of us. Relax, Fluttershy. Nothing bad happened and we figured it out right away. Why don't you go up and get ready for bed? I'll wait for you girls to use the bathroom first," I tried my best to comfort and distract.

The yellow pegasus relaxed against the hoof and nodded, giving a faint smile finally. I nodded again to her and she stood up shakily before slowly making her way towards the stairs behind me. A solid five seconds passed after I could no longer hear the hoofsteps on the wooden stairs before I put my hoof back down. What was I doing? Did I even have a clue how to deal with all of these feelings? Was it right to tie mine to Twilight's before my issues were even sorted out?

Nothing but the quiet flickering of the fire answered me, of course. It would be so easy if I'd still been there instead of here. Being a soldier was mentally simple. There weren't all of these feelings to get in the way. Emotions were outright discouraged by the higher ups, I remembered. Think, don't feel. I think that was on a poster. My hoof was still shaking, my chest following suit as I carefully breathed out. Why did the thought of her using me hurt so much? Surely it was nothing compared to getting a laser to the back or being smashed into rocks.

My cheeks heated up again as I almost felt her light peck from earlier. I smiled and chuckled, the thought dancing and mingling with the sensation of Twilight's mouth against mine. The heat shifted to an almost burning sensation as I lowered my head. Being a soldier was simpler, but I wouldn't trade this for the world. Unless it meant protecting them, of course. Even if they didn't need it, a stirring urge deep inside told me to guard them against those who would cause pain. Maybe that was a part of this 'love' thing after all.

"Coming, Mender?" I heard Twilight ask in a rather cheery voice from the top of the stairs, disrupting my thoughts in a rather pleasant way.

I smiled and nodded to nopony in particular before standing up again. My back gave a rather mean spirited creak of discomfort, but I ignored it as I got off the couch. Twilight calling me upstairs; I could definitely get used to that. I grinned before trotting towards the light shining down from the second floor.

Chapter 15

It was subtle at first; that creeping madness as the hours went on. The dark was my friend after all, and I stared up into the blackness around the ceiling, currently lying wearily on my back. Or maybe it was the blackness in my head. This could all be some sort of vivid hallucination or fantasy as I'm locked away somewhere, still. Maybe after all the pressure, I finally snapped and decided my life needed more cute, colorful ponies? Or maybe, finally, I had died at some point and this was what heaven was like. Any of those sounded like acceptable answers. It hardly mattered, as I couldn't substitute this reality for anything else, so it was what I was stuck with.

"Test number two hundred and fifty-seven; failure. I cannot seem to replicate the communication with the entity from before. All attempts have now been rejected. Perhaps I offended it the last we spoke? After well, what happened, I could hardly say for certain," the familiar voice of Keela continued to run through my mind. She was sounding less and less professional the longer she went on. From the way she spoke earlier, I could only guess that something extremely bad happened to her connection after I had my bout of insanity. From what I gathered, she got stuck connected to the book and experienced, well, something that had rather disturbed her.

I sighed quietly, literally covered in cut up pieces of paper at this point as I stared blankly up at the ceiling. She was persistent, I'd give her that much! Every one she'd send through, I'd slice in half as it drifted through the air. That seemed to disrupt the magic instantly. Of course, explaining this mess in the morning was going to be a little trickier. I could only guess that she kept bizarre hours, or that our night and day cycles were reversed.

Finally deciding I could use a bit of water, I got up out of bed, careful to slide the mountain of papers quietly to the floor. Both mares had fallen asleep hours ago, of course, and I definitely didn't want to wake them up. I glanced over as I fully stood, of course. It was hard to pass up an opportunity to gaze at them. It was like candy for my eyes!

Twilight and Fluttershy were both tucked under the covers, face to face but several inches apart. I remembered Twilight had started with her back to her friend, so she must have rotated in her sleep. Nothing bad could possibly come from that, right? I decided to remain blissfully unaware and move on.

I walked past the basket at the foot of the bed as quietly as I could, momentarily hearing the quiet snores of the baby lizard thing wrapped up in his sheets. Hmm. I should really ask Twilight about him in the future. I'm sure he was some sort of known creature, as I hadn't run into anything truly unknown yet. I smiled down at Spike for a second before slipping down the stairs.

"What was the entity I spoke with, anyway? It announced its presence as 'Mender', which doesn't sound much like a name. It insisted that it was named that, however, so I'm inclined to believe so. Was it some sort of advanced artificial intelligence that existed inside of the book? Or is the book connecting to somewhere else and I'm talking to a true being?" Keela questioned as I walked down the stairs carefully. Ignoring her, I focused on putting one hoof in front of the other. I didn't trust myself to walk blindly down the stairs still, especially with everything blurry and distorted. I'd likely fall down the stairs if I tried that, even when my vision wasn't screwed up. After I ran into the bathroom doorframe before bed a few hours ago, Twilight assured me that my vision should be returning to normal in a day or so. Until then, I simply had to be careful. Especially around varying depth levels that were the same color. Like the bathroom doorframe and the floor of the loft.

With a light boost, I raised my upper body and put both hooves on Twilight's counter. I nudged the tap for cold water and let a little stream go into the sink before cheating and forming a shielded 'straw' with my left hoof. It worked a lot like a drinking fountain at that point, and I sipped down a good amount before sighing and turning the water off again.

"Thankfully, Nirru gave me a fascinating idea that I'd like to try before she gets down here with the data. If it was a book, it must have words in it, right? Well, if it's written in ink, I should be able to try scanning it with a particle projector on several varying levels to try to pick up the words!" she exclaimed, sounding excited.

Uh oh. That didn't sound very healthy for me in the least. I debated what to do when a loud humming sound started echoing through my head. Wincing, I pushed both hooves to my ears and sunk to the floor, gritting my teeth. Oh hell. I had all new respect for those lead x-ray sheets. Our allies had been absolutely crazy to make this a regular part of their medical exams! Magic was so much safer.

Then I realized in horror that it was simply warming up the generator. There was a sudden, bright flash as my body went through the strangest sensation of being turned inside out, boiled alive, put back together, then microwaved. All purely speculation as to how those felt, of course. I gasped as my flesh suddenly felt like it was on fire and smashed my forehead into the floor before throwing up. Everything spun after that and I fell sideways, thankfully missing the now external contents of my stomach by a few inches. Then, blissful nothingness.

* * * * *

Blissful nothingness, sadly, didn't last for very long. I drifted sideways gently, not really looking around, but effectively able to turn my viewpoint with my mind. Oh, this again. I glanced about curiously, and was gifted the rather amusing sight of Keela spraying down a machine with some sort of foam. The device in question looked like it had been hit by lightning, then cut into pieces. Damn. If I had done that, I was seriously impressed. Was it weird to be impressed by yourself? I guess not, as a lot of ponies and Keldarians alike probably were. Although looking at it from a third-person perspective was a little strange.

Widening out my view a little, I noticed that my location was different from last time. I appeared to be in some sort of laboratory with various computer devices, scanners, and interestingly enough, a glassed in blast chamber in the corner. One of the scanners was now out of commission, it would appear. My 'eyes', so to speak, were drawn to a glowing book that rested on the floor a meter or so from the smoldering wreckage.

Footsteps sounded rapidly in the hallway as I drifted closer to the book that was now lying neglected. I heard the powered door slide open, but paid little attention to it. The book was exactly as I last saw it with the new addition of a distorted energy shield that covered it entirely. It was an Aegis Barrier, in which the item shared its name. I'd never seen one on such a small scale before, however. I wasn't aware they could be compressed like that. Although from what I'd heard the last time, there was a significant amount we weren't aware of.

"Keela! I heard an explosion. Are you all right?!" Nirru asked upon entering the lab, expression looking nervous and concerned.

Keela sighed as she stood back up fully from the machine, smoke seemingly ceased for the moment. "Yeah. The idea to scan the book didn't work out very well. It apparently likes its privacy," she muttered in an annoyed tone.

Her sister stopped for a moment before shifting to a smirk and snickering lightly, earning a frustrated glare from Keela. "Relax. At least it didn't set your fur on fire again. Besides, you needed the break. Check this out," Nirru offered, holding up what appeared to be an elongated crystal rod. Hmm. My mind gave a dull ache as I stared at it, but memories came back a moment later. Information. Those crystals stored a lot of information that could be read by a computer.

Nirru walked right past the book and myself without notice, confirming that I was indeed undetectable again. I watched with interest matching the speculative look Keela wore as she took the crystal from her sister and slid it into the surface of the computer next to her.

"You found something?" she inquired as she tapped a few buttons along the panel. The screen on the far wall of the lab lit up, and several menus were navigated with precise motions.

Nirru nodded patiently, watching the screen as well. "Indeed. On a hunch, I looked through the soldier index we brought with us from the citadel. Every soldier was allowed one item of personal value to be carried with them. Command said it helped psychologically, but regardless, we kept a log of every object each soldier chose.”

Keela shifted to a grin instead as her movements sped up. "You found the book," she deduced sharply. Of course she did, or she wouldn't have brought it up. That also meant that she found me, however. Or at least, my old self.

As if on cue, a full profile popped up on the screen a heartbeat later. It had an extremely familiar looking profile picture, and a full readout of skills, basic background, and a psychological profiling. Overall, I was suddenly made extremely uncomfortable and wanted to look away. Did I really want to know all of this stuff right away? Of course, would I ever have another chance to learn it if I didn't look right now?

"It's not terribly insightful, but does raise a few interesting questions," Nirru commented, sounding perturbed. It didn't feel like she liked the questions she was presented with, to me. Maybe it was just her body language.

"No name listed, but I think that's normal. Just a serial number," Keela muttered, scanning over the beginning bio with rapid eye movements.

Nirru just gave a light clicking noise, but I mentally snorted. We were just numbers all along. It was only a rumor that they didn't even bother to write down our names, but I guess it was actually true all along. The varying amounts of memories that seeing the display caused was exceedingly uncomfortable. Not to mention, it was starting to feel like my own mind was going by a 'need to know' basis and only feeding me information as it came up. It was a rather, well, helpless sensation.

"Expert marks in barriers, abjuration, and transmutation. He could have been trained as a Master with these grades. What caused him not to be?" the younger sister asked a moment later. Ah, barriers did come easily for me. Forming them now was almost like second nature. Abjuration dealt with changing the metaphysical properties of an object such as gravity and inertia, while transmutation revolved around morphing the physical in its entirety. My choice of professions was fairly straightforward with that skill set. I was able to repair and jury-rig things on the fly, and adapt rapidly to changing battle scenarios. That's why I was elected both an engineer and field commander, if I recall correctly.

"He was the reason. Quiet type, and never favored command. He also held dangerous opinions on the status quo," Nirru explained idly, shifting tone to seem a bit bored now. I watched her carefully as she skimmed over the page on the screen.

Keela frowned and looked over at her sister. "A full out dissenter?" she asked skeptically, failing to mask the surprise in her voice.

If I had ears, they would have perked at this. I rotated away from the book fully to pay more attention. I was at least a little interested in who my old self used to be.

Nirru shook her head slowly, however. "Nothing that drastic. No concrete proof, anyway. He was the quiet type so it was hard to get evidence, but due to a few incidents during his growth period, he was flagged as high risk," she explained, confounding me even further. That was the problem with having only single events in your memory. The larger picture was extremely difficult to piece together.

Keela's elongated ears lowered a little, making her momentarily look sad. "So no proof he held views contrary to the government. I see," she muttered softly, looking back over at the screen.

Her sister snorted, crossing her arms fully. "You might not like the way we ran things, but you can't argue with the results. Did you manage to get any data before the, uh, unfortunate accident with the scanner?" she questioned, giving an appraising glance at the toasted machinery.

Keela started, before shifting back to smiling. "Oh, I might have found something of a lead. The computer managed to pick up a few words! It reads something akin to a journal from what I've glanced at. It also references one 'Moon Mender' frequently," she informed.

My nonexistent heart fell into my equally imaginary stomach instantly. Oh hell! That wasn't just a journal! Somehow, it had more recent data in it than since I left. That meant it might have important information on Equestria in there. My mind started whirling at a hundred meters a second, trying to think of a way I could get rid of the accursed thing. Sadly, I snapped out of it a second too late as Keela bent down and picked up the book from under me.

My metaphorical eyes widened as the book was lifted up directly into my self-awareness. Thousands of images exploded all around me like a rampaging movie reel in an all night marathon, without the delight of concessions, of course. Further in line with my luck, it had to lag momentarily on a simply wonderful zoom shot of Fluttershy's posterior before zipping on. I tried not to throw up my meta-dimensional stomach contents as they spun about my consciousness with little respect for my sanity or consciousness.

It all halted in a fraction of a moment later; barely a drop of time in an infinite expanse. My view was locked in a screaming hell-scape with my prior kind frozen in mid-destruction. The ground itself was torn asunder and flames colored the skies as the air started to burn. I saw the beam of light in the backdrop and knew that this was a mere second, with some generous rounding, before everyone in the image burned away. But then, like staring at a familiar image and suddenly discovering something mind-numbingly terrifying about it, my eyes were drawn up to the sky. It was monstrous; a black shadow of absolute nothingness with a web of similarly styled lines splintering from it at all angles. The blot on existence hung in the sky as if suspended by sheer physical defiance, urging a painful tugging in the front of my mind. The second I saw it, I couldn't look away. It was like staring into an abyss. The mind isn't capable of quantifying something that has no end. Looking into it was like seeing into forever, and my mind ached as reality was drawn in.

I snapped back at the last second, hurtling my metaphysical camera off the surface of the planet in the frozen picture. I saw the beams hitting the planet's surface from the star's lit side. The atmosphere burned away and the plates themselves buckled and shattered under the force of the barrage. Some tore loose under the unimaginable power at play as gravity warped. It was a truly horrifying sight to behold, especially knowing that technically my last breath was but a moment later before my magic broke and trapped me in stasis. Further, I saw it fully. The massive thing in the atmosphere could be seen from space. It looked almost draconian in shape, and a web of burning ebony tendrils stretched across an unimaginable amount of the planet! A rough glance told me that it covered at least a hemisphere with the impossibly black manifestations. What was that?! I'd never heard of anything like it before, and I remembered almost everything about our most hated enemy. Was it something I couldn't remember, or something I didn't know about to begin with?

A throaty scream tore my thoughts aside and I looked around as best I could. The image was gone a moment later, replaced by the laboratory once again. The power must have gone out; emergency lights flooded orange luminescence across the bleached floor, making for a rather brutal contrast that was unpleasant to the eyes. Well, if I had any. Oddly, I felt quite a bit different now as I looked about. Gravity was in full effect, yet I floated effortlessly in the air. There were no appendages, so I felt remarkably similar to my consciousness-only state, minus the fact that I felt immensely physical. The sensation was indescribable; like I was so physically there that I transcended normal reality. Everything tinted a light blue as I rotated and glanced at Keela, who was staring back at me in shock. Uh oh. That's when I noticed the literal aura of energy that radiated off me. Testing, I checked my magical energy levels and was literally washed out by the ocean of power I stumbled into. Aegis! This was the book. It had to be. But that meant...

The realization hit me as if I'd tripped and rolled down a hill on my face. Again. The sensation was actually reasonably familiar, but I digress. I was in the book! The book's powers, whatever they were, had activated and pulled me in? Maybe. Or that intrinsic link I seemed to have with the artifact had something to do with it. Regardless, the effect was rather apparent as I rotated around to look at Nirru instead. She looked far more stunned than her sister and was instead reaching for her belt while rapidly backing away. She withdrew a small, metallic looking item with various, fundamentally obvious shaping, and pointed it at me. It was a standard issue officer sidearm. I searched my memory and oddly heard the sensation of a book page flipping. A heartbeat later, I suddenly 'remembered' the exact specifications of the weapon, revealing that it was an energy, pulse-based pistol with high rate of fire and a shield disruption effect. I was suddenly less worried about the gun, and more concerned for my own sanity. Was that an effect of the book?

"Turn it off, Keela! Hurry!" she shouted as her back ran into one of the main support columns for the room.

There was a hesitation before her sister returned, "I don't know what I did to turn it on in the first place!" Not taking my viewpoint off the firearm, I rotated awareness in time to see Keela rapidly digging through her notes, panic readily apparent. Well this was bad. I didn't know what would happen if they destroyed the book while I was residing inside of it. I did a rapid assessment of my defenses.

I recalled that Keela had mentioned that this was a defensive artifact at the same time I discovered the seven layers of Aegis Barriers coated the outside of the book. The more I examined them, the weirder they got, however. From a practical standpoint, I knew next to nothing about how the magic behind the barriers actually functioned. Very little was explained directly to us it would seem. I shifted my awareness against them and realized the barrier I saw, the visible parts of the Aegis Shield, was actually holding the inside together, not blocking anything. I tried to scan deeper into the inside, but there was a mind-numbing absence that stretched on for far longer than existed inside the centimeter-thin layer. Everything suddenly clicked into place. It was an absence so resolute that it felt like it 'leaked' out a ways from the barriers themselves, preventing me from getting any sort of feel of them whatsoever. What was this magic that we had been using? It wasn't a barrier at all, but a thinly held in place sheet of void. A cleverly shaped hole in reality manifested by our magic, somehow!

In truth, I forgot all about defending myself. Something was extremely wrong with how I perceived things. I suddenly realized that there were some things you simply couldn't un-think. This magic wasn't what I had thought it was all along. An Aegis Barrier was supposed to be just an extremely strong, layered shield. But the entire time I had been using them, I didn't understand what I was working with.

Nirru fired three times in rapid succession. The shots didn't even reach the outer field before the absolute nothingness between the two barriers drew the energy into itself. Nothing was left of the blasts once it was done. It consumed the energy like it was a ravenous beast, and I mentally shuddered simply from witnessing the truth.

"Damn it! It's definitely an Aegis. I can't disrupt the energy field around the book. Tell me you have something, Keela!" Nirru swore, slipping sideways away from the support pillar and backing up further, dropping the gun.

I felt the book inside of me. There was no will; no awareness. But it still worked towards my goal with a limited intelligence, I noticed. There was a certain amount of anger that was somehow separate from me, but it was ruthless instead, requesting a quick and efficient solution. It gave me twelve known fatal points on Nirru's body, suggesting that if I hit at least seven of them at once, she was almost guaranteed to cease functioning almost instantly. Further, tendrils made of shielding shaped into rather sharp, twisted points popped out of various locations around the book, as if showing me a perfectly reasonable implement with which to attack.

Okay then, so it was of questionable morality. I decided to ignore it in light of cutting the gun in half on the ground with a simple wave of a conveniently formed barrier tentacle. I had the sneaking suspicion that Fluttershy would have likely passed out from witnessing that, I idly mused. I probably looked like some sort of ancient eldritch abomination or something.

Keela froze behind me, and I heard her lightly mutter, "It's intelligent." It was beyond weird to be aware of something I wasn't looking at.

I shook myself out of it. No, this whole situation was weird. I needed to get rid of this book somehow. If I could figure out how to take it back with me, I could solve everything at once. They wouldn't have either the source of power, or the knowledge that the book contained! The practical ocean of power inside of the book was dizzying, and I fought to maintain coherent thinking. How the hell did Twilight manage to do this on a daily basis?

My attention snapped back to Nirru as she lowered her hands again, both to the left side of her waist. The air itself seemed to distort and fold outwards from itself as she drew forth a hilt and full sheath. It was some sort of archaic bladed weapon, I noted, mentally frowning. No need to underestimate it if she felt it was more useful than the gun, I reminded myself.

"Wait, Sis! Don't use that! If you damage the book," Keela started to scream out, just as Nirru stepped forward and whipped her right hand out in one fluid motion.

My mind forced time to a crawl as she drew the blade. Regardless of my enhanced reaction speed, she had almost finished the cut by the time I became fully aware. Lines of energy danced from the shining white blade as it cut, extending its natural path through the air dozens of feet in front of it and aimed right at me. Along the path of the lines formed a familiar looking absence of matter. It was the same effect as what was between the Aegis layers! It wasn't even a vacuum, although it behaved similarly towards the edges. It was nothing; void. There was nothing at all existing along the path of the cut, leaving air and matter to scream back into place to fill the gap behind it. This wasn't a shield, however. The lines simply created the effect and then let it go. An Aegis Barrier wouldn't be able to block that, I suddenly realized. The book needlessly informed that it would slice through as if we were made of butter.

My thoughts whirled. A moment later, I decided that I had a distinct advantage. There was a force of will and decision behind the energy in the book that was under intelligent control; namely, me. I whipped out a barrier with two tethers embedded in it just in time to watch the effect pass through as if it weren't there. I smiled however as the lines intermixed, connecting me for just a moment to the effect. The sword was massively powerful; possibly more than the book I was in. There was no will behind it, however. It was attacking using a preset pattern built into it. It was static, while I was dynamically adapting to the situation.

I pulled out the energy. Like turning off a light bulb, the attack faded more than a foot before it got to me, dispersing as fast as a disrupted Aegis Barrier wouldn't after the support fields collapsed, as predicted. I exhaled in relief, deciding I really didn't want to find out what would happen if I got my consciousness cut in half.

Nirru's jaw dropped as she backed up more, shaking her head slowly. "No. That's not possible. Nothing can withstand an attack from the Void Cutter," she rejected, right hand clenching down hard on the hilt of the still glowing blade. Void Cutter? Based on context, she must be referring to the blade. Aegis Artifacts had names, then. I felt a little like Twilight as I mentally took notes, trying to piece together the information I was missing. It was a pity she wasn't here. She'd think of a way to get the book back to Equestria, no problem. I blushed as I shook the heated thoughts from my mind. No, this was no time to be remembering the finer points of more recent events involving her.

"It wasn't withstood. It nullified the attack before it connected," Keela corrected softly, standing up fully behind me. I suddenly wondered if there was a scripted maximum length for that effect. Had I not disrupted it, there was a significant probability that it would have not only went through me entirely, but continued and hit her sister.

"We need to vent the lab," Nirru muttered, eyes narrowing as she risked a glance back towards the door. The book reminded me that it would be easier to just slice her in half as she lost focus, but I quelled the advice yet again.

"No! Stop it, Nirru. M-Mender! Please, stop as well," she suddenly requested, causing me to do a double take and spin around to look at her. Her expression shifted from worry to a gentle smile as she saw my reaction. She had guessed that it was me inside of the book?! I watched her carefully, extremely wary suddenly. Had she predicted this would happen as some sort of contingency? What was she planning?

"Wait, what? Who's Mender?" her sister asked in shock behind me. Both of us seemed to have forgotten what we were doing in light of what she just said, albeit for entirely different reasons, I assumed. As much as she seemed surprised, she stopped retreating as soon as Keela drew my attention. The book suggested she might try to attack while I was distracted, of course. I really hoped this thing wasn't some facet of me or something. Was I really that paranoid?

Keela drew a blank look before snapping out of it and nodding rapidly to herself. "Oh! It's an AI that's controlling the book. I read some of the command words from the scan the machine made before being destroyed," she rapidly lied.

Wait, why was she lying to her sister? I suddenly drew a blank and realized that there were a few pieces of the puzzle I was missing still. Keela gave me a stern look before glancing back at her sister for support.

"Can you, um, control it? Is it dangerous still?" Nirru asked warily, sheathing the sword once more but keeping her eyes dead set on me. Similarly, I watched the blade carefully until the last of the glow disappeared into the leather sheath. That weapon was exceedingly dangerous, I noted. It took sharpness totally out of the equation by not needing to cut its target in the first place. It was kind of hard to defend against something that simply made everything in a long, spatial plane cease to exist.

Keela nodded curtly, walking up fully next to me. She seemed shockingly unafraid, suddenly. "Yes. That command renders it neutral, it said. I'll have to read up more on it though," she continued, much more calmly this time. Well, there was nothing else for it, so I decided to play along to the best of my abilities and acted harmless, pulling the barrier tendrils back into the book's form. The young Keldarian girl smiled at my display and gently patted the spine of the book, causing a lightly colored ripple to drift down the surface of the outer Aegis Barrier with each touch. The book further reminded me that I could sever every nerve in her hand and interrupt her nervous system with a few deft barrier movements, but I ignored it. Again.

"You're certain? I can leave Void Cutter with you if you think you might need to defend yourself, Keela," Nirru offered, shifting from suspicious back to her worried, surprisingly sisterly side.

Said sister in question shook her head, however. "It's okay, Sis. I don't want to risk deactivating it, then not being able to turn it back on. Just let me study it for a little bit in its active form, okay?" she suggested, moving back over to where the equipment resided.

Nirru let out a discontented sigh, but shrugged, finally giving in with, "If you think it will get us closer to figuring the thing out, go for it. Just be careful. Oh, and look at page three in the dossier. I think you'll find the information there quite interesting indeed."

Keela gave her a questioning glance, but received only a wink in return before her sister gathered herself again and walked slowly towards the door. I watched it slowly slide shut again before noticing Keela shift her head towards me instead, looking a little confused. I shrugged until I remembered that I lacked shoulders, of course. Feeling a little stupid, I formed a vague shoulder image out of four barrier planes and repeated the motion, much more visibly this time.

Keela cracked a smile suddenly and giggled, nodding to me in amusement. "So it is you, Mender. I think I recognize the biting sarcasm from last night," she muttered, looking a little less tense. I was surprised by her level of trust in the strange, floating, potentially alien entity with almost unlimited energy that resided less than a meter from her. Throwing caution to the wind, I decided to try something.

"This is a little new for me, but you did catch me at a bad time last night," I attempted to say. Lacking vocal cords, I distinctly placed my chances of that working at almost zero. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised when her eyes widened a little. Wait, I hadn't 'heard' anything when I said it, though.

"Wow! You can use telepathy? That's definitely handy. Wait, you're male?" she suddenly questioned, tilting her head to the side while giving me a curious look.

Oh. She heard it in her mind. Well, more likely, I manipulated the various nerve signals that allowed her mind to interpret what I said as verbal and in my distinct voice. I was suddenly extremely glad that I didn't have to manually do that.

I decided to be diplomatic and returned, "Well, yes. I'm male. My full name is Moon Mender, but most just refer to me as Mender." Names were a show of politeness, right? I tried to remember any rules of etiquette I may have read about at any point. Damn it. I drew as big of a blank as when I tried the same with the Princesses.

Keela smiled and nodded gently. "It's an interesting naming convention. Who are the 'others' you refer to?" she inquired curiously, now ignoring the machines and sitting down on the top of the lab table instead, all attention directed at me. It was a little flattering, and I felt myself mentally blush.

"They're my friends, but I'd rather not go into detail. Is it at all possible to convince you to get rid of this book and forget it ever existed? Maybe, I don't know, launch it into a star or something?" I suggested hopefully.

Keela looked surprisingly contemplative for a moment, before snickering and pointing out, "I don't think that would technically destroy the artifact. The book you're in is extremely defensive in nature. It would probably just get pulled into the star for a few billion years until the end of its life cycle."

Okay, so she could be sarcastic too. I smirked, but decided it had at least cheered me up. There was something about leaving the colorful ponies once you knew them that was utterly depressing. "Well, that would be fine. By that point, any and all relevance the book has would be gone," I reasoned, mentally doing the calculations. I'd be dead by then, one way or another. The link to Equestria would die with me, so at the very most, the book would then simply be a colorful story, if anyone existed that could still read Universal Common at that point. Or if it was even found again. A cold, inert, pathetically small object drifting through space had an astronomically small chance of being found. Last I checked, space was a pretty big place.

She smiled suddenly, looking a little too amused for comfort. "You're not actually in the book, are you? The book is a connection to somewhere else that you can act through, right?" she deduced, causing me to mentally twitch again. Why did she have to remind me of Twilight so much? She was definitely a sharp one, that was for sure.

"Does it matter? I really just want to be left alone," I groaned, getting tired of the conversation already. Wait, was it still a conversation if it was purely one-sided in a verbal context? I snapped out of the distraction yet again, the dizzying ocean of energy weighing heavily behind my eyes like muddy, lukewarm swamp water.

She lost some of her smile and nodded gently before scrolling the long forgotten computer screen down two pages. "If you can answer my questions, I promise that I'll try my hardest to help you. You seem like a really nice guy," she promised, scanning the page with her eyes. I glanced up at it as well. The document appeared to be only three pages long, with the last page detailing my old self's career. It was a list of combat operations for the most part, until one got down to the last three entries.

"Led Rescue Operation EX6?!" Keela suddenly read out loud. Oh yeah, that must have been the extraction mission I had remembered earlier. It didn't seem entirely relevant, however. Immediately under it was, 'Selected by Doctor Kyliona As Punishment', followed by, 'Elevated to B11 Status'. Disturbingly, the entries simply ceased after that, being replaced by over a dozen 'Classified' labels.

"He was the commander in charge of the rescue mission," she muttered again, sagging a little in posture.

I frowned at her reaction but quietly mentally corrected, "Lieutenant."

She snapped her head up and back at me rather rapidly, eyes surprisingly wide. "Do you know about him?! Where is he now?" she rapidly asked, borderline on demanding. I sensed a potentially deeper connection and backpedaled rapidly.

"I, um, don't know. It just said he was a lieutenant in the promotions listed," I excused rapidly, not very good at the whole 'lying through my teeth' thing. At least, not with last second excuses, anyway.

Keela's eyes narrowed momentarily before she sighed. "Please tell me? I'm partially responsible for him getting punished and I'd really like to know," she requested, expression softening.

Uh oh. My potential landmine radar was flashing like crazy. I had been punished for something regarding whatever it was she did, and was then classified. Somewhere after that, I had somehow ended defending a vault on an extremely doomed planet, blown to crap, then transferred to another dimension full of colorful, talking ponies. I was missing a few pieces still...

"The truth?" I asked hesitantly, to make absolutely sure she really wanted to know. There would obviously be things I couldn't tell her, but I could let her know ultimately what happened to the individual she apparently knew.

She frowned, hesitating at my question as if not expecting it, but finally nodded. I sighed weakly before informing, "He's dead. He died on the final day of our last planet."

She closed her eyes softly and slumped, bringing her hands to her knees for support. I watched the gentle movement of her throat as she fought to swallow before nodding. "I kind of knew, I guess. It's not like I really knew him that well, of course, but well, he saved my life and paid for it," she finally explained, shaking her head gently. I watched her soft pink mane, er, hair sway back and forth as she did so, bangs draping back in front of her eyes as she looked back up at me again. Her almost sapphire blue eyes seemed to stare into me and I was forced to look away. "Can you tell me how he died?" she asked quietly, apparently composing herself a little. What was her relationship to my old self?

"He was charged with protecting one of the vaults. He gave his life to charge the Aegis Barrier but persisted as the Planet Busters hit," I furthered, unsure if I wanted to give her all of the details.

Regardless, she didn't ask for them. She smiled gently and nodded, sitting back upright. "He always wanted to protect something, he said. I guess he got his way in the end. I was worried they'd execute him," she muttered, before chuckling wearily. My curiosity got the better of me, finally.

"If I may ask, what did he do to get in trouble?" I couldn't help myself. If this was my past life, I wanted to know more about it. He wasn't me, I don't think, but it was still informative.

She smiled fully now and raised an eyebrow up at me. "You'd laugh if I told you, probably. You must come from a totally different world," she warned, looking amused at my apparent expense. That was the problem with inside jokes.

I rolled my metaphorical eyes before daring, "Try me?" Her expression of mirth was worth it, and I caught myself smiling too.

"Oh fine, nosey. If you must know, high-ranking females in our culture have a very strict privacy and dress code. It's mostly a religious thing, and the males are punished for violating it. At the highest ranks, me being a council member as an example, the punishment for even seeing a patch of my fur is quite severe," she explained, covering what I had already knew of course. I feigned ignorance, however, to both cover my identity and speed the story along.

"Anyway, needless to probably say now, he broke that. Well, that's not entirely accurate. I broke it for him, which is very well known," she finished, coughing lightly and looking away from me. Uh oh. I suddenly didn't like where this was going.

"Uh, he saw your fur then?" I suggested, playing the idiot. It wasn't too hard for my usual self to pull off fairly convincingly.

She laughed, a sharp and amused sound, before shaking her head and blushing. "Ah, a little bit more than just fur. But nothing too bad. He saved my life, so I might have, well, thanked him a little after his debriefing conveniently located in my room. Just a bit of kissing and such. Damned if my sister hadn't walked in on us," she groaned, putting a hand on her forehead.

I tried to keep the mental convulsions to a minimum. I'd made out with her in her room after rescuing her?! Damn it all to hell! My mind whirled at potential implications of what that would mean. Did she have feelings for my old self? It was unlikely those would carry over to my new form, so I was probably safe. Still, if she found out about the relationship, working with her to fix the connection might become awkward. Or she might get pissed at me for lying about it and refuse to help me. Oh crap. But if I told her the truth, she might think I was lying anyway and then get mad regardless. What was I supposed to do?!

In the midst of my panic, I failed to note her giving me an amused look. "I should warn you, I'm a detection and observation specialist. It's one of the reasons I'm the head scientist. Your inner aura just went crazy after I said that. What's wrong?" she suddenly asked, causing me to whirl and smack into the side of the desk as I momentarily lost control of my levitation.

She put a hand to her mouth to hold in a giggle. I glared momentarily before sighing. I had figured she was a sensor specialist of some type. "I might not have told you the entire truth about him. Um, he actually lived for about a week after the destruction of the planet," I revealed, looking back up at her.

Keela, for her credit, managed to limit her reaction to one of extreme surprise. "Wait, that was just shortly before we got here! How did he stay alive in space for that long? Could we have, um, saved him?" she asked, a little more eager than I had expected.

"No. He was in a coma and had extensive physical damage. Saving him wasn't possible. We would have tried could it have been. He was in stasis, being kept alive by the dwindling Aegis Barrier that had shrunk down to barely three meters wide. Air was being pumped in by the Grosh that had moved into the area to study the event." It was easier to get out than I anticipated. If she was going to help me close the link, some things she'd have to know regardless.

There was a long moment where she just stared at me, vacant expression of surprise and what appeared to be system shock. For a second, I thought I had accidentally broken her or something. Finally, she shook her head slowly and frowned again. "They really were here then. Wait, we? You were here and trying to save him?" she asked, catching on rapidly like I had hoped.

"Yes. My friends and I tried to deal with the connection once already. We apparently weren't fully successful as we didn't anticipate the book, but we were responsible for the destruction of the Grosh laboratory vessel. It was a private operation that hadn't been reported yet, don't worry," I added, heading off that bout of panic before it could get out of control.

Keela's frown didn't fade, and she immediately asked, "Wait a second. Your connection existed before the book, then? Are you and your friends connected to here somehow? And where is the other end of the connection?" Her thinking was speeding up and I could see an entirely new interest forming in her eyes. Still, this time I needed confirmation first, however.

"Before I can tell you that, I need your absolute word that not only will it stay between us, but that you'll help me destroy the link to this place," I adamantly warned, drifting back up to be eye level with her again.

She watched my carefully before suddenly smiling. "I can do better if you're asking for insurance. I trust you, which is strange. You feel familiar, so I'm going to go out on my gut feelings in this case. Here," she offered, raising her left hand up to me.

My eyes widened, figuratively of course, as her palm started to glow. There was no prepared attack however, so I simply remained alert. A small orb drifted out of her palm and formed into a crystal in the air, bright purple in color. I momentarily wondered what it was for before she gave it a shove and let it drift over to me. I caught it with the innate field of telekinesis around the book and went to examine it. Unfortunately, it didn't give me a chance and promptly faded into light again before smacking into the book itself?!

"Well, that explains a lot. You have a life signature. That was a soul bead. It's a little drop of my condensed life force that is attached to a promise. I promise that I will not share what you're about to tell me, and will help you close the link you refer to, to the best of my abilities," she promised in a surprisingly official tone of voice.

Now I was really confused. "Where did it go? And what does it do?" I inquired curiously. I didn't feel anything particularly detrimental, so I assumed it wasn't malignant or anything.

She snickered before explaining further, "It attaches to your life signature. You can use it to 'ping' me at any distance, so to speak. The real purpose of it, however, is to assure that I uphold my end of the bargain. If I don't follow through with my promise, the bead opens up to you and gives you full access to my end of the link." Oh. Whoa. If I had access to a link directly to her, I could cast any spell I wanted directly into her being. That much I knew already, as I vaguely recalled contracts involving them from time to time. It didn't take a genius to know that having an angry person with a direct link to your existence would be very bad.

Then it dawned on me. She trusted me. It was probably something she felt inside of me that made her remember my past self, but regardless, she trusted me. Me, not him. I drifted gently before nodding my entire form. "Thank you for trusting me. There's a reason I probably seem familiar," I added, a little concerned with how she was going to take this.

Her eyes flickered wider slightly, but she contained herself and just listened. Not able to hesitate any further, I gave up and just started talking. Or whatever it was that I was doing now. "The place this one is linked to is a different dimension. I traveled there by freak chance when my spell went haywire. As far as I can tell, the dimension 'passed' close to this one and a, well, rather powerful energy source on their side linked up with the energy of the shield I was using. I think that's what caused me to shift over to their side," I hypothesized. It was summarized, obviously, but that was about as close as I could come with the information I had. Of course, there wasn't any need to convolute the details by explaining what a Sonic Rainboom was.

She couldn't quite contain herself this time. "You're a Keldarian, then?! Wait, shield? No. No, it couldn't possibly be..." she started to rapidly ask, suddenly looking conflicted and confused. Further, she didn't seem to know what to do with her hands, claws sporadically popping out as she flexed them.

"He, well, I died a week after our planet blew up. My old body was too badly damaged to save, but that was what kept the link connected before the book took over. A new body was somehow formed for me on their side. I'm not a Keldarian anymore," I corrected softly, not exactly sure what to say after all that.

"What are you now?" she asked quietly, staring at me with an incomprehensible expression, a light shiver in her pupils.

That was a difficult one to answer. Instead, I focused and formed a shield in front of me. Slowly and surely it started to bend and curve, shaping into my now familiar form. It took a good thirty seconds to finish with the crude shape of my body, but I was pleased at the dimensions. I put on the finishing touches of the eyes and hair with a second shield plane to overlap with, keeping them somewhat visible as they hung in the air in front of me. She watched curiously as I finished the rough image, finalizing my rather unkempt mane and tail. The last thing I added was the silvery Cutie Mark that adorned both flanks. Shifting the visible light spectrum across the surface of the shields was rather elementary of a procedure, so color was quite possible. Complex pictures would take a great deal of concentration, but basic shapes such as what my symbol consisted of was rather easy.

"You're an equine? Um, too small to be a horse. Isn't that one of the imported animals from our allies?" she questioned, tilting her head and seemingly getting distracted by her own natural curiosity.

Regardless, I nodded softly to her, a full motion of the book simulating it. "A pony. There are many genetic differences, though. Different skull structure, larger eyes, shifted proportions, and altered hooves. Sapient levels of intelligence as well as a grasp of complex machinery, sciences, culture, and magic. Two different phenotypes as well, as to what they consider races," I explained as technically as I could to keep her distracted. Based on her expression, it more than worked. Her eyes were now glued to the diagram as I added the translucent horn and wing types to it in cascading style to show the different types.

"Let me guess. Unicorn, pegasus, and normal types?" she inquired, peeking around the wings to get a better look as I cycled them.

I chuckled and shook my book form. "They are based off legendary creatures, but they call the normal form 'Earth Ponies' in regards to their apparent natural affinity in magic," I corrected simply.

She smirked and nodded, still looking amused as I drifted my little diagram closer to her to see. "I'm a normal type, but due to damage to my hoof in the destruction of the Grosh ship, I can perform my magic from when I was a Keldarian on things I touch," I added, erasing the extra parts and shifting the form back to just me again.

"Earth Ponies can't use magic?" she inquired, drawing her hand along the flank of the image and lingering with curiosity on the Cutie Mark.

"Watch it. That's technically my butt, you know," I reminded, coughing lightly. She snapped back as if burned and I started laughing as a visible blush danced up into her cheeks. I continued before she could complain, however. "Unicorns are the only ones to be able to actively use magic. The other two races use it in a passive way. Earth Ponies manifest it through heightened strength and constitution, as well as a natural connection with nature, making them excellent farmers. Pegasi manipulate clouds, fly far more capably than their wings should allow for, and can alter weather conditions."

She was still glaring at me by the time I finished, but I had no doubt that she had heard most of that. "I didn't mean to touch your flank. I was just curious as to the obvious symbol," she defended, looking a little miffed. I was kind of glad she couldn't see the grin I'd be sporting if I had a mouth.

"It's called a Cutie Mark. It symbolizes a special talent that we're particularly good at, but can be extremely vague sometimes. Normal ponies apparently get them close to puberty when they discover said talent, but mine appeared a few days ago." The mention of vagueness might have been influenced by my own frustration over mine, but I'm sure I wasn't the only pony out there with the mindset! That damnable heart confused me to no end. It must be symbolic, but the connection to the gear was rather baffling.

She nodded, her blush finally dying down a little as she peeked closer. "A gear? Well, if your engineering skills carried over, that's very appropriate. Are you a male still? Do they have genders?" she continued her pattern of curious questioning while examining the model. It was a little annoying, as I didn't know how long I had before waking up, but I owed her politeness anyway. She trusted me, so the least I could do was show a little in return.

"Yeah, I'm a male still. It's a little awkward as their gender ratios are flipped from what ours used to be, if I remember correctly. The transfer also gave me a lovely case of retrograde amnesia," I admitted, sighing wearily. It was an extremely selective amnesia as well, which was beyond weird. The book even only gave me information I specifically asked about, greatly limiting its usefulness. Well, it was automated when trying to get me to murder things, but that was hardly fair.

"That actually makes sense. To be forcibly shifted into another dimension and have your body regrown into an alien shape probably put you into system shock. Is their culture reversed like ours too? Males rule or something?" she questioned lightly, seemingly calming down a little now. Or she noticed my unrest over the barrage of questions.

That one was less awkward, anyway. "Their culture seems pretty even. The ratio seems to be about four to one in favor of female births, but both genders are treated as equal members of society. There's significantly less crime and violence as well," I answered wistfully, realizing honestly how lucky I was. If the dimension shift was truly random, I had amazingly good luck, contrary to what a lot of mares believed.

Keela giggled lightly and nodded, eyes softening. "I can see why you don't want to come back here. Cutting the link is more to protect the place, isn't it?" she deduced simply, looking a lot more relaxed now. There was an odd whispering quality that echoed in her voice suddenly, and I glanced about. Wait, that seemed really familiar all of a sudden.

I saw the Sun slowly rising on the inside of the ship, oddly. It was starting to bleed through the walls, almost as if a massive three-dimensional projection was inside the room itself. Uh oh. Keela glanced over at where I'd rotated to, but acted like nothing was out of the ordinary and shot me a questioning glance. Yup, it was dimensional bleed through. Damn it.

"Crap. I'm waking up. If you have any other questions, best ask them now," I warned rapidly, rotating back to face her.

Her eyes widened and she put both hands to her mouth in surprise. "Oh! You were sleeping? Our time cycles must be reversed. Um, I don't want to be a bother now that I definitely know you aren't an AI or anything. What should we do?" she questioned, an air of guilt leaking into her tone.

"Oh, that thing you gave me. Right before I'm about to go to sleep, I'll ping you. Just feed the book energy and I'll probably be pulled through into it. It beats listening to you talk for five hours and getting paper dumped all over me," I groaned, suddenly remembering what I had to look forward to when I woke up. "Oh, and don't run the book through that thing anymore. It wasn't pleasant," I added, sighing wearily. Hopefully I hadn't rolled into my own vomit while sleeping. Well, unconscious.

Keela nodded rapidly, looking a little sad suddenly before agreeing, "Yeah, that's no problem. I'm glad you're going to let me talk to you again. You're, well, fun." Well that was, um, actually, I didn't know how to respond to that at all.

Thankfully I didn't have to. I felt the book suddenly turn off and fall, me falling with it. I kept going however, falling back into the dark recesses of my mind and crossing the infinite void once more.

Chapter 16

The fluid dimensional shift had been so poetic compared to the now jarring spasms that I awoke to. At first I was wondering if I'd inhaled vomit and was now having some sort of choking attack, but those don't normally talk to me, I'd hope.

"Dude! Mender, wake up. Are you okay?" I heard in a quiet but sturdy male voice. My eyes opened up abruptly to stare right at his emerald ones. The little, purple lizard stood over me, an expression of seeming concern adorning his face.

I winced and pushed my hoof against my right temple, trying to shove the splitting headache out of my skull. "Ow. Yeah, I'm all right, Spike. I think I passed out last night and fell," I excused, telling most of the truth. Well, it was enough of the truth to hurt like hell. I probably had hit my head when I fell over, but I vaguely recalled being on my knees to throw up anyway, so it probably wasn't too far of a drop.

Spike looked momentarily unsure before smiling and nodding again. "Well, as long as you're not hurt or anything. You're nice and all, so it wouldn't be good if something were wrong. Oh, and Twilight would go totally spastic again. You should have just heard her yesterday!" he complained, rolling his eyes before walking back over to the counter where I had gotten my drink last night.

He went under the counter, however, withdrawing what appeared to be a paper towel. "Are you sick, though? You should let her know when she gets up if so," he followed up before getting ready to clean up my rather large mess.

"Those two are still asleep?" I questioned in earnest interest before tapping my left hoof to the wooden floor. The barrier formed almost instantly under the mess and I scooped it up using a bowl shape in one fell swoop. "Sorry about the mess, by the way. I think it was something I ate," I tacked on, gesturing to the bowl of rather disgusting smelling liquid. Well, it used to be liquid. I decided not to think about it, lest I make myself sick again.

"Oh, sweet! I wish Twilight helped me clean up stuff! Thanks! I totally forgot you had that crazy magic, too. But yeah, I usually always get up before her. I usually make her breakfast, too," he informed as he walked over to a nook in the corner and slid a garbage can out. I winced as I dumped the contents into it, and he rapidly tied it off.

"You cook? You seem more like a little brother to Twilight. Isn't she supposed to be the responsible one?" I asked, smirking as he tried to pull the now much heavier plastic bag out of the can.

"Ha! You'd think so, but we actually do it this way for safety. You saw her cooking at the party! I thought Rainbow was going to die," he warned, sounding actually shocked.

I felt the blood seep out of my head. Oh. "Yikes. I thought that was because it was just really old," I muttered, shuddering before lifting the bag out of the can with my teeth. Spike smiled as I helped him again and latched onto the bottom of the can, using his weight to help me pull it off.

"Nah. Twilight's too orderly to let things sit in the fridge for that long. Pinkie made that up. She'd only cooked that up, like, three days before? It just wasn't exactly, um, edible by the time she was done. It was a total waste of potatoes and celery if you ask me."

More blood dribbled away and I felt faint, suddenly glad my stomach was still empty. "Potatoes and celery?! I thought that was pancake batter!" I admitted, swallowing wearily. Note to self, if I ever felt suicidal, have Twilight cook for me.

"Exactly!" he returned, winking at me before opening the door. We took the bag out the front and set it down next to the end of the walkway leading up to the library. Hoped nopony got too close. The smells alone might incapacitate an unlucky pony!

"Thanks a ton, Mender! Having you living here is going to be awesome. Do you want some breakfast too?" he asked, running briefly to catch up as I walked back inside.

"Well, if it's not too much trouble. I can try to help if you want," I offered, smiling over at the little guy. He was nice enough of a lizard-thing when it came down to it.

His eyes widened a little and he asked, "For real? You'll actually help me cook?" Was it that much of a surprise? I paused, but nodded simply, wondering if I was missing something. "Woo!" he exclaimed before hopping into the air and raising his fist. I snickered momentarily before he rotated and landed on me during his second jump, almost knocking me over sideways. "You're awesome! Let's go make breakfast, then," he agreed from his newly discovered sitting position on my back.

I raised an eyebrow back at him, but he only grinned. "Twilight must have you ride on her back, then?" I questioned before heading back inside the library. He wasn't heavy at all, honestly. If he hadn't been rather on the warm side, I probably wouldn't be able to tell he was riding on me. My hoof flashed with energy and the door slid shut after we entered.

"Oh! Sorry, I didn't even ask if I could," he suddenly apologized.

I glanced back at him with a smile again and shook my head. "You're not that heavy, so it's okay. I just wasn't expecting it," I explained as we entered the kitchen. Now that I peeked around a little more, I noticed that he was right. Everything was ordered, tidy, and practically immaculate. It struck me as almost compulsive, but I knew better than to say anything to the mare, or that wouldn't be the only thing that struck me, I figured.

Then I suddenly got an idea as we entered the kitchen. "Hey Spike, why don't we make the mares breakfast in bed?" I suggested, looking back and up at the little fellow.

He thought about it for a second before smirking. "Dang, I wish I'd thought of that before! You really know how to impress the ladies, Mender. I wonder if Rarity would like breakfast in bed," he mumbled, raising a clawed hand to his chin as he thought out loud.

My brain did a flip. Wait, he liked Rarity? The total lack of comprehension shifted my brain into reverse as it rolled down a hill at maximum speed. "Whoa, you like Rarity?!" I asked before common sense or propriety could caution me otherwise.

Spike let out a gasp of shock and stared at me, dumbfounded. "Ack! Don't tell anypony! That's supposed to be super secret!" he warned, looking at me with pleading eyes. Oh crap! Why could I not go a whole day without committing some sort of social atrocity?

"Don't worry, Spike! I promise that I'm not going to tell anypony. I'll even help you make Rarity breakfast in bed too if you want to," I offered, hoping my attempt at blatantly bribing him wasn't too obvious. Wait, there was something odd about that logic.

He seemed oblivious, though, and sighed in relief instead. "Thanks, Dude. You're a good stallion. Oh, and you're so lucky to have both of them after you!" he suddenly exclaimed, probably remembering what he heard last night.

I blushed and coughed as he climbed up onto the counter wearing a smirk. "Well, Fluttershy hasn't made any promises and I'm happy enough to have Twilight. Both mares are amazing for their own reasons, so I am pretty lucky. Well, in that regard," I admitted, leaving a loophole for the blunt head trauma and injury quota I seemed to possess.

"Oh yeah. I'm gonna do the cutting, okay? I know better than to let you near sharp objects," he agreed, taking my hint. I laughed and helped him get things out of the fridge that seemed breakfast-y. Was that a word? Oh well. Eggs and bread were good, solid choices. Potatoes would work too. I peeked around for the veggies as Spike started working with the eggs I had retrieved.

It was strange. Every time I had one of those dreams, I felt so weird when I got back. It was a surreal, detached feeling that lingered for as long as I thought about it, which this time, was quite a while. What was Keela doing now? She would hopefully be less intrusive from now on, but maybe with her help, I'd be able to solve the link issue without talking to Twilight. A twinge of bitterness slipped in before I could stop it. She'd probably just think that I was nuts again, even if I did say anything.

"Equestria to Mender? You okay?" Spike suddenly asked, snapping his fingers in front of my muzzle and knocking me out of my thoughts.

"Oh! Oh yeah, sorry. I was just thinking about something," I excused, attempting to act nonchalant and probably failing in an extremely epic manner.

Spike gave me a skeptical eyebrow raise before muttering, "I noticed. The mares won't appreciate burnt breakfast nearly as much, however. Watch the toast for me while I handle the potatoes," he requested in a surprisingly professional tone. Well when someone spoke like that, one simply had to go along with it.

I nodded politely and peeked over at the toaster. Now that I realized it, this was the first time I noticed that Equestria actually had working electricity. Although I think I should have known this before. I could have sworn I saw a hydroelectric dam up by the riverhead. Forcing myself not to get distracted again, I plugged the machine in with a burst of field manipulation around the cord, then stuck the entire stack of bread slices to my hoof with a simple magnetic shift. The little lizard watched in amusement as I took four slices and slid them over the top of the toaster, simply releasing them as they were over the slots in one fluid motion. I might as well get magical practice while doing mundane things, right?

"Magic is so cool. Yours doesn't seem as convenient as Twilight's, though," Spike observed after another moment. Well, that much was true.

"Yeah. I have to touch things I want to mess with. Having a horn must be amazing," I agreed wistfully. I could think of a few ways around the limitation, but walking around with a bunch of ribbons tied to my left ankle wouldn't do wonders for my already suffering image as a stallion. Maybe some sort of hoof-to-hand glove I could build with movable parts? That might go the other direction though and scare ponies.

I gently reminded myself that I was supposed to be cooking when the toast popped up, arced through the air, and unerringly skipped off my nose. I let out a squeak before lashing out with a bunch of force fields from my hoof and catching all of the slices in a makeshift bowl!

The little purple lizard started giggling in amusement at my quick recovery, then clapped as I managed to get all of the slices safely back onto the counter. "Your luck is still just as bad, but at least you're getting better at the recovery part," he complimented, pulling a flat, dull knife out and dipping it into the small tub of butter nearby. What interesting ways to prepare food. It made sense from what I had been subjected to so far in meals. They prepared things similarly to the exotic dishes I vaguely remember being 'imported' from our tentative treaty with those other aliens. They had such complex ways to prepare food. It was a little weird, but I guess I'd get used to it. Our species, when not subjected to preserved military meal rations, kept things simple and mixed; chopped, diced, or stringed meat mixed with light grains and maybe a bit of sauce for flavor. The sauce was typically made from either fruits or vegetables. I remember a lot of spicy peppers mixed in as well as the occasional fruity tang if the meat was sweet.

My stomach growled as I put in the next set of four toast, and I whimpered. Spike smirked and nodded, complaining, "Yeah. I always get hungry when cooking, too. Seeing all this awesome food in front of me and not being able to touch it is like teasing. Even if it's not what I really want to eat."

My attention focused on his mouth while he was talking, and I once again saw the rows of pointed teeth. Was he omnivorous? "Do you eat meat sometimes?" I questioned gently, having gotten too curious for my own good.

To my own defense, I wasn't expecting the look of utter horror that the little guy displayed. "Ew! No way, Dude! I'd never eat any kind of meat," he denied instantly, taking a step backwards and away from me. Okay then! That hadn't been a reaction I was expecting. I chalked yet another social blunder onto my quota for today. Damn. I'd only been up a half an hour!

"Oh, sorry! I didn't mean to offend! I just saw your teeth and I didn't think they looked like something a pure herbivore would have," I explained hastily in attempts to calm the little guy down.

He exhaled, and seemed to relax before sticking a finger into his mouth and running the claw along his teeth as if just having noticed them himself.

"Well, I guess I see the mistake. These are for crushing and chewing gemstones, though, not meat," he corrected.

What? My brain stalled as I blinked slowly at him. Gemstones? He eats crystalline mineral deposits that have been processed into faceted gems? "Uh, all dragons eat gems, I guess. They taste really, really good and make my tummy feel better if it's aching," he expanded upon, seeing my empty expression.

Oh. He was a dragon then, not a lizard. My mind strained to remember anything I could about the word. The only place I had recalled seeing it was in an old book that was imported, once again, from our estranged allies. It was starting to make me a little paranoid now that I considered it. A lot of that alien culture seemed to be popping up around here. Although to them, even, dragons were a myth. Something fictitious that existed purely in imagination and fantasy; yet here was a living, breathing example of one. I think. I wondered how close the little guy matched to their myths.

"So you're a dragon? I think I recall reading that they can breathe fire," I muttered a moment later, tilting my head towards him.

He grinned in the same instant and exhaled, blasting a small plume of green flames dangerously close to my styled and braided mane. I stepped backwards with my eyes widening a little before coughing out, "Dragon it is, then!"

He snickered and nodded with a big grin dancing across his face. "My fire isn't normal dragon fire, though. I'm extra magical and can use the fire to transport things to wherever I think about when using it," he added, swaying back and forth as if pleased with himself.

I was confused, however. "Wait, so it makes some sort of portal or something?" I inquired curiously, suddenly finding the little guy fascinating. At least he didn't seem to mind the attention I was giving him.

"Haha! No. It kind of burns up, then just appears somewhere else. Like magic!" he exclaimed. Yet again, my brain did a flailing nosedive down a cliff. A thousand questions came to mind, but I suddenly realized that assaulting him with them might seem kind of rude. The way he was explaining it, I decided he probably didn't know the answers any more than I did. I made a mental note to never willingly use it for transportation, however. If it didn't actually send the object, instead destroying it and making a copy at the location he considers, wouldn't that technically kill living things? If it didn't, were they really the same individual as the one who got teleported? If one couldn't tell, was that still a bad thing? The moral and ethical questions confused me deeply.

Spike was oblivious to my inner turmoil, thankfully. "I mostly use it to send letters for Twilight," he added happily before starting to load up a tray I hadn't seen him pull out. Oh, the food!

To my surprise however, the sets of toast were done to perfection and already placed on a large plate. "Ah! Sorry for zoning out so much, Spike. I didn't really help you much," I apologized, suddenly feeling badly about it. He had seemed so happy to be getting the help earlier, too.

Spike snickered and waved a claw to me as he finished loading the tray. "It's fine, Mender. You had a rough night, so it doesn't surprise me you're a little out of it today. The company was totally worth it! Can you help me get this upstairs, though?" He glanced over at the tray, suddenly seeming to realize that it was several times his size.

I smiled, teasing, "Don't want to use your flames to move it up there?"

A faint blush appeared on his cheeks before he shook his head, admitting, "I can't exactly control how the objects come out. With our luck, the tray would flip over and land on them."

That would indeed be bad. Eating breakfast is good. Being covered in it; not so much. I reached out and touched the tray with my left hoof. It was simple enough. The tray and contents lost gravity instantly, and I snapped a thin, contorted barrier over the food on top to prevent any unfortunate drifting that might happen. Spike gave a questioning look due to the effects being not exactly visible to the naked eye. It shifted to amusement and a rapid clapping as I slid the tray off the counter and drifted it through the air towards the stairs. Once the properties of an object were changed, the small symbols I put on them would remain 'charged' for quite a while after I broke contact. That was a basic technique I remember being taught. More advanced ones gave methods in which to place self-recharging 'batteries' onto the enchantments, allowing for significantly more permanent effects. They required a tremendous amount of focus and magic to start up, though, and that was currently well outside of my capacity.

Spike snagged the tray out of the air and pulled it up the stairs, scooting himself backwards as he went. The anti-gravity enchantment seemed to amuse him to no end. Of course, I could hardly cancel the true effect of gravity on an object. That would take considerably more energy than my entire body possessed. Mass manipulation enchantments were extremely hard. Now a basic effect that provided omnidirectional counter-thrusting to match the force of gravity on the object; that was a lot easier!

Spike gleefully made it to the top of the stairs and turned in the direction of Twilight's bed. I smiled at his youthful exuberance as I went up the stairs significantly slower. Up was far safer than down when traversing stairs in my current body, but I still didn't want to trip and plant my face into the steps. Idly, I wondered if the girls really would enjoy this little gift. My eyebrows raised questioningly, however, as I saw Spike freeze shortly after turning the corner, claws extending up to his mouth and his eyes widening. Uh oh...

Sensing potential disaster, I sped up upon nearing the top of the stairs. Thankfully I only managed to trip once. Stumbling to a somewhat complete stop, I finally managed to turn just as Spike started to smirk instead.

The girls must have heard my fumbling in some far off corner of their dreamland. Both stirred gently, still tucked under the warm embrace of the covers. A smile crept onto my mouth before I could stop it as the stirring made them snuggle closer into each other. Fluttershy's muzzle and cheek were lightly pressed into Twilight's chest as the lavender unicorn had both of her front legs wrapped around her friend. Honestly, it kind of looked like she thought she was holding some sort of stuffed animal. Actually, now that I thought about it, the yellow pegasus was probably going to have a small heart attack upon waking up.

"Twilight? Fluttershy? Breakfast is ready," Spike gently called out before I could properly warn him. Both mares stirred gently after barely a second; Fluttershy opening her eyes up first.

She looked disoriented in that brief moment where you have to cognitively register where you are after falling out of your dreams. The look of confusion rapidly slipped into surprise, and then panic as she looked up fully at Twilight. Twilight, for her part, didn't seem to notice at all anyway. She was busy releasing a planet-cracking yawn. I momentarily amused myself by watching the little thingy in the back of her mouth shiver back and forth before she finally stopped yawning and blinked sleepily. By then, Fluttershy had started shivering uncontrollably and couldn't seem to break eye contact.

Twilight slowly looked down, eyes widening in surprise but not quite slipping into the panic her friend seemed to be displaying. "Oh! I'm sorry, Fluttershy. We must have moved in our sleep," she reasoned, probably dead on as per usual. Fluttershy was still mostly frozen, but I watched her eyes soften a little at the lavender unicorn's warm smile. Note to self, my fillyfriend is amazingly unfazed by waking up to cuddling with her best friend. Even in my head, that sounded really weird, and not because of the cuddling part. I decided I still was having problems considering myself as her coltfriend.

Spike managed to remain smiling, even though I heard the suppressed, airy snickering from this close. "I'm sure you two are hungry as well. Mender had a really good idea, so here you go! Breakfast is served," he announced, giving a hammy bow before sliding the tray through the air. It drifted low before gently landing on, and sliding across the surface of the bed. Twilight looked more surprised by the tray than the fact that she woke up to holding Fluttershy, ironically.

"Wait, did you guys make us breakfast in bed? Aww!" she cooed, smiling even wider now. Fluttershy snapped out of her system shock and glanced at the tray in front of her as well, as she sat up to equal Twilight's height.

Spike wasted no time in hopping up on the other side of the tray and sitting across from Twilight. "Yup! He even helped me make it. I should have totally thought of this before!" he exclaimed, tone indicating he felt he was silly.

"Hey, you did most of the cooking. Plus you would have had too hard of a time getting the food upstairs," I reasoned to try to redirect his self-chastisement, not to mention the credit.

Fluttershy was now blushing furiously and looking down at the tray. I had the sneaking suspicion that it wasn't me who caused the tinted cheeks, however. "Thank you. You two are wonderful. You really know how to treat two mares!" Twilight spoke up, smirking over at Fluttershy before shifting to a more questioning expression.

There was a long, awkward moment where Fluttershy continued to zone out while blushing and Twilight stared blankly at her. I was a little awkward, too, but for other reasons. I realized that I was rather hungry myself, having thrown up most of my supper last night. There was a problem, however. Breakfast was sitting on Twilight's bed. Her bed. Bed! I might be rather naive from time to time, but I knew what the favorite location of private time was. Due to a very informative conversation with Pinkie and Applejack a while back, I had a sneaking suspicion that the concept was fairly universal between our worlds.

"Uh, are you okay, Fluttershy?" Twilight hesitantly asked, finally running out of patience, it would seem.

The timid yellow pegasus snapped out of it with a start and nodded rapidly. "Oh yes, I'm, well, fine!" she assured, not sounding assuring in the least. Twilight's expression said she didn't buy it, but she sighed and nodded before gesturing towards the food again.

"You should really eat something, Fluttershy. I'm sorry again about moving in my sleep," Twilight apologized softly, gently brushing Fluttershy's right shoulder.

Fluttershy started to shake her head towards the tray before she stopped and gave me a questioning look. Damn it. I'd hoped they'd be too distracted with their food and awkward moment to notice mine. I carried forth with sitting down on the floor next to the bed and peeking over at my share of the food. Maybe Twilight wouldn't notice and I could...

"Mender, what are you doing?" aforementioned lavender unicorn asked. Damn it! I swallowed and glanced over at the confused looking unicorn before trying a reassuring smile.

"Uh, sitting down? I'm kinda hungry," I complained, trying not to be too snarky. I'd noticed that I'd been getting a little sardonic as of late. Not that it was necessarily a bad thing, but I didn't want to be rude.

Twilight was deadly sharp of mind, I keep forgetting. She smirked instead, assuring, "It's okay if you sit on the bed, Mender. There's no stigma against it, and besides, you technically are my coltfriend now, remember?"

Blushing at her implications, I gave in and slowly climbed up onto the bed. "I suppose. I just don't want to do something stupid by assuming and offend you," I admitted, settling into a comfortable spot across from Fluttershy and next to Spike. This still felt awkward, but I suppose knowing that the bed wouldn't be hurled at me for sitting on it was a good step in the right direction.

Twilight frowned for a microscopic moment before smiling again and nodding. "It's not like we're being intimate. You're just eating with us," she reassured before taking a bite of her toast finally.

Fluttershy, who had been reduced to a timid silence during the exchange, nodded to me as well. "Admittedly it is a, well, nice concept. It would make me feel so much better some nights if you were there to push up against. Sometimes I get really, um, scared in my house all alone," she furthered softly. She was looking down at her food, which oddly left me wondering which one of us she was addressing that to. She wore a light blush regardless and Twilight gave her a curious look. Somehow, I had a sneaking suspicion that she was refering to a more platonic cuddling than anything. My smile softened towards her.

"I didn't realize you thought of Mender that much, Fluttershy. You really like him, don't you?" Twilight asked gently, smile not even flickering. I know, because I was watching it like a hawk. It was still hard to believe she was so open-minded about Fluttershy liking me too. Was their culture that different, or was it more of a Twilight thing? I discovered that I was looking for any indication of her secretly disliking it that I could find. Realizing that, I started questioning my own motives over the ordeal. I was afraid of offending the lavender mare, obviously, but some of the doubts stemmed from myself instead. I didn't really consider myself worthy of them both. Wait, did I consider myself worthy of either of them individually?

That, of course, reminded me of the awkward conversation from last night. "That reminds me. What's a herd?" I blurted out before seriously considering what I was asking. I should really stop doing that, I decided in hindsight.

Fluttershy seemingly forgot that she couldn't breathe while eating eggs and suddenly started coughing and hacking like mad. Spike started to laugh a split second before Twilight made a gagging noise and spit half the contents of her orange juice cup all over him. My eyes widened and I leaned forward to pat Fluttershy on the back as she leaned over the tray. At least my fillyfriend seemed in less immediate danger of choking to death.

"Ew!" Spike complained immediately, looking down at himself with both arms indignantly spread and dripping orange juice. Fluttershy seemed to finally regain her composure and adopted a new, fiery red tint to her cheeks as she looked back up at me in surprise. Twilight's cheeks were similarly tinted, although noticeably less than her friend’s. Maybe it was a shading difference due to their extreme coat colorings?

The lavender mare shook her head before sighing and asking, "You remember that from what the guard told you last night, right?"

I nodded weakly, wondering if I should be worried for my safety now. She continued regardless, seemingly less upset and significantly more awkward. "A herd is an older tradition in Equestria. It stems all the way back to when we were still nomadic, but the legal and cultural aspects are still practiced today from time to time," she explained quietly, not making eye contact.

In a slightly bizarre oddity, Fluttershy actually seemed a little more comfortable with the topic, continuing where Twilight left off with, "Yes. A lot of animals still use the concept, and it's obviously still important to us ponies too due to our slightly off balance gender ratios. A herd then is as simple as multiple mares and stallions in a family or relationship together."

That was it? It seemed simple enough, but was more flexible than I anticipated. So it wasn't just one member of a gender sharing multiple opposite gendered partners, but simply a group of ponies in said situation with potentially multiple on each side. It made sense if it was originally for a nomadic lifestyle. Unity and protection would be significantly greater.

"So the guard last night was insinuating that we were trying to form one?" I asked, largely for clarity. Well, not in so many words, as he chose a lot more that were significantly more degrading. That wouldn't do at all.

The shy pegasus shot back to embarrassed in a heartbeat and shrank back down again. Twilight took her turn to recover and let forth a snicker of amusement before rubbing her friend on the back. "Well, for right now we're just a couple. If Fluttershy would like to join in the future, we'd tackle that then, but I read that it works a lot better if the members of a herd are friends before joining, so I could honestly see it going well," Twilight pointed out. At this point, her referencing the fact that she's read about this topic didn't surprise me in the least. Was there a topic she hadn't read about yet?

Spike, who I totally forgot was there, gave a questioning glance over at the two mares after swallowing a large mouthful of toast. "Wait, doesn't that mean that you and Fluttershy would be in a relationship too?" he questioned curiously, taking a strange interest in the subject. Wait, he probably shouldn't have asked that!

Fluttershy gave out an almost miserable sounding mix between a groan and squeak before sinking lower to her side of the tray. I resisted smiling as I went back to gently rubbing her shoulder to try to comfort her. Spike's studious mother surrogate raised an eyebrow to him but finally giggled nonchalantly. "Well, sometimes. I've never, well, considered being with a mare before, but I couldn't see any harm in it. I care deeply for Fluttershy as a dear friend, of course, but I can't speak for how she'd feel for that, Spike. Be gentle," she warned before turning to the now visibly shocked yellow mare next to her.

"You really, um, mean it?!" Fluttershy asked in disbelief. I could see the muscles along her forelegs shivering as she asked, her wings twitching behind her lightly in what seemed to be a mix of panic and surprise. I suddenly realized that all three of us liking each other might actually have a possibility of working. That was a little scary, for some reason. My sense of self-established inferiority started to creep up again. Things were getting complicated and the urge to distance myself reared its head again. The more complex something got, the higher the probability of something going wrong.

"Of course, Fluttershy. Now you'd best eat something before the wonderful meal the boys made us gets cold," Twilight reminded gently.

The shy pegasus gave a start before turning back to the tray of food in front of her. "Ah, yeah! I'm sorry," she rapidly murmured, gaze shifting between Spike and me. I smiled softly to her, and my scaly friend gave a nonchalant wave of a claw while stuffing a frightening amount of hash browns into his mouth. Fluttershy simply giggled before resuming her own meal.

My smile dropped away as I lost the focus of attention again. Why was I doubting this? I liked both mares; Twilight maybe just a little more, due to experience and proximity. Wasn't this the perfect opportunity then? It seemed almost too perfect. Admittedly, my natural sense of paranoia was a little cautious. It didn't help that I kept getting stuck on the fact that these mares were national, maybe worldly even, heroines! How did I deserve such amazing mares? Finally, like a shadow looming over the whole thing, I worried that things involving Keela and the other dimension would spill over at the worst possible time.

So yeah, things were getting complex. Twilight drew her attention back up to me. I caught it this time and rapidly resumed eating as to not draw unwanted attention to myself. This was hopefully going to be an easy day, anyway. I hoped that thought wouldn't come back to bite me again...

* * * * *

The resounding vibrations drifted through my skull as my momentum slowed to a halt. The cold wood contrasted my now heated and pulsing skin just along the bridge of my nose and muzzle. Groaning, I slowly slid my head down the unmoving wood, eyes still closed. Damn it.

Laughter danced along my hearing from somewhere in front of me. It was a hearty, carefree laugh with a familiar voice behind it. "Ah reckon yer eyesight still ain't fully recover'd?" Applejack inquired in an amused tone. At least I assumed it was the country flavored Earth Pony. If it wasn't, somepony was one heck of a voice actor.

"I take it you found out about the incident yesterday?" Twilight asked softly as she helped me back to all four hooves without hesitating the slightest. She adjusted quickly to my penchant for hurting myself. At least I was expected to be fully recovered by tomorrow. Magic was amazing!

Opening my eyes finally, I saw a slightly fuzzy version of Applejack nod earnestly. "Yup! Dash came by yesterday an' told all 'bout it. Yer one lucky stallion," she remarked, walking over to give Twilight a hoof in moving me into the room.

"It usually doesn't feel that way," I muttered, giving out a stiff groan as I was forcefully moved next to the inside wall of the barn.

My, as of yet hard to believe, fillyfriend snickered playfully before suggesting, "Well, just in case you're right and physics still hates you, you're just going to be telling us what to do today. No handling sharp and pointy objects when you're half blind."

Applejack laughed as well, seemingly ignoring my eye roll. "That's probably ah good idea. Ah'm gonna keep workin' with tha supports until Dash an' Fluttershy get 'ere. Mah brother asked if ya could make some plans up fer tha design, too," she requested, turning to walk back in the direction of the half-done conveyor, but glancing back over her shoulder at us.

Twilight perked up, probably noticing that this stage of the project could make full use of her talents. "Oh, certainly! Mender will explain the design and I'll draw it up as precisely as possible!" she assured, again promising my support without actually asking me. Well, it wasn't like I would have turned the farm mare down, but it still would have been nice to be at least consulted on what my workload would be. I chalked it up to her knowing me, though.

"Thank ya kindly, Twi! An' you too, Mender. This would'a been downright impossible without yer talents," she thanked, sounding more sincere than I thought a pony could.

Smiling, I nodded softly to her as I plopped down into a lying position with my butt to the wall. The lavender unicorn sat down next to me before giving a smirk and lighting her horn up with magic. Almost a dozen logs drifted over to my position from a new pile that had apparently appeared there overnight. Oh yeah, Applejack had been shorted by over half her required parts. Note to self; find out whom she bought the 'kit' from and blacklist him or her from any of my future business. "Hey Spike, are you coming?" Twilight called out a moment later, aiming for the door next to us, it sounded like.

Oddly enough, I could still 'feel' what the part was shaped like from when I last scanned it. I didn't think my memory was that good, so I snagged the original again and started to re-scan it. That was the last thing I needed: to get through all of the parts only to discover that I made a noticeable error in the duplication process. Applejack would probably kill me for wasting that much wood, too. My thoughts were interrupted by the grumbling of the little dragon as he hauled a rather sizable saddlebag set in from outside of the barn. "Yeah, yeah. This isn't the lightest, ya know," he complained, causing me to smile over at him. He was an extremely hard worker. Of course, Twilight had been wearing the pack up until we got to the barn, so at least he didn't have to drag it far. Which was good. If Rarity were here, she'd probably kill us all for mistreating an accessory by dragging it through the dirt like that.

"Oh, Ah ordered tha metal parts, too. They said they'd come sometime today," Applejack chimed in. Oh yeah, I'd forgotten she'd need more than just the wooden segments I was making. They were kind of pointless if there was nothing to attach them to.

"I hope you didn't go through the same pony," I returned, shaking my head slightly. It still made me mad that somepony had taken advantage of my friend. Sure, we had gotten off to a rough start, but Applejack had been extremely nice to me ever since that had been patched up.

"Ha! He ain't gonna get ah lick o' Apple business ever again, don't worry. These parts are from out o' town. Ah little more expensive, but Ah'm guaranteed ta get tha whole order, ya know?" she informed, sounding justifiably irked.

"Good! I have half a mind to go visit him myself and discuss the definition of product fraud," Twilight grumbled as she pulled out several sheets of paper from the saddlebags that were now in front of her. Spike wobbled a little bit before dramatically falling over next to her. Oddly, it kind of reminded me of Rarity.

"It ain't worth tha trouble. It'll hurt 'em enough ta lose all tha Apple business. 'sides, Ah might'a found somepony ta take over our construction needs," she returned with a playful tone to the last part. A little flag went off in my mind and I glanced up from my scanning work just in time to see the orange mare smiling at me from on top of the conveyor's main support.

Wait, was she talking about me?! Heat drifted into my cheeks as my eyes widened. "I think that's a very good choice, Applejack. He's brilliant at engineering, from what we've seen so far," Twilight chimed in using a sweet tone and a nuzzle to my shoulder.

I let out a weak groan and buried my head in my forelegs, feeling the heat radiating off it. Twilight let out a light giggle before I heard the papers rustling into position. "Yer too humble, Mender. Ya must realize how much this is helpin' us, right?" the farm mare questioned curiously, yet in what sounded to be a distracted tone. Curious again, I peeked up at her latching a hammer to her hoof using a simple leather strap. She lined up a couple more nails with her mouth and lightly held them up with her free hoof as she tapped them in. The act seemed so precise that it left me in awe for a moment. If I had tried that, Twilight would be re-attaching my hoof. I knew she was strong, but watching her reinforce the supports displayed a totally unrealized level of finesse from her.

"No, don't try doing that, Mender," Twilight suddenly advocated cautiously, apparently practically reading my mind. She wore an amused smirk as I glanced over at her.

"Yeah, no. I like my hoof in one solid chunk, thanks. Worse yet would be making extra work for you," I agreed, returning a much softer smile. She looked momentarily amused before softening as well, probably guessing that I was purposefully trying to appease her. What was the term for that? 'Sweet Talking'? The situation seemed similar to when Twilight had accused me of that before. Maybe it wasn't a bad thing?

"Don't get distracted, Casanova. We have work to do," she murmured tenderly. Of course, she accompanied it with a tantalizing and agonizingly slow nuzzle along the side of my cheek, doing the exact opposite of keeping me focused. It was strange, but I had a strong compulsion to push her over onto her side and start kissing her. Still, that would probably get a bad reaction. Reminding myself that she could tie bows using my insides without touching me, I managed to resist. Somehow. The heat rushing to my head certainly didn't make it easy.

"Oh come on! Last night wasn't enough smooching for you two?!" Spike suddenly groaned out, sounding appalled. Twilight snapped back instantly and looked over at the annoyed little dragon. Applejack, who had apparently stopped hammering at some point and was now watching with a surprised expression and slack jaw, shifting to that of amused and started chuckling.

"Ah reckon ya would think ah little differently if'in it was Rare and yerself," she reasoned pointedly. Wait, she knew about Spike's crush? If she was okay with speaking of it so plainly, Twilight must know about it too.

Spike grumbled something under his breath and crossed his arms. Applejack snickered but spun the hammer around with a flick of her hoof and resumed lining up nails. She continued to speak as she worked, with, "It was ah little surprisin' though. You finally decided ta admit feelin's an' bury the hatchet?"

"It took a while, but I think he's finally more comfortable with me," Twilight agreed readily enough, missing my eye roll shortly after. It wasn't entirely my fault that I was terrified of making her mad. Disregarding the most obvious retort, I decided to just resume my scan.

Amusingly enough, it turned out that my memory seemed to be spot on from the last one I did. Maybe there was some sort of intrinsic memory involved with imprinting the scan in my mind. Regardless, I locked down the shape and set the part aside. From my yet imperfect vision, I noted that the stack of logs was over to the left side of me. I reached up to touch one when the top log drifted free and landed softly in front of me. Smiling, I gave the unicorn a nod, even if she was currently looking down at her papers. It didn't surprise me in the least that she could manipulate the logs without looking.

"Ah meant you, Twi," Applejack corrected a moment later. Uh oh. The farm mare had serious guts, I'll say that much. Well, she was also a good friend of Twilight's, so she could get away with saying a lot more than I could. I decided not to look up. Maybe if I didn't see the death coming, I'd survive?

"Hey! I admit my feelings for him! Well, okay, fine. I might have been a little on the hesitant side, but I've never done this before!" the lavender unicorn protested, suddenly seeming extremely flustered. Well, that wasn't the anticipated reaction. I expected more yelling. And homicide.

I kept my head down through the moment of silence, busying myself by making cutting patterns in the log in front of me. They hunted mainly through motion and terror, I had heard. If I remained absolutely still and avoided eye contact, they shouldn't be able to see me! The log was significantly larger than the one I worked with last time, I suddenly noticed. I managed to fit three full-length stacks inside of it, allowing for eighteen sections from one. That meant we should only need five or six, and still have plenty of spares left over! As pleasing as that aspect was, I realized that I had only done four stacks before causing my nose to explode in blood and the most distracting sensation of a nail being driven into my forehead. This wasn't going to be pretty.

"Ah think yer both perfect fer each other, frankly. Ya share enough similarities ta get along, an' not enough ta murder each other," Applejack admitted, gaining a snicker from myself. The mare spoke truth. It made me realize that Rainbow and she actually were very similar to Twilight and me, minus the massive competitive streak they had going. They shared a lot of similarities and lacked the overlapping skill set.

Twilight nodded in my peripheral vision before adding, "Agreed. It's nice to be able to talk about magical things to somepony. It helps that he's actually neat and tidy too. Well, when not bleeding all over things."

I gave her a skeptical glance, only to receive a tantalizing one in return. She was such a brat sometimes. She continued her verbal rampage before I could retort, however. "Still, at least he has the sense of organization and cleanliness in the first place. Right, Spike?" she asked with a bit of a bite to her tone. Whoa, what did he do to get on her bad side?

"Hey, what did I do?!" he asked instantly, apparently knowing just as much about his offense as I did. That didn't bode well. I had just started to become friends with him, too.

The exasperated unicorn sighed wearily. "You filled up the bin under my drafting table with cut up pieces of paper, Spike. It was two inches over the top of the thing! Did you think I wouldn't notice?" she questioned bluntly. Cut up pieces of paper?

I glanced up at the same time Applejack did apparently, her expression shifting to one of dubious curiosity rather than mirroring my merely interested one. "What? No, those were all over Mender's bed when I got up! All I did was pick them up," he defended adamantly. Wait, what? Oh. I knew I forgot something.

Twilight slowly rotated around to give me a skeptical, yet confused look. Applejack's shifted even further to the disbelieving side of the spectrum as her eyebrow rose sharply on the left side. Well, crap.

Chapter 17

Magic. Using a broad definition, it was anything not clearly defined through science that still held definable effects that could be documented and controlled. Well, not always so much on the controlled part. To narrow that focus a little bit, our magic was a little bit more understood, anyway. We knew where the energy came from and how to manipulate it. It followed the most rudimentary laws of the physical world. You couldn't create or destroy matter at a fundamental level. Forces such as gravity and inertia could only be balanced out instead of changed completely. You had to obey the rules already in place. There were still variables missing, of course. How our bodies made the energy. Why the symbols worked the way they did to focus our efforts. Where the energy went after dissipating. Even the very nature of the 'soul' itself, if I was allowed to be dramatic. Back home, mentioning that in the wrong audience was liable to be disastrous, if I recalled correctly.

I'd always been more interested in function and practicality, though. Magic did what I wanted it to, for the most part, making my life significantly easier than it was prior. Which was a good thing, considering that in most cases, if life had been any harder, I probably would be dead. A burst of focus. The ebb and flow; twists and bends of the energy through me. It was an elation to use it. The log in front of me shuddered gently and I released the energy in the same instant. With a light tug, three stacks of the plates slid out of the wood with the extra space between them turning into a light dust.

"Oh, I'll never get tired of watching that. It's so efficient, Darling! I'd be simply delighted to see what you could do to fabric," Rarity assured from behind me. I smiled back at the relaxed unicorn, pleased that I could see a majority of her without distortion or fuzziness.

It would seem that I couldn't be without at least one unicorn with me today. Twilight had burst into a small fit when she realized that she'd forgotten some of her drawing equipment, and immediately took off back towards the library to retrieve them. Spike had elected to stay here, giving her an exasperated look if I recalled correctly. That was about a half an hour ago, at this point. It wasn't five minutes later that Rarity showed up looking for me, believe it or not. Spike was then delighted that he decided to stay here! Not that I was complaining. Personally, I was just happy that they had bought, or at least partially bought, my blatant lie earlier.

Thinking fast, I had informed both mares that I had simply been practicing 'precision magic' with the pieces of paper. They seemed skeptical, but I elaborated that I couldn't manage to fall asleep and was trying to tire my brain out quickly with the practice. Twilight shrugged and went back to sorting and labeling sheets of paper, but Applejack had given me a dirty look. It hardly mattered, though, as at least she could be as suspicious as she wanted without potentially involving powerful princesses on the case. I hoped.

The measuring tape felt cool as the ever-gentle white unicorn pressed it up against the nape of my neck before running it down my spine. "How are the measurements coming?" I inquired curiously as she continued. She still insisted on making me a suit, but I realized that it would defeat the purpose of me going with her if I looked horrible. Plus, it was apparently good advertising for her to actually have an example of what she could design for stallions.

"You'll need far less fabric than Big Mac, admittedly. Which is a good thing!" she rapidly assured before I even had a chance to think otherwise. Oh, she had accidentally insulted my body type the first time I had visited, now that I recalled. "I mean, honestly. There are many good builds for suits that I could make for you. You'd look simply ravishing in a dark blue. Maybe get some simple gemstones on the cuffs and buttons, and a nice bow tie to go along with the look. Hmm!" she continued, cooing contentedly as she paced around me, eying over every inch. I swallowed, blushing a little as her eyes almost hungrily scanned me. I knew she was just thinking up suit designs, but the intensity she was pursuing it with was a little on the scary side.

"I'm so glad you didn't talk me into going! Total drag, those kinds of parties," Rainbow Dash complained from up near the ceiling. Rarity glared up at her ineffectively and was ignored completely as the rainbow mare drilled the support plates into the ceiling. Metal pads attaching in the four corners to spread out the support pressure as best as possible. Of course, they were only backups, really; something to give a bit more sturdiness to the ground platform and to buy time if something catastrophic happened. Dash had arrived a little after Rarity, primed and ready to help finish the job. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and I managed to get through two more logs since she got here.

I rubbed at my temples now, however. The headache was starting to flare up, and I knew if I tried a third log that things were going to get messy again. Still, this was already more than what I had managed the last time. Nowhere near what I could have done before coming to Equestria, but that was a different story completely. "Rest, Mender. It simply won't do if you get your nose bleeding again. Maybe stretch and get a bit of fresh air?" the kind unicorn next to me asked, giving a soft smile.

"Ah agree completely! Ah'm not gonna let ya overwork yerself again. Get some fresh air, okay?" Applejack chimed in, popping her head out from under the main platform for the conveyor and giving me a stern glance. It lasted all of three seconds before she cracked a smile and winked at me, however.

Sighing, I nodded to both of the insistent mares before slowly standing up. My legs were stiff from lying in one spot for over half an hour, but it felt good to stretch them out. Maybe they were right? A bit of fresh air would do me some good.

As if reading my mind, Rarity nodded to me before suggesting, "Come then. I can always finish the measurements later. Let us take a stroll around the barn to clear our heads."

Spike stood instantly as well, attentively watching Rarity with all of his focus. "Am I allowed to go with you two as well?" he asked pleasingly, sounding a little on the desperate side. I struggled not to smirk at the little guy.

Applejack didn't hold back her eye roll, however. "Well o' course ya can, Spike. Ah'm not gonna force ya ta do heavy liftin' or nothin'," she assured before giving a warm chuckle. She seemed in good spirits today for some reason.

"Yeah, that's what she has me for," Rainbow groaned, hauling the toolbox back down and shaking her wings off after she landed next to her orange friend.

Applejack gave her a knowing, amused look, but shifted back to her warm smile when Dash looked over at her. Wait, what was that? "Ya know ya like it. Good exercise fer tha wings," she pointed out, brushing her hoof along the underside of the cyan mare's left one as if to emphasize.

Rainbow flailed instantly to the side in surprise, her other wing blasting out to full extension in an instant. How it didn't lose half of its feathers, I didn't know! She glared back at the country mare, cheeks burning a bright crimson, now. Applejack seemed unfazed and instead winked over at me. "If ya'all are gonna date Flutters, that's ah good spot ta remember. Ah hear it drives ah pegasus wild," she explained, causing me to join Rainbow in blushing.

"Why did you do it to me, then?!" the flustered cyan mare squealed, stomping her right hoof down into the dirt of the barn floor.

Applejack laughed before ducking back under the platform again. "Ah needed an example, RD. Ya proved mah words well enough, right?" she reasoned, muffled a little by her new location.

"You don't lie, Applejack. I would have just believed you," I assured, smirking now. Suddenly I realized that Rainbow wouldn't need to worry much about being turned down. Not only was the farm mare significantly more adventurous than I had pegged her for, she seemed extremely affectionate towards her cyan friend. Of course, I didn't know a whole lot about Equestrian relationships, but this seemed like a good sign.

"Speaking of, where is the Dear? I thought Fluttershy was to help us today with the remainder of the barn?" Rarity questioned softly, glancing over at me instead. Wait, why would she think I knew? Even though I technically did...

"What do ya mean, 'us'? All you've been doing today is measuring Mender," Rainbow pointed out, flushed cheeks finally calming down. I saw through her attempt to distract herself and smirked at her. Unsurprisingly, she avoided locking eyes with me.

Rarity looked absolutely appalled by the suggestion, dramatically throwing her foreleg up to her forehead and seemingly looking woeful. "The shame at even suggesting such, Rainbow! Surely you realize that I will help just as soon as my measurements are done, right?" she asked in a dramatic tone.

Dash slapped her forehead with her right forehoof before shaking her head. "I'll hold ya to that, then. Where is Fluttershy anyway, Mender?" she inquired, mirroring Rarity. Why was I suddenly the resident expert on the shy mare?

"She said she had to catch up on feeding her animals this morning and would arrive afterwards," I revealed, if only to get them to stop asking.

Without missing a beat, Rarity shifted from dramatically depressed to curiously asking, "Oh, you saw the Dear this morning?"

"Uh, well, yeah," I admitted, suddenly unsure of how much I was supposed to give out. On one hoof, they probably wouldn't let up until I told them. On the other, Twilight might use me as a makeshift hammer for the conveyor if I gave out too much information.

"Yeah! Mender and I made breakfast in bed for them this morning! It was a lot of fun," Spike suddenly admitted. Damn it. Well there goes that choice. I knew I was going to get blamed for this, too.

"Oh my! Scandalous!" Rarity murmured, suddenly blushing faintly as she brought her left hoof up to her mouth. What?! No!

Rainbow burst into laughter instantly and even Applejack peeked her head out again. "Our little Flutters decided ta spend tha night at Twi's place? Ah'm suitably impressed," she admitted, brushing a hoof through her bangs lightly. It was weird seeing her without her hat. The overly large Stetson couldn't fit through the support beams, though. Wait, that was beside the point!

"She just spent the night! Nothing bad happened," I defended, not wanting the mare's reputation sullied, even if she wasn't here to see my defense. If you can't be proud of who you are in the dark, not much else matters.

Rainbow grinned but Applejack beat her to the punch. "Ah know that, Mender. Everypony 'ere could agree that yer ah real gentlecolt," she assured with a curt nod and smile.

Rarity averted her eyes and snickered before suggesting, "Well technically speaking, it doesn't have to involve Mender, of course." Wait, what? Was she suggesting...?

Applejack blushed, the pink of her cheeks looking quite fetching when complimenting her orange coat and widening eyes. The cyan and rainbow pegasus couldn't contain herself any further and burst into laughter, rolling over onto her side. I averted my gaze and sighed. Sure it was good to have a healthy sense of humor, but when she spent most of her time laughing at other ponies' expenses, it was an entirely different story.

"Well, I was simply suggesting. Anyways, if Mender is to get his fresh air in any timely fashion, we really should get to it," she excused politely, timing a tactical retreat just as Applejack's mouth started to open. She had either been about to protest the probable mental images flooding through her brain, or her mind was losing motor control. Dash grinned and slowly closed her mouth with a hoof, still lying on her back, now partially under her friend due to a particularly festive side roll.

Spike scampered faster than I realized he could as Rarity exited the side of the barn. I watched him carefully as he caught up to his target of affection and began hopping excitedly next to her. Well, he certainly didn't try very hard to keep his interests a secret. I was beginning to have my doubts as to the validity of my prior promise to him. Was I the only pony who bothered to keep the secret?

"Please, Rarity? It would be really, really awesome," I suddenly heard him plead as I approached. Oh, was he requesting favor already? Admittedly, I had no idea how this dating thing worked still beyond my girlfriend's rather vague explanation.

"I'm truly sorry, Spike. I just brushed my coat down and styled it. I know it's not your fault, but your claws do terrible things to styled fur," she refused. Oh, was he asking for a ride? Wait, she combed and styled her coat before even leaving her house? I didn't think there was any special occasion today. Twilight barely ran a brush through her mane before we headed out this morning!

Upon catching up to the slowly walking couple, I inquired, "Is something going on today for you to go to all that work?"

Rarity hesitated for a moment, suddenly averting her eyes before shaking her head. "Why, of course not! A lady must strive to be presentable at all times. You never know when a simply wonderful stallion could be watching," she explained simply, adding a smooth wink onto the end.

I laughed and blushed, careful to avert my eyes as she swished her tail in an extremely distracting fashion. "Well, I wouldn't know, not exactly looking to attract stallions' attention," I reminded, mostly to change the topic. Maybe it would work better the bigger an idiot I made of myself? Spike took to the distraction well, breaking out of his depressed expression and snickering.

"Oh, that much is obvious. Twilight and Fluttershy both seem convinced enough. You have that subtle charm that only innocence, kindness, and a certain level of oblivious striving can produce." She smiled sweetly at me as she said as much, causing my blush to expand. Damn it. She hadn't fallen for the topic change.

Spike struggled to run after us again, having finally snapped out of his momentary shock of watching her tail with so much focus. I let him save face and knelt down as he caught up. He caught my smile I directed his way and didn't miss a beat, hopping up and settling himself in the middle of my back.

"Oh dear! You let Spike ride on top of you as well?" the pearly mare questioned, smiling politely at her now somewhat eye level dragon friend.

I nodded before starting our walk yet again. "It'll be good weight training. I need to get back in shape," I excused, sighing wearily.

"Hey! I don't weigh that much," my scaly passenger protested. I almost felt his irritated glare on the back of my head.

"That's the point. I'd probably collapse if I tried to lift anything heavier," I groaned, wishing I could magically skip all of this and just get back to the same fitness level as my old self had been. Nothing like the active lifestyle of trying not to die horribly from murderous rampaging aliens to get one into shape.

Rarity giggled along, regardless of it being a true statement. "See, Spike? Gentlecolt. Don't let those guards tell you otherwise. Being a nice stallion definitely makes you attractive," she assured nonchalantly.

I came within half an inch of inhaling a large cluster of rocks as I stumbled in surprise. Rarity was either oblivious or intentionally ignoring my almost accident as she continued with, "Sure, you leave yourself open for attracting a definite type of mare, but isn't that the type you want? You know, the mare who knows what she wants and isn't afraid to pounce. Every mare reaches a point where she decides she'd rather settle down with a nice stallion with a responsible outlook on life. Well, some skip right to that step as well, as I imagine Fluttershy and Twilight have. Myself as well, of course!" She only added herself after a sudden look of dawning, and I tried not to snicker. I hadn't considered her the wild party type attracted to the 'bad' stallions anyway. Like those two guards...

"I try my hardest to be really nice, too," Spike chipped in, sounding a little down over the entire conversation.

Rarity didn't miss a beat with that one. "Of course! You're the nicest dragon I know. Any lady worth her salt would be happy to be with you, Spikey," she assured pleasantly. He perked up instantly, of course, and gave her a wide smile. It kind of made me wonder if it was socially 'acceptable' to be with a dragon when you're a pony. They're both sentient species capable of making their own decisions, so I saw nothing wrong with it.

We'd gotten about halfway around the barn at that point, not traveling at all that impressive of a speed. Rarity seemed pleased with the slow pace and I wasn't going to argue. Walking was becoming second hand, but moving any faster would typically result in my face greeting the ground in short order, still. It was hard to make sure all of these hooves were going in the right direction! "Still, I can hardly imagine Twilight 'pouncing' me, per say. She's usually quite reserved," I admitted after a moment's consideration. It hadn't really bothered me, I decided. It was probably better for both of us that we take things slowly.

Rarity let out a whimsical giggle as she listened. Spike, for the most part, seemed unfazed by the whole ordeal. Twilight was either his sister or mother, depending on how one looked at it. Normally, either of those would pose a negative reaction upon him should a guy start becoming involved with her, I would think. I mean, I don't even have proper breeding documentation or a certificate of authenticity! I vaguely recalled that those were important when trying to impress a female and her clan. Well at least they were in my prior world. Equestria was so weird, sometimes.

"I doubt her education covered the finer points of intimate involvement, so I could hardly blame her. Are you two truly dating, then?" she inquired, shifting back to curious like someone flicked a light switch.

There was that word again. I hesitated and stopped walking for a moment. "I, well, she said that I was officially her coltfriend, and her my fillyfriend. We haven't, um, gone anywhere to celebrate it or anything, if that's the right idea," I ventured carefully.

Rarity's smile widened and I inwardly groaned. I screwed up somewhere, didn't I? "Dating does involve actually going on dates, but ironically, such events aren't necessary. If she says she's your fillyfriend, then you are dating," Rarity explained patiently, much to my surprise.

I exhaled softly and nodded. "I'm still getting adjusted to Equestria's culture, really. This is way more complicated than my old life," I excused quietly, feeling a little tired still. Of course, I hadn't gotten a lot of sleep last night between the Keela-induced insomnia, then blacking out when she ran my brain through a microwave.

"It's perfectly understandable, Mender! Relax. Has she informed you about herds yet, due to Fluttershy's interests?" she inquired, a bit of her mirth slipping as she tilted her head towards me.

I nodded wearily, unsure if I should be talking about this or not. I suddenly realized that I had to be really careful with Rarity. She was on a totally different level from what I was used to dealing with, I realized. Something subtle like a tone change could mean quite a bit! "Yeah. This morning, anyway. I'd heard the guards last night reference it and was," I started to explain.

All was interrupted by a spontaneous shout from high above. All three of us looked up instantly, just in time to see a wooden cube of some sort descending towards us at high velocity! Rarity went rigid, eyes widening as I panicked. Not again!

Simply going on instinct, I leapt forwards into the white mare, hauling Spike along on my back still. All three of us fell sideways and rolled just in time for the falling object to crater itself into the ground where we were. It shattered noisily upon impact, splintering open and spilling what appeared to be metal rods all over the ground. They were long and thin things, each about five feet in length. Wait, the support rods for the conveyor belt in the barn?

"Look out!" sounded from high above me in a lower, yet still distinctly feminine voice. Yelping, I shoved the now scrambling Rarity off to the side and tucked my legs up, narrowly avoiding three metal rods as they stabbed into the ground right where my groin had been located a mere second ago. Not cool! What, had the second crate exploded in midair or something?!

Spike cried out as he fell off my back finally and landed on all fours. He wasted no time in tossing himself on top of Rarity and shielding her upper body with his entire form. That wouldn't do at all. Grabbing onto both of them, I pushed them over until they were both tucked up under me. The second we took up as little profile as possible, my barrier activated and unfurled into a pseudo-umbrella above me, covering all three of us.

Rarity covered her eyes with both hooves as she tucked against Spike and my right foreleg. I balanced carefully with my left hoof in the air, supporting my weight on just my back legs and one foreleg. The shield held; sparks flew off at various angles as the high velocity metal rods skipped off it and fell around me in a loose pile.

High above, a panicking gray pegasus with a blond mane attempted to control what appeared to be a floating cart of some sorts. For some reason, somehow, the cart was on fire. Another box fell off the back and exploded in midair from a haywire blast of magic the cart produced, sending yet another wave of flying spikes plummeting down towards me. Damn it.

Tucking up again, I lowered my left hoof and focused purely on compacting the shield as hard as I could. The more compressed the energy, the stronger the barrier was. All three of us let out a panicked yelp as the sky darkened and metal rained about like a spring storm...

* * * * *

"I really do need you to sign for this," I heard through the hundreds of bars of metal. Why did Applejack even order so many?! This was easily three times the amount that she had needed. Was she just trying to kill me or something?

"What tha hay?! Derpy! Ya made ah right mess o' the barn. Some o' these things are stickin' through the wall!" I heard Applejack complain. It was hard to hear anything through Rainbow's laughter, of course.

Rarity and Spike stirred under me slowly. I doubt they lost consciousness, but they'd probably just now decided the end of the world wasn't going to take them with it. I raised myself to the edge of the shield as best I could to give them room. I was sweating a little bit now under the force of maintaining the stupid thing after so many collisions. Rarity glanced up at me and smiled momentarily before looking past me. Her smile faltered and her eyes widened as she realized why exactly it was so dark in here.

There was a tired sigh, followed by, "I know, Applejack. I'm sorry. I just don't know what went wrong!"

"I'm surprised they didn't arc towards Mender, wherever he is right now," Rainbow finally muttered, catching a breather between chortling.

Gasping, I winced as another spike of pain went through my head. I didn't even dare speak and let my focus slip. "A little help under here?!" Rarity called out, noticing my dilemma.

"Oh yeah. If Mender's that blue stallion, he is actually under there. Along with Miss Rarity and Spike," the mare named Derpy finally explained. Trying not to groan, I pushed back any comments about her priorities in light of not getting squished by metal rods.

"What?!" I heard in two simultaneous voices. A sudden harsh galloping sound came from off to my right.

I winced as a hard blow slammed into the side of my shield. It flickered and I was forced to slam my eyes shut as the strain put pressure on the inside of my eyes. Uh oh. That was never a good sign.

"Hold on ya'all! Ah'll get ya outta there," Applejack assured before another slam hit the same side. I finally groaned under the pressure, the top of the barrier fading slightly. No! My eyes snapped open as I re-solidified it just in time. Well, almost just in time. One rod made it through just before I slammed the barrier around it. My right foreleg instinctively whipped to the side, snagging the rod as it stabbed downwards. I winced as I felt a light gash along the side of my leg, but the improvised weapon missed Spike by a few inches. He yelped and crawled closer to Rarity, both looking more than a little worried.

A few drops of red descended from my nose as I looked down at Rarity. She watched them hit her coat and frowned before her horn lit up. Shakily, the rod slid upwards again from her magic as she strained to push it back out of the field. Seconds passed and I strained more. Finally she pushed the tip of it out again, and I closed the barrier back up instantly. The pressure on the top lessened as I realized that two or three of the rods were being lifted up off the shield.

"Almost got rid of a few off the top!" Rainbow gasped, sounding like she was straining. Holy hell! These things must have weighed a good seventy or eighty pounds apiece. How was she lifting three of them at once with just her wings?!

Her reply from Applejack was a furious scream of rage as one more blow hit the side of the pile. I almost choked on my gasp, but the shield held somehow as light suddenly breached through from my right. "Mender? Ya got ah barrier up?" she asked carefully as I saw her peek between the bars in my peripheral vision.

I didn't dare so much as move, however. I was literally helping the roof hold up with my back now, drops of blood and sweat coming off me in various spots. My head was screaming at me, an invisible pressure inflating inside my skull like a balloon.

"Get them out," I managed to say. Plead, really. Applejack frowned but nodded before slamming her shoulder into the side of the bar. It shook with the force of her muscles and she shoved five over and out of the way an instant later. The other side started moving by itself, seemingly, at the same time. It took me a moment due to the strain to realize that Rainbow must be yanking them from above.

Finally, half a meter of clearance was made and I slid open that side of the barrier with all my focus. Why couldn't an accident like this have waited a few more days for me to get more practice in? The temporary slip in thoughts caused me to jolt to the side, another bar slipping through to my left this time. Spike thankfully managed to dodge the thing before pushing against Rarity rapidly, helping her squeeze herself sideways out of the hole that was made. Applejack grabbed her a second later and pulled rather forcefully. The pearly unicorn was out of the barrier and removed from danger before I could even manage to blink.

Spike stumbled under the sudden loss of the individual he was shoving, but caught himself. He quickly looked back up at me and frowned. "Go," I managed to spit out, closing my eyes yet again as another bar slipped through, sliding hotly across my left flank before leaving a burning, then numb sensation. If I lived through this, my curiosity was going to force me to weigh these bloody things. I knew they were long, but what in Equestria were they made out of?!

Spike brushed against my leg as he left, rapidly following Rarity. "Mender, you doing okay? Can ya slip out while keepin' tha barrier up?" Applejack asked in a worried tone.

All I could manage was to shake my head to both questions. If I moved, I just knew the magic would snap and bad things would happen to my fragile body. Again. "Oh no. Oh no. I thought he was okay because of his magic thingy," I heard Derpy whine from behind the farm mare somewhere.

"Whoa! What's going on now? Uh oh. Is this your delivery, Applejack?" I suddenly heard asked from an oh-so familiar sounding unicorn on the other side of the peppering of bars. She sounded surprised, but not entirely distressed. Okay, time to change that. Sorry, Twilight!

"Help!" I managed to shout out weakly. It made me lose more of my concentration and the barrier flickered again. I shrank it instead of letting it collapse, falling to my belly as I lost ceiling height at the same time.

"Mender's under these in a barrier!" Rainbow Dash added hastily. Some of the metal bars suddenly didn't follow the shield down. I counted five directly above me that stopped as I heard a frustrated groan from Dash.

There was a beat of silence, followed by, "What?! Move, Rainbow!" It wasn't a question, and I swallowed nervously. What was she possibly going to-

The bars didn't fall more than an inch when Dash let them go before snapping rigid suddenly. My eyes widened as I was bathed in a purple and scarlet glow. Every single one of the rods lit up like a light bulb and started shaking violently. The pressure was suddenly gone off the top of the shield as the magic tore the entire shipment of rods up out of the ground at the same time, lifting them all into the air before dropping them in a rough pile almost twenty feet away.

There was a negative energy image as the barrier collapsed upon itself instantly with my sharp exhale. My eyes shifted to my left in time to see my fillyfriend standing there, a foot of energy radiating off her horn as she glared over at the pile of metal. Well, that marked a whole new level of awe and terror I had for the unicorn. I had momentarily forgotten that she was practically a physical goddess when it came to magic. Damn. I was starting to realize that she was actually stronger than the instructors back home, not only in sheer volume of magical energy, but raw talent as well.

Moving was out of the question. My mind screamed as I gasped the air back into my lungs, tasting blood as my tongue rolled out. It was oozing from my nose in a healthy quantity, I felt. The light throb of my heartbeat reached my left flank and right foreleg at the same time and I winced. Oh well. Aside from my headache, this was probably the least I'd ever been hurt in an accident of that magnitude. Actually, it turned out kind of lucky for me!

"Mender!" Twilight shouted as she rushed up to my left. I couldn't seem to catch my breath and simply panted there before opening my eyes again to the sound of her hooves on the grass. "You used too much magic, too soon! Here," she informed needlessly but in a worried voice. I wondered momentarily what she was going to do.

Her forehead and full underside of her horn was shoved directly into my forehead a moment later. I gasped as the world momentarily disappeared, raw magical energy flooding directly into my skull from the emanations. It was distinctly Twilight in feeling, and extremely familiar at this point. I couldn't help but blush a little as I felt her push herself closer, shoving more of her own energy inside of me at the same time. Oddly, my breathing regulated as the pressure eased up inside of my mind. Her magic danced along inside of me with purpose, flicking along the sore parts of my body before gently restoring them from the inside this time. Further, her energy seemed to almost massage my being, promoting my own energy to stabilized and bolster itself on the inside.

Thoughts surprised me as they danced along the surface of consciousness. They were the full spectrum of emotions. The warmth of her kiss, the nervousness as she looked down at me in bed, and even a pang of guilt as I swallowed nervously and looked away from her. Wait a second. The images weren't from my point of view, but hers. That made me pay even more attention to them as I realized that there was indeed a huge wave of affection pushing through, tainted with worry. A lot of worry, actually. The image flickered through for barely a second upon closer examination. Pieces of paper, hastily taped together, with written out words on it. "Mender, are you there?", "The book is important, right?", and "Tell me more about yours," were clearly written on the page in a familiar, fine handwriting. Oh hell.

She must have sensed what I saw. The connection snapped shut in a heartbeat as she pulled her forehead back. I groaned lightly as I felt the connection fade, her energy withdrawing alongside it. My own rushed to fill me back up again, however, bringing the burning pain in my skull down to a dim sizzle. Now I had other things to worry about. I suddenly realized she hadn't gone back to the tree house to get tools.

She averted her eyes as I looked up at her. I knew it. "Mender, we need to talk," she finally admitted, almost too quiet to hear. The tone made me inwardly groan. There was something about the way she said that which set off red flags in my head, and I didn't know why.

Rarity pounced before I could further analyze how badly I was screwed. "Oh, thank you, Mender! You're simply amazing, I must say. You didn't even hesitate! You saved Spike and me from certain doom," she spoke rapidly, tone dripping with a surprising level of appreciation.

"Yeah, dude! That was awesome the way you threw that shield up so fast! We would have been pancakes if you didn't. Although that does sound kinda good," Spike chipped in, derailing his own thought processes as he hummed, subconsciously rubbing his stomach, it would seem. I had to chuckle at that one.

Twilight actually hesitated. Normally the single-minded mare would have hauled me off to lecture me on scribbling all over hundreds of sheets of paper in a crazed manner during the night, then cutting them up into dozens of pieces each. Well, some were only cut once or twice. Towards the end, I was getting really tired and lazy.

"Um, not to say that I'm not thankful that he saved you two and was really brave and all, but I kinda need to talk with him for a moment, if you don't mind," Twilight interrupted, sounding vaguely uncertain for some reason. I sighed wearily.

Rarity heard my sigh and looked up at Twilight, a frown shifting onto her face instantly. "Twilight! Mender not only totally exhausted himself saving the lives of both your best friend and assistant, but he is injured! Anything you need to say to him surely can wait until he gets healed, cleaned up a little, and a big glass of water into him!" she lectured, surprising me completely. It wasn't that big of a deal. I mean, the accident surely wouldn't have been lethal or anything. All I really did was save them the pain and Twilight having to heal the two of them. Hell, if I hadn't been there, I suspect the rods would have missed entirely. They did seem to cluster exceptionally well right on top of me. Although she’d already healed most of the inside wounds anyway.

Twilight flinched and looked away, sitting down again and frowning. I saw the pieces of paper that she dropped from where I vaguely heard before. They were the same taped up pieces that I saw in her mind. Great. Should I try to lie and say they're nothing, play into the fact that she probably thinks I'm totally insane, or try to tell the truth and watch them really think I'm insane? Such great choices.

Spike must have traced my sight as he asked almost immediately, "Hey, I threw those away! Why did you tape them back together? And what about the tools you went to get?" Heh. At least one of those questions should be obvious, but I don't think he's ever seen how readily Twilight can use espionage to her advantage. Or I'm just exceptionally paranoid. Or would it be 'properly paranoid' instead, seeing as it turned out to be true?

"I lied. The tools are all here in my saddlebags. I went home to tape these back together on a hunch that proved right. This is why I need to talk to Mender," the lavender unicorn admitted, tossing yet another surprising twist onto my day. I would have expected her to try to hide it.

"Uh, what? Are ya sure yer feelin' okay there, Twi? That seems kinda paranoid an' distrustin'," Applejack asked quietly. Okay, that's it. I give up trying to do the silly 'expectations' today. Now the mare who was usually first to suspect me, even for irrelevant things, was thinking Twilight was a bit overzealous. That should really give the unicorn pause for thought.

Twilight scowled at her orange friend and shook her head rapidly. "I was right, though! Fine, look for yourself," she defended harshly, floating the papers over and tossing them in the general direction of the two mares and Spike. I didn't include myself, having neither the energy to interfere, or the desire at this point. No matter what I did or said, it was going to look bad. Tactical silence was for the best. Of course, one of the pieces of paper landed on my face and got stuck to a blood spot on my nose. I just lay there regardless, now enjoying the shade for my eyes. Why did using up a lot of magic make me physically sore?

"What in Equestria? Did Mender write these thingies?" Applejack asked, complimenting the sound of rustling paper as I assumed she picked one up. At least after my prior experience, I was significantly more comfortable being blind.

Twilight groaned and pointed out, "Of course he did? Why would Fluttershy or I get up in the middle of the night, write on hundreds of pieces of paper, cut them up, and throw them all over him while he slept? It's not even our handwriting!" Her irate tone let me appreciate not being able to see her. In my current state, I couldn't run away and hide somewhere.

"Easy, Twi. Mender, can ya tell us what tha pieces o' paper are?" Applejack asked bluntly.

Ignoring my first choice of dripping sarcasm, I went with a much more diplomatic approach. "Yeah, I could tell you. You wouldn't believe me if I did, however, so isn't it just easier to tack it up to ol' Mender being totally insane?" I reasoned calmly. Yeah, that was the diplomatic approach. I took note to try and tone down the bitterness in the future. Largely, it was just this topic, though.

"I'll believe you, Mender. Please?" Rarity asked politely. I felt a hoof gently trace down my back and figured it was her. She followed up with, "If he answers truthfully, will you then heal him, Twilight?" Well that was a little pointed. Ouch. She also technically healed me already. At least a little bit.

"Hey! I wasn't holding it for ransom or anything! I'll heal him regardless. Plus I already fixed up the inside of the wounds a bit," Twilight protested. Idly, I wondered why Rainbow wasn't saying anything. I didn't hear wing flaps either, so she either landed or left. Weird.

"They're from last night. I couldn't sleep, like I said. It wasn't because of insomnia, however. Keela wouldn't shut up. Whenever she talks near a book that's on the other side, I hear it for some reason. I think I'm still linked to that book and I don't know why. Keela is a Keldarian scientist. That's the name of my old race." I actually surprised myself this time with the calm I managed to maintain. Although it probably didn't matter either way, so was that calmness or apathy?

"What?" Applejack asked in about as flat a tone as possible.

A low groan, sounding very akin to what frustration would be like if it made noise, emitted from my girlfriend. This was followed by a faint slapping noise, from her hoof and forehead in all likelihood. "Mender, this is getting ridiculous. You need to see somepony about this," she finally managed to voice a dozen seconds after the groan.

"What's the book thing about?" Rainbow suddenly asked, indeed confirming that she was still present. Still present, and missing the point entirely, anyway.

I shifted my legs under me fully, realizing that with her current level of distraction, Twilight wasn't going to heal the outer wounds right away. Not that I wanted her casting spells on me while distracted, exactly. "It's the journal my old self kept, I believe. They were allowed one personal item to carry with in the military. Keela stated that it's something called an Aegis Artifact. From what I've pieced together, it's some sort of pseudo-sentient item of extreme magical power. The book is dormant until I connect with it. For some reason, it's linked to me." All the talking was making me even more tired, but Dash deserved a proper answer. She had actually asked the question without the barest of hints that she thought I was nuts.

"You really believe all of this, don't you?" Twilight asked, sounding genuinely surprised now.

"Don't be rude, Twilight. I mean, honestly. You should trust your coltfriend more. Would it hurt things that much to have either yourself or Princess Celestia take another look? The three of us will be in Canterlot in three days' time, need I remind you," Rarity suggested reasonably, actually giving me the benefit of the doubt as well. Maybe it was a good idea to come clean after all!

"Ugh. You too, Rarity? Can't you see how crazy this all sounds?! Princess Celestia herself said that there was no link to his dimension left. You all trust her as the leader of all Equestria. She's not going to screw up when the risks are this high!" Twilight defended, getting more irritated with each rebuttal.

Rainbow sighed wearily and added, in an uncharacteristically serious tone, "I kinda agree with Rarity, Twilight. If it's as serious as you just said, I think we should have it looked at again. Princess Celestia would want that." I couldn't help but smile gently from under my piece of paper. Maybe I was wrong about all of them thinking I was crazy? Well, crazier, anyway. Pity the only pony arguing for my craziness was my fillyfriend.

Twilight let out a stifled groan, but was interrupted almost instantly. "I agree with Rainbow Dash! If it's dangerous, you or Princess Celestia should definitely check it out!" exclaimed the gray mare from before. Derpy was it? Wait, why was she still here and listening to all of this?!

"Ah! Derpy?! What are you still doing here?" Rainbow asked almost instantly, apparently thinking the same thing.

"Oh. Well, I feel badly for what happened and wanted to apologize to Mr. Mender himself. Plus, you still haven't signed for these," she reminded. If I'd had the energy, I'd have hit my forehead myself. She was almost legendary in her persistence.

Applejack sighed but nodded in my peripheral vision, being one of only two ponies I could actually see from around the paper. "Ah guess yer right. Still, could ya kindly not tell anypony 'bout this? It's kinda ah secret," she requested politely before accepting a feather of some sort from beyond my vision range. She held it carefully and signed a slip of paper that was held out for her, it would seem.

"Ophf corph, Apphljahk!" Derpy agreed, I think. It sounded like her mouth was suddenly stuffed full of something. Oh, wait. She was holding the clipboard in her mouth while it was being signed.

Twilight sighed wearily, reminding me that she was still there. "Fine. I'll do another scan tonight on him if it will make everypony feel better. What do we do if it comes up negative?" she questioned, sounding as if that was mostly assured. Still, at least she was considering the slim possibility that I might not be totally insane now.

"That would probably be reasonably easy to deal with. I'm sure you have places in Equestria for ponies like that," I finally spoke up quietly. Maybe she was right after all? The possibility that all of this was just in my head hadn't been lost on me yet.

Twilight went completely quiet, and I was almost curious enough to peek if it hadn't required so much energy. Applejack stopped looking over the page presented to her and softened her expression a little before setting the feather back down and glancing back over at me. What, was it taboo here to have ponies with mental illnesses? Uh oh. Was I going to be executed or something for being crazy? Surely they wouldn't have kept that large of a secret from me!

"We do, but yer not gonna go to one o' those places. If'in it comes down ta that an' Twi can't do it, Ah'll take care o' ya mahself. Yer still ah hero, Mender," the orange mare returned softly, smiling again over at me before turning to face me fully.

A cyan wing shot out into my vision a second later, startling me just as the blush had started to set in. "Heck yeah!" Dash exclaimed abruptly, making me suddenly realize the outstretched wing was part of a pose on her part. "The entire town will probably take care of ya! If nothing else, you have the full support of the six of us."

I blushed further, tucking my ears down and trying to hide behind the paper. I could handle making an idiot of myself, but this was totally out of my comfort zones!

"Seven!" Spike added, sounding a little irked that he needed to remind her that he was still here. I chuckled finally and extended my right hoof a little towards him as he slipped into my right-most viewing field. He grinned and nodded to me before bumping it with his claw.

Derpy herself put her clipboard away, and then looked between everypony with a happy grin. “Eight!” she exclaimed a moment later with a little hop into the air. I held back a snicker.

To my surprise, a light giggle sounded from Twilight. "It won't come down to that. If what you've shown so far is the extent of the issue, you'd still be considered a fully functioning member of society. The Princess would probably just want you watched to make sure you didn't hurt yourself if you had a spell. I'm keeping you, regardless," she explained, extremely clinical and detached until the last sentence. Her tone shifted to amused and teasing with that, and I smiled weakly. Well, it was nice to know she wouldn't let my potential delusions ruin our relationship.

Applejack gave a stiff snort, amused but giving Twilight a skeptical glance. "That would be interestin' ta watch. But Ah think tha real problem 'ere would be if'in yer test comes up positive," she reminded, losing a bit of her smile.

Twilight let out a quiet humming noise before it suddenly shifted way closer to my perspective. Her mouth latched onto the piece of paper and pulled it off abruptly, making me wince as it took a bit of drying blood with it. She spat the paper back out after it was clear of my nose and looked down at me with a troubled expression. Was that because of me? A pang of guilt went through me.

"If it comes back positive, we have a lot of problems. It was either something the Princess couldn't detect; doubtful. Or it was something that happened after she did the scan. You said it was a book you felt connected to?" she reasoned out loud, repeating what I vaguely recalled saying to her already. I bit my tongue and nodded. If she was willing to actually inquire more about the issue, I should try to be as somber as possible.

"It was my old self's journal. She said it was an Aegis Artifact. I'd not heard the term before that, and seriously doubt that my old self made it into one," I furthered, earning a frown from my fillyfriend.

"Isn't that what you call your strongest barrier spell?" she pondered out loud, somehow making it sound like both a normal and rhetorical question.

I nodded yet again before remembering the bits I'd learned in the meantime. "Oh, that's right! I also learned that there's something wrong with that spell. It doesn't behave like I originally thought it did," I warned, unsure of exactly how to explain what I had figured out.

She seemed curious, but distracted at the same time. "Can you tell me about it inside the barn? I just remembered that I need to heal your outside nicks, and that Applejack probably wants to get back to work on her conveyor.”

"An' fix tha holes in tha wall, now," the farm pony groaned as she looked at the marks from the metal rods. Oh yeah. A few had stuck into the side of her barn like a giant dartboard. Twilight must have torn those out, too.

Then I remembered that I knew alteration magic. "Oh! If you'll let me use the bits of wood left over from the logs after I cut the boards out of them, I can use my magic to meld them into the holes and repair them, if it would save you time," I offered politely, perking up again and rotating my head ambitiously towards the mare.

She surprised me by looking equally as surprised before smiling again and nodding. "Yer just full o' handy tricks, ain't ya? Ah suppose Ah'll just have ta add it ta mah huge debt Ah owe ya," she agreed, smirking mirthfully afterwards.

I scowled at her, and the smirk became laughter. She knew that I didn't like the thought of her paying me and did that on purpose! "Oh relax, Mender. You deserve to get paid a little bit for your trouble so far. Besides, she's already getting the work of a professional engineer and free materials as well, all for the price of a construction pony. I think she already knows how lucky she is," Twilight pointed out before picking me up like a ragdoll using her magic. All retorts left my mind as it was lurched downwards and I redirected processing to attempt not throwing up.

Spike hopped up onto Twilight's back immediately as the mare stood up again. She didn't even flinch, and I wondered briefly at just how used to him being there she was. Applejack walked further forward and shifted under my drifting position, looking up into my lowered face. "Trust me, Ah know how lucky it is. This project would'a been ah total bust had ya not been 'ere, Mender. Ah'm real happy ya wanted ta help outta tha kindness o' yer heart, you have no idea! But that just don't set right with mah conscience. Mah brother agrees fully. So yer gonna get paid as much as we can manage," she spoke, surprisingly serious as she watched my expression.

I lowered my eyes, but nodded to her. Even though I felt bad accepting anything from her, I suddenly realized that she probably felt the same way in return if I did everything for free. I could understand that. Rarity coughed politely before asking, "Is this a bad time to inform you that I'm giving you the suit as compensation for your troubles as well? Oh, and I will cover all of our traveling expenses too, don't fret!" What?! But that was one of her newest designed suits for stallions! I didn't even want to think about how expensive that was. My ears drooped as I pouted towards her. Well, they rose, I suppose, considering my head was upside down.

"Rarity! That's too expensive," I protested weakly, trying the cute eye expressions I saw Fluttershy pull off before.

She didn't buy it, and simply grinned wider. Rainbow snapped me out of it, however, as she smacked her hoof into the grass. "Hey! Not fair, you guys! The weather captain position isn't the greatest paying job, ya know. How am I supposed to pay Mender, too, now that all of you are?!" she questioned in frustration, throwing me for a loop with her logic. Wait, was she seriously going to try to pay me for the silly wing thing she requested earlier? That was barely twenty minutes tops, if that. She was either overreacting, or had additional details planned that I hadn't been told about.

There was dead silence for a good four seconds, which I discovered was ridiculously awkward regardless of the short amount of time. Why was everypony looking at her like that? "What, pray tell, service did you request from Mender? Further, I think you have that a little backwards," Rarity muttered, sounding decidedly perplexed yet equally awkward at the same time. Maybe she felt it, too? Glancing over at her, I noticed her brow was furrowed and she seemed to be thinking very intently as she stared at Rainbow.

Twilight spun me around instantly and glared into my face from well within my comfort zone. "Yes, Mender. What's she paying you for again?" she questioned pointedly, irritation present in her voice. Wait, what?! What did they think it was, exactly? I swallowed nervously as Rainbow shuffled with her front legs. How did I say this without giving away sensitive information?

I tried rapidly motioning towards Applejack with my eyes. All it served to do was shift Twilight's irritated glare into a confused one instead, sadly. "Uh, it wasn't anything bad. I wanted him to do that glowy thingy with my wings again to help me practice for the race that's coming up after the party Rarity's hauling him to. You know, to maybe get better at my, um, celebratory sky writing?" Rainbow offered nervously, being surprisingly vague.

A look of dawning comprehension appeared on Twilight's face and she shifted to a smile in an instant, nodding to me. Whew! I got to live another day! I made a mental note to get one of those "days since last accident" counters for living with Twilight. It would put each day I woke up still breathing into perspective.

"Oh, that might be lovely indeed. You're certainly getting into this sky writing technique!" Rarity chirped, sounding honestly interested. Wait, why was she, of all ponies, interested? I was suddenly highly suspicious.

Rainbow apparently wasn't. "Yup! I can even add colors to them now! It's totally awesome, of course. I just need to work on the sharper turns now, which I was hoping to use those cool wing things for!" She seemed oblivious to the strangeness of her friend's sudden interest, so I just assumed it was a rather regular occurrence. Obviously, I only ever saw them interact while I was actually there. They've been friends for years, so who knows the depth of connection that I was missing?

Twilight's mouth caught hold of my ear and tugged my head back up using it. Huh? She smirked as she captured my attention again before leaning up and lightly kissing me directly on the lips. My system jump-started as my eyes widened. Right in public?! Well, her close friends, but still! Spike made a groaning noise and rotated around on her back so he was facing away from me. Despite the awkwardness, I felt the familiar heat drifting into my cheeks as I pressed further into the kiss to the best of my abilities. It was kind of hard to get leverage when floating in the air, I realized. Still, this was a pleasant change of pace from what I was expecting for today.

Letting out an obviously stifled groan, she gently lowered me as her magic wavered, pressing me lightly into herself as she did so. With my legs back firmly on the ground, I pushed forwards a little, nudging my forehead up under her horn and earning a giggle, followed by a gentle blush. The horn lit up with her energy a second later and I felt a little bit of her flow into me yet again, comforting rather than healing this time. It was like she was nuzzling me with her magic!

"Whoa! Now that's ah surprise," Applejack muttered quietly, apparently finally noticing Twilight's display.

The purple unicorn blushed harder but followed me back as I tried to break contact, assuming she wouldn't want her friends watching. Well, yet another incorrect assumption! Her neck and chest pressed against mine as she refused to let me break the kiss. She didn't make any attempt to deepen it, which the rising heat to my face thanked her for. I might have passed out had she done that! My right eye peeked sideways to see the slightly fuzzy image of Applejack smirking as she watched. Rainbow's eyes went wide behind her and she looked past Rarity to get a better view. This of course alerted Rarity, who turned around and dropped her jaw while watching. Oh crap.

I shut my eyes quickly as the blush magnified. Why were they all watching?! I felt Twilight grin and smirk against my lips as she finally released mine in return. "That, well, was to say I was sorry. I don't mean to get mad about that. Princess Celestia just means a lot to me, is all," she explained, grin dropping to a warm smile instead.

My ears and eyelids drooped a little, but I quickly caught them and forced a timid smile. That was 'just' to say she was sorry? I didn't like the aspect of her treating it like a reward or compensation. Still, I struggled to try not to jump to conclusions. She didn't specifically say that, after all. Still, it would be nice if she didn't think I was crazy in the first place.

She frowned slightly, apparently having caught my momentary lapse in expression. Her eyes practically bore a hole through mine and I backed up a little bit. Rainbow, who was thankfully oblivious as to my look, interrupted with, "Wow! That's the first time you two have willingly kissed with an audience. Although the one I accidentally flew in on was much more interesting."

Rarity did a double take and directed her slack-jawed stare to Rainbow instead. "What?! You simply must reveal the story! Right now," she effectively ordered.

"Rainbow! You weren't supposed to tell!" Twilight lashed back, switching from concern about me to seething rage in a surprisingly short amount of time! Suddenly, I didn't feel nearly as comfortable being pressed up against the unicorn.

"It's all perfectly normal, Twi. Everypony gets ah little worked up with their special somepony in private, Ah imagine," Applejack tried to sooth, playing the voice of reason. Of course, she was also taking a shot in the dark with what we had been caught doing. Risky, but she'd guessed right. I think. If my terminology was accurate, anyway.

"Excuse me?! We were experimenting! It wasn't anything serious like that. Then she blundered in without even knocking!" Twilight growled, sounding even angrier. Oh crap! My terminology must not be accurate! I started slinking back a little bit at a time, trying to distance myself without drawing attention. If she spontaneously ignited or something, at least I wouldn't be incinerated instantly this way.

She noticed. Pretty much immediately. Her glare was shifted to me almost instantly and I made a weak whimpering noise in the back of my throat, trying to hop away. She caught me out of midair and violently pulled me back next to her in a heartbeat. "And for the last time, I'm not going to hurt you! You don't have to run," she started to explain in an irritated tone.

There was something wrong; a twinge in my head from the situation. My vision flashed as I was pulled, something ugly twisting itself through my skull. My posture in the air matched something dark in the back of my mind, suddenly feeling familiar. For the briefest moment, everything darkened as I was pulled towards a metal table, arms and legs strapped in place to something cold behind me. I tried to scream, but there was some sort of metal piece stuffed in my mouth. A slim girl stood in the shadows in front of me, partially concealed by a combination of there being only one light in the room and it being shined directly into my eyes. I could still make out the whites of her teeth as she grinned, and the glistening metal blades of the drill she held. My eyes widened. The clawed-shaped blades were stained red, I noticed, the closer I was inched towards the gleeful female. I knew those were the last things I was going to see.

The horrible image was gone in less than a heartbeat, but it was far too late. With a guttural yelp, I curled up into a little ball in her magic. Apparently expecting me to remain upright, her magic missed its mark and dropped me the remaining foot to the ground in front of her feet.

I didn't even feel the jar before her hoof extended to stop me from sliding. I tucked up further, attempting to hide the sensitive parts from her magic. She kept saying she wasn't going to hurt me, but she got so angry sometimes. Just like them. She was so absurdly powerful that her anger... There was a thousand ways she could make me wish for such a simple thing as death and I knew it. She could torture me for days with that level of power, slowly pulling me apart yet making sure every individual piece stayed alive to feel everything. Nopony would stop her, would they? She was too important. Just like them. She could do whatever she wanted. What was I doing? What was I thinking?! I couldn't stop the shaking as I tucked up further, remembering suddenly what I had seen the females from my dimension do. Could that really be considered a 'relationship' in any way? Who was I kidding? I'd just been pretending to be her equal, after all.

Her hoof hesitated, and then drew back again. I felt her body follow suit, even though I couldn't feel her. What was she doing? A spike of paradoxical anger suddenly reared up inside of me, scaring me even further in its sudden, seemingly random appearance. I smashed it down before it could even get started. No! If I got angry with them, it would just give them more reason to punish me. What was wrong with me?! Where had that anger come from?

"Whoa. Dude, are you okay?" I heard Spike ask softly. Why didn't he realize? He's been her 'assistant' for years now. Surely he saw what she could do. Why didn't it bother him?! My body told me to run while they were distracted. I tried to quiet it down further and pulled my legs up. No, if I ran, even if she didn't just catch me with magic, Rainbow could in a heartbeat with her speed. She was nice though, wasn't she?

"Mender, I..." Twilight started to speak. Speak. Her hoof touched my shoulder again and I went rigid. No. No, it wasn't right. She was either like them, or she wasn't! What was real and what wasn't, though? Was the other world all in my head? Was Equestria all in my head and I actually lay dying somewhere? Was it a mixture; if so, which was real? She was real. She just touched me. I could practically feel the magic beating under her hoof. She was filled with it. The guttural instinct was still there, after all.

The panic spiked and I screamed, "No! Get away!" at the top of my lungs before booking it for the barn as fast as my legs could carry me. I tripped over my hooves within seconds, crashing along the ground and sliding on my face.

"You're pathetic. You can't even walk right. There's no way we want you on the breeding list," she continued after laughing at my spill. Her essence seemed to follow me, inescapable. The images of the scalpels returned, and I gasped, clutching my stomach with one leg before scrambling to my hooves again and aiming almost blindly for the barn door.

"Mender!" I heard Rainbow shout before taking to the air with a loud flap of her wings. Oh hell! "Come back... You'll make such a good pet. Just accept it," the cyan pegasus continued, echoing into my skull as I screamed again. I smashed off the side of the barn door's frame and fell over once more.

"You already failed the breeding exam. You failed what it meant to be a soldier, too. You failed to protect her from yourself. You touched her!" Twilight screamed after me, somehow feeling like she was right behind me now.

I dove across the floor, sliding in the dirt before getting under the bars of the support platform. "I'm sorry!" I yelled towards nothing in particular, the inside of the room spinning violently. There was no other choice.

Panicking, I did the only thing I could think of that would protect me from them all; the only thing I was good at. I slammed all six inside edges of the conveyor's platform with barrier spells before tethering it up to my vitality. Now they couldn't get me at all, even if they broke through...

Chapter 18

Goals and desires were a funny thing. It was scientifically proven, of course. Once all of your base needs were fulfilled, it was natural to move on to higher designs. Food, shelter, sleep, and a good book or similar were what my list of needs largely consisted of. Once those were satisfied, the wants moved in. But that was normal, right?

What would most say their wants were? Every sentient organism would probably consider reproducing a good life goal at some point. The method didn't really matter, I suppose, but it was a basic biological drive. Success, in its broadest definition, was probably fairly popular for a goal, too. Well, I don't know of many that set out into the world to fail. I suppose friends and family would also count for many. It's that networking aspect that was appealing. Or maybe it was just that special somepony to ward away the loneliness while sharing all that success with? Company was nice, especially when it included passionate sex and a solution to that reproduction thing, I'd imagine. Not that I would know.

Speaking of myself, what I wanted was rather simple. A normal day.

Groaning, I held a forehoof to my left temple to push the noises away. My other side was squished into the bottom of my barrier, so I hardly cared. My other foreleg was busy clutching my stomach, just in case the scalpels decided to make themselves real and spill my squishy insides out everywhere.

Something was wrong. After my rational mind rebooted itself, I at least managed to come to that conclusion. Images, barely noticeable and not really visually there were flickering through my imagination of their own free will, which was kind of frightening. They weren't something direct; just barely there on the edges of my thoughts for me to notice as my mind wandered. After I acknowledged them, they were gone an instant later, no doubt to reposition themselves for another ambush further down the line.

My vision shifted and warped as I stared at my own barriers that surrounded me completely. They were partially transparent, and it was like watching a silent movie. The ponies outside were saying things, but no sound reached me. Vibrations couldn't get through the barriers, so that was an obvious side effect. The orange mare had reared back and slammed the side of the field a few times, too, of course. I didn't even feel it. I'm not really feeling much of anything, though. It just made me even more tired after her third hit. The lavender unicorn shouted something then and she stopped. I was kind of sleepy, but I didn't feel like dreaming, so I stayed awake. It was kind of hard to think, which probably meant that I was running out of air inside my little box.

I couldn't escape, though. They'd capture me if I did. If they were real, of course. I couldn't decide. Still, if they were real, I had probably really offended them this time around.

It seemed like all I could do was run away anymore. They were wrong about me being a hero. I didn't want to die. I didn't want to suffer. There hadn't been a choice back on the ship. It was either accept that I had to die, or let all of my friends die instead. The only friends I had ever made. That was worse than death. So there was no choice. I wasn't a hero. I was a coward.

I curled up more as the pink one slowly scraped more on the barrier, holding up her piece of paper again. At least they figured out fairly fast that it was sound proof. The paper was the same, pleading with me to come out. I stared listlessly through it. What had broken to cause these images? It was hard to believe that Twilight was the only reason.

My head cleared a little, surprisingly. I took advantage of it and reflected upon everything that had happened. Rarity and Twilight had gotten into some sort of shouting match, it had looked like. Twilight surprisingly lost and left in tears at full speed. Rarity didn't exactly act like she had won, however. Now she was lying in the corner by herself, watching Pinkie and Applejack try to get me out of the box.

Pinkie had obviously gone with a pathos appeal. Applejack was a tad more creative, however. So far she had removed the back wall, the left wall, and the inside of the platform in testing the various angles of my barriers. She was extremely persistent, it would seem. Now she was starting to dig down into the dirt, looking like she was going to try to tunnel under me. I was lying on a barrier as well, so I already knew that wouldn't work. No, it couldn't work. I'd rather suffocate than subject myself to what they could do to me. So much power.

I fought it further. Twilight said she wasn't going to use it to hurt me. But she had used it to hurt me before. I didn't know what to think. I wanted to believe her but I was scared. I saw what power like that did. I saw it with my own eyes, if the images flickering through my brain like a bad movie reel were to be believed. They hadn't just taken my squad's eyes when we all saw her; saw Keela.

She was whom we had rescued. She was the one that had damned us in the same instant. She was different from them, and they blamed us for it instead of accepting her. No, blame was too weak for what they did. Taking our eyes would have been a mercy. Why was I the only one to make it out alive? Was I? The memories just weren't there, and my head started pounding again.

The clarity continued until finally, the cloud that had sunk over me like a fever faded. Wait, what was I doing? That had obviously been a flashback, and while they were probably upset, I had no reason to think that they were like the females of my dimension. Twilight, while not exactly the fairest pony out there, definitely didn't deserve to be compared to... them.

"Exactly! Relax. Come out then, Mender," I heard echoed all around me. Wait, what the hell?!

A yellow distortion landed inside the barn a second later. "Sorry I'm, um, late. I got here as fast as I could after Rainbow found me. She told me what happened, and then went to catch up with Twilight," Fluttershy apologized, my head echoing in perfect clarity and timing to her moving lips. Oh. That again. I suddenly wondered how much of my thoughts clearing up were due to proximity to the yellow mare.

Pinkie made several frantic motions and gestured towards the wall of the barrier, looking uncharacteristically concerned. "I know. But it sounds like he's, well, starting to realize that it was all a misunderstanding. Right, Mender?" the yellow pegasus replied, turning back to me through the barrier as she asked quietly.

I sighed and nodded, testing a reply. "It was a flashback when she pulled me. Something, um, really bad happened in my prior life that it reminded me of unexpectedly."

Fluttershy's expression fell a little and she nodded quietly. Applejack had stopped digging and was now staring in surprise at the mare. She mouthed something a second later, and Fluttershy gave her a quizzical glance.

"What do you mean, Applejack? I can hear him fine, and he's answering me," she reasoned, blowing a blur of pink out of what I could only assume was her face. At least it was the barrier screwing my vision up this time instead of my actual eyes. They were on the way to recovery, thankfully.

"The barrier is soundproof, Fluttershy. I think we need to, um, talk after this at some point," I finally admitted, frowning to myself.

There was an abrupt spike of panic from the shy mare. "What? But, how could it be... That can't be right. How can I hear you if it's soundproofed?" she asked, losing more and more of her voice the longer she spoke.

The rush of strength returning to me as I killed the barriers was actually on the pleasant side. I stepped out of the underside of the platform shakily, trying to keep my balance. "I heard it in my head. You're probably the same, right?" I inquired, more to try to distract myself from the wet noodle feeling in my legs than anything.

Applejack surprised me by closing the gap almost instantly and catching me as I wobbled. "That's not important. Are ya alright there, Mender? What happened?" she asked quickly, sounding more concerned than anything. Rarity stood up the second I exited the underside of the conveyor, scampering over far faster than I had ever seen her move before. The little dragon I'd failed to spot from inside of the shield stood up as well, having been on the other side of her. His approach was much slower, however.

"It was, well, a panic attack. I don't know what happened. The way she pulled me combined with the, um, anger involved... It caused more memories of my prior life to re-surface. They weren't exactly the most pleasant," I explained, sitting down roughly on my haunches. Dried blood stained two of my legs at this point, I noticed. I knew I forgot something.

Rarity shook her head sadly before frowning. "She shouldn't get so defensive over being with you. It's obviously doing more harm than good. Still, I might have made things a tiny bit worse," she warned, looking incredibly guilty.

"Ya spoke the truth, even if it could'a been more polite. Maybe it was what she needed, really. Ah think she'll be alright once all this calms down," Applejack assured softly, brushing a hoof down Rarity's shoulder. I noticed a deeper understanding of each other again. All six friends had roots extending far further than I had originally realized. Although now I was terribly curious as to what the argument was about.

A wall of pink squished me into the floor a second later, causing me to flail my legs upwards in an ineffectual manner. "Okay, enough sadness then! Mender's gonna be okay, and that's all that matters! Twilight has a chance to fix things still, and I don't have to add more to my sign," Pinkie reasoned, in a roundabout yet perfectly logical way. Somehow.

Spike nodded and smirked at the pink mare as he finally finished walking up next to Rarity. Pinkie grinned and helped me back into a sitting position, still refusing to let go, however.

"Twilight's been more stressed than everypony realizes, between her feelings and the project the Princess assigned to her. I think it's starting to take its toll, so try to go easy on her, okay?" Spike asked, looking between Rarity and Applejack before settling on me again. I watched him weakly, giving my best nod. Not that it was up to me to go easy on her, but he looked like he needed assurance.

"Ugh. This is all one big mess. Ah think we need ta finish this conveyor thingy as soon as we can. That way we can all work on helpin' Twi get her head straight again," Applejack pointed out, gesturing to the construction project around her. Admittedly, apart from the gearbox, lid lift, and tread to power the thing, it was mostly completed.

"I'll help finish the plans in Twilight's stead," Rarity offered politely, walking over to the saddlebags Twilight seemingly left near the door.

Applejack nodded curtly before looking over at the loft hole she'd cut earlier. "Ah'll try ta finish tha lid thing. It's gonna be hard without RD 'ere," she confessed, frowning.

"I'll try to help with the flying parts, um, if you think it would be useful," Fluttershy murmured, soft eyes still locked onto me instead. She hadn't looked away since I revealed what I had been guessing at for a while.

"I'll help too, Applejack! I finished picking up all the rods outside," came from high above an instant later. I glanced up just in time to see the gray mare from before, Derpy, coming in through an open window near the loft. A smaller version of the cart from earlier was attached to her, hauling a tied-up bundle of the blasted rods that almost killed three of us.

Applejack smiled and nodded up at her. Spike disrupted my view, however, with a large sheet of paper. I recognized the gearbox assembly on it as he lowered it again. "This is supposed to connect the conveyor and tread, right? I can put this together. My small claws are good at doing this kinda thing!" he bragged, grinning over at the softly smiling Rarity still, who presumably gave him the sheet in the first place.

I tried not to laugh, and managed a nod and smile instead. As unnerved as I was about what had happened, this was quite refreshing. They were being very understanding as to the situation, much to my surprise. I vowed to give them more credit in the future. A lot of the feelings were truly mine, however. I felt like a coward who always ran away. Was this who my old self was? If it wasn't, why was I different suddenly?

"Okay then, that settles it! We'll all git back ta work an' finish this up as soon as we can. Mender, you try ta calm yer nerves ah bit an' just focus on tellin' us how ta build this thing," Applejack instructed, obviously trying to sound positive, but managing a smile regardless of her inner feelings. Still, her attempt was comforting, and I nodded back quietly.

It made sense, regardless. I think the distraction would do me some good. There were a lot of complications and things were moving way too fast to be comfortable for me, but they'd already proven they were going to help me as best they could. Pinkie grinned and started rubbing my back gently after she helped me resituate myself next to Rarity. The white unicorn smiled politely and nodded as I sat down again. She had laid out the papers in front of her, and looked sideways at me expectantly.

Yeah. It was going to be hard to focus on all of the complications. I suddenly realized exactly how much effort they were expecting from me, and began to wonder if maybe it had been a bad idea to drop those shields after all...

* * * * *

Why hadn't someone killed me yet? It would be a mercy blow at this point. I groaned as I dropped the last pile of planks that were needed for the tread. It was to be hooked up to the gearbox, which would transfer energy to the conveyor and make it move when somepony ran on it. A very basic setup that required a deceiving amount of planks. I was literally covered in leftover wood shavings.

"Whaaa!" sounded out from in front of me. I almost didn't bother to look up again, but decided it might actually be important. An inquiring glance showed that Scootaloo was dangling from several ropes attached to the ceiling, now upside down and swaying back and forth as her tiny wings propelled her around in a circle. The red cape she wore had somehow gotten flipped over her eyes and she struggled against the air, unable to see anything. Derpy, floating conveniently nearby, suddenly looked extremely guilty and slowly drifted over to where Fluttershy was, apparently making to help her and Applejack line up the lid lift itself. Damn. She had worse luck than I did. Thankfully or not, as the case may be, at least mine only usually targeted myself.

Well, nopony died, so all was yet good. I decided not to ask how she'd gotten tied up in the ropes in the first place. Sweetie Belle sat on the edge of the loft, looking nervous as she tried to tug her friend to a stop with her magic. It didn't look like she had very good control over it yet, however, as it appeared largely ineffectual.

I stood up softly and stretched as my magic gathered up the wood shavings around me. Rarity paid little heed beyond a cursory glance as I moved from her side, instead focusing on 'perfecting' the drawing. Her extremely stylized border around the plans, excessive amount of measurements included, and potential decoration positions made me dizzy, so I hadn't been watching her work for a good two hours. I still had to repair Applejack's back wall, however.

The mare in question smiled as she saw me gathering up the pieces and dumping them into Derpy's miniature cart. I imagine she anticipated that I'd forget about the repair job and was now pleasantly surprised. Fluttershy was helping her line up the chains for the lid lift at the moment, alongside Derpy doing most of the heavy lifting. It surprised me how readily they all got along when it came to a project like this. We'd been at this for a good five hours now, and it was finally starting to come together!

I gave a nod to Spike as I walked past him. He grinned up at me, having almost finished with the gear assembly. It was looking surprisingly precise. The little guy had an amazing eye for details I hadn't anticipated; probably from living with Twilight for so long.

The slowly dimming light of the barn was enough for me to navigate around the boxes, thankfully. It was also enough for me to make out the form of Apple Bloom as she readied herself to launch out and snag Scootaloo's rope as she swung past. Uh oh... Anticipating disaster, I sped up my passage a little bit in attempts to time the jump. As predicted, Apple Bloom hit the rope at high velocity, her own cape making her look momentarily like a superhero, and swung both Scootaloo and herself violently to the side. The rope snapped off the ring on the ceiling and dropped both of them from the level of the loft. I adjusted my momentum a little and peeked behind me as Apple Bloom landed in the soft wood shavings in the cart, as I'd hoped. Wait, where was Scootaloo?

The buzzing of her wings sounded as she momentarily slowed herself, drifting to the side. I stepped sideways, rotating the cart as I went, and she landed rather abruptly on my back, face and stomach first. I winced, more for sympathy of her pain than any she had inflicted on me. "Ow. I don't think we're gonna get our Cutie Marks in barn design, girls," the orange filly groaned as she popped her face out from being wedged against my back.

"Aww! But we were tryin' so hard!" Apple Bloom complained profusely, sounding a little on the irate side. Oops. Best placate them before their desire to help turns destructive instead.

"You're being too hard on yourselves. You've been a huge help so far with the upper loft, and there are more things you three could assist with," I pointed out, amused at the skeptical look Scootaloo gave me as she just lay there.

Sweetie Belle descended from out of nowhere a moment later and landed in the shavings next to Apple Bloom, who squeaked and burst into laughter as Sweetie's cape got flopped over her head. I smirked back at the two before continuing walking towards the back of the barn, ignoring the now swaying cart as the two wrestled to get off each other. Surprisingly, all three of them were rather on the light side, even together. Although if I recall, this little cart was enchanted similarly to the larger one. Er, I suddenly hoped that this one didn't catch fire too. Apparently, carts were frequently enchanted to drift free of gravity so Pegasi could pull them through the air with ease. I could see the potential in such an enchantment.

Oddly, I saw Applejack give a light tug on the ropes next to her in my peripheral vision as I walked past. Fluttershy drifted down from the other end that was over the loft and looked questioningly at her friend. I passed them, however, and didn't want to look suspicious by turning to stare. What was the farm mare up to now?

"Oh. Oh my... Um, you're right," I suddenly heard the shy mare echo in my head wistfully, almost gushing with embarrassment. Wait, what had Applejack said to cause this?!

I couldn't help it anymore, and glanced back over my right shoulder at the two mares. Both were eyeing me as I walked with a rather soft expression that I had no way of placing or translating in the slightest. What did it mean when they looked at me like that? Scootaloo glanced back as well, now as curious as I was. Both girls in the cart saw our attention shift, and of course peeked back as well. The light pink in Fluttershy's cheeks turned to full out red as her eyes widened dramatically.

"Oh, um, oops! I didn't mean to stare, Mender. I'm, uh, really sorry," came in another echoing yet familiar voice in my head. Fluttershy bowed her head politely as I heard it, and I realized it wasn't just in my head after all. This was going to get weird fast. It was the same kind of thing that I did to Keela, except it worked both ways for us.

There were lots of questions regarding it, really. From observation, I only heard her when she was not trying, if she was under some sort of emotional imbalance. It's like a form of empathy, then. Now she had discovered that she could purposefully push words at me as well. I had no idea how she did it, and had yet to be able to respond similarly. Regardless, I shook my head softly towards her and returned a warm smile before turning back to the back wall. What those two had been staring at would just have to remain a mystery for now.

"Fluttershy is acting really weird. Is she okay?" Sweetie Belle asked softly, looking to her fellow cart rider as she said so.

Apple Bloom frowned but shook her head, returning, "Ah honestly haven't ah clue. Yer sister's actin' all weird, too."

"She got in a fight with Twilight earlier. I don't think she feels too good about it," I informed gently as we slowed to a stop at the back wall.

That got Scootaloo's attention, of course. "Whoa! Awesome! Was there blood? Did they use their magic? I bet Twilight kicked her flank and that's why she's so mopey," she asked all at once, suddenly rather excited.

I peeked back at her with a smirk and shook my head. "It was a verbal fight, not a physical one. The barn hasn't been leveled, so magic wasn't involved, obviously," I pointed out.

Instead of being disappointed, the orange filly with the purple mane started snickering instead and nodded. "I figured. That would have been cool to watch, though," she lamented a moment later, sitting up on my back and tucking her wings up again.

"So long as we didn't get caught in it, yeah," I muttered, shuddering at the thought.

All three fillies started giggling then. Sweetie Belle took the opportunity to launch herself out of the cart and land directly behind Scootaloo an instant later. "Hey! There's only room up here for one of us," Scootaloo complained, getting shoved up against my mane. I started and wobbled, spreading my hooves out so I didn't tip to either side as they readjusted on my back. Well, this was awkward.

"Then get off. You got to ride back here on him. I haven't gotten to see him for a while," the little unicorn responded, sticking her tongue out at her friend.

Apple Bloom sat up on the rim of the cart and rolled her eyes. "Sweetie, ya were the last one ta see him in tha first place," she pointed out skeptically. It was true. I had seen a lot more of Sweetie Belle than I had the other two fillies.

"Yeah! We get to hang out with the new CMC member, too. Did you remember the thing?" Scootaloo asked vaguely, earning my attention again as I unhooked myself from the cart. Not an easy task to do when there are two fillies sitting on your back.

"The what? Oh! Yeah!" Sweetie returned before reaching behind her own cape. Huh? "Rarity knew how to make a bigger one, like we thought!" she added before withdrawing a rather large roll of red fabric. It was the same color as their capes? Wait a second...

Scootaloo grinned impishly before hopping off my back. Before I could so much as ask a question, Sweetie Belle pounced! I let out a squeak as she wrapped a cloth loop around my neck, sealing it with a brooch of some kind on the other side. Unfortunately, I wasn't expecting it and had tried to shift sideways to avoid whatever she was doing. The much larger cape unfurled as we fell sideways. I tripped over two of my hooves in an instant and somehow managed to twist onto my back, wrapping myself up in the cape while spilling Sweetie Belle off to the side.

Everything finally slowed to a stop. Sweetie Belle came out of her roll upside down, looking at me in a confused manner. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo started snickering in amusement as I struggled to free my legs from the frustrating fabric. To my surprise, however, Scootaloo stepped forwards and wrapped a forehoof around my front leg. Sweetie recovered quickly and shifted forwards, shoving at the same time Scootaloo yanked. This tipped me in the other direction and let me pull free of the cape. I smiled to both of them as they gathered themselves in front of me. Apple Bloom hopped out of the cart finally and straightened the cape on my back with a few gentle tugs before backing up to admire her work.

"Ah think it looks darn good on ya! Yer an official member o' tha Cutie Mark Crusaders, now!" the little, red-maned filly exclaimed, smiling widely now.

"Even if he already has his Cutie Mark," Scootaloo groaned a second later.

I frowned and shook my head towards her. "I don't care if I have mine already or not. You three are the coolest fillies I know and have been nice to me, so I'm going to help you regardless," I assured. It was true. The three of them had been really kind to me so far. The chasing me into a rock on my first day in Equestria was totally my fault, after all.

Scootaloo perked up at the 'cool' part and smirked back before nodding in agreement. Sweetie Belle perked through the whole thing, however, and gave my forelegs a gentle squeeze upon my finishing. "You're really cool, too, Mender! So much better than a lot of the adults," she admitted, smiling up at me.

"Plus he has tha benefit o' already bein' one! Ah bet he could really help us out, especially with that magic o' his," Apple Bloom chipped in before bumping her right forehoof against my left one as a visual pointer.

I snickered and nodded. "I'm just a big kid at heart anyway, so I hear ya there. Just, um, let's not try anywhere up high. I don't have the best track record with gravity," I warned, shuddering and checking above me for any large, heavy objects.

"Oh yeah, Rainbow told me about the time she clocked ya with the apples! That must have been amazing aim," Scootaloo spoke up, sounding genuinely impressed. I scowled and shook my head to vanquish the phantom pain drifting into it.

Sweetie interposed herself instantly between Scootaloo and me. "Not so amazing for him! Don't get any ideas," she warned in a surprisingly defensive manner. I smiled warmly at her back before wrapping my right foreleg around her and giving her an appreciative squeeze.

"Thanks, Sweetie. It's okay, though. I forgave Rainbow already," I explained, warming as she gave me a happy smile in return, rotating to face me fully.

Scootaloo made a gagging motion, though. "I wasn't gonna brain him with apples! You don't have to get all defensive. Ew," she protested profusely, wings fluttering a little as she crossed her forelegs.

"Regardless, this is a really nice cape. Thank you, girls," I tossed in, hopefully redirecting the topic. I didn't mind a bit of bickering, but I didn't want the three of them out and out fighting over anything. Not if I could help it, anyway. I smiled to myself. If this really was in my head, this was the most adorable hallucination I could have asked for, however.

"Well, o' course! Yer a member o' tha CMC, so ya get ta dress tha part, too! What are we doin' back 'ere, though?" Apple Bloom asked a moment later, peeking around at the multitude of holes in the back wall.

Scootaloo followed her gaze and raised an eyebrow up before asking, "Yeah, and what happened to the wall? Did Pinkie find Applejack's hard cider again?" That um, brought horrifying mental images forth. I blinked and swallowed nervously.

"Hey! I resent that! That stuff was good!" came from the other side of the wall before a bright pink blob oozed from one of the holes near us. What the hell?! Pinkie somehow managed to squeeze her entire head through the hole without further structural destruction and eyed the now freaked out pegasus filly with a menacing glare. "I haven't gotten any of that all year! So this totally wasn't me. Although it does sound really fun. Sometimes I wish I could just go around randomly knocking holes in things! It sounds so cool. I mean, there's that little tingle in the back of your head every time you see something go boomy! It would be like that all the time. As often as I wanted it!" she started, in a manner that I hadn’t heard in a while. Well, since the last time she did it.

"Uh, Pinkie?" I tried to ask, to get her attention so we could get the wall fixed up before night fell.

"I mean, my party cannon only does so good at the boomy thing. Plus, it takes forever to load the party into it! I can only use it so many times a day, so that's way too limited. Now if I had a hammer or something, I could totally do this all I wanted! That would be really fun, of course. Almost as fun as having some sort of tube that could push out a bunch of stuff really fast by using a blast of pressurized gas produced from something that burned really fast and," she continued, seemingly oblivious to our existences now. At this point, she was talking way too fast for me to fully comprehend what she was saying, but for some reason, it made me really nervous.

"Pinkie..." I tried again.

"But some stallions are just so ungrateful! I was taking time out of my busy schedule of tending to the counter and all he could complain about was that the hole was too small! The nerve! I mean, isn't it supposed to be better the smaller it is? I never figured out that part anyway, but still. Getting frustrated and shouting it out right in the middle of serving hours was just so embarrassing! So many ponies could have heard, and then my reputation would be ruined! I mean, honestly, I thought that the smaller the hole, the better the..."

"Pinkie!" I shouted, finally aggravated. Wait, what?!

"...donut? Yes?" she answered perkily, smiling politely at me as if nothing had happened at all. All three fillies looked half brain dead as they stared blankly at her. Oh, my poor, poor mind.

I shuddered as it performed a manual reboot before looking back up at her. "Uh, yeah. I thought that you were supposed to be looking for Twilight and Rainbow Dash?" I finally asked, flushing everything else out of my head.

"Of course, Silly Willy! I found them at the library already," she informed, as if it was the most logical conclusion in the world. A throb went through my left temple. Pinkie should come with a few general health warnings. I swore that I could practically feel my stroke and cardiac arrest risk increasing.

"Uh, right. How were they doing?" I asked hesitantly, a little apprehensive as to the answer.

Pinkie apparently sensed my tension and smiled softly. Oddly, the fact that she was squeezing just her head through the wall didn't matter so much anymore. I feared for my sanity. "Twilight felt a lot better when I told her that it wasn't her directly that you were afraid of. She's patching things up with Rarity right now!" she explained softly. Admittedly, I appreciated her attempts to reassure me. Pinkie really could be a sweetheart when she wanted to be.

Wait, I thought Rarity was in the barn with us? A chill drifted down my spine as I slowly rotated my head around to glance back at the entrance. Sure enough, the lavender colored unicorn sat next to the entry, talking directly to a solemn looking Rarity. Oh. Well, that would have been nice to know a little bit ago.

Rainbow Dash was apparently here as well, drifting about above Applejack and talking in a rather loud fashion. I made out bits and pieces about a race that was coming up. Probably the one she had requested I help her with. I abruptly turned back around as Twilight's gaze started to shift, and ran a string of profanities through my head. I wasn't prepared to talk to her so soon! I hadn't had any time to think about what happened at all, and tried hard not to panic. Calm down, Mender! You can think of a way to work through this. If Pinkie can fit through those holes, surely I could in the opposite direction!

With my confidence reestablished, I stoically raised my head again, just in time to stare directly into two massive, blue eyes from less than a muzzle's length away.

To my credit, I managed to muffle the surprised yelp by shoving my own forehoof into my mouth. Pinkie giggled merrily, somehow on this side of the wall now, having gotten there not only without making so much as a noise, but in less than the two seconds it took me to look back at Twilight. "Wow, you're not as easy to scare anymore! I'm impressed. What are ya doing all the way back here, though?" the bubbly mare asked, tilting her head.

"We're gonna repair the wall! We're trying for our construction Cutie Marks!" Scootaloo answered almost immediately, pounding a hoof off her chest with a smirk on her face. All three somehow managed to think absolutely nothing of Pinkie's blatant disregard for physics, naturally. Was I honestly the only sane one left? That didn't speak too highly of Equestria's future.

I managed to nod weakly. "Uh, yeah. What she said. The transmutation spell is touch based, obviously. They're gonna help me reach the higher holes, and keep the pieces of wood in them until the magic can finish the transformation," I explained, news to all four ponies present, I figured.

"Oooh, we can help with that!" Sweetie Belle agreed, sounding excited now.

I, of course, started to assure, "It's not dangerous or anything. I'm going to channel my magic through you as the three of you reach up to plug the holes and..."

"Awesome! Let's do this!" Scootaloo exclaimed before hopping into the air excitedly. Okay then! Well, I guess they trusted me not to blow them up or something.

"CMC Ladder Formation! Help us, Pinkie. Ya'all can be tha base!" Apple Bloom called out. Pinkie squealed with a characteristic level of energy before sliding into place in front of me. I took a step back as all three fillies hopped up onto her back. Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and finally Scootaloo climbed on top of each other to make a makeshift pony ladder. Pinkie tossed a chunk of wood up next to her a second later, as if they had choreographed the entire thing. Scootaloo caught it as it sailed up and immediately jammed it hard into the hole! So hard that it popped through and shot out the other side at high velocity. I heard a crash, followed by the squawking of several distressed chickens and sighed.

"Er, oops. Take two, Pinkie!" the little pegasus muttered a second later. Pinkie didn't miss a beat in launching a second chunk up. Suddenly, I remembered that the cart was still behind me, a good two meters from the pink mare. I stared down at the small pile of wooden chunks she had accumulated near her front hooves in confusion. When had she done that?

Scootaloo was infinitely more careful this time around, lightly squishing the chunk of wood into the hole before nodding down at me. Well, this would work, regardless. I pulled the cart closer to Pinkie before peeking at her expectantly. She gave me an ecstatic grin and nod of confirmation. Ugh. Very well. I reached up with my left hoof and lightly nudged her in the shoulder, sending a wave of magic up through her body.

"Wah!" she squeaked out, the second the energy made contact. I watched it arc through her like a bolt of lightning, rapidly expanding off her back and through all three fillies in an instant. The magic touched upon the wood chunk that Scootaloo still held and it instantly began to shift and squirm. Although I was hardly paying attention to it at that point. All three younger ponies squeaked as the energy shot through them and devolved into a massive fit of snickers and giggles. Scootaloo's wings shot out like static electricity against her fur and she flailed them rapidly, sending arcs of the transmutation magic off herself in her laughter. Fearing for their safety, I withdrew the energy an instant later and they all slumped against each other.

"Whoa! That was like gittin' tickled all over! Ah wasn't expectin' that," Apple Bloom admitted upon shakily standing up again on Pinkie's back.

"Yeah. That was so awesome!" Scootaloo agreed, still laughing a little.

Sweetie Belle just smiled and nodded while squished between the two of them. I instead turned my attention in concern to Pinkie, who was just standing there, shivering a little. "Uh, how about you, Pinkie? Are you okay?" I inquired, unsure as to what her behavior meant.

"Uh, yeah! I'm fine. Let's do another!" she exclaimed in a surprisingly excited tone, suddenly. Well, that was a little strange. Er, more strange, for Pinkie, anyway. I could have sworn I saw a red tint to her cheeks as well, but she looked away before I could do more than glance towards her face, prepping for the next position. Er, okay?

"Well, okay. Shift down then, a bit. There are three more holes near the top that need to be filled, then we can move on to the lower ones. We probably won't need all three fillies for them," I reasoned, looking at the pattern of damage. Damn, I'm glad I put my barrier up in time, earlier. I didn't realize the wood was that thick. If those metal rods had hit us instead, they'd still be mopping the pieces up.

Pinkie gave another strange shiver as I gave the instruction, but obediently took a couple steps forward, haphazardly aligning herself with the next hole. I bit my tongue, deciding not to mention it would probably be easier to align herself if she actually looked up to see where they were. No, I'd probably just say something stupid and put my hoof in my mouth again.

It took four more holes, starting in on the second rough 'tier' down, before Applejack seemingly noticed progress being made and wandered over to investigate. "Well Ah'll be! It's like Derpy never put 'em there ta begin with!" she praised, touching one of the lower marks with her hoof, then giggling as she felt it still wiggling about and reshaping itself.

"Oooh, that must have been fun to watch!" Pinkie exclaimed, absolutely giddy at this point. Her energy was going higher and higher with each hole, as if I was somehow feeding her with the magical bursts! I was retrieving all of my energy afterwards, however, so that couldn't be the case, right? I didn't feel all that convinced, and wondered idly if I was somehow contributing to the end of Equestria or something.

"Ah don't imagine it was all that pleasant from Mender's perspective. We're gonna call it quits soon, though. How are ya managin', Mender?" she inquired. I was momentarily stuck on the simply delightful way in which she said 'perspective' before snapping myself out of it with a shudder. The memory of those rods of death descending towards us was all too fresh in my head still.

"Uh, well. It should only take us a few more minutes to repair all of these. How's the rest of the barn looking?" I asked back, sending another jolt of energy absently through the four of them. Scootaloo hadn't been required at this point, but absolutely insisted on not missing out on the apparent joyous entertainment arcing magical energy through her body brought. Not that any of the other three disagreed with her, so maybe they were onto something?

My eyes lingered past her momentarily as she smiled in response. Twilight had moved away from Rarity and was now talking to Fluttershy in quiet whispers. A slight nervousness echoed down that familiar link when I paid it heed. What were they talking about that was making Fluttershy nervous?

"...but apart from ah few adjustments and tightenin's 'ere and there, all that's left ta tackle is hookin' tha tread up ta tha main belt an' givin' it ah trial run!" Applejack continued, looking well beyond pleased once I snapped out of my prior thoughts and began paying attention to her again. I really needed to stop zoning out like that.

Still, it was enough to piece together what had been said. "Are we going to do that tonight, then?" I asked, ignoring the chorus of giggles and laughter from behind me.

Applejack watched the four in amusement for a moment before looking back to me and shaking her head. "Nah. We need mah brother ta properly test out tha workin's. Ah figure that can wait 'til tomorrow. He's been sport enough ta handle all tha buckin' today," she reasoned, shrugging softly, which slowly devolved into a gentle roll of her shoulders and a light eye twitch. She'd worked just as hard as I did today. Probably more, in all honesty.

I stared blankly at her shoulder for longer than I probably should have. Four seconds later, she frowned and glanced at her right shoulder as well. An awkward three additional seconds later, I coughed lightly and looked away, feeling like an idiot again. She just laughed and shook her head. "Ah'll be fine. Nothin' Ah haven't felt before," she assured, waving her other hoof absently at me. An idea popped into my head recklessly, like most of mine do, and was out my mouth before even pulling its parachute.

"Actually, could you hold still for a second? I want to try something," I requested, extending my left hoof up to her shoulder. She hesitated, nervously looking at my hoof as it started to glow with energy, before she nodded and closed her eyes rapidly. She trusted me.

The thought momentarily made me hesitate before I shook my head again. No, getting caught staring again would only lead to being accused of yet another mental degradation. Touching the hoof to her shoulder, I let a burst of soft heat and vibrating energy through the muscle in her shoulder. In the same instant, it shuddered once, seemed to clench of its own accord, then almost melted into a loose, relaxed position a moment later.

Applejack gasped in surprise, and then let out a highly pleasing murmur as she promptly sat down roughly on her haunches right then and there. "Oh! Oh wow. What was that?" she asked, opening her eyes again and looking a little on the surprised side before glancing at her slightly reddened shoulder.

"Oh, well I just figured you probably didn't get much out of a normal massage, with how strong you are and how much muscle is present. So I just used my energy to get as deep as possible and apply heat and a tense vibration," I attempted to explain, skipping over the technicalities behind the magic itself. Twilight might be interested, but Applejack was more likely to fall asleep during the explanation. It was awfully late out now.

"Oh yeah! Magic hooves, I say. Get it? Magic?!" Pinkie tacked on before bursting into a fit of laughter and taking all three fillies with her. Oh dear. What have I done? Was I actually destroying their minds with the magic?!

Applejack smirked and rolled her eyes at the display before looking right, and then left. I silently agreed with her assessment that nopony was watching, before she leaned closer to me and whispered, "Now look 'ere. Ah don't normally go for all that frou-frou stuff that Rarity likes, Ah hope ya understand. But if ya wanted ta do that ta all o' me next time, yer gonna get one heck o' ah tip, alright?" she offered, surprisingly me and earning a blush. Maybe it was reflex from talking to Rainbow so much, but I suddenly found myself totally taking that the wrong way.

"Um, a-all of you?" I stuttered out weakly, literally feeling my eyes shiver as I carefully watched her. Of course, I realized she could potentially murder me for the comment a mere second after it left my mouth.

She started for a heartbeat, and then grinned in amusement. "Got yerself ah special somepony fer less than ah day an' already yer startin' ta think like ah stallion. Ah'm actually kinda proud," she shot back, barbed tongue coming into play faster than I realized possible. She must train her quick wits by fencing with Rainbow all the time. She managed to relay amusement to detract from how nervous I probably sounded, reminded me that she knew I was taken and wouldn't do that to me, and implied that I hadn't been thinking like a stallion up until this point; all in one jab. Subtle. I was impressed.

Sweetie Belle gasped loudly and left the center of the pile before anyone had even realized she was moving. Scootaloo gave a yelp and crashed into the other two before she could even pop her wings out. "You have a special somepony, Mender?! Who is it?" the little filly asked excitedly, somehow standing right in front of me now. I jumped and sat down abruptly from surprise, managing to at least make some room between us.

"Oooh, I know! It's Twilight and Fluttershy!" Pinkie squealed excitedly, bouncing on her hooves a little bit and grinning ear to ear.

Sweetie's eyes widened and she gasped before paraphrasing, "Two special someponies?!" Sighing, I gave Pinkie a moderately stern look she no doubt blatantly ignored.

"Just Twilight for now. I think. Last I knew of, anyway." I'd never started backtracking from the very start of a statement before. Was this a new personal best? My ears drooped at the mere thought and I sighed. Sweetie Belle went from delighted to frowning in a heartbeat, but Applejack just shook her head.

"She's still all yers, Mender. Ya just need ta do somethin' about this scared thing. Twi would never intentionally hurt ya; Ah vouch for her ah hundred percent!" the farm mare assured, giving a proper nod after as punctuation.

I nodded gently, still not looking up. It wasn't that simple, but I did want to believe she was right. She was the Element of Honesty, so it was a good bet that I could trust what she was saying. "It's just hard. It's not just Twilight. She's scary powerful, yeah, but that more serves as a comparison to the females in my old life. They were scary powerful too, and definitely not benign with that fact. Even though I want to believe she's totally different, the comparison is still there, if that makes sense," I tried to explain as simply as I could. It was hellishly complex for myself, and I'd never tried to put it into words for somepony else before.

Applejack actually smiled, which threw me off guard. She closed her eyes for a moment and seemed to consider things before continuing with, "That feels like tha honest truth ta me. Thank ya kindly fer bein' open. Ah understand that concept completely." Her open acceptance of my explanation further threw me for a loop, but it was a happy one this time. I cracked a smile timidly, looking up again fully. Things were looking up now, of course. I felt a little bit braver.

"Yeah. If you were treated badly before and Twilight kinda sorta makes you remember that, it seems kinda normal. Like when my mom tries to feed me leeks," Scootaloo suddenly chipped in, drawing all attention towards her. She fidgeted in place and glared back an instant later. "What?! I threw up the first time I ate them, and now I just shudder every time I even see them," she defended sharply.

I smiled and nodded to her, agreeing with, "That's actually the perfect example. They did really bad things to me and my friends. When Twilight looks or acts like them, even a little bit, I panic. It's really scary." Simplified, but still true. Scootaloo was starting to grow on me, I'd have to admit.

The orange and purple filly perked up and nodded back, smiling at me again. Pinkie started a small fit of giggles at the same time, shifting the spotlight to herself instead. I gave her a questioning tilt of my head, and she nodded energetically.

"After you're done working for AJ, I should totally hire you to help me babysit the Cake's foals! You're super-duper awesome with younger ponies," she suggested a moment later, glancing to Applejack for support. I detected a slight shift to her eyebrows as she did so, making her grin look almost knowing. I raised my eyebrow in return and glanced over at Applejack for some sort of reveal. Scootaloo rolled her eyes at the apparently mundane turn of events and flopped backwards onto her back. Sweetie and Apple Bloom still seemed curious, and glanced towards Applejack as well, however.

The farm mare blushed lightly and coughed, looking away from the piercing gaze of the pink one. "Ya use yer Pinkie Sense fer that one? Yeah, ya caught us. Fluttershy an' Ah were watchin' Mender earlier. She actually thought he'd be ah pretty good father, though," she revealed weakly.

I'm really glad I wasn't eating anything. I'd be taking another trip to the hospital if so, it then being lodged in my throat as I spasmed all over the place. Pinkie burst into snickers and wiggled back and forth on her haunches, seemingly unable to contain the level of energy inside of her body. Scootaloo snapped back up to a sitting position with wide eyes, however.

It turns out she hadn't paid all that good of attention, sadly. "Wait, what?! Mender's gonna be a dad?!" she asked, rather on the loud side. Suddenly, I realized how absolutely quiet the barn was. Oh hell.

I swallowed and started to turn and look out at the others before I heard a sharp inhalation, followed by, "What?!" Twilight almost screamed it, staring over at me with what could only be described as a mixture of shock, hostility, and murderous intent. My ears dropped instantly and I shrank back down to my stomach, hiding any essentials that I might yet need to continue the whole living and breathing thing.

"Twilight! You have a better memory than Rainbow Dash and can recall further back than ten minutes. Control yourself!" Rarity chastised almost instantly, giving the lavender mare a stern look.

"Hey!" Rainbow shot back a second later, glaring at Rarity instead. The two unicorns were too busy glaring at each other to notice, however. In the meantime, the bubbly gray pegasus drifted down from near the ceiling and over to me.

"Oooh, congratulations! Who's the mommy?" she asked, causing me to look up at her in slight confusion. I don't know why, but I suddenly just noticed that her eyes drifted in different directions. She had Strabismus? Well she didn't seem to be bothered by it in the least, so I just mentally shrugged.

Looking past her, I pointed my muzzle towards Twilight before replying with her name. Pinkie burst into more giggles again, predictably, while Twilight herself suddenly went from glaring at Rarity to staring back at me in surprise. Ha! That defused the situation, hopefully.

"Wait, what?" the lavender mare asked, sounding exceedingly confused now.

Derpy didn't miss a beat, however, and squealed happily. "Oooh, congratulations Twilight! Do you know if it's a filly or colt yet?" she asked, giving an excited flutter to her wings. Scootaloo just looked confused, while Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle exchanged giggles.

Twilight finally blushed at that, stamping her hoof on the floor a couple times. "Hey! I'm not pregnant! What's going on?" she groaned out, looking back towards me for clarification. Fluttershy was still, and had been since the comment was shouted, blushing furiously next to Twilight. She nudged Twilight with her hoof however, then whispered into her ear when Twilight peeked sideways at her.

Half a second later, a look of dawning comprehension graced the lavender mare's face, and she exhaled. "Scootaloo, you misheard. Mender isn't a daddy. They only said he'd make a good one," she explained slowly, standing and walking back towards us.

She seemed in a better mood, but I didn't take any chances and kept my stomach to the ground. Basic artillery shell survival training. You kept a low profile to the ground to minimize fragmentation contact. It also helped reduce your target size in case you also happened to be getting shot at. I figured either could be applicable with an enraged Twilight Sparkle.

Twilight stopped and gazed at me from a couple meters away before slowly sitting down where she was, ears lowering a little, alongside her eyebrows. Her mouth opened to say something, but no sound came out as she hesitated, lifting a hoof up in my direction. It almost looked like she was reaching out for me, and I felt a stirring in my stomach to obey. Regardless of her being scary and potentially dangerous, I still cared about her and really didn't like seeing her sad.

That deadly silence crept into the barn again as I gradually sat back up; just a little bit. Her eyes opened a little more, as if she suddenly snapped back to full attention at my movement. She shifted her weight back onto her haunches and balanced upright before raising the other hoof as well, extending both to me. That gesture was common enough. She either was hoping that double the hoof pointing would cause further reaction in me, or she was making the gesture of desiring an embrace. Deciding to go with an assumption again, I settled on the latter and edged closer to her, fully sitting up now. Technically my assumptions hadn't explicitly gotten me killed yet, so that had to be worth something, right?

The reaction was like a rubber band. Twilight closed the meter gap. In a rather stunning flash of light, she appeared practically on top of me. I gave a start of surprise, but no blow came. Instead, all I felt for a moment was warm fur intermingling against mine as she wrapped both forelegs around my body, pulling me against her chest. Her head rested on top of mine, as if she was suddenly desperate to make sure none of my fur was showing to the outside world.

Pinkie's cooing 'Aww!' finally broke the silence. The heat I hadn't realized was coming from my face flared up even further as the soft unicorn placed a gentle kiss on the top of my head. My eyes widened, confusion flooding my senses. How could she go from being pissed off at me to embracing and kissing me so fast? This entire situation the last couple days had been bouncing up and down so quickly that I could barely follow it anymore. Mares were so confusing!

"I know I said I was sorry before and I ended up scaring you again anyway, but please forgive me, Mender. You know I didn't mean to frighten you," the unicorn asked quietly. It was easy enough to hear by probably everypony present due to the silence, though.

I shook my head against her chest, briefly causing her to lock up and her heartbeat to speed up. "I wasn't mad at you, Twilight. There's nothing to forgive. The problem is obviously with me and my memories," I pointed out tiredly. She relaxed after that.

"I want to help you, Mender. You just have to realize how crazy this all sounds. I've already sent a letter out to Princess Celestia before coming here, asking for an audience the day after the party. Seeing as we're staying three days anyway, is that okay with you?" she asked, pulling me even tighter to her body, as if afraid I was going to run away again. On that account, I didn't blame her.

"I, well, yes. That will work, of course. I'm glad you're giving me the benefit of the doubt," I managed to mutter. This time I wasn't going to let my coward-like behavior get in the way. No matter how scary Princess Celestia and Twilight could be, she was at least making an effort for me. Running away this time would only serve to spurn her attempt.

She hesitated, left hoof tracing down my back gently and stopping just above the point where the brutal scar started. I guess I was kind of lucky. An inch to the right and the energy shot would have burned my spine in half instead of just scorching it. I shuddered as she touched the edge, remembering the horrible stabbing sensation followed by the cold numbness. I suddenly felt a little sick to my stomach.

"I really, really do want to believe you, Mender," she finally added, drawing attention to the elephant in the room. Was she lying? My gut instinct told me she was, due too the order of her priorities, of course. Celestia was more important to her than I was. She wanted the problem to go away, in all likelihood.

She probably felt my muscles tense as well as I felt her suddenly swallow. She knew that I doubted the validity of that statement; of that I had no doubt. Neither of us said anything. The silence became awkward again, but she only squeezed me tighter. What worried her so much? I pushed the bitterness back as best I could, biting my tongue instead. Fighting didn't really solve anything.

"Well, can ya'll stay friendly long enough ta finish this 'ere job? After it’s done, we can all take ah nice break an' figure things out, then," Applejack suggested suddenly, approaching the two of us from the sidelines.

Twilight's lips left my forehead as she glanced over at her orange friend. I shivered at the sudden loss of heat and buried my face a little closer into the fur on her chest. Her heart beat against my forehead soothingly. Why couldn't we just stay like this? I didn't like feeling like she didn't trust me or thought I was crazy. Wasn't she the one who said that trust was integral for a relationship?

"Yeah. It's going to be nice to have a sort of vacation in a few days. It's only for three days, but getting away and just enjoying each other's company will be nice," Twilight agreed in a roundabout sense. Of course, 'enjoyment' was a relative term. I'd imagine it all depended on the results of Celestia's scan.

Applejack nodded and gave us both a soft smile. Rarity approached at the same time, adding on, "I do apologize again for snapping at you earlier, Twilight Dear. I should have been gentler. The message is still there, though," she reminded, of what, I did not know. Twilight winced lightly, but nodded softly before looking up and over at Fluttershy instead, who was on the opposite side as Rarity. I felt a light burst of apprehension before mentally feeling the mare nod, even though I wasn't looking in her direction. At this close, I could start to visualize her without needing to look, it would seem. Distance must play a major part of the connection between us.

"Heh, yeah! Going back home to piece the papers together was a little paranoid," Rainbow chimed in, sounding amused. She earned an annoyed glare from all three mares near me, but only snickered more. She had guts, I'll give her that.

"She knows, Dash," Fluttershy whispered softly after hesitating a moment. Hearing was no problem, as the two pegasi were only a meter away from each other or so, I realized. It wasn't perfect, but I'd gotten a lot more comfortable with my sense of hearing ever since my eyes had gotten damaged. Even though they were significantly healed now, I still trusted my hearing more.

Applejack coughed lightly before shaking her head. "There's ah lot ta talk about still, but it'll be easier after ah little time passes. Twi is real sorry fer her behavior and I'm sure lessons have been learned, but makin' ponies feel bad about things they already made amends with is just wrong. Let's just focus on tha project fer now, an' distract ourselves."

Everypony nodded in agreement after a moment or so, the fillies probably more to just stay on Applejack's good side. Twilight waited another moment for attention to disperse back to the project before smiling down at me. "I know I've said this before and still haven't actually done anything yet, but I'll definitely make all of this up to you. I'll make you realize that I'm not going to hurt you if I have to," she promised, smile shifting to a smirk instead as I swallowed, suddenly nervous for entirely different reasons.

The moment was interrupted by her expression melting to a curious confusion instead. Huh? She shifted her gaze past my face for a moment before asking, "Wait a second. Where'd you get this cape?"

Chapter 19

Staring out the barn window, I watched the overcast sky drifting overhead. It was peaceful, really. I kept a lookout for any rainbow specks, but there was no sign of her. Maybe she had today off? She probably handled the weather during the winter, too. I shifted myself in the hay, deciding that the loft was rather comfortable.

My ears twitched and rotated around to face partially behind me as I heard the conveyor start up again. This was the third test, now. So far it had been working flawlessly, much to her enthusiastic delight. Even Big Mac seemed quietly impressed by it as his sister tried heavier and heavier loads. I didn't hear anything straining, so I took that to be a good sign. She was trying a full crate on it, filled with apples this time around. Twilight sat a good half-dozen meters away, ready to try operating the lid lift from the loft.

Last night had been, well, awkward for all accounts. I'd ended up going home with Twilight again, at her insistence. I was going to stay with Rarity instead, but the lavender unicorn looked one part horrified, another guilty at my suggestion, and had specifically requested another 'chance', whatever that had fully implied. Mares were so complicated. Of course, once we got home, things were a little better for a while. She left me alone for the most part, and I just read up more on Equestrian history. Although she did ask me a few strange questions about Fluttershy. How was I supposed to know if she was acting overly strange or not? It made me wonder what they had talked about yesterday for so long.

No, the real awkwardness came when it was time to go to bed...

* * * * *

It took a certain level of finesse to brush your teeth when all you had was a hoof. They made almost everything imaginable with loop attachments for proper use without magic, of course, but it took practice to use them. This was a nightly event, however, so even I was getting better at it.

Twilight hummed as she wandered about the room outside of the bathroom. Several books were out still, and she had moved the wood samples upstairs, it had seemed. That meant the mess surrounding them had migrated alongside, and now she was busy putting books away, probably out of fear that I'd trip on them and break something.

Spike snored quietly, curled up in a loose ball in his little bed, residing at the foot of Twilight's much larger bed. I smiled over at him as I brushed. Tonight had been more pleasant than anticipated. I had expected to be grilled by Twilight upon returning, but she was overly pleasant instead. Idly, I wondered exactly what Rarity had said to her earlier. It certainly wasn't anything I had done.

Satisfied that every minute surface of my teeth was scrubbed down, I placed the toothbrush back in its spot and ran a little water into the sink to properly wash away any remnants. Twilight kept the bathroom immaculate, and I certainly wasn't going to be the one to break that trend. She gave me a warm smile upon my exit, sitting down oddly next to my makeshift bed. I hesitated slightly, wondering if I was yet to be questioned tonight after all.

"How are you feeling?" she quietly inquired, smile not faltering. While a question, that was hardly the one I had expected.

"I'm tired after today and a little sore still, but better. Or did you mean mentally?" I returned, restraining all snarkiness from my voice and trying to keep a calm, stoic expression.

Her ears lowered slightly alongside her brow, but she shook her head carefully. A moment later, after seemingly considering her words, she answered, "No, I know you're not fully recovered from everything you've been through. That's to be expected, however. I, um, regret not taking your feelings into consideration over it. Rarity opened my eyes to that."

"What did she say to you, exactly?" I finally asked, voice softening as I walked over towards the end of my bed and sat down next to the corner, a meter away from her.

"It was a lot of shouting, but I think you've guessed the most of it. She fed me my own words back about how important trust is. I kinda forgot that in my defense of my teacher, I admit," she explained, unable to meet my eyes any longer and looking down instead.

I chuckled weakly. Yeah, I really had guessed as much. Still, it wasn't entirely as predicted. "It's understandable. I mean, comparatively speaking, the amount of time spent with Celestia is an ocean to my bucket. It makes sense that she'd be a higher priority," I reasoned.

That was a mistake, it would seem. Twilight's ears dropped all the way down, eyes starting to shiver as she looked back up at me again. "No, Mender. I'm just not used to this. Please, I know trust is important. Can I have another chance?" she requested, edging closer to me suddenly. Huh? Another chance? I didn't know what she was referring to, in all honesty.

"Um, what do you mean, another chance?" I decided to just straight up ask instead of attempt to guess. A break from character for me, but there were way too many possibilities this time.

"To keep your trust in me. I know it's asking a lot at this point, but I really want you to trust me; to know that I'm not going to hurt you," the lavender unicorn expanded upon.

Her eyes locked onto mine solidly, and I couldn't look away for a moment. I wasn't so much talking about the physical pain, but the emotional when she didn't acknowledge my concerns and just passed it off as me being crazy. Still, she seemed extremely sincere, and I didn't want to mention that lest she be further hurt by the memory.

Finally, I just decided on a nod. It earned a quiet exhale as she slumped sideways onto my bed. "Thank you, Mender. It's been bothering me all day," she muttered. I bit my tongue again, not wanting to sound bitter or anything.

"You don't need to thank me, Twilight. Even if you're scary sometimes, and don't often believe me, I still really, really like you. You've done a lot for me and are really kind. I can't imagine where I'd be if it weren't for your help so far," I redirected, ending up thanking her instead, technically.

I almost chuckled at her flustered reaction and pink cheeks. "Mender. I haven't done that much, plus I've been a terrible fillyfriend," she groaned, sitting up fully again and brushing her bangs aside with her right forehoof.

I snickered before reaching forward and straightening the side of her mane for her. She watched me, expression softening before she smiled. "Well, I'd like to make it up to you, regardless. I also promised you some more experimentation earlier, if you're up for it," she suggested, surprising me by running her left hoof along the top of my bed while smirking.

My brain did a flip inside of my skull as it suddenly became my turn to blush. Wait, what?! "What brought this on?" I asked, unable to keep the surprise out of my voice.

She momentarily looked delighted in my reaction before shaking her head rapidly. "Again, I want to make it up to you. I was also reading up on a few kissing techniques that I would like to test. Thoroughly."

There was a long, awkward moment as I broke eye contact with her, face now beat red as I stared at her hoof on the bed. Oh, how I wanted to, I suddenly realized. Warm, fluttering sensations were filling my stomach as I considered it. Still, something didn't feel right about accepting her offer. Then it suddenly dawned on me.

"I don't think I'm comfortable with applying some part of the relationship as a reward or payment. It feels wrong, I guess," I tried to reason. I was paying her in forgiveness instead of bits.

Her eyes widened significantly, and I realized she hadn't anticipated a negative answer. She hesitated, then gasped further and covered her mouth with her free hoof. "Oh! I hadn't even realized it could be taken like that! I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to buy your forgiveness as much as simply trying to say that I was sorry. But you're right, of course. It should probably be split into two separate aspects. Maybe we can experiment tomorrow night instead," she offered.

I contemplated the fact that I'd just technically ruined my chances at what I had really wanted, but decided a moment later that it was indeed for the best. I wanted to embrace her because she wanted me there, not because she felt guilty. I managed a smile and nod, which seemed to relieve her further.

"Honestly, I'm surprised. I saw the look you gave the bed right after I suggested it," she added before I could say anything. There was a certain amused tone to her voice that I didn't feel like placing.

I averted my gaze as rapidly as possible, causing the mare to giggle in amusement. It was a whimsical, adorable noise that I decided I really should hear more often. "Ah, you caught me. Trust me, I just suggested exactly what I didn't want to do," I admitted, blushing again. Dang. The heat had just died down, too. Still, I had a feeling she'd appreciate the honesty.

Instead of being annoyed, she looked further amused instead, with just a hinting of relief. "Well, I'm glad that you're definitely interested in me. I've been doing a lot of reading on the subject to try to improve myself, but this is really different from anything I've studied up on before. There's not exactly a lot of concrete data," she complained, sighing wearily and glaring over at her personal bookshelf on the other wall.

I tried not to laugh. "Maybe you should just ask me instead? I know that I've never done this before, but if we're testing compatibilities, it would make sense that the best source of likes and dislikes would be the other pony," I pointed out, smiling gently towards her.

She seemed to consider it for a moment before smirking again and nodding. "Interestingly enough, that's what most of the books said, too. I guess it really is a good idea, then," she agreed. I was suddenly glad the books supported me. Celestia forbid that the books suggest covering me in tar and feathers before lighting me on fire...

"Well again, you can ask me anything you want. I'll try to answer to the best of my abilities," I promised before yawning tiredly. She stepped aside as I idly climbed up onto my bed before flopping over. Well, technically it was Applejack's bed, but that sounded wrong when I mentally said it. Rainbow would kill me if I climbed into the farm mare's bed! Actually, there was a long list of ponies that would kill me should that happen. I was in the same room as one of them, too.

Twilight oddly didn't move away and just gave me a curious, thoughtful looking gaze as I settled myself in. I was about to ask her what was wrong when she pointed out instead, "You're technically my coltfriend now. That gives you obvious privileges, you know. You don't truly have to sleep there, alone, if you don't want to."

Oh.

* * * * *

Like I said, last night had been intensely awkward. Regardless, she definitely got the point across that she was willing to open up more to me. I tried to gauge my own opinion on the aspect, but in all honesty, I didn't know what to think about it. I knew next to nothing about Equestrian 'Dating' or relationships, so I didn't know what to expect, or what was expected of me. It was a little frustrating.

"It's a sound success, Mender! It has no problem with three full apple crates," Twilight suddenly announced, sounding as if projecting it in my direction. I snapped out of it and smiled back at her, nodding. I'd have felt like a total idiot if it had broken on the trial run, of course. If there was anything I had any confidence in, it was my engineering capacity.

"Darn tootin', it worked! This is gonna be right nice come packagin' time. Fer once, we won't need ta recruit ah ton o' help, which is gonna save ah lotta bits!" I heard Applejack exclaim from under me somewhere. She sounded significantly pleased, so I took the job as completed to her satisfaction.

The conveyor slowly came to a stop as the large, red stallion let out a sharp, "Eeyup!" I got to the edge of the loft in time to see him hop off the tread, not even looking winded. Damn. He just powered the conveyors for almost an hour and he wasn't even sweating. My ego plummeted as I realized just how out of shape I was.

If Applejack or Twilight noticed my crestfallen expression, they didn't say anything. The farm mare stretched next to the side of the conveyor before giving a brisk nod as she examined it. "This is one nice piece o' equipment! We'll need ta get tha gals out 'ere again ta see what they helped create," she observed, sounding happy indeed. I couldn't stay glum knowing she was so happy with the results, and quietly smiled instead.

"I think Mender deserves some credit, too," Twilight spoke up, giving me a start as I suddenly realized she was right next to me, sitting down.

Applejack didn't even hesitate before looking up at us and nodding, still grinning from ear to ear. "Ah reckon yer right, Twi. If ya give me ah little bit, Ah can get his pay ready. Ah don't keep that much on hoof, ya know?" she offered, shifting to a simple smile instead. That, in turn, shifted to a raised eyebrow and head shake as she saw my ears drop again.

"You can just give anything I earned after the rent for your cot to Twilight. I'm sure it isn't more than what room and board would be," I groaned, lowering my head again. It wasn't just awkwardness, but almost a sense of shame from leeching off these wonderful ponies so much.

"Mender, you worked really hard for this. You deserve something in return," Twilight stubbornly protested, turning towards me more fully.

Sighing, I shook my head before admitting, "I just wanted to be useful. I wanted to help, so maybe you and the others would think more highly of me." Or at least give me the benefit of the doubt, I suppose. I'd never had friends before, and was rapidly realizing how much it hurt when they thought you were totally off your rocker.

Twilight bit her lower lip before gently pushing into me and wrapping her forehooves around my shoulders. She was quiet, however, and didn't appear to know what to say.

"Ah know we got off on tha wrong hoof, Mender. Knowin' what Ah do now, Ah know why, o' course. After all this, an' yer right proper attitude all 'round, Ah do think highly o' ya," Applejack spoke up, wandering closer to the edge of the loft and looking up at me fully now.

I sighed, but nodded. "Then keep your bits. Take all this as my honest apology for scaring you and acting so creepy when we first met. I want to be useful to you mares, and this is a good start for repaying all the kindness," I explained openly. It had been bugging me since she had insisted on paying me, and it was good to finally get it off my chest.

The orange mare's ears flattened back and she frowned, however. Her mouth opened to say something when a red furred hoof rested down gently on her shoulder. "Let it be, AJ," Big Mac spoke simply, yet strongly. She glanced over at him, eyes darting back and forth in mild confusion before locking with his. A second passed before she gave a frustrated clicking sound and shook her head, glancing back up at me.

"Yer right stubborn, you stallions! But Ah suppose Ah can be, too. Fine. Yer ah darn good guy, though, an' Ah'm gonna tell everypony Ah can about yer skills. Ah have ah feelin' yer gonna earn quite ah lot o' bits with yer talents! At least accept ah good meal fer yer time, though. Twi's invited too," Applejack finally gave in, gesturing towards Twilight as she did so.

Twilight groaned, raising her head off my shoulder to look at her friend below. "I'm not sure, Applejack. I might pop if I try another one of your home cooked meals." Whoa. I suddenly got a mental image of Twilight swelled up like a balloon, barely able to move, and tried not to snicker. Snickering would lead to me having to explain what was funny, which in turn would probably get me a fast ticket down from the loft.

Applejack grinned up at her before nodding. "Ah'm serious, though. On all accounts. Word o' mouth is real strong around these parts. Yer magic an' skills are real convenient, ya have ta admit," she repeated, shifting her gaze back to me instead.

"Um, I'm not sure of what use other ponies would have for technical things, but I'll help where needed," I assured, trying my best to smile for the farm mare.

She rolled her eyes of course. "Ah don't think yer gonna be so lucky as ta escape without pay again. That goes fer anymore work ya do fer me, too, Ah hope ya know," she warned, eyes dancing in amusement.

"He's not going to escape getting rewarded, regardless, don't worry," Twilight assured, making me blatantly aware that she was still holding onto me. I blushed, but she just kissed my cheek and grinned, eyelids lowering a little. There was something about her expression that made my heartbeat suddenly pick up, and I swallowed.

"Whoa! Ah reckon that's darn good incentive, regardless. Careful Rare don't gossip on ya'all, though," the country mare teased, tossing a wink to both of us.

Twilight snickered and nodded before tipping us sideways off the loft. It caught me totally by surprise, and I just started to inhale in shock when her magic gently caught us both and we drifted to the floor. Neither Applejack nor Big Mac so much as batted an eye at the display, which probably shouldn't have surprised me. Magic really was commonplace in Equestria, after all.

"Yer welcome ta help out on tha farm as well, when ya want. Ya mentioned wantin' ta get back inta shape, an' apple buckin' would do ya real good. Ah wouldn't turn down one o' them magic massages at tha end o' tha day, either," she added upon us fully settling on the ground. Oh yeah, I had wanted to get back into shape again. If it helped my magic improve, I was all for it.

Twilight's ears perked at the admission, though. "Magic massage? What do you mean?" she asked curiously.

"Hoo boy! Yer coltfriend is right good with his hooves! Adds magic ta tha touch, gettin' in real deep and tweakin' tha muscles with heat an' shakin'. It felt like ah slice o' paradise!" Applejack revealed, closing her eyes and releasing a pleased clicking sound as she seemingly remembered when I'd used it before.

Twilight rose an eyebrow and glanced over at me, curiously. I swallowed and rapidly shook my head. "Her shoulder was sore after working on the conveyor last night, so I just gave it a little rub," I assured, just in case she was suspecting me of anything.

She laughed instead, however. "I trust you, Mender. Actually, I was thinking of asking for a sample when we got back to the library," she informed, smiling warmly instead. My heart skipped a beat and I felt heat grow in my chest when she said that. Maybe things really were taking a turn for the better?

"Darn tootin'. Ah know ya wouldn't cheat on yer mare. Or mares, as tha case may be," Applejack chipped in, voice dripping with mirth. I blushed and gave her a deadpan stare, causing her to burst out into hearty laughter. I couldn't keep up the stoic expression, and snickered myself at her rather contagious display. I started to notice that all six friends had different mannerisms to almost everything they did. Twilight was more prone to quiet giggles and smirks, whereas Applejack just openly and honestly laughed when she felt like it. Both were appealing in their own way, and I started to really appreciate all the differences between them.

"Well, Mender and I will probably stop by tomorrow before the trip. We'll be gone for a few days, so we have to say our goodbyes before leaving. For now, however, we need to get back home and pack," Twilight reminded gently, nodding back to her friend who finally composed herself. Big Mac stretched in the background before swapping out yokes that hung on the side of the barn wall. There appeared to be a lot of variations of them, probably for different purposes.

"You have to pack, anyway. I don't own anything yet, remember?" I added, giving her a skeptical yet amused glance.

Twilight rolled her eyes and gave me a light shove before smirking again. "I'm still going to pack things for you. I figure the three of us will largely be hanging out together anyway once Rarity gets done with her show and socializing," Twilight reasoned, quickly catching me in her magic as I tipped over from her shove, unable to re-balance myself upright.

"Iffin that don't take her all night, anyway. Ya know how she likes ta schmooze with tha frou-frou crowd," Applejack warned, rolling her eyes yet retaining the smile. Nopony batted an eye when I tipped over either, I noticed. Twilight didn't even glance my way before catching me. Did that technically mean that my blundering was more commonplace than magic?

Twilight let out a light giggle before nodding and standing again. "I'll try to keep her on a tight leash. You two take care, of course. We'll see you tomorrow before we leave," she assured yet again. I took my cue to stand up again, shakily making sure I remained balanced this time.

"Good. Ah'll hold ya ta yer word, o' course. Take it easy, then, an' have fun with that 'reward' later, ya'll," Applejack returned, throwing a wink in at me as I blushed once again. Twilight took it in stride this time and just smirked before hauling me back towards the barn door with a series of nudges.

"Oh, we will. Don't worry," she tossed back as we left the barn. What had I gotten myself into?

* * * * *

Reality continued to surprise me, however. I stretched gently as I watched Twilight dance from shelf to shelf, peeking through each one's contents. Occasionally she'd levitate an item or two down into the third bag we'd packed. Regardless, I simply sat there, watching her while holding the bag open with my forehoof.

The room was dimly lit by now, the sun having sunk below the horizon about an hour ago. Eight o'clock, maybe? Twilight had instead insisted on getting to work on the wood samples when we got back to the library, rather than any prior hinting of 'experimentation' she had mentioned. This caused mixed feelings of both relief and disappointment in me, surprisingly. I guess I always got so anxious when she started acting like that. I started second guessing my own actions.

A pleasant aroma drifted into my nose from the kitchen as Twilight lightly hummed. Spike was making supper, I knew, and I had been relieved of my active kitchen duty by him at the moment. Well, when I refer to 'relieved', I actually meant conscripted by Twilight instead. Apparently she can't hold the bag open and still focus intently on fretting over what to pack. Of course, I just got a stiff glare when I mentioned she might be overdoing the whole preparation thing.

Not that it mattered. The scenery was infinitely better in here, and I didn't have to be concerned about lopping off a hoof and adding it to the meal at any point. My eyes traced over Twilight as she worked, earning warm butterflies in the rest of my body at each movement they caught. She was absolutely gorgeous and she didn't even try to be. Maybe it was just my perspective, but I certainly didn't mind just watching her pack things. I might be a little biased, but at least I knew I wasn't the only one who would think that way. It was surprising to realize that Fluttershy definitely liked Twilight as well, but I saw her reasons easily enough. Not that feelings like these really needed a reason in the first place.

The lavender unicorn glanced back at me again after dropping yet another item into the bag. Her gaze caught my own once more, and she immediately blushed; a light shade shift that was almost imperceptible in the dim light. She let out a light, groaning sound and looked away slightly.

"I know I said that I don't mind you looking, but I think I'd actually find it easier if I caught you eyeing my flanks instead, or something, " she muttered in a somewhat pointed fashion. I chuckled in amusement.

"Well, they're very nice flanks, I agree, but I like a whole lot more than just them," I reminded, sticking out my tongue afterwards.

She smirked at my impish reply and expression and relaxed a little. "Your flattery only works because I know you're honest. Most would get a magical boot to their flanks instead if they'd said that," she warned, snickering a little herself.

I coughed lightly, painfully aware of how popular she was and not needing the reminder. "Oh, I know. I'd be the first to wallop them," I agreed, keeping a close check on the wicked green monster that was busy snarling inside of me.

Twilight's smile softened and she nodded, adding, "A little possessiveness is a good thing in a relationship, I feel. The books I've read on the matter warn to not let it go too far, but I don't think you're anywhere near that." The statement was accompanied by her shifting closer and softly brushing her cheeks against my own. The heat drifted into my face again, and I looked down. It still surprised me that Twilight herself wanted that kind of attention from me. She could probably have any stallion she wanted, too. Still, I was too close now to treat her as anything other than just Twilight. She'd been introduced to me not as a national hero and student of the practical goddess ruler, but just as a skilled magic user and kind mare. First impressions stuck hard. She didn't appear to mind, however.

"I feel kind of badly that I have all of this packing to do, but you don't have anything," she muttered, breaking me out of my contemplation a few moments later.

I raised an eyebrow before the impish smirk returned. "I'm telling you, you probably barely need half of this stuff."

As predicted, she shot me a dirty looks before visibly scoffing. "I must be prepared, no matter what. I might be called upon to do practically anything, so it helps to be ready. I might need to help organize or set up for the party, even," she reasoned, flailing her forelegs up and about as if partially panicking already.

I averted my eyes and coughed. Of course, I could practically feel her piercing glare bore a hole through my head. "So the telescope and orrery are going to help with that?" I inquired curiously, if not a little sardonic in tone.

"Those are for entertainment after the party!" she defended sharply after a moment's hesitation.

"Didn't you say that about the mortar, pestle, and alembic, too?" I reminded, raising an eyebrow towards her incredulously.

Twilight gave me a frustrated, pouting stare before I started laughing and she flailed at me. "Oh, you! You're so frustrating sometimes. Fine, I'll leave the telescope and orrery here, but I absolutely cannot afford to leave behind my alchemical equipment," she insisted.

I shielded my face from her flurry of playful swats with a foreleg while continuing to snicker. "All right, all right. Princess Twilight wins. Your loyal servant shall carry your alchemy supplies along as well," I conceded in as theatrical a manner as I could muster. Of course, it was just to poke a little more playful fun at her.

Twilight gave me a curious raised eyebrow before a smile danced onto her expression. "That's Princess Twilight Sparkle, thou must remember. We must be addressed properly," she insisted a moment later, playing along with it and shifting to a strangely familiar speaking mannerism.

I tried not to laugh, and continued along with, "Many apologies, my Princess. Is there anything this humble servant could do to earn forgiveness?"

"Pending any further transgressions, we have already forgiven thou. However," she began, before her eyelids lowered a little and that grin returned. Uh oh.

I found myself on my back before I could say anything. Apparently, one needs a certain threshold of air in one's lungs in order to properly formulate vocal noises! It was a fascinating discovery. Learned at the same time was the fact that for kissing, one definitely did not require that same threshold.

Twilight broke contact a few seconds later, her lips still hovering over mine and a light flush on her cheeks still. "If thou keeps being so adorable, surely we can spare a pleasant reward," she followed up, assuming from her prior sentence.

Okay, now she was just screwing with my head. I rolled my eyes while smiling still before reminding, "Surely, Princess Twilight Sparkle remembers that she shall be very busy with her duties all night and won't have time for such."

Her eyes lit up with amusement as I continued. Suddenly, I started to question just how much she was enjoying this verbal exchange. It didn't help that she was pressed right up against me, chest to chest. Focus, Mender!

"We shan't be busy all night, of course. Much, hmm, rewarding shall be done upon retiring for the evening with thou,”Twilight informed before slowly starting to inch closer. “All. Alone. Together." My breathing caught as I felt hers gently against my chin. She was just teasing me again! Why did she like doing this so much? Regardless, I kept forcing myself to remember that.

I started to playfully scoff and resume the acting, regardless of how my blazing cheeks probably shifted me out of character. She interrupted further, however, by ducking down suddenly and pressing a heated kiss directly to the side of my neck.

My eyes flew open in shock at the same time my body locked up at the new, entirely unexpected sensation! It was like a light switch got turned on, and I was suddenly all too aware of all the intermingling fur between our bodies. She was so soft and warm that I couldn't help but lift my forelegs up and wrap them around her back, pulling her closer against me. Her kiss pushed higher up my neck, and she added a light lick before lifting her head up again, smiling down at me with a victorious grin.

"Oooh, someone has a sensitive neck. I'll have to remember that," she observed slyly, causing me to swallow. I couldn't manage to say anything as I just stared up at her in shock, cheeks feeling like they could fry eggs if given the chance.

"I can still hear you, ya know!" was suddenly shouted from the direction of the kitchen. Twilight's mischievous grin melted into embarrassed shock in less than a heartbeat. I coughed lightly, seemingly reminding her that I was still here and currently underneath of her. She gave a guilty smile and awkwardly stumbled sideways off of me, trying to untangle her legs from mine. I fought down stirring feelings and managed to get onto my hooves again, unable to push back the blush.

"Ah, we should probably keep packing up," she finally excused awkwardly almost ten seconds later. That might not seem like a lot, but when blushing furiously in a supposedly active conversation, it's an eternity!

Sighing, I nodded weakly and stood up fully again, feeling my back legs crack in a somewhat pleasant manner. "We've almost got everything packed now. Can you get the drawings and notes I made about the wood samples as well? They're in the sample cabinet over there," she requested, gesturing with a hoof before peeking over the shelf in front of her, gathering up what appeared to be official papers. Oh yeah, she had wanted to present her findings to Princess Celestia the day after the party. She had indeed been working hard on it, not that I thought whatever it was in the forest was still around at this point.

I wandered over to a series of three wooden cabinets, all in a row. She sure kept a lot of samples. Pity she didn't specify which one the wood notes were in. I mentally decided that was also on my list of things I'd never thought I'd be looking for. Notes on blocks of wood. Mentally shrugging, I just decided to metaphorically bite the bullet and opened the first cabinet closest to me.

The moment of peace and tranquility before utter horror sets in just serves to make the effect worse. Maybe it was because I wasn't expecting to panic so suddenly, or maybe it was the mundane outer appearance of the cabinet that threw me into a false sense of security. Regardless, my eyes widened and almost popped free of my skull after I opened the first cabinet and came face to face with three hellish rocks straight out of my nightmares.

My first distinct thought while stumbling backwards and falling away from the cabinet was wondering why she had kept them. After what they had almost done to both myself and two of her closest friends, the rational solution would have been to find a place that could obliterate them. A lava flow or tectonic shift came to mind almost immediately. So why were they here, in an unassuming cabinet all of thirty feet from where I slept at night?!

"Mender?!" Twilight asked immediately upon hearing the crashing noise of me tripping over my own hooves and landing on my back. I rolled once and slid to my hooves again, carefully lowering myself against the direction of the rocks, ready to dodge in case any eldritch tentacle lashed out at me or something. There was no movement from them at all, however. I distinctly noticed that the shifting, distorting effect that had given me a headache when I looked at them the first time was also absent.

Twilight moved into my vision and quietly closed the cabinet again, not meeting my gaze. She hastily opened the third cabinet instead and pulled out a stack of paper notes. That was it? She was just going to stash them away and pretend I hadn't seen them? She knew exactly what I'd seen in there.

"Twilight," I warned, eyes narrowing a little as I stared at her.

She halted, sighing before putting the papers into the folder she was still holding. "I know. I said I got rid of them," she admitted, lowering her head before looking back over at me in a guilty manner. It had been discussed prior, after they'd finally caught me up as to what happened after I lost consciousness. She told me they had deactivated after the explosion and she'd disposed of them.

"Why?" I asked, relaxing a little bit. A part of me expected the cabinet to burst open again, pulling us all into the inky darkness no matter how much we screamed.

She still refused to meet my gaze. "They're important, Mender. If something like that happens again, having samples might be the only thing that stops disaster," she defended, distinctly interested in her right forehoof.

I exhaled quietly, finally deciding that she had only half lied. They certainly didn't look the same as they had, so maybe they truly were deactivated? The cold sensation slipped into me again as I remembered the feeling of having one of their tendrils attached to my chest. It was so cold that it burned, creeping into my body as it tore through tissue and wormed its way into my very being. The worst part was knowing what it actually was; a hole in reality going back through to the very place I so wanted to avoid. I doubted any living thing would survive the transfer via that method, however.

Regardless, I finally gave up. Really, it wasn't that big of a deal, I guess. If they were deactivated, they were only rocks. Sighing, I nodded to her and lowered my head. There was nothing I could do, anyway. I could hardly force her to get rid of them. This was her house and they were technically her property, after all. My ears twitched and I frowned, remembering that I technically didn't have any property in the first place.

"Mender, are you okay? I'm sorry that I didn't tell you the truth. I didn't think you'd understand my wanting to keep them," she apologized, edging closer to me carefully. I held my ground and didn't shrink back this time as best I could. Surprisingly, she smiled and edged closer yet before gently pecking me on the forehead. "Thank you, Mender. I'm not going to hurt you."

She'd said it before, but I guess it was just a matter of convincing myself of it now. "I know, Twilight. It just surprised me, is all," I muttered slowly, looking back up at her again, unsure of what exactly I was supposed to say. Thankfully, Spike saved me the awkwardness.

"Hey you two! Dinner is ready," the little dragon called out from the kitchen and dining room area. Twilight peeked past me towards the sound of his voice before nodding and smiling further. I took my cue and turned around, heading towards the glowing doorway that led to the fully lit kitchen. It was always so much more peaceful at night, I decided. Hoof steps slowly followed me, indicating my fillyfriend was coming along too. That still felt weird to even think about.

Spike had produced a rather simplistic dinner obviously made for three ponies. Well, two ponies and a drake? I didn't exactly know what to call him. Regardless, it was more than pleasant, even if I was the last one to finish eating. It was a mistake to attempt to learn how to use the utensil loops for my hoof, I decided. Twilight's magic and Spike's opposable thumbs easily beat my clumsy attempts at eating using just my hooves. Twilight even choked back a couple giggles after I poked myself in the muzzle with the fork the second time. Who knew spaghetti could be so frustrating to eat?!

By the time I finished, Twilight had migrated to finishing up the packing, and Spike was already washing the dishes. He was more than a little surprised when instead of just dropping my plate in with the rest, I set it in and proceeded to help him clean everything that was left. He was an earnest little guy, that much was for sure. I felt bad that he worked by himself all the time, though.

It took us another ten minutes or so to finish drying the dishes, and I saw his eyes starting to slowly droop by the time he put the last one away. Admittedly, I had no idea where to put them once they were dried. "Getting a little sleepy there, Spike?" I asked in amusement, obviously already knowing the answer.

He sighed and nodded before smiling warmly again. "Yeah. It's almost my bedtime. But thanks to you, I got that last chore done twenty minutes early and can get some extra sleep tonight!" he exclaimed, sounding as if he were a little kid in a candy factory.

I snickered as he wobbled and tried to get off the counter. In order to reach the upper cabinets, he had to climb up and stand on the counter surface. Afraid he was going to fall, I walked up next to the counter, right where he was set to get down. He gave me a happy nod before stepping down onto my back instead and flopping forwards. He was still light as a feather, even after eating, so I proceeded out of the kitchen and towards the stairs up to the loft. Twilight, who was sitting on the couch and sorting her bags, smiled up at me escorting the sleepy dragon and nodded in approval. I perked and gave a single nod back before slowly making my way up the stairs, careful to watch where each of my hooves were going. Now that would have been ironic. I was worried he'd hurt himself so I carry him up the stairs, only to trip and fall down it myself; both of us ending up in the hospital.

Thankfully I made it safely to the loft and deposited him near the bathroom door. "Thanks, Mender. You're so, uh, totally awesome. Yeah, that's it," he thanked sleepily, seeming to struggle with his words.

"Don't worry about it, Spike. Just brush your teeth and enjoy the extra sleep time," I waived off, smiling pleasantly at him. I was kind of glad he was taking Twilight and I so well, actually. Making myself useful around the house was one way to ease any transition time as well. Plus, he seemed seriously overworked, and I liked helping the little guy.

He grinned and saluted me before turning and promptly running straight into the yet closed door. I winced as the wood shook and he stumbled backwards slightly. "Ow! Uh, that was just a fluke. I'm fine!" he rapidly informed before quickly reaching up and turning the doorknob this time. I fought back any snickering as he rapidly ducked inside and closed the door again without making eye contact. Poor little guy.

I decided to keep it my secret and headed back downstairs. Twilight sat the last bag down on the floor at the base of the couch before looking back up at me, smiling again. She seemed really happy tonight, which was definitely a good thing. After how awkward yesterday had been, I figured her transition to pleasant moods would have been a more involved process.

"Spike getting ready for bed, then?" she inquired as I sat down on the other end of the couch from her, circling once on the cushion before flopping over onto my right flank.

I stretched before giving another brief nod, adding, "Yeah, he's brushing his teeth, then turning in early. He did look really tired."

"He works really hard on all of his chores. I'm really thankful for such a dutiful and proper assistant. That's why he's number one," she explained, closing her eyes and giving a cute head nod as if to agree with herself. She really did seem to appreciate him, plus he seemed more than happy with his position. With that, I decided all was indeed well.

"Still, I'm really glad that you're helping him so much. I worry a lot that he tries to do too much by himself," she admitted a moment later, causing my chest to warm up a little bit. Yeah, she honestly did care about him. A lot. That made me feel a little better about things.

"He really is like a little brother to you, isn't he?" I asked, smiling at her from across the middle cushion that separated us. The urge to slide over and hug her was still there, but I didn't want to take a risk and destroy her good mood.

Twilight nodded pleasantly before looking over at the crackling fireplace instead. "I've been with him since he hatched. He knows I'm not his Mother, obviously, but I'm somewhere between his sister and surrogate mother instead. I'm glad you two have been getting along so well. You'll be spending a lot of time here, obviously, and I was a little nervous," she admitted, frowning.

We thought fairly alike on that topic, then. "Well, things are working out all right. Does this mean I shouldn't plan on getting my own place in the future?" I questioned, smiling again.

As predicted, that drew her attention back to me, wearing a frown. It disappeared when she saw my smirk, and she rolled her eyes, chuckling. "I wouldn't let you leave even if you wanted to. Now that I have the extra company, going back to just the two of us here would be really depressing," she informed, getting that impish grin again.

I coughed and averted my eyes, earning a snicker. Twilight rolled her eyes before adding, "Oh relax. I just don't want you to leave. We can obviously keep separate beds. I suggest getting an actual one soon, however. Applejack will probably want her cot back eventually."

"Heh, don't remind me. I really do want to earn things for myself, don't worry," I assured, lowering my ears are little.

She didn't falter and scooted over a little, resting her forehead and horn against my right shoulder. "I know. You're a good stallion. Part of me was afraid of the relationship thing because I was worried about expectations and being controlled, not just because it's new and unfamiliar. I should have known better, of course," she revealed, pushing a little harder with her snout.

Sighing, I wrapped a foreleg over her shoulder softly, needlessly assuring, "You know I'd never do that. I just want you to be happy. Fillyfriend is just a convenient label. It doesn't come with any particular duties or requirements apart from just being you." That much I didn't need to learn about dating. Sure, the terms were new, but my sense of integrity wasn't.

She nodded against me gently before raising her head up again and pecking my cheek. "I know that now. I'm way more comfortable with this than I was before. It's just like being friends, only, um, closer," she tried to explain, tracing her free right hoof in a simple triangle on my chest. Of course. Most would use circle patterns to their movements. Twilight, however, uses perfectly formed, one hundred and eighty degree triangles.

"A lot closer," I agreed before placing a kiss right above her horn. She made a murmur as her horn lit up to my touch, shuddering after I withdrew. Well that was an interesting reaction. Was her horn sensitive or something? I had assumed it was just bone with a light layer of skin over it. She swallowed and shivered slightly.

"Mmm, easy there. I'm, uh, actually a little tired tonight. Do you think we could hold off on the 'reward' thing until tomorrow night?" she requested softly, opening her eyes finally and looking up at me.

I raised an eyebrow, but shook my head, ignoring the sudden pang in my chest. "Twilight, I had figured you were just joking anyway. Of course we can just go to bed," I pointed out, unsure of why she was insisting on rewarding me to begin with. Her expression suddenly made me uncomfortable and I couldn't help but look away.

I saw her ears flatten back out of the corner of my eye. "Of course I want to reward you for doing such an amazing job helping out my friends. It's kind of a reward for me, too. Um, I'm just, well, tired tonight," she furthered, lowering her head a little. I nodded absently, eyes drifting carefully to the cabinet again.

"Come on, Mender. Let's go to bed. We have a long day tomorrow. We can enjoy each other's company tomorrow night when it's just us in my castle room," she reminded, standing up and sliding off the couch.

My mind drifted back to her before I gave her another nod and stood as well. Ultimately, I wasn't looking forward to the crowds and stuffy suit Rarity had no doubt finished by now. I'd be happy when tomorrow night was over, I had a feeling.

Dawdling slightly as I went after Twilight, I gave the cabinet one last uneasy stare before scampering up the stairs.

Chapter 20

Keela watched in amusement as I drew on the piece of paper in front of me, my hoof moving surprisingly deftly as it manipulated the pencil. Working with a hoof wasn't that different from holding something when you could stick things to the surface of it using magic, I found out. I'd never had any issues learning to manipulate things with my left appendage, either. Maybe I had always used the left one?

We were in the lounge area of her lab. This vessel, I recently discovered, used to be a large research platform before it was refit with massive engines and used to escape from the Grosh. Now Keela was one of only three researchers who still used the lab section. We were entirely alone, so I felt reasonably comfortable being out and about. My transparent, barrier-body was in an almost perfect replica of my pony self due to the power of the book floating in my chest, and I was busy drawing while seated at a rather comfy table. As odd as the situation was, I'd been taking a bit of comfort out of the audacity lately.

It surprised me a little when I realized that Keela wasn't much bigger than I was in pony form. One thing I didn't recall was that Keldarians were rather small in stature. Standing up, she was maybe a meter tall at best.

"Oooh, she's pretty. You can definitely tell she's a female," my only companion commented finally, sliding closer to my energy body while peeking over my shoulder.

I raised an eyebrow and peeked back at her questioningly. "It surprises me that you can say she's pretty, not being a pony yourself," I pointed out, watching her snicker.

"Traits of attraction are surprisingly universal. I don't know if you recall, but some of our species took an interest in our allies too, even though they're practically hairless, gargantuan, and rather brutal. She's very pretty. I can see why you like her," Keela explained, catching me by surprise. No, I hadn't been aware of relations with our allies such as that. They seemed kind of gross to me, but I supposed everypony had their own tastes. Err, everyone.

"I didn't know that. Or at least, I didn't remember it," I reasoned, staring down at my rather based drawing of the absolutely gorgeous lavender unicorn. She didn't look nearly as good on paper; let alone in monochrome. Vibrant colors had oddly grown on me for some totally unknown reason.

My, dare I say, friend nodded politely, looking deeply amused. "I'm glad you patched things up with her, regardless. I didn't mean to get you in trouble. I'll refrain from sending things through the book from now on," she promised, averting her eyes as a light blush danced onto her cheeks.

"Eh, you know they already think I'm nuts. Maybe watching the paper pop out of me would convince them otherwise," I groaned out, trying my best to keep the bitterness limited. A sudden compulsion hit, and I followed it instantly without consideration.

"Hey now! Don't be so hard on yourself," Keela protested a few seconds after my forehead smacked into the surface of the coffee table. I felt nothing and barely resisted sighing. "Look, I might not know much about love, but I know if she really likes you like that, she'll come around eventually. Trust takes time to build up and you haven't been there all that long, really," she added several seconds later, apparently upon deciding I wasn't going to move anymore without further stimuli.

I shook my head against the hard surface, agreeing with, "I know I haven't been there that long. I'll be the first to admit that I don't compare in the slightest to Celestia. I'm just, I don't know, venting frustration at this point?" It was rather confusing to even me. Something told me that this was the first I had to deal with these kinds of feelings; they neither involved making something work or spontaneously making things no longer work, be it mechanical or organic.

She giggled again. I impulsively decided that it wasn't as nice of a giggle as Twilight's or Fluttershy's. "Their culture is amazingly peaceful, so you're very lucky, honestly. All of your new friends seem really nice, so I don't think you have anything to worry about. Rarity might actually really help Twilight see what she's missing, from the sounds of it," she added, gently rubbing my back. Well, the shield told me she was rubbing it. It wasn't like I could actually feel anything. Still, the sentiment could be appreciated, which she probably knew.

"See what she's missing?" I asked curiously, finally lifting my head off the table and looking back at her to my right.

Keela only snickered; her short whiskers wiggled in amusement as she grinned at me. "Call it a woman's intuition. Rarity spending so much time with you will probably vastly improve your relationship with Twilight," she explained, nodding twice at the end.

The concept was completely foreign to me. "How will hanging out with Rarity improve my relationship with Twilight?" I inquired incredulously, raising an eyebrow to my alien friend.

She just shook her head, looking impish now. "You'll see. If it makes you feel better, I can see why she likes you as well. If she's unsure of herself, you probably make her feel really comfortable, actually."

Okay, I give up. I was never going to understand females, and I was only wasting my time in the trying. Keela let out a humming noise and added more snickers, which started to annoy rather than placate at this point.

I glared at her, but she just hummed a little more insistently. If we hadn't been talking for the past, like, four hours, I'd think she was suddenly nervous about talking to me.

She gave me a questioning tilt of her head, causing me to realize that something was off. I shifted and turned away from her, but the tone and depth of the humming noise didn't change. Okay, that was weird. It wasn't coming from her, then.

"What's wrong, Mender?" she asked, voice shifting a little lower and more serious.

I glanced about, and realized the humming wasn't coming from anywhere. It was in my head, but exceedingly there. There! It was so real that it couldn't possibly be real. Oh crap. It reminded me of what that connection sounded like between the dimensions.

"There's a humming sound coming from my mind. I think it's something to do with the dimensional link. Weird," I informed, glancing back at her in confusion.

She frowned, and then shook her head. "I'm not doing anything differently. Perhaps you should try waking up real quick and seeing if it's not on that end?" she reasoned, shrugging her shoulders.

I contemplated it for a moment before deciding she was probably right. If Twilight had my head in a pot and was smashing it off the wall trying to wake me up, I should at least humor her. "All right. I'll tug on our link if I can make it back to sleep," I accepted, standing up off the couch again.

She nodded and smiled to me before everything went monochrome. I braced myself as I withdrew, keenly aware of the book hitting the couch cushion before everything fell backwards. It was kind of like falling and sliding at the same time, with a warm feeling of liquid running just along your skin. Rather peaceful once I stopped panicking the first time.

Then there was the sensation of waking up...

* * * * *

The room was almost pitch black, the only light being the soft moonlight coming through the side window next to the small balcony. Even that was reduced significantly by the heavy leaf foliage in front of it. Sometimes I forget that I technically live in a tree.

Remembering why I woke up, I perked my ears up for that strange humming noise. It didn't take me long to locate it in the relative quiet of the night. It was directed this time, clearly coming from downstairs. What was scary was that it was a familiar noise to me at this point. I'd not remembered much, but the humming noise advanced electronics made was still quite clear enough.

I slowly slid off the side of my cot, careful to ease my hooves onto the hardwood floor. They were significantly harder than the rest of my skin and would undoubtedly make noise if I rushed. Easing along and cringing at every creaking noise, I peeked over at Twilight and Spike.

My fillyfriend was completely under the covers at this point with just the tip of her head and horn sticking out. I smiled as I watched the blanket gently rising and falling with her slow breathing, a warm fluttering sensation drifting into my chest. I was glad we were on better terms now.

Spike hadn't moved either apart from rotating onto his back. His light snores were rhythmic and gentle, occasionally accompanied by a twitch of his legs. I tried not to chuckle before slipping past both of them and heading down the stairs.

Unfortunately, the first floor was far darker than the second, which only served to magnify my apprehension. I wasn't afraid of the dark by any means, but there was something absolutely terrifying about the unknown if you dwelled on it for too long. My eyes slowly got adjusted to the lack of light. Of course, they were drawn like a moth to a bonfire in the direction of the darkened corner. I knew that the cabinet was there, ominously hidden in the darkness. The happy feeling in my chest was gone in an instant, replaced by a nervous dread.

My ears twisted around and I almost groaned when I realized that was exactly where the sound was coming from. A few choice expletives were muttered under my breath before I gritted my teeth and inched closer to the three cabinets. My initial instinct was to run back upstairs and wake Twilight up, but I somehow doubted that would be met with much success.

My breathing became a controlled, stifled thing the closer I got to the cabinet as I tried my hardest to quiet any excess noise I might be making. Who knows what might be in the dark, listening intently for me to announce my presence.

I hesitated, stopping a meter away from the object of concern. Shadows seemed to cling to it and I was unsure if that was a product of my imagination or some nefarious will inside. Damn it. I was distinctly aware of the darkness around me, suddenly not wanting to turn around lest I come face to face with some grinning demon or maddening abomination. My heart beat faster as I almost saw its glowing red eyes in the dark as it got closer, smiling with rows of razor sharp teeth. Wicked instruments of torture and misery were in her hands as the shadows hid all but her weapons, clawed arms, and glowing eyes. I could almost smell the fresh blood that dripped off the twisted, serrated drill she held; the blades on it were curved perfectly to slide under and around the eyeball before she turned it on...

Shuddering, I snapped myself out of the darkening images and tried not to throw up. What the hell was I doing?! Glaring back up at the cabinet upon gathering my nerves again, my left hoof flared up with an inner light, bathing the entire lower floor with the intensity of a box of flares going off!

I whipped around instantly, expecting to see things burning away or writhing in agony in the sudden light. I was both disappointed and relieved to see nothing out of place at all. Have some guts, Mender! Damn it. My imagination was going to give me a heart attack.

Swallowing nervously after becoming satisfied that I wasn't going to be ambushed and torn apart, I slowly turned back around and glared at the cabinet. My flared up ball of light behind me split into multiple pieces and scattered about the main room, illuminating row after row of books along with the humble furniture, dwindling fireplace, shelves of instruments and scientific baubles, and entry to the kitchen. Nothing was out of the norm.

My eyes locked back onto the first cabinet directly in front of me. The humming noise was gone, apparently having disappeared at some point during my minor freak out. Maybe it got scared and ran away from me instead. I chuckled airily before resting my hoof on the door handle to the cabinet. Guts, Mender.

After a quick recollection of my breathing, I gritted my teeth again, threw up my forward barrier over my chest, neck, and face, and opened up the cabinet.

The rocks were just sitting there, exactly where she had left them. My spike of apprehension and preparation to defend myself was actually met with a bit of disappointment, honestly. I glared at the three blasted things, wishing I knew of a volcano to toss them into. Of course, even if I knew where one was, walking all the way there just to toss something in seemed like a major pain in the butt. Of course, magic existed, so I suppose Twilight could just teleport me there.

I shook off the distraction before sighing, a little tense still but with dwindling outlook on my mission. I hadn't managed to find the source of the noise after all. Why would rocks hum in the first place? Growing mildly frustrated, I reached out and nudged the left-most one with my hoof.

I could have sworn I pulled something in my chest with how fast I inhaled. Shoving myself backwards with all three remaining hooves probably didn't help either. The stone actually lit up when I touched it, glowing with a soft blue light that almost perfectly matched my coat! Upon retreating back to my meter gap, I whipped up my full barrier in front of me again and watched the stone through it, unable to help but shiver as that noise came back. Damn it! I should have woken up Twilight after all!

The stone wasn't very impressive for something potentially lethal. It glowed softly, barely managing the same strength as a candle. My eyes widened as its edges and cracks faded, however, revealing what I recognized as a wire frame design of blue lines. What the hell?! The blue light washed away the rock coloring completely before withdrawing deeper into the stone. That's when I realized that I could see inside of the thing.

The outer rock became a finely detailed, shaped barrier. It wasn't a rock at all! The wire frame dissolved at the same time the image of a rock did, leaving the barrier to shrink down to that of a glowing sphere instead. I started and backed up another half a meter as the orb of light drifted lazily out of the cabinet and stopped right in front of me. Oh crap. Was it sentient?

I instantly recognized the effect as a holographic display as it popped a 'box' up above it in the air. "Entity 002 Recognized" was displayed directly above it in darker blue, computerized print. Below that, slowly fading into existence, were smaller words as well. "DNA Scan Completed: Unlocking"

Well, that seemed a little strange. Actually, this entire event was a little strange. The rather non-threatening little orb of light then spontaneously vanished without so much as an announcement of intent. Two lightly glowing disks, much smaller than the original ball, fell out of the air from where it had been and landed abruptly on the wood with a light chiming noise that was entirely unexpected.

I blinked and tilted my head towards them before nudging the closest one with my shield. It mildly surprised me by doing absolutely nothing. Well that was anticlimactic. Still, I suppose I should be happy that I wasn't being hauled off into an alternate universe by eldritch physics tentacles only to die a horrible, squishy death in a void without a space suit. It could always get worse!

I dropped the extra shields in favor of just the skintight ones and nudged the coin-sized disks with my hoof this time. They continued their pattern of doing nothing, producing further mixed feelings in me. Huh. Upon closer inspection, I noticed they were comprised of two separate glowing sections. The outer ring was slightly darker in coloring and took up maybe a fifth of the radius in width. They looked kind of like an alien bit, almost, if I was comparing them to Equestria.

Finally relaxing a little, I picked one up with my magically enhanced hoof and stared at it. It was the same on both sides, as I kind of expected. This was strange. Why were these things inside of the rocks? Did they have anything to do with the effects from before with the tentacles and potential death? They felt warm to the touch and brought only more questions rather than answers; although it was safe to say that I had located the source of the noise after all.

The second coin-shaped disk proved perfectly identical to its partner, and I set both of them down on the coffee table. Systematically, I reached out and poked another one of the rocks, entirely unsurprised when it started doing the same thing. They were some sort of encrypted storage devices, I decided. Maybe it wasn't an 'accident' that they were sent with me after all. I was obviously on their list of individuals to reveal themselves to, after all. Entity two, huh?

"Mmph, what's with all the light down here?" I suddenly heard Twilight mutter from the stairs. Oh crap!

Totally caught red-hooved, I didn't even try to hide the glowing orb of light drifting towards me from the cabinet as I slowly looked over at her, trying to smile innocently. She stared blankly at me for a moment before shifting to a questioning expression instead, eyes locking onto the orb of light instead. "What are you doing?" she asked a moment later, continuing down the stairs at a more rapid pace. She thought this was something that I was doing?

"Uh, I heard a noise from the cabinet and went to check, and then, um..." I tried to explain before faltering. I realized I didn't exactly know how to explain what was going on in the first place.

Thankfully, I didn't have to. Her eyes widened as the light receded and she recognized the wire frame shape of the rock drifting in the air. She rushed over, horn lighting up with magic as she scanned it rapidly.

"That, is that one of the rocks?!" she asked almost instantly, suddenly significantly more awake than I had given her credit for prior.

I nodded weakly before glancing back at it. "I touched it, and this happened with the first one, too. It says that it's unlocking for an entity zero, zero, two," I explained as best I could.

She watched, eyes shivering with a mixture of what I could only pick up as nervous fascination as the holographic displays lit up with the exact same message as the first one. In the meantime, I picked up the two disks from behind me and offered them to Twilight, hoping she could make more sense of them.

At first, she just frowned down at the two disks before snapping her attention back to the orb as it unceremoniously vanished. She watched the two coins fall to the floor before looking back at the two I held. "These came out of the first one I poked. I wanted to test if it would happen again, which you can see the results of," I offered.

Twilight frowned at the two disks before levitating them off my hoof and closer to her face for examination. "The stones were containers, then," she deduced instantly, surprisingly me with her clarity yet again.

I nodded weakly, adding, "They were locked, and for some reason, I was on the list of accepted individuals to open them." That made me nervous for some reason.

"Maybe them following you here wasn't so accidental after all. Why didn't this happen the first time, however?" she questioned, flipping the two disks over and over as she peeked at them. I was amused at how fast she forgot about sleeping.

That I couldn't answer, however. "The only thing I can think of is that I didn't technically touch the stones directly before; just the tentacle thingy that came out of it after Fluttershy poked it," I offered, tossing a shrug in for good measure after. Fluttershy apparently wasn't on the list that the rocks had. Did that mean that what happened was some sort of defensive mechanism or something? Scary. That was just a guess, however.

"This is so weird. They're precisely shaped crystal disks of some sort with weird magic woven into them. There's some sort of scratching along the inner disk, but they're too tiny for me to pick up fully. Well, this definitely gives me something to study in the off time after the party," she muttered, suddenly looking bewildered and shaking her head at the two floating in the air in front of her.

I sighed before looking down at the ones lying on the floor instead. Wait a second, something was different. One of the two disks on the floor was yellow in the center with a much brighter glowing blue ring around it. Something was in the yellow too that I couldn't make out.

Curious, I picked it up and instantly drew Twilight's attention. She saw the difference too and frowned until I brought it closer to us. Both of our eyes widened drastically as the image in the center of the yellow came into view.

Inside of the now familiar yellow center, the glowing alien disk had a crystal clear image of three butterflies; their cyan bodies and pink wings offsetting the soft yellow perfectly. No. This couldn't be possible, even! Why was that design on something that came from my world?!

"Mender, do you know what these are?" Twilight asked quietly, nudging the coin-shaped artifact carefully.

I shook my head, sadly. "I was just as surprised as you are. This shouldn't be possible. The rocks are from my world, so why is Fluttershy's Cutie Mark on this?" I questioned, staring hard at the brightly colored disk. Something was very wrong, and I didn't have a clue where to begin to guess what.

"There's one more rock. You should open it and check the disks there as well. This is beyond weird. You're sure you didn't have anything like Cutie Marks in your world?" she questioned as I stepped over the coin on the floor to poke the last rock in the cabinet.

"No, nothing like that. I'd never heard of them before coming here," I assured, giving her a nervous glance. She returned it and nodded, glancing over as the other rock activated, announced me as 'Entity 002' again, and opened up exactly the same as the other two.

Both Twilight and I watched intently as the coins hit the floor, and I could tell right away that something was off again. One coin was blank, but the other had a light cyan inside. Oh crap. "Rainbow Dash's coat color," Twilight pointed out, picking up the coin. Her bringing it up so we could see it confirmed her suspicions. A tri-colored cloud and lightning bolt was in the center of the coin. What did the coins mean?

"I'm curious. Do you have one of those links with Rainbow, too?" she questioned, bringing up a very good point. I shook my head, however, potentially ruining the theory. She peeked more intently at the coin, not seeming dissuaded in the least, however.

"The outer ring isn't lit up like Fluttershy's. I wonder why that is? Here, try holding it," she offered a moment later, extending the coin over to where I was.

Her expression made me frown. It was almost passive, with her voice abrupt and expecting. Did she think my touching the coin would cause something to happen? Uncertain, I hesitated as I extended my hoof to the coin, stopping barely a centimeter from the shiny surface. Shouldn't we be, like, experimenting on these first before going right to live tests? Of course, I didn't exactly know how to experiment on them, but still...

Twilight decided for me by smiling gently while I hesitated and lifting her hoof up slightly, brushing the coin along the underside of my hoof. I jumped slightly at the sensation of a static jolt, but she pulled the coin back before I could react. It glowed angrily for a moment before the outer ring lit up as well, causing the light created by the coin to be magnified significantly.

Both of our eyes widened as "Connection Established" faded into existence overtop of the coin. Well crap. "Fascinating! You have a link with all of the coins. I think they're responsible for the strange phenomenon between you and Fluttershy," she theorized, sounding a little too curious for her own good.

I coughed lightly, pointing to the coin she was still holding. "You might have just created a connection with Rainbow Dash, too," I reasoned, staring blankly at it. What did the connections ultimately do? Twilight seemed momentarily unsure, hesitating as she looked down at the coin in her hoof.

"It, well, it needed to be tested. Making the connection must be a two-stage process. Fluttershy touched the rock a while back during the first incident, and then you touched it immediately after to free her, which probably caused the connection. But why wasn't Rainbow affected fully, too?" Twilight pondered out loud.

Both of us were suddenly distracted as my flare spell went out and we were plunged into the darkness. Well, we would have been if not for the two fully established coins, and one partially established coin glowing like tiny flares. Wait, partially established?

I glanced down at the coin Twilight had set down and widened my eyes. "Oh crap. Twilight, the other coin you touched!" I pointed out, gesturing towards the coin with my hoof.

She started, still trying to get over to the lamp and being apparently surprised by my sudden outburst. "Huh?!" she let out before glancing down at the coin in question. Her coat color and starburst shaped Cutie Mark was on the coin already, but with no lit up ring around the outer edge. "Ack! Don't touch it!" she exclaimed harshly before catching it in her magic and pulling it over to her. I gave her a skeptical glance, but she just frowned down at the coin and rapidly shook her head. "We don't know what the links truly do, so let's minimize the exposure until we can get more information," she added, looking away from my stare.

My ears drooped a little and a light spike of bitterness shot through me. Sure, she thought experimenting with Rainbow's coin was fine, but when it came to hers, she decided it was too risky. Either that or she really didn't want to establish that kind of link with me. The reality of option two burned and I quietly winced, looking away from the unicorn.

I couldn't really fault her for not wanting to jump into something like that, I guess. A little assurance that she was looking forward to extending our relationship at all, however, would be a rather nice thing. Even our kisses had devolved a little into just friendly pecks. I tried not to think of her saying she was tired or didn't feel like it just as an excuse, of course. I mean, I had said no on the one occasion, albeit for a slightly different reason.

"Um, I'm sorry. That sounded, um, not the way I wanted it to," Twilight spoke up, bringing me back to attention. Looking back up at her, having not remembered lowering my head, I was a little surprised to see her staring right at me. Her expression was difficult to read; softened, yet her eyes darted quickly, searching my face like I was doing to her.

Eventually I decided with taking the safe choice. "It's all right, Twilight. I know that kind of connection to me is a big commitment and can't be looked at from a purely scientific point of view. Further, if it turns out that the connection is bad or detrimental, we're going to need you to fix it. If you're being detrimental at the same time, that would be very difficult," I acknowledged gently, trying to give my most earnest looking smile towards her.

I think she bought it, anyway. I mean, I was trying to do my best to stay positive and not worry anypony. Keela promised that she was actually making headway on closing the link permanently, which was definitely a good thing. If I could solve this issue without anypony else getting involved, it would be wonderful.

Twilight's ears lowered at the same rate as her eyelids. Damn it. She didn't buy it. "Mender, I... Um. You're serious about all of this and I should have taken your word on how you felt at and least tried to be serious, too. I realize that, now. Not even considering how my viewpoint hurt you was also immature of me. I'm going to fix this, don't worry. I have to. Regardless of my apprehensions, I've never felt this strongly about anything not regarding academics and learning before. Ever. The more I think about it, the more everything points to this being exactly what I want. You're everything I want in a stallion, honestly, and are a ton of fun to be around. I'm going to fix this!" she adamantly declared, suddenly looking more than a little scary. I swallowed, trying to think of something to say, but quickly realized that technically she hadn't said any of that directly to me. It sounded more like she was saying that to herself. The gesture made me pleased, of course, but I wasn't entirely sure it was needed.

She faltered after seeing me shrink slightly under her level of hot bloodedness. "No, no, no, Mender. I'm not going to hurt you. See?" she asked before slowly extending both of her forelegs out, smiling gently at me. My brain recognized it before my cognitive thoughts did as the universal 'want hugs' gesture. I relaxed a little and nodded before leaning forwards again. She took me against herself as gently as possible and just held me there. A moment passed, and I lowered my muzzle down to her neck, sleepily resting it there against her fur.

To my surprise, Twilight let out a content sigh instead and pulled me tighter to herself. Her forelegs let out a shiver as she squeezed, slowly rubbing them up and down my back while clinging to me like a life raft at sea. If it had been any harder, it might have actually hurt.

"It's okay, Twilight. I'm just happy you're going to have it looked into," I muttered, slowly breathing in her light scent. The raspberry scent of her shampoo from this morning drifted into my nostrils and I exhaled slowly, relaxing further against her as she took over supporting my entire weight. Not that it was a lot of weight to support at the moment.

"More than just that. I believe you now. There's more to this than just your imagination. These coins prove that. But let's deal with this more in the morning. Well, later morning. It is four o'clock. Let's go back to bed for now, Mender," she suggested, slowly lifting my head up to stare directly into my eyes instead. Hers were soft and sleepy looking and I had to restrain a snicker. The smile got through, though.

"Okay, Twilight. I'll trust you to keep the coins safe," I agreed before lowering my head again and resting. She was right, of course. Three and a half hours didn't feel like enough sleep at all.

"Somepony likes my neck," Twilight cooed impishly while she lifted the coins back into the cabinet. I watched the doors close again before chuckling.

While her statement was true, I further corrected, "It is a very nice neck and very tasty looking, but in all honesty, you smell good. It's making me relaxed and sleepy," I muttered tiredly.

There was a momentary pause, and for a second, I worried that I'd said something wrong again. Twilight lowered her head down as well, however, and gently nuzzled my neck in return. "That's rather romantic, actually, and probably a good thing," she murmured quietly, exhaling against me.

As probably intended, my curiosity spiked. "Why is it a good thing?" I inquired against her neck.

"Ponies can pick up pheromones on other ponies. If you think I smell good, that probably means that your body is telling you we're biologically compatible with each other and an optimal choice for a mating pair. You smell good to me, too, by the way," she explained in a disturbingly casual manner, leaning back and smiling at me with lowered eyelids.

Her choice of wording was a little creepy, however. I tried to toss up an assured smile, but I think it came off as nervous instead as I swallowed. Well, I suppose I shouldn't have expected anything else. "Does that mean you want kids in the future?" I asked, attempting to not only sound casual as well, but change the topic from 'optimal mating'.

Her eyes widened again and she blushed, smiling shyly. "I've never really thought about it, honestly. I was pretty goal-oriented before moving here, in an academic sense. Sure, I've really opened up socially since then, but nowhere near enough to even realize that I might have the opportunity to become a mother in the future!" she exclaimed, looking oddly like she was somehow scaring herself.

She didn't let me go and run screaming for the stairs, however, so I took it as a good sign. Heck, she actually squeezed tighter, which was actually kind of painful now that I thought about it. "Ah, um, my insides are still squishy and fragile, Twilight," I reminded, wincing slightly.

She let out the cutest squeak I'd heard since last hanging around Fluttershy and promptly eased up the pressure, smiling with a slight embarrassed tint to her expression. "Ah, sorry. Are you okay, Mender?" she asked cautiously.

"Eh, if I got to pick my preferred way to die, that would definitely be it. But I'll be fine," I teased, managing a grin to her finally. Hopefully she'd take the hint and lighten up a little. I felt bad that I had gotten her worked up, especially if she was going to try to go back to sleep soon.

Her expression shifted back to warm mirth, and she nodded. After a light parting kiss to the forehead, she released me and stood fully again. "Let's go back to sleep, Mender. You need to get more rest and so do I. We have a lot to do tomorrow," she warned, gesturing towards the stairs with her head.

Sighing, I nodded and stood back up again, definitely feeling the tiredness. Well, on the bright side, even since I'd been hopping over to the other world and telling Keela more about Equestria, it had obviously warded away any bad dreams. Might as well enjoy keeping my end of the bargain if I could. If it meant making Equestria safe again, permanently, it was definitely worth it.

In my distraction, I failed to see Twilight duck in and give a gentle, yet extremely wet lick to the side of my cheek. The sly unicorn teleported at the same exact instant of contact, shifting both of us upstairs in a blinding flare of light. My stomach dropped back into my body and I was momentarily disoriented as I fell over onto something warm and soft, in an embarrassing heap of limbs and fur. Wait, these blankets were a lot higher quality than what I remembered them being all of a half an hour ago.

Twilight giggled at my sprawled out form before tucking me in and... My mind froze, spitting out memory overflows and error messages as I felt the warm unicorn slip under the covers next to me. Twilight no doubt sensed my immediate rigid stupor, as she informed, "I'm lonely tonight and want to keep your bad dreams at bay. Don't worry, Mender. I won't even touch you if you don't want me to."

Her whisper came out warmly and danced inside of my chest for a while, being carried by the butterflies. Well, maybe this wouldn't be so bad. I nudged forwards a little, lightly pressing myself into her chest. She let out a pleasantly surprised cooing noise, and I felt her forehead rest against mine. "Thank you for trusting me, Mender. It really means a lot to me, and I'm not going to ever betray that again. Let me prove it to you, even if it takes forever to do so," she requested. I felt a gentle warmth drift into my mind before lightly intermingling with my own magic. It was an amazing sensation and I couldn't help but kiss any of her skin that I could make contact with. The feelings distinctly belonging to Twilight were drifting into me, and it made me feel very secure indeed.

"I'll give you another chance, Twilight. Don't worry about that. I just wish you trusted me a little more." It was the truth, of course. She probably knew it all along, but it felt good to get it out.

She winced gently, but nodded against my forehead. "I do trust... Well, I'm going to start from now on. During my talk with Rarity earlier, she mentioned several techniques that could use to build trust in you and vice versa. A few are a little, um, embarrassing, but you're totally worth it," she assured. I felt her temperature rise a little bit, oddly.

I didn't really understand what she was talking about, but nodded gently and just let the energy drift into me. My mind idly traced the magic back upwards and I saw where our energy pools were actually connecting. It was rather interesting, once I managed to think through the haze that was building up in my mind. "You said before not to push my energy back into you, right?" I inquired quietly.

Twilight paused, and I felt her energy stir a little, but she surprisingly didn't withdraw. "Yeah. Please don't do that. It's not just from pushing your energy into me. It's only if I'm already moving mine into you at the same time. I can tell you more about it tomorrow, if you want," she offered softly. She already trusted me a little more, I realized. I stayed my ground, not about to try it and betray that newfound trust, of course.

"I'm not going to, don't worry. I would like to know why eventually, though," I agreed, relaxing and simply enjoying the hazy sensation of her heat both against me and drifting into my mind.

She smiled and I realized she picked up on my contented feelings. A general feeling of happiness drifted into me as she mirrored my earlier nod. "We have a long train ride tomorrow, so I'll explain it then. Rarity would already know, of course, but she'll probably be able to add far more onto the romantic and bonding aspects of it," Twilight relayed softly.

Oh. With that admission, I suddenly understood the implications a little better. Twilight picked up on that too and released a gentle giggle before snuggling closer to me. Yeah, this was nice. The pressure and expectations weren't what I was expecting, which is to say, they were essentially non-existent. We were just enjoying each other's company, really.

Eventually, I couldn't manage to form coherent thoughts anymore and drifted off to sleep, pulling a pleasantly murmuring Twilight Sparkle with me.

* * * * *

Another bump jarred my reasonably upset stomach yet again. I winced and curled up further, trying to keep the nausea under control as I lay on the nicely cushioned train car seat. The pearly white unicorn sitting across from me gave a look of sympathy as I double-checked the bucket was still at the base of the seat. Okay, I officially hated trains.

"I didn't expect such a violent reaction. Why do you have no problem doing loops on Dash's back through zero gravity while being fired at, but a train going barely sixty kilometers per hour gets you sick?" Twilight asked skeptically from directly next to me. She sat nearest my head, and despite her rather venomous tongue, her tone was soft and she gently rubbed my neck and cheek at the same time.

I swallowed dryly before wincing again, sticking my head over the seat just in case. "Rainbow didn't vibrate while feeling like a sack of worms against your legs," I protested, deciding the mental image just made it worse.

"This is truly unfortunate. Were you able to grasp any of our explanation at all?" Rarity asked politely. Okay, so that conversation had been the last thing on my mind until now.

"Kinda. She puts energy into me, I put energy into her, and then we absorb each other's energy and gain some sort of bond," I managed to summarize without barfing, amazingly enough.

Rarity made a disappointed 'Tsk' noise with her mouth before shaking her head. "Well, I can see you missed the various romantic aspects of such a bond. Surely, given your apparent connection with Fluttershy, you can understand why such a link is sacred," she lectured idly, flicking her mane to the side in mild irritation. The motion made my stomach churn but, like a train wreck in slow motion, I couldn't look away for some reason. Okay, bad example given the context.

"Oh leave him be, Rarity. As sick as he is, it's a wonder he got that much," Twilight defended, gently massaging my shoulders as I took deep breaths over the bucket. Damn.

It was true, though. Given my connection to Fluttershy when in close range, I could appreciate the romantic undertones of such a bond. Frankly, I think she was the only reason I regained my composure at all after my vivid hallucination and panic attack. Once I got back from this silly trip, I was definitely going to thank her. We needed to talk a lot more about this thing anyway. Oh yeah, and maybe warn Rainbow before she freaks out from hearing 'voices' in her head sounding remarkably like me.

"Oh yes, and you are suddenly the quintessential understanding mare, I know," Rarity muttered dryly. Twilight's hooves jolted against my shoulders before digging in a little. Uh oh. I suddenly regretted my compromising position next to the ungodly powerful unicorn.

"So you remind me every chance you get. I know; I get it. I'm a horrible fillyfriend who doesn't deserve Mender. Let me guess, you feel you're better for him?" Twilight asked, seemingly forgetting my squishy muscles were there and pretending it was Rarity's neck instead of my own. Oh please help me live through this train ride, somepony!

"What?! I am simply looking out on Mender's behalf! I cannot believe you'd stoop so low as to insinuate such under-hooved intentions. You really must get a grip on this terrible case of paranoia that has you! It is simply not befitting of a lady," Rarity warned back, looking truly offended for the brief moment my vision caught her before I started gasping for air. Note to self, make sure Twilight was fully aware of her body at all times. Further note to self, haunt the crap out of her if you don't live through this train ride.

The lavender unicorn in question let out a low growl before pointing out, "Surely, you're not so perfect as to have never made a mistake before. There, I said it! I screwed up and lost the trust of my coltfriend! Does that make you happy?!" she asked dramatically, voice now loud enough to probably be heard through the walls. Well, glad this wasn't a private topic or anything. Oddly, however, having half of my windpipe pinched off was doing wonders for making me forget about the nausea. Still, dying wasn't a good motion sickness prevention method.

Carrying through with my new concept of self-preservation, I began flailing my forelegs about to hopefully get my fillyfriend's attention while gasping like a fish out of water. As predicted, she glanced down quizzically at me before widening her eyes and instantly letting go. My lungs screamed in triumph, or perhaps whiplash, as I inhaled heavily and rolled over onto my back, panting. Wow. That wasn't awkward timing at all.

"No! No, no, no! Why does this always happen?!" Twilight groaned, surprising me once more by flopping over sideways onto my upper half with herself at the same time. My yet gasping muzzle inhaled a few rogue strands of fur from her chest as the warmth washed all around me. Well, at least she wasn't a female of my species, or this position would be exceedingly awkward indeed. If I vaguely recalled correctly, which I wasn't going to bet any bits on, pony anatomy placed the female mammary glands significantly lower. Oh, and they retained almost no mass when the mare in question wasn't with foal. I supposed that it was actually more convenient that way, anyway.

My cheeks grew hot as I squished my eyelids shut, trying to drive the thought chain out of my mind. Damn it; I hated it when this happened.

"I didn't mean you're a horrible fillyfriend. I'm sorry for speaking too rashly. Will you forgive me?" Rarity asked softly, doing a surprisingly good job at attempting to defuse the situation. Well, at least I thought it was a good apology. Thankfully, it also served to distract me from images of a pregnant Twilight. Of course, as far as, um, attractive daydreams go; I guess that one's fairly evolutionarily justified. She would look incredibly gorgeous pregnant, in my opinion. Ugh. Why did I do this to myself?

Twilight let out a low murmur into my stomach before nodding gently. "I know. Mender's very understanding, thankfully. I probably reek of being totally new at this."

"I am still here, you know," I reminded politely upon realizing I could talk again. Curse that air threshold for speaking.

It was very strange feeling of Twilight smiling against my stomach. She lifted off me a little and looked into my eyes instead from an upside down perspective. Feeling a bit brave and hoping it would make her realize it wasn't that big of a deal, I reached both of my hooves up and gently pulled her down into me.

She let out a soft muttering of nothing in particular upon breaking the upside down kiss a few seconds later, and smiled more fully down at me.

"Does that mean you forgive me?" she asked hopefully, eyes dancing a little in the light.

I couldn't help myself. "About the overly enthusiastic neck rub? Of course," I assured, smirking now. Predictably, her ears flattened back and she gave me a barbed stare.

"Careful, you might wish you hadn't said that once you find out how I plan to earn forgiveness for the rest of it," she warned, mirroring my expression in an instant.

My ears drooped and I managed a timid swallow. "Uh, isn't that kind of defeating the purpose?"

"Oh, simply no imagination. You'll thank me for giving her the ideas afterwards, I'm sure. Once you recover, of course," Rarity tossed in, sounding oddly devious. I glanced over at her with widening eyes, which caused her to burst out into copious amounts of laughter, followed promptly by Twilight. Well, I was doomed...

The train hit a particularly jarring bump before I could properly formulate words and I groaned again, remembering why this bucket was lying in front of my spot on the seat. Damn it. I contemplated asking Twilight to strangle me again so I'd forget about the nausea.

"Oh, you poor dear. I think it's almost worth sending a letter to Rainbow Dash upon our arrival, requesting that she pick him up for the return flight," Rarity suggested politely after my dry heaving was finished.

I sighed weakly before shaking my head, protesting, "Rainbow shouldn't have to fly all that way and then haul me back just because the train makes me sick. That's not fair to her."

"That's very kind, Mender, but she probably wouldn't have a problem with it. She thinks she owes you, anyway," Twilight reminded, earning a groan of lamentation from me. This was promptly followed by a groan of my stomach trying to crawl out of my body.

I heard a light, almost imperceptible squeaking laugh from Rarity before she tacked on, "Or we could always talk to Princess Celestia about having the royal carriage and guards fly you home."

After recovering from almost falling off my seat in a coughing fit, I finally managed to scramble back and glared up at her. "No! I'd rather walk than ride in a royal carriage. Ugh. It probably costs a few thousand an hour," I protested weakly, earning a giggle from Twilight.

"It doesn't. That's what I first rode to Ponyville in. It's very comfortable. Although if you're uncomfortable with Princess Celestia, you could always ask Princess Luna. She seems to have taken a liking to you," Twilight suggested, sounding deeply amused at my expense. I glared back at her over my shoulder and saw only a grin in return.

"Oh! Is that my Scandal Senses tingling?! Quickly, this calls for gossip!" Rarity exclaimed, suddenly from the seat right next to Twilight and leaning in closer to listen. The lavender mare in question seemed more freaked out than anything, starting in place before falling over onto me in surprise. Any rebuttal I had carefully selected was promptly drowned out by a second helping of Twilight's chest and stomach fur.

"Rarity, it's not like that at all! She just likes his name because it has," Twilight started to rapidly explain. Well, she tried anyway. Her thoughts must have been fairly disrupted when I suddenly closed my eyes and licked gently along the fur of her tummy.

"Whaaa!" she squealed before flailing off the side of the seat and crashing onto the floor, blushing furiously. Oh, payback was worth the probability of death that earned me.

Quickly, I threw on my innocent facade. Rarity gave me a skeptical and extremely scrutinizing stare in the meantime as Twilight recovered on the floor. Several intentionally awkward seconds passed before Twilight restored her capacities enough to roll her eyes. "Try to limit kisses and licks to my face and head please. That felt a little weird," she managed to request, spoiling all of my current and future fun at once.

"There's no fun in that, Twilight. Surely you can be more imaginative," Rarity concurred without needing my specific input. I snickered before lowering my head towards the bucket again. I'd hate to drop my guard and end up having yet another mess to clean up.

"Shush. That's a bridge that can be crossed far, far, far, far in the future," the lavender mare shot back. Well, that boded well for me. Actually the ironic thing was that I couldn't decide if that was a good or bad thing.

Rarity made an amused sounding half snicker before adding, "I do suppose you intend to ship him away with the rest of the single stallions in a few weeks, then?" Okay, that caused my brain to stall out.

There was a soft smacking noise as Twilight mushed her right forehoof into the spot directly under her horn. I gave her a curious yet observing stare. Apparently what Rarity said triggered some sort of memory in her that she seemingly forgot. Or broke her brain and that was how she rebooted it.

"Great! How did I forget about the stupid heat cycles?! Um, yeah. That would probably be a wise idea," she finally muttered, sounding a little dejected. What did temperature have to do with sending away all of your males? Did the mares turn into bloodthirsty, ravenous monsters or something if the temperature increased too much? No, that sounded far-fetched, even for me.

Rarity gasped, looking horrified. At this point I was getting used to her having that expression. "Oh my, Twilight! It's unheard of! A stallion who actually has a fillyfriend being sent to those horrible cabins!" she exclaimed. Her voice was strange, and I couldn't tell if she was serious or not. I knew she had a taste for dramatic flair, but it was often too subtle for me to separate from what might actually be a disaster. Frowning, I looked up and tried to pay attention just in case.

"Oh come on! The cabins are quite nice and you know it. It's more of an inconvenience than anything. Talk about stalling out our entire economy for a good week," my fillyfriend reputed.

Finally, I couldn't take it anymore. "Um, not to sound stupid, but I need to sound stupid here. What are we talking about?" I asked curiously. Now that I thought about it, this was starting to sound vaguely familiar.

"Heat, Dear. Are you unfamiliar with the word?" Rarity asked, causing Twilight to perk up out of her stupor and glance over at me instead.

I nodded wearily, frowning slightly. Rarity gave me a smile instead and nodded as well in a more assuring manner. "It's perfectly understandable given your unique arrival here. Heat is a little complex, but I'm sure you'll understand it fine. Normally, when a filly enters into marehood, she..." Rarity started to explain. Wait. Oh, this was starting to sound familiar.

"Estrus?" Twilight alternatively suggested, interrupting her friend. Oh hell! My eyes widened as my ears flattened back in an instant.

"Wait, you ponies go through an estrus cycle?! How many times a year, and does it sync up?" I asked rapidly, suddenly realizing exactly what they had been talking about.

Rarity momentarily looked totally flabbergasted, while Twilight just giggled and nodded, answering, "Yes, it does sync up with other mares so we mostly all go into heat at the same time if we live together long enough. That's cumbersome for tight knit communities like Ponyville. It occurs twice in a year; once in the spring, and a somewhat lighter one in the beginning of fall. You luckily showed up after the first one."

Rarity coughed lightly and looked away again, nodding. "Indeed. You wouldn't have found any males at all, and probably would have actually been pursued had you shown up a mere week and a half earlier, just for a different reason other than food. I'm sure that would have worsened your opinion of us severely."

Well, I guess I lucked out after all. "Well, if he'd arrived for the spring one, yeah. The fall variety isn't that bad. Regardless, we evacuate the males more for their comfort than anything. All of the pheromones drifting through the air makes them a little awkward," Twilight corrected in a rather proper manner. Well, they seemed to be extremely civilized about it. It was more like a biological annoyance than a true danger, then.

"Eh, I don't mind being shipped off to some cabin for a week. You'll have to give me the specifics when it comes closer to being required," I requested, easing back down into my disaster prevention position, deciding that it wasn't really that dire a conversation after all.

Rarity let out a huffing noise before rolling her eyes. "I personally think you're crazy not to go with him, and would hate to see the social stigma that will stir up, but as your friend, you have my support," she finally gave in, averting her eyes from my now slightly flustered looking fillyfriend. That was so weird to think about.

"It's not that big of a social stigma! I mean, lots of mares decide to wait before, um, that," Twilight defended, probably needlessly, given what Rarity had just finished saying. That probably indicated something, but I was too lazy to think about it further. Plus I felt like crap.

"Perhaps. I'm simply concerned for the stability of your relationship if you truly decide to wait as long as it sounds," Rarity pointed out. If I didn't know better, I'd almost think I heard an impish undertone to her voice. Weird.

My stomach finally started to settle gently. Twilight looked suddenly like she might need the bucket instead, however. "W-What?! Um, but I haven't read anything about... Oh no, I didn't read the advanced relationship books yet, though! I didn't think I'd need those for a few years still!" she exclaimed, starting to shift into her telltale panic state. Uh oh. Wait, years?!

"Years?! Oh, I truly feel for you, Mender," Rarity teased, letting out a light giggle as she looked over at me instead. Twilight practically spun in circles between looking at the two of us. Was Rarity doing this on purpose just to rile up Twilight? Wow, I hadn't realized pranks could get so ugly!

"Stop teasing her, Rarity. You know I don't, um, mind waiting as long as she needs to," I reminded, carefully choosing my words to hopefully head off the panic session. Twilight dismantling the train while we were moving sounded like a bad thing, yet something she might do while freaking out.

I shouldn't have hesitated in thinking up the proper wording, though. Twilight let out a soft whimpering noise before shrinking a little. Well, I guess we wouldn't be making it to the party after all. I braced for any potential magic catastrophes as best I could. Hey, at least my stomach felt better now!

The train's forward momentum slammed to a halt in an instant, sending my stomach lurching upwards into my lungs, it felt like. I winced before almost sliding off my seat. Rarity merely leaned back slightly in surprise while Twilight slid from the center of the room into the base of the seat Rarity was on, eyes getting a little watery and appearing oblivious to the sudden shift of momentum.

"This has been a successful test of the emergency brake system! If this had been a real emergency, it would have been accompanied by much more screaming. Thank you for your time!" I suddenly heard blaring over the speaker system in a male voice.

I promptly threw up into the bucket.

Chapter 21

The sun bathed the entire area in light, shining brightly off the gentle cobblestones and worn brick. I winced and partially closed my eyes, the brightness just a little too much to be comfortable to me. My eyes hurt and my stomach still ached from throwing up on the stupid train. Still, as irritable as I felt, the city was quite impressive.

I'd never seen such a grand city in Equestria. Row after row of buildings greeted my mostly healed eyes. The main street was practically alive with ponies; easily three times the traffic of Ponyville. The buildings I could see mainly appeared to be cafes, shops, and other entertainment establishments. The fanfare was quite a sight to take in! Of course, extra banners appeared to be up, advertising a formal dance and fashion show put on by one "Fancypants." Huh. I wondered if Rarity knew who that was.

Speaking of, Rarity herself looked almost giddy as she sat next to me on the right. "Oooh, it's been too long since I've been here! I must see if there are any new supplementary fabrics before the show, Twilight," she quickly informed, looking past me to the left.

My fillyfriend nodded absently while going over a list she held up in her magic. "I figured as much and planned accordingly. We have three hours before we're expected to be at the banquet hall to get ready. Meet us at the castle in two hours so we can dress, okay?" Twilight suggested, looking over at her overly exuberant friend.

Rarity nodded pleasantly, neatly done mane bobbing with the motion. She then stood up and pranced off towards the rows of shops, a certain lightness to her step. I watched her go, trying to figure out where she got the energy. Ah well. I suppose this entire ordeal was her kind of thing.

"She'll never change. Not like that's a bad thing, though," Twilight agreed unknowingly to my inner thoughts, shifting her attention back to me with a smile.

I turned back to her and nodded pleasantly. "It's nice to watch somepony who really knows what they enjoy the most. Pinkie's the same way, to some degree," I observed idly, wondering if I'd ever show that level of excitement for something.

Twilight let out a chuckle before warning, "I wouldn't mention that comparison to Rarity. She likes to hold herself above the spastic level of energy Pinkie Pie demonstrates." Above? There was nothing wrong with Pinkie's energy that would 'lower' it in the first place.

"I must defend Pinkie, stating that her mannerisms are certainly admirable as well," I protested, frowning slightly.

The lavender unicorn nodded without missing a beat, nor losing her smile. "Of course. They're just very different. But we're delaying too much. I need to go speak with the castle staff and arrange rooms for the three of us. You don't mind staying with me, right?" she asked, standing up again and carefully sliding her rolled up list into her saddle bag.

"Of course not," I assured, sticking my tongue out at her before adding, "We slept together last night and it turned out nicely. It was amazing to have a night without nightmares, which I totally credit to the beautiful mare I got to cuddle with." I couldn't help but blush a little as I tried to emphasize exactly how much I appreciated her.

Her cheeks flared up with a hot blush, but she only smiled wider. "Mender! You're just so... Ugh. I don't even know what to say," she complained, tone of voice betraying a completely different mood. Her eyes also softened, a warm feeling behind them that I couldn't quite place.

"Just the truth, Twilight. Do you want me to come with?" I asked, pretty sure that I already knew the answer.

She giggled, informing, "You can just call me 'Twi' if you want. It feels more intimate and informal. And no. I need you to make a brief detour and pick up some food to go before joining me. Rarity will be hungry as well when she gets back and we need to eat before the party."

"Food?" I questioned, tilting my head at her. Wait, she wanted me to wander off by myself to run an errand in a totally unfamiliar city?

Twilight nodded politely, oblivious to my nervousness. "Yup. It doesn't matter where, so long as it's edible. Enough for all three of us, of course. I'll give you some bits for it," she furthered, levitating a small, pink coin bag out of her saddlebags and hooking it onto mine. Great. Pink.

"Um, okay. I just ask for it to go?" I asked, largely for clarity. This was going to go poorly. It was almost a foregone conclusion at this point, I had a feeling.

She nodded excitedly before starting towards the massive castle that easily loomed above the rest of the town. Well, that was imposing. I wondered if Celestia was compensating for something or if she just inherited the place like that. "Yup! I'll put in the word with the gate guards to expect you, don't worry. Just hurry along so we can get situated into our rooms before the party!" she returned, adding a wink as she pranced in place.

My thoughts tinted my cheeks and I coughed lightly, trying not to jump to conclusions about the implications. "All right. I'll try to go as fast as I can," I assured, nodding to her and smiling.

"Awesome! See you in a bit!" she exclaimed excitedly before disappearing in a flash of light and a little hop. I watched her flicker in down the street a little ways, only to disappear again and repeat the short flickering in the direction of the palace. Damn. It must be nice to have a planet-sized pool of magic.

Shaking my head, I turned my attention to the shops, looking for any restaurant-looking ones. An outdoor cafe probably wouldn't be too expensive, and would likely be able to get the food in a hurry. Spotting cozy eating chairs furnished with oversized umbrellas, I smiled and headed in that direction, sporting a moderate gait. Twilight being in a good mood lightened my spirits considerably. It was almost enough to let me forget about the sour look the stewardess gave me upon cleaning out the bucket earlier.

I was careful of the crowds as best I could, making sure to stay clear of the clusters as I neared the cafe. It was a pleasant looking spot, simplistic in design yet looking very new and clean. I nodded to myself before approaching the entrance.

Unfortunately, a couple appeared to be just leaving as I rounded from the sidewalk. I ground to a halt, starting to backtrack a little. The stallion looked large and imposing, yet very proper and worldly. The mare was lithe, legs extremely long and groomed, making her seem slender and taller than she actually was. Unfortunately for me, and probably her as well, she paid me no attention and did a little twirl to face the stallion as they exited, a happy smile on her face. Oh crap.

She collided with me almost instantly, causing both of us to spill sideways and become a tangled heap on the ground. I winced as I hit first, my body becoming effectively a squishy pillow for her impact. Oh well. I'd rather it that way than the inverse.

My eyes opened, then widened drastically as I was presented with a very detailed, up close view of her elegant, abstract Cutie Mark. "Ah! Hey!" she shouted, scrambling off me and glaring. I swallowed, ears lowering as her expression made me feel further pathetic.

"I'm sorry! I didn't mean to," I apologized profusely before slowly getting to my hooves.

The stallion stepped forward instead, however. "I do say, what are your intentions, young one? That is most disrespectful behavior to force upon a mare! Explain yourself!" he demanded, frowning down at me as I shrunk further. His styled blue mane, nicely pressed suit, and radiant white coat made him look even more important. I knew this was a bad idea! His pink-maned mare leaned closer behind him, partially hiding herself from sight as I swallowed, tongue feeling like it was swelling in my mouth.

Pink. My eyes widened as I caught another dot of pink below my vision, and glanced down at the stonework. Twilight's coin bag lay at my feet, having been knocked loose in the collision. I checked my side and sure enough, it was missing. "Um, I really didn't intend on landing like that. You surprised me!" I tried to explain, before carefully picking the coin pouch up with my mouth. It smelled like Twilight, which was a little distracting.

Both of their eyes widened as they watched me pick up the bag. "M-My bits!" the mare exclaimed, looking shocked. Huh?! I glanced to her side and widened my eyes as well as I saw an almost exact duplicate of the tiny pink pouch tied to her saddlebag.

"You scoundrel!" I heard the stallion declare before feeling a solid impact with the side of my head. Wincing, I stumbled sideways and cracked my head off the side of the entrance to the cafe before I could so much as explain otherwise. "Guards! Quickly!" was shouted in his echoing voice as stars exploded into my vision.

Aaaah! My head throbbed as I curled up, holding both sides of it. My vision danced and blurred as I pulled my right hoof back, blotches of red covering it. Crap. "I didn't take anything. That's my fillyfriend's pouch..." I groaned, trying to sit up again.

Suddenly, I was knocked sideways by something extremely solid, shoving me into the side of the wall. I saw an imposing looking guard standing over me with a glare when my eyes opened up again. Lacking the energy, I didn't resist as he shoved metal cuffs around my hooves. My eyes widened further as I watched the sharp metal lock around me, the chains going taunt and rattling in my ears. That rattling. Chains.

Her smirk glittered through the haze from the dark, the blood dripping from her claws and blades as I was forced onto the table, screaming and missing an eye now. There was no healing from it. I watched her bite down on it and eat it myself. I screamed until I passed out, not realizing that's what actually happened. My world rapidly faded into the darkness that surrounded her.

* * * * *

The darkness was miserable, of course. I shivered as I sat in the furthest corner of my tiny, stone room; the looming metal bars cast an ominous shadow across the wall next to me. The wooden 'bed' chained to the wall partially blocked the light from my lower body as I sat there, absolutely freezing. A rough wrapping had been tied around my head to stop the bleeding but I hadn't been cleaned up. This place must be underground somewhere as well, because it was absolutely freezing.

I had no idea where I was apart from a jail cell with a very silent guard. I was on the wooden slab when I woke up in cold sweat, thinking someone was ripping my muscles out one section at a time. I guess I had been arrested. This was an amazing attempt at getting food for Twilight and Rarity.

The absolute silence was broken suddenly by solid, slow hoof steps from the left of my cell entry. My eyes widened as they matched up fairly well to the pounding inside of my skull, and I glanced back at the bars, shaking still. I must have lost a lot of blood as well.

The hoof steps stopped, and I saw the front of a rather large stallion, another unicorn, standing in front of the guard. His mane was striped in light and dark shades of blue in such a way that, interestingly enough, reminded me of Twilight. His coat, however, was pure white, and he wore detailed, golden armor that was similar, but far more extravagant than the guard who saluted him. Uh oh.

"I was told a prisoner needed my attention down here? I hope this is quick. I'm supposed to meet my sister at the palace," he questioned in a lighter tone that surprised me. I'd expected him to have such a deep voice that the stone would crack around me. Maybe that was my nerves talking.

"Yes sir! Arrested in the markets near a cafe. An account of both petty theft and sexual harassment. Further, we think he's mentally unstable and possibly dangerous," the guard spoke up. My ears lowered with each word. Wow. Less than an hour in Canterlot and I'd already been declared crazy. I wonder if this was a record.

The stallion sighed and nodded before sliding open the bars. He stepped easily inside, not an ounce of fear despite me being 'dangerous', and casually lit a lantern that hung on the wall. I winced at the light and further curled up into a little ball behind the wooden slab, shivering as it only reminded me of how nice heat was. I anticipated an interrogation was next on my schedule.

"Why is this stallion not bandaged properly? He's obviously injured," the white unicorn questioned, looking incredulously towards the guard who stood at his left.

"We dared not approach! Regardless, in the end, he came willingly," the guard assured. Willingly? Is that what they call blood loss and severe head trauma now? Unfortunately, I was more hurt at losing Twilight's pouch. I swallowed painfully and lowered my head to my hooves. I exaggerated, anyway. I doubted the little scratch to the side of my head did any more damage than apples from the stratosphere or Applejack's hoof. No, that was also an exaggeration. I doubted Rainbow Dash ever escaped the troposphere.

The stallion shook his head above me and sat down. A light touch of magic surprised me, causing me to jump and shudder. The wound along the side of my head slowly healed in a gentle, cyan light. "I'm sorry for their rude behavior. I'd like to get the full story from you, however. Miss Fleur came to me, abashed, after you had been arrested with some interesting admission that I'd like to verify," he explained calmly, completing the healing magic in record time.

I glanced up at him and nodded, rasping out, "I'll tell you anything. I'm sorry!" I wasn't quite prepared to speak and coughed afterwards, my vocal cords feeling like they had frost on them.

"Relax. Just tell me what happened in your own words," he coaxed calmly, giving me a surprisingly assuring smile. In the light, I also noticed his Cutie Mark, which happened to be a shield and starburst, alongside three smaller stars above. The star shape looked remarkably similar to Twilight's as well, and I started to relax a little. "Yes, you might know me. My name is Shining Armor. I'm the Captain of the Royal Guard," he furthered, smiling as he noticed me peek at his mark.

"I... Well, I'm kind of new here, so I didn't know. It just looked familiar. I'm Moon Mender," I muttered weakly, looking back at him fully.

He frowned, seemingly thinking for a moment before exhaling. "That sounds familiar, too, but I can't remember where. Anyway, Miss Fleur found her bag after you had been arrested and admitted she had erred in accusing you of theft. I guess that pink pouch is popular!" he exclaimed, chuckling afterwards. The guard next to him widened his eyes, and then looked away from me a moment later. Admittedly, I was surprised by the lax interrogation technique, but took the break if it was offered.

"Well, I'm thankful. The bag belongs to my fillyfriend. Um, can I have it back?" I asked, trying not to get my hopes up.

Shining Armor smiled, however, and nodded. "Of course. You have very good tastes. I'm sure your mare will be delighted that you tried to protect it. In fact, I got a bag just like that for my sister last year. It's a wonderful gift," he assured, seemingly more amused at the coincidences than angry at my arrest. Well, if it was a popular enough bag, a lot of mares probably had it. Rarity probably had picked it up for Twilight.

I smiled faintly and relaxed, still not feeling the best but happy that I hadn't lost Twilight's pouch. She trusted me with it, after all. "That little thing is really important to you, isn't it? You must really care for her," the guard captain observed, smiling warmly all of a sudden.

I nodded weakly, looking back up at him as best I could. I was ravenous, having emptied out my stomach on the train and now missed lunch. What time was it, speaking of? Had I missed the party, too? "She trusted me with it and asked me to get food for her and a friend. I, um, care for her a lot and don't want to lose her trust," I explained, trying to be as honest as I could.

Shining Armor nodded earnestly before seemingly thinking to himself. "I'm under the impression that the collision wasn't entirely your fault either. Still, now that I know more details, I should at least extend the courtesy of sending a message to her about what happened. What's the name of your mare, and where is she staying?" he inquired, smiling now as he looked back down at me. I felt a little safer now and nodded, sitting up fully.

"Her name's-“ I started, before the once silent guard walked up next to Shining Armor.

“Actually, I got his address in a statement prior. Here you go, Captain,” he interrupted, cutting me off. Oh yeah. He had questioned me when I was first arrested.

Shining Armor picked up the clipboard offered with his magic and floated it in front of him. I fell silent and let the captain read it over carefully. I’d answered all the questions to the best I could manage, so I figured that would cut off a lot of any potential interrogation that was needed from me. “Oh, interesting. You’re staying in a castle suite? You must be here for the party tonight that Fancypants is throwing. Ironic. I’ve got to bring you to the castle anyway, so I’ll send a message ahead and we’ll meet your fillyfriend there,” he explained after a good minute of reading. I shifted uneasily. Twilight had given me Rarity’s room, but I had no idea what her own room number was. I’d hoped it wouldn’t complicate things that I’d given them Rarity’s instead.

I nodded weakly, asking, “Are you letting me go, then?” This was all just one giant misunderstanding, and I was really glad he was so friendly! Ponies really were a lot different than Keldarians. At that point, I didn’t know why I was expecting otherwise. The worst part about this little experience so far had been the cold dungeon.

“As part of regulation, I’ve got to get confirmation from the castle. Your fillyfriend shouldn’t be a problem, but I also need to sign off on your release. The office is over there, however. Paperwork, right?” he explained, smirking over at me.

I snickered, feeling a lot better finally. His healing magic was top notch! “Thanks for being so understanding. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. What a day!” I groaned. He also said tonight, I noticed. That must mean I hadn’t missed the party yet! Twilight would be mildly irked that I’d not gotten them food, but at least it wasn’t a complete disaster.

Shining Armor laughed and shook his head. “Relax. I understand what a bad day is like. You should have seen the Changeling invasion!” he exclaimed, signing off on the clipboard before passing it back to the guard. Changeling?

I tilted my head, but then flattened my ears back as he fitted the manacles back onto my legs. My forelegs couldn’t stop shaking as he fastened them. Why was this…? “Mender, Relax. Nopony is going to hurt you. You only have to wear these until we get to the castle and verify your story. It’s just procedure, and I’ll stay with you the whole time, okay?” Shining Armor softly assured, patting me on the head. It probably mentioned my reaction to the chains on the clipboard.

Shivering, I managed a weak nod as he helped me up and led me towards the door. At least this would all be over soon and I could go back to Twilight.

* * * * *

Groaning again, I tried my hardest to hide my face as best I could. The cart slowly moved along through the street, careful to let ponies move out of the way before passing. It was decided that I’d be transported to the castle via cart instead after I fell down two flights of stairs while wearing the manacles. Shining Armor was really, really good at healing magic!

Still, this was more than a little embarrassing. Shining Armor himself sat at the front of the cart with the driver. I was in the back, trying my best to hide and wishing the sides of the thing were taller. The chains attached to me were easily visible, of course, and I saw dozens of ponies giving harsh whispers and giggles as I passed. Damn it. There goes the effect Rarity had been hoping for. She wasn’t going to want to use me for showing off her suit if everypony knew I was a criminal!

Shining Armor did his best to not make a spectacle of it, taking a back street most of the way there before cutting out onto the main thoroughfare in order to get to the castle gates. The cart rolled through the gates and finally reached the sanctuary and privacy of the grounds, letting me exhale gently. Less ponies seeing me meant less rumors going around. Of course, three blocks of aristocratic looking ponies had already seen me regardless, and if they were anything like what I was used to dealing with back in my old world that I recall, rumors would explode anyway.

“Okay then. Message was sent ahead via pegasi, so we should be expected. I’m going to escort you to the assembly hall where they’re waiting, and then once you’re spoken for, I’ll go upstairs and fill out your release paperwork,” Shining Armor said, making his way around to the back of the wagon and helping me down.

Slowly, I nodded, putting most of my focus into not falling on my face. I’d fallen out of the wagon twice trying to get up onto the thing, but at least I’d landed on my butt then. Nose-diving would suck considerably more. At least they knew I wasn’t going to run away. Well, run away effectively, I appended to my thoughts a moment later.

He smiled once I had all four hooves on the ground and carefully led me towards a side gate for the right wing of the massive looking castle. Shining Armor kept careful pace with me and kept his magic up to stabilize me as I wobbled, snagging my legs on the chains every half dozen meters or so. The guard that was in the back of the cart with me followed a little behind us, from the sounds of it. It wasn’t the same guard as at my cell, not that I could tell the difference, anyway. Why did all the guards look the same? Security measure?

The heavy door opened with a creaking noise, and it was a lot dimmer inside, lit by the warm glow of wall sconces. Heavy looking marble tile decorated the floor, and a soft looking rug led from the entry all the way along the hallway. Fancy looking benches made of a rich oak of some sort lined the sides. This looked like a kind of waiting chamber or something. What did he call it? Assembly hall?

To my absolute relief, both Twilight and Rarity were waiting at the far end of the hall. Rarity sat calmly on a chair, giving a soft if knowing smile to Twilight as she paced back and forth. I swallowed nervously. Even though I hadn’t been here for very long, I could kinda tell when my fillyfriend was frazzled. It wasn’t a good feeling to be the source of that discomfort.

“Eh?! Twily!” Shining Armor suddenly exclaimed, steadying me from my start before trotting forward ahead of me towards the two mares. Twily? Wait, was he talking to Twilight?!

I blinked and watched, surprised, as she looked over in response to the name, shock evident on her face. “Shiny?” she asked, eyes widening rapidly. Shiny?! What the hell?! They obviously knew each other, but why did they have pet names? Wait, no. That couldn’t be. Oh hell. No, Twilight would have told me!

“What are you doing here, Twily? Wait, you heard I was bringing a pony over and intercepted, didn’t you? I sent a message to your room saying I was going to be a little late,” Shining Armor groaned out. Her room? Her room?! My right eye twitched, the spasm traveling all the way down my chest and right foreleg, giving the chains a jiggle.

Twilight’s eyes didn’t shrink down, and she looked past Shining Armor and over at me. I glared in her direction, really hoping this wasn’t what it looked like. No, if she were already in a herd with this stallion, somepony would have told me! They wouldn’t have kept this a secret this long. They couldn’t have.

Shining Armor followed her gaze and peeked back at me. I snapped the glare off my expression, not wanting for him to decide to throw me back in jail. “Oh, don’t mind him. I’m just dropping him off to his fillyfriend here at the castle. She should have been here already, though,” he muttered before looking around the hall. Oh hell. If he found out I was dating his herd member, I predicted a lot of complications.

Twilight’s ears flattened back and she lowered her eyes, shifting them back and forth as if fighting violently with thoughts in her mind. Rarity looked utterly speechless as she glanced between Twilight and Shining Armor, who finally noticed her. “Wait, Rarity? Oh. Oh! Oh my. Is that why you two are here? Wow! I didn’t realize the guest you invited with you was your coltfriend, Rarity! Is that why you two are acting so weird?” he continued, seemingly a bit concerned that nopony was saying anything. Rarity?!

Rarity let out a gasp of surprise, flush exploding over her cheeks as her eyes widened at him. Twilight shuddered and rapidly looked over at Rarity as well, as if burned for a moment. “Ah! R-Rarity? Of course! Yeah, thanks for dropping off Rarity’s coltfriend. You can go now, Shiny! I’ll talk to you back in my room, okay?” Twilight suddenly spewed out. Several icy hammers hit me in the chest as I stared at her. My forelegs started to shake and I couldn’t seem to stop them as I let out a sharp gasp. She was embarrassed about me and was pretending I was Rarity’s coltfriend?! My ears dropped completely.

“Twilight Sparkle!” Rarity suddenly shouted, shifting from looking shocked to righteously pissed in half a second. Oh hell. Shining Armor must have thought the same thing as me, as he hopped backwards away from the unicorn, who was now standing up in her chair and glaring at Twilight.

Twilight flinched and shrunk visibly away from Rarity, not meeting her eyes. The guard pony standing next to me made no motion to move any closer, just watching with wide eyes as the rather brutal and awkward scene unfolded. My head was still reeling from the implications mixed with what Twilight had just said. I could barely process what was going on.

“I, um, I’m sorry. Uh, Shiny, meet Moon Mender. Um, he’s the stallion I wrote about in my letters,” Twilight finally admitted, shrinking down to the floor. She told him about me, but she didn’t want him to know that I was me? She was embarrassed I was arrested, then. I didn’t know how to feel about this. Her, well, a stallion close to her was the captain of the guard, so I could see why she was appalled that I’d been arrested.

Shining Armor looked back at me, eyes widening rapidly. “Moon Mender! That’s where I heard his name before! This is your coltfriend?!” he asked sharply.

“I was going to tell you! I just didn’t know what to say and he’d been arrested for something, so I panicked! I’m sorry,” Twilight continued, standing up again and prancing anxiously in front of the much larger stallion. Damn it. Who was he? Did she honestly keep this much from me?

“I’m not the one you should apologize to! Fine. Stay here and I’ll go get the stupid paperwork filed and get him released. I’ll be back in a bit,” he snarled out, sounding rather angry as he stormed off and through a side door.

The hallway fell silent, and I dropped my head. This had gone from getting better to rock bottom almost instantly. My head was swimming with what I’d just heard, and I didn’t know where to even start sorting everything out. It didn’t help that my eyes were getting watery and my chest hurt. The guard next to me gave me a soft nod and frown before undoing my restraints.

I heard hoofsteps getting closer in front of me, but I refused to look up, staring at my hooves instead. “He was charged with an account of sexual harassment, and another of petty theft. Both charges have been acquitted, however, and he’s free to go. It was all a misunderstanding,” the guard explained next to me as the movement stopped.

“M-Mender, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to lie about that. I panicked. This wasn’t how I wanted things to go,” Twilight muttered quietly. I shivered again, eyes softening. That much was obvious. Nothing today had gone as planned.

Slowly, I looked up at Twilight, who sat in front of me about a meter away. Rarity was rapidly catching up, still glaring at Twilight’s back as she approached. “This is absolutely horrifying, Twilight. Even if embarrassed, consider Mender’s feelings! The charges are false and he is innocent regardless, so there’s no need to feel ashamed of him,” the white unicorn scolded harshly, sitting down next to Twilight.

“I’m not ashamed! This just wasn’t how I wanted Mender to meet my brother, okay!” Twilight snapped back, too quick to be sincere. Brother?!

My exhale was instant and excessive as I slumped slightly. Shining Armor was her brother! The relief washed through me instantly, and I couldn’t help but smile a little. Oh. Her brother had just escorted me as a prisoner to the castle. Okay, I could see why she freaked out now. It took me a moment to realize that both mares had stopped talking and were giving me questioning looks.

“Er, sorry. I didn’t know he was her brother. Um, the way they addressed each other,” I tried to explain quietly.

Rarity blinked, and then snorted, holding a hoof up to her lips instantly as if to hold back a sudden bout of laughter. Twilight simply shivered as a deep blush crept onto her face. I coughed politely and looked away again. Yeah, I was expecting that reaction. “No! No, no, no! He’s my brother, not… Oh Celestia. No! You’re my only coltfriend, Mender!” Twilight rapidly corrected, not that it was needed at this point. The guard next to me averted his eyes from all of us rapidly, and I could have sworn I saw a smirk starting to play at his lips.

“Oh ho ho, that would be scandalous indeed. But no, Prince Shining Armor is Twilight’s brother, not lover. Still, that doesn’t excuse her for trying to do that!” Rarity reminded, shifting back to a stern glare at the lavender mare.

Twilight sighed and nodded, not meeting my eyes still. I was just happy to know that I didn’t have competition, especially of that level. There was no way I could compete with the captain of the guard. “Come on, Mender. Let’s go back to Rarity’s room. There’s a comfy couch there you can lie down on,” Twilight finally muttered, shifting the topic as best she could while gesturing towards the door opposite of the one that Shining Armor used. My ears perked as I glanced over at the guard, who outright snickered before shaking his head.

“I doubt it’s going to be a problem anymore. I’ll let the captain know where you’ve gone, and try to calm him down a little,” the guard said before I even opened my mouth. Admittedly, I was a bit surprised, but nodded hesitantly. Well, today was still crap, but maybe now it would look up? I mean, what more could possibly go wrong at this point? No, I’d better not say that. There was always falling off the side of the cliff the city was built into.

“Why thank you, Dear! You’ve been extremely helpful, and I shall put in a good word with Shining Armor for you,” Rarity spoke politely before looking back at me and shifting to a quizzical expression before continuing with, “Wait, is that dried blood on your muzzle, Mender? Oh my. Let’s go get you lying down, okay?”

I sighed and nodded wearily back to her. The day wasn’t over yet. “I’ll explain on the way there,” I excused, resigning myself to walking after Twilight, who had already turned and headed for the door she pointed out earlier. No, the day was still young, and probably going to get a lot longer…

* * * * *

"Seriously? Twenty minutes. In twenty minutes, you managed to not only get yourself beat up, but accused of sexual harassment and theft. Then arrested," Twilight groaned out, staring at me with what could only be described as a look of dumbfounded shock.

I kept my head down and ears lowered as I looked up at her from the couch, and a royal nurse carefully tending to my forehead. It annoyed me that head wounds bled so much. My fur needed to be cleaned now, and there was less than an hour before the party!

Rarity giggled merrily behind Twilight, lightly sipping tea at a rather elegant wooden table. They had gotten food somehow anyway, it would seem. At this point however, I was more worried about having made an idiot of myself, and ruined Twilight’s introduction of me to her brother. I had humiliated her, and further felt like crap because of it.

"Relax, Twilight. The charges were falsified, we got room service anyway, and you got your bit pouch back," Rarity pointed out sagely after setting her cup down. I was both happy and sad that they so easily managed to get food without me. After being hauled up to the palace in chains, I'd lost all sense of hunger, only to find out that my duty hadn't really been needed in the first place. The stares were enough to make me want to curl into a ball and cry for a few hours. Pity that would make me feel like an even bigger wimp. At least Rarity had visibly calmed down now that she had gotten tea.

"It's all so embarrassing, though! This isn't how I wanted to introduce him to my brother, for one. Plus, everypony saw him hauled through the streets and are going to think he's done something horrible," Twilight shouted, pacing back and forth in a tight circle. I shriveled further on the couch, making the nurse tisk as I flinched.

Rarity gave her a speculative, questioning glance over her cup, but Twilight didn't seem to notice. Finally, I managed to suggest in a quiet voice, "She's right, Rarity. I don't think it's a good idea to bring me as your guest anymore."

Rarity surprised me by smiling warmly. "Nonsense, Dear. If brought up, it shall simply make for an amusing story and correction. There's absolutely nothing negative to worry about," she assured, causing me to exhale quietly. Admittedly, her words put me a little at ease. She was willing to explain to ponies who asked and tell of my innocence.

Twilight shook her head and resumed pacing. "I don't know how you can be so nonchalant about it. I mean, it's so embarrassing! Don't they have, like, privacy carriages or something?! The guards are supposed to be professional," she complained, moving the target of her wrath to prisoner transport, it would seem. It felt like she was just angry in general and lashing out at things. At least she wasn’t angry with me. Still, I think I’d rather have her angry with me than ashamed of me.

Rarity frowned outright at this and set her cup down again, a little more forcefully this time. The noise snapped Twilight out of her spiral and caused both of us to look at the white unicorn.

"That's enough, Twilight! You know as well as I do that he is innocent. If it concerns you, spread that fact around to any who question rather than worry about how it might influence your own reputation," she lectured, surprisingly harshly. The tone was strict and demanding, leaving an almost unspoken dare to challenge her and get trounced. In my reasonably shaken mentality, it was more than a little intimidating, and I shrank further.

Twilight, for her part, looked more surprised than anything. "But, I wasn't worried about... I mean, he's my stallion and I care for him, is all. It's not like I was, well, okay, I was a little embarrassed over the ordeal but," she started to shakily protest, shifting back and forth on her hooves.

Rarity's eyes narrowed slowly the longer Twilight went on. The lavender mare hesitated and slowed to a stop before sighing. "Okay, fine. I was utterly horrified," she finally admitted. It hurt, but it was the truth. I knew that it was because of me as well, which hurt the most. Come on! One normal day is all I ask.

"You were ashamed. Ashamed of the stallion you claim to care about. This is not you, Twilight," Rarity spoke quietly, earning a wince from all three remaining ponies in the room; the nurse oddly included as she blatantly listened in. I didn't care at this point, though.

Twilight stayed quiet for an agonizing half a minute, shifting her gaze between the floor and myself a couple times. I was ashamed as well; far too much to even look her in the eye at this point. What a mess. Why did it have to be me? Of course, I caught myself asking that quite often about various things. I wondered if that was just another way to run away.

The nurse let out a yelp as I flailed about in panic from the sudden foreign set of lips on my forehead. Twilight thankfully backed up and simply observed until I stopped wiggling. I stared at her in surprise until she giggled and looked down again. "Um, are you okay, Mender? I should have asked you that a while ago. I’m sorry," she spoke softly, smiling weakly as her eyes caught mine again.

My mouth was still open in shock. Becoming aware of it, I slowly closed it and exhaled wearily, having no idea how to answer. She suddenly decided to take Rarity's advice? My eyes lowered as I let myself slowly slide down onto the couch cushion again, letting the nurse resume her cleaning of the wound site. At least she said it wasn't nearly as bad as it looked. Damn head wounds...

"Did it, um, bring up any bad memories?" the decidedly warm and comfortable lavender unicorn asked instead as she gave my muzzle and nose a light kiss. It tickled a little and I smiled weakly.

"When they put the hoof cuffs on me, it did. I think I passed out shortly after," I replied, feeling a little more relaxed but tired now. My body just wanted to sleep for a while and heal.

Rarity perked up at the mention of my memories and listened intently. My fillyfriend just nodded against my nose before getting up fully onto the cushion in front of me. "She's right. You're innocent and I shouldn't be worried about myself. I'll stand by you too, Mender," she assured after a moment's hesitation.

"Well, I'll be. I guess you were telling the truth and not just helping some stranger escape jail. I’m also glad to see you apologized," I suddenly heard spoken in a familiar voice, followed by an even more familiar laugh. His absence must have put him in a better mood.

Twilight opened her eyes again and shifted them in the direction of the doorway to her chambers. I peeked as well, discovering Shining Armor slowly walking into the room, still in full armor but looking considerably more relaxed than he had been earlier. Maybe it was because it was warmer up here? Or he really liked filling out paperwork…

"Of course, Shiny. A little late for this, but meet Moon Mender, my coltfriend. Mender, this is my brother, Shining Armor. But you already knew that," Twilight introduced, smiling gently now and seemingly feeling better.

"It is good to meet you outside of the jail cell, Mender. Unfortunate series of events, that. But I have a feeling you're a good stallion after all, especially after what you said about the pouch," he welcomed, winking at me. I blushed weakly and looked away. If I had known he was Twilight's brother, I would have stayed quiet about the whole thing!

"Huh? What do you mean?" the now exceedingly curious unicorn in front of me questioned.

Shining Armor snickered before shaking his head, however. "Anonymity sometimes breeds honesty, Twily. I know he deeply cares for you, which is enough to make me accept him as your coltfriend," he assured with a smirk.

I shook my head wearily. "Honestly, I'm just glad I got it back. That had me worried the most," I muttered, glancing back up at Twilight's brother with a newly discovered curiosity. Outside of his post, he wore a relaxed expression, even in his armor. He was a little smaller than Big Mac, but it looked like he had years of experience behind his eyes. He also had a horn, and if he came from the same family as Twilight, I could only hope to guess at how powerful he was.

Twilight sighed and shook her head, however, drawing my attention back to her before adding, "As much as I'm happy to have the pouch back, I'm just happy that you're okay." I caught myself blushing and smiled weakly with what energy I had left, searching her eyes for truth to that. If she was going to make an effort to trust me, I should definitely make an effort to trust her back. Our relationship hadn’t been the smoothest so far, but maybe that would make it stronger overall? Her expression was earnest, however, and she returned a warm smile.

"I'm still curious as to why you felt so strongly for the pouch, Mender," Rarity spoke up, smiling over her cup of tea at me a moment later. Her tail swished back and forth behind her in an oddly polite, sophisticated manner, as if on display with its fine curves.

Chuckling, I shook my head again. "Besides the fact that it was Twi's and she trusted me with it? It also had her bits in it, which was important. But for the honest truth, I myself have nothing to my name. Even the saddlebag I hauled things here with is Twi's. So for her to give me something so dear to her and almost lose it might bother me a bit more than normal," I speculated quietly, having just considered it for the first time now. It was just a feeling that was there.

The lavender unicorn smiled and kissed me softly on the top of the nose again before being shooed away by the nurse, who was now cleaning my fur along my cheek. "You're amazingly sweet, Mender. We need to have you start getting things of your own, however. You've honestly done a lot of hard work for me and my friends and deserve it," she added, not dissuaded by the nurse at all.

Shining Armor chuckled, distracting me before I could protest. "She's right. The letters she writes back to us are practically glowing about you! I could have sworn from the letters that you were twice my size, made of coiled iron, and threw fire with a wave of your hoof," he tossed on, smirking.

"Hey!" Twilight practically shouted, flushing red as she whipped her head back and glared at him menacingly. I held back a chuckle before nuzzling her cheeks gently. She made a squeaking noise, but held her ground and smiled again, features relaxing a little.

"My, my. Normally I'd be chased halfway around the castle for that comment! He really has tamed you quite a bit," her brother teased further, dancing backwards away from her tiny electric shock blast. She growled and fired a second one at him as well. He started to dance backwards again when my hoof touched the sofa instead.

A magic line arched along the floor faster than a lightning strike and the large barrier extended up in the same instant, totally blocking the small blast of electricity. He stopped and stared at it in surprise, before Twilight glared at me instead.

"What, are you taking his side?" she questioned, eyes narrowing a little.

Hastily, I nuzzled her again in assurance before explaining, "Just saving him from your wrath. I'm honored, Twilight. You don't need to be angry over it." She let out a soft sigh as I rested against her cheeks. A second ticked by and she finally smiled against me and relaxed again.

"All right. But only because you asked so nicely," she agreed, earning a snicker from both myself and Shining Armor.

"Interesting magic indeed. Physical contact creates it from the point of his left hoof, exactly like your letter stated. Your strength is in barriers?" he asked after a moment's thought.

I nodded at the partial answer. "Barriers, transmutation, and alteration magic. I block things, change the physical forms of things, and change the metaphysical properties of things," I summarized, closing my eyes sleepily. Twilight was warm and felt good against my now freshly cleaned cheek.

The nurse stood up again next to the couch and left contact with my side finally. "I've cleaned the site as best I could, but I suggest taking a shower to get the remainder of the blood out of your fur. It's just a surface wound and has already ceased bleeding. There's no further trauma that I can detect with my magic, so you should be all right," she reported in her quiet, rather soft voice. She sounded business-like but gentle.

"Thank you, Nurse," Rarity spoke up courteously in the background before adding, "It's best if you go do that now, Mender. Twilight and I already cleaned up while you were, well, preoccupied, and I need to get you into your suit before the party."

I had to admit she spoke wisdom. Shakily, I slowly stood up off the couch and wobbled before finding my balance. One would think that having four hooves instead of two feet would make me more stable, but that turned out to be false so far. More legs seemed to mean more ways to trip over myself, in my case.

"Do you need help walking, Mender? You did take a rather nasty hit to the head still," Twilight asked, moving in gently to brace against my side.

The image of her following me into the bathroom caused me to blush, and I rapidly shook my head. Twilight raised an eyebrow at my display, but I caught a knowing smirk from Rarity as if she practically read my mind.

"Baby steps, Mender," the pearly, technically almost white unicorn reminded. I suddenly realized she wasn't talking about my walking issues at all, and nodded back to her. Twilight deserved baby steps, and I was less likely to make an idiot of myself if I didn't rush anything in the relationship.

"Good idea, Rarity!" Twilight agreed, nodding enthusiastically to her friend and totally missing the underlying message, I suspected.

"Oh, Twily. Never change," Shining Armor agreed, rubbing her on the top of the head and earning another questioning glance as I quietly slipped towards the bathroom while she was distracted. If she did indeed catch on, I had a feeling it would only be awkward...

* * * * *

Temporarily drowning out the panicking Rarity in the background, I glanced around the massive, multi-story ballroom with a sense of awe and scrutiny all at once. It was an extremely impressive structure, had it actually been fully intact, I imagined. Repairs from some practically apocalyptic disaster that had struck the room were still ongoing, it would seem, and I was mildly concerned about how structurally intact the entire room was.

"This is why Pinkie was banned for two years from the room," Twilight whispered in my right ear from next to me. I shuddered, my having put two and two together a few minutes ago doing nothing to blunt the sheer horror of that statement. Hell, the stonework was completely shattered in a few spots!

"Are you sure they've put enough of it back together for this party to be safe?" I asked, glancing skeptically over at the stage near the massive bay window overlooking the cliff outside.

Twilight sighed wearily and nodded after a moment's consideration. "Well, they're professionals, I think. They wouldn't let Fancypants throw a party here if it wasn't safe, right? I think. Yeah, probably," she 'assured'. Crap. Her statement only making me more nervous, I stood up again and wandered along the wall, examining the support beams that had been put in place while they redid the inner masonry. They hadn't left any loose or jutting pieces of stone, so that was good. The wood they used also looked of high quality with proper supports. No, if there was any risk, it was probably in the ceiling near the two damaged areas. So the apparently newly replaced bay window by the stage and the front entrance to the room, both of which sported large wall craters. The parts furthest away from the support beams of the room were at risk of structural collapse if they hadn't been reinforced. Of course, lacking x-ray vision, I had no idea what the supports looked like inside of the ceiling.

"Mender! I need your help!" I suddenly heard Rarity call out. I turned to my left just in time to see the frantic mare speeding towards me, gorgeous dress swishing out with each shift of her back hips.

I waited for her to get within casual talking distance before politely asking, "What is it, Rarity? You know I'll help with anything."

She paused, relaxing a little and giving me a softer smile. "You really are a dear. These incompetent workers have not yet finished my stage and catwalk, sadly! This just will not do. Their boss took sick leave, of all things! How can one be sick when there's a fashion show to prepare for?! I've informed them that I'm recruiting you to lead them in the finalization of the stage," she summarized rapidly.

I went from assured to shocked, and finally to a little panicked by the time she finished, of course. "Uh, I don't think I'm qualified for construction like this. Besides, why would they even listen to me? I look like another party goer," I pointed out, gesturing towards the rather impeccable yet highly uncomfortable suit that I was currently wearing. Even my mane had been styled, which felt more than a little awkward. Well, re-styled. Embarrassingly enough, I had managed to accidentally punch myself in the head while trying to get the suit on, causing Rarity to have to go back and fix my mane up again. Thankfully, it was my left side that time, so I didn't reopen my wound.

Rarity wasn't dissuaded in the least, however. "Why, they'll listen to you because I told them to. After the wonderful job I watched you do making Applejack's machine up from scratch, I have not even the slightest doubt this will be foal's play for you," she complimented, trapping me into doing it at the same time.

My ears lowered and I sighed. The mare definitely had a way with words. "I'll try, Rarity. But only because it's you," I finally agreed, slowly heading back the way I came, towards the rather crude looking framework of a display tent.

"Oh, you're an absolute doll! A true prince of a," Rarity started to coo, hoof steps sounding as if she were following me. Her walking and voice ground to a halt in an instant, however. Huh? Slowing to a stop, I glanced back at her questioningly, only to discover her staring blankly at me with her mouth still partially open, mid-word. Had I done something wrong? Uh oh. Did I tear the back of the suit or something somehow?!

To my surprise however, a faint pink tint shifted into her cheeks rather than any expression of anger. She closed her mouth in a heartbeat and coughed lightly, looking away from me. This only served to leave my mind a further confused mess as I tried to figure out if I should be running away or not.

"Ah, sorry. A momentary stray thought distracted me. We must make haste, though," she excused a moment later, smiling back up at me with no trace left in her expression of what had been before. Weird. When she didn't want to, she certainly didn't wear her emotions at all.

Regardless, I nodded to her and continued towards the construction. The basic structure looked very elaborate with the curves and outcroppings, but that's all it appeared to be. There was nothing existing on the wood at all, which concerned me. Whatever the walls were supposed to be made of had better go up quickly, or there was no way it would be ready by eighteen hundred hours. If my guess was correct, it was probably a tent of some sort meant to hold fabric in place.

Rarity zipped ahead of me and quickly pulled aside a tan pony in an orange vest, who was wearing a solid looking yellow construction helmet. Tufts of black mane stuck out from under the headgear, I noticed. She whispered to him for a moment before nodding. He returned the nod a second later and glanced up at me before walking over. The entire exchange took all of ten seconds, leaving me wondering what exactly she said.

"The Boss says yer gonna help us with figuring out how ta put together the rest of the tent?" he asked dryly, sounding more than a little frustrated. Figure out? I nodded wearily, unsure of what to expect when he withdrew a rolled up piece of paper from his side bag. "Good! Ah'm not trained in these blasted plans and whatnot. Can you make sense of them?" he requested, offering me the roll. I couldn't place his accent, but that didn't surprise me, really. It was thick and the words almost felt 'slanted' somehow. It was hard to describe.

I took the roll with my left hoof, and he raised an eyebrow as it stuck without further assistance. My magic traced along the paper and it unfurled under my manipulation, causing him to step backwards a few hoof lengths in surprise. Still, I needed to hurry, so there was no time for restraint.

My eyes traced the lines on the paper, noting that it was the structure plans almost instantly. My frown lowered further when I noticed the units being used. Centimeters? Meters? Of course, the plan I'd made Applejack was in metric as well because that's what I had been used to using. I rarely, if ever, considered things in terms of the old fashioned Keldarian methods. Still, this wasn't made by me, but was still in metric units. There was starting to be a disturbing amount of coincidences involved for my liking, but I shook my head rapidly and tried to focus.

"These are structural plans for the frame. You have most of it done already, but there's not enough structural support for the front curtain or the upper-back ceiling where it connects to the changing rooms, yet," I pointed out, gesturing to the same spots on their constructed framework.

He momentarily looked surprised before nodding. "Ah thought it was a little light in the back. We don't want those poor mares having lumber fall on their heads! Ya heard him, team! Get on supporting the back, and get those front curtain rods up!" he shouted, gesturing towards the group of a dozen or so congregating near the front of the frame.

Rarity smiled pleasantly at the seeming results, but I shook my head. "No, too slow. You're only going to need three or four ponies for both of those jobs. Have the remainder start putting up the fabric along the front of the building at the same time and we can get the job done even faster," I suggested, heading towards the rolls of fabric they had resting nearby.

The head stallion seemed yet again surprised, but I ignored him and touched my hoof against the rolls. The top one exploded into movement as it unfurled itself, rapidly sliding along the floor before coating the right side of the 'tent' and rolling itself out over the frame.

"Oh, you don't have to actually help, Mender! They were simply having trouble figuring out what the plans meant," Rarity informed, trotting up while wearing a gentle smile.

I shook my head back at her, correcting, "Actually, the back reinforcement isn't on the plans. But without any attachment to the back wall above the changing room exits, it's a serious danger to anypony passing under the arc and through the doors. As for helping, I don't really have anything else to do until the party, so I might as well be useful."

Twilight smirked off to my left and joined Rarity in front of me. "That's very productive of you, Mender. Honestly, you'll make a name for yourself without needing Applejack's help, although her word certainly wouldn't hurt," she added, giving me a happy nod. That I blushed at and smiled after lowering my head a little. I wasn't really used to praise, but I was glad she was happy with me. My eyes widened subtly as I realized that it was important to me. I wanted her to be proud of me. Her, specifically.

Rarity gave a happy murmur and nod, agreeing with, "Indeed! You're very kind, Mender. I can see why Fluttershy also likes you." Well, I wasn't out specifically to be kind. Fluttershy absolutely oozed the virtue. In reality, I just wanted to be useful. I wanted to fit in and actually contribute; to help these amazing ponies as freely as they accepted me into their lives.

"I'm going to be free as well, Mender. May I assist you in construction of the stage and tent?" Twilight suddenly asked, smiling politely with her eyes gently closed towards me. It was more than a little adorable.

"Oh, that's a good idea. Please do prevent him from accidentally tearing his suit as well," Rarity requested, giving two nods towards Twi. I chuckled, realizing that it was indeed still Rarity talking. She must have recovered from whatever bothered her earlier.

Twilight snickered and nodded, pointing out, "He's not going to tear his suit if he sticks to using magic anyway. I'll just help hold things in place." The same stallion from before dropped his jaw, however, as she followed me back to the construction site.

"The Element of Magic herself is going to help put this together?!" he asked, watching her carefully lift up all three curtain rods at once.

She smiled while focusing and nodded absently. "Of course. You're already taking orders from my coltfriend, after all. I might as well help, too," she reasoned, lingering and putting more than a little emphasis on 'coltfriend' as she said it. I blushed lightly, and the brat of a mare looked right at me after finishing the statement. She held a knowing grin, and I suddenly realized she was intentionally spreading it around!

"Careful. It won't be secret for too much longer if you don't do some damage control," I warned, sticking my tongue out at her gently.

"I've been doing a lot of thinking about it. Maybe I don't want it to be a secret? Rarity's right, you know? Honestly, it's totally normal and nopony is going to think any differently of me regardless," she reasoned, blowing a strand of her mane out of her face while two ponies to each side placed the curtain rods into their locking bars.

Chuckling, I shrugged absently. I wasn't one to question the topic, having no idea myself. "If I had to guess, they'll probably treat you with more respect due to who you are, actually. I don't think you'll have anything to worry about," I reasoned.

I was interrupted with a soft nudge to the shoulder, however. I glanced to my right only to see a smaller looking mare with a white coat and abruptly green mane. She was also decked out in the construction gear, so I assumed she was part of the team. "Excuse me, Mr. Moon Mender. We have the right side secured to the frame. Could you help us attach the left now?" she asked politely, oddly looking a little nervous for some reason. I hope she hadn't heard about what happened to the guard and thought my bad luck was contagious or something. Twilight had said Luna told her that the guard had been hospitalized upon returning to the barracks, it turns out. Something about a mild concussion, muscle strains, and potential infection in awkward places from small animal bites. I hadn't realized there was more than one squirrel! Or had it been a chipmunk?

"Oh, sure!" I returned, suddenly catching myself zoning and snapping myself back to reality.

She smiled innocently and nodded before gesturing to another roll of the heavy purple fabric. I released my minor barrier that was holding the right side up, tentatively at first. My smile widened upon realizing that it was indeed secured to the frame. Exhaling softly, I slid the other roll along the ground with my barrier again before unrolling it and hanging it up against the left side of the frame this time.

"I think your magic is getting stronger," Twilight commented, walking along at my left as I went, having finished her job.

Smiling, I nodded to her before she suddenly stopped and turned fully towards me, silently calling for my attention. I halted as well, making sure the fabric was solid against the frame before turning to look at her.

"What did you mean, 'who I am'?" she asked a moment later, tilting her head gently. Huh? Oh! The last thing I had said to her, that's right.

"You're Twilight Sparkle. That name, from what I hear, is synonymous with a mixture of Princess, Celebrity, and Superhero," I explained, winking at her.

As predicted, her cheeks lit up pink almost instantly. "Mender! Ugh. I'm not that important; certainly not a princess," she complained, flattening her ears back and looking down from my gaze.

"Oh, but technically you are, Twilight Dear. Your brother married a Princess, after all, which makes you royalty by relation," Rarity chimed in, making me jump a little. Looking behind me to the left, I saw her slowly trailing along, looking far more relaxed than earlier.

"That's hardly qualification," Twilight denied, giving her friend a deadpan look.

I decided to redirect her self-undercutting, correcting, "Well, even if you don't think you are, I do. You'll always be my princess." Twilight was important to me. At this point, I was determined to accept that.

Sadly, the wrong mare squealed. "Oh, that is absolutely gushing with romantic undertones! You are such a Gentlecolt," Rarity chirped, hopping up lightly on her back hooves and flicking her forelegs back and forth rapidly, looking oddly excited. Twi, for her part, just shifted her blush to crimson and stared at me, mouth parted slightly. I couldn't read her expression in the slightest, however.

My ears drooped a little. "Um, I'm sorry," I tentatively apologized, just in case. It was getting kind of instinctive at this point. Another trait I noticed I shared with Fluttershy.

She snapped out of it, rapidly shaking her head. "Oh, no! No, no! You just surprised me, is all. I've never had a stallion say anything even remotely so nice to me before, apart from Shining Armor. I'm just starting to fully grasp all of this, I think. You really do care for me," she muttered. The way she said the last part made me think she didn't really believe herself, even.

I nodded to her and lightly stepped forward, nuzzling the side of her cheek lightly. She was cute when she blushed, I decided. She pushed back into me at the same time, letting out a quiet sigh. Seconds drifted by contentedly, and I smiled. I could stay just like this for an eternity and be perfectly content. My ears twitched as I picked up a light scraping noise of hoof against the floor to my left, however.

Breaking away and looking over, I saw Rarity slowly retreating via backing up, her eyes fixated largely on the tile below her instead of on us. "Rarity?" I questioned, a little concerned at this point. She was acting strange again.

She jumped as if burned, however, looking back up at both of us just in time for Twilight to give her a confused look as well. "Are you okay?" the lavender unicorn inquired, sounding as concerned as I was.

"Oh, of course, Dear! I was just going to, um, help myself to a bit of a snack before the party," she excused, settling her hooves again and seemingly puffing up, almost.

I gave her a skeptical glance, and she looked away as predicted. Okay, that time she was obviously lying through her teeth. The fact that it was obvious only went to indicate how much whatever she was thinking about was bothering her. "I'm sorry. I guess I'm just a bit forlorn, is all. Don't mind me," she finally confessed, shifting to a warmer smile and looking back at us fully.

"What's wrong, Rarity? You can tell us," Twilight pressed, shifting to face her fully instead. I let her do her thing, realizing she knew her friend a lot better than I did. Shifting as well, I simply idled next to her for support if needed.

Rarity exhaled before thinking for a moment. I knew that look. It was the "choosing my words carefully" expression! "Well, looking upon you two being so absolutely amazing together indirectly reminds me of what I don't yet have myself. I'm simply wishing that I, too, had found my prince." She looked sullen after having admitted it and lowered her gaze again quietly.

Twilight frowned, eyes softening before she walked forward and gently hugged the white unicorn. "I understand, Rarity. You'll find your prince soon, don't worry. Maybe he'll even be here at this party?" Twilight suggested, smiling confidently at Rarity.

The white and purple mare chuckled and leaned into her friend before returning, "I wish I shared your confidence, but thank you. If he's half as polite and charming as yours, I should feel rightly delighted." Twilight's eyes widened for the briefest moment before she recovered her composure, adding a light frown. Huh?

The frown was gone before I could so much as blink, however, replaced by a gentle yet assuring smile. "I'm sure he's out there, Rarity. Just keep your hopes up. I can even keep my eyes open for you and direct any potential stallions your way during the party," she offered, releasing Rarity and giving her a soft wink.

Rarity laughed outright at that before making a 'tsk' noise towards her. "Oh that would hardly be proper. But thank you, Dear. You're a very good friend," Rarity replied, sounding genuinely better than before. I smiled too and nodded. If I knew what to look for, I'd try to help, too. I wasn't very good at judging character, though. Hell, half the time I couldn't even judge my own.

I pondered it, however. Of course, if I had some thermal imaging cameras and photo scanning equipment, I could probably write up an algorithm that could scan the crowds for potential matches with physical characteristics that Rarity looked for. Some simple conversation monitoring with directional mics would probably give a brief summary of their personalities, too. It would hardly be accurate, but it could be done. It would be a lot more thorough than talking to every stallion at the party, that was for sure!

"Um, are you listening, Mender?" Twilight asked, nudging me in the chest lightly. I started and flailed in surprise.

"Huh? What?" I asked, suddenly feeling more than a little embarrassed.

Twilight snickered and pointed out, "I know you're a stallion and I'm your fillyfriend, so I'm not going to be mad that you've been staring at my flank for the past thirty seconds. Normally one wouldn't be wearing a blank look while doing so, however, so I have a feeling your head was elsewhere." My blush magnified, earning another series of snickers from Twilight, who, to her own credit, looked more amused than angry. "Relax, Mender. I'm teasing you. I just wanted to let you know that Rarity and I are going to go get a snack before the party. You don't need me for anything else here, do you?" she asked after another moment.

"Oh, no. I'll just finish helping them set up the tent, then," I answered, trying to keep any negative tones out of my voice. Admittedly, I was enjoying their presence, but I didn't want to get in the way of any talking they might want to do privately. Or their food, in case they were actually intending to get some. Given the reminder, my stomach let out a pained murmur, but I ignored it. I didn't have time to eat anything now.

If I had let anything slip, Twilight either didn't notice or decided not to say anything. She gave a gentle nod, eyes closed in content before turning away. "We'll be back in a few minutes," she tossed out before heading after Rarity, who had already turned and redirected herself towards the rather impressive looking buffet table.

This time I really did watch her as she walked away, not necessarily her flanks, of course. Not that they weren't something to look at. Still, I found myself enjoying her presence more and more as she became more relaxed around me. She was slowly becoming less scary. As the negative feelings were removed, there was less to get in the way of the shockingly positive ones that I hadn't even realized were there in such force. Still, I knew better and reminded myself to exercise restraint and move at her pace, even if that meant waiting until the next ice age before progressing any further. Well, if this planet had atmospheric shifts like that. I pondered it for a moment before I was nudged on the right shoulder again.

Expecting her this time, I glanced over at the same mare as before, who was now smiling this time. "We got the left side secured. Could you help us with the roof now, Mr. Moon Mender?" she asked politely, perking a little after saying it. I chuckled and nodded, following her towards the back of the structure where the elevated construction platforms were. Well, at least this was going smoothly. Maybe I'd have a normal night at least, as a compromise. For some reason, I wasn't holding my breath.

Chapter 22

Wiping my forehead with a hoof, I glanced back up at the soft moonlight flowing through the sky dome above. The silver and blue light cascaded gently across the entrance to the tent, giving the purple fabric a complimentary glow. I waited for the cue yet again before straining back against the rope and pulling the curtain open for the next mare to walk out. How had I gotten suckered into doing this again? I had thought I was supposed to be just a moving mannequin for Rarity, not a stage hoof.

Oh yeah. Half of them didn't show up and the party coordinator latched onto me in a panic, recruiting me as part of the crew. What the hell was with these ponies? I hope they weren't getting paid for this still. Of course, I didn't expect myself to get paid either.

Keeping my bitterness in check, I slowly lowered the rope again and swallowed, sweating profusely under the stifling curtains. The models were lucky they only had to walk through this hellish environment between the changing rooms and the stage. Thankfully, I'd been very careful to not rip the suit I was wearing, which didn't make this job particularly easy. Not that Rarity had shown up again to grace my presence in the first place. For that matter, neither had my fillyfriend.

Bitterness, Mender. Shaking my head, I lowered my ears and waited for the next cue. Another model was walking up in a rather cute, if not frilly, dress. It looked good on her lanky form, although she didn't seem to have any meat on her bones whatsoever. That didn't really appeal to my senses; not that I was in the market for a fillyfriend anyway. Still, I had to give credit to Rarity. The mare was seriously skilled.

Something twitched in my mind and I frowned, suddenly taking a closer look at the mare. Wait a second! White coat with a pink mane, horn elegantly slipping up through the complimenting shade. It was her! She was the one who got me arrested.

Her eyes glanced over a second later and she froze, apparently recognizing me instantly, aside from the suit. Her eyes slowly widened as mine narrowed, my hoof slowly squeezing the rope. Oh, it would be delicious to 'accidentally' drop the rope as she was walking under the curtain, flattening her onto the stage and ruining her pretty presentation. The temptation was there, and I swallowed wearily. She fidgeted, and actually edged closer to me, much to my surprise.

"Fleur de Lis, get ready. You're on in thirty," the manager called in a quiet whisper from behind the secondary curtains to my left. So that was her name.

She shifted closer and leaned her longer neck down, whispering to me instead, "Please don't ruin this! It was an accident, so let's not be rash. I'll pay you a hundred times what was in that pouch; just please don't do anything. Fancypants has another agent watching," she actually begged, further surprising me. I didn't know what kind of agent she was talking about, but I didn't particularly like the sentiment either.

"You're trying to bribe me to shut up? You had me arrested for sexual assault and theft! I got paraded through the streets after being tossed in jail!" I growled, vaguely insulted that she was attempting to pay me off.

Her ears flattened back and she put a hoof to her mouth, adding, "Shh! Look, I'm sorry! Please. My career could really take off here and Fancy would be really happy. Just please don't do anything?" she pleased, eyes looking desperate. I glared for a moment, locking eyes with her in silence.

"Okay, go," the coordinator spoke in a hushed tone behind me. Fleur backed up weakly and swallowed, giving me a nervous look before heading towards the curtain. Damn it.

Closing my eyes, I slowly pulled back on the rope and opened the curtains up for her. She nervously looked to either side of the curtains before beginning her slow, styled walk out. My hoof twitched. The mare had embarrassed Twilight immensely, too. If anything, I should be getting justice for her. Squeezing my eyes shut, I sighed and held back. The moment dragged out and was gone in an instant as the white unicorn strode confidently out onto the catwalk. No. I was better than that. Public humiliation was exactly what she did to me, so I wouldn't be proving myself any better a pony if I turned around and did the same back to her. Plus, it would only serve to add a smudge to Rarity's showing, which I was here to prevent.

Almost a full minute passed before Fleur was on her way back inside. I opened the curtain up dutifully as she came in. She relaxed, seeing as I didn't drop it on her back on the way in, flattening her and providing a perfect frame for her butt to the entire crowd. She hesitated, glancing at me after the curtains slid shut. I looked away from her, a little hurt at letting the opportunity pass but just deciding to let it go. I'd probably never see her again after this, anyway. She quickly had to move aside as another model came up, and slipped away back towards the changing room.

The rest of the show passed uneventfully, if not rather boring in my opinion. The mares, and to my surprise, a few stallions, simply blurred together as they walked past. After a while, I just listened to the cues for opening the curtains. It became mechanical as my thoughts drifted, mood lowered by the surprise encounter. Well, at least this wasn't that particularly bad of a night. Now, I was happy I had resisted flattening her in front of the crowds outside.

Much to my surprise, the cues stopped and I looked up just in time to see the manager himself approach the curtains. He smiled and grinned to me before slipping through the cracks, not bothering to open them up or request that I do. "Thank you, Everypony! Tonight was truly amazing and I hope all of you enjoyed the look of fashion to come! Give a warm applause for our wonderfully talented fashion designer, Rarity!" he called out, voice muffled by the curtains. My eyes widened a little and I peeked out the hairline crack on the other side of the curtain, watching the pearly unicorn mare sashay onto the stage and give a delighted, energetic bow. I smirked as I noticed she looked right at home on the stage, as if a fish in the water. I'd be a traumatized, shivering ball in the corner with that many ponies looking at me and cheering, admittedly. She seemed almost energized by it.

"Oh, thank you, fine ponies of the wonderful Canterlot. You are too kind," she politely added after her introduction.

"She truly is wonderful, folks! Of course, have an amazing round of applause for Mr. Fancypants himself; without him, this would not have been possible!" the coordinator added. I raised an eyebrow as I watched, then widened it as the same stallion who punched me in the head this afternoon got up on stage and took a gentle, flowing bow. What? What?! Damn it. I should have known.

"Thank you, Everypony! I am purely the provider here, however. This truly wouldn't be possible without my wonderful friend, Rarity's styles," he spoke up, surprising me a little. Well, he was more humble than I pegged him for.

Rarity gave a show of waving her hoof gently towards him, acting abashed. "Oh, you surely jest, Fancy," she chided, looking clearly delighted at the same time. This was getting to be a bit much in my opinion, but I suppose this was the whole reason Rarity came.

"Further, I'd like to say how proud I am of my wonderful mare, Fleur de Lis!" he added a moment later, causing my eye to twitch of its own accord. The mare in question came up on stage from the audience at the same time, still wearing Rarity's beautiful dress. She bowed alongside Fancypants, smiling for the crowd. A model, huh? Shaking my head, I released the rope and winced, feeling as if the skin had been worn off my hooves. That was a brutal forty-five minutes or so spent tugging on the same rope. I glanced about, but most of the stagehooves were either talking to themselves or finding a dark part of the curtains to peek out of at the proceedings.

Sensing the opportunity for food, I slipped towards the back of the tent and exited through the curtain I knew was angled between the back of the wall and wooden frame, having put it up myself. My stomach growled once again, and I slipped my way through the crowd, heading towards the table I knew the food was kept at. Rarity was still up on stage, shining in the lights while Fancypants droned on and on. I didn't even pick up on what he was saying.

Shifting away from the brightness of the stage lights, it wasn't that hard to pick out Twilight, either. She was sitting in the elevated stands set up for the show, surrounded by both guards and extremely posh looking ponies, amongst other things. One looked to be some sort of part lion, part eagle. I thought I spotted what looked like a donkey type individual too. She was here as a representative of Celestia, however, so perhaps they were dignitaries who caught up with her during her excursion with Rarity?

Accepting it at face value, I continued on until I managed to locate the food in the dim lighting. It looked heavily picked through at this point, but I wasn't about to be picky. I decided to go 'heavy' for the occasion and made myself a rather hearty sandwich scrounged from various sources at the table. I wasn't expecting having to almost use my wilderness survival training to find food here!

A quiet chuckle entered into my ears after I took my first, massive bite. It interrupted my savoring of the taste of food after so long, but didn't quite disrupt due to its melodious tone and softness. My right ear twitched lightly, and I turned my head in that direction. She was an unassuming, gray-coated mare with a softly flowing, black mane that was considerably longer than what I was used to. Further, she was dressed up in a simple, yet elegant black suit coat and had her mane tied back with a clip. My eyes trailed down, taking small note of the mark on her flank. I didn't know a lot about music in general, but the treble clef was a popular enough symbol. Hers appeared to be purple in hue. Not lingering, I shifted my gaze back up to meet hers. She looked amused, so I assumed she was the source of the chuckle.

"Truly. No dainty bites or posh posture. You must be one of the ponies working here," she guessed, giving her glass on the table a swirl with her hoof but not breaking eye contact.

I slowly swallowed, earning another giggle before giving her a questioning stare, unsure of what she was getting at. My guard was admittedly up ever since running into Fleur earlier. "Oh, no offense meant, of course," she excused, nodding once before smiling softer instead, continuing, "I'm actually a worker here too." With that mentioned, she gestured back behind her at the small group of ponies gathered on stage. They were chatting and seemingly taking a break while attention was focused on the show.

"Oh, it's fine. What do you play?" I inquired politely, honestly the only question I could think of before shoving another large bite of sandwich in my mouth. My stomach wasn't out for hostages at the moment, that was for sure.

She grinned at my enthusiasm before answering, "Cello. I'm first chair for the royal orchestra. We were asked to play tonight." That sounded important. I idly wondered what a mare of her stature was doing talking to me. I inquired as to just that as politely as I could between my second and third inhalations of sandwich.

She surprised me by chuckling softly and shaking her head, oddly reserved. "I'm not that special. My name is Octavia, by the way. I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage yet," she finally introduced, taking another idle sip of the dark scarlet liquid in her glass while waiting for my reply.

"Oh, sorry. I'm not used to these types of parties and, well, I'm a little hungry," I excused, coughing lightly and feeling my cheeks heat up. Here I was supposed to be making a pleasant image for Rarity, and this is what happened. "Regardless, I'm Moon Mender. It's a pleasure to meet you, Octavia," I introduced myself, bowing lightly. I maintained a firm grip on my food, however. I'd be damned if my bad luck quota stole my hard fought prize from me!

Octavia momentarily smiled, nodding to me mid-sip before suddenly starting and trying really hard not to choke on her drink. My eyes widened and I gently leaned forward, patting her on the back as she coughed a couple times.

"Wait, you're not 'the' Moon Mender, are you?" she questioned skeptically, staring at me in surprise. Oh hell. Was she there this afternoon to see me hauled through the streets? My ears flattened back and I glared.

She shook her head rapidly, swaying a hoof in front of her. "No, I'm sorry if I mistook you for somepony else! It's just rumored that Miss Twilight Sparkle's mate is here at the party, and I thought that was his name. I didn't mean to insinuate," she excused rapidly, causing my glare to shift to embarrassment even faster.

"Please don't let her hear you say that. She is totally not comfortable with 'mate', I should warn," I groaned, cringing at the prospect of her hearing that. Exhaling weakly, I shoved the last bite of sandwich in my mouth before rapidly chewing. I will digest you before anything can possibly take you away from me, my precious!

Octavia tilted her head gently, giving me an inquiring expression. I honestly didn't know what to say. Twilight had said she might not mind spreading it around a bit, and I could always say that I hadn't said anything. She could have easily heard it from somewhere else, of course, but if she'd heard it in the first place, it must be getting a bit more widespread than I realized.

"There's only one way you could know that," the black-maned mare pointed out a moment later.

I nodded gently and smiled towards her. "I'm just me. Twilight is my fillyfriend, yes, but there's nothing specifically special about me," I explained, trying to form the correct impression.

Her eyes widened even further, causing her to look almost like a statue. "Oh my gosh! You're so, well, normal! I figured you'd at least be like one of those guys she's sitting with over there," she reasoned, glancing past me and in the direction of the raised seats.

I idly shook my head before pouring myself a glass of punch. It was labeled as raspberry punch, anyway. Seeing as it was practically untouched, I guessed that it was lacking alcohol. "I'm just me. Twilight isn't that kind of pony, either. I think you'd find her really normal as well, at least compared to your expectations," I reasoned, taking a sip and being pleasantly surprised in the truthful label.

Octavia smiled pleasantly, looking actually happy for the first time since the conversation started. "That's actually rather refreshing. Seeing as Twilight is busy, I extend the offer to come listen to us until she gets done, if you want. Looks like our break is almost over," she offered, glancing over at the ponies starting to disperse from the stage. Given the amount of cheering, I'd say that Rarity's show was a success. The dignitary booth didn't look any closer to clearing out, however, so I figured Octavia's guess was accurate.

Feeling a little more full as well, I shrugged before nodding. "Sure, if you don't mind me hanging around by the stage. I don't exactly have anyplace else to go," I muttered, again trying to hold back the bitterness. She seemed to pick up on it anyway, but apparently realized it wasn't for her and smirked, nodding.

"No problem at all, of course. It would be a pleasure, honestly. My friends aren't ones to put on airs, ironic as that sounds for a party such as this," she assured, standing up fully and taking her glass back to the stage with her, lightly carrying it in her mouth. Unwilling to part with my punch, I refilled it back to full before attaching it, barrier and all, to the side of my shoulder, following after the grayish mare.

Her friends up on stage greeted her as she approached, then shot a questioning glance past her at me as I wandered up. Being utterly exhausted, I flopped onto my haunches unceremoniously next to the stage. They seemed to almost exhale while watching me. Huh?

"See? He's normal. This is 'the' Moon Mender, by the way," she introduced, causing more surprised reactions. They didn't tense up again, however. I glanced across them, noticing a good dozen or so ponies of varying colors, all equipped with classical orchestra instruments. Octavia's was the only cello, however, I noticed.

I watched her hop up on stage, resuming a relaxed position behind her larger instrument before nodding down at me, smile still playing at her expression. I squinted my eyes at the change of light in this corner, momentarily glaring up at the rather impressive looking crystal chandelier hanging above the entire stage, radiating its light down upon the entire band. Ugh. It was still too bright, considering I was practically blundering through the dark looking for food a moment ago.

Octavia watched the dispersing ponies carefully before giving a gentle nod and wave of her hoof in the air. The instruments came to life instantly, producing a gentle, harmonious sound that wafted over the speakers and across the entire room. I smiled, relaxing a little at the tones. This was definitely a pleasant sort of music, I must admit. The only thing I vaguely remembered from my old world was the stuff that blared out in the barracks all the time. A bunch of new, trendy sounds from our allies' ever pervasive culture. Now that I considered it, their influence was actually a more dangerous weapon than their vastly superior weapon technology had been.

Pushing the unpleasant memories away, I relaxed gently against the stage, watching the crowds ebb and flow.

* * * * *

It was easy to zone in and out when nopony was really paying attention to me. It was even easier after I discovered Octavia's book stash in her cello case. She looked more amused than angry when I peeked inside. She had brought three books with her for the 'before and after' party, she explained. One was a rather, well, vivid romance novel that brought uncomfortable stirrings to myself after the fifth page. Subtle wasn't exactly my thing, so I decided to try another book before I ended up arrested again. The second didn't really interest me in the slightest, being about, oddly enough, vampire ponies. Sure, they were actually likely to exist given the massive level of supernatural and magical occurring in Equestria, but I didn't see the draw in romanticizing getting my blood drained from my body. I kind of needed that!

So out of options, I had distracted myself by reading the third book for a good hour or so while listening to the gentle, lulling music. It didn't entirely fit the adventure genre, but it was pleasant enough. "Daring Do" was a fascinating character, admittedly. I wondered idly if Twilight ever read fiction. She seemed too analytical for that kind of thing. I could almost hear her ask, "Why write about something that's fake?!"

I chuckled to myself before flipping another page, being treated to Daring haphazardly swinging over a pit of vicious, flesh eating beetles to get at the golden chalice in the center of the temple!

"Ha! I heard you'd be here, Tavi!" was suddenly announced from practically right next to me. I let out a startled yelp before falling over sideways, barely managing to catch the book before it spilled to the floor. "Oh! Whoops! Sorry, I didn't see ya there!" the mare's voice apologized suddenly upon me regaining my composure.

First glance showed me she had a rather gentle white coat; not pure white but a very bright gray. Her mane surprised me, however, by being a vibrant cyan and dark blue color, worn in a spiky, relaxed manner. I couldn't see her eyes at all through the dark rimmed, purple shades she wore shortly under her horn. Well, she was certainly different. I couldn't place the style, though.

"Vinyl? What are you doing here?" Octavia inquired properly, taking a sip of water after. I looked between the two, realizing that they must be acquainted, obviously. Octavia didn't seem truly displeased to see the other mare, so maybe they were friends?

Vinyl smirked and nodded to herself before returning, "I heard a certain gray cello player was going to be here and snuck in, of course." What?! I looked up and down at her, noticing she was oddly in a pressed vest and white coat. For sneaking in, she was dressed fairly formally. Of course, if she wanted to blend in, that was really the only way to go.

Octavia smirked back and shook her head. "I'm sure you did. Why, I bet the bouncer even blushed and squealed like a little filly before he let the mighty 'Dj Pon-3' in," she reasoned, tone mirthful and amused. Dj? Oh! Disk Jockey! Now I knew what her style reminded me of! 'Dj Pon-3' must be her stage name.

"And asked for an autograph, of course! Say, who's your new 'friend' here?" the eccentric Dj asked a moment later, suddenly shifting her attention to me instead.

"Only 'the' Moon Mender, mooching off my book supply," she introduced, adding the emphasis yet again onto my name.

My ears lowered and I gave Octavia a skeptical glance, asking, "I'm really not that important. Do you have to introduce me to everypony like that?" She just smiled and gave me an amused wink, earning a laugh from Vinyl.

I glanced over at the newcomer in time to see her give me a once over, shifting her shades down to peek up and down myself. Her eyes were a soft Crimson, surprisingly, behind the headwear. "Well, it's nice to meet ya! I'm Vinyl Scratch, just in case you haven't heard of me. Dj Pon-3 might be more familiar, of course. I'd heard Twilight Sparkle got a coltfriend, but didn't have a face to put to the name. I have seen you around town, though," she admitted, smiling more warmly before raising her glasses back up. Wait, around town?

"Oh, do you live in Ponyville?" I asked, tilting my head to her and closing the book I still held. Reading with the 'sun' right above me was causing serious eyestrain anyway. What was it about crystal chandeliers that made them so bright? Refraction?

"Yup! Right on main street. Admittedly, I was impressed by your walking barrel platform," she complimented, snickering lightly.

I blushed, earning a surprised yet confused stare from the mare onstage.

"Ha. Not my best moment, admittedly. Seriously though, how is everypony finding out that Twilight and I are dating?" I asked, curiosity finally getting the better of me. I'd probably regret it, of course.

Vinyl gave a hearty chuckle before shaking her head. "Dude, Twilight Sparkle herself finally finds a stallion to sleep with; that's huge news. She's practically royalty," she explained. My cheeks exploded into heat and I stepped back, lowering my ears slightly.

"W-What? Wait, how does anypony know that we, uh," I started to ask before trailing off, realizing that I might have just stepped into a trap.

The Dj grinned in impish delight, confirming that I did just step on a social landmine. "Oh ho ho! I wasn't expecting that. So you two have slept together!" she confirmed, dramatic evil laughter tying it in.

Octavia slapped her forehead and put her water glass back down. "Vinyl, that's not very proper. And it is sort of assumed, Mender. That is an aspect of dating somepony," the gray mare pointed out gently, in a surprisingly calm manner. I exhaled and nodded, trying to convince myself of the same.

"So, how is she in bed?" the mare next to me asked an instant later, causing me to blush again and sigh, giving her a skeptical look. Why did she want to know that? How is that even relevant in the first place?

"Vinyl!" Octavia protested, looking utterly shocked.

As predicted, she only received an impish smirk in reply. I just shrugged, however. "I don't really think it's that big of a deal, now that Octavia says that," I assured, ears drooping still as I wished for a different topic regardless.

Vinyl, for what it was worth, looked delighted. "See?! That's an awesome attitude to have about things! Live and experience, I always say. So, about that question?" she reminded, winking to me.

I rolled my eyes and decided to take a stab in the dark. "Well, she's relaxing, I suppose. Oh, and very warm. Oh, and she makes this cute little squeaking noise when she falls asleep," I tried to relay. She really was adorable, even when sleeping. Well, actually she was all kinds of different adorable while sleeping.

The Dj's reaction was less than satisfactory, however. Her smirk fell away, replaced by a stunned, vaguely disbelieving look. "Wait, relaxing? She falls asleep?!" she asked, sounding like the concept was completely foreign for her. Well, maybe it was if she lived that much of a night life, but I assumed she'd be dead a long while ago if she never slept at all.

I tilted my head towards her, inquiring, "Isn't that a good thing?"

"Uh, no! I think you're doing something wrong, Dude. What are you doing, actually, if it's not too much to ask?" she asked, still sounding unsure and looking at me like I had grown a second head. I checked just to make sure while peeking back at Octavia for help. Nope, still just the one head. The cello player looked surprised as well, but with an oddly pink tint to her cheeks as she held her hooves up to her mouth. What the hell?!

"Uh, do? Well, I mostly just lay there, like she does. Um, why?" I asked cautiously, starting to wonder if I was committing another strange faux pas.

I swore I saw the cyan and dark blue maned mare twitch lightly. "What is wrong with you?! Do you honestly want her to dump you? Not that she's not partially to blame, but still!" Vinyl started to complain, stomping her hooves around while flailing about in a surprisingly active anger. I flinched and shrunk back, ears lowering significantly. I knew what 'dump' meant, and it brought an icy knife wound to my chest almost instantly.

Oddly, a look of dawning comprehension flashed onto Octavia's face when I glanced back up at her, trying to get a second opinion before freaking out and rushing over to Twilight to beg for forgiveness.

"Oh! Oh. Uh, Vinyl, I think you two may be talking about totally different things," she pointed out, causing me to freeze. We were?! Oh thank you! Maybe that meant that Twilight wasn't hiding anything from me that she might potentially dump me for.

Vinyl stopped her rage-induced stomping and glanced over at her friend, somehow projecting a questioning look without us being able to see her eyes or eyebrows. If I remembered, I'd have to ask her how she did that later. "You know, you're supposed to relax in bed, right? It helps you get to sleep?" Octavia reminded, raising her eyebrow as well. Finally, logic! This I could work with. I exhaled quietly, waiting for the verdict.

Vinyl gave a deadpan stare at both of us before shrinking a little. "Oh. Oh dang. Well, yeah. Okay, that makes me feel so much better. Dang, Dude. You seriously need to stop joking around like that! I thought you were serious for a second there!" she exclaimed, wobbling about as if her blood pressure was still spiked from her rant.

Technically, I was serious, but I probably shouldn't mention that. Instead I just laughed awkwardly and agreed with, "Ha! Yeah, sorry." I'll probably never know what actually went wrong there, but at least Twilight wasn't going to dump me, I decided.

"Well, might I suggest you let me get back to playing before this conversation gets any further awkward?" Octavia asked, directing her unsteady expression towards the Dj.

Vinyl smirked and nodded, agreeing with, "It's all good. Oh, and look me up when you get back to town, Mender! You're definitely a cool stallion."

I blushed and smiled, rubbing the back of my head with my right forehoof. "Nah. I'm just me. Nothing special, like I said earlier," I protested, not taking to this public awareness thing with much grace. Twilight was really popular!

The almost white unicorn gave a hearty laugh before shaking her head. "You're too modest for this whole celebrity thing. You need to come visit me more often as well, Tavi!" she declared, slamming her hoof down on the stage next to Octavia and earning a slightly annoyed stare. I listened to the boards creak under the blow and sighed. It was indeed a cheap reconstruction job. They were either stingy or rushed, I decided.

"I usually do visit you when I come to Ponyville, Vinyl. It's not my fault that I need to sift aside a veritable mountain of garbage from your decadent lifestyle to merely find a place to sit," she shot back, tongue rather barbed. I was impressed.

Vinyl grinned wider, apparently taking the jab in stride. Her mouth opened, undoubtedly to return another venomous verbal volley, when the creaking echoed and reverberated through the wood I was leaning against. My frown hit instantly and I pushed my ear to the stage. There was a straining sound and a light vibration that got more distant, shooting into the back wall the stage was connected to. My eyes widened as I watched the line of dust shoot up the wall behind the stage, disappearing into the repaired ceiling in an instant. A split? But that meant that something heavy was being anchored to the...

I looked up, swallowing as I saw the massive chandelier shiver suddenly before lowering barely half an inch. Son of a bitch. All of those lovely, sharp, pointy crystals were aimed downwards at a most unfortunate angle as the entire form gave another sway, crack visibly appearing in the wall.

My right forehoof slid Octavia's book towards her cello while my left flared with energy as fast as I could manage to draw it. There was no way I could move the stage out of the way before it fell, so there was only two options. I could shield them all from the falling crystal monstrosity, of course, but the surface area involved was roughly seven or eight times what I tried before. I doubted the shield would hold for any significant amount of time. Alternatively, I could move the chandelier as it fell. This time I had the advantage of only one object descending towards me at high velocity, after all.

I wasn't given time to think of anything else, sadly. Less than two seconds after I noticed the first sway, there was a brutal cracking noise from above the thing and it dropped. Aww hell. Simply acting at that point, I hopped up onto the stage as it dropped. Everypony looked up at almost the same time when the noise sounded out. Octavia's eyes widened and she screamed as I kicked off the chair next to her, using a barrier to boost my jump as best I could. The chair went flying as I snagged my hoof in it, but it was far too late to worry about clumsy reactions.

My hoof extended out, reaching for the center extension of the chandelier as it descended. The rest of me braced for impact just in case I missed. Of course, a second later I realized I could have simply stepped back from the stage and avoided the chandelier entirely. Ah well. Instinct is a bitch sometimes.

* * * * *

Okay, this plan could have done with a little more thinking through before I implemented it. I rotated yet again as I flipped through the air, drifting two-dozen meters over the ballroom while clinging to a spiky, crystal disk of misfortune and death. And now it was flipping like a coin and threatening to rob me of my hard fought sandwich, of course. I clung to the side of it as best I could, wincing as I tried to think happy, non-spinning thoughts.

Okay, so what had gone wrong? I reviewed what had led up to this disaster carefully in my mind. My hoof had touched the metal of the chandelier, of course, activating my magic, which first canceled its downward momentum, then used automatically adjusting micro-thrusters to apply an antigravity effect. That had worked perfectly fine. Mistake number one was to not account for getting caught in the burst of energy. I fired it off too fast, and got hit with the cast-off effect. Losing my gravity as well, I guess I was really lucky when I managed to only get a small nick to my suit when I slipped between the fields of sharp and pointy crystals, safely getting to the significantly less pointy top of the chandelier.

Mistake number two. Failing to account for what my own forward momentum would do to the now stagnant lighting arrangement. Of course, upon smacking into the center of it, I knocked it upwards at a slight angle. I was momentarily stunned upon impact and failed to correct the velocity before it smacked into the wall behind the stage. That started the bloody flipping motion. Now I was too dizzy and unsure of my own timing to try counter-thrusting to push it in any given direction. Chances are, given my skills and luck, I'd send the spiked disk of misfortune and death directly down into the gasping crowds below me. Or are they above me now? I couldn't figure it out and just clung to the hot metal as best I could. Figures they'd use actual fire to light the stupid thing. I also singed one of my sleeves trying to avoid the perpetually burning magical candle things that were on this side. What a choice. Sharp and pointy or hot and burning? No, wait. Gotta look on the bright side, Mender. I had at least another five or six minutes of life left before my magic wore out and I crashed into the floor in a giant shrapnel fireball, undoubtedly killing myself instantly along with several dozen innocent bystanders.

"Help!" I yelped again after completing yet another rotation. There were dozens of unicorns down there. This thing, even including myself, wouldn't take that much at all to stop the rotation. My spell would make it virtually weightless in regards of momentum. Hell, Twilight could do it while sleeping, I had no doubt. Still, I shouldn't rely on her to save me every time I get into trouble.

I finally managed to rotate myself to line up with the direction the crystal chandelier kept flipping. I waited once again for the thing to be right-side up before killing the antigravity on myself and throwing my squishy body against the side that was raising into the air as hard as I could. I winced as one of the candles exploded against my side, singing my suit lightly, but the rotation managed to completely stop and even out. Scuttling backwards, I re-balanced myself in the center of the blasted thing and left my anti-gravity off. The spell on the chandelier only accounted for its own mass, so mine added to it was causing it to slowly lower in the direction of the ground now. I was still drifting to the side, however. Looking ahead of me now, I swallowed wearily as I saw the full size bay window rapidly approaching. If I broke through that before I touched down, this thing would drift off over the cliff edge. My magic would exhaust itself before I would be able to land then, and the remainder of my brief fall would have a very painful end to it, I imagined. I hoped for a pegasi in the crowd that might be able to recover me before being pancaked into the ground.

"Mender!" I heard in Rarity's voice from beneath me somewhere. I peeked down below the chandelier as I sailed. The crowds below were clearing, making a painfully obvious path of potential destruction should my impromptu flying saucer crash and burn prior to hitting the window. I saw that no effort was given to providing cushions, of course. Joy. Rarity surprisingly ran along directly under me, however. She looked up with a shocked, yet attentive expression. Oh!

"My spell is making the chandelier really light! You should be able to lower me with your magic. Please watch out for the spikes on the bottom, though!" I called down as loud as I could over the panicked murmurs and screams below.

Rarity slowed, lagging behind the chandelier for a moment before her horn flared up with a light-blue energy. My eyes widened as a billowing aura surrounded the entire chandelier. The speed of my descent increased significantly and I heard a sudden yelp. Hmm, perhaps she would have expected the mass a little better if I had said weightless rather than really light?

Rarity overcompensated. Badly. The chandelier hit the ground hard with the crystals digging in. Nopony was under it as far as I could tell, thankfully. Not so thankfully, the crystals shattered and fragmented, not only flipping the entire chandelier while I was still on it, but spraying the shards at high velocity in every conceivable direction.

That adrenalin rush hit again and everything slowed down. I casually flipped through the air, flung free of the top of the chandelier and tossed like a rag doll. The spell came free when my hoof lost contact with the metal, and all the energy snapped back into myself. The chandelier, returning to full weight instantly, anticlimactically flopped along the floor on its top, spinning in a lazy rotation. The energy left me in the same instant as I fired it from my hoof as hard as I could. The cone-shaped barrier momentarily formed an exceedingly unorthodox long-jump pole as it cratered into the floor of the ballroom. The rogue shards from the chandelier were encapsulated instantly, however, smashing into the inside of my makeshift cone as I trapped them all.

I smiled momentarily as my shield predictably failed a second later, letting a few thousand crystal shards fall to the floor rather harmlessly. If I were fast enough, hardly any would have gotten free of my barrier, though. That was all I could do.

Going limp, I let myself rotate once more in the air before descending harshly towards the floor, ironically headed right for the slowing chandelier. It would seem I couldn't be rid of the damn thing. Unfortunately for me, the spiked side was pointed up now.

My descent slowed significantly as I was caught in a light-blue aura. I went rigid as to not put any undue strain on her magic as she let out a gasp and grunt, straining against the force of the spell. Twilight ran up at high speed a moment later, shoving her way through the crowd before snagging me in her own purple and crimson light. Rarity let out a pained sigh before slumping over onto her stomach, mindful of the shards of crystal everywhere.

Twilight had no issue carrying me over to her at all, of course. "Mender, are you okay?! What happened?" she asked rapidly, sounding worried, as usual. I seemed to bring out the best in her.

"Several failed attempts at slowing down a stupid chandelier," I groaned, feeling exceedingly tired. That hadn't taken as much energy as the shield did earlier with Rarity, however, so I managed to stand on my own four hooves when set down.

Rarity frowned, slowly sitting up again. "That was horrible. This is hardly becoming behavior for a gentlecolt, Mender! What were you doing surfing a chandelier across the room in the first place, I dare ask?" she questioned, looking a little miffed at me.

I lowered my ears and opened my mouth to explain when I was cut off anyway. "Hey, isn't that the same stallion that was being moved through the streets in chains earlier this afternoon?" I heard asked from an unknown voice behind me somewhere. Spinning around, I saw nopony in particular talking, but a rush of murmurs and whispering spread out through the crowd almost instantly. I deflated, ears now dropping into negative angles in regards to my head. Oh crap. That was the last thing I wanted them to remember.

Twilight surprised me by hauling me against herself a second later, wrapping both of her forelegs around me. The whispers picked up, but she glared over my head at the crowd as she hid me from sight using herself. Her ears flattened back as well, giving her a more hostile look than sad, however. Was she actually defending me?! Rarity shrunk a little under the overwhelming negative attention, and seemed unsure of herself and what to do for a moment.

"Wait! Stop!" was suddenly called out to my left, Twilight's right. Octavia and Vinyl managed to squeeze through the growing crowd of ponies. "He saved Vinyl and I, along with the entire orchestra when the chandelier fell from the ceiling! If he hadn't intercepted it, I'd be dead," the gray earth mare defended, swiveling about and looking at the crowd as she spun. Vinyl nodded and ran over to me at the same time, sliding to a stop in front of Twilight.

"Is he okay?" Vinyl asked a moment later, raising her glasses up to get a better look at me. I smiled to her and nodded gently.

"I'm fine, Vinyl. A little worked up, but I'm just glad nopony got hurt," I muttered wearily.

Twilight smiled down at me and nodded. "Making friends in high places while almost killing yourself is certainly better than just almost killing yourself," she pointed out, relaxing enough to stab me with her barbed wit, I noticed.

Vinyl snickered and nonchalantly shook a hoof at her. "He's definitely a cool dude! That high flying ride was totally awesome, too! Uh, minus the almost dying and squishing a bunch of random ponies, of course," she corrected a moment later, letting her shades slide back down with a nod and raised hoof to the ceiling.

"You have such a way with words, Vinyl," Octavia muttered, walking up much more slowly. The crowd shrunk in on us a little further now that the imminent threat of flying crystal shards appeared to be suppressed.

I managed a soft snort, sitting up fully against Twilight. "Just about like me most of the time, don't worry. It wouldn't be a complete day if I didn't insert my hoof into my mouth at least once," I sympathized, hoping the expression wouldn't be lost on them.

Vinyl grinned and nodded enthusiastically while Octavia just snickered. She had a soft expression on, however, and I almost swore she was giving me an exceedingly fonder expression, if that was indeed a word.

Meanwhile, Rarity was recovering nicely. "Oh my! I should have known you wouldn't go sailing around like that purely for entertainment like a certain other mare we know. Now you're a hero!" she exclaimed, quite a bit louder than I would have liked. My blush magnified and I started rapidly shaking my head. Like I really wanted to leap up into a spiked disk. Again, if anypony else could have done the same thing or better, by all means I would have let them. A hero felt like they did things like that intentionally. It felt like it was something one attempted to represent. All I did was what I had to at any given moment to minimize grief to those around me. That didn't sound very heroic to me.

The crowd actively parted as a large stallion I recognized as Fancypants approached. The lithe figure of Fleur was next to him, of course. Now that I saw him up close, I realized he wasn't as huge as I mistook him for the first time we met. Of course, I was quite a bit intimidated for other reasons back then. Now that I got a proper look, I realized that Big Mac was larger yet. Ironically, the red stallion didn't intimidate me nearly as much, given his gentle and passive outlook.

"I dare say, we meet again, young one!" he declared, getting a closer look at me as he approached. I shrank a little bit, causing Twilight to frown and pull me closer again. He frowned a little as well and slowed in his approach, then drew to a complete halt when the lavender unicorn's horn started glowing softly while she watched him.

"Twilight, this is Fancypants himself! What are you doing?" Rarity asked, intersecting herself between Twi and the well-dressed stallion.

Twilight shook her head wearily, eyes not leaving Fancypants. "You were the one who had him arrested earlier, weren't you? The guard report didn't name anypony, but you just said this wasn't the first time you met," she deduced quietly, not letting me go. I looked up at her curiously, my cheeks heating up even more. What was she doing?

Rarity shook with a start, pupils seeming to almost shrink as she suddenly looked back and forth between Fancypants and myself. "W-Wait, seriously?!" she asked in apparent disbelief.

Fancypants smiled, however, and sat down at his current distance before nodding. "Yes, I was. I'll be the first to say that it was also a terrible misunderstanding and that Mender is truly innocent. No, I dare say he's a true knight after that rather bold rescue! I offer my deepest apologies. Moon Mender, correct?"

I turned and looked at him in surprise, not having expected him to actually admit that I was innocent. Didn't that look negatively upon himself instead, then? Regardless, I nodded gently after a moment's consideration.

"Yes sir. My name's Moon Mender. I live in Ponyville with Twilight," I informed nervously, trying to be as proper as I could think of.

He smiled and chuckled at my reply. "Yes, I heard the rumors, but didn't connect you to said 'Moon Mender'. You have excellent tastes, Miss Sparkle," he complimented, standing up fully again. The murmuring picked up a lot louder than before, to the point where I could hear a few exclamations of shock. Then my ears deflated again as I heard whispers of a secret agent and rendezvous with Princess Celestia. Damn it.

Twilight smiled finally and hugged me tighter regardless, seemingly happy that I was unhurt. "Is anypony injured from the crash?" I heard a guard start asking towards the back of the crowds. I exhaled softly and just rested against Twi. Rarity joined the three other mares surrounding me, smiling down at me in a pleased manner.

"Knight, huh? I'd say that's definitely a livable title," she admitted, giving me an exaggerated wink. Her cheeks were a faint rosy color, however. I exhaled softly, glad that my original purpose for being here hadn't been ruined. Admittedly, I had no idea how everything had worked out and felt dizzy trying to remember what just happened, but it was more than enough to have arrived at a satisfactory outcome.

Rarity fanned herself, however. Her cheeks were indeed a pink shade and she exhaled softly. "I might get a spot of air, however. I'm suddenly a bit, um, distraught. Too much excitement, I think," she excused softly.

Twilight lost her smile and gave Rarity an inquiring glance. "Are you all right, Rarity? You strained your magic pretty good, there," the lavender mare asked. I picked up a definite trace of worry in her voice and suddenly remembered what it was like when I burned through too much energy.

"I'll be fine, Dear! Thank you for your concern, but it's nothing a bit of fresh air won't fix," she assured before turning and heading towards the balcony near the main entry to the room.

Glancing up at Twilight, she shot me a worried look back. "I'm afraid she used up too much of her magic. We should go with her to make sure she doesn't collapse or anything," she warned, looking back up and watching her friend disappear out onto the balcony.

"Oh, good idea! Magic headaches are worse than hangovers!" Vinyl agreed, shuddering softly as she seemed to remember her own less than fond memories.

Octavia gave her a playful shove, which only resulted in a grin being returned. "What she meant to say is, with the stage destroyed, we have nowhere else to play our music and have been relieved for the remainder of the evening. Would you two mind if we tagged along?" the gray mare asked politely, that soft accent that I couldn't seem to place rearing its head again. It was too subtle for me to put a comparison on it.

Twilight smiled softly at her and shook her head, assuring, "Of course I don't mind. I'm not sure what's upsetting Rarity, however, so could you hang back for a moment until I make sure it's nothing private?" Octavia nodded politely to the request while Vinyl was busy looking a little distracted.

"Actually, I think I'm going to take a detour anyway. I haven't eaten supper yet, and that food over there looks rather promising!" the Dj decided, sliding to a halt and glancing over at the banquet table where I was earlier.

Twilight stopped as well, oddly, and frowned. "Actually, I just realized you're right. If Rarity is having magical exhaustion issues, sustenance is high up on the priority. I'm going to get some real quick sandwiches and tea for us all. Go on ahead, Mender," she requested.

I nodded gently before turning and continuing to walk towards the balcony. Octavia trailed along after me, lingering back as promised once we neared. So, how was I supposed to go about making her feel better? Or figuring out what was ailing her in the first place? Yes, priorities, Mender. Why the hell did Twilight send me of all ponies in first?! I had about as much social graces as a rotting pineapple. Considering it wasn't sentient, that really said something.

"Hey, Rarity. How are you feeling?" I asked softly, figuring the best bet would be to start by announcing my presence. Preferably in a way that didn't freak her out and send her careening off the balcony.

She started lightly but turned her head to the side, smiling back at me. The moonlight did a nice job of accenting her purple, curled mane. The amount of effort she put into her appearance really came through for her. "Oh, hello, Mender. You didn't have to check up on me, you know," she assured, looking pleased that I had regardless.

"You're my friend, Rarity. Of course I'm going to worry about you, especially after you exerted yourself to such an extent," I reminded, slowing and finally stopping next to her and peeking out at the night sky. It was gorgeous, honestly. I loved looking up and seeing the thousands of stars in the sky. The moon hung low as well, a gentle three fourths of the way full and spreading a milky blue illumination over the castle architecture.

"You are truly a Dear. A knight or prince, even. Fancypants is right," she muttered, smiling to herself and chuckling at a quiet joke I didn't know.

Frowning, I glared up at the stars. Were they the same stars that I would have seen in my other life? "I'm just me, Rarity. I'm not a knight or prince. I don't even know how to properly eat using utensils. I'm not a hero, either. Saving the ponies on the stage happened exactly the same way as destroying that ship in the other dimension," I refuted, putting my left hoof on the railing. The symbol on it glowed lightly in the moonlight, serving as a permanent reminder of that choice.

"What do you mean, same way?" she inquired softly, looking over at me with a certain air of curiosity, brilliant blue eyes almost glowing in the light.

I exhaled and shook my head again, looking down at the railing. "It's wrong, what everypony said. I'm not a hero. A hero strives to match those traits that define them. I was scared. Terrified even. If anypony else could have done it, I would have gladly let them, even. I didn't want to die. But the alternative, if I didn't do what I did in each situation, was to let others pay the price instead. I only did what I had to in order to minimize the suffering," I elaborated, scraping my left hoof along the smooth stone. I didn't feel a thing, of course. The right hoof was tactile and responsive. The nerves in my left were all but destroyed.

Rarity looked sad for a moment. I wished Twilight would hurry up and get back with the food. I wasn't good at talking, and was prone to long tangents that didn't really help matters, it would seem. "Even if you didn't want to be a hero, you still are one, Mender. As frustrated as it probably makes you, you could have simply walked away so many times. You didn't, though. Because of that, just today alone, a dozen ponies are still alive. Even if you'd rather it not happen in the first place, it did. Fate is, well, strange like that," she muttered, looking far off towards the end, as if talking about something else.

I looked back over at her, unsure of what to say. I suppose that if it had to happen, and nopony else was capable of fixing it, me doing so was a good thing. Well, that much was obvious. But necessity didn't make me feel heroic. Then it was just my duty.

"A real knight; not just some fairytale fantasy. Polite and kind, yet flawed. That's why it's so hard. I don't know what to do anymore," she groaned, pressing the bottom of her horn gently into the railing. I sensed frustration, but didn't know what to do about it.

"Rarity, what's really bothering you?" I asked, suddenly getting a suspicion she wasn't fatigued after all.

She looked back up at me, eyes dancing lightly again. "Can I pretend, if only for a moment, Mender? Just one, selfish moment?" she asked; no, pleaded as she turned to face me more fully. I frowned, tilting my head towards her, unsure of what she was asking, let alone of how to fulfill it. Octavia's eyes widened in the very edge of my peripheral vision.

Rarity shivered and winced, seemingly fighting amidst herself as a light pink tint lit along her cheeks again. She'd done this earlier, too. Idly, I wondered at the connection. I didn't get a chance to formulate the thought further, however.

Time slammed on the breaks as she leaned up spontaneously and gently pressed her lips against mine. My mind froze, unable to process the information in the slightest. Floppy disk smashed into a USB port. She wasn't urgent or needy; just content in feeling the heat between us with the gentlest of pushing motions. Her body let out a shiver and a light hum, snapping time back into motion an instant later.

I gasped and stepped back away from her, breaking contact as fast as I could. Wait, what the hell?! I stared at her in shock as she kept her eyes closed, head still angled gently where she'd left off. Slowly she lowered it and made a sniffing noise, shaking her head rapidly.

The sound of a tray hitting stone, followed by a series of shattering noises sounded out to my right. Octavia let out a light squeaking noise in surprise, snapping to attention as I turned to look in that direction. She was staring in horror at Twilight, who in turn was staring in utter shock at Rarity. A tray of sandwiches, broken glass, and spilled tea rested at her hooves, a giveaway on the source of the sound. Vinyl stood to her right, actually raising her eyebrows above the rims of her shades this time. "Whoa!" she muttered a moment later.

Rarity snapped back to attention and looked to her left at her friend. Her expression shifted between disbelief and horror in a heartbeat. "Oh! Oh no. No, no, no... I didn't mean to, um, do that. That was just, oh Celestia, what did I just do?!" she asked, more to herself than anything. My mind whirled, hauling me along with it as I suddenly felt dizzy. What just happened?! Tears built up in Rarity's eyes. She made a sound halfway between a sob and choking before taking off at full speed, galloping past the shocked looking Twilight and heading back into the crowded, deathly silent ballroom.

Twilight slowly turned, several seconds too slow, and looked back at where Rarity had shot off to moments before. The white unicorn had made a beeline for the main exit, knocking aside several other ponies and drawing effectively the entire room's attention as she went. She was already gone, out the door now.

My fillyfriend slowly turned back to me instead, mouth finally closing now and being replaced by a grimace instead. My ears lowered and I started shivering instantly. Oh hell. I was dead. I was so dead. She was going to launch me off the balcony with such force that I might break orbit.

Her burning stare tore into my very soul for a long, five seconds. It felt like five years when her eyes finally softened. "I knew it. I just knew it. No. No, blaming you would be foolish," she sighed a moment later, lowering her gaze and shaking her head.

I let out a whimpering noise and sunk to the floor, having literally no idea what to say or do in this situation. "You were just as surprised as I was, and pulled away. Relax, Mender. Stay put; I'm going to go look for Rarity. We apparently have quite a bit we need to talk about," she requested, straightening herself and glancing back towards the entrance of the room.

"Twilight," I muttered weakly, unsure of if I should be saying something or not. What the hell was I supposed to do?

She sighed and shook her head again, however. In a flash of light, she reappeared in an instant right in front of me. I panicked for a moment before she reached out and gently hugged me against herself.

"It's all right, Mender. Just stay at the party. A lot is going through Rarity's head, from what I could tell. I need to find and talk to her. She has some explaining to do. I'll be back in a bit, hopefully," she instructed. My heart slowed its breakneck pace slightly and I managed to nod. She smiled momentarily before disappearing in another flash of light. This time, however, she didn't reappear.

Octavia exhaled weakly, looking about as tired as I suddenly felt. It dawned slowly on me as I glanced back over at the two musicians. Rarity had kissed me. Rarity liked me, and I hadn't had the slightest clue before just now. Why? That was the true question. Neither mare in front of me seemed to know, their expressions simply serving to give me more questions than answers. Damn it all to hell. Well, there goes another potential 'ordinary' night.

Chapter 23

For having a tear in my suit and a lightly singed sleeve, nopony at the party seemed to mind. Actually, the 'battle damage' had rapidly become a conversation point. After Twilight left, Octavia had insisted on taking me around and introducing me to anypony important she noticed and that wanted to talk. I didn't get much say in it, but her reasoning was fairly easy to understand, even if she was quiet about it.

I lost count of the times I paraphrased my thoughts during the accident or explained the enchantments on the suit allowing it to survive so readily. I didn't realize how important clothes were to the high society, even in a culture with no qualms about total nudity! Still, the conversations served to keep my mind busy and off what had happened. That and at least two-dozen ponies took Rarity's information down in the process. I guess my purpose here was fulfilled after all, even if her spoken reason to bring me no longer entirely matched her suspected reasons.

She kissed me. Rarity, of all ponies! She wanted a prince with reputation and esteem. I was a nopony with nothing to his name! What the hell happened?!

Vinyl noticed my downtrodden expression a moment later and bumped me sideways when I looked at her. "Chill, Dude," she ordered with an amused undertone to her voice. Neither herself nor Octavia had left my side since, and it was a little strange. I hadn't known them for long, yet they were surprisingly loyal. Of course, they also got their fair share of questions regarding the accident.

Shaking my head wearily, I nodded to her after a moment's consideration. "I know. I'm just worried that Twilight is going to be upset with me," I repeated, wandering towards the cleanup crew as they worked. The party was essentially ended soon after the accident. The questions I got were from lingering ponies afterwards, largely. A guard had also questioned me in length about what had happened, but thankfully I wasn't in trouble. Again. Fancypants spoke up for me, thankfully.

Of course, then the guards recognized me from Twilight's apparent description earlier. I stretched as I stood in front of the chandelier, looking over the damage. The guard next to the rubble that was gesturing the ponies away just nodded to us. Turns out, Twilight has, like, top-level clearance in the palace and surrounding grounds. Apparently she extended some of that to me, and I was allowed to look over the wrecked chandelier without issue. Of course, I'd already gotten a somewhat intimate view of it.

The chain was undamaged, I noticed. Tracing it back up, I saw a splintered section of a wooden beam still anchored to the end of it. My memory flared with the image of the ceiling caving away, and I sighed.

"The problem wasn't with the chandelier, but how it was attached to the ceiling. It didn't have anywhere near the structural support it should have," I pointed out, gesturing towards the beam still attached.

"It was a fast repair job. They wanted it done in time for the party tonight," Octavia revealed, glaring at the chain as if it had personally offended her mother. Not that I necessarily blamed her. It was kind of like me and apple trees.

The construction stallion from earlier stood up from the remains and nodded sternly. "You know your stuff. I've looked it over, but as far as I can tell, yer right. The candles didn’t go out after the thing detached, either, did they?" he asked, gesturing towards the scorched blast residue on the crystals. Whoa. Had they literally exploded when the thing crashed?

I nodded absently. "No, they didn’t. I'm guessing they were enchanted? Well, whatever they were enchanted with might not have liked the spell I used to cause it to float," I explained. Note to self. When you get some time in the future, compare Equestrian enchantments to your own to see if there’s some potentially explosive overlap.

"Sure looked awesome, though!" Vinyl cut in, sounding overly cheery, if not a bit gleeful. I rolled my eyes.

"I wouldn't know. All I saw was burning and pain for a bit afterwards," I groaned, looking back down at my suit again. It, interestingly enough, wasn't that damaged. Here I thought that Rarity was silly to fireproof it.

"Now, I don't normally do this unless for special orders, but due to your terrible misfortune for accidents, I'm going to weave a few tasteful protection spells into your new suit," I keenly remembered her explaining, just the barest hint of an amused smirk playing at the corners of her lips. I chuckled before withdrawing from the wreck again.

Octavia and Vinyl followed me yet again as I wandered back over to the banquet table. They always said that eating was excellent stress relief. "Um, you have second to highest clearance, Mender. You could just go to the kitchen and ask the staff to make you something a little tastier," Octavia reminded as I started putting a light sandwich together.

"They already made all of this. No sense in letting it go to waste. Besides, I don't think I'm important enough to warrant special privileges like that," I reasoned, watching the ingredients drift into place. Vinyl seemed more interested in watching my hoof pressed against the table as I manipulated the various barriers into putting the thing together.

Octavia smirked but shook her head. "You're a strange one. You're dating Twilight just for Twilight, aren't you?" she inquired, making it sound more like a request for confirmation than anything.

"Of course I am. I fell for her before I even knew who she was, fully. She also saved my life. Not to mention she's just so," I started before trailing off and frowning. Octavia's eyebrow rose, but she listened expectantly. Finally, I added, "There's a lot I like about her. She's kind, fun, smart, gentle, entertaining, and absolutely gorgeous, for the basics."

"You definitely got it bad. Ha! She's lucky. It's dang hard to find a stallion that wants you for you when you're famous, let me tell ya! How'd ya honestly never hear of her?" Vinyl questioned, sounding surprised before she flopped down onto her haunches.

I glanced over at her as my sandwich finished making itself. "I woke up outside of Ponyville with retrograde amnesia. Didn't have a clue who the Elements of Harmony were in the first place, let alone that Twilight was one of them. I'm under the impression that I'm Twilight's first attempt, also," I told, giving them the abbreviated, censored version of my arrival.

Octavia lowered her ears and shook her head at the same time that Vinyl looked honestly surprised. "I'm terribly sorry to hear that. Have you been able to recover any memories yet?" she asked gently, sounding concerned.

I slowly shook my head, mentally restricting what I knew I shouldn't say. "Not a whole lot. I know my name and what my talent is. Nopony knew me in Ponyville, either. I've honestly just been focusing on building a new life," I admitted, deciding that much was safe. Hopefully they didn't have complicated background checks in Equestria. A pony literally fading into existence out of thin air might be a tiny bit suspicious.

"Mender! I know I'm not supposed to contact you during the day, but I have a bit of news to share. You don't have to answer, but I know you can hear me," suddenly echoed out in my skull, scaring the metaphorical crap out of me. I jumped at Keela's voice and accidentally launched my sandwich up into the air. Flailing, I lashed out with a force field to try to catch it, but it was suddenly whipped downwards instead in a red aura.

Vinyl snickered as she caught it in her mouth, taking a rather impressive bite out of it. "Vinyl!" Octavia berated, looking a little upset.

"They're fast to make! Besides, I want to watch him use those cool powers more," the cyan-maned mare admitted, smirking after she swallowed the first bite.

As irked as I was momentarily, I was also distracted by the sudden compliment mixed with wondering what Keela wanted. I rolled my eyes and fired up the barriers again, proceeding with sandwich attempt number two while I heard my extra dimensional friend clear her throat.

"I wanted to let you know that I've been making serious headway on my end of the bargain as well. I've almost gotten a working spell that should be able to send the book directly to you. There are a few kinks in it that I'll try to work out first, however. Furt