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Game Night 16: Celestia Game Night (Part 4)

By twilightgamenight
Created: 18th December 2020 10:13:31 PM

  1. >It’s not a pleasant world.
  2. >Not the void you’ve been going to lately, but something worse.
  3. >Ruined buildings surround you, only growing distinct as you randomly focus on them.
  4. >You sigh inwardly, wishing you could wake.
  5. >This again.
  6. >You don’t dream often, but when you do it’s rarely pleasant. Often one of a handful of stock scenarios.
  7. >And this is one of the least pleasant.
  8. >Others have nightmares of uncomfortable situations – being naked in public, losing something they care about, things like that.
  9. >You dream of being alone.
  10. >Not of losing someone close to you – that’s already happened sometime in the dream’s past – but of being truly and completely alone.
  11. >Why and how changes from nightmare to nightmare.
  12. >Usually you never know anything more than the situation is your fault.
  13. >Something you directly caused this, sometimes just an unlucky victim.
  14. >Pale shades move around you, the faded ghosts of people and ponies.
  15. >You can interact with them if you so choose, but why?
  16. >They aren’t real. Less real than the ruined buildings they wander between.
  17. >You are alone.
  18. >”Why would you dream of something like this?”
  19. >Even twisted by panic and shock, you recognize Luna’s voice.
  20. >Of course you would; it’s your dream.
  21. >”We have never seen *anything* like this, not even as Nightmare Moon!”
  22. “You aren’t here.”
  23. >The mare tries to step up beside you, but you turn, keeping your back to her. You would rather be alone than with a taunting lie.
  24. >Petty.
  25. >But what does it matter?
  26. >She’s not real.
  27. >This isn’t real.
  28. >You’re barely real.
  29. >”We are fairly certain we are,” the princess responds gruffly. “And we find this dream distasteful.”
  30. “You can’t be. I just talked with you, and you said you never visited my dreams after I was released. So unless this is a sudden change…”
  31. >You leave the words hanging.
  32. >What point is there in arguing with yourself?
  33. “You’re not real.”
  34. >You focus on the concrete wall ahead of you, but can’t quite manage to make the fake princess disappear.
  35. >”Shall we prove it to you?” she asks, hovering just outside your field of vision.
  36. “How? Anything the real you could do in my dreams, *I* can make a fake you do in my dreams. Besides...”
  37. >You turn to face Luna.
  38. >She looks… fearful.
  39. >Yet determined.
  40. “… after what you just said to me, I don’t think I’d want to talk to the real you.”
  41. >The princess gasps, quickly stepping closer and putting a hoof on your chest.
  42. >”Are you really so happy being alone in this world?”
  43. “It’s just a dream, Luna. I’ll wake up and everything will be fine.”
  44. >”No, it won’t,” she insists, looking up at you pleadingly. “You’ll still be alone.”
  45. “I’m not alone. I have *her*.”
  46. >”Oh.”
  47. >She pulls away reluctantly.
  48. >”We had not thought…”
  49. >Luna breaks off, looking behind you.
  50. >Suddenly, her eyes grow hard.
  51. >Harder than the silver-capped hoof that she jabs into your abdomen.
  52. >”You made Twilight Sparkle a promise. Remember that.”
  53. >She jabs at you again, another sharp blow to your stomach.
  54. “How could I forget?”
  55.  
  56. >You wake in darkness.
  57. >The moon has set, but the sun hasn’t quite broken the horizon yet – the room is darker than ever.
  58. >It catches you by surprise, shocking the pain right out of your system.
  59. >But it returns swiftly.
  60. >Maybe that Luna *was* real.
  61. >It certainly feels that way.
  62. >You jerk the blanket off of yourself to examine your injuries and sigh in relief – it’s just Twilight.
  63. >The mare has curled up on herself, her horn poking into you just south of your bellybutton.
  64. >She whines at suddenly being exposed to the pre-dawn chill, her shivering digging the dull spike deeper into your body.
  65. >Ow.
  66. “Hey, Twi!”
  67. >You shake her slightly, pushing her head away gently so she doesn’t accidentally disembowel you.
  68. “Twi, wake up!”
  69. >”Is it time to meet my parents…?” she mumbles sleepily, her eyes still closed.
  70. >Silly sleepy pony – you’ve only been dating for two weeks.
  71. “Not really.”
  72. >But you know it’s going to happen. She’s already said as much.
  73. >”Good…”
  74. >She unwraps her forelegs from herself to paw at you feebly.
  75. >”…cold...”
  76. >She means “hold me.”
  77. >You do.
  78. >You’re a good coltfriend.
  79. >There’s still an hour or two until you should probably get up.
  80. >Hopefully your dreams will be more pleasant this time around.
  81. >At least as pleasant as staying awake would be – that’s the least sleep can do to replay you for stealing this world away every night.
  82.  
  83. >If you dreamt, you don’t remember it.
  84. >Who could, what with being shaken awake by the drunken roar of returning ponies?
  85. >Damn, your friends were out partying until dawn.
  86. >You try to ignore them, to go back to sleep, but you can’t.
  87. >Between the noise and your little princess stretching and twisting at your side, it’s impossible.
  88. >”I guess it’s time to get up,” Twilight yawns sleepily. “We need to look our best for this.”
  89. >Either Twi is still half-asleep, or you are – you can barely understand the slurred words.
  90. “For breakfast?”
  91. >”Breakfast with the family.”
  92. >Ah.
  93. >Fuck.
  94. “Okay, give me ten more minutes.”
  95. >To scream quietly into your pillow.
  96. >”No time,” your marefriend insists, giving you a gentle push. “This has to be *perfect.*”
  97. “Who will be there…?”
  98. >”Shiny, Cadance. My parents.”
  99. >Fuck.
  100. >It’s too early for this.
  101. >You were hoping for a little more time, for a chance to mine Shining Armor for info.
  102. >They might be cool – they seem to have accepted Cadance readily enough.
  103. >But being okay with their son marrying a princess doesn’t quite compare to their daughter dating a monster.
  104. “I can wear my power armor, right?”
  105. >Your princess pulls free of your body – reluctantly, you can tell, but she does it nonetheless.
  106. >”You need to dress appropriately for this, Anon,” she sighs, slinking into the bathroom.
  107. “It’s the traditional dress of my people!”
  108. >”It’s the warplate of the most bloodthirsty tyrant I’ve ever read about!” she protests from behind the closed door.
  109. “Kinda what I meant!”
  110. >The door flies open, steam billowing around your princess as she thrusts her head through the opening.
  111. >Huh. You didn’t hear a thing.
  112. >Celestia’s plumbing must be top notch.
  113. >Bitch.
  114. >”If you’re going to cause problems, I *will* find a solution,” Twilight threatens, her eyes barely slits. “Got it?”
  115. >Translation from Marefriend Speak: I will fucking murder you and animate the shit out of your rapidly cooling corpse. I’m the goddamn princess of motherfucking magic and necromancy is fucking child’s play to me.
  116. >You resist the temptation to salute – you *like* having all of your parts attached in their natural places.
  117. >But she keeps staring.
  118. >Dimly, you realize that a response of some kind is necessary, so you nod.
  119. >”Good.”
  120. >The door slams behind her, rattling the… you’re not sure exactly what.
  121. >Maybe the entire room?
  122. >No, more than that – the entire wing has fallen silent. You can’t hear any noise from your friends, and you doubt they all managed to pass out at the same time.
  123. >There’s a quiet, timid knock at the door. Reluctant, yet insistent, like a pony who knows they have to find out what’s going on, but who also knows they’ll regret it.
  124. >”Twilight…?” Rainbow Dash calls out softly. “A-anon…?”
  125. “Yeah?”
  126. >”You’re both still alive, right…?”
  127. “Unless I fuck this up.”
  128. >”Fuck what up?”
  129. “Meeting Twilight’s parents.”
  130. >”Oh,” she grunts. “Well, it was nice knowing you.”
  131. >…the hell…!?
  132. >”Just… you know…” Dash continues from the other side of the door without any prompting. “You know…”
  133. >”It’s your special talent!” Pinkie yells. “You can fuck *anything*!”
  134. >”*UP*. Fuck anything *up*,” Fluttershy softly corrects. “Now please shut the fuck up, Pinkie. I have a headache…”
  135. “Gee, thanks for the votes of confidence. Good thing I brought a suit along – hopefully there’ll be enough of me left for you to bury.”
  136. >”Aww, you’ll do just fiiiine, sugercube. Don’t listen none to these idjits.”
  137. >”Yes, everything will go swimmingly! You *did* just say you brought along one of the suits I made you, didn’t you?”
  138. “Sure did, Rarity.”
  139. >She’s sounding surprisingly sober compared to the others, not that you can imagine what a drunken Rarity would sound like.
  140. >You have a sudden desire to know.
  141. >”Of *course* he’ll do fine!” Ponks insists – are all five of them crowded around the door to your suite? “He’s Anon! He can do *anything!*”
  142. >”Damn straight! Hell, he once turned down sex with me! ME!”
  143. >YES! You *knew* you hadn’t banged Dash!
  144. >”That’s… not that hard to do, darling.”
  145. >”Oh, do tell?” Dash asks mockingly. “He’s turned you down, too?”
  146. >”Not… *quite*… what I meant.”
  147. >Damn, they’re even louder than before.
  148. >Even Fluttershy, though she’s not really speaking.
  149. >More of a teakettle’s whine.
  150. >You bounce to your feet and throw the door open – yes, they *are* all gathered around your door, and no, there wasn’t enough room.
  151. >Ponks is standing on Applejack’s back.
  152. >Well.
  153. >Good to know she uses others this way, too, not just you.
  154. >They freeze at your sudden appearance, grinning sheepishly one and all.
  155. >They stare up at you with wide eyes, like deer caught in the headlights of a speeding car… or a filly caught with her hoof in the cookie jar.
  156. >”So…” Aredee’s eyes don’t waver, remaining locked on yours, “… what *did* you mean, Rarity?”
  157. >”Oh, nothing dear. Nothing at all.”
  158. >”Uh-huh…”
  159. >What you wouldn’t give for a broom to shoo them away.
  160. >”Pay them no mind, Anon,” a gentle voice calls out from further down the hall.
  161. >Fuck.
  162. >Sunny Smiles.
  163. >Fucking fuck.
  164. >The bitch is lounging on one of the sofas in the little sitting area in the center of the hall.
  165. >Pinkie Pie looks back at the voice, she seems unperturbed… until her head jerks up to look at the guardponies standing at the end of the hall.
  166. >”It’s the fuzz! Scatter!”
  167. >How did she miss seeing them on the way in?
  168. >And why on earth do the rest listen to her?
  169. >The hallway clears in a flash, leaving you and the cosplayer alone.
  170. >”They’re right, though – everything will be fine,” the mare reassures you, setting aside the book she had been reading. “Twilight Sparkle has a tendency to worry about the littlest details.”
  171. >Three sentences without one vulgarity – must be a record for her
  172. “Yeah. I know.”
  173. >But how does she?
  174. “Don’t suppose you’ve seen Shining Armor yet?”
  175. >She shakes her head.
  176. >”No, I don’t believe he is up.”
  177. >This is starting to weird you out a bit. Enough that you’ve got to ask.
  178. >”Soooo… why aren’t you being a complete bitch?”
  179. >She smirks and glances aside – out of embarrassment, maybe?
  180. >”Am I wearing a costume?”
  181. “No.”
  182. >”Then why would you expect me to be in character?”
  183. “I dunno. I guess, for a while there, you gave me a real strong ‘Celestia’ vibe.”
  184. >”Oh?” Sunny Smiles asks curiously, but you don’t think for a minute that she took it as a compliment.
  185. >Not with the wry smirk she’s wearing.
  186. “Well, she bathes in the blood of innocents, and you bathe in the jizz of –“
  187. >”Actually, I prefer water,” she laughs, “or a bubble bath.”
  188. >She scoots over, making room for you to sit beside her. When you don’t move, she pats the empty space next to her with her hoof.
  189. >”You might be more right than you suspect. Why don’t you sit down so we can have a little chat?”
  190. >You throw yourself into one of the adjacent chairs instead, causing the mare to roll her eyes at you.
  191. “So you’re a bitch, but actually very nice.”
  192. >”You could look at it that way,” she concedes with a tilt of her head. “But what I meant was we are both actresses. When in public, we have our roles to play.”
  193. >Bitch has a point.
  194. >Tia always was… kind.
  195. >When she could be.
  196. “You could have chosen a less objectionable character.”
  197. >”Like who? Kneesocks…!?”
  198. >Sunny Smiles pauses for a second, her eyes glazing over like she’s just realizes she has made some horrible life choices.
  199. >”A-anyway,” she stutters, coming back to reality, “I think you’ll be *much* happier with today’s costume.”
  200. >Sunny grins widely.
  201. >Since when have ponies had canines!?
  202. >Okay, well, yes, they *do,* but not like this.
  203. “Um… most modern vampires tend to be pretty slutty. Might wanna rethink that.”
  204. >”Don’t worry, it won’t be *risqué* in the least,” Sunny reassures you with a wave of her hoof. “Not the way you’re thinking, though you *might* want to wear something that offers some protection.”
  205. >Fuck it.
  206. >Power armor tonight.
  207. >”But that’s a ‘problem’ for later,” she sighs wistfully. “Heh. Problem. As if.”
  208. >She snickers.
  209. >”I am *so* looking forward to tonight!”
  210. >The cosplayer clops her forehooves together excitedly.
  211. >You are definitely wearing the power armor.
  212. >”But like I said, that’s for later.”
  213. >Sunny crawls closer to you on her sofa, resting her chin on its arm.
  214. >”You have other things you’re worrying about.”
  215. >Like being murderaped by an insane pegasus.
  216. >”Sooooooo, what did you want to talk to Shining Armor about?”
  217. >Her eyes sparkle, almost like…
  218. >Okay, there’s no “almost”.
  219. >No poetic simile can do this justice.
  220. >Her eyes are *literally* sparkling.
  221. >”I’m guessing it’s about meeting Twilight Sparkle’s family.”
  222. >No point denying it – besides petty spite, of course – so you nod.
  223. >”Just be yourself.”
  224. “But I’m an asshole.”
  225. >She shakes her head quickly.
  226. >”Only when you want to be. You can also be quite charming when you put your mind to it…”
  227. >You raise an eyebrow – how the hell would she know?
  228. >”I saw the way you juggled your marefriend and her brother last night,” she explains with a shrug, answering your unspoken question.
  229. “This is just getting creepier and creepier, so I’m gonna…”
  230. >You gesture to the door of your suite with your thumb.
  231. >”I’m a friend of the family…” Sunny tells you tauntingly.
  232. “Screwing Shining Armor on the side doesn’t really make you a ‘friend of the family’.”
  233. >Sunny Smiles snorts, convulsing in on herself suddenly.
  234. >”No, certainly not!” she says, doing her best not to laugh. “Oh, that was a good one. But… he’s a bit young for me, don’t you think?”
  235. >You have no clue – as far as you can tell, ponies only have the four real ages – infant, child, adult, and decrepit psycho batshit granny.
  236. >Shining Armor falls somewhere into the *very* broad adult category.
  237. “Yeah, I guess so. A stallion like that needs an energetic young mare that can keep up with him.”
  238. >”Absolutely,” Sunny surprisingly answers. “Somepony young and inexperienced who will find his every fresh discovery exciting, instead of old news. Besides, it just wouldn’t have been appropriate, and you know that.”
  239. >Of course you know that – no relationship with this mare could ever be classified as appropriate.
  240. >”So,” she smirks up at you from her impromptu headrest, “do you want my help or not?”
  241. >You glance behind you, hoping for the tiniest of signs that Shining Armor is awake. Or Cadance. Preferably Cadance, since you’ve actually known her longer and she’ll have the outsiders perspective to share.
  242. >Hell, at this point, you’ll take Spike, but you haven’t seen him since… sometime.
  243. >But no. Nothing.
  244. >Well, maybe she *can* help… maybe… just a little advice.
  245. >You look back to Sunny Smiles – the mare bats her eyelashes at you and grins.
  246. >Nope.
  247. >The pegasus reads your face in a heartbeat, her grin collapsing into an open-mouth look of horror.
  248. >”Really!? You *know* I can help you,” she insists. “I know you’re proud, that you like to do things on your own, but let me –“
  249. “You told me everything would be fine, so why would I need help?”
  250. >”You… you saw through that, did you?” she asks timidly after a moment’s hesitation. “Fine, I just wanted to talk with you. It’s been so long…”
  251. >You push yourself to your feet
  252. “It was last night.”
  253. >Sunny gasps, the noise so loud and sudden and unexpected that you freeze.
  254. >”You don’t recognize me, do you?” she asks, completely dismayed by the obvious facts.
  255. >Bitch is crazier than you thought.
  256. “If you’re implying we met before last night, then no. And believe me, I’d remember.”
  257. >Always pays to remember the crazies, if only so you can avoid them.
  258. “Oh, then be on your way,” she mutters, jerking her head away from you. “Just remember – wear your suit, be yourself, and Twilight Velvet will *probably* be playing bad cop.”
  259. “Yeah, I’ll remember.”
  260. >And do the opposite.
  261. >Ponies love it when others emulate them, right?
  262. >You’re going to breakfast buckfuckinekkid.
  263. >But something in her voice makes you stop.
  264. >Not immediately; you’ve taken four or five steps before it hits you.
  265. >Sunny Smiles cares.
  266. >She actually cares about what happens. She’s not just fucking with you, not trying to hurt your relationship.
  267. >You cast a look over your shoulder to the mare.
  268. “Why does it matter to you?”
  269. >”How could it not?”
  270. >She looks at you out of the corner of her eye.
  271. >Timidly.
  272. >Fearfully.
  273. >”But don’t worry.”
  274. >She offers up a sincere, yet worried, smile.
  275. “I’m not worried.”
  276. >Her smile returns. Just a hint of it, at the corners of her mouth.
  277. >”Can I give you one more piece of advice, Anon?”
  278. >You give her a quick nod – you can always ignore what she says.
  279. >”This is the first time you’ve been in this situation, isn’t it?”
  280. “Well, never did date many farm animals back home… so…”
  281. >You shrug as innocently as possible, drawing a deep sigh from the mare.
  282. >”I am being serious, Anon.”
  283. >You rock back and forth on your heels, mulling it over.
  284. “Yeah, it is.”
  285. >You’ve met other girlfriend’s parents before, but never like this.
  286. >Bumped into them, sure.
  287. >Met them at birthday parties, things like that.
  288. >But this… this feels serious. You aren’t just meeting them, you’re being *introduced*.
  289. >It might just be how Twilight is behaving – or how much you care about her compared to girlfriends past – but this feels important.
  290. >”And you’re worried you’ll make a mistake.”
  291. “Of course.”
  292. >”Then just remember, courage can sometimes make a virtue of inexperience,” Sunny Smiles tells you with a sly smirk. “Know no fear, my brave human.”
  293. “That’s an interesting choice of words.”
  294. >”Isn’t it?”
  295. >You stare at Sunny for a second.
  296. >That satisfied smile, those sayings… something about them…
  297. “Who are you?”
  298. >Maybe you ran into her in a game store? It’s possible you didn’t even notice her if a new toy had your attention.
  299. >Maybe…
  300. >You really have no clue.
  301. >”I thought you knew,” the mare answers softly. “Your teasing was a little too accurate for somepony who didn’t.”
  302. “What teasing? Making fun of you for being a slut?”
  303. >“No, not that,” she says sadly, looking away to reclaim her book in an obvious attempt to avoid your eyes.
  304. >She sighs, fumbling with the book.
  305. >”Not that at all – I don’t regret any of that. I can’t.”
  306. >Bitch.
  307. >“But for whatever came before…”
  308. >Sunny curls in on herself slightly, reminding you of Fluttershy.
  309. >A complete change from the confident mare she was last night.
  310. >Or even earlier in this conversation.
  311. >”I am sorry.”
  312. “Really?”
  313. >Sunny Smiles looks up hopefully, but the expression sours as she sees yours.
  314. >Sees your anger.
  315. “Sorry for what?”
  316. >“For – for –“
  317. >Her stammering mouth is framed by trembling lips.
  318. >”For nothing,” she sighs suddenly. “Nevermind.”
  319. >You didn’t really expect an answer, and if the mare had one, you wouldn’t have trusted it anyway.
  320. >Like she said, she’s an actress.
  321. “That’s what I thought.”
  322. >You turn your back to the mare – a ballsy move, if you do say so yourself.
  323. >If Sunny Smiles *is* anything like Celestia, she’s got a knife waiting for just this moment.
  324. “I’m going to get ready for my thing.”
  325. >Dumbass, don’t taunt the beast!
  326. >If there’s a sudden pain between your shoulder blades, you deserve it.
  327. “Why don’t you just lay there and… iono… think about things.”
  328. >Cue her storming off in…
  329. >Three…
  330. >Two…
  331. >…
  332. >Huh.
  333. >You don’t hear anything.
  334. >Well, somepony has to storm off, and if it’s not going to be her…
  335. “Twi, I hope you’re out of the shower! I’d like a chance to clean up, too!”
  336. >There’s a muffled shout from the interior of your room.
  337. >Maybe that’s a yes?
  338. >If not, fuck it, Twi *said* the tubs here are big enough for you to share.
  339. >You should probably take her up on that, instead of wasting time out here with Sunny smiles.
  340. >And you really should clean up for breakfast; you want to make the best impression you can.
  341. >Sunny doesn’t make a peep as you walk away. The only sounds are your steps and the door squeaking open.
  342. >Only then do you hear a soft voice cry out.
  343. >”Sister! Why are you crying?”
  344. >You kick the door shut before you can hear an answer.
  345. >It’s not your fault Sunny is a bitch.
  346. >The shower is still running and there’s no sign of Twi, but you’re already stripping off the clothes you slept in.
  347. >You give the door to the bathroom a light push – you don’t want to barge in on her without warning, after all.
  348. >That’s a good way to get yourself hurt.
  349. ”Twilight?”
  350. >”What took you so long? Get in here!”
  351. “Maybe it was the threat of bodily violence?”
  352. >You step into the steam-filled room. It’s not quite blinding, but near enough.
  353. >Because – of course – Celestia’s castle would have scalding hot water, but no ventilation.
  354. >You can’t see Twilight – well, you probably can – but there’s a lot of purple in this room, and you’re not sure which blur of color is her.
  355. >”I never threatened you,” Twilight gasps, aghast at your accusation. “No, all I said was that if you caused problems, I would solve them.”
  356. >Ah, movement!
  357. >Your shin bashes into the edge of the tub with more force than is entirely comfortable – hadn’t expected that there.
  358. >Ow.
  359. “Yeah, and that kinda sounded like a threat, Twily.”
  360. >”What!? Of course it wasn’t!”
  361. >Her nose comes through the mist to bump angrily against your abdomen.
  362. >Godsdamn horn to the solar plexus.
  363. >A shower is NOT supposed to be this painful.
  364. >You haven’t even gotten into the tub yet!
  365. “Twi?”
  366. >”Yeah…?”
  367. “Could you maybe pay attention to where you’re sticking that face-spike?”
  368. >Her eyes swivel up abruptly.
  369. >Up?
  370. >She was looking down?
  371. >Huh.
  372. >”Oh!” your princess gasps, pulling back suddenly. “Sorry!”
  373. >She giggles nervously as you brush aside the pink shower curtain and step into the tub.
  374. >Ah, this feels nice.
  375. >Kind of.
  376. >For the lower half to two-thirds of your body.
  377. >Shower head isn’t at exactly the right height for something like you… and it’s weird that the ones in Twilight’s castle are, come to think of it.
  378. >You nudge your princess aside with one knee and sink down to the bottom of the tub, putting your head more-or-less equal with your marefriend’s.
  379. >Now *that* feels good.
  380. >”Sorry,” Twilight repeats, nuzzling your face gently.
  381. “S’ok, you’re just nervous.”
  382. >”You know…”
  383. >She looks down again.
  384. >Yep.
  385. >That’s what she’s doin’.
  386. >”… studies show that orgasms can reduce stress and anxiety…”
  387. “Uh-huh.”
  388. >”… the chemicals it releases in the brain can –”
  389. “Really?”
  390. >”It’s what the studies say. Their findings were *very* detailed.”
  391. >Just who funded this study and why…?
  392. >You lunge forward to kiss her nose.
  393. “Are you sure you weren’t reading pseudo-scientific smut?”
  394. >”Oh no, definitely not!” Twilight insists before pressing her mouth against yours for a quick kiss. “Every peer review has been able to duplicate the results!”
  395. “Huh.”
  396. >”So…”
  397. >She flutters her eyelashes at you seductively.
  398. >”What do you have to say about that…?”
  399. “I say it’s a damn shame you didn’t bring it up earlier.”
  400. >You sigh theatrically.
  401. “We just don’t have time now. Gods know I want to, but…”
  402. >You have no idea when you’re supposed to be wherever it is you’re supposed to be, but it’s a good bet it’s soon, going by the way she was panicking earlier.
  403. >Despite lil’ Anon’s eagerness – and your own – it’s probably better you don’t fool around.
  404. >This way, if things go south...
  405. >… well…
  406. >… obviously the two of you should be intimate more often.
  407. >”I guess not,” Twilight reluctantly agrees. “Not for *you*, but…”
  408. >She grins hopefully.
  409. “It’ll take you a while to do your mane, won’t it? I hope we’re not late.”
  410. >You’re an asshole.
  411. >With a disappointed sigh, she jumps out of the tub.
  412. >You’re going to ponyhell.
  413. >Not for what you said, but because you slap her ass before the shower curtain can fall shut.
  414. >You lean back against the edge of the tub, closing your eyes and enjoying the feeling of the hot water raining down on –
  415. >The rustling of the shower curtain causes your eyes to snap back open – a little purple snout pokes over the edge of the tub.
  416. >”Is – is it because I’m in a pony body…?” she whines piteously. “B-because, I can –“
  417. “What!? No!”
  418. >Only then do you notice the slight curve of her mouth.
  419. >And then Twilight sticks out her tongue.
  420. >…
  421. >At least you’re both going to ponyhell together.
  422. >She pulls away, letting the curtain fall back to seal you in.
  423. >”Don’t take too long,” Twilight cautions. “You were right –“
  424. >You’re always right.
  425. >” – we don’t have much time, and you still have to get dressed.”
  426. >You can vaguely see her through the fabric – an indistinct purple shape dancing around doing… doing…
  427. >Fuck, you never knew what human women spent all their time doing. No way will you ever understand ponies – they don’t even wear makeup!
  428. >Usually.
  429. >Maybe…?
  430. >You should probably pay more attention to these things.
  431. >Nah.
  432. >If it was important, there’d be a Bn’B supplement on it.
  433. >You feel yourself slipping away – a sudden and unexpected nod of your head as gravity takes hold is your sign to get out.
  434. >This is not the time for sleep, you!
  435. >Still, you take your time turning off the tap and crawling out of the tub.
  436. >Twilight is already gone from the bathroom – whatever necessary preparations she had took less time than you expected.
  437. >Good, you guess.
  438. >You really can’t imagine your Twilight wearing makeup.
  439. >Kinda silly for ponies in general – oh, it *is* done, but you don’t really get the how or why – but it would be particularly silly for your princess.
  440. >She’s perfect just the way she is.
  441. >The steam still obscures most of the room, but somehow you find a dry towel and wipe yourself off.
  442. >”Almost done in there?”
  443. “Yeah.”
  444. >Twi left the bathroom door ajar – all it takes is a slight nudge and it swings wide open. She’s already dug your suit out of your things and laid it out on the bed – and ironed it.
  445. >Or whatever the magical term is for whatever she magically did to get rid of the wrinkles.
  446. >And you know she did something, because it was not that flat when you packed it, and a few days in your suitcases couldn’t have done it any favors.
  447. >Huh.
  448. >For the first time, you realize that Twi might actually be good wife material.
  449. >She is, of course. Obviously. Always was.
  450. >But this calls to mind an image of her pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen, making dinner for her man.
  451. >And there are so many things wrong with that mental image that you can’t help but laugh.
  452. >”What? Is there something wrong with my dress!?”
  453. >Twilight twists around like a dog chasing its tail, desperately trying to examine the sundress she’s wearing.
  454. >Though honestly, you have no idea if that *is* a sundress.
  455. >Kinda beyond your scope of knowledge.
  456. >Do ponies even *have* sundresses?
  457. >It’s not like you can ask and still maintain the illusion you know everything.
  458. >Whatever. It looks like what you imagine a sundress looks like.
  459. “No, it’s great.”
  460. >”Oh.”
  461. >She stops spinning and looks up at you.
  462. >”Really?”
  463. “Yeah.”
  464. >”Then what –“
  465. >You wave a hand at the suit.
  466. “Silly Anon thoughts. You don’t want to know.”
  467. >”Of course I do!”
  468. >Oh gods, she looks so eager, almost standing on her… um… tip-hooves?
  469. “Um, okay then. That looks like pretty casual clothing – won’t I be overdressed wearing the –“
  470. >”Nope!”
  471. “But it’s breakfast!”
  472. >”Most important meal of the day!” she laughs. “All my books say so!”
  473. “Bull – how can the most important meal of the day also be the one with the least amount of alcohol?”
  474. >Twilight winks, her tail swishing back and forth gently.
  475. >”Mimosas.”
  476. “Oh.”
  477. >She crosses over to you, nudging you towards your clothes.
  478. >“Now get dressed and tell me why you were *really* laughing.”
  479. “But –“
  480. >”We’re short on time, so you’ll just have to multitask!”
  481. >You sigh – there’s no point arguing.
  482. >Well, no good point.
  483. >Nothing that wouldn’t come back to bite you.
  484. “It’s… cultural. Could I have some time to think about how to explain it?”
  485. >You really doubt the “barefoot, pregnant housewife” stereotype is a thing here in Equestria.
  486. >Partially because ponies are practically always barefoot, partially because of the matriarchy would never allow it.
  487. >Also a lot of your old stereotypes don’t seem to fit here.
  488. >For example, zebras suck at basketball.
  489. >”Nuh-uh,” Twilight answers adamantly.
  490. >Though her head jerks from side to side, it does so with… well… it’s a little too stiff to be called grace.
  491. >Caution, perhaps.
  492. >Your little princess is doing her best to not muss her mane.
  493. >”Stop trying to get out of it,” your marefriend grumbles. “You’re hoping I’ll forget about it.”
  494. “That hurts.”
  495. >You tap your chest lightly.
  496. “It hurts right here.”
  497. >With a sigh, you turn away and snatch up the boxers Twi had set out for you.
  498. “It’s *true*, but it still hurts.”
  499. >”Darn. Now talk.”
  500. “Um…”
  501. >Getting dressed is an excuse to stall for only so long, but you milk it for all it’s worth.
  502. >It buys you several seconds.
  503. “Well… I was just thinking… you’re a lot better at this stuff than I expected…”
  504. >”Should I be insulted? I feel like I should be insulted.”
  505. “Only if the phrase ‘barehoofed and pregnant in the kitchen’ means anything to you…”
  506. >Please, no.
  507. >”Oh!”
  508. >Twilight giggles guiltily.
  509. >Is she blushing?
  510. >She’s blushing!
  511. >”So, you’re saying you think I’d make a great broodmare…?”
  512. >That must be their word for housewife.
  513. >Your princess fidgets nervously.
  514. >Despite her obvious – and unexpected – happiness at your words, something feels off.
  515. >And if YOU notice it…
  516. >You tug on your jacket to stall for more time.
  517. >… it’s probably wrong.
  518. “I… guess so…?”
  519. >Just in case, time for some damage control.
  520. “I mean, you’d probably be an amazing mother.”
  521. >That brings another little giggle from your princess.
  522. >”I hope so.”
  523. >The thought brings a smile to your face – of course little miss perfect would want to be the best mother possible.
  524. >She always wants to be the best *anything* she can be.
  525. >And she does like to please you.
  526. >Something about this has her tickled, that’s for sure.
  527. >You don’t like the way she’s biting her lip. Well, actually, you *love* it, but it’s a little worrisome.
  528. “We should probably get going, right?”
  529.  
  530. >It’s a short walk to the restaurant you’re meeting Twilight’s parents at.
  531. >You expected Shining Armor and Cadance to join you, but Twilight’s hammering only brought a muffled shout.
  532. >”Go on without us!” the princess had yelled.
  533. >No explanation, no estimate.
  534. >With a shared glance, you both shrugged and headed on.
  535. >And now the restaurant is in sight.
  536. >Maybe you aren’t so overdressed – it looks… expensive.
  537. >A grey mare and blue stallion wave from the patio as you approach.
  538. “Twilight Velvet and Night Light, right…?”
  539. >Your marefriend nods at your hushed whisper.
  540. >And Velvet will be playing bad cop, if Sunny wasn’t full of shit.
  541. >So she’ll probably be the nice one.
  542. >Twilight leads you right past the hostess, heading straight for her family.
  543. >Night Light – that is her *father’s* name, right? Damn ponies and their frequently gender-ambiguous names. Anyway, Night Light is waving the two of you over eagerly, but his wife’s face is somewhat less… enthusiastic.
  544. >”Honey, we were so excited to hear you were bringing your special somepony to visit,” Twilight Velvet says in the ominous tone of disappointed parents everywhere, “but this is… not what we expected.”
  545. “Yeah, I’m pretty awesome, aren’t I?”
  546. >You pull Twilight’s – *your* Twilight’s – stool back for her to sit.
  547. >Probably not necessary, you realize seconds too late.
  548. >Should have asked about proper Equestrian dining etiquette, but no chance now.
  549. >”What I meant was…” Twilight’s mother pauses – it looks almost painful, the way she has to wrack her brain for a polite way to state the obvious. “You – you aren’t a unicorn.”
  550. >Your hands fly up to your forehead, feeling around frantically.
  551. “What? Oh crap, my horn is gone!”
  552. >Truth be told, etiquette lessons wouldn’t have done you any good.
  553. >The stallion sitting opposite you smiles – *he* appreciates your humor. Or is fantasizing about slashing your throat.
  554. >Hopefully the former.
  555. >”Well dear,” Night Light chuckles, poking his wife with a knee, “you must admit that his personality is certainly a good match for our daughter’s.”
  556. >”I’m sorry Shiny and Cadance aren’t here,” Twilight blurts out before her mother can respond. “Something came up and they –“
  557. >”And Shining Armor is slacking off again,” Night Light answers with a shrug. “He’s a grown stallion, Twily – you don’t have to cover for him. You’ve always been the more –“
  558. >He leans closer to his wife.
  559. >” – RESPONSIBLE of our children.”
  560. >Twilight Velvet rolls her eyes at her husband’s exaggerated eyebrow wiggling.
  561. >”Yes, yes, I get it,” she huffs, gently yet firmly pushing him back. “You don’t think our daughter is throwing her life away.”
  562. >Wow.
  563. >You’re not sure what’s more surprising – Night Light going to bat for you immediately, or that Sunny Smiles was right.
  564. >Shit, that’s almost as disturbing as if Celestia herself gave your relationship her blessing.
  565. >”She may be a prodigy, but she’s still young,” Twilight Velvet reminds her husband, firmly ignoring the two of you sitting there. “Twilight *can* make mistakes.”
  566. >Your marefriend is too busy sputtering indignantly to formulate a coherent response. Luckily the waitress approaches – Velvet may dislike you, but she’s too polite to continue her passive-aggressive attacks in front of outsiders.
  567. >”Still waiting on two more, correct?” she asks, barely waiting for Night Light’s nod. “Would you like me to bring your drinks now?”
  568. >Huh.
  569. >The waitress looks like Lyra. Almost identical, save for the bright green eyes. Even the way she has her mane styled is just like Lyra’s. You can’t see her cutie mark under the skirt she’s wearing, but you wouldn’t be surprised if it was a golden harp.
  570. >Weird.
  571. >It’s not the first time you’ve seen suspiciously similar ponies, but damn.
  572. >This is a little too close.
  573. >She seems to feel your scrutiny – her eyes keep darting over toward you worriedly as Night Light thinks it over.
  574. >”Sure,” he answers her. “But I believe we’re almost ready to order – no sense waiting on our son, since he might never show up.”
  575. >He looks down at his menu and slides it over to you.
  576. >”Care to look over the menu?”
  577. >The waitress squirms nervously as you reach for it.
  578. >”I’m afraid we don’t have much in the way of – of *meat*,” she pre-emptively apologizes. “I’m very sorry, but hopefully –“
  579. >Most ponies have been more than understanding of your omnivorous diet – it’s been your own discomfort more than anything that has kept you from eating meat often. More than the limited availability, even.
  580. “I’m sure I can find something that appeals.”
  581. >You look over the menu quickly as Twilight’s parents rattle off their orders.
  582. >Eating meat around ponies just feels… wrong.
  583. >Fut buck that – they have bacon.
  584. >Bacon.
  585. >BACON.
  586. >MOTHERFUCKING GLORIOUS BACON!
  587. >And of course, eggs.
  588. >And waffles.
  589. >No, only Twilight is allowed to make you waffles.
  590. “Bacon and eggs, please.”
  591. >The waitress blanches, but jots it down on her ticket pad.
  592. >”A-and to drink?”
  593. “Could I get some tea?”
  594. >”Of-of course!”
  595. “Thanks you.”
  596. >You try to give her a reassuring smile, but it’s not very successful.
  597. >The waitress keeps glancing at you, hardly listening to Twilight as she places her order – your poor marefriend has to repeat it twice before the Lyra-doppelganger gets it right.
  598. >Twilight Velvet watches carefully as the waitress trots off with the order, waiting for her to get a suitable distance before continuing her verbal assault.
  599. >”At least *it* didn’t order a cup of blood,” the mare snarks quietly.
  600. >Is she *trying* to provoke you?
  601. “Sorry, I think you’ve mistaken me for a vampire – I drink the same as you.”
  602. >You give her an innocent smile.
  603. “Though probably significantly less.”
  604. >You aren’t the one who ordered a mimosa – and you’re glad to see you probably aren’t the cause of Twilight’s drinking.
  605. >Not entirely.
  606. >You may have been the cause, but she must have learned that coping technique from her mother.
  607. >Grimly, you realize that nopony else is smiling at your little joke.
  608. >Note to self – you aren’t always automatically hilarious to everypony and you should avoid personal attacks in the future if you want to keep Night Light on your side.
  609. >Even Twily is looking a little off, though you can’t tell if she’s horrified by what you said or horrified by what her mother might say back.
  610. >”Mmm, perhaps,” Twilight Velvet answers, with a slight incline of her head.
  611. >Maybe she can be reasonable.
  612. >“Humans and vampires, I *do* always get those two confused. You are *so* alike, after all.”
  613. >Maybe not.
  614. >You keep your mouth shut – odds are that whatever you could say would only make things worse. Unfortunatly, this means you all sit in uncomfortable silence until a waitress – a different one – arrives with your drinks. Coffee for Night Light, hot tea for you, and mimosas for the pair of Twilights, though yours pushes hers away slightly and asks for water.
  615. >Good for her.
  616. >”So…” the stallion starts after he’s taken a sip of his coffee, “how did you two meet, exactly?”
  617. >You give your princess a light nudge – they’re her parents, they’ll be more interested in her version of the story.
  618. >And it’ll probably involve the phrase “and that BITCH” a lot less.
  619. >She looks to you for confirmation – she brought you here to meet her parents, not so that she could just talk about you.
  620. >”Go on, Twilight.”
  621. >Your princess gives you a slight, almost imperceptible nod.
  622. >”It was because of Princess Celestia.“
  623. >That BITCH.
  624. >”She wasn’t able to spend enough time with Anon to properly…”
  625. >Twilight pauses to think about her words for a second.
  626. >That BITCH had said rehabilitation, but that was a lie – you didn’t need rehabilitation.
  627. >She just wanted you to have a babysitter.
  628. >”… to properly acclimate him to our world.”
  629. >She was tired of taking care of you.
  630. >”Just imagine, being thrown into a new world, cut off from your friends and loved ones.”
  631. >She didn’t trust you alone.
  632. >Twilight Velvet sighs, interrupting her daughter.
  633. >”And so, *you* had to take care of this creature?” the mare asks. “Isn’t that… below… somepony of your station? Isn’t it a waste of your time?”
  634. >”Mother, I am the princess of *friendship*,” your marefriend chides, “and he needed a friend. Besides, being with my special somepony is *never* a waste of time.”
  635. >”Oh?” Night Light raises an eyebrow. “I take it you’re quite the reader, too, Anon?”
  636. “It’s one several shared interests. I’m not as avid as your daughter, but lately we’ve been sharing some of our favorites with each other.”
  637. >Twilight nods energetically, bringing a smile to her mother’s face.
  638. >A genuine smile.
  639. >”Well, that’s good,” she says, her features turning stiff when she notices your eyes on her. “But reading the same books is not an ideal thing to base a relationship on. I know this is your first serious coltfriend, Twilight, but can it really last?”
  640. >”We’re getting married.”
  641. >You are!?
  642. >Night Light frowns, but not at you.
  643. >You’re not sure if that makes it any better, knowing that your princess is the cause.
  644. >”And how long have you two been…”
  645. >He pauses until he can find just the right word.
  646. >”… together?”
  647. “For about –“
  648. >”A YEAR!” Twilight blurts out. “Almost a year!”
  649. >You were going to say two weeks – does she really think of it that way?
  650. >Has she always thought of you this way…?
  651. >”A year,” Twilight Velvet mutters curiously. “Really. And you’ve got along perfectly this whole time?”
  652. >”Of course not, mother!” your marefriend answers angrily. “And that’s a *good* thing!”
  653. >It is?
  654. >”We argue, we fight, we hurt each other –“
  655. >Please don’t tell them about the choking, please don’t tell them about the choking – you’re not sure how many times you silently repeat that mantra in the fraction of a second that passes between her last word and the next.
  656. >” – but we’re still *together*,” Twilight says emphatically, to your immeasurable relief, “because we care enough about each other to work through it.”
  657. >Your marefriend’s parents look at you expectantly – almost daring you to contradict their daughter.
  658. “We have had some rough spots –“
  659. >You always left, believing your presence hurt her.
  660. “– but we help each other through them.”
  661. >Twilight tried to drink herself into oblivion, but you came to her rescue.
  662. >You rescued the princess.
  663. >Does that make you –
  664. >”Anon isn’t just my coltfriend,” Twilight tells them – no, not them.
  665. >You.
  666. >“He’s my hero.”
  667. >You are…?
  668. >”He…”
  669. >Twilight grabs your arm, wrapping both forelegs around it and pulling you close.
  670. >”… he saved me when I was in a dark place.”
  671. >Her parents look at you skeptically.
  672. >”Really?” Twilight Velvet asks, her tone leaving no doubt what she thinks the answer *really* is. “And did he create this dark place?”
  673. “Y-“
  674. >”No.” Twilight shakes her head – completely lacking the caution she showed earlier. “I did.”
  675. >”And you’re telling me his love for books saved you from... this…?”
  676. >”His love for *me*,” your Twilight corrects harshly.
  677. >It did… didn’t it…?
  678. “We share more than just reading – we’ve shared a life for the past year.”
  679. >”So, it was love at first sight?” Night Light asks you doubtingly. “Or did you just want to –“
  680. “No, it wasn’t ‘love at first sight’ or any fairytail nonsense like that. She was my new jailer, my new keeper since Celestia had apparently grown tired of me. Why would I fall in love with somepony like that?”
  681. >Twilight squeezes your arm tightly.
  682. “I could barely stand to talk to Twilight, but she didn’t give up. We became friends – and she’s right, I needed friends.”
  683. >”Oh, so you’re just latching on to our daughter because she was nice to you,” Twilight Velvet comments with a groan. “You don’t really love her, you just –“
  684. “No – I have other friends. Friends I made before her.”
  685. >And there’s no way you’d ever fall in love with Dash.
  686. >Ever.
  687. “Friends that are nicer to me than her – sorry, Twi…”
  688. >”No,” she agrees with a little nod, nuzzling your arm. “Fluttershy is the kindest pony I know.”
  689. >Actually, you were thinking about Pinkie Pie, but she doesn’t need to know that.
  690. “But your daughter is the only pony I love. She’s my princess –”
  691. >”She’s everypony’s princess,” Twilight Velvet points out.
  692. “Maybe, but she’s *my* princess.”
  693. >”And you’re her hero,” Night Light says in a curious tone. “This is starting to sound like it *is* a fairytale romance.”
  694. >You shrug – as much as you can shrug with Twilight dragging down your arm. It’s hard to play it casual when your marefriend is latched on like this, but that’s her parents’ problem.
  695. “Maybe to you, but to us it was just life. It was a while before we even realized what happened, that we had fallen for each other.”
  696. >Far too long, really.
  697. “I just – I thought we were just growing closer, becoming better friends.”
  698. >”And I thought he hated me,” your princess adds.
  699. >”Oh?” Twilight Velvet asks flatly. “And what did this creature do to make you think that?”
  700. “I thought she was only putting up with me because Celestia asked her to, because it was her duty. So I tried to stay away, because it’s what I thought Twilight wanted.”
  701. >”I tried to be more like his other friends,” your princess adds, “to change myself to be the pony I thought he could love, not knowing that he already cared about me enough to hurt himself.”
  702. >”Hurt himself?” Twilight Velvet scoffs. “I think you go too far.”
  703. >”No, he punished himself every day.”
  704. >”How?”
  705. “I left.”
  706. >”You… left?” Night Light sounds confused – as if those words mean nothing to him.
  707. >Well, they certainly don’t mean as much to him as they do to you.
  708. >Or to your princess.
  709. >You can feel her tears through the cloth of your sleeve.
  710. “I left. We saw each other nearly every day, and every single time I left, thinking that’s what she wanted. And it hurt her, but not *just* her – I had nothing to go back to but an empty shack. Nothing to do. Nothing that mattered. Nothing that really counted for anything. I thought the only value I had – the only thing I had to contribute – was *leaving* her alone.”
  711. >”Too bad you failed at that,” the grey mare snarls. “You may have made her happy, but long term it would have been far better for her.”
  712. >”Mother!” Twilight shouts, loud enough that some of the restaurant’s other patrons can no longer pretend they aren’t listening. Ponies stare openly, until a harsh look from Night Light reminds them of their meals. “Mother, I didn’t *have* a long term. I’m not exaggerating when I say he saved me.”
  713. >”And what if he leaves again?” the other mare asks pointedly. “Hmm? What then?”
  714. >”He won’t!”
  715. >Twilight squeezes your arm even tighter – you’re having trouble feeling your fingers.
  716. >”He can’t!”
  717. “Where would I go, anyway?”
  718. >”He *promised*.”
  719. >“Promising to stay with you isn’t the same as actually…” Night Light coughs, out of nervousness more than anything “… it isn’t the same as marriage. Are you actually ready to settle down, Anon? You seemed a little… hesitant… when she first said it.”
  720. >You aren’t opposed to the idea – not at all. It’s just… Twilight caught you by surprise. She never brought it up before – not a proposal or even a discussion of the idea. Not even a wistful glance at a bridal boutique. The closest was the talk about having children, but you didn’t think that counted. Not since Twilight was drugged out of her mind.
  721. “Yes, I’m ready.”
  722. >Twilight isn’t the kind of pony to go in for short-term relationships – you knew this from the start. You never thought of this as just a fling, of just a way to get your rocks off until you found a way home. Neither did she.
  723. “I’ve always been ready for this.”
  724. >Of course it never came up.
  725. >There was no reason for the two of you to discuss this.
  726. >It was where everything was leading all along.
  727. >There is no doubt in your mind as you answer your marefriend’s – your future wife’s – father.
  728. “I think you underestimate Twilight – she’s more than just your daughter or a princess. She has it in her to be whatever she wants. To be the *best*.”
  729. >To be your wife, not just your princess.
  730. “I’m ready. Not just for marriage, but for a family. Hopefully one that includes you two.”
  731. >Twilight loves her parents, otherwise she wouldn’t have brought you here to meet them. Despite their attitudes, you can’t cut them out of Twilight’s life.
  732. >You can’t do that to her again, making her give up those she loves because you think it is best.
  733. >That’s not your place, and it certainly wasn’t the right idea last time you did it.
  734. >When you left.
  735. “Hopefully one that –“
  736. >You want children.
  737. >That sudden realization is the first thing to really shock you.
  738. >To truly leave you speechless.
  739. >It takes a slight jostling from Twilight to bring you back.
  740. “Twilight is truly amazing, and hopefully I can match her in this. Anything she puts her mind to, she accomplishes. We both think she would make the perfect broodmare. I can only hope –”
  741. >Her parents’ eyes grow wide – they must have never thought of their daughter actually raising a family. Of course, you never actually thought of getting married.
  742. “ – hope that I –“
  743. >There’s a sharp gasp behind you – so loud and startled that you can’t help but turn. You smile at the sight of those two familiar faces.
  744. “Good morning Cadance, Shining Armor. I’m glad you could join us.”
  745. >They’ll be able to back you up – you can’t imagine two better character witnesses in all of Equestria. But…
  746. >… why is Shining Armor facehoofing?
  747. >A tug from Twilight brings your head back around, but she’s not trying to get your attention – she’s worried.
  748. >About…?
  749. >”It’s – it’s not what you think!” she shouts wide-eyed at her parents, completely ignoring her brother – if she even knows he’s there. “I… um… I used that word earlier as a joke! He doesn’t even know what it means!”
  750. >Maybe it *isn’t* the Equestrian word for housewife.
  751. >Fuck.
  752. >”Don’t cover for him, dear,” Twilight Velvet barks back. “Frankly, it’s more embarrassing that *you* used that word – at least we could expect such things from *it*.”
  753. >Night Light sighs and shakes his head sadly.
  754. >”We were worried that hanging around with a creature like this would be bad for you – you always have been so easily influenced by your friends.”
  755. >He sighs again.
  756. >”Now I see we may have been right to be concerned.”
  757. >The stallion looks at you sadly – you can see the disappointment written clearly across his face.
  758. >You almost had him.
  759. >Almost.
  760. >He was about to give your relationship his blessing.
  761. >If only…
  762. >”What other things have you taught our daughter?”
  763. >How to DM properly is not going to be an acceptable answer here.
  764. “I –“
  765. >You *have* been a bad influence.
  766. >She didn’t used to swear like she does now, didn’t used to drink as much, didn’t used to be – like – like *this*.
  767. >The old Twilight Sparkle, the one you met when Celestia gave up on you, she was more… wholesome.
  768. >Innocent.
  769. “You’re right, I –“
  770. >”Anon has taught her many things, Night Light,” Cadance says, sitting down beside her sister-in-law. “Most importantly, how to love.”
  771. >”That, I think, is part of the problem,” Twilight Velvet snips, leaning forward aggressively. “Who knows what manner of disgusting things he has done to her?”
  772. >With an overly loud grunt, Shining Armor seats himself beside you.
  773. >The round table now feels far too small – you want to pick up your princess and leave. To go somewhere alone, somewhere you can talk.
  774. >It’s not running away.
  775. >To withdraw in disgust is not cowardice.
  776. >You should make your move now, while everypony is distracted by Shining Armor.
  777. >”That’s not what she meant, mom,” the stallion says while your brain tries to calculate escape vectors. “What did Twily ever really care about besides studying and getting good grades?”
  778. >You should be able to clear the fence with a single –
  779. >”That horrid game of yours,” Twilight Velvet answers immediately. “Oh Celestia, do you remember just how much time she wasted on that escapism you introduced her to?”
  780. >Oh no she didn’t.
  781. “Funny you should mention Celestia…”
  782. >You try to share a knowing smile with Twilight, but your marefriend’s head has drooped low. Not that her grip on your arm has loosened any; if anything, she’s pulled herself even closer to you.
  783. “Celestia is the one who created that ‘horrid game.’ Did you know that?”
  784. >Shining Armor chuckles softly; you can only hear it over his parents’ surprised gasps because of how close he is to you.
  785. “But that’s not really important, is it?”
  786. >”Well, actually –“
  787. >Fuck whatever Night Light is about to say.
  788. “What’s important is you disapprove of her spending time in a *game*. And I don’t know why. Even princesses are allowed to have hobbies, so why can’t schoolfillies?”
  789. >It’s not escapism.
  790. >You lean forward as far as you can with Twilight anchoring you down, your free elbow resting on the short table to help you keep your balance.
  791. >Twilight Velvet isn’t the only one here who can act aggressively, and you’re human.
  792. >You have the edge.
  793. >She pales, her face turning almost white as you smile, exposing your teeth.
  794. >Your meat-rending teeth.
  795. >”Well, Twilight should have been focusing on her studies,” Night Light argues, not as affected by your posturing as his wife. “Of course, she’s over it now, so –“
  796. “We play every week.”
  797. >It’s how you started opening up to each other.
  798. >”Dear, you *have* to stop seeing this creature!” Twilight Velvet gasps. “You were over all this – this *nonsense*!”
  799. >”No.”
  800. >Twilight doesn’t look up, not immediately.
  801. >”No, I never stopped playing.”
  802. >Now her head comes up – you know it’s just your imagination, but in it her eyes flare brightly in anger.
  803. >Like a mech that’s just powered up.
  804. >”All Anon did was convince me to stop *hiding* it.”
  805. >Twilight Velvet shakes her head, adamantly denying everything her daughter says.
  806. >”Then you should have at least kept hiding it,” the mare says spitefully. “You were always such a lonely child because –“
  807. >”I have friends, now.”
  808. >Her mother sighs, turning away from the table slightly.
  809. >”Yes, I know. Those five mares from Ponyville, but –“
  810. >”No, others.”
  811. >Twilight Velvet waves a forehoof, as if to shoo away her daughter’s words like they were flies.
  812. >”So?”
  813. >”I met them *because* of Anon, because I stopped hiding my interests,” your princess angrily growls. “Last year at CanterCon –“
  814. >”You were at that dreadful thing!?”
  815. >”It’s why we’re here, mother! *Last year* I avoided all of the events, anything that would bring me into contact with other ponies. I spent the entire time grubbing around in the vendor room, trying to avoid talking to anypony!”
  816. >”And this year?” Night Light asks thoughtfully. “I’m guessing something else happened?”
  817. “This year, she’s an active participant, not just a bystander.”
  818. >On either side of you, both siblings nod seriously.
  819. >”I’m not the same little filly you used to see off to school every day,” Twilight tells her parents, finally letting go of your arm and planting both forehooves on the table. “I was for so long – for too long – but not anymore. Yes, Anon has changed me.”
  820. >She doesn’t pause as she looks up at you lovingly.
  821. >”Little by little every single day I’ve been with him. Every night when I go to bed I’m a different mare than I was when I woke up that morning.”
  822. >She pushes herself up, looming over the table, over her parents, but still has eyes only for you.
  823. >”It’s what we do – what *living* does to us. We change and we learn and we evolve, becoming new ponies. Better ponies.”
  824. >Twilight smiles at you.
  825. >”It’s not because he’s *forced* me to change – he *tried* to change how I ran my games, but I think he’s wrong.”
  826. >Good thing you didn’t claim you’d taught her how to DM properly. Apparently, you still have some work to do on that front.
  827. >”And it’s not because I forced myself to change for him – we’ve learned that doesn’t work.”
  828. >She giggles.
  829. >”That was a disaster, wasn’t it?”
  830. “Yeah. Sorry…”
  831. >”Don’t be. We learned from it, didn’t we?”
  832. >Her kiss takes you by surprise.
  833. >So *that* was why she was standing with her forehooves on the table, to bring her head close to yours.
  834. >”Have some shame!” Twilight Velvet hisses as her daughter’s mouth parts from yours.
  835. >”Why should I have any shame?” your princess asks, sitting back down and wrapping her forelegs around your arm again. “Don’t ask me to hide what I love, not again. Never again.”
  836. >Night Light thinks this over, even as his wife sputters incoherently.
  837. >”And what about you, Anon?” he asks after several moments. “Has Twilight changed you, too?”
  838. “In the best way possible.”
  839. >The stallion tilts his head, motioning for you to continue.
  840. “She gave me purpose.”
  841. >Night Light nods once and looks over to his wife. Something unspoken passes between the two; you’re not sure what, but Twilight Velvet sighs and gives a slight nod of her own.
  842. >”Well, Twilight,” the stallion says guardedly, “it certainly sounds like you’ve grown thanks to him.”
  843. >He nods towards you before continuing.
  844. >”I can’t say I approve of all the ways you’ve changed, but it may – MAY – have been good for you. After all, Shining Armor seems to have gotten somewhere in life...”
  845. >To your left, Shining Armor groans.
  846. >”Could you *please* not bring that up again?” he asks with a roll of his eyes. “We all know Twily was your favorite.”
  847. >Nopony notices – whatever argument they had has been played out so often none of them care.
  848. >”So, does that mean you approve…?” your marefriend asks, her voice full of hope.
  849. >”Tentatively,” Night Light qualifies, taking a sip of his coffee. “We’ll see.”
  850. >Twilight looks to her mother eagerly. Cautiously.
  851. >”No,” Twilight Velvet says with a shake of her head, “but –“
  852. >”Mom!”
  853. >She holds out a hoof to silence her daughter.
  854. >”I can’t approve,” she says, giving no other notice to her daughter’s outburst, “but I’m willing to accept.”
  855. >Twilight gasps, excited beyond words.
  856. >”Truly, don’t take this as approval,” her mother sighs. “I just know I can’t stop you. I couldn’t stop you from playing that game, so what chance do I have of stopping this? I’ll even pretend to be happy about it in public.”
  857. >She sighs again, louder this time.
  858. >”Dammit, I want grandfoals,” she murmers, before sitting up and thrusting a hoof into Shining Armor’s chest, dimpling his suit. “It’s up to you, now.”
  859. >He looks like he’s about to object, but he glances across the table to Cadance before saying anything. Whatever he sees in her face makes him nod.
  860. >Not very convincingly, but enough to satisfy Twilight Velvet.
  861. >”Good,” the mare mutters, snatching up her mimosa and downing the drink in one go. “You aren’t going to drink that, are you dear?”
  862. >Your princess shakes her head and wraps her drink in a purple aura, flying it across the table to her mother.
  863. >”I guess we should get to know you a bit more, but first…” Night Light idly drifts off, waving over the hovering Lyra-ganger. “I could use a bit more coffee, miss.”
  864. >She sets down Twilight’s glass of water, before quickly bobbing her head. You’d almost forgotten about it. Bah, you *had* forgotten about that, until you saw it just now. Either the service here is horrible, or she’s been circling the table, looking for an opening that wouldn’t leave her awkwardly interrupting.
  865. >”Of course,” the mare promptly responds, giving another slight bow. “And another mimosa, miss?”
  866. >Twilight Velvet has already drained the second glass while your attention was on the too-familiar waitress.
  867. >Tactfully done, the way Night Light gets his wife another drink without even acknowledging her problem.
  868. >”And you?”
  869. >”Coffee,” Shining Armor and Cadance answer in unintentional harmony.
  870. >How oddly appropriate.
  871. >The pair glance at each other and laugh.
  872. >You want to hate them for being so perfect, but just can’t.
  873. >Besides, you and Twilight… it’s going better now.
  874. >You’re getting better at this being a couple thing.
  875. >There might be hope for you two after all.
  876. >”And would you like to order now?” the waitress asks as the couple finish wiping away their tears of laughter.
  877. >”No, nothing for me,” Cadance answers with a bizarre smile. “My stomach is full.”
  878. >She gives her husband a none-too-subtle wink as the waitress turns to him.
  879. >”Anything for you, sir?”
  880. >”Waffles.”
  881. >Huh. You didn’t think he’d done anything *too* amazing last night. What did he do to earn waffles?
  882. >”Shouldn’t take long,” the waitress responds, jotting down the order. “I’ll be right back with those drinks.”
  883. >She trots off quickly, probably trying to distance herself before any more drama can erupt.
  884. >”So, Anon,” Night Light begins, leaning on the table and giving you his best welcome-to-the-family smile, “what do you do?”
  885. >Besides his daughter?
  886. >Dick around?
  887. >Fetch quests?
  888. >”He’s an engineer,” Twilight answers quickly.
  889. >”Really!?” your marefriend’s mother exclaims, suddenly interested. “Well, that is… ahem… something interesting –“
  890. “No, not really.”
  891. >You have no clue why Twilight would even say that. It’s ludicrous.
  892. “I –“
  893. >You break off at Twilight Velvet’s disapproving glare, coincidently at the same time your waitress returns with your food. The tray bounces on her back with every high step she takes, but she doesn’t spill a thing.
  894. >Her arrival brings a cease-fire to whatever hostilities were about to begin again, but it is only an armistice and not true peace. Everypony mutters little pleasantries, thanking her for bringing the food, talking about meaningless things. Some to maintain the pretense of a happy family, others – like your princess – eager for a chance to talk without judgement.
  895. >Everypony, but not you.
  896. >You stare at your bacon, like…
  897. >Like…
  898. >This goes beyond words.
  899. >You haven’t seen bacon in a year, let alone smelled it – you take some time to savor the moment before reaching out and lifting a piece towards your mouth.
  900. >It’s… not what you were hoping for.
  901. >No angels sing a heavenly chorus as you take the first bite.
  902. >No sudden parting of the clouds illuminates you in a beam of pure sunlight.
  903. >It’s good, but the experience is not what you expected.
  904. >Perhaps you’ve changed, too.
  905. >Moved on from your world, some.
  906. >Still, you smile in almost-spiritual satisfaction.
  907. >Twilight Velvet falls silent, ignoring her son’s latest words to stare at you ominously.
  908. >She doesn’t even react as Lyra-ganger slides her plate onto the table.
  909. >The waitress curtsies and backs away quickly. She gives you a quick glance as she trots away, looking almost sick.
  910. >No, not you – your meal.
  911. >And with that you realize that Twilight Velvet isn’t the ominous one here – it’s you.
  912. “Sorry –”
  913. >You do your best to give her an apologetic smile.
  914. “ – but I would rather not start off this relationship with lies.”
  915. >”I know what humans eat,” she sighs. “Even though it is –“
  916. “No, I mean I’m not an engineer. I’m a tinkerer. I make toys and gadgets and other purposeless things.”
  917. >It’s been a few weeks, but it’s what you do to pay the bills.
  918. >Did. There’s not really any point to doing it now.
  919. >”You’re wrong,” Twilight says sternly. “How can you even think that?”
  920. “Because they’re worthless here, Twilight. What good is a mechanical grabbing arm when magic exists?”
  921. >To your left, Shining Armor laughs.
  922. >”This, from the stallion that found a use for NPC classes!?”
  923. >His hoof pounds on your back as he continues to chuckle.
  924. >”Not everypony has magic, Anon,” Night Light says slowly, as if mulling it over. “What exactly does this contraption do?”
  925. “It extends your reach, allowing you to pick up objects on high shelves or things like that – but what does it matter? Even Earth Ponies laughed at the idea, and with good reason – I’m the only being in all of Equestria that can use it.”
  926. >You wave a hand in the air for them all to see.
  927. >”Of course they laughed,” your princess tells you. “Why should they take it seriously when you don’t?”
  928. “They *shouldn’t* take it seriously – nopony has hands, so how could they use it?”
  929. >”Spike has hands,” Cadance casually points out as picks up her mug of coffee. “And ponies have mouths. I’m sure you could figure something out if you really wanted to.”
  930. >She takes a victory sip.
  931. >There’s really no other way to describe it.
  932. >”Don’t you think Granny Smith would put something like that to good use?” Twilight asks pointedly. “I’m sure she could.”
  933. >Could find new and unique ways to terrorize you, maybe.
  934. >”And what about that jar opener you made for Apple Bloom?” your marefriend continues to prompt. “Don’t you think everypony could use something like that?”
  935. “It’s just a strap wrench.”
  936. >”A… what?” Twilight Velvet asks curiously. Oh, there’s certainly still signs of hostility, but she seems honestly intrigued now. “A *strap* wrench?”
  937. >Of course they don’t have those here – there was never any need to invent them, what with ponies’ general non-reliance on machinery.
  938. “It’s nothing.“
  939. >If anypony actually *needed* them, surely somepony would have invented it by now.
  940. >”Actually, my telekinesis isn’t all that powerful,” the mare confesses, “and Night Light –“
  941. >The stallion begins nodding, his mouth pressed together in a thin line.
  942. >” – Night Light is getting tired of me asking him to open every single jar.”
  943. >”It could be a handy thing to have around,” Night Light chimes in.
  944. “Maybe… but they’re just meaningless gadgets. Throwing together stuff like that doesn’t make me an engineer.”
  945. >”Not yet,” the stallion smirks, “but you seem to have a different way of thinking. I’m sure somepony could find that invaluable, no matter what you think of your ‘gadgets’.”
  946. >Maybe, but –
  947. >“Everything has a purpose.”
  948. >Somepony behind you is speaking.
  949. >“So the Emperor ordains it.”
  950. >Crap, you recognize that voice.
  951. >You half turn, hoping against hope that you’re wrong.
  952. >But Sunny Smiles is there, living up to her name and giving you another flash of her canines.
  953. >”Make haste, father,” she snarls. Not angrily, but a snarl nonetheless.
  954. >You quickly snap back to face the table.
  955. “I don’t know her.”
  956. >Calmly, oh so calmly, you reach for another piece of bacon.
  957. >Crazy bitch be crazy.
  958. >But at least she’s proven herself to be nicer than Celestia – this is twice you’ve turned your back on her without getting stabbed.
  959. >”Father…?” Night Light asks cautiously. “I didn’t think ponies and humans could… could…”
  960. >”Not normally,” Twilight answers, followed immediately by a squeak as she claps her forehooves over her mouth.
  961. >You see Cadance looking at your marefriend curiously.
  962. >That’s right, Candyass – you and Twilight have done *extensive* testing.
  963. >The pink pony’s nostrails flare and her expression suddenly hardens.
  964. >*EXTENSIVE* testing.
  965. >There’s a sigh from Moonbeam as she pokes her head between you and Shining Armor.
  966. >”My sister may be getting into character a little too early, but she has a point.”
  967. “And what would that be?”
  968. >You don’t look at the mare, focusing on your last piece of bacon and the scattered remnants of the eggs.
  969. >”You are needed at the con.”
  970. >Fuck this.
  971. >You’re wearing your power armor today.
  972. “We’ll get there when we get there. Some things are more important than games.”
  973. >”Indeed,” the mare agrees, dipping her head, “such as family.”
  974. >Thank the stars *one* of them gets it.
  975. >”If only the others understood that,” Sunny growls fiercely in your other ear.
  976. >You turn your head away from the batshit insane mare.
  977. “You’re crazy for putting up with her –”
  978. >You gesture to Sunny Smiles with your thumb.
  979. “– but at least you’re not *as* crazy. I don’t know if I could deal with it if you got as into your character as her.”
  980. >Moonbeam’s face remains flat and impassive.
  981. >”What makes you think I don’t?” she asks, backing away. “Come, sister! If we keep wasting time on your distractions, we will be too late!”
  982. >Huh.
  983. >Whatever.
  984. >You feel you have to watch them leave, lest more bullshit occur.
  985. >Moonbeam is physically hauling Sunny Smiles away now – the white mare has a bizarrely satisfied grin on her face for somepony being dragged away by her hindlegs.
  986. >Huh.
  987. >You turn back to the table and shrug.
  988. “Really, I don’t know them.”
  989. >”I’m not sure anypony really does,” Shining Armor sighs, picking at the last of his waffles.
  990. >From the looks Night Light and Twilight Velvet are exchanging, it might not be a bad idea to escape soon.
  991. >*Before* they can rethink their acceptance of you.
  992. >Time to finish off your meal and get the hell out.
  993. >Wait.
  994. >Where’d the last of your bacon go?
  995. >You must have eaten it without even noticing what you were doing.
  996. >Damn, if you’ve lost your reverence for bacon, then maybe this place *has* changed you. And perhaps not for the better.
  997. >Time to go.
  998. “Hey, Twi.”
  999. >Your marefriend looks up at you – OH GODS.
  1000. >She’s never this messy in private!
  1001. >What the hell, science horse!
  1002. >WHAT.
  1003. >THE.
  1004. >HELL.
  1005. >Anyway, she looks up at you curiously while you struggle to maintain your composure.
  1006. >”Hmm?”
  1007. >Her mouth is still full.
  1008. “Um.”
  1009. >Silly pony.
  1010. “What time is it?”
  1011. >”Hammer Time.”
  1012. >”Adventure Time.”
  1013. >”Miller Time.”
  1014. >Thank you, peanut gallery.
  1015. >Your princess swallows down her food loudly.
  1016. >Ew.
  1017. >”About nine,” she answers from a brief glance at a nearby shadow.
  1018. “Isn’t it time for that seminar you wanted to go to?”
  1019. >”Oh!”
  1020. >Her eyes twinkle excitedly at the non-reminder.
  1021. >Dammit, it was just supposed to be a hint you wanted to leave!
  1022. >”The one about railroads? Or was it the one about falling rocks?”
  1023. >There might be a hint of a smile on her face, but it’s hard to tell beneath the breakfast carnage.
  1024. >Hint heard and received.
  1025. >”Railroads?” Twilight Velvet mumbles. “Somehow I suspect this has nothing to do with engineering.”
  1026. >”You’re absolutely right, mom,” Shining Armor answers for your marefriend, as she is too busy wiping off her face to respond. “It’s a gaming thing.”
  1027. >”I was afraid of that,” the mare sighs into her mimosa. “You two have fun at that.”
  1028.  
  1029. >Cadance and Shining Armor stay behind as you rush off, though rushing off implies that you were in a hurry. Not quite. Not to get anywhere.
  1030. >Just to leave.
  1031. >Certainly not to get to the con, not if Sunny and Moonbeam are already there.
  1032. >You’re not letting them scare you away, but... quality time alone with Twilight is nice.
  1033. >She picks up on it, leading you on a slight detour.
  1034. >You don’t bother keeping track of where your princess is leading you, happy enough to just be with her.
  1035. >”Still hungry?” she asks, turning another corner with you following half a step behind.
  1036. “A little. My meal wasn’t quite as satisfying as I expected.”
  1037. >”Yeah, I can imagine.”
  1038. >Her mane bounces as her head bobbles left and right, checking for cross traffic before leading you across the intersection.
  1039. >”Honestly, I’m a little surprised you let her get away with that.”
  1040. >Twilight practically prances across the street, the hem of her dress jumping with each high step.
  1041. “Your mother?”
  1042. >”Not her – of course you let her get away with what *she* did –“
  1043. >The next step is particularly high, intentionally jiggling her rump to remind you why.
  1044. >”I meant Sunny.”
  1045. “Oh gods, yes. Why did she have to show up? Why did she even show up?”
  1046. >Your palm meets your face with a dull slap.
  1047. “How did she even know where we were!?”
  1048. >”And why did she eat your last piece of bacon?” Twilight asks with a smile.
  1049. >That BITCH.
  1050. “Probably because she has a deathwish.”
  1051. >How good will it feel to wrap your armored gauntlet around her neck, watching her panic as the talons begin to cut into her flesh?
  1052. >To know that she is completely at your mercy?
  1053. >You’ll never know.
  1054. >Damn beta tendencies.
  1055. >”Would a donut make up for it?”
  1056. “No.”
  1057. >You kick a pebble, sending it skittering across the sidewalk to bounce off a wall.
  1058. “Yes.”
  1059. >”Good,” Twilight laughs, walking through the open doorway. “I always used to come here when I was feeling down. In fact, after my first Grand Galloping Galla –“
  1060. >You look up from the blue and white checkerboard floor, finally noticing where Twilight has led you.
  1061. “Is this *the* donut bar?”
  1062. >”Mhm!”
  1063. >You’d heard legends and myths, but damned if you don’t believe them to be true at this very moment. After all, what kind of donut shop has gothic windows!? Shit, a few more rivets (and a ton more skulls) and this place would start to look a little Imperial.
  1064. >”Oh hey, Twilight Sparkle!” the stallion behind the counter calls out. “Haven’t seen you in a while, what brings you in?”
  1065. >She flips a hoof towards you.
  1066. >”Coltfriend just met the parents.”
  1067. >”Ouch. I’m guessing extra sprinkles for ya both?”
  1068. “Yes, please.”
  1069.  
  1070. >It was huge.
  1071. >Simply huge.
  1072. >Took both of your hands to hold that beast of a donut as Twilight led you back to the royal castle, and you’re *still* licking your fingers clean.
  1073. >True to form, your marefriend is bouncing down the hallways with sprinkles dotting her cheeks – you want to wipe them off, but this isn’t an anime and those aren’t grains of rice.
  1074. >A couple of the guards lose their Cool check as she passes, their normally impassive blank stare cracking into smiles. Mostly the older ones, you notice. The ones that might have been serving back when Twi was studying directly under Celestia.
  1075. >”It’s nice to see you smiling like that again,” one of them whispers to her, confirming your theory. Twilight dips her head, acknowledging the guard without drawing any more attention to his breach of etiquette. If Celestia ever found out he was still capable of independent thought, she’d probably have him gelded.
  1076. >Some of your friends have risen – they are gathered around the little sitting area as you both enter the wing. Others have just arrived and are showing off their new loot.
  1077. >”Oh, wow!”
  1078. >”Yeah, pretty cool, isn’t it Rainbow Dash?”
  1079. >Lyra grins as she holds up the statue of a pegasus wizard for everypony to see. Looks like it came right off the cover of third edition Bn’B’s player’s handbook, if you’re remembering it right.
  1080. >”Can you believe it was only 200 bits?”
  1081. >”ONLY!?” Dash shouts. “That’s… almost 100 mugs of cider!”
  1082. >The mint pony shrugs and grins, putting it back on the coffee table.
  1083. >”Well, yeah, but for that kind of quality… I mean, did you *see* the pendant?”
  1084. >She points to statue’s neck.
  1085. >”Each link in the chain was individually sculpted.”
  1086. >”But still, that does seem like an awful lot,” Fluttershy murmurs. The little pegasus is holding a cup of coffee with both forehooves – you can tell even from the distance that it’s not hot, and hasn’t been for a while. From the looks of her, she needs water anyway – she’s not tired, she’s hungover.
  1087. >Lyra shrugs again.
  1088. “Particularly for a mostly-unemployed musician who can’t even make rent on her own.”
  1089. >She turns at your voice, her smile telling you she hadn’t even heard your words.
  1090. >”I… came into some money recently.”
  1091. >Or maybe she had.
  1092. >”Working as a waitress downtown?” Twilight asks with a giggle. “I swear we saw your twin when we met my parents for breakfast.”
  1093. >”Um, no,” Lyra grunts. “Uh… you know you have sprinkles all over your face, right?”
  1094. >Your marefriend freezes mid-bounce, her eyes growing wide.
  1095. >”I do…?”
  1096. “Mhm.”
  1097. >Impossibly, her eyes grow even wider.
  1098. >”Berightback!”
  1099. >BAMPFH.
  1100. >Twilight disappears in a flash of purple light, leaving you alone with the three mares. Probably into your bathroom to clean herself.
  1101. >”Um, Anon…?” Fluttershy weakly asks as you sit down beside her, a little yellow hoof tugging on your trouser leg. “You haven’t seen Trixie, have you?”
  1102. “Not since the game last night. Have you asked Pinkie Pie? Maybe she decided to go to their thing after all. Or maybe…”
  1103. >You lean forward to examine Lyra’s new toys.
  1104. >Damn, that *is* quality.
  1105. >Worth every bit.
  1106. >*If* she had the bits for it.
  1107. >”Maybe Lyra sold her to a prostitution ring.
  1108. >Fluttershy squeaks in abject horror – you expected that reaction.
  1109. >You didn’t expect Aredee to throw her forehooves into the air and scream.
  1110. >”WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT!?” she howls into the sky. “I TOTALLY COULD HAVE GOTTEN… that… um… nevermind.”
  1111. “Yeaaaah… too late now.”
  1112. >”No.” Lyra rolls her eyes at you. “I wouldn’t do anything *that* bad.”
  1113. >So it was bad, whatever she did to earn those bits.
  1114. “How bad was it?”
  1115. >She shrugs, hoping that will deflect your question, but as you stare at her in silence, she eventually cracks.
  1116. >”Bad enough I don’t want my parents finding out.”
  1117. >”Oooh!” Dash thrusts a hoof into the air, like a schoolfilly waiting to be called on. “Stripping?”
  1118. >”No.”
  1119. The unicorn dances from side to side, suddenly nervous.
  1120. “Finally letting Bon Bon be your sugarmomma?”
  1121. >”What!? NO! Look, it’s not really important, okay?”
  1122. >”Rent out your appearance to a changeling…?” Fluttershy asks softly, though she’s not really paying attention – her eyes are locked on the hall’s entry.
  1123. “Wouldn’t that be illegal?”
  1124. >”No, most of them just want to live peacefully,” Lyra sighs. “Besides, ponies aren’t the only ones wanting to attend CanterCon. I figure, nopony gets hurt – in fact, I’m helping them out and they’re helping me out, so it’s all good, right?”
  1125. "Um, no. Probably not."
  1126. >They *did* try to take over Canterlot, and you can't really imagine Celestia holding less of a grudge towards them than she does for you. It's not like you hurt anypony, after all.
  1127. >From what you heard, the princess didn't even put up a fight against Chrysalis.
  1128. >She's not just going to let a threat like this roam free.
  1129. "Dont - just -"
  1130. >You sigh loud enough to pull Fluttershy's head your direction for a moment, but she goes back to staring forelornly at the entryway almost immediatly. That's fine, it wasn't for *her* benefit.
  1131. "Don't let Celestia find out, okay?"
  1132. >Lyra tilts her head to one side questioningly.
  1133. "That bitch holds a grudge."
  1134. >"Anon, you can't say that," Fluttershy mutters, barely putting any outrage into the words. It's there, but only a token presence. Almost mockingly, really. Anypony else, and you'd suspect it was intentional, but not from her.
  1135. >She's really worried about Trixie.
  1136. "Don't worry, Flutterbutt."
  1137. >Again, she glances to you with her huge sad puppydog eyes.
  1138. >"Are - are you sure...?"
  1139. "Trix can take care of herself. She's a big filly."
  1140. >You resist the urge to ruffle her mane - it's easy, mostly because what you said is true. You don't think there's any reason to worry about the magician - she's been on her own for too long, been self-reliant for too long.
  1141. >There's a far more pressing matter at hand right now - just how likely is it you're about to live through another Changling coup.
  1142. >Or die in one.
  1143. >Preferably, you can avoid that.
  1144. "SO. Lyra. Have you done this before?"
  1145. >Maybe Flutters is right - changelings *can't* be Always Chaotic Evil.
  1146. >Not even Drow actually pulled that off in their own original setting.
  1147. >"Well..."
  1148. >Lyra grins smugly.
  1149. >You don't like that look.
  1150. >Not now.
  1151. >Not when serious shit may possibly be on the line.
  1152. >"How many times have you actually seen me play an instrument?"
  1153. "Good point."
  1154. >But not exactly what you wanted to hear.
  1155. >It's definitely shaping up to be a power armor kind of day.
  1156. "Well, I better start getting ready for the con - I'm guessing you mares will be following much later?"
  1157. >"Yeah, energy drinks can't keep me going *forever*," Aredee yawns, her legs stretching out and almost throwing her off balance - only a quick beat from her wings stops her from tumbling backwards.
  1158. "I was thinking of Lyra, but..."
  1159. >"We got back before her, but I haven't been to sleep yet."
  1160. >Now she leans forward far enough to fall off her seat, stretching out like a cat with her plot up in the air.
  1161. >"Had to test out some new acquisitions," she explains as soon as she can speak again. "You missed one hell of a game."
  1162. >She begins to saunter off, wobbling with the unsteady gate of somepony too exhausted to deal with unnecessary niceties like "staying upright" or "not walking facefirst into walls."
  1163. >"One hell of a game," she repeats mindlessly.
  1164. >"And a couple *really* shitty ones."
  1165. >The blue mare stumbles as her head swings around.
  1166. >"Hey! Fluttershy, they were only two bits each," Dash slurs. "Whadja expect!?"
  1167. >"They. Were. Two. Bits," the mare at your side grumbles. "What did *you* expect?"
  1168. >"I thought anything made by a company named Cheapdonkey Games would be HILARIOUS!"
  1169. >Fluttershy's pink mane waves gently as she shakes her head in disbelief.
  1170. >"Oh, Celestia," she swears, "You *can't* say things like that!"
  1171. >"Bite me, Fluttershy," Dash growls harshly, her muzzle wrinkled in a vicious sneer. "It's the name of the company."
  1172. >Ouch. You just heard her, but it's still hard to imagine the Element of Loyalty talking to one of her friends like that.
  1173. >Even Lyra must think so, the usually talkative pony at a loss for words now.
  1174. >"You're tired, Dash," Fluttershy responds loudly. "You should probably go to bed."
  1175. >Time to suit up.
  1176. >You stand quickly - the rebounding cushions almost throwing Fluttershy off balance. As she teeters, you grab her around her midsection and swiftly haul her off the sofa.
  1177. "You too - you can't stay up forever waiting for Trix to come back."
  1178. >The pegasus struggles, her forehooves batter lightly at your arms and her wings flapping wildly. The hooves are no problem, but you're careful to avoid the wings.
  1179. >Once was enough.
  1180. >But you can't just leave them out here - it *never* ends well when Fluttershy starts to grow a spine.
  1181. >Never.
  1182. "See you at the Bn'B event, Aredee?"
  1183. >"Should see me a lot sooner," your friend answers. "Don't you remember that thing Twi had scheduled?"
  1184. "Which thing?"
  1185. >"You know. The one. With the stuff."
  1186. "Well, Twilight had -"
  1187. >You duck a spasming wing.
  1188. "- had a lot of things planned, too much. We decided to be a little more spontanious."
  1189. >"What the heck! I *really* wanted to go to that thing!"
  1190. "But you don't remember what it was?"
  1191. >"Well, no. Why should I, when Twilight has everything written down in triplicate.
  1192. >In triplicate... right.
  1193. >The backup copy in your room - maybe you should actually give it a look after all.
  1194. "I'll see if we can figure it out. Go get some sleep."
  1195. >She gives you a weary nod - or she slips out of the awake world long enough for gravity to bring her head perilously close to the floor.
  1196. >"Sure thing."
  1197. >Dash slumps off to her room, her tail drooping low enough to drag across the floor. She had more energy just minutes before – must have crashed off her energy drink high.
  1198. >”Just… lemme get some sleep,” she mumbles, nudging open the door with her nose. “Then we can talk about whatever is you want me to do.”
  1199. “Uh, okay. Enjoy your nap.”
  1200. >The mare in your arms is already asleep – all that flailing must have tuckered Fluttershy out.
  1201. >And all the worrying.
  1202. >Poor little filly must be emotionally exhausted, too.
  1203. “Hey, Lyra? I’ll be right back. Just – just – do whatever you want.”
  1204. >It’s not your kingdom – it’s not your problem. Fuck, it’s not even your species the changelings are dicking with – for all you know, they might not be able to impersonate humans.
  1205. >”Uh, yeah. Sure thing, buddy.”
  1206. >She sounds oddly subdued, a far cry from her usual wide-eyed, cheery slacker you call your friend.
  1207. >Must be crashing, too. She *has* had a long night.
  1208. >Maybe she’ll be asleep when you get back. That would probably be for the best. Everyone likes to think they’re the hero of their own story, and you’re no exception, but would dealing with the changeling invasion even be a part of your story?
  1209. >No, probably not.
  1210. >Fluttershy hangs from your arms like a limp sack of fluff, even lighter than Pinkie Pie thanks to her pegasus physiology.
  1211. >Because of that, you could probably use her as your primary weapon in a pillow fight and nopony would object, least of all her.
  1212. >You’re going to hell.
  1213. >The door to Fluttershy’s room is ajar – good, since it would probably be hard to open it otherwise. Hands *are* kinda full right now. She might not weight much, but she’s got the same volume as pretty much any other adult pony.
  1214. >Huh.
  1215. >Only one bed.
  1216. >Huh.
  1217. >Nope, no other bed hidden in a weird corner. No futon. Nothing that could be a murphy bed.
  1218. >Nothing.
  1219. >No wonder Trixie didn’t come back last night.
  1220. >You carefully lay Fluttershy down on the bed – you don’t want to wake her, after all. She immediately begins fidgeting, rolling around until a forehoof lands on the extra pillow. With a content sigh, she pulls closer, hugging it tight against her chest.
  1221. >Looks like she wanted to be the big spoon.
  1222. >Weird, you never would have taken her for being the dominant one in any relationship.
  1223. >You pull her blanket up to her chin before stepping back out into the hall. The air isn’t particularly chilly, but she just looks too cozy to leave uncovered.
  1224. >Unexpectedly, Lyra is still sitting out there.
  1225. >”They just want to live their lives, Anon,” she says, obviously returning to your previous conversation. Something about it must have struck her hard. “They’re no threat to anypony, least of all the princesses.
  1226. “Good.”
  1227. >No one’s allowed to cast that bitch off her throne but you.
  1228. >”It’s actually pretty common, just nopony talks about it,” the unicorn murmurs. “Haven’t you every looked at a crowd and seen the same pony three or four times?”
  1229. “Well, yeah, but honestly? You all kinda look alike.”
  1230. >Worse than Asians.
  1231. >”Usually they’ll make a few changes – add wings, loose the horn, different cutie mark. Stuff like that.”
  1232. “Uh-huh.”
  1233. >”Heck, I once even saw an alicorn me.”
  1234. “Fine, I get it. I won’t bring it up again.”
  1235. >”It makes it easier for them to… feed.”
  1236. "Of course it would - nopony would know who they are."
  1237. >"Do you really think I'm *that* stupid?" Lyra groans, waving a hoof around semi-hysterically. "They *can* feed passively, you know!"
  1238. >No, not really.
  1239. "Of course, but..."
  1240. >You leave the sentence hanging, hoping she'll finish it for you and explain this a bit.
  1241. >Lyra doesn't take the bait, staring at you expectantly - looking for understanding, for absolution.
  1242. >So you raise one eyebrow. Just slightly. Just enough.
  1243. >"That's why they stick to crowds!" she blurts out quickly. "It's the only way they can feed passively without starving!"
  1244. "Usually crowds where everypony is happy and excited."
  1245. >Lyra nods quickly. Well, at least you figured it out fast enough - with her unknowing help. Too bad the logical conclusion isn't one you like.
  1246. >You cross your arms - not because you're angry or trying to intimidate your friend. No, you just don't know what to do.
  1247. "CanterCon is crawling with them, isn't it?"
  1248. >"Prob-probably..."
  1249. >Godsdammit.
  1250. "And I'm guessing it's even better if they're the center of everypony's attention?"
  1251. >Your friend nods again, slower this time. Hesitantly.
  1252. >DAMMIT.
  1253. >"But from what they've told me, they don't usually do that," Lyra qualifies. "Too much risk."
  1254. "So, tell me... you follow this con circuit pretty closely, right?"
  1255. >The mare shrugs.
  1256. >"I guess so."
  1257. "Has anypony ever seen Sunny Smiles or Moonbeam outside of a con?"
  1258. >Aaaaand that makes Lyra laugh. Not quite in your face - she's far too short and still slumped in her chair - but that's how it feels.
  1259. >"That wouldn't prove anything!" she snorts. "Changelings aren't *stupid*. What next - are you going to suspect EVERY attention whorse of being a changeling? Seriously, Anon... I mean... who's next? Trixie!?"
  1260. >Dammit, she has a point. A good point. Changelings aren't the only things that feed off love and attention - normal, everyday ponies do too.
  1261. "Is there a way to tell if somepony *is* a changeling?"
  1262. >Lyra shrugs again.
  1263. >"Only if you see two identical ponies standing side by side. If there's some secret, none of my friends have told me."
  1264. >Friends!?
  1265. >Did she just say friends!?
  1266. >"I mean, I probably should call them... clients? Customers? But most of the changelings I've dealt with are really nice - it's a lot easier to be loved if you're nice, after all."
  1267. "But, from what I heard, Chrysalis -"
  1268. >"Got greedy," a regal voice answers from behind you. "She made a mistake."
  1269. >Great. It's that BITCH.
  1270. >"Lyra - it is Lyra, correct...?"
  1271. >The little unicorn in front of you nods rapidly.
  1272. >"Could you give me some time alone with Anon? We need to have a little talk."
  1273. "I have a con to get ready for, Celestia. Don't really have time for your shit."
  1274. >"Make time, *human*," she snarls as Lyra scampers away, leaving her pile of loot behind in her haste.
  1275. >Your head involuntarily jerks back to look at the princess - you've never... she's never... that tone. Never.
  1276. >"I don't want you ruining everything!"
  1277. "You always did think that of me, didn't you?"
  1278. >You were quarantined, because you might be dangerous.
  1279. >You were given a babysitter, because you couldn't be trusted on your own.
  1280. >Who knows how far Celestia will go now, to what lengths she will go.
  1281. >But -
  1282. "It's not my problem, *princess*. Not my kingdom, not my subjects. Whatever happens to them, it's on your shoulders, not mine."
  1283. >"It's that line of thinking that has me worried, you filthy ape!"
  1284. >She - she reaches out with a hoof and *shoves* you. Already in an awkward position, you can't help but fall into the chair Lyra had abandoned - it's all you can do to twist to face the tyrant as she crowds closer.
  1285. >"You just don't care about anything, do you!?" she *screams* in your face. "You don't care if you destroy all our hard work!"
  1286. >She's never been this - this - *emotional*.
  1287. >Never.
  1288. "I'm not going to dick with things that aren't my problem, Tia! It just doesn't seem like a very smart move, not from you!"
  1289. >You had expected better from her, you really had. No dictator that has ruled for ten thousand years can be *this* stupid.
  1290. >"If you ruin this, I -!"
  1291. >Her head jerks up as a door slams open.
  1292. >Loudly.
  1293. >As if by somepony in a panic.
  1294. >Twilight's here to rescue you from this crazy bitch.
  1295. >"Is there a problem here?" you hear Sunny Smiles ask coldly. "Well, is there, *princess*?"
  1296. >Nevermind.
  1297. >You're dead.
  1298. >Still, her sudden arrival gives you some breathing room.
  1299. >Literally - the princess quickly backs away from you. Not far, but out of arm's reach.
  1300. >"Yes, there's a problem, *Sunny*," Celestia barks, emphasizing the difference in their stations in an attempt to cow the other mare. "Abdul is going to ruin *everything*!"
  1301. >what
  1302. >"I think the game is going well -"
  1303. >"OF COURSE YOU THINK THAT!" the princess screeches over whatever Sunny was going to say. "HE DOESN'T CARE WHAT HAPPENS IN THE GAME! YOU KNOW THAT, DON'T YOU?"
  1304. >"We very much doubt that."
  1305. >Oh, awesome. Moonbeam is here, too.
  1306. >You're still dead.
  1307. >Why isn't anypony else coming out to see what the commotion is about? Why isn't Twilight...?
  1308. >"Of course he cares," Sunny Smiles laughs in a bizarre, throaty chuckle. "He may be a munchkin, but he's always respectful of the story."
  1309. >"You're wrong!"
  1310. >"Maybe not the story *you* want to tell," the pegasus continues, her voice growing closer, "but the story that *should* be told."
  1311. >"You're wrong," Celestia hisses angrily, her eyes the narrowest of slits, "just like you were wrong about the playtesting. He doesn't care about the game or what happens to the setting."
  1312. >"Why wouldn't he?" Moonbeam asks boldly. "He will be playing in it the same as the rest of us."
  1313. >Celestia's lips curl in a vicious sneer.
  1314. >"And that's where you're wrong, *cosplayers*. He's leaving soon."
  1315. >You knew it - that bitch is going to send you away from Twilight.
  1316. >You knew it.
  1317. >You don't know what happened, but the back of your hand stings.
  1318. >Clearly Celestia doesn't know either, from the way she stares up at you incredulously from your feet.
  1319. >You're - you're standing.
  1320. >And she isn't.
  1321. >Not anymore.
  1322. >"He - he's leaving...?"
  1323. >*That* is what Sunny Smiles is shocked by?
  1324. >Not the princess lying on the ground like a beached whale?
  1325. >"Why!?"
  1326. >Doors slam open up and down the hallway, tired pony faces poking around doorframes to to see the cause of the commotion.
  1327. >Even Dash.
  1328. >"What the fucking fuck are you fuckers fucking doing?" she yawns blearily, trying to blink the sleep from her eyes. Suddenly, they grow wide. Wide and confused.
  1329. >"Fuck."
  1330. "Don't listen to this piece of shit."
  1331. >You almost kick Celestia - almost. You would have, save for your princesses astonished gasp behind you.
  1332. "I'm not going anywhere."
  1333. >"I think you should -"
  1334. >You turn to stare daggers at Moonbeam.
  1335. >"- get ready for the con," she finishes.
  1336. "Good idea."
  1337. >You can't stand to be near that bitch for another second - you don't even waste the time to walk around the chair you had been sitting in seconds ago, roughly shoving it out of your way. You leave Celestia lying on the floor as you stride purposefully towards your room and your princess.
  1338. >And the blue face behind her.
  1339. >You hear no clatter of armored plates, no sounds of rushing guards.
  1340. >Even they must hate the princess.
  1341. >The thought brings a smile to your face.
  1342. >Twilight's eyes flicker between you and her downed mentor, landing on you as you get close enough to run a hand through her mane.
  1343. >The feel of the hairs sliding between your fingers is calming. It brings focus.
  1344. >You turn back, just enough to see Celestia as she stumbles back to her hooves.
  1345. "I've built a life here, Tia. I'm not going anywhere."
  1346. >"I'm - I'm glad," Sunny Smiles stammers.
  1347. >Weird.
  1348. >What does she care?
  1349. >You quickly step through the doorway, herding your princess ahead of you and pulling the door shut.
  1350. "Hello, Trixie."
  1351. >"H-hello..."
  1352. >She ducks her head down, trying to hide her face, but it doesn't work.
  1353. >Not quite.
  1354. >She's not wearing her magician's hat.
  1355. >And her mane is a tangled mess.
  1356. >"I found her sleeping in our bed," Twilight says quietly.
  1357. >Trixie nods softly.
  1358. >"I just - I couldn't -"
  1359. "Yeah, I get it."
  1360. >She smiles appreciatively, glad you didn't make her say it.
  1361. >Twilight's forelegs wrap around your waist, giving you a comforting hug.
  1362. >"Are you okay?" she asks.
  1363. "I'm fine."
  1364. >Absentmindedly, you pat her head, but your thoughts are on other things.
  1365. >How will she take it when you're gone?
  1366. "Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere."
  1367. >She doesn't answer, but her hooves suddenly dig into the small of your back as her embrace tightens.
  1368. "And if she *does* get rid of me, I'll be back."
  1369. >"I know," she sobs into your shirt. "You promised."
  1370. >Trixie is looking around – you watch her head bob and weave as she tries to find something – anything – to pay attention to. Something other than your marefriend. Her salvation comes from a knock at the door.
  1371. >”I’ll – I’ll get that!” she stutters, brushing past you to reach for the handle.
  1372. >Seeing your marefriend get weepy and emotional is more embarrassing than being seen in your room?
  1373. >She’s barely started to pull the door open when Aredee roughly shoves it – and Trixie – aside.
  1374. >Your friend still looks tired – exhausted, really – well, she looks like shit, but with a fire in her eyes.
  1375. >”Care to explain what just happened?” the pegasus demands. “What did you do to Princess Celestia!”
  1376. >She thrusts a forehoof at you accusingly, but almost immediately draws it back, pointing surreptitiously at Trixie.
  1377. >”Wait. No. Better question. What is SHE doing here!?”
  1378. “I need help getting into my armor.”
  1379. >As good an excuse as any, and it’s probably true.
  1380. >”Oh, good,” Dash sighs in relief. “I was worried you were starting up a herd or something. WHICH I WOULD BE OKAY WITH, but not with HER!”
  1381. >”Don’t worry,” Trixie snaps at your friend, “I wouldn’t be interested.”
  1382. >”Oh, so now you’re too good for him!?”
  1383. >Dammit Dash, pick a single to be outraged about. Luckily the unicorn doesn’t take the bait – unluckily, she slumps over to your bed and collapses on it.
  1384. >At least Twilight and Rarity explained herds to you earlier this week – otherwise, this could have been the most awkward experience in your life.
  1385. “Oh? So you wouldn’t want to join if Trixie was part of it?”
  1386. >Instead, you decide to make it hers.
  1387. >”Well… maybe…”
  1388. >Dammit.
  1389. >”But seriously, Anon!” Dash waves a forehoof back towards the hallway. “What the heck happened out there!?”
  1390. “She… was unhappy with how I was playing Abdul.”
  1391. >Twilight’s legs give you a quick squeeze.
  1392. >”Why…?” your marefriend asks.
  1393. >You can think of more than a few reasons.
  1394. >“Why *now*?”
  1395. >Huh. Indeed why now?
  1396. >”So she complained about your character,” Dash says, shoving past you to throw herself into a chair. “So what? You never hit Twilight!”
  1397. >”You HIT her!?” your princess gasps. “How… how could you!?”
  1398. “She threatened to send me away.”
  1399. >”Of course, we wouldn’t even know if you *did* hit Twilight,” Dash mumbles, putting her hoof on her chin as she ponders this. “I mean, unless we actually *saw* you do it, we’d never notice the bruises…”
  1400. “Do you *really* have to talk about that?”
  1401. >”Hey, I was just wondering!”
  1402. >”I can’t believe you hit her!”
  1403. >Ugh, are these two even listening to each other?
  1404. >”I know you two don’t get along,” Twilight says quietly, “but Princess Celestia couldn’t have meant that. She just couldn’t have. You must have misunderstood her.”
  1405. >”Dang, never thought about that before,” Dash mumbles to herself. “Sure would make hiding the kinky stuff pretty dang easy…”
  1406. >Your marefriend releases you, dropping back to all fours.
  1407. >”I – I better go talk to her,” Twilight tells you distractedly. “Try to smooth things over, or…”
  1408. >Check on her? Make sure she’s okay?
  1409. >You reach out, patting her head gently.
  1410. “Okay, Twi. I’ll be here.”
  1411. >You may hate that bitch, but your princess doesn’t and you don’t expect her to – you aren’t going to take from her things that she likes just because you disagree.
  1412. >As her parents found out today, that’s just not possible.
  1413. >Twilight pauses under your hand.
  1414. >”She – she can’t have meant that, Anon,” your marefriend states with only the slightest quaver in her voice. “She couldn’t have. There’s just no way.”
  1415. “Maybe I misunderstood. You should ask her.”
  1416. >Your princess will have to believe it after she’s heard it from Celestia’s own mouth, and from the grimace she gives you she’s well aware that was your plan.
  1417. >”I think I will,” Twilight tells you, pulling free from your hand, “and if you’re right…”
  1418. “Revolution?”
  1419. >”No, I’ll just bop her again.”
  1420. “I hope it doesn’t come to that.”
  1421. >You really don’t – it would be a shame for if Twilight lost her mentor. Also, the whole bit about you being wrong and Celestia not trying to exile you – that would be nice.
  1422. >But unlikely.
  1423. >With a sad, yet hopeful smile, Twilight walks out the door.
  1424. >”Yeah, I guess I better go back to bed,” Dash yawns in your marefriend’s wake. “Unless you and sunbutt are going to have another round. *That* I’d stay up to watch!”
  1425. “Probably not, but you can’t go yet.”
  1426. >”Why not!?”
  1427. “Like I said – I’m going to need some help getting into that armor.”
  1428. >The pegasus’s head jerks around, looking everywhere BUT at your power armor.
  1429. >”Dude, if you’re talking about a con –“
  1430. >You take two steps forward and grab her head, twisting it three degrees to the right.
  1431. >”Oh. *THAT* armor,” she mumbles sleepily. “Didn’t know you were talking about *that* one.”
  1432. >She yawns again.
  1433. >”Yeah, sure.”
  1434. “Trixie?”
  1435. >”Oh yes, most glorious and kind of humans?” the magician answers.
  1436. >Maybe.
  1437. >Probably not.
  1438. >It’s really hard to understand what she’s mumbling into the pillows.
  1439. >Yeaaaaah, definitely not.
  1440. >Probably told you to fuck off and die.
  1441. “Think you can help out?”
  1442. >”Sure…”
  1443. >Slowly, reluctantly, Trixie drags herself off the bed and over to the standing suit of golden armor.
  1444. >"How do we even...?"
  1445. >The question lingers, unfinished yet understood.
  1446. >How *do* you even?
  1447. >You approach the suit, running your hands over the plates to find invisible seams.
  1448. >Ah!
  1449. > There - hidden in the filigree - a seam splitting the torso front and back.
  1450. >Several seconds of dedicated hunting reveal several other nigh-imperceptible joins in the plates, but nothing so simple that you could put this on by yourself.
  1451. >No, you were right - you're going to need some help, if only to hold parts in place while you attach them.
  1452. "We'll have to disassemble it entirely."
  1453. >"What!?" Aredee whines, pawing at an eagle-encrusted greave. "Can't you just go in from the top!?"
  1454. >She eyes the gorget, measuring it in her mind.
  1455. >"You'll fit, right...?"
  1456. "It's not as big as it looks."
  1457. >You stand up straight, letting the pegasus see just how large the suit is compared to you.
  1458. >Still massive, but nowhere near big enough for to just... slip inside.
  1459. >"Nevermind," Aredee sighs, rearing up to grip a gauntlet. "That was stupid. Don't know what I was thinking."
  1460. >But Trixie shakes her head, drawing a quizzical look from your friend.
  1461. >"No, I thought the same thing, too," the unicorn mutters. "It... it *feels* larger."
  1462. >Slowly, you begin taking apart the armor. Slowly, because it takes time to find the trick for each piece, the hidden latch or bolt that holds it together.
  1463. >Bolts.
  1464. >You hadn't thought that far ahead, hadn't brought any tools, hadn't thought to ask for any.
  1465. >Trixie's magic is invaluable, taking the place of screwdrivers and wrenches while Dash catches the parts as they fall. She lays them out on the floor nearby.
  1466. >Neatly.
  1467. >You hadn't expected such care from her - not from Dash - but it's power armor, so what harm could her usual boisterous nature cause?
  1468. >But she's too exhausted for her wild spirit to show through.
  1469. >She should have gone back to sleep.
  1470. >You could have managed - with Trixie's help.
  1471. >"Dang," the pegasus mumbles, staggering under the weight of a massive pauldron. Kinda want one of these for myself. Wouldn't ever have to worry about getting hurt in a crash.
  1472. "Because you wouldn't be able to fly with all that weight?"
  1473. >"Well, *obviously* it'd have to be light enough that I could fly."
  1474. >She drops the shoulderpad with a loud thud - you don't look, but you know there's a new gouge on the wooden floor.
  1475. >Celestia's going to be pissed.
  1476. >Well, she's already pissed, so you don't worry about it.
  1477. >"It certainly *is* impressive," Trixie says with reverence, "though a bit gaudy."
  1478. >"What!? No! All this gold is AWESOME!"
  1479. >The magician rolls her eyes, undoing the last bolt with a sigh.
  1480. "And now to do it all over again, except backwards."
  1481. >You slip your feet free from your shoes and grab one of the heavy boots, but a curious grunt from Trixie makes you pause before pulling it on. She's flipped over the breastplate, exposing the inner workings so she can examine it.
  1482. "Whatcha see?"
  1483. >"Well, see here and here?"
  1484. >She points to something tiny and insignificant - at least, you're too far away to see it.
  1485. "Yeah, I see it."
  1486. >"I think you'll have to take your clothes off," she mumbles distractedly.
  1487. >That... makes sense.
  1488. "Everything?"
  1489. >"I don't know - I've never seen anything like this before!"
  1490. >Your eyes dance nervously between the two ponies - this suddenly became slightly awkward, made all the more disturbing that it *isn't* coming from Aredee for once.
  1491. >"Probably," Trixie says quietly. "Just to be sure - I don't want to take this all apart again just because you decided to leave on your socks."
  1492. "Not really worried about my socks..."
  1493. >Dash looks at you curiously, eyebrows arched.
  1494. >"Then what?"
  1495. >Do you really have to say it?
  1496. >Twilight could be back any moment - in fact, maybe you should just wait for her to help you with this.
  1497. >"Just ignore the idiot," Trixie sighs, stepping away from the breastplate, leaving it gently rocking. "Go undress in the bathroom - we won't watch."
  1498. "Getting undressed isn't the problem - it's *being* undressed."
  1499. >"Huh...?" Dash grunts. "Oh, right 'humans wear clothes, blah blah blah.'"
  1500. >She even does little airquotes with her hooves.
  1501. >"If that's the problem, then just strip! I've seen you naked plenty of times!"
  1502. "And you're going to explain it to Twilight when she walks in on us?"
  1503. >"Uh, NO! That's Trixie's job!"
  1504. >"Oh, *good*," the unicorn grumbles. "I was beginning to worry I wouldn't have a part to play in this."
  1505. >Twilight can help you. Waiting wouldn't be so bad. Probably your best choice.
  1506. "Why don't you two just head back to your rooms - I can do this... no?"
  1507. >Trixie is shaking her head - not quite energetically, but certainly with a dark intensity.
  1508. >"Trixie is happy where she is."
  1509. >"Oh?" Dash asks, nudging the unicorn with her knee. "You wanna get a look at IT, don't you?"
  1510. >"TRIXIE DOES NOT!"
  1511. "Good!"
  1512. >The entire room comes to a crashing halt as the door creaks open and a purple head peaks in.
  1513. >"Anon...?" your princess gasps. "Oh, good. This - this may take awhile. You should go on without me. I'll... I'll catch up when I can."
  1514. "I can wait."
  1515. >Really, it would be no problem.
  1516. "No," your marefriend sighs. "Don't wait on me. Trixie and Dash can help you get that mess on, right?
  1517. "I... guess...?"
  1518. >"Thanks, girls," Twilight smiles at them, before withdrawing again.
  1519. >"Well, you heard the princess!" Dash lunges for you, her exhaustion forgotten for the moment. "STRIP!"
  1520. >"Grow up, you wretched filly!"
  1521. >Trixie's hoof smashes into the back of the pegasus's head.
  1522. >"What the FUCK, Trixie!?" Dash shouts, spinning to confront the magician. "That hurt!"
  1523. "You deserved it."
  1524. >"Not from *her*!"
  1525. >"Yes, from me," Trixie glares back. "I've made it VERY clear -"
  1526. "Enough."
  1527. >Both mares look up, startled.
  1528. "I've made my decision."
  1529. >You stand and unbutton your jacket.
  1530. "I'm not going to waste time here."
  1531. >Dash blushes and looks away quickly as you begin undoing your shirt. Trixie... Trixie doesn't - you may have made a mistake.
  1532. >This wasn't your intention at all.
  1533. >You thought they might run off if you called Dash's bluff.
  1534. >But Trixie - you *really* thought she had no interest in you.
  1535. >"Good," the unicorn says grimly. "There's no point wasting time."
  1536. >She drags your other boot over with her magic.
  1537. >"Take off your trousers and socks," she instructs. "Leave your undergarments on - we can always take apart the armor if necessary."
  1538. >You quickly disrobe and reach down to pull on one of the pieces of armor, but a shake of Trixie's head stops you.
  1539. >"No, this isn't meant for you to do - just stand still, with your arms out."
  1540. >Armored plates fly around you, Trixie plucking them out of the air one at a time and fitting them to your body. Reluctantly, Dash joins it, allowing the magician to focus on the fine details hooves cannot do such as threading bolts and weaving power cables through the suit.
  1541. >Your arms grow heavy as the armor nears completion - the weight dragging on them almost more than you can stand, but you remaining standing with arms open. As more parts are added, the opposite begins to happen - even if you wanted to move, you couldn't.
  1542. >Unpowered, this armor could be your tomb.
  1543. >You hope it's real - *real* power armor - otherwise there's no way you could wear this.
  1544. >Trixie fits the clawed gauntlet to your left hand - you barely feel the weight of the massive fist, it's weight negligable compared to the rest of the suit.
  1545. >Remember -
  1546. >REMEMBER!
  1547. >DO NOT TRY TO HOLD TWILIGHT WITH YOUR LEFT HAND.
  1548. >It would not end well.
  1549. >"Almost done," the unicorn says, mistaking your worry for impatience.
  1550. >"Yeah," Dash agrees, holding up the last plate - the last one you can see, anyway. Held motionless like this, with the high gorget, it's hard for you to look around.
  1551. >"Just a few more connections..."
  1552. >The oppressive weight suddenly vanishes - you instinctively flex your fingers and roll your shoulders - it's almost as if nothing is there. You can't even feel it pressing against your skin, though your boxers... you can feel every fold and crease digging into your flesh.
  1553. >"I... um... I didn't attach what I assume was the catheter," Trixie says stumblingly, "I hope that doesn't cause any -"
  1554. >Shit, why did she have to say that?
  1555. >Why!?
  1556. >Your mind is full of thoughts of rivers and waterfalls and that one day back in elementary school...
  1557. "Please loosen those plates."
  1558. >*Now* Trixie looks away from you, but she complies.
  1559. >You consider slipping into one of the other rooms to do what must be done, but the doorways are far too small to accommodate your new stature.
  1560. >Yes, you're sure this time - the armor really *is* too big.
  1561. >You're sure because you try.
  1562. "Turn around."
  1563. >Trixie already is, but Aredee? She's peaking under her wing.
  1564. "Dash..."
  1565. >She squeaks as you say her name, quickly turning away to give you privacy, staring very intently at the far wall.
  1566. >Cautiously - VERY CAUTIOUSLY - you reach down with a single claw extended, slicing through the cloth - VERY, VERY CAREFULLY - and pull the scraps free.
  1567. >After several seconds of terrifying fumbling, you pull the plate close.
  1568. "Okay, Trixie. I'm done."
  1569. >You feel a slight pressure for an instant as the unicorn magically tightens the armor back into place, but only for an instant until the tactile interface reconnects.
  1570. >And then it strikes you - holy shit.
  1571. >It *is* real power armor.
  1572. >You look into the mirror on the far wall.
  1573. >What you see there brings a smile to your face, and to your companions' as well - you can clearly see Dash's mad grin.
  1574. >"Damned impressive, Anon," the pegasus mumbles. "Not to my personal tastes, but damned impressive."
  1575. "I thought you said you liked all the gold?"
  1576. >"What? Oh, yeah! I do!"
  1577. >Though Dash’s back is still to you, you can see her face clearly in the mirror.
  1578. >You can also see Trixie exasperated expression.
  1579. >And the irritated glances she keeps giving the other pony.
  1580. >Dammit.
  1581. “You were watching, weren’t you?”
  1582. >”Rarity is going to be *pissed*,” the pegasus smirks, sidestepping the question. “Better hope nopony –“
  1583. “Remember, I have this.”
  1584. >You raise your clawed hand and flex the fingers meaningfully.
  1585. >”Bullshit, Anon!” she laughs and points to the other pony. “Trixie’s right here and she –“
  1586. >”TRIXIE knows how to keep *her* eyes closed, pegasus,” the magician scolds, corrects and/or threatens. You’re honestly not sure which. “*She* won’t see a thing!”
  1587. >”Nevermind, then,” Dash sighs, her shoulders slumping. “The blackmail is off.”
  1588. “Oh, no. It’s still on, but with one important change.”
  1589. >You give her a warm smile as her head jerks around to peer at you over her shoulder –
  1590. >Huh, her wings are folded neatly.
  1591. >No wingboner.
  1592. >You guess you *aren’t* to her personal tastes.
  1593. >Aredee’s head tilts to one side, then to the other as she waits impatiently for you to explain.
  1594. >”*He* is blackmailing *you*,” Trixie sighs. “How stupid can you be?”
  1595. >"Stupid enough to be able to do this!"
  1596. >Lightning fast, the pegasus takes a swing at Trixie.
  1597. >And misses -
  1598. > - falls flat on her face -
  1599. > - and swears most unponylike.
  1600. >"Tomorrow," Dash grumbles from the floor. "I'll kick your plot tomorrow. After I've slept."
  1601. "Sleep? What makes you think you'll get any sleep?"
  1602. >"I've been up since To-Damn-Early-o'clock, Anon," your friend yawns, still laying on the floor looking - surprisingly - content, "and that was yesterday. I don't think I have a choice."
  1603. >She folds her forelegs under her head - apparently she intends to crash right here, right now.
  1604. "No, I guess you don't have a choice."
  1605. >She smiles sleepily.
  1606. "You're coming with me to the con."
  1607. >"Or what?"
  1608. >"Or he tells Twilight," Trixie says, leaning down and grinning viciously in Aredee's face.
  1609. >The pegasus's ears jump straight up in alert.
  1610. >"He *wouldn't*!"
  1611. "After what you did to me? Oh, yes. I would."
  1612. >Ignore what movies about lady ninjas have taught you - revenge is AWESOME.
  1613. >"What, sneak a peak?"
  1614. "No... remember what you were always threatening to tell Twi about?"
  1615. >And karmic revenge is better than normal revenge by... oh... about 20%.
  1616. >Trixie raises an eyebrow questioningly, but doesn't ask. Nor do you have a chance to explain - a loud moan wells up from Dash's throat.
  1617. "Gods, calm down! I was just joking!"
  1618. >You weren't, but this is too much.
  1619. "Thanks for the help with the armor, Aredee. Go get some sleep."
  1620. >Her punishment can wait - you owe her months of torture.
  1621. >"Yay," she mumbles, falling back to the floor.
  1622. "Catch up when you can."
  1623. >"Mkay."
  1624. "You too, Trix. You're welcome to use the bed -"
  1625. >"Why?"
  1626. "Because Twi and I aren't currently using it."
  1627. >Her mouth pulls to the left in an unamused sneer.
  1628. >"I'm not tired," she explains, "I was only -"
  1629. >Her eyes dart over to the sleeping pegasus.
  1630. >"TRIXIE is fine, Anon," the magician barks. "Just wait here while I get - get... Trixie does not need a costume. She shall dress as herself!"
  1631. >Okaaaaaaaay.
  1632. "Where did you leave your hat and cape?"
  1633. >"In... nevermind. Trixie can wear the same outfit as yesterday!"
  1634. >She points to the pile of clothes and costume armor dumped in a corner of the room.
  1635. "How about we just see if you can borrow somepony else's?"
  1636. >"Do you really think Trixie could do that?" she asks, but it doesn't sound hopeful.
  1637. >No, she sounds sad.
  1638. >She's not really asking.
  1639. >And you know she couldn't.
  1640. >Her pride wouldn't let her. Not now, particularly.
  1641. "Then just come along. We can get you something at the con."
  1642. >She shakes her head.
  1643. >"No, Trixie will not waste the bits -"
  1644. >Of course, she doesn't have any to spare.
  1645. >" - she shall just go as a *common* unicorn."
  1646. "Does that mean you'll drop this act again?"
  1647. >"She will try."
  1648. "Cool."
  1649. >Trixie smiles, just enough for you to see.
  1650. "Think you can get the door for me?"
  1651. >You don't trust yourself to not rip it off the hinges right now, not until you get used to this armor.
  1652. >"Of course."
  1653. >A blue aura surrounds the handle and the door creaks open slowly. It takes some awkward maneuvering, but eventually you mange to sidle through with only minor damage to the doorframe.
  1654. >Celestia is gone - no big surprise, but you were kind of hoping she would still be where to you left her.
  1655. >It would be nice if *somepony* was around to see your fancy costume. Someone besides Cadance, who is lounging on one of the seats with one o those thin, trashy romance novels.
  1656. >Too bad she won't appreciate it.
  1657. >Your steps are loud, too loud. Yep, the tiles are cracking apart under your feet.
  1658. >Darn.
  1659. >Cadance is looking at you curiously when you bring your eyes back up. She couldn't help but hear your approach.
  1660. >"Too bad you weren't wearing *that* when you knocked that bitch on her ass," the princess smirks. "I've been wanting to do that all week."
  1661. >So it's not just you; others think she's a bitch, too.
  1662. >"Still, I have to wonder why you lied to me..."
  1663. "Huh?"
  1664. >She taps her forehead with one forehoof.
  1665. >"Don't remember?" the princess asks. "You told me Luna was next."
  1666. "Yeah, but I also said I was joking..."
  1667. >"Next...?" Trixie asks from your side. "What does she mean by next?"
  1668. >"Well first - I can't say that," Cadance laughs. "But then he hit me with his bag. And last night his marefriend slugged Celestia -"
  1669. "Sunny. It was Sunny Smiles."
  1670. >Cadance giggles politely behind a hoof while rolling her eyes at you.
  1671. >"You can't *really* be that oblivious, can you?" she asks, before immediatly answering herself. "But of course, it took you eleven months to see how Twilight felt about you..."
  1672. >Huh?
  1673. >"Long story short," Cadance sighs, turning to Trixie, "Luna is the *only* princess he hasn't hit."
  1674. >"Oh," the magician gasps, glancing over at you with worry. "That seems... out of character."
  1675. >Praise the stars, she doesn't believe it!
  1676. >"Rainbow Dash was right, wasn't she...?"
  1677. >Godsdammit.
  1678. >”I don’t think I want to know,” the magician sighs and begins pacing restlessly around you. “I *don’t* want to know.”
  1679. >”Good, because I wasn’t going to answer,” Cadance laughs, turning slightly in her seat to view you from a more comfortable position. “Anyway, I owe you twice over for slapping that whorse – not only did she have it coming, you also got us out of breakfast with Shining Armor’s parents. They’re nice enough, but…”
  1680. >Yeah.
  1681. “I can’t imagine it was any less awkward after we left, was it?”
  1682. >”Not at all,” the princess sighs, “too bad you didn’t wear *that* to the restaurant.”
  1683. >You shrug, the massive golden pauldrons exaggerating the movement – and startling you for a moment as the gesture brings them worryingly close to your head.
  1684. “I wanted to, but Twi said no…”
  1685. >”*She* said no?” Cadance gasps. “No, as in no, you couldn’t?”
  1686. “I think she threatened to geld me if I did. Not in so many words, of course.”
  1687. >The alicorn rubs her temple gentle with a forehoof, as if trying to massage out a headache.
  1688. >”She said no… I can’t believe she said no,” she mutters to herself. “That mare is full of surprises today.”
  1689. “It’s not the first time. I know you were worried –“
  1690. >You sneak a quick glance at Trixie; you like her well enough, but not enough to air your marefriend’s dirty laundry in front of her. Luckily, she’s distracted by the door to her room – or more likely, what’s behind it. Though her pacing has no rhythm or pattern, looping here and there around the sitting area, she always keeps an eye on that door.
  1691. >She’s not paying any attention to the conversation; you can talk.
  1692. “You were worried she would do anything for me, but I think… I think you don’t need to.”
  1693. >”So she hasn’t gone overboard with… anything?”
  1694. >Aside from polymorphing herself into a human, overdosing herself with some kind of pony aphrodisiac, and masturbating furiously until you gave her the D?
  1695. “She’s made me waffles a few times, but I like to think I earned ‘em.”
  1696. >”So, you’re okay with everything?” the princess asks, eyebrows raising in a concerned expression. “There’s nothing that has you worried?”
  1697. “Well, she puts up with my shit.”
  1698. >”Oh, no,” Cadance gasps in mock horror. “I better call the loony bin and have her taken away!”
  1699. >She sighs, her face turning grim and serious.
  1700. >”But seriously, this seems to be going a little fast…”
  1701. “I know, but I’m okay with it. If we’d actually paid attention, this would have started a while back. I think… I think she’s just trying to make up for lost time.”
  1702. >”I hope you’re right. Just… be careful, okay?”
  1703. “To hell with careful.”
  1704. >You slam your right fist into your chest with a thunderous ring.
  1705. “I’ve got power armor.”
  1706. >A door flies open –
  1707. >Dammit, you *really* need to stop doing this kind of shit in the hallway, because you seem to be waking everypony up constantly.
  1708. > – and out prances Rarity. At least, you think it’s her under all those prosthetics.
  1709. >Gods, you *hope* those are prosthetics, but if not, at least you’re properly equipped to purge a mutant.
  1710. >”Oh, Anon! And… and *Trixie*! How… *nice* to see you both up!”
  1711. >Yep, it’s Rarity.
  1712. >The unicorn forces a smile onto her face and takes several quick steps backwards.
  1713. >”Quite a spectacular costume you have there,” she comments, not quite summoning up enough courage to come out OR to retreat into her room.
  1714. “As is yours. I mean… that glowing fleshy eye? Pretty nifty.”
  1715. >Applying prosthetics like that to pony fuzz can’t be easy, but somehow she’s pulled it off. And with no sleep, if you had to guess.
  1716. “Didn’t expect to see you up this early.”
  1717. >”Well, I *do* have things to do,” she answers, backing up even further.
  1718. >Only her head extends into the hallway now.
  1719. “Like cocaine?”
  1720. >”WHAT!? NO!”
  1721. “Oh, I just thought maybe that was how you were so energetic when everypony else…”
  1722. >You shrug, this time not flinching as the shoulderpads come closer.
  1723. “… but yeah, it was crazy. What was I thinking?”
  1724. >”I have *no* idea, Anon.”
  1725. “You aren’t skinny enough to be on coke.”
  1726. >”I LIKE my curves, *darling*,” the unicorn snarls, “but I –“
  1727. >”*TRIXIE* has to wonder why you’re friends with him, but SHE was driven out of town,” Trixie cuts in with a dull monotone. “Seems to Trixie like he’s more of an asshole then she was.”
  1728. >Rarity closes her eyes – or eye. You can only see the one right now, but presumably the other still exists beneath the fake red eye.
  1729. >”We have *all* made mistakes in the past,” the unicorn sighs, opening her eyes and forcing on another fake smile. “For example, I see you forgot to pack a second costume. Luckily, I had a client who couldn’t make it – why don’t you come in…“
  1730. >Rarity steps fully into the hallway, waving a leg for Trixie to enter before her.
  1731. >Free from the door and its frame, you can see her costume in its entirety, from the black tie and jacket down to the short black skirt.
  1732. >And the stockings that come up to what would be – on a human, at least – mid-thigh.
  1733. >Huh.
  1734. >Zettai ryouiki.
  1735. >Haven’t seen that in a while.
  1736. >”It’s from Rodyo Gore Guards,” Rarity explains, seeing your expression. “A rather artistic, if vulgar –“
  1737. >”Bullshit,” Cadance laughs. “I’ve seen that movie!”
  1738. >”Fuck.”
  1739. >”Artistic?” the princess howls. “There’s nothing artistic about that trash! It’s pure gore porn!”
  1740. “And do you mind explaining why *you* have seen it?”
  1741. >She looks up at you, her mouth twisted in a sarcastic smirk.
  1742. >”Why else?” she sighs. “Shiny wanted to watch it, and I – of course – thought ‘date night!’”
  1743. >She flings her forehooves into the air in mock enthusiasm.
  1744. “Big mistake?”
  1745. >”Yep!”
  1746. >”It’s not *that* bad,” Rarity insists, waving even more frantically for Trixie. “Don’t be shy, darling, let me put this costume to use!”
  1747. “If it’s anything like the human version, it *is* that bad. Certainly not the kind of thing I’d expect you to watch.”
  1748. >Rarity giggles nervously, her hoof almost a solid blur as she continues to wave Trixie forward to no effect.
  1749. >”Well,* everypony* is allowed a guilty pleasure or two…”
  1750. “You don’t seem to feel very guilty about it, considering you’ve dressed up as the main character…”
  1751. >”I didn’t expect anypony I knew to *see* me!” she yells, lunging forward and grabbing Trixie by the leg.
  1752. >In a blur of white and blue, the pair disappear into Rarity’s room and the door slams shut.
  1753. >”This will only take a minute, Anon!” the unicorn sings out from behind the closed door. “Just wait right there!”
  1754. >Well then, you guess you’ll just… stand for a while. Trying to sit in any of the furniture would be a disaster; you aren’t even going to try it.
  1755. “So… Shining Armor…”
  1756. >”Mhm…?”
  1757. “He watches those kinds of things?”
  1758. >”Not when I’m around, he doesn’t,” Cadance laughs. “But whenever I’m out? Yep.”
  1759. >Cool.
  1760. “Fair enough.”
  1761. >She nods.
  1762. “Speaking of your husband… where is he now?”
  1763. >”With the other princesses,” she answers, giving you a slight smile. “I haven’t seen him since we got back to the castle; the pegasus guardspony that brought the message escorted him directly to where Celestia is being held.”
  1764. “You make it sound like she’s a prisoner.”
  1765. >She glances back towards the guardsponies standing at the end of the hall before looking back to you. Slowly, her tiny smile grows into a sly grin.
  1766. >”And I was beginning to wonder if you notice *anything,* Anon.”
  1767. >So Celestia is being held prisoner.
  1768. >That’s a nice change.
  1769. >”Sounds boring,” Sunny Smiles growls from the head of the hall. “Lead us in our crusade, father!”
  1770. >oh shit she’s wearing power armor
  1771. >Grey, with a – a –
  1772. “Is that a wolf pelt!?”
  1773. >”Aye!”
  1774. >You can almost see her sister standing behind her, but mostly just her scowling face.
  1775. “Moonbeam… is that…?”
  1776. >”A lion’s pelt? Indeed.”
  1777. >The Wolf and the Lion.
  1778. >This con is so fucked.
  1779. >"Are those - are those *real*?"
  1780. >Three pairs of eyes swivel to face Cadance. Her mouth hangs open, her eyes wide.
  1781. >"Those can't be real..." she murmurs, grabbing one her seat's toss pillows and hugging it to her chest.
  1782. >Sunny snarls, the edges of her lip curling up to expose her canines.
  1783. >"Do you doubt my deeds, pup?" she asks with the calmness of barely restrained fury. "Think carefully..."
  1784. >"I think I *really* don't know how Shiny or Luna can put up with you when you're like this," the pink alicorn mutters into the pillow. "I'll go read in my room."
  1785. >Cadance shakes her head sadly as she gathers up her book and walks past you to her room. At the last moment, she looks up into your eyes.
  1786. >"Good luck, Anon... and..." she does her best to smile for you, but all you see is a worried young mare.
  1787. >Not a princess, not an alicorn, but a pony. A friend.
  1788. >She's worried for you.
  1789. >"...and... congratulations."
  1790. "Yeah, it is a pretty awesome costume, isn't it?"
  1791. >Cadance's brow furrows in confusion for a second - just a second - before she bursts out giggling.
  1792. >"You're doing this on purpose, aren't you?" she snorts. "Fine, I won't spoil things!"
  1793. >The princess trots off quickly, chased by Sunny's growling, sealing herself in her room before you can ask her what she meant.
  1794. >Meh.
  1795. >You've got power armor.
  1796. >You stand there for a moment, waiting for your friends to emerge. You'd rather not leave Trixie behind, and you *certainly* don't want to head out with just the two cosplayers.
  1797. >Unsure what to do, you just... stand.
  1798. >Moonbeam does the same, occasionally watching her sister's impatient pacing with the understanding of an annoyed sibling.
  1799. >"We should go," she eventually snarls, coming to a halt beside you, like a loyal dog.
  1800. >Wolf.
  1801. >Like a loyal wolf.
  1802. "Go. I'm not stopping you."
  1803. >She whines quietly, and resumes her pacing.
  1804. >"It's your own fault, sister," the black-clad mare says sternly. "If we're late, it's because of your distractions."
  1805. >"I don't think that last thing qualified as a *distraction*," Sunny Smiles barks back. "Seemed pretty important to me - and to *them*."
  1806. >"To *them*," Moonbeam admits reluctantly, "but it isn't *our* mission, is it?"
  1807. >Sunny's muzzle scrunches, the tips of her - obviously false - canines poking out from under her lips.
  1808. >"Maybe," she snarls after a second's pause.
  1809. "What happened...?"
  1810. >Maybe Moonbeam will shank Sunny again if you get them riled up. Couldn't hurt to try.
  1811. >"You don't need to know," the white pegasus snaps back instantly. She glances at you out of the corner of her eye - though she has to brush her wild mane of the way to do it.
  1812. >Huh, she must have dyed it this morning - it shines red in the right lighting. Or...
  1813. >You stare at it closely and the color fades back to a bright yellow.
  1814. >Ah. An illusion. You wonder who she got to cast that on her; might be one of the "distractions" Moonbeam mentioned.
  1815. >"There are some things that even you do not need to know, father," she whispers loudly - she has every intention of you hearing it.
  1816. "Moonbeam? Help a daddy out?"
  1817. >And at that moment - at *that* very moment, Sunny Smiles almost breaks character.
  1818. >Her eyes unfocus.
  1819. >She snorts - barely and painfully holding back laughter.
  1820. >Her entire body shakes as she holds it in, rattling the mock pony power armor.
  1821. "What the hell did I say that was so funny?"
  1822. >"Well..." she chuckles, letting it out this time "... shouldn't you be saving that line for your marefriend?"
  1823. >”Don’t tease the man with the impossible,” Moonbeam hisses. “Hope is a cruel thing.”
  1824. >Hope of being a father? She needn’t worry; you have none.
  1825. >Desire… yes, though you didn’t know it until this morning.
  1826. >But hope? No.
  1827. >However, that’s not what Sunny Smiles meant – probably. There’s a decent chance you’re going to filter everything she says and does through perv-o-vision forever.
  1828. >First impressions are a hell of a thing.
  1829. “Whatcha talking about, Moony? You’ve never had a stallion slap your ass until you called him daddy?”
  1830. >Bright pink circles appear on her cheeks as she realizes what her sister was actually saying.
  1831. >”No, no I don’t think I *will* help you with that,” Moonbeam mutters, trying to hide her face behind her gorget. “In fact, I have half-a-mind to – to –“
  1832. “To turn traitor like half your filthy legion?”
  1833. >She stares at you harshly, but her shuffling hooves betray her nervousness.
  1834. >Actually… this might be fun.
  1835. “Prove your loyalty. Gather our allies.”
  1836. >You flip your clawed hand towards Rarity’s door; you don’t trust yourself to knock on it without knocking it *down*.
  1837. >Sunny immediately takes a step towards the door – so eager to fulfill your wishes, even though you were speaking to her sister.
  1838. >Interesting.
  1839. >With a curt nod, Moonbeam approaches the door – hammering on it twice firmly, but with restraint. She knows that if you wanted the door destroyed, it would be a simple task for you. No, you have need of an ambassador… herald?
  1840. >Somepony to translate your will to action in the real world.
  1841. >”Hurry.”
  1842. >She only says the one word.
  1843. >There’s no need for anything more, for she has said what needed to be said.
  1844. >”Just one second!” Rarity sings out. “Almost re-
  1845. >A mistake.
  1846. >With her shoulder, Moonbeam slams the door open.
  1847. >”Do not thwart His will with your weakness,” Sunny threatens, prowling behind her sister. “We go. Now.”
  1848. >Oh, this will be *glorious.*
  1849. “Hold, we can give them some time.”
  1850. >”No.”
  1851. >Moonbeam’s blunt response catches you by surprise.
  1852. “No?”
  1853. >It’s the only thing you can think to say. Since when has a primarch disobeyed the… right. Nevermind. Stupid question.
  1854. >“Do not lower your expectations because of the frailty of others, father,” the grey mare explains reluctantly. “They must grow strong if they are to serve.”
  1855. >Forget glorious, this will be a NEW and EXCITING adventure in fuck this!
  1856. >”You can *wait*,” Rarity insists from inside her room, “We’re almost –“
  1857. >”*He* shouldn’t.”
  1858. >Moonbeam advances ominously into the room, her hoofsteps ringing loudly on the tiled floor.
  1859. >Shit, this isn’t going to end well.
  1860. >You step forward quickly, but Sunny is there before you, pulling her sister back.
  1861. >”This isn’t what He wants, sister,” the mare snarls in Moonbeam’s ear, “and you know that!”
  1862. >”And you know that sometimes we serve best by disobeying!”
  1863. “Rarity, I – um – I *really* don’t want to rush you, but I’m worried we’ll have a dead pegasus stinking up the place if you take much longer!”
  1864. >Or two. Maybe two.
  1865. >”Oh, fine!” your friend huffs indignantly. “We’re coming out!”
  1866. >Too many Hollywood movies in your youth have conditioned you to expect that line only in police standoffs - it instantly feels out of place, particularly when you realize the one who said it is the only one dressed as a police officer.
  1867. >Of sorts.
  1868. "Um... stand down...?"
  1869. >Sunny and Moonbeam step aside reluctantly, letting Rarity through.
  1870. >The unicorn is wearing a frown that would look far more appropriate on AJ than her; she is *not* happy about being rushed.
  1871. >Trixie isn't smiling either, following several steps behind Rarity. Probably more from the unicorn forcing a costume on her than from the outfit being incomplete.
  1872. >And in truth, the red and white robes don't suit her.
  1873. >Not at all.
  1874. >Rarity should have known better; her coloring doesn't match the clothes in the least.
  1875. >"It would have been better, *if* we had time to dye her mane and tail," your friend pouts angrily. "It wouldn't take that long..."
  1876. >You might have relented, if Trixie hadn't been shaking her head. Her expression is impossible to see - the cowl of her robes is pulled up to cover her head - but you can't really imagine her enjoying playing dress-up with Rarity. Particularly not with a second-hand costume.
  1877. "No, Trixie's an expert illusionist. I'm sure she can take care of it on her own. Right, Trix?"
  1878. >A shimmer of blue dances over her dangling mane, turning the strands a brilliant crimson in their wake.
  1879. >"Was there ever any doubt?" she sneers from the depths of her hood. "It'll certainly look better than *her* shoddy spellwork."
  1880. >The hood bobbles in roughly the direction of Sunny Smiles, and sure enough, Sunny's mane fades back to yellow almost as soon as you focus on it whereas Trixie's maintains it color for long seconds.
  1881. "Well, Rarity? Good enough for you?"
  1882. >"I - I suppose so," she sighs, looking back to scrutinize Trixie's mane. "It will just *have* to do, seeing as you are in such a rush."
  1883. >Her snout crinkles in distaste for a moment, but it's a fleeting expression, gone almost before you see it; she's too polite to argue any further.
  1884. >"Techpriest...?" Sunny asks her sister quietly, but Moonbeam shakes her head.
  1885. >"Couldn't be. They don't wear white."
  1886. >"Actually, they can, depending on rank and position," the larger sister responds quickly. "Particularly those of Forge World Metalica. In fact -"
  1887. >Rarity rounds on them, her irritation lost - a mere drop in the ocean that is her fury.
  1888. >"WHITE MAGE! IT'S WHITE MAGE! I SWEAR TO CELESTIA, HOW CAN YOU NOT GET THAT!?"
  1889. >Moonbeam allows a hint of a smirk to sneak onto her face.
  1890. >"I told you," she gloats softly.
  1891. >"I swear, my talents are lost on some ponies!" Rarity grumbles, still staring daggers at the cosplayers. "I can't believe I made those outfits for you."
  1892. "Whoa there!"
  1893. >You're tempted to pick the fashionista up by the scruff of her neck, but the risk of snapping it seems too high.
  1894. "I thought techpriest, too - and both of those things are native to my world, not yours."
  1895. >How *did* she know about White Mage?
  1896. >You haven't brought that kind of stuff up at all.
  1897. >”I thought better of *you*, Anon,” Rarity huffs, her swishing tale betraying the emotions her voice is barely hiding.
  1898. >It might just be the power armor talking –
  1899. >Gods, you *hope* it doesn’t start actually talking.
  1900. >– but for once, you don’t think you’ll let this slide.
  1901. “And I thought you wouldn’t know anything about video games, Rarity. I haven’t really talked about any of them – I always found tabletop games to be more interesting and thought you ponies would, too. But you were dressed as Bayonetta yesterday, and today you happen to have a spare White Mage outfit. Care to explain?”
  1902. >”I – I – waaait,” the prosthetic covering half her face screws up the expression, but she still manages to look surprised. “You mean, Trixie did *not* show you last night?”
  1903. “Show me what?”
  1904. >You cross your arms – as best you can with this armor, anyway – tapping a slow staccato beat with the claws of your left hand against the vambrace of the right. At least, that was your intention – only four beats in, Rarity interrupts with a – a noise. There’s no easy way to describe the sound.
  1905. >It’s a cross between a whistling teakettle and the indignant grunt a young puppy makes when you roll it over.
  1906. >Your fingers pause, the intended five-beat pattern cut short at four.
  1907. “Yes?”
  1908. >She makes the noise again, longer this time.
  1909. “I don’t really understand that; you’ll have to try harder. Remember, poor communication kills.”
  1910. >”You mean... *she* has not *shown* you?” Rarity whines – sorry, complains. This isn’t whining, not yet. “I thought she had *shown* you. Trixie! Didn’t you *show* him last night?”
  1911. >She gasps in shock or surprise or something when the other unicorn shakes her head.
  1912. >”Oh, this is *unacceptable*!”
  1913. >Now it’s beginning to approach whining.
  1914. >”Just – just simply unacceptable!”
  1915. >Definitely whining.
  1916. >”Well!?” she demands, stomping daintily for emphasis. “What are you waiting for? Let us be on our way!”
  1917.  
  1918. >It’s quite easy to reach the convention hall, though the streets are no less crowded than yesterday.
  1919. >For some reason, the throng is willing to part for you.
  1920. >You have no clue why – it could just as easily be due to the presence of the famous sisters as it is your armor.
  1921. >Though… you *do* seem to be the target of more than a few stares. Those you catch, anyway. More than one pony quickly averts their gaze as you look their direction, and many other seem to be looking at some point about a foot above your head. They’re looking at you, just… not quite.
  1922. >Even wearing the armor, your senses are confused; it still feels larger than it should, you feel taller than you should.
  1923. >Rarity deftly avoids all of your questions, eventually falling back on telling you it’s something better seen than told.
  1924. >The third time she repeats that, you give up. At least you’ll get some answers from her.
  1925. >Trixie is equally tight-lipped, though her answers are much simpler.
  1926. >Mostly because she *doesn’t* answer.
  1927. >Even with the illusion masking the color of her hair, her costume is all wrong for her – not just the coloring or the cut, but the role.
  1928. >Trixie as a healer?
  1929. >As a *support* character?
  1930. >No, it doesn’t feel right, at all. The mare looks so uncomfortable in her robes, you wish she’d just take them off.
  1931. >In fact, the entire group is moving in uncomfortable silence by the time you approach the front doors.
  1932. >Like before, the con staff don’t even look for your badges – a good thing, since you forgot yours.
  1933. >Not really a good place to attach it, anyway.
  1934. >They *do* look nervously at your clawed hand – and with good reason; you dimly remember that real weapons aren’t allowed.
  1935. >Obviously.
  1936. >Just like they aren’t allowed in everyday normal life in Equestria.
  1937. >You should have anticipated this being a problem, but they don’t challenge you.
  1938. >Good.
  1939. >It’s not like it would be easy to remove.
  1940. >Rarity’s steps falter as she passes through the doors – she looks down one hallway, then another.
  1941. >”Forget the way?” Sunny Smiles snarks with a flip of her head.
  1942. >”No, just… I forgot about my sister,” Rarity sighs. “I should check on her – and her friends.”
  1943. >The last bit sounds no less important to her, despite being an afterthought.
  1944. >”They left earlier this morning. *Much* earlier,” Rarity sighs. “The director sent that – that *bodyguard* to collect her.”
  1945. >The mare spits out “bodyguard” like it’s some kind of filthy slur, as if merely speaking the word somehow soils her mouth.
  1946. “Not too fond of him, I’m guessing?”
  1947. >She shakes her head quickly.
  1948. >”Not at all. He thinks himself quite funny, but in truth…”
  1949. >She pauses for a second to find the right word.
  1950. >”… he is *far* too full of himself.”
  1951. >”Kind of like Anon,” Sunny Smiles chuckles.
  1952. >”Not a bad comparison,” Rarity agrees. “Not at all.”
  1953. “But you like me, right?”
  1954. >”It’s different.”
  1955. “How?”
  1956. >Her mouth tightens into a thin line and she looks up to the ceiling.
  1957. >”That *is* a good question…”
  1958. “OKAY SO LET’S GO FIND YOUR SISTER!”
  1959. > – and not think about that any longer than necessary.
  1960. >”No, no… I may not like the stallion, but he seems to care. He’s just so annoying – and *drab*.”
  1961. >Of course that’s what she would find most annoying.
  1962. “Bad dresser?”
  1963. >”His coat is *brown*,” Rarity snarls. Politely, though. It’s a polite snarl. “On some stallions it would be dignified, but on him? It’s just… eugh.”
  1964. >She shivers slightly, trying to shake the thought from her mind.
  1965. >”Then it can wait,” Moonbeam says in her newfound monotone voice. “Curing Anon’s ignorance cannot.”
  1966. >Rarity’s shoulders come up slightly and she sighs loudly, her head dipping down almost far enough to let her mane touch the floor.
  1967. >Almost, but not quite – as always, she’s aware enough to avoid mussing her mane.
  1968. >Who knows what kind of filth other ponies have tracked in here?
  1969. >It’s surprising she lets her hooves touch the ground.
  1970. >Nevermind – she’s wearing shoes today.
  1971. >”Moonbeam is right!” she says suddenly, pulling her head up and giving everypony a stepford smile.
  1972. >You may not know smiles like Ponka, but you do know Rarity well enough to find it disquieting.
  1973. >And also well enough to know there’s no arguing with her when she’s being generous – or thinks she is.
  1974. “Then lead on.”
  1975. >The sooner you get this over with, the better.
  1976. >For everypony, it seems.
  1977. >With a rapid pace and high stride that sends her tail – and skirt – bouncing with every step, Rarity quickly leads you to the left.
  1978. >”Oh, Trixie?” Rarity calls out in a sing-song voice. “It *is* in the same place as last year, isn’t it?”
  1979. >”The humble and reserved Trixie wouldn’t know,” the blue pony answers, her voice muffled slightly by her hood. “She’s never bothered to waste her time at this *convention*.”
  1980. >Interesting way to put it, particularly from somepony who admitted trying to get space at the con last year.
  1981. >”Oh.”
  1982. >Rarity flounders before looking askance to Sunny Smiles.
  1983. >”Is there *any* chance you might –“
  1984. >”Yes.”
  1985. >”Ah, good.”
  1986. >Aaaaand you’re back to not talking.
  1987. >This might not be an improvement over yesterday.
  1988. >At least the sisters spoke in complete sentences yesterday.
  1989. >At least you knew what to expect from them… eventually.
  1990. >But this has you feeling a little lost.
  1991. >You don’t break the silence, unsure what to say or do.
  1992. >There’ll be plenty of reasons to swear and brandish your claws later – no need to cause any now.
  1993. >The hallways become emptier and emptier as you walk further away from the main event halls and permanent rooms, past more than a few that seem to be completely unused.
  1994. “This isn’t something illegal, is it…?”
  1995. >You laugh nervously, but why else would it be located so far from the actual con?
  1996. >Unless it’s…
  1997. “And if this is a sex thing, I’m turning around right now and you can’t stop me.”
  1998. >You can almost *hear* Rarity rolling her eyes, though she has the grace to keep looking straight forward so you don’t see it.
  1999. >”I’m sure *some* ponies fetishize humans, but not *everypony,*” she snarks. “You are right, Sunny Smiles – he *is* quite full of himself.”
  2000. >Fetishize humans?
  2001. >wat
  2002. “Fine, but I swear – ONE pony in a rubber human suit and…”
  2003. >You click your claws against your thigh meaningfully.
  2004. >Gods, what *is* the pony equivalent of a furry?
  2005. >Besides double heresy, of course.
  2006. >The relative normalcy of the room Rarity leads you into catches you by surprise – it’s not too different from the vendor room you visited with Twilight yesterday.
  2007. >Except for the consoles hooked up in the far corner.
  2008. >And the piles of DVDs.
  2009. >And the familiar books stacked on the tables.
  2010. >And the –
  2011. > – the *un*familiar books.
  2012. “Is that...”
  2013. >”Realm of Chaos: Lost and the Damned?” the salespony asks, finishing your question for you. “Yes, is it.”
  2014. “I’ve never even seen a copy…”
  2015. >Not in this world, and not in the last.
  2016. >This shouldn’t be here.
  2017. >None of this should be here.
  2018. “How is this possible?”
  2019. >”We have our sources,” the salespony answers with a wink. “You should know – after all, you’re polymorphed as one of them.”
  2020. “Let’s say I don’t.”
  2021. >You lean forward, resting your hands on the table and –
  2022. >Bad idea!
  2023. >BAD IDEA!
  2024. >You stand up straight before the table can collapse under your weight, but it does groan unhappily.
  2025. >There’s been a way back this whole time – apparently one that goes both ways – and nopony ever told you.
  2026. >Not until you don’t want to go.
  2027. >If this is possible, why did Trixie want you to take her with you?
  2028. >Couldn’t she go on her own?
  2029. >”Summoning magic,” the mare behind the table answers, watching you warily. “Haven’t you ever hired a unicorn to find your lost keys? It’s the same principle.”
  2030. “So any unicorn could do this?”
  2031. >”Of course not,” Trixie hisses from your side. “Even with the Alicorn Amulet, it was beyond Trixie. It takes a *true* alicorn to manage magic on this scale.”
  2032. >That bitch.
  2033. >She *brought* you here.
  2034. >That… BITCH.
  2035. “And… sending things back…?”
  2036. >”It’s *summoning* magic,” your friend says pointedly. “Not *sending* magic.”
  2037. >”It only goes one way, Anon,” Sunny Smiles chimes in. “Believe me, some of us have tried.”
  2038. “Not anymore. Celestia said she was sending me back.”
  2039. >The salespony backs away slightly, though the tables surrounding her stop the retreat from going too far.
  2040. >”Send you back…?” she asks, suddenly nervous. “Don’t tell me –“
  2041. “Yes. I’m human.”
  2042. >”Oh, Celestia,” she moans fearfully, “please just let this be another crazy cosplayer.”
  2043. >"Oh, you - *you* - ugh!" Rarity huffs, frowning at you. "I should have known you would cause problems, Anon. Why do you always have to make everything *soooo* difficult?"
  2044. "I'm not trying to!"
  2045. >"Even when you are *not* trying, you somehow find a way!"
  2046. >The unicorn rears up, throwing her forehooves into the air to emphasize her frustration.
  2047. "Fine, I'm sorry."
  2048. >For what, you're not sure, but when in doubt, apologize to the lady - or mare.
  2049. "I'll just ask Twi about it later."
  2050. >She should know, right...? If has anything to do with magic, she'll know.
  2051. >But that would mean -
  2052. >"She does not know a *thing* about this," Rarity sighs. "She has *always* spent the entire con in the vendor room."
  2053. >Good.
  2054. >Kind of.
  2055. >You'd hate to think she was hiding this from you.
  2056. >That would have been bad.
  2057. >Too much trust would have been lost for this relationship to survive.
  2058. >You look around the room, taking it all in.
  2059. >The room isn't as large as you thought at first - maybe three or four vendors, a few video games in the corner, a smallish TV with a DVD player showing some anime - some kind of magical girl bullshit. Not your cup of tea.
  2060. >"I thought you would be overjoyed," Rarity says aggressively. "You know, a little slice of home and all that. I am surprised and disappointed by your... your... reaction. Particularly considering how much it has grown."
  2061. >"Oh hell yes," Sunny growls, looking over a nearby table. "The room wasn't even half as full last year."
  2062. >Moonbeam's head jerks towards her sister abruptly - you realize with a start that she had been watching whatever anime was playing.
  2063. >You hadn't really expected that of her.
  2064. >"Remember the year before that?" the grey mare asks. "There were only a few items scattered through the vender room. Most of the sellers didn't really know what they were - they thought those D&D books were some homebrew knockoff of Bn'B."
  2065. >"And the DVDs?" Sunny laughs. "Remember that one stallion who tried to sell them as collectable fantasy coasters?"
  2066. "And nopony thought to tell me before now?"
  2067. >The others fall silent at your whisper, even Sunny. Perhaps you assume too much, but her wary stance doesn't surprise you; nothing can read its master's emotions with more accuracy than a loyal hound.
  2068. >"Well, I - I wasn't sure just how to bring it up," Rarity stammers, "or, well -"
  2069. "You've had a year. Plenty of time to figure out a way."
  2070. >"Not *quite* a year - remember, you spent that month -"
  2071. "Of course I remember."
  2072. >Somehow, your voice doesn't grow any louder, and that... that *terrifies* her, sending her skittering backwards away from you, bumping into another pony, then a table. The force of the impact sends some of the merchandise swaying unsteadily.
  2073. >Despite the wrathful urge deep in your soul to sweep the table - and everything on it - aside, you reach out and gently steady it.
  2074. >Destruction for the sake of destruction leads to Chaos.
  2075. >"I thought you knew!" you friend screams as she sees your hand come closer. "You had those books and games and - and -"
  2076. "Pinkie Pie got them for me."
  2077. >”Oh.”
  2078. >There’s something truly pitiful about the way the she utters it.
  2079. “So she knew all about this, too, huh?”
  2080. >Of course she did.
  2081. “I must be an idiot, because I thought it was just Ponka being Ponka.”
  2082. >Rarity lunges forward in a panic, planting her forehooves on your breastplate.
  2083. >”Please, do not be angry with her!” the unicorn begs. “You know just how much she *loves* surprises – there’s no way she could have brought herself to spoil this!”
  2084. >The white pony commands your attention, but you still see Trixie’s nervous movements out of the corner of your eye.
  2085. >That’s right – she also knew.
  2086. >You look away from the ponies, pretending to study the items on the table Rarity had bumped.
  2087. >No, actually looking at them – a few items catch your eye and you welcome the distraction.
  2088. >Huh, Salvatore is still writing those same characters.
  2089. >At least, you don’t recognize that title, so it’s probably new.
  2090. >Probably.
  2091. >The wear on the cover says otherwise.
  2092. >You expect other Forgotten Realms books to be nearby, but no – the merchandise isn’t organized like that, instead more of a jumbled mess.
  2093. >The first and fourth books in a series, but not the two in-between.
  2094. >A handful of obscure supplements for an rpg, but none of the core books.
  2095. >All with signs of heavy use.
  2096. >None of the DVDs are shrink-wrapped, nor the boardgames.
  2097. >”Everything is constant circulation,” Sunny explains, seeing you run a finger across one broken spine. “We – we haven’t managed to bring much over. I wouldn’t be surprised if half of the human-made products in Equestria are in this room.”
  2098. >A whine from Rarity pulls your attention back to her. In truth, you had almost forgotten about the unicorn, though she still has her hooves pressed against your breastplate.
  2099. >You don’t feel them. You don’t really feel anything right now.
  2100. >The utter despair in her eyes plays on your instincts, though, and you raise your left hand to pat her head comfortingly.
  2101. >Your left.
  2102. >Almost too late, you remember the claws.
  2103. >Not almost.
  2104. >It is too late.
  2105. >You didn’t touch her – you stopped before that, at least – but the claws loom over her face ominously.
  2106. >All it would take is a twitch of your hand to blind her, a flick of your wrist to tear her head from her neck.
  2107. >Even trying to be kind, you nearly hurt your friend.
  2108. >Humans *are* monsters.
  2109. >You step back quickly, sending Rarity tumbling to the ground as she loses her balance.
  2110. >She doesn’t even manage an outraged squawk, falling to her knees in surprised silence.
  2111. “I – I’m going for a walk now.”
  2112. >”Where…?” Trixie asks.
  2113. >She knows better than to follow.
  2114. “I don’t know.”
  2115. >”Then stay,” the unicorn whimpers. “You should stay.”
  2116. “I can’t.”
  2117. >You only promised one pony that, and it wasn’t her.
  2118. >”Why not!?”
  2119. >You look down at your fallen friend.
  2120. >Rarity is still lying on the ground.
  2121. >You want to kick her.
  2122. >With all your heart and soul, you want to drive your armored boot into her side, to punish her for her betrayal, to get revenge, to –
  2123. “I can’t say.”
  2124. >You take another step backwards before turning and striding away.
  2125. >You hold out a hand – you *right* hand – to ward off Sunny and her sister as they move to follow you.
  2126. “No.”
  2127. >The pair seem unhappy, but they don’t argue.
  2128. >Good.
  2129. >Beta revenge fantasies are one thing – you’ve wished harm upon Sunny more than once in the short time you’ve known her – but this is different.
  2130. >You *feel* different.
  2131. >As if every negative emotion you have is being amplified, made larger than life.
  2132. >No, it’s not safe to be around you right now.
  2133. >”Is he really human…?” one of the vendors asks in your wake. “He let her live – he *can’t* be human.”
  2134. >”You don’t know anything about humans, do you?” a part of your brain hears Rarity scream at the other pony, having snapped out of her fugue. “They aren’t like that! They aren’t like that at all!”
  2135. >If only that were true.
  2136. >Three steps before the doorway, you pause.
  2137. “I might be back for that book.”
  2138. >Twilight would love it.
  2139. >You don’t look back to check, but you’re positive the vendor nods.
  2140.  
  2141. >Your heavy tread caries you up and down the hallways of CanterCon, leading further and further from the backrooms until you reach the main event halls. You hadn’t meant to come this way – you hadn’t meant to go near *anypony* – but your anger drained away the more distance you put between you and that room.
  2142. >It’s as if a veil had been lifted from your eyes, allowing you to see and feel everything properly.
  2143. >It hurts, yes, but Rarity thought she had been doing the right thing.
  2144. >She hadn’t intentionally betrayed you, just as you hadn’t intentionally meant to threaten her with your clawed hand.
  2145. >Even the most innocent of things can go awry.
  2146. >Still, it hurts.
  2147. >And… maybe that’s why.
  2148. >Why she hadn’t said anything earlier.
  2149. >Because what hurts most – her silence, or knowing that they’ve always had access to your world? That everything you missed could be returned to you?
  2150. >You’re not sure.
  2151. >There’s no guarantee Rarity would still be in that room, so there’s no point going back to apologize. She’ll be at the game tonight – you can do it then.
  2152. >And Trixie… you don’t really know how to feel about that. She opened up to you this weekend, true, but only a few days ago you told Twilight that the magician wasn’t even your friend. There’s no reason she would have told you about this – hell, she didn’t even know about that backroom.
  2153. >You need to get your mind off of this – being alone is giving you time to think, and that’s never a good thing. It would be best to stop now, while you’re ahead.
  2154. >While you have some nice thoughts tumbling around in your skull instead of an overwhelming desire to burn everything.
  2155. >Your steps turn towards the demo room – maybe you can find a nice new game. Maybe something for nine or ten players, maybe co-op.
  2156. >Something you can play with your friends.
  2157. >*All* of your friends.
  2158. >You walk through the doors – thank the stars it’s a double, otherwise you might not have been able to fit – and look around. The room is still pretty empty, probably because most attendees are still sleeping off the night before. The staffpony running the room looks up from the board he’s setting up and gives you a quick nod.
  2159. >”Anythin’ in particular yer looking fer?”
  2160. “Something for a large number of players.”
  2161. >”’fraid we don’t got many players yet, an’ only a handful o’ games like that.”
  2162. “I noticed.”
  2163. >You shrug – it’s not that important, since you’d have to go to the vendor room to find a copy to buy anyway.
  2164. “I’ll just look around.”
  2165. >”Okie-dokie.”
  2166. >There’s a soft chortle from the far corner, where a chessboard is set up. *Something* is sitting in one of the chairs.
  2167. >”Did you *hear* that guy?” the creature laughs. “Must be one of those *Apples*.”
  2168. “Maybe.”
  2169. >”But speaking of apples, how *is* my favorite one doing? And – oh my – you’re even wearing the right color!”
  2170. "Discord, I presume?"
  2171. >You can't think of anyone - or anything - else that would match the creature's hodgepodge body.
  2172. >A particularly lucky Chaos Spawn, perhaps, but the soft tilt of it's head indicates you were correct.
  2173. "Shouldn't you be female, humanoid, and Greek?"
  2174. >"I could be whatever I want," it - he - smirks, waving for you to take a seat. "Care for a game? I'm already playing four or five, but I think I can fit one more in. Just for you."
  2175. >The chair doesn't look like it would even fit you, let alone hold your weight - those thin legs would snap almost instantly.
  2176. >"Chicken...?" Discord asks, holding out a - of course he does - holding out a chicken. "Or are you worried I'll beat you?"
  2177. >His bushy white eyebrows wiggle, slightly out of sync, as he stares at you.
  2178. >"Is the great and powerful Anon scared of lil' ol' meeeee?"
  2179. >Considering he's a literal reality warper, yes. Fuck yes.
  2180. >"Oh!" he exclaims pulling his head back slightly. "The *chair* of course!"
  2181. >His left eye flashes shut in a bizarre wink.
  2182. >"There! That's more suitable, don't you think?"
  2183. >A golden throne.
  2184. >He replaced the fragile wooden chair with a golden throne.
  2185. "I *think* I need to go get Fluttershy."
  2186. >The shy pegasus doesn't have many uses, but from what the others have said, keeping this asshole in line is one of them.
  2187. >"Oh, there's no need for thaaaat," Discord says, trying to wave away your concerns with a flip of his paw.
  2188. >The movement stirs the air, causing a gentle breeze that shuffles around the game pieces on a nearby table, completely changing the game's scenario.
  2189. >"Really!" Discord insists. "I don't feel like playing her right now. Not when I have *you*."
  2190. >He puts his elbows on the table and leans forward to bat his eyelashes in some... horrible... very horrible... attempt to convince you.
  2191. "No."
  2192. >This would not end well.
  2193. >Sitting down to play a game with one of Equestria's enemies?
  2194. >You knew the con staff were pretty ineffectual, but... seriously.
  2195. >It's Discord.
  2196. >What the hell.
  2197. "How did you even get in here?"
  2198. >"Same as everypony else," he answers innocently, pulling a badge out of nowhere and flashing it at you. "My dear friend Fluttershy was *very* insistent I follow the rules."
  2199. >His head darts around on his long neck, examining you carefully.
  2200. >"Oh, dear. And just where is *your* badge?"
  2201. "I'm the only human in Equestria - do I *really* need one?"
  2202. >"And *I* am Discord," he chides, waving the badge just enough to bring your attention back to it. "*Everypony* knows who I am. Now sit down and play, or I might just have to make Fluttershy proud and point out a rulebreaker to the proper authorities."
  2203. >His snaggletoothed grin isn't very convincing. Disturbing, certainly. Possibly even scary.
  2204. >So this is what ponies feel when you smile at them.
  2205. >A slight quiver in your soul when you realize an alpha predator is toying with you.
  2206. "No."
  2207. >You never did like being told what to do.
  2208. >It catches him by surprise - or at least, he pretends to be surprised.
  2209. >"Well that *is* disappointing," Discord sighs. "I *really* wanted to play a new game."
  2210. "As did I, but I don't think I'll find it here."
  2211. >You turn away from the creature - the selection here is pretty thin anyway, with not enough players to give any of the games you're looking for a proper go.
  2212. >The vendor room would be a better place to hunt.
  2213. >"Well, then sit!" Discord insists. "You *do* want to know how you got here, don't you?"
  2214. >You look back abruptly, just in time to see him finish his first move.
  2215. >"Your turn."
  2216. "Whatever you tell me would just be another lie."
  2217. >Discord gasps, clapping his talons to his chest over where his heart could possibly be.
  2218. >"My dear sir, you *wound* me!" he hisses, sniffling like he's struggling to hold back tears. "Not one word of *mine* has been a lie!"
  2219. >Is he implying you -?
  2220. >No.
  2221. >He's right.
  2222. >Your friends. He means your friends.
  2223. >"Besides, truth is subjective. What is it that dreadful game of yours says? Hrm..."
  2224. >He taps his chin with one of his talons, humming tunelessly to himself as he tries to remember what.
  2225. "Facts are chains that bind perception and fetter truth."
  2226. >"Oh, but that's only *half* of it," Discord laughs. "For a man can remake the world if he has a dream and no facts to cloud his mind."
  2227. >He gestures to the throne with an open paw.
  2228. >"Now sit," he commands, “and let me tell you of a dream."
  2229. "Your dream?"
  2230. >"Mine? Oh certainly not!" he chortles, "A princess's."
  2231. "Twilight?"
  2232. >"Celestia."
  2233. "And why would I give a damn?"
  2234. >"Because she's why you're here. I suggest you make your move, since this *is* timed -"
  2235. >Bullshit, that clock wasn't there earlier.
  2236. >"- and it looks like you're almost out of time."
  2237. >Fucking reality warpers.
  2238. "What do you mean, she's why I'm here? She brought me to Equestria?"
  2239. >"I *really* suggest you take your turn," Discord warns you. "If you lose on the first turn, I might decide you're not worth playing."
  2240. "I don't want to play a game."
  2241. >"But I do! Do you have any idea how boring it is, being functionally immortal in a world with little to no technological or societal progress?"
  2242. >He immediately bursts into laughter and slaps his forehead.
  2243. >"Look who I'm talking to. Of course you do!"
  2244. >You reach over and carefully pick up a black pawn, moving it forward to block his.
  2245. "It's just a costume."
  2246. >You're pretty sure you're not immortal.
  2247. >Never tested it, though.
  2248. >It's possible.
  2249. >"Well, I *know* that, but thanks for ruining the immersion," Discord huffs, quickly moving up another pawn. "I had this whole 'you're going to die' thing planned out and everything!"
  2250. "I know."
  2251. >With caution, you lower yourself into the chair Discord had provided.
  2252. "The golden throne, the chessboard, the secret hidden in a dream? You couldn't have laid the symbolism on any thicker. Tell me - is the armor your doing, too?"
  2253. >"No."
  2254. >He pouts as you bring up another pawn to block his.
  2255. >"That came from somewhere else."
  2256. >He can't keep the envy from his voice.
  2257. >"Probably would have, though."
  2258. >Another pawn is shoved towards you.
  2259. >"I feel it puts you in the right frame of mind to understand Celestia."
  2260. "Jerkass?"
  2261. >"Lonely."
  2262. "Bullshit."
  2263. >You shove another pawn back.
  2264. "She has an entire nation that practically worships her."
  2265. >Literally in some cases.
  2266. >"For someone so perceptive, you really aren't."
  2267. >He sighs in disappointment as he reaches forward to pick up yet another pawn - is he ever going to actually *play*? - and wave it in your face.
  2268. >"Celestia - poor filly - doesn't have any equals save her sister. None that she can be friends with, anyway."
  2269. >He doesn't even try to be subtle about what he means, thrusting out the part of his body that could be his chest and pointing to himself with both hands.
  2270. >"And Luna... well..."
  2271. >His absurdly long body lets him reach all the way across the table to whisper into your ear - at least, as close as you let him get. You don't know if your claws will do him any real harm, but he stops when you raise your left hand.
  2272. >"Oh, fine, be that way," he grumbles. "ANYWAY, Luna was banished for a thousand years."
  2273. "I know this. Make your move."
  2274. >He plants the pawn back on the board, but doesn't remove his paw from it.
  2275. >"There's not a thousand years’ worth of things to do in this wretched little place."
  2276. "So?"
  2277. >You make your next move without waiting for him to let go of his piece.
  2278. >Another pawn, another stalling move.
  2279. >"Eternity can be boring," Discord answers, moving the same piece again, this time capturing one of yours. "Sometimes it's good to change things up a bit."
  2280. "Well, that bitch should have learned to deal with it instead of bringing me here."
  2281. >"That is a riot, Anon!" Discord bellows, slapping one of his knees with his paw. "Celestia!? Brought you here!? Why would you even THINK that!?"
  2282. "So it was you."
  2283. >You make your move then, capturing the pawn that had taken one of yours.
  2284. >"Meeeee!? What!? No!? Why would you even think that!"
  2285. >He nudges yet another pawn forward.
  2286. "Because you're Discord. It's what you do - you screw with people."
  2287. >"No, I make life *interesting*," he corrects, telegraphing his next move by putting his talons on a new pawn. "I *may* have made things a little easier, but that's all."
  2288. "Easier how?"
  2289. >You move to counter his next, but Discord doesn't bother to change things up - he moves the piece exactly where you expected him to.
  2290. >"I *may* have let slip some information about other worlds, maaaaaybe gave her an idea or two how to reach them. But *you* -"
  2291. >He shivers in excitement.
  2292. >"*You* weren't supposed to happen. A certain amount of crossover between the realms is natural - ideas and beliefs spread easily."
  2293. "Is that how Celestia got the idea for Burrows and Basilisks?"
  2294. >You pluck his pawn from the board, moving one of your own into the space.
  2295. >"Maybe," he answers dismissively. "I'm not really interested in the how."
  2296. >He pushes forward another piece, not even looking to see what he's moving or where.
  2297. >It's easily blocked.
  2298. "So what does interest you?"
  2299. >"Sometimes the why," he admits, "but mostly I enjoy sitting back and watching the chaos unfold. That's why you're so much fun!"
  2300. >Discord repeats his last move with a new piece.
  2301. >"Though, I have to say, you *have* been a little disappointing in that regard."
  2302. >Another godsdammed pawn!
  2303. >"I expected the princesses to fight over you, but *nooooooo*!"
  2304. >He adopts the standard pose, falling to his knees to scream the last word at the ceiling.
  2305. >"Celestia had to go and act the martyr and let Twilight Sparkle have you all to herself. I should be surprised, since your little pink friend wouldn't let anything else happen."
  2306. "What."
  2307. >"Oh, you really didn't have a clue?"
  2308. >He gives you a toothy smile and suddenly retakes his seat without moving.
  2309. >"Pinkie Pie brought you here to get Twilight Sparkle laid."
  2310. "Next time I see Ponka..."
  2311. >Discord bites his lower lip in excitement.
  2312. "... I'll have to thank her."
  2313. >"I was *not* expecting that," he gasps. 'Well done!"
  2314. >You take another of his pawns to no reaction.
  2315. >"Still, doesn't it anger you -"
  2316. "Which part? No, don't answer, because it doesn't matter. You're just telling a story."
  2317. >"True enough," he admits, pushing forward yet another -
  2318. "How many pawns did you start with!?"
  2319. >"Sixteen."
  2320. "Didn't Fluttershy tell you to follow the rules."
  2321. >"I am!"
  2322. "Chess isn't played like this."
  2323. >He jerks his hand away from the board like it just caught fire.
  2324. >"You're playing chess!?"
  2325. "Um. Yes."
  2326. >"Oh."
  2327. >He gives one of his many pawns a poke, almost knocking it over.
  2328. >"I wasn't."
  2329. >Discord gives a slight shrug and gestures to you with his paw.
  2330. >"I believe it is your turn."
  2331. "We aren't playing the same game - I don't even know *what* you're playing."
  2332. >"Does it really matter?" he asks disdainfully. "Both games use the same pieces."
  2333. >Good enough.
  2334. >It's not like sat down to play a game, it's just a way to get Discord to talk.
  2335. >You move again to block his pawns' advance.
  2336. "So, Panks brought me here? How?"
  2337. >"I don't really know," Discord admits. "Like I said, the how rarely interests me."
  2338. "What about the books and other things from my world? Somepony told me they were brought here using summoning magic of some kind."
  2339. >His head bobs once as he studies the board; you take that as an affirmation.
  2340. "Could that be how I was brought to Equestria?"
  2341. >"Not at all! That kind of pony magic doesn't work on living creatures."
  2342. >He reaches out towards one pawn, but hesitates at the last second, instead reaching for one on the other side of the board and pushing it forward.
  2343. >"Crossing between the worlds isn't mere child's play," Discord chides. "I've made it considerably easier, but bringing over something as simple as a book is too much for all-but the most powerful unicorns - or those who specialize in such things. If something is too complex, it never makes the move complete."
  2344. >He gives you an innocent smile.
  2345. >"Of course, that might be why you don't remember your name, Anonymous. Makes me wonder what else you forgot in the space between places."
  2346. >He moves up another piece, even though your last move put him in a place to capture one of yours.
  2347. >"Probably nothing," he says offhand, "but it's not like you wouldn't know, is it? A living creature is just too complicated to have made the transition completely intact, and since your body seems fine..."
  2348. >The apologetic smile he gives you doesn't do any good.
  2349. >"But that's just me rambling. Pay it no heed."
  2350. >You push forward a piece, filling a gap in your line - and putting it in a perfect spot to be captured.
  2351. >From Discord's sudden frown, it seems he doesn't like that.
  2352. >Splendid.
  2353. >The expression passes in a heartbeat, but only because he hides it.
  2354. >"You know, I could help you find a way back, if you want," he hints, pushing a piece forward one space. "You may even regain whatever memories you lost when you get back. Magic can be funny that way."
  2355. "But would I still remember my time here?"
  2356. >"The newest memories are usually the first to go."
  2357. "Pretty sure I had my name all my life."
  2358. >"Usually," he repeats. "Not always."
  2359. >You pretend to think his offer over for a minute.
  2360. "No, I don't think I want to go back. Thanks for the offer, but I'd miss my friends."
  2361. >Another move from you blocks off his last option - he has to start capturing your pieces now if he intends to keep playing whatever it is he's playing.
  2362. >"Even if you can't remember them?"
  2363. "Hopefully."
  2364. >"Interesting."
  2365. >For some reason, you don't believe that.
  2366. >Perhaps it's the way he doesn't look up, his eyes darting all over the board looking for a move.
  2367. >Your gamble was right; he's trying to avoid capturing your pieces.
  2368. >Weirdo.
  2369. "What I don't get is -"
  2370. >Besides whatever he's doing with all the pawns.
  2371. " - why would you even offer to help? It sounded like you enjoyed the disruption I caused."
  2372. >"Well, yes, that was fun to watch," Discord absently responds, his paw hovering over one pawn, then another. "But frankly, it's gotten a little boring, and it wasn't all I had hoped for to begin with."
  2373. "And you think me disappearing would have a bigger effect?"
  2374. >"Precisely!"
  2375. >He looks up to give you a smile, but the expression sours.
  2376. >"Oh," he grunts. "Celestia and Luna have come to ruin my fun *yet again*."
  2377. >You twist - and are immediately surprised that you *can*, but apparently this armor is amazingly non-restrictive. Your eyes follow his and... damn... Sunny Smiles and Moonbeam are walking towards you.
  2378. >Dammit, you wanted more answers.
  2379. "Ignore them."
  2380. >You turn back to the creature.
  2381. "And stop stalling. It's your turn."
  2382. >"Oh my, how brave of you to snub the two most powerful ponies in Equestria!"
  2383. >His paw darts forward, replacing one of your pieces with one of his pawns.
  2384. >He had been stalling - now the game has changed and he's willing to capture your pieces.
  2385. "I don't care if they *are* Celestia and Luna, I want -"
  2386. >And then it clicks.
  2387. "They are, aren't they?"
  2388. >"I was beginning to wonder if your memories were the only thing you had lost," Discord answers, staring at the board intently, "but don't worry, you'll forget again in a few seconds."
  2389. "Why didn't I realize it until now!?"
  2390. >"Magic. It's your turn - make your move while you still can."
  2391. "That's a bullshit answer."
  2392. >"But it's true! I helped Celestia come up with the spell," he says proudly, though how much of it is acting you cannot say. "Something that basically makes it impossible for anypony to recognize alicorns. Now make your move."
  2393. >You push a rook forward one square, just to shut him up.
  2394. "Why would she want a spell like that?"
  2395. >"Like I told you, she's bored."
  2396. >He moves a pawn forward to threaten your rook.
  2397. >"Once you've done everything, what choice do you really have but to do it all again as somepony else?"
  2398. >Unsurprisingly, he manages to very convincingly pull of Celestia's voice. Helped that he adopted her head for a second.
  2399. >"At least, that's what she claimed. *I* think our sun princess needs to work off some steam from time to time without ruining her reputation."
  2400. “Twi will be happy to hear she was right.”
  2401. >”Oh? About what?”
  2402. “Yesterday, when nopony recognized her, she thought there might be something like that in effect.”
  2403. >Discord nods sagely, without any real meaning.
  2404. “I know you don’t care about how things are done, but Twilight will want to hear about it.”
  2405. >”So you want me to tell you the specifics?”
  2406. “It can’t hurt.”
  2407. >He thinks it over for a second and snaps his… fingers…? Finger-analogues?
  2408. >”Sure, why not. Anything for you, pal!”
  2409. “First off, want to make sure we finish our game in peace?”
  2410. >”Do you really think so little of me?” he sighs. “Look around – it’s already taken care of.”
  2411. >And so it is – dice are frozen in mid-tumble and the sisters in mid-step.
  2412. >”So what will our little book pony want to know?”
  2413. “What exactly the spell does.”
  2414. >”Celestia wanted a spell that would cover a large area and made alicorns recognizable only if the other pony knew who she was *and* she’s wearing royal regalia.”
  2415. “Sounds pretty specific.”
  2416. >”Not as much as you’d think. Make your move.”
  2417. >You carefully pull the rook back to its starting space.
  2418. “What do you mean? I mean… ‘royal regalia’? Why would she even have that in there?”
  2419. >”So she could make an appearance as herself if necessary,” he answers pushing forward his pawn to threaten the rook again. “You know, incase war broke out or something boring like that and she needed to take command. Unfortunately, it also means she can’t dress up as any kind of royalty for these little events, which is surprisingly limiting. But even with those restrictions in place, Celestia goes through the bother of polymorphing herself into a pegasus.”
  2420. >You shove your rook past his pawn.
  2421. >”Personally, I think she’s going a little overboard with the secrecy,” Discord confides, “but perhaps I’m not the best to judge, since I’m really starting to wonder why I’m bothering to explain this. You probably won’t remember once I unfreeze time.”
  2422. “I may know who she is now, but she’d have to be wearing royal clothing for me to remember –“
  2423. >”Exactly!”
  2424. “ – but costumes apparently count –“
  2425. >“Oddly enough, they *do*. We did *extensive* testing.”
  2426. “ – and she’s currently dressed up as the Wolf-King.”
  2427. >”Oh.”
  2428. >Discord sighs loudly.
  2429. >”You win.”
  2430. “Because I’m going to remember?”
  2431. >”What? No! Who cares about that?”
  2432. >A talon jabs accusingly at your rook.
  2433. >“You probing attack penetrated deep into my defensive line. This situation is impossible to salvage.”
  2434. >With a wave of his talons, Discord’s remaining pawns tip over, some rolling off the table to scatter across the floor.
  2435. >”Like I said, you win.”
  2436. >As the last pawn wobbles to a halt, he pushes back his chair and stands. His paw stretches out across the table and you meet it with your right hand.
  2437. >Unlike with the ponies, you aren’t particularly worried about what your armor might do to Discord.
  2438. >He’s a big… something. He can take it.
  2439. >Indeed, the paw escapes the shake unscathed.
  2440. >”Well that was fun, but I *really* must get going.”
  2441. “Probably a good idea. But I have one question…”
  2442. >”Is there a way to keep your memories of Equestria?”
  2443. “No. What the hell were you playing?”
  2444. >He shrugs.
  2445. >”Haven’t the faintest clue.”
  2446. >You were beginning to suspect that.
  2447. “Oh, and could you remember to restart time before you leave?”
  2448. >”Anon, what are you doing?” Moonbeam – Luna, you presume – asks, coming up to your side. “Was that Discord?”
  2449. >Ah, cheeky bastard already took care of it, though a little warning would have been nice.
  2450. >Sunny – Celestia – approaches on your other side, coming around to look at the table.
  2451. >”Waiting for an opponent?”
  2452. >You glance down to the board. Apparently Discord reset the board before he left – and replaced his pawnhorde with the normal pieces.
  2453. “Why are you here?”
  2454. >She flinches away at your words – right, of course she would. You hadn’t walked away in the best of moods. Still, she looks you in the eyes when she answers.
  2455. >She wears this persona well.
  2456. >Headstrong.
  2457. >Assertive.
  2458. >Doing what she thinks is best for others, even as they rail against it.
  2459. >Casting you out of the castle, throwing you to that strange purple pony that *did* have time for you.
  2460. >That bitch.
  2461. >Celestia’s eyes flicker between her normal magenta and golden yellow as the illusion fails and reasserts itself.
  2462. >That’s how the sisters had those special effects in their show.
  2463. >How they managed to have magic to accent their costumes.
  2464. >Why wouldn’t they go all out?
  2465. >”You’re needed,” Celesta repeats insistently – you had been so lost for a minute there, you completely missed what she said the first time around.
  2466. “A God-Emperor’s work is never done, is it?”
  2467. >You fling your hands into the air.
  2468. ”Fine, lead on…  Sunny.”
  2469. >No reason to let slip that particular bit of information so soon. Not after letting so many of her hints pass over your head.
  2470. >As you follow the pair out of the demo room, you begin to wonder.
  2471. >If these are the royal sisters – and while it seems so obvious to you now, you don’t exactly have proof beyond Discord’s word – if they are, then who was that Celestia you backhanded this morning?
  2472. >Probably some (relatively) innocent changeling.
  2473. >Though considering the princesses are willing to work alongside Discord for their own amusement, you wouldn’t be surprised to find out it was Chrysalis.
  2474. >Shit, better be on the lookout for Tirek.
  2475. >He’s probably her secret lover or something like that.
  2476. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
  2477. >”I already did,” Sun/Tia answers.
  2478. >Probably while you were zoned out. Crap.
  2479. “No, I want you to tell me what’s *really* going on.”
  2480. >That should hide your lapse of attention.
  2481. >Hopefully.
  2482. >Moonbeam/Luna – FUCK, HOW DID YOU NOT GET THIS – edges away from you uncomfortably.
  2483. >”He is as perceptive as always, sister.”
  2484. >FUCK HER BACKHANDED COMPLIMENT!
  2485. >”He knows.”
  2486. >Oh.
  2487. >”Of course he does,” Sunbeam sighs. “He always does.”
  2488. >Damn, you are one HELL of an actor.
  2489. “Out with it.”
  2490. >”You… well…” the faux-pegasus stammers.
  2491. “By your Emperor’s command.”
  2492. >”Not to cast judgment on your decisions, but you need to apologize to your friend.”
  2493. >Probably.
  2494. >Dammit, you *were* going to do it, just… later.
  2495. >Stupid marshmallow world demands a resolution to any conflicts in thirty minutes or less.
  2496. “Do you agree, L –“
  2497. >You almost laugh as the smaller sister’s eyes almost pop out of her head.
  2498. “ – Lion?”
  2499. >”What!? Oh, yes.”
  2500. >That brief reaction is confirmation enough for you. Discord was telling the truth, or part of it, at least.
  2501. >And that would explain why Coco didn’t recognize Twi, same for that mare in the hallway. Why the others at the Bn’B game only really recognized her when she reappeared with her hoofcaps and torc.
  2502. >Twilight is going to be ecstatic when she finds out she was right.
  2503. >Less so when she finds out about that room full of human artifacts, and what happened there.
  2504. “You truly think I made a mistake?”
  2505. >Overall, you think you handled it well, considering what you felt at the time.
  2506. >”I – I think it’s what she needs,” Luna – no, Moonbeam – answers.
  2507. >If you think of them as their real selves, you’re going to make a mistake.
  2508. “You’re breaking character, but I agree.”
  2509. >”I’m glad,” Sunny grins at you, those canines poking out once again. “When you stormed out, she took it hard. Went on a buying spree –“
  2510. >Sounds like a very Rarity way of dealing with things.
  2511. “What did she get?”
  2512. >Sunny doesn’t answer immediately, her attention on forcing a way through a crowded intersection, so Moonbeam does it for her.
  2513. >”Human movies. Horrible things.”
  2514. “Horrible things?”
  2515. >”They reminded me of Rodyo Gore Guards.”
  2516. “Oh? You’ve seen that, too?”
  2517. >”No!” she shouts in outrage, pushing through the crowd behind you.
  2518. >If only these ponies knew who they were obstructing.
  2519. “But you know of it?”
  2520. >”Of course. Certain fandoms have a tendency to overlap.”
  2521. >It’s not hard to make the jump from one nerdy interest to another and another.
  2522. “Sunny Smiles’ favorite movie?”
  2523. >”No, but close.”
  2524. >You finally clear the crowd and the open space allows Moonbeam to trot up beside you, though her sister continues to prowl just ahead. Not quite out of earshot, but close enough considering the background noise of the con.
  2525. “Seems out of character for her.”
  2526. >That bitch would never watch something like that, right?
  2527. >”Usually she prefers scares over violence,” the mare sighs, “but when she’s in a certain mood…”
  2528. “You sound a little annoyed.”
  2529. >She tosses her head to one side, flipping her purple mane back.
  2530. >”Just give me a decent romantic comedy and we’re happy.”
  2531. >Oh, she slipped up there. She pauses for a second, as if realizing her mistake.
  2532. >”A romantic comedy and a stallion to cuddle up to, I mean.”
  2533. >Huh, you never suspected that Luna was straight.
  2534. >Or anything, really.
  2535. >”Or mare,” she continues. “It doesn’t really matter. I’d even take a warm blanket and some pillows.”
  2536. >Ah.
  2537. “Doesn’t really seem your style. I mean, you were dressed up as Stocking Anarchy yesterday, so I assumed –”
  2538. >”Yes, well, that show has a certain… um…”
  2539. “Vulgar elegance?”
  2540. >”Yes, we will go with that,” she agrees quickly, with a dip of her head. “Though I normally prefer shojo.”
  2541. “Magical girl shows?”
  2542. >A faint hint of pink appears on her cheeks.
  2543. “I noticed you watching the show they had playing.”
  2544. >”Ah,” she grunts. “You are correct.”
  2545. >You really would have expected that more from Celestia, or anything really where the power of love and friendship saves the day.
  2546. >Bitch probably loves the hell out of Care Bears.
  2547. “I guess that’s something the two of you share…?”
  2548. >”Sometimes.”
  2549. >She doesn’t explain any further, perhaps because her sister has slowed her pace, dropping back to join the two of you.
  2550. >“Actually, I’ll watch anything once,” the white mare says, catching you by surprise. “Except Boku no Pico.”
  2551. >That part – not a surprise.
  2552. >”Or any of the D&D movies.”
  2553. >Nor that, really.
  2554. >”I just enjoy watching things that are *new*,” she continues. “Equestrian cinema is just so… so… simple!”
  2555. >Another point for Discord.
  2556. >”The hero always wins and the villain is redeemed,” Sunny complains. “Why can’t ponies ever come up with something new?”
  2557. “But isn’t that what your world is like?”
  2558. >”Sombra,” Sunny answers immediately.
  2559. >”Don’t forget Tirek,” Moonbeam adds.
  2560. >The looks both mares give you is not flattering.
  2561. “Okay, okay, I get it. Stop looking at me like I’m too stupid to live.”
  2562. >”No, it’s not that,” Sunny Smiles sighs. “We just know that you’re sometimes totally oblivious. You just can’t see what’s right under your nose.”
  2563. >Hopefully she keeps thinking that.
  2564. “So basically you like anything where the villain wins?”
  2565. >”I didn’t say that,” she snaps back. “Not at all. But it doesn’t hurt if… if…”
  2566. “If it hurts?”
  2567. >”I… yes.”
  2568. >No wonder she recognized all of your costumes in that dream – if it was real, of course.
  2569. “Bittersweet endings that leave you with tears in your eyes?”
  2570. >She nods once.
  2571. “Now and Then, Here and There?”
  2572. >Sunny looks at you questioningly, with her head tilted to one side.
  2573. >”I have not heard of that. Is it good?”
  2574. “Not as good as some say, but it might be right up your alley. Very bleak.”
  2575. >You just can’t bring yourself to suggest School Days or Higurashi.
  2576. >It’s fair to call you an asshole, but you’re not *that* big of an asshole.
  2577. >On your other side, Moonbeam scoffs quietly.
  2578. “Didn’t like it?”
  2579. >”You just don’t know who you’re talking to,” the grey mare sighs. “She thought Madoka had a *happy* ending.”
  2580. “Never heard of it.”
  2581. >”Never?” Sunny practically shouts. “We have to fix this!”
  2582. >”Not in the mood, sister,” Moonbeam sighs. “Besides –“
  2583. “Besides, I’m here to play Bn’B and spend quality time with Twilight, not watch movies and anime.”
  2584. >”Well, perhaps you can stay after the con, if you want?” Sunny asks hopefully. “I think it could be fun.”
  2585. >Discord might be wrong.
  2586. >Sunny is nowhere near as much of a bitch as Celestia.
  2587. >Not today, at least.
  2588. >Yesterday, you would have believed it without question.
  2589. “Maybe we could, but have you heard of Seven Psychopaths?”
  2590. >”No, why?”
  2591. >Because you’ve got Psychopaths Eight and Nine on either side of you.
  2592. “Then we’re watching that first.”
  2593. >Or Mnemosyne, if Sunny *is* Celestia.
  2594. >That might be would be worth it for her reactions, particularly if she keeps up the pretense of being somepony else.
  2595. >”Sure, if that means you’ll stay!”
  2596. >Celestia couldn’t be this eager to keep you around. If she’s just acting, why isn’t she at least acting like Leman Russ?
  2597. “Maybe.”
  2598. >Twilight might not want to.
  2599. >The hallways begin to look familiar, the rooms full of exhibits or events that you recognize. You probably took the exact same path on your way to the demo room, but you don’t really remember anything of that journey.
  2600. >Just the parts you saw with Rarity leading you.
  2601. >You’re getting close to the “human room” or whatever it’s called.
  2602. >Another turn and you see it, along with Trixie standing outside, talking to –
  2603. >Not this asshole again.
  2604. >The brown stallion’s head turns towards you as you come close.
  2605. “What are you doing here?”
  2606. >”My job,” he answers proudly. “I’m looking after the fillies.”
  2607. “I don’t care, get –“
  2608. >”Don’t,” Trixie warns. “Seeing her sister has been good for Rarity. She cheered up almost immediately.”
  2609. >”What? Oh, yes!” the stallion agrees, nodding sagely as if he had known all along. “I’ve been chasing those fillies all over the con, particularly that yellow one and… and… Sweetie Belle! Somehow she knew she needed to be here.”
  2610. >Bastard can barely remember the name of the pony he’s guarding.
  2611. >”Those two keep running off for one reason or another,” he sighs loudly. “Just taking a moment now to catch my breath while they’re in there.”
  2612. >Your eyes dart between the door and the stallion several times before you come to a decision.
  2613. “Could you go on in and make sure my sudden reappearance won’t cause any problems.”
  2614. >The mares nod hesitantly, Trixie even waiting for a smile from the stallion, but they head through the door, leaving you alone with him.
  2615. >Smug bastard doesn’t follow – he knows you wanted to speak with him alone.
  2616. “You think something strange is going on, don’t you?”
  2617. >”Definitely!” he answers immediately. “I mean, you? Dressed like *that*? Completely absurd! You don’t look a thing like him.”
  2618. “Not what I meant.”
  2619. >Besides, the artwork was just symbolic – in the fluff, no one knows what the Emperor *actually* looks like, not even the primarchs.
  2620. >”Oh, you meant with the fillies?”
  2621. “Of course.”
  2622. >”Welllll, it’s possible,” he admits. “They don’t seem to be having a lot of fun. The white and yellow ones are on edge, the orange one is angry, and the pink one mostly confused.”
  2623. “Didn’t bother to learn any of their names.”
  2624. >”Not my special talent, sad to say. Luckily, ponies come color coded for our convenience.”
  2625. >Nothing about that justifies his smug expression.
  2626. “If that’s all you have to say…”
  2627. >”Well, I *always* have things to say,” he answers with a shrug. “In fact, people often say I talk too much. Never did seem to learn when to shut up…”
  2628. >That’s obvious.
  2629. >”… but I *did* learn how to observe. Gives me quite a lot to talk about, actually.”
  2630. >And then he shuts up, just when you thought he was going somewhere.
  2631. “Such as…?”
  2632. >”Haven’t you noticed a lot of ponies getting angry or sad?” he asks. “And they don’t just get a *little* angry or a *little* sad.”
  2633. “Not really.”
  2634. >”Maybe I’m just imagining things then,” he admits. “Probably am. Everypony *does* seem to cheer up after they’ve met the fillies.”
  2635. >The antics of those three always did bring a smile to your face.
  2636. >If they’re back to their games, things can’t be *that* bad between them.
  2637. >Still, he might have a point.
  2638. >Between Trixie crying on your shoulder and your anger at Rarity earlier, things have been a little odd.
  2639. >Everypony seems happy enough until, suddenly, they aren’t.
  2640. >And then it clicks.
  2641. >Changelings.
  2642. >Fucking changelings.
  2643. >Get too many of them feeding together in a single area, passively or not, and eventually something is going to happen.
  2644. >Causing a panic would probably be bad, so you keep that idea to yourself.
  2645. “Yeah, you probably are imagining it.”
  2646. >Movement pulls your attention away from your thoughts.
  2647. >”Anon?” Trixie calls for you from the doorway, just her head poking out. “Are you coming in?”
  2648. >”There is *no* need for *that!*”
  2649. >The magician stumbles as Rarity pushes past her, the act so unexpected that Trixie forgets to adopt her usually pissy expression until the other unicorn has cleared the doorway.
  2650. >”Oh, dreadfully sorry,” your friend gasps, equally surprised. “I’m afraid my saddlebags must be a tad fuller than I thought.”
  2651. >How…?
  2652. >They are so full, you’re surprised she can even walk bearing that weight.
  2653. >The clatter of costume armor inspires Trixie to skip after Rarity, followed almost immediately by a confused Sunny Smiles and expressionless Moonbeam.
  2654. >At least one of them managed to get in character eventually.
  2655. >”And I am sorry for what I did to you, as well,” Rarity says, coming up to you. “I *never* should have kept this from you.”
  2656. “I think you’re mistaken – I should be apologizing to *you*.”
  2657. >”A helpful hint, Anon,” the mare snaps back cheerfully, “*never* contradict a lady. If one says she is to blame, insisting otherwise only implies that you believe she is wrong, and that is a *far* graver insult.”
  2658. “Thanks for the tip. Can I apologize for that, at least?”
  2659. >”For what?” she asks, flashing you a smile. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I was planning to meet with Rainbow Dash, but of course you’re welcome to come along!”
  2660. “Um, sure. What are you two doing?”
  2661. >”Oh, you’ll…”
  2662. >Her tease falls flat.
  2663. >”Foam weapons,” Rarity explains with a sigh. “She wants to have a look at foam weapons for –“
  2664. “Boffing!? She wants to be a boffer?”
  2665. >This makes her, like, 20% less cool.
  2666. >”You *could* try to sound less condescending when we meet her,” your friend chides. “We should be supportive of her… life choices.”
  2667. “You make it sound like she’s coming out.”
  2668. >”Isn’t she, Anon?” Rarity laughs. “Isn’t she?”
  2669. >She prances past you, a despondent Trixie following behind. The magician shrugs when you give her a questioning look, as if to say she has nothing better to do.
  2670. “If I can ask, why you? Are you thinking about getting into –“
  2671. >”Gracious, no!” Rarity insists. “Never! But I do know a thing or two about the foam weapons. From my work, of course.”
  2672. >Ah, makes sense.
  2673. >”Ooooh, sister, are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Sunny suddenly asks.
  2674. >”Props?”
  2675. >”Props!”
  2676. >And suddenly this little errand turned into a quest with a full party. Wooo.
  2677. >"Thank you so *very* much for looking after my sister," Rarity says, pausing to talk to the brown stallion. "I know how much of a handful those fillies can be."
  2678. >"Oh, they aren't *that* bad," he answers with a grin. "Quite enjoying it, actually."
  2679. >"I'm glad to hear it, because they might be in there a while. Dear Sweetie Belle seems enamored with whatever show they have playing."
  2680. >She gives him a gentle smile before leading you - and the others - away.
  2681. "Seems like Aredee is trying to keep this hidden, so are you sure it's okay if we tag along?"
  2682. >"I cannot think of a *single* reason why she would mind," your friend answers, giving you the same smile - though the prosthetics almost ruin the expression. "You two are *so* close, after all."
  2683. "Not really."
  2684. >"Oh, my mistake," Rarity mocks. "Obviously it must be pure coincidence you visit the same bar she does at the same times."
  2685. "Exactly."
  2686. >"And that you spend more time with her than anypony else save Twilight."
  2687. >"Oh...?"
  2688. >Sunny quickly trots up beside the other mare, bumping into her lightly.
  2689. >"Is this something we should be telling the princess about?" she teases. "I'm sure she would *love* to know -"
  2690. "Okay, okay, I hang out with Dash a lot. Used to, really haven't had time these past few weeks. It's nice to have somepony I can just be stupid with."
  2691. >"Now there's an idea..." Rarity muses, lost in thought.
  2692. >So lost, in fact, that it takes a nudge from Sunny to steer the unicorn around one of the support columns.
  2693. >"So what do you have against... what do you call it? Boffing?"
  2694. "It's stupid."
  2695. >"Well then," Rarity laughs, "let's all go be stupid together."
  2696. >Dammit.
  2697. >"Besides, you just *know* that mare hasn't brought a single costume besides those... *glasses* she wore yesterday. We just have to find something for her to wear today, and a LARPing costume will work as well as anything else."
  2698. >"You should have said something earlier," Moonbeam chimes in from behind you. "We have many extra costumes she could have worn."
  2699. "Any that would actually fit her?"
  2700. >"I'm sure *something* could have been done with them," Rarity answers you smugly.
  2701. >Gently reminding you to never doubt her skills.
  2702. >It's only when she stops that you realize where she's led you - the vendor room. The obvious place, really.
  2703. >"Anon, did you and Twilight see any booths selling anything that might suit Rainbow Dash?" she asks, looking around to see if she can spy the pegasus. "She must have brought you here since it's where she spends practically every minute of every con."
  2704. "Not this year, I'm afraid. We only saw a handful of booths before leaving."
  2705. >"Drat!"
  2706. >She breathes in deeply and closes her eyes, her smile almost faltering before she lets it back out.
  2707. >"Well then, we shall just have to browse a bit, won't we?" Rarity calls out to the others, as if it was the most exciting thing in the world. "Oh, and we *must* stop by Coco's booth and say hello!"
  2708. "Absolutely."
  2709. >It will be interesting to see if Coco recognizes Rarity, because there’s more than one possible explanation she didn’t know who Twilight was.
  2710. >Sure, the Manehattanitte mentioned your friend’s name, but even changelings can parrot back words.
  2711. >And if she does know Rarity by sight, then maybe Discord was right and she didn’t know who Twilight was because of some spell.
  2712. >Or because she’s a bitch.
  2713. >"And what of you?" you hear Sunny Smiles ask. "Is there anything you're looking for?"
  2714. >"No," Trixie answers harshly. "Not a thing."
  2715. >”Not even –“
  2716. >”No.”
  2717. >”Well, okay then,” the cosplayer harrumphs, clearly unsure what else to say or do.
  2718. “Not even any new minis?”
  2719. >That catches her attention – at least, she doesn’t immediately say no. You have to turn your whole body to see her – glancing over your shoulder doesn’t work when you’re wearing shoulder pads the size of small cars - but the unicorn’s face is completely hidden by her hood.
  2720. >”Trixie doesn’t have infinite space in her wagon,” she mumbles angrily after a second, “She cannot wastefully fill it up with mere trinkets and gewgaws.”
  2721. >Right.
  2722. >Traveling performer.
  2723. >But you doubt it’s a matter of space. Probable doesn’t have the bits to spare, if your experience is anything to go by.
  2724. >You earned enough to keep yourself fed, but almost everything else was provided by your friends. You’re entire wardrobe came from Rarity, and almost all of your game books were provided by Twilight. A support network Trixie lacks.
  2725. >Lacked.
  2726. “If you see anything you like, point it out. I’ve been wanting to get some stuff painted and I’m hoping you’ll accept minis in payment.”
  2727. >Or actual payment.
  2728. >Thank the stars you have a sugarmomma now.
  2729. >”If I see anything.”
  2730. >Good enough.
  2731. >Rarity is still looking around, but her movements have become jerkier, less graceful.
  2732. >She’s losing patience.
  2733. “Perhaps we should go on ahead. Dash is the element of loyalty, not timeliness.”
  2734. >”We are all very well aware of that, Anon,” Rarity sighs, “but admitting it by leaving would be less than polite.”
  2735. >”We never agreed to meet with her,” Moonbeam points out. “Perhaps we should go on ahead?”
  2736. >Sunny nods quickly – the waiting must have been trying their patience as well.
  2737. “Not a bad idea. That okay with you, Rarity?”
  2738. >”Of course.”
  2739. “And you, Trixie?”
  2740. >”I’ll… wait.”
  2741. “Sure?”
  2742. >You think she shrugs, but it’s hard to tell under the robe.
  2743. >Either way, she makes no move to follow Luna and Celestia, simply… standing there.
  2744. >This isn’t the Trixie you know.
  2745. >Huh.
  2746. >Coco isn’t the only possible changeling around.
  2747. >Or maybe you’re getting a little paranoid.
  2748. >You haven’t seen Dash for a few hours – by the time you see her, she could also have been replaces by a changeling.
  2749. >”HEY A-HOLE! HAVE YOU SEEN RARITY!?”
  2750. >Yeaaaah, that’s not possible. No changeling would ever want to be her.
  2751. “Just to the right, Rainbow Douch.”
  2752. >You point to the unicorn with your clawed hand, hoping the pegasus has enough sense to actually look where you’re pointing.
  2753. >”Sweet!”
  2754. >She does.
  2755. “Get enough sleep?”
  2756. >”Heck yeah!” Aredee shouts, vaulting over another pony with a flap of her wings. “The castle’s floors are *way* comfortable! Not as good as a cloud, but still pretty awesome!”
  2757. >”An expert at sleeping on floors, are you?” Trixie snarks, drawing a shrug from the pegasus.
  2758. >”Sleeping in a bed isn’t always an option,” the pegasus fires back with a sneer. “Sometimes I black out before I can reach one. ‘Sides, it’s easer to clean vomit off the floor.”
  2759. >”Just when I was beginning to empathize…”
  2760. >Dash ignores the unicorn, walking right past her.
  2761. >”So, you two are going away now, right?” she asks hopefully. “Like, to go do… anything else, somewhere else?”
  2762. “Nope, Rainboff Dash. We’re here to offer moral support.”
  2763. >"WHAT did you just say?"
  2764. >Her ears stiffen, standing at attention like soldiers.
  2765. "I *knew* you were overacting when you saw me with Big Mac's sword. You were already interested in it, weren't you?"
  2766. >"No!" she protests, falling back on her rump in surprise.
  2767. "Then was it me? Was I just too damn sexy in that cape and waving that sword around?"
  2768. >Her head shakes back and forth violently, her features an indistinct blur.
  2769. "But if that's true, I hate to imagine how turned on you are now."
  2770. >"NOPE, GONNA GO BUY SOME SWORDS NOW BYE."
  2771. >A flap of her wings rockets her off the ground and away from you, and pisses off more than one of the other attendees. Her passage leaves clothes and wigs in disarray, and only a miracle keeps her from running into any of the other ponies.
  2772. >It even makes the - holy shit - it makes the staff actually pay attention.
  2773. >"HEY! YOU THERE, CAN'T YOU READ?"
  2774. >"WHAT? ARE YOU CALLING ME STUPID!?"
  2775. >The stallion thumps a forehoof roughly into the sign posted on the doors.
  2776. >"What's rule #3?" he demands, smacking the sign several more times to ensure he has Dash's attention.
  2777. >She zips down, hovering in front of the sign while she reads it over.
  2778. >"No flying indoors," she sighs, dropping to her hooves.
  2779. >"Damn right, it's a safety hazard."
  2780. >Her wailing almost drowns out Rarity - though she does have to kick your shin to catch your attention.
  2781. >"Do *try* to be a little supportive, will you?" she hisses, before trotting towards her friend.
  2782. >She doesn't wait for you, and the message is clear: you're welcome to bugger off if you can't be nice.
  2783. >Trixie doesn't seem to notice, following immediately after the other unicorn.
  2784. >Fine, you'll just have to dig deep and find a part of you that isn't an asshole. Besides, it's a chance to find a copy of that sword Big Mac lent you - it *is* pretty nifty.
  2785. >Your armor slows you down, not because of its weight or anything like that, but because you're moving carefully.
  2786. >Stepping on somepony's tail in this thing would be completely different than normal.
  2787. >Luckily - or perhaps not - Aredee has gotten herself in a shouting match with the con staff. None of it really makes sense, but that's not surprising considering they're yelling over each other. Rarity and Trixie stand off to one side, neither one quite willing to intervene.
  2788. >Your pace doesn't slow as you stride past them, bending low at the last minute to scoop up the pegasus with your right arm.
  2789. "She's with me."
  2790. >He might have said something, but you're already walking through the doors and the unsettling hum of your armor provides enough of an excuse to pretend you don't hear.
  2791. >You're five steps in before the shock wears off and your friend tries to continue the argument despite the ever-increasing distance, twisting and turning in your arm to try to face the pony she's yelling at.
  2792. >She even tries hammering on your arm in an attempt to steer you. It doesn't hurt, but you can somehow feel it.
  2793. >Praise the Omnissiah.
  2794. >Only when she actually tries to pull herself free does she escape - mostly because you were holding her so loosely you're surprised she didn't fall out earlier.
  2795. >Didn't want to accidentally crush her ribcage, after all.
  2796. >She falls free with a squeak, doing a quick somersault mid-air to land on her feet.
  2797. >It's an impressive maneuver, you have to admit.
  2798. >Particularly considering she wasn't expecting it, and the short amount of space she had to work with.
  2799. >Aredee can't quite pull off the "I intended to do that" look she gives you, but you consider applauding anyway. More than consider - your hands are up before you remember that one of them is a fucking claw.
  2800. >A grudging verbal compliment will have to do.
  2801. "Well done."
  2802. >"Duh, of course it was. I'm awesome!"
  2803. >A politely cough from Rarity interrupts the pegasus before she can launch into her Grade-A Bragging.
  2804. >"Are we ready to get started now?" the mare asks once she is sure she has everypony's attention.
  2805. >"Hell yeah!"
  2806. >Dash’s freezes with her wings half-extended. A glance back towards the doors and she slowly lowers them, tucking the feathers against her side.
  2807. >”I wouldn’t want to leave you guys behind,” she explains with a fake laugh.
  2808. “Yeah, it would be a shame if you got back to Ponyville before us because you were banned.”
  2809. >Your friend’s mouth flaps wordlessly, unable to come up with an adequate comeback.
  2810. >”Well, at least I’d get there before you, loser!”
  2811. >Like you thought, unable to come up with an ADEQUATE comeback. Certainly not one worth responding to and setting off the obvious vicious cycle of pranks and snarks.
  2812. >Too bad your dignity demands it.
  2813. >”SO what *EXACTLY* are you looking for, darling?”
  2814. >Rarity bounces around you with a flourish, taking up a pose more suited for some intrepid treasure hunter than a mare in a short skirt.
  2815. >Nice distraction.
  2816. >One that works better on Dash than you.
  2817. >”Um… yeah… a thing…”
  2818. >”*Surely* you have some ideas, Rainbow Dash,” Rarity teases. “If nothing else, perhaps a weapon to match tomorrow’s costume?”
  2819. >”What costume?”
  2820. >”Oh dear, does this mean you *won’t* be dressing as Mercury Flare for the final session of Burrows and Basilisks?”
  2821. >“Of course not!”
  2822. >”This is the! Worst! Possible! Thing!”
  2823. >You expect Rarity to swoon. That *would* be her usual reaction.
  2824. >Not grabbing her friend by the shoulders and shaking the pegasus like a baby.
  2825. >”You are going to wear it *tonight*!? We were all planning to wear those outfits on the *last* night!”
  2826. >”Uh, I don’t think you understand,” Dash tells her friend uncomfortably. “I wasn’t really planning on any of that…”
  2827. “Even after promising me you’d bring three costumes?”
  2828. >” I never said I would!”
  2829. >She didn’t…?
  2830. “It was implied, Dash.”
  2831. >You shake your head sadly.
  2832. >Thankfully, the high collar of your golden armor hides your smile.
  2833. >”Fiiiiine, we can pick up something while we’re looking at the SWORDS!”
  2834. >”For both days, of course?”
  2835. >”Yes, *Rarity*,” the pegasus sighs. “Whatever you want.”
  2836. >”Sounds like somepony wants to wear a *dre-esssss*!”
  2837. >Dash throws her forehooves into the air.
  2838. >”Whatever! Can we *please* start looking now?”
  2839. >”Of course, darling. Just follow me!”
  2840. >And follow the pegasus does, apparently enjoying the view.
  2841. >Yeah, not surprised.
  2842. >By either of them, really.
  2843. >Though the way Rarity is flouncing her tail from side to side does seem a little overboard.
  2844. “I *really* doubt we’ll find a rapier for your bard outfit, so will any sword work?”
  2845. >”Why not?” Dash asks distractedly. “Why won’t we find a rapier?”
  2846. “They’re a little harder to make because of the thinness of the blade.”
  2847. >”Then I can get a metal one,” the mare says with a shrug.
  2848. “But don’t you want something you can actually use for boffing?”
  2849. >Another shrug.
  2850. >”I guess,” she mumbles, “but a rapier doesn’t really feel like me, you know?”
  2851. >It really doesn’t, but that was kinda the point. To get her out of her comfort zone, to make her try new things. But now she is, so no harm going back to something a little more comfortable.
  2852. “Then forget about it and go with something you like.”
  2853. >”Let’s at least try to find something that *looks* good,” Rarity adds. “Even if you decide not to participate in LARPs, you can always use it as a display piece.”
  2854. >She rears up to look around, trying to see over ponies and booths to find one that sells foam weapons.
  2855. >”Ah, I believe there may be some options over this way!”
  2856. >The unicorn bounces off, barely waiting for the two – three? Yes, three of you to follow.
  2857. >Trixie is still trailing along quietly.
  2858. >Fucking changeling.
  2859. >You’ll let her keep the charade going a little longer.
  2860. “So, I know nothing about pony boffing…”
  2861. >A little about boffing ponies, but that’s really not relevant.
  2862. “… and it sounds like Rarity can help you with quality, but she doesn’t have any experience using foam weapons, do you, Rarity?”
  2863. >”Not one bit!” she answers. “Oh, it looks amusing, but *far* too physical for my tastes.”
  2864. >You knew you were right to respect her.
  2865. >”Mouth, one hoofed, or two hoofed?”
  2866. >Shit, the changeling spoke!
  2867. >”Two hoofed!?” Dash asks, almost flipping herself over as she suddenly twists her head to look at the magician. “How the heck would that even work!? I couldn’t walk!”
  2868. >”Last Trixie checked, you’re a pegasus,” the unicorn snarls. “You don’t *have* to walk.”
  2869. “Except indoors.”
  2870. >”Except indoors,” Trixie amends.
  2871. >”Oh.”
  2872. >That must have never occurred to her before.
  2873. “Got some boffing weapons in that wagon of yours, Trix?”
  2874. >That… did not sound as dirty in your mind.
  2875. >”Of course not,” the unicorn scoffs. “But Trixie doesn’t have to be a chef to know how to cook!”
  2876. “Point taken.”
  2877. >”And keep in mind, you don’t have to buy a good one right away,” Rarity calls back, trying to keep the distaste from her tone. “It *might* be worth buying something simple – but the right size – and seeing how you like actually using it.”
  2878. >You stifle your laughter at the sight of her shuddering involuntarily.
  2879. >It’s doubtful she’ll actually let Dash get away with buying a simple padded stick.
  2880. “Well, Rainboff? What kind of weapon do you think you’ll like?
  2881. >”Maybe… something two-hooved…?”
  2882. >She stops moving forward, rearing up to take a practice swing with an imaginary weapon.
  2883. >”Or not,” she grumbles, dropping back to her hooves. “It *sounds* cool, but it just… I don’t… how would I even *swing* it?”
  2884. >”But you’re set on a sword?” Trixie asks, moving up slightly closer to the two of you.
  2885. >”Of course! Heroes *always* use swords!”
  2886. >Even in marshmallowland, that trope holds sway.
  2887. “Not always. Some of the most beloved heroes in my world used other weapons, like Optimus Prime –“
  2888. >”Paladin used a sword,” Dash cuts you off. “Are you saying he wasn’t the hero?”
  2889. “No, but –“
  2890. >”SWORD.”
  2891. >“But a spear or hammer –“
  2892. >Aredee doesn’t let Trixie get any further before bellowing the word again.
  2893. >”Please, darling, they’re just trying to –“
  2894. >”SWOOOOORD!”
  2895. >”Sword?” Sunny Smiles asks, popping out from behind a booth’s sign.
  2896. >“SWORD!”
  2897. “Don’t – don’t encourage her.”
  2898. >"I'm not encouraging," Sunny protests. "I'm *helping.* Anyway, I saw a couple of booths that might be interesting. Closest is -"
  2899. >She looks back and points with her grey-armored foreleg towards the stall Rarity is headed for.
  2900. >"- well, I guess you already saw it. But I helped!"
  2901. >"And we appreciate that!" Rarity sings back to the other mare, skipping towards the stall like a foal towards a candy shop. "Oh, what a nice... *variety*."
  2902. >You can easily see the cause of her hesitation - the selection ranges from high-quality foam to simple padded sticks, with the bulk of the product leaning towards the lower end weapons.
  2903. >The stallion running the booth leers at her and swaggers over.
  2904. >"And what I can help *you* with?" he asks, ignoring Dash and they come up alongside the unicorn. The only other pony he even acknowledges is Sunny, with a quick nod of his head in her direction.
  2905. >"My *friend* is interested in a weapon," Rarity answers, gesturing to Aredee. "If you could be so kind..."
  2906. >"Oh. Sure."
  2907. >He turns to face the pegasus with a sigh.
  2908. >"Whadya want?"
  2909. >She doesn't seem to notice his change in attitude - in fact, she barely seems to notice *him*, her eyes instead glued to one of the many identical small signs set on the table.
  2910. >"Don't use the weapons?" she reads off. "How am I supposed to know if I like something or not if I can't try it!?"
  2911. >"And how am I supposed to sell anything if it's all ripped up because ponies like you -"
  2912. >Another shouting match ensues, and you just tune it out. Can't blame the salespony for not wanting his merchandise damaged. Just because he's a little zealous about it doesn't mean he might not have some decent items for sale, so you put your time to use looking over the tables to find something Dash might like.
  2913. >Sadly, he doesn't seem to have any beer or eighteen-inch dildos for sale.
  2914. >Damn.
  2915. >Watching her LARP using one of those as a short sword would probably be kinda hilarious.
  2916. >The other ponies fan out to follow your example, though Trixie only moves when Sunny gives her a nudge.
  2917. >Prices seem reasonable. Maybe.
  2918. >You have no idea how much items like these usually run, but they *seem* reasonable.
  2919. >Too bad nothing really stands out, nothing looks very... Dashy. Everything is either too fancy or too... well, a padded stick.
  2920. >And if that's all she wants, you can easily help her make it.
  2921. >Besides -
  2922. >"No, none of these," Trixie says suddenly. "The cores are too stiff."
  2923. >She's picked one of the bofferblades up and set it point first on the ground, putting her weight against it and only causing a slight curve.
  2924. >"But I don't *want* a floppy sword!" Dash protests, breaking off from the stallion to yell at someone new and exciting.
  2925. >"Do you want to kill your friends?" Trixie sneers from under her hood. "Because that's what will happen if somepony like you uses something like this at your usual speeds."
  2926. >"I'll be careful!"
  2927. >Trixie doesn't respond - not verbally.
  2928. >The crinkled blue muzzle protruding from her hood says it all.
  2929. >"Actually, dear, I believe she might be correct," Rarity tells her friend, putting a hoof on the other pony's shoulder. "I am afraid you are not exactly known for holding back."
  2930. "And on that topic, we should also probably avoid thrusting weapons. I don't really want to imagine what will happen to the first poor bastard on the wrong end of a sonic rainboom'd lance."
  2931. >”Perhaps something curved, then?” the fashionista suggests, “A slashing weapon would nicely sidestep that issue.”
  2932. >Dash approves – she must, from the way her eyes suddenly light up.
  2933. >”Yes, indeed that might be the solution,” Rarity muses, looking over the tables to see if she can find a suitable weapon. “Perchance a cavalry sabre?”
  2934. >How would that even work?
  2935. >Is it just one pony with a sword, or a pony with a sword riding a bike?
  2936. >Or a pony with a sword riding another pony?
  2937. >Would they swap places when one of them got tired or injured, like Junkions but with fewer explosions?
  2938. “What do you –“
  2939. >”It’s a short, curved mouth blade,” Trixie explains with a sigh, successfully reading your confusion and providing you with the least interesting answer.
  2940. >Life can be really boring when it actually makes sense.
  2941. >”Sabres are crap,” Dash comments. “I want a katana!”
  2942. “Why…?”
  2943. >”Because I heard they can cut slabs of solid steel!”
  2944. “That’s –“
  2945. >You were going to try to be supportive.
  2946. “ – interesting.”
  2947. >That’s supportive.
  2948. >As supportive as you can get.
  2949. >”Yeah!” Dash’s head bobbles up and down excitedly, like she’s gobbling down… haydogs or something. “They’re three times harder and three times sharper than any *normal* sword!”
  2950. “That’s… nice… but remember, you’re looking for a boffer weapon, not an actual sword.”
  2951. >Which is why you’re willing to let her buy one.
  2952. >”Yeah, but I don’t want something *lame*!”
  2953. >A grey-clad leg hooks around the pegasus’ neck, pulling her away from table.
  2954. >”Then let’s find you a decent weapon,” Sunny laughs into Dash’s ear, “and not some lame-ass katana!”
  2955. >She throws a wink your direction – the way her mane falls hides it from the others, and Rarity’s frown from her.
  2956. >”Besides, as Trixie pointed out, none of these weapons will work for you,” Rarity sighs. “We shall just have to check the next booth and see if there is anything you like there.”
  2957. >Aredee pulls free from the cosplayer – though you suspect Sunny let her go – with her enthusiasm undimmed.
  2958. >”Yeah, maybe they’ll have an awesome katana!”
  2959. >Her head darts around frantically.
  2960. >”Which way is it…?”
  2961. >You breeze through the next two booths. The first Dash doesn’t even stop at – simply seeing one of the price tags it’s enough to make her pace *quicken*. The second booth she dismisses as “seriously uncool,” and you find yourself agreeing. Perfectly functional gear, but boring, little more than well-crafted homemade stuff. The fourth brings more options, but nothing Dash actually likes, nothing that fits in her hooves like she was hoping.
  2962. >Moonbeam rejoins you at the fifth booth, apparently having spent most of the time talking to the pony behind the table.
  2963. >”Here, try this,” she says as soon as Dash appears, thrusting a molded foam sword into your friend’s hooves. “Might not be what you’re looking for, exactly, but how does it feel?”
  2964. >”Nice, I guess,” the mare answers, holding the sword awkwardly.
  2965. >The elongated handle allows her to hold the weapon with both hooves easily, but might be impossible for her to use on the ground. Holding it in her mouth or using in with only one hoof looks to be impossible.
  2966. >”I thought Desert Prancer might have the perfect thing for you,” Moonbeam says with a smirk. “*Always* go to a pegasus for pegasus gear.”
  2967. >”Mhm,” the tan mare – presumably Desert Prancer – agrees. “I got into this because I never could find anything that fit right.”
  2968. >With a shrug, Dash hands back the weapon.
  2969. >”It’s nice, I guess, but do you have any katanas?”
  2970. >”Afraid not, but –“
  2971. >The vendor turns away, grabbing something off the table behind her and tossing it to Aredee.
  2972. >” – I do have an odachi.”
  2973. >Your friend stares at the weapon suspiciously.
  2974. >”But… this is a katana.”
  2975. “No, Dash, it’s a –“
  2976. >She won’t understand.
  2977. “Yes, it’s a katana.”
  2978. >”SWEET!”
  2979. >A lighter blue hoof snakes over to feel the weapon; Dash immediately passes it to Trixie for inspection.
  2980. >”Interesting,” the magician mumbles before looking up swiftly enough to toss her hood back. “You put the core along the back?”
  2981. >”Of course – it’s meant for a pegasus to use in-flight, so it needs a heck of a lot of padding on the cutting edge.”
  2982. >”Nicely done,” Trixie acknowledges with a dip of her horn.
  2983. >”So what do you say, Trixie?” Dash asks, staring over the unicorn’s shoulder. “This would be *plenty* safe, right?”
  2984. >"I... Trixie assumes so," the magician answers, turning the weapon over in her hooves, "but the blade seems overly thick."
  2985. >Indeed, it's about two inches at the widest part. Not aerodynamic in the least.
  2986. >"Has to be," Desert Prancer says with a sigh. "Anything thinner wouldn't survive long. Besides, I like to think of the added drag as an additional safety feature. Can't fly *too* fast or it'll be yanked right out of your hooves."
  2987. >Her head jerks up as another group approaches her booth.
  2988. >"Want some time to look it over...?" she asks, and while what she really means is obvious, nopony minds.
  2989. >"Oh, that would be *wonderful!*" Rarity sings, giving the other mare a grateful smile. "Please, look after your other customers."
  2990. >The pegasus returns the smile and trots down to the other end of the table, leaving your group alone to examine the weapon.
  2991. >"So... what's an odachi...?" Dash asks, taking it back from Trixie. "Anon, any clue?"
  2992. "Don't worry about it. It's a katana."
  2993. >"No, it isn't - she said it wasn't, so what *is* it?"
  2994. >You're no weeboo, but you know a little. Not really enough to give her a proper answer, though.
  2995. "Basically a long katana, I think."
  2996. >And in her hooves it looks the part. Probably not so much if you were using it, and certainly not with the armor. The sword just isn't long enough for that, with the blade being two-and-a-half, maybe three feet long and the hilt adding another eighteen inches.
  2997. >Definitely not a two-hander for you, but it is slightly longer than Dash is tall. Slightly.
  2998. "It looks good."
  2999. >"Oh, absolutely," Rarity cheers, her mane bouncing as she nods in agreement. "And now I know just the *perfect* costume for you to wear today."
  3000. >A look at the price turns Aredee almost as pale as Trixie's mane, but she doesn't put the sword down, instead continuing to turn it over, strike a few poses, things like that.
  3001. >"How do the heck would I *carry* this thing?" she asks, trying to hold it one-hoofed near her waist.
  3002. >"Between your wings," Trixie sighs. "Just like Fluttershy's costume yesterday. "The way the sword curves, it *should* be easy enough for you to draw."
  3003. >"That's how I do it!" Desert Prancer chimes in, coming back over to your group. "Keep the harness loose enough towards the back and you can whip it out in a heartbeat."
  3004. >Dash looks down at the foam weapon with new respect.
  3005. >You're pretty sure she's never thought this long or hard about anything in her life.
  3006. >"I'll take it."
  3007.  
  3008. >Moonbeam and Sunny stay behind to continue examining Desert Prancer's wares - something about swords sized for them being hard to come by - but Rarity quickly hurries Dash along as soon as the bits change hooves.
  3009. >"Oh dear, I do hope she still has it," the unicorn mutters to herself as she leads the way after a quick glance at the vendor room map. "It would match *perfectly*."
  3010. >She almost has to lead Aredee by the hoof; the pegasus only has eyes for her new purchase. Even though Desert Prancer also sold her a sheath/harness/whatever-the-weeaboo-word-is to go with it, Dash is staggering along with the boffersword clutched in one foreleg.
  3011. >The urge to play with her new toy is almost overpowering.
  3012. >In sharp contrast, Trixie's head is twisting back and forth as she tries to look at the booths she passes by.
  3013. >Her head snaps to the left suddenly as Rarity leads the group past a table full of minis - things that remind you of that boutique horror line with the fancy artcards... whatever it was called. There was a kickstarter to make an actual game, but it probably never got made.
  3014. "Found something you like?"
  3015. >"I might have," the unicorn answers wistfully, turning her head to keep looking at the table even as disappears into the crowd behind her. "I think I'll go back there before we leave."
  3016. “First-pony pronouns, huh? Feeling a little better about life?”
  3017. >”No.”
  3018. “You sure? Because –“
  3019. >”That would imply Trixie was ever feeling less than perfect, Anonymous.”
  3020. >So not all that much better about life.
  3021. >With a sigh, she faces forward and leaves the minis for later.
  3022. >Just as you leave this conversation for later. You have a suspicion where Rarity is leading you, and as it comes closer, it demands your attention.
  3023. >”Oh, Miss Rarity!”
  3024. >Coco.
  3025. >Just as you suspected.
  3026. >The designers exchange pleasantries, enough to prove to your satisfaction that the mare actually *is* Coco. Or has been Coco long enough that she might as well be.
  3027. >”Please, let me introduce you to my friends – surely, you remember –“
  3028. >”Rainbow Dash, of course!” the earth pony exclaims. “That was quite the prank you pulled, having somepony turn you into… darn, I don’t remember…”
  3029. >Her head turns to face you.
  3030. >“And… and… I must have been having an off-day,” she apologizes. “I don’t believe I got your name.”
  3031. >”Don’t worry about it, darling,” Rarity laughs, “none of us have, but we call him Anonymous. As for our other companion…”
  3032. >The gestures towards the other unicorn with a wave of her hoof.
  3033. >”Is that the Great and Powerful Trixie!?” Coco gasps, her eyes lighting in excitement. “Oh my gosh, I just *can’t* believe it! The Great and Powerful Trixie!”
  3034. >*Somepony* has a fan.
  3035. >The suddenness of it catches Trixie flathoofed, but she recovers quickly, flipping her hood back with a toss of her head. Let it never be said she didn't know how to improvise or work an audience. Even an audience of one.
  3036. >"Why yes, it is," the magician says with a smirk, moving just close enough to the table that Coco can reach her outstretched hoof.
  3037. >The Earth Pony is forced to reach across the gap, extending herself to a comically Pinkie Pie-ish length to shake Trixie's hoof, though from her wide grin, perhaps forced isn't the right word. She actually seems quite eager.
  3038. >"Every time you're in town, I *always* try to catch your shows!" Coco tells the other mare, still gripping Trixie's hoof with both forehooves.
  3039. >"The Attentive and Perceptive Trixie has noticed!"
  3040. >She *really* knows how to work an audience.
  3041. >"And you're friends with Miss Rarity?" Coco asks, her head twisting to face the fashionista. "I just... I just can't believe it - Miss Rarity, you know *all* the best ponies. Why didn't you tell me you were friends with the Great and Powerful Trixie?"
  3042. >The magician's smirk falls from her face.
  3043. >"She isn't exactly -"
  3044. >"It is more of a recent development," Rarity answers gracefully, lightly putting a hoof on Trixie's shoulder. "After all, acquaintanceship does not grow into friendship overnight."
  3045. >"Oh."
  3046. >Coco and Trixie both struggle to keep their faces straight, the unicorn with considerably more success.
  3047. >She's used to disappointment.
  3048. >"But grow it did," Rarity continues, "thanks to Anon here. He plays Burrows with both of us -"
  3049. >A wild shout from Rainbow Dash cuts her off before she can explain any further.
  3050. >"Look, I love a good circle-rub as much as the next pony, but can we PLEASE get on with putting me in whatever annoying outfit you have in mind!?"
  3051. >Rarity bristles angrily - the emotion oddly made all the more visible for her makeup and prosthetics.
  3052. >"There is *no* call to be rude," she tells her friend, pulling her hoof back from Trixie's shoulder, "but very well. Coco, dear, I am hoping you have not yet sold that kimono you were working on..."
  3053. >"Um, oh, yes," the mare answers, shaking her head from side to side. "Sorry, I mean no, I haven't sold it. I still have it."
  3054. >"Splended!" Rarity says to Coco's plot, the other mare having dived into one of the boxes under the table behind her. "I was *quite* worried when you did not have it on display."
  3055. >"What the hell is a kimono?"
  3056. >Dash practically jumps onto the table in a futile attempt to see what Coco is looking for. Putting her forehooves on the edge and standing close to upright is as far as she goes, showing remarkable restraint.
  3057. >Anyplace else, and she would probably be hovering over the other pony's shoulder, but she must remember the ban on flying indoors.
  3058. >"Having trouble finding it?" Rarity asks her friend, leaning over the table. "Do you need some help?"
  3059. >It certainly looks like Coco needs help. The way Coco's plot wiggles as she searches, through boxes, well... if it was shaking even a hair more violently, you'd have to assume she was trapped and struggling to free herself before she suffocated.
  3060. >"No, no, but I made several extras and I'm trying to find the perfect color."
  3061. >The response is muffled, but understandable - so presumably the mare can breathe.
  3062. >And here you were, getting all ready for some thrilling heroics to rescue her.
  3063. >Oh well.
  3064. >"Just bring them *all* out, darling," Rarity laughs. "Not that I doubt your judgement, but our model is here, the clothes are here..."
  3065. >As the words trail off, she shrugs - it's timed perfectly to sync with Coco's head coming free from the box.
  3066. >"I... I guess that's true," the earth pony admits, "and I'm afraid they haven't been selling very well."
  3067. >As subtly as you can in a massive suit of golden power armor, you give Trixie a soft nudge to get her attention.
  3068. >From the death-glare she gives you, either she's feeling extra pissy right now, or it wasn't all that soft.
  3069. "Let's get out of here, Trix. I don't feel like sticking around while they play dress-up."
  3070. >”Wait-wait-wait!” Aredee yells, her voice tinged with panic. “You’re going to do *what* with me!?”
  3071. >”Oh, nothing much,” Rarity answers dismissively with a wave of her hoof. “We just want you to try on some clothes.”
  3072. >”IN PUBLIC!?”
  3073. >”Darling, this is a *con*!”
  3074. >Dash obviously doesn’t follow.
  3075. >“Do you see any private changing rooms?” the unicorn asks, hoping her friend can figure it out on her own. “Many cosplayers change costumes repeatedly through the day, so believe me when I say this happens all the time. Nopony will notice.”
  3076. “Quick, before we get roped into this.”
  3077. >Escape is as simple as walking away – the two designers are focused entirely on poor Dash, though surely their attention would have eventually turned to Trixie. You leave your friend to her fate; she knew what she was getting into when she asked for Rarity’s help.
  3078. >Eh, she probably didn’t.
  3079. >”Where are we going?” Trixie asks, once she judges you’ve reached a safe distance.
  3080. >You can now barely hear Dash’s inconsolable sobbing over the background roar of the con. Probably because she’s not doing that, but there’s no proof she isn’t. None that you choose to acknowledge.
  3081. “Where do you want to go?”
  3082. >She pretends to think about it, but you know she’s going to –
  3083. >”Let’s go back to that booth with those models.”
  3084. >Just as you thought.
  3085. >Nothing slips past you.
  3086. >Sometimes.
  3087. >Like that this should be with Twilight.
  3088. >This is what your marefriend wanted to do.
  3089. >It’s a shame Celes – no, Chrysalis? – had to fuck that up.
  3090. >That bitch.
  3091. >Maybe tomorrow.
  3092. >*Definitely* tomorrow.
  3093. “Yeah, let’s go check that out.”
  3094. >Besides, if you saw what you *think* you saw when you passed that booth, you’d rather she not be with you. She’d probably like it, but…
  3095. >”Good!” Trixie says happily and trots away with a bounce in her step. “I really want to take a closer look at those models.”
  3096. >At least Trixie is capable of telling you what she wants.
  3097. >”Not that Trixie *wants* any…”
  3098. >Sometimes.
  3099. “Well, I might. *And* I’ll need those painted up. All of my painting supplies are about three universes that way.”
  3100. >You point in a random direction, drawing a chuckle from the mare.
  3101. >Her eyes actually follow your finger.
  3102. >”And how would you know where it is?”
  3103. “You always know where home is.”
  3104. >She laughs again.
  3105. >”You *do* know you’re pointing towards Ponyville, right?”
  3106. >Shit, really?
  3107. “Um.”
  3108. >Your hand drops.
  3109. “Yes?”
  3110. >No.
  3111. >”I suspected as much.”
  3112. >Trixie flashes you a sarcastic smile – SHE KNOWS.
  3113. >SHE KNOWS TOO MUCH.
  3114. >KILL HER TO HIDE YOUR LIE.
  3115. >Or be a normal person and laugh it off.
  3116. >That’s probably the better option.
  3117. “Yeah, you caught me.”
  3118. >With a majestic sweep of your left hand – after a careful look to make sure nopony was near – you gesture for her to lead the way.
  3119. “Shall we?”
  3120. >Of course,” she smirks. “And if they have anything I actually like, you might have a deal.”
  3121. >The crowd parts easily for the two of you to pass, probably more because of you than her. That doesn’t stop her for playing it up for all it’s worth, trotting forward quickly with her head held high, barely watching where she’s going. Almost as if it’s not *her* problem if somepony fails to get out of her way in time. And some *do* move aside for her – for her, not you – a few with eyes flashing in irritation, but more in recognition.
  3122. >More excited faces than angry ones.
  3123. >Huh.
  3124. >You’d always kind of thought of her as a failure, but apparently not. Only in Ponyville, probably because of your friends.
  3125. >That’s… a shame.
  3126. >She’s a talented pony.
  3127. >Illusions, showmanship, gaming, *painting.*
  3128. >Makes you wonder –
  3129. “What else can you do?”
  3130. >”What?”  Trixie asks sharply, twisting her head back to face you and foregoing all pretense of watching where she is going.
  3131. “I mean, you know about boffer gear, you paint – and paint well – minis, you can build truly broken – yet still playable – characters. What else do you do? What else do you know?”
  3132. >”This and that,” she answers, suddenly and surprisingly humble.
  3133. “Sculpting? Drawing?”
  3134. >”Some.”
  3135. “Never would have thought a traveling magician would have so many skills.”
  3136. >”You doubt Trixie’s magnificence?”
  3137. “I meant you don’t have a lot of room in your wagon.”
  3138. >Her mouth clamps into a thin line, leaving you with no choice but to continue talking or leave things in awkward silence. Since awkward silence is by definition awkward, expanding on your thought seems the better choice.
  3139. “Twi has her castle, Rarity her shop, but you only have a tiny wagon to hold your things in – and I bet most of that space is filled with props. So how –“
  3140. >”Makes it all the more important to be good at what Trixie does, doesn’t it?” she snaps, cutting you off. “Trixie’s wagon is appropriately spacious and can easily accommodate exactly what it needs to. Not every mare needs that much to be satisfied."
  3141. "I don't follow."
  3142. >"Your dick, Anon, Trixie made a joke about your dick. Now let us move along."
  3143. >And now she’s back to insults and talking about herself in third person. Something about what you said must have unintentionally pushed some buttons, and now she’s pissed at you.
  3144. >Might as well do something to *deserve* it.
  3145. “Huh, I would have thought you *loved* huge dicks, seeing as you are one.”
  3146. >You regret the words as soon as they leave your mouth. They’ll only make things worse, and that’s –
  3147. >”Like I said,” Trixie huffs, “I’m good at what I do.”
  3148. >Nevermind.
  3149. >The mare looks away, searching for the booth – it’s somewhere in area, but with the crowd it’s hard for her to tell where exactly.
  3150. >Not so for you, with your added height.
  3151. “It’s to the left.”
  3152. >”Trixie just wanted to see what else was in the area!”
  3153. “I know.”
  3154. >Her head snaps around to stare at you – and your outstretched hand – angrily.
  3155. >Oooooh, she did *not* like that, despite doing the exact same thing to you just moments ago.
  3156. >Twitching is never a good sign.
  3157. “Sorry, I –“
  3158. >Unable to hold it back any longer, she laughs, catching you by surprise.
  3159. >Mostly because it’s not maniacal in the least, with no unspoken promise of vengeance or bloodshed.
  3160. >Okay, sometimes twitching isn’t all that bad.
  3161. >”Of course you knew,” Trixie wheezes, spinning to her left. “You *always* know.”
  3162. “Was there ever any doubt?”
  3163. >”Not really.”
  3164. >Trixie canters away in the direction you had indicated without another glance in your direction, simply trusting you to follow.
  3165. >”Oh,” you hear her gasp as she reaches the booth. “OH. Is that…?”
  3166. >She’s pounced on a set of resin sprues laid out on the black tablecloth. Something with twenty or thirty pieces that you’re fairly sure is more complicated than brain surgery.
  3167. “I hope that comes with assembly instructions.”
  3168. >Despite trying to keep your voice low, the stallion behind the table grins and comes over to you.
  3169. >”It will, as soon as I find the right paper to print them on!”
  3170. “O-kay…”
  3171. >”And yes, that *is*!”
  3172. >”Ooooooooooh!”
  3173. >That’s it; you’ve lost her to the allure of resin crack.
  3174. >Not that the models are *bad*, but…
  3175. >Twilight would definitely appreciate the quality of the models, but it takes some searching to find something you’re positive your marefriend won’t destroy on sight. Awful lotta cock on some of these models. More than you care to count, on some of them.
  3176. >You just can’t imagine she’d be okay with them being in the castle, in case one of the other princesses stumbles across it.
  3177. >And the proportions?
  3178. >You’ve never seen a pony with a plot or thighs that thick, not one with a waist that narrow.
  3179. >There’s a suspicion in your heart that Dash would go nuts for these.
  3180. >Meanwhile, Trixie has managed to amass a small mountain of kits; you’d best find another one or two if she’s going to pay you back for all those with painting. Hopefully you have enough bits to cover it.
  3181. >Well… maybe that one with the tentacles…
  3182.  
  3183. “It’s a good thing you thought to pack my wallet into your pouches.”
  3184. >”Well, it’s not like you had a place to carry anything,” Trixie snorts, packing the last of the boxes into her saddlebags. “Weren’t you listening to me when we were putting on your armor?”
  3185. “Yeah… still, sorry. Totally forgot I didn’t have any money on me.”
  3186. >”I swear to Celestia,” your friend sighs, pulling the hem of her robes back down over her saddlebags, “sometimes you are so perceptive, but at others? I don’t know how Twilight Sparkle can put up with you.”
  3187. “Must be because of my enormous dick.”
  3188. >”Maybe, because it certainly isn’t your listening skills,” she snarks, tugging her hood up with a touch of magic, “nor does she need you to reach items on the top shelf, since she has wings AND magic at her disposal.”
  3189. “Human fetish, perhaps?”
  3190. >Despite your joking tone, that *has* been preying on your mind. What’ll happen when the novelty wears off for her?
  3191. >”I doubt it.”
  3192. “Because we’re ugly?”
  3193. >”Because she probably would have known about *that* room.”
  3194. >Oh, that makes sense.
  3195. >Good, she loves you for you.
  3196. >Or your enormous dick.
  3197. >”Ready to go to the swap meet?”
  3198. “Swap meet?”
  3199. >”Yes, weren’t you li – no, of course not,” Trixie sighs, facehoofing. “I brought along some older supplements I don’t need, and as you pointed out, I don’t have room for things I don’t need.”
  3200. >Too bad you didn’t, not that you have a way to carry anything.
  3201. >”You don’t have to tag along. I’ll –“
  3202. “No, I’ll come.”
  3203. >It’s either this or wander around on your own. Going back to Rarity and Dash is not an option.
  3204. >”I’m… glad.”
  3205. >The genuine smile that splits her face is almost scary. You feel like some underground cavedweller seeing the sun for the very first time.
  3206. “Yay.”
  3207.  
  3208. >Shit.
  3209. >This place is even more packed than the vendor room. To make it worse, the ponies do *not* seem inclined to get out of your way. Too worried about missing that rare awesome limited edition item, probably.
  3210. “So, any rules I should be aware of?”
  3211. >Like is it okay if you kick this little shit that keeps getting in your way?
  3212. >”WELL, IT’S PRETTY MUCH THE SAME AS –“
  3213. >PINKIEOUTAFUCKINNOWHERE!
  3214. >” – THE TRADER’S EXCHANGE,” Ponks continues without pause, despite slamming into your shoulder with enough force to almost knock you off balance.
  3215. >Possibly has something to do with the suit of white and golden armor she’s wearing.
  3216. >Shit, she even has a little fu manchu.
  3217. >”With one teeny-weenie difference,” she adds at a far more reasonable volume, scrambling up your shoulderpad to sit behind your head. “There’s no princess to rule on the fairness of trades!”
  3218. “So who runs the swap meet?”
  3219. >You really don’t like the silence that falls over the room.
  3220. >”Who runs the swap meet?” Pinkie repeats back to you. “You – you there –“
  3221. >You see a glint of her golden armor out of the corner of your eye as she points to a nearby pegasus, his pure green coat marred by what looks like chocolate frosting on his face.
  3222. >”Who runs the swap meet?” Panks demands.
  3223. >”You know who,” the pegasus grumbles.
  3224. >”SAY IT!” she shouts, pointing at a terrified unicorn inexplicably stuck in the rafters.
  3225. >”P-pink-kie-kie P-p-pie,” she stutters.
  3226. >… the fuck?
  3227. >”SAY IT LOUD!”
  3228. >”Pinkie Pie!”
  3229. >You’re in hell.
  3230. >”PINKIE PIE *WHAT*!?”
  3231. >”Pinkie Pie runs the swap meet!” the assembled ponies roar.
  3232. >”LOUDER!” she screeches.
  3233. >You’ve died and gone to hell.
  3234. >”PINKIE PIE RUNS THE SWAP MEET!”
  3235. >”Resume trading, everypony!” your friend sings sweetly. “Except you, Trixie.”
  3236. “Why the hell not her?”
  3237. >”Because I –“
  3238. >The unicorn doesn’t get to finish, forced to jump back to avoid Ponk’s dynamic entry as the little Earth Pony dives off your back.
  3239. >”Because she needs to Pinkie Promise that all her trades will be fair, silly!”
  3240. “Is that really necessary?”
  3241. >”Oh Celestia, yes!” a unicorn stallion chimes in from a nearby table. “Before she started coming, this place was complete anarchy!”
  3242. >The pegasus on the other side of you laughs, slamming his hoof into the table hard enough to make the books piled on it dance.
  3243. >”Surely you’ve seen how useless the con staff are, haven’t you?” he asks, still chuckling. “Those dinguses couldn’t run a lemonade stand, let alone *this*.”
  3244. >Valid point.
  3245. “But she can’t spend the *entire* con here…”
  3246. >Except she *is* Pinkie Pie, and you’re pretty certain the laws of pony, gods, and reality do not apply to her.
  3247. >But still…
  3248. >”That’s why I’ve deputized some of the other attendees!” she cheers, once more climbing onto your back, apparently having administered Trixie’s Pinkie Promise. “Saaaaaaaay, I notice you didn’t bring anything to trade! Wanna be a Deputy Pinkie?”
  3249. >Trixie has already run off, something having caught her eye, leaving you alone with the pink pony. Well, you *did* need to talk to her…
  3250. “Actually, do you have some time?”
  3251. >You nod towards the door, hoping she’ll get what you mean.
  3252. >”Normally I’d say anything for a friend – you know that, right? –“
  3253. >Like steal someone from another world to get one of her friends laid.
  3254. >” – but I’m *kinda* busy right now, ‘Nonny,” she says regretfully, followed by a sudden shout. “HEY, YOU! YOU THERE! Nonny, hand me one of those cupcakes.”
  3255. >And lo and behold, there is a tray of cupcakes on one of the nearby tables, along with a crudely written sign proclaiming it the throne of judgment. Must be Ponk’s table, though you can’t figure out what the cupcakes are for. Is she trading those…?
  3256. >”Hurry up, Non!” she hisses, straining to reach the cupcake you cautiously pick up and hand to her. “I’ve got my eyes on you shitbag! Get those fucking bootlegs out of here or else you get *The Cupcake!*”
  3257. >Oh, fuck it. This isn’t the time or the place to question her about what Discord said, about her being the one to bring you here.
  3258. “Fine, Ponka, I’ll help you out. And… thank you.”
  3259. >”For whaaaat?”
  3260. “I’ll tell you later.”
  3261.  
  3262. >In the ensuing mayhem – and if Ponks taking the reins with an iron hoof actually did organize things a little, you’re glad you didn’t see it before – you somehow wind up with a table full of confiscated items. Well, not really confiscated, since you have no real authority here unless you decide to grant yourself a divine mandate, but occasionally things get left behind when a scoundrel flees from the CUPCAKES OF JUSTICE!
  3263. >And with good reason, as you’re wearing power armor and Ponks *insists* that you aim for their eyes.
  3264. >If you could actually aim, you might have blinded somepony by now.
  3265. “So, what do we do with all this crap?”
  3266. >Ponka looks back at you from the doorway, where she’s shooing out the last of the ponies – and one rather stubborn minotaur. Apparently this swap meet *does* close from time to time, usually when it gets so packed that the fire marshal declared it a safety hazard.
  3267. >”Oh, you mean *that* stuff! I *used* to just leave it there for the owners to pick up, but for some reason nopony ever came back!”
  3268. >As if anypony who broke a Pinkie Promise and survived long enough to escape would risk her wrath a second time.
  3269. “So what should I do with them?”
  3270. >”Just leave it,” she yells, giving the minotaur a rather painful-looking kick. “If somepony sees something they need, they’re welcome to it!”
  3271. >Too bad Dash couldn’t wait – there are two boffer swords leaning against the wall (left behind by two ponies got into an argument and decided to fight it out) right next to an actual sword (real weapons are banned from CanterCon, so that pony got ejected – you got to help him fulfill his promise to fly if he broke his promise). The table is cluttered with various bootlegs (though you’re not sure exactly what qualifies OR how Ponks knew they weren’t genuine) and cosplay accessories. A large, white fake unicorn horn was dropped by a pegasus that had been dressed up as some alicorn (and had decided that the rule against flying indoors didn’t apply to her). The pastel rainbow wig beside it came from somepony dressed up as some kind of superhero (or supervillian, considering you caught him trying to steal some trading cards).
  3272. >Too bad you didn’t actually *catch* him, though you would have if his wig hadn’t come loose when you grabbed it.
  3273. “Does that mean I can take something?”
  3274. >”If you need it,” your friend calls back to you, “but we should get out of here and let the janitors clean.”
  3275. >Another valid reason for shutting this room down from time to time.
  3276. >Throwing cupcakes at ponies makes things messy.
  3277. >”Hurry up!” Trixie hisses from outside the door, waving for the two of you to follow. “The way you are going, we’re going to be late!”
  3278. >”Silly Trixie,” Ponks giggles with enough force to rattle her armor, “we still have two hours before the Bn’B game!”
  3279. >”Ah,” the unicorn grunts, “I should have known, since you and your friends were amongst the last to arrive last night. Well, Anonymous? It would make everything *much* easier if you joined in on the planning session.”
  3280. “Planning session?”
  3281. >Behind your friend, you can see a pair of janitors shifting nervously, probably because it’s close to quitting time for them and they’re worried about getting the room cleaned up so they don’t have to stay late.
  3282. >”I don’t know about that,” Ponks muses, “but we should still get out of here.”
  3283. “Be right there.”
  3284. >You reach down and grab the pastel wig and fake horn before walking out. The pair of ponies rush inside, barely waiting for you to clear the doorway, and a solid thunk of wood-on-wood tells you one of their brooms didn’t quite make it.
  3285. >”So, I *really* don’t know how I feel about a planning session,” your little pink friend says, rubbing her chin with a gold-clad hoof. “Normally I’m all for parties, but…”
  3286. “Worried about what Twilight would think?”
  3287. >A fair thing to be worried about, considering your marefriend’s view on metagaming.
  3288. >”Naaaaaah,” Ponks laughs, waving her hoof. “Just doesn’t seem very… khan-ish, so you two have fun.”
  3289. “What are you going to do?”
  3290. “I’m gonna go have fun somewhere else!” your friend yells, already galloping away.
  3291. “Sure, just don’t be late.”
  3292. >”As if the Khan would ever be late!” she scoffs just before rounding the corner. “Bet I get there before the rest of your party!”
  3293. >You sigh and shrug, mostly for Trixie’s benefit.
  3294. “Sometimes, I just don’t know what that mare is thinking.”
  3295. >”I don’t think *anypony* does.”
  3296.  
  3297. >Perhaps you *are* a bit early.
  3298. >Though others have arrived before you, over half of them are event staff. In fact, Dice Pool is the first to greet you as you come through the door, followed by Spike.
  3299. >”Heya, uh… human!” some random mare calls out – one of the Fillydelphians, maybe? “Ready to let us all in on your plan?”
  3300. “What makes you think I have a plan?”
  3301. >”Oh come on, Anon,” Dice Pool grumbles, taking a seat at the table you used last night. “Don’t be a dick – the more you let us know about your plan, the more we can do to help.”
  3302. >The Fillydelphian (?) and another two ponies join him, along with the sole gryphon to have arrived.
  3303. >Well, that’s something to think about – how in the nine hells will you sit wearing all this armor?
  3304. >For now, you stand.
  3305. “Well, here’s what I was thinking…”
  3306. >The other players look to you expectantly.
  3307. >Poor bastards actually think you know what you’re doing.
  3308. >There were some cunning plans in the works, but Celes – uh – Chrysalis(?) put the kibosh on those last night by centering the campaign around Abdul.
  3309. >Luckily, new plans are in the works.
  3310. “… it’s really going to depends on what happens with Adbul tonight…”
  3311. >Like if some of the other players decide to shank him. You’d give Storm Glory a fifty-fifty chance at taking another shot at the merchant.
  3312. “… but I think we need to find some epic quest – something to *really* unite all of the adventurers. And the Church, if we can.”
  3313. >”Maybe wiping out the bandits?” one of the pony’s suggests.
  3314. “Might work, but not very epic. I was hoping to think of something else, some great evil the Moon can’t touch.”
  3315. >The gryphon raises a claw to get your attention.
  3316. “Got an idea?”
  3317. >”Just wondering if it’s a good idea to talk with *him* here,” he answers, pointing at Dice Pool. “He’s the enemy, after all.”
  3318. >”Whoa there!” the DM yells, waving his hooves in front of his face. “I’m nopony’s enemy, just here to tell a story like everypony else.”
  3319. “Being the DM doesn’t automatically make him the villain. Actually, he was pretty cool last night, so for all we know he might actually help.”
  3320. >That brings a smirk to the pony’s face.
  3321. >”Hey, I’m here to help,” he says to the gryphon – and the rest of the table. “I really hope all of you enjoy the game. Doesn’t do anypony any good if you don’t.”
  3322. >Dice Pool gives a nod towards your hand – the hand still clutching the wig and horn.
  3323. >”And it certainly looks like we’re in for a fun night,” he snarks. “I’m guessing Anon is going to dress up as a clown for us.
  3324. “Something like that.”
  3325. >Personally, you don’t think Celestia is very funny, but maybe he does.
  3326. >”So what *is* your plan?” one of the ponies asks insistently. “Get everypony working together and then what?”
  3327. >She barely pauses as the door slams open behind you – taking just long enough to look past you to see who entered before she continues. You don’t, as the mare obviously feels it’s safe to talk even with the newcomer listening.
  3328. >”What *is* your ultimate goal?” she asks.
  3329. >”I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’ll be good!”
  3330. >Ah. Rainbow Dash.
  3331. “How did you escape Rarity?”
  3332. >”What makes you think I did?”
  3333. “I only hear one set of hoofsteps, Dash. Though… from the sound of fabric dragging on the floor, it sounds like she got you into a kimono.”
  3334. >”See! I told you he’s good!” Dash laughs, the black cloth spreading out as she seats herself beside your leg. “Yeah, I escaped, but not completely.”
  3335. >The red and yellow floral pattern across the red field helps obscure – but doesn’t completely hide – the outline of her sword and its harness under the outfit, though the foot-and-a-half or so of handle poking out of the collar is even more of a giveaway.
  3336. “You gave in to her.”
  3337. >Otherwise it wouldn’t be so neatly arranged.
  3338. >”She said it was necessary,” your friend sighs. “And I guess she’s right – everypony else is in costume.”
  3339. >Not that you know what anypony is dressed as. Hell, the gryphon looks like he threw on some LARPing accessories and decided that was enough.
  3340. >”SO… this plan of yours…” the background mare – you aren’t going to learn her name anyway, so you might as well admit it to yourself – says, trying to steer the conversation back to that, only to have the door slam open again. “What *is* your plan?”
  3341. >”He doesn’t have one, silly!”
  3342. “I – no, Pinkie Pie is right. I have a goal and I have some ideas, but I don’t really have any plans.”
  3343. >”Well, good thing we didn’t listen to you,” the mare grumbles, kicking out lightly at the stallion beside her. “*HE* thought you would be able to beat the campaign, but I think you’re just derailing it.”
  3344. >”Isn’t it amazing what lacking a plan can do?” Ponks laughs, throwing herself at the table and slapping its edge with one armored hoof. “All Anon did was roll up a character, and because he had no plan, the campaign had to derail to oppose him!”
  3345. “I wouldn’t go that far…”
  3346. >”But it’s true, isn’t it?” Ponks asks, looking up to you with her wide, blue eyes. “It’s not like you *tried* to mess things up.”
  3347. “Never do, but it seems to happen anyway.”
  3348. >The unnamed – well, she *probably* has a name, but you don’t know it – mare stands abruptly, dragging the pony beside her to his hooves.
  3349. >”I see there’s nothing to learn here after all,” she says before walking away, followed slowly by the stallion. “We might as well get something to eat before the game.”
  3350. >”Yes, dear,” he sighs, though he casts a look back at your table. It stalls him just long enough to give Spike the time to scamper up to the couple with an excited look.
  3351. >”Oh, well, ACTUALLY, if you just wait a minute,” he stammers out eagerly, “we’ll be bringing in some food soon!”
  3352. >And indeed it does, arriving almost as soon as the words leave his mouth.
  3353.  
  3354. >Two mugs of weak cider later, you are *really* regretting wearing all this armor. You kinda need to – oh, nevermind.
  3355. >Problem solved.
  3356.  
  3357. >More players arrive slowly, giving you plenty of time to chat without being bombarded by more demands. Overall, the gryphons seem to not really care – they’re in this to show off their badass characters more than anything else. The Ponyville groups know you well enough to simply trust you – or fate – to lead them to a good end, but the Fillydelphians and Manehattanites are oddly standoffish. Not entirely, but their interactions with you are markedly reserved.
  3358. >”Trixie expected more teamwork,” is all the magician says when you ask her about the expected planning session.
  3359. >Still, it gives you time to talk to some of the others about their characters, to see what they might be capable of.
  3360. >You might not have a plan, but it’s never a bad idea to know what tools are available to work with.
  3361. >Bizarrely, it’s the staff you talk to you most about what you have in mind for the game. Sure, it’s always a good idea for a player to talk things through with his DM, but it doesn’t stop with Dice Pool. The other five take their turns chatting with you, even Lord Neckbeard. He seems calm enough today, if rather unimaginative – you suspect he only talked to you at one of the other DM’s urging. Unfortunately – for them, at least – you can’t really tell them much.
  3362. >You can’t know what Abdul is going to do until you know the situation he’s in.
  3363. >Trixie leaves your table somewhere between ciders number four and five – you don’t see her leave, instead dully noticing her absence after a while. A quick look around reveals her sitting at her table, hood drawn up and both tail and mane tucked away.
  3364. >Damn.
  3365. >You thought she was feeling better – if not about Fluttershy, then at least overall. She *did* manage to put up with the sisters’ presence without snapping like she had last night, so you had thought…
  3366. >… thought something probably very stupid.
  3367. >Damn.
  3368. >You’ll have to try to fix this later tonight, maybe… or tomorrow.
  3369. >Or never.
  3370. >It’s not really your problem, and like Ponks said, your mere presence tends to mess things up.
  3371. >As the official start time for the event approaches, the other players make their ways to their tables, leaving you alone with Dice Pool. Even though nearly everypony else has arrived, you and he remain alone. Even as the time to start comes and goes.
  3372. >That’s not really *particularly* odd – rare is the gaming event that manages to start within thirty minutes of its posted time.
  3373. >You spend the time well, learning more about your DM – his favorite games, his usual character builds. Weird lil’ guy never plays the same character twice, or even anything remotely similar to a character he’s played before.
  3374. >The natives grow restless as the clock passes the half-hour mark, as do some of the DM’s.
  3375. >Must be under instruction to not start until everyone is ready, or perhaps even they do not know where the story is going until Cele – uh, Chrysalis (?) – tells them what to do.
  3376. >Even you are starting to worry as it approaches fifteen-till – until Shining Armor pushes his way through the door wearing a green tank top and red bandana.
  3377. >And a very angry frown.
  3378. >Considering his size, he makes a *very* convincing Catachan. For a white and blue pony, of course.
  3379. “Nice costume.”
  3380. >His frown deepens at your words.
  3381. >”Considering what you’ve done, it’s probably not the best idea to joke about that right now,” he growls, standing at the far end of the table, pushing the stool away crankily to lean against the table’s edge.
  3382. “Don’t like it? Sure the Death Korp are cooler than the Catachan, but still –“
  3383. >”She dressed me up as some girl from some movie!”
  3384. >Oh.
  3385. >Right.
  3386. “Sunny did that?”
  3387. >”Stop trying to change the subject,” he says threateningly – and accompanies it with a stomp for emphasis. “Don’t think we’re okay now.”
  3388. “Is this about me slapping the shit out of ‘Celestia?’”
  3389. >Though it tests your infinite willpower, you avoid giving the name airquotes. Unfortunately, you’re unable to keep the sarcasm from your voice, though he doesn’t seem to notice.
  3390. >”What? No! About you and Twily! Cadance told me all about it!”
  3391. >Oh, Shining Armor is *really* putting on the big brother act, despite the lack of an audience. Must be one of those damn method actors, though you really shouldn’t be surprised considering the only kinds of characters he rolls up are basically just like him.
  3392. “Whatever it is, it can’t be *that* bad…”
  3393. >You give him a shrug and a grin, deciding to play the ignorant asshole card to give him more to work with.
  3394. >”I’m not joking around.”
  3395. >He’s… not.
  3396. >Whelp, that’s not good.
  3397. >You start to take a deep breath, before remembering you’re wearing the power armor of the God-Emperor of Mankind (or a reasonably accurate replica), and therefore protected from whatever sibling rage he brings to bear.
  3398. “Is this… about the choking…?”
  3399. >That’s the only thing you’ve done, right? The only thing that Cadance warned you would set him off. Has to be.
  3400. >The stallion blinks twice. Slowly.
  3401. >That… wasn’t it.
  3402. >Oh.
  3403. >Shit.
  3404. >”I think it’s very lucky for both of us that… that Celestia wants to speak with you right now,” he says, pointing towards the door to the service hallway the two of you used yesterday. His eyes, however, remain locked with yours. “My little sister is there, too, and I expect… I expect some *very* reasonable things. Got it?”
  3405. >You give him a quick nod – and ruin the gravity of the moment by putting on the faux-horn and wig. Fumbling one-handed with the straps for the horn really doesn’t help.
  3406. “Sorry, I wasn’t expecting this to take so long, but I need –“
  3407. >”Go.”
  3408. >He stares angrily at you as you walk away. The entire way. Even once as you’re reaching for the door’s handle.
  3409. >You know because you look back to check.
  3410. >It takes the arrival of Moonbeam and Sunny Smiles to distract him, but only for a second. When you give him a second glance, he’s back to staring at you.
  3411. >Must not be *too* pissed about being dressed as Vasquez.
  3412. >Well, fuck it.
  3413. >Nothing you can do about it now.
  3414. >You push open the door and step through – praise the stars it’s wide enough to let you through, probably because it *is* a service door. You do have to duck down a bit, but you make it through without problem.
  3415. >”Take that off,” ‘Celestia’ snaps at you immediately. “You look ridiculous.”
  3416. >Um.
  3417. >”No?”
  3418. >At her side, your princess is trying to hold in a giggle.
  3419. >”Fine, leave it on!” ‘Celestia’ snorts. “See if I care if you make a fool of yourself.”
  3420. >In contrast to ‘Celestia’s’ relatively plain adornments – just her hoofcaps, crown, and torc – Twi is wearing some blue and white outfit that you can’t quite identify.
  3421. >”Are… are you talking about the wig?” Twilight asks the other mare. “Because if you’re talking about the armor –“
  3422. >”Of course I mean the wig!”
  3423. “Please, it’s not any less convincing that your disguise, Chrysalis. And *I* can at least stay on-script.”
  3424. >”And improvise well,” your marefriend adds. “If I could stand letting her sit next to me, I’d suggest you two swap places for the night since you’d probably be the more convincing Celestia.”
  3425. >Suspicions con-fucking-firmed.
  3426. >”Or we *could* just let *her* be herself,” the changeling hisses angrily. “Why can’t I play!?”
  3427. >”You’re getting plenty out of this arrangement already,” Twilight barks back. “Don’t let your greed get the better of you again, or… or… or I’ll let Anon smack you once more!”
  3428. >Chrysalis gives an exasperated groan and tosses her nose into the air, to stare angrily at the ceiling. She knows well enough not to give *you* that expression, and is smart enough to avoid looking at your marefriend.
  3429. >"Sorry, I didn't quite catch that," Twi presses forcefully.
  3430. >That brings the changeling queen's eyes down, though she avoids looking at either of you.
  3431. >"Fine," she says in a monotone voice. "I'll play my part, just like I did last night."
  3432. >Despite that, Chrysalis shifts uncomfortably, her tail thrashing back and forth angrily. Another groan escapes her mouth. She really is a horrible actress, despite being the queen of the changelings.
  3433. "And...?"
  3434. >There's more - you weren't called out here just so Twi could let you know 'Celestia' was actually Chrysalis. Or so that her brother did make an ill-conceived attempt at kicking your head in.
  3435. >"*And* I need to know what you're going to do!" Chrysalis hisses. "I've put too much time into this to let you ruin it, but Celestia -"
  3436. >Twilight coughs pointedly.
  3437. >"- but *Princess* Celestia already told me to put the campaign on hold so we could see what you were going to do yesterday. I can *probably* adapt the rest to fit in two nights, but not if you're going to derail everything!"
  3438. >You expect her to stamp angrily - her anxious fidgeting is oddly more effective. She actually cares about this, it's not just an act.
  3439. >Because you'd know.
  3440. >She's a shitty actress.
  3441. "Just run your campaign - I'm sure any decent DM could find a way to fit Abdul."
  3442. >Your insult draws a growl from her, with the sides of her mouth curling up to bare her fangs.
  3443. >Between your power armor and her current *lack* of fangs, it's not very intimidating.
  3444. "So, anything else?"
  3445. >Chrysalis opens her mouth to speak, but Twi answers before the changeling can even ask.
  3446. >"Anon *really* doesn't have a plan. A few ideas and tricks, but no plan. He rarely does."
  3447. >The changeling closes her eyes and mutters something under her breath. Nothing important, or she would have said it *just* loud enough to hear. Unless she's as horrible an instigator as she is an actor.
  3448. >"Go on," Twilight commands, "start getting everything ready."
  3449. "We'll be right in."
  3450. >The changeling mutters angrily again, but moves towards the door. She adopts Celestia's usual enigmatic smile as she opens it with her magic and steps through to the applause of the players.
  3451. >So *that*is what Twilight meant about Chrysalis getting plenty out of this already. It's for the attention. The adulation.
  3452. >Twilight hangs back, trying to look angry but failing. At least, you see through it - you know her too well.
  3453. >She's using anger to mask her excitement.
  3454. >”I am *very* sorry for the delay, my little ponies…”
  3455. >Okay, so Chrysalis isn’t *always* a horrible actress.
  3456. >Neither you nor Twilight make any move to follow her – after all, this is ‘Celestia’s’ moment – instead waiting quietly for the door to close completely. Relatively quietly – Twi dances from side to side in nervous anticipation, making the cloth of her costume rustle softly.
  3457. >There’s a hushed click at the door latches shut, signaling –
  3458. >”Oh my gosh, can you believe that!” Twi blurts out. “How long have you known!? Have you known all along? Is that why you hit her? Why didn’t you tell me? Where you worried –”
  3459. >The unending line of questions crashes to a halt as you raise your right hand.
  3460. “About a minute ago, Twilight. I found out as soon as you confirmed it, though Discord put the thought in my head earlier today.”
  3461. >”O-oh. Discord…?”
  3462. “Yeah, skinny guy, kinda looks like the unfortunate result of a barnyard orgy. I’m sure you’ve heard of – ow!”
  3463. >The kick didn’t actually hurt your leg at all, but you’re Twi’s coltfriend, so you have to say *something.*
  3464. >”I know who Discord is!”
  3465. “Ooooooh, yeah, well, he was here to play a game and told me some interesting things while we were at it. He said that Sunny Smiles and Moonbeam are –“
  3466. >”Celestia and Luna?”
  3467. “Yeppers! So –”
  3468. >You try to kneel down, but the armor just isn’t built for such things. You’re forced to settle for bending your knees and hunching down slightly.
  3469. “ – how long have you known?”
  3470. >”Worried that I’m keeping secrets?” she giggles.
  3471. “Also that you’re a changeling, secretly a lesbian, and only keeping me around to turn me into a trophy husband.”
  3472. >”Don’t be silly, Anon. You’re just a pet.”
  3473. >Wait.
  3474. >*Is* she a changeling?
  3475. >Shit.
  3476. >Why do you do this to yourself?
  3477. >Pet…?
  3478. >”Also, I only found out after you slapped Chrysalis to the ground, and also you were surprised to find me reading the Night Lords books instead of Cain on your iPad.”
  3479. >You have no clue how those two things are related.
  3480. >Like… it’s not even…
  3481. >What?
  3482. >Did she have a stroke mid-conversation or something?
  3483. >”I’m not a changeling,” your marefriend explains with a wink, correctly reading your silence.
  3484. >Oh.
  3485. >OH!
  3486. >Right, only she would know that!
  3487. >Nevermind, she’s not a changeling infiltrator.
  3488. “And I… um…”
  3489. >”Don’t bother,” Twilight laughs. “I *know* it’s you. Princess Celestia told me how to spot changelings as well as… as… lots of interesting things!”
  3490. >She spins around quickly, for absolutely no reason as far as you can –
  3491. >”And she gave me this dress!”
  3492. >Ah, she was showing it off.
  3493. “Okaaaaay…?”
  3494. >She stops twirling and huffs slightly.
  3495. >”I *know* you read that book. I *watched* you read it.”
  3496. “I read a lot of – oh! Morning Gambit? From those Bn’B novels!?”
  3497. >”Mhm!”
  3498. “And Celestia just happened to have her outfit in your size?”
  3499. >”Well…”
  3500. >Your princess hedges slightly, grinding one hoof against the floor.
  3501. >”… I *did* have to use some magic to make it fit, since it used to be hers.”
  3502. >Huh.
  3503. >”Princess Celestia didn’t really go into much detail, and then she ran off in the middle of things and then – it’s been a *crazy* day and…”
  3504. >She’s going to fish for cuddles now, you just know it. Won’t say it outright, of course, but it’s what –
  3505. >”… once we get you out of that armor, I could really use some cuddling.”
  3506. >Fuck it, time to stop thinking about things.
  3507. “Yeah, me too.”
  3508. >Twi stretches, pulling herself up just enough to touch her nose to yours.
  3509. >”Deal. We’ll talk about today’s craziness later.”
  3510. “Deal.”
  3511. >She drops down to all four hooves with a smile.
  3512. “Except – um – you should probably know your brother wants to kick my ass. And it doesn’t have anything to do with the choking. Didn’t. Might now. Probably, actually.”
  3513. >”Oh, perfect!”
  3514. >The smile doesn’t drop from your princess’s face, but – wow – she could *really* give Chrysalis some competition for who can be the worst actress.
  3515.  
  3516. >Dice Pool is the only pony at your table to meet your return with a smile, though Sunny smirks and Moonbeam dips her head.
  3517. >”Congratulations,” the grey mare says to the two of you, probably for unraveling the mystery of the shell-game princesses.
  3518. >Shining Armor’s expression is more conflicted and he finds himself glancing over to Sunny repeatedly.
  3519. >As does Twilight, though her eyes flicker between her mentor and Dice Pool.
  3520. >Aw, shit.
  3521. >He’s a changeling. That would completely explain his insistence that everypony have fun. No DM is *that* nice, unless he’s got some other goal in mind.
  3522. >Like feeding.
  3523. >But considering every other stray thought you’ve had recently has been wrong –
  3524. >Sunny nods slightly towards your princess.
  3525. > – you’re probably right, then.
  3526. >Shit.
  3527. >”Are you both ready to start?” he asks, waving for both of you to take your seats.
  3528. “Um, I think I’ll stand…”
  3529. >”No need to stand in my presence, Anon!” Faux-lestia calls out from her table. “Feel free to take a seat.”
  3530. “I can’t. Armor won’t let me.”
  3531. >”Isn’t that a shame,” she laughs. “Just like Abdul, you’re now trapped by your own power.”
  3532.  
  3533. >The prison is quite comfortable.
  3534. >You are a man of wealth, and that still means something to your allies in the church. The furnishings, though somewhat below your usual standards, are adequate and the guards polite. But it is still a prison, as you are reminded every time you look out the barred windows. The bars are widely spaced and poorly set, more for show than anything else, but a clear sign of your current situation. If it weren’t for them – and the fact your new servants wear heavy armor and carry weapons when delivering your meals – you could almost pretend you were a free man.
  3535. >Still, you can’t help but stare out them at night, nor can anyone else, you suspect.
  3536. >You try to tell yourself it’s just the lights of the city playing havoc, or an overcast sky obstructing your view. You try to tell yourself many lies, but that’s all they are, and as the days pass you find yourself facing a very uncomfortable truth.
  3537. >The stars are going out.
  3538. >Not all of them.
  3539. >Not all at once.
  3540. >The night sky does not even look any darker, despite the obvious gaps, as if the other stars are shining all the brighter.
  3541.  
  3542. >"Um... I have a question..." Twi says hesitantly, holding a forehoof up like she's a schoolfilly waiting to be called on.
  3543. >"Where are the rest of you?" Dice Pool guesses, finally flipping open his notepad. It's still blank, but not for long as the stallion grabs a pencil off the table and holds it ready.
  3544. >"No - though I guess that's an important question." Your marefriend pauses, conflicted as her curiosity wars with practicality. "No, what I was wondering is... well..."
  3545. >Another pause, this time followed with a look to Sunny Smiles.
  3546. >"... was it ever definitively decided if stars are the souls of those you died fighting the darkness...?"
  3547. >It wasn't - not in the gamebooks, not in the novels. Not in any of the ones you've read, which is probably all of them. Some lean heavily one direction, but just as many lean the other - a common problem with any shared universe series.
  3548. >Twilight knows this just as well as you do. After all, those were *her* books you were reading.
  3549. >Dice Pool may have some theories, some personal belief or headcanon about the issue, but he doesn't actually know. Nopony besides the game's creator knows.
  3550. >That's why Twilight is asking Sunny Smiles, despite originally addressing Dice Pool - everything in her body language, from how she's sitting to who she is looking at, screams out to anypony paying attention who your princess is actually asking.
  3551. >Twilight really is the worst actress in Equestria. No wonder the cosplayers kept her in the dark about who they really are for as long as they could.
  3552. >"What are you asking me for?" Sunny snarls at your marefriend, acutaly aware of the suspicious looks her way from ponies who happened to overhear Twilight's question. "Do I *look* like a skjald?"
  3553. >"N-no, but -"
  3554. >"Then did you mistake my warplate for a philosopher's robe?" the large mare growls, baring the sharp canine teeth Chrysalis lacked. "There are some things nopony should know."
  3555. >Even in your armor, the implied threat chills your spine.
  3556. >It's just enough to get your princess to back down.
  3557. >Just barely.
  3558. >"Well, I guess it doesn't really matter," Twilight admits with a hurt look. "Not right now, anyway."
  3559.  
  3560. >"Stick to your rocks, dog," Corn Cob sneers, barely looking up from the crossbow she's restringing. "What does it matter if the myths are true?"
  3561. >"It matters because it must mean those souls are dying!" Rock Thrower insists, pulling herself away from the window she had been looking through.
  3562. >"So?" the mercenary asks. "People die every day."
  3563. >The diamond dog lurches across the room to slap the crossbow from Corn Cob’s hooves, the abrupt move catching the unicorn completely by surprise.
  3564. >”Don’t you see something is wrong, pony!?”
  3565.  
  3566. >Well, it’s confirmed – Abdul is dying forgotten in prison. Even your own party seems to have latched on to the new adventure hook without any concern for the night before.
  3567. >Chrysalis sure found an easy way to take care of Abdul.
  3568.  
  3569. >”Of course something is wrong.” Corn Cob casually reaches down to recover her weapon and continue her maintenance. “Something has always been wrong. Why are these deaths any different?”
  3570. >”Cut the crap, pony. It’s too maudlin for a killer-for-hire.”
  3571.  
  3572. “Twi, while your characters bicker, want to hand me those books so I can roll up –“
  3573. >You reach out with your right hand and – um… this might be a little hard.
  3574. ”Uh, Moonbeam? Mind helping me roll up a new character? Abdul doesn’t seem all that –“
  3575. >A ten-sider bounces off your chest with a dull thunk.
  3576. >”Don’t you dare!”
  3577. >The bright purple streak of its magical path leaves an afterimage dancing in your eyes.
  3578. >The first thing that pops into your mind is to wonder why the hell Twilight even had a ten-sider, since Rock Thrower doesn’t use them for anything.
  3579. >A weird thought, but the first ones usually are.
  3580. >The second is to question why Twilight doesn’t actually sound like herself, why the harsh tone doesn’t match your princess’s irked, yet loving expression.
  3581. >”Stop being a drama whore just to get Princess Celestia’s attention, you jerk,” a pony – holy shit, it’s Lyra – yells out. “We’ll save you in a bit, dammit!”
  3582. “Um, okay…”
  3583. >Well, *now* you feel like a dick.
  3584. >”If you’re bored, you can get me some more cider,” your princess teases, waving her mug at you. “Or maybe something stronger…”
  3585. >Sunny looks at her sharply, but Twilight is too occupied trying to peer around her Ponyville friends to see what else is available from the refreshment table.
  3586. >”Is that… is that… what *is* that?” she asks. “That blue thing? Could you get me some of that, please? Or maybe –”
  3587. >”Are you sure you should be drinking now?” Moonbeam interrupts, reaching across the table and touching her hoof to Twilight’s. She doesn’t say anything more, but there’s another unspoken question behind the first.
  3588. >”Well, we’re here to have fun, right *girls*?” Twilight asks, accenting the question with what she thinks is a subtle wink. “Why shouldn’t I?”
  3589. >Sunny and Moonbeam exchange a short, worried glance – *not* the reaction your marefriend was expecting.
  3590. >”But I guess I *should* wait for that until a little later in the night,” she quickly admits with a shrug and chagrinned smile. “Couldn’t hurt to stay sharp.”
  3591. “Does that mean you want cider? Or juice?”
  3592. >”Cider will be just fine!” she answers excitedly, with a puppy-like swish of her tail. “I don’t need to stay *too* sharp.”
  3593. >Sunny has already been through several mugs of the harder stuff - applejack, you remember with a silent laugh - so you don't understand her disturbed expression. Probably just acting in character, since any Space Wolf would be confused how *anypony* could stand to drink that weak-ass piss-water.
  3594. >"Don't worry," Twilight tries to reassure the other mares with a smile, "a little cider won't hurt anything."
  3595. >Moonbeam relaxes slightly, but Sunny Smiles' discomfort remains, making Twi - and yourself, in turn - even more uncomfortable.
  3596. "While I'm doing that, should I get anything for you *ladies*?"
  3597. >Time to solve things.
  3598. "Sunny? Moonbeam?"
  3599. >The Anon way.
  3600. "*Shining Armor*?"
  3601. >By being an asshole.
  3602. "Anything, *ladies*?"
  3603. >Sunny snickers, Moonbeam frowns, Twilight tilts her head to one side in confusion, and Shining Armor... laughs.
  3604. >You had braced yourself, expecting him to charge you in blind rage, power armor be damned. Not that it was truly likely with Twilight sitting between you and her brother, but it wouldn't have been a surprise.
  3605. >But this...?
  3606. "Huh?"
  3607. >"I'll take some of that blue stuff, *Empress Celestia*."
  3608. >Oh, right, the wig and horn.
  3609. "Of course, my little colonial marine."
  3610. >You manage a stiff half bow. Despite it's flexibility, the armor doesn't seem like it wants to move in certain ways, and this is one of them. Makes sense - the Emperor does not bow nor bend knee to any creature or god.
  3611. >The other two do not want anything, and Dice Pool shakes his head when you ask him.
  3612. >Of course *he* doesn't want anything to eat or drink.
  3613. >Fucking changeling.
  3614. >Despite your offer to bring drinks for everypony, you find it challenging enough managing just two. The gauntlet on your right hand is just too large to fit your fingers through the mugs' handles, and your left is wholly unsuited to the task. A few near-disasters while trying to lift the second mug finally convinces you to carry them one at a time.
  3615. >It's not like you're needed at the table right now.
  3616. >Twi looks at you curiously when you return with just her brother's mug, but nods in understanding when you flex your fingers for her.
  3617. >By the third trip, this time with a mug for yourself, Sunny has changed her mind and wants more applejack. When you return with her drink, *Moonbeam* asks you to get her something, and then it's Shining Armor's turn to start the process over.
  3618. >It's almost like they're *trying* to keep you from the table.
  3619. >You don't really mind.
  3620. >Walking between the tables over and over, you catch snippets and hints of what's going on with the other parties.
  3621. >Applejack and the other Elements seem to have uncovered evidence of a conspiracy amongst the clerics of the Moon - at least, that's what it sounds like.
  3622. >The Fillydelphians, meanwhile, had gone off to fight bandits.
  3623. >Too bad five-pony full-frontal assaults against fortified strongholds tend to fail pretty spectacularly. From the sound of it, their characters are dishing out plenty of damage but can't manage to actually get past the outer wall.
  3624. >You linger near their table for a moment, listening to the combat go back and forth. Though the thought feels heretical, it seems their spellcasters brought too much dakka. The lack of utility spells is really hindering their efforts.
  3625. >There's a lull in the action when you return to your table with what has to be Sunny's sixth or seventh mug of booze. Not *quite* like they stopped talking as soon as you arrived, but they certainly seem reluctant to continue while you're there.
  3626. "I'm guessing Abdul is still locked up in that room?"
  3627. >Dice Pool gives you a quick nod.
  3628. >"Yep!"
  3629.  
  3630. >You slam your open palm against the door three more times, hoping that they'll answer *this* time.
  3631. "Are there *any* servants in this wretched place!?"
  3632. >You refuse to call them your guards. Willfully prideful, perhaps, but a man of your status has earned that right.
  3633. “Who do I have to pay to have killed around here to get a little wine!?”
  3634. >The heavy wooden door shudders under your next blow – playing their little games amused you for a while, but the novelty of waiting for set mealtimes has worn thin.
  3635. >The living legend needs wine.
  3636. “And perhaps some of those pastries from that earth pony bakery across the market!”
  3637. >There is still no response to your hammering.
  3638. “Since the service here is SO SLOW, first bring me mayonnaise and some of those little cheesy things on sticks to tide me over!”
  3639. >As soon as you’re cleared of this frivolous charges of heresy, you’re going to buy this temple and have all the help *fired*. Or executed, depending on the local laws.
  3640.  
  3641. >”Are you done now?” your DM sighs, resting his head on his forehooves.
  3642. “Depends, did the guards fail *every* listen check?”
  3643. >”Yep!”
  3644. “But you didn’t even make any rolls.”
  3645. >Dice Pool shrugs innocently.
  3646. >”Probably because nopony is stationed on Abdul’s floor permanently, only going up there to deliver his meals.”
  3647. “Oh. Yeah, I’m done then.”
  3648. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
  3649. >It's much easier to undo the straps holding on the horn one-handed than it was to get it on. With those undone, you tug both the horn and wig free and lean down as close to the mare as your armor will allow.
  3650. "Between us..."
  3651. >You fake a look back towards 'Celestia.'
  3652. "I always thought her mane looked daft. I mean, pastel *and* glitter? Who's her stylist - some gradeschool filly?"
  3653. >"Maaaaaaaaaybe," Sunny answers with a wave of her hoof, "she probably indulged her little sister once looooong ago and decided to keep it that way."
  3654. >She teasingly, but gently, pokes at a blushing Moonbeam with her knee.
  3655. >"Possibly because the glue was just so *dang* hard to get out."
  3656. >You don't quite make out what Moonbeam mumbles, but it sounds apologetic.
  3657. "Dammit, you're taking all the fun out of this."
  3658. >"I know," the white mare answers sweetly. "Now run along and let us save your ass."
  3659. >She's not even bothering to hide it.
  3660. >That bitch.
  3661. "How about I just stay and keep quiet?"
  3662. >"Ummmm..." your little princess hums at your side, "actually..."
  3663. >Even Twilight wants you gone?
  3664. >"... you *know* how I feel about out-of-character knowledge..."
  3665. "Fine. Going now."
  3666. >Hopefully she puts up more of a fight when Celestia tries to throw you out of Equestria. Thankfully, you keep yourself from saying that out loud. Hell, you even manage to keep smiling. At least, you *think* you're smiling.
  3667. >You want to ruffle her mane, to pat her gently, to... *something* to make her think you don't mind, but you just don't trust the armor to not accidentally crush her head.
  3668. "I'll just be -"
  3669. >"YO, WAITER! WAAAAAAAAAITER!"
  3670. "FUCKING WHAT, LYRA!?"
  3671. >"We're done with our encounter!" the unicorn yells. "Come sit - er, uh, STAND over here!"
  3672. "Like I was going to say, *Twilight*, I'll be over there. With the loud, obnoxious pony."
  3673. >She gives you a curt nod, but calls out to you as you walk away.
  3674. >”Um, Anon – Rainbow Dash is sitting over *there*.”
  3675. “The *other* loud, obnoxious pony.”
  3676. >”Sunny Smiles…?” your marefriend guesses again, giving you a sly smile.
  3677. >”Hey!”
  3678. “Nah, she’s not so bad today, which makes no damn sense, considering she’s dressed as –“
  3679. >”WAAAAAAAAAITER!” Lyra yells, echoed by some of her tablemates. “We need our drinks refilled!”
  3680. “FINE!”
  3681. >You spin away from your princess, the armor’s remarkable agility returning again.
  3682. >It may be difficult to carry more than one mug at a time, but you have no difficulty commandeering an entire pitcher. Actually, its larger size fits your gauntlet far better. You don’t bother to choose one, just grabbing the closest before making your way back to Lyra’s table and thumping it loudly against the table’s surface.
  3683. “There. Happy?”
  3684. >Octavia leans over to examine the contents – ah, you’d grabbed the blue thing, whatever it is – and takes a careful sniff.
  3685. >”This is not what I ordered,” she says dryly. “I must sadly say the service here is quite… lacking.”
  3686. “Still sober?”
  3687. >You hadn’t expected that, not from what Lyra had told you about her friend.
  3688. >”Well, yes, as I am enjoying myself somewhat,” the mare explains with a slight shrug. “For the moment at least. If that changes, then perhaps other things may as well.”
  3689. >Translation: She’ll get drunk off her ass as soon as she starts getting bored or pissed.
  3690. >Considering she’s sitting right next to Lyra, it’s a bit of a miracle the musician isn’t dead from alcohol poisoning.
  3691. “Ah.”
  3692. >None of the mares have made a move for the pitcher, not even Lyra.
  3693. “Did I *really* bring the wrong thing?”
  3694. >One by one, the ponies shrug – all except Trixie, who reaches out with her magic and bring the pitcher over to her mug. She only pours a small amount – barely a sip or two’s worth – before returning the pitcher to the center of the table.
  3695. >”It wouldn’t surprise Trixie if you did, Anonymous, but since I don’t even know what this is…”
  3696. >“It’s blue!” Cheerilee answers unhelpfully. “And it smells sweet.”
  3697. >She looks to Trixie for confirmation as the magician takes a small sip from her mug, but Lyra doesn’t wait and quickly fills first her mug, then Octavia’s when the earth pony doesn’t protest.
  3698. >”It is,” Trixie affirms, letting the pink aura fade from her mug and dropping it back to the table.
  3699. >With a resigned sigh (that you feel is rather exaggerated), Octavia takes a small taste from her mug, followed almost immediately by another one, this time much longer.
  3700. >”It is also *very* alcoholic, the Wise and Learned Trixie suspects.”
  3701. >Shiiiiiiiiiit.
  3702. >“Anonymous, fetch some of those small – oh, *nevermind*. Lyra, do you see those small glasses on the refreshment table?”
  3703. >The green pony turns her head, searching about for a second before locating them, right next to where the pitcher had been before you snatched it up. Too bad you didn’t notice them before now, or more accurately before you had given Shining Armor a second mug of it. Hopefully he’s a happy drunk.
  3704. >Hopefully.
  3705. >”Uh, sure,” Lyra answers, looking cautiously at her fellow musician as she rises.
  3706. >Octavia thumps down her empty mug and smiles happily before catching sight of her friend and the other three ponies staring at her in abject terror.
  3707. >”Please do forgive my lack of manners, but that was *very* tasty,” she apologizes, misinterpreting their expressions. “Now, would you mind repeating that last bit, Miss Lulamoon? I’m afraid I didn’t quite hear it.”
  3708. >”Tasty, huh?” Berry Punch asks with a sigh and shoves her mug towards Lyra. “That’s a shame. Think you can get me some water while you’re over there?”
  3709. >”But why?” Octavia stretches forward and grabs the pitcher between both forehooves. “You really should give this a try!”
  3710. >”Because she doesn’t drink alcohol, and as the Sensitive and Understanding Trixie said earlier, it is *very* alcoholic.”
  3711. >“Oh.”
  3712. >Octavia looks down at her empty mug.
  3713. >”Well, I do suppose it’s too late for anything save downing another.”
  3714. >“That’s the spirit, Tavi!” Lyra encourages, pouring another mug for her friend. “Just lie back and think of Sixth! Be right back with those shot glasses!”
  3715. “One for me, too!”
  3716. >”Why, you can’t even hold one?”
  3717. >Good point. You’ll just use the pitcher.
  3718. >While Lyra is gone, you try to get the ponies to tell you about their encounter, but nopony is willing to talk.
  3719. >”Nuh-uh,” Octavia slurs. “We all heard what your wife said, and *nopony* wants to get exiled from Equestria.”
  3720. “We aren’t married.”
  3721. >”Oh,” she grunts to the amused chuckling of Cheerilee. “Yer sure ‘bout that?”
  3722. “Yeah, pretty sure.”
  3723. >She may have shared some wine with you and tried – *tried* –  to dance a little, but she didn’t put no flower wreath on your head and you *certainly* didn’t exchange vows in front of a priest or boat captain.
  3724. >Do… do ponies *have* boats?
  3725. >”Don’t matter,” Octavia grunts, hefting her mug again with both hooves. “Maybe yer not married, but Sparkle’s yer wife.”
  3726. >As if on cue, your “wife” screams out at the top of her lungs.
  3727. >”WHAT DO YOU MEAN, WE CAN’T DO THAT!?”
  3728. >Good to see that they’re still a bunch of drama whores without you.
  3729. >At least it’s not all your fault.
  3730. >”I didn’t say you *couldn’t*,” Dice Pool quickly hedges, “only that it was a bad idea! Do you *really* think that would end well?”
  3731. >”YES!”
  3732. >She doesn’t wait for him to answer, tossing a d20 across the table to smack into the DM screen.
  3733. >”Well, maybe not,” Twilight admits after consulting the roll. “How much damage does Fastball take…?”
  3734. “Are you killing our teammates already, Twi!? I thought we were going to wait until this session was almost over before murdering ‘em!”
  3735. >”Zip it, Anon!” she shouts back. “And stop listening!”
  3736. >She begins immediately drops her voice, speaking in such a quiet whisper you doubt even Dice Pool can understand her.
  3737. >”See?” Octavia takes a swing at your leg, smacking her hoof solidly into the golden armor. Luckily for her, she seems too drunk to feel the pain of the blow. “ I tolja yer  married.”
  3738. >Might as well be, apparently, though you do have a sudden urge to bend Twi over that table and take her in a manly fashion to prove your dominance. But even with your power armor, that probably wouldn’t end well. Hell, *because* of your power armor, that wouldn’t even start well. You suspect Shining Armor wouldn’t help you loosen the necessary armor plates to make such a thing even possible. Yeaaaah, you couldn’t do it now even if she demanded it.
  3739. >Tavi kicks your leg again, apparently actually expecting an answer from you.
  3740. “Yeah, I see. You’re right.”
  3741. >”Damn straight I’z right!”
  3742. >You tune out the rest of her increasingly slurred speech, straining your ears to listen in on what’s happening at your group’s table. Twilight is still talking too softly for you to hear and Dice Pool seems to be humoring her by playing along, but Moonbeam isn’t.
  3743. >Well, it’s not the first time Luna has had trouble controlling her volume.
  3744. >”Remember, I *am* a ninja –“
  3745. >Though she has done remarkably well changing her speech patterns to hide who she really is.
  3746. >” – why don’t we just sneak in?”
  3747. >Most of the time.
  3748. >You can’t imagine she meant for Rock Thrower or Corn Cob to accompany Fastball. They just aren’t built for sneaking. As for Gleaming Shield… yeah, no. Not happening, even if the guards are blind, deaf, and rotting corpses.
  3749. >”Oi! Iz you list’nin, ya git?”
  3750. >A kick smashes into the back of your knee to no great effect.
  3751. >Just mildly distracting, really, and most of that is from Octavia’s yelling.
  3752. >”Whatcha doin’, finkin’ ya can ignore da Tavi!?” she yells, driving a forehoof into the back of your knee again. “Get yer ass down ‘ere were’s Ah can sees ya!”
  3753. “Pretty sure I can’t – GAH!”
  3754. >For such a small creature, the grey mare sure packs a wallop, her latest full-bodied tackle having far more effect than her earlier kicks. Still not enough to knock you down, but more than enough to catch you by surprise.
  3755. >”Why youz left ‘and so zoggin’ big, ‘uman?” Octavia asks, continuing her assault against your leg with all four of hers. “Sparka ain’t takin’ care o’ you, wanka?”
  3756. “Offering to do the job?”
  3757. >“I’LL KICK YER FOOKIN’ ‘EAD IN I WILL!”
  3758. >She’s going to hurt herself if she keeps this up.
  3759. “Shit, Lyra, you couldn’t even get her dressed up like an Ork or something?”
  3760. >”I tried!” the unicorn insists. “This is the most I could get out of her!”
  3761. “Drunk and assaulting me?”
  3762. >”I CHANGED ME TIE!”
  3763. >She pauses her attack for a moment to point to her neck.
  3764. >So she’s wearing a red bow tie instead of… uh… the pink tie she normally wears? Maybe? You’re not really sure, since you’ve only seen her a couple times.
  3765. “Aaaaand?”
  3766. >”She’s supposed to be Con Mane,” Berry Punch explains. “Don’t worry, I didn’t get it at first either.”
  3767. “And that is…?”
  3768. >”Our version of James Bond.”
  3769. “Thanks, Trix.”
  3770. >Makes no damn sense, even by the loose standards of pony names – they don’t even sound alike – but if that’s what Trixie says it is, that’s what it is.
  3771. >Octavia resumes her hammering, somewhat half-heartedly, as if she’s forgotten what she was doing.
  3772. “Is… is this going to be okay? Your DM already flipped out once, and I can’t imagine a drunk Octavia is going to help.”
  3773. >Seriously, Lord Neckbeard is going to flip his shit when he comes back.
  3774. >”Eh, he was a *lot* calmer after Celestia had that little chat with him,” Cheerilee says with a shrug. “I almost thought it was a totally different stallion.”
  3775. >Probably swapped out for a changeling, if he wasn’t one to begin with, but you don’t share that info with your friends – or Lyra. No point causing a panic now, since you don’t know the full story. Particularly since the princesses – all four of them – seem okay with the situation for some reason. A little less okay with it in Cadance’s case, but enough to let it happen.
  3776. >Though you do have wonder if she’s a little nerdier than she lets on and only avoids the cons to stay away from Chrysalis. After all, all of the other alicorns seem to have caught a major case of nerdery.
  3777. >”Besides, Octavia will tucker herself out at this rate,” Lyra sighs happily. “*Without* causing any casualties. You don’t want to know what happened at the pub quiz last night.”
  3778. >She seems to be right. Her friend’s kicks are coming slower and slower, with some not even connecting.
  3779. “Are you done?”
  3780. >”Almost. Ain’t no fun if youz ain’t fightin’ back.”
  3781. “Cool.”
  3782. >You do your best to ignore her, but your friends’ lack of conversation doesn’t really help. A few attempts are made, but they seem adamant on not talking about the game, and what little they remember from the night before consists mostly of “you had to be there” moments.
  3783. >It’s a welcome relief when Spike puffs over to you, holding a folded scrap of paper up.
  3784. >”Got a message for ya, Anon! Just wave me over if you have a response!”
  3785. >And then he dashes back to “Celestia.”
  3786. >Does the little guy know who he’s actually working for? He has to, right?
  3787. >Again, your claw is useless, forcing you to unfold the scrap with just one hand.
  3788. >A simple note, written in Twilight’s chicken-scratch writing.
  3789. >”Trial postponed due to crisis with stars. Perhaps intentional? Church hiding something. Will rescue. Stay away from outer wall. Will send more info soon.”
  3790. “Wait, Spike! How did Abdul get this?”
  3791. >”A shadow handed it to him and disappeared!”
  3792. >Fastball.
  3793. >Had to be.
  3794. >It's conceivable that one of the other parties has a mage capable of casting Shadow Servant or similar spells, from what you overheard Moonbeam say, it had to be her character.
  3795. >"What's it say?" Lyra asks, rearing up and planting her forehooves against your torso to brace herself. The unicorn stretches, trying to read the note without even giving you a chance to answer, but there's no way she can see stretch enough to see it. She's not Ponks.
  3796. "I think it says I'm needed back at my table, but first - yoink!"
  3797. >You actually say "yoink" as you bend down and grab the pitcher. Your shame knows no bounds.
  3798. >Without you to hold her up, Lyra almost tumbles over, only to overreact and fall on her back instead.
  3799. >"Owwwwww..."
  3800. "Ladies, it's been a... something."
  3801. >You raise the pitcher in salute - it's no fedora, but it serves.
  3802. >Swiftly, you make your escape.
  3803. >As swiftly as you can without stepping on either Lyra or Octavia, that is.
  3804. >Twilight is watching you expectantly - she must have anticipated that you'd come back as soon as you got the note, even though it doesn't say anything about needing you at the table.
  3805. >"Let me guess," Dice Pool sighs, holding out a d20, "you want to roll your spot check for yourself?"
  3806. "Um... yeah. I do *now*."
  3807. >"Dammit, never give the players ideas," he grumbles to himself, tossing the dice in your direction. With your right hand occupied holding the pitcher, your left flashes out and snatches the spinning dice out of the air. A flick of your wrist sends it spinning out from your opening claws -
  3808. > - the claws -
  3809. > - you caught it with the clawed hand.
  3810. >Huh.
  3811. >Well, that's one wrecked d20.
  3812. >You bend down to set the pitcher on the table and pick up another, but a shriek in your ear from Twilight stuns you.
  3813. >Your head jerks around frantically - did you accidentally catch her wing in the power armor's joints? Is her mane tangled in the fingers of your gauntlet? Is she -
  3814. >"That was the coolest thing I've ever seen!" she yells, jumping from her stool and hugging your thigh with her forelegs.
  3815. "What...?"
  3816. >"Just... just... Catch! Fling! Bam! Twenty!"
  3817. >She levitates up the d20 so you can see it - unharmed, despite your expectations.
  3818. >Natural twenty.
  3819. >"Must be the armor," Rainbow Dash shouts from across the room, having heard the entire outburst from your princess. "It's rolling twenties for him!"
  3820. "Let me guess, you think I should take it off?"
  3821. >"Well, YE- UH - NO! NEVERMIND!"
  3822. >"Well, Dash *does* have a point," Twilight admits, giving you a filthy leer. "If that armor is giving you an unfair advantage..."
  3823. >"Naw, just ignore Dash," AJ calls out. "The horny geisha don't represent us. 'Sides, ain't like he's gonna be makin' many rolls anyhow."
  3824. "SCREW YOU ALL! I PICK THE LOCK!"
  3825.  
  3826. >You squint at the door, trying to find just the right place to -
  3827. >"Is there something I can help you with?" A voice calls from behind you, followed by the clatter of armor plates as the "servant" brings in your meal.
  3828. >Shit.
  3829. >Wrong door.
  3830. "Um, yes, I'm afraid the... uh... door to my bathroom is... um..."
  3831. >"What are you doing with that lamp!?" the servant demands, swiftly setting down the tray and reaching for his sword. He doesn't draw it, but his hoof lingers on the hilt as he tries to decipher the situation.
  3832. "Uh... whatever it is, I'm NOT trying to pick a lock!"
  3833.  
  3834. >"Ouch," Dice Pool hisses, "I've never seen that many ones in a row. Never."
  3835. >"If anything, that armor is cursed," Sunny Smiles points out. "Maybe he *should* take it off."
  3836. >She blanches as Twilight turns back to face her.
  3837. >”Not that I want to see that or anything!” the cosplayer protests, waving her forehooves frantically. “I was just saying –“
  3838. >”Oh, yes, absolutely!” your marefriend cheers, politely clopping her forehooves together. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure he wears something different tomorrow!”
  3839. >Bullshit, you just found out you can be gentle in this thing without even having to try. You’re never taking it off.
  3840. >”Now that’s settled, how about some of that blue stuff…?” Twilight says, nudging her mug towards you. “Eh…?”
  3841. >Another worried look is exchanged between Sunny and Moonbeam, another frown from Shining Armor.
  3842. >Somehow, they must have known.
  3843. >Just like Applejack knew.
  3844. >But now is… now is not the right time or place to tell them Twilight is over her drinking problem.
  3845. >Not with her here – you can’t bring yourself to do that.
  3846. >And certainly not in public.
  3847. >Ponies don’t need to know that their princesses aren’t perfect.
  3848. >”No, I don’t think so,” Sunny tells Twilight suddenly, snatching the pitcher away from your princess. “Anon and I are going to need all of this and more. Shiny, do me a solid and get us a pair of those shot glasses.”
  3849. >That’s definitely it – they think your princess is an alcoholic. Neatly done, though, the way Sunny avoids bringing it up while still solving what she believes is a problem. Worth playing along with, until you can explain to her later.
  3850. >Shining Armor heaves himself up without even the mildest of grumbles, returning momentarily with two glasses. You had wondered about the deference he showed the cosplayer last night, but now it all makes sense – of course he would protect the true Celestia over the imposter.
  3851. >You lift one of the glasses and pretend to inspect it, stalling to give yourself some time to think.
  3852.  “What do you have in mind?”
  3853. >It can’t be a toast, or there’d be three more glasses at the table.
  3854. >”Just something that slipped my mind – and yours too,” she says slyly, eyes flickering cautiously towards Twi. It’s almost endearing, how much she worries about your little princess. “Considering how we are dressed, well…”
  3855. >Ah.
  3856. “Drinking contest?”
  3857. >”Indeed.”
  3858. “And the eating contest?”
  3859. >”Later.”
  3860. “And then I get to punch you in the face?”
  3861. >”We’ll see about that.”
  3862. >Moonbeam reaches out with a hoof, planting it on the other shot glass.
  3863. >”Are you sure this is a good idea, sister?”
  3864. >”Why wouldn’t it be?” Sunny laughs, knocking the other cosplayer’s hoof aside with a flick of her own. “We’ve finished our encounter and it sounds like those fools over there –“
  3865. >She waves a hoof towards the Fillydelphians.
  3866. >They don’t notice.
  3867. >” – are NEVER going to make it through the front door.”
  3868. >Now they do.
  3869. >”It’s like they never even noticed the secret passage hidden under that maple tree!” Sunny cackles.
  3870. >Eyes flare open.
  3871. >Oh, they hadn’t.
  3872. >Clever bitch.
  3873. >”So, what do you say, Anon?”
  3874. >Sunny picks up the pitcher with both forehooves and fills her glass.
  3875. >”Shall we?”
  3876. >”Why wouldn’t he?” Twilight giggles, slapping your thigh with her hoof. “Go for it, Anon! Remember, the power of alcohol solves every problem ever!”
  3877. >Now Shining Armor has a new and exciting reason to want to kick your ass!
  3878. >Yay!
  3879. >Your princess is focused solely on you and doesn’t notice her brother’s expression, nor does he see the exaggerated wink she flashes your way.
  3880. >Well… if it makes her happy…
  3881. “You’re on, Sunny.”
  3882. >You reach for the pitcher to fill your own glass, but Sunny pours for you with a grace you hadn't really expected from a pony more used to using magic for such mundane things.
  3883. >She's a far better actress than Chrysalis could ever hope to be.
  3884. >"Spike! SPIKE! We're going to need more of this!" the cosplayer shouts, raising the nearly empty pitcher in the air.
  3885. >"Oh, well, if Spike is going to bring more, you don't really need all of that, do you?" Twilight asks hopefully. "It smells nice, but Shiny wouldn't let me have any of his!"
  3886. >Personally, you think it smells overly sweet and slightly acidic, but that's basically par for the course in this marshmallow world.
  3887. "How about you can have whatever is left over?"
  3888. >"Um, okay, I guess," she agrees with more reluctance than you had expected.
  3889. >Sunny's eyes harden - oooooh, she's taking this seriously.
  3890. >"Hurry up, Spike!" she growls, slamming a hoof into the ground. "We don't have all night - it sounds like those Fillydelphians finally found that secret passage!"
  3891. >You are going to drink that bitch under the table.
  3892. >This will be fun.
  3893. >Spike emerges from the service entrance, struggling under the weight of the full pitcher - it's almost as large as he is.
  3894. >"Here's the last of it," he huffs, dragging it the last few feet. "Oh, thanks Twilight!"
  3895. >Her magical aura has wrapped around the pitcher, lifting it up for the little dragon as there is no way he could have picked it up on his own.
  3896. >But Sunny doesn't even wait that long before starting, downing her glass almost immediatly and finishing off the rest of the first pitcher. She's on to the second pitcher before you've even gotten halfway through your first glass.
  3897. >With no hope of catching up unless she passes out or pukes, you might as well take your time and enjoy the drink. It's not *that* bad, just has a very strong citrus flavor with a bit of coconut.
  3898. >And enough sugar to give everypony in this room diabetes.
  3899. >Her eyes open wide in near-panic as you slowly sip from your glass. At first, you think she's worried because of how calm you're acting, like you have some kind of cunning plan, but the real reason pops into your head right after - she doesn't want Twi to have any, but you said she could have whatever remains.
  3900. >That means what you don't drink, Sunny has to.
  3901. >Oh, this *will* be fun.
  3902.  
  3903. >How did this happen!?
  3904. >She's still standing!
  3905. >Well, sitting upright, though a little wobbly.
  3906. >Quite the miracle, considering you made her drain the entire second pitcher herself.
  3907. >"Say what you will about my sister," Moonbeam sighs, reaching over to steady Sunny, "but she never backs down, even when she should."
  3908. "Indeed."
  3909. >You *finally* finish off your glass and set it on the table.
  3910. "Quite the trooper."
  3911. >"Trooper?" Sunny laughs. "No, QUEEN!"
  3912. >If looks could kill, Chrysalis might have another death on her hands.
  3913. >Hooves.
  3914. >Fuck, she's a changeling - on her manipulator appendages.
  3915. >"QUEEN OF THE RUSS!" Sunny exclaims, thrusting her forehooves into the air.
  3916. "Maybe, but I'm the Emperor of Mankind."
  3917. >"Too bad none of us are human," Shining Armor snarks.
  3918. "Maybe not, but Twilight -"
  3919. >Nope.
  3920. >Not gonna tell him his sister can manage a passable human form.
  3921. >Not that big of an asshole.
  3922. >"Yeah, I know you mean the world to her," he mumbles, "but that doesn't make you an emperor."
  3923. "Guess not."
  3924. >He doesn't need to know that.
  3925. >Nopony needs to know that.
  3926. "I'll just have to prove my supremacy some other way. Ready for round two, Sunny?"
  3927. >"Bring it on!"
  3928. >She waves a hoof in your face - or at some point about two feet back and to the left of your face, but close enough.
  3929. >"Or you could not. Looks like it's time for the next encounter," Dice Pool says, lifting up a piece of paper Spike must have brought while you were busy playing with Sunny Smiles. "Anon, if you could -"
  3930. "Go fuck myself?"
  3931. >"I *was* going to ask you to stay, since I think you'll be needed, but if you can do that other thing while wearing that suit of armor, I'd be *very* impressed."
  3932. >You mentally brace yourself for Aredee's commentary, but it never comes. Surprised, you look at her suspiciously, adjusting your stance slightly to see over your own pauldron.
  3933. >She notices - because she had been looking at you curiously.
  3934. >"What...?" your friend asks, shoving her forehoof into her DM's mouth to silence him while her attention is on you. "What!? I wasn't going to say anything!"
  3935. "Good."
  3936. >You turn your attention back to your own table.
  3937. >"But if you *did* -"
  3938. "NOPE!"
  3939. >"WELL, FINE THEN!"
  3940. >Silly pegasus. Even Moonbeam is rolling her eyes at Dash's idiocy.
  3941. "SO! Dice Pool!"
  3942. >He tilts his head questioningly.
  3943. "Before we begin this next bit, let's talk about that spot check I aced."
  3944. >"And then we'll talk about those bluff checks you whiffed?" he asks, leaning forward excitedly. "I really want to find out if the rest of the party has been wasting their time!"
  3945. >He *might* be bluffing.
  3946. >You study his face for a moment, looking for the tiniest sign of -
  3947. "Nah, it's not really important."
  3948. >You don't even really know what you're looking for, anyway. Between him being a pony AND a changeling and CERTAINLY a better actor than his queen, you'd never know.
  3949. >And you'd rather not gamble on this, since Chrysalis probably gave him orders to off Abdul at the first opportunity.
  3950. >"Darn," Dice Pool sighs loudly - and sarcastically. "I *guess* we'll just have to move on with the adventure, unless anypony else something...? Moonbeam? Sunny? Shiny? Twilight...?"
  3951. >"Nope!" your marefriend answers with a shake of her head. "I want to see if this works!"
  3952. "If what -"
  3953. >"You'll see soon enough!" Dice Pool laughs. "Roll it!"
  3954.  
  3955. >Luckily, the servant bought it when you fakes senility and left without further questions, though you're sure more will follow at some point.
  3956. >But for now, you're left alone to eat in peace - and reread the note SOMEONE WHO WAS PROBABLY FASTBALL delivered to you.
  3957.  
  3958. "What? Oh, fine! I roll for Intuition."
  3959. >You grab a d20 off the table and give it a toss.
  3960.  
  3961. >Logically, it's the only thing that makes sense, which means your hirelings must have some plan.
  3962. >As a man who does not hire incompetents or fools, you trust them.
  3963. >You stay away from the exterior walls of your "suite."
  3964. >It seems insane that Rock Thrower would employ siege engines in a rescue attempt, but -
  3965.  
  3966. "Shit, seriously, Twi?"
  3967. >"Mhm!" she hums with extreme satisfaction, tossing her dice across the table. "You don't have a monopoly on breaking things, you know."
  3968. "I have never loved anyone or anything as much as I love you right now."
  3969.  
  3970. > - but obviously she has.
  3971. >There's no other explanation for the massive stone that's just smashed through the wall. Odd shape for catapult ammunition, though - a statue of an armored mare curled into a fetal position.
  3972. >One that looks remarkably like Gleaming Shield.
  3973. >A little chipped and cracked in places - obviously it would be, seeing as it has just slammed through a stone wall - but still unmistakably the paladin.
  3974. >A glowing paper butterfly flutters its way through the hole behind the statue. Even stunned as you are by the destruction, it's impossible to overlook.
  3975. >Which is probably the point.
  3976. >You move towards it and snatch it out of the air - at your touch, it unfolds into a flat page - one you recognize as a scroll of Stone to Flesh.
  3977. >No explanations, no attached notes, but none are really necessary.
  3978. >Your limited magical abilities would not be enough to cast such a spell on your own, but Rock Thrower seems to have planned for everything.
  3979. >Except -
  3980.  
  3981. "First, I'm going to cast Mend..."
  3982.  
  3983. >It would be a shame if your rescuer bled to death when those cracks turn into gaping wounds.
  3984.  
  3985. >"Awesome!" Shining Armor shouts, pounding the table once with his hoof. "And that'll fix all my gear, too?"
  3986. "Of course, since it was turned to stone with you. Right now, you and it are all considered a single average quality statue, right DM?"
  3987. >”Not quite,” Dice Pool answers ominously, his mouth screwed into a twisted half-frown. “The theory works out fine, but…”
  3988. “But?”
  3989. >”*Average* quality? I’m pretty sure turning somepony to stone would result in a pretty detailed statue…”
  3990. >You feel a hoof on your thigh again – Twi trying to gently get your attention.
  3991. >”He’s right, you know.”
  3992. “Fine, masterwork statue…?”
  3993.        
  3994. >Magic flows through your hands as you repair the damage. The work does not go as easily as you had hoped, draining every last drop of your – admittedly small – reserves. Even worse, it takes time. Far more time than you hoped. The sounds of armored feet are already rumbling down the hallway by the time the work is finished.
  3995. >Casting such minor spells is bizarrely more time consuming than casting the Stone to Flesh spell – for such a high-level spell, it requires no concentration, no real effort, no cost on your part. All you have to do is clearly speak the words, watch the scroll go up in cold flames and suddenly your minion is bolting to her hooves.
  3996. >Gleaming Shield gives herself a cursory inspection before dashing for the door.
  3997. >”That diamond dog of yours does good work!” she yells as she braces herself against the door. Just in time – the door rattles as hurried hooves try to unlock the door and force it open. “Though her timing seems to be a bit off. We hadn’t expected the guards to arrive so soon!”
  3998. >The first blow smashes into the door as the *servants* try to force their way in, but the paladin repeats her trick from the defense of your estate and reinforces the door with her Sun-powered magic.
  3999. >”Still, not a scratch on my armor!” she laugh happily.
  4000.  
  4001. “Um…”
  4002. >”Yes, yes, I know,” Shining Armor sighs. “But it was her plan, and she planned you to use Mend.”
  4003. >She did?
  4004. >You reach down and brush your hand along Twilight’s mane.
  4005. “You did?”
  4006. >”Um, *yeah*,” she answers, raising one eyebrow at your question. “Didn’t you read the – no, of course not.”
  4007. >Her horn lights up as she lifts the note she had sent you from where you had dropped it.
  4008. “Yeah, I read that.”
  4009. >”And did you turn it over?”
  4010. >Turn it…?
  4011. >She flips the note over – *both* sides are covered in writing.
  4012. “Oh.”
  4013.  
  4014. >”Use Mend before reading scroll. Gleaming Shield will tell you everything.”
  4015. >Now that you’ve read both sides, you feel significantly less clever.
  4016. “So you’re here to hold off Moon paladins until… what exactly? What *is* the rest of the plan? And why use siege engines?”
  4017. >Rock Thrower’s note said the paladin would tell you everything, so you feel no guilt about the barrage of questions.
  4018. “Why didn’t you just teleport in? Personal vendetta against the wall?”
  4019. >”Thought you could use more sunlight,” the mare snarks. “You’ve been in here for a week with only that tiny window to let Her light in. Also, this place wouldn’t be much of a prison without anti-teleportation wards.”
  4020. >That… makes sense…
  4021. “And what now?”
  4022. >”We hold here and wait for *them* to make their move.”
  4023. “Rock Thrower and the rest?”
  4024. >She shakes her head, sending her short mane bouncing frantically.
  4025. >”No way they could make it through the front door, but… oooof!”
  4026. >A particularly heavy blow almost knocks the door off its hinges and Gleaming Shield on her back.
  4027. >”The church is not of one mind!”
  4028. >She doesn’t explain further, saving her breath and attention for the more important task of keeping you both alive.
  4029.  
  4030. >”Think you can help at all?” Shining Armor asks, making another mark on his character sheet. “They’re burning through my spells *really* fast and I don’t know how long we’ll have to wait.”
  4031. “I planned to solve all my problems by throwing money at them, but sadly my bank isn’t here right now.”
  4032. >”We’ll just have to hope those paladins arrive soon,” the stallion sighs, letting his pencil fall back to the table. “Abdul has to be the worst support ever.”
  4033.  
  4034. >”I think you’re forgetting the armory,” Moonbeam corrects him. “You took as much as any of us.”
  4035.  
  4036. “Is that one of my Swords of Luck?”
  4037. >You think you recognize the hilt poking out of the short scabbard strapped to the mare’s side.
  4038. >”Um…”
  4039.  
  4040. >”Come on, why *wouldn’t* I grab one of those! Sure, a Sword of True Striking would be better, but you didn’t have any of those and this is close enough, letting me reroll any misses or failed parries –“
  4041. “No, it lets you reroll *any* of your attacks or parries.”
  4042. >Slight difference, but important.
  4043. >”Right, like I said –“
  4044. >”Not like you said,” Twilight contradicts. “Sometimes you *want* to get hit or miss an attack.”
  4045. >”WHY!?”
  4046. >”Karmic Strike, perhaps?” Your marefriend lifts a pencil and circles the skill on her brother’s character sheet for him. “You took Web of Steel for the bonus to parry, but that means you *have* to parry. Wouldn’t it be worth letting a weak attack through if it meant a free attack of opportunity against the enemy?”
  4047. >He looks over his character sheet – you can identify each and every distinct moment when another idea jumps out at him.
  4048. >”Okay, you’re a *decent* support,” Shining Armor admits. “But only decent, since you don’t have a way to heal me.”
  4049. “Abdul has temples and clerics all over the land that could –“
  4050. >”Not be here right now?” Sunny asks sarcastically, *and* with far more sobriety than you expect. “How very useful of them.”
  4051.  
  4052. >”You’re helpless without your fortune, aren’t you?”
  4053. “Not entirely.”
  4054. >The paladin’s head swings around to look at you quizzically – an almost fatal mistake as the door rocks under a flurry of blows.
  4055. “I have friends.”
  4056.  
  4057. >”Awwww,” Twilight coos, hugging your waist tightly. “Sounds like *somepony* is going to have to write a letter to Princess Celestia tonight!”
  4058. >Sunny’s ears perk up, because of course they would.
  4059. “Huh, last time I tried to write her a letter, you seemed pretty insistent that I *not*.”
  4060. >”Anyway, it’s not exactly true that Abdul has *friends,” Shining Armor stresses.
  4061.  
  4062. >”We’re more like hirelings…” Gleaming Shield points out.
  4063. “Ponies that I pay to be my friends are still my friends.”
  4064. >”You did hear – SHIT!”
  4065. >An axe cleaves through the wooden door, narrowly missing the mare’s hoof.
  4066. >You have just enough power left to cast Mend once more, quickly lunging forward as soon as the axe is withdrawn. You rub your hand across the gouge and wipe it from existence like spilled water from a table.
  4067. “Yes, I heard. You think that counts as using my fortune?”
  4068. >”Of course!”
  4069. “Even though it was your choice to help me?”
  4070.  
  4071. “It’s not like Gleaming Shield couldn’t have killed Abdul and stolen everything.”
  4072. >”The others would have stopped her, but I get where you’re going with this,” he sighs. “Maybe your character even *believes* it, but I hope *you* don’t.”
  4073. “Fear not – I’m not paying your sister –“
  4074. >You say a *lot* of stupid, but thankfully that particular bit doesn’t go any further.
  4075. >Too far already, but at least you manage to not make things any worse.
  4076. “SPIKE!”
  4077. >The little dragon scampers over to your side.
  4078. “Take a letter, will you?”
  4079. >This should distract everypony from what you almost said.
  4080. >”Sure thing, Anon!” he answers, whipping a pen and blank scroll out from somewhere. “Who’s this for?”
  4081. “*Princess* Celestia.”
  4082. >First time in a long while you’ve bothered to use her title. Hopefully that little oddity gets your real meaning across to Spike – you don’t want him delivering whatever you write to Sunny. That could get awkward if anypony else notices.
  4083. >”Okay, ready when you are!”
  4084. >He doesn’t hesitate.
  4085. >Odd.
  4086. >You had expected some kind of reaction from him, but maybe he doesn’t know that the pony he’s currently working for isn’t Celestia.
  4087. >“Um, Anon? You awake, buddy?” he asks, growing impatient with your hesitation. “I’m not a mind reader, you know. You kinda have to *tell* me what you want in the letter.”
  4088. “Just, um… trying to think of the right way to word this –“
  4089. >”Oh, give me the paper!” Sunny snarls, lunging forward to tear it from Spikes hands. The pen follows, gripped in her mouth. She doesn’t write for long – whatever she wrote couldn’t have been more than six or seven words.
  4090. >She rolls up the scroll and passes it back to Spike without giving anypony a chance to read it. “Don’t worry, Anon. I signed your name to it, so you’ll get all the credit.”
  4091. "I'm screwed, aren't I?"
  4092. >"Possibly," Sunny answers offhandedly - offhoofedly(?) - dismissing you in favor of your princess. "Time for our next trick, Twilight?"
  4093. >"Oh, yes!" she answers excitedly, bobbling her head up and down. Her eagerness causes Dice Pool to clutch at his own head.
  4094. >"I'm not going to like this, am I?" he moans.
  4095. >"Depends entirely on how much damage reduction stone walls get," Twilight answers, pushing one of her d20s towards Sunny Smiles.
  4096. >"They don't have any. You know that."
  4097. >"You *really* should houserule that," Twilight grins evilly. "Well, maybe in 6th..."
  4098. >She gives a not-so-innocent shrug.
  4099. >"Ce - uh - Sunny? Would you do the honors?"
  4100.  
  4101. "What's that noise?"
  4102. >It sounds like a catapult being ratcheted back to fire again - which is probably exactly what it is.
  4103. "Is Rock Thrower sending reinforcements?"
  4104. >Cautiously, you edge towards ragged hole smashed in the exterior wall to take a look.
  4105. >"No, and -"
  4106. >Gleaming Shield risks a look back and practically screams the next words.
  4107. >" - GET AWAY FROM THERE, YOU IDIOT!"
  4108. >You hire neither fools nor incompetants, so you find yourself diving for cover before you even realize what you're doing. Seconds later, most of the wall simply... ceases to exist.
  4109. >There's no other way to put it.
  4110. >What little remains seems to hover in midair for a second before collapsing noisily.
  4111.  
  4112. "What was that...?"
  4113. >"Devastating Shot and a large bag of sand," Twilight answers proudly, waving a hoof towards Sunny. "Corn Cob gets +2 damage on every projectile. Not shot, not attack, but each projectile, so we loaded up the catapult with sand and had her pull the lever!"
  4114. >"We made sure to pour out the bag so it didn't count as a single projectile," Moonbeam adds.
  4115. >"You're just lucky I decided to count it as an improvised attack," Dice Pool sighs and/or laughs. It's kind of hard to tell which, exactly. "If it had any kind of penetration value, everypony in that building would be dead right now."
  4116. >"Next edition we're *definitely* giving buildings damage reduction," Sunny Smiles says with a grin. "And maybe - *maybe* - nerfing Devastating Shot. Or not; that *was* kind of fun."
  4117. >"You know I won't let you do that again, right?" Dice Pool asks, shaking his head in disbelief.
  4118. >"I would be *very* disappointed if you did," your marefriend says with disturbing sincerity. "I have *so* many more things I want to try."
  4119. >” – in bed,” Sunny amends with a smirk.
  4120.  
  4121. “What was the point of that..?”
  4122. >The side of the building facing the catapult no longer exists – you can clearly see the temple grounds and the street beyond. Your henchmen – save gleaming Shield, of course – are gathered there with one of your catapults. Only the three of them stand there, the other adventurers that had joined with them at your estate have gone their own way.
  4123. >Good.
  4124. >Given full access to your armory and time to plan, you would be very displeasing if your hirelings needed the help.
  4125. >*Very* disappointed.
  4126. “Well, Gleaming Shield? Was there a point?”
  4127. >”Yes, Sundammit!” she screams.
  4128. “And are you going to explain it?”
  4129. >“Kind of busy here! SHIT!”
  4130. >Steel sings as she tears her – actually your – sword free from its sheath moments before the door collapses in a pile of splintered wood.
  4131. >You’ll overlook her disrespectful tone for now.
  4132.  
  4133. >”How very nice of you,” Shining Armor grumbles. “Good to know she won’t be fired because her boss is a dick.”
  4134. >Twilight gives him a playful shove, one he immediately reciprocates. She doesn’t resist, flopping loosely against your leg.
  4135. >”Oh, just ignore the grumpy, old man,” she tells you. “He’s just pissy because I didn’t tell him anything.”
  4136. “Then why did your note say Gleaming Shield would tell Abdul everything?”
  4137. >”Because using you to annoy my brother is so much more fun than doing it myself,” Twilight giggles.
  4138. >Can’t argue with that.
  4139. “Indeed it is.”
  4140. >Well, if it makes her happy…
  4141. >Gently, you reach down and boop her nose, drawing another giggle and a blush from your princess.
  4142. >”Could you *not* do that in front of me,” Shining Armor grumbles, averting his eyes. “Look, I know you’re a couple, but –“
  4143. >”And how many times have I had to watch you and Cadance kiss?”
  4144. >Twilight protectively wraps her forelegs around your waist and sticks out her tongue at her brother.
  4145. >”Yeah, but… you’re my little sister,” he mumbles, “*and* one of Equestria’s princesses. That just doesn’t seem very appropriate…”
  4146. >”A little irreverent and overly intimate for unmarried Equestrian royalty,” Sunny Smiles agrees harshly. “Remember, you have a reputation to uphold. Too bad everypony knows who you are.”
  4147. >You stare that bitch square in the eyes.
  4148. “Absolutely right, Sunny. How dare a princess show even the smallest amount of affection in public?”
  4149. >Twilight snickers quietly – and guiltily – as you boop her nose again. Sadly, you miss her adorable expression, focused on Sunny as you are, but seeing *her* annoyed grimace almost makes up for it.
  4150. >Honestly, you’re just happy you didn’t miss and accidentally poke out your marefriend’s eye.
  4151. “Nothing worse than a princess acting undignified, like *yesterday* –“
  4152. >”Now, now –“ Dice Pool interrupts more forcefully than you thought he could “– whatever happened yesterday, I’m sure *Princess Celestia* acted with perfect decorum.”
  4153. >Twilight whines softly, realizing just what she had lost out on by publicly revealing herself.
  4154. >”They’re right, Anon,” she says, releasing you and sitting up in her chair. “We’ll just have to make up for it *later*.”
  4155. >Your princess throws a wink your way – you almost expect Shining Armor to swoon from the implied impropriety, but he stays upright. Mutters angrily to himself a little bit, but that’s all.
  4156. >”Now that’s settled,” your DM says, grabbing a d20 between both forehooves, “how about we get on with the game? Not that I wasn’t savoring that public display of affection, but…”
  4157.  
  4158. >You leave the bladework to Gleaming Shield. While some would doubtlessly have thrown themselves into danger anyway, you see no point in risking yourself when you’re paying a bodyguard to do that for you. Unarmed and unarmored (and unskilled), any of the paladins can make short work of you anyway.
  4159. >Carefully, you move towards the sheer drop that used to be a wall, testing the floor as you go. With every step, you expect it to give way.
  4160. >Losing an entire side of a building cannot be good for its structural integrity.
  4161.  
  4162. >”Hrm, in addition to damage reduction, perhaps buildings should have an instability table?” Moonbeam suggests to her sister is a hushed voice. “After they take a certain amount of damage –“
  4163. >”No,” Sunny quietly whispers back with a slight shake of her head. “Something like that should be left to the DM.”
  4164. >”Absolutely,” Dice Pool cuts off his narrative to butt in, speaking just as softly as the sisters, “it would hardly be heroic for the floor to give way right now and drop Abdul to his death. Though… to be fair, he isn’t *really* much of a hero…”
  4165. >He gives Shining Armor a quick nod and a smile.
  4166. >”But don’t worry, Gleaming Shield is safe, so long as she doesn’t do anything *too* stupid.”
  4167.  
  4168. >The floor creaks ominously as you approach the lip –
  4169.  
  4170. >Dice Pool chuckles as your head snaps his direction.
  4171. >Nopony speaks, nopony moves as the dice rattle to a stop. He looks down, making a pretense of checking to see what he rolled.
  4172. >”What? No, keep talking,” he says with an exaggerated frown and wave of his hoof. “Nothing happened.”
  4173. “Are you actually testing for something? Or just rolling dice behind that screen for shits and giggles to make me panic?”
  4174. >”I can’t say,” he smirks at you.
  4175. >Bastard.
  4176.  
  4177. > – but it holds.
  4178. >Might be your imagination, but you think you can feel the wood sag under your weight, so you pause, not moving any closer for the moment.
  4179. “There *is* a plan, right!?”
  4180. >”STILL BUSY!”
  4181. >Her shout is punctuated by a scream – thankfully, not hers.
  4182. >You crawl forward the last foot or two and stick your head over the edge, looking up then down.
  4183. >The spiral staircase you were led up when you first arrived seemed endless, and the small window didn’t offer much of a view except of the sky. This is your first chance to see just exactly how far up you are.
  4184. >Unfortunately, too far to jump.
  4185. >Too far to fashion your sheets into a rope and climb down, even if the Moon’s paladins generously give you time to reach the end of the cloth before severing it from its anchor.
  4186. >You can see arrows and crossbow bolts arching out from the other now-exposed rooms as the temple’s guardians try to repel your rescuers. None of the projectiles come your way; none of them can get an angle on you – if they even notice you – instead focusing their fire on Rock Thrower and your other hirelings. Ponies – which are the majority of the temple’s servants – are on the whole terrible shots, but a decent longbow can easily outrange the small catapult Rock Thrower brought with her and more than a few shots come close to striking their targets.
  4187. >So far, Rock Thrower’s plan doesn’t seem to be working too well. Destroying the wall only opened up more firing positions for their enemies. At least the rubble from the destroyed wall seems to have sealed the main doorway, and the mound of rocks and scree is too precarious for any of the paladins to climb down from the upper levels, leaving the temple grounds free from the massing horde you had expected to find there.
  4188.  
  4189. “If only you weren’t trying to rescue Abdul, you could just load up the catapult with sand again and pretty much wipe out the temple.”
  4190. >That brings a patronizing smile to your marefriend’s face.
  4191. >”Oh, if I wanted them dead, I could have done that at any time. Besides, Dice Pool –“ she gestures towards the DM, who gives a slight bow “ – said he wouldn’t let me do that again.”
  4192. “Yeah, yeah, I remember.”
  4193.  
  4194. “I hope you don’t expect me to get us down with Featherfall or something like that! I don’t have the power left to cast anything!”
  4195. >”No! Just! FUCK! Wait!”
  4196. “Actually, Featherfall seems like a bad idea in general! We’d be sitting ducks for every archer!”
  4197. >”FUCKING WAIT!”
  4198. >You don’t think you have time to wait – without even looking back, you can tell Gleaming Shield is losing ground. The sound of metal on metal is growing more frantic, more frequent.
  4199. >Whatever Rock Thrower is doing, she needs to hurry up – Fastball and Corn Cob are loading some sticks into the catapult far too slowly for your comfort.
  4200. >Some of the Moon’s paladins are risking the rough slope, trying to advance on the siege engine before it can fire again.
  4201.  
  4202. “Going to tell me what you’re planning?”
  4203. >”You’ll see!”
  4204.  
  4205. >The catapult’s bucket is only half full when Rock Thrower waves the others away. Seconds later, she’s heaving back on the weapon’s firing lever, launching dozens of sticks into the air.
  4206. >You duck aside as one of the sticks whizzes past your head, smacking into either Gleaming Shield or one of the other paladins to absolutely no effect.
  4207. >Beyond a slight pinging sound, of course.
  4208.  
  4209. “Only step one of the cunning plan, I hope?”
  4210. >”Step two, actually,” Twilight answers, flashing you a quick smile before asking Dice Pool a question of her own. “And now they all shoot again, I’m assuming?”
  4211. >”Mhm!”
  4212. >There’s a clatter of *many* dice rolling.
  4213. >”Aaaaand they all miss again. The paladins fighting Gleaming Shield… that’ll be… one hit.”
  4214. >Shining Armor tosses his d20 into the air.
  4215. >”That’s a parry,” he says, calling the result before it even lands, let alone comes to a stop. “Your action, Anon? It is his action, right DM?”
  4216.  
  4217. >In the scuffle, the stick has been kicked back towards you. Curious, you reach out and examine it.
  4218. >It’s a wand.
  4219. >Did your minion recklessly fling dozens of wands at the building in the hope one would land next to you?
  4220. >How wasteful.
  4221. >You’re going to have to have a talk with her about proper resource management.
  4222.  
  4223. >”My action now?” Twilight asks eagerly, leaning forward over the table with both forehooves on its edge.  “I mean, it’s actually Fastball’s action, then Gleaming Shield’s, and then Corn Cob’s, but you’re all going to Hold, right?”
  4224. >Moonbeam and Sunny Smile share a quick glance and nod.
  4225. >”Sure, it’s not like anything we do now will actually matter,” Sunny answers your princess with a shrug.
  4226. >”Might as well,” her sister agrees.
  4227. >”And of course I Hold for the extra reaction,” Shining Armor sighs. “Just in case this goes wrong.”
  4228. >”Yay!” your marefriend cheers, clopping her hooves together. “I use my Ring of Spell Activation!”
  4229. >But, Abdul can use it himse-ooooooooooooooooooh.
  4230.  
  4231. >Thick, white strands of sticky liquid shoot from the wand’s tip –
  4232.  
  4233. “Did… did you just bukkake the whole building…?”
  4234. >”They’re all Wands of Web, you dork!” she laughs, shoving you – well, trying to shove you – playfully. Pretty hard for a hundred-pound pony to push you when you’re wearing power armor. In fact, she almost pushes *herself* off of her seat by accident – only a swift catch by Shining Armor keeps her from hitting the floor. “Oh, thanks, Shiny!”
  4235. >”How does my little sister know what bukkake is?”
  4236. >”Sci…scientific research…?” she stutters, following it up with a shy, guilty grin when that doesn’t satisfy her brother. “I promise!”
  4237. “Point in fact – not my fault! Also, we’re kinda at an important part in the game, so –“
  4238.  
  4239. >The sounds of violence cease. Practically EVERYTHING ceases as the entire side of the building facing the catapult is encased completely in magical webs. Here and there arrows still fly out as some of the temple’s paladins managed to avoid entrapment through luck or magic, but they are few and far between.
  4240. “So… can you tell me what’s going on *now*!?”
  4241. >You can hear one set of armor clanking somewhere out of your field of vision, but you can’t turn to see who it is.
  4242. >Gleaming Shield, hopefully. If not, you’re a dead man.
  4243. “I’m guessing you’ve got a Ring of Free Movement…?”
  4244. >”Yep.”
  4245. >Praise the stars, it *is* her.
  4246. “So you’re going to carry me down…?”
  4247. >”Have you *looked* down?”
  4248. “No, I… can’t actually move my head.”
  4249. >An arrow arcs *up* towards you, but gets tangled in the webs.
  4250. >”Here…”
  4251. >Her sword – flashes out, severing the webs holding your head in place.
  4252. >Ah, looks like some of the paladins managed to escape, at least, none of those on the temple grounds are trapped by the webs.
  4253. >”Climbing down would be even slower than Featherfall,” Gleaming Shield says, tossing you over her back – while she’s touching you, the webs don’t seem to stick. “We’re taking the express route.”
  4254. >The sword flashes out again, cutting a clear path through the rest of the webs, a way out.
  4255. >”Hold on tight. This might not end well if you come loose.”
  4256. “What…?”
  4257. >The paladin doesn’t answer, gripping the hilt of the sword in her mouth instead of with her hooves.
  4258. >She needs those to hold the shield she pulls free from under you.
  4259. “Wait a second, tell me what –“
  4260. >Gleaming shield rockets forward, flinging herself out of the building – and away from the webs. Gravity takes hold, jerking you towards the ground as more arrows fly in your direction. A few magical beams cut the air behind you, but you’re moving too fast for anypony to hit.
  4261. >Some of the paladins aren’t bothering to fire at all – you see them clearly holding their bows, but not aiming for you.
  4262. >Why bother to shoot at a target you can’t hit?
  4263. >Why bother to shoot at a target that’s about to die all on its own?
  4264. “I knew you were going to get me killed.”
  4265.  
  4266. >”Oh? Going to roll the falling damage for me?” Dice Pool asks when Shining Armor picks up a d20 with his magic. “Going to roll for Abdul as well?”
  4267. >”No!” the stallion laughs, “I’m rolling to –“
  4268.  
  4269. >CLANG!
  4270.  
  4271. >”- block!”
  4272. >”Bullshit.”
  4273. >Dice Pool does not look overly pleased. Entertained, yes, but not exactly pleased.
  4274. >”Fine,” Shining Armor sighs. “Karmic Strike activates before I die, so I get an Attack of Opportunity against the ground.”
  4275. >He picks up the d20 and flings it again before the DM can point out how useless that is.
  4276. >”And that’s a Crit!” the stallion shouts. “I’ll activate Heroic Killing Blow!”
  4277. >Dice Pool raises one eyebrow.
  4278. >”I’m not saying I’ll allow it, but continue this line of bullshit,” he sighs. “I’m finding it amusing, in a fashion.”
  4279. >”Well, I hit the ground, I rolled a Critical Success, and once per day – after rolling a Crit – I can activate Heroic Killing Blow to automatically kill or destroy my target. As far as I know, the ground isn’t immune to Criticals, so… game over? World ended?”
  4280. >”No need for that,” Dice Pool laughs. “You successfully block the ground.”
  4281.  
  4282. “What just happened?”
  4283. >”We took the express route!” Gleaming Shield shouts, spitting out her sword and bucking you off.
  4284. >Free from the need to physically hold on to the blade to prevent it from getting caught in the sticky webs, she now uses her unicorn magic to make the blade dance around in defensive patterns.
  4285. >She managed to get you to the ground unscathed, but now the two of you are surrounded by the Moon’s paladins, and your allies are few and far away.
  4286. >”Oh, step-sister…” one of them says mournfully, stepping closer but leaving his blade still sheathed. “It’s not too late to turn over the evil-doer. You know he would kill you himself if there was any profit in it for him.”
  4287. “True enough, but what profit is there in killing my own bodyguard?”
  4288. >”What if I said you could go free if she dies at your hoof?” he tempts, though you know his proposal is a lie.
  4289. “And have the paladins of the Sun after me? What profit is there in that!? I would just be exchanging one batch of murderous idiots for another, and that time I would be short a guardian.”
  4290. >”Really not a convincing offer,” Gleaming Shield growls at him. “Abdul is a greedy, selfish man, but he’s not an idiot.”
  4291. >”And neither are we,” the Moon’s paladin answers. “All who oppose her will must pay.”
  4292. >He – and several other paladins – advance closer, drawing their weapons with their mouths.
  4293. >The time for talking is clearly over.
  4294. “And the next step of Rock Thrower’s glorious plan is…?”
  4295. >”Now it’s up to our allies,” your bodyguard answers, circling around you warily, watching the approaching paladins carefully to see who will make the first move.
  4296. “Fastball might be able to reach us, but Corn Cob and Rock Thrower will be of absolutely no use –“
  4297. >”Not them!” she hisses. “We weren’t waiting for *them*.”
  4298. “Then who were we –“
  4299.  
  4300. “ – waiting for?”
  4301. >All of the other groups seem pretty engrossed in their own encounters, and as far as you can tell, none of the individual players have been pulled away like last night.
  4302. >NPCs. It has to be NPCs.
  4303. >”Wow, Twily was right about you,” Shining Armor chuckles. “You *don’t* listen very well. I already told you, the –”
  4304.  
  4305. >“– church is divided.”
  4306. “I know this, paladin! The Sun and the Moon –“
  4307. >“And those who believe the Moon is on the wrong course!”
  4308. >One of the circling warriors spits out his weapon, jabbing the blade into the ground to free her mouth.
  4309. >”You’re speaking *heresy*, step-sister,” she hisses, jerking the weapon free with her hoof. “The Celestial Guardians are infallible – the Moon does *not* make mistakes.”
  4310. >”No, but some of Her servant do,” the unicorn on her left suddenly sighs, his levitating blades spinning threateningly close to the talkative mare. “Put up your blade and retreat, sister. You were not meant to join us.”
  4311. >Several other paladins cry in outrage across the entire temple grounds as they unexpectedly find their fellows’ weapons leveled against them.
  4312. >”What – WHAT IS THIS!?”
  4313. >”We’re leaving,” the unicorn says loudly. “The Church has lost its way, too focused on hate and position.”
  4314. >The mare’s head shifts around – even dressed in similar uniforms, anypony can easily see those wishing to leave heavily outnumber their former allies.
  4315. >”Go then,” one of the Moon’s paladins yells, spitting his weapon from his mouth. “The Moon does not stop fools from making mistakes, only brings their deserved punishment.”
  4316. >The warrior holding his blade on him nods grimly.
  4317. >”That She does, brother,” he says softly. “Hopefully She finds mercy in Her heart for you.”
  4318. >A handful of paladins refuse to back down –
  4319.  
  4320. >”Do you intervene?” Dice Pool asks Shining Armor. Clearly there’s no point to asking you, since Abdul is still bereft of gear, but it would have been nice. And at this point, anything Rock Thrower does would be akin to leveling an anthill with napalm.
  4321. >”No,” the stallion says with a quick shake of his head. “As much as I’d love to, Gleaming Shield is of the Sun – she has no part in this. Besides, it’s not like Abdul can look after himself, and I don’t really trust these guys to babysit him.”
  4322.  
  4323. >Your guardian carefully shepherds you away from the sporadic fighting, but it is soon over.
  4324. >A hoofful cannot stand against the overwhelming numbers arrayed against them.
  4325. >Carefully, you watch the fighting, trying to identify even the tiniest of differences between the warring factions, but can see nothing.
  4326. >Pony fights pony, unicorns drive their dancing blades against humans, gryphons lash out against diamond dogs, all wearing the same somber colors of the Moon’s order. Some weapons glint with the power of Moon-forged steel, while others use mundane weapons. Here and there, shining blades clash against each other – clearly Her favor hasn’t been withdrawn from one side or the other.
  4327. >Finally, you do spot a noticeable difference – some of the paladins are striking to kill, but most are not.
  4328. >Your rescuers are risking their own lives in a misguided effort to not take those of their former friends.
  4329. >The fools.
  4330. >”The Moon does not approve of this!” one of the paladins screams at another she has pinned to the ground, her voice practically begging for her opponent to see reason, to admit the church’s wrongdoing. “The war against the Darkin, against the bandits who are just ponies like us! Don’t you see? Can’t you see that’s why you’ve lost!?”
  4331. >”We’re losing because you outnumber us, betrayer,” he answers, spitting in her face. “When the traitor’s hoof strikes, it strikes with the force of a legion.”
  4332. >She pales visibly at that, but Gleaming Shield pushes you on before you can see the conclusion of that little drama.
  4333. >”Hurry!” she urges. “Even those wearing the star may not be –”
  4334.  
  4335. “Wait, what?”
  4336. >”Um… the star badges?” Shining Armor stares at you for a second in disbelief, before turning his expression on his sister. ”Wow, Twily, what did you have to do to this guy to make him realize you were interested in him in the first place!?”
  4337. >Your princess giggles nervously and tries to hide her blushing face behind her forehooves.
  4338. >”Well… actually…”
  4339. “It’s a long story. A *very* long story.”
  4340. >”Longer than you know,” Sunny Smiles growls, “but do you think you can tell it later?”
  4341. “With the hearth lit and mead flowing freely?”
  4342. >”Yes!”
  4343.  
  4344. >“Even those wearing the star may not be entirely on your side, merchant,” Gleaming Shield warns, stepping warily between you and a paladin that came a little too close for her comfort. “They may not believe in the church’s ways any longer, but that doesn’t mean they all agree with your plans.”
  4345. “Star badges?”
  4346. >”Check their collars, where they would be wearing the emblems of their temple.”
  4347.  
  4348. >Shining Armor wraps one of the NPC paladin minis in his EXTREMELY MASCULINE pink magical aura, lifting it for you to see.
  4349. >Sure enough, there’s a little four-pointed star painted on the model.
  4350. >”You have no idea how long it took for us to paint all of those,” Dice Pool sighs, “even with *her* helping out.”
  4351. >He jerks his head towards “Celestia” and sighs again.
  4352. >”Sure would be nice to actually *use* them at some point,” he hints ominously. “It would be a shame if all that time went to waste. Oh well, roll a knowledge check, Anon!”
  4353.  
  4354. >Sure enough, those paladins still standing aren’t wearing the double crescent emblem of this temple, or the symbol of *any* of the Moon’s temples that you’re familiar with. The simple four-pointed star is completely unlike anything you’ve seen from either side of the church.
  4355. “What’s going on…?”
  4356. >It’s no secret that the Moon’s followers have been split, but this... this is more extreme than you could ever have imagined. If this is representative of the church as a whole, they’re losing followers faster than when the Moon abandoned this world in Her search for the thief that stole Her heart.
  4357. >”I suspect disillusionment,” Gleaming Shield speculates quietly, trying to keep any of the other paladins from hearing. “Many of the new recruits are probably finding the Moon’s dark ways distasteful, and the older ones are at a loss now that their purpose has changed.”
  4358. “You don’t know for sure?”
  4359. >”No, it was Mercury Flare and her companions that told us of them and arranged this,” your guardian answers. “Paladins gathering on the lawn was the sign for us to move, and Existential Dredd said some of her old comrades would escort us to safety, but –”
  4360. >”This way!”
  4361. >Gleaming Shield steps protectively between you and the elderly pegasus that’s waving you over, though the mare relaxes slightly when she sees your other henchmen with him.
  4362. >”Aurora Chaser?” your bodyguard asks guardedly.
  4363. >”Indeed.” He gives a quick jerk of his head, indicating for you to follow. “Well? Dredd said you’d need help getting to safety – change your mind?”
  4364. “No.”
  4365.  
  4366. >”Going along with it just because Applejack is your friend?” your DM asks casually, drawing a frown from Twilight.
  4367. >Is… is he accusing you of metagaming right in front of your marefriend?
  4368. “No, Abdul is pretty confident he won over Dredd by saving that other assassin.”
  4369. >”Good enough.”
  4370.  
  4371. “Why are you helping us?”
  4372. >”Doom Eater,” the pegasus answers. “Existential Dredd was moved by your selfless act to save him, even if he was not.”
  4373. >Selfless.
  4374. >Right.
  4375. >”In many ways, it embodied the Moon’s beliefs more than their actions,” he continues. “Our bodies are the shields that protect the innocent, but others of my order – of my old order, I should say – believe we are Her sword instead. It is one thing to throw yourself into harm’s way to protect others, but entirely different when you go causing trouble by seeking out things that would cause no harm if simply left alone.”
  4376. >A small group of paladins move to surround you, but Aurora Chaser shows no alarm.
  4377. >Based on his example, you assume they are either his trusted comrades that will escort you to safety – or he has betrayed you and it’s too late to do anything about it.
  4378. >Their weapons remain stowed, but that means little.
  4379. >Any of them could draw them and cut you down before you could react, and you’re not sure Gleaming Shield would be swift enough to stop them.
  4380. >”What of your toy…?” the elderly pegasus asks, jerking his head towards the abandoned catapult. “It wouldn’t be wise, but –“
  4381. “Leave it.”
  4382. >You have twenty-five more, assuming your assets haven’t yet been seized.
  4383.  
  4384. “They haven’t, right?”
  4385. >Dice Pool shakes his head quickly – not to say they haven’t been, but to dismiss your question.
  4386. >”All in due time, Anon,” he says mysteriously. “There’s no way Abdul would know.”
  4387. >”But Aurora Chaser would know,” Moonbeam points out. “And of course *we* –“
  4388. >The mare stops there when your DM sighs loudly and dramatically, cradling his head with both forehooves.
  4389. >”Thanks for ruining my fun.”
  4390. >”My pleasure,” she smirks.
  4391.  
  4392. >”The armory – and your estate – have been… secured…” Rock Thrower tells you hesitantly. “We won’t have long before –“
  4393. >”Don’t worry, dog,” Aurora Chaser snorts. “I chose the paladins watching over your master’s holdings myself.”
  4394. “And they’re all loyal to you?”
  4395. >”No, they’re loyal to the Moon’s cause.”
  4396.  
  4397. >”We *really* should have thought about that,” Twilight groans. “I don’t even want to imagine how much easier sneaking that catapult out would have been.”
  4398. >”Don’t look at it that way,” Dice Pool reassures her. “At least you got a funny story to tell out of it.”
  4399. >He withers under your marefriend’s deathstare.
  4400. >”Okay,” the DM sighs. “You got *a* story to tell. Maybe not a good one, maybe not one you *want* told, but it’s a story.”
  4401. >”No one can ever know,” Twi hisses at him, with the other three players murmuring in agreement.
  4402. >You have to know.
  4403. >”Well, you’re in luck,” Dice Pool grins. “You won’t have to sneak back in with the paladins escorting you. Unless you want to! It’ll be fuuuuun!”
  4404. >He wiggles his eyebrows at your marefriend, but fails to convince her, or anypony else at the table. Even you.
  4405. >It’ll be much easier to pry the story out of Twi later.
  4406. >"Nope," Twilight says to - you?. Dammit, she read your mind. "And I think we'll pass on that, Dice Pool. Let's keep this encounter on a high note."
  4407. >She flashes you a quick wink - fine, she can keep her secrets.
  4408. >"Probably for the best," he says with a slight shrug. "Looks like everypony else has finished theirs, or are at least wrapping it up."
  4409. >Sunny twists around on her stool, looking past her almost reasonably sized pauldrons to check on the Fillydelphians.
  4410. >They're one of two groups still playing; apparently discovering that secret passage wasn't enough to bring them a swift victory.
  4411. >Now they're stuck trying to get into the central keep where -
  4412. >Oh, this is awkward.
  4413. > - where the bandits are trying to protect their families.
  4414. >"Sure is a shame you didn't bring a catapult!" Sunny loudly calls out to them. "Would have made things *way* easier for you!"
  4415. >"Sorry for *not* wanting to kill everypony!" The Fillydelphian half-rises before his DM tries to pull him back into the game.
  4416. >"Well, *we* didn't kill *anypony*!" your princess yells back proudly. "Not! One!"
  4417. >Dice Pool coughs quietly, but it's enough for Twilight's head to snap towards the DM, as if afraid he would contradict her - maybe have one of the temple's paladins suffocate from the sheer volume of magical webs or an elderly scribe die from a heart attack just to ruin her victory.
  4418. >She glares daggers at him as he opens him mouth.
  4419. >"Are you *sure* your characters know that?" he teases. While his voice is serious, his eyes are not.
  4420. >"Yes!" Twilight snaps back. "Rock Thrower has full confidence in his plan."
  4421. >"Oh, of course. Right, please forgive me." Dice Pool taps his chin thoughtfully with one hoof. "So, how do *their* characters know...?"
  4422. >Twilight's little squeak of outrage is adorable, though her brother seems to find it hilarious instead.
  4423. >Shining Armor's laughter - and his hoof ruffling her mane - draws another squeak from your marefriend and sets her forehooves to flailing in his direction.
  4424. >"Gee, Twily, I thought you *hated* metagaming?" he mocks playfully, retreating slightly as her wild floundering speeds up to a Ponka-ish blur.
  4425. >"I was tricked!"
  4426. >"Oh?" Shining Armor chuckles. "Admitting that somepony is smarter than you?"
  4427. >He makes a playful jab at your princess.
  4428. >"Noooooo!"
  4429. >"So you were tricked by somepony *dumber* than you?"
  4430. >Twilight screams wordlessly in frustration as Moonbeam and Sunny Smiles try to suppress their laughter.
  4431. >Dice Pool doesn't even try, and Twilight's resumed deathstare just makes him laugh all the harder.
  4432. >"Calm down, filly," he snorts at her, "Your brother's just kidding around. *You*? Smarter than *me*?"
  4433. >You get your hand wrapped around your marefriend's mouth before she can respond, but that doesn't stop her from magically flinging dice at the stallion. At *both* of them, for good measure.
  4434. >At some point, you really should learn how to disrupt ponies' magic before she accidentally kills somepony.
  4435. >"You should calm down," Sunny cautions, making your marefriend's magical aura fade away almost instantly. "This isn't -"
  4436. >"Mhmmrphl murak alok," Twilight mumbles into your hand, twisting slightly - futilely - to try to free herself from your power armored grip.
  4437. >Okay, grabbing her like that probably wasn't a good idea, but at least you do any accidental killing of your own.
  4438. >You pull your hand away from her mouth, gently running it down the side of her neck to her shoulder, then under her leg and around her barrel.
  4439. >It takes no effort at all to lift your princess into the air, bringing her head up to yours. She manages a confused whimper, but that's all she can get out before you whisper into her ear.
  4440. "Play it cool, Twi. We'll prank the shit out of Shining Armor later."
  4441. >"P-prank...? You want to prank Shining Armor with *me*?"l
  4442. >"I can hear you."
  4443. >"Quiet. Princess talking," Twilight shushes her brother, kicking out at him with her hind legs. Maybe they were right - the way you two are acting probably isn't very dignified. "So, you want to prank, with *me*?"
  4444. >She bites her lip in eager anticipation.
  4445. >Forget dignified; Twilight's happiness is worth the cost.
  4446. "Of course with you - who else would I prank your brother with? Rainbow Douche?"
  4447. >"I can still hear you."
  4448. >He seems *really* proud of a couple passed Listen checks. Must not happen often.
  4449. >It's hard to believe Shining Armor made fun of *you* for not noticing things, poor fool. He might be right, but at least you're good at faking it, unlike him - he's practically *bragging* that he finally heard something.
  4450. >"As cute as this little display is," Dice Pool chuckles, "I think it's time to move on."
  4451. >Moonbeam gives a quick nod, as does Sunny after another look at the Fillydelphians.
  4452. >It isn't until she looks away do you realize the mare has been staring at you and Twilight the whole time.
  4453. >"Looks like your buddy over there finally broke there spirit," Sunny growls, flipping her head back to face Dice Pool. She's dropped the vaguely melancholic smile she had while watching your marefriend thrash about in your arm, replacing the expression with one of bored rage.
  4454. >The DM can only shrug at her implied accusation - after all, it's not his fault, it's not his table.
  4455. >"So what happens now?" Twilight asks him, still dangling from your arm.
  4456. >"You'll find out as soon as you sit down," he answers. "We'll start the next encounter then."
  4457. >Twilight shakes her head - that's not what she was asking, not what she is concerned about.
  4458. >"I meant with them," she explains, pointing towards the Fillydelphians. "Are they going to have to try again?"
  4459. >"That's really up to them."
  4460. >Twilight hangs silently from your arm just long enough to make it awkward. Gently, you set her back down on her stool.
  4461. >"I know what you're thinking, Twily," her brother says as soon as your princess straightens herself. "But we can't help them - our characters don't even know about it."
  4462. >"He is right, Twilight," Moonbeam agrees. "You cannot solve everypony's problems, you can only try."
  4463. >"Sorry, but I can't just ignore them."
  4464. >No surprise there - nopony can ignore angry shouts and grumbling. Blame is being passed around like party favors and the situation is rapidly deteriorating into what appears to be a tantrum spiral.
  4465. >Twilight starts to rise, probably to trot over there and offer advice, to help however she can, but you place your unyielding hand on her shoulder.
  4466. >You don't want her to taint the memory of Sixth Edition's birth by metagaming.
  4467. "Moonbeam didn't say anything about that, Twi. We'll give it our best shot -"
  4468. >"But you can't make any promises?" Sunny finishes, incorrectly guessing what you meant.
  4469. "I already did, two weeks ago. Don't worry, we'll fix everything."
  4470. >The mare chuckles quietly, shaking her head in disbelief.
  4471. >"I don't know what's worse, your inflated ego or overblown sense of drama," she sighs, smiling despite herself. "You're an idiot, Anon, but let's give it a shot. I have seen many ponies do great things because they were too foolish to realize their goals were impossible."
  4472. >That sounds like it might be an insult.
  4473. >So why does it make you feel proud?
  4474. >"You're dressed for it - to be the hero," Moonbeam points out. "You only need act the part."
  4475. >Maybe it *wasn't* an insult.
  4476. >A stray pencil bounces off your warplate, flung by a Fillydelphian's mis-aimed magic.
  4477. >"Hey, Saving Throw!" your DM yells to his embattled comrade. "Think you can keep your children under control!?"
  4478. >"No!" the other pony yells back, waving a hoof towards "Celestia" - the princess has joined their table, trying to get the players, and the game, back under control. "Why do you think *she* is here!?"
  4479. >Everypony's eyes have turned on them - for once, it's not your little group causing the mass disturbance. Doesn't feel as nice as you would have thought - maybe you *are* a drama whore.
  4480. >Everypony stares, though none as intently as Moonbeam. Pinkie Pie comes close, but the poor cosplayer looks almost physically ill.
  4481. >Not the sister you would have expected that from.
  4482. >A second later, you understand the feeling. There's a fleeting impression of a flash of green that makes your stomach drop and leaves you feeling disoriented.
  4483. >It passes quickly, but whatever it was seems to have affected everypony. When you see Dice Pool's furious frown, you feel slightly embarrassed for not having recognized it for what it was immediately.
  4484. >You bend down - as low as you can, at least - to whisper into his ear.
  4485. "Changeling magic...?"
  4486. >"Yeah," he hisses back, twisting away from Chrysalis to hide his expression from her. "She relies on it too much."
  4487. >You hadn't expected the stallion to be so open about it, but a look around reveals most ponies are still dazed - only the DMs and the alicorns are already blinking it away or immune.
  4488. >Even Chrysalis herself is acting slightly confused, though that might be because the Fillydelphians are already shaking off the effects of her spell. Not quite returning to their previous tantrum, but they certainly aren't happy.
  4489. >Moonbeam starts to rise, but her sister pulls her back.
  4490. >"No - not now," Sunny Smiles whispers harshly to her, "she's already done too much damage. We don't need you having another one of your episodes -"
  4491. >"But we cannot -"
  4492. >Moonbeam starts to rise, but her sister pulls her back.
  4493. >"No - not now," Sunny Smiles whispers sternly to the other mare, "she's already done too much damage. We don't need you having another one of your episodes."
  4494. >She grins triumphantly as Ponka suddenly bounds across the room and grabs two of the Fillydelphians in headlocks, breaking out into song.
  4495. >"You shouldn't worry so, sister," Sunny tells her sibling, allowing a hint of a smile to show.
  4496. >Moonbeam makes a noncommittal noise somewhere between a grunt and a whine. She doesn't move a muscle - not even to untense them - but watches the little musical unfold guardedly.
  4497. >If you didn't know better - and honestly, you don't - you'd think she was expecting the situation to explode into full-on bloodshed.
  4498. >But that would be ludicrous, right?
  4499. >You've heard stories of angry gamers flipping tables, but the worst you've ever actually seen was one of *those guys* storming out of a game store, angrily vowing to never return.
  4500. >He was back the next week, of course.
  4501. >You can't imagine ponies managing to do even that. It's obviously possible, but knowing and believing are two separate things.
  4502. >It's tempting to simply break up the game for the night, to pull another asshole move and shut things down and hope everypony is in a better mood tomorrow. You might even do it - or try, at least - except for what Chrysalis had told you earlier. The game is already running behind, she had said, and she doesn't seem to deal with stress too well.
  4503. >The changeling queen looks close to breaking character already, though this time you can't really blame her. Between Ponka singing and dancing on the table and the Fillydelphians' continued bickering, any DM would be annoyed.
  4504. >Though, if you had to guess, you'd say it was -
  4505. >"Wow, she is *not* happy," Dice Pool mutters to himself. No, to you - his eyes flicker towards you when you don't respond.
  4506. "Oh. No, doesn't seem like she is..."
  4507. >"Probably because they weren't affected by her hypnosis," he comments. "Dammit, she's great at the planning and logistics - I mean, she's our queen for a reason - but *why* does she always insist on actually getting involved?"
  4508. "Yeah..."
  4509. >You look around cautiously, but nopony seems to be listening.
  4510. "If she's going to pretend to be Celestia, she *really* should learn to delegate. I don't think she's actually done anything herself for... who knows how long."
  4511. "What can I say?" Sunny asks - CRAP SHE HEARD - turning her head just enough to flash you a quick shit-eating grin. "I'm an enabler."
  4512. >The smile is gone before you can react. By the time your brain has even registered the event, Twilight has her legs wrapped around your thigh again.
  4513. >"Anon, you really shouldn't complain about that," your marefriend tells you. "I, for one, am *very* happy about a certain special task she delegated to me."
  4514. >From her loving tone, she obviously means you.
  4515. >Hopefully.
  4516. >Helping you adjust to Equestria wasn't an easy task, but at least she found it rewarding. Eventually.
  4517. >You reward her insight with ear scratchies.
  4518. >The armor's smooth fingertips probably dull the sensation, but Twi seems to enjoy it anyway.
  4519. >"So, *hero* -"
  4520. >You're not sure you like how Shining Armor emphasizes that particular word. Neither does Twi - she jerks her head away from your hand to stare at him angrily, but he continues undaunted.
  4521. >"- how do plan on solving this little problem?"
  4522. >How indeed?
  4523. >Plenty of options if you wanted to just shut down the game for the night - or permanently. You *are* wearing power armor, but this situation calls for tact.
  4524. >Or what you try to pass off as tact.
  4525. "You'll see."
  4526. >A half-step brings your shin sharply into the table's edge, sending it forward to slam into Sunny Smile's back.
  4527. >She looks at you curiously - instead of with the anger you half expected.
  4528. >"Yes, Anon?"
  4529. "I'm starting to feel a little hungry. How about you?"
  4530. >She leaps to her hooves, propping herself up on the table's edge - oh, good, she got what you meant.
  4531. >"I'M FEELING GENEROUS!" she booms in full Royal Canterlot Voice. "I'LL GIVE YOU A SECOND CHANCE TO PROVE YOURSELF WORTHY!"
  4532. >Between her first word and her last, Chrysalis's borrowed face runs through a gamut of expressions, starting at incoherent rage and ending in... is it fear? You think it's fear the changeling queen is feeling when she realizes it is Celestia interrupting her.
  4533. >"SERVANT!" Sunny screams. "DRAGONSLAVE! BRING FOOD!"
  4534. >Spike looks to "Celestia" first - guess the little guy doesn't actually know what's going on here - but she hesitantly gives him a nod.
  4535. >"Um... yes, perhaps now would be a good time to break for dinner," she pathetically agrees, trying make it look like it was her idea.
  4536. >"What kind...?" he grumbles, clearly unhappy that "Celestia" let her guest get away with making demands like that.
  4537. >"ALL OF IT!" Sunny bellows. "THIS WEAKLING PROBABLY WON'T FINISH A SINGLE PLATE BEFORE THE REST IS GONE!"
  4538. >On one hand, your idea seems to be working, as even the Fillydelphians are distracted by the mare's outburst. They're more confused than angry for the moment, and that's victory enough. With a little luck, it'll hold through the meal, and if Chrysalis is as good as Dice Pool seems to think, she should be able to put this time to good use.
  4539. >On the other hand, you're pretty sure you'll never be able to hear Twilight's voice again. Or anything else.
  4540. >But, like always, the deafening isn't permanent or even long-lasting.
  4541. >Or real, probably. It just feels that way.
  4542. >You and Sunny stare each other down without another word while servers bustle around bringing in fresh food - *real* food, not pretzels or other snacks like those that had filled the food tables earlier.
  4543. >Twilight begins clearing off the table - her brother and Moonbeam joining in seconds later. Dice Pool goes so far as to actually pull his DM screen off the table - just as you suspected, the pony has no notes, or anything else to keep hidden.
  4544. >He must notice your quick glance and slightly raised eyebrow, because he pauses.
  4545. >"What?" he demands. "I may be event staff, but I'm allowed to eat, too."
  4546. >Isn’t that what he’s been doing this whole time?
  4547. >You would ask, but Sunny shakes her head slightly – a warning against speaking further.
  4548. >Of course – everypony seems to have recovered from Chrysalis’s spell by now, which makes it too risky to continue talking opening about the staff’s true nature. Not unless you want to spark a riot.
  4549. >You have always wanted to, but now just doesn’t seem like the best time.
  4550. >Too much attention is on you and Sunny, too many eyes watching you even as the ponies trot between their places and the serving table.
  4551. >The Fillydelphians are the first to abandon their table –
  4552. >Oh, this works better than you had expected – you didn’t just give Chrysalis an excuse to halt the game, you gave those ponies an excuse to leave their table. They split up, mingling with the others who also rise seconds later. Some head for the door, Berry Punch and Octavia among them, but most for the serving table.
  4553. >”Don’t be too long!” Spike calls out to them before the first pony passes through the door. “We’ll be starting again in about thirty minutes!”
  4554. >More like an hour, if your experience with gaming events is anything to go by.
  4555. >The ponies try to give you a wide berth, though you can’t figure out why. The room isn’t *that* large, not with all the extra staff bringing in extra carts of food and drink, and nopony seems scared of you or your stare-off with Sunny, only surprised when they have to take a step closer to you. One of the Manehattanites even murmurs an apology that cuts off once he realizes he hadn’t actually run into you.
  4556. >It’s the armor – has to be. They’re overestimating your size.
  4557. >A few ponies hesitate, remaining at their tables to let the rush die down. The gryphons as well – there’s no point making a rush for the food when there’s no threat of anypony loading up their plates with the limited amount of meat.
  4558. >They’re still talking loudly, pointing out each and every mistake the Fillydelphians made – including more than a few that *aren’t* mistakes.
  4559. “Get it now while you can! Once we start –“
  4560. >“Once *I* start,” Sunny amends, picking up where you’re going with this.
  4561. “– there won’t be much –“
  4562. >“Any!”
  4563. “– left!”
  4564. >It’s hard to bicker and point blame with a full mouth.
  4565. >Even harder when the arguing parties can’t sit together – the Fillydelphian’s table quickly fills as the DMs stream over to consult with “Celestia” on the next encounter.
  4566. >It helps that they don’t even bother with the pretense of grabbing food they won’t eat.
  4567. >”Aren’t you…?” Twilight asks Dice Pool. Out of the corner of your eye, you can see Twi jerk her head towards the other DMs.
  4568. >”Nah, I’m pretty sure they can figure it out on their own,” he answers dismissively. “This looks to be more fun than dealing with some idiot that can’t run a game properly.”
  4569. >Wow.
  4570. >You hadn’t been all that impressed by Chrysalis so far, but for him to say that?
  4571. >From the way your DM’s green eyes flare open, it must have caught *him* by surprise, too.
  4572. >“Saving Throw, I mean!” he quickly corrects. “He’s just always too inflexible.”
  4573. >Oh.
  4574. >That makes more sense.
  4575. >”She *said* she was bringing her best DMs,” Moonbeam sighs angrily, looking over at the changeling queen suspiciously.
  4576. >”She *did*,” Dice Pool answers irritably, though the emotion – unlike his words – is not directed at the mare. “Saving Throw is one of her best. Unfortunately, he’s also an idiot.”
  4577. >”Just because he –“
  4578. >She’s going to compare herself to Saving Throw – his inflexibility and her railroading make it an obvious connection.
  4579. “SPIKE!”
  4580. >You aren’t going to let that happen.
  4581. >She gives you an annoyed look at being interrupted, but it’s a fleeting expression, gone before the little dragon answers.
  4582. >”WHAT!?” he shouts back from his place at the side of “Celestia.”
  4583. “Bring us everything! I have a bet to win!”
  4584. >”Can’t you just get it yourself?” he whines – and with good reason. “I’m a little busy.”
  4585. >Indeed he is – from the dirty look Chrysalis shoots you, she doesn’t want Spike to leave her table, but you can’t say if it’s because she’s hungry or because she needs his help. He may not have a lot of experience with these kinds of things, but if the Fillydelphian’s DM is one of her best… well…
  4586. >The mare’s gaze shifts to Dice Pool and she motions for him to move over to her with an almost imperceptible twitch of her chin, but your DM pretends not to notice. Instead, he chooses to strike up a conversation with Shining Armor, swapping stories wacky gaming hijinks.
  4587. >Mostly to calm down the increasingly twitchy stallion, you suspect.
  4588. >”Stay where you are, Spike,” Twilight calls out, her horn lighting up. “I’ll take care of them!”
  4589. >The platters on the serving tables rise slightly – that gets the stragglers to their hooves.
  4590. >With a smirk she tries her best to conceal, your princess graciously gives them time to get what they need before floating the dishes over. Even after being looted by everypony (and everygryphon), there’s still enough food to cover the table completely.
  4591. >”One second,” Twi says, bringing over four empty plates for herself and the others. “Just let us get out of your way…”
  4592. >You hope it doesn’t take long – it’s awkward holding this pose, looming over the table to stare angrily at your opponent.
  4593. >Not uncomfortable or painful, though you expected it to be, just feels weird. The armor holds you up easily, without requiring any strain or effort on your part.
  4594. >Sunny doesn’t have any such help, since her costume is only… well… a costume. She’s holding herself up purely through willpower and determination, without so much as a twitch or eye flutter, almost eye to eye with you.
  4595. >Almost, because of the way her mane falls, almost obscuring one of her violet eyes.
  4596. >Not even when Ponka flops herself down beside Sunny, does the cosplayer react.
  4597. >”Ooooooooh, this is the… uh…” Panko breaks off, pausing to stuff a roll into her mouth, while scratching her head idly with her forehoof. She loudly swallows – little fluffball didn’t even chew it. “Didn’t the eating contest come first…? I just assumed you did that *earlier*, but I’m so glad you didn’t! Now I get to watch, even if you *are* doing it wrong!”
  4598. “Timing wasn’t right.”
  4599. >”We decided to change things up a bit.”
  4600. >Sunny flashes a quick wink, the gesture hidden from the others by her golden mane.
  4601. >”Oooooooooooh, okay then!” Ponka nods sagely, settling down to watch the show unfold. “That makes sense.”
  4602. >Good, that little mistake could have been embarrassing for both of you if Sunny – if Celestia – hadn’t played along.
  4603. >You two always did work well together, when one or the other wasn’t being willfully obstinate.
  4604. >“Soooo, are you gonna *start* or what?”
  4605. “In a sec, Ponks. Just waiting for – shit, seriously!?”
  4606. >”Just wait, dammit,” Dice Pool grumbles, before daintily reaching for the serving tongs with his mouth and nabbing a roll from a bowl.
  4607. >You have no idea why the changeling is filling a plate for himself – or even why Twi brought a plate for him. Maybe because everypony is watching – not watching *him* exactly, but they might notice if he doesn’t eat *anything*.
  4608. >So why is he being so damn picky?
  4609. >You try to turn the delay to your advantage, looking over the spread in the hopes of devising a plan. It’s hard to do without breaking away from Sunny’s eyes, but you can’t exactly do that without admitting weakness. This may be a distraction for Chrysalis, but it’s not *just* a distraction – not exactly.
  4610. >That bitch is going to go all out, so you will too.
  4611. >Unfortunately, none of the food looks truly appropriate for an eating contest – rolls, sandwiches, little pieces of – oh, you’re so fucked – cake. Boring food, stuff that can be prepared and set aside until the event is at a good stopping point.
  4612. “Would be better if we had hotdogs…”
  4613. >It takes a slight snicker from Sunny to make you realize you’d actually said it out loud.
  4614. >”Better for you, maybe,” Sunny growls, “but only because not everypony is as much of a gigantic cockgobbler as you.”
  4615. >Okay, you deserved that one – you really can’t fault Best Princess for taking opportunity of such a perfect opening.
  4616. >But she’s still a bitch.
  4617. >Dice Pool is *still* in the way, but on Sunny’s side of the table.
  4618. >Now.
  4619. >You make your move, reaching for the closest thing – a piece of cake – in an attempt to get a head start on your opponent. Your hand almost makes it – almost – before being kicked aside by a white-clad hoof.
  4620. >“No cheating, Anonymous,” Ponka hiss, deathly serious.
  4621. >Your armor is undamaged, but your hand stings with sympathetic pain – a warning, not an injury.
  4622. “I wasn’t cheating.”
  4623. >Your friend’s eyes narrow angrily, though the rest of her face stays otherwise impassive. In its own way, the expression is suitably terrifying, even with the fake little fu manchu dangling down both sides of her muzzle.
  4624. “I was only taking advantage of an opening.”
  4625. >Her corners of her mouth droop down slightly.
  4626. “Oh, come on! You’re dressed as the Khan – don’t give me that!”
  4627. >“The warriors of Chogoris are no savages,” she rumbles in an impossibly deep voice. “Outsiders may not understand our rules and codes, but we have them nonetheless. If this challenge is to mean anything, it shall be done properly. And if it is not done properly, you are not worthy of victory.”
  4628. >Like Sunny and Moonbeam, Pinks is only wearing a costume, a mere facsimile of a primarch’s warplate, yet she had the strength to triumph over your power armor.
  4629. >You decide to wait. Besides, the element of surprise has already been lost – Sunny might be able to keep her mouth from laughing, but you can still see it in her eyes.
  4630. >Bah.
  4631. >As soon as you pull back your hand, Ponks laughs merrily and helps herself to the cake you had been reaching for.
  4632. >”Good luck, Nonny!” Little Miss Bipolar cheers, settling back on her haunch to hold the plate up to her face with both forehooves. “I hope you win!”
  4633. >Her muzzle dives in and she takes a bite, carelessly dragging her mustache through the chocolate frosting.
  4634. >”Mmmm! Swabera philin!”
  4635. >From the red smear on her muzzle, she was probably saying something about the strawberry filling. At least, Dice Pool seems to think so, because he snatches up one immediately.
  4636. >”I *love* strawberries!”
  4637. >You try to ask Sunny if changelings can even eat regular food, using only subtle eye movements and a switch of your mouth.
  4638. >From the way her in eyebrows steeple in confusion, it apparently doesn’t work. Of course it wouldn’t. How the fuck would she ever understand what you’re trying to –
  4639. >Sunny’s head twitches, like she’s trying to toss her mane out of her eyes, but you read the gesture for what it is – an answer.
  4640. >They don’t eat normal food.
  4641. “Time’s up, Dice Pool.”
  4642. >He’s spent long enough drooling over the food to cover up being a changeling. You aren’t going to let him waste any more time for no good reason.
  4643. >”Fine,” he sighs loudly, sitting back down and placing his overloaded plate on the very edge of the table. “Just don’t touch any of this – it’s mine.”
  4644. “Then get it off the table.”
  4645. >”Do I *look* like a unicorn? Or maybe you expect me to eat off the floor?”
  4646. “Fine, just keep it out of our way.”
  4647. >His pouting distracts you just long enough for Sunny to make the first move. The mare dives in nose-first, demolishing a plate of pastries before you can do more than grunt in surprise.
  4648. >Waving frantically in an appeal to Judge Ponka costs you even more time. Despite stopping you earlier, she makes no move to halt Sunny.
  4649. >”What…?” she asks, shrugging when you wave your claw towards the cosplayer. “Ooooh, you don’t think that was fair?”
  4650. “No!”
  4651. >”But your DM got what he wanted and was out of the way,” Ponka comments, head tilted to one side quizzically. “Don’t get cranky just because she got the first move. Now stop wasting time, silly!”
  4652. >”MHM!” Sunny agrees, her mouth full of cake and chin sporting a rather fitting crumb-beard. She swallows noisily – is she even taking time to taste what she’s – oh, of course not, this is a fucking race. “Don’t be a sore loser, Anon.”
  4653. >Well, that was pointless.
  4654. >You waste no more time on words, and neither does Sunny, tearing through another plate of – shit, they disappeared so fast, you don’t even know what they were.
  4655. >A streak of yellowish sauce is all that remains to show they once existed.
  4656. >”Well…?” she asks mockingly, pausing for a moment. “Are you admitting defeat already, weakling?”
  4657. “NEVER!”
  4658. >”Then start fighting back,” she growls, spitting little crumbs at you. “There’s no glory in this if you lie down and concede victory!”
  4659. >She leans forward aggressively and *tries* to shove you, but between awkwardly overextending herself and her relatively normal pony strength, it has no effect besides sending you reaching for the closest plate.
  4660. >”Good! Show me this vaunted human superiority you’re always bragging about!”
  4661. >Bitch. It’s been almost a year since you talked to her about that – or at all.
  4662. >Sunny waits for you to take a bite, not reaching for anything else, just staring intently at you.
  4663. >When you meet her eyes, you notice they have once again taken on the golden yellow of the primarch’s. Her mane shimmers red thanks to the same illusion.
  4664. >Heh, even her crumb-stubble is reddish, thanks to strawberry-filled chocolate cake.
  4665. “I need prove nothing, *pony*, for it is a one of the truths of this universe and all others.”
  4666. >It hurts, swallowing the roll whole, but you do it anyway.
  4667. >Pain is an illusion of the senses.
  4668. >But – FUCK – that hurt.
  4669. >You think you manage to keep a straight face, though, because your opponent snarls angrily and resumes her assault on the table without another word.
  4670. >You’re a few seconds behind her – that little display takes you some time to recover from. Should have probably soaked it in water or something. At least it seemed to impressive somepony, judging from the scattered applause.
  4671. >”FOOKIN KICK ‘ER ARSE!”
  4672. >You don’t look back, but that has to be Octavia.
  4673. >”Back already?” you hear Lyra ask. “I thought you had to go to –“
  4674. >”Too far. Used da bin right outside –”
  4675. >You don’t want to know. Focusing on the food helps you ignore the rest of that conversation.
  4676. >This is not the time to lose your appetite.
  4677. >Sunny must have less success tuning out the background chatter, because her face turns pale – even for her – and she almost retches up the – shit, that bitch is going purely for cake!
  4678. >As should you, considering it’s much softer and goes down with less chewing.
  4679. >Cunning bitch.
  4680. >”Oh, finally caught on?” she asks with a sneer. “And I thought this wasn’t going to be a fair competition. Good, make this worth my time!”
  4681. >That doesn’t stop her from going after the softer and easier foods. Not only does each piece bring her closer to victory, it also denies you easy targets.
  4682. >You try to reach for them, but Sunny climbs half on to the table, reaching for those on your side of the table while blocking those on hers with her body.
  4683. >Now that’s *not* fair – she squawks when you flip her off the table one-handed. The mare lands heavily upside down, completely caught off guard and unable to use her wings to steady herself because of her costume.
  4684. >”Sister…” Moonbeam sighs loudly, “I believe you are spending far too much time on your back as of late.”
  4685. >“It’s not *my* fault I keep getting kicked!”
  4686. >”It kind of is,” Twilight points out smugly. “And you have to admit, Anon didn’t exactly kick you – he used his hand, so it was more of a –“
  4687. >You shovel as much food into your mouth as you can, expecting Sunny to be back on her hooves and in the action any second now. The mare doesn’t disappoint, brushing aside the rest of your princess’s explanation and launching herself back at the table.
  4688. >Between her earlier advances and your attempt to catch up, all of the soft targets are gone, so she goes for the next best option – the cake on Dice Pool’s plate.
  4689. >His protests fall on deaf ears – not even Ponks intervenes on his behalf.
  4690. >”If you *really* wanted it, you should have taken if off the table,” she tells him sagely, though too late for it to do any good.
  4691. >So *that* was his goal.
  4692. >He never intended to eat any of the food, only put on a little show for everypony else.
  4693. >Subtle.
  4694. >Too bad you hadn’t figured it out before Sunny.
  4695. >If she even *did* figure it out. You wouldn’t put it past her to callously steal Dice Pool’s food just to secure victory.
  4696. >Bitch.
  4697. >You tackle the rolls with your hard-bought wisdom, washing them down with generous amounts of liquid. Luckily, Ponka has no objection to Twilight refilling your mug for you. She just takes on the duty of keeping Sunny’s full, keeping things “fair,” for whatever definition of that word that she has.
  4698. >Is there chanting?
  4699. >You think you hear chanting.
  4700. >Good, that means you’re putting on enough of a show for Chrysalis to fix her game, unless she’s a raging incompetent.
  4701. >So this game is probably fucked anyway, but at least you can say you did everything you could to help.
  4702. >Really.
  4703. >There’s not much else you can do to stall – there’s one plate left, and not much on it.
  4704. >Only three little scones. Tasty enough, but dry.
  4705. >You don’t think your stomach can hold any more, particularly not with the liquid it would take to get them down.
  4706. >But you reach for them anyway.
  4707. >They’ll fit – you’ll win this – you’re human, dammit, and that means reality is your BITCH!
  4708. >In a blink, the scones are gone.
  4709. >Into Sunny’s mouth.
  4710. >She’s coughing and sputtering, but holding up her forehooves triumphantly.
  4711. >You don’t even have to count up the plates stacked in front of her – you know she ate more than you.
  4712. >Twilight pats your thigh in an attempt to comfort you, but it doesn’t really help.
  4713. >You feel horrible.
  4714. >Not because you lost, but because you haven’t eaten like that since… ever, maybe.
  4715. >You want to collapse, but your armor won’t let you.
  4716. “I’ll win round three. You know this, right?”
  4717. >Your voice lacks confidence, but only because of how abused your throat is feeling right now.
  4718. >”We’ll see,” Sunny rasps. “At least you almost came close this time.”
  4719. >Better than the Emperor did against Leman Russ.
  4720. "Would have caught up if we hadn't run out."
  4721. >Pride requires you make an excuse, even if you don't believe it.
  4722. >"Oh, are you still hungry!?" Ponka asks with concern. She looks around frantically without waiting for your answer, finally shouting in triumph. In a flash, your friend is scrambling up your shoulderpad, plate of cookies clamped in her mouth.
  4723. "Where did those come from!?"
  4724. >And is she going to expect you to eat them?
  4725. >You hope not.
  4726. >"HOHNEYILL SATIEC OOKY HESERB!"
  4727. "What...?"
  4728. >She points to the plate with one hoof and grunts, dangling from your pauldron with one hoof.
  4729. >Oh, right.
  4730. >You take the plate from her mouth with your claw.
  4731. >"That's better!" she shouts happily. "They're from the Ponyville Strategic Cookie Reserve!"
  4732. "But we're in Canterlot."
  4733. >"So?"
  4734. "Well, they sound important. Maybe we should save them for when they're actually needed."
  4735. >"I *guess* so," she sighs. In another flash, the cookies disappear.
  4736. >The suddenness of it leaves Dice Pool frozen in mid-grab, his hoof stretched out towards your now empty claw.
  4737. >He sure is dedicated - you don't think you've seen any of the other DMs even *try* to pretend. Not even Chrysalis.
  4738. >"Oh, sorry Dicey!" Pinkie giggles guiltily reappearing beside the changeling. "Did you want some?"
  4739. >"You know what?" he asks rhetorically. "No, no I don't. Because I wouldn't even get them. SOMEPONY would do something before the plate even reached me."
  4740. >He thrusts a hoof accusingly at Sunny.
  4741. >"Fuck this, fuck you all, let's just get back to the game so we can wrap up this session," the DM continues, sitting back on his stool and waving both forehooves in the air. "HOPEFULLY there'll still be a burger place open by the time we finish! UNLESS -"
  4742. >You think he's overdoing it a bit.
  4743. >So does Chrysalis - at her approach, your DM cuts off mid-ramble.
  4744. >"Don't worry," she says in a motherly tone you hadn't expected of her, but that sounds quite appropriate coming from Celestia's mouth. "I'll have the royal kitchens whip up something for you. But for now..."
  4745. >Chrysalis doesn't *quite* nuzzle him, but you're positive she wants to. After a second's hesitation, she settles for patting him comfortingly on the shoulder.
  4746. >"Spike?"
  4747. >Over at the table she had been sitting at, a green fin pops up from the cluster of DMs. He can't quite see over them, but it's close enough.
  4748. >"Could you get us some tea?" she asks. The mare gives Dice Pool another pat before withdrawing her hoof and returning to her table. "Now, if everypony is ready...?"
  4749. >A chorus of affirmative noises answers her - even from the scattered Fillydelphians.
  4750. >"Then let us resume, my little ponies."
  4751. >Dice Pool gives Ponka a rather pointed look.
  4752. >"That means go away."
  4753. >"Ooooooh," she moans sadly, but stands and returns to the other Elements.
  4754. >He turns his gaze on the table - Twilight and Shining Armor are already clearing the table of plates and other debris. With a smug little huff, your DM sets up his screen and other paraphernalia. Moonbeam helps, replacing the miniatures and game map. She's in the process of trying to straighten it out when Dice Pool stops her.
  4755. >"Don't trouble yourself," he says. "I don't think we'll need that. Well, we might not need that. We won't need it unless somepony decides to provoke some - oh, nevermind, let me help you."
  4756. >Between the two of them, they get the soft vinyl grid mostly laid out flat. A slight tug of Twilight's magic does the rest.
  4757. >"Sorry," she apologizes with a sheepish grin. "It wasn't *quite* straight."
  4758. >You have to stifle a laugh when you see Shining Armor roll his eyes at your princess.
  4759. >Honestly, you were thinking the same thing, but luckily Twi isn't looking at either of you.
  4760. >It's game time. Her attention is focused on Dice Pool.
  4761. >"So, where were we...?" he mutters to himself, pretending to flip through his notes.
  4762. "We'd just slain the dragon and were about to loot its horde."
  4763. >"Oh, RIGHT. Suddenly the dragon's entire family bursts out of hiding! Roll for initiative!"
  4764. >Twilight thumps her hoof into your thigh.
  4765. >"Or *maybe* we were being escorted away by Aurora Chaser's paladins," she corrects, still not even bothering to look at you.
  4766. >Dice Pool's eyes dance teasingly between both of you while he idly drums the table with one hoof.
  4767. >"I'm just not sure who to believe -"
  4768. >"Well, I rolled a natural twenty for initiative," Sunny chimes in. "I say we fight the dragons!"
  4769.  
  4770. >That could have ended poorly, but the star-marked paladins get you clear of the fighting. You expect them to peel off at some point, to return to their fellows, and... something.
  4771. >But no, their numbers grow. Many of the newcomers bear signs of recent fighting - more than a few bleeding from fresh wounds. You think you recognize a few of them from the brawl at the temple, but they all look alike to you.
  4772. >None are wearing the badges of the Moon's temples, though.
  4773. "Subtle rescue."
  4774. >Rock Thrower's muzzle scrunches at your whisper.
  4775. >"I didn't expect to be part of a crusade," she barks back, "but it did involve a siege engine. Did you really think *any* part of this would be subtle after that?"
  4776. "No, not really."
  4777.  
  4778. >As the number of paladins grows, so does your unease. While they do form a somewhat comforting buffer of flesh and steel between you and any pursuit, Gleaming Shield's words keep coming back to you. Any of them might think the world would be a better place without you. Even without that possibility, if the only sign of the a paladin's loyalties is the absence of their temple's badge, it would be all to easy for one of the loyalist paladins to slip into the crowd.
  4779. >Or one of temples' assassins.
  4780.  
  4781. >"I know Abdul has Paranoia, but do you *have* to roll for every single thing!?"
  4782. "So... you think he *wouldn't* be paranoid surrounded by dozens of ponies who had tried to kill him earlier?"
  4783. >Dice Pool's drumming pauses.
  4784. >"Nope. Keep on rollin'."
  4785.  
  4786. >At Aurora Chaser's next turn, you begin to suspect where he's leading you, though you really should have figured it out earlier. The pegasus had said the paladins guarding your estate were hoofpicked by him.
  4787. >If only their loyalty was guaranteed.
  4788. >You have the makings of an army at hand and an armory with which to equip them. If only...
  4789. >Aurora Chaser strays closer to you.
  4790. >"When we arrive, let me do the talking," he cautions. "You may be - no, you *are* a greedy, vain soul, but you have done much good in this world. Our efforts would be better suited elsewhere - give me a chance to explain that."
  4791. "Of course. But... why? Why would you defy your temple for me?"
  4792. >"Are you *really* sure you want me to start questioning that choice?" he chuckles. "Though it wasn't really a choice. If it wasn't you, it would have been some other edict of the Church that brought this about."
  4793. >He lifts his gaze skyward.
  4794. >Though the sun still blazes in the sky, you know what he's looking for.
  4795. >"The stars are going out, the orders of the Moon are caught up in internal squabbles, and the Sun is blind to the danger. Bandits prey upon the innocents of this land, and the church is caught up in a debate between wiping them out and leading them to war against the Darkin."
  4796. >Aurora Chaser pauses to sigh loudly. His eyes drift over some of the nearby paladins.
  4797. >"I remember when the second moon rose," he says abruptly. "I wasn't part of the orders then, only a foal, really, but I remember it."
  4798. "As does everypony who lived through those days."
  4799. >He pauses again, looking at you this time. Whatever the paladin sees there satisfies him, and he nods.
  4800. >"Indeed we do," he admits, realizing you are only a few years younger than him. "I saw the Moon's paladins forsake their oaths and abandon her cause in their reckless hunt. When I took up Her sword, I swore I would never allow such a thing to happen again. And yet, despite us all swearing to protect the innocent, they suffer."
  4801. "Everypony suffers."
  4802. >"True enough," he answers gruffly, "but I don't really care about *your* pain. If it weren't for the good you've accidentally done and Existential Dredd's words, I would have left you to rot. But it can't hurt, having a powerful merchant such as yourself in our debt. I learned that long ago, when -"
  4803.  
  4804. "Do you *have* to tell us his full life story? I'm pretty sure I didn't ask for that."
  4805. >"I'm pretty sure you did when you aced that Sense Motive test," Dice Pool counters. "But I'll see what I can do to speed this up. As a favor to you."
  4806. "Gee, thanks."
  4807.  
  4808. >"- well, it was a long time ago," the pegasus sighs. "And like you said, you remember what those days were like."
  4809. "So what is it you want from me?"
  4810. >Aurora Chaser grins, appreciating your bluntness.
  4811. >"I'm afraid we will no longer have the patronage of our temples, not after today."
  4812. "And you want me to... what? Pay you for your assistance? Or is this a 'protection' fee."
  4813. >The paladin's lips curl in disgust, his earlier amusement gone.
  4814. >You might have to watch your tongue a little more, or stay closer to Gleaming Shield.
  4815. >"No," he answers harshly. "We won't take your property by force. You sponsor temples in many cities -"
  4816. >So that's what he wants.
  4817. >"I'm afraid that if you're looking for sanctuary, those temples serve the Sun, not the Moon. And even if you *are* looking to change orders, would they even accept you and your brethren?"
  4818. >You look sharply at Rock Thrower - it's not her place to speak for you -
  4819.  
  4820. >"Gee, sorry!" Twilight grumbles. "Sorry for wanting to be even remotely involved in the game. I won't do it again."
  4821.  
  4822. >- but she's right.
  4823. "As my adviser says, I'm not sure there would be a place for your paladins there. Even if the Sun's clergy would accept you, temples don't usually need much protection."
  4824. >"But the people they serve do," Aurora Chaser insists. "You cure them once they've been injured, why not prevent it in the first place?"
  4825. "Well, I..."
  4826. >You try to run the math in your head, to see if the benefits would outweigh the very steep costs of keeping potentially hundreds of warriors on your payroll. Without your books, it's hard to tell if it would be economically profitable. As for boosting your public appearance, you're not sure if hiring away a significant chunk of the Church's paladins would be good thing.
  4827. >"Just what *were* you planning to do with all those adventurers, if not that?" the paladin asks when your contemplation stretches on a little too long. "Defense or attack - there is no other reason for so many of those who live by the sword to be brought together."
  4828. >"Just trying to get bodies off the street," Corn Cob chimes in. "Reduce the workforce, put them to use elsewhere. Not all adventures involve killing - and those are the best ones."
  4829. >"You look like you don't mind a little killing," Aurora Chaser snaps at the mare. "I can *taste* the blood on your hooves. Stay quiet and stay away - I'm only tolerating your presence for Goldberg's sake."
  4830. >The unicorn sneers back, but doesn't -
  4831. >"I don't mind killing," she answers, ruining all hope you had for this ending peacefully. Shit. "But ponies usually try to kill me back. Give me a safe, easy quest any day."
  4832. >"Then you should have taken up weaving."
  4833. >"I said safe, not *boring*," she counters, before trotting away quickly before the paladin can steal the last word back.
  4834. "She's basically right - and the Moon's paladins have a..."
  4835. >There's a polite way to say this. Somehow.
  4836.  
  4837. "Uh... I roll for Diplomacy...?"
  4838. >"Aww, not going to roleplay this?" Shining Armor teases. "When Twily told me how good you are at this sort of thing, I guess she was only talking about the crunch."
  4839. >His sister waves a hoof in the air.
  4840. >"I'm right here, you know -"
  4841. >"I know."
  4842. >"And I *wasn't* just talking about rules!"
  4843. >Well, shit. Now you have to do it - you can't let your princess down.
  4844.  
  4845. "The Moon's paladins offer a far narrow selection of skills than the standard adventuring party. As the mercenary said, not every quest ends in bringing death to the wicked."
  4846. >"And you've never hired a big, burly mercenary to stand behind you and convince every mugger and pickpocket that your coinpurse isn't worth the trouble?" Aurora Chaser asks flatly. "Or hired guards for any of your trade caravans, either?"
  4847. >His pace slows, then stops.
  4848. >In the middle of the road, with paladins streaming past on either side, he stares you down like a schoolteacher scolding an underachieving student.
  4849. >"Your position is tenuous, merchant -"
  4850. "Are you threatening me?"
  4851. >"No, I -" he pauses, his mouth tightening unhappily as he thinks something over.. "Yes, in a fashion. You need us."
  4852. "And you need me, apparently."
  4853. >"But you need us more. The Church is going to come after you now."
  4854. "Somehow you're thinking they won't come after you?"
  4855. >The stallion smirks - whatever his argument is, he thinks he has you trapped.
  4856. >"All we want is to fight evil and protect the innocent. We can do that individually, or in small groups. We can disappear into the wild places, into the tangled forests where the Moon's light doesn't reach, to fight the monsters She cannot."
  4857. "You can't expect to be successful at that without any kind of support -"
  4858. >"I don't think that we would be," he cuts you off, "but we would still be fulfilling our duty, still be doing what we want to do. But you? Could you and your fortune disappear as easily?"
  4859. >The church can write off the loss of the paladins easily enough, claim it's a crusade or penance, but your escape?
  4860. >No, now they *have* to come after you. With the desertion of so many of their warrior's, the Moon's temples have lost many trained servants and much equipment. Replacing those loses will not be cheap, and with you already branded as a heretic...
  4861. >Even if nopony believes it, or finds your possible heresy important, they won't pass up the opportunity to seize your holdings. They can't afford not to.
  4862. "What potential benefit do I get from your paladins over hiring groups of mercenaries and adventurers?"
  4863. >"Legitimacy. Employing any warriors of -" he stares angrily at Corn Cob " - *lesser* morals would be as good as declaring your guilt."
  4864. "Perhaps so, but -"
  4865. >"Don't expect the Sun's orders to come running to your aid, merchant," Aurora Chaser adds. "If they were willing to, don't you think they would have sent more than one mare?"
  4866. >He thrusts his chin towards Gleaming Shield.
  4867. >"From what I've heard, you've served admirably," the pegasus says to her, "but you can't deny your orders won't commit more to this, or even acknowledge that you're working under orders."
  4868. >The mare shakes her head, tossing her barely-ordered blue mane into a wild tangle.
  4869. >"I'm here because I think it's the right thing to do."
  4870. >"Loyal," the older paladin comments, "and truthful, to a point. But the Sun's orders won't risk a civil war with the Moon, will they?"
  4871.  
  4872. >Shining Armor looks unsure of himself, flipping through his notes.
  4873. >"Actually... I don't... my backstory didn't take anything like this into account..."
  4874. >He stops his sputtering when your princess pushes a small notepad in front of him.
  4875. >"I guess I'll get right on that," he sighs.
  4876.  
  4877. "I understand what you're getting at paladin, but why would a civil war between the Moon's orders be any better? You can't stand with me and against your own orders, not without either you or them being branded as unfaithful traitors. And while we can *hope* it isn't you..."
  4878. >Does the rest really need to be said? With the backing of the clerics and the temples, it certainly won't be those who remained behind. They'll hold the popular support, the logistical advantage, and - despite the large number of warriors gathered around you - numerical superiority.
  4879. >”We aren’t… exactly… paladins of the Moon any longer,” Aurora Chaser says, sounding almost embarrassed. “Our orders – and our goddess – have no claim over us any longer.”
  4880. “Oh?”
  4881. >That simple word and a raised eyebrow is all it takes.
  4882. >”She…”
  4883. >For a second, you think that is as far as the paladin will be able to go.
  4884. >”I…”
  4885. >Another hesitation.
  4886. >Despite his earlier attempt to negotiate, he is clearly a warrior, not a politician, and the words are not coming easily to the stallion.
  4887. ”When the second moon rose, Her paladins weren’t the only ones at fault for what happened.”
  4888. >A provocative statement – it is not normally wise to imply to a paladin that his goddess made a mistake – but one that is open to interpretation. You believe you know what Aurora Chaser is thinking, you believe he won’t take offense.
  4889. >He does not shout or draw his weapon, does not glare angrily or even look at you at all.
  4890. >”I wasn’t part of the orders then, but... I see some of the same things happening now. The temples have changed so much since She returned to us, and it took this old stallion far too long to realize that we weren’t moving forward, we were changing *back* to the way they used to be. Entire generations have passed through Her service, and none who led the Church fifty years ago lead it now. It’s just…”
  4891. >“It’s Her nature,” Gleaming Shield finishes for him. “Hate comes naturally to those that follow the Moon.”
  4892.  
  4893. >You don’t miss the cold look Moonbeam shoots in Chrysalis’ direction.
  4894. >It’s a popular enough alternate interpretation – even ponies enjoy putting a grim, dark spin on things occasionally.
  4895. >Apparently not one Moonbeam agrees with, though. Sunny hides her feelings better than her sister – an exasperated sigh is all the clue she gives, but you can’t tell who it’s directed towards.
  4896. >While his Queen doesn’t notice either of the sister’s reactions, Dice Pool certainly does. There’s a slight twitch in the corner of his mouth, neither a smile nor a frown.
  4897.  
  4898. >”To… *some*,” Aurora Chaser corrects. “Sadly, the rest of us are finding out too late that while Her cause is our cause, Her ways are *not*. But neither do we share the methods of the Sun – I am sorry, miss, but I could never be so *passive*.”
  4899. >Gleaming Shield snarls half-heartedly at the pegasus –
  4900.  
  4901. >”Hey, you awake!?” Dice Pool shouts, throwing a wadded up piece of paper at Shining Armor’s head. “Are you just going to let that insult stand!?”
  4902. >”Yeah,” he mumbles, head buried in one of half-a-dozen books Twilight has piled in front of him. “Gleaming Shield is busy trying to figure out the political situation.”
  4903. >”Don’t you mean *you* are?”
  4904. >”That too.”
  4905.  
  4906. >”Caught between the Moon and the Sun, there is no place for warriors like me.”
  4907. “You plan to start your own order.”
  4908. >There’s no other choice, not if they want any legitimacy of their own. Not if they still wish to be something greater than lone wanderers.
  4909. >”Might as well call us the Paladins of Twilight,” the stallion sighs, “since we belong to –“
  4910.  
  4911. >”Stop that, Twily,” Shining Armor grumbles, batting your marefriend’s head with a rolled up character sheet and bringing her giggling to an abrupt stop. “Not everything is about you.”
  4912. >Pouting slightly, she resists the urge to smack him back – that path would only lead to chaos and mayhem and she knows it.
  4913. >”Well, I *know* that,” your princess snaps at her brother, settling for verbal jabs instead. “I’m named after mom, she’s not named after me!”
  4914. >Dice Pool groans, sneaking a glance at Chrysalis. She doesn’t notice, deep in conversation with Spike, probably about one of the other groups. The stallion groans again and rolls his eyes.
  4915. >”I *told* her…”
  4916.  
  4917. >” of Twilight or *DAWN*, since we belong to neither the Sun nor the Moon,” Aurora Chaser says with some odd emphasis, as if somepony – probably one of the other paladins – has had this discussion with him before. “But some of us think the stars would be a suitable symbol, one that might bring hope back to the people. The stars in the sky are disappearing, so let new stars shine here on the ground. We will fight the darkness, not each other. Let the Moon’s servants get caught up in their hateful ways – let them become what we will not – and in turn, we will be what they *cannot*.”
  4918. "Bold words, paladin."
  4919. >"Bold words for bold deeds."
  4920. >You can't argue with that - splitting off with a significant number of the Moon's paladins carries more than a few dangers, none of which you particularly want to share.
  4921. "I think you need me more than I need you, paladin."
  4922. >His mouth tightens in grim warning. Not quite anger, not yet - you're a reasonable man -
  4923.  
  4924. >"Oh?" Twilight gasps in mock surprise. "Reasonable?"
  4925. "Well, I can *pretend*."
  4926.  
  4927. > - you're a reasonable man, as is Aurora Chaser.
  4928. >He waits quietly for you to explain yourself.
  4929. >Several nearby paladins notice his body tense up and immediately halt.
  4930. >Hooves and hands don't stray near their weapons, but you don't for a second believe they aren't braced for combat.
  4931. >This was not the reaction you expected or intended.
  4932. "What I mean is, if I fail, I only fail myself."
  4933. >The elderly paladin nods once.
  4934. "But if *you* fail, you fail the world."
  4935. >Aurora Chaser sneers at your logic.
  4936. >"No pony who dies fighting the darkness falls in vain."
  4937.  
  4938. >"Wait," Twilight interrupts, looking up abruptly. "Wait. Waitwaitwait."
  4939. >"We're waiting," Dice Pool sighs, resting his head on his hooves.
  4940. >Your princess takes a breath, pausing to collect her thoughts.
  4941. >"So... are they even negotiating?" she finally asks. "Or is this just a dick measuring contest? And if so, is it between the characters or *you*?"
  4942. >"Characters."
  4943. "Definitely characters."
  4944.  
  4945. >"Well, boss?" Corn Cob chuckles. "Seems like a fair way to resolve this. I say you go through with the dog's suggestion."
  4946. "I - um - well -"
  4947.  
  4948. "First off, no. And second - I didn't even stat that!"
  4949. >"Well, you could just..." Sunny trails off, making a flopping motion with her hooves, clearly indicating things you'd rather not do.
  4950. >Because that would be weird.
  4951. >Casual nudity is one thing, but... no. Weird.
  4952. "I think I'll pass."
  4953. >From behind his screen, Dice Pool begins to chuckle.
  4954. >"Worried you'd lose?" he asks, mouth curling into a vicious smile.
  4955. >Bastard changeling can change his body at will, so fucking yeah, you'd lose.
  4956. "Of course not."
  4957. >Fuck him and his changeling ways.
  4958. >"Besides," your princess speaks up, patting your thigh with a hoof, "*nopony* is a bigger dick than Anon!"
  4959. "Don't you mean 'has'...?"
  4960. >"I meant what I said, but that too."
  4961. “Gee, thanks Twi.”
  4962.  
  4963. >The tension melts away from both the paladins and your bodyguards as you stutteringly try to explain to Corn Cob why that would just not be appropriate.
  4964. >You don’t think she actually understands, but at least she stops trying to encourage you to remove your clothes and settle this once and for all.
  4965. >Aurora Chaser has turned away from you and is waving on the others when you finally finish speaking with your hireling.
  4966. >”We can settle this later, merchant –“
  4967.  
  4968. >”In *private*…?” Sunny asks teasingly.
  4969. “No. Shut up. Go to hell.”
  4970.  
  4971. >” – but first we should see if you even have the capability of assisting us.”
  4972. >Damn.
  4973. >You’d been hoping to secure his allegiance before confronting the paladins guarding your estate, but you pushed the pegasus too far.
  4974. >He’s calling your bluff – and it *was* a bluff. If they fail, they may fail the world, but if you fail, you fail yourself.  Just like you said.
  4975. >Unfortunately, you value yourself more than the world.
  4976. >"I only hope you can control your paladins," Rock Thrower snarls at Aurora Chaser.
  4977. >Not the most diplomatic thing she could have said, but your pride appreciates her effort to regain lost ground.
  4978. >"They aren't mine to control," he casually answers. His steps strike loud on the stone road as he walks away. Two, three, four beats before he speaks again. "But they have done a remarkably good job of controlling themselves so far."
  4979.  
  4980. >"Wait, so he's *not* their leader?" Twilight asks suddenly. "I thought he was - didn't you *say* he was?"
  4981. >"Um..." A flustered Dice Pool looks down at his empty notebook briefly. "I *may* have said that, but he's not their formal leader -"
  4982.  
  4983. >"Right now, they have no order," Gleaming Shield explains to the confused Diamond Dog. "Therefore, they have no commander. Many may look to Aurora Chaser for leadership because they respect him, but he has no actual authority over any of these paladins. Nopony does, save the Celestial Guardians."
  4984. >That's not good. Not good at all.
  4985. >Would have been good information to have before spouting off to Aurora Chaser. You no longer feel particularly safe surrounded by dozens - possibly hundreds at this point - of rogue paladins that have already decided *their* personal values are more important than those of their fellows or their goddess. All it would take is one paladin deciding the world was better off without you...
  4986.  
  4987. >"I wouldn't *exactly* put it in those terms," Dice Pool interrupts, "but basically accurate."
  4988.  
  4989. >Carefully examining the faces of nearby paladins, you notice a handful that show little - if any - regret.
  4990. >Some are even grinning as if... vindicated. For what, you have no idea, but there's something about the set of their jaws that screams in triumph even as they flee from their former orders.
  4991. >Most of the paladins look worried or - possibly - even afraid. Some look regretful, particularly those whose armor and weapons bear blood that isn't theirs.
  4992. >But those few... they terrify you.
  4993. >There is nothing more unpredictable than a pony who believes his every act is justified.
  4994. >Fastball is already shadowing one of them, walking casually, but it can't be a coincidence. After the ambush in the armory, his intuition is all you need to convince you of the potential danger.
  4995. >At a gesture, your other hirelings take up a defensive formation around you.
  4996. >Weapons remain stowed – Gleaming Shield wishes to avoid violence and Corn Cob is too much of a professional to make such a suicidal mistake.
  4997. >Rock Thrower – luckily – left her catapult behind.
  4998.  
  4999. >”Hey!”
  5000.  
  5001. >”So, how do we play this?” Corn Cob asks quietly. There isn’t much hope in keeping any communication hidden from the paladins, but at the same time there is no point shouting it out for all to hear. “Stay quiet and let you do the talking?”
  5002. >It would be a novelty if your henchmen *could* keep their mouths shut, but you won’t cling to hope on that.
  5003. >Also wasn’t exactly what you had in mind.
  5004. “Not quite.”
  5005. >You nod towards Aurora Chaser.
  5006. “Stay quiet and let *him* do the talking.”
  5007. >”Are you sure about that?”
  5008. >No, of course not, but you can’t let your hirelings know that you doubt yourself.
  5009. >If they did, *they* might start doubting you.
  5010. “If he wanted us dead –“
  5011. >The tilt of the unicorn’s head and the slight smirk says more than words could ever say.
  5012. “If he wanted *me* dead, he’s had plenty of time to make that happen. Whatever the paladins want, they need me alive.”
  5013. >To your left, one of the paladins giggles.
  5014. >”Silly human,” she says, twisting her head to face you briefly. “We can always purge your evil from this world and seize your holdings ourselves.”
  5015.  
  5016. >Dice Pool looks up at the alicorn looming over him in undisguised annoyance.
  5017. >”Why, thank you, *princess*,” he tells “Celestia” in a dead voice. “I completely forgot about that and it would be a shame if my players weren’t so paranoid they accidentally started a war.”
  5018. >”Think nothing of it,” the mare responds, gently dipping her head in acknowledgement. “I only came over to bring your tea.”
  5019. >You are confused why “Princess Celestia” would bring tea for one of her staff, instead of letting Spike deliver it himself – that is, you’re confused until you notice the lack of steam curling up from the supposedly hot drink.
  5020. >Changeling trickery.
  5021. >A quick look at Chrysalis’ table reveals two steaming cups and a slightly befuddled dragon.
  5022. >”Gee, I thought I had only brought two cups,” you can hear Spike mumble to himself, but after another second or two of thought, he shrugs and scampers away with an empty tray.
  5023. >Poor guy really doesn’t have a clue.
  5024. >Dice Pool takes the cold cup from his queen – more to get her to leave than because he wants the tea he can’t drink, you suspect.
  5025. >Before she leaves the Chrysalis gives you a snide little smirk.
  5026. >”How is Abdul fitting in now?” she asks. “Just fine, I hope.”
  5027. >When nopony answers, you realize she is asking you. Her staring in your direction should have been a clue, but… not quite.
  5028. “Decent enough, I guess. Dice Pool is a decent DM.”
  5029. >You doubt her “leadership” has anything to do with this current situation, and she catches your meaning.
  5030. >With a derisive snort, the mare spins away and heads back to her own table.
  5031. >Dice Pool watches Chrysalis leave.
  5032. >Admiring the view, you assume.
  5033. >”It was her idea, you know,” he whispers once she’s some distance away.
  5034. >Ah, good; that’s what he was watching her for.
  5035. >That’s far less disturbing, since isn’t she his mom or something?
  5036. >You don’t really know how changeling reproduction works, nor do you want to know.
  5037. “How much did you have to adapt?”
  5038. >Probably everything.
  5039. >”None. I told you she’s great at planning and logistics.”
  5040. >Right. Things only fall apart when she gets directly involved.
  5041. >Maybe Chrysalis has some skills after all.
  5042.  
  5043. >”So… are you going to push us any further?” the female paladin asks with a wide grin.
  5044. “I think we can avoid any unpleasantness.”
  5045. >They have you trapped.
  5046.  
  5047. >”Dammit, she’s railroading us,” Twilight hisses softly to you.
  5048. “Annoying, isn’t it?”
  5049. >”Only when it’s somepony else doing it!”
  5050. >At least she somewhat admitted that she tries to railroad her games. Kind of.
  5051. >”Now, now…” Dice Pool chides your princess. “Your characters aren’t being forced into anything. Well, they are, but you *chose* to accept the paladins’ help.”
  5052.  
  5053. >”Did you really think we would help you for free?” the mare laughs.
  5054. “Yes, you’re paladins. Isn’t that what you do – save people, protect the innocent, all that kind of stuff.”
  5055. >She shrugs, though the gesture is mostly hidden by her armor and cloak.
  5056. >”Maybe, but you aren’t exactly innocent, are you?” she points out. “This is about doing the most good, and if that means evil must suffer…”
  5057. >Because the paladin’s hood hides most of her face, only her muzzle is visible, emphasizing the malicious smirk.
  5058. >”Hopefully it won’t be *too* painful for you,” she snarks. “Spending some of your wealth to stay alive, I mean.”
  5059. >When you don’t respond, the paladin snorts and trots away quickly.
  5060. >She must have grown tired of taunting you.
  5061. >You continue on in silence – there really is no point in intentionally or accidentally antagonizing the paladins any further. Rock Thrower tries to speak, but a harsh look brings that to a halt.
  5062. >She’s hurt, but you don’t want her discussing escape plans and the like while surrounded by potential enemies.
  5063. >It’s better if your minion keeps those ideas to herself for now. Discussion and preparation isn’t always possible, so you’ll simply have to trust her instructions if and when the time comes.
  5064. >You don’t have to walk too much further before the still-mangled gates of your estate are in sight. *Some* rudimentary repairs have been done – the bars have been pushed back into place, if not actually straightened, and they are once again hanging from their hinges.
  5065. >Though they serve their purpose once again, they’ll have to be scrapped and replaced.
  5066. >It will be cheaper than actually restoring them.
  5067. >A small delegation of paladins stands on the other side, waiting to meet Aurora Chaser as he moves ahead.
  5068. >The rest of the renegades hang back, letting the elderly pegasus meet their loyalist fellows on his own. They don’t want this to be seen as an attack.
  5069. >At your side, Gleaming Shield chuckles softly, finding some humor in Aurora Chaser talking to your estate’s guardians on his own. Perhaps because it *is* almost an exact reversal of her defense of the gate.
  5070. >Excluding the large number of warriors standing ready to support the lone paladin, of course.
  5071. >You can’t understand what is said –
  5072.  
  5073. >“Want to move closer?” your DM asks eagerly. “Since everypony botched their Listen checks, that’s the only way you’ll be able to hear.”
  5074. >”I think not,” Sunny answers immediately, frowning at the map Dice Pool had set out. “Unless…?”
  5075. >She looks questioningly at her sister.
  5076.  
  5077. >In the crowd, you’ve lost track of Fastball.
  5078. >Quite a feat, considering he literally stands head and shoulders (and waist) above most of the others.
  5079. >There are a few humans and minotaurs amongst the paladins, but none with the same lithe build.
  5080. >For a second, you worry that the damnable ninja has run off again. You frantically look around, trying to find the same escape route he used. If you can escape, you can rebuild your fortune somewhere else. After all, not all of your possessions are located here –
  5081.  
  5082. >“There’s *another* armory somewhere?” Shining Armor interrupts with wide eyes.
  5083. “Not quite, but…”
  5084. >You pass him a page from your inventory.
  5085. “Check Appendix C, under Distribution of Income.”
  5086. >He only takes a brief glance at the sheet before passing it back.
  5087. >”Cleaver, so the hospitals and temples you’ve funded are also your backup plan.”
  5088. “Yep. Even a level one clerk can be a formidable opponent if given the right equipment, but –“
  5089.  
  5090. > - but you don’t see anything. No escape routes, no signs of Fastball’s flight.
  5091. >The panic lasts only for seconds.
  5092. >Fastball didn’t desert you before. Undoubtedly he didn’t now.
  5093. >Still, you feel ill at ease. Wherever the mercenary went, you are now one bodyguard short. If anything goes wrong –
  5094.  
  5095. >”Hey, good idea,” Dice Pool laughs. “Roll for Surprise!”
  5096. >How many times do you have to remind yourself?
  5097. >*Never* give the DM ideas.
  5098. >Your d20 goes skittering along the table and ricocheting off a few books.
  5099. >”Close,” your DM says grudgingly. “Very close, but not good enough.”
  5100.  
  5101. >A sudden feeling of overwhelming terror chills your spine.
  5102. >You *almost* regret not wearing your brown pants when Fastball appears beside you.
  5103. >Almost.
  5104. >“Good news,” the mercenary hisses into your ear. “Some of our ‘friends’ are already inside.”
  5105. “And by ‘friends,’ you mean…?”
  5106. >“One of the assassins that almost got you and -”
  5107.  
  5108. “Just one?”
  5109. >You look to Dice Pool for confirmation – Moonbeam might be the one giving *you* the info, but it never hurts to check with the source.
  5110. >Doesn’t necessarily help, either.
  5111. >Smug bastard just grins and shrugs.
  5112. >”That is what his note said,” Moonbeam says. She moves to slide the scrap of paper across to you, but a wave of your hand stops her.
  5113. “No need for that, I was only curious.”
  5114. >You glance over at Applejack’s table casually.
  5115. >The other two assassins where from the same party, so it has to be her.
  5116. >As you expected, she’s watching your table intently, bottom lip clutched between her teeth in worry.
  5117. >That last part… not quite so expected.
  5118. >She thinks you’re going to fuck this up.
  5119. >Or if not you, then somepony else.
  5120. “So, what else did Fastball overhear…?”
  5121.  
  5122. >”They know you’ve escaped,” the ninja says quietly. “That assassin must have warned them. We need to get out of here *now*.”
  5123. >Before this place erupts into all-out war.
  5124. >He doesn’t say it, but he doesn’t have to.
  5125. >”You don’t seem to have much faith in our allies,” Gleaming Shield whispers back. “They risked their lives for Abdul –“
  5126. >”These paladins risked their lives for themselves,” Fastball counters. “Abdul doesn’t owe them –“
  5127. >Indeed not, though you haven’t the slightest idea how to slip free, particularly when your hushed conversation has already begun attracting suspicious looks.
  5128. “She doesn’t mean the paladins.”
  5129. >Gleaming Shield *might*, actually, but you don’t care.
  5130. “The assassin might have made an attempt on my life, but she did her best to take me alive even when the other two disagreed. And her companions –”
  5131.  
  5132. >”Wait, do *you* know about the rest of her party?” Twilight asks curiously. “I mean, does Abdul?”
  5133. “No, but he’s going to make some educated guesses.”
  5134.  
  5135. “I assume they were amongst the adventurers you brought to my rescue?”
  5136. >Fastball slowly nods.
  5137. >”So…?” he asks guardedly. The ninja obviously has an idea of what you’re about to do, and even more obviously doesn’t like it. “I didn’t force them to come.”
  5138. “You promised them payment, even though I never authorized you to make such a deal.”
  5139. >”Then it’s all on me,” he argues. “You can flee without worrying about your reputation. Luckily, I don’t give a damn about mine.”
  5140. “No, you were in my employ.”
  5141. >Fastball curses softly, turning to look at the gate.
  5142. >”Well, they betrayed you by warning those other paladins,” he points out, thrusting his chin towards the ponies Aurora Chaser is talking with. “Any deal we had with them is void.”
  5143. >”Somehow, I doubt it’s that simple,” Rock Thrower chimes in. “Remember, they helped us with our plan. Why would they be *against* us now?”
  5144. “And if they are, why aren’t they at the gates?”
  5145. >Your hirelings both shrug – Rock Thrower doesn’t have a clue and Fastball just doesn’t care.
  5146. “I think…”
  5147. >Ignoring Corn Cob’s protests, you push your way through your bodyguards and towards the gate.
  5148. “I think I’m going to go find out.”
  5149. >They follow, of course.
  5150. >Good.
  5151. >You’re all-too aware of the risk you’re taking, walking amongst the paladins like this.
  5152. >Some watch you curiously, others with the dead eyes of ponies that have given up. A few faces twist in undisguised repulsion, but most of the warriors seem content to wait and see what happens.
  5153. >With every step, this idea seems like the worst idea you’ve ever had.
  5154. >Just stay quiet, bankroll the separatist paladins... it’s not your fault if some of them die.
  5155. >A lot of things aren’t your fault.
  5156. >Doesn’t stop them from being bad for your sales.
  5157. >Sometimes, it takes the guiding hand of a businessman to make things run smoothly.
  5158. >Aurora Chaser mouth snaps shut at your approach.
  5159. >Perhaps he heard your steps or smelled you. Maybe the paladins he’s talking to said something.
  5160. >It doesn’t matter.
  5161. >”I thought you were going to leave the talking to him,” Gleaming Shield reminds you – a last ditch attempt to keep you out of danger.
  5162. “I was.”
  5163. >And with that, you step out of the crowd.
  5164.  
  5165. “It’s not very heroic to leave everything to the NPCs, and since nopony else was stepping up…”
  5166. >Moonbeam and Shining Armor groan in unison.
  5167. >”Look, I would do it,” Shining Armor sighs, “but…”
  5168. “I know, relations between the two sides of the church are already strained. If you went up there to support the renegades, it would end in bloodshed.”
  5169. >”And we cannot do it, being only mercenaries,” Moonbeam grumbles, “and thus with no authority.”
  5170. “Exactly.”
  5171.  
  5172. “Stay back. One old man won’t be seen as a threat.”
  5173. >You hope.
  5174. >Besides, if things do go south now, a handful of minions won’t be enough to save you.
  5175. “How is Doom Eater doing?”
  5176. >You question catches both sides off guard.
  5177. >The shock of it even knocks the furious look off Aurora Chaser’s face for a few seconds.
  5178. “That was his name, right?”
  5179. >”W-well, I assume,” one of the paladins answers.
  5180. “Oh, so he’s not here? I had heard one of the assassins was still here – I just assumed it had to be him.”
  5181. >The paladins standing watch over your estate exchange confused looks.
  5182. >”Existential Dredd is within…” another one answers hesitantly.
  5183. “I hadn’t realized her wounds were so severe! Can I see her?”
  5184.  
  5185. >”What’re you playing at, Anon?” Sunny asks, her head tilted to one side curiously. “Trying to remind them that you’re not all that horrible?”
  5186. “You’ll see.”
  5187.  
  5188. >The paladin’s eyes widen in surprise.
  5189. >”That’s not necessary,” a third answers quickly. “She’s fully recovered.”
  5190. >You hadn’t expected to get inside immediately, but it’s still annoying.
  5191. “Well, I’m glad to hear it. Her companions as well, I assume?”
  5192. >”They were uninjured.”
  5193. “Good. Is there *any* way I can see them?”
  5194. >”Why, merchant?” one of them growls.
  5195. “I believe this *is* still my home. What kind of host would I be if I did not great them in person? I am already remiss in my duties.”
  5196. >Hopefully, your staff have seen to everypony’s needs; you would hate to be accused of being a poor host in addition to being a heretic.
  5197. “Besides, I owe them a debt and would like to repay it.”
  5198. >Some of the paladins waver, as you knew they would.
  5199. >Talk about oaths and duty and obligation and they’ll keel over.
  5200. >Not so different from talking to the ladies – all you have to do is change the words.
  5201.  
  5202. >“Are you saying you mess around with other mares on the side?” Shining Armor asks. He tries to lean towards you menacingly, but Twilight’s flailing hooves drive him back.
  5203. >”Oh, *please*!” your marefriend laughs. “As if!”
  5204. >It warms your heart, knowing she trusts you so much.
  5205. >”*Nopony would *ever* fall for any of Anon’s cheesy pickup lines!”
  5206. >Or maybe she just thinks you’re incompetent.
  5207. >It’s okay, you didn’t deserve self-esteem anyway.
  5208. >"Nopony?" Moonbeam asks casually, looking away in poorly-faked boredom. "Except you, I presume?"
  5209. >Twilight doesn’t collapse into incoherent stuttering like you expect, instead drawing herself up proudly.
  5210. >”He fell for *my* cheesy pickup line,” she insists with a wide smile.
  5211. >Not quite exactly how it happened – you seem to recall lots of crying and angry words and less cheese. No pickup lines.
  5212. >But, hell, this makes for a better story.
  5213. >At least, a more family-friendly story.
  5214. “Don’t let appearances fool you, *Shiny*. Twi’s always been the one in charge.”
  5215. >Your princess looks up with a gasp, bravado quickly masking her surprise with a victorious grin. Not quick enough to stop you from seeing it.
  5216. >She *never* thought you’d ever call him “Shiny.”
  5217. >Silly little pony.
  5218. “Just remember – she’s in charge, so anything that goes wrong is *her* fault!”
  5219. >Maybe you shouldn’t wear this armor too often.
  5220. >It makes your mouth run a little too free, knowing that nopony can actually smack you for anything you say.
  5221. >Case in point: Twi only makes a half-hearted attempt to kick you. The blow barely even registers on the armor.
  5222. >”Now, now, Twilight,” Sunny Smiles – no, Celestia – chides sternly. “He may be joking, but you have to accept that kind of responsibility if you truly wish to be a great princess.”
  5223. >She’s not acting right now, unless she’s channeling one of Russ’s bizarre out-of-character lessons.
  5224. >”This is what leadership is like,” Celestia continues. “Not only do you bear the burden of your own mistakes, but the mistakes of others.”
  5225. >Dammit, why does that bitch always have to turn everything into a sermon?
  5226. “Speaking of that, I think it’s time Abdul fixed a few.”
  5227.  
  5228. “Would you stand between me and my debts, paladins?”
  5229. >You cross your arms over your chest, staring down at them sternly.
  5230. >They waver, but not for long.
  5231. >”Never let it be said the Moon stopped a man from attempting to redeem himself,” one of them snarls.
  5232. >The paladins pull the gates open for you to enter, and wave Aurora Chaser through as well.
  5233. >”Come, brother,” the apparent leader of the group sighs. “We may as well be comfortable while we discuss this. As for you, Mister Goldberg...”
  5234. >He looks questioningly at his fellows.
  5235. >A largish pegasus gives the leader a nod.
  5236. >”… Sky Anvil will lead you to Eternal Dredd and her companions,” the paladin says.
  5237.  
  5238. >”You can go over *there* now,” Dice Pool grunts, waving a hoof in the general direction of your friends’ table. “And it would be *great* if one of *you* could somehow get involved in this!”
  5239. >Twilight jumps as the DM brings his hoof down on the table.
  5240. >”Kind of hard to run a game when it’s just the npcs doing anything,” he whines. “I might as well just be writing a novel with Anon gone.
  5241. “*Obviously* Fastball is going to use his ninja skills to shadow me, so –”
  5242. >”No,” Moonbeam answers flatly. “I’m following Aurora Chaser.”
  5243. >Dice Pool smiles victoriously – smug bastard – and waves towards Applejack’s table again.
  5244. >”Go ‘way now,” he instructs. “I have a new toy to play with!”
  5245.  
  5246. >If they weren’t paladins, you’d be a little worried about being alone with one of them right now. If it was anypony else, you’d assume they are planning to make you “disappear”.
  5247. >Even so, you wish somepony was here to watch your back.
  5248. >Sky Anvil is content to let you take the lead – it’s your home, after all, and you know it better than him.
  5249. >Perhaps he’s simply being polite, but it’s still unnerving having an armed stallion following behind you.
  5250. >One not in your employ, that is.
  5251. >He barely speaks, and only then to tell you where you can find the assassin.
  5252. >You do not believe you need an escort to find your own study.
  5253.  
  5254. >Ponka waves wildly as you approach the table, Applejack’s own greeting only barely more subdued.
  5255. >”Dang, Ah was almost figurin’ you’d *never* get yer butt over here!”
  5256. >”Indeed,” Rarity says indignantly. “Do you have *any* idea how long we have been waiting for you?”
  5257. >Her tone would probably have more of an effect on you if she wasn’t still wearing that bizarre cross between a schoolgirl outfit and police uniform.
  5258. “Really? Waiting for me?”
  5259. >”Well, waiting for *somepony*,” she grudgingly admits. “But we all just knew it had to be you.”
  5260. >"I told them we could continue..."
  5261. >At first, you think Fluttershy is talking - it *has* to be, nopony else talks that softly. But the hint of a backbone makes you look at her in surprise.
  5262. >She has to have been drinking, otherwise she would *never* dare to make a suggestion that goes against her friends' wishes.
  5263. >Fluttershy meets your eyes for only a second - that's all it takes for her to squeak awkwardly and look away.
  5264. >"... but *no*, they just had to meet up with your group," the not-Fluttershy sighs.
  5265. >It's definitely not the pegasus.
  5266. >"Uh, yeah..." Applejack says, waving to get your attention and then pointing to her right. "Fer a while, Ah kept thinkin' it was Fluttershy talkin', too."
  5267. >Your eyes follow her hoof, landing on an unassuming grey mare. Even looking right at her, it's hard to acknowledge her existence - she's just too *plain*.
  5268. >Even for a pony, who - if you're being honest - all look pretty damn similar already.
  5269. >"Sorry I'm not obnoxiously loud like *some* of the other dungeonmasters," the mare snaps, adjusting her bottlecap glasses.
  5270. >Damn things look thick enough to offer about as much protection as your power armor.
  5271. >Who the hell has ever heard of a changeling with vision problems? Can't she just... *fix* it?
  5272. >If not, she should at least get those glasses fixed.
  5273. >Not even half a second has passed, as she's already pushing them up again.
  5274. "Not a fan of Dice Pool, I gather?"
  5275. >"I... wouldn't go *that* far," she mumbles, trying to hide a blush behind her limp mane. "It's just hard to run a game with everypony else trying to be damn drama whores."
  5276. >"I do so hope you are *not* including us in that," Rarity gasps, pressing a hoof to her chest. "Because *I* -"
  5277. >She cuts off with an indignant snort, her one visible eye narrowing angrily at Aredee.
  5278. >You don't look down in time to see what the pegasus was doing, but from her innocent smile and pathetic attempt to whistle aimlessly, it couldn't have been anything good.
  5279. >"See?" the DM sighs. "This is why I hate players."
  5280. >She stops talking just long enough to push her glasses up for the third time.
  5281. >"Let's just get on with it." She thrusts a hoof out towards you expectantly. "Well?"
  5282. "Yes...?"
  5283. >She wiggles her hoof impatiently.
  5284. >"Your character sheet. Let me see it."
  5285. "I... uh..."
  5286. >You forgot it. Shit.
  5287. "I expected to roleplay through this."
  5288. >You shrug slightly, though the shoulder pads of your armor exaggerate the motion.
  5289. "If Abdul ends up in combat, he's already a dead man."
  5290. >"Don't tempt me," the DM snarls. Do you see fangs? You think you see fangs. "Though you *do* get bonus points for trying to roleplay."
  5291. >Another pause to halt her glasses' slide.
  5292. >"Stats just get in the way of the *actual* roleplaying, don't you think?" the mare smirks at you, possibly thinking she's finally found a kindred spirit.
  5293. "They're useful."
  5294. >"Oh."
  5295. >She fidgets uncomfortably.
  5296. >Dammit - as amusing as it is, pissing off the DM is never a good way to start things.
  5297. "It's a roleplaying *game* after all, and... well..."
  5298. >There's not much point finishing that sentence. You can tell from her resigned expression that she just doesn't care.
  5299. >"Fine, let's just get on with this."
  5300.  
  5301. >Sky Anvil pushes past you unexpectedly and shoves the door to your study open.
  5302. >"He came," the paladin tells the group, "just as you said he would."
  5303. >He's acting completely different from earlier. Now, with the other paladins elsewhere, he seems less confident.
  5304. >Not just because he's away from his fellows - from the way he defers to the adventurers, something else is at play.
  5305. >Only now do you realize just how young Sky Anvil is. His earlier stoicism combined with his size hid it from you, but now that you've had a good look at the stallion, you suspect he's barely old enough to have taken the paladins' oath.
  5306. >"Still doubting us?" a bard admonishes with surprising familiarity. "Since when have we ever led you astray?"
  5307. >The paladin isn’t the only thing she’s overly familiar with.
  5308. >Damn bard is lounging with her hooves up on one of your sofas, and its leather cushions are scuffed to hell already.
  5309. >The warcleric sitting beside her isn’t doing it any good either, her armor gouging ugly scratches in the finished surface.
  5310. >As much as it infuriates you, it would not be diplomatic to bring it up.
  5311. >Anyway, like the gate, the sofa is already a total loss. Let them do what they will to it.
  5312. >”Never, Auntie Flare,” the paladin smiles bashfully, drawing a laugh from the white stallion –
  5313.  
  5314. “Stallion!?”
  5315. >Pretty sure you wrote up Durararog as a mare.
  5316. >Pretty fucking sure.
  5317. >”I do hope you don’t mind,” Rarity titters guiltily from behind a raised hoof. “Without Paladin, I felt our party was… oh, how shall I put this…?”
  5318. >”A total taco fiesta?” Dash answers with a smirk.
  5319. >”Oooooh, a clam carnival?” Ponks suggests eagerly.
  5320. >”Both of you can go die in a fire, if you would be so kind.”
  5321.  
  5322. >Sky Anvil fiddles with the collar of his cloak, trying to hide his embarrassment. The colt is still too young to realize his nervous habits only draw the very attention he is trying to avoid.
  5323.  
  5324. “So…”
  5325. >The grey mare looks at you expectantly.
  5326. >Probably just wants to get this over with so she can go home to her… uh… whatever meganerds like her do without computers.
  5327. >”Out with it,” she barks.
  5328. “… what badge is he wearing on his collar?”
  5329.  
  5330. >The cloth is dimpled – you can clearly see where his order’s pin used to sit.
  5331. >Used to.
  5332.  
  5333. >Fuck yeah, you were right – she *didn’t* make you roll for it!
  5334. >Also, your suspicion about Sky Anvil not wearing a badge.
  5335. >But mostly the other thing.
  5336. >Having a crazy-ass roleplayer as the DM *does* have some advantages.
  5337. >Your eyes flicker towards the assassin standing by your desk. Unlike the paladin, she still wears all the symbols of her faith, as does the warcleric.
  5338. >Whatever is happening, it seems to be an internal dispute. If it had spread to the clerics’ and assassins’ orders, you doubt these three could safely remain in the same. Not from what you saw at the temple.
  5339. >The stallion standing behind the bard – Flare, if you heard the paladin correctly –
  5340.  
  5341. >”Dude, you *know* my character’s name,” Dash scoffs. “You fucking wrote her up for me!”
  5342. >The DM moans like a dying man, her eyes rolling back in her head so far, you wonder if she might be possessed.
  5343. >Or just freely using her changeling powers to show just how annoyed she is with your friend.
  5344. >Probably that, considering she didn’t bother to hide her fangs.
  5345. >*Really* not very subtle.
  5346. >If all changelings are like this, it’s no surprise they never managed to take over Equestria.
  5347. >”He does,” she growls into the sky – softly, but with undeniable fire, “however –“
  5348. “Abdul doesn’t.”
  5349. >You give the mare a nod when her head snaps back up in surprise.
  5350. “I only said stats had their place, not that they are more important than roleplaying. So, unless Mercury Flare’s fame is beyond legend…”
  5351.  
  5352. >The name sounds remotely familiar, like you’ve heard it somewhere before.
  5353. >But only in passing. Perhaps she played at one of your favored dining establishments, but just was not skilled enough to be memorable.
  5354.  
  5355. >“Hey!”
  5356. ”Hey what?”
  5357. >Ponka giggles, grabbing the pegasus before she can crawl onto the table – probably to do another failed air guitar stance.
  5358. >”Remember Mercury Flare’s first performance?” Panto laughs in her friend’s ear.
  5359. >”Hey, the performance was great!” Aredee argues, struggling to free herself from her friend’s grip. “It was the speech that stucked!”
  5360. “Yeaaaah, you have a point.”
  5361. >”Too bad yer speech didn’t have one,” Applejack guffaws. “We woulda had an army!”
  5362. >The DM – damn, you have to learn her name at some point – sits up a little straighter, suddenly more interested in the game. Maybe even the players, too.
  5363. “To be fair, AJ, her speech *did* have a point.”
  5364. >Aredee stops struggling against Ponka and collapses with her forelegs outstretched on the table.
  5365. >”Too bad it was ‘OH SHIT, WE’RE FUCKED!” she wails.
  5366. “Bingo. Anyway…”
  5367.  
  5368. >The stallion standing behind the bard looks more out of place than anypony else in the room, even including the priestess of the sun who hops out of nowhere to fuss over the paladin like an overprotective mother. He looks just as grizzled and experienced a veteran as the others – more, actually – but where the others are relaxed, he looms protectively over the mare. Despite his appearance, you instinctively peg him as the weakest member of the group.
  5369. >You can’t say why.
  5370. >You just know.
  5371.  
  5372. “Dash… you took an NPC follower?”
  5373. >”Mhm!” she grunts happily. “I mean, you’re using NPC classes, so I figured…”
  5374. >The pegasus shrugs.
  5375. >Oh, gods, you want to laugh so badly.
  5376. >She didn’t have a fucking clue what you were doing, so she just grabbed an NPC to back her up.
  5377. >Of course Dash would do that, since she only really pays attention to them when Twily is using them to kick everypony’s ass.
  5378. >”Twilight gave me her NPC notes from *that* game, and –“
  5379. “Twilight gave you her notes!? Twilight!? Twilight Sparkle!?”
  5380. >The other ponies are looking at Dash in various states of confusion, ranging from doubtful to totally lost. The DM tries to fake bland apathy, but it’s ruined by the way she leans forward to hear every word.
  5381. >”Just the notes on two of ‘em, really,” your friend admits. “Did you know that pegasus that died defending me had a *name*!?”
  5382. “Well… yeah.”
  5383. >Twilight names *all* of her NPCs.
  5384. >More than a little overboard, you think.
  5385. >”*And* that his family was still alive?”
  5386. “Yeah.”
  5387. >Dash crosses her forelegs in irritation.
  5388. >”Well, fuck,” she grumbles. “If I had known sleeping with Twilight would get us inside information, I would have –“
  5389. >”As if she woulda wanted to,” Applejack laughs. “That mare’s smart enough to…”
  5390. >She drifts off, chuckling nerviously.
  5391. >”Uh, nevermahnd that.”
  5392. “ANYWAY, DASH, why are you bringing this up?”
  5393. >The pegasus hesitates, caught between-expressions. She's trying to appear proud and haughty, while at the same time staring angrily at AJ.
  5394. >Basically, she looks like she has to sneeze.
  5395. >Pride wins out in the end. Dash can be pissed at AJ any day, but knowing something you don't?
  5396. >That's a once in a lifetime opportunity for her.
  5397. >Poor Dash.
  5398. >"Well..." she smirks, "he's the other one."
  5399. >The one who dragged her away from danger when she was unconscious, you assume. He was the only other pony NPC that stood out in that game.
  5400. >"Did Twilight tell you his name, too?" Dash asks, nudging your leg with her knee. "I bet she didn't!"
  5401. >Okay, now she's getting a little *too* proud. There's no way you're going to admit that Twi didn't tell you *everything*. Not now.
  5402. "And I bet you changed his name, didn't you?"
  5403. >"What!? No, Furious Mentor is awesome! Why would I change it!"
  5404. >Why *wouldn't* she change it...?
  5405. >Sometimes, you think Twilight is a little *too* insistent on naming every NPC. She's run out of good names, unless she wants to start recycling them.
  5406. >"As *interesting* as this is," the DM sighs, with a little too much sarcasm for you to actually believe it, "could we get on with the game?"
  5407. >"Got someplace to be?" Ponka asks curiously, half-crawling on to the table. "Is it a party!?"
  5408. >The grey mare smiles in victory - or grimaces. Probably both. She seems like the kind of mare that wants attention, but doesn't want to admit it. Whichever expression it is, it causes her glasses to slip down again. She pushes them back up before answering.
  5409. >"Yes," she snarls. "To both."
  5410. >"Ooooooh." Ponka sits back suddenly, pulling a planner from whothefuckknowswhere and a pencil from the same place. "Is it your birthday, Novella!? I hope it's your birthday! I LOVE birthdays!"
  5411. >The mare – Novella, you assume from what Ponks said – jerks back, startled by Pinkie’s enthusiasm.
  5412. >”Um, no. Just – nevermind.”
  5413. >Pinkie’s face falls, but she puts away the planner without pressing the issue.
  5414. >A clear warning sign of a spontaneous surprise party in the making, but the DM doesn’t know Ponks well enough to recognize it.
  5415. >Otherwise, she might start running.
  5416. >Hell, being a changeling, she might even be able to escape her fate by assuming a different identity.
  5417. >It’s possible.
  5418. >Not *probable,* but possible.
  5419. >“I *do* hate to rush anypony, but I believe our dungeonmaster has her priorities straight,” Rarity consoles her friend. “It appears some of the others are close to finishing, and I would *hate* to keep everypony here just because we were distracted.”
  5420. >The unicorn’s eyes dart repeatedly towards a clock mounted on the far wall, but it’s not *that* late. Nopony is keeling over from exhaustion – hell, some of them probably woke up only a few hours ago.
  5421. >You, on the other hand, have been up all day.
  5422. >And it hasn’t exactly been an easy day.
  5423. >Physically, sure – you’re wearing fucking power armor. That makes all kinds of things easy.
  5424. >But emotionally, it’s been... fun.
  5425. >For certain dwarf-based definitions of that word.
  5426. >You’re more than willing to get things back on track.
  5427. >Ponks doesn’t look like she’s going to argue with Rara – no, she has a disturbing gleam in her eyes.
  5428. >Dash is as clueless as ever, frowning and whining like a little bitch.
  5429. >”Fiiiiiine.”
  5430.  
  5431. >The stallion behind the bard is oddly dressed – embroidered on his overcoat are both the Sun and the Moon. He’s not clergy or a paladin or a member of *any* of the church’s orders, from what you can see. Most likely a laypony, you assume.
  5432.  
  5433. “Preacher NPC class, but no religious affiliation?”
  5434. >”Basically.”
  5435.  
  5436. >Surrounding those two symbols are stars – the same four pointed stars some of the paladins outside are wearing – of varying sizes and shades. Some bear tiny details – a tiny pair of wings, or an odd twist of one of the points.
  5437. >Two of them are significantly larger than the rest, one bearing broken wings, the other – almost large enough to rival the Sun and Moon – encapsulates a short blade.
  5438. >”One star for everypo – every*body* that died fighting the darkness that day,” he rumbles, noticing your eyes lingering on the garment. “Even the darkin and the… the human.”
  5439. >”Heroes can come from any background, merchant. It’s why we are willing to give you a chance,” the white stallion explains in a – if you’re honest with yourself – a terrifyingly polite tone. Like somepony who knows the laws of mortals only apply to him because he allows them to. “My name is Durararog, and I – we – believe you may be of use.”
  5440. >They think they can use you.
  5441. >How amusing.
  5442. "Need help with your own escape? I have several experts right outside -"
  5443. >"Not quite," Durararog interrupts. "I'm sure the renegade paladins won't hinder us if we choose to leave."
  5444. >Not what you meant, but it answers your question nonetheless. They *aren't* being held prisoner by the paladins sent to guard your estate.
  5445. >From the way Sky Anvil and the laypony are dressed, they might not be devout loyalists either.
  5446. >As for the others, you are beginning to suspect their long conversation with Aurora Chaser was just a stalling tactic.
  5447. >"We can end this here," Dredd tells you firmly. "That's why we wanted to speak with you alone.'
  5448. >Ah, it was.
  5449. >That leads to an uncomfortable thought: Aurora Chaser might be in on it.
  5450. >And if *he* isn't the one leading this little rebellion...
  5451. "Good, I also wished to speak to the pony in charge of this..."
  5452. >It wouldn't be polite to call it a rebellion.
  5453. >"... this *crusade*."
  5454.  
  5455. >"OH, IT'S A CRUSADE, IS IT!?" Sunny shouts, having overheard you despite being all the fucking way over there at a completely different table. That bitch loves meddling way too much. "TELL ME, ANON, IS IT GREAAAAAAAAT!?"
  5456. >Godsdammit, you had just gotten your DM to actually show some interest in the game, and *of course* Celestia just had to butt in.
  5457. >Even if you did get back home somehow - if you even wanted to - Celestia would probably still find a way to interfere in your life.
  5458. >"MEH, IT'S ALRIGHT!" Ponks screams back when you don't answer immediately. "NEEDS MORE CAKE!"
  5459. >"EVERYTHING NEEDS MORE CAKE!"
  5460. >"This is why I hate players," Novella mutters, scowling at everypony like they had personally wronged her in some way. Or maybe she just has her muzzle scrunched up like that to keep her glasses from slipping. "You ponies *never* take things seriously."
  5461. >"Hey! Ah think we're takin' things plenty seriously!" Applejack pauses, looking across the table to Ponks. "Most of us, anyhow."
  5462. >"Oh, please," the DM grumbles. "This entire little fiasco is silly. Don't tell me you actually believe that stuff about the stars."
  5463. "Why wouldn't we? Just ask your queen."
  5464. >You fling a clawed hand in "Celestia's" directiooooohfuck.
  5465. >"Why would she know?" Novella scoffs. "She and Six Sider -"
  5466. >The mare suddenly stops talking, her face frozen in what is probably the same expression you're currently making.
  5467. >"Oh," Fluttershy gasps from the far end of the table. "Princess Celestia *isn't* Six Sider...?"
  5468. >"More importantly, sugarcube, she ain't a queen."
  5469. >Applejack noticed your slip up. Shit.
  5470. "Sorry, should I have called her a tyrant instead?"
  5471. >"Well, I mean, maybe...?" Novella stutters, feebly attempting to cover up her own mistake. Ineffectually, just as you suspected.
  5472. >Rarity's head jerks towards the DM, eyebrow raised in suspicion.
  5473. >"*Maybe*?"
  5474. >Godsdammit, you have to fix everything around here.
  5475. "No 'maybe' about it. The setting is intentionally vague about the stars!"
  5476. >The fashionista gives you her best “you’re totally missing the point” glare.
  5477. “Just ask *Princess* -“
  5478. >You spit out the word like it’s a slur.
  5479. “- Celestia. She wrote the damn thing, even if she did have some help.”
  5480. >Speaking of missing the point, the DM scowls even harder at you.
  5481. >It’s *possible* she’s playing along.
  5482. >Anything is possible.
  5483. >Fucking Space Marines might drop out of the sky right now and start praying to you.
  5484. >You wait two heartbeats.
  5485. >No Space Marines.
  5486. >Fine.
  5487. >Fuck it.
  5488. “Look, the point is she left up to the players to decide.”
  5489. >Fluttershy is still looking a little confused, but that’s basically her default expression whenever she isn’t looking sad. Dash’s eyes are glazed over like the usually are when there isn’t something to fight.
  5490. >The others look like they’ve lost interest in your mistakes – maybe, it *is* always hard to tell with Ponka.
  5491. >”Or the DM,” Novella counters, her glasses slipping slight with every twitch of her muzzle. “If players are so infallible, there wouldn’t have to be somepony to babysit you.”
  5492. >She has to stop talking to push her glasses back up.
  5493. “Honestly, it isn’t even important what we think –“
  5494. >”It ain’t?”
  5495. “Of course not, AJ. It doesn’t matter what *we* believe, only what our characters believe. We’re just trying to roleplay this, Nov.”
  5496. >She snorts angrily, though because she disagrees or because you shortened her name, you’re not s-
  5497. >”Fine,” Novella grumbles. “Then stop talking to me and roleplay this, if you even *can*.”
  5498.  
  5499. >”You think *we* are leading this?” the barbarian asks with a faint air of amusement. “I don’t believe you quite understand what’s going on here.”
  5500. “Well, if those paladins are doing *your* bidding…”
  5501. >You extend an open hand out towards the adventurers.
  5502. >Even illiterate fools like them should be able to follow that line of thought.
  5503. >Or not.
  5504. >The barbarian finally lets out a chuckle. Not long, not loud, but enough to sting.
  5505. >”We aren’t ‘doing their bidding,’ as you put it,” Sky Anvil answers for him, “but we respect their opinions.”
  5506. >As if that’s any different.
  5507. “Then if you’re not the leaders, who is?”
  5508.  
  5509. >”And what does this have to do with that stupid myth?” Novella sighs. “Or are you just going to give up on that?”
  5510. >”Our characters were in the middle of a conversation,” Rarity scolds the grey mare. “Would it be ‘in character’ –“
  5511. >Wow, she even does the little air quotes thing with her forehooves.
  5512. >Rarity is *pissed*.
  5513. >” – for our characters to suddenly start debating religion in the middle of a potential war?”
  5514. >Novella’s face twitches.
  5515. >If she’s going to launch into another tantrum –
  5516. >”Fine.”
  5517. >Maybe she’s learning.
  5518. >Maybe Emps don’t gotta slap a bitch after all.
  5519.  
  5520. >”In a way...” Dredd smiles slightly, just slightly, “you.”
  5521. >wat
  5522. >”Many adventurers turned to the Moon’s orders in desperation, not piety,” she explains. “And now your idea – your Adventurer’s Union – offers them an alternative. My Lady’s ways are not for everypony, I readily admit.”
  5523.  
  5524. >It’s almost painful watching AJ’s mouth as she tries to pronounce words properly.
  5525.  
  5526. “But not all of those outside are new recruits. Aurora Chaser –“
  5527. >”Has been with the orders for longer than most of us have been alive,” Sky Anvil cuts in, “but not every one of the devout favor the strict life of the temple orders. Surely you’ve noticed more than a few accompanying adventuring parties.”
  5528.  
  5529. >It’s almost cute watching Novella not be a cunt and actually playing the game as a DM should.
  5530.  
  5531. “Of course, there are two right here.”
  5532. >You nod towards the assassin and the priestess.
  5533. >Oh, right.
  5534. “Sorry, three.”
  5535. >You give the warcleric a slightly deeper bow in lieu of a heartfelt apology.
  5536. >It always pays to be polite to anypony carrying a hammer that large, even if you can’t quite figure out how she can actually *use* it.
  5537. >You once saw a man utterly destroy a bronze golem using only a live rodent – after that, nothing seems impossible.
  5538. “So, you’re saying that my little idea caused all this…?”
  5539. >Best to seize credit while it’s still available.
  5540. >”You have provided a… convenient excuse,” Dredd answers, fidgeting uncomfortably. “It would have happened eventually. Perhaps under better circumstances.”
  5541. >Circumstances not involving merchants with their own agendas, you assume.
  5542. >“I *really* doubt that, Dredd,” the bard calls out to her companion. “More heroic, sure. But better?”
  5543. >”More honorable, then.”
  5544. >”Meh,” the pegasus grunts, giving a slight shrug. “Whatever happens now, everypony will *pretty much* get what they want. Except for, maybe, you know… *that* guy. He might end up dead.”
  5545. >She waves a hoof in your direction.
  5546. “Is that what you meant when you said you can end this here?”
  5547. >"Yes," the assassin answers quickly and honestly.
  5548.  
  5549. >"Why are you bothering with meaningless threats?" Novella mumbles, pulling off her glasses to rub her eyes. "Just buddy up and steamroll the campaign already. You're going to do it anyway."
  5550. "Because we're roleplaying? I thought *you* would appreciate that."
  5551. >She takes a deep breath before putting her glasses back on.
  5552. >"Well, yeah, maybe. But..."
  5553. >AJ brings a forehoof crashing down on the table. Not hard enough to scatter pieces, but loud enough to make heads turn from nearby tables.
  5554. >"Oh stop yer whinin'. Jus 'cuz me an' Anon are friends, don't mean we're always *friendly*, if you get what Ah mean. There's a decent chance Ah *ain't* gonna work with 'im!"
  5555. "Wait, does that mean we were friends when we..."
  5556. >"Heck yeah, sugercube," Applejack smiles at you. "What's a bloody nose or two between friends?"
  5557. “I’m pretty sure there was only *one* bloody nose.”
  5558. >”Oh, right,” she chuckles. “Ah fergot you kick like a filly!”
  5559. >You’re pretty damn sure you gave as good as you got that night, but you do have to admit – if only to yourself, and *only* to yourself – that the concussion did kind of muddle your memories.
  5560. “And I forgot you like to read –“
  5561. >There’s no need to finish the sentence.
  5562. >AJ’s eyes bug out, her face pales, and little drops of nervous sweat spring up on her forehead.
  5563. >You win.
  5564. >There’s no *need* to finish the sentence, but godsdamn if it isn’t tempting anyway.
  5565. “Oh, who am I kidding? You *can’t* read!”
  5566. >You are ever the most merciful of men.
  5567. >”Yeah,” AJ tries to laugh, “Ah certainly don’t read none of those romance novels or nothin’.”
  5568. >Even Ponka, distracted as she is by planning a party in her head, notices that something is off about the way her friend responds to you.
  5569. >The pink pony raises one eyebrow in confusion.
  5570. >”Uh, *yeah*, we kinda know that. Nonny just told us you *can’t* read.”
  5571. >”That’s shit,” Novella blurts out before Ponka can go any further. “She *just* read you the rules for… oh, it doesn’t matter. He’s full of shit, she’s full of shit, this whole thing is full of shit. Fuck it –”
  5572. >She pauses, as if suddenly hesitant to continue on with whatever she has in mind.
  5573. “Rocks fall, everypony dies…?”
  5574. >FUCK YOU, MOUTH.
  5575. >Novella’s lip curls up in a sneer, exposing her fangs for everypony to see.
  5576. >”Don’t tempt me.”
  5577. >There’s no way you and Twi were the last to know that they’re all changelings, so why does nopony else care that she has fucking fangs?
  5578. >”Stop being so moody,” Dash snarls back at the DM. “Either run the game or don’t. I’m sure Anon would love to –“
  5579. >”FINE!”
  5580.  
  5581. >The look of absolute horror on the assassin’s face is the only warning you have.
  5582. >Pain lances through your shoulder and a heavy weight drives you face first to the ground.
  5583. >Not again.
  5584. >After today, you’re having the ceilings removed.
  5585. >Let’s see assassins cling to nothingness.
  5586.  
  5587. >”Wait, where the hell did those two come from?” Dash yells in Novella’s face. “You didn’t even roll for that attack! What the hell!?”
  5588.  
  5589. >”Stay back, traitors, lest you join him in death,” one of the newcomers threatens in a malevolent hiss. “Unless…”
  5590. >”Oh, brother, such wry humor,” the other chuckles darkly from his place on your back. “You shouldn’t give them hope like that. Everypony in this room is going to die today.”
  5591. >The knife in your back twists cruelly.
  5592. >”Though… we *can* be sporting about this,” the assassin laughs at your scream of pain. “We’ll kill Goldberg last, assuming he doesn’t just bleed to death while we’re putting the rest of you down.”
  5593. >It’s odd, the things you notice while laying on your belly with a knife in you. Half the ponies in the room are still caught by surprise – they’re confused, possibly scared.
  5594. >But the paladin, the warcleric, and Dredd?
  5595. >They’re terrified.
  5596. >”Stay down, merchant.”
  5597. >Two hooves stamp down, shattering both of your wrists.
  5598.  
  5599. >”This is bullshit, Anon!” Dash yells at you. “Why are you putting up with this! There’s no way they could have snuck inside or hidden from us –“
  5600. >”They didn’t have to, dumbass,” Novella snarls. “I didn’t want to use them, but *you* insisted I get on with the game.”
  5601.  
  5602. >You might have blacked out from pain – or it could have just been the swirling oblivion of the assassin’s cloaks as he steps over you.
  5603. >”Try not to die on me,” he chuckles without even turning to face you. “I want to take my time with you after I’m done with the rest of this filth.”
  5604. >Now would be the perfect time to be snarky, to say something – anything – to distract the assassins. To give the others a chance to act.
  5605. >Risky, drawing attention to yourself like that, but if they die, so do you.
  5606. >Unfortunately, your mouth doesn’t seem to want to work except to scream, and that’s undignified.
  5607. >You keep it shut.
  5608. >It wouldn’t have done any good anyway – only Sky Anvil seems to have recovered, jerking his sword free from its scabbard with a twist of his head. The sun priestess is only seconds behind, her forehooves waving wildly as she casts the protective spells of her goddess, for all the good they do.
  5609. >A shimmering shield of bright yellow fire parts against her will.
  5610. >”The Sun can’t touch us,” one of the assassins giggles, walking through the gap in the fire.
  5611. >”Get back!” Dredd screams, suddenly throwing herself between the assassins and her companions.
  5612. >It’s not clear who she’s yelling at, but neither group listens.
  5613. >”RUN!” she shouts again, risking it all by turning to look at Sky Anvil. “They’re New Moon!”
  5614.  
  5615. >”FUCK!”
  5616. >Dash throws her pencil at the table in a pissy little tantrum. At least she keeps it short, sweet, and to the point.
  5617. >”FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!”
  5618. >All things considered, still an appropriate reaction.
  5619.  
  5620. >The name means nothing to you, not really.
  5621. >You’ve heard rumors, but you don’t actually know anything about them.
  5622. >Nopony does.
  5623. >The Moon is not merciful, not usually, but neither is she cruel.
  5624. >Not usually.
  5625. >But sometimes… there are rumors.
  5626. >Sky Anvil shoves Dredd aside, standing between her and the oncoming assassins of the Order of the New Moon.
  5627.  
  5628. >”Oh, now, this I *must* protest,” Rarity growls most unladylike. “So Anon and Dash talked back? There’s no reason to kill Quicksilver’s son over that!”
  5629. >”So, you *don’t* think the paladin would throw away his life to protect you all?” Novella asks with surprising seriousness. “His father obviously felt it was worth it, so why wouldn’t he?
  5630. >”I, well, that is…” Rarity frowns sharply, raising a d20 in her blue magical aura. ”I roll for Heroic Intervention.”
  5631.  
  5632. >The barbarian barrels out of nowhere, knocking the armored paladin aside.
  5633. >”Stay back, child,” he growls, rearing up with his axe held in both forehooves. “We didn’t go through all that just to watch you die here.”
  5634. >The assassins share a laugh, easily ducking aside to avoid the first swing.
  5635. >The second also misses, though the third drives them back slightly.
  5636. >None of that makes the assassins stop their insane giggling.
  5637. >Durararog’s fourth swing *almost* connects, missing only by a hair’s breadth as one of them lunges forward. He tries to bring the weapon back around, to recover from the swing quick enough for it to matter.
  5638. >Nopony can fault his efforts, only their effects.
  5639. >The assassins must have weapons to spare, because he leaves his dagger in the barbarian’s hip, drawing a brand new blade to slam into the priestess’ chest.
  5640. >”I’ll save you for later, brother,” the assassin hisses at Sky Anvil as he dances aside to avoid the paladin’s sword. “I want you to die knowing you failed to protect anypony.”
  5641. >”We hope they won’t blame you for that,” the other adds, dragging a knife’s edge across Durararog’s shoulder. “You’re just too weak and pathetic to do what needs to be done.”
  5642. >The paladin growls angrily, but doesn’t speak – he’s still trying to hit them with the sword grasped in his mouth. He’s still trying to do *anything* to stop them, but doesn’t even come close.
  5643. >He’s too new, too fresh from the training camps.
  5644. >”It’s not your fault, not entirely,” the first taunts. “None of the *lesser* orders took the steps necessary to eliminate this evil from the world, so now *we* have to. Don’t worry, little brother, I’ll see to it that Her will is made manifest.”
  5645. >His monologuing  costs him – Durararog may be injured and bleeding freely, but that doesn’t stop his axe from coming around in a wide swing from behind.
  5646. >It connects.
  5647. >With nothing.
  5648. >It passes straight through the empty space where the assassin used to be, only for him to lunge out of a nearby shadow and drive another knife into the barbarian, lodging the wide blade between two of his ribs.
  5649. >”Close,” he teases, kicking Durararog’s hooves out from under him and dropping the stallion to the floor. “That’s closer than anypony else will get tonight.”
  5650.  
  5651. >”Dammit, they can *teleport*?” Dash screams into the sky. “WHY CAN THEY TELEPORT?”
  5652. “At least we know how they got inside the room now. Good work, Rarity.”
  5653. >The unicorn gives you a tiny half-curtsy at your acknowledgement, but her face is strained.
  5654. >”It would have been better if I had actually connected,” she mumbles softly.
  5655. >At her side, Applejack shrugs helplessly.
  5656. >”Yeah, and it woulda been nice if Ah had *failed* mah knowledge check,” she sighs. “Dayum, never thought Ah’d say *that*. How long ‘till Ah can get in the fight, Novel-uh?”
  5657. >”As soon as you can pass a terror check,” the DM answers snippily, frowning at your friend’s *unique* pronunciation of her name. “At least, that’s what the rules say and you all just *love* rules, don’t you?”
  5658. “Only when they’re funny or make sense.”
  5659. >Unfortunately, they make sense now – these are some scary motherfuckers you’re facing.
  5660. >They should have scary rules.
  5661. >”Well, she didn’t even roll for that first attack!” Aredee protests, slamming a hoof into the table. “How is that following the rules?”
  5662. “Because they automatically hit with their first attack.”
  5663. >In her own bitchy way, Novella was being lenient letting Abdul live. Even against normal combatants he should be dead by now, let alone against the scariest NPCs in B&B short of a god.
  5664. >Too bad for them that they’re up against a party that actually survived a god’s wrath.
  5665. >AJ sighs loudly as she picks up her dice to roll for terror again.
  5666. >”Whelp, here goes…”
  5667. >Her dice clatters across the table, coming up with yet another failure.
  5668. >"Go for it, Fluttershy," she says glumly. "Ah hope you can pass yours."
  5669. >"Oh, okay," the pegasus mumbles, grabbing hers with both forehooves and tossing it into the air. "Gosh, I hope I pass."
  5670. >It spins up into the air -
  5671. >"Actually, I have a better idea!" Twilight shouts from her table, catching the dice with her magic. "Mind if we cut in?"
  5672. >Even Dice Pool looks surprised by her outburst, his head jerking wildly between the two tables and – ooooh, not good.
  5673. >“Celestia” has reared up, bringing both of her forehooves down on her table with a sound like thunder.
  5674. >If it was the real one, you’d think that twinkle in her eyes would be amusement, but with Chrysalis you just don’t know.
  5675. >”Are you not in combat yourself?” she asks your princess, though it’s Dice Pool’s head that bobs up and down in response. “Do you really think you can slip away from the New Moon’s paladins and arrive in time to make any difference?”
  5676. >”I don’t need to,” Twilight answers smugly. “I use –“
  5677. >“Do you even know he’s in danger?”
  5678. >“Again, I don’t need to. The personality drawback Loyal to a Fault gives Rock Thrower Paranoia if her master *might* be in danger. And this attack is *obviously* a distraction meant to stop us from getting inside to help Abdul.”
  5679. >The fake princess smiles slightly, tilting her head to look at Novella.
  5680. >”I don’t know what she has in mind, but do you have any objections…?”
  5681. >The mare shakes her head, tossing her wild mane about –
  5682. >Huh, she’s a unicorn.
  5683. >She actually has a short horn hidden under her bangs. It sticks out slightly, but only far enough that you’d assumed it was just another errant spike of hair.
  5684. >”Not at all,” Novella answers earnestly. “If Twily –“
  5685. >TWILY?
  5686. >WHO THE FUCK IS THIS HUSSY WHO THINKS SHE CAN CALL YOUR MAREFRIEND “TWILY!?”
  5687. >”If Twily’s doing it, it has to be in character. She doesn’t metagame.”
  5688. >”Very well,” Chrysalis concedes with a quick nod and even quicker grin. “Proceed, Twilight Sparkle.”
  5689. >“Thank you,” your princess responds with a smirk of her own. “I assume the anti-teleportation wards the paladins put in place when they first tried to take Abdul into custody are still there –“
  5690. >She waits for “Celestia” to nod before continuing.
  5691. >” – but they would have gone dormant by now –“
  5692. >Another nod, this time echoed by Dice Pool.
  5693. >” – so I use my Ring of Spell Activation to reactivate them!” she declares. “To stop assassins from getting in, of course.”
  5694. >”Of course,” “Celestia” snorts, shaking her head in disbelief. “Novella…?”
  5695. >”Makes perfect sense to me.”
  5696. >Your princess takes a second to pose smugly before sitting back down. She flashes you one last smile before turning back to her table.
  5697. >”Okay, so, where were we…?”
  5698. >Dice Pool’s answer is swallowed up by the ambient conversation, but it doesn’t really matter – she’s done what she can.
  5699. >One of these days, you’re going to save *her* ass.
  5700. >Somehow.
  5701. >”Gee, Anon,” Dash smirks, flipping her mane back with a twitch of her head, “must be pretty…”
  5702. >You flex your claws for her to see.
  5703. >”… uh, pretty nice having a friend like that…?”
  5704. “Indeed.”
  5705. >She knows you wouldn’t *actually* hurt her, but…
  5706. >These are some impressive claws.
  5707. “Want to make that roll now, Flutterbutt?”
  5708. >”Um… okay…”
  5709. >She reaches for her dice, looking questioningly at Novella. She *had* tossed it, and – when Twilight’s attention was drawn back to her own table – it had come to a stop.
  5710. >”Go ahead, reroll it,” Novella sighs, waving her hoof in the pegasus’ direction.
  5711. >”If you’re sure,” the yellow mare whimpers – godsfuckingdammit, she is fucking annoying sober. “I *did* fail the test…”
  5712. >”So? Interference means you get a reroll.”
  5713. >The little pegasus grasps the d20 between both forehooves, but hesitates.
  5714. >”Um, so they *won’t* be able to teleport  anymore…?”
  5715. “Our characters don’t know that, and – frankly – neither do we. Those wards were created by the Moon’s clerics, so they might not work on them.”
  5716. >Novella silently nods in agreement, causing her glasses to nearly plummet from her face.
  5717. “Too bad we might not last another round of combat. We can’t really afford to waste a round experimenting. Rarity…”
  5718. >The unicorn tilts her head to the left and her ears perk up.
  5719. “How many hit points does Durararog have left?”
  5720. >”Plenty.”
  5721.  
  5722. >The warcleric dives off the sofa, tossing her hammer aside.
  5723. >Unarmed, she doesn’t stand a chance against the assassins, but she doesn’t make a break for the door.
  5724. >The assassins laugh and dance aside, but she isn’t aiming for them.
  5725. >Her first kick – of many – catches the surprised barbarian square on the jaw, knocking him on his back.
  5726.  
  5727. >”Sorry!”
  5728.  
  5729. >Prone, the barbarian can’t evade the cleric’s attacks.
  5730. >She bucks off the steel hoofcaps on her hindlegs before laying into Durararog with all four hooves.
  5731. >”Oh, sister…” one of the assassins chuckles, “I appreciate the effort to help, but you are still going to die.”
  5732. >Her head snaps around to stare at him coldly.
  5733. >”Nopony dies,” she hisses as her eyes begin to glow with the silvery light of the moon.
  5734. >The light continues to grow, becoming difficult to look at, then blinding, then physically painful.
  5735. >What you can’t understand is why you still hear laughter – deeper and more joyful than the assassins’.
  5736.  
  5737. >”So… I think…” Fluttershy bends over the small mountain of borrowed dice, counting up her hits. “That’s more than enough to cure everypony completely *and* cast Remove Fear…?”
  5738. >She looks first to you, then to Novella for confirmation.
  5739. >The DM sighs, but nods.
  5740. >”Somehow, yes. You heal everypony by beating the shit out of your friend.” She sighs again and pushes her glasses back up. ”Fucking rules.”
  5741. >On some level, you agree with her – it *doesn’t* really make any sense.
  5742. >But it gives everypony some much needed breathing room.
  5743.  
  5744. >”I don’t normally let fillies get away with slapping me unless I deserve it,” the barbarian bellows as the light fades, “but I’ll let you get away with it this time.”
  5745. >He’s already on his hooves by the time you can see clearly, his massive axe grasped in both forehooves.
  5746. >”But *you*…” He takes a step towards the assassins and raises his axe high. “I’m afraid my companion made promises she won’t be able to keep.”
  5747. >”Oh, I know that,” one assassin chuckles back, dancing aside and pulling another knife from his cloak. “Everypony dies!”
  5748. >He lunges forward, not even attempting to avoid the axe that sweeps his way.
  5749. >There’s no reason to parry or dodge when he can simply teleport out of the path of the blade.
  5750. >”No, just you two,” Durararog grimaces as the axehead slams into the pony’s side, shattering bone and splitting flesh. He jerks back quickly, almost unbalancing himself as he tries to recover from a blow he hadn’t expected to land.
  5751.  
  5752. >”What?” Novella sneers at a surprised Rarity. “You didn’t know for sure if the magic worked and your characters didn’t even have a clue what Rock Thrower did. Why would the assassins?”
  5753.  
  5754. >Something about the assassin’s look of supreme confusion lends his last dying moments a comedic tone.
  5755. >It’s all you can do not to laugh at the poor bastard, though you wouldn’t have felt guilty if you had.
  5756. >Overconfidence is always –
  5757.  
  5758. >”Ah don’t think you, of *anypony*, get t’ talk about the dangers of overconfidence, Anon,” AJ laughs. “Let somepony else play that part – it’s just too much, comin’ from *you*.”
  5759.  
  5760. >Bastard had it coming.
  5761. >You’ll leave it at that.
  5762. >With the tables suddenly and unexpectedly turned against him, the remaining assassin abandons his playthings, heading straight for you with a knife clutched between his teeth.
  5763. >Though the warcleric healed you along with everypony else, you’re still on the ground – and still an old man. Getting up in time to defend yourself, let alone arming yourself, if a distant hope.
  5764. >He sees you, undefended and unprepared, and readies the final blow that will complete his mission.
  5765. >The fool.
  5766. >You prepared for this weeks ago.
  5767. “Fastball, if you would –“
  5768. >A copy of your favorite novel slams into – and through – the assassin’s chest.
  5769.  
  5770. “Holy fuck, really!?”
  5771. >Moonbeam gives you a small grin – though she tries to remain stoic, you can see her eyes dance with glee as Dice Pool totals up the damage and calls it out again.
  5772. “I mean, um… I’m not *over*confident, AJ. I’m *appropriately* confident.”
  5773. >You’re lucky, and you know it – she had told you herself that Fastball wasn’t going to be following Abdul.
  5774.  
  5775. “Thank you.”
  5776. >You stand and dust yourself off.
  5777. >The book is ruined, the force of the impact shredding the pages and leather cover almost as badly as the poor idiot’s ribcage.
  5778. >You hope the paladins haven’t run off all of your cleaning staff – the struggle has made quite a mess of your study.
  5779. “I assume you got bored listening to Aurora Chaser and the others talk about the weather?”
  5780. >”Wasn’t quite that trivial,” the mercenary answers, lurching out of the shadow of a bookcase, “but close enough.”
  5781. >You look down at the ruined book again and sigh.
  5782. “Did you *really* have to use that one?”
  5783. >”It was also close enough,” Fastball answers with an apathetic shrug.
  5784. “I don’t pay you to ruin my things, you know.”
  5785. >”No, you pay me to kill people.” He walks over and nudges the assassin’s corpse with his foot. “Looks like I did my job, so I’ll be off. Unless…?”
  5786. >He jerks his head towards Durararog and raises his eyebrows in a questioning manner.
  5787. “I’ll call for you if I need you.”
  5788. >The mercenary nods and saunters past you carelessly, actually bumping into you on his way to the door, despite you stepping aside to avoid him.
  5789. >”Cold bastard,” the bard hisses once the door is closed.
  5790. “Indeed.”
  5791. >But a dependable one.
  5792. >You shove your hands into your pockets and encounter the folded paper you expected to find there.
  5793. >He would not have bumped into you without reason, and slipping you a message was the most obvious reason.
  5794. >”Though I suppose you could say the same about…” Dredd hesitates, then nods towards the corpses on the floor. “I never thought…”
  5795. “About how far the Moon will go? About how many good people have been put to the sword in the hunt for a single villain?”
  5796. >”You aren’t a good person,” she fires back immediately, her eyes burning with self-righteous fury.
  5797. “But what about you and the cleric? Or the young paladin over there?”
  5798. >You gesture to the panting Durararog with an open hand.
  5799. “What of your secular companions? Are you not all good people? Because I *distinctly* remember them saying everyone in this room would die, not just me.”
  5800. >”Point taken,” Dredd grumbles, looking down at the remains of her fellow assassins. “But it’s not Her fault –“
  5801. “She allows them to exist, so it most certainly is. They bear Her symbols and weapons and use Her magics – how could it *not* be Her fault?”
  5802. >Despite your earlier desire to be diplomatic, there’s no need for such frivolity now.
  5803. >Not with the corpses of two of their fellows at their feet.
  5804. >Not when *they* were the ones attacked by the servants of their goddess.
  5805. “They were here to kill me, but they were going to kill you all because it would *amuse* them. Do those sound like righteous individuals to you? Your church is corrupt – you said their ways are not shared by everypony, does that include you?”
  5806. >”She’s a goddess,” the warcleric protests, “it’s not our place to judge Her.”
  5807. “If you’re the heroes you claim to be, it’s your place to stand against Her when She is wrong.”
  5808. >The assassin and cleric exchange uneasy looks, but Sky Anvil doesn’t hesitate.
  5809. >”We fight the Darkness,” he growls at them, “that’s what you taught me. And that sometimes Darkness and Light both come from the unlikeliest of places. Darkin fought and died alongside my father at your request, what makes this human any different?”
  5810. >”This is different,” Dredd snaps back. “We were facing the Lich – evil incarnate. This is… is…”
  5811. >”The Moon?” the Sun’s priestess calls out. “She has a dark side, you know…”
  5812.  
  5813. >The table itself seems to groan at the pony’s pun.
  5814. >”Sorry,” Ponka titters. “Couldn’t help myself!”
  5815. >”So I’ve noticed,” Novella sighs, setting aside her glasses and rubbing her forehead.
  5816.  
  5817. >”That may be, but you’re still asking us to fight against our own goddess,” Dredd says angrily, waving a hoof wildly.
  5818. “I’m not asking anything of the sort. All I wanted to do was help unemployed adventurers.”
  5819. >”To help yourself.”
  5820. “Of course. Making the world a better place means I get to live in a better place.”
  5821. >With an exaggerated – and unnecessary – limp, you hobble over to your desk and sit down.
  5822. “I’m not asking a damn thing of you – I just want to run my business as I see fit. You and yours dragged me into this civil war, both sides reaching greedily clawing at my money and power. I hope you understand it’s not just my life you’re playing games with – if all of my holdings are confiscated, then what happens to everypony that relies on my temples and hospitals for food and healing?”
  5823. >”The church will take care of them,” the warcleric answers after a moment’s hesitation. “I’m sure of it.”
  5824. >”Because they’ve done a *wonderful* job of it so far, haven’t they?” the bard snarls at her companion. “If they did, then *he* wouldn’t be the one doing it now, would he?”
  5825. >You give a nonchalant shrug – the mare made your point, leaving you with nothing to say.
  5826. >”So you’re going to use that as leverage to get what you want.”
  5827. “No, I – I think I’m going to go to bed. It’s been far too long since I’ve slept in my own bed, so if you’ll excuse this old man…”
  5828. >They don’t try to stop you – they have more than enough to think about already.
  5829. >You pause at the door, giving them one last – tired – look.
  5830. “I’m not asking you to choose sides. I honestly don’t even know why you’re fighting. All I can hope is you do the right thing.”
  5831. >Pause.
  5832. ”Everypony prospers when good ponies do the right thing. Even monsters like me.”
  5833.  
  5834. “And unless anypony feels like chasing after him – or more assassins appear out of nowhere –“
  5835. >Novella puts her glasses back on and shakes her head.
  5836. >She *really* should have done that in the opposite order, as they nearly fly from her face.
  5837. “ – then I think this encounter is over.”
  5838. >You give them a second to object, but step back when nopony does.
  5839. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll head back to my table. See you girls later.”
  5840. >Ponka nods, though you wonder if she even heard you – she still looks deep in thought. The others say polite things that kind of flow in one ear and out the other, something about wanting you to join them for something or other that you have no intention of going to.
  5841. “I’ll see. Need to ask Twilight.”
  5842. >Technicolor heads bob up and down eagerly as you take another step backwards and turn.
  5843. >You almost miss the little grey shadow that slinks after you.
  5844. >Would have, if you weren’t so paranoid about FUCKING CHANGELINGS EVERYWHERE.
  5845. >”That last part went well,” Novella shyly smiles up at you. “As for the rest of it... I mean… having the cleric attack her own party to heal them? If this is how you normally play, I *really* don’t get what Twily sees in you.”
  5846. >Novella sneaks a glance over at your marefriend.
  5847. >“She’s always so…”
  5848. “Do you know each other?”
  5849. >You’re not entirely comfortable with the overly familiar way she’s acting towards your waifu.
  5850. >Is Novella from Ponyville?
  5851. >It’s not like you would recognize her, because… well… fucking changeling.
  5852. >”Kind of,” Novella answers guiltily. “Not… exactly. No.”
  5853. “But?”
  5854. >”Play-by-post?” she squeaks, shrinking away from you. “We’ve never actually met, not really! I didn’t even know she was… was *Princess* Twilight Sparkle.”
  5855. “You don’t exactly sound too happy about that.”
  5856. >”She kicked me in the face once.”
  5857. >Oh.
  5858. >”When we tried to invade Canterlot.”
  5859. “Not even trying to pretend, are you?”
  5860. >”Why bother?” she asks. “You already know I'm a changeling – I can tell – and it’s not like anypony *really* pays attention to me.”
  5861. >She sighs, her body heaving and causing her glasses to slip again.
  5862. “Why did you follow me?”
  5863. >It’s obvious why she didn’t talk to you at the table – your friends don’t know she’s a changeling, and you doubt her low self-esteem/magical invisibility powers are powerful enough to let her talk openly in front of others like that.
  5864. >But why talk to you at all?
  5865. >”It was… fun,” Novella answers, hiding behind her bangs. “Kind of. When you weren’t being an asshole.”
  5866. “And when you weren’t –“
  5867. >Bah, she’s just too pathetic right now for you to call her a cunt.
  5868. >Stupid changeling powers.
  5869. >It has to be, because you certainly aren’t feeling sympathetic towards this sack of shit of your own free will.
  5870. >”Yeah, I know, I’m a bitch,” she sighs. “Look, could you… I mean… she’s my friend, maybe. Could you… I mean, once everypony is done..?”
  5871. “Introduce you?”
  5872. >The nod she answers with is almost imperceptible.
  5873. “Why haven’t you done that yourself?”
  5874. >"Uh, she *kicked* me in the *face*," Novella repeats, pointing a hoof at herself. "Because I'm a changeling, remember? I swear, if you're *really* this dense, she must be keeping you around just for the novelty of it!"
  5875. >You want to be angry at her, but all you can feel is some kind of guilty pride - your marefriend kicked a changeling so hard, she practically blinded the little shit.
  5876. >Or maybe Novella has always had vision problems, but you know how you're going to remember this little moment.
  5877. "I'm pretty sure she kicked you because you were trying to kill her or something. Invading Canterlot, maybe? *Not* because you're a changeling."
  5878. >Novella tilts her head away from you, her wild mane almost knocking her glasses off.
  5879. >"Maybe," the changeling admits. "She seems to be getting along with Dice Pool well enough, but..."
  5880. >You're tempted to belt out a bastardized version of Kamina's speech yet again - to tell her not to worry about mere possibilities - but there's only so many times you can repeat that trick in single week.
  5881. >She sits in silence for an uncomfortably long time, staring at the floor and sighing.
  5882. "Don't your players need you?"
  5883. >"No," she snaps back before even turning to look. "They seem to be having plenty of fun on their own."
  5884. >Indeed they do - Dash has climbed onto the table and is playing her brand new boffer sword like it's a guitar. Even if the others weren't joining in - and they are - that alone would be enough of a distraction.
  5885. >Facing away from you, the mare doesn't stand a chance of avoiding your grab.
  5886. >She screams as you heave her up, but it's only one of many. Between the tables celebrating and the others howling in despair, the room is a noisy place.
  5887. >Too noisy for anypony to pay much attention to the shrieking of a mousy little thing like her.
  5888. "Well, I think it's time you introduced yourself to your friend."
  5889. >"No, I can't! What if -"
  5890. "What if she's the Princess of Friendship, you dumb shit?"
  5891. >Gods, you have to fix *everything* around here.
  5892. >You raise your mare above your head, preparing to hurl her at the Twilight's table like a fucking lightning bolt, but a sharp hiss gives you pause.
  5893. >Chrysalis has risen to her hooves, and if looks could kill, you wouldn't be getting *any* saving throws against hers.
  5894. >Slowly, you lower the still struggling changeling and tuck her under your arm instead. You won't throw Novella, but fuck that changeling bitch if she thinks she can actually intimidate you.
  5895. >She gives you a slight, ever so slight, nod of what could be approval.
  5896. >Or grudging acknowledgement that she can’t stop you from doing whatever you want.
  5897. >Novella continues to kick and flail as you walk towards the table.
  5898. >It’s a miracle her glasses stay on.
  5899. >In her panic, she even tries to bite your arm.
  5900. >She only tries that once.
  5901. “Hey, Twi?”
  5902. >”Hm?”
  5903. >Your marefriend half turns away from her brother in time to see Novella land in a crumpled heap next to your empty stool.
  5904. >Whoops.
  5905. >Shit.
  5906. >The mare’s glasses fall from her face, bouncing twice before coming to a halt.
  5907. >Fuuuuuck.
  5908. >You really didn’t think this through. Pony bodies *probably* aren’t meant to bend like –
  5909. >”Shit, that *hurt*!”
  5910. >Oh.
  5911. >Good.
  5912. >Novella’s tougher than she looks, already back on her hooves and reaching around blindly for her glasses.
  5913. >Twilight spares a second to flash you an annoyed grimace before picking up the glasses and pressing them into the mare’s hoof.
  5914. >”Sorry about that,” your princess apologizes. “He can be a bit of an idiot at times.”
  5915. >”Tell me about it,” Novella sneers, putting the frame back onto her muzzle. “What the hell did you do that for?”
  5916. “You said you wanted to talk to your friend, but if not…”
  5917. >You wave your claws towards Dash and the others.
  5918. “… I can take you back.”
  5919. >”Friend…?” Twilight asks curiously, eyes bouncing between you and Novella. “I’m sorry, have we met before…?”
  5920. >”No!” the changeling protests. “He’s just being an asshole!”
  5921. >”No surprise there,” your princess smirks. “He’s *always* an asshole –“
  5922. >Ouch.
  5923. >While true, she didn’t have to *say* it.
  5924. >”But usually he has a reason,” Twilight points out, “even if it’s just because he thinks it’s funny.”
  5925. >Novella snarls up at in impotent rage.
  5926. >”Well, this isn’t very funny,” she hisses, more at you than your princess.
  5927. >”It usually isn’t.”
  5928. “Fuck you, Twi. I’m funny.”
  5929. >”Later,” your marefriend says with a wink, “and sometimes, but less often than you think.”
  5930. >She pretends to not notice Shining Armor’s outraged face.
  5931. >”ANYWAY,” Twilight shouts, drowning his sputtering, “Anon looks kind of annoyed, so I’m pretty sure he didn’t do this just for the giggles.”
  5932. >Not *just* for the giggles.
  5933. “I think you two have some catching up to do, so if you don’t mind me… I’ll just… uh…
  5934. >Trixie’s party is still in the middle of their encounter, Dash is still dancing on her table and you’d rather not be associated with that.
  5935. “Um… are we done with the game for tonight?”
  5936. >Dice Pool blinks in surprise. It takes you a second to realize why.
  5937. >Dammit, sometimes you *are* an idiot.
  5938.  
  5939. >You stagger away from your study, waiting until you turn the corner before straightening. You were sure they were going to follow you, for one reason or another, but no, the act was all for nothing.
  5940. >The hallways feel cold, oppressively so, causing you to shove your hands into your pockets to keep them warm.
  5941. >Ah, the note.
  5942. >You take another look behind you before pulling it out.
  5943. >” We’re coming for you. Be there soon,” is all it says, in Rock Thrower’s rough writing.
  5944. >Remembering the last note – and how much you missed – you turn the paper over, but that’s all it says.
  5945. >You don’t know why she bothered.
  5946. >After all, you never had any doubt they would be coming for you.
  5947.  
  5948. >”And I guess the New Moon paladins retreat when their assassin’s die,” Dice Pool tells the table with a shrug, “so *now* this encounter is over.”
  5949. >”Oh!” your princess gasps in surprise, looking away from Novella for a second. “Um, okay then…”
  5950. >A carefully placed boot stops the changeling from bolting in that moment.
  5951. >Twilight’s attention is back on the mare instantly and she leans forward, almost nose to nose with Novella.
  5952. >”Did I meet you at last year’s con…?” your princess asks. “I’m sorry, but I was –“
  5953. >Dialogue established.
  5954. >Your job here is done.
  5955. >Dice Pool feels the same way, slinking away from the table – and an empty (and dry) tea cup.
  5956. >It was probably empty all along.
  5957. >A loud yawn from Twilight catches you by surprise.
  5958. >Her too, it looks like.
  5959. >”Sorry, sorry,” she apologizes to Novella, shaking her head in a futile attempt to stay awake. “It’s been a long day, and I’m exhausted. I – um – I –“
  5960. >You quickly step away before she can ask if you want to leave.
  5961. >This shit needs to get done and over with tonight.
  5962. >There’s a little quest of your own that needs finishing, anyway.
  5963. >You’ve got to see a pony about a transdimensional portal.
  5964. >Dash’s victory dance is winding down.
  5965. >FINALLY.
  5966. >It’s a wonder Chrysalis didn’t penalize her for excessive celebration.
  5967. >Ponks is expecting you, leaping up to crawl onto your shoulder as you approach.
  5968. >”I’m glad I brought you here,” she says before you even speak. “It’s made Twilight so happy!”
  5969. “Huh.”
  5970. >You risk a glance over your shoulder – the one Ponka *isn’t* perching on – at your marefriend.
  5971. >She’s biting her lip, and not in a sexy way.
  5972. >Good, she’s distracted enough for you do what must be done.
  5973. “So you brought me here, huh?”
  5974. >”MHM!” Penkie answers proudly, sitting up on your shoulder like the weirdest fucking parrot a pirate ever had.
  5975. “Why…!?”
  5976. >Though emphatic, there is no anger in your voice, just a burning desire to know.
  5977. >”I just told you, silly!” the mare laughs. She tries to boop your nose, but you knock aside her hoof with your hand. “Of, *fine*. I brought you here to make Twilight happy, because I’m happy when my friends are!”
  5978. >Ponka smiles widely, sending her little curly fu manchu dancing merrily.
  5979. “Discord told me you had brought me here to get her laid.”
  5980. >”No, to make her *happy*,” she corrects with a slight – and temporary – frown. “Though yeah, I guess that *would* make her happy…”
  5981. >A white-clad hoof taps against her chin twice.
  5982. >”Yeah, that would make *anypony* happy.”
  5983. “What about me? Didn’t you even once stop to think how I would feel about this?”
  5984. >You don’t remember – but you’re pretty fucking sure she didn’t ask your permission.
  5985. >”You aren’t happy, Nonny…?”
  5986. “Of course I am – in general, I mean – but that’s not the godsdammed point –“
  5987. >”Why wouldn’t it be?” she asks, earnestly confused. “I made sure to pick somepony that would be happy here!”
  5988. >Ponks is so bewildered, she looks like she’s about to burst into tears.
  5989. “But what if I was happy where I was…?”
  5990. >The mare gives a loud snort – you almost duck and cover to protect yourself from the waterworks, but they never come.
  5991. >No, she *laughs*.
  5992. >”Is that what this is about?” she giggles hysterically. “Oh, Celestia, how… just… wow… I can’t even…”
  5993. >This is a little awkward.
  5994. >More so than usual, anyway.
  5995. >Talking with her is always a little weird.
  5996. “Yeah, Ponks. That *is* what this is about. I’m getting jerked around all-the-fucking-time, and it’s getting a little tiring not having any control over my own life. Nopony seems to give enough of a damn to even ask me what I want. Not you, not Celestia, not even my own godsdamned –”
  5997. >That’s not fair, not to Twilight.
  5998. >With her, you definitely share the blame.
  5999. >Your shoulders slump, almost pitching Panks from her roost.
  6000. >She scrambles for a grip, eventually latching onto the edge of your pauldron.
  6001. “What if I was happy there, Ponks? You should have asked! If only I has given a choice, that’s all I – what, why are you laughing? I’m being serious!”
  6002. >”What-ifs, should-haves, and if-onlys,” the mare giggles with a slow shake of her head. “You *really* need to stop overthinking everything.”
  6003. “Ha-fucking-ha.”
  6004. >Fucking quoting Kamina to *you* of all people. Who the hell does she think she is?
  6005. “I’m happy here. I am. But you should have given me a choice.”
  6006. >Maybe then… if you’d at least had the illusion that you were in control of your own life… maybe…
  6007. >More fucking what-ifs.
  6008. >”Oh, Nonny…” Ponks whimpers, “you *always* have a choice. You’re my friend and I want you to be happy, too.”
  6009. “Are you telling me I *chose* to come to Equestria?”
  6010. >She shakes her head sadly.
  6011. >”No, you chose *not* to choose.”
  6012. “Are you telling me that you actually asked me and I basically said ‘meh, whatever’?”
  6013. >”Well, noooooo,” she grimaces. “But would you have stayed if you didn’t want to?”
  6014. “Not even the gods could bar my path.”
  6015. >”Exactly!”
  6016. >Fucking seriously?
  6017. “Silence *isn’t* consent. You know this, right?”
  6018. >”Whaaaaaaat? Noooooooooooooooo! I mean, yes, I know that! Of course I know that, but it wasn’t what I meant!”
  6019. >Oh, good. One less thing for Twi to fix with Equestria’s laws.
  6020. >Still, it’s not like you’ve ever really had a chance to go home.
  6021. >Not really.
  6022. >Despite your confidence, you’ve never really had it put to the test.
  6023. >You know what you choice would be, but still…
  6024. “I never chose to stay, Ponks…”
  6025. >”But you never chose to leave,” she counters with a hopeful smile. “You really should make a choice one of these days. It always comes back to haunt everypony things gets dragged out like this.”
  6026. “Yeah, I know – me and Twi wasted nearly a year –“
  6027. >”Um, yeah!” Ponks chuckles nervously. “You and Twi, mhm!”
  6028. >She’s was hedging around it for some reason – even the Element of Laughter must know it’s still a *little* too early to laugh at that particular bit of fun.
  6029. >”Definitely what I meant!” she says, nodding her head vigorously. “But since you’re feeling so out of control, how about… hrm… want to pick what games we play at Novella’s surprise party!?”
  6030. >Not even a minute has passed between you telling her you feel jerked around, and now she’s trying to drag you along to a party for the damn changeling?
  6031. >Hell no.
  6032. “I think I’ll pass on that.”
  6033. >”You can’t always choose not to choose,” Ponks whines, hopping down from your shoulder before you can respond. “But in this case –“
  6034. “I choose to curl up in bed with my marefriend and a book. I’ll see you tomorrow, Penks.”
  6035. >You should have known better than to hope for a straight answer from her.
  6036. >Hope is the first step on the road to disappointment.
  6037. >But at least it’s a step forward.
  6038. >Penki gives you a bizarrely surprised – yet satisfied – smile.
  6039. >”Okie-dokie!”
  6040. >She prances back to the others, her tail swishing like a happy puppy’s.
  6041. >Whatever she was expecting – and she couldn’t realistically have expected you to go along with her idea – this wasn’t it.
  6042. >Seems to have made her happy, though.
  6043. >Oh well.
  6044. >You never did do well with multiple choice questions.
  6045. >It’s not your fault you can always think of a better answer than anything someone else tried to spoon-feed you.
  6046. >While you had been planning to hit up the vendor room with Twi before heading back to the castle, she was looking tired. You think she’ll be happy to head back to the castle.
  6047. >The only hiccup is you didn’t bring any books with you – not counting the rulebooks for Bn’B, of course – but undoubtedly Twi has a few extras packed.
  6048. >And if not…
  6049. >You’ll just have to pull her close and read over her shoulder.
  6050. >Darn.
  6051. >You look around before stepping back to your table – more groups are still playing than you expected. Trixie seems to have her fire back, looming over the table with one hoof held high as she throws her dice. The Fillydelphians are having as much trouble as ever, but they seem a little less frustrated. You try to listen in on their game, to find out what changed.
  6052. >Sunny almost slips past you at that instant.
  6053. >She’s conversing quietly with Moonbeam, but turns back at the last second to talk to Shining Armor.
  6054. >The smaller mare doesn’t wait for her sister, continuing on towards the door.
  6055. >Apparently the night *is* over, even though some of the groups are still playing.
  6056. >”Thou aren’t coming, art thou?” Moonbeam asks, her eyes momentarily following Ponks as she bounces away. “It is of no matter, as thou hast doubtlessly viewed it previously.”
  6057. “Seen what? Going where? Given up on your pretense of talking like a normal pony?”
  6058. >”Everypony else seems to believe their conversations with thou art private, Anonymous,” Luna explains, casually looking around. Nopony seems to notice her sudden change in language or attitude. “As for the ‘what,’ mine sister explained it as –“
  6059. >You shake your head.
  6060. >Doesn’t matter, the answer is no.
  6061. >Also doesn’t matter, because whatever *was* planned is going to get Pinkie-jacked.
  6062. “Whatever it is, I think I have some better plans.”
  6063. >Enough being around other ponies for today.
  6064. >”We envy thou,” Luna admits, dipping her head in acknowledgement. “For all mine sister praises this… this ‘Kay-on,’ we do not see the appeal.”
  6065. >She gives you another nod and trots away, leaving her sister behind to wrap up her conversation with Shining Armor.
  6066. >She looks amused.
  6067. >He doesn’t.
  6068. >Nor does he seem angry.
  6069. >Embarrassed, actually.
  6070. >Sunny’s laughter rolls across the room like thunder as she gives him a playful shove and prances your direction.
  6071. >”Can you believe that guy?” she snorts, tossing her head back in Shining Armor’s direction. “I’m starting to wonder if he has a changeling fetish!”
  6072. “Oh, fuck, please tell me he didn’t just hit on Novella.”
  6073. >Double fuck.
  6074. “*Please* also say he didn’t hit on Dice Pool.”
  6075. >”Not recently,” she answers with a smirk, “but apparently he had quite the crush on your marefriend’s penpal when they were younger.”
  6076. >Sunny chuckles at the thought of it, shaking her head as if she cannot understand how such a thing could even be possible.
  6077. >Neither can you.
  6078. >That’s some serious bad luck.
  6079. >Not the crush part – everypony has at least one awkward childhood crush they can only look back on with total shame.
  6080. >It’s everypony finding out about it while Novella is right there that makes you feel sorry for the stallion.
  6081. >Twi is never going to let him live that down.
  6082. >And considering Novella’s sharp tongue…
  6083. >It must have been too much for her – she’s slipping off the stool. A few more words pass between the mares before she too escapes the rapidly emptying room.
  6084. >Her cheeks glow almost-pink – at least, the closest her colorless coat can get to a blush – and she has a slight, but toothy smile as she passes you.
  6085. >Aside from the whole “ruining Shining Armor for life” thing, that must have went well.
  6086. >Of course it did.
  6087. >Your plans are always the best plans.
  6088. “Hey, Shining Armor!”
  6089. >His head snaps up.
  6090. “You know what the best thing about dating a changeling is?”
  6091. >He groans and turns away.
  6092. “You get to sleep with a different mare every night, and it’s not cheating!”
  6093. >The stallion pushes himself to his hooves.
  6094. >”Okay, I’m out of here,” he grumbles. “They can look after themselves and you –“
  6095. >Shining Armor points a hoof angrily in your direction.
  6096. >”*You*.”
  6097. >He *probably* meant to put a couple more words in that statement, but you can guess what they are.
  6098. >Twilight giggles, having come to the same conclusion as you.
  6099. >”Don’t worry, Shiny,” she tries to reassure him, though it would help if she could keep a straight face, “we’re just going to head back to our room.”
  6100. >Your princess pauses and looks at you questioningly.
  6101. >”I think…?” she adds.
  6102. “I’m game; it’s been a long day. For you too, Shining Armor. And from what it sounded like, I bet you got a lot less sleep than we did…”
  6103. >He shakes his head vigorously.
  6104. >”No, I… uh… um…”
  6105. >You don’t understand his reluctance to head back – even if the worst (from his point of view) did happen, it’s not like your rooms are adjacent.
  6106. >His gaze settles on the gryphons and you can almost see the bulb light up over his head.
  6107. >”Actually, I was going to head to the Wizardry room. The gryphons –“ he jerks his chin in their direction, “ – apparently have some kind of grudgematch set up against a yak group. *Somepony* needs to make sure they don’t start a war. Another one, anyway.”
  6108. >”Are you talking about the gryphons or the yaks?”
  6109. >”Either one,” he answers Twi. “WELL, I BETTER GET GOING.”
  6110. “But… they’re still playing…”
  6111. >He shrugs and bolts.
  6112. >Okay then.
  6113. >Fucking weirdo.
  6114. “Well then, Twi?”
  6115. >You hold out your hand to her, thought… the gesture is kind of pointless. It’s not like you’re going to help her stand *up* - she’s a *pony*. You both found out yesterday just how awkward holding hands/hooves/whatever is, but you put out your hand like some kind of fucking backberth idiot.
  6116. >Still, your marefriend doesn’t hesitate to put a hoof in your palm.
  6117. >She even does it with a genuine smile.
  6118. "Shall we go?"
  6119.  
  6120. >You don't return to the castle straight away - there are a few minor detours.
  6121. >When she suggests hitting up Joe's donut bar for a late night snack, your stomach begins to rumble.
  6122. >It feels like you haven't eaten in weeks.
  6123. >Twilight seems to hear it, even through the massive slabs of armor and looks up and you with curiosity.
  6124. >"I guess a real meal wouldn't be such a bad idea..."
  6125. >Though your room has a small kitchenette, that just really isn't an option - even if dicing vegetables *would* be really easy with your armor's claws.
  6126. >It's just too small for you to really work in, even if it was properly stocked.
  6127. >You'd take to ask Twi to cook you something, but you don't really see a choice besides relying on the castle's chefs.
  6128. >Oh, you are such an idiot.
  6129. "Know any good restaurants in the area?"
  6130. >Of course Twilight does; she grew up here.
  6131. >From the way your marefriend nods eagerly, she must have one in mind.
  6132. >The place she leads you to looks fancy - too fancy.
  6133. >If you weren't wearing solid gold filigree, you might even feel underdressed. Despite you being human, she is the one that sticks out in her well-made but relatively plain costume. You draw a few scowls and snide comments from the Canterlot Elite, but most if it is directed at the con, not at either of you personally.
  6134. >They're too "polite" for that. At least, that's how Twilight describes it.
  6135. >You'd say they're cowards.
  6136. >The meal goes well, but seems almost rushed, like the staff are trying to get you out of there as soon as possible.
  6137. >Twilight doesn't seem to notice, her eyes sparkling as she chats with you and munches on her meal.
  6138. >As the waiter brings in your desert, it finally dawns on you that you truly are the worst coltfriend ever.
  6139. >You've shared a bed, met her parents, tried to make babies (despite the utter impossibility of that actually happening), but this is the first time the two of you have been on a date.
  6140. >An actual date.
  6141. >Or close enough to count.
  6142. >Snuggling on the sofa and gobbling down pizza certainly doesn't.
  6143. >Nor does hanging out with your mutual friends, going to parties, playing games.
  6144. >Arguing.
  6145. >Fighting.
  6146. >Avoiding each other.
  6147. >You don’t even know what her birthday is.
  6148. >Not the exact day, anyway.
  6149. >It was during that one week you weren’t talking because of… well, it was your fault. Afterwards, it was just too awkward to ask.
  6150. >You’d roughly shoved some small handmade trinket into her hooves and made vague comments about hoping she had a happy birthday.
  6151. >Honestly, it was more of a make-up gift than a birthday present.
  6152. >All that flashes through your mind in the time it takes the waiter to bring over the two slices of cake – with ice cream topping. Twilight had insisted.
  6153. >Her smile is impossibly wide and she reaches for her plate before he can set it down.
  6154. >She doesn’t even notice the indignant frown on his face.
  6155. >Your little princess doesn’t notice *any* of the little things that have been slightly off all meal, from the way he dropped an entire stack of extra napkins on the table to the murmurs of the other patrons.
  6156. >This is your first date, and she won’t let any of those things stop it from being *perfect*.
  6157. >She still drags you to the donut bar afterwards, and again her every word screams that she’s relishing the moment.
  6158. >Trying to make up for lost time, you suppose.
  6159. >Unlike the restaurant, most of the customers are con-goers. Some appear to have stopped in on their way back to their hotels, others are on their way back to the con.
  6160. >Some seemed to have nipped out for a bit of a breather, heading to this place instead of any of the closer spots to avoid the crowds.
  6161. >You don’t stay long, Twilight herding you out the door as soon as your donut is in your hand.
  6162. >At first, you think it’s because she’s eager to get back to the castle, but her meandering path rules that out quickly.
  6163. >You hadn’t noticed yesterday – your thoughts were too focused on the game – but the streets of Canterlot are beautiful at night. Twilight seems to pick just the right streets to keep the mountain and it’s waterfall in view at all times. The rushing water sparkles in the starlight, even at this distance.
  6164. >The last few blocks are crossed in comfortable silence, the pair of you having run out of small talk.
  6165. >There are still things that need to be discussed, of course, but they can wait.
  6166. >Twilight breaks the silence as you plass by the first pair of guards standing sentry outside the castle’s gates.
  6167. >”I know we didn’t get to spend as much time together today, but I had fun tonight,” she says, veering closer and bumping into your leg. “Thanks for putting up with my little sight-seeing trip. I wanted you to see how pretty the night is here.”
  6168. “Oh. I didn’t notice.”
  6169. >Her steps falter.
  6170. “I only had eyes for you.”
  6171. >”Wow, I was only joking when I told Shiny your pickup lines were cheesy,” she laughs, taking the next three steps at a slightly quicker pace to catch up to you. “I guess I’ve never heard you actually *use* one before.”
  6172. “Who says I’m using one now?”
  6173. >Twilight tilts her head to one side, waiting for you to explain.
  6174. “I don’t *need* to pick you up, Twi – we’re already dating.”
  6175. >It’s just one more layer of cheese on the five-cheese pizza that is this conversation, but it’s enough to make her blush.
  6176. >”Yeah, now we are,” she mumbles happily. “Despite everything else that’s happened this con – the changelings, the obnoxious cosplayers… it’s been worth it.
  6177. “Moonbeam and Sunny Smiles weren’t *quite* so horrible today.”
  6178. >“It’s a lot harder to roleplay a genocidal maniac than a slut,” your princess giggles, followed by a content sigh. “Or maybe they just held themselves back because we now know who they are, but it doesn’t really matter why.”
  6179. >It really doesn’t, not right now.
  6180. >Tomorrow you might regret not figuring it out if they’re back to being cunts, but that’s Tomorrow Anon’s problem, and you have it on good authority that guy is an asshole.
  6181. >The guest wing is deserted, lacking even the guards that had been posted their earlier today. That part is only mildly surprising, as Cadance seems to be gone as well. Without any royalty present there’s not really a point to them being here.
  6182. >”Looks like we have the place all to ourselves,” Twilight hints playfully.
  6183. “Good, that means it’ll be nice and quiet.”
  6184. >”Sounds like you have something in mind…”
  6185. >She looks at you askance out of the corner of her eye as she magics open the door to your room.
  6186. “Well, it’s hard to read with other ponies running around being loud.”
  6187. >”Only because you lack willpower,” your marefriend answers, sticking out her tongue at you. “*Fiiiiiiiine*, we’ll read, but first, let’s get you out of that armor…”
  6188. >Twilight doesn’t bother to disassemble it – one PFOOF! later, you’re standing outside your armor, completely naked.
  6189. >She raises an eyebrow at that, staring with a bit more than simple curiousity before turning away to rummage through your bag for your tablet.
  6190. “Had to be naked to get the armor to work.”
  6191. >”Mhm,” she grunts. “I figured as much.”
  6192. >For a second there, you were worried her insecurities wouldn’t let her ignore you stripping down completely with two other mares in the room.
  6193. >A few minutes later, you’re slipping under the covers and pulling your marefriend firmly against your chest. She hadn’t brought any extra books, but you don’t mind.
  6194. >Even if this wasn’t actually just about the cuddles, you don’t mind rereading along with her.
  6195. >Twilight purrs happily at the sensation of your arm brushing across her velvet coat, pressing her back firmly against you.
  6196. >Even with your arm now wrapped tightly around her chest, she squirms, delighting in the feeling of your body rubbing against hers.
  6197. >Eventually – sadly – she finds just the perfect spot and stops moving, instead powering on your tablet for both of you to read.
  6198. >”I’m halfway through Blood Reaver,” she says apologetically, “I hope you don’t mind…”
  6199. “Of course not.”
  6200. >How could you ever mind time spent with her?
  6201. >She twists her head around to flash you a quick smile, but something she sees makes her giggle.
  6202. >"I wonder what the heck is up with my family and falling for other species," she snickers. "I just can't believe... I mean, at least *I* know!"
  6203. >Ah, it was you. She saw you.
  6204. "Thinking about about Shining Armor and Novella?"
  6205. >"Well, I *was*," your princess answers, turning her head back to face the tablet she's magically holding up. "For a second. Only for a second."
  6206. >You're okay with that - the changeling issues can be Tomorrow Anon's problems.
  6207. >Seriously, fuck that guy.
  6208. >Twilight squirms in your arms again, apparently having lost her perfect place when she turned her head.
  6209. >"Better," Twilight murmurs, though you're pretty sure she ended up in the exact same position she started in.
  6210. >"Reading time now."
  6211. "Um... you might want to change those settings..."
  6212. >The tablet's screen has rotated - with the both of you laying on your sides, no matter how she holds it, the screen is going to auto-rotate and make it impossible to read.
  6213. "It automatically changes so the bottom is facing the ground. Go under settings, and turn off - oh."
  6214. >A momentary flash of extra-bright magenta light and the screen flips back.
  6215. "Did you just magic my iPad?"
  6216. >"Just changed the local gravity a bit." Her smirk is so wide, you can see it even though she is facing away from you. "Seemed easier."
  6217. "I don't know if that's lazy or ingenious, but either way... you're a dork."
  6218. >"Quiet," Twilight mumbles contently. "Reading now."
  6219. >You don't even try to follow along with her - the angle is awkward and she's on to the next page before you're even halfway through.
  6220. >She does her best, though. Trying to hold th tablet so you can see, asking if she needs to slow down. But you've read the story before and it never really was the point - you tell her everything is fine.
  6221. >Because it is.
  6222. >Between the warmth of your princess and your own exhaustion, you quickly fall asleep.
  6223. Or maybe not so quickly.
  6224. >You're not really sure.
  6225. >All you know is that at some point, you wake up.
  6226. >"Oh, do I need to go back?" Twilight asks, reading your startled little jump as something it isn't.
  6227. "Um, no, everything's fine."
  6228. >"Then go back to sleep, Anon," she whispers, flicking to the next page. "You don't have to pretend you're actually awake."
  6229. >She sets down the tablet and turns just enough to kiss you.
  6230. >"I'm just happy you're here."
  6231. “Me too, Twi.”
Twilight Sparkle Anon Mane 6 Traditional Games Romance /tg/ Complete Nerds Author Went Off The Rails NSFW

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