My Little Pony Fan Fiction ❯ Out of Place ❯ Out of Context & Out of Sight ( Chapter 2 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

Out of Place - Out of Context Part 1

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc. Billy Joel - Piano Man It's nine o'clock on a Saturday The regular crowd shuffles in There's an old man sitting next to me Makin' love to his tonic and gin He says, "Son, can you play me a memory I'm not really sure how it goes But it's sad and it's sweet and I knew it complete When I wore a younger man's clothes."

     Being shaken awake is getting to be an old habit I want broken. "You know, I'm thinking of battlements in front of that door: land mines, barbed wire, and a machine gun bunker." I focus on Glory, and then on the small cloud of agitated to terrified ponies behind her. Moon City, Brown Chief, Benevolent Warrior, Furniture Maker, even Captain Shining Armor.

     "Have you seen this?" Warrior asks as he drops the paper on the bed.

     "You woke me out of a sound sleep," I tell him, "I'll let you parse that for answers." I study the paper. "That banner should have the NLR dancing in the streets," I say of the 'NLR reforms accepted by the Princesses' headline that takes up the top half of the paper.

     "Read on," Moon City says.

     The rest of the article details the draft of the agreement. Somepony leaked it, and I know three possibles, I think, At least they leaked a complete copy of the final draft.

     "What, you think they'll still go to war over the Princesses' additions? Luna agreed to them, the NLR are supposed to be her people."

     "You knew about this?" Brown Chief asks angrily.

     "That's not something I'm going to discuss," I tell him, and make everyone instantly suspicious.

     "That isn't the worst part." The guard captain flips the page and highlights the passage.

     "Okay, she's challenging Luna and the NLR leadership to a charity game," I say after reading it, "Makes sense, gets them in front of the populace, Stalliongrad had a hard winter and the money will go to replenishing the food banks, and the competition lets ordinary Equestrians scream and holler their brains out for their side in a friendly match."

     "I thought Sunny Days said she hated Hoofball," Moon City says.

     I give him my best Death Glare, and explain, as if to a rather stupid child, "If that stallion wrote 'rain was wet', the wise should immediately go look it up to see what that moron left out, added, or flat out got wrong. Even then, the quote from that idiot was 'The Princess finds watching Hoofball boring.' She said nothing what-so-ever about playing the game herself."

     Properly chagrined, Moon City moves back into the crowd.

     "I take it," I ask, "Captain, that you aren't exactly dancing in the streets about this, and that you've already contacted the umpires and officials you know to arrange for them to officiate?"

     "I was hoping you'd help me convince her Highness to drop this," the guard captain explains, in a tone similar to the one I used on Moon City, "Not to facilitate it. Letting her, their, Highnesses run around, possibly be injured. You can see the dangers in this?"

     "Oh," I say sheepishly. I shake my head. "No chance. Celestia is going to mop the floor with Luna, and them, and then sign the treaty. 'Congratulations, I could have beaten you all single-hornedly in a war, but I agree with your proposals, so you get them, and I get to run around like a filly for the honor of Equestria.' If you think I'm going to stand in the way of any of that, you're out of your little pony minds."

     Furniture lets out a yelp of laughter, then looks embarrassed. Glory is grinning. The rest look like Nightmare Moon and Discord have joined forces and invited them all to a barbeque.

     "But, you can't!" Shining Armor exclaims, with both Moon City and Brown Chief nodding enthusiastically.

     The door slams behind them, the orange glow of the door matching the glow of my horn. "Let me give you all a little education. Her Majesty Princess Celestia controls the sun. A ball of matter with a surface temperature over 50,000 degrees. No matter that exists can stay solid in close proximity to that. She could manipulate it into close orbit and burn any army, fortress or tank to ashes and slag, with no strain on her part. She could manipulate it to let out a gamma burst that would burn away the planet's atmosphere, and incinerate any organic material on or under the planet, and if she let off a powerful enough one, it would do the same to every living thing on every nearby star system. Or she might make it lase those gamma rays into a tight beam that would easily bore a hole in this planet and anything else that was in the way. Or not merely melt anything opposing her, but make it incandesce, that is, vaporize it and the vapors burst into flame. That's what an object she can manipulate can do. Think of what her personal power can do. No, if the contributors of such vile names like Molestia, Trollestia and those other stupid monikers that the NLR has been pasting her with are only going to get themselves trounced in a Hoofball game to earn money to help people who desperately need it, they ought to get down on their knees and kiss her hooves that she hasn't simply burned them and the morons who follow them to ashes in response to poisoning the populace's minds that she doesn't care. The only reason that debating society got anywhere is because Luna herself intervened and focused their efforts." I turned on Shining Armor. "And if you think your authority, position or magical powers, of you or your sister, matter a hill of beans next to what Celestia and Luna have already accomplished in their lives, you are afflicted with hubris worthy of a god. The only reason anything that angers or threatens Celestia or Luna lives, is because they have made the conscious choice to let it, and deal with it diplomatically. Celestia didn't vaporize Nightmare Moon, she imprisoned her until Luna could be properly healed of the taint that was Nightmare Moon."

     I lower my voice, "If any of you aren't afraid of her, you should be. If any of you are only afraid of her, then take heart that her boundless love of 'her little ponies' stays her hand from lashing out against the thousand idiots, parasites, and snipers that any being with less love and tolerance in their heart would have burnt to ashes decades ago. The only reason she doesn't unleash her full power against her enemies is that it would sunder this planet if she did. Think about the rituals you perform. Raising and lowering the sun and the moon, arranging the weather, forcing the change of seasons. These are rituals now, but they were a vital part of merely surviving once, long ago. There are places in this world the weather now simply happens, the season change of their own accord. Think of a force who could so damage the world that ponies would have to take those natural processes in hand and perform them themselves. Imagine what it would take to vanquish such a force. Then realize, that force is no longer around, but Celestia and Luna are. That, is who you are dealing with."

     I look at the horrified ponies and grin at them. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to request an invitation to the party that's going to celebrate the declaration, and tell her Majesty that I sold a map to the Royal Wheelbarrow to Sunny Days."

     "Royal Wheelbarrow?" Glory asks.

     "Yes, there was a century, after things were running well, and Luna's banishment was getting to her, that her Majesty's love of cake, rather got the better of her."

     "You'd share that with Sunny Days?" Benevolent Warrior says, working up to a full-grown tirade.

     "How else am I going to lure that fool into the caverns beneath Canterlot? It used to be a gem mine and leads deep into the mountain. If that smarmy, narcissistic hack gets lost or breaks his neck, not my fault." I shrug.

     "I can't allow that," Shining Armor says firmly.

     "What? It's not as if I'll actually murder him with my own hooves. Her Highness would never stand for that."

     "That isn't it," Armor says, "I can't let you embarrass her Highness that way."

     I laugh. "Do you actually think such a thing still exists?" I ask, and wait for the captain to grow uneasy, "You're probably wearing the lions-share of what's left of it."

     "Then you're luring that reporter to her, his death?" Brown Chief asks.

     "No, I'm just going to mention to her Highness that is what I'm going to do."

     "After that big speech about how mighty she is, and you're going to twit her like that?" Moon City asks. His confusion plain to see.

     "Oh course. Princess Celestia loves her dutiful, diligent ponies, but there's something in her that loves the ones that challenge her more. She probably loves those NLR-types more than any others, as long as they were conducting a Velvet Revolution with no one hurt and only ideas exchanged. So, of course I'm having a prank war with her. How do you think I wound up with an entire machine shop bolted to the ceiling? I'm not that crazy, or that powerful."

     Brown Chief and Moon City take that opportunity to faint. Benevolent Warrior looks one step behind them, and the good Captain is on the verge himself. Glory looks more confused than frightened, and Furniture Maker simply looks thoughtful.

     "So, it's the intellectual challenge she wants. The intricate tricks and labyrinthine puzzles for her to work out," Furniture Maker says, as if ironing it out for himself.

     "Pretty much." I watch him as the pieces come together.

     "That finally explains the civil service," he proclaims, and walks out.

     Benevolent Warrior rolls his eyes and follows.

     "So all of Twilie's nervousness, and panics at disappointing the Princess . . . " the captain helplessly trails off.

     "All in her head, I'm afraid," I tell him, "The Princess isn't going to react badly to someone who tried beyond their grasp and failed, as much as someone who always succeeds because they never stretch themselves. Even that person won't be sent to the moon for their laziness."

     Captain Shining Armor nods and wanders vaguely towards the door. I look at Glory, the last one left standing. "Anything I can help you with?"

     "Can you put me back in the world I came from?" She looks around. "It was right here a second ago."

     I'm going to label this 'Grand Central Station', I think as I enter my quarters carrying the rather sad remains of a 'post-Soarin" transmission.

     "Can I help you ladies?" I ask of the aquamarine unicorn with an intense expression and mint-green mane and tail, the very nervous beige earth pony with a blue and pink mane and tail, and the last, standing aside looking at the machine tools is a gray and dark gray earth pony with a treble clef cutie-mark.

     "It's said you remember humans," the unicorn says, sounding like Pinkie Pie at her Pinkiest.

     "Yes, I don't really know if they are false or true memories," I tell her, "But they are very detailed."

     "Manhattan, Los Angeles, Luciano Pavarotti, the Gettysburg Address, who's buried in Grant's Tomb, the Channel Tunnel, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Great Wall of China, the terracota army, Hollywood, Beethoven," she says in a mad rush, then holds up a hoof. "HANDS!"

     Her companion gets more mortified with each phrase, and now looks like she wants to crawl under one of the machine tools.

     "I remember all of those things," I tell her as I set the transmission down on a work table. "What about them?"

     "They exist!"

     "I remember them, that's not quite the same," I tell her.

     "But, it's all consistent, and all those things fit in!" she asks intently, then whispers, "Especially the hands?"

     "Yes, ma'am. They are tool users, and hands can fairly well replace unicorn magic to hold and move things."

     "Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow!" she exclaims, bouncing up and down like Pinkie Pie.

     "Just remember, someone might have just stuck those memories in my head. They might be consistence with your memories, because they borrowed them from you, and put them in my head. With a few suitable alterations," I say.

     She slows her bouncing and looks thoughtful.

     "And in all your memories, was there any real magic capable of moving a person from one reality to another?"

     "Well, no."

     "So if I was a human, how did I get here?" I ask.

     She seems to calm down considerably. Her companion looks up with some real hope.

     "But the dreams, they are so real!?" the unicorn complains in confusion.

     "Then take your dreams and use them to make this world a better place." I pick up Pinkie's 'grabber'. "You know Pinkie Pie, her thoughts came up with this, and the flying machines. There's got to be dozens to hundreds of good ideas in your dreams that could help everypony. Use them."

     "I, I guess you're right," she says.

     Her companion closes in. "See?"

     "I see," the unicorn says fiercely, "I haven't been using humans to help ponies enough. From now on, I shall! Laura Faust deserves no less!" says the true-believer as she walks out. Her companion looks ready to put one or both of their heads through a wall, as she turns to follow.

     The last of my three guests approaches. She's a bit wild-eyed after my conversation. "Do you get that often?"

     "No, Miss Octavia," I tell her as I begin disassembling the transmission.

     She's pleased I recognize her. Then she's crestfallen. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to delve into your memories of being human."

     I glance around. "What am I, the chief crazy person in residence today?"

     "I apologize," she says, "But I'm performing at the Grand Galloping Gala, and . . . I would frankly like some music that isn't as boring to the musicians as it is to the audience."

     "But you don't want the audience to know they are being heckled?" I ask, and when she nods I add, "That lets off PDB Bach, although that might be appropriate for the Magna Carta party tonight. I think I have just the thing, although a rendition of 'Pinkie's Brew' and 'Gypsy Bard' by Sherclopones will have to be transcribed and made to match a string quartet."

     "I don't understand," she admits.

     "Let me sing them, then you'll understand. And understand why I don't have a music cutie-mark."

     "Pony Season!" Discord shouts as he pulls the handbill reading 'Discord Season' off the tree, revealing the one reading 'Pony Season'. The large gray sphere pivots so its impact crater/satellite dish feature points at me.

     "Discord Season!" I pull off the hand bill, the one beneath showing Discord, and the sphere pivots back.

     "Pony Season!"

     "Discord Season!"

     "Pony Season!"

     "Discord Season!"

     "Pony Season!"

     "Discord Season!"

     "Pony Season!"

     "Discord Season!"

     "Pony Season!"

     "Discord Season!"

     "Pony -! Oh dear." Discord looks at the handbill saying 'Celestia Season'. The picture is Celestia smiling, very horrifyingly smiling.

     I'm distracted by the blast of hot breath on the back of my neck. When I focus back, the little Death Star has jumped to hyperspace, and Discord is doing his level best to duplicate the effect while running away. Another somehow more insistent blast of hot breath makes me wonder if I could do the same. Unfortunately, I'm more curious, or stupid. So, I turn around.

     There are some frightening things in Equestria. They're all pikers compared with Celestia, wings at maximum extension at her sides, a determined grin that would give the Joker pause, a costume more appropriate to Morrigan Aensland, and thigh-high, lace-up, high-heel, dominatrix boots on all four legs. The blast of hot breath from her nose, and her smile actually widening convinces me to take a step back.

     Celestia takes a step forward.

     I take several steps back in rapid succession. She takes a step forward, her wing brushing the tree, revealing a 'Luna Season' handbill next in the stack Discord and I had been discarding. This time, my step back causes me to bump into something both soft and solid.

     "Dah-ling," whispers in my ear.

     I turn and see Luna. Wearing a tiger-striped bikini bottom, with a matching strip of cloth around her barrel below her shoulders, and sporting a second horn.

     I back up, and then remember what I'm backing up to.

     "You're scaring him, dear sister," Celestia says.

     I look at her, she's now in a white bodysuit with black highlights and a '00' at the throat.

     "I am?" Luna answers sharply, and a red-covered foreleg wraps around my neck and drags me back.

     "No unauthorized touching," Celestia replies and touches her horn to Luna's wrist. Instantly, Luna's costume is a red balloon, with black highlights and a '02' on the throat.

     Luna grumbles, but turns her head to let her horn burst the suit like a balloon. Beneath she's wearing a red cape and a white body suit that covers all but her legs, and a prominent hole below her neck. "You're awful," Luna complains.

     "I'm not bad," Celestia says, I turn back to Celestia who is wearing a sparkly red dress and her mane covers one side of her face.

     "I think both of you are missing a rather important feature of those characters," I explain.

     A riding crop catches me under the chin and turns me back to Luna. The pickelhaube, monocle, military blouse, and Iron Cross I can understand. The walrus moustache went beyond eccentric. "I haf been a bad pony. You vill punish me," comes the stern command.

     There's a tubercular cough, and a gray limb wraps around my foreleg, dragging me away. I look down. Celestia, all in battleship gray, wearing a two-gun turret as a hat, one more on each shoulder, and a fourth on her rump.

     She gives another cough. "Just one moment of happiness, and then . . . "

     "Okay, if she's Bismarck, then you must be HMS Hood," I realize, "You do know that Hood's magazine exploded." I realize my mistake just a few seconds too late.

     It is odd that a molded sheet of corrugated, galvanized steel would be so welcome. But in the form of a bucket . . .

     "That's it lad, get it all out," comes a familiar voice, but I'm concentrating on something else right now.

     I manage to raise my head out of the bucket and look around. My apartment/workshop has been converted back into a sickroom. Numerous others are also worshiping their own buckets.

     "Too much exotic cheese at the celebration?" I ask.

     "Too much cheese," Mile Stone tells me. "At least you didn't have the nightmares that others have had."

     The urge to use the bucket ruins the scathing retort I had planned.

     "Other than the aftermath," Mile Stone asks, "Was it a good party?"

     The mechanics are standing around as I walk through the Wonderbolts' practice field. My recent bout of 'too much delicious but unusual food' still had me queasy and a little ethereal. Like I wasn't really there. They look more nervous than I remember seeing them, I think as I walk towards the hanger, Even Shadow Pearl looks nervous. I maintain my oblivious act as I walk further. More and more of the mechanics and support personnel, but none of the Wonderbolts or Shadowbolts are in evidence. This is one of those times you aren't sure if you want to be in on the joke, I think as I keep walking. I am almost expecting a dozen guards and a butterfly net as I round the last corner to the hanger. What I encounter is more shocking.

     There sits the quadra-Diane, with two exact duplicates, right down to the paint scheme. There is a lot of nervous foot-shifting and nudges. Time to make them really nervous, I think as I nonchalantly walk over to the tool box and select the wrenches to remove one of the drive shafts that turn the rotors. Suddenly the joke isn't funny anymore, and a couple of the mechanics have to be restrained or muzzled as the rest watch, and wonder.

     Changing out a drive shaft is a quick enough job. I pull one from the machine on the right, one from the left, and use them to replace two on the center machine. None of the audience has said a word, as they skittishly watch. Even Shadow Pearl is sweating bullets by the time I'm done. But the shafts are the right length, and they are drilled and shaped well enough that there's no need to rework them. Although I can tell, the quadra-Diane on the left is the original.

     "Okay, you've got your test unit," I say in a detached tone, pointing at the original, "And a couple of very good copies." I note the center and the right one.

     "How'd you tell?" Shadow Pearl exclaims as he mops his brow.

     "That's my little secret," I reply. They accept this and take the machine out to field. I catch Shadow Pearl before he leaves. "There were flaws in those two shafts I removed. And another in one of the others, but none on my machine. So take it a little easy with the production copy. I'll fix these and you should have two machines up to my usual standards."

     "Meaning three hours of aerobatics, or ten minutes with Soarin' flying it?" Shadow Pearl asks.

     "As long as he can still land it, he's showing up weaknesses I'd never think to check," I admit.

     The old Wonderbolt captain nods.

     Glory arrives a moment later. "Three? How'd you build three?" she stammers.

     "The mechanics built two, I finished the third last night." I look around, not recognizing the burly stallion accompanying Glory. "Where's Claire?"

     "On a 'secret mission'," Glory says disgustedly, "I swear, you've corrupted her."

     "Learn from the best," I tell her, "Let's go watch them try and break the thing."

     "You have a very sick sense of humor," Glory says as she trots after me.

     Captain Armor collapsed to the throne room floor, panting heavily. Claire walked up to him. "That's why we call your team 'feathersouls'," she said triumphantly.

     "Mustn't taunt the captain, ma'am," Mile Stone said as he led her back to her Highness, "These younger people aren't taught properly anymore." They passed at least a dozen other, much younger guards, all as flat-out exhausted as their captain.

     The pair bowed. "Your Highness, that is how a proper game is played," Mile Stone said, "Although, young Barnum has sufficient faith in your abilities, that he suggested a more 'theatrical' approach. More flash than just good play. I believe that you will not play as, aggressively, as is typical."

     "Wouldn't ponies consider that cheating?" her Majesty asked innocently.

     "No ma'am," Claire said quickly, "Considering that Luna's team is getting helped by some star players."

     "Who are they!?" Captain Armor demanded from his heap on the floor.

     "Note, your Majesty, 'players', not coaches. I think that they will learn good skills, but not be a good team," Mile Stone said.

     "So you'll be facing them one at a time, rather than a coordinated team," Claire concluded.

     "Very interesting intelligence," Celestia said, "Isn't it a trifle unfair to know their strategy?"

     "No, ma'am," Mile Stone said quickly as he noted Claire wilting slightly under the hint of royal disapproval, "The point, as I understand it, is to present such an overwhelming show of force, or in this case skill, that the other side, and the audience, are aware that they are merely existing at your mercy."

     Celestia bowed her head. "Remind them that I am a goddess of vast and ruinous powers."

     "Who loves her ponies and wants what is best for them," Mile Stone added quickly, exactly as he'd rehearsed, noting he'd felt the pressure as well, "This is a game, your Highness, and the audience is paying good bits to see something spectacular. If that is her Highness, playing at the top of her game, and still giving those who dared challenge her nearly everything they've asked for and then some, then that is what it should be. 'No better friend, no worse enemy.'"

     "I was right to assign you to Barnum," Celestia said, "You've done each other a world of good." Her Majesty cheered up visibly. "What deep, dark plan have the two of you cooked up?"

     "With respect your Highness, the 'two of you' in this case, is my wife and I," Mile Stone said, and considered, "I never knew that mare was such a royalist, nor had such a mean streak."

     "It's gotta be perfect," the lieutenant stammers as we watch the demonstration, "If she doesn't like it, if we displease her -"

     "If you say one word about the moon, I'll send you there personally, in small pieces, followed by every member of your family I can find! In much smaller pieces! You won't know whether to reassemble them for company or eat them to stave off starvation!" I thunder at the filly.

     She looks like a puppy that's been undeservedly kicked, but I don't relent. "She gets enough of that 'send them to the moon' stuff from her enemies. I will not tolerate any of it coming from this command, is that perfectly clear?"

     She manages a nod.

     "Now," I continue in a calmer tone, having frightened not only the lieutenant, but every mechanic, guard, Wonderbolt and Shadowbolt within a hundred and fifty yards. "She sent Nightmare Moon in the moon, not to the moon. She banished her corrupted sister to the place in the system where she was the strongest, so Luna could hold off Nightmare Moon until Celestia could find the means to cure her. Celestia's knights found and used those means to banish Nightmare Moon and save her sister, is that clear?"

     She nods again.

     "Good, now stand up. If you're going to go down, go down with your head held high. Their Highnesses see all and know more, if we do our best, they will forgive us. And our best is not worrying about our performance, until it diminishes our performance, correct?"

     "Yes, sir," she replies.

     I don't correct her, it never works. "Now, are there specific corrections to be made, other than it isn't 'perfect'?"

     "Not showy enough," she says sheepishly, "Mile Stone is going to her Majesty and advising a more theatrical complexion. We might want to ramp up the tension somewhat as well."

     "That might put the team in danger," I reply.

     "Not necessarily, sir," she says, "My expertise is in gauging time and effort for a task. There might be a way to ramp up the tension, without endangering anyone, as long as we don't exactly relate the rules to the audience beforehand."

     I nod. "Let's go talk to Shadow Pearl about it. Just remember, we have to give their Highnesses a bit of time for a shower, rubdown and then the pristine and glowing alicorns sign the paper."

     "I think I have an idea for that too, sir."

     "See, panicking gets you no where. Solutions to problems, that's the way to go," I tell her.

     "Yes, sir," she says happily.

     Glory Belle looked over the preparations for the 'festival' as Barnum kept insisting on calling it. Arranged around the work room were diagrams, prospective fliers, and the text of the 'rules' of the challenge between the Dianes and the Wonderbolts themselves. The last, Barnum was working on. "This is rather ambitious," she admitted her deepest unease about the planned festivities.

     I can hardly believe her Highness actually challenged the NLR to a Hoofball game, she thought.

     The sudden teleport appearance of her sovereign in Barnum's quarters/workshop did nothing to settle her mind. That Celestia's head and neck seemed to be wrapped in colorful, barbed wire didn't help, nor did the plunger stuck to her butt flying the small flag reading 'cake thief!'

     "CAKE THIEF!" Celestia thundered in the Royal Canterlot voice, as she leapt on Barnum, "I'll 'cake thief' you! You little miscreant!"

     Glory Belle retreated to the far end of the room as her gentle, compassionate goddess went mad and was physically attacking one of her ponies, and worse, Barnum was actually striking back. She felt tears form and she chewed her hoof as her horror grew. The pair rolled over and over, moving into the clear area of the room, away from the work area. Both screamed bloodcurdling threats and emitted cries of surprise and shock.

     Barnum's bed daintily flew far over her head, removing the last hindrance in the area the battle was taking place in, and neither had broken the clinch they held the other in. They occasionally rolled over, but only when one forced the issue. The noises they made as they struggled clotted the well-bred unicorn's soul.

     The absence of guards didn't help. They'd just stand and watch, she realized as she just stood there and watched, I've got to do something. She considered who to hit, and how, to break up the fight. She felt ashamed at her earlier indecision, and at her current resolve, as she selected a large hammer and considered how hard to hit Barnum when she got the chance. She gingerly stepped over the plunger and the attached little flag reading 'cake thief' that had fallen off. She blinked away her tears, closed in, hammer at the ready and looked at her Highness. That's not barbed wire, she thought, They're ribbons. Brightly-colored ribbons. And lots of 'cake thief' tags. Her confusion grew.

     Celestia had a bitten down on Barnum's horn and seemed to have the upper wing, as her pinions flashed in to strike the smaller, struggling unicorn. But Barnum grimly struck back, nipping along the alicorn's throat, and aiming hooves at the base of her wings. Both emitted stifled growls, and the eyes were madly changing between surprise, shock and grim determination. Celestia lost her footing and Barnum knocked her over and pushed her onto her back. Her sovereign's wings fluttered like a baby birds and her princess shed tears as she struggled. The smaller unicorn had her pinned.

     Glory Belle, child of dutiful and loyal Equestrians for generations, raised the hammer to deliver a killing blow to the invader who'd dare attack her princess. Celestia released Barnum's horn, and began laughing.

     "No mercy, eh?" Barnum asked the giggling, squirming goddess of Equestria, "Then no quarter."

     "No, no! Not the tail! Not the tail!" Celestia squealed between laughs. Her hooves slashing at the air. A faint orange glow surrounded Barnum's horn and the base of Celestia's tail, and she thrashed it against a target she couldn't dislodge.

     Glory nearly dropped the hammer on Barnum out of pure shock. She suddenly recognized the behavior, and it wouldn't have been the least out of place in a slumber party. But because it was her Solar Highness Princess Celestia, it never entered my mind, she thought as watched Barnum carefully avoiding the slashing hooves, the thrashing wings and tail, to continue sending her Highness into hysterics.

     "Help your sovereign!" Celestia shouted among her gales of laughter, penetrating Glory's mental fog.

     I think I know who's helping her, Glory thought as she considered the two targets, No it's too easy. She jumped over a thrashing wing, knelt down, rolled over and cradled her sovereign's head on her stomach.

     "What are you doing?" Celestia asked with a bit of alarm.

     Glory noted that Barnum had momentarily ceased his operations. "What my old nurse used to do to me," Glory said, "I peed myself once or twice as I remember." She began nibbling at the base of her sovereign's horn.

     "NO! No! No!" Celestia shouted as the two youngsters coordinated their efforts.

     Celestia held her beloved ponies tight to her as she knelt on the floor. She smiled at the childish fun she'd had. Barnum was still gasping like an old man who'd run a double marathon. Glory was more settled, but in some ways more exhausted. She laid hands on her goddess, after preparing to kill to defend her. She'll recover, but I think she'll need time and reassurance for that.

     Celestia looked up and grinned as the door to the chamber briefly went from red, to yellow, to white, and then sagged to the floor in a sizzling, smoldering heap. Celestia gathered the two tightly against her with her wings and waited.

     Luna charged in, shouldering the half-molten door aside. Clad in her full battle armor, her Nightjesty would have given Nightmare Moon pause. Nearly two dozen troopers charged in at her heels and took up textbook defensive positions. Two of the pegasi were airborne the instant they were through the door, and the unicorns had spells and magic ready to defend or attack. Some were the white Day Guard. Some the charcoal Night Guards. Celestia recognized Claire, Glory's mare. There were even some of the former soldiers among the civil service who'd taken up arms and armor again.

     Celestia merely smiled. "How long?" she asked her mystified sister, then smiled warmly, "Sergeant, how long between the call, and coming through that door?"

     Mile Stone, no stranger to false alarms that were training exercises, checked his watch. "Two minutes and thirty, your Majesty."

     "Problems?" Celestia asked, her curiosity manifest.

     "Not with a scratch force like this one. But you are correct. We'll need a dedicated force ready to deal more swiftly with problems," Mile Stone said and bowed.

     "I'm sure you and the other officers can work out the details," she said encouragingly, "Thank you, thank you all for being willing to help. I apologize for the subterfuge, but we needed to know how it would really work."

     Mile Stone nodded. Then his own curiosity got him. "Are they hostages, or kidnappers?" Mile Stone asked.

     "Oh, vile kidnappers, degrading my dignity and forcing the deepest secrets of Equestria from me. Until my loyal sister bravely led our guards to the rescue."

     "Of course," Luna said flatly. She turned to the guard force. "Thank you. I'm sorry I couldn't tell you it was a drill, but my sister gets some, interesting ideas now and then."

     The guards and armed civilians moved off, leaving the two sisters alone with the two young unicorns.

     "Still think they don't love and trust you?" Celestia asked, "I would have bet good bits that Elastic Parrot wouldn't climb out of his counting house for the end of the world."

     Luna frowned. "I heard, sister. Nothing that happens under the moon escapes my eye."

     Celestia hugged her two charges with her wings. "Then you are lacking in the ways of teenagers, and others who have not lost sight of simple fun."

     "You were on your back, screaming, and unable to escape."


     "Unable, you couldn't have lit your horn if Discord himself had appeared."

     Celestia frowned at that. "If an attacker had appeared, he, she or it would have faced all three of us, until you arrived. A moment's joy, that's all it was." Celestia couldn't help herself. "Jealous?"

     Luna frowned and raised a hoof. "Next time it'll be three-on-one."

     "Oh good, I remember all the places you are ticklish."

     Luna frowned, and turned to leave. She paused and looked at her sister wistfully gazing at the two charges under her wings. "I'm not the only one who's loved."

     "But it's so much better when you aren't feared as well," Celestia replied with a trace of melancholy.

     Glory walked to her uncle's office, nearly lost in a fog. She and Barnum had slept beneath Celestia's own wings until midmorning. She was conflicted about both the 'battle', her reaction to it, and her sovereign's reaction to it.

     "Uncle?" she asked of the extremely busy bureaucrat, who for some reason hadn't sent her away so he could better deal with the affairs of state. He nodded to several of the ministers and senior civil servants, who instantly departed, without rancor. The door closed behind them.

     "What can I do for my niece? The projects are advancing swimmingly. Young Barnum rocks the boat, but does not endanger swamping it. I'd say everything is looking quite favorable."

     "Uncle, how long have you known her Highness?" Glory asked.

     "I was introduced when I joined the civil service," he said smoothly, "I began seeing her regularly at meetings when I became head of my, then, department some four years later. I've had dealing with her off and on since then."

     "How well do you know her?" Glory asked despondently, studying the elaborate patterns in the rugs, and trying to force those patterns onto her chaotic thoughts.

     "I suspect that even Celestia doesn't know all of Celestia," Eagle said, "I know her better than most. I know she's very concerned that you might take your little exercise in close combat to heart the wrong way."

     "Wha?" Glory looked up and stammered.

     Her uncle smiled. "Celestia is young, for her lifespan, effectively not much older than you are now. While at the same time, she's more ancient than any of us. She likes to play with we innocent youngsters, like a mother playing with her children. You didn't 'forcibly lay hands on the princess'," he said theatrically. "You were ordered to participate, and you did. A moment's lark in the privacy of another's room, little more than a sleep-over game, as it were."

     "She told you this?" Glory asked fearfully.

     "She told me you three played, and you seemed a bit at a loss for it. She also admitted that she and Barnum have been exchanging pranks for some time, and you might not have understood the context of her 'attack' on your friend."

     "I didn't. But my part . . . "

     "Nonsense," Eagle told her, "If you'd hurt her, she could have stopped you. If she was offended, she likewise could have stopped you. She ordered you to participate, and she regrets that, but not that you chose Barnum's side and not hers. She was amused that you were ready to brain Barnum, then eagerly joined in yourself." His expression softened. "She isn't a china doll who has to be protected. She's a wily and well-studied combatant. A pair of foals like you two wouldn't last a trice, if she wanted the game over. She enjoyed it, and cuddling you two under her wings afterward."

     "It's not what I expected," Glory admitted.

     "Niece," Eagle said softly, "You aren't betraying your mother by enjoying the feeling of being cuddled by her Highness. A touch, a nuzzle has that effect on most ponies. And that you were willing to play with her, you certainly earned it."

     "How did you know?" Glory asked sheepishly as she raised her head to look at her uncle.

     "There are a good deal of things I've done, that I won't easily talk about," Eagle Bell said, "Having a near total breakdown in her Highness' presence is one of them."

     Glory stared at him in shock.

     "I wasn't born this age and this cynical you know. I was once more callow and idealistic than you are now. And I failed, rather spectacularly, a personal request from her Highness. They took me to the very place your battle took place. Her Highness stayed with me and comforted me. I was back to normal in an hour or so, all thanks to her Highness' attention," Eagle said, "So I know how it feels to be under Celestia's wing, figuratively."

     Glory nodded shyly. "So much has happened, so fast," she said, "I don't know what to expect any more."

     "Then simply do your best and enjoy the ride," Eagle said and nuzzled her, "You have to let other people be themselves too. You've always been the strongest will, so you could get others to do as you wanted. You're facing people with wills vastly stronger than yours. You are going to have to accept that they'll do as they wish, they'll be who they are, whatever you do or say. Most of them think very highly of you, so they will do what they think is best or what you want. That's sometimes worse than enmity or indifference."

     "That's putting it mildly. It's certainly less comfortable," Glory said, "Thank you uncle. I think we both better get back to work." She trotted out feeling better about the world, and the ponies in it.

     The group of us walked along, in another of my dear sister's 'interesting' ideas. Disguised as an ordinary pony, and my guard force disguising our foray as just a group of friends out on the town. But I was enjoying that ponies no longer feared my night as they once did, even celebrated in it. The fireworks display caught my attention. The group with us seemed content to meander, I had no desire to lead, so we meandered in that direction.

     The unicorn on the stage was boasting of some great battles that I had neither heard of, nor read about in the intelligence briefings.

     "An Ursa Major?" Barnum exclaimed, "Only the alicorn sisters would have a chance against one of those. Celestia's own knight, Twilight Sparkle was hard pressed to deal with an Ursa Minor."

     "Neigh-sayer are you? And what weave of magic do you have, that could match the Great and Powerful Trixie?" The fireworks exploded again.

     I shook my head. Whatever crazy plan Barnum had, that arrogant mage had walked right into it.

     "I can gift my friend here with the powers of an alicorn, i.e., wings and horn magic," Barnum said, indicating me, "Observe." The disguise he'd wound around me earlier dissolved, and I stood revealed to the crowd. Predictably, they gasped. Some even genuflected, before being hauled to their feet by others whispering 'it's not really her Nightjesty/Luna'. "Considering the night time, I thought Luna would be the more appropriate alicorn," Barnum said, and received some polite hoofstamps of applause.

     The mare on the stage stamped a hoof in frustration. I levitated a young boy among the audience, as I took to the air, flying a tight circle, before landing and returning the colt to embrace of his mother.

     "Okay, you did your trick, now change me back before somepony gets the wrong idea," I told Barnum, and I was immediately returned to the disguised form of an earth pony.

     The unicorn mare waited for the details of the challenge. Barnum didn't give details. He merely smiled at the mare.

     "Disguise a mare as Princess Luna, and you say that compares with the Great and Powerful Trixie?" The explosion of fireworks was well-timed to orchestrate her pronouncement.

     Neither I, nor Barnum were discomfitted by that. We waited. Her horn glowed and she tried to superimpose her disguise spell over Barnum's. The spells interacted and vaguely interfered, but the Great and Powerful Trixie's spell ended up making me look patchwork.

     "I'm not flying without two complete wings," I said as she struggled.

     She finally gave up, as Barnum climbed up on the stage. "Let me show you the trick," Barnum said quietly, so quietly I doubt anyone besides me and Trixie caught it. "Take a bit, disguise it as a pen, then when you 'transform' the pen to a bit, no unicorn can detect the transformation, because you withdrew the spell."

     "Fascinating," The Great and Powerful Trixie commented.

     "You are not connecting the two points," Barnum said and grinned.

     It was amusing, watching the idea germinate and sprout in the mind of the Great and Powerful Trixie. She looked at me in terror, and I nodded. She suddenly looked ready to run for it.

     Barnum handed her a card. "You look like you could use a good meal. Show up there early, and I've got a job for you. I already know the breadth of your talents, which exceed mine. I have need of them, and I'm willing to pay good money for your time."

     The Frightened and Uncertain Trixie nodded quietly, but managed to regain her apparent certainty and began her performance again, once Barnum had hopped down off the stage. She did continue to glance at our group as we moved away.

     "You were somewhat cruel," I told Barnum. Surprisingly, he nodded.

     "Yes, but you have to get her attention. She did try to make things right when she was in Ponyville. But you have to get past her arrogance to let her into the real world," he said, "I am aware that I walk in very August circles, thanks to Celestia's influence. That mare is nearly as widely skilled as Twilight Sparkle."

     "Her?" Glory asked in disbelief.

     "I said nothing about her power-level. She's a piker on that score, but there are a few things she might be able to help on things that have eluded us."

     "Why do I think you want magical backup when their Highnesses go for a check ride tomorrow?" I asked.

     "That's a fascinating theory, your Highness," he said as we walked. I didn't miss the knowing grin on Glory.

Out of Place - Out of Context Part 2

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc. Billy Joel - Piano Man Sing us a song, you're the piano man Sing us a song tonight Well, we're all in the mood for a melody And you've got us all feelin' all right Now John at the bar is a friend of mine He gets me my drinks for free And he's quick with a joke and he'll light up your smoke But there's some place that he'd rather be He says, "Bill, I believe this is killing me." As his smile ran away from his face "Well I'm sure that I could be a movie star If I could get out of this place"

     "The Great and Powerful Trixie, is going to need a great and powerful nap," the caped mare said as she trudged towards the entrance to the Wonderbolts' training grounds. The guard she encountered was charcoal gray, and had an attitude that none would cross the threshold without a pass. The Great and Powerful Trixie displayed her pass. A paper-thin sheet of metal, on which were scribed: Ponyville, major or minor. Then send her to breakfast, Barnum.

     "Major or minor, ma'am," the guard said on looking at the pass.

     "Minor, very minor," the Great and Powerful Trixie replied haughtily, implying the town itself, or her defeat there.

     "Please follow the mare," the guard said, friendly now that the Great and Powerful Trixie was permitted entry.

     "Thank you," she replied and accompanied the white, earth pony mare.

     "I heard all about you from Twilight Sparkle," the empty-headed functionary gobbled, "But Barnum says we're wrong about you. That you are really a good wizard. I mean skilled wizard."

     "The Great and Powerful Trixie is among the finest practitioners of magic in all of Equestria," the Great and Powerful Trixie told her, and yawned.

     "Really?" the mare asked as they passed through some sheds. They seemed to be catching up to the odd mechanic or other drone as they headed towards our destination. "I heard you said you'd taken on an Ursa Major, but only the alicorn sisters have won against those. Then I heard you single-hoofedly captured the legendary Hoovy gang. I thought the Intelligence service caught them."

     "Well, they had help they daren't acknowledge," the Great and Powerful Trixie explained.

     "Oh, well, don't go lying to Barnum. Not only will he see through them, but he'll get really, really, really mad," the idiot got close and provided the Great and Powerful Trixie with the following intelligence, not that the mare could spare it, "They say he single-hoofedly beat up Sunny Days, he's a massive unicorn, big as a farm pony. And he might have really hurt him, if Celestia herself hadn't dislocated his legs to get him to stop. There's also the rumor that Barnum and Glory beat up Celestia herself, and they won! Can you believe it?" the mare gasped.

     "The Great and Powerful Trixie puts little stock in rumors," the unicorn replied loftily.

     "Okie Dokie Loki GeePeeTee," the mare said and grinned, "But, I think they may be more than rumors." She held the door to a barracks-style cafeteria open so The Great and Powerful Trixie could enter first.

     "Thank you, and how would you know that, pray tell?" the unicorn answered.

     The earth pony closed the door behind her, and Trixie froze as she stared at the revealed form Celestia herself. "Because I was there," the sovereign of Equestria said, "And you are right, they had help getting the gang. I think you'll like the pancakes. Barnum is a master of the griddle. And he has high hopes for you. Please don't disappoint him, GeePeeTee."

     The Great and Powerful Trixie just got trolled by her Highness herself, the mage considered. She continued to the queue to get a stack of pancakes. With her breakfast in horn, The Great and Powerful Trixie took a place on the edges of the cafeteria, away from all the other ponies. Then a white unicorn mare she recognized as part of last night's group sat down across from her.

     "So you're the mage who thinks she's hot stuff, and can do things the rest of us can't. I think you'd better consider that humiliating your opponent rather than answering their challenge won't work here," the mare said, all the while smiling, "This place spins on results, not the applause of the crowd."

     "I would think showmareship would matter more here than in my little performances," The Great and Powerful Trixie replied calmly.

     Who of yours did I humiliate?! she wondered of the smiling mare giving her visual daggers.

     The retort was cut short by the arrival of a lummox of a mechanic, who sat down next to The Great and Powerful Trixie, and shoveled half the immense stack of pancakes he carried onto Trixie's plate. "Oh Great and Powerful Trixie, I must know, you have the trick of making the fireworks go in what seems like the sound of your voice. Oh, hello Glory Bell, pretty morning. So often, my rockets are off by the littlest bit. If perfection in synchronizing I could acquire, then perfection in the displays I would see. Understandable I am?"

     "Yes, I understand you," Trixie replied disdainfully, and watched the lummox nod happily.

     "Just watch yourself," the white mare warned as she stood away from the table.

     "You gonna be too busy wit' you own watch, to fix other pony's," the lummox said, then looked around, "Ooo 'scues me, blockin' you's view." The lummox hooved his plate to the other side of Trixie, and then squeezed into the small space on the side with his plate, shoving Trixie down the bench. "She gonna get's what's coming to her. You see, is good you bet!" he said happily.

     Trixie was about to dress down the moron, when she saw both alicorn sisters at the other end of the cafeteria. The Wonderbolts' leader, Spitfire tapped a cup on the table. The sound of eating and the conversations died away.

     "As you well know. The flying machines, have been tested, broken, and repaired with amazing frequency. We have two ponies to thank for that."

     "Soarin' for breaking them!" came the call from the kitchen. Everyone laughed, but Trixie tensed up.

     "You wanted'em tested, I tested'em," the stallion in question shot back, "And quicker than you would have got otherwise." The crowd laughed at the riposte.

     Okay, they trade barbs, but they are a group, and I'm on the outside, Trixie thought, And the 'them' includes both Princesses. She noted the two smiling mares standing with Spitfire.

     "I was actually thinking of Barnum, and our own Glory Bell. I say our own because . . . " the Wonderbolts' leader turned to their Highnesses. From boxes in front of them, her Nightjesty pulled out a Shadowbolt's uniform, and her Majesty pulled out a Wonderbolt's uniform. The white unicorn mare gasped in astonishment. "You more than earned them," Spitfire told her.

     "And about fricken time," Shadow Pearl threw in.

     The mare stood stock still, staring at Spitfire. "I, I don't know what to say."

     "Yes or no would be a good start," Trixie suggested, then grinned, "This place spins on results, not the applause of the crowd."

     "Well said," Spitfire said, ignoring the mare's sour look at getting her comeuppance. "In case you're wondering, you're being invited to join both groups. So." Spitfire opened the box at her feet and pulled out a uniform that tiger-stripped the Shadowbolts' and Wonderbolts' colors. Glory was speechless as her friends stomped their hooves and whistled.

     Trixie ate silently, feeling alone in a crowd. Enjoying the food. At least I don't have to 'perform' for my supper, Trixie thought, How long has it been since I could be alone in a crowd? When people weren't either screaming insults at me, or demanding stories or tricks? She looked around at the crowd of Wonderbolts and presumably Shadowbolts, who were congratulating Glory Bell.

     Barnum, the stallion who'd humbled her the previous night sat down across the table from her. He horned over the syrup and poured it over the stack of pancakes he'd brought over with him. "When you're ready, we'll head out to the hanger. And I'll show you what I need your expertise for."

     "The Great and Powerful Trixie works for more than a mere hand out," Trixie said.

     "Okay, I'll give you a free piece of advice. Steer clear of Glory Bell. Be polite, but don't engage. You did your usual trick on one of her cousins. The 'only one with artistic pretensions who's worth a damn'. After you humiliated him, it took him six months to start producing art again. Much of that time was Glory urging him on. She deeply resents that, and before you say 'what could she do', the boy's father, Glory's uncle, is Sir Eagle Bell. While he isn't enthused about his son being a painter, he dotes on his niece and takes her word that the stallion's talent will reflect well on the family."

     "The Great and Powerful Trixie knows not of this 'Sir Eagle Bell'," Trixie replied.

     "The difference between Sir Eagle Bell and the full might and attention of the civil service of Equestria, is thin enough you could shave with it. As a strolling player, you probably have nothing to fear, but if you have higher aspiration, he would be well able to block them. At the moment, you are under my aegis. But that protection is neither infinite nor absolute. If you antagonize her, or me, I'll leave you to their tender mercies. As for your fee. I am prepared to pay 200 bits now, and an additional 300 if you can solve the problem."

     Trixie had ignored the implied threat, she was powerful and very good at avoiding such things. Five HUNDRED!? she thought, glad he'd waited until she had nothing in her mouth to choke on, I was hoping to make that much in a month. If I can make it in a few days, and they'll be picking up the food bills. Trixie smiled.

     "I'll be ready before you're done with your breakfast, then you can show me this problem," the Great, Powerful and soon-Rich Trixie told him.

     "She's planning to rip you off," Mulberry Sun warned, his act as a moronic lummox dropped once he was away from his charge.

     "I know that. But I hope to get the 500 bits worth. A few insights neither I nor Glory have latched onto will be more than worth it, even if we have to run down the details ourselves. Besides, 500 bits is pocket change. I can spend that much fixing one of Soarin's minor crashes. She's doing nickel and dime cons for the audience. The group you're with can raise a hundred kilobits for charity by selling their old uniforms. She's strictly small time, and I don't think that's going to change."

     "Sad, she's seems a clever mare," the stallion lamented.

     "There are people, ponies, who have to prove they are the smartest ones in the room, no matter who is, or what they could gain by patience and a little humility," Barnum said, "But, it's my habit to give people enough rope to hang themselves."

     "I think she's going to do that," Mulberry said. They waited for several minutes for the mage to appear. Mulberry got back into character, talking about timing of fireworks. Barnum carefully removed the covers to the quadra-Diane's drive train.

     The Shaken and Befuddled Trixie wandered in, looking like most ponies did after a 'chat' with their Highnesses.

     "They are real ponies, and try to act the part," Barnum added, not helping.

     One of these days, he's going to have to realize he's the only one immune to the Princesses' presence, Mulberry thought, Although, it may be better to give them someone to talk to and play with, who isn't completely intimidated.

     The mare looked up at him as a rabbit might look at a passing train. "The Great and Powerful Trixie finds your sacrilege, unsettling."

     "All right then. On a more secular note. These linkages lead from these pedals, all the way to these rotors. The rotors rotate, and lift and direct the machine. How would you go about enhancing the carrying capacity and maneuverability of the machine?"

     Poor mare, now she's really confused, Mulberry thought as the unicorn looked at the complicated transmission and drive shafts. Then at Barnum, and then back.

     "Doom has settled on us," Glory moaned as she trudged back to the workshop, "The demonstration is tomorrow. Oh, we could get GeePeeTee to help," she accused, "Oh wait, she ran off in the middle of the night after you paid her. Whatever was I thinking? We are never going to be ready."

     "Sure, if we work all night," Barnum reassured her, as he wobbled drunkenly on his hooves, his own exhaustion rivaling hers, "If we can keep from falling asleep in the paint, we'll get the job done by morning." Only a quick bump from Sergeant Mile Stone kept him from walking into a pillar. "Thanks. As for the showmare, she did what we asked. We had no right to hold her, and no expectation she'd agree to another job. Although it might have helped if you'd offered to put her in the half-time show. And I did offer her another commission, and I offered to build her a new wagon. I think she ran off because we were accepting her, and she couldn't deal with that. Although maybe she knew a wake-up spell. Keep us alert for the flying, after the painting."

     "I don't think you can do it," the Sergeant lamented, "Especially the last. Not and safely fly tomorrow."

     "It will be a most honorable death," Glory intoned, and nearly collapsed on the floor. Claire caught her by the scruff of the neck and prevented that. "Thanks, what are we going to do?"

     "You're asking me?" he asked incredulously, "I can't count past four without using some otherpony's hooves."

     In the workshop, stood the two single-seat Dianes needing painting, and the most gorgeous, alluring mare Glory had ever seen, save the princesses. "Ah . . . " she managed.

     Barnum looked up, squinted, trying to bring the apparition into focus. The mare looked like a zebra-unicorn, with the long legs and small body of an alicorn. Glory immediately felt inadequate and clumsy next to this vision of grace and beauty.

     "Good evening," Barnum managed, the only one not struck dumb by the vision of loveliness.

     "I was engaged for the evening," the mare said, even her voice was as smooth and warm as melted chocolate, and hinted at things Glory was not really supposed to know about. "I was told you know a mutual friend, Moon City?"

     "Ah yes," Barnum said brightly, "I take it your, services, are widely varied."

     "You take it correctly," she said and watched as the colt approached her, "Although, you are a little young. And you seem to have a lovely partner your own age."

     Glory blushed right through her fur.

     "The tribal markings and flame ornamentation, tattoos, or body paint, and your own work?" Barnum asked as he circled her.

     Glory ashamedly refocused, trying to take the mare in as a whole, and realized she was a fanciful vision of a tribal war-dancer. More from popular literature, but fairly accurate none-the-less.

     "Body paint," she said proudly, "My own work." The mare turned, letting both see her paint brush cutie-mark, disguised among a far more intricate design.

     "Fan of the Wonderbolts I see," Barnum said as he crossed around in front of her.

     "Young sir, you do know what I was hired for, don't you?" she asked nervously.

     "Milady, you are quite attractive. Even I can see that, although I am seeing three of you. But if their Highnesses burst in at this moment, both in season, demanding I father their heirs, I would hope they brought a doctor along, because I would not be able to be an active participant. Now, I hate to sound like the punch line of a joke, but those two machines need painting, one in the Wonderbolts' colors, the other in the Shadowbolts. You have some skill with intricate details, and I think you'd be perfect for the job, and believe me, you're sent right from Celestia herself if you can do it."

     The mare actually looked uncomfortable at that comment. "You're joking, right?"

     Barnum walked over to a table and pulled a slip of paper off it, and handed it to Mile Stone. "Here's how much I'm joking. You've heard about the big Hoofball game tomorrow."

     "Everyone in Equestria has. None of my, other friends have engaged me to escort them there."

     "That's a pass to the Royal Box. You do a good job painting, it's yours," Barnum said.

     Glory gasped.

     Barnum faced her. "If you think I'm going to be anywhere other than checking out the equipment, especially the safety equipment, until the half-time show, you're out of your tree," he told her, "I don't know why you kept yours, you're going to be dancing on eggshells too."

     Glory shrugged. "Sergeant, if you can get the lady through the security, you might as well get your wife through as well," Glory said as she horned over her pass to the sergeant.

     Now the sergeant seemed thunderstruck.

     "Well, I thank you and blessings be on whomever hired you," Barnum said, "I'm going to bed."

     "I don't think that's a bad idea either," Glory added.

     "Your own bed," Claire insisted.

     "Allow me," the mare said as she horn lifted the frame and set it down, then pulled the blankets and sheets, arranging them carefully.

     "Thanks," Glory managed, and collapsed onto the bed. She was vaguely aware of Claire covering her.

     She heard the mare quietly ask, "What kind of nut house did I walk into?"

     "The gentle kind," Mile Stone replied, "Do you need a smock, or just a wash after?" he asked, before Glory drifted beyond the walls of sleep.

     "At least somepony had a sense of humor," I say as I look at the two, superbly painted Dianes.

     "It's your fault," Glory says as she heads to the bathroom, "Everyone around you goes a little crazy." Claire giggles slightly as she walks past it.

     "I think the lady more than earned her place," Merry Lifter comments.

     The Dianes are marvelously painted. One is in Wonderbolts colors on the port side, and Shadowbolts on the starboard. The other is the opposite. On the main shaft fairing, the faces of each of the current Wonderbolts, and the current Shadowbolts on the appropriate side.

     "It's a beautiful job, and it shows everyone." I turn to Merry Lifter. "You're right, the lady earned her place."

     "Considering none of the ruling princesses are going to be in the box, while they're on the field, it's not going to cause too much of a scandal," Merry Lifter says.

     "Where's Cadence going to be? I heard she was back in town," I say as I finish my inspection.

     "She's going to be working with the umpires and officials. I suspect she's working with Captain Armor." The wiggling eyebrows tell me that he buys into the rumors about them getting closer.

     "I'm just worried how their Highnesses are going to keep this from being a complete magic-fest, instead of a more usual contest," I say as I plot getting the Dianes out of the room, without damaging the paint job.

     Glory exits the bathroom, and Claire darts in after. I'm going to wait a bit longer.

     "So what do . . . oh, wow!" Glory says as she sees all the details. "How do we get to the . . . ?" She looks around Wonderbolts' practice field. "I think her Majesty wins this level of the 'prank war'."

     "Yeah, and I'm going to have to explain to Claire where you suddenly went," I reply.

     "Hoofball is very like football/soccer," Barnum said as he looked over the stands, the pageantry, and flags denoting team loyalties, "A huge amount of activity to little result. Boring."

     It's all Captain Armor could do to keep himself from berating or assaulting the arrogant colt. "It's the most popular game in Equestria!" he managed.

     "It's perfect for kids," Barnum responded, "Let's them burn off a huge amount of energy, and no score to result in hard feelings. Older kids and adults can then spend a couple hours over age-appropriate drinks going over what might have been."

     "How can you even think that?" Armor stammered.

     "I believe in accomplishment. If nothing is achieved, it serves no purpose," Barnum replied evenly, "Like I said, for a pick-up game it's good exercise. That's its accomplishment. But as a spectator sport, it's perfect for any crab-bucket culture. Might as well watch lice races."

     Only Cadence's giggles prevented homicide. "You're so angry, we're nearly the same color," the princess laughed.

     "Besides, Celestia is going to mop the floor with them," Barnum said, "So you might actually get an interesting game."

     "Then why aren't you going to watch?" Cadence asked.

     "I don't want bloodshed during the half-time. Excellence and innovation take constant care," Barnum said and walked back down the ramp to oversee preparations for the half-time Diane demonstration.

     "Everyone is entitled to a few wrong opinions," Cadence offered.

     "Yeah, okay," the captain admitted.

     "Besides, considering what he did to Sunny Days, you might not come out as well as you think," Cadence teased, before moving out.

     The captain sighed and walked after her. He glanced up at the other aberration Barnum had added. The soiled dove had arrived, with a ticket, properly signed pass, and Mile Stone and Bran Scone as escorts and chaperones. She'd painted one side of her face to match Luna's colors, and the other to match Celestia's. Then she'd somehow convinced a sensible mare like Bran Scone to go along with it and get the same. Now the soiled dove was applying similar make-up to many of the younger society 'ladies'.

     "Are you going to stay partisan?" Cadence asked as they walked towards the officials.

     "I'm Celestia's guard captain," he replied, "So yes, I'm staying a Celestia partisan."

     This seemed to amuse her.

     The teams headed out onto the field. Their Highnesses wore identical jerseys. Both a pleasant blue marked on both sides and front with an interlinked Sun and Rays and Crescent Moon symbols, like their cutie-marks. Some idiot reporter had actually asked if that would cause confusion. Her Majesty had answered, with a perfectly straight face, that they'd measured, and she was substantially taller than Princess Luna.

     The official the teams were collecting around, was one of the most respected and fairest in the professional leagues. The rest of his staff were similar stallions and mares. They also knew this 'fun' match would be scrutinized more closely than the Equestria Cup.

     The introductions began. Luna's team was a complete squad with a fair number of backups. Some were players from the farm teams. None of the pros had sided with the NLR, except to teach some of the more novice players the finer points of the game.

     Celestia stood by herself.

     "The statement is heartbreaking," Cadence whispered as the introductions went on, "Luna has her friends and supporters, but Celestia has to stand apart from all of us. Because if she fails, only she can shoulder that burden."

     "So why aren't we out there?" Armor whispered back.

     "Like I said, so if she loses, only she can be blamed," Cadence said.

     The symbolism doesn't seem lost on the other players, or the crowd. Nor did it receive the same interpretation. Armor caught comments on 'arrogance' about her Highness. Luna put a stop to those among her team, but she seemed torn in two that she was opposing her sister, even in a 'friendly' game.

     The first pitch moved Celestia out of the poor, lost lamb category. Poné, the most famous kicker in the history of Hoofball walked to the center of the play field with the ball, and kicked it straight up as high as she could. Even three years of retirement hadn't dulled her skills. The ball went literally straight up. Celestia and two pegasi strikers raced into the air to catch it.

     The two mortals had no chance. Celestia instantly outpaced them, and headed the ball into higher and higher altitudes. They could barely keep up with her Highness, let alone prepare a plan to steal the ball.

     Then, in a move that while totally legal, had every coach, striker and the Wonder and Shadowbolts studying it, Celestia turned on her back. She zigzagged across the sky, flying inverted, dodging any attempt by the pegasi to intercept, while dribbling the ball with her forelegs. Luna, in the goal, moved just as randomly, trying to prepare for the goal attempt she knew was coming.

     Celestia dove, still zigzagging. Only when the sun was behind her did she hammer the ball so hard it was a miracle it stayed together. Luna tried to sight the ball, but only spotted it too late to prevent her sister's goal. Celestia pulled up and flew out of bounds, but it didn't matter, she'd already fired the ball, and the ball was what mattered.

     As the crowd went absolutely insane, Celestia raced back to her goal. Luna placed the ball, and back kicked it on a shallow arc. The wind caught it, but Luna had already compensated for that.

     "You can't do that," Armor whispered as he watched someone kick the ball across the entire field, and straight to the goal. Any other goalkeeper might have been overwhelmed, but Celestia kicked the ball back in a high arc. Luna watched and waited in her goal as the ball descended.

     "Clear the field!" her Nightjesty shouted as she calculated the approach. As her team scrambled for the sidelines, Luna kicked the ball back down the field. It screamed past, knee high, and unstoppable. For anyone but Celestia. She kicked it back. It bounced a few times, but came straight at the goal.

     Luna waited, and back hoofed it, sending it up over the heads of her team. For an instant it looked like it was way off course. Then it curved back towards the target.

     "I've seen unicorns do that with baseballs," Cadence asked quietly, "How do you throw a slider with a Hoofball."

     "I haven't figured out how they're kicking it the length of the field," Armor answered.

     Celestia's answer was a bouncer that landed near some of Luna's teammates, but far enough away that they weren't the targets. Luna fired back a lightning bolt of a shot. Celestia intercepted it, and returned another slow bouncer that was child's play for Luna to fire back. This time a high arc.

     "Is that ball ever going to come back?" Cadence asked as she shielded her eyes to stare into the sky.

     "If it does, there's no guarantee it'll land in Canterlot, let alone in the stadium," Armor replied as he too watched the sky, "Twilie would probably say it would have to compensate for the rotation of the planet as well." The captain paused. "I don't want to think that her Nightjesty did those kinds of calculations in her head, and then kicked a ball that accurately."

     Celestia walked over to a specific location in her goal, and stood ready. After what seemed like minutes, the ball came sailing down, and Celestia jumped up to head it back across the field. It bounced several times, and towards the end, moved slow enough any decent gradeschooler could have fielded it. Several of Luna's teammates, who had been basically sidelined during the goalie duel looked ready to lunge after the ball. They all let it pass, and Luna fired the ball back as a scorching streak. Celestia kicked it back as a gentle bouncer which Luna fired back.

     After several repetitions of Luna firing high, low, curve, slider, and Celestia returning a gentle bouncer, Luna's team broke from position to charge the ball and got back into play. The ten of them mobbed the ball and charged down field with it, Celestia countercharged straight into them.

     She intercepted the ball in a brilliant steal, and stripped of all defenders, charged the goal screaming a terrifying war cry. As she drew near, and Luna braced to defend, Celestia switched to a bloodcurdling shriek, like an owl's cry as an ululation, going up and down in pitch as well as in volume. Celestia suddenly flared her wings as the cry reached a crescendo.

     Luna shied from the sight, missing that Celestia had kicked the ball in. She came to her senses too late and dove for the ball. She slowed it, but it still crossed the goal line. Two-nothing, Celestia's favor. The period ended and the crowd went absolutely wild.

     "Even if she's overthrown, there's no team in the world that wouldn't snatch her up as a striker," Armor whispered in awe as her Highness cantered back to her goal, and Luna's coaching team called a time out and assembled the entire squad together for a brief consultation.

     "Why don't they let Luna play?" Cadence asked.

     "She's the goalie," Armor replied.

     "What about 'the best defense is a good offense'?" Cadence asked pointedly, "They practically have no offence to speak of. Except Luna."

     Armor considered. "I suppose that they wanted her to take a supporting role. Symbolism," he replied.

     "It's symbolic that they get their heads beat in?" Cadence said, "That makes a lot of sense. I'm going to talk to some of the VIPs. Let's go."

     Armor watched as Celestia knelt on the grass, seemingly meditating, while the coaches talked to Luna and the others.

     The officials whistled for the time out's end, and Poné kicked the ball high in the air again. Celestia again stole the ball from the now five pegasus strikers, and dove for the deck, faster than they could dive. At seemingly the last moment, she pulled up and charged the goal at a full gallop. As the ground defenders massed to try to steal the ball, and the pegasi closed in from above, Celestia kicked the ball up, into the middle of the pegasi. As the bewildered air team tried to take advantage of Celestia's seeming mistake, Celestia herself leapt into the midst and seemed to be in control of the ball as she brought the 'air-game' close enough to ground defenders that they leapt and bounced to support their comrades, all the while the milling sphere drew closer to the goal. Luna danced side to side as she tried to be ready when the ball came sailing out of the sphere.

     "She's trying to distract you!" Luna shouted, "Leave only one or two, and let the others -!" The ball shot out of the mass, but at such a bad angle Luna almost didn't chase it down. The ball hit the ground, bounced off one of the divots created during the mortar volleying, and bounced over Luna's rump and away from the goal. But Celestia headed it back in for the point as Luna had to reverse her charge.

     Luna stamped her hooves in fury and frustration as Celestia raced back to her own goal. She called a time out on her own and called the coaches and players together for a conference. As they discussed, a second team appeared on the field. The cheers of the crowd thundered over anything previous. The teams were the heroes and legends of the game, some still active. Some recently retired. Enough for two full teams of eleven each. With each team was a ball. They formed up, the same formation: four in front, three in a second line, two groups of two on each wing. The last pony, simulating the goalie, patrolled the rear of the formation. In both cases, the last pony was a famous player turned famous coach. A bit slower on the hoof than the others, but faster upstairs.

     "That formation's illegal," Armor gasped as he watched the two teams start at the midline and advance steadily.

     "Yes," Cadence replied, "Let's forget there's two full teams on the field."

     "No, that's the 'armored wedge'," he said as the second line's trios dribbled the ball among themselves, as the whole formation advanced steadily down the field. "There is no way to break that formation without injuring somepony. It's been banned from regulation and scholastic play for decades!"

     "So two of them, staffed by the greatest, living players of the game, is unstoppable?" Cadence asked.

     Armor nodded numbly.

     "Then they understand," Cadence said with relief, as Celestia leapt into action, charging straight down the middle of the field between the two formations. The two center wings moved, not to engage her, but to protect the second line.

     The crowd gasped as Celestia leapt over the defenders, and practically landed on the ball. Pausing only to kick it out of bounds, she jumped back into the air, performed a Wonderbolt-worthy Immelmann turn and again, nearly landed on the ball, kicking it away from the formation. She'd only kicked the second ball hard enough to get it into the clear, and she leapt after it as the entire formation tried to close in. She kicked the ball the length of the field, but didn't wait to see that effect. The other team had gotten the ball back and was preparing to kick it back in bounds, and the kicker was Poné herself.

     Celestia landed in the goalie box as Poné prepared, her Highness lowered her horn, flared her wings, and her tail spread like a peacock's. The sheer unadulterated menace pouring off her serene majesty was palpable. Poné visibly shook herself. She braced again and pawed the ground in clear challenge, as it to tell the world, 'I am Poné, I care nothing for goalies, no matter who they are!' The crowd went absolutely nuts.

     "She's going to kick a Thunderbolt," Armor said.

     "What's that?" Cadence asked.

     "A powerful kick, aimed straight at the opponent's head," Armor said, "More than one goalie has flinched at receiving one of those." He concentrated on raising a shield before her Majesty.

     "Let her stop it," Cadence said sharply, "Those two understand."

     "Understand what?" Armor demanded, his concentration momentarily broken.

     Poné had kicked, and for an instant it looked like Celestia would catch the ball on her horn. But she reared at the last moment and caught the ball with her forehooves.

     "She caught a Thunderbolt?!" Armor squeaked as her Highness reared up, and drop kicked the ball the length of the field. The ball sailed through the air with the sound of ripping canvas, tore through the net on the goal, and continued down the stadium tunnel behind it.

     "Some kid is going to get a marvelous souvenir," Cadence suggested, as Celestia walked over to Poné, and hugged the mare like greeting an old friend. "That's what I meant by 'they understand'. This is a demonstration, and her Serene August Solar Majesty, gets to run around and show what she's really capable of."

     "So the best players, formed two, illegally effective formations, and Celestia was able to break them without hurting them, and score two goals in response?" Armor said in confusion.

     "Exactly. And no hard feelings or animosity from either side once it is over," Cadence clarified.

     "Politics," he said disgustedly.

     "Of course," Cadence teased, "For Equestria!"

     The extended break was over, and this time, a lone pegasus was left as the goalie. Luna would lead from the front.

     Poné again kicked the ball as high as she could, and only Luna and Celestia pursued this time. Fully two-thirds of the other players spread out to receive the ball when it landed, and the other third to defend the goal. The two alicorns headed, kicked, wing buffeted, and even tail struck the ball. Higher and higher, until both were lost from sight of all but those who'd brought powerful binoculars or telescopes.

     One such were the referees, who blew a whistle and signaled a foul. No card was displayed, so it wasn't a serious foul. The unicorn official used a spell to amplify his voice. "Striking an opponent, Celestia will be awarded a direct kick. Also, in view of the safety of the spectators, all contests for the ball will remain below one mile above the field. No card for this instance. Any following infractions will yield a yellow card, the second by that player will result in a red card and expulsion."

     "I bet they never had that problem before," Armor commented.

     While the official was announcing, Luna and Celestia had landed and were conferring. The two princesses approached the officials. The small group consulted, there were nods from both princesses and finally from the officials. The unicorn stepped away, and reactivated his spell.

     "At the request of both team captains, and with the understanding of the officials. The normal 'no magic' rule has been suspended for this kick. Princess Luna will replace the goalkeeper, and Princess Celestia will kick. All others will clear the field, and if the magic endangers any spectator, player or official, the kick will be ruled blocked, and that player will receive a yellow card."

     "This is nuts," Armor said, "What are they going to do against each other?"

     "That's part of what people deserve to see," Cadence said as the officials placed the ball at mid field, not at the usual range. Then ran for it, shepherding the other players off the field.

     Luna stood in the goalie box, and pawed the ground. Celestia walked behind the ball, back and forth, back and forth. A pacing tiger would have wanted to look like Celestia.

     Celestia's horn glowed, and with every step, another Celestia appeared, dozens circled behind the ball, ready to make the kick at any movement.

     Luna knelt down in the box, another appeared beside her, then one atop the pair, more on each side, as a second, then a third rank appeared on top of them. Kneeling shoulder to shoulder, horns facing outward, they completely blocked any access to the goal.

     The Celestias stopped pacing. The first rank lay down, the second rank knelt, the third rank crouched while the fourth rank stood tall. Twenty-wide and four-deep, the Celestias' horns began to glow. The dozens of Lunas' horns glowed as well. The ball trembled as a light gold aura surrounded it and it moved slowly towards the goal. A moment later, a cobalt-blue aura pushed the gold aura back to cover only half the ball. The ball came to a halt. Slowly the ball moved side-to-side, forward-and-back.

     Small dust devils swirled near the ball as the horns blazed. Little arcs of lightning formed where the auras touched and earthed themselves in the field. The wall of Lunas became hard to look at, while the phalanx of Celestias had passed to point of being painful to look at. A Celestia disappeared, then another. A Luna vanished. And the ball oscillated more widely. Two Celestias vanished, then three more. A Luna on the bottom row vanished, and the two second row Lunas extended their legs to support the row above them. On the ball, the gold and blue flowed over each other, like oil and vinegar in a dressing, mixing, separating and swirling again. Celestias continued to vanish. Lunas' formation wobbled as they likewise disappeared.

     The decision came. The ball exploded. The Lunas began tumbling and vanishing. The Celestias disappeared until only one weary alicorn remained. The uniformed officials swarmed out on the field.

     "The kick is blocked. Each team will be charged with a time out, to gather themselves."

     Medics raced out to check on the two grinning 'combatants'.

     "Okay, who won that one?" Armor asked.

     "I think they showed why they don't fight," Cadence said, "Especially each other. How much force does it take to crush one of those balls?"

     "More than a skull," Armor admitted, "And were those real, or illusions."

     "You're the soldier, what would you do?" Cadence asked.

     "Real enough to hurt you is real," Armor replied.

     The medics had both mares up and walking slowly around. Both of them grinning at the 'battle' they'd just fought.

     Finally, Poné set the ball at the midfield, and ran away. Celestia kicked the ball over the heads of most of the team. Luna jumped up and kicked it back towards Celestia's goal. Celestia intercepted it, knocking it to the ground and chasing it down as Luna's players closed in. Celestia used the players as cover and concealment as she advanced the ball down the field.

     The officials blew a whistle. The players dispersed, revealing a player wrapped around the ball.

     "Ball handling, or tripping?" Armor asked, and awaited the call, "Both are direct kicks." He turned to Cadence. "Or was that political, getting her Highness to kick or step on one of the NLR players?"

     "Possibly both." Cadence nodded towards Luna talking with the player, and directing her off the field. "Someone wants a clean game, even if she loses."

     The goalie is sweating bullets as the officials set up a classic penalty kick. Celestia feints one way, kicks it in another. The goalie falls for the feint and can't get back to prevent the real short.

     "Four-zip." Armor looked at the clock and realized no one was eager to kill themselves over the last 30 seconds. They let the clock run out. Luna hugged Celestia, who hugged her back. The two walk off to their dressing rooms. Luna was visibly trying to buck up her team members, but both she and Celestia seemed very weary.

     "Are you going to get revenge on Barnum by not watching his demonstration?" Cadence asked.

     "I am going to check on my sovereign, and talk to her trainers and doctors," Armor said as he headed after Celestia.

     "Have you seen any of the game, Barnum?" Captain Armor exclaims, "Even if that was Union out there, she'd still be up two nothing!"

     "You're surprised?" I ask as I escort the Dianes out onto the field. Nothing gets near the rotors as I watch and make corrections.

     "Relax, dad," Soarin's says, "Nobody's gonna hurt your babies."

     "If they were my daughters, you wouldn't be anywhere near them," I tell him, "Except as a gelding."

     "Ooo!" Topaz says as she guides the non-flight quadra-Dianes to their display sites.

     Other unicorns are assembling the piles of stone segments that the Shadowbolts and Wonderbolts are going to be carrying. A cart squeals under the load that Neanderpony and I will be carrying aloft. The segments weigh in around 50 lb./25 kilos. Ours weighs 10 times that. Glory is running the ground crew for us. Shadow Pearl will work for the pegasi. On the field, the normal ground crew are rushing to set up the tall flag poles that mark out the course. Once around the oval described by the seats of the stadium. Then through the slalom of the flag poles set up down the length of the field centerline. And a last time around the oval.

     It's a run I know the Dianes will lose, even the little ones Storm and Soarin' will be flying, let alone the quadri-Diane I'll take through, I think.

     "The real test is running the stone through the same course. The two 'winners' will be our opponents," I remind Neanderpony as we do the final checks on the quadra-Diane, an abbreviated version of the test we'd done. Unless the lieutenant's plan is needed, I think and note how excited the crowd seems.

     "Ready," Neanderpony asks as he shakes himself out, stretching slightly to warm up.

     "As anything."

     "You want to run through the course backward?" he asks.

     "No, let's run it straight. If we win the last part, when we drop the load, we should do that run as our 'victory lap'," I tell him.

     The Wonderbolts and Shadowbolts are introduced, and the basic rules are explained. That they and the Dianes will race through the course. The finalists will compete against the fully-loaded Diane. The crowd reacts to the announcement that the bizarre-looking machine would carry such a weight into the air.

     "I guess we don't warrant an introduction," Neanderpony complains.

     "Do you really want everyone knowing your name?" I ask 'Fluffy'.

     Neanderpony grimaces. Princess Cadence approaches. "Good luck, to you all," she says, "Uh, can you stretch things out?" she asks nervously, "I know it's a race, but I think their Highnesses need the time."

     "There are plans in work. The lieutenant can brief you," I tell her.

     She nods and heads to talk with the Wonderbolts and Shadowbolts.

     "Nice mare," Neanderpony comments, and studies the rotor as I look at him.

     "Some day, I'm going to get revenge by telling you what I really know," I tell him.

     He stares at me as we mount up.

     The rotors turn and we lift off the ground. An adjustment and we shift to faster flight mode. We reach the entry at roughly the same time as the others, but the pegasi, and the smaller Dianes quickly outrun us, and it gets worse. Spitfire is through the slalom, before we even enter.

     "Don't worry, this is just the warm up for us," I remind Neanderpony.

     He doesn't like getting beat any more than I do, I remind myself, But the speed test only decides who's going to lose against us in the real test. We're way behind by the time we finish the course, dead last.

     Glory is waiting, and grinning suspiciously as we fly in and hover over the heavy stone. Claire standing off to the side has her hand up, warning us not to lift, until Glory has the strap locked in place. Claire signals Glory's done, and I catch her running away through the corner of my eye.

     We take up the slack slowly. The two of us strain as we put more effort through our legs and into the rotors. The quadra-Diane lumbers into the air. The massive swaying load reduces our speed considerably. Both Neanderpony and I are straining to keep the speed up. But not as much as Spitfire, Fleetfoot and Jubilee are straining, while carrying their much smaller loads. I can't hear the crowd noise over the singing of blood in my ears, but I can count to three just fine.

     Okay, the agreement was two, but if it gives a better show with three, then so be it, I think then glance at Neanderpony and nod, I see it too, but we'll still win.

     Spitfire and Fleetfoot are putting down their first loads as we enter the slalom. The slung load forces us to compensate just like it had in practice, test as you fly, but we take it slow and steady. Not much faster than a trotting pace, but we're moving. Spitfire passes us with her second load as we exit the slalom. Once clear, we accelerate as quickly and as much as we can. Fleetfoot passes us soon after. Jubilee passes us as we pass the quarter-mark on our last circuit of the loop. The three mares are all straining as they pass.

     My legs are warning me that I don't have too much more. Neanderpony has a determined stare as he is straining too.

     I could use my magic, I remind myself of the tricks Trixie came up with, before she slipped away, But that's not the point.

     We're on our last leg when the two smaller Dianes race off with a load slung underneath, and Tuxie leading the way. Neanderpony looks at me with worry as we maneuver to put the stone down inside the walls of the cart that brought it out. Prove the precision possible in the design, I think as we hold the quadra-Diane over the cart as Glory guides us to place the massive stone. Spitfire picks up the last of the ten pieces as we are sideslipping with the stone according to Glory's hoof signals. We get it down in perfect position before Spitfire makes it to the slalom. Claire unhooks us, and we back away.

     Neanderpony grunts and nods at Lieutenant Solitude. She's giving us the signal to extend things a bit. Glory is leading Princess Cadence, Claire is giving us hand signals to prepare for a hook up. We wait and watch her signals. I'm too focused to look down at the pair beneath us. I register the sound of the load clip being engaged. Neanderpony and I take up the slack and gauge the load beneath us. We lift off and reverse through the course. We aren't racing, just proving we can do it. Below us, Glory and Cadence wave to the crowd as we perform our Kulwicki-style 'Polish Victory Lap', flying backward through the course.

     I risk a glance down. Glory, in her mixed-bolt uniform is enjoying every moment of the performance. Cadence looks like she'd rather be facing an angry dragon, but waves gamely. The crowd loves it, although only a few seem to realize we're flying backwards.

     As we settle back onto the ground after completing our circle, Glory and Cadence scramble out of the sling they'd been riding in. As we land, with a slight bump, Glory approaches and tells us, "The other Dianes took a medical emergency. We decided to let you finish rather than call it off."

     Shadow Pearl approaches. "Some kid fell from bleachers. With a concussion, teleporting him wasn't a good idea," Shadow Pearl tells us, "Blaze and Surprise took the kid and a doc to the hospital with Tuxedo warning the hospital they were on their way."

     "Not the way I'd want to prove the usefulness of the machine," I say and look over the crowd, "Do they know?"

     "Only that someone was hurt. They don't think you were showboating. Cadence and Glory told the crowd that the two little ones were standing by in case of such an emergency."

     "Give credit to the Princesses," Neanderpony says appreciatively.

     "I think you also sold them on the idea of using it for other purposes," Shadow Pearl says, "I think I also understand why you're so persnickety about the equipment. Jubilee pulled some wing muscles carrying those loads."

     I nod. "I think we'd better get our stuff off the field so her Highness can finish."

     "Think Princess Celestia will still keep her lead in this?" Shadow Pearl asks.

     "I don't know, because I'm going to go sleep through the next hour," I tell him.

     "Let one of our trainers give you a rub down," he says, the tone makes it an order, but I wouldn't have argued. The teams carefully move the Dianes back to their temporary hangers. Claire is supporting Neanderpony. My legs feel like rubber, and I can't keep up with the slow moving Dianes. Two ponies move up and support me, I recognize Topaz and Fleetfoot.

     "You're going straight to Specter Dancer," Fleetfoot informs me.

     "As if you could run away from an angry turtle in your condition," Topaz adds.

     The pony is either a stallion, or a burly mare, but the pony easily picks me off the ground and puts me on the table. I'm asleep while the trainer is still working out the kinks in my legs.

Out of Place - Out of Context Part 3

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc. Billy Joel - Piano Man Now Paul is a real estate novelist Who never had time for a wife And he's talkin' with Davy, who's still in the Navy And probably will be for life And the waitress is practicing politics As the businessman slowly gets stoned Yes, they're sharing a drink they call loneliness But it's better than drinkin' alone

     Glory Bell stood proud as she watched their Highnesses in their ambassadorial regalia approach the tables that have been set up. Several of the Wonderbolts and Shadowbolts stood alongside her. Part of a neutral 'honor' guard for Cadence, while their Highnesses had the Day and Night Guards.

     "You certainly reearned your Princess-ship today," Spitfire told her.

     Glory nodded, and made one last look at the Royal box. My uncle is there, but not my mom, or dad, she thought quietly, Is it because I'm here, or because it's 'political'. They cannot see their daughter's new triumph, because they have to not care about 'What those idiots in Canterlot are doing.' She looked fondly at her uniform, and considered the two sisters, and what their estrangement and reconciliation really meant.

     "Relax," Shadow Pearl said quietly, "No one is paying much attention to us."

     Glory nodded again. The two sisters approached Cadence, who stood behind a table that sported two ink stamp pads, and the all-important document.

     "How did they change costumes so fast, and get made up?" Glory asked of the regal sisters who minutes before had been running around on the field with sweat and grass-strained jerseys.

     They look positively illustrious, she thought as they approached the table. The trio of Princesses embraced as they stood before the document.

     "I know it's all choreographed more than a ballet, but they make it look so natural," Glory whispered to Spitfire as Celestia stood tall to speak.

     "Equestrians," she said formally, "My beloved little ponies," she added warmly. "Today, we have a great change. A charter between the government, and the people. It is the things we have all believed in our hearts. But my sister, and many others have asked it be put in terms so clear, they demand our assent. Some say this has been a long time coming, others say it is unnecessary. I believe it is the right thing, at the right time. Today we have seen several spectacles, that in some ways mirror what brought this document about. Strong wills, strong hearts, not agreeing perfectly, and testing the resolve and tolerance of all. But in the end, we all love Equestria, we all want what is best, and we can agree that is a good first step."

     The crowd hoof-stamped their approval. Luna merely nodded, and Cadence took the covers off the ink pads. In synchronized movements, both sisters carefully ink their right hooves, then apply them to the paper. A bewigged scribe carefully removed the document and carried it with great ceremony to a case which would protect it, and let the ink dry undisturbed. Cadence closed the stamp pads and withdrew. Celestia nuzzled Luna and whispered something Glory couldn't hear. The two broke apart and headed back towards their dressing rooms, to once again be appointed for 'battle'.

     "Short and sweet," Shadow Pearl said, "You have to love those girls."

     Mile Stone watched the teams file back onto the field. He'd watched the game with some interest, but he'd been watching the people with greater interest. They seem to have taken the message of unity to heart, the trooper thought as another pony, this one an older mare, begged the soiled dove to give her the face paint she'd been doing during the entire game. Good thing I know a little about that stuff, he thought as a corporal of the Night Guard returned from her supply run. The near-filly looked tuckered out as she delivered the fresh load of face 'paint' to the soiled dove.

     "Sir, we're going to need a Diane to get more, that's every store still open within ten minute's run of the stadium," the young corporal admitted.

     "It will be enough, lass," he said, "Take a few moments up here to watch the game."

     "Who's winning?" the eager fan asked.

     "Equestria, as planned," Mile Stone said as he settled in.

     There was an undercurrent of laughter as Celestia took her place. A dark hoofmark had been planted in the middle of her sun cutie-mark.

     If I know her Highness, she did it herself to show that Luna's still game, Mile Stone thought as they all watched the same mare who'd kicked off the ball before, do the same straight up kick again. Celestia and Luna again jumped for it, but one tipped it off towards the sidelines, and Luna's team swarmed over the ball as Celestia dove for her own goal. The mortal ponies advanced the ball, as Luna stayed airborne and stayed back. One of the ponies kicked the ball towards the goal. Celestia stopped it with a hoof, and kicked it back to Luna's team. Another kick, and another block and return. And another. One with her tail. Again and again, over and over.

     Realizing the futility, one of the smaller members carefully dribbled the ball right up to the goal box. The youngster bowed, and pointed at the goal. Celestia nuzzled the adolescent and stepped aside, to allow the ball to be kicked in for a goal.

     Mile Stone roared with laughter like nearly the entire crowd. Although he caught sight of Captain Armor beating his head on the railing.

     "Please oh Mighty Celestia," Bran Scone said, through her laughter, "Can I kick the ball in there?"

     "Of course my child," the soiled dove responded, "You only had to ask." Both mares joined the others in laughter. But Mile Stone saw there was a method to Celestia's madness.

     While even Luna was stunned at the audacity of her player, and that it had worked, Celestia retrieved the ball from the goal and fired it down field. Luna reacted too slowly to intercept the ball, and the goalie had the sight of his Princess charging frantically to distract him from the ball he could barely see.

     Five-one Celestia's favor. Luna kicked the ball back into play, but Celestia was ready and returned it about three-quarters down the field. The team swarmed it and moved it steadily back down the field. Celestia waited. Luna raced ahead and took a position on the extreme flank, while the team came down towards the opposite corner. Celestia didn't fall for the feint. She stayed ready to defend from the mortal players, and practically ignored Luna's presence. She blocked the shot, and sent the ball most of the way down field. Again the team chased after it. Luna raced ahead to take her position, and the team advanced the ball. Again Celestia concentrated on the mortals, and returned the ball three-quarters of the way down the field.

     When the group came back, Luna was leading the pack, but the ball was passing among them. Celestia didn't wait, but charged, keeping herself between the goal and the ball. There was a furious scrum at the point of collision.

     "All they need is the dust cloud and the occasional leg, head or tail poking out of it," Mile Stone commented to Bran Scone as the two sisters seemed the focus of the battle.

     An official blew a whistle and separated the players. Lying on the field was a sad, little, squashed Hoofball.

     "Do they normally go through so many in a game?" his wife asked.

     "I doubt they'd go through so many in a season," he admitted.

     The kicker placed the ball among the waiting players, then ran for the sidelines. Celestia got the upper hand charging the ball and was halfway down the field before Luna could catch up. Luna's attempts at interception only slowed Celestia's advance to allow the others to catch up. This time, rather than close as a mass. They made diving attacks at the ball. Two of the players collided in these attempts and the officials once again separated the two teams, while medics from both sides saw to the dazed players.

     "I think her Majesty is just running down the clock," Mile Stone said as the third period ended soon after play was resumed.

     I'm beginning to agree with her Highness. The first half was exciting, this doesn't accomplish anything except 'what might have been's, Mile Stone thought as the action continued on the field, and the clock ran down. They should just let their Highnesses onto the field and let them play against each other.

     Ending more with a whimper than a spectacle, Mile Stone still felt rung out.

     "There's still the victory party," Bran Scone said, "And I intend to attend."

     "Yes, dear," he said in his most put upon tone.

     His wife laughed at his demeanor.

     "Have I told you what happened to Barnum at the previous 'victory party?" Mile Stone asked innocently.

     It is the first time since my arrival that I've dared walk through this place. The statuary gardens are peaceful, tranquil, filled with examples of the finest pony art. Or are they? I wonder. The guidebook doesn't have much to say on the twisted figure of the draconequus in front of me. It subtly implies this is based on an extinct species and is basically an ancient example of 'modern' art.

     I don't linger any longer than I have at any of the other pieces. Just long enough to look at it, read the guidebook entry, check over any details that catch my interest, and make some notes to check up on when I get back to the castle. It takes most of the morning to go through the garden, and I'm left with the impression that while there are other statues that might be victims of the Elements, only Discord is a guaranteed candidate.

     "Why am I not surprised to see you here?" I ask Captain Hansom. We're some distance from the Discord statue.

     "Their Highnesses have someone keeping an eye on you at all times. When you make an effort to slip away from your guards, they get nervous," the stallion tells me.

     "Just something I had to check on myself," I admit.

     He looks around nervously. "I wish they'd bury that whole garden, and throw all those statues off the mountain. Those things give me the shivers," the captain admits.

     "Guidebook says they're just statues, major points in pony history."

     "Yeah, there's a museum in the castle that tells those stories just fine, and without all the creepy stuff." Hansom looks around. "Except for some stain glass windows. But those are special access only, so the 'tourists' can't just wander through. Hey, you were found here, weren't you?"

     "Yep, not a few dozen yards from where you found me today," I tell him, "My mission is completed here, I was contacting my people for retrieval."

     "You are a terrible ambassador, in that case," he tells me.

     "Harvester. My people feed on ignorance and misconceptions, and we realized there was a bumper crop here. Our larders are full and we even had enough for after-festival sandwiches. On behalf of our people, we wish to thank you all."

     "So, the Hoofball game was your idea?" the captain asks.

     "Nope, all their Highnesses'. The idea that they aren't some horrible moon-banishing, night-forevering monsters, all their idea. The idea that they could kick the flank of any pony in town, also their idea."

     "Yeah, the first time I saw a bunch of schoolcolts asking her Majesty about kicking a Hoofball, instead of her mane or what it's like to live in a palace."

     "Let's everyone know she can be a bit of a tomboy too."

     "Do you know the genesis of that word? Why not Colt-Filly, or something else, why tomboy?"

     "It may be a loan word from human English, maybe I'm not the first human to land in Equestria."

     "I think if there were any more like you, we'd know it," the captain says.

     "I don't know, a lot of your implements and technology don't seem to be based on anything other than human norms." I stop myself. "Do you really want to get into a discussion of comparative evolution?"

     "My education is in design," the captain admits, "And I've never understood why things aren't optimized for ponies, rather than for creatures with hands, like griffons and dragons. They aren't exactly big tool users."

     "I have a really wild theory, if you want to hear it."

     "Sure." He looks back over his shoulder. "As long as it's away from here."

     "Barnum, you're crazy," Hansom says as we walk down the corridor, "We're just a children's television program? I'm not sure if I can even understand about the television part."

     "I said it was a theory," I reply, and don't point out who is following and enjoying the friendly argument, "It's equally possible that it's all in my head. Because the world I remember had zero magic. So how did I get here? Easier to assume that something happened to me here, and I'm imagining the rest."

     I realize with growing horror, after arguing for a couple enjoyable hours, that if Discord observed the Human Race, and forced the ponies to duplicate our culture and technology, he would have had to do so between the 15th and 19th Centuries. But that doesn't fit the 'banished for a thousand-year timeline', I consider, So what happened?

     "I still say parallel development is possible," Hansom argues.

     "Of things no pony would have real need for without the accompanying infrastructure?" I counter.

     If he did force them to conform to human norms from that period, then time doesn't run here at the same rate. It also explains some of the paranoia about change. They didn't develop the tech, it was thrust upon them and they're trying to figure out the scientific basis, and adapting it to their needs, I think as we walk, And I may have to discuss this with our observer.

     "Maybe we got them from people like you," Hansom says, "Who dropped in from other worlds."

     "While your people are open and welcoming," I reply, and receive a grin, "The problem is that implies that someone on this world dragged them here. The home I remember had precisely zero magic. If magic brought and changed me, it came entirely from here."

     "Or somewhere in between," Celestia says as she stands behind Hansom.

     The poor stallion almost jumps. "Your Highness, I didn't see you." He gives a quick bow. "I hope we didn't disturb you."

     "I was appreciating two of my ponies enjoying a spirited discussion. With such odd and even," she leaned close and whispered, "Heretical opinions, so fearlessly expressed."

     Hansom looks alarmed by the implication, but Celestia continues, "And yet you remain good friends afterwards."

     "Yes," Hansom says, obviously aware that he knows that I knew she was there, and there will be a reckoning.

     "I'm afraid I must break in, but I need to talk with Barnum," Celestia says.

     "Of course your Majesty," he says and bows again.

     "You can pick him up again in the south garden," she offers as the captain leaves.

     "With pleasure, your Majesty."

     Something in his gleeful expression sets off every alarm I have. The nuzzle from Celestia breaks my concentration, probably her plan. "I think I know why you pushed this reform through so quickly."

     "Yes," she says sadly, "Soon the banner of 'safety, safety, surety' will fly over all the homes in Equestria, and only this example will bring ponies around."

     "I hope it won't take as long," I reply and we start walking.

     "You've been rather depressed," she comments.

     "The Grand Galloping Gala is in a few days, and the visit from Ponyville, how many days after that?"

     "Nothing is scheduled, but the statue gardens are open for all, no special permissions or appointments are necessary."

     "So the clock ticks, we know the hour, but not the minute."

     "It was you we were talking about," Celestia reminds me.

     "You were talking about me, I was talking about the future, and both of us were trying to cheer the other up. We'll get through this."

     "And if this plan doesn't work?"

     "I think I can get a Death Star cheap," I tell her, "Look they've been through it before, and they survived. As terrible as it was, they survived. They'll survive this."

     "Not the gentle ones. Not the dreamers. At least not as dreamers."

     "Don't be so sure. My homeland was founded by dreamers fleeing from places that make your nightmares look like a folk dance. They stood on free soil for the first time, and their dreams blossomed in the sun. They outstripped the people who had been living there and made the world a richer place for their dreams. That only stopped when we stopped striving to collect dreamers and started being 'fair'."

     "You don't believe in things being fair?" she teases.

     "No. Think how terrible the world would be, if it were fair," I reply, "If you only got what you deserved. There are too many things I've gotten away with, that my friends have let slide. I'd hate to have to pay the price for them. Especially all at once."

     "You have a grim view of the world."

     "I have a grim view of the universe. Even assuming there's no more to this universe than one planet and the two orbiting lights. The safely habitable portion of that universe is a third of the skin of an orange inside a hoofball-sized universe. That's pretty small, and most of it is comfortable. You can work to make an equitable division of rain and shine, have some control of the seasons. My people never had that. Our 'safe' place was the surface of a grain of sand in an entire Hoofball stadium. And we have evidence of at least four natural disasters that did their very best to exterminate all life on the planet," I tell her, "Once you realize that, it makes you a lot more cynical about 'fairness'. When random chance or external forces have already loaded the dice that heavily in your favor, you don't go complaining that your shoes aren't shiny enough."

     She nuzzles me again and laughs. "Why does you being gloomy always brighten my mood?"

     "Because you realize that a cynic is just a disappointed romantic, and it gives you a simpler goal." I glance around. "Where are we going anyway?"

     "The south garden," she says.

     "I don't remember ever going there." The reason I never went there refuses to present itself.

     "Oh, it's lovely. Good light, shaded from breezes, and the acoustics are wonderful. Just go on in." She says as we stand before a wooden door. "I'll be back in a bit."

     I wonder, if it's such a wonderful place, why no windows look out onto it. I go through the door, into a small, paneled antechamber, then through the next door. I've been had! I think as a sea of reporters immediately start throwing questions at me. Okay, point in the prank war to Celestia. I look at the various pony faces, all trying to get my attention, all with completely self-serving motives and vapid questions to go along with them. It's the porkpie hat and the sense that one curmudgeon faces another that make me pick him.

     "Mr. Coltchak of the Chronicle, isn't it?" I ask as I step behind the podium.

     The reporter in question seems as stunned to be called on specifically, as his colleagues are horrified. "Yes, that's right. What about these rumors that you and Celestia masterminded this entire plan to change the government, and this 'Magna Carta'?"

     "Not true," I say, and enjoy his 'gotcha' smile, "Princess Luna, and the leadership of the New Lunar Republic also played a major part. I was mostly secretary and go between. It was part of her Majesty's long-term plans, but a loyal opposition wasn't really feasible until Princess Luna returned and gave them a center to focus on."

     It's fun to watch him react to 'your conspiracy theory is wrong, it doesn't go far enough'. The rest think I'm trolling him. I think as I watch the others react.

     "Both Princesses, and the leadership of the New Lunar Republic were part of this?" he exclaims, "Did they know?"

     "Of course their Highnesses knew, they liked the idea of a crusade of ideas. Of gentle words not upraised hooves. They very much approved of some of what the New Lunar Republic was doing. So Princess Luna joined them and encouraged what she approved of, and discouraged what she didn't. Since the group was formed of dozens of her splinter personality cults, it's no wonder she had considerable influence."

     The other reporters are realizing I am not giving a press conference, but having a conversation. The cacophony of shouted questions I ignore, and concentrate on Coltchak.

     "I meant the leadership of the New Lunar Republic," he amends condescendingly.

     "Of course I didn't tell them that. I did tell them a high government official was on their side, and desperately wanted their reforms to succeed. I just didn't give any names."

     An NLR member, or trying to ferret out their secrets? I wonder, but brace for his next question, while every other reporter in the place vies for my attention.

     "Then the entire ceremony, the Hoofball charity," he grimaces before continuing, "And the after game party."

     "I spent too much time with my face in a bucket to want to remember the after game party, Mister Coltchak. The ceremony was for all to see and know it was done. The game was to raise money for charity, and to let her Highness dispel those rumors she doesn't like the game of Hoofball. She likes it just fine, when she's playing, or when kids are playing. As Poné said, 'I don't like watching either, I want to play'."

     "Yes," he says, "But why didn't she do the things in the second half like she did in the first?"

     "Probably because she wanted the others to participate alongside Luna, rather than depending on Luna to do everything," I reply.

     "What about these rumors that there are more changes on the way?" Coltchak asks.

     "With the right to redress grievances open, I would expect many changes," I reply, "As for what the government intends to change, that depends on the grievances brought." I realize that none of the reporters are eager to shout more questions. I look over my shoulder and see Sir Eagle Bell, staring at me. He doesn't look angry. He merely stares at me with intensity, a polite smile on his lips that never reaches his eyes.

     "Excuse me, ladies and gentlecolts, I think you shouldn't hold your editions to record my fate," I say and ignore the chuckles at the gallows humor.

     Sir Bell puts a friendly hoof over my shoulders as he leads me away. Backhoofing the door closed as we go. Once we're back through the 'airlock' between the reporters and the palace, he relaxes.

     "Well played. A bit of subterfuge, and an excellent bit yourself, picking Coltchak. Now the entire story is out, no one will really believe it, and they'll go digging. After all, you answered Coltchak, who normally dispenses stories about monsters living under our beds, and I was absolutely furious with something you'd divulged. They won't know which way to turn."

     "I hope you have some entertaining bits for them to uncover," I say, making the old stallion chuckle.

     "Yes, the plans, scuttled I'm afraid, of giving Moon City and Brown Chief matching medals for their service to Equestria. Ample fodder for endless speculations. Intelligence is going to leak they knew Brown Chief was the boss of all bosses all along. The Treasury agencies will say the same for Moon City. A certain reporter will reveal the absolute row you had with her Highness about going too far in the reforms, another about not going far enough, and that her Nightjesty had to assemble a guard force to separate you two. The senior-most civil servant will reply to all questions about the events, by highlighting the marvelous and most useful inventions displayed at the halftime show."

     "After assuring everypony that their Highness' government will loyally and with resolve, bear up under the changes demanded by the ponies of Equestria and their Highness."

     "Well done," he says cheerfully, "But I was steering to the question of ownership of blueprints and patents. May one enquire how one might obtain copies, and the license to manufacture them?"

     "Well, there is a sizable debt I owe, and there is the question of a stipend to the original inventor."

     "Of course," the stallion says, "I'm sure something equitable can be arranged."

     "For the inventor, I'm going to have to insist on wise, rather than equitable. Not a good idea to poison the tree of knowledge with too much fertilizer at once, and then starve it in the future."

     "An interesting theory. Personal experience?"

     "Urban legend, with too much truth behind it," I tell him.

     Glory walked into the workshop. Barnum was working on a set of frameworks too bulky for a Diane-frame. "You've been scarce around here," he greeted her, "Having fun being a WonderShadowBolt?"

     "Yeah, the uniform fitting, and the photo shoot for the new posters, and . . . I came here to hide for a while."

     "I saw the posters, got a couple all signed and sent them off to Pinkie so she can give them to Rainbow Dash as a present."

     "That's nice," she walked over to the odd and extremely heavy constructions, "These look like they could hold up the castle's roof. What are you doing? Are these transportable by air?"

     "I hadn't thought about that, more like the aftermath of the Grand Galloping Gala."

     " 'Raise the roof' is not meant literally," she teased, and sat down next to him, "Something wrong?"

     "One minor, one major," he said, "I've never seen your cutie-mark, or heard why you hide it, and . . . your mother and father live outside of Los Pegasus?"

     "In the mountains. They turned their back on 'all of Canterlot's excesses' and live the simple life as our ancestors did. In one of the most pampered and plastic places in the world."

     He paused, looked at her strangely. He looks almost wistful, she thought of his nearly hurt expression.

     "I think, after the Gala, you and your uncle should visit them. Just family, not 'look what I've done', just family."

     "What happened, what's going on, if it's something I can help with?" Glory felt the words tumbling out without stopping them.

     "It's nothing either of you have the skills to face. It may be nothing, or only a premonition. But consider it, for me."

     "Look, her Highness is reasonable, and even though her Nightjesty does hold a grudge." She leaned against him. "We can get through this."

     "Glory. It isn't me, it's you. It's your uncle. The more details I give you, the more insane it will sound. But trust me, go visit your folks. If you don't, you may regret it the rest of your life."

     "Something is going to happen to my parents?" Glory demanded, "And don't play vague word games."

     "Something is going to happen to all of you, and it will be better for all of you to be together when you get through it. Wondering 'what could I have done had I been there?' is a knife constantly twisting in your guts. Believe me, I know, and I'd rather spare you and your uncle that pain."

     "What about my parents?"

     "I don't know about your parents," he admitted, "I can't know what they'd do or feel, but I know my own regrets."

     "That's all I'm going to get, aren't I?" she accused.

     "You'll understand it all when you get back," he told her, "If I explain it all, first you'll think I'm crazy, second, it'll have you trying to fit things that happen to my description. Let it just happen."

     "I guess I'll try," Glory said, and snuggled up against him, "Is that what has you so worried?"

     "No, that my plan won't work and that I'll leave others in a lurch instead of developing their own plans."

     "Plans for what?" she asked.

     "It'll be obvious once it's over. If it doesn't end, then it'll be obvious too," he told her.

     "You're being awfully vague," she said.

     "There's a term, catastrophe. There is also a term eucatastrophe, or a good catastrophe. Both refer to huge changes. The Magna Carta signed, sealed and in place will help take the lid off of a lot of things. Some of those things aren't going to be particularly pleasant."

     "The NLR and the Solars seem to be getting along. The Princesses' example seems to have gotten them nervous about starting anything."

     "Except inventing rugby."

     "Except inventing rugby," Glory agreed. "I can't see anything that would be coming that would have you so nervous."

     "Fishing will get you no where, kiddo," Barnum told her.

     "I have to try," Glory responded, "You know how I hate not knowing."

     "Believe me kid, if I could keep Equestria from not knowing," Barnum said sadly, "I would."

     Luna considered Celestia's oh so clever special shampoo, which had sent three of the maids into panic when they saw what they thought they'd done to her Nightjesty's mane and tail. It had taken some intricate spell casting, and the royal hairdresser, to completely eliminate the effect. She had decided to carefully plot her revenge, and concentrate on the two ponies who infuriated her most, and infuriated each other.

     Since I haven't been able to really view Barnum's nebulous and elusive dreams, linking his and Celestia's dreamscapes should prevent Celestia from simply powering out of it as she would with any other pony, Luna thought happily, And it seems to be working flawlessly.

     The now-human Celestia was an interesting figure, her elaborate mane and tail wrapping around her in a silk garment. Barnum, in decidedly less imposing attire, and a less imposing person as a whole seemed stunned to see her there in his dreams, and in human form. Luna watched Barnum's reaction, and was pleased her 'translation' of her sister into human form had kept all the attendant grace, warmth and beauty her sister possessed in abundance. When she wasn't being an imp! Luna forcefully reminded herself.

     Luna mentally withdrew, so she couldn't interfere, and thus be held accountable for what happened. And to watch the fireworks and enjoy how the pair's rather tense standoffishness stood, when Celestia was a human, and by Barnum's reaction, a very attractive one. She split her awareness so she could watch how her sister's sleeping equine form reacted as well.

     "Uh, hi, Celestia?" Barnum stammered.

     "Yes," Celestia replied, extending her new limbs, examining her new body, and clearly enjoying the change. "Would you like to tickle me now?" she teased as she rested against him in a way calculated to make him uneasy.

     "I think I have something for that," Barnum replied as he stepped away.

     Celestia looked at Barnum. Luna stared at what he was offering. She had the same reaction her sister did. "It's so small."

     Barnum looked vaguely irritated. "Trust me, I think you'll find it more that sufficient. You're human now, or at least a good seeming," Barnum replied, "Things are different with humans. A lot different."

     Celestia leaned in and took the briefest, most gentle nibble. She straightened up to stare at Barnum. She waited with rising expectation and excitement. He nodded, and she dove in.

     Luna watched her plan spin out of control. In her mind's eye, her dear sister was practically insane, trying to get more and more of what she craved. While the sleeping form of Celestia rolled in her bed, her wings and legs thrashed as she moaned, 'More, more, yes, yes!'

     Break the connection! Luna thought as the emotional and sensory feedback from her sister addled and confused her. No, Celestia's too strong, and I can't get a decent grip on Barnum's dreams! She abandoned subtlety and the dreamscapes, and dashed for Barnum's room.

     Merry Lifter saw her coming at a dead gallop and opened the door without orders. In a trice, she was at the colt's bedside shaking him awake.

     "Wha! Wha?" he exclaimed as consciousness returned.

     "Do humans really taste that good! I mean does your - does cake really taste that way to humans?!" she demanded of the half-awake colt.

     Nervously he nodded. "Most food around here is like lightly-flavored sawdust," he admitted.

     Luna dropped him back on the bed. "Oh, Celly! Luna is so sorry!" she shouted in terror as she raced from the room.

     Barnum looked at Merry Lifter, and tried to remember the dream he'd just been having, and why and how cake was involved. "Do you understand any of what just happened?" he asked the guard.

     "I have decided not to understand what goes on between you and their Highnesses," Merry Lifter said stoically.

     "Cowardly, extremely wise, but cowardly," Barnum commented. "Why do I have this overwhelming urge to warn the royal bakers?" Barnum asked before settling back down to sleep.

     "How is it going my little ponies?" Celestia asked as she entered the workshop, taking in the slim but surprisingly strong trusses that reached from floor to the high, vaulted ceiling of Barnum's rooms. The sunlight streamed into the room, illuminating the ponies, and their problem.

     "As far as it goes, your Highness, it goes well," Glory said eagerly.

     "Then it teeters on the edge and falls off a cliff," Barnum added grimly. He ignored Glory's shushing sound and her offended glare.

     "Glory Bell, I wish to congratulate you on your tenure as both a Shadowbolt and a Wonderbolt. You have been and are a credit to your family."

     "Thank you, your Highness," Glory said, bobbing her head enthusiastically, "Barnum suggested I meet with my family after the Gala." She stared at Celestia.

     "An excellent idea," Celestia said, and no more, much to Glory's disappointment. "What seems to be the problem?" Celestia walked over to the piece with the L-shaped cross section which Glory and Barnum seemed so perturbed about.

     Again, Glory's warning not to waste the sovereign's time was ignored by Barnum as he hauled it up. Celestia was grateful it was. It's so seldom I get to do something like this, she thought happily.

     "This truss is cut an inch and seven-eighth's too long. It won't match up with the others, and that means we have to get a whole new set to go with this one, or scrap it and get a new one," Barnum explained, Celestia nodded as she examined the pencil line for the correct length. "Also, it's already been magically tempered and toughened. Any magic strong enough to cut it, would also damage the spells used, and it would be easier to scrap it and start over."

     "Why not sweep all the flaws into the area and break it off?" she asked as she nudged it over with her horn.

     "Because the supplier, diligent and thoughtful ponies that they are, already did that. After I taught them the spells I use for the purpose. The whole thing is nearly perfect," Barnum grumped.

     "Except for being too long," Celestia commented with a chuckle as she positioned it precisely.

     He is adorable when he's frustrated like that, she admitted to herself.

     "And it's too tough for cutting tools, and too large to put into the machines?" Celestia added and grinned, having maneuvered the piece exactly where she needed it to be, "I have been learning as you've discovered new things."

     "Exactly," Glory said, finally loosening up a bit. "We could cut it with hand tools, but the job of getting the flatness and straightness of the cut just right, for the loads this is designed to carry. It's beyond us."

     "Well, I can help. Hold still," she said happily. Before they could move, the pencil line evaporated, along with a tiny amount of the metal. The offending extra length slid off and clanged on the floor beside the tiny burn mark in the stone floor. Celestia glanced at the tiny hole in the window. Barnum can fix that easily, she thought and turned smiling back to the two stunned unicorns.

     "Barnum, I must thank you for the idea of that gamma-ray laser. It was difficult, but worth the effort," she said happily. "I do hope the cut is as you want it."

     "We'll check it later, your Majesty, thank you," Barnum said woodenly.

     "Excellent," she said and smiled. "Oh, and Barnum, while Lulu would love to join our little games, playful as she is. I think it would be an excellent idea if you told her, before you included her. She has a few very sensitive spots, and she doesn't take surprises as well as I have."

     Barnum looked at the 17-inch flange section, and the inch-and-a-half thick web section of the L, cut with a precision he'd struggle just to measure let alone match, and the lack of floor burn through, before answering. "Understood, clearly, your Majesty," he replied stiffly.

     "I'm so glad I could help." She walked out of the workshop. Back within, she heard someone whistle.

     "This is getting to be a cliche!" Barnum shouted at her as Glory shook him awake.

     "There's a fire, at sea," Glory told him, "The Shadowbolts and Wonderbolts are going out on the rescue."

     "I may be just waking up, but the seas are hours away in either direction."

     "Mages from the academy will teleport us most of the way. We'll take off the wounded and land in Baltimare," Glory told him as he pulled on a harness of tools and assorted gear, then joined her as they raced for the Wonderbolts' training field. Claire, Merry Lifter, and Brushcut followed in their wake.

     At the field, mechanics already had the various Dianes, all of them, out, checked over and blades turning. While the others were collecting supplies in the slings that would carry them, and the medics were being briefed. Many, even the pegasi, were looking distinctly nervous. Barnum checked his machine quickly, then ran for the team at a table planning the action.

     Shadow Pearl was trying to look in charge, but even he kept glancing at things with trepidation. Then the light changed and she spotted why. The 'us' who were being teleported hadn't meant the Wonder and Shadowbolts, and their Dianes. It also meant Her Nightjesty, Princess Luna. Barnum, bless or curse him, walked right up to her Nightjesty. She actually seemed shocked to see him.

     "Precision is the key to this. I've got a spell to pick up a large chuck of water. I can run the ship through it, and not flood it," he told her, "You should be able to pick it up once I've performed it once."

     "Barnum, this ship is loaded with cider," Luna said.

     For the first time, the normally unflappable stallion looked worried. "Then I'd better go along. The water will cool the barrels," he said and moved away.

     "What's the problem with cider?" Glory asked as she followed him back to the quadra-Dianes.

     "It burns, and it boils." Barnum checked the load his Diane would be carrying: two medics. "So if a barrel heats and bursts, it'll aerosolize the liquid. Like throwing a pinch of flour in a candle flame. Or with a small leak, it'll shoot off like a rocket."

     Glory suddenly understood his worry completely.

     The pegasi lifted off, and hovered in position. The Dianes soon joined them, the mechanics and prep crews releasing their charges to the Wonderbolt or Shadowbolt pilots. The entire formation centered on Her Nightjesty, while beneath them, dozens of mages from the academy, led by Her Majesty, waited. The spell cast, the entire formation found itself over the sea. The lights of Baltimare in the distance, the beacon of the burning ship before them.

     Glory piloted one of the rescue quadra-Dianes, and carried no one besides herself and Claire. Glory used her horn to boost the power of their pedaling as the single-seaters and the pegasi maneuvered to rush in and begin the rescue and firefighting action. The fires aboard ship illuminated the griffins struggling in the water around the ship. For once Glory didn't envy creatures with wings. "Their wings are soaked through, they can't fly and the weight is dragging them down."

     In answer, a barrel shot into the air, trailing a column of fire. Then another. One exploded on the deck itself. The light showed no one and nothing on deck.

     "They must have been blown off the deck by the explosions," Claire told her.

     "There goes another one," she whispered as a barrel launched itself into the air, trailing a streak of flame as the boiling liquid ignited. She watched the team hold position.

     "Let's hope this goes better than the usual 'Wonderbolts to the rescue' goes," Claire said worriedly.

     Glory nodded. They may be Equestria's best fliers, she thought worriedly, But they have a lousy track record for rescues and 'attacking' monsters. And after the 'Equestria's Best Young Fliers' I practically had to beg them to stay. One terrified mare took out the entire team.

     She put on a brave face. "Shadow Pearl knows what he's doing," she called back.

     "Does Barnum?" Claire gestured as his quadra-Diane pulled close to the water, Princess Luna in close formation. The pair watched in stunned amazement as Brushcut and Merry Lifter ran the pedals, with Barnum seated behind them. The orange glow of his horn was painful to look at in the darkness. The quadra-Diane lifted slowly, and a huge cube of orange-outlined sea water lifted with the vehicle. The nose dipped as the quadra-Diane moved forward, dragging the water with it. Behind them, Luna's horn glowed, and her wings beat as she matched the feat, dragging a second cube of water out of the ocean, and carrying it aloft.

     "Unbelievable," Claire breathed as the two cubes approached the ship.

     I feel like my horn is being dragged out of my head, I think as I strain to keep the cube fluid, yet force it to retain its shape. The two pilots have us on a straight course. Another barrel explodes, sending a comet's tail of flaming alcohol skyward.

     "Hang on Barnum," Merry Lifter tells me, "Almost there."

     If I nod, my head is going to fall off, I think as I concentrate. Making contact with the ship is almost a relief. The water covers the flames, cools the barrels as we pass slowly over the masts. Some of the griffins scrambling onto the decks to escape are drenched, but I'm able to hold the thing together well enough they aren't washed overboard or drowned. Then we're past.

     "Drop it lad!" Merry Lifter orders, and I do so gratefully.

     Luna has lowered her water slug into the hold, and draws it out, only to lower it in again, like a person dunking a doughnut in coffee.

     "Swing us around, now's the time for the rescue teams," I shout over the rotor noise.

     The Wonderbolts and Shadowbolts have moved in. One of the one-seaters has landed on the deck to deploy the triage gear and the slings for the wounded. Individual members are plucking the griffins out of the water using floating rings and the pylon turn, not risking going into the water and being drowned by the panicking griffins. A glow like St. Elmo's fire envelops some, and they are carried aloft to the quadra-Diane that Glory pilots.

     "Doc, you ever jump out of a perfectly good flying-machine?" I ask the medics.

     "Not without a healthy push," the younger stallion says and grins fearfully.

     "Wish granted," I tell him as I pluck him and his silent colleague off and lower them to the deck. "Geronimo!" I shout as I leap from the Diane and land on the deck. In a moment, I'm through the door into the main cabin. It's clear the place was an inferno. The smell of wet, burnt feathers and cooked meat permeate the air. I sense no embers and begin searching for any survivors, or sources of ignition that would bring the fire back to life.

     Claire brought the Diane in close, and Spitfire hooked the sling to the cargo pickup. She gave us the signal to pick up, and we carried three wounded griffins to the distant lights of Baltimare. Pegasi from the city's search and rescue teams were heading out, along with fast-moving ships. Even these veterans were amazed at the astonishing machine in Wonderbolts' colors racing over their heads.

     "Makes all the work worth it?" Claire asked as Glory waved to the crew below.

     "If we get our patients to the hospital," Glory said, "Then it will be worth it. But we still have to fly back and get more."

     Claire nodded. The mares' pedaling, and Glory's magic made the trip faster than the ships could manage.

     "Get the wounded aboard the ships!" the deep violet Earth pony shouted as the ship continued to make ominous noises, "This vessel is not long for this world."

     She trotted over to the unicorn who'd been desperately trying to find and patch the leaks. "Barnum, unless you can breathe underwater, we have to be gone too."

     "I am not deserting any of the crew," the unicorn said as he strained, his expression one of confined madness, "Once they're aboard, I'll leave." He grinned at her. "Besides, I have her Nightjesty to rescue me, after I rescue everyone else."

     "Where were you when we faced Discord?" Luna asked as she checked her disguise.

     "Funny you should mention that," Barnum said as he spotted and stopped another leak.

     Luna rolled her eyes at the colt's mad sense of humor. The ship groaned again loudly as Luna raced up the stair and checked on the medics moving the last of the wounded aboard the rescue ships. The ship suddenly lurched sideways and took on a noticeable list.

     She shouted down the hatchway. "Barnum! We are leaving!"

     The colt was at a dead run, and nearly collided with her. "Sink the ship! Sink the ship! Sink the ship!" he shouted as he ran for one of the waiting quadra-Dianes, leaping off the deck and catching the cargo sling in his teeth. "LUNA! MOVE!" he shouted when he had a foreleg hooked through the cargo sling, then horn-yanked her off the deck when she paused. He maneuvered getting better grips and hung upside-down from the empty cargo sling of the Diane Glory and Claire piloted. The rest of the deck was empty. The pegasi and boats were all moving away.

     Luna released a spell that shattered the hull, allowing the sea in through all the holes Barnum had been patching. She was under her own wing power as the ship dropped beneath the waves. Moments later a huge bubble burst the surface and the water roiled where the ship had been. "What was that?"

     "Those idiots had dragon dung as part of the ballast, and coal. On a ship loaded with alcohol. No wonder that fire started. We're just lucky the whole ship didn't blow with us on board."

     Luna shuddered, remembering some of the 'tricks' people had played with dried dragon dung. Tricks that often turned tragic. "Smugglers?" she asked as she lifted the colt from his amusing but precarious perch hanging onto the sling. She set him carefully in the 'flight-engineer' position. "I'll meet you back in Baltimare. I think this may be a subject for the Baltimare police." They nodded and Luna accelerated towards the distant lights of the coast.

     Glory noted that the teams were not letting her or Barnum walk towards the local 'Royal Residence' that was being freshened up for the sudden arrival of her Nightjesty and her party.

     "Hey, hero," Spitfire told her as she helped support the weary mare, "Our first real rescue, that worked."

     "I can walk you know," Glory complained.

     "You can also fall down and ruin the ambiance," Tuxie said from the opposite side. "This is what I meant about 'flying for real', Captain. Inspiring the crowds is fine, but saving their lives while doing it. That's what I wanted."

     Spitfire snorted but kept supporting Glory.

     "Where's Claire? Where's Barnum?" Glory asked as she glanced around.

     "Considering you made three trips, and everyone else made one," Spitfire said, "I think she deserves a rest. As for Barnum, how many tranquilizer spells did they use on him?"

     "I think her Nightjesty only needed one, and everypony within ten feet also passed out," Tuxie teased.

     Glory snorted at that, but let the two effectively carry her into the residence.

Out of Place - Out of Context Part 4

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc. Billy Joel - Piano Man It's a pretty good crowd for a Saturday And the manager gives me a smile 'Cause he knows that it's me they've been comin' to see To forget about their life for a while And the piano, it sounds like a carnival And the microphone smells like a beer And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar And say, "Man, what are you doin' here?"

     "Next time, leave me on the boat," I whisper to Glory as I shake hooves with another dignitary in the endless line of well wishers.

     Glory is fetching in her uniform, along with all the other Wonderbolts and Shadowbolts. Luna has her finery. I am dressed in a decent suit, and still have to be feted as a hero among heroes, I think morosely as I shake another hoof, With only one very short day to be prepared for all this idiocy. Meanwhile, the countdown to the Grand Galloping Gala, and what happens after, gets shorter, and shorter. My mood is not the best.

     It's not fair, I think as I let another idiot try the crushing hand grip on me, and I can't retaliate, The medics don't have to stand here.

     I catch Luna's eye, and realize I'm being 'honored' as repayment for some indignity I exposed her to. She grins at me to drive the point home, before returning to accept the adoration of a griffon diplomat in front of her.

     My foreleg feels like a piece of raw meat when the greeting line is complete. Then comes the wonderful situation of a state banquet. Catered by the griffins. The hall in the residence is not as opulent as Canterlot. Mostly paneled walls, more paintings and fewer sculptures. Between lessons on etiquette, the majordomo gave us a quick tour and a brief history of the place. Apparently, it was the first time the place had been used by an actual princess for fifty years. The supercilious, but dutiful mare had made certain everything was perfect. One of her warnings rang in my ears. 'The griffins will want to test us,' she'd warned the entire crew, 'Because ponies are weak.'

     Okay, the crushing hand grip I can understand, I think as I walk with the others into the banquet hall. To bolster security, 'my' entire guard force is there. All in their best uniforms. Manes spotless and brushed, buttons gleaming, and helmets mirror bright. I felt distinctly underdressed without uniform or a sash of medals. The seating and order of precedence had been drilled into all of us. The princess sat at the head of the table, and was permitted to sit through the entire enterprise. Likewise, Glory as a lesser princess, only had to stand if Luna spoke, or if Luna stood. As a civilian without portfolio of any kind, I'd stand through the speeches, and would be obliged to be seated last when the meal is served, after all the glittering jewels. Marvelous, I think as Luna stands to speak.

     I brace myself for a short, but pompous speech. "We all know why we are here," Luna began.

     So let's talk about it for the next ten minutes, I respond internally, to maintain the illusion of interest.

     "There has always been a warm and sunny friendship between the nation of Equestria and the Griffin lands."

     With occasions flurries of barbeque sauce.

     "Today we celebrate a unique occurrence in our nations' histories, that I certainly hope will not remain unique," Luna says.

     Because we're going to unique up on it with a spiked club, and . . .

     "We are gathered here, in a way, to honor innovation in the service of all," Luna proclaims.

     And that's all we're serving while it's hot, because the speechifying will go on until everything else has gone cold, except the ice cream, I reply in my head.

     "And while he would insist on spreading the credit around."

     For an hour and a half, with a really big shovel, I think.

     "I think no one involved would deny his work in bringing this about," Luna said.

     Okay, yeah, Shadow Pearl deserves his honors, I think as I stamp my hooves in accordance with the 'polite' applause of the others.

     "Would you all welcome, please, Prince Barnum."

     The table hits me in the chin to distract me from the floor jumping up and crashing into my side. On my way down, I note Luna's extremely pleased expression. Schadenfreude, thy name is alicorn, I think as several people help me up: ponies and griffins.

     "As graceful at accepting honors as always," Luna comments.

     "Undeserved honors, your Highness," I manage as I stand, "There are many others who made this happy event possible."

     You are enjoying this far too much, your Nightjesty, I think as I walk up to the head of the table. I bow to Luna, and hope I remember all the rigamarole involved in this. In the background, the majordomo is having apoplexy, this being one subject not covered in the all too brief lessons.

     "You, P.T. Barnum McHorsefly are henceforth invested with the titles and responsibilities of a prince of Equestria. For your exemplary service to the Diarchy, in innovation both in the technical and the ponitarian fields. Are you worthy of such a title?"

     Okay, this part I don't remember, and the only one that seems to be breathing at this point is Luna, I think, as a stall, seeming to deeply consider what she has asked, while actually trying to wrack my brain for the formula answer. Heck with it, if I answer wrong, she can just take it away.

     "No, your Nightjesty. I can only do my best," I reply. The sound of the majordomo fainting indicates the depths of my faux pas.

     "An honest Prince, that should disqualify him immediately," the griffin ambassador comments. The laughter breaks the tension. One of the servants escorts me to my new seat, beside Glory, and closer to Luna.

     "You're her first Prince, so technically, you outrank me," Glory whispers.

     Terrific, I don't say aloud. I merely raise an eyebrow at Luna, who returns an imperious gaze, with a heaping helping of terrified filly behind it.

     Okay, something is going on here. What the heck does me suddenly being a prince have to do with it? I want to ask, but this is not the time or the place.

     An hour and forty-five minutes of incredibly boring speeches later, the initial 'festivities' are complete. Then I'm expected to add to the speeches. "Shadow Pearl and his teams, the real heroes of the hour." Which received polite applause. Followed by stunned silence as they realize that's all I'm going to say. The griffin ambassador gives that a standing ovation, joined by Luna.

     Now the ambassador grins. "Bring it in. In order to cement our feeling of peace, understanding and compromise, we would like to present her, 'Nightjesty' was it, a gift as part of the feast."

     "Most kind," Luna replies, and again the hidden terror.

     Okay, this is the test. And it's Luna's, or is it? I think as the four griffins carry a massive, covered dish into the hall. Large enough for a large assassin or a team of small ones, the guards and soldiers tense. Luna looks at it with a waxen smile and dread in her eyes. She indicates with her horn that they should set it up behind Glory and me, it being far too large for the table. Legs are folded down and latched, then the cover is whisked away.

     Luna looks green, and some of the matrons have fainted, yet all I smell is cheese, I think, then perhaps break protocol by turning around to look at it. There, exposed for all to see, is what looks like a sheep carcass, flat on its back, legs folded, covered in a crust of bread crumbs and cheese.

     "Prince Barnum, if you would," Luna says, sounding not too steady, and decidedly queasy.

     I bow. "As her Nightjesty commands," I say jauntily, "But I may sneak some before I serve you."

     "You will be forgiven that indiscretion."

     There is a complete carving set built into the serving tray. At least it's already cooked. This shouldn't be any more difficult than a Thanksgiving turkey, I consider, Not like the time dad bought a whole steer, then found out we'd have to butcher it. 'Let a pro do it' 'I've hunted, I know how to skin and gut a kill.' I don't know which was worse, standing in the cold covered in blood, or that the biting insects all seem to have woken up out of their winter torpor and were after us. I select a joint of the foreleg to the body. The silence is deafening, and the sense of expectation palpable. The looks of ill-concealed glee on the two griffin servers cements the impression. Sorry kids, I'm of sterner stuff than that.

     The knife slices through the joint far more easily than it should. One mare or a countertenor stallion gasps in horror as the carcass begins to ooze. I look at the structure of the foreleg, and keep my expression carefully neutral. The servers catch on that I'm not going to faint, as I cut the leg into two roughly equal pieces and return to the table. "Your Nightjesty, your Excellency, your rarebit. How did you keep the layers of cheese from interpenetrating, a layer of bread crumbs would not seem to be enough?"

     "Oh, you like our little dish?" the Ambassador exclaims happily, "But why 'rarebit' and not rabbit."

     "A joke for the easily fooled. I've been subjected to it, but not on such a grand and impressive scale." I see that Luna is getting the fact that the whole thing is essentially a giant, baked cheese sandwich.

     "Yes, we are so very proud of our cheeses," the griffin said, "Ponies have been quite uncertain about importing them, yet they don't make their own."

     One of the griffin servers sets down a plate before me. On it are both 'ears' and the 'tail'. He and Mile Stone could have an 'I am totally innocent of whatever you are planning to accuse me of' contest. I only nod.

     "We all have our cultural illusions we must play through," the ambassador says. He grins. "You seemed to be only one brave enough take the bull by the horns."

     "I once shot a dragon in my pajamas," I tell him.

     "Very commendable," he says with some shock, "And very brave."

     "Not half as brave as whoever put it in my pajamas," I deadpan.

     "It was supposed to be an alligator," Glory offers.

     "An alligator instead of a dragon?" the ambassador asks like a man trying to swim to shore.

     "No, your Excellency, an alligator put the dragon in his pajamas," Glory says as she looks at the piece of 'neck' she'd been served and the multitude of layers. "Your Highnesses, we must prevail on the ambassador to have his most expert chefs prepare another for the Grand Galloping Gala."

     "Prince Barnum, your policy to have criminals shot, how did that work out?" Luna asks.

     "Oh, excellently your Nightjesty, getting him into the cannon was difficult, but getting something into canon often takes special effort. He screamed very little until he saw the dragon, and the dragon choked to death on him. We pulled him out and he was very willing to foreswear crime forever. Even eight-swear crime twelve-ever."

     At this point the ambassador deeply regrets his little joke, I think as I glance at the pallid-faced bureaucrat, Because we can and will keep this up all night.

     "Speaking of these most excellent cheeses," I ask, "Your Nightjesty, what about the rumors that the moon is made of green cheese."

     "Not green, the cold keeps it in excellent condition," Luna says between bites, "Moonsteur, gorgenluna, cheddar."

     "Cheddar?" I ask, "What about the dark side?"

     "Cheddar is the dark side," Luna says with menace, she adds wistfully, "It was the crackers I missed."

     "Oh, that's why you made Barnum a prince," Glory says.

     "Her aim is still lousy?" I ask.

     The expression of terror on the ambassador's face, as he would face at least another hour of this, is hilarious.

     Mile Stone stood at the doorway of the 'Bedlam House' and watched Barnum check over what looked like a disassembled bridge, as he stood in his fanciest dress uniform. "What is all that in aid of?" he finally asked.

     "In case the roof falls in. Or we need to keep it from falling in. They have to be light enough to be transported by air, and strong enough to do the job."

     "I shouldn't have asked," Mile Stone lamented, "Are you going? The party starts in an hour."

     "I never got an invite," Barnum replied breezily.

     "The royalty, which you are part of, never need 'an invite'. They just show up," Mile Stone said, "Your Highness." He enjoyed the hateful glare from Barnum at the relish with which he'd said the title.

     "I, for one, am glad neither he nor his patron are going to be here." The supercilious voice, attached to the equally supercilious stallion wandered into Barnum's apartments.

     "Besides, if that's a Prince, I'm overqualified," Barnum said.

     "What's that supposed to mean," Prince Blueblood, the distant cousin of her Majesty asked.

     "That's supposed to mean, that if one of Celestia's own knights were to make your acquaintance, you'd be too wrapped up in yourself to treat her decently," Barnum said harshly, "That my parents taught me that gentlecolt and gentlemare, are training and attitude, not bloodline. If someone tried to take a train to your ego, it would bounce off."

     "Hmpf, I've never been so insulted." The stallion put his nose in the air.

     "Considering you think your Princedom can be tarnished with blood and dirt, and I know mine can only be elevated by action," Barnum said darkly, "Why don't you go to your party, stay freshly polished, and leave me to my work."

     "You are throwing me out of your sordid, little workshop?" Blueblood asked, aghast at the notion.

     "No, I'm tricking you into staying so I can tell you what you really are," Barnum said, "A waste of flesh. Maybe if someone skinned you, they'd at least make a good coat out of you."

     "You wouldn't dare!" the aristocrat gasped as he backed out of the room.

     "We could render your fat head down to make wonderful candles!" Barnum shouted at the retreating stallion. He glanced at Mile Stone. "Now you know why my country killed all its nobles. Inbred streak of piss, the lot of them."

     "And their Highnesses? And Glory?"

     "They earned it, and keep earning it. That big baby thinks it's rightfully his, and devil take the hindmost." Barnum grinned. "Besides, technically I'm a First first citizen that puts me up in Cadence's latitude. Well below her, of course, but far above the next in line."

     "And you intend to go on 'earning it'?" Mile Stone asked, "That's what these are for?"

     "Her Majesty trusted me to invent. That was the implied contract between us. Her Nightjesty had her own reasons for what she did, even if it did make me 'Prince Cheese Slicer', but that doesn't repudiate the previous contract, any more than your transition from Day to Night Guard severs your loyalty to Equestria."

     "I still think you should come, lad," Mile Stone pleaded, "Without someone to talk to, this is going to be deadly dull."

     "I happen to know that Celestia's knights are going to be here. All of them in fancy gowns."

     Mile Stone's heart dropped. "I'll alert the fire brigades and rescue squads," he said and turned to hurry away, then stopped, "Those really are to hold up the roof, aren't they?"

     "Or to hold the city to the mountain," Barnum said.

     "Your Nightjesty?" I exclaim of the tired figure who lands far enough outside the bright light and noise of the gala to avoid notice by those inside.

     "Your Highness," she replies, with weary humor.

     "Go on in, you'll make quite a splash," I tell her.

     "No," she replies, "Why aren't you in there Barnum?" she asks me.

     "Not my kind of party," I admit, "Too loud for a discussion group, and too quiet for a party." I consider. "Hang on, I can get you something to eat without going in."

     "I'll be waiting in the garden," Luna tells me as I move off.

     I find the despondent pony I was looking for. "Hey, Miss Applejack."

     "Barnum? Wha'cha all you doin' way out here?"

     "No invite," I tell her, "Ah, if you wanted to sell your food, why didn't you get on the caterers' list?" I ask, although I saw the episode.

     "Caterers?" Applejack perks up, "Y'all mean they had food all bought and paid fer?"

     "Yep," I reply, "But, if you're selling, I'll take a pie and two fritters. I've got a friend who needs some comfort food."

     She smiles and food is exchanged for money. I head back to her Nightjesty, who has concealed herself near the gardens. From her expression, she's watching something of intense interest.

     "Come out!" Fluttershy yells to the fleeing animals. Incidently spooking one of the most powerful beings in Equestria. We watched the yellow pegasus chase assorted animals from tree to tree and shadow to shadow.

     Luna withdrew. "I have a bad feeling about this," she confides as we slip back into the palace through a side entrance.

     "This should make you feel better," I tell her as I offer her the pie, "Apple Family, best in the business. I take it the investigation didn't go well."

     "The griffins claim no knowledge of the ballast, or its dangerous qualities," Luna explained between bites, obviously enjoying it. I use a napkin to gently wipe her mouth. She looks at me a bit askance. "So the incident is officially a terrible accident. I am, displeased by that result." She looks over at my bed, then at me. "I am invoking royal privilege, there are other beds. I have no desire to deal with servile functionaries."

     I move to change the sheets, and she shakes her head. "But you'll let me tuck you in?" I ask as I instead get a second pillow and a comforter.

     "With you I know you do it just to make me think there's an ulterior motive, when none exists," Luna says tiredly, as she removes her adornments, placing them on a bedside table Hardwood made for me. She climbs in as I turn down the covers for her. "Thank you," she tells me as I tuck her in. She's asleep in moments.

     I feel rather than hear the fall I know is pillar on pillar. A moment later Mile Stone is at the door.


     "Please tell me you're joking, " I whisper back, making shushing noises.

     The bedraggled sergeant shakes his head. I pick up the truss pieces and pass them to the unicorn and earth pony teams forming outside.

     I spot Neanderpony, Claire and Glory in the crowd. "You two, on guard if you would." I let them see who's taking refuge in my room. "Nobody except, Glory, me or Celestia goes in."

     "You do understand that when ponies say 'that stallion can get any mare in his bed', they are implying you were there too," Claire points out.

     I glare at her, and she and her husband take up their positions.

     "You're right, she's too cute to take advantage of," Glory says, not helping.

     I roll my eyes. "How much of the palace was destroyed?"

     "Not much," Glory admits, "Although ponies will be talking about this gala for years."

     "Best gala ever," Mile Stone says happily.

     "And you ponies think I have a weird idea of fun," I comment as we gallop towards the grand ball room.

     Dozens of unicorns are staring at the fallen columns. Her Highness is looking around ruefully.

     Probably because she wants out, and is trying to keep from laughing, I think.

     "You Majesty, it isn't safe. With respect, I must insist that you leave, until repairs are complete," I tell her as politely as possible.

     She looks at Glory, who reluctantly nods. "Very well. I doubt I could be more help." She gravely nods and withdraws.

     "Don't let your 'princeship' go to your head," Glory warns.

     "I've got to get to the moon somehow!" I whine back.

     The others shake their heads at our antics.

     "Okay, the brackets fit together, and the jack screws adjust the overall length. Get some heavy planking to protect the floor, and then we'll put these in place. In the meantime, Barnum, check those column sections for any flaws and certify them load-bearing or not," Glory orders, "Get moving, I want this back up and perfect before sunrise!"

     "Yes, your Highness," I tell her.

     I'd managed to get Glory to agree that the painting would be better done with the sun up. All but two of the columns were restored, sans paint. The remaining two had the stones of the columns too badly damaged to easily repair.

     The artisans, masons and other workers had crashed out all over the ballroom. The beds of my apartment, and all the blankets and pillows the maid staff could find had been provided to the dozens of sleeping ponies.

     Many of them would be shocked that her Majesty was in here covering them with blankets, I think as I move among them, as exhausted as they are, but too tired and keyed up to sleep. The Grand Galloping Gala: the next to last gateway. Only one more, and Discord lies beyond, I think as I walk, No use fighting it. It's going to happen. He spotted Fancypants, and threaded his way over to the aristocratic stallion.

     "Fuddle!" the stallion whispers a curse, "I skip one of these dreadful parties, and it becomes the one ponies will talk about for the next half-century."

     "What happened a half-century ago?" I ask as I lead him out into the hall.

     "The dragon ambassador had magic enough to shrink down to interact with ponies eye-to-eye. The griffon ambassador had the audacity to goad the dragon into a fight. The exchange of pastries was quite a sight to see. I was a guard then, doing my service to the princess. I dare say, neither of them expected her 'pony highness' to be such a sniper with mint imperials. I dare say it was a tragic day for her Highness when he was recalled. He was one of the few creatures nearly as long-lived as she, and nearly as adventuresome."

     I snickered at that. Then came to attention as their Highnesses looked in the door. Celestia gestures for us to be quiet. Luna looks at her big sister with incredulity, but the pair head off. In the distance some giggling can be heard.

     "They trust you to be on the job. Prince Barnum, the Royal Corps of Engineers, all in one pony," Fancypants comments, and gestures for me to follow him outside into the garden, where we can look in at all the drowsing ponies. He smirks. "At least you have better luck that Prince Blueblood. Is it true that he was told off, rather pointedly, by one of Celestia's knights herself?"

     "Yes," I reply, "Lady Rarity, element of generosity. She was willing to put up with quite a bit of his attitude. But she was in no mood to put up with it forever."

     "I must remember to invite them to one of my garden parties."

     "Something a little less formal, I hope. In fact, one of your 'regardening' parties might be better. Where you do the clean up of the Royal Gardens."

     "That's such a lowbrow affair," he says, "And so boring."

     "I think you'll find that some of them aren't so aghast at manual labor as the Canterlot nouveau riche. And some might like to learn about arranging a garden."

     He looks at me askance, but accepts it. "Lost opportunities." Then looks over my shoulder. I glance over and Glory is approaching. She looks lost and forlorn.

     "I guess this is goodbye for a while," she says, then glances over at the pillars. "You'll get those fixed?"

     "I'll do my best to see everything is back to normal by the time you return," I tell her truthfully.

     "I bet you will," she says, clearly wanting to get answers. Instead she gives me a passionate kiss, ignoring who might be watching. "Be well." Then gallops off before I can say anything.

     I look back to Fancypants' very stoic expression. "Whatever made you send her away, has got to be serious."

     "Everything will be fine. It'll just be a bit rocky for a few days."

     "Care to share?" he asks.

     "Other than to give you the same advice I gave her and Sir Eagle Bell, go visit Vanhoover or Las Pegasus for a few days? No."

     He raises an eyebrow, but accepts. Then turns away to walk back the way Glory left.

     I look at the sleeping ponies in the room. I wish I could come up with a convincing reason to evacuate the entire city. But then he'd go find where they are, rather than attacking them here, I consider, So I sacrifice how many of them, to save the rest of the planet. What kind of a person does that make me. I suddenly feel much less secure about my recent elevation to Prince. So, did Luna know and make it a reminder of me choosing life and death for so many, or is something else? I leave to arrange breakfast for the workers, and for new stones to replace the damaged ones.

     Celestia sipped her tea and enjoyed the moments of quiet in the throne room between the councilors' arguments and the cases she was to judge. One of the servants approached with a wheeled trolley of tea and small cakes.

     "Your Highness, if you'd told us, we would have made the time easier for you," the elderly mare said. Then she whispered, "We've been trying to guess the lucky stallion."

     " 'Lucky stallion'?" Celestia asked curiously.

     The mare pulled out a newspaper, and hooved it over to her liege. "You must be very proud of Princess Luna," the mare said and beamed at her sovereign, "Begging your pardon, your Majesty."

     Celestia scanned the paper. She carefully set the tea down and swallowed, as she focused on the 'Sunny Days' column, and realized she hadn't submitted one to the paper recently.

     "We had no idea you were in a family way," the older mare said, "And I guess now the secret's out, you don't have to pretend any more."

     " 'Luna is actually Celestia's DAUGHTER who was born nearly full-grown, as are all alicorn foals, with the aid of Twilight Sparkle and her friends as magical midwives!'" Celestia thundered as she crushed the paper to a pinhead and burned it to ashes. "LUNA!" she shouted as she stood, then calmed down. "No," she whispered as she thought it through. "BARNUM!" Celestia dashed from the throne room, nearly trampling a few flustered, functionaries who didn't dive out of the way soon enough.

     Moments later, the elderly maid, and the tea trolley returned to the forms of Luna and Barnum.

     "When do we tell her these papers are all fakes?" Luna asked, as she pulled out her own that stated she spend 1000 years recovering from giving birth to Celestia.

     "Let her be furious for a little while. It's always good to let that out for a bit," he told her Nightjesty. As he examined his, which stated he was Celestia's child. "Besides, I want that 'Sunny Days' gone as much as you do. It's a double-edged sword she really doesn't need any more. Besides, I also asked Coltchak about the rumors, and their truthfulness. That should get some very interesting balls rolling."

     Luna nodded. "You fight dirty."

     "Speaking of fighting dirty, did you contact Pinkie Pie and Rarity about your arrival on Nightmare Night?" Barnum asked.

     "I don't see how playing a ridiculously extravagant villain will help my image," Luna admitted.

     "Trust me, a ridiculous and ineffectual villain is always good for laughs. And a bit of a scare can be fun. Give the kids a safe scare, and let the adults in on the joke."

     Luna shrugged. "I bow to your superior wisdom in this, your Highness."

     "Good grief, not you too!"

     Luna giggled. ------------------------------

Out of Place - Out of Sight Part 1 DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc. "Sound the Bugle" - Bryan Adams Sound the bugle now - play it just for me As the seasons change - remember how I used to be Now I can't go on - I can't even start I've got nothing left - just an empty heart I'm a soldier - wounded so I must give up the fight There's nothing more for me - lead me away . . . Or leave me lying here

      "He's been feeling out of sorts since the Grand Galloping Gala," Mile Stone told Hardwood as they walked through the halls. "He sent Glory away, to be with her uncle for a little while, and strongly advised them both to be as far away from Canterlot and Ponyville as they could manage in a few days. That was the last time I saw him show any enthusiasm for anything."

      "I thought you said he didn't attend the Gala," Hardwood tried to joke, "Sorry."

      "Major, I've seen some fighting in my life. I've seen stallions work themselves up into a near lather to avoid facing something. I've also seen others just give up and quit living. I have never seen this quietness. It's as if he knows he's going to lose, and just wants to put the best face on it he can."

      "Are there any competitions or races I don't know about? Has he or Glory come to some kind of decision about them being togther?"

      "None that I know about. I even asked my wife, I know 'ouch'. She said they might have had a falling out. Young people say and do things that wiser heads know to avoid," the Sergeant said and shook his head, "But this doesn't feel that way."

      "I can look into it, but I'm not sure if there's much I can do. If it is a lovers' spat, I can offer a shoulder to cry on, but wise advice would better come from a stallion married more years than he's been alive."

      "He remembers being married. He has as much knowledge as I," Mile Stone said, "That's why I don't think it's that."

      "I can talk to him," Hardwood said.

      "Tia?" Luna asked as she approached her sister in her private chambers. "Are you all right? You were so happy after spending time with your student and her friends after the Gala. Even the signing of the new Magna Carta didn't seem to depress you. Now you seem to be moping. Did something happen, the ceremony was too formal and ostentatious? There is a new list of demands? Sunny Days published picture of how you eat cake in private?"

      Celestia smiled at that. "Sunny Days has decided to retire to write a historical novel on the ancient history of Equestria." The grin became pained. "Perhaps then I can explain some of the decisions I have made."

      "Tia, I was insane, and I wasn't really myself. You could have killed me, but you didn't," Luna said. She paused and looked deeper at the problem. "What is really bothering you?"

      "The spells holding Discord are weakening. But the two of us no longer wield the Elements, and the current wielders, are not what we were."

      "The Elements in their hands are remarkably potent," Luna said, and added sardonically, "I can attest to that."

      "But they are not us. How do they survive the initial clash, before they can attack him with them?" she asked, "Do not fear, I have a plan, and it will work. It's just going to be harder on you and the Bearers than I'd like it to be."

      "Can you share the plan, or do you think he's listening?" Luna asked.

      Celestia stood up and sang, "Within a world beset by chaos, a most beguiling man. He had the look on Luna I would find." Celestia nuzzled her sister. "The haunted hunting kind, I asked him to say what would happen, how it all began I asked again - he never said a word As if he hadn't heard And then the room was full of madness at full flood All things became unstuck - sound, scent, and sight amok And Luna then it struck Then I saw all of our ponies crying for her fate And then I heard them mentioning my name And leaving me the blame."

      "Oh 'Tia," Luna soothed her sister, nuzzling her gently.

      I don't mind finding the two alicorn sisters in my room as I'm getting ready to turn in after a hard day. The fact they're both wearing what is presumably their sleep wear, and several of the mattresses are arranged on the floor to simulate the size of Celestia's bed is what draws questions. "Are you two okay?"

      "I told Luna," Celestia says quietly.

      Not 'I told Luna everything', I realize, But enough that the old feelings and fears have resurfaced. Can thousand-year-old god-queens still have PTSD after so long?

      "Just sleeping," I tell them, "I'm guessing that's what you want anyway."

      Both nod. There's none of the playfulness I've seen in Celestia before. She's a scared young woman, I think as I lead them over and settle in. I wind up not needing a blanket. Celestia gathers me up in her legs, Luna spoons up behind me and covers both of us with a wing, then Celestia covers Luna and me with her wing. The two alicorns touch noses over my head. As they drift off, I'm aware of little whimpering sounds from both of them.

      What do they dream, I wonder, And what did Discord do to them, their families, even their whole race, before they defeated him? It's a question I haven't asked for fear of getting this exact reaction. Perhaps I should have, I think to myself as I drift off.

      It's the picnic we had down at the river. Two years before the tragedy. For some reason, I'm not running around doing all the things I assume I would have done if I'd met my relatives again after their deaths. Instead, I'm doing what I did then, manning the grill and keeping an eye on the kids.

      The arrival of Celestia and Luna forces a change of plans. Introductions all around, first and foremost, and amazement at not everyone freaking out about talking horses on the one hand, and the alicorn sisters not freaking out about all the humans on the other. I return to the grill. Luna wanders off with my brother and sister to watch the kids. What worries me a little is Celestia wandering off to sit on the grass and talk, very seriously, with my wife. My one glance in that direction gets an imperious finger point from her towards the grill. This talk is going to be private.

      The two teenage boys aren't impressed with the 'talking pony'. Luna recognizes this as wannabe Alpha behavior, and realizes that human males have dominance games similar to pony mares. Insults and challenges are issued, and then the scuffle. It's hardly a fight, because even two on one, Luna outweighs the gangly humans, has more 'strikers' than the two combined, and has actual combat training and experience. Very shortly, she has both face down on the grass, and is perched atop them like a happy cat. And she'd done it without unsettling the parents. True to the somewhat stupid 'I haven't lost until I admit I've lost' attitude of seemingly every teenager in our extended family (including the adults when they were that age), the challenges continue.

      After a deliberate interval, and a few calculated insults that Luna is just a walking, talking, girls' toy, the alicorn princess has had enough. With one boy on her back, and the other clutched in her legs, she takes to the air. After a series of aerobatics that would have given Chuck Yeager or Richthofen fits of envy, Luna hovers over the ground, shrugs one loudmouth off, and drops the other on top of him. She asks about what they think about 'girly toys' now?

      For the first time in a long time, the two are utterly speechless.

      Then Luna gets a shock of her own. My six-year-old niece approaches her with a box, and the serious attitude of a six-year-old drilled that certain jobs are her responsibility. In this case, it's taking care of horses. She has one she regularly rides, and after she rides it, she is to properly wipe it down, check it over, and curry it. The fact her idiot cousins rode this one, and it can talk, is secondary. Luna clearly has no experience dealing with determined six-year-olds, and gets absolutely no help from the girl's father. And the pleading look aimed at me gets no help. Walking away from the girl only get her to pick up the box and follow. The little girl knows horses, and stays out of range of a kick, but is dogged in her pursuit.

      After several minutes of unsuccessfully walking away, teleporting, and hiding behind various human adults, Luna finally does what every other horse exposed to the girl does. She relents. She kneels down so the girl has an easier time, and braces herself for the clumsy ministrations of an amateur. In a few moments, she understands why none of the adults sided with her. The wipe down is thorough and thoroughly enjoyable. Checking her hooves for stones, bruising or any other problems elicits a smile. But the currying and grooming. Oh, does she love the currying and grooming. I make a mental note to warn the royal hairdressers that they had some severe competition. Luna practically falls asleep under the ministrations of the little human. Wiping off her eyes and cleaning out her nose is a new experience, but the 'dock area' gets her to stand up suddenly with a surprised whinny. And makes all the rest of us laugh at the expression as Luna tries to explain why that last part is unnecessary. The six-year-old has dealt with nervous horses before, and talking horse or not, is determined to finish the job. Talk that 'the nice pony doesn't need that done, thank you!' has`absolutely no effect. The girl listens, with an expression on her face that she's seen the truth, and knows she's being lied to. Luna's other problem is the little girl 'speaks horse' and despite Luna's superior size and power, the girl is clearly exhibiting that she's lead mare.

      I take pity on her, sort of. "Luna," I call, and she gallops over. "Humans have a very different hunting style than other predators. A human will pick one animal out of the herd, and pursue it. The animal will gallops away, and the human will trot after it. And when the human gets close, the prey will gallop away, and the human will trot after it. After several hours, or even days of this, the prey will either give up and submit, or be so exhausted it can't move anymore." I nod to the little girl standing beside Luna with her kit. "Humans have learned to apply that technique to other pursuits."

      "It tickles!" Luna insists, then whispers, "And it's intimate." Luna hangs her head. "You aren't going to help me, are you?"

      "If she's that determined, then you really haven't been keeping yourself properly clean. Clean horse, that's all she cares about. There's a copse of trees over there. Talk to her about technique."

      Luna looks at me incredulously, that a half-grown human would know more about pony hygiene than a thousand-year-old, god-princess pony. My expression, and the little girl's show that I'm siding with the girl, and she's not taking 'no' for an answer. The alicorn trudges along with her neck down below her shoulders. They step around the trees out of sight. It's several minute later when they walk out. My niece looking exultant, and Luna walking a peculiar, swivel-hipped gait.

      "I am not pleased," Luna tells me. "But the little one is well-versed on many pony maladies. Too well versed."

      "She rides horses regularly, and takes good care of them. I suspect she'll . . . she would have grown up to be a veterinarian."

      She shies at that, despite my soft tone. "Barnum, I'm sorry," Luna said.

      "It's all right. Reminding me what else I'm fighting for. If Discord wins in Equestria, he'll eventually tire of it, and might find his way to Earth. And we have no magic to fight back with."

      Luna nods.

      The burgers and hot dogs are ready, in numbers large enough to start feeding people. Celestia and my wife have been talking the whole time, while setting the table. The rest of the parents and kids head over.

      "I'd like to try a hotdog," Celestia tells me as she stands on the opposite side of the grill.

      "It's meat," I tell her, "I think you'd rather -"

      Laughter interrupts as everyone looks at Luna, with her nose practically buried in my wife's potato salad. "We must have this recipe!" Luna announces as she comes up for air. More laughter follows.

      "Here you go." I serve Celestia one of the more well-done ones.

      "Barnum, may I have a different part of the dog?" she asks in a tone of such wronged innocence that I know she's been waiting all morning to say that.

      "Actually that's all brain," my wife interjects.

      "Brain?" Celestia asks.

      "Don't most men do their thinking with that?" my loyal and lovely wife asks.

      Celestia nods at her wisdom.

      I keep silent at their chuckling, and decide to keep quiet about something else, that will assuredly happen later.

      Saying grace before the meal is something that was traditional in our family, but a tradition I haven't openly followed in Equestria.

      "Did you feel constrained against practicing your religion around us?" Celestia sees to the truth of things.

      "Somewhat. More because your society seems not to have religion as much as tradition and rituals," I explain, "And also because a theological discussion would be beyond most ponies' ability to grasp."

      " 'For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, so whoever believeth in Him shall have everlasting life'," my brother quotes.

      "That seems a wonderful sentiment," Celestia said.

      "There's the part about what we humans did to that son, which isn't lunchtime conversation, which also factors into it. Let's just say, you and Adonia might have in interesting conversation about restraint in the face of overwhelming provocation by your beloved children."

      Celestia files this away for later, probably post-Discord, discussion. The culture and technology of the two different lands is discussed. To the embarrassment of we three 'ponies', both my wife and sister talk around their approval of an 'arrangement' among myself, Celestia, Luna and Glory. I didn't think anything could throw her Majesty off track that badly. The kids, of course, can't fathom what the heck the adults are talking about.

      "Life goes on 'Barnum'," my wife scolds me, "And you are cute."

      This disgusts the two teenage boys, who head off. Luna offers to play 'hoofball' with them. Our equestrienne demands to stay at the table.

      "Don't you want to ride your pony?" Luna asks, and immediately has a loyal follower.

      With the kids gone, my wife breaches the real subject of the event. "How are you going to defeat Discord?"

      "The way it was done on the show," I explain, "Twilight received all the friendship reports she'd sent to Princess Celestia."

      "Does anyone else have access to them and the transmission system?" my brother asks.

      "Many in Canterlot have access to that spell, but I fear Discord will run riot over them," Celestia tells us.

      "Let Luna in on the story," my sister says, "She seems levelheaded, for a girl barely out of her teens."

      "How old do you think I am?" Celestia asks.

      "A few years older than Luna, early twenties maybe."

      "That's based on a human lifespan with the onset of puberty between 11 and 14, adulthood between 18 and 21, and average lifespan of 75 to 85 years."

      "By that accounting, I'm not yet 12," Celestia admits.

      "You seem very mature for your age," my sister says.

      "She's over a thousand years old," I point out, "And some very hard years here and there."

      "Still, tell Luna. She'll know what to do," my wife says.

      "It the diversionary tactics you'll need," my brother-in-law suggests, "Something to put this guy off kilter. If he's that arrogant, play to it, and get him to quit expecting you to come in from that side."

      For roughly the next hour, we discuss tactics, powers, and counter tactics. It raises Celestia's spirits, that none of the humans ever doubts that victory can be achieved. There's just some heat in advocating the best way to achieve it. While my wife and sister are off clearing the table, and Celestia is watching the 'kids' playing, my brother and brother-in-law take me aside. "Don't forget the doomsday option," my brother-in-law tells me. "Even if you can't really pull it off, let him know it's on the way."

      "He likes touching people," I tell them, "If there's any way to make it look like I did it while I had him as a battery, I'll use it."

      They leave me to my thoughts, and go help pack away the leftovers.

      The game ends with the teenagers run ragged by Luna, and her 'rider'. Luna accepts a second treatment, completely hidden by the copse of trees. Then the six-year-old retrieves her curry kit and approaches Celestia. Luna is enjoying this almost too much, and I almost can't watch.

      The implication that Celestia Solar, Princess of Equestria has not been properly groomed is an outrage. For support, Celestia turns to the adults, including her sister. "Say, do you think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?" my wife asks Luna, who deeply considers.

      Celestia closes on me, and ignores her pursuer. "Barnum, please explain to this child, I am adequately groomed," Celestia tells me.

      "She wants to be dirty," I tell my niece. Giggles from the other adults undermine Celestia's position. Having the girl pick up a front hoof and start working is a further offense against her royal mystique. She levitates the girl away and stares at me.

      "That wasn't a very good or convincing explanation," she tells me.

      "She's six, direct thinking is the best course of action. And she can see you need a decent grooming."

      The look of wounded pathos should shatter my cold, stony heart. But my niece taking advantage of the target's distraction, picks up the other hoof and starts to work.

      "What are you finding, kiddo?" I ask

      "Stone bruise, bad shoeing."

      "Bad shoes! These are some of the finest in Equestria."

      "Cracked hooves," my niece says like a sentence of death while she works.

      "Have you been chewing again sister?" Luna asks innocently. She's very lucky the local sun won't respond to Celestia's commands.

      "You can always use the spell Luna used on me. With her whole family watching," I tell her. "Hey, this is just a dream, remember? Forget your royal dignity, what anyone will think of you, and let an expert go over you this once."

      "It's wrong to just groom without asking," Celestia said.

      "She isn't trying to curry favor."

      "Ha," Celestia deadpans.

      I continue, "She's a kid who's been well-trained. Horse, dirty, groom horse. It's as simple as that. There's no political intent, other than her showing you she's Alpha Mare, and you aren't."

      Celestia glares at me, but the smirks from everyone else lessen the effect.

      "I'd like to see how she reacts to getting her dock worked on." Luna spoils the surprise.

      "Oh no! No! No! No!" Celestia is airborne in a moment and lands in a nearby tree. Her relative security is quickly broken by the sight of a small human, plastic bail of her carry-bucket between her teeth, climbing up the tree after her.

      "I think she forgot humans are related to monkeys," my wife comments as the mighty Princess, Master of the Sun, shies nervously about the pursuing six-year-old. To Celestia's credit, part of her concern is the danger she's put the creature in by her actions. Most of 'her ponies' would have backed off by this point. I head over to break up the contest.

      Celestia alights on a heavy branch near the trunk, and leans in to speak reasonably to the girl. My niece reaches out, and hooks a finger between the sets of molars in Celestia's mouth. The sovereign rears back, but the girl is hanging onto the tree, and the recalcitrant horse with equal tenacity, a contest between two stubborn 'Alpha Mares'. By staging the contest where she chose it, Celestia eliminated many advantages she'd normally have.

      "Megan, let her go," I tell my niece.

      I get a mulish look from her. Then I switch to parent voice, "Now."

      She releases the alicorn, and glares at me. With her free hand, she takes the bucket out of her mouth. "She needs to be groomed. A horse can get sick like that," she informs both of us.

      "Not up a tree. If she hid up a tree, you frightened her," I tell her, "Climb down."

      With a grumbling about the stupidity of adults she follows me down to ground level. Celestia remains in the air, well out of the girl's reach.

      "Megan?" Celestia asks nervously.

      "Yes, named after a character in a TV show my sister used to watch all the time. You may have heard the name. That Megan was also a tomboy who got used to dealing with stubborn ponies."

      Luna giggling doesn't help Celestia's downcast mood one little bit.

      Appearing outside my room in the castle, back in pony form, face down on the marble floors, followed by Luna being dropped on me, tells me one thing. "I think your sister wasn't amused."

      "You think?" Luna asks, "I just hope she didn't lock me out of my own bedroom." She walks a few steps then glances back. "What are you waiting for?"

      "While I appreciate the offer, I think we've given Sunny Days quite enough to publish for a few columns." It's hard to walk away, when your feet aren't touching the ground, and a determined alicorn is walking towards her bedroom.

      So Barnum, stay the course, or try something that might not work, I wonder as I reread the letter that Cheerilee will be bringing a group of school kids through the statuary garden tomorrow. I should feel something. Relief, terror, expectation. My mind races over alternatives, but there's no anxiety over not following those paths. Only the acknowledgment that other alternatives exist, I tell myself as I look at the paper. Instead, I feel nothing. I am as prepared as I can be, and I am prepared to pay the price. I guess this is what they mean by 'Death is as light as a feather and duty is heavier than a mountain.'

      I wonder did/will their fight release Discord, or did/will Discord's imminent release ignite their fight. Which was the symptom and which was the cause? I consider, Celestia knows as well, and she knows the binding magic far better than I, so if she's stayed her hand . . . I have to be patient, and play this out. If there are other ways, others will have to investigate them.

      "So it begins, so it ends," I comment. I turn at the sound of muffled hooves. The collection of nervous ponies seems out of place.

      Then it becomes clear. Every revolution must have a 'white' phase, and a 'red' phase, I remember, We managed the white, without any red, now comes the inevitable red phase. The violence and passion will not be denied. Okay, I can deal with that. They want a passion play, they shall have one. I hope Andrew Lloyd Webber has a sense of humor.

      "Ah, Merry Lifter, Hardwood, I was wondering who was on the inside. Care to introduce your friends? Not that it matters." When they glance at each other, 'social norming', I order, "Come, come, I'll make no trouble. And, Major? Tomorrow's the day. See you on the other side, maybe." I lowered my head in a gesture of equine submission, and don't resist as my guard and several other conspirators put a bag over my head.

      They're more afraid of me than I thought, I consider as I am rather gently handled, With humans, that means unpredictability. But with ponies, audacity and insanity are an ironclad defense. I consider my exact insanity as I await our arrival at wherever we are going. Ironic that Discord may save me if they are unshakable. Should I mention it to him? No, don't throw other ponies under the bus.

      We're still in the castle somewhere, when someone yanks the bag off my head. The crowd and room are quite large. There are several distinguished-looking ponies in judicial robes clustered together and earnestly whispering to each other. Another group surrounds Brown Chief, and a third around Moon City. All of them are trying to seem more certain than they obviously feel.

      Go for broke, I think as I realize they are trying to at least simulate a fair trial. Then I note their uncertainty, anger and glances to each other. They're working up the nerve to do something they'll regret. So, I guess this is proof that the Crusaders' fight was as much caused by Discord as it had a hand in freeing him. I look around at the building tension. I'd better put a stop to this before they do act, because they won't be able to blame the insanity that follows on anything but themselves. If you're gonna scare people, going 'Pinkie Pie' a la Andrew Lloyd Webber is a good way.

      I raise my head to maximum intent. There's a moon beam from the windows in the wall. Several of the others look uncertain as I move towards it. Others, especially the guards, look ready for a break out. I step into the impromptu spotlight, and perform. "It is transparent now - too late, all too well, I can see, where we all, soon will be. If you strip away, the myth from the mare, you will see where we all soon will be."

      The leaders motion, and the guards close in. I continue my song. "LUNA! You've started to believe the things they say of you. You really do believe this Discord talk is true? Then all the good we've done, will soon get swept away. Safety soon will matter more than the right to say."

      The ponies start looking at each other in confusion, as if they are merely the audience to a sung conversations they are hearing only my part of. "Listen Luna I don't like what I see. All I ask is that you listen to me. And remember - I've been with you both all along."

      I glance at the frightened crowd, and sing as if reporting what I'm seeing. "You have set them all on fire. They think they've found their new Mare-siah, and they'll hurt you if they find they're wrong."

      I smile as if remembering happier times, and sing. "I remember when this took to the air. No Discord talk then - we called you our mare. And believe me - my admiration for you hasn't died. But every word we say today, will twist round some other way. And they'll hurt you if they think you've lied."

      I make the next as a desperately sung plea to the moon. "Listen Luna do you care for your race? Don't you see we must keep in our place? We are all threatened now - have you forgotten what he did to us? I am frightened for the crowd, for we are getting much too loud. And he'll crush us if we go too far, if we go too far."

      None of them want to get within 10 feet of me now. Some are terrified, their thoughts of arrest or a trial discarded. Others are listening intently to my song, hoping to hear Luna's answer. "Listen Luna to the warning I give. Please remember that I want us to live, but I only see our chances weakening with every hour."

      I sing loudly at the assembled ponies, sending them scampering. "All your followers are blind! Hate of 'Tia fills their minds. It was beautiful but now it's sour. Yes it's all gone sour. Listen Luna to the warning I give. Please remember that I want us to live."

      Then I turn to the stunned assembly. They were ill-prepared for my outburst, its vehemence, or the effective admission that there is a danger out there that Luna has underestimated.

      I take advantage of their momentary disorder and march up to Moon City and Brown Chief who are frantically coordinating. My sympathetic tone and song frightens them worse. "Neither you Brown Chief, nor your loyal ponies, nor the Solars, nor the guards, nor Moon City, not Hardwood, nor the 'bolts, nor the knights, nor doomed Equestria itself, understand what power is, understand what horror is, understand at all . . . understand at all."

      I sing my explanation to the crowd. Without clarifying things in the least. "If you knew all that I knew, my poor Equestrians, you'd see the truth, but you close your eyes. But you close your eyes. While you live, your troubles are many, poor Equestrians."

      I concentrate on the leaders, and sing. "To save you all, one only has to die. One only has to die."

      The performance has lasted to sunrise, and in my pacing as I sang, I found myself in a sunbeam. Everypony in the place was shying away from me already. If they weren't looking at all their neighbors for answers, they were looking to their leaders. No one had any answers, and the fear had become palpable.

      I'm not in danger any longer, I think, But better to tell them it'll all work out. That we've got it all planned. I step into the sunbeam, and stand transfixed, staring into the sun. Then I bow my head and begin to sing. "I only want to say, if there is a way, take this cup away from me. For I don't want to taste its poison. Feel it burn me. I have changed, I'm not as sure as when we started. Then, I was inspired. Now, I'm sad and tired."

      I stand up, and defiantly sing. "Listen! Surely I've exceeded expectations. Served both sisters, seemed like thirty."

      I scan the crowd. "Would you ask as much from any of your own? But, if I'm to die. Stare the monster down, and do the things you need of me. Let him hate me, hit me, hurt me, vent his wrath on me."

      I pace nervously as I sing. They clear away from me. "I'd wanna know I'd wanna know, my God. I'd wanna see I'd wanna see, my God."

      I turn to confront the sunbeam. I walk around it as I sing. "Why I should die. Would I be more noticed than I ever was before? Would the things I've said and done matter anymore?"

      I resume pacing while I sing. "I'd have to know, I'd have to know my Lord. I'd have to see, I'd have to see my Lord. If I die, what will be my reward? If I die, what will be my reward? I'd have to know, I'd have to know my Lord."

      I stand in the sunbeam as if challenging Celestia directly. "Why should I die? Oh why should I die? Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain? Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain! Show me there's a reason for your asking me to die! You're far too keen on where and how, but not so hot on why!"

      I nod. "All right I'll die! Just watch me die! See how, see how I'll die! Oh just watch me die!"

      Images of Discord, the mind rape of the Mane Six, the disruptions of Ponyville, and the mad ponies appeared around me, driving me back from the others. Some have a distinct silver tint, others are more golden, implying both sisters are sending them, answering my question. The biggest part of the illusion is to disguise my horn glow so none of them realize I'm casting the spell. Each time I turn, I face another image, and I back away, until I'm cornered by the images and still they come.

      Backed into a corner, lying on the floor, my head covered with both hooves, I weather the storm. The last image fades, and for a few moments, I am unwilling to lift my head. I lie there, my forelegs trying to cover my head as if shutting out what I'd just seen. When I begin singing again, I'm quiet, but you could hear a pin drop in the room full of ponies. "Then, I was inspired. Now, I'm sad and tired. After all, I've tried to serve well, seems a joke now. Why then am I scared to finish what I started?"

      I look up at the NLR leadership and shake my head. "What you started - I didn't start it."

      I stand and step back into the sunbeam, a picture of submission. I sing obediently. "So, your wills are hard, but you hold every card. I will drink your cup of poison. Throw me to your foe and break me."

      I walk towards the NLR leaders, who retreat in fear. "Bleed me! Beat me! Kill me!"

      I stomp my hoof, and the group nearly climbs the walls to get away. "Take me now - before I change my mind!"

      The silence remains for a few moments. My mad expression sends the cluster into terrified paralysis. No one moves, no one speaks. They stare in horror at what they don't understand.

      "Be quiet will you," a familiar voice cuts the tension, "That's a good gentlecolt, you're upsetting the lads." The various NLR leaders scramble away as Mile Stone nudges me away from them. He regards Merry Lifter with a vague disappointment, and leads me away from them. There are the sounds of blades out of scabbards.

      "PUT AWAY YOUR SWORDS!" I thunder, "If you must die for the cause, you need only wait. Death and madness will soon be visiting all of us. Don't be in such a hurry to join him." I look at the guards, and the NLR militia. They eye me warily. Our withdraw goes unmolested. Several dozen more guards join our rearguard, and I am issued up to the vanguard as we walk back through the castle. Peaceful Solitude, Brushcut and Neanderpony all fall into formation as we walk in silence.

      "What you said lad?" Mile Stone asks, "In there."

      "Know that you were a good friend to a lost soul," I reply, "Better than he deserved."

      Mile Stone nods, not explaining to anypony. But it's clear he understands enough.

      Celestia is waiting beside my door. Her uncertainty is manifest.

      "We'll stop him. I'll see to it," I tell her before I let my guards issue me into the room and for the first time in months, lock the door behind me. The day has dawned clear and beautiful, it seems unfair that this would be the day.

      "Merry Lifter was the spy," Mile Stone explained to her Majesty, "He'll be dismissed, or worse. Doctor Hardwood was unexpected."

      "I think you can leave that for tomorrow," her Majesty said quietly as they walked. She seemed fey, as if touching the world only lightly.

      "He wasn't harmed. If anything, he terrified them," Mile Stone said, trying to raise her Majesty's spirits. "I think that colt could talk his way out of anything."

      "Stallion," her Majesty said wistfully, "After all that's happened, he is a stallion."

      "Yes, your Majesty," Mile Stone said, hiding his own confusion. "If I am intruding, but what happened?"

      "You aren't intruding. It is good he's had such a loyal friend."

      'Had'? 'Were'? What is happening? Mile Stone fought not to voice the question.

      "There are trials we shall face. Some that no one in Equestria has faced in a thousand years. The Element Bearers will do their part. They will be victorious, I know that. But what price will the victory demand? I heard what he said. I heard every world. It was not to them, to his arrayed enemies, he made his final demand. It was to me, and I, might have to accept his offering." She suddenly galloped away.

      Mile Stone felt adrift in an open sea. What could possibly be happening? he wanted to know.

      I polish the floor to remove the stains of oil and the sweep up the chips from the last major machining project. The refurbishing of the pillar replacements is complete, and will be ready for the next use. It's mostly busywork, but it still needs to be done. I normally don't 'whistle while I work', but knowing I'll be facing Discord in the next few hours has me a bit giddy. So Tom Lehrer seems an appropriate artist. "I got it from Agnes, she got it from Jim. We all agree it must have been Louise who gave it to him," I sing as I scrub. "Now she got it from Harry, who got it from Marie, and ev'rybody knows that Marie got it from me." "Giles got it from Daphne, she got it from Joan, who picked it up in County Cork a-kissin' the Blarney Stone." "Pierre gave it to Sheila, who must have brought it there. He got it from Francois and Jacques. Aha, lucky Pierre!" "Max got it from Edith, who gets it ev'ry spring. She got it from her Daddy, who just gives her ev'rything." "She then gave it to Daniel, whose spaniel has it now. Our dentist even got it, and we're still wondering how."

      "What's this 'it' y'all are singin' about?" comes a high-pitched voice. I turn to see Applebloom, and several more of her class standing in the room and staring at me, as well as Cheerilee and Applejack. Which are wider eyed, the kids or the adults, is a toss up.

      The adult mares are pleading with their eyes to not explain what the innocent-sounding song refers to. I'm rather confused that they get it, I think, But Applebloom politely asked, and deserves an answer. Just not necessarily the right one.

      "Have you ever had one of those fruitcakes that manages to be too sticky, and dry, both at the same time?" I ask. Cheerilee and Applejack are still wary, but have relaxed a little, "One of them that would probably be unmoldy but equally inedible the next holiday that rolls around?"

      Sweetie Belle makes a disgusted sound. "Yeah, Rarity gets one every year. And she eats it too!" she squeals, "Yuck!"

      Okay, so booze stronger than hard cider exists and is used, I think, remembering why fruitcake is shipped in a liquid-proof tin.

      "Even the dog wouldn't eat it?" Applebloom asks, and falls over laughing, "Even the dog wouldn't eat it!"

      "Well, we have the rest of our tour children," Cheerilee says, and to me mouths 'Thank you.' Applejack gives me a saucy wink as she rides herd on the rest of the kids.

      I'd watched them carefully, until the small group of colts and fillies headed towards the statue gardens. Then I'd packed away the binoculars. And all I felt the whole time was numb. It is no longer days or weeks, I think silently, It is minutes, or at most hours. It is the end of all things. I am as ready as I can be. I rescued a faint handful of the ponies - not even all the people who mattered to me. The rest shall go through the grinder with me.

      I have been shutting down and preserving all the machine tools here. Putting everything away so when Glory returns, she can pick it up and continue. It's just busy work, if Discord turns the room on its head, everything will be for naught.

Out of Place - Out of Sight Part 2 DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc. "Sound the Bugle" - Bryan Adams Sound the bugle now - tell them I don't care There's not a road I know - that leads to anywhere Without a light I fear that I will stumble in the dark Lay right down - decide not to go on Then from on high - somewhere in the distance There's a voice that calls, "Remember who you are" If you lose yourself - your courage soon will follow So be strong tonight - remember who you are Yeah you're a soldier now - fighting in a battle To be free once more - yeah, that's worth fighting for

      The door frame opens upward, and an all too familiar face enters. "What have we here?" Discord asks as the rest of his body rejoins the face, "A crazy pony? Things are looking up."

      I look at the ceiling. "Naw, just the usual tile. I tried painting eyes up there, but they whitewashed them."

      His ears flatten as he glares. "Who's the comedian here?"

      "You aren't, that leaves me," I tell him.

      "Oh you're very clever," he deadpans, "Not."

      "Hey, I'm insane, what's your excuse? Mother use you as a can opener once too often?"

      His grim expression indicates I'm scoring, and he isn't used to it. "Do you know what I am?" he asks, as if I should.

      "Sure, you're a hallucination. I'm crazy, not stupid. Although my hallucinations are usually more interesting. For example, if you're going for asymmetry, your eyes shouldn't be the same color. Most of my hallucinations don't make that kind of amateur mistake."

      He growls as I walk away from him and look out the window.

      "No, I'm not going to ask him that!" I insist, then wait a moment, "It's impolite." "I didn't say you were wrong, I said it was impolite." I throw up my hooves. "All right, I'll ask. But it'll just be a horse laugh." I turn and face the angry creature. "Excuse me, sir. Does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight?"

      "Enough of this," Discord barks, and he touches me.

      The effect is electric, but the Equestrians don't have the rich tradition of the trickster archetype that humans do: Raven, Coyote, Loki, Bugs Bunny, even God Himself. The thread of power twists into me. Instead of trying to drive it out or evade it, I mystically grab hold, and pull. I drink deep of the possibilities and disorder, and the power to make them so. The thread becomes a torrent and the room around us twists and shivers. The horror on his face makes the revolting, writhing feeling coursing through me all worth it. I'm not getting more than a dust mote of his full power, but being parasitized is not something he's used to.

      He yanks his hand back and makes the mistake of looking at it, rather than at me. A moment later, he's on his back, on a leather couch.

      "Now, Herr Discord, ve vill tak on yourrr felinks uv inferrriority," I say, and adjust my pipe as I sit back in my overstuffed chair.

      He's off the couch and behind it. "Oh no, I've made you a psychotherapist."

      "Psychiatrrrist," I tell him, lifting a hypodermic that a battleship would have trouble firing, "Iz chust to make you feel all floaty, ja?"

      "Let me fix you!" he touches me again, stripping me of much of the stolen power I still had, and 'realigning' me to how I had been, although he does a shoddy job of it. Then he's through the door and gone.

      For several minutes, I stand there. The foulness of Discord's touch, power and thoughts sickens me. Bits of his power, and his attitude persist, like grout stuffed into the crack in my mind and soul. The side-effect has me disoriented. I am sure that the floor is writhing and shifting under my feet. Worse, the room shifts before my eyes, but not in harmony with what my legs are reporting. I stand there, shivering, nauseated and trying to control my racing heartbeat and breathing. Maybe a few minutes, maybe an hour, maybe a handful of seconds. I don't know.

      I advance slowly. Keep going kid. You won round one on points, I tell myself, It isn't the real thing, not yet.

      I manage to make it to my hidey-hole under the windows. I move in slow-motion. Taking extra care with everything when none of my senses report the same thing. The boards come away as easily as they always had. I look down, and smile. The universe settles and comes back into fine focus. The case is exactly as I envisioned it. Fine, polished and oiled wood, although the grain swirls seem to move when you aren't looking directly at them, and the symbol of a golden apple inscribed with 'For the Fairest', rather than the original Greek inscription.

      Because fair has more meanings that beautiful, I think as I hold my breath, not due to my diminishing nausea, but in expectation. I press the apple to unlock it. Inside the case are the 'rings': open loops of thick wire that could be a tiara or a necklace, or bent to be a bracelet or an earring, each a different color: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, white and black. "Two rings for the ponies who brave the sky, two for the ponies of earth and stones, two for ponies with their horns held high, two for the alicorns on their lonely thrones."

      I note the craftsmanship of the creation of my mind, while I held the merest hint of his power. "I beat you, you bastard," I whisper, "I beat you." I set the Elements of Chance aside and look at the last. While not ruling the others, it is separate and nearly as powerful. I heat it slightly, causing the letters to flare. "Got to admire Sauron's penmanship," I joke as the filigree of fire reads: 'In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade, and he carries the reminders of ev'ry glove that laid him down or cut him till he cried out, in his anger and his shame, 'I am leaving, I am leaving'. But the fighter still remains.'

      I return the Elements, and Glory's gift to the hidey-hole and walk somewhat unsteadily to the door. Outside, is as bad as the show displayed Ponyville. Architecture looks like Picasso's Guernica and Dali's The Persistence of Memory as mixed by M. C. Escher. Straight lines are gone, everything being a curve or a squiggle. The sense of perspective is off, windows seem to lean in, while the wall they were set in seems to lean out. The patterns on the floor move and shift, confusing the eye as to whether they are rising, falling or level. Since that has nothing to do with the actual state of the floor, I ignore it.

      What has been done to the ponies, I cannot ignore. Two ponies who it was joked were inseparable, now truly are, two heads with their necks joined, sit in the middle of the corridor, rolling from side to side as if the corridor rocked. I have no idea how they remain alive. A whimper comes from a goldfish bowl half-full of jellybeans. I trot over, and on each bean are a pair of eyes and a little mouth.

      "Please don't eat any more of me," the beans plead in the voice of the palace confectionaire, a rotund pony always complaining about her weight. If the bowl had started out full, she is down to skin and bones now. While holding the beans in place, I upend the bowl onto the table they are on, then fuse the bowl to the table and punch a few air holes in it.

      "Thank you," the beans say.

      I march along. I catch sight of Princess Cadence, as a eight-legged pony-spider, throwing lengths of sticky thread, to glue ponies together 'in the bonds of love'. The lack of spooky laughter makes it more frightening, not less. Benevolent Warrior and Furniture Maker have been caught, and race around in circles, oddly mirroring their usual life.

      "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!" thunders from in front of one of the broom closets. Mile Stone, resplendent in his uniform, bellows at any pony who gets too close.

      I force down my anger, and consider. I race down the hall and look out the great picture window. The one overlooking a 150-foot drop. The window is gone, and the drop, if anything has been magnified. The trees below are burning spikes now.

      No wonder they only showed what went on in Ponyville, I think and run back.

      "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!" Mile Stone thunders at me as I approach.

      "Yeah, yeah, got it," I say as I levitate the sergeant and place him in front of the missing window.

      "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!" He moves to block any access to the wide-open and possibly lethal drop.

      "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!" he shouts almost directly in my face.

      "Old friend, I pray God you remember nothing, but if you take anything from what happens, know this, even in the depths of madness, you served your uniform, and your princesses with resolution and valor."

      For an instant, he's ready to shout, then a single tear runs down his cheek. "You shall not pass," he whispers.

      "I can't promise that old friend, but on my life I promise, you will be free," I turn and gallop away.

      I have murder on my mind when a half-dozen hooves drag me off the main hall. I'm suddenly facing a terrified Brushcut I am a second away from dispatching. Neanderpony and Claire quickly pull me away from him.

      "Has he gone nuts?" a pegasus of Luna's Night Guard asks.

      "You were their fourth for the barbershop quartet?" I ask as I try and get my bearings.

      "He's no more nuts than usual," Claire says, while Neanderpony tries to buck up Brushcut after almost having his skull crushed.

      "Look, Sylvian Springs, was it?" I ask, "What's going on, aside from Discord being loose and everything going back to a thousand years ago, is a lot of ponies need help."

      "This is what you meant when you talked about what their Highnesses faced!" Brushcut said, "You knew about this?"

      "Enough to know how to beat him. I've already got three plans in place, and two of them running. I just need to check the third."

      "Horse-apples," the pegasus says, "Nothing can beat that thing."

      "I'm not going to 'beat' it," I tell him, very close and very quiet, "I'm going to rip out his living guts, and use them to grease the gears of my fliers. I am going to hold on to him by the nose and kick him in the ass."

      He wilts a bit, but rallies. "Big talk now, but you haven't faced him."

      "He came into my room, zortched me like he has others, realized his mistake, unzortched me, and ran away," I told him, "On Celestia's name, I am telling you the whole truth."

      The poor pegasus' eyes go wide, and he trembles.

      Claire draws me away. "None of us have been touched, and we don't want to be," she says quietly, "But we have to get out there and do something to help."

      "How many kids' songs do you remember?" I ask, "The really disgusting ones."

      "A bunch," Neanderpony says, ignoring his wife's glare, "And there's a lot of marching cadences that are like that. Marching in mud, eating bugs, that kind of thing?"

      "Exactly," I say, and grin. "Just walk out there and help. But sing those songs like a barbershop quartet."

      "You're out of your mind," Brushcut says.

      "I've never been more lucid," I tell him coldly.

      "That in itself is frightening," Claire says, "What if he stops us, what if he confronts us?"

      "Keep moving and keep singing," I tell them. "He isn't going to know every pony he's zapped, and he isn't going to care, as long as you're already crazy in an entertaining way. And singing disgusting, campfire songs ought to put you in that category."

      "What if it doesn't work?" the pegasus asks as he looks around, "What if he catches us anyway?"

      "He's going to catch you hiding, because that attracts his attention." I tell him, "If you want safety, the safest thing is look like you've already been victimized. He's not likely to zap you again. And if you're effectively invisible, that's the best kind of hiding."

      "We'll do it," Brushcut says firmly, "What you said in, to the NLR, me and Neanderpony heard it. This is what you were talking about?"

      I nod. Not minding the repetition. "Don't worry, it'll be over in - " The sunlight faded, and the moonlight came on. A few moments later the sun was back. "I was going to say two days, but that could be five minutes from now. Forty-eight hours, and this will be handled. Or we'll all be dead, including him. Celestia and Luna may have to wait a while, but they should be able to put all the pieces back together again."

      "You're going to blow up the whole planet?" the pegasus asks.

      "It's just a matter of tricking it into thinking it's a sun," I tell him, "It'll realize the mistake a second later, but it will take care of him."

      "And us," Neanderpony exclaims.

      "Do you want your kids growing up in this world, or the one without him that will come after?"

      "Without," Claire says, "Thank you. Where are their Highnesses?"

      "I haven't seen them," I admit, "Which has me rather worried."

      "That has you worried?" the pegasus says from the edge of hysteria, "Fighting D - him, doesn't worry you. Blowing up the world doesn't worry you. But not finding their Highnesses does?"

      "I need to apologize for blowing up the planet, and I'll be in no condition to after."

      Claire snorts. Neanderpony smiles and shakes his head.

      "I think I know why he 'unzortched' you," Brushcut says sourly, "He hates competition."

      I nod vigorously, and head down the corridor, to the four-part harmony of the Equestrian version of 'Greasy, Grimy Gopher Guts', something about eating chocolate-covered, rabbit poop.

      A few random dashes are getting me nowhere, I think, I have to be systematic. I watch a table with pony hooves race by, pursued by a flying watering can.

      "To the extent it's possible," I say, then practice a couple of Pinkie-bounces. It's easier than I thought.

      Time to test my own advice, I think and remember the song I'd taught Octavia. If I get back home, I'll have to remember to send the SherclopPones a thank you note. I start Pinkie-bouncing down the hallway. "When you're rife with devastation, there's a simple explanation: You're a toymaker's creation trapped inside a crystal ball. "And whichever way he tilts it, know that we must be resilient. We won't let them break our spirits as we sing this silly song."

      Discord steps out of a cross corridor. Attracted by some pony happily singing. It's hilarious as his look of expectation slowly changes to realization as he focuses on the words of the song and their implications. "When I was a little filly, a galloping blaze overtook my city. "So they shipped me off to the orphanage. Said, 'ditch those roots if you wanna fit in' "So I dug one thousand holes and cut a rug with orphan foals "Memories are blurred, and their faces are obscured, but I still, know the words to this song."

      He recognizes me, and now he's terribly confused. "I thought I fixed you," he says as I head around a corner and continue my search. "When you've bungled all your bangles, and your loved ones have been mangled, listen to the jingle jangle of my gypsy tambourine."

      I catch Discord's reflection and his mystified expression as I continue. He shakes his head and goes elsewhere. Somewhere inside me, I felt him. I grin as I realize, I can track him, with the remnants of the chaos he inflicted on me that still cling to me. " 'Cause these chords are hypnotizing and the whole world's harmonizing, so please children stop your crying and just sing along with me."

      I approach a grand piano with a cello standing against it. "When you're rife with devastation, there's a simple explanation: You're a toymaker's creation trapped inside a crystal ball. "And whichever way he tilts it, know that we must be resilient. We won't let them break our spirits as we sing this silly song."

      The piano begins playing that song, soon joined by the cello as I stop to listen. For a few moments I stand there, singing along with their accompaniment. "When I was a little filly, a galloping blaze overtook my city. "So they shipped me off to the orphanage. Said, 'ditch those roots if you wanna fit in' "So I dug one thousand holes and cut a rug with orphan foals Memories are blurred, and their faces are obscured, but I still, know the words to this song."

      It's a tiny moment of defiance, amid the sea of insanity. It's still insanity, but it's ours: a harmless silliness instead of the incoherent frenzy around us. "When you've bungled all your bangles, and your loved ones have been mangled, listen to the jingle jangle of my gypsy tambourine."

      I find myself crying, tears of relief. Celestia feared the loss of the dreamers. Here are two, who refuse to be Discord's puppets, despite his destroying them in nearly every possible way. " 'Cause these chords are hypnotizing and the whole world's harmonizing, so please children stop your crying and just sing along with me."

      "Thank you," I tell them, before racing off to continue my search.

      I'm skating around the upper floors of the castle, using singing silly, off-kilter songs to blend into Discord's background. I've seen him twice and neither time has he paid me any mind. I've found out a few new and useful things. "There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium, And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium, And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium, Europium, zirconium, lutetium, vanadium And lanthanum and osmium and astatine and radium And gold, protactinium and indium and gallium (inhale) And iodine and thorium and thulium and thallium."

      The windows are gimmicked, so if you jump out one, you wind up coming through the window opposite. Note to self, speaking of iodine, I need to find some for these cuts. Through the window means just that. "There's yttrium, ytterbium, actinium, rubidium And boron, gadolinium, niobium, iridium And strontium and silicon and silver and samarium, And bismuth, bromine, lithium, beryllium and barium."

      I also spotted the quartet. He'd tied their tails together, but has otherwise left them alone to rescue other ponies. I have no idea what the outcome of Twilight and her corrupted friends has been. Nor have I been able to find Luna or Celestia. Nor can I find Celestia's quarters, to put the plan to return Twilight's friendship reports in action myself. "There's holmium and helium and hafnium and erbium And phosphorous and francium and fluorine and terbium And manganese and mercury, molybdenum, magnesium, Dysprosium and scandium and cerium and cesium And lead, praseodymium, and platinum, plutonium, Palladium, promethium, potassium, polonium, and Tantalum, technetium, titanium, tellurium, (inhale) And cadmium and calcium and chromium and curium."


      I'm four floors above you. I'll pass if I want, I think and mentally stick out my tongue at the myrmidon far below. "There's sulfur, californium and fermium, berkelium And also mendelevium, einsteinium and nobelium And argon, krypton, neon, radon, xenon, zinc and rhodium And chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper, Tungsten, tin and sodium."

      What was it Professor Lehrer said, 'Useful in a bizarre set of circumstances'? I think this very much qualifies. "These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard, And there may be many others but they haven't been discovered."

      I hear a whimper and cut a turn to investigate. I am quickly reminded why I never enjoyed ice skating as I sprawl on the floor and slam into the wall. In a small, side corridor I see one of the people I've been searching for. I get up with as much dignity as I can, and walk over to where Luna is hiding.

      "Barnum?" she asks worriedly. No longer the co-ruler of Equestria, but a very frightened filly.

      "The same," I say seriously. "Camouflage," I explain.

      She nods nervously. "I can't find 'Tia, and without the Elements, there's no chance."

      "Can you find Celestia's quarters? Specifically Twilight's friendship reports?"

      "The room's locked, and I can't break through. Every time I try . . . he shows up," she fearfully whispers the last.

      "Pick a window opposite the window in the room and jump through it. You'll come through the window opposite."

      "How do you know that?"

      "I saw it, then tested it a few times on different floors," I tell her.

      "I was wondering what happened to you," she comments on the myriad cuts and scratches I wear, a little bit of her old spark is back. "But what good would sending those reports back do? He broke Twilight, and she failed to rally the other element bearers. Even if they find the Elements, they won't be able to use them." She considers. "If they switch? Like that dream?"

      I shake my head. "Get those reports dispatched," I tell her. It's like a bell tolled. I know. "He's coming. Leave him to me. Those reports are the only thing that matters!" I hiss. And run out into the corridor.

      Luna steps out carefully, fearfully looking in all directions. It's all I can do not to scream at her to hurry. She freezes as Discord appears between us.

      My grin is positively feral. Perfect!

      "Well, well, I've dispatched the bearers, and poor Twilight is brokenhearted. All her friends turned against her," he says cheerfully, then more darkly, "And the Elements won't save you this time."

      I'm at a gallop, moving faster than I ever have on the ground. All the ponies, all the people, all my friends he's hurt rise up before me. They push me past anger to a crystal-clear place where thought and action are one. Nothing distracts me, no emotion hinders me, not anger, not fear, not even concern for Luna and the plan. I open my jaw wide. Too long I've played at being a pony. Too long I've been a protected kid. I'm human, I'm an adult. I'm a man, and when I strike, even the gods are uneasy.

      The leap carries me onto his back. I close my jaws on the wing root before all four hooves slam into him. I bite with all the force I can muster, and pull on the wing for all I'm worth.

      "Yeoowich! Hey, I'm attached to that!" Discord exclaims as he turns to face his attacker. But I'm standing on him, so until he cranes his neck around and over, we spin.

      I release my bite and hold onto his wing with both forehooves. "THIS IS MY ICE CREAM!" I scream at Luna, who stares at me in shock. "YOU CAN'T HAVE ANY!"

      Discord brings his head back around close to look at me. I bite his little goatee and tug.

      "It's even got sprinkles. Why does everypony always freeze ice-cream til it's hard as a brick? Drives me crazy," I tell her between clenched teeth. I release his goatee and glare at Luna. "HASN'T ANYBODY IN THIS NUSTO PLACE EVER HEARD OF SOFT-SERVE!?"

      Discord checks his goatee and looks over at Luna in confusion.

      "Look at the time, I have to give a dragon indigestion!" She effectively vanishes, leaving only dust and retreating speedlines.

      Discord plucks me off his back, by getting his eagle hand too close. I change targets and begin gnawing his wrist.

      "Heresy, 'but Celestia likes ice cream you can break rocks with'. Because she's never tried mine, mine I tell you, MINE!" I mumble as I gnaw, "If she hates it so much, why does she steal it all, why does she keep stealing my machines? Because she wants it, she needs it! And so I create only for her, bwahahaha!"

      "I like crazy, but this guy's an overachiever," Discord says to someone.

      "Luna! You can't fool me! This is my ice cream!" I shout between bites.

      Discord tires of the game and materializes a bowl of ice cream, pulls me off his arm and practically drowns me in the bowl. He summons several more as I finish off the first. I'm glad of the cold. My teeth and jaws ache.

      "Say," he says, then disguises his voice, sounding like Q doing a bad Picard impression. "What do you think of the Prince of Chaos, Discord?"

      I look around worriedly. "Ice cream can't talk, ice cream can't talk, ice cream can't talk."

      He slaps his face, then tries again. "This is your conscience speaking."

      "The ice cream was mine! I paid for it!"

      "Can we forget about ice cream for a moment?" he shouts in frustration.

      "Of course, I ate it all." I start sniffing and drooling. "But," I say with frenzied tones, "I can smell more."

      He retreats to the ceiling, and conjures a kitchen sink-sized bowl filled with an ice-cream sundae worthy of a royal wedding feast. He practically drops it on my head. "Now about Discord," he continues in his pseudo-Picard.

      "What about Mr. Predictable?" I ask as I sample.

      "Predic - " he squeals in his own voice, then back to disguised, "What do you mean predictable?"

      "Okay. He lures the Element Bearers out to the hedge maze, and probably had the Elements somewhere else. Good plan, but plan is the operative word. Predictable."

      "But you can't know the intricacies of the plan," he tells me. With smugness thick enough to stop a charging rhino.

      "Oh, let's see. Applejack, probably tells her all about the dangers of always being truthful. How the truth sometimes hurts. Poor mare doesn't get the difference between honesty and truthfulness. So that's one."

      "Rainbow Dash, another easy one, catch her between two loyalties. Say, her home and the world. Instant Traitor Dash, ready to serve five with a defeat."

      Discord's jaw hits the ground and bounces several times, each with the sound of a car horn. "Lucky guess."

      "Pinkie Pie, teach her how painful it is to be laughed at, rather than laughed with. Suddenly the party pony hates any laughter, because she realizes all her guests have been laughing at her all this time. Rarity. Hmm. I swear, that mare loves gems so much, if she found a big enough rock, she'd marry it."

      Discord growls and rages incoherently for at least a quarter of the huge sundae. When he can speak with his disguised voice, "You're guessing. How do you know these things?"

      "I'm insane, I'm not stupid," I reply between bites of ice cream.

      "Ah ha! Fluttershy! I bet you can't figure out how I - he broke Fluttershy."

      "Probably the stupidest thing he could think of. Release her pent-up anger at having to have people always underestimate her, think she's a pushover because she likes to be soft and small. That mare's really only afraid of one thing: losing control of her emotions. Her love, her anger, as long as they are balanced, she's okay. Tip the balances, and she might even try to take a bite out of Discord. I know, nobody would be crazy enough to try that, but she might."

      "Twilight Sparkle," he says with irritation.

      "Let her friends act like jerks, and worse not take her and the situation seriously. She'll go high-order then and there."

      "AUGH!" he shouts and vanishes. But I still feel him somewhere in the castle.

      Okay, now the era of buying Luna time to finish, and Twilight to recover her friends, I think.

      "Be vewy, vewy quiet, I'm hunting Discords. Aha ha ha ha."

      I find him in the main hall. Luna is there and in a fury. Discord holds a white dog that looks like a morbidly obese dachshund, or a toy poodle with the thickest coat in the world. The dog's feet have jewelry resembling the 'shoes' Celestia wears, and she wears a tiara like Celestia's.

      "THAT'S MY ICE CREAM!" I scream as I charge.

      "Not you again!" Discord says as he tosses the dog away. Luna leaps up and spreads her wings to catch it, then flies out of the room.

      Discord fires several bolts, but I zigzag away from them. But as I close, I think, It's going to make his job -

      -Easier. I, as a flock of sparrows, think. I hold enough awareness scattered through dozens of tiny bodies. I squawk a warcry and descend on him, soon dozens of beaks and claws attack from all directions. He swats futilely at me/us for a few moments, then manifests a net. With a few swipes, he collects all of us/me. But not before one of us craps in his eye.

      He drops the net and swears as he tries to wipe the irritating bird crap off. He gets it off, and turns to smash what his net has caught, only to discover the net is empty. "Oh no." Half the flock lets fly, the other hand dives in to attack. He dances across the throne room floor, and manifests another net. He catches the entire flock in one swipe. "So what are you gonna do now?" he asks. Then sees the birds with the chainsaws.

      He throws the net in the air and fires from the hip. Playing Western gunslinger, he thinks.

      I feel the magic trying to twist me into something else. But I still have enough of his stolen power to tweak the change slightly. Instead of a trash can, I land as a pint-sized '52 Cadillac. Another blast, but instead of bees, I'm a drum of honey. Another, and instead of a goat, I'm an undersized elephant. Again, instead of an envelope, I'm Derpy Hooves.

      I'm running out of power, I realize as the stolen reserves are depleting, and I can't absorb more than a trifle of what he's using. Then he summons a big one, no finger snapping, no one-hand waving. He's doing a full up, two-handed wind up and the pitch. There's more than I can hold, but I feel the intent, and twist it ever so slightly. The chaos, irrespective of what its master wants, eagerly drags me along with my plan, filling me with power so for a while, I can bedevil him. Heh, even his own power hates his guts, I realize, Who'da thunk it? The transformation completes.

      "Ehh. What's up, Doc?" I ask, and munch my carrot nonchalantly, "Say Doc, you got any carrot cake to go with the ice cream?"

      "NO!" he screams and runs in terror.

      I jog after him, intent on giving him a smack-down worthy of the icon I wear. "Ain't I a stinker?" But remnants of a demolished grand piano and a cello stop me. Every string is broken, even the bow is snapped in two. I lean down and run my hand through the wreckage. I stand and set out again. "Of course you know, this means war."

      I couldn't hold it, not forever, but 'Bugs' kept Discord on the run but interested for long enough. I hope.

      I'm back as a pony when I hear, "It's done."

      I glance back and look at Luna who asks, "Right after I left with 'Tia. Now, we buy time?"

      I nod. By my estimates, we've bought Twilight and the others fifty-six minute. Kept him away from his 'capital of chaos' and left them room to find the Elements, recover the bearers, and mass for their counterattack. It might be enough, I think, Or they might need more. I decide to risk it.

      "Are you ready? Once more into the breech?" I ask.

      "If you think I'm getting into your pants, think again," Luna says, and give a wan smile.

      "Let's get him," I growl and head off to the trace of him I can still just feel.

      This is going to be pure manipulation, I realize, I don't have any chaos energy left. Ave Celestia. Morituri nos salutamus.

      Discord reacts with disgust as he sees me again. "Go away! Here's your ice cream!"

      Aut non, I think as a sea of steel bowls full of ice-cream appear between the two of us. Luna doesn't stop in time, and soon is clattering about with a bowl on every hoof.

      Discord falls off his throne laughing. Only a glare from me reminds her we're buying time. Our lives, our dignity are secondary, time and as much as we can buy, that's what matters.

      Begrudgingly, she clumsily clatters around with the bowls on her feet, slipping and sliding a bit as the steel gives no purchase on the marble floors.

      Discord finally rights himself, and with tears flowing down his cheeks, exclaims, "Luna, why couldn't you be this funny before, think of the games we could have played."

      Luna shakes off the bowls and stands to confront him. Her obdurate expression gives way to cunning. "Because Celestia was more fun than you, and a greater trickster than you."

      "What?" he exclaims with amazement, "Miss Grim Sourpants, a greater trickster than moi?" He turns to face me. "What have you been feeling her?"

      "Potato salad," Luna and I say together. Discord frowns at that.

      "She is right you know. The chocolate rain, and the giant apples, a good start," I tell him, "But then the weird animals. The key to comedy is, timing."

      "Timing," Luna adds.

      I clear my throat. "You're predictable. Not in a micro-sense of what crazy thing are you going to do next, but a macro-sense of what is you going to do overall. The people of this castle are clear proof. A faction in this castle is plotting against the ruler. You'd turn half of them into ficuses, the other half into hungry goats and let nature take its course. Brutal, and honestly, only funny to you. Celestia tricked them into demanding things she'd wanted permission to give them all along. So you they'll run away from, her they're still wondering if they won or lost."

      "You should have stopped at the chocolate rain," Luna adds, as if to a clueless but promising student. "What's the fun in hurting ponies? Isn't it more fun watching them adapt to what has happened? If a button turns the building upside down, isn't it more fun watching them get used to it, then shut it off and watch them rage that the building doesn't turn upside down any more? Isn't confusion and frustration, and discovery, more fun than agony and terror, and certainty?"

      "Has he told you what he has stashed back in his little hidey-hole?" Discord asks. "That imp stole some of my limitless power, and crafted his own Elements of Chaos."

      "Barnum?!" Luna exclaims as she stares at me.

      "Elements of Chance, actually," I reply, "A bane of pigeonholing, not harmony. Eight items." I glare at Discord. "The damage he did to this world should have healed in a thousand years, but still the seasons must be changed manually, the weather managed, snowflakes hand-crafted, and I realized that it was due to a distinct lack of chaos."

      "See! See! I am needed," Discord says, he materializes a 'Discrod for Chief Cook and Bottlewasher' banner with a fanfare of kazoos. He `notices` the spelling and snaps his fingers to correct it. "And you stole that amazingly boring couplet," Discord says, "You aren't the first to arrive here unannounced, and you won't be the last. But that's another universe, and not here."

      "But the offered cure is worse than the disease," I tell Luna, "So I crafted an alternative. Chaos, but creative, playful, life-affirming. And only as destructive as the Element of Harmony. But with them, you can heal the damage and allow things to merely happen on their own. Harmony and Chance are not mutually exclusive. And there will be some apparent order in the chaos."

      "Bah, what fun is that?" Discord says, he leans forward, almost touching me, then draws back. "Now, for such a good try, I could return you home, if you agree to serve me."

      I don't hesitate. "Raw, stir-fried, boiled or baked?" I ask.

      "Oh droll. I meant agree to work for me. And after a few jobs, and a few years, I can send you back where you came from," Discord drawls, "I like your Elements of Chaos idea. It's that kind of thinking that I savor."

      "Barnum, please, no," Luna pleads.

      "Can I have Luna and Celestia, restored and as my personal play things?" I ask. I don't look at Luna.

      "Uggh, boring, other than the obvious, what would you want them for?" Discord asks.

      "Isn't the obvious enough? After a hard day of putting up with a spoiled child, I'd want to talk to adults," I reply.

      "I'm offering you the way home," Discord says dangerously, "A limited-time offer, and one I know Celestia didn't give you."

      "Because, oh omniscience one, I never asked," I tell him, "You can't tempt me with something that holds no attraction. You forget, I want to manipulate this world too. But I can't use my omnipotent powers, I have to use my brains. And it's even more fun to get them to want the changes I offer. But you wouldn't know about that."

      I realize my mistake the moment I said it. Discord wants an audience for his chaos, but he doesn't want the audience to participate, or god-forbid, the victims to `improve` it. They are only there to applaud.

      "Begone!" he says and flicks his hand.

      I'm soaring through the air. I slam into one of the columns of the Great Hall, which rings and lights up. My back and legs are on fire from the ricochet. The second lights up and rings, but now the leg pain is almost unnoticeable. Replaced with a pain in my head so bad I can barely think. Eight more columns I hit, each sounds like the bumper on a pinball game, and I end up heading straight for Mile Stone, the missing window, and the burning spikes beyond.

      "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!" Sends me soaring in another direction.

      I swear he put extra oomph in that one, I think as I'm sent spinning through the air into the throne room. I crash into the edge of the stairs leading up to the throne proper, and splat on the audience floor beneath.

      I lie there. I can't feel anything beyond my shoulders, which is probably good, because if the latrine odor I smell is any indication, I'm hurt very badly.

      A ball rolls up to my nose. The next thing I perceive is a wet, doggy tongue slobbering on me. I focus on the white, very wide dog in front of me. "Puppy play with Celly?" the dog asks, practically Pinkie-bouncing in her excitement. "Or," she says sadly, peering at me, "Is Puppy all broken?"

      "Puppy is just very, very tired," I reply, "But Puppy can play for a little while." I bat the ball away with my hoof, and she turns on the smooth, slippery floor and runs after it.

      I glance up, and can't see my horn, which explains the blinding headache. I probably broke it off in the impacts, or the landing, I think as Celly charges back, ball in mouth. She drops it in front of me, and wags her tail so energetically, her whole body shakes. I feint one way, and bat it another. She tears off at the feint, then skitters around in a turn and charges after the ball. My vision is beginning to gray, and it's getting harder to keep my head up. So I put it down and bat the ball away with a forehoof. My peripheral vision narrows as well.

      Celly is standing beside me, ball forgotten and growling. Amazing such a small and friendly dog could make such a threatening noise, I think, then I focus on Discord walking in, with his hands behind his back.

      "Well, if it isn't the crazy pony," he says, "You certainly made a mess on the floor."

      "Well, if it isn't Mister Predictable. If you surrender now, I'll see what I can do about getting Celestia and Luna to show you mercy."

      "That's a stale, old joke," he replies.

      "Dying is easy, comedy is hard," I tell him, "I guess that's why you never mastered it."

      The angry glare is worth it.

      "You know. If you'd done this to Celestia, and then let her play with her students and their pets for a few hours," I tell him, "She probably would have tolerated it. But you don't know when to stop. Like I said, predictable. Not fun, or even entertaining. Just go straight to pain and terror."

      "If I'm so predictable, can you guess what I'm holding?" he asks.

      "Her Nightjesty was alone with you when I left. It isn't Nightmare Moon walking in to taunt me, so, let's see. Luna, dark coloring, moon mark, snarky attitude: you turned her into a talking cat."

      There's a bobcat yowl, and a purple-black housecat with a crescent moon on its forehead leaps out of Discord's grip, and walks towards us. Discord is desperately trying to figure out how I knew that one.

      "Barnum!" Luna exclaims, and is interrupted by a soaking lick from Celly. The cat's expression at the slobbery welcome from the happily bouncing dog makes me laugh.

      "Even as a dog, Celestia is funnier than you are," I tell Discord, then focus on Luna, "I don't need a cat-aloging. I'm aware of my condition."

      Luna shakes herself, but remains squelchingly damp. She also keeps stepping around the ball Celly eagerly and repeatedly rolls into her path.

      My vision has reduced to a tunnel, and like vision in darkness, it's almost pixilated. "Stars, most people don't really understand them."

      "Some last bit of insanity bubbling up," Discord says, "Oh, and I've got popcorn, do go on."

      "They are born, eat, create waste, and even die. Mostly from building up too much waste. They are constantly a balance between exploding and collapsing, held in stasis by how brightly they burn."

      "Oh dear, your last words, and they're a treatise on science. Which one of us is more predictable."

      "I guess I am. Because I rigged it. I don't like to lose, so I'll clear the board."

      "What are you talking about?"

      "I created those trinkets to distract you from what I was really doing, Cordy. Celestia might be able to fix it, but you'd never understand the process well enough."

      "What process?"

      "When stars exhaust their 'favorite' food, they start eating their waste. A little star like that one would probably eat a little, then stop and die. But bigger stars, they can handle more waste, and more. They get hotter and burn harder, burning up their waste to feed themselves. But somewhere along the periodic table, burning the waste doesn't release energy, it absorbs it. Suddenly they don't have the energy to burn. They collapse, until they burn no matter what, and the sudden outburst makes them explode. Nothing in the star system around them survives. And if you're clever. I mean, really sharp, you can adjust the explosion so it'll affect spirits too."

      "Barnum?" Luna asks.

      "Oh it may take you and Celly a while to let things cool down and reorganize. But you won't have to worry about him when you do." I chuckle, which becomes a cough. I can't see now, even dark and light. But I can smile, and I keep smiling.

      "You couldn't have," Discord says, "You don't have that kind of power."

      "But you do, and using you was easy. Like being plugged into a huge powerplant. All the power to do it I could ever need, and your self-destructive streak so eager to go along with it. I didn't beat you Cordy. I just saw to it you beat yourself. It was easy."

      "You're lying," he says, the trademark arrogance cracking at the edges.

      "You can't tell, or can you?" I ask, "Either way, I win. I'll get you no matter which way you turn."

      "You wouldn't kill everypony, just to get me," he says with false surety.

      "Yes I would," I say calmly. I raise my head to aim my sightless eyes where I think he is. "If I get you, then today is a fine day to die. Equestria will rise again. Celestia and Luna will remember it. And they'll remake it without you. Goodbye, Discard. I'll keep the seat nearest the fire for you. You can tell me what a supernova really looks like, up close and personal."

      "Fix it."

      "I'd need your power, and a lot of it. Don't tell me you trust me with that," I say and can't keep my head up anymore, but manage to put it down without looking like I dropped it. "Even you aren't that stupid."

      "Celestia will fix it."

      "No," Celly says in a growl, "Celly won't."

      "I am content," Luna says, "To rebuild."

      "Ha, it's a trick, you don't believe him any more than I do." He sighs. "I've been ignoring all the chaos in Ponyville to play with you three. Arrivederci."

      What little of the chaos I still have stops resonating, telling me he's really gone. "Seventy-two minutes," I say, "Sorry Twilight, that was all I could manage. God let it have been enough. Let it have been enough."


      "Barnum!" the pink pony called as she looked around the room, at the machines covered with brown tarps. "Barnum!" she called, bounced in and began looking beneath the sheets. "Barnum!"

      "Pinkie, ah don' think ya'all should be in heara." Applejack looked around nervously as she walked in. "Tain't respectful." She took off her hat as she walked around.

      "Barnum!" Pinkie called as she bounced around the room, "You win! You're better at hide and seek than I am! Barnum!"

      "Pinkie," Applejack said as she looked around nervously, "Ah don't think he's in heara."

      "Where else would he be?" Pinkie asked pointedly. "They wouldn't tell me where he is. He must be playing hide and seek."

      "Ah don' think so," Applejack said as she looked at the upturned bed frames and the many drawings carefully attached there. "Ah thought Discord gave us a bad tahme," she said of the images. Some crudely drawn by foals, of crying ponies and vague terrors. Some nearly photographs of more adult terrors.


      "Pinkie!" Applejack snapped, "That's not doin' any good."

      For once Pinkie seemed to get the hint. Her mane deflated and she took on a dignified air. "Mr. McHorsefly. I understand that parties are not generally to your liking, but I would very much appreciate your company at the awards ceremony." She grinned at Applejack.

      "That's not what she meant," a pretty, white, unicorn mare said as she entered, she seemed to remember her manners and bowed slightly. "You must be Applejack, and Pinkie Pie."

      "We don't have to be, but if we weren't, it might get confusing," Pinkie Pie said.

      "I'm a Princess, I order you to be Pinkie Pie and Applejack," she said imperiously. She tried to grin, to let them know she was joking, but she closed her eyes and bowed her head. She looked around sadly. "He promised everything would be back the way it was. But he lied." The mare broke down and sobbed. Applejack glared at Pinkie as the two of them comforted the mare. Pinkie's mane straightened, as she just held the mare, quietly. Applejack stood beside her, and let her cry on a surprisingly quiescent Pinkie Pie.

      "I finally realized what you both were trying to tell me," Pinkie said softly, "Taking my toys, and making them tools for everypony to use. Trying to tell me that I was more than just laughter and parties. Ponies smiled when they saw my tools, and lives were saved, so they could smile again tomorrow. Twilight found those memories, and all the others of my times with my friends. The quiet party we had, when you were all feeling down."

      "Sorry. He didn't tell me," Glory said, "He just sent me away. To keep me safe."

      "Or ta make sure ya weren't hurt," Applejack said, "It was quahte a fahght as I heard tell. Him tryin' ta eat Discord, twicet." Applejack smiled at that. "Take a mess a zap-apple jam ta make him go down smooth." .

      Glory nodded, and walked over to the hidey-hole near the window. She opened it and removed the case. For a little while she just rubbed a hoof over it.

      "Ooo! Ooo! A present! I love presents! I can just, sit down quietly." Pinkie froze at Glory's furious stare.

      "If this is a present. It is for their Highnesses. They get to open it," Glory told the mare.

      Pinkie Pie nodded.

      "Y'all better Pinkie Promise ta leave that ta the Princesses," Applejack whispered in Pinkie's ear. Pinkie disappeared to peer over Glory's shoulder as the mare pulled out a curved piece of heavy gold wire.

      "Umm, what's that?" Pinkie asked, "I've never seen one before."

      Glory smirked. "It's whatever I want it to be," she said and expertly bent it into a pair of pince-nez glasses resting on her nose.

      "Can I try, can I try?" Pinkie asked.

      "No," Glory said, "I just got them, and I don't yet know what they'll do." Glory smiled. "Instead, maybe you'll get their Highnesses' little joke." She walked over to a cabinet and removed a set of binoculars. "Take a look at the statues," Glory said as she handed the binoculars to Applejack and pointed to a distant target.

      "Say! That there looks lahk Barnum," Applejack said, and chuckled, "Looks lahk a colt chasin' butterflies."

      "Now move left." Glory watched Pinkie eagerly bounce, unable to see what her friend was looking at.

      "Discord," Applejack hissed.

      "He's loose?" Pinkie squeaked.

      "His statue," Glory told her as she reached up and widened the field of view slightly.

      Applejack stared intently, her smile became grim, and she let out a chuckle. She took one more look, then hooved the glasses over to Pinkie while trying not to grin or burst out laughing.

      The other earth pony mare looked intently at the distant scene. "It's that mean Discord," Pinkie said, "Still in stone." She moved slightly right. She let out a little laugh. "Yeah, that's Barnum," she said with a melancholy she rarely showed.

      "Now look at the two together," Glory suggested.

      Pinkie frowned at the two smirking mares, then looked again at the paired statues.

      "Her Majesty positioned them very carefully," Glory said.

      Pinkie looked carefully. Discord was still cringing, as he had been when they had used the Elements on him. Then she looked at Barnum's enthusiastic, open-mouthed, one-foreleg-extended leaping. Then she looked at both. The implications hit her, and she laughed aloud.

      "Mean ole' Discord gets to shy 'way from Barnum, who looks like he's a timberwolf jumpin' a bunny," Applejack said as she giggled.

      "Taken separately, Discord is horrified. Barnum is just a happy colt playing. Taken together, and it looks like Barnum is ready to make a meal of Discord, who is frightened of his fate." Glory looked at the statues you could easily see from the apartment. "And there are rumors that Barnum is trapped in stone, awaiting Discord's release. He'll be the first thing Discord sees, and the first thing he faces," Glory said, "And their Highnesses made sure they told Discord that. Considering that he spent most of the time you walked from Canterlot to Ponyville trying to eat him, that can't sit well with Discord."

      "Ah thought ole Barnum would tell bad food when he saw it," Applejack said. Sound The Bugle - Bryan Adams The Boxer - Simon and Garfunkel Jesus Christ Superstar - Andrew Lloyd Webber Heaven On Their Minds Poor Jerusalem. Gethsemane (I Only Want To Say) I Got It from Agnes by Tom Lehrer The Element Song by Tom Lehrer Gypsy Bard by SherclopPones Bugs Bunny - Trademark of Warner Bros.